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Thursday, 13 March 2014

Duvel & Le Gavroche – Beer and Food Pairing Made in Heaven!

Much as I love wine at meal times (or anytime, come to think of it), sometimes I crave for a long drink with my food. We all know that there are some foods that will go better with beer - pizza, burgers and spicy curries or deep-fried treats are some that spring to mind. I really love good quality beer, but admit to never really considering it as a serious alternative to wine for a gourmet meal.

So it was with great curiosity that I recently accepted an invitation to a Duvel Beer Dinner at Le Gavroche. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the food was outstandingly good, but it was the pairing of the four excellent dishes we enjoyed with a selection of Duvel beers that has given me pause for thought.

Interestingly, the principles of beer and food pairing are somewhat similar to those that apply to wine. For example, in wine and food pairing, it is a common misconception that fish and white meat will always go with white wines and red meats with red wines. In fact, the trick is not to focus on colour but rather consider the weight or body of the dishes and wines.

Similarly, in beer matching, one of the basic principles is “matching strength with strength”. This means that milder dishes will normally go best with delicate beers whilst strongly flavoured foods require more weighty beers. The weight of the beer relates not only to its alcoholic strength, but also to the degree of malt character, bitterness from hops, sweetness and richness.

Take our first pairing at Le Gavroche for example – a lovely seared pepper tuna with ginger, chilli and a zingy soy dressing, served with a glass of Liefmans Cuvee Brut 6%. The Liefmans is a deep red fruit beer matured with cherries, which has a rich and refreshing flavour. With sweet and sour undertones, it interacted really well with the pepper and ginger in the tuna. I found it a perfect match that complemented without overpowering the meaty tuna, one of the best pairings of the evening.

Another important consideration is the “interaction” of certain qualities between the food and beer being paired, for example, characteristics like sweetness, bitterness and spice, and how these interact with each other. Taking account of these relationships will help to ensure a balanced pairing, with neither partner throwing the match out of sync.

Our next pairing was a good illustration of this. A perfectly roasted cod with a rich mustard butter sauce was served with a glass of Vedett Extra White 4.7%. A wheat beer, this had a delicious, refreshing and surprisingly crisp taste perfect for a fish dish.

An orange and lemon zing cut through the richness of the butter while the gentle bitterness from the unfiltered yeast balanced the mustard heat of the sauce. This beer could also make an excellent partner to fish terrines, mussels, prawns and even roast chicken.

Finding harmonies” between food and beer pairings is also key. Combinations often work best when they share some common flavour or aroma elements as we discovered in our next pairing. Racks of pork and cheeks were braised in Duvel beer, making the meat yieldingly tender, sweet and flavoursome. Perhaps logically, the pork was served with the beer in which it had been cooked, a classic Belgian golden ale – Duvel 8.5%.

Smooth, lively and almost creamy on the palate, with grapefruit and vanilla notes, Duvel has plenty of body and flavour and can happily fill the shoes of a fuller bodied red wine. Its high alcohol content gives a weight and mild bitterness that was the perfect match for the sweetness of the slow braised pork.

For dessert, a Guinness cake with coffee cream and chocolate and malt ice cream was served with a glass or two of LiefmansFruitesse 4.2%. Served over ice, this fresh tasting beer is generously sweet with flavours of red fruits like cherries, raspberries and strawberries which complemented well the chocolate and Guinness elements in this dessert.

The most unusual of the beers, and probably my favourite of the evening, was Chateau d’Ychouffe 9% (Anno 2013) which was served with our petits fours. The beer is macerated on the skin of sultana grapes which impart a sweetness and wine-like quality I have never come across in a beer. This had enough weight and concentration to go with the delectable selection of nougat, chocolate truffles and macarons and rounded off the evening splendidly.

If you would like to take your Belgian beer and food pairing appreciation to yet another level, one last thing to consider is choosing the correct glass for the type of beer. George Riedel, the Austrian manufacturer famous for his range of wine glasses by grape varietal, has now turned his attention to beer glasses introducing three different designs – a flavour-concentrating Pilsner glass, a wheat beer glass and a wide-necked lager glass. For more information about these, visit the Spiegelau website here (http://www.spiegelau.com).

A fascinating experience that has opened up a whole new world of food and beer matching possibilities, I look forward to developing this further and bringing it to my day to day and supper club dining experiences.

Most of these beers can be found at Waitrose (http://www.waitrose.co.uk)

For more information on the range of Belgian beers featured, visit:

Tuesday, 11 March 2014

SixtyOne - Reinventing the Classics with One of the Best Value Tasting Menus in London

Words & Photography by Greg Klerkx and Luiz Hara

Where: 61 Upper Berkeley Street, London, W1H 7PP, http://sixtyonerestaurant.co.uk

Cost: The six-course Tasting Menu costs £45, or £75 with five glasses of wine. A three-course meal from the à la carte menu would cost about £30 to £45 per person, excluding wine.

About: On a cold winter’s evening – beset by wind, rain and a Tube strike – we fairly stumbled into Sixtyone Restaurantand Bar. It felt like a triumph just arriving, as Sixtyone isn’t the easiest restaurant to find: it is set along a quiet, largely residential street just behind the Marble Arch end of Oxford Street. But the trek was well worth it: Sixtyone offered one of the finest meals of the new year, and it was wonderful value to boot.

Sixtyone is part of the Searcys fine dining universe, which includes restaurants at Royal Opera House and the much-lauded private dining room at The Gherkin. Sixtyone’s Chef Patron, Arnaud Stevens, has led both of these operations and Killian Lynch, Sixtyone’s Head Chef, was most recently Head Chef at The Gherkin. This pedigree shows proudly at Sixtyone through modern European cooking that is inventive yet precise, with invariably beautiful presentation.

What We Ate: Though Sixtyone offers a carefully curated à la carte menu, we chose the six-course tasting menu. A surprising amuse bouche was home-made dashi decanted through a paper filter filled with herbs, cinnamon sticks, orange peel and star anise, and served in teacups along with a pot of tempura rice noodles and soya mayonnaise.

Unlike  the whisperingly delicate and almost floral dashi we know of, this was deliciously savoury, and a fine preview for delights to come.

A basket of French bread, including some from Boulangerie de Paris a fantastic supplier I use for my own French Supper Clubs, was similarly full of surprises, most particularly a generous wedge of chewy, almost chocolaty Marmite loaf, which might win many a convert from the ‘hate it’ side of the Marmite argument.

The minimalist descriptions on Sixtyone’s menu hardly do justice to the joyfully creative work at hand. The dashi and bread, for instance, were followed with something called simply Snacks, conjuring visions of a bowlful of pistachios or a packet of crisps. Happily, the reality was far more subtle: we were presented with what looked like a large, antiquarian book that opened to reveal gorgeously presented pan-fried Dorset oysters and chicken caillettes, the latter being lightly breaded croquettes of chicken, red pepper, chard and almond. Both the oysters and cailletes were appropriately crisp yet succulent.

The Octopus carpaccio, red pepper confit and sesame starter was gorgeous to look at, but the octopus was sliced so thinly as to be overwhelmed by the pepper and pine nuts. A rare misjudgement in our opinion.

Arguably the highlight of the meal was not on the tasting menu, nor indeed on the à la carte menu. It should be: the Rabbit Bolognese, salsify and almond starter was perfectly judged, the small portion of Bolognese exploding with savoury meatiness. The salsify was cooked and presented to mimic a nest of pasta, yet it was a far lighter companion to the relatively mild rabbit. I’m not sure where the almond came in, but it hardly mattered. This was a fabulous dish that alone was worth the visit.

There was another rabbit starter – Rabbit, juniper, prune & Armagnac – which we had as well, being as it was the starter on the actual tasting menu. It was a decent example of this classic dish, though slightly anticlimactic after the undeniable wow of the Bolognese.

Fortunately, the two mains recovered the pace. An artful square of roasted cod, served skin-on, was tender and delicate and married well with a rich dashi broth, Alsace bacon lardons and a hint of truffle.

The final main was, on paper, the scariest: duck a l’orange, so classic and yet so easy to get wrong in the balance of its signature ingredients. No worries here: a very pink (perhaps too pink for some) duck breast with a rich reduction, cauliflower puree and a crispy filo packet filled with succulent confit duck leg. As with so much else on the menu, this was both beautifully presented and very delicious.

We rounded out the meal with lemon meringue pie, but in keeping with Sixtyone’s inventive flair this was far from the wobbly wedge of cloying sweetness one might envision. The lemon was zingy but light, the meringue light yet substantial, and the whole was dished into a half-pipe of flaky pastry and accompanied by blackberry purée and a refreshing lemon sorbet.

What We Drank: The wine selections for our meal were enjoyable and quirky, beginning with a Petaluma Riesling (2011, Coonawara, Australia; 175ml @ £10.50, 250ml @ £14.75) that served as a light, fresh and not-too-sweet accompaniment to our Snack. A Chianti Classico from Villa la Pagliaia (2010, Tuscany; 175ml @ £7.25, 250ml @ £10) was a smoky, peppery match for both rabbit dishes.

A bottle of Camden Gentleman’s Wit – a Belgian-style wheat beer infused with lemon zest and bergamot – went surprisingly well with the lemon meringue pie.

Likes: Inventive, beautifully executed renditions of French classics, a focus on local and regional sources, well-priced menu (particularly the Tasting Menu), warm and knowledgeable service in a relaxed yet elegant atmosphere.

Dislikes: the octopus carpaccio was our least favourite dish on the tasting menu.

Verdict: Excellent restaurant just off the beating heart of Oxford Street serving elegant food with modern flair. Creative and delicious, very reasonably priced cooking of a very high standard. Very highly recommended.

Thursday, 6 March 2014

Discovering SKREI® - a Unique Norwegian Delicacy

SKREI Season 2014

Myre, a picturesque town located in northwestern Norway is as remote as can be, and is also one of the largest fishing villages in the country.

I was invited to Myre, aka the capital of SKREI®, to report on the seasonal fishing of this iconic migrating Norwegian cod, only available from January to April each year.

#SKREIPassion2014 was an initiative by the Norwegian Seafood Council, bringing 7 international chefs and 7 journalists to Myre, Norway to learn more about SKREI®, fish for it, cook it and eat it. How could I refuse!

What is SKREI®?

From the world’s largest cod stock that lives in the Barents Sea, cod reaching maturity at the age of 5 years will spend the winter months migrating thousands of miles to their birthplace to spawn along the northern coast of Norway. This cod, in the prime of its life, is known in Norway as SKREI®.  

Migrating over vast distances, the flesh of these powerful fish becomes exceptionally firm, white and supple, which makes the fish lean and tasty, and guaranteed to be of the highest quality.

Not every Norwegian cod fished during the seasonal migration can be labeled SKREI®. In fact, only 10% of Norwegian cod is graded as SKREI®. Strict quality standards are applied to guarantee that only the very best are so labeled.

SKREI® must come from the Barents Sea, be fully grown (about 5 years old), and fished between January and April along the traditional spawning grounds of northern Norway. In addition, it must be line caught by small Norwegian fishing boats, and be in pristine condition with no scratches, bruises or other injuries.

SKREI® differs from coastal cod not only in appearance (it is longer, more pointed, and lighter in colour), but also in its feeding habits. During spawning, SKREI® hardly eat, whereas coastal cod eat all year round.  As a result, SKREI® has a leaner, firmer consistency and the meat is very white.

Two flights from Oslo and a coach journey later, we arrived in the town of Myre to take part in a SKREI® workshop at the local chef school. Each one of the seven international chefs was to create his own recipe using the Norwegian fish, combined with his country’s native ingredients.

I was lucky enough to be invited to report on the UK chef Simon Hulstone, the man behind The Elephant in Torquay Restaurant, which has held a Michelin star since 2006.

Chef Simon Husltone from The Elephant in Torquay

This was also a great opportunity for me to meet some of the other chefs who came from as far as the USA (Ben Pollinger of NYC’s Oceana Restaurant), Portugal (Jose Cordeiro of Chefe Cordeiro Praca do Comercio), and Spain (Hung Fai of Lgeretxe Hotel in the Basque country) among other countries and chefs.

Talking of too many cooks spoiling the broth, being in a busy kitchen with 7 chefs, their assistants and journalists was an interesting if not challenging experience for most. The chefs did a brilliant job though, cooking for a full house of hungry local residents at a sit-down dinner at the cooking school hall.

This was a fascinating dinner, and a wonderful chance to try all these dishes made from the same SKREI® fish, given very different interpretations, flavours and textures by the chefs. At our table of seven journalists, it was unanimously agreed that although the competition was fierce, chef Simon Hulstone’s dish was the most successful, and this is not British bias I swear!

The 7 Chefs

Simon served us a fillet of Norwegian SKREI® wrapped in Iberian lardo, with a creamy parsnip puree and a rich reduction of verjuice and chicken stock finished off with plenty of butter, sultanas, spring onions and cucumber. This had many layers of flavour and texture, but what brought it all together was his sauce – buttery and rich, yet refreshing, sour and sweet at the same time, a real winner! If you would like to try Simon Hulstone’s recipe for Norwegian SKREI®, I have reproduced his recipe at the end of this post.

Chef Simon Hulstone's dish

Next morning was a very early start as we went onboard a local boat to fish for SKREI®. The scenery was breathtaking, and the temperature -14°C!

As tradition dictated, we all went line fishing, and Simon landed a healthy catch of SKREI® to cook back on dry land.

Returning to dry land never felt so good!
Fishing is the town’s major industry, and everyone is associated with it in one way or another. The youngsters and students will have their first contact with fishing through the activity of tongue cutting, for which they get pocket money through their school years and sometimes even through university.

The tongues of SKREI®, and indeed almost every part of the fish can be eaten, not just the white flesh. I thoroughly enjoyed the tongue fritters on our first day, as well as trying poached liver and roe in the traditional Norwegian mølje dish that evening.

Mentored by some of these students and tongue cutters, our international chefs had a competition to see who could cut the most tongues. It was striking to note that the local teenagers were faster than the Michelin starred chefs – clearly practice makes perfect in tongue cutting too.

For me, the highlight of this trip was dining in a local family home for a traditional SKREI® mølje dinner. Our hosts cooked an authentic regional dish of poached fillets of SKREI® liver and roe, accompanied by boiled potatoes, flat crispy bread, butter and cranberry conserve.

Our Norwegian hosts from Myre
This was simple, delicious and wholesome, being made from the best local ingredients. The best part though was meeting and talking to local Myre residents and experiencing their generous hospitality.

The local TV channels as well as the ever so helpful team from the Norwegian Seafood Council were present to support and film us throughout our stay.  One of the nicest things they did was to put together this short video outlining some of the activities we participated in, which give a flavour of our time in Myre.

Having never visited Norway, let alone Myre, nor having set foot on a fishing boat, and knowing little if anything at all about SKREI® until then, this trip was a fascinating experience for me and I think everyone else involved. It showed me not only what a beautiful and unspoilt stretch of Norway this is, but also all the care and attention that go into bringing SKREI® from those wild shores to our shops, restaurants and homes in the UK.

If you fancy trying SKREI® for yourself, you can find it closer to home, in Harrods Food Hall, or if you live in the north of England, Booths the Fishmongers, or ask your local fishmonger. But hurry – the season finishes at the end of April.

Fillet of Norwegian SKREI® with Parsnip Purée and a Verjus and Spring Onion Butter Sauce
(Recipe by Simon Hulstone of The Elephant in Torquay as part of the 2014 SKREI® Season)

Serves 4

For the parsnip purée:
100g/4oz butter
300g/10oz parsnips, finely chopped
180ml/7fl oz double cream

For the verjus butter:
100/8fl oz verjus du perigord
100ml/8fl oz light chicken stock
220g/8oz butter, chilled, cubed
salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 tbsp golden sultanas, chopped and soaked in 16 tbsp verjus
1 cucumber, peeled, finely chopped
6 spring onions, finely sliced

For the SKREI®:
4 x 110g/8oz SKREI® fillet
1 tbsp olive oil
2 slices iberico lardo
2 tsp fennel pollen
2 tbsp kibbled onions (dried onion flakes)
2 tbsp fresh chives, chopped finely
2 tbsp fresh borage leaves

Preparation method:

1. For the parsnip purée, heat the butter in a saucepan and cook the parsnips for one minute on a high heat.

2. Add the cream, bring the mixture to the boil then reduce the heat and simmer for five minutes or until the parsnips are tender. Blend the parsnip mixture in a blender until smooth.

3. Pass the mixture through a fine sieve and into a clean pan, then season to taste with salt and freshly ground black pepper.

4. For the verjus butter, pour the verjus and chicken stock into a saucepan and bring to a boil, continue to cook until the volume of the liquid is reduced by three-quarters.

5. Remove the pan from the heat and whisk in the cubed butter until smooth and glossy. Season to taste with salt and freshly ground black pepper. Add the sultanas, cucumber and spring onion. Keep warm.

6. Meanwhile for the SKREI®, season the fillets with salt and freshly ground black pepper.

7. Pour 1 tbsp olive oil in a hot frying pan, add the seasoned SKREI® skin-side down and cook for 2-3 minutes, or until golden-brown. Turn the fish over and remove the pan from the heat.

8. Place the fish onto a board or a plate and place a lardo slice on each fillet and carefully sprinkle the fennel pollen, kibbled onions, chives and borage on top.

9. To serve, spoon the parsnip purée in the centre of serving plates and place the dressed SKREI® on top. Finish by pouring the sauce around the SKREI® and serve immediately.

Many thanks to the Norwegian Seafood Council for inviting me along for this fascinating trip to Norway, for their hospitality and the opportunity to learn
and experience Norwegian SKREI®.

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