Charming Coastal New England

A pictorial memento appears below of our recent stay in Providence, R.I. (to visit relations).  All these were taken in the College Hill area. I was repeatedly struck by the English feel of the place, not just parts of the town layout and architecture, but in the way some people spoke and much of the food. I’ve eaten seafood in coastal English towns and it’s not all that different in Rhode Island, or at least, you can see the connection. Scrod with breadcrumbs – coated on the top – was outstanding. I was thinking that the brown crumb layer probably originally was hardtack pounded down, a seaman’s and colonist’s dish, now a costly item on the menus of recherché restaurants.

Drinks, raison d’être of beeretseq.com, abound in endless variety: whether wines local or brought in, beers ditto, spirits ditto, local soft drinks, they have it all.

I guess my favourite part is the Brown University area, probably mostly because it reminds me of my McGill days in Montreal, but also, for the undeniable charm and elegance.

(Click on images for best resolution).

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Can The Gourmet Society’s 1939 And 1954 Dinners Be Recreated With Fidelity?

Are the foods, drinks and party favours enjoyed at the themed 1939 and 1954 dinners discussed in my post yesterday still available where they were emblematic? If so, how have they changed, if at all? Can a dinner be recreated today with close similarity to what was done then?

To keep this easier, and faster, to do, I won’t (mostly) give hyperlinks which support these notes, but I did read for a while and am confident my conclusions hold up. If anyone wishes more or supporting information, I’ll be happy to supply it.

New Jersey Wines and Beers 1950’s

The journalist who wrote up the Newark Airport restaurant dinner noted a “blonde wine” served, attesting incidentally to a lack of familiarity with wine on the East Coast at any rate, as wine clearly meant something red to this scribe.

In that period, about a half-dozen New Jersey wineries still operated, a much-reduced number even from the 1930’s let alone pre-Prohibition. Today, many more exist, 35 or 40, almost all of them established since the 1960’s. Of this group, only two wineries operated in the 50’s and in fact their roots go back to the 1800’s. One is Renault Winery, the other Tomasello. Renault still makes an “American Champagne” and both make a range of wines from vinifera and native American grapes. Of course too, the clutch of newer wineries re-establishes the kind of tradition which once existed in the State. But still, can you get a blonde or other wine from a winery in business when the New Jersey dinner was held? Yes you can.

Beer wasn’t mentioned for the 1954 dinner but I believe it may have been served, or at any rate would have fit well within the kind of menu presented. A number of old breweries still carried on in New Jersey then, including Ballantine, Hesler, Krueger, and Rheingold (an interloper from New York which bought an old brewery in Orange, NJ in the 40’s). There were others as well, but once again, many more in the 30’s and still more before Prohibition. Ballantine India Pale Ale, which enjoyed legendary status even at the time, and Kent India Pale Ale from Krueger, may have been chosen, or possibly Krueger lager or Rheingold. Perhaps a porter too, from one of these breweries.

Today, only Anheuser-Busch, established in about 1951 in the State, still operates there. There are a clutch of brewpubs and craft breweries newly established, so selecting a porter or IPA to match the kind of good beer available in the 50’s should be no problem.

The current owner of the Ballantine name recently returned Ballantine India Pale Ale to the market, I might add. While very decent, it does not in my opinion resemble the brand as sold in the 50’s. No, I don’t remember the one from then, but I do remember it in the 70’s and until it left the market in ’94 or so. The re-introduced one is more like a good modern IPA with the big grapefruit taste. The original Ballantine IPA had more an English taste.

Rochelle Cheese Ramequins

I thought perhaps “Rochelle” was a misprint for Roselle, localities exist in New Jersey under both names, Rochelle Park is the full name for Rochelle. In any case, northwestern New Jersey was once a heartland for good cheese and creameries, see hereThe cheese in the ramequins was surely from that part. Sadly, as the link explains, this industry has largely evaporated from the area, victim of land development, horse farms, and other changes. However, new artisan operations have opened up in the Garden State: New Jersey-made cheese can be got for ramequins, and that’s enough.

Barnegat Clams

These still exist but Barnegat Bay which supplies them has been greatly stressed by significant land development and fertilizer use in the area. Yields are down considerably but can you still find these hard-shelled clams to make the same dish from the same place? Yes.

Vineland Jellied Chicken Consommé

Vineland, NJ was a well-known chicken- and egg-producing centre in the 1950’s. The industry was given a boost around 1900 when a group which had raised chickens for sport commercialized their activity. A famous egg auction existed in Vineland until the early 70’s. Interestingly, this chicken and egg farming business was mostly a Jewish one. There were many Jewish farmers, some prewar refugees who bought land to avoid working in factories, and others who started quite a bit earlier. The business was delivered a series of blows starting with Hurricane Hazel and the advent of refrigerated trucks which facilitated competition from the south. By the 70’s, the egg and chicken industry was largely of the past. Now that I think of it, the Jewish jellied meat dish petcha is often made with chicken. A consommé is just the liquid though (I think), so who knows. Jellied dishes made a lot of sense in pre-air conditioning days although today they seem relics of an earlier time.

As often happens when an industry leaves a place, the taste for what was the local champion lives on. There is a highly regarded chicken restaurant in Vineland called Joe’s Poultry Farm. It seems it was a farm at one time and possibly still is or has access to one: the point being, chicken is still king in Vineland. We can ask Joe’s for a good one or to suggest a local source to make a jellied consommé.

Ramapo Trout

The Ramapo river is still a fecund source for trout, but it is all “stocked” vs. the stream-bred wild type which I’m sure was served to Gourmet Society members in 1954. However, numerous tributaries of this river, and other watercourses in the State, do offer the wild fish – it is available, so again, no problem there.

Crown of Meadow Veal

I didn’t check if veal was a specialty of Jersey farms back then. Given that German, Jewish, Polish and Italian communities all enjoy this meat, that probably accounted for its availability in the 50’s in New Jersey, since all these communities were represented in number then. “Meadow” might suggest feeding on grass, so this type should be sought. I’d think there must be local suppliers still, but if not, out-of-State would be okay.

Strawberries in Applejack Sauce

Yes! Strawberries are still a good crop in the State, from mid-May to early June, now that you ask. And applejack? Why I explained yesterday that Laird in the State is a famous producer of apple brandy and related drinks, in fact it is the oldest continuously operating distillery in the country.

Orange Wine and Chablis

These items commence our update of the foods and drinks served at the Gourmet Society’s 1939 New Orleans dinner in Manhattan. Of orange wine, I know not if it is still vin du pays in Louisiana, but any version made from one of the old recipes I referred to yesterday will be good. The Louisiana orange, too, is the same thing it was then, the navel Florida type, so no worries there. As for chablis wine, California was clearly the source of the wine served at the New Orleans dinner, and can supply an excellent modern example, i.e., a current Chardonnay in that style. Lots of choice, way more than in the 30’s. So we’re all good here.

Gumbo Shellfish Soup, Vegetables (Artichoke, Okra, Yam), Salad, Desserts

All this group can easily be recreated today and where Louisiana shellfish or produce isn’t available, any reasonable substitute will do.  Thus, shrimp and crab gumbo, the relishes, salad with Creole dressing, all the vegetables, pecan pie, raspberry ice, cafe Brulot  – no problem.

Broiled Pompano From Gulf of Mexico

No issues here either: pompano is still available in abundance, not so much on the Atlantic side but on the other side of Florida, we can get it.

Turkey Stuffed With Pecan Dressing and Oysters

Same thing here, pecans are still grown in Louisiana or elsewhere of course in the south. Indeed, a wild turkey can possibly be found more easily, at least in some parts of the country, than at the tail-end of the hungry Thirties, there’s lots of them around. The Gourmet Society’s annotations explained that originally a wild turkey fed on pecans would have been used, but anyway a wild one can be found whose diet surely will be good enough, and the pecan stuffing will impart a nutty taste. By the way, numerous modern Louisiana recipes for turkey with pecan call for the turkey to be “pecan-roasted” – an interesting variation. This would have entranced George Frederick and the Gourmet Society crew.

Magnolia Perfume, Acacia Flowers

A charming flourish at the dinner was that Magnolia perfume was “sprayed” on the waitresses and given to the female guests present. The menu explained it was from Mme Aucoin in New Orleans. Hélas, il semble qu’un commerce n’existe plus sous cette dénomination sociale à la Nouvelle Orléans. Happily though, magnolia perfume is still made in the city, check out Hové, a perfumery in town. Acacia flowers were sourced as well to scent the room. While knowing next to nothing about flowers, or perfume for that matter, I feel confident that we can get some.

And so net-net, can these meals be recreated? Yes they can, almost to a “t”. Who will take it on? James Beard Foundation, The International Wine and Food Society, Anthony Bourdain, creative restaurateurs, others interested in gastronomic and wine history, hark…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Orange Wine and Gumbo in Metropolis

A feature of the New York dining scene in the mid-1900s was gourmet clubs. The Wine And Food Society, Inc. was a well-organized and influential such body. Members included senior business figures and arts and culinary celebrities. The Society still exists as part of the world-wide The International Wine and Food Society.

A less visible group operated for at least 20 years from about 1933, The Gourmet Society of New York. Some of its menus from the 1930s and early 40s survive in the New York Public Library’s menu archive, and elsewhere. They are fascinating curios, typed and mimeographed in contrast to the more polished productions of the Wine and Food Society. What they lacked in presentation they more than make up for in the passion and ethnological investigation reflected.

The dinners prove once more that interest in local, regional, and ethnic cuisines is not new. It was being cultivated by small groups of food and wine lovers in Manhattan, London and other places where gastronomes with a questing, often intellectual spirit gathered.

The mission of the Gourmet Society is described briskly in the early menus as follows:

A dinner club of gourmets and cosmopolites. Six or seven dinners per season at different selected dining places. Membership open to all who have palates aesthetically sensitive to good food and drink, and who have imagination enough to cherish the gourmet tradition.

The driving force was J. George Frederick, an executive who ran a business statistics and research consultancy. His wife Christine assisted and is remembered for her work as a home economist and theorist of the consumer society. Representative dinners presented the cuisines of the East Shore, Maryland; Canton, China; the classic Paris kitchen; and New England.

The wines listed in the menus that survive were mainly American** yet this was the 1930s-early 40s: the dark age of American wine appreciation. Usually the producer was listed: Inglenook, Cresta Blanca, Beaulieu, or another of the few wineries then making a wine deemed worthy to serve epicures.

A dinner given in January, 1939 showcased New Orleans’ gastronomic heritage. Note the compact description of the meal’s object under the engaging term, “General Idea”; the menu as archived by the NYPL may be viewed here.

At the dinner the Midwestern poet, essayist, and biographer Edgar Lee Masters spoke. Also on the dais were folklorist and regional historian Carl Carmer, Thyra Winslow, and W. Irving Moss.

Moss was an insurance executive from New Orleans. Winslow was a literary celebrity originally from Arkansas, one of those unlikely combinations (Jewish birth, distant regional upbringing, and “cosmopolite”) for which America was noted.

The menus often contained cultural notes on the dishes or related cultural traditions, which adds to their value. Typically, recipes were included as well.

Frederick had spent time in New Orleans absorbing variations of Oysters Rockefeller, and decided on his own version for the 1939 gathering. The bivalve type was noted, Robbin’s Island Box oysters. Robbin’s Island in Peconic Bay, L.I. is still noted for oysters. They’re on the menu occasionally at the Oyster Bar in Grand Central Terminal, NYC.

After some 90 dinners by the mid-1950s the group was engaging in bold exercises such as an all-New Jersey dinner. A press account was published of the latter. The writer was appropriately mordant in tone –  this was Eisenhower’s America – including by remarking on the unusual locale, the Newark Airport restaurant. Details of the meal were explained in bemused tone as e.g., the “blonde wine” served.

Today the Newark Airport gig might attract one of the food and road shows which comb the world for the exotic and wonderful. Let’s imagine such a show on the road with the Gourmet Society circa-1955:

[Quick-talking host, we’ll call him Anthony]: “So George, who would have thought next-door Jersey was an interesting place for food, how did you come up with that?”.

George: “Well Anthony, there is an old Dutch community here you know, in fact the ‘Jersey Dutch’ language only died out earlier this century. They’ve got some interesting dishes and there’s also some food from around Bergen and Passaic that is a fusion of old European and native cuisines. Our Ramapo trout tonight might be from that type of eating. The staff in the restaurant are mostly Jersey and they still have these dishes in their family”.

Anthony: “Now that’s fascinating. [Goes into kitchen trailing cameras and tastes soup from a tall metal pot]. “And that’s amazing, all Jersey ingredients you say? We don’t need to go to the Texas border or Baghdad to find the exotic and tasty, it’s right in our own backyard, huh?”.

George: “You said it. Try this Renault American Champagne, it’s wonderful!”.

Anthony: “Sure thing. I’ve got to finish this amazing Laird apple brandy first. I thought only France made that”.
31185At the accacia-scented New Orleans dinner orange wine was served as well as an unattributed “Chablis” from California. The former perhaps was carried to Manhattan by Irving Moss.

Orange wine was a notable product of south Louisiana where navel oranges were grown, and they still are, despite Katrina. The Federal Writers Project took note of the winy specialty around the same time. The recipe is very old and probably arrived  in the south via the Caribbean. It is ultimately from England, home, native or adopted, of most of the world’s great drinks.

Of the Chablis, one guesses it was an early version of Napa or Sonoma Chardonnay.

Can you still get orange wine in Buras-Triumph, LA as the orange cultivation area is now called? I don’t know, I’d imagine some families still make it for their own consumption. I wasn’t able to find a commercial example. Old manuals give recipes though for anyone interested.

This modern recipe book offers a shrimp boiled in orange wine, which suggests that down Louisiana way, the true wine of the country has not been abandoned.

……………………………………………………………..

*Note re images above: both images are believed in the public domain. The first image, the menu from 1939, is from the New York Public Library’s menu archive as linked in the text. The other is item no. 31185 from the aviation archive of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, here.

**Foreign wines were sometimes served at Gourmet Society events but for American regional menus domestic wines or non-wine drinks were usually served.

 

 

 

 

 

A Locavore Wine List In San Francisco, 1937

In reading many early restaurant menus on the New York Public Library’s invaluable online archive, I was struck by the continual mention of California wine. It appears on most menus, regardless of type or class. To be sure, until the 1970’s and later, imported wines tended to dominate, but California and sometimes other American wines were rarely ignored, and occasionally given marquee billing.

One tends to assume that until the Judgment of Paris, California produced mostly bulk dry and sweet table wines, nothing very challenging, of which the serious culinary world took little notice. It may have been so as a general rule, but there were important exceptions, not just in the vineyard (understood by many), but in the retail wine environment. Here is a striking instance from Mayes Oyster House of San Francisco, 1937:

Mayes 1937 wine list**

 

 

 

 

 

 

One might expect that a restaurant in the Bay Area, close that is to the storied vineyards of Northern California, would always have proudly featured local wines. Alas, this was not the rule. As was typical almost everywhere except France and some other places, the assumption was that imported was superior. From cheese to wine to olive oil and much more, this has been a longstanding feature of the retail culinary world. Only recently have locavore and market trends partly reversed this old way of thinking. To be sure, all food and drink were local originally – Mayes itself was founded in a market, in 1867 on California Street (the earthquake forced a relocation to Polk Street). But by the mid-20th century, it was a sign of prestige for an ambitious restaurant to offer the best from afar, literally if it could and via other influence on the menu. This is why the Mayes menu of the 30’s is so interesting: it continued to offer a mainly “market” cuisine, showing confidence in its original mission.

While the Mayes list leads off with a few French wines, almost four times as many California wines were offered. Some names resonate to this day including of course Beaulieu Vineyard, and Cresta Blanca which is now part of Wente. Cristiani, is, I believe, the ancestor of the highly regarded Buonocristiani of Napa – at any rate in the 1930’s, the Cristiani family, originally from Tuscany, were producing wine in the Bay Area and also were wholesale wine suppliers. Note that many styles popular today were available to guests of Mayes in 1937. These included “Riesling” and “Cabarnet”. The use of varietal names suggests that the grape types may have actually been grown. The Chablis and Burgundy mentioned may have issued from Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes, or perhaps not. Petite Syrah was a major variety grown in Napa in the 1930’s, so possibly that accounted for the “Cabarnet” (thus intentionally misspelled?). At a minimum, an attempt was being made to offer credible local examples of famous foreign specialties. I’d think a high standard was often reached, since the best of California viticulture had reached international attention well before the Volstead Act.

What can one make of the generic category “California wines”, since Beaulieu, Cresta Blanca, Italian-Swiss Colony and Cristiani were obviously also Californian? I think the menu was saying that these other wines came from elsewhere in the State than Sonoma and Napa. After Prohibition ended in 1933, winemaking quickly was re-established throughout California. The Sierra Foothills have grown Zinfandel since the early 1800’s, maybe Mayes’ “California” Zin was from there. Or maybe it was from the Cucamonga Valley in the south which was acquiring a reputation for small-producer Zin even in the 1930’s.

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**

 

 

 

 

“Sauterne” is mentioned both as a “generic” and under each listed winery name. I’d guess the south or central region was making its version of the honeyed French classic from the Graves in Bordeaux. The named wineries’ Sauterne cost a lot more than the generic one, which probably says a lot. While the named wines are rather less costly than the French ones, two of Cresta Blanca’s wines cost more than any of the still French wines. The kind of detail and connoisseurship that went into confecting a locavore wine list of this type, a mere four years after Repeal, is impressive and telling.

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**

 

 

 

 

Nothing happens without a history. The quality wine business took an enormous leap after the mid-70’s, as did the California Food Revolution led by people like Alice Waters and Wolfgang Puck, but there were progenitors. The Bay Area had wine mavens in the 30’s. Anyone who could afford to patronize a good restaurant in a prolonged economic slump could buy French wine if he wanted to, but the menu – of a respected, long-established restaurant –  offered many more California choices. Clearly, people were interested in them and could sustain the demand

And what a food selection Mayes offered, too. The seafoods covered the region, up to Alaska, in detail but stretched to the East Coast for a few supplies. Toke Point Oysters sounds daring as a name, not a little modern, but I think “Toke Point” is a genuine place name, the West Coast context notwithstanding. Note the 25 salads offered – in 1937. A sprinkling of Italianate dishes suggests some cosmopolitan influence but overall the feel is all-American and suggestive of a liberal use of fresh and local resources. The menu has a modern ring and only occasionally betrays its period origin – the eggplant and bacon dish shows this, and scrambled brains. (Then too they say bacon goes with everything). The basic building blocks of the menu are regional fish and seafood in numerous but straightforward applications, endless salads, a variety of cooked and grilled meats, fresh vegetables served with butter or otherwise simply, wines of the country, and a few simple desserts. This is the foundational approach of modern cuisine. The French classical kitchen, which had influenced the higher reaches of Anglo-American dining until about World War One, was quickly receding as an international force. Elizabeth David would draw similar conclusions based on her experiences in the Near and Middle Easts in the 1940’s. The American kitchen always had a nativist and independent side, but it was coming to early maturity in the form of this Mayes menu of the Roosevelt era.

I’ve become inured to finding that restaurants with a vibrant and storied existence 70, 100 or even 40 years ago have generally expired, usually long ago. It was thus startling to find Mayes Oyster House happily pursuing its good work on Polk Street. Except for the Tadich Grill, it is the oldest continuously operating restaurant in San Francisco. Some things have changed, a nighttime club and bar scene now complements the daytime vocation of classic seafood eatery. I heard there’s a burger bar in there, too, but it all works. In typical insouciant West Coast fashion, the website doesn’t mention the venerable history.

It doesn’t, but I will. You go, Mayes, for doing the regional thing from the beginning. I’m sure your California wine list is still impressive and even though that space is shared now with many others, that’s okay, as an innovator a special glory is all your own.

 

**Note re Source of Images: The first image above is believed in the public domain, the source is the New York Public Library (www.nypl.org), specifically here. The Cucamonga Valley image shown is entitled “View of Cucamonga Valley AVA from Cucamonga Peak” by Mitch Barrie – Flickr: Valley view. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons . The URL for the source of the image is here. The third image is believed in the public domain and the source is here.

Update Regarding Exultet Fortified Pinot Noir (Port-style)

Our post of this morning has come to the attention of Exultet Winery in Prince Edward County, Ontario, who thanked us for the mention and pointed out that its production technique for this brand entails addition of an alcohol distilled from grapes grown on the estate, so all the alcohol in the wine is sourced 100% from grapes grown on the property. The addition increases the ABV and also locks in sweetness due, we infer, to a cessation of fermentation. The winery indicated it added last month a 2014 white port-style wine made in a similar fashion with the Vidal grape.

A Segue Into a Fellow Fermentable

IMG_20150907_185253WINE AFTER BEER, NO FEAR

A visit with G. Hodder is always illuminating. We sampled cheese and nuts on the back deck with a drink or two while his stereo speakers showed ample evidence that Randy Bachman is better than ever: an enjoyable hour or two of a waning Toronto summer. We shared two cans of beer, local pale ale and IPA, and then a half bottle of Exultet fortified pinot noir was brought out, result of his recent wine tour in the Prince Edward County area.

Exultet is a highly regarded boutique winery in the County and this wine is in a style of its own though port seems the closest analogy. Brandy is added to a pinot noir and the result is a lightly sweet, very flavourful dessert wine although a small amount went very well with a little cheese before dinner. I’m not sure how the sugar gets in, either the grapes were late-harvested or perhaps some sweetening is added, either way the melded tastes were very successful, a perfect illustration of terroir. I could recognize the earthy note pinot acquires in our northern lands but the brandy and sweetness made it into something rather different.

Tasting and reporting of it here are an illustration of how the “et seq” in our blog title works: one thing leads to another and anyway all fermented drinks are related, or all drinks tout court.

It was a reminder to try to get out to the County soon. There is no better time as the harvest and grape processing show the wineries in their most active phase.

Session #103 – The Hard Stuff

00-thesession150As someone new to blogging but not to the blogosphere or beer, I thought I would take a shot at the Sessions – apologies for late submission.

Natasha of Meta Blogger asks bloggers to address the hard questions, those not being dealt with in the beer blogging world.

The beer blogging world is a big one, so one has a certain trepidation in suggesting topics that have been overlooked or neglected. Still, despite that some people talk about it once in a while, I think more focus needs to be given to great lager, by which I mean primarily blond lager. From its inception, the revival of craft brewing has not ignored lager. One of the keystones of the quality beer edifice is Sam Adams Boston Lager. Still, in general, craft brewers concentrated on English-style ales and porters, and today other top-fermented styles such as APA and IPA, saison, wit and weizen and sours. The reasons offered for this haven’t changed from the beginning: lager is harder to brew and requires a more technological and methodical approach to brewing than top-fermentation brewing.

Undeniably also there is the unspoken assumption lager doesn’t offer the same complexity of palate as top-fermented beer due to its quasi-industrial history and relatively recent date (1840’s for the blonde pilsner style which revolutionized European and world brewing for 150 years). The dumbing down of international lager in the decades preceding the craft beer revival only reinforced this assumption. Less hops, lower final gravities, more adjunct all conspired to make a beer few thought worthy of emulation. However, blonde lager in its heyday was a rich, flavourful, rounded drink including Pre-Prohibition North American beers at their best.

A great lager was, and still is, one of the best beers in the beer universe. Only rarely though in North America, in my experience, does one encounter it. Sam Adams’ lager mentioned is creditable but doesn’t approach the best European examples. Ditto, say, Creemore in Ontario. While many good examples exist – and I do know the names, I’ve had a good number of them – for some reason, few achieve the heights of the great Central European models. In contrast, American ales, exemplified say by Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, took craft brewing by storm and now are emulated in England, home of fine ales, and around the world.

Pilsner Urquell, even in the pasteurized exported form we get it in, is rarely equalled by a North American or English craft lager. Paradoxically, when North America does emulate well European models, it sometimes chooses the “wrong” ones.  By this I mean, there are too many lagers with the characteristic “green” sulphur or cooked veg tang. It’s true that many European lagers have this taste – I encountered many on a  trip to Germany and Austria some years ago – but it is questionable whether that flavour is a genuine one in historical terms. Terms typically used on rating sites to describe this taste are grassy, hay-like, yeasty, skunky (used incorrectly in this connection, but revealing nonetheless).

Brewers have told me that these tastes age out with time, the yeast in the maturing brew re-absorbs them or they waft away. Lager used to be stored for 3-6 months and more, both in pre-Prohibition America and Europe, but today a few weeks is the more usual norm. It is notable in my view that Urquell does not have this flavour, or Budvar. Neither do the blonde beers from Bernard. 

And so, I think bloggers should talk more about great lager, where to find it both here and abroad, what makes a great one, and to encourage brewers to make more and better lager.

 

A Bonny Beer Tasting

A STRIKING IMAGE*

This image, a remarkable capture from 1844, shows three Scots drinking ale. The beer was undoubtedly rich Scotch ale, probably around wine strength, hence the small Champagne flute glasses.  These glasses were traditional for strong ales in Scotland and England until about 1900, when this style of beer finally fell out. The gent on the right probably had been seated in front of the centre glass, since the other men hover over their own glass. He was (see footnote below) apparently the painter and photographer, David Hill, and either joined his comrades for the exposure (lengthy at the time) and/or had his partner Adamson take the image.

These were the beer fraternity, it can be 1844, 1900, 1960, 2015, 1600. Some things don’t change.

*Image in public domain, see here for source which gives fascinating detail on the photographer and persons shown.

Edinburgh_Ale_by_Hill_&_Adamson_c1844

 

Oystering And Roistering

 

1280px-Osias_Beert_the_Elder_-_Dishes_with_Oysters,_Fruit,_and_Wine_-_Google_Art_Project

(Circa-1620, Oysters, Fruit and Wine, Beert the Elder, Osias)*

BEER AND OYSTERS GO TOGETHER FAMOUSLY.

Or do they? The lore of a deep union is so established it seems nothing can unseat it. In the striking image above, a Flemish master, from a seafaring and brewing country, chose to portray the briny comestible with wine. (To be fair, the image does obviously reflect a table of the elite class. Prized as beer was, and is, in Flanders, its depiction in a table of this type would probably have been incongruous to say the least).

My earliest recollection of beer-and-oyster is attending a couple of beer and oyster fundraisers held by the Royal Canadian Legion in Montreal in the 1970’s. The bivalves were served different ways, in soup, on half-shell, fried. The beer was the regular Canadian brands then dominant in the market. These were lively affairs, but I’m not sure that oysters and beer go especially well together. Both at their best are enjoyable and therefore a pairing can’t be bad, but whether there is a special affinity, I’m not sure…

Whence though the old association of beer and oyster? Both were commonplaces in Victorian England, both at the time popular foods too, yet many things common then in cuisine aren’t associated as pairings. Beer and french fried potatoes seem a more natural combination, and are in North America, but not in England particularly, even though “chips” started in the London East End. Michael Jackson observed that fish and chips suits a cup of tea more than beer.

The reason beer and oysters have an association IMO is that oyster shell’s lime carbonate was once used to neutralize acidity, i.e., prevent sourness in beer before the era of refrigeration and sterile plants. The shell was cleaned, ground up and added to the barrels. This practice in time (surely) made people associate beer and the seafood in a culinary sense. Some brewers, especially those on the seaside or near ports, probably had ground their own oyster shell from whole oysters. Eating them with beer on the spot would have been a way to get some nutrition and source the raw material needed for their vats. And it must have spread from there.

Once can envision that brewers, probably forgetting the original purpose of the oyster, later added its meat or concentrate to the beer to remember the old association in brewing. Even though oyster itself wasn’t added originally, this has a kind of logic since even when just the shells were used some briny or fishy taste probably got in and some people got used to it. Today, craft brewers have revived the “oyster stout” tradition and I’m good with it when, as almost invariably, you can’t taste fish in the beer. At most a very light salty taste seems characteristic, which can enhance beer taste or doesn’t seem to hurt it at any rate. It should be said too some “oyster stout” does not employ any oyster at all: the idea is simply that the beer will accompany well the seafood.

Here are some early and mid-19th century explanations of why oyster shell was added – and they don’t refer to a culinary marriage. First, David Booth, from his Art of Brewing, 1829. See top left of page linked, in which he adds:

“It remains … with the drinker whether he prefers this new bitterish taste to that of the acetous acid which would otherwise predominate”.

It seems that as the lime carbonate in the shell did its good work, a new taste arose which in Booth’s view meant the cure was worse than the malady –  or at least as bad. This 1850’s American Family Encyclopedia  advises oyster shell to this same end or ground egg shells or marble, as they too contain the vital calcium carbonate.

Given Belgian-style and other “sours” and “wilds” are all the rage in craft brewing these days, a brewer wanting to make hay of the old connection between beer and oysters should obtain ground oyster shell and see if it works a change on the vinegary taste. It sounds, according to Booth, like a new strange bitterish taste will arise, but craft beer is all about new and sometimes strange tastes. I hope someone tries this.

Informative and Attractive Label for a Contemporary Oyster Stout:**

 

no-li-oyster-stout-web

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

*Image in public domain. Source used is here.

** Image taken from Internet which indicates production brewery is the source.

 

 

 

 

The Next Path For India Pale Ale

Hopping_in_Kent-_Hop-picking_in_Yalding,_Kent,_England,_UK,_1944_D22174

Click on the above image for good resolution. It is from an English hop harvest, 1944.*

I was looking at Beer, the 2007 and last book from Michael Jackson before his passing in the same year.

As was traditional in his books, the U.S. section featured a regional subdivision. Northeast, South, Midwest, Mountains, Pacific Northwest and California and Hawaii were canvassed.

It’s instructive to peruse the styles covered across the regions.  While a brewery and beer selection of this type are never an accurate sample, it is striking how many blonde and other lagers, brown ales, “ambers”, bocks and ESBs there are, i.e., next to the pale ales/IPAs and porter/stouts which are still or even more so part of the craft scene. These beers were typical fare in the first decades of the beer revival.

A modern beer menu of any scope will feature, aside again the pale ale and porter group, Berliner weisse, Gratzer, Gose, Saison, Grisette, Belgian and Black IPA – in my view not really IPA subsets – and generic “sours” and “wild ales”, often flavoured with spices, fruits or other things. These have shouldered out many of the non-pale ale and porter group of 2007.

If “murky” keg IPA and other beers are a kind of style, those are new too.

It is doubtful that some of these currently fashionable beers will have staying power, whereas pale ale and IPA have proved theirs. Yet, I’ve never really understood their great appeal. The taste is strongly citrus of some kind (usually grapefruit), with a white pith aftertaste and some rough bitterness. The current craze for turbidity usually adds a stinging yeast note, too.  It can be refreshing and good with food, but the taste and relatively high strength of IPA certainly seem in many ways outside the traditional beer ethos of “moreish” drinks. I’d guess it’s due to being so different so relatively early, like Jagermeister, say. (The name India Pale Ale has a certain romance too though, that’s part of it).

A new focus I’d like to see is English pale ale or IPA. By this I mean, a beer, i) using hops that are traditionally English (Fuggles, Golding or Challenger, Target or other later growths which do not taste “Pacific Northwest”), ii) that uses mainly pale ale malt with a low percentage of, or no, brewing sugars or crystal malt, and iii) which uses a traditional English yeast. I should add as well that you need to use a lot of these hops both for bittering and aroma. 19th century brewing manuals are good guides for this. Using just a little hop makes people think English ales or their hops are “mild” and this is very far from true. In fact, using the same amount of Pacific Northwest hopping vs. English in the ways typically done for bitterness and aroma puts English hop flowers at a disadvantage. But as historical recreations prove, pale ales/IPAs brewed to authentic period recipes had huge character.

I experienced many of these great beers in the 80’s in England. Despite the variety, there was a uniquely English stamp to them, part of it was the yeasts used, part the hops, part the floor-malted traditional malts. The beers tend to taste best naturally-conditioned on the hand pump but so-called keg versions, poured chilled and fizzy, can be very good too. In Ontario, we have a couple of beers that deliver this English character. A new one I had recently is Collingwood Brewery ESB, soon to appear on the market in cans. Junction Conductor’s Brakeman’s Session in Toronto often has an English character although the hop character seems to vary from time to time. At Bar Volo, House Ales’ Session Bitter, now at 4.2% ABV, is a decidedly English interpretation of the pale ale style. In Quebec, Albion in Saint-Hyacinthe is a historical English revivalist and makes some some wonderful beers.

Many brewers in North America have claimed to make English-style ales, indeed in the Northeast the craft beer revival flew this flag proudly in its earlier period. Most in fact are hybrids, mixing American and U.K. flavours.

I don’t buy the argument that we “should” drink grapefruity, piney or “dank” beers because those are the hop flavours our soils produce. By that logic, the U.S. never would have developed a vinifera wine industry. I believe hop varieties can be developed which closely match an English or allied taste, shall we say. The Sterling hop is an example, which produces a superbly fragrant pale ale yet one rarely seen in the market. And our brewers can import English hops that deliver the real deal and encourage the suppliers to grow more. Nothing like demand to stimulate a market. I find it ludicrous that a new generation of U.K. brewers are avid for our hops – Cascade is being grown now in England –  and we are blasé about theirs, arguably the superior for fine pale ale. That was English brewing opinion, and North American too, for generations until recently.

To mix poetical references, go east young (or any) brewers, to Albion’s shore; drink deep of the Pierian spring whence flowed the first pale ale; the ribbon’d wreath shall be yours.

 

*Image is in public domain, details here.