It seems to be an Immutable Law that beer has an inferiority complex about its relationship with food. Inferior, of course, to wine.
In the late ‘80s, Michael Jackson used wine as a comparator to help people understand the breadth of beer styles around the world – a clever trick as comparison and copying is how we make sense of the world right from our formative years. So it was remarkably successful but with unintended consequences. The main one is that the same comparison – a comparison with wine – is a tough one. Wine & food has decades of normalisation, decades of unchallenged drinker acceptance, and decades of reinforcement by media, restaurateurs and word of mouth.
I protest too much. Beer need not worry: the breadth of beer styles, the flavour variations that come from the grist, the hops, the fermentation, maturation, the carbonation, and the interplay between these, mean beer should be confident. There are as many breathtaking food partnerships for it as for wine. Let’s rejoice and move on.
Breathtaking partnerships brings me back to the subject of ‘kickers’¹. The magic in a chat over a pint arises from that combination of slowly-slowly inebriation (that only a high volume, low alcohol product can deliver); the beer itself: its tastiness, its presentation; and the kickers – the chaperones of the beer experience. We have a couple of great pubs near me; one is a local CAMRA award winner, but another does amazing kickers – in fact, in our socially responsible times, they don’t run a ‘Happy Hour’ with discounted booze but offer free kickers instead, a nice range, nicely presented, simply put out on the bar. Hands down winner.
To my mind, if the kickers are great there’s no need for a meal. I’m going to eat them anyway, and if they’re good quality, why hold back? So recently I’ve been pushing the boundaries to discover new combinations. And pickles are the latest discovery: pickles as in chutney, and pickles as in whole pickled veggies as an American might say. Not just pickled veg neither – pickled fruit too; even a – whisper it – pickled egg perhaps? (There’s a kicker in need of a rebrand if ever I saw one). Look out for them, pickles are the accompaniment of choice in food telly land at the moment, so presumably in the real world too. Barnsley Chop with Pea Mash and Pickled Beats. Pork Belly with Pickled Baby Veg and Crushed Jersey Royals.
But pickles deserve to be more than mere accompaniments and with beer they make surprisingly great kickers. In our Summer Retreat in Mallorca, the Tinted Family enjoyed a glass or three of pale beer that were served with gherkins (Cornichons? What’s the difference?) and pickled roasted tomatoes. The latter were a jaw dropping combination: tomatoes, despite their ubiquity can be tricky buggers to pair with, but this was a riveting success, with smokiness, tartness and sweetness rolled into one. It was an ironic shame that the beer was quaffable but bland.
It has sparked pickling madness: Kilner Jars are being acquired on ebay. Unusual ingredients are being snuck into the shopping basket. Questions are being asked about why we need industrial quantities of white wine vinegar. But the real revelation is that you can pickle with beer (forgive me if I am slow to the party!). I have some refrigerator pickles maturing now that feature a malty glug of aged White Shield. And this weekend saw a chutney being concocted featuring another White Shield Brewing Company beer – ‘E’. Fresh from the pot, it was spicy and sharp but with a rich, chestnutty smoothness that comes from the beer, whilst the spices still ring through. The rest is now sitting in the cellar, maturing nicely with any luck. Next weekend features refrigerator pickles, ideal to be eaten straight with a glass of pale ale, or porter perhaps. If I sound surprised by all this, I suppose I shouldn’t; surely it’s natural that a fermented product should sit well with another?
So when you have a small dish of smoked pickles to accompany your pint next time, remember. You heard it here first.
© Beer Tinted Spectacles, 2013
Worthington ‘E’ chutney with roast tomatoes, red onion, raisins and squash. It may not be a looker, but by heck, it’s a taster.
¹ See ‘In Search of the Perfect Kicker’ (http://www.beertintedspectacles.com/?p=112)