Alphonso mangoes are not lookers. Even the most mottled quince would win a beauty contest with them and the furry bloom of an in-season peach is infinitely more Instagrammable. But all is forgiven once you squeeze the exotic, saffron-coloured pulp out of the yellow skin, the ripe smell almost coconutty, a reminder of the South of India, whence they sprung. Think flavours of honey, melon, nectarine and apricot gone up a notch.

They are named after 15th century general Alfonso de Albuquerque, aka ‘Alfonso the Terrible’, conqueror of Goa. The Portuguese invaders brought to India from the New World red chillies, potatoes, maize, and tomatoes. In return the Sub-continent offered up its native mangoes. Apparently Alfonso (below) was very hands-on in creating a firmer, juicer variant of the fruit for export to Europe. Hard grafting, but what a result. 

Today there are several different varieties of Alphonso mangoes, primarily grown along the western coastal strip of Konkan. The acknowledged superstars are hand-harvested in the tiny Natwarlal plantation of Ratnagiri in Maharashtra. 

OK, every corner of India offers rivals – Badami, Himsagar, Kesar, Chaunsa, Dasheri – but the spring season mango rush is dominated by the Alphonso. Mumbai and other big cities even hold mango festivals. I hold my own. Alas, the season is as short as their shelf life once they arrive, so once again I sliced open a coulpe and guzzled, the juice dripping into my beard, before organising the rest to make a vat of sorbet (De-stone and extract the flesh from six to eight ripe mangoes, combine with the juice of two limes,100g icing sugar and 100ml double cream. Churn the puree in an ice cream maker for half an hour).

I get my annual fix from London-based Red Rickshaw, who specialise in sourcing hard-to find ingredients, primarily from India but also from across the globe. It’s hard to resist exploring their site, which always yields new fruit. Literally. So that’s how I stumbled upon Buddha’s Fingers (or Buddha’s Hand, main picture). This odd ancestor of our mainstream citrus fruits resembles a large lemon with finger-like segments growing from it. True to its name, it is considered a religious offering in Buddhist temples, typically given as a  New Year’s gift, symbolising good fortune.

It is still hanging in the balance whether I’m prepared to stump up £24.99 for a single specimen of a citrus fruit that seldom contains any tangible fruit, flesh or juice. Will it be worth it just to employ its formidable citrus fragrance for cocktails, candy making or salad dressings?

While I’m ‘hanging on by my finger tips’ to make a decision it’s time to prepare a Mango, Lime and Rum Syllabub, the recipe borrowed from Sunshine On A Plate (Penguin, £30), the gorgeous cookbook from Shelina Permalloo, 2012 Masterchef winner, who runs the Lakaz Maman Mauritian Street Kitchen in Southampton.


4 ginger biscuits, crushed; 300ml double cream; ½ vanilla pod, seeds scraped; 3tbsp unrefined icing sugar; 75ml rum, plus 4tsp; zest and juice of 4 limes; 150ml Alphonso mango puree; 2 Alphonso mangoes, peeled and cut into 2.5cm cubes; desiccated coconut and reservd lime zest plus optional mint leaves to decorate.  


Put the ginger biscuits into a large plastic bag and bash vigorously with a rolling pin until you have a bag of crumbs. Using an electric whisk, lightly whip the double cream. Add the vanilla seeds, icing sugar, the 75ml of rum, lime juice and zest, reserving a little for decoration. Keep whisking until it forms light peaks. Add about one third of the mango purée and half the cubed mango and fold through for a marbled effect. T

o assemble the syllabubs, divide the crumbs between four glasses. Sprinkle a teaspoon of rum over each and top with the rest of the mango purée. Spoon the cream over the top. Just before serving, sprinkle with coconut and lime zest. Decorate with the mint leaves, if using.

The unlikely spectres of Cliff Richard and Paul Kitching haunt my imagination as I dine (magnificently) in a new Manchester hotel that restores my faith in exposed brickwork and small plates. Both the 81-year-old former poster boy of British pop and the one-time enfant terrible of Michelin tasting menus are still going strong. So this is no elegy.

My whimsical connection is The Alan’s former incarnation as the Arora hotel, in which Sir Cliff was a stakeholder, and the cv of current chef Iain Thomas (below), who learnt his trade under Kitching, once of Juniper in Altrincham, a restaurant that married wackiness with true one star quality. A bit like Cliff?

All this was back in the early part of this century and Manchester has moved on. Well, not always. Many incoming hospitality operators feel the need for bee motifs, Hacienda colour schemes and gratuitous homages to Emmeline Pankhurst, Alan Turing or Tony Wilson. 

That could have happened to the old Arora, later the Princess Street Hotel, which had long shed its star appeal. I can’t ascertain when the five Cliff-themed rooms were consigned to history – there ought to be a plaque.

Briefly in the basement the Arora was home to a ‘destination restaurant’, Obsidian. How dated neon-raked images of that doomed project look now. What a contrast to the sustainable core of the refit from the new owners, which strikes you as soon as you enter off Princess Street. The outside sign is so discreet that the ambition of the opened-out lobby/bar takes you aback. Welcome to a relaxed, Shoreditch vibe that continues across the 137 bedrooms of this six storey Grade II listed edifice, all vibrant brickwork and distressed paint.

Congratulations (and jubilations) to the raft of designers name-checked on the website. I was particularly smitten with the lobby floor made from a collage of fragmented and discarded marble pieces, and a bar front “inspired by the M62 that runs round our city” (do they really mean the M60?) consisting of cigarette butts, weeds, flowers all set in a resin.

It is all a playfully welcoming surprise. Yet my object in visiting is to check our Chef Iain’s all-day seasonal menu, with more ambitious small and larger plates in the evening. I first met him when he hosted a game dinner at reinvented old boozer The Edinburgh Castle in Manchester’s Ancoats neighbourhood. As with his predecessor in the kitchen there, Julian Pfizer (now of Another Hand) he was given his head and then the owners seemed to get cold feet about culinary ambition.

The Alan strikes just the right balance. From the off it seems just the kind of relaxed setting and offering if you are a hotel guest but there’s plenty of well-sourced interest on the menu to make it a destination in its own right. Ah, the sourcing. Iain name-checks the city centre Butcher’s Quarter for his meat, while mushrooms are from Polyspore, and  microgreens from Aztec Farms, the vertical farming start-up based at Manchester Science Park. On the drinks list there’s beer from the city’s own Pomona Island and Cloudwater with caffeine input from Ancoats Coffee. The wine list, understandably from further afield, is uninspiring, alas.

Then, provenance one-upmanship. As spring gathers pace expect a very special vegetable input from the chef’s own allotment in Tameside’s Hattersley Projects. I trust him to make the most of it all on the evidence of his impressive track record – in kitchens since 16 with stints at Establishment in Manchester (where Rosso now is), at the “amazing” Paul Kitching’s Michelin-starred 21212 in Edinburgh and s sidekick to Davey Aspin, one of the iconic chef names in Scotland.

At The Alan we asked to try all eight small plates on the menu, all priced around £5 to  £6.50. Attractive looking snacks and meat could await another visit. The plan was to sit at the chef’s table with a perfect eye-line onto the open kitchen, but old bones dictated we retrenched to a booth. 

The dishes came in pairs and were a well-judged mixture of plant-based and flesh. No  duff note with either direction but we were most impressed with the vegan salt-baked celeriac with truffle and sherry vinegar and the cauliflower tikka with cumin, coriander and pomegranate, both managing to be earthy and yet delicate at the same time. Punchier was what threatens to become a Thomas signature dish – lamb fat hispi cabbage. Here lamb trimmings are rendered down and the fat is used to sous vide the cabbage, which is then warmed up in a lamb fat cream emulsion with braised shoulder.

There’s an equal richness to a potato and ox cheek terrine, an elaborate confection where 10 butter-brushed layers of finely sliced potato, a layer of ox cheek and a further 10 spud layers are sandwiched together, and served with blobs of French’s mustard and dill pickle gel.

Undoubtedly there’s an Ottolenghi influence going on. The likes of Confit thighs of Goosnargh chicken are glazed with pomegranate molasses, soy sauce aand mushroom ketchup and, also garnished with nasturtium leaves, that simple Turkish aubergine and tomato dishImam  Bayildi, that translates as “the Imam fainted”.

The Levantine spice palette of cumin, coriander, along with pomegranate arils also permeate Iain’s otherwise classical Cheshire beef tartare, but it’s all lightly handled. Ditto a ceviche of Scottish halibut, where chicory and but orange partner the fish rather than overwhelm. Is any hotel dining menu in Manchester (the obvious exception of Adam Reid at The French apart) better than this?

The Alan, 18 Princess Street, M1 4LG. 0161 236 8999. All rooms feature Emperor sized beds dressed in 200 thread count Egyptian cotton, 50” Samsung Smart TVs with Google Chromecast and pay-per-view movies, superfast Wi-Fi and Audio Pro Bluetooth speakers. The tech-forward hotel is also one of only four in the UK to offer Google Nest smart concierge in all its rooms. There are a variety of rooms on offer, the affordability of which gained The Alan a place in the ’40 UK Hotels For Under £100’ list in the latest Sunday Times.

I’m going to treat myself to all the Spring Gourmet Menu dishes pictured above and below. To celebrate an eight year anniversary of mine, coming up in June. OK, my day in their new Cookery School doesn’t even count as a footnote in the garlanded history of Northcote. The stalwart country house hotel had already held a Michelin star for 18 years when I donned their monogrammed apron and did it less than proud. 

In a 2014 piece for Manchester Confidential I charted the shame of my soggy lamb wellington. I’ve still got the apron; Northcote, at Langho outside Blackburn, retains the star… and perhaps deserves a second.

Much else has changed. Nigel Haworth, whose cooking earned the star, moved on after over 30 years’ at the stove. Good to see his new venture, bringing back to life his own former gastropub, The Three Fishes, has swiftly gained him 2022 Michelin Guide recognition. Now part of the Stafford Collection and handsomely refurbished, Northcote continues Nigel’s Obsession Festival, hosting the cream of the world’s chefs every January.

 The greatest legacy of all, though, is Lisa Goodwin-Allen, still just 40, who was barely out of her teens when she started there and rose to be head chef by the age of 23. These days her profile has never been higher. Only recently she was on telly again as a Great British Menu judge. Alongside overseeing Northcote, she spends a couple of days a month as consultant down in London for the Stafford. Holding the fort for hid exec head chef is 27-year-old head chef Danny Young, 2017 National Young Chef of the Year.

The pair have that Spring Gourmet Menu on the way and March (before it snowed) seemed a good time to revisit to road test their Chef’s Table in the same 16-capacity room that’s still home to the Cookery School. Its large glass doors look out onto the kitchen with a kitchen cam for salivating close-ups.

No wellington flashbacks for me thankfully as we tasted four seasonal courses. Slightly early days for vernal abundance to determine the menu entirely but ample evidence of a kitchen as good as, maybe better, than ever. Remarkable technical skills on show but not for show, the whole focus on enhancing the intense flavours of the raw materials. 

It’s an important balancing act to strive beyond country house food expectations without alienating the well-heeled, middle aged and beyond demographic. Though I do believe veteran MD Craig Bancroft when he outlines the importance paid to making first-timers feel at home, especially if daunted by an encyclopaedic wine list. I have no such qualms, on the day of the lunch recognising Craig’s nous in selecting a canny quartet of matching wines.

Our lunch consisted of Orkney scallop, ‘green curry’, cultured yoghurt, lemon (with the bonus of an extra, tempura scallop); quail, frozen liver parfait, apple verjus, bacon, sweet turnip; aged Lake District beef, allium, hen of the woods mushroom, black garlic; warm Bramley ‘Apple Pie’, nuts, maple, caramelised milk.

I loved that deconstructed apple pie (Lisa’s a technical whizz with puds) but the stand-out dish was the quail, served delicately with the bird’s liver in tiny frozen dice, melting into the gamey breast.

Invention is in a constant flurry of renewal in Michelin-starred kitchen. When we were there that new gourmet menu was on the brink of being approved. It sounds irresistible, hence I’m searching for a booking slot. And saving up. Priced at £115 per person, the menu can be paired with course-selected wine by the glass (£71.15) as well as the addition of The Northcote Cheeseboard (£15 or £20), comprising a selection of either five or seven cheeses from The Courtyard Dairy, served with Peter’s Yard Crackers and Homemade Bread. Available Wednesday to Sunday from 12pm to 2pm. So what do you get for your money?

Chargrilled Wye Valley asparagus, sheep’s curd, sorrel; roasted veal sweetbread, white mushroom, wild garlic, caper; wild turbot, clam, bacon, smoked potato, roe; Yorkshire duck, heirloom beetroot, aged balsamic, bee pollen; and that ‘apple pie’ (main image).

Northcote, Northcote Road, Langho, Blackburn BB6 8BE. 01254 240555. For information on a variety of gourmet breaks visit the website.

The weekend the clocks go forward 2002 and Jester King Spontan is guest pour at Dukes Bar, Halifax. That’s if there’s any left after the Friday being designated as ‘Sponzee Day – celebrating the iconic spontaneously fermented barrel sour’. Unimaginable even a few years ago for such an event in a provincial craft beer outpost; even now a big hand to bar owners Ellie and Sean.

This three year blend (18-19-20 vintages) from a farmhouse brewery outside Austin, Texas pays its dues to the Gueuze brewing style of Belgium. Yet another example of America’s magpie adoptions that have spread the word about niche beers once threatened with extinction.

Sponzee Day comes just three weeks after the death of Armand Debelder, whose Brouwerij Drie Fonteinen kept alive the Belgian tradition of gueuzes and the wild lambic beers from which they are blended. The man nicknamed ‘Grandfather Gueuze was just 70 and, suffering from cancer, had already handed over the reins to trusted associates. The brewery’s own website pays an affectionate homage there’s a fitting obituary on the Good Beer Hunting website, which recounts how back in the Eighties he took over blending work at the family restaurant, Drie Fonteinen at a time when lambic seemed in terminal decline with small brewers swallowed up by multi-nationals. 

In tandem with brewer soulmate Frank Boon, Armand rallied the rearguard in the Pajottendland region south west of Brussels. In 1989 he found equipment and, despite family qualms, started brewing his own lambics.

So what are Lambics? Beers left in open vats where wild yeast and bacterias are allowed to take up residence. Once the fermentation process begins, the beer is stored in barrels and left to age for up to three years.

The rescue act was boosted by a kind of symbiotic serendipity. The doyen of British beer writers, Michael Jackson, developed a unique affinity with Belgian beer culture, exploring even its most arcane corners. We owe to him, in part, the survival of Saison, Flemish red ales and all the wild yeast styles.

In a 1996 interview Jackson surmised why he spent so much time documenting Belgium’s beer culture: “I think the motivation was almost like the motivation of some of those musicologists like Alan Lomax who went down to the Mississippi Delta in the ’50s and recorded old blues men before they died. I wanted to kind of record Belgian beer before those breweries didn’t exist anymore. I certainly didn’t see it as a career possibility, but I think all, or many, journalists have in them a sort of element of being an advocate.”

All this culminated in his Great Beers of Belgium (1991), whose sales across various editions have topped 150,000. It’s 15 years since his untimely death his digital legacy The Beer Hunter website is still a valuable resource despite its outdated lay-out. Here’s its summation of Gueuze:

“A bottled, sparkling, style that is much easier to find. Can have the toasty and Chardonnay-like notes found in Champagne. The word Gueuze (hard “g”, and rhymes with “firs”) may have the same etymological origins as the English words gas and ghost, and the Flemish gist (“yeast”), referring to carbonation and rising bubbles.

“The carbonation is achieved by blending young Lambic (typically six months old) with more mature vintages (two to three years). The residual sugars in the young Lambic and the yeasts that have developed in the old cause a new fermentation.… References to “old” (oud, vieux, vieille) on the label indicate a minimum of six months and a genuine Lambic process. Without these legends, a Lambic may have been ‘diluted’ with a more conventional beer”. 

Jackson’s describes the Drie Fonteinen beer as “creamy, aromatic, with a clean, teasing, perfumy fruitiness and a faintly herbal tartness”. I can concur with all that after refreshing my memory with a bottle at my favourite Calder Valley bar, Coin.

Armand Debelder reciprocated the appreciation, lamenting in one interview: “It’s a shame on Belgian brewers that there’s no statue of Jackson. He was the first to start describing lambic with words such as ‘horse sweat,’ words others may not have considered or perhaps been afraid to use. He was a friend of the Lambic producers. We have photos hanging in our brewery of when Jackson visited us. We were always happy to give him the opportunity to taste something special when he visited. He never asked for it. But because of his simple being and calmness, it was more than normal to offer him something exceptional.”

Survival remained perilous for a while. With the Debelder Lambics and Guezes on the up, an act of nature nearly destroyed the whole mission. On the morning of May 16 2009, a faulty thermostat caused the warehouse to heat up and because of the pressure the bottles started exploding one by one. 80,000 were los in one night. Bankruptcy loomed, but bottling and selling rare stocks helped the brewery bounce back.

My own conversion to Gueuze

What clinched it was the gift of a ‘2021 Horal Megablend’ . Over the years, encouraged by friends’ enthusiasm, I had dipped my toe (so to speak) in the Lambic pond and I was aware of the High Council for Artisanal Lambic Beers  (Horal), founded by Armand in 1997, to safeguard and promote the tradition. He quit as chairman in 2015 but 10 other members of this loose confederation of Lambic and Gueuze brewers and blenders around the Senne Valley have continued the biennial ‘Toer de Gueuze’, where they produce a celebratory ‘Megablend’ (blendedand open their doors to visitors. Last year’s Tour was necessarily a virtual version, but the event will return in 2022. Meanwhile check the site for virtual videos.

The producers involved are Boon, De Oude Cam, De Troch, Hanssens, Tilquin, Lambiek Fabriek, Lindemans, Mort Subite, Oud Beersel and Timmermans. They all contributed young and old Lambics that were then mega-blended by Frank Boon (whose own Oude Gueuze is benchmark stuff).

My personal bottle I owe to an old friend, Anita Rampall, from Visit Flanders. I couldn’t resist opening the 75cl bottle and it was a revelation – tart lemon then biscuity with a spicy floral hop note that lingered and lingered. You’d be hard pressed to buy a bottle now. Beer geeks will have squirrelled theirs away to see how they age. Fascinatingly, I wager. I now wish I had. Still, now it’s time to work my way through all the other Gueuzes on the planet.

It’s far from up there with P&O’s unceremonious mass cull of their crews but one of the more unsavoury moments in a troubled 2021 for the hospitality trade was Bruntwood’s decision to dispense with vin-yard, a bijou independent wine bar/shop at its Hatch ‘retail and leisure destination’ on Manchester’s Oxford Road. The landlord’s apparent reason was a need to recoup revenue lost during the pandemic by taking over booze sales from its tenants. The quality wine offering from vin-yard’s Anna Tutton has never been adequately replaced.

Anna Tutton at her vin-yard wine venue at Hatch. She has high hopes for her new venture

For several years it has been a ploy for developers, enlightened and otherwise, to add a dash of millennial cool to their sites by hosting street food wannabes on fixed term deals as a launchpad for eventually establishing their own permanent bases. Now with the economy in freefall that’s easier said than done. When I ran into Anna at a recent wine tasting she told me over lunch about her own life-after-Hatch plan for The Beeswing and it sounded a perfect next step, albeit again pitched as the icing on a property cake – at the Kampus ‘garden neighbourhood’ across the canal from the Village.

The Beeswing is a co-production with business partner Joe Maddock, who ran West Didsbury’s much-loved Pinchjo’s back in the day. For the new venture he’ll provide a small plate menu to match Anna’s eclectic wine offering (mainstream plus some natural). I was particularly taken with the black sesame crusted feta triangles, my main picture, from a menu that will reflect the melting pot of food styles around Manchester – including dals, plant-based and Ottolenghi-influenced Middle-Eastern. All food images by Rebecca Lupton.

Design – sneak preview courtesy of these 3D renders from Andy Gough – is in the hands of the talented and lovely Soo Wilkinson, co-founder of Chorlton’s The Creameries. Set upstairs above Nell’s Pizza place, it too looks a treat with its softened industrial look.

But now comes the rub. There is a budget deficit and Anna and Joe urgently need your crowdfunding help…

The pair’s initial costing was £80,000 and when the figure leapt up to over £100,000 they made up that deficit, but they £25,000 remain adrift of the new final total, so they have launched a crowdfunding campaign, deadline mid-April. It’s a great indie cause – contribute here.

Your potential rewards? You can pre-order a meal for two with wine for £50, or if you can’t wait for the restaurant to open, you can order a meal for six and two bottles of wine to be delivered to your home for £150. You can even help shape the menu by throwing £25 into the pot to be invited to a private dining event of menu cook-offs with chef Joe, and tell him what you think works – or doesn’t. I’ve invested in that one.

Kampus’ developers Capital & Centric and HBD have been pretty canny recruiting some established indie food and drink names to populate Instgrammably picturesque Little David Street. The presence of Pollen Bakery, Cloudwater, Madre, Great North Pie Co, Yum Cha and The Beeswing will attract a clientele way beyond the on-site apartment dwellers.

Cloudwater/Levanter collab at Kampus

This is still very much a work in progress, but to whet the appetite Manchester’s highest profile craft brewery, Cloudwater and Ramsbottom’s award-winning Spanish restaurant Levanter (sibling of Baratxuri) have unveiled a 10 week residency. This will consist of a series of globe-trotting weekend block parties around the ‘tropical garden’ with DJs saluting the likes of California beach sounds and raucous Mexican festivities for Cinco de Mayo, Irish folk parties and smooth NYC jazz.

My focus will obviously be on Levanter’s Joe Botham serving up his legendary giant paellas from 3pm at the canalside Bungalow. The residency kicks off on Easter weekend.