Sometimes there are restaurants so good that you just don’t want to tell other people about them. Especially when they’re in Manchester’s oversubscribed Northern Quarter. This is how I feel about This n’ That, but that hasn’t stopped me from (selflessly) taking a number of people there. It’s on Soap Street, a tiny little alley just across the road from the Chinese Arts Centre, and buried back in a dark corner next to an abandoned builidng, with such an inobtrusive sign that you would never, ever find it if you didn’t know where to look. It’s a good place to hide out if you’re trying to elude the authorities, or a mental ex.
The place is a hotplate-style curry buffet, with different offerings depending on what day of the week it is, both meat and vegetarian. It’s damn good food, and it’s extremely cheap. I’ve never spent more than four quid for lunch there. And the men who work there are all quite sweet, despite their hazy command of the English language – once you’ve been in a few times, they will remember you and treat you like an old friend.
It gets busy at lunch, but there’s plenty of plastic seating, even a mysterious second floor dining room that I’ve never seen anyone go up to. The onion bhajis aren’t great, but they do have one of those bubbling juice fountain things filled with delicious mango lassi. And they have jugs of cold water for every table – which you’ll be thankful for if you’re too liberal with the green chiles.
It’s only open for lunch – or early tea – as it closes at half five. It’s closed Monday, I think, and Sunday. Getting there early is recommended, because they tend to run out of the good dishes (like the lamb and spinach curry) quickly. If it’s closed when you go, don’t despair. Take a short trip around the corner to Shudehill, where the Abergeldie Cafe serves up tasty fried halloumi and all-day breakfast. It’s the closest thing to a diner you’ll find in Manchester.
The next "Merchant of Hoghton" farmers market is coming up on June 18th. This one should finally see some of the new season's veg make its way onto the stands. I've been making the most of their winter/early spring offerings for the last few months, but as excellent as the purple sprouting broccoli, swiss chard and swedes are, I'm dying for strawberries, tomatoes and lettuces.
With an incredible selection of local fruit and veg, dairy, meat, baked goods, fish, plants and gourmet imports, this is definitely the best and biggest farmer's market in the area, and worth making a trip from as far away as Manchester or Liverpool. It's located at Hoghton Tower, between Chorley and Preston, not far from the motorway. Get there early, though! We aim to be there by 10 when it opens. Wait half an hour and the main barn is as stuffed as a tin of fancy Italian sardines.
A lovely day out recently saw my honey and I cracking open the walking books and heading over to "Tolkien Country," also known as the Ribble Valley. Yes, we have walking books, and they always make me feel slightly nerdy, but what can you do?
A big draw of this particular walk, apart from the likelihood of spotting a hobbit or two, was its proximity to The Three Fishes in Mitton, the newish pub venture from Nigel Haworth, the culinary talent behind the Michelin-starred Northcote Manor in Langho. The pub is located in a roadside spot near the Ribble's confluence with the Hodder, not far from Whalley and just a stone's throw from the beautiful Stonyhurst College, where Tolkien's son was a student, necessitating dad's inspiring stays in the area.
Pre-walk, we couldn't resist a chance to fortify ourselves at the quaint old tea room located just up the hill and across the road from the Three Fishes in Mitton village. Excellent pot of tea and homemade scones that are worth a stop, as well as a menu filled with rarely seen English luncheon specialities of yore (chipped beef on toast). We were the only people in the place below the age of 60, which for me is the hallmark of an especially good tea room.
A few hours later, the sun was definitely over the yardarm as we made our way to the pub with seven miles of walking behind us. Since it was hot and sunny, we elected to eat outside, noting on our way through the pub the stripped down decor, tastefully done in dark wood, with black and white photographs adorning the walls. It all seemed just a slight bit impersonal, and I missed the ambiance of a really cracking old pub (as at the Inn at Whitewell down the road) – but perhaps this is because the place has been so recently redone. The outdoor space isn't what you'd call picturesque; it's got a nice view of the parking lot. But it's good enough if you just want to get some sun.
One surprise was the extremely limited selection of real ales. They had a good local pale ale, Clitheroe's Hen Harrier, but nowt in the way of decent bitter. No Weissbiers, either, and that wouldn't have gone amiss on such a hot day. It was a Sunday, however, so perhaps their stocks were low.
We ordered the potted shrimps to start, and weren't disappointed. Top quality local produce and simple, old-fashioned English cooking is the Three Fishes' thing, and as you'd expect, the buttery shrimps were from Morecambe Bay. The menu has a focus on filling sandwiches and grilled meats, which is to be expected at a pub, but it lacked imagination. Entrees were reasonably priced at a few pounds above what you'd find in a typical pub, which is fine given the high quality.
Our mains came. I had ordered fillet steak, which was cooked perfectly medium rare and came accompanied by some sinfully good chips and onion rings. Across the table, some local roast pork, a springtime special, went down very well indeed. Many of the folks seated around us seemed to be eating the fish and chips, which looked excellent. We finsihed up with ice cream and chocolate and orange pudding, both fine but not incredible. Service was deft and friendly, despite the fact that the place was packed.
This place will probably continue to do extremely well, exemplifying the cult of Britishness that has come to dominate the upper echelons of Northwest food in the last five years. Nigel Haworth champions "local food heroes" – from the ubiquitous Reg Johnson, whose Goosnargh poultry haunts menus up and down the country, to the lesser-known likes of Peter Ashcroft, the cauliflower king of Tarleton.
You can't help but applaud such dedication to regional producers. But sometimes it all feels a little too worthy to me, very Observer Food Monthly. Maybe it's the fact that these local food heroes have been photographed in flattering black and white for the Three Fishes, which features their hearty organic smiles on everything from its placemats to its website – in effect, transforming them into marketing fodder. Yes, it's wonderful, I know, and it's so much better than it was when we were all eating tinned corn from California. But sometimes the fetishization of local produce, of agressively "good food", gives me pause.
This blog is going to be about food and drink in Northwest England. From parkin to pho bo, from vimto to vol au vent, if it's good (or exceptionally bad) then I'm going to write about it. I'll uncover culinary mysteries, tracking down the fabled "slappy" in its natural habitat, scouring remote moorlands for forgotten pubs, and unearthing the last Temperance Hall in existence.