With 2009 drawing to a close the chances of eating 80 different cuisines before the end of a year were looking increasingly remote. The chances of even being able to track down 80 different cuisines were slim too!
by Liam Hetherington on March 28, 2010
Germany – 15/12/09The first snow flakes of winter were spiralling through the air. So Rebecca and I wrapped up warm against the chill and headed out to Manchester’s Christmas market.Christmas markets are a particularly continental trend. They act as tourist magnets across central and eastern Europe – I myself have visited one in Krakow. And 11 years ago Manchester City Council decided to get in on the act. Touring stall holders from Europe were invited to come over and sell food, drink and crafts. Local enterprises joined in. And they have been growing ever since. In 2009 the markets covered Albert Square in front of the town hall. From there they spread down Brasennose Street to Spinningfields (where an ice rink had been set up), and from At Anns Square along New Cathedral Street to Exchange Square. They seem to get bigger and better all the time. And quite frankly they are brilliant. The arrival of the Christmas markets at the start of December is one of the most eagerly anticipated events of the year among Mancunians.Obviously I had peeked in at them already, and had managed to find stalls selling food from Switzerland and Luxembourg. Other stalls served grub from across Europe (Austrian pancakes, Dutch waffles, Spanish paella) and the UK (Welsh beers, meat and pies from Savin Farm in Cumbria, toffee from Duerden’s of Burnley). But the other commonly-used name for the markets is ‘the German Market’. So I was determined to use the evening to tick off German cuisine with my little Deutsch sprech-ing companion.We started off in Bavaria. German herren in natty braces and pointed felt hats tended a large charcoal brazier. Above it a grill was suspended, and on the grill bratwursts and currywursts sizzled. We stepped up and ordered two bratwursts at £4 each. We were each served a thick curving sausage in a crusty roll. The ends of the sausage jutted out either end. We were then free to add ketchup or mustard. The bratwursts were crispy-skinned, with scalding hot moist meat within – just the thing to warm one up on a winter’s night!What it needed was a hot drink – preferably alcoholic. Thankfully there wasn’t a shortage of stalls and bars serving mulled wine or eiswein (they are licensed to serve until 8.45pm only though). We headed over to Zum Lustigen Rudolph, a fancifully decorated large rustic-style chalet. Pride of place went to an animatronic mounted reindeer head on high – in a rich baritone ‘Rudolph’ sang a selection of Christmas carols. We joined the throng to order hot mugs of wine (they are served in Manchester Christmas Market branded mugs - £5 gets you a mug of wine, but if you return the mug you get a £1 refund). They have eiswein in different flavours. Rebecca had an apfelwein, flavoured with apple; I ordered a himbeerwein, flavoured with raspberries. It tasted like hot Vimto. These were hot and strong – certainly enough to have made us feel tipsy if we hadn’t already had that bratwurst.We had a wander around the market, taking a gander at the different stalls. After a while I personally felt it was time for pudding. Thankfully 2009 saw the return of the strudel stall. Here there were a variety of filled pastries, hot out of the oven, to be served with or without custard. I wasn’t in the mood for a cherry strudel, and I had tried their forest fruit strudel the year before. So I thought it only fitting that I had a slab of traditional apple strudel for £3. This was large enough for two easily – though Rebecca let me down by only taking a couple of forkfulls. Still, I just about managed to pack it away. The layers of pastry were flaky and crisp, the filling piping hot and sweet. The markets are expensive, but they are now an irreplaceable part of a Mancunian Christmas. They seem to get bigger and better each year – and 2009’s was certainly both the biggest and the best. Hurrah for Germany’s hearty and warming cuisine! It may have been designed to keep the fat on your bones on cold Thuringian nights, but standing in a cast pool of light, huddled up in scarves and gloves, watching the first snowflakes of the year spin and twirl it also served to officially announce that Christmas was here.
Norway – 22/12/09The fact that I am counting Norwegian Blue shows how desperation is creeping in – running out of time to complete my challenge by the end of 2008, and running out of countries to claim. Because, let’s face it, there’s nothing Norwegian about Norwegian Blue other than the name.Drinkwise, there was nothing that seemed to be Norwegian – not even a cheekily themed cocktail. I was presented really with a choice of Danish Heineken lager or Swedish Kopparberg pear cider. I ordered a Kopparberg; Paul and John who had accompanied me gave the challenge up as a lost bet and ordered Guinness! The drinks came in plastic glasses (the cider was actually in a plastic bottle too), automatically making us feel like we were being treated like naughty children / potential yobs. The menu did not have anything Scandinavian on it either, although the prices were very reasonable – Chicago Town pizzas for £3.95, foot-long sandwiches for £4.75-£4.95, beef chilli-topped chips for £2.95, burgers for £4.95. We decided to order a bucket of 50 chicken wings (we were hungry alright!) for £9.95. Only to find that they were not serving any food at all (despite advertising that they served until 9pm; it was only 5.30, if that).Frankly, if they were not serving food, and there was nothing overly Norwegian about the venue, there was no reason for us to stick around. The music was poor (decade old Robbie Williams hits). It was mosty empty with no real atmosphere (one could say that it was dead… demised… bereft of life…), and plastic glasses are pretty much one of our pet hates (we must be getting old!). So we headed off to find a cheap curry and then a proper old man’s pub with polished wood, real ale in glass bottles, and proper drinking receptacles. We have standards quite frankly!
Cyprus - 07/01/10Okay. So I failed. I was trying to find 80 restaurants with cuisines from different countries around the world by the end of 2009. Instead I managed to visit only 72 due to other commitments. But even though my (self-imposed) time limit has expired I feel that I might as well continue and see if I can find another eight national cuisines represented in Manchester. Even at this stage I have no confidence that I will actually manage to eat all 80. But I think it is a valid experiment. And so, a new year, and a new country - Cyprus.It is a common misconception that, depending where you are on the island, Cyprus is basically just Greece or Turkey. Inhabitants there may identify themselves with either of those two cultures, but the island has a long and complicated history which has seen it ruled by Egyptians, Romans, Byzantines, Lusignan French, Venetians and the British as well. On the map Nicosia is closer to Beirut and Damascus than it is to Ankara or Athens. And while kebabs (either souvlaki or shish) can be found on every menu from Paphos to Famagusta there are distinct regional differences that show how the whole island’s cuisine keeps one eye on whatever can be grown in its own fields and one eye on the Levant – dishes like afelia, tavvas, haloumi, kleftiko and lountza.It is hard to find a specifically Cypriot restaurant however. There was one in manchester – Zorbas. This has now closed down, and its premises now contain Coriander. There is a stall in the Arndale market (also called Zorbas) that claims to sell Greek and Cypriot food – however the take-away kebabs and stifado do not have anything distinctly Cypriot about them. However, Sokrates in Sale did have some Cypriot flavour in its menu, so I met up with Paul and Simon there. The snow outside may have steered Simon towards a steaming cup of coffee, but I went for a bottle (or two) of Cypriot Keo beer as refreshment while I was dining.Choice of starter was easy. Halloumi originates from Cyprus. This is a cheese made from a mix of sheep and goat’s milk with a high melting point, allowing it to be grilled. It is then served hot and rubbery; I tend to refer to it as ‘squeaky cheese’ from the noises produced when bitten with the teeth. In Sokrates a plate of three slices cost £5.75, accompanied by a bit of salad, some fresh hot pitta bread, and a green basil pesto. I had been worried that the pesto would be drizzled over the cheese as I couldn’t really imagine the two flavours combining that well. Fortunately it was served to one side, and actually it did not spoil the taste of the salty rubbery halloumi. My main course was ‘Kleftiko from Cyprus’ (£11.90). I suppose kleftiko - slow cooked lamb shank – is really a pan-hellenic dish, but you can certainly get it in Cyprus. My brother goes mad for the kleftiko served at Petros’s near Paphos, and a trip to Cyprus is not complete for him without a meal there. As such I was dished up a hank of piping hot incredibly tender lamb, the meat dropping cleanly from the bone. Into a pool of oil. The plate was pretty much swimming with oil, which I found rather off putting. Other than that, the serving looked pretty sparse, only padded out by two roast Cyprus potatoes. Okay, those two potatoes were quite possibly the best I had had for months, buttery and well-seasoned, but on the whole I felt a tiny bit short changed from my main course. Paul and Simon’s meals looked much larger – and were cheaper too at only £8.90. They both took advantage of the ‘combo’ meal special available on Monday to Thursday evenings. For this £8.90 they got a starter of a dip (either nutty houmous or cool creamy tzatziki – they had both between them) served with a full basket of hot pitta slices. This was then followed up with a choice of mains and appetizers from a limited selection. Simon ordered kofta (minced meat balls) on ‘aubergines imam’ – not quite an Imam Bayildi stuffed aubergine, but rather a mix of cooked aubergines, onion, garlic and herbs. But all the same, definitely a Turkish influence there. Likewise with Paul’s pastourma (spicy sausage), which he had with a chick pea stew. The helpings of both starter and mains were very reasonable for the price. Considering that my a la carte starter and main cost roughly the same as their two meals combined, I would have to say that they got the much better deal. I didn’t fancy any of the desserts on offer, and none struck me as authentically Cypriot. Instead I had a digestif - a glass of St John Commandaria. This sweet fortified dessert wine is traditionally made by monks in the foothills of the Troodos mountains. Its name dates back at least to the Crusades, and records show it being made in much the same way back to around 800BC making this the oldest pedigree of any wine on the planet. It is made from the same grapes – and hence tastes similar – to port, though it has a more tawny colour and a touch more fig in its flavour. As I sipped a live entertainer started to strum away in the corner on a bouzouki, to complete the Mediterranean vibe. It was certainly a nice way to end the meal.As I say, I was slightly underwhelmed by my servings. Paul and Simon both had great value meals by playing with the combo special offer. And it is this that is reflected in my three-star rating – if I had been judging just on my own meal I would probably have knocked them down to two.I had one final Cypriot nightcap. When I got home I pulled out a bottle of zivania from the freezer. This is Cyprus’s answer to ouzo or raki, a clear potent spirit made from the residue of the wine-producing process (and hence like grappa). It was a present from Cyprus a couple of years ago, and I had never dared open it. If ever there was an appropriate moment, I thought, this was it. One shot was pretty much all it took to get me sleeping like a baby!
Ukraine – 20/01/10The quest to eat around the world in 80 meals had started in a an Russian restaurant. As we approached the end it was time to go back to the USSR. I had discovered a Ukrainian deli set one street back from Cheetham Hill Road. It was time to visit the Rodyna – the motherland.The staff at Rodyna, both Ukrainian and British of Ukrainian descent, were unfailingly helpful. When I explained what I wanted they joined me in scouring the shelves, trying to find typical Uktrainian delicacies. The difficulty, as they themselves explained, is that traditional Ukrainian cooking is very much of the mother’s farmhouse kitchen variety. Food should be freshly made for mealtime, and not pre-prepared. And so they were unable to offer me what they regarded as the most characteristic Ukrainian dish, holubtsi (stuffed cabbage leaves). They did have big slabs of salo (salted unrendered pork fat), but I wasn’t sure that Paul and my palates were quite developed enough for such an assault. Instead I ended up with a collection of foodstuffs from Ukraine, Russia, Germany, Lithuania and Bulgaria with which to put together my Ukrainian meal – bread and salad, soup, main course, sweets, soft drinks and beer – and all for a mere £12.70! I was going to cook all this up, so Paul came round to mine. We cracked open the beers upon his arrival. We had two different bottles of lager, both made by the Obolon beer company of Kiev. Our first was Obolon Oksamitove, which was a nice dark dunkel-style beer (£1.70). The other was Obolon Premium which was a more common golden pilsener colour with a marginally lighter alcohol content than the other (5% as opposed to 5.3%). Straight out of the fridge it was crisp and not at all bad! (I am unable to say howmuch the Premium should cost – looking at my bill I seem to have not been charged for this second bottle!). For nibbles we had a loaf of black Russian rye bread (chleb) – Borodinos brot (£1.80). It was tough and dense with a malty taste – and with a best before date three months in the future! To have with it we had some Ukrainian delicacies. First there were kvasheni pomydory, pickled cherry tomatoes. A 580ml jar cost £1.50 and they looked fantastic; sadly they tasted like toilet air freshener! We also had a jar of pureed aubergine paste, a grey-brown colour that looked like baby food. This was baklazhannaya ikra - Odessa-style aubergine caviar. This was saltier than I was expecting, and having paid £1.30 for a 314ml jar, I’m not sure it is something I will be hurrying out to purchase again any time soon. The starter was much more of a success - Ukrainian borscht. Or Ukrainietiški Barščiai more properly, as the jar proved to have been manufactured in Lithuania. This would prove to be Paul’s third borscht of the year, and my second. But whereas the borscht we had eaten for our Lithuanian meal was a vivid pink liquid made by simply adding boiling water to powder, this was a jar of very thick ragu. Mixing it with water and simmering produced a chunky stew absolutely bursting with small cubes of actual beetroot and whole beans. There was also onion, tomato, potato, cabbage and carrot in the mix there somewhere. This made a much more authentic-tasting and hearty bowl of soup. It just looked and tasted healthy. I could imagine it coming hot off some elderly babushkas stove in agingerbread cottage in th woods. We had been impressed with the Lithuanian instant borscht for convenience. But this took hardly any more preparing and received big thumbss up from both of us. And half the 480g jar served to make two big bowls of broth. Great stuff!The main course was also superficially similar – ravioli like dumplings called varenyky. These were similar to Polish pierogi or Russian pelmeni, or even the Lithuanian ‘zeppelins’. You can even trace a path through central Asia to Turkish or Afghan manti and even Chinese wontons. These did not have the subtle tastes of the latter though – they were stuffed instead with a sweet cottage cheese called tvorog (most of which managed to escape whilst being boiled). I did not want to just do my usual topping of sour cream and mustard (which would have been too much of a dairy overload). Instead I melted some butter and used it to sautee some roughly chopped onions. This worked very well, as the sweet onion complimented the sweet German-style quark filling. £1.50 got us 500g or varenyky, which was quite enough, but could have done with being bulked out with boiled or mashed potato I reckon.With the beer finished we moved on to two soft drinks. Well one was soft anyway. This was Tarhun, a popular fizzy Soviet lemonade in a plastic bottle (55p for 500ml). The differences would be its garishly unnatural green hue, and a slightly herby scent / lightly medicinal aftertaste. While the colour is artificial the scent and taste comes from tarragon, from which the drink takes its name (interesting tangent: tarragon comes from the same family of plants as wormwood; the Ukrainian word for wormwood - chornobyl - gave its name to the city in northern Ukraine famous for the 1986 nuclear power station meltdown). Despite the cyillic label however, this particular pop proved to have been bottled in Germany.The other drink is considered a soft drink in Ukraine, but actually has a very low alcohol content - kvas. This was a dark soda made from fermented black rye bread. A 500ml bottle of Monastyrski Kvas (complete with image of jolly bearded monk on the label) cost 60p. And to be honest I wasn’t looking forward to trying it. It surprised me however. Much like the varenyky it was sweeter than I expected. It was sweet and malty, like a flat cola but with a hint almost of dandelion and burdock. Paul racked his brains trying to think what it reminded him of; regardless, the taste transported him back to his childhood in the 80s. On the nose it had a musty, malty smell, like bread that was starting to go off. But it was surprisingly quaffable. Dessert was khalva. Halwa was something I had previously associated as a Middle Eastern delicacy, the brittle, crumbly blocks of sesame seed butter so it was interesting to see that it had spread this far away from the eastern coast of the Mediterranean. This 470g block (£2.05) came from the very heart of Ukraine, from the city of Kirovograd. While it still had that tooth-itching brittleness like a light pumice and typical pistachio scent this khalva was different to others I had tried. For starters it was a large chocolate-coated log; secondly the halwa inside was marbled. I’ve never been a huge fan of halwa, so one slice was probably my limit. As Paul has a slight intolernace to nuts that one slice would be one too many for him. So I still have a large block of the stuff left – anyone want some?On the whole then the verdict is generally positive. We weren’t fanss of the pickled tomatoes and ‘aubergine caviar’. The halwa was what we expected, as were the beers. The Tarhun and kvas were better than we expected, and the varenyky were sweeter. Once again, the soup was the stand-out course, a hearty chunky warming authentic-tasting stew. And while not all of these came specifically from Ukraine itself (the varenyky, black bread and Tarhun came from Germany, the ‘Ukrainian borscht’ from Lithuania, the pickled tomatoes and aubergine ikra from Bulgaria, and the kvas from Russia) these were just the most traditionally Ukrainian delicacies picked out for me by the helpful staff at Rodyna. There would probably have been enough stuff there to enable someone to put together a meal from most eastern European countries. But they were the experts when it came to Ukrainian grub so I was happy to follow their advice. Particularly when the products on sale were so reasonable (and they undercharged me by one bottle of beer too!).
Iceland – 29/01/10Possibly a sense of desparation is creeping in here. Friends laughed when I said that for my Icelandic meal I was resorting to a shopping trip at Iceland. Iceland, for those not in the know, is a British chain of frozen-food supermarkets famous for its "that’s why mums go to Iceland" slogan (so famous enough, that in 1997 Britpop wannabe’s Bennet released a single entitled ‘Mum’s Gone To Iceland’ that reached the heady heights of number 34 in the British charts!). However, ironically enough it was bought out by the Icelandic company Baugur in 2005 (pre the Icelandic economic crash). And so I feel a certain justification at counting this as an ‘Icelandic’ meal.Having said that, you would be hard pushed to find any particularly Icelandic fare in store. Their famous prawn ring possibly ("give us more food mama, give us prawn ring mama" to quote Bennet) – but even there the prawns in question are not cold-water prawns from the North Atlantic, but are instead sourced from Thailand. In fact, a quick browse showed that most of their own-brand lines were produced in Thailand. Certainly, all three items that we bought were.We took advantage of their ‘Buy 3 for £5’ on party food – though as we would be eating shortly this precluded us from buying anything that would require defrosting prior to cooking. We bought a pack of butterflied king prawn skewers, half in a mildly spicy (and rather mealy-tasting) sauce, half in a much more fiery sauce. Not very Icelandic. We also had a pack of chicken tikka bites on skewers. Even less Icelandic, but actually very nice. And finally there was a pack of duck spring rolls – least Icelandic of all, but perfectly fine if a little over-sweet. Taste for value was not as bad as I had expected. The king prawns I think I might pass on, but £5 for a selection of nibbles is not a bad price-point. We grazed on these watching TV, with a can or two of Danish Skol lager to wash them down with.We did have some properly Icelandic food however – though not bought at the supermarket. A friend had brought some Skólabiti back from a visit to Reykjavik (thanks Emma!). Skólabiti were flakes of air-dried fish – haddock to be precise. And they looked pretty off-putting – fibrous and yellowy with the texture of felt carpet underlay. Still, we had a challenge to complete so we tucked in. The taste itself wasn’t actually that bad; it tasted like rather strongly-flavoured fish. But the smell was rather overpowering, and the mouth-feel of this tough fibrous material was not pleasant. It was so tough that I could not bite through a piece; I had to pop bits in whole. I don’t think it is something that I would make an extra effort to buy in future, though I could eat it at a push (if I held my nose). But it was authentically Icelandic (from Hafnarfjörđur), and so turned our not-very Icelandic dinner bought from an Icelandic-owned supermarket into a credible chapter of our explorations.
Philippines – 25/02/10Corazon (Cora) runs a little café in Ashton, not far from Ikea. Visiting first on a Sunday we found it fairly busy, but serving only full English breakfasts (at £3.50 these were great value, but not what we were hoping for). Talking to the chatty owner revealed that she does indeed served Filipino food, but only in the evenings. Paul, Simon and I immediately made a reservation to return the following Thursday.Filipino cuisine is a mixture of Asian staples, Spanish tastes, and local produce. As such it is a curious half-way-house between mainland Asian (Chinese etc) and Latin American food. According to Wikipedia the culinary heart of the Philippines is Pampanga in Luzon (or so the Kapampangans claim). To our great benefit Cora herself hails from there, and the food dished up is Pampangueñan.Inside Cora’s is like a cosy little tea-shop – though with a soundtrack of salsa and 50s rock-n-roll crooners. We were the only people there on the Thursday evening – I got the impression Cora had opened up especially for us. Already we had become friends, and it was clear that our interest in Filipino grub had made our host want to treat us to the best. We sat down with a glass of cool San Miguel lager each – who knew that it came from the Philippines? I had always assumed it was Spanish…First course was soups. Yet again, mine failed to disappoint. I had ordered sinigang (£3.00). This soup was hot and sour. The heat came from a couple of green finger chillis; the sourness came from tamarind. The body of it was chunks of fish and sliced cabbage leaves. It smelled very fishy and had a very distinctive – but by no means unpleasant – astringency on the tastebuds. Simon meanwhile was tucking in to Sopas na Mais (£2.30), a sweetcorn soup with added prawns, and Paul was playing it safe with Sopas na Manok (£2.00), a cream of chicken soup packed with veg. For a second course we had been encouraged to have spare ribs, a house speciality. These were much more delicately flavoured than the usual sticky barbecue or Chinese-style ribs, with a fragrant garlicky taste to them. They were so slow-cooked the meat was practically falling off the bone. We could see why these Philipino-style ribs were so popular here. They cost £3.80 a portion.For main courses we had decided to share three between us: one pork, one beef, one chicken. We were brought plates with rice (more rice was later brought out for us without asking), and three serving bowls of meat in sauce.The pork dish was what must be the Philippines’ national dish: pork adobo. This was strips of tenderly succulent belly pork, cooked in a sauce of vinegar, soy sauce, garlic and red wine. The meat was practically liquescent, and the light sauce was refreshingly tangy without being overpowering. Out of the three main dishes, this was my favourite. At £7.50 it was also the cheapest.Simon’s favourite was the Calderata. Cora recommended this as our beef dish. It was a (mildly) spicy meal; the heat could not be felt on the tongue, but just as a warming sensation on the back of the throat. For £8.50 we got pieces of beef cooked in a tomato sauce with carrots and (oddly enough) peas. I really had not expected garden peas to be used; I’m not sure whether this would be a traditional Filipino recipe for Calderata, or just a dish adapted to English tastes by using whatever was freely available.Our third dish was certainly an example of an adapted recipe and not exactly a famous staple of Filipino cooking. Chicken a-la Philippines (£8.50) was clearly an attempt to create a tropical atmosphere by cooking up chicken with typical Filipino produce: in this case pineapple and mango. Considering that I don’t particularly like fruit in main meals this was actually pretty good. There wasn’t a sweet-and-sour fight for dominance, and the sweetness was actually far milder than I expected. It would have been helpful if Paul had said that this was his favourite, but he could not make up his mind. After packing all this away (and leaving spotlessly empty plates and dishes) Cora popped out for a chat. It turned out that she had prepared a pudding for us, something authentically Filipino. This turned out to be crème caramel. I was used to a jelly-like custard dessert prepared from a packet, but this was a denser possibly baked slice of flan topped with caramel. It was lovely that she had anticipated our needs in this way. The final bill for the three of us, including drinks, came to £50.50. We actually left £60 we were so happy with the warmth and hospitality we had received from Cora. We also left with intentions to revisit some other time: Paul for the Sunday English breakfast, and me to bring my Filipino auntie. I felt that we had been treated to an authentic meal from the Philippines, and with an authentically generous Philippines welcome. It was unexpected to find this place out in Ashton, but for the spare ribs and pork adobo in particular I feel that it deserves to become much better known among Manchester’s foodies.
San Marino – 09/03/10Located up of the fringes of the West Pennine Moors north-west of Bolton, San Marino was the most remote restaurant Paul and I had visited in our quest. It took us an hour’s driving from Manchester city centre to reach it. Much like its namesake microstate it was hidden up in the hills…Of course, it would be too much to expect to find a restaurant in Manchester specialising in Sammarinese cooking. But Wikipedia itself says that the cuisine of San Marino is "strongly similar" to that of Italy and as we were desperate to tick off another country (particularly as the week before had witnessed a further wild goose chase when we went out to Rochdale only to find the promise Kurdish restaurant had recently closed down) we thought we would make the journey.The restaurant itself was located slap bang next to the road in an old stone building. It was in a suitable isolated spot, with an ample car park looking out over the moors. Inside the venue was noticeably smarter, elegantly furnished and with a jazzy soundtrack in the background. The ambience was one part country pub, one part wine bar.We were seated by our Italian waiter, Giuseppe, and provided with menus. There was a specials menu letting you choose two courses from a fairly extensive selection of the main menu for a set price of £12.95 – however, we noticed that serveral of the combinations that most interested us actually worked out cheaper if we ordered a la carte than went for the set menu. For my starter I tucked into a rocket salad – a full pile of peppery rocket leaves surrounded by halved sweet cherry tomatoes and topped with slivers of parmesan before being drizzled with olive oil and balsamic vinegar. It was a good sized portion for £3.95, and very attractively presented on a square plate. Paul’s minestrone soup (£3.75) came with an even more noteworthy presentation, being served in a sloped bowl that effectively presented the soup to him. It contained lots of large chunks of appropriate country vegetables. My main course was Canelloni di San Marino. I’m not sure what precisely made this San Marino canelloni rather than any other sort. They were sheets of pasta rolled around minced meat, then covered with a tomato and bechamel sauce before being oven baked. It was very filling, and before I was half-way through I knew that I would not have room for dessert – impressive since we had both been starving when we arrived! It cost £7.25.Paul was equally stuffed after finishing his Ravioli di Burro. These were pasta pockets stuffed with pumpkin and cooked in a light sauce. I have to say that I found the stodgy sweetness of the pumpkin did not appeal to me as a main course, but Paul was able to finish it all off. While our meals could easily have come from the surrounding Italian regions of Emilia-Romagna or Marche, my wine was from Abruzzo in the south. The Trebbiano d’Abruzzo was the house white. I had a large glass to wash down my meal, finding it very crisp and refreshing.In total, the bill amounted to less than £30 – more than reasonable for the meal. It is the sort of place I could imagine recommending for family meals and special occassions. Though recommending is all I am likely to do, purely because it is located so far over on the wrong side of the city for me.In fact, its remoteness was underlined on our return journey. The car headlamps lit up a sign beside the road: "Welcome to Greater Manchester". Unbeknownst to us, we had actually been 1.5 miles across the border in Lancashire the entire time! If it had not been for my deliberate rule breaking in going out to Ellesmere Port in Cheshire already (for my South African meal) this would have ruled out the meal from my 80. As it was, we were struggling to meet the target so much I thought I’d just keep quiet and pretend the place was two miles further south…
Wales – 21/03/10Wales is the closest country to Manchester, well within driving distance, and yet I was unable to find anywhere local to me that could be said to have traditional Welsh cuisine. In fact, searching of the internet I was having trouble finding any traditional Welsh restaurants in Wales itself. Like most non-ethnic eateries in Britain the food on sales is a cosmopolitan collection of the best bits from around the world, so you might find Italian pasta on a menu next to French onion soup, Greek mousska bracketted by Indian chicken tikka masala and pad Thai from Thailand. Still, with my self-imposed deadline of Easter looming ever closer I decided to cheat and take a short trip over the border into north Wales.The historic market town of Ruthin appealed. Seated in the Vale of Clwyd, the peaks of the Clwyddian mountains rising up on all sides, Ruthin was an important powerbase of English marcher lords in the medieval periods. The Lords Grey were firm supporters of the Lancastrian kings, and it was a local feud that led to Owain Glyn Dŵr’s rebellion against Henry IV – Ruthin was his first target, and it was raided and razed in 1400. Nowadays the village is firmly Welsh, represented in Cardiff and Europe by Plaid Cymru politicians. There are a couple of promising-looking restaurants in the town such as Manorhaus and the Picture House that have menus promising Conway Bay cockles, Welsh lamb and black beef, and selections of local cheeses. Rebecca and I wandered up to the grand red castle that overlooks the town (the name Ruthin derives from the phrase ‘red fort’). Following its destruction (temporarily at the hands of Glyn Dŵr, more permanently after the Civil War) the current Ruthin castle is a Victorian confection that operates as a grand hotel. It is a venue for weddings and christenings, and hosts medieval banquets in an adjoining courtyard. We walked through the gatehouse with its Welsh dragon flag proudly flapping in the breeze, up the sweeping drive towards the main entrance, guarded by pink marble lions. Inside is baronial Victoriana at its finest – dark wood panelling and stags’ heads mounted on the walls. In fact, the castle was so popular with Queen Victoria’s son Edward, the Prince of Wales (the future Edward VII), that the main restaurant is named ‘Bertie’s’ in his honour. Of course, his visits were back when the castle was back in private hands…We were shown through to the octagonal Library Bar. With its roaring log fire and big comfortable leather chairs this was just the place for a spot of afternoon tea.For £10.95, the afternoon tea we were served certainly harked back to the days of Anglo-Welsh aristocracy. And they were certainly filling enough for even the famously rotund Price of Wales. We were provided with a three-tiered cake stand each. The top tier held dainty sandwiches with their crusts cut off – cucumber, ham, and salmon. And proper butter, not mayonnaise! The second tea was a warm freshly-baked scone, served with little pots of butter, cream, and raspberry jam. In fact they were so warm mine crumbled in my hands as I tried to cut it. The bottom tier held cakes, and were much more Welsh in origin: carrot cake, bara brith, and some Welsh cakes. Welsh cakes, are not just cakes from Wales, but small griddle scones cooked on a hot bakestone about an inch and a half across, buttery with dried fruit. Bara brith, literally ‘speckled bread’, was a slice of traditional Welsh fruit cake. A drink of your choice comes with the food – generally coffee or tea, though Rebecca asked for apple juice with hers. I had a pot – good for three cups – of Earl Grey tea (there is a wide choice of teas to try as well; I chose the Earl Grey as the castle had been the property in the middle ages of the de Grey family, earls of Ruthin – though they were of no relation to the 19th century British prime minister after whom the tea blend was named).Make no mistake, you get plenty of food for your £10.95. In hindsight sharing one afternoon tea between the two of us would have been a safer bet. We did have to leave some of the cakes – though the bar maid suggested that we take them with us and provided a sheet of foil to wrap them in. It was a very relaxing way to pass a Sunday afternoon in Wales, and particularly to be recommended to any foreigners visiting this corner of north east Wales.
by Liam Hetherington on April 5, 2010
Peru – 01/04/10Paul and I finally managed to get to grips with a Peruvian meal just three days before the final deadline of our quest. And we managed it at the fourth attempt – including three separate trips out to Lee Lane, Horwich.The building that has housed Puddleduk since it opened in February used to house the Peruvian restaurant Inkaa. Paul and I had made a trip out here in November only to find that it had very recently closed down; instead we were forced to have a Polish takeaway. However, interestingly enough a new restaurant by the name of Puddleduk has now moved in. A sister restaurant to Preston’s Duk and Pond, Puddleduk is not truly a Peruvian restaurant. Rather its playful and inventive menu is a fusion of different international dishes and some rather joyous fruit-based experiments. However, there was enough there for me to count it as my Peruvian meal.Inside there is a rustic South American cantina feel going on with rough wood tables, Peruvian blankets on the walls, and a Latin soundtrack. I had booked us a table which was probably a good move – maybe it was because the next day was Easter Friday, but the place was busier than many other places we had patronised on a Thursday night with dining couples, groups of friends, and a semi-raucous female birthday party downing sangria. We opted for beer, in this case being bottles of Cusqueña, Peruvian beer that I recalled fondly from my own stay in Cusco.The menu is an extensive list with an annoyingly random use of fonts, type sizes, speech marks and bolds. The dishes thereon are inspired by chef Andrea Mellon’s international travels, from Canarian potatoes to Cypriot halloumi, Catalan chicken to Berber lamb and Argentinian steak to Thai mussels. But there is a strong Peruvian feel to the bulk of the menu. Some dishes, like the ceviche have to be ordered in advance – unfortunately my request was not received in time by the main chef, mso I had to choose from the remainder of the menu.We both started off with Peruvian stew. This was a £6.95 bowl of succulent chicken strips in a sauce that was both fruity and spicy, laden with green peppers, chopped chillis and surprising little morsels of apple, orange or raspberry. The menu stated that it was guaranteed to kill a cold at 100 yards, and they were probably right. Do not order this dish without at least a full glass of drink beside you! After the stew we had to pause and sip our beers to give our tastebuds chance to recover before our next course.I continued with the Peruvian theme with my next course. I was tempted by the £6.25 Cuzco chicken in a creamy tomato and basil sauce. However, I thought that a more robust taste would be obtained by opting for Machu Picchu steak (£10.95). This was juicy strips of fillet steak fried up with mushrooms dipped in truffle oil. It came accompanied with a ball of ‘dragon pate’: venison and chilli pate. The pate was quite harsh on the palate, and I did not think it had been very well integrated with the rest of the course – it was an amusement served simultaneously, but did not really add much to the dish. I wasn’t really sure what its link to the fabled Machu Picchu was either. While there is beef in Peru, I doubt there is much venison. Llama would be more common. Mind you, at least I was trying. Paul ordered home-made mackerel pate served with chunks of toasted ciabatta (£5.95).Our desserts were not really Peruvian at all though. However, mine in particular really deserves a second visit it was that good. I ordered Pepper Pear. This was two whole pears poached in port and red wine and then topped with ground black pepper and a port reduction. It was absolutely wonderful! The by-now ink-purple pears had been cooked so thoroughly they could be sliced right through, and eaten in complete slices, core and all. The black pepper created a very unusual tingly catch at the back of the throat that I really wasn’t expecting. And the sauce was pretty much enough to get you drunk by itself. I couldn’t recall being so enamoured of a dessert since my visit to Luso over a year earlier. Paul had a Spanglish pancake, a pancake stuffed with more fruit and berries and then topped with grated cinnamon. Both were bargains at £4.95. To finish off I persuaded Paul to join me with Peru’s national drink, a Pisco sour. I was expecting an Old Fashioned glass of pisco (Peruvian grape spirit), soured off with lime, sweetened with sugar, topped with frothy beaten egg white and a splash of bitters. What we got, I think, was a mere shot glass of pisco rimmed with salt. I certainly didn’t remember salt being an ingredient in the pisco sours I had enjoyed (rather to my surprise!) in Peru, and the traditional egg wgite froth was distinctly non-present. Mind you, I had wondered whether British health and safety rules would allow any bar to serve up a drink involving raw egg white!Apart from this, the only real let down was the fuss it took to get the bill – 15 minutes speaking to three different wait-staff, in the end being given an estimated total of £58 as they could not find all the slips from the waiters’ notebooks. This delay caused us to just miss our train back to manchester from Blackrod station and have to wait an hour for the next one. It was a sign of a certain disorganisation. Of course, we wouldn’t have minded so much if we had not had a train to catch. Otherwise we would have been quite happy to relax on the big leather settees in the lounge.Puddleduk is not very far from San Marino. And whereas I had stated that I was never likely to revist that restaurant purely because of its distant location, I do intend to pay another visit to Puddleduk. I mentioned that it had a very imaginative menu. Well, I would like to go back and try some of their other dishes – the blueberry fillet steak (cooked in red wine with a sticky blueberry and caramelised onion sauce) for instance, or the raspberry pepper chicken. With a playfulness like this Puddleduk is more than a Peruvian-themed restaurant.
The World – 04/04/10Easter. My last supper. And there were thirteen for dinner. No wonder I was concerned!I had set the date, booked the venue, and invited guests once I had passed my 76th meal, thereby causing a panic as I hastily sought out other possible eateries to take me up towards my target. I had always known where I was going for my 80th meal. As the whole Around The World In 80 Meals experiment was at least partially inspired by Jules Verne’s classic novel ‘Around The World In 80 Days’ I had been delighted to learn that the Radisson Blu hotel located at Manchester Airport had a restaurant by the name of Phileas Fogg, the hero of Verne’s story. So the plan was to make this restaurant my own Reform Club for the evening and eat whatever I wanted from the menu, rather than being forced to take a leap in the dark and try whatever seemed most typical of the country in question. For this Easter celebration I was joined by Pete and Gill, Adam and Kate, Sarah and Chris, Justin and Laura, Sam, Simon, Rebecca, and of course Paul who had essentially been my co-pilot for so much of this quixotic quest. Fortunately Justin and Laura also brought their new-born baby Phoebe along; even though she slept through the meal she managed to prevent us being an unlucky thirteen.The restaurant is most easily found off the travelator between the station and Terminal 1. In many ways it is a bland corporate hotel restaurant, with prices to match – two bottled lagers (Tiger, from Singapore) and a mineral water in the Passepartout Bar beforehand cost over £10. But it does have some nice Vernean stylings around the entrance, and the restaurant area is atmospherically lit by candles. and the full floor-to-ceiling curtain windows give an enviable view out over the airport apron. Jets took off for exotic destinations within our eyeline. Ideal for plane spotters and those waiting for a connection!We were fortunate that Paul, as an airport employee, had negotiated us a 15% discount off the final bill, as the prices were not cheap – the food standards were of a suitably high quality however. The house wine (French) was £20.45 a bottle, but both red and white were perfectly drinkable.For starter I had an American-style Seafood Chowder (£8.00). This was a dish of piping hot fish and shrimp stew, served with a slice of home-made soda bread and a pile of rocket (which I didn’t really understand the purpose of). It was full of seafood and had a jolly nice cream of seafood taste to it. Rebecca and Paul both went for a more Italian-influenced plate of goat’s cheese and Parma ham crostini, served with a red pepper coulis (£6.50). Others had Thai fishcakes (£7.50) or wild mushroom risotto toipped with Greek feta cheese (£6.50).The mains were mostly French-influenced with a couple of exceptions – Italian penne pasta with roast mediterranean vegetables, grilled Scottish salmon from Shetland, and a rather wonderful looking traditional English plate of fish and chips (battered cod, thick chips, and mushy peas on the side). Pete ordered the latter and I found myself casting envious glances at his plate throughout the meal. Mind you, for £17.00 you would expect an impressive halping!Free to order from the entire menu I opted for the £20 ribeye steak, medium rare, served with rosemary cubetti potatoes (herbed diced roast potato to me and you). It came with yet more rocket (!), and a green peppercorn sauce. The sauce was nice, but it tended to mask the flavour of the steak itself. My recommendation would be for them to serve it on the side so that the diner had to choice of if and where to drizzle it. For dessert I chose the vanilla cheesecake. It came dense and creamy, speckled with black bits of vanilla pod, and served with crushed summer berries (£5.50). Of the other desserts that people ordered, the tiramisu (£6.00) was a surprisingly small serving; the £5.50 brownie looked better value. Best value of all though would have to be Gill’s £5.50 fruit salad. She ended up with a massive plate of chopped fruit and mango sorbet. Minus the wine and tip the meal equated to roughly £30 each - £25 once Paul’s 15% discount was applied. And I think £25 would have been a fair price. The food was of a high standard and attractively presented. At full price I would say that Phileas Fogg is a little overpriced. But when you consider that it is not only located in a hotel, but that it is sited out at the airport I suppose that is only to be expected.But in general I think the meal was most notable for marking the end of a quite extraordinary adventure. Fifteen months of exploring my own home town in search of the most unusual ethnic food I could find had now come to an end. And I could finally get some sleep...
I’ve come a long way since my first idle / drunken bet in a Russian restaurant back just after Christmas in 2008. So what have I learnt over the course of the year? The biggest was probably that I can drink lager, which I had always tended to avoid previously. The strangest countries brew beer. Thumbs up to Indonesia and Ethiopia; thumbs down to Korea. In terms of beverages I would also like to recommend the meaty red wines from Argentina and Chile and the lethal zombie cocktails over at Keko Moku. The jury is possibly still out on Ukrainian kvass!Food-wise the most unpleasant thing I’ve tasted all year would be Ghanaian kenkey – if a foodstuff is described as ‘partially fermented’ it is now well and truly off the radar for me! In general I found the sub-Saharan African meals were generally an uninspiring starch + protein + sauce combination. In contrast, there is a wide range of Middle Eastern places, most of whom do really good food. Though having said that, the only meal that I think made me feel ill would have been the Iraqi buffet early on, and that was more to do with reheated food than the ingredients I think. The most unusual thing I ate though would probably have to be crocodile soup out at Ellesmere Port’s South African restaurant. In general throughout the entire year I was not let down by a single soup. Soups really summed up the vast variety of national cuisines tried, and were always a great choice.So what would be my overall recommendations? In the city centre I think the Portuguese Lusob just pips the Japanese New Samsi, with honourable mentions for Argentina’s Gaucho Grill, Malaysia’s Ning and Spain’s El Rincon de Rafa. In south Manchester, the Loch Fyne fish restaurant would have to take the crown, though I am very keen on Croma’s inventive take on pizzas. A playfully inventive menu also gives newly-opened Puddleduk the prize for north Manchester dining over its closest competitor, Prestwich’s Le Tagine. Best overall atmosphere would probably have to be the German Christmas markets; most unusual the Ethiopian Habesha, best USP the pour-your-own beer at Belgian Tapsand best all-you-can-eat blow-out may well be a toss-up between Genghis Khans and Tropeiro.Eating Around the World in 80 Meals has been a hard journey. This is partially due to other time commitments Paul and I both had, but largely due to the volatility of the dining scene in manchester during the depths of a global recession. There were a number of places we attempted to find, only to discover they had shut down – King Cobra (Sri Lanka), Che (Cuban), Luna’s (Trinidadian), West Bank (Palestinian), Inkaa (Peruvian), Kurdland Grill (Kurdish). And a number of those places reviewed here have also ceased trading by the time of writing – Marmara (Iraqi), Horus (Egyptian), African Emporium (Ivorian), Le Tagine (Moroccan), Uluru (Australian), Dubai (UAE) and Shimla Pinks (Indian).What surprised me about the countries sampled? I was expecting more from the Caribbean; all Caribbean restaurants seem to be owned and run by Jamaicans. Where are all the Antiguans / Trinidadians / Barbadians? I suppose I was also expecting to find influence from Sudan, Algeria and Senegal. And considering that the newspapers are full of scare stories about East European immigration following EU enlargement I would have hoped to have seen more of those nations represented than just Poland, Lithuania and the Czech Republic (and the latter bar pre-dated Czech accession to the EU by a number of years!). Unexpected surprises would be the refugee communities from the horn of Africa, the thriving Jewish neighbourhoods of north Manchester, and the fact that there is such an extensive choice of Nepalese restaurants in south Manchester.In general I found this quest threw up many surprises, and lead me to areas that I had never before visited. I now feel that I know a lot more not only about the varied cuisines of the world but also about my own home town. In the course of 15 months I have explored more of Manchester than in the previous 15 years, and considerably cultivated my palate en route.Here’s to the next quest!
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