Friday 25 November 2011

Manchester Christmas Markets

“Holidays are coming…  Holidays are coming…” Each year, there are three things that tell me Christmas on its way. The first is seeing the Coca-Cola ‘Holidays are coming’ advert, the second is hearing Fairytale Of New York on the radio and the third is the opening of Manchester’s Christmas Markets.

We started with a stroll along King Street’s French Market. Anticipating stuffing myself when we got to the large European Market in Albert Square, I managed to resist the allure of the crêpes, cassoulet and vin chaud.

We then took a left into St Anne’s Square and after pausing at the Nativity my resolve began to give in and we bought some delicious chocolate covered marshmallows with Gingerbread, Amaretto, Cherry, Mint and Irish Cream fillings.

It was then onto our favourite chestnut stall which resulted in me humming ‘The Christmas Song’ for the next five minutes as we enjoyed the sweet, nutty festive treats. 

In Albert Square, this year the familiar giant Santa in front of the Town Hall had been bejazzled with some festive fairy lights and a MCR ‘Hearts’ XMAS banner.

Each year, one of the first stalls that we head for sells Dutch Mini Pancakes – I’m a sucker for tradition and sugar and lemon remain my perfect topping.

Another favourite stall sells chocolate tree decorations – we have a delightfully camp pink Christmas tree and the pink stockings always provide a chocolaty treat for visiting children (I’ve been known to pinch one or two from the tree myself but don’t tell my wife!)

We then saw a company of Christmas toy soldiers turned out in their smartest uniforms; all sporting spectacular ‘taches for Movember (see here)!

The salami selling stalls are always popular; they often offer tasters and sell a range of meats, such as venison, wild boar and the rather pleasant pheasant.

Of course, there are many bars and Gluhwein Houses selling German beers, English ales as well as variously spiced and flavoured mulled wine and cider. They even do non-alcoholic mulled beverages for the kids or designated drivers.

My favourite bar is the one in the centre (near the bejazzled Santa) that features a singing moose head. My one criticism of the markets is that there should be more festive music – maybe even more strategically placed musical moose!

The oversized German sausages are always a popular choice with hungry Christmas shoppers. This year I decided to have a break from my customary Bratwurst and opted for the Pork Rack instead – very tasty, I definitely recommend the rack!  

I particularly like the ketchup and mustard ‘udders’ – a genius invention that should appear on Dragon’s Den. I'm in!

There are a couple of stalls selling a varied selection of olives and garlic – I bought some pink garlic this year. (Last year I got some smoked garlic that was delicious roasted whole, then rubbed on bread.)

Making its debut appearance at this year’s market is the much talked about Mr. Holden’s Manchester Egg, served with Traditional Black Peas. I’ve wanted to try one of these for quite some time. Similar to a Scotch Egg, the differences are the use of a mixture of sausage meat and Bury Black Pudding, encasing a picked egg; this is then covered in crispy Japanese ‘panko’ breadcrumbs.

Personally I found that the pickled egg overpowered the black pudding far too much – the panko breadcrumbs were excellent, as were the black peas. One of the signature dishes at Aumbry (a favourite Manchester restaurant) features a quail’s egg encased in Bury black pudding – these are much tastier and you get the full flavour of the excellent blood sausage. Aumbry have also elevated the Lancashire black pea to the echelons of fine dining – see my Aumbry post here.

Another Lancashire specialty on offer is the famous Lancashire Hotpot – I didn’t taste this personally, but a friend of ours we bumped into had just had some and said it was excellent. The perfect hearty food for a cold winter’s evening.

Lancashire specialties continue at the Saddleworth Cheese Co’s stall – their award winning Lancashire Cheeses include: the young and crumbly Muldoons Picnic; the smooth and creamy How’s Yer Father; the full flavour mature Mouth Almighty and the wonderfully named blue, Smelly ‘Apeth. Fans of Corrie (Coronation Street) gather at this stall, which is often manned by Sean Wilson who played Martin Platt in the show for 21 years.

To go with my purchase of Smelly ‘Apeth and Mouth Almighty, I bought a fabulous new hand crafted cheese board from one of the craft stalls. ‘Start Creative’, have a stall on Brazennose Street. Start in Salford provide creative arts-based activities and training opportunities for people who are, or may be at risk of experiencing mental health difficulties or social exclusion… what’s more, their products are exceptional quality.

In addition to the local cheese, there are also a number stalls selling a wide range of other British and International cheeses, with particularly fine examples of Dutch and French. I bought a tasty Aged Gouda, a Smoked Bavarian beauty and a handsome hunk of Comté.

For those with a sweeter tooth, the markets also sell a wide range of sweets, cakes and cookies. Giant licorice laces, brandy snaps and gingerbreads are some of my favourites. Chocolate Santas are also prominent and for people aiming to get their 5-a-day, fruits on sticks, covered in chocolate are a popular choice.

This year, there are a few stalls that sell Italian products: olive oils, balsamic vinegars and the festive Torrone and the increasingly popular Milanese specialty Panettone. I’m not a huge fan of sweet breads but I did buy a lovely Sardinian Torrone made with the regions superb ‘miele’ (honey).

Another stall sells Warm Strudels from Bavaria. I can personally recommend the Plum Strudel – my wife opted for the Marzipan and Chocolate Strudel but the Nut Strudel, Gingerbread Strudel, Cherry Strudel, Strawberry Strudel and traditional Apfelstrudel (apple strudel) all looked amazing - oodles of strudels!

For those trying to shed a few pounds before Christmas, the markets are not ALL about food. It’s a great place to get your Christmas Tree or other festive greenery such as Wreaths and Holly. Last year we bought some Mistletoe but I haven’t see any yet this year – an interesting custom, not always observed, is that each time a couple kiss under the mistletoe, one of the white berries should be plucked. When the bush is bare the kissing should stop. Therefore, if you want lots of kisses, make sure you buy a berry filled bunch!

The same stall also sells rattan animals - I was going to buy one of these but it was a little deer. I did however purchase some spring bulbs and nuts and seeds to feed the birds over winter.

Christmas decorations can also be found in each of the market areas. You will find a whole host of seasonal stars, snowmen, snow globes, colourful baubles, Father Christmases, trees, bells and reindeer. I particularly like the snow topped villages that can be illuminated with tea lights.

Each year the selection of funky Wooly Chullos hats (popularly called ‘Dappy hats’ after they became a trademark of the N-Dubz front man) seems to get brighter and more varied. I was tempted to buy a chicken hat but decided to make do with my pink Mohawk one from last year. (The stall at the end of Brazennose Street is especially good.)


We’ll definitely be back a few times before the markets finish. The main European Christmas Market on Albert Square is open daily from 10am to 9pm until Wednesday 21st December. Merry Christmas! 

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