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.