Category: Food

| Beer, Craft Beer, Food, IPA

The Craft of Balance

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.

| Books, Food

I just finished writing my next book

Provisionally titled Tastes of Britain: How Eight Meals Shaped a Nation, my fourth book launch in two-and-a-bit years should be my last for a while… 

Never mind the quality, feel the width.

 

High quality problems don’t come much higher than an editor at Penguin saying, ‘We loved your last book [for us]and we’d like another one, but we’d like it from you sort of now-ish’ when you’re already knackered from writing three books in eighteen months for three different publishers. Of course I said yes, immediately.

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.

| Books, Food, Miracle Brew, The Apple Orchard, Writing

New Book News: not for the first time, I’m trying to copy the great Iain Banks…

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.