Saturday, 26 January 2013

Popstrami and beer in Stirchley

The Birmingham food and drink scene has really expanded in the past few years - mostly through the efforts of obsessives and enthusiasts taking matters into their own hands and doing it themselves - whether it's organising a street food event that's now a regular occurrence (@DigbethDiner), offering something new in wine shopping (@lokiwine), delis and food stores (@AndersonandHill) and bakeries (@YorksBakeryCafe), great coffee (@urbancoffeeco and @SixEightKafe), improving and adding to the beer range in bars (@TheVictoria), nurturing fantastic craft beer off licences (@StirchleyWines and @CotteridgeWines) or bringing ramen to the people (Minmin Noodles). These are just some prominent examples, and as a result I've been able to try a wider range of foods and beer than seen before in Birmingham, and make some new discoveries.

The start of December saw a Popstrami pop-up event take place in Stirchley, at the recently opened Loaf Community Bakery and Cookery School, which brought something new to the city – in the guise of the “Breuben” – a Brummie take on the Reuben sandwich which is most famously found in Katz’s New York Deli, but I’ve seen appearing on London-based food blogs in recent months too - succulent, eye-wateringly thick-filled meaty delights.

The team behind Popstrami all have solid gourmet credentials and are scarily passionate about what they do – Tom runs Loaf and has revitalised the food scene in Stirchley, with a vegetarian co-operative shop Stirchley Stores operating alongside his bakery premises; Dom works the night shift at the bakery, turning out inventive baked goods at an alarming rate; Nick is a home-smoking and curing obsessive and writes food blog Smoke and Umami; and Lap is the “Rebuen sandwich fascist” who carries out all manner of impressive cooking feats (smoking an eel from scratch being one he’s recently written up). They’ve collaborated before in various combinations – including a previous Popstrami pop-up American Deli event at Leverton & Halls in Bournville, and the Backyard Brummie barbeque team participating in Grillstock in Bristol.

So when I heard via Twitter that they were hosting another Popstrami event, I was keen to get down there and enjoy some good foods. This would take the format of a set menu for £10 published in advance: Jewish chicken soup with giant matzoh ball; (B)Reuben with pickles; Baked cheesecake to finish.

Even better that the event was Bring Your Own and Loaf HQ is just 5 minutes down the road from Stirchley Wines, meaning I could pick up some decent beers to complement the foods. I think Krishan did a fine trade that night as several people in attendance had clearly visited to browse his shelves and choose some beers to bring with them, including a group collecting a crate of Aventinus!

On walking in I was greeted by a room full of friendly faces and Nick ladling the unctuous, bubbling chicken broth into cups, and dolloping in a matzoh ball and a sprig of dill. He handed it to me with a grin, declaring "it's rich with chicken fat!" - and slurping it was like an enveloping hug as you warmed up from the sub-zero temperatures outside. The dill cut through the fattiness with a bright aniseed note, while the matzoh gave a bit of texture to chew on.

Then there was a wait with anticipation for the Breuben to be prepared - we each had numbered tickets, and our number would be called from the end of the production line once the order was ready. Here, Lap, Dom and Tom worked the line - first preparing the layers of meat onto rye bread, then adding sauerkraut and Swiss cheese, and finally some "special sauce", before the outsides of the bread were brushed with melted butter, and it was cooked on a griddle until nicely toasted, and the cheese had melted a little to hold the whole thing together. Then it was cut in two, arranged so you could appreciate the sheer amount of meat filling it was stuffed with, and served with Nick's homemade pickles - salt-cured, naturally fermented gherkins preserved in both a half-sour and a 3/4 sour marinade (depending on the length of time they'd been curing for), and pickled radishes.

I carried mine off to the seating area and pulled up a chair beside others who were digging in, and opened the first of my beers - I'd picked a Brooklyn East India Pale Ale to go with the Breuben, needing something fairly hoppy to cut through the fat and salt richness, but not so hoppy that it would compete on my tastebuds. I saw other diners had gone for a similar tactic - John from BrewDog Birmingham had chosen the same beer as me, and another chap had a bottle of Stone Levitation Ale, while others opted for crisp German lagers.


The Breuben itself was pure indulgent deliciousness - I couldn't help but close my eyes at times while eating it as it was just such a pleasurable, meaty experience, with the pickles providing a great contrast with their crunch and slight sourness, and the generous amount of brined, spiced, smoked ox cheek pastrami providing a big kick of flavour and with a meltingly flaky texture - this was like "beef bacon" according to Dom, but the expression doesn't quite capture it's succulence. The meat would almost have been over-flavoured (if such a thing is possible!) if it hadn't been for the other elements of sauerkraut, sauce and cheese dampening it down a bit and making this a great combination between the lightly crunchy, toasted bread. I was so sorry when my sandwich ended that I almost considered buying another, but I knew I'd not manage the cheesecake if I did, so consoled myself by chatting to other attendees about how amazing a sandwich this was, while I finished off my EIPA.

After a while, I was ready to seek out dessert - this was a cheesecake flecked through with vanilla, and ingeniously baked in foil 'takeaway' cartons, which could then be cut in half diagonally to give two portions. This was not too sweet and had a buttery biscuit base, with a dollop of spiced apple compote on top to lift it slightly. I paired this with a Mikkeller Wheat Is The New Hops,  with it's fresh grassiness enlivening the mouth - wheat providing flavour without the high levels of bitterness found in hoppy beers, making it a good foil to a sweeter dish.

Ox cheek pastrami

As I hung around afterwards chatting and finishing my beer, I did spy one attendee deciding to have seconds on every menu item - that's clearly how good it all was - and as the event didn't quite sell out (I feel sorry for those who didn't make it, though it was an exceptionally cold night), I was lucky enough to have another Breuben made up for me, to take home and have for breakfast the next day, and also to buy a generous portion of the ox cheek pastrami, which I used over the next few days to make my own amateur versions of a Reuben at home.

This was an excellent event to have ventured out to the Birmingham suburbs for, on a cold winter night, and great to have a source of good beers nearby too, to make the experience complete. I would imagine the @Popstrami and Backyard Brummie team will have more events in the pipeline for 2013 - keep an eye out for them on Twitter so you can partake of the meaty goodness too!

And for much better pics of the food and event, check out @ysl807's great photos here.

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