The first rule of pudding club: Don’t count calories.

Although this was an entirely vegan and gluten-free one, that doesn’t equal ‘healthy,’ despite what some people believe. But that’s beside the point; the chefs and tea-trained staff at one of my new favourite spots in Manchester, LEAF, were keen the show off their skill and knowledge.

When I was kindly invited to attend the evening, at first I missed out the ‘pudding’ part and read it as a 5-course gluten-free, vegan friendly supper club which of course greatly appealed to me. After realising it would be various courses of sweet dishes….WELL, you can imagine my excitement!

Being a recipe developer creating many of my own free-from recipes (albeit healthy ones), I always find it interesting when eating out and trying other versions. I like to be inspired, see what the pros are doing and also in my mind, it sets the bar in terms of what I want to aim for when it comes to taste, texture and elements or combinations of flavours.

Let the sugar rush commence

Arriving on an empty stomach (a wise choice) on a cold, wet typical Manc night, we settled into our seats in the charismatic but homely space of one of LEAF’s cosy rooms. Joined by about 20 other hungry souls, we were introduced to the format of the evening: Each round would be accompanied by a tea especially selected to complement the dessert. Considering the independent venue’s tea heritage, it would be rude not to incorporate this element into the evening somehow. Tea and cake – like an evening version of afternoon tea, what’s not to love?!

First up we were introduced to the Ceylon tea, a traditional, high gradient, medium-bodied tea which we were advised not to drink with milk. I’m not usually one for drinking tea ‘black’ but this was delicate, subtle, not bitter in the slightest and surprisingly pleasant to drink. This was coupled with a Dark Chocolate & Pecan Brownie with Strawberry Coulis, made from gluten-free flour, pecans, dark chocolate, sugar and coconut oil.

Light but not too dense or crumbly, rich but not too sweet or sickly, soft but not too gooey, this ticked the brownie box. The berry coulis was welcomed as this helped to the lift and richness of the chocolate, adding a tasty fruity punch. Fair to say, everyone’s plates were cleaned!

A white tea arrived next, which is high in antioxidants, good for the skin and lowering cholesterol and is a great palate cleanser. I used to drink this years ago but it went off my radar and this reminded me how much I love its delicate taste (and perhaps a better choice while I’m pregnant with it being low in caffeine!). Heaven Scent offered a wonderfully light, refreshing and almost fruity taste, making it a great partner for the next dessert.

Pink Peppercorn Roast Fig & Pineapple with Candied Ginger – how’s that for a myriad of flavours. Bold, sweet and punchy, the ginger and peppercorns added warmth and a slight kick while roasting the pineapple really brought out its natural sweetness. I would have liked more of the fresh fig (half didn’t seem enough) but it was a perfectly balanced and light dish.

After a fruity breather, back to more chocolate in the form of a Chocolate & Coconut Mousse with Orange Shortbread. Sadly this wasn’t as much as a hit as some of us had anticipated; we were told the mousse was made from avocado, dark chocolate and coconut oil and while I have made this myself and not even sensed any avo, this seemed to be the overpowering flavour, tasting almost savoury. I left most of it.

On the flip side, the orange shortbread (gluten-free flour, coconut oil, maple syrup and orange zest) stole the show. A ‘buttery’ crunchy biscuit with just the right amount of sweetness and hints of orange made every mouthful a joyful experience. An Orange Blossom infused Rooibus tea was the ideal partner for the shortbread, another variety which like the white tea, is high in antioxidants and is also good for treating headaches and eczema. Although slightly more bitter, the subtle orange notes punched through the delicate, refreshing Roobius flavours.

By this point I was feeling full, but the sound of the Strawberry, Basil & Banana Cheesecake with Lime Marmalade made me drool all over again. With a date and hazelnut base and a filling of cashews, banana, maple syrup, coconut oil, basil and strawberries, this was an interesting concept. I’m not really one for raw cheesecake bases (there, I’ve admitted it) so I scraped the creamy ‘cheesecake’ topping off, which offered a strong banana taste but still allowed the delicious strawberry and basil combo to shine through. I thought the lime marmalade wasn’t needed alongside these strong flavours, the sharp tang tried to steal them away so I left this. A nice idea, but unnecessary with this specific dish.

The award-winning Secret Garden tea, however, was one of the nicest teas I’ve ever had. A blend of rosehip, spearmint, peppermint, chamomile, rose petals and strawberry leaves, each sip offered both floral and fruity notes without being sweet or bitter, just deliciously fresh. My favourite tea of the night.

Final round time: Peanut Butter & Cranberry Energy Bites. As much as I’m a huge peanut butter fan, I’d usually have these as a snack in the day rather than a dessert as they were quite a stodgy way to end the evening (some of us took a bite a bite out of one and wrapped the remainders to take home). Nevertheless they were incredibly tasty – fruity and peanut buttery – with a soft, dough-like texture served with a cheeky drizzle of chocolate.

Served alongside these was Fairy Wings, a Japanese and Chinese green tea blend with red berries. I WISH I liked green tea, I really did. I know how good it is for you – it improves brain function and boosts your metabolic rate to help burn fat – but I find it far too bitter. I tried this one and although it wasn’t for me, it left a pleasant fruity aftertaste.

Full to the brim and on a sugar high, I left feeling satisfied, inspired and more clued-up on different types of tea – even rekindling my love for white and Rooibus varieties. I can’t fault the friendly service, passion and knowledge of the staff, and how keen the chefs are to cater for this growing, in-demand free-from audience. Leaf are making a huge effort to host various events – from a storytelling club to wine tasting, waffles on a Sunday morning to beats and booze on a Friday night – which is great for the city. I’m already looking forward to my next visit, whatever time of day that may be!