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!

Honest Burgers March Special: The BrewBurger

The BrewBurger - containing four different kinds of beer :)
The BrewBurger – containing four different kinds of beer 🙂

It’s impossible to ignore the burger trend across London. To be honest, if you want to ignore it, you probably shouldn’t be reading this blog; I’ve done my best to consume as many burgers as possible in one giant burgery bonanza.

One of my favourite places for a burger in London is Honest Burgers. They’ve got a quality product pitched at the right price, and, as a result, their empire is expanding – expect the sixth branch to open near Oxford Circus later this year.

I fell in love when I first when I went to their Soho branch, and then had a passionate affair with their Christmas special, before drooling over their HOT February special. Their regular menu may only contain three different types of beefburger but their monthly specials really keep the romance alive.

Their latest offering has got me punch-drunk in love. For starters, it is possibly the first burger ever to require an ID to order it.

Honest Burgers have taken things to a new level this March and have collaborated with the awesome BrewDog. BrewDog is a Scottish craft beer company that is taking over the world with quality beer and their very own chain of bars, stretching from Shoreditch all the way to São Paulo! (Japan fangirl squeal: And they’re also in Roppongi in the expat area of Tokyo!) Even if you’re not a beer fan, you have to love BrewdDog because they took on Putin’s homophobia and produced the world’s only beer that’s definitely, absolutely and certainly not for gays – the Hello, My Name Is Vladimir!

Hello, my name is Vladimir and I am zuper hetero!
Hello, my name is Vladimir and I am zuper hetero!

Hello, my name is Vladimir. I am a beer for uber hetero men who ride horses while topless and carrying knives. I am a beer to mark the 2014 Winter Olympics. But I am not for gays. Love wrestling burly men on the Judo mat or fishing in your Speedos? Then this is the beer for you!

I think they’ve got their sales pitch spot on, don’t you? Now onto the BrewBurger itself….

Pervy close-up
Pervy close-up

This is one incredibly boozy beefy treat:  it’s a 150g aged beef patty with Comté cheese and bacon candied with BrewDog’s amber ale, 5AM Saint. It’s then topped with beef dripping and beer fried onions using BrewDog’s flagship Punk IPA and a BBQ reduction made from BrewDog’s Paradox cask-aged Imperial Stout. And, just in case that wasn’t beery enough for you, it’s served with Bourbon Baby, a 5.8% barrel-aged baby scotch ale that Brewdog created just for this collaboration. All this for £15.

More photos make it more real
More photos make it more real

Oh….this was a beery burgery beauty. For me, the bacon got a little subsumed by the other flavours but those  beer-fried onions were fantastic. All of this, of course, comes with Honest Burgers rosemary-salted chips. After a BrewBurger, you will wake up seriously thirsty but smugly satisfied.

Get yourself along to a branch of Honest Burgers before April 2nd. And don’t forget your ID!

Bourbon Baby
Bourbon Baby

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. 

Belgo Centraal Review

Belgian waffles

The place: Belgo Centraal
The food: Belgian

I judge whether I’ve visited a country by whether I’ve eaten there or not. I’ve driven through Belgium and run around its border with Germany and the Netherlands (see Vaalserberg), but I’ve not been to Belgium.

All I know about Belgian food is that one should expect good beer and good chocolate. And good waffles.

Thus, it was with a fairly open mind that I sat down to eat at  Belgo, a small London-based chain. We were on a rare family outing to the theatre. The challenge was on to find a place that we could eat in under an hour and half and make it to the show on time. Belgo was our conveniently located place.

Our visit didn’t get off to a smooth start. My parents had a table booked for 5.30pm and I was supposed to join them at 6pm (after escaping from a statistics class eugh). But somehow, they’d got lost along the way. They’d called ahead – their table was safe. Everything should be fine.

I arrived just after 6pm and explained the situation, and how my family might possibly be waiting downstairs. The maître d’ quite  rudely rebuffed me and told me that my family would probably not be getting a table as they were so late.

“But they’ve called ahead and they’ve been assured there is one. And they might be downstairs already,” I protested for the second time.

Thankfully, a polite and smiley waitress appeared, knew where my family were, saved the conversation from escalating, and guided me downstairs.

Belgo Centraal – down underground

Belgo Centraal is an underground, wannabe-warehouse. It tries to mix industrial with presumably Belgian.  The overall impression is eclectic and a little confusing. Not a look I’d be going for if attempting to run a restaurant.

A waitress came to take our drinks and my father pounced with the most important question of the evening: which beer is best?

To his great delight, the waitress didn’t hesitate in her recommendation. Troubadour Blond.

Troubadour Blond

My father is a dedicated beer-drinker and this hit the spot. He ordered another one almost immediately.

Good beer ✓ So far, so good.

The chain is apparently keen on serving up giant bowls of mussels but no-one was in a shellfish mood, and my parents took advantage of the rotisserie chicken with a variety of different sauces and marinades.

My mum ordered Sticky Chilli and Ginger Chicken, which was fantastic. Juicy, succulent and sweet. Really Asian in flavour, and very successfully so.

Sticky chilli and ginger rotisserie chicken

I know when my father is enjoying a meal. He makes a lot of “mmm” noises and enthuses about it almost constantly. Silence, however, is a very ominous sign. The Roast Tomato and Chorizo Chicken was unexciting – dry and lacking any hint of chorizo.

Roast tomato and chorizo rotisserie chicken

Now Belgo has a policy of “Beat the Clock” – pay the price of the time shown on your food order. So I took “Pork and Leek Sausages, with Stoemp mash and jus.” The sausages were well-seasoned and tasty,  but I prefer a rougher texture to the meat. And why were there only two on my plate?! That’s just mean.

However, the “Stoemp mash” stole the show. It contained carrots and courgettes, and made any mash potato I’d eaten before shrivel in my mind. This was clearly the way forward.

Pork and leek sausages with Stoemp mash

Last of the mains – my sister’s chargrilled rib-eye steak. I almost ordered this (due to my beef obsession) but one mouthful told me that I’d made the right choice.

Everyone has their favourite cut of steak, their favourite way of seasoning it and their preferred level of cooking. However, I like to believe that anyone with a vague interest in food would conform to the principles that a) the steak must be tender and b) the steak must have flavour. This steak had absolutely nothing to commend it, and smothering it in garlic butter couldn’t hide the fact that my sister might as well have been chewing a Wellington boot. She couldn’t be bothered to send it back, but I would have or I’d have broken down and wept.

Worst steak in the world

So the mains ranked from best to worst:

  1. Sticky chilli and ginger rotisserie chicken
  2. Pork and leek sausages with Stoemp mash
  3. Roast tomato and chorizo rotisserie chicken
  4. Chargrilled rib-eye steak

Now the desserts. No-one can screw up desserts right? Right?!

Does the waffle (above) look delicious? Yes, I thought so. Actually, it was more like eating air.

Good waffles X – Oh dear, we’re in trouble now.

Hot chocolate fondant

Mmm. Is that a hot chocolate fondant? That’s got to be great. NOPE! It tasted like cocoa powder that had been badly mixed with a few other ingredients.

Between us, we could not finish the desserts. They were that terrible. How can someone ruin CHOCOLATE? This would have been really traumatic, if I hadn’t already been traumatised by the statistics class earlier.

Good chocolate X – OK, so maybe expecting Belgian chocolate would be way too much, but how do you make a chocolate fondant so bad?

I left Belgo wishing I’d skipped dessert and eaten the over-priced Haagen Dazs at the theatre.

Overall 2.5/5
Dishes are hit and miss, but with the right choices, a meal at Belgo Centraal could prove a fun and reasonably-priced evening. But why take the risk? 

Food 2/5 – The food is difficult to collate into a score, as the dishes were so varied. But overall, there were more negatives than positives with the dishes.

Value 2.5/5 – For the location and style of food, the prices are reasonable, but food quality and portion size need to be increased for some dishes.

Atmosphere 3.5/5 – Popular and, with the rather strange industrial aesthetic, it’s trendy in a quirk way. But it’s a somehow just a  little bit cold and alienating. Also, any atmosphere DIES when you visit the toilets.  They were rather gross.

Service 4/5 – Our waitress was fabulous, providing us with great service, recommendations and rapport. But one mark is docked for the stony welcome I received from the maître d’.