Mussels – Collecting, Cooking and Eating

I remember watching a programme on telly, can’t remember what but basically this rather well spoken cove was cruising down the Menai straits off Anglesey dredging for mussels. He pointed out to the cameras that Anglesey is the home of mussels. They are shipped all over the world, everywhere but here in the UK! A year or two later The Flame and I spent New Year in a cottage just off the beach in Red Wharf Bay. I asked our landlord where I could buy Anglesey mussels? He simply said “if you wait a couple of hours, I get mine from those rocks over there”. Well that was me sorted, the tide went down and there they where, great clumps of plump, purple mussels clinging gamely to rocks, glistening in the sun. I was in heaven.

As it was December the time was ripe to pick. Apparently, you only collect mussels when there is an ‘r’ in the month (i.e. not in May, June, July or August). By picking outside the summer months you give them a chance to breed. It’s also better for us ‘chompers’ because there’s likely to be less bacteria present in cooler waters. As this was a nice beach, it was unlikely that there was many toxins knocking about. Mussels are filter feeders, if they are eating in nasty places, near sewage outlets etc, there’s a chance they’ll be pretty nasty to eat. Pregnant young ladies should avoid eating mussels full stop!
 I pitched onto the beach with a bucket. I looked out for larger mussels, as these are likely to have had a chance to have their leg over and get some younger ones on the go. After all sustainability is what we should all be about as well! I wouldn’t go for massive mussels as some reckon the meat is not as tasty.
I soaked my mussels overnight after scrubbing all the barnacles off with a the back of a knife and ripping off their ‘beards’ (byssus threads). All this after rinsing well. Very important, any that are open after this little prewash I discarded. Of course, once they’re cooked, I discard any that are closed. If you do want to purge them, however, to get out grit and sand, place the mussels in a bowl of salted cold water overnight, and they will ‘filter’ themselves clean.
There are loads of ways to enjoy mussels. Apparently, you could grill or barbeque them for a delicious smoky flavour, but I always do the traditional French Moules marinières. Here’s the recipe I used.
Moules marinières
Ingredients (serves two or three, as a starter, depending how hungry everyone is)
About 60 (foraged) mussels
1 small red onion (I didn’t have a shallot) peeled and finely diced
1 garlic clove, peeled and minced or finely diced
1 glass white wine
3–5 sprigs of thyme
1 small carton single cream (or crème fraîche)
Knob of butter and a glug of olive oil (1 tbsp)
Salt and pepper (might not need the salt)
Melt the butter and olive oil in a large saucepan (which has a lid) over a medium heat.
Add the onion and soften.
Add the garlic a few minutes later, so you don’t burn it, then the mussels, wine and thyme.
Pop the lid on and leave to simmer, keeping an eye on the mussels to see when they start to open. This will take around 10–15 minutes.
Remove the lid and taste the juice to see if it needs seasoning or not, then add the cream or crème fraîche, just heating through but not cooking. Remember to discard any mussels which are still closed at the end. I had one when I did it.
Pour into a big dish, put in the centre of the table and serve with a crusty baguette for dipping into the white wine and garlic broth that will be left when you’ve plundered the mussels.
Give it a go. Obviously take care if you are foraging them. Otherwise just get from your fishmonger or at a pinch your local supermarket!

Ariete – Newton-le-Willows

Spare a thought for my humble home town of Newton-le-Willows. A small lump of coal of maybe 20,000 souls, nestled between the great metropolis’ of Liverpool and Manchester. Famous for it’s has been rock star Rick Astley and having the first bloke ever to be killed on a railway.

As far as gastronome is concerned it’s all a bit flat. A few decent pubs, it’s own curry yard, a phalanx of kebab shops and that’s about you’re lot. It does however, have at least one beacon of hope in Ariete, an Italian restaurant set in the oldest building on the High Street. The High Street is part of the great North/South highway known as the A49. It’s one of my favourite roads! Ian Botham went through it once on a sponsored walk. This is how good this road is. Ariete is housed in the best building on the best road.
Formerly the grand entrance to the Haydock Park Estate it provides a rather splendid facade, particularly at night when some bulbs light it up. In case you wondered Ariete is Italian for ‘Ram’.
Inside things change a bit. Basically they have grafted a huge hangar on the back of this wonderous folly, complete with skylights and conservatory style windows. I reckon it could cope with 150 covers easy. As well as big it is high, which means the noise can bang on a bit. It’s not what you would call intimate. It sets up better for bigger parties really, but nonetheless the flame and I regularly walk down for a plate of pasta and a bottle of house red. Having said that, they have recently grafted on a ‘specials’ menu which changes pretty often, possibly weekly, so there is always something new to try.
We went in for Christmas Eve so we caught it this time on absolute top form. Completely full, the atmosphere and sense of occasion was bang on. A bottle of Italian Merlot oiled the pipes while the flame plundered a toasted muffin slathered in chicken livers, themselves spiked with chilli and herbs. She was well chuffed. I wafted into a spicy chorizo and squid stew, also set on a crouton with a wodge of rocket leaves. The squid was plentiful and well cooked, criss crossed and curling after a quick ‘shufty’ in a hot, oiled pan. It was a corking starter.
For mains the flame had another starter! But by hokey what a starter, she was stuffed as were the peppers, with beef mince, herbs and spices. She had a ‘small’ mixed salad to accompany. I had a spaghetti with spicy meatballs. Standard fayre I would agree, but if you do want a decent feed, you can’t really beat here. The portions are stupendous. Also worth a mention, is that the garlic bread is based on a massive pizza base. No couple of slices of baguette here, It’s a meal in itself so be warned if you order one with your starter!
I finished off with a creme caramel. A light delight to finish, very nice too, freshly made on the premises that day according to eccentric host Giovanni. We have had ‘a la carte’ here and enjoyed that too. The quality and value is hard to beat. £52 for two for three rollicking  courses, wine and coffee on a Christmas Eve. Not bad in my eyes. I’m not saying you should all trek across from the foodie enclaves of Chorlton or Didsbury or any of the other Cheshire outfits that lead the way in food nearby. I would suggest however, if you ever come to the races, or find yourself trundling down the A49 when the M6 at Thelwall viaduct shuts down for a bit of wind, you could do a lot worse than check out Ariete, The Ram of Italy, you’ll get a decent feed for not much money.
136 High St,
01925 291555

Croma – Pizzeria in Manchester

I can’t claim to be an expert on pizza, though if I do say so myself I do cook up a mean one when I’m in the mood. Faced with a four hour trek round Manchester’s Christmas markets on a busy Sunday afternoon with three partisan PizzaExpress teenagers it was with some relief that I was able to convince the posse that there might be a better pizza gaff out there. Thankfully I was proven correct. 
Croma has been in Manchester a few years now and I have been there a few times. It is set up a side street, a stones throw away from the big Santa on Alberts Square. It’s smart enough outside, neat, neon, purple signs lighting up an understated facade. A tranche of steps lead in.
Inside chrome (get it!) dominates along with smart lighting and foliage. Our 5pm appointment meant we swept passed the queues downstairs to our smart banquette booth that sat our scheme of seven in great comfort and style. The place was buzzing but that didn’t stop us quickly getting underway with our drinks and menus.
We all had starters and all very nice too. The youngsters had dough balls and garlic bread. Thomas, the ten year old, decided to stick with the great little children’s menu. The terrible twins Annabel and Bethany, each thirteen were too grown up! Annabel declared her margarita pizza to be ‘serious pizza’. Bethany (a fussy eater) was foaming at the mouth with the garlic bread. Croma was clearly getting the kids vote.
The flame and I along with the big Rodgers’ went for grown up gourmet stuff. For starters I had the Melanzana Parmigiana (£4.95) which was slices of roasted aubergine baked with buffalo mozzarella, provolone cheese, parmesan, tomatoes, garlic and pine kernels, served with olive bread. It was a great start, cheesy, gooey and full of flavour. I then learned lots of the produce is local and that the wonderful olive bread was from Chorlton! How’s about that then?
The flame went for the Tuna & Black Olive Pate (£4.85) again served with great bread.
Croma is essentially a pizzeria so that’s what I had! They have an amazing selection. They have the classics of course, but really shine on the unusual combinations. I’ve no doubt the Naples originator of the tricolour pizza would be tutting but my Aglefino pizza (£7.95) which consisted of naturally smoked haddock, leeks, a free range egg, emmenthal cheese, chopped parsley, lemon juice and creme fraiche was sensational. Great, well cooked, thin crust base with a succulent, salty, fishy topping. It didn’t have tomato in the topping but was still great. Other toppings included Peking duck and Indian chicken. You could basically have anything you want, there was even some Christmas options on the specials. I was stuck for choice.
A great surprise was the tremendous desert selection. I am a sucker for sherry trifle and have to say it was one of the best I’ve ever had. The key lime pie and Cartmel sticky toffee pudding were close behind. One of the troop expressed mild concern that there was no cheesecake, but you can’t have everything!
The bill came to £148 including service, wine and drinks for seven. The service was attentive and pleasant. The atmosphere completely electric. Our table was dimly lit with crisp white linen and mirrored walls ensuring we were all able to get on and chat. It was a great meal out and was given the big fat thumbs up by the hard to please twineratti. 
Croma has sprouted out a bit from its Manchester base. It has other local births in Chorlton and Prestwich. It has even gone out to Edinburgh, Loughborough and Tunbridge Wells. I’d definitely look them up!
1-3 Clarence Street
Albert Square
M2 4DE
Tel: 0161 237 9799

Crumpets – A Recipe by Paul Hollywood

I don’t know what it is ever since watching Paul Hollywood make crumpets from scratch on telly I’ve always wanted to give It a go. I had never realised to be honest that you could make them, believing they were some mythical, hot, carrier of butter concocted in a secret den in the North by Warburtons. However at a loose end one Saturday afternoon I decided to give them a crack. The recipe below is by Paul Hollywood and makes about 10 crumpets. It pretty much worked. Greasing the rings is important as they can be a pain to get out, especially as the rings are hot. Mine seemed to come out a bit too thick but still tasted great and had a nice light fluffy texture inside. I served mine with some hot buttered, Morecambe bay shrimps slaverred on top, but ‘The Flame’ had scrambled eggs on hers and loved them as well.


Preparation time: 15 minutes plus resting time
Cooking time: 10 minutes each. If you have enough rings you could do about four at a time in a big frying pan.
You will need
175g strong white bread flour
175g plain white flour
14g fast-action dried yeast
1 tsp caster sugar
350ml warm milk
150–200ml tepid water
½ tsp bicarbonate of soda
1 tsp salt
Sunflower oil for cooking
At least four 7-8cm metal rings


1. Put both flours into a large bowl and mix in the yeast. In a jug, dissolve the sugar in the warm milk, then pour onto the flour mixture. Using a wooden spoon, beat the mixture until you have a smooth batter. This will take three to four minutes and is hard work (he’s right here, it is hard work!) because the mixture is stiff, but it is essential to develop the protein strength in the batter and will ensure the crumpets develop their characteristic holes as they cook.


2. Cover the bowl with cling film or a tea towel and leave to stand for about an hour. The mixture will rise and then begin to fall – you will see marks on the side of the bowl where the batter reached before it dropped. This indicates that the yeast has created its carbon dioxide and is now exhausted. The gluten will now have developed sufficiently to give the crumpets structure and enable them to rise and hold their shape.
3. In a jug, mix 150 millilitres of the tepid water with the bicarbonate of soda and salt. Stir this liquid into the batter until evenly combined, then gradually stir in as much of the remaining water as you need to get a thick dropping consistency. Cover the bowl and leave the batter to rest for about 20 minutes. Little holes will appear on the surface and the batter will become a bit sticky.
4. Heat a flat griddle or heavy-based frying pan on a medium-low heat. Lightly but thoroughly grease the inside of at least four seven to eight centimeter metal crumpet rings (ideally non-stick). Lightly grease the griddle or pan, using a crumpled piece of kitchen paper dipped in oil.
It’s a good idea to start with a trial crumpet. The first one is never the best, like the first pancake.
5. Put a greased crumpet ring on the griddle. Ladle enough batter into the ring to come just below the rim; it should be about three centimetres deep. The temperature of the pan is important: it is better to cook the crumpet lower and slower than hot and fast. After six to eight minutes, the bottom of the crumpet should be browned and the rest almost cooked through. You’ll know when it is nearly ready once the top looks almost set and most of the bubbles that have formed on the surface have burst. You can slightly speed up the cooking by popping these bubbles as they appear, using the sharp tip of a knife. When the crumpet is ready, the bubbles will stay open rather than fill up with liquid batter. Turn the crumpet over carefully, using two kitchen tools, such as a spatula and a palette knife. Leave the crumpet to cook for another minute or two, then lift it off the griddle onto a wire rack. Remove the ring (if it sticks, run a small, sharp knife around the outside of the crumpet to loosen it). Now that you have fine-tuned the time and temperature needed for your batter, you are ready to cook the rest of the crumpets in batches. Serve the crumpets straight away, split or whole, with plenty of butter. Alternatively, leave them to cool on the wire rack and toast them before enjoying with butter.

Healthy Salad in a Black+Blum ‘Box Appetit’ Lunch Box

What? A blog about the Black+Blum ‘Box Appetit’ Lunch box? Yep, it’s worth it, bare with me!

How do you get yourself a filling, healthy lunch when you have a long day at work?
Well my way is to bag yourself a load of salad and a fancy lunch box. The ‘Box Appetit’ lunch box by designers Black+Blum, is a rather trendy looking, square, plastic box with the natty idea of having two triangular nesting boxes within. The whole ensemble is then trapped in a see through lid that clamps to the box creating a air and water tight seal. The whole thing then slips into a brief case, laptop bag or whatever you take on the haul into work (or relaxing picnic!!)
Below is a sequence that I go through each night to prepare my lunch for the following day. It keeps overnight in the fridge, no problem at all. And it all slips silently into an 8 propoint meal! If you are married to a weight watcher leader!


Typical Ingredients that serves 2
Half a red onion (finely chopped)
Two hands of salad leaves (bagged or lettuce and rocket – chopped)
Stick of celery (finely chopped)
25g salad cheese (cubed)
Dozen black olives (chopped)
10 cherry tomatoes
One pepper (finely sliced)
4 mushrooms (finely chopped)
Tablespoon chick peas (or sweetcorn, butter beans)
Boiled egg (sliced)
75g Boiled ham (sliced)
2 teaspoons of dressing or chutney or piccalilli
Pinch of salt and pepper


Basically I put all the salad ingredients in a big bowl, finely chopped. I then slice the protein (egg and ham) and put into the large triangular box and seal with the lid. I put the dressing or relish in the small triangular tub. The trick then is to pour all the salad into the centre. By chopping finely you can pour in and force it all down and pile up to overflowing. Clamp on the top and store for use.


When at work simply tip everything into the large bowl and mix the relish and the protein ingredients together and start chomping. It makes a filling, healthy, tasty treat, or with minimum fuss.
Any weight watchers out there? This little lot would set you back 8 propoints, but if you take out the cheese, olives and supplement with more salad you could whittle down to 5. You can of course mix this around. Sometimes I put a tin of sardines as the protein or chicken or whatever you have. Obviously you can change the salad stuff as well. The key really is to finely chop so you can squeeze more in. Shredded carrot works well in there as well.
Box Appetit is available at a lot of good cook shops. They cost about £16. They are often found in trendy designer shops but if all else fails go to

Byron – Proper Hamburgers – Manchester

I work in Manchester and walk down Deansgate most days. For months now I’ve passed this strange little, yellow, corner plot called ‘Byron’. It has a sub title ‘Proper Hamburgers’. I’ve always wondered whether it was the naffest bit of branding you could imagine or the cleverest. It has a very plain typeface and shop frontage. However, the thing I have noticed, it seems to get plenty in. Lots of business types, young and old.
Manchester has had a burgeoning burger empire for some time now, sprouting mainly from its trendy Northern Quarter. Indeed I’ve already reviewed a few, ‘Almost Famous’, ‘SoLita’ and ‘Luck, Lust, Liquor and Burn’ to name but a few. They’ve all come up trumps in my book, so how would ‘Byron’ fare?


The Byron story hails from the misspent youth of its founder Tom Byng. He ate proper burgers in America at a diner called ‘Silver Top’ in Providence, Rhode Island. He reckoned they were simple, tasty, a bit messy, but made with good quality meat with classic adornments; some lettuce, tomato, red onion, and maybe a slice of cheese or bacon. He opened up his first gaff In London in 2007, with the mantra to do a simple thing well, and do it properly. A laudable aim. The beef is good from Scotland, minced fresh every day, cooked medium so it’s pink, juicy and succulent.
I ventured in as part of a fifteen man posse (although there was some girls as well!). We had to split up to fit in, but we were quickly seated and it wasn’t long before an ice cold can of Brewdog Dead Pony pale ale was in hand.
The decor is simple. Yellow is the dominant hue. Exposed concrete, exposed containment (painted yellow), old school chairs, pastel tables and mustard banquettes complete the look. I suppose it is meant to shout industrial, up cycling, trendy, in one easy swoop. It’s pleasant enough.
We all chose from the simple menu, burgers with various extras. I plumbed in for the ‘Byron’ burger. Plain burger with crispy bacon, lettuce, onion and melted cheese. One of the team had a veggie burger.


We ordered a shed load of extra fries, chips and onion rings. I have to say my burger was superb. This was a view shared by the whole team, including the veggie! My burger was indeed served pink and was succulent and juicy as per the ‘Byron’ mission statement. It wasn’t cheap (£9.60 for the burger) but then this trend for quality burgers does come at a price. The bun was soft and soaked up all the luciousness that oozed from the centrepiece.
We were served by a smiling and enthusiastic young waitress. Nothing was too much trouble. All in all, couldn’t fault it. A simple menu, quality craft ales, great ingredients, good atmosphere. There are thirty four ‘Byron’s’ kicking about, only five outside London so you will have to hunt round a bit, but if you find one give it a  go.