The Southwold Dilemma

June 8, 2011 § Leave a comment

The Suffolk seaside town of Southwold where we spent our half term holiday is somewhere life moves at a gentle pace and the sun always shines. Think of it as Trumpton meets Cath Kidstonville. It’s a place where the town council has no more onerous concern than opening the annual Charter Fair on the village green;

a place where the biggest news event of the year is that local brewer and wine merchant Adnams has started distilling its own very superior gin (very delicious with Fevertree tonic water, ice and, if you want to look knowledgeable, a strip of cucumber rather than the usual lemon);

and a place where the only dilemma that need concern one is whether to eat at the town’s flagship hotel The Swan:

or its more approachable Adnams stablemate,The Crown:

With our large mixed age party we plumped for the more relaxed atmosphere of the Crown. They don’t take bookings so to secure a good table (queues form outside the door in high season) we arrived promptly at the start of evening service at 6.00. The main eating area with oak beams and cosy snugs is by the bar but we asked to be seated in the adjacent airy dining room:

It has a certain understated elegance don’t you think? Having done a little research I see that it was recently redecorated/refurbished by international designer Keith Skeel who has worked with Donna Karan and Marco Pierre White amongst others. It’s a measure of how successful he’s been that you can’t tell that an interior designer has been at work here.

Enough of the décor and back to the food. The menu changes regularly, and offers (the now ubiquitous) Modern British cooking. There’s lots of intriguing things to choose from which is always a good sign, and head chef Robert Mace is clearly up to speed with current cooking trends – local, seasonal ingredients, carefully cooked cheaper cuts served alongside the more usual restaurant staples, witty touches like tonic flavoured jelly cubes served alongside gin-cured trout.Thank goodness there are no foams in sight – this is meant to be a pub after all.

I checked the Adnams website after our meal and worryingly, top of the list of situations vacant was that of head chef for the Crown. It looks like the talented Mr Mace (known as Macey to his kitchen colleagues) is moving on which must be a blow for the Crown – definitely a name to watch on the restaurant scene.

Back to our meal. We began with the savoury snack of the moment, two dishes of popcorn, one flavoured with pesto which was OK but a tad oily. The second dish, enlivened with chilli flakes and salt was much more like it and is a simple idea I’ll be trying out back home. Watch out book and recorder group!

I couldn’t resist choosing the rainbow trout cured with the aforementioned Adnams gin and served with cubes of tonic jelly and a cucumber-heavy salad – gin and tonic on a plate if you like:

The witty idea worked on the plate but if I were to rework this dish at home I would use the gin to cure salmon gravad lax style, I would intensify the tonic flavour of the jelly cubes, I would increase the cucumber and drop the rocket in the salas and finally add a citrus note to the plate which was missing.

Before deciding on the trout, I had been tempted by the rabbit three ways too. Fortunately, being a family occasion, sharing was encouraged so I could taste everything:

My main course was Dingley Dell pork cooked two ways – a chunky piece of fillet propping up a more flavourful strip of crunchy roast belly pork. The pork was served with excellent mash, steamed spinach and a creamy leek sauce. A good dish but perhaps a little autumnal for a summer evening? And I’d have preferred more of that crunchy belly pork.

Incidentally, the slightly twee Dingley Dell name (from the fictional village in Pickwick Papers) is the name of an entirely non-fictional high-welfare pig business based in nearby Woodbridge, Suffolk.http://www.dingleydell.com/

Outdoor-reared pigs are a familiar sight (and smell!) in the Suffolk countryside – here are a few pigs I snapped on the journey from Southwold to Halesworth:

I’m not usually a pudding person usually but the highlight of my meal was the quirky sounding peanut butter sandwich, complete with toast and lashings of raspberry jam:

The peanut butter had been transfigured into a smooth parfait, and the toast was crispy melba toast, lightly caramelised. Just perfect.

The Crown is an Adnams establishment and makes good use of the expertise of the wine merchant side of the business – the wine list is interesting and varied and there’s plenty of interesting wines offered by the glass, especially dessert wine.

GoodcCoffee afterwards was served without frills and service was friendly and efficient. I just hope they have some strong applicants for that head chef vacancy.

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Why don’t women drink beer?

July 13, 2010 § Leave a comment

I will certainly be drinking more beer after my recent Adnams of Southwold brewery tour. After all, what could be more refreshing than a pint of bitter on a warm summer’s evening? This particular beauty was pulled at the Red Lion on South Green in Southwold, Suffolk:

My fellow guests on the brewery tour were exclusively male and sadly mostly fitted the real ale stereotype of bellies, beards and sandals. It doesn’t need to be this way as, happily, our guide for the tour was master brewer Belinda, a no-nonsense microbiology graduate who seemed to have found her perfect niche in life. In a little over an hour, she gently demystified the brewing process throwing in a dashes of chemistry, history and folklore for good measure.

We started with the simple list of ingredients for making beer – malted barley, hops, water and yeast.

Barley first. Appropriately, the most commonly used variety is named “Tipple”. The degree to which the barley is roasted is key to the character of the finished beer – think of how different roast beans produce differently flavoured coffee. Here are some different samples of barley with different degrees of roasting:

My favourite for munching on (we were encouraged throughout to smell, taste and of course drink) was the enticingly named crystal malt (so called because the processing of the barley results in a glassy crystallised finish to the grain or endosperm as the experts call it). Crystal malt contributes biscuity, caramel flavours to the finished beer.

On to the hops. This was the part of the brewing process I particularly wanted to understand. I can’t count the times I have heard someone sniff their freshly pulled pint of beer and enthuse over its hoppy characteristics when all I could distinguish was a general beery smell. What would a hop smell like in isolation?

Belinda tipped a generous heap of dried hops onto a napkin on the table and invited us to smell them. I was first in the queue, almost sticking my nose into the heap, inhaling deeply. I smelt…absolutely nothing!

Belinda explained that the hop’s aroma is concentrated in the resin which is concentrated in the base of the dried flower in areas which have a brighter yellow colour. Rub these between your finger and thumb and the aroma is released…aah yes it worked. What I smelt was something a little floral, aromatic, even just a little acrid. A bit like the crushed leaves of pineapple mayweed or even camomile flowers. So this was the characteristic hop aroma I’d wondered about all these years.

I did some homework after the tour. Harold McGee’s amazing food science book “On Food and Cooking” (Heston Blumenthal’s bible) didn’t let me down when it came to hops. He explains that hops (Latin name Humulus lupulus) provide 2 different flavour elements in beer: bitterness from phenolic alpha acids (humulone and lupulone) in its resins and aroma from its essential oils. The aroma of ordinary hops is dominated by the terpene myrcene also found in bayleaf and verbena whereas other more exotic hop varieties are dominated by the more delicate humulene, also other terpenes such as pinene, limonene and citral which give piny and citrus aromas to the hops.

There’s a balance to be struck with hops – the bitterness only comes out after prolonged heating of the brew which of course destroys the aroma. To give the finished beer more aroma, a practice known as dry-hopping is used which means that hop pellets (they are most conveniently used in this form) are thrown into the brew after it has been boiled and they slowly infuse their flavours and aromas at a lower temperature. So beer has a lot in common with herb teas and tisanes and you can’t get much more ladylike than that!

Now for the yeast. This is perhaps the most mysterious of the ingredients. At Adnams they use their own special natural yeast strain which has been kept alive for years. It’s not the same as regular baking yeast but has in fact been used successfully for breadmaking by a Lowestoft baker in the past.

Finally the water, the simplest of the ingredients. Adnams now use the town supply carbon-filtered to remove unwanted chlorine rather than, as previously, water from their own well. Calcium chloride is added to the water to act as a catalyst for the various necessary enzyme processes.

In overview, the process for making beer is relatively straightforward: after all it used to be produced in the home as women’s work in the mediaeval period. It can be divided into 4 stages:

1. Preparing the wort. A mash is made with water and malt which is soaked for 1 and 1/2 hours then heated for 3 hours to produce a sweet coloured liquid which is drawn of ready for stage 2.

2. Boiling the wort – hops are added and the liquid is boiled both to add bitterness from the hops and to inactivate the malt enzymes and so fix the sugar and carbohydrate levels in the mix. The liquid is drawn off and sent to the fermentation tank ready for stage 3.

3. Fermentation. Yeast is added and the mixture is kept at a controlled temperature for fermentation to occur over a period of 2-10 days. During this period the yeast converts the sugar into alcohol and its byproduct carbon dioxide which gives the beer its fizz. Top fermentation is carried out at a higher temperature (up to 25 degrees C) and gives the beer a strong acidic flavour with fruity spicy notes. Fermentation at lower temperatures produces beer with a drier, crisper flavour and bready notes.

4. Clarification and conditioning
The yeast foam and from fermentation and dead yeast cells are removed by a combination of filtration and fining (adding an agent that attracts and collects the detritus in the beer making it easy to remove the whole lot in a lump. Intriguingly, isinglass, a gelatine like substance derived from fish swim bladders (originally sturgeon) is still used by Adnams as the preferred fining agent. Technically then vegetarians can’t drink beer. With a degree of pragmatism overcoming principle, it seems that the beers can still be deemed suitable for vegetarians as the fish derived content of the beer is so small.

The beer is then transferred to cask or bottle and the bottled beers are pasteurised to increase the shelf life. Secondary fermentation occurs in the cask so it is a living thing with a shelf life of just a few weeks hence the importance of a publican who knows how to keep his beer properly.

So, 4 ingredients, 4 processes – sounds simple but 8 building blocks can give you a seemingly infinite variety of outcomes. Think of music built on 8 notes of the scale or DNA built from just 4 bases…

Going back to my opening question, why don’t women drink beer, I think much of it is in the marketing. Scanning the list of names they give a distinctly masculine old fashioned wartime image (Bombardier, Spitfire, Barnstormer…) or else give an impression of a warm cloudy brew fit only for yokels (Tanglefoot, Waggle Dance, Grumpling). There are so many different beer styles out there that there must be something for everyone. If we could cut the old fart marketing and come up with something cleaner, simpler and more explanatory I think the breweries could be on to a winner in terms of opening up a whole new market beyond the CAMRA afficionados.

And yes, the tour did conclude with a comprehensive tasting of the Adnams range – drink all you like within reason!

Visit to the heart of Yorkshire’s Rhubarb Triangle

March 12, 2010 § 2 Comments

I finally made a visit in mid February to what I suppose must be the spiritual home of The Rhubarb Fool, Oldroyd’s rhubarb farm in the village of Carlton near Leeds, home to the world’s largest rhubarb forcing shed.

Dutch rhubarb has been inveigling its way into our shops for a couple of months now.  Thanks to the “High Priestess of Rhubarb” Janet Oldroyd’s interesting talk I know know how and why that is and why it’s best to wait for the proper stuff from Yorkshire.  Whereas Oldroyds and the other 10 remaining Yorkshire rhubarb producers wait patiently for frost to break the dormancy of the rhubarb crowns growing in the fields, the Dutch cheat by spraying their crowns with an active plant hormone, the nasty sounding gibberellic acid.

Rhubarb, or to give it its evocative and alliterative full name Rheum Rhabarbarum is an ancient plant originally from China and Russia.  It’s literally the plant of the barbarians and there is some speculation that the Rha in the Latin name might refer to the River Volga in Russia.

On the morning of our visit Janet was dressed appropriately in a vibrant chartreuse  outfit the exact acid yellow of forced rhubarb leaves.  As she cradled some of the precious rhubarb stalks in her arms I saw the perfect photo opportunity but was just too polite to thrust my camera in her direction.  I had to content myself with pictures of the Oldroyd establishment instead.

From 1877 onwards, Yorkshire did indeed lead the way in forced rhubarb production.  It had the natural advantages of heavy water retaining soil, cold frosty conditions in winter, high rainfall and plentiful supplies of wool by-product “shoddy” to provide a nitrogen rich fertiliser.  The Yorkshire coalfields provided fuel for heating the sheds and the newly built railway lines provided a ready route to market.  The Victorian heyday of rhubarb is reflected in the names of the different varieties – Victoria and Albert are both popular but I must say my own palate is not yet sufficiently attuned to detect the difference.

Janet’s talk was interesting but after 30 minutes or so we were all itching to get into the sheds themselves.  Finally our time came and we filed solemnly through the plastic curtain into the darkened shed itself lit only by flickering candlelight.

The warm, humid atmosphere and pungent vegetal smell hit us at once.  There was a palpable sense of pent-up energy in the shed.  As our eyes became accustomed to the soft light we saw row upon row of ruby red crowns largely devoid of soil packed tightly together.  The stems were thrusting upwards striving vainly to find the light.  The steamy atmosphere of fertility and growth was all too much for one lady in our party – she declared herself a little faint and made a hasty exit!

Our visit ended with an opportunity to buy some of the stuff.  Some of the more contrived products (rhubarb wine and rhubarb salad dressing?) didn’t appeal but the gorgeous satin-ribbon pink stalks did.  I was sorely tempted by a whole box of the premium grade rhubarb – 20 or so sticks as thick as a baby’s arm presented in a blue presentation box.  What a fantastic Valentine’s Day or Mothering Sunday gift that would be!  I remained sensible and chose a pound or so of spanking fresh class 1 stalks (or petioles as Janet Oldroyd botanically correctly calls them).

Back home, I cut them up into chunks and baked them in the oven for 20 minutes or so with a generous quantity of golden caster sugar, and the grated zest and juice of an orange.  Absolutely gorgeous chilled with a dollop of Greek yoghurt.  Since then, I’ve not been able to get enough of the stuff – more rhubarb recipes to follow soon.

If you are tempted to buy some rhubarb, have a look at the producer name on the packet – chances are it will say Oldroyd.

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