Monday, 27 February 2012

Fish & Chips and Black Country beer

Last summer, my interest in fish & chips was reawakened by starting to home-brew, as the first batch we made (a Woodforde’s Wherry kit) seemed to work perfectly as an accompaniment, so we tried to hunt down the best fish supper in South Birmingham, following up leads and recommendations. It’s normally a combination I’d only go for when by the sea or visiting long established chippys in County Antrim (they taste completely different over there), but it was good fun to explore the varying quality on offer in the local area. Eventually we settled on The Dolphin on Raddlebarn Road, Selly Oak, being consistently the best, and once the Wherry ran out, thoughts of chippy trips were put away until next summer.

But word of a new opening recommended for the quality of their fish reached me – Chamberlains in Warley, just to the west of Bearwood along Hagley Road – this has been open less than a year but has already scooped some recognition  - including Best Newcomer 2012 in the UK National Fish & Chip Awards. So when we came across a voucher (in local magazine The Harlequin) offering two fish meals for the price of one on any Sunday or Monday to 19th Feb, and I realised the restaurant was on the Number 9 bus route, which very conveniently carries on to the front door of the Waggon & Horses in Halesowen (a brilliant real ale pub), a plan formed …


So on a bright Sunday afternoon we headed up to check out Chamberlains, armed with voucher and appetite. We were so hungry by this stage, after an earlier bike ride and a morning thinking about fluffy chips and crispy fish, that we would have eaten the menu if we hadn’t been quickly served some thick-cut bread with butter while we waited for our cod and haddock meals to arrive. There is a spacious seating area which is tastefully decorated, which made a nice change from the formica greasy spoon décor of most sit-in chippys. 


They also offer a range of menu items beyond fish and chip standards – particularly standing out was the Mackerel & Cod Scotch Egg starter, and a main of Smoked Hake with Breaded Poached Egg sounded intriguing – these are definite contenders for a re-visit, but on this occasion it was the classic fare we were after. 


The fish was indeed as good as reviews had said – very light, very crispy batter, with tender, hefty pieces of fish inside, perfectly cooked (not overcooked) and flaking with the merest push of a knife. My dining companion doesn’t normally go for cod – often it’s just really tasteless – but commended it as the best cod they’d eaten, and my haddock was up to standard too. I liked the fact we could get something healthy on our plates too, with the minted mushy peas (perhaps a little too mushy for my preference, but nice enough) and some chunky fresh vegetables that still had a good bit of texture. The pots of tea were humungous, but they do cleanse the palate. I took some photos, but chose not to post them as they really don't do the food justice - fish & chips ain't pretty, just tasty.

It seems there are different offers and events you could take advantage of – the ‘Tenner Tuesday’ with 2 main courses from the restaurant menu for £10 (12-9pm) and themed nights for gluten-free menu options, St Patrick’s Day with free Guinness, and St David’s Day with Welsh spring lamb - so they're clearly clued up on what 'extras' people might want from a restaurant these days.

My only gripe was that I would have loved a decent Black Country bitter to go with my food – particularly if I was making an outing here in the evening – I just kept getting cravings for a bottle of Bathams Bitter or Holdens Golden Glow, knowing that with both those beers, their subtle malty tones would really go great with the chips & vinegar, but there were just some standard bottled lagers on offer. If they did offer some decent ale, it would make this more of a ‘destination’ for an evening dining trip – and have the cachet of offering some local & traditional beverages to go with the traditional foods.


Happily sated anyway, we returned to the Number 9, and carried on towards Halesowen. This bus stops almost outside the Waggon and Horses, which is what can only be described as a “cracking boozer” – lots of real ale, about 5 Belgian beers on tap, real cider, and a real local atmosphere – very down to earth. And the best thing – both the Bathams Bitter and the Holdens Golden Glow happened to be on tap and in perfect form – so I got to indulge my cravings, just a little later than as a chip partner.


I thoroughly recommend this pub to anyone who wants to while away an afternoon, sampling a mix of traditional bitters and hop-forward ales (they often have something of that ilk from Oakham or Thornbridge), and rounding off with a rich, warming Belgian bruin on draught.


So with the quality fish and chips living up to their reputation, and the great selection of beers for afters, it seems the Sunday Black Country trip out was a success that will be repeated. Updates on what's on offer beer or food wise can be found from both @chamberlainsB68 and @Waggonales on Twitter.

Sunday, 19 February 2012

Brasserie du Lombard, Brussels

Brussels is a city I've visited more than any other in mainland Europe, and I never get bored of going there – it's been nice to get to know it a bit more than just a passing citybreak, to feel our way round neighbourhoods until they become homely and familiar, to develop favourites out of the many beer cafes, and to be recognised by restaurant staff year in, year out. But we're still always on the lookout for new recommendations too, so that each trip is a mix of returning to regular haunts, and seeking out new places.

So on this trip, as mentioned in my Resolution on Must-Visit Places, I had a new possibility to check out – the Brasserie du Lombard, quite near the Mannequin Pis. This had been mentioned in beer-hunting circles as somewhere that had undergone a change of ownership and re-opened as more of a beer-specialist cafe, with a list of about 70 bottles and a large range of draught. Also it had a really neat vintage arcade games mural by artist Bogaert, so as it was in a handy location (we'd practically pass it each time we went to Moeder Lambic Fontainas) it was a definite candidate for a visit.

We had been for the day to Aalst, and as this was a Brasserie serving basic food, it felt like we could kill two birds with one stone and have our tea there, with the 70 beers to keep us company. So we went in, admired the mural, and got seated, perusing the decent-looking menu, and working out what beers from the draught list we'd like to start with. But it was all downhill from there.

When we could finally attract the solitary server's attention (he was rather absorbed by the football), he shrugged and told me he first three choices I made from the draught list were all off. So I tried to order a winter beer from the 13 'winter specials' listed on the menu, but apparently none of those were in stock either. Feeling a bit deflated, we opted for a Tempelier Ambree (brewed at Corsendonk) and a St Bernardus Abbt 12. When it came to ordering food, it turns out they weren't cooking anything now (this was around 7.30pm on a Friday), and the only options were one of four pasta dishes. The spaghetti Bolognese (a Belgian pub staple) was alright, the Carbonara less so.

So a bit of a disappointment seeing as this was one of the places I was most looking forward to visiting in 2012, but not every adventure will result in something brilliant. At least Moeder Lambic Fontainas was just round the corner so we could rush round there afterwards, and redeem the evening with some beer rewards – De La Senne Zinnebir Christmas, Toccalmatto Skyzoid (they seem to have this on regularly as I had it a few times in here last year too), Rulles Meilleurs Voeux, and a Sainte Hélène Citra Stout – a great find, definitely something to challenge perceptions, and a welcome happy end to the evening.

Saturday, 18 February 2012

Belgian delights – in London

A while back, when walking up Tottenham Court Road on my way for burritos at Benito's Hat, I happened to notice a new shop across the road – the name Belgique and the colours of the Belgian flag outside instantly drew my attention, hoping some miracle had occurred and the unlikely scenario of a Belgian deli had opened up in the middle of London.

Skipping across the road, I wasn't disappointed – in fact it was better than that; this place was full of delights, and at totally reasonable prices too! Immediately I scanned the beer fridges for some old and revered favourites – trappiste beers Rochefort and Westmalle, beers from Achouffe, Ecaussines, Maredsous, Feullien. But there were also some unusual and newer bottles from Belgoo, Viven and others. An enticing selection, but even better was the price – Orval at £2.45 anyone?

Rochefort, Achel, Maredsous, Belgoo ...

Meaty treats
Venturing further into the shop, the chilled counter made my eyes widen with the selection of Belgian cheeses on offer – hard to find sometimes even in Brussels. Lots of brewery cheeses such as Chimay, plus ones I hadn't seen before – I didn't know Achouffe made a cheese – 'Patachouffe' – so of course that needed to be sampled. And having been sampled, had to be purchased! There's a great range of charcuterie too: saucisson, pates, Ardennes ham – again a great selection, all reasonably priced.

Chimay cheeses & others
Patachouffe, with familiar gnome
If amazingly tasty meat and cheese isn't your thing, they had many other little delights – from mini patisserie and Speculoos-flecked chocolate bars, to jenevers and Belgian whisky.

It turns out from talking to the friendly and enthusiastic server that this is the mid-London outpost of a small chain of East of London shop-cafes, from Ware near Hertford down to Wanstead, with TCR being the only purely shop premises.

I can't believe more people don't know about this place yet – it's not far from Euston, so a great stop-off point for making up a train picnic with cheese, meats, and good-quality chocolate for afters. And I think the selection of beers at reasonable prices would please avid beer drinkers too. 

My recommendations if you're stuck for choice would be:
Ecaussines Hercule Stout – a hefty beer that can sometimes be hard to find – for a very reasonable £2.50, you'd be hard pushed to find it cheaper in Belgium.
La Chouffe – a flavoursome blonde, now in 330ml bottles
Boon Framboise or Kriek – good examples of fruit beers, not too sweet
And good old Rochefort 10 – IMHO the epitome of a great Belgian beer

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Chorizo, Spinach and Potato Soup

So still mindful of Resolution 1 - Make More Soup, but having had a busy few weekends where no soup-making opportunities arose, I felt I needed to get on the case again. This was given a timely prod by being furnished with a recipe for Chorizo, Spinach & Potato soup, from Emma Carrington. Emma had mentioned making this soup somewhere online in the past and I loved the sound of it, so when she gave me the recipe just before the weekend, I rushed out to get ingredients and get souping.

Ready for the soupery to start
200g chorizo (I used a spicy chorizo ring I picked up in Sainsburys)
1tbsp of olive oil
1 large red onion, chopped
2 cloves of garlic, crushed (or more ... I used three fat ones)
1kg potatoes, peeled & about 1cm dice
1.5 litres chicken stock
400g spinach, stalks removed & shredded (original recipe called for 650g, but I wussed out as it was rather a lot)
1 red chilli or more to taste, finely chopped

Cut the chorizo into 5cm strips (Emma had advised the strips bit is important as it makes it taste better!) and cook in a dry soup pan until browned, then drain on kitchen paper.

Using oil left in pan from chorizo and the olive oil (if needed) add the onions, chilli and garlic. Cook, stirring until onion is soft.

Add potatoes and stock to onion mixture. Simmer uncovered until potatoes are tender.

Add shredded spinach - even with my reduced amount, it will still look like it will be too much. Don't worry as it wilts down dramatically. Emma suggests you could also use spring greens or cabbage too.

Add the chorizo and stir until hot, and garnish with a bit of chopped chilli if you like it hot. 

Hot & tasty!

 Despite intending to make this for lunch on Sunday, a rather long lie-in and an excursion to pick up Japanese foods hindered this plan, so it ended up being made as a starter for dinner instead - but this worked out great as it meant there was plenty left over to freeze for lunches, and I've just polished off a large bowl of it to cheer up my Wednesday. 

Soup plans for the future - I've started hoarding celery leaf again, adding to a tub in my freezer, so hopefully soon there will be enough to make a proper Irish broth again. If anyone does come across a source of celery leaf in Brum, do let me know!

Monday, 13 February 2012

Trip to Aalst

So on the Friday of my Belgian visit, we decided to jump on a train to Aalst, a small city N-W of Brussels, on the way to Ghent. We try to visit a new place each time we come to Belgium, and some friends from Leicester CAMRA had mentioned Aalst as worth a visit, so as it wasn't far on the train and seemed to have a fair smattering of places in the Belgian Good Beer Guide, we headed off after brunch at Noordzee.

I had carried out some pub research beforehand, putting all the Aalst GBG entries onto a Googlemap, and also referencing a couple of other good sources:

Our plan was to head into the Dutch Inn when first off the train while we considered our route for the day, as this is on the Stationsplein, and was meant to be an interesting brown cafe in the “Dutch style with carpets on tables” and a decent beer list – however, it was all closed up, unusual for a bar on a prime Friday lunchtime. So we had to quickly form a Plan B – head to the bars south of the station.

I was getting the impression that Den Babbelaer might be the most comfortably beery of the bars, and as it did tapas-style food it seemed a good place to plan to spend some time. It was -9'C and had just started to lightly slow, so we marched off swiftly and soon found it. We were the only customers at first, but that was grand as we exchanged some pleasantries with the lady behind the bar and asked her about their Orval Ambassador status, what the soup of the day was, and how business was being affected by the cold. There were puppets hanging up and a small stage area in one part of the pub, so I suspect it may occasionally offer some theatre similar to Toone in Brussels. There were also glass cabinets showcasing Trappiste beers and the geuze/lambic traditions, and many interesting pictures and brewery signs on the walls.

The geuze and lambic display
Orval Ambassadors

First up beer-wise were a St Feuillien Saison, a light session ale that's pretty easy drinking with slight sourness and slight yeastiness, and a La Chouffe – best to order in some familiar and commonly-stocked beers while we perused the rest of the beer list and thought about lunch. The mini-meatballs in homemade tomato soup sounded hearty, so we had some of that, some bitterballen (to find out what they were), and some Orval cheese. This was served in two huge slabs, so it seemed only right and proper to order an aged Orval to go with it. There are several pubs in Aalst that have the 'Orval Ambassador' status, which I think would be similar to the Oakham 'Oakademy of Excellence' – i.e the brewery 'trusts' the bar to look after and serve their beer properly, and the bar may be on some kind of preferential customer list. The menu offered three ages of Orval – current, 1 year old and 3 year old. I went for the '3 jaar oud' to go with the cheese, and was rewarded with a complex and interesting beer. I'm still not necessarily certain I 'like' Orval – I mean, I appreciate it's complexity and in separation (or even in other beers) I'm a fan of the flavour elements that are found in it – but it's not something I tend to reach for time and again, the way I would with a Rochefort 10. But it was interesting to taste one that had been cellared for a while and note down my impressions of it – the sourness was muted, the lacticness more pronouned, with notes of cigar and treacle towards the end of the mouthful. A La Trappe Quadrupel was also consumed, and a pleasant few hours passed while the bar gradually filled up with people finishing work and having a restorative for the journey home. By this time it hadn't escaped our notice that the snow was getting increasingly heavier all the time, so although we had been very cosy all afternoon and were reluctant to go, we knew we should probably move on if a few more places in Aalst were to be checked out before the train home.

So I had a few other tips that should have been spitting distance from Den Babbelaer: 't Half Maantje and Zevende Hemel, but one was closed (on a Friday afternoon? Why?) and the other seemed to have turned into a more residential premises – we found the exact address but the door was closed and there was nothing remotely pubby about it, other than an Orval Ambassador plaque dating back to 2007 beside the building number.

In Kastanjehof
So feeling a bit put out by three of our listed pubs being closed on a Friday afternoon, we headed off towards the next recommended GBG listing – Kastanjehof. We had to carefully pick our way through the snow-slippy streets and bitter winds so were pleased to find this one open and full of warmth. It was also full of the biggest array of 'pub tat' I've seen, though it was an interesting collection if a little puzzling. Still, we had a Gordons Christmas (thick and syrupy, but fine for this kind of snowy day) and a Slaapmutske Tripel while we perused the collections of “stuff” and fended off the attentions of a friendly dog. As the day was getting on, we reluctantly piled on the layers again and set off towards the Grand Place, where Podge's beer guide listed a few more possibilities. We'd decided by now that we should try to find a bottle something from the local Glazen Toren brewery – we'd hoped for the Winterscotch but corner cafe Bieaard only had their Ondineke – it caused much consternation and discussion between the bar owner and waiter as the beer we'd asked for came in a 75ml bottle – but once it was produced we gave it a go. It was perfectly acceptable but unfortunately not as exciting as I'd hoped, but never mind, if you don't try things, you can't form an opinion!

We set off again station-wards, hoping this time to find the Dutch Inn open, but as it was still mysteriously closed we checked train times and opted for a quick beer in Bergenhof – this was a basic and grumpy-service kind of place, which Podge's guide lists frustratingly as having 70+ beers, but when asked the bar lady was adamant they had no kind of beer list from which to order. So suspecting we were missing out on something different to try, we played it safe and asked for a Tripel Karmeleit and a Westmalle Tripel, which were duly produced.

So there were some hits and misses in Aalst – some bars were closed, the snow curtailed our wanderings a bit, and some beer finds weren't as good as others, but overall it was a good option for a day excursion from Brussels, we'd happily go back to hunt down some of the other bars on our list, and failing that, if we had to spend the whole day nestling by the radiator in the cheering surroundings of Den Babbelaer, we'd be plenty happy enough.

Snowy Aalst

Saturday, 4 February 2012

Arriving in Belgium

So today I'm in Belgium – we usually come in February each year to attend FOSDEM, and try to leave a couple of days leeway either side of the conference for some general exploring and re-visiting our regular haunts.

On Thursday we flew in late and after checking in, headed to Monk, a GBG-listed bar named after the jazz musician rather than Trappist brewers. We normally stay in the St Catherine area where Monk is situated – for me, it's a great area to stay in – it feels safe to wander the streets at night, and near the centre but is off the touristy vibe. It has an imposing old Gothic church and a host of good things to offer – I think it's the best area to be stationed in if you're food-obsessed. There's a great fish shop – Noordzee - with it's own stand-up lunch counter, serving all kinds of seafoody treats with crisp Argentinian wine; there's a fromagerie with lots of Belgian abbey cheeses and charcuterie delicacies. There used to be a place selling all kinds of mushroom from a street cart near the Carrefour and Delhaize supermarkets – this has gone but now a dedicated mushroom shop has sprung up in it's place, with lush window displays of Trompettes de la Mort, Chanterelles, Pieds Bleus, about 10 other mushroom types and lots of interesting vegetables. There's a couple of artisan bakery shops, some good coffee and speciality tea stores, and reaching out in various directions is the Asian grocery and cafe area, fine modern Belgian eateries like Bonsoir Clara, and specialist fish restaurants with lurid crustacean signs lit up along the old fish market quay. I'd love to find an apartment or apart-hotel to stay in next time I visit, so I can buy some of those enticing champignons to cook with steak, and some razor clams from Noordzee to throw in a pan with white wine, parsley, garlic, and butter.

However we'd arrived at midnight so all there was time for was a visit to Monk – I love this bar because it seems to have an alt-friendly music policy and also provides wifi along with usually some interesting 'off the beaten track' Belgian beers. But even better this time – and which meant we stayed for rather longer than intended – is that it had gone non-smoking. It's always been a downside to spending time in great Belgian bars – the pervasive smoky air that seeps right down to your underwear layer. But with no fug around us, we chilled out, slurped up the wifi, and kicked back with a few beers. More than a few were Rochefort 10, but there was also a Belgoo Magus and a McChouffe making appearances. The music didn't disappoint – from Led Zep, to some noise and rocky metal, to old school Belgian electronica (Klinik) – which led us to conversing with bar staff who were selecting the music choices and had actually heard of Supersonic festival in Brum too!

A great way to start our trip – I wish every bar was as good as this, but I guess because they're not, you appreciate it more at the time!

Thursday, 2 February 2012

Resolution 4 – Write up previous adventures

My last resolution is undoubtedly going to be the most difficult to fulfil - to write up some of my previous beer and food adventures before I forget what I did where and when. But one of the reasons I was motivated to start a blog was to have a repository for the finds I make along the way, both because it's nice to have a record, and so that it will maybe be of use to anyone else visiting some of the same places I've been to.
I have endless notebooks full of eagerly-recorded details of meals in restaurants abroad, leaflets picked up on brewery tours, scribbled tasting notes of beers, photos in sunshiney orchards at cider fairs – but it would be so good to get these down into a more readable form, before I forget any of the ephemeral details and impressions that go with them.
It's hard to know where to start, but I am going to try to focus on writing up a couple of recent trips, where craft beer (whatever 'craft' means ;-) and food exploring were high on the agenda. Though somehow, even if these things aren't the intended focus of an outing, they always emerge as a strong theme throughout whatever I'm doing.
So maybe I will get the time and motivation together and aim for a few specific trip reports as a first step into this Resolution: e.g. Prague, Japan, Belgium, Hamburg, Dublin – at least I'll then have a central place to look if someone asks which bars in Prague had the best selection on tap, or where to get some hearty food with a decent beer while in Hamburg. I might write up some shopping finds and dining out explorations too – will have to see where inspiration springs from first, which may well be Belgium as I'll be on my way there again pretty soon – looking forward to the Rochefort 10 already!