It was a disgustingly wet Friday 13th and the day after the General Election when I found Helen Nugent, Editor of Northern Soul, at the bar of Canto. There seemed to be a veil of tears over the city, a raging at the dying of the light. We’d arranged to meet for our occasional lunch to catch up on all the news and gossip at Northern Soul Towers at the well-appointed and airy Canto, a Portuguese/Spanish tapas restaurant in the heart of the newly regenerated Ancoats. The number of exciting eateries in the area is quite astonishing and reason to feel optimistic.
Helen was staring intently at a strawberry daiquiri while I ordered a stiff G&T as we exchanged pleasantries and commiserations. We were shown to our table with much needed chirpiness by the wonderful Chloe, who showed us unstinting generosity all afternoon. The menu at Canto has been revamped and we were here to sample their newest dishes. Helen went for the mushroom croquettas while I stuck to my favourite salt cod fritters. Inside of their golden fried shells was a creamy delight of delicious fungi and bacalao. I have a history with Portuguese salt cod fritters, and these took me back there like a Proustian Madeleine. In keeping with our mood, we went for a bottle of red. On the 30th anniversary of the fall of Ceausescu, a Romanian Pinot Noir seemed appropriate. It had a medium body with hints of berry and tobacco, as well as lovely legs and a long, memorable finish.
The ever-affable Alex brought us a fine selection of new dishes. The plates at Canto are small and affordable, enough to taste a decent number and generous enough to fill the most desperate of appetites. Plates of pigs’ cheeks on a bed of mash, sea bream on rice and peas, fiery pil pil prawns, tenderstem broccoli pan-fried with chilli and garlic, and caramelised cauliflower with a cannellini bean stew came steaming from the open kitchen. Steaming? They were positively furious with Iberian flavours and spices. Each dish brought a range of tastes and experiences to savour as the rain continued to fall as I’d never seen before (and I live in Manchester).
Too full to order two desserts, we shared a Pastel de Nata. The pastel is a traditional custard tart from Portugal, a crusty and sweet tart that can be found in any number of historical outposts of the Iberian empire from Mozambique to Macau. Helen continued with another glass of the Romanian red while I went with a beautiful golden Madeira. Its syrupy goodness complimented the pastel perfectly. I remarked that, with a faux profundity that only alcohol can bring, “food as good as this can make you forget how shit the world is”.
Umbrellas at the ready, we left Canto as happy and hopeful as we had been 24 hours earlier and for that I am truly grateful. Barely a year old, Canto is a wonderful addition to the culinary renaissance of Ancoats and long may it continue. As for the future, I’ll get by with a little help from my friends. Oh, and gin, did I mention gin?
Images by Robert Hamilton