In case you hadn’t noticed, this week is British Pie Week. It’s also just four weeks until my next book, Pie Fidelity, is published. Pie Fidelity is about a lot more than just pies: it’s a celebration of all that’s great about traditional British food. But to celebrate British Pie Week, here’s another off-cut from the main book that tells the story of when I witnessed the closing together of two great Yorkshire legends: Tetley Dave, and Percy Turner’s pork pies.
I’m back in Barnsley, to help celebrate the fifth birthday of Acorn Brewery, which has resurrected the legendary Barnsley Bitter decades after the brewery that created it has been closed down. A few friends, customers and media folk have been invited to the brewery to sample the beers and have a chat. As a beer writer who grew up in Barnsley, I’ve been an enthusiastic supporter of Acorn since I first met founder Dave Hughes a few years previously, and he’s asked me up here to do a talk to the throng.
One of the customers is publican and local legend ‘Tetley’ Dave Parker. Tetley Dave runs the Shoulder of Mutton in Castleford and is what’s known in the trade as a ‘character’. He reminds me of the late Jim Bowen, presenters of Bullseye, only Dave is funnier and more confident. As soon as he enters the room, he seems to be in the middle of every single one of the various conversations going on around it. He has a quip or gag to answer every point anyone makes. He’s in the audience today, in the middle of the third row of chairs, and yet somehow he’s centre-stage throughout the entire thing. He’s not scheduled to give a speech, but Tetley Dave doesn’t do schedules.
When I take the stage to share some thoughts about cask ale and tradition and Barnsley’s place within it, it quickly becomes clear that this is going to be a dialogue rather than a speech. Tetley Dave sits with his arms folded, sometimes agreeing, sometimes disagreeing, sometimes with nothing much to add, but he adds it anyway. I’ve dealt with hecklers before, and I’ve dealt with aggressive people who want to interrupt and take control. This is different. Tetley Dave is not being difficult; he’s just being Tetley Dave. He simply doesn’t recognise the conventions of public speaking, the implied contract between speaker and audience. There’s no such covenant when he’s behind the bar in the Shoulder of Mutton, when everyone just piles in and the sharpest tongue wins. I think he genuinely doesn’t realise that there are situations that behave differently from the pub. Why should they?
After the formalities, the brewery unveils lunch, the kind of beige buffet the beer world seems to subsist on, and is at least as much to blame for my middle-aged weight gain as the beer itself. There are plates full of small pork pies, two or three bites worth, still warm from being freshly baked this morning, the jelly still just about liquid, the meat around body temperature, slightly gamey, pink and glistening rather than the dead grey of the cellophane-wrapped supermarket pie. They’re insanely good. I ask Dave Hughes where they’re from.
“Percy Turner’s in Jump,” he says. ‘Had to queue for ‘em for half an hour this morning.”
It turns out that Dave Hughes’s experience is not uncommon. There are queues outside Percy Turner’s shop in the village of Jump, just outside Barnsley, most mornings. The queues of several hundred people on Christmas Eve have become a bit of a celebrated meme on the unofficial Percy Turner’s Pork Pie Appreciation page on Facebook, unaffiliated with the butcher’s itself, with over 4,000 likes. Other shops in town have A-boards outside giving an estimated time when their consignment of Turner’s pies will arrive. There’s a spoof M&S ad one admiring fan made for YouTube, but I’ve failed to find any official recognition for the best pork pies in the world. Percy Turner is too busy making pies to bother with a website, entering competitions, or indulging in any kind of promotional activity. But then, he hardly needs to.
Something’s not quite right in the room. The atmosphere is oddly muted. The silence extends from seconds into minutes. And then I realise: Tetley Dave has stopped talking.
I go back to the buffet for a second pork pie, and am alarmed to see that despite a ratio of pies to people that was at least 4:1 ten minutes ago, they’ve almost disappeared, so I nab a third. Still the room is quiet. No one speaks at all. After ten minutes of this bustling brewery doing as pretty good impression of a Trappist monastery, the final evidence of Percy Turner’s pork pies ever having been here is been eradicated from the room.
Ten seconds later, Tetley Dave’s voice rises from the centre of the throng: “Nice bit o’ growler is that.”
It’s seven weeks until the launch of my new book. Pie Fidelity sees me branching out from beer and cider writing into food and drink more broadly, so I’ll be blogging more about food as I promote the book, and probably after that too. Here are 1500 words that got cut from my chapter on breakfast, not because they were no good, but because I had way too many breakfasts in the book and my primary readers were starting to feel stuffed and greasy just reading it.
I don’t think it’s too hysterical an observation to make that civilisation has peaked, and has now entered a sustained period of decline. I don’t base this on the blanket coverage of war, famine, refugees and insane megalomaniacs in positions of power – these have always been with us. I’m talking about peaks of civilisation and progress that we have attained in the past, and now no longer have. We used to have regular manned flights to the moon and ambitions of going further beyond into space. We used to have supersonic passenger aircraft. We no longer do. To this list, I’m preparing to add the mighty bacon sandwich.
Time pressures and health concerns mean that, for most of us, the full English breakfast or its equivalent is no more than a weekend treat. But it sends forth its ambassador, the bacon buttie, to do battle in the week, a signifier, a reminder, of what breakfast is really all about. In many of the surveys I’ve seen, the bacon buttie rivals the full breakfast itself as an icon of British life. Like fish and chips, curry or the question “fancy a pint?” It’s impossible to hear the suggestion of it without it raising a smile. But for no good reason, we seem to be in reverse gear on our journey to bacon nirvana.
You can spot civilisation’s decline in public buildings too. The Victorian train station, for example, was a grand edifice that inspired you with the possibilities of travel and made you feel as though you were embarking on a great and noble adventure, even if you were only going to Swindon to see your aunt. These and other municipal buildings erected around the same time were nicer than they had to be. They were designed to prompt an emotional response, to have aesthetic value rather than being strictly utilitarian.
New or rebuilt railway stations could not be more different. Their functionality is brutal to the point of outright hostility. The ‘seats’ on the platforms of stations such as Derby could only have been designed by someone with a pathological hatred of other people: shiny, slippery benches four inches deep, sloping forward at a 45-degree angle, mocking you for even daring to think they could offer any kind of comfort. It’s more restful to stand.
This contrast is echoed by the refreshments offered in each kind of station. Until recently, inside old Victorian stations such as London’s King’s Cross, homely little cafés would lurk. These independent businesses were run by shiny-faced men and women in their fifties, blasting steaming tea from huge urns into chunky white mugs. This tea was tannic and dark, as a friend of mine once remarked, ‘the colour of He-Man’s skin’. They served bacon rolls made with thick juicy rashers. And a roll and a cup of tea would cost £2.50.
In all but a handful of British train stations, these cafés have been replaced by the same chains you find in the new stations. These franchises, with names like Pumpkin and Lemon Tree, come across as low-rent versions of Costa and Starbuck’s. Along with Upper Crust, Caffè Ritazza and every other stand on a typical British train station concourse, are all owned or operated by one company, SSP. Whichever franchise they’re working in, the staff are trained to ‘upsell’ you, and seemingly trained to do little else. The bacon is always overdone and the bread is the wrong kind – baguette, ciabatta and focaccia have their time and place, but by the gods it’s not here, not now. The staff often seem confused when you ask them to heat the roll or baguette, despite the fact that the little card on the stand says ‘served hot!’ If they deign to ask you if you want sauce, you’re lucky if they remember which one – often they give you tomato and brown because that’s easier than trying to remember the answer to a question they asked you ten seconds ago. And instead of costing £2.50, like the bacon roll and cuppa in the café that stood here before the station’s last refurbishment, your baguette and flimsy cardboard cup of wan tea costs at least double that.
The first time I was presented with this perplexing excuse for a bacon roll and a cup to tea, I simply couldn’t understand how any big corporation could get something so simple so colossally wrong. And then I realised that part of the problem is that in every chain like this, everything is prepared off-site, packaged in cellophane and delivered to each branded outlet, foolproof and ready to eat or microwave. Head office has decided the branch staff can’t be trusted with the simple act of cooking, that they’re incapable of performing tasks at work that they, you and I carry out perfectly well in our leisure time. This is what now passes for ‘progress’, as our civilisation starts to pick up speed on its downward curve.
In any of these franchises, or on the trains themselves, or even in the supposedly more upmarket coffee shop chains these places emulate, a closer inspection of the contents of whatever they pass off as a bacon sandwich provides further confirmation of the inevitable demise of our way of life. I can’t have my bacon sandwich, baguette, ciabatta or whatever-else-they’ve-decided-to-serve-it-on-except-a-simple-fucking-roll without sauce, so this means I have no choice but to open the thing. This is not to be recommended. Inside, you find a few gossamer-thin strips of streaky bacon the colour of old blood, covering a quarter to a third of the surface area of the bread. In my time, I’ve bought some pretty cheap and nasty bacon from some fairly down-at-heel supermarkets, and it’s never been as nasty as this stuff, so I’ve no idea where they get it from.
Even in the rare chains where it’s better quality than the scrapings from the abattoir floor, it’s still streaky. There’s a great deal I admire about American culture and cuisine, but bacon seems to be some kind of national blind spot. They seem unaware that back bacon exists, because if they did know about it they wouldn’t insist on serving streaky bacon on their breakfasts and burgers. And as the popularity of American cuisine surges in the UK, chains are replacing back bacon with streaky, to be more like the Americans, even though they know it’s not as good.
We’re going backwards.
This is just one example of Britain’s food identity crisis, the sense that anything British must somehow be inferior to something foreign, even when this is evidently not true. At the time of writing, Pret à Manger’s ‘bacon roll’ is in fact a ‘bacon brioche’, served ‘with a dab of unmistakably French butter’. The French don’t do bacon rolls. The English do. So why would anyone think a French-style bacon roll would be an improvement on the English original?
As well as offering a warped version of the bacon sandwich or roll, these chains also offer something they usually call an ‘all-day breakfast’ roll, sandwich, bloomer or even wrap. These generally contain streaky bacon, a sausage sliced into tiny wafers, some kind of omelette and a ‘tomato relish’ because you could use ketchup or brown sauce like a normal person but where would the fun be in that? These products are a plangent reminder that the modern ‘on the go’ lifestyle – a phrase beloved of food marketers but no one else – means we don’t have time for a real breakfast any more. The whole concept depresses me so much I’ve never been able to bring myself to try one.
Until I went to Belfast.
St George’s Market is a beautiful Victorian indoor market that has won many awards. While it’s unashamedly foodie, it celebrates the traditional and affordable as well as the more exclusively gastronomic. I’m advised to get there early to try the Belfast Bap.
The saying around here is that the word ‘bap’ is an acronym for ‘bread at affordable prices’. This isn’t true in terms of etymology, but it is true in Belfast: the Belfast bap was created by an Armagh baker called Barney Hughes to help feed Belfast’s poor in the 1845-49 famine, and stuck around as a favourite food for the workers in the docks nearby.
Appropriately, given the history of shipbuilding in those docks, the roll itself is of titanic proportions. It’s roughly the size and shape of the millennium dome, deep brown, almost burnt on top. Served as a breakfast bap, it comfortably accommodates two thick rashers of back bacon, two sausages sliced once lengthways, and a fried egg, all sitting on a thick stratum of mushrooms and fried onions. I order it with a cup of tea, and haul my breakfast to a small table in front of the baked goods stall that assembled it. The roll is the same height as the top of the Styrofoam cup.
The first word that strikes me as I tuck in is ‘comforting’. Everything is well done without quite being burnt. There’s caramelisation and depth, richness, and an instinctive threat of danger. Rolls like this give the cooked breakfast its cancerous reputation: it has nothing to do with the scare stories stoked by the Daily Mail: you look at this, and taste it, and your gut says, ‘Oh wow, this obviously carcinogenic. How could it not be?’
The roll is so big it probably inspired the building of the Titanic in the first place. And like the ship, it sinks. It takes time to work through this thing, and after the first ten minutes, while the dome that forms the top half remains unbowed, the base just can’t cope and simply dissolves in the watery grease that’s now pooling on my paper plate. It’s now no longer possible to gnaw away at this edifice unassisted.
On the counter, there’s a cup full of disposable knives and forks.
I have a word with myself. The dissolving base is a failsafe mechanism. You could quite reasonably walk away at this point. No one would blame you. You’ve done as much here as any reasonable person could. Whereas if you pick up a knife and fork and carry on, you’re making a statement, a declaration of reckless bravado.
OK, just another couple of bites…
Twenty minutes after I bought it, stuffed after eating about two-thirds of the thing, I finally admit defeat. The mess that’s left on my plate is so substantial it could easily be used to make a new all-day breakfast muffin or wrap of the same size and consistency as those found in high street coffee shop chains. As far as I know, this could be how those chains do source their produce. It doesn’t matter to me: I never need eat breakfast again.
Pie Fidelity is published by Particular Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House, on 4th April 2019, and is available for pre-order. Disclosure: my trip to Belfast was partially funded and made possible by Tourism NI. Thanks to the wonderful Claire Keenan for introducing me to the amazing worth of Northern Ireland’s food and drink.
“We just don’t want it to be about beer or cider,” they said.
“What else ya got?”
“Food is everything we are. It’s an extension of nationalist feeling, ethnic feeling, your personal history, your province, your region, your tribe, your grandma. It’s inseparable from those from the get-go.”
Anthony Bourdain (1956 – 2018)
I was devastated when Bourdain died.
He caught a lot of flak from beer geeks for criticising craft beer, but when he spoke about lots of people earnestly sipping tiny samples of their “Mumford & Sons IPAs”, I had to hold my hands up in surrender. Even when he was being unreasonable, he was usually right. His writing style was, along with George Orwell and Stephen King, a significant influence on the development of my own.
I was just starting the second draft of this book when news of Bourdain’s passing broke. I hadn’t been thinking about him as a direct influence while I was writing the first draft – which is weird given that this will be my first book overtly about food. But then, after his death, I was reading lots of stuff about him, and lots of his best lines, and I found the quote above and realised he’d perfectly described the book I’d just finished, even though he will never know about it.
I’m using this quote in the front of the book because it’s pretty much an introduction to the entire idea in three punchy, beautifully syncopated, passionate, enlivening, third-eye-opening sentences. I can only hope there are three sentences in the book that read as well – otherwise, it’s all downhill once we get into the text proper.
I always wanted to write more broadly than beer. Not because beer is limiting – it’s not, in terms, of what you can write about, even if it is in terms of the breadth of people you can reach – but it’s not the only subject in the world that I’m interested in exploring via the process by which I write books.
Most people I know who are passionate about beer – or cider- are also passionate about food. The best ones, the ones whose opinions I respect the most about what they drink, are also experts on what’s good to eat – not just what it tastes like and how we might get our hands on the best, but also how food fits in with everything else.
After The Apple Orchard proved to be pleasantly successful, Penguin, who published that book, asked me what else I might want to write about. (There was a glut of beer books at the time.) I realised that when I’m not thinking about beer or cider, for a good chunk of the time I’m thinking about food – not just eating it (though a lot of it is that, as my physique suggests) – but also about how to cook it, the act of sharing it, what it means, how it impacts us and defines us. Yes I’m post-rationalising here, but what I mean is, I realised that in the same way it had long puzzled me that British beer drinkers tend to be dismissive of cask ale even as craft beer drinkers around the rest of the world revere it at least as much as any other beer style, we also tend to be down on our food in a similar way.
Except that if you actually engage us in talking about food, we’re not: fish and chips, Sunday roasts and bacon sandwiches are three of the most dominant icons that define Britain. Our food and drink is indelibly linked with how others see us, and our own sense of who we are.
And people love talking about them: their memories of both the best and the worst, the comfort they bring, the way they brought families and friends together when we were much younger. More recently, we’ve made other dishes such as curry and spag Bol as British as the rest – but go back far enough, and all our favourite meals have multicultural origins.
So this is a book about nine meals that define us. It’s about appreciating these meals in their perfect context and situation, about the typical example rather than the best, about how they are important to us, and what it means that they are.
This is also my most personal book to date: I had no idea when I started writing, but if you want to explore the meaning of food, you can’t do so honestly without delving in to what food means in your own life. About a quarter of the word count in this book turned out to be memoir. If you’re looking for dispassionate food history, stop reading now. If you’re honest with yourself, your relationship with food is a gateway to your own memories and emotions too, whether they are happy or sad. (Mine tend to be snatched moments of joy in a relatively unhappy childhood.)
If you’re looking for something patriotic, something that can make you proud to be British in these uncertain times, this is the book for you. If you’re expecting that to come with some kind of “And the thing is, because we’re good at something, that means every other nation on earth is shit compared to us, let’s kick all the fuckers out” then I’m sorry. but maybe it’s not for you. #notsorry.
From the blurb:
‘Yes, it’s good. It’s great.
But we’re British, and we don’t have to bang on about it all the time.‘
In Britain, we have always had an awkward relationship with food. We’ve been told for so long that we are terrible cooks and yet according to a 2012 YouGov survey, our traditional food and drink are more important than the monarchy and at least as significant as our landscape and national monuments in defining a collective notion of who we are. Taking nine archetypically British dishes – Pie and Peas, A Cheese Sandwich, Fish and Chips, Spag Bol, Devonshire Cream Tea, Curry, The Full English, The Sunday Roast and a Crumble with Custard – and examining them in their perfect context, Pete Brown reveals just how fundamental food is to our sense of identity, perhaps even our sense of pride, and the ways in which we understand our place in the world.
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.
One of the benefits of Dry January (there are pros and cons) is that I get a bit of an energy spike because I sleep better, and also I’m not going out as much. So last January I rattled out an idea, which Penguin liked, and this January, after researching it for nine months and then sitting down to write it at the start of November, I finished the book. That’s the quickest I’ve ever turned a book around – it usually takes two years from start to finish.
A book about the meals that shaped Britain may seem like a bit of a departure for me. It is, really: there are cameos from beer, cider and pubs but only in passing. But some of the themes in this book have been kicking around in my head since at least 2009, and they come from exactly the same place as my first two beer books: what makes us tick? How did we get to be the people we are? And why do we seem so curiously reticent about shouting about the things we’re really good at?
To explore these issues and more, I trawled through survey after survey that asks us what our favourite meals are. I chose the meals that kept coming up in every one, and compiled my own list of eight. This list definitely misses off some national favourites and classics, but just like when I was visiting beer drinking countries for Three Sheets to the Wind, you have to have a cut-off point in numbers much lower than you would ideally like if you want to do justice to the ones you’ve chosen. So there are eight (it crept up from a magnificent seven) in total.
For each meal, I choose the perfect location to eat the typical, most representative example of it (not the best – at least, not necessarily) and go there and eat it. While doing so, I explore its history; I look at the emerging discipline of food studies to see what it tells us about ourselves; I explore why in most cases the meal seems to be under threat even as we say it’s one of our favourites; and explore personally what the meal means to me, growing up as a distinctly working-class northern lad and now being a fully paid up member of the middle-class north London Metropolitan foodie elite, or so I’m sometimes told on Twitter. Lots of things shape our attitudes and relationships with food – class is a pretty big one.
I won’t say any more just now because we still have the editing process to go through. It’s due out in September, and I’ll release more details before then. And I’m sure many passages will be cut, some of which I might be able to use for previews here or elsewhere.
Apart from that, I’m taking a break from writing and working on ideas for books for a short while, for the first time since 2014. This means I should finally have time for more blogging again, as well as having a social life… see you around.
One of the greatest British novelists of the last fifty years, the late Iain Banks developed parallel tracks in his book publishing. Irritatingly and wonderfully prolific, he’d a write ‘mainstream’ fiction‘Iain Banks’ book one year followed by an ‘Iain M Banks’ book set in his stunningly detailed and intricate sci-fi universe the next. While my books obviously won’t be as anywhere near as good as his, and while they’re resolutely non-fiction (at least for the time being) I’m hoping to adopt a similar method…
As I’ve written before, I was extremely lucky to find in Pan Macmillan a mainstream, large scale, award-winning publisher who was willing to pay me to write several books about beer and promote them to a broad, general audience. I was in the right place at exactly the right time.
After three books that sold perfectly well but didn’t trouble any bestseller lists, Pan Mac asked me to adapt my style to broader subjects and themes. My agent agreed, and it sounded like a good idea to me too. My fourth book, Shakespeare’s Local, was a first step away from beer to broader social history. It was my most successful book launch at that point, and everyone felt they were right to gently encourage me to move further away from beer.
Since then, I’ve written books about cider and apples and pubs. But I missed beer writing, and I felt like an idiot that in the midst of a craft beer boom like nothing we’ve ever seen, I was moving away from the subject I loved.
So at the same time as writing The Apple Orchard – my last book, which is out in paperback next month – I joined up with innovative crowdfunding publisher Unbound to write a new beer book. I screwed up the timings quite badly, and ended up trying to write three books at the same time, but now I’m through the pain. The Apple Orchard did really well. (After long conversations with Pan Mac about it, we amicably parted ways and it was published by Penguin.)
Exploring nature and the rhythms of the year, I discovered a new lyricism in my writing that’s not always been there in the beer writing. So I want to do more along that line, at the same time as not giving up on beer. I want to have my cake and eat it (or should that be ‘I want to have my pint and drink it’?)
So: the Apple Orchard paperback is out on 6th April. I just got sent the paperback cover today, a subtle evolution of the hardback design, which I think is lovely:
And then, 1st June sees the launch of Miracle Brew, my first beer book in eight years, via Unbound:
I’m currently checking the page proofs of Miracle Brew for any last typos or errors, and realising that writing about other stuff in between – particularly apples – has definitely brought something extra to a book about hops, barley, yeast and water. I’m really excited to start sharing it with people. (Even though the book is fully funded, you still have a short time left to pledge here and get your name in the back and get other benefits. Or if you prefer to do things the old-fashioned way, you can pre-order it on Amazon here just like any other book.)
Books take a long time to write, and I’ve always struggled to get the period between books to shrink. But now I’m on a bit of a roll. So while this year will see me on the road promoting the Apple Orchard paperback and the new hardback of Miracle Brew, today I signed the contract on my next book, which should see the light of day in autumn 2018!
This one is with Penguin again, the follow-up to The Apple Orchard. I had two ways to go from that book: I could develop the whole nature writing theme more, or I could continue to expand from beer into a broader food and drink arena. While there are lots of very good writers in both disciplines, I felt nature was the more overcrowded, and food and drink the one I was more excited about.
So I pitched an idea in January, and it was approved and bought quicker than any book I’ve written to date. The roots of it go back at least seven years, when, touring Hops & Glory, I started getting invited to a lot more food festivals and events. And it’s based around the notion that food and drink form a large part of how we see ourselves – and in Britain’s case, point to a very confused and uncertain self-image.
It’s a global joke that British food is a bit crap – and Brits are at least as likely to say that as anyone else. When British people do stick up for their food, they usually point out that we have restaurants representing more different international cuisines in cities like London than anywhere else, or that British chefs are modernising and doing fusion with pan-Asian cuisine or ‘modern European.’ If they do celebrate traditional British dishes, they invariably add a cosmopolitan ‘twist’, just so everyone can be sure they’d never do anything as vulgar as simply make a traditional dish really well.
There are exceptions to this of course, but the general theme I pick up is that no one is that keen on celebrating traditional British food and drink. It’s why British craft beer fans will denigrate cask ale and British brewers would rather use American hops. Its why Somerset farmhouse cider is laughed at by people who adore Belgian lambic, when it’s almost the same drink in many ways. Its why a craft beer festival that is passionate about showcasing local brewers will have endless food stalls doing mac ‘n’ cheese, Texan barbecue and hot dogs, but not British street food such as pie and peas. It’s why France has more cheeses protected under the European Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) and Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) schemes than Britain does for all its food and drink put together, and why the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) still has absolutely no clue whatsoever about how it’s going to protect Melton Mowbray pork pies, Stilton cheese, Herefordshire perry and the rest of Britain’s protected produce once Brexit means they no longer qualify for the EU protections they currently enjoy.
And yet, when surveys ask people what their favourite meals are, the vast majority invariably come up with fish and chips, full English (or Welsh, or Scottish, or Northern Irish) breakfast, and Sunday Roast. In terms of consumption, this isn’t true of course: most of us eat Italian, or Chinese, or burgers way more often than we eat these staples. Large swathes of the population are far more likely to go to a faux-Italian coffee chain and have pain-aux-chocolats or croissants, or more recently, the heavily Americanised concept of brunch, than go for a full English. But when asked, these are the meals, along with Devon cream teas, cheese sarnies and bacon butties, that we still feel some patriotic pride about.
This brings up the whole issue of multiculturalism – curry has famously become defined as a British dish. But go back far enough, and what is British and what is multicultural start to blur. The first curry restaurant in Britain opened in 1809, only 15 years or so after it became socially acceptable for image-conscious Brits to eat potatoes.
To tie all these thoughts and themes together, I’m going to eat seven of Britain’s favourite meals in their ideal settings: full English in a greasy spoon, fish and chips by the seaside, Sunday Roast in a country pub, and so on. For each meal, I’ll explore its origins and history, why it became so important to us, and what it tells us about how we see ourselves and our place in the world in 2017. I’m starting work on it with a fascinating new reading list:
With this as-yet-untitled book due out in 2018, this establishes the beginnings of a pattern of annually alternating beer books and books with broader themes. I won’t go as far as differentiating them by calling myself Pete Brown in one strand and Peter S Brown in the other, but I hope it’s a pattern I’ll be able to continue for a few years – I have a very tentative conversation next week about a possible new beer book.
I hope at least one of these strands will continue to interest you. Thanks for reading.