British beer and food are longstanding bedfellows, yet they’re often overlooked when it comes to food and drink pairing. It’s time to change that, says Pete Brown
You know how you appreciate a cup of tea a little more if you’re outdoors, Guinness tastes better in Ireland and Ouzo cannot be drunk outside Greece? There are many different factors that contribute to this (the Guinness is no different, although it’s likely to be fresher), but arguably the most important one is the simple fact that we appreciate flavour not with our mouths or noses, but in our brains.
The beer is the roast beef’s other half, the roasted and
caramelised flavours in each wrapping themselves around the other
The electrical impulses that arrive from our taste and aroma receptors combine with knowledge, memory, mood, context and the information we’re imultaneously receiving from all our other senses to create a rounded experience of flavour that’s all the richer for it. The more we allow and accept these other aspects, the more we enjoy what we’re eating or drinking – if it’s any good to start with, that is.
I’m experiencing this as I eat Sunday lunch in a Herefordshire pub. Sunday lunch may look innocent and straightforward as a meal – you basically have to boil stuff or stick it in the oven and wait – but getting every element just right, all at the same time, is a challenge for any cook. This is one reason why, in my lifetime, it’s moved from being a home-cooked meal to one many of us enjoy in the pub.
EVERYWHERE BUT ENGLAND
The Crown Inn Woolhope has won awards for its Sunday lunches. Landlord Matt Slocombe sees it as an art, a pyramid where each element supports the others. But there’s more to it than everything being perfectly cooked and hot when it all comes out together. It’s a sunny bank holiday weekend and we feel gloriously
relaxed. The pub is full of diners who feel the same as us, creating a mellow vibe that hums quietly throughout the space.
The rolling hills outside provide one of the most archetypical beautiful representations of the British countryside you’ll ever see. A brass band in the car park is playing Queen’s 'Bohemian Rhapsody’. And, even though there’s Rioja in my gravy, I’m pairing my roast beef with Butty Bach, made by Wye Valley Brewery just up the road. The beer is the meal’s other half, the roasted and caramelised flavours in each wrapping themselves around the other, creating a sweetness and fullness that isn't there in either one alone.
And I appreciate it more because I know that it’s local. It tastes better here than it would anywhere else. The cow on my plate is a Hereford, from a herd that’s even closer to the pub than the brewery is. This knowledge makes everything taste even better – okay, you might dispute that – but it certainly makes my enjoyment of the pairing even more profound than otherwise.
I’ve been mocked for talking like this about the delights of British food and drink. But the snobs doing the mocking would have absolutely no problem if I was talking about, say, the delights of pairing Muscadet with a sander fish freshly caught from the Loire River, or a Gavi di Gavi with a simply presented but perfectly done plate of Ligurian pasta and pesto.
Wine has countless pairings like this – pairings that are rooted in the principles of flavour combinations, but given an added frisson by the idea of terroir and the principle of ‘what grows together goes together’. For some food bigots, this is a principle that somehow works everywhere except England. But now, it’s time we sent those bigots packing.
FIVE GREAT BRITISH PAIRINGS
These British classics taste great together wherever you are, but each has a place where it’s truly special:
HEREFORDSHIRE ROAST BEEF WITH
WYE VALLEY’S BUTTY BACH
That perfect country pub you’ve been dreaming
of? You can find it in Herefordshire. The local
cows there were used to start beef herds around
the world. The local beer helped inspire the
global craft beer revolution.
4.5% abv, Wye Valley Brewery, wyevalleybrewery.co.uk
CROMER FISH AND CHIPS WITH
Fish and chips tastes better by the seaside.
Wherry is one of those beers I only drink in
North Norfolk, where it’s brewed. On its home
turf, it’s the perfect foil for the tang of hot
vinegar steaming off your chips.
3.8% abv, Woodforde’s, woodfordes.com
WENSLEYDALE CHEESE WITH
MAGIC ROCK’S SALTY KISS
British food and drink have always absorbed
foreign influences. Wensleydale cheese
originated with French monks, and this göse-
style beer has its roots in Germany. There’s a
citrus note in both the cheese and the beer that
makes this a great Yorkshire pairing.
4.1% abv, Magic Rock, magicrockbrewing.com
SMITHFIELD FULL ENGLISH BREAKFAST
It’s a dying tradition, but it was once common for
workers at London’s Smithfield market to finish
their night shifts with a fry-up and a pint in one of
the market pubs. Porters or stouts really go well
with the salty meats found in the dish, especially
4.2% abv, Diageo,diageo.com
SOMERSET PORK CASSEROLE WITH
PERRY’S SOMERSET DABINETT CIDER
Somerset pork casserole is hearty and earthy,
and cider is an essential ingredient to this dish.
Dry cider works best for the stock, but a medium
Dabinett has enough spicy body to work with all
the flavours as an accompaniment to the meal.
5.6% abv, Perry’s, perryscider.co.uk
My latest book Pie Fidelity is a defence of traditional British food. We all know the culinary scene here is vibrant, but we usually credit this to our openness and cosmopolitan nature, the richness and variety of cuisines from all over the world that are now on most high streets. My contention is that our traditional grub has always been worthy of celebration – if you know where to look.
One aspect I didn’t really cover in the book is how well our own food and drink go together too. Britain’s traditional drinks – beer and cider – grew up alongside,
and even in, our national cuisine.
The idea of terroir began with wine. The climate, weather and soil composition in a particular place can have a profound influence on the character of what’s grown in that place. If that’s true of grapes, how could it not be true of, say, apples? There’s science behind terroir. But it also evokes the romance of the place. And with that, it also becomes a great marketing tool, which is perhaps why it’s easy to be cynical of the notion.
Applying terroir to cider is straightforward: our favourite eating apple varieties hail from New Zealand, but taste better when grown in Kent, because the cooler climate suits them. In the west of the country, a Somerset Dabinett cider apple tastes different from a Herefordshire Dabinett. Applying terroir to beer is a little more difficult, because beer is a combination of four different ingredients that may well come from different places. It’s not unusual for breweries to thrive in parts of the world where hops and barley aren’t grown.
Each of these crops individually has its own terroir, as do water and yeast, unless we modify them. But the way we bring them together also develops a local character – southern ales are traditionally hoppier than those brewed in the north. Beers brewed in industrial cities evolved to being lower in alcohol, so they could be drunk in greater quantities by thirsty factory, pit or mill workers. And everywhere beer has been brewed or cider made, they’ve been part of the local cuisine.
A SECRET INGREDIENT
Beer is a key ingredient in some of our greatest national dishes, but it’s also the most unsung of ingredients. We embrace the beauty of a steak and ale pie, so why would we put red wine into a beef stew if we take away the pastry? Beer is the secret ingredient that makes a good fish batter sing. Moving on to cider, there is no combination of apple and pig that is not awesome, which is why cider is perfect in any pork casserole or stew.
If our national drinks work well as ingredients, it’s obvious that they should work as food pairings too. Both beer and cider are superior matches to wine with many of Britain’s wonderful cheeses. I’ve visited cider-apple orchards in Somerset where the cows whose milk makes Montgomery’s Cheddar graze on the
other side of the hedge. Of course the cider and cheese are a natural pairing that work as harmoniously together as the apple orchards growing alongside the cows’ grazing fields.
Or take porter, which first evolved around London’s meat markets and is a natural accompaniment to a full English breakfast, cutting through the rich flavours perfectly. And while a mug of tea runs a very close second, nothing beats a pint of best bitter accompanied by fish and chips at the seaside.
There is flavour science that proves all this, but more than that, it’s simply about the way a sense of place works. Cuisine evolves over time. If you live in a place where there’s lots of cheese available, eventually the kind of drink that goes best with it is going to become more popular. If a beer really works when there’s a salty tang in the air, it’s going to become more popular at the seaside.
I’m all for enjoying as wide a range of food and drink from around the world as I possibly can. I’m glad it’s all on my doorstep. But if we forget what has grown and evolved here, we’re missing out on some wonderful culinary delights that taste all the better for being enjoyed in their specific place of origin.