Thursday, 13 September 2012

Beer & cheese night

One of my favourite cheese books is “The complete book of cheese” by Bob Brown, who coincidentally also wrote one of my favourite beer books, “Let there be beer!” He spends a great portion of the book describing in methodical detail various kinds of Welsh rabbits, some of which are classically made with beer. So the recent growth of interest in combining the two isn’t any wacky new innovation.

Another bookish inspiration was a passage in E P Thompson’s “The making of the English working class” pointed out to me by a friend, in which Thompson goes on about London artisans dining on bread and cheese and porter. Bread and cheese has, sadly, become a byword for poverty; it shouldn’t be, as if you can get really good bread and cheese it becomes a feast. I quite often have bread and cheese and porter for dinner.

A beer and cheese tasting is something I’d wanted to do for quite a while, and Beer Week seemed the perfect opportunity. I was lucky to get a proper cheese expert, Phoebe Weller, as co-host, who was fortunately able to take a short time away from intensive preparation for the British Cheese Awards in Cardiff. We took over the same format and venue as Phoebe’s cheese and wine pairing nights – six combos.

Andechser Bergbock hell: We paired this with a Kilree goat’s cheese. This is a great lager if in good condition, really fresh and malty and grassy, like chewing the stalk of the barley the malt is made from. The cheese is musty and earthy, like the soil the barley grows in. Really nice. It was only after deciding this match that I remembered that bock means goat. Honest.

Orval with Comte.
Orval’s bitterness really gets dug in to the sweet, fudgy cheese. This was an easy one as Comte goes with everything.

Sierra Nevada Pale Ale with Ossau Iraty.
I kind of jumped over the classic ploughman’s lunch combination of cheddar and best bitter, partly due to the difficulty of getting a decent bitter in bottle. Instead we had two of its long-lost cousins, Orval on the one hand and then, fast-forwarding a few decades, Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. We put them one after another chiefly to let people compare the two beers. The Pale Ale’s citrussy pithiness unleashes the cool, creamy butteriness of the cheese.

Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier (Märzen) with Taleggio. This is my favourite beer but the most difficult to find a match for. We tried a lot of combinations that didn’t work. This one did. This particularly smelly cheese is seduced by the sweet, smoky beer, filling the mouth with meaty flavours.

Meantime Porter with Epoisses. The beer relatively light-bodied with a big brown malt character; the cheese a salty, gooey puddle of horse-pee-scented vanilla pudding, resembling a Salvador Dali rendition of a Victoria sponge.

Harviestoun Old Engine Oil and Stilton.
One of the clichés of the cheese and wine world is port and Stilton. The reason it’s common enough to be a cliché is that it’s so damn good. I was originally looking for a nice strong barley wine that would be rich, heavy and sweet like port to counter the rich, salty cheese. Again, there are not enough of these about. I chose Old Engine Oil instead and it was serendipitous. As well as the sweetness and richness of the stout, its roast-coffee bitterness really brought out the cocoa notes in the cheese, a dry, bitter, properly grown-up chocolate milkshake.

The one thing I regret is that I was planning to use the word “empyreumatic” to describe the stout, but forgot.

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