Imagine your near-perfect restaurant bucket-list served up over 17 nights in a single venue one chilly January just off the A59. Yes Michelin-starred Northcote’s Obsession festival is back and spreading its horizons. Founded in 2001, this really is a unique celebration of stellar chefs that is really unique. Even the AA Hospitality Awards, not the most adventurous, gave it its ‘Outstanding Contribution Award’.

The 2023 incarnation runs from January 20 to February 5. 20 world class chefs with16 Michelin stars between them will make the trip to the luxury Lancashire hotel, now part of The Stafford Collection. It will kick off on Friday, January with 20, as is customary, Northcote’s own Lisa Goodwin Allen at the stove – this year in tandem with fellow Great British Menu stalwart Niall Keating. 

Lisa has this week been named named Ayala SquareMeal Female Chef of the Year 2022. She said at the ceremony: “Being an ambassador like this and inspiring the next generation of cooks, so that the next cohort of female chefs does great things, is really important to me. It’s vital that we nurture young talent, and provide them with all the tools they need to succeed…As an industry we need to be flexible; something I’m passionate about reflecting in my kitchen and with my team.”

Two women chefs also at the peak of their powers join Lisa to cook at Obsession’s grand Obsession 23’s grand finale on Sunday, February 5 – London legends Monica Galetti of Mere and Nieves Barragan Mohacho of Sabor.

All the meals in between look equally inspirational. What thrills me most about the intense 17 day showcase is that, post-pandemic, there is a returning global presence. France and Portugal feature. 

I’ve been lucky enough to stay and dine at the Yeatman in Porto, so the appearance on Saturday, January 22, of its 2-star chef, Ricardo Costa, is a big statement. 

His restaurant in the wine-driven hotel above the Port houses has been showered with awards and he was named Rising Chef 2016 by Relais Chateaux, Chef of the Year 2009 by the Portuguese magazine Wine; “Chef of the Future” 2012 by the International Academy of Gastronomy; and Best Chef in Portugal (2013) in the Gastro Arco Atlantico prizes.

At the same time the quality of the British contingent is proof of the vibrancy of our own restaurant sector in decidedly difficult times. My pick? Chetan Sharma of Mayfair’s Bibi on January 24, Alex Nietosvuori of Hjem in the North East on February 3 and the Ritz’s dynamic duo of John Williams & Spencer Metzger on February 2. Though I’d not be averse to meeting Anna Haugh of Myrtle on January 27. She has been a breath of fresh Irish air presenting the current Masterchef. 

The full list is here. People can register for tables for Obsession23 from Thursday, November 10. Each meal is priced at £185 per person, including a Louis Roederer Champagne and canapé reception, five course menu, coffee and petit fours. A specially paired wine flight can be added, starting from around £65 per person. The official charity for Obsession23 is Hospitality Action. To date, Obsession has raised almost half a million pounds for the charity.  

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

When I look back on years of reviewing there’s a special roster of restaurants where I got there first. And reassuringly where I raved others followed. No delusions. Places really prospered after my initial sounding was endorsed by fellow critics with a much higher profile. Which brings me to The White Swan at Fence. A slightly slower burner after I awarded it 16/20 back in 2015, the food eulogy undermined by the basic village pub in transition ambience. Neither food nor pub enhanced by a wrong setting on my Canon Power Shot G15. Fuzzy! Shamefacedly, my incognito cover blown, I had to ask chef Tom Parker, at peak Saturday service time, if I could re-shoot certain dishes on the pass. 

Tom was the reason I’d hurtled up the A6068 Padiham bypass to the strung-out commuter hamlet of Fence. A real talent setting up in the most unlikely of places – the only Timothy Taylor tied house in Lancashire. Formerly dubbed ‘The Mucky Duck’.

My chef friend, Mike Jennings (Grenache at Walkden/later WOOD), had rung me to recommend his former Northcote oppo, who started there at 16, five years later winning UK Young Chef of the Year.

Northcote has held a Michelin star for over a quarter of a century; the Swan gained its own in 2018, three years after my first visit, and has kept it since. The award was a surprise to those fixated on more gussied up establishments but, of course, the consistent brilliance of the food counted most. 

That revered status has been confirmed this week by the resurgent Good Food Guide, now a purely digital operation, yet retaining its authority. Strong on expert reader recommendations, it rates UK restaurants across four categories, Good, Very Good, Exceptional and World Class. Only three form the latter pantheon – L’Enclume, Ynyshir and Moor Hall, with all of which I am very familiar. 34 further places make the Exceptional list, including The White Swan at Fence

According to The GFG: “Exceptional equals cooking that has reached the pinnacle of achievement, making it a highly memorable experience for the diner. The whole restaurant will be operating at the highest level: not only perfect dishes, showing faultless technique at every service, but also superb service, a high level of comfort, and a warm, welcoming atmosphere. These are the best places to eat in the country.”

Great company for the White Swan. That elite bunch includes the likes of A. Wong, Claude Bosi at Bibendum, Hjem, Inver. Outlaw’s Nest, Restaurant Gordon Ramsay, Restaurant Story, The Raby Hunt and The Sportsman.

It all leaves me feeling in the right place at the right time again. Read my review of Yynshir where, between booking and staying, it won its second Michelin star and was named the UK’s number one restaurant.

Cue last Saturday, when I booked a Swan lunch for myself and Captain Smidge, the gourmet chihuahua, en route checking the photo settings on my iPhone 13 were spot on. The five course lunch is £55 a head on Saturdays, compared with £45 Tuesday-Friday. Each prix fixe will rise by a tenner from December 1 (for obvious economic logistical reasons). Our standard set dinner will increase to £80 per head Tuesday to Saturday.

At my table opposite the Landlord and Boltmaker cask pumps Gareth Ostick (co-owner with his wife Laura and Tom) tells me that the decision to discard the several-choice a la carte post lockdowns has been a success beyond the obvious cutting down of possible food waste. It has also re-energised chef Tom, giving him the opportunity to roll with what’s fresh on the market. And, of course, in any Michelin destination, added surprises are quintessential.

Here the amuse bouches cluster across the table (no tablecloths and, all you old school Michelin tickers, don’t count on cloches). A tomato consommé topped with intense whipped basil and smoked bacon speckles comes in a prawn cocktail style goblet. With a large pebble of sourdough there’s a choice of butter, Leagram’s organic sheep’s curd, or their signature black pea hummus, which is as ‘Lanky umami’ as ever. Oh, nearly forgot a game liver parfait ‘tart’ coated in hazelnut. I’m driving, so my aim is to make my pint of Taylor’s last but already the glass is half empty, half full. Such a shame, though, not to explore the wine list, these days supplied by the excellent Miles Corish and a vast improvement on that 2015 selection.

Bread aside, Captain Smidge has to wait to the third course of herb-fed chicken to be rewarded with his tythe. It comes with hen of the woods and an old school yet light mushroom sauce with madeira and thyme. It cries out for a creamy Chardonnay, but I stay firm.

Before the fowl there is a cute little Burford Brown egg yolk, under fried potato discs dressed with herring roe and dill, giving it a Scandi brunch feel. Then, more excitingly, in  a red prawn curry foam a substantial Skye scallop topped with its own coral in the lightest of tempura batters. Masterful.

Honey truffle, mascarpone, pears and verjus is a playful palate cleanser before this accomplished kitchen unveils a triumph of soufflé technique, using Valrhona chocolate. With it a darker hot chocolate sauce and a stem ginger ice cream. All as pretty as a picture in my photos. Mostly.

The White Swan at Fence, 300 Wheatley Lane Road, Fence, Burnley BB12 9QA.

The oddest of avenues opened up after one of the best dinners I’ve eaten in recent times. I just can’t resist researching a bit of arcane back story. So picture a victorious Sumo wrestler, at the end of his bout, typically brandishing a red sea bream – potent symbol of good fortune and abundance for Japanese folk. Endorsed by the ‘Fish God’, consumption of this prestigious ‘celebration’ fish with the coppery red sheen is reputed to ward off evil spirits, too. 

Pagrus major is the Latin name for the species; more prosaically the Japanese call their ‘King of the Hundred Fishes’ Madai. A nigiri of which (above) I have just gulped whole, as is the custom at a certain stage of a Kaiseki banquet. Bookended by mackerel and chu toro (tuna back and belly morsels), it is part of a trio of mouthfuls that showcase immaculate sourcing. Attention to detail is everywhere from the flecks of proper wasabi root, the 10-year aged soy with mirin and sake, top of the range hamachi and akami to match the madai quality.

No, I’m not in one of those exclusive downtown Kyoto supper clubs but in Lydgate, hilltop outpost of Oldham. The setting is the home of Vincent Braine co-founder of Musu, an extraordinary restaurant project arriving imminently in Manchester. His chef patron Mike  Shaw has brought along his meticulously assembled brigade to cook a preview of the menu promised for the £2.5m transformation of the former Randall & Aubin site on Bridge Street. 

No pressure then? Not if the actual 55 cover restaurant can regularly serve a meal as amazing as the one proffered to us, the elite few. Me neither on why I was invited. Just thankful. Maybe it was down to the effusive welcome I gave to the project. Much of it down to my awe at the cultural leap made by Shaw, a chef steeped in Francophile and Modern British cooking. Think a CV that includes Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons via Hambleton Hall and Aubergine, then at Michelin-starred Neat in Cannes. 

Now he is charged with curating high end Japanese cuisine, albeit filtered through his own kitchen sensibility. Japanese with a contemporary twist, he’s calling the style. It oddly mirrors his namesake Simon Shaw’s adoption/adaptation of Catalan cooking at El Gato Negro. Fittingly the name Musu translates as ‘infinite possibilities’. 

In all this it helps that Mike’s head sushi chef sidekick is Brazilian Andre Aguiar, trained by ‘renowned Japanese Sushi Master’ Yugo Kato. The first six months of his apprenticeship at Kato’s Dublin restaurant were consumed entirely by learning to properly cook rice – the priority in sushi. Cooked rice is referred to as gohan in Japanese. In a broader sense the word denotes ‘food’ or ‘meal’.

Andre will helm the intimate six-cover ‘Omakase’ counter in Musu, one of three menu options; the other are the flexible a la carte ‘Sentaku’ and ‘Kaiseki’, a seven or 11 course tasting menu. We get the latter at Lydgate.

It kicks off with chawanmushi, that savoury eggy custard seemingly ubiquitous at high end UK restaurants these days. This one, intense with garlic and parsley, is as good as it gets with a bijou morel mushroom tart sharing the Instagrammable ‘nest’. After which there isn’t a dud note. Exquisite sashimi to match the sushi; treatments of scallops, black cod and wagyu beef each transcending the Nobu wannabe clichés. Throughout assiduous application of caviar (kaluga and oscietra) feels like the hand of Shaw. Ditto the remarkable final pudding – a fusion masterpiece of iced white chocolate, fennel seed crumble and yuzu sorbet.

So a rewarding culinary experience, but is it true Kaiseki? And does it matter? On my trips to Japan I was never lucky enough to bag a seat at one of those elaborate almost meditative showcases for kyo-rori (traditional Kyoto cuisine), served in ancient wooden villas. Reservation for non-natives are as rare as hen’s teeth (not a dish by the way). This dining ritual has been honed for centuries, yet my it’s-becoming-a-habit research discovers the term Kaiseki wasn’t attached until the mid 19th century. It means ‘bosom’ or ‘stone’ and  refers to the practice of monks holding warm stones to their chests to stave off hunger during winter.

I guarantee no server at Musu, due to open on Friday, November 18, will offer you a warm stone on arrival. Warm welcome definitely plus food that should radically upgrade the perception of Japanese food in the city (ramen an honourable exception). Despite a cavalcade of sushi rivals recently it has remained devalued culinary currency. Manc cannot live by California rolls alone.

Showing my age. Just realised it’s 30 years since I sat down in the cinema to watch Delicatessen. I expected a celebration of pastrami on rye and coffee-toting waitresses with attitude. Instead I was served a post-apocalyptic, cannibalistic black comedy packed with butchered body parts. 

I blame a movie made two years earlier for my cinematic naïveté. The one where the Meg Ryan character simulates orgasmic cries. The one I always think of as When Harry Met Deli because that scene was set inside Katz’s on New York’s Lower East Side. And, yes, I have visited that apotheosis of all the kosher eateries recalibrating the Old Country in the New World. The touristy sign quotes the film dialogue: “Hope you have what she had.” We ordered differently.

There was a cluttered buzz to the joint, the queues to get in filtered through a ticketing system. The food? Not really star quality. And not really the global template for the Deli  these day, definitely a devalued catch-all term just like bistro and brasserie. Yet neither of these are synonymous with a sandwich shop.

A more positive perspective is the combo of grocer’s and cafe, ideally the latter feeding off the raw materials and store cupboard essentials of the former. A good example (with the bonus of a well-stocked wine shop and bar) was the late, lamented Lunya in Manchester, the original of which is still going strong in Liverpool. That is Spanish with a Catalan influence; the Italian equivalent, equally family-run, is Salvis’ Corn Exchange outpost in Manchester’s Corn Exchange.

My ideal deli though would be a suburban provisioner. The supplier of an impulse wine purchase, a decent cheeseboard, charcuterie, olives and bread to carry home around the corner. Even better, if the budget allows, to be able to tuck into all that stuff upstairs above the shop, augmented by an eclectic beer offering, including the owner’s own acclaimed lager.

Factor in the natural progression 100m away of a sibling butchers/fishmonger with its own eat-in small plates deli counter and it could only be Wandering Palate – The Movie and Farm & Fish – The Sequel. Location? Upwardly mobile Monton, the posh banlieue beyond Eccles. The first is the debut deli of Will and Emma Evans; the second their collab with The Butcher’s Quarter, which has two further outlets in the city centre.

It has taken me a while to trek here. As I sit in the window of Wandering Palate at 190 Monton Road, first with a De Koninck Bolleke, a Belgian amber-coloured pale in the glass of that name, then with a Bodegas Manzanos Gran Reserva Rioja Will brings me a selection of ‘picky bits’.

They are his Manc version of pintxos or cicchetti. The baguette bases are from Holy Grain, arguably Manchester’ best bakery, like Wandering Palate shortlisted at this year’s Manchester Food and Drink Awards. The toppings are sourced from the deli shelves. My favourites the Trealy Farm venison and juniper pâté with salsa verde and truffled Baron Bigod cheese with baby onions.

Time for browsing. A smaller beer collection (“we needed the fridge space for other items”) than you’d expect from Will, who co-founded Manchester Union Lager. That’s on tap here ahead of its unveiling in tank form at Manchester’s new Exhibition food hall this November.

Wine is a major player, though with a substantial natural wine offering, much of it sourced from Les Caves De Pyrene. Coffee comes from Yorkshire’s Dark Woods, charcuterie from Manchester’s own Northern Cure, cheese from The Crafty Cheese Man and much more.

Emma Evans is an acclaimed artist, whose canvases you can check out in the upstairs bar. She also hosts regular life drawing classes there. Probably more my thing is Wandering Palate’s Wine Club Wednesdays with free corkage.

Farm & Fish at 190 Monton Road equally aspires to be a community hub. It recently hosted a Polish wine tasting. But my eyes were for the meat and fish counters. I inevitably splashed the cash, coming away with a kilo of  ox cheeks and a robust boiled crab. I could happily have sat in the window there with a further wine as evening fell… to survey the Monton ‘paseo’.

I came late to The New Forest National Park and it has found a nest in my heart. This 550sq km patch of ancient England is an all-year-round destination, but autumn is particularly alluring when the russet woodland plays host to Pannage. This is the practice of releasing domestic pigs into a forest (also known as ‘common of mast’), dating back to the reign of William the Conqueror, who founded The New Forest in 1079.

In this case up to 600 pigs are released to eat fallen acorns, beechmast, chestnuts and other nuts, which are poisonous to the ponies, donkeys and cattle which roam the forest. The season started in September and finishes on 18 November. It is the only time of year that the pigs are allowed to ‘roam’ – around the same time those commoner-owned native ponies are rounded up, some headed for auction. 

This New Forest breed is most often associated with this former royal hunting ground. Pigs, though, have their own special status, too. Just to watch the wilded beasties wolfing down acorns is enough to induce dreams of free range pork products There is a good reason celebrated hotel/restaurant chain The Pig, with its stalwart commitment to local produce, first took root in the heart of the Forest, just outside Brockenhurst. 

A glance at the original Pig’s ’25 mile’ menus reveals a Saddleback crackling snack, starters of Pannage Coppa or home-made black pudding, a Tile Bar Farm pork chop main and my favourite, Crispy Chilli Pork Belly, Garden Leaves, Makers Honey and Greenhouse Chilli – locally reared and grown ingredients, with zero-mile produce picked from their own kitchen garden.

A whole chapter of founder Robert Hutson’s The Pig Cookbook (Octopus, £30) is given over to ‘Porkology’, a snout to tail guide tackling the various breeds they farm and their kitchen uses, particularly charcuterie. Chef Director at The Pig James Golding even teamed up with a third generation local family butcher, Alan Bartlett, to create a curing company called A Pinch of Salt.

Which brings us to a more traditional outlet for all that pork. ‘Mr Bartlett’s Hampshire Hogs’ have a case to be the perfect bangers to match with mash. The recipe date back to Alan’s great grandfather. Jame and his team can’t resist updating the ‘secret’ blend with the addition of (my favourite spice) fennel pollen plus elephant garlic (think a cross between standard garlic and leek).

Hampshire Hogs

Ingredients: 100g breadcrumbs, rapeseed, 25g seasoning (roughly 20g salt, 5g sugar, a pinch each of sage, thyme and garlic powder), 700g boneless pork shoulder (80% lean, 20% fatty), 150ml cold water, sausage casings.

Method: Fry the breadcrumbs with a little oil until golden brown. Mince the meat straight onto the crumbs, adding the water. Mince again. Tie one end of a sausage casing with string, then insert the narrow part of a wide-necked funnel in the other end. With the back of a wooden spoon push the meat through the funnel into the skin. Once it’s full remove the funnel and tie the end. Pinch and twist into four individual sausages, then link and tie with with string. Overnight in the fridge. Best cooked over charcoal.

Enough ‘snouts in the trough’. So who needs Vermont when you’ve got the New Forest?

There are are many good places to walk and witness the autumn colours. Try the following. Hightown Common, located near Poulner in the Forest’s north, is perfect for experiencing colour on trees, from the brilliant yellow of the birches to the last clumps of purple heather and the delicate tracery of the dying brackens. The walk starts off by passing a clump of gorse bushes, which provide beautiful colour and a distinctive coconut scent. Rhinefield Ornamental Drive is probably the best-known road in the whole of the forest.  Considered by many as the ultimate autumn colour-burst, the drive was planted in 1860 and offers colour and wonder all year round, as well as the Forest’s tallest tree. Time it right, and you can also proceed on to Blackwater Arboretum to see the falling leaves twirl and float into the pond there.

Staying in the New Forest

Many of the forest’s accommodation providers offer good deals to fill beds in the autumn ‘shoulder season’, and quieter roads, pubs and restaurants make it the perfect time for a short break. One place I’d heartily recommend is the four-star Balmer Lawn Hotel (above). This is currently offering three nights for the price of two until the end of November 2022. The break costs from £145 per person, B&B, based on two people sharing a room, and  also includes full use of the leisure facilities including indoor and outdoor pools, sauna, jacuzzi and gym. Pigs can be spotted very close to the hotel, and some rooms are dog friendly (though dogs should be on leads where there are pigs.)

We stayed at Balmer Lawn on our pre-Pandemic voyage of discovery. Here’s my report on that equally enchanting spring visit – Tall Trees and A Small Dog in The New Forest. For further information on the area visit the New Forest website.

Fish heads? I have form for devouring them. Witness the board below at the late, lamented Umezushi in Manchester. That was 2018 (note the prices) and I went for the hamachi. So the dish-determined-to-surprise on the menu at Fallow held no fears. Dowsed in a sriracha emulsion, the smoked cod’s head held plenty of crannies from which to prise collagen-rich morsels. Crumbled charcuterie adding an extra swoosh of umami. Messy, mind, but they reportedly sold 10,000 in their first five months of Fallow’s meteoric rise.

More a dish the likes of which you might find a short walk away in London’s Chinatown. Definitely not one for the pre-theatre crowd en route to Phantom of the Opera further down Haymarket. In that context this all-day restaurant/bar, created by two Heston Blumenthal alumni, should feel like a fish out of water (sic). Especially since it flaunts a sustainability ethos that’s as brazen as its prices. Given all this, it possesses a flamboyant yet democratic buzz. 

Not what you’d always expect from a joint perched at No.13 in the Estella Damm Top 50 Restaurants list. That’s a place behind my beloved Angel at Hetton, though its sense of theatre leans towards numero uno Ynyshir.

I had a front row seat for all this – at the Chef’s Counter, the hectic pass just to my right. None of your The Bear/Boiling Point chaos, though,about this operation, which started in 2020 as a residency at 10 Heddon Street, off Regent Street, before moving to St James’s this year. It was a bold move, smacking of serious investment at a time when the hospitality industry is facing horrendous challenges. Even so this week, hearteningly, its trade body reaffirmed its commitment to sustainability and reducing food waste with a 10 point plan. Fallow is already an object lesson in combining such principles with top quality dining. Their website calls it ‘conscious gastronomy’. Nothing gets thrown away and ‘nose to tail’ ‘farm to fork guides everything they cook.

All of which I contemplate as I gaze up at the hand foraged seaweed, dried flowers and recycled paper decorations dangling from the ceiling, a decor of repurposed materials including mussel and oyster shells and consider the provenance of my mushroom parfait, created from fungi farmed in the basement.

Originally co-founders Will Murray and Jack Croft would buy wonky mushrooms from their suppliers; now they use their own in-house lion’s mane along with smoked shitake. They caramelise them down, adding mirin and tamari. Puréed, butter and eggs are mixed in to create a sustainable mirror image of a classic liver parfait (with further mushrooms draped over. Not dissimilar really, at a fraction of the cost, to the booze and foie-gras laden Meat Fruit, at Dinner by Heston Blumenthal, where the two young chefs met.

There’s a similar decadent aura from frugal ingredients about my next, equally glorious course, where a fatty salmon belly cut has been whipped into a mousse. It is served in a marrow bone, whose dripping contents add the ooze factor to an accompanying brioche bun. What a belting dish.

This is undoubtedly rich, quite heavy food. Even the corn ribs ‘pop-up signature dish’ I snaffle with an aperitif of Guinness has made a big statement. Chunks of sweetcorn are first deep-fried then sprinkled with kombu. It shouldn’t work, but it does. Alternatively there is a brace of real ribs (back, dairy cow, smoked) as a heftier snack. I still eye with envy the Carlingford oysters being shucked across the counter, but £25 for half a dozen feels too much. 

If you reject the good value Monday-Friday £35 three course offer at lunch the bill can mount up (there’s a £12 truffle supplement on that £24 parfait), especially if you get stuck into the drinks list. I stay with the £8 pint of stout and add a £9 glass of Mencia for my final dish, a beef carpaccio. Fallow’s steaks and burgers are all trumpeted as 45-day aged ex-dairy cow, so I presume my generous helping of anchovy mayo-dressed carpaccio, topped with grated horseradish and gherkin, is no different. From my up-close stool I have watched the sous chef deftly assemble little ‘spoons’ of chicory leaf I am to scoop up my beef with. I was glad of them. The wild-farmed sourdough with fermented potato flour is the one disappointment of an exemplary lunch.

So where to next? A matinee of The Phantom? No. Lucian Freud: New Perspectives at the equally close National Gallery. All for the price of a half dozen Carlingfords.

Fallow, 2 St James’s Market, London, SW1Y 4RP. T Main image (with truffles) from Fallow Facebook page.

Giles Coren famously wrote that he’d walk to Manchester barefoot in the rain for one more mouthful of Simon Rogan’s chopped raw rib-eye in coal oil at The French. That was amazingly a decade ago and, to put it kindly, his return visits to the city have been sporadic since. The Times critic’s most recent foray saw him perversely spurning any number of impressive new wave restaurants to seek out a niche old stager, the Ethiopian cafe called Habesha on the fringe of the Gay Village. The reason? His passion for a bread that had passed me by.

No longer. I’ve been on my own Injera quest, sparked by the arrival of House of Habesha as a pop-up at the same city’s Contact Bar & Kitchen. It offers a suitably dramatic cuisine for a theatre setting. Lovely approachable food. Habesha, by the way, is a term that Ethiopians and Eritreans use to refer to themselves, specifically related to predominantly Orthodox Christian peoples found in the Highlands. From it sprang the old European name for the country – Abyssinia. 

The two Manchester culinary rivals sharing the name are not related. But their bread providers engage in the daily, labour-intensive creation of Injera – the foundation of most meals in Ethiopia and neighbouring Eritrea. Think of it as a springy sourdough flatbread, defined by its legion of tiny surface bubbles. It offers a perfect spongy texture for absorbing flavours as you scoop up a meat or veg accompaniment with your hands, as tradition demands. 

The key grain is the ubiquitous drought-resistant teff. Protein and mineral rich, while fundamentally gluten-free, it was one of the earliest grasses domesticated. The injeras it produces come in light and (richer) dark versions. House of Habesha’s ‘Full House’ platter drapes the bread as a base, the assorted constituent dishes interspersed with further, rolled breads. 

Samson will delight you with his mighty mesobs

On our visit HoH founder Samson Yitbareck presents this sharing plate with a cloche-like flourish from under a colourful, cone-shaped palm straw ‘mesob’, which means bread basket. The injera has fermented for a week, some rice flour/self-raising to hurry it along. Manchester temperatures aren’t the same as Eritrea’s.

Samson grew up in Manchester and does not feel entirely governed by tradition. The Contact pop-up makes compromises, offering a series of loaded fries and tortilla wraps under the label ‘Habesha Twist’, but always using herbs and spices redolent of the homeland. The country’ s proprietary spice blend, berbere, consists of red chillies, fenugreek, and ginger, with the addition of warm spices such as coriander, cardamom, allspice, cumin, peppercorns, cloves, cinnamon, and some lesser-known indigenous spices such as korarima, ajwain, and long pepper. House of Habesha’s slow-cooked sliced lamb dish called kulwa keyh made a fine showcase or the berbere. Milder is the spice treatment for hekla, grilled lamb chops on the bone. Vegan dishes get equal billing here and the majority of dishes are gluten-free, too.

Certainly the offering was the equal of (and cheaper than) a long-established Ethiopian restaurant I visited recently in Tufnell Park, London. I must admit it was the name that drove me to Lalibela, an artefact cluttered homage to the old country. More specifically to the mountainous region of that name that is famous for its cluster of medieval churches hewn out of rock faces. It’s also home to an oat flour based cousin of injera called Aja Kita that is literally whistled up by the natives, according to Yohanis Gebreyesus’ definitive Ethiopia: Recipes and traditions from the Horn of Africa (Octopus, £30).

The whistlers of ancient Lalibela and their bubbling  batter

Globetrotting chef Gebreyesus recounts: “When we bake injera, there are shattered bubbles (ayen in the Amharic language) on top of the bread, which give it a very spongy texture, and the more the better. That’s how we value it, aesthetically and in terms of taste as well. To make aja kita (thin oat flatbreads) with similar features, cooks in the countryside of Lalibela huddle around the hot griddle, pucker their lips and whistle, directing their shrill breath towards the bubbling batter.”

There is a quasi-scientific explanation. Oats contain a protein called avenin, which (like gluten) creates elasticity in dough; stretching and entrapping gas bubbles as they form. The vibration emitted by whistling is thought to help to burst these bubbles and create plentiful ‘eyes’ on the surface of the bread.

Visiting Lalibela, the restaurant, did allow me to order a kitfo, a kind of steak tartare, dressed with more of that berbere and fresh cream cheese… plus a side of gomen greens. Wot (stews) and tibs (hybrid stir-fries and stews) of meat and chicken are the mainstay of the menu with chickpeas and fava beans as veggie alternatives.

This London place has a strong family feel to it and the same applies to House of Habesha, which was nominated for ‘Best Food Trader’ in the 2002 Manchester Food and Drinks Festival. A young Samson fled war-time Eritrea with his father in 2013 and grew up in Manchester, studying at both universities and becoming a web developer. Food was always a passion. Hence House of Habesha, which has had successful pop-ups at the Northern Quarter’s Mala and The Eagle Inn, Salford. This October for two weeks and again before Christmas it will be returning to Stretford Food Hall alongside the Contact gig, which currently runs until January.

Good to know then that there is family support on hand. The Red Cross located Samson’s mother and sister in Stoke on Trent and his brother in Germany to reunite a family scattered by conflict. A happy ending for this particular House of Habesha. 

House of Habesha, at the GRUB-run Contact Bar & Kitchen. Open 10am-late, Monday to Saturday. Contact Theatre, Oxford Road, Manchester M15 6JA.  

Lalibela, 137 Fortess Rd, London NW5 2HR.

It was the start of a voyage of discovery that took in cultivating my own King Blue mushrooms and encountering bizarrely beautiful beetles in a former iron foundry, the complexities of the World Wood Web and the future of insects as our planet’s food. Stockport was where the trail began…

No meal at Where The Light Gets In is complete without at least one mushroom dish. The newly crowned Manchester Food and Drink Awards Restaurant of the Year has been a key player in revitalising the town and trumpeting the use of local produce. So at a dinner there we tackled chef-patron Sam Buckley about the provenance of the fungi on the plate he’d just served us. 

His reply: “They grew in floorboard cracks beneath us.” WTLGI resides in an old mill, so plenty of growing matter there. Yet that wasn’t the answer we’d expected. We knew Sam’s team had kick-started the fungal phenomenon that is the Polyspore project by some creative outsourcing of pleurotus ostreatus (oyster mushroom to you).

After which word spread and demand for Polyspore’s products just, well, mushroomed. If Cinderwood Market Garden near Nantwich is key fruit and veg supplier to Manchester’s most savvy new eating places, these Altrincham-based specialists boast their own kitchen champions.

Check out the above treatment of seven different Polyspore fungi by Another Hand, MFDF Newcomer of the Year. They are lightly sautéed with buttered radicchio, then topped with an emulsion of 18 month fermented, unripened pine cone syrup and sherry vinegar plus hazelnuts and horseradish. Glorious food, made from the freshest of raw materials. They have to be. Polyspore is rated as a ‘prime food producer’, not a business, so aren’t allowed to dry or refrigerate the mushrooms. Hence it’s straight from harvesting to table inside 25 minutes.

It’s all an unlikely but heartwarming success story that began messily in a Fallowfield communal bathroom. Not much more than a year on from starting growing from scratch founders Mike Fothergill and Dylan Pybus were shortlisted for Indie Food Producer of the Year at those same MFDF Awards.

Time to catch up with them at their Radium House Unit 2 base, just a 10 minute walk from the Navigation Road Metrolink station. Except that Dylan was off poorly. His absence was compensated for by the presence of Dale Gee, beetle expert extraordinaire and co-pilot with the pair on an exciting new adventure. About which more anon.

How did it all start, Mike? “I’d been working at Port Street Beer House and Dylan was a chef. Both of us were made redundant during the COVID crisis and were desperate for a new direction. We were living in a damp, mouldy house in Fallowfield. Friends joked it was only for for growing mushrooms in. So eventually we did. Using the bath!”

But how did you get the knowledge? “Mostly via YouTube and some rednecks on the internet who will try to teach you anything. There’s always a close-knit community of mushroom growers always ready to assist. We learnt all about mycelium, this network of fungal threads or hyphae. They grow underground or in rotting tree trunks. The fruiting bodies of fungi, such as mushrooms, can sprout from a mycelium.”

Any teething troubles, Mike? “You bet. We soon discovered that if you’re not doing it in a lab with filtered air, it’s very difficult. You end up growing a lot of green mould and not many mushroom. A bath certainly wasn’t ideal. Sterilising everything became vital. I’d failed to complete a chemistry degree but that scientific background was important.”

The duo went up a level, tripling capacity, when they moved into their current home at Radium House, once an iron foundry, now divided into workshop units. Here is their 2m x 3m growing tent, fitted with an extractor fan and subdued lighting, which provide the perfect temperature, humidity and conditions in which to grow. 

They purchase liquid cultures of different mushroom species and, using a syringe, inoculate the cloned mycelium into a substrate mix of sustainable birch sawdust and soya bean hulls, rich in nitrogen to create the biomass perfect for fungi growth. This is wrapped in biodegradable bags. Allow a few days to germinate, cut open a flap and allow the mushrooms to fruit out into the fresh air within days.

Mike kindly gave me a bag of coveted King Blues to take home. After a worryingly fallow period in the cellar they finally exploded into a glut this week (above). Polyspore’s signature earner is the oyster mushroom and its kin, but they are always experimenting. Look at the kaleidoscopic array of rivals – watercolour oysters, black king pearls and lion’s mane,

Mike pointed out an elm oyster they are trialling. Some of their mushrooms have been supplied to Balance Brewing and Blending who are currently brewing a mushroom beer. (What a pity the name ‘Breakfast of Champignons’ has already been used for an ale.) 

And it’s not just about culinary. The duo have been looking at reishi, a cortisone-reducing fungus that is important in Chinese medicine. You sense this is a labour of love, not just a commercial exercise. Still the duo plan to expand to three grow tents, so they can rotate them. All this is down to a recent £30,000 windfall that has pushed them towards a groundbreaking new project. They have secured this grant from Innovate UK, a government organisation that funds bio-technology. Step forward Dale Gee and his stable of stag beetles. Until this point in my life I didn’t realise how lucrative the beetles-as-pets markets could be. Not that that’s the driving force behind Dale’s move into an adjacent unit at Radium House.

The draw is that exploratory joint venture, full title Mushroom and Beetle Symbiosis for a Circular Economy. Essentially seeking to use beetles to break down substrate fibres into edible gourmet protein and fertiliser. It will take six months to set up this attempt to transform the current situation where industrial level mushroom producers find it difficult to biodegrade their core growing material. “Also with the food implications it could prove globally important,” Mike said. 

I told him I was ready to feast on grubs and crunchy crickets and had been thwarted by post-Brexit bureaucracy during a spring visit to Pembrokeshire’s ground-breaking Dr Benyon’s Bug Farm restaurant. Hard, though, on site at Radium House to consider as snacks the beautiful Obsidian Stag or Japanese Rhino beetles scuttling gingerly onto Dale’s fingers.

At home 10 days later, less challengingly, I slice my freshly harvested King Blues and sauté them with garlic and parsley before strewing them on a saffron, parmesan and and bone marrow rich risotto alla Milanese.

So what else can mycelium do for our planet?

I read in on learned report that “A fungal bio-mass equivalent to about 15 sheep lives under each football pitch sized piece of English permanent organic pasture. Thus, despite being microscopic, the biomass of mycelia in these grasslands matches and possibly outweighs that of animals.

“Some mycelia can be massive in both age and size. Perhaps the largest organism on earth is a 2,200-year-old Armillaria root-rot fungus that grows in 2,400 acres of forest soil in eastern Oregon—a veritable behemoth that periodically kills the forest, producing deep rich soil in which taller trees can grow before their turn comes to be felled by their fungal recycler. The biomass of these fungal networks is immense: several tonnes of mycelium can exist in one hectare of Swedish forests. Other fungi are tiny, such as the unicellular yeast, Saccharomyces cerevisiae, without whose help there would be no baking or brewing.”

It all feels very complex, like the allied concept of the World Wood Web, an underground ‘social’ network found in forests and other plant communities, created by the hyphae of mycorrhizal fungi joining with plant roots. This network connects individual plants together and transfers water, carbon, nitrogen, and other nutrients and minerals between participants.

A good introduction to this remarkable parallel universe underneath our feet is Merlin Sheldrake’s Entangled Life: How Fungi make our worlds, change our minds and shape our futures (The Bodley Head, £20). But the acknowledged fungi guru is Ohio’s Paul Stamets (above right). No shrinking violet, he sometimes sports a crown made by Transylvanian artisans from a spongey mushroom derivative called Amadou. 

In his 2005 gospel, Mycelium Running), he trumpets the capacity of mushrooms to clean up soil and rid land from various forms of pollution. The name for this is mycoremediation. Oil spills, even radioactive contamination – mycelium can tackle them, removing toxins and releasing the movement of nutrients and water through the soil.

On a local ecological level the Polyspore team have proposed their own Manchester clear-up projects, notably Highfield Country Park, a 70-acre area of open land bordering Levenshulme. Parts of it are seriously degraded after half a century of clay extraction, landfill, and as a site for dye and bleaching operations and a tripe factory. Could the insertion of mycelian mats help reclaim its health? 

Beware sweeping put-downs. “All border towns bring out the worst in people.” The words of Mexican detective Vargas, hero of Orson Welles’ classic film noir, A Touch of Evil, which is set (though not filmed there) in a widescreen approximation of Tijuana.

Shadowy, seedy, violent, borderline – movie stereotypes stick. Chuck in the country’s more recent reputation for drug cartels and organised crime along with Trump’s fixation on That Wall, 30ft prototypes of which are still in place near Tijuana, despite enterprising locals nicking the razor wire, and there’s a bad press to overcome.

Our intrepid band overcame it instantly on a glorious day trip to this capital of Baja (Lower) California state, which has so much in common with its richer Northern namesake. Not least the food. Which brings us to Caesar Salad.

Back in the 1920s Tijuana was called Satan’s Playground by American preachers aghast at their fellow countrymen fleeing Prohibition to have a Las Vegas style wild time just across the border. 

Caesar Cardini ran restaurants here and in San Diego, USA, 20 miles up the the road. On the Fourth of July 2024 a rush of customers depleted kitchen supplies in Tijuana, so Italian-born Caesar tossed together at table all the salad ingredients left. It was a hit, word spread and even Hollywood stars flew down regularly to order a ‘Caesar Salad’. I the crush the obligatory tableside service eased pressure on the kitchen.

Whether today’s recipe was there from the start I’m not sure, but a major pleasure of our visit to the historic Hotel Caesar’s on Avenida Revolucion was to watch our waiter stirring together lemon juice, garlic, olive oil, egg, Worcester Sauce, anchovies, Dijon mustard, Parmegiano and black pepper to enhance a simple green salad with croutons. 

Oh and they didn’t enhance it with strip of chicken. And some purists still question the necessity for anchovies with Worcester Sauce already in the emulsion. Some favour cup-style large leaves, messy finger food style; I’m happy with chopped. Whatever, it is pure theatre.

The great Julia Child recalled a childhood encounter: “My parents were so excited, eating this famous salad that was suddenly very chic. Caesar himself was a great big old fellow who stood right in front of us to make it. I remember the turning of the salad in the bowl was very dramatic. And egg in a salad was unheard of at that point.” 

These days it all seems very ‘heritage’ against the backdrop of Mexico’s fifth largest city with many poor districts that are less than charming. Compensations are some seriously authentic local dishes such as aguachile shrimp, spicy goat birria and breakfast snack chilaquiles.

All of which seem quite inappropriate as I prepare a swift autumnal lunch in a deluged Pennine mill town. So, store cupboard open, a batch of romaine from Aldi at the ready, Caesar Salad it is…

My chosen Caesar recipe is a hybrid from two versions in my quarter-of-a-century old Dean & DeLuca Cookbook (Ebury Press). The deli chain itself expanded way beyond its original New York base and came a financial cropper in recent years, but I still love the eclectic recipe roster in my faithful smudged kitchen companion.

Author David Rosengarten provides the classic version, minus anchovy fillets but he does parboil rather than leave the egg raw. Alongside he includes an alternative recipe with crispy walnuts replacing croutons and crumbled Roquefort instead of Parmegiano  shavings. I crave both cheeses, so straddled the middle ground. I also philistinely added a burrata and basil on the side. Sorry Caesar. At least I didn’t resort to a bottled dressing.

Ingredients 2 big heads of romaine or cos lettuce, 50ml olive oil, 350g garlic-rubbed croutons (I cheated with focaccia cubes), salt and pepper, curls of Parmegiano cheese. For the dressing: 4 anchovy fillets, no egg, 2tsp sherry vinegar, 2tsp lemon juice, 1tsp Worcestershire sauce, ½tsp dry mustard, 125ml extra-virgin olive oil and 125g Roquefort cheese.

Method Make the dressing by mashing the anchovies and garlic into a paste. Whisk together this paste with vinegar, lemon juice, Worcestershire sauce, mustard ad crumbled Roquefort in a small bowl. Add olive oil in a stream, further whisking the mix until is is emulsified. In a large bowl toss the lettuce chunks with the dressing. Fold in the croutons and liberally garnish with the Parmegiano curls.

Ensō is an old Zen word meaning “a circle that is hand-drawn in one or two uninhibited brushstrokes to express a moment when the mind is free to let the body create”. 

That’s how I almost felt tasting beer with that name at the recent Indy Man Beer Con in Manchester. Brewed using wasp yeast and in-season apricots, it tasted naturally honeyed, giving a whole new slant on ‘amber nectar’. I was exquisitely pure. You always get surprises from the Wild Beer Co, but this surpassed expectations. So what was the backstory behind the buzz?

The Shepton Mallett based brewers are celebrating their 10th anniversary, so sought a statement beer to grace their presentation box. Like the Royal Funeral preparations it has been a drawn out process. Eureka moment came when they managed to harvest a wild yeast from an abandoned wasp’s nest and a handful of dead wasps discovered on the farm next to the brewery. 

Five months’ harvesting later and it was ready to kickstart Ensō. The fresh apricots and British hops seemed a perfect fit for this one-off 6% ABV wild ale, currently available only as part of the Wild Beer Co 10th Anniversary Box (pre-order via the web shop at £74.99). But there are plans for it to be released as a separate product before Christmas.

Wild Brew Co consulted with entomologists (as you do) along the way. “This kind of project is what we are all about, so it had to be investigated. Wasps are proven to play a significant part in the preserving of wild yeast throughout the colder months, and then helping to reintroduce it back into the wild when spring arrives.” 

For the full narrative read their blog. Then consider the wider entomological picture. 

Research shows the importance of wasps to the brewing process. They preserve the yeast picked up from summer fruits over the cold winter months and continue to preserve it for reintroduction in the spring. A couple of academics from University of Florence found that the guts of wasps provide a safe winter refuge for yeast – specifically saccharomyces cerevisiae, the fungus we use to make wine, beer and bread.

For years scientists had assumed that yeast’s ability to show up on virtually every grape in a vineyard was most likely due either to birds or bees with wind scattering a factor. The trail then narrowed to wasps, which hibernate, then construct nests in the spring. 

To find out if wasps were indeed the saviour of yeasts, the team collected samples from 17 Italian vineyard regions. Result: he majority of them harboured yeast in their guts across all four seasons and the yeast turned up in the guts of the young shortly after they were first fed ensuring that the yeast could carry on indefinitely.

Thanks, wasps. And by the way the wasp-free remainder of the Wild Beer Co line-up was among the best on show at Indy Man and the most comprehensive I’ve encountered since dropping in on their Bristol waterfront taproom. Top of my bucket list, though, is a visit to their HQ a few miles from Glastonbury.

Matthew Curtis in his excellent Modern British Beer (CAMRA Books, £15.99) describes “a certain peacefulness to the location – touch of magic in the air, perhaps. Inside the barrel store the air is taut with the musty scent of beer maturing in oak. It’s a climate ripe for the practice of the mystical art of spontaneous fermentation and he creation of evocative beers that live up to the ‘Wild’ element of the brewery’s name.

You can almost feel the benign presence of the wasps in the barn.

Main wasp image by barockschloss.