Tag Archives: taste

Innis & Gunn get fruity

10 Sep

Fruit beer is one of those things that I’m just never sure about.

The first time I tried one of the better known brands – Früli – a few years ago, it was after continuous recommendations from some work colleagues that it was the best thing since our office had decided to let us drink at our desks after 3:30pm on a Friday (this is Europe after all!). But when I tried it at Dutch pub De Hems, I found its sweetness to be too overwhelming. I promptly purchased my favourite, heavier-duty Trappistes Rochefort 8 and continued on my merry drinking way.

So when I recently learned that craft brewery and bastions of cask-aged beer Innis & Gunn had decided to release its own fruit beer under the brand name Melville’s Craft Lager, I was intrigued though slightly skeptical.

Melville’s Raspberry Craft Lager

The lager is made from a standard base (British malt, hops, yeast and water) that is infused with cold pressed berry juice from juice producer Ella Drinks. The company has released a strawberry and raspberry flavour, both of which I have sampled, and both of which will now be permanently available in Tesco and in Scottish Sainsbury’s branches for around the £1.70 mark.

My preferred choice was the raspberry version. It’s a heady, thickly sweet drink but with elements of an almost treacle-like flavour and an instant rush of sharp raspberry to counter the sugary side. It’s quite a punchy drink for a fruit beer – it’s not watered down or too sickly, though it is definitely going to be too much for those that like their lagers drier. The flavour of Swedish Berries (a North American candy) was also present. I wanted to be sat on a lawn chair in the sun drinking this one.

Stawberry delight anyone?

The strawberry version took the sugar level further and I wouldn’t recommend it for anyone who would choose a starter over a sweet at dinner – those with a greater love of their savoury taste buds might revolt. It saves itself, however, from falling into the sugar syrup, tweenie drinks (WKD anyone?) by having a lovely, bitter twang right at the end which balances things out a bit better. Strawberry foams from pick n mix, or Haribo strawberry sours dominate.

Both are quality craft lagers, which one can tell have been flavoured with real fruit and not any sugar additives. While they’re sweet, they’re enjoyable.

It’s an interesting move for Innis & Gunn – with its following by lager aficionados (especially in Canada where it seems to be immensely popular) it seems somewhat strange to move into this other market. Equally, it will give the company a wider remit by targeting a very different demographic. And, as the bottle does not say ‘Innis & Gunn’ anywhere on the label many may not even realise the tie-in.

And although I won’t reach for them as a staple beer, I enjoyed the raspberry enough to keep a bottle or two around for when I’m looking for something a bit sweeter than my normal bitters and ales. Which, given my normal dislike of fruit beer, says a lot.

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Wok and Wolling!

25 Aug

The question of what a person wants for his or her birthday is always a tricky one.

So when the boy asked me what might hit the mark, I threw it back to his court, not wanting to be put in the driver’s seat. My only suggestion: something different that we can both learn from.

And on my birthday day, that’s exactly what I found wrapped up for me. A class for two to learn to make dim sum at the aptly named, School of Wok in Covent Garden – the boy done good!

The school is a new addition to Chandos Place, having been set up in late June by Jeremy Pang. He began cooking after deciding to change his career path in 2009 and retrain as a chef. After studying at Le Cordon Bleu and doing extended visits to Hong Kong (where his family originates), Jeremy set up a mobile cooking school which rented space from places like Ping Pong to teach corporate guests to make dim sum and stir fry.

Jeremy shows us how to get woking…

It’s not necessarily surprising that Jeremy would be drawn to this arena – his father’s family immigrated to England in the ’60s and started up some of the first restaurants in London’s Chinatown, while his mother’s family started up the well known Ho’s bakery in Manchester. Cooking – it seems – is definitely in his blood.

Much of his inspiration comes from what he learned growing up around restaurants and in the kitchen with his family and he has an exuberance that’s hard to miss. He’s also very informal and welcoming, which made us feel relaxed as soon as we entered the school on a hot summer evening.

The cooking menu for the night included glutinous rice in lotus leaves, crisp prawn and tofu rolls, Jiaozi and BBQ spare ribs. I’d barely eaten anything all day in preparation, a fact I was very glad of later.

We were joined by two other couples – a perfect class size really – and Jeremy began by taking us through the staple ingredients that are present in flavouring much Cantonese cuisine: soy sauce, rice wine, sugar, sesame oil and ketchup.

“The British left two things behind in Hong Kong and one of these was ketchup,” he clarified.

We then got to marinating some mighty and meaty shortribs in a combination of those ingredients plus other

The boy works up the courage to woll some dumplings!

delicious things like garlic, ginger and hoi sin sauce before moving quickly onto learning about lotus leaves.

Standing around the chunky wooden chopping station, dressed in our very cool School of Wok aprons, we learned to separate and work with this delicate, pungent leaf. Glutinous rice had already been soaking for two hours in cold water, and was then mixed with salt, pepper and garlic oil to be steamed for 20 minutes. We then mixed our meats (chicken thighs and chinese sausage) with rehydrated black mushrooms and a rich marinade before it was whisked away to be cooked on the grill. When both the rice and meat were done, it was laid out on small squares of the lotus leaf and wrapped to be steamed for another 20 minutes.

As a reward for completing our first two dishes, Jeremy dished out the wine – as we learned, to up our courage to make homemade jiazi (or as the Japanese term them, gyoza). These dumplings are easy to devour down but don’t be fooled into thinking they’re easy to construct.

Filled with pork, prawns, coriander, garlic and ginger (among other aromatic ingredients) these are some of my favourite dumplings. I soon learned, they do not love me.

The dough is made from two simple ingredients: flour and water. After mixing and folding, it’s kneaded for five minutes until elastic. We learned to do them fully from scratch, which included taking small balls, squashing them into a circular fashion, and using a two-hand technique whereby you turn the circle with your left hand while using a small amount of pressure on a little rolling pin to roll the edges with your right hand. It is mystifyingly difficult – or, at least for me it was. The boy won praises from Jeremy for his perfect-edged dough circles, while I just puzzled him. I think I made one that looked right out of the 30 I tried over an hour long period.

These small circles of dough are then filled with the meat, before being folded over and pinched together into a half-moon shape, fried and steamed. They were delicious, but all the wine in the world couldn’t have made me confident enough to get them right!

Just some of our delicious creations.

We also added beancurd rolls to our list of accomplishments that evening – these are filled with mashed prawn and bamboo shoots before being deep fried. Delicious!

When finally we got to sit, we’d been cooking for a full-on three and a half hours. While the class is only meant to last for three hours, it was clear Jeremy cared more about getting us to learn the full extent of cooking than to rush us out the door.

Over more glasses of wine, the group sat down to a very big, and very well deserved, meal. I’ll never look at dim sum quite the same but I will look forward to trying all of these at home again.

I can’t recommend Jeremy’s classes enough – it was a great way to pass an evening. And if you’re on the hunt for a birthday present to please, this is definitely one to consider.

For more information on the School of Wok, its classes and upcoming events, visit: http://www.schoolofwok.co.uk

Bewitched by beer in Bruges

24 Feb

I stare at the menu longingly but with confusion. I want them all…every single bottle of beer on the menu at De Kuppe bar on Kupperstraat in Bruges looks appealing. But, given most sit around the 8% or 10% ABV mark, I have to concede: I will only get through a few.

The boy and I had arrived with our friends in Bruges earlier that afternoon. It was colder than cold and we had to trudge through slippery snow if we wanted to see the town.

So instead of freezing ourselves in the cultural endeavour of sight-seeing, we opted to hole up in one of the many bars the petite Belgian town has to offer, which worked perfectly for me.

You see, I am a massive fan of Belgian beer – it is almost always my go-to beer as standard. It’s generally richer (without being gut-filling like a stout), has more subtle flavours and is crisp, despite being very strong.

Straffe Hendrick beer

The history of beer from this region is equally enticing. The famous Trappist beers, for instance, began being brewed in the late 19th century by monks in monasteries. In order to be called a Trappist, the beer must still be made in the same fashion. There are six beer-producing monasteries that meet such distinction in Belgium, making brands such as Chimay, Westmalle and (my all time favourite) Rochefort.

As such, when faced with a veritable book of beers, it was hard to know where to start. I opted away from ones I knew and started with a Straffe Hendrik, which is brewed in Bruges. This dark brown tripel beer comes in at 9% and is made from six kinds of malt. It has notes of toffee and brown sugar, and lots of hop. A delicious way to begin.

I followed this with a Bush Ambrée, a hefty corker of a beer that has a wine-strength 12% ABV. The boy and a couple others joined in, swayed by the idea of drinking such a strong brew. Made in 1933, this beer is the strongest Belgian variety. But you wouldn’t know it – until you stand up of course. It is balanced between sweet and bitter, but doesn’t have the same “oomph” as the other Belgian beers I tried, despite being stronger.

Next came Judas and La Trappe Quadrupel, which I only realised later is actually from the Netherlands.

By the time I had sipped my way through those beers, it was time for bed. But with three more days in the winter wonderland of Bruges, I knew there was still time to work my way through a few more.

The pink Delerium elephant watches over the coconut beer.

As luck would have it, the Bruges beer fest was going on at the same time we arrived – a fantastic and welcome surprise. Featuring more than 250 beers, it only added to the beer odyssey.

There we managed to get through nearly 30 beers – only a drop in the ocean, but a good attempt I think. We tried the Troubadour Blond and Troubadour Obscura, two I had never heard of, along with the beautiful Val-Dieu Blonde and the super hoppy Martin’s IPA. There were hoards of intriguing fruit beers, such as the Floris Fraise and Peach, or the Banana, Coconut or Mango varieties from Mongozo. Interestingly, there was also a beer aged in whisky casks – the Bravoure, which was slightly sweet and stunk of smoked cheese. Despite this, it was intriguingly pleasant.

And so the list goes on. After the beer festival, we continued on to the quaint De Garre bar, where beers such as Kwak and their 11% house beer. Maybe not the best choice after a few hours of beer drinking, but delicious and highly recommended.

Kwak served up in a quacky wooden holder.

By the time we departed from Bruges, I was satisfied. I may have only tried 25 or 30 beers out of hundreds, but it was a great first stab at the books of beers in Bruges. I left with taste buds satiated, utterly bewitched by the Bruges beer scene.

European Beers

21 Jan

As mentioned in my previous post, I was lucky enough recently to be sent some very interesting beers from R&R Teamwork to try out. In the last edition, I tried out the beers from the U.S. and now I shall wax lyrical on those from this side of the ocean (namely, Belgium and Scotland).

If you’ve tried any of these, then drop me a line and let me know – I’d be curious to hear your thoughts!

Fruity beer? Well, why not...

Liefmans Fruitesse: 4.2% – Liefmans Brewery, Belgium:

Sometimes fruit beer can be too sickly sweet for my liking. I’m almost always after a bitter, punchy, yeasty beer or stout to sit by my side while I cook dinner or watch a film. So, I was a bit hesitant with this one. Liefmans Fruitesse is a fruit beer (duh!), combining flavours of cherry, bilberry, elderberry, strawberry and raspberry. What makes it slightly more interesting than a run-of-the-mill fruit beer is that it has been matured for 18-months on cherries. And you can definitely taste that. This beer manages to hold its own by focusing on more tart, bitter flavours – cherry, bilberry – rather than overdoing the candy shop strawberry taste that I find too sweet. It’s a bit biting and – although I’d only have one – I found it to be a refreshing, rather than a sugary, beer; great for summer picnics. It retails for £1.60 at Waitrose & Selfridges.

A smoking gunn?

Innis & Gunn Highland Cask 18: 7.1% – Innis & Gunn Brewery, Scotland:

Opening up the box to find this beer was a real treat – a 7.1% beer that I hoped could really set my taste buds alight. Innis & Gunn is very popular back in Canada, but until my latest trip there, I hadn’t heard of it – odd, I thought, given I live in England and this is from Scotland. But, Innis & Gunn do a lot of promoting in North America – it’s a bigger market and people’s beer drinking tastes are evolving rapidly there. This bottling was a limited edition, matured in casks previously containing 18-year-old scotch whisky. And, I could really pick it up – there were hints, not unlike a whisky, of toffee and oak, and it was rich and warming. It didn’t get me quite as excited as I thought it would but I have a feeling that – given I love whisky so much – I was expecting more of a whisky hit. It was well balanced, though, and an interesting one to try. Though, at 7.1%, maybe just stick to one or two. It’s available for £2.50 at Sainsbury’s.

Duvel, how you set my heart on fire!

Duvel: 8.5% – Duvel Brewery, Belgium:

To top things off, I finished with a Duvel – I held off on this one because it has been a long-time favourite. I discovered it for the first time at the fabulous De Hems pub on Macclesfield Street in London a few years back and I’ve been drinking it ever since. This Belgian beer is really one for beer lovers, in my opinion. It comes in at a hefty 8.5% but still manages to be refreshing – always dangerous! The blond beer is fermented a second time in the bottle (fermentable sugars and yeast are added at the bottling stage). It is then matured for another 60 days in warm and cool temperatures to achieve its characteristic biting, yeasty flavour. It’s slightly sweet but has a drying bitterness on the finish which keeps the sugars down. I could drink it all night long. Definitely a favourite. It retails at most supermarkets for £1.67 upwards.

Stateside Beer

13 Jan

I always find it funny how some memories in life stick out to you so much more prominently than others. Ask me about my childhood and I can wax lyrical about some elements (cows in the field, bears in the forest, country life, the big yellow school bus) while others remain completely hazy. But one that I couldn’t help remembering recently was the first time I tried a wee sip of beer. I was about four or five years old and was sat around a table in our living room. I had my playset mugs and toys around me and my dad was chatting with one of his friends, drinking a beer on a summer’s eve. I remember grabbing at his glass to smell the beer and him smiling, laughing at my intrigue. So, he gave me a tiny, less than thimble-full sip in my doll’s cup to satiate my interest (and probably to stop me asking questions – I was a very chatty child). I declared I liked it. And, I’ve not stopped liking it since (well, there was a brief period of, oh, 12 years where I didn’t drink any, but you get my point).

As I’ve grown older, I’ve tended to veer towards what I consider “good” beer – I don’t mind an occasional cheap lager if it’s given to me, but if I had my choice it would be a Belgian brew or rich stout any day over that. So, when I received a package in the post a few weeks ago only to discover I had been sent a few bottles of specialty beer to try, I was rather overjoyed.

It contained no less than seven varieties of beer – three from the US and four from Europe. I have finally tried them all and have decided to divide my review into two parts. This first one will focus on the bottles from the US and the next (coming soon!) will shout out my thoughts on the others.

So, to begin…

Anchor Steam from Anchor Brewing Co, San Francisco

Anchor Steam: 4.8% – Anchor Brewing Co, San Francisco:

As soon as I took a sip from this, I was transported back to the past summer, when I had been sat on an outdoor patio in the sunshine in San Francisco. This beer is distinctly west coast (Canada or US): its flavours are infiltrated with the warmth of a summer’s day and all that entails: BBQs, ocean, fresh breezes. Sure we have that here in the UK but, for me, this beer contained everything I know and love about the west coast. It’s also very rich and creamy, with a yeasty, almost Marmite like hint, and leaves a slightly charcoal and bitter note on the tongue. The company has named it Anchor Steam after the old term for beer – steam being the word used to describe beer made on the west coast under very basic conditions in the 1800s. So, with even a name that symbolises all things western, this is one for those laid-back weekend days in summer when all you want to do is relax with friends under the sun. It can be found at Selfridges for £1.99 a bottle.

Goose Island India Pale Ale

Goose Island India Pale Ale: 5.9% – Goose Island, Chicago:

I don’t normally drink India Pale Ale. In the past, I’ve found the bitterness of these to be too intense. So, I was very surprised when I tried this beer and it really hit the spot. It was most certainly one of the best beers of the lot – crisp, slightly fruity with a good load of hops working through from start to finish, without being so bitter as to make my mouth pucker. I had never heard of Goose Island but it seems a lot of Midwesterners have been enjoying it since the late ’80s when founder John Hall decided to try to create a brewpub in Chicago akin to those found in Europe. It was a very pleasant discovery and, even more so, when I noticed it’s available in Sainsbury’s for £1.99. It’s definitely one I’ll be indulging in more often.

Anchor Porter: the first porter beer in the US

Anchor Porter: 5.6% – Anchor Brewing Co, San Francisco:

This porter beer – also from Anchor Brewing Co – was the first of its kind when it was released 40 years ago in the States. Before that, no one was really brewing the dark, rich porter beers that we here in the UK had been familiar with for hundreds of years. This version is lighter than a Guinness, but still dark as tar. It is rich, without being overbearing, and carries a load of chocolate and toffee notes. It avoids being bitter and instead makes itself very drinkable. I didn’t get that heavy feel after finishing this bottle, like I sometimes do when drinking this type of beer. All in all, very enjoyable but probably not for people who like lighter brews, as it is still rich. This, too, is available at Selfridges for £1.99.

Coming soon: I review Innis & Gunn Limited Edition Highland Cask; Duvel and Liefmans Fruitesse. These beers were provided to me, with thanks, by R&R Teamwork, a specialist London Communications Agency.

Cognac Dreams

13 Oct

My life has been filled with more drink tastings of late than a swarthy pirate. Not that I’m complaining…especially when it sees me sit out my afternoon in a most obscure locale.

Recently, I headed down to that rather traditional store called Harrods. Cognac was to be drunk and I was invited.

But the cognac was no ordinary cognac – the bar, no ordinary bar. Instead, I found myself ogled by tourists – wandering by on Brompton Road, equipped with cameras and curiosity – as I sat, trying to look ever-so prim in a window display while I drank some choice cognac from Martell.

Still-full cognac glasses wait to be drunk

The occasion was all a part of a push by Martell to up the profile of its fine-line cognacs in Britain. So, the company decided, what better way to do this, than to have a massive window display, featuring a sleek and beautifully designed trunk with all of its premium cognacs, in the premium store in London!

The trunk, made over 1,000 hours by ten master-craftsmen, and designed by Parisian company Pinel & Pinel is a sight to behold: filled with the 28 eaux-de-vie which represent what goes into the four ‘cru’ used by Martell to create its signature cognacs and featuring those four cognacs as well, the 2.06 metre tall trunk is something special.

The Martell Trunk inside the window display at Harrods (Photo Credit: Campbell-Bell Communications)

But, seeing as its price tag comes in at a rather hefty £200,000, and seeing as I haven’t won the Euro Millions of late (sigh), I opted to simply taste the cognac rather than invest in a whole portfolio.

Thierry Giraud explains the beauty of a good cognac

So, after exploring the trunk in all its glory, we sat with Thierry Giraud, Brand Development Manager, to learn more about cognac and be gawked at by the plebs (ie: doing exactly what I’d normally be doing if I were on the other side of the glass).

We learned how Martell began making cognac in 1715 after emigrating from Jersey to sunnier climes in south-western France. We learned how each cognac contains eaux-de-vie from four terroirs: Borderies, Grande and Petite Champagne, and Fins Bois, which are distilled and aged in 350 litre, fine-grained oak casks to stop it having any woody or aggressive flavours. We learned it is becoming most popular with the emerging upper classes in China, Vietnam and Indonesia, who drink it as a salute to getting the first big job (while we here in Britain, with our unemployment rate skyrocketing, choose White Lightning…maybe I should move to Asia?).

Oh, and we drank – I almost forgot that part.

Delicious, smooth, soft-oaked, sometimes bitter, orangey, almondy cognacs…including some from the L’Or de Jean Martell, a £2,998 bottle of the finest kind. It was my favourite, but then, I do have expensive taste.

And by the time I drank samples of four of those fantastic cognacs, I forgot I was being stared at by strangers ambling past…by then, I simply sank into the large, leather-backed chair, and reveled in the oddity of sitting in a window display, indulging in a rather tasty Gwiltypleasure…

The Martell Trunk will be on display in Harrods until the 22 October and available to purchase for £200k, if you happen to have that laying around in your change drawer.

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