Not a Punk IPA in sight (thankfully) but the unveiling of Sureshot Brewing’s debut quartet of beers offered a bizarre echo of a seminal Sex Pistols gig, also in Manchester,  a lifetime ago. The seeds of this fanciful link were sown by my brother – like myself, old enough to have been in the Lesser Free Trade Hall in the Summer of ’76, but neither of us claims to have attended. Unlike hundreds of of others. The actual audience for a band barely known outside London barely topped 40.

In contrast Keith and I, on the evening of February 25, 2022, were definitely at a Port Street Brewhouse rammed to the gills for a home-coming beer hero. The loose connection? Virtually all who witnessed The Pistols were inspired to form their own band. The Buzzcocks-to-be organised the gig and the futures of The Smiths, Joy Division, New Order, The Fall, Simply Red were all forged that night. 

Maybe everybody supping at Port Street (distinctly un-punk with the plethora of facial hair on show) will be inspired to launch their own breweries. The theory breaks down here since a good raft of attendees were already brewers – the elite of Manchester come to welcome back into the fold one James Campbell, already a legend in his own mash time.

Raised in the Black Country, James became head brewer at Manchester’s Marble in 2000 and for the next 13 years pioneered the pick of New World styles and hops without losing sight of native traditions. Manchester Bitter, Lagonda, Dobber, Pint, Ginger Marble and Earl Grey IPA – most of these are his creation.

It can be argued that his mentoring of the team there is equally influential (shades of that gig). These days you’ll find Dominic Driscoll at Thornbridge Brewing and Colin Stronge at Salt Beer Factory while not forgetting Rob Hamilton, who founded Blackjack, and others.

Later as co-founder and head brewer he launched Cloudwater in Manchester, gaining global recognition. Since leaving there, but not his adopted city, he has set up new brewery plant for a roster of equally cutting edge operations such as Verdant (Falmouth), Deya (Cheltenham) and in Manchester the new Bundobust Brewery.

Still, using my final music analogy, this was like an original talent recording an album of cover versions. Still plans for Sureshot – yes, it is named after that Beastie Boys track – fermented away during lockdowns. Finally on the former Track site alongside Piccadilly Station, using initially their old equipment, it all took shape. Bannered by a beautifully random lion meets sun logo. No cask yet, but the kegs and colourful 440ml cans are launched. Buy the latter via the website. You won’t regret it. Yes, the initial batch will please the hopheads among you, but there’s a beautiful balance to them all. Hard to choose a favourite. Here’s the line-up:

How Much Does Water Weigh? (£4)

A 4.2 per cent pale ale hopped with Centennial, Galaxy and Citra. Crisp sipping with dry finish and fruit throughout. Built on an extra pale malt base. 

I’ve Had My Fun & That’s All That Matters (£4.50)

A generously hopped 5.6 per cent pale ale with Mosaic, Centennial, Galaxy and Idaho contribute  tropical juiciness with a silky smooth, almost oaty texture.

I Lost My Bag In Newport Pagnell, New England IPA (£5)

A 6 per cent NEIPA. Dry hopped with Nelson Sauvin, Citra & Idaho 7, all citrus, grape and pine.

Bring Me The Head Of John The Accountant (£6.50)

An 8 per cent double IPA juiced up on Strata, Mosaic, Citra & Centennial. Substantial tropical blast, mashing melon and passionfruit.

‘Never go back down those country roads’ might be the advice of some plaintive troubadour or a stressed-out Sat Nav, but when it’s Northern California how could I resist? My previous trip to the Napa Valley and Sonoma had been a wine-soaked idyll from sumptuous bases in Relais & Chateaux properties, but the simpler pleasures on the side seduced me too.

Hence a planned two week road trip between San Francisco and Seattle had to include some blissed-out backwoodsmanship and watching ocean sunsets with chilled IPAs. 

Here are 10 places along the route where we ditched the hire car and went native…

Ram’s Gate Winery

OK, so a vineyard had to be our gateway. Ram’s Gate is possibly the closest winery to San Francisco, so perfect for a wine tasting lunch. It’s set on a hill off State Route 121 heading for Sonoma among its own 28 acres of vines, but since its inception in 2011 its terroir-driven selling point has been its handling of small-lot Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes from across Sonoma and Carneros. 

The very definition of a Californian boutique winery, it is architecturally stunning. Inside it’s vintage chic, almost clublike; from the outside it lives up to its claim to be a modern interpretation of the weathered farmsteads of old Carneros, while below the vine-clad hill the wildlife habitat, Tolay Creek, signals the sustainable ethos.

Ram’s Gate is open Thursday-Monday , 11am-4pm, for tasting appointments. We went the whole hog and had the $160 a head Five Course Wine and Food Pairings, featuring  the likes of saffron poached lobster and pasta, smoked bavette, raspberry shortcake with brown sugar chantilly. Out on the terrace, naturally with some lovely wines.

Jordan Vineyard & Winery

Another winery, can’t resist, but the vineyard tour here is something special. You can spot the French influence on this chateau-stykled family winery, which opened back in 1971 and is single-minded about producing just two wines – a Cabernet Sauvignon Bordeaux blend and a Chardonnay. Tasting both in a luxury hilltop gazebo overlooking the  entire 1,200 estate with some seriously gourmet small plates was the culmination of a tour that took in a look at their own organic veg garden and apiary, natural habitat, a tasting of their own estate olive oil and real insights into vineyard practice. You can understand why it has won a clutch of awards. The three hour tour costs $150 plus tax; available May-October only, weather permitting. More affordable is theWinery Tour & Library Tasting, which features wine tasting with food pairings for $75 plus tax. 


My, how this town has gentrified, gussied itself up big time, especially around the central lawned Plaza. When I first visited a quarter of a century ago there was hardly a bespoke tasting room in town. Hell, this was Sonoma, not Napa; you had to go out into the country and find the winemakers. Now a raft of grape-driven opportunities rub shoulders with designer shops and small batch coffee haunts. Still it’s undeniably attractive and some favourite spots remain – the Hotel Les Mars, where we stayed last time, and the homely Oakville deli/cafe on the Plaza, but the raucous Bear Republic brewpub just off the main drag has bitten the dust. Fear not they are still brewing elsewhere that quintessential West Coast IPA, Racer 5. After a couple we started noticing more the hardware stores and simpler liquor stores of an older Healdsburg; the apple orchards and ranches that dot the Sonoma hinterland – a world away from the polished wine palaces and their millionaire owners in Napa.

The Bohemian Highway

Definitely a world away from Napa. This was the country road we needed to get back on and it didn’t disappoint. Our destination was a log cabin lodging with ocean views at Jenner at the mouth of the kayak-thronged Russian River. Direct way from Healdsburg is the 116 up the valley, but we mooched further south towards Sebastopol to join the Bohemian Highway

Rarely has a road so lived up to its name. Orchards, redwood groves, vineyards and grazing land are the heavenly backdrop to laid-back small settlements. Occidental and Monte Rio are folksy cute, but Freestone, official population 50, is my favourite. Mainly because it’s home to the Wildflour Bakery and Freestone Artisan Cheese store, an essential stop on the California Cheese Trail.

Wildflour boasts a wood-fired brick oven, lit each afternoon with a wheelbarrow of eucalyptus kindling. Scones and all kinds of delights are produced, but it is the Organic Sourdough that rules supreme. Thick of crust and yet airy-light inside (even the rye variety), this is the best bread you’ll find anywhere.

At the cheese store affineur Omar Muller sells locally pressed olive oil, almonds and walnuts and a range of dairy-related artefacts, but the glory is the cheese. Try the local Bleeting Heart sheep’s or more widely available cheeses from the Cowgirl Creamery. A bottle of Pinot Noir from the nearby Joseph Phelps completes the picnic.

River’s End Restaurant & In, Jenner 

A tea-time sea fret shrouded the extended estuary of the Russian River. It grew thicker as we checked into the River’s End Inn and settled into our cabin. What chance a glimpse of their legendary sunset from our wooden porch? There were going to be few other distractions. With no cellphone or internet accessibility, no telly, we could have been back in the days when it was built as a wayside inn for loggers and fishermen.

Maybe they would have tucked into a large helping of elk, as I did; the difference surely the finesse with which mine was treated by chef Martin Recoder and it wouldn’t have been imported from New Zealand! Food miles concerns apart – and no problems with the King Salmon starter – this was an extraordinarily fine meal, the best of our whole road trip, even the sophistication of the service belying the rusticity of the Inn. And the wine? It had to be a Littorai Pinot Noir – perfection from legendary winemaker Ted Lemon. We’d visited his biodynamic vineyard above Sebastopol, where the cooling clouds roll in off the Pacific (main image). As if to cue, the clouds here suddenly cleared like ‘curtains up’ to reveal a glorious sunset finale.

Gualala and Point Arena

It’s a switchback car ride north on Highway 1, the Pacific on port side smashing into coves hundreds of feet below. There a few choice stop-offs to catch your breath and get closer to the ocean, notably Salt Point State Park, which has a winding, wooded path down to a sheltered cove. Twenty-five minutes further on and worth a longer visit is Gualala Point, at the mouth of the river of that name. We wandered through the dunes onto a driftwood-littered sand spit and then clambered up the headland, which promised whale watching but didn’t deliver on the day. A further 25 minutes north you hit Point Arena, centred on the lighthouse of that name but pulling in 1,600 acres of National Monument Land, a vast coastal preservation reserve. Fascinating to explore, we’re told, but we had to settle for a sea view, craft beer and San Francisco-style chowder (in a hollowed out sourdough bap) at the Pier Chowder House and Tap Room down by the pier in the historic district.

Albion River Inn

Star brew we tasted at the Pier was a G&T Sour Beer from Anderson Valley Brewery, a craft pioneer 30 years ago and still going strong. On our last visit to Anderson Valley we explored its cool climate vineyards, but this time were happy to go down the hop route – check out Visit Mendocino’s 9 Hop Stops at ABV’s beautifully-situated taproom, enjoying another approachable sour, the Briney Melon variety. We had to resist completism; we were en route for our next lodging, the Albion River Inn – like River’s End on a bluff at the river mouth. The clifftop views were equally spectacular but the style of lodging quite different. More romantic than rustic, with spa baths and panoramic decking.

Similarly high standards in the kitchen serving superb seafood to an 80 cover restaurant, set apart from the 22 room/suite complex and built out of wood salvaged from a 1919 shipwreck.


The Albion River Inn was our base to visit Mendocino, a 10 minute drive north up Highway 1, along which you can sense the locations of one of California’s most gripping and gritty literary fictions, Gabriel Tallent’s My Absolute Darling (4th Estate, £12.99). It wonderfully evokes the stunning coastal landscape (though might deter you from going camping!). Mendocino itself was as laid-back as ever. Old hippies and floral New Agers meet clapboard and cliffs. The Cannabis Medical Resource Center is along the road from Virgil’s Vittles – DIY Dog Biscuits. With a year-round population of not much more than a 1,000 there’s little in the way of bar culture but the Cafe Beaujolais offers fine West Coast bistro food. To get an appetite, go for a walk on the town’s great glory, the wave-lashed headland with its maze of easy trails. A pity the vertiginous path down to the beach has been cordoned off. Hardcore hikers can tackle the 130 mile Mendocino County Coastal Trail, which takes in beautiful State Parks.

Avenue of The Giants

I for one can’t get enough of giant redwood trees. Not content with detouring off the Anderson Valley Road to wander in wonder around Hendy Woods State Park (the greatest coastal redwood concentration is in the 80 acre Big Hendy grove) we fixed our GPS on the unique Avenue of the Giants 130 miles to the north up off the inland Route 101. This is a self-guided auto tour through great sleeping forests, 32 miles in length, but you can just access a section if time is short; I’d recommend the Boiling Grove stretch as best to appreciate examples of the Sequoia sempervivens, average age 400-600 years old, the largest living things on earth. Awesome, dudes, as they say in those parts.

Safari West

I’ve left the most luminous spot till last. Its recent backstory demands pride of place. We stayed, safari glamping style in a tree at this wildlife preserve/conservation centre, nicknamed the ‘Sonoma Serengeti’, a month before the Tubbs Fire, deadliest of the Wine Country conflagrations, ravaged the area. In its path Safari West and its 400 acres, home to giraffes, rhinos, zebras, cheetahs and countless other exotic creatures in the hills above Santa Rosa. On our personal sunset safari, drinking local craft beer on a hilltop surrounded by antelope we’d asked our guide Alex if they had evacuation plans in the event of fire, which he confirmed. Just small talk then after a memorable, eye-opening jeep tour.

Safari West survived the fire thanks to the bravery of owner Peter Lang, who founded the reserve 40 years ago. He and his team saw their own homes go up in flames in the distance, but stayed to fight off the main blaze with fire hoses and a vintage fire engine. All the animals were saved and the park reopened. It is a fascinating place to visit. Check glamping availability and rates here and safari tour rates here.

• To plan your trip of a lifetime go to Visit USA and Visit California. For full tourist information about Sonoma go to Sonoma County and for Mendocino Visit Mendocino County.

Such an old chestnut that one about ‘policemen are getting younger’. Stats say different and anyway the phrase is a reflection of our own mortality creeping up on us. Chefs, now that’s another matter. Especially when they’ve been fast-tracked by a shrewd mentor. Step forward Tom Kerridge and Connor Black. The first is a ubiquitous figure across the English food and drink scene, his latest telegenic showcase judging on the revamped Great British Menu; the second, a 25-year-old who first entered the Kerridge orbit aged just 15, has just made the leap forward to Head Chef at The Bull & Bear, in Manchester’s Stock Exchange Hotel.

What immediately appeals on dipping into Connor’ debut menu is the sense that he is very much his own man. From the start, in the summer of 2019, the northern outpost of the Kerridge has borne the big man’s stamp. Less the standard of food (at a price) that brought him two Michelin stars at The Hand and Flowers in Marlow; more the accomplished pub food you’ll find at his second operation in that town, The Coach.

Connor worked his way up to be sous-chef at The Hand before becoming Head Chef of The Shed, that posh pub’s intimate 10-cover private dining room. His meteoric rise stated much earlier. At 13 he was working part-time in kitchens on the Isle of Wight; at 15 he arrived at the Hand and Flowers for work experience and stayed; two years later he was named Hospitality Guild Apprentice of the Year. All the while contributing to menu development. A spell away working on the continent contributed to his development.

So what does all this bring to the plate in Manchester? A smaller menu, like so many places post-pandemic, yes, but the dishes are noticeably less hearty, though following the Kerridge “refined pub grub” template.

Definitely a good thing in these eyes as I accept starter advice and sample  Roasted Hand Dived Orkney Scallop with Pickled Crown Prince Pumpkin and Smoked Butter Sauce (£24.50) It’s exquisite. Only 60 of these very superior scallops are delivered each week and the storms have stymied even that until, luckily the day of my lunch. A ‘table snack’ of Cheddar Cheese Scones with Marmite Butter is less successful. Dry scones and I’d forgotten how Marmite Marmite is.

 A pre-opening journo jolly to Marlow showed me how seriously the Kerridge team sources. Witness this again with my main Dry Aged Udale Duck Breast off the rotisserie with Caramelised Endive, Rhubarb and Garlic Sausage ‘Cassoulet’ (£34). Up to 40 days in Udale’s Himalayan Salt Ageing Chamber intensifies the flavour of an already benchmark Creedy Carver duck. But the dish is enhanced by the subtle bittersweet/sharp flavours Connor brings to the accompaniments.

Belly of Blythburgh Pork with Marmite Glazed Hasselback Artichoke, Smoked Hazelnuts and Pear Ketchup (£34) and Roast Cornish Cod with Sweet Garlic Puree, Lemon Braised Leeks, Shiitake and Mushroom Consommé (£33.50) also take the eye.

Rhubarb, bang in season, reappears in my retro trifle. All the puddings are £11.50, ranging from Warm Baked Eccles Cake with Lancashire Black Bomb Cheese to a Peanut Butter Crème Brûlée with Raspberry Jelly and Banana Yoghurt Sorbet.

The trading floor of the Grade II listed former Stock Exchange, is as imposing as ever, the large  open kitchen built to cater for a substantial number of covers. Meshed into the revamped B&B regime is a new Head of Food and Beverage, Matthew Griffin, who has previously worked under Jason Atherton. And Group Exec Chef the vastly experienced Warren Geraghty is regularly up from London. As a potential safety net? Will any of this phase young Connor? I doubt it.

The Bull & Bear, Stock Exchange Hotel, 4 Norfolk St, Manchester M2 1DW. 0161 470 902.

In the recent Observer Food Monthly 50 (Everything We Love About Food Right Now) at number three was wine editor David Williams’ celebration of adventurous winemakers snubbing ‘noble’ grapes to make good wine from under the radar varietals such as Chilean Pais, Argentinian Criolla and Spanish Airen plus ‘reinvented’ workhorses such as Cinsault and Carignan.

To the former list now add Rubin from Bulgaria. No, me neither. The only Rubin in my consciousness was Rick, the full-bearded record producer who gave hip hop-music its voice and superintended the late flourishing of Johnny Cash with his American Recordings.

Ah, Bulgarian wine. For me it conjures up loon pants and tank tops, for it was the affordable elixir of my hippyish studenthood back in the Seventies. Sturdy reds, pretending to be claret, as they accompanied trial and error Boeuf Bourguignons and Coq au Vins at our at fledgling ‘dinner parties’. 

Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot predominated among the reds, to the detriment of Bulgaria’s indigenous grapes. It worked, as the hardcore Communist country amazingly became the world’s fourth largest producer by this pandering to the mainstream. The Soviet Union was much the largest consumer of these industrial scale tipples until the collapse of the Iron Curtain took this particular wine trade with it. A winemaking culture dating back 3,000 years was on its uppers. Affordable rivals from the New World certainly rushed to fill the gap in the UK.

Meanwhile, in the Thrace Valley (spectacularly pictured above) little pockets of Rubin grapes – a hybrid of Syrah and Nebbiolo – were biding their time. Maybe that time has come as Bulgarian wine is enjoying a modest resurgence. It has never left the bargain basement section of supermarket shelves, but we are now talking the quality market, that explored by Central and Eastern European specialists Vida Wines.

They sent me a Rossidi Rubin that’s worth every penny of its £21.29 price tag. It does seems to combine elements of of the Barolo grape Nebbiolo (paleness and fragrance) and the more intense Syrah. Fragrant and herby, it is a more elegant rival to another Bulgarian stalwart, Mavrud.

Rossidi is a combination of the names of the founders – Rosie and Eddie Kourian, whose vineyard is near the village of Nikolaevo in the Eastern Thracian Valley.

On the evidence of this bottle they couple (not the duo pictured!) do live up to their claim to be “the new face of Bulgarian wine”, but there are plenty of rivals in this viticultural revival.

A good primer to what’s happening in this corner of Europe is The wines of Bulgaria, Romania and Moldova by Caroline Gilby MW (Infinite Ideas, £30). She praises the new wave wines for being artisan, affordable and authentic.

“The change has been a complete revolution from communist, mass-market, wine-based alcoholic beverage, to today’s industries where an exciting raft of small producers has added interest and individuality and pushed quality forward.”

That’s true in other Eastern European countries. Another Vida wine I admire is Slovenia’s Kristančič Pavo Cristatus Classic Cuvee 2014 (£23.39), a methode traditionelle sparkler which displays a wealth of peachiness and brioche using Pinot Blanc and indigenous Rubela as its base grapes.

Two reds I’ve hugely enjoyed recently are Belliani Valley Winery 97 Unfiltered Saperavi 2019 from Georgia, deep in colour and reeking of blackberry and plum. Imported by Boutinot, expect to pay around £20 retail, worth the couple of quid mark-up on the simpler filtered version. And Maurer Oszkár Crazy Lud Red from Serbia’s border with Hungary. Fourth-generation winemaker Oszkár cultivates 15 ha of land by hand and horses, growing native grapes from vines up to 100 years old. There is grippy Cabernet Sauvignon in this bottling, which offers a decided earthiness alongside substantial acidity without swamping some lovely fruit. Flawd at Manchester’s New Islington Marina also stocks, at £25, a Lud majoring on the local Kadarka grape. Who’d have thought the world offers so many under the radar grape varieties yielding such riches?

It is still hard to credit how much city development has escaped my attention while locked down in my Pennine fastness. Returning gradually to Manchester, I can suddenly feel adrift – and not always in a pleasurable way. Take Circle Square, a brooding behemoth of an apartment complex on the old BBC site off Oxford Road. 

OK, I first crossed its portals on a sullen, drizzly day but didn’t get the vibe promised by Vita Living: “Contemporary apartments and unreal amenities, all neighboured by leafy-green space in the form of the brand-new Symphony Park. Artisan shops, independent bars and restaurants surround Circle Square and make it a true urban oasis for everyone to enjoy.”

On the same day’s trail the ‘tropical garden’ at rival development Kampus looked ominously, bedraggled but the site opposite Canal Street offers a quirky mixed bag of living spaces, while formidable food and drink offerings (Pollen, Cloudwater, Beeswing) are on their way. Similarly, the giant towers of Deansgate Square are being serviced by quality delis (to spare the upmarket residents the trek to the Hulme Asda).

Circle Square’s own newly opened food hall is its most striking feature. Hello Oriental, an architecturally swirling three-floor, subterranean complex. boasts an Asian inspired bakery and café, a Vietnamese restaurant, a whole gallimaufry of East Asian street food options and a supermarket stocking an Instagrammable selection of packaged foodstuffs and colourful snacks hitherto available online. I suspect the small plate dining opportunities will prove more of a draw than the basement shop.

Strangely sterile the physical shop. Hardly anything on the shelves that counts as fresh. For that I’ll still be making my way down to ramshackle old Chinatown. We all have our favourite stores there. Mine is the Hang Won Hong on the corner of George Street and Booth Street. Chinese ingredients apart, it offers enough Thai and Korean staples to fuel my store cupboard. 

For my Chinese recipe needs I usually turn to Fuchsia Dunlop, for Korean Jordan Bourke and Rejina Pyo, for Japanese home cooking and ramen Ivan Orkin. Online for pan-Asian I’ve recently discovered, an acclaimed blog by Leemei Tan-Boisgillot.

Here are a couple of her recipes, which feature in her latest cookbook, due out in June.

Korean Spicy Seafood Noodle Soup


1 tbsp sesame seeds; 15g dried wakame; 500g mussels, scrubbed and debearded; 1 tbsp sunflower oil; 1 onion, sliced; 3 garlic cloves, finely chopped; 1cm piece of root ginger, peeled and finely chopped; 4 dried shiitake mushrooms, soaked, drained and cut into thin strips; 1 tbsp Korean red pepper powder or cayenne pepper; chicken stock ¼ Chinese cabbage, core removed and cut into bite-sized pieces; 1 tbsp light soy sauce; 1 tbsp chilli oil; 300g raw, peeled large king prawns, tails left on, deveined; 400g squid, scored with a crisscross pattern and cut into bite-sized pieces; 500g cooked fresh fine egg noodles or 350g dried fine egg noodles; 2 spring onions, finely chopped.


Heat a frying pan over a medium-high heat, then add the sesame seeds and dry-fry for a few minutes until the seeds begin to pop.Tip onto a plate and leave to one side.

Soak the dried wakame in a small bowl in warm water for about 10 minutes until it rehydrates. Drain, rinse and leave to one side.

Tap any mussels that are only partly opened and discard any that don’t shut. Put the mussels in a saucepan over a high heat and steam for 3–4 minutes, or until the shells open. Discard any that don’t open fully. There is no need to add any additional liquid to the pan, as the mussels will release their own liquid to steam in. Remove the mussels from their shells and leave to one side.

Heat the sunflower oil in a large saucepan over a medium-high heat. Add the onion and cook for 2–3 minutes until soft and translucent, then add the garlic and ginger and cook for 2 minutes, or until fragrant. Add the shiitake mushrooms and Korean red pepper powder and cook, stirring continuously, for 1 minute. Remove from the heat and add the chicken stock.

Return the pan to the heat and bring the stock to the boil. Add the Chinese cabbage and cook for 3–4 minutes until tender. Add the soy sauce and chilli oil and then add the prawns and squid. Bring to the boil for a few seconds, then reduce the heat to low, cover and simmer for 5–6 minutes, or until the prawns turn pink and are cooked through and the squid is tender. Three minutes before the end of cooking, add the mussels to heat through.

Divide the hot, cooked noodles into deep soup bowls, then spoon the prawns, squid, cabbage and mussels into the bowls.

Bring the chicken stock to a vigorous boil. Add the spring onions and prepared wakame to the bowls, then ladle in the piping hot stock. Sprinkle over the toasted sesame seeds and serve immediately.

Sichuan Mapo Tofu

This is a famous Sichuan dish that comes with a story. It is said that during the Qing dynasty, a restaurant on the outskirts of Chengdu was well known for a delicious, very spicy tofu dish, which was made by the restaurateur’s wife. She had pockmarks on her face, and as a result was called Mapo – ma means ‘pockmark’ and po means ‘elderly woman’, and her signature dish was called Mapo Dou Fu.


300g soft silken tofu, cut into bite-sized cubes; 1 tbsp sunflower oil; 1 cm piece of root ginger, peeled and finely chopped; 3 garlic cloves, finely chopped; 200g beef or pork mince; 2 tbsp chilli bean paste; 1 tbsp light soy sauce; 1 tsp granulated sugar; 1 tsp ground toasted Sichuan pepper; 1 tsp cornflour; 2 spring onions, roughly chopped. Serve with 400g cooked egg noodles


Bring a large saucepan of water to the boil, then remove from the heat. Carefully tip the tofu into the water and leave to one side.

Heat the oil in a wok or frying pan over a medium-high heat. Add the ginger and garlic and stir-fry for 1–2 minutes until fragrant but not coloured. Add the mince, break up the lumps and cook, stirring occasionally, for 5 minutes, or until starting to brown. Add the chilli bean paste, soy sauce, sugar, ground Sichuan pepper and 200ml water, stir to combine and slowly bring to the boil.

Carefully drain the tofu and add it to the wok. Gently push the ingredients around the wok until the tofu pieces are coated with the sauce. Do not stir as it may break up the delicate tofu. Let it simmer for 3–5 minutes until heated through.

Meanwhile, combine the cornflour with 1 tablespoon water in a small bowl. Slowly pour the cornflour mixture into the wok or pan and gently fold through. Sprinkle over the spring onions and serve immediately with noodles.

• Both recipes are fromThe Asian Home Kitchen by Leemei Tan-Boisgillot, to be published by Nourish in hardback, price £20, on June 14, 2022. Leemai is a recipe writer, food stylist

Regionality is a foodie buzz word. Yet increasingly dishes in vogue transcend their locality. Take the dosa, fermented lentil and rice crepe of South India. Such is its popularity you’ll now find it across the whole of the Sub-continent and in many a street food spot in the UK (though I notice it is absent from the revamped Bundobust menu). Well, I always, felt I wasn’t getting the full masala dosa experience there with their mini-version. I like mine to be huge crispy, stuffed scrolls.

Which brings us, by a roundabout route, to the previous insularity of Spanish regional cuisines. Tapas and Pintxos may be Iberian cousins but  Andalucian and Basque culture and food stem from separate bedrocks. I recall an Eighties Spanish road trip when in some Castilian cantina I ordered a Manzanilla. Expecting a chilled glass of saline dry sherry from Sanlucar de Barrameida in the south, I was rewarded with a glass of chamomile (‘little apple’) tea. That confusion wouldn’t happen nowadays. Ditto on a Seville wine list you might easily find a Galician Albarino alongside sherries and local drops.

All corners of Spain retain distinctive cuisines of their own alongside the tourist staples of paella and sangria, but some very specific dishes named for their place of origin are also now ubiquitous in markets and on bar counters.

The Plaza Major is the glorious architectural centrepiece of Almagro

Take Berenjenas Almagro, pickled aubergine speciality from the sleepy La Mancha town of Almagro. Think a less complicated cousin of the Sicilian Caponata. Tastier maybe. I’d like to say I first came across the dish, which is eaten cold, in situ or even in Bilbao or Seville but it was in Paul Richardson’s revelatory 2007 culinary travelogue, A Late Dinner: Discovering The Food of Spain. More recently I found a workable recipe on Page 202 of Rick Stein’s Spain, spin-off from one of his more informed BBC series. Home prepared, though, it never tastes as good as in Spain.

Perched in the south of the vast meseta that is the Castilian heartland, Don Quixote country, Almagro (pronounced alˈmayɾo) is made for telly. Notably its Plaza Mayor and 16th century theatre, both products of the wealth generated by mercury mining, though it is the lacemaking introduced by Flemish families in that period that is the major legacy today. Oh and for hundreds of years before and after a particular aubergine recipe has been a constant.

Of Indian origin, the aubergine arrived in Spain via the Berbers. You see the name adapt to its new territories – the Persian badingan to the Arab badinjan to the Spanish berenjena, eventually to the French aubergine. Along the way it conquered a bad press, which had it responsible for piles, cancer, leprosy, poisoning and insanity. Indeed, the Italian name, melanzane, comes from the Latin mala insana or ‘mad apple’.

Aubergines or eggplants come in varied sizes and colours

Still it became a fundamental part of Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cuisine. Not always as the ample purple specimen that dominates our shelves. Often it was white or green striped and the size of an egg, hence its American name, the eggplant. 

It’s this variant that the folk of Almagro took to their hearts and their pickling vats. If you attempt to recreate it at home seek out Thai aubergines or at a pinch the mini dark varieties in Asian stores. It’s hard to find any canned Berenjenas Almagro in the UK.

Rick Stein’s Pickled Aubergine Almagro Style

1.25kg small aubergines

3 large roasted red peppers

500ml red wine vinegar

120ml olive oil

3tbsp caster sugar

½tsp crushed dried red chilli flakes

2tsp pimentón dulce

25g garlic cloves crushed

2tsp freshly ground cumin seeds

½tsp dried oregano

Salt and freshly ground black pepper


Bring a pan of well salted water to the boil. Make a small slit lengthwise in each aubergine down to within 1cm of the stalk. Drop them into the water for five minutes or until just tender, yet crunchy. Drain, leave to cool. 

Meanwhile split open the red peppers, discard the stalks and seeds and cut the flesh into 5mm wide strips. Push a couple of strips into each aubergine slit and then pack them tightly into two sterilised one-litre Kilner jars.

In a pan mix the remaining ingredients with 300ml water, 1tbsp salt and ½tsp pepper. Bring to the boil, pour over the aubergines, so they are completely covered, put on the lid and refrigerate. They are ready to eat within 24 hours and will keep for up to three weeks. 

From Rick Stein’s Spain (BBC Books, hb £25)


If there’s one book in English that captures the sheer ‘Duende’ of Spanish regional food it is A Late Dinner, companion piece to the earlier Our Lady of the Sewers, Richardson’s quest for the old, dark Spain. Both are highly recommended. The author has lived in Spain  since 1990, latterly, self-sufficiently with his husband on a remote Extremaduran farm. How he came there is the central theme of a recent When In Spain Podcast.

He has shared many discoveries about his adopted country. A pickled aubergine is not too humble to acknowledge. For A Late Dinner after encountering Maria del Carmen Sanchez Serrano, a berenjerena or ‘one who occupies herself with aubergine’ since she was eight year old, he visits the family pickling works, born out of extreme hardship following the Civil War. The key elements are the aubergines the size of a small fist grown in the richer soils of nearby Aldea del Rey and getting the boiling time exactly right before curing.

“I said goodbye before she stomped off to load up the van; tomorrow she had a delivery. We shook hands. Her arms were stained orange with pimentón – the permanent tan of the aubergine maker. ‘Berenjerenos, berenjerenos, that’s what we are. And it’s too late to be anything else,’ she said with a smile of resignation, tiredness and satisfaction.”

For tourism information on Amalgro and the Ciudad Real region visit this link.

Opera has alway been entwined with food, especially Italian. We’re not talking tour riders of the stars with Pavarotti apparently demanding a 24 hour kitchen be set up next to his room with fridges packed with pasta, tomatoes and roast chickens, enough to feed 20. It was a phobia from an impoverished childhood – the big man ate comparatively moderately.

No it’s the way great names have become attached to certain dishes – Tournedos Rossini, Spaghetti Caruso, Peach Melba, Salsa Verdi. OK, I employed artistic licence on that last one. And then there is a truly terrific dish called after an actual opera. It is also one of the simplest to prepare, provided you’ve sourced the exact ingredients.

Pasta alla Norma has become the unofficial signature dish of Sicily. Invented in Catania on the east coast about the time Vincenzo Bellini’s romantic opera Norma premiered, it is said that the pasta was created as a homage. Legend has it that Nino Martoglio, an Italian writer and poet, was so delighted when presented with this dish that he compared its splendour with that of the opera.

Alternatively, according to Ben Tish in his evocative cookbook, Sicilia (Bloomsbury, £26) – one of my Cookbooks of 2021 – “another story tells of a talented home cook who served her creation to a group of gourmands and was duly christened at the table via the classic Sicilian compliment of Chista e na vera Norma (‘this is a real Norma’). Whatever the truth, the dish became an instant classic and its fame spread around the world.”

At my last London review meal before the lockdowns I ate this iconic dish of rigatoni, aubergine, tomato, basil and ricotta salata, appropriately enough, at Norma, the restaurant Ben created in Fitzrovia for the Stafford Group, showcasing the dishes in his book, many with Moorish influences. He has recently moved on. I finally published my account of that memorable meal in June 2021.

Since when I’ve looked out for Pasta alla Norma on menus in my native north. Among the indies specifically offering the island’s cuisine you won’t find it at Sicilian NQ in Manchester or A Tavola Gastronomia Siciliana in New Mills, though Trinacria in York do serve it. Less surprisingly the more generic Rosso in Manchester or the PIccolino chain do not list it. Rivals San Carlo do, but substitute pecorino for the ricotta salata. A cardinal sin in Catania, even though these crumbly, grateable sharp cheeses have much in common.

Indeed, my home quest to replicate the perfect Norma has been hampered by the absence of ricotta salata in my life. Until recently.

So what makes the salata version separate from that mild soft whey cheese found in tubs across the land. For a start, it packs a pungent, salty punch. Hence the name. It is  is only made over winter and spring when pastures are lush and herb-filled and the cooler air is perfect for ageing. 

I located an authentic version from Bermondsey-based Italian Artisan food importers Ham and Cheese after being alerted by the folk behind new Hebden Bridge bar, Coin, who serve a range of their charcuterie.

The ricotta salata I bought online is made by the Agostino family, who sell it normally from their butchers shop in Mirto, on Sicily’s north coast, west of Messina. We must have driven past on a road trip from Etna to Cefalu (main picture) the other year.

Their version is made from full-fat, raw cow’s milk, sometimes with the addition of goat’s or sheep’s milk, and is curdled with lamb or kid rennet before being put in to moulds. After a couple of days it spends 48 hours in a brine bath and is then aged for three months. It was a wonderful component of the Tish recipe for Pasta alla Norma. My one deviation from the norm (sic)? I added salted capers. Because they go so well in that other Sicilian aubergine, classic, caponata. Below, it tasted as good as it looked…

Ingredients: 2 firm aubergines, trimmed and cut into 2cm dice; 150ml extra virgin olive oil; ½ onion, finely chopped; 2 garlic cloves, finely chopped; a good handful of basil leaves

800g quality canned chopped tomatoes or passata; 400g dried rigatoni; 200g ricotta salata cheese, grated; sea salt

Method: Put the diced aubergines in a colander in the sink and sprinkle with salt. Leave to drain for 30 minutes. Preheat the oven to its highest temperature, around 250°C/230°C fan/Gas Mark 10.

Rinse the aubergine in cold water and pat dry with a kitchen towel, then toss in a bowl with half the oil. Spread out on a baking tray, place in the oven and cook for 15-20 minutes or until caramelised, turning occasionally to make sure the pieces don’t dry out.

Meanwhile, heat the remaining oil in a medium saucepan over a medium heat and add the onion and garlic. Sauté for a couple of minutes, then add half the basil and the tomatoes. Bring to a simmer. Turn down the heat and cook gently for 23–30 minutes or until thickened (the exact time will depend on your canned tomato brand).

When the sauce is almost ready, cook the pasta in plenty of boiling salted water according to the packet instructions to al dente. Add the aubergine to the sauce. Drain the pasta (reserving a little of the cooking water) and toss in the sauce. If the sauce seems too thick, add some cooking water to loosen.

Divide among the plates and sprinkle with the ricotta and remaining basil leaves, roughly torn over the top. It’s best to allow this to cool slightly before eating.

Serves four

Blog post “The Engineers is as unpretentious as lard and as solid as a bag of bricks” tickled me, even if this particular unsung chronicler of derelict boozers was not quite accurate about a four-square stone edifice in the middle of Sowerby Bridge.

Yet another local, its name referencing the industry which provided its customer core, left abandoned. I’m not going to insert the devastating stats of culled hostelries in recent decades. Too late to get lachrymose; the world has moved on. Yet it’s always heartening to see a pub building rescued imaginatively.

Step forward Engine Social Dining, home to a 30-strong menu of globally inspired small plates. I was the first critic to review it back in October 2018 and lauded the kind of slick all-day operation in a stripped down setting rarely found outside cities’ hipper quarters. Hospitality has been under siege for much of the time since. Engine was thankfully still there. Would it still convince? Let’s do the locomotion…

I suspect virgin olive oil gets the nod over lard in Mark Kemp’s open plan kitchen, complete with wood burning oven, just as it did when he worked up the A58 at Ripponden for Simon Shaw’s original El Gato Negro. The quiet Ulsterman rose through the ranks to be Shaw’s right hand man. Now he’s very much his own man. With a tight-knit team.

As El Gato shifted into Manchester, Kemp became head chef at Ricci’s in Halifax, where Wil Akroyd was manager. The pair hatched the Engine project, using their own money. Famously they had just  £30 left in the bank when they opened. 

Ricci’s, as the name suggests, leans heavily towards Italy; their own place ranges much more widely. Global influences must be in the air in Sowerby Bridge. Near neighbours on Wharf Street Gimbals has generated eclectic and exotic menus for decades. Post pandemic, this Good Food Guide stalwart is now just doing weekend takeaway meals of its ‘greatest hits’. Highly recommended.

Engine has its own recognition now, in the Michelin Guide, belying the stuffy image that can accompany such a mention. Repeat regulars are what sustain a small town operation and we were glad we arrived early one Wednesday lunchtime as a walk-in. Within half an hour virtually every table was taken. Which had taken aback Wil, who was the lone server.

The space is at it coolest after dark, when moody lighting picks out the turquoise and petrol blue upholstery. For food image daylight is infinitely preferable, I hope my iphone does justice to the parade of small plates, in order and served at decent intervals: cauliflower and Manchego croquetas (£5), red curry cod fritters (£6.50), gyozas (£6), Korean spring rolls (£6), belly pork tacos of the day (£8.50), parmesan chips (£5.50), Far Barsey beef fillet (£13), Moroccan pulled lamb (£10).

The pick of a uniformly excellent bunch? The lamb, an old favourite, the spicing spot on and the accompanying man’eesh flatbread, sprinkled with za’tar an advertisement for that wood-fired oven. New to me, the Korean spring rolls were stunning – cylinders of crisp wrapper filled with lemongrass chicken and doused in a ginger sauce. Equally stunning the unusual gyozas. Filled with sobrassada, basil and chilli, they are served with a makhani (butter chicken) sauce. It’s a fusion that ought not to work but yet again it does.

Finally, a requiem for Halifax farm shop Far Barsey, which has shut its doors. Its name will live on in Engine’s Far Barsey beef. They may no longer be the suppliers but the fillet, roasted pink, is splendid. With its pink fir apple potatoes and wild mushrooms in a pink peppercorn jus it’s as close to a Brexit-fenced True Brit dish you’ll find on this menu. The rest is a celebration of cultural diversity and all the better for it.

Engine Social Dining, 72 Wharf Street, Sowerby Bridge HX6 2AF. 01422 740123.

Mothballed for nearly two years by the pandemic, Manchester’s legendary Sam’s Chop House re-opens on Valentine’s Day 2022. If corned beef hash be the food of love? 150,000 thousand dishes sold in the last five trading years, that may be the signature dish at the Pool Fold comfort zone, but my favourite has always been the steak and kidney pudding, washed down with something Burgundian and red recommended by epic sommelier George Bergier.

My most memorable lunch there some 15 years ago involved two bottles of Gevrey Chambertin in the company of one Fergus Henderson, whose ‘nose-to-tail’ proclivities were sated by devilled kidneys after a soothingly rich starter of Omelette Arnold Bennett. The Manchester Food and Drink Festival had appointed me his minder ahead of a personal appearance. I was left wishing I could carry off an ‘Old Soho’ wide pin-striped suit the way he could. And remain as sober.

In a previous Sam’s era Laurence Stephen Lowry always lunched in a suit, now immortalised by the life-sized bronze statue at the bar, inspired Instagrammable homage commissioned by current owner Roger Ward. The re-opening is testimony to Roger’s infatuation with the Manchester institution he first brought back from the dead in 2000. His then partner Steve Pilling established the retro Victorian culinary ethos we hope will continue in its renaissance under new head chef Scott Munro. He did an internship at cutting edge noma in Copenhagen, which is a bit worrying.

Still a sampling of Scott contribution to the relaunch menu, intense Guinness braised beef short rib with a Roscoff onion stuffed with tarragon, Gruyere and mushrooms (£14) convinced me it might nudge aside a Sam’s Classic or two. Looks a safe pair of hands… and maybe much more.

A fellow newcomer in this dog-friendly establishment is Mooch the American bulldog, acquired by Roger during lockdown. I’m sure he’d enjoy the ribs, but the big lad is on a diet!

As a long-time associate of the Chop Houses, I’ve seen a lot of chefs come and go. Just as I’ve never seen the interior look better now after some meticulous tlc that has restored faded decor without sacrificing the quirks. There remain gargoyles guarding the main fireplace and scrawled messages of bonhomie from Samuel Pepys still adorn cornices.

A vital fixture has agreed to return, too. Just for Thursday and Friday lunchtimes the inimitable Bergier will be on hand if you need any wine matching recommendations. The word legend gets flung about too much; in the case 75-year-old Pole/adopted Mancunian it is fully justified. Watch out for his canny bin-end recommendations on the dining room blackboards, which have helped win the Chop Houses three top awards from America’s influential Wine Spectator magazine.

It feels like I’ve known George (above) for the lion’s share of his 54 years serving the Manchester public from his halcyon days at The Midland. For a while I was ensconced in an upstairs office at stablemate Mr Thomas’s Chop House, researching a book on the group with more than a little nod to the Manchester culture that spawned the chop houses in the 19th century. 

In 1868 there were 13 of them in the city when Samuel Studd launched Mr Thomas’s and Sam’s (which has occupied three separate sites). The book, for a variety of reasons, never saw the light of day, but no hard feelings. The research was revelatory, not least about Sam’s most famous customer.

This was my take on the remarkable venue…

“A Street is not a street without people – it is dead as mutton,” Laurence Stephen Lowry once said in justification of populating his canvasses with the so-called matchstick men.

Mutton was not his dish of choice, however, when lunching, as he habitually did, in Sam’s Chop House. A soup, a sandwich, half of Wilson’s bitter, with perhaps his beloved rice pudding to follow. Such a frugal repast, at odds with the trencherman habits of other habitues, served the great artist well before he resumed his day job as a rent collector. 

Only a short walk away were the Pall Mall Property Company offices he worked out of from 1910 until his retirement in 1952. Today the Market Street site is occupied by a Tesco Metro. It was a very different Manchester centre before the ravages of World War II bombs. Born observer Lowry used to firewatch during the blitzes. Until his death in 1975 he continued to frequent his favourite Chop House.

Lowry may have enjoyed painting human beings, but he was not always happy in their company. His protege, the young Cumbrian artist Sheila Fell, described him as “a great humanist. To be a humanist, one has first to love human beings, and to be a great humanist, one has to be slightly detached from them.”

So it was, you might often find him alone in Sam’s, folk reluctant to approach him; at best they might be on nodding terms. Ian Sandiford, a young artist, was one of those. Looking back in 2011, he recalled being invited into the inner circle, the Sherry Bar, where Lowry often sat drawing. “Money came to him very late in life, and you’d never have known it from his manner or his dress. I only ever saw him in his trilby hat and his gabardine raincoat – always with a very ordinary, slightly rumpled, collar and tie. They were the clothes of the Fifties. It was a decade he never really left – much like his work stayed rooted in an even older era.” 

Lowry wasn’t universally popular with the waitresses, for he didn’t tip. Instead he would sketch their image on a napkin and leave that. In return, they would heedlessly scrunch them up. On the walls you’ll find plaques in homage to these long-serving ladies. Less obvious than the talking point Lowry at the bar, they still bear witness to a bygone era, too.

Always immaculately dressed and knowing every client’s name and culinary preference, the likes of Flo, Edna, Margaret and Barbara defined service and were duly rewarded with generous tips. On the back of them, a waitress could afford two or three weeks continental cruise holidays. In the Sixties!

George Bergier first visited Sam’s in 1968 when he was working as a new boy at the Midland Hotel: “My customers took me there. It was like a private club. If you stood in the wrong place or sat on the wrong stool they’d move you. I couldn’t believe the number of bowler hats or the amount of port and brandy being drunk.”

Sam’s then was one of four clublike haunts for the business and law fraternity. The others were the Reform Club, St James’s Club and the Raquets Club. Unlike them, Sam’s was only open during the day, closing at 6pm when the clientele deserted the city for the suburbs and their wives. Unless, of course, they were lured to one of the other establishments for further refreshment.

Foodwise, Sam’s was a different sort of set-up. There was a bar selling fish and chips. Salt beef sandwiches were a speciality. Steaks were a big thing, too. Willoughbys Wine Merchants, part of Lees Brewery, supplied the reds to accompany. If they ran out, it was a short schlepp over to their Tib Lane cellars to replenish stocks. There’s still a portrait of Mr Willoughby in the corner of Sam’s dining room – the Chop Houses like to pay their dues.

This clannish regime was all down to one AH “Bert” Knowles. Like current Chop House owner Roger Ward, Bert came from an advertising background. The media elite of the day met at Sam’s for the First Friday Club, proof even in those days that brand and image counted. And what a brand he created when he revitalised the place after the Second World War

Sam’s already had a distinguished track record. It was established in 1872 in a basement on Market Street by Samuel Studd, brother of Thomas, who founded Mr Thomas’s at the same time. Thomas ran both in the late 19th century when Samuel returned to London. 

Bert switched it in early 1950s to the  the current premises at Back Pool Fold off Chapel Walks. The Lowry link goes back to before the Great War, when both men were at art school together. Bert Knowles died in 1988 and Sam’s changed hands until it finally closed in 1996. It lay dormant for five years until Roger Ward, energised by his stewardship of Tom’s, took on its equally striking sibling. 

It is in a basement that feels like a cosy lair, mix and match chairs and settles for the front room you come upon at the bottom of the stairs. Passing the bar, don’t forget to nod a greeting to “Mr Lowry” (that was how he was always greeted), then up a small flight to the casual tabled area at the back. You notice the classic Sefton Samuels photographs of the artist dotting the walls and the absence of music or a telly, setting it all aside from all the other pubs and bars around. Thanks to this you can’t help eavesdropping on animated conversation all around. It’s a democratic kind of place these days.

Turn left past the bookings “pulpit” and you enter the inner sanctum that is the dining room.  All booths and tiles and screens and cosy nooks and in the far corner, George Bergier’s legendary wine bin-ends blackboard. Pure cellar seduction. With your Chop House Steak And Kidney Pudding, Chunky Chips, Mushy Peas and Jug of Gravy might we suggest a Rioja Gran Reserva… and if you make it to Mr Lowry’s Rice Pudding and Mixed Berry Jam, maybe a glass of Sam’s most excellent Port.

In 1916, LS Lowry had missed his train from Pendlebury, the Salford suburb where he lived, into Manchester:

 “It would be about four o’clock and perhaps there was some peculiar condition of the atmosphere or something. But as I got to the top of the steps I saw the Acme Mill; a great square red block with the cottages running in rows right up to it – and suddenly I knew what I had to paint.”

The great short story writer William Trevor knew all about exile. His was self-imposed. For the last half century of his life (he died in 2016) he lived in Devon, but his fictional focus stayed firmly on his native Ireland.

In 1969 he published a story called Memories of Youghal. It is set in the South of France resort of Bandol, but harks back to a very different southern port, in County Cork, when a drunken, disheveled stranger intrudes on the annual holiday of two loveless old maids – typical Trevor protagonists.

Miss Grimshaw returns to their hotel from a walk on the beach to find her deckchair usurped by one Quillan, a detective apparently, who has upset her companion Miss Ticher  by detailing his tragic childhood in Youghal where he was orphaned by the sea at five months old and sorely neglected thereafter. Whiskey-fuelled, the encounter brings to the surface long-suppressed frustrations.

In contrast, the author had spent the happiest years of his childhood in Youghal (pronounced yawl), where his father was a bank manager. We spent the happiest days of our off-season County Cork sojourn in the town, pre-pandemic. Cork city, which we flew into with Aer Lingus, had proved rather dispiriting, while Youghal was an unexpected revelation. Ireland’s Blue Book had arranged for us to stay at sophisticated Hayfield Manor in Cork and laid-back Longueville House to the North. An interlude in Youghal had seemed like a makeweight despite the seafood reputation of our base there, Aherne’s Townhouse. How mistaken we were. Its true Irishness is preferable to gussied up gastro hub Kinsale the other side of Cork city.

From Walter Raleigh to Oliver Cromwell, from Moby Dick to the legendary lady who danced with Richard III before Bosworth Field the town was full of surprises.

With a melancholy undertow, though. Youghal had clearly seen more prosperous times. Yet we revelled in feeling we were characters in some William Trevor work. Take Treacy’s Bar. A sly afternoon Guinness felt in order after a busy morning exploring the town’s rich heritage. So we ensconced ourselves in in the snug off Main Street. The pub’s live music space has been dubbed the ‘Ballroom of the Romance’. An inadvertent echo of Trevor’s story of that name, turned into a TV film 40 years ago? Another dissection of blighted hopes, it was based on an actual ballroom he stumbled on in Leitrim.

At lunchtime Treacy’s was beyond cosy, but surely they could open the curtains to let the soft coastal light in? “Oh, it’s out of respect for a funeral cortege from St Mary’s that’ll be passing by shortly. One of our regulars, a lovely fellow, taken from us too soon.”

We toasted your man with the dark stuff and pondered the oddness of this town being home to two churches, both St Mary’s, less than 400 yards apart. One is the Catholic Parish Church hosting the day’s funeral, the other the 13th century St Mary’s Collegiate Church, claimed to be the oldest place of continuous worship in Ireland. Church of Ireland, bastion of English Protestant rule, it sits cheek by jowl with the Warden’s House (privately owned and known as Myrtle Grove), once home to Sir Walter Raleigh when he was Town Mayor. 

In truth he only lived here intermittently during his 17 years in Ireland as a landlord benefiting immensely from the seizure or rebel lands. But Myrtle Grove (above) has strong claims to be the setting for the story that his servant doused Raleigh with a bucket of water after seeing clouds of smoke coming from his tobacco pipe, believing he had been set alight.

The prosperous English settlers built their grand houses inside Youghal’s medieval walls. Today, well preserved, they still afford magnificent views across the wide Blackwater Estuary.

 And to think we’d only come to Youghal on a late detour, for the fish. Specifically to Ahernes Townhouse, which celebrates its 100th anniversary next year. It styles itself as ‘Seafood Restaurant and Accommodation’, which is probably the correct emphasis. The rooms tucked away in a courtyard off Main Street are boutique homely, but it is the locally landed seafood that really sings, treated unfussily and served with a rare warmth by the Fitzgibbon family in both the dining room and the bar. 

I’d suggest you share the Hot Seafood Selection, featuring salmon, cod, monkfish, hake and brill in a chive sauce alongside prawns, oysters and mussels cooked with wine, garlic and olive oil. To partner this feast order a Hugel Riesling from Alsace from a wine list full of bargains. Of course, a Guinness and a dozen native oysters might suffice.

David Fitzgibbon kindly arranged tours of both the Clock Tower and the Collegiate Church for the next morning. The first transported us vividly from the site’s 14th century origins as a Walled Town fort, later separating the English incomers from the poorer native ‘Irishtown’, through its rebuilding as a grim gaol in 1777 on to the 20th century occupants of its draughty storeys. Beautifully recounted social history from a volunteer storyteller. Many thanks to Aisling O’Leary for my main townscape image, centred on the Clock Tower.

We made two private trips around the Collegiate Church, there was so much to explore. We loved the monument to Richard Boyle, the first Earl of Cork, who died in Youghal in 1643. Two wives, his mother and nine of his 15 children join him in an astonishing  ensemble, which cost over £500, a fortune in those days.

Without the fame of Raleigh whose estate he bought for a comparative song, the eventual Earl of Cork and Lord Treasurer of Ireland certainly cut the mustard as a self-made Jacobean adventurer/entrepreneur. 

The only property Raleigh retained in Ireland was nearby Inchiquin Castle (today a ruin), let for life from the Dowager Countess of Desmond. Legend has it she died in 1604, aged 140 (having regrown a full set of teeth), after a fall from a cherry tree. Ireland’s full of tall tales. As a girl she was supposed to have danced with Richard III before his death at the battle of Bosworth. You do the sums. 

Turbulent history continued to dog Youghal and its church. A few years later Oliver Cromwell wintered his troops in this strategic port, more important than Cork’s, en route to quell a rebellion. He is said to have preached a funeral oration to one of his officers standing on a trunk, still there in the Collegiate sanctuary. 

This is only scratching the surface of the church’s riches and the rest of the walled town offers almshouses, merchant’s mansions and plenty more. Even the many empty shops are housed in rather grand buildings, proof of Youghal’s commercial heyday, now long past.

Surprises abound. Stray the other side of the Clock Tower Gate – Main Street passes through it – and you’ll eventually come to the vast sandy beach that made Youghal a popular seaside resort, reached from Cork City by train. Until the trains stopped in 1982.

My wife’s mother, whose father worked for the railways and so got free travel, often came here as a girl on a Sunday jaunt and never once stepped into the Walled Town. 

For sentimental reasons we strolled hand-in-hand across the bracing strand, lamenting that we couldn’t be there for the annual ‘Queen Of The Sea’, a beauty pageant that also features a crab catching competition.

That now seems to have been a casualty of the pandemic, while the Youghal Potato Festival – a homage to the myth of Raleigh planting Ireland’s first spud crop here – bit the dust years ago. Still the The Moby Dick Festival is planning to go ahead this summer, covid protocols permitting. Expect a parade, a bonny baby competition and other blubberly treats.

Youghal famously stood in for New Bedford, Massachusetts when John Huston filmed his 1954 version of Herman Melville’s novel, starring Gregory Peck as Cap’n Ahab out for revenge on the whale that took his leg off. Huston got legless on occasion in Paddy Linehan’s pub, his quayside HQ. In his honour, Paddy later renamed it Moby Dicks and added a gallery of movie stills. Outside there’s a statue of Ahab and his harpoon that the Blackwater gulls show scant respect for.