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    Christmas gift guide: Birmingham food & drink

    xmas_gift_guideDeck the halls with boughs of holly, fa la la la la…it’s almost Christmas!  Hopefully you’ve all been good boys and girls and are sitting down to write your letters to Santa about all the loot you want for Christmas.  If that’s the case, then let me help you out.  Last year I came up with ten food and drink gifts you might want to indulge in, but this year I’ve got oh so much more ideas to share.

    This list is long but it is by no means exhaustive, I could’ve rambled on for days, but by then you’d have opened all your advent calendar doors and Rudolph would’ve come and gone.  But I did get a little overexcited with ideas, so I’ve split it into four categories; stocking fillers, gift cards, DIY and gifts that keep giving.

    Stocking Fillers

    So we don’t really do stockings in my family, the only one I’ve ever had was a Nightmare Before Christmas one handmade for me by my friend Beccy…it’s ace.  BUT, I hear they’re kinda a thing and rather than lumps of coal and oranges you might want to add something a little more exciting.

    • Gin lovers might like a bottle of HOCKLEY TONIC.  It’s a Birmingham-made tonic syrup, which added with some sparkling water, will lift your gin and let it taste its best – no more metallic aftertaste of cheap tonic for your friends!  Also, it’s a good gateway to get the gin-phobics in your life imbibing the stuff because most people who say they hate gin hate tonic. Get Hockley Tonic at Loki Wines.
    • If you want to get something that’s sweet for the recipient but leaves you with the warm fuzzies about doing some good, then head to social enterprise MISS MACARON in the Great Western Arcade.  They sell delicious macarons but also employ long term, unemployed young people, training them up to make the delicious macarons you nibble on.
    • So if your stockings are more figurative then what about a five litre mini-keg from FIXED WHEEL BREWERY?  Choose any of their beers you like, and prices start from £20 plus it means you’ll have something good to drink on the big day.  I’m a big fan of their Pope of Dope, a lemon and hibiscus saison.
    • Combining a classic card game (sort of) and mother’s ruin, check out JUST GIN, the world’s first gin top trumps, on sale by Birmingham’s own Gintleman for £8 plus postage.

    macaron_madamemoiselle

    Gift cards

    If you ask me, money as a Christmas present suggests a lack of imagination, that is unless the person really needs the money…in which case this entire post is a bit frivolous.  But if you want to get someone something but are crap at wrapping things, then gift cards are totally the way to go.  Because experiences, they’re often better than things…and this way you get the best of both.

    • On spotting this I was unreasonably excited, but CHERRY REDS do gift vouchers which means you can buy a friend brunch, beer…or halloumi (which is a cornerstone of Cherry Reds, surely).  With one on John Bright St in town and one in Kings Heath, there’s double the excuse to get one.
    • What about giving someone the gift of the ‘water of life’?  The always excellent BIRMINGHAM WHISKY CLUB have an array of vouchers, from Whisky Tasting Gift Vouchers available in £5 and £10 or how about a voucher for their annual Whisky Birmingham 2017 festival?  Or if you want something year round, there’s also their annual membership. Whisky fans rejoice!
    • For the vegetarians and vegans in your life then gift vouchers for 1847 in the Great Western Arcade are a great shout.  Buy them a sum of money or a voucher for a three course meal for two, because surely you should get in on the fun too.  Here’s what I made of their latest menu.
    • Ever wanted to treat your friend to a Michelin-starred meal?  Then check out CARTERS OF MOSELEY who do amazing food and let you buy gift vouchers. My sister bought me a voucher a couple of years ago, which was a total surprise when the email landed in my inbox, and proves that she is rather excellent.
    • If you’ve got a friend who loves food but you never know where they’ve already eaten, then why not get them an OPENTABLE voucher?  I tried it out using it at El Borracho de Oro earlier in the year and it was super simple.

    pouring_whisky_webDo it Yourself (or themselves)

    If you’ve got a friend that’s a dab hand at cooking up a storm, then why not buy them something that means they’ll improve their culinary expertise even further?  Better yet, buy them a cooking or drinks masterclass and then ask them to show you what they’ve learnt…that way you get to enjoy the gift too!

    • I entirely adore the team at LOAF COOKERY SCHOOL and having done three of their masterclasses now, I highly recommend them.  Whether it’s learning to make macarons, bread or a full day of learning some of the art of butchery, whoever attends one of their masterclasses is guaranteed to go home with plenty of  food – you never know, they might share.  Buy a gift voucher here.
    • If you know someone who always orders wine but knows nothing about it, why not send them to a beginners guide to wine class at LOKI WINE?  This two hour wine course will give them the basics to start exploring the world of wine.
    • If you’re looking for a group gift, then why not buy your friends a cocktail masterclass?  There’s plenty on offer in Birmingham from the likes of Island Bar, All Bar One, Bodega…check out the one I did at Revolution here.
    • Chocoholics should head down to the CHOCOLATE QUARTER in the Jewellery Quarter who do several chocolate related masterclasses.  I mean generally you should go there anyway, but if you’re looking for a present for a friend, I tried their truffle making masterclass earlier in the year and it was a lot of fun.

    making_sausages_group Gifts that keep giving

    Who wants to get all their presents at Christmas?  I mean you could be as rubbish as I am and end up not seeing friends until a few days after Christmas so you get to extend the gift giving season…but what about extending it even further, say for the whole year?  If that sounds up your street, here are a few ideas…

    • How about an INDEPENDENT BIRMINGHAM card?  This will get you some excellent discounts at the likes of Fiesta del Asada, several Michelin-starred restaurants, Peel & Stone and the Hippodrome theatre.  Because they’re up on the festive goodwill they’re on offer with one for £12 or two for £18, which is ridiculous bargain given how much you can save.
    • For coffee lovers, the team behind YORKS BAKERY CAFE have started Birmingham’s very first Birmingham-born coffee roastery.  As well as an array of brewing equipment, they do a coffee subscription whereby they’ll send a bag of 300g coffee every fortnight.
    • What do you get the person who has everything?  What about something a bit more left-field and a subscription to LOVE BRUM, a Birmingham charity who supports the local community to build an even better Birmingham.  Buy your loved one a membership for £20 and let them help supporting the projects they choose.

    So there we have it, just a few Birmingham food and drink inspired gifts you might want to give your loved ones this festive season.  Tell me, what are you hoping Santa leaves under the tree for you this December?

    Disclosure: No one gave me anything to be included in this gift list because I’m a terrible blogger. I just did this for the goodwill.

    Restaurant reviews, Reviews

    Trying out the new autumn/winter menu at 1847

    1847_menu

    I’ve been talking a lot about comfort food recently.  It’s not really surprisingly, given the recently dip in temperature, the dark nights (which I actually like) and that time had three hours sleep because I stayed up for my traditional watch a Big Thing happening in another country.  I think anyone would be forgiven for craving comfort.  But what I didn’t expect was to find it at a vegetarian restaurant.

    I’ve posted about 1847 (which used to be called Bistro 1847) before, several times in fact.  It does vegetarian and vegan sort of fine-dining style, in a bistro in the heart of the Great Western Arcade, which is rapidly becoming quite the go-to place for those who like to excite their taste buds.  It’s a bit crass and overdone to say that as a meat eater I like the place, because that would be like going to dessert parlour and talking about dinner; it’s not about what’s missing it’s about the ingredients they use taking centre stage.  And whilst vegetarian options are now pretty standard on most menus they’re not always the most inspired, whereas at 1847 they’re the stars.

    maples_roasted_parsnips_1847

    This time round I pitched up for a taste of their new autumnal menu, which already tells you there’s a transitional move into comfort food, but it’s not heavy and bloating.  The menu picks up lots of the flavours and ingredients of the season – cauliflower, mushrooms, sage and butternut squash, but with some extra flavours for colour.

    To nibble on whilst we waited for everyone, we had focaccia with shakshuka hummus and if this was as good as it was to get (spoiler, it wasn’t) I’d have been happy; lightly toasted but still warm bread, drizzled with oil and a shakshuka hummus which was smooth and salty.  It was simple but delicious.

    For starter I went for maple roasted parsnips, parsnip cream, apple and pumpkin seed, because honey-roasted parsnips are an absolute winner in a Sunday roast and I wanted to know what a maple version would be like.  They’re delicious; cooked well so that the parsnips are soft but not mushy and the naturally sweetness of the vegetable is heightened by the maple syrup.  Sure it’s sweet but it’s just the right sized dish that it doesn’t become sickly. 

    spatzle_1847

    For main I went for spätzle, roast squash puree, smoked mushrooms and whipped feta.  I have a soft spot for spätzle ever since my German university housemate Barbara showed me how to make it.  The knöpfle variety is a German pasta which is like little droplets.  To make it, I used to comb the dough through a colander and cover with grated cheese once cooked, but the roast squash puree and smoked mushrooms gave it a really interesting flavour.  I wasn’t sold on the whipped feta, the tanginess of it seemed at odds with the other flavours, but then I’m not a massive fan of feta.

    Sadly, the only real misfire of the night was the dessert for me.  I went for the coconut malabi with apple rice donuts and caramelised pear because it felt like a nice comforting, lighter dessert but just didn’t quite work.  The coconut malabi felt a bit lacklustre; I’m not keen on overly sweet things but this dish felt like it needed more sweetness, perhaps more caramelised pear and it was hard to know whether you were supposed to swipe with the sauce with the anarachni-like donuts.  That said I did try some of my friend’s chocolate brownie with my coconut malabi and the creaminess worked well with the richness of the brownie, so it’s not bad it just didn’t seem to come together as a dish quite as I’d have liked.

    apple_rice_donuts_1847Overall it was a really enjoyable meal, even with the slightly disappointing end.  There are still some well loved classics on the menu like the battered halloumi, but the autumnal dishes really are a delight.  Once again 1847 have proved that vegetarian and vegan dishes don’t need to be the poor-man’s meatless afterthought but can be hearty, comforting and yet delicate.

    1847, 26 Great Western Arcade, Birmingham B2 5HU
    https://www.by1847.com/birmingham/

    Disclosure: I was invite for a complimentary meal by Brumderland in exchange for my views, but wasn’t required to be positive. Which is just as well because after three hours sleep I’d struggle to lie anyway.

    Pop-up and Event reviews, Reviews

    The Studio’s autumn menu tasting

    studio_curryIf you’ve been following the blog for a while, you’ll know how much I like the seasonal menu tasting at The Studio.  We use a lot of conference facilities at work at the food at the Studio makes them one of my favourite venues in Birmingham – and I have a lot of feedback comments to prove I’m not the only one!

    chicken_skewers_studio_autumn

    One of the things that makes the food so good is that it’s not a platter of sad sandwiches, but a proper hearty meal – and pudding.  If you’re in an all day event, having a proper meal at lunchtime is a good way to perk everyone up.  I know we’re well into the colder months now, but I went along to the menu tasting a couple of months ago and wanted to share a few photos of the autumnal menu tasting because the food was delicious.

    bacon-potato-chickenThere were some lovely dishes, with everything from hearty Italian chicken wrapped in bacon through to sweet potato curry, lasagne and a vegan shepardess pie.  Each day there are meat and vegetarian menus as standard, with other dietary requirements covered as and when.

    bakewell_trifleAnd then there is pudding.  My favourite was the churro popover dipped in cinnamon sugar and chocolate dipping sauce, because sugar doughnuts are a total weakness of mine, but the Bakewell sundae was a lovely light pudding too, as was the dark chocolate and mint mousse with mini marshmallows.

    churros_studio_autumn The Studio is a conference facility and training room hire venue, and sadly not a restaurant.  But if you want to book a meeting so you can have lunch, then I totally wouldn’t blame you.

    The Studio, 7 Cannon St, Birmingham B2 5EP

    Bar reviews, Reviews

    The Anchor in Digbeth relaunches

    cocktails_jacob_anchor

    Here in Birmingham we have a thing about anchors. It can largely be traced back to Matthew Boulton and the Crown & Anchor Tavern in London, with anchors now gracing Birmingham products worldwide as our hallmarking symbol. But I want to talk about a different pub and a different anchor.

    A few months ago, Julian Rose Gibbs, took over the CAMRA-lauded Anchor pub in Digbeth. Most discerning drinkers of Birmingham will know Julian from the heydays of the Victoria on John Bright St, which he opened back in 2008 as general manager for Bitters n Twisted. During Julian’s stewardship, the Vic went from being a disjointed pub to one of Birmingham’s best, with an eclectic vibe that some confused with ‘hipster’ but appealed to the daytime old man supping ale as much as the style-conscious cocktail drinker.  The Vic blended together good drinks, a great atmosphere and groups of people who you wouldn’t normally expect to see together.  And whilst it feels very much to this writer like the Victoria has lost its captain, its loss is the Anchor’s gain.

    craft_beer_anchor

    The Anchor is one of those pubs Birmingham is lucky to still have. Nestled away in Digbeth, the grade II listed traditional style pub has largely avoided the glitzy renaissance of the city’s drinking culture over the last few years, remaining steadfastly traditional, yet welcoming, and well regarded by real ale drinkers, often noted in the Campaign for Real Ale publications.  It retained a loyal set of regulars and for those of us who infrequently frequented it often had a soft spot for it too. And not just because of the cob sandwiches and Tayto crisps.

    Jules and his team, headed by Jacob Clarke, who many will recognise from the Victoria and The Botanist, have brought a breath of fresh air to the Anchor. The repainted almost Tiffany blue coloured walls compliment the dark wood and stained glass to create somewhere that marries the traditional and modern; something which is echoed in the drinks menu, with real ales sitting alongside craft beer and modest cocktail and wine menus, the latter of which has been has been curated by Ed at Connolly’s Wines.

    gin_selection_anchor

    Talking of drinks, some well known Victoria cocktail classics like the Bombphire and Sherbertini are rightfully back on the menu, the gin list curated by Carl Hawkins aka the GINtleman, and several drinks have been named after friends and ‘various Birmingham bar industry reprobates’. Sure there are some in-jokes and cynics will scoff, but it’s clear that there’s a lot of love here – for the drinks, for the venue and for the drinks scene in the city.

    It would be cliched to say they’re trying to create a place “where everybody knows your name” but whilst they might not remember your name but they will remember your drink.  Those who remember the Vic team of days gone by will remember a dysfunctional family where those who were on the other side were welcomed like visiting relatives. The Anchor isn’t trying to replicate the Victoria circa 2012, that would be impossible, but it is trying to create a proper boozer for the modern age; good drinks, good service and a sense of community, whoever you are and whatever you drink.

    For all the shiny newness that has come in the last few years of the Birmingham bar scene, it’s nice to see one of it’s anchors back; best of luck Jules and your team.

    The Anchor in Digbeth relaunches on Thursday 17th November.  Find it at 308 Bradford St, Birmingham B5 6ET.

    Pop-up and Event reviews, Reviews

    White Truffle menu at San Carlo

    white_truffle_san_carlo

    Before I tell you how I spent my Friday lunchtime, I feel the need to tell you that once I rolled back from lunch I found out the keynote for my event next week had pulled out.  I tell you this, because the special guest star at the preview lunch I went to was a £2,000 white truffle and we were going to be some of the first to eat it.  But as with most things, there needs to be a balance in life. Just, you know, not at lunchtime.

    Thanks to celebrity chef and executive consultant chef for the San Carlo group Aldo Zilli, who personally selected one of the world’s most expensive ingredients from his home town in Italy, this Temple St restaurant now has a rare white winter truffle and it’s on the menu or the next two weeks, or until it runs out.  Yep, that kind of rare.

    lobster_risotto_white_truffleA group of us were invited down to check out some tasters from the exclusive menu at San Carlo.  It’s been a while since I’ve been to San Carlo, although not too long since I was at its sister venue, Fumo, round the corner.  In fact, last time I remember going my friend Fran had great fun translating some of the overheard Italian, which made for a great lunch.  And whilst that was a while ago, it was nice to see that San Carlo’s reputation for original and signature Italian dishes remains strong, as it was pleasantly busy whilst we were there.

    Anyway, back to the truffle, which is a rare treat to have in the city, particularly of such size.  This white winter truffle was found in the national park of the Abruzzo region, by specially trained dogs – and not pigs, as I thought.  Prized for their aromatic qualities and taste, they grow in the soil under trees and can only be harvested for around two months of the year.  So, you know, when they find one, and one that costs around £2000, you can see why it’s a cause for celebration.

    whote_truffle_shaved_steak_tartare

    And to celebrate the arrival, San Carlo have created a special menu of five dishes; Steak tartare with egg and truffle shavings, lobster and truffle risotto, Tagliolini pasta with truffle butter and shavings of fresh truffle, Carpaccio and burrata with shavings of truffle and turbot with a truffle and Prosecco cream sauce.

    I enjoyed getting to taste each of the dishes; despite all having the same start ingredient all felt like they brought something different to the palette.  Personally, my favourite was the tagliolini pasta with truffle butter and shavings of fresh truffle because it was so simple, but executed so well; the buttery oil slick over perfectly cooked, al dente pasta with a hint of the garlicky musk from the truffle.  I also enjoyed the lobster and truffle risotto, and I know it’s pretty much heresy to admit, but I’m not usually that fussed by lobster (too fiddly).

    turbot_white_truffle_cream_sauce

    Five courses of white truffle might well be a bit overkill for most, but it’s definitely worth checking out a dish (or two, if you can convince a dining partner to order from the menu too).  But you’ll have to be quick, as the menu will only be around for as long as the truffle is.  It’s expected to be around for two weeks, but booking is highly recommended by the restaurant – call San Carlo on 0121 633 0251 or email birmingham@sancarlo.co.uk aldo_zilli_san_carlo

    Disclosure: Obvs I was invited to a press lunch, which means they sort of hope you’ll write something, but I never agreed to be positive unless I meant it. And so lunch was complimentary. Or I ran away without paying, who knows.

    Cocktail, Dessert, Recipes

    Recipe: Frozen French 75 cocktail

    burleighs_frozen_french_75

    From the West side to the East side…

    Back when I was at university, up north, there seemed to be this weird icebreaker where they’d split groups based on where they were in the country – north of Birmingham, south of Birmingham etc.  Me being me, and generally a pain in the neck, meant I’d stick my hand up and point out that I was neither, that I was actually from Birmingham.  My friend Beccy would then join in, for she was from the East (Midlands).  It got to the point where we started a joke east/west side rivalry…but now it seems like the Midlands are (re) united, thanks to gin.

    Launched in 2014, Burleigh’s gin hails from the picturesque Charnfood Forest in the heart of Leicestershire.  The inspiration for the gin came from nearby Burleigh Wood, which is adjacent to the 45 West Distillery, where Burleigh’s gin is made.  Whilst walking through the Woods, master distiller Jamie Baxter came across silver birch, dandelion, burdock, elderberry and iris, and used these as inspiration for Burleigh’s gin.

    Whereas most gin brands prefer to keep their bottles glass and see through, the unusual dark black, textured bottle of Burleigh’s makes it stand out on the shelf and so pretty easy to spot out and about. And because we Midlanders enjoy a good tipple, I’ve spotted Burleigh’s in a bunch of Birmingham bars, including Gas Street Social, Loki Wine, Cosy Club, The Botanist, Lost & Found, 40 St Pauls and others.

    burleighs_frozen_french_75_2

    For this slushie, I took inspiration from the classic French 75 cocktail, which involves gin, lemon juice, sugar syrup and Champagne.  As with nearly all the good classic cocktails, no one is really very sure of the history of it – there’s a suggestion that Charles Dickens liked to give callers Tom gin and champagne cups, and one of the first recorded versions of the French 75 is found in The Savoy Cocktail Book.  But, the suggestion is that the name comes from the French army’s 75mm field gun used during World War I, so when it was developed is anyone’s guess.

    Initially I planned to make these ice lollies, but then I realised two things: one, we live in the UK and there’s probably only a need for cooling ice lollies for two weeks a year; and two, I like to make sure things are decently boozy which doesn’t always make it easy to freeze, unless you’re willing to compromise on the alcohol content.  Also, tis nearly the season and a palette cleanser which involves something fizzy and gin is a pretty winning idea.

    Before anyone gets at me, this recipe is inspired by the French 75, but tweaked because it’s frozen and I wanted to get the flavours to come through the iciness. I used the Burleigh’s Export Strength gin (47% abv) because it’s distilled using the same botanicals at their signature gin but bottling at a higher ABV gives it a different flavour, including lasting flavours of lemon and juniper, but the intensity means it works served at a cooler temperature.

    Recipe: Frozen French 75 cocktail
     
    Prep time
    Total time
     
    Author:
    Recipe type: cocktail, ice lolly
    Cuisine: dessert
    Serves: 2
    Ingredients
    • 50ml Burleighs export strength gin
    • 25ml fresh lemon juice
    • 62.5ml sugar syrup (2 parts water, 1 part sugar)
    • 125ml prosecco, or champagne if you're fancy
    Instructions
    1. Add all of the ingredients, give them a good stir
    2. Pour into ice moulds or a dish and freeze overnight
    3. Remove from container, bash up the ice a little
    4. Transfer to champagne glass or bowl and serve

    The people at Burleigh’s have given me a code so that readers of Full to the Brum can get 20% off purchases at their online store.  Head to burleighsgin.com/shop/ and add the code FTTB20 to get the discount.

    Restaurant reviews, Reviews

    Review: Bryon burgers finally bounce into Birmingham

    byron_proper_hamburgersMy first Byron experience was in 2013 on one of my many trips to London, which I claimed was about seeing friends, but was really about going to go eat burgers.  So, shame on Byron for taking this long to get to Birmingham.  Salisbury has one and it only has a population of 45,000; York, Harrogate, Exeter and Camberley all have ones.  Manchester’s got three Byron’s…but, you know, no Michelin stars, so we’re clearly still winning in that respect.  I can only imagine that with a Birmingham-born burger chain already here, they figured they’d come back to us later.

    So what of the Birmingham one?  Located on New Street, the fact that it means that lovely old building is no longer some sort of gambling-machine arcade is major plus points.  Inside the space is well used; there’s an open kitchen it doesn’t feel forced into being the centre of attention and there’s enough interior design that it doesn’t feel like a canteen.  Apparently they’ve gone for a Cuban-inspired ‘Havana Good Time’; I’ve no idea quite what that is supposed to mean but the warm, tropical colours are used well. The exposed brickwork and relics of the old cinema knocking about if you know where to look too.  It feels like a nice space to be in, warm and inviting, not too gimmicky.

    Byron's smoky burger with Byron sauceFood wise it’s all about the burgers.  Okay sure there are some wings and chicken nuggets and things for starters, but this about the burger.  It’s a simple menu, with a regularly-changing special, but there’s enough to keep you interested and back to try different things.  And my mum will be pleased because they already specify that you can order a burger without the bun, or a salad if you really must.

    I’m re-evaluating my friendship with Jo-ann after she ordered the Smoky burger and swapped the smoked chilli BBQ sauce for Byron sauce…because seriously, BBQ sauce.  She did say it was really good although did feel there might’ve been a bit too many crispy onions, but I think that’s just because for once I wasn’t the one who made the biggest mess.

    Byron burger from Birmingham with friesI had the Byron burger because I’d hope that if you’re going to put your name on something it should be good; dry-cure bacon, cheddar, lettuce, tomato, onion and Byron sauce, cooked medium in what they call a squishy bun, with a pickle on the side and then I added some fries.  The fries managed to survive being left to go a bit cold as I took photos and didn’t seem to suffer, still holding a crunch.  I liked the burger, it is simple but a nice mix of flavours and was cooked medium as standard, which makes me happy.  But, I wasn’t blown away by it, and maybe that’s my fault for ordering what’s akin to the house burger. And I’ve been spoiled for burgers.

    Drinks wise, there’s something for everyone with milkshakes and soft drinks, as well as beers, wines and cider.  They have a couple of own-brand beers, made specially for them by Camden Town brewery, and I thought I ordered a Byron pale ale, but I’m pretty sure what arrived was a lager. I didn’t mention it to the staff because it was actually quite drinkable, even though I don’t often choose lager, which I think is a positive sign.

    byron_beer

    I’ve warmed to Byron since 2013, largely because I stopped expecting them to be the best burgers in town.  Instead, I realised that what they do well is providing somewhere you can go for dinner, that does simple burgers, but feels like going for dinner.  Over the years I’ve had some amazing burgers, but they’ve nearly all been in places where it’s all about the burger, and less about the experience.  Byron is where I could meet non-food-obsessed friends for dinner and a catch up and not be disappointed, but I doubt I’d convince them to trek to a sketchy part of town, queue for ages and then try and balance a beer and burger, no matter how out-of-this-world that burger is. Byron is about satisfyingly simple comfort food that’s burger-shaped, and I think there’s room for that in Birmingham.

    Byron burgers, 92 New Street, Birmingham, B2 4BA