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.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let us salute Baldrick’s proud and upright turnip

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

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

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

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

I have turnips. What do I cook with them?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So what to expect at Eight?

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

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

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

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

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

Herculean tasks? Breaking down a whole carcass of an ex-breeding Red Poll cow might count. It requires much grappling and knife skills. This particular beast in front of me is destined for Shaun Moffat, chef and carnivore extraordinaire at the Edinburgh Castle pub in Ancoats. He’s the reason I’m here at Littlewoods Butchers in Heaton Chapel, suppliers to at least half of the chefs nominated for Chef of the Year in the 2023 Manchester Food and Drink Awards (Shaun among them).

A week previously I enjoyed one of the great meat dishes of my life upstairs at the EC – a wild boar Barnsley chop. Proper beef dripping chips and mixed kale on the side and a big puddle of Shaun’s sauce, concocted from a stock from duck carcass and pig trotters, mirepoix and herbs, then reduced and infused with pepper dulse, lemon thyme and a snifter of Julian Temperley’s Somerset Cider brandy (we enjoyed a shot later with our post-prandial madeleines).

Agreed such a treatment would enhance any meat main, but the quality of the boar double loin was exceptional; as the gobbets settled they tasted even more entrancing. Littlewoods had made the boar sausages I had for my starter; not quite on a level with their acclaimed merguez but it was all part of the boar trail that eventually has led me to their cramped basement meat store. Here, among some prize carcasses, owner Marcus Wilson explains the Forest of Dean connection that put that fabled boar on our table.

The classicists among you will recall the Fourth Labour of the aforesaid Hercules was his quest to capture the fearsome Erymanthian boar alive, which he eventually did through a mixture of guile and strength. It was easier meat for Marcus’s Instagram buddy Chris, charged with culling stags in the historic Gloucestershire forest and chancing upon a herd of wild boar, which his licence allowed him to shoot. 

“They were quite young, each only 25kg in weight,” recalled Marcus. “I was sent a couple. Unlike pigs, it really is hard to skin them with all that bristle sunk into the fat layers. When I posted a picture of one of them Shaun got in touch and said he must have a whole one. I told him these were cut up and spoken for but he insisted, so I persuaded Chris to send me up a third one, which helped provide your dinner.”

Shaun, once of East London cool spots Manteca and Berber & Q, has an engaging commitment to proper sourcing and using the entire animal (check out our chat). Witness his constantly changing menu name-checking his suppliers, so a perfect Littlewoods trade customer. That 11-year-old Red Poll suckler upstairs in the School Lane shop is destined for him, prepared by Marcus’s team of six specialist butchers. Its source is tagged – ‘The Langleys at Bunbury, Cheshire’.

The Cheshire hinterland is a great source of animals for Marcus, who made the decision several years ago to go down the grass-fed, sustainable butchering route. For the public and now increasingly those cutting edge restaurants. My readers will be aware of my devotion to the exemplary Jane’s Farm at Poole Hall near Nantwich, profiled here – Farmer Jane’s Herd Instincts are spot on. It is umbilically linked to Higher Ground, Manchester’s top restaurant of the moment, whose Cinderwood market garden is on the same site. Perfect examples of regenerative agriculture and its wonderful to see livestock of this quality, reared permanently on grass, given no antibiotics, featuring on restaurant menus.

Jane and Marcus make use of the same private abattoir on the Wirral, Edge and Sons Butchers, run by Callum Edge, who shares their ethical commitment. This is how networks are built.

The destinations of the produce hanging in Littlewoods’ basemen read like a litany of Manchester and Stockport’s finest eating places. The small but perfectly formed Dexter steer is promised to Climat on the eighth floor of city centre Blackfriars House, the red deer stag from Lyme Estate for Higher Ground and the 20-strong squadron of two-week aged, salted ducks is booked in for Where The Light Gets In down the road in Stockport. The link-up with its chef/patron Sam Buckley when it opened seven years ago was the Littlewoods launch pad. Marcus, then 39, had worked in the butchers from the age of 11, so knows everything about the trade, but this was a new challenge. These days he even makes his own salami. Just a home project, he quickly qualifies; there’s a strong influence from his French wife’s family down in the Dordogne.

What is key to his influence, I believe, is the way he imparts meat-handling skills to the talented chefs he works or has worked with –  Joseph Otway (Higher Ground), Luke Richardson (Climat), Sam Buckley (WTLGI), Julian Pizer (Another Hand), Patrick Withington (Erst), Iain Thomas (Our Place), oh, and that persistent Mr Moffat.

Invasion of Aussie beef and lamb – the sticking point

As I was penning this piece I received an email inviting me to a tasting of imported meat that has proved somewhat controversial. It read: “The world-renowned Aussie Beef & Lamb brand has now launched in the UK following the UK-Australia Free Trade Agreement, meaning it 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 immediately texted Marcus, who as it happens was away on holiday, lunching off horse meat tagine in Marrakech. He was, as expected, scathing about the deal with Down Under: 

“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.”

Tusks, bristles and tempers – the wonderful world of wild boar

Among the most sustainable of animal meats, boar has traditionally been imported from Eastern Europe, where it has been a fixture in the forests and latterly in farms, though much is not generally the true tusked terror but a cross with feral pigs. In Japan, where it is a surprisingly popular meat, they call it such a cross-breed Inoshishi; in Germany Wildschwein, though here he discovery of excessive radiation in the breed has caused health scares.

The French call mature boars sanglier, younger, tenderer specimens marcassin. In my Boar-Googling I found a Lidl online recipe for Ragoût de marcassin aux chicons et sauce aux canneberges (stew with Belgian endive and cranberry sauce). I’ve yet to encounter wild boar on any supermarket shelf, even though they do roam wild in selected woodlands. Approach with caution, especially if you have a dog with you.

The Forest of Dean does appear to be Wild Boar Central. It’s positively bristling with them (sic). Here’s a precis of the Forest’s information on them: “Wild boar are stocky, powerful animals covered in bristly hair that can vary from dark brown almost black in colour to gingery brown. Mature males have tusks that protrude from the mouth. Females also have tusks, but these do not protrude. Piglets are a lighter ginger-brown, with stripes on their coat for camouflage and are affectionally known as ‘humbugs’. Wild boar can stand up to 80cm at the shoulder and they normally weigh between 60–100kg. Though short-sighted they can move surprisingly fast for their size. They will also readily move to defend their young when they feel threatened, so should always be treated with caution and respect. Sows can give birth at any time of the year, although there is a peak of births in the spring and early summer.  Average litter sizes in the Forest of Dean are between six and 10 piglets, which is nearly twice that of their continental cousins.” 

The last time I ate wild boar regularly was 30 years ago. The farmed variety sourced from a smallholding above Oxenhope (think Worth Valley and Railway Children), whose owners bizarrely doubled up as wedding limousine providers. Their meat wasn’t a patch on our fateful Barnsley chop.

• The main image is of a boar hunt by 17th century Flemish painter Frans Snyders. It doesn’t represent how the animals are culled these days.

Name your dog after fermented soybeans and you are guaranteed a review here. But please don’t quote me. It was delightful to shake paws in the yard with resident pooch Miso the Shibu Ina pup, but that wasn’t the clincher at the outstanding new Restaurant Örme, I was just in need of immediate canine therapy after an epic trek from my Pennine fastness. Floods had taken out the rail line and I endured nearly an hour on the bus from Manchester centre to Urmston, home to the three young folk who opened Örme here in May. To instant acclaim.

Last month the 30-cover restaurant on Church Road was one of 15 new inclusions in the Michelin UK guide alongside higher profile Manc newcomer Higher Ground. It also garnered two nominations in the 2023 Manchester Food and Drink Awards – for Newcomer of the Year and Best Neighbourhood Venue.

 Quite a step up for a suburban site that had previously hosted the likes of The Hideaway, Best Afternoon Tea and an Indian called Theru Kadai.

The name of the latest incumbent, in case you are wondering, derives from the area’s 12th century landowner, one Orme Fitz Seward. Not sure where the umlaut came from. There’s something about four letter leave-you-wondering names for new wave restaurants – Mana, Erst, Kala. Or a chunk of ancient heritage as with Elnecot, which was what Ancoats was called in those misty times before natural wine and designer pooches joined beards as de rigueur.

In truth it hadn’t been my intention to formally review Örme; I just wanted to check what the fuss was all about. The £45 tasting menu isn’t available Saturday lunchtimes; instead it was a pared down £35 four courser, though I couldn’t resist a supplementary dish of cured monkfish for £9 that levelled it all up anyway. That was actually the star turn in a lunch that was consistently impressive from superior snacks through to an indulgent sticky pear, peanut butter custard and ginger ice cream finale.

The monkfish had been sliced so thinly it was diaphanous, dressed with a silky dill emulsion, buttermilk spheres adding freshness and cubes of pickled celeriac a certain punch. Very Nordic. It would have been interesting to see what Örme sommelier Rachel Roberts might have paired it with. I did spot an unusual to find Basque white Txakoli being poured at another table. Rachel (pictured cuddling Miso) offers matching wines at £25 and unusually a British line-up for £35  – for those curious to know what a Welsh red from the Regent grape tastes like. With further Saturday commitments ahead I declined.

Navy blue walls, large front windows, fine cutlery and an indie soundtrack were all factors, but what took my eye was the presence of influential, cutting edge cookbooks on a shelf in the dining space. There was a similar bookish statement of ambition in a young chef at Metamorphica in Haslingden. The Örme collection (think the Noma Book of Fermentation and Josh Niland’s The Whole Fish Cookbook) belongs to Rachel’s partner, Jack Fields; he and his co-chef Tom Wilson have worked in some impressive kitchens before striking out with their own project.

There’s a lovely precision to their work. A tranche of venison haunch came with a faggot sidekick. A splendid use of the off-cuts. There’s a smoker out back and its use had ‘elevated’ a humble carrot, blobs of blueberry puree adding their own autumnal oomph.

Örme has a quiet assurance about it for such early days. It needs everyone who feels the need to support genuine indie culinary heroes to find a day when the trains are running and walk the 10 minutes from the station. There’s lots of interest en route, too. a good cheese shop, a wine merchants and more. Did I mention that Urmston is also shortlisted for an MFDF gong for Foodie Neighbourhood of the Year?

Slipping into ‘The Mouth of the Wolf’ has been an intermittent indulgence over these past 15 years of its existence. Grabbing a stool at the marble counter, a Negroni Sbagliato soon to hand, perhaps with almonds and olives, and a wolfish perusal of the ever-shifting menu. How time has flown. And how remiss of me to omit Bocca di Lupo from my recent dewy-eyed retro crawl around Soho.

Founder Jacob Kenedy’s rustic Italian formula has stood the test of time while never standing still. Across Archer Street from the restaurant’s carved sandstone facade sprang Gelateria Gelupo, modelled on the kind of ice cream parlour straight out of Amarcord or Cinema Paradiso with the added bonus in truffle season that it will supply you with a modicum of the musky tuber to be shaved over an appropriate dish in the mothership.

Maybe even over a luganega sausage dish. After all, in some parts of Northern Italy truffles and parmesan add an extra, luxurious touch to one version of this aromatic coiled banger. 

Not that I expect to find those inclusions in the luganega I’ve ordered to celebrate Bocca’s 15th birthday. Mine haven’t winged their way from the heart of Soho but from an industrial estate on the edge of Skipton – home to the redoubtable Swaledale Butchers. Experts in whole carcass butchery with access to Yorkshire’s best naturally reared livestock, they supply many fine restaurants and have done collabs with Jacob Kenedy since 2018, the latest his traditional North Italian delicacy, prepared to his formula. Swaledale proudly quote their chef fan: “From fat pheasants and plump partridges to little Dexter sirloins and blackface hoggets, the quality of their meat is outstanding. Their pork, in particular, finds its way onto our menu near constantly – as dry-aged, marbled chops, marinated with honey, rosemary and garlic, as shoulder cooked gently with milk, lemon zest and sage, and as sausages, chubby and inviting.”

With the luganega Jacob provides a recipe that pairs it with farro, a spelt-like grain, roasted fresh porcini and tarragon. I like it with polenta and my favourite Abruzzo lentils, some bitter radicchio leaves on the side. Or skinned and crumbled with peppers in a tomato-based sauce for pasta.

So what is luganega sausage?

Usually pork shoulder and belly minced, spiced with nutmeg, cinnamon and a smidgeon of clove, and flavoured with dried porcini. Squeezed into a thin natural casing, it will be twisted into a tight coil. Consequently it can be grilled or sauteed in a matter of minutes.

The attraction for me is the provenance of the pork used – in Swaledale’s case free range native breed Tamworths or Middle White, dry-aged on the bone for three weeks in their Himalayan salt chamber.

You can’t pin down this sausage to any one region of Italy. The name references Lucanaia, the ancient name of today’s Basilicata in the deep south – both Cicero and cookery writer Apicius mention it in Roman times. Since when the style has migrated north and is hugely popular in the Veneto even with Milan staking its claim to make the definitive version, moistened with wine. In Lombardy it’s the staple of the regional risotto.

The coarsely minced pork is traditionally stuffed into a metre long piece of gut, giving it its nickname ‘salsiccia a metro’, to be sold by the length. Not unlike our own Cumberland sausage but much more satisfying.

I am lunching in the only 2 Michelin star Chinese restaurant outside China – A. Wong, just down from London’s Victoria Station.  My 15-course dim sum-centric tasting menu, Touch Of The Heart, costs £175 and the sophisticated package includes five splendid matching wines. Curated by chef patron and Oxford-educated chemist and later social anthropologist Andrew Wong, this is no ordinary dumpling experience. 

The menu, based on Andrew’s extensive explorations, has this mission statement: “The world of Chinese cuisine is limitless and exciting, a journey of tasteful cultures and flavoursome histories, from Buddhist temple cuisines of the Tang Dynasty Silk Road and the lantern-lit teahouses of bustling Ming Dynasty Suzhou to the cocktail hour of Hong Kong and Shanghai’s jazz age. We are honoured to have you join us on this culinary journey, with a menu that celebrates Chinese food heritage, historical recipes, and kitchen crafts that evolved over 4000 years.”

I hope Fuchsia Dunlop approves. She too is a standard bearer. Her new book, Invitation To The Banquet: The Story of Chinese Food (Particular Books, £25) explores through 30 widely disparate dishes/food styles the extraordinary culinary universe of that vast nation. Not the dumbed down version of Cantonese cuisine that has been long peddled in the West. Now thankfully changing at the top end, if not in takeaways.

Invitation seems the logical progression from a series of cookbooks that have earned her an authoritative reputation, not least in China, commencing with the groundbreaking Sichuan Cookery (2001). Even Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper, her 2008 memoir of how she trained as a chef in its capital, Chengdu, came with a recipe at the end of each chapter. Her latest doesn’t. Both evocative and encyclopaedic, part travelogue, part social history, it’s not a stoveside tome. Instead you are by proxy by the side of local food producers, chefs, gourmets and home cooks spread across a homeland of over 1.4 billion people. Ultimately you are worshipping at the shrine of Fuchsia’s foodie hero, one A Dai, proprietor of Dragon Well Manor in the city of Hangzhou, whose ‘cooking rooted in the local terroir’ mirrors that of forward-thinking chefs in the West.

Before reading it I knew something about Dongpo pork, named after an 11th century Song Dynasty poet and governor of that same Hanghzou, and about Pockmarked Mrs Chen’s mapo tofu from Fuchsia’s wellspring, Sichuan, but pomelo with shrimp eggs or the trophy dish of the mega-rich maverick even today – bear’s paw? Emperors had that rarity served with the tiny tongues of crucian carp fish. Like serving pangolin or shark’s fin, all very arcane subject matter, but the book’s mission is less about the exotic, more about dispelling the scariness of many regional specialities and explaining how more recognisable delicacies came about.

Take the procession of dim sum I’m enjoying from Andrew Wong’s buzzing kitchen. In Invitation Fuchsia devotes a couple of chapters to dim sum, dumplings, noodles and baos and they are among the most enchanting, firmly pinning down their Turkic Silk Road origins. ‘Transforming Dough  knife-scraped noodles/dao xoao mian’ and  ‘Kindling The Spirits: steamed soup dumplings/xialong bao’ trumpet the skills that put many non-Chinese chefs to shame. Well, that culinary triumphalism is a constant trope from stalwart Sinophile Fuchsia. Still I do get her point as midway through my steady Wongathon I’m actually purring.

Dim sum at 2 star Michelin level? Pull up a lunchtime stool

I’m perched at the end of a shiny green-tiled counter, marvelling at the sheer elan of the operation and the warmth of welcome not always apparent in either Michelin places or old school Chinatown. What was once a standard Cantonese, run by Andrew’s parents in one of Pimlico’s less fashionable streets, has been transformed over the last decade thanks to his ambitions.

While evening service centres around The Collections of China, a wide-ranging three hour banquet, this Touch Of The Heart tasting menu of smaller dishes is available only at lunch alongside an à la carte dim sum offering. The title springs from a translation of these between meals snacks – ‘dian xin’ in Mandarin – which first came into use during the Tang Dynasty.

Fuchsia writes: “In its literal meaning dim sum is ambiguous; the two characters which compose it can mean ‘dot’ or ‘press’ and ‘heart’ or ‘mind’, which is why some people translate it into English’ as ‘touch the heart’…

“Food scholar Wang Zihu suggests that the emergence of this new term for a kind of ‘edible pick-me-up’ reflected a whole new era in Chinese gastronomy, in which eating was increasingly seen not just in terms of sustenance, with pleasure a a secondary goal, but as something that could be done mainly for fun, as was the case with dainty snacks that were designed to appeal to the senses as much as fill the belly.”

Cut to me at 70 Wilton Road, SW1V 1DE on a Thursday lunchtime. So which components appealed to my senses most?

Chilled ‘smacked’ cucumber with trout roe, chilli and garlic vinegar was an appetiser before  a glorious trio of dumplings, dim sum and wontons served together. Pick of the bunch was an incredibly delicate Shanghai steamed pork dumpling with a sharp ginger infused broth, the quintessence of xiao long bao. Equally classic was an almost transparent shrimp dumpling, sweet chilli sauce, topped with a cloud of rice vinegar foam. Sturdier, with a more compact dough, was a pork and prawn dumpling crowned with pork crackling.

Perhaps the ‘rabbit and carrot glutinous puff’ proved less delicious than it sounded but its fellow puff, the ‘999 layered scallop puff’ with powerful XO oil was a convincing bite, ahead of a dish (main image) that was a genius level artful deconstruction. ‘Memories of Peking duck’ arrived in a swirling nest of feathers and straw, the classic thin pancake encasing duck and foie gras. It’s a two bite experience. Go left and the topping is caviar, right and it’s a shaving of truffle. 

Further stand-outs were a cheung fun, that Cantonese rice noodle sandwich, here matching an Isle of Mull seared scallop with honey-glazed Iberico pork, then ultra delicate  ‘bamboo pole’ noodles with king crab and spring onion oil (my server first showing me a video at table of the deft noodle-making process) and the main pudding, a fluffy steamed duck yolk custard bun that benefited from not being over-sweet.

Before that, though, a skillet arrived bearing the component parts of our Xian lamb burger – a dish at odds with the rest of the culinary parade, its inspiration the pork-free Muslim-centric north west vastness that is Xianjing province. The author mentions in passing “the plight of its Ugyhur people” that ”has been well documented in the international media” and that’s it. Food takes precedence over geopolitics.

Here at A.Wong the mix and match presence of sesame, coriander, chilli and pomegranate alongside the lamb pattie transported me along the Silk Road – the route west. What better way to conclude a remarkable pilgrimage through the world’s most diverse cuisine?Thank you, via your different routes, Andrew and Fuchsia.

Chewy, bouncy, slippery, crunchy? I settle for century-old eggs

The menu was a sublime procession of flavours, but none of it was challenging – the kind of macho Chinatown ‘take me off piste’ stuff that ‘old China hand’ critics such as Jay Rayner and Giles Coren occasionally indulge in… and Fuchsia Dunlop has grown to relish after her first tentative coming to terms with a nation of eaters that value food for mouthfeel as much as flavour. “They want chewy, bouncy, slippery and even crunchy ingredients which ‘feel beautiful’.”

Tripe I do, even slippery pig brains, but I gag on chicken feet or tendons. Still, broadening my horizons, I’m now a convert to century old eggs. My recent dish of the month for Manchester Confidential came from Noodle Alley in the city’s Chinatown. They were done Sichuanese style. Here’s what I wrote: “Smoked beers? I’d sampled a few at Smokefest, niche celebration at Torrside Brewing in New Mills, so what perils could a surfeit of Sichuan pepper hold for kippered me? Hence it was a ballast of ‘Burning Noodles’ all round at Ken and Wendy Chen’s Chinatown basement homage to her native province. This version of the classic dish featuring minced pork is not the tonsil-cauterising challenge you might encounter in the back alleys of Chengdu, but it is the most authentic manifestation ever to pop up in Faulkner Street. Numbing enough to need the quenching (unsmoked) neutrality of a Tsingtao lager or two.

“My foodie focus, though, was more left field. I am currently working my way through Invitation To A Banquet, Fuchsia Dunlop’s newly published introduction to Chinese cuisine, so I felt I had to order £6.80 small plates of Sichuan starch jelly with house chilli sauce and charred green chilli with century old eggs. The former was testimony to the Chinese love of texture, the latter proof that an ammoniac whiff doesn’t have to be off-putting. 

“The wedges of egg fanned around the plate, resembled on first glance, streaked dark green tomatoes. The Chinese see a pine pattern, so another name beyond the usual pidan issonghua dan, or pine-patterned egg. That look is the result of several weeks’ fermentation. Traditionally this consisted of pickling duck eggs in brine and then burying them in a mixture of coals, chalk, mud and alkaline clay. Result – they can last unrefrigerated for months but not long years. Bite through the gelatinous coating and the taste is uncompromisingly ripe. Think blue cheese on steroids. The impact at Noodle Alley certainly skittled any lingering ashtray beer tastes.”

We each have our own private Soho. For the long of tooth it may well be Paul Raymond’s Revue Bar and the nudge nudge of sleaze or Jeffrey Bernard regaling his reprobate chums slouched across lunchtimes that never ended. Perhaps Gaston Berlemont’s French House and Muriel Belcher’s Colony Club, L’Escargot with Elena Salvoni at the helm or Victor Sassie’s goose-fattened politico haunt, The Gay Hussar. So many ghosts. Even a near contemporary of mine, Alastair Little, whose eponymous restaurant brought a blast of fresh culinary air to Frith Street in the Eighties, is no more (my tribute).

Northern-based, I’ve only had the tiniest of bit parts in the pulsating Square Mile of Sin, much sanitised these days, of course. Maybe, on a flying visit, a café au lait and croissant at Maison Bertaux before stocking up on Italian essentials at I Camisa & Son (recently granted a two year stay of execution; its drab rival around the corner, Lina Stores, has now swollen to a glossy five-strong chain). For cocktails it still has to be tiny Bar Termini on Old Compton Street. And if we ate in in Soho it would inevitably be at Andrew Edmunds in Lexington Street, an 18th century townhouse that for four decades has combined being dog-friendly with offering a remarkably affordable fine wine list, well matched with the game it regularly serves. Alas, Andrew, too, died last year at 80, another key figure in ‘Old Soho’ departed.

There were occasionally more flamboyant experiences. A random invitation, by his biographer, to the funeral of Sebastian Horsley, the Last Dandy of Soho, where to a Marc Bolan soundtrack the horse-drawn hearse delivered his heroin-ravaged body to St James’s Piccadilly, Stephen Fry delivering the eulogy.

Another time I lingered into the early hours in the Groucho Club in the company of Lembit Öpik, Liberal Democrat MP, I’m A Celebrity contestant and Cheeky Girls squeeze, and one Ron Brand, dad of Russell (whatever happened to him?).

Quo Vadis – no wriggling out of Jeremy’s eel sandwich

The Groucho Club is a homage to the wittiest of the Marx Brothers, but it was the former home of a more seismic Marx  – Karl – that hosted us on a recent return to Soho. Once also a brothel, Quo Vadis in Dean Street is definitely ‘Old Soho’, launched as a restaurant in 1926, one year before L’Escargot (Camisa arrived two years later). It has enjoyed a resurgence over the last decade under the stewardship of the Hart Brothers, whose neighbouring Barrafina is definitely a standard bearer for the ‘New Soho’.

The Quo Vadis kitchen is in the hands of national treasure Jeremy Lee, whose Cooking Simply and Well, for One or Many (Fourth Estate, £30) has just won Best General Cookbook in the 2023 Guild of Food Writers Awards. I wrote about his championing of salsify here a year ago. That root vegetable wasn’t on the menu on the Monday evening we dined there, but his signature starter was – the smoked eel sandwich. I’ve tried to replicate at home several times, quite recently with in-house prepared eel from Upton Smokery in the Cotswolds, but the restaurant version was miffingly superior. At £14.50 a tranche it had to be.

Amazingly, it was pipped by the other starter we shared in the cosy, quirky dining room –the best terrine I’ve had in years. A quid cheaper, it was a master class in the charcutier’s art. Tender tiles of compressed chicken, grouted with a moist blend of ceps, savoy cabbage and bacon, accompanied by fresh figs. 

The scene was set. The extended, enhanced ground floor restaurant looked a treat, as did arguably London’s most beautiful paper menu. Alas, the mains didn’t match all  this level of excitement. A case of NOFOM? (never order fish on Mondays)? I’d like to think that wouldn’t apply to a place, whose rigorous standards are apparent from Jeremy’s gloriously written book, but my wife’s hake with clams dish (£32.50) was dull and over-beaned, while my skate with tartare sauce (£34.50) smelt too much of the pan and felt tired. And yes, I am allowing for skate being a fish actively benefiting from a few days’ ageing. Neither dish was done any flavours by a timid Rousette de Savoie Cru Frangy Domaine Lupin, which cost £50. Our jolly neighbours were knocking back their white, a Puligny Montrachet at thrice that price, and we were so jealous.

Ain’t no Mountain high enough?

So a certain disappointment at Dean Street’s old stager, made up for thrillingly by new arrival Mountain in Beak Street. I vaguely remember the corner site being occupied by a Byron Burgers, but there’s also a louche Soho legacy, naturally. From 1913 it was home to  Murray’s Cabaret Club; in the Fifties Ruth Ellis danced in the club before murdering her husband, in the Sixties hostess Christine Keeler met Stephen Ward here before embarking on the Profumo Affair. 

These days it would be a scandal not to make the pilgrimage to taste the latest manifestation of Tomos Parry’s genius. His Michelin-starred Brat in Shoreditch (former strip club premises, a theme developing) set the bar high for the ‘Welsh Wizard Who Cooks With Fire’. The restaurant name? His inspiration has always been the ‘mar y montaña’ cooking (sea and mountain inspired) along Basque and Catalan coasts. Tast Catala in Manchester nods to that same culinary philosophy through its Costa Blanca-based exec chef, Paco Pérez.

Big investment has gone into the two floors occupied by Mountain, each boasting a state of the art Gozeney wood-burning oven, losing some of the hipster vibe along the way, but the food offering has suffered no identity crisis on the evidence of our early evening walk-in. Tables are currently booked out for weeks after the metropolitan critics swooped with their ‘already a candidate for restaurant of the year’ snap judgements. 

They might well prove right. We just loved everything about the place as we perched at the counter and wanted to order all of the menu. With a train to catch we settled for half a dozen treats, small plates except for a spectacular loin of fallow deer on the bone (£40) – dark char giving way to perfect saignant flesh. Like some Game of Thrones hero emerging from battle. Alongside, a squad of Parry’s signature smoked potatoes, even better than their equivalent at Yorkshire’s legendary Moorcock at Norland.

The supporting cast was equally impressive. A plate of home-cured ex-dairy beef (£12.50, fanned out wafer thin (the meat slicer is as much in evidence here as at Brat’s Shoreditch rival Manteca), then substantial chunks of raw sobrasada (£6.50), doused in honey. on their own wood-fired bread, topped with squiggles of guindilla pepper. Apparently this spicy, spreadable sausage is sourced from an organic Mallorcan farmer called Luis Cirera. 

Such attention to detail is everywhere. Wines show a Noble Rot influence. Where else might you encounter that delicate North Italian white, Nosiola? At £8 a sizeable glass, it had been our welcome drink, to be followed by a 500ml carafe of a Portuguese bulk tinto that was remarkable, fruity value for £20. It handled the spice of the chorizo we ordered in envy of our neighbours on the counter because of the balloon-light flatbread they also got.

Returning another time then to dig deep into a no-compromise menu offering beef sweetbreads, tripe, turbot head and, for three or more to share (£90-£120), a whole lobster caldereta (one pot stew) that may prove to be the peak signature dish for Mountain. Aiming to scale it one day.

Finally, a satisfying foray into Fitzrovia

We were staying in the Treehouse Hotel in Langham Place, , which has a Mexican restaurant Madera on its 15th floor, where we sampled assorted seafood ceviches and organic, grass-fed carne asada served over hot lava stones. Alas, Madera won’t be accompanying Treehouse when it opens in Manchester next year; consolation, head chef at the main restaurant there will be the remarkable Mary-Ellen McTague (ex- Aumbry, Creameries and The Fat Duck). 

The London hotel is opposite the BBC and John Nash’s All Saints Church on the edge of Marylebone and Fitzrovia, both exceptional districts to dine out in these days. The latter is home to the Sicilian food of Norma on Charlotte Street, which I have previously reviewed.

This time 64 Goodge Street was our destination. In its few weeks of existence it has been garnering plaudits akin to Mountain for its retro French bistro looks and menu. A new venture by the Woodhead Restaurant Group, creators of The Quality Chop House, Portland and Clipstone, it’s a handsome fallback destination for those who can’t squeeze out an advance booking for equally francophile Bouchon Racine in Farringdon (read my review) I dined in the shadow of a dark oak armoire in the intimately lit bottle green interior. I half expected Inspector to Maigret to sidle in out of the Fitzrovia dusk.

The ‘Famous Belgian’ would certainly have relished my amuse bouche, a truffled Comté gougère and my hors d’oeuvre, a duo of snail, bacon and garlic bon bons – a cute, deep-fried take on classic escargots à l’ail.

Starters were a litany of Gallicness. What to choose from soupe au pistou; Morteau sausage, walnut and Morbier tourte (a homage to my beloved Jura); scallops, lentils and beurre blanc and a rabbit Niçoise. The latter won the day and there were enough olives, capers, tomatoes and basil to justify the substitution of blander bunny for the regulation tuna.

That dish cost £16. My main was £36. Like virtually everywhere of quality in London and other cities, even with modest wine, bills are now regularly topping £100 a head for three courses. No matter, if they get the details right From another well-judged wine list, a carafe of Austrian Blaufränkisch did the trick, its black fruits and whack of acidity a perfect match for the myrtille compote that underpinned squab pigeon two ways, breast seared, leg stuffed with Lyonnaise sausage. Perhaps a substantial addition of beetroot and chanterelles tipped the dish towards excess, but chef Stuart Andrew’s menu is built on richness. Comforting in discomforting times. Let me confess then. I wish, for therapy’s sake, I’d splashed out an extra £4 and gone for the lobster vol-au-vent with a cream/brandy infused sauce Américaine.

For 2023’s critical kitchen darlings the world appears to be their lobster.