Aaaaaaale

You may or may not know that 19 September is International Talk Like A Pirate Day. Basically the idea is that you adopt an accent that sounds like a cross between a Bristolian and a Harley Davidson and pepper your conversation with nautical terms, especially the “five A’s”: “Ahoy”, “Avast”, “Aye”, “Aye-aye” and “Aaaaahhrrrr”.

Having just returned from the Caribbean, I can report that the Pirate Bay restaurant in St Lucia has added another A to the pirate lexicon: “Ale”. I admit I was sceptical when I read “Pirate Ale” on the menu but I just had to go and investigate.

I had often thought it a pity that Caribbean brewers generally produce nothing but rather bland, fizzy lager. OK, it’s more welcome in tropical climes than it would be at home but after a couple of days one begins to tire of it. I wondered why they didn’t have a go at brewing ale – maybe not a traditional English bitter, but a light hoppy golden ale would surely go down well? And the tendency of the locals to drink Guinness suggests there is a market for something with a bit more flavour.

And now the guys at the Antillia Brewing Company have done it. They produce a Pale and a Golden Ale and very good they are too! It’s keg beer but I can’t blame them for that. The logistics of serving cask ale in a tropical climate would be horrendous. All power to their elbow.

Takeaway Blues

I had a Chinese takeaway the other night. It seems like a sound idea at the time. When you’ve been busy all evening – go to the pub, have a pint, nip next door and put the order in, let them cook it while you have your second pint, take it home, get the bowls and chop sticks out, open a bottle of wine and eat. But the experience is invariably disappointing.

The complementary “prawn” crackers (I doubt they’ve been anywhere near a prawn or any other kind of crustacean for that matter) usually go straight in the bin. OK, I can’t usually fault the crispy duck with pancakes and the egg fried rice is serviceable if unexciting, but the rest of it…

Take beef with ginger and spring onion. That could be really good if they took strips of prime, well-hung beef and stir-fried them to a tender pink with slivers of ginger, a hint of chilli and a few other spices, adding a handful of chopped spring onions and a dash of soy sauce towards the end. But what do you get? The beef has a strange bubbly texture; I can only assume it’s a cheap cut that has been treated in some way to tenderise it. There are a few token bits of spring onion and rather a lot of ordinary white onion and it all comes in a vaguely gingery gloopy sauce.

I sometimes go for pork with black beans but the pork is hard, obviously pre-cooked, and it comes in another gloopy sauce with more onions and sparsely populated with black beans. Squid usually consists of rubbery chunks of some unidentifiable cephalopod in – you got it – gloopy sauce. Why not tender baby squid (tentacles and all) quickly wokked in a tangy, spicy marinade? As for the chicken, I wouldn’t even venture to try it.

It’s not that my local Chinese restaurant is particularly bad, there are probably thousands more just like it. But it’s not good. Yes, there are excellent Chinese restaurants if you know where to go but they’re not generally accessible when you want to grab a quick bite after an evening’s activity and a couple of pints.

And it’s not just Chinese food. Every high street is awash with places where mediocrity is the norm*: chewy pizza smothered with mousetrap cheese and industrial tomato puree distinctly unredolent of oregano and garlic plus all manner of incongruous toppings; burgers made from mechanically-recovered meat; less-than-fresh fish in soggy batter with tasteless, leathery or greasy chips.

But why? Surely it’s not that difficult to produce a few dishes that are tasty and nutritious? A smaller menu might help – better a few dishes with an emphasis on QUALITY rather than dozens of bland variations on a few uninspiring themes. Have they no pride? If I were in the catering business, it would grieve me to serve anything sub-standard.

Is price an issue? Surely customers would be prepared to pay a few quid more for a dish made from good quality, fresh ingredients – or at least have that option.

But a distressing thought has just entered my mind. Maybe some people actually prefer this crap. It wouldn’t surprise me.

[ * In fairness I should say that Indian restaurants do at least seem to be moving away from the bog standard British curry menu and attempting to provide something a little more authentic or adventurous, while Thai and Vietnamese cooks generally seem to take a lot more trouble both in the cooking and presentation than their Chinese counterparts.]

The Great Blackcurrant Hijack

When did you last see blackcurrants in a supermarket or greengrocer’s? That most English of fruits ought to be plentiful during the summer when they’re in season but they’re hardly ever available.

I love blackcurrants – in a crumble, on cheesecake – and the perfect cream tea has blackcurrant jam with the scones and clotted cream (strawberry is too sweet).

I was lucky this year. I managed to buy a couple of small punnets on two separate occasions (Thank you, M&S). The first time I made a summer pudding (it just isn’t right without the blackcurrants) and the second time they went into a deliciously sharp but creamy ice cream (there’s still half a tub in the freezer which I’m endeavouring to keep for a while but I don’t suppose my will power will hold out much longer).

And do you know why they are so scarce? A well-known manufacturer of soft drinks beginning with “R” accounts for 90% of the entire British crop. That’s right, 90 percent!

It’s an appalling statistic. Given that a lot of the remaining 10% is going to be snapped up by commercial jam makers and the like, that doesn’t leave a lot for domestic consumption. And, to add insult to injury, the aforementioned company extracts the juice and then adds so much sodding sugar it completely destroys the tartness which gives blackcurrants their essential character – not to mention rotting children’s teeth.

That’s an unfair monopoly. I think I’m going to start a petition.

Pack Off

The other day I bought a packet of pâté (yes, I do make my own when I have the time). It came on a little brown plastic tray with a trapezoidal clear plastic cover. OK, it was from one of the supermarket “premium” ranges but, but just because it’s a better-then-average quality product doesn’t mean it needs a fancy package. The same wrapping as the ordinary pâtés would suffice.

There’s an awful lot of waste in this country and a significant proportion of it is down to food packaging that’s unnecessarily complex or just simply unnecessary.

As an example of the former, consider those containers (e.g. for pies and tarts) that are part cardboard and part clear plastic bonded together. How are you meant to recycle that? I do try ripping out the plastic bits and putting the cardboard in the recycling box but I bet most people don’t bother.

But it’s in the fresh fruit and veg department where things really get out of hand. Do avocados need to be in a twin-pack with a soft fibrous base and a cellophane wrapper? The fact that the same shop is also selling them loose suggests not. Does a cucumber need to be sealed into a plastic sheath? It may help to prevent the water evaporating and the cucumber shrivelling up but, if it’s been that long since the thing was picked, it’s not exactly fresh, is it?

The very worst example is sweetcorn – stripped of its natural protective coating of coarse leaves and soft fibres and then wrapped in plastic. Just how perverse is that?

[Curiously, some things that do need protection because they bruise easily are often not given it – English apples thrown into boxes where they develop brown festering patches at each point of impact; watercress stuffed into flat plastic bags instead of being tied into a tradition protective bunch.]

As enlightened, responsible consumers we ought to demand an end to this nonsense – and act. Why pick up half a dozen pre-packed tomatoes, thus adding to the mountains of plastic accumulating in the oceans? Are we really so pressed for time that we can’t take a few seconds to select a few loose one and put them in a bag? [I have to admit I’m as guilty as anyone on that score.]

And it’s time convenience stores stopped being convenient and concentrated on being responsible, environmentally-friendly purveyors of fresh, seasonal, quality produce. It’s no excuse to say that they’re only giving the customers what they want. They’ve done a good job in the past at persuading customers to accept second-rate, non-too-fresh, grown-for-appearance-rather-than-flavour, over-processed food for the sake of convenience. Now they can jolly well help to reverse the process.

A Perverse Ambition

I recently achieved a long-standing, if somewhat perverse, ambition by visiting the Temperance Bar in Rawtenstall.

I say perverse because I have never understood the Temperance movement. As an Anglican I move freely between the church and the pub. Since our Heavenly Father has given us yeast, those tiny organisms with the remarkable property of turning sugar into alcohol, why should we not enjoy the fruits of their labours? The Bible abounds with references to wine – “wine that maketh glad the heart of man” (Psalm 104). So how did certain sections of the Christian church come to the conclusion that it is wrong to drink? When our Lord and Saviour chose for his first miracle to turn water into wine – something in excess of 100 gallons, if you do the maths, and top class stuff at that – it seems pretty clear that he didn’t object to people having a glass or two. Even St Paul, not normally one to promote the pleasures of the flesh, said “Take a little wine for thy stomach’s sake”. And anyway, doesn’t the word temperance imply moderation (a quality of which St Paul certainly approved) rather than total abstinence?

But I digress. At one time there were many temperance bars in England, or at least in the strongholds of nonconformism, but for several decades Mr Fitzpatrick’s establishment in Rawtenstall has been the only one left. When I was last there about five years ago it was closed for refurbishment but has since reopened and is apparently doing a good trade as well it might, given its uniqueness.

The building is quite small and inconspicuous (indeed when it was closed it was not at all obvious that it was there). It has a counter at one end, four or five tables with chairs and a wall lined with shelves full of jars rather like an old-fashioned sweet shop or apothecary. The beverages on offer are basically a range of cordials which can be had with still or fizzy water or even as ice cream floats. In addition to the founder’s original recipes like Dandelion and Burdock, Root Beer* and Blood Tonic, there are one or two which are probably of more recent origin like Lime and Lemongrass. Having tried the Dandelion and Burdock previously (bottles can be bought at a few shops in the locality), I opted for the Blood Tonic. It was not unpleasant but if I have one criticism it is that all these concoctions tend to err on the side of sweetness.

I’m glad I’ve been there. It was an experience, albeit hardly a life-changing one (Shortly afterwards, I had a pint in the Shoulder of Mutton before embarking on a bracing walk across the moors, followed by another in the White Horse and then a little tour of Ramsbottom, taking in the Ramsbottom Tap, the Irwell Works brewery and the Grey Mare.) Long may this unique establishment continue to flourish.

* I am told they also used to offer Black Beer and Raisin Tonic, which makes me wonder: why use the word beer in the name of a non-alcoholic beverage? It’s a bit like vegetarian sausages.

Strength and Character

A lot of nonsense is talked about the strength of beer. There are implications from some quarters that brewing strong beer is irresponsible, especially since our nanny state seems intent on reducing the “recommended daily intake” every few years. I have even heard the ridiculous expression “kamikaze beer” – as though imbibing anything over 5% ABV will set the drinker on the road to self-destruction.

What some people don’t realise, though, is that the strength of a beer is part of its character. If a beer is designed to be light and refreshing, then 3% alcohol can be quite sufficient. If it’s meant to be a rich, full-bodied ale, then 6% is more like it. And the relationship is a natural one, for the more malt that goes into the mash, the more body, flavour and alcoholic strength it gives to the finished brew. It’s how you handle it that matters.

English draught ales for drinking by the pint are typically in the range 3-5%. Belgian beers, however, can range from 6-12% – but their glasses are smaller, 330 or 250 millilitres (a pint equates to 568 ml). It’s a different culture, sipping rather than quaffing.

It’s a seasonal thing*, too. On a hot summer’s day, I’ll go for a light (i.e. weak), hoppy ale and I might down four or five pints of it, especially after strenuous physical activity like bell ringing or haymaking. But on a cold winter’s evening I want something dark, strong and heart-warming and two pints will probably suffice. What really causes me to despair is some of those Christmas specials which promise to be rich and spicy but turn out to be thin and insipid because they are only 4.5%. If you’re going to load a beer up with extra flavourings, be it masses of hops or Christmas pudding spices, it needs that extra body and strength to complement them and maintain the balance.

Of course, not everyone is sensible. If you knock back eight pints of a 10% imperial stout, you’ll have a thick head in the morning and thoroughly deserve it. But, as in other areas of life, there’s no reason why the folly of the few should be an excuse for curtailing the pleasure of many.

* At least it is to me. I can’t get my head round the predilection of some people to pour ice cold lager down their necks whatever the weather and ambient temperature.

And there were prawns’ legs all over the table

Well, perhaps that’s a slight exaggeration but the first blog in the series had to have a catchy title. And when two of you have eaten a pint of shell-on prawns, the little critters’ appendages do have a tendency to go adrift as the pile of discarded shells mounts up.

Is a heap of debris necessarily the sign of (the aftermath of) a good meal? Lots of wholesome, unadulterated and simply cooked foods leave behind stuff that’s not edible but has contributed handsomely to the flavour before or during cooking or provided protection for the thing that was eaten while it was still a living organism: chop bones, fish heads, mussel shells, corn cobs, olive pits, nut shells.

It occurs to me that most of these items have no further use apart from composting (which is of course a most worthy and natural end for any living thing – I hope that, when I shuffle off this mortal coil, I may be laid to rest in a country churchyard where my remains may perchance enhance the flavour of the mushrooms for years to come). The notable exception is bones, which may continue their service to the gastronomic cause through the making of stock. They may also serve as tools or weapons (Saint Alphege was almost “boned” to death by a crowd of angry, drunken Danes hurling the remnants of a feast at him – until the kindly Thrum administered the fatal axe blow that ended his suffering). Oh, and ground walnut shells sometimes end up in shower gel, which is much to be preferred to the use of the insidious microbeads which are polluting our oceans.

But I digress. My theme is bits of food which we don’t ingest but nonetheless serve a useful purpose.

So, let’s hear it for RIND…

When did you last have a rasher of bacon with rind on? Not recently, I bet. Yet rind is a prime example of what I’m going on about.

Nearly all bacon is rindless nowadays, even the quality dry-cured, outdoor-reared stuff. But I steadfastly maintain that the rind adds something to the flavour. Rindless bacon is like a boneless pork loin joint or pitted olives – it lacks character. Actually it’s damn near impossible to find the perfect rasher of bacon. Leaving aside the cheap, water-injected rubbish, it’s still likely to be cut too thin so that it falls apart as soon as you remove it from the packet, and even if it’s a decent thickness it’s still rindless. And it’s either back or streaky – what happened to middle cut bacon that gives you the best of both worlds?

Talking of pig skin, which of course we are, it’s not only the bacon which lacks it. Should I, for convenience sake, happen to buy pork chops other than from my esteemed butcher, it may be difficult to find them with the rind still attached (let alone the kidney, but that’s another gripe for another time) and I do like a bit of crackling on my chops. Then again, if they’re not cut to my specification, they’re probably going to be too thin and lean anyway.

I can only hope that at least some of this missing rind ends up in the production of decent pork scratchings!

And then there’s cheese. A proper farmhouse Cheddar will have a rind as a result of being made as a cylindrical “truckle” wrapped in cheesecloth. And it makes a difference. If you take a piece of factory “Cheddar” which is made in a rectangular block, the flavour is completely uniform throughout (and in most cases uniformly bland). Even if it’s been matured for some months, which most of them haven’t, there is no real character, no subtlety of taste. By comparison, with the real thing, the flavour becomes more intense and nutty the closer you get to the rind. A really mature (18 months to 2 years) specimen can be strong enough to feel like it’s rubbing the roof of your mouth off but still demonstrates those nuances of flavour that the mass-produced product can never aspire to.