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Anything but sheepish at Meat Club Manchester #4

Butcher Lee Frost at Meat Club Manchester #4

Meat Club Manchester. I’ll be honest… they got me at the name… combining a no-nonsense northern sensibility with a degree of intrigue. It conjures up mental images of Brad Pitt and Ed Norton bound by secrecy, or a group of meat traders at New Smithfield Market getting together for a few beers. Conflate the two, add a splash of civility and a heady mix of cooked meat and good booze, and you’ve got some idea of what goes on at Meat Club.

Chef and local food authority Deanna Thomas and her husband Patrick started Meat Club at the start of this year, and it’s grown steadily from a small group in intimate beginnings to this, the fourth in the series. The premise is gloriously simple: invite a local butcher to demonstrate breaking down and preparing the meat of choice, cook and serve it there and then, paired with some great drinks and a heavy dose on conviviality. No standing on ceremony, and every chance to get one’s hands dirty. In one fell swoop it helps banish inhibitions, serves up a double whammy of education and entertainment and showcases great food and drink. All on a school night.

Deanna & Patrick Thomas from Meat Club Manchester

Meat Club #4 was held at the award-winning The Parlour on Beech Road in Chorlton. We arrived early but the venue quickly filled up for this private event, with around 50 guests there to enjoy the hottest carnivorous ticket in town that night… Chorlton butcher Lee Frost introducing us to the pleasures of spring lamb. As it was St George’s Day, the whole evening was themed around quality English fare, with drinks and expertise also on hand from Michael Bush of Nyetimber, and Toby McKenzie of Macclefield’s Redwillow.

If you don’t know him, Lee Frost (Frosty) is a staple on the Manchester food scene. W H Frost’s have an enviable reputation as a supplier of quality meat to many of the best-known restaurants in and around Manchester, and also from their shop in Chorlton. Frosty himself’s a larger than life character, and never one to miss a well-placed pun when it comes to meat, or indeed a well-deserved dig at the major supermarkets. If there was a local meat advocacy badge in the Scouts, Frosty would’ve had it… along with another for meat-based smut. He makes for a highly engaging and entertaining compere.

Frosty the Butcher cuts up cutlets and chops at Meat Club Manchester

For a bunch of reasons, life conspired against me going to either Meat Club #1 or #3, but I made it to #2, which was venison-themed and wonderful, again featured Frosty and his knife skills and razor-sharp, smut-edged banter. My better half had to duck out at short notice last time, so I was excited she was able to experience Meat Club herself this time. I reassured her the butchery was not terribly gory, it wasn’t a male-only preserve by any means, and the food would be delicious. Within half an hour of arriving, she was questioning that assertion as the offal flowed.

We enjoyed our first beer from Redwillow, a crisp and refreshing Headless Pale Ale, as the venue engorged like one of Frosty’s metaphors. Outside, faces pressed up to the plate glass windows, obviously curious as to what kind of private function had closed the venue for the evening and involved a sheep’s cadaver in the centre of the room.

Deanna gave a quick introduction, and then out came the offal. I’m a confirmed offal lover and enjoyed the trio of offally canapés: liver with a boozy red onion marmalade on pastry; gloriously spiced devilled kidneys on toast; and bacon-wrapped sweetbreads (glands in blankets?) paired with cauliflower purée. Mrs North is less convinced of the merits of variety meats. She took a short break and paced herself for the less icky bits. Meanwhile Frosty expertly broke down the lamb with his chopper, regaling the crowd with bon mots, impromptu sales pitches and a maelstrom of interesting facts about bits and cuts. Did you know lambs don’t have bellies (at least not as a cut of meat)? Instead, they have breasts, which extend down to their nethers. Insert punchline here…

Michael Bush from Nyetimber

After some audience participation butchery, it was time for a touch of sophistication with a glass of Nyetimber’s sparkling wine – in this case a glass of their 2008 Classic Cuvee – and an introductory talk from Mike about the history and ethos of the vineyard. The bubbles in the wine added to the general levity in the room, and reinforced the revelation that there’s a lot more to English sparkling wine than cheap jokes, cheap fizz, and episodes of The Apprentice. This was dry, fresh, crisp, held a hint of meadow fragrance, and was very refreshing. This wine would be ideally suited to a summer’s afternoon, accompanying the sounds of cricket or tennis and some freshly-picked fruit and cream… though we were more than happy to enjoy it in a crowded room in front of a half-dismembered carcass instead.

Mixing Redwillow ale & Nyetimber wine at Meat Club Manchester

As a local lad, Lee Frost made the case that Cheshire lamb (in this case the wonderfully-coiffured Texel, originally a Dutch breed) is perhaps the finest in the country. As a Northern Irishman now living in the Pennines, and having eaten some superb Cumbrian Herdwick lamb only the evening before, I’d hedge my bets, though there’s no denying this was one seriously tasty animal. I’d be hard-pushed to select a single best breed or location for lamb in this country, but we live in probably the best country in the world to enjoy this wonderful meat.

Lamb (and mutton) is possibly my favourite meat, and although I know its sometimes strong taste is divisive for more finicky eaters, it’s both a versatile dish and a very natural product. The mere thought of Barnsley chops and Scotch pies make my heart beat a little quicker. Unlike some other ‘farmyard’ meats, it’s hard to intensively rear lamb: if they go beyond suckling they’re naturally free range, and stay healthy and well-toned. Farming sheep is a good way of taking advantage of less productive land, and thus using the meat and wool is an excellent option to support local producers. It’s also part of our country’s shared history: from the upland landscapes, shaped by many hundreds of years of sheep farming, to the symbolic nature of the woolsack in parliament, the British Isles are defined at least as much by our ovine as bovine heritage.

Pink sheep near Livingston, Scotland

Living in Todmorden, astride the Lancs/Yorks border and the the middle of the Pennines, one is never far from the impact that the lowly sheep’s had on the social and cultural landscape of the north. It’s Lancashire hotpot to the west, and to the east is the rich legacy of the wool trade, on which Yorkshire’s wealth was largely founded before the Industrial Revolution. And yet despite, or perhaps because of, the ubiquity of sheep in the UK, we don’t embrace how lucky we are to have such good produce on hand. These sceptr’d isles provide such a broad range of breeds and pastures that, if you’re able to source decent local lamb, it reflects the characteristics of the land it was raised in… the breed, the minerals in the soil, the grasses and herbs they graze on, and topography itself. That’s why a good piece of salt marsh lamb from Wales, Cumbria or Dungeness is a truly exquisite and uniquely British delight, as is the wilder flavour of a rare breed from an upland farm or croft. Why people buy New Zeland lamb, shipped halfway around the world, when they could enjoy superlative English, Welsh, Scottish or Irish lamb instead, is beyond me. Support local farmers and butchers, please… and take time to rediscover both the cheap cuts and posh joints which can come from a good bit of lamb.

Frosty the butcher cuts up lamb at Meat Club Manchester

As the main meat cuts were transformed into delicious morsels by The Parlour’s chef Paul and his team in the kitchen, it was hard to dispute this was a superb tasting beast. Delicate slivers of cannon, paired with parsnip purée; chargrilled herb and garlic cutlets, and nut-stuffed breast (not belly, as we now know) provided the meaty accompaniment to the central section of the evening. After nattering about the pleasures of tartare, and how good raw minced lamb can be in Lebanese dishes, Frosty finely diced up some Texel and let me try it. Even unenhanced by seasoning there was a beautifully light grassy flavour, and a sweet note to the meat without any metallic tang you might expect from raw meat. Bloody great.

As we quaffed an introductory bottle of the delightful and very moreable Wreckless Pale Ale, Toby from Redwillow stood up and gave an insight into their beers (I finally found out why they all have names with particular relevance to each type) and how to build an award-winning brewery almost by accident (although I think he’s rather self-effacing… from branding to product quality, this is a seriously professional outfit and they know exactly what they’re doing). We enjoyed a bottle of their Sleepless ale whilst scoffing cute little lamb kebabs and burgers at the close of the evening, before slightly squiffily chatting to others as the crowd dispersed contentedly into the cool night air.

A rapt audience at Meat Club Manchester

Incidentally, ram’s balls (or fries, as they’re more delicately known) were originally due to make an appearance on the menu, but Frosty explained the abattoir had dropped a bollock, so to speak, and so there was nothing testicular to accompany this young female lamb on the night. An audible ripple of relief resonated round the room upon this news…

I’d highly recommend Meat Club: you might never see as many cameraphones in action in one place as you will here, but it’s a great way to find out more about the journey from field to plate, taste great local food and drink, and to share those experiences with a bunch of others. It’s also getting more popular every month, and spaces go quickly. Wild boar’s next on the menu on the 29th at the Yard in Alderley Edge… more details on their website if you fancy some very boss hog…

Headline image, inside North Star Deli at the JoinUs4Supper event

Northern Stars supper club. Pt.1: the meal

Northern stars main 1

For someone with an overly healthy interest in food, there could be few things more exciting than being set loose in a professional kitchen. Last Thursday saw my debut in the kitchen, at the latest JoinUs4Supper evening at North Star Deli. If, however, you’d seen me on Wednesday night, I’d probably have looked more than a tad pensive, mildly nervous, and concentrating deeply. A little part of me was starting to think I’d bitten off more than I could chew by accepting the challenge to collaborate with Deanna, Ben and the North Star Deli team. That and the fact I was helping stuff a pig’s intestine with blood, desperately trying to ensure it didn’t drop and burst in an ignominious end to our efforts to make fresh black pudding. All this from a throwaway comment about having a go on a TV food quiz to a couple of fellow foodies

Northern stars final 1

After weeks of thoughts, discussions and debate, we were clear in what we wanted to do. At the heart of the meal was the intention to place Porcus pork in the limelight, with local cheese and veg as superb supporting actors. We wanted to find a flavour and feel which properly encompassed the character of our TV team.

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Inside the Diablo SupperClub

The devil’s in the detail… Diablo SupperClub

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Wednesday night saw us turn up to Chorlton’s inimitable North Star Deli, on Wilbraham Road, to enjoy a taste of the Diablo SupperClub. Not, as you might think at first, a meeting of gastro-occultists, but instead a chance to learn something about Casillero del Diablo wine while enjoying fabulous food.

Yes, those cunning vintners at Concha Y Toro have hit on the ideal way of giving people greater confidence pairing food with wine: bring a liquid roadshow direct to a selection of the country’s finest supper clubs. This was their first venture north of Brighton or London, so of course Mr North was more than happy to help raise a glass in support. My other half is half-Chilean, and we’re partial to a drop of South American reds at the best of times, so this was an invite I didn’t think twice about accepting. After all, what could be more fun than being educated in the dark arts of the grape, while enjoying top-notch food? They’ve got a great blog online, (incidentally this month’s guest blogger is our favourites, Niamh from Eat Like a Girl, who even mentions our take on her exceptional Spiced Beef recipe) and a bunch of user-submitted recipes, which should be good to provoke some fresh ideas in the kitchen.

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It’s incredible to think it’s been almost a year since we attended the first pop-up restaurant at North Star Deli, one of my favourite independent eateries in Manchester. Where did the last 12 months go? In the last year their Join Us 4 Supper nights have become a regular occurrence on the Manchester food scene, showcasing the best of local, seasonal food. Chef Deanna Thomas continues to set the menu and head up the kitchen for each event, whilst the deli has recently expanded to a second location, this time in the city centre. A great tip for a really good breakfast, lunch or fabulous coffee if you’re in the Piccadilly area!

January has a habit of being the grimmest, greyest month (personally I think that’s February… when you want winter to be drawing to a close and it’s tenaciously determined to stay put) and this was the first temptation to eat out since the New Year. Hospitality from the staff at North Star was as warm and welcoming as ever, and as good guests we allowed ourselves to be graciously plied with canapés and bubbly… the perfect start to any evening. First up, an intriguing savoury macaroon, which paired smoked salmon and a citrus-cream cheese inside light macaroons, dusted with poppy seeds. They looked delightful, and were soon followed by rabbit empanadas (following the South Amercian theme), which disappeared faster than a fluffy tail down a rabbit hole. Just right with a delicious dry, crisp glass of Brut Reserva Chardonnay.

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Our resident wine expert for the night, the spendidly-named Hans Joachin Wadsack (or Joe, as he answers to) won over the assorted dinner guests in no time with his extensive knowledge and enthusiasm. This laconic raconteur raptly held our attention with some background on the vineyards, terroir, and production methods of each of the wines we were due to sample that night. That, plus the wonderful smells wafting gently from the open kitchen, cranked the anticipation up to tangible levels in the room.

First course was a trio of plump, tender and perfectly seared King scallops. They sat daintily on a bed Puy lentils cooked in a creamy Chardonnay sauce, finished with tiny roasted tomatoes and (I think) a dash of basil oil. It takes a certain kind of determination to try and snare every last lentil on a plate (preferably doused in that wonderful buttery sauce) but I managed it, and looked up to find everyone else’s plates were empty too: a room full of happy diners.

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We each had a glass of Chardonnay, and a glass of Sauvignon Blanc to accompany the dish: for me the Chardonnay was more harmonious, complementing the subtle ocean flavour of the scallops and butteriness of the sauce alike. A good example of how cooking and drinking the same wine in a dish can really pay dividends. Sure, it felt slightly decadent to sit with two glasses of wine at each serving, but I kept telling myself it was purely for educational purposes!

The aroma of the main had been wafting out of the kitchen for as long as we’d been sat down: I ‘d (wrongly) guessed at beef, but was pleasantly surprised to find out that wonderfully meaty, heady aroma was venison. Mmm, venison. Proper winter fare… and it had been a couple of weeks since our venerable venison pie, so were suffering withdrawal symptoms. Joe introduced the reds which were to accompany the main –  a Shiraz, and a Carmenère – both paired to compliment the food. My predisposition was towards the Carmenère – I love its soft, spiced notes and it’s a bottle I already regularly buy – but the Shiraz was also balanced, fruity, and worked well with the dish.

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Deanna introduced this particular venison as being sourced from red deer – good to know as there’s no legal requirement to disclose what kind of deer your venison is from – and this haunch had been marinading comfortably in a delicious bath of Cabernet Sauvignon for the previous day, ready for cooking. And cooked it was, to perfection: pink flesh gave just enough under a richly caramelised dark exterior. Venison can be a bugger to cook, but this was spot-on: rested and rich without being overwhelming. Add that to an oh-so-rich red wine sauce, some savoy cabbage, and a wintery Hunter’s pie (think Shepherd’s Pie, but with an earthy celeriac mash topping and venison filling) and you have a stellar seasonal selection on a plate.

Finally, we got introduced to the dessert wine – the Casillero del Diablo Late Harvest – which is a newly introduced line in the UK (so new I couldn’t even link to it on their website). I don’t really do dessert wines, but every time I get persuaded to try a dessert wine with an appropriate sweet, I remind myself I appreciate the combination more than I think I do. This was no exception: the dessert was an Blood Orange tart, which quivered and shivered coyly on the plate. The mix of sweet and bitter riffed brilliantly with the concentrated, rich flavour of the wine, and added a welcome burst of late summer sunshine to the dark environs of south Manchester.

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Thanks to Briony and Joe from Casillero del Diablo for the wine and wisdom; Deanna, and Ben in the kitchen for the fantastic food; and smiling service from Adam, Jenny and the rest of the staff. A really great night, with plenty of sparkle, humour and gastronomic pleasures!

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I should also mention that Ben, the chef at North Star Deli, is one third of Team ‘Northern Stars’ on BBC2’s food quiz ‘A Question of Taste‘, alongside myself and SJ from Porcus.  We got on so well together that North Star Deli and North/South Food will be teaming up for next month’s ‘JoinUs4Supper’ on February 23rd. We’re hugely excited about this, and will be announcing more details very soon!

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The March of the Irish

After the local food delights of February’s Guestrant at Electrik with local chef Deanna Thomas, my appetite has been whetted at the prospect of more pop-up restaurant action. So when Deanna casually mentioned on Twitter she was cooking a St Patrick’s night dinner at the lovely North Star Deli in Chorlton it seemed like a no brainer to make a beeline for the event. My companions and I arrived at North Star Deli on the night to find ourselves warmly welcomed and shown our seats. Adam, the deli owner and Deanna’s brother, set the scene as we met a selection of the other attendees, an interesting and diverse selection of fellow food lovers. I’d never been to the deli before even during normal hours, having moved out of Manchester around the time it opened, and was taken by its individual charms and how well suited it seemed to intimate after-hours dining.

As this was the inaugural session of the pop-up restaurant evening not all the tables were filled, but the conversation was lively and the anticipation grew heady before the chef came out to introduce the starter. The venue itself has an open kitchen behind the counter, perfect for peeking over to see what’s going on. Not that I did so much, I’d tried hard to avoid finding out what was on the menu as I wanted to be surprised by what was on offer at this ‘Irish inspired feast’.

Irish food has historically reflected the fruits of the land, rivers and sea; whether simple working food, or a more grandiose country house style. However to many people Irish food is perceived as plain and indistinguished. Thankfully over the past few decades a generation of producers, writers, chefs and general food lovers have challenged the standard, simple stereotypes of ‘everything with potatoes and cabbage’, instead introducing or rediscovering more artisanal flavours, combinations and techniques. As a result Irish food in the twenty-first century is as dynamic, exciting and experimental as anything in the UK, hopefully continuing to develop despite the recent economic crisis.

A cursory glance on the ‘net around St. Paddy’s Day throws up a pretty frightening selection of green-dyed beer and leprechaun-themed gubbins (predominantly from our American cousins who seem to have a somewhat confused take on their culinary heritage from the Emerald Isle). Don’t forget the impressive marketing muscle of Guinness either,: they’ve managed to turn St Patrick’s Night into an event synonymous with their most famous dark drink. I was hoping tonight’s fare would be more exciting than a dodgy Irish Stew, a pint of the black stuff, and a Lucky Charms-themed dessert though.

The starter bode well. We started with wheaten bread and beautifully formed little star-shaped butter pats being brought to our tables. The wheaten bread was the foil to a deceptively simple crisp green salad studded with wonderful bacon, surrounded by roasted beetroot, and finished with a Cashel Blue dressing and a chive garnish. Cashel Blue is one of my favourite blue cheeses, and internationally acclaimed too so I’m not being overly biased with my recommendation of how good this Irish farmhouse blue is. It makes for a sophisticated blue cheese dressing with a selection of complimentary ingredients which left one wanting more. Earthy beet, tangy cheese, fresh leaves, sweet salted bacon proved to be amicable and perfectly partnered bedfellows.

When the chef came out to introduce the first course, explaining that the recipe was based on Richard Corrigan’s version of this favourite bread, she was unsure of the reaction from the diners. She had nothing to fear: this was wonderfully good wheaten bread, and I speak as a lifetime fan! Generally wheaten bread is a wholemeal soda bread, and owes much of its character and flavour to the use of baking soda as a raising agent (rather than yeast, so good for those who are yeast intolerant) and use of tangy buttermilk. It’s straightforward to make and doesn’t require too much hard work: in fact it’s one of the few breads I can confidently make. I once flew to the Netherlands with a freshly baked loaf, just so I could present it to friends as an accompaniment for a shared meal. We’re serious about bread in our part of the world. Side note: a slice or two of decent wild smoked salmon, served on some buttered wheaten bread with a squeeze of lemon juice is one of Ireland’s great food pleasures and most satisfying starters… at least in our family.

The main course, a beef & Guinness stew with potato pastry crust, was a wee bit more of a nod to ‘traditional’ Irish cooking whilst maintaining a modern character. First came bowls with healthy portions of fine chunky beef, glistening with rich dark gravy. These were topped with a triangle of light pastry. This in its own right was very good, two different cuts of meat in a beer gravy working well in that time-honoured combination of ox and stout, but more so when paired with the diminutive carrots and mash. Especially the mash – a hybrid colcannon/champ mix which prompted both an audience participation game on what best to call it (champannon, colchamp) and also a full-scale rush to clean the bowls it came in. You have to go far to beat the pleasures of good mashed potato with a rich stew… and I was pleased to hear a previous post of ours had influenced the introduction of scallions to the mix. By the time the course was over it was a potato-free zone on our table and elsewhere.

Dessert, as we’d expected after last month’s stunning chocolate torte from a chef with a serious track record in pastry, was a cracker*. A beautiful slice of apple and almond tart, served with Irish cream and a Guinness caramel sauce. The tart was perfectly light, the sweet and sharpness of the apples playing off against the pastry and almonds. The Irish cream, whipped up with Baileys, sat decadently with an rather tongue-in-cheek bright green shamrock candy astride it. Meanwhile elbows were sharpened and fingers utilised so everyone could enjoy the caramel sauce to the maximum. Seriously good, and provoking debate and discussion around the tables as to what gave it such a deep range of flavours. If memory serves me correctly the mystery ingredient turn out to be cassis: I hope I don’t get in trouble for spilling the beans!

The evening was hugely enjoyable: superb food, lovely setting and a great selection of diners. It was great to meet so many interesting folk with a shared interest in food. Thanks to Adam and the staff at North Star Deli for their enthusiasm and service, and of course to Deanna Thomas for a great Celtic-inspired menu. Let’s hope there’ll be more of these events in the future.

* With thanks to Frank Carson… it’s the way I tell ’em!