BEER ALERT! Mr Trotter’s Chestnut Ale

Mr Trotter's Chestnut Ale

Mr Trotter’s Chestnut Ale

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.

Jalapeño pork scratchings

Jalapeño pork scratchings

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.

Scotch eggs

Scotch eggs

Sausage rolls

Sausage rolls

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!

Review: The Royal Oak at Fritham, New Forest

Pub grub - picnic-style lunch

Pub grub – picnic-style lunch

Fritham is one of my favourite places in the New Forest. It’s exactly the kind of place that exists only in books. Beautiful rural surroundings with lots of trees. Only one road in. A smattering of cottage-style houses. One pub. That’s pretty much it.

It’s situated towards the north of the New Forest park, which feels very different to the south. It has greater variation in elevation so the gorse- and heather-covered heaths seem less stark. It somehow feels more rural – more like the image of traditional English countryside that I hold in my mind.

My doggy posing beautifully

My doggy posing beautifully

Fritham is worth visiting for two reasons.

Firstly, there are some lovely walks and cycle rides in the vicinity.

Secondly, somewhat predictably given this is a food blog, the Royal Oak pub serves up some bloody good grub! But before effusing about the food, I should also praise the building itself, which is as about traditional as you could wish a pub to be. With its thatched roof, a higgledy-piggledy interior, dark wooden furnishings and beams, and an open fireplace, it is wonderfully cosy.

The Royal Oak - now that's an English pub!

The Royal Oak – now that’s an English pub!

As for the food, almost everything on the menu is locally sourced.

Locally sourced

Locally sourced

The lunch menu is fairly small – ploughmans, quiches or pork pies are the main dishes.

Lunch menu - April 2013

Lunch menu – April 2013

But the food is amazing! The bread is worth raving about – it’s so fresh and delicious with that great homemade taste. 

We took the Pork Pie lunch (£5), which I like to call the ‘pork pie picnic’, given the eclectic plateful of items.

Hello £5 lunch of goodness!

Hello £5 lunch of goodness!

If you think you don’t like pork pies, think again. Banish all thoughts of some some grey and grisly product of dubious meat quality that lurk in supermarkets. Think instead of a pure pork flavour, rough chopped chunks of meat, firm pastry. Then add the sweetness and tangyness of Hampshire Real Ale Chutney. It was simply fantastic. 

Look at that meat - quality!

Look at that meat – quality!

Hampshire Real Ale Chutney

Hampshire Real Ale Chutney

A special mention also goes to the apple, which was crisp and juicy, and was genuinely one of the loveliest apples I’ve eaten in a while. (Apples can so often disappoint…)

Of course, all this can be enjoyed with a pint of beer. Highly recommended is the Ringwood ale.

All this quality, all this enjoyment, all for £5. It’ll make Londoners cry. I should know – I am one now.

The Royal Oak 5/5 – An absolute gem. Any trip to the New Forest should include an obligatory trip to Fritham for a walk, followed by some local country grub in this local country pub.