Review: afternoon tea at the Sculpture Hall Café, Manchester

It’s been a while since I’ve written a review! Happily, I’m back on it with two thumbs up for the wonderful Sculpture Hall Café in Manchester, where I went for afternoon tea as part of a day-long hen do in the city last weekend.

I knew I definitely wanted to do afternoon tea for my hen party, but I wasn’t sure where would be best to go. After a bit of Googling, I discovered the existence of a café within Manchester Town Hall, and knew it was the place to go after perusing its rather tempting Manchester-themed afternoon tea menu.

I do like a good ol’ traditional afternoon tea, but I’m just as keen on trying new twists on the sandwiches-scones-Victoria sponge composition of a standard afternoon tea. The Manchester theme was right up my street as it featured one of my favourite local creations – the Manchester tart, albeit in the form of a cake! I was in coconut heaven just thinking about it.

Firstly, the café itself. The Sculpture Hall Café occupies a neat little space on the ground floor of the town hall, just off a rather impressive corridor with some amazing architectural details. The café’s name comes from the number of busts and statues of famous local people placed around the space. The decor is lovely – all dark brown leather sofas and tastefully decorated walls, topped off with great views of Albert Square from the large windows.

We could choose from a standard afternoon tea or a champagne afternoon tea. This being my hen do, most of us went for the latter option! I was pleasantly surprised when we were served with small bottles of champagne rather than having a tiny amount of fizz poured out for us – I think someone worked out that each bottle was equivalent to a glass and a half of champagne.

Sculpture Hall Cafe afternoon tea
The food was beautifully presented on tiered stands. The order of the food on the tiers was a little different to what I’m used to – the savouries were on top, with the cakes in the middle and the scones on the bottom.

The savouries were excellent. I had a vegetarian version of the afternoon tea, so my options were cream cheese and cucumber on rye (not pictured because I only remembered to take photos after I’d scoffed it!), a mini carrot and cheese sandwich and a mini Lancashire cheese and leek tart topped with a little chutney. All of it was delicious, but the tart was probably my favourite (especially as there was a lovely cheese crisp embedded in it).

Sculpture Hall Cafe afternoon tea

Carrot and cheese sandwich + Lancashire cheese and leek tart

There was also some sort of choux filled with mushrooms, but as I’m not a fan of mushrooms, I left that to one side. The savouries were served alongside hummous, piccalilli and ham hock for the meat eaters, which could be spread on slivers of bread.

Then it was on to the scones, which were filled with a variety of dried fruit (I think cranberry featured quite heavily) and not as mini as the menu makes them sound! They were scrumptious, as were the mini Eccles cakes, which contained a heavily spiced filling dominated by ginger. Just beautiful!

Next, it was time for the middle tier, which featured the aforementioned Manchester sponge cake . The coconut sponge was one of the best I’ve ever had – buttery yet light at the same time, and complemented nicely by the rich buttercream and dab of jam in the middle.

Sculpture Hall Cafe afternoon tea

Top: Vimto delice and Manchester cake. Bottom: fruit scones and Eccles cakes.

However, it’s not often that something beats coconut in my culinary affections, but the Vimto delice ended up being my favourite. Imagine a thin layer of sponge covered with a dome of Vimto-flavoured mousse and covered with a quite frankly amazing, tart, jelly-like Vimto glaze… oof! It really was something special and the perfect end to the meal along with a nice cup of tea (and the last of the champagne).

Before I wrap up, I just want to stress how good value our afternoon tea was – it’s an incredible £12.50 per person for the standard afternoon tea and £19.95 with champagne. I’m used to seeing prices in the region of £15-20 without champagne and £25+ with champagne, so it was truly refreshing to see such low prices for brilliant quality food.

All in all, the Sculpture Hall Café was a wonderful discovery for us and provided one of the best afternoon tea experiences I’ve ever had (it’s probably only rivalled by Northcote). Excellent food, amazingly low prices, lovely staff and magnificent surroundings – perfect! I’ll definitely visit again.

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Afternoon tea with GBBO’s Luis Troyano

Luis Troyano afternoon tea
You might know from some of my previous posts that I’m a massive fan of Great British Bake Off – and that I was a particular fan of finalist Luis Troyano in last year’s series.

I absolutely loved his attention to both visual detail and flavour (check out my attempt at one of his recipes), and was ever so slightly disappointed that he didn’t win. However, he’s still baking and has a book, Bake It Great, coming out in August.

I was rather delighted when he announced that he would be holding a special afternoon at the Stockport Plaza (a beautiful old cinema conveniently close to my area) to promote the book. Of course, I just had to get a ticket!

The cinema really was a lovely setting. The afternoon tea was held in an Art Deco cafe/restaurant decorated in a tasteful yet simple style – very much like what you’d expect a classy tearoom would have looked like in the 1930s.

There were quite a few people already tucking into their cakes when we got there, but it was all very relaxed and friendly. We were shown to a table, and tea and three tiers of food loveliness appeared soon after we sat down. You can’t see them in the photo above, but the bottom tier had lots of finger sandwiches – egg, cucumber and salmon.

However, it was the sweet treats we were most interested in, and which Luis himself had made in their entirety. As well as the compulsory scones with clotted cream and strawberry jam, there were chocolate brownies, Bakewell cupcakes, carrot cake cupcakes, and blueberry cheesecake eclairs. YUM.

Carrot cake cupcake
After polishing off the sandwiches, we started with the scones, which were perfect – substantial yet extremely light. Then I moved on to the carrot cake cupcake, which was bursting with zesty orange and fruity sultanas and topped with a fantastic mascarpone buttercream. I’m so glad it was proper buttercream and not the overly sugary icing you usually get on cupcakes!

Blueberry cheesecake eclair
Then it was on to the blueberry cheesecake eclairs – choux pastry sandwiched with a cheesecake-y filling and fresh blueberries. This was so inspired – I’ve never thought of using cheesecake as a filling for eclairs, but it’s such a fantastic idea! The choux was very nicely made and not too heavy. Perfect.

Bakewell cupcake
Next, the star of the show – Bakewell cupcakes. My, these were so good! They looked pretty unassuming, but they were actually filled with delicious jam. The sponge itself was delightfully almond-y. So very good.

Bakewell cupcake
The recipe for these cupcakes will feature in Luis’s book – I know what I’m going to make as soon as I get my hands on it!

Chocolate brownie
Finally, it was time for the chocolate brownie (apologies for the blurry photo, but I was concentrating more on eating than on taking pictures!).

I was a bit worried I might not have room for everything, but going for a long run that morning seemed to increase my appetite quite a lot! I savoured every bite of this brownie – it was very chocolatey indeed, but balanced nicely against vanilla and salt, so it wasn’t too sweet and was scarily addictive.

As we ate, Luis made his way through the room and stopped to speak to everyone and answer questions, which I thought was nice of him. I asked him what was in the brownies, and my boyfriend fiancé praised the eclairs.

Luis then revealed his secret to making the perfect choux, which I can’t actually remember in its entirety now (it’ll be in his book, hopefully), but involved keeping it in the oven for as long as possible without opening the door before you’re supposed to, as that affects the bake. It was lovely talking to Luis, and nice to know that he’s every bit as approachable and kind as he seemed in the show.

All in all, we had a fantastic time and enjoyed all of the food immensely. I’m now hoping that Luis’s fellow GBBO contestant Chetna Makan has the same idea and decides to hold an event near me too…!

Review: William Curley Chocolate Club – April 2015

William Curley Chocolate Club box - April 2015
I promise to put up a proper baking post next time, but for now, I wanted to complete my trio of William Curley Chocolate Club reviews (see the February box review here and March here). I received the last box of my subscription in April, but didn’t actually polish it off until a couple of weeks ago – shocking, I know!

My slowness in finishing it off had nothing to do with the contents being horrible or anything like that – in fact, I was so sad it was the last box that I was determined to make it last for as long as possible.

Without further ado, the contents of the April box were:

  • A selection of 4 flavoured chocolates
  • Orange teacake
  • Grapefruit (grapefruit jelly covered in chocolate)
  • Fruit financiers
  • Almond and orange caramel mou

William Curley fruit financiers

William Curley fruit financiers
I started with the mini fruit financiers, as they had to be eaten by the looming best before date. I was a little surprised (but not disappointed) to receive these, as they had no chocolate in them at all, but they were exceedingly delicious!

I can’t remember the exact flavours now, but you can see from the ingredients label that each cake was a mixture of fruit and nuts. I do remember that the pistachio financier was particularly divine.

William Curley selection box
Next up was the selection box. I received one of these in my first box and absolutely loved it, so I had high hopes for this one. Unfortunately, I didn’t have any way to tell what was in these chocolates (apart from my own woefully lacking sense of taste), as it didn’t come with a ‘menu’ and I didn’t have the one that came with my first box.

Cue some scribbling of notes as I tasted each chocolate… I think one of them was some sort of salted caramel and another was strawberry, but the other two flummoxed me a bit (my notes: “fruit jelly – cherry?” and “fruity caramel?”. Whatever they were, they were all delicious!

William Curley orange teacake
Then it was on to the orange teacake – teacake as in Tunnock’s, not the fruity bready type. This was a bit of a taste sensation – a substantial shortbread-type biscuit with a generous blob of orange jelly on top, all covered in a thick layer of chocolate. Lovely!

William Curley grapefruit
I was a bit puzzled by the Grapefruit offering at first. Were these preserved grapefruit segments covered in chocolate? Or wedges of grapefruit-flavoured chocolate? Neither, as it turned out. They were slivers of grapefruit jelly covered in lots and lots of chocolate – quite similar in concept to the Orangette from my first box. Again, this was delicious and definitely a little bit different.

William Curley almond and orange caramel mou
My last treat to try was the almond and orange caramel mou, which was basically a pair of chocolate bars filled with almonds and orange-flavoured caramel. I knew I would love this, and it didn’t disappoint. I would be seriously tempted to buy this again if I ever get the chance to!

So, there ends my Curley Chocolate Club experience. It was a fantastic experience all in all, and I have to commend my former colleagues for choosing such a brilliant gift for me! Everything I received over the last three months was of an exceptional quality, and there was nothing I didn’t like.

I’ve said it before, but I would most certainly recommend a subscription if you’re looking for a special present for the chocoholic in your life – or if you’re the said chocoholic and fancy treating yourself. Do it!

Review: William Curley Chocolate Club – March 2015

William Curley March box
As mentioned in my first review of the William Curley Chocolate Club, I’m lucky enough to have a 3-month subscription to their lovely little boxes of joy. As the contents of each box vary from month to month, I thought I’d give a quick rundown of the second box I received, this time for March.

The treats again came packaged in a beautiful black box with a ribbon, but I forgot to take a picture in my haste to get to the contents! Never mind – here’s what was inside:

  • House dark truffles
  • Sea salt caramel mou sweets
  • Pistachio sables
  • House dark 65 chocolate bar
  • Aztec hot chocolate

William Curley house dark truffles
The house dark truffles were the first thing I tried, and they were as good as I expected considering how much I enjoyed a similar truffle in the February box. Rich, smooth and oh so flavoursome, I could have easily had 10 of these!

William Curley sea salt caramel mou
I was really excited about trying the sea salt caramel mou sweets, because they looked and sounded so good! The caramel was divine – absolutely perfect, in fact – and the hint of sea salt made these sweets genuinely delicious.

William Curley pistachio sables
I was surprised and excited to see these pistachio sables in the box – I’d assumed everything would be chocolate or sweet-based. But as I love pistachios, I couldn’t wait to try these. The biscuits were very shortbread-like – buttery and crumbly – and the pistachio flavour was amazing intense. They really didn’t skimp on the pistachios when making these, for which I am eternally grateful!

William Curley house dark chocolate bar
This is basically William Curley’s ‘standard’ dark chocolate bar with 65% cocoa solids, but there was nothing standard at all about the flavour! The packaging referred to ‘ripe fruit notes’ that were definitely there and made this a lot more enjoyable than absentmindedly tucking into your average bar of dark chocolate.

Mexican chilli and cinnamon brownies
I haven’t actually had the Aztec hot chocolate as a proper drink yet, but I used some of it in the Mexican chilli and cinnamon brownies I made recently. I had a taste before throwing it in, and it seems to be a nicely intense dark chocolate with just a hint of chilli. Hopefully I’ll get round to sampling it as a drink soon!

Overall, this was another excellent box that I thoroughly enjoyed. I’m sad that the next box will be my last one (under this subscription anyway!), but I’m looking forward to seeing what it contains!

Review: William Curley Chocolate Club – February 2015

William Curley Chocolate Club subscription box
Today’s post is a bit of a departure from my usual baking-related accounts. I haven’t baked anything new/worth blogging about in a few weeks, but I have been enjoying a rather wonderful subscription box courtesy of the Curley Chocolate Club, run by chocolatier extraordinaire William Curley.

I received a 3-month subscription as a leaving gift some time ago and activated it to begin in February. I’ve now consumed the lot (and received my March box!), so I thought I’d review it.

William Curley Chocolate Club subscription box
First, just look at that beautiful box! It screams luxury before you even see the contents, doesn’t it?

And then you open it and go ‘ooooh!’. Or I did, anyway.

William Curley Chocolate Club subscription box
So, what did I get? The contents of the February box were:

  • A selection of 4 flavoured chocolates
  • Orangette (orange confit and dark chocolate batons)
  • Millionaire (a chunky biscuit, caramel and chocolate bar)
  • Suisse Rocher Dark Chocolate (caramelised almond batons covered in dark chocolate)
  • White chocolate and raspberry bar

I was determined to make my goodies last for as long as possible (or at least until the next box arrived)! I started off with the flavoured chocolates, as their best before date was coming up soon.

William Curley chocolate assortment

Top row: Amedei Chuao and apricot & wasabi Bottom row: Piedmont hazelnut and coconut

The leaflet that came with these informed me that I had a rather varied selection of flavours: Amedei Chuao truffle, apricot and wasabi, Piedmont hazelnut and coconut. I immediately went for the coconut and thoroughly enjoyed it (of course).

The next one I tried was my favourite – the Amedei Chuao truffle made from 70% dark chocolate. It was super smooth, rich and oh so flavoursome. I usually prefer milk chocolate to dark when eating chocolate on its own, but this truffle was so enjoyable I could have had 10 more!

The Piedmont hazelnut chocolate was lovely, while the apricot and wasabi chocolate was a little odd but delicious. The wasabi flavour is really delicate (thankfully) and unusual in a fruit chocolate like this, but so nice!

William Curley Suisse Rocher almond batons
Next up: the dark chocolate-covered caramelised almond batons. I already knew I was going to love these before my first taste, as I’m a huge fan of almonds and have fond memories of the toscakaka I made a while ago, which introduced me to the joy of combining almonds and caramel.

They were SO delicious and really hard to put down. The caramelised almond centres were just beautiful, and the chocolate added an extra layer of flavour that made the batons amazingly addictive. I would buy these on their own!

William Curley Millionaire
I shared the Millionaire bar with my boyfriend, as he absolutely loves millionaire’s shortbread. It was very similar to your standard piece of millionaire’s shortbread, albeit with nicer (and more) chocolate and a particularly generous helping of gooey caramel. The biscuit wasn’t a standard shortbread – it was a bit crunchier – but it was still lovely.

William Curley Orangette

William Curley Orangette

The next treat to try was the Orangette batons. They were scrumptious – the centre of these was a chewy, tangy and slightly bitter orange confit (like a really thick and luxurious marmalade), with dark chocolate on the outside. Orange and chocolate is such a great combination, and the batons were definitely a cut above your average Jaffa cake!

William Curley white chocolate and raspberry bar
Finally, it was time for the last treat in the box: a delectable white chocolate bar with tangy raspberry bits. White chocolate and raspberry is a classic combination and I couldn’t fault this bar at all – the chocolate was beautifully sweet and creamy, and the raspberry wasn’t at all overpowering. Perfect!

Overall, I was blown away by the quality of the contents of this box. I’d never tried William Curley’s chocolate before (the poshest chocolates I’d previously had were Hotel Chocolat’s), but I’m a firm fan now! Every type of chocolate was just so tasty, and the flavour combinations were fantastic.

If you’re looking for a fancy present for the chocolate lover in your life, you really can’t go wrong with the Curley Chocolate Club. I can’t wait to try my March box now!

Review: Northcote 7-course meal and afternoon tea

I’m deviating from my usual baking blog post this week to rave about Northcote, a hotel and Michelin-starred restaurant in one of the most beautiful parts of Lancashire. I whisked my boyfriend away to this lovely establishment earlier in the week as part of his 30th birthday celebrations for a seven-course meal and afternoon tea the next day (so there is some baking to discuss!), and we had such a great time that I want to tell you all about it and urge you to go!

About Northcote

Firstly, a little bit about Northcote itself: the hotel is fairly small, with 18 rooms, but it’s beautifully decorated and furnished, and boasts some amazing views of the surrounding Ribble Valley and Forest of Bowland. It has its own gardens in which a wide variety of produce is grown, and this focus on local ingredients is one that definitely comes through in the restaurant’s menus.

Northcote is run by Nigel Haworth, with head chef Lisa Allen in charge of creating the restaurant’s dishes. I first came across both of them while watching Great British Menu a few years ago, and was impressed by their cooking even then. A colleague of mine recommended Northcote to me a while ago when we were talking about gourmet breaks in general (read his review here), and I made the decision to go for it back in March.

The meal

Neither of us eat meat, so I booked us in for a vegetarian tasting break. I thought we may as well try as many different things as possible, as it’s unlikely we’ll get to eat at many Michelin-starred restaurants during our lifetimes! We were told to make sure we went down for dinner half an hour before our booking to enjoy some Louis Roederer champagne and canapés, as well as to browse the menu that was especially designed for us mushroom-hating vegetarians:

Northcote vegetarian tasting menu

The menu looked absolutely perfect from the outset. My boyfriend opted for the wine package (where he had the recommended wine with each course), while I sensibly just had a glass of wine every other course to avoid not remembering a thing about this lovely meal the next day!

We were then taken into the dining room, where we were seated near the French windows offering spectacular views of the nearby hills. To our surprise, we were offered a ‘pre-starter’ that wasn’t on the menu – an eggshell filled with a creamy cow’s milk curd custard, which surrounded a ball of sorrel granita and was topped with a salt and pepper yolk. There was also a delicate cheese and rosemary breadstick to go with it. I now refer to this course as the poshest egg and soldiers EVER. It was absolutely delicious and I scraped my eggshell clean!

The first proper course was just as lovely. Neither of us are huge fans of blue cheese, but there was just the right amount in the sauce to add flavour but not overpower the artichokes. Similarly, my boyfriend doesn’t really like avocado, but he loved the second course. I was particularly intrigued by the samphire, having never had it before but seen it on countless episodes of Masterchef and Great British Menu. It was indeed delicious.

We were particularly looking forward to the third course, being huge fans of beetroot. It didn’t disappoint. The presentation was very summery and I really liked the horseradish with the beetroot.

Northcote three beets, herbs and flowers

Three beets, pickled shallot hearts, horseradish, herbs and flowers

The next course was pretty unique – I don’t think I’ve ever had anything remotely like it before. The ‘curry flavours’ were delivered in what I think was a yogurt-based coating on the wood-burnt onion, and were very delicate. I was quite excited about the next course, as I’ve never had gooseberries before. Their tartness went perfectly with the kiev and sorrel elements, and I’m happy to say I am now a firm gooseberry fan. I should say that this course was accidentally delivered to us with a mushroom sauce, but the staff were very efficient in quickly swapping it for what we were supposed to have, so we have no complaints on that front!

Then came what were my two favourite courses of the night. We were both in raptures over the heirloom tomatoes, which we agreed were the most tomato-y tomatoes we’ve ever had. I assume this is partly down to the tomato itself, but I think they were also cooked in such a way to deliver maximum flavour. Absolutely gorgeous!

Northcote heirloom tomatoes, courgette and flower

Heirloom tomatoes, slow-roasted courgette and flower

I was, of course, especially looking forward to the dessert. I love strawberries and was expecting a lovely little pile of them with blobs of minted cream. To my delighted surprise, we got this instead:

Northcote strawberries, cream and mint

English strawberries and cream, garden mint

The centrepiece was a sphere of milk chocolate filled with cream and an absolutely divine strawberry coulis. Around it was some milk chocolate soil and fresh strawberries on a bed of cream with fresh mint. I was most definitely in dessert heaven and could have eaten three more of this course!  At this point, we retired to the bar for a post-meal whisky (my boyfriend) and an extremely alcoholic espresso martini (me).

I have to say that the sommelier for our meal, Adam, was absolutely brilliant in explaining the flavours for the wine chosen for each course, and how they complemented the food. Every wine was perfectly selected and we could definitely see how each one matched the food on our plates. I should also praise the waiting staff who explained the components of each dish so we could fully appreciate them. All in all the service was absolutely top notch.

We did come away pleasantly full and extremely happy with the meal. If you’re concerned that a tasting menu might leave you feeling hungry due to the small portions, I would say this is not a problem if you go to Northcote! I would imagine the meat-based menu to be even more satisfactory in this regard.

Afternoon tea

The next day, we enjoyed a fantastic breakfast in the restaurant (Lancashire cheese omelette) and then spent the day exploring the area. We attempted a country walk but got lost fairly quickly (this is normal for us), so we drove to Clitheroe instead. I’d never been before but I would go again – it’s a pretty market town with lots of independent shops and the ruins of the smallest Norman castle in England. We bought some cheese (Mrs Kirkham’s Lancashire cheese and, rather intriguingly, Lancashire goats cheese) and then spent some time in a beer garden in Waddington before heading back to Northcote for afternoon tea on the terrace.

I’d like to think of myself as a bit of an afternoon tea connoisseur by now, so I was really looking forward to seeing what would be served up after the wonderful meal the previous night. We weren’t disappointed:

Northcote afternoon tea

Afternoon tea at Northcote

We had a nice selection of mostly vegetarian sandwiches (I tried a smoked salmon sandwich, which was lovely – and I don’t particularly like smoked salmon!) which we polished off pretty quickly, having not eaten since breakfast. We then moved on to the middle tier – a plain and fruit scone with clotted cream and strawberry jam, which is my favourite combination for a cream tea, so I was particularly pleased with that! The scones were lovely – nice and light and a great carrier for the rich cream and sweet jam.

Northcote afternoon tea

Scones, clotted cream and strawberry jam

Then it was on to the top tier – shortbread, lemon meringue tarts, mini Victoria sponges and Valrhona chocolate cakes. The shortbread was the lightest shortbread I’ve ever had, but no less delicious for it and I thoroughly enjoyed it. The curd in the lemon tarts was absolutely delightful and the pastry perfectly baked.

I LOVED the Victoria sponges. I’m a firm believer in a Victoria sponge being the centrepiece of any afternoon tea, and the ones we had at Northcote were beautiful, with a light sponge dotted with fresh strawberries and a topping of freshly whipped cream and strawberry jam. We both finished with the chocolate cakes, which were topped with salted caramel hazelnuts. They were very chocolatey thanks to the choice of chocolate (read my thoughts on Valrhona cocoa here!) and were the perfect way to end our afternoon.

Northcote afternoon tea

Chocolate cakes, lemon tarts, Victoria sponges and shortbread

The tea that accompanied our feast was very nice as well – it’s always good to see large fragments of tea leaves in the pot instead of the fine ground stuff you usually get. We lingered on the terrace for a while to enjoy the sunshine and views before finally driving home.

All in all, our time at Northcote was a wonderful experience that we’ll never forget. We both agreed that the meal was the best we’ve ever had in a restaurant, with both the food and service coming together to create the perfect evening, while the afternoon was the cherry on the cake, so to speak! If you’re looking for ideas for a luxurious gourmet getaway in beautiful surroundings, I honestly can’t recommend Northcote enough. We will definitely go back.