As in music, as in food, as in life, as in beer: extremes can be thrilling, but harmony is ultimately more satisfying.
I’m a huge fan of Felicity Cloake’s series of articles in The Guardian, where she takes a beloved recipe and tries to distil the perfect version of it. She does so by consulting various chefs who are each famed for their own versions, reading about its development, trying different variations with her friends, and synthesising an overall best version with the help of their comments. Recipes are like language: they evolve and adapt, and everyone puts their own signature on them. Felicity’s are of course influenced by her own tastes, which aren’t always the same as mine, but the articles are never less than compelling.
Last week, she did Vindaloo, a dish I’ve been obsessed with ever since I studied and subsequently went to India for my third book, Hops & Glory. You may well know that, strictly speaking, Vindaloo isn’t an Indian dish at all, but is in fact Portuguese in origin. Neither chillies nor tomatoes are native to India – both were introduced by Portuguese sailors, who picked them up in South America. Before they did so, the heat in Indian food relied primarily on pepper, which is quite a different heat altogether. As Felicity points out in her piece, it’s kind of ironic that carne de vinha d’alhos (meat in wine vinegar and garlic) has become a bastion of competitive British male masculinity given that it was perfected in Portuguese Goa – one of the few parts of India never ruled by Britain.
In the hands of the typical Anglo-Asian curry house, Vindaloo has become an exercise in chilli intensity. Ever wondered how a high street restaurant can have such a wide menu and serve dishes from any part of it so quickly? They work from a very small number of basic sauces, and simply add more of less chillies, plus a few other ingredients, to great different permutations on them. So while in India, Madras and Vindaloo are entirely different dishes with different spice bases, in England, one is the same as the other only with more chilli.
Vindaloo is my usual order. I like the English version, and am fascinated by the high variance I get in heat from different restaurants. But I also yearn for the ‘proper’ version. So as soon as I saw it, I tried Felicity’s recipe.
Fuck me, it was good.
My wife Liz has much lower tolerance for chill heat than me. She had a tiny spoonful of it, and just managed to say “That’s gorgeous” before the screaming started. “Never bring that near me again,” she said between gulps of water. But a couple of days later, when I heated up the last of it for my dinner, she couldn’t resist having another taste. She knew it was going to hurt, but she was compelled to try the incredible depth and layering of flavour once more.
There’s a a lot of chilli in Felicity Cloake’s Perfect Vindaloo (and on this occasion, that title is justified). There’s more chilli heat in it than I’ve had in any high street curry house version I’ve had outside the Midlands.
But that chilli goes into a masala marinade along with a shit-ton of cloves and cinnamon as well as the usual Indian spices, and then there’s more garlic than anything else, with the vinegar and tamarind adding yet a another layer. It’s hot. It’s complex. But it’s balanced. And it’s all the more irresistible for it. The chilli may be the lead instrument, but it sounds so much better with a backing band rather than completely solo.
This reminded me of a conversation I had with some marketers at a British regional ale brewery a few months ago. I was saying that what I admired about their beers was their balance, but they’d just done a lot of market research with their old guard of drinkers and younger craft beer drinkers, and they came back and said, “Oh no – for the younger craft beer drinkers, balance is boring.”
I was surprised and saddened by this, but it’s just one feature of the quest for novelty that seems to be giving the beer scene much of its momentum these days.
I wonder if it’s based on a misunderstanding, a perception that balance = bland. And that’s why I offer up The Perfect Vindaloo as an analogy for great beer. The image of the graphic equaliser above shows a balanced music mix. It happens to be in the middle of the scale. But it could be higher (more intense and full-on) or near the bottom (quieter) and it would still be balanced. My Vindaloo was as perfectly balanced as a good korma, but at a very different point of intensity.
Aggressively hoppy beers changed my life. They blew my mind like my first proper curry did, and I’ve used that as an analogy ever since. But even a beer with a hundred IBUs (bitterness units) can be balanced. A full, malty backbone in such a beer gives the hops something to work from, just like the rhythm section behind a scorching axe solo or the cinnamon and cloves behind the chilli. I taste a lot of hoppy beers these days where the hops are one-dimensional. They’re hoppy, but they’re not that interesting. For me, it’s the lack of balance that is becoming deeply boring.
Sour beers are exactly the same. Beers that shove a massive icepick of sharpness through your skull with nothing else to offer may shock initially, and that shock can be quite thrilling. But if there’s nothing else to it, it soon becomes dull and monotone. With the best ‘sour’ beers, that word is hopelessly inadequate, because the sharp sourness is in concert with earthy funk and bright fruit.
I think this is why novel beers come and go, but old favourites that you probably find boring at certain points in your beer journey will inevitably come back and claim you. Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, Rochefort 10, Orval and Harvey’s Best are not dull beers, nor bland crowd pleasers, but they are balanced. And that’s why generations of beer drinkers not yet born will still be drinking them in thirty or forty years time, when some of today’s most hyped beers will have been long forgotten.