The anticipation of imminent haggis. An ear out for the DPD delivery. Just a day to go to Burns Night and its obligatory supper. And, no, it’s not the usual sheep’s stomach stuffed with the ‘pluck’ of the beast (lungs, heart and liver), onions, oats, fat and seasoning. This is Ferguson Henderson’s premium version and I can’t wait to discover how he might have refined it. 

As a wee lad the champion of nose-to-tail eating was was taken on holidays by his London-based parents to the Inner Hebridean island of Tralee, where he was introduced early to the Scottish national dish. In the appropriate season, around January 25 in celebration of ploughman poet Robert Burns’ birthday, that foodie memory has been honoured at St John’s Smithfield, the restaurant Fergus has run since 1994. 

A recipe for it features in his epochal culinary gospel, Nose To Tail Eating: A Kind of British Cooking (1999), which elevated to kitchen stardom the likes of trotters, kidneys, tripe and chitterlings.

His then take on preparing haggis is characteristically uncompromising and wry: “Do not be put off by the initial look of your ingredients. Place the pluck in a large pot and cover with generously salted water. Bring to the boil and then reduce to a simmer and then cook for two hours, regularly skimming. The pluck should have the windpipe attached and you should hang this over the edge of your pan, with a pot underneath to catch anything which the lungs may expel while cooking.” 

Afterwards allow to cool and then it’s all about the mincing and the quality of the final blend  – in  this current version suffused with buttery onions and, suet, studded with pinhead oats,  suffused with allspice and pepper, spiked with whisky. The preparation is now in the hands of head chef Farokh Talati, whose own debut cookbook/memoir, Parsi, I have recently celebrated on this site.

By the end of this real time piece I‘ll report back – after I‘ve braised it gently in chicken stock and whisky, as recommended by my direct suppliers, Swaledale Butchers of Skipton.

I’ve been warned the St John is a more delicate specimen than most, the filling looser in its casing, hand-tied with butcher’s twine. Hence a higher risk of it bursting. The more cautious cook might prick it lightly before encasing in foil, but I‘m determined to keep it moist and squeeze an appropriate sauce out of the cooking liquid. Freshly unearthed neeps and tatties (swedes and potatoes) wait to be mashed to accompany this kilo’s worth of offal heritage. Maybe I‘ll add a bitter kick of cavolo nero, too. And Fergus fave – Dijon mustard. With a wee dram of Jura Malt on the side but no skirl of the pipes. It’s just not in my gene pool.

Getting stuffed – the weird and wonderful world of Haggis

Not everyone possesses the Braveheart spirit to embrace a traditional haggis. And is there real encouragement in Burns’ awesome guttural 1786 serenade to the dish, Address to a Haggis, which cemented his association? It starts: ‘Fair fa’ your honest, sonsie face, Great chieftain o the puddin’-race!/Aboon them a’ ye tak your place/Painch, tripe, or thairm/Weel are ye worthy o’ a grace/As lang’s my arm.’

But my favourite stanza, after much rumbledethumping about ‘while thro your pores the dews distil like amber bead’ and ‘trenching your gushing entrails bright’ is this rejection of the Auld Alliance with France as far as cooking goes…

‘Is there that owre his French ragout/Or olio that wad staw a sow/Or fricassee wad mak her spew/ Wi perfect scunner/Looks down wi sneering, scornfu view/On sic a dinner?’

Maybe making a case, yet this is also a nation that created a fishy haggis variant that I’ll happily give a miss. Step forward Hakka muggies from Shetland (not to be confused with the Celtic punk band of that name from Prague). This was made with gutted cod or ling. The muggie [stomach] was turned outside in, cleaned and put in salt water with the liver tied up raw in the stomach. The muggies, stuffed with the minced liver and swimbladder, were served boiled with potatoes. Alternatively, along similar lines, you could opt for Crappen, where oatmeal and liver were mixed and put in the fish head, sewn up in a white cloth, then boiled in a kettle. 

Leap from all this to the less murky waters of the Vegetarian Haggis, a huge success for Edinburgh’s MacSween since they developed a lentil and nut-driven version for the opening of the Scottish Poetry Library in 1984 (purists might dour at their moroccan spiced ‘upgrade’). A decade earlier at Glasgow’s quirkiest restaurant, Ubiquitous Chip, founder Ronnie Clydesdale didn’t just insist on his own Highland venison haggis but also a veggie variant, both still on the menu to this day.

So haggis is really an English dish?

But we are are veering away from the real deal. Which some heretics insist really has its roots in England! One obscure record from 1390 has a cook at Richard II’s court sewing  eggs, breadcrumbs and finely diced sheep’s fat seasoned with saffron) into a sheep’s tripe, to be steamed or boiled.

Eminent food scholar Ivan Day has unearthed 11 medieval recipes, all of them in manuscripts from England. Half refer to haggis and some have other names such as an “entrayle”. The “hag” part of the name comes from the Old Norse “to cleave”, describing the chopped-up offal. The dish was originally made to preserve the perishable innards of a slaughtered animal, not dissimilar to black pudding.

Day told one interviewer: “One of the reasons we moved away from haggis in England is that we cooked puddings in cloths rather than animal skins and stomachs – in a sense, we eventually found them disgusting. We changed and the Scots didn’t. The haggis got marooned and then became a symbol of Scottishness.”

There were certainly references to a haggis-style dish inside a 1615 book called The English Hus-Wife, 200 years before any evidence of the dish in Scotland. That’s according to Scottish food writing doyenne Catherine Brown (whose The Taste of Britain, co-written with the late Laura Mason, is one of my go-to reference bibles).

In a documentary she confirmed: “It was popular in England until the middle of the 18th Century. Obviously the English turned up their noses at it and ate their roast beef, and the Scots for 350 years have been making it their own.”

Or maybe the Ancient Greeks got in on the act first…

Probably such preserving perishable innards date back to pre-historic times when ‘nose to tail eating’ was a matter of life or death. The Ancient Greeks, of course, had the advantage of writing details down. There’s an oblique reference in Homer’s Odyssey about “a man before a great blazing fire turning swiftly this way and that a stomach full of fat and blood, very eager to have it roasted quickly”. And in Aristophane’s play The Clouds, there is a passage about preparing a feast in a sheep’s bladder, while  Socrates’ friend, Strepsiades, gives an account of being served a “stuffed paunch,” which was not given a ‘vent’ before cooking and burst, covering him with “its rich contents of such varied sorts.” 

As I write this I‘m aware that might be my own fate if I miscalculate the cooking progress of Fergus’s tender casing. And yes, while locked in my research, I‘ve allowed a puncture to grow in my braising haggis. It’s swiftly rescued, just a few guts spilled, and finished in foil while the drained whisky sauce is reduced. And how does the St John beastie taste, its rich juices soaking into the neeps and tatties, the Dijon tarragon mustard cutting through it all? Quite magnificent. The best haggis I’ve ever had.

The last word with ‘Rabbie Burns’: Ye Pow’rs wha mak mankind your care/And dish them out their bill o’ fare/Auld Scotland wants nae skinking ware/That jaups in luggies/But, if ye wish her gratefu’ prayer/Gie her a Haggis!

For the whisky many thanks to Erik Knudsen. For further Fergus Henderson worship check out my piece on lamb hearts.

It all sounds a mite deja vu Noma announcing 20 years on from its foundation it will soon be abandoning the formal restaurant concept that finally won it a third Michelin star in 2021. Adding to its cluster of World’s No.1 restaurant awards that focused the world’s eyes on the culinary wizard of Copenhagen, René Redzepi.

Didn’t that previous groundbreaker, El Bulli in Catalonia close its doors to customers a decade ago to mutate into a culinary research laboratory? The critical Sabatier knives were out then for the perceived pretension. Not everyone had bought into the refined spheres of ‘molecular gastronomy’ and the heavy-handed satire of recent movie The Menu is witness to continuing hostility to a fine dining world few of us can afford – or, when it comes to epic tasting menus, tolerate.

As with El Bulli the broadsheets were quick to react to the Noma ‘bombshell’ with ‘Is This There End for Fine Dining?’ headlines, Observer critic Jay Rayner wading in with ‘Twenty Six courses. £400 bills, artichoke creme brulee… I won’t miss super-luxe restaurants’.

He has got form for whacking bloated, exorbitant establishments, but Noma is a different beast despite its exclusivity. I remember a leaner Rayner lauding Redzepi in the same pages back in 2009 when he was viewed as a natural successor to super chefs Ferran Adria and Heston Blumenthal. Since when the Dane’s templates of foraging and fermentation have filtered down to absorb a whole generation of chefs.

It’s not even clear what form Noma 3.0 will take when it emerges at the end of 2024, the statement hinting “serving guests will still be a part” of a “Noma Projects’ experience that will not be a conventional restaurant. What is certain is that the team will decamp to Kyoto in Japan between March and May 2023. So Japanese influence looks certain. A previous sabbatical foray to the Yucatan in 2017, while the Copenhagen base relocated to include an urban farm, resulted in the swerve in direction that became Noma 2.0.

Simon Martin was along for that Mexican ride and the success of his Michelin-starred Mana in Manchester is proof the expensive tasting menu experience is not dead. I‘m a fan and last year I endorsed the multi-course extravaganza offered by Gareth Ward’s mighty Yynyshir. At both these places the waiting list stretches into the distance. Expect Noma now to be even harder to get into despite a dinner menu for its recent ‘game & forest season’ that cost £415 a head with an additional £214 for wine pairings or £154 for juice pairings. 

Or you could just buy the book, Noma 2.0: Vegetable, Forest, Ocean

Quite a stocking filler. 2.5kg is a lot of cookbook. Particularly for one without printed recipes. And ingredients you are unlikely to pick up at your local Waitrose. So what makes this magnum opus (Artisan, £60) my Food Book of 2022? Pipping very different, pleasurable tomes from Jeremy Lee and Debora Robertson, it is the polar opposite of their domestic charm. Lord Sauron to their Hobbit. Except, tenuously extending the Lord of The Rings conceit, it ultimately casts a near Elvish spell.

Beyond its extreme pictorial beauty there’s nothing approachable and immediately useful about this latest edict from the realm of Copenhagen’s Noma restaurant and its shape-shifting magus, Rene Redzepi. That may represent its true magic.

Regular readers of this blog will recall my (rewarding) travails tackling 2018’s Noma Guide to Fermentation. The new book is more a follow-up to Rene’s original mission statement, Noma: Time and Place in Nordic Cuisine (2010), tracing the literal journey that took Noma from derided obscurity to world’s best restaurant. Noma 2.0 records the leap forward, via a sabbatical that involved ‘cuckoo nesting ‘in Mexico, to a new custom-built site in the Danish capital with that radical fermentation lab to the fore, providing all the menu’s building blocks. Noma is relocating to Kyoto, Japan in spring 2023 and friends close to the operation tell me that might mark a radically different stage 3 in its restless evolution.

The story so far is captured by the remarkable photography of New York-based Ditte Isager, who is on back on board for the new book, more brilliant than ever. Her startling image of Blue Mussel and Quail Egg (above) represents an element in one of the three seasonal sections. Ocean reflects the menu for January to April. The others are Vegetable (May through August) and Forest (September through December) – teasing us with 200 dishes in all.

Let Rene and his co-authors explain: “This book is a cookbook, but it is not necessarily meant to be cooked from. At Noma we constantly return to nature as a primary source of creative inspiration, however, creativity is a unique process for each individual. This book is meant to help catalyse that unique creative spark for each reader. If you do wish to recreate any of the dishes, there is a QR code in the book which will bring you to every detailed recipe exactly as they are used in the kitchen at Noma.

“It is about composing a plate that delights the eye as much as the palate, whether through the trompe l’oeil of a “flowerpot” chocolate cake or a dazzling mandala of flowers and berries. It is about pushing the boundaries of what we think we want to eat—a baby pinecone, a pudding made of reindeer brain—to open our palates with startling confidence.”

Let me quote one daunting dish description. It’s my promise to myself next year, aided by what lies through the QR portal to recreate Noma’s Wild Boar and Nasturtium. That’s ‘Forest’,  I’ll have hang fire until Fall. The journey starts when “nasturtium leaves are compressed with parsley oil, then folded over dots of gooseberry-coriander paste and smoked egg yolk paste to form nasturtium ravioli. 

“Chestnuts are cooked in smoked butter until crisp and caramelised, glazed in roasted kelp salt, peaso reduction and smoked seaweed shoyu, and then diced. Fermented wild boar belly is fried to brown its surface and then sliced. Smoked egg yolk paste is piped onto the boar slices, which are then topped with the diced roasted chestnuts and folded to enclose the fillings.

“Three fermented wild boar belly wraps are brushed with chestnut smoked butter and briefly grilled over charcoal. The belly wraps and one nasturtium raviolo are skewered with a blackcurrant wood skewer. The belly wraps are brushed with cep tamari and seasoned with ancho chilli paste, quince vinegar, salt and black pepper. The skewer is served on a hay plate with a wedge of Japanese quince.” 

Or maybe I’ll divert to the more straightforward Sikha Roast, one of many deer recipes, including Reindeer Brain Jelly or Reindeer Marrow Fudge or, gulp, Reindeer Penis Salad. Off-puttingly exotic? Definitely, but what shines through is the determination to make the most of whatever is local and seasonal and sensual. Here not just empty nods to fashion. And if it’s not our ‘local’ who cares? That’s no excuse not to buy an exquisitely beautiful volume for the foodie in your life.

These beauties are giving you the hard stare. Stocky they may be, but Dexters punch above their weight in the beef stakes. Cross-bred with Longhorns, not just grass fed but rich pasture-nourished 24 hours a day, they produce meat that is unparalleled.

Expect to find this product from ‘Jane’s Farm’ at Poole Hall, Cheshire – alongside their ultimate free range pork – sizzling off the Josper at the reincarnation of Higher Ground. Repurposed as an ‘agriculturally focused bistro and bar’, it will open to the public in Manchester on Saturday, February 18. Here’s a link to their sample menu. There’s a palpable sense of elation that, three years on, the globe-trotting restaurant team that wowed at a pop-up in the fledgling Kampus development can now really fly. 

The pandemic restrictions clipped their wings. Two years of planning for one potential site ended in deep frustration. But Joseph Otway, Richard Cossins and Daniel Craig Martin battled back. Most visibly at Flawd, their natural wine bar up at Islington Marina in Ancoats. Otway got shortlisted for Chef of the Year at the 2023 Manchester Food and Drink Awards and was highly praised by Sunday Times reviewer Marina O’Loughlin. All this despite the venue’s very limited cooking facilities.

The real tools behind his artfully assembled small plates were the salad, fruit and veg sourced from Cinderwood, their own organic market gardenin deepest Cheshire. It was how the Higher Ground gang occupied the lockdown hiatus, turning over the one acre leased to them by Poole Hall’s owners, Jane and Chris Oglesby. Polytunnels and a shed  were built, horticultural nous acquired in the shape of head gardener Michael Fitzsimmons and a supply chain created to a network of enlightened restaurants. The future seeds were sown, but that has proved to be only the beginning as a deal has now been struck to take on Jane’s remarkable meat.

Higher Ground and Climat collab

The latest restaurant in Manchester to source from Cinderwood will be Climat, which hit the ground running just before Christmas. It’s actually quite a long way off the ground – on the eighth floor of Blackfriars House – and was praised to the skies last weekend by Observer critic Jay Rayner. Climat are actually going one step further by tapping into the ‘Jane’s Farm’ link-up that promises to make the resurgent Higher Ground such an exciting destination for 2023. The two restaurants have reserved a four-year-old heifer to share, avoiding wastage, and that beef will be on stream into the spring. But first the triangular farm to fork pathway will be forged by the pork on Joseph Otway’s launch menus.

Jane Oglesby has kept back six pigs from the autumn, which have been gorging on acorns in the Poole Hall woodland, so they each weigh a whopping 150 to 170kg. Noah’s Ark style, every fortnight a pair of pigs will be ferried to an independent, small scale abattoir on the Wirral, accompanied by farm manager Ste Simock. The carcasses then go to Littlewoods in Heaton Chapel, arguably the finest butcher’s in the region, to be jointed for the Higher Ground chef team. 

The end product may include (off the sample menu) pig head terrine, pickled garlic capers (£10), Jane’s acorn reared pig belly with grain and mushroom porridge (£24) and dry-aged pork leg steak, cauliflower, fermented mustard leaf (£20).

The beef, in its turn, will hang for at least four weeks at Littlewoods. Future plans include mutton from sheep sourced from Jane’s cousin in the Dales. A further third of an acre is being leased at Cinderwood, where sheep will graze, turning over the soil naturally, avoiding the plough, just a final ruffling with a rotivator before brassicas are planted on the site. The aim? Both brassicas and meat will be ready at the same time for a seasonal companionship on the plate. This is so true to the agricultural philosophy Jane espouses…

Jane Oglesby and the joy of regenerative farming 

After negotiating a maze of rutted country lanes in the Nantwich hinterland it’s after dark when we pull up at Poole Hall. So I have to take it on trust that out there across 200 acres those Dexter crosses and a scattering of their Belted Galloway rivals are revelling in being given the licence to roam and chomp the vigorous wild plant life, while in the woodland thickets Large Black x Tamworth porkers root for acorns. Just like their Spanish cousins. But they are still a work in progress, unlike the 120-strong cattle herd, which Jane Oglesby has been building up for over a decade.

I’ve come down from Manchester with Joseph and Richard to collect a couple of pork joints for the test kitchen ahead of a New Year’s Eve feast at Flawd (three sittings, check availability with them), where the centrepiece will be pork shoulder slowly seethed in milk. If it follows the Italian method for Maiale al Latte, lemon and sage will feature. As a dish it’s not a looker since when the pork is cooked the milk will have curdled into brown nuggets, but it will be delicious.

Inside Poole Hall, a sophisticated kitchen belying the country house’s Regency trappings, our host Jane offers us each a bowl of restorative beef broth. It reminds me of the ’dry-aged beef ends brothreputedly served when the great American ‘farm to fork’ champion Dan Barber transformed his upmarket Greenwich Village restaurant Blue Hill into a pop-up called wastED for two weeks. It later guested at Selfridge’s in London

You nailed it: creating thought-provoking dishes out of kitchen cast-offs. Even the candles were made out of beef tallow, which you dipped your bread into (Caroline Martins at her Sao Paolo Project in Ancoats was recently pulling off the same trick). Akin to the Italian brodo, that Barber brothmay not sound a radical statement but it marks a change of direction in a top-end restaurant culture that can be profligate with raw materials.

Using every part of an animal, capitalising on the virtues of vegetables, respecting the soil – Joseph Otway and Richard Cossins learned these lessons first hand while working together, as fish chef and front of house respectively, at Blue Hill at Stone Barns in upstate New York. Barber’s farm to table restaurant is symbiotically linked with an on-site Rockefeller-funded non-profit farm and educational centre engaged with the pursuit of ‘regenerative farming’. 

That too is Jane’s hands-on mantra across her own increasingly fecund Cheshire land. No ploughing, encouraging wild nutrients in fields formerly given over to dairy farming. Result a yummy riot of clover, yarrow, trefoil, chicory, sheep’s parsley and plantain. She insists: “My belief is that when they have a multi-varied diet the meat is more tasty, all down to the variety of herbs consumed.”

It was through a mutual friend that Jane linked up with the Higher Ground team. As Richard Cossins recalled on my initial visit to Cinderwood: “Chris Roberts (a chef specialising expert in cooking with fire) had told the Oglesbys they really ought to meet us, we’d really get on, so they just turned up out of the blue at our Kampus pop-up launch night. Jane produced this pasture-fed beef from her handbag and Joseph, after opening the windows, cooked these amazing steaks.

“Jane really knew her stuff, had read Dan Barber’s (seminal) book,The Third Plate, and it  had inspired her quest for regenerative beef. We bonded at once and they offered to lease us land to start Cinderwood on the estate.”

One thing led to another. Joseph and his team got to appreciate the quality of the meat, while hosting private dinners for Jane and her husband Chris, chief exec at developers Bruntwood. All this culminated this autumn when the couple rendezvoused across the Pond at Stone Barns with Joseph, Richard and their Flawd/Higher Ground partner and natural wine expert Daniel Craig Martin (this NOMA alumnus met Joseph when the pair were working in Copenhagen). 

For Jane Stone Barns more than lived up to its manifesto of an integrated system of vegetable, cereal and livestock production, dedicated to cultivating new varietals, and its former employees recognised the Barber sustainable quest had even ratcheted up a gear.

What none of them was quite prepared for was their meat course in the kitchen there. By the fireside at Poole Hall Joseph shared phone images of the half a cow’s head they were served. Not nearly as shocking as the infamous horse’s head in the bed in The Godfather. Still it’s more approachable when the choice meaty bits have been levered out for you.

‘Jane’s Farm’ send their animals in pairs for slaughter to Callum Edge’s abattoir on the Wirral. To reduce stress they may be accompanied by Ste Simock. Day to day the herd is calmed by leaving the bulls with them and employing a 15 year-old dairy cow to impart her own field wisdom.

The Belted Galloways, brought in to be ‘finished’ are from her cousins’ farm up in the Dales – Jane’s first contact with agriculture. “As kids we used to come up from London or Birmingham to stay at their farm,” she recalls. Much has happened in the world of cattle rearing since then. Not least the shrinking number of small scale abattoirs like Edge’s, the latest to quit the century-old Mettrick’s in Glossop. The remaining ones are hog-tied in red tape, the industry geared to force-fed, accelerated growth livestock. 

“Pasture-fed animals necessarily take longer to grow, but regulations dating back to the Mad Cow Disease epidemic place restrictions on animals over 30 months old,” Jane tells me. This former GP, has said in the past: “The health of my family was what got me into farming. The combination of being a GP and a mother started me thinking seriously about what I was eating. When my daughter was a baby, there was very little information about what was in food or how it had been raised. 

“I started to read about hormone use in cattle. We had a friend who had a beef farm and all his cattle had permanent growth-hormone release things in their neck. I didn’t want my children to be given growth hormones, plus there was the use of pesticides on the cattle feed. I was at the point where I thought I might become vegetarian. Then I thought, we’ve got land, I could have a cow and my family meat that I’ve reared myself. Initially it wasn’t that much of a commitment, apart from the small amounts of time that one cow and its calf take.”

But what about the health of the planet, Jane? I ask this in the wake of Animal Liberation activists occupying Michelin-starred Mana in protest at them serving meat. All that cattle-generated methane contributing to global warming. So what are you thoughts on the George Monbiot documentary Apocalypse Cow: How Meat Killed The Planet?

“Big choices have to be made on behalf of the planet. We have to regenerate the soil. Extensive rewilding is not the right direction, reintroducing wolves and vultures and all that. Monbiot is an ideologue, who sets out to challenge existing norms, but is too embedded in what he proposes. I don’t believe in the stats he uses to convince us how much cattle contribute to global warming compared with so much else. His is not the way.”

Monbiot has been equally dismissive of sheep’s contribution. So let’s finish with a ‘nature will heal itself’ narrative from Jane’s resident flock of Shropshires. “We had this maverick sheep, which went off on its own to just nip off the tops of plantains (the ‘mother of worts not the banana cousin). It set us thinking. Perhaps it was ailing. This was finding medicine  the plantain is one of the great healing plants.”

So what to expect from the 2023 version of Higher Ground?

Faulkner House on the corner of Faulkner Street and and New York Street is the new permanent home for Higher Ground. The 3,000 sq ft space will seat around 50 covers, with the design incorporating floor to ceiling glass on two sides of the building, as well as a large island that will be shared between both the front of house and back of house teams. 

There’s no shortage of experience there. Richard Cossins’ CV includes fronting Feta at Claridges and Roganic for Simon Rogan, but he is pragmatic about the new project they have settled on. “We don’t feel like now is the time to be opening a tasting menu only restaurant. Flawd’s success has shown that an approachable, neighbourhood concept works well. It actually makes us question our original thinking. Starting with Flawd has been the perfect entrance to a new food and beverage landscape.”

Menus will change on a daily basis depending on the season and ingredients will be sourced from the North-West with a focus on organic, small-scale agriculture and small herd, whole carcass cookery.. The wine list will encourage discovery and curiosity with a spotlight on small-scale, low intervention winemakers from around the European continent.

Expect an a la carte offering as well as a sharing menu option priced at £45 per person, made up of both individual courses and sharing dishes, encouraging family-style eating. Example non-meaty plates could include Cumberland Farmhouse Cheddar Quiche and BBQ Leek Skewers and Cow’s Curd and Celeriac with Spanish Blood Orange and Bay Leaf. Curing Rebels charcuterie from Joseph’s native Brighton will continue to feature. Guests will be offered the choice of sweet or savoury options to round off their meal with Garstang Blue and Lager Rarebit sitting alongside Yorkshire rhubarb, Custard and Caramelised Croissant on the dessert menu.

The grill will be central to the operation. While head chef at Stockport’s Where The Light Gets In Otway followed the ‘second plate’ principles of veg dominating with a reduced amount of meat effectively forming the sauce. With the Oglesby tie-in he has to accommodate butchering and not wasting any part of whole carcasses. “It’s a daunting challenge,” he tells me. “It’s about more than the prime cuts. We are going to have to be creative.

“Now that we will have a full-scale kitchen to work with, we’re eager to further our existing relationships with the many local producers and farms here in the North-West. We should hit the very beginning of spring when the restaurant opens. From a produce perspective it couldn’t be more exciting,” 

Flawd will continue under the stalwart stewardship of Megan Saorise Williams with Where The Light Gets In fermentation specialist Seri Nam taking over in the kitchen.

Higher Ground, Faulkner House, Faulkner Street, Manchester M1 4DY. Bookings now being taken. Walk-ins welcome.

Kitchen Opening Times: Wednesday 5:30pm-9:30pm; Thursday 5:30pm-9:30pm; Friday 12:30pm-2pm / 5:30pm-9:30pm; Saturday12:30pm-2pm / 5:30pm-9:30pm.

Bar Opening Times: Wednesday 5:30pm-11:30pm;  Thursday 5:30pm-11:30pm; Friday 12:30pm-2pm / 5:30pm-12am; Saturday12:30pm-2pm / 5:30pm-12am.

The last time I ran into Matthew Fort he was with fellow food critic Tom Parker Bowles at Booths Salford Quays flogging an upmarket brand of pork scratchings they were both associated with. They later jumped ship when the actual producers abandoned a core selling point – the use of English pigs. 

Not the high point of Fort’s championing of British food. That would have to be the publication 25 years ago of Rhubarb and Black Pudding (for evocative northern cookbook titles it vies with Crispy Squirrel and Vimto Trifle, in which I admit a vested interest). I hugely enjoyed his foodie romps around Italy on a Vespa, but his account of a year in the Lancashire kitchen of chef Paul Heathcote was equally evocative… and benchmark influential at the time. A real fly on the wall record of an exceptional restaurant’s workings and relationship with suppliers in the unlikeliest of regional settings.

In the preface Fort wrote of the Eureka moment of his first visit to the Longridge Restaurant – to review for The Guardian. “I was immediately transfixed by the style and quality of the food. I was served poached salmon with a courgette flower stuffed with courgette mousse, smoked chicken and broccoli soup, slow-roasted shoulder of lamb braised with an aubergine mousse, and chocolate parfait with honey and oatmeal ice cream (all for £12.75!). Although the influence of French cooking and finesse were uppermost, nevertheless there was English sensibility running through the flavours, the textures, the combination of ingredients.”

The influence of one of Paul’s mentors is obvious. On occasions he had crossed swords with Raymond Blanc while working for him at the Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons but also found inspiration for when he set up his own restaurant. Aged just 29 and with a £200,000 loan he opened in 1990 and within four years had won his own two Michelin stars.

I treasure my copy of Rhubarb & Black Pudding as much as the memories of meals Paul cooked for me over the years. But as 2023 stumbled into life it took an image re-Tweeted by my friend, the food historian Dr Neil Buttery, to tangentially remind me of its distant impact. Ah, rhubarb. There, glowing enticingly crimson in a custom-built ‘forcing’ shed in Pudsey, West Yorkshire, was the first of the new season crop, due to be harvested by candle light in a week’s time.

The social media charting of the coveted stalks’ development is a recent phenomenon, but Twitter poster Robert is the fourth generation Tomlinson to grow forced rhubarb by this traditional method. The plants first spend two years outdoors to harden against frost, then are brought in to a dark, heated habitat, to grow quickly, while straining for light. Once ready, the spears are picked by candlelight because too much light causes photosynthesis, which can halt the growth of the crowns. This process produces a sweeter fruit with a white core – a kind of Rhubarb ‘premier cru’.

It’s estimated only 12 such producers remain across the ‘Rhubarb Triangle’ between Wakefield, Morley and Rothwell. Originally the trade benefited from a surplus of cheap heating coal from the local pits.

Paul Heathcote’s rhubarb source has aways been from nearer his Lancashire base in Longridge – via long-time veg and fruit supplier Eddie Homes, who set up a supply chain of raw materials of the quality he required.

“Rhubarb and asparagus were just two items we persuaded local allotment holders to grow for us,” Paul tells me as I catch up with him at Preston North End, another connection that goes back a long way. His Heathcote & Co team have been responsible for match day dining and events since launching in 1997 (with a six year hiatus). His flagship restaurant, eponymous Brasseries and Olive Presses are now all in the past, the Longridge site forlornly on the market, but his corporate catering business maintains the iconic Heathcote brand. 

No looking back for Paul? “Until you told me I hadn’t given it a thought it was a quarter of a century since the book came out. It certainly took longer to do so than we envisaged! It was expected to come out in 1996 or 1997 after first being mooted in 1994. 

“I remember vividly Matthew turning up at what was our makeshift front door – we were having a new kitchen fitted on the other side. He’d got off the train at Preston and, satchel on his back, walked the 14 miles as the crow flies, a lot of it along an old railway track. It was a warm day and he looked knackered.”

Matthew Fort’s personal Lancashire journey had begun long before. The family home for generations was Read Hall, near Padiham, his father (who died when Fort was 12) the MP for Clitheroe. After Eton, the food critic to be studied at Lancaster University, further sowing the seeds of his knowledge of the county’s topography and cuisine. 

The acquaintance was resumed during his exhaustive research for Rhubarb and Black Pudding. Paul agrees with me: “Yes, there was a lot of Matthew in the book, but there have been few better evocations of how a restaurant works. Certainly not a place as off the beaten track as ours.”

A quarter of a century on what still shine vividly are the portraits of the suppliers who Paul cultivated primarily to have the freshest raw materials to hand. “It was not deliberate policy on my part to promote the area’s produce as such. It never occurred to me to put images of my suppliers on the walls. Good products come to you or in some cases you create them. There was so much enthusiasm but it could be a slog at times. In Fleetwood Chris Neve (still an active supplier of fine fish) got it straight away. Reg Johnson down the road recognised what I wanted but it took a bit longer to produce the quality of corn-fed poultry I required. It was frustrating at times, there were failures along the way if I’m honest.”

Still poultry farmers Johnson and Swarbrick never looked back as top-end restaurants across the land coveted their speciality chickens and ducks. And Mrs Kirkham’s Lancashire cheese from down the road gained much needed national recognition. 

Black pudding, too, got a serious profile upgrade thanks to Paul. And it was all down to his old friend and Ribble Valley gastro rival, Nigel Haworth, once of Northcote, now back at the Three Fishes, Mitton (where he once dispayed images of his suppliers).

“We were in a team of chefs, who travelled over to Champagne and had to cook for our French equivalents and Nigel challenged me to create something different. So I decided upon my own refined version of black pudding and it was a success – the dish I’m most proud of.

“I used to make black pudding from scratch, using fresh blood in those days, but after BSE came along we had to change to powdered. The texture of the original was different – much creamier.”

It all seems far off now. The last black pudding of PauI’s I tasted was in a main at The Northern, a restaurant Heathcote & Co launched briefly pre-Pandemic inside the town hall complex of his native Bolton. It tasted good but no fine dining aspirations with its mustard grain sauce, mushy peas and triple-cooked chips. Alas, no rhubarb on the menu. Maybe it was the wrong season. Maybe you can be too elegiac.

I seem to spend far more time in taprooms than actual pubs. Only the other day, in Manchester, I popped into Bundobust Brewery to sample their new Bombay Sandwich-led menu with a couple of in-house beer pairings, naturally, then sashayed the 300 metres down Oxford Road to check out the beer and bar formula at the new North taproom. This latest outlet of the Leeds brewery of that name opened a couple of weeks ago, but rail strikes and Biblical downpours deterred me from trekking in.

It was worth the wait, but does North’s count as a taproom proper? Perhaps we play a little fast and loose with the definition. Surely a taproom has to be an on-site bar in the brewery whose beers it pours? North now have a string of venues, but the taproom proper, in this pedant’s eyes, is at their Springwell production base alongside the brewing vessels.

After this nit-picking let’s salute the Age of the Taproom. No longer just a rickety bar and a fridge servicing some garden furniture among the mash tuns, in the teeth of a chilly blast whipping through an arch’s open doorway. 

Not that I’m knocking this prototype, habitually offering great beer at source. It’s just that some serious, and seriously brave, investment has also gone on of late. Trading up or key part of a fresh new package, they draw me in.

I’m not alone in being a devotee of those lavishly illustrated online compendiums (compendia?) of the world’s most beautiful independent bookshops or libraries. Lit porn, let’s call this fetish. From my own experience, nowhere beats the Livraria Lello & Irmão in Porto, with an honourable mention for Manchester’s own Portico Library. I’m biased there, though, as a card-carrying member.

Now I have a new crush. The other day social media granted me a peek at Wiper and True’s new Old Market taproom (above) in Bristol and I was smitten. No one’s going to recreate the look of  those palatial, ornate Victorian city pubs, even less centuries-old thatched and beamed country inns. But in the 2020s there’s a stream of spectacular (yet functional) taprooms created by the new wave craft breweries. 

The hypothesis is simple – when there’s a dwindling number of outlets for your wares in a competitive market invite your customers around to your place. Taste all the latest beers, meet the folk behind them, support the brand. Maybe grab a bite from the current street food operation in residency. Wood-fired pizza fuels that US bar-room feel.

Still with one UK brewery going under each week due to financial pressure (that’s according to my pal, Pete Brown, doyen of beer writers) a taproom can be a scary investment. I was shocked when ultra-cool Wild Beer Co went into administration recently, their planned, crowdfunded showcase mothballed for too long.

While I was compiling for Manchester Confidential (in tandem with staff writer Davey Brett) a piece on the city’s mooted ‘Piccadilly Beer Mile’ and its legacy (parts one, two and three) a mood of optimism against the odds was evident. Below I’ve widened my net to pick out some favourite taps across the land.

North Brewery, Leeds

Let me kick off my tap bucket list with the aforementioned Springwell, set in a former tannery along post-industrial Buslingthorpe Lane. North only unveiled their new site in November 2020, moving a mile up the road from the original brewery they had launched in 2015. Softy, softly. The brewing arrived a full 18 years after founders John Gyngell Christian Townsley had opened North Bar in town, arguably the UK’s first craft beer bar proper, but everything they have done has been worth the wait. Springwell has now doubled brewing capacity and created an airy taproom and beer garden, James Ooi’s formidable Little Bao Boy dishing up the ballast.

What to drink: ‘Transmission’, North’s signature tropical and piney IPA – East Coast meets West Coast.

Northern Monk, Leeds

Earlier than North they established a bar presence in Manchester but atmosphere-wise it’s not a patch on the original ‘Refectory’ above the brewery in The Old Flax Store of Marshall’s Mill, Holbeck. From Monk’s inception in 2014 the brewing operation and taproom worked in tandem, linked by founder Russell Bisset’s cute take on the traditional monkish bond with beer. I feel rival North has overtaken them in both profile and overall beer quality, but the bare brick taproom is still a sweet, off-the-beaten track spot to linger in. Yet it’s just a 10 minute walk from Leeds train station.

What to drink: Worship their decadent annual ‘Heaven’ – just the 12.5 per cent, featuring maple syrup, chocolate and vanilla, and aged in Heaven Hill bourbon barrels.

SALT Beer Factory, Saltaire

An old tram shed is home to this offshoot of Ossett Brewery but with its own distinctive, craftier range helmed by Colin Stronge. I know him from his time at Marble in Manchester before a peripatetic journey involving Black Isle, Buxton and, yes, Northern Monk, but it is his inspirational work at SALT that won him UK Brewer of the Year before Christmas. The £1.7 million micro-brewery opened up in October 2018. Its actual tap among the equipment only opens at weekends, but the Salt Bar + Kitchen at the front is open seven days a week, its wood-fired pizzas heartily recommended (my tip: the Moroccan lamb).

What to drink: ‘Tram Double New England IPA’. Not the obvious link, it’s a beer name-checked for a double twisted silk thread weaving term. Expect a lot of USA and New Zealand hops in the mix.

Verdant, near Falmouth 

Just the 400 miles from Saltaire, West Yorkshire to Penryn, Cornwall and the shiny new home of one of the UK’s great pioneers of US-style hop-driven beers. These hazy IPA  specialists were founded in Falmouth proper eight years go, but the swanky new state of the art brewery and taproom is four miles upstream in Penryn, the original port when Falmouth was just a marshy foreshore. It’s a 20 minute suburban trek to Verdant from Penryn Station. Well worth it; the interior is spectacular and, guess what?, there’s some toothsome wood-fired pizza.

What to drink: ‘Even Sharks Need Water’. Juicy hop and yeast driven  NE IPA that tastes of sherbet refresher sweets with lashings of peppery mango, lemon and grapefruit.  Smooth, full and fun to drink! That’s the brewery blurb, but they’re not wrong.

St Mars of the Desert, Sheffield

And back to God’s Country and the People’s Republic of South Yorkshire. Here in the former industrial heartland of Attercliffe, surrounded by ranks of contemporary factories/depots, you’ll find an unshiny taproom that’s so old school it has inkwells. Well, not quite, but you get my drift, as soon as you penetrate the picket fence, bearing the sign “Please don’t let Grimbold the dog out”. This brewery specialise in “hoppy koelship beers, foeder-soured stingos, rustic lagers, deep malty dark beers and Benelux-inspired creations”, according to their website. Koelship? Pronounced cool ship, it’s a long, slender, open top stainless steel vessel akin to those traditional Flemish/Dutch koelschips, originally made of wood, whose high surface-to-mass ratio allows for more efficient cooling of the wort in the brewing process. Full details in this report. Whatever, SMOD is a quirky, civilised boozing bolthole. The taproom will re-open in March 2023. 

What to drink: ‘Jack d’Or’ Belgian-style saison. Originally conceived at the Pretty Things brewery in Boston, original project of SMOD duo Dann Paquette and Martha Holley-Simpson.

Rivington, north of Bolton 

Let’s stay pretty rustic at a farm-based brewery that initially suffered profile-wise because it was just outside Greater Manchester. Ben Stubbs and his farmer brother-in-law Mick Richardson launched their brewery in 2014 next to the dairy operation and hilltop camping site with a spectacular view of Rivington reservoirs and Winter Hill that is now shared with the beer garden. The ‘taproom’ is a converted barn and find the marquee a more copacetic drinking hole, especially when the site is hosting the annual ‘Farm Trip’ festival. Dough ‘n’ Co are in residence serving burgers from Wednesday to Sunday and pizzas from 4pm Friday and all weekend.

What to drink: ‘tI has to be ‘Never Known Fog Like It’, a 5.2 per cent New England pale ale, whose success was instrumental in giving up his day job. Hazy and hopped with Citra, Mosaic, Simcoe and Chinook, it never fails to charm.

Wylam, Newcastle

Palace of the Arts is a posh address for a brewery. Factor in its tap serves Sunday roasts as well as burgers and is shortly hosting gigs by the likes of Kula Shaker and Mr Scruff and you realise what a unique venue this is even before you get stuck into the delicious range of beers brewed there. The Grade listed building in parkland was originally constructed for the Great North East Exhibition of 1929. Former music promoter Dave Stone has been the driving force since the brewery, once a run of the mill cask operation, moved into the Palace in 2016.

What to drink: Again let’s stick with the standard bearer, ‘Jakehead’, the first IPA the brewery ever created. Brewer Ben Wilkinson is proud of its mix of British malt character and a tropical US take.

Runaway, Stockport

After almost a decade in an arch on Manchester’s Dantzic Street, Mark Welsby’s pioneering craft operation, is currently moving to a sizeable new home in Stockport, so the taproom like the brewery and barrel store – is still very much a work in progress. When it opened as a pop-up (with pizza from the redoubtable Honest Crust) for three weekends before Christmas the response of local was ecstatic. Reassuring in troubled economic times, for Mark, who told me: “Taproom ambitions are key to the move. We’ll offer a food menu. The scene is not just about craft beer any more. Natural wine, proper cider, small plates all have their place at the table. We’ll have space for barrel ageing, too. More control over our destiny. If it doesn’t work, then it’s all down to us.”

What to drink: I’m tempted to recommend ‘Yuzu Sour’. based on a classic Berliner Weisse but substituting pure Japanese citrus for the usual sugar syrups, but with winter still engulfing us will plump for Runaway’s American Brown Ale. another transatlantic hybrid, robust British maltiness mating with Yankee pine and grapefruit pithiness.

Sureshot, Manchester

Even James Campbell, Manchester brewing royalty (Marble and Cloudwater) must be surprised at the rapturous reception for his new post-Pandemic project across the UK. Alongside a raft of playfully conceived and marketed hop-driven brews he has leapt in with a taproom that’s boldly open six days a week. It’s twice the size of the brewery next door in an arch once home to Track. The tap manager is Lucy Clarke, whose CV includes Cloudwater, Siren and bottle shop Epicurean. Draught cocktails (and mead from a member of the team) add to the jollity.

What to drink: A hard choice with such a hyperactive list so let’s go with the latest offering, a New England IPA,’Have Thee Nowt Moist?’, accompanied by the ‘dry’  wit of the Campbell spiel: “Our first (proper) release of the year is this worthy knight, questing for moisture in a land of dryness. Dripping with Bru-1 Lupomax, Citra BBC & Galaxy hops, pineapple and citrus joust for the favour of thy taste buds. Henceforth, this January shall be known as Moist January! As we banish the dry and embrace the damp.”

Track, Manchester

It’s not the right time of year to enjoy the large suntrap garden, but the stylish taproom itself, open six days a week, is dazzling and airy, a stunning repository of craft (and cask) curated by bar manager Dev Parmar. The current food pop-up from Greek specialists Taka Taka Mam is also worth the 15 minute trek up from Piccadilly. Ask for their epic ‘Zeus Platter’. Dog and family friendly, it’s a haven for cyclists too. The project was inspired by a two year round the world cycle ride by founder Sam Dyson where he discovered the craft breweries and taprooms of the States. Staying active, Track also offers its own running club, One Foot Forward (at the end of the 5km run there’s a welcoming glass).

What to drink: Sessionable pale ale Sonoma is the signature beer, particularly appealing in the cask version, but Track also excel in the stronger DIPAs. Try the new version of Sea of Stars, 8 per cent,100 per cent fresh Nelson Sauvin hops, so all resinous fruit on reamy base of pilsner malt, oats and wheat.

Torrside, New Mills

‘Eclectic’ doesn’t do justice to the range at this special place tucked away by the canal in a Derbyshire mill town. Smoked and barrel-aged beers are the speciality of this operation set up in 2015 by a trio of home brewers (one of them a Japanese translator). The taproom opening is sporadic. The next one is Friday, March 25 and Saturday, March 26. For the rest of the 2023 dates visit this link and look out for their annual Smokefest festival, which is what it says on the bottle. They even offer smoked snacks – cheeses, meats, nuts and tea cakes!

What to drink: Any of the ‘Dogs of War’ series in sharing bottle (you don’t have to share). To encourage a snooze on the train ride home perhaps go for the ‘Swiss Guard Sighthound Bourbon Barrel Aged Imperial Porter’ (10.5 per cent).

Bundobust Brewery, Manchester

Back to where we started in quest of a Bombay Sandwich. For the record this exotic toastie, available 12pm-4pm every day bar Saturday, is filled with potato and spinach, green chutney, red onion, tomato and vegan Cheddar, seasoned with chaat masala and served with sambhar. The combo of Gujarati vegan/veggie snacks and craft beer has been the group’s big selling point since the original Bundobust opened in Leeds in 2014. The Manchester Piccadilly branch followed a couple of years later, ahead of the Bundo Brewery ambitions being finally realised in September 2021. A basement of the city’s Grade II-listed St James Building has been transformed into a US brewpub style integrated brewing facility and bar dining room. Both Manchester venues stare up into a great glass atrium and share quirky design touches. Here each chair is made from 40 recycled plastic water bottles, while school-style desks have been repurposed into beer hall-style tables, complete with “I Woz ‘Ere” etchings.

What to drink: Brewer Dan Hocking, once of Holland’s world-renowned Uiltje Brewery, has been very active in collabs with other breweries, including a dark mild with Thornbridge, but the perfect match for the spicy food offering is the in-house, 4.8 per cent Dhania Pilsner with its hit of citrusy toasted coriander seeds.

Pineapple as pubic enemy number one? We all know how divisive it is as the Hawaiian Pizza topping alongside its sidekick, ham. Not just Neapolitan diehards rail against this perversion of the One True Pizza. This version was created in Canada 60 years ago by a Greek immigrant called Sam Panopoulos (the ‘Hawaiian’ comes from the canned brand he used). Yet it’s not being ousted from our supermarket chill cabinets any time soon.

Similarly ‘old school’ curry house menus still feature Dhansaks given a sweet kick by the addition of pineapple chunks to the chicken/lamb and lentil template devised by its creators, the Parsis. As with our lager lout Anglicisation of Vindaloo, that subtle Goan vinegar and garlic driven pork dish, into the tonsil-cauterising ‘hottest curry on the menu’, so too our Indian restaurant ‘soft option’ Dhansak’ is a culturally appropriated travesty.

Give them their due, most Indian cookbooks omit the pineapple, but rarely put the dish in its Zoroastrians-in-exile context. Parsi – From Persia to Bombay: Recipes and Tales from the Ancient Culture (Bloomsbury, £26) does. All the more surprisingly, its author works at the heart of a very British culinary stronghold. Farokh Talati’s day job is as head chef at Fergus Henderson’s St John Bread and Wine in London’s Spitalfields.

One Parsi recipe that definitely straddles that restaurant’s ‘nose-to-tail’ ethos and Farokh’s heritage is Masoor Ma Jeebh (lamb’s tongue, masoor dal and spinach) It’s definitely on my kitchen bucket list. Less so a little chicken gizzard number, another nod to authenticity. 

I was drawn to his new book because I envisaged it as a companion piece to Dishoom: From Bombay With Love, one of the most glorious cookbooks on my shelves – inspired by the Irani (Parsee) cafes of Mumbai. I was eager for a bit of back story. The Dishoom tome is a celebration of a much-loved London (and Manchester) brand via an evocative homage to its creator’s home city, but its recipe roster strays across the Sub-continent.

Equally personal, Parsi, is more specific, offering historical context from the introduction onwards… “Around the seventh century, during the Arab conquest of Persia, a small group of Zoroastrians fled persecution by sailing from what is now known as Iran and found themselves on the shores of India. The community that originally settled in Sanjan became known as the Parsis because of their Persian heritage, and throughout the centuries they spread across India”.

Bombay (Mumbai) was for many the final port of call. The newcomers assiduously learned English to become indispensable to their imperial masters, but the Indian assimilation started in Sanjan a few miles inland from the Gujarat, coast. Regard it as a landing stage for a resourceful, adaptable religious group, who brought with them the remarkable flavours of their homeland – dried fruits, nuts, saffron, and rice. In Gujarat they learned to fuse these with Indian spices and extended their cooking range to include fish.

The result many Parsi dishes are balanced between sweet, sour, savoury and salty. Traditionally that balance was achieved with the use of brewed cane sugar juice, affectionately nicknamed ‘Parsi vinegar’ and jaggery (reduced cane sugar). Native coconut  fitted into the scheme of things, but maybe canned pineapple was a sweetener too far.

Which bring us back to Dhansak, which is the quintessential Parsi dish. In Farokh’s recipe – sourced, like so many, from his family – the meat is mutton, brined first, and on the bone. Four types of lentils are slow cooked with vegetables, squashes, spices, onion, ginger, and garlic for a long time until the mutton is tender. It is then served with caramelised onion rice and jaggery.

What sets it apart from your Rogan Josh or your Dopiaza is the effort needed to make the Dhansak Masala – involving 15 spices and counting. Farokh’s dishes generally require a beyond fast fix degree of attention. No bad thing. The lockdown was a boon for this busy professional chef in perfecting dishes for the book.

He recalls: “Even though it started a couple of years before the pandemic, the majority of the book really got going during lockdown. I got very bored in the first two weeks, so every Wednesday, I’d go into St John, when it was closed. I’d type up a three-course Parsi meal, cook it that day, and finish and hand-deliver it to the locals on Thursday. That helped me refine the recipes and get feedback.”

When I’ve filed this piece I’m beginning preparations to cook my own Dhansak. The mutton is merrily defrosting. All the spices for the Masala are gathered in rank, just awaiting the belated arrival of the black cardamom.

Check: coriander seeds, cumin seeds, bay leaf, black peppercorns, dried Kashmiri chillies, green cardamom pods, caraway seeds, cinnamon (or cassia bark), cloves, ground fenugreek, mace blade, grated nutmeg, poppy seeds, saffron, star anise, ground turmeric, mustard seeds, one whole black lime.

That latter element is the cultural giveaway. It is essentially Persian, reminding us how far the Parsis have travelled. I’ll alert you to the success or otherwise of my personal, pineapple-free Dhansak voyage of discovery via social media. Now where in the store cupboard are all those lentils?

As I write this bittersweet love letter to Vienna I’m listening on the radio to the New Year’s Concert in the Golden Hall of the Musik Verein. I’m all in favour of waltzing through the various Strauss family members, but for me there’s an overdose of Josef on the playlist this year. Like the city’s sticky Sachertorte, a little goes a long way.

The Austrian capital has much occupied me at the ebbing of 2022. I finally got round to reading The Radetzky March, masterpiece of the great journalist/novelist Joseph Roth. Named sardonically after a Johann Strauss staple, this jaundiced family saga traces the decline of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In Vienna the last throes coincided with the golden era of Sigmund Freud and the Gustavs, Klimt and Mahler, whose ghosts still populate today’s city as much as Emperor Franz Joseph, he of the unmatchable mutton chops and epic longevity. 

I also signed off 2022 hooked on a BBC whodunnit series that milks the decadence of those times. Even Max, the psychoanalyst hero of Vienna Blood, is a disciple of Freud and, yes, sexual motivation is part of its rich investigative stew. Equally titillating are the interiors – all ravishing Jugendstil and Secession heritage.

In contrast, sacrilege it may be, but the monumental trappings of the Habsburg Dynasty – the Hofburg Palace, the Spanish Riding School, Schönbrunn, the Ringstrasse – are not really my cup of Viennese Coffee. Here’s an alternative waltz around a city you can’t ignore. Outwardly stern, not immediately radiating Gutmütigkeit (bonhomie/joie de vivre etc), you have to persevere…

The big wheel around here…

A heady past then, but where to start on a weekend break to today’s Vienna? I’d say kick off, as we do, up in the air on a giant ferris wheel made iconic by a movie set in a city still shattered by war. The Riesenrad had just been rebuilt after bomb damage when The Third Man filmed a key scene there in 1948.

Remember Orson Welles, as the sardonic Harry Lime, ad libbing about cuckoo clocks and suckers to a wary Joseph Cotton? Chilling stuff. So too the winds wobbling our stalled carriage as we pay airborne homage to the city of Lime and Freud… and, let’s not forget, Adolf Hitler for five obscure years before the Great War swept away the hapless Habsburgs and the turbulent 20th century really began.

We are turning again now and, as we descend to the Prater Park with its tawdry amusements and smell of cheap cooking fat, we soon lose sight of the distant spire of St Stephan’s Cathedral in the elegant Old Town and the rather less elegant Sixties spike of the Donauturm across the Danube. You can bungee jump off this 827ft observation tower, if you so wish. Probably not on an icy day like this.

We had taken in that modern quarter the previous day. It was the furthest flung stretch of our Big Bus Tour, a slick hop on-hop off, all-day shuttle service with a recorded, and surprisingly enlightening, commentary on the city’s history, culture and characters. Only caveat: get stuck in traffic and a Strauss loop tape kicks in (and the jaunty Radetzky March lodges in you brain insufferably). We paid 16 euros a head for the standard Red Route, but there’s also a Blue Route, which focuses on the Palaces of Schönbrunn and Belvedere. Our more central tour really gave us our bearings. After that it was trams and shoe leather. 

Save the last waltz?

It was hard to resist dipping in to the schmaltzy world of Johann Strauss waltzes and Mozart’s Greatest Hits. Why, there’s even a Herren und Damen in the underground precinct between the Opera and Karlsplatz that belts out the Blue Danube (note: that river is invariably muddy grey). We chose the more alluring setting of the Auersperg Palace, conveniently across the road from our hotel, the 25 Hours, to attend a concert by the Wiener Residenz Orchester. It’s very much on the Danube cruise and coach party circuit, encompassing 18th century costume, ballet, opera arias and orchestral lollipops featuring an authentic Stradivarius. Mozart before the interlude fizz was a mite routine but the Strauss afterwards was clap-along jolly. 

An afternoon at The Vienna Opera

Now for something more serious. Call us cheapskates but with remaining seats for the evening performance topping 200 euros and our reluctance to queue for bargain on-the-night ‘standing only’ tickets, we settled for a guided tour of the Wiener Staatsoper. Highly recommended at 13 euros a head. You get a fascinating peek behind the scenes, while the ornate public rooms are thronged with the busts and musical ghosts of Mahler, Wagner and Herbert Von Karajan. 

Aim for Amadeus

Staying with Vienna’s musical greats, there is a Beethoven museum out in Heiligenstadt, though it’s more fun to toast the great composer in the Mayer am Pfarrplatz wine tavern – he once lived in the historic building. Since it is more central, tucked just behind the Stephansdom (Cathedral), we instead opted for the cannily arranged Mozarthaus, where The Marriage of Figaro was written when the composer was prospering for a while. After his fall from grace he was buried in the Saint Marx Cemetery, but no grave is marked. 

In the Realm of The Unconscious

The other famous house/museum I’d recommend is Sigmund Freud’s. Berggasse 19 was the home of founder of psychoanalysis from 1891 until 1938, when he fled from the Nazis to London, taking his famous couch with him. His library and many personal artefacts remain in an atmospheric place of pilgrimage (also an important study centre). Admission is 14 euros. The quirky Cafe Freud next door, with portraits of Viennese notables made out of buttons, is a good  place to recovery your sense of self! 

The skull beneath the skin in the Fools’ Tower

Follow up Herr Freud’s cerebral obsessions with an encounter with all the malformed horrors of the human body in the seriously morbid Pathologisch-Anatomisches Museum, dating back to 1796. Its vast jumble of exhibits is housed in the round Narrenturm (Fools’ Tower), the former century psychiatric ward of the General Hospital (today it’s a lively university campus). We were shown around by a curator attempting to rearrange all the bones and specimens in formaldehyde into some kind of order. Not for the faint-hearted. Freud once had rooms here as a student.

Perils of the Overlapping Schnitzel

It’s like going to Naples and not eating a pizza. When in Wien you have to tackle a Wiener Schnitzel, we were told. Hence we waited patiently to get into welcoming old Figlmüller,  famous for over a century for serving Schnitzels so huge they spill off the plate. In truth it was a challenge to nibble my way through the entire thin discus of fried, breadcrumbed pork (veal is less common these days).

Let Loos on Old Vienna’s best bar

It was a boon that we had half an hour free before Figlmüller could spare us a table. Otherwise we might never have squeezed into the tiny, tinyLoos American Bar just off  Kärtnerstrasse, the pedestrianised main shopping drag. Architect Adolf Loos is famous for cocking a snook the ornate old Hapsburg capital by inserting an outwardly frill-free building opposite the Palace. The Loos Haus is today a bank; the utterly gorgeous bar he built in 1908, is much more fun. Cocktails are outrageously good – or is it just thanks to the setting, mirrors amplifying the tiny, warm space with its coffered ceiling and green and white floor tiles.

We need a coffee after all that

Once you’ve lost your Schnitzel virginity it’s time to get off with Kaffee mit Kuchen (coffee and cake, inevitably with a swirl of whipped cream). The choice of historic coffee houses is wide, including the Cafe Demel, opened in 1786 and famous for serving Emperor Franz Joseph’s wife Sisi her favourite sweet violet sorbet. Impressive, but I can’t resist the Cafe Central in the Palais Ferstel. Nor can the throngs of locals and visitors alike (it serves a thousand cups of coffee a day in its elegant domed dining room). Once it was the preserve of intellectuals – one, the 19th century writer Peter Altenberg, remains unnervingly in statue form by the counter – and politicos such as the exiled Lenin and Trotsky and, from the other corner, Hitler. The Viennese have their own names for coffee specialities – to get a play-it-safe white Americano order a Verlängerter (a lengthened one).

If you really don’t want Schnitzel or Strudel

Motto am Fuss is an organic all-day eaterie/bar in a boat-shaped mooring station on the Danube Canal near where the hipsters frequent pretend beach bars. Motto’s food is light and regional, the ambience 50s Venice. Affordable and recommended. By general consent the best restaurant in Vienna is the Steireck, which regularly features in Restaurant Magazine’s World’s Top 50. Its little sister establishment is also in the Stadtpark (turn left at the gold-painted Johann Strauss statue someone’s bound to be photographing. Not so the nearby bust of a greater composer, Anton Bruckner – no one has bothered to swill the bird shit off) The more casual Meierei majors in cheeses –120 to choose from – and an array of cakes and pastries plus a few simple mains. Grab a table overlooking the placid waters of the Wienfluss and imagine you are in the Vienna Woods.

Or you could just grab some grub for a picnic

You can’t go wrong at the fabulous food hall called Meinl am Graben at the end of Kärtnerstrasse. Otherwise check out the food stalls of the Naschmarkt. I was lovingly trying to capture a barrel of pickled cucumbers for posterity when the stallholder screamed “No pictures of my gherkins, Mein Herr!”. The Viennese can be a mite volatile.

And so to the Art capital with a Capital A

The Naschmarkt is just across the road from the Secession Building – the white exhibition hall that was the originally the architectural manifesto for Vienna’s fin de siecle art movement – the base camp for Gustav Klimt and his crew to dismantle the city’s cobwebbed shibboleths. But the best place to get a real perspective on the city’s legendary, if febrile, golden age in arts, music and society is the Leopold Museum in the Museum Quarter, home to a cluster of Egon Schiele’s rawly sexual canvasses. If they’re not your bag check out the Breughel collection at the Kunsthistorisches Museum. 

And Architecture with an even more monumental Capital A

From the palaces that line the Ringstrasse (grab a circular tram round this landmark boulevard dating back to imperial times), via the fascinating legacy of art nouveau urban planner Otto Wagner to the surreal apartment block that is the Hundertwasserhaus, opened in 1986, the city offers an immense amount to gawp up at.

And then there is the smoochy allure of Gustav Klimt…

‘A kiss is just a kiss’ says the lyric of As Time Goes By. Not so Gustav Klimt’s most famous painting, its beauty replicated on millions of tourist souvenirs from mugs and fridge magnets to polyester leggings in Vienna alone. The real thing is in the unashamedly Baroque Upper Belvedere Palace and well worth the uphill walk from the city through formal gardens. Face to face, all the familiarity doesn’t matter – the sumptuously ornate embrace envelops you in the moment. As does Vienna, if you give it time. 

A place to stay in Vienna?

The city has its share of stuffy hotels and some that because of their heritage status are quite intimidating. Take the Sacher, gilded home of the Sachertorte. It fought a seven year war with the aforementioned Cafe Demel over which could use the word ‘Original’ when flogging that overrated chocolate and apricot jam cake. The hotel boasts flagpoles and flunkies in abundance.

Our Vienna billet was a haven from Cake Wars with all the trimmings. The 25 Hours is just a 15 minute walk away beyond the Museum Quarter. Not one to hide its red lights under a bushel, this seven storey hipster haven screams in neon as you approach: “We’re all made here”. We’d enjoyed its nautically themed sister hotel in Hamburg’s Hafen City; the Vienna version revels in circus motifs.

Our corner Panorama Suite on the sixth floor boasted terrific views but we couldn’t take our eyes off the fire eater, sword swallower, juggler and snake-draped strongman emblazoned on the wall behind out king-size bed.

With a casual Italian restaurant featuring a wood burning pizza oven and seriously good charcuterie on the ground floor, kooky public areas and free bike hire, the Mermaid’s Cave sauna and an uber-cool rooftop terrace bar, it ticks all the boxes for a generation of residents and visitors for whom cakes, waltzes and the Hapsburg legacy aren’t a prime attraction. That was my Vienna.