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Shepherd Neame hops up to high table

Michael Jackson, impassioned connoisseur, recommends a range of beers good enough to eat.

The French, with their eclectic interest in alcoholic drinks, have used beer as an accompaniment and an ingredient. In the kitchen and at table, their favoured brews are made from barley grown in the Champagne region and hops harvested in French Flanders or across the Belgian border. Where France meets Belgium, the most passionate gastronomes in Europe encounter the most sophisticated beer-lovers.

At a restaurant in Paris called l'Entre-Siecle the other day, I enjoyed an eight-course dinner in which every dish was prepared and served with a Belgian beer. A terrine of trout was beautifully set off by a sauce enriched with the coriander-spiced Hoegaarden wheat beer, the pheasant had been marinated in a winey "Iambic" brew -a beer fermented with wild yeasts; the mocha mousse was flavoured with a chocolatey Trappist ale and a dash of Scotch malt whisky.

Escoffier included in his work several dishes cooked with beer, but cuisine de la biere was not formally recognised until the great Belgian chef Raoul Modeghem began assembling recipes in the fifties. Among modern enthusiasts has been another Belgian, the itinerant chef Pierrot Fonteyne, who cooked on my Channel 4 series The Beer Hunter.

He was one of four Belgian chefs, with six Michelin stars between them who cooked a famous lunch that introduced this cuisine to New York in 1984.

He was one of four Belgian chefs, with six Michelin stars between them who cooked a famous lunch that introduced this cuisine to New York in 1984. Dishes, and sometimes whole dinners, prepared with and accompanied by beer, have since become de rigueur there, at restaurants such as the fashionable New York's Brasserie, Window on the World, and Nosmo King. Some of the popular dishes derive from the rediscovery of regional foods. The custom of serving oysters or other shellfish and crustaceans with dry stouts or porters has never quite died out in the English-speaking world. I like to use a dash of Guinness or Murphy's in a sauce, perhaps with ginger, horseradish or soy, to accompany such dishes. One could also do this with sushi.

No wine is quite as happy with asparagus as beer is. During the season the people of Alsace and southern Germany serve asparagus with ham or scrambled eggs, washed down with lager. It is even better with a fruity golden strong ale from Belgium - Duvel or Westmalle Tripel.

The German style of wheat beer, especially the acidic Berliner Weisse, makes an interesting vinaigrette. Or use a Belgian raspberry beer, a framboise. Among the examples of framboise available in Britain, Timinermans' is probably the most tart; if you go to Belgium, look out for Boon or Cantillon.

As accompaniment rather than ingredient, an English brown ale such as Newcastle's famous example has a malty nuttiness that goes well with crunchy salads. This combination did not occur to me until I tasted a Waldorf salad with Brooklyn Brown Ale. Some people are put off beer as an accompaniment because of its bulk, but there is no need to consume a whole bottle with every course. Use Burgundy glasses as the Belgians do, and split a bottle with your partner, moving on to another style of beer with each dish.

From Kent, try Shepherd Neame's Bishop's Finger with lamb from the Downs; from the Midlands, Marston's Pedigree with Hereford beef. In either case, the hops may have been grown in the same county as the animal. Not only in their reddish colour, but also in their fruitiness, dryness and complexity, English bitters or pale ales are the beer world's answer to claret. Scottish ales might be compared to burgundy - so try a Traquair House Ale next time you prepare game, or strong meats such as rabbit or heart.

As a marinade, ale tenderises meal. As a basis for sauces, it adds the sweetness, sometimes slightly buttery or toffeeish, of the malt, the dryness of the hop, and the savoury note of the yeast (as in Marmite). And being a flower or cone, the hop can be floral and even slightly piney in flavour. It works well in sauces with aromatic ingredients such as thyme, juniper berries and orange peel. A hoppy ale (Young's Export, Adnams Suffolk Strong, Timothy Taylor's Landlord, Deuchar's WA) also adds flavours to mustards, especially if they are malt vinegar-based.

If your roast is to be served with Yorkshire pudding, a hoppy ale will add flavour and aerate the batter. Add it at the very last second just as the pan is going into the oven.

The biggest surprise is how well some beers go with desserts.

The biggest surprise is how well some beers go with desserts. German wheat beers such as Franziskaner Weisse or Engelbrau Weizen have hints of plum, apple and clove, even though none of these is used in the brewing. The flavours come from the use of wheat and the type of yeast that ferments it. Naturally enough, these wheat beers go well as an accompaniment to fruity desserts, or as an ingredient in bread puddings.

Sweet and Imperial stouts gain coffee-like notes from their highly roasted malts, and can be a revelation with chocolate desserts. As an ingredient, they also add moisture to puddings and dark types of cake. Very strong ales also assume fruity notes in fermentation but with a touch of alcohol. Young's Old Nick Barley wine has a hint of banana; Gale's Prize Old Ale, a calvados-like reminder of apple; and Thomas Hardy's Ale, a suggestion of sherry. Try these as an accompaniment to appetisers.

Published Online: SEPT 2, 1998
Published in Print: MAR 6, 1993
In: The Independent

Food/Pairings - Editorial

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