Thursday, 3 December 2015

Weekend in Manchester

Stunning views of the city from Cloud 23
I spent a recent weekend in Manchester. Probably not the best time of year to visit any city but my daughter lives there and I hadn't been over since she graduated two years ago. I have never rated Manchester very highly. In fact I actively disliked it. After this visit, I changed my mind somewhat.

Despite the dire exchange rate, it is eye-wateringly expensive. A coffee in a somewhat upmarket cafe (not a Starbucks or a Costa Coffee) was £2.70. That in today's money is €3.74. And we moan about paying €2.50. If it was blow the socks off you coffee I wouldn't mind but it wasn't.

My daughter lives right in the centre of the city and we stayed in The Park Inn which was a 10 minute walk from almost everywhere we went. At least I was told it was a 10 minute walk.......

The first night we had booked into Mr. Cooper's House and Garden, a restaurant owned and run by Simon Rogan in the Midland Hotel. We got a "deal" here. An early bird meal, 3 courses for £22. The deal was we were booked in to eat at 6.30pm. Not a big deal as we had travelled over that morning and we had only had a light but very delicious lunch in my daughter's apartment. We arrived 7 minutes late. The city centre was jammed with traffic and despite the four of us travelling in two separate taxis and leaving half an hour to make the journey (normally 10 minutes max), we were all late (by 7 minutes). Actually we arrived in the hotel foyer at 6.33 but were directed to the wrong end of the hotel; and I was on crutches. How a hotel can direct customers to a restaurant in their own building wrongly I can only hazard a guess but anyway they did.

Jay Rayner had reviewed the restaurant and slated the decor but raved about the food. I thought the decor was pretty inoffensive and the food completely bland. And yes I know we had the "cheapie" menu but as far as I am concerned any chef worth his salt does not put out poor food on any menu. 

For starters they refused us the menu we had booked because we were late (by 7 minutes). They didn't reckon on our two daughters who argued the toss and eventually after an onslaught times two probably decided it was the lesser evil to give it to us. Now I do not do restaurant reviews on this blog as a rule. I prefer to go out and enjoy the moment. But......

My starter was three meatballs on an apricot puree with I can't for the life of me remember what the green stuff was (see why I don't do reviews). Having said that if it was good I would remember every last mouthful. I asked the others what they thought the puree was and I got apple. I certainly would not have guessed apricot. The meatballs were nicely rare though if under seasoned.

My main, salmon. Cooked correctly as in slightly rare with fennel. A tiny portion but not bad. We ordered red cabbage and cauliflower cheese as sides. The red cabbage was spicy and tasty but the cauliflower had obviously been zapped in the microwave and was hotter than hades. I couldn't taste much cheese but maybe that was because it was molten. It was topped with unidentifiable brown crumbly stuff. 

My dessert caramel tart. A tiny slice. Unremarkable and also lacking in flavour but thankfully no soggy bottom. 

The irony of these menu deals is you end up spending as much as you would normally when you factor in wine and coffees. 

We had eaten the night before we left in a newly opened restaurant (Farmhill Cafe) and I had joked that it would probably be the best meal of the weekend. I wasn't too far out.

We hopped in a taxi to The Hilton and Cloud 23 for cocktails and the most amazing views over 

Christmas Market stalls all in cute wooden huts

Next day after a potter about the Christmas Markets and a light lunch we ended up in to
a Greek restaurant we had gone to after my daughter's graduation. We had originally booked a Spanish restaurant for two. I had found it in the top 10 restaurants in Manchester. Before I booked this I had booked Aidan Byrne's Manchester House but they only do a tasting menu on a Saturday night and both of us decided us we weren't keen on tasting menus. It turned out that there was going to be 5 of us to eat on Saturday so my daughter rang the Spanish restaurant to let them know. They told us they couldn't accommodate us. 

The Greek restaurant called Rozafa had been really good when we were there a couple of years ago. Her graduation had dragged on and on and on and it was 5pm. We hadn't had lunch and were starving. We were due in the airport for a flight at 8pm. There was a Weatherspoon's pub on the corner of the street opposite the Town Hall but I said "over my dead body".....and then we saw it. Between service and empty but they told us come on in and served us great food with such charm. 

When we arrived last Saturday we were a couple of minutes late again (the traffic in Manchester is worse than Dublin) but there was no mention of it. Instead a lovely Greek waiter linked me down the stairs to my table. There was live music and plate throwing he told me from 8pm and inwardly I groaned. But it was a great success. The music was fantastic with waiters getting up to dance and then customers. The food, simple but so so tasty and reasonably priced. The house wine served in carafes, Greek but very drinkable. It was such an enjoyable evening. And the service was just faultless. 

Meat meze selection

Vegetarian meze selection

Melt in the mouth lamb shoulder and rice

On Sunday after breakfast we went for a short visit to Manchester art gallery and a quick tour of Spinningfields. Spinningfields has all the high end designer shops and trendy restaurants to keep the footballers'  wives in style and lettuce leaf lunches. If it hadn't been blowing a gale and really cold I would have been tempted to stay longer but we had lunch booked in an Italian restaurant before our taxi back to the airport. 

Manchester is an interesting city to visit. It's centre is small and easy to navigate. It has all the high end designer shops. The people are very friendly. The restaurants, well they aren't bad but they aren't great either. It's only when you travel you realise how much we have come on in Ireland. And I am never going to moan about the prices again.......well........

Hopefully my daughter will move to London. 

Sunday, 18 October 2015

Pumpkin Lunch at Virginia Park Lodge

Facing Lough Ramor 
Virginia Park Lodge originally the shooting, hunting, fishing lodge of the Marquis of Headfort and in previous incarnations an hotel, a cookery school and now owned by well known chef Richard Corrigan.

The Border Bites crew booked in advance to have lunch here at the start of the Pumpkin Festival which is held every year in Virginia, Co. Cavan. After several weeks of an Indian Summer the autumn colour in the estate is spectacular and the renovations superb. The last time I was here years ago was when it was The Park Hotel. A faded, slightly shabby grand old lady with stiff linen and hotel food typical of that era in Ireland.

Impressive pumpkin table display in the entrance hall

Huge fire place in the entrance hall
The lawn sloping down to the lake
The lunch was held in a very luxurious and attractive marquee that fits well into the site, situated beside the lodge and looking out over Lough Ramor.

The marquee

Lovely bright airy marquee with views over lake

Pumpkin themed table centre piece
But to the food. We had a chesnut and ricotta raviolo with a pumpkin soup to start. Up to this I have never been a huge fan of chesnut but I really loved this. A big bowl of autumn.

Raviolo and pumpkin soup

Pork two ways, pumpkin, celeriac
Red and green cabbage
I have serious misgivings about eating pork. In fact I make a point of avoiding it if I can, but it did say free range even if free range is a very loose term. I wasn't overly enamoured with the belly, it was a bit rubbery but the slow cooked shoulder was melt in the mouth and had a very good flavour, The red cabbage was the star though. It had been smoked and braised in red wine. We were all convinced we could taste apple but when we asked they said no. A big bowl of creamy butter mash had everyone groaning with pleasure. All the vegetables tasted home grown and freshly pulled from the gardens here on the estate.

Steamed pumpkin pudding with rum caramel ice cream
A steamed pudding to finish. Sometimes the simple done well is sublime. This was. Light, fluffy sponge that was moist and speckled with pumpkin. I could have licked the plate.

Petit fours with a pumpkin filling
It is some achievement to base a meal around one ingredient and not have diners groaning enough but the chef managed it. The quality of the ingredients shine, the cooking is simple but skillful.

I had been looking forward to trying out the food here. I left impressed. We so badly need more of this in rural areas of Ireland instead of same old, same old menus appealing to the masses.

Monday, 5 October 2015

World Animal Week

This week from the 4th to the 10th of October is World Animal Week. Last week I shared several posts from an animal sanctuary based in Kildare who were trying to rescue battery hens who were about to be destroyed. Battery hens are only productive from an economic point of view for a year or so. After this they begin to lay less frequently and so are destroyed. This means that every battery farm and this includes "free range" as in open the side of a shed of thousands of chickens who may or may not go out - are destroyed after a year of life.

A healthy hen is one who has a full body of shiny and fluffy feathers and an erect bright red comb. The comb is the on top of their head. These hens had bare bodies and floppy pale combs. How such unhealthy looking animals can lay healthy eggs is beyond me. How anyone would want to eat eggs from birds like these mystifies me. And yes I know they are cheap and so many are on a budget..... yada, yada, yada, yawn!

Photo from LittleHill Animal Sanctuary

As with everything in life, it's a question of priorities.

Then we come to the next animal reared in similar circumstances. The pig. Almost daily, pig transport lorries drive past my house and the stench lingers for ages afterwards. The pig is an incredibly clean animal. In a field it has a toilet area, a wallow area, a feeding area and each and every pig keeps a large circular area in front of their house undamaged. They don't root here, they don't use it as a toilet, they don't lie in it. I am convinced they do this in order to keep an area clean and dry as contrary to popular opinion they hate having wet dirty feet. I have seen piglets walk along under an electric fence rather than through a mucky patch.

Intensively reared pigs are forced to live in circumstances they would never live in by choice. So if these pigs are smeared in their own excrement in a transport lorry how can meat from these animals be healthy? The meat is infused with bacteria that you really do not want or need to eat. But you are advised to cook it well. Like all protein, overcooking makes it tough, dry and indigestible.

Treating meat animals badly is one thing. But even if you don't care about their welfare, surely you care about your own?

Most people if they thought about where the meat and the eggs they casually throw into their shopping trolley would be appalled. The vast majority probably consider themselves animal lovers and have pets at home. So why have double standards?

What you can do.

Ask in your local supermarket how free range that chicken is (free range by definition and by law is a very loose term open to exploitation). The more people who ask, the more the retailer will think. Customers have massive power. If only they realised it.

Ask why supermarkets don't sell free range pork and bacon. Ask this in your butchers as well. And if they try to pass off flabby, pale pork chops as free range tell them you know that genuinely free range pork is not pale in colour.

Ask in restaurants. After all they will be able to tell you what field your lump of steak came from.

Ask in cafes.

For this week alone just ask.