Thursday, 29 April 2010

Blind Beer Tasting

I spent most of last week helping judge wines for the International Wine Challenge and by the end felt just a tad wined out.  Tasting wine all day sounds like some people's dream pastime or job.  But the main part of a wine taster's remit is to separate the wheat from the chaff and necessarily involves tasting young, often unattractively undeveloped wine and assess their future development.  This means having to taste a lot of acidic whites and tannic reds and eventually even the most seasoned palate gives up and wants a break, or a beer... and food, which in the end, is the point of most wine.  
So, thoughts turned to beer and food which reminded me of this fun blind beer tasting I did with friends in France.  Fittingly, the host was my old boss from Quality Control days at a UK wine shipper and he too likes to take a break from wine and sink some beer.  And besides, being in rural France meant that we couldn't just pop into a local supermarket and expect to find any decent wine to drink anyway.  Tim's wife Andrea acted as barmaid, invigilator (no peeking at the labels!) and black pudding fryer and we got stuck in.
As in professional wine tastings we tasted the beers blind to avoid any potential bias.  One of the labels had claimed to be la bière la plus forte du monde and this might have made it a favourite, or least favourite, depending on one's predilection for alcohol.  And one bottle (the Faro) was so pretty it reminded me a bit of Perrier Jouët's expensive handpainted Belle Epoque vintage Champagne bottles.  The elaborate packaging of Faro ended up being very much style over substance.
After deliberating, cogitating and digesting we couldn't choose a winner though some beers were more appetising than others and some were more for sipping on their own and others were good with food.  Interestingly, when the boudin noir had been devoured we turned to panettone and chocolate cake which provided good matches for some of the stronger, sweeter styles.

No. 1 The first turned out to be Chimay Brune (red label, 7% alc) which had a frothy head and brown colour, a fine mousse, was savoury but lacking a little in acidity.  It gave off whiffs of sweetcorn. 

No. 2 Faro Lambic (4.2%) had no head, a pale brown colour, a sweet, cidery, almost vinegary character and lacked body after the Chimay.  This had the character of Gueuze from Brussels which is made "spontaneously" from wild yeasts.  An acquired taste.

No. 3 Pauwels Kwak (8.4%).  This had a more savoury, malty character and a distinct whiff of Fairy Liquid.   On returning to this beer it lacked complexity and ended up being too sweet.  However, with the chocolate cake it became much more interesting and was redolent of almond essence.

No. 4 Leffe (9%) had an attractive caramel, burnt toffee, plummy nose and palate with hints of fortified wine (Banyuls) and Christmas cake.  Indeed, this beer later on made a good accompaniment to Panettone.  The high alcohol gave the beer body without making it unbalanced.

No. 5 Bush (12%) had a similarly sweet character,  and hints of licorice.  In spite of its wine like alcoholic strength it tasted relatively balanced.

No. 6 Duvel (8.5%) had a frothy head and a pale yellow colour, a fine mousse and the least sweet, most savoury character of the whole line up.  I actually spotted this as Duvel which is a bit of a one-off style of beer.  It sometimes reminds me of saucisson à l'ail (garlic sausage, if that isn't too fanciful).

No. 7 Chimay Triple (8%, yellow label) had a very solid froth and a cloudy, orangey colour.  It had an orange zesty nose, dryish palate with a slight sweet and sour tang on the finish.  

No. 8 Leffe Blonde (6.6%) had little head, oxidised fruit on the nose and palate and was almost grapey.  It developed an overripe lychee character in the glass.  It proved a hit afterwards with some Thornton's chocolate cake. 

No. 9 Chimay (9%, blue label) had a solid head and brown colour.  It had very little scent or flavour and tasted alcoholic.  This beer was dull and clumsy.

No. 10 Belzebuth (13%) had no head and a golden brown colour.  It initially smelled maltily English ale-like but as it warmed up became peachily interesting.  The 13% alcohol was pretty evident though and underlined the beer's excessive sweetness.
With the body, sweetness and bite of some of these beers it would have been interesting to experiment with some cheeses to accompany them (indeed, the Trappist monks at Chimay make cheese by the same name).  But the success of the two cakes was a pleasant surprise.  The beers were all served at the same temperature (initially an overly cold 2'C) and became progressively more interesting as they warmed up a bit.  However, it would be sensible to heed the label's serving temperature recommendation for each beer as they all have their own character.  For example, for the heavy Chimay Brune it is suggested that 10-12'C is a good temperature (therefore that of an ideal cellar) whereas for the lighter, sour Faro Lambic, 5'C is suggested ('fridge temperature).  Most quality Belgian beers also have their dedicated glasses and these should bring out the best in the beers' sometimes complex aromas.
Finally, these beers are refermented in the bottle (just like Perrier Jouët Belle Epoque Champagne) and so have a very fine, natural bubble.  This makes them refreshing, even at high alcohol levels, but they are not overtly gassy like ordinary canned or bottled beers which have been carbonated.  The expression to look out for on a (francophone) label is haute fermentation meaning 'top fermented' (basse fermentation or, rather inelegantly, 'bottom fermented' suggests a lager type beer) and something along the lines of refermentée en bouteille.  Unlike in Champagnes however, the spent yeasts after this secondary, in-bottle fermentation are not removed from the beers which is why many of them possess a (harmless) sediment.  I usually keep these beers standing and use the sediment in cooking.

Saturday, 24 April 2010

Cod & Sauce Verte

One of the joys of living on the coast is being able to buy freshly caught fish.  At Aldeburgh in Suffolk the few fishermen who still exist possess little shacks on the beach where they sell what they have caught that morning.  

Some of them supplement their catch with fish landed at Lowestoft further up the coast but one in particular (Dean Fryer) only sells fish that he has caught from his tiny boat that same morning.  Any unsold fish at the end of the morning gets sold off to the nearby restaurants and hotels.  

At this time of year cod is the main catch and the fishermen will tell you that stocks in the North Sea are plentiful.  And as they are catching fish using lines and tiny nets their little industry is sustainable (though not terribly lucrative and certainly a tough one to work in).

The downside of buying cod caught that same morning is that it's too fresh to eat the same day.  It has little flavour and is quite watery textured.  It's firmer and more flavoursome a couple of days later.  Ironically, it's very firm to the touch when spanking fresh but on cooking goes floppy.  Oily or semi oily fish like herring and sea bass are best however eaten the day they are caught.  

The best thing to do with a whole cod is to poach it, preferably in cod stock, and serve it cold with garlic mayonnaise or herby green sauce.  In the south of France a whole fish will be laid out in the middle of the table surrounded by various cold vegetables and crudités, small bowls of garlic mayonnaise (aïoli) for dipping and halved boiled eggs.  Snails will be sprinkled over the fish and jugs of rosé wine will ensure no one goes thirsty.  The dish is called Le Grand Aïoli.  Occasionally, poached salt cod (morue) will be used instead.

Making fish stock is really easy if, like here, you have access to fish bones and heads.  Oily fish is not suitable but any white fish will do.  Turbot and Dover Sole are supposed to make the best, but cod is good too.  Poaching fish in fish stock gives the fish more depth of flavour.  And afterwards, you can reduce this stock and make a soup or a tasty risotto.  

To poach a cod you need a kettle like the one pictured here.  

Simply cover the fish with cold stock, bring back to the boil, remove from the heat, and allow to cool down in the stock.  

This is the perfect recipe for those nervous about over cooking fish.  

Cod cooked like this is delicious served with a sauce verte (green sauce or salsa verde) made from herbs, capers, garlic and anchovies.  The umami-rich anchovies help the cod taste more like cod.  Green lentils from Le Puy make a good, earthy foil. 

And to drink, something dry, crisp, fresh and mineral like the unoaked Chablis above, or Muscadet, Sancerre, rosé de Provence... For those less francophile, there are some very good vinho verde being made now in northern Portugal, or there is Rias Baixas from across the border in Spain.  From Italy, Soave would be good.

Thursday, 15 April 2010

Fish and Chips

It was the 150th birthday of fish and chips the other day and I was in Aldeburgh on the North Sea coast and decided to mark the occasion with the bag of "rock 'n' chips" shown above.    As an insititution, fish and chips was voted in a recent poll as Britain's most loved (knocking the Queen into second place).

Britain's first fish and chip shop opened in London in 1860.  It is not clear exactly how and when the battered fish first met the deep fried potato but historians interested in that sort of thing often cite Jews in the east end of London selling (cold) fried fish in the street as a precursor.  There was also a tradition of potatoes as street food but these were baked and not fried.
Manchester and Leeds make claims for inventing fish and chips as we know it today and indeed fish and chips is arguably more popular up north than down south.  Many Scots would claim fish and chips as the Scottish national dish, rivalling haggis (though in Scotland you ask for a "fish supper" when ordering fish and chips, and haddock is more common than cod).  

In spite of concerns over dwindling fish stocks and the consequent escalating price of fish,  there are still over 10,000 shops in Britain selling affordable, takeaway meals to people from all walks of life.  My lunch cost just under a fiver and included the fluorescent green mushy peas, the scarlet ketchup, copious amounts of salt (which helps the fish batter stay crisp though the chips remain resolutely soft) and lashings of malt vinegar.  

Deep frying fish makes eminent sense as the batter protects the flesh from overcooking and drying out.  My rock eel was really juicy as was Abi's piece of haddock.  Some people leave the batter but we couldn't resist the salty, fatty crunch contrasting with the moist fish flesh within and the unmistakeable taste of beef fat.

To drink, something sharp and fizzy is good to cut through all that stodge: I think a traditional India Pale Ale is good (there is an excellent one made at the nearby Grain Brewery) or sparkling wine, if not  actually Champagne.  Crisp, zesty Sauvignon Blanc would work too (from the Loire Valley or South Africa).  And if eating fish and chips in the south of Spain (at the Codfather in Nerja perhaps) a dry Sherry or Montilla would be perfect.

For more history (and flavour!) of fish and chips, listen here to a recent Radio 4 interview with The Guardian Food Editor Matthew Fort and the food historian Laura Mason.

A reinterpretation of Port & Stilton: Grappa & Stichelton

I recently had a yearning for something sweet and savoury after a lazy Sunday graze on something unsatisfactory and raided the cupboards and 'fridge to assemble the above feast: pickled walnuts (a first for me), buttery langue de chat biscuits, blue Stichelton cheese, and fiery grappa made from Nebbiolo grapes in Piedmont and aged and rounded out in old port casks.  

Port and Stilton is a well known and successful wine and cheese match and is often accompanied by sweet digestive biscuits, and occasionally chutney.  Here, the grappa provided the strong, sweet, fruity taste of port to match the salty blue cheese (a superior, unpasteurized version of Stilton), the pickled walnuts contributed to this, rather like a chutney would, and the langue de chat biscuits soaked up some of the fire, salt and sharp fruit of the mix and added their own buttery richness.  

The combination was so successfully balanced I devoured the whole lot.

Food and wine matches are not set in stone but some of the established ones are worth trying even if it means reinterpreting them with the ingredients at hand.  

Tuesday, 6 April 2010

Warm Chicken Liver Salad

I don't know why people buy "ready meals" from supermarkets.  They are expensive, unhealthily full of fat, sugar,  salt, preservatives and unmentionable e numbers and in my (limited) experience taste pretty awful.  There are alternatives to ready meals though, even if time and talent and cooking utensils are in short supply.  The above salad is a good example and took less time and effort than a so-called ready meal.
The free-range chicken livers I picked up from the farm shop would have served at least four as a starter and yet only cost £2.40 (from Sutton Hoo Chickens, a leading poultry farmer in Suffolk).  And if you wanted to serve them to guests at a party but felt £2.40 and five minutes prep was a bit mean you could always elevate and ennoble your salad by calling it salade tiède de foies de volailles.  The livers can be floured before frying if you want, and the pan deglazed with good quality vinegar (Sherry, say) instead of the red wine used here.

An appropriate vinous accompaniment could be a young, rustic red with a  bit of bite and drunk coolish like Corbières, Beaujolais, Montepulciano d'Abruzzo, Chinon...

From a health perspective, free-range liver is good for you, lettuce is good for you, and garlic is good for you.  I was in control of the naughty stuff like salt and fat which is a lot healthier than leaving it to the manufacturers of ready meals.

Friday, 2 April 2010


I challenge any home cook or chef to attempt to recreate manufactured taramasalata, that salty sweet electric pink gloop that is sold in plastic tubs in supermarkets and Greek delis.  I think they would fail without access to special machines (contraptions from the back of Mr Whippy Bedford vans, circa 1970, spring to mind) and access to special chemicals like agent E120.  If they tried to use grey mullet roe or, in this case, smoked cod's roe, olive oil, garlic, parsley and lemon juice they would end up with something like what's pictured above which bears absolutely no resemblance to the bought stuff.

What I don't mention in the video is that bread is often added to the mix.  I personally prefer the stronger, breadless taste but as cod's roe is expensive (grey mullet roe even more so) it can be a useful padder.

Great wines to drink with this salty, smokey, fishy paste include Fino or Manzanilla Sherry, Retsina if you like pine resin, and old fashioned white Rioja (in this case Marques de Murrieta 1998 Gran Reserva) if you prefer oak.  A curiosity from eastern France would work too: Château Chalon vin jaune from the Jura.  At any rate, you need something quite robust to cope with the strong taste; ersatz pink tarama only deserves bland plonk.