Tastings School - Top of the Glas

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Top of the Glas

Ben McFarland samples some of Sweden's finest beer and food combinations.

If the “bork-bork-borking,” cabbage-shooting, moose-smearing and chicken-chucking chef from The Muppets is your sole experience of Swedish cuisine then, well, you should stop being so flipping childish and read on.

Not content with flooding the globe with reasonably priced, flat-pack furniture and safe yet unexciting automobiles, Sweden also boasts some top-notch tucker.

Swede Anna Mosesson, cook, food writer and owner of Upper Glas, a Swedish restaurant in North London, certainly thinks so. “Swedish cuisine simply doesn’t get the attention it deserves,” says Anna, who has written extensively on the subject. “It’s a completely different experience. There’s healthy fish dishes including eel, mackerel, herrings and, of course, Gravad Lax and Swedish anchovies – a lot sweeter than those of other countries.

“It’s always seemed incredibly unfair to me that beer still has this slight stigma attached to it. I have a lot of friends who are total wine snobs and they look at me in disbelief when I order a beer out at a top restaurant! They’d never think of having a beer to accompany a fish dish – which I can assure you, is a superb combination.” So banish clichéd associations with stodgy meatballs because Swedish cuisine is far more sophisticated than that.

And so, indeed, is its beer. More readily associated with aquavit, vodkas and other heady spirits, Sweden is not renowned for its ales yet there are more than 20 microbreweries in Sweden and, considering the tight taxation of booze, an extremely healthy craft brewing scene.

Like a muscular plumber and an uninhibited housewife in a Swedish “art house” film, food and beer recently came together in spectacular unison at Anna’s restaurant. Perched above an antiques market on Upper Street, a boulevard of eclectic eateries and watering holes in Islington, Upper Glas is a kitsch and airy Swedish venue that buzzes with beautiful all-female blonde bombshells swishing smorgasbords of tasty, innovative bites from table to table.

Amid décor more sophisticated alpine lodge than IKEA minimalism, it hosted a beer-and-food dinner showcasing both the culinary skills of chef Mads Larsen and the boutique beers of Sweden’s Nils Oscar Brewery.

Nils Oscar is arguably Sweden’s most innovative microbrewery and distillery in Nykpoing. It’s fairly unique in that it directly controls production from field to glass. In the fields around Tarno Manor farm, an exquisite 14th century estate located one hour from Stockholm, the barley is cultivated and malted in its own state-of-the-art malthouse.

“Sadly it’s too cold to grow our own hops,” laments Patrick Holmqvist, Nils Oskar’s head brewer. “But we can control the entire process very closely and this gives us better quality, peace of mind and the freedom to experiment.” And experiment they do. Nils Oscar brews 10 beers (to the tune of 7,600 hectolitres a year) with no small amount of cheeky derring-do. Its beers range from a crisp and quenching lager to a beast of a barley wine and a superb Christmas beer with plenty of quirky innovation going on in the shape of superb seasonals and specialities.

In conjunction with a thirst-inducing munch on some delicate anchovy breadsticks glazed in a blackberry-tinged Christmas beer, the flagship God Lager served as a terrific aperitif beer. A muscular, almost Vienna-style drop overlaid with brisk hop bitterness, its dry aromatic aftertaste deftly whetted the appetite for the seven course beer banquet that was to follow.

Following a palate-cleansing shot glass of tomato consommé jelly with crème fraiche and caviar, Mads Larsen introduced an appetizer of dill seed-infused root vegetables with beer marinated quail and smoked quail’s egg. “It’s a twist on a traditional Swedish dish with lots of light and sharp flavours from the basil, parsnip puree and black truffles,” said Mads. “It requires a beer with plenty of spice and body as it’s complex and there’s a lot to contend with here.” Step forward a robust yet refined Farm Ale made with several different malts. Biscuity with slight sharpness from the acidity of the East Kent Golding, Slovenian and Magnum hops. Very aromatic, a slight roast tint from the crystal malt with sweet dried fruit and a touch of apricot. It was a pairing which made for a kaleidoscopic clash of flavours yet somehow the ingredients dovetailed to produce a terrific pairing.

After being stormed, senses were soothed by an unaccompanied chilled elderflower soup and furthermore by a ‘salmon tartare and cucumber salad’ dish paired with the Nils Oscar’s dry and bitter Pils brewed using Saaz hops from the Czech Republic and a direct heat on the copper which donates a strong caramel tint.

Both Mads and Patrick were keen to underline the health-giving properties of both the food and the beer. “We’ve decorated the salmon tartare with cloudberries which are both hugely rich in anti-oxidants,” said Mads. “There’s enough there to cancel out any hangover!” If you want to keep healthy, keep taking the Pils, added Patrick. “Many people talk about the benefits of moderate red wine drinking and that beer has lower anti-oxidants,” said the former biochemist. “But what people don’t realise is that the molecules in beer are smaller so it’s easier for the body to take beer’s anti-oxidants onboard and this means it has the same effect as red wine.” Unlike most foodstuffs that are good for you, the salmon and suds combined to sensational effect.

From the delicate we moved to the decadent with the arrival of a ‘beer-marinated shoulder of pork, confit hasselbacks potato and red cabbage’ coupled with a heavy-hitting India Ale. The India Ale wielded a fat-fighting dryness and delicate hoppyness overly capable of holding its own in the face of the herb-infused, cocklewarming, fall-off-the-fork pork.

“The cinnamon and beer soaked shoulder was braised for three hours until it was nice and tender,” said Mads. “It’s a very wintery and earthy dish best suited to a beer with character.” The India Ale, a modern interpretation of a traditional beer-style, slices clean through the succulent meat with its wealth of pineapple and passion-fruit flavoured Amarillo hop and an IBU (international bitterness unit) count of 40. Yet the ultimate epicurean epiphany came in the salivating shape of Nils Oscar’s fruity India Ale and the crisp crackling – a thinking man’s pint and pork scratchings.

Following a red potato sorbet that swept the palate of its indulgent indiscretions, it was time for dessert: a rich chocolate cake adorned with homemade barley wine ice cream and glögg sauce, a Swedish speciality made with cinnamon, cloves and spices.

Nils Oscar Barley Wine was chosen as the cake’s fluid friend and foil. First brewed in 1994, this beast of a beer was originally cocncoted on Patrick’s cooker at home when he was a member of Stockholm’s ‘Fermentation Army’ homebrew club. It was then released in 1997, with exactly the same recipe, as a very expensive Christmas beer. Despite its price, batches sold out in three weeks and the barley wine has since gained a strong following among beer aficionados.

Armed with the sweetness of a luxurious dessert wine and almost pink in hue, its power belied its pretty appearance. The burnt caramel, borne from the roasted barley malt, found a friend in the moist chocolate cake and lightened it with soft cherry-tinged notes. In both the beer and the ice cream, toffee, nuts and spice could be found alongside a touch of aromatic hop bitterness with an IBU of 60.

The salmon and pils pairing may have reduced the risk of heart disease but this final guilty pleasure left our arteries sweating like Miss Piggy in a Swedish sauna.

CONTACT
Upper Glas Restaurant 1st Floor, The Mall, 359 Upper Street, London N1 0PD Tel: +44 (0)20 7359 1932 www.glasrestaurant.co.uk