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Foods To Try Before The Radio

Those of you who follow me on Twitter may have seen that I was on BBC Radio Manchester (95.1FM) this week, giving a live interview about my Foods To Try Before You Die list on Heather Stott’s show.

If you live in the UK, you can listen to it here – it should be available until May 9th. I was on Wednesday’s episode (02/05/2012) and my five-minute piece with Matt White is about 2hrs 40mins in.

It was a lot of fun doing this and hopefully I can go back on in the not too distant future and give an update on some of the foods I’ve been trying and what new things have been catching my eye.

Items from my list that get mentioned this time around include Chicken Cooked in a Pig’s Bladder, Potted Shrimp, Goose, Capon and Steak Tartare!

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Restaurant Review: The Wig and Pen revisited

A couple of months after writing up the mixed experience I had at Sheffield’s The Wig and Pen in January, an email arrived in my inbox from the restaurant’s director, Marc Sheldon. He said he was very disappointed to read that the meal wasn’t up to their usual standards and he’d like to invite me (and my wife) back to try their new tasting menu, in the hope we’d have the experience that we should’ve had first time round.

It was a gracious email and we were happy to accept the offer, particularly as the restaurant had shown quite a bit of potential on our first visit.

While I’ll be my usual honest self in this review, it’s worth bearing in mind that obviously we were known to the house beforehand and the only thing we paid for was the tip.

***

It’s amazing what light can do for a dining room. On my first visit to The Wig and Pen I was reminded of a dodgy Scream bar I had the mispleasure of drinking in on a London theatre break about six years ago. It was corrosively dingy and the cheapest pint was that piss water they call Carling at £3.30 a pop. For a lad who’d lived in Salford his whole life and was at university in Newcastle, that price was a big kick in the balls in 2006.*

After drinking a couple of fart pints, it got even worse. My bank rang me up to say a cheque I’d written for my landlord had just bounced and I was liable for some sort of fine. You can imagine it wasn’t exactly an experience I wanted to be reminded of.

But The Wig and Pen didn’t remind me of it this time, with the early evening sun still pouring in through the windows and our table better lit. It was much smarter than I’d given it credit for and more comfortable too. Not a looker by any stretch, but it already had the meal off to a better start.

This continued into the bread and olives, a far more generous and accomplished platter, which featured decent stabs at white and granary bread. Both were perhaps a touch doughy but the taste was good, each with that indelible quality you get from fresh, home-made bread.

Bread and olives at The Wig and Pen, Sheffield

The meal started properly with a consommé of lobster, ginger and carrot, smartly presented with the liquid poured at the table. I’ve eaten at Michelin-starred restaurants that have over-cooked lobster, so I was impressed by how sweet and tender this little morsel was. Unfortunately, the consommé was far too bitter for me (my wife didn’t mind it) and I felt it spoilt what would otherwise have been a very good dish.

Lobster with ginger consomme at The Wig and Pen, Sheffield

Because of that issue, I was a little nervous about the next course, an extremely modern textures of carrot with coconut sorbet, which frankly sounded disgusting and way beyond the capabilities of the kitchen. As it turned out, it was easily the dish of the night and one of the most interesting things I’ve eaten in a long while.

Carrot, pickled, compressed, coconut at The Wig and Pen, Sheffield

It was just beautifully balanced; the different flavours and textures of pickled and pressed carrot deftly held together by the bizarre and inspired sorbet. It even worked with the puzzling La Carré Sud Merlot wine match, which I didn’t think stood a chance at first taste, but grew into a winning combination the more I ate and drank.

The ingredients weren’t up to the right standard, but there were definitely some Michelin qualities about this dish.

Next was the first hot course, mackerel with apple and bone marrow. The restaurant wasn’t aware of this, but my mother-in-law and her partner were also in the room that evening and were working their way through the tasting menu as well. They raved about this one, but while I enjoyed it, I just felt there was something missing. The skin wasn’t crispy enough and it needed a touch more salt.

Mackerel with apple and bone marrow at The Wig and Pen, Sheffield

An extra dish was thrown in at this stage: smoked duck egg with baby leaf spinach, black trompettes, chive yoghurt and almond. I loved the presentation, with the duck egg encased in a dome of smoke (didn’t get a pic of that – sorry!), and I thought the dish worked really well, helped along by the gorgeous trompette mushrooms and spinach. The only issue with this was the inconsistency between mine and my wife’s plates. Her bright orange yolk was more attractive than mine and runnier, and I felt a little jealous!

Smoked duck egg at The Wig and Pen, Sheffield

It was back to the usual tasting menu from there on in and for the main course we were treated to chicken served in a jasmine consommé with some small vegetables. It was a basic, pared-down roast dinner sort of a dish but it was a nice change of pace and I thought it was delicious.

Chicken with jasmine consomme at The Wig and Pen, Sheffield

I have nothing much to say about the rhubarb jelly and parfait that followed, a reasonably forgettable dish that cleansed the pallet and offered little more.** However, the final pudding, a white chocolate parfait with toasted pine nuts and lemon sauce, was excellent. Like the food critic in Ratatouille, on the first bite I was catapulted back to my childhood, reliving the joy I used to experience the times when I made and ate lemon crunch flan. The flavour combinations were exactly the same – perfect and timeless.

Rhubarb, jelly, parfait at The Wig and Pen, Sheffield

White chocolate parfait with lemon at The Wig and Pen, Sheffield

My wife seemed to like her dessert even more. A bread base with honey, pear and orange sorbet was a little bitter for me, but she thought it was absolutely brilliant. She told the waiter it’s one of the best puddings she’s ever had, and she wasn’t kidding.

Bread, orange sorbet, pear and honey at The Wig and Pen, Sheffield

Service was about as good as you could hope for and on the whole, it was a top meal, definitely at the high end of the spectrum for the £50 a head price point. Actually, I think that’s a bit of a bargain for a six-course taster with matching wines.

You can of course think “well, obviously you’re going to say that – you didn’t pay for it and you were given special treatment”, and that’s fair enough. All I can say is that my anonymous in-laws had a similar experience and they paid in full. Already they’re planning to go back to try the next taster menu when the seasons change.

I think there’s probably still an element of The Wig and Pen being overly ambitious with its food, and this was shown by the odd mistake and inconsistency during the meal. Nevertheless, it does seem to me that the restaurant is finally finding its feet and starting to realise some of the promise I glimpsed a few months back.

Marc was anxious to get our feedback on the meal as you’d expect, but he – and all of the staff – seemed to be doing the same with the rest of the diners as well. I think it’s clear that the management here really care about the quality of their offering and are keen to listen to people’s opinions in an effort to be as good as they can be.

As long as they continue to respond to their customers in such a positive way and can build on what’s now looking like some fairly sturdy foundations, I believe The Wig and Pen could definitely be a restaurant to watch.

 
Wig and Pen By the Milestone on Urbanspoon

Food: 14/30

Service: 7/10

Dining Room: 2/5

Experience: 7.5/10

Overall score: 56/100 (Very Good)

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*How depressing is it when I spend £3.30 on a pint now, I barely bat an eyelid?

**My in-laws dismissed the rhubarb dish as “jelly and ice cream” and couldn’t understand the point of it on the menu.

Nespresso coffee and food tasting

Coffee room at the Nespresso Trafford Centre boutique, Manchester

Those who know me as a lifelong hater of coffee, who only last week was saying how he’d rather shoot himself in the face than go to the Trafford Centre again, might be surprised to hear that a coffee-themed event managed to drag me back to the Hell Mall on Monday.

It’d been six blissful years since my last visit and if anything was going to persuade me to go back I definitely didn’t think it would be the bitter muddy stuff. But I simply couldn’t resist when a PR company for Nespresso invited me along to a coffee and food tasting being run at the brand’s new boutique.

Firstly, I was intrigued to see whether food and coffee pairing works – would the coffee not just overpower everything else? Secondly, I was keen to try the food of Andrew Nutter, the chef from the well-regarded Nutters in Rochdale, who’d been drafted in to design the Taste of Manchester menu.

Andrew Nutter presents coffee tasting at Nespresso Trafford Centre boutique, Manchester

Chef Andrew Nutter talks us through his coffee pairing menu

The food certainly didn’t disappoint. The flavour of the beef in a well-balanced carpaccio salad was the standout for me, but I also very much enjoyed the homely warmth of the pork belly and bean casserole, and the rich creaminess of the panna cotta and crème brûlée dishes.

Unfortunately, the much-heralded Eccles cake was less impressive. It was clear from the way he spoke that Nutter’s very passionate about this local delicacy, but I am too and I didn’t think the espresso shots lacing its innards did it any favours.

As for the coffee pairing, my overriding feeling was that it wasn’t really worth the effort. The chef did a pretty good job of creating dishes that would be enhanced by the coffee, and the drinks definitely brought out notes on each of the plates. But the improvements were so subtle and so small I couldn’t really see the benefit of pouring these liquid exhaust fumes into my mouth to achieve them.

Andrew Nutter presents beef carpaccio at Nespresso Trafford Centre boutique, Manchester

Granted, I don’t like coffee but even trying to be objective I still don’t think it worked. The joy of wine pairing (if you get it right) is that both the food and the drink are improved by the match. They complement each other to create a whole that’s better than the sum of its parts; it’s a loving, caring marriage of flavours.

In contrast, the relationship between food and coffee is that of gimp and dominatrix. The coffee brutally spanks out its flavours and takes absolutely nothing in return. It has all the romance of a ball gag.

I don’t just mean this from a taste point of view either. Temperature was another clear issue. I can’t imagine even the most ardent coffee fan coming away from the evening and deciding next time they do a salad at a dinner party they’ll stick a hot cup of espresso on the side. It was seriously weird.

The only match that came close to success in my eyes was the crème brûlée pairing; the coffee was mild enough and the dish creamy enough that they sort of went together.

I couldn’t help but think, however, that a much better liquid accompaniment could’ve been knocked up by the two mixologists doing wonderful things with espresso martinis and mojitos on the other side of the room.

As I said, the food was good, but I don’t think coffee pairing is going to catch on anytime soon!

Here’s the full menu with pictures:*

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TASTE OF MANCHESTER

 

Cocoa Roast Beef Carpaccio with Chicory and Rocket

Nespresso’s Arpeggio Grand Cru

Andrew Nutter beef carpaccio, Nespresso Trafford Centre tasting

Slow Braised Pork Belly with a Hot Bean Casserole

Nespresso’s Roma Grand Cru

Andrew Nutter pork belly, Nespresso Trafford Centre tasting

Nespresso Ristretto Coffee and Toffee Eccles Cake

Nespresso’s Ristretto Grand Cru

Andrew Nutter Eccles cake, Nespresso Trafford Centre tasting

Chocolate and Malt Crème Brûlée

Nespresso’s Dulsão do Brasil Grand Cru

Andrew Nutter creme brulee, Nespresso Trafford Centre tasting

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I must say – my feelings on coffee aside – it was a very enjoyable and interesting evening. I was genuinely impressed by the Nespresso store, its products, its staff and the way the whole event was put together. It was all very slick.

I obviously can’t comment on the quality of the espresso itself, but it did seem to me that the company has something really unique and exciting going on with this new offering. While it’s evidently not up my street, I do hope some other drinks manufacturers take a leaf out of its book.

Nespresso’s luxury boutique at the Trafford Centre is now open. Visit www.nespresso.com

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*As mentioned, there was also a panna cotta dish but I have neither the full details nor a clear photo of that so I’ve left it out. If you look closely at the Eccles cake snap, you’ll see it loitering in the background.

Restaurant Review: The Wig and Pen

Sheffield’s reputation as a culinary destination is a bit like Manchester’s: non-existent.

Barring the Michelin-starred Old Vicarage – far enough away from the city centre that my wife insists it’s not in Sheffield at all, and in need of a revisit from the Red Guide’s inspectors so they can demote it, according to my mother-in-law – there is little to put it on the gourmet map.

One place that looks to be trying to change that is The Wig and Pen on Copson Street, an offshoot of popular local The Milestone, which received a decent write-up from Jay Rayner in the Observer a couple of years back. Its menu and website are indicative of a restaurant with a lot of ambition and I’d been told plenty of positive things about going in. My expectations were high.

The Wig and Pen restaurant in Sheffield

The Wig and Pen

First impressions, however, weren’t exactly good. Cold and drab, our section of the dining room had all the charm of a student union bar post-freshers’ week; the view from the window, bare walls and dim-lighting making me feel as if we’d been seated in an unconverted loft.

£2.50 bought us three medium-sized slices of bread on a slate which we ate while perusing the menu. Bread is apparently made in-house but these slices were not particularly remarkable for being so, having the slightly chewy texture that crusty bread takes after being cut and left out for several hours. Only one of two promised butters arrived and it was fridge hard, making it impossible to spread without having to put a lot of effort into mashing it first.

Bread at The Wig and Pen restaurant in Sheffield

Bread and butter

Not a bad lot overall, but I’ve been to plenty of restaurants in the same price bracket which do much better bread for free.

For starters we both ordered sous vide quail breast, with boudin of leg and bacon popcorn. This was fine, but nothing special beyond the pretty plating. Flavours were a little one-note – or in the case of the popcorn, completely absent – and the breast and the boudin were both a bit dry. Given the food and the plate were both lukewarm, I’d imagine this was once a much better dish and someone simply allowed it to spoil by leaving it out on the side.

Quail dish at The Wig and Pen restaurant in Sheffield

Sous vide quail breast with boudin of leg and bacon popcorn. Apologies for the quality of this picture - the room was dark and I'm still getting used to taking shots on my phone.

Alas, I could not come up with such an easy excuse for the wine, a Domaine de Gry-Sablon fleurie, which was the recommended accompaniment. A poor drink, perhaps a notch better than a Blossom Hill rosé, it matched the food about as well as it did my tastebuds.

The strongest part of the meal was undoubtedly the mains. There were a few issues with my beef rump, dauphinoise potato, wild mushroom tortellini, baby leeks and truffled jus – an overpowering amount of garlic, a knife ill-equipped to cut the meat, and pasta so thick it reminded me of a disastrous attempt to make Chinese pork dumplings at home – but it was decent enough on the whole. The beef itself had good flavour, as did the jus.

Beef dish at The Wig and Pen restaurant in Sheffield

Rump of beef, dauphinoise potato, wild mushroom tortellini, baby leeks and truffled jus

And the only problem with my wife’s loin of pork, confit belly, crispy squid and root vegetable stew dish was that I hadn’t ordered it myself. It was a wonderful dose of winter comforts, precisely cooked and perfectly balanced in both texture and flavour. I’d had some doubts about the squid, but its crispy batter made it a perfect foil for the moist pork. Michelin level it was not*; however, it was certainly a very accomplished dish – one I’d be happy to go back for.

Pork dish at The Wig and Pen restaurant in Sheffield

Loin of pork, confit of the belly, crispy squid and root vegetable stew

Perhaps even better was the 2006 Izadi Reserva rioja we drank with the mains. It felt like great value at £12 for a half-bottle and was just a stonkingly good wine; complex, vibrant and bright.

Izadi Reserva Rioja, 2006

2006 Izadi Reserva

Unfortunately, once the red was polished off, it went a bit downhill – at least for me. My dessert, a ‘celebration’ of apple that included a parfait, sorbet, jelly and a crisp, bordered on unpleasant. Not a single element managed to deliver the clean burst of apple flavour I was after. What I got instead was a watered-down, insipid mess, which had more in common from a taste perspective with Jolly Rancher sweets than the green fruit that was actually in it.

Apple dessert at The Wig and Pen restaurant in Sheffield

Apple parfait with granny smith sorbet and jelly

And I really wish I could remember the name of the recommended liqueur I drank, just so I can make sure I never have it again. When a drink makes you start thinking about Weil’s disease, you know it’s not good.

My wife fared better. There were no dairy-free options for her to have, so the waiter recommended she try the petits fours they offer for £2.50. I didn’t really taste these, but she described them as “nice”.

Our waiter was excellent and the bill of £90 did not seem unreasonable for what on balance was an OK meal, with a few highs and a few lows. My gut feeling is that there are far superior meals to be had at The Wig and Pen and perhaps we would’ve had a more consistently good experience had we not eaten at 5pm, when the kitchen was not yet in full-swing.

Nevertheless, I have to rate the place based on what they did rather than what they might have been able to do. And while I’m sure they can do better, I can’t say I’m too keen to go back and give them another shot.

Wig & Pen on Urbanspoon

Food: 9/30

Service: 6.5/10

Dining Room: 1.5/5

Experience: 6/10

Overall score: 42/100 (OK)

 

Note: I returned to The Wig and Pen in April 2012 and had a much better experience. You can read that review here.

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*A video on The Wig and Pen’s website suggests a Michelin star is one of their goals.

Christmas dinner success!

About six weeks ago, I wrote on this blog: “There are times when I like to tell myself that I could’ve been a chef.”

As I sit here writing this post, cowering from the apocalyptic wasteland that is my kitchen after I’ve spent a full day cooking in it, I feel the restaurant industry should be very glad I’ve never bothered to try.

But in my house, the bigger the mess, the better the food – and the carnage I’m trying so hard to avoid is merely proof that yesterday’s Christmas dinner was a huge success.

We were forced to make a few last-minute changes to the Christmas dinner plan, as originally outlined here. Tesco, which had no sage or duck fat and delivered us chipolatas on the 23rd that had just two and a half hours left on their used-by date, was responsible for several. I, who stupidly thought it’d be possible to buy samphire months and months out of season, am responsible for the rest.

The revised menu with pictures is below:

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CHRISTMAS DINNER MENU

Nibbles

Christmas canapes - Smoked Salmon, Ham and Porcini, Brown Shrimp

Cold Canapé of Smoked Salmon, Salmon Roe, Horseradish Butter

Warm Toasted Cold Canapé of Brown Shrimp, Samphire White Cabbage a la Fergus Henderson*

Cold Canapé of Cep a Salpicon of Porcini Mushrooms, Lean Ham, Shallot Butter, Paprika

Louis Chaurey Champagne

*

Roast Turkey with all the Trimmings

Roast Christmas Turkey

I roasted the turkey very simply following the instructions on the Copas website. The only change I made was to stick clementines up it, instead of an apple.

 5kg Copas Bronze Turkey, Duck Goose Fat Roast Potatoes, Honey-Roast Parsnips, Glazed Carrots, Chestnut and Pancetta-tossed Sprouts, [Shop bought] Pigs in Blankets, [Shop bought] Sage and Onion Stuffing, Cranberry Sauce, Bread Sauce, Gravy

Tesco Finest Châteauneuf-du-Pape, 2010

 *

Christmas Pudding

Delia Smith Christmas Pudding

Christmas Pudding, pre-whisky flambé

 Home-made Christmas Pudding, Brandy Cream

Tesco Finest Sauternes, 2009

*

Cheeseboard

Christmas Cheese - Brie, Blacksticks, Goat's, Cranberry Stilton, Applewood Smoked Cheddar

Dad’s selection

Blacksticks Blue, Cranberry and Stilton, Applewood Smoked Cheddar, Goat’s Cheese, Brie w/ Onion Chutney, Manchester Relish and Quince Jelly

Tesco Finest Vintage Port, 1994

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I was really pleased with the meal from start to finish. All the canapés were good, the Copas turkey was beautiful and my wife’s Christmas pudding was a million miles better than any version I’d had before. Other highlights were the faultless roasties, the bread sauce, and the cranberry sauce, which was a real knockout.

I loved the cheeseboard my dad put together and along with a glass of port – which blew me away actually; I would never have expected such quality from a supermarket bottle – it provided a fitting end to the day.

The only things I’d like to have done differently are the wine and the stuffing. The wine was perfectly serviceable, but aside from the port, wasn’t in the same league as the food. And the stuffing was rubbish; Tesco’s finest my arse! If ever there was a ringing endorsement for making your own, this was it. Next year if I can’t get any sage, I’ll make sure I’ve got a back-up plan.

I hope you all had as enjoyable a Christmas dinner as I did and are looking forward to days of leftovers. I can’t wait to fry up that Christmas pudding in some goose fat!

I’ll leave you with some pictures of the foodie gifts my family gave me this year:

Global Flexible Boning Knife, 16cm

Le Creuset Stoneware Pie Dish, Volcanic, 24cm

Le Creuset Cast Iron Satin Black Interior Omelette Pan, Volcanic, 20cm

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*Thanks to Xanthe Clay (@XantheClay) for suggesting this alternative to the samphire recipe which got me out of trouble at the eleventh hour.

The Christmas dinner plan is set

Christmas tree with decorations

The tree’s up, mince pies are in the oven, Nigella’s about to burn her roast potatoes in that Christmas special again, and a month since I started planning Christmas dinner, I’m more or less set.

The turkey’s been ordered, the wine’s been bought, the last minute Tesco shop is already booked in. And most importantly, I’ve finally decided on the menu (see below).

I’ve not pushed the boat out quite as much as I’d like this year. There’s going to be six of us, we’re on a budget and my refusal to scrimp on the turkey means making cutbacks elsewhere – mostly, with the wine.

So if you’re wondering why I’ve gone Tesco Finest trigger happy, it’s not because I’m too lazy or lack the knowledge to shop elsewhere, it’s because the Double Rewards scheme enabled me to pick up all the below, plus three other bottles, without having to spend a penny. Every little helps!

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CHRISTMAS DINNER MENU

Nibbles

Cold Canapé of Smoked Salmon, Salmon Roe, Horseradish Butter

Warm Toasted Canapé of Brown Shrimp, Samphire

Cold Canapé of Cep Mushrooms, Lean Ham, Shallot Butter, Paprika

*

Roast Turkey with all the Trimmings

5kg Copas Bronze Turkey, Duck Fat Roast Potatoes, Honey-Roast Parsnips, Glazed Carrots, Chestnut and Pancetta-tossed Sprouts, Pigs in Blankets, Sage and Onion Stuffing, Cranberry Sauce, Bread Sauce, Gravy

Tesco Finest Châteauneuf-du-Pape, 2010

 *

Christmas Pudding

Home-made Christmas Pudding, Brandy Cream

Tesco Finest Sauternes, 2009

*

Cheeseboard

Dad’s selection

Tesco Finest Vintage Port, 1994

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Recipes

I don’t tend to use recipes much on Christmas Day – it’s enough hassle as it is without overcomplicating things by doing stuff you don’t already know how to do. But in the run up I like to look at some for inspiration, and it’s always good to have a point of reference just in case something goes wrong.

These are my points of reference this year:

 

You can read the follow up post to this one below:

Christmas dinner success!

Hennessy XO Cognac

Traditionally, I haven’t thought much about money when it comes to food and drink; or at least, not as much as I should given what’s left once the bills have been paid. My chief focus has always been whether the thing I’m consuming tastes good or not. The cost is very much a secondary concern.

I couldn’t tell you how much I spent on my meal at The Waterside Inn – a restaurant generally considered to be ludicrously expensive – earlier this year. I couldn’t say how much I spent at Alain Ducasse at The Dorchester – a place very much in the same price mould – either. The reason is that I simply don’t care. I had a great time at both, so however much they cost, it was clearly worth it.*

Nevertheless, in the last few months value for money is something I’ve been thinking about more often. The change in mindset, I’m sure, is almost entirely down to working my way through the Foods To Try Before You Die list.

Tasting a £50 bottle of Dom Pérignon 2000, for example, I couldn’t get its value out of my head. It wasn’t so much “have I made a mistake spending this amount on a bottle of champagne?”, more “is this bottle worth the £100+ a lot of retailers are selling it at and is the price I got it for the bargain it appears?”.

Money was a big thing again when I wrote my latest piece on potted shrimp. It was so good yet so cheap relative to almost everything else on my list, how could I not think about it? Am I wasting cash pursuing expensive items when there are simple things like shrimp that offer so much bang for my buck?

But I’ve never thought so much about the cost of food or drink as I have with the bottle of Hennessy XO Cognac I bought a few months back. At £92, it was easily the most I’ve ever spent on a single bottle of alcohol outside a restaurant, and I wasn’t even a big brandy fan! From the moment I bought it, right up until the moment I poured my first glass, “what the hell were you thinking?” ran through my head.

Hennessy XO Cognac bottle top

For anybody concerned about my health, those yellow spots are down to autocorrect lighting, not liver failure.

This wasn’t a case of ‘taste first, ask money questions later’; the price was always at the forefront of my mind. The cognac couldn’t just be good, it had to be at least £92 good, or I was going to kick my arse down to the bank to shed tears over all the money I’d pissed up the wall.

To be fair to Hennessy, they did a lot to put my mind at ease just with the appearance of the bottle. I’d read a lot of reviews online and been told it was a very special drink – the finest XO in its price range, according to consensus – but it wasn’t much of a looker. In photos it appeared plain and dull; a £20 slut instead of a £92 beauty.

But I spent a good 15 minutes marvelling at its magnificence after pulling it from the box; holding it up to the light and admiring it from every angle. The pictures had done scant justice to how handsome the bottle is, with the glorious maple-syrup-coloured liquid inside. I could imagine it behind the bar of a stereotypical private gentleman’s club, where well-to-do toffs sit in cosy, red-leather armchairs, puffing cigars and discussing the politics of the day.

It looked expensive enough to have cost £92. In fact, it could’ve pulled off £250. It was all very reassuring.

A bottle of Hennessy XO Cognac

My shoddy camera phone isn't doing it any favours here, but take my word for it - the Hennessy XO bottle is a stunner.

But as I left it on the shelf and waited for that special occasion to come along where I’d give it a try – my birthday, as it happened – doubts started to creep back in. Sure, it looks good enough, but can it taste good enough? They say with wine once you go beyond £20, prices tend to move further and further away from the true value – is it the same with cognac? And what if I realise that I’m just not a big fan of brandy? Money down the drain, that’s what!

I decided the time to bite the bullet was after a nice celebratory meal at The Lime Tree in Didsbury. I was in a good mood, I wanted a spirit to cap off the evening, the moment just seemed right. Following instructions read online, I poured a shot and a half into a brandy glass** and cupped my hands around it, allowing my body heat to warm it gently for around seven or eight minutes. I held it up to look at the colour – the liquid amber perhaps even more beautiful in the glass than in the bottle – and then stuck my nose in to gather the aromas.

A glass of Hennessy XO Cognac

I probably shoved my snout too close because all I got was burning alcohol at first, but eventually the bouquet came: heady, complex, brilliant. I’ve heard people say they’d buy Hennessy XO for the smell alone and I could see why. If I’d had the time, I could’ve spent as long sniffing it as I did staring at the bottle when I first took it out of the box.

However, I couldn’t wait that long. It was time to taste it; time to find out whether all the build up was worth it. More importantly, it was time to find out whether all the money was worth it.

It was. Oh dear god it was.

Ambrosia, soma, nectar; any deity’s drink you can think of would be a suitable descriptive term for the glorious elixir that passed my lips. In my heart, I hadn’t really believed that any drink could justify this sort of price tag, but it did, unquestionably. It was a seminal moment; with one sip, I became a huge brandy fan and began to realise just how good beverages can be. I’ve imbibed some very nice stuff in my time, but this was a world apart. It’s by far and away the best drink I’ve ever tasted.***

Hennessy XO wasn’t on my list of Foods To Try Before You Die, but I feel like it should’ve been. The only cognac on there is the £1,350 Rémy Martin Louis XIII and even though it’s meant to be the very best, somehow I can’t see it living up to its price.

To do so, it’d have to be 14.5 times better than the Hennessy XO. And I don’t for one second believe that’s possible.

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*I should stress that had either of these restaurants delivered a terrible meal then I’d probably still be bitching and whining about the cost on my deathbed. I care a lot more about price when I have a bad time!

**I fear connoisseurs would complain about the large balloon glass, with its wide mouth – snifters are preferred as they hold the aroma in. But the glasses were a wedding gift, gorgeous LSA glassware that match our collection, and they’d spent a good month sat next to the cognac helping it to look pretty. It would’ve felt wrong to drink from anything else.

***I’ve said before I don’t really do tasting notes. But these from the manufacturer seem right on the money:

Aroma:  The first wave, rich in dried fruit aromas such as prunes or dried figs overcomes you.  The aromas evolve to more dense notes of chocolate & black pepper, mellowed by cinnamon, clove & cardamom spices.

Taste:  Very balanced on the palate, X.O confirms the aromas discovered by scent: dried fruit & chocolate.  Elegant & robust, it reveals balance, roundness and harmony among aromas underlined by the strength of peppery notes & vegetable fragrances from the oak.  A lovely long after taste is enrobed in velvet, conferring the last sweet notes of cinnamon & vanilla.

Planning Christmas dinner

Christmas tree

This year will be the fourth time that I’ve been responsible for cooking Christmas dinner.*

My first bash at it in 2007, when I made it for seven people at my parents’ house, was a reasonable success. The turkey, an organic bronze from the Marks & Spencer catalogue, turned out pretty well under the watchful eye of a Good Housekeeping recipe. The gravy my wife threw together using a Delia Smith-assisted stock of neckbone and giblets, remains the best I’ve ever had.

The only thing that didn’t quite hit the mark was the roast potatoes. My mum had peeled and cut them on Christmas Eve after seeing Brian Turner on TV saying that they’ll be fine as long you put them in air-tight bags. The mangy, greeny-black colour they had turned disappeared during the roasting process, but they didn’t taste quite right.

The following year, when it was just the two of us, we decided to kick things up a notch with better quality ingredients, expensive wine and a much more ambitious menu. Roast quail with a pork, truffle and cognac stuffing was brilliant** and a lot of fun to make – even if we did have to visit five different shops to get hold of pork mince on Christmas Eve. The £25 Chilean red, recommended by a nice bloke in Oddbins who I’d tasked with finding something to match such a rich dish, was incredible.

None of the veg hit the mark this time though. The greengrocers had prepared us a box and we foolishly didn’t inspect it until we got home. Everything was a long way past its best and by that stage it was too late to do anything about it.

Copas turkeys in autumn

Copas turkeys have a reputation for being the very best the UK has to offer.

After having 2009 off, it was back to me cooking again last year, this time for five and in my own kitchen. I’d bought what was meant to be the best turkey in the country, the Copas, which Rick Stein had raved about in one of his TV programmes. I couldn’t get over how beautiful the bird looked when I first opened its box. You could tell from its appearance that it had lived a very healthy life and that it was going to knock spots off anything you’d get in the supermarket. Interestingly, it cost about the same as the turkey my mum had ordered from M&S three years before.

I didn’t want to let such beautiful produce down, so I looked long and hard for a recipe equal to the task. I eventually settled on Matthew Fort’s method, which involved slow-cooking the turkey on a very low temperature for more than 10 hours.

Of course, I’d forgotten that my rubbish oven runs on a timer, and regretted every minute of it as I had to wake up at three-hour intervals throughout the night to turn it back on, rotate the turkey and stab it with a temperature probe.

The turkey was divine – better than I could ever imagine it being. Perfectly moist and packed full of flavour, I would’ve loved to have forced it down the throat of anybody who says they don’t like turkey or complains that it’s always too dry.

Unfortunately the rest of the meal was a disaster. Jamie Oliver’s gravy, which looked brilliant on TV, was crap. Thin and weak and not at all worth the hours of hard work that went into making it.***

And then the oven broke. After half a day maintaining 80 degrees C, it refused point blank to get hot again. We just about managed to roast the veg, but the spuds were far from crisp. I spent Christmas dinner wondering when the hell we were going to be able to get a repair man out to fix it. It was January before we got it sorted.

And now here we are in November 2011, and it’s time to start planning for Christmas dinner all over again. There’ll be six of us this year and I’m part way towards deciding what to eat.

Choosing the animal was quite tricky. I didn’t think I could top last year’s turkey without using the same cooking method and I’m not going to do that in case it kills my oven again.

We ummed and ahhed about rib of beef; capon was mooted. Partridge was considered before being dismissed for no particular reason. Goose was discussed and lusted after, before we decided that oven size might be an issue. I contemplated poulet de bresse and figured I probably wouldn’t want to share it.

Eventually, we arrived back at turkey and my thought was: “Why the hell not?”

Evans fishmongers, Didsbury Village

Evans of Didsbury. An excellent fishmongers, and they do some really good game and poultry too.

I’m going to order the Copas this week from Evans of Didsbury. The recipe I’m not 100 per cent set on yet but I’m considering one from Gordon Ramsay that I saw him do on TV a few years back. The idea of removing the legs and stuffing them, and cooking them separately to the rest of the turkey to avoid them drying out, looked quite good.

Canapés will be a big decision and the one I’ll probably enjoy making the most. I find these to be much easier and interesting than starters, but I need to think long and hard about how I can top 2010’s batch. The mini-cheese and caramelised onion tarts, smoked salmon with chive and mustard butter on rye bread, and devils on horseback I made were all pretty awesome.

Christmas pudding is obviously already in the bag. But what should I drink with it? Sauternes as usual or something more interesting?

What about the wine to go with the roast? Pinot noir again or should I be adventurous? I saw a sparkling lambrusco recommended in the paper once; dare I try it? It’s pretty bizarre.

There’s the champagne to choose for Christmas breakfast. Then there’s the port to go with the cheese. Gravy will need some thought, none of which will involve Jamie Oliver.

The list is long, but I look forward to working my way through it.

What are you all doing for Christmas this year? Anybody have any good tips?

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*Well, fifth Christmas dinner if you count the one I made during second year at university. Iceland’s cook-from-frozen turkey surprisingly wasn’t that bad.

**Excellent though it was, I couldn’t quite help but think the quail wasn’t as good as the much simpler duck breast with mustard crushed potatoes and red wine reduction I’d made the night before.

***I know other people who have made Jamie’s gravy too and said exactly the same thing.

 

You can read the follow up post to this one below:

The Christmas dinner plan is set

Manchester Food and Drink Festival 2011: Manchester Whisky Festival

MFDF11 logo

When it comes to whisky, I’m a total novice. I drink it most frequently on nights out, after I’ve decided my stomach’s nearing capacity and another pint of lager will probably make me puke. The places I tend to end up in don’t sell the ‘good stuff’ – and I doubt I’d be in any fit state to appreciate it anyway – so typically it’ll be Bells or Jack Daniels. Ice may be involved, depending on my drunken whim.

This is the sort of whisky I’m used to.

Occasionally I’ll indulge in a nice short if I’m in a fine restaurant and I’ve just had a very satisfying meal; it can be the perfect way to cap off a wonderful evening. But it’s rare I’ll actually choose what I order. I’ll generally just describe the taste I’m after and allow the barman/sommelier/clueless waiter to work their magic.

This approach has led to me being served some brilliant whiskies down the years, and not being able to remember the name of a single one.

I looked on this month’s Manchester Whisky Festival, part of the Manchester Food and Drink Festival and organised by The Whisky Lounge, as an opportunity for exploration. A learning experience, if you will. For £20, the price of a cheap bottle, I hoped it would give me the chance to try a wide range of whiskies and allow me to decide – and recall – what I actually like.

Underpinning it all was the desire to find a high-class bottle to stand on my living room shelf; one capable of residing alongside the Hennessy XO cognac that’s on there and not looking an inch out of place. A bottle to be reserved for special treats and pick-me-ups; to remind me once in a while of all that is right with the world.

Glenglassaugh Highland Single Malt Scotch Whisky 26-Year-Old

Glenglassaugh Highland Single Malt Scotch Whisky 26-Year-Old

That bottle might well have been the first that I tried.

I wasn’t in the best of moods when I turned up to the The Lowry Hotel for the 11am festival session. If it wasn’t bad enough that I’d made the schoolboy error of picking the sesh that meant I was going to miss the 12 o’clock match between Manchester United and Liverpool, like a right nobhead I’d also left the tickets at home.

The hour my wife and I had set aside beforehand to have a relaxing cup of tea with my mother in the Marks & Spencer cafe was instead spent on a hectic and expensive taxi round-trip to pick the tickets up. And the worst thing was, it was completely my fault.

I was livid as I queued up to enter the conference room; furious as I quickly glanced around at the busy stands and picked an empty one to start off with. Even as the good people from Glenglassaugh told me their history and took me through their whisky manufacturing process sip by sip, I was still seething at my own stupidity.

But when I was given the opportunity to try the Glenglassaugh Highland Single Malt Scotch Whisky 26-Year-Old that had pride of place in the centre of the table, all the feelings of annoyance drifted away.

The picture I’ve included here does scant justice to how attractive the bottle was, with the simply curved lines of the mostly-plain bell-shaped vessel allowing the gorgeous honey-coloured whisky to shine through. It was hypnotically beautiful – I couldn’t stop staring at it – and clearly very expensive. I figured it was just a showpiece. Not for one moment did I ever expect that they’d open it up and allow me try it.

I’m not a one for tasting notes*, but let’s just say that it easily lived up to its £149.99 price tag, both on the nose and the palate. As I savoured it, and the anger subsided, I thought to myself: “You’re a lucky bugger getting to drink this. I think it’s going to be a good day after all.”

“I reckon you’re right,” I thought back. “Just one problem though – I think we’ve made the error of drinking the best whisky in the room first.”

Kavalan Single Malt Whisky

Kavalan Single Malt Whisky

Based on what we sampled in the following three hours**, I think my initial assessment was correct. Nothing came close to matching the majesty of the Glenglassaugh. The second best whisky I had was probably King Car, the latest release from the distillery of the same name based in Taiwan.

The company was apparently making its debut at a European whisky festival and they proudly told me how their Kavalan whiskies have been wiping the floor with scotch at a bunch of major awards shows in recent years. It was pretty clear to see why. There was a uniqueness to their flavours, and a freshness and vibrancy that really set them apart.

I wouldn’t be surprised at all if when they finally launch in Europe next year, they end up being a huge hit. I certainly know I’ll be buying a bottle (as long as it’s not too expensive).

Ardberg Uigeadail

Ardberg Uigeadail

The only other whisky that really stood out to me was the Ardberg Uigeadail, a highly revered drop from Islay. It stood out mostly because I didn’t really like it. I could appreciate that it was a very fine drink, perhaps the second best in terms of quality that I had all day. It just wasn’t to my taste, which I found really surprising. Given its reputation, I’d thought Ardberg might be the brand for me.

But in fact, I didn’t really like any of the Islay whiskies, or anything from anywhere else that was advertised as ‘peaty’. They just tasted of decay; like whisky that had been infused with the rotting lung of a chain-smoking cancer victim. I’m not quite sure what there is to enjoy about that.

On the whole, the day was extremely interesting. I felt like I learned a lot and moved a good few steps closer to working out what sort of whisky is right for me.*** The event was very well-organised and welcoming and the perfect place for a novice to begin a journey into this world.

I didn’t buy a bottle in the end. The Glenglassaugh’s a bit too expensive for me and I’ll need to do some research to come up with a suitable alternative. But the Manchester Whisky Festival certainly got me thinking. And that’s all I ever wanted it to do.

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*If you’re interested, the Glenglassaugh website calls it “a complex whisky with rich sherry notes, combined with a medley of boiled fruits”. Seems fair enough.

**Four hours might seem like a long time, but it’s definitely needed. An event like this is nothing like the Big Indie Wine Fest, where you can go hell for leather at the booze from start to finish. You need to take your time with this one, or else you’ll probably die. Our strategy was to try out a couple of stands, sit down for 15 minutes or so until we stopped feeling wobbly, then move on to another two. Once we’d done eight or so it was time to leave.

***Highland and Speyside seemed to be up my street, and the milder whiskies, with notes of fruit and sherry. The harsher ones that tasted of emphysema and death didn’t do much for me, but it’s possible as I get older and my tastebuds change, I might grow to like them.

More Foods To Try Before You Die and other updates

Just a quick update before the football starts!

I’ve added a few more things to the list of Foods To Try Before I Die in recent days, taking the number of items on there up to 60.* I’ve also started linking the items I’ve been able to cross off to their related posts, so if you want you can treat it like an index.

Sometime in the next few weeks I’m planning to put up a list of all the restaurants I’ve visited (mostly in Manchester) and my ratings for them. I might show you the scoring system I’ve developed – that depends on whether I’m feeling uncool enough that day or not. I’ll put links in that so it can be used as an index as well.

Finally, feel free to follow me on Twitter (@FTTBYD). Eight people – well, seven people and one piece of automated spam software – can’t be wrong!

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*Bordier Butterheralded by many as the world’s best butter.

Bresse Chicken Cooked in a Bladder à la Mère Filliou [at Paul Bocuse, Lyon] – the name of this is pretty self-explanatory, but if you wish to witness the joy of bladder cookery for yourself, check out this short video. The chicken’s removed from the bladder and carved at tableside.

 

Gaja Barbaresco probably Italy’s most prestigious wine.

Macaroons [from Ladurée] alongside Pierre Hermé (already on The List), Ladurée is considered to produce the world’s finest macaroons

Truffle Soup V.G.E. [at Paul Bocuse, Lyon] – I’m putting this back on The List after taking it off an early draft. It’s truffle soup served under a puff pastry dome and it’s arguably the world’s most famous signature dish.

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