Tuesday, 30 April 2013

Duck, Prunes and Carrots

Recently I've been re-reading Pierre Koffmann's fabulous Memories of Gascony. Part memoir, part recipe book, it follows the young chef as he makes his annual visits to his grandparent's farm; charting the local food, festivals and familial exploits through the changing seasons. It's a wonderful window into rural South West France; celebrating the simple things in life. And it always fills me with a yearning to eat foie gras and drink Armangac. 

This is my interpretation of a dish in the book (the original fed 12) made using duck legs and prunes, two of the best known exports from the Gers region. I love prunes, and it saddens me they always seem to get such a bad rap - seen merely as a fruity laxative or 'health' food and something to be endured rather than enjoyed. Good prunes (the best are from Agen) have a wonderful, smoky liquorice-tinted edge and can work equally well with both salty or sweet flavours. 

Duck is another underrated ingredient which I never seem to see enough of. As with chicken the legs are more flavoursome, more forgiving to cook, and much cheaper than the breast. Duck fat is also the nectar of the gods, and any extra gleaned from cooking this recipe should be saved for brilliant roasties or for making confit. With the life expectancy of the French being only second to that of the Japanese the antioxidants in the prunes and red wine seem to be successfully counteracting all the saturated fat. Luckily the rest of the bottle used for making the sauce also makes the perfect accompaniment for the finished dish.

To serve alongside I wanted some sort of root veg, and what better than the humble winter carrot. Instead of just chopping then up and chucking them in the pot, or steaming them in the usual batons, I decided to serve a whole glazed carrot per person. After peeling and trimming I covered them and slowly cooked in the oven alongside the duck, before finishing with a light butter and brown sugar glaze. Very simple and looks great on the plate, too.

Koffmann uses duck livers pounded with Armagnac to thicken his sauce, If, like myself, duck livers aren't forthcoming then remove the lid and cook uncovered until sauce is reduced, or alternatively, thicken with beurre manié - mix a small knob of butter with the same amount of flour, whisk into the sauce and cook out for a few minutes until it is thickened and glossy. 

If you want to keep things simple, and a little more rustic, then you can omit straining the stock. Just add the prunes to the dish about half an hour before the duck legs are ready and serve straight from the casserole - thicken as above, as needed. You might want to add a few lardons of bacon, for an extra smoky savouriness, along with the duck at the beginning. Cook until gently browned and continue as per the rest of the recipe.
Duck Legs with Prunes and Carrot
Serves 2 (double up as necessary)

2 duck legs
Sea salt
1 onion, chopped
1 clove of garlic, chopped
1/2 bottle of red wine
2 bay leaves
1 sprig of thyme
Splash of brandy or Armanac
10 prunes

2 large carrots, peeled and trimmed
1 small knob of butter
Pinch of sugar
Pinch of salt

Preheat the oven to 180c
Salt the duck legs on both sides, place in a casserole, skin side down, and lightly brown on each side.
Add the onion and garlic and cook until they have both softened. Drain off any excess fat, then add the wine, bring to a boil and simmer for a few minutes. The liquid should be almost covering the duck. If needed top up with a little water or chicken stock.
Add the herbs and place in the oven for about an hour, or until the duck legs are tender.
Remove duck legs to a plate and cover, strain the liquid into a clean pan, add a splash of brandy or Armanac and reduce until glossy - alternatively thicken with beurre manié (see above)
Add the prunes and simmer for a few more minutes.
Add the duck legs and any resting juices to the pan and heat through gently.
Serve the duck and prunes with the glazed carrots, the rest of the red wine and some French beans or puy lentils
For the carrots
Place the carrots in a small roasting dish, add the butter, sugar, salt and a good splash of water.
Cover with foil and roast in the oven for about 30 minutes, or until the carrots are cooked through but not mushy (put them in the oven about halfway through cooking the duck).
Remove foil and put back in oven until the water has evaporated and the carrots are lightly glazed and golden.

Saturday, 27 April 2013

The Big Society, Oxford

'Food critics are forever doomed to compare everything they're eating now to everything they've eaten before.' The Ewing, 2013. 

My wife came out with this little nugget as we we sat digesting our lunch at The Big Society in in Oxford; and, I must admit I guess she may have a (rather depressing) point. While you try to look at each breakfast, lunch or dinner in context there's always the memory of the perfect meal, or,even worse, the perfect ideal, there in the back of your mind. A reference point with which to gauge each and every mouthful you eat.

It's not that I even remotely consider myself a food critic, merely a greedy person with an opinion (and we all know what part of the human anatomy they're linked with), who likes to write about some of the things I cook and meals that I eat. I certainly have no interest with darkening the internet with my negative views of certain places/experiences (although I'm fairly confident no one pays much heed to my opinions anyway). But I guess it does get harder and harder to look at things through new eyes, especially when so many places seem to be following the same path.

Anyway, back to our lunch. The Big Society is a large pub serving American style 'fast' food on The Cowley Road. While it is situated opposite the lovely Atomic Burgers, the fact they both sell meat in a bun is really the only link between the two. While Atomic Burger focuses on 80s kitsch, the Big Society seems to have very much modelled itself on a certain Marylebone burger joint. Hence the Ewing's earlier comments; how does it compare to places in the Big Smoke, and is there a point in doing so?

The greeting that welcomed us was as bright and cheery as the spring sunshine that was finally beginning to peek through the clouds. Our friendly bar tender explained that drinks and food are ordered up the bar and bought to your table when ready, and even helpfully let us try some of the beers they had on tap before we made our choice.

The beer is served in 2/3 of a pint glass (at 2/3 pint prices). A nice idea, meaning you can try more without forgetting what you're drinking. I found it especially cheering to order a couple of drinks, pay with a tenner and get a note back with my change. My choice, the Big Society Pale Ale, was perfect, with massive amounts of juicy hops to deal with all the rich meat and cheese. The Ewing enjoyed something a little smoother and maltier, brewed in nearby Abingdon.

While the menu looks suspiciously familiar - with the food served on metal trays, and the drinks in jam jars - they say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery; and while there are many similarities, the Big Society have stamped enough of their own style on the place to give it some of its own unique Oxford character. The Ewing particularly liked the murals decorating the walls, and there's also a large beer garden, wi-fi, and a ping pong table to help burn off those burgers.

We chose a selection of different dishes and sides to share; fried chicken, slaw, cheeseburger, fried pickles, mac and cheese and chilli cheese fries. I really fancied sampling the hot wings, too, but even I sensed ordering anything else would have been sheer folly, as well as struggling to fit on our tray).

The things that had been in the fryer; the chicken, pickles and chips; really needed to stay acquainted with the hot oil for longer, to become properly golden and crunchy. As it was, they were - a bit like myself when the sun comes out - rather on the pale and flaccid side. A minor shame, as the ethereal pickle batter had adhered to the spears like a second skin, a very hard trick to get right, and the chicken (thumbs up for dark meat) was tender and nicely spiced. And the onion rings I saw being delivered to other tables looked pretty majestic, too.

The chilli cheese fries, despite suffering from pallid potatoes, were, however, brilliant. The chilli itself, a thin, bean-less and fiery mixture, was the best I have eaten in a very long time and made me rue not trying the chilli dog. Luckily for me, they proved too spicy for the Ewing, so I got to enjoy most of the sticky, meaty, greasy bowlful of goodness myself.

The red cabbage slaw was also bang on, providing a cool and creamy counterpoint to the chilli heat. We fought with our forks over last shreds, leading to me - (not very) hilariously - to sing Purple Rain every time the vibrant violet sauce dripped across the table. There was also a thimble of mystery dressing/dip on the tray that looked a bit like a lumpy pint of milk found the fridge when you return from holiday, but didn't have much discernible taste of its own.

The mac and cheese was decent; the pasta still had bite, the sauce was good and gooey, and it was bronzed nicely on top. My favourite elbow macaroni had been replaced with the larger penne rigate, but the Ewing didn't seem unduly bothered, and happily scoffed the lot.

The cheeseburger was very fine; bright orange melty cheese, squishy, slightly sweet bun; excellent burger sauce, crunchy shredded iceberg; and a juicy patty that was a little crumbly but extra beefy. My only real criticism of this was size. While it was more than enough as part of our mega feast, all alone, even when served with the hefty portions of fries they offer, I fear it might struggle to satisfy. 

Ultimately, we decided over much heated debate, the main criteria for a good meal remains the same, no matter where you are and what your eating. Namely does it taste good, did you enjoy the experience, and would you want to go again. And in all cases, the Big Society scored a big thumbs up.

And, though it may not score quite so highly for originality, just like with our recent visit to Red's, this is a place where the staff seem to really care about the food they're producing, and have managed to create a laid back and welcoming ambience that made our visit such a pleasure. And, far from ruing the spread of this burger and beer based cuisine, I just wish there was a Big Society in my town.

Big Society on Urbanspoon

Friday, 19 April 2013

The Chocolate Theatre, Henley

Come along inside…. We'll see if tea and buns can make the world a better place
The Wind in the Willows

Growing up where I did, the river Thames meandering through local villages, blossom-edged hedgerows and striped green lawns, may sound quite idyllic - unless you happen to be a teenager who actually lives there. No fast food, no cinema, and two pubs where everyone not only knows your name, but your age, too. Luckily, the Big Smoke was only a short train journey away.

It was only when we reached our later teenage years, and learnt to drive, that the local bucolic pleasures started to be appreciated. Afternoons spent in country pub gardens and country drives before sat nav or mobiles, where half of the fun was getting horribly lost. One of our favourite trips was over to Henley, where you could hire a boat on the Thames for a few hours, take a picnic to eat on the bandstand, or go for a cream tea at the Henley Tea Rooms.

While the tea rooms are still here, they have been recently taken over and renamed the Chocolate Theatre Cafe. The Ewing's idea of heaven. Gone are the the cosy dark wooden booths (which I do miss a little), to be replaced by a far brighter colour scheme and a five metre long glass cabinet that's crammed with home made chocolates, ice cream, cakes, gateaux, biscuits and pastries. They also offer a range of home cooked breakfasts, light lunches and cream teas. And, living up to their name, a menu of 25 different types of hot chocolate, ranging from white chocolate with nougat to extra thick Italian style.

We both chose the Henley Royal Cream Tea, a choice of sandwiches; scones with cream and jam; and a pot of tea for two. The tea was fine, although, being made with finest Thames Valley tap, suffered in comparison with the sparkling clear and bright brew we had enjoyed at Bettys a week earlier. There was also only one small pot to share, with no extra hot water offered, so we were already feeling parched again before our scones had even appeared.

There's a decent selection of freshly made sandwiches to chose from, all served with crisps and, as a bonus to keep my hair curly, served with the crusts left on. Sadly my chicken with a lemon tarragon mayonnaise and dried cranberries was pretty lacklustre. The filling was almost completely devoid of flavour, and the meat had a strangely soft consistency. The Ewing's smoked salmon and cucumber was far more successful; generously stuffed with fish and served on a great malted bread.

Raisin scones were good, served warm and with generous lashings of clotted cream and strawberry jam - surely there are not many things more disappointing as not having enough cream and jam to anoint your buns. Eating these made me realise how wonderful a simple cream tea can be; the sort of food that provokes an involuntary 'mmmm' every time you take another bite.

In a moment of sheer folly, I prepared my scone 'Cornish' style (that is with the jam on the bottom, cream on top), while the Ewing stuck with my favoured 'Devonshire' style (cream first). Apart from being told off by my wife for getting jam in the cream pot, and the jam-on-top incarnation looking rather more photogenic, I can scientifically say that flavour-wise they were both as divine as each other.

Of course, we couldn't leave without trying some of their eponymous chocolate based-goods. As we were far too full to do justice to their comprehensive hot chocolate menu, we chose a couple of slices of cake to take away. While everything in the cabinets looked great, especially the key lime meringue pie, Ameretto cheesecake, and apple tart; the Ewing went for the towering chocolate fudge cake, while I had the wobbly white chocolate and raspberry mousse cake. Both very much worth the calories when devoured the following afternoon.

The best tea rooms should be a calm and civilised oasis, that appeal to every strata of society, and that was certainly true of the Chocolate cafe. On our visit we saw young men, meeting up with their mates for a catch up over ice cream; families with sticky fingered children eagerly pressing their noses against the cake cabinet; tourists who appeared at turns both bemused and enchanted by this slice of middle England; ladies who lunch, buying big boxes of cakes to take home; and couples looking for a chance to ignore each other over a quiet slice of cake and the weekend papers. A special mention, too, for the helpful service, which remained very attentive and efficient, despite the obvious popularity of the place.

Although the Thames was cloaked in foggy drizzle, the Chocolate Theatre's beautiful riverside location means there's few places nicer for a postprandial walk. And while the weather may have been more befitting the local Canada geese than us pair of intrepid adventurers, we managed to get far enough to burn off at least half a scone and a triangle of sandwich before retreating to the car. Next time I hope to walk far enough to justify a mug of their peanut butter hot chocolate.

Thanks to the Henley Standard for the exterior photo.

Chocolate Theatre Cafe on Urbanspoon

Monday, 15 April 2013

Reds True Barbecue, Leeds

The origins of 'real' barbecue - the cooking meat in the smoke of a charcoal fire, rather than directly over the flames - are debatable. It probably came from the Caribbean, introduced to the New World by Spanish explorers, and quickly took off in the Southern States of America soon after the pig had been introduced. Soon there were smoke stacks popping up all over the lower US as 'cue took hold.

While we have a long tradition on this Isle of smoking fish, seafood and even cheeses, barbecues here have always meant charred sausages and raw chicken. There have been many ersatz places - usually with a faux cowboy theme, selling boiled ribs basted in sugary sauces and bottles of Bud, such as our visit to Leed's Rib Shakk last Easter. But, for most Londoners it took the opening of the Pitt Cue Trailer under the Hungerford Bridge in 2011 to finally show us the delights of meat with a proper smoke ring.

Soon, Pitt Cue found its own bricks and mortar gaff in the centre of Soho and was awarded best newcomer in the 2013 Zagat Guide. Suddenly it seemed our meat lust had been unleashed as dozens of other 'cue joints clamoured to open in its wake. I've even smoked my very own Roscoe's Root Beer Ribs.

One of these pretenders is Reds True Barbecue in central Leeds, opposite the aforementioned Rib Shakk. Not only do they have the slow cooked meats served in chipped enamel dishes, and a selection of craft beer and bourbon with pickle juice chasers, they also have a no reservations policy, too. 

Luckily we were in town early with my uncle John, a man who loves meat possibly more than any one else I know, and who was quite happy to brave the biting winds and join the Ewing and I at the front of the queue. As it was a Tuesday lunchtime, I wondered if we may have been a little over cautious by arriving before their noon time opening; but as the doors were unlocked a cluster of about twenty people had built up behind us, and within fifteen minutes of being seated there was already a waiting list.

The menu at Reds, unlike Pitt Cue's brief single page, is a comprehensive tome. Normally this is a sure fire way to set off the warning sirens, and a nightmare with someone as indecisive as the Ewing. While it's probably a bit too sprawling overall, essentially it all comes down to smoked meats, grilled meats, sides, and a selection of (mostly meaty) salads and sarnies.

Pleasingly there's a roll call at the back of the menu, listed under 'the Believers', of all the producers that supply the restaurant. Everything that they can source locally, from the meat, bread, cheese, eggs, salad and ice cream, comes from Yorkshire (with the tatties from over the border in Lincs).

Each table is furnished with a rack holding a variety of sauces that would make any condiment lover's heart beat a little faster. All homemade, except for the 'Judas ketchup' at the end, they showcase all the great American 'cue styles; from the mustard-based sauce of South Carolina; to the vinegar-based sauce of the North Carolina; to the most familiar, smoky and sticky Kansas City incarnation.

Having sampled them all, I can attest that they're all worthy - although the Triple 8 hot sauce, while tasting good, was disappointingly wimpy, heat-wise. If you're really craving more capsaicin, then they do offer a chance to pimp your ribs with their 'Epic Unholy Sauce' for an extra pound. 

Like the food, there's also a big list of drinks, ranging from whiskey 'boilermakers' to craft beer chasers, as well as a good selection of wines and cocktails. If you're up for a party then buckets of Dixie lager and growlers (six pint jugs of Brooklyn Ale) are available. We were rather more modest in our choices, sticking with Anchor Steam Beer and Anchor Steam Porter, with its rich toffee and liquorice notes.

Something I was also keen to taste was the Snake Dog IPA from the Flying Dog Brewery in Maryland, whose cans and bottles are designed by peerless Raph Steadman. Weighing in at a fearsome 7.1%, and listed on the menu as having 'a tropical, almost Um Bongo nose', how could a child raised on 80s packed lunches resist. They weren't wrong with their desciption; this power hopped beast has a massive aroma which is quite intoxicating, before you've even had a sip. The flavour is a little more restrained, with a grapefruit-bitter edge. A very fine IPA indeed.

Booze free options include a very nice, and not too sweet, housemade sweet tea - made with Yorkshire tea no less - and a tart housemade lemonade.

I sampled a feasting plate with a half rack of St Louis ribs and a Texan hot link sausage, accompanied by mac and cheese and sweet potato fries. The meat fell from the ribs with a surprising ease, perhaps a little too easily for my liking, but the smoke flavour was nicely judged and the bbq sauce slathered over them sweet and tangy. The hot link, a smoked pork and beef sausage that's a speciality of the Lone Star state, was wonderfully garlicky, with a good lick of heat.

Initially sides seemed a little bland, with the fries on the soggy side and the macaroni cheese a bit toothless, but as the flavour of the smoke from the meat grew, it was good to have some carb-y comfort blankets to offset the spice. A shout out for the pickles, too. The addition of the sharp and crunchy cucumber spears almost made it feel as if I was getting one of my five-a-day.

The Ewing's Donut Burger; two chargrilled patties topped with cheese, bacon and Red's special sauce. Monstrous or genius, depending on your perspective. As only a few errant blobs of sauce and crumbs remained at the end, the evidence firmly suggested the Ewing was in the latter camp; and from the couple of bites she (un)happily shared with me, I have to agree.

While I'm not sure I could have dispatched the whole creation without it becoming cloying (the piquant burger sauce certainly helped), the springy, fresh donut was rather like a good brioche, and was far preferably to many a sub-par bap I've been presented with. If you remain unconvinced, then their other burgers come with a 'glazed artisan bun', which sounds rather good, too.

All hail the majesty of Uncle John and his Bucket O'Bones. The menu didn't lie, this was literally a metal garbage pail stuffed with a selection of various different bone-in delights - including burnt ends, beef ribs and babybacks. Although he generously offered them around, apart from the Ewing snaffling a couple of bones, he gnawed his way through the entire thing. And then took down a mini loaf of cornbread, a dish of barbecue pit beans, and a taste of all our other other sides..... Beat that, Adam Richman,

A special mention must also go to the amazing bbq pit beans; spiced beans with added onions, chunks of burnt ends and pulled pork, finished off in the smoker for four hours.

Although obscene amounts had already been consumed, the Ewing wasn't prepared to leave without at least sampling a slice of the peanut butter cheesecake. A layer of  peanut and cream cheese sandwiched between a chocolate ganache topping and chocolate biscuit base. I was rather enamoured with this, although the Ewing wasn't quite as convinced.

Uncle John didn't let the side down, enjoying a fudgy Mississippi mud brownie with a scoop of Yorkshire vanilla ice cream, while I decided to have my ice cream in liquid form, choosing the Reds Ultimate Shake. A combination of chocolate fudge with a slice of their 'award winning' caramel apple pie, all served in a glass pint bottle from a local dairy. While I enjoyed the unusual fruit and cinnamon-spiked flavour, the texture was disappointingly thin and lacking in both pie and ice cream. More like a creamy chocolate milk than the extra thick shake I was hoping for.

While it may appear to the uninitiated that Reds is just like any other mass produced faux Americana joint, it really does feel like a lot of love goes into the 'cue here. And that lovin' feeling they put into the food obviously extends to the staff, who were quite charming throughout our visit, even when the Ewing bowled straight into one poor chap in her eagerness to get through the door. 

While a shiny new restaurant in a northern town isn't ever going to be able to evoke the smoke on the breeze and piles of  post oak piled up outside a tumbledown joint in the Southern States, huge credit must go to Reds for having the enthusiasm and knowledge to pull off such a successful Yorkshire-American barbecue hybrid. However incongruous that might sound.

Reds True Barbecue on Urbanspoon

Thursday, 11 April 2013

Bettys Cafe Tea Rooms, Harrogate

“Whatever the situation, whatever the race or creed,

Tea knows no segregation, no class nor pedigree
It knows no motivations, no sect or organisation,
It knows no one religion,
Nor political belief.
‘Have A Cuppa Tea’ by The Kinks

With all the time and energy us Brits regularly expend discussing the weather or which class we belong to (sometimes both together) we could have easily conquered another Empire; far better to stop worrying about whether it's still raining outside - it probably is - or the difference between the established middle class and the emergent service sector, and have a sit down and a nice cup of tea. 

While even our national drink might not be considered truly classless - the whole idea of being 'rather-milk-in-first' can provoke much fierce debate - a  cup of tea's still something that can enjoyed by all, no matter who you are or where you come from.

Which brings us to our trip to Bettys Tea Rooms in Harrogate, the original outpost of the famed tea house which has now expanded to six branches around Yorkshire. It had been a good many years since my last visit - I remember buying my Dad a Fat Rascal to take home as a gift - but my interest in tea and cake hasn't waned in the interim. (For those who are interested, the weather on our visit was a gloriously sunny. And, in the Ewing's words, I'm still classless.) 

Another thing the British excel at is waiting in line, and the queues my Aunt had predicted were already stretching around the corner as we arrived. Crowds at Bettys are carefully managed in the civilised way you would expect. Front of house come out to take names, table numbers and offer a choice of two dining areas, and there are even a selection of menus to browse through as you wait. No danger of any unruly bun fights breaking out here. 

The queues were moving swiftly on our visit, but if you do find yourself getting bored then there's a always an edible window display, this time some seasonal Simnel cakes for Easter, to salivate over.

The first table to come up as we reached the front of the queue was in the Montpellier Cafe Bar, a bright and airy spot overlooking the Montpellier Gardens. The least formal of the rooms, based on the grand cafes of Switzerland and Northern Italy, it offers a simple menu of open sandwiches, soup, pastries and cakes to be ordered at the counter. 

The downstairs rooms offer full table service and a more comprehensive menu, consisting of everything from breakfast through to full afternoon champagne tea. While these subterranean rooms are rather glam, all leather banquettes and marquetry scenes of Yorkshire hanging on the walls, they also feel a little stuffy compared to the bright simplicity of upstairs.

You can never get a cup of tea large enough or a book long enough to suit me. - C.S. Lewis. A nice cup of tea is truly the most glorious thing; there is nothing better than that first cuppa in the morning, or putting the kettle on after getting home from a trip away. For all the exotic allure of coffee, a cup of tea is a panacea to sooth all ills.

For such a simple drink, tea can so often be a disappointment when ordered out. Stewed, too weak, or in a tiny little cup that hardly seems worth the bother of drinking it. And that's before I've even started on the insipid Lipton's Yellow Label - made with tepid water and served with sweetened coffee creamer - that's so often proffered abroad. (Not to mention the limescale-topped, over-brewed lukewarm delight I create for you at home, darling - T.E.)

Thankfully the tea served at Bettys is about the finest brew you'll ever sample. Firstly, check out the sparkling clarity; when you grow up drinking the finest Thames tap, full of all the chalk in the Chiltern Hills, you become used to the murky film. While I find drinking soft water a bit 'toothless' for my tastes, it makes fantastically clear drinks (as well as the frothiest lather - just like being in your own shampoo commercial - when you wash your hair).

As well as the fantastic flavour of their house blend there is also the pomp and ceremony that comes with drinking it. With each cup ordered their is a pot of loose leaf tea, another of hot water, a silver strainer, and a jug of milk and bowl of sugar cubes to anoint your drink to taste. Quite the most civilised pastime.

The famed Fat Rascal - a crumbly, domed tea-cake with currants and candied peel, also known as a turf cake as they were originally cooked by farmers on a turf fire - have been popular in the North Yorkshire and Cleveland area since the 19th century. In 1983, Betty's introduced their own version, complete with its distinctive 'face', and ever since the Fat Rascal has become synonymous with the place. 

With its little glace cherry eyes and almond teeth my own Fat Rascal, looked almost too sad to eat, but luckily I'm not one to let emotion get in the way of lunch. Thirty years of perfecting these buns has clearly paid off, and it was soon reduced to just a few crumbs and stray currants.

The Ewing went for the Yorkshire influenced, and rather refined, rhubarb frangipane tart; a layer of almond sponge topped with a layer of local fruit and finished with a buttery shortbread crumble.

To drink she chose the Bettys Cafe Blend. In 1962 Bettys joined forces with another Yorkshire business, tea and coffee merchants, Taylors of Harrogate, and there is a large selection of different blends available, both to drink in or takeaway from the adjacent shop.

As well fed and watered as we were, it would be a shame to come all this way and not to pick up a few treats to take home. The old fashioned wooden dressers in the shop were groaning under the weight of chocolate truffles, cakes, biscuits and Easter eggs, while the glass fronted marble counter was crammed with a selection of dainty little cakes and pastries. You can buy their whole range of loose teas and coffee beans by weight, and there is even a range of Emma Bridgewater Fat Rascal crockery to accompany your comestibles.

As well as picking three different types of coffee beans and a Simnel loaf cake as gifts, I couldn't leave without buying one of their special Easter edition Fat Rascals, based on a Bury Simnel cake and crammed full of currants, spices and dried peel. We also chose a classic Yorkshire Curd Tart, which featured  a layer of tangy lemon curd under the fresh cheese and nutmeg topping, as well as some of the most gloriously buttery pastry I have eaten.

Yes, it might be a little touristy, and no, it's not cheap, with prices that even managed to make this Londoner gasp a little. But, of course there is a distinction between cost and value; and a civilised hour enjoying a pot of very fine tea and a giant bun have got to be worth seven quid of anyone's money.

Bettys Harrogate on Urbanspoon

Sunday, 7 April 2013

La Bière en Belgique

What’s the first thing that springs to mind when Belgium is mentioned? Battlefields; Jaques Brel; boring bureaucrats? Maybe it’s a plump detective, or the adventurer with the quiff? For me, it’s always the beer; and with this modestly proportioned country brewing drinks as diverse as lambic and gueze; Flanders red; pils; champagne beers; saison; and amber, brown and golden ales, there is surely something to please every palate.

With a history stretching right back to the Crusades, Belgian brews have a long and proud tradition. With the Catholic Church’s permission, local French and Flemish abbeys brewed and distributed beer raising funds for their work and monasteries. This caveat for Trappist ales still exists today, as can be seen with the special release of the, rare as hen’s teeth, Westvleteren 12, recently sold in the US to help build a new roof for the abbey.

Sadly those days seem long gone, but with 178 working breweries in Belgium there is still a huge choice of different drinks available. If you want to read something far more informative about all the different types of beers produced, then it’s worth starting here or here, but, for what it’s worth, here’s a few drunken musings on a few of the great bars and brews in Belgium.

Getting its name (the sudden death) from the last throw of a dice game that the local Bank of Belgium employees would play here on their lunch break, this iconic bar now even has a line of beers named after it. Interior wise, little has changed in almost a century; beers are still dispensed from ornate taps behind a mirrored bar, and the waiters still glide between the tables, in black waistcoats and white shirts, trays of foaming beer held high.

Out first visit was late on a Wednesday evening, and the joint was jumping. Although there were a few small groups of tourists the majority seemed to be locals, waylaid on their way home from work and philosophising loudly over glasses of cold pils. Despite the great din, he man sitting next to us kept nodding off into the dregs of his beer, only waking occasionally to (not very) surreptitiously eat a little snack from a bag under the table, which just added to our evening’s entertainment.

We had to sample some of the eponymous brews while we were there. I had a kriek, a lambic beer (more about that later) aged in oak barrels and flavoured with fresh cherries, while the Ewing tried the faro, a sour lambic sweetened with rock sugar.

A good kriek, like this, is a very fine beer indeed; a world away from sugary artificial alcho pops, with an gentle effervescent from the spontaneously fermented lambic beer base, a good balance of sweet and sour, and a tannic edge from being aged in oak.

Our next visit came on a, slightly, more staid Sunday evening. This time we grabbed a spot in the window and decided to order a few nibbles to go with our drinks. Sadly the brilliantly monikered Toast Caaniable, or Cannibal toast, (steak tartare on a tartine of bread) had run out, but the mysterious sounding Kip Kap was still available.

The kip kap turned out to be a lightly jellied brawn of pig’s cheeks, and other bits, studded with finely chopped pickles that, if I didn't think to closely about what was in it (although doubtless far less dodgy than the average supermarket burger) was pretty tasty. Our waiter also recommended some bread and cheese, and the Ewing was very happy when about a pound of cubed, Edam-style stuff turned up.

Although this place can hardly be considered a closely guarded secret, drinking a few of the eponymously named beers, while drinking in the faded bell epoch styling and lively chatter, is well worth a few hours of anyone’s time in Brussels.

If you’re interested in sampling a massive selection of beers, including some rare microbrews that are not widely available elsewhere, then Moeder Lambic Fontinas is a must. The bigger, younger, hipper brother of the original Moeder, in St. Gilles, Fontinas, in the square of the same name, is a haven for anyone with a thirst, offering 43 beers on tap alone. If all this seems rather overwhelming the menu is broken up into different styles of drink, and the friendly staff were more than happy to make recommendations on our visit.

Brews sampled may or may not have included (there were a few consumed, so memories may be a little vague), Tournay Hop Harvest,  De Ranke Framboise, Cantillion Kriek, Rulles Tripel, and a brune ale from Brasserie de la Senne

To soak up all the beer there is a small list of snacks that included a great sauissison, made with Cantillion Gueze and served with mustard – the small, but deadly knife provided to slice the salami, means this snack is probably best ordered while still vaguely sober – and great spread of local meats and cheese, served with pickles and bread. There is an emphasis on slow food and organic products, which, surely, negates some of the bad effects from the alcohol….

Of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world, she walks into mine.... On our visit to Gent for the day we couldn't pass up the opportunity to enjoy a genever or two at t'Dreupelkot, a little gin only, bar down on the waterfront.

This cosy spot, owned and presided over by the charismatic Pol - a character so colourful there is even a mural in the square dedicated to him - has got to be one of the very best places to while away a hazy Friday afternoon. Serving nothing but a range of different genevers, a visit to Gent would surely be incomplete without stopping by to recline on the mismatched armchairs, listen to the Motown soundtrack and sample one of the hundred or so different genevers on offer.

I started with a couple of oude genevers, malty and smoky, not unlike a young whisky, while the Ewing went with a milder, vanilla version that was like liquid ice cream. Thankfully it isn't customary to knock the shots back in one, but remember to bend your head down and take the first sip without picking up the glass, lest you want to look like a clumsy tourist.

We then moved on to sample chocolate, hazelnut (very nice drunk together), blood orange and a recommendation from Pol that was so potent it made everything look hazy – possibly not helped by the thick fug of stogie smoke swirling about the place – finally finishing with Kriek on Genever (cherries in gin), kept in a large glass jar on the counter and served with a teaspoon.

After prising ourselves away from several hours of hard drinking our intentions were to turn right cross the bridge and catch the tram and train back to Brussels. Of course we ended up turning left, and ended up in Waterhuis aan de Bierkant for a night cap.

Het Waterhuis aan de Bierkant (The Waterhouse on the Beerside) may have a name that's only funny if you're four sheets to the wind, but it is a great place to enjoy a beer. The huge beer menu is divided into themed pages, listing Trappist beers and abbey ales; gueuzes and lambics, oud bruins and fruit beers; there's even Christmas and winter ales, quite appropriate for the bleak weather we were having.

From the picture I can tell you at some point I drank a Duvel; what it tasted like, or what the Ewing drank will forever remain a mystery. I can, just about, remember the Friday evening atmosphere was buzzing, with most of our amusement coming from a group of bewildered English visitors who were even more hopeless at deciding what beers they wanted than we were.

One stop that comes highly recommended for anyone with even a cursory interest in Brussels beer history is the Cantillon Brewery. We were fortunate enough to be there at the same time as one of their bi-yearly open days, when you can see the brewing process in action, but the brewery is open from Mon-Sat, for self guided tours and beer tastings, throughout the year.

Cantillion, founded in 1900 and the only remaining brewey in the city of Brussels, is one of the very few breweries that still specialises in Lambic style beers. Lambic is a very ancient type of beer brewed traditionally in the Pajottenland, southwest of Brussels, and in Brussels itself. The main difference between lambic and other beers is that the latter rely on specially cultivated brewer’s yeasts, the former rely on spontaneous fermentation from the wild yeasts in the air, found in the Senne valley, in which Brussels lies.

This spontaneous fermentation gives a beer that’s cloudy and uncarbonated, with a distinctive dry and sour flavour. Although dried hops are used in the brewing process, their role is to act as a preservative and not flavour the brew itself.  From this lambic base other beers can be made, including Gueze, a mix of lambic from different years that undergo secondary fermentation in the bottle, leading to a slight fizz; Faro, a mixture of lambic and a sweeter beer with added sugar; and Kriek and other fruit beers, which traditionally would be dry and sour, but are now often made with artificial fruit syrups.

We found the brewery behind a deceptively staid façade, on an anonymous little side street. A small poster taped to the door and the slight whiff of barley on the breeze gave a clue we were in the right place, but as soon we opened the door the wave of raucous chatter and thick, sweet and malty fug rising up from the cellar confirmed it.

After buying our tour tickets, we realised there was time for a quick visit to the bar for our complimentary beer. I picked the lambic, served in a traditional woven basket that stops the sediment being stirred up as you pour, while the Ewing chose a glass of the gueze, or ‘Brussels champagne’. Both were very tart and dry, with a cidery/vineous quality that is unusual to find in a beer. 

The Ewing, being photobombed by our brewery guide, the charming Cedric. At the bar, as well as the familiar lambic, kriek and gueeze, you can drink bottles of Fou'Foune, a fresh apricot beer, Mamouche, a beer brewed with elderflower, and La Vigneronne, a lambic with the addition of white grapes. There's even  the Grand Cru Bruocsella, a lambic which has matured for three years in oakwood barrels and will continue maturing in the bottle for many more.

While the boiling tanks and copper mash tun are standard kit for most the breweries the interesting part of the brewing process here is in the ‘attic’ of the building. Here the windows are left open, and spider’s webs and dust are encouraged in the hope to attract the wild yeasts and bacteria in the air to infiltrate the ‘grain soup’ (two thirds malted barley, one third unmalted wheat), on its way to becoming lambic.

After the spontaneous fermentation has occurred, the beer is poured into oak barrels and the magic is allowed to happen. The beer is then blended, bottled and refermented for another six months.  It’s from this basic lambic base that the other beers described above are also made, the brewery being particularly proud of its kreik, and is the only place in Brussels still using fresh fruit and not concentrates. In fact the only thing that has changed in the brewing of beer at Cantillon since they opened in 1900 is the change to using organic cereals for their beers in 1999.

Den Dyver, along Bruges' Djiver canal, is well known for its beer cookery; using both beer in the food (with dishes such as Black Angus beef with a Steenbrugge sauce followed by a Sabayon of cherry beer), and offering carefully chosen beer selections for each course of their menus.

As well as a la carte (two, three or four courses available), they also offer a weekly changing lunch menu at a steal for 24 Euros for three courses, plus 10 Euros for beer pairings.

We started off with an aperitif of Ferran Adrià's beer, Inedit, produced by the Spanish brewers Damm, and our first non Belgian beer of the trip. 

Adrià has described it as the world's, "only gastronomic beer";  which may seem rather grandiose for what is, essentially, a fizzy drink, but the balance of malt and wheat, lightly spiced with liquorice, orange peel and coriander, made a refreshing start to our meal.

I started with giant ‘scampis', in tip top condition and the flesh cooked to a quivering perfection. The intriguingly named soya sprouts served alongside were actually what we know as the far more prosaic bean sprouts. While normally not my favourite, here they had been pickled in a punchy South East Asian marinade which had actually managed to inject some flavour.

The Ewing’s leek soup with smoked duck was a big bowl of bold flavours. The silky broth of grilled alliums worked nicely with the smoky notes of the duck making a suitably cheering dish for a dull day.

Our mains were paired with Gulden Carolus Ambio, a fruity amber ale with a hoppy edge, for me; and a St Bernadus Tripel, an amber ale with a hint rosewater and orange, for the Ewing.

My steak ‘Choron’, with onion fritters and a stack of disappointingly pallid ‘Jenga’ chips. The steak was butter-soft, if a little lacking in flavour, the onions rich and crunchy, making a nice change from the usual steak accompaniments. The real star of the show, however, was the amazing Choron butter sauce,  flavoured with tomato and tarragon. They even bought an extra little copper pan to the table for extra dunking.

The Ewing enjoyed a delicate dish of stuffed plaice with a grey shrimp consomme and turned new potatoes. A refined piece of cooking, with a hint of the briny North Sea from the tiny crustaceans bobbing about in the broth. 

The meal ended with the only real duff note; a chocolate fondant that was too dry paired, with fresh pineapple that was too sharp. A forgivable misstep in a delicate and delicious meal. A special mention, too for the informed and friendly service, that shows different beers can be just as good with grub as the more common pairing of wine.

Many a debate has raged over how many Belgian beers there actually are; certainly over 800 different types and, with seasonal beers and special editions, probably stretching well into the thousands. While it felt at times although we had sampled most of them, our visit was only really long enough to take the edge off our thirst. What I can tell you that there is very little better than spending an evening holed up in of Belgium's cosy dark bars while drinking a few dubbels, before staggering to the nearest friterie for a cone of hot chips.