A Summer ‘Tradition’ We Can Do Without

I’m sure John Major in his rather risible but memorable speech about warm beer, long shadows on cricket grounds and so on from the early 90s would have included Morris dancing in his wistful list of unchanging Englishness (see the photo below of the Towersey Morris and Aldbury Morris Men performing outside the Swan, Great Kimble on 7th July).

Towersey and Aldbury Morris Outside the Swan, Great Kimble
Towersey and Aldbury Morris Outside the Swan, Great Kimble

That speech is a particular bug bear as beer should NEVER be warm — the belief that real ale is best drunk tepid has allowed bad landlords to get away with serving undrinkable crap. It should be cellar temperature (about 10-12 C) and it’s sometimes so difficult to keep it that way in unrefrigerated cellars that even usually reliable pubs might be wisely avoided in temperatures of the upper 20s and even 30s C of the sort we experienced at the end of last week and this weekend.

In fact, on our trip on Saturday to the Black Country, I had more than one pint in usually exemplary pubs that, while by no means bad, that certainly weren’t on top form. It’s not a problem we’ve really had to worry about over the last couple of summers but, in hot weather, if the beer comes out as anything like ambient temperature you know you’re likely to be in trouble — whatever rubbish John Major came out with years ago.

The Fleet

Walking between two interesting pubs in Clerkenwell/Farringdon in London, the Jerusalem Tavern and the Gunmakers (they have up to date information on their beers on their website which is sadly incredibly unusual for most pub websites), I was quite struck by the topography around Farringdon Road. It was quite unusual for London and more like a city like Paris or Amsterdam as there were two roads that were only built up on one side with a large void between them of about 50 yards or so. Moreover, the ground gently rose on each side of the gap. The void was spanned by bridges that spans the Metropolitan line and the Thameslink railway line beneath but the geography looked very like a river valley. 

Interestingly, a bit of research on the web shows that the tube and railway lines were actually built through the valley of the biggest of London’s hidden rivers — the Fleet. The river is contained in a storm drainage sewer that runs alongside the railway tracks. The Fleet itself is a fascinating subject — it rises in Hampstead and Highgate and passes into the Thames at Blackfriars via Kentish Town, Camden, St.Pancras, Farringdon, Clerkenwell, Smithfield, Holborn and (of course) Fleet Street. It is almost entirely covered over but water can be heard rushing down manhole covers at the time.

There’s a really excellent and comprehensive guide to the course of the hidden river on someone called London Geezer’s blog. It might make a good theme for a pub crawl?

GNVQs in Tin Opening? Breathalysers in the Kitchen?

The Restaurant on BBC2 promised to plumb further depths of the stupidity of the deluded members of the British middle-class who convince themselves that running a restaurant is some sort of decadent leisure activity for the indolent celebrity class rather than be a very hard way of making a living. (Beware: spoiler alert below).

There was some shocking ineptness from the start when the contestants were asked to cook a ‘signature’ dish — some of them tried something they’d never even attempted before. They knew that their dish would be served to Raymond Blanc (with his two Michelin stars), although they might not have been aware that he’d be wandering round the kitchen looking at the packaging on their food. Even so, it was staggering that three of the couples went shopping for their food in Asda (‘voted Britain’s cheapest supermarket). Now Asda can do a few foodie things that even M&S and Waitrose don’t do (chopped up organic carrot batons for one) but its customer base cannot be said to be the most discerning smoked salmon connoisseurs. (I’m not being a food snob. I go there myself sometimes where it’s fine for basic things but a smoked salmon specialist it’s definitely not.). It was no surprise that they failed to find gravadlax there — this is probably only reliably found at Christmas in places like M&S, though Waitrose has plenty of types of smoked salmon and may do it all year round. The thought of going to a specialist smoked fish supplier probably never crossed their minds. Even so, this pair did nothing with their plain Asda smoked salmon except put it on a plate with a load of chopped up beetroot or something and a few crusts of bread. They then stood around looking pleased with themselves while the other contestants busted a gut to finish their dishes in an hour. Even so, they survived until next week.

One of the most intriguing things about this reality show is the mismatched abilities of the couples. One has to deal with front of house while the other is the chef. Often one of the two is reasonably competent with the other being completely useless and a persistent cause of failure — this leads to fascinating strains in the partnership, particularly when the two are related. There was a team of dominating mother and henpecked son. She was a decent cook but lost out because her son told the lovely Sarah (who has one of the most comically expressive faces on television) that it was impossible to describe his mother’s restaurant concept — completely clueless.

The most amazing part of the show came when another parent-child couple tried to open a coconut — which they eventually manage to bludgeon into a pulp — and then were stumped by a tin of evaporated milk. The daughter of the couple didn’t look so young she’d never have encountered old style tins (without the handy ring on the top) but she seemed to have no concept of what a tin opener was. Perhaps using a tin opener will need to be taught and assessed in schools (maybe it’s on the A-level syllabus for domestic science, which explains youngsters’ ignorance) or perhaps the sharp edges to the tins break health and safety regulations? However, what health and safety types wilfully fail to

An Innovative Way to Open A Tin of Condensed Milk
An Innovative Way to Open A Tin of Condensed Milk

recognise is the incredibly dangerous methods people dream up to achieve their objectives left to their own devices. In the case of the can of condensed milk, the opening method attempted was to hold a butcher’s cleaver vertically against the can lid (its point downwards) and to then hammer the knife handle with a rolling pin. The film crew must have been waiting hopefully for an accidental disembowelment if the extra sharp Raymond Blanc knife slipped into the woman’s stomach when she attempted to smash down on the knife to gain access to the tin. Fortunately, Raymond spotted her in time and showed her a helpful gadget that has no doubt saved many lives in similar circumstances in about 150 years of canned food — a tin opener. It would have been fascinating to see the education in other kitchen utensils that this couple may have gained in later episodes — oven gloves, corkscrews, bottle openers, perhaps — but Raymond sadly sent them home for their own safety.

It makes quite a serious point about health and safety as almost everyone has enough in their kitchen to do horrendous damage to both themselves and others — sharp knives, roasting hot ovens, boiling water, naked flames. Yet many people happily cook complex meals involving these and many other dangers while lubricating themselves with alcohol at well over the legal drink drive limit. Watch out for the government to go into cahoots with ready meal makers and supermarkets and bring in the kitchen breathalyser built into appliances which will lock all drawers and turn off all appliances except the microwave (to be used for M&S ready meals) if a cook is found to be over the limit.

Never Mind the Quality, Feel the Weight

I went to the impressive new Sainsbury’s in High Wycombe and ended up, surprisingly, in the beer department at the weekend. They had a special 3 for £10 deal on bottled Meantime beers. This wasn’t bad value as the beers are normally sold at over £4 each. The bottles are 750ml which makes one wonder if they are trying too hard to compete with wine. I bought two IPAs and one London Porter (the only two available). 

Meantime seem to be darlings of the beer writing establishment. However, I found the beers to be quite pleasant but not justifying the hype of some journalists. The IPA was enjoyable but had nothing like the complexity of the cask conditioned Thornbridge Jaipur IPA, for example. The London Porter seemed a little underpowered to me and nothing comparable with something live like the Chiltern Brewery Lord Lieutenant’s Porter.

When it came to bagging up the empty bottles to go to the recycling bin I realised that Meantime must be a marketing-driven operation as they’d pulled the a wine marketing trick. This was something I read about a famous wine warehouse chain who had advised their producers that a good way of upping the price consumers will pay for a wine is to put it in a heavier bottle. Apparently we, as consumers, equate bottle weight with quality and it’s possible that (before duty) more money will be spent on a bottle than on the liquid inside. Meantime’s bottles are almost as heavy as champagne bottles (and they have no reason to be as there is nowhere near the internal pressure in the bottle that champagne has). The bottles are stoppered like sparkling wine too. Apart from trying to con the customer these bottles are very eco-unfriendly.

Overall, they were nice beers but not the classics that the extremely expensive packaging suggested. Maybe Meantime should pay slightly more attention to their beer than their marketing — but I guess that this sort of sublimal marketing is part of their business plan. Often marketing considerations can degrade a beer’s quality as breweries, like a famous one in Kent, bottle their beers in clear bottles despite the adverse effect light can have on a beer’s flavour — at least Meantime’s bottles were the right colour. Even so, it’s funny how some of Meantime’s biggest fans in the press used to criticise lager lover for just drinking the marketing.

Wednesdays Will Never Be the Same Again At the Red Lion, Caerleon

I had dismal hopes for the Channel Four programme — the Red Lion — on Thursday. Another instalment of government promoted doom and gloom about the evils of drinking seemed on the cards.

The programme visited 10 of the 600 Red Lion pubs in the country (the most popular pub name) and the first one featured unashamed, wanton binge drinking, the only objective of which was ‘to get hammered’ — but this was by a group of women. It was a student netball team from Newport University (no, I never realised there was a university there either) who religiously went out on a Wednesday to get completely plastered playing ‘pub golf’ (a close relative of drinking golf that I’ve played myself) at 9 local pubs. So the programme started with a dozen or so girls downing a pint of Guinness in one at the Red Lion. Rather than be apologetic, the students they interviewed were refreshingly honest about their motives — drinking to get pissed (although they have to be able to stand up or else that would be a bad night) and ‘feeling like shit’ the next morning was a big part of it. These women were not violent or sad or ill — they were all pretty athletic as they played netball for the university. I remained in awe as they went on to other pubs in Caerleon to down other drinks in one. I expect that, after this programme, Caerleon will never be the same again on a Wednesday night as hundreds of male binge drinkers will no doubt want to make a favourable impression on the netball players by consuming even larger amounts of alcohol. Where is it again?

After that classic opening, the programme went to a reasonable cross section of other Red Lions. It seemed that even when they found the inevitable solitary drinkers whose whole lives revolved around the pub that even these characters came out of the programme with a lot of dignity. My favourite Red Lion was one in Whitworth, north of Rochdale, which was pretty typical of the pubs I learned to drink in (in Tim Martin approved fashion) myself just over the hills from there. There was one Rugby League player who cheerfully admitted to spending £100 on beer a week — as he didn’t have much else to do. He also gave one of the most eloquent descriptions of the pleasure of being mildly inebriated.  As with the netball players, even the BMA might have problems correlating the large volume of alcohol consumed with the physical fitness required of the players. (It brings to mind the conclusion that Jancis Robinson came to in The Demon Drink when she reviewed the scientific literature that the people who drink most do so because they can — i.e. fit young people in their 20s can outdrink almost anyone with no ill effects.)

What the programme managed to convey quite effectively was the sense of camaraderie and community that can be found in all good pubs. It showed the pub is a leveller of society and class — with the regulars being incredibly brutal in their comments towards each other but all done so in the safe knowledge that they’ll be back there the next night. The pub pricks pretension and is an amazing social leveller. Many of these issues have been examined by social anthropologist, Kate Fox, who devotes a whole section of her book ‘Watching the English’ to the etiquette of round buying. The last Red Lion was closed — bought up by an owner who has no intention of re-opening it but, by the look of the boarded up windows, can’t get planning permission to do anything else with the building. Speculating and profiteering were ripping the heart out of a community — odd that after 12 years of New Labour.

There was plenty of potential for ridiculing the pubgoers, who were remarkably candid, but what came across was an amazing feeling of common humanity bonding the pubgoers. After all, the pub is basically an institution where ‘the public’ are invited into a ‘house’.  The programme generated a very favourable review in The Guardian. I can’t put the conclusion better myself:  ‘a lovely portrait of a peculiarly British institution’. The Times review says ‘Drinking in moderation, the contributors suggested, was a dreary waste of time.’ I couldn’t possibly comment.

£2.50 For a Half-Decent Pint in Mayfair?

Credit to the Coach and Horses, Bruton Street, W1 for doing a cheap pint of real ale at peak time on a Friday evening (on BITE Bedfont points out that it is NOT the Shepherd Neame house — that’s the other side of Berkeley Square). Of course, cheap is a relative term in the area with the most expensive rental on the Monopoly board. However, one might save enough by buying Fuller’s London Pride at £2.50 to make a slight dent in the amount needed to buy one of the Rolls Royces or Bentleys in the showroom just around the corner. It wasn’t a bad pint of Pride either.  At the more typical price of about £3.20 they also did Timothy Taylor Landlord, one of my favourites normally but it had a good whiff of diacetyl, which I’ve never come across in its Yorkshire heartland. Warwickshire Darling Buds, which I tried a few weeks ago at the King’s Arms in Tring, was also on.

The pub itself was packed with suits. Apparently this is hedge fund HQ territory and the fridge in the pub had more champagne in it than anything else — which goes to show that not a great deal seems to have changed around here since the credit crunch unless it’s the hedge fund managers who are on the £2.50 Pride.

Pubs — The Preserve of the Middle-Class?

King William IV Speen
King William IV Speen

Today I drove through Southcourt in Aylesbury: a large, 1930s-60s housing estate which was originally almost all council housing. Such estates used to be bastions of working-class ale drinking but the smoking ban and the credit crunch have finished off two of the three pubs and the closest pub in the direction of the two centre is also shut. A pub that tried valiantly to keep going in the face of cheap supermarket beer and home-based entertainment like videos and Sky TV was the Steeplechase, which did some decent real ale at times. It has been boarded up for a year now and is a sad sight.

However, on the bright side, a report partly supported by CAMRA and publicised on the BBC website reported that cask ale was the only type of beer now with growing sales and partly because twice as many women enjoyed drinking it in the past couple of years. There was also a very interesting report on the Radio Four Food Programme about hops and their use in real ale — which gave an opportunity for Roger Protz to yet again claim that beer is far more interesting than wine. The brewer at Brewdog commented on his Punk IPA, which the female presenter found very tasty. (I love this beer and its weaker sister — Trashy Blonde — Brewdog are so non-pc they even make an 18% beer.)  The programme noted that the trend towards using more (and more assertive) hops started by US craft breweries and is now being adopted by ale brewers here. Such beers have to either have a high alcohol content to balance the bitterness or need to be drunk in much smaller quantities (such as thirds of pints) to be palatable.

The two themes above suggest that there’s a trend for both beer and pubs to lose their long-time association with the working man and instead to become the preserve of the middle-classes. A valid criticism of CAMRA is that while it has spectacularly succeeded in preserving real ale and increased the variety available, it has done so mainly for the benefit of a minority of beer snobs and tickers. Real ale is not the drink of the working man any more — that accolade was lost to lager a long time ago — the fact that real ale quality is dire in a large number of workaday, non-CAMRA-Good-Beer-Guide pubs might have a lot to do with this. However, it seems that these sort of workaday, average, unremarkable pubs are the ones that are suffering most at the moment and, as the cask report says, it’s the affluent real ale drinkers who are able to afford £3 a pint in the pub and don’t go for the £10 24 can Stella pack at Tesco as an alternative.

So perhaps the saviours of the English pub as we know it are the middle-classes, much as that might be an anathema to some of the more revolutionary founders of the real ale movement. The middle-class seem to have saved real ale and pubcos should perhaps target these high-spending, but demanding customers more. Another factor in the pub’s favour is brought to mind by having forty-something politicians paraded at the party conferences over the past couple of weeks: it seems the annoying, social-skills free nerds that inhabited student politics in the 80s are now making their bids to be the annoying, power-crazed nerds that run the country. But if that’s reflected in other walks of life there may be a silver lining in that the middle-class, especially Generation X who are entering middle-age, have very fond memories of the pub from their student days (mostly rose-tinted in terms of the amount they drank and time the spent there). Yet this almost sentimental attachment to the pub as a hub of student life might yet save the great British institution. The middle-classes might not be propping the bars up swilling ten pints of mild a night but they might be pretty solid campaigners to ensure that pubs are still there for people that do.

Crown, Sydenham, Oxfordshire
Crown, Sydenham, Oxfordshire

To illustrate the point there are a number of examples of local pubs being saved from closure by being bought by (presumably relatively wealthy) members of the local community and re-opened and run on a community basis. The Unicorn at Cublington and Crown at Sydenham, Oxon are good examples. I went tonight to a pub, the King William IV at Speen, that’s not owned by the community but run in a way that is designed to be community minded — to the extent of having a small room of a perfect sized for committee meetings. It also has an ice-cream parlour selling locally sourced ice-cream. A group of local charity volunteers were also enjoying the evening in the pub. These pubs aren’t, of course, exclusively full of middle-class people but they’ve benefited from the sort of activism that the middle-classes (and, dare I say it, CAMRA) have shown to be very successful.

Moral Panic?

Cerne Abbas Giant Beer
Cerne Abbas Giant Beer

I came across the previously mentioned Giant ale from White Horse Brewery in the Turf Tavern in Oxford yesterday. They’ve not shied away from putting the chap in all his glory on the pump clip. Of course I had to try a pint of the ale but I better not say whether it had the advertised effect.

I notice that this might fall foul of our current government’s moral outrage over beer drinking as not only does this obviously make Viagra-like suggestions over the potent effect of the beer but he also carries a huge weapon in his hand. What else could re-inforce more the government’s linking of beer with violence — both wanton and sexual. Except, of course, that the giant probably dates back several thousand years and, while he doesn’t have a pint in his hand, the discovery of beer and fermentation dates back to a similar time.
PS. I heard the most offensive, yet slightly witty, response to a request for a pint to be topped up. This was in a touristy pub in Oxford where the clientele is probably routinely ripped off with pints containing 80-85% liquid. The cocky barman said ‘I’ll get you a straw next so you can suck the beer up off the bar’ — shows what a badly run place it was that they tolerated such spillages anyway.

Does the Cerne Abbas Giant Prick New Labour’s morals?

Went drinking in Flackwell Heath for the first time ever tonight. Not many people probably go there but many pass close by as it’s very close to the M40 — just behind the woods on the big hill as the road climbs out of the Wye valley at Loudwater (junction 3). The Stag was a decent enough pub and the Crooked Billet down a side road towards Little Marlow was a lovely old-fashioned country pub with an astonishingly well-tended garden — enough bedding plants, even at the start of October, to put a municipal park to shame.

In the pub it was mentioned that White Horse Brewery have a special beer called ‘Giant’. It might not be a surprise to discover that, as the brewery has the ancient Uffington White Horse as its logo, the giant in question is the famously endowed chap at Cerne Abbas. In these days where it is not allowed even to hint to under 25s that alcohol may equate to enhanced sexual success, we wondered whether the brewery would be allowed to use an image of the prehistoric figure on the brewery pump clips. Or would the nation’s twenty-something males be corrupted into thinking that drinking this real ale might have such a startling effect on a part of their anatomy. (It would be interesting to see if their partners might be tempted into buying them a pint to test the drink’s efficacy.) I’d guess that the existing guidelines might prompt the brewers into modifying their pump clip design. I suggested inverting the said organ in Photoshop but another suggestion was to put him in a pair of Y-fronts to be on the safe side. No doubt, if it’s not against the law and the brewery go ahead and display the giant and his colossal manhood then we’ll see Harriet Harman rushing the necessary legislation through the House of Commons as soon as parliament returns.

Of course, if the BMA get their way then all alcohol marketing and advertising would be banned so there would be definitely no pump clip, no matter how graphic.

Credit Crunch Carries On

I ventured out into High Wycombe on Monday in search of using up my J.D. Wetherspoon 50p off a pint vouchers that were due to expire on 30th September. The pubs were so quiet that I got served straight away in the Falcon — which is unheard of even on a slow night. Like cut-price supermarkets, Wetherspoons seem to pass on the low prices on their products in the form of less staff than their competitors. The manager even had chance to chat away to the two of us for five minutes about real ale. Shame that he didn’t notice that the Titanic Triple Screw that we had in our glasses at the time was as cloudy as soup. It was drinkable but probably only because it had a lot of roasted or chocolate malt (I think) in and that gave it a very bitter edge.

Up the road at the William Robert Loosely there was a Bateman’s special ale on that had a pump clip that seemed to be confusing itself with a packet of Weetabix — lots of picture of ‘good for you’ grains. I’ve forgotten what it was called. This was served almost frozen but that didn’t stop a whiff of diacetyl rising up from the glass. I know that some brewers actually think diacetyl (the ‘butterscotch’ aroma) is pleasurable but most of their customers don’t. I find that holding my breath when I’m drinking helps — but, of course, this disguises most other flavours. The superchilled temperature meant that I may as well have been drinking lager in that case but, I shouldn’t complain, using the vouchers two pints cost the princely sum of £2.78! Round the corner at The Bell, a mediocre pint of Pride was more than 30p dearer.

Walking through Wycombe I was struck at how few people were out in any pub or restuarant — Pizza Express was deserted. A Monday I suppose but it’s anecdotal evidence that people still seem to be holding on to their cash and I was only there to buy beer at £1.39 a pint myself.