KFC, red pudding and haggis: exploring the very tip of Scotland

It takes a long time to get to Durness at the very north west tip of Scotland.  We left our house near Stockport at 7am.  We arrived at our B&B at 9.45pm.  Ouch!  However there were upsides – travelling by train allowed me to watch three episodes of The Night Manager and we were lucky enough to stop for an hour’s lunch break in Edinburgh.  Because of our heavy bags we didn’t end up in the gastro pub we’d been recommended, but instead an uninspiring food court by the station!  Jamie spotted this as an excellent opportunity to abandon any marathon related healthy eating and ordered a KFC. A classy start to our rugged adventure.

kfc

On day one of the holiday, we awoke to glorious blue skies and sunshine! We couldn’t believe our luck. This is the view on our walk into Durness. We were off to join the rest of our friends on the Mad Walkers hiking expedition. Today’s trip would be to one of Britain’s most beautiful beaches Sandwood Way.

the beach by the B&B
The beach in Durness

Sandwood Bay didn’t disappoint – a mile long stretch of white sand and dunes and due to it’s remote location (2.5 miles from the road) – it was pretty much deserted! And a perfect lunch spot amongst the dunes.  The food wasn’t highbrow (aldi ham and cheese sandwiches and a flask of tea), but food does just taste extra good when you’re sitting on a stunning beach after a hearty walk.

sandwood bay
Sandwood Bay
lunch on sandwood bay
Aldi sandwiches are the food of kings when eaten in these exquisite surroundings

Day two we were pretty lucky with the weather too.  And today was a coastal walk with lots of delightful little beaches along the way.  We walked from Talmine near Tongue in a loop along the coast.  Today we sustained ourselves with fruit pastilles, murray mints and cherry and watermelon ‘sour pops’ – marvellous sour lollies with a bubblegum centre. Yes walking is the perfect justification for mainlining crap! Yay!

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Sour pops – hiking fuel
the cove on saturday
A beautiful cove near Talmine

And hearty walking earns a hearty evening meal. That evening we went to the local Smoo Cave Hotel for dinner.  Jamie and I decided to get adventurous by ordering haggis, neeps and tatties (neeps = turnips) and red pudding (deep fried sausage) and chips. I didn’t have high expectations for either dish.  In all honestly I knew I’d be blogging about Scotland so felt obliged to go native!  But goodness that haggis was a treat – similar to a deliciously spicy, almost middle eastern style mince. And the turnip mash – now that was something else.  Nutty and sweet and beautifully complimentary to the haggis. Who knew I liked turnips?

haggis
Haggis, neeps and tatties

Jamie’s red pudding (despite his apparently unhappy face here) was also delicious.  But you can’t really go wrong with anything deep fried that is served with chips, can you? Marathon diet going well still.

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Red pudding and chips

The last day was a very lazy day! It poured with rain in the morning which gave Jamie and I the excuse to stay in bed until 1pm.  Result! As soon as it brightened up we headed out on our own little stroll to the nearby Faraid Head about four miles from our B&B.  Basically a beautifully Caribbean-esque peninsula with an MOD site at the end of it. It was a glorious walk and as per usual my highlight was sitting on top of a hill with a flask of tea and an Aldi crisp sarnie.  Happy days.

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Balnakeil Beach, Durness
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Me and my Aldi and Highland crisp sandwich.

Jamie and I will definitely be returning to the north west coast of Scotland – we were inspired by its windswept beauty and romantic remoteness.  We are hoping to do the famous five hundred mile coastal route by car one day.  I will pack a lot of snacks!

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My marvellous culinary journey with Cracking Good Food

In 2014, mid divorce and feeling like I needed some new hobbies in my life, I made a very good decision: I started volunteering with the cookery school and charity Cracking Good Food.

I’ve always loved the look of the courses they offer – they were unusual and intrigued me – Nepalese – Japanese – elderflower foraging – pasta making.  Volunteering would be a way of learning for free and a great opportunity to meet interesting, foodie people.

So I signed up and oh my! have I learnt a lot.  In the last eighteen months these are just a few of the courses I’ve helped on:

Punjabi Vegetarian

Indian born, Neha grew up being taught to cook by her family.  I’ve done this course twice and the food is an incredible combination of spicy, yet gentle and wholesome – you feel comforted and soothed by this delicious food. Neha herself is part of the charm of this class – she is a wonderfully sweet and caring young woman, clucking around the class, making sure everyone is okay and explaining and demonstrating whenever help is needed.  The class culminates in a massive feast at lunchtime of dhal, spinach paneer, okra marsala and parathas (a gorgeous buttery version of chapatis).

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A vegetarian Punjabi picnic feast
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Spice heaven

Bread and Easter Treats

Rob is the bread expert.  He’s been with Cracking Good Food for all it’s six years and his bread courses are extremely popular.  So much so that he runs ten a year.  I suspect it’s not just his wonderful bread expertise that attracts the punters – Rob is a fantastic teacher – he’s dramatic and witty and brings the subject to life. And this session was bread with a twist: focaccia, hot cross buns and chelsea buns.  In fact hot cross buns and chelsea buns are in essence pretty much the same and I can’t get enough of either of them.

chelsea buns
Fresh from the oven – chelsea buns

Chocolate Truffles

What’s not to like about a chocolate truffle course? And this one I was attending rather than volunteering so even more fun than usual!  Isobel from Dormouse Chocolates runs the only bean to bar chocolate making business in Manchester.  She trained to be a chocolatier at Hotel du Chocolat before setting up her own company in 2014.  It was a privilege to hear all about the chocolate making process at Dormouse where they use a stone grinder to grind raw coca beans. And making chocolate truffles with 70% Ecuadorian chocolate callets was a hoot! I have to confess to not fully taking on board all the different processes of what we were doing (I know we tempered the chocolate at some point) because I was too busy yapping to my new best friend on the course – Diane.  And that is what I love about these courses – it’s the fascinating people that go on them.  Cracking Good Food attracts interesting, broadminded clients – and they are a joy to work with. It was an entirely female group and it felt gloriously girly – especially decorating the truffles at the end with edible glitter and chopped nuts and cocoa.

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Delightful chocolate truffles
eating choc
Perks of the course! Scraping the bowl out

Offal and Game

I was curious about this course, but I can’t say I’ve ever been a fan of offal and game. However I knew I would like Iain Devine (@drunkenbutcher). He’s a bit of a legend on twitter and I’d heard a lot about his lively supper clubs.  I wanted to meet this man!  And Iain lived up to expectation – he was funny and fascinating and knew his cooking. And the food and offal was TASTY!  Seriously – devilled kidneys on toast? Oh yes – melty and spicy. Pigeon on fondant potato? Succulent – great combo with the creamy potatos. Chicken liver pate? Rich and flavourful. I have been turned.

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The Drunken Butcher (aka Iain Devine) butchering a rabbit
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Pigeon on fondant potato

Pastry

This was a long day.  A 9am start and a 4.30pm finish.  I was a little anxious that I’d run out of steam and want to go home.  I couldn’t have been more wrong.  Neil Buttery – Mr Pastry himself – was a captivating teacher.  The whole class hung on his every word! Neil whilst doing a PHD in Evolutionary Biolology (yes really!) started blogging about food history as a way of practising writing.  This led to a lot of experimenting with game pies, sparking a passion for pastry and Neil hasn’t looked back since. He now runs the Buttery at the POD in Levenshulme – a  restaurant specialising in pies. On the menu for the course: custard tarts, savoury pies and eccles cakes. So much buttery, crumbly goodness. Those 7.5 hours whizzed by.

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Learning about pastry and custard tarts

Foraging

On a cold saturday in January we headed out to Fletcher Moss Park in Didsbury. The delightful and very knowledgeable Jesper Launder guided us through a very unpromising barren and soggy park.  But it was very fruitful – we came back with a colourful variety of mushrooms and leafy greens.  And my favourite bit (unsurprisingly) was the cook up at the end. We tipped our goodies out onto the wall of the park and Jesper cranked up the camping stove and magicked up some exquisite buttery, mushroom, leafy omlettes!

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A beautiful basket of foraged mushrooms

Lucky me!  It really has been a journey in every sense.

I won’t lie, I usually wake up on a Saturday morning at 7am wondering why on earth I’ve signed up to a course! There’s usually a bit of cursing and grumpiness as I get myself ready for a 9am start.

But without fail when I come home in the afternoon I’m energised and excited and I’ve made some new friends!

Every single chef at cracking good food that I’ve met is passionate and inspiring.

If you’re interested to see the Courses Cracking Good Food have on offer – have a look:

http://www.crackinggoodfood.org/

 

 

Tasty pie time at the Buttery, at POD, Levenshulme

I recently did a pastry course run by an inspiring chef who is appropriately name Neil Buttery.  Neil was charismatic and had a fascinating knowledge of food history and pies.  I was intrigued to try his newly opened restaurant – The Buttery at POD – out in Levenshulme.  So one Saturday in March Jamie and I went to investigate.

The restaurant is in a delightful old Post Office building near Levenshulme station.  As soon as you walk in you’re welcomed into a lovely, cosy, stylish and atmospheric venue.  It’s a small place with about eight tables and the lighting was wonderfully low and mellow.  The decor was simple and well thought out – a good combination of contemporary with retro touches – like second hand wooden furniture and a wood panelled bar with Victorian style white tiling on the wall with beer pumps on.

We were immediately looked after by the front of house bar man – in fact all the staff were very enthusiastic and attentive in a really pleasant way.  We were shown to our seats and talked through the menu and specials.  It didn’t take us long to decide on the pies: beef and Guinness for Jamie, Lancashire cheese and leek for me – with both of us going for welsh rarebit for starters.

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Zingy Welsh Rarebit

We made good choices.  The rarebit was just the right size and wonderfully zingy and tasty whilst the pies were perfect comfort food for a freezing spring evening.  The rarebit sparked a debate between Jamie and I.  He liked the bread and I was adamant that it was from the excellent local Levenshulme bakery – Trove. Jamie was unconvinced – so I raised the stakes – betting him £1000 that the bread was from Trove.  And damn it! I was wrong. We asked Neil the chef and it turn’s out his business partner’s mum is making all the bread and cakes.  In my defense, Neil is in negotiations with Trove at the moment to see if they can provide bread as she is a little overworked! Jamie is considering my offer of indefinite tea making instead of a cash sum.

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Steak and Guinness Pie with gravy, mash and peas

Anyway back to POD! Jamie and I were blown away by the atmosphere.  Yes the food was delicious and very reasonable (£36 for two mains, two starters, beer and wine) and Jamie tells me the selection of beers was great too.  But above all the place had passion, style and a real sense of community.  There was something very comforting and welcoming about the venue and it felt like a broad mixture of interesting people hanging out.  I felt like if I’d got a bit more tipsy I could happily have shuffled across to another table and just gatecrashed the conversation.  So, give it a go yourselves! We 100% will be back for more pies and chilled evenings.

 

Sunday afternoon tapas at Manchester’s El Gato Negro

It wasn’t out of choice.  We did actually want to go on Saturday evening, but El Gato Negro is so popular that we had to opt for a 2.30pm slot on Sunday. This award winning restaurant originally based in Rippendon launched in Manchester’s King Street on 22nd February is booked up for weeks on Fridays and Saturdays.

But actually, what a great time to eat – we felt pretty chilled and sophisticated as we leisurely tucked into our elegant tapas dishes in the simple and classy surroundings of this restaurant.

So I’ll cut to the chase.  The highlight for me without a doubt was the tortilla with white onions and potato served with aioli.  I wasn’t over the moon when Jamie ordered it as my experience is of something dry, bland and a bit pointless really.  But OMG – when this tortilla arrived, I forgot about everything else on the table.  It was just so light,  fluffy, moist and flavourful – stuffed to the gills with some kind of fresh herbs (no idea what – I was too busy eating it).  Go to El Gato for the tortilla alone.

tortilla 2

The other food was also excellent – charcuterie; freshly grilled sardines with lemon, garlic and parsley butter; lamb skewers with spiced chickpea puree and harissa (Jamie’s favourite).  But again it was something more ordinary that captured my imagination: a tiny bowl of celeriac remoulade (aka coleslaw) with the meats.  Oh yes!  This stuff hit the spot – just creamy, nutty and sweet.  I could have polished off a big bowl of that.

chacuterie

Another unexpected delight was the Navarrico chickpeas with butternut squash, chilli, garlic and caramelised cauliflower.  Obviously with those ingredients the dish was bound to look a bit beige – but the flavour – my! This spicy treat was a fabulous accompaniment to all the dishes – however El Gato’s chefs made some magic that elevated the dish to special status.

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There was something classy and uncomplicated about the whole afternoon, helped by the staff being attentive and friendly (and a lot of them seemed to be Spanish).  And what I love about tapas is it feels like Christmas to me.  You order a load of stuff and then it keeps appearing one dish after another each like a brand new surprise.  And being surrounded by lots of nibbly tasty things is officially the best way to eat.

It’s worth giving this place a whirl – it’s beautifully and simply decorated and above all the food is authentic and brilliantly executed. Cost-wise – our meal came to £68  – including wine, beer, five tapas dishes and bread. Apart from the restaurant – we had a good sneak around and there’s a lovely looking bar on the ground floor (pictured below) where you could just go in for some simple cold tapas.  Even better, tucked away on the top floor  is a cocktail bar with delightful views of the city and a retractable roof! I’ll so be there in summer.

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Have you been to El Gato Negro? I’d love to hear your thoughts. And I’m keen to know about any other great tapas experiences to be had in the North West.