Above is the most recent steak I have devoured. It’s a 21-day aged, grass-fed Chianina breed T-bone. It came so rare it was almost pulsing, but that’s how they like it in Tuscany.  I shared it with my wife at Regina Bistecca (‘Queen Among Steaks’) in the shadow of Florence’s Duomo. On the menu we sere surprised to discover a “my favourite steak ever” tribute from our own Jay Rayner, who reviewed the place in 2019. 

Did our own splendid slab of beast deserve such an accolade? I’m not sure. Better than Hawksmoor’s finest Porterhouse? But it was damned good. Outshone in truth by our recent wild boar Barnsley chop at The Edinburgh Castle in Manchester. That boar was not reared but culled from the acorn-rich Forest of Dean, so counts as game. Animal husbandry for the plate is a much more divisive subject. Not without political overtones these days.

Take the event, just across Great Ancoats Street, I attended more recently. The Aussie Beef & Lamb brand hosted a tasting at the Bem Brasil restaurant, where various cuts of award-wining family-owned Jack’s Creek steak were served churrasceria-style to the hospitality trade and a handful of food writers. Not on the menu that day, their grain-fed, wagyu-black angus cross sirloin has just been named the World’s Best Steak in the 2023 World Steak Challenge. Well, but is Jack’s Creek – a family-owned flagship, exporting to 20 countries – symptomatic of what we might expect when Aussie exports to us go up possibly tenfold? What of mass-produced lesser quality products that might monoplis our supermarket chill cabinets?

What we got to taste at Bem Brasil was beef was 60 day wet-aged and grain-fed, with two cuts given a further seven days’ dry ageing. Cumulatively this carnivore charm offensive never quite convinced.

Perhaps I was swayed by my conviction that the controversial, Brexit ideologue-fuelled UK-Australia Trade Agreement benefits them far more than us, selling our farming industry down the river. All at odds with the Aussie mission’s own mantra that its exports “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 brought up issues highlighted by the press (here is Donna Lu in The Guardian) on cattle farming Down Under – growth-boosting hormones, antibiotics, sustainability dilemmas, grass-fed v grain-fed, wet ageing v dry ageing, choice of breeds, price points of mass market v niche and the threat to British farming. Their spokesman’s main response was that the UK can’t supply enough meat of its own to meet demand, so lifting the tariffs makes sense. 

To try and make sense of it all I decided to ask a few North West chefs (and a butcher, who supplies them) for their feelings on four key issues…

1 Grass-fed v grain-fed? Does this affect the taste of the end product you put on the table? Do both have their place?

2 Dry-aged v wet-aged? What are the advantages of either and which route do you prefer to go down? And why?

3 Animal welfare. How important is this to you as a chef?

4 Sustainability is a huge issue. How do you address it in your own use of meat and the kitchen process?

James Hulme, The Alan Hotel, Manchester

1 Grass-fed all day, fat is creamier, though in younger animals, however, there tends to be less fat I find. Hence why I use older cows. Although I understand the need for farmers to supplement with grain given the cost of land etc. 

2 Not a fan of wet ageing. Meat is watery, less flavour. And doesn’t have a good aroma. Dry, concentrated flavour, stronger “cheese” smell. But high levels of fat are required to keep it moist. 

3 The old cliche, a happy animal will produce better meat. Stress etc doesn’t help anything in life! 

4 I waste nothing on an animal. Fat, cartilage, bones, marrow all used. When I had The Moor (Heaton Moor), we would take the bones after making stock and then turn them into charcoal for cooking with. 

James added interestingly: “Given that we export 150,000 tonnes of beef each year. I’d doubt our supply is short. It probably boils down to a cost POV, meat produced cheaper by using grain which speeds up growth. However, there will be a trade off with quality of meat, flavour and marbling. 

“I went to the US Embassy a few years ago for a similar meeting about usda. And have since watched a few documentaries on the subject which I imagine are similar to Australian production. It comes down to weight as to when an animal can be slaughtered, if they can speed that process up to cost less and hence sell for cheaper they will. 

“If the grass is of a high quality the time to slaughter weight is similar. From what I’ve seen Oz farms aren’t generally very green. Mass sprawling dessert in the outback, so grain is probably necessary. At the end of the day, mass producing meat for an export market at a cheaper price than homegrown can not be good for anyone.”

Caroline Martins Sampa Project, Ancoats

1 In an ideal world, all produce would be grass-fed because it tastes much better and there’s less carbon footprint. On the other hand, grass-fed beef is not always available from our local butchers. Hence, when working with Littlewoods (of Heaton Moor, see below), I’m always placing seasonal orders ahead of time. So if it’s hard for us as chefs to plan our menus around grass-fed availability, imagine for house-holds? I think both grass-fed and grain-fed have their place in our current society, as long as it’s a healthy balance. But ideally, all should be grass-fed.

2 I never buy wet-aged beef. Mostly because of flavour and texture. Wet-aged steaks tend to get a “liver” texture, and flavours get diluted between the fibres. Dry-ageing steaks, intensify flavours. The same goes for vegetables. Dan Barber (Blue Hill) shrinks his vegetables to concentrate flavours. That’s exactly what happens with dry-aged beef. Less water = more flavour.

3 It’s very important. In fact, in the demographics I’m located with SAMPA, I can’t really get away with serving grain-fed or beef that hasn’t been free-ranged. Guests ask about the origin of our steaks all the time. These last couple of years have had a massive change in the way we eat proteins, hence such a large surge of veganism. Especially with Millennials and GenZ.

4 All our proteins come from within Lancashire+Cheshire. The more local you can source, the better for the environment. I take pride on it, and even mention it on my menus so guests are aware of how we’re sourcing our produce. Regarding availability here I’ve never walked into a butcher or a Sainsburys/Tesco/Aldi that was sold-out of British beef (especially if you’re willing to buy cheap grain-fed beef).

Iain Thomas, The Pearl, Prestwich

1 I feel that grass-fed you get a stronger flavoured meat, less fat, the animal and cuts tend to be smaller but definitely taste better as the animal has had a longer life and time do develop a deeper flavour. In an ideal world no grain-fed would be used and all meat would be grass fed. Unfortunately with the demand to eat out all the time and drive costs down, some restaurants need to use them to get the product at a cost they can afford and in the volume where they can meet demand 

2 I would also go for dry-aged. I feel you will always get a much better taste and result. It’s always going to cost more as you will lose some of the blood in the dry ageing process. The smell you get off a dry-aged piece of meat is absolutely incredible. In contrast, I feel wet-aged just sits in its own blood and some almost smells sour and like Its passed its best. I believe it’s a way of big supermarkets pumping out poor quality meat at a lower price point. 

3 It’s very important, even though we are going to eat them in the end. I feel animals that have had a good life and been treated well with very little stress will always produce a better quality flavour. 

4 By working as closely with the suppliers as possible, using whole carcass butchers that don’t waste any of the animal, treating the meat we get in the kitchen with respect, using native breeds to the uk. Also using different cuts of the animal. You can’t always use the prime cuts that everyone wants. If the butcher has something that needs used up and I can do something nice with it, I’m more than happy to take it off their hands. 

“I think what Littlewoods are doing is amazing and it would be good if we could all go back to using the small local family butchers. The passion and knowledge that Marcus and his team have is amazing and is really helping the industry get back to where it should be.”

Over to Marcus (who provided my wild boar Barnsley chop)…

Marcus Wilson of Littlewoods butchers, Heaton Chapel

“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. I object too to the suggestion that we desperately need to import meat from Down Under. UK farms supply 86 per cent of what we require. Every single farmer’s back is up. 

“With wet-ageing, supposedly less wasteful, when you cook the on the grill the steak loses weight through the juices sizzling off. After being locked in the vacuum packs it often ha an offaly odour, which is unpleasant. Thanks to being fed on grass and pasture, the meat from our cattle has better marbling and much better flavour.”

Joseph Otway, Higher Ground, Manchester 

1 Grass-fed in my experience has a better flavour due to how the grass affects the fat content 

2  Dry-ageing increases the flavour and more effectively breaks down the intramuscular fats. The obvious downside is loss of weight, which costs more money.

3 Very important.

4 We take whole carcass as much as possible and utilise every part of the beast throughout our menu.

For a fuller account of Higher Ground’s symbiotic relationship with a committed grass-fed producer read my article Farmer Jane Ogleby’s Herd Instincts are Spot On. 

Adam Reid, The French, Manchester

1 As a chef who values local/British produce I’ve always aimed to use grass-fed stock as I believe it offers a more natural product. 

2 I don’t fully understand the wet ageing process. I’ve always aimed to use meat that is very dry-aged as the less moisture the more flavourful and tender the meat. It would take some serious work to convince me otherwise.

3 This is important above all else, happy animals make for tasty meat! On a serious note I’ve always lived with the philosophy that if we intend to consume an animal we should pay it the respect of giving it a happy life. The idea that living things are commodities only bred to serve the end goal of feeding us is quite disgusting.

4 I aim to use produce in moderation, we rely on only using the best quality, so I try to utilise every element of the ingredients we bring in and promote moderation in the way people consume food. I believe a lot of the sustainability issues we have around food are driven but he way society allows big businesses to promote the ‘more is more’ ethos.

Robert Owen Brown, ‘nose to tail’ chef and BBC’s Kitchen Cabinet panellist

1 Grass fed for me… slow grown, higher in nutrients, then grain supplement at the end to add a finish. They both have their place.

2 Dry-aged all the way for me. I understand the wet-aged method, And you undoubtedly lose less weight and it’s way less expensive. But the finished article never seems as good on the palate.

3 Massive emotive subject. For me it has to be the most important part of meat production. Unfortunately high welfare meat is way more expensive to produce .There is always going to be a market for cheap meat.

4 Minimise waste. Dry-aged is notorious for waste because you lose weight in the ageing. You are using more energy and equipment in the process and the trimming of the bark that has built up. It is a lot less sustainable. Offset that by buying local high welfare.

Doug Crampton, chef patron, Eight at Gazegill (read my preview)

1 Grain-fed animals are predominantly feed lot animals fed higher calorific grains over grass – as ruminants take grass in they have a complex process of breaking down cellulose and extracting sugars and nutrients, the latter also results in a slower grown muscle with higher levels of omega 3 fatty acids. Grass-fed is without doubt a better animal with many environmental benefits over feed lot or barn reared. Although indoor animals finish more quickly they do so at a cost in terms of welfare and environment, the equivalent of the bovine broiler hen.

2 Dry-aged is simply better as the air is allowed to circulate around the carcass or primes and this natural drying process breaks down the muscle and results in a stronger flavour and a more tender cut. This does not occur in wet-ageing, which is a process adopted by many large abattoirs as hanging and ageing space is simply not available, unlike in smaller niche operations.

3 Animal welfare is key to every aspect of meat production and this is very important in the kitchen. The manner in which an animal is reared has a huge impact on the taste and quality of a cut of meat. 

4 Sustainability is a massive subject. So I’m just taking a narrowed view and focusing on Eight, where all our meat is sourced from our host farm Gazegill Organics or partner farms. They work closely together to make available excellent, well cared for livestock. We will be using kitchen waste in compost and will be installing poly tunnels and a kitchen garden to complement our home-grown meat and dairy. It is a great advantage to be able to talk about the home-grown meat on the menu, adding that layer of information which is generally lost when buying off the peg at a wholesale butchers. 

• For the most comprehensive championing of the health benefits of grass-fed, antibiotic-free beef visit the Gazegill website.

The last word comes from Sam Buckley, chef patron of Stockport’s Where The Light Gets In, one of the first UK restaurants to earn a Michelin green star for sustainability, where meat forms only a balanced component of the menu. Surprisingly Sam has wearied of the entire sector’s claims of ethical responsibility, seasonality and the like. “It all often comes down to marketing hype… i don’t buy into it all,” he tells me. 

He echoes critics of ‘regenerative farming’ such as George Monbiot. “In our kitchen we don’t waste a single thing, our food tells a narrative. But there is no balance in the food system as a whole. The amount of land we use to graze cattle, the amount of premium energy needed to grass-feed a beast you never get that energy back in. Is it the best use of land for feeding our population?

“Maybe I m a hypocrite because I still eat meat and I can appreciate the flavour complexity created by dry ageing – all that reduced moisture, the fungus and micro-organisms released, but there may be more urgent priorities.”

As a chef who sources as locally as possible, even growing his own fresh produce at a community growing space  on the roof of Stockport’s Merseyway shopping centre, Sam’s major beef with the Australian meat deal is the ludicrous import distance involved: “You can feed and treat the livestock as well as possible, you can read the Lord’s Prayer to each cow every day, but you shouldn’t be shipping them 10,000 miles.” 

RIP restaurateur Russell Norman, who has died at just 57. After walking away from his over-extended Polpo empire he re-emerged post-Covid with a fresh Italian venture, trading in one small plate concept (Venetian cicchetti) for another (Florentine trattoria staples) at Brutto in London’s Clerkenwell. Brutto means “ugly” as in “ugly but good”, brutto ma buono. Instagrammers, look away now.

Reviewing it for The Observer in 2021 Jay Rayner wrote: “There are drapes of linen over the lights and sweet red and white checked tablecloths. Just as he did for his cookbook about Venice, Norman spent a lot of time in Florence in preparation for this opening, alongside his head chef Oliver Diver.”

Happily Russell’s wife Julie and son Ollie will continue this solo comeback project from this genuine hospitality ground breaker (Polpo, his take on a traditional bacaró, was a laid-back revelation when it launched in 2009… two years before the San Carlo Group got in on the act with their own Cicchetti chain).

But will 70 cover Brutto ever major in the great Florentine staple it promised to put on the  menu? Jay Rayner again: “I’ve come and gone from Florence many times over the years and I swooned when I learned the menu would include a crusty Lampredotto, or tripe roll of the sort they serve in the Central Market there. It is one of the world’s great sandwiches. They have had problems getting hold of the right tripe from the fourth stomach, but he promises it’s coming. The correct rolls have been commissioned.”

A stickler for authenticity, Russell had despaired of locating in London the exact kind of bread roll to encase the beige strewed tripe ‘elevated’ (sic) by the punch of salsa verde. Our recent visit to the cradle of the Renaissance had me swooning over this plebeian culinary work of art. The legendary lampredotto is not hard to find in a city whose markets bulge with tripe. Unlike the UK’s, where these days you’ll struggle to find even a tranche of honeycomb lurking in the chill cabinet.

Well-researched in all things edible Tuscan, Russell  has his own specific supply problems, as he revealed to one of those exhaustive Guardian long reads – a 2022 focus on the difficulties in opening a new restaurant after the Pandemic and Brexit. “The bread supplier was unable to offer a crusty white roll of the kind typically used in a sandwich stuffed with lampredotto; the lampredottoitself had to be shipped in from France. Except the French suppliers only sold it 20kg at time, so Brutto also had to buy a separate freezer, purely to store the vast slabs of offal.”

So what exactly is this difficult to recreate ‘offal holy grail’?

Russell again: “There are four stomachs to the cow, the feathery one, then the honeycomb one, then a third, bleached white tripe. The fourth and final stomach is the slightly brown lampredotto, the most tender and, it turns out, the most difficult to get hold of. Every UK butcher we’ve spoken to says our guys just throw it away.”

That’s never been the case in Florence in over 500 years of lampredotto as the ultimate ‘cibo da strada’ (street food). The name comes from lampreda, the Italian word for the eel-like ‘vampire fish’ the stomach is said to resemble in shape and colour.

The lamprey was a popular Florentine  treat in Renaissance times, up there with cibrèo, a stew of a stew of rooster testicles, crests and wattle so loved by Catherine de’ Medici she even tried, unsuccessfully, to export it to France when she became Queen. Even in the eponymous Cibrèo ristorante in the Sant’ Ambrogio neighbourhood this dish is near impossible to find these days, Not so the lampredotto. Our first encounter was close to the Sant’ Ambrogio produce market (where prices are cheaper than the Mercato Central mentioned by Rayner). 

The slightly latrine-like smell of the stewing delicacy wafted across the cobbled square from Sergio Pollini’s traditional tripa van. Lampredotto is typically slow-cooked in a vegetable broth of tomato, onion, parsley, and celery, seasoned with herbs. When its is plucked from the cauldron for slicing it is an unappealing beige hue, but it is disguised by the spicy green salsa topping when encased in its crusty bread roll – the panino co i’ lampredotto – and I found it tender and moreish, in taste and texture not far from ox tongue..

The first chomp did take some courage, though. Superficially it resembles the street food of downtown Palermo in Sicily where, I admit, I gagged on specialities such ‘pane con la milza’ – gristly spleen in a similar bun.

Researching the fourth stomach (or to give its anatomical moniker, the abomasum) I was fascinated to discover it’s the source of rennet, the complex set of enzymes that helps separate curds and whey to create cheese, Further findings are more arcane. It is also fried and eaten with onions as part of the Korean dish Makchang Gui and features alongside chickpeas, onion, garlic and saffron in the Persian delicacy Sirabi-Shirdan (thanks, Wiki).

A roam around the realm of lampredotto

Our first meal in Florence after a very early flight into Pisa was lunch at the legendary Alla Vecchia Bettola, one of the trattorie that inspired Russell Norman with its looks, atmosphere, food and giant Chianti fiascos. The menu offered Tuscan classics such as  ribollita, chestnut flour paat with a porcini sauce, bistecca alla fiorentina naturally, salsiccie con fagioli, stuffed rabbit, tripe, but you won’t find lampredotto. You have to seek out the stalls and sandwich shops scattered about the beautiful city. My favourite during our stay was undoubtedly Da’ Vinattieri, tucked away along the narrow Via Santa Margherita close to the Piazza Repubblica.

European food tour specialists Devour, who offer a three Sant’ Ambrogio exploration, also list on the blog the five best lampredotto outlets. Oh, and do remember Italians frown on snacking on the move. Prop up a counter with your treat; grab a tumbler of rough Sangiovese to accompany.

As Russell Norman’s Tratttoria Brutto has aspired to offer, this is democratic food. Let Saveur magazine have the last word: “That a cow’s stomach chamber can be morphed into a triumph of the culinary arts is a quintessentially Florentine phenomenon… In the same way that Dante argued for vernacular Italian to be accorded equal respect and literary legitimacy as Latin, Florence seems to have understood that expensive food isn’t necessarily better food.”

Thunder stolen by a turnip; whatever next? My portal into reviewing Pen Vogler’s enthralling new social history of food, Stuffed (Atlantic, £22), was to be via the humble root vegetable. But trips to Florence and Paris delayed my words and, meanwhile, The Observer’s Rachel Cooke went down that same route (sic), name checking naturally the departed agriculture minister Thérèse Coffey, who responded to salad dearth in our supermarkets by advocating we all ‘cherish’ the turnip. Did she mean the cute purple and white version the French call ‘navets’, or our own more rustic swede or rutabaga, often confined to being over-wintering livestock fodder? Even though her advice might count as a plea for seasonality, as so often, ‘Nellie The Effluent’ muddied the waters. The UK’s biggest turnip grower happened to be in her Norfolk constituency and he was giving up on it because those same supermarkets wouldn’t give him an affordable return.

Appropriately, Stuffed, subtitled ‘A History of Good Food and Hard Times in Britain’, is a surprisingly political survey of feast and famine with a particular emphasis on the damage wrought on subsistence by 300 years of Enclosures forcing 6.8 million acres of communal land into private ownership. The book title is not just about a full stomach, it’s also about being shafted.

Its predecessor Scoff, with its examination of class within English eating and drinking was her ‘Nancy Mitford’ book; this is her ‘Jessica Mitford’, constantly drawing parallels with times of scarcity in the past with, say, today’s children going hungry. In the introduction she puts herself firmly in the camp of medic Chris van Tulleken in bemoaning the baleful effects of UPF (ultra-processed foods), toxic equivalents of the adulterated horrors of the Victorian era, detailed in chapters such as ‘Bread and Butter’ or ‘Mustard and Pickles’ in lurid detail.

It took an outsider to chronicle the industrialised food short-cuts that could wreck or even kill a consumer. In 1820 London-based German chemist Frederick Accum published A Treatise on the Adulteration of Food and Culinary Poisons, its cover warning “There is death in the pot”. But it was not until half a century later that the Sale of Food and Drugs Act finally legislated against universal excesses such as the addition of alum or aluminium salt to make a baker’s loaf heavier and bleached whiter. Pen writes: “It was not lethal but it could cause swollen gums and inflate the gum, leading to dyspepsia, diarrhoea and gastritis, all of which impeded the absorption of nutrients.” Alum grinders inhaling its dust became seriously ill; it is still around today.

If all this sounds a mite dour, don’t fret. Born out of impeccable historical research, Stuffed shares the same lightness of touch that made Scoff a best-seller. Particularly wry is her take on the link between that Dickensian twist, gruel, and a ‘healthy brunch mate’ of 2023. While porridge had 5oz of oatmeal per pint, gruel managed just 2oz. A similar ratio to our oat milk, which thankfully avoids the workhouse pollution of rat and mice droppings!

As with Scoff, the book is divided into chapters devoted to a particular foodstuff, 26 in all, ranging from carp to strawberries, from goose to pumpkins with a recipe tagged on the end of each, each account riffing across the centuries, driven by the weight of her research.

Which brings us back to where we came in. The turnip gets a chapter to itself, introduced as a surprising flagship for Renaissance wellness theory based upon ‘the humouds’… revered too for its aphrodisiac qualities. So not just the neglected foodstuff it has become across our shores. According to Stuffed, improved farming techniques on a grander scale slowly transformed the turnip into primarily animal feed for winter.

Let us salute Baldrick’s proud and upright turnip

Witness for the turnip’s defence, unearthed by the diligent Pen, is much-travelled Tudor cleric Andrew Boorde, A Compendyous Regyment or a Dyetary of Healthe (1423) puts the turnip on a pedestal for its medicinal properties, particularly in a sexual context. She writes: “His prescriptions closely follow a slightly earlier book by Sir Thomas Elyot, as they both agree that turnips boiled and eaten  with flesh ‘augmentyth the seed of man’ and a small amount of raw turnip was good for the appetite.”

Hence the aptness of those running turnip jokes across the first two series of BBC’s Blackadder. In the launch episode the new King Richard gives a speech: “This day has been as ’twere a mighty stew in which the beef of victory was mix’d with the vile turnip of sweet Richard slain and the grisly dumpling of his killer fled. But we must eat the yellow wobbly parts two serves. In life, each man gets what he deserves!”

The apogee of the dick-shaped turnip gag comes in series two when the Edmund Blackadder’s servant prepares his ‘Turnip Surprise’. Edmund: “And the surprise is…?” Baldrick: “There’s nothing else in it except the turnip.” Edmund: So, in other words, the Turnip Surprise would be…a turnip.”

To much merriment the Turnip Surprise turns out to look like a “thingy”. Baldrick: “A great big thingy! It was terrific.” Edmund: “Size is no guarantee of quality, Baldrick. Most horses are very well endowed, but that does not necessarily make them sensitive lovers. I trust you have removed this hilarious item?” Baldrick: “I found it particularly ironic, my lord, because I’ve got a thingy that’s shaped like a turnip!” Miriam Margolyes as Edmund’s Puritan aunt (whose inheritance he seeks) demands she must have her turnip not mashed but as “God intended”. It arrives and further priapic hilarity ensues.

I have turnips. What do I cook with them?

The batch of un-suggestively shaped turnips I brought back from the market demands I prepare something that does them humble justice. Maybe use the beef stew with turnips recipe from 17th century diarist and gardener John Evelyn that’s appended to Pen’s turnip chapter. My gut instinct is to go for the great Richard Corrigan’s take on the French classic Navarin that pairs lamb shoulder with anchovies, but it requires tiny purple spring turnips. Mine are larger but still intense, so I stew them in butter and thyme with chopped chestnuts and black garlic, add rich beef stock, simmer for an hour, liquidise and serve as a rich veloute. A proper winter warmer.

Off grid, zero food miles, farm to fork. Buzz words all for a genuinely sustainable restaurant almost worth it for the view alone – across Designated Biological Heritage wildflower meadows to mighty Pendle Hill. Welcome, finally, to Eight at Gazegill, dream project of organic farm groundbreakers Ian O’Reilly and Emma Robinson. It will fully open in the spring.

The culmination of several years planning came with yesterday’s announcement of Doug Crampton as Chef Patron of Eight at Gazegill by Doug Crampton. It’s quite a coup. Doug has spent the last decade helming James Martin’s eponymous Manchester restaurant inside the 235 Casino. 

When I last reviewed it for Taste of Manchester in 2019 I wrote: “Which brings us to Doug, nearly six years heading up the kitchen yet still overshadowed by the branding. His talent deserves to be celebrated because his serious contemporary cooking is the equal of most rival offerings in the city. Smoking, pickling, fermenting, sourcing, seasonality, foraged materials – a lot of boxes are ticked. The end product is food combinations that make sense on the plate with a surprise wow or two.”

Those skills, first honed at the hugely ambitious 3AA Rosette Anthony’s Restaurant in Leeds, will now have access to some remarkable raw materials. Gazegill’s own organic meat and dairy plus access to a web of like-minded suppliers across the Ribble Valley and nearby Yorkshire Dales. I expect some inspirational results.

Husband and wife Ian and Emma are custodians of 250 acres of unspoiled farmland, with hay meadows and more than 50 species of wild flower and herbs, that has been in her family for 500 years. Of course, there has been an upgrade in the roads in that time – tarmac replacing rutted mud. Yet there’s still a good chance you’ll have to hit the car wash if you travel there on a primeval weather day via the single track lane by Howgill Beck.

So getting to the new farm restaurant will all be part of the adventure. I’ve been doing the run sporadically for years to buy naturally reared meat, usually stock bones and offal, from their Gazegill Organics butchery and farm shop. 

I’m not alone in my patronage. The’ve recently won the Countryside Alliance Rural Oscar for Best ‘Local’ Food & Drink Retailer in the UK. Couple this with the most stringent animal welfare provision (100 per cent antibiotic-free for a decade) and high ranking in Natural England’s environmental stewardship scheme and you realise what a special place this is.

Their herd of rare breed shorthorns are given at least 250 days outdoors a year. The rest of their time, when the weather is foul, is spent in straw barns where the animals feed on the cut from summer, meaning they get their 100 per cent grass-fed diet all year around.

Visit their website to read in depth about the farm’s organic ethos and approach to traditional breed husbandry, including their ‘closed herd’, which ensures traceability of their cattle.

Gazegill also offer a hugely successful mail order meat box service and a waiting list for their raw milk deliveries, but I can’t resist motoring over the tops from Barrowford to stocking up, then continuing via Gisburn to another of the North’s unparalleled food destinations, Courtyard Dairy at Austwick 20 minutes further on.

So what to expect at Eight?

The restaurant’s octagonal shape was somewhat inspired by the fact that there are eight festivals to a pagan year, which “is all about looking after nature.” Teaching the next generation about the importance of organic production has always been important for Gazegill. In addition to the restaurant Ian and Emma are also planning to build a children’s play area.

With the launch of Eight my future visits won’t be so fleeting. There are two major selling points for the new 100-cover restaurant that has been several years in gestation. First those eco-friendly off the grid credentials. It’s called Eight because it’s octagonal, a 100-cover oak structure with large Pendle-ready picture windows, the whole space powered using stored solar energy generated on-site by a wind turbine and solar voltaics. Wood-fired and tandoor ovens will be central to the open kitchen cooking. Private dining pods will even have their own grills.  On sunny days the outside terrace can host a further 60 folk.

Doug’s own plans are to make it a ‘destination restaurant’, he tells me, using both the panoramic dining room and the outside terrace, equipped with green eggs. So much will be prepared on site. More casual brunches will feature sausage, using Gazegill’s nitrate-free pork. The farm, with three on-site butchers, may resume making charcuterie. The menu will take advantage of the huge range of organic meat, but “We won’t be too fixated on organic fruit and veg. With fewer suppliers the emphasis will be on fresh is best.”

There are further bi plans for the future at Gazegill. Doug explains: ““The whole ethos of organic and indeed Gazegill is to put more in than we take out. This most important ethos is central to how Eight will operate and source produce. By mid 2024 a 250kw solar array will provide the entire needs of the farm, the farm shop and restaurant in terms of electricity. Add to this the offsetting of the use of oak in the construction of Eight by a commitment of the farm to plant 250 trees a year for 10 years and you will begin to get an insight into the bigger picture. Eight is a very exciting opportunity to highlight home-grown produce on a plate and on the farm, this is just the beginning…”

Prior to Eight’s opening in spring 2024 they will be holding some special one-off taster events at weekends throughout December. More details to be announced shortly…

What a vintage innings. Kate Goodman opened Reserve Wines just months before her brother Mark was appointed Lancashire Cricket Club captain (and there have been seven since). That was 20 years ago this autumn and the one-time BBC Food and Drink Programme grape guru has never looked back. Think of her as the presiding angel over the progress of Manchester (suburbs and all) towards its current status as a serious wine-celebrating destination.

Reserve’s personal 20th celebrations are only just beginning and they will stretch out across Kate’s innovative empire – the Burton Road mothership, outlets at the NQ’s Mackie Mayor, Altrincham Market and Picturedrome Macclesfield food halls plus Bents Garden & Home, Daresbury. Kate is second left in this Alty celebration.

There are two more projects on the way. When we catch up – alas not over a bottle of our beloved Côte-Rôtie – she is coy about these. Just as she won’t spill the beans on which stuffy, old school Manchester merchants intimidated her enough to go away and start up her own business in 2003. The route forward was not scowling your way through a phalanx of dusty racks but sharing your enthusiasm via fun YouTube takes. These days she popu;ates Twitter too with her pithy bottle tips.

Those obvious presentation skills earned her a slot on Food and Drink alongside the likes of Michel Roux nearly a decade ago. But it has been the day job that has consolidated the passion for wine seeded by impressionable years spent in France after a European Studies degree at Hull.

“But surely these days you don’t sell the same amount of French wine as when you opened Reserve… the world has moved on?” I ask her. It’s a meant as a tease for her Reserve buyer, Frenchman Nic Rezzouk. Kate is diplomatic.

“Ah, French wine. It is sometimes about identity. Recently we were chatting with a colleague working his way to a Master of Wine qualification. He told us how difficult it was to blind taste between Old and New World wines. The styles were so similar it was often hard to differentiate.”

But then with the New World there has been a backlash since those heady 2003 days. “When we started the shelves were full of big fruit explosive wines from Australia, Barossa Valley Shiraz and the like. Tastes have evolved; nowadays there’s a trend to lower alcohol, more elegant styles. South African, Australia wines are often fresher in style.”

One constant across he two decades of Reserve has been punters’ perennial devotion to Kiwi Sauvignon Blanc, followed more recently by the easily pronounceable (and let’s admit it, consistently fruity) Argentine Malbec. What of the third in the wine shelf ‘holy trinity’? “We were discussing it the other day. When we opened we didn’t stock one bottle of Prosecco. Amazing to think back now.”

So what else do we have now we didn’t have back then? “Well, natural wine has only become a big thing over the last decade. And orange wine. Reserve has always attracted curious customers, looking for something different, seeking different layers of story about the folk who make the wine. Sustainability and methods of making wine are important to our customers too.”

English wine? “Making big strides all the time. Sparklers and now still wines. I can recall one of our suppliers in the early days, he brought in a bottle from a new client, Nyetimber. It was the first English wine I’d tasted.  It was really good then and it’s gone from strength to strength, as has the rest of our native industry. Reds were a challenge, but they are starting to blossom. I recently tasted a Bacchus (our aromatic white rival to Sauvignon) and it was so lovely. English wine is still quite niche but it has a bright future and I‘m proud to promote it at Reserve. At Mackie and Alty our basic sparkler by the glass is an Italian, but the next bubbly up is Gusborne from Kent. Gorgeous.”

In the press releasee founder Kate calls Reserve’s 20th anniversary “a monumental milestone – it has always been more than just a shop; it’s a community of wine enthusiasts where everyone is welcome.”

That local wine community extends beyond the one business, mind. “We are not alone in being passionate about giving people options that can guide them on their wine journey,” she tells me. “The evolution of the Manchester scene is remarkable – great people, a vibrant market, more and more tastings coming to us, impressive restaurant  wine lists everywhere. 20 years has seen a huge step up.”

Reserve’s 20th anniversary celebrations

There’s so much going on, kicking off with a private birthday celebration for loyal customers at Reserve Wines, Didsbury on Thursday, February 9, the Winter Wine Fair at Didsbury Sports Ground, with over 100 wines and spirits to taste, the following Thursday, and on Friday, November 17 a 20th anniversary tasting event, exploring Reserve Didsbury’s best-sellers. Check availability via this link.

Plus there are vinous prizes to be won via their social media channels. And with Christmas in mind there’s a variety of drop-in tastings across all the venues.

Time for turkey – Kate’s Christmas tried and tested wine tips

Don’t miss Reserve’s ‘Premium Red Wine Duo’, showcasing the Bodegas Palacio Glorioso Reserva Rioja (£17.50 from Spain – smooth and rich with aromas of ripe red fruits, vanilla and spices alongside the Amie Rouge Carignan (£15) from Southern France, a juicy and fruity wine with pure notes of blackberry, plum and pepper.