Just last week, I was invited to a party for the launch of Mr Trotter‘s Chestnut Ale in Waitrose. I must confess that I know very little about beer but little piggy me was intrigued by the event for two reasons.
1) The event was held at The Ape and Bird on Shaftesbury Avenue, which has a reputation for being a bit of a gastropub, run by restaurateur Russell Norman of Polpo fame. I’d been meaning to check it out for a while, if only to be disappointed by the lack of actual apes and birds. (Never believe the signs! Although this could get quite gruesome when considering The King’s Head…)
2) Posh pork scratchings. Yes, Mr Trotter produces little bags of Great British Original Pork Crackling pork crackling (basically pork scratchings) that I really wanted to try. I’m always adventurous when it comes to food, and I was curious and mildly skeptical the concept.
On arrival, my co-drinker (co-nibbler?) and I were delighted that The Ape & Bird were clearly taking their trendy, gastropub reputation very seriously. The door opens to a heavy, red velvet curtain that reveals a desk and a front-of-house. The venue, however, has all styles of dining covered: we were there for beer and bar snacks, so down to The Dive it was, an underground room, with the dim light and small wooden tables of the traditional pub.
I was a little bit distracted by the bowls of pork scratchings before my companion reeled me in to try the beer. I’m very glad he did because I have never tasted anything like it before.
Mr Trotter’s Chestnut Ale is one of the first chestnut ales to be brewed and bottled in the UK. The chestnuts mean that it has a real softness and a mild sweetness in its flavour. My co-drinker was certainly impressed:
“It’s quite a light ale, with a surprisingly subtle chestnut flavour which gives it quite a bit of complexity in terms of taste (I’d expected a much stronger chestnut flavour). The chestnut quality is brought out really well when combined with the original pork scratchings/chips – the salt seems to help that, although I didn’t think the jalapeño married especially well too it.”
Just so you know, my co-drinker is a fusspot – the calorie-paranoid kind that attempts to scrape fat off the bacon (which I always pop straight into my mouth with gleeful defiance). He therefore approached the pork crackling very tentatively, and nibbled a piece… before diving into the bowl.
For me, the jalapeño crackling was dangerously addictive – the spice is not overpowering, but gives the perfect amount of heat. Yes, I know that eating bits of crispy pig in a bag may sound unappetising, but you’ll soon convert. They basically scream “Move over, bags of peanuts! We’re here and we WILL be eaten. We’re the best bar snacks ever!” Once you’ve tried these porky offerings, there will be no turning back.
Unless you happen across Mr Trotter’s jalapeño crisps, which provides tough competition. I don’t even like crisps, but I loved these. Mr Trotter has basically turned me into Miss Piggy, who loves working her way through bar snacks.
The Ape & Bird, however, were not going to be left out of this evening and demonstrated that they were more than just a venue; the food they served up told everyone very loudly that this was, indeed, a gastropub.
A bit of back story: two weeks ago, I had had… a bad pork pie experience. (Yes, sob!) It had seemed like such a good idea at the time – Tesco Finest Melton Mowbray pork pies were reduced and I picked up a pack. Now I know that they were reduced for a reason: they’re terrible. They’re the bland stodgy kind where the meat is nothing more than suspicious grey matter. Consequently, I was really off pork pies.
The Ape & Bird rectified this. In fact, their rendition may have pushed me more towards the other end of the spectrum: pork pie addiction. The pork was… pinkish. It was textured. It was flavoursome and the pastry was perfect – thick enough to encase the meat but still beautifully light.
We missed the scotch eggs – fittingly made from trotter meat – but we also tried a very well-spiced sausage roll.
THEN CAME THE BROWNIES. Small, soft, gooey, chocolatey, dense and rich creations with bowlfuls of salted caramel sauce to dip then in. It was practically indecent.
Our minds were made up: we are going to The Ape & Bird and we pray that the rest of their menu is done as well as these porky snacks.
In the meantime, my companion – a big Waitrose fan – is pretty happy that Mr Trotter is now being sold there (£2.15 per bottle) and we’ve both become posh pork scratchings fans.
How one evening can change things.
Thanks to R&R for the invite!