Thursday, 24 November 2011 - online butcher, greengrocer and dairy

I’m not a lover of veg boxes. As I’m a Guardian reading, left leaning Liberal it may come as a bit of a shock to you, but I find there’s either too much trouble with delivery (I don’t have somewhere or someone to leave it with), there’s too much repetition of produce, there’s far too much produce that’s not from the UK – even when it’s in season, or that the produce is a bit ropey. I may be asking a lot from a box scheme, but I’m a picky old thing; that’s why I write a blog!

Farmison are a new online retailer that have started a box scheme and are approaching things from a different angle. Sure there’s the boxes for families and basic boxes, but there’s an emphasis on good quality, hard-to-source produce; plus gourmet products thrown in for good measure (there’s a foodie box, for those that are that way inclined).

From the lovely marketing ladies I chose the Foodie Box (of course) and chose this with relish – big juicy garlic cloves, beautifully fragrant unwaxed lemons, sticky figs, romesco cauliflower, two varieties of cress, shallots, massive Muscat grapes, yellow beetroot, jura potatoes, cheese and yoghurt. My box arrived quickly and I was heartened to see that most of it could go in the recycling/compost – they’d even used paper straw to pad out the dedicates rather than polystyrene beads.

Foodie box with dairy - with thanks to

Opening the box I was like a child at Christmas – all the produce was in peak condition and lasted longer than supermarket produce. However the potatoes didn’t last very long at all and had gone mouldy by the end of the week.

The inclusion of the dairy in the box is a good idea – allowing you to mix and match what you get and add a little extra for your weekly menu. The quality of the dairy products was even better than the fruit and veg. Montgomery’s cheddar was an unpasteurised delight with a rich, almost farmyardy smell and a real tangy bite. The yoghurt was from Preston; thick, creamy and a true delight – it was hard not to eat the whole tub in one go.

Farmison’s philosophy is to offer excellent seasonal produce from traditional and artisanal producers across the UK – offering products that are not available elsewhere online. This commitment's splashed right across their website; their stock of cheeses is enviable and a fromageophile’s equivalent to online porn.

Cheese box - yes, you can even pick your own cheese and put it in a box - with thanks to

Compared to other box schemes Farmison’s prices aren’t much more expensive, but for me I still prefer to be able to fondle my fruit and veg; plus only the cress, cauli and potatoes were from the UK in the foodie box I received. I appreciate that certain products (ie the wonderful lemons from Italy) can’t be sourced in the UK; but for me, even as a foodie, I’d rather fore go most items that are out of season, rather than substitute with those that from a different country (though not those lemons!).

For me, rather than the box scheme, Farmison excels on their meat and dairy; each cut of meat has multiple choices for the consumer, for example there’s four different types of lamb noisettes from North Yorkshire, The Isle of Man, Lancashire and Suffolk. Each entry has details about the farm it’s from, the breed and which chefs in the country use it. You can even click on farm name or the breed and you’re linked to more detailed information. 

Photo of Abbotts Farm, Yorkshire from their producer section - thanks to

Farmison’s dedication to quality sourcing and care of provenance shines through from their well thought out and well designed site. Farmison are putting choice and power back in the hands of the consumer and that’s a good thing in my book. It might be a little pricey, but I like to think that I'm paying for quality, good husbandry and utter trust in the provenance of the produce I buy. I doubt I'll use the box scheme, but that's just me, however for meat and dairy I'm already there!

Ps - I was sent a box by Farmison, but not in the expectation I'd write super nice things about them - all the thoughts are my own and they haven't seen this piece before I publish it.

Pps - Sorry for the lack of pictures, technology problem.

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Cafe Vnam - Ancoats, Manchester

The best things in life are free, good things come to those who wait, patience is a virtue and other such adages litter our collective linguistics; phrases that have sprung up over time to impart useful information or just to quell over excitement in small children.

Maybe over time another turn of phrase will spring up in relation to Manchester’s ethnic dining scene; the grottier the better. In my recent travels around the city it seems that those restaurants that look like they’ve been stocked with the furniture from someone’s back yard and have menus that are wipe clean, are the ones delivering the most tasty, most honest and properly priced bowls of food.

Readers of my blog will remember previous glowing reviews for Baekdu, BBQ Handmade Noodles and Izakaya Samsi – well here’s another to add to the list: Café Vnam.

Cafe Vnam interior - with thanks to Manchester Confidential

Located on an unassuming stretch of Oldham Road, Café Vnam is easy to overlook; especially with the monstrous behemoth of Wing Yip and the Royal Mail sorting office overshadowing it from across the road.

Café Vnam is a very simple place; it’s décor from the bargain range in Homebase, bright lights and a laminated menu. However the place is clean, there's a great smell of food and the service is prompt. We started with Gui Cuon, or Summer Rolls, and were delighted at the fresh, zesty flavours that slapped us round the face and made us sit up and take notice of what came out next.

Fresh, herby vegetable summer rolls

The Boy’s Beef Pho was wonderful; a deeply flavoured bowl of steaming soup and noodles with hints of clove and star anise. The pho comes with extras so you can customise your bowl to suit yourself; this included generous bunches of mint and coriander, heaps of bean sprouts and the fieriest little chillies I’ve had in a while. (Cue hilarious hand waving from the boy as he pops one in his mouth by mistake).

Pho Bo - beef pho

BBQ lamb chops were charred and sticky; the meat super soft and moist within – a real testament to the skill of the chef. The chops were topped off with caramelised spring onions, not something I’ve seen before, but the sweet smokiness combined extremely well and jarred well with the sharp, vinegary, spicy sauce accompaniment.

Com thit cuu nong - BBQ lamb chops

The food at Cafe Vnam wasn’t awe-inspiringly creative, didn’t push any boundaries and didn’t look like a work of art - however it was honest, tasty and fresh; and that's something I appreciate much more in a meal when I can actually find it.

Ps – Café Vnam doesn’t have a licence so don’t get giddy and expect to have a beer.

Pps – maybe some of the cheaper English places should take a leaf out of Café Vnam and others’ books and serve fresh, tasty food rather than tasteless, fatty cardboard.

Price for one starter, two mains and a glass of coke: £15.10

Food – 7/10
Atmosphere – 7/10
Service – 7/10
Value for money – 9/10

Total – 30/40

Go again – definitely. And you can park outside as it’s not fallen foul to Manchester City Centre’s daft new 8am-8pm money making parking sham.

Café Vnam, 140 Oldham Road, Ancoats, Manchester M4 6BG - 0161 205 2700 -

Vnam Café on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

The Rose Garden - West Didsbury

Situated in the middle of Burton Road, which is West Didsbury's equivalent of a high street, The Rose Garden shines out as a paean to modernity and minimalism. Located in an area overloaded with faux vintage, twee cupcake shops and folksy frontages, the clean lines and stark white interior of The Rose Garden make a refreshing change.

The Rose Garden exterior - with thanks to Deanna Thomas and Didsbury Life

The restaurant is totally family run; William Mills is the chef, his dad designed the restaurant, his brother kitted it out, his sister works there (and was our very eloquent, attentive and excellent waitress for the night) and I've heard a rumour that it's named after his mum and she does the books.

With seasonality and locality underlining the restaurant's ethos coupled with the stunning interior design  I was already smitten with the restaurant before eating there. All I needed was some good food and I can say I wasn't disappointed.

Starters were large and flavoursome - a fish pie was just on the right side of heavy without being too filling and the mussels in cider with bacon melted in the mouth. The combination of seafood and porcine sweetness highlighted Chef Mills' ability to pair complimentary flavours in order to create something simple yet stunning.

Mussels with cider and bacon

Mains carried on excellently; beef two ways was a big, burly dish of succulent, rare fillet and and tender slow cooked shin. The perfectly pink venison with 'rubik's cube roasted veg' further highlighted the chef's brilliant cooking skills. However this dish was priced at £21.95 and was tiny compared to the beef, plus the rubik's cube was far too faffy and the veg cubes far too small. I can think of better things to do with roasted root veg than spend my time arranging them into a neat little box.

Teeny, tiny venison portion

A pistachio tart was the final flourish to an exceptionally well put together meal. The taste was very subtle, but in no way would I call this tart bland; the flavours sweetly whispered their existence. Underlying fragrances of orange blossom and cardamon layered beautifully and I can say this is one of the best puddings I've had this year - and I'm not even going to gripe about the price!

Wonderful tart with an intense blackcurrant tuile - more please!

The Rose Garden is a special place; great food put together with great care by a great family, the only issue is the great (as in expensive) price of the mains, bring these down a few quid and then the future is, well, rosey.

Ps - The Rose Garden does have a cheaper set menu that's available all day early in the week and then as an early bird later on in the week - check it out here.

Price for two starters, two mains, two puddings and a glass of wine: £70.80

Food - 9/10
Service - 9/10
Atmosphere - 9/10
Value for money - 7/10

Total - 34/40

Go again? Yes, for a special occasion or if I wasn't having three courses.

The Rose Garden, 218 Burton Road, West Didsbury, Manchester, M20 2LW - 0161 478 0747 - - Twitter - Facebook

The Rose Garden on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Planet Pavillion - Jodrell Bank, Macclesfield

Located in Jodrell Bank's new visitor centre, with excellent views across to the impressive Lovell radio telescope; the Planet Pavilion Cafe is the latest outpost of the Modern Caterer, a small company headed up by award winning chef Peter Booth, that has sustainability and seasonality as its core.
The Modern Caterer at The Planet Pavilion - with thanks to Relish Publications

Dominated by the large windows focused on the iconic white radio telescope; the cafe is a fresh, modern space with quirky facts along the walls and lines of clocks displaying various space related times such as the time on Venus and in a black hole (with handy explanations for the non-physicists underneath). There's the ubiquitous blackboard you find in many little cafes with piles of fresh veg underneath and heaps of homemade cakes on the counter.

Views out to the Lovell radio telescope - with thanks to Manchester University

The menu is a mixture of usual lunchtime fare; sandwiches, soups, wraps and whatever. It's was a bustling little space, even on a wet Tuesday afternoon and whilst we were there it was obvious that staff from Manchester University's Astrophysics Department often pop in. And who wouldn't?

Dishes displayed a simplistic elegance and a genuine care for the ingredients involved; the daily special of parsnip soup was creamy yet light, with a sweet whisper of sharp apple underlying the whole dish. Alongside was bread supplied by (fairly) local bakery, Barbakan of Chorlton - and, considering how much their loaves cost, there was a substantial amount of one on the side of the plate.

Parsnip soup and loads of bread

Potted Cheshire Pork (the meat supplied by award winning WH Frosts - also of Chorlton) was wonderfully soft and surrounded by the lovely, scrumptious fat and topped with the sharpest slivers of apple - a brilliant essay in why salty, sweet and sour works so well together. Could have done with a little more seasoning, but that was my only gripe.

Potted Cheshire Pork

We followed these tasty, simple lunch dishes with a full five minutes considering the distortion of space time round the hefty body of homemade cakes on offer. After much deliberation we chose a light and fragrant orange and poppy seed plus a dense and chewy brownie, which were eaten in three seconds flat; proving the point that space time does indeed slow down and then speed up round heavenly bodies.

Cakes - look boring, tasted fab

The Planet Pavilion is a great cafe for a museum, or for anywhere to be honest. There's no pre-packaged sandwiches; there's the excellent cooking; there's large portions, there's sensible pricing and there's an obvious commitment to deliver good tasting, sustainable food in line with their ethos rather than simply using it as a catchy and on-trend byline. I wish other establishments would take a leaf from Jodrell and realise overcharging for plastic crap is something that should only happen in the gift shop.

Ps - The Planet Pavilion Cafe also has a licence and serves Cains, so you can calm your nerves if contemplating the universe gets too much.

Pps - you don't have to visit Jodrell to go to the cafe; but I'd recommend it, just for a walk around the massive grounds and to stand by the radio telescope and pretend you're Brian Cox or (even better) Sir Patrick Moore.

Cost for two dishes, two cakes and a beer: £14.75

Food - 8/10
Service - 7/10
Atmosphere - 7/10
Vale for money - 9/10

Total - 31/40

Go again? Yes, any excuse for sustainable, well cooked food AND learning about astrophysics. I'm there!

The Modern Caterer at The Planet Pavilion, Jodrell Bank Discovery Centre, Lower Withington, Macclesfield, Cheshire SK11 9DL (sat navs use SK11 9DW) - 01477 571766 -

Pavilion Cafe Jodrell Bank on Urbanspoon

Planet Pavillion Cafe on Urbanspoon