I love the shaded downstairs bar at Kala in Manchester. It’s a place of assignation. You just slip in off King Street and slide onto a tall stool. Open a copy of The Times at the obituaries section to signal you are here to the swarthy man in the Crombie three seats away. There is information to be shared in covert fashion. The fate of nations may hang in the balance over a glass of Sicilian Catarratto. Even that name is suggestive of subterfuge.

OK, it’s called fantasising. As I await the October publication of a posthumous John le Carré novel I have daydreamed back into the treacherous world of George Smiley and his Russian nemesis, Karla. Just lose the R. The swarthy contact is an old PR pal I’m meeting for lunch and urgent post-lockdown gossip. He may know where the bodies are buried but he’s not telling. 

There’s a table awaiting us upstairs at this Manchester link in Gary Usher’s Elite Bistros chain. You can’t avoid mentioning the patron; it’s like failing to affix ‘Putin’s’ to ‘Russia’. Inimitably he’s been back on social media recently, defending one corner of his empire against some bolshie customer while in June he re-emphasised his crowdfunding genius by raising over £150,000 in 24 hours to create a catering arm for his company.

As you can gather I’m a fan of Usher and his bistros and I’m glad they’ve held it all together during the pandemic. I’ve dined at four out of the six and never had a remotely unsatisfying experience.

This last time is no different. The set menus are pricier than of yore – three courses for £40, two for £35 – but worth it. There’ s a canny continuity about the Elite food offering in the hands of exec chef Richard Sharples. The unsurpassable wobbly custard tart is nowhere to be seen, alas, but the stalwart featherblade of beef glows out of the menu sheet and has to be my main. The swarthy one take a punt on the plaice.

First, though, the starters. Mine is an uncompromising looking dish of squid rings two ways, au naturel (encasing charred aubergine, lemon and confit garlic) and blackened on a red pepper sauce. Perfectly Med. My ‘sinister companion’ finds equal joy in the creamiest puddle of burrata hosting cubes of pickled kohlrabi with a blackened spring onion and fennel seed dressing.

The surprisingly fleshy plaice is grilled whole, then dressed with salted lemon butter. Watercress and straw potatoes are ideal simple accompaniments and there’s also ‘leek ash’, which is superfluous.

Which brings us finally to the signature bistro dish that is as magnificent as ever – the featherblade, here partnered with ruby beetroot ketchup and parmesan truffle chips. Oh and a summery bottle of Jean-Marc Burgaud Beaujolais.

So what is the secret of the Kala featherblade?

We went undercover to find out. Actually we Googled it. First you need the right cut from a grass-fed beast – a long flat muscle tucked in behind the shoulder blade, also known as flat iron. A line of connective tissue runs through the featherblade’s centre; cooked down this creates a gelatinous texture that generates great gravy and consistent texture. The blade is best slow-cooked whole.

The Elite Bistro chefs braise it for up to eight hours in chicken stock and red wine, along with a mirepoix of onion, carrot, celery, leek, garlic, thyme, and rosemary. To create a sauce they stick the mirepoix in a huge pan with a load of chicken bones and simmer overnight. Next day the liquid is strained, then reduced with red wine until it’s a rich, glossy sauce. 

It’s not finished there. Usher revealed the final secret touch in an interview: “We take the blade and put it in a pan of this sauce. Then literally someone stands there spooning the sauce over the meat, again and again, for 20 minutes. What happens is, as the sauce reduces, it’s getting thicker and stickier. Every time you put it on, it’s creating a layer. That’s where the sticky, naughty dirtiness of it comes from.”

Truly evil, just like Karla.

Kala, 55 King Street, Manchester, M2 4LQ. 0161 839 3030. Reservations 0800 160 1811.

Finnochio’s, a San Francisco night club, famed for its drag queens, just failed to make it past the Millennium, having traded for decades on the Italian slang word for homosexual, rent boy even. Why the generic name for fennel took on queer connotations I have no idea; I’m just happy to pay upfront for the culinary satisfaction Finnochio always brings – in all of its forms.

In particular I’m hooked on fennel pollen. It’s a speciality of Tuscany, but it is taken to the next level in Calabria, Italy’s deep south, where they call it “the spice of angels”. It soars way above earthbound fennel seeds.

Calabria, source of the finest wild fennel pollen, dubbed ‘spice of the angels

Hand harvested, like the equally labour intensive saffron, and dried in the sun, it comes at a premium (around £16 for 15g). Understandably, each flower head will only yield about a ¼ teaspoon of creamy yellowy pollen at the most. Yet it offers a defining taste of the Mediterranean summer with a little going a long way. A pinch will provide an explosion of liquorice, anise and citrus, which used sparingly, can add an extra dimension to both sweet and savoury dishes. 

Combine it with Himalayan pink salt to create a rub for pork, use it to energise an orange and olive oil cake or simply finish off a pasta dish with a dash. I add it to stocks and soups obsessively.

You could, of course, harvest your own but wild fennel is not at its most intense in my Yorkshire hinterland. And bear in mind, ye who balk at picking wild mushrooms, fennel and poisonous hemlock (remember Socrates) are both in the same carrot family, sharing distinctive umbrella-shaped flower clusters; those of fennel are yellow, hemlock white.

If you’re still keen peruse these instructions by Californian master forager Hank Shaw, one of my go-to gurus in all things wild.

As an alternative, two reliable online sources of authentic fennel pollen are Spice Mountain and Sous Chef.

Fennel pollen and Florence fennel bulb are related but offer different culinary properties

So how does the pollen relate to fennel bulb?

A perennial home favourite of mine has been a fennel risotto with vodka (recipe here) from the River Cafe cookbooks, enhanced of late by the addition of my beloved pollen. It uses those white bulbs we know as Florence fennel, dubbed ‘pregnant celery’ by the writer Maggie Stuckey and adapted to be used as a vegetable, particularly good with fish.

Both wild and domesticated fennel are he same plant, Foeniculum vulgare, the feral stuff only differing because it rarely sets a bulb. Fennel is tough, appropriately enough for giving its name in Greece to Marathon (the place with much fennel). It is herbaceous, meaning it “dies” every year and regrows from the root in spring.

All that rebirth stuff chimes with the mythological (and health promoting) status of finocchio. It was inside a stalk of dried fennel that Prometheus, defying Zeus hid a charcoal lump from the chariot of the sun to bring the gift fire to humankind.

My little pot of fennel pollen is my own gift of pagan sunshine that keeps my kitchen civilised throughout the dreary winter.

“Good cooking is a result of a balance struck between frugality and liberality,” wrote Patience Gray in the introduction to her seminal 1986 work, Honey From a Weed, an account of her peripatetic roughing it around various primitive corners of the Med.

“It is borne out in communities where the supply of food is conditioned by the seasons. Once we lose touch with the spendthrift aspect of Nature’s provisions, epitomised in the raising of a crop, we’re in danger of losing touch with life itself.”

Her mid-century foraging across forest and shoreline is a far cry from our well-stocked global larders. She never purchased a plastic pack of ‘wild’ rocket in her life. It grew outside her rustic stone dwelling and like all the other edible ‘weeds’ tasted far more intense.

Not quite at this level, but a return to frugality may be closer than we think as post-Brexit the supermarket shelves are increasingly stocked with tumbleweed. The grande dame of making do, Patience’s ways may yet be a virtue.

As a dog owner myself I’m reticent about urban foraging; at the same time I’m averse to buying drab pre-packed veg, preferring to grow my own limited crops or to seek out growers (preferably organic) who cut out the middle man. 

I invariably take two bags to a local market on a Sunday, where farm folk travel over from West Lancashire, guaranteeing 80 per cent of their seasonal, conventional produce to be from their own fields (lemons I don’t expect from outside Ormskirk). Two bags? To fit in the bunches of beetroot, carrots, celeriac and radishes all with their ample fronds still attached. 

They are the tops, in more ways than one. We are talking young specimens with bright, spry leaves and stalks; if they are muddy and wilting just chuck them. And fear not they aren’t toxic;  indeed they are rammed with goodness.

Juicy beet bits are reminiscent of rainbow chard  – a member of the same family – but I also love the uber pepperiness of radish tops added to a South Indian dal. It takes moments to turn either into the simplest of fresh salads. With the iron-rich beetroot briefly blanch the stalks and reunite them with the leaves, dressed with a splash of sherry vinegar and olive oil.

Carrot tops contain around six times more vitamin C than the root, plus potassium, calcium and phytonutrients. The abundant lacy leaves soon lose their swish, so I’d recommend swiftly turning them into a pesto that does not lose by it slight bitterness. By all means blend the tops with native hazelnuts, rapeseed oil and cheddar or, better still, go the Ligurian way (minus the basil but using pine nuts, parmesan and extra virgin olive oil. If you’ve got me trofie pasta in the pantry all the better. I substituted linguine.

Radish tops are the most perishable of all. Separate them, store in a fridge and use within 24 hours. Perhaps substitute them for spinach in a herby filo pie with feta and nigella seeds or just wilt them in butter with grated nutmeg. Postscript: they are perhaps the most nutritious of the trio. They rank right up there with broccoli and kale in terms of antioxidants, while they’re also packed with vitamin C and calcium.

Now come on, eat your greens.

One trip down Manchester memory lane for me is to check my Bhangra Beatnikz beer cocktail recipe remains on the Dishoom website.

Still there. It won best cocktail at the last Too Many Critics charity dinner held in the city with seven food writers battling it out in the Manchester Hall kitchens of the newly arrived Indian restaurant group. It was all about raising money for Action Against Hunger. If you must know, my hake moilee was also awarded best dish – mainly thanks to copious amounts of coconut milk and head chef Naved’s team holding my hand.

The date? Monday March 18. The last time I crossed the threshold of Dishoom’s latest loving homage to the Irani cafes of old Bombay (now Mumbai). Opened early last century by Zoroastrian immigrants from Iran, there were almost 400 of these cafés at their peak in the 1960s. Now fewer than 30 remained before Covid. Who knows what the future holds for them?

“Their faded elegance welcomed all: courting couples, sweaty taxi-wallahs, students, artists and lawyers. The cafés broke down barriers by bringing people together over food and drink. Bombay was more open and welcoming for their existence.”

That warm hospitality applied equally to Dishoom Manchester – even if the ‘faded’ bit was a mite more studied – until the lockdown closures.

During those barren, frightening periods I kept my passion for Dishoom’s food alive by cooking from the pages of Dishoom ‘From Bombay With Love’ (Bloomsbury, £26). With its evocative photographs and a retro design, it’s arguably the most vivid and elegant cookbook of recent times. Not just about food, it was also an eccentric travelogue about a city that has captivated me on both my visits.

I cooked from it a lot, even essaying their signature black daal via a short cut recipe that didn’t require 24 hours in the pot and much sturdy stirring. To attempt their bacon naan (pictured above with Ghanesh) seemed sacrilege, though. The home kit for that groundbreaker did tempt me, but I never ordered. Now finally when all the Dishooms – in London, Manchester, Birmingham and Edinburgh – are thankfully open again, I couldn’t resist a home delivery ‘taster’ before resuming direct Dishoom fan duties. No, not as a punkah wallah, just a punter.

What a line-up that arrived on our doorstep with full instructions

OUR DISHOOM HOME FEAST

Feast is the right word, a well balanced selection of Dishoom classics: House Black Daal, Mattar Paneer, Lamb Sheekh Kababs, Murgh Malai, Bhel, Kachumber, and Tawa Rotis. To accompany it there’s a bottle of Mango Lassi, and for pud a sweet, creamy Gulkand Mess. A very attractive line-up.

The whole assemblage held its own against my favourite menu kits – from Northcote, Hakkasan and Clays Hyderabadi Kitchen. Few real kitchen skills were required. Accompanying printed instructions were clear (I didn’t bother with the videos).  Preparation time was posited at 45 minutes, which was about right. They never warn you of the washing up time after!

Trying to balance grilling the lamb (Sheekh Kababs) and chicken Murgh Malai) with stove top cooking the Tawa Rotis was the only bit that got me hot under the collar (oh for a couple of chilled Bhangra Beatnikz at my elbow). Standout dish was the paneer with peas, but all the dishes felt restaurant standard and authentic, not the cobbled together, outsourced disappointments of certain home deliveries. Not naming names.

The whole package costs £60, to serve two to three people. We augmented it with our own saffron rice and a Sri Lankan coconut dal (Meera Sodha recipe) to ensure it fed four. It was more than ample. Leftovers? A stylish Dishoom tea towel and four metal skewers (for the lamb and chicken) we shall treasure.

Buy Home Feast here. You can also upgrade your kit to include a bottle of Int3gral3 Italian natural sparkling wine for an extra £20. For every kit Dishoom donate a meal to charity partner Akshaya Patra.

Ominous warning for the recipe I was about to challenge myself with. Spicy Mutton and Tomato Biang Biang noodles. What could possibly go wrong? Not the roasted tomato and mutton broth constituents of this adaptation by Pippa Middlehurst of a classic dish from Xi’an, eastern hub of the Silk Road.

No, it was the handling of the biang biang that was likely to shoot me in the foot. Basically you’ve got one chance to stretch the noodle dough to the right silky, elasticity. BIang Biang is the onomatopoeic sound the dough makes when you slap it on the worktop. Pippa says it takes practice to perfect; after much trepidation and the required minimal contact I landed lucky with my metre lengths of noodle. Comparatively. The final dish, laced with coriander, cumin and star anise, was gorgeous.

It’s from Bowls and Broths (Quadrille £16.99), sophomore cookbook by the cancer research scientist turned supper club maestro, aka @pippyeats, after the huge success of her debut, Dumplings and Noodles

The new book will be published on September 2, ahead of the launch of her food school and fully-equipped community cookery space for hire, Noodlehaus in Ancoats later in the year. It might well fit the bill for any further educational initiation of mine into the noodlesphere. So far £43,775 has been pledged in a Kickstarter Campaign.

This base in an old mill is the obvious next step for Pippa, winner of the BBC’s Britain’s Best Home Cook in 2018. She quit the lab that year to run cookery workshops and supper clubs around Manchester under the Instagram soubriquet @pippyeats. Result of travels around Taiwan, China and Japan, including noodle school in Lanzhou, was Dumplings and Noodles.

Her latest local al fresco expedition was setting up stall last weekend at Platt Fields Market Garden, providing high class ballast for their Deya Brewing and Friends event. Yet another sign of a new wave city food culture that transcends traditional restaurants and bars.

As for her own project, she told my colleagues at Manchester Confidential ahead of her Kickstarter launch: “I am so excited to be able to create my dream cookery school in the heart of Manchester. The building is in an old mill and has the most incredible natural light,  which will be amazing for the photography workshops I will be hosting. The space will be open to all and I am looking forward to working with the community to provide a space that people can come and learn about cooking as well as share my love of cooking.”

That love of cooking bubbles over (like my biang biang noodle pot) in the new tome, which lives up to its manifesto: ‘Build a bowl of flavour from scratch with dumplings, noodles and more’. 

Broth is the key. So my next dip into Pippa’s bowl-centric universe is a ramen, a dish I love but – guess what? – have never quite got right. She proposes a Tonkotsu Tsukemen. Just need now to source the requisite amount of pork bones and chicken feet.

It’s a culinary keepsake from her time in Japan and bears the inevitable proviso: “The noodles were thick and bouncy with a perfect amount of resistance and chew.” For someone whose ‘al dente’ pasta has been dubbed by my nearest and dearest as ‘al dentist’ it’s yet another challenge.

Noodlehaus, 37-49 Devonshire Street North, Manchester, M12 6JR. pippyeats.com

Much has been made of the North’s dominance in the National Restaurant Awards announced this week with four out of the five best establishments up here and 16 in the top 40. Manchester only contributed two, both in Ancoats – Mana at number 11 and Erst, just along Murray Street, at 47. 

A truer reflection of the city’s strength in depth came hot on the heels of that national Top 100 when the shortlist for the Manchester Food and Drink Awards 2021 was announced. A record 113 nominees will contest the 15 categories, all the winners to be chosen entirely by the public for the first time in the MFDF’s 24 year history. 

It is a matter of expediency, post-Pandemic logistics meaning the normal ‘mystery shopping’ by the judging panel is impracticable. The Manchester Food and Drink Festival , sponsored by Just Eat, kicks off on September 16 and the Awards will be presented at the Ticket Hall at Escape to Freight Island (pictured above) on Monday, September  27.

As a senior MFDF judge my personal wish is for normal service to be resumed in 2022, but this fresh formula of the public picking their favourites from shortlists drawn up by the judges is an interesting litmus test. Ideally it will reflect the increased foodie sophistication of the city and its satellites alongside pride in the hospitality culture that has survived a torrid 18 months. One new category likely to be hotly contested is ‘Best Foodie Neighbourhood’.

You can vote for each Award via the MFDF website or app. The app can be downloaded on the App Store here and Google Play here. The closing date for votes is 11.59pm on Monday, September 20. Fancy a ticket for the Awards presentation dinner itself? Tickets are on sale here.

Here are the 2021 Manchester Food and Drink Awards Nominations:

RESTAURANT OF THE YEAR

Adam Reid at The French, 16 Peter St, Manchester M60 2DS

Baratxuri, 1 Smithy St, Ramsbottom, Bury BL0 9AT

Erst, 9 Murray St, Ancoats, Manchester M4 6HS

Hawksmoor, 184, 186 Deansgate, Manchester M3 3WB

Mana, 42 Blossom St, Ancoats, Manchester M4 6BF

The Spärrows, 16 Red Bank, Cheetham Hill, Manchester M4 4HF

Street Urchin, 72 Great Ancoats St, Manchester M4 5BG

Where The Light Gets In, 7 Rostron Brow, Stockport SK1 1JY

NEWCOMER OF THE YEAR sponsored by Manchester Evening News

District, 60 Oldham St, Manchester M4 1LE

Open Kitchen MCR, People’s History Museum, Left Bank, Manchester M3 3ER

Osma, 132 Bury New Rd, Prestwich, Manchester M25 0AA

Pho Cue Vietnamese Kitchen, 52a Faulkner St, Manchester M1 4FH

Ramona, 40 Swan St, Manchester M4 5JG

Schofield’s Bar, 3 Little Quay Street Sunlight House, Manchester M3 3JZ

Society, Basement, 100 Barbirolli Square, Manchester M2 3BD

The Moor, 27 Shaw Rd, Stockport SK4 4A

BAR OF THE YEAR

Albert’s Schloss, 27 Peter St, Manchester M2 5QR

Henry C, 107 Manchester Rd, Chorlton-cum-Hardy, Manchester M21 9GA

Kiosk, Lapwing Ln, West Didsbury, Manchester M20 6UT

Schofield’s Bar, 3 Little Quay Street Sunlight House, Manchester M3 3JZ

Speak in Code, 7 Jackson’s Row, Manchester M2 5ND

The Blues Kitchen, 13 Quay St, Manchester M3 3HN

The Jane Eyre, Ancoats, 14 Hood St, Ancoats, Manchester M4 6WX

Three Little Words, 12-13 Watson St, Manchester M3 4LP

CHEF OF THE YEAR

Adam Reid (The French), 16 Peter St, Manchester M60 2DS

Eddie Shepherd (The Walled Garden), The Pavilion, Byrom St, Manchester M3 3HG

Mary-Ellen McTague (The Creameries), 406 Wilbraham Rd, Manchester M21 0SD

Patrick Withington (Erst), 9 Murray St, Ancoats, Manchester M4 6HS

Rachel Stockley (Baratxuri), 1 Smithy St, Ramsbottom, Bury BL0 9AT

Sam Buckley (WTLGI), 7 Rostron Brow, Stockport SK1 1JY

Simon Martin (Mana), 42 Blossom St, Ancoats, Manchester M4 6BF

Terry Huang (Umezushi Omkase), Unit 4 Mirabel St, Manchester M3 1PJ

PUB OR BEER BAR OF THE YEAR

Beatnikz Republic, 35 Dale St, Manchester M1 2HF

Cob and Coal, Tommyfield Market Hall, Albion St, Oldham OL1 3BG

Edinburgh Castle, 17-19 Blossom St, Ancoats, Manchester M4 5AW

Heaton Hops, 7 School Ln, Stockport SK4 5DE

Nordie, 1044 Stockport Rd, Manchester M19 3WX

Reasons To Be Cheerful, 228 Fog Ln, Manchester M20 6EL

Society, Basement, 100 Barbirolli Square, Manchester M2 3BD

Stalybridge Buffet Bar, Platform 4, Stalybridge Railway Station, Rassbottom St, Stalybridge SK15 1RF

ARTISAN FOOD PRODUCER OF THE YEAR

Bread Flower

Companio Bakery, 35 Radium St, Ancoats, Manchester M4 6AD

Gooey, Ducie Street Warehouse, Manchester M1 2TP

Holy Grain Sourdough, 253 Deansgate Great Northern Mews, Manchester M3 4EN

Just Natas, Manchester Arndale, Manchester M4 3AD

Lily’s Deli, 102 Manchester Rd, Chorlton-cum-Hardy, Manchester M21 9SZ

Manchester Smokehouse, 18 Lloyd St, Manchester M2 5WA

Pollen Bakery, Cotton Field Wharf, 8 New Union St, Manchester M4 6FQ

POP UP/PROJECT OF THE YEAR

Eat Well MCR

Escape to Freight Island, 11 Baring St, Manchester M1 2PZ

Grub, 50 Red Bank, Cheetham Hill, Manchester M4 4HF

Homeground, Medlock St, Manchester M15 4AA

Kampus Summer Guest Events, Aytoun St, Manchester M1 3DA

Platt Fields Market, Platt Fields Market Garden Platt Fields Park, Fallowfield, Manchester M14 6LT

One Central, Charis House, 1 Central Way, Altrincham WA14 1SB

MIF Festival Kitchen Takeovers

NEIGHBOURHOOD VENUE OF THE YEAR sponsored by Roomzzz Aparthotels

Bar San Juan, 56 Beech Rd, Chorlton-cum-Hardy, Manchester M21 9EG

Levanter, 10 Square St, Ramsbottom, Bury BL0 9BE

Erst, 9 Murray St, Ancoats, Manchester M4 6HS

Fisherman’s Table, 103 Church Ln, Marple, Stockport SK6 7AR

Lily’s, 85 Oldham Rd, Ashton-under-Lyne OL6 7DF

Porta, Salford, 216 Chapel St, Salford M3 6BY

Oystercatcher, 123 Manchester Rd, Chorlton-cum-Hardy, Manchester M21 9PG

Stretford Foodhall, 123 Manchester Rd, Chorlton-cum-Hardy, Manchester M21 9PG

FOOD TRADER OF THE YEAR

Abeja, Oxford Rd, Manchester M1 7ED

Archchi’s

Gooey, Ducie Street Warehouse, Manchester M1 2TP

Honest Crust sourdough pizza

Maison Breizh

Pico’s Tacos

Tender Cow

Wholesome Junkies, 49 High St, Manchester M4 3AH

AFFORDABLE EATS OF THE YEAR sponsored by Just Eat

Abeja, Oxford Rd, Manchester M1 7ED

Chapati Café, 496B Wilbraham Rd, Chorlton-cum-Hardy, Manchester M21 9AS

Ca Phe Viet, 80-86 Oldham Rd, Ancoats, Greater, Manchester M4 5EB

Little Yeti, 495 Barlow Moor Rd, Chorlton-cum-Hardy, Manchester M21 8AG

Lily’s, 85 Oldham Rd, Ashton-under-Lyne OL6 7DF

Mi and Pho, 384 Palatine Rd, Northenden, Wythenshawe, Manchester M22 4F

COFFEE SHOP OF THE YEAR

Another Heart to Feed, Northern Quarter, 10 Hilton St, Manchester M1 1JF

Ancoat’s Coffee, 9, Royal Mill, 17 Redhill St, Ancoats, Manchester M4 5BA

Ezra & Gil, 20 Hilton St, Manchester M1 1FR

Federal, Northern Quarter, 9 Nicholas Croft, Manchester M4 1EY

Grindsmith, 62 Bridge St, Manchester M3 3BW

Grapefruit, 2 School Rd, Sale M33 7XY

Just Between Friends, 56 Tib St, Manchester M4 1LG 

Pollen Bakery, Cotton Field Wharf, 8 New Union St, Manchester M4 6FQ

Platt Fields Market Garden, Platt Fields Park, Fallowfield, Manchester M14 6LT

Rudy’s Pizza, 9 Cotton St, Ancoats, Manchester M4 5BF / Petersfield House, Peter St, Manchester M2 5QJ

FOODIE NEIGHBOURHOOD OF THE YEAR

Altrincham

Heaton Moor

Prestwich

Ramsbottom

Sale

Stockport

Stretford

Urmston

VEGETARIAN/VEGAN OFFERING OF THE YEAR 

Bundobust, 61 Piccadilly, Manchester M1 2AG

Eddie Shephard (Walled Garden), 17 Alness Rd, Whalley Range, Manchester M16 8SP

Four Side Pizza, 16-20 Turner St, Manchester M4 1BB

Herbivorous, Unit 16, Hatch, 103 Oxford Rd, Manchester M1 7ED

Lily’s, 85 Oldham Rd, Ashton-under-Lyne OL6 7DF

Sanskruti, 93-95 Mauldeth Rd, Manchester M14 6SR

Wholesome Junkies, 49 High St, Manchester M4 3AH

Vertigo, Unit 9, 11 Jack Rosenthal St, Manchester M15 4RA / Unit 2, Bridge House, Salford M50 2BH / 18 Cross St, Manchester M2 7AE

INDEPENDENT FOOD RETAILER OF THE YEAR

Bundobust, 61 Piccadilly, Manchester M1 2AG

Cloudwater Brewery, Units 12—13, Piccadilly Trading Estate, Manchester M1 2NP

Diablesse, 396 Wilmslow Road, Manchester, M20 3B

Hip Pop (Formerly Booch & Brew), Manor House Farm, Station Rd, Dunham Massey, Altrincham WA14 5SG

Manchester Gin, 10-15 Watson St, Manchester M3 4LP

Northern Monk, 10 Tariff St, Manchester M1 2FF

Pomona Island Beer Brew Co Ltd, Daniel Adamson Rd, Salford M50

Steep Soda Co, 73 Temperance St, Manchester M12 6HU

FOOD AND DRINK RETAILER OF THE YEAR

Ancoats General Store, 57 Great Ancoats Street, Manchester M4 5AB

The Butcher’s Quarter, 66 Tib St, Manchester M4 1LG

Bernie’s Grocery Store, 3 Hawthorn Grove, Heaton Moor, Stockport SK4 4HZ

Grape to Grain, 1 Church Ln, Prestwich, Manchester M25 1AN

Isca Wines, 825 Stockport Rd, Levenshulme, Manchester M19 3PN

Out of the Blue, 484 Wilbraham Rd, Chorlton-cum-Hardy, Manchester M21 9AS

Unicorn Grocery, 89 Albany Rd, Chorlton-cum-Hardy, Manchester M21 0BN

Wandering Palate, 191 Monton Rd, Eccles, Manchester M30 9PN

For more information about the Manchester Food and Drink Festival, visit http://foodanddrinkfestival.com/ and follow them on Twitter @McrFoodFest  and Instagram @mcrfoodfest

Summer 2021 marks two milestones in the post-industrial bubble that is Kelham Island. Cutting edge restaurant Jöro has expanded beyond its upcycled shipping container base to open a four-room boutique hotel nearby, complete with chef’s table, while the homely pub at the heart of this buzzing urban community is celebrating 40 years of just being The Fat Cat.

A maverick umbilical cord links that almost bucolic cask beer mecca, whose in-house brewery spawned the iconic Pale Rider ale, to the sleek steel (well it is Sheffield) Krynkl complex where chef Luke French has transformed the city’s culinary expectations over the past four years. It reached No.34 in the Estrella Damm National Restaurant Awards (announced on August 16).

Post lockdown it seemed a good time to visit both pioneering venues. So a tram from the station (after a Thornbridge Jaipur refresher, naturally at the Sheffield Tap on Platform 1B), then across the busy Shalesmoor roundabout to a suddenly hushed warren of backstreets to establish the respective locations.

Only disappointment of a dazzling day, the Kelham Island Tavern had been forced to shut

A detour might have been in order, too, to the Kelham Island Tavern, arguably the city’s best craft beer pub venue but – sign of the times – there was a Covid-closure note on the door. Still the pre-amble ramble did allow me to soak in the atmosphere of a district that defines industrial heritage and cool renewal…

Renewal, of course, means creatives clustering in shiny new build apartments or brick-heavy warehouse conversions with a casual bar/dining scene springing up to service the influx. And occasionally big hitters show up such as Mana in Ancoats, Brat in Shoreditch or Casamia on the Bristol waterfront. Sheffield has its own contender…

JÖRO

One slight tremor as I entered the penumbral interior, the normal 50 covers reduced as a Covd-safe measure. Would the widening horizons of Luke French and his wife and business director, Stacey Sherwood-French impact on the core operation? Not jut th hotel project but also street food spin-offs. Fear not this was an outstanding £65 eight course lunch that ate up three joyful hours. I’m not sure I’m a fan of the building, shaped from 29 shipping containers but I am of a serving staff that included one who had a sake qualification (thanks for the New Mountain Junmai recommendation) and another who knew his way round the new Spanish wine frontiers of Ribeira Sacra and Sierra de Gredos.

Chef Luke has previously expressed his desire to “find something similar to L’Enclume or The Black Swan at Oldstead, somewhere rural we can forage in and with a smallholding to grow our own ingredients.” For the moment he’s as urban as it gets, albeit with some amazing rural suppliers. Just a Michelin Bib for the moment but the food I encountered across my tasting menu surely deserve a star. Manchester’s own Mana deserves a second, but that’s a whole other matter.

Jöro Highlights? Virtually everything, from an early introduction to Chawanmushi, a savoury Japanese custard here flavoured with smoked eel, a tiny tranche of which also featured alongside salmon roe and pancetta. Wortley wagyu rump in a tartare with celeriac and mustard was less groundbreaking but equally wonderful. I should have asked about the Wortley provenance (it’s the fabled beef of Japan but reared in South Yorkshire’s grasslands); I didn’t make the same mistake with Doncaster peas. “You’ll taste them and know why,” was the enigmatic response. Their yoking with mint and lamb fat yielded more detailed exegesis. The key to the dish was ‘lamb garum’ where lamb mince and koji had been given 10 weeks in a water bath to create a fermented base for this incredible dish. For more on garum read my recent article.

What I really loved about the whole experience was a straightforward punch of flavours, whether a pure tranche of Cornish cod on a bed of smoked haddock and creme fraiche sauce or among the desserts the stand-out strawberries with lemon verbena and organic yoghurt. You get the dedication to our own raw materials filtered through an appropriated  Japanese and Norse (hence the name) sensibility.

Stays and JÖRO Packages can be booked online via this link.

THE FAT CAT

Neither of my two destinations is on the island proper, man-made in the 13th by diverting water from the River Don to power medieval mills. So a distant seed sown for the Industrial Revolution proper, the catalyst for which in Sheffield was the opening of John Crowley’s Iron Foundry in 1829, tapping into river power abundant coal and iron ore. 

If you want to get the full story visit the Kelham Island Museum, which was created 40 years ago. You can see it prize exhibition for free because the only Bessemer steel converter still in existence stands in front. This egg-shaped black hulk quickly revolutionised 19th century steel production.

Thirsty work, the industry in its heyday and pubs like The Alma just down the street of that name existed to slake those forge-driven thirsts. Then came the long slow decline of the Steel City. From the Seventies onwards recession and dereliction battered Kelham.

It took a brave man to acquire the Alma, change its name to the ironic Fat Cat and start brewing his own exceptional beer in the yard. 

That was the grand plan of Dave Wickett, the new co-owner. The pub introduced Sheffield to a cavalcade of guest beers and by 1990 when Dave took sole control he created his own Kelha Island Brewery in the beer garden. The pub survived flooding in 2007; the level is charted on the exterior alongside that of the The Great Sheffield Flood of 1864. It survived Dave’s early death and is still brewing in premises across the street.

In 2004 their flagship beer Pale Rider was voted Supreme Champion Beer of Britain at The Great British Beer Festival. It has hardly been off the hand pull ever since, though a recent month’s hiatus perturbed devotees.

Matthew Curtis, in his highly recommended new survey, Modern British Beer (CAMRA Books, £15.99) descrIbes Pale Rider thus: “There was some malt character in the flavour, soft and candy-floss sweet, but only fleetingly. This allowed a crescendo of hop to build with notes of candied orange peel to the fore, but they were restrained throughout with a balanced bittersweet finish forming at the end of this orchestral flourish. 

A touch flowery but a good summary of my ‘aperitif’ experience before lunch over at Jöro. Old meets new in one memorable Kelham Island afternoon.

What’s Italian for après le déluge? What I recall of the last Festa Italiana in 2019 was struggling out of sodden summer wear after some very non-Med weather drenched Cathedral Square. I’d have happily braved rain squalls in 2020 if Manchester’s most family friendly food event could have gone ahead, but that pesky pandemic played damp squib.

Still the forecast looks set fair for the August Bank Holiday weekend this year, with restrictions lifting. Fingers crossed then for th premed heatwave; the line-up looks a treat. OK, it’s not the place to catch up with the bright young masters of Italian cuisine. But a veteran trio of celeb chefs is always good value – step forward Gennaro Contaldo, Aldo Zilli and Giancarlo Caldesi to join those mere striplings, Festa organiser Maurizio Cecco (Salvi’s) and Fran Scafuri  (Tre Ciccio) in the on-site kitchen.

And if cookery demos are not your thing there’s a wealth of other foodie treats to get you salivating across the Festa (Fri-Sun Aug 27-29, 11am-11pm each day).

“The Festa is born out of Manchester’s Italian community and heritage; drawing huge inspiration from the traditional festivals in Italy and adding a touch of Mancunian flavour to create a weekend dedicated to bringing people together to enjoy authentic Italian food and drink, cooking masterclasses, banquets, movies and live music.” That’s what the organisers say and they’re not wrong on past evidence. Here’s the full programme:

Banquet – Festa Marquee

On Saturday, August 28, in partnership with Parmigiano Reggiano, legendary Italian restaurateurs, authors and UK TV favourites Gennaro Contaldo (Saturday Kitchen, Two Greedy Italians, Jamie and Jimmy’s Friday Night Feast), and Giancarlo Caldesi (Return to Tuscany, Saturday Kitchen, Sunday Brunch), will be joining Maurizio Cecco to talk guests through the menu. Buy tickets here.

Masterclasses – Festa Marquee

On Friday August 27 there will be a series of family masterclasses for those attending with children. At 1:30pm Sienna Cecco, Maurizio’s 12-year-old daughter, a talented chef with her own YouTube channel and TV appearances under her belt, will be hosting a cooking demo to teach kids how to make simple and tasty dishes with ease, and at 2:30pm, Julia Martinelli from Pasta Factory will deliver a fun kids pasta masterclass.

Sienna is back the next day at 12:30pm with another family masterclass. Then there will be back-to-back workshops and book signings hosted by Gennaro Contaldo at 1.30pm and Giancarlo Caldesi at 2:30pm. On the Sunday Gennaro will be back at 12:30pm with another masterclass and book signing, and at 1:30pm Tre Ciccio’s Fran Scafuri will be taking guests through a very special recipe. At 2:30pm, celebrity chef and award-winning restaurateur, Aldo Zilli, above, (The One Show, This Morning, Celebrity Masterchef) will be hosting a masterclass and book signing.

Food

Throughout the weekend Café Cannoli will be selling cannoli made using authentic ingredients imported directly from Sicily, local lads Paul and Mike from I Knead Pizza will be bringing their wood-fired oven along to serve up their Neapolitan pizza, while NQ Sicilian will be serving artisan gelato, coppa della casa, brioche gelato and brioche col tuppo. Pasta Factory will be serving up simple dishes, paired with handmade sauces inspired by Puglia. Paradiso Authentic Italian will be contributing its fresh tiramisú range. Festa stalwarts Proove will provide Neapolitan wood-fired pizza, while Lucky Mama’s will debut with their extruded pasta, homemade sauces and signature savoury/sweet dough balls. Not forgetting T’arricrii’s Sicilian specialities arancini and fritto misto and Tre Ciccio’s traditional Italian deli.

Movies

Peroni doesn’t just do drinks; the brew-based showstoppers will be popping up their portable cinema throughout the weekend, complete with bean bags, deck chairs, popcorn, Peroni on tap and themed classic movie screenings of Cinema Paradiso, Romeo and Juliet and La Dolce Vita. The cinema will be located in Cathedral Gardens trees with a Peroni bar adjacent.

Exploring Italy beyond pasta and pizza

This website is a homage to Italian specialities. Read about my passions for Cotechino, Bottarga and Colatura d’Alici.

So you think you know what Provencal rosé is all about? At the pale end of pale pink, ripe fruit with (you hope) some fresh acidity and a dry aftertaste? There will be a wide price range but a reassuring homogeneity, especially when chilled to within an inch of its roseate existence. 

Every summer now there seems to be a mad scramble to think pink, especially Provence. Hence an obligatory tasting of 300 in the current issue of Decanter magazine. Verdict of their rosé expert, Elizabeth Gabay MW: “Quality was consistently high, with some squeaky clean wines at all price points. The downside was an almost unending monotony of style.”

In the resultant Top 30 recommendations the rosé at No.5 (with 93 points) stands out as a ruddy maverick interloper among the pale brigade.

She describes Château Gasqui, Silice, Côtes de Provence Rosé 2019 as: “Pale red copper. Perfumed, almost grapey, red fruit aromas. On the palate a beautiful explosion of ripe red fruit, creamy apple compote, a touch of orange peel, marmalade, crushed citrus and some pretty leafy acidity. Quirkily different, intensely fruity and fresh. A gorgeous wine from a biodynamic producer, who is not afraid of ripe fruit and who makes wines which age with ease.”

What did also surprise was the UK supplier, https://www.owtleeds.comOWT of Leeds. Weren’t they the outfit that set up in the city’s Kirkgate Market with a menu generated from what was freshest on the stalls daily? ‘Owt!’ being the answer to what was available. It was a natural extension of co-owner James’s time as a volunteer chef at Real Junk Food Project flagship Armley Junk-tion. 

How does all this link to Southern France’s fields of lavender, sunflowers and vines? Bear with me for a paragraph. Well, OWT has now decamped from the Kirkgate to a cafe unit in the nearby Corn Exchange, Grade 1 listed, domed Victorian gem. The casual but precise food offering remains much the same – from breakfast to late afternoon but with a more expansive Thursday evening menu that wasn’t possible under market hours. 

Esther and James are, step by simple step, rising stars of the Leeds food scene

Oh and on the left as you go in among some chic OWT merchandise you’ll find a trio of exclusive Provencal wines from the family vineyard of James’s partner, Esther. Her surname, Miglio, is a clue to an Italian bloodline way back, but she is the very French daughter of Francois, winemaker for 30 years at Château Gasqui.

She’s proud of the Gasqui wines and so she should be. After hopping on a train to Leeds I can confirm what a complex belter the ‘Silice’ rosé is, like the Roche d’ Enfer! red, dominated by the Grenache grape. Yet just as striking was Esther’s favourite, the Roche d’ Enfer! white from 2013. The ageing has obviously benefited the Semillon that forms part of the cepage with  Rolle and Clairette. What struck was a hint of jasmine on the nose, a waxy mouthfeel and spice notes among the honeyed peachy fruit.

Château Gasqui’s vineyards are set in and support an idyllic natural landscape in the South of France

All three wines are available by the glass at £5, £25 the bottle (which is also the takeaway price). Not cheap but worth it for the purity of fruit extracted by Francois, driving force behind Gasqui being one of only two biodynamic producers in the region. Pictures of the vineyards radiate healthy, blossomig terroir. The brand-heavy fleshpots of Saint-Tropez and the Med Coast may be only 40km to the east but this is a world away, a sustainable enterprise, the antithesis of vinous bling. 

OWT’s food is a perfect complement to the wines. I lunched mid-afternoon off a small menu offering a choice of summer tartelette, aioli with prawns, ‘pepper patchwork’ or panzanella. I went for(and didn’t regret) the £10 steak plate that consisted of a 7oz Yorkshire rump steak, properly rare as requested, plus a herb salad and salsa verde. Fries had run out for the day (it was 3.30pm), so I ordered a side of OWT pickles at £3.50. Carrot, cucumber, ginger and red onion, all fresh and tangy as Esther recounted how after a history course at Marseille University she decided to check out Manchester and fell in love with it gigs and bars. There she met James and he persuaded her a future together lay in his native Yorkshire. God’s Own Country got the best of the deal, you feel, when you taste the wines she has brought with her.

OWT, Unit C12A&B Leeds Corn Exchange, Call Lane, Leeds LS1 7BR. 0113. 247 0706.

A swift guide to biodynamic winemaking and how it benefits Gasqui

Biodynamics is often referred to as ‘super-charged organic’. Its roots are in the theories  of the Austrian philosopher, Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925). Rather than simply reducing chemical inputs, biodynamic production is a proactive attempt to bring life to the soil with the use of natural composts and organic preparations. 

It’s more than just an agricultural system, rather an altered world view that then impacts on the practice of agriculture. Winemakers drawn to this philosophy tend to be creative, spiritual types, deeply connected to their land and always experimenting to see what works best. Which seems to sum up Francois Miglio’s approach.

Gasqui holds Demeter biodynamic certification after the Château’s owner was persuaded to go down this radical route, which forbids chemical fertilisers, pesticides, herbicides or fungicides. Instead insect life and spiders are encouraged to control pests; manure encourages organic growth. After hand-harvesting the grapes the wine is produced in a gravity-fed cellar without winemaking additives. Ambient yeasts are used, with no or scant sulfites and no fining.

More controversially all significant vineyard activities –  soil preparation, planting, pruning, harvesting – are done in accordance with the influence on earth by the moon, stars and planets. Finally, the aspect that can spark scepticism – the use of nine preparations 500-508 (a bit like homeopathy), using  plants such as nettles, dandelion and chamomile, to be applied in powdered form or as sprays. Most divisive is Preparation 500’, where cow horns are filled with cow manure and buried in October to stay in the ground throughout the dormant season. The horn is later unearthed, diluted with water and sprayed onto the soil.

In a magazine interview Francois said of the Steiner strictures: “It is important to understand that 50 percent is symbolic and 50 percent is real… it all helps focus.” 

All of which reminds me of a memorable trip to Ted Lemon’s Littorai winery in Sonoma, California. In Ted’s absence his young deputy confessed to not being a total convert to biodynamics (the perfection of the Pinot Noir was proof enough for us). And yet, as he put it, “It sure does make you pay attention.” 

We loved the copper hue of Château Gasqui but if rosé has to be pale pink for you?

Much has been made of a celebrity influx of Provencal rosé providers, led by Brad and Angelina, whose Château Miraval is made by the Famille Perrin, Chateauneuf du Pape royalty at Chateau Beaucastel. Majestic have it at £19.99  bottle, £14.99 in a mixed six case.

My Provencal pink alternative from a celebrity duo would be Domaine de Triennes, a joint venture by Aubert de Villaine of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, and Jacques Seysses of Domaine Dujac in Burgundy. It’s a serious well structured wine without sacrificing all the  joyous fruit (£13.95 from Vin Cognito. A simpler favourite would be Coeur De Cardeline Rosé, better value at £8 than its Co-op stablemate, Brangelina’s ‘Studio de Miraval’ (£12).

There’s a fascinating interview in hospitality bible The Staff Canteen, where chef/patron Steven Smith explains how he has adapted The Freemasons at Wiswell for these difficult staffing times. 

We hadn’t read it when we rolled up for lunch at this exemplary gastropub on the fringes of the Ribble Valley. In retrospect it gives a valuable insight into our experience – which was very rewarding. Step forward the Wild Boar Bolognese, Hand Rolled Beetroot Rigatoni, Pickled Walnuts, Aged Parmesan that had me squealing with excitement.

A complimentary Isle of Wight Tomato Tea with a herby whipped curd cone was a delight

It’s a new starter on the remarkable value set lunch (£22 for two courses, £27 for three, also available early evening). ‘Cutting your cloth’ isn’t usually a benchmark for improvement but on the lunch evidence a serious kitchen rethink has paid off.

Steven Smith has adapted his regime to make the kitchen run more smoothly and help his staff’s well-being

He explains in the article: “We always were very mise en place heavy and then service was kept smooth, crisp and clean. but now we have more staff working Monday to Friday doing preparation than we have staff doing Saturday Sundays actually cooking.”

Not only has this helped them redress staffing issues… “We’re also cooking better than we ever have, we’ve slimmed down the menu, we’ve really thought about simplifying a lot of dishes and it’s made the food better.

“The food still has the same Freemasons touch and feel, we haven’t turned away from that, we’re still using all the same sauces we’ve always used and the concept of the dishes is the same, we’ve just refined it and taken a lot of stuff off the plate that didn’t need to be there.”

You’d have to road test the a la carte to properly confirm this. Certainly in the past Steven has seemed to be driven by Michelin aspirations and it has seemed unfair that many of his peers below the Freemasons in the Estrella Damm Top 50 Gastropubs list have secured a star. 

To celebrate 10 years at Wiswell, in summer 2019 Smith took the place up a notch with a big investment. Four luxury bedrooms were attached plus a state of the art kitchen as the hub of a new dining experience called ‘Mr Smith’s’… Here’s my glowing report on our stay for Manchester Confidential.

Our return is more back to basics, but what basics. A running thread through the meal is the vivid presence of in-season peas and broad beans. ‘Summer greens’ feature in a velouté starter and a complimentary Isle of Wight Tomato Tea (with its cute cones of whipped curd and herbs). Equally chlorophyll-rich are the simple accompaniments to a roast salmon loin – samphire, dill and an exquisite green forager’s sauce.

French style peas (not mushy) form a base with a mint sauce for my wife’s Suet Pudding with an unctuous filling of Herdwick Lamb Shoulder, while my rival main dunks Loin of Whitby Cod in a sharp vegetable and herb nage that’s a whole intense harvest of those peas and broad beans. No greens were apparent in that debutant Wild Boar, but it was the true star of the show. 

This half portion of chocolate device was enough – it was decadently rich

We stuck with the two courses but then shared a hard-to-resist Dark Chocolate Delice (£12.95) from the a la carte, a blackcurrant sorbet and cherries giving it a deconstructed Black Forest feel.

The Freemasons Menu, a model of deconstruction in it own right? We like it.

Freemasons at Wiswell, 8 Vicarage Fold, Wiswell, nr Clitheroe, BB7 9DF. 01254 822218.