ʽʽHi, I’m Benjamin Nunn – critic, gourmand and author of Ben Viveur. I like to eat and drink. And cook. And write.

You might have read me in an in-flight magazine, or a beer publication, but here on my own blog I'm liberated from the editorial shackles of others so anything goes.

I deal with real food and drink in the real world, aiming to create recipes that taste awesome, but which can be created by mere mortals without the need for tons of specialist equipment and a doctorate in food science. Likewise, I tend to review relaxed establishments that you might visit on a whim without having to sell your first-born, rather than hugely expensive restaurants and style bars in the middle of nowhere with a velvet rope barrier, a stringent dress code and a six-month waiting list!

There's plenty of robust opinion, commentary on the world of food and drink, and lots of swearing, so look away now if you're easily offended.

Otherwise, tuck your bib in, fill your glass and turbo-charge your tastebuds. We're going for a ride... Ben Appetit!

Monday, August 19, 2013

Food and beer pairing insights from GBBF 2013

Well, I wasn't completely sure if I'd make it through the week, but I'm pleased to report that I've survived the intensive beer marathon and emerged from the experience a wiser, happier, more accomplished man.

(The 'wiser' assertion is based on the idea that previous studies are wrong and excess alcohol consumption does, in fact, boost brain cell production, obviously.)

Last week, the GBBF at Olympia became my home. It was my living room, my dining room and, yes, my toilet.

Take it easy on the first day...
For the first time I've managed to attend every single day of the festival, working my way through 41 different beers in the process -  from bland, insipid milds hiding in the corner by the Henna Tattoos, right through to sledgehammer-strong ales that brutally assault your tastebuds with weapons-grade hops and malt.

I've enjoyed such remarkable delights as Brain's 'A-pork-alypse', a double chocolate and bacon(!) porter, and, from Oregon, Bridgeport 'Strumptown Tart', an 8.3% fruit beer with stupid quantities of blueberries, raspberries and blackberries, guaranteeing refreshment even at that strength. And Pitfield 'Chococcino' might be the ultimate sesssion dessert beer - beautiful coffee and chocolate enjoyment in a modest 4% package.

I was like a kid in a sweetshop, where all the sweets were made of beer.

American beers are good if you're looking for uncommonly high ABVs. I'd never had a 7.7% real ale before, but Fort George 'Vortex' IPA, also from Oregon, was a good, hoppy example of the West Coast IPA style. Ever had a beer that's 13.6%? I have - Bourbon-casked Lost Abbey 'Angels Share' from California (actually a brewpub near San Diego that I visited several years ago). Almost more bourbon than beer, but with the sweetness kept in check, it's another great dessert beer, albeit perhaps not a session one!

It's not just about strong American beers either. Branscombe Vale Mild, a mere slip of a Devon beer at 3.7% was gorgeously vanillary, and the Sixpenny brewery's '106 Jack FM' is a refreshing, citrussy golden bitter that made me wonder if the radio station it's presumably named after is any good.

Feeding time

This year's fest also proved to be a fine opportunity to explore beer and food pairings - with a few drinking buddies, a selection of about 800 beers and, I believe, 17 different food stalls to choose from there was ample scope for some experimentation.

I like to think of myself as pretty knowledgable about both beer and food, but I learned a few interesting pairing lessons here.

The double chocolate and bacon porter is such a novelty it might be something you'd want to try on its own, though it would obviously pair well with either chocolate or bacon, and it went nicely with the Crusty Pie Company's pork scratchings, which have been a fixture at the festival for many years now.

They also now do spicy scratchings, which are heavy on the paprika and cayenne pepper (or it might be generic curry powder). These are an interesting idea, but in gaining the spiciness you lose a bit of the porkiness. Nice with a strong American IPA though. Like Ninkasi 'Tricerahops' (at 8.8% another strength I'd never had before!)

Dried bits of animal
But dried meat snacks don't go with all beers. In addition to the scratchings we tried some jerky - a rabbit with red ale and a spicy horse version. With names like 'Watership Doom' and 'My Brittle Pony', it's a bit gimmicky, but I imagine they command a decent trade amongst drunken daredevils.

Even by jerky standards, these were dry and took a hell of a lot of chewing, but extended mastication was eventually rewarded with the release of salty, juicy meat flavours, followed by a hit of spice.

The horse version was the more flexible, going well with a hoppy bitter and only clashing slightly with a dark mild (in this case Sawbridgeworth 'Manor Mild').

However, the dehydrated bunny collided digustingly with the mild, and created a taste that I can only describe as 'boily' - I've described such sensations thusly ever since I was a small child and refused to eat some dubious, unseasoned, boiled mince one Sunday!

(If had to compile a dictionary definition for 'boily', I'd say something like: 'Strongly metallic/chemical flavour, lacking in essential balancing acidity, and generally unpleasant.')

It's a taste I dislike intensely and which ruined my enjoyment of both the beer and the snack.

The jerkys were also overpriced at somewhere North of £3.50 for a tiny little packet. And we're supposed to believe that horse meat is cheap filler available for peanuts?!?

(Incidentally, another combination that has the 'boily' effect on me, is salted peanuts, with cider.)

Fruits of the sea!
The pork scratchings didn't go well with the sweet, malty mild either, but one snack that did is the seafood cocktail - a little tub of squid rings, mussels and prawns with cocktail sauce. Yes, the orangey stuff that first appeared in the 1970s.

We all know that seafood goes well with roasty old stouts, but it was a surprisingly bedworthy companion to weaker, sweeter beers, with the salt of the sea and the tang of the sauce cutting through nicely.

At £3 a tub, it's better value than the jerky, and if you want something more substantial they do their seafood in sandwiches too.

My only complaint is that the cocktail could've included some crabsticks, welks, maybe a bit of rollmop - all of which were also on sale on the stall.

Let's get started

Back on the first night of the festival - which didn't really feel like a first night because I'd had nine pints of mostly strong ale at the Beer Writers bash the night before - I paced myself with judiciously-selected beers and plenty of grub to soak it all up.

In addition to a nice pork and stilton pie from the aforementioned Crustys (goes well with a weaker, quaffing bitter) I continued the theme with a (hot) steak and stilton pasty from Proper Cornish Pasties, their main competitors in the lucrative intra-beer pastry sector.

The pasty was decent, though not noticably superior to the stuff you can routinely pick up at railway stations these days. What surprised me a bit though though is that I had a 10% bourbon cask imperial stout in my hand at the time (Starr Hill 'Cryptical'), and the stiltony flavours stood up to the sweetness of the beer and said 'look mate, we're in this together, OK?.

I guess I shouldn't have been surprised as port and stilton are one of life's great marriages, and this wasn't all that far removed - the beer had sweet, complex flavours and a heavy, porty mouthfeel to complement the cheesiness.

By Day 2, I was ready to up my beer intake and - having drunk enough to feel adventurous - proceed into less familiar territory in the food department.

There was a little stand called El Cantara just around the corner from the American beer bar, to which I was a frequent visitor.

Just what you want with your eighth pint? Probably not!
Some foods do struggle to find a beery match, and this proved to be the case for the Spanish Tortilla sandwich (£3.50 I think) - big slices of egginess in a roll with garlic mayonaise. But nothing like a normal egg mayonaise sandwich, if that makes sense. More like slices of bland, stodgy quiche.

I was finishing off another big American hop monster when I ordered it (Chama River 'Jackalope IPA'), which overpowered everything but the garlic.

Wye Valley 'Dorothy Goodbody's Meadow Queen' is brewed with the herb 'Meadowsweet', and is pretty disgusting, possibly the worst beer of the festival. But pairing a strange beer I didn't like with a sandwich I didn't particularly care for wasn't the answer either.

I'm now convinced though, that it would actually work with the A-Pork-Alypse beer, creating a natural 'bacon and eggs' combination.

While the tortilla was far from the tastiest beer festival fayre ever, their plump, herby 'spanish style burger' also looked really interesting, but I never got around to trying the fucker. Maybe next year, if they're back. (Which they may not be as, compared to the other food stalls, they didn't seem to be doing that well).

There are always a few options in the burgers, sausages and chips department at the GBBF, though not all are created equal. One purveyor of good beer fodder that I've encountered at a few fests over the last couple of years is the Yuley's Bratwurst stall.

Various German sausages are available, including a 20 inch brat, and sauerkraut and curry ketchup make for authentic additions. About £4 a pop for a little one.

Naturally a continental lager goes well with a proper German sausage, preferably one with a bit of bite. But these also pair acceptably with a malty best bitter, ideally one at the paler end of the spectrum, and - perhaps unexpectedly - a strong, Belgian Abbey style ale. In this case Jesterking 'Mad Meg' (8.9%).

It sounds strange, but a big, spicy powerhouse that tastes Flemish but which actually comes from Texas, actually dances a very tasty dance with the smoky german sausage. The robust flavours - even the condiments - made the beer enjoyable, even though it's not a style I'm usually very fond of.

If you're after a more British sausage, the Real Meat Sausage Company can also do you a sausage bap or, for £7.50, a plate of bangers and mash with a lovely onion and ale gravy, which is what I went for, obviously.

It's a scrummy, hearty and generous plateful of food, and if you're lucky enough to find a table and settle down for a full meal, this is clearly the option to go for. (Though if you eat a whole portion you'll probably get too full and won't be able to drink much more!)

I was sensible and shared a portion with Mrs B-V, on the Friday evening, just before Alvin Stardust took to the stage.

Conventional wisdom would call for a strong English bitter, perhaps such as was used to make the gravy, but a more sessionable beer can work just as well - Full Mash 'ESP' was a thirst-quenching accompaniment to quite a salty dish at only 3.8%, and even with ale in the gravy, you can always have pork sausages with a strong, fruity cider.

I'm not sure what my favourite of all the bits and bobs I ate over the five days is - it probably depends on my mood and what I was drinking - but the bangers and mash were certainly pretty fucking great and, surprisingly, Mr. Stardust rocked too. Hard to believe he's 70 years old!

Also worth a mention was Wednesday night's band - a punk-folk outfit very much in the same mould as the Pogues or the Men They Couldn't Hang, both of whom I rather like.

The band's called Ferocious Dog, which would be a great name for an American craft brewery too, and while their set was utterly derivative (which is like utterly butterly, but more derivative) it was also enjoyable, foot-stomping, folky stuff.

The End is Nigh

By the final day of the festival, I could feel the cumulative effects of seven days more or less continuous drinking catching up with me.

Steak sandwich and curry
The beer was starting to run out, but there were still a few I needed, and there were several food stalls that I had yet to sample.

India Gate has been bringing curry and samosas to the GBBF for many years now, but I can't remember ever trying them.

It's not that I don't like curry - I fucking love it - more that I find it completely kills my appetite for beer more than any other type of food, and therefore I prefer to drink beer before eating curry rather than afterwards.

During is fine too, so long as it's near the end of the proceedings.

With time running out, we tried a steak sandwich (£5) from the Great British Steak Bar, at the same time as our lamb curry and nan bread (£6) from India Gate.

It's not something you'd normally eat in combination, though the sauce from the spicy, medium hot curry (plenty of onion and caraway) actually worked quite nicely as an addition to the steak.

The only observation I'd make about India Gate is that the nan bread is crap - not like the real stuff cooked in a proper tandoori oven at all, so you'd be better off choosing the rice option with your curry.

But as curries go it was rather flavoursome and the style reminded me of a balti I had in Birmingham a few weeks back which was one of the finest curries  I've ever consumed.

The India Gate curry wasn't particularly complicated or interesting, but it was authentically spiced and better than you'd get from some Indian restaurants, which is no mean feat.

I survived!!!
The steak sandwich was fine - a thin slice of rump, which is hard not to overcook as far as I'm concerned but there was some pink in the middle and it was nicely tender (though possibly artificially tenderised).

It comes with a little bit of tomato and onion, with jalapenos optional, though, as I said, you can dip it in the curry sauce and improve it.

Drinks-wise I was trying to a) be clever and b) order beers that I hadn't tried yet from those which hadn't sold out.

The result was a bit of a disaster. Fernandes 'Malt Shovel mild' wasn't particularly nice on it's own, and the fairly bland stewed-fruit flavours did nothing for either the curry or the steak, not that I expected that particular combination to fly.

With the festival closing in less than an hour and my tummy full of tasty food, I went for a final beer from a very poor selection. Brain's 'Dissolution', another Belgian style fucker at 6%.

Like their bacon and chocolate porter, it comes from their new 'craft' plant, separate from the main brewery, but the description didn't make for appetising reading.

Knowing this was unlikely to be my sort of thing, maybe this was a beer too far?

Eventually - in some discomfort - I managed to finish the bastard, and ended my marathon GBBF feeling decidedly the worse for wear, despite only having had five pints on the final day.

But I got through the week and inadvertantly gleaned some obscure data on the subject of beer and food pairing.

Would I do it all again? Fuck yeah!

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