A simple approach to beer and food matching

I've recently taken a slightly-too-keen-interest in the art of food and beer matching, even developing a simple framework for pairing the two. This 3-step approach is a great introduction for the uninitiated and easy enough to follow at home.


Step 1. Analyse the beer: before even thinking about food, you need to understand the key characteristics of the beer you want to match. As this involves copious amounts of tasting, it's also the most fun part of the process, so my advice is to take as much time as you need! Key aspects to consider include:

  • Flavour notes: can you detect red berry, spice, citrus, tropical fruit, caramel, chocolate, banana, or maybe mineral notes in the beer? Identifying individual flavour compounds will suggest complementary or contrasting ingredients for the final dish. To help, I'd recommend the "new beer flavour wheel", by Mark Dredge, which identifies the 85 different flavours most commonly found in beer.
  • Bitterness: used to offset spicy food and cut through richness. This means very bitter beers are ideal for foods that are naturally high in fat or cooked in oil.
  • Strength: particularly alcoholic drinks, such as Belgian Trappist beers, need robust food pairings to stand up to them.
  • Colour: is it dark or light? As a general rule lighter beers match well with lighter dishes - a lightly poached fillet of plaice will never go well with an Imperial stout. The Standard Reference Method (SRM), a system used by brewers to specify beer colour, is useful to assess this on a consistent basis.
  • Temperature: is the beer served cold or warm? The sensation of taste is more than just flavour, so temperature matching can also be useful - for example, pairing chilled lager with a spicy curry.
  • Carbonation: bubbles are a well known way of cleansing the pallet between mouthfuls.

Step 2. Identify candidate ingredients: use the beer's profile to identify "candidate" ingredients for your final dish. There are, broadly speaking, three areas to consider:

2(a) complements: ingredients with a similar flavour profile to those of the beer. For example, apricot wheat beer works well with light fruit based desserts. You could also consider the beer itself as an ingredient (think beer-based batters or stews). 

2(b) contrasts: foods that balance the main flavour profiles of the beer can also work well. For example, sweet and sour, or bitter and savoury.

2(c) cleanse: many naturally rich and fatty foods require something to cut through them and cleanse the palette. This might be because of the ingredients they contain (e.g. foie gras) or the cooking method used (e.g. frying). This can be achieved by bitterness from the hops or carbonation.

Much like the beer flavour wheel, I often refer to Niki Segnit's flavour thesaurus to help identify candidate ingredients. However, experience is usually enough to identify a suitable list of candidate ingredients.

Step 3. Develop matched dish: once you've identified potential ingredients you can develop complete dishes to match the beer. These might include elements that complement, contrast or cleanse; or - as you become more adept - a blend of all three.

As an example of how to use the framework consider Kirby's Pale Ale.

Analyse the beer: in Jon's own words, his beer "is a golden hoppy ale brewed with plenty of citra hops, giving a powerful aroma; it has an enjoyable session bitterness with additional amber malt giving a rich golden colour."

Candidate ingredients: For me, the tropical fruit from the citra hops is a real feature of this beer and I wanted to find a dish that incorporated similar flavours. The lingering bitterness from the hops also suggests it would pair well with something rich.

Develop matched dish: sometimes, you taste a beer and know immediately what you'd like to find on your plate. Chef Rob Spencer once introduced me to the combination of crab cakes and chilli-mango salsa, which would match this pale ale brilliantly. The bitterness of the ale cuts the natural richness of the brown crab meat, whilst the tropical fruit characteristics of the beer complement the salsa perfectly.

As you can see, beer matching doesn't need to be complicated, but done properly it's a great way to enhance your eating and drinking experience.

Many thanks to Jon Kirby for providing samples of his Kirby's Pale Ale. Hope you approve of the result...


In search of the perfect...paella

On a recent trip to Spain, I found time to visit Valencia, the spiritual home of one of my favourite dishes. Over the 48hrs we were there - just in case there were any doubts over my commitment to gastronomic research - I visited five of the more famous paella eateries. This gluttonous adventure finally culminated, together with several large glasses of rioja, at the hundred year old La Pepica restaurant overlooking the white sands of Playa de Malvarossa.

There is definitely something to be said for eating paella under the Spanish sun, but I think that the warming spice and comforting carbs are even more effective as an antidote to a grey English winter.   


Often described as the Spanish national dish, paella is actually the signature cuisine of the Valencia region.  Developed in the 19th century as a cheap and nutritious way to feed local workers, it used the local Calasparra rice and whatever protein was in season -  water vole and eel were particular favourites.  Thankfully though, a "traditional" paella nowadays is more likely to contain chicken, chorizo, rabbit or snail than trapped rodents from the local river.

The secrets


Whilst every recipe is different, whether valenciana (meat), de marisco (seafood) or mixta, the best paella are based on the same time-honoured basics:

  1. The pan: the word "paella" means "pan" and most afficionados would insist that you cannot make a great paella in anything other than a traditional paelleras.  I have to say that this is not quite true, the key is to ensure that as much rice remains in contact with the pan as possible, so that the socarrat (see below) can be created.  This means a good wide-bottomed frying pan will do the job, although I do concede that nothing beats a real paella pan for that authentic touch when serving.
  2. The rice: short grained Calasparra rice is really the only choice, with Bomba being the most famous.  These varieties absorb up to 3 times their own volume in liquid, ensuring the paella is packed with flavour from the saffron and paprika infused stock.  It also ensures that the paella remains moist, despite the lack of sauce in the dish.
  3. The cooking: despite some of the versions I have eaten, paella should not resemble risotto. Luckily, this also means that it doesn't need the same constant stirring and attention. When cooking a paella it should be left alone to do its thing.
  4. The socorrat: the layer of toasted rice at the bottom of the pan created by not stirring is considered a delicacy and is the paella holy grail.  If cooking on the hob, rather than an open fire, you can create this by covering the pan with foil and giving a blast of heat at the end of cooking,

If you want to create your own taste of Spain, try my delicious Paella Valenciana recipe.

This post first appeared in the Ashburton Cookery School online newsletter.

Restaurant review: Hedone

"Exciting", "imaginative" and "delicious": my simple criteria for the perfect meal.

Surprising then that only The Fat Duck (of best restaurant in the world fame) and L'Enclume (The Good Food Guide's number one) have ever hit the highest levels for me. But, to that exclusive list, I now add Chiswick resident Hedone - brainchild of Scandinavian super-chef Mikael Jonsson.

My nervousness about ordering a Michelin starred tasting menu that the waiter could not describe ("I've no idea what you'll get - but it'll be different to every other table here"), whilst perched on a bar stool like Norm from Cheers, quickly dissipated when the bearded lawyer-turned-chef-patron, lent over for a chat. 

"You hungry?"

I nodded.

"Really hungry?"

I nodded again.

"Excellent - I really need to get rid of some leftovers..."

Things started with the bread basket - so far, so dull. But the Hedone sourdough - supplied to a other michelin starred restaurants in the capital - was actually the reason I returned. The bread here really is good enough to bring any right sane person back for a second taste.

From then on the food kept coming - with Mikael checking in every couple of courses to check I could take more of his perversely delicious version of the Chinese water torture.

  • To start...a beautifully fresh mackerel tartar with umami custard and seaweed sauce. A lovely combination to awaken the taste buds...
  • ...crab - alive two minutes before it arrived on my plate - served with pistachio mayonnaise and crab consommé...
  • ...turbot, broken down so perfectly that you could still see the rainbow sheen of connective tissue, drizzled with caviar sauce...
  • ...Isle of Man scallop cooked live in it's shell until motionless and then BBQ'd until translucent and served with a pure white umami foam...
  • ...the sweetest langoustine ravioli you've ever tasted, pea puree and smoked sweetcorn...
  • ...pork belly with the thinest, crispiest skin imaginable...
  • ...wagu beef and smoked potato...
  • ...local venison served with pickled beets, elderflower jelly, figs and blood sauce...
  • ...a simple pre-dessert of raspberries, cream and dehydrated meringue...
  • ...and a chocolate crisp, chocolate mousse and mint ice cream to finish.

It's not unusual for chefs to use tasting menus to show off the latest impressive techniques at the expense of flavour, but here you'll find those same methods combined with perfectly executed traditional cooking to deliver the most delicious food you've ever tasted.

Anyone who can do this much with a few "left-overs" is a genius in my book and judging by the words of super chef Tom Kerridge on the downstairs wall, I'm not the only one to think so.


Sunny days and buffalo wings

I have to confess that "global warming" sometimes confuses me. This week, it was blamed for a decade of upcoming summer washouts at the same time as warnings that Death Valley is to exceed the hottest ever recorded temperature on Earth!

The clear message is that any good weather must be savoured because it will soon be either too hot or too wet to spend any serious time outdoors. This weekend was particularly gorgeous, so I decided to give in to the urge to break out the buffalo wings, a real guilty pleasure for me and as close to barbecue food as I can achieve in a 2-bedroom London flat with no garden. 

I should warn you that these little beauties are addictive, but there are a couple of key tips (1) add a little honey to the sauce (it adds another flavour and helps the sauce stick to the chicken), and (2) turn the wings into "lollipops" to make the eating less messy - take a look at this video to see how.

Other than that try my ultimate buffalo wings, crack open a beer and enjoy. 



Taken with a pinch of salt...

As a passionate supporter of the slow food movement there’s nothing I love more than learning about artisan food and the traditional techniques used to make it. So, when the guys at Salt House offered to take me on a tour of their favourite salts I jumped at the chance. 

It's difficult to choose just a few salts as they are all very different and offer unique properties so we've chosen six – we probably should have had a smoked one in there somewhere, but there is always next time…

All the great ancient civilisations, from Hebrews to Hittites, have held salt in high esteem and its value was such that the Empire of Rome used it to pay soldiers (giving rise to the word salary)

All salt has ultimately come from the sea: rock salt is thousands of year old seawater which has been dried and trapped underground. Seawater itself is different all over the world – it even varies as you go down in depth; so as you can see how the properties of salts are dependent upon where the sea water is taken.

Location is not the only variable, however. How the salt is extracted also has implications for its character. Sea water can contain in excess of 90 different elements, so the exact point at which the extraction process starts and stops, retaining or removing different elements, is critical. The industrially processed salt we are all too familiar with, not least in our chippies and fast food outlets, has been scientifically cleared of all minerals and elements to leave 99.99% sodium chloride; this is also broadly the case with readily available processed sea salt. The procedure strips all other elements out as they can be used separately and sold on more profitably.

The first salt we recommend trying is Saltverk. This is a clear, glistening crystal which almost looks like ice, hinting at its origin. Sea water is taken from the north Arctic oceanic stream as it flows past a small peninsular in northern Iceland. The water is then evaporated using the heat from geysers. This leaves a clean, crisp tasting salt that has a light crunch and works brilliantly for a tasty tomato salad and will bring out the phenomenal flavour of smoked lamb.

The Fleur de Sel (Flower of Salt) traditionally comes from Brittany and one of our favourites has to be Brittany’s Fleur de Sel de Guerande. Salt has been produced there since at least the 4th century, but it was in the 6th or 7th century that they developed the process still used today. They draw the sea water into a single pond and then move it on when it has reached a heightened salinity. It is moved on again when it is a stronger brine and again until it reaches the final settling pond where crystals start to form. These precious crystals are then diligently hand harvested in time-honoured fashion. This salt gives a sensationally smooth taste that leaves a lovely lingering mouth-watering flavour. Just crumbling this onto a green salad will lift it to gourmet levels and any butter made with this salt alone is worth travelling for.

Now, to move on to a bolder, more eccentric and perhaps exciting salt: Agnui no Shio from one of the most southerly islands of Japan in the East China Sea. The Japanese have just started producing sea salt as in 1975 it was banned and everyone had to use the industrially processed salt with its alien implant, iodine. However, in 2002 the doors were opened for a passionate revival in sea salt made in traditional ways. The Japanese have to be resourceful as they have a high humidity which has necessarily impacted their unique production methods: sea water is pumped up a tower then gently trickled down bamboo. This encourages the water to disperse into small droplets, thereby increasing the surface area exposed to air and, in turn, increasing the amount of water that is evaporated. Once the brine has reached a specific concentration, it is boiled up to produce the final product. This salt gives a bold burst that dissipates very quickly leaving the mellow flavours of your food on your taste buds. Agnui no Shoi works particularly well with fish and rice, leaving fantastic aromatic flavours to dwell around the mouth.

Himalayan Rock Salt is probably one of the most celebrated of all the specialist salts: carved out of a mountain side in Northern Pakistan, it too, was originally sea water. Subsequently there is little or no pollution affecting it and it prides itself as being one of the freshest available. It is often marketed, although not so much in the UK, as being a health food or a purifying tonic due to the abundance of elements, its origin and wonderful pink colour. Its uses are boundless as it comes in all shapes and sizes such as an amazing block which you can cook on, and also a shot glass or a pestle and mortar which incorporates some salt as you pound. This salt encourages a particular sweetness onto the tongue whilst allowing the true flavours to flood through. In this form, its versatility is similarly broad – we would recommend for sumptuously curing venison from the highlands or adding a certain panache and depth to a curry.

This leaves us with a couple of “flavoured” salts. The “diva” of salts is Hawaiian Hot Black Lava: not for the faint-hearted, this is a traditional Hawaiian sea salt which has been infused with activated carbon. The flavour works on many punchy levels and the carbon serves to not only enhance the intestinal benefits of the salt, but also challenges the whole concept of “salt” for the consumer by the contrast in expectant colour. This is THE salt to put on pineapple! As you eat the salted pineapple, an elevated sweetness comes rushing in and, magically the often bitter and astringent note of pineapple, is oppressed then there is the final crunch down on the crystals giving a gratifying contrast of soft and hard, tantalisingly leaving you with a light, poignant, tingle from the chilli: WOW, you will never eat pineapple alone again!

Think of Sicily, the largest island in the Mediterranean where the sun beats down and the dry African winds blow past: it is ideal for producing Ravida Fennel Pollen Sea Salt. This is from the West Coast of Sicily where they have been harvesting salt for centuries. It also plays host to abundant crops of fennel. Local producers take advantage of a unique opportunity to marry the two and the strongest part of the fennel plant, the pollen is combined with freshly garnered salt crystals. The result is simple and effective: throw this onto the top of sole and put in the oven, when brought out, the aromatic fennel will cause delighted squeals and force you to pick at the fish with renewed ardour.

Each salt offers a range of trace elements which affect the flavours and dynamics of your food. The secret is to use the right salt at the right time – reducing the amount required, while ensuring that the body’s salt needs are met. Great salts are not purely sodium chloride – they bring an intriguing mix of minerals including magnesium, potassium, calcium, iron and many more besides. Get your taste buds working and enjoy.

Many thanks to all at the Salt House for their insight and the chance to try their delicious products.