I pen this ode to the Gurnard on the day Sir Ian McKellen has decided not to return to the West End stage as Falstaff. Understandable fears were raised for the 85-year-old legend, AKA Gandolf,  after he crashed into the orchestra pit during a performance at the Noel Coward Theatre and was rushed to hospital.

Robert Icke’s Player Kings is an unashamed showcase for Sir Ian, compressing into one play Sir John Falstaff’s ‘star turns’ across Shakespeare’s King Henry IV Parts One and Two (plus his poignantly reported demise at the start of Henry V). We saw the production  at Manchester Opera House and were transfixed by this bravura, fat-padded tour de force.

So how does this tally with arguably the most unprepossessing of our sustainable fish? Well, think unsustainable PM Rishi Sunak’s cunning plan for National Service. On the eve of the Battle of Shrewsbury Sir John regrets lining his own pockets through his ‘recruitment policy’: “If I be not ashamed of my soldiers, I am a soused gurnet.”

Typically Tudor, the gurnard’s fillets have been marinated in vinegar. This week in the Medlock Canteen, one of Manchester’s most interesting new eating places, I was served it whole off the barbecue as a fish special of the day, the bulging eyes in its large, prehistoric head staring regretfully up at me from a pool of melted butter, infused with lemon and chive. It was quite glorious, the firm white flesh easily detached from its bony, spiny frame. It’s not so easy to fillet the fish raw,

My fine specimen was apparently fresh in that day, so no qualms about ordering, Once home, though, I checked the Marine Stewardship Council sustainability charts to find the red gurnard fishery may be in choppier waters than I envisaged. I was certain it was the red common in the Irish Sea and off Cornwall, not the larger grey or tub varieties found elsewhere. The Project Inshore assessment, based on MSC sustainability standards? “Red gurnard – often a favourite among those encouraging consumers to choose alternative species – fared less well in the report (than cod and cockles). A shortage of data about fish stocks and limited management of catches mean that there is an urgent case for investment to improve our understanding of this fishery. While a shortage of data doesn’t mean that the fisheries are inherently unsustainable, that data will be increasingly important as the species gains in popularity and catches increase.”

Further choppy waters as I discover a Wildlife Trusts warning to avoid during the breeding season, May-July, while the Cornwall Seafood Guide advises against eating during the spawning season, April 20 August. Whatever, only consume mature gurnard, ie longer than 24cm. My lunch certainly measures up to that

My old friend Clarissa Hyman has written the most scholarly appreciation of the gurnard: “(The red’s) bright-red coloration and pinkish-silver mottling has led to it being called the ‘grondin rouge’ in France and the ‘Engelse soldaat’ in the Netherlands, a reminder perhaps of the uniforms their former red-coated enemies across the Channel once wore…

“One immediately noticeable, and somewhat unnerving, feature is the fish’s long, thin lower rays or tentacles of the pectoral fins. These contain sensory organs used to sweep the sea bed for dinner – the small fish, crustaceans and other invertebrates that lurk in the sediment. They derive their more gentle, alternate American name of sea robin from the large pectoral fins with which they seemingly ‘fly’ through the seas.” 

Once they are caught, then, what’s the best cooking method? The usual fillets fried, grilled poached or baked, all taking advantage of its firm white flesh, almost stickily akin to monkfish, that other ugly bruiser from the deep. Bouillabaise or soup would certainly accommodate the gurnard. Gone are the days when they seemd only fit for lobster bait. Endorsed by chefs, the gurnard is upwardly mobile. Quite a feat for a bottom-dwelling species given to making an unappetising croaking noise. Moral of the tale – who needs Sexy Fish when you’ve got Ugly Fish?

Hellens, a Tudor manor house outside Much Marcle, has much to offer. One day I plan to take in its annual spring music festival, perhaps mooching around the knot and cloister gardens or the yew labyrinth on this verdant private estate. But most of all it’s their pear trees that top my bucket list. Imagine – in full bloom – an avenue of them, some dating back to 1706, planted to celebrate the coronation of Queen Anne. A stone mill and two large presses survive in the barn. In those days the perry from such saplings was as esteemed as fine wine.

Time has since taken its toll on this Herefordshire heartland (and the neighbouring counties of Gloucesterhire and Worcestershire). Perry sank out of mainstream fashion. Changing agricultural priorities saw orchards and hedgerows ripped out. Now when artisanal fermented pear juice is enjoying a critical resurgence, fireblight threatens to ravage the trees of this unique terroir. There appears to be no protection against this deadly bacteria.

Bittersweet musings then as I neck a bottle of Newton Court Black Mountain Sparkling Perry while I digest Adam Wells’ Perry: A Drinker’s Guide (CAMRA Books £17.99)a hugely evocative beacon of hope that manages to be more celebration than elegy. It’s a wonderful, revelatory read.

I accompanied it with a digital peek at the Herefordshire Pomona, a 19th century illustrated compendium of apple and pears. Very rare, just 600 copies. Buy one and it might set you back £5,000. So beautiful, though. Alongside small producer standard bearers Oliver’s, Little Pomona, Ross-on-Wye, Gregg’s Pit, Artistraw and Newton Court are all, the true heroes are the trees. 

In Adam’s words: “Perry pear varieties grow on trees that can age over 300 years and grow 60ft tall with 50ft canopies, that at their largest hold over a tonne of fruit. Their drink is harder to make, takes more care, than cider—but the best examples are the match of anything ever fermented. You can make it from any pears but most of the best is made from vicious, tannic, acidic, misshapen fruits called ‘perry pears,’ some so inedible that even pigs reject them. Each has a different flavour.”

Here’s a trio of hero trees which typify the fragile survival of the species. Their continuing existence is down to the sheer bloody-mindedness of their discoverers and protectors…

Flakey Bark

Thought to be extinct until Charles Martell (of Stinking Bishop cheese and Gloucester Old Spot pigs fame) happened to spot six trees on the slope of May Hill as he passed by on a horse and cart. These were the only Flakey Barks in existence, over a century old. The revival began. Adam Wells describes the taste of the perry they make as “an earthy, big-boned, hugely tannic bruiser whose flavours and aromas bellow of the land; a textural, visceral medley of petrichor, warm earth, pear skin, dried leaves, lanolin and smokiness, richened by dried pear fruit and peach pits. Try the Flakey Bark single varietal from Ross on Wye Cider & Perry Company.

Gregg’s Pit

That’s the name of one of the stalwart cider and perry makers of Herefordshire, 30 years and counting, with 14 champion Perrymaker trophies under their belt. It’s also the name of the 250 year old ‘mother tree’ of the pear variety of that name. Perry calls their bottled and draught perries “amongst the most pristine, elegant and pure of fruit in the world.”


Now here hangs a tale. I first encountered it as a chapter in Dan Saladino’s Eating to Extinction (Jonathan Cape, £25), his exploration of the world’s rarest foods and their importance. I was lucky enough to taste a work in progress sample in the barrel store of Tom Oliver, arguably the most famous cider and perry maker on the planet (and veteran road manager of The Proclaimers). 20 years ago he tracked down the last remaining tree in a remote spot. DNA testing took years but eventually it was conformed as the real deal. The core range at Oliver’s Cider and Perry, near the delightfully bucolic sounding hamlet of Ocle Pychard, is blends, but he makes an exception for the scant amount of Coppy available. It was sharp and sherbety with the promise of great thongs to come. Another of those magical perry moments Wells celebrates.

Alongside Tom Oliver, I was also lucky enough to meet James and Susanna Forbes from Cutting edge Little Pomona and Paul Stephens from Newton Court on a recent visit to Herefordshire. All were amazing folk, passionate about their perry mission. Here’s the Herefordshire travel article I wrote for the Confidentials.

Perry – I put the the big questions to Adam Wells

Adam is a very busy man at the moment. It’s not just the launch of his book, the first definitive guide devoted solely to perry; he has also been shortlisted in the Drink Writer category of the Fortnum and Mason Awards for his work editing Cider Review. Somehow he found time to answer the questions of a serious perry convert.

Why is it important to produce such a comprehensive book on perry at this time?

I think perry has deserved its own dedicated resource for centuries really. It’s an ancient, fascinating, idiosyncratic, unique product and its best examples are the equal of any drink ever fermented. But in the last six years, whilst macro perry and pear cider have nosedived there has been a resurgence of interest in what I call ‘aspirational perry’ – perries of craft and care made with high juice content, with reverence towards orchards and varieties, in a range of exciting styles and in countries and regions all around the world. It’s these perries that the book exists to unpack and champion – and it’s a world that’s difficult to fully explore without insider knowledge. I hope that Perry: A Drinker’s Guide helps make that exploration easier.

After centuries of decline is today a golden age for perry? Or a final flowering of a niche drink?

I think it’s a really special time for perry. Not only in the UK, but all over the world – indeed the UK is arguably just catching up with the international renaissance that perry has seen for a couple of decades now in France, Austria and increasingly the USA. So I’d certainly hope it isn’t a final flowering. There are challenges, sure – they’re outlined in the book and there’s certainly no room for complacency – but almost certainly the best perries that have ever been bottled are sitting on shelves around the world right now. And in my optimistic opinion they’re only going to keep getting better.

From your evocative prose you are deeply in love with everything around pears and perry. As are so many determined small producers. What makes it so special? Compared, say, with higher profile cider. Does it really offer such a breadth of individual styles and why? What should we look out for? 

I’m a big subscriber to what Rachel Hendry has brilliantly described as ‘compound drinking’. I worked in the wine industry for eight years, and am now in the spirits industry. Before I wrote a word on cider and perry I’d written about whisky for six years. And my love and understanding of all of those drinks directly feeds into and informs my love of perry – and indeed gives me context for how special and distinct perry is in its own right. 

So I don’t know that I’d say that perry is more or less special than any of the other drinks that I love. What I would say is that it is comfortably the most undersung and overlooked of all those drinks. Arguably aspirational cider is itself a niche – and perry has only ever really been written about as almost a subcategory of that niche rather than a beautiful, dazzling thing in its own right, with its own flavours, textures, history, stories, characters, trees, messiness and excitement. 

There’s so much that makes it special and unique – my book is hopefully a starting point for a broad and comprehensive celebration of all that. And of course my book merely builds on the work done by makers, campaigners and advocates worldwide for decades before I even knew what perry was.

A breadth of styles and varieties? Well there are over 100 distinct varieties of perry pear in the UK alone, probably even more in France and maybe more again in Central Europe alone, each with their own flavours and characteristics. There are perries at every stop along the sweetness spectrum, sparkling perries made through the pét nat method, the traditional (champagne) method, the charmat (prosecco method). There are fortified perries, there are mistelles – blends of unfermented juice with pear spirit. And, of course, there are simply beautiful still, dry perries. And these are being made by hundreds of producers in dozens of countries globally. So yes, there’s quite a breadth!

Are terroir and vintages important? Can perry improve with age or is it better fresh?

Lots of good questions there! I’d say that the answers to all of them are just the same as in wine. Terroir and vintage are absolutely critical, though producers will look to emphasise them to a greater or lesser extent depending on what they’re looking to achieve – just as in wine. There are blazing hot, super-ripe years like 2018 and 2023 which massively impact flavours, and vintages like 2020 (a personal favourite vintage, if a rather grim year) where phenolic and sugar ripenesses have achieved a beautiful balance. 

Terroir has been written about in perry since at least the 5th century AD, and can be as ultra-granular as a single tree. Since perry comes from a plant – the pear tree – it can of course be impacted by terroir, just as literally every plant, be it barley or grapes or apples or hops is. How much any given producer wants to showcase, that is another matter.

Ageing? It’s like wine again. Some – probably most – perry is best drunk young and fresh, when it’s all about those lovely juicy or zingy primary fruit characteristics, just as most wine is drunk in its youth for the same reason. But pears which have the structural properties to maintain freshness through long ageing – acidity, tannins, complex flavour compounds – can mature beautifully. I recently drank a Ross-on-Wye Flakey Bark 2017 which was as vivid as the day it was bottled. I was lucky enough to try a 2001 Moorcroft from Kevin Minchew in 2022 which was absolutely firing with flavour and far from at the end of its life. And I’ve even had a 1991 Schweizer Wasserbirne – a variety which I absolutely wouldn’t have thought of as a long-ageing candidate – which still had plenty left to give. So very little is known about the potential for maturing perry. But can certain perries age? Absolutely.

Perry’s is obviously a romantic story – from the precarious survival of ancient trees to the personal characteristics of individual pears. But producing it looks fraught with peril from harvesting to pressing. Why is this?

‘Peril’ might be overselling it, but certainly perry is almost uniquely challenging to make. Most of that comes down to the pears themselves. The challenges of harvesting from a 60-foot tall tree are pretty obvious – if the fruit doesn’t splat when it hits the ground you’ve about a tonne’s worth to pick up from the biggest examples, which doesn’t always ripen evenly. There are pears like Yellow Huffcap that refuse to drop their full fruit load and start rotting from the inside out whilst still on the branch. There are varieties like Thorn or Moorcroft which have painfully short ripeness windows – sometimes just 24 hours. 

The physical make-up of pears mean they clog presses far more than apples do. Most of them are higher-ph than apples, so they’re more susceptible to bacterial infection. Their tannic structure means you can put them through a filter and they’ll still throw sediment on the other side and you can blend two perfectly clear perries together and end up with milk. 

And that probably isn’t the half of it. So absolutely – great perry takes consummate care and attention. Which is all the more reason to celebrate the remarkable fact that it even exists.

So why are flatbreads having their moment? And how many snails have to make the ultimate sacrifice to sate the ‘pillowy flatbread’ Instagrammers of London? Pillowy is always the reviewers’ adjective to bolster the image of unleavened delight. In the right hands. No one’s going to laud a supermarket pitta for its fluffiness.

But back to the Escargots and the topping role they are playing. Roe, a new 500-seater restaurant, has opened in Canary Wharf. It is an offshoot of Fallow in St James’ (my review), which sold 10,000 whole smoked cod’s heads dowsed in a sriracha emulsion in its first five months. At Roe the grasp-the-nettle dish is a flatbread with snail vindaloo, mint yoghurt and coriander for £11. For a fiver more there’s a Cornish scallop/bacon butter one.

Meanwhile, over in Shoreditch, bless, Bistro Freddie’s calling card is a more classic snails and parsley butter version, sometimes elevated to tarragon butter with scratchings of crisp chicken skin. Alternatively there’s currently a £13.50 bouillabaisse flatbread. Surely that’s the equivalent of pineapple on a pizza? Still it is an eye-catcher in these confusing  times when Esquire can devote a whole article to The Instagrammable Flatbread.

One reveal there from a Freddie’s sous-chef: “Flatbreads are traditionally unleavened (as the name suggests just flour, salt and water), but at many restaurants, flatbread dough and pizza dough are now basically the same thing. The yeast or sourdough starter (leavening agents) give the bread an improved flavour as well as those charming air bubbles and a pillowy (sic) texture. I guess it’s a way of un-Italian restaurants using a pizza without having to use the name.”

Flatbread goes upmarket. In January Tomos Parry’s Mountain in Soho was named Best New Restaurant in the Good Food Guide Awards and soon after scooped a Michelin star. When we visited to review we were so smitten by the house flatbread being wolfed by our neighbours we ordered our own to mop up some spice-oozing chorizo and ‘nduja with honey.

Manchester is awash with glistening flatbreads of a similar provenance and there is a substantial link with London. Freddie head chef is Anna Søgaard, once a key player in the rise of Ancoats. Raised between Florida and Copenhagen, Anna spent time in Nordic fine dining before joining Erst in 2019 and was co-founder of Manchester charity supper club Supp-HER.

Flatbreads are a constant at Erst, the current Manchester Food and Drink Awards Restaurant of the Year, which still modestly tags itself a ‘Natural Wine Bar & Restaurant. Lardo or gremolata are the usually, equally modest sounding toppings of choice. Cue Observer critic Jay Rayner, who kicked off with their flatbread take on pan con tomate: “On the grill it has bulged and expanded, blistered and broken. It is spread with freshly chopped tomato pulp, grassy olive oil and a knuckle-crack of garlic…. It manages to be crisp and soft, sour and mellow all at the same time. It is the best £5 I have spent in a very long time. Alongside it, we have ordered meaty Cantabrian anchovies, floating on their olive oil pond, with a generous dusting of chilli flakes. The anchovies find their way on to the bread…

“We tell our waiter we’d like another. He reminds us that we’ve already ordered the other version, which comes brushed fatly with garlic herb butter, with a quenelle of bright white whipped lardo on the side. I spread it across the hot bread and watch it melt into the crevices. It’s dripping toast, but as rebooted by Hollywood. It’s the George Clooney of garlic breads: elegant, sophisticated, but with substance underpinning the gloss and shimmer.” Don’t sit on the fence, Jay. 

I think he’d also love the genuinely pillowy offering at a ‘Persian Flatbread Kitchen’ that has surfaced in the Exhibition food hall on Peter Street, Manchester, ironically opposite Neapolitan dough champions Rudy’s Pizza. Another Hand, up on Deansgate Mews, has already won plaudits for its ‘Wildfarmed flour’ house flatbreads but at just 24 covers and concentrating on multi-courses there was felt a need for a further outlet. Hence Jaan By Another Hand, sharing the substantial dining space with two Manc indie favourites Baratxuri and OSMA. It also stays true to the sustainable ethos of Another Hand’s chef duo of Julian Pizer and Max Yorke. Unused produce from Another Hand can transfer to a second kitchen in a fast paced venue, further reducing their waste systems.

The slow-fermented, wood-fired flatbread menu is invitingly comprehensive, featuring the likes of slow cooked lamb shank, ancient grains, house pickles, lemon tahini labne, feta mint and house flatbreads; grilled octopus, ‘nduja, green tomato, rosemary, smoked peppers, blackened lime and puffed grains; fire roasted sea trout fatoush salad, fried bred radish and sumac; chermoula chicken broken rice, pickled tomatoes and crispy herbs; and scorched summer squash, burnt onion broth, pickled chilli and za’atar. 

Dishes are priced between £8 for a simple back garlic butter version to £24 for the lamb shank. A good way in is the lunchtime special (until 4pm), which currently offers. for £10. the ras-al-hanout lamb flatbread plus a soft drink or non-alcoholic beer (for £2 more substitute a glass of decent Macedonian white). In addition Julian kindly sent out an extra elderflower-infused smashed cucumber and pickled seaweed salad (£6.50) that was a perfect complement. At Exhibition you can mix and match dishes from across the trio of operators.

The world is flat-bread! Even Noma is getting in on the act

All the fine purveyors mentioned are only reinventing the wheel, Flatbreads remain ubiquitous and essential across many cultures. The list is endless – pide and gözleme in Turkey, tabouna in Palestine, Pane carasau in Sardinia, injera in Ethiopia, roti/chapati across the Indian sub-continent and mch, much more. All based on the wholesome trinity of flour water and salt.

My own attempts have been a mixed success. but I was pleased with my take on Noma Projects’ Flatbread with Garum marinated oyster mushrooms. Even if I did substitute Watkins mushroom ketchup and a dash of colatura di alici for Rene Redzepi’s smoked mushroom garum. Here is the surprisingly undaunting recipe.