A boon in life to have always been well fed. The same goes for my extended family. Far too many are not so lucky. It has been on my mind a lot of late as, at my stove, I enjoy the privilege of cooking for pleasure, not for hard-pressed subsistence. I’ve just prepared a herb-fragrant keema pau of minced mutton with a kachumber salad. It’s a favourite recipe from the ravishing Dishoom: From Bombay With Love cookbook, celebrating the Irani cafes of Old Mumbai and promoting the nine-strong Dishoom UK restaurant brand.

This huge success story is the creation of cousins Shamil and Kavi Thakrar, whom I first met on a press trip to their London bases in advance of their branching out to Manchester in late 2018. It proved to be more than just the usual junket.

What struck me in their establishments was their mastery of authentic style alongside an accessible menu that still felt a refreshing antidote to curry house cliché. Also, thanks to a kind invitation to a family gathering in the presence of Shamil’s mother Rekha, I began to understand the ethical undertow to all they do. It was most evident in their determination to run their restaurants without barriers of prejudice. 

Their website offers a mission statement: ”We get Muslims and non-Muslims to celebrate Eid, and Hindus and non-Hindus to celebrate Diwali. We tie Knots of Protection on each other. We bring people from all cultures and all walks of life together in our restaurants, and we feed millions of children.”

That last commitment sounds staggering, but it is true. So far, they have donated the cost of 20 MILLION meals for charities – supporting in the UK Magic Breakfast, dedicated to providing meals so children don’t go hungry before school starts, and in their Indian homeland the The Akshaya Patra Foundation. This is a behemoth of an operation that has so far served up a staggering 3.5 BILLION free school meals. That’s healthy hot nourishment to 2.2 million children in 20,000 schools daily, dished in tiffin boxes out from 68 mega kitchens across the sub-continent. This remarkable video shows how they do it, mass producing sambar and rice for southern states, dal and roti for northern. 

Since 2020, separate from the Dishoom tie-in, Akshaya’s remit has also covered meals to children and vulnerable groups in North London The reason? 800,000 children in the capital alone are at risk from food poverty, while across the UK 1.7 million children of low income families are not eligible for free school meals. The figures I’m quoting are from Akshaya Patra’s own annual report, but I have no reason to doubt they are true. This is Marcus Rashford territory.

Their London hub is based, with unconscious irony, on Imperial Way, Watford, but a new pilot venture also takes in Nottingham, providing a hot meal for after school clubs. These are aimed at youngsters who have no surface at home where they can do homework and, possibly, parents with no educational confidence.

The importance of food charities for education

‘Akshaya’ means limitless and ‘Patra’ means a bowl of food. The guiding principle in India is to encourage kids to continue in education rather than forced to go to work too young or even beg. Across the sub-continent at least 35 million children aged 6-14 years do not attend school. And for those who do lack of nutrition seriously hinders their attention in class.

Let Ashkata UK Ceo Daniel Adams explain: “When hunger is a barrier to education it also becomes a barrier to social mobility. A child that is not fed can become a teenager that did not learn and an adult that stays in poverty. We care deeply about breaking down these barriers. It’s a social justice issue with long term benefits. To quote Nelson Mandela: ‘Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world’.

“Dishoom are an extremely generous corporate patron who help power our programme. We make natural bedfellows through a love of for and nutrition with shared Indian roots. We are so grateful to them.”

Stalwart campaigner Jamie Oliver is on the case, too: “I truly believe that if every child had access to good, nutritious food, they would concentrate better in school, giving them a far greater chance at a better education, which in turn helps create a much stronger future generation. Akshaya Patra  is an incredible organisation, and their dedication, passion to make this happen is inspiring.” 

Dishoom’s pact with them came into being at Ramadan 2015. The Muslims have a name for it: Zakat. It’s a form of obligatory charity that has the potential to ease the suffering of millions. The literal meaning of the word is ‘to cleanse’; the belief is that paying Zakat purifies, increases and blesses the remainder of their wealth. The Thakrar family fortune originally sprung from their Tilda rice empire. For their Zakat Dishoom chose Akshaya and Magic Breakfast. At the Hindu Diwali the same year they made this joint partnership permanent.

For every meal (or home meal kit) Dishoom serves, they donate a meal to a child who would otherwise go hungry. More recently in Manchester they have also contributed handsomely to Eat Well, the restaurant and chef collective that delivers up to 1,000 meals a week to support people sidelined by poverty. 

Dishoom, Manchester Hall, 32 Bridge St, Manchester M3 3BT. 0161 537 3737. To donate to Akshaya Patra visit this link.

All the images are courtesy of Akshaya Patra, except for the two for Dishoom.

I’ve lost count of the number of Manchester Food and Drink Awards gala dinners I’ve attended, but this celebration of the region’s hospitality industry remains joyously upbeat despite the perils that still threaten to torpedo so many independent operators.

The Awards themselves had been pushed back from their usual October slot when the mothership Festival foundered. Hopefully, it will return in 2024. Meanwhile these 2023 Awards flew the flag in a fresh venue that really worked – New Century Hall – and opened with a defiant political edge. 

In person on stage Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham. En route to Depeche Mode at the nearby Arena, he rallied the 350 hospitality troops gathered for the occasion. On film Sacha Lord, his night-time economy adviser (I reserve ‘czar’  for Russian potentates), and a clutch of North West chefs demanded the Government slash VAT on the industry back down to 10 per cent. Lord kicks off the challenging This is an Emergency video chillingly: “I know people staring at the cliff edge.”

After the dinner sourced from traders in the New Century Kitchen, down to the main business of the night. The 18 award winners announced reflected the city’s current high global profile. 

Last week the The Edinburgh Castle in Ancoats debuted in 24th place in the Estrella Damm Top 50 Gastropubs; now its kitchen dynamo Shaun Moffat followed up by scooping Chef of the Year. A huge double also for Higher Ground. On the same day they won a Michelin Bib Gourmand they were named MFDF Newcomer of the Year. They are also in the frame for the national Best New Restaurant at the Good Food Guide Awards 2024. I was also delighted that Ancoats small plates and natural wine stalwart Erst finally won Best Restaurant.

Across the evening there was strong recognition for Manchester’s unrivalled craft beer scene. Track won best independent drinks producer, the Marble Arch best beer bar/pub, Bundobust best plant-based offering for the Gujarati-inspired small plates that accompany the beers it brews in town and James Campbell received the Outstanding Achievement Award for two decades as the driving force behind cutting edge breweries Marble, Cloudwater and, currently, Sureshot. 

Sign of the difficult times, one of the nominees for best drinks producer, Squawk Brewery, has just been forced to close. So high jinks celebrating an amazing food and drink scene tinged with sadness at the steady drip of closures. Time to make a stand on that crucial VAT drop issue. Watch the Sacha Lord film, also featuring the likes of Simon Wood, Michael Clay, Mary Ellen McTague and and emotional Simon Rimmer, who was forced to close his flaship restaurant Greens recently, and sign the associated petition.

All the fantastic winners at Manchester Food and Drink Awards 2023

Here is this year’s awards list in full (for addresses visit this link)…

Restaurant of the Year – Erst

Shortlisted: Higher Ground, Climat, Another Hand, 10 Tib Lane

OSMA, The Spärrows. mana, Erst.202

Chef of the Year – Shaun Moffat (Edinburgh Castle)

Shortlisted: Joseph Otway (Higher Ground), Danielle Heron (OSMA), Luke Richardson (Climat), Julian Pizer (Another Hand), Patrick Withington (Erst), Seri Nam (Flawd Wine), Mike Shaw (MUSU), Shaun Moffat (Edinburgh Castle)

Newcomer of the Year – Higher Ground

Shortlisted: Climat, Restaurant Örme, Fold Bistro & Bottle Shop, The Jane Eyre Chorlton, Madre, New Century Kitchen, Stretford Canteen, Higher Ground

Plant-based Offering of the Year– Bundobust

Shortlisted: Lily’s Indian Vegetarian Cuisine, Bahn Ví, The Walled Gardens, Maray, Speak in Code, Flawd Wine, The Mekong Cat, Bundobust.

Takeaway of the Year – Burgerism

Ad Maoira, Unagi Street Food & Sushi, Ciaooo Garlic Bread, Fat Pat’s, Wright’s Fish and Chips. Maida Grill House, Al Madina, Burgerism.

Independent Drinks Producer of the Year – Track

Shortlisted: Sureshot Brewing, Stockport Gin, Cloudwater Brew Co, Tarsier Spirit, Pod Pea Vodka, Manchester Union Brewery, Squawk Brewing Co, Track.

Independent Food Producer of the Year – Pollen Bakery

Shortlisted: Cotton Field Wharf, Great North Pie Co, La Chouquette, Gooey, Yellowhammer, The Manchester Smoke House, The Flat Baker, Companio Bakery, Pollen.

Foodie Neighbourhood of the Year – Stockport

Shortlisted: Levenshulme, Altrincham, Urmston, Prestwich, Monton, Sale, Stretford, Stockport.

Coffee Shop of the Year – Grapefruit Coffee

Shortlisted: Cafe Sanjuan, Another Heart to Feed, Idle Hands, Bold Street Coffee,  Smoak, Ancoats Coffee Co, Siop Shop, Grapefruit.

Food Trader of the Year – Fat Pat’s

Shortlisted: Baratxuri, Chaat Cart, Triple B, Tawny Stores, Yellowhammer, Little Sri Lankan, Pico’s Tacos, Oh Mei Dumplings, Fat Pat’s.

Affordable Eats Venue of the Year – Ornella’s Kitchen

Shortlisted: Nila’s Burmese Kitchen, Great North Pie Co, Cafe Sanjuan, Noodle Alley, Tokyo Ramen, Lily’s Deli, House of Habesha, Ornella’s Kitchen.

Food and Drink Retailer of the Year – Cork of the North

Shortlisted: Ad Hoc Wines, Out of the Blue Fishmongers, Littlewoods Butchers, Wandering Palate, New Market Dairy, Petit Paris Deli, La Chouquette.

Pop up or Project of the Year – Platt Fields Market Garden

Shortlisted:  Our Place, Tawny Stores at Yellowhammer, SAMPA, Little Sri Lankan, Suppher, Fare Share, Micky’s, Platt Fields Market Garden

Pub or Beer Bar of the Year – The Marble Arch

Shortlisted: Track Brewery Taproom, The City Arms, Runaway Brewery Taproom, Fox & Pine, Reddish Ale, Station Hop, Heaton Hops, The Marble Arch.

Bar of the Year – Schofield’s Bar

Shortlisted: The Jane Eyre Ancoats, Blinker, Red Light, Sterling Bar, Hawksmoor, 10 Tib Lane, Flawd Wine, Schofield’s Bar.

Neighbourhood Venue of the Year – Stretford Canteen

Shortlisted: Restaurant Örme, OSMA, Ornella’s Kitchen, The Oystercatcher, Yellowhammer, Fold Bistro & Bottle Shop, The Jane Eyre Chorlton, Stretford Canteen.

Great Service Award – Hawksmoor

Shortlisted: Higher Ground, Schofield’s Bar, Where The Light Gets In, Climat, Wood Manchester, Sterling Bar, Tast Catala, Hawksmoor.

The Howard and Ruth Award for Outstanding Achievement – James Campbell

Recognising people who have contributed something outstanding to the hospitality industry in Greater Manchester.

Edible thistles? What a faff. I’m happy to be served globe artichokes in a restaurant. Especially when given the Carciofi alla Romana treatment, a spring speciality of the Roman capital, where they are stuffed with a mixture of garlic, parsley and mint, then braised in olive oil and white wine. Delightful. especially since all the fiddly preparation, especially choke removal, has been done by someone else. And I, with my negligible knife skills, have not nearly chopped a finger off. 

There is another thistle that’s not half the hassle, except with the sourcing. The Cardoon is quite a looker with Its thorny, silver-grey leaves and pompom-like purple blossoms, standing up to six feet tall. Alas, you won’t find this cousin of the artichoke any time soon on a supermarket veg counter or even from a specialist UK greengrocer. 

The cooked stalks may have been a treat on a plate for 17th century diarists such as Pepys and Evelyn (the latter a gardening expert who grew his own) but Cynara cardunculus has fallen from grace on these shores, compared with the Med, where the green lunghi variety still thrives. Italy’s Piemonte region is ‘cardone centrale’. Growers there cultivate the ‘Gobbi’ (Italian for hunchback), where the plant is bent over and covered in soil. thus protecting it from the light and creating a paler, tenderer stalk. Think forced rhubarb.The Italians dip them with other crudités in the addictive, garlicky sauce, bagna cauda. The heads are also gathered to make a vegetarian rennet for certain types of cheese.

In Britain the more accessible celery gradually took overt the cardoon’s mantle. Still in certain heritage gardens you may chance upon it in season (November-February), which happened to me at a certain Cheshire property I was a guest at. I took a sample home, sans thistle heads,  with the intention of testing their toothsome mettle in a cheesy gratin. Alas, the stalks (the part you eat, not the thistle as with artichokes) were at the end of their tether, so I chucked them.

The big plan now is to grow my own and I‘ve got the perfect source – Otter Farm in Devon. I‘m a devotee of its creator, Mark Diacono, once of River Cottage. He’s both a brilliant author (Sour and Spice are stand-outs; he’s currently publishing follow-up Abundance in instalments via his substack The Imperfect Umbrella) and a grower of rare and wonderful plants at his 17 acre farm. They sell the cardoon in seed or pot form; whatever, I’ve got a substantial wait while they swell in our raised beds.

What should I expect? Let me take the Otter Farm advice: “Cardoons look very similar to globe artichokes – they can get to at least 2m tall with their downy green-grey leaves and amazing flower heads. Both inner and outer stems are edible,  though oddly the inner are more bitter. Take a potato peeler to the ribs to remove stringy bits and blanch before using as the main ingredient to a gratin or as a crudité vegetable.

“Sow seed in March or April under cover and plant out after frosts have passed leaving 80cm (annual) and over 100cm (perennial) between. Then on a dry day in early autumn gather together the leaves and tie then up with string (including the stake if you have one) into a bundle. Then wrap a collar of card or thick newspaper around your cardoon bundle and leave it for around four weeks to blanch. 

“Lift plants as required from October. They’ll be happy like this until any hard frosts and will store in a cool place until December, if you do need to lift them all before the cold sets in. Tolerant of poor soils and grows well in shade, but happiest in full sun (the former is more likely at ours).”

Speaking of shade, or more specifically ‘chiaroscuro’, Caravaggio, arguably Rome’s greatest artistic son, paid his own homage by including cardoons in his Still Life with Flowers and Fruit. The veg is more centre stage in Still Life with Francolin by Spanish food still life specialist Juan Sanchez Cotan and The Prado’s Still Life with Cardoon, Francolin, Grapes and Irises by the virtually unknown Felipe Ramírez.

All these images are of cardoons au naturel, but cooked, what recipe shows this bitter veg off at its best? Step forward Jennifer McLaglan, who has penned the definitive account of “A Taste of the World’s Most Dangerous Flavour” – Bitter (Jacqui Small, £25). The Canadian-based author devotes an entire chapter to the cardoon in the ‘Surprisingly Bitter’ section (chocolate and tobacco star in ‘Dark, Forbidden and Very Bitter’).

She’s an advocate of its valuable health properties: “Like other bitter plants, thistles support the liver, gallbladder, spleen and kIdneys, and aid digestion. They contain good amounts of folic acid and  minerals, notably copper, manganese, magnesium and iron.”

The taste, she describes as having, through the bitterness, “an earthy, meatiness and mild artichoke-and-mushroominess that will seduce you.” 

This, I‘m sure is shown to great effect in creamy gratins where the blanched stalks are enhanced by ample amounts of cheese. As with celery, whose leaves are also surprisingly bitter, the outer, more fibrous cardoon stalks will in tandem with dried porcini and garlic, make a fine, if rather beige, soup. Hardcore fans will lap it up in bitter leaf salads or braised greens.

I’ll get back to you on all this when I’ve sowed my own Cynara cardunculus seeds this spring and harvested them in late autumn.

Name your favourite pasta. If it’s spaghetti hoops I suggest you’re reading the wrong blog. For brothers Michael and Alex de Martiis it has to be rigatoni. That’s why they’ve invested in a state of the art extruding machine to create daily batches of this ‘pastasciutta’ (dry, a bronze die giving it a useful rough texture) to be sauced up and served at their back to basics new project called, naturally, Rigatoni’s.

That’s the rebranding for all four pasta-led eateries formerly known as Sud, which originated as Sugo in Altrincham back in 1915. Reviewing it then I was wowed by the sugo, just like Nonna used to make – a dense sauce of beef shin, pork shoulder and spicy Tuscan sausage that felt like it had been simmered for days, if not decades. It coated a substantial bowl of that ear-shaped pasta called orecchiette, fresca (ie fresh) as in the de Martiis family’s native Puglia.

Unfortunately, nonnas are thin on the ground in the pressured world of eating out Italian style 2024 and change is necessary.

At a launch for the new menu at Rigatoni’s Ancoats Michael defends their decision to concentrate on a single basic, if adaptable, pasta treated with simple fresh sauces. “The days are gone when we could a spare a member of the team to stir rich meat sauces for hours or roll out a variety of pasta shapes. Our starters too are simpler, yet no less delicious.”

On this first acquaintance i can’t see what all the dumbing down accusations on social media are about. A selection of focaccia toasts, topped with grated tomato, garlic and salt or black olive and caper spread splendidly partner a carafe of fruity house Barbera. Even better at a quid more (£6) is the whipped gorgonzola and honey topping.

But the pasta is the thing and my sharp topping of brown crab, vodka sauce, and tarragon at £12.50 is 50p less than that ragu of eight years ago. A FAZOOL! white beans, garlic, fresh chilli & parm is just £9.50 and a cacio e pepe take with lots of extra-virgin is a remarkable £7.50. Amatriciana and Puttanesca options cost a tad more.

Tasty food for straitened times; I get it. Only the Italophile foodie in me seeks something a little more adventurous. Which brings me to that divisive Roman rigatoni speciality you’ll never find in the UK, let alone Manchester – Con La Pajata.

Not for the squeamish – a classic quinto quarto dish

Just as I always associate rigatoni with that great Sicilian speciality Pasta alla Norma, so ‘when in Rome’ it’s essential with traditional rib-tickler Carbonara. But the Eternal City also offers a classic offal-based rigatoni sauce that was banned in 2001 in the wake of Mad Cow Disease and only allowed to be reinstated on menus in 2015.

You’ll mostly come across rigatoni con la pajata (rigatoni con la pagliata in Standard Italian) in the old school trattorie of the Testaccio (it even sounds like balls) district. Until 1975 this was home to the city’s main slaughterhouse and the nose-to-tail culture lives on. The Italians call it quinto quarto (the fifth quarter) cooking, ie using leftover bits such as oxtail, feet, tongue, testicles, intestines and tripe.

Pajata is the name for the intestines of an unweaned calf (one fed only on its mother’s milk, never grass). They are cleaned and skinned but left inside is the chyme – the pulpy acidic fluid consisting of gastric juices and partly digested food. Stay with me.

The intestine is cut in pieces 20–25 cm long, that are bound together with thread, forming rings. A long cooking progress, allied to the enzymes present coagulate it, forming a creamy, ricotta-like sauce.The rings can be simply grilled or stewed with tomato, aromatics, lardo and spices to make a classic sauce for rigatoni. Top with oodles of pecorino romano, per favore.

So out of reach, but maybe not. In Florence I was wary of trying lampredotto (the stewed fourth stomach of a cow in a bread roll) and loved it. Now I’m scanning the schedules for air tickets for Rome. Will the suckling veal soon be in season?

Rigatoni’s, 46 Blossom Street, Ancoats, Manchester M4 6BF. Also in Altrincham, Sale and Exhibition Manchester.

The Rhubarb Triangle is calling. As images of the first vibrant pink shoots of the season filter onto social media I get the urge to head 30 miles east east to the forcing sheds of West Yorkshire. More specifically to the acclaimed early rhubarb fiefdom of one Robert Tomlinson. His Pudsey farm is arguably an outlier of the Triangle, which purists confine to a nine square mile area bounded by Morley, Rothwell and Wakefield, but chefs and foodies flock to order from ‘Rhubarb Robert’. The product is that good.

Alas, my M62 trek is in vain. Early days for the harvesting by candlelight that is de rigueur in the sheds and the few bundles emerging have been snapped up in the farm shop before my arrival. “Next week we’ll have lots, luv.” The season lasts until March.

I console myself five minutes up the road with a visit to the Fulneck Moravian Settlement. This is a planned village built in 1743 by Protestant Brethren from Bohemia whose denomination pre-dated the Reformation by 60 years and later influenced John Wesley. I followed the ‘Meditation Walk’ around the buildings of the still active community and pondered the ghosts of its past – actress Dame Diana Rigg, who boarded at (and hated) Fulneck School and, from the village, Sir Leonard Hutton (364 not out still the highest Test innings by an England cricketer).

A legend in a different sphere is Kaushy Patel, whose family restaurant Prashad, serving Gujarati vegetarian food in unglamorous Drighlington, is handily placed on my homeward journey back down the A58. This converted pub, now with    son Bobby and his wife Minal at the helm, holds two AA stars, a Michelin Bib Gourmand, came second in the 2010 Channel 4 cook-off for Ramsay’s Best Restaurant and was more recently visited by Gordon’s fellow telly perennials, The Hairy Bikers.

A dish chef Minal served up to Ramsay in the semi-final remains on the menu. It transferred with the restaurant in 2012 when it moved from Bradford and showcases a green vegetable you won’t find in common or garden Indian restaurants.

Step forward the colocasia plant, also known as elephant-ear leaves, taro or cocoyam. As a tuber it is edible but the leaves are the favourite in the Patels’ native Gujarat state in India. It was from there that Kaushy moved with husband Mohan in the Sixties, setting up a deli that later became a hugely popular eaterie. 

In her debut cookbook, Prashad: Indian Vegetarian Cooking (Salt Yard, £25) Kaushy offers genuinely authentic recipes. I’ve used it a lot, but never been able to source the colocasia to make the two Patra dishes featured. Apparently you can buy it online and Indian-born US scientist/cook Nik Sharma, in his wonderful new book Veg-Table (Chronicle, £26), substitutes collard greens. Chard might do. Colocasia’s green arrowhead shaped leaves can grow up to 150cm long (above left), but the smaller leaves (10cmx15cm) are what you need for cooking, Steaming an stuffing is the way to go.

And they are good for you – containing dietary fibre, potassium, Vitamin E, Vitamin C, magnesium, and folate. So how could I resist ordering a warm starter of Bafela Patra (£9.20)? So as not to scare off the uninitiated, it is described on the menu as ‘star anise and jaggery pasted chard parcels’. It arrived on a flourish of beetroot pure and topped with coconut shards, yet it looks not immediately appealing, like a portioned out olive green stick of rock. Yet it turns out to be utterly delicious, with a deep earthiness… and substantial. (see the recipe below from the excellent Prashad website).

For my main I’ve greedily ordered the Maharani Thali, giving this solo diner a rundown of a range of dishes on the one platter. At £27.50, with rice, rotis and raita all part of the package, it could easily be a sharer. Stand out components? Choli (chick peas with cinnamon and star anise), paneer masala with fenugreek and onion/tomato base, chatta palkya (cinnamon and bay leaf infused spinach and mushrooms) and a gloriously creamy shrikand for pud. All washed down with a Kernel Porter from a beer list curated by Bobby’s brother Mayur, who co-owns Bundobust.

There is Cobra on tap for curry house traditionalists. They probably wouldn’t be the prime audience for the in-depth discussion of the Patra tradition in Sheetal and Rinkal’s Gujarati food blog Route2roots. It acknowledges that colocasia is a staple across the sub-continent but achieves its apogee in the Patra dishes of the Anavil Bhramins in one corner of Gujarat. 

All very eclectic. Suffice it to say colocasia grows abundantly in warm swampy areas across India, whereas rhubarb originates from the colder corners of Siberia. Both find a home in the kitchens of Prashad. Worth a trip back soon for a forced rhubarb lassi or pickle. Did I mention no-one does chutneys and pickles better than the Patels. I can still taste the basil and green tomato one one with my pappadom nibbles.

Bafela Patra recipe (from the Prashad website)

Ingredients

To create the masala, you will need:

8 medium colocasia leaves

2-4 fresh green chillies (trimmed but not de-seeded)

2-4 cloves of garlic

3cm piece of root ginger (peeled and roughly chopped)

1 pinch of salt

To create the paste, you will need:

50g dried tamarind (from a block)

150ml boiling water

200g chickpea flour

50 chapatti flour

50g rice flour

1½tsp salt

40g jaggery, finely chopped (or soft brown sugar))

1½tsp carom seeds

1½tsp turmeric

2-4tsp ground coriander

1tbsp garam masala

5tsp sesame seeds (4tsp will be used as garnish)

60ml sunflower oil

200ml warm water

Method

Wash your patra leaves and place them vein-side up on a chopping board. Using a small knife, carefully slice off the thick central vein.

Crush your chillies, garlic and ginger together with a pinch of salt with a pestle and mortar (or in a blender) to make a fine masala paste.

Soak the dried tamarind in boiling water for five minutes, then pulp with your fingers and a sieve, draining the tamarind water into a small bowl. Squeeze the pulp to get as much flavour as possible!

Sieve your flours together and mix in your masala paste, salt, jaggery, carom seeds, spices, one teaspoon of sesame seeds and your oil. Mix well to make sure all the masala is worked in.

Pour your tamarind water and warm water into the mixture and mix to form a sticky but workable paste, before leaving the mixture to rest for 10 minutes.

Take one of your larger patra leaves and place it vein-side facing up on a chopping board or your work surface, leaf tip furthest from you. Gently spread the leaf with enough paste to cover with a 5mm layer.

Take a second leaf and lay it on top of the first, again vein-side up. Spread the surface of the new leaf with paste.

Carefully lift the sides of the leaf stack and fold about 4cm in towards the centre, keeping the sides straight.

Spread a layer of paste over the leaf sections that you have just folded in (the new top surface). Then gently lift the closest end of the Patra leaf and fold about 4cm onto itself, then fold again and continue to fold away from you until you reach the tip.

Repeat the pasting, layering, folding and rolling three more times to use up the remaining six leaves, giving you four patra rolls.

To cook, put a flat-based heatproof bowl in a large, deep pan. Pour water into the pan until it reaches most of the way up the bowl, leaving about 2cm of the rim sticking about the water. Place your pan over a high heat.

Lightly oil a medium plate with a 2cm rim or lip that will fit in the pan (the rim will give you something to grip when you remove it from the steamer and help to prevent the patra falling into the water).

Put the four rolls, with the seam of the rolls facing down, on the oiled plate and gently place it on top of the bowl in the pan. Put the lid on the pan, wrap the rim of the lid with a cloth or tea towel (if it is a flat lid) and put weight on the lid to secure it.

Reduce the heat to medium and then leave to steam for 35 minutes, turning the rolls after 15 minutes. To check they are fully cooked, insert a sharp knife into the middle of a roll. The knife should come out clean.

Carefully remove the plate from the steamer and leave to cool for five minutes. Put the patra on a chopping board and use a sharp knife to slice each one into four even slices.

Prashad, 137 Whitehall Road, Drighlington, Bradford BD11 1AT. 0113  285 2037.

There is a thesis to be written on the key role railway hotels have played in the development of French cuisine. Sometimes at the exalted level of the 3-star La Maison Troisgros in Roanne. Legendary ‘nouvelle cuisine’ dishes such as ‘salmon in sorrel sauce’ were created by the brothers Jean and Pierre Troigros in the family hotel opposite the sleepy town station.
In 2017, under Pierre’s son Michel, it moved to a more luxurious site. Another culinary birthplace, though, will still be in situ to greet you three hours to the north in the Sologne. Get off the SNCF at even sleepier Lamotte-Beuvron and cross to the Hotel Tatin, home of the caramelised apple pastry that turned the dessert world upside down. You can also file the now ubiquitous Tarte Tatin under ‘dishes created by happy accident’.

The legend goes that the tart was fortuitously invented at the turn of the 20th century by chef Stéphanie Tatin (b 1838), who ran the hotel with her sister Caroline (b 1847). It was the opening Sunday of the hunting season and a traditional apple pie was expected by the hungry chasseurs. In the kitchen a flustered Stéphanie left the apples cooking in butter and sugar for too long. In a bid to rescue the scrape (sic) she was in she opted to simply chuck the pastry base on top and stick it in the oven. 

Voilà, the succulent, caramelised apples soaked into the pastry, the lunch party loved it and it has never been off the menu since… here and in countless places around the world.

A major boost for it originally was its adoption by Maxim’s on the Rue Royale – one of the great Parisian celeb restaurants of the Belle Époque and beyond. Recently restored to its previous glory, it charges 18 euros for its tarte tatin (compared with 10 at the humbler Hotel Tatin). On a frugal pre-Christmas visit to the French capital I never got to eat it there, but I did BAKE MY OWN at another Parisian institution, the Galeries Lafayette Haussmann, a 15 minute walk away.

The Galeries were in full Dream Before Christmas mode, from an awesome twinkling tree soaring into the department store’s dome and animated window displays from fashion designer Charles de Vilmorin showcasing his “epic story of the little girl and the magic paintbrush who travel to an imaginary land.”

I went one step further, and checked into the Ferrandi’s Kitchen cookery school on the third floor of the Lafayette Maison and Gourmet Store. At the end of my own rainbow a pot of goldenly caramelised apples, no less. There to guide me into not burning the fruit or rolling out the wrong texture of pastry was chef/tutor Lucie Lafontaine.

We were an eight-strong group, so, if necessary I could hide among teamwork. Still, I had made tatins before at home, using apples, plums, quinces and pears, and, less successfully rhubarb and gooseberry, which turned to mush. Pineapple, though, was a success. An apple that holds its shape during caramelisation, such as a Cox, is best. Lucie introduced to us a rival French one that was equally perfect. I‘ve seen instances in restaurants of savoury tarte tatins, but that seems just wrong. As does using puff pastry. 

At the end of our two and a half hour stint all our efforts tasted like the real thing. We had well earned our signed certificate, chef’s toque and goodie bag and got to keep our posh monogrammed apron. 130 euros is the cost of such a course, where savoury dishes are also on the changing roster on offer. Book here.

So, if you can’t make it to Paris or Lamotte-Beuvron, what’s the secret to a true tarte tatin?

Best leave it to the indefatigable Felicity Cloake in her ‘How to cook perfect…” series in The Guardian. Even her researches barely scratch the upside down surface with so many chefs tweaking their own versions.

This is her distillation, which I have employed since returning from Paris and it gets it spot on: “Toffee apples for grown-ups, the tarte tatin is all about the flavour of the fruit – crisp pastry, firm, juicy apples and that sweet, buttery caramel topping, holding the whole lot together. We may have the best apples, but the French really know what to do with them.”

Ingredients

7 medium apples: 4 Cox, 3 Granny Smith
200g white sugar
50g butter
175g ready-made shortcrust pastry 

OR
225g plain flour
2 tbsp caster sugar
120g cold butter
1 medium egg, beaten

Method

Peel, halve and core the apples, then put in the fridge, uncovered, for 24 hours. Put the sugar into a 20cm heavy-based ovenproof frying pan along with 50ml water and leave to soak for a couple of minutes, then cook over a medium heat until golden and fudgy. Take off the heat and stir in the butter, and a pinch of salt, until well combined, then carefully arrange the apples in the pan, round-side down, bearing in mind the caramel will be very hot, and put back on the heat – you may need to cut some of the apples into smaller pieces to fill in the gaps. Cook for 5 minutes, then take off the heat and allow to cool completely.

If making the pastry, sift the flour into a large mixing bowl and add the sugar and a pinch of salt. Grate in the butter, then rub together until it is coarse crumbs. Mix the egg with 2 tsp cold water and sprinkle over the mixture. Mix together into a soft but not sticky dough, adding more water (if required) very gradually. Shape into a ball, and then cover with clingfilm and refrigerate for at least 20 minutes before rolling out.

Pre-heat the oven to 200C. Roll out the pastry (you’ll probably have some left over if you’ve made your own) to 5mm thick, and cut out a circle slightly larger than your pan. Put back into the fridge to rest.

Put the pastry on top of the pan and tuck in the edges around the fruit. Bake for about 30 minutes until the pastry is golden, then remove from the oven. Allow to cool for five  minutes, then place a plate, slightly larger than the pan, on top and then, very carefully, using oven gloves, invert the tart on to the plate. Best served warm, with crème fraîche. Serves 6.

• To discover what else I got up to in Paris visit this link.

Remember Fleet Foxes, Seattle-based purveyors of glorious indie folk harmonies? Eventually they broke up…  like the waves against the pine-fringed shores of Mykonos. The Greek island gave its name to one enigmatic b-side, offering “a vision of a gentle coast/and a sun to maybe dissipate/shadows of the mess you made”.

Its echoes oddly haunt a shimmering Mykonos-influenced lunch in the very different surroundings of on-the-up, post-industrial Manchester. The ‘wine dark’ Irwell flows nearby with Factory International aka Aviva Studios on its banks, making its eye-wateringly expensive cultural statement. Soho House, come spring, is set to provide a playground for the well-heeled colonisers of the former Granadaland. Shall we all sport something Chanel for the opening?

Shiny new £7m Fenix is, of course, feeding off this vibe. If you thought, Tattu, debut restaurant of brothers Adam and Drew Jones, sprinkled gold dust on the dining scene, this new project is pure platinum – a dreamy homage to the destination that has become the ‘Cycladean Ibiza’. Curvy, sea cave surfaces, an ‘olive tree’ naturally and lighting that glows like an Aegean sunset. The bar is dark and moody, the upstairs restaurant, in contrast, boasts “ash-toned driftwood dining chairs paired with decadent marble tables and refined tableware.”

There is no Zorba, Demis or Nana soundtracking our visit. Less bouzouki, more ambient beats. Whatever, I’m not paying much heed. The quality of the small plates arriving grabs me. Starring roles for taramasalata, octopus, lamb and the fluffiest of pitas, all taken to a level way beyond the vacation tavernas of Shirley Valentine (filmed on Mykonos).

I haven’t quite expected this, having sniffed at the presence of Cantonese spiced ribs, wagyu, ceviches and Andean antichucos on the menu (thankfully no Nobu-esque black cod). Then again Tattu never set out to be totally ‘authentic’ Chinese. 

Let me quote the Fenix ‘story’. Every restaurant has to have one these days.“In Greek mythology, the Phoenix represents triumph over adversity, cyclical regeneration and rebirth. Only one of these rare creatures can exist at a time, and each lives for 500 years. As that lifecycle ends, a nest is built and set on fire. From those flames new life arises, and the process continues. Fenix was born into uncertain and challenging times, and its character is its destiny — breathing fresh energy into a Manchester dining scene when it’s most needed.”

Key players in all this are the two chefs they have hired with strong Mykonos links. Executive Head Chef, Ippokratis Anagnostelis and Head Chef, Zisis Giannouras worked together at the high end Kenshō Ornos suites hotel on the island. Anagnostelis’s CV reads like a roll call of Greece’s finest dining spots, including the Michelin-starred Hytran in Athens, putting a contemporary spin on traditional dishes. The influences are obvious at Fenix, but it feels more relaxed than most destination restaurants with service especially impressive just a week in.

So which dishes did I particularly like?

(Once I‘ve decided to pass on the Wagyu Stifado (£85), one dish that has made it over from Kenshō. A treatment where striploin is glazed with wagyu jus, then served with braised onions, spices and cumin potato emulsion, seemed a deconstruction too far.)

Sea bass off the robato, to share (£95)

For a tenner more, a dish that isn’t strictly traditional but feels heart-stoppingly Hellenic – the boned fish stuffed with spinach and shiitake is served with a lemon-yuzu dressing. Oh, and it looks amazing.

Athenian Tartare with Caviar (£19)

No apologies for hitting a bass note again so soon. Fenix offers it ceviche style with a South American dressing of tiger’s milk, avocado, kiwi fruit and jalapeño, but this fresh treatment serving it with saffron, citrus and Ossetra caviar surpasses it.  

Grilled Octopus (£18)

Can’t resist tender cephalod and this comes with an earthy split pea cream and parsley vinaigrette that’s so powerful.

Orzo with langoustine and feta (£32)

A glorious take on a risotto with the rice-like pasta suffused with a rich bisque cut through with the sharp cheese

Broken Down Tart’ (£14.95)

Meat at last. I presume the presentation is an affectionate homage to the Greek taverna tradition of plate smashing (somewhat suppressed nowadays by health and safety issues). This is basically slow-cooked lamb shank and parsnip cream baked tarte tatin style in delicate pastry.

All this came off the a  la carte, which can soon add up, but there is a variety of set menus, including an attractive lunch deal for £31.50. The wine list is a well-balanced, global offering, straying off, as you’d expect into some mega-expensive ‘trophy’ choices. I’m a huge fan of Greek wines and there is representation from quality operators such as Gaia, Thymiopoulos and the late great Haridimos Hatzidakis, who put Santorini on the map as a cult wine spot.

There’s also an inevitable cocktail project, celebrating the four elements that shape the mythical Greek Isles; Water, Earth, Air and Fire. One example: ‘Whirlpool Fizz’ inspired by Charybdis the sea monster that sucked ships to their doom, combining gin with “a silky backbone of stone fruit and tonic”. Down in one then.

Fenix, The Goods Yard Building, Goods Yard Street, Manchester M3 3BG. 0161 646 0231.

  • I was a lunch guest of Fenix’s owners, the Permanently Unique restaurant group. My main image is of Wagyu Stifado.

Playing catch-up with my Books of the Year recommendations. Late to the party. Every weekend supplement has already been swamped with the buggers. Alas, there has been less evidence than usual of my fave tips – highbrow critics seeking to impress with the likes of “the great belle lettrist Attila Kosztolányi’s magnum opus, many years in the making, has finally seen the light of day. Read in the original Hungarian, it’s a triumph – let’s hope for a translation soon.”
You’ll find my choices less smarmy, I hope. The list is not, as you’d expect, dominated by food books. For research purposes, I have mostly been delving into scholarly old favourites or making practical use of the jus-stained kitchen recipe faithfuls. Blame the lockdown time on my hands for certain continuing reading obsessions – German history and our own 17th century registers of recusants and Roundheads.
Let’s start then with two magisterial examples of the former, published in 2023…

Beyond The Wall by Katja Hoyer (Penguin £26) and In Search of Berlin by John Kampfner (Atlantic £22)

The first account puts a human face on the DDR, taking it beyond the received wisdom of Stasiland, Trabants and steroid-pumped athletes. Hoyer, a British-based historian, is herself an ‘Ostie’, but she was only four years old when the Berlin Wall came down, transforming a country that epitomised the Cold War. In the re-united Germany three decades on reviews have been mixed, but I found it convincing and revelatory. An equally provocative exploration of the reunited state was Kampfner’s best-selling Why Germans Do It Better. Now the former Telegraph foreign correspondent, who reported on the epic events of 1989, puts today’s restored capital in the context of a thousand years of often troubled history. Riveting for an old Berlin hand like myself.

The Secret Hours by Mick Herron (Baskerville £22)

Divided Berlin was, of course, the backdrop for the Cold War spy genre, notably in the works of John Le Carré and Len Deighton. Herron, touted as Le Carré’s natural heir but very much his own man as the laureate of a deadbeat alternative espionage, is best known for his Slow Hours novel sequence, the third of which is currently being screened by Apple TV with Gary Oldman playing grubby anti-hero Jackson Lamb. The Secret Hours is a standalone title but Herron can’t resist giving (an unnamed) Lamb a key walk-on part in a tale that revolves around skulduggery in today’s security circles and an operation to find a Stasi murderer in 1990s Berlin which goes wrong. Intricately plotted surprises come in from the cold.

The Lock-up by John Banville (Hutchinson £22) and Old God’s Time by Sebastian Barry (Faber £18.99)

The Irish penchant for fiction is as vibrant as ever with Paul Lynch’s Prophet Song recently scooping the Booker Prize. My own bookish bucket list for Christmas, though, is headed by The Wren, The Wren by Anne Enright, the greatest Irish-based female writer (sorry Sally Rooney). No apologies, though, for recommending two genre-straddling novels by male veterans that have delighted me. The garlanded ‘literary’ novels of old school man of letters Banville have always left me slightly cold, but I am besotted with his increasing dips into crime fiction, featuring an odd couple with their own demons (naturally) – pathologist Dr. Quirke and Detective Inspector St John Strafford. The latest tracks back to 1950s Dublin where young history scholar Rosa Jacobs is found dead in her car. The investigation takes in the Italian mountaintops of Italy, the front lines of World War II Bavaria and deepest rural Ireland.

Barry’s novel also features a cop, retired to a castle in the Dublin coastal suburbs but with skeletons in the cupboard just waiting to be rattled as his past dealings are investigated by former colleagues. It’s dreamlike, almost gothic, packed with red herrings and unreliable narrators. Grim, melancholy, I loved it.

The Blazing World by Jonathan Healey (Bloomsbury £30)

Historical fiction may have peaked with the great Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall (my own favourite still Iain Pears’ An Instance at the Fingerpost) but it’s in good hands with the likes of Robert Harris, whose Act of Oblivion (2022), featuring the 17th century pursuit across the New World of two Roundhead regicides, offered contemporary resonances. I read it alongside Anna Keay’s magisterial account of the decade after Charles I’s execution, The Restless Republic. What a blessing then the arrival of a complementary yet contrasting “New History of a Revolutionary Century”. It is a vivid, witty account of certain key characters, who exemplify a divisive age. The title comes from the extravagant aristocrat/polymath Margaret Cavendish Duchess of Newcastle, who, after the Restoration, imagined an alternative “Blazing World” of order and tranquillity in contrast to the “malicious detractions” and “homebred insurrection” through which she had lived. My next period read? Likely to be September’s Pure Wit: The Revolutionary Life of Margaret Cavendish by Francesca Peacock.

Invitation to a Banquet by Fuchsia Dunlop (Particular £25) and Stuffed by Pen Vogler (Atlantic £22)

Let’s stay scholarly as we finally stray into food and drink territory with two books I have already reviewed at length. The first explores the vast complexity of Chinese cuisine, combining historical research and contemporary travelogue; the second, as I summed up, 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.” So food adulteration in Victorian times is on a ley line to toxic ultra-processed foods in ours. Plus ça change

Flavour Thesaurus 2 by Nikki Segnit (Bloomsbury £20) and Mother Tongue by Gurdeep Loyal (4th estate £26)

Segnit’s book is the sequel to her eye-opening debut The Flavour Thesaurus, which became an instant classic when it was published 13 years ago. There had never been anything quite like it before, this playful exploration of ingredient matches springing from a flavour wheel of her own random devising. A reference book born out of erudite research that was equally at home by the bedside or on the kitchen table. More of the same, yes, but the  new flavours are predominantly plant-based. From zeitgeist-led vegan, from kale to cashew, pomegranate to pistachio, seaweed to tamarind, but eggs and cheese forced their toothsome way in, too.

A la Segnit, I like to be surprised and Gurdeep Loyal’s colourful cookbook lives up to its fusion manifesto declaring: “Food is a living form of culture that evolves: its boundaries are fluid, blurred, porous and dynamic… authenticity is an unending reel of culinary snapshots, an evolving spectrum that captures many transformative moments along flavourful journeys in generations of kitchens.”

Before Mrs Beeton – Elizabeth Raffald, England’s Most Influential Housekeeper by Dr Neil Buttery (Pen and Sword Books, £20)

Fanny Craddock was a Fifties/Sixties celeb chef in black and white telly world. If the box had been invented in the late 18th century I’m sure Manchester-based Elizabeth Raffald would have had her own show, such was her dynamism. Food historian Buttery charts the dizzying career that culminated in The Experienced English Housekeeper (1786). Why she even gave away the recipe for her invention for the Eccles Cake and there are strong claims that Mrs Beeton “adapted” many of her recipes.

The New French Wine by Jon Bonné (£112) mention Andrew Jefford and natural wine and Noma 2 – Vegetable-Forest-Ocean by Rene Redzepi, Mette Søberg and Junichi Takahashi (Artisan £60)

Two door-stoppers that were published first abroad last year and seeped in to the UK. I first encountered Bonné a decade ago when his New California Wine was a valuable companion on an epic vineyard-led road trip of the state. Since when he has moved to France and compiled this deluxe definitive compendium of the country’s wine makers at a time of profound change. I still treasure Andrew Jefford’s The New France but, published in 2002, it is now ‘Old France’, superseded by this remarkable celebration of a unique wine culture.

The groundbreaking cultural phenomenon that is Noma is reinventing itself as a food laboratory (shades or restaurant rival El Bulli). The gorgeous Noma 2, a hymn to foraging, fermentation and a wacky food aesthetic, may read like a swansong but I’ll take it as a launchpad (though it’s very weighty for lift-off).

Manchester’s Best Beer Pubs and Bars by Matthew Curtis (CAMRA Books, £16.99 pb) and A Beautiful Pint: One man’s search for the perfect pint of Guinness by Ian Ryan (Bloomsbury, £9.99)

Two much slimmer volumes that have a practical purpose in guiding you to the authors’ recommended watering holes. Matthew Curtis, author of the refreshing Modern British Beer upped sticks from London to live in Stockport. Result is a CAMRA beer guide like no other, encompassing craft bars, restaurants and taprooms as well as the traditional pubs. The list of ‘special’ starred establishments is spot on, as is this incomer’s research for a potted history of the scene. 

If that’s a perfect stocking-filler for the hophead in your life, it has a dark rival in Cork exile Ryan’s more niche print follow-up to his notorious Shit London Guinness Instagram and Twitter accounts. The writing is no on a par with Curtis’s but the passion shines through, along with some technical stuff I’d never given thought to. Best of all is his Guinness outlets to visit section. Without it I would never have strayed into the beyond marvellous Cock Tavern on Phoenix Road, just a stroll from Euston Station, where Sheila from Sligo served me the best Guinness I’ve ever had in the UK – at an amazing £4.50 a pint.

Steeple Chasing by Peter Ross (Headline £22) and The Wasteland: Biography of a Poem by Matthew Hollis (Penguin £12.99 pb)

There are few books I re-read in a year but Steeple Chasing has been one of them. It’s the Glasgow-based feature writer’s follow-up to A Tomb With A View: The Stories and Glories of Graveyards and is even more fascinating. Which is saying something. Elegiac, yes but more… The melancholy element is inevitable, if not as pervasive as in its predecessor despite the pandemic hovering over the journeys. On first reading I pinned it down as a neo-WG Sebaldian quest for meaning among Britain’s steeples and bell towers, but with its own special radiance, especially when he explores the sacred territory of Suffolk. 

I inevitably re-read TS Eliot’s great poem in response to Matthew Hollis’s excavation of the post First World War milieu it grew out of – like “lilacs out of the dead land”. So much personal unhappiness fertilised his creation, trimmed into shape for publication by ‘ll Miglior Fabbro’ (the better craftsman), Ezra Pound. Let us salute both of them, “looking into the heart of light, the silence.”

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.”