Tuesday, 21 May 2013

North West's Best

While my branch of the Roscoe family tree originally hailed from Wigan area, the North West - bar a couple of trips to the Lakes and a ill advised late October jaunt to Blackpool -  has remained somewhat a mystery to me. While having family in Yorkshire means I have become pretty well acquainted with the other side of the Pennines, I was keen to finally spend some time in the Cheshire/Lancashire/Merseyside area, and, of course, to enjoy some of the celebrated local cuisine.

Finding edible specialities to sample on our travels proved to be rather easier than hoped, with a blend of industry and immigration proving a fertile breeding ground for delights such as Wet Nelly, Sad Cake and Hotpot. Mindful of the Ewing’s tolerance for my wild goose (or cake, or stew, or pudding) chases, and the fact we were going to have our friend Stealth with us for the first few days, I drew up a rather modest list, mainly focussing mainly on the Greater Manchester area.

Cheshire/Lancashire cheese
Rag Pudding
Eccles Cake/Chorley Cake
Butter Pie
Bury Black Pudding
Manchester Tart
Parched Peas

The first stop on our food tour was the charming city of Chester, where I hoped to sample some famous dairy products at the Spitting feathers Brewery Tap. Handily they also have their own micro brewery onsite and I chose to sample a pint of their Spitting Feather’s Thirst Quencher. While I was anything but gasping after the weekend’s, somewhat overindulgent, birthday celebrations, I found this light ale the perfect choice for what was turning into a glorious spring day.

Local cheese platter including Chorlton Farm Cheshire; a rather tasty, mystery, blue cheese; and Caws Cenarth Welsh brie; served with stone baked rye sourdough, crackers and fruit chutney. A selection of fine, simple, British cheeses, served in prime condition.

Cheshire is the oldest of all British cheeses, being first mentioned in William of Malmesbury's History of the bishops of England. It has also, until recently, been one of my least favourite cheeses. Happily, I can now say that I am slowly being turned on to its (and its brethren  Lancashire) squeaky, crumbly charms. Think of it as a kind of English Feta - it goes wonderfully with tomatoes - or use it for a rarebit or crumbled on top of buttered English asparagus.

The rest of the food was also very decent, with an interesting menu featuring lots of offally treats and local products. My salad of endive and pigs ears went down a treat while the Ewing and Stealth both enjoyed their trout rilettes and mushrooms on toast, piled with yet more Cheshire cheese, very much too.

Next stop was Eccles, a town in the City of Salford and original home of the famous Eccles cake. After my attempts to find a traditional baker in Manchester had already failed miserably alarm bells had started ringing. Sure enough we arrived a little after five to find the only two bakers left in town, the ubiquitous Gregg's and northern chain Hampson's, were both shut.

Feeling deflated, we headed to the giant Morrison's store by the bus station to see if we could salvage operation Eccles cake. Thankfully they sold two types; their own version, dubiously labelled 'baked in store', as well as a big display of the familiar 'Real Lancashire' Eccles cakes, made by the Edmunds family in nearby Ardwick (Eccles cakes are without a PDO, so unlike a Cornish pasty or a Cumberland sausage they can be produced anywhere).

The Morrison's own version was lacklustre  It looked fairly inoffensive, being made with the traditional three slashes across the top and finished with a dusting of crunchy demerara sugar, but things soon went steadily down hill; firstly it was made of puff, not shortcrust pastry and the moist filling resembled more a mince pie than an Eccles cake. Even the Ewing refused a second one. The Real Lancashire cake was much better.

Although rather small and not much to look at, the crumbly pastry and generous dense fruit inside made me feel rather nostalgic. Although I grew up a fair few country miles from this neck of the woods, the, northern, family I used to babysit for always left out a tin of Eccles cakes for when I came over, and the highlight of my evening was a cuppa and one of these. While I'm you can get better examples elsewhere eating one did feel a little bit like a strange Proustian madeline kind of moment.

Mid way through our trip I had booked a birthday lunch at Simon Rogan's the French. After three hours of eating and drinking most mere morals would go home to a couple of Alka Seltza and an afternoon nap, but my next target was rag pudding, a minced steak and onion pudding originating from Oldham that would have originally been wrapped in cotton rags before steaming.

With Twitter proving reticent about where to buy one, I was very please to finally find an online menu for Manchipster Plaice (keeping up chippy tradition with not one two two terrible puns in its name). What I was far less pleased about (and the Ewing even less so) was that the map on Yell's website sent us right down to the opposite end of Dantzic street, a good mile from where we wanted to be. Still, it probably helped burn off a chip or two....

The much anticipated pudding, alongside chips, lashings of gravy and, for extra Manc points, all washed down with a can of cold Vimto. Despite it having been gently congealing within its polystyrene tray in the car boot on the way home, a little blast in the microwave and this was still surprisingly good.

The rag pudding was just like any half way decent steamed steak pudding, and its oval shape meant a better meat to pastry ratio. The chips were as gloriously soggy and sticky as one might hope. While not replacing red sauce and vinegar in my house any time soon, I can still appreciate the charms of a heap of fried potatoes and gravy.

To stick a feather in the cap of what was turning into a bad afternoon for the Ewing, her 'scallops' turned out to be potato slices rather than bivalves (I feared that mentioning this to her in the chippy would have led to me getting a battering instead). 

While she remained indifferent, I found these Northern chip shop staples to be pretty brilliant; starchy soft spud with a carapace of crispy, thick batter, oozing delicious grease and all generously dusted with an ungodly amount of salt. 

Our trip to Liverpool saw us seeking out scouse, the city’s most iconic dish and at one time so prevalent that the locals were even named after it.

Lobscouse, a lamb and vegetable stew, was originally bought over by the Norwegian sailors who would have thickened it with ship’s biscuits, and while lots of cafes and pubs still offer it, especially in the winter months, it again proved a difficult dish to track down online. The Baltic Fleet pub, by the docks, offers it,  along with its own microbrewed beer, and Bold Streets famous Maggie Mays café calls its self the home of the most famous Scouse in Liverpool.

Seizing the chance to get a bit of culture along with our lunch, we visited Liverpool’s Anglican Cathedral where Scouse is still served in their Welsby Restaurant.

This was just what was needed for a bright and blustery day with the wind blowing hard off the docks. A mini casserole of piping stew featuring soft lamb that shredded under the gentle prod of a fork, potatoes and carrots in a deep gravy and costing a penny under six quid this was, in the local parlance, boss. A great doorstop of crusty bloomer, pickled red cabbage and a pot of tea made for a very fine lunch indeed.

Picking up the final pieces of our edible puzzle came with our visit to 'Bury's World Famous Market'. Established in 1444, it remains one England's oldest and largest markets. I was properly excited about a trip here, after all who doesn't love a good rummage and the odd bargain or two.

Breakfast was at Mrs Ogden's Tea Room, a fantastically ramshackle prefab inside the indoor market, bedecked in bunting and union flags. This place was great; hand written signs offered fried spam and egg rolls, hot Vimto and crumble and custard and bottles of Lancashire sauce on every table.

The Ewing went for a mammoth fry up, complete with Chadwick's black pudding and a cup of splosh. Yours for just £4.99. I had what is known in common parlance as a 'muffin' with black pud and bacon. Proper greasy grub.

I'm not sure I've seen so many stalls laden with bread, cakes, pies, muffins and pastries all in one place. The very best of traditional British baking can be found here, from the afformentioned Lancastrian muffins (also known variously as breadcakes, oven bottoms, barms, teacakes, baps or rolls depending on what side of the Watford Gap/Pennines you hail from) to Chorley cakes, Eccles cakes, hot pot pies and steak puddings.

The Chorley Cake was much larger and flatter (although, Bury Market threw up some giant versions of the Eccles, too) than its cousin. It’s traditionally made with shortcrust, not flaky pastry, the top is unadorned with sugar and overall it is far less sweet. As a result it is often eaten at tea time spread with butter, jam or even Lancashire cheese.

While first impressions of my Chorley Cake were a bit muted, it seemed a little dry and rather lacking in fruit filling (the currants seem to have been more folded into to the dough), I think, on balance I ended up preferring this less sugary version, especially once a thick slathering of butter had been applied.

Harry Muffin is one of the best known of the Bury bakers, and their stall offers treats ranging from dinner plate sized Eccles and Chorley cakes (also now available in gluten and sugar free varieties) to the eponymous muffins, bread and homemade fruit pies. The most fascinating of said pies was the 'whinberry' (as bilberries are known around Bury) flavour. The small one we bought home being the perfect balance of sugary, flaky pastry crammed with juicy, inky fruit.

They also sell the famous Cissy Greens hand raised meat pie, a small comestible rather like a Scotch pie in appearance, still made from a traditional recipe in the nearby town of  Haslingden. These were so good that the after we had eaten the two we bought for ourselves, I persuaded the Ewing we should probably eat the two we had bought for her parents, too (luckily we had stocked up with plenty of other treats for them).

Finally, a Manchester tart - while searching Yahoo! had only unhelpfully (but rather amusingly) offered up 'ask Wayne Rooney' as an answer - After three visits to Manchester town centre, and leaving empty handed each time (even Greggs couldn't offer a mass produced version), the Ewing finally spied these beauties. 

The Manchester Tart, much like the gypsy tart from Kent, was a school dinner staple back in the 50s and 60s, featuring a thick vanilla custard on a pastry base with a hidden layer of raspberry jam and finished with a drift of desiccated coconut. While a whole generation is still nostalgic for it's sweet and unrefined charms, a lack of independent bakers and cake shops means that this once common delicacy is becoming harder and harder to find.

This tart was everything I hoped it would be; luminous jam that had probably never met a raspberry, wobbly sweet custard and pale pastry, crowned with the obligatory glace cherry. While there may be more refined versions around, in my mind this tasted of a 70's childhood, where a slice of this after dinner would be topped off by a riding your bike to the park for a game of three and in before bathtime.

If Bury is known for one thing, its black pudding, and the most famous local purveyors of the blood sausage are Chadwick’s. After our earlier breakfast blowout we decided to visit their stall to buy a fresh ring of the stuff to take home and cook ourselves, but it is also available to eat here, either steamed and split, or in a roll, accompanied with a dousing of fiery yellow mustard or piccalilli. As a concession to more modern tastes, it’s also now available in chilli flavour.

Fearing you could have too much of a good thing we refrained from buying yet more black pud from the next door Bury Black pudding company instead chosing a couple of their savoury ducks (faggots). I adore these meaty balls, despite their deeply unfashionable name and mystery contents - usually a mixture of pork belly, heart and liver with lots of herbs and spices - and, at just 70p each, they were somewhat of a bargain.

We bought two different types of Lancashire cheese from Purdon's cheese stall, in both ‘tasty’ and ‘crumbly’ varieties. I rather liked eating the tasty (a more mature, less friable version) with nothing more than a few crackers and a blob of tomato chutney, but in a stroke of inspiration, I used the crumbly stuff to scatter over some new season buttered English asparagus. Perfect.

Despite the huge range of baked goods on offer during our trip I, slightly worryingly, hadn't seen a single butter pie. Although a butter pie is really just a potato and onion pie, commonly formally eaten on by Lancastrian Catholics on Fridays, I really wanted to find something with the original moniker, rather than its more pedestrian description. - and while there's certainly some truth in Shakespeare's assertion 'a rose by any other name would smell as sweet', I think names do matter, as the French version of this dish, pâté aux pommes de terre, exotically proves.

Just when I was planning to give up (or, more likely, ask the Ewing to drive me on a wild goose chase around the chip shops of Bolton and Preston) the Ewing spotted this lone pie, complete with correct title, nestling on the Clayton Park stall. Looking at this picture now I rather rue we didn't get any of the freshly baked hot pot, or cottage pie but, thankfully, at least we nabbed the last butter and potato number.

The butter pie itself was very fine; a rich and comforting dish with fantastic pastry cradling a highly seasoned filling of potato and onion that caused me to proclaim maybe vegetarianism wouldn’t be such a bad option if this were on the menu.

Parched peas, black peas or maple peas, whatever you call them, the final item on the list also seemed in danger of remaining uneaten as the potato van that I had noted usually sold them remained resolutely shuttered during our visit. Again luck was on our side when I spotted Granelli's, a old fashioned little stall selling ice creams with a range of lurid syrup toppings and various things on toast, had black peas (complete with a warning about stray stones).

A few minutes later and we were the recipients of a steaming cup of murky pulses, complete with the sting of hot malt vinegar. Although the first few mouthfuls seemed to be dominated by salt and Sarsons, I actually rather enjoyed these. After a week of pastry, cheese and beer it was nice to eat something warming and comforting that felt marginally healthy. For those who want to recreate that black pea magic at home, bags of the dried legumes were also available at the greengrocer opposite.

While it may not be thought of as a traditional foodie hotspot, this corner of the country finds home to some of the best traditional British baking, meat, and cheeses, as well as an abundance of generosity in both spirit and portion size.This is proper grub, devised to sustain, warm and nourish, and fuelled by history, childhood memories and lashings of gravy. But, beneath all the nostalgia and stodge, there's a delicate and refined touch, too.

As always on our eating adventures I was left to rue the many local delicacies that remained uneaten on our return. Despite the abundant stocks of oven bottom muffins, sasparilla cordial and crumbly cheeses now stockpiled in my kitchen I can hear the North West calling again - and it's saying Uncle Joe's Mint balls, Lancashire hot pot and Morecambe Bay shrimps. Guess it's time to plot another road trip....

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