Tag Archives: beer

WELL DONE! New ale from Cork brewery

A great night was had at the Oliver Plunkett pub in Cork City to celebrate the launch of the ‘Franciscan Well Jameson-Aged Pale Ale’ – phew, a name that’s almost as big a mouthful as the beer itself!

 

The new brew is a collaboration between Franciscan Well’s founder Shane Long and fellow Corkman Dave Quinn, Master of Whiskey Science at the Jameson Distillery, who, after a successful joint venture with a Jameson-aged stout, decided the time was ripe for another project, this time an experiment with the effect of second fill bourbon casks from the Jameson distillery as a component in a pale ale breed by Franciscan Well.

 

The press release on the event introduced me to the term ‘back’ apparently used to describe a small measure of a drink, alcoholic or mineral, accompanying another drink. Traditionally, people would order a whiskey with a water ‘back’, a soda back or a beer back. Spirits have been accompanied alongside beer since the 1400s and the new beer aims to continue this tradition by creating a natural pairing.

This is what, in the old Manchester days, we would have called ‘a chaser’. In those days there were upwards of a dozen brewers in the region – the ‘National Beer Grid’  with its associated lack of choice hadn’t reached the region (others, like East Anglia,  awash with the awful Watney’s keg beers, were already submerged). It was our custom, on our regular pub crawls (sighs nostalgically for the stamina of youth) to accompany the last pint of the night with a Scots malt whisky chaser and, being of questing minds, we determinedly sought out the best combinations – for the record Glenmorangie with Boddingtons’ bitter; the soft, ethereally fragrant Glen Scotia with Robinsons; Glendronach with Draught Bass were, if I remember rightly, our top three picks.

In like vein, the Franciscan Well’s biscuit, malt, caramel and citrus notes, enhanced by spikes of orange zest and coriander combined beautifully with the Jameson. The ale is certainly very more-ish and only the 6% ABV prevented it from being ‘a session’ beer. For this we turned, late in the night to the Franciscan Well ‘Chieftain’ which I praised so lavishly after I made the discovery at the Fleadh Cheol in Sligo a few weeks ago.

The evening was further enhanced by some good pub grub, a band, plus an impressive display of barrel dismantling and reassembly by Jameson’s Master Cooper, Ger Buckley.

The beer is rated ‘experimental and exclusive’ so at the moment it’s only available across Cork’s Whiskey Way bars (Canty’s, Counihan’s, Electric, Le Chateau, SoHo Bar, The Mutton Lane Inn, The Oliver Plunkett, The Oval, The Roundy and The Woodford) in 330ml bottles for an RRP of €6. 

 

Brewing Beer back in the 1960s

The other day, clearing out my office/studio to bring some sort of order out of utter chaos and also make room to store (yet more) kitchen equipment, I came across an old green diary for the year 1970. Within its pages I found some formulas for making home-brew, including my ‘Kingfisher XB Bitter’*,  my first brew, hastily formulated after sampling my mate Ben’s God-awful homebrew, made in the bath using a Boots the Chemists kit and decanted into quart cider flagons. That was back in the summer of ’69.

Craft brewing friends will, I’m sure, laugh in derision, maybe even sneer but, hey, this was radical stuff back in the day…

As Michael Caine nearly said “Not many people did that”.

Below is verbatim, from the diary.

Recipe

5 gallons

7 lb crushed pale malt

2 lb flaked barley

1 lb crystal malt

1 lb glucose sugar

water

1 tsp Irish moss

2 oz East Kent Goldings hops

1 oz Fuggles hops

1 tbsp ‘Burton crystals’

1 tbsp salt

2 oz Brewers yeast

‘Copper finings’ (amount unspecified)

 

From memory ‘Burton crystals’, sold by home-brew shops were for ‘hardening’ the water, or at any rate adjusting the Ph. Burton-on-Trent was the hub of the British brewing industry at the time, renowned for its bitters and India Pale Ales. The flaked barley was in there to ensure better head retention. The Brewers yeast, I remember,was obtained from a mate in the flats who was an accountant at Watneys. Later, when I moved to Berkshire I used packets of dried yeast, usually of the ‘Dark Munchener’ variety and obtained from a home-brew shop in Kingston-on-Thames.

A note tells me I had calculated the alcohol content at 5.7% ABV or “5.2 if measured by drop”. I’m sure these figures must be a tad inaccurate. Another note reminds me to buy a bag for holding the grains while mashing.

 

I made the first mash in a catering tea urn I borrowed from my mother who previously used it for a “nixer”, selling tea and biscuits to members of The Halle Orchestra on their morning breaks. The urn later made an honourable reappearance dispensing free tea, along with free meat pies donated by a friend who had a catering business, to the striking miners at Orgreave colliery back in the time of Thatcher.

 

A later note shows that by 1975 I had a purpose-designed ‘Electrim’ fermenting bin/boiler, also a pressurised keg for storing and dispensing from ‘draught’.

 

The process was initiated because we were spending too much on beer. We would drink, with friends, at The White Hart in Hampton village, probably 3-4 nights a week. At closing time we would buy at least a couple of 4 pint tins (McEwan’s) to consume  at home over a music session or a game of chess. Eventually the four of us decided we would still go down the pub because that’s what we liked doing but we would brew our own beer for consumption at home, cutting out the expense of the tins. The quest was to brew something that tasted “a bit like Marston’s ‘Pedigree”, our preferred ‘tipple du jour.’

 

In the diary there is a note that (excluding the cost of electricity) the beer cost just over 7p a pint to make!

* Named for the block of flats, Kingfisher Court, East Molesley, Surrey, where i was living at the time.

Beer today…

Scraggybank ipa etc

When you want a beer there is little else will do. Especially after two bouts of wine judging in Italy in quick succession. On my return to Dublin I paid a visit to the excellent Drink Store in Stoneybatter and purchased half a dozen bottles for drinking casually in the garden or for consuming with the earthy grub  I tend to eat when herself (who is more predisposed towards delicate fare) is away down the country visiting rellies.

First ones tasted were:

Früh, Kölsch.

This is a light-ish beer (4.7% abv) emanating from Cologne where kölsch has enjoyed a protected status since  1997. Though many think it to be a lager, it is not, being top-fermented (though it is cold-conditioned afterwards). An attractive straw-gold in colour, the Früh Kölsch is balanced and appealing, with a distinct, though not over-aggressive hoppyness.  On the palate, it is initially dry and zippy before it mellows to evince honey and, surprisingly, white grape undertones. Enjoyable and certainly food-friendly.

Kinnegar Scraggy Bay India Pale Ale

5.3% abc, unfiltered, naturally-carbonated (pour carefully) from a Donegal company I’d not come across before, Scraggy Bay, once I’d stopped thinking of it in Father Ted terms, proved to be a civilised drink, one I’d call a ‘session beer’ where I’d be happy to quaff a few.  The term India Pale Ale or IPA has become so over-used by craft brewers it is now devoid of all meaning.  This one had that ‘orange peel and coriander’ vibe that I find in many examples of the genre but not to excess. In other words it stopped short of ‘marmalade’.

Founders Brewing ‘Curmudgeon’

Given the name, I should probably adopt this beer. It’s from Quebec, comes in a 335 ml bottle and racks up a powerful 9.8% abv. Molasses and oak ageing (for how long I don’t know) are the keys to its brooding intensity. At first swally it reminded me of one of those dark Münchner beers turbocharged to hell – high lift cams and fat tyres too, but thankfully, no spoiler or go-fast stripes. Curmudgeon wore its alcohol well and the lick of malty sweetness in no way detracted from what was a very well constructed and quite dry beer. A sipper, rather than a quaffer. I spent the rest of the evening debating what food you could team it with but could only come up with the banal ‘chocolate’. Maybe mature cheddar or 24-month Coolea. I’ll try.

My favourite beer glass (shown in the picture) was my father’s. A golf relic, though whether a prize or a gift from Mrs and Mrs Captain I’ll never know, it holds 500 ml if you pour carefully.

RESTAURANT REVIEW: Ernie Whalley has chicken overload at ‘Crackbird’

These are the protected Gallina Padovana. NOT on the menu at Dublin's new chicken shack. (Photo courtesy of SLOW FOOD)

 

The ‘pop-up restaurant’, a phrase I guarantee you’ll be hearing a lot more of, was conceived as a fly-by-night dining event where a chef with a background in fine dining takes over a restaurant or vacant space for a brief window. There’s an indie, even underground vibe to the concept. The menu changes daily at the whim of the chef; the price is often fixed, and you usually need to make reservations. Pop-up restaurants might serve for only a single evening, or several days, or several weeks. But the menus and locations are never permanent. The internet and the associated social networking phenomena are key tools in marketing these “now you see me, now you don’t” eateries.
Pop-up restaurants are said to have started in Los Angeles and the man most commonly charged with inventing them is French-born, California-domiciled chef, Ludo Lefebvre. He prefers to call his restaurant, Ludo Bites, a “touring restaurant’’ declaring that “like many a band we have been ‘touring’ locally since 2007 and we’ve played at various locations all over Los Angeles”. Since then many prominent chefs have identified themselves with the concept. Many of the roving supper clubs in the US have acquired reputations that are the stuff of legend along with serious waiting lists.
London has its far share of these guerilla dining establishments, perhaps the most famous being The Loft Project where fledgling chefs from The Ledbury and other top establishments were permitted to strut their stuff. The food served is frequently sophisticated or, at least, well off-piste; sample: ‘carpaccio of roe deer with walnut-oil mayonnaise, burnt bread, flowering claytonia, pennywort and hairy bittercress.’
Pop-up restaurants have until now been conspicuous by their absence in Ireland (apart from a couple of RTE staged stunts involving, among others, Kevin Thornton in unlikely locations like the Rock of Cashel). However this may be about to change with chefs and restaurateurs monitoring the success or otherwise of the new Crackbird in Crane Lane, Temple Bar. In Ireland, we like to do things different. Our first pop-up restaurant, brainchild of Joe Macken of Rathmines’ Joburger and open only until 22nd of May, is no sort of homage to gastronomy. Crackbird, a singular name you’d imagine would attract a dodgy clientele, can only be described as a sort of ‘KFC GTi’ selling but one product, chicken, which comes in two versions – ‘skillet-fried buttermilk’and ‘super crisp soy garlic’, priced at €9.95 per half bird per person or €17.95 for a full bird. Wings are sold by the dozen (€11.95) and there are semolina or chilli ‘chicken crunches’ with a choice of dip included at €4.95. Value-addeds for the restaurant include five sides at €3.75 each and a choice of seven dips at a euro a throw. The room is dimly lit and noisy, with music that can only be described as ‘foreground’. You wouldn’t come to Crackbird for a quiet read or a heart-to-heart with your bezzy. Some of the furniture is distressed to the point of busrting into tears. Cutlery and crockery are very ‘church fete lucky bag’.

We hadn’t booked, indeed we’d hardly have known how to as there’s no phone number listed and booking a restaurant on Twitter is, as yet, an alien thing. It took half an hour’s wait to gain a table, during which time the three of us (me, Daughter One and her partner) placed our order, sat at the bar and drank Pilsner Urquell, only beer on offer and sold by the bottle, four-pack or case, discount for quantity. There was wine – a NZ Sauv B, surprise, surprise and a basic Rioja but beer seems more appropriate. Around us the place was packed, the clientele, I’d say, 25-35 and 70-30 female to male on the night. There was one empty table which apparently is reserved for ‘Tweets’ on a bi-hourly basis. If you are lucky enough to book this table you get the food free gratis. This seems a smart marketing ploy, further helping to spread the word.
We ordered a whole bird of the soy-garlic variety plus a dozen wings. This took another half hour to arrive. Whether through design, organisation or lack of practice I can’t say but Crackbird struck us as being by no stretch of the imagination a fast food restaurant. We chose three sides – a slaw, a roast parsnip & nigella seed salad and had some couscous pressed upon us by the helpful waiter. The others praised the slaw, especially for the lightness of the dressing but I found the cabbage a tad bitter. The parsnips (small portion of)were unmemorable, we agreed, and the couscous (masses of it), excellent. We took four sauces. I’ve often found that the hottest chilli sauce is the one that’s hardest to spell or pronounce so we kept clear of ‘Srirracha’, opting instead for ‘Chipotle’. Pick of them was the burnt lemon and whipped feta which D1 vowed to emulate at home. Seeing the mountain of bones from afar, the waiter returned to offer us dessert – there was only one, a huge chocolate gateau –gorged to our tonsils, we declined. We did take three filter coffees which turned out to be truly excellent – quite the best coffee I’ve had in a restaurant for ages, emphasising that good filter coffee is preferable to average espresso.
Were I to pick two words to crystallise the night they would be ‘fun’ and ‘salty’. There was far too much NaCl on the chooks, the flavour I came away with was that of neat salt, as if you’d been sucking on a rock of it. The wings, in particular, should carry a health warning, so those with cardiac problems could steer clear. The whole bird was drenched in dark soy sauce. Later, as I lay in bed, I felt that ‘Chinese take-away buzz’.
We had good craic at Crackbird and, for sure, that’s half the point of dining out. As I’ve said, fast fast food, it ain’t and we could have done with a bowl for the bones but these are niggles set against the joyous cacophony of people having fun. Nor is it particularly cheap when you factor in the sides and sauces. We spent €82.65, ex service, which included two beers each – rough equivalent of 3 x an early bird and a glass each of wine at a ‘proper’ restaurant.
Food wise, I have reservations. I’d had a fun evening but, when push came to shove, the ‘craic’ was better than the ‘bird’. I felt it was an opportunity missed, a chance to show us that simple  food could be tasty and of honourable provenance. Considering Crackbird goes beyond the call of duty in name-checking suppliers – 3FE coffee, Hall & Keogh’s tea and David Llwellyn’s ‘local’ cider all get a mention – the chicken man’s name is curiously absent, reinforcing my view that these birds may not be the Mae West when it comes to texture or  flavour, hence the soy and salt overload. In the unlikely event of my getting a craving to eat chicken I’d probably head for Georges Street and the cuisse de poulet a l’oignon at Café des Irelandais – although I note that, even there, they’ve stopped flagging the bird as ‘Label Rouge.; Now, on their website, it’s just chicken tout court. C’est la vie.

Crackbird, Crane Lane, Dublin 2
Food **
Wine *
Service ****
Ambience ****
Volume 5 bells
Overall **

WINE IN PUBS – some thoughts

Drinking is never a random activity. In all cultures where alcohol is consumed, drinking is hedged about with unwritten rules, social norms and stigmas regarding who may drink how much of what, when, where, with whom and in what manner. The rules are different in different countries and different social circles, but there are always rules.

Some will deny this. A man might protest that he drinks pints of lager only because it slakes his thirst and because he happens to like the taste. You don’t have to believe him. Choice of beverage is rarely as simple as a matter of personal taste.

A few of years ago I was doing a spot of consultancy which involved, during the course of my research, asking people “Do you drink wine in pubs?” “You’re jokin’ me,” said D4 Male, 37. “If I’m going to get caught in a pub with a glass of wine I might as well go the whole hog and buy a man bag”. His buddy summed it up. “Look,” he said. “I love wine. I’ll go home tonight and down a bottle of red with dinner. When I dine in a restaurant, first thing I ask for is the wine list. But not here, no way, wine in pubs is for women.”

Back in the 1980s few of us, male or female, drank wine at all. The invention of cheap package holidays increased familiarity with the product and kick-started demand. The next boost came from a new and obsessive preoccupation with wellbeing in which wine began to be seen as ‘the healthy option’. When it came to ‘shaping up’, wine v beer was an unequal contest. Who ever heard of a ‘wine belly’?

Women, fed up with an invidious choice between Babycham, soft drinks and expensive cocktails and intimidated by pints, took to wine with gusto, happy to drink it down the local despite the limitations of wine sold in ‘quarter bottles’, with inefficient closures (there is no comparison between the screw top on an 18.75cl bottle and the well-engineered equivalent on the 70cl one) and a short shelf life. Recently, many pubs have opted to sell by the glass, employing keeping systems ranging from the cheap domestic VacuVin pump to a machine that keeps the wine under a blanket of inert gas. Margins are good, certainly fatter than on beer. In a pub in the suburbs, I found a respectable but unexciting Rioja (€10.99 in the off-licence or supermarket) being sold for €7 a 170cl glass. Choice, though, is still restricted and very few pubs take the trouble to promote wine, either to the well-defined and captive female market or to the untapped male one. We are as far off as ever from a situation where a glass of Australian shiraz would be as bar credible to your average Irish male as a pint of plain. Seems like an opportunity missed.

Finally, I’d love to hear of any pubs with a decent wine list.

WINE: Keeping New Year resolutions – how did I fare?

Just done my annual piece on vinous New Year resolutions for The Sunday Independent. I looked back at the corresponding article this time last year, to make sure there were no (or anyway, not too many) duplications. Here are the ones I made – with my notes on how well I managed to keep them.

1. Numero uno is the usual – “be nicer to my friends and more merciless to my enemies.”  I do this one every year. The rest are all drink inspired. Feel free to adopt all or any.

Didn’t quite manage this too well. As usual I’ve let some, well, a few, good friends down and worse, I’ve let a lot of total tossers off the hook. This year I’m going to declare war on anyone described in a press release as ‘celebrated’ or ‘renowned’ see how that goes!  Observance Rating 4/10

2. Drink more widely. There are some 5,000 grape varieties in the world. Many of us drink the same ones every week, equivalent of eating chicken every night and how exciting is that? So I’m going to devote more time to exploring the likes of Greece, Portugal, Hungary and other nations who are making sound but not, as yet, overly popular wines.

Done quite well on this one thanks to trips to all three of the above, plus Sicily. Came away with real respect for agiorgitiko, greco di tufo, fiano, touriga nacional, baga etc, etc. Observance Rating 8/10

3. Drink less but better. Stop knocking the top of a bottle of wine on a Monday night “because it’s there.” I’ll get as far through the week as I can without drinking and then treat myself to a really decent drop towards weekend.

Yeah right. Surprising how many crises occur on a ,Monday, necessitating the uncorking of a bottle  of wine. Observance Rating: 1/10

4. Rediscover beer. An evening spent recently at The Bull and Castle  with my buddy Channel 4’s “beer chef” Richard Fox made me recall just how good beer is and how varied once you’ve realised there’s a world beyond stout and fizzed-up draught lager. I reckon the flavour spectrum exceeds that of wine.

Spent a lot of time on beer this year, acquiring some new favourites. Made a conscious effort to go out and buy a dozen bottles every so often and work my way through them. Not really what you’d call ‘work’ is it? Observance Rating 8/10

5. Widen the sharing circle. I’ve always saved my very best bottles to share with folk I’m absolutely certain will appreciate every nuance. What elitist crap! This year I’m going to share these wines with more casual wine drinking friends.

Done pretty well on this one. Opened a few people’s eyes to the benefits of spending more on wine and got a lot of pleasure from doing so. Observance Rating 8/10

6. Kick  expensive bottled water into touch, especially in restaurants.

Yes! Haven’t bought a bottle of water all year except in London and Paris where the tap water is absolutely vile. Observance Rating  10/10

7. Avoid the temptation (and it’s considerable)  to shop over the border. Yes, wine here costs roughly twice as much as  in the UK, someone’s ripping us off for sure. But if it wasn’t for the existence of your local independent wine merchant you’d still be nipping out for a bottle of Pedrotti on a Friday night. These guys give good service, know their stuff and deserve our support.

Feel mega virtuous about this one, even though sorely tempted at times.  Will Brian Lenihan’s “sixty cent’s worth” really make a difference to folks’ attitudes? Observance Rating 10/10

8. Don’t drink and drive AT ALL. I made this resolution a couple of years ago but seem to have regressed. Somehow I’ve convinced myself a couple of glasses is okay. It’s not.

I’d be lying if I said I complied 100% with this one but I’ve done pretty well in 2009. Taxi spend has gone up. Room for improvement, though.  Observance Rating 10/10

9. Dining in a restaurant, consult the sommelier. That’s what they’re there for.

Found more restaurants this year that are concentrating on improving their wine offer. Most of the time you get respectable advice but now and again a sommelier lets you down, pushing a wine that proves disappointing (Presumably they are under instruction – the boss probably has shedloads of Ch.Obnoxious 2004  in the cellar and needs to get rid). Observance rating 6/10

10. Enhance my wine vocabulary. Keeping my tasting notes terse helps me avoid the clapped-out shibboleths many wine writers trot out. But looking back through last year’s I find I’m still overdoing the likes of “vibrant”, “unctuous” and other tosh. What we need, as Sam Goldwyn said, are “some new clichés”.

Thought I was doing all right until this week when I find I’ve used”nice” 3 times in one article! I plead pressure of work plus a bout of the Giant Hairy Mastodon Flu – the one that makes Swine Flu feel like a spot of mild sinusitis. Observance rating 5/10

COMPLIMENTS OF THE SEASON

On the Hop – the Pleasure of Beer

beer-pic-2

How’s your zythology?

Okay, I can see you’re puzzled. The name is a contraction of two ancient Greek words, zythos, meaning beer and logos, meaning study. A zythologist is, in effect, a connoisseur of beer.

“What’s to be picky about?”, you might say. “Beer’s a drink that comes in cans, bottles or out of taps. You teem it down your neck, it quenches your thirst and gives you a convivial glow. Too much and you fall over.” An over-simplification I fear, fed by the scorn that many wine writers feel for what they consider a lesser beverage. Lesser? Think again. Beer is one of the most complex drinks known to man. It contains more ingredients than wine. The principal raw material, barley, has to undergo a complex malting process before use. The choice of yeast has a major influence on the taste of the finished product, requiring careful selection. The hop, used to both flavour and preserve beer is, itself, a complex plant, containing over 200 separate compounds. Small wonder that beer brewing, in olden days, was considered a magical process almost akin to alchemy and entrusted solely to priests and monks.

Beer is the ‘northerner’s wine’. In countries where it was too cold or too damp to grow grapes, cereals – wheat, maize and barley, chiefly – flourished. Beer became the drink of choice and a rich culture grew up around it, embracing such activities as beer festivals, games such as bar billiards, pool and darts and the alcohol-fuelled shuffle known as a ‘pub crawl’ which fell out of favour as the mega-breweries sought to batten down the hatches on choice.

Today however, there’s so much around that it’s possible to simulate a pub crawl without leaving home. The taste spectrum is immense – all that of wine, and more. Dry lagers often suggest wine or green apples; British bitters can hint of anything from new mown hay to marmalade; strong ales can give you fruitcake, honey or malt sensation; stouts, liquorice, coffee or molasses in the glass. There are smoked (peated) beers, redolent of seaweed-clad rocks and fishing vessels and beers containing a percentage of fruit, cherries, raspberries and gooseberries being the most common.

Today there’s a huge revival of interest in what have been called ‘craft’ or sometimes ‘micro’ brewers; whose regionally-based and distinctive products are worlds apart from the global uniformity of taste offered by the behemoth monopolies. Getting up close and personal with them will enhance your enjoyment and turn you into a true zythologist in no time at all.

The classic beer styles all originate from northern Europe but today it’s perfectly possible there’s a German Weissbier made in Yorkshire, an English bitter in Melbourne and an Irish stout in Seattle.

The most common method of categorising beer is by the behaviour of the yeast used in the fermentation process. Beers using a fast-acting yeast which works on the top of the fermenting vessel are termed “ales”, while those using a slower-acting yeast, fermented at lower temperatures, with the yeast settling on the bottom of the tank are called “lagers”.

In terms of alcoholic strength, beers normally range from ‘alcohol free’, more likely 1% by volume, to around 12%. My own classification divides beer into 4 categories, starting with what I call “near beer”. Thus far, only Erdinger, in my opinion, has come up with a non-alcoholic brew worth drinking. The next category is what I term “quaffing” beers. Then there are “sipping” or “contemplative” beers and, lastly, “head wreckers” with alcoholic poke verging on that of a bottle of wine, not for everyday drinking.

Most beers are cleared of yeast residues by filtering. However some beers (known as “bottle conditioned”) retain some yeast. It’s usually recommended that these should be carefully poured. With wheat beers, however, it’s customary to pour in the yeast, or even swirl the bottle.

Not all beers should be chilled. Barley wines and strong ales give more flavour if served at room temperature. Otherwise, as a rough guide chill lagers and wheat beers to 7-9 degrees and dark beers to 12 or 13.

Beer is every bit as food friendly as wine. The harmonious marriage of Asian beers, slightly sweet and curries and other food of the region has long been noted. Try a wheat beer with fish, an amber ale with boeuf a la bourguignonne or, best of all, a large wineglass of barley wine or imperial stout with a full Irish breakfast or brunch.

Finally, If anyone doubts the full extent of beer’s taste spectrum, here are some excerpts from my tasting notes of a random selection, all but one in the “contemplative” sector – the Ruddles being the exception – and culled from the shelves at Drink Store, Stoneybatter which I’d recommend to Dublin hop heads along with Redmonds of Ranelagh and McHugh’s, Kilbarrack.

Robinson’s Old Tom Strong Ale (8.5%) “dark chocolate, molasses, fruit cake and slight peppery finish.”

Victory Hop Devil (6.7%) “heady, herbal perfume of hop flowers over orange zest and pure malt flavours.” The same American brewery also does a stout called “Donnybrook.

Aventinus Doppel Bock (8.2%) “dark ruby in the glass, there’s a banoffi pie-in-a-glass vibe going on with a refreshing, tangy finish.”

Paulaner Hefe-Weissbier (5.5%) “thirst quencher; big fruity flavour dominated by apples, bananas and a hint of cloves.”

Oude Geuze Boom ‘Marriage Parfait’ (8%) “Spontaneously fermented, no induced yeast. Prominent citrus nose gives way to tart, dry, peachy flavours.”

Ruddles County (4.7%) “Easy drinking, mellow, full-fruited bitter.”

Aecht Schlenkerla Rauschbier (5.1%) “Weirdest beer I’ve ever drunk. Intense, kippery ‘Western Isles’ tang. Smoked beer is maybe an acquired taste. Interesting kit, though. For best effect drink wearing a sou-wester, oilskins and yellow welllies”

Chimay Bleu (9%) “Impressive heavy hitter from the traditional Belgian brewery. Massive weight of sultana and currant fruit lurks under the appetizing creamy head.”

Gruel

Swanky Dublin restaurant La Gondola is offering 3 courses, Monday to Friday, for €16.9pict001015 including a half bottle of wine, a taxi home and the opportunity to snog the waitperson of your choice.

Well it would, if it existed.

It seems that fellow Herald contributor Michael O’Doherty’s observation that restaurants never seem to have January sales struck a chord with some of our significant nosheries. All of a sudden restaurants are falling over backwards to institute “value” lunches and other promos. What’s more it looks like some of these bargain basement efforts are to be continued well into February.

You can see the logic of it. It’s all about cash flow and keeping things ticking over in perilous times. It would be good if these offerings caused people who didn’t normally dine in posh restaurants to get out there and sample the creativity of our best chefs but I’m not sure that this has been the case. I’ve eaten in three of the participating restaurants while these promotions have been going on and in each one of the clientèle comprised the usual suspects, all familiar and comfortable with the high end restaurant milieu.

What are you getting for the money? Well, clearly not the likes of truffles and foie gras. Cheap cuts of meat, slow cooked, particularly the ubiquitous pork belly and commonplace fish are the stock items on the bill of fare and why not, nothing wrong in that. Soups or simple starters and homely puds top-and-tail the menu. To reassure you that you are dining out in some style, everything is given the cheffy treatment and artfully presented. Some throw in a free glass of wine but it will it would be self delusional to expect anything more than a base Chilean or South African sauvignon blanc or cabernet for the money involved.

I ate rather well for under €20 last week but it wasn’t what you’d call fine dining. The venue was a place rather lugubriously called Gruel. It’s on Dame Street near the Olympia. Gruel is owned by the same people who have next door Mermaid Cafe, restaurant that pioneered the Cal-Med vibe back in the 90s. The interior of Gruel is, to put it mildly, “a bit of a kip”. Designer chic it ain’t; eating in Gruel is rather like having an informal lunch in the kitchen of a suburban house that friends are in the throes of rebuilding. Except that you know in your heart of hearts that a rebuild or even a tarting-up of Gruel is not on the owner’s agenda.

Tables and chairs look like they’ve been looted from a skip. Glassware and plates are a mix of school canteen and holiday souvenirs. The other accoutrements are entirely functional, like fridge, espresso machine and till. I know I’m making Gruel sound depressing but, in all honesty, it’s not. The food is heroic. The staff are lovely; they’ll go through endless lengths to explain the food to you and they can stand a bit of banter. They do however like you to come to the counter to put in your order, so if you’re there for three courses and coffee this involves a certain amount of bobbing up and down. Actually it’s not a bad idea, given the gargantuan portions.

I was dining there with my friend The Dublin Geordie, whose favoured football team is currently mimicking the economy in its downward spiral. pict0009I had invited him to lunch in the hope that comfort eating might distract his thoughts from the sale of Shay Given. Gruel’s culinary style is home cooking allied to a smidgen of invention. Lovely pizzas wink at you the minute you walk through the door. Soups are tasty and nourishing. Geordie had the fish stew, a veritable aquarium in a big, big bowl; I took the beef with black bean and ginger, best broth I’ve had out in ages and perfect for the chilly January day that was in it, especially as it came served with really good brown bread.

At Gruel they have a different roast every day. Normally, I try and confine my visits to Friday when they have the salt beef. However it was Wednesday, ham day. The principal offering is always the “roast on a roll” but I had already overdosed on the brown bread. We both took what was described as a “blue plate” a generous thick cut slice of roast ham accompanied by an assortment of imaginative salads, classily anointed with a dressing that, for a change, wasn’t overly biased towards vinaigrette. Jumping out of my seat once more, I sought of the house wine and was somewhat relieved when I couldn’t see it. The plonk I had drunk on previous visits to Gruel was overly biased towards vinaigrette. I didn’t enquire too closely, my logic based on that of old-time mariners who didn’t stick knives in masts for fear of raising an unfavourable wind. Instead, we took two bottles of a particularly good golden coloured weiss beer for which, wonder of wonders, they found matching glasses.

Phew, we were stuffed. There was a sumptuous selection of cakes and flans screaming “eat me!” but we couldn’t answer the call. We did manage an espresso which surprised with its quality.

68a Dame Street, Dublin 2 Tel: 01 670 7119

The damage: 58.80, ex-service, for two soups, 2 mains, 2 coffees, 4 beers

Verdict: Honest and unpretentious, a decent contender for your recessionary readies. A refreshing alternative to the ‘Corrigan Lite’ approach to discount dining. Facilities basic but clean.

Fylde Hotpot

Beer and food? The combination of stout and shellfish is well-known. Not many people realise that a small glass of dark strong ale is the perfect companion to the big fry. You should try it. Young’s Double Chocolate Stout will make a better job of complimenting a heavy dessert than many a ‘stickie’. A dry yet full-flavoured beer would make a fine pre-prandial, less cloying than a gin-and-tonic. Cheese and ale is a rustic litany. Strong pale ale, unlike wine, stands up unflinchingly to chutneys, pickles, even chunks of raw onion or shallot. Beers also go well with (and in) hearty rib-sticking casseroles like carbonnade Flamande.
One of my favourite beer/meat/veg combinations is this extravagant improvisation on the traditional Lancashire hotpot theme, cooked by my eccentric Auntie Ethel, who ran a fine hotel in England’s Lake District back in the fifties and sixties.

FYLDE HOTPOT
8 lamb gigot chops
2 large onions
4 large carrots
4 breakfast mushrooms
6 large waxy potatoes
8/12 oysters
parsley & thyme
1 bottle English pale ale (my aunt always used Worthington White Shield)

Preheat the oven to 200C
Peel and cut the potatoes into ¼ inch slices and parboil them lightly.
Cut the carrots into ¼ inch rounds. Chop the onions finely. Heat two tablespoons of olive oil in a frying pan and fry the onions until they just start to colour. Place them in a round casserole with a tight-fitting lid. Flour the chops and fry them in hot oil on both sides, for a couple of minutes. Layer up the potatoes and carrots, reserving enough potatoes for one final layer. Dust each layer lightly with pepper and salt, as you go. Put in the meat and the parsley & thyme and cover with the final layer of potatoes. Pour the contents of the bottle of beer into the casserole.
Cook for approx. 30/35 minutes. The potatoes on the top layer should be soft enough to eat. Take the lid off the casserole and return to the oven to brown the top layer. Just before serving, open the oysters and ‘float’ them on top of the dish. Return the hotpot to oven for a few minutes, until the oysters are just cooked.

I don’t know whether Lancashire’s Fylde coast from whence this dish originated ever had a flourishing oyster industry. Certainly the topography is not dissimilar to that of the Charente Maritime. I came across two old hotpot recipes from The Fylde both of which recommended thatching the dish with mussels.