Sorry the blogging has been a bit sporadic – very busy on work, finishing the book (almost there!) and an unprecedented amount of journalism.
Three of the pieces I’ve been asked to write in the last fortnight have been about beer and food matching, two of which were on the theme of if it’s so great, why is it not more widespread? It’s a good question, and I think the biggest issue is confidence – it’s a very new idea for most people and in my experience they need to be shown, not told, that it works. I’ve converted many people to the delights of pairing beer with food, but I’ve not convinced a single person simply by talking to them. Cooking a meal for friends words every time.
So it got me to thinking that anyone who is passionate about beer and is not an absolute disaster in the kitchen should, if they want to convert people to beer and food, or even drinking beer in general, host a meal for the friends they want to impress. You have a fantastic evening – the fundamental truth is that most people don’t really analyse flavour and think about pairings no matter what they’re eating and drinking – people usually find it a fun change to do it for once.
So why does this not happen more? If everyone who loved beer put their money where their mouth is and actually demonstrated to their friends the delights of beer and food pairing, eventually we’d convert the entire country. But there’s that confidence thing again. You may know what beers you like. You may have been blown away at a tutored tasting event when an expert has put pairings together for you. But it can be daunting to put your head on the line and try to create it yourself. I know – I found it nerve-wracking when I first started doing it.
So here is my foolproof beer and food menu for novices. If you know a lot about beer and if you’ve ever leafed through Garrett Oliver’s or Fiona Beckett’s excellent books then stop reading now – you’ll only disagree with me and think I’m being too simplistic. If you are Garrett Oliver or Fiona Beckett, please forgive me.
But if you think the idea is fine in principle but you don’t know where to start, read on. There’s no better time to do this – there’s a global recession and we can’t afford to go out to restaurants any more, so this is a great way to entertain friends at home.
For each course I’ve given suggestions for ideal beers if you have access to them, as well as beers you should be able to find in any supermarket or corner shop if you’re not near a good speciality beer shop. Apologies to North American readers – the brands are different for you – but then you tend to have easier access to craft beers anyway.
The main principles are match light flavours with light, heavy with heavy. And there’s a progression from light to heavier as the meal goes on. It keeps your palate fresh.
A couple of options here, but wheat beer or lager is a safe bet for a first course. How about a few salad leaves with either smoked salmon or goat’s cheese, all tossed together with a citrus dressing or just drizzled with a bit of lemon juice? The wheat beer compliments the lemon, brings out the flavours of the fish or cheese, and cuts through the fattiness of the cheese. If you can get a good German Weissbeer that’s the best thing to use. The surprise hit of the last few years has been Grolsch Weizen, which is kind of a cross between german and Belgian wheat beer and matches with pretty much anything. But if you’re dealing with a very basic beer selection, Hoegaarden is absolutely fine.
Alternatively, if you can get hold of a Kriek or Framboise – cherry or raspberry beer – a really surprising match is to simply put these with cured ham, such as Parma or Serrano. There’s a fruitiness in cured ham that really gets brought out by the beer. And in southern Spain, Serrano ham (or its local equivalent) is often served with cherries. Put the ham on the plate and open the beer – foolproof.
A good malty dark ale will go with any cooked red meat, because the caramelisation in the meat matches the caramel notes in a malty beer – roasts or pies are a no-brainer, even with something as basic as Newcastle Brown. But it’s a bit obvious, and wouldn’t really change the perceptions of anyone who’s ever heard of steak and ale pie.
Something a little more refined and interesting is coq a la biere. Cooking with beer is obviously one step on from matching with beer, but a great way of getting a match is to cook with a beer than serve the same beer with the meal. It sounds like cheating, but it’s not. If you’re a really crap cook, you can get a packet of coq au vin seasoning, follow the recipe on the back and use beer instead of wine.
There’s a recipe for coq a la biere in every beer and food cookbook I’ve ever read. Chicken thighs work best, because they have more flavour. I usually leave them whole in a casserole and slow cook them with onions, garlic, celery, carrots, mushrooms, a coating of flour on the chicken pieces if you want the stew to thicken, and season with salt and pepper and herbs such as parsley and sage – fresh sage is a belter with this.
This is obviously a French dish, and in parts of France it’s just as common to use beer as it is wine. If you have access to speciality beer shops, try this with a French biere de garde or a Belgian saison – either gives a rich earthiness to the dish, and adds a little zing when you serve the beer with the food. If you’re dealing with a basic supermarket range, pretty much any bottled ale is going to work fine, though I prefer a pale or amber coloured beer such as Timothy Taylor Landlord or Young’s Bitter – it just feels a little less heavy than dark brown beer for people worried about stodge – one of the main barriers you have to overcome. If you fancy it a touch sweeter, Leffe is also fine.
If you’ve prepared the first two courses, unless you’re a real dessert fan I’d just buy your pudding. Nobody will mind. And here we can go for a match that veterans will say is far too obvious but soddit – when it’s this good, no-one’s going to complain. Get a melted chocolate pudding – like the ones in the M&S ad or the ones from Gu, chocolate sponge on the outside and melted chocolate inside – and match with a porter or stout. Obviously if there are chocolate notes in the stout it’s going to go even better. Meantime’s chocolate porter is a no-brainer. But although this will upset some readers, it’s fantastic even with Guinness. It may be mass market, there may be better porters and stouts out there, but if it’s all you can get it is by no means a compromise. This is one of those dishes where beer and pudding merge until you can’t tell one from the other and the flavours just wrap around each other and merge, spiralling up to new heights neither is capable of on its own.
If you don’t have a kitchen you could just do a beer and cheese tasting – in my view this is where beer shines the brightest anyway. In order: a good pilsner lager like Pilsner Urquell or Budvar with goat’s cheese; pale ale (again Landlord would be good) with Brie or Camambert; a north American IPA such as Goose Island or an English beer like Worthington White Shield with a strong, mature cheddar (Mrs Keens if you can get it); and Stilton (preferably Colston Basset) with a strong barley wine style beer such as Thomas Hardys, JW Lees’ Harvest Ale, or Fuller’s Vintage Ale, or maybe a strong porter or stout. Not everyone will like every match, but everyone will like at least one, including those friends who tell you they don’t like beer. Fiona Beckett has a little more helpful advice on doing this, with a few alternative suggestions, here.
If you’re serving cheese at the end of a meal I’d keep it simple – mature cheddar and Worthington White Shield is the taste of the gods.
A tip for getting your guests on side – I always open a bottle of red and a bottle of white wine and place them in the middle of the table, and tell guests I’m just wanting to try this out, and if they really don’t want to play, or if they decide they don’t like a match, I won’t be offended if they switch to wine. All I ask is that they try just a tiny bit of the beer with the food, and listen to me while I explain very briefly why I’ve chosen to put them together. When you do this it takes the pressure off, everyone relaxes, and nine times out of ten the wine remains untouched.
And serve the beer in wine glasses – it’s the easiest way to change someone’s perception and gets rid of the volume issue – a huge psychological and physical barrier for most beer rejectors, especially women.
So there we go – the only excuse you now have for not doing this is that you don’t have any friends.