Sunday, 25 March 2012

Leicester Beer and Cider Festival

So a couple of weekends back I travelled over to to Leicester to help out on the Cider Bar at their annual CAMRA festival, check out the ciders and beer, eat some curry, and enjoy serving lots of thirsty customers.

Leicester CAMRA branch has been fortunate to have some very active Cider and Perry campaigners who are passionate about the product and have worked hard to bring a great selection to the festival - in the several years that I've been attending, first as a festival-goer and now as a bar volunteer, it has gone from strength to strength, and currently under the stewardship of Susan, with "enthusiastic" tasting assistant Paul, it's in very good hands indeed.

The selection this year was broad as usual, but most noticeably to me was an increased number of 'local' cider and perry varieties - that is, made within the East Midlands. So the scope of styles on offer ranged from the those using traditional cider and perry fruit varieties, to those using some cookers and eaters in the mix, and from bone-dry to quite sweet, with other variations thrown in such as spirit-cask finishing and single varietals (made with one variety of cider apple or perry pear displaying particular characteristics - like grape varieties in wines).

Gwatkin & Ross-on-Wye perry
The shift behind the bar on Friday evening was steadily bustling as usually it's the busiest session for the festival overall, but it wasn't so manic that we couldn't keep a sure flow of cider into the glasses - though busy enough that I think I only managed a couple of halves myself during the hours I was there!  We also worked on Saturday during the day - this is more of a slow-but-steady serving pace, which is absolutely great as you have the time to devote some proper service to each new face - asking them what kind of thing they're after - very dry, slightly sweet, pear, apple, something different? - then though a few carefully-chosen samples, you can help them define it a bit further. Is that Gwatkins farmhouse perry a little too sweet for what you're after? Then try this Ross-on-Wye perry - it's drier-finishing and a little more rounded. Tried the Tricky dry cider from Somerset and found it a bit challenging? Maybe the Janet's Jungle Juice or the Gwynt-y-Ddraig Black Dragon will be the easy-drinking appleyness you're looking for. It was great this year to have just enough time with each person to take them through a few samplings and have them work out for themselves whether it was dry or sweet, West Country or otherwise, cider or perry that floated their boat. Of course, you do get plenty of customers already well versed in their cider and perry tastes, who know they want a dry scrumpy or a Welsh perry, or who head straight for the Olivers first (that would generally be me, I think Tom Oliver makes some of the best cider and perry in England and will take every opportunity to re-qualify my viewpoint with a few samples myself!).

Among the particularly satsifying experiences this year was trying the first perry from Nottingham-based producer Torkard - this was medium-dry, fruity, and really very moreish. So much so that I was almost reluctant to be recommending it to customers, as it would deplete my own chances of having another half. Also pleasing was having an American visitor come to the bar and after some gentle questioning it transpired they'd never had perry before - several tasters were administered to help them work out firstly if they liked it, and secondly what kind of thing they liked - they declared the Rockingham Forest Perry to be wonderful, and they were an instant perry convert!

Saturday also yielded the fastest-selling barrel of cider I've ever seen - the Ben Crossman's Premium Farmhouse Rum-Cask Finish was put on around 3pm as a 'reserve', when stocks of some other ciders (particularly slighter sweeter ones) were beginning to run dry - and it lasted less than 3 hours before it too was gone - it was a great example of a spirit-cask finished cider, with a dry note to start but a sweeter finish, with the rum adding complexity but without overpowering on the nose or flavour. It seemed to be an instant hit, with many customers coming back to ask for more after their initial half or third-pint. I noted the pace of sale and quickly secured a two-pint takeout so we had something to enjoy at home the next day.

I did make a brief soujourn into the beer spectrum while having a break from working to enjoy some of the curry that's staple fare at this festival - and despite there being plenty of choice on the beer front, I kept being drawn back to the Brodies Red RyePA - I'd been tipped off by @AlcofrolicChap from his visit a few days previously that this may be a good one to check out, and sure enough, when I was handed my first half of it, the juicy fruit and grapefruit aromas bursting out of the glass made me laugh out loud and do a little "yay hops!" dance in front of the bemused bar staff - couldn't help it though, the aroma was pure delight - and when having breaks from the cider & perry, I nipped over for some more of this tasty ale. I just wish we saw more of Brodies in the Midlands, they're definitely hop-tastic.

I really love working on beer festival bars and particularly the Cider Bar - it's a great opportunity to spend the day talking to people about something I love and share some enthusiasm, but it's also extremely rewarding to take someone though a tasting process and have them end up saying "yep, that's the one - pour me a half, please!". Roll on Leicester next year, and well done to the team there that put on such a brilliant festival - thanks in particular to our unflappable Cider Bar commander-in-chief, Susan!

Thursday, 8 March 2012

Annexe - restaurant with bonus beer list

Annexe the restaurant had been open for a while, but as of January 2012 I hadn't yet managed to visit, so as it seemed to keep rising to the top of the Tripadvisor ratings for places to eat in Brum, it was high time I went to check it out, and had put it on my list of 'Must Visit' places.

I had enjoyed the previous restaurant that had been on this site for many years – Michelle's La Bastille – which had served very reasonable bistro-style food with mussels and prix-fixe menus in the bar area at the front, and more sophisticated dining and special event nights in the main room. So I was sorry to hear it had closed rather abruptly in early 2011, but intrigued to hear that Annexe had opened in it's place a few months later. I still can't work out if it's under completely new ownership or if some of the original team are still involved, but it was a departure menu-wise from the traditional French of La Bastille to a more modern European flavour.

I wanted to eat slightly early on a Saturday, to give time to meet up with friends afterwards, so when we walked in for our booking at 6.30pm (after a pre-dinner cocktail in the Jekyll and Hyde round the corner), we were the only customers, and I was a little worried it would be a strange atmosphere to be dining in the empty restaurant, where you inadvertently resort to speaking in hushed tones so you don't disturb the silence (or have your every word overheard!).

But we were soon put at ease by the main front-of-house person – I wasn't sure if perhaps she was a co-owner – and given the beer and wine list to browse through. It's interesting to see they have continued La Bastille's tradition of offering a decent bottled beer list – several Belgian ales – plus added some draught from Purity beer and Hogans Cider. We settled on a Abbaye des Rocs La Nounnette, a Belgian blonde, and some Purity Mad Goose – both lovely beers and with the cask ale in good condition, and bought us enough time to give the menu a read-through.

The décor inside is a little warmer than I remember Michelle's being, with tables arranged at angles to break up the open room a bit and give a more relaxed feel to the space. A black and white film was playing silently but unobtrusively on a large screen, which had sounded odd when I read about it in earlier reviews, but actually worked as a subtle backdrop by giving a little movement to the room.

Pretty scallops - and very tasty
We soon got to ordering, and as I love scallops it was an easy choice to go for those as a starter. A very pretty plate arrived, and the scallops were well cooked – that is, wrapped in pancetta, juicy and not overcooked. They were arranged around some roast vegetables, very flavoursome without overpowering the scallops. My dining companion opted for filo parcels filled with lamb mince. These initially looked a little small but with the chilli jelly they were intensely flavoured while remaining light, and definitely left us ready for the main courses.

While we were engrossed in our starters the restaurant had started to fill up quite a bit – and by the time our mains had arrived, every table was full which was great to see and there was certainly a liveliness to the room. I enjoyed the pan seared duck breast – again, nicely moist and not overcooked, served with a shallot tarte tatin – which was as good as I hoped it might be: rich, unctuous and decadent. The madeira sauce was served separately in what looked like a rather large amount, but I have to say it was so tasty (sweet but in the right amount to complement the rest of the plate) that I finished every bit of it. I also tried some of my companion's seared sea bass fillets, which worked very well with some juicy and slightly spicy chorizo and peppers. We'd chosen a light red that went fine with them both (possibly a Beaujolais, but I was too involved in dinner to take notes by this stage!). On balance, the starters were more elegantly presented than the mains, but the portion sizes were well judged (not to large, not too small) and the fish and meat cooking was spot on, so it was certainly a meal polished off with gusto.

As the evening was still early-ish we stayed for coffee and a shared desert – a subtly-flavoured Earl Grey crème brulee with cardamom and pistachio sable biscuits – and as I'm not keen on heavily sweet or chocolatey things this provided a cleansing and light end to the meal.

For some reason I was hesitant about how much I would enjoy Annexe – maybe it was the amount of praiseful reviews I'd read, meaning I took them with a pinch of salt, but it had such a buzzy yet relaxing ambience, good food & wine, and owners/staff who really went out of their way to give a friendly welcome, that I had a great evening and wouldn't hesitate to recommend it. Bonus points for having a decent bottle & draught beer and cider offering too!