Category Archives: Ale, beer

Harveys Bonfire Boy Strong Ale 2014

Bonfire Boy 4

It’s been a busy week here on the building site, so escaping the frenzied activity of plasterers, plumbers, window fitters and carpenters this morning I went into town – and had to visit the Harveys brewery shop, as their famed Bonfire Boy had just appeared. In fact it was bottled just this morning, the batch prepared to accompany the annual Bonfire Night, aka Guy Fawkes Night, celebrations, 5th November. They didn’t even have a button set up on their till, so I reckon I was the first customer to buy it.

Since I was a kid in the 1970s, when we used to run through the embers of the massive fire on the site of Oram’s Arbor in Winchester, Bonfire Night has become a sorry, much diminished thing in many parts of the country, local council regulations banning the actual bonfire in many places. It’s pathetic. What’s Bonfire Night without a bonfire? Luckily, Lewes is the world capital of Bonfire Night. It’s a very, very serious business here, with neighbourhood Bonfire Societies, dressed in colour-coded striped Guernseys, white trousers and various themed costumes, holding their own processions, burning barrel races, fireworks displays and bonfires in a continuation of traditions that date back to the 17th century, or earlier.

The Lewes Bonfire historian – with whom I share a surname – Jim Etherington says “Any account of what form 5th November celebrations in Lewes took in the years immediately following the discovery of the Gunpowder Plot in 1605 remains conjecture” but writes about solid accounts from the year 1679. “The rolling of blazing tar barrels through the High Street is recorded for the first time” in 1832. Years of tension between the Bonfire Boys and local authorities continued until the Bonfire Societies began to form in the late 1840s, giving the anarchy some organisational tethers. As with many British folk traditions, consolidation and honing took place in the Victorian era, and over the intervening decades the events have become world famous – with a reported 80,000 people sometimes packing the town, which normally has a population of around 15,000.

Bonfire Boy 2

Harveys first brewed Bonfire Boy in 1996. It was then called Firecracker, and commemorated the work of the fire brigade and their work fighting a blaze at the brewery in July of that year, but it subsequently became the annual Bonfire Night brew.

It’s a delicious beer, a dark amber colour, very little head and an aroma of apples and toffee – appropriately enough, given that toffee apples (aka candy apples in American) are for many Brits a treat closely associated with Halloween and Bonfire Night, both arguably modern incarnations of the Celtic Samhain. The beer also has a taste of apple and toffee, along with a deep maltiness, like well-baked bread or warming porridge with golden syrup, and hints of Prunus genus fruits like cherry and plum. It’s a smooth, full-bodied beer, confident in its 5.8% strength. It’s one of those beers that feels really substantial when you roll it around in your mouth, almost like eating an autumnal stew followed by a hot fruit pudding.

I’m looking forward to having a few more come The Glorious Fifth.

Bonfire Boy 3

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From building site to castle. Real, actual castle

Kingswear Castle sunflare
As our building works were plodding into their most inconvenient stages we’d arranged to go away. I went down to Devon to see my folks, visiting a strangely dead village on the way down where all the cafes were closed but there was this great carving on an old pub.

Wheatsheaf

Being in Devon was lovely in itself as we got to enjoy the last vestiges of summer while mowing a meadow, but also because staying at my parents’ house meant I had use of an actual kitchen, something I’ve not had for 13 weeks now. So I could get stuck straight in with the baking, using up some something aging ingredients to make a surprisingly good loaf and okay almond and candied peel cookies.

Bread and biscuits crop

For the weekend, thanks to a generous gift for Fran’s big birthday and my less significant one from my folks, we went and stayed in a castle. An actual castle. Surely all boys – and many girls – fantasise about living in castles when they’re young, and this was about as good a fulfilment of that as I could hope for, aged forty-something in the 21st century.

Dartmouth and Kingswear castles

Kingswear Castle is a small defensive fort built a few meters above the waterline of the mouth of the river Dart. It was constructed at the turn of the 15th century to form a pair with Dartmouth Castle just over the river. Both were fitted with cannons to cover the mouth of the river in case of attack by enemy ships trying to take advantage of the sheltered port of Dartmouth. Improving technology soon made Kingswear Castle obsolete and it fell into disrepair. A Victorian aristocrat owned it in the 19th century, then the local MP in the mid-20th century, but I can imagine it wasn’t the easiest home. The gardener there told us the winter 2013-2014 storms involved waves breaking into not just a small Victorian bedroom in a turret at ground level, but also into an upstairs bedroom. Like Dartmouth opposite, it was also a significant spot in WW2, and there’s a blockhouse in the garden.

Shadow, blockhouse, rocks

As a place to visit though, with some mixed but not extreme weather, it was a wonderful experience. Partly, again, as it had a kitchen so I could do some cooking and baking, but partly because it had a kitchen with a view across the mouth of the River Dart or out to sea.

Apple cake, Dartmouth Castle

Among the things I made were the Dan Lepard apple and orange crumble tart I mentioned in my last post. It was delicious, especially with some of that divine dairy nectar clotted cream. (In this case, from Riverford Dairy. So good.)

Apple cake 2

I also made a loaf, about 80 per cent spelt, given an overnight fermentation. First I put it the dough an embrasure on the spiral stairway to prove.

Spiral staircase long prove

But I think there was too much warm air coming up, so I moved it to the ground (or rock) floor, where the old gun ports are. The finished loaf looked a bit like a seal, suitably enough as I’d seen one on the evening we arrived.

Gun floor

On our final morning, the weather was a tad wild and windy, and the waves were breaking into these ports. No wonder it wasn’t an easy place to live, especially for the MP, who put his kitchen in here and presumably watched it floating around in the surf on regular occasions.

Kingswear Castle panorama

Before the final wet and windy morning, however, we had some lovely weather. Good enough for a sunny walk along the coast path, via the old WW2 installations and current Coastwatch station at Froward Point, to Coleton Fishacre. This is a National Trust property, built in the 1920s for the D’Oyly Carte family, founders of the Savoy Theatre and patrons of Gilbert and Sullivan. I loved the 1920s styling, but particularly enjoyed the kitchens, replete with their fake loaf of bread.

D'Oyly kitchen

The sunny weather also gave us a nice backdrop for a patriotic moment and some beer tasting. This included a range from a new brewery near Winchester, my home town, called Mash. To be brutally honest, we found most of their beers insubstantial, not ready for release. But good luck to them. I always enjoy encountering a new brewery.

Mash and flag

Then we had some more local beers from Teignworthy Brewery in the Devon village of Newton Abbot (which we’d driven through.) This mild was almost a porter, with charcoally hints and a medium body.

Teignmouth Martha's Mild

The (sensible) boozing didn’t stop when we’d left either. We tried some more beers from Clearwater Brewery, in the north Devon village of Bideford.

Clearwater beers

The baking didn’t stop either. I was able to make one more loaf, this time with Wessex Mill‘s Wessex Cobber, a lovely malty flour I’ve tried before. As well as being an amazing holiday, it was just such a relief to have an opportunity to do some baking. For someone who makes bread every week, being without a kitchen for so long has been an interesting trial.

Wessex Cobber loaf

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Walking from Lewes to Winchester on the South Downs Way

Mist in the Weald, South Downs Way

Winchester, in Hampshire, is my home town but now I’m living in Lewes, in Sussex. Between the two is the ridge of chalk hills known as the South Downs, along which runs a path: the South Downs Way.

When we moved to Lewes in summer 2011, we walked a section of the Way to the southeast of Lewes, but since we moved back here this year, I’ve been wanting to walk to Winchester. We finally found a time in September to escape the building site and do the walk, happily coinciding with my birthday. After a cool, wet August, the summer came back in September and we had great weather. Three of the five mornings had thick mists, but these generally burned off leaving sun and views along the hills and north over the Weald, the lowland area between the South Downs and the next set of hills, the North Downs.

The south of England has been populated and manipulated by humans for millennia. The landscape of the hills was defined by centuries of sheep farming, which resulted in a unique ecology, plagioclimax communities featuring amazing selections of wildflowers and other wildlife. Much of this downland has been lost in England with the mechanisation of farming, but there’s still plenty along the Way. The human influence is also evinced by numerous hill forts , old industrial buildings, castles, tumuli (prehistoric burial mounds) and many, many cross dykes. No, not angry lesbians, but prehistoric earthworks that may have been territorial boundaries

Nature, history – and pubs
The other good thing about a walk in a long-populated part of the world is that you can go to the pub, something that’s not so easy on a backcountry hike. There were some great pubs along the way, and some great beers. A few pints of which, I would say, are well-earned after walking 20 miles (32km). We also stopped in a few nice tea shops, which, along with pubs, are – when done well – one of England’s great pleasures.

England’s B&Bs, on the other hand, can be less of a pleasure. There are some great B&Bs out there, and we stayed in a few lovely places, but they’re not the greatest examples of our hospitality. Aside from small, rubbish showers, my main grievance is the so-called “full English breakfast”. It’s all very well to pile a plate with sausages and beans and toast, but when all of that food is industrially produced, it just turns my stomach. Luckily, we stayed a few places that had their own chickens, ducks and pigs, so the eggs and pork products were good, but among the five places we stayed, only one served real bread, and only one offered homemade granola. The other four provided toast and “cereal” made from industrially used and abused grains. These are not good foods for your health in general and preparing to walk long distances specifically. B&Bs of Britain – make the effort! Serving real bread would be a great start.

In total we walked 88 miles / 141km, linking, the old-fashioned way, my current home and my childhood home. Here are some pics.

Day 1: Lewes to Steyning (21 miles / 34km)
Misty morning. Though this dew pond – one of many along the top of the Downs – with its one solitary tree looked handsome and moody.

Dew pond near Ditchling Beacon

Already done a few miles. I love topographic features with devil-related names. The Dyke is the grandest of them along the South Downs.

Finger post, one of many

Tea stop at the Hiker’s Rest, Saddlescombe Farm, before climbing up the Devil’s Dyke. A unique arrangement involving a small food truck serving cakes etc parked in a farm yard, with seating both outside and inside old feeding sheds.

Cake and coffee at Saddlescombe

Cup of tea at eminently cute Steyning Tea Rooms. Yes, it’s green tea with lemon, not your normal British black tea with milk. Cos that’s how I roll. Sometimes.

Tea at Steyning Tea Rooms

First pint of the walk, Long Man Pale Ale from Long Man Brewery, further east in Sussex, near the Long Man of Wilmington. We stayed at the Chequer Inn. Although it was a pretty standard pub, the beer was well kept – they have Cask Marque and SIBA signs – and the 15th century building had a lot of character.

Long Man American Pale Ale at the Chequer Inn, Steyning

Steyning has a very handsome high street, which remains fairly unspoiled except for that most reliable of taints on the modern human environment, the motor vehicle.

Steyning High St, evening

Day 2: Steyning to Bury (13 miles / 21km)
Started the day getting supplies from the Sussex Produce Company, which has this excellent selection of local beers.

Local beers, Sussex Produce Company

These hops were growing semi-wild on the edge of Steyning.

Hops - and convolvulus - Steyning

Wild chicory on the ridge above Steyning. If you like chicory and are interested in the various cultivated forms and their relationship with this wild one, I wrote about it here.

Wild chicory

Paths in the mist – or possibly fret, as a sea mist is known in Sussex dialect.

Tracks in the mist

An unusual WW2 bunker on Highden Hill, just after crossing the A24 London Road. It was apparently built by Canadian forces 1940-42, and was dubbed the “Tin Castle” by local schoolchildren.

World War 2 'Tin Castle', Highden Hill

Stopping at The Bridge Inn at Amberley (or more accurately, Amberley station / Houghton Bridge) for a few halves of  Hip Hop – a hoppy blonde ale – from West Sussex’s  Langham Brewery and some live bluegrass.

Hip Hop and bluegrass at the Bridge, Amberley

There used to be a ferry across the River Arun between Bury and Amberley. Walkers be warned – there isn’t a ferry any more, but there is a fine new foot and cycle bridge.

The old ferry crossing, Bury

Nice little village Bury. We had dinner at the Squire and Horse gastro pub where the food was good and the service very hospitable, so much so that I forget to take photos. I was drinking Sussex Gold, from Arundel Brewery, suitably enough, as it’s just down the River Arun. This light, smooth 4.2% ABV ale, which combined subtle lemon and caramel flavours, was just right for a warm evening, sitting outside watching dragonflies flit. (It really has been an amazing year for dragonflies here in southern England.)

Day 3: Bury to South Harting (20 miles / 33km)
Another misty start coming out of Bury, but it cleared very suddenly when we got back up on the ridge.

Another misty start

The Devil’s Jumps, one of the many wonderful prehistoric sites along the route. They’re a series of five bell barrows, a type of tumulus: that is, a grave (or not) created with a stone construction covered with earth. Fran had been having a bad day with blisters but a game pie cheered her up as did the amazing sight of a hare which ran across the path near the Jumps, closely followed by a stoat.

Devil's Jumps

This memorial is just near the Devil’s Jumps, and another fascinating bit of history. The South Downs Way official trail guide shows its weakness when author Paul just says “A German pilot killed during the Second World War perhaps?”. In fact, it’s a memorial to a 25-year-old airman who was on a Ju88 bomber, shot down by a British fighter on 13 August 1940, “Eagle Day”.

German airman memorial

We spent a very pleasant couple of hours enjoying beautiful late afternoon/evening weather – and Upham Brewery beers, from Hampshire, though we were still in West Sussex – at the White Hart pub in South Harting.

The White Hart, South Harting

Day 4: South Harting to Corhampton (18 miles / 29km)

The day started with mist again, beautiful as we headed back up to the ridge through these woods.

Sunlight through the morning mist in woods, near South Harting

I’m assuming this enigmatic bollard with a length of chain attached marks the county boundary between Hampshire and West Sussex. Why the chain?

Sussex-Hampshire county boundary I believe

The English hedgerows in September are things of great beauty. Among the many plants in these tangled, frequently ancient field boundaries is black bryony, Dioscorea communis. This is Britain’s only native member of the yam family, though unlike its African staple food relative, it’s not edible.

Garland of black bryony

After seeing a 20-year-old book about the Way illustrated with aerial photos, I was intrigued about the landlocked naval base known as HMS Mercury. Sadly, by the time we arrived, it’s all a building site for massive houses in a weird pastiche 18th farm cottage architectural style. This is Fran changing the plasters on her blisters just nearby.

Blister rest stop near the old HMS Mercury

This was our lunch that day. Local Sussex cheese and bread, though the latter was disappointing. My water bottle is a growler from Estes Park Brewery, which we visited almost a year ago.

A lunch

View of Old Winchester Hill from the east. Quite why it’s called Old Winchester, when it’s 18km from Winchester (itelf pretty old, with its own hill fort) is a mystery. One local legend says the Romans tried to build Winchester (Venta Belgarum) there, but every morning they returned to the site and found the stonework they’d laid had been rolled down the hill. So they chose Winchester instead.

Old Winchester Hill, Iron Age hill fort

Quick break on Old Winchester Hill, most of which is a wild flower meadow at the moment, helping mantain species that need grazed chalk downland and also helping the much-ravaged bee population.

Rest on Old Winchester Hill

The villages of Corhampton, Meonstoke and Exton all blur together. Two of them have pubs and ancient churches. Corhampton church dates from 1020. This yew tree may be even older.

Thousand year old yew, Corhampton Church

Exton’s church, St Peter’s and St Paul’s, is slightly younger, 13th century. This is apparently a gravestone (now located in the nave) showing the Angel of Death summoning a scholar from his books.

Angel of death visits scholar, Exton church

We arrived about 4.30pm. The pub, appropriately named The Shoe, didn’t open till 6pm, dammit. So we hung about in the churchyard until it did, then I had a pint of Wadworth 6X. Wadworth is in Wiltshire, so relatively local as it’s the next county to the  northwest of Hampshire. It was a solid, medium-bodied, malty, caramelly ale. Fran had Swordfish, a similar malt ale given a bit of bite with the addition of rum.

Pint at The Shoe, Exton

The Shoe is a great food pub. Desserts included that essential British (gastro-) pub classic, sticky toffee pudding. It wasn’t the best sticky toffee I’ve had (it wasn’t warm enough for starters) but the main coarses we had – venison and scallops – were excellent so we were in a forgiving mood.

Sticky toffee pudding at The Shoe

Day 5: Corhampton to Winchester (15 miles / 25km)
Leaving the lovely Corhampton Lane Farm B&B, where they both grow and clean grain, we scrambled down the back of their property. This vineyard was across the valley. The South Downs are becoming increasingly significant for wine production. I don’t know much about it, but apparently chalk and limestone are particularly good for producing sparkling wines – and that’s what this estate, Exton Park, does.

Vineyard near Exton

Not far to go now, getting back in the countryside I explored as a kid on my bike and on family walks.

Winchester 10

For those who know me, they’ll know I got a bit obsessed with dead bikes while living in Rome. This was a nice variation on a theme. What it’s doing alongside a path on Gander Down I don’t know.

Dead bike, Gander Down

Some more hedgerow bounty. It really has been an amazing year for sloes and blackberries. If we’d been medieval pilgrims of a lowly caste or abstemious bent, we probably could have walked the whole route feeding ourselves on blackberries and hedgerow apples.

Amazing year for brambles.

Reaching Winchester, we stopped at my favourite home town pub, The Black Boy free house, for a quick early afternoon drink. I had a Saxon Bronze from Alfred’s Brewery, founded in 2012 and named after our 9th century Saxon king, Alfred the Great. Winchester was his capital and from there he built the foundations of modern England. The Saxon Bronze is one of those new generation English ales that has the maltiness of a traditional bitter, but is informed by the crisp New World hoppiness so associated with the craft beer revolution.

Black Boy beers

And here is some serious caskery outside the Black Boy.

Casks outside the Black Boor

The end of our walk, on the steps of my folks’ place.

Made it

Now, I absolutely loved this walk. So much history and beauty. Fran had a wobble when her blisters were getting to her, but overall she enjoyed it too. My only regret is not doing one extra mile at the end and going to the Hospital of St Cross, a Norman church and almshouses, where you can request the “wayfarer’s dole” at the porter’s lodge. As we were genuine old-school wayfarers, it would have made sense, but as I grew up just near there, it felt weird to go there to blag a piece of bread and mouthful of ale.

Instead, we paid a visit to this wonderful gravestone in the grounds of Winchester Cathedral. Thomas Thetcher was a soldier who died in 1726, apparently because of his beer choice: “Here sleeps in peace a Hampshire Grenadier, / Who caught his death by drinking cold small Beer, / Soldiers be wise from his untimely fall / And when ye’re hot drink Strong or none at all.”

Small beer memorial

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Bad memories, skunkiness and the question of beer in cans

Beaverton Gamma

For many drinkers of real beer, the implications of cans are almost too terrible to contemplate. They certainly are for me. Cans remind me of buying cheapo industrial lager just to get drunk in the Winchester Cathedral Grounds as a teenager. As well as associating canned beer with vile industrial lagers, I always associated them with a metallic taste. I assumed this was not necessarily the vile industrial lager itself, but the packaging.

But all that’s changing. The challenge now is changing such preconceptions.

It is strange how abiding a prejudice can be, but if you learned to drink by consuming vile industrial lagers (or indeed snakebites), frequently from cans, and have memories of puking and hangovers, the psychology isn’t that complex. It’s just a kind of self-inflicted aversion. It worked too: I didn’t drink from the age of 18 to 24.

Times change
Anyway, the past few years, I’ve been increasingly encountering real beers, in cans. Initially I bridled when I was served  Angry Peaches from Garage Project in a can in a restaurant in Wellington, but this New Zealand take on an APA turned out to be delicious, and one of the best beers I had in NZ.

Angry Peaches meal md

More recently I’ve encountered a couple of other interesting beers in cans. When we were in Rome a few weeks ago, hanging out at Tram Depot in Testaccio, I was drinking Steamer (7.6% ABV). But it wasn’t as good as I remembered: I appreciate its depth of flavour and body, but it’s not well-integrated and always seems to be over-carbonated. Its recipe needs some tweaking. So I wanted to try the other real beer they were offering, something not quite as strong (it had been a long day, a long hot day of boozing and eating). This turned out to be something called Kurt (4.32% ABV), and not Italian but Swiss. I didn’t even know Switzerland had a craft beer scene.

Kurt 1

It was nominally from a brewery called Bad Attitude. Aside from any irony inherent in this name, the Bad Attitude set-up is a bit confusing. It also seems to be Ticino Brewing Company (aka Birrificio Ticinese in Italian, as the Ticino is Switzerland’s predominantly Italian-speaking canton). Which also seems to be related to another brand, Birra San Martino. The latter’s site says they were founded in 2002, but have called themselves Birrificio Ticinese since 2010. They’re all at the same address in the town of Stabio, but I can’t work out why they exist as three brands.

As for the straw-coloured beer itself, it was a bit weird. Despite being made with two hops from one of my favourite parts of the world – Riwaka and Motueka, both places in the north of South Island NZ – and some great British Marris Otter malt, most of all I got a coconut flavour. It’s not that I dislike coconut especially, but I just didn’t like it in a pale ale flavour profile. I know some beers have coconut as an adjunct, but Kurt didn’t, so I’d guess it came from an ester, those chemical compounds that give beers so many diverse flavours and aromas.*

Kurt 2

Retro-futuristic
The most recent beer I’ve had in a can I drunk in the beautiful evening sun last night. This was Gamma Ray from Beavertown. This was the beer I’ve tried from this brewery, set up in London in 2011, and it was very enjoyable indeed.

I do love British APAs – they tend to have the decisive characteristics of the more aromatic US hops but balanced with our traditional love of beers defined more by their maltiness. In this case the hops were Amarillo, Columbus, Bravo and Magnum (“added in ever increasing amounts at the end of the boil and in the fermenter”), though the bitterness was surprisingly minimal, without any particularly dry mouthfeel. The beer was rounded out and sweetened with not one but three malts, Simpsons Best, Caragold and Caramalt. Excellent.

Gamma can 1

The experience was enhanced by the can’s awesome wraparound wide-screen design, a kind of retro-SF horror tableau of goldfish bowl-helmeted spacemen being zapped into skullfacedness by flying saucers. Love it. Indeed, on an aesthetic level, one of the great points about cans is how they design can go 360 like this, unlike with the traditional front and back labels of bottles.

Cans versus bottles
The main arguments for using cans, however, are more practical. Mostly made from aluminum, they’re simply a lighter weight material and as such involve much less energy when transported, compared to glass bottles. From both me lugging stuff home from Twenty One Wines in Brighton in a bag to massive trucks carrying it around on roads, or shipments moving internationally (something that’s arguably absurd given that beer is mostly water, but that’s another argument). Furthermore, a bottle, when used once, involves a lot more energy to manufacture and then recycle – assuming people bother to even recycle.

The other big argument for cans is that they protect the beer from light damage. The traditional brown glass bottle protects the beer from light damage to some extent, but for those companies that insist on packaging in green or clear glass, the beer will spoil, will get lightstruck when left in daylight. The UV causes a reaction resulting in what’s called “skunkiness” – that is, a chemical process creates a molecule that’s closely related to those in skunk spray.

As for the issue of the beer getting a metallic taste, so synonymous with cheapo bad lager, most cans used for beer these days have a thin inner lining so there’s no contact between beer and aluminium. Certainly all my recent experiences with “tinnies” have been entirely free of metallic hauntings and the ensuing teenage flashbacks.

So I’ll definitely be happy to drink real beer in cans now. Which is good, as it’s becoming increasingly common. This US NPR article quote says, “five years ago, just a few dozen craft brewers in the US were canning, while today there are more than 500.” So expect to see more here in the UK too.

Having said that though, probably 60 per cent of the beer I drink at home is from my local (800m away) brewery, Harveys. Their (brown) bottled beer is sold with a deposit, so I just take them back and they reuse them. But most people don’t have a local brewery with such an enlightened (nay, sensibly old-fashioned – we always did the same with milk in Britain when things were more localised) approach. So for the abovementioned reasons, there’s probably no reason to poo-poo cans any more. Even if you’re particularly hardcore about your real beer requirements. The Gamma Ray for example was in a can and unpasteurised and unfiltered.

 

 

* My friend Michele, a food scientist and brewer, suggests the coconut odour and taste may come from one of two chemicals: from the molecule d-Decalattone  (C10H18O2) or from an ethyl group of chemicals (–C2H5), which are derived from ethane (C2H6). Srangely, the latter can present with odours of coconut, or pear, or wine.

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A week in Rome: Etruscan necropolis, Etrusca beer

Stone beds at Banditaccia necropolis, Cerveteri

We didn’t spend out entire holiday just eating and drinking. I made a point of doing a few day trips. One was to the Etruscan necropolis – city of the dead – of Banditaccia, a train ride, a bus ride and a surprisingly pleasant walk from Cerveteri, a town near the coast to the nortwest of Rome.

Banditaccia is such an evocative name. It makes me think of bandits and other unsavoury rural types using the old underground chambers (hypogea) to hide away in the middle ages. It’s quite likely they did too, though I can’t report that as fact.

The necropolis was established at the beginning of the 7th century BC, at least. I love this – you wander round Rome going “Wow, Colosseum…” but that particular monument only dates from the 1st century AD. Etruscan civilisation, which gave its name to Tuscany, was already remarkably sophisticated when Romulus and Remus were still just dirty wolf-boys shouting at each other, mythically, from huts on the adjacent hilltops of the Palatine and Aventine.

Etruscan pot, Cerveteri museum

Cerveteri, called Caere by the Etruscans and located a mile from Banditaccia, has a museum in the castle that dominates the centre of town. Even after all the best finds from excavations were filched by the Vatican, it’s still full of amazing finds, mostly ceramics. They show how closely the Etruscans traded through the Med, notably with the Greeks, as the art style is similar, as are the gods and mythological characters featured.

Multimedia hypogea
Visiting the tombs themselves, and imagining how they would have looked decorated with these urns and other funerary furnishings, is an amazing experience. The place was pretty much deserted when we visited, so a staff member was able to turn on multimedia installations for us in three of the hypogea. I have mixed feelings about all the holes in the tuff volcanic rock drilled so they could install projectors and speakers, but the systems work surprisingly well, lighting up the tombs and giving a sense of how these spaces were used.

What struck me, even centuries later, with the tombs mostly denuded of their decorations, is how homely they are. And this is just the point. The Etruscans created the necropolises as mirror images of the cities of the living. Each hypogeum was a home for several generations of family. The dead were initially body wrapped in cloth, then buried, or burned and put in urns. The hypogea consist of rooms with stone beds, and some even feature incredible decorations. The most famous example is Banditaccia’s Tomb of the Reliefs – amazing 3D designs of tools and utensils, for war and domestic work: those two most important activities of the living.

Tomb of the Reliefs, Banditaccia, Cerveteri (Photo: Fran Hortop)

As Fran pointed out, the notion of the tombs being the mirror image of homes is also expressed by the fact that these spaces, firstly large, rounded tumuli, then later in rows much like terraced housing, were carved out of the tuff. It was a process of creating a living space for the dead by hollowing out spaces in the ground. This contrasts with building a home above ground, creating space by erecting walls and roofs.

Terraced tombs, Banditaccia, Cerveteri

It’s interesting too that although the Roman Republic eventually subsumed Etruria, the final three kings of the Roman Kingdom were an Etruscan dynasty (in the 7th-6th centuries BC, though this period isn’t well documented). And as they had so much common culture, the guide we spoke to said the Romans respected the Etruscan funerary arrangements enough to leave the necropolises alone, even after they had effectively quashed their civilisation. Indeed, there were still new tombs being carved in the 3rd century AD. It was only later they were semi-forgotten, becoming overgrown. Although some did provide strange cave-like spaces for shepherds – and bandits? – over the centuries, most were lost and the area resembled a series of lumps and small hills in the 19th century, before Raniero Mengarelli started his systematic excavations in 1909.

Tumulus Etruscan tomb, Banditaccia, Cerveteri

It’s a wonderful place, right up there with Ostia Antica for my favourite ancient sites in Italy: partly because these two are just undersubscribed compared to the better-known Pompey and Herculaneum, but also partly because Banditaccia has a reminded me of its fellow UNESCO site Angkor Wat in Cambodia. Banditaccia – or at least what’s been excavated – is a lot smaller but both have a similar substantialness and sense of mystery. Angkor Wat is a lot more recent (dating from the 11th-15th centuries AD) but I love these places where ancient stones have trees growing through the weathered old stonework, itself carved with sheer manpower.

Etruscan beer
After visiting Banditaccia we went beer shopping and it seemed only right to get a bottle of Birra del Borgo’s Etrusca “archeo birra”.

Borgo Etrusca label

Etrusca is actually the name of three beers, first made during a fascinating project in 2012 by Birra del Borgo (in Lazio, east of Rome), Baladin brewery (in Piedmont, NW Italy) and Dogfish Head (in Delaware, US). The brewmasters of all three worked with Dr Patrick McGovern, an archaeology professor and director of the Biomolecular Archaeology Project for Cuisine, Fermented Beverages, and Health at the University of Pennsylvania Museum, who had worked on various other ancient ale projects previously with Dogfish Head.

Together they established a list of ingredients that were consumed by the Etruscans. The Baladin site says, “Under Dr Pat’s supervision, ingredients have been selected on the basis of the findings made at several Italian archaeological sites.” According to a post on the Dogfish Head site, meanwhile, “the team clearly found that the Etruscans had a taste for ale.”

I know the ancient Romans drank beer, so it’s not a stretch to imagine the Etruscans did too true. Although grain-based beer is more associated with northern Europe, grain was of course grown in ancient Italy too, and the Dogfish site continues “The backbone of Birra Etrusca comes from two-row malted barley and an heirloom Italian wheat.” This wheat is ‘Senatore Cappelli’, which I saw in several Italian craft beers on this recent visit.

Italian society never underwent the seismic changes experienced in Britain during our comprehensive industrial revolution. Nor did it embrace as fully as Britain or the US the post-war approaches to agriculture based on rejecting ancient practices in favour of plying farmland with tonnes and tonnes and endless tonnes of petrochemical industry derived fertilisers, pesticides and herbicides. Plus, pockets of mountainous Italy remain isolated to this day. Unlike Britain, where we rejected our heritage grains in favour of modern varieties bred by agri-corporations to thrive with said chemicals, Italy still grows some of the same varieties of grain it has grown for centuries. Cappelli, however, arguably isn’t such a grain: it was selectively bred from Tunisian ‘Jenah Rhetifah’ durum wheat at the start of the 20th century. It’s conjecture, but ‘Jenah Rhetifah’ may have ancient heritage, and may indeed have been related to grain traded or cultivated by the Etruscans. I don’t know; I need to consult an expert more. Or find some funding to bloody well do a PhD!

Weird and wonderful
The beer also contains various other weird and wonderful ingredients, based on, according to the Baladin site, “research carried out on Etruscan habits, as they would [have] spiced fermented drinks with hazelnut flour, pomegranate and pomegranate juice, honeys, sultanas, natural resin and gentian root”. The “natural resin” in question is probably what the Dogfish site refers to as “the sarsaparilla-like Ethiopian myrrh resin.” The myrrh and gentian are the bittering agents, though the recipe does also include a “handful of whole-flower hops”.

Recording cultivation of hops in Europe didn’t come until centuries later, though as Humulus lupulus is native to Eurasia and north Africa there’s the chance it was utilised by the Etruscans. Wondering about this, I sent an email to Dr McGovern, the “Indiana Jones of ancient ales, wines, and extreme beverages”. Though busy on a lecture tour in Australia he kindly replied and said, “There is some evidence of hops being found in association with beverages at Etruscan sites, but not much.” I’ve just ordered his most recent book, ‘Uncorking the Past: The Quest for Wine, Beer, and Other Alcoholic Beverages’ (Berkeley: University of California, 2009) so perhaps that will tell me more. Check out the article ‘The Brewing of Etrusca Beer’ via Dr Pat’s site here (a PDF download) as it gives more detail of the procedure, while a second article on the same page, ‘Ancient Italic Beer The archaeological finds at Pombia (NO), discusses the evidence of hop usage in this era, though it refers to finds from a “proto-Celtic” population in Piedmont/Piemonte, nortern Italy, that is north of ancient Etruria.

Birra del Borgo's Etrusca

So what does it taste like?
Evaluating the experience of drinking a beer like this is tricky as the story of its genesis is so fascinating it’s potentially distracting. Not only was the recipe created with Dr Pat’s expert input, but the three breweries used different materials for the ferment. Dogfish used some bronze plates in in the vats, Baladin used wooden barrels, and Borgo used specially made terracotta jars. This is appropriate given the importance of terracotta for storing liquids in ancient Italy. We were staying in Testaccio, and drank our bottle of Etrusca there, a mere 100m or so from Monte Testaccio, which is also known as Monte dei cocci – which could be translated as “Hill of the earthenware shards”. Yes, the hill is a massive mound of broken ancient Roman amphorae.

Suitably enough, given our day trip, Fran said the beer, which is a pale, cloudy golden colour, “smells like an old cave somewhere”, with all that nuttiness, fruit and fermentation giving a certain mustiness.

Dammit can't read the label

Fran got more earthy smells from it – mushrooms, humus (leaf litter not chickpea). I got a more sharp, sauerkraut smell, with honey. The taste was sour, honey, balsamic, metallic. Fran thought it tasted like fermented tomato juice: not that she’s ever drunk that, as far as I know, but it did have a certain minerally, Bloody Mary quality.

It’s not a beer to spend a relaxing evening with, perhaps, but it’s unique. I wish I could try the Dogfish Head version, but I’ve never seen any of their ales for sale in Italy or the UK, sadly. The comparison would be interesting, and Dr Pat says that he finds the “pomegranate and myrrh are more pronounced and better integrated” with the Dogfish version.

Either way, I love these historical experiments, like Harveys’ Priory Ale from earlier this year, commemorating a slightly more recent bit of history, the Battle of Lewes 750 years ago. Dogfish Head has produced a series of these experimental brews, with their most recent collaboration with Dr McGovern a prehistoric-style Nordic ale they’re called Kvasir. There’s more about their working process, and why we lost our inclination to make such diverse brews, in an article on The Atlantic’s site here.

So anyway, Etruscan remains, Etrusca archaeological ale recreations: what a great day. And far too long a post. I was planning to mention a few other beers I tried on the trip but that will have to wait.

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Filed under Ale, beer, Breweries, Discussion, Italian beer, Misc, Rome

The Eighteenth South Downs Beer & Cider Festival, Lewes, 20-21 June 2014

18th South Downs Beer Festival in Lewes town hall. With many empty casks.

The poster for the 18th South Downs Beer and Cider Festival nicely riffs on the cover design of Neil Young’s 1972 classic album ‘Harvest’. As I’m a fan of both real beer and that album, it got me excited about the event when I first spotted it. As Fran was interested in going, and couldn’t do the first day, a Friday, due to work commitments, I got tickets for the 11am to 5pm Saturday session.

South Downs Beer Festival 2014 PosterHarvest album cover

A week or so before the event, I went to the CAMRA site and printed off the list of breweries represented, going through it to highlight all the local ones. This festival, being held in the handsome Lewes Town Hall, marked forty years of the Brighton and South Downs Branch of CAMRA, so promised to be special.

So it was a kick in the teeth when we arrived at about 1pm on the Saturday to find pretty much all the local beers had run out, bar those from Harveys. Now I love Harveys, but I drink it most days, so I was most keen on trying other stuff from around Sussex. So it was disappointing to see crosses through the signs for both the beers from 360 Degree brewery at Sheffield Park, just north of Lewes; through those of Bedlam in Aldbourne, West Sussex; through both the beers from Burning Sky at nearby Firle; ditto Downlands, at Small Dole, West Sussex; ditto both beers from Goldstone, from nearby Ditchling; ditto Kissingate of Lower Beeding, West Sussex; ditto Brighton’s Laine; ditto Pin-Up Brewery of Southwick, East Sussex; ditto the intriguing Rectory of Streat, East Sussex, brewed by a priest.

Guttering and empty casks. Sorry, bad photo.

The few local beers I tried were: Lammas Ale from 1648 Brewing Co in East Hoathly, East Sussex. This had bubblegum-ish aroma, from malted wheat, and low carbonation, medium body. Then a Wolseley Best from The Stanley in Portslade, also East Sussex (though currently brewed at Downlands). This had nice hints of liquorice, charcoal and nuts, but frankly, I drink Harveys Best all the time and I wasn’t here for the best bitters. Cavedweller from Caveman Brewery, over in Kent, was a bit more interesting, a porter nicely combined blackcurranty flavours with more piney, resiny hints from UK Bramling Cross hops. I wouldn’t call porter a summer beer though. Another more interesting one was Regaler from Franklins, in Bexhill-on-Sea, East Sussex. The notes called it a “cold-fermented lager-style ale”. I assume it was a Kölsch-style beer, top-fermented like an ale and more full-bodied and less carbonated than most lagers.

Festival beer list

All of which was fun, but not what I was hoping for. Interestingly, a lot of what had run out was the more hoppy American craft beer-style stuff: not what you typically associate with CAMRA, which can he thanked for keeping British cask ale, notably bitters, alive through the 1970s and 1980s when dreadful industrial lagers took over British pubs. Although Britons still drink mostly industrial lager by proportion now, we’re coming back round to real beer – in part thanks to CAMRA, but also in part thanks to the vitality of the highly influential US craft beer movement and the exciting flavours and aromas offered by US hops.

My favourite beers these days are those that take our incredible British brewing heritage but aren’t afraid to be inspired by US beers and US hop flavours. That’s what I was hoping to try more at the festival, things like Burning Sky’s ‘Arise’ “Session strength IPA”, here available in cask. But it had run out.

Drinking out third-pints at the 18th South Downs Beer Festival

Now, I’m aware that things do – and have to – run out at these beer festivals, but considering the event was running from 11am on the Friday to the evening of the Saturday, when everything was finished, a total of about 20 hours of sessions, it seemed pretty poor that so much was gone already when we arrived – at roughly just after the mid-point. I realise part of the buzz of a beer festival is the first rush to try the latest products of interesting breweries on the first day, but well, it just seemed like poor event management that so many punters like us who didn’t arrive till the second day were deprived of the so many of the beers, in particular those local brews.

Now if I was writing about the event in a journalistic capacity, I would contact the Brighton CAMRA branch and the festival organiser, Ruth Anderson, but instead I’m just blogging about it as a disappointed punter and don’t feel like chasing around after them for quotes. Plus, I suspect they’d just reiterate the line about how it’s normal for casks to run dry after the initial evening throng has been at them. I really didn’t want to be writing a moany post about the event I’d been so looking forward to but, well, here we are.

Lewes Corn Exchange, with surprisingly mixed crowd at the beer festival

Still, while pretty much all the stuff I’d marked on my print-off had run out, at least it meant we’d only drunk a few third-pint samples each and were subsequently able to cycle down to the Kingston village fete, along a lovely traffic-free path. The festival was held in the Lewes Town Hall and corn exchange, a great venue where I usually just go to give blood, but as it was a gorgeous hot, sunny day, being outside appealed greatly.

Pints at the Kingston village fete

At the fete, we met some friends. And visited the beer tent – which not only had a cask of Burning Sky’s delicious Plateau pale ale, but the guy serving the drinks even gave us a free glass from Long Man, another nearby brewery. We went home via The Swan in Southover, where we had a Harveys Olympia golden summer ale in the lovely garden, so the day turned out well in the end.

Bikes outside fete, nr pub

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Sweet Sussex stout chocolate muffins

Sweet Sussex and chocolate

Today, 16 June, is Sussex Day. It’s probably not a festival many people celebrate – especially as it was only invented in 2006. Though it is based on the saints day of St Richard, patron of Sussex, the land of the south Saxons. Richard de Wych was a 12th century bishop of Chichester, now the county town of West Sussex. I’m over here in Lewes, the county town of East Sussex. The historic county of Sussex, based on the ancient kingdom of the south Saxons, was divided into two modern, administrative counties in the 1860s. Chichester and Lewes are very different, notably because the former is a cathedral city of about 24,000 people, while Lewes only has about 14,000 people, and the only “cathedral” is Harveys brewery.

Later on today I plan to head down to Harveys and check out the new St Richard’s Ale, which they’re launching on Sussex Day, but in the meantime, here’s recipe made using another Harveys, county-themed ale: Sweet Sussex.

Ye olde stout vs porter
On the label and site, Harveys says Sweet Sussex is a “lush, sweet stout named after the county in which it is brewed.” It has an ABV of just 2.8%, which raises the interesting question of what truly defines a stout. Well, in linguistic terms “stout” originally meant proud, brave and courageous, but this segued into meaning physically strong, well built. As a description of people it evolved again to start meaning bulking, then fat, but in beer terms it stuck with strong. Specifically it was used to describe strong porter, the type of beer that emerged in London in the 18th century as a refreshing, nutritious, fortifying drink of hardworking porters

Dark brown or black ales, porters were made with well roasted malts, which lent them a sweet, charcoally flavour. Eventually, the term “stout porter” shifted again, with stout becoming its own town for a rich, dark ale – though not necessarily a strong one. Indeed, today, the terms stout and porter are fairly interchangeable.

Sussex Sweet may be called a stout, but it’s certainly not stout in the sense of strong. Indeed, it’s so weak, compared to those old historic stout porters which will have been 8% ABV or so, that it’s more defined by its sweetness. It’s almost like a kind of charcoal milkshake. And just the thought of thing that goes well with dark chocolate.

Muffin

Muffins vs cupcakes
I wanted to bake something chocolaty yesterday, but didn’t want something as rich as a full-on cake (like I made here with dark ale) or iced cupcakes, so I made some muffins instead. Like stout and porter, the terms muffin and cupcake have slightly blurred meanings, though broadly I’d say a muffin contained less sugar, less butter, and were broadly a tad healthier. A lot of muffins, of course, contain bran, or fruit, or are even savoury. These ones are only vaguely sweet, and have a hint of that charcoally flavour from the beer.

20g cocoa
230g self-raising flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
50g butter, melted and cooled slightly
70g sugar (I used caster, but you could use a dark muscovado say)
150g dark chocolate (at least 65% cocoa solids), coarsely chopped
2 eggs, lightly beaten
250g Sweet Sussex or other stout or porter, or a mixture of stout or porter and milk

1. Preheat the oven to 200C.

Light cacao
2. Sieve the cocoa, flour and baking powder into a bowl.
3. Stir in the sugar and chocolate chips.
4. Add the eggs, vanilla and beer, or beer and milk mix, along with the melted butter, to the flour mix.
5. Beat to combine.
6. Fill about a dozen muffin cases and bake for about 25 minutes.
7. Cool and enjoy, with a cuppa or perhaps with a stout. Or porter.

Muffins, baked

A note on the cocoa
There’s only a little bit of cocoa in here, but I was also using a very light-coloured type of cocoa powder, hence the results aren’t very dark. This cocoa powder I’m using is actually the Raw Chocolate Company’s Raw (organic, Fairtade, thoroughly right-on) Cacao Powder. See here for more info.

Cocoa? Cacao? Whaʼ? Don’t worry about the difference. There isn’t really one. The English word cocoa is basically a synonym for the cacao, with Theobroma cacao the scientific name for the tree that yields the beans that produce those all-important chocolate products, with “cacao” coming from the Mayan and Mesoamerican language word for the tree and “Theobroma” from the Greek for “food of the gods”. Beer and chocolate – both worthy of that name I’d say.

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Sourdough pizza and Hastings Brewery’s No 6 Hop Forward Pale Ale

Sourdough pizza with Hastings Brewery No 6 Pale Ale

Even though we ate tonnes on Saturday night, accompanied by various local beers and wines, I was making bread dough on Tuesday evening and thought, heck, why not make another pizza? One of the justifications was that on Saturday night one batch we did was slightly over-baked and the other slightly under-baked, so I wanted to keep on experimenting with our oven to try and get it right.

Anyone who’s made real pizza in a domestic oven will know it can be slightly challenging, largely because you simply can’t get the heat. My oven goes up to about 250C (480F) but a wood-fired pizza oven can get up to 450C (840F), enabling flash baking. You can improve things in a domestic oven by using a baking stone. Stones are excellent as you heat them in the oven first, so when the pizza is slid onto them, they’re already hot and help bake the dough through, quickly, as well as crisping up the base.

But I’ve not got one at the moment.

Currently, I’m just using a metal baking sheet, which goes into the oven cold. It’s not ideal, as, depending on the temperature variables in your oven, you can get a done, or potentially burnt, top, before the base is full baked. Even though I’m pleased with this recipe, the base wasn’t baked to perfection. That’s the challenge – for me and for you, as your oven will be different again.

Hastings Brewery No 6. With cat

Hopping forward
The other enjoyable factor about this pizza dinner – aside from being able to eat it outside on a warm English summer evening, 20C, no mosquitoes – was a great beer. I mentioned in my previous post I don’t think the light mild beer I was drinking was a good food pairing. This time round I chose a considerably more hoppy beer, and it worked well.

This was a Handmade No 6 Pale Ale bottled beer from Hastings Brewery, bought from the excellent Trafalgar Wines in Brighton, a booze shop with an excellent selection of beers. Apparently Hastings Brewery beers are their second-best selling now, after beers from The Kernel in London.

Hastings Brewery is a new discovery for me. I’m slowly working my way through all the local breweries. This one is 23 miles away from my home in Lewes. It started with founders Pete Mason and Brett Ross inspired “whilst litter picking after the Hastings Beer & Music Festival in July 2010.” Pete’s dad Andy got on board and by 2011 they’d bought “a larger – but still small – brewery”.

They’re an interesting outfit as not only do they do everything by hand on a small scale, with brews of 800 litres, they’re also make entirely vegan products. A lot of drinkers may not realise beer generally isn’t very vegetarian or vegan, but it’s often filtered with isinglass finings, which are fish bladders. Pete Mason is a vegan, as is their sales manager. Their beers are unfiltered. For some, this is appealing as filtering, arguably, can remove some of the flavour and mouthfeel.

The brewery’s label design and branding is great too. Their labels – all featuring a lion with fine mane and tongue sticking out1 – certainly stood out on the shelf at Trafalgar Wines.

Handmade

The 4.8% ABV beer, with its slightly unwieldy full name of ‘Hastings Handmade No 6 Hop Forward Pale Ale (Columbus)’, is very much a British take on a US craft beer. It’s defined by its use of Columbus, an American hop variety with a high alpha acid (around 15%), making it suitable for assertive bittering, 48 IBUs apparently. I suspect they’ve also used it for late-hopping (adding later in the boil, so it the oils aren’t totally broken down) or even dry hopping (adding during the conditioning stage so the oils remain largely intact) as the beer is highly aromatic: citrus, ginger, passion fruit, honey. The taste, while defined by massive bitterness, is also honeyed, with a salty, minerally aftertaste that verges on soapiness. [See below – actually they used a hopback.]

This beer really reminded us of our travels in the US, and while I have vague feelings of disloyalty to more traditional, malty, subtly hopped British beer styles when I drink something like this, I also love how British brewers are playing around with US styles. I love all the international cross-pollination of tastes and styles. The beer also went really well with our pizza, which I topped with mozzarella, thinly sliced pancetta from Beals Farm Charcuterie and a pecorino romano, for that added salty goodness.

I was hoping to add some asparagus but while I still saw plenty on the farmers’ markets a few days ago, guess what? Waitrose – nominally the less unethical British supermarket – only had asparagus from Peru! Southafeckingmerica!!! It’s asparagus season here – in England – right now, the end of the season sure, but still now. Now. In England. I’ve seen signs outside farms as I’ve cycled around Sussex, mere miles from that branch of Waitrose. Supermarket food economics is bonkers. Not to mention environmentally appalling.

Baked pizza

Sourdough pizza recipe
This makes one large-ish pizza, about 30cm (12 inch), but could cut up and manipulated differently. If you roll it flat, you’ll get a much more Roman-style pizza. If you open out the centre more and leave a wider, fatter edge, you’ll get a more Neapolitan-style pizza. The latter is called a cornicione and is the speciality of Michael Hanson at The Hearth in Lewes. Lewes, depressingly, has about four industrial chain pizza places; I’d say my pizza is better than all of theirs, easily, though still second-best in Lewes, after The Hearth.

This is a naturally leavened dough, so you want to make it the day before, to give it time to do a nice long fermentation.

250g strong white bread flour (or a mixture of strong, high protein flour and plain, all-purpose flour)
180g water
50g sourdough starter (100% hydration. I used a rye-based one, but wheat-based would be fine too)
15g olive oil (a good glug basically, QB)
5g salt

1. Whisk together the sourdough starter and water. It doesn’t matter if the water is cool, as it’s a long fermentation it doesn’t really need that boost of using body-temperature water. Try and use water that’s not too chlorinated or fluorinated. I filter my tap water with a Brita and the sourdough starter seems to prefer it.
2. Add the flour and salt and stir together well.
3. Add the olive oil and keep blending until well-combined.
4. Turn the dough out onto a work surface lightly greased with more olive oil and give it a short knead. It is a relatively wet dough. If you find it too sloppy, add a little more flour – but not too much or you’ll make a nasty dry dough.2
5. Put the dough back in the bowl, cleaned and oiled, and let it rest for 15 minutes before giving it another quick knead, stretching it and folding it over. Repeat this twice more, then put the dough back in the bowl, again, cleaned and oiled.
6. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap or a shower cap, and put it in the fridge and let it ferment slowly for about 24 hours.
7. Take the dough out of the fridge about an hour before you want to use it.
8. Form it into a ball on a floured work surface. Cover.
9. When you want to bake, preheat your oven to the highest setting.
10. Gently stretch out the dough. Don’t be too rough, or you’ll damage the structure that’d been developing during the fermentation period. How you open it up depends on what shape of pizza you’re making (see above).
11. Once you have opened up the dough to almost the desired shaped, gently transfer it to an oiled baking sheet, hanging it over your forearm and taking care not to poke your fingers through it.
12. Cover with your desired toppings. I did a pizza rossa – with tomato sauce – along with the abovementioned cheese and pancetta. Here’s the pizza before it went into the oven:

Unbaked pizza.
13. Bake in your preheated oven until it’s done. Yes, I know that’s vague, but it could be 10 minutes, it could be 25, with the oven turned down a little lower to make sure the middle of the base bakes and the top doesn’t char (too much).
14. Enjoy. Preferably al fresco with a quality, hoppy local beer.

 

Info
Hastings Brewery, 12 Moorhurst Road, Hastings TN38 9NB
hastingsbrewery.co.uk | info@hastingsbrewery.co.uk | 01424 572051

 

Trafalgar Wines, 23 Trafalgar St, Brighton BN1 4EQ
01273 683325

 

Footnotes
1 Some local ignorance – is the lion a Hastings thing? Maybe, as there are lions – or one lion and two half-lion/half-boat things – on the town’s crest.
2 The mixture is really 275g flour and 205g water, as the 50g of leaven at 100% hydration is 25g water, 25g flour. So this is a 74.5% hydration dough in bakers’ percentages. I’m using Stoates organic strong white bread flour; I find it quite absorbent, possibly as it’s stoneground and contains more bran. If you’re using a whiter, less branny flour that’s less absorbent, and

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Filed under Ale, beer, Baking, British beer, Pizza, Recipes

Fritti, pizza, local Sussex booze – and chocolate pine nut ricottta tart

Slice with strawbs and cream

We’d been planning a pizza and local beer evening with friends here in Lewes, Sussex, for a while. This evolved into a pizza, local beer, local wine, local cider and Roman-style fried starters (fritti) evening, with the latter becoming viable after we borrowed a deep fat fryer.

We started the evening with an aperitivo of kir royales made with sparkling wine from Breaky Bottom, one of several vineyards we’re lucky enough to have near us on the chalk South Downs. I tried not to drink too much though, as I was driving the deep fat fryer.

Breaky Bottom

Missing these things from Rome, we did suppli al telefono, which are deep-fried balls of risotto with melting mozzarella inside; carciofi alla giudia, Romano-Jewish deep-fried artichokes, which I’d never done before, but worked very well (you trim the artichoke, remove the choke, then deep-fry it. Then deep-fry it again); and calamari fritti – fried squid bits, which I simply floured with semolina.

Fritti

Seasonal pizza
For the pizzas, I did about 2kg of dough. Here it is before and after its 24 hour prove. It was a monster.

Pizza doughPizza dough, after final prove

Then we made four different topping. One thing we learned from Gabrieli Bonci in Rome is to not be afraid to experiment with toppings, not be a slave to the canonical pizzas, and to use seasonal ingredients. It’s a great time of year for seasonal produce, so alongside the artichokes, the markets also furnished us with other good stuff like asparagus and radicchio. Here’s our pizza menu, typos and all.

Pizza menu

We were so busy trying to bake them and serve them – and drink our way through a very fine selection of further wines, cider and beer – we forgot to take any pics. The booze included Danebury Vineyards’ Madeline Angevine white (not Sussex, but Hampshire, though bought from Harveys) and various beers from Harveys and Long Man, the brewery named after the giant figure on the hillside at Wilmington, about 10 miles east of Lewes.

We did do one classic pizza, a Margherita, but otherwise we used seasonal ingredients and local cheeses and meats. For the latter, we used some smoked pancetta from Beal’s Farm Charcuterie, combined with local asparagus. The other two pizzas we did were bianche – white, that is, without tomato sauce. This is commonplace in Rome, but international pizza all seems to default to rossa (red), with tomato sauce. First, we did radicchio, fresh garlic and two cheeses from High Weald Dairy: their ricotta and Medita, a salty feta-style sheep’s milk cheese. Second, we did roasted baby leeks with mozzarella and Twineham Grange, a local parmesan-style cheese, aged for 15 months, which satisfies my need for a local cheese that’s good for grating on pasta dishes etc. We did use bog-standard mozzarella throughout, as no one’s making a Sussex version. Yet.*

Pie!
After all that fried food and stodge, what else did the meal need? Ah yes, fat and sugar. A dessert. After making a pine nut tart recently, I’ve been wondering about a chocolate version. As, like any sane person, I adore chocolate. Plus, we’d seen the High Weald ricotta on the market.

Side, through glass cloche

Anyway, the chocolate pine nut ricotta tart is based on a recipe by Giada de Laurentiis, granddaughter of the legendary film producer Dino and iconic actress Silvana Mangano. The original recipe was in cup measures. I tried translating these to grams using online charts, as well as using actual cup measuring spoons: each approach gave me completely different weights. This is why I’m not a fan of cups – for flour, especially, they’re inaccurate, as there’s the question of how compacted the powder is.

The resulting pastry was very crumbly and impossible to roll, so I effectively filled the bottom of a loose-bottom cake tin with it, as you would with biscuit crumbs for a cheesecake. Indeed, this is basically a type of cheesecake, though the filling is dense and very rich. After all that fritti and pizza and booze it was perhaps a bit much – or at least a big slice was a bit much. Perhaps it’d be a more suitable end to a slightly lighter meal!

You’ll need a food processor for this recipe.

Pastry
200g plain flour
20g polenta
100g pine nuts, toasted
35g caster sugar
Pinch salt
120g butter, melted and cooled slightly

Filling
110g water
150g caster sugar
225g dark chocolate, chopped
200g ricotta
8og full-fat cream cheese
3 eggs
100g pine nuts

1. To make the pastry, combine the plain flour, polenta, 35g sugar, salt and 100g toasted pine nuts in a food processor, blending until the nuts are well ground.
2. Add the butter and pulse until the mixture is well combined. It’s unlikely it’ll ball up like a normal pastry dough.
3. Use the mix to line a 26cm loose-bottomed tin. I used a cake tin, though a flan or pie tin would work.
4. Put the pastry case in the fridge for at least half an hour, or for a day or so if you make it in advance.
5. Preheat oven to 180C (160C fan).
6. Line the pastry case with baking parchment then fill with baking beans.
7. Bake for about 25 minutes, then remove the beans and parchment and bake for another 10 minutes until golden.
8. Allow the pie case to cool while you prepare the filling.
9. Heat the water and 150g sugar in a small saucepan, bring to the boil and simmer to dissolve the sugar, then remove from the heat and allow to cool slightly.
10. Over a separate pan of simmering water, melt the chocolate in a heatproof bowl, avoiding contact with the water.
11. Beat together the eggs.
12. Using a hand blender or the food processor again, combine the ricotta and cream cheese, then slowly add the egg.
13. Continue beating or processing until smooth.
14. Slowly add the sugar syrup, beating or processing until all combined.
15. Pour the filling into the pastry case and bake, at the same temperature, until almost set – check at about 15 minutes.
16. Sprinkle the other, non-toasted pine-nuts over the top then continue baking until it’s all set and the pine-nuts are nicely toasted, another 15-20 minutes, depending on your oven.
17. Allow to cool and serve. We served it with some cream and macerated strawberries.

Cloche

A note on the food matching
Although we and our guests put together a great collection of local boozes, after the initial aperitivo I stuck with Harveys’ Knots of May. This is a seasonal light mild, reddish-brown in colour and only 3%, which I bought direct from cask at Harveys in a 4 pint / 2.4 litre plastic jug, aka container, aka rigger, aka growler, aka polysomething or other.

It’s a delicious beer, but I’m not sure its malty sweetness made for the best food pairing with the fritti and pizza. Something a little more acid or bitter might have been better for cutting through the fattiness of the cheese etc.

It did, however, work well with the desert. I’m still blundering uncertainly through the beer and food matching business but that malty sweetness, and light, low body, went well with the dense, chocolately pudding.

Little brown jug - empty

 

* There is a British buffalo mozzarella being made these days, from my home county of Hampshire, just to the west. I’ve yet to try it. Plus, mozzarella di bufala is far too good – and pricey – to use for melting directly on pizza. For that you use the standard cow milk mozzarella, known as fior di latte (“flower of milk”, “milk flower”) in Italy. Bufala is best added after the end comes out of the oven and allowed to melt just slightly with the latent heat.

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Filed under Ale, beer, Baking, Pies & tarts

A tour of my local brewery: the famed, historic Harveys of Lewes

Harveys chimney

Anyone who’s read my blog before will know I’m an advocate of local produce. And a big fan of real beer. For me, “local plus beer” means Harvey & Son Ltd (aka Harveys, Harveys of Lewes) – a traditional brewery that is a mere 800 metres as the crow flies from my house in Lewes, East Sussex.

Harveys also has an emphasis on local. The brewery gets uses water from a borehole, using local rain – or more specifically, as Edmund Jenner explained, local rain that’s been filtered through the rocks over the past 30 years. Locally grown hops and barley for their malt are the main other ingredients, and most of their beer is consumed within 60 miles of the brewery. Head brewer and joint managing director Miles Jenner has said ubiquity “diminishes the product”. It’s also an eminently sensible attitude in an era where the fuel burnt when transporting foodstuffs is a major contributor to climate change.

Shop poster

Shopaholic
Harveys also has an excellent shop in the centre of Lewes, where I buy my Harveys beers, then take the bottles back for reuse. I really am lucky to have this operation on my doorstep. And as I keep going and asking questions when I’m buying beer (and wine) from the shop, I got invited on a brewery tour – something that otherwise has a two-year waiting list. Even luckier!

The aforementioned Edmund is the son of Miles. As well being a member of the family that’s been brewing at Harveys for since the 1930s and a man who knows his brewing, he’s also a historian: which is ideal when talking about a firm that was established in 1790.

The original John Harvey was a wine merchant – hence the shop has an excellent selection of wine alongside the Harveys beers. (My favourite currently is from Danebury Vineyards – which grows on the flank of an Iron Age hill fort where I used to play and picnic a lot as a child.) Since medieval times, Lewes had been an important port, despite being about seven miles inland. Wharfs lined the banks of the Ouse in the centre of town, and John Harvey used these to bring in wines, spirits, and even coal – indeed, Harveys is still technically a coal merchant too, despite a spat with bureaucrats in 1948.

Danebury wine

Flood waters and liquor
The current brewery yard, alongside the river, used to contain a pile of coal – previously used as the principle fuel for the brewery. They were still burning through the pile when the floods of October 2000 hit Lewes, overwhelming the flood wall – then in construction – and rushing into the brewery. There’s a mark on the doors into the yard indicating the height the flood-waters reached. I’m more than six foot tall and it’s near my eye-level.

Ed explained they had just filled the hopbacks on the ground floor with 50 barrels (about 8,185 litres) with wort when the Ouse rushed in. They were used to flooding in the brewery, as indeed the whole of this stretch of the Ouse valley has a long history of it, but this inundation was atypical and extreme. Yet two days later, the hopbacks were intact in situ, the weight of the liquid holding them in place, despite damage to other equipment. The insurers said they wouldn’t be back in business for nine months, but they were actually brewing again in nine days, in part thanks to the help of other breweries like Kent’s Shepherd Neame. The beer that had been in fermenting upstairs during the crisis was saved and sold as the renowned “Ooze Booze”, with profits going to the flood appeal.

Back to the 1830s
John Harvey had acquired the Bridge Wharf site in 1838. Three of his offspring, Henry, Edwin and William, developed Harvey & Son. John himself died in 1862, while Henry and Edwin died in 1866. William, no brewer, brought in a chap with the wonderfully Victorian name of Henry Titlow-Barrett to handle the growing brewery business. The borehole that supplies the water  was one of T-B’s developments. His incentive? Well, Ed said there was a typhoid breakout, which was traced to the local utility company. That’s a pretty good motivator.

Any brewer will tell you of the importance of the water, or the “liquor” as it’s known by many British brewers, but Ed says that, “along with the yeast strain, it defines the character of the beer.”

Another of T-B’s major contributiuons to the history of the brewery was the redevelopment of the Bridge Wharf site, with substantial new buildings constructed in 1881, designed by famed brewery architect William Bradford.

The brewery still utilises Bradford’s energy-efficient tower design to this day, though a second tower was added in 1985 – just before the building acquired a Grade II listing. The building certainly has a memorable roofline, with its towers, flues and even a brick smokestack – part of the old coal-burning plant, which was half-demolished in the 1950s, then rebuilt in the 1970s, and is graced with a slight curve. I’ve read that some people call the grand old brewery building “Lewes Cathedral”, though I’ve yet to hear that.

Harveys malt room

Grains of truth
After a quick jaunt into the yard, to appreciate Bradford’s oriel window, we headed back inside and upstairs to the malt room. A grand chamber, it’s wood-lined and packed with sacks of malt, notably the popular Maris Otter.

Ed described the malting process, though I won’t go into too much detail about that here – suffice to say, the grain is tricked into germinating to unlock its sugars. The sugars are essential to brewing, as the fermentation involves feeding the yeast. And what does yeast like to eat? Sugars.

Ed also talked about the “extract potential” of grain – that is, how much sugar it will be able to yield. This has a bearing on brewing as strong beers need more sugars to feed the yeast, which then produces the alcohol. So either you have to use more malt, or use malt with a higher extract potential. Speciality malts – chocolate, roast, caramel, biscuit, crystal malts etc – are used to give beers colours and flavours but generally have lower extract potentials. So while Harveys’ Sussex Best Bitter, their flagship brew and what I was drinking in the Lewes Arms last night, contains just two per cent speciality malts, their Imperial Extra Double Stout contains up to a third.

Ed Jenner in hop room

The green stuff
Next door to the malt room is the hop storage room, with contains wooden alcoves resembling stalls for seriously truncated horses.

Here we got into the fascinating discussion – about the historical difference between ale and beer. Although these days both terms are used fairly generically, with ale meaning “not lager”, originally “beer” was a Dutch drink – made with malted barley and hops. The older British styles of drink were made with malted barley and potentially other herbs for flavouring and preservation (see my post about Harveys’ Priory Ale). English brewers were fairly prejudiced against hops, seeing them as foreign muck, but within few centuries of them arriving (c1500), most British ale was made with at least some hop, for its preservative qualities. The term “ale”had come to mean a “less well-hopped brew”.

Ed also described some of the key qualities of hops for us, notably their alpha acid characteristics. Whereas hops, and specifically home-grown hops, were used in Britain more for their preservative and certain bittering qualities, these days, many craft beers contain New World hops that are much more overtly flavoursome and stridently aromatic.

Flavour and aroma distinctions are largely defined by the hops used, and the alpha acid levels of those hops. So while British hops might have alpha acids of about 4-6%, and give arguably more subtle bittering, New World hops might have up to 16% alpha acid (or higher). This higher alpha acid doesn’t just result in more explicit bitterness, but can also bring more overt aromas of tropical fruit, citrus and pine. Though it’s not just a question of the provenance of the hop variety, it’s also a question of where it’s grown, as the climate and terroir have an influence. Cascade is a classic American hop, originating in Oregon, though when grown in Britain, it will have different qualities – and indeed, Harveys use British Cascade in their intriguing Sussex Wild Hop, alongside a hedgerow variety discovered nearby in 2004. (This is a story I want to get to the bottom of; watch this space.) Hop essential oils are also significant for aromas.

Harveys copper mash tun

The mash tuns
Moving sideways and down a bit, we reached Harveys’ mash tuns. I always love any mention of mash tuns, as my the main pub of my teenage years was named The Mash Tun. Not all the memories are good – notably as it was the 1980s, when bad lager really dominated, and I was too ignorant to know anything about real beer – but I still have a fondness for these large vessels where the malt, ground into grist, is cooked up with liquor. I like the feel of the words in my mouth – as well as the promise of their product.

Harveys has two mash tuns one copper, located in the old tower, and one stainless, put in in 1985 in the new tower. The copper one was from a design patented in 1853 and was made in 1924. It was used by Page and Overton brewery in Croydon and in a 1954 auction, Mr Jenner had to go up against scrap merchants – who deferred to his bids when they learned he actually wanted it for brewing.

Each mash tun holds 120 barrels, that is about 19,650 litres. They’re first warmed by steaming to 70C (158F; Ed did everything in Fahrenheit, which is a foreign language to me). After the enzymes have worked the mash, freeing up more of those sugars, half the husk from the grist settles to a false floor in the vessels. The sweet wort is then gradually drained, lautered. It’s then sparged, sprayed with more water to get out as much of the goodness as possible.

Near the mash tuns, on the other side of the head brewer’s office, the brewery still contains two old steam engines, one of them, a small eight horsepower machine, is from the old Beards brewery. Beards was one of the dozen or so other Lewes breweries that didn’t survive the ebb and flow of the industry.

Harveys copper no 1

Flowing downhill
The wort then continues its journey, into receivers, then into the coppers, or boiling kettles. Harveys has two – Number 1 is copper, and looks very Jules Verne, but was actually made in 1999 in Scotland. Number 2 is stainless steel.

Here, hops are added at two different points, and the heating izomerises them – changing the atoms in the molecule into something that gives a bitter flavour . The liquid from the kettles then flows on downstairs again, into the abovementioned hopbacks. The journey continues with the liquid pumped through heat exchangers, cooling it enough for the addition of the yeast – for the next, perhaps most important stage: the fermentation.

After the wort is cooled to 15C (60F), yeast is added – Ed said at a rate of “one pound per barrel”, so that’s about 454g per 164 litres. (164 litres is more or less the size of a UK barrel, 36 imperial gallons. A US beer barrel is 31 US gallons, or 26 imperial gallons, about 117 litres. And that, folks, is why I like metric.)

Harveys, barm in fermenter

So if the day’s brewing starts at 6am, it takes until 4.30pm to get the liquid into the fermenters, which Ed also referred to as tuns. Once the yeast is added, this all-important organism, which I’ve previously made the argument for being man’s true best friend, gets to work. As ales are made using mostly top-fermenting yeasts, it diffuses through the liquid but mostly settles on the top. Anaerobically, it metabolises the sugars, creating alcohol and carbon dioxide – bubbles. To encourage the yeast to reproduce (asexually), the fermenting mix is aerated, the temperature kept low and steady.

The fermentation continues for three days, the yeast forming a thick crust on the top in an “intestine or brain pattern”, which protects the beer, keeps it pure.

Harveys, fermenter brain crust 2

Harveys has been using the same yeast culture since 1957, with Ed explaining it “gives us our flavour, our brand identity.” Before then, their yeast was supplied by the Burton Pure Yeast Company. When it went bust, Harveys had a scramble to try and find a replacement source of the same strain. The sample Harveys received was wrong, so they asked for further samples from breweries all over the country. They eventually received one from John Smiths in Tadcaster that was right, enabling Harveys to keep on brewing consistently.

Or almost consistently. Ed says that the yeast culture itself is changing subtly with every brew, every generation and he conjectures this “little variation stops it being dull to the palette”. I certainly like this idea – it’s like a sourdough culture that might be decades old, but colonies of yeasts and bacteria evolve and change slightly with every use, every generation.

Fermenters

The right temperature
After fermentation, the beer is cooled to 60F / 15C again: closer to cellar temperature, which CAMRA defines as 12-14C, and the optimal temperature for serving many ales. Descending, we reached the racking cellar, where some of the final steps take place – notably the clarification of the beer, using finings – that is, derivatives of fish swim bladders. Quite how anyone ever discovered they had this effect is bewildering, but long molecules of the finings sink through the liquid, collecting sediment.

The beer will undergo some secondary fermentation in the cask, adding some extra fizz. This period of cask conditioning varies depending on the beer in question. So their Old Ale is conditioned for four weeks, their Porter for six, and their Imperial Stout for 18 months.

Not that Ed is entirely staunch about just drinking cask beer. Like me, he agrees that good beer is good beer, if it’s made with knowledge and skill, if it’s served properly. So if it comes in a bottle or a keg, that can be fine too. I drink a lot of Harveys in bottles at home, as I mentioned at the start. Though I do prefer a hand-pumped cask beer, I’m not averse to real beer from a keg. In the meantime, we ended the tour by trying several of Harveys’ classics brews – from a handsome row of casks in the cellar.

All in all, a wonderful experience, and a fascinating compare and contrast with some of the other breweries I’ve visited the past few years, notably Mastri Birrai Umbri in Umbria. The latter is purpose-built, but relies on traditional knowledge and values from a family with a similarly long tradition of food production. And both have a not dissimilar output: Harveys produces 45,000 UK barrels per year, which in new money is about 74,000 hectolitres, while Mastri produces 100,000hl.

For more information about Harveys, their website is comprehensive – about everything from their beer to their history to their environmental credentials, though this doesn’t even mention that their new depot, a few hundred metres away over the river, has a roof covered in PV solar panels, which generated 98kW of power. Again, eminently sensible. What a great company.

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Filed under Ale, beer, Breweries, British beer