Friday, 7 November 2014

Recipe - Chocolate, Stout, Chili and Black Cardamom Cookies

I've always liked dark chili chocolate with some of the stronger stouts or porters. I enjoy the combination of rich chocolate with the warming chili, washed away by the coffee-cocoa taste of a really good stout.

I am not a baker. I'm not really even a cook but I do like to dabble and experiment so my recent visit to Savour in Kilkenny and Caroline's chocolate brownies got me thinking about baking something spicy and rich to go with a stout for yesterday's International Stout Day. Rich dark chocolate is more savoury than sweet and lends itself to the use of spices. I wanted to use a whole bottle of stout and also smoky black cardamom pods and an Ancho chili, so I adapted this recipe from one I found in an old baking book. Winging some of the method and ingredients if I'm honest!

As you will appreciate when you look at the ingredients, these cookies are not for the fainthearted! They are very rich and although not very spicy they almost beg for a cool but complimentary soothing rich stout.

I think they work well together but I'm not a baker as I say so I might have missed a trick or two. Anyway, feel free to adapt or change to suit your own palates.

Just promise me you'll eat them with a really good stout!


200 grms Plain Flour
125 grms  Dark Chocolate (I used 81%)
2 tsp Baking Powder
1 tsp Bread Soda (Bicarbonate of Soda)
50 grms Dark Soft Brown Sugar
100 grms Butter
2 tbs Cocoa Powder
1 tsp Cayenne Pepper
500ml O'Hara's Stout (My localish craft brewery)
6 Black Cardamom Pods
1 Dried Ancho Chili

(Makes 24 smallish cookies)


Pour the stout in to a wide bottom saucepan and bring to a strong simmer. Chop up the Ancho chili, discard around half the seeds and add the rest plus the chili to the stout. Chop the black cardamom pods in half and add to the stout too. Reduce liquid by more than half until it gets a little syrupy. Pour through strainer to remove chili and cardamom bits. You should have around 150ml of concentrated stout-chili-cardamom light syrup to set aside.

Meanwhile melt 2/3 of the chocolate and the butter together in a bowl over a pan of boiling water.

Chop the rest of the chocolate roughly and set aside.

Mix all of the rest of the dried ingredients (except chopped chocolate) in a bowl then add the melted chocolate and stout concentrate and mix well but don't over work. Add the chopped chocolate and mix carefully again.

Make a clingfilmed sausage from the mix and put in a fridge to chill for a few minutes.

While the dough is chilling rub some butter over baking parchment on two trays and preheat oven to 180C (350F).

Remove the mix from the fridge and mark the roll in to 24 section.

Form a ball from each section and space apart on a baking tray.

Cook for 15-20 mins until barely soft in the middle, and leave to cool.

Serve with a robust stout - I chose O'Hara's Leann Follain as again it's a local brew and thought it would compliment the cookies better than the 'normal' stout I used to make them.

Monday, 27 October 2014

Day Trip - Savour Festival of Food Kilkenny and More

The train was late.

Standing shivering on the platform in Carlow I was reminded that after graveyards, the coldest places in Ireland are train platforms. I was waiting for the Dublin/Waterford train and for the first time in a while I was travelling solo, which is something I've never been very comfortable doing to be honest. Kilkenny is only half an hour from Carlow by rail so it wasn’t as if I'd be in a strange, confusing new country by myself, but I always seem a little self-conscious and awkward when travelling. Travelling in a group, or with at least one other person, seems to dilute that feeling or at least makes me less aware of myself. As I stood there lost in these thoughts the train arrived and soon I was sitting among hen parties, weekend trippers and the odd food-lover on their way to all points south of Carlow. They juggled babies, jostled in and out of seats, shouted as if they were in separate carriages and laughed way, way too loudly for a confined space. I was suddenly aware of the benefits of solo travel and the thought of locking myself in the toilet for the journey did briefly cross my mind.

Kilkenny's Savour Food Festival had captured my attention because it was trying to integrate craft beer – a subject dear to my heart, if shunned by my liver - in to its schedule, stalls and discussions. One thing in particular attracted my attention and that was a beer/cider versus wine food pairing 'Smackdown' that was to take place in one of the marquees.

But there was a problem.

My initial look a week previously at the listing of what was on said that this event was free but the night before I was traveling, while doing a little more research, I discovered that although it was free I should have registered online for it! Checking the booking part of the site showed that it was booked out...


But there was plenty to tempt me to the festival itself anyway and rumour had it there would be a craft beer tent there too, so I decided to head down regardless. And that is how I found myself on a train full of restless noisy people pulling in to MacDonagh Junction in The Marble City.

The Parade in Kilkenny where the main part of the festival is held is just a shortish walk from the station. The walk passes a lot of pubs and the excellent Asian/world deli called Shortis Wong, with The Wine Centre opposite it - which can always be counted upon to have few new or unusual beers to tempt me. I made a mental note to call in to both on the way back to the train.

The festival was just starting to get going when I arrived so I grabbed a bag of delicious homemade crisps from a stall near the entrance and went for a wander. Every type of food imaginable was up for grabs; beorwurst, falafels, crepes and burgers were all available, and coffee, sweets, honey and jams were also on show. The new festival staple - pulled pork - was available on loads of stalls. Even those afflicted with vegetarianism were well catered for including at least one whole stand dedicated to their cause. I spent a while fluttering from stand to stand, looking, listening and taking it all in. Kilkenny is a great city for this type of event, perhaps it's the population size or the attitude to try something different, maybe it's the influx of tourists whose accents I could hear as I walked around but whatever it was the buzz and excitement was palpable as the closed off street started to fill up.

At this stage I decided it was time for a beer or two so I made my way to the craft beer tent that I had already scouted twice. Not wishing to be the first in the door I had hung around for a while before entering. It was still quiet in there as I made my way over to Carlow Brewing - AKA O'Hara's - to tick off a couple of beers I hadn't tried at the beer festival in Dublin earlier in the year. As I sipped my Blackberry Lager (Don't judge me!) I took in the other breweries represented. Trouble, Costello, White Gypsy, Metalman and Dungarvan made up the rest of the occupants of the smallish tent, a tiny but select selection of the incredible number of breweries than are now on this island. Seamus from O’Hara’s – who is responsible for getting this beer festival here and a lot more besides - was rushing around putting the finishing touches to the stand. I chatted to him briefly before he was called away to solve a crisis, or perhaps he just needed to escape from me!

The lager was nice blend of lemon bitterness and mild biscuit with a very delicate - perhaps too delicate - touch of blackberry. I followed that up with an O'Hara's Dunkleweizen, a lovely, mild, almost stout-like version of the style, like a liquid bourbon cream biscuit with a tiny bit of clove added. This would make a great home-drinking winter beer so I hope it will be bottled at some stage...

I finished off this tasting session with a glass of White Gypsy Scarlet, a weird/wonderful sour beer that tastes of sweet soda bread with a dash of vinegar. A great palate cleanser and although very much an acquired taste it would be great with a cheesy food pairing.

Back out in the festival I wandered back up and down the stalls, taking in the overlapping flavours of grilled meats, cooking crepes, breads and coffee - and the great atmosphere. I found myself outside the marquee where the beer versus wine talk was going to be held. A talk was just finishing and a lady was telling an anecdote about how someone’s child had broken his foot when tins fell out of a cupboard. She maintains it would not have happened if the lady had always cooked fresh food! An interesting notion and she might have a point about fresh food, but personally I couldn't do without my tinned produce when cooking. Think tinned tomatoes, kidney beans, etc. And how could you not have tinned beans in your house? Beans on toast must be one of the best comfort foods of all time! Maybe I missed the point though...

Anyway. There was produce for sale in the marquee and no real security so I decided that I might get away with standing at the back behind the set out chairs, near the exit. The talk was about five minutes away from starting and no one had come near me to ask for a ticket or question my being there, so I discreetly slid on to the chair in front of me, ever mindful of a tap on the shoulder or glaring look, which never came. (Confession over!)

The 'Smackdown' was brilliant. Sommelier Colm McCan, Author and beer aficionado Caroline Hennessy, and Pascal Rossignol from Le Caveau entertained, fed, 'watered', and cajoled us for an hour with great banter and produce. Goatsbridge trout caviar paired with Longways Cider and Menade Verdejo 2013, Lavistown sausages with Costello's red ale and Chaume-Arnaud Vinsobres 2011 and we finished up with Caroline's own extra special double chocolate stout brownies (those words could be out of order) with 8 Degrees Knockmealdown Stout and Banyuls Rimage ‘Mademoiselle O’ sweet red wine. All the food was local and so was the beer – well localish. The wines were not local of course and supplied by Le Caveau in the city.

It ended as a draw but by my reckoning beer won two, only missing out on the sausage course by a whisker.

Having said that - and me being very much a beer person - one of the discoveries for me was that sweet red dessert wine! I will be definitely getting that for after my Christmas dinner...

After that I grabbed a chorizo-style sausage in a bun with chimichurri sauce from an Argentinian grill in one of the tents and went for a walk around the grounds of the nearby Kilkenny castle before wandering back towards the city soaking in the history that this city seems to seep out of its stones. Back on the High Street the 'Slips' that run down to St Kiernan Street multiply this feeling a hundredfold, as these narrow-stepped alleys give the feeling of stepping back in time, albeit with the need to mentally remove the modern sights and sounds of the city. Kilkenny is a good shopping spot too so I spent a little time wandering in book shops and picking up yet another addition to add to our buckled bookshelves back at home.

Finding myself not far from O’Hara’s Brewery Corner I felt that it would be rude not to call in and see what was on tap there. I was greeted by a super-friendly barman who filled me in on what was new. He mentioned that they had just put on a new cask from White Gypsy and I said, ‘Sold!’ I suspect that their Garden's Wild Ale is the cask version of their Emerald Ale - made from 100% Irish ingredients - and the bar man told me I was the first to have a glass from the cask. It was a delicious smooth and subtle pale ale with a bitter, nettle-like quality with some almost honey sweetness. I followed this up with a gorgeous glass of White Hag Fleadh Red, a favourite of mine from the beer festival in Dublin, before heading back to the Festival.

Back in the beer tent the place was hopping (hah!) with tourists, locals and beer nerds. The latter marked out by their our obsessive need to take notes and annoy those serving by inquiring about the hops used in a particular beer or what additions the put in their water.

And so I finished the day talking to a few locals and having a glass of Metalman Rubus, a pleasantly refreshing fruity ale with plenty of raspberry flavour and a backwash of grapefruit. Next I had a White Gypsy Dunkel that was all milk chocolate, a bit of smoke and quite nice. I finished with a black IPA - one of my favourite styles - from Trouble called Oh Yeah! I really like that bitter-but-balanced-by-sweetness taste, and hint of acrid burnt toast.

The tent was now closing and my palate was pretty much done, so I bought a bottle of White Gypsy Emerald for my home stash and tottered back to the train station via The Wine Centre to add even more beers to my collection. I hadn’t time to call to the Asian deli too!

Reflecting back on the day the only thing that would have made it better was having some company or me being more sociable - something I should really, really work on! Hats off to the organisers of the festival, it was a grand day out.

Saturday 25th October 2014

Thursday, 23 October 2014

Recipe - Smoky Chili with Leann Follain Irish Stout

It was one of those days... cold, miserable and I was a little out of sorts. I wanted some comfort food and I fancied a 'chili-like'* meal. Trawling through the many recipes online I noted than some featured coffee, chocolate and stout, so the idea of cooking with a beer that already possesses those flavours was hardly a huge leap in the culinary thought process.

O'Hara's Leann Follain is a local stout so it made sense to use it, not to mention the fact that it's a particular favourite of mine. As for the rest of the ingredients, well the beef is from our local craft butcher but most of the other additions were leftover items from the fridge combined with a few cupboard staples.

And that's the secret of this kind of recipe. Pick a style - I wanted something smoky, peppery and chocolaty - and build around it with ingredients that compliment or perhaps even contast with one another. Not to mention the need to use up those left over bits and pieces so they don't go to waste.

And like and good chili - or curry - it tastes better the next day!

Anyway, here's the recipe so adapt and enjoy.


1 tsp Mustard Oil
1 bottle O'Hara's Leann Follain Stout

1 kg Minced Beef
1 cup Smoked Bacon - chopped
1/2 cup Chorizo - chopped
2 cups Meat Stock

1 Large Onion - finely chopped
1 cup Sweet Red Peppers - chopped
3 Garlic Cloves
1 whole Red Chili Pepper
1 whole Habanero Chili

1 tin of Tomatoes
1 tin of Kidney Beans
1 tin of Butter Beans
4 dashes of Smoked Chipotle Sauce

1 tbsp whole Coriander
1 tsp whole Cumin
2 tsp whole Mustard
1 tsp Oregano
3 tsp Smoked Paprika
2 Bay Leaves
1 tsp Chili Powder (Optional)
1 tsp Black Pepper
Salt to taste

Plus leaf coriander and grated cheese when serving.


Toast the whole spices in a dry pan until the mustard starts to pop. You might want to cover them with a saucepan lid to avoid mustard-seed-eyeball!

Blend the tinned tomatoes, toasted seeds, oregano, garlic cloves, smoked paprika, red chili pepper, black pepper, chipotle sauce and chili powder (if using) to a fine paste and leave to one side.

Brown the beef with the mustard oil in a large saucepan, remove and set aside.

Cook onions, bacon and chorizo in the same saucepan until the bacon starts to brown and sizzle.

Add the beef back in to the pan along with the spiced tomato paste, stock and bay leaf.

Stir and add in the stout!

Simmer uncovered for about an hour until the liquid has reduced and thickened.

Add the beans, sweet red pepper and habanero chili. Cook with the lid on for a further half an hour.

Taste and add more chili powder or chipotle sauce if you want it hotter. Or a little brown sugar or plain old tomato ketchup if you want it sweeter. Remove the habanero before serving.


Sprinkle with grated cheese and coriander, then serve with roast potatoes and a beer.

* OK, so the reason I have the word chili in parenthesis is because I don't want all the pedants telling me that it's not a real chili as it has this, that and the other in it. You're probably right, but I couldn't think of another word that encompasses the style of dish so live with it!

Saturday, 11 October 2014

Chez Moeder Lambic Saint-Gilles - Brussels

We made the decision to divert on the train back from Mons, a pretty town choc full of history ( Hah! Belgium? Choc? See what I did there? Never mind...) and with a close connection to the two world wars. It had surprised us by its charm and quirkiness, not to mention the architecture and distinctly French feel, which was understandable I suppose given its location close-ish to the French border, and in Wallonia.

Earlier, my companions had headed out from Mons to see one of the many war cemeteries that keep the memory of what happened early in the last century alive in the minds of locals and visitors, while I had decided to wander the town and see what it had to offer. It truly was a gorgeous town so with the sun shining and a pep in my step from being somewhere new, I wandered around the sites for an hour or so looking at gardens, admiring churches and rubbing monkeys on their heads for luck. (Google's not a fetish!)

I had exhausted the sites when I came across an exhibition on Fritz Haber in a gallery on Grand Place. I had never heard of him but the gallery looked cool - in the climatical sense of the word - and for €2 it seemed worth a look.

Fritz Haber I found out, is perhaps one of the first hero/villains of the last century. He was an interesting character who, it could be argued, saved the lives of millions with his work on developing artificial fertiliser and thus aided in the food production for many people who would have otherwise have died of starvation, but he was also responsible for chemical warfare production in the first world war, and this work was also linked to the gasses used in the concentration camps of the second world war. His life is well worth researching and reading about, and this exhibition by David Vandermeulen, a renown comic book artist, was well put together and thought provoking. Books about Haber, facts about his life and contemporaries were combined with Vandermeulen's artwork and pieces of war memorabilia. It's not a happy tale for any of those involved or affected by him...

I left the exhibition in a somber mood and although back at the train station the sight of my companions running for the train back to Brussels with their lumbering zombie-like gaits somewhat lightened my spirits, my mind was unfocussed and disjointed on the journey back. On the train I was conscious that on this trip to Brussels we still hadn't visited what was one of my favourite bars - Chez Moeder Lambic - the original bar that opened before its younger sibling that occupies Place Fontainas just off Anspach. I brought this subject up and we decided that three of us would get off the train at Gare de Midi and trek south in search of it, but it would mean a short visit as we were meeting a friend from Antwerp in a couple of hours back in the city centre for dinner.

The walk from the station brought us through an interesting neighbourhood of Art Nouveau houses butted up against 60s and 70s Brutalistic buildings. Strange people stalked us even though they were ahead of us - something I thought would have been an impossible task. One guy in particular was having an animated conversation with himself and seemed to be itching for us to catch up with him. We crossed to the other side of the road in forced conversation with each other in order to avoid him.

On we went past tiny neighbourood bars blaring frenetic ethnic beats, past abandoned cars and a dog toilet that seemed to be composed entirely of sand and dog turds in equal ratio. Even the local dogs seemed to avoid it apart from a few deformed creatures that looked like the had been crossed with wargs, or perhaps had been inbred to within a generation of being their own grandparents..

Eventually we hit Chaussee de Waterloo and it was like someone had flicked the 'On' switch for party time. The street had an carnival atmosphere and appeared to contain at least one family from every nation on the planet. Sellers of underwear, fabric conditioner and deodorant were competing for space with energy drink vendors and people cooking food on the sort of barbecues that would make the average health and safety officer have an apoplectic fit. I'm not sure whether this was a normal Saturday evening here but as we strutted up the street with Bobby Womack's Across 110th Street's chorus playing in my head, my mood lifted and it reaffirmed something I had thought on previous visits to this part of the city, that Saint-Gilles - how ever you spell it - is the coolest neighbourhood in Brussels.

And so in flying form we reached Chez Moeder Lambic, which is hidden in plain sight on a corner behind the gorgeous but unvisited treasure that is the Saint-Gilles Town Hall - Stadhuis van Sint-Gillis. Moeder Lambic is a pretty unassuming place and you could miss it or dismiss it if you weren't 'In-the-Know' so to speak. It's a nice building with parasols outside emblazoned with the Moeder Lambic logo, shading the numerous drinkers from the evening sun. We went inside and took a seat while the very busy barman hopped from customer to bar and back in a no-nonsense but professional manner.

The bar itself is not like its sister bar in the city centre. It has a rougher more lived in feel, a bit like the plain but more interesting older sister of the snooty big city girl that had moved in to town to be with the beautiful people. Sure, the younger one gets all the attention and action but if you want a long term commitment then stick with the sister who's been around a bit - in a good way of course. (Don't get me wrong I love the bar in Fontainas, but they are a little bit like chalk and cheese.) It's an interesting bar, the floor is a checkerboard of black and white, and its position on a street corner means it has an irregular, disjointed shape. And it's small, very small...

But small can mean cozy or cramped and this is definitely cozy. Timber furniture, brick walls and chalk boards complete the look and it was to these chalk boards that our eyes were drawn. Chez Moeder Lambic has a relatively small but excellent tap selection and an excellent bottle selection including many rarities and hard to get imports. So after a quick glance at the bottle selection on the chalk board above the bar it was to the taps we went first.

I went for the Mont Saleve Black Indians that tasted of rich and creamy cocoa. I alsosampled my companions beer, Brasserie de Bellevaux Black had a rich flavour of fishy coke - not as unpleasant as it sounds - and Ganstaller Brau Golden Frankincense Myrrh, a dry beer with a nice orange marmalade quality.

We were enjoying our beers, conscious of the time mind you, and I was looking once again at the long chalk board over the bar...

And there it was - roughly written and without pomp, fanfare, underlining or multiple astrerixes - Struise Black Albert.

You see I had read about Albert before. I had tried to drink him before. I had tried to buy him before but he was always this just out of reach - or out of stock. Questions entered my head. How could I have missed it when first I looked? Had it magically appeared? Surely it would be different this time and I would get to try it? Hopefully? Maybe? Perhaps?

Our hurried waiter returning fleetingly to our table so I asked for Albert in an almost resignated way, assuming it would be out of stock or he would laugh at me in a way that suggested I was unworthy of such a beer, with my rotund physical attributes, scraggy beard and bad dress sense... But wait, maybe that's 'The Look' that's required?  Like a visual password to open the fridge of happiness so to speak. He said nothing to either confirm of deny this, he just took my order plus my companions' and scurried off.

My Holy Grail of beers arrived with very little aplomb and no fanfare, and it was served with the same flourish as my fellow travelers' selection. Perhaps it wasn't as good as I'd heard? I'd been here before with other beers...

Well, what can I say... Only that yes, it is all it's cracked up to be.

And then some.

It's rich and sweet like alcoholic treacle and it hides it 13% abv very well. Too well perhaps, as it was easier to drink that I thought it could be. My companions were suitably impressed with it too and I think the might have even suffered from a little beer envy. This was possibly one of the best beers I have EVER tasted.


The Orval like Li P'tit Gayoule and the Cuvee Alex le Rouge, a sour licorice porter, that my friends had, which were great by the way, paled into insignificance compared to my Black Albert.

But time was running out and we needed to get back to our hotel to shower and revitalise ourselves for the night ahead. We thanked the bar man, promising to return later. (We didn't get back though...)

We hadn't even had a chance to try the food, which I presume from the chalkboard menu was the fantastic cheese and charcuterie that I remembered from my previous visit.

So it was with a mix of elation and regret we headed back towards the city centre and our hotel. It took us half an hour to walk back and apart from an animated argument I had with a driver who had the nerve to beep his little horn at me while I crossed at a green-manned pedestrian crossing (That ended lamely when I had to curtail my language because I saw he had kids in the back of his car.), we arrived back at our hotel safe and sound with my mood lifted ... and with Bobby Womack still singing in my head.

'Across 110th Street
Pushers won't let the junkie go free...'

(Visited 13th September 2014)

Tuesday, 30 September 2014

Trollekelder - Ghent

You know the mustard is hot when it causes your eyes to stream and your nose hairs to drop off one by one and fall in to your beer. Expletives arrive unbidden on your tongue and are driven out by their inability to tolerate the heat. A gulp of beer helps but time is the only healer, and you wait patiently for your breath to return.

But let's go back a few hours or so...

Trollekelder (For some reason I want to call it Trolle-n-kelder and I don't know why?) sits in the shadow of Saint Jacob's church. And when I say shadow I mean in the descriptive shadow before some pedant tells me it is south of the church.

The neon sign on the building seems at odds with the medieval looking trolls that stand guard in the window, grinning and gurning manically at the passersby. The theme continues inside with more trolls, bottles and beer paraphernalia decorating the timber and brick clad interior, which instantly makes you feel at home and content. The split levels, that include the cellar - kelder - where the trolls presumably live(!), give the place a suitably disjointed feel and at the time of our visit there is some extension work going on in the upper level.

We sat at a table on a raised area just inside the door with a view of the street and the church. Service is quick - mind you it is quiet - and we are presented with the most attractive beer menu I've ever seen. It's more of a magazine or a work of art than a menu and is full of beers I'd promised myself I'd try to source on this trip including some from Troubadour and Struise - but no Black Albert unfortunately.

We went for Troubadour Westkust which had a sharp, dry stoutlike flavour backed up with bitter hops and a dash of cocoa, Verhaeghe Barbe Noire a sweetish, strong stout and the Kasteel Hoppy, which had some bitterness and was OK but didn't suit my palate as much as the other two.

We were joined by a young couple we had spied through the window who had been drinking copious amounts of Westvleteren at a table outside on the street. She was Canadian and he was from London. They were over on a wine excursion to France and had detoured to Belgium to stock up on some beer and visit some breweries. They were pretty merry and in good form so we chatted about the beer scene in London, French wine and Belgian brewers. My only issues was that our new Canadian friend had a slightly unnerving habit of touching your arm every time she spoke and was somewhat obsessed with our Irish accents...

We were in our stride by now and while chatting I had a superb Struise XXXX (Not what I ordered, which was the barrel aged Tripel, but I had it anyway!) that tasted of rich honey with plums and prunes followed by an equally excellent Struise Tsjeeses Reserva PBA, a big 10% beer that tasted of spicy sultana and Christmas pudding.

We all left at the same time, the couple we met stocking up on more Westvleteren - carried out of the bar in an undignified manner in white plastic carrier bags - and we headed back to the hotel to freshen up.

A few hours later after getting food and touring the city at night we ended up back in Trollekelder again for a nightcap. I ordered another Troubadour, Obscura this time, which tasted like milky treacle but in a good way and we decided we were still a little peckish. The bar man suggested the staple fare of every Belgian bar, a platter of cheese and salami, which arrived with a small bowl of brown mustard and a shaker of celery salt. The salt with the cheese was a revelation in itself and as for the mustard, well that's back to where I started isn't it?

Trollekelder is a great bar with great service, beer and atmosphere. It was our favourite of those we visited in the city centre and only narrowly beaten as the best we visited in all of Ghent by De Planck. Having said that we didn't get to all the bars but we did get to most of those rated on websites or listed on beer tours of the city.

It's definitely high on our list for next time we visit.

We might take it easy on the mustard though...

(Visited 11th September 2014)

(Apologies for the lack of pictures.)

Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Kaffee de Planck - Ghent

Poor Ghent.

As well as needing three spellings to keep everyone happy - or two at least - it suffers from from being seen as the ugly sister of picturesque Bruges, being thought of as less cosmopolitan than Brussels and as not being the shopping capital that Antwerp is perceived to be.

It was my first time in the city so I didn't really know what to expect.

We arrived in the city via Gent-Sint-Pieters station, and it seemed that so did the rest of the known world. The easy thing to do would have been to follow the crowds to the tram and then head in to the city centre but I had another plan, and coerced my two cronies to follow me with a promise that after a short walk we could get a beer on a barge! Luckily enough this was intriguing enough for them to follow me on a shortish slog through Citadelpark and over to Ter Platen on a truncated canal called the Muinkshelde, in the southeast of the city.

I had done a little research on Ghent and had come across an interesting looking bar on a barge about 20 mins walk out from the city centre and also 20 mins from the station. The pictures on the website looked pretty interesting so I thought it would be worth the diversion on the way to our hotel just east of the city centre.

Citadelpark is not quite as interesting as it sounds, mostly because it seems to be missing an actual citadel. Having said that it does have loads of statues, a scary grotto, a faded bandstand, some interesting trees and lots of tinkling cyclists. It does have a large anonymous building in its centre but I have no idea what it was. If this was the citadel then it was less Tolkien-esque than I had expected. (I can only assume that the Citadel was demolished and only the name remains.) At the northeast end of the park we passed the museum of classical art and after wandering over a dual carriageway we ended up on a bridge from where we could see our goal, moored discreetly by the side of the canal.

The barge itself seems pretty ordinary from the outside and even the deck, split by a bar and service area, didn't seem too exciting. But it was nicely laid out with simple tables and chairs. Timber seating on one end and pastel painted metal on the other. A couple of chalk sandwich boards on the footpath outside the entrance told of food and beer, so we walked the plank on to the deck. We were greeted by a friendly barman and told we could sit up top or go downstairs to the bar. Inviting steps led the way so down we went into the innards of the barge itself. A left turn at the end of the stairs lead us in to one of the most attractive looking bars I've ever been in.

We were standing below water level and could see out in to the canal through the open portholes. Ducks and the occasional pretty canoeist floated by on the murky water. The walls and ceiling were crowded with enamel beer signs, old movie poster, radios, musical instruments and the odd piece of carrion. A gorgeous cat lounged on a chair and eyed us warily as we sat down at the next table. The music was 80s and 90s but with a fair sprinkling of every genre and the odd tune form other ages too. ( It was played through a sophisticated looking system that gave perfect acoustics. You could hear every note and word but still speak to your friends, a rarity in any bar.) We grinned manically and instantly felt at home and relaxed. This was our kind of bar, and we hadn't looked at the beer or food list yet.

We spied the menu, enveloped in timber naturally given the place's name, and began to study it. Over 100 beers greeted us, many familiar but most not, in the end I settled for a Saison Voisin which turned out to be lovely refreshing offering with a funky, lemon bitterness. My comrades had the house beer called Plankse, which the both enjoyed as we decided what to eat. We went for rolls (broodje?) stuffed with salad, cheese, ham and a weird-wonderful anonymous paste, which were both fresh and tasty. While deciding what to drink next, my mind flittered back to some beer specials that we glimpsed on the chalkboard outside the entrance.

The barman told us that these specials were Brasserie Le Fort, which turned out to be a fantastic strong smelling beer that tasted of fizzy treacle with added musty raisins, and Zundert from a new Dutch Trappist brewery. This was also gorgeous and tasted like a Tripelised Orval with a lovely funky sweetness.

The (19 year old we found out!) cat was still eyeing us suspiciously as we at last decided that we would have to leave and go to find our hotel. We paid our bill and left vowing to come back again...

And we did, much later that night when we had a Hanssens Oudbeitje, Hanssens Oude Geueze and 3 Fonteinin Oude Geuze. All excellent sour beers that I can not do justice to the description of, although I will say that the Oudbeitje, tasting of farmyard and cider vinegar with a hint of strawberries, was an unique but far from unpleasant taste!

We returned again the following day on the way back to the train when I had a De Ranke Guldenberg and toasted our good fortune in finding this place.

De Planck's prices appeared much better than elsewhere in Ghent, probably because of its location, and the service was efficient and friendly. I can safely say it goes into my top 5 bars in Europe. It goes to show that a great bar is not just about the beer or the bar or the location or the staff or the music, or the company you are with for that matter, it's a combination of all of these things.

Kaffee de Planck hits all the right notes.

As for Ghent? Well it was also a big hit with us too.

Less saccharine than Bruges with even finer architecture and a more lived in feel, it is certainly my favourite city or town in Belgium so far. I could happily spend many a weekend there, and we only barely scratched the surface of things to see and do. We visited churches, the belfry and more than one or two bars. We walked the city at night marveling at the lit up buildings and bridges, we went on the boat trip and even spied some turtles in the canals!

Poor Ghent? I don't think so!

We'll be back.

(Visited on the 11th and 12th September 2014)

Tuesday, 26 August 2014

What Lies Beneath...

Rathmullan beach has a lot going for it. Soft, gently sloping sand that runs down to lapping clear water, very little seaweed or flotsam, and an abundance of assorted wildlife – both human and animal. More importantly given my predilections, it has a sneaky little entrance into Rathmullan House about halfway along its length. The house itself – although beautiful - didn’t hold much of a calling for me, it was the Kinnegar Tap Room in what was previously a cellar bar that lured me in from the shore.

I wasn’t alone in my travelling, as I also had dragged along my beloved and my two offspring on the pretence that it would be a nice place to eat after a few hours on the beach, which I really hoped it would be!

So down the steps we trotted, past the outdoor seating area and the mobile pizza oven (How they got it down the steps I don’t know!), and on into the bar/restaurant itself. From what I overheard and read this is a joint venture between Kinnegar Brewing, a slow food pizza company and – I presume – Rathmullan House.

We plonked ourselves and our sandy baggage down at a table and took in the surroundings. The bar is very cellarish obviously with low ceilings and whitewashed rough plaster. Brewing, whiskey, fishing and ship paraphernalia hang on the walls and in many nooks and crannies. Kinnegar bottles with an alphanumeric code mark the table you sit at, and to order a pizza you tick your order on the provided menu slips, as well as what table you’re at, and hand it in at the bar when you choose your drink.

We went for the special – Gorgonzola and smoked sausage – and a charcuterie - tomato, Irish mozzarella, Milano salami, Gaeta olives and capers – both were excellent and enjoyed by all of us. Lovely thin bases, fresh ingredients and a decent size too.

I of course worked my way through the beers with the help of my better half, who loved the Limeburner pale ale. All the beers were very tasty and true to style - especially for my perceived thinking of what farmhouse-style brewing should be (but where’s the Saison?!) - and very drinkable, especially here given the location, food and ambience. My favourites were Yannaroody, a nice full bodied dark-chocolaty porter with the barest hint of coconut that has an ice cream available to match, and the spicy-bitter Rustbucket rye ale. I wasn’t expecting them to brew a double IPA or imperial stout so no surprises or disappointments, just good beer.

We left after chatting with the barmen about the beers, our stomachs full and my curiosity sated too. The family were happy too and we set off back to Rathmullan village after another pleasant hour or two following the hops!

Visited 14th August 2014

Thursday, 14 August 2014

Still Following the Hops...

The White Harte sits looking out over the pier and slipway in the town of Rathmullan. Its bright façade and red doors are hard to miss, even if it sits a little forlornly on a corner opposite where the now demolished Pier Hotel would have given the seafront a little balance. Maybe it’s just the red doors and big picture window, through which you can watch the comings and goings of the locals and tourists alike, but it seems to call to you as you walk past like a siren to a sailor.

I’m still on my solo wander through the town and I’ve strolled up from The Beachcomber to see what’s happening in another pub that stocks Kinnegar beers in the town.
‘I only have three of the yellow ones left’, says the friendly lady behind the bar, who’s wearing a Kinnegar top and welcoming smile. This seems to be a recurring theme in the bars of Rathmullan, supply seems to be an issue.
‘They can’t keep up with demand. People don’t understand but that’s the situation at the moment’, she adds, as she pours only half my beer into a glass. (Not the normal procedure for a bottle conditioned beer but I don’t mind.)

The place feels more like someone’s front room than any pub I have ever visited. There’s a mixture of personal memorabilia, old pictures, advertisements for table quizzes and all kinds of glasses and other paraphernalia that you feel all have a story to tell.

It has a more homely feel than The Beachcomber, more laid back and less frantic. Personally I like it a lot, it’s perfect for a nice quiet read and a good beer. Although from the kindly attitude of the lady behind the bar I think she would chat with you for the night if that’s what you wanted.

Tourist and locals wander in and out as I sit and drink my Scraggy Bay, which to mind is exactly as it should be. A bitter, medium bodied golden ale with a zing of lemon that refreshes the palate. A musician arrives with an electric accordion and begins to set up as I sit quietly reading my book. I gather that this is a good traditional music bar and I can see how it would appeal to any tourist wandering by.

I just hope the restock the beer soon!

Tuesday, 12 August 2014

Super Moons, Rainbows and Mispronunciations in Donegal

The snow-washed denim clad barman in The Beachcomber bar on my third night in Rathmullan walked away muttering to another member of staff as I sat at the bar after asking for a pint of the local pale ale. All I heard were mutterings of ‘Kinnegaaar’ (think Mullingar) and ‘Kinnegr’ (think vinegar), as my ability to make out more than the odd word spoken in a Donegal accent was exacerbated by distance and he was at the end of the bar pulling a pint of Limeburner for me.
Beer-name-pronunciation has been a recurring issue with me ever since my first trip to Belgium when I caused an entire bar to fall silent as a waiter reprimanded me for pronouncing Duvel in a junior cert French ‘Dooveel’ way instead of the curt Flemish ‘Doovl’.
I didn’t understand what he said either but in both cases I think the equivalent words to ‘tool’ and ‘tourist’ were used in good measure - and perhaps rightly so. And as for Nøgne Ø…

But don’t get me wrong, this hasn’t put me off The Beachcomber. It’s a great bar with possibly the best fish and chips I’ve ever had, plus views that would make a Scandinavian fjord seem plain and ordinary. The staff are friendly, approachable and talkative, and nothing seems to bother them – apart from mispronunciations obviously.

And so far this week Rathmullan had rainbows, super moons and hightides to keep us amused too.

Our first visit was on a busy Saturday night, the pub full of Dubs, Norn Ironers and locals as well as the odd strays like us. The Gaa was on the TV and the place was hot and hopping. We – my other half, kids and a few stray relations – crammed ourselves into a few seats and I approached the bar with the knowledge that a Kinnegar Limeburner tap was clearly visible.
‘It’s gone,’ the Barman said apologetically, ‘and we’ve got no bottles either,’ he added, pre-empting my next question. A sad face and a pint of Smithwicks followed…
But the next day it was back on. ‘We got in two wee kegs,’ the same barman said as he pulled my pint. ‘They won’t last long.’ My better half had asked for a pint of a macro lager and when I came back down I put the two pints in front of her and asked her which was which, and which she preferred. She wasn’t sure about the first question but preferred the pale ale…

And so, back to my third night, which was a solo mission, based on a lack of interest from any of the others in our group (A day trip to the incredible Ballymastocker beach, Fanad lighthouse (from a distance!), Sheephaven Bay and a detour that almost took us INTO Lough Salt had worn them out.) and as I was admiring the my beer – as you do – a man and woman rushed up to the bar via the back door.
‘Do you have than Line burner back in yet,’ she asked. When the bar man told her than indeed they did have Limeburner back in she asked for two pints, and I noticed that her companion was looking at me funny.
‘He-arsten-fursten-cloudy-beer-tee-as-Limeburner?’ he asked in a language that sounded part Dutch but mostly Norwegian and spoken with a Donegal accent.
‘Sorry?’ I replied – but he just repeated the same string of words in a louder voice. His partner, and I presume translator, had gone missing so I just sat looking at his inquisitive face and said, ‘Yes, Limeburner, it’s unfiltered,’ hoping this was the answer he required.
‘De-gerten-as-to-Germany-in-forten-fur-de-lemon-in-de-orsen-too!’ he said, following this statement up with a mighty laugh. I just smiled at him inanely and nodded - as you do. Luckily just then his minder/carer/partner arrived and encouraged him away, so I’ll never know exactly what he said or what language he was speaking. Knowing me it was English but just not in a way that my ears and brain could assimilate.

Back to the beer…

Kinnegar’s Lime Burner would not be my first choice of ale but in a macro-brewery-dominated world it’s a better choice to most other tipples in a bar. Not to mention my fondness to support Irish craft beers when they are good. And Limeburner is good if not spectacular, but that’s just a question of taste really (and from what the barman said it was certainly popular in the Beachcomber). I like unfiltered beers in general but I did feel that Limeburner would benefit from filtration to remove that slight chalky, almost Witt quality that I perceived from it. I’m not a major fan of wheat beers - Limeburner isn’t one I know - but I got that same quality from the beer which left it feeling slightly imbalanced to me. Not clean and crisp enough for a pale ale – although I still enjoyed it as drinking beer is not just about the beer...

I hope that I’ll get a better handle on the pronunciations soon, at least I’ll know if I’m being skitted!

More Rathmullan assessments to follow including The White Harte and The Tap Room in Rathmullan House Cellar Bar…

Friday, 1 August 2014

Recipe: Pickled Pink

An online search for ‘pickled eggs Ireland’ you will get a fair few comments on blogs and recipe websites mentioning how they are one of the staple provisions in Irish cupboards and that many pubs sell them still. Admittedly most of these comments are made by people who have never set foot in the country or are confusing trips to Ireland and the UK into one flawed memory perhaps...

Because I never remember them in shops here, or in pubs. Maybe I grew up in a pickled egg free zone? Maybe the people of Laois/Carlow were against the idea for some reason? Perhaps there was a shortage of vinegar? Was it because we were in some sort of chicken heartland where eggs were aplenty so no need to preserve them? I’m not sure…

My first encounter with pickled eggs was - as with pork scratching - in England a decade or more back when I came across them in a pub somewhere, and I remember thinking they were ok… Not spectacular or good, just ok. (Although wherever it was I do remember them being fished out of a large jar by a brute of a man with hairy fingers and a surly demeanour, then plonked on a piece of toilet roll on the bar - I really frequented classy places back then. )

I came across them again a year ago when searching online for snacks to go with beer for a tasting night I was organising. Many of the recipes I tried were from US based sites, as just like beer, they seem to be more experimental with flavours and additions. I’ve made a good few different types and tweaked them over the last year but my favourite and those of my guests is one that includes beetroot.

So, here it is.

You will need:
10-12 Eggs – I use small or medium size
250ml of clear malt vinegar
250ml of drained liquid from 670g jar of baby beets
1 Tablespoon each of salt, sugar and black peppercorns
3-5 baby beets from the jar
1 large jar (I use an empty 950g olive jar)

What to do:
Boil eggs for 10 mins and leave them sitting in hot water for a further 10 mins, then place in cold water for 15 mins.

While waiting on the eggs to cool sterilise the jar and lid. I do this by washing them in hot water, rinsing well, then pour boiling water in to the jar and put the lid in a bowl with more boiling water. (Warning: It has been suggested that the glass might crack by doing this so choose whatever way to sterilise that you feel is safe.)

Add the vinegar, drained liquid from beetroot jar, salt, sugar and pepper to a saucepan, then bring to the boil to dissolve sugar and salt. Add beets to boiling water and leave simmering gently.
Carefully empty the water from the jar, peel the eggs and fill the jar - placing beetroots from the saucepan between each layer. When you’ve added all the eggs (Don’t pack too tight or they’ll stick together), fill the jar with the simmering liquid including peppercorns.

Carefully place the lid on and tighten. As the jar cools the lid will de-press and seal the contents. Rotate the jar as it cools to stop the eggs from sticking together.

Store in the fridge until you need them. I find that the beet flavour – and pink colour – starts to travel into the eggs after about 3 days and that they are at their best in about a week or so. Even when opened I have found that they are fine for up to 10 days, which is as long as they have ever lasted in my house – just keep them in the fridge. They do pong a little when you open the jar but that’s normal… I think!

Give them a shot. They are a little sweet and not too vinegary so they go well with most beers but adjust the recipe to suit your palate. I serve them with just a little salt.

Maybe they will start appearing in homes and pubs around the country!

(There’s a lot of discussions on various websites about sterilising and storage but this is what works for me with no issues so far. But I’m not a trained food handler so use your own knowledge and common sense.)

Tuesday, 22 July 2014

Pork Scratchings – Love won’t just break your heart…

My affair with pork scratchings – or pork rinds as they are called in the US of A - is based on a few chance and fleeting meetings on English soil. An introduction in the Jolly Waggoner in Hounslow in the late eighties, where I dismissed them as a too-small pack of hard Ranchero-like treats or something equally mundane, but still with an addictive quality. Next came a surprise meeting in The Old Green Tree in Bath many years later when they landed on the table accompanied by a jar of pickled periwinkles. Those periwinkles were nice but the scratchings were nicer again, even if they did loosen a few fillings. I looked at the pack and there was Mr. Porky himself doffing his hat to me with his cheeky smile. He knew, yeah he knew alright – we’d meet again.

Apart from having a little crackling on the side, I forgot about these little nuggets of pure joy for another few years until I bumped in to Mr Porky once more in my local Iceland - that purveyor of all things British - and I although I was abstaining from all things fat, I guiltily put them into my basket, knowing it was wrong but also that it felt so right.
Back home I opened the pack to be greeted by that familiar smell of wet dog and flatulence. This soon dissipated and the little morsels of fried pig skin and fat were crunched away in no time, and I was soon sated, but filled with remorse, finally knowing what the term ‘Guilty Pleasure’ really, really meant.

So I thought, perhaps if I cook them myself I can control and accept this urge and want? If cooked at home then it will surely by OK won’t it? Yeah, of course it will, it will be fine then. Great.

So off I went to the warm and inviting chilled shelves of my local craft butcher and grabbed a vac-packed pig skin from amongst the pig's heads and trotters, a bargain I thought at 84c for a piece 30cm by 30cm approx.
Back home the first thing I did – and this is not for the squeamish – was remove any blemishes and, er, nubbins from the piece and gave it a wash before drying it thoroughly with paper towels. Next I cut it in half and rubbed the skin side with vinegar, which tightens the skin a little as well as adding an extra subtle depth of flavour. I then turned it skin side down on my grilling tray rack and sprinkled on plenty of salt and smoked paprika. (You can use any spice you like here but I have found that either smoked or sweet paprika, or Chinese five-spice work best for my tastes.) I added some water to the bottom of the grill tray to help stop the pork fat from smoking too much - but it will still smoke so make sure you have good ventilation!

The next step is the cooking. Place the tray in the top of an oven at 180c for 45 minutes, then flip it skin side up, add more salt to the pork and water to the tray, and cook for another 30 minutes but keep a close eye on it as you want it golden and not brown at this point.
Next is the tricky stage. Turn off the oven and turn on the grill. In a few minutes you’ll see the pork skin start to bubble, rise and crackle and the secret is to take it out just before it starts to burn so watch it closely. It take less that 5 minutes under my grill.

Next take it out, cover with kitchen towel and let it cool down. When cold, chop up with a sharp, strong knife and put in sealable bag or container. Shake in more salt to taste and eat immediately or within the next 48 hours, as in my experience the pieces get chewy after that!
They are much nicer than pre-packed scratchings in my opinion, although they do still smell faintly of wet dog when you re-open the bag…

Beer pairing? Hoppy beers don't work for me with scratchings but smoked malty lagers, not-so-dry stouts and English-style mild ales do. But do experiment yourselves!

So do I still feel guilty? Yep, but I've learned to accept and embrace the guilt. After all, you can’t fight the love. Can you?

Warnings and disclaimers!
This is not a treat for kids or those with weak teeth.
It is in no way healthy.
I am not a trained cook so any hygiene or other issues I might have missed are down to you to research!