The Foodies’ Ideal? Freedom of Choice

This opinion piece in today’s The Guardian by Louise Gray argues that in modern Italy, Spain, and Greece child obesity has risen to levels familiar in Anglo-American society and the healthy Mediterranean diet is a thing of the past.

Kids want fast food, especially burgers like people of all ages everywhere (I had one for lunch yesterday, from Wendy’s, the current $4.00 special). Or KFC, or wings, or pizza – oops, pizza was invented in Italy, and not mentioned in the article.

Think of something else, chips, that will do.

Reading the article I was reminded of the many articles that argue the Mediterranean diet is essentially a myth, in the sense of its alleged healthful quality over other diets. See this interesting one by Frederic Patenaude.

Some authorities argue there was a healthy Mediterranean diet at one time, but by the last century it disappeared due to the prevalence of refined flour, sugar, and other processed foods supplied by modern food production. See this recent article by Dr. Phil Maffetone.

Even if one assumes the fast food diet of today is less healthy than what it replaced in these countries, The Guardian piece does not tarry on other salient considerations. What about the ubiquity of motor transport? The bicycle, itself a comparative luxury at one time, was an icon of Italian society, so important it was the centrepiece of a famous film, The Bicycle Thief.

And it takes human motive power to run it.

Today there are school buses, trams and trains, and mom and dad’s car or motorbike to ferry you around. No hikes down the side of a mountain, or across town and vale, to attend school as was commonplace for the many children who didn’t live near one well into the 20th century.

There is no way people today expend the calories earlier generations did walking and cycling. Cycling has returned to all western societies, but mainly as a sports or leisure activity. Only slowly is it re-assuming its early primary role of moving people to place of work, school, worship, or entertainment.

Dr. Maffetone notes the importance of today’s greatly increased sedentariness and “screen time”. The Guardian devotes a couple of lines to it, yet the focus is on fast food as if something special attaches to that component of the modern lifestyle.

What about life expectancy? It is about 83 today for Italy. It was about 68 in 1970. So even with an apparently deficient diet built on processed flour, sugar, and now fast food, you can expect to live over 10 years longer than someone your age in 1900. The diet was better then but people didn’t live as long. Why is that? The article does not go there.

I doubt the current life expectancy will fall because school kids are fatter than they should be; it will probably continue to rise, in fact.

The Guardian piece is rather value-laden with its emphasis on well-known Western, and mostly American, fast foods and the supposed evils of multi-national marketing. As I said earlier, the ur-fast food, pizza, was invented in Italy, and indeed a version of it always existed around the Mediterranean.*

The cheeseburger I had yesterday tasted good, came reasonably hot, had a large piece of fresh lettuce and tomato on it, a little mayo, and a tasty bun. It provided good nutrition in numerous food groups. I skipped the fries and sweet soda, and it was more than enough for lunch – for $4.00! That’s a miracle of modern food technology and production, from the international business system dimly viewed by The Guardian.

Was that meal inherently more dangerous than a bowl of pasta or risotto using some combination of olive oil, cream, sausage or other meat, parmesan, tomatoes, cured olives, and cooked mushrooms? I don’t think so.

Should people eat wisely, follow by and large the old Mediterranean ways and walk, cycle, and exercise like tigers? Sure.

But not everyone chooses wisely when they eat, and diet is or should be a personal, and family, matter. At bottom, families have the responsibility to educate their children on food choices as well as the importance of exercise, less screen time, visiting the doctor and dentist, and the rest.

The state has a limited role – notably via education in the schools. It should not compel though, e.g., telling families what to feed their children for school lunch. Freedom is important too. People at day’s end should have the right to eat, and drink, what they want, for themselves and their progeny. Our tradition of individual liberty vouchsafes that right to us.

Children still belong to the family, not to the state.

Hence, when Gray’s article states that “Ronald McDonald” is everywhere, with the implication of course that there is something wrong with that, we should remember Ronald is wherever he is because people want him there, the people who walk in to lay down their money. Just as many want fish and chips in the U.K. Or chips slathered with mayo in Belgium. Or dirigible-size sausages and dumplings in Germany.

Or pizza in Italy.


*There is no sense in saying that “real” pizza wasn’t laden with meat and cheese like we make it today: it’s full of carbohydrate, oil, and garnishings of some kind that are not part of any reasonable slimming program.

Note re image: The image above was sourced from the Wikipedia entry on the film The Bicycle Thief linked in the text. All intellectual property in the image belongs solely to its lawful owner, applicable. Used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.






The Newman Arms and Truman’s Beers


On our recent visit to London, catching up on the beer scene was one object, easy to do given lunch, dinner, and the odd reviver at … teatime. We did one excellent pub crawl too with a London friend, focusing mainly on the South Bank.

My approach was, I took it as it came: I didn’t seek out places identified in advance, with two exceptions. One was to try the (matchless) unpasteurized Pilsner Urquell at the Draft House in Seething Lane. The other was to taste the beer from the revived Truman’s, a great name in London brewing that stretches back to the 1600s.

I like to alight upon a place for better or worse rather than pre-select as it gives me a better idea what the average person encounters. In fact, I had very few bad pints, beers that is out of condition or sour which is always a risk with cask-conditioned beer. On average I encountered fewer duff beers that 30 years ago.

The worst were in the City, where sour beer was encountered successively in two places. We had a sourish stout as well in another place where the landlord wouldn’t change it, the first time that ever happened in my years of travelling to the U.K.

But it was still drinkable and with the success of sour beers recently, would be regarded as more than acceptable if sold as “sour stout”. This is a lesson in the relativity of palate.

I ended up attending a local CAMRA beer festival as well, out in Kingston west of London, an easy commuter ride from Waterloo station.

Many beers were “tasters”, or from glasses not finished with an extra cost therefore incurred. I feel it is worth it though, for a number of reasons. I don’t want to drink too much, even on vacation. Also, after a drink or two I can’t really taste the next one – taste that is – so a natural limit is imposed.

Truman’s Brewery

Truman holds a special place in my affections. To my best recollection, it was the first beer I had in Britain, or if not the first, one of the first. It was the early 1980s, some years before the Truman Black Eagle brewery closed in the East End in 1989.

It was not draught beer, but rather a bottled pale ale. I remember clearly where I had it, at a hotel on Berners Street called New Berners Hotel. The place is still there, with another name.

Generally I wouldn’t drink in the hotel with the plethora of pubs nearby. Perhaps I just wanted to try a bottled pale ale as against the insipid “light ale” then available in ranks in a metal tray on the backbar. (The tray was a kind of cooler, the term cool used advisedly).

Another reason to try the bottled pale may have been I couldn’t find any Truman draught so that was a way to understand the Truman taste.

The bottled Truman’s was pitch-perfect, pale ale of the sweetish amber type and aromatic from English hops. It had a blue label similar to that in the vintage coaster above.

On later trips before the brewery closed, I never found the beer again, any form. After closure, I had to be satisfied walking past the old brewery on the edge of Brick Lane. It remains there, today, as a busy heritage site housing shops and offices.

So when I heard that Truman’s was revived some ten years ago, I decided to try the beer when I could, hence looking for it on this trip.

Two entrepreneurs bought the name from its big brewery successor. See this well-written and referenced Wikipedia link for the background, and on the history generally of Truman, Buxton, Hanbury, formerly both of London and (from 1877) Burton-on-Trent.

Truman’s was one of the few breweries whose roots predated the porter era, then grew rapidly with the rise of London porter, participated in the pale ale surge of the later 1800s, endured well beyond Allied victory in 1945, but slowly rolled to cessation especially after the lager wave of the 1970s.

The new label-owners contract brewed initially but set up a brewery in Hackney Wick (east London) a couple of years later.

The original Truman yeast was recovered from a yeast bank and used for some of the beers, including I believe Truman Runner Ale, a 4% abv “session” beer.

If you examine the website you will see a range of beers, a dozen or more, made at Hackney Wick.

The Newman Arms

I tried a number of these at the Newman Arms in Fitzrovia, just a hop and skip from Berners Street as it happens, a satisfying connection to my first taste of Truman’s.

The Newman Arms, 23 Rathbone Street, just re-opened under the Truman banner but existed earlier under the same name, indeed for hundreds of years. The pub is storied and important enough to have its own encyclopedia entry, here.

The prior landlord had a tiff with licensing authorities. The newspaper stories linked render the sad tale, almost tragi-comic: in a mediation designed to avoid a full licensing review, the landlord suggested that neighbourhood disturbance could be minimized if the rate of serving beer was slowed down, intending the comment as light humour.

The authority apparently misconstrued the statement as it requested the pub to do just that! This meant things like settling full debit payment before taking the next order.  Whether for this reason or another, the prior ownership decided to close down. The pub was left dark for a time, and then reopened 10 days ago under the Truman name.

A handsome refitting was done, the former white fascia being replaced with a design of gold lettering on glossy black. The main oak bar is the same but to my mind, when you compare images of the old pub to the new, Truman Newman Arms resembles more a bar, an American bar.

The ground level is a rather small space but there is a first story and basement level to handle a larger capacity.

The beer range is excellent, with four or five cask ales from Truman, a number of keg beers (fizzy, chilled beers or stout), and a good range of lagers, one from Truman, the Raw Lager (not tried).

I liked the Lazarus Very Pale Ale a lot, which to my mind tastes English despite the website’s mention of New World hops in the composition. Lazarus has a big inviting hop taste and good malty character without the caramel malt signature of much English bitter.

It is perhaps a “golden ale” in English terms, but reminded me more of the straw-yellow type of bitter that used to be made in contra-distinction to “best bitter” with its signature of caramel malt.

The Runner Ale tasted “dank” to me, like numerous contemporary craft IPAs in North America. It is doubtful this is from the hops as they are classic English type, floral/herbal/woodsy. The house yeast may well explain it though, as 19th century pale ale could have a barnyard scent as I documented in a recent post.

Certainly the beer wasn’t off-spec, see e.g. Difford’s Guide, here, whose account is similar to my take. Indeed Difford uses language remarkably similar to J-K Huysman in 1884.

One of the ales has a fruit addition, orange and lemons, and will be a great summer beer. It was available both in keg and cask form.

I should mention too the house’s cider, from Brittany, on the sweet side, with a taste not dissimilar to cider from the Cox Orange Pippin, superb. With no yeasty haze or wild yeast taste from Brettanomyces, it’s in my wheelhouse.

The staff were most congenial and helpful, and I have no doubt this pub will soon regain its former level of trade and neighbourhood character. It’s on a fairly quiet street but with a busy commercial area surrounding. The character of the beers and fame of the Truman name – many still remember it – will surely help.

Right now pasties and snacks are being offered and a full menu is being developed as the kitchen ratchets up to full operation.

I’m so Happy Just to Dance With you

Did the beers I try match to the taste of the bottled pale ale c.1985? Not really, but you can’t reinvent history so literally, it almost never happens. I was very happy simply to sip a Truman’s beer again in London.

On the other hand, in regard to the Runner Ale, I’d think there is some real connection to Truman pale ale of 1884. Not the alcohol, which is lower, or the malt grist, which includes some rye and wheat today, but the yeast background.

In that sense, what I had perhaps bested the bottled pale ale of 100 years later, in a historical sense that is. Something that has its own reward, for some.

Note re image: the first image shown, a Ben Truman Pale Ale coaster, was sourced from this Ebay listing, here. All intellectual property therein belongs solely to the lawful owner, as applicable. Image used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.








London Notes

London Envoi

With a week in London just past, some reflections.

The city itself, on a first visit since 2011 (but some 20 before from the early 80s), is essentially what I remember except cleaner and more high-rise especially in the City. I think the wartime bombing finally has seen the City to a confident new era of building where parts will look more like Wall Street than anything else, or Wall Street meets Hong Kong, but interspersed of course with the many historical structures which survive.

The low-rise period from 60s-90s in other words, using materials that often did not sit well alongside older vernaculars, is now being supplanted by frankly brash and often creative high rise planning. Centre Point further uptown, built in the 1960s by a visionary developer, finally came into its own, helped on the way by the Canadian-designed Canary Wharf project.

The culture of the newsagent and traditional, full-length newspapers carry on to a much greater degree than here. Something about the tv in our room made me think I didn’t get a full impression: it was mostly American shows or channels, catering perhaps to the expected typical guest.

I used to like watching the English advertisements, but couldn’t find any. I think I saw ITV and the main BBC channel. Most of the coverage was on the royal wedding, so perhaps I didn’t get a fair impression again.

The food scene, always international since the 1970s, is even more so now, reflecting trends seen in any big city. But it’s always different of course too…

The Italian-style coffee bar seems to have replaced the traditional “caff” at least in central business London, together with sandwich specialists Pret A Manger who are everywhere – bigger than ever from its start 20 years ago or more.

English chains like Greggs for bacon sandwiches and similar add another slant.

Evenings we ate Indian and Turkish, mostly. Lunch was a sandwich and a beer. One nice thing was, while you can read daily how the seas are emptying, fish and chip shops abound and the stuff is as good as ever. And I found saveloys too, all good fryers carry them. These are slim, peppery-salty cured sausages, the term comes from cervelat, apparently.

I’ve talked about my beer experiences on Twitter for the ales, and made the point that mainline British bitter is essentially unchanged, this was based on a good dozen beers, some from old regionals, some from newer breweries (1970s-2018).

As examples of excellence: Harvey’s Best Bitter, say, or Young’s Bitter. London Pride disappointed this time, and I don’t favour the Fuller’s imports today either.

A CAMRA festival in Kingston-on-Thames confirmed what I saw in the pubs and on the retail shelves: U.S. craft styles are everywhere, mixing in and blending with the older U.K. tradition.

There is no clear demarcation between these two streams now except at their extremes and one has to know the differences to situate oneself properly. The new generation of drinkers won’t know, to them it’s one big arena of choice and they’ll choose what taste or fancy dictate.

We are long past the time when Londoners understood non-lager beer as bitter, mild or strong ale, Guinness and one or two other stouts, and a few bottled or canned types (brown ale, light ale, etc.).

But all the types you want today are available, if you know what to seek out again.

At most, “best bitter” among the dozens of beers at the festival denoted old-style bitter, of which some were great and some dull I thought. The worst were under 4% abv, thin and almost sourish on the palate but not off in any way. I think this does supply a certain taste, for sessions with those big bags of chips (crisps).

But when you find a superlative one, with a big clean English hop taste and good but not over-rich malt character, crystal-malt influenced or not, you know English beer remains at an apotheosis – and I had a few of those there and in town as well.

I tasted just a couple of the American-style pale ales and they were well-made, similar to here. The Wild Beer Company, which has a stand currently outside the Tate Modern, makes some very interesting beers using materials foraged locally.

Porter at the festival was unflavoured, a good thing imo, but rather licorice-tasting. Perhaps an excess of roasted malt? There was little porter in any case offered and one or two stouts as such: the action was in the bitter, pale ale, and a few milds.

I only had one mild which was superb, rich, perfectly poised, satisfying: like good German dark lager that changed nationalities.

For lager, the great experience was the tank version of Pilsner Urquell, available at the Draft House in the City at Seething Lane. People laud the unfiltered version available at the brewery in the Czech Republic, but I liked the tank version better as the beer does not benefit from the yeast haze, imo.

Other good lagers were Camden Hells, Praha (like a lighter Urquell), Moretti from Italy, and an outstanding Alboni (I think was the name) from Sweden.

One of the best was very fresh Cobra in the Indian restaurants, creamy with a good sweet malt and a fine bitter finish. It’s brewed in the U.K. now by Molson Coors for that market. The ferocious turnover in those establishments must help, but the beer has an obvious inherent quality and is high- or all-malt, clearly.

So, is their beer scene better to what we have, the same, different?  It’s different certainly, we have on average stronger beers, and the trends from the States tend to come here sooner.

But what we don’t have is the old-school tradition that still exists there.

And on average again, the lager is better there given the great European choices easily available to them and the numerous creditable local versions brewed.

It’s really a beer paradise, they’ve got the best of everything but as always, you have to know what to look for. Some of the nationally-distributed beers, which I largely avoided, were very disappointing.

Theakston’s Best Bitter in keg form (fizzy, chilled) for example, had to my taste almost no flavour. Its classic Old Peculier, on cask at Museum Tavern, Bloomsbury only partly made up for it.

But drinking a little of that Theakston’s keg, it made me realize why lager made such strides since the 70s. Even everyday bulk lager, Foster’s, Carling and the like, is more beer-like than that kind of ale.

Of course the new-style keg beers, the Shipyard or Bravo Pale Ales, Punk IPAs, etc., are excellent and completely different. Punk IPA was a great drop of beer there, much better than I’ve had in imported form, canned or draft.

Guinness on the other hand was very good in London, more on that soon – and on my illuminating Truman’s ale experience.

Yesterday and Today

After rambles on Lamb’s Conduit Street yesterday and a few halves, plus small tastes supplied by the house, I can confirm U.K. bitter (in this case, Young’s, Adnams, Redemption, Marston), i) is as good as on any earlier visit over a 35 year period, ii) is an epicurean beer experience, and iii) offers a Gambrinal take no other nation quite can.

Even the Camden Hells is very nice, yet another twist on Bavarian blonde. And Guinness is fresher and more smoky than in Canada, it seems sweeter too. Same back end of adjunct but overall a more subtle beer.

I’m in the right place, at the right time. And the right time is 1811, 1911, 2011 (my last visit) and no doubt 2111.

London in general is pretty much unchanged too, except cleaner.

More soon.


Coarse Grains – Good Whisky

Mash it Up

When raw materials are discussed for whiskey in the 19th century, in Canada or the northeast U.S., the term “coarse grains” often arises. It appears from the late-1700s indeed to this day, for example too in food glossaries of international organizations, see this OECD publication as an example.

One can often infer the meaning in 1800s discussions but sometimes it is spelled out. This 1879 Parliamentary debate in Ottawa defined coarse grains as, “rye, barley, oats and pease”. Corn was not included but depending on the context it might be, particularly by the mid-1800s when wheat became the general grain for bread. Earlier, mixtures of corn and wheat, and sometimes rye and wheat, were common for breadstuff.

A speaker in the 1879 debate stated that 20 years earlier rye “entered largely” in whisky made in Canada. This is consistent with distillers’ ads for grain supplies in southern Ontario going back to the early 1800s. Rye was frequently requested together often with corn and sometimes oats or barley.

But as the Parliamentary discussed noted, corn, and imported U.S. corn at that, had become the main grain used, coincident to the distilling industry being reduced to six important distillers in Ontario from about 85 just 20 years earlier.

The reason was simply cost. Clearly, those distillers who were most efficient at sourcing grain – and using it via improved still technology – survived in a new, consolidated era.

This 1882 House of Commons debate confirms the cost advantage. (“Corn can be bought cheaper relatively than other coarse grains”). Farmers could exchange non-corn coarse grains for the same amount of corn to use for livestock feed and have money to spare.

Cost is the main reason corn supplanted rye for use in whisky but of course some rye continued to be used, to give flavour to the whisky. By the late 1800s and today that is done by mixing some rye-mash whiskey with a high proof or grain whisky distilled from corn.

Putting it a different way, if rye had always been cheapest it would have been used exclusively as it can make both flavouring and base or grain whisky. Corn ended being used as the base by most distillers in Canada for reasons of cost, not flavour.

Today, Beam Suntory-owned Alberta Distillers uses all-rye in its mashing but it is near rich western grain fields and was built was a view explicitly to use that resource.

Sometimes the flavouring whiskey is a bourbon-type, on display uniquely in the Crown Royal Bourbon Mash newly on the market in Ontario (called Blenders Mash in the U.S.) This is made with a majority corn mash but rye is used too and the combination, together with the type of still used, lends a keynote flavour again (“bourbon”), you can taste it in Crown Royal Bourbon Mash.

The whisky, in my opinion of course, is too woody, “fresh wood” vs. a cured new-charred barrel taste characteristic of good bourbon and straight rye. If I was being honest, I’d say the product tasted like a middling Kentucky bourbon. Seagram always used some bourbon-type whisky in its blends, sometimes simply importing genuine bourbon for the purpose. The Bourbon Mash appears to be all-Canadian in composition though.

The price is reasonable, only $37.00, and it is an innovative release in Canada, so no complaints on a price-performance ratio. I’m hoping Diageo-Seagram will select or blend differently for future bottlings to knock down that excess of fresh oaky taste but retain or even boost the essential bourbon character.

Nonetheless, the release is important as the flavouring whiskies issued in Canada in recent years, starting with Lot 40 over 20 years ago, tend to reflect the top-notes of rye. No doubt this is because many distilleries use a straight rye-type whisky as the flavouring element, e.g. for Wiser’s whiskies in Windsor, ON. But some distilleries, or for some lines, used bourbon or that style of whiskey, and this new release is an example.

Diageo-Seagram issued yet another “straight” iteration, Blender’s Select, which I’ll review soon as well. While corn-based, reports of its palate and composition suggest a traditional rye character, perhaps like the 90% of the famous Crown Royal Northern Harvest that is straight rye. On verra.*


*There is no particular reason to think Canadian straight whiskies will be outstanding, i.e., on their own, as for generations they have been developed for use in blending. Something viewed as rye-harsh, say, on its own, or too woody, may by that surplus of character add just the right notes to a preponderant amount of fairly neutral grain whisky in the blend. Still, as connoisseurs have implored the distillers to release these on their own, this is finally being done, to interesting effect.



A Harford Tale


Yesterday we wrote of soldier-epicure-boulevardier Nathaniel Newnham-Davis. Today, it’s about another soldier, the plainly-named John Griffiths. Newnham-Davis was an infantry officer in a good regiment retired from stations in Transvaal, Ceylon and India to take up food writing and other journalism in London.

Sapper J. Griffiths was an enlisted man raised in Haverfordwest, Wales. “Harford”, as it’s called locally, is in southwest Wales, an area with considerable English-speaking history and traditions despite the distance from the English border.

Not to say the Welsh tongue is unknown in the corridor running from Harford to Milford Haven at the sea, and more so today with the revival of Welsh culture.

Griffiths wrote a letter in 1915 from France to his parents. They found it amusing and worthy of notice by the local paper, The Haverfordwest and Milford Haven Telegraph.

The editor readily published it (see here) and one can see why.

French Beer Don’t Make You Zig Zag

Sapper J. Griffiths, of Albert Street, writes an amusing letter to his parents from France, where he is attached to the 20th Signalling Company. He says: I am going on fine and you need not worry about me as I am as safe here as you are in England. We are not very far from the firing line and go up there now and again. I am very glad to hear that Phil (his brother) is alright. The poor Terriers got it pretty bad at the Dardanelles, and I am glad we did not go there. We get plenty to do out here and are at it from morning till night, but that does not trouble me as I have got to do my bit as well as the others. I met one of the Rodneys here the other day. He is in the Artillery. The French beer is a penny a glass and you can drink it from morning till night and it won’t make you zig zag as the French people say. I really think I shall learn to speak French if I am out here ten years. I forgot to tell you about the French people giving their children beer and I think they give it instead of tea. I had a feed of frogs the other day and they were quite all right. I suppose you don’t know how Stump (see letter to Guss Hugh in this issue) is getting on? With best from your loving son, John. Mr. Griffiths has also received a letter from his son Phil who is with the 14th at the Dardanelles. He was all right on the 29th of August.

With the British understatement that seems to be going out in our confessional age sapper John rattled off a series of observations calculated to unnerve, a little. Some were based on typical English prejudices of the day, harmless as they were. The others revolved around the Griffiths’ fully justified concerns for their son’s safety, and for John remaining John.

He hits all the bases: he is safe as can be, only going to the “firing line” “now and again” while being at it “from morning till night”.

French beer is washy, not the heady British stuff they would know, so no zig-zagging yet at times he is drinking all day. (Remember the pivotal role of Welsh pulpits in promotion of British temperance).

The food was funny as he just ate a mess of frogs, the eternal English horror story of French eating. And he kind of likes it.

The French have loose family morals as they serve beer to the kids (which they used to, but just a little and it had only a skosh of alcohol).

John is British as can be and “doing my bit as well as the others”, yet incipient Europeanization should be feared as he’s learning French and could be in the country another 10 years!

In other words, despite the benign tone the John they raised in Albert Street of Pembrokeshire seems a different person under stress of war. A little gomping, eh?

But it’s tongue-in-cheek of course, jaunty, John is having some “good fun” as the British say.

This Welsh tourism site states of the area:

Haverfordwest has many famous sons and daughters including the artists Augustus and Gwen John, the poet Waldo Williams, the actors Rhys Ifans and Christian Bale as well as Suggs from Madness.

Soldier John Griffiths was not a noted artist or celebrity but shared with those mentioned a gift for expression. I hope he survived the war, and brother Phil too.

Note re image: the image above was sourced from the Welsh tourism site, Visit Pembrokeshire, here. All copyright in the image belongs solely to its lawful owner. Used here for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.




A Soldier-gastronome Visits the Jewish Kitchen

An important figure in food history and food writing is Lieut.-Col. Nathaniel Newnham-Davis, active at the end of the 1800s and until the First World War. He was an acknowledged influence on Elizabeth David, the greatest food writer of our time and probably any other.

As a restaurant reviewer and author of books on food and travel he was a progenitor of today’s Rachel Rays, Anthony Bourdains, Jaime Olivers, etc. That he could write circles around any of them is less relevant now given how culinary interest is conveyed today primarily in visual form.

At the same time his ability with the pen – his humour, great knowledge, and affable spirit – makes the work attractive and one of the reasons it still attracts attention.

This soldier-writer joined an elite infantry regiment after his education. He was a gastronome-in-training on the long years in garrison in India and elsewhere. Upon retirement at 40 he alighted in London as a (never-married) man-about-town, blasé as he called himself with exaggeration.

He opened a cookery school for the West End bon ton.

He also wrote novels, plays, and the books for stage and ballet productions. He knew his way around literary and bohemian London while bringing an upper-crust, post-Harrow sensibility to it all.

I don’t know if he knew Oscar Wilde, or William Morris, but is the type of figure for whom such associations would have been natural.

In his first book, published at turn of the century and later reissued in new editions, he reviewed numerous London restaurants of different types.

This essay reviews a Jewish restaurant, Goldstein’s. It is the type of restaurant I discussed earlier that was at one time common in Western cities: the home-style restaurant vs. the delicatessen. Extracts of the menu (via Hathitrust, here) and the Colonel’s opinions appear above.

He was impressed with the meal almost to a dish, and I was struck too by the respectful tone toward Jewish customs and rites. Too often in 19th century writing and well into the 20th century for that matter, general writers (American, English, European, etc.) disclosed prejudice, casual or worse, when writing about Jews or Jewish customs.

It was hard-edged in some cases, George Sala is an example, and makes their work hard-going.

Often, such writers were equally derisive of people of African or other non-WASP background. The Irish too came in for their share of abuse on this account.

Newnham-Davis appears completely free of any such animus, and is notable for that reason alone. True, his meal was hosted, but that doesn’t account for the open nature of his essay: I think he was just like that. Perhaps his experience in artistic and bohemian circles inclined him to a greater toleration than the average writer showed then.

Eliza Acton, another Victorian food writer of great influence on Elizabeth David, writing earlier than Newnham-Davis, showed a similar toleration and interest in Jewish cookery and ritual customs. It is unlikely Newnham-Davis was unfamiliar with her work.

The Colonel’s essay on the Cheshire Cheese tavern is very good too, it’s in the same volume. He drank beer there (bitter ale) but the account is mostly of the atmosphere, food, and people he encountered.

The book in toto is much more than a curio: it is a direct link to our modern food culture. Food studies are aware of his importance, as testified for example by Andrea Broomfield’s article Soldier of the Fork published in the journal Gastronomica a few years ago, see here.*

She focuses on his conscious, successful attempt to bring the culture of eating out to the prosperous middle and upper classes who lacked experience due to the fast-disappearing cozy domesticity of Victorian social life.

Most of the dishes on the Goldstein menu are familiar to any who know Jewish eating of European (Ashkenazi) origin. He was also served examples of its deli kitchen, including what appears to be something similar to Montreal smoked meat or New York pastrami.

The Colonel protested against the plenty on the table – too much for one dinner – but he got through many similar long meals at their Edwardian height of fashion. Did it contribute to his relatively early demise? Hard to say. He died in his mid-60s during a late new stint in the army, he was put in charge of a keep for German POWs.


*See in the comments where I link a pdf of Prof. Broomfield’s full article courtesy her website which makes it available among other of her writings.


An American Urges Adoption of Faro Beer in 1857

Reading from “At the same time…”, the first paragraph above calls for the creation of Faro beer in America.  It was written by Edward H. Dixon (1808-1880), an American physician writing before the Civil War in his journal, The Scalpel.

Dixon is largely forgotten but in his day was a well-known figure in public medicine, writing simultaneously for the profession and the public at large.

He was a forerunner of Dr. Christian Jessen, Dr. Phil, Dr. Oz, Dr. Drew, and the other numerous “celebrity doctors” – those who popularise medicine and professional thinking.

Dixon did this through his books, journal articles, and occasional journalism. He wrote frequently on sexuality, as many of his modern equivalents do today.

His pre-Civil War Scalpel pieces, collected in numerous volumes, are an amalgam of medical views, autobiography, sociology, and other disparate opinions which together spelled his personal vision of how to live.

Some of it is pure entertainment, for example he includes letters from an American friend reporting on a visit to England.

Dixon writes frequently on alcohol and had decided views on it. While he proposed that Americans emulate the Belgian Faro – which they finally did, only 150 years later – in general he viewed drinking with great concern.

In the volume from which the page above is drawn he makes it clear he despised the “lager mania” and devotes a complete essay on this animus. It contains some spurious anatomical and cultural observations about beer-drinking Germans, e.g., the size of one’s head or neck, or being able to appreciate no higher music than polka.

It’s mainly of interest for showing how German customs were viewed by many in the early years of German immigration to America, especially the Anglo-Saxon establishment, the WASP for want of a better word.

It’s tempting to think he was actually teetotal but this can’t be so, as the page above shows he had tasted Faro. Elsewhere in the volume he states that Berlin white beer is preferable to lager beer and should replace it in the market. (He was a little off on that hope).

He advises people in a section on homesteading to use a little “wine or ale” in their diet. His correspondent friend in England, just landed in Gravesend, reports drinking two pots of “mild ale” (served by a “cherry-cheeked” girl), and Dixon offers no reproof. So he didn’t disapprove of limited use of some drinks and must have indulged himself, of occasion.

I sense he reserved a certain toleration for the ancestral ale and porter of WASP Americans while the strange lager received his full obloquy. Hardly fair, but Dixon is a man mostly of historical interest vs. medical/scientific. (On the other hand, he did support the practice of circumcision for men based on extensive clinical experience in New York, and this part of his work had a certain influence for a long time).

But why wave the flag for a highly obscure drink like Faro? When you read his lager mania remarks, it is clear why. He viewed lager as fattening, too gassy, and soporific from its excess of hops as much as its alcohol. Whereas Faro is vinous vs. malty (he seems not to have understood alcohol harbours most of the calories), not so carbonated, and not so hoppy.

So his Faro enthusiasm was a qualified one, but is still notable especially in an age when the general, non-technical visitor to Belgium would diss the Lambic family in no uncertain, sometimes violent terms. Even brewing writers often could hardly hold their disdain.

One could write a decent-sized essay for Brewery History, say, on the confrontation between Victorian tourists in Belgium and the local beers. They disliked the lavish sourness almost to a man. It is idle to give examples as most reading will know what I mean, but if you want a sample jeremiad just ask.*

Dixon’s bon mot of lager and oysters not mixing points to the reason, I think, why porter became associated with the bivalve. Porter was often acerbic from charred malt or tart from long aging. The kinds of wines apt for oysters, recommended by gourmets then or now, are similarly tart, Muscadet, Chablis, and such.

I guess the wash of acidity sweeps away the tongue-print of Neptune. Sweet malt and oysters don’t really match, it’s true. Now, the Canadian Legion held lots of oyster parties in the 1970s and 80s, I attended a few in Montreal, but while lager or lager-like ale were the staples they weren’t the c. 1015 final gravity of the typical 1800s lager.

The Molson Canadian and O’Keefe Ale by then were dry and snappy both from low final gravity and a healthy measure of malt adjunct. And they weren’t very hoppy by this period.

So an acidulous, dry, not-too-bitter beer was ideal with oysters, and in truth the Lambic family does suit that type of eating. An odd observation from a health wonk, yet no less apt for that. Dr. Ted had quite specific views on diet, in fact.

He states elsewhere in the volume that as a child he hit upon a diet of cold potatoes, cold pudding, and ill-baked (heavy) bread. This doesn’t sound very interesting or particularly healthy but fashions change of course. Our kale, protein shakes, lean meat, and salads would probably have elicited a frisson of dislike from Dr. Ted.

If you want to eat like pre-Civil War Fifth Avenue grandees, those who followed Dixon certainly, it’s cold potatoes or bread pudding, Faro, and oysters for you. In a pinch, swap Berlin-style wheat beer for the Faro.

Stone Brewing of southern California and lately Berlin soon is bringing this beer near you. And there are lots of options in today’s diverse beer scene for that kind of taste.

It doesn’t sound so bad really albeit no greens, no fruit, little or no meat. But you’re tasting history, isn’t that enough? You can’t have everything. I’ll keep looking though.

Obs. Needless to say, tastes change over time, this applies to many kinds of drink and food. And even though a product may retain the same name, it may differ in make-up from an earlier era. Also, people often dislike what they don’t know, or understand.

Sour beers appeal to many today, and did to many early modern beer writers, Michael Jackson famously, who promoted interest in them. The beer pictured in the text received a very high rating from fans of the style on Beer Advocate, see here.

Note re image: The image of Coolship Resurgam, a spontaneously-fermented American beer produced by Allagash Brewing Company, is drawn from its website, here. All intellectual property therein belongs solely to its lawful owner. Used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.


*I link two relatively mild examples, and a third that is virulent in the dislike, in the comments below.



The Geography of Brewing

The new Brewing World: not Where you Brew, What you Brew

I was going to post about something else today, a starkly favourable American view of Faro – from the mid-1800s. Faro is the Belgian beer blended from Lambic and the weaker Mars beer, or their worts. Given its sourish nature, it was almost unanimously disapproved by casual anglophone tourists of the Victorian era, and this thumbs-up is a rare departure.

In fact it forecasts a late, unlikely development in world brewing: wild or sour beers as a high-end niche.

But having read the interesting post today on Staropramen lager by British beer bloggers and authors Boak and Bailey, I’ll deal instead with beer origin and labelling.

They look at where Staropramen is brewed, finding the labelling for the U.K. market unclear. It is rather unclear, mentioning “the spirit” of Prague and production in the “European Union” but not stating in so many words where the beer is brewed. B&B conclude on a note of uncertainly for the locale of brewing, pending any new information.

I looked at the origin issue yesterday (in response to their general twitter invitation), and couldn’t find a clear answer either, although I think it is probably brewed in Prague at the historic Staropramen brewery there.

The canned one sold at The Beer Store in Ontario seems to be brewed in Prague: the ad copy states it is brewed in Czech Republic and the word Prague appears on the label, see here.

Of course, the one sent to U.K. may have a different origin, and even the Canadian-destination beer could be brewed elsewhere in the Czech Republic. “Prague” on the label could be a vague kind of heritage marker, as if one said, the beer is in the tradition of Prague lager-brewing.

As B&B note too, the beer might be brewed in Prague with Molson-Coors holding out as it were the possibility to brew it elsewhere in the future for the U.K. market at least.

The formula of brewed “in the European Union” may have another rationale though, although I can’t guess it at present. But here’s the point: does it matter today where a beer is brewed and whether the place is clearly stated on the package?

Beer classically was assessed and categorized in terms of national or regional origin, it made up a good part of a beer’s appeal. Conversely, beer brewed in a place not known for weighty beer tradition was thought lesser: American beer for a long time.

So, for example, in the 1970s to drink a beer from Germany really meant something as the country was famed for beer quality and a storied brewing tradition.

“Import” thus gained an aura, something we see at least since porter first found an appreciative market in the Baltic region but in truth long before when mumme and other early beers of note were exported to distant markets.

It’s the story, initially, of bock beer: originally from Einbeck in north Germany, it was appreciated as an import in pre-unification Bavaria, and finally brewed in Bavaria in tribute. The true origin of the name Bock shows this.

Therein lies the key to this post: no one in Germany, or outside, would think bock beer not brewed in Einbeck unusual. Long ago some in Munich may have preferred the import to local brewings of the style. But that faded in time.

Fine bock can be made anywhere in Germany, indeed anywhere full stop, if there is the will. The beer is a style more than anything else, more even than being German.

Since the 1970s a sea change has occurred in the way of looking at beer. Back then, when Lowenbrau was first brewed in the U.S. (it is again today in North America, at least in Canada) the true beer fan was aghast.

Even a few years ago when Beck’s and Bass Ale were first brewed in the U.S., hackles were raised. Beck’s got into a particular jackpot since its labels were thought misleading on the point of origin, something the brewer later mended.

But today beer styles have migrated all over the world and, or I believe, we have technology that can brew anything anywhere. The time is long past when local ingredients, water, and know-how necessarily meant a beer could not be made faithfully outside the region.

I’ve had Helles-style lager in Toronto, the 2018 brand by Amsterdam Brewery, say, that was as good or better than any Helles I’ve had in or from Bavaria. It is brewed from ingredients that originate in Germany except for the water and is a faultless, high-quality expression of the Helles style.

The Becks and Bass mentioned, and Lowenbrau in Toronto, are excellent beers, very close to what I recall in Europe (except for cask Bass). Where there are small differences, I don’t think it really matters, given too that beers evolve in their homeland frequently.

If a Briton or American buys a Paris baguette at the bread counter no one expects it to be from Paris or labelled to origin. It can be made just as well in Britain or America, often better as I confirmed last year when visiting Paris twice.

The idea of local beer manufacture as talisman is really obsolete, and therefore labelling precision is not as important as formerly.

This struck me when when drinking a draft Brooklyn Lager in Paris made by Carlsberg in Denmark. The heritage and taste are Brooklyn. It doesn’t need to be made in Brooklyn.

The bottled Brooklyn Lager sold in Europe still is, apparently. But if brewing shifted to Denmark and the label was equivocal it doesn’t really matter now, at least to me but I suspect most of the post-2000 beer consuming public.

Lambic surely can be made in North America essentially the same as in the Senne Valley near Brussels. I have heard this opinion expressed by some North American brewers and I understand some Belgian brewers hold the view (as opposed to using the term Lambic outside its historic region, which is a different question).

When you read Lambic history, much of the distinctive character does not relate to atmospheric influence but to the containers used to age the beer.

One source specifies old wine barrels for production especially for a new brewer of lambic, as resident wine yeasts in the wood are said to be an essential part of the cocktail of organisms that make Lambic what it is.

If such a chancy, artisan product can be emulated in many or most places, why not something whose production is rigorously controlled and monitored via an industrial/technological process that can be applied anywhere? Water type can be adjusted, ingredients imported, essential local brewing methods copied.

This is a new era, where origin is increasingly unimportant – the style of beer once came from somewhere, yes, but that’s all. Hence I read on Twitter that New England IPA can now be found in regional beer festivals in England…

Location too is a relative thing, isn’t it? Peter Ballantine brewed his famous ales initially in Albany, NY, then in Newark, NJ, and he changed locations once in Newark too, building a brand-new plant down the river at one point. Were the ales still Ballantine…?

N.B. I think it was in the 1990s that Bass in Burton brewed Staropramen at one point, which raised eyebrows in the days the issue was hot-button for the beer community. After the fuss production shifted back to Prague. I could be wrong but I think in part this suggests the Staropramen sold in Canada and the U.K. today are made in Prague.

Note re image: the image shown was sourced, here, from the Perry-Casteñada historic map collection of the University of Texas. Used here for historical and educational purposes. All intellectual property therein belongs to its sole owner, as applicable. All feedback welcomed.





Meet the Burtons and Their Friends

The Burtons and Nowhere Beer

My 17-page article Four American Beer Writers of the 1970s was just published in the journal Brewery History. One of its themes is that these writers, writing before Michael Jackson made an impact on world beer criticism, were agreed on what one called the “anorexia nervosa” of most American beer.

They understood well the decades-long cumulative effect of high malt adjunct levels, low final gravities, reduced usage of hops, fine filtration, and other techniques that tended to make beer increasingly bland and uniform in taste. Some of them questioned, as people do today for such beers, whether brewers were responding to public taste or imposing their view of such taste on the people – in the words of John Porter, “conditioning” the public.

It is instructive to examine this post-Repeal advertisement in a Washington, D.C. newspaper, the issue it appeared in in 1938 is here.

Gunther Brewing in Baltimore had roots in German-American brewing of the 1800s. It made near beer for much of Prohibition, and rallied under new ownership in 1933 to become Baltimore’s second-largest brewery. It expired as an independent in 1960 when Hamm’s of the Midwest bought it, and the brewery itself was closed in 1978.

But in the 1930s it was hot to trot. Its rather daring illustrations of fashionable young things wondering what beer to serve at their soirees remind us that the drumbeat of light, dry, not sweet, predates World War II. Whiskey was affected no less than beer, but not soft drinks, oddly, not then.

Gunther’s was a revived, small independent, not a big national that one presumes could pay big dollars for the latest marketing advice from the Mad Men.

So where did Gunther’s get this idea that the main demographic for its beer, newlyweds and other young people with the appetite for beer young people have, wanted it dry and not filling? Was the idea in the air then, or did it reflect perhaps the taste of the new owner of Gunther? It is difficult to say at this remove.

Maybe Gunther’s was profitable enough by 1938 that it could afford to hire Mad Men and they told the owner you need to go light. Some of the New York-area breweries had or would soon develop the same message, Rheingold is an example.

But the campaign must have been one of the first on the bandwagon of eternal light. Of course, it hedged its bets by also trumpeting the beer as beery and tasting like beer should. Marketers always want to cover the bases: it’s good marketing no less than good baseball. “Everything you always wanted in beer, and less” – same thing 40 years later.

Now, how light was Gunther’s beer in actuality? My studies of 1930s U.S. beer gravities suggest they were on average high by today’s standards, but every brewery was different. Was Gunther’s like a modern PBR, maybe, or Budweiser? We can’t know unless brewery records become available or another source where Gunther’s disclosed the data.

Writ large though the trend to the mass market norm in 1978 is clear. One of the four 1970s writers termed it “computerized lager”. They each had their way of saying it.

Some were still kind to the big guns of their day – Budweiser, Coors, Pabst – but one senses a relativity factor at work. Coors didn’t pasteurize, for example, and the writers generally viewed the pasteurization of beer askance. Today the issue receives little attention, unfortunately.

An oddity in the ad is the accompanying dinner recipe from The Gunther Hostess, it is super-rich. As if adding three rather fat meats is not enough, we are advised to add half a pound of chicken fat to the dish.

Where the bright young things of the Baltimore-D.C. corridor might find such rusticana is open to question, but we’re in the realm of make-believe here, or at a minimum, aspirational appeal. You may therefore indulge, as it were.

And so a caloric dinner fest like this was not viewed as inapt for people wanting light and not filling in their beer. In time the food would be roped in too via Jean Nidetch’s Weightwatchers and “dietetic” products of which diet sodas were some of the first.

Perhaps for a 1930s brewery with German ethnic roots, there was a limit to the light crusade.

The bottom line remains that somewhere, somehow Gunther’s and many more breweries got the idea early on that beer shouldn’t be sweet, shouldn’t be filling, shouldn’t be bitter, and shouldn’t be, well, beer.

Ergo the reaction that finally set in inaugurated by the Society for the Preservation of Beer From the Wood and CAMRA in the U.K., by Michael Jackson, the most influential consumer beer writer in the history of the genre, by homebrewers in the U.K. and North America, and by the new breweries that emerged in both places from about 1976.

N.B. Does anyone think the Burtons who served sweet, heavy, out-of-fashion beer were surnamed randomly? A brewery in-joke, surely. But one thing I know: if Madison Avenue was enlisted to draw these ads, the joke was lost on them. “Say, Fred [in the cubicle next to him] the old-timer running Gunther’s in Baltimore wants a couple in the new spread to be named ‘Burton’. That okay with you? I thought an indistinct European name might be better, more … inclusive (is that a word?) but he’s firm on it so I told him sure thing”.