Tastings School - Beer off a duck's back

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Beer off a duck's back

Can beer really hack it at the poshest of dinner tables? Ben McFarland books into tthe three Michelin star eaterie Fat Duck and finds out

If this whole idea of bringing food and beer together is ever going to truly get off the ground then the great and the good of gastronomy must first give it the thumbs up.

There’s been plenty of chatter about the joyous wonders of matching beer with haute cuisine but much of it has come from the partisan lips of brewers and, let’s be honest, most of that’s been more theory than practice.

Take a straw-poll of the United Kingdom’s more elite eateries and you’ll discover that the fine dining jury has remained out with regard to beer’s potential love affair with great grub. For the vast majority of top-notch restaurants, beer still lags behind cutlery and linen napkins on the list of priorities.

In fact, even butter can lay claim to a more prominent billing. Restaurants offer diners the choice of either salted or unsalted with one’s fancy bread but when it comes to offering beer styles, you can drink absolutely anything as long as it’s lager… sloshed and served in a pint glass... accompanied by either snobby distain or disbelief.

This is a particularly depressing snub made all the more baffling in light of fact that innovation, experimentation and gastronomic mould-breaking has never been so rife in British cuisine.

The Fat Duck, a three-star Michelin restaurant and former beery boozer in the small Berkshire village of Bray, is a case in point. Owner and proprietor Heston Blumenthal has been hailed as the most exciting thing to happen to the British culinary scene since sliced bread.

To say that Heston’s cooking is a little leftfield is like saying bears relieve themselves in the woods.

The white outfits worn by Heston and his staff owe as much to scientists as they do chefs for it is his championing of molecular biology and appliance of science to the art of fine dining that he has made his name.

A name, incidentally, that many journalists have erroneously – or cheekily – claimed is in homage to a motorway service station on the British motorway, the M4. Don’t believe everything you read in the papers.

You want different? Snail porridge, marzipan potato chips, basil blancmange, beetroot jellies, salmon with liquorice, cauliflower with chocolate and bacon and egg ice cream are just some of the eyebrow-raising dishes served up at the Fat Duck.

In his laboratory next door to the restaurant, whose dining room is blissfully free of pomp and ceremony, Heston and his team constantly play around with flavours, tastes and food combinations.

Rumour has it that his latest experiment involves exploring how sound contributes to one’s gastronomic experience. He plans to arm diners with headsets that play crunching noises while they eat soft-textured dishes.

In short, Heston has not so much chucked away the traditional cookbook, but sliced it neatly into miniscule little pieces, fused it with bone marrow and kumquats and served it in a sorbet cum stew.

Yet amid all these wacky ideas, this groundbreaking innovation and no small amount of gushing, superlative-laden rave reviews from critics (the Fat Duck was recently voted the world’s best restaurant by Restaurant Magazine) the beer selection could have been much better, especially when you consider the extensive and informed wine list.

So, having booked a table several months in advance (you have to these days), an eclectic selection of beers was sent to the Fat Duck accompanied by a request for Heston to match them with his trademark unusual dishes.

Heston had not attempted such a task before, so it presented him with a new challenge. And not one to avoid a gauntlet when one is thrown down in front of him, Mr Blumenthal kindly obliged and conjured up the following pairings.

The pairings

Nitro-green tea and lime and vodka mousse oyster with passion fruit jelly, horseradish cream and lavender Pommery grain mustard ice cream and red cabbage gazpacho All Served with KASTEEL CRU, 5.2%ABV

To get one’s taste-buds limbered-up and ready for action, a trio of palate rousing tasters are served up alongside Kasteel Cru, an Alsace lager produced courtesy of a Franco-American collaboration between the Brasserrie du Sauverne near Strasbourg and international company, Coors Brewers.

It’s an ideal aperitif tipple whose claim to fame is that it’s one of very few beers made using champagne yeast, a notoriously cantankerous strain that brewers have hitherto avoided like the clap.

The secret behind the champagne fermentation is being kept firmly under beret and Stetson respectively, but you can see and savour its presence in the shape of its creamy, lingering and textured head and the beer’s sheer drinkability.

But in the light and fluffy stakes, Kasteel was shown a thing or two by the green tea, lime and vodka mousse. The mixture is dispensed from an aerosol onto a spoon and dramatically dipped into a tableside smoking vessel of liquid nitrogen (which, incidentally, brewers often use to store yeast strains) from which it reappears in the shape of a delicate and sculptured discus of air-cum-foam.

It’s a strange yet hugely refreshing sensation that lasts a blissful millisecond and is gone just as quick.

The green tea opens the pores of the tongue, the lime stimulates the palate and the vodka cuts through the mouth’s natural fats.

While the sweetness of the beer worked well with the oyster and passion fruit jelly and stood up to the mustard ice cream, anyone claiming that Kasteel Cru mingles seamlessly with all these dishes would be lying and would be better off using the beer to extinguish their flaming pants.

However, Kasteel played the aperitif role well by keeping itself to itself and providing refreshment without unnecessary intrusion.

Match Factor 5/10

Grilled scallop with caramelised cauliflower puree and jelly of Olorosso sherry Served with Gulpener Korenwolf, 5% ABV

When faced with shellfish and seafood, beer drinkers tend to reach for either a dry and fullbodied stout or a citrussy wheat beer.

Gulpener Korenwolf is a invigorating example of the latter and proof that the Dutch can make a wheat beer as fine and complex as their Belgian neighbours. Korenwolf is more savoury than Bavarian wheat beers and doesn’t have the bubblegum or banana notes that simply wouldn’t be welcome here.

Packed with fruity zest, citrus aromas and bursts of coriander, the Korenwolf dealt valiantly with the saltiness of the scallops and fared well against the sweetness and tang of the caramelised cauliflower puree.

Match Factor 6/10

Roast foie gras, almond fluid gel, cherry and camomile Served with Liefmanns Kriek, 6.0 per cent

That Heston accompanies his roast foie gras with cherry and almond is all to do with something called Benzaldehyde.

Benzaldehyde is more likely to be found, amid the small print, on the back labels of pharmaceutical or pesticide bottles rather than cook books. But for chefs, it’s a well known flavouring agent that, when sniffed, conjures up more than a hint of almonds. It’s also naturally found on cherries – hence the presence of the little red fruit on both the plate and in the glass here.

Liefmans, made in Belgium, is one of the few Kriek beers that uses 100 per cent fresh cherries in the brewing process. As a Kriek beer, it has the requisite sweetness to match that of the foie gras yet unlike Sauterne, which is the age-old wine drinker’s choice when eating foie gras, it cuts through the fattiness and doesn’t complicate things with a coating mouthfeel.

The textures are wonderful too with the rich carbonation contrasting brilliantly with the smooth buttery feel of the foie gras.

Highly Recommended.

Match Factor 8/10

Pork belly, macaroni, truffle and lardo di colonnata (cuts of Italian pork prepared and seasoned in a marble tub) Served with Innis & Gunn, 5.3%ABV

Heston seems to reserve his more outlandish showboating and experimentation for the palatecleansing courses and desserts as, by Fat Duck standards, this hugely flavoursome main course verges on the conventional.

Like many pork dishes, there’s palpable sweetness here and it hits it off fabulously with the vanilla, toffee and orange aromas of Innis & Gunn, a beer that is matured in American white oak barrels for 30 days.

Brisk and fruity yet robust, the Innis & Gunn is a perfect partner to this dish, forming a marriage that’s happier than a pig in the proverbial. While pork is a white meat, anything less than a robust darkish beer would struggle to contend with its full-on, in-yer-face flavours.

Match Factor 7/10

Poached breast of Anjou Pigeon pancetta pastille of its leg, pistachio, cocoa and quatre epices Served with Worthington White Shield, 5.6%ABV

Worthington White Shield is something of an institution. In 1971, it was one of only five bottle conditioned ales on the UK market. Now there are more than 360 yet the distinctive looking and tasting Worthington White Shield is one of only two to have survived from the original quintet.

A bold and brash beer with lots of balls and a bitter finish, it bluntly blew away the Anjou pigeon like a double barrel shotgun.

Having said that, the aromatic nuttiness of the pistachio linked up well with the full-bodied spiciness and peppery nature of the Goldings and Challenger hops and the beer was great at refreshing those parts parched by the cocoa.

But duck or pheasant would be better game for this brew.

Match Factor 7/10

Carrot toffee, butternut ice cream, pumpkin seed oil Served with Brakspear Triple, 7.2 per cent ABV

By this point, my taste-buds were extremely tired and emotional, hanging onto the ropes and begging for mercy. But before the towel could hit the canvas, there was time for one more killer punch – a culinary haymaker that caught my palate squarely on the chin.

Making toffee from carrots might be big and it might be clever but, for fear of being a big jessie, I simply couldn’t take it anymore. One bite of the saccharin substance had those cartoon tweeting birds circling above my head. They began orbiting and mocking me all the more enthusiastically after the sip of the Brakspear Triple – a wonderful beer that’s triple fermented and triple-hopped but not one that gets on particularly well with this most bizarre of dishes.

No beer would be able to unite these incongruous flavours and nor could any wine – if anyone suggests a ‘sweet and sticky’ with butternut ice cream then tell them to be quiet. Take my advice: push the carrot toffee to one side, sit back, savour and sip the Triple as if it were a digestif and allow it to stimulate both digestion and after-dinner talk of a gastronomic experience like no other.

Match Factor 3/10