Fursty Ferret-legging

In my drinking youth, I spent a few years living in the south west.  We’re talking Devon not New Mexico here, as such it was a landscape of verdant rolling hills, cream teas, bleak windswept moors and tors with outstanding free houses, often looked away in a leafy hamlet. The Drewe Arms. The Well House. The Bridge and Lighter at Topsham, the Warren House Inn, The Turf Locks – a tiny but representative sample.  Back home in the North West, the pubs had been industrialised in comparison – owned by the big (or big regional) brewing groups, and for the most part lacking the individual quirks of the pubs down on the peninsular.  It’s the same today, (relatively) economically backward, but much further ahead in terms of freehouses and regional ale choices on offer. Cornwall, in fact, has leapt forward, with more cask and craft breweries than it’s ever had, and Devon is moving that way too.

In the ’90s, the pubs were often better than the beer.  As students, we raved about the Beer Engine at Newton St Cyres but it was a fair old drag to get there and the rewards were often ropey.  Truth was, the big brewers had the most interesting cask choices:  Bass was widespread and consistent, damn fine in Ye Olde Shippe off Exeter’s Cathedral Close and The Bridge; Director’s back then was strong and winey, with a really pronounced floral hop character: the drink of choice in The Jolly Porter (at least if you weren’t on Snakebites) and the Turf, and Flowers Original was good – hoppily so at The Drewe Arms (a Whitbread pub at the time).  Occasionally 6X would crop up, or perhaps Adnams Broadside. The Double Locks, as popular with the horsey set back then as it is today, could still be relied for some interesting local choices, including Otter which had just started up, or Butcombe from over the county line.

Yet ironically, the beers from the local regionals were woeful.  St Austell had a great pub estate but the beers… whsssh. They were all three letter acronyms like ‘PMT’ and ‘WTF’.  These were the days when filling the brewery was more important that what came out.  I seem to recall that brands like ‘Tinner’s Ale’ and ‘Dartmoor Best’ (read: ‘Worst’) were the fruit of their loins at the time and to be avoided.  Nearby Usher’s brewery was uncreatively known as ‘Gushers’, putting the Burton ‘Snatch’ to shame with it’s sulphurous egginess, only that, unlike the Burton beers, it shouldn’t have been there.  And there was Hall & Woodhouse, less common in those parts and awfully tangled up over Tanglefoot, which was pleasant enough when kept well, but otherwise (and generally) a fine gut turner.

IMG_2588Not so today.  These boys have pulled their socks right up.  You’re as likely in Staffordshire today to find St Austell ‘Tribute’ as you are Pedigree (I’m sure the stats won’t bear me out on this, but you get the point).   It’s a fine pale ale, with a hop forward sweetness that is rewarding and potently drinkable.  I seem to recall reading that it was first brewed in celebration of the Solar Eclipse (the one the clouds spoilt) but elsewhere I’d heard that it was actually one of the old three letter acronym (‘TLA’?) beers modified, given a spine, beef upped and generally brewed consistently.  As for Hall & Woodhouse, what a transformation. I briefly worked with their brewer Toby Heasman when he was at Bass and whatever training he got there he’s put to good use.  Of all the beer joints in all the world, a Travelodge would not rate as one you would want to walk into. But there, in Blackpool, did I enjoy a minor revelation.  Faced with a draught beer selection of Stella Fatois, Budwiener and Drossingtons, eyes turned to the fridge.  Perhaps a sneaky Budvar?  Maybe a Leffe wouldn’t be too much to ask?  But lo! Two bottles of Fuller’s London Pride and some Badger ‘Fursty Ferret’ wiped the worried brow.  And, my, it was grand.  Beautifully balanced – albeit on the malty side, with a pronounced citrus aroma and bite; even my granddad would have enjoyed it, proud northerner though he was: ‘It were a graidely pint and you conner say diff’rent’. Ironic that in Lancashire, fabled land of flat caps, whippets and ferret-legging, I should find a ferret of a different kind and a southern beer should have infiltrated these stoically northern climes.


© Beer Tinted Spectacles, 2014

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