How a snail trail led back to Manchester’s own flourishing flatbread scene

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.