Sunday, 29 May 2016

My Bamberg onion

Bamberg might be getting a lot of things right, but vegetarian food isn't necessarily one of them. Actually, that’s not really true – finding good veggie fare in Bamberg was no problem at all when I visited, but the traditional dishes you’ll find served in the brewery taverns are as carnivorous as they come. I begrudge nobody their mountains of gravy-soaked pork, you understand, and was particularly envious of those getting to sample a speciality of the Schlenkerla pub, the Bamberg Onion. As it turns out, Bamberg is notorious for its onions as well as its beer, and in this dish an onion is stuffed with lots and lots of smoky meat and served with a gravy made from rauchbier and the drippings – the recipe can be found here. Quite understandably, a vegetarian version did not appear on the menu, so I started to think about how I could create such a thing at home.

How does one go about constructing a meat-free equivalent of a dish that revolves around pork, smoked pork, and a little smoked bacon for good measure? The answer was to fall back on the old vegetarian staples of mushrooms and cheese. Mushrooms bring a vaguely meaty depth of flavour, and cheese is, you know, delicious. In order to replicate the smokiness, I opted for smoked applewood, and decided to cook the mushrooms in Schlenkerla rauchbier. I sautéed them at a high heat until they took on a caramel colour and their liquids started to evaporate, then threw in around 100ml of beer, a teaspoon of smoked garlic powder and some smoked sea salt and cooked briskly until the liquid had mostly reduced. These mushrooms, even on their own, were a bit of a revelation, and something I’ll be cooking again. Leftovers made a sublime grilled cheese sandwich the next day.

I didn't have a genuine Bamberg onion at hand, of course, so went for the biggest Spanish one I could find. Spooning the middle section out was no fun at all. If I had to do it again, I’d seriously considering donning swimming goggles for this stage. I chopped these parts finely and fried them off, then added them to the mushrooms, before stuffing this mixture alternatively with grated cheese until the onion was bulging. I roasted this for about 45 minutes, occasionally topping up the water in the bottom of the dish whilst making a quick sauce out of vegetable stock and beer, thickened with a little flour and simmered in a frying pan. The sauce was simple but tasty, and the dish didn't need much anyway. The final touch was a smoked applewood crisp, tucked between the onion 'lid' and the main body where normally a slice of smoked bacon would rest.

I served it with mashed potato and some steamed veg, washed down with the remaining beer. It was delicious. That onion is no mere vessel – all of its sweetness is revealed, but it retains some texture and bite at the same time, and the filling was full of smoky umami flavour. It may insult Franconian tradition. It may sound unappealing to meat eaters drawn to the deeply porky original. It may have taken all afternoon. I don’t care. It’s my Bamberg onion and it made me happy.

Friday, 27 May 2016

The Watchmaker's Arms

It’s snowing as I head out to the Watchmaker’s Arms. It’s that wet, slushy snow that you get in the liminal weeks between winter and spring, the kind that disintegrates on contact and soaks my jacket and hair whilst a cold wind whips around my ears. The prospect of a warm and cosy pub has rarely seemed more appealing. The Watchmakers’ doors have only been open a matter of minutes, but the first regular customer is already sitting down with an early-afternoon pint and newspaper, and it’s not long until there’s a glass of Hammerpot’s Bottle Wreck Porter in my hand. It’s rich and warming with deep liquorice flavours, and I’ve soon forgotten the grey, apocalyptic skies outside.

This is East Sussex’s first and currently only micropub. I’ve been in pubs that are physically smaller, but the micropub model is more about taking a back-to-basics approach than necessarily setting up in a tiny premises. It’s easy to define this in negative terms – “no television, no music, no gaming machines” says Ali, one of four partners who own and run the pub – that don’t make micropubs sound especially inviting or fun, and there are those that find them a little exclusive. But think about the positive inversion of what this all means – a social environment that both encourages the sharing of tables and conversation, but also a peaceful place to relax with a book and a pint if you prefer. And, of course, a focus on beer which, bizarrely, is a subject many of Brighton and Hove’s innumerable pubs don’t seem particularly interested in. “Beer is what brings most people to us”, Ali says “a really nice pint of ale, served at the right temperature, straight from the cask. And then they say it’s friendly, or they met someone they liked here and that brings them back.”

Coincidence plays a large part in Ali and Ruth’s story. A former teacher and teaching assistant respectively, they were both looking for a change when an intriguing property came up on nearby Richardson Road, a small community shopping street. “You know how you start looking at houses for sale when you’re not really intending to buy one? I started looking at commercial property online, and this place came up”, Ali explains. Despite having fallen in love with Kent’s micropubs, it wasn’t the first thing to spring to mind – “I thought maybe I could sell furniture.” As it turned out, Ruth and husband Rick had already had the thought that the same property would make a great micropub - “and that was it, that’s what started it.”

After a lot of time, effort and money, the seller pulled out. But soon their current premises, a couple of hundred yards from Hove train station, came up for sale. As with many micropubs, the building is an old shop. With a visit to a local history archive, they discovered it had been a watchmaker’s in 1889, giving the pub its name. “We were worried it might have been a brothel or an undertakers”, says Ruth – “The Undertakers Arms!” They’ve now been here a little over a year, celebrating their first birthday with a weekend-long beer festival – when I visited, a steady stream of casks from the likes of 360 and Brighton Bier were rolling in in preparation.

There’s no bar here as such – more of a counter where you place your order, which is then poured from gravity-dispensing stillage in a separate room. Pump clips, wreaths of hops and regulars’ pewter tankards line the walls, along with a tasteful collection of clocks to tie in with the watchmaking theme. Alongside the beer, local cider and wine are served, but lager is notably absent. I’m intrigued by this – even the most beer-focused pubs and bars operate on the logic that you must serve at least one lager. “We do get people come in and ask for it”, says Ali. “Quite often they’ll come in with a friend who’s an ale drinker and very often we can find something they like.” “People come in and say “do you do lager?” and we say no, and either they try something or they go somewhere where they can get it”, says Ruth. “It’s a bit different to go somewhere where it’s just real ale and real cider.” This is the important point, I think. Should we really worry that lager drinkers (closed-minded lager drinkers who won’t even consider trying anything else, at that) might be excluded from micropubs when lager is available absolutely everywhere else, and decent cask ale isn’t? I think not.

The micropub model offers a lot of freedom and, in the Watchmaker’s case, very few challenges. Overheads are low, so financially there’s less risk in staying small and doing things their own way. Getting started even sounds painless – long waiting times notwithstanding. “The micropubs in West Sussex seemed to have a lot of restrictions put on them from what we know of them”, say Ruth, “like there’s no vertical drinking, so everyone has to be sitting down. I don’t know why, because some of them are so small, there’s not even any room to have a fight even if you wanted to! It was as if they were making it difficult for them to open, whereas for us it was a bit long winded but everything was fine.” In fact, they had their fans at the council – “we had a lot of people there who said “oh I love real ale, that sounds really cool!””, Ali says. Indeed, most of their restrictions are self-imposed – “they couldn’t believe that we’d be closing at nine and only sell real ale!” Ruth says.

As of a few months ago, the Watchmaker’s is also home to BeerCraft, a small pilot brewery using their premises to brew beer for sale here as well as other local pubs. “We’re really lucky because we’d have taken his beer even if it was average, seeing as he’s here”, Ali says, “but it’s really good!” “It just sells like hot cakes”, Ruth adds, “we put it on and it just goes straight away. It’s a real talking point. People come in and ask about his beer and want to know when it will be on. It’s good for us and good for him, because he’s just starting out and he’s got somewhere to brew."

After a successful first year, they seem content to keep doing what they do so well. “There are some very business-minded people who get off the train and come in who ask us, “what are your plans to expand?””, Ali says, “and we say, “nothing!” It will be nice if this carries on and does well but we’re not building an empire.” Sometimes small is just perfect.

Monday, 16 May 2016

Who shares wins pt. III

About a week before we were due to meet up to share some special bottles, something scary happened. Splashing out on a pint of Gamma Ray at the Evening Star, I found the hop flavour oddly muted. In fact, it tasted like a pint of sparkling water with the tiniest dash of hop oil dropped in. It wasn't the beer – it was me. I’d been feeling a little sniffly all week, and consequently getting no aroma at all. Given the upcoming occasion, I decided I to blitz my body with every remedy I could think of. To de-congest my nose, I held my head over a bowl of VapoRub dissolved in water, which makes your face feel simultaneously freezing cold and boiling hot, with the added sensation of someone holding a hairdryer over your eyelids. My ears felt a little blocked, and your ears, nose and throat are all connected, right? In with the ear drops, then, along with some warm salt water to gargle with, calming down my swollen throat. My five-a-day became seven or eight or nine as I piled all the veg I could conceivably fit on my plate each evening. Anything to avoid cracking open a carefully guarded bottle of beer and then failing to taste the delights within. It worked, anyway, and my palate was soon restored to full power.

What better way to celebrate than Burning Sky’s Cuvée Reserve? Cuvée is a blend of the brewery’s highly regarded Saison a la Provision and imported Belgian lambic, and this extra-special incarnation then rests further in an oak barrel over lambic lees. It has a strong, funky farmyard aroma with a hint of rustic cider. It is still recognisably a variation on a la Provision, and many of this beer’s flavours carry through - tart and juicy green apples hit immediately, then lemon, dill and the phantom of the Chardonnay barrel that houses the saison. A tart finish suggests the quinine bitterness of tonic water. It’s a fascinating, extremely accomplished and, most importantly, delicious beer. I'm endlessly excited to have a brewery of such ambition and invention just a few miles from my front door.

Next was Her Majesty 2015 from Yeastie Boys. Though Yeastie Boys are now brewing at BrewDog for the UK market, this beer is imported from their native New Zealand, and brewed at Invercargill. It’s a pale ale, but doesn't look like one – the addition of beetroot gives it a pinky-purple hue, and it looks gorgeous in the glass. The addition of the beets gives a notable soil-like aroma, but there’s blackcurrant on the nose, too, along with some rose. There’s a slight earthy undertaste – the brewery reckon you won’t taste the beetroot, but I beg to differ – and loads of rich, dark berries – blackcurrant, blackberries, cranberries – over a smooth caramel malt foundation. There’s a dry and bitter hoppy finish, but the hop flavours are a little muted, perhaps owing to the age of the bottle (around 6 months). It’s an interesting and tasty beer, but it doesn't blow any of us away.

Another New Zealand beer followed – Tuatara’s Black Mojo Espresso. Unsurprisingly, there’s a bit whack of coffee on the nose, with chocolate and toffee closely following. The taste has an earthy note, and there’s an unexpected hint of peaty smoke in there. Coffee flavour in stouts often mingles with roasted malts, but there’s little roast here, and the espresso quality is smooth and low in bitterness. The decadent silky body is the final triumph in an extremely impressive beer.

To finish, I pulled out a bottle of Brew By Numbers Barrel Aged Traditional Porter (12|04). I was given this just before Christmas in 2014, and it is just approaching its suggested best before date, meaning it has been in the bottle for almost two years. The bottle conditioning has made it quite lively, threatening to gush over if never quite doing so, and there is a slightly distracting fizz which takes away from the body of the beer. The flavour is beautiful, though, with the Jim Beam barrels that housed the beer contributing a lot, but never overpowering the base porter. There’s lots of vanilla and a rounded-out booziness that isn't hot or spiky, and the base beer brings spades of dried fruit and rich dark malts. Masterful barrel aging from a brewery I'm beginning to think of as one of the UK’s best.

Nervous thought: are posts like this remotely interesting? I always enjoy reading similar things on others' blogs, but it all seems a bit insubstantial and basic now that I've written it all out. I hope someone gets something out of it other than a list of beers, anyway.