Pubs are funny old places aren’t they? They come in all shapes and sizes and range from the pokey to the prodigious, with huge varieties of food, drink and punters to match. Recently though, this article in The Times reviewing a trip to the British institution that is JD Wetherspoon received a lot of criticism for a supposed pre-emptive snobbishness and for taking a stack of cheap shots at the chain. It does feel like there are two sides to this story though, so it’s only right to explore things a little deeper.
My relationship with ‘Spoons’ goes back to nights at The Full Moon in Bristol, when we’d go to The Berkeley at the top of Park Street for a warm-up bottle of Budweiser for 99p beforehand. Okay, so it was 1997 but that’s decent value in anyone’s book. The pub itself is, like many a Wetherspoon, an impressively ornate building, full of history (supposedly haunted by a ghostly highwayman) and gets a decent atmosphere at weekends, if on occasion it can get a little rough and ready. I’ve not been back for a long, long time, but with it being a Wetherspoon I wouldn’t be at all surprised to hear it’s exactly the same as it was 20 years ago.
And that’s the thing with a Wetherspoon, you know exactly what you’re getting, whether that’s a ridiculously sized breakfast for about a fiver, or a quick and dirty burger when you need fuel before a big night or a gig. The ale choice is excellent, it’s an area the company have really focused on in recent years, and the lager is the cheapest you’re likely to find in any town centre so it’s no surprise these pubs tend to draw big crowds, encouraged in by a blind eye to big groups who take great delight in rearranging the furniture to suit their needs. They’ve even relaxed and adapted a few of their policies over the years and sometimes you’ll actually get (gasp) music in there, or maybe even a TV showing a bit of sport if you’re lucky.
The chain should also be praised for its innovation, producing an app which is almost too easy to use and seems to allow the lazy to jump the queue, leaving punters at the bar bemused. I hadn’t used it before this weekend, but ordering two pints, a chilli and scampi and chips from the comfort of my table was effortless, despite the sheer volume of menu options to choose from. Paying with Apple Pay, the drinks were brought swiftly and the food was piping, if basic. Yes, it’s no surprise to hear that the rice with the chilli was still bag-shaped, presumably having been micro-zapped and plopped onto my plate moments earlier, although the chilli itself was rich and served its purpose.
You pay for what you get is an old adage but never has it been truer than with regards Wetherspoon. The staff tend to be short in number, tables are left with piles of dirty plates and glasses on them as staff meander about, not really caring about the place’s general upkeep (I imagine they expect punters to clear things away as well as helping themselves to the refillable coffee). In fact I thought I was going to have to serve myself a pint in Wolverhampton where a solitary staff member attempted to make jugs of midday cocktails, then change up £40-worth of £1 coins (with her manager’s permission), as well as serving pints of sticky Strongbow and a couple of Sunday lunchtime Baileys. Yep, it was that sort of clientele she was having to deal with. In fact, it took so long to serve the three people before me, I gave up and left. I doubt they cared, it’s one less thing for them to have to do, and they can’t be making much money from me when I was drinking beer that cost me less than £2 a pint.
Wetherspoon is certainly a morning-after-the night-before kind of place. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve hit one of the two Spoons in Huddersfield after a messy night (and morning) at The Parish and just needed to get stodge down my neck as quickly as is humanly possible. They’re always busy, with stags and hens still tottering around after the previous night’s exploits, laden with suitcases as they contemplate their hungover trips home. This doesn’t stop them taking down a morning sharpener and as with airport departure lounges, Wetherspoon pubs seem to be one of the few places where it’s acceptable to imbibe before the clocks hit double figures. You might also stumble upon the band you saw the previous night taking down a cheap and cheerful breakfast before heading onto the next date of their tour. It’s convenient, you’ll always find one in a town centre, and when working to a budget it ticks more boxes than it crosses.
Was The Times review fair? If you’ve ever been to a Wetherspoon, you’ll recognise many of the traits outlined, but in a way that’s all part of the charm, if indeed you can call it that. Nobody has ever visited a Wetherspoon pub expecting Michelin Star food or Silver Service, you go in knowing that your meal will pretty much get thrown at you, but you’ll be the one smiling when you’ve still got ample change in your pocket when you leave the premises. If you don’t like it, don’t go. If you need a cheap quick fix, then go along and get one. One thing’s for sure, it’s always an experience.
It’s getting on for about 10 years since I first started knocking about in the Northern Quarter, you know, back when it was five pubs and a few hipster indie shops. It’s now become a sprawling strip of drinking dens and scoffing spots, prompting our NQ Review expedition last year where we attempted to review all 80-odd bars.
As you can imagine then, originality is tough to come by. Burger and pizza wars rage on, more and more innovation appears in the cocktail scene whilst Liquor & Burn and El Capo have brought a small taste of Mexicana to the area. But now there’s a new player in town; El Taquero…so first, here’s the history lesson (cue wibbly flashback overlay).
When Montpellier’s first opened on Back Turner Street it was a great little hideout. Offering a cosy drinking den at night or a big screen to watch the footy on come Saturday lunchtime, you could usually get a good ale and some decent food (the steak sandwich was an old favourite) despite the relatively small area it occupied. Unfortunately, it always felt a little unfinished and when AV issues started to plague our sport watching, the food went downhill and two or three beers were unavailable on what are surely key nights (you know, weekends) it seemed like only a matter of time before it closed.
Cue Franco Sotgiu. The Solita owner, and all-round entrepreneur took the opportunity to snap up his neighbour with plans for a Solita waiting room-cum-pizza palace and although this didn’t come to fruition, The Bouncing Czech did, serving Kozel and currywurst like it was going out of fashion. Again though it all felt a bit temporary so it wasn’t too surprising when it closed for a major refit.
And so we arrive at El Taquero, and the place finally feels like it’s got a fully-formed identity. Gone are the tellies and screens, replaced with huge mirrors giving the illusion of vast space, while the lick of paint, neon signs and strong branding give it a warm yet much brighter vibe than before. The physical bar is pretty much gone too, with the previously tiny kitchen spreading out into an open affair that creates a buzz when you walk through the door.
On each of my visits to El Taquero thus far, the waiting staff have been more than welcoming, something you tend to find in Solita too; they’re only too happy to talk you through the menu, offer their own personal recommendations and match up all likes and dislikes with appropriate dishes. After ordering a couple of Estrellas (the only beer on tap, although bottles are also available) we decided on sharing the Queso Frito (£6) along with the house salsas that arrive gratis for all punters.
The starter in question is a disgracefully gooey deep fried block of gruyere with freshly made blue corn and regulation tortilla chips on a massive sharing plate. It’s a cracking starter and throws together all the spicy, rich flavours you’d expect from such fayre. It’s only after demolishing this though that you start to question what you’re in for with the mains but as it all tastes so good, you’re going to plough on through like a brave soldier.
The pièce de résistance at El Taquero is of course the taco selection. Rolling off a taco machine imported from Mexico itself, the 10 fillings on offer range from £2.75-£3.50 each (or £7-£9.50 for three, and let’s face it you’re going to go big aren’t you), and include meat, fish and vegetarian options. Opting on this occasion for the Pescado Frito (haddock), Pollo Asado (chicken) and Carne Asado (chargrilled rib-eye), all three arrived stacked to the brim with tasty, well-cooked fillings. The haddock is surprisingly meaty yet seasoned with just enough spice to warm the mouth while the steak really is the showpiece here, beautifully grilled, if maybe a little too salty. Combined with gigantic shrimp in the Mar y Tierra, you’ll easily find yourself wolfing through them – before realising you also ordered an overflowing Quesadilla too.
Yes that’s right, if you really want to go all out, there’s a selection of eight different toasted delights too. I’ve now sampled the Chorizo Mexicano and the Champinones Y Ajo and both are rich, generous offerings, if a little fragile in construction. Oh and did I mention the pork scratchings? The Chicharrón (£4-£5) as they’re also known are wonderfully fluffy yet crisp cracklers which you can order on their own or with Guac, Pico de Gallo or Refried Beans.
After such a feast, you may well struggle to force down a dessert, in which case I’ve got one word for you – Churros. Yep, for £4.50 you’ll get four delicious doughnuts with chocolate sauce or ice cream (or both for an extra quid) freshly made and satisfyingly crispy. A Mexican joint also wouldn’t be complete without a decent tequila and mezcal menu and El Taquero satisfies on this front too. Although I’ve only sampled the Cazcabel thus far, it’s a decent selection, if not as extensive as El Capo‘s mammoth offering.
Overall, what you’ve got with El Taquero is a great little casual dining experience that lets the flavours do the talking. Its price point is accessible, it’s unpretentious and gives plenty of choice for groups of all shapes and sizes. Mexican food may have been readily available in Manchester for a fair while now but competition is never a bad thing and El Taquero can certainly sit comfortably alongside the city’s other spice spots.
In the spirit of full disclosure, Franco made me the offer to try the new menu on the house. I’m not a food blogger by any stretch, there was never any obligation to write about the place and a free meal isn’t always going to lead to a positive review anyway (Red’s, I’m looking at you) but I honestly enjoyed El Taquero a lot and I’m writing this because I really hope it works out in the long term. Franco is nothing if not ambitious and you can feel the passion rub off on all the staff in a place that has finally found its niche in a crowded part of town.
Now for the restaurant half of the NQ Review challenge…guys? GUYS?!?!
If there’s one thing I love about Manchester, it’s the plethora of friendly, intelligent, witty folk who write about the city’s food and drink scene. If you’re ever struggling for inspiration on where to take a new hot date (or to break up with an ugly, older model) a quick search through the Twitter machine will give you all manner of fantastic ideas.
It was after reading one such foodie blog recently that I came to a realisation; other than my two eating competition articles and my general missive on alcohol, I’ve never actually written a food or drink piece on this blog myself.
I gave a bit of an overview of my pub habits back in the aforementioned booze blog, but as I trotted around the Northern Quarter the other Friday, I began to realise just how much the city and its social scene had changed. At first, I thought I was getting a bit old and neurotic (well, older and more neurotic) but having sounded out other people, times definitely seem to be changing; and to try to figure out why I thought I’d recount how it all began.
The Early Years 2001-2005
I moved to Manchester in late 2001, but my first proper experience of city centre pubs came at the back-end of 2003. Before this time, my weekend shopping trips to town usually just involved the standard luncheon fayre of The Printworks (an easy option when unaware of everything else that the city had to offer) with Norwegian Blue, Old Orleans and Henry J Beans taking my hard earned cash from me in exchange for a pile of horse burgers and nachos.
As i got to know the crew where i worked down Oxford Road in 2003, Friday lunchtime trips to the pub became de rigeur, and tended to be to more ‘traditional’ boozers. The local for the guys at work had long been The Peveril of the Peak, a bizarrely named pub with traditional opening hours, tucked away from prying eyes down Great Bridgewater Street. The Pev is a great old place full of snugs, local nutters and that comforting smell of wet dog. Yes, it can get a bit claustrophobic in there on a moist Friday night, but for a bit of banter of a lunchtime, it was ideal.
On occasion, we’d mix it up with Rain Bar (good for outdoor drinking on Manchester’s two sunny days of the year), The Paramount (big Wetherspoons, cheap decent ale, but it’s still Wetherspoons for crying out loud) or the now defunct Kro2. Eventually we settled on a new local as we were looking for something that catered for us on a night out, and the lucky recipient of our custom was The Thirsty Scholar. Renowned at the time for its sticky floor, and, er, having Bud on tap, the Scholar was actually a top notch meeting spot, eventually getting retro table-top video games and an outdoor decking area.
I still pop into the Scholar on occasion, usually when en route to a gig at the Academy, and it never fails to impress with its great ales, admirable vegan ethics and friendly staff. It’s amazing to have such good boozers relatively far from the centre itself, and between the Scholar and the amazing Big Hands, I’m forever spoilt for choice before a show.
We tried to keep things fresh between 2003 and 2005 by going to The Lass O’Gowrie a fair bit. The Lass is still a great, award winning pub, and Manchester’s retro gaming and Doctor Who Mecca, featuring regular meetings and themed nights to this day. Another slice of old Manc, The Lass prides itself on snugs and traditional values and it’s also one of the few pubs in Manchester to show rugby on its big screens. The crowd you get in there is a great mix of old hands and young students, all there for the same purpose; to have a good time.
The other pub we frequented in those days was the Temple. An odd concept, this former public convenience is a tiny little bar with great continental bottled beers and Krombacher on tap. I’ve been there when its been both empty and really busy, but on either occasion it’s a great pub to hit up for a cosy drink or two, with its amazing, locally-themed jukebox and comedy scrawls in the toilets.
Strangely, other than the odd leaving do in Revolution, I don’t really recall visiting bars such as Odder or Joshua Brooks when i worked down that end of town, whilst The Briton’s Protection and Sandbar were probably just that little bit too far away for those who just wanted a quick half in their lunch hour or before their train home. We did hit up Space and Font on occasion, the now-defunct former being a good bet for some decent food, whilst the latter served (and still does) some of the cheapest cocktails in Manchester.
Looking at the area now, it’s great to see that the majority of the old stagers are happily co-existing with the new wave of Gorilla, Black Dog Ballroom NWS and Whim Wham Cafe, giving some great, varied options for a decent night out in the south of the city.
It was around this time too that I first sampled the Chop Houses that Manchester offers. Both Sam’s and Thomas’s have amazing food, great ale, and a more mature vibe than a lot of the pubs in town, with Sam’s in particular being the closest you’re going to get to a ‘local’ in such a major city centre, and it now serves us dutifully for all our rugby-watching needs. That mid-area of Manchester is definitely the place for ‘proper’ pubs from the Town Hall Tavern near Albert Square all the way down to The Old Nag’s Head and the Sawyer’s Arms on Deansgate. If anyone ever tries to tell you that the city is just full of trendy bars and 1980s dives, then you can point them there and tell them to get a grip of their lives with a large slice of self-confidence that they’ll find somewhere to suit.
Manchester truly does cater for all sorts, and if it’s after a ‘Diversity’ badge to sew onto its Cub Scout uniform, it certainly has that, and the city is showing few signs of slowing down either. As much as new bars are springing up, there are still a fair few golden oldies going strong and even a new Chop House (Albert’s) has opened up in recent years.
Up to the here and now 2005-2013
When moving jobs, you get an insight into a whole different culture, and this also went for the drinking habits of my new workplace as I switched from the south of the city to the north in late 2005. Initially, the culture was again one of lunchtime drinking, with a lot of the team nipping for a half at least every Friday, if not the rest of the week, and it usually took a leaving do, Birthday drink or agency party to get a big crowd out and about for a full evening of drunken debauchery.
The main lunchtime drinking holes this time were places like the Ducie Bridge or Sinclair’s Oyster Bar (still probably the cheapest pub in town, albeit now overrun by the local whack jobs and psychopaths).
In the evenings, this was the point at which a few of us ended up in Northern Quarter bars for the first time, usually the more established ones such as Cord, Fringe (beer garden! Well, beer car park!) Centro and, God help us, Bluu. Largely, the NQ of the time was a quieter part of town full of thoughtful important haircuts and those after a little slice of Bohemia. It still got a bit busier on Fridays but the friendly, community vibe kept idiots away and ensured the regulars were well catered for,
Even I wasn’t that much of a frequent flyer on the NQ hipstercopter at this time, but then in late 2008, something happened. Apotheca opened. Practically on our work doorstep, the place had Asahi on the pumps, excellent, friendly staff tweaking the nozzles, tables freely available at one minute past five on a Friday and lovely pizza only next door in its sister restaurant Dough. The opening of this pub happily coincided with a time when many of us like-minded early-to-mid-20s guys and dolls were starting to really focus on our careers and as the ‘work hard, play hard’ vibe began to ring true, it was guaranteed that everyone was in a shared mindset come Friday afternoon. Beer o’clock.
Often taking over most of the back bar, the Friday Drinking Crew as it would be known had many, many regulars and also picked up numerous new recruits along the way through friends of friends. It didn’t matter if you were only out for one or two or 20, it was time to shoot the shit at 5.01pm and let off some steam in the company of many like-minded individuals. In fact, it became so standard, the pre-pub email conversation at 4.30pm would be:
And that was enough to know the time and place for Friday drinking each and every week.
We did mix it up a bit, mainly during the summer when we’d always fruitlessly try and search out a beer garden (always to no avail), but on the whole, we’d be propping up the Apotheca bar every Friday from five until 11 for months on end. Eventually we experimented with late night trips to Illusions (or Magic Bar as we always called it) in The Printworks, usually when only a few of us remained, but after it closed we ended up sticking to our NQ guns more and more.
Since Apotheca opened, we’ve seen an explosion in the NQ. The Blue Pig, Bakerie, Hula, Noho, Barcelona, Marble, Port Street Beer House, Black Dog Ballroom, The Northern, Almost Famous, Solita, Terrace, Home Sweet Home, The Whiskey Jar, Kosmonaut, Walrus (later Hunky Dory), Tusk and the bizarrely named R-House have all opened, whilst Centro became Tib Street Tavern, Rodeo became Keko Moku and most recently, the legendary Socio Rehab converted itself into the SuperCaliMexiFragilistic Lust Luck Liquor & Burn.
Nestling in alongside the old guard, all of these pubs offered something a bit different. Pool in Black Dog, craft ale in Port Street, the best burgers known to man in Almost Famous, football in Tib Street or hardcore zombie annihilation in Keko Moku. The Northern Quarter certainly changed massively, but why?
Because it had to. As much as everyone likes a good niche or a best kept secret, businesses in this day and age simply cannot survive without masses of custom. Take Centro. I was in there on Michael Jackson Death Night TM, and we were pretty much the only people in there. Don’t get me wrong, I love being able to get straight to the bar and to get a seat, but I’m not naive enough to think that a pub can survive on Friday and Saturday trade alone. In fact, in Centro’s case, it tended not to be hugely busy at weekends either and the increasingly shabby interior suggested it was almost relying solely on its status as an NQ pioneer to keep its doors open.
The Great Northern Warehouse area of town has always been relatively isolated. Okay it’s near enough to the more mainstream Deansgate Locks, and the hugely enjoyable Knott Bar, but over time the Warehouse seems to have had a higher turnover of bars than Guns N’ Roses have had guitarists. Recently though, the area seems to have become more stable, with Epernay offering great champagne cocktails and Taps’ quirky ‘pour your own’ schtick bringing customers in from far and wide. The impact of Spinningfields’ redevelopment to this wider area can’t be ignored either. Initially just a couple of office blocks with a Gourmet Burger Kitchen and a Natwest, the place has now exploded into life with Alchemist, The Oast House, Neighbourhood, The Liquor Store, Southern 11, Yacht Club (then Ski Club), and Revolucion de Cuba all in the vicinity, attracting suits and students alike.
So what’s happened to the old school city centre drinker? Largely, and this is solely through my sometimes inebriated eyes, people are flitting about between areas more and more. The NQ used to be the best place for a crawl, but with a large number of bars in close proximity in Spinningfields and in the Whitworth Street West vicinity, people have so much choice that a relatively small city centre has expanded massively. You can dabble in ale, cocktails, and regulation lager, or maybe you fancy partaking in a tiki tipple, traditional pub grub or underground speakeasies. Either way, you’re going to find something in Manchester to cater for every occasion, and that is why I love it as much as I do.
You may think from this blog that I’ve experienced pretty much everything Manchester has to offer, but that really isn’t the case at all. I’ve never really spent much time in Dry Bar or Night & Day and I’ve only had the briefest of trips to Mother Mac’s, The Wheatsheaf, The Castle Hotel and Gulliver’s. I also still have yet to sample Band On The Wall or Matt & Phred’s or The Frog & Bucket comedy club despite their famous status, whilst the majority of The Printworks is still pretty alien to me, and will hopefully remain that way.
I’ve dabbled in the Piccadilly area’s least salubrious boozers, taking in The Waldorf for the footy, The Sevenoaks for late night quiz machine fun and the Garden’s own Wetherspoons for a rogue shot of Apple Sourz. Kro has become a standard watering hole for a quick stop off on the way to the train as well as being our traditional Christmas Eve drinking spot, whilst Fab Cafe is a late night temptation for sci-fi stomping.
Across the rest of the centre there are still parts of student-ville further down Oxford Road that I have yet to take in, having only been to Sandbar, The Footage and The Deaf Institute a couple of times each, whilst Deansgate and Spinningfields still both have a couple of establishments left to try. The promise of further regeneration of the Peter Street area is also interesting. Kickstarted by Brewdog’s NQ snub, Trof and others are soon to move into premises that were for so long renowned for violence and general drunken idiocy.
So, that’s where we are. Choice has massively increased. Bandwagons have been clambered upon, and we’ve all become a little older and more cynical. Will my drinking habits change as the Printworks overspill claim even more of the Northern Quarter? Probably. As I said at the start of this ramble, the Friday night crowd is becoming more and more like the one I went so out of my way all those years ago to avoid. The one saving grace seems to be that bar owners are feeling the same way and are already ahead of the game, coming up with new ideas and venues to keep us interested even in our advancing years. One thing is for sure, I’m certainly not going to be short of a watering hole for many years to come.
In the big list of Things Never To Do Twice, I’d like to think the top three could include 1) ride a wild farm animal 2) sell hooky cigarettes to Russian gangsters and 3) give yourself meat sweats by attempting to eat something that’s physically impossible to fit inside your temple-like body.
Never having been one to play by the rules, I decided that number three was just plain silly, and not learning a thing from my experience of the Meateasy Sandwich, I decided it was time to tackle the Chicken Waffle Tower.
After the last challenge and following a runner up placing at an ad-hoc Street Hotdog competition (like Street Countdown, but with hotdogs) I had plenty of people telling me they’d be up for having a go on the next challenge.
Sure enough, Southern 11 in Manchester soon obliged with the Chicken Waffle Tower; a giant stack of fried chicken and waffles, drizzled in the suspiciously monikered ‘creamy white gravy’, with spicy fried chicken on the side, complete with BBQ beans, homemade coleslaw and Parmesan truffle fries.
I couldn’t decide whether this was going to be easier or more difficult than the last challenge. I always presume there’s no limit on the amount of fried chicken I can nail and I decided to leave fries until last this time (you can always pick at fries after a meal, can’t you?) so the only unknown quantity was the waffle stack. Would they be potato-y like Birdseye’s ‘waffley versatile’ variety or were we looking at the type best served with ice cream or maple syrup?
After some to-ing and fro-ing, the final number to attempt the challenge was eight, double the amount from last time, theoretically giving us a far better chance of success, and the day’s build up was good with the same routine as last time; normal meals and plenty of water. But it wasn’t long before psychology played a part once again.
Arriving at the restaurant we got the big, most-obvious-to-other-punters table. It was also warm. Very warm. Last time had been a Summer’s evening so we had sat outside away from the crowds, a gentle breeze refreshing our glistening brows. This time, the pressure was well and truly on.
As the plates (well, bread boards) arrived, one thing was for certain; this was way more food than we’d seen in any of the pictures. There were four rather than two battered chicken legs propping up the sticky tower like a twisted HR Giger masterpiece. There were about five waffles in there too along with some hefty pieces of fowl.
Once the 45 minute countdown began, I stuck to my plan: take down the tower first. The chicken was fresh-from-the-fryer-scorchio hot and the sweet waffles seemed light but big and tricky to chew through. I still managed to destroy the chicken breasts and all but two half-waffles in a decent enough time but as I became intimate with one of the drummers, I hit the wall. 10 minutes in and I was almost beaten.
Last time, I demolished a kilo of assorted meat in nine minutes. Tasty, barbecued meats. This time? The saltiness of the chicken seasoning and the sweetness of the waffles immediately made every bite a chunder-quelling chore. Just looking at it, imagining the taste, I physically shuddered. Taking a time out I rattled through the ‘slaw (I wasn’t going to fall for that one again) and took some sips of water and beer. Eventually I felt well enough to carry on but uncertainty still plagued my mind.
I chomped half the drumsticks and picked at some chips. I tried dunking the waffles in the beans and combining the chunky chicken batter with sweet waffle to try and take the richness away, but it was to no avail. With 10 minutes to go, and after working through the fries as a consolation, I had two chicken drumsticks and just over a waffle to go, none of which were going anywhere. Beaten again. There were three of us who came close this time but again, no one triumphed.
Without wanting to sound like a sore loser, I do think the picture we had seen that tempted us into the challenge was misleading and if I was served chicken that heavily ‘seasoned’ as part of a normal meal in Southern 11, I’d launch it in the general direction of the chef’s head. But people have been successful at this challenge, although I’ve got no idea how. One guy even did it in nine minutes and celebrated with two desserts. A brilliant example of utter lunacy right there.
Despite it all, it was good fun, if painful afterwards and indeed now, but I think I need to hold my hands up and retire from the competitive eating game.
I must admit that I was rather late to the Man Vs Food party. Three series had been and gone before I became absorbed by Adam Richman’s never-ending trawl around America’s finest food havens, but once I watched one episode, I couldn’t stop. I was fascinated, not only by the randomness of some of the dishes he consumed but also the amazing challenges he tried to overcome week after week.
Over the years, the only food-related challenges I’ve taken part in have been low-key unofficial ones, such as seeing who could put Pizza Hut out of business by eating as much pizza as possible in their lunchtime all-you-can-eat buffet deal. I did 20 slices in 45 mins and was pretty sure I had cheese poisoning afterwards. I also like a good meatfest at Bem Brasil where you are brought a selection of barbecued meats on skewers until you place your red card on the table, thus admitting defeat.
I’m not very good with attempting short challenges such as trying to nail as many Jaffa Cakes or Ferrero Roches in a minute as is humanly possible, but I know I can eat relatively quickly and that I can eat a lot so when one challenge rocked up, I couldn’t possibly say no.
The mammoth task in question was at Southern Eleven in Manchester. Their creation, the Meateasy, is one messy monster sandwich featured a kilo of meat including three quarter pounders topped with melted cheese, Texas BBQ sausages, pulled pork, more pork, plus lettuce, onions, tomatoes and gherkins, all encased in a foot-long ciabatta loaf. And of course that wouldn’t be enough of a challenge by itself, so alongside it was a bowl of parmesan-topped skinny (!) fries and a small saucepan of coleslaw.
The challenge is simple: take this bad boy down to Chinatown inside 45 minutes and it’s free, plus you receive a winner’s certificate. Fail, and it costs £25.99 and your dignity. Don’t forget too, there’s no leaving the table throughout the task.
My strategy had to begin early; should I eat normally during the day or starve myself ahead of the gargantuan sanger? I chose to eat normally but didn’t snack, instead I made sure I nailed plenty of water throughout the day. When it came to crunch time, I chose a Brewdog Tactical Nuclear Penguin as a nerve-calmer, rather than get gacked up on a pint, and then a glass of Pinot Grigio for the challenge itself.
When the four boards were brought out for my three friends and I, it looked terrifying but do-able. Once the stopwatch had been started I went straight for the meat, knowing that the sheer amount of protein could cause me issues if I didn’t meet the meat head-on right there and then. I finished the carnivorous cavalcade in around nine minutes, moving swiftly onto the fries.
It was here that the challenge really began. I knew I had to still take down the ciabatta. I knew as well I had to annihilate the tomato, something which I hate, and never, ever eat, let alone in a challenge situation. Suddenly, the texture of the gherkins wasn’t making me feel too good. As hard as I tried to hide the tomato in a bready coleslaw sandwich, it kept popping out to tease me with its gooey nonsense.
Halfway through I pretty much only had coleslaw, lettuce and bread remaining but each mouthful became such a chore. I’m no Olympic athlete but I believe this may be called “The Wall”. The lettuce eventually went. The top of the ciabatta was next to bite the dust, followed by about half the coleslaw as I desperately attempted to mix up the dry foods with the more moist.
There were about ten minutes left when all I had in front of me was three quarters of the bottom half of the loaf and half a third of a pan of coleslaw. Combining the two, I knew I had to go for it. But I couldn’t. Lifting the makeshift sandwich to my mouth I couldn’t physically fit it in. One last bite eventually went down, but I knew that I was done. I kept on trying until the final whistle but on this occasion, food won.
Could I have done anything differently? I don’t think so. The meat simply HAD to go, and go quickly. The fries were good, but the salad selection was a tad slippery. At the end of the day though, it was just the creaminess of the coleslaw after all of that other stodge that I simply could not take. A valiant effort but ultimately not good enough.
Is any of this big or clever? Probably not. I certainly don’t feel too clever today. But I am quite competitive. I definitely don’t like losing. So, despite the pain and agony of such a narrow defeat, will I be game again for another silly challenge like this? Let’s just say I don’t think I’m retiring from the sport just yet.
Watching BBC Breakfast a couple of weeks ago, I was pleased to see a prominent feature about reducing litter on Britain’s streets.
I remember the glory days of the Keep Britain Tidy campaign in the mid-80s at a time when the organisation had just become a limited company. Teaching kids to tidy up after themselves was de rigueur in schools across the land and it became part and parcel of getting the country to smarten up its act despite a lot of deprivation. The campaign at the time made sense – a lot of people were holidaying in Britain to save money, so it was only right that we should keep the place neat and tidy for ourselves. Beaches at the time were also taking a slating and the impact of the campaign had a positive knock-on effect to these too.
But in the last decade, or possibly a little longer, standards have really slipped. This itself seems odd as it’s happened at a time when recycling has really taken off. Initial dismay towards fortnightly rubbish collections have turned into an appreciation for making sure as much waste material goes to the right place as possible, but nevertheless council cost-cutting has seen bins overflowing and city centre collections and street cleaning teams reduced in number, letting litter fly around the streets like there’s been a zombie apocalypse. In Scotland alone, around £100 millions is being spent each year on tidying up after litterers, money which could be far better spent on other economic issues.
So why do people litter in the first place? The main reason appears to be that most people really don’t deem what they are doing to be wrong. I will guarantee you that you could go to any major train station on any given morning and see a commuter drop a used Metro newspaper onto a bench. Who do they think is going to pick this up and take it away for them? Some sort of newspaper-hoarding goblin? Maybe part of the problem is that because they haven’t paid for it, they don’t really care about what happens to it. The Metro gets left everywhere as well, from seats on trains to station platforms to Starbucks tables. It got so bad a couple of years back that The Metro themselves were forced to remind people that leaving it “for someone else to read” isn’t recycling, it’s littering, with a poster campaign on trains and buses.
Another major culprit in Litter Britain is the blue and white delight, the paper Greggs bag. Not content with destroying their arteries with grease-sprayed sausage rolls, people seem only too eager to just dump the wrapper on the floor or on the nearest wall. Yes, it’s paper but that doesn’t mean it miraculously turns into nothingness when out of a human’s grasp. Similarly, fruit remnants get left almost everywhere. Again, I appreciate this is recyclable material, but a banana skin on a pavement is not going to bio-degrade overnight.
The problem in Britain is that no-one really knows what the solution to this is? One obvious one is to use those who litter as an example. Some community service programmes already get criminals to clean up certain litter eye-sores and this is a great way to punish those who exhibit anti-social behaviour and also to help communities. But it doesn’t really hit those who litter in the first place. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone get a talking to from a policeman for littering despite all those who pull the wrapper off their fag packet and instantly let it slip from their hand and blow away in the wind. I would whole-heartedly support big fines for littering as long as it was properly and sensibly enforced.
Alternatively, it would be great to get kids more involved again. I strongly believe that one of the reasons I don’t chuck my trash onto the pavement is because of the way I was brought up. I remember on one school camp we went to some sort of adventure park where the owners of the place encouraged kids to collect empty drinks cans and get rewarded with different badges depending on how many they brought back to drop-off points. There was an absolute mad scramble to collect all the different badges and it made the whole situation fun. Okay, so maybe I was an unwitting victim of child slave labour, and maybe the park in question just couldn’t afford their own wardens, but even so, it gave us children an awareness about where litter should and shouldn’t go.
I want to be proud of my country again, but at the moment I’m disgusted by it everytime I set foot outside of my front door.
I’ve never done much travel writing before, probably because I haven’t travelled enough to warrant it, but having just been on a rather jolly excursion to Italy, I thought I’d wrap it all up in a bit of a report.
The trip to Rome started (as many holiday discussions do) in the pub as a tipsy pipe dream. Myself and a friend both agreed that the match that England play in Italy every other year in the Six Nations always looks like a great spot to take in a game of rugby. Open air stadium, sun shining, laid back Italian culture and a great atmosphere. The only difference between this and our plans to travel down under, or to Germany for Oktoberfest or pretty much everywhere else on the planet, was that this time we got hold of some match tickets. I say we, it was my friend who did pretty much all of the organising, but nonetheless, this time we were kick-started into action.
When the tickets arrived despite having bought them off the Internet via less than official channels, we thought we’d better actually get the plan sorted. Originally we thought we would fly out on Friday and return on Sunday, somehow fitting in a game of rugger in the middle. We soon realised that a) direct flights and b) any flights at all over this particular (Valentine’s) weekend in February were going to be costly, so suddenly the whole thing was looking less than cost-effective.
After compromising by swapping planes in Paris, and also by flying out on Thursday, we got the whole flight and three night hotel deal for around £250. Not bad at all. And so with about a second mortgage’s worth of spending money in my drinking wallet, it was time to fly out.
Or so we thought. During the week of departure I got wind that the French were looking to strike, up until and including the day we flew. We also saw on the news that Rome had experienced its first snowfall in 26 years only the weekend before. Our equivalent flight on the Wednesday had been cancelled, so we got to Manchester Airport with some trepidation…but somehow we got lucky. The flight went ahead and the change over in Paris was smooth. Touching down in Rome, we hopped aboard the Leonardo Express and headed towards the main city centre train station, Termini.
First impressions of Rome sum up the city completely; it’s a bit scruffy. But to be fair to the Italians, this only adds to the charm. The trains (apart from the nice posh touristy Leonardo one) are scrawled from tip to toe with graffiti (much of it about Rebus, but we weren’t sure if this was some anti-Ken Stott protest, or the tag of the Italian Banksy). Arrivals in the airport also left a lot to be desired, but in all honesty we were more concerned with finding our way to our hotel. On the whole, the place oozed with the Italian attitude of “we don’t need to try too hard to dress things up, we know people will still come.”
We’d been leant a guide book by another friend and through this and other sources we had heard that the area around Termini was a bit dodgy, and our hotel, worryingly, wasn’t too far South of this. This made us a little apprehensive, but on arrival, the centre of town seemed just like any other. Yes, there were a few tramps about and some “interesting” looking shop fronts but overall the place seemed pretty relaxed and quiet as we meandered towards our hotel.
We stayed at the Hotel Santa Prassede which was, shall we say, functional. We had a nice comedy introduction to the chap on reception who couldn’t cope with the name Knight (Meester Cannicht!!!!!) and when we got taken to our twin room featuring only a double bed we were a little worried, but the chap let us have an adjacent room as well for the first night, offering to make the double into two singles after that. Overall, it was probably what we expected, and what we needed; somewhere to get our heads down after long days on the booze in an excellent central location.
We dropped our bags off and headed out to find some food. Upon finding an “Irish” bar and restaurant, Old Marconi’s, literally on the same road as the hotel, we couldn’t resist and soon found ourselves tucking into a pint of Guinness and a chicken-y and crisp-y potato-y plate of nosh. We thought we’d take it easy that first night, especially as it was about 10pm local time by the time we arrived, but for some reason the bar just didn’t close. There weren’t that many punters in there, although a few did come and go after us. Even so, the barman seemed perfectly happy to carry on serving as long as there was someone in there. A far cry from the strict British last orders system and this meant that I was already liking this city a hell of a lot.
We made an early start on the Friday with the intention of getting around as many of the tourist spots as possible by foot alone. Starting at the Colosseum we soon realised a flaw in the plan; Rome was pretty much shut. After getting mugged of a note or two by some long-johnned ‘authentic’ Roman Centurions for a few tourist snaps in front of the Colosseum, our new 2000 year old best friend Thomas (you from Manchester? Manchester Unite yes?) told us that the monument was closed, as was the Forum and the Pantheon due to predicted snow. Not actual snow, predicted snow.
Apparently the weekend before, the city had been caught completely off guard and they had to evacuate all tourists from the ancient ruins for fear of broken limbs caused by the ice. Luckily we could still get up close to these architectural works of genius but we were prevented from going in.
Moving on down the road we came to the impressive, if slightly Fascistic Il Vittoriana. Our guide book told us that the place was hated by locals for its imposing ice-white look, but I found the sight impressive even whilst getting moved away from the front of the building by scary looking police with guns. We would have liked to have gone into the building and even stood atop it to look out over the city, but as it looked like some official governmental event was going on, (flags were strangely at half mast throughout Rome whilst we were there), we hurried on with our journey before we got caps popped in our collective tourist asses.
We carried on pottering, and soon realised not only how easy it was to get around the place but also what astounding architecture there was at every turn. One minute we’d be walking down an alley only to emerge into a piazza boasting a massive, imposing obelisk in front of an equally impressive building dating back hundreds of years. Many were embassies or other governmental buildings and it was great to see such ancient buildings still in use.
We then went to visit the Trevi fountain, famous for its role in La Dolce Vita, and were amazed by its size and grandeur. Desperate for a coffee at this point, we took our first Espresso “at the bar” (where you pay less than at a table) and continued on our way West. The Pantheon was our next sight, a glorious old Roman temple which again was unfortunately closed. Despite this slight issue, there was still no denying the epic spectacle.
We eventually arrived at a bridge over the Tiber that would take us into the smallest independent state in the world, Vatican City. Despite the now-rainy weather, the sights we saw and the sense of occasion that is produced by the place was really amazing to behold. St Peter’s Square leading up to the Basilica is vast to say the least, and you can only imagine what the atmosphere is like when the throngs descend to witness one of the Papal addresses. Following our guidebook around the Basilica itself we heard the stories behind all the fantastic architecture and history of the place. To think that the building was first constructed in the 16th and 17th centuries and yet remains so intact and impressive is astounding, as is the fact that Michelangelo played such a massive part in its construction at such a late stage in his life.
We continued around and down into the grotto beneath the Basilica, witnessing the tombs of Popes past, before setting off on a climb to the top of the tower. You can choose to either get a lift part way and then climb 300-odd steps or do the whole caboodle of 500+ by foot. We chose the latter, paid our money and began the journey. Towards the top, the spiral staircases tilt to such astounding slants that they give the place an Alice In Wonderland feel, and you begin to wonder how much narrower it will get. Once at the top though, the effort was definitely worth it. Despite the weather, the views across the city from atop the dome were incredible and after catching our breath and spending a few minutes walking around above the whole city, we began the descent.
After a pizza and beer lunch (we were in Italy after all), we went to the Vatican Museum, trying to avoid the ridiculous amount of umbrella sellers on the way. Featuring works collected over centuries by the Roman Catholic Church, the museum features just about every type of art and artefact you could imagine, from wall-dominating tapestries through to thousand year old sculptures and paintings from throughout the ages.
Of course, the one part of the museum that no-one wants to miss is the Sistine Chapel. The incredible frescoes covering every inch of the place leave tourists and pilgrims from across the world agog and you could spend hours just scanning the intricate works and finding parts that you missed first time around. Despite the warnings, pretty much everyone took photos in there, and you can’t really blame people when they’ve travelled from far and wide to see it.
After the museum visit, we began walking back towards our hotel, and by this time it really was throwing it down with snow, the ancient cobbles providing a hazardous walkway towards the city’s South-east. We decided we deserved a quick Peroni Red on the way back so we stopped at a café on the Piazza outside the Pantheon under an outdoor heater (we’re not completely insane). Whilst taking this breather we discussed the fact that we needed to scope out the best place to watch the Man Utd v Liverpool match the next day so thought we’d check out some “traditional” Irish bars on the way back. First up was Finnegan’s which seemed highly recommended in the guide book but in reality was pretty full of hateful Brits abroad, blasé bar staff and not the finest quality Bombardier or Nastro Azzurro. We thought we’d press on and find another couple of bars which sounded like they’d be smaller, and in no way were we disappointed.
The first, The Druid’s Den is a great little place. Run by JJ, a Scottish ex-pat, we struck up a rapport and enjoyed a few quality pints of Guinness at the bar. We mentioned we were also going to try The Fiddler’s Elbow, and JJ said to ask for Heather there, as the place (which was only round the corner), was run by one of her friends. Sure enough, The Fiddler’s also provided a great welcoming atmosphere with amazing bar staff, better Guinness than you get in some bars back in Blighty and all the laid-back joviality you need when on a trip abroad.
We then decided to head back to Old Marconi’s for a quick bite to eat before doing another tour of the pubs. We ended up on the electronic dartboard in The Druid’s and found ourselves on the receiving end of a bit of a hustle from three swarthy European rugby chaps. My form soon plummeted, especially as I failed to truly comprehend the rules of the darts variant “cricket” that we were playing. Despite the loss, we had some good banter and after a couple of hours realised they were Spanish rather than Italian as we had thought all along. Typical ignorant Brits abroad, but hopefully you won’t see us on some awful reality show that reveals our drunken idiocy on the continent.
The next morning’s hangover was special to say the least. We intended to get an early start to see some more sights but rolling out of the hotel at 11am, we thought it best to just focus on breakfast and getting to the pub for the football.
The previous night, JJ had agreed to open early for the lunchtime kick off so we headed down there after an Irish breakfast at Old Marconi’s accompanied by a couple of litres of Coke. Once again though, the snow became a worry. JJ had offered to ring for a few taxis for us and a few other chaps in the pub so we thought we had plenty of time to watch all the football and then potter on up to the Stadio Olimpico, but as the weather worsened, we began to get more and more concerned. At halftime, when JJ tried phoning through, the taxis had been taken “off line” just as they had the previous week – the police deeming it too dangerous for nutbag Italian taxi drivers to be out on treacherous icy roads.
Helpfully, JJ gave us directions to get to the Metro underground station, which would get us to the tram, and eventually the stadium. We decided to head off early in case of delay and negotiated the simple underground (cheap tickets, straightforward line layout) before hitting the tram queue. And what a queue it was. Snaking around a couple of blocks, it soon became apparent that this was going to be a cold, wet wait. One of the guys we were loosely following checked his iPhone and declared that it wasn’t too far (maybe a couple of miles) to walk to the stadium, so after some umming and erring, we decided to travel on foot. After a slushy, cold, slightly more than two miles walk we eventually arrived at the stadium, and rewarded ourselves with a big Peroni and a pig bap, which surprisingly was cheaper than the equivalent at the Manchester Christmas Markets, and tastier too.
As this was the first time Italy had played a Six Nations match at the Stadio Olimpico, we weren’t sure what the turnout would be, but my word, they and their fans put EVERYTHING into the occasion. With balloons and hats on all the seats, the near-capacity crowd became a sea of red, white and green, and the Italian anthem was a typically boisterous but good-natured affair. Despite the snow on the way to the ground (and indeed the snow on the pitch), we were on time, and the game went ahead. I won’t go into detail about the match itself, other than to say England were awful in the first half and after conceding two tries in two minutes towards the end of the first 40 minutes, I wondered what I’d let myself in for. England still triumphed, and the atmosphere really contributed to an enthralling, if scrappy game.
On our way out of the stadium we decided to walk for a bit and then flag down a taxi, as conditions had improved a bit. I suddenly heard a female voice to the side of me exclaim how “f**king cold” it was and when I agreed, she apologised for her potty mouth, and we soon struck up conversation. Debs (her name) was there with other half Phil, a great Essex couple who had experienced a rather warmer Italy v England match 10 years previously. We mentioned to them that we were intending to head back to The Druid’s to watch the France v Ireland game and they came along. Failing to find an available taxi, we eventually found a Metro and somehow beat most of the other punters back to The Druid’s, only to see the other rugby game called off at the last minute. Realising how lucky we were to actually see a match, we settled in for the evening, grabbing pizza from next door and nailing Guinness and Harp until the wee small hours with our new acquaintances.
On Sunday it was time to head on back home, so we meandered to the train station, sad to see the back of a now-sunny Rome. We got to the airport with plenty of time to spare, and experienced those typical heading home from holiday blues, made worse by being told that our connecting flight from Amsterdam to Manchester had been cancelled. Fortunately Al Italia got us onto a Paris flight and after some negotiation and tense moments at Charles De Gaulle, we successfully boarded a flight to foggy Manchester only a couple of hours later than planned.
All in all, the trip was an amazing experience. Arranging a holiday around a sporting event proved successful, and the freak weather meant we got to experience something that few others have or ever will. Yes, it was disappointing not to get into the big famous monuments, but we still made the most of our time, and were treated brilliantly by every single local we came across. As a first time in the country, it could barely have been better, and I must say that next year’s planned trip to Dublin is going to have to go some to beat it…