Out of all the places, people and events that have led me down the path to rabid foodiedom in the last few years, the sadly defunct Paul Heathcote venture Grado is probably the most significant.
It was the place where I fell in love with mushrooms and learned just how breathtaking a good wine can be. It was where I first discovered the joy of scallops a la plancha, and poached duck eggs, and rabbit braised in Rioja. It opened my eyes to exciting Spanish versions of some of my favourite foods – the ‘morcilla’ black pudding; the ‘crema catalana’ crème brûlée.
(It was also the restaurant where I began to stop caring so much about price and my wallet started to hate me.)*
So it was somewhat fitting that just a few weeks before it closed its doors and transformed into the far less interesting Living Ventures property The Grill on New York Street, Grado gave me the first opportunity to tick an item off my list of Foods To Taste Before I Die.It was local restaurant critic Paul Ogden (in a piece for CityLife) who turned me on to Joselito Gran Reserva Ham. Describing it in a review, he managed to make it sound so magical to me I could imagine it was cut from one of Harry Potter’s legs and dry-cured by Merlin inside the Ark of the Covenant – with help from sous chef Mary Poppins.
This “precious”, “magnificent” piece of pig, with its “awesome” depth of flavour capable of evoking thoughts of high-end wine, was simply irresistible. It was one of the first things I put down on The List and I was thrilled to see it on offer as I wandered over to the Grado stand at the Manchester Food & Drink Festival (MFDF) in October last year.
I love the MFDF and, as per usual, I was enjoying a very nice day out at it. I’d watched some chef presentations in one of the tents, I’d sampled a bunch of freebies and I’d just finished my second jar of Robinsons Old Tom.
Even that rare beast, a blazing Manchester sun, had made an appearance in the sky.
All that was needed to cap off a glorious afternoon was a potentially mindblowing eating experience. And there was Grado, ever reliable and exciting Grado, to deliver it. Nothing could go wrong.
But then it did.
Because unfortunately, this landmark moment, this defining chapter of my budding food odyssey (I’m going wildly over the top here, but humour me), failed to materialise.
I managed to buy the ham; that bit went OK. It cost me £10 for something like 30g.
(It felt like rather a lot of money for not very much ham, but when you buy a slice of Harry Potter, that’s what you expect.)
I went back to my seat (that bit also went OK) and I raised the polystyrene dish up to my nose so I could give the two-inch, wafer thin slices of pretty, red flesh a good sniff.**
(This bit turned out to be a bit pointless – you get a better aroma from a pack of supermarket Parma ham.)
And then I put a slither of the Gran Joselito in my mouth and opened up a whole world of disappointment.
I’d expected a taste bang, I got a whimper. This fine wine I’d been promised turned out to be watered down. The depth I’d been told about was nothing but a paddling pool.
Don’t get me wrong, it was nice – far better even than any ham I’d had before. And the flavours Mr Ogden promised (“the texture in turns firm and melty, the taste salty and sweet, then slightly bitter and all the time there is a nuttiness from the acorns”) were all there.
They were just muted. Not subtle, but flat. Pleasant, yet enormously meh.
Now, it might be my palate simply isn’t refined enough for what’s meant to be the world’s best jamón. Or it might be I killed it with the free shot of whisky, the free shot of Benedictine (*shudders*) and the magnificent but very strong dark ale I’d drunk beforehand.
(At the very least, I’m sure it didn’t help.)
Maybe this type of ham just isn’t to my taste.
What I am sure of is that it was a crap way to kick off The List. Sure, my expectations were probably way too high/misguided and I could’ve given my tastebuds a better chance of appreciating it. But it was still a big letdown and left me worrying whether any of the stuff I’d jotted down would live up to the hype.
Verdict: Not recommended
NEXT UP: Steak tartare
*I could go on and on about how much I loved that restaurant and the impact it had on me, but those are words probably best left for a separate post. I found a copy of one its menus on the internet the other week and it made me sad to think that these great dishes are no longer being produced in Manchester. It’s a real shame.
**My wife thinks it’s weird that I give my food a good smell before I eat it. She doesn’t know what she’s missing.