Monthly Archives: June 2012

Great Beertish Menu: Ainsworth is Outlawed

This week’s final heat on the Great Beertish Menu featured chefs from the South West. I love the South West. I went to University there and now have family in the region – but it’s the incredible variety in the landscape that’s in my soul.  From the windswept moors and their bewitching rock tors that hover, almost suspended in mid air on misty mornings, to the deep, riven valleys, cutting narrowly and steeply into the sea, and the surprises too… like the parallel valleys and ridges of east Devon that rise and fall as if the ripples of the sea have set on land. And undoubtedly my positively coloured view impacted how I viewed this week’s Great British Menu.  “All the chefs seem much more chilled, and they are all being pleasant to one another. It must be living in the South West that does it.  I bet they all go surfing after work”, I was telling myself…. although none of the chefs had much of a West Country burr in their accents though so it was definitely a case of beer tinted specs on this job.

Of the three cheffy protagonists, two had competed before. One, Paul Ainsworth, got his pud through to the final last year and this year yet again delivered incredible, thoughtful and creative presentation…plus clearly, flavour too.  Yet gratifyingly, Nathan Outlaw ultimately won it, for his beguilingly simple dishes; so simple, they disguised the innate technical complexity and subtle combinations of flavour. And I say gratifyingly because at his restaurant in Rock, Outlaw has been working with Stuart Howe of Sharp’s Brewery on innovating with food and beer.  It seems fitting therefore to pair his winning menu with some beers.

Starter: Hogs pudding with seaweed, potato terrine and mushroom ketchup.   I remember Hogs pudding from when I lived in the south west,  At Uni, they used to serve it every Friday breakfast.  Consequently, I didn’t have it there that often as I rarely made it up at such a ridiculous time (9am), but when I did, I always had it.  I think it was made by Ivor Doble in town and had this subtle yet peppery taste plus a smooth, deeply milled texture.  For me, this needs a beer with nuances – ideally from a bit of aging.  I’m going to kick off this menu with a good bottle of Worthington’s White Shield, buy it from Morrisons and get it close to sell by if you can, then ideally leave it at least another 6 months.  Described as having a ‘chestnut sparkle’ whatever the hell that is, this is beer that gets sophisticated with age.  It does have a lovely conker colour right enough, but I feel could handle a little bit more yeast dosage to give it the greater ‘sparkle’ it used to have.

Fish Course: mackerel again, this time with horseradish and oyster sauce.  This dish split the judges but was presented fabulously, despite an accusation of being ‘beige’.  The humble mackerel seems to be quite de rigeur at the moment, and it has now featured on a number of winning menus. And when combined with horseradish needs a beer with a willingness to fight and stand up for itself. There’s a lot of flavour going on here but I think a beer that can handle it will be Veltins. I think of these west German lagers as like chablis – steely and precise – and good with fish of all denominations.

Main: duck, barbequed monkfish, rosemary, samphire and aspargus.  My friend Paul describes dishes like this as ‘Surf and Turd’ after he had a run of bad experiences in Texas when he was working out there.  But I get this one; monkfish has that bovine-like compact texture and structure, yet a delicate flavour; the ‘barbeque’ sauce wasn’t what we perceive it to be but a much more herb-laden marinade that brought the two cuts together.   And for me, a bottle of Sol or Corona for BBQ just won’t cut it. You need some body here, and whilst I am loathe to recommend a beer that is so hard to get hold of in the UK, I think Orval would be a cracker – again, give a bit of age on this beer as it can change remarkably with time.  Orval is a Trappist beer that flys like a butterfly and stings like a bee; it has the suppleness to complement this meal, yet a left hook that lets you know that there is another boxer in the ring.

Pud: elderflower and lemon tart, strawberry sorbet and meringue. This dish didn’t go down that well, so don’t expect it to be gracing the innards of any Olympians soon, however, it was very pretty and nicely executed. And Vedett Extra White would be a lovely accompaniment to this dish – Vedett’s wit beer is fairly new and unlike some other Belgian beers of this style doesn’t have an overpowering cloviness.  It’s more finessed yet still has sufficient bitter zing to show off elderflower and stand up to flavours like strawberry.

Onwards and upwards: next week the grand finale – let’s see if a great British beer can win gold on the final menu, or whether the final medal table will be dominated with New World boldness.

© David Preston, Beer Tinted Spectacles 2012

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Great Beertish Menu: it’s terry-ific

Despite this week’s Great British Menu being the penultimate round before the finals, the energy has not let up.  Three highly skilled and competitive chefs, Stephen Terry of the Hardwick Arms in Abergavenny, James Sommerin of the Crown at Whitebrook in Monmouthshire and Richard Davies of the Manorhouse in Wiltshire whilst mostly genial, were quite happy to stick the knife into their combatants when they were off camera.  And James Sommerin was a little too sure of himself throughout, earning him no fans in this household at least – the use of liquid nitrogen in cooking seems to transform attitudes into winning ones, without the substance to back it up.

Angela Hartnett, this week’s judge was rather like Judge Dredd – ‘tough but fair’, and whilst her scoring was generally on the low side, it was only a hare’s breath separating the chefs at the end – in fact it was a mere half point that saw Richard Davies back off to Wiltshire with his molecularly gastronomic tail between his legs.

But this is a beer matching blog, not a TV review so let’s get to it.  The winner in the end was Stephen Terry to the visible dismay of James Sommerin who has not yet succeeded in getting a dish to the final meal.  What he lacked in radical new techniques he made up for in inventiveness around the olympic theme.

His starter was entitled The Opening Ceremony.  A rather dainty salad served with squab pigeon, chicken livers, onion risotto cubes and asparagus.  The pigeon and livers make this sound somewhat heavier than the presentation actually was, so this salad needs a beer with backbone but one that leaves only slight footprints. St Peter’s do a lovely fruit beer with grapefruit that should marry well with this dish.

The fish course perhaps pushed the Olympic theme a little too far: 5 coloured rings with nine different fishes or seafoods; including caviar & lobster; cucumber jelly with mackerel tartare and a baked lemon jelly with cold and hot smoked salmon.  Consequently it’s a tricky match as there’s a whole load going on.  But I’m going for a wheat beer which in this instance needs to be clean and not too overwhelming.  Erdinger weissbier is the one for me, whilst not my favourite, it has a more gently clove character which should stand it in good stead here.

Main now, and rabbits beware for this was The Bunny Pentathlon.  Peter was shot, skinned, boned and dealt with savagely but it must be said deliciously. There was bunny burger, pressed bunny loin – fivefold ways as you can gather from the name. And this is pale ale territory which means a lot of choice, and I will err for a well balanced version but not an English one – in fact, Cooper’s Sparkling from Adelaide would be my choice (one of my favourite beers this one, so always a pleasure to marry it well to some good food).

And finally pud here it was three traditional puddings dusted down and scrubbed up to a new sheen. Gold, Silver or Bronze? was the name for an interpretation of Chocolate mousse, lemon meringue pie and strawberry trifle – and again, this tapas approach makes matching troublesome.  But where there is chocolate there has to be beer and in this case a classic – Westmalle Dubbel has the flavour punch with delivered with elegance.

No Welsh beers here I’ve just realised, but given that both the judge and winner are actually English please forgive me this indiscretion.

© David Preston, Beer Tinted Spectacles 2012

Spherication… a load of balls?

This time last week, I was basking in northern pride as the participants in the Great British Menu North West heat slugged it out. Despite a walkout, the standard was still phenomenal and Simon Rogan fought off his adversary with a menu of balance, finesse and imagination.  Much like the ensuing beer choices I hear you say. 

The turn, this week, of our London and South East entrants – the region containing the majority of our population and in London, one of the gastronomic capitals of the World. The standard, in previous years was bound to be high.  But in the end it begged to differ and was something of a disappointment.

The three chefs were all Michelin Star vajewelled – Phil Howard of the Square Restaurant in Mayfair has held two Michelin Stars for almost 15 years; Marcus McGuinness, a young upstart (relatively speaking) from Hibiscus has a one, and another down the side of his sofa, and finally ex rock band drummer Graham Garrett, from the West House in Biddenden, Kent also keeps one in the barn out of the back of his Gastropub.

The issues started with the elimination of Graham Garrett.  Along with all the chefs, he made small mistakes, but his food, more than all the others spoke from the heart, showed his personality, and on the basis of his main course and dessert alone, should have seen him through.  But celebrity chef judge Jason Atherton did not agree and was wowed by McGuinness’ use of olives & asparagus in his dessert course.  Marcus is another molecular gastronomy advocate – using scientific techniques to create unusual and counter-intuitive textures and tastes. But it was all rather a triumph of style over taste with yet more spherications doing the rounds, so to speak, meaning that Phil Howard unsurprisingly romped home with his classical menu.   Let’s get into it:

For starter, Phil served a spring salad with goats’ milk puree, pickled asparagus and quails’ eggs. For me, the Goats’ milk will be the challenge – the rich, farmyard earthiness and hay aroma can be quite powerful; yet the asparagus is a dream pairing with beer.  I’m going to push the boat out here, and recommend something with some hop led backbone yet finesse. Anchor’s Liberty Ale should be a fine accompaniment.

Phil’s fish course was undoubtedly a cracker, in fact, I’m sure had it been required, it would have been the tiebreaker.  A simple, high quality ingredient, elevated from pedestrian to pedestial. Cornish mackerel with oysters, mussels, winkles & samphire was mackerel being treated with reverence: the beer should not let the dish down; and again, a balance between structure yet finesse is needed – to cope with the smoky mackerel, but not overpower the other ingredients. This is dark lager territory – if you can get hold of a bottle of Paulaner Dunkel it should be both a fine complement and foil to this fish.

The main was elegantly executed but rather lacking in imagination: roast loin of lamb with pie and mash, carrots, nettles and mint.  And a classic British meat and veg dish, needs a classic British ale to accompany it – so many to choose from here although in this case Hall & Woodhouse’s Tanglefoot would be a great choice; a little more alcoholic body to stand up to the mint, but more of a floral aroma and foretaste to not knock out the lamb.

Finally pud, rhubarb and custard souffle rounded the meal off.  A fine dessert; particularly putting a small base of rice pudding into the souffle was a cracking idea, but I’m not convinced that it will stand much of a chance in the finals. However, for now it deserves a beer to show it off in the best light, and it’s a tricky one – souffle being so light, yet rhubarb being slightly vinous and acidic, making for a tricky pairing. Well, even though I think a small serving of a stronger, more maderia-like beer could work here, on balance, I am going to plump for a lighter bodied beer to finish, with some crisp, hop bitterness. Something of a radical choice at this stage in the meal, but a terrific beer, Jever Pils (available through a few specialists in the UK) would complement, not get bullied and leave you wanting the cheese board!

What do you think?  Sound recommendations or a load of spherications?

© David Preston, Beer Tinted Spectacles 2012

The Brown Dog returns

For whatever reason, I’ve never really got on with Newcastle Brown Ale… but I wanted to.  There was a bit of a boom for the brand in the mid ‘90s, fuelled by a failed attempt by an Australian brewer to buy it.  For a while front labels were inverted (I hadn’t noticed until someone pointed it out) and there was a general fuss made across the north east.  So I gave it a crack again back then, but no, it just didn’t flick any switches for me… at least not on taste anyway.  I’ve always liked the bottle; I’ve always liked the schooner glass and I’ve always bought into those hard-working leg-pulling Geordie values. Taste though – didn’t get it and still don’t.

IMG_1854Yet, like with mild, there’s a bit of a general brown resurgence going on.  This was triggered this last weekend gone by a pint of ‘Milkwood’ in a local Vintage Inn. Brewed by Brain’s in commemoration of Dylan Thomas, it’s a 4.3% brown ale.  And it is brown, which is a start.  Don’t mock – one of my issues with Newkie Brown is that’s it’s not – it’s more of a deep, chestnut red.  No it is –buy one and have a look.  It’s not unattractive, just not that brown.  So anyway, Milkwood – a brown ale.  And putting to one side the less than scrupulously clean glassware, it was a decent enough pint. A tightly loose head with a thick creaminess that somehow managed to support some big bubbles, mid brown colour and a clean, malty taste with just a touch of granary crust nuttiness.  Nice lacing too which I like to see.   And selling well up against Pedigree and Everard’s Tiger.

The interest in the style is good to see, for it could have gone the way of the Dodo. Original styles, dating back 300 years or thereabouts were likely brewed with brown malt that a higher level of roast from direct fired malting. Pale malt revolutionised beer both in the UK and on the continent – but with every revolution there is a loser, and brown ale was one.  Whilst brown ale continued to be brewed, they became sourced from pale malt, or crystal malts, that add a more coating sweetness, or were pepped up with a generous pitching in of brewing sugars.  Strengths fell over time too, a trend exacerbated by two wars, until eventually only really Mann’s Brown Ale existed as a connection with the original brews from the past (Newcastle Brown Ale was a twentieth century invention, ironically by a brewer from Burton).

I wonder though how much of the recent resurgence in the style comes down to what’s going on across the pond.  Newcastle Brown itself has become that old chestnut: 15 year overnight success story – selling about 450,000 barrels of beer to the USA each year. It’s now the number one British brand over there. The once positively ubiquitous Bass has been soundly mismanaged by Anheuser and Newkie Brown has doffed its grateful hat and Dyson’ed up their business.  The American craft brewers too have copied and reinvented the style. As you would imagine, many US versions have a more distinct hop character, but are none the worse for it.  Sierra Nevada do a very drinkable Autumn Brown Ale, and the wonderfully named Dogfish Head also do an ‘Indian Brown Ale’ which I snuck into my repertoire whilst out in Denver on beer business one night. Something similar happened in Hawaii* too – where I had a brown ale from the Kona Brewing Company (which I only bought at the time because I was thinking of buying a Kona Mountain Bike and wondered if the two were linked. They weren’t – and remember folks, don’t drink and ride.) This one in particular was a smoothly drinkable version, reasonably hopped. It reminded me of the Geordie nick name for Newcastle Brown, ‘Dog’ so called because it bites your legs.  Well the Kona Indian Brown Ale certainly did, as it was secretly hiding a mid 5s alcohol.

I’m pleased the style is having a revival, particularly in the UK. Whilst I like the hoppier versions from the US, I find that there are enough IPAs and double IPAs doing the ol’ hop 1-2 full frontal.  A beer style that swings the other way as it were, with a lingering sweet character is needed in the lexicon of beers.  As well as being moreish, who knows, perhaps a brown ale will make it through to be a recommended beer with this week’s Great Beertish Menu!

*At the border, the normally serious and scary US officers were quite genial. The one who stamped my passport however was a little disbelieving: “You’re here on business.  Yeah, right”.  Alas, I was.

© David Preston, Beer Tinted Spectacles 2012

Great Beertish Menu: Rogan Josh!

So Simon Rogan came through in the North West heat of Great Beertish Menu. Funny old world isn’t it – he’s running a little restauant in Cartmel in Cumbria…and it just so happens to be one of the top 5 restaurants in Europe. So in fairness, he probably knows a thing or two about cooking.

As promised, here’s his winning menu and a proposed beer to go with each.  Let me know what you think and trump my recommendation please!

Starter: Grilled salad, truffle custard, cheese foam and cobnut crisp.

An interesting combination of textures here – and of course a vegetarian starter. We want something light on the palate which won’t dominate the food yet stand up to the custard.  Let’s go for a Deuchar’s IPA – I think the light body and modest hoppiness will complement well.

Fish Course: lobster with pickled beetroot & sweet apple

IMG_1015Tricky. You can easily wreck the lobster – and given the lengths he went to to reinfuse it with extra lobsteryness that would be a shame; but then there’s the pickled beetroot to consider.  This is a cracking dish to go with a beer though. I’m looking for a more malt accented beer, not too coating and with modest bitterness.  I’m actually going for a classic here. Timmy Taylor’s Landlord.

Main: suckling pig with northern mead, vegetables and artichoke

Right – lots to be getting on with. I’m thinking contrast and some body. The knotty bit is the mead I want something that will sit nicely alongside it but get noticed – bridesmaid not bride. Don’t want to upstage the meal, but I want people to fancy me. So for me, I’m going to go for a Rooster’s Wild Mule.  It’s got the sweetness and the hop attack.  Perhaps not enough alcholic body though.

Pud: poached pears, atsina cress snow; sweet cheese ice cream and rosehip syrup.

Delicate (pear) yet punchy (rosehip) – and then the sweet cheese ice cream which  could be quite mouth coating. I’m going to go left field here and actually go for Cain’s Dark Mild, but served in a wine glass to so volume doesn’t overpower the dish.

 

Grand. I’m off for pie and chips now.

Cartmel

Moan Label

I can’t make my mind up whether it’s a good thing or not.  Sainsbury’s ‘Taste The Difference’ range of beers is a sort of surrogate ‘own label’ range of beers – very much a mutant child of proud micro brewer father and pushy retailing mother.

You can’t miss own label in our supermarkets.  In some categories (think aisles – it’s the closest approximation in non business speak) own label rules the roost – it can be up to 50% of sales. Often this is with products that shoppers aren’t that bothered about – loo rolls, washing powder – or where brands can’t really develop like with fresh fruit and veg, meat or fish.  There are surprises too – categories like roast and ground coffee have a high proportion of own label despite some excellent products and pretty good prices from companies like Taylor’s or Douwie Egberts.

Beer has been the exception though – and for the wrong reasons.  You see, own label generally exists, and typically thrives because it keeps the brands honest.  If a brand gets too dominant, its share too high, then the retailer slips in a sharp priced own label offer and before you know it, the supplier is sitting around the table sharpening the proverbial pencil.  Not with beer.

Because unfortunately beer is cheap.  So cheap, there isn’t a meaningful space between the cost a retailer is buying at and the price it’s being sold out at.  You have to bear in mind here that a very high proportion of beer is sold on promotion and British consumers know this.  Wait a few days, or shop somewhere else and invariably you get a better deal.

So own label has withered on the bine.  There’s been a bit of activity: Tesco launched their own label Czech beer – Boheme.  They gave it lots of space and focus and activity. It’s still there, but it’s a runt.  And there are a few lower alcohol versions – drop the ABV, reduce the cost and you create space to play. Unfortunately, and unsurprisingly, drinkers are not interested in these insipid, tasteless and poorly brewed beers.  (We’ll have to see whether minimum pricing changes this landscape).

IMG_1519

And the last three digits of his security code are 996….

Sainsbury’s ‘Taste the Difference’ range is different.  It’s a clear hybrid.  The neck label, crown and aspects of the label are clearly branded; there’s a ‘structure’ across the range (each carries the brewers’ alleged signature for example*). But it ends there.  As you can see – the Suffolk Blonde is in  a St Peter’s bottle – the rest of the range are in their own.  There’s no attempt to hide the origin – in fact, it’s built around it.  There are beers from Harviestoun, Black Sheep, Meantime and others in the range. Each different in shape & format; each naming the brewery.

Yet I’m troubled.  My background is brand owner – and in a company that refused to do own label. This legacy I bring with me no doubt.  But it’s more than this. Somehow, the values of these small brewers feel just a little tarnished by the hand of the retailer.  Not that I am berating Sainsbury’s here – I like their effort, but it feels an uncomfortable marriage.

And the beers – well, I’m working my way through. Tonight I had the Suffolk Blonde.  Pleasant enough – certainly a bright back-lit gold in the glass, but I didn’t get the notes of banana and clove the label suggests, but rather a slight biscuity malt.  The Hallertau hop aroma was there but not overly pronounced. Good enough for sure; I wouldn’t refuse another – but ‘taste the difference’ – nope, had more different beers that taste better.  Mind you, the bottle – wow! The bottle is a stunner and perhaps not as pretty as their original flagon type, but practical and different too.

It just feels odd with a Sainsbury’s label on it.

*Watch out Mark Slater at St Peter’s. I’m after your credit card. Now I have your signature, it’s going to be a cheap Christmas…

© David Preston, Beer Tinted Spectacles 2012

Great Beertish Menu

Look. I admit it.  I really enjoy TV cooking programmes.  I’m sure that in my dotage I shall spend more time perfecting acts of culinary wizardry than I can afford today.  I’m not a cooking programme whore though; I do have a Premier League:  The Hairy Bikers (I know, I know); Masterchef; Rick Stein (you know, the poetry one) are 3 of my top 4.  But for me, the Champion of Champions – the Campionissimo if you will, is The Great British Menu.

I know I shouldn’t.  If I engage my rationale mind, I can see through it. The total fabrication of an excuse for a national banquet (“Let’s celebrate the work of the Great British Seaweed Farmer”).  The promotion of chefs to celebrity status even when many of them clearly either haven’t got the charisma, or in the case of the glorious Mark Hix, the desire. It was great – seemingly, he just couldn’t be bothered. Whilst his competitors slaved over their stoves, deconstructing sea bass into sea and bass, he cobbled together a pie, or jelly and blancmange and sat back, reading the paper, having a fag. (Even better that he got not one but two dishes through to that year’s grand finale.  Mind you his Stargazey Pie was inspired, and I’ve had a few good ‘uns in my time).

This time round, the feast is oddly, Olympics themed.  To compensate for all the Fast Food from America that is going to be consumed during the event, the BBC have struck out early, encouraging us to celebrate our Olympians with a gargantuan British feast in their honour.   I actually only tuned in last week (Northern Ireland), and this week it was my home region, the North West.  And it’s been sensational viewing – have you seen it?

Marcus Wareing, the celebrated 2 Star Michelin chef took apart a Preston chef, Johnnie Mountain. Johnnie’s track record on the fish course has been poor.  In two attempts, the best he has done is 4 out of 10.  This time, he pushed the boat out, submerging himself (oops, that must be ‘pushed his submarine out’ then) in the world of molecular gastronomy.  He visited the Fat Duck to get top tips, and there he is with his baths of liquid nitrogen, ice cream wafers and smoking devices making a beach…and sea.  No chunk of fish in there, but anchovies and clams and various other fruits of the ocean.  And it looked pretty. But we can only glean that it tasted pretty bad.

And Marcus was not a fan. In a 30 second, calmly delivered diatribe, he took poor Johnnie apart and gave him a 2, accusing him of ‘playing with toys’.

Johnnie, unsurprisingly, was a little peeved and stormed out, clanking pots, pans and assorted sous chefs behind him.  Cracking viewing, and all the better as it supported my hypothesis that Marcus Wareing is a plastic northerner and an all round tit, even if he can bake a good tart.  But any way, that’s not the point.

The point is this: I am looking for your help.

I’m an advocate of beer and food – cooking with beer, pairing food with different beers – you know what I mean. I haven’t quite got to BBQ’ing a chicken with a can of beer up it’s bottom, but it’s on the list of things to do this summer.   But industry efforts are all very self-serving and ponderous.

So, here’s the plan:  when the winning course is announced on a Friday, I shall post a short blog with my recommended beer accompaniment and a short rationale for said choice.

I’d love your comments, but better, try and top my recommendation (this won’t be hard, trust me).  We shall then, with the wonder of modern science and the use of a public voting system (which shall be independent, and by the time it comes round, properly thought out) sally forth with our recommendations.  A column in the Guardian will quickly follow I’m sure, and by next year, yours truly will be on The Great British Menu recommending great beers to go with the great food*

Up for it?

*Sneak preview from the BBC.  Next year there will be a Feast Celebrating Great British Muck Spreading. Sounds like sh

Johnnie Mountain

Johnnie Mountain: I’d eat in your restaurant mate. Give me Wareing’s table.

© David Preston, Beer Tinted Spectacles. Originally posted on Posterous, June 2012