Cooking with beer isn't as straightforward as cooking with wine. Depending on what beer you choose, the final flavour of a dish can alter dramatically. A fruity, hoppy beer can turn bitter if you use too much, or cook it for too long, and a dish using wheat beer can vary wildly, depending on which wheat beer you choose, such is the variety of seasonings used, from Cura‡ao orange peel to coriander.
But that didn't stop the chefs of the gastropub arm of the 2,469-strong Spirit Group testing their wits in a Belgian beer cook-off last month, at which I was a judge. In the six weeks before the final at the Firestables in Wimbledon, south London, the 15 chefs practised the dishes on their customers, choosing the most popular for the cook-off.
And didn't they do well? Gastro-pubs aren't called that for nothing, and most of the chefs who took part pulled out all the stops in terms of innovation, even if the result wasn't always obviously cooked with beer.
The beers that rose to the challenge were provided by Specialist Brand Development (01932 853834) and included a Bavarian wheat beer called Paulaner; a classic Belgian ale, Affligem Blonde; Fruli, a range of Belgian fruit beers; and a characterful Belgian wheat beer, Wieckse Witte. Contestants could use one or all of the beers.
The dishes included Virgin Mary Witte mussels with feta, spinach and Affligem waffle (from head chef Matthew Platt at the Narrow Street Pub and Dining Room, Limehouse Basin, London), salt cod ravioli with Wieckse Witte chowder and Affligem froth (from sous chef Dan Henry at the Weyside, in Guildford, Surrey), sea bass with pak choi and Thai Affligem dressing (from Leon Tang of the Paxtons Head in Knightsbridge, London), deep-fried berries with Affligem cream (from Ivo Ivanov of Dusk, London) and chocolate Fruli strawberry souffl‚ (from Sean Simmons at the Greswolde Hotel and Brasserie, Solihull).
"You have to be careful cooking with these beers," warned fellow judge and Belgian beer ambassador Marc Stroobandt. "If you use the Wieckse for steaming, then it will bring out the coriander flavours, while the hoppy character is accentuated when cooking with Affligem. You must try any beer first before cooking with it, and experiment with different cooking methods."
Ian Noble, head chef of Dovedale House in London's Battersea, had obviously experimented widely with his chosen beers before arriving at his final dish - home-cured beef, duck and pork with an Affligem olive dressing. Finishing as runner-up, he was praised for his charcuterie, using the Paulaner in the cure for the beef (two weeks in the marinade), while the slow-roasted duck breast was cooked with the Wieckse. The appetising platter came with a beer-friendly mound of r‚moulade and onion chutney.
The winner, though, was Matt Fosker, sous chef of the Prince Alfred in London's Maida Vale, for his ham hock terrine with Affligem jelly and Fruli apple chutney. "I wanted to do a contemporary twist on a classic dish - that's what gastropubs are all about, aren't they?" said Fosker. "And I wanted something to accentuate the sweetness of the beer."
He cooked the hock in a vegetable nage, which he then reduced, adding the beer at the last minute so that it wouldn't turn bitter. Did I mention his accompanying Wieckse Witte and sage toast? "I thought the sage would balance the other flavours in the dish," he added.
A man to watch, methinks.
Food beer Hats off to Rooney Anand, managing director of the Greene King Brewing Company in Suffolk. He managed to gather together the great and good from the world of publishing for the new packaging of his recently launched brew, the catchily titled (not) Beer to Dine For.
Now, Caterer wouldn't normally wobble on about new packaging but this is a rather fetching beer bottle, shaped to catch diners' attention - which is the brew's raison d'ˆtre. Rooney said: "Several brewers have introduced campaigns to promote the matching of different beers with different foods, but only one - Greene King - went as far as creating a beer specifically for the purpose of accompanying food."
Brewed using Tettnang hops from the USA, it has soft melony aromas and is pretty fruity in the mouth, with a dry finish. It's actually very nice, and it coped well with my Crazy Bear-cooked Thai canap‚s.
For more information, call Green King Solutions on 01284 714669.
New wine museum
If you happen to be holidaying anywhere near Rioja in Spain this month, you might want to stop by the Fundacion Dinastia Vivanco in Briones, with its centrepiece, the Museum of the Culture of Wine.
Claiming to be the largest and most in-depth museum devoted to the wine world, it also just happens to be next door to owners Pedro and Rafael Vivanco's new bodega.
The Vivancos have a range of wines that are now available to the on-trade in Britain through Bibendum (020 7449 4021).