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Northern Stars supper club. Pt.3: blood, guts & prime cuts

4 giant uncooked fresh blood black puddings

(This is the third article on our Northern Stars supper club… here’s parts one and two )

Oh, you are offal…

Over the last few years Miss South and I have tried many things in our ongoing voyage of discovery for good food, sometimes confronting long-held prejudices in a quest for enjoyment and understanding. Offal, unintentionally, has been at the fore of our experiences; with memorable contributions including Fergus Henderson’s ox heart, Robert Owen Brown’s tripe, a barrel-load of black pudding, Portuguese gizzards, tongue and liver, and savoury dux* from the Borders. There’ve been some epic fails too – I’ve not tried devilled kidneys since I badly botched them a few years ago – but generally our forays into offal have been enlightening and enjoyable.

This post’s all about the journey from pig pen to plate over 48 hours. It deals with, and shows, some of the reality of this process, and some of the less common dishes which until recently many butchers, cooks and consumers would’ve taken for granted. Needless to say, if you’re of a delicate disposition, you may not want to continue to read this, and there will be some photos you may find a little challenging. If however you’re curious about how to make faggots (or savoury ducks) and black pudding, or wonder about the place for real, fresh food in this modern age, please read on.

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Tapas to light up your life: El Gato Negro at Guestrant

Electrik black cat 14

Hoary old blues crooners and popular folklore alike state it’s bad luck when a black cat crosses your path. I don’t know if this adage holds firm in Spanish, but after a night of superb tapas from El Gato Negro’s Simon Shaw, I’m prepared to guess not. Lady luck and her helpers in the kitchen ensured that the inaugural Guestrant of 2012 was a resounding success.

Electrik black cat 3

Despite January being seen as a quiet month, there’ve already been a slew of great food events to choose from in Manchester, including Gastroclub at Room, JoinUs4Supper at North Star Deli, and then Guestrant announced they’d be bringing El Gato Negro to the Electrik Bar in Chorlton. Having enjoyed Guestrant on several occasions in 2011, it was an opportune time to re-engage with this great watering hole in south Manchester for some quality school-night dining.

Despite it being the same night as my debut TV appearance, it didn’t take long to decide that curiosity to view my gawping visage on the goggle-box would be comprehensively trumped by the chance for some superb Spanish fare from one of the best tapas joints outside of London.* El Gato Negro is one of Calderdale’s, and indeed West Yorkshire’s culinary gems. Chef/proprietor Simon Shaw has made his mark on the county and further afield, and over the years has steadily built a reputation on a sympathetic balance of innovation, tradition and flair, with a few appearances on national TV to raise the profile of the restaurant further.

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Wild food, or food to drive you wild

Last month’s Guestrant at Electrik was one of my favourites to date. Wild foraged food is something both Miss South and I have dabbled in before, but with the best will in the world, we don’t have the knowledge to go beyond the well known and well-trodden without some proper guidance.

So when I read Beth Creedon was the guest in Electrik’s kitchen for June I was rather excited… I knew how well-received her first stint at Electrik had been last year, so I signed up right away. Beth’s a bit of an expert in foraged food, and comes with good credentials and form in preparing foraged feasts. She, alongside her husband, also runs Dig, Manchester’s best local veggie box scheme. I’d met her at the recent cheese ‘chewtorial’, and her obvious knowledge and enthusiasm for foraged food was infectious.

After the disappointment of the previous month’s event with Julie Bagnolli being cancelled due to poor attendance (shame on you North West foodies… surely you’re not doing anything better on a Monday night?) this needed to be something special to put a smile back on the faces of my dining companion and I. We needn’t have feared: it was.

We arrived, wet after a sudden heavy rainshower, looking over the well-stocked bar. Once again we decided to stick to beer, rather than wine, although there’s a decent selection of both in Electrik. We joined another couple on a table – always one of the best things about pop-up & supperclub-type arrangements is meeting new folk – and snatched a quick look at the menu which was being passed around.

The menu tantalised, teased and prompted whispered questions around our table. It sounded simple and restrained, yet wonderfully exotic. What the hell is Fat Hen? Do cherries go feral only when you lose them? Was that really two desserts on the menu? We couldn’t wait to learn more… so when Beth came out of the kitchen to introduce the first course I was straining to hear every word.

When it arrived the first course looked gorgeous… a perfectly turned-out layered terrine, surrounded by delicate leaves, sitting on a base of finely-sliced beetroot. We found out during the preamble that Fat Hen’s actually a kind of wild spinach-like leaf, not a plump poultry bird, so that was one mental image shattered. It, and the goats cheese in the terrine, was delicious, crowned with a sprig of chickweed. I’ve picked sorrel leaves in the woods before, and love their distinctively tart flavour. This sorrel was French, and the flavour of their leaves added piquancy. The star of the dish, though, were the little pickled dandelion buds. Wow! Revelatory stuff: these unassuming wee buds tasted like capers, and gave the whole starter an extra frission which I’d never expected. I may have to start home pickling…

With such a good starter our expectations around the table cranked up a gear. The main, with razor clams at its centrepiece, caused me some excitement (Miss South has already written on our love of these moreable molluscs) but my dining companion was somewhat nervous at the prospect of blade-like bivalves, being a little squeamish about such things. When the course was presented – a single razor clam shell laying across a bowl of chowder – this did little to allay her concerns, but she became more convinced when she tasted the contents.

The ‘hero’ shell – dressed with the flesh of several razor clams, hearty chunks of chorizo and a sprinkling of chives – capped a healthy portion of chowder. In this the razor clams were paired up with a goodly selection of smaller, more conventional clams. Accompanied by Barbakan bread, a perfect heart-shaped pat of delicious butter, and a hunk of lemon, this was simple but great fare. Salty pork and shellfish is a sure-fire winner (I’m looking at you, scallops and black pudding, as a prime example) and the rich notes of the chorizo complemented the tender pale flesh of the clams perfectly. The broth was rich and oh-so-moreable… by the time I looked up from my bowl there was a surfeit of empty shells and crockery around the table.

After that it was time for dessert #1… Beth reappeared from the depths of the kitchen to explain that yes, she couldn’t decide which dessert to serve us, so she opted for both. Hellish for us punters, you must understand, to be saddled with such an onerous task. The ‘feral’ cherries were local, but not totally wild… more like a domestic cultivar which had gone walkabout… so they were less tart than their wild cousins. Again, this looked so pretty… a cherry ‘mouse’, complete with almond ears, sat atop a cream cushion on a delightful chocolate mousse in a ramekin. Digging to the bottom of the mousse revealed macerated cherries, their sweet syrupy flavour riffing off the dark chocolate. Oh, and the finishing touches: glitter, and a sprinkling of popping candy on the plate, only added to the sense of giddy playfulness. Thumbs up!

The second sweet came shortly afterwards, and continued the local and slightly tongue-in-cheek theme, with a light hare-shaped shortbread accompanying strawberries, ice cream and praline pieces. The strawberries are Dig’s own organic offspring, grown in nearby Cheshire in polytunnels. Not sure what variety they were, but their flavour was rich and fruity, exuding summer with every mouthful. The elderflower and lime ice cream started to melt quite quickly, but the taste was divine… light and sharp citrus notes, with the elderflower rounding everything out in the background. The lavender praline was the unexpected highlight for me: I have a soft spot for lavender and its soft floral presence lent itself well to the slightly chewy sweetness of the praline. The whole dish disappeared quickly, but the flavours lingered on as a gentle reminder for some time. A fresh, light and well-balanced full stop to a really good meal.

Presentation was absolutely spot-on, food was fresh and perfectly cooked, and the theme and focus of the whole meal was bang on. A good balance of playfulness, education, quality and localism (without being too hung up on every last ingredient being utterly wild or from on our doorstep) made it a great menu. Oh, and at £25 a head, very good value considering the extra work which must’ve gone into the sourcing and preparation of the course. Couldn’t recommend it highly enough… bravo to Beth (and her sous for the night, Deanna).

Today’s Guestrant features Mary-Ellen McTague and Laurence Tottingham from Aumbry. After June’s experience I can’t wait to see what these graduates of the Fat Duck will deliver from Electrik’s modest kitchen…

Nose to Tail at St John…

The restaurant fairy paid me a visit last night and took me to St John, home of nose to tail eating, and the place I have most wanted to eat at in London for years. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m a little bit wary of the knobbly bobbly wobbly bits of the beast as they require more cooking skill than I feel I have, so I have always wanted the chance to try the weird and wonderful, but well cooked. And I wasn’t disappointed!
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Kaosarn, Brixton

Brixton Village (formerly known as Granville Arcade) has had a reversal of fortune recently. Once a dilapidated rundown covered area with empty shops and a slightly forlorn atmosphere, it has been revived to become a thriving community of shops, stalls, coffee joints and places to eat, opening late on certain nights and attracting a crowd who love good food. And nowhere more so than the new Thai restaurant Kaosarn.
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