Turned away from the House of Trembling Madness. It’s enough to turn you into a palsied leper begging for alms. It was to have been my debut at the newer, Lendal outlet of York’s quirkily monikered craft beer emporium. Like the original in Stonegate, the building dates  back hundreds of years and promises a refuge from the tourist hordes thronging the Harry Potter-haunted Shambles (or Hogwarts on Ouse, as I call it).

Back to H of TM. “Sorry we’re not allowing anyone in at the moment.” ”But there’s lots of room at the inn,” I splutter, surveying a handful of couples cradling cappuccinos. “Sorry, medical emergency upstairs.” 

Yes, I’ve failed to register the two ambulance responders outside (hope all turned out well), so instead I decamp to Trembling Madness I and its plethora of half timber and animal heads. Here I swiftly recover my equipoise over a pint and pork pie after a fraught rail journey across.
Fortunately I‘d booked the real object of my York visit for 5.30pm. Aiming for lunch, I might not have made it to Skosh. Broken Britain and all that. Still the day got better and better, culminating in that meal at the destination on Micklegate Observer critic Jay Rayner praised as “the ideal of what an ambitious, independent restaurant should be.”
That was back in 2017 when Skosh had barely been open a year. Last December it shut in order to knock through into next door – a former solicitors, also Grade II listed. The expanded Skosh looks a seamless treat, the open kitchen enlarged and room for walk-ins at the front (not that I was ever taking that chance). I eschewed the offered seat at the pass, but my solo diner’s corner table still offered a prime view of chef/patron Neil Bentinck (blow) and his team in action.

Micklegate has always been my happy place in York and an exemplary parade of small dishes has made it happier. Small plates with a generosity of invention behind them. Fusion is a tired term, so let’s call the Skosh menu ‘global melange’. Korean, Japanese, South Indian influences are all present, intriguingly yoked to some beautifully sourced UK raw materials (listed on the back of a menu that redefines eclectic.
Does it all work? Mostly. I’m still unsure of my final savoury course of tandoori octopus with lime pickle (£18). InItially brash in a smoky way, it won me over, sort of. It was a far remove from the delicate freshness of my snack opener – a sea trout papad packed with avocado, fennel and green strawberry (£4.50). The standard wine list is fine value and the carafe of Grüner Veltliner I ordered worked well with most of the dishes (a later glass of South African Grenache had work on its hands with the spiced up cephalopod).

Next up was an odd hybrid called ‘uthapam waffles’ (£8) – substituting for the South Indian semolina crepes a pair of Western style waffles. Light and friable, the conceit worked: sole caveat I would have liked larger portions of the delicious green tomato chutney and fresh coconut. But then the restaurant’s name derives from the Japanese sukoshi for “a little” or “small amount”.
Aguachile verde (£8) is Bentinck’s veggie version of the Mexican ceviche rival, featuring a kind of iced feta slush plus spring peas and broad beans. It was a verdant, tangy treat that acted as a kind of prelude to a bbq spring lamb tartare (£12), dotted with peas, heady with mint and wasabi. Almost a raw ringer for the keemas I’m sure the chef’s food-mad Indian dad used to prepare. Bentinck’s major influence without doubt is his travels in Australia, that melting pot of Pacific Rim cooking and South Eastern Asian influences, restaurants majoring in casual dining and the freshest produce.

My stand-out dish at Skosh couldn’t have been fresher. The ‘sashimi’ of day boat red sea bream paddled in a fragrant dressing of elderflower and rhubarb with a punch of green peppercorn. It was among the best dishes I have eaten across Yorkshire in the past 12 months and my gastronomic journey has taken in Mýse, the Abbey Inn at Byland, Pignut, Prashad and Bavette (do check out my reviews).
None of these have a kitchen as well-stocked with furikake, ponzu, nahm pla, xo sauce, miso pesto, gunpowder salt, gochujang and sichuan pepper. It’s OK to have access to such a broad spectrum of flavourings; it’s another thing to use them with discretion.Which the brave Bentinck mostly does. On my next visit I hope to discover how he seasons a Tokyo turnip.

Lime leaf is also a Skosh, spawning a collab can on their interesting beer list. Yet I really didn’t know what to expect from my closer of lime leaf cream, pineapple, lychee and shiso (£10). It arrived topped with what looked like a prawn cracker standing in for the clichéd tuile. It added crunch to a delightful combo.The citrussy bitterness of the shiso leaves was a beguiling counterpoint to the slightly caramelised pineapple and the muskiness of the lychee. A memorable, easeful meal for this solo diner.

Skosh, 98 Micklegate, York YO1 6JX.

And while you’re up on Micklegate…

Skosh’s neighbour, The Falcon, is effectively the city tap for Turning Point Brewery of Knaresbough, but it also offers beers from other indie operations. It has been an ale house since 1715 and is decidedly smart. Micklegate Social, at the top of the drag near medieval Micklegate Bar, has a more shabby chic vibe, as befits a music venue. A decent cask selection and surprisingly good cocktails.

Hellens, a Tudor manor house outside Much Marcle, has much to offer. One day I plan to take in its annual spring music festival, perhaps mooching around the knot and cloister gardens or the yew labyrinth on this verdant private estate. But most of all it’s their pear trees that top my bucket list. Imagine – in full bloom – an avenue of them, some dating back to 1706, planted to celebrate the coronation of Queen Anne. A stone mill and two large presses survive in the barn. In those days the perry from such saplings was as esteemed as fine wine.

Time has since taken its toll on this Herefordshire heartland (and the neighbouring counties of Gloucesterhire and Worcestershire). Perry sank out of mainstream fashion. Changing agricultural priorities saw orchards and hedgerows ripped out. Now when artisanal fermented pear juice is enjoying a critical resurgence, fireblight threatens to ravage the trees of this unique terroir. There appears to be no protection against this deadly bacteria.

Bittersweet musings then as I neck a bottle of Newton Court Black Mountain Sparkling Perry while I digest Adam Wells’ Perry: A Drinker’s Guide (CAMRA Books £17.99)a hugely evocative beacon of hope that manages to be more celebration than elegy. It’s a wonderful, revelatory read.

I accompanied it with a digital peek at the Herefordshire Pomona, a 19th century illustrated compendium of apple and pears. Very rare, just 600 copies. Buy one and it might set you back £5,000. So beautiful, though. Alongside small producer standard bearers Oliver’s, Little Pomona, Ross-on-Wye, Gregg’s Pit, Artistraw and Newton Court are all, the true heroes are the trees. 

In Adam’s words: “Perry pear varieties grow on trees that can age over 300 years and grow 60ft tall with 50ft canopies, that at their largest hold over a tonne of fruit. Their drink is harder to make, takes more care, than cider—but the best examples are the match of anything ever fermented. You can make it from any pears but most of the best is made from vicious, tannic, acidic, misshapen fruits called ‘perry pears,’ some so inedible that even pigs reject them. Each has a different flavour.”

Here’s a trio of hero trees which typify the fragile survival of the species. Their continuing existence is down to the sheer bloody-mindedness of their discoverers and protectors…

Flakey Bark

Thought to be extinct until Charles Martell (of Stinking Bishop cheese and Gloucester Old Spot pigs fame) happened to spot six trees on the slope of May Hill as he passed by on a horse and cart. These were the only Flakey Barks in existence, over a century old. The revival began. Adam Wells describes the taste of the perry they make as “an earthy, big-boned, hugely tannic bruiser whose flavours and aromas bellow of the land; a textural, visceral medley of petrichor, warm earth, pear skin, dried leaves, lanolin and smokiness, richened by dried pear fruit and peach pits. Try the Flakey Bark single varietal from Ross on Wye Cider & Perry Company.

Gregg’s Pit

That’s the name of one of the stalwart cider and perry makers of Herefordshire, 30 years and counting, with 14 champion Perrymaker trophies under their belt. It’s also the name of the 250 year old ‘mother tree’ of the pear variety of that name. Perry calls their bottled and draught perries “amongst the most pristine, elegant and pure of fruit in the world.”

Coppy

Now here hangs a tale. I first encountered it as a chapter in Dan Saladino’s Eating to Extinction (Jonathan Cape, £25), his exploration of the world’s rarest foods and their importance. I was lucky enough to taste a work in progress sample in the barrel store of Tom Oliver, arguably the most famous cider and perry maker on the planet (and veteran road manager of The Proclaimers). 20 years ago he tracked down the last remaining tree in a remote spot. DNA testing took years but eventually it was conformed as the real deal. The core range at Oliver’s Cider and Perry, near the delightfully bucolic sounding hamlet of Ocle Pychard, is blends, but he makes an exception for the scant amount of Coppy available. It was sharp and sherbety with the promise of great thongs to come. Another of those magical perry moments Wells celebrates.

Alongside Tom Oliver, I was also lucky enough to meet James and Susanna Forbes from Cutting edge Little Pomona and Paul Stephens from Newton Court on a recent visit to Herefordshire. All were amazing folk, passionate about their perry mission. Here’s the Herefordshire travel article I wrote for the Confidentials.

Perry – I put the the big questions to Adam Wells

Adam is a very busy man at the moment. It’s not just the launch of his book, the first definitive guide devoted solely to perry; he has also been shortlisted in the Drink Writer category of the Fortnum and Mason Awards for his work editing Cider Review. Somehow he found time to answer the questions of a serious perry convert.

Why is it important to produce such a comprehensive book on perry at this time?

I think perry has deserved its own dedicated resource for centuries really. It’s an ancient, fascinating, idiosyncratic, unique product and its best examples are the equal of any drink ever fermented. But in the last six years, whilst macro perry and pear cider have nosedived there has been a resurgence of interest in what I call ‘aspirational perry’ – perries of craft and care made with high juice content, with reverence towards orchards and varieties, in a range of exciting styles and in countries and regions all around the world. It’s these perries that the book exists to unpack and champion – and it’s a world that’s difficult to fully explore without insider knowledge. I hope that Perry: A Drinker’s Guide helps make that exploration easier.

After centuries of decline is today a golden age for perry? Or a final flowering of a niche drink?

I think it’s a really special time for perry. Not only in the UK, but all over the world – indeed the UK is arguably just catching up with the international renaissance that perry has seen for a couple of decades now in France, Austria and increasingly the USA. So I’d certainly hope it isn’t a final flowering. There are challenges, sure – they’re outlined in the book and there’s certainly no room for complacency – but almost certainly the best perries that have ever been bottled are sitting on shelves around the world right now. And in my optimistic opinion they’re only going to keep getting better.

From your evocative prose you are deeply in love with everything around pears and perry. As are so many determined small producers. What makes it so special? Compared, say, with higher profile cider. Does it really offer such a breadth of individual styles and why? What should we look out for? 

I’m a big subscriber to what Rachel Hendry has brilliantly described as ‘compound drinking’. I worked in the wine industry for eight years, and am now in the spirits industry. Before I wrote a word on cider and perry I’d written about whisky for six years. And my love and understanding of all of those drinks directly feeds into and informs my love of perry – and indeed gives me context for how special and distinct perry is in its own right. 

So I don’t know that I’d say that perry is more or less special than any of the other drinks that I love. What I would say is that it is comfortably the most undersung and overlooked of all those drinks. Arguably aspirational cider is itself a niche – and perry has only ever really been written about as almost a subcategory of that niche rather than a beautiful, dazzling thing in its own right, with its own flavours, textures, history, stories, characters, trees, messiness and excitement. 

There’s so much that makes it special and unique – my book is hopefully a starting point for a broad and comprehensive celebration of all that. And of course my book merely builds on the work done by makers, campaigners and advocates worldwide for decades before I even knew what perry was.

A breadth of styles and varieties? Well there are over 100 distinct varieties of perry pear in the UK alone, probably even more in France and maybe more again in Central Europe alone, each with their own flavours and characteristics. There are perries at every stop along the sweetness spectrum, sparkling perries made through the pét nat method, the traditional (champagne) method, the charmat (prosecco method). There are fortified perries, there are mistelles – blends of unfermented juice with pear spirit. And, of course, there are simply beautiful still, dry perries. And these are being made by hundreds of producers in dozens of countries globally. So yes, there’s quite a breadth!

Are terroir and vintages important? Can perry improve with age or is it better fresh?

Lots of good questions there! I’d say that the answers to all of them are just the same as in wine. Terroir and vintage are absolutely critical, though producers will look to emphasise them to a greater or lesser extent depending on what they’re looking to achieve – just as in wine. There are blazing hot, super-ripe years like 2018 and 2023 which massively impact flavours, and vintages like 2020 (a personal favourite vintage, if a rather grim year) where phenolic and sugar ripenesses have achieved a beautiful balance. 

Terroir has been written about in perry since at least the 5th century AD, and can be as ultra-granular as a single tree. Since perry comes from a plant – the pear tree – it can of course be impacted by terroir, just as literally every plant, be it barley or grapes or apples or hops is. How much any given producer wants to showcase, that is another matter.

Ageing? It’s like wine again. Some – probably most – perry is best drunk young and fresh, when it’s all about those lovely juicy or zingy primary fruit characteristics, just as most wine is drunk in its youth for the same reason. But pears which have the structural properties to maintain freshness through long ageing – acidity, tannins, complex flavour compounds – can mature beautifully. I recently drank a Ross-on-Wye Flakey Bark 2017 which was as vivid as the day it was bottled. I was lucky enough to try a 2001 Moorcroft from Kevin Minchew in 2022 which was absolutely firing with flavour and far from at the end of its life. And I’ve even had a 1991 Schweizer Wasserbirne – a variety which I absolutely wouldn’t have thought of as a long-ageing candidate – which still had plenty left to give. So very little is known about the potential for maturing perry. But can certain perries age? Absolutely.

Perry’s is obviously a romantic story – from the precarious survival of ancient trees to the personal characteristics of individual pears. But producing it looks fraught with peril from harvesting to pressing. Why is this?

‘Peril’ might be overselling it, but certainly perry is almost uniquely challenging to make. Most of that comes down to the pears themselves. The challenges of harvesting from a 60-foot tall tree are pretty obvious – if the fruit doesn’t splat when it hits the ground you’ve about a tonne’s worth to pick up from the biggest examples, which doesn’t always ripen evenly. There are pears like Yellow Huffcap that refuse to drop their full fruit load and start rotting from the inside out whilst still on the branch. There are varieties like Thorn or Moorcroft which have painfully short ripeness windows – sometimes just 24 hours. 

The physical make-up of pears mean they clog presses far more than apples do. Most of them are higher-ph than apples, so they’re more susceptible to bacterial infection. Their tannic structure means you can put them through a filter and they’ll still throw sediment on the other side and you can blend two perfectly clear perries together and end up with milk. 

And that probably isn’t the half of it. So absolutely – great perry takes consummate care and attention. Which is all the more reason to celebrate the remarkable fact that it even exists.

Hoppiest days of the year? Definitely harvest time in Yakima, USA. Confession: I’d been pronouncing it ‘Yah-KEE-mah’ all this time, when it should be ‘YACK-i-maw’. Unfamiliar with Yakima? The name does crop up on craft beer cans, the contents of which increasingly rely on its prime product, hops. Oh, and it’s a lovely laid-back place to hang out in – preferably with a beer or two.

Yet it’s not a monoculture this super fertile agricultural valley in Washington State, irrigated by the Yakima River. It abounds in fruit, in particular apples, and its grapes produce some of America’s most thrilling wines, but there’s no escaping the hop in all its varieties – Cascade, Chinook, Centennial and the rest, now globally familiar. Some 75 per cent of US hops are grown hereabouts in ideally suited volcanic soil.

So it seemed a good idea while passing through the region to drop in on the American Hop Museum in the township of Toppenish, whose major claim to fame is the 70 hand-painted murals, of recent origin, evoking its Wild West past. They are more vivid than the museum, which is as dry as last year’s hop pellets. Still this project of local pride, assembling the rusty machinery and fading pictures of yore, sets the scene for the hopfest to come.

Of all the stop-offs on our San Francisco to Seattle road trip this wasn’t the most obviously touristic and yet we found it fascinating from the moment post-museum when we lunched in a pizza place where a dab of Cascade hoppiness joins tomato and mozzarella as the prime toppings, nibbles are called hoppetisers and the merchandise includes hop-branded babygros. 

Hop Town Wood Fired Pizza, was our recommended lunch stop. It used to be a street food operation before taking over the folksy tasting room of the former Piety Winery, Donald Wapato Road (there’s now a second branch down the road in Sunnyside). 

A house IPA, naturally, accompanied our $12 Porky Pine Prosciutto nine-incher, where pesto, parmesan, pecorino, prosciutto, pine nuts (all the Ps), tomato, hops and a balsamic reduction smothered the charred, springy crust.  

We also shared a Hey! Elote!, a spicy corn dip  with chicken broth, lime, cholula hot sauce, salty cotija cheese and cilantro (coriander). Testimony to the Hispanic presence in hop country. A third of the population in Yakima, at home in its sunny desert climate, is Hispanic. It’s an area full of tacos trucks and shacks. Locals’ pick? Tacos Los Primos 2 at 404 N 4th St in the city proper. If you’re adventurous go for the tripe filling.

Generations of Mexican hop harvest pickers are celebrated in liquid form by Yakima’s brewing trailblazers Bale Breaker. Each year, cocking a snook at Trump and his Border Wall bigotry, they are a major player in Sesiones del Migrante, a series of beers brewed in collaboration with Mexican and American breweries. Co-founder Meggan Quinn poured us the latest, a Mango IPA that defines ‘tropical’, in the brewery’s garden, sheltered by tall bines, for this is a working hop farm (its 1,000 acres have even even suppled the likes of BrewDog in the UK). 

The operation’s roots run deep. Megann’s great-grandparents planted the first nine rows of hops on the family farm back in 1932, a year before the end of Prohibition. Just a decade ago she, her husband and siblings persuaded initially sceptical parents a custom-built brewery on site might just work and it has. The beer are so popular across the Pacific North-West they don’t need to export. Topcutter IPA and Field 41 pale ale are their flagship beers.

What astonished us about one of the world’s premier hop-growing regions was the lack until recently of local breweries tapping into the resource… or speciality beer bars. That’s all changing fast on the back of Bale Breaker’s impetus. One of their brewers, former wildlife biologist Chris Baum, and four buddies set up their own brewing operation, Varietal with the premise of wild yeasts, sours, fruit beers and barrel-ageing – the fun, cutting edge stuff.

Check out the Hop Country Beer Trail or sniff around the taprooms of the Old North Yakima Historic District, where the closure of the Northern Pacific Railroad once hit the town hard. Now, as in so many other similar places, this is where the cool fight back begins. Highly recommended is Single Hill with its attractive taproom and terrace, serving the like of Cerveza blonde ale or or Island Reverie, a benchmark guava and passionfruit sour.    

Cider, or what they call hard cider, is a refreshing alternative to beer. The custom-built Tieton Cider Works on the edge of town offers sampling tours. With apples and other fruit sourced from the family’s own organic orchards it’s a clean tasting product, a world away from our own trad scrumpy; we loved the smoked pumpkin cider.

The best restaurant in town is Crafted on North 1st Street. Dan Koommoo is in the kitchen and his wife Mollie front of house. The couple chose Yakima because Mollie’s family is from these parts; Thai-born Dan is a James Beard-nominated Cordon Bleu chef with a glittering cv. Together they have created a casual contemporary dining space, from oysters to cocktails a total delight.

Sunday mornings are for mooching around town. We kicked off with excellent coffee and double fudge brownies at the Essencia Artisan Bakery, a short walk from the historic Capitol Theater. Rebuilt after a fire in 1975, it allegedly hosts the ghost of Shorty McCall, a technician during the 1930s, who hanged himself there after an ill-fated love affair. 

Dating back to 1912, the Sports Center – so-called because of a hunting theme not because it’s a place to play basketball – is equally haunted with staff reporting eerie chills and the sound of clinking glassware. All this dates back to the days when it was a brothel with Mafia connections.

Our Downtown Yakima lodging, the Hotel Maison has a more benign but equally striking history. Six storeys high, it was built in 1911 during the boom times by prosperous Freemasons as their club. Crowning glory was the hugely ornate Masonic ceremonial temple on the top floor, designed to replicate the throne room of King Solomon’s Temple. Long mothballed, it has survived the building’s conversion to a hotel, 

Elsewhere the comfortable hotel’s decor playfully celebrates its Masonic past and, of course, the pre-eminence of the hop. On our Saturday night there we sipped complimentary Tieton cider and watched the weekly ‘paseo’ of vintage automobiles, all adding to the period charm of the place.

The best place to sample Washington wine Downtown is the Gilbert Cellars, showcasing the family’s wines such as Horse Heaven Hills Cabernet Sauvignon. It saves having to trek out to their vineyard tasting room, but when in wine country it would be wrong not to sample in the wineries, all within easy reach of Yakima town.

I’d recommend the folksy Owen Roe Winery, an organically farmed estate whose reds are particularly impressive, the nearby Treveri Cellars, (tours for $50) sparkling wine specialists run by a German winemaker, whose top bottles have been served at White House receptions. 

Still the hop remains king hereabouts. A quintessential time to visit Yakima (fly into Seattle two and a half hours’ drive away) is autumn when the valley hosts its annual Fresh Hop Festival. This year’s date is October 5. A unique array of beers made with newly harvested ‘green’ hops showcases the individual character of each variety. Now that’s not to be sniffed at!

Monsoon season in Old Delhi. The day before we arrived the city had come to a standstill as storms vented their fury. And you think the UK is cursed with potholes. Our taxi, destination the spectacular Jama Masjid Mosque, had clattered and bounced. After which, we splashed our way on foot to the equally iconic Karim’s restaurant in the labyrinth of Chandni Chowk. The original North Indian food benchmark.

Monsoon season in Manchester’s ‘Medieval Quarter’. Well, almost. Haven’t the last 18 months been the wettest period in the UK since records began? Rain abated as we crossed the threshold of the decidedly dry and welcoming Corn Exchange atrium. I can’t remember the last time I visited; there are so few places in there whose food attracts me. Mostly bland brands. With the exception of local Italian standard bearers Salvi’s and Mowgli which, though now part of a 20-strong chain, still reflects the ‘Indian home cooking’ ethos of founder/driving force Nisha Katona. Now an addition to that short list as I belatedly discover a family-run outpost of Delhi cuisine (with concessions to our own casual dining culture). 

The Delhi House Cafe is quite a different beast to the aforementioned Karim’s. Can it  match it in ‘authenticity’, whatever that means? After all, that mecca for Mughal-centred foodies has been in existence for a century, the formica tables only slightly less. And guess what, it has spawned 15 further Karims around Delhi.

The DHC project is much more modest, open just a couple of years. Its founders, the Lamba family, hail from a Delhi textile dynasty and their venue reflects their swish style sense. It’s the kind of restaurant/bar you might find in New Delhi’s ultra modern, hi-tech satellite city Gurgaon, which I have also visited, cannabis plants growing wild on the roadside in the shadow of start-up company high rises.  A far cry from the view across Cathedral Gardens to venerable Chethams.

I was there to sample chef/patron Sherry Lamba’s new menu. It ticks boxes I have been exploring on how UK Asian cuisine, notably second generation, evolves. Check out this link. In truth, here it is just tweaks on an established formula, but tasty ones. The receptacle for a spicy mutton keema taco is a paratha, while brioche buns host ghee roasted chicken sliders with mint chutney. More leftfield/fusion is their Monster Chicken Lollipop, a fried chicken leg with Indo-Chinese flavoured sweet and sour sauce and house salad, their take on a sub-continent street favourite. The Delhi imprimatur is not unbending. Witness the menu presence of Alleppey fish curry and Goan prawn curry from the South.

And while Mom’s Buttered Chicken, Tikka Masala style, deservedly remains their most popular dish it also reappears as a topping on a cheese naan base with pizza toppings for the same price, £13.95.

I’d already veered from the Indian restaurant taste template by not ordering a pint of Cobra, opting instead for a bottle of IPA from White Rhino, the country’s first craft brewers, based in the Chambal region, once known as bandit country. It’s surprisingly impressive.

As I ordered a second I discussed my penchant for pooris with Varendra, Sherry’s dad, who works front of house in this close-knit family enterprise. Were their dahi pooris better than Mowgli’s across the court? You know the style – whole wheat puffs with a potato and chickpea/tamarind and mint chutney filling. Let them pop whole in your mouth or risk dousing your chin. I passed the test after Varendra supplied. His further extra was simply sublime. Palak patta chaat consists of battered spinach leaves with mint, tamarind & yoghurt. It called for a third rush of Rhino. A series of dishes like this is my favourite way to eat Indian. OK, I wouldn’t a helping of butter chicken with a basket of breads. Delhi House’s naans are exemplary. Better than Karim’s? The jury’s out.

Delhi House Cafe, Unit 10, Corn Exchange, Manchester, M4 3TR. 0161 834 3333

This Easter Weekend an extraordinary Japanese home cooking project found a permanent base. Its tangled global roots encompass the northern island of Hokkaidō, Hong Kong, Australia and Scotland. Affluent Manchester suburb Didsbury took Midori to its heart and arguably its finest bar, Wine and Wallop, is now the prime outlet for gyoza, glass noodles, daikon pickles and other quietly challenging dishes that subvert that tired culinary template of sushi rolls, commercial ramen and crude katsu curry.

A long lunchtime pre-launch road-testing convinced me that the food put out by Claire ‘Midori’ Cassidy and her partner Ruari Anderson lives up to the almost Studio Ghibli back story evoked on their website.

Claire trained as a journalist and it shows. Let me quote: “Unbeknownst at the time to founder and creator Midori (the name means green), her appreciation for soulful Japanese home cooking was born one autumn afternoon in the early ’90s, as she watched her late grandmother Reiko chop fresh vegetables picked that very morning from the ‘hatake’ (communal allotment) down the road. There, in Reiko’s humble kitchen, Midori’s mother, aunt and grandmother sat cross-legged on cushioned mats, skilfully wrapping gyozas whilst chatting, laughing and bickering…

“During the long and harsh Hokkaidō winters, temperatures would typically plummet to -10°C, house-bounding the citizens of Otaru, a rural fishing village situated on the west coast of Japan’s northernmost island. In anticipation of these looming conditions, the ritual of preparing food in bulk – from pickling and fermenting vegetables to wrapping gyoza – would take place annually with the combined efforts of family members and neighbours.”  

Flash forward to Lapwing Lane on a decidedly unsettled Bank Holiday Weekend in 2024 Britain. The Midori menu at Wine and Wallop will be available here (not at W&W Prestwich or Knutsford) 12pm-9pm daily. Claire won’t obviously be at the stove all the time. She and Ruari have to supply their amazing gyozas to cherished local stockists and promote the brand online, too. With all the pressure I was pleased she found time to answer a questionnaire I put to them…

Tell me about yourselves. Your Japanese background, Claire? Your grandmother in Hokkaidō was a major influence, I believe? The Hong Kong connection? The Scottish connection? Where did you both first meet?

“I am Hong Kong born and (for the most part) bred Japanese/Scottish “halfie”, though I’ve attended schooling in various other cities like Vancouver, Edinburgh and Melbourne due to my Dad’s basings as a commercial pilot. Ruari and I met in Hong Kong in 2013 when I’d returned home from Oz (uni), and discovered we had lived mirrored lives – he too had attended the same secondary school in HK and had completed his sixth form at a boarding school in Scotland and university in Australia – all eight years apart (Claire is 34, Ruari 42). 

“My summer holidays were typically spent at my grandparents’ in Otaru (a port city not far from Sapporo) where the women in the family were big foodies – as you may know, Hokkaido is a hot spot for tourists from other prefectures and SE/East Asian countries for its fruit, seafood and artisan offerings. 

“Ruari was born in Stirling to Scottish parents and subsequently spent his childhood in Dubai and Bahrain until the Gulf War, then 25 years in HK. We believe our international upbringing and being ’third culture kids’ has been the reason behind our strong foundation and adventurous appetites. Also, my first job as a flight attendant opened my tastebuds to new flavours and intensified my obsession with food.”

How was the Midori brand born? How does it differ from the sushi/ramen offering that is everywhere in the city now? Explain the secrets of gyozo making. Why are yours so much better than the commercial frozen variety?

“The brand was born out of a lack of options in Manchester for home-style Japanese cooking; dishes I’d consider to be ‘comfort food’ and off the beaten track of westernised sushi rolls, ramen and katsu curry. We moved to the UK in 2016 and being homesick for quite some time, I really craved these familiar flavours. During lockdown, Ruari (day job care sector worker) and I ordered dumplings from a dim sum house in the city centre and with delivery fees, it was extortionate – and not very tasty! 

“Becoming disillusioned with the rat race and the absence of nearby East Asian grocers (other than in town) were the main triggers behind the decision to make my own and launch our product, using my grandmother’s recipes and wrapping techniques. Thankfully, this was well received in Didsbury and from there, we grew into serving at local festivals in the summer and pop-ups.

“There are obviously other frozen gyoza brands that are much cheaper and contain more per pack, and we have tried and tested them all, but they lack flavour and contain many preservatives. Aside from that, they have a 30:70 filling to wrapper ratio – mine are packed to the brim with only high quality, locally-sourced meat and allotment-grown veg where possible with strictly NO dodgy additives. 

“As I’ve learned through this journey, there are many tips to creating the perfect gyoza, from removing moisture from veg (like cabbage and mushroom) with high water content to intensify the flavour, using meat with a 15-20 per cent fat content to ensure maximum juiciness and keeping the filling and dough below room temperature. In regards to wrapping, each gyoza must be fully sealed with no air pockets to retain meat juices and uniform in weight to ensure even cooking. As it turns out, this skill has proven difficult to teach part-time in an economically efficient manner as it’s all down to speed and muscle memory!” 

Check out Midori’s gyoza cooking tips here.

Is what you do essentially Japanese home cooking? Are authentic ingredients the key? How important are local suppliers such as your Didsbury butchers?

“It is paramount that we use authentic ingredients to capture that true, recognisable flavour of Japanese cooking and we have a great relationship with Axons (who as you know, supply our meat and stock our products). Since starting this venture in July 2022, we’ve been so impressed with the support we received from Didsbury’s ever-growing community of grassroots businesses – something that simply doesn’t exist in Hong Kong’s ‘dog eat dog’  corporate mentality. Up until fairly recently, it’s been a struggle to source certain ingredients like daikon radish and sashimi-grade fish locally – lucky for us, neighbourhood greengrocers like Fresh Save and Family Mart have started stocking Asian veg and fishmongers like Evans and Out of the Blue offer sushi ingredients.”

Explain the Wine and Wallop/Didsbury connection?

“We kind of found Didsbury by accident. We first moved from HK to Cuddington in deepest Cheshire and it was simply too rural for us there. Being five minutes down the road from ours, W&W was my go-to whenever I got cabin fever while WFH. How we came to collaborate with them was down to pure luck; I walked in one day for a coffee and Rachael (the previous manager) offered me a one-off pop up. It was a success so that led to monthly events, supper clubs and private sushi and gyoza making workshops. We’d even go as far to say it has become our second home.”

My favourite Midori dishes (and matching cocktails)?

The gyoza are the stand-out. Pork, lamb, miso mushroom, fanned out on a sharing platter (£28 for 15 pieces), a wonderfully soft, creamy offering. That’s not to diss the tsukune, teriyaki-glazed chicken meatballs (four pieces for £7.50). Changing tack, more challenging were sunomono (£5), slithery, sharp cucumber and glass noodles in tangy umezushi plum vinaigrette and natto gohan (£6), which tops rice with whipped fermented soy and cured egg yolk shavings. I liked both dishes but maybe marmite for bar punters?

I relish a Japanese pickle and the tsukemono take on daikon radish (£7.50) is glorious, while similar perfect bar food is the renkon (£4) lotus root crisps and the absurdly moreish wafu fries (£5.50), which are topped with Worcester-like okonomi sauce, kewpie mayo and roasted seaweed and bonito flakes. Beer fodder for me, but don’t neglect barman Jack’s appropriate cocktails – the Bloody Mary equivalent, Blood Moon/Kaiki Gesshoku featuring gochujang, and the Martini based on bisongrass vodka and yuzu and topped with a shisho leaf, called River Tiger/Kawatora.

Wine and Wallop, 97 Lapwing Lane, West Didsbury, Manchester M60 6UR.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The importance of food charities for education

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ingredients

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

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

Method

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

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

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

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

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

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.”

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.”

Big birthdays demand a blow-out. For my 70th last year it was unforgettable Ynyshir. Playing catch-up this, my bluestocking wife required Dreaming Spires and the Forest of Arden – so off to Oxford (where we met several decades ago) and to Stratford-upon-Avon for a rather apt staging of As You Like It (in the main theatre below right, image by Stratford Computers).

Theresa’s own version a few years ago tapped into youthful enthusiasm; the current RSC adaptation regroups a cast of grizzled veterans, supposedly 45 years on from the original production they were in. Cue all kinds of riffs on time passing. The best summation from another Shakespeare play, The Merchant of Venice: “With mirth and laughter let old wrinkles come.” Occasionally creaky, this As You Like It was all a rather joyous self-indulgence. As was the rest of our Stratford leg.

Familiar territory this half-timbered town, yet it never loses its allure. Top advice is to get to the major Shakespeare attractions early or, for those out of town honeypots, later in the day when the coach parties are dispersing. 

Before filling you in on all those must-sees a mini-guide to more modest off-the beaten track discoveries we made on this recent visit. Just stray off thronged Sheep Street, Henley Street and the like to a Stratford shorn of Edinburgh Woollen Mills, Harry Potter shrines and shop windows rammed with tourist tat and you might encounter… 

Ya-Bard – ‘a quart of ale is a dish for for a king’

The quote is from The Winter’s Tale (1611); of rather more recent vintage (2020) is Dave Moore and Sam Thorp’s splendid craft beer bar/bottle shop at 13 Rother Street (next to the Playhouse). The narrow space is lined with Belgian lambics and serious sharing bottles, but the five beers on tap are witness to Dave’s preference for hoppy pale ales and IPAs. Manchester’s own Track Sonoma was just about to go on when we dropped by. This is the real beer deal in a town whose bars and pubs don’t really cut the mustard. Falstaff would give them the sack!

Shakespeare Hospice Bookshop – ‘Knowing I lov’d my books, he furnish’d me From mine own library with volumes that I prize above my dukedom’ 

The Tempest this time. We think its hero Prospero would approve of the good deeds of The Shakespeare Hospice, which runs a range of fund-raising shops, this gloriously well-stocked shrine to the printed the word the pick. We browsed there for the best part of an hour, relishing the generous prices… for quite recent review copies in many cases. I snapped up John Kampfner’s Why The German’s Do It Better for £4 and my wife a tome on moles for a quid more. If you visit don’t miss the quirky upstairs display of “Things we found in books”.

Box Brownie – the curtain’s down!

Coffee didn’t arrive in England till the mid-17th century (according to Samuel Pepys, England’s first coffee house was established in Oxford in 1650), so understandably there’s no mention in Shakespeare. Chocolate, in liquid form, was probably familiar to the Bard but the brownie is a late 19th century American invention. They do a delectable version at Ben and Hayley’s bijou coffee house at 20 Henley Street. An antidote to all the chains infesting this tourist town, their brilliant brews from locally roasted Monsoon beans.

Four Teas – ‘When the hurly-burly’s done, When the battle’s lost and won’

Wartime home front style at this 1940s-themed tea room/English brasserie, which offers arguably Stratford’s best cream teas. Spoiler alert: the icing on the cake may be a soundtrack of Vera Lynn and Glen Miller. There’s always the garden to escape to, which comes complete with an authentic Anderson shelter. It being ‘Taking Back Control Britain’ the Classic Ivor Novello Afternoon Tea will eat up a lot of your ration cards. £27 per person, £32 with prosecco. Pass the tin hat, Captain Mainwaring.

The Kingfisher – ‘Marry, here’s grace and a cod piece’ (Lear)

Best quality sustainable fish from Grimsby, proper chips from Lincolnshire spuds at this Ely Street chippie. Lots of thesps (the likes of Patrick Stewart, John Nettles and Judi Dench) have ordered fish and chips from this low key gem, along with a certain Princess Diana apparently. It was in the same family’s hands for 42 years until 2020. The good news: it’s as good as ever and reasonably priced.  Round the corner is Salt, Stratford’s only Michelin-starred restaurant. The tasting menu is the inevitable focus here, but it offers affordable lunch options. Chef patron Paul Foster is currently opening a second restaurant in Camden, so may not be at the mothership every day. A wonderful Salt alternative is just further along Church Street, located handily in our hotel base, the Hotel Indigo, a beautiful melding of a 1500s original building with contemporary lodgings set around a hidden garden (central Stratford car parking, too!)…

The Woodsman – ‘Why let the strucken deer go weep’

Hamlet quoting an old ballad there. Venison was very much a Tudor staple, so it is appropriate that a restaurant specialising in deer and other game sits squarely opposite the site of Shakespeare’s house, New Place (our bedroom looked out upon it). Exec chef Mike Robinson, whose other restaurants include the Michelin-starred Harwood Arms in Fulham, The Elder in Bath and Chester’s The Forge, sources venison from his own private deer park in Berkshire. A dinner that featured chicken terrine, octopus and exquisite lamb as well as venison (loin and faggot) was a feast fit for a Bard, Recommended, as is the hotel.

So, what’s to see at New Place across the road?

Bought by Shakespeare in 1597, the largest house in town was where he lived with his family and later died in 1616. It was controversially demolished in 1759, but the ‘footprint’ of the razed property has been restored evocatively – notably with the creation of the Great Garden and the Knot Garden. Helping explain the history is the adjacent museum in the Grade I listed Thomas Nash House. This was owned by Shakespeare’s granddaughter’s husband and features a fascinating exhibition of archaeological finds from New Place.

Roman Catholic palimpsests in the Holy Cross Guild Chapel

The debate whether the Shakespeares were covert Papists has never been settled, but this unassuming medieval church on neighbouring Chapel Lane offers some clues. Notably the vestiges of Catholic murals. These were ordered to  be wiped out in the Reformation and John William’s father John was given the task of doing this but chose just to whitewash over the paintings, perhaps in the hope of preserving them for prosperity. 

Thus we can still make out over the chancel arch Jesus presiding in Judgement, with the souls of the elect rising from their graves to be greeted by St. Peter in Heaven. Meanwhile, the damned (whose sins of pride, luxury and gluttony are labelled) are rounded up by demons and dragged through hell’s mouth to unspeakable torments beyond. Elsewhere Popes to peasants parade in a devilish ‘Dance of Death’.

Shakespeare’s last resting place – ‘Alas poor Yorick’

Far overshadowing the Guild Chapel is the beautiful Holy Trinity, where the Bard and other members of his family are buried in the 15th century chancel. His memorial offers the famous curse “blessed be he who spares these stone and cursed be he that moves my bones”. That may not have deterred 18th century grave-robbers. AGPR (ground penetrating radar) has suggested the skull may be missing. Entry to the church is free but there is a £1.50  a head charge.

Avon calling – join the swans on the river 

Avon Boating by the Clopton Bridge offer all sorts of ‘self-drive with oars’ opportunities on the river. Cruises, where the skipper takes the strain, are the most laid-back trips. Downriver there are unparalleled views of Holy Trinity and the RSC theatres, including a sneak peek into the balconied dressing rooms of the RST and, our guide informed us, it can be a bit of a shock to see Julius Caesar consulting the Ides of March on his iPad. Then head upstream in pursuit of kingfishers and the idyllic back gardens of Tiddington Road, the most expensive street in Stratford.

The Play’s the Thing – ‘All the world’s a stage etc’

You can’t go far in this town without stumbling across quotations emblazoned on the pavement and statues contemplating skulls. All this bardolatry would, of course, be pointless without the hub – the RST, the Swan and The Other Place. Stratford is about theatre and there is a host of exciting Shakespeare performances currently playing and lined up for the near future. For details visit here. For true theatre geeks there’s also a selection of backstage tours. Starting in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre Cloakroom, you will learn about the history as well as exploring a production in more depth to learn about the theatre making process.

Your Shakespeare pilgrimage – further places to visit

But then many visitors are happy just to bathe in the aura of our greatest playwright. The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust manages the five very different properties relating to the playwright with a mission to reach out to all ages. Its website features videos and virtual tours to whet the appetite. And at the moment it is offering a great value special ticket covering all the houses.

In the town itself, besides New Place, there is Shakespeare’s Birthplace, the comfortable Tudor house where young Will grew up and (alas closed to the public at the moment) my favourite, Hall’s Croft, home to the surgeon John Hall and Shakespeare’s daughter, Susanna. High-ceilinged and furnished to show wealth, it has a magnificent formal garden with herbs that would have been used in Hall’s remedies. Alas, it is currently closed to the public.

As both houses have the original flagged floors there’s a frisson to know you are literally walking in Shakespeare’s footsteps. Knowledgeable guides in costume loiter in rooms with intent to draw you into the experience of 16th century family life. In the Birthplace guest room a woman playing a harp explains about the mouldy oranges – bought for show and  never intended to be eaten. 

A costumed glover stands in John, the playwright’s father’s workshop amid an array of his wares, all designed for different purposes. In the window hang a range of “pockets” or Tudor man-bags, the must-have accessory for any Stratford dandy. We learn also about the less pleasant side of glove making – urine used as bleach and the noxious smell of human and animal waste from the tannery in the backyard.

Country Matters with Anne Hathaway and Mary Arden

The two out of town properties with their land and gardens offer great family entertainment. The family home of Shakespeare’s wife-to-be, Anne Hathaway’s Cottage at Shottery, is beautifully preserved with the settle on which William and Anne did their courting and, again, a minor life-enhancing detail of a descendant who reputedly chipped splinters from it to sell for sixpence to tourists. Knowledgeable volunteers fill you in on period language and customs. You want to know the origins of upper crust? You’ve come to the right place.

The gardens are a delight, in high summer a riot of sweet peas and lavender. Don’t neglect to take in a sonnet in the Sonnet Arbour, its trellises channelling the surround sound of the actor’s recorded voice.

Mary Arden’s Farmhouse, (the home of Shakespeare’s mother) has been developed into a fascinating period attraction where costumed guides and volunteers cook Elizabethan feasts using authentic ingredients and care for the heritage animals and poultry without mod cons. We watched Kate the English longhorn cow being milked by hand into a wooden pail while her calf (Quickly) looked on. Why “Quickly”? Because all the cattle must be called after Shakespeare characters and the names (rather like hurricanes) have to go through the alphabet. The calf may have had designs on being Viola or Titania but she ended up named after a brothel keeper. 

You can also stroke the cute black Mangalitza pigs, learn to herd geese and groom the resident horse. The period feel is enhanced by groups of schoolchildren in costume, the only incongruous detail their trainer-clad feet. There are also birds of prey displays.

Enough period charm – let’s close with some Horrible History

A very different slice of period life was delivered up in Tudor World. Lurking down a cobbled alley in the old Shrieve’s House off Sheep Street, this is a hands-on fun experience for all the family. On the way in you are given a Tudor ID card with details of ‘your life’; on the way out you learn how you died – usually painfully and by execution. In between are chances to dress up, sit on the throne, pose in the stocks and glance in at some gruesome period practices. In one installation the barber surgeon extracts a patient’s tooth with no anaesthetic and much blood. 

In another the magician and alchemist, John Dee, sits surrounded by the paraphernalia of his trade. On the wall behind is the fascinating fact that he was a spy, code-named 007. And Ian Fleming took the moniker for what must now be the most famous secret agent ever.

Main image of Anne Hathaway’s Cottage and subsequent images of Birthplace, Hall’s Croft and Mary Arden’s Farmhouse from the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.