Those Facebook memories to share that pop up are a relentless reminder of time passing. Was it really 11 years ago I laid out an unplucked pheasant alongside a seasonal red cabbage on our garden table to pictorially celebrate my personal ‘Game for a Laugh’? (that cultural reference dates me instantly) during Manchester Food and Drink Festival.
En route to co-host a ‘Wine Tour of Spain’ event at Manchester’s People’s History Museum with Jane Dowler of Evuna, I bumped into legendary chef Robert Owen Brown, with whom I later collaborated on the cookbook, Crispy Squirrel and Vimto Trifle (Manchester Books, £15.99).
He tempted me into Mulligans off Bridge Street for a couple of palate-refreshing stouts. Drink taken, Rob offered me the pick of a swag bag full of feathered game. I still have the Barbour jacket, twice re-waxed, I was wearing that day, but never since have I stuffed a brace of partridges into the big inside pockets.
Later at the PHM, as I introduced a dense, dark Monastrell from La Mancha as the perfect accompaniment to game, notably Spain’s native red-legged partridge, I drew out my feathered props gunslinger-like to the consternation and then amusement of the front row.
Our chihuahua, Captain Smidge, is partial to partridge. And since The Edinburgh Castle in Ancoats is dog-friendly he accompanied me to its monthly ‘Trust The Chef’ blind tastingdinner, the first since it was crowned Pub of the Year at the 2021 Manchester Food and Drink Awards. The theme was game, so there was every chance of the Smidge (and my) fave. As it turned out we enjoyed a trio of gamey treats – venison, woodcock and partridge (oops, I never asked what colour its legs had been).
‘Trust The Chef’ had already turned all autumnal for its September five-courser, taking advantage of head chef Iain Thomas’ personal veg harvest from his plot at The Hattersley Projects in Tameside.
Iain’s impressive track record includes stints at Establishment in Manchester (where Rosso now is), at Paul Kitching’s Michelin-starred 21212 in Edinburgh and alongside Davey Aspin, one of the iconic chef names in Scotland.
So a red deer starter from Pitscandly Farm outside Forfar promised to be an object lesson in sourcing and so it proved. Prepared as as a tartare, it was simply glorious with beetroot done three ways – roasted, puréed and in a sorbet. To follow, a rich game ‘tea’ hosted a mallard breast. The tea, product of some serious reduction, was a savoury treat to the last spoonful; the mallard had a fine gamey flavour but was sinewy, as wild duck can be, and Smidge had to help out. Alongside, a rillette of mallard joined duck liver pate in a smart take on a club sandwich. Dunked in the tea, the brioche butty disintegrated delightfully.
Our gourmet hound was decidedly keen on the partridge, highlight of the five courses. A touch tricksy with its bread sauce espuma and two red onion skin cradles for a borlotti bean leg meat ‘cassoulet’, but the star of the composition was tender
à point partridge breast. There were wine matches available for each course but we ordered (inevitably) a big Spanish red recommended by our server. The Ritme Priorat from Southern Catalonia, a well structured blend of Garnacha and Carignan, coped admirably with each game dish and the cheese course, moist and nutty Pitchfork Cheddar, accompanied by a chutney made with Iain’s own Hattersley tomatoes. Smidge confined himself to nibbling crumbs of oatcake, which summed up a copacetic, dog-friendly evening at The Castle.
The pudding course homage to Snickers, a 60 per cent chocolate parfait with candied peanuts, was deemed too rich for the little fellow. I suspect it features more regularly given chef Iain’s commitment to sustainable chocolate, supporting local bean providers in Colombia.
The regular menu gives a bid nod to Scottish produce. Good also to see a game terrine there, featuring venison, foie gras and, splendidly, grouse. The departure of my compadre Owen Brown seven years ago left a grouse-shaped hole in Manchester (the classic Rob picture below is by Joby Catto). The city scene moves on, but in Iain Thomas the Edinburgh Castle may have found its own talented ‘game changer’.
The Edinburgh Castle, 17-19 Blossom Street, Ancoats, Manchester. M4 5AW. The five course Trust the Chef menu costs £60pp for five courses. Wine flight extra. The next instalment is on Wednesday, November 3. To book in advance email email@example.com.