Sunday, 29 January 2012

Resolution 3 - Beer and Food 'must visit' list

There are so many excellent places that I've managed to visit only once, that when I sat down to write this list, they were crowding out the 'unvisited' places in my mind. But I want to concentrate on the new – places as yet unexplored – that will offer up a proper adventure.

So there are three categories forming in my mind – beery places, foodie places, and 'things I haven't had yet' which might be found in either. No doubt I will be adding to this list as time goes on, as I read other bloggers' reviews, hear about places on the grapevine, and new bars are opened or tired ones given a new lease of life by a clued-up brewery or enthusiastic landlord. But for now, best to get some aims to focus on:

Beery Places
  • Microbar in the Arndale Centre (a Boggart bar), Soup Kitchen, and other Manchester pubs I didn't get round on my last visit.
  • Glasgow – I've never been out drinking in this city, but Twitter has alerted me to several good bars there with tempting ale selections making me regularly envious of my Scotland-based Twitter contacts – top of the visit list are Bruadar Bar and the Bon Accord.
  • Borefts Beer Festival, Netherlands – @ThornbridgeDom posted a great account of his trip there  to showcase some Thornbridge beers last year, and included a call to arms for attendance in 2012 – I've never been to Amsterdam, and loved the sound of his daytrip to Utrecht, which apparently has a large population of 'pub cats', so I was sold on the idea – why not? It would also give me the chance to visit beer bars In de Wildeman and t'Arendsnest.
  • Mikkeller Bar, Copenhagen – I love Mikkeller beers – I love the inventiveness and mix of subtlety and strength of flavour – so of course I'm dying to go to this bar sometime. And I can't deny that watching The Killing and Borgen has also whetted my appetite to visit Denmark for the first time too – all those great cheekbones, little pastries, and brooding buildings.
  • Brasserie du Lombard, Brussels – this has opened since my last visit to Brussels, and apparently already has a good beer list, so as it's just round the corner from Moeder Lambic Fontainas, it has to be checked out.
  • The Apple Cider Bar, Bristol – a dedicated cider bar, on a boat – would be great to sit by the river sipping cider on a sunny day, though I'd want to stay overnight to avoid any cider-induced train hassles on the way back! And of course hunting down some Bristol Beer Factory offerings could be a handy add-on for a two day visit.

Foodie Places
  • The Asquith, Birmingham – this is top of my 'must visit' list, since I read a review in December stating the chef was “all about texture” – it's something I really notice when eating in this kind of restaurant – I like a more formal meal to have three carefully thought-out elements – flavours that complement; artful presentation that delights the eye; and a contrast in textures. It's something that totally stood out when I ate at Vanilla Black, and so I'm keen to find out what The Asquith has to deliver in this respect.
  • Annexe, Birmingham – this restaurant space used to be occupied by the lovely Michelle's La Bastille – a French cafe/restaurant that had some great events and a well-priced bistro menu, as well as bottled beers and a real ale on tap. But recently this has changed to Annexe, a modern European style restaurant, and by all Tripadvisor accounts is consistently offering a delightful experience. People have asked my opinion of it, and it felt remiss to say I hadn't tried it out yet when it's in the middle of the city, so it's on the list for an appraising visit.
  • Turners, Harborne – again I've heard nothing but praise for this Michelin-starred restaurant in an unassuming location on Harborne High Street. I'm in the area quite often, but usually with bags full of farmers' market shopping, so I need to arrange a proper visit and check out their lunching menu.
  • Jyoti's, Birmingham – a South Indian Gujerati vegetarian restaurant, with a great reputation and several recommendations from friends. They also have dosa, which I didn't think you could easily find in Brum. It's BYO too so I can browse the menu and have fun choosing some beer or wine to go with it.
  • Yamamori Izakaya, Dublin – the original Yamamori Sushi is a fabulous restaurant, with great food, a good sake selection, and most importantly, Hitachino Nest Japanese craft beers. They've just opened a more informal bar/Japanese cafe in the middle of Dublin, and I'm dying to get over there to hang out for the evening.

Things to consume
  • Salt beef. I haven't come across any of this in Birmingham, and I miss it since giving up a part-time life in London, so I need so seek it out – any recommendations for a salt beef fix?
  • Banh mi – I've not managed to have one of these Vietnamese lunchtime inventions yet – and I'm not entirely sure whether I'm missing out, or whether life is fine without them – so got to try one to find out what my opinion is
  • Dim sum – I've never been out for dim sum at a restaurant, though I've picked up the odd packet of shao mai dumplings from Chinese shops in Brum to steam at home. I'd like to experience both a traditional Chinese restaurant dim sum offering (preferably with someone to guide me!) and also the more fusion-y, possibly Westernised, offerings of somewhere like Ping Pong.
  • Dogfish Head beers – tricky, as they stopped exporting from the US when they reached production capacity, but if I keep my eyes peeled I'm sure I can find one somewhere this year
  • Welsh perry, new season – I still recall how good the fresh 'Nuff' perry tasted at the Clytha Arms festival I went to one year, bursting with just-pressed pear flavours, and I'd love to have that spring-like flavour again. Don't know how or where I'll come across this as a trip to Wales isn't currently on the cards, but I'll keep hoping for now.

So, quite enough to keep me busy, but not an exhaustive list. I'll aim to revist this a bit later in the year and see what can be ticked off as achieved, or added as a new 'must visit' comes to my attention.

Friday, 27 January 2012

Resolution 2 – Homebrewing from kits to Homebrewing from extract

Why homebrew at all, when there is so much wonderful beer being made round the world these days? It’s not an issue of cost – I have no problem with the idea of paying for quality beers, and would rather go without than drink something iffy just because it’s cheap – so I guess it’s just the same as being interested in food, and interested in ingredients – eventually you want to have a little play around with them yourself!

I only tried my hand at homebrewing last year after an inspiring talk with a couple of Twitterers, @nebolland and @Chrrr77, and initially got off to a good start with my cohort in brewing operations appointed as ‘Chief Scientific Officer’ and myself as ‘Creative Director’. We were so excited to purchase our own ‘FV’ (fermenting vessel, a grand name for a big plastic bucket) and other brewing accoutrements from Dee Jay Homebrew Supplies in Rubery, and it kinda felt that day that we were bringing “our own mini brewery” home on the bus!
Irish Stout fermenting

We knew we needed to start with the easy options, using kits, till we’d got a few drinkable brews under our belts and could think ahead to experimenting. The consensus on homebrew forums seemed to be that the Woodforde’s Wherry kit was a good place to start, and should give good results. Within a couple of weeks we had another one on the go – a Coopers Ginger Beer Kit. They were both ready for drinking in early Autumn, but after that some external events meant no more brewing took place in 2011. So come the end of the year we were raring to get going again, and now have a Thomas Coopers Irish Stout kit on the go – more on that another time!

But my ambition this year is to get from purely kit brewing, to malt extract brewing – this does require a lot more work, more time to prepare, different stages to go through, and if you’re not careful, a kitchen awash with boiling, worty liquid – my biggest fear in all of this, as I’m not at all sure how I’m going to be handling a large stock pot of boiling malt & hops on top of my basic gas cooker, and then manouevering this through some sort of sieve to take out the hops, into the FV.

But if I can work out the logistics, and take each step as it comes, it should offer up the freedom to make our ‘own’ beers –where we decide the style, have some control over strength, and best of all – I can stick in a shedload of my favourite hops for that “Ahhh Simcoe!” Bisto kid moment.

Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Resolution 1 - Make More Soup

This was obviously going to be an easy resolution if I wanted it to be – I mean, how hard is making soup, and if you love it, won’t you be motivated to keep making it? Maybe – but sometimes you can get into little procrastinatory and demotivating cycles where it’s the tiny things that you allow to put you off – the blender is on too high a shelf for me to reach without getting a ladder; the fridge is too full to stock up on soup ingredients; I don’t know when I’ll have time to eat it up; I can’t be arsed with all that chopping. So this resolution was just a gentle reminder to myself to get to it, and so far anyway this has been successful.
Soups made so far:
  • Spiced squid, scallop and chorizo – mostly following a recipe in a new fish book, I was fully planning to make this with fresh squid and let it simmer away for ages to tenderise, but Waitrose fish counter had none in stock; so a compromise of some fresh scallops was used instead, with some pre-cooked squid meze from the deli counter added. It worked out grand, with lovely warming flavours, but I’d make sure of the fresh squid supply first if making again.
  • Brie and Courgette – a stalwart recipe from the New Covent Garden Soup Company Book of Soups – that I’ve made time and again and it’s never let me down. Saved some in the freezer so that's my weekend lunch sorted.
  • Chestnut mushroom with garlic & parsley – for some reason I’ve never made a mushroom soup before – I think possibly because I once ate the most perfect, textured mushroom soup in a Paul Rankin cafĂ© in N Ireland, and I know I’ll never be able to replicate it.
  • Celery - nice and simple, had some leftover celery to use up, so just put in a pan with one potato, onion and some stock, and that was it!
  • Irish broth – a strong contender for my favourite food in the world – but I rarely make it as you just can’t get celery leaf – a major ingredient – in any quantity in England. So I was reduced to hunting through the celery stick bundles in supermarkets, furtively pulling off any leafy bits, stuffing them into a single pack, and buying it. I reckoned I wasn’t depriving anyone of it – most people probably put the leafy part in the bin – and the end justified the means. If anyone knows of a source of celery leaf, PLEASE let me know, so I no longer appear on security cameras ‘messing with the celery’. I was also going to use a turkey drumstick I picked up at a Farmers’ Market for stock & meat, but it didn’t smell quite right, so I just used some good chicken stock cubes and added shredded chicken later.
Soup making next:
  • Don’t know! But I know I need to get on with it and keep up the momentum, so I’ll have a think over the next few days and see what inspiration hits me. Something hearty for lunchtimes perhaps, with the onset of this colder snap. Or maybe I'll be inspired after I come back from Belgium to make a beer and cheese soup, yum ...

Monday, 23 January 2012

Beer and Food Resolutions

I don’t normally make ‘new year’ resolutions, viewing time as a continuum and you should therefore just try to get on with things you want or intend to do, whatever season of the year it is. But I can appreciate that they do help to give structure and focus, and it seems a few have formed themselves unbidden around the end of last year, rising up as beacons of inspiration out of the ‘dark days’ at the end of the old year, when my mind was free to wander from within the cozy confines of my slanket.
And unsurprisingly, they revolved around beer and food.

Being a cautious person by nature, I tend to commit to things only when I’ve given it a few weeks to mull over, but as it now is a few weeks into the ‘new year’ and thoughts of these still haven’t gone away, I guess I’ve found my resolutions:
  1. Make More Soup
  2. Move towards Homebrewing from Kit to Malt Extract
  3. Make concrete plans to visit some of the beer and food places on my ‘must do’ list (and first, make a list!)
  4. And lastly, write up some of my previous beer and food adventures before I forget what I did where and when
Some of these are easy to do, some will take a little more time and a good bit of mental prodding, but I can see the benefit of having something to focus on for those periods when you’re full of enthusiasm and energy to do something, you’re just not sure what – like an excited puppy bounding around not knowing which rabbit, squirrel or pigeon to chase, ending up tiring itself out while not having caught any booty at the end of it! So I aim to catch me some soup or homebrew booty, adventure a bit more, and collate some of my adventuring for later reminiscing. We’ll see how it goes!

Friday, 20 January 2012

Beer and Food Adventuring

So it looks like I'm finally getting round to starting a blog – after a couple of aborted attempts in the past, I finally came to the conclusion that I'd better just get on with it, for my own records and as an outlet for all the excitable thoughts that go round in my head.

Feeling full of beery enthusiasm I had been gearing up a while back to start writing stuff & documenting what ale exploits I'd been up to, when I happened to read Pete Brown's post in May 2010, musing that many bloggers were kinda pointlessly spouting out stuff that no-one really needed to read – this engendered a fair bit of debate and agreement with his overall point, and I have to say, did make me think – I'm sure I have nothing new to say, nothing different to add, no opinions that would be useful to anyone else. So not wanting to be just another pointless beer blogger creating an “online beer geek diary, a hi-tec glorified form of ticking”, I shelved the ideas and stuck to tweeting.

Prague beer exploring
But over the past year, I've read so much useful and provocative stuff in other people's blogs and used them widely when carrying out my own research for possible beer excursions, trips abroad, brewery visits, and for some general inspiration as to what ends up in my beer cupboard. I've found them useful when planning trips to faraway cities or some other endeavour, for those little nuggets of information – the out-of-the-way pub with a resident cat, what new brews to look out for in a particular country, tips and encouragement to get homebrewing, what's happening in the ingredients & restaurant world. And over the past few years, I feel I'm always adventuring into new beer and food territory myself – new to me, that is – but a sense of continuously exploring.

So I've decided that as much for my own records as anything else, but in hope it might help someone like me who might be planning a overseas trip with a beery slant, trying to work out what to do with the sobrasada they brought back from hols, or wondering where has the best beer in Birmingham right now, I'm just going to go ahead and write. If someone else finds usefulness in it, great – if not, at least I'll have an online record of everything of note that I've munched on and slurped up!
Japanese food adventures in Osaka

So there is deliberately no purpose and no agenda to this blog – not as I start out anyway – it's just a collection of thoughts on things broadly beer and food related, as I delve in and make the most of looking for adventure, or whatever comes my way...