An alternative to champagne with fish and chips

“That. My friend. Is not the way to treat a flat-screen TV.”
CSI Miami’s Horatio Caine dips his forehead towards me and peers over his sunglasses, managing to look both out of place and yet utterly stylish in the dim daylight of an early Surrey Spring morning. Hands still on hips, he strides out of the living room towards the whir of the inkjet in the hall.
“But, H…” I offer, limply.

The lab results are in, and “H” presents me with the elaborate read-out.
“Just. What I thought… The imprint of a Teva Tanza Water Sandal, circa 2005. And all… Because of Saturday Kitchen.”

This was not the response I was expecting when, one murky February Saturday morning, I tweeted, announcing the cold-blooded murder of that Great British institution, Fish and Chips, live on the BBC. But hey! that’s Twitter for you; you never know who’s going to respond to what.


The killing wasn’t the Saturday Kitchen host James Martin’s doing, I could save Horatio that line of questioning. It was that Olly bloke, who gives the wine “tips”. Olly’s job is to recommend what you should be raiding your local Waitrose or Majestic for as an accompaniment to the culinary offering of the guest chef. Olly’s obviously a professional, and on a good day, I am sparked into thinking what beer would be just as good as his vinous preference.

However, all too often, I shout in desperation at the TV, which remains unresponsive. On this particular Saturday, Olly’s recommendation to go with Fish and Chips was Champagne. I’m afraid I lost it, and, in the absence of a slipper, I also lost my left Teva Water Sandal at high velocity towards the flickering LCD panel. In all fairness, to James Martin, he was just as affronted as me.

I resume my pleading, “But H, I’m guilty as charged on the sandal chucking, but surely you didn’t come all the way over the Atlantic just to inspect evidence in my living room. That’s not even the crime, here.”
“You. My friend, are right.” H intones softly, but firmly.
“But you know the score well by now. The contract says, we have to put gratuitous barely-feasible technology links into every show.”
It crosses my mind that this last remark is a little out of character, but I let it slide. Probably the jet lag.
“No. What we have here. Is a mystery on a national scale. Somebody, or something is to blame. And I. Am going to find out who that somebody is.”

Cue: Baba O’Reilly – the CSI Miami theme tune.

The mystery, of course is not how wine has managed to usurp beer’s place on the dinner table in Britain, but how did we let it happen? The reasons are, perhaps, wrapped up in the growth of interest in the UK in good food, as fostered by TV cooks such as Keith Floyd, who followed a line of influence back to Elizabeth David. The influence was the Mediterranean, and especially France, and the southern Europeans have always drunk wine with their food, haven’t they? So therefore, so should we.

I realise I’m hugely condensing the history of food and wine in post-war Britain, and perhaps, it’s not even the right mystery for me to ask Horatio Caine to pursue. What we are left with in Britain, though, is the received wisdom that beer is not for food, unless you are out for a curry.

I’ve been cooking with beer for ages and extolling its virtues for nearly as long as a worthy partner to food. In doing so, I am standing on the shoulders of beer-giants. Beer writer Michael Jackson’s books have nearly always had some chapters that match beer with food, or recipes that include beer. His evangelising of beer in this context is in order to let it be known what a diverse palette of flavours and aromas is available to the cook and diner.

Clearly, those were books largely aimed at beer enthusiasts, but Keith Floyd’s wonderful and influential “Floyd on France” book has some great dishes involving beer. For example there is a chicken in beer recipe that I come back to more often than the coq au vin. At least beer as an ingredient is not new territory for the food lover, and because of this, it should not be a giant step for foodie kind to embrace beer and food as partners on the table.

Last year, I read a beer book that started me thinking about beer and food seriously and more constructively. The book was The Brewmaster’s Table: Discovering the Pleasure of Real Beer with Real Food, by Garrett Oliver, the head brewer at New York’s Brooklyn Brewery. The author is recognised by many (mostly in America) as the leading light on beer and food matching. Even though it was first published in 2003, I think its time has come, in the UK, with the easy ability of beers in the range of styles Garrett Oliver writes about.

Garret Oliver writes of his inspiration in all things beer being due in no small part to visiting the UK and discovering classic British cask-conditioned beers. He gives many recommendations for food pairings with beers that are familiar to most pub-goers in the UK; not just exotics from Belgium and the US. One of these British classics is Young’s Bitter, a beer that’s come under fire as well as under threat in recent years.

When Young and Co. sold their brewery in Wandsworth in 2006, although London lost another part of its brewing tradition, Young’s beers weren’t lost completely. Many beer lovers, though, held little hope for the merger with the Charles Wells brewery and the subsequent move to Bedford. I counted myself in that number, but at a recent party, Young’s Bitter was offered as an alternative to the celebratory bubbly, and gave me cause for hope.

I have nothing against Champagne, or for that matter wine, and I certainly enjoyed being served a rather nice Prosecco at the party. It was an appropriate way to celebrate Liz’s x0th birthday. It certainly went well with the rather posh nibbles that were being handed round. Then the canapés turned more substantial: first, Thai fish cakes with dipping sauce, and my thoughts turned to the Brewmaster’s Table, and a hankering for a beer.

The Young’s Bitter was produced, and I’m happy to say, it was a revelation. Young’s bitter is a standard pale ale that has for a long time had the nickname “Young’s Ordinary”, which it originally acquired through an ironic back-formation from the brewery’s other classic: Young’s Special. However, recently, it has lived up (or down) to the nickname.

But whatever they’ve done to it in recent months in Bedford has breathed a freshness and liveliness back into the beer. Citrus-tangy with a light floral aroma, it was great with the Thai fish cakes, complementing the light spiciness of lemon grass, garlic and mild chili dipping sauce.

And then came the fish and chips. Served in modest portions in a small cone, its affinity with the Young’s Bitter was astounding as it was pleasing. And even if James Martin is a Yorkshireman through-and-through, he would surely see what a perfect match the southern-bred beer was. Juicy maltiness and that lemony citrus acting like a sophisticated replacement for malt vinegar.

This is what Olly should have been suggesting, not Cava, not Champagne, but a revamped classic British pale ale. My fits of Saturday Kitchen-induced pique are not because I want to have a war with wine, but because I know beer is brilliant with food and, yes, sometimes even better than wine.

I text Horatio Caine with an update on the Saturday Kitchen case, and get him to call the dogs of Olly. His reply is, “We’ve got a new suspect.”

Sandal-print marks wiped from the TV, I wait for the next episode.

The Brewmasters Table by Garrett Oliver

Young’s beers

Fish and chips image from Elmo Monster’s blogspot.

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