Saturday, 23 August 2014

Bermondsey Beer Mile

Thankfully, given my unfailing ability to overlook the finer details, I’ve never been much of a completionist. Throughout my life I’ve left a wake of unfinished collections – from baseball cards to He-Man figures, Garbage Pail Kid stickers to Simpson’s box sets. I did have the whole set of the Just William books, but the second one fell into the swimming pool on holiday, and was never quite the same again…

With this scrupulous inattention to detail you may have thought it wouldn’t have bothered me to find out we’d missed one of the stops on my first attempt to crack the Bermondsey Beer Mile. You would have been wrong. But first, let’s go back to the beginning.

The BBM is a collection of five breweries that have sprung up around Bermondsey, starting at the arches in Druid Street and stretching across to the Bermondsey Trading Estate. Yes, it stretches the definition of 1760 yards somewhat, but the Beer Mile and a Half doesn’t have quite the same ring.

Originally I embarked upon the challenge early on a drizzly July Saturday (the only day all the brewery's tap rooms are currently open) with my faithful accomplice, the magical Stealth. A fortifying walk up East Street market and we were ready for our first drink, at the Kernel Brewery in Dockley Road. There are many different theories on the best ways to do the trail, but we decided to hit the centre point as Kernel are the busiest and also close the earliest (9.00-2.00).

The Kernel were the first of the new wave of brewers to set up around these parts and quickly became a huge success with owner and brewer, Evin O'Riordain, being awarded the British Guild of Beer Writers Brewer of the Year 2011. This success doesn’t come without cost, hence their early closing as they struggle to contain the crowds of thirsty south East Londoners who cram into the railways arches every Saturday morning.

The Kernel has been a favourite since my first visit a couple of years ago; from their hard hitting pale ales and IPAs, flavoured with a variety of different hops; to their Christmassy stouts, a favourite of the Ewing; to their quaffable table beer. In the past I've I've sunk a lot of their range, with the highlight being the night I turned up at Stealth's house to find she had filled the bathtub full of bottles bought fresh from the brewery that morning.

One I haven’t yet tried was their London Sour, and here it was on tap with added raspberry. A (almost) healthy fruit-filled start to the day – we hadn't had any breakfast yet – and not too full-on at 3.6%. This was a fabulous beer, fresh tart and tangy, balanced with a hint of sweetness. A great warm weather drink and very refreshing. Stealth had the Export Stout, a much bolder brew at 8.2%; a bruiser of a beer with plenty of chocolate, leather and coffee flavours with a creamy finish; another cracker.

Next stop was Partizan; tucked away in the arches in Almond road. Thankfully a very helpful guy in a hard hat appeared just in time to show us the way through the hoardings when we feared we were lost in the midst of an abandoned building site.

Partizan’s approach, like its surroundings, is very stripped back. They offer a range of beers on keg, alongside a selection of bottles which are all advertised on pleasingly ramshackle, handwritten cardboard signs. In contrast to their signage, the bottle’s labels are pretty damn snazzy and we picked up a lemon and thyme flavoured saison for the Ewing to drink later.

Stealth’s request for a recommendationwas met with a rather blank look – I’m not sure everyone is ready for her mumbled enthusiasm so early in the morning, so I stepped in to choose her a ginger saison, knowing her love on Jamaican ginger beer. A decent enough drop, but somewhat lacking the fiery flavour she was hoping for. I turned to the dark side with a saaz, made, unsurprisingly, with saaz hops and tasting like a light fruitcake mixed with stout, a very agreeable combination.

The best part of our visit was when Stealth enlisted a poor man next to us, quietly trying to enjoy his pint, to take a photo. While I think he may have fancied himself as a bit of a David Bailey, I think he may have imbibed one too many shandies. Still, at least there was one snap with our heads still intact, so points for that.

Next up was a trawl around the Bermondsey trading estate, where another very nice man we hosing down his work van downed tools and actually lead us to Fourpure (who said anything about unfriendly Londoners), the furthest Brewery on the trail.

The staff here were super friendly and enthusiastic, especially the lady who served us and offered to split a schooner of the Roux Brew – a 5.6% Belgian Ale - between two different glasses before coming over to our table tell us a bit more about its providence and ingredients, including orange and coriander seeds.

The beer was originally brewed by Fourpure head brewer, John Driebergen, as part of a competition organised by the London Brewer’s Alliance, which saw 12 London breweries battle it for the title of “Roux brew”, a special “house” beer paired to be with a seasonal menu at the Le Gavroche, Roux at Parliament Square and the Landau restaurants. Fourpure were victorious and this very tasty beer was the result.

I don’t know if it’s still on tap, but if so get down and fill yer boots while it’s still summer. The rest of their beers are decent too, and nice and portable in their distinctive cans, we even had time to enjoy a Amber ale (toasty, malty, touch of caramel) and an IPA (piney, spice, grapefuit) The brewery and tap room are the largest on the tour, if you don’t fancy a drink you can always call in for a game of ping pong , there was even a hen party being shown around when we visited.

At this point the tour took a slightly random turn; buoyed by beer we headed back towards the Druid Street arches and what we though was the last stop. A comical route ensued, lead by Stealth holding Googlemaps on my dying phone (hers had already expired), aloft and leading us in concentric circles Camus would have been proud of.

Eventually we found ourselves back at Marquis of Wellington, a stalwart of a pub featuring of good old fashioned fizzy lager and a no nonsense ‘proper’ bar staff. We decamped for a much needed pint of lime and soda – something which I originally felt a bit tight ordering, not wanting to see these fancy upstart weekend only tap rooms usurping the proper working class gaffs of old, until I was charged a fiver for two glasses of squash. Well, I hear you say, it is London…

Still, it’s worth a visit, just to have some good old fashioned banter with the barmaid and assorted clientele who were interested to hear about our boozy morning thus far - banter which lead me to discovering the flaw in our plan; we had walked straight past the penultimate stop.

At this point the logical workings of a sober mind would have would have concluded we should backtrack on ourselves (anathema to both Stealth and I) to grab a quick pint at Brew By Numbers, the stop we had missed, and come back for a final fling across the road.

But, staring into the bottom of our glasses of weak lime cordial, we knew it was a brewery too far. The heat, our feet and general levels of inebriation being what they were we reasoned with ourselves that we had gone off piste, that the Marquis of Wellington was our fourth stop and it didn’t really matter…

Decision made we popped over the road to our last stop, Anspach and Hobday/Bullfinch brewers. The former are a Kickstarter funded set up with the latter sharing their brewing equipment.

Beered out, we went with a Jensen gin and tonic - distilled around thee corner, they also have their own bar, too if you fancy popping in for a cocktail - and a trio of the Ansbach and Hobday brews to take home for the Ewing; an IPA, the Porter and the Smoked Brown. (Sadly the paper bag they were supplied in made it as far as London Bridge before the former two bottle met their fate with the pavement. Luckily the surviving Smoked Brown - a brown ale made with smoked barley - went down very well.)

Mission accomplished, or so we thought, we headed back to Stealth's for a little siesta and a couple of Alka Seltza. It was only on reviewing our adventures later that day that I realised that I wouldn't be able to rest without visiting the final piece in the brewery puzzle. (This was, of course, metaphorical, as I had already been asleep for the most of the afternoon.). I knew that, unlike my abandoned Batman Topps trading cards and my half finished Esso Italia 90 coin collection, I would have to return to complete the Bermondsey brew house set.

Luckily the Ewing was the second willing accomplice who agreed to wander around South London with me drinking beer and getting lost, and we headed back a fortnight later for doughnuts and ham and cocktails (see the forthcoming Bump Caves blog for that exciting installment) and, finally, a visit to Brew By Numbers, found down in the arches on Enid Street.

Brew by Number’s beers are named after a very simple premise. The first number relates to the style of the beer, while the second number indicates the incarnation e.g. what hops/brewing methods or flavourings are used. E.g. the number 4 denotes their Berliner Weisse, which is available as 1 – classic; 2 – double strength and 3 – lime versions.

Shamefully, after all the fuss, I'm not even sure what I ended up drinking, but I'm (fairly) confident it was the Session IPA, hopped with both chinook and amarillo, for a hoppy punch at a low (4.5%) ABV. From the colour I know the Ewing went with the Original Porter, her customary favoured style of beer.

Brews in hand - they also offer rather good looking scotch eggs, which even as an avowed egg avoider I was tempted by. Has anyone every come up with a plausible substitution for the egg bit? – we decamped outside to enjoy our drinks in the sunshine. 

One the oddest bits about drinking here came with the positioning of the lovely Welsh chap by the entrance, who seemed to have been given the rather thankless role of telling people that they had to sit within the packing crate seating area. Possibly something a sign, or even some rope, could have solved far more efficiently - but working with the public myself, I know that signs are merely put there to be ignored.

First rounds sunk, we went back to the arches for a beer at Ansbach and Hobday/Bullfinch to try the beers straight from the tap. Initially I was rather discombobulated, as they had moved their keg taps from straight ahead as you enter, to being positioned on the right hand wall. Thankfully everything else was present and correct, including their sign for their Mr Barrick's pie and pickle, which I still haven’t sampled but I’m planning to make third visit lucky. They also get extra brownie points on account of the Folk implosion’s Mechanical Man playing and the fact the barman was wearing a Minnesota Twins shirt.

To drink I had the Bullfinch Hopocalypse, a pretty easy going 6% pale ale that currently features Zythos, Mosaic and Galaxy hops.  The Ewing picked, after much deliberation to the amusement of the barman, the Smoked Brown she had enjoyed in the bottle after my previous visit.  We also had a bottle of Bullfinch’s Dapper - celebration of the Great British Hop brewed in the style of an American IPA – in honour of the very well dressed, but sadly absent, Stealth.

There was even time for another beery selfie by the arches. Firstly, to let Stealth know that the trail was finally complete, and secondly to remind myself of my own achievements. Not lest the facts the next morning - after several more beers and quite a few cocktails - should seem little more than an alcoholic haze. (They were, but that’s another blog…)

Sunday, 17 August 2014

Pizza (and Proms) - Homeslice, Covent Garden

While I’m not a huge one for life-affirming mantras,  or ‘inspiring’ memes on Instagram, one lesson – taught to me by Madonna at the end of the Human Nature video – I like to live by is ‘absolutely no regrets’.

While not normally a hard thing to abide – this lapsed Catholic very much lacks the guilt gene – I had to struggle to remember it upon waking after our evening with the Pet Shop Boys at the Late Night Proms. Suddenly all those double G&Ts to slake our thirst, followed by a boozy late night roam through St James and past Buck House to wave at Liz, followed by a few more cans of cold Six Point IPA we found back at Stealth’s house seemed a very bad idea indeed…

Auspiciously, just at the moment I feared I might never be able to sit upright with my eyes open simultaneously, the ice cream chimes could be heard across the Newington Estate.  Moments later the magical Stealth had raced outside to grab a brace of 99s, and even deigned to let the Ewing and I eat them in bed.

With sugar safely on board – rarely has whipped fat and air seemed more welcomed - things didn’t seem quite as hopeless; suddenly the lure of more carbs and some hair of the dog began to look very appealing indeed. A cold shower and a cup of tea later and we were back out pounding the – very, very hot and sticky - tarmac of London Town in search of further sustenance.

In view of Stealth having a date to keep in Soho later that evening, we hit the centre of town, conveniently forgetting the horrors of the Big Smoke in the midst of a sultry summer that we had experienced just the previous evening. Thankfully, as with our noodle exploits the night before, braving the hordes was worth it as I had one goal in mind: securing beer and pizza.

Our destination was Homeslice, hidden away in the bright and busy warren of Neal’s Yard – alongside the eponymous cheese and natural remedy purveyors - tucked between Shorts Gardens and Monmouth Street.

As with nearby neighbours, Pizza Pilgrims, Homeslice started out with a mobile oven, this time situated in an East London brewery. After a couple of nomadic years they found a permanent home in the West, and rather a nice one it is;  wooden benches and exposed pipes and brickwork are all present and correct, alongside the jewel in the crown, the wood fired pizza oven. It’s cool, fun and (very) loud.

Orders are taken on an ipad, obviously, and we start with frosty tankards of Camden Helles, served on tap alongside glasses of Prosecco, and pretty good value for a restaurant in Covent Garden (or pretty much anywhere in Lahndan now days) at £4.50 a pop.

Rambling aside alert: While it may start to show my age, I remember my aunt buying me four and a half pound pints at the Rock Garden, just around the corner, when I was an impoverished student. This was over fifteen years ago, now, when the average pint cost £1.97, and I was at once both in awe of the cost and faintly cheated that tasted more of fizzy regret than sparkling ambrosia.

There are also over-sized bottles of wine available in the full trio of colours; drink what you like and pay by every centimetre glugged, the remaining vino measured out with an old fashioned wooden ruler by your waiter on requesting the bill.

Unsurprisingly Pizzas are the main draw; in fact the only draw. There are no sides, starters or puds to muddy the waters, just pies, whole or by the slice, from a regularly changing list chalked up on a board by the entrance.

Choices are different without being too outrĂ©. Expect to see combos like scallops with peanut, haggis and Ogleshield cheese or oxtail and horseradish alongside more familiar favourites such as the classic Caprese or aubergines and courgettes with artichoke. All slices – usually three choices – are £4, all pies £20. If you think that’s a lot of dough to drop on some dough, check the diameter – these babies are the size of a BMX wheel.

We went for a half and half split between a pizza Bianca of white anchovies, chard and Berkswell and a red pie topped with pulled pork, radish, pea shoots and mint pesto.

Everything was spot on; the crust both blistered and charred and floppy and chewy in all the right places and the toppings artfully placed to fill every bite without being sparse. Fortuitously, in the intrests of having to share, I preferred the fish and greens, with the salty sheep's cheese and tang of lemon while the Ewing liked the  porky side, especially the crunch of radish and the sprightly mint pesto. Meanwhile Stealth just got stuck into the beer while trying to snaffle all the nice crusty bits when our backs were turned.

Homeslice on Urbanspoon

Of course, I couldn't omit a mention of the wonderful PSB, debuting their Man From the Future, a musical tribute to the great Alan Turing, at the Roal Albert Hall. A fabulous performance of a bittersweet story; we even bumped in to the girls from the future, too...

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

'Noodle Bar', Leicester Square (and some Unbirthday Cake)

There are three hundred and sixty-four days when you might get un-birthday presents, and only one for birthday presents, you know. Lewis Carroll

A couple of weeks ago, as a precursor to Stealth's unbirthday trip to the Proms, I decided to treat her for dinner at a cheap, unlicensed and un-air-conditioned dive in the heart of tacky tourist central. No one can say I don’t push the boat out.

There was a brief moment, when I was trying to, literally, push my way from Piccadilly Circus to Leicester Square, when the mercury was still hitting 30 at six in the evening and most of London had decided to descend upon Theatreland, where I questioned my own sanity on suggesting such an idea.

But, despite the crowds and the heat and inauspicious frontage of the place – just look for the sign that says ‘noodles’ – I knew that at the back, past the trays of luminous sweet and sour and chow mein and fug of steaming dumplings, that Stealth’s spicy noodle urge would soon be sated.

Typically, despite the address and link to Google maps being provided, Stealth had decided to trust her own sense of direction and was waiting at the other noodle bar opposite the other entrance of Leicester Square tube. Something that was comical when recounted later, but didn’t seem quite as amusing as we were sublimating on the pavement.

Troops successfully reconvened, we were hustled by the staff waiting on the pavement outside to the cramped seating area at the back and presented with, helpfully illustrated, laminated menus. There's plenty to chose from, but ignore all the standard glop that sits in trays under heat lamps, the handmade noodles are the real draw here.

These noodles come in two varieties, la mian, the thin, hand pulled variety, and Dao Xiao Mian, which are shaved from a big ball of dough, wrapped round a stick, straight into the steaming stockpot. Both these types can be ordered in soup, dry style or fried, and then topped with various meat, fish and vegetables.

From the little ledge along the side of the restaurant, where we were perched, we had a prime seat to one of the best shows in town, watching enthralled at the lengths of oil dough being expertly twisted and tossed into the air until they split into tiny, glistening threads that were dispatched straight into the bubbling broth.

Minutes later and our steaming bowls were in front of us; hot and sour beef with la mian for Stealth, Dan Dan noodles with la mian for the Ewing and crispy pork chop with fried Dao Xiao for me.
The la mian were springy and toothsome, just like a good noodle should be. Stealth’s soup was pleasingly piquant, full of strips of tender meat and greens while the Ewing’s Dan Dan rendition had a flavoursome broth topped with plenty of porky, nutty sauce.

My platter - literally, a vast metal tray- was piled with crisp cabbage and onions and chunks of juicy pork chop and studded throughout with comforting noodle chunks that were chewy and stodgy, in the best possible way.

Noodle mains are decently priced, between £ 6-£7.50, and the portions are gargantuan. For the adventurous there is also a huge menu of side dishes that includes various preparations of tripe, liver and tongue alongside cucumber served with pig’s ears, and stomach of duck in red oil.

We also ordered a plate of steamed dumplings stuffed with pork and Chines chives – superfluous, but rather forced on us by our brusque, but amusing waiter – which were very good.  The handmade wrappers encasing the centre were delicate and light with the inside being fragrantly allium-spiked and beautifully juicy.

It isn’t licenced, they don’t offer tap water, service is comically curt and pushy and there is barely room to swing the noodles, let alone anything else, but Zhengzhong Lanzhou Lamian Noodle Bar has a curious charm as well as damn fine noodles.

Lanzhou on Urbanspoon
To round off the un-birthday treat, our final stop was intended to be the Golden Gate Desert House on Shaftsbury Avenue but time dictated we had to Go West (thanks to Stealth’s boss) to the Royal Albert Hall. No matter, as we had the chance to go back the following evening before returning home, although sadly sans Stealth this time.

Again, it’s not a fancy gaff, although the elaborate range of cakes and gateaux’s in the window at the front and the chilled cabinet inside are properly swanky. The Ewing went for the chocolate mousse layered sponge, complete with strawberry frog topper who was sadly blinded in an unfortunate accident on the trip home – while I picked the impressive pandan cake.

I love the flavour of pandan, and this, with the layers of lurid green jelly, fluffy sponge and coconut cream, was like a rather exotic children’s tea party. The Ewing pronounced her cake as ‘light as air’ although you’ll have to take her word for it as not much remained for me to corroborate.

The bright purple taro mousse cake also looked particularly intriguing and is top of the list for a return visit, They also stock a small range of pork, cheese, spring onion or sausage stuffed savoury buns, lotus cakes and moon cakes as well as dramatic, many layered, cream and fruit topped celebration cakes for all occasions.

Golden Gate Dessert House on Urbanspoon

Still sweltering in the sultry City heat wave our last stop was Boba Jam, two doors down from the Desert House. Here they serve a small variety of South east Asian/Chinese deserts – mostly involving strange flavoured fruit, beans and seeds – and a selection of savoury snacks, but the biggest lure is the range of Boba tea and fruit jelly drinks.

We played it safe with the Hong Kong style – a strong black tea with condensed milk – served with black tapioca pearls and lashings of ice. Everyone knows that you can’t have an un-birthday without tea and cake, and this was the perfect finale. Here’s to Stealth’s next 363 un-special days.

Boba Jam on Urbanspoon

Saturday, 9 August 2014

Summer Cake with Apricots, Almonds and Raspberries

A bit of late summer foraging always puts me in mind of the words of the wonderful Seamus Heaney:

Blackberry Picking
Late August, given heavy rain and sun
For a full week, the blackberries would ripen.
At first, just one, a glossy purple clot
Among others, red, green, hard as a knot.
You ate that first one and its flesh was sweet
Like thickened wine: summer's blood was in it
Leaving stains upon the tongue and lust for
Picking. Then red ones inked up and that hunger
Sent us out with milk cans, pea tins, jam-pots
Where briars scratched and wet grass bleached our boots.
Round hayfields, cornfields and potato-drills
We trekked and picked until the cans were full
Until the tinkling bottom had been covered
With green ones, and on top big dark blobs burned
Like a plate of eyes. Our hands were peppered
With thorn pricks, our palms sticky as Bluebeard's.
We hoarded the fresh berries in the byre.
But when the bath was filled we found a fur,
A rat-grey fungus, glutting on our cache.
The juice was stinking too. Once off the bush
The fruit fermented, the sweet flesh would turn sour.
I always felt like crying. It wasn't fair
That all the lovely canfuls smelt of rot.
Each year I hoped they'd keep, knew they would not.

Luckily for me there’s a huge blackberry bush at the end of my front garden, providing handfuls of snatched berries for breakfast on route to work with further pickings gathered on the way home to be instantly frozen or eaten with yogurt or cream.

Other berries, particularly fragile raspberries and tayberries, are more troublesome. Each year I always vow only to pick enough to eat that day; not only are they so fragile but they also are the most expensive of the soft fruits at our local PYO, and its heart-breaking to have to throw away any fuzzy or hopelessly squashed ones.

Of course each year is the same and the allure of the little scarlet fruits, gently sun warmed, is too much to resist. We always end up carting home at least a couple of large punnets to gently taunt me every time I open the fridge door.

This year I was determined to be more organised, as well as some of Dan Lepard’s oat bran muffins, studded with both blueberries and raspberries - far less virtuous than they sound and very, very easy – I also picked out this Summer cake from Nigel Slater, for Stealth’s annual, seemingly never-ending, unbirthday bash.

I’m afraid I can’t take credit for the making of this cake, it was one of the wonderful Ewing’s creations, but I can take full credit for demolishing several large slices. The ground almonds and soft fruit keep it particularly moist, but a little dollop of cream or ice cream alongside wouldn't go amiss either…

Summer Cake with Raspberries and Apricots 
Adapted from Nigel Slater's Tender volume II

Serves 8-10 
175g butter 
175g golden caster sugar 
200g ripe apricots (or peaches or plums)
2 large eggs 
175g self-raising flour 
100g ground almonds 
1 tsp grated orange zest 
a few drops of vanilla extract 
150g raspberries (or any other soft berries)

Line the base of a 20cm, loose-bottomed cake tin with baking paper. Set the oven at 170C
Cream the butter and sugar together in a food mixer until pale and fluffy. 
Halve, stone and roughly chop the apricots. 
Beat the eggs lightly then add, a little at a time, to the creamed butter and sugar. If there is any sign of curdling, stir in a tablespoon of the flour.
Mix the flour and almonds together and fold in slowly to the creamed buter/sugar/eggs.
Add the orange zest and vanilla, and once they are incorporated gently stir in the chopped apricots and raspberries.
Scrape the mixture into the cake tin and bake for 1 hour and 10 minutes. 
Test with a skewer – if it comes out relatively clean, then the cake is done. 
Leave the cake to cool for 10 minutes or so in the tin, run a palette knife around the edge, then slide out on to a plate.
Decorate with a sprinkling of icing sugar or granulated sugar and serve with cream or ice cream and more berries.