Tuesday, 10 June 2014

Beer and food, books and food, beer and books

the glass in the background contains the superlative
Chilli Plum Porter from Waen Brewery
Beer and food, whether matching it, collar and cuff style, or using it in the process, ‘now please add a glass of imperial Gose’, is, we can all agree in very smug style, high fives all around, a fairly recent thing. Michael Jackson mentioned it, Belgo did mussels in London in the 1990s and Garrett Oliver wrote the Brewmaster’s Table and I bought it and got him to sign it in 2003 (or was it 2002?), and it is the bible of beer and food matching, a brilliant book in a lot of ways.

However, perhaps because beer and food is a casualty of the breathless and audacious way in which beer is being discovered and uncovered at the moment, there is a sense in which beer’s long history with food is being forgotten. It didn’t all start recently believe it or not. I thought of this long history when I was sent a copy of Mark Dredge’s gorgeous book Beer and Food — it’s a pleasing book, pleasing to hold, pleasing to smell (that new book aroma), pleasingly designed and full of the kind of beers and food that I would write the world to drink and eat. 

So I went to my shelves and pulled out a brown beer coloured book from 1955, Beer and Vittels by Elizabeth Craig who was a noted food writer of the time. Her husband, war correspondent and journalist Arthur Mann, supplies a few paras in the introduction, part of which I always have enjoyed: ‘and I recall one cold and depressing night during the last war when I went to the cellar, fetched up my last pint of extra-strong ale, poured into a pewter mug, added a pinch of ground cinnamon, plunged a red-hot poker into the liquid and finished up with as fine a mulled drink as man could ask for. As preparation for sleeping through an air-raid I discovered nothing to equal it.’

That’s sounds exciting but the book’s corpus is more of a mish-mash of post war British cuisine’s emphasis on boiling stuff, roasting it as if it was Joan of Arc, adding gravy, pre-empting Abigail’s Party with cheese straws or offering up an ale and mint cup (which also features Chablis) — there is even the seductive siren call of stewed cabbage.

So we move into the aftermath of the swinging 60s with 1972 and Carole Fahy (pronounced ‘fay’ as we are helpfully told) sports a sort of flattened beehive hairstyle and dedicates Cooking With Beer to John, ‘who likes his pint’, I presume her husband, as the back of the book states that she is married (and lives in Weybridge). The accompanying photo shows her smiling at the camera, over a mixing dishing with perhaps cake material, spatula in one hand, a horizontal brown bottle of something in the other. ‘When I started this book I was amazed at the number of my friends who had never heard of cooking with beer,’ she writes in the introduction. I wonder what her friends thought about such dishes as beer ratatouille, chicken Flemish style (light ale is the beer constituent) and — a particular nightmare of mine — tripe in ale.

Let’s move on to more conducive climes and Sue Nowak’s The Beer Cook Book, which was published by Faber & Faber in 1999. I have known Sue for a few years and do remember the British Guild of Beer Writers’ dinners that she used to oversee — the one that struck in my mind was 1999 (I think), where she persuaded Dave Wickett of Kelham Island to produce a Saffron Beer. This is a book that I have (and still) use — she went out to talk to brewers, got their thoughts on beer matching and even though Sue was the editor of CAMRA’s Good Pub Food guides the beer list was eclectic. You could also say that this is a fantastic snapshot of a time when beer and food was starting to grow up. This was also the time when I came in and starting attending beer dinners at the White Horse, doing my own beer and food articles (I recall being enchanted by roast duck and Dent Brewery’s Kamikaze for instance).

And we come to now. A time when I am stopped in the street here on Exmoor by the bistro guy who wants to talk about a beer and food night or a late night pub conversation with one of the best chefs in the area (has won awards for his food while the pub is a wine champion), which elicits the information that he wants to look at beer and food. Things could be changing.

One of the most enjoyable aspects of beer at the moment is that beyond the geeky paroles and parades of nomenclature, there is a real interest in what beer can bring to the table, what the flavour profiles are, how it can co-exist or even subsist wine. It’s been a long march and it’s still continuing. Perhaps it always should be — after all, as Fellini said: ‘There is no end. There is no beginning. There is only the infinite passion of life.’

As long as there’s no tripe and ale.

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