Tastings School - A very big house in the country (Thornbridge Hall)

Tastings School

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A very big house in the country (Thornbridge Hall)

Richard Jones dons his gladrags for an evening of fine beer and food at the magnificent setting of Thornbridge Hall in the Peak District

It only takes a cursory glance at the website (www.thornbridgebrewery.co.uk and www.thornbridgehall.co.uk) to discover that Thornbridge is not your usual fledgling microbrewery.

The clue comes courtesy of the words ‘Country House’ on the homepage and, my, what a house it is. Perhaps this is what Blur had in mind when they penned their song of the same name during the height of Britpop. It is indeed ‘a very big house’; an idyllic, picture perfect stately home set in 100 acres of Peak District parkland and dating back to the 12th century. Not a bad gaff in other words.

The estate is owned by the inordinately wealthy husband and wife team Jim and Emma Harrison, both hugely successful businessfolk in their own right. Jim Harrison set up the brewery in a restored carpenters’ shop on the estate in partnership with Dave Wickett of Sheffield’s Kelham Island fame. Given the calibre and financial clout of its founders, its perhaps no surprise that they do things slightly differently at Thornbridge.

So, while many upstart microbreweries would still be fretting about fundamentals such as cashflow, production, distribution and sales, Thornbridge Brewery has quickly established a reputation for an adventurous approach to beer and food matching. To celebrate its first anniversary in December 2005 it hosted a sellout beer themed dinner featuring Roger Protz as guest speaker. It was so successful that the following year they decided to take the event to a new level, this time challenging Sheffield chef Richard Smith to match his award winning cuisine with a range of Thornbridge beers. And yours truly was fortunate enough to be there for the experience.

Although it seems to occupy half of Derbyshire, Thornbridge Hall isn’t the easiest place to find in the dark. After innumerable Uturns, consultations of the map and in-depth interrogations of locals, I finally managed to navigate my way to the requisite annex of the estate and to a kindly gentleman serving Thornbridge Hark Ale straight from the cask. This is a new, winter ale from the brewery and I enjoyed its crisp, slightly spicy fruit flavours. It carried its 4.8% ABV lightly and made for an enjoyable accompaniment to a succession of beautifully executed hors d’oeuvres which included onion bhajis, roast beef with mini Yorkshire puddings and crisp, fluffy roast potatoes.

The dinner itself was held in the wonderfully atmospheric Carriage House Ballroom and the I tone for the evening was lively and informal.

The guest of honour was George Philliskirk of the Beer Academy and he began with a spot of education on the principles of beer and food pairing. In case anyone wasn’t paying attention, a short guide on each of the tables helped to explain the three key principles: first, to match the intensity of the food with the intensity of the beer; second, to match any sweetness of the food with similar sweetness in the beer; and third, to complement (or deliberately contrast) key flavours in the food with the flavours of the beer.

However the guide also pointed out that it was possible to take things too far: “In the end it is up to you to drink what you like with your food” and, “…there’s nothing more annoying than having a ‘beer snob’ at the table telling everyone that the matches aren’t right”. Bravo, and on with the food… The first course matched Thornbridge Kipling Ale with a ‘galette of fish smoked by the Derbyshire Smokery containing swordfish, tuna, trout, salmon with smoked mackerel pate, pickled cucumber and wild organic cress’. The beer itself was highly unusual and testament to the creativity of the young Thornbridge brewing team of Scotsman Martin Dickie and Italian Stefano Cossi. The brew uses New Zealand hops and I swear, honest guv’nor, that I commented on its similarity to an aromatic New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc before I knew the unusual recipe. The logic of the pairing was well judged, but it was only moderately successful; the oiliness and smokiness of the high quality fish proving slightly too much for a beer much lighter in body that its 5.2% ABV would suggest.

Jaipur India Pale Ale (5.9%) is turning into something of a signature beer for Thornbridge brewery and it was brought out to accompany the second course of ‘seven hour braised shoulder of Manifold Valley organic lamb, Indian vegetable stew and aromatic pilau rice served with traditional Indian garnishes’.

Jaipur has been garnering awards and accolades by the truck load since its launch in the summer of 2006 (including Silver Medal at the Great British Beer Festival and overall winner at the Peterborough Beer Festival) and its not hard to see why. This is a powerfully built IPA that more than matched the rich flavours of the lamb and accompanying spices. With its long, extremely hoppy finish, the Jaipur worked as an excellent ‘palate cleanser’ during the dish, clearing the tastebuds and leaving them ready for plenty more.

This was a delicious combination that debunks once and for all the ‘cold fizzy lager with curry’ principle.

The third course featured McCrindle, an experimental all malt barley wine at 10% ABV, that, to my mind, was the least enjoyable Thornbridge beer on show that evening. Cloudy in appearance, it boasted attractive citric fruit flavours but lacked the depth to carry the burden of its high alcohol. It did, however, improve when paired with ‘mini Hartington cheesecake, roquette, Thornbridge ale jelly and apple chutney’, the strong character of the cheese standing up to the 10% much more effectively than the flavours of the beer.

Chocolate is widely recognised as one of the most beer friendly foods, and it more than lived up to its reputation during the final course. The beer was Thornbridge Saint Petersburg Imperial Russian Stout, a truly magnificent full flavoured brew with heaps of coffee, dark chocolate and raisiny complexity. The food was equally fine and despite the shortest description on the menu ‘dark chocolate and orange pot’ it did not lack for superlatives. Rich and decadent, yet remarkably fresh and easy to eat, the kind of dessert that happily puts pounds on your waistline without ever really filling you up.

Together, they provided the highlight of the evening and a textbook example of a classic food and drink combination. Two superb products in their own right both lifted on to a higher dimension when served at the same time. The beer matching the texture and sweetness of the food perfectly and bringing a host of additional flavours to the mix.

The dinner was concluded by an entertaining talk by Pete Brown, author of A Man Walks into a Pub, but I was still too far in gastronomic heaven to give him my full attention I’m afraid.

However much beer writers like to hark on about it, beer and food matching is still, outside of an Indian or occasional Michelin-starred restaurant, an alien experience to the majority of the British public. That Thornbridge managed to persuade nearly 200 people to stump up £50 a ticket for an event such as this deserves admiration.

That’s a healthy number of converts to the ‘beer with food’ cause for one evening, only another 40 million or so adults in the UK to go…