The chance to visit the beautiful architectural phenomenon Victoria Baths AND eat food by the Real Junk Food Project was too good to pass up! Jamie and I signed ourselves up back in August. I didn’t really think more about it other than, how cool, I’m going to a beautiful old building and I get to try celebrity chef Mary Ellen McTague’s food. I was also excited about experiencing The Real Junk Food Project who make their dishes with food donated by supermarkets and other food suppliers that would otherwise be discarded. What a great concept.
However Jamie’s mum came round for a cuppa a few days before and gave a whole new angle to Victoria Baths. This was a place that meant a huge amount to her. Christine’s eyes lit up when she heard we were going. Not only had she gone there as a child for her weekly bath, but it’s where her mother had done her washing. Her mother would go there on the same day every week with her friends and they would sing their hearts out to pass the time while they did the washing. It was a place of community and happy memories for Christine. And as a young adult she had gone there with work colleagues to enjoy the Turkish Baths where you apparently you got scrubbed to within an inch of your life. That had been a lot of fun too. So going to the 110 year birthday celebrations took on added meaning and depth after that lovely insight.
It was a Thursday evening and as we arrived we were given a glass of prosecco and were given free reign to wonder around the building. And what a treat that was. We started in the Turkish baths area where deck chairs, towels and scrubbing tools were laid out artfully to help stoke up your imagination as to what it must have been like.
Then we went into the pool area which just felt opulent and beautiful. We loved wandering around taking photos of the old changing booths and walking up to the spectators gallery and enjoying the fantastic views from up there.
And after a bit of pleasant ambling and prosecco sipping it was dinner time! I had no idea how this was going to work other than the food had been donated that day from supermarkets, bakers and other food suppliers and Real Junk Food Project muster up a menu based on the goods that come in.
This was the menu we received:
Roast cauliflower and rice with cumin, ginger and lime
Lentils, paneer, tomato and coriander
Roast courgette and pepper
Sweetcorn and seafood chowder
The food was delivered as sharing plates – dish after dish was brought out and we piled stuff on our own plates. In my enthusiasm I took hearty portions of everything thinking we had got our full quota of food on the table. But no, more goodies kept coming out, recipes that weren’t even on the menu. I may have been full but I had to keep trying everything obviously! This was Mary Ellen McTague’s food – I wasn’t going to miss out on any of it.
My overall impression of the food was that it was very good, imaginative and wholesome food. Fine dining it wasn’t – it wasn’t that fussy and finessed – it felt more like an amazing and exotic buffet – which was a vibe I loved.
Firm favourites were definitely the garlic sourdough (great idea) – and the bread was apparently sourced from Trove Bakery. I also LOVED the scotch broth, which had us all baffled because it was most definitely not a broth – it was in fact pearl barley with some very tasty lamb on top. No idea if there was a change of mind regarding the initial idea of scotch broth but either way I was very happy with the succulent, earthy risotto-ey outcome. I was a big fan of the creamy sweetcorn and seafood chowder too.
I thought the sharing plates were great for a party atmosphere. What better way to get to know your table neighbours than by passing around new intriguing dishes that you have to identify and discuss! Especially as there seemed to be several additional curveballs like spinach, chorizo, chicken and a watermelon salad that weren’t on the original menu.
The evening ended with a delicious slice of birthday cake with chocolate icing and a lovely speech from Corin Bell, Director of Real Junk Food Project Manchester and chef Mary Ellen McTague. They run regular pop ups in Manchester where the food is provided on a pay as you feel basis. They had wanted to contribute to the Victorian Baths birthday celebration as it was a cause that they identified with – taking something old and finding a new purpose for it.