Herculean tasks? Breaking down a whole carcass of an ex-breeding Red Poll cow might count. It requires much grappling and knife skills. This particular beast in front of me is destined for Shaun Moffat, chef and carnivore extraordinaire at the Edinburgh Castle pub in Ancoats. He’s the reason I’m here at Littlewoods Butchers in Heaton Chapel, suppliers to at least half of the chefs nominated for Chef of the Year in the 2023 Manchester Food and Drink Awards (Shaun among them).

A week previously I enjoyed one of the great meat dishes of my life upstairs at the EC – a wild boar Barnsley chop. Proper beef dripping chips and mixed kale on the side and a big puddle of Shaun’s sauce, concocted from a stock from duck carcass and pig trotters, mirepoix and herbs, then reduced and infused with pepper dulse, lemon thyme and a snifter of Julian Temperley’s Somerset Cider brandy (we enjoyed a shot later with our post-prandial madeleines).

Agreed such a treatment would enhance any meat main, but the quality of the boar double loin was exceptional; as the gobbets settled they tasted even more entrancing. Littlewoods had made the boar sausages I had for my starter; not quite on a level with their acclaimed merguez but it was all part of the boar trail that eventually has led me to their cramped basement meat store. Here, among some prize carcasses, owner Marcus Wilson explains the Forest of Dean connection that put that fabled boar on our table.

The classicists among you will recall the Fourth Labour of the aforesaid Hercules was his quest to capture the fearsome Erymanthian boar alive, which he eventually did through a mixture of guile and strength. It was easier meat for Marcus’s Instagram buddy Chris, charged with culling stags in the historic Gloucestershire forest and chancing upon a herd of wild boar, which his licence allowed him to shoot. 

“They were quite young, each only 25kg in weight,” recalled Marcus. “I was sent a couple. Unlike pigs, it really is hard to skin them with all that bristle sunk into the fat layers. When I posted a picture of one of them Shaun got in touch and said he must have a whole one. I told him these were cut up and spoken for but he insisted, so I persuaded Chris to send me up a third one, which helped provide your dinner.”

Shaun, once of East London cool spots Manteca and Berber & Q, has an engaging commitment to proper sourcing and using the entire animal (check out our chat). Witness his constantly changing menu name-checking his suppliers, so a perfect Littlewoods trade customer. That 11-year-old Red Poll suckler upstairs in the School Lane shop is destined for him, prepared by Marcus’s team of six specialist butchers. Its source is tagged – ‘The Langleys at Bunbury, Cheshire’.

The Cheshire hinterland is a great source of animals for Marcus, who made the decision several years ago to go down the grass-fed, sustainable butchering route. For the public and now increasingly those cutting edge restaurants. My readers will be aware of my devotion to the exemplary Jane’s Farm at Poole Hall near Nantwich, profiled here – Farmer Jane’s Herd Instincts are spot on. It is umbilically linked to Higher Ground, Manchester’s top restaurant of the moment, whose Cinderwood market garden is on the same site. Perfect examples of regenerative agriculture and its wonderful to see livestock of this quality, reared permanently on grass, given no antibiotics, featuring on restaurant menus.

Jane and Marcus make use of the same private abattoir on the Wirral, Edge and Sons Butchers, run by Callum Edge, who shares their ethical commitment. This is how networks are built.

The destinations of the produce hanging in Littlewoods’ basemen read like a litany of Manchester and Stockport’s finest eating places. The small but perfectly formed Dexter steer is promised to Climat on the eighth floor of city centre Blackfriars House, the red deer stag from Lyme Estate for Higher Ground and the 20-strong squadron of two-week aged, salted ducks is booked in for Where The Light Gets In down the road in Stockport. The link-up with its chef/patron Sam Buckley when it opened seven years ago was the Littlewoods launch pad. Marcus, then 39, had worked in the butchers from the age of 11, so knows everything about the trade, but this was a new challenge. These days he even makes his own salami. Just a home project, he quickly qualifies; there’s a strong influence from his French wife’s family down in the Dordogne.

What is key to his influence, I believe, is the way he imparts meat-handling skills to the talented chefs he works or has worked with –  Joseph Otway (Higher Ground), Luke Richardson (Climat), Sam Buckley (WTLGI), Julian Pizer (Another Hand), Patrick Withington (Erst), Iain Thomas (Our Place), oh, and that persistent Mr Moffat.

Invasion of Aussie beef and lamb – the sticking point

As I was penning this piece I received an email inviting me to a tasting of imported meat that has proved somewhat controversial. It read: “The world-renowned Aussie Beef & Lamb brand has now launched in the UK following the UK-Australia Free Trade Agreement, meaning it can offer a point of difference for UK consumers looking for high-quality, consistent and sustainable red meat that complements but does NOT compete with British product.”

I immediately texted Marcus, who as it happens was away on holiday, lunching off horse meat tagine in Marrakech. He was, as expected, scathing about the deal with Down Under: 

“I’m not if the opinion that importing cattle/livestock which rely greatly on water for grass/feed from one of the driest continents in the world, or promoting stall reared grain fed cattle, is a good idea. The UK has the perfect environment to rear cattle/sheep without a cost to the environment and, if reared in a regenerative manner, will increase carbon capture and diversity. The recent deal, was one of the worst trade negotiation outcomes I think I’ve seen in the agricultural sector. The callous disregard the Conservative government show to our farmers is shocking.”

Tusks, bristles and tempers – the wonderful world of wild boar

Among the most sustainable of animal meats, boar has traditionally been imported from Eastern Europe, where it has been a fixture in the forests and latterly in farms, though much is not generally the true tusked terror but a cross with feral pigs. In Japan, where it is a surprisingly popular meat, they call it such a cross-breed Inoshishi; in Germany Wildschwein, though here he discovery of excessive radiation in the breed has caused health scares.

The French call mature boars sanglier, younger, tenderer specimens marcassin. In my Boar-Googling I found a Lidl online recipe for Ragoût de marcassin aux chicons et sauce aux canneberges (stew with Belgian endive and cranberry sauce). I’ve yet to encounter wild boar on any supermarket shelf, even though they do roam wild in selected woodlands. Approach with caution, especially if you have a dog with you.

The Forest of Dean does appear to be Wild Boar Central. It’s positively bristling with them (sic). Here’s a precis of the Forest’s information on them: “Wild boar are stocky, powerful animals covered in bristly hair that can vary from dark brown almost black in colour to gingery brown. Mature males have tusks that protrude from the mouth. Females also have tusks, but these do not protrude. Piglets are a lighter ginger-brown, with stripes on their coat for camouflage and are affectionally known as ‘humbugs’. Wild boar can stand up to 80cm at the shoulder and they normally weigh between 60–100kg. Though short-sighted they can move surprisingly fast for their size. They will also readily move to defend their young when they feel threatened, so should always be treated with caution and respect. Sows can give birth at any time of the year, although there is a peak of births in the spring and early summer.  Average litter sizes in the Forest of Dean are between six and 10 piglets, which is nearly twice that of their continental cousins.” 

The last time I ate wild boar regularly was 30 years ago. The farmed variety sourced from a smallholding above Oxenhope (think Worth Valley and Railway Children), whose owners bizarrely doubled up as wedding limousine providers. Their meat wasn’t a patch on our fateful Barnsley chop.

• The main image is of a boar hunt by 17th century Flemish painter Frans Snyders. It doesn’t represent how the animals are culled these days.

Name your dog after fermented soybeans and you are guaranteed a review here. But please don’t quote me. It was delightful to shake paws in the yard with resident pooch Miso the Shibu Ina pup, but that wasn’t the clincher at the outstanding new Restaurant Örme, I was just in need of immediate canine therapy after an epic trek from my Pennine fastness. Floods had taken out the rail line and I endured nearly an hour on the bus from Manchester centre to Urmston, home to the three young folk who opened Örme here in May. To instant acclaim.

Last month the 30-cover restaurant on Church Road was one of 15 new inclusions in the Michelin UK guide alongside higher profile Manc newcomer Higher Ground. It also garnered two nominations in the 2023 Manchester Food and Drink Awards – for Newcomer of the Year and Best Neighbourhood Venue.

 Quite a step up for a suburban site that had previously hosted the likes of The Hideaway, Best Afternoon Tea and an Indian called Theru Kadai.

The name of the latest incumbent, in case you are wondering, derives from the area’s 12th century landowner, one Orme Fitz Seward. Not sure where the umlaut came from. There’s something about four letter leave-you-wondering names for new wave restaurants – Mana, Erst, Kala. Or a chunk of ancient heritage as with Elnecot, which was what Ancoats was called in those misty times before natural wine and designer pooches joined beards as de rigueur.

In truth it hadn’t been my intention to formally review Örme; I just wanted to check what the fuss was all about. The £45 tasting menu isn’t available Saturday lunchtimes; instead it was a pared down £35 four courser, though I couldn’t resist a supplementary dish of cured monkfish for £9 that levelled it all up anyway. That was actually the star turn in a lunch that was consistently impressive from superior snacks through to an indulgent sticky pear, peanut butter custard and ginger ice cream finale.

The monkfish had been sliced so thinly it was diaphanous, dressed with a silky dill emulsion, buttermilk spheres adding freshness and cubes of pickled celeriac a certain punch. Very Nordic. It would have been interesting to see what Örme sommelier Rachel Roberts might have paired it with. I did spot an unusual to find Basque white Txakoli being poured at another table. Rachel (pictured cuddling Miso) offers matching wines at £25 and unusually a British line-up for £35  – for those curious to know what a Welsh red from the Regent grape tastes like. With further Saturday commitments ahead I declined.

Navy blue walls, large front windows, fine cutlery and an indie soundtrack were all factors, but what took my eye was the presence of influential, cutting edge cookbooks on a shelf in the dining space. There was a similar bookish statement of ambition in a young chef at Metamorphica in Haslingden. The Örme collection (think the Noma Book of Fermentation and Josh Niland’s The Whole Fish Cookbook) belongs to Rachel’s partner, Jack Fields; he and his co-chef Tom Wilson have worked in some impressive kitchens before striking out with their own project.

There’s a lovely precision to their work. A tranche of venison haunch came with a faggot sidekick. A splendid use of the off-cuts. There’s a smoker out back and its use had ‘elevated’ a humble carrot, blobs of blueberry puree adding their own autumnal oomph.

Örme has a quiet assurance about it for such early days. It needs everyone who feels the need to support genuine indie culinary heroes to find a day when the trains are running and walk the 10 minutes from the station. There’s lots of interest en route, too. a good cheese shop, a wine merchants and more. Did I mention that Urmston is also shortlisted for an MFDF gong for Foodie Neighbourhood of the Year?

Slipping into ‘The Mouth of the Wolf’ has been an intermittent indulgence over these past 15 years of its existence. Grabbing a stool at the marble counter, a Negroni Sbagliato soon to hand, perhaps with almonds and olives, and a wolfish perusal of the ever-shifting menu. How time has flown. And how remiss of me to omit Bocca di Lupo from my recent dewy-eyed retro crawl around Soho.

Founder Jacob Kenedy’s rustic Italian formula has stood the test of time while never standing still. Across Archer Street from the restaurant’s carved sandstone facade sprang Gelateria Gelupo, modelled on the kind of ice cream parlour straight out of Amarcord or Cinema Paradiso with the added bonus in truffle season that it will supply you with a modicum of the musky tuber to be shaved over an appropriate dish in the mothership.

Maybe even over a luganega sausage dish. After all, in some parts of Northern Italy truffles and parmesan add an extra, luxurious touch to one version of this aromatic coiled banger. 

Not that I expect to find those inclusions in the luganega I’ve ordered to celebrate Bocca’s 15th birthday. Mine haven’t winged their way from the heart of Soho but from an industrial estate on the edge of Skipton – home to the redoubtable Swaledale Butchers. Experts in whole carcass butchery with access to Yorkshire’s best naturally reared livestock, they supply many fine restaurants and have done collabs with Jacob Kenedy since 2018, the latest his traditional North Italian delicacy, prepared to his formula. Swaledale proudly quote their chef fan: “From fat pheasants and plump partridges to little Dexter sirloins and blackface hoggets, the quality of their meat is outstanding. Their pork, in particular, finds its way onto our menu near constantly – as dry-aged, marbled chops, marinated with honey, rosemary and garlic, as shoulder cooked gently with milk, lemon zest and sage, and as sausages, chubby and inviting.”

With the luganega Jacob provides a recipe that pairs it with farro, a spelt-like grain, roasted fresh porcini and tarragon. I like it with polenta and my favourite Abruzzo lentils, some bitter radicchio leaves on the side. Or skinned and crumbled with peppers in a tomato-based sauce for pasta.

So what is luganega sausage?

Usually pork shoulder and belly minced, spiced with nutmeg, cinnamon and a smidgeon of clove, and flavoured with dried porcini. Squeezed into a thin natural casing, it will be twisted into a tight coil. Consequently it can be grilled or sauteed in a matter of minutes.

The attraction for me is the provenance of the pork used – in Swaledale’s case free range native breed Tamworths or Middle White, dry-aged on the bone for three weeks in their Himalayan salt chamber.

You can’t pin down this sausage to any one region of Italy. The name references Lucanaia, the ancient name of today’s Basilicata in the deep south – both Cicero and cookery writer Apicius mention it in Roman times. Since when the style has migrated north and is hugely popular in the Veneto even with Milan staking its claim to make the definitive version, moistened with wine. In Lombardy it’s the staple of the regional risotto.

The coarsely minced pork is traditionally stuffed into a metre long piece of gut, giving it its nickname ‘salsiccia a metro’, to be sold by the length. Not unlike our own Cumberland sausage but much more satisfying.

I am lunching in the only 2 Michelin star Chinese restaurant outside China – A. Wong, just down from London’s Victoria Station.  My 15-course dim sum-centric tasting menu, Touch Of The Heart, costs £175 and the sophisticated package includes five splendid matching wines. Curated by chef patron and Oxford-educated chemist and later social anthropologist Andrew Wong, this is no ordinary dumpling experience. 

The menu, based on Andrew’s extensive explorations, has this mission statement: “The world of Chinese cuisine is limitless and exciting, a journey of tasteful cultures and flavoursome histories, from Buddhist temple cuisines of the Tang Dynasty Silk Road and the lantern-lit teahouses of bustling Ming Dynasty Suzhou to the cocktail hour of Hong Kong and Shanghai’s jazz age. We are honoured to have you join us on this culinary journey, with a menu that celebrates Chinese food heritage, historical recipes, and kitchen crafts that evolved over 4000 years.”

I hope Fuchsia Dunlop approves. She too is a standard bearer. Her new book, Invitation To The Banquet: The Story of Chinese Food (Particular Books, £25) explores through 30 widely disparate dishes/food styles the extraordinary culinary universe of that vast nation. Not the dumbed down version of Cantonese cuisine that has been long peddled in the West. Now thankfully changing at the top end, if not in takeaways.

Invitation seems the logical progression from a series of cookbooks that have earned her an authoritative reputation, not least in China, commencing with the groundbreaking Sichuan Cookery (2001). Even Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper, her 2008 memoir of how she trained as a chef in its capital, Chengdu, came with a recipe at the end of each chapter. Her latest doesn’t. Both evocative and encyclopaedic, part travelogue, part social history, it’s not a stoveside tome. Instead you are by proxy by the side of local food producers, chefs, gourmets and home cooks spread across a homeland of over 1.4 billion people. Ultimately you are worshipping at the shrine of Fuchsia’s foodie hero, one A Dai, proprietor of Dragon Well Manor in the city of Hangzhou, whose ‘cooking rooted in the local terroir’ mirrors that of forward-thinking chefs in the West.

Before reading it I knew something about Dongpo pork, named after an 11th century Song Dynasty poet and governor of that same Hanghzou, and about Pockmarked Mrs Chen’s mapo tofu from Fuchsia’s wellspring, Sichuan, but pomelo with shrimp eggs or the trophy dish of the mega-rich maverick even today – bear’s paw? Emperors had that rarity served with the tiny tongues of crucian carp fish. Like serving pangolin or shark’s fin, all very arcane subject matter, but the book’s mission is less about the exotic, more about dispelling the scariness of many regional specialities and explaining how more recognisable delicacies came about.

Take the procession of dim sum I’m enjoying from Andrew Wong’s buzzing kitchen. In Invitation Fuchsia devotes a couple of chapters to dim sum, dumplings, noodles and baos and they are among the most enchanting, firmly pinning down their Turkic Silk Road origins. ‘Transforming Dough  knife-scraped noodles/dao xoao mian’ and  ‘Kindling The Spirits: steamed soup dumplings/xialong bao’ trumpet the skills that put many non-Chinese chefs to shame. Well, that culinary triumphalism is a constant trope from stalwart Sinophile Fuchsia. Still I do get her point as midway through my steady Wongathon I’m actually purring.

Dim sum at 2 star Michelin level? Pull up a lunchtime stool

I’m perched at the end of a shiny green-tiled counter, marvelling at the sheer elan of the operation and the warmth of welcome not always apparent in either Michelin places or old school Chinatown. What was once a standard Cantonese, run by Andrew’s parents in one of Pimlico’s less fashionable streets, has been transformed over the last decade thanks to his ambitions.

While evening service centres around The Collections of China, a wide-ranging three hour banquet, this Touch Of The Heart tasting menu of smaller dishes is available only at lunch alongside an à la carte dim sum offering. The title springs from a translation of these between meals snacks – ‘dian xin’ in Mandarin – which first came into use during the Tang Dynasty.

Fuchsia writes: “In its literal meaning dim sum is ambiguous; the two characters which compose it can mean ‘dot’ or ‘press’ and ‘heart’ or ‘mind’, which is why some people translate it into English’ as ‘touch the heart’…

“Food scholar Wang Zihu suggests that the emergence of this new term for a kind of ‘edible pick-me-up’ reflected a whole new era in Chinese gastronomy, in which eating was increasingly seen not just in terms of sustenance, with pleasure a a secondary goal, but as something that could be done mainly for fun, as was the case with dainty snacks that were designed to appeal to the senses as much as fill the belly.”

Cut to me at 70 Wilton Road, SW1V 1DE on a Thursday lunchtime. So which components appealed to my senses most?

Chilled ‘smacked’ cucumber with trout roe, chilli and garlic vinegar was an appetiser before  a glorious trio of dumplings, dim sum and wontons served together. Pick of the bunch was an incredibly delicate Shanghai steamed pork dumpling with a sharp ginger infused broth, the quintessence of xiao long bao. Equally classic was an almost transparent shrimp dumpling, sweet chilli sauce, topped with a cloud of rice vinegar foam. Sturdier, with a more compact dough, was a pork and prawn dumpling crowned with pork crackling.

Perhaps the ‘rabbit and carrot glutinous puff’ proved less delicious than it sounded but its fellow puff, the ‘999 layered scallop puff’ with powerful XO oil was a convincing bite, ahead of a dish (main image) that was a genius level artful deconstruction. ‘Memories of Peking duck’ arrived in a swirling nest of feathers and straw, the classic thin pancake encasing duck and foie gras. It’s a two bite experience. Go left and the topping is caviar, right and it’s a shaving of truffle. 

Further stand-outs were a cheung fun, that Cantonese rice noodle sandwich, here matching an Isle of Mull seared scallop with honey-glazed Iberico pork, then ultra delicate  ‘bamboo pole’ noodles with king crab and spring onion oil (my server first showing me a video at table of the deft noodle-making process) and the main pudding, a fluffy steamed duck yolk custard bun that benefited from not being over-sweet.

Before that, though, a skillet arrived bearing the component parts of our Xian lamb burger – a dish at odds with the rest of the culinary parade, its inspiration the pork-free Muslim-centric north west vastness that is Xianjing province. The author mentions in passing “the plight of its Ugyhur people” that ”has been well documented in the international media” and that’s it. Food takes precedence over geopolitics.

Here at A.Wong the mix and match presence of sesame, coriander, chilli and pomegranate alongside the lamb pattie transported me along the Silk Road – the route west. What better way to conclude a remarkable pilgrimage through the world’s most diverse cuisine?Thank you, via your different routes, Andrew and Fuchsia.

Chewy, bouncy, slippery, crunchy? I settle for century-old eggs

The menu was a sublime procession of flavours, but none of it was challenging – the kind of macho Chinatown ‘take me off piste’ stuff that ‘old China hand’ critics such as Jay Rayner and Giles Coren occasionally indulge in… and Fuchsia Dunlop has grown to relish after her first tentative coming to terms with a nation of eaters that value food for mouthfeel as much as flavour. “They want chewy, bouncy, slippery and even crunchy ingredients which ‘feel beautiful’.”

Tripe I do, even slippery pig brains, but I gag on chicken feet or tendons. Still, broadening my horizons, I’m now a convert to century old eggs. My recent dish of the month for Manchester Confidential came from Noodle Alley in the city’s Chinatown. They were done Sichuanese style. Here’s what I wrote: “Smoked beers? I’d sampled a few at Smokefest, niche celebration at Torrside Brewing in New Mills, so what perils could a surfeit of Sichuan pepper hold for kippered me? Hence it was a ballast of ‘Burning Noodles’ all round at Ken and Wendy Chen’s Chinatown basement homage to her native province. This version of the classic dish featuring minced pork is not the tonsil-cauterising challenge you might encounter in the back alleys of Chengdu, but it is the most authentic manifestation ever to pop up in Faulkner Street. Numbing enough to need the quenching (unsmoked) neutrality of a Tsingtao lager or two.

“My foodie focus, though, was more left field. I am currently working my way through Invitation To A Banquet, Fuchsia Dunlop’s newly published introduction to Chinese cuisine, so I felt I had to order £6.80 small plates of Sichuan starch jelly with house chilli sauce and charred green chilli with century old eggs. The former was testimony to the Chinese love of texture, the latter proof that an ammoniac whiff doesn’t have to be off-putting. 

“The wedges of egg fanned around the plate, resembled on first glance, streaked dark green tomatoes. The Chinese see a pine pattern, so another name beyond the usual pidan issonghua dan, or pine-patterned egg. That look is the result of several weeks’ fermentation. Traditionally this consisted of pickling duck eggs in brine and then burying them in a mixture of coals, chalk, mud and alkaline clay. Result – they can last unrefrigerated for months but not long years. Bite through the gelatinous coating and the taste is uncompromisingly ripe. Think blue cheese on steroids. The impact at Noodle Alley certainly skittled any lingering ashtray beer tastes.”

We each have our own private Soho. For the long of tooth it may well be Paul Raymond’s Revue Bar and the nudge nudge of sleaze or Jeffrey Bernard regaling his reprobate chums slouched across lunchtimes that never ended. Perhaps Gaston Berlemont’s French House and Muriel Belcher’s Colony Club, L’Escargot with Elena Salvoni at the helm or Victor Sassie’s goose-fattened politico haunt, The Gay Hussar. So many ghosts. Even a near contemporary of mine, Alastair Little, whose eponymous restaurant brought a blast of fresh culinary air to Frith Street in the Eighties, is no more (my tribute).

Northern-based, I’ve only had the tiniest of bit parts in the pulsating Square Mile of Sin, much sanitised these days, of course. Maybe, on a flying visit, a café au lait and croissant at Maison Bertaux before stocking up on Italian essentials at I Camisa & Son (recently granted a two year stay of execution; its drab rival around the corner, Lina Stores, has now swollen to a glossy five-strong chain). For cocktails it still has to be tiny Bar Termini on Old Compton Street. And if we ate in in Soho it would inevitably be at Andrew Edmunds in Lexington Street, an 18th century townhouse that for four decades has combined being dog-friendly with offering a remarkably affordable fine wine list, well matched with the game it regularly serves. Alas, Andrew, too, died last year at 80, another key figure in ‘Old Soho’ departed.

There were occasionally more flamboyant experiences. A random invitation, by his biographer, to the funeral of Sebastian Horsley, the Last Dandy of Soho, where to a Marc Bolan soundtrack the horse-drawn hearse delivered his heroin-ravaged body to St James’s Piccadilly, Stephen Fry delivering the eulogy.

Another time I lingered into the early hours in the Groucho Club in the company of Lembit Öpik, Liberal Democrat MP, I’m A Celebrity contestant and Cheeky Girls squeeze, and one Ron Brand, dad of Russell (whatever happened to him?).

Quo Vadis – no wriggling out of Jeremy’s eel sandwich

The Groucho Club is a homage to the wittiest of the Marx Brothers, but it was the former home of a more seismic Marx  – Karl – that hosted us on a recent return to Soho. Once also a brothel, Quo Vadis in Dean Street is definitely ‘Old Soho’, launched as a restaurant in 1926, one year before L’Escargot (Camisa arrived two years later). It has enjoyed a resurgence over the last decade under the stewardship of the Hart Brothers, whose neighbouring Barrafina is definitely a standard bearer for the ‘New Soho’.

The Quo Vadis kitchen is in the hands of national treasure Jeremy Lee, whose Cooking Simply and Well, for One or Many (Fourth Estate, £30) has just won Best General Cookbook in the 2023 Guild of Food Writers Awards. I wrote about his championing of salsify here a year ago. That root vegetable wasn’t on the menu on the Monday evening we dined there, but his signature starter was – the smoked eel sandwich. I’ve tried to replicate at home several times, quite recently with in-house prepared eel from Upton Smokery in the Cotswolds, but the restaurant version was miffingly superior. At £14.50 a tranche it had to be.

Amazingly, it was pipped by the other starter we shared in the cosy, quirky dining room –the best terrine I’ve had in years. A quid cheaper, it was a master class in the charcutier’s art. Tender tiles of compressed chicken, grouted with a moist blend of ceps, savoy cabbage and bacon, accompanied by fresh figs. 

The scene was set. The extended, enhanced ground floor restaurant looked a treat, as did arguably London’s most beautiful paper menu. Alas, the mains didn’t match all  this level of excitement. A case of NOFOM? (never order fish on Mondays)? I’d like to think that wouldn’t apply to a place, whose rigorous standards are apparent from Jeremy’s gloriously written book, but my wife’s hake with clams dish (£32.50) was dull and over-beaned, while my skate with tartare sauce (£34.50) smelt too much of the pan and felt tired. And yes, I am allowing for skate being a fish actively benefiting from a few days’ ageing. Neither dish was done any flavours by a timid Rousette de Savoie Cru Frangy Domaine Lupin, which cost £50. Our jolly neighbours were knocking back their white, a Puligny Montrachet at thrice that price, and we were so jealous.

Ain’t no Mountain high enough?

So a certain disappointment at Dean Street’s old stager, made up for thrillingly by new arrival Mountain in Beak Street. I vaguely remember the corner site being occupied by a Byron Burgers, but there’s also a louche Soho legacy, naturally. From 1913 it was home to  Murray’s Cabaret Club; in the Fifties Ruth Ellis danced in the club before murdering her husband, in the Sixties hostess Christine Keeler met Stephen Ward here before embarking on the Profumo Affair. 

These days it would be a scandal not to make the pilgrimage to taste the latest manifestation of Tomos Parry’s genius. His Michelin-starred Brat in Shoreditch (former strip club premises, a theme developing) set the bar high for the ‘Welsh Wizard Who Cooks With Fire’. The restaurant name? His inspiration has always been the ‘mar y montaña’ cooking (sea and mountain inspired) along Basque and Catalan coasts. Tast Catala in Manchester nods to that same culinary philosophy through its Costa Blanca-based exec chef, Paco Pérez.

Big investment has gone into the two floors occupied by Mountain, each boasting a state of the art Gozeney wood-burning oven, losing some of the hipster vibe along the way, but the food offering has suffered no identity crisis on the evidence of our early evening walk-in. Tables are currently booked out for weeks after the metropolitan critics swooped with their ‘already a candidate for restaurant of the year’ snap judgements. 

They might well prove right. We just loved everything about the place as we perched at the counter and wanted to order all of the menu. With a train to catch we settled for half a dozen treats, small plates except for a spectacular loin of fallow deer on the bone (£40) – dark char giving way to perfect saignant flesh. Like some Game of Thrones hero emerging from battle. Alongside, a squad of Parry’s signature smoked potatoes, even better than their equivalent at Yorkshire’s legendary Moorcock at Norland.

The supporting cast was equally impressive. A plate of home-cured ex-dairy beef (£12.50, fanned out wafer thin (the meat slicer is as much in evidence here as at Brat’s Shoreditch rival Manteca), then substantial chunks of raw sobrasada (£6.50), doused in honey. on their own wood-fired bread, topped with squiggles of guindilla pepper. Apparently this spicy, spreadable sausage is sourced from an organic Mallorcan farmer called Luis Cirera. 

Such attention to detail is everywhere. Wines show a Noble Rot influence. Where else might you encounter that delicate North Italian white, Nosiola? At £8 a sizeable glass, it had been our welcome drink, to be followed by a 500ml carafe of a Portuguese bulk tinto that was remarkable, fruity value for £20. It handled the spice of the chorizo we ordered in envy of our neighbours on the counter because of the balloon-light flatbread they also got.

Returning another time then to dig deep into a no-compromise menu offering beef sweetbreads, tripe, turbot head and, for three or more to share (£90-£120), a whole lobster caldereta (one pot stew) that may prove to be the peak signature dish for Mountain. Aiming to scale it one day.

Finally, a satisfying foray into Fitzrovia

We were staying in the Treehouse Hotel in Langham Place, , which has a Mexican restaurant Madera on its 15th floor, where we sampled assorted seafood ceviches and organic, grass-fed carne asada served over hot lava stones. Alas, Madera won’t be accompanying Treehouse when it opens in Manchester next year; consolation, head chef at the main restaurant there will be the remarkable Mary-Ellen McTague (ex- Aumbry, Creameries and The Fat Duck). 

The London hotel is opposite the BBC and John Nash’s All Saints Church on the edge of Marylebone and Fitzrovia, both exceptional districts to dine out in these days. The latter is home to the Sicilian food of Norma on Charlotte Street, which I have previously reviewed.

This time 64 Goodge Street was our destination. In its few weeks of existence it has been garnering plaudits akin to Mountain for its retro French bistro looks and menu. A new venture by the Woodhead Restaurant Group, creators of The Quality Chop House, Portland and Clipstone, it’s a handsome fallback destination for those who can’t squeeze out an advance booking for equally francophile Bouchon Racine in Farringdon (read my review) I dined in the shadow of a dark oak armoire in the intimately lit bottle green interior. I half expected Inspector to Maigret to sidle in out of the Fitzrovia dusk.

The ‘Famous Belgian’ would certainly have relished my amuse bouche, a truffled Comté gougère and my hors d’oeuvre, a duo of snail, bacon and garlic bon bons – a cute, deep-fried take on classic escargots à l’ail.

Starters were a litany of Gallicness. What to choose from soupe au pistou; Morteau sausage, walnut and Morbier tourte (a homage to my beloved Jura); scallops, lentils and beurre blanc and a rabbit Niçoise. The latter won the day and there were enough olives, capers, tomatoes and basil to justify the substitution of blander bunny for the regulation tuna.

That dish cost £16. My main was £36. Like virtually everywhere of quality in London and other cities, even with modest wine, bills are now regularly topping £100 a head for three courses. No matter, if they get the details right From another well-judged wine list, a carafe of Austrian Blaufränkisch did the trick, its black fruits and whack of acidity a perfect match for the myrtille compote that underpinned squab pigeon two ways, breast seared, leg stuffed with Lyonnaise sausage. Perhaps a substantial addition of beetroot and chanterelles tipped the dish towards excess, but chef Stuart Andrew’s menu is built on richness. Comforting in discomforting times. Let me confess then. I wish, for therapy’s sake, I’d splashed out an extra £4 and gone for the lobster vol-au-vent with a cream/brandy infused sauce Américaine.

For 2023’s critical kitchen darlings the world appears to be their lobster.

What is the Greek for to over-enthuse? I caught up with Jamie Oliver on the box the other night. Primarily because his new Channel 4 series on Mediterranean food kicked off in Thessaloniki, a city I developed a deep love for after a random visit.  Out of it arose an obsession with the country’s flagship red variety, Xinomavro, whose spiritual home is 75 miles north in mountainous Naoussa.

Greece’s second city got 10 minutes of Oliver attention before he heeded the pukka siren call of the Islands and was ferried south. There was no name check of the wine that accompanied the seafront fish platter Jamie gushed over. It may well have been the high profile white equivalent of Xin – Assyrtiko. 

Aldi put it on the supermarket map with a £6.99 version, described by one critic as “like Chablis with super powers”. A snip from a high altitude, sustainable single vineyard, this mainland version ticked lots of boxes – herbaceous, floral, citrussy, a hint of pepper, supple – without ever attaining the saline minerality and complexity, at a premium price, associated with examples from the volcanic vineyards of Santorini, that dazzlingly white holiday haven.

(Those Santorini selling points may soon be in short supply or hiked up in price – the difficult 2023 harvest is likely to yield only 30 per cent of the normal output).

At a Wines of Greece tasting in Manchester, the day after Jamie’s telly Odyssey, there was a plethora (word of Ancient Greek origin) of Assyrtikos from assorted regions, influenced by widely differing terroirs, but remarkably few Xinomavros. There were some 90 wines to sample at Blossom Street Social in Ancoats, so maybe I had been distracted by the whites – Malaqousia, Savatiano, Kydonitsa and the like. Among the reds, though, the stand-out grape turned out to be Agiorgitiko, which is Greece’s most widely planted red varietal. Its origins, though, are in the deep south of the the Peloponnese.

Its nickname is apparently ‘Blood of Hercules’. It doesn’t take a Herculean effort to appreciate its qualities. It reeks of mountain herbs and tastes of blackberry and cherry, usually with some oak spice involved. A beautiful expression on the day was the Nemea Grande Cuvee 2019 (£29.40) from Domaine Skouras, established almost 40 years ago by the redoubtable, Dijon-trained George of that ilk. 

Matching it stride for stride, from young tyro and Nemea neighbour Evengelia Palivou, was Palivou Estate Nemea 2020. It has years ahead of it but already it is a rich expression of cherry, chocolate and vanilla flavours. She and her sister Vassiliki have taken over the running of the 40 acres or organically farmed vineyards. They and the rest of a new, more open generation are the reason Greek wine is suddenly on a surge. Promoting indigenous grapes, rather than pandering to ‘international’ varietals.

A lovely Palivou mission statement of this was on the table. La Vie en Rose is made from 100 per cent Moschofilero. A colleague detected Turkish delight on the nose; I loved the lemon and pear flavours unusual in a pink.

My third and final winery tip from the tasting is Estate Argyros, the largest vineyard owner on Santorini with more than 120 hectares of ungrafted vines up to 200 years in age. It’s now in the hands of fourth generation family winemaker Matthew Argyros and the trio of wines created from his new 2015 winery demonstrated the voluptuousness Assyrtiko can attain.

Expect to pay £50 for the Cuvee Monsignori, 14.5 per cent but beautifully balance packed with flavours of preserved lemons and wild herbs. At twice that price, offering a unique tatse of old Santorini, Assyrtiko combines with fellow native varietals Athiri and Aidani for the heavenly, honeyed Vin Santo Late Release 2002. Sourced from 200-year-old vineyards and aged for at least16 years, it’s very special.

Fenix on the rise in Manchester

Leaving aside perennial reservations about rough taverna retsina, Hellenic wine’s profile has been hindered by the absence of top end Greek restaurants. That will be remedied soon in Manchester by the arrival of Fenix. It’s a complete change of tack from the brothers behind the Modern Chinese fusion brand Tattu.

Fenix’s wine list offers a global roll call of crowd pleasers but the Greek element is shrewdly chosen from some of the country’s highest profile wineries – Thymiopoulos, Gaia, Hatzidakis, Alpha and that aforementioned Skouras Grande Cuvee (it will cost you £67, not a dramatic mark-up). More approachably priced are a series of blends from the Cretan winery Karavitakis, championing that island’s indigenous grape varieties such as Vilana, Vidiano, Kotsifali  Mandilari and Liatiko.

Apostolos Thymiopoulos (above) is the king of Xinomavro in all its styles and an ambassador for all the new wave Greek winemakers. His own wines are widely available (try the entry level ‘Jeunes Vignes’ Xinomavro), An equally charismatic figure was Haridimos Hatzidakis, his life cut short aged just 50 in 2017. Born in Crete, he is credited with putting Santorini wine on the world map after replanting a vineyard abandoned after a 1956 earthquake and releasing his first bottles in 1999. Century-old indigenous vines from volcanic terroir, organic farming and minimal intervention in the winery. Result: Assyrtikos with a challenging saline minerality that I loved from my first sip. Noble Rot’s Shrine to the Vine online shop stocks the family’s single vineyard wines. Start with the Nykteri 2020.