NOT many people know Edinburgh once rivalled Burton-on-Trent as the principal beer town of Britain.
One guy who does know, however, is local drinks guru Tom Bruce-Gardyne who readily shares such tidbits with the folk attending the Beer with Food sessions he hosts at the Edinburgh New Town Cookery School. Apparently it was the 12th- century monks at Holyrood Abbey – with no doubt some divine guidance – who first discovered the pure water under the city was ideal for brewing.
Although the importance of that industry in Edinburgh declined sharply during the second half of the last century, things are now looking up all over Scotland and the ease with which beer fits in right across the food menu is but one element driving this revival. Many of the beers sampled are widely available so I have selected just one retailer for each, but do be ready to shop around.
The evening I attended featured beer and food from Scotland (although the cookery school sensibly kept the food simple to avoid overshadowing any complexity in the beers). We started with hot oak smoked salmon along with some interesting pairings. The citrus touches of Fyne Ales Avalanche (£2.95, Peckham’s) performed much the same role as a squeeze of lemon on the fish, but its slightly bitter finish injected some delightful contrast.
Equally, with Innis & Gunn Original (£3.75, Tesco) the oak used for smoking the salmon also resonated with the wood in which the beer has been matured. For me, the I&G narrowly won the day, confirming how well its beers can work with fish – something I discovered a while ago by successfully marrying up fish pie with I&G’s Blonde. Continuing the fish theme, beer often provides a good complement for pickled herring which is a graveyard for most wines. Try it, for example, with the Brochan that Cairngorm Brewery specially produced (with field-grown blueberries) for the World Porridge Making Championships. It’s a seasonal beer made for summer but there may be one or two bottles still out there if you go looking. The blueberries (from the James Hutton Institute in Dundee) have already taken the bitter edge off the beer, leaving it well-placed to mingle with the herring and neutralise the harsher effects of its vinegar.
It was a finely balanced judgment which beer best suited the next course – a venison sausage with a leek and potato mash. With the meat alone, the slightly bitter finish and smooth but malty aspects of Fyne Ales Highlander (£2.65, Great Grog)) won the day. However, when the mash was added, the lighter, grapefruit elements of Stewart’s Holyrood IPA (£3.60, Oddbins) came into their own and made any decision a close call indeed.
Next up was a spicy haggis and, for me, the clever balance between malty sweetness and the residual bitterness of Californian Common from Robert Knops (Hendersons) worked perfectly. If the trademark laws allowed it, everything in this style (which originated from the Californian gold rush days) would be steam beer. Its companion with this food, Williams Brothers’ Caesar Augustus (£1.75, Great Grog) – a brilliant cross between lager and IPA with a nice crisp bitterness – probably needed some contrasting sweetness to sit as harmoniously with spicy haggis.
Caesar Augustus’s stable mate, Profanity Stout (£1.99, Waitrose) did work nicely with the chocolate cake dessert given the stout’s slightly roasted sweetness but so, too, did the molasses in Innis & Gunn Winter Treacle Porter (£3, Sainsbury’s) even if the texture and body were lighter than one would expect of a porter. Both these examples demonstrated the versatility of beer by matching up to a dessert that would have permitted only a very limited range of wines.
Finally to the cheese and a chance to sample Musselburgh Broke (£1.70, Cornelius) where the smooth caramel and toffee flavours have been enlivened by the addition of cold water to provide both a pleasing beer and a sound partner for cheese.
Many chefs already recognise beer as a more flexible companion to food than wine. Not only is the flavour range wider, but so are the textures it offers. Certainly the old snobbishness that wine writers used to apply to beer is a thing of the past.
• Beer and food matching sessions, Edinburgh New Town Cookery School, 7 Queen Street (0131-226 4314 www.entcs.co.uk)
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