Monday, 26 November 2012

Food & Drink highlights at the Birmingham Festive Markets

Every November Birmingham plays host to a German festive market - this is now in it's 10th year and arose because the city is twinned with Frankfurt, and is now considered the "largest authentic German market outside of Germany and Austria". Some Brum inhabitants may feel a little shortchanged by this, as several of the stalls carry similar stock, and many feel it is overpriced and an unnecessary nuisance of crowds and noise when trying to go about your normal business - plonking a double line of stalls down an already busy pedestrian thoroughfare can bring out the festive rage in the best of people. But there are good things to be found if you can get past the irritation and mellow out (the glühwein mit rum helps with that), and in recent years there has also been the addition of a 'craft market' of English-based stalls to take the enforced revelry all the way up to the Symphony Hall area.

If you can steel yourself against the crowds - or pick a quieter time to go - and can justify spending a bit of cash on yourself, my recommendations follow for the best food & drink options to check out. These are based on my personal taste, so more meat than sweet, and washed down with something tasty too.

1. Hogan's Cider
This is the best thing about the festive market, from my point of view! Hogans now have a corner of the Craft market up by Baskerville House/Broad Street firmly marked out for themselves, with wooden picnic benches and some cover from the cold and rain providing the perfect environment to get stuck in to some quality cider and perry. Allen Hogan will often be behind the bar, ready to dispense great drinks and cider wisdom to those with a keen thirst. This year the range on offer is bigger than ever, on draught, keg and bottle, and includes mulled cider; Panking Pole 6.2% - slightly hazy but very smooth-drinking; Pickers Passion 5.3%; and Hazy Daisy 3.9%. Some traditional cider makers dilute their cider down with the quaintly-named 'brook apple' (i.e. water!) – dilution helps to obtain a lower ABV, make the crop go further, and to bring down the tannins, to make a more drinkable product. Allen's version is diluted with fresh pressed English apple juice, which gives a sweeter edge and a full juicy flavour, for a very slurpable cider without the higher alcohol content. Conversely, due to the high quality extra juice used, this makes Hazy Daisy more expensive for Allen to produce than the other ciders in his range! But if you're planning a bit of a session, I can recommend you start with this delicious drop before moving to the six-percenters.
Hogan's stall also stocks Purity Mad Goose ale, Freedom lager, and some warming spirits, with bottles of cider and perry available to take home.
My personal favourite is the Vintage Perry - and I'm happy to brave the worst of the winter weather to huddle under a heater and enjoy a pint of this with other cider and perry loving chums.

2. Pork with dumplings and red cabbage
This can be found at the beer chalet nearest the Museum, at the side of the Town Hall. They offer roast pork ("with cracking") or pork neck ("without cracking"), served either in a bap, or - the best plate in the market, IMHO - with a potato suet dumpling and red cabbage. The pork is plentiful, the dumpling stodgy enough to soak up the gravy, and the red cabbage sweet and subtly flavoured with juniper. It may not seem cheap at £7.50 for this plate, but that's pretty comparable to what you'd pay in a Munich bierkeller for a similar meal, and matches any pub lunch in town. Washed down with a half of weissbier, if you love pork as much as me, this will put a big smile on your face and set you up for further market exploring.

3. Wood's real ale
Real ale at a market is a bit of a rarity, but Woods appeared at the Craft Market a few years ago, and now offer three ales on handpump, with several bottles and packaged gift sets available. There seems to be a fair turnover of the draught ale, so the exact beers on offer may vary each time you visit, but the condition of these when sampled on Saturday last was all spot on, and I'd happily spend a while drinking their signature Shropshire Lad bitter (4.5%), or for something more robust, their seasonal Cracker at 6%.

4. Stein of weissbier
Sadly this isn't *quite* as exciting a treat (for me, personally) as it used to be - as up to a few years ago they served the more enticing Paulaner Hefe-Weiss for £3.50 a pint - a bargain for one of the quintisentially clove and banana-accented Bavarian weisses. In recent years, they've changed to Franziskaner - not quite as much happening flavour-wise, and this year on sale at £4 - but still, it's a pretty nice experience to grab a heavy glass halbe-stein of German weiss while you mull around or munch on some porcine treats, for less than the price of a non-imported beer in many London establishments - even better if you have the time and capacity on your hands to enjoy a whole stein! (though best to have worked out where your toilet options are beforehand, otherwise you'll have to endure the dire festival-style cubicles... be warned!). If you can squeeze into one of the wooden drinking huts that have covered tables in the back, the press of bodies will keep you warm while the cold beer goes down and you plan your next tactical move through the throngs.

5. Roast hams
Right at the busiest point of the market, where there's a pinch-point for pedestrian traffic going in two different directions through the main drinking and gawping area, is a stall selling roast ham. Huge banks of hams rotate on spits at the back, while surly-looking staff carve off chunks and stick them into buns. For ham-in-a-bap at £4.50 this does seem a little expensive, but as the price hasn't changed in many years, and with the rise of street food in England at similar costs, it doesn't seem that unreasonable these days. You'll be rewarded with hot, rich, salty, thick ham goodness – just the thing to act as a restorative between steins.

6. Hot cider from Orchard Pig
This producer is based in the Somerset area, but have had a stall at the Craft Market for the past few years. This year they have some smart new branding and a range of products on offer - from sweet/dry ciders to horseradish liqueur - but my recommendation here, as well as their draught still cider, would be to have the spiced, mulled cup of cheer - it will warm you up and soothe away any of that lingering hatred of the crowds and bustle. Well, until you stop drinking it and try to go anywhere, that is.

7. Many flavours of Wurst
Everyone likes a sausage! Well, mostly ... There are several sausage-merchants at the market, as you'd expect, though sadly the little Nurnberger variety are missing (I guess to be expected as it is nominally a Frankfurt festive market). If you have a large enough mouth for this kind of endeavour, then go to the sausage stall with the large circular grill, between the Council House and the Floozie in the Jaccuzi fountain - they have fast turnover and about 3 different types of sausage (Bratwurst, Weisswurst, and 'Spicy' sausage) and you can load it up with sauerkraut, senf (German sweet mustard) and ketchup before you bite in and get it half in your mouth and half all down yourself.

8. Mead
There are two different mead sellers at the market - an Eastern European stall, selling bottles of mead to take away, and some mead-based liqueurs, as well as honey with different flower accents; and a drinking-stall further down New Street towards the Bull Ring, where plastic 'Viking horns' will be used to dispense hot or cold mead to shivering consumers. I'd recommend the European mead stall for bottles to take home and enjoy with friends and family at the turning of the year, but if you need a quick, hot, honey-based pick-me-up, that you're guaranteed not to find in Birmingham the rest of the year round, head down for the horn!

9. Meat Stall
A stall selling meaty goods to take home has been at the market for several years, but each year it changes location, so I have to hunt around anxiously until I've found it and know my supply of pig-based treats is secure for another festive season. The range here keeps expanding, and seems to have several new additions this year – so as well as different types of cured salamis (with chilli, herbs, nuts, garlic, pepper etc.), and sides of bacon and cured ham, there is also a chilled sausage cabinet with cook-at-home weisswurst and frankfurters, and meat pâté and spreads. Another rare thing you can find here is “schmalz” - a lardy spread that the Germans love to eat on bread, and is best topped with some crispy fried onions. I'm sure it's terribly bad for you but as a once-a-year treat in small doses, it would be pretty tasty washed down with a rauchbier or bock.

10. Hot chestnuts
Something simple to finish – a bag of hot chestnuts with a sprinkling of salt. We ate these all the time in winter when I was growing up – the benefit of having an open coal hearth to cook them in – so there may be a bit of nostalgia creeping in here. But I've noticed that chestnut seller carts are commonly found in parts of London like Covent Garden, and wondered why they never appear in Birmingham. But at the market, here's your chance to grab some. They make a good snack to pick up at lunch and take back to the office, acting as a handwarmer in your pocket. And (depending on how much salt you like) probably one of the healthier things to be found among all the beer, meat and sugary foods lining the streets.

Normally the stalls at the market are reliably/disappointingly* (*delete as appropriate) the same every year, so it was a pity to discover my most frequent lunchtime haunt, the flammkuchen stand, wasn't selling any this year, and indeed hadn't brought their usual lovely German wine selection with minerally Rieslings, elegant Sylvaner and rich Spatburgunders. This would definitely have taken up two of my top ten. But instead they are offering some 'lachs' - sides of smoked salmon, which are finished off by hanging on a wooden board over a roaring brazier, to absorb a little more smoky flavour before being sliced - so I'll have to give this new offering a go while mourning the lack of flammkuchen this year.

There are plenty of other food & drink options if the above don't appeal: pretzels, doughnuts, frankfurters, sweet and savoury crepes, fried cheese croquettes, fat pieces of garlic bread, fried potatoes, schnitzel, elaborate cakes, and many things in between, and the market is open from 10am to 9pm daily until 22nd December. So if you can put that 'Winterval' misanthropy to one side, I'll maybe see you there for a pork and cider feast!

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