London’s Drury Lane is famous for its theatres of course. The Theatre Royal, The New London, all in their time have witnessed the great and good of thespianism grace their boards. Up at the top end, towards High Holborn, are the interesting sights though. Narrow buildings made from small blackened-buff handmade bricks, with that vertiginous sense of perspective as your eye tracks them upwards. Here, strangely enough, was the original Sainsbury’s store, and here too, inspired perhaps by the visual echoes of Amsterdam, is Lowlander.
It’s a favourite bar of mine. Inspired by a Brussels Grande Café, every attempt has been made to authentically reproduce and convey that feel. From the long bar with the wide aperture beer taps with glass washers below; to the enamel wall plaques advertising and celebrating some of the glotally tongue-twisting brands like Delirium Tremens, Echt Kriekenbier and Trippel Karmeliet; to the reverential alter of glassware behind the bar, celestially lit and tempting you to order one of the bottles to fill them: Westmalle, Trappiste Rochefort, Rodenbach Grande Cru. And the tables: I’m just a sucker for these long tables, forcing you to sit next to a stranger; inviting you – threatening you perhaps – to strike up a new dialogue or forcing a little smile as you observe groups play out the unspoken dance of rule-finding around who can invade personal space and to what level.
Perhaps Drury Lane is the right location: because ultimately it’s all a faҫade – authentically fake if you will. But as I refamiliarised myself with a smooth De Koninck last night, I was transported, albeit momentarily, to a real homeland of beer, and was all the happier for it.
There’s a chap in the world of Scottish advertising who is famous. Normally, when you think of ‘famous’ people in advertising your mind goes to the likes of Sir Martin Sorrell, John Hegarty, David Ogilvy or Trevor Beattie. I’m thinking of someone who should be much more exalted though…. Les Watt.
Les is a big man in many, many ways. There’s his size for one, he’s an ex rugby player with calves bigger than most people’s thighs; there’s his reputation; particularly amongst directors and advertising producers. Les learnt his trade (the production and ‘traffic’ side of advertising – actually making the ads if you will) from the bottom up and he didn’t bull shit. He didn’t pretend to know it all. At first those on the opposite side of the table found this charming and disarming. Later though, rather like Annikin Skywalker on his path to the dark side, they soon realised that because of this approach, generally he did know it all – and generally therefore, he knew where the margin was, the workarounds and the tricks of the trade. He earned, in short, respect. So Les brings in high quality advertising at a fraction of the cost of big London agencies, and some great stuff there is too (have a look: www.leith.co.uk – and check out their beer).
But Les is famous for something different in my book, handy though it was to have him on your side. No, for me, Les is famous for his ‘kickers’.
The world of advertising, especially for aspiring marketeers is seen as glamourous; larging it with creative types and getting to chat to the Producer and the ‘DP’; mixing it with known faces from the acting world and often in exotic locations.
In reality though, it’s a grind. Early starts, a lot of sitting around; multiple takes with actors who should know better; a workforce that work to rule, and more typically stroppy directors who give the impression that they’re only filming your advert because Hollywood have put them on hold (again). So it’s a blessing to get to the end of the evening and be able to have a couple of hours to yourself without hearing ‘Cut!’ yet a-bloody-gain.
And typically the evenings involve hunting out a meal, often at unsociable hours, and grabbing a few beers.
Now with Les, even if it is well beyond the bewitching hour, restaurant staff chuntering under their breath with the desire to head home, it is still never to late to take your time over a meal. You go through the menu; order your starter and main; a few beers. And then the inevitable words. “How about a few kickers to get us going?”.
The intonation alone says, “Och no, these are on top of everything else” without it actually being said. And only Les chooses the kickers. With menu laid out in front of him like the first reading of the Magna Carta, he works his way through with an increasingly slack-jawed waiter jotting them down.
And they arrive. Plate after plate of whatever the local vicinity specialise in. My first shoot with Les was in Barcelona, so you can imagine…. tapas galore. There were a dozen of us at the table, and I kid you not, enough kickers for 50. But we cleared them, every last one. And then the starter arrived…..
I tell you this little tale because ‘beer and kickers’ for me are now part of my lexicon. I actively hunt them out. When I’m abroad in particular, it’s a great opportunity to seek out something a little bit special to go with your first beer. Tapenade and slow cooked bread? Sardine and caper on a basil & plum tomato salad? Any form of cheese. Oh yes, Les would be proud (although if he saw the quantity I order, he’d probably be a little mocking too).
But in the UK it’s more troublesome – more troublesome because we have our own rituals. Crisps of course – and frankly there are few poor crisps in the UK. Ready Salted Walkers are never disappointing, and some Pipers, Burts or Kettle Chips are a bonus. Phileas Fogg used to do little bags of their tortillas (in the days before Doritos, these were the genuine article), and we used to get the train to The Bridge in Topsham, rip open the bags in the middle of the table to share them out over pints of Bass or Broadside. Or at The Yew Tree in Cauldon Low, there the whole food offering consisted of (and likely still does) pies. They were kept on the bar under a glass cloche, and when you ordered one you were asked if “You want a bit of muzzy with that?”. Fantastic.
But there’s only one snack that I find invariably lets you down, and it is the epitomy of British Snackology: pork scratchings.
Have you tried any recently? Typically the versions you get nowadays seem to use popcorn technology. They are so light and fluffy and aerated that they have lost the whole point. Where are the layers of skin and fat? Where are the short bristly bits of pig hair that sizzle off in your mouth? Where is the heavy spicing?
I realise now that I was spoiled in the way of the Scratching. A friend of mine from Primary School was the son of a butcher on Stoke market. Their stand is still their today under the Potteries centre, and we used to get discount bags of scratchings which were bigger than your head. We’d then go round to Dave’s house and eat the lot with his infernal home brew. But by heck, they were cracking scratchings. Long, thick, bristling with hair and fat, you had to fight them with your teeth just to make an impression. They were, in short, awesome.
And at last someone is trying to make scratchings of this quality available more widely. You may have heard of the three chaps (including Matthew Fort, ex Guardian restaurant critic and now Great British Menu judge) who organised a whole meal where each course (including pud) featured scratchings. Their creation, Mr Trotters, are jolly good (mrtrotter.com). They’re actually made just up the road from me in Rugeley, and frankly any scratchings that come from the Scratching Belt of Staffordshire to the West Midlands will be good. These are made from all British pork (a rarity if you think about it, most of the bacon and ham we eat has come on a Viking Raid from Denmark), and are ‘slow cooked’. I think this latter claim is is a bit of marketing nonsense, because ultimately the product speaks for itself. They’re grand – keep a look out for them and support them if you see them. (My only gripe is that they have been cut a bit too short and the bags are too small – this has clearly been done to reduce the calorie intake, but let’s be honest, calories are not top of mind to those of us who partake in scratchings). I’m sure range extensions will follow, and they should certainly consider some with even bolder spicing, then we will have a British ‘kicker’ to be truly proud of.
Mr Trotter. You might be looking proud now Sir, but you won’t be after the abattoir.
The winners are in this year’s Great British Menu, and so overcome by excitement was I that I forgot to actually post this and I’m a week late. View this then as an early ‘repeat’ episode, and for dessert a few, final, beer pairings.
The starter was won by Colin McGurran from the north east, with an arboreal dish entitled ‘Quail In The Woods’. Unsurprisingly, this featured our old culinary sacrifice coturnix ypsilophora. Dead and in parts scattered over a clearing in an ancient woodland, like an attack by a Michelin Starred Fox, it did look extremely tasty and the addition of some forest mist added to the Olympian drama (although the word ‘Mist’ always me giggle childishly, as in German it means ‘Poo’, or at least something to that effect). The only problem with the dish as my good lady wife pointed out was, ‘Would you really want to eat your meal off a log’. To which the answer would be, ‘If I’d had five pints of Pedigree, quite likely, yes’. In fact I’m going for Asahi Black – the quail was coated in a miso glaze and this beer has enough robustness to it to complement that but smoothness from the bottom fermentation not to beat up the quail, Yakuza style.
The fish was the humble makerel treated with real respect by Phil Howard. His ‘Tasting of Cornish Mackerel’ was a standout dish and rightly won through. And, slightly lazy though it may seem, my previous recommendation will knock your socks off: Paulaner Dunkel. Erdinger also do a Dunkel Weisse, which would give a different character to the pairing but would be good all the same.
Daniel Clifford from the Midlands won the prized main with his ‘Slow Poached Chicken’. I’m not sure if he had poached it, or just bought it like most people, but it certainly looked drop-dead gorgeous. The formula for success was underlined in this dish, take something slightly old school and give it a contemporary edge and you’re away. I’ll drink to that with a glass of Hawkshead Windermere Pale, a pleasant light ABV to allow you to enjoy your main dish, but enough cut through from the zingy hop (Amarillo?) to put the cluck into the chuck.
And finally, after getting in the top three with every single course, Simon Rogan from Cartmel in Cumbria won the pud with his ‘Poached Pears, Anise Hyssop Snow, Rosehip syrup, Hazlenuts and Sweet Cheese Ice Cream’ pud. Another standout dish which created a genuine ‘wow’ not just through the techniques deployed but also the combination of flavours from the ingredients. And so, a ‘wow’ beer is needed. In the heats it was a glass of Cain’s Dark Mild; this time, rather than a contrast I shall go for a complentary flavour. Alas, I don’t think it’s currently imported into the UK, but I would recommend a brilliant Belgian style wheat beer here, in fact a Dutch wheat beer. The quirky, rodent friendly Gulpener Korenwolf gets the nod. Brewed with four grains including spelt and rye, and elderflower petals, a Dutch beer may not be how you expect to end a British Olympic feast, but it shows how far we have come as a society since the last time we held the Games in 1948.
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.
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.