Meat is Murder, Morrissey’s prescient plant-based message, remains a strident soundtrack to veganism, in harmony now with the methane-blamers in the battle against global warming. And yet to yoke mass-produced, factory-farmed supermarket protein with enlightened sustainable animal husbandry yielding remarkable, healthy produce is a travesty.

Read my piece on the farming practices supplying Higher Ground, in the running to be Manchester’s restaurant standard bearer, then eat there to see what all the fuss is about. At the moment it is just acorn-fed free range pork (I hugely recommend the pig’s head terrine) on the menu. from Jane’s Farm in Cheshire but soon its grass-fed beef will feature too, not a scrap of the animal wasted. Higher Ground is sharing the first Dexter cross carcass with fellow newcomer Climat.

They are not alone in championing beef. These days few retired milkers can look forward  to a long retirement, just a few years’ extra grazing to mature their flesh for the grill or pot. At the recent launch of Stock Market Grill – formerly Tom Kerridge’s Bull & Bear –in the Stock Exchange Hotel head chef Joshua Reed-Cooper served us ex-dairy Friesian rib eye steak (substantial, so £55).

Excellent as that rib-eye was, it was trumped at another hotel dining room I’d almost written off after the departure of exec head chef Iain Thomas,who had launched it to acclaim. His permanent replacement at The Alan is James Hulme, as meat savvy as any chef around. When he ran his own restaurant, The Moor, in Heaton Moor he struck up a working relationship with a farm near Buxton, he told us across the chef’s counter.

“I used to take three ewes at a time, drive them to the abattoir. I didn’t kill them myself but I think you should be able to kill stuff if you want to eat it. Many chefs, even at top places, have no idea which part of a cow different cuts come from.” 

With such knowledge he embraces the farm to fork ethos, extracting the maximum use of a beast. It took half an hour to prepare our 800g of retired dairy cow, James’s sous chef treating it first to a dose of searing flames. In all its final crimson glory it’s a wonderful mouthful with enough left over for three days of doggie bags for Captain Smidge the chihuahua. £85 the cost, but there’s ample and beyond.

Our little dog was never going to be brought back any of the Pomme Anna style confit beef fat chips – glistening gold  slabs of carb crisped in fat from the animal’s beef cap, which also fuels the best beef tartare in the city, lubricated by whipped bone marrow. It’s made distinctive by chopped gherkins and cured egg yolk plus breadcrumbs toasted with beef fat. What else? 

The vegan option is never paramount with this chef who honed his talents working for Gordon Ramsay, Jason Atherton, Marco Pierre White, Tom Aikens and our own Aiden Byrne when launching 20 Stories. Still his plant-based offering is better than most. We enjoyed poached and roasted salsify with apple and red wine but, seasonality decreed that was about to depart the menu, its replacement another off the mainstream radar veg, kohlrabi. And, of course, with that fine dining cv, he can’t resist undermining any vegan potential with a dash of life-enhancing butter. Grilled hen of the woods with ancient grains and whey butter is definitely a dish de nos jours.

But easily our favourite among the small plates was again meat-led. My favourite lamb breast dish is the classic French version, Sainte-Menehould. Slow-braised, then strips of it baked with a mustard and breadcrumb coating. This is simpler, the product of pressing with the addition of that most un-Gallic of tracklements – kimchi. The most delicate of kimchis turned into a ketchup. 

There’s an improved wine list arriving at The Alan and we suspect this chef will not hesitate to up his menu game, too. For the moment it’s good to see one of the city’s coolest venues consolidating its immediate impact despite big changes.

So many Manchester homages to exposed brick are just plain grubby but this wide open space of muted pastels and cute design quirks really sings. With  food to match from James Hulme. Grab a seat at the counter and watch an unsung master at work.

The Alan, 18 Princess Street, Manchester M1 4LG. 01612368999.

The recent consignment from Swaledale Butchers that brought me my epic St John Haggis also included a quartet of marrow bone canoes – perfect receptacles for another all-time Fergus Henderson classic. 

Since my epiphany at his St John Smithfield restaurant 20 years ago I‘ve wolfed molten ox marrow topped with herby crumbs and garlic (pictured above) everywhere from various Hawksmoors to the now vanished Spotted Pig in New York’s West Village, which used to host an annual Fergus-Stock event with its culinary hero in attendance.

The canoes are cut from the the femur and split lengthways through the bone fully exposing the marrow. Less fiddly access and perfect for roasting. Seven minutes in a medium oven will do. Don’t over-cook. A single canoe can accompany a steak, but scooping the ooze out of it with sourdough toast is perhaps the most satisfying approach, raw onion, capers and parsley on the side. In his inimitable prose Fergus suggests: “Lightly chop your parsley, just enough to discipline it.”

So what did I do with my marrowy haul? Went all Sri Lankan instead. Adapted arguably the most popular dish on the menu at the Hoppers group in London. In my Christmas food and drink book recommendations I rated Cynthia Shanmugalingam’s Rambutan as the only Sri Lankan cookbook you need. I’ve ignored my own advice and also acquired the gorgeously produced Hoppers: The Cookbook (Hardie Grant, £30) by its founder Karan Gokani. There on page 256 I discovered Bone Marrow Varuval. High octane spice. Its contents perfect for tipping into the signature hoppers, the fermented rice flour crepes (often served with an egg) namechecked for the brand.

As so often happens, my attempt doesn’t look as gorgeous as the restaurant version but still tasted wonderful (see the sequence below). Without a specialist hopper pan I didn’t risk that element.



For the curry: 6 five inch shin bones, split lengthways, 300g red onions, finely sliced, 10 curry leaves, 1 tbsp minced garlic, 1 tsp minced ginger, ½ tsp turmeric, 2 tsp red chilli powder, 1½ tbsp double concentrated tomato paste, 2 green chillies, deseeded and cut in half lengthways, 200ml beef stock, 100ml coconut milk, salt to taste.

Spice paste: 100g freshly grated coconut, 1 tsp fennel seeds, 4 green cardamom pods, 2 tbsp coriander seeds, 4 red chillies, deseeded, ½ tsp cumin seeds, 5 tbsp oil.

Garnish: 2 tbsp oil, 10 curry leaves.


Deep fry the sliced onions for a few minutes, or until golden brown. Drain on kitchen paper. Lay the marrow bones out in a tray and sprinkle a pinch of sea salt over the cut side. Roast for six minutes.

To make the spice paste heat 2 tbsp oil in a heavy bottomed saucepan over medium heat. Add the coconut to it and fry until golden brown. Set aside in a bowl and wipe down the pan.

Heat another tablespoon of oil in the same pan and fry all the remaining ingredients for the spice paste on medium-low heat for 2 minutes. Add them to the coconut and blitz everything to a thick paste, adding a little bit of water.

Heat a wide heavy bottomed saucepan over medium-high heat. Add 1 tbsp of oil to it and add the curry leaves, fried onions, ginger and garlic and fry for a couple of minutes, adding a splash of beef stock if it looks dry. Add the turmeric and red chilli powder and fry for 30 seconds. Tip in the tomato paste and green chillies and cook for about 2 minutes. Add the spice paste along with the remaining beef stock and coconut milk. Simmer it all until it reduces to a thick sauce. Season to taste. Transfer the roasted bones to the curry sauce and simmer for 5-8 minutes. Once the bone marrow has finished cooking through, garnish with the fried curry leaves.

Hoppers has three restaurants across London – in Soho, King’s Cross and Marylebone. The latter district is also home to the latest outpost of Fergus Henderson’s St John.

A flock of dark birds shoots up off Standridge Hill as I hurtle north from Clitheroe to my destination, the newly crowned UK number one gastropub. A conspiracy of ravens? A murder of crows? Far from an ill omen in fulfilling times for the Parkers Arms.

It has already been picked over (in a positive way) by the swooping media in the 12 days since triumphing in the Estrella Top 50 list. If levelling up in any meaningful economic sense is light years away, well all the better to salute a plucky Northern food success story. And the hard-fought 15 year tenure of Stosie Madi, Kathy Smith and Adrian Nolan is the very definition of that.

At least I know my way well to the white-washed inn in the remote hamlet of Newton-by-Bowland. I‘ve booked this Saturday lunchtime treat well before all the ‘four minutes of fame’. Back to omens. I have previous this year with Estrella Damm. For my June birthday I’d booked Yynyshir in February; two weeks later it won its second Michelin star and three days before our arrival it topped the Estrella 50 Best Restaurants list. So don’t call me an albatross around the neck.

Enough ornithology. The main room fire is lit and Captain Smidge the chihuahua and I are ensconced beside it. “That’s lit by the cleaning lady … one of the few tasks we don’t have to do,” Adrian, aka AJ, confides as he pours me a large Viognier. He’s 65 next birthday, a couple of years younger than his sister Kathy. Stosie’s in her fifties. Their energy is remarkable. All three remember the desolate times when punter footfall didn’t match their ambition. Even at the pinnacle they modestly tell me: “We went along to the awards, more than happy not to drop out of the Top 10.” They inched into second last year after a steady climb up the charts.

At the end of the glorious meal to come the trio, good sports, will join Smidge for a photo destined for my chefs’ calendar project ‘Tongues Out for the Chihuahua’. Not quite the accolade of the Top 50 celebrations with their peers but an honour none the less. And a rare chance to greet chef Stosie outside the kitchen, where she is intensely focused. 

She tells me she had been so delighted I’d resisted ordering a pie. This might seem contrary when the house pies are justly celebrated (proper pastry courtesy of front of house Kathy) but Stosie is keen to demonstrate her considerable range. 

As it happens there’s no way I‘m ordering curried Burholme Farm Mutton with its offal pie in roasted mutton fat pastry, however tempting; my home-made supper later is a mutton dhansak. As for a potato and Lancashire cheese pie, well it fades in its allure when there’s the prospect of a Grilled Whole Cornish Turbot (at a £15 supplement) among the mains on the £45 three course menu.

There’s a whopper turbot in the fish larder, so Stosie offers me the option of a less fiddly tranche off it in a Champagne sauce. I accept. With in-house cured anchovies my chosen starter and the chef sending out ample tasters for me of Whitby crab and charcoal-grilled mackerel I‘m definitely steered towards the sea.

Those anchovies, done boquerones style, weeks in the creation, are sublime. With springy house bread I mop up every drop of parsley flecked olive oil and fork up seasonal blood orange segments.

Smidge shares the bread and my mackerel – Cornish sourced, like the anchovies and turbot. The crab is Whitby and comes pleasantly ungussied up in a brown meat bisque. If this is superior pub grub, the turbot is something else, pearly flesh in a shimmering pool of buttery sauce. I am tempted to stay on for evening service and order a whole one off the grill.

Most of the lunchtime customers around us are  ordering Valrhona chocolate and peanut butter slice for their puds. I stay seasonal with an iced rhubarb parfait, using the proper forced stuff from the legendary Robert Tomlinson of Pudsey. Tough choice, though, with competition from Seville orange marmalade ice cream accompanying Wet Nelly tart – Kathy’s homage to her frugal Lancashire roots.

Business partner Stosie’s own roots are more tangled. Senegalese by birth, of Lebanese heritage, she quit strife-torn Gambia when her daughter was 10. She had already run three well-respected restaurants with Kathy over there. It was quite a leap in 2007 to take over a creaky pub on the edge of the Trough of Bowland. 

Down the road at The Three Fishes in Mitton Nigel Haworth was putting a supplier-led spin on regional food, but he was a prophet in the licensed wilderness. It was hard to imagine the current embarrassment of culinary riches across the region. At no.3 in the Top 50 Gastropubs is the Freemasons at Wiswell, The White Swan at Fence is at no.7, one place behind Michael Wignall’s Angel at Hetton, just across the Yorkshire border.

As I round up the little hound to leave Adrian is bolting the front door. Parkers shuts each day between 3pm and 5.30pm, Thursdays to Saturdays and is open 12pm-4pm on Sunday. The pub accommodates hikers and the like popping by for a pint with Bowland Ales on handpump, but serving food is priority. Acclaim has only increased the pressure there. “We couldn’t survive as an off the beaten track, wet-led boozer, opening most weekdays,” says Adrian. “Without the food we wouldn’t still be here.”

And what food. Better than ever. Flying high.

Parkers Arms, Hall Gate Hill, Newton-In-Bowland, nr Clitheroe BB7 3DY.

It all sounds a mite deja vu Noma announcing 20 years on from its foundation it will soon be abandoning the formal restaurant concept that finally won it a third Michelin star in 2021. Adding to its cluster of World’s No.1 restaurant awards that focused the world’s eyes on the culinary wizard of Copenhagen, René Redzepi.

Didn’t that previous groundbreaker, El Bulli in Catalonia close its doors to customers a decade ago to mutate into a culinary research laboratory? The critical Sabatier knives were out then for the perceived pretension. Not everyone had bought into the refined spheres of ‘molecular gastronomy’ and the heavy-handed satire of recent movie The Menu is witness to continuing hostility to a fine dining world few of us can afford – or, when it comes to epic tasting menus, tolerate.

As with El Bulli the broadsheets were quick to react to the Noma ‘bombshell’ with ‘Is This There End for Fine Dining?’ headlines, Observer critic Jay Rayner wading in with ‘Twenty Six courses. £400 bills, artichoke creme brulee… I won’t miss super-luxe restaurants’.

He has got form for whacking bloated, exorbitant establishments, but Noma is a different beast despite its exclusivity. I remember a leaner Rayner lauding Redzepi in the same pages back in 2009 when he was viewed as a natural successor to super chefs Ferran Adria and Heston Blumenthal. Since when the Dane’s templates of foraging and fermentation have filtered down to absorb a whole generation of chefs.

It’s not even clear what form Noma 3.0 will take when it emerges at the end of 2024, the statement hinting “serving guests will still be a part” of a “Noma Projects’ experience that will not be a conventional restaurant. What is certain is that the team will decamp to Kyoto in Japan between March and May 2023. So Japanese influence looks certain. A previous sabbatical foray to the Yucatan in 2017, while the Copenhagen base relocated to include an urban farm, resulted in the swerve in direction that became Noma 2.0.

Simon Martin was along for that Mexican ride and the success of his Michelin-starred Mana in Manchester is proof the expensive tasting menu experience is not dead. I‘m a fan and last year I endorsed the multi-course extravaganza offered by Gareth Ward’s mighty Yynyshir. At both these places the waiting list stretches into the distance. Expect Noma now to be even harder to get into despite a dinner menu for its recent ‘game & forest season’ that cost £415 a head with an additional £214 for wine pairings or £154 for juice pairings. 

Or you could just buy the book, Noma 2.0: Vegetable, Forest, Ocean

Quite a stocking filler. 2.5kg is a lot of cookbook. Particularly for one without printed recipes. And ingredients you are unlikely to pick up at your local Waitrose. So what makes this magnum opus (Artisan, £60) my Food Book of 2022? Pipping very different, pleasurable tomes from Jeremy Lee and Debora Robertson, it is the polar opposite of their domestic charm. Lord Sauron to their Hobbit. Except, tenuously extending the Lord of The Rings conceit, it ultimately casts a near Elvish spell.

Beyond its extreme pictorial beauty there’s nothing approachable and immediately useful about this latest edict from the realm of Copenhagen’s Noma restaurant and its shape-shifting magus, Rene Redzepi. That may represent its true magic.

Regular readers of this blog will recall my (rewarding) travails tackling 2018’s Noma Guide to Fermentation. The new book is more a follow-up to Rene’s original mission statement, Noma: Time and Place in Nordic Cuisine (2010), tracing the literal journey that took Noma from derided obscurity to world’s best restaurant. Noma 2.0 records the leap forward, via a sabbatical that involved ‘cuckoo nesting ‘in Mexico, to a new custom-built site in the Danish capital with that radical fermentation lab to the fore, providing all the menu’s building blocks. Noma is relocating to Kyoto, Japan in spring 2023 and friends close to the operation tell me that might mark a radically different stage 3 in its restless evolution.

The story so far is captured by the remarkable photography of New York-based Ditte Isager, who is on back on board for the new book, more brilliant than ever. Her startling image of Blue Mussel and Quail Egg (above) represents an element in one of the three seasonal sections. Ocean reflects the menu for January to April. The others are Vegetable (May through August) and Forest (September through December) – teasing us with 200 dishes in all.

Let Rene and his co-authors explain: “This book is a cookbook, but it is not necessarily meant to be cooked from. At Noma we constantly return to nature as a primary source of creative inspiration, however, creativity is a unique process for each individual. This book is meant to help catalyse that unique creative spark for each reader. If you do wish to recreate any of the dishes, there is a QR code in the book which will bring you to every detailed recipe exactly as they are used in the kitchen at Noma.

“It is about composing a plate that delights the eye as much as the palate, whether through the trompe l’oeil of a “flowerpot” chocolate cake or a dazzling mandala of flowers and berries. It is about pushing the boundaries of what we think we want to eat—a baby pinecone, a pudding made of reindeer brain—to open our palates with startling confidence.”

Let me quote one daunting dish description. It’s my promise to myself next year, aided by what lies through the QR portal to recreate Noma’s Wild Boar and Nasturtium. That’s ‘Forest’,  I’ll have hang fire until Fall. The journey starts when “nasturtium leaves are compressed with parsley oil, then folded over dots of gooseberry-coriander paste and smoked egg yolk paste to form nasturtium ravioli. 

“Chestnuts are cooked in smoked butter until crisp and caramelised, glazed in roasted kelp salt, peaso reduction and smoked seaweed shoyu, and then diced. Fermented wild boar belly is fried to brown its surface and then sliced. Smoked egg yolk paste is piped onto the boar slices, which are then topped with the diced roasted chestnuts and folded to enclose the fillings.

“Three fermented wild boar belly wraps are brushed with chestnut smoked butter and briefly grilled over charcoal. The belly wraps and one nasturtium raviolo are skewered with a blackcurrant wood skewer. The belly wraps are brushed with cep tamari and seasoned with ancho chilli paste, quince vinegar, salt and black pepper. The skewer is served on a hay plate with a wedge of Japanese quince.” 

Or maybe I’ll divert to the more straightforward Sikha Roast, one of many deer recipes, including Reindeer Brain Jelly or Reindeer Marrow Fudge or, gulp, Reindeer Penis Salad. Off-puttingly exotic? Definitely, but what shines through is the determination to make the most of whatever is local and seasonal and sensual. Here not just empty nods to fashion. And if it’s not our ‘local’ who cares? That’s no excuse not to buy an exquisitely beautiful volume for the foodie in your life.

These beauties are giving you the hard stare. Stocky they may be, but Dexters punch above their weight in the beef stakes. Cross-bred with Longhorns, not just grass fed but rich pasture-nourished 24 hours a day, they produce meat that is unparalleled.

Expect to find this product from ‘Jane’s Farm’ at Poole Hall, Cheshire – alongside their ultimate free range pork – sizzling off the Josper at the reincarnation of Higher Ground. Repurposed as an ‘agriculturally focused bistro and bar’, it will open to the public in Manchester on Saturday, February 18. Here’s a link to their sample menu. There’s a palpable sense of elation that, three years on, the globe-trotting restaurant team that wowed at a pop-up in the fledgling Kampus development can now really fly. 

The pandemic restrictions clipped their wings. Two years of planning for one potential site ended in deep frustration. But Joseph Otway, Richard Cossins and Daniel Craig Martin battled back. Most visibly at Flawd, their natural wine bar up at Islington Marina in Ancoats. Otway got shortlisted for Chef of the Year at the 2023 Manchester Food and Drink Awards and was highly praised by Sunday Times reviewer Marina O’Loughlin. All this despite the venue’s very limited cooking facilities.

The real tools behind his artfully assembled small plates were the salad, fruit and veg sourced from Cinderwood, their own organic market gardenin deepest Cheshire. It was how the Higher Ground gang occupied the lockdown hiatus, turning over the one acre leased to them by Poole Hall’s owners, Jane and Chris Oglesby. Polytunnels and a shed  were built, horticultural nous acquired in the shape of head gardener Michael Fitzsimmons and a supply chain created to a network of enlightened restaurants. The future seeds were sown, but that has proved to be only the beginning as a deal has now been struck to take on Jane’s remarkable meat.

Higher Ground and Climat collab

The latest restaurant in Manchester to source from Cinderwood will be Climat, which hit the ground running just before Christmas. It’s actually quite a long way off the ground – on the eighth floor of Blackfriars House – and was praised to the skies last weekend by Observer critic Jay Rayner. Climat are actually going one step further by tapping into the ‘Jane’s Farm’ link-up that promises to make the resurgent Higher Ground such an exciting destination for 2023. The two restaurants have reserved a four-year-old heifer to share, avoiding wastage, and that beef will be on stream into the spring. But first the triangular farm to fork pathway will be forged by the pork on Joseph Otway’s launch menus.

Jane Oglesby has kept back six pigs from the autumn, which have been gorging on acorns in the Poole Hall woodland, so they each weigh a whopping 150 to 170kg. Noah’s Ark style, every fortnight a pair of pigs will be ferried to an independent, small scale abattoir on the Wirral, accompanied by farm manager Ste Simock. The carcasses then go to Littlewoods in Heaton Chapel, arguably the finest butcher’s in the region, to be jointed for the Higher Ground chef team. 

The end product may include (off the sample menu) pig head terrine, pickled garlic capers (£10), Jane’s acorn reared pig belly with grain and mushroom porridge (£24) and dry-aged pork leg steak, cauliflower, fermented mustard leaf (£20).

The beef, in its turn, will hang for at least four weeks at Littlewoods. Future plans include mutton from sheep sourced from Jane’s cousin in the Dales. A further third of an acre is being leased at Cinderwood, where sheep will graze, turning over the soil naturally, avoiding the plough, just a final ruffling with a rotivator before brassicas are planted on the site. The aim? Both brassicas and meat will be ready at the same time for a seasonal companionship on the plate. This is so true to the agricultural philosophy Jane espouses…

Jane Oglesby and the joy of regenerative farming 

After negotiating a maze of rutted country lanes in the Nantwich hinterland it’s after dark when we pull up at Poole Hall. So I have to take it on trust that out there across 200 acres those Dexter crosses and a scattering of their Belted Galloway rivals are revelling in being given the licence to roam and chomp the vigorous wild plant life, while in the woodland thickets Large Black x Tamworth porkers root for acorns. Just like their Spanish cousins. But they are still a work in progress, unlike the 120-strong cattle herd, which Jane Oglesby has been building up for over a decade.

I’ve come down from Manchester with Joseph and Richard to collect a couple of pork joints for the test kitchen ahead of a New Year’s Eve feast at Flawd (three sittings, check availability with them), where the centrepiece will be pork shoulder slowly seethed in milk. If it follows the Italian method for Maiale al Latte, lemon and sage will feature. As a dish it’s not a looker since when the pork is cooked the milk will have curdled into brown nuggets, but it will be delicious.

Inside Poole Hall, a sophisticated kitchen belying the country house’s Regency trappings, our host Jane offers us each a bowl of restorative beef broth. It reminds me of the ’dry-aged beef ends brothreputedly served when the great American ‘farm to fork’ champion Dan Barber transformed his upmarket Greenwich Village restaurant Blue Hill into a pop-up called wastED for two weeks. It later guested at Selfridge’s in London

You nailed it: creating thought-provoking dishes out of kitchen cast-offs. Even the candles were made out of beef tallow, which you dipped your bread into (Caroline Martins at her Sao Paolo Project in Ancoats was recently pulling off the same trick). Akin to the Italian brodo, that Barber brothmay not sound a radical statement but it marks a change of direction in a top-end restaurant culture that can be profligate with raw materials.

Using every part of an animal, capitalising on the virtues of vegetables, respecting the soil – Joseph Otway and Richard Cossins learned these lessons first hand while working together, as fish chef and front of house respectively, at Blue Hill at Stone Barns in upstate New York. Barber’s farm to table restaurant is symbiotically linked with an on-site Rockefeller-funded non-profit farm and educational centre engaged with the pursuit of ‘regenerative farming’. 

That too is Jane’s hands-on mantra across her own increasingly fecund Cheshire land. No ploughing, encouraging wild nutrients in fields formerly given over to dairy farming. Result a yummy riot of clover, yarrow, trefoil, chicory, sheep’s parsley and plantain. She insists: “My belief is that when they have a multi-varied diet the meat is more tasty, all down to the variety of herbs consumed.”

It was through a mutual friend that Jane linked up with the Higher Ground team. As Richard Cossins recalled on my initial visit to Cinderwood: “Chris Roberts (a chef specialising expert in cooking with fire) had told the Oglesbys they really ought to meet us, we’d really get on, so they just turned up out of the blue at our Kampus pop-up launch night. Jane produced this pasture-fed beef from her handbag and Joseph, after opening the windows, cooked these amazing steaks.

“Jane really knew her stuff, had read Dan Barber’s (seminal) book,The Third Plate, and it  had inspired her quest for regenerative beef. We bonded at once and they offered to lease us land to start Cinderwood on the estate.”

One thing led to another. Joseph and his team got to appreciate the quality of the meat, while hosting private dinners for Jane and her husband Chris, chief exec at developers Bruntwood. All this culminated this autumn when the couple rendezvoused across the Pond at Stone Barns with Joseph, Richard and their Flawd/Higher Ground partner and natural wine expert Daniel Craig Martin (this NOMA alumnus met Joseph when the pair were working in Copenhagen). 

For Jane Stone Barns more than lived up to its manifesto of an integrated system of vegetable, cereal and livestock production, dedicated to cultivating new varietals, and its former employees recognised the Barber sustainable quest had even ratcheted up a gear.

What none of them was quite prepared for was their meat course in the kitchen there. By the fireside at Poole Hall Joseph shared phone images of the half a cow’s head they were served. Not nearly as shocking as the infamous horse’s head in the bed in The Godfather. Still it’s more approachable when the choice meaty bits have been levered out for you.

‘Jane’s Farm’ send their animals in pairs for slaughter to Callum Edge’s abattoir on the Wirral. To reduce stress they may be accompanied by Ste Simock. Day to day the herd is calmed by leaving the bulls with them and employing a 15 year-old dairy cow to impart her own field wisdom.

The Belted Galloways, brought in to be ‘finished’ are from her cousins’ farm up in the Dales – Jane’s first contact with agriculture. “As kids we used to come up from London or Birmingham to stay at their farm,” she recalls. Much has happened in the world of cattle rearing since then. Not least the shrinking number of small scale abattoirs like Edge’s, the latest to quit the century-old Mettrick’s in Glossop. The remaining ones are hog-tied in red tape, the industry geared to force-fed, accelerated growth livestock. 

“Pasture-fed animals necessarily take longer to grow, but regulations dating back to the Mad Cow Disease epidemic place restrictions on animals over 30 months old,” Jane tells me. This former GP, has said in the past: “The health of my family was what got me into farming. The combination of being a GP and a mother started me thinking seriously about what I was eating. When my daughter was a baby, there was very little information about what was in food or how it had been raised. 

“I started to read about hormone use in cattle. We had a friend who had a beef farm and all his cattle had permanent growth-hormone release things in their neck. I didn’t want my children to be given growth hormones, plus there was the use of pesticides on the cattle feed. I was at the point where I thought I might become vegetarian. Then I thought, we’ve got land, I could have a cow and my family meat that I’ve reared myself. Initially it wasn’t that much of a commitment, apart from the small amounts of time that one cow and its calf take.”

But what about the health of the planet, Jane? I ask this in the wake of Animal Liberation activists occupying Michelin-starred Mana in protest at them serving meat. All that cattle-generated methane contributing to global warming. So what are you thoughts on the George Monbiot documentary Apocalypse Cow: How Meat Killed The Planet?

“Big choices have to be made on behalf of the planet. We have to regenerate the soil. Extensive rewilding is not the right direction, reintroducing wolves and vultures and all that. Monbiot is an ideologue, who sets out to challenge existing norms, but is too embedded in what he proposes. I don’t believe in the stats he uses to convince us how much cattle contribute to global warming compared with so much else. His is not the way.”

Monbiot has been equally dismissive of sheep’s contribution. So let’s finish with a ‘nature will heal itself’ narrative from Jane’s resident flock of Shropshires. “We had this maverick sheep, which went off on its own to just nip off the tops of plantains (the ‘mother of worts not the banana cousin). It set us thinking. Perhaps it was ailing. This was finding medicine  the plantain is one of the great healing plants.”

So what to expect from the 2023 version of Higher Ground?

Faulkner House on the corner of Faulkner Street and and New York Street is the new permanent home for Higher Ground. The 3,000 sq ft space will seat around 50 covers, with the design incorporating floor to ceiling glass on two sides of the building, as well as a large island that will be shared between both the front of house and back of house teams. 

There’s no shortage of experience there. Richard Cossins’ CV includes fronting Feta at Claridges and Roganic for Simon Rogan, but he is pragmatic about the new project they have settled on. “We don’t feel like now is the time to be opening a tasting menu only restaurant. Flawd’s success has shown that an approachable, neighbourhood concept works well. It actually makes us question our original thinking. Starting with Flawd has been the perfect entrance to a new food and beverage landscape.”

Menus will change on a daily basis depending on the season and ingredients will be sourced from the North-West with a focus on organic, small-scale agriculture and small herd, whole carcass cookery.. The wine list will encourage discovery and curiosity with a spotlight on small-scale, low intervention winemakers from around the European continent.

Expect an a la carte offering as well as a sharing menu option priced at £45 per person, made up of both individual courses and sharing dishes, encouraging family-style eating. Example non-meaty plates could include Cumberland Farmhouse Cheddar Quiche and BBQ Leek Skewers and Cow’s Curd and Celeriac with Spanish Blood Orange and Bay Leaf. Curing Rebels charcuterie from Joseph’s native Brighton will continue to feature. Guests will be offered the choice of sweet or savoury options to round off their meal with Garstang Blue and Lager Rarebit sitting alongside Yorkshire rhubarb, Custard and Caramelised Croissant on the dessert menu.

The grill will be central to the operation. While head chef at Stockport’s Where The Light Gets In Otway followed the ‘second plate’ principles of veg dominating with a reduced amount of meat effectively forming the sauce. With the Oglesby tie-in he has to accommodate butchering and not wasting any part of whole carcasses. “It’s a daunting challenge,” he tells me. “It’s about more than the prime cuts. We are going to have to be creative.

“Now that we will have a full-scale kitchen to work with, we’re eager to further our existing relationships with the many local producers and farms here in the North-West. We should hit the very beginning of spring when the restaurant opens. From a produce perspective it couldn’t be more exciting,” 

Flawd will continue under the stalwart stewardship of Megan Saorise Williams with Where The Light Gets In fermentation specialist Seri Nam taking over in the kitchen.

Higher Ground, Faulkner House, Faulkner Street, Manchester M1 4DY. Bookings now being taken. Walk-ins welcome.

Kitchen Opening Times: Wednesday 5:30pm-9:30pm; Thursday 5:30pm-9:30pm; Friday 12:30pm-2pm / 5:30pm-9:30pm; Saturday12:30pm-2pm / 5:30pm-9:30pm.

Bar Opening Times: Wednesday 5:30pm-11:30pm;  Thursday 5:30pm-11:30pm; Friday 12:30pm-2pm / 5:30pm-12am; Saturday12:30pm-2pm / 5:30pm-12am.

The last time I ran into Matthew Fort he was with fellow food critic Tom Parker Bowles at Booths Salford Quays flogging an upmarket brand of pork scratchings they were both associated with. They later jumped ship when the actual producers abandoned a core selling point – the use of English pigs. 

Not the high point of Fort’s championing of British food. That would have to be the publication 25 years ago of Rhubarb and Black Pudding (for evocative northern cookbook titles it vies with Crispy Squirrel and Vimto Trifle, in which I admit a vested interest). I hugely enjoyed his foodie romps around Italy on a Vespa, but his account of a year in the Lancashire kitchen of chef Paul Heathcote was equally evocative… and benchmark influential at the time. A real fly on the wall record of an exceptional restaurant’s workings and relationship with suppliers in the unlikeliest of regional settings.

In the preface Fort wrote of the Eureka moment of his first visit to the Longridge Restaurant – to review for The Guardian. “I was immediately transfixed by the style and quality of the food. I was served poached salmon with a courgette flower stuffed with courgette mousse, smoked chicken and broccoli soup, slow-roasted shoulder of lamb braised with an aubergine mousse, and chocolate parfait with honey and oatmeal ice cream (all for £12.75!). Although the influence of French cooking and finesse were uppermost, nevertheless there was English sensibility running through the flavours, the textures, the combination of ingredients.”

The influence of one of Paul’s mentors is obvious. On occasions he had crossed swords with Raymond Blanc while working for him at the Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons but also found inspiration for when he set up his own restaurant. Aged just 29 and with a £200,000 loan he opened in 1990 and within four years had won his own two Michelin stars.

I treasure my copy of Rhubarb & Black Pudding as much as the memories of meals Paul cooked for me over the years. But as 2023 stumbled into life it took an image re-Tweeted by my friend, the food historian Dr Neil Buttery, to tangentially remind me of its distant impact. Ah, rhubarb. There, glowing enticingly crimson in a custom-built ‘forcing’ shed in Pudsey, West Yorkshire, was the first of the new season crop, due to be harvested by candle light in a week’s time.

The social media charting of the coveted stalks’ development is a recent phenomenon, but Twitter poster Robert is the fourth generation Tomlinson to grow forced rhubarb by this traditional method. The plants first spend two years outdoors to harden against frost, then are brought in to a dark, heated habitat, to grow quickly, while straining for light. Once ready, the spears are picked by candlelight because too much light causes photosynthesis, which can halt the growth of the crowns. This process produces a sweeter fruit with a white core – a kind of Rhubarb ‘premier cru’.

It’s estimated only 12 such producers remain across the ‘Rhubarb Triangle’ between Wakefield, Morley and Rothwell. Originally the trade benefited from a surplus of cheap heating coal from the local pits.

Paul Heathcote’s rhubarb source has aways been from nearer his Lancashire base in Longridge – via long-time veg and fruit supplier Eddie Homes, who set up a supply chain of raw materials of the quality he required.

“Rhubarb and asparagus were just two items we persuaded local allotment holders to grow for us,” Paul tells me as I catch up with him at Preston North End, another connection that goes back a long way. His Heathcote & Co team have been responsible for match day dining and events since launching in 1997 (with a six year hiatus). His flagship restaurant, eponymous Brasseries and Olive Presses are now all in the past, the Longridge site forlornly on the market, but his corporate catering business maintains the iconic Heathcote brand. 

No looking back for Paul? “Until you told me I hadn’t given it a thought it was a quarter of a century since the book came out. It certainly took longer to do so than we envisaged! It was expected to come out in 1996 or 1997 after first being mooted in 1994. 

“I remember vividly Matthew turning up at what was our makeshift front door – we were having a new kitchen fitted on the other side. He’d got off the train at Preston and, satchel on his back, walked the 14 miles as the crow flies, a lot of it along an old railway track. It was a warm day and he looked knackered.”

Matthew Fort’s personal Lancashire journey had begun long before. The family home for generations was Read Hall, near Padiham, his father (who died when Fort was 12) the MP for Clitheroe. After Eton, the food critic to be studied at Lancaster University, further sowing the seeds of his knowledge of the county’s topography and cuisine. 

The acquaintance was resumed during his exhaustive research for Rhubarb and Black Pudding. Paul agrees with me: “Yes, there was a lot of Matthew in the book, but there have been few better evocations of how a restaurant works. Certainly not a place as off the beaten track as ours.”

A quarter of a century on what still shine vividly are the portraits of the suppliers who Paul cultivated primarily to have the freshest raw materials to hand. “It was not deliberate policy on my part to promote the area’s produce as such. It never occurred to me to put images of my suppliers on the walls. Good products come to you or in some cases you create them. There was so much enthusiasm but it could be a slog at times. In Fleetwood Chris Neve (still an active supplier of fine fish) got it straight away. Reg Johnson down the road recognised what I wanted but it took a bit longer to produce the quality of corn-fed poultry I required. It was frustrating at times, there were failures along the way if I’m honest.”

Still poultry farmers Johnson and Swarbrick never looked back as top-end restaurants across the land coveted their speciality chickens and ducks. And Mrs Kirkham’s Lancashire cheese from down the road gained much needed national recognition. 

Black pudding, too, got a serious profile upgrade thanks to Paul. And it was all down to his old friend and Ribble Valley gastro rival, Nigel Haworth, once of Northcote, now back at the Three Fishes, Mitton (where he once dispayed images of his suppliers).

“We were in a team of chefs, who travelled over to Champagne and had to cook for our French equivalents and Nigel challenged me to create something different. So I decided upon my own refined version of black pudding and it was a success – the dish I’m most proud of.

“I used to make black pudding from scratch, using fresh blood in those days, but after BSE came along we had to change to powdered. The texture of the original was different – much creamier.”

It all seems far off now. The last black pudding of PauI’s I tasted was in a main at The Northern, a restaurant Heathcote & Co launched briefly pre-Pandemic inside the town hall complex of his native Bolton. It tasted good but no fine dining aspirations with its mustard grain sauce, mushy peas and triple-cooked chips. Alas, no rhubarb on the menu. Maybe it was the wrong season. Maybe you can be too elegiac.

Pineapple as pubic enemy number one? We all know how divisive it is as the Hawaiian Pizza topping alongside its sidekick, ham. Not just Neapolitan diehards rail against this perversion of the One True Pizza. This version was created in Canada 60 years ago by a Greek immigrant called Sam Panopoulos (the ‘Hawaiian’ comes from the canned brand he used). Yet it’s not being ousted from our supermarket chill cabinets any time soon.

Similarly ‘old school’ curry house menus still feature Dhansaks given a sweet kick by the addition of pineapple chunks to the chicken/lamb and lentil template devised by its creators, the Parsis. As with our lager lout Anglicisation of Vindaloo, that subtle Goan vinegar and garlic driven pork dish, into the tonsil-cauterising ‘hottest curry on the menu’, so too our Indian restaurant ‘soft option’ Dhansak’ is a culturally appropriated travesty.

Give them their due, most Indian cookbooks omit the pineapple, but rarely put the dish in its Zoroastrians-in-exile context. Parsi – From Persia to Bombay: Recipes and Tales from the Ancient Culture (Bloomsbury, £26) does. All the more surprisingly, its author works at the heart of a very British culinary stronghold. Farokh Talati’s day job is as head chef at Fergus Henderson’s St John Bread and Wine in London’s Spitalfields.

One Parsi recipe that definitely straddles that restaurant’s ‘nose-to-tail’ ethos and Farokh’s heritage is Masoor Ma Jeebh (lamb’s tongue, masoor dal and spinach) It’s definitely on my kitchen bucket list. Less so a little chicken gizzard number, another nod to authenticity. 

I was drawn to his new book because I envisaged it as a companion piece to Dishoom: From Bombay With Love, one of the most glorious cookbooks on my shelves – inspired by the Irani (Parsee) cafes of Mumbai. I was eager for a bit of back story. The Dishoom tome is a celebration of a much-loved London (and Manchester) brand via an evocative homage to its creator’s home city, but its recipe roster strays across the Sub-continent.

Equally personal, Parsi, is more specific, offering historical context from the introduction onwards… “Around the seventh century, during the Arab conquest of Persia, a small group of Zoroastrians fled persecution by sailing from what is now known as Iran and found themselves on the shores of India. The community that originally settled in Sanjan became known as the Parsis because of their Persian heritage, and throughout the centuries they spread across India”.

Bombay (Mumbai) was for many the final port of call. The newcomers assiduously learned English to become indispensable to their imperial masters, but the Indian assimilation started in Sanjan a few miles inland from the Gujarat, coast. Regard it as a landing stage for a resourceful, adaptable religious group, who brought with them the remarkable flavours of their homeland – dried fruits, nuts, saffron, and rice. In Gujarat they learned to fuse these with Indian spices and extended their cooking range to include fish.

The result many Parsi dishes are balanced between sweet, sour, savoury and salty. Traditionally that balance was achieved with the use of brewed cane sugar juice, affectionately nicknamed ‘Parsi vinegar’ and jaggery (reduced cane sugar). Native coconut  fitted into the scheme of things, but maybe canned pineapple was a sweetener too far.

Which bring us back to Dhansak, which is the quintessential Parsi dish. In Farokh’s recipe – sourced, like so many, from his family – the meat is mutton, brined first, and on the bone. Four types of lentils are slow cooked with vegetables, squashes, spices, onion, ginger, and garlic for a long time until the mutton is tender. It is then served with caramelised onion rice and jaggery.

What sets it apart from your Rogan Josh or your Dopiaza is the effort needed to make the Dhansak Masala – involving 15 spices and counting. Farokh’s dishes generally require a beyond fast fix degree of attention. No bad thing. The lockdown was a boon for this busy professional chef in perfecting dishes for the book.

He recalls: “Even though it started a couple of years before the pandemic, the majority of the book really got going during lockdown. I got very bored in the first two weeks, so every Wednesday, I’d go into St John, when it was closed. I’d type up a three-course Parsi meal, cook it that day, and finish and hand-deliver it to the locals on Thursday. That helped me refine the recipes and get feedback.”

When I’ve filed this piece I’m beginning preparations to cook my own Dhansak. The mutton is merrily defrosting. All the spices for the Masala are gathered in rank, just awaiting the belated arrival of the black cardamom.

Check: coriander seeds, cumin seeds, bay leaf, black peppercorns, dried Kashmiri chillies, green cardamom pods, caraway seeds, cinnamon (or cassia bark), cloves, ground fenugreek, mace blade, grated nutmeg, poppy seeds, saffron, star anise, ground turmeric, mustard seeds, one whole black lime.

That latter element is the cultural giveaway. It is essentially Persian, reminding us how far the Parsis have travelled. I’ll alert you to the success or otherwise of my personal, pineapple-free Dhansak voyage of discovery via social media. Now where in the store cupboard are all those lentils?

Genius chef Paul Kitching has died. I first met him 20 years ago and we bonded over Alan Shearer. I was a Blackburn Rovers fan, he was a proud Geordie, who kept a signed photo of his fellow legend at Juniper, his Michelin-starred restaurant in Altrincham. He was under no illusions, mind, telling me “Alan Shearer is God, but I don’t think he’d like what I cook. He’s a chicken and beans man, nothing fancy. We did invite him to the restaurant, but he couldn’t come. It was a relief really, I was getting dead nervous about cooking for him.”

I was profiling him for the Manchester Evening News because Juniper had just been named the Good Food Guide’s English Restaurant of the Year, eclipsing the likes of the Fat Duck. Irony – Paul’s more playful dishes made him the favourite chef of Heston Blumenthal’s kids; conservative adult diners sometimes baulked at wacky combinations – using ketchup, Horlicks, liquorice, Weetabix – in nouvelle cuisine size portions on glass plates as part of vast tasting menus.

Clad in his inevitable white tee-shirt, he defended himself to me by saying he worked from ‘informed tradition’ just as much as a French master or his culinary hero, Marco Pierre White. “We go funky, but we have a lot of respect for the product. I hate frozen food, fusion food, brasseries that aren’t proper brasseries and vegetarians. Tofu, ugh. Quorn, ugh. I’d like to take a flamethrower to veggies. And organic isn’t everything. I want taste most of all. 

“A diner today said: ‘If I ripped off the sole of my shoe and gave it to you, you could cook it to taste nice, couldn’t you.’ I could. I’m a chef. But if someone brought in an old bleeding dog, I couldn’t. It wouldn’t be fresh. You need freshness.”

So political correctness wasn’t Paul’s forte and he was undoubtedly eccentric, but it served him well on a hard path to the pinnacle. Gateshead-born, after school he drifted into dead-end jobs. Pot-washing at a local Italian ignited his interest in food, but a three year catering course wasn’t a success. His only release was Northern Soul. “I looked rough, angry young man rough, ear-ring, skinhead with a pony-tail. Up there in Newcastle I was nothing, but I got on a coach to Wigan and at the Casino I felt important.”

After the Casino closed cooking filled the gap big time. 23 was a bit old for his lowly commis start in York, but his career swiftly progressed to two-star Gidleigh Park in Devon, where the great Shaun Hill became his mentor. In 1995, the same year Heston opened the Fat Duck in Bray, Paul quit his post as head chef at Cheshire’s Nunsmere Hall to take over at the fledgling Juniper at 21 The Downs, Altrincham. Within three years it won its star, his partner Kate O’Brien had come on board front of house, the number of covers was cut from 50 to 35 and his multi-course, more ‘instinctive’ cooking direction had evolved.

Then after a major revamp only a giant reproduction of Uccello’s The Battle of San Romano remained on the dining room wall. Move forward a decade and in the private dining room of restaurant with rooms 21212 in Edinburgh there’s a blown-up Caravaggio print, signalling the next big step for our culinary Renaissance man… 

So what was it like to work for the inimitable Mr Kitching?

Richard Brown, co-founder of Manchester’s late, lamented Beastro, was only 14 when he started work in the Juniper kitchen. “Absolutely gutted right now. He was a true powerhouse of passion for food, his mentorship second to none and his generosity in allowing me to be part of his team will be a part of me forever. His food and attitude to ingredients and dish creation was second to none and he is a huge loss to the industry and his family and loved ones.”

Tameside-based Iain Thomas of Our Place recalled recently (before Paul’s untimely death): “I was lucky to work with him (at 21212 in Edinburgh), when his food became more adult, I guess you could say. His ideas were brilliant. Sometimes working there was frustrating, as I didn’t quite get what was going on. But the lesson for me was when I left that kitchen and came back to eat there 14 months later and realised what a great chef he was. 

“One thing that chef Paul said to me was ‘there is a reason I don’t cook chicken liver parfait, sauternes jelly and brioche. Anyone down the road can do that…’ and that is why he did things like his event space POD, Paul’s Odd Dining. That is his vision of craziness, and it works.

21212 was the next stage in the Paul Kitching saga

In 2008, perhaps weary of not securing a deserved second star, Paul and Katie upped sticks to Edinburgh (it left Greater Manchester with a Michelin-starred shaped hole until Mana won one in 2019). With a new backer they set up 21212 “to offer upmarket hospitality at their towering Georgian townhouse in the verdant shadow of Calton Hill”. It was easy to wax flowery about such a sumptuous retreat with four ultra-luxurious rooms and a restaurant that soon won the obligatory star. It lost it in 2019 while continuing to attract awards, moving with the times in 2018 by switching staff to a four day week without cutting pay to fuel the team’s creative flair and help their work/life balance.

The pair invited us to stay a couple of times and we loved it, fascinated by a new maturity in the Kitching kitchen without it abandoning that innate playfulness. It always tickled us that the Scottish capital also boasted fellow icon Tom Kitchin.

21212 was the original dining formula, where the chef disciplined his hyperactive genius to offer a mere choice of two starters, one soup course, two mains, cheese and two puds. It soon engorged itself to 31313, but it didn’t lead  them to redo the sign outside/website. To me it was all still 10 out of 10.

‘Masterpieces in miniature from a Geordie genius’ 

I plucked another browning cutting from the dusty bottom drawer to remind of our last Juniper hurrah. Presented in an elegiac mood here is a menu snapshot (a modest 15 courses) from a Wednesday evening in March 2008.

An offer of Champagne with Weetabix liqueur set a tongue-in-cheek, demob-happy tone, as did the kitchen’s amuse-gueule take on gazpacho – a shot glass of grape juice, bacon, cornichon and yoghurt,

Certain ingredients such as smoked salmon, celeriac puree and caviar were to reappear in different combinations, so the whole parade of tiny, perfectly formed dishes felt like variations on a theme. On harmonious combo was a knickerbocker glory-style layering of smoked salmon, caviar, tomato jelly, yoghurt and spiced hazelnut powder with spinach. Similarly well-judged (though it sounded odd) was a nugget of smoked salmon with crispy carrot sliver and a miniscule lemon pancake in a garlicky yeast sauce inside a tiny paper cup.

If a mixture of melted cheese and dried fruits doused in Moroccan argon oil was a misfiring conceit on cheese on toast and the Spanish habit of accompanying the cheese course with fruit (quince membrillo) the unlikely Arab-influenced, grainy combo of chicken, crab and lamb ragout was simply stunning. Throughout the chef’s liking for drying to a powder or candying veg and fruit was much in evidence.

Our eventual main was more conventional, though not a strapping course. A slow-cooked fillet of beef, mingled with an intense melange of mushrooms, honey and thyme. Bacon and mushrooms added the comfort factor, a side of sweetcorn a nod to the chef’s own discreet sweet tooth. An assiette of cheese held a dozen stamp-sized examples, soft goat to reserve gruyere, with tomato relish, preserved mushroom and fruit reasserting the variation on a theme feel.

It was quite lovely, as was a substantial crème brûlée. What an ordinary conclusion, you say. Well, not quite. Snickers crème brûlée with popcorn, Hob Nob and peanut ice cream was a quite extraordinary trademark Kitching yoking together of humdrum products to subvert expectations… and delight. What I’ll remember him for.

Just nine months ago came one of my eye-opening culinary moments of 2022. Despite the launch hype, stylish new city hotels are rarely accompanied by a food offering that hollers ‘destination restaurant’. I had high hopes for The Alan, just across from Manchester Art Gallery. I’d tasted head chef Iain Thomas’s food during his fleeting stint at the Edinburgh Castle in Ancoats. Yet even I wasn’t prepared for the series of masterly dishes he rolled out from the open kitchen for my review.

Flash in the pan? I returned, this time sitting at the kitchen counter with a hard-to-impress foodie friend. He was impressed. Not just by the cooking but also by the commitment to sourcing at odds with the corporate bean counters. The indie Manchester restaurant supports its quality local suppliers like a badge of honour – Cinderwood for salad and veg, Polyspore for mushrooms Crafty Cheeseman, Littlewoods butcher’s and the like. Plus his own allotment produce, where possible.

Iain wasn’t missing a trick. Yet by the autumn his time at The Alan was unravelling. At 36, the much-travelled Tameside lad was desperate to do his own thing. Joining him in this dream is David O’Connell, former sales and marketing director at The Alan. Together they have set up Our Place. For the moment it is a pop-up catering operation, espousing the sustainable concerns the duo share.

Hence the series of supper clubs they are staging as guests of waste campaigners Open Kitchen at their cafe and bar in the city’s People’s History Museum. The first is on Tuesday, December 13 at 6.30pm, priced at £35 per ticket. Do check but this seems to be sold out. Never fear, there will be a further 10 there before the end of April. Monitor their site and social media for other Our Place events.

Before this public launch I was lucky enough to be invited to a private Our Place event at The Perfect Match in Sale. Shortlisted for Neighbourhood Venue of the Year in the 2022 Manchester Food and Drink Awards, it is run by Andrea Follado, from an Italian family of  Prosecco makers, and Jazz Niven, once a teen prodigy in the Midland Hotel kitchens, where she worked with Iain. On the night, though, the menu was all of Iain’s making – a melange of ox tongue with Polyspore mushroom, Yorkshire Pecorino and pearl barley; cured rainbow trout (main picture) with Hyde beetroot and nasturtium; shoulder of cull ewe cooked in hay and hispi cabbage; Macondo 60% chocolate parfait and mulled fruit.

The seeds of Our Place were sown during the lockdowns when Iain, without any furlough safety net, found a sense of purpose in the community growing hub that is the Hattersley Projects in Hyde.   Following on from that gorgeous taster meal I quizzed Iain about his plans and their genesis…

Tell me about your allotment and what it means to you. Obviously how it helped during lockdown but also how it influences your food. 

“The allotment is a place that I have a lot of passion for. It is a piece of land that has done some good in my local community, but it could do so much more. I look at people like MUD (Manchester Urban Diggers) with awe and what they have achieved, and I ask why that cannot happen in my part of Manchester? I have realised that we have an amazing piece of land, we have great volunteers, but it breaks my heart that we cannot get the investment we might if we were in a more fashionable part of Greater Manchester.

“The lockdown was a weird time. I wasn’t permitted to see my family in the early lockdown. However, I was allowed on the allotment in a polytunnel with other people as we were technically food producers. So in a similar way to David’s situation in London, I ended up with a chosen family that supported me through the hard days of being alone.

“The revelation for me was the true meaning of seasonality, and how climate change is impacting that. I have worked in restaurants such as 21212, and Rocca in St Andrews. Whatever we wanted, we picked up the phone to a supplier and it could be with us from anywhere in the world. 

“In lockdown, not being on furlough and having virtually no money coming in, I was heavily dependent on the vegetables I was growing. If there were no onions growing or in season, I had no onions. At the moment we are coming into winter, and it has been a mild winter, so I have loads of nasturtiums and globe artichokes coming through… it shows the effect of global warming, as they should not really be thriving in the UK at the moment.”

Explain the Open Kitchen link-up and you and David’s commitment to sustainability.

“I had worked with a friend at the Devonshire Arms by the name of Shawn Lee and, after speaking with him, found out about the sustainability behind Open Kitchen. They are food interceptors, and for example they take food from supermarkets that was bound for landfill; for example, they recently had a crop of cauliflower come in that was not the right shade of white for the supermarket contracted with the farmer. 

“Tons of perfectly good food would have been binned straight from the field, were it not for the work of people like them. So although it is not the same kind of sustainable food that I pursue, it was something that David and I were attracted to when deciding to work with Open Kitchen as a venue.

“I think our passion and commitment to sustainability is born out of the working relationship we had in our prior positions. We had never met until January 2021, when I came on board as head chef in a hotel in town. David had come up from London the summer before, and we were hired to make reality a sustainable business. However, it soon became very corporate and we were doing and saying things about being sustainable, that were not truly in the spirit of being sustainable. We both decided that we had had enough of working for other people, and toeing the party line. We wanted our own place, to make our own decisions.”

Was the dinner you served at The Perfect Match a typical example of Our Place’s ethos?

“Yes it was. While Open Kitchen’s way of being sustainable is based on ‘what food is available that would otherwise go to landfill’. I am very much about: what food does the butcher, the farmer, the grower have right now and what can I do with it? What do I fancy cooking today? It can cause David some headaches; as a sales and marketing guy, he is used to telling guests what they can expect to eat. I want to cook what I want to cook, based on my mood and what is available and in season. For example, sustainable meat is a process. When I was prepping for the meal you enjoyed, it was a two month process discussing the cull ewe for the main dish.”

(NB: Culled ewes are retired breeding ewes that for one reason or another have lambed for the last time. They generally come into us between 4-6 years of age, having lived out a happy retirement out on the lush grasslands of Scotland. The meat therefore is complex, gamier in flavour than lamb.)

Who will be your main suppliers? 

“I love the work done by Marcus and the team at Littlewoods, and it will be local butchers like them that I work with. I love the idea of talking in October about an animal with the butcher, hearing about the progress on the farm, and being a part of the story from field to plate. You have passionate individuals like Mike at Polyspore, doing great things with mushrooms in Altrincham and Crafty Cheeseman; two sets of people doing what they love and enjoying life. 

“When it comes to vegetables, we have some great producers in the region. Cinderwood Market Garden are doing great things; their recent celtuce crop has been the talk of the town lately, and David and I were very lucky earlier in the year to be on their plot and see the crop being sown. You also have suppliers like Manchester Urban Diggers, Organic North, and then of course my own garden and plot on my allotment.”

Davey Aspin and Paul Kitching are obviously inspiring chefs you’ve worked with. What have you learned from them? Any other heroes?

“Paul Kitching is very eccentric. What I learned from him? How to word it is very hard, I need to pause a minute and think about this one. People always say to you: ‘What is a restaurant you would like to eat at blah, blah, blah’ and one for me would be Juniper (in Altrincham). Gutted I never got to eat there. As a young chef, I kind of knew about it and I hear lots of crazy stories about ‘not mushroom’ and some out there stuff. 

“I was lucky to work with him (at 21212 in Edinburgh), when his food became more adult, I guess you could say. His ideas were brilliant. Sometimes working there was frustrating, as I didn’t quite get what was going on. But the lesson for me was when I left that kitchen and came back to eat there 14 months later, that I realised what a great chef he was. One thing that chef Paul said to me was ‘there is a reason I don’t cook chicken liver parfait, sauternes jelly and brioche. Anyone down the road can do that…’ and that is why he did things like his event space POD, Paul’s Odd Dining. That is his vision of craziness, and it works.

“Without Davey Aspin, I would be flipping burgers. I was just a chef at The Midland until I worked with him. He is very underrated in my opinion and it breaks my heart when the Michelin Guide comes out that he doesn’t get a star. The man touches a piece of food, it is beautiful and deserves recognition. He treated me like a brother and a part of his family, and taught me 90 per cent of what I know, to be fair. David likes to tease me, after an instagram message from Davey, that my lamb fat cabbage is thanks to Mr Aspin.”

Is the ultimate plan to have your own restaurant? I presume at the moment it’s safer not to have responsibility for your own bricks and mortar?

“100%, but David and I are two lads who met in a hotel, and don’t have the money yet. For the first time in a while, we both felt that there was no ulterior motive and we could trust each other. David and I want to pursue the things we are passionate about in hospitality, but making them feel accessible. We want to really be real, not just say ‘we are real’. We want to showcase artists and creatives that are challenging and interesting, not just say we champion them but go for the more commercial avenue when it doesn’t make money. I really want the food I serve to be local, seasonal, and sustainable. Not just say it as a marketing ploy… I will never use an avocado for example.”

Tell me about Our Place’s commitment to helping the homeless into work.

“That is really an idea down to David. At first I was sceptical, as I can imagine it is not an easy process to help someone from the street to a stable life. David talks a lot about his mum, who you can tell was a rock for him. The one thing you pick up from him is how his mum believed in loving people; the least, the last, the lost. It is a phrase David always uses when talking about Betty and his upbringing with her. 

“When she died just before the pandemic, he was alone with her and there was no one who could or would come out to help that last night. It had a real impact on David, and he was diagnosed with PTSD. Of all the people that approached him at his lowest point in lockdown, and dared to intervene and ask ‘how are you?’ It was a homeless person on Mare Street, Hackney who helped David. I think he just wants to repay that.”

At the Perfect Match David stressed the community aspect, featuring artists, musicians, spoken word etc at your events. How is this coming together?

“With the artists, it is slowly but surely coming together. There is a really vibrant community of young artists and creatives in and around Greater Manchester, a lot of whom David was working with in his last role. The challenge is that there is not a lot of money in art, especially when you are at the start. We want to introduce and connect people.

“We believe that post-pandemic, there is a desire for community. However, we also want to make sure that we are bringing people together from different places and backgrounds. We want anyone to feel comfortable eating with us. You do not have to be educated, you do not have to be cool and hip. You just need to have respect for others, and enjoy really good food that we hope will save the planet one dish at a time.”

Last Saturday (Nov 26) marked the final service at Le Cochon Aveugle in York. It was no surprise. Owners Josh and Victoria Overington had announced the closure date in the summer, saying it was “time to start a fresh adventure”.

Adventurous summed up the restaurant, whose French name translates appropriately as ‘The Blind Pig’. Guests ordered a six or eight course tasting menu and that, wine pairings aside, was the last choice they had to make. Only when it arrived would they discover what they were eating.

Rab Adams worked there for Josh. Each trained at Cordon Bleu school – Rab in London, his mentor in Paris. After the thirtysomething Scot branched out (via Roops, a Bramley sourdough bakery named after his dog) to open his own restaurant, Hern, fellow chefs’ support was there for the tiny bistro on Stainbeck Corner, two miles north of Leeds city centre.

Josh guest-cheffed as did, more recently, Al Brooke-Taylor of the mighty Moorcock at Norland, itself about to shut for good in January. Quite an accolade – Al has rarely cooked outside his own moorland kitchen. So what were they coming into? Not much more than 20 covers in a white-walled, spartan space behind a plain shop front. Just the quality restaurant cookbooks on a shelf giving away the ambitions of the man in the cramped kitchen out back. From the likes of Relae, The Sportsman, Pierre Koffman and zero waste crusaders Silo. Rab’s personal cv includes Hedone and Restaurant Gordon Ramsay.

On the evening I visit his own project two blackboards provide their own reading material, which proclaim ‘no choice’. Which is why I’m here on the back of a similar ethos at an old favourite, the Michelin-starred White Swan, Fence, now offering a five course set menu.

Co-owner Gareth Ostick defended the decision to discard the several-choice a la carte of yore. Their five course tasting menu has been a success with punters beyond the obvious cutting down of possible food waste. It has also re-energised chef Tom Parker, giving him the opportunity to roll with what’s fresh on the market as the menu subtly transmutes week by week. 

Location, location. The White Swan is relatively remote, so that Michelin star is a welcome magnet. In contrast Hern is in the prime foodie territory of well-heeled Chapel Allerton, surrounded by places to eat out. The real giveaway, though, is the cluster of high class food and drink shops – notably Tarbett’s Fish, George & Joseph Cheesemongers and Wayward Wines. I’ve shopped at them all on recent trips to Leeds but somehow Hern had passed me by. My loss. Everything about the four courses for £40 appeals. 

Bread and snacks such as gossamer light panisse and delicate cod’s roe (oddly with crisps) are followed by a sublime assembly of smoked eel, beetroot, celeriac and some bracingly bitter radicchio. 

I resist the £10 cheese supplement but do cough up the same sum for an extra fish special, which arrives next and is my favourite dish of a solo evening when I am spared the tyranny of jousting with a ‘lovely review companion’ over who eats what. 

The wild sea bass is all mine and I’m wild about it in its whey sauce, laced with bottarga, stems of bitter puntarelle peeping out. Once again it’s a case of that’s amaro and I’m not complaining.

Then onto pleasingly pink duck breast in a pumpkin puree, the bite here from chunks of pickled pear and further uncompromising greens. With it I can’t resist a glass of tonight’s red special, an under the radar Grolleau from the Loire, where my modest bottle for the evening also originated – a La Pente de Chavigny Sauvignon Blanc from the talented Mikael Bouges. 

Baked cream with apple and oats completed the evening’s entertainment with a sense of little wasted, with everything to gain. Rab in the kitchen with one young assistant and Ben,  knowledgeable front of house, who has served his time in London. Less is definitely more at Hern.

Hern, Stainbeck Corner, 5, Leeds LS7 3PG. 0113 262 5809. Open Wednesday to Saturday from 6.30pm. Also open Saturday lunchtime with a small a la carte menu to road test new dishes.