Hops letterpress print

Humulus luplus letterpress, R Frost

Beer is mostly water. But through the magic of Saccharomyces cerevisiae consuming sugars provided by malted grains, that water becomes something wonderful. While the malt provides a lot of the body and the flavour of the beer, it’s with the addition of hops that beers become truly exciting in their varied characters.

The hop plant is Humulus lupulus, a native of Eurasia that’s quite possibly been associated with booze since the 6th century BCE (check out this PDF) but has been cultivated extensively, resulting in an incredible range of aromas and tastes.

What you can do with hops is really something to be celebrated, which is just what Russell Frost has done with this new print from his Hooksmith letterpress operation.

Russell, an old friend from New Zealand and a fellow fan of decent real beer, explains, “The type face is allegedly a hand-cut early Chromatic Victorian (meaning for two-colour printing)  known as an ‘ornamented grot'” Strangely, as “grot” is either short for grotto or grotty: these letters are neither.*

Russell has an extensive collection of vintage equipment as his operation in east London. For those who know their letterpress, his site says, “Presses include an Adana 8×5 platen and several proofing presses including a Farley, Stephenson Blake, Vandercook14 and a Vandercook SP15.”

Type. From Hooksmith

As for the ornamented grot used here, Russell says, “I came by it after a serious amount of hunting and it was sold to me by a collector who bought it off another collector in the 1980s.”

Great stuff. I particularly like how the decorative top tips of the letters reflect the pointed shape of the hop flower petals, as seen in this picture taken by a chap called Duncan Harris (thanks Duncan) and posted in his stream on Flickr:

Duncan Harris, Hops

Oh, and Russell, being an educated man and the son of a botanist, knows that it’s a no-no to capitalise scientific nomenclature (that is, put HUMULUS LUPULUS when it should always be Humulus lupulus or at a push H. lupulus), but it’s such a great font it’s justified by artistic license.

 

 

* Russell says “grot” is just short for “grotesque”, which makes sense. Grotesque doens’t just mean ugly or hideous, it originally referred to a decorative style that was inspired by ancient Roman decorative styles (re-) discovered during the Renaissance and featured bizarre, stylised animal and plant forms. Grotesque, grotto and grotty all have the same etymology – the Italian word grotta, cave, which comes from the Latin crypta (as in crypt) meaning underground passage or chamber. The 16th century artists who developed the grottesca / grotesque style had, for example, explored the buried rooms of places like Nero’s Golden Palace, which in the Middle Ages was largely lost and buried under the cumulative filth and silt of decades of neglect in Rome.

 

 

 

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Making bread in The Walking Dead

The Walking Dead 127, gardens at Alexandria Safe-Zone

Those who read this blog will know I like bread. You may not know, however, I’m also a lifelong comic book reader. I don’t follow that many series these days, but one I do is zombie apocalypse saga The Walking Dead, which has recently taken an interesting turn. They’re still fighting zombies of course, but they’re also growing more food too.

Although many people started reading The Walking Dead comics when the TV series (2010-) became a hit, I’ve been there since the beginning, 2003. I can’t remember how I started but it was possibly thanks to my friend Dr Jamie Russell, a screenwriter and author of Book of the Dead: The Complete History of Zombie Cinema. We’re both pretty into apocalyptic fiction. I grew up with stuff like John Christopher, John Wyndham and JG Ballard. My mother was partly responsible, as she likes it too: novels like these, but also TV like the BBC’s Survivors (1975-1977). My childhood was also the era of cinema classics like Mad Max and The Terminator or repeats of The Omega Man or Logan’s Run on TV.

I’m one of those apocalypse geeks who likes to discuss how things would change, what you’d do when human civilisation collapses. I like to fantasise about fortifying my parents’ place in the country, building up its traditional southwest of England hedge-banks into a proper defensive palisade to keep the zombie hordes at bay. Or whatever.

Reality check
It’s all daft, obviously, as the collapse isn’t coming in one neat cinematic fell swoop, it’s coming slowly, now, as we speak, from our excessive consumerism, our unquenchable thirst for fossil fuels, supported by “greenest government ever” pawns who support fracking when our focus should be on energy efficiency and renewables. Such backwards policy furthers climate change, which destabilises agricultural, which causes famine, which results in population movement and increased tension in an overpopulated world. But slowly. We’re living the slow apocalypse. Which just doesn’t make for such great fiction.

Still, while all this is happening, we lap up the sudden apocalypse fiction, the bombs, the plagues, the zombies: The Walking Dead TV series is huge how, and a new trailer for the long-awaited fourth Mad Max film has just emerged via the ComicCon event in San Diego, etc, etc, etc.

I’d got a bit behind with The Walking Dead comics, but now I’ve caught up again. Thankfully, with issue 126, creator Robert Kirkman ended the protracted ‘All Out War’ storyline, which IMHO revisited too much ground already covered by the Governor storylines. With issue 127, Kirkman and artist Charlie Adlard refresh the series with a neat ellipsis. The issue is called ‘A New Beginning’ and about two years have passed since the war. The community of survivors seems to be flourishing, focussing on their food security by cultivating food, not just relying on scavenging food from before the zombie plague.

Post-apocalyptic practicalities
As much as I love the action element of apocalyptic stories, I much prefer it when they look at the practicalities of living in a changed world. This is why the BBC’s 1975 Survivors is superior to the 2008 remake. The former got stuck into the important business of how to survive after a plague had wiped out most of the population and nature was taking over again. The 2008 version, meanwhile, mostly just had its survivors bickering like soap opera characters. When they did try to do something practical – eg build a chicken coop – it was pathetic and cursory, physically and dramatically. Compare that with the original TV series, where they look at things like medical treatment, how to make candles, and even how to maintain a watermill.

The latter is particularly significant as water and wind provided the (sustainable) energy for milling grain for centuries. And milling grain means bread, the historic staple food.

Today, most people go to a supermarket, buy something sliced and wrapped in plastic and eat that. That’s not bread. That’s a post-industrial filler, a culinary deception and dietary disaster. There’s no way western civilisation could have achieved all that it has achieved (for better or worse) if we’d had white sliced as our staple.

For a community to thrive it needs a decent staple, and real bread is just that. So it’s great to see the survivors in The Walking Dead during that two-year ellipsis are farming, have built a windmill and are baking their own bread in their home, Alexandria, Virginia, not far from Washington DC.

TWD 128 windmill

Burning issues
In issue 128, Eugene, the community’s resident dorky genius, says he just read a book about how to do it, but Rick, the increasingly physically maimed but mentally sharp leader, won’t hear it. He realises the importance of the mill and the bakehouse in his vision for rebuilding civilisation.

Although we don’t see the more extensive grain fields you’d need to feed the comic’s community of, I dunno, a hundred-ish, you do see gardens and a glimpse of orchards. Unfortunately, the way Charlie has presented the mill and bakehouse is a bit of a bodge. The artwork is as great as ever, but it’s not a credible layout. The bakehouse seems to be inside the windmill. I have never encountered such an arrangement, and suspect it rarely, if ever, happened historically. If a mill did have an associated bakehouse, it would have been a separate building due to the fire hazard of cranking a wood-fired oven near chaff, wooden structures and valuable grain and flour.

The Walking Dead 128, bread fresh from the oven

The bread itself is portrayed slightly strangely too. The baker, Olivia, is handling a peel with tin loaves on it – though they’re not in tins. I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt and say that she’s taken the loaves out of their tins then put them back in the oven to finish baking. Despite this quibbles, the scenes featuring the mill and bread are great: significant and moving.

Growing food. Grinding grain. Baking real bread. Now, perhaps The Walking Dead’s survivor’s can really thrive*.

 

 

 

 

* I doubt it though, as Kirkman generally seems to prefer his protagonists to suffer. Mistrust, human weakness and violence are the bread and butter of The Walking Dead. Not bread.

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Gooseberry and thyme cake

Slice of gooseberry thyme cake

We’ve not had a kitchen for just over a week now. We’re having building work done on our house, and although the original plan was to only remove the kitchen half-way through the three-month schedule, on the first day the builder turned to me and said it’d be better if they did it straight away. Immediately. Post-haste. Subito. Or at least the day after.

So I baked my final cake and final two loaves of bread, then set about removing the units. It was a hideous kitchen, and far from practical, but not having a kitchen at all is, to say the least, even less practical. Only so much baking I can do with a kettle and a microwave. Indeed, I never really use microwaves for anything other than softening butter for making cakes, so I don’t know what else you can do with them. Apparently you can “bake” in a microwave, but I can’t really imagine how. Not in a metal cake tin – unless I actively want to add exploded microwave to the chaos.

Just before the demolition started, I was moving some shrubs from the area where we were building. One of these was a much-neglected gooseberry bush, which, despite being basically in the shade, had managed to produce a fair crop, just shy of a kilo. So that final cake had to involve gooseberries.

Now, I can’t say I’m a huge fan of the “spiny grape”, as it’s called in Italian (uva spina). I used to eat them when I was a kid in the 1970s and early 1980s, but I have a feeling they’re slightly out of fashion these days. Despite how popular “retro” and “vintage” may be, I don’t hear people talking excitedly about gooseberry fools, an old-fashioned British summer recipe.

I can suffer a fool, gladly, but rather than just defaulting to using the gooseberries to make one, I wanted to try a cake. I found some good recipes from both Nigel Slater and Diana Henry, two cookery writers who are proponents of great British produce. Henry had one featuring thyme, which intrigued me. Even though I don’t have lemon thyme as her recipe suggests, my own herbs have been doing very well in this year’s shockingly pleasant south of England summer, so I used some good old Thymus vulgaris, common thyme. (Though I think my variety is the French, narrow-leaf, not the English.)

Herbs

Henry’s original recipe can be found here on the Torygraph site. I’ve tweaked it a bit.

The fruit:
350g gooseberries
60g caster sugar

For the cake:
125g butter
120g caster sugar
3 large eggs, lightly beaten
2 tsp thyme leaves, chopped (ideally lemon thyme)
1 lemon
100g plain flour, sifted with
1t baking powder
75g ground almonds

For the syrup:
50g granulated sugar
2 large lemons, juiced [I used 1 lemon, 1 orange], about 100g juice
2 small sprigs of thyme

Top & tail

1. Preheat the oven to 190C.
2. Grease and base-line a 20cm spring-form cake tin.
3. Top and tail the gooseberries then toss with 60g of caster sugar and leave them to macerate slightly.
4. Beat the butter and 120g caster sugar until pale and fluffy.

Creaming
5. Add the egg a little at a time, beating well after each addition. If it curdles at all, add a little flour.
6. Finely grate the zest of the lemon. I also used some orange zest. Just cos. Finely chop the zests together with the thyme to free up all those lovely essential oils.

Zest and thyme chopped together
7. Add the zest and herbs to the batter and combine.
8. Sieve in the flour and baking powder, then fold to combine, along with the ground almonds.
9. Spoon, pour and scrape the mixture into the tin.
10. Spread the gooseberries over the top of the mixture.

Add fruit
11. Bake for 45 minutes and test with a skewer.

Baked
12. While the cake is still warm, make the syrup by dissolving the sugar in the lemon juice, with the thyme.
13. Pierce the cake with a skewer then pour over the syrup, removing the sprigs of thyme.
14. Leave to cool then serve. You can just with icing sugar, and serve with crème fraîche, cream or ice cream.

Henry also has another one here, with flaked almonds. I think that could be nicer as the crunch of the almonds would contrast with the eyebally squish of the cooked fruit. Next year perhaps. Or perhaps Slater’s recipe, which involves a kind of crumble. Or perhaps I’ll just revisit the fool.

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Bad memories, skunkiness and the question of beer in cans

Beaverton Gamma

For many drinkers of real beer, the implications of cans are almost too terrible to contemplate. They certainly are for me. Cans remind me of buying cheapo industrial lager just to get drunk in the Winchester Cathedral Grounds as a teenager. As well as associating canned beer with vile industrial lagers, I always associated them with a metallic taste. I assumed this was not necessarily the vile industrial lager itself, but the packaging.

But all that’s changing. The challenge now is changing such preconceptions.

It is strange how abiding a prejudice can be, but if you learned to drink by consuming vile industrial lagers (or indeed snakebites), frequently from cans, and have memories of puking and hangovers, the psychology isn’t that complex. It’s just a kind of self-inflicted aversion. It worked too: I didn’t drink from the age of 18 to 24.

Times change
Anyway, the past few years, I’ve been increasingly encountering real beers, in cans. Initially I bridled when I was served  Angry Peaches from Garage Project in a can in a restaurant in Wellington, but this New Zealand take on an APA turned out to be delicious, and one of the best beers I had in NZ.

Angry Peaches meal md

More recently I’ve encountered a couple of other interesting beers in cans. When we were in Rome a few weeks ago, hanging out at Tram Depot in Testaccio, I was drinking Steamer (7.6% ABV). But it wasn’t as good as I remembered: I appreciate its depth of flavour and body, but it’s not well-integrated and always seems to be over-carbonated. Its recipe needs some tweaking. So I wanted to try the other real beer they were offering, something not quite as strong (it had been a long day, a long hot day of boozing and eating). This turned out to be something called Kurt (4.32% ABV), and not Italian but Swiss. I didn’t even know Switzerland had a craft beer scene.

Kurt 1

It was nominally from a brewery called Bad Attitude. Aside from any irony inherent in this name, the Bad Attitude set-up is a bit confusing. It also seems to be Ticino Brewing Company (aka Birrificio Ticinese in Italian, as the Ticino is Switzerland’s predominantly Italian-speaking canton). Which also seems to be related to another brand, Birra San Martino. The latter’s site says they were founded in 2002, but have called themselves Birrificio Ticinese since 2010. They’re all at the same address in the town of Stabio, but I can’t work out why they exist as three brands.

As for the straw-coloured beer itself, it was a bit weird. Despite being made with two hops from one of my favourite parts of the world – Riwaka and Motueka, both places in the north of South Island NZ – and some great British Marris Otter malt, most of all I got a coconut flavour. It’s not that I dislike coconut especially, but I just didn’t like it in a pale ale flavour profile. I know some beers have coconut as an adjunct, but Kurt didn’t, so I’d guess it came from an ester, those chemical compounds that give beers so many diverse flavours and aromas.*

Kurt 2

Retro-futuristic
The most recent beer I’ve had in a can I drunk in the beautiful evening sun last night. This was Gamma Ray from Beavertown. This was the beer I’ve tried from this brewery, set up in London in 2011, and it was very enjoyable indeed.

I do love British APAs – they tend to have the decisive characteristics of the more aromatic US hops but balanced with our traditional love of beers defined more by their maltiness. In this case the hops were Amarillo, Columbus, Bravo and Magnum (“added in ever increasing amounts at the end of the boil and in the fermenter”), though the bitterness was surprisingly minimal, without any particularly dry mouthfeel. The beer was rounded out and sweetened with not one but three malts, Simpsons Best, Caragold and Caramalt. Excellent.

Gamma can 1

The experience was enhanced by the can’s awesome wraparound wide-screen design, a kind of retro-SF horror tableau of goldfish bowl-helmeted spacemen being zapped into skullfacedness by flying saucers. Love it. Indeed, on an aesthetic level, one of the great points about cans is how they design can go 360 like this, unlike with the traditional front and back labels of bottles.

Cans versus bottles
The main arguments for using cans, however, are more practical. Mostly made from aluminum, they’re simply a lighter weight material and as such involve much less energy when transported, compared to glass bottles. From both me lugging stuff home from Twenty One Wines in Brighton in a bag to massive trucks carrying it around on roads, or shipments moving internationally (something that’s arguably absurd given that beer is mostly water, but that’s another argument). Furthermore, a bottle, when used once, involves a lot more energy to manufacture and then recycle – assuming people bother to even recycle.

The other big argument for cans is that they protect the beer from light damage. The traditional brown glass bottle protects the beer from light damage to some extent, but for those companies that insist on packaging in green or clear glass, the beer will spoil, will get lightstruck when left in daylight. The UV causes a reaction resulting in what’s called “skunkiness” – that is, a chemical process creates a molecule that’s closely related to those in skunk spray.

As for the issue of the beer getting a metallic taste, so synonymous with cheapo bad lager, most cans used for beer these days have a thin inner lining so there’s no contact between beer and aluminium. Certainly all my recent experiences with “tinnies” have been entirely free of metallic hauntings and the ensuing teenage flashbacks.

So I’ll definitely be happy to drink real beer in cans now. Which is good, as it’s becoming increasingly common. This US NPR article quote says, “five years ago, just a few dozen craft brewers in the US were canning, while today there are more than 500.” So expect to see more here in the UK too.

Having said that though, probably 60 per cent of the beer I drink at home is from my local (800m away) brewery, Harveys. Their (brown) bottled beer is sold with a deposit, so I just take them back and they reuse them. But most people don’t have a local brewery with such an enlightened (nay, sensibly old-fashioned – we always did the same with milk in Britain when things were more localised) approach. So for the abovementioned reasons, there’s probably no reason to poo-poo cans any more. Even if you’re particularly hardcore about your real beer requirements. The Gamma Ray for example was in a can and unpasteurised and unfiltered.

 

 

* My friend Michele, a food scientist and brewer, suggests the coconut odour and taste may come from one of two chemicals: from the molecule d-Decalattone  (C10H18O2) or from an ethyl group of chemicals (–C2H5), which are derived from ethane (C2H6). Srangely, the latter can present with odours of coconut, or pear, or wine.

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A week in Rome: Etruscan necropolis, Etrusca beer

Stone beds at Banditaccia necropolis, Cerveteri

We didn’t spend out entire holiday just eating and drinking. I made a point of doing a few day trips. One was to the Etruscan necropolis – city of the dead – of Banditaccia, a train ride, a bus ride and a surprisingly pleasant walk from Cerveteri, a town near the coast to the nortwest of Rome.

Banditaccia is such an evocative name. It makes me think of bandits and other unsavoury rural types using the old underground chambers (hypogea) to hide away in the middle ages. It’s quite likely they did too, though I can’t report that as fact.

The necropolis was established at the beginning of the 7th century BC, at least. I love this – you wander round Rome going “Wow, Colosseum…” but that particular monument only dates from the 1st century AD. Etruscan civilisation, which gave its name to Tuscany, was already remarkably sophisticated when Romulus and Remus were still just dirty wolf-boys shouting at each other, mythically, from huts on the adjacent hilltops of the Palatine and Aventine.

Etruscan pot, Cerveteri museum

Cerveteri, called Caere by the Etruscans and located a mile from Banditaccia, has a museum in the castle that dominates the centre of town. Even after all the best finds from excavations were filched by the Vatican, it’s still full of amazing finds, mostly ceramics. They show how closely the Etruscans traded through the Med, notably with the Greeks, as the art style is similar, as are the gods and mythological characters featured.

Multimedia hypogea
Visiting the tombs themselves, and imagining how they would have looked decorated with these urns and other funerary furnishings, is an amazing experience. The place was pretty much deserted when we visited, so a staff member was able to turn on multimedia installations for us in three of the hypogea. I have mixed feelings about all the holes in the tuff volcanic rock drilled so they could install projectors and speakers, but the systems work surprisingly well, lighting up the tombs and giving a sense of how these spaces were used.

What struck me, even centuries later, with the tombs mostly denuded of their decorations, is how homely they are. And this is just the point. The Etruscans created the necropolises as mirror images of the cities of the living. Each hypogeum was a home for several generations of family. The dead were initially body wrapped in cloth, then buried, or burned and put in urns. The hypogea consist of rooms with stone beds, and some even feature incredible decorations. The most famous example is Banditaccia’s Tomb of the Reliefs – amazing 3D designs of tools and utensils, for war and domestic work: those two most important activities of the living.

Tomb of the Reliefs, Banditaccia, Cerveteri (Photo: Fran Hortop)

As Fran pointed out, the notion of the tombs being the mirror image of homes is also expressed by the fact that these spaces, firstly large, rounded tumuli, then later in rows much like terraced housing, were carved out of the tuff. It was a process of creating a living space for the dead by hollowing out spaces in the ground. This contrasts with building a home above ground, creating space by erecting walls and roofs.

Terraced tombs, Banditaccia, Cerveteri

It’s interesting too that although the Roman Republic eventually subsumed Etruria, the final three kings of the Roman Kingdom were an Etruscan dynasty (in the 7th-6th centuries BC, though this period isn’t well documented). And as they had so much common culture, the guide we spoke to said the Romans respected the Etruscan funerary arrangements enough to leave the necropolises alone, even after they had effectively quashed their civilisation. Indeed, there were still new tombs being carved in the 3rd century AD. It was only later they were semi-forgotten, becoming overgrown. Although some did provide strange cave-like spaces for shepherds – and bandits? – over the centuries, most were lost and the area resembled a series of lumps and small hills in the 19th century, before Raniero Mengarelli started his systematic excavations in 1909.

Tumulus Etruscan tomb, Banditaccia, Cerveteri

It’s a wonderful place, right up there with Ostia Lido for my favourite ancient sites in Italy: partly because these two are just undersubscribed compared to the better-known Pompey and Herculaneum, but also partly because Banditaccia has a reminded me of its fellow UNESCO site Angkor Wat in Cambodia. Banditaccia – or at least what’s been excavated – is a lot smaller but both have a similar substantialness and sense of mystery. Angkor Wat is a lot more recent (dating from the 11th-15th centuries AD) but I love these places where ancient stones have trees growing through the weathered old stonework, itself carved with sheer manpower.

Etruscan beer
After visiting Banditaccia we went beer shopping and it seemed only right to get a bottle of Birra del Borgo’s Etrusca “archeo birra”.

Borgo Etrusca label

Etrusca is actually the name of three beers, first made during a fascinating project in 2012 by Birra del Borgo (in Lazio, east of Rome), Baladin brewery (in Piedmont, NW Italy) and Dogfish Head (in Delaware, US). The brewmasters of all three worked with Dr Patrick McGovern, an archaeology professor and director of the Biomolecular Archaeology Project for Cuisine, Fermented Beverages, and Health at the University of Pennsylvania Museum, who had worked on various other ancient ale projects previously with Dogfish Head.

Together they established a list of ingredients that were consumed by the Etruscans. The Baladin site says, “Under Dr Pat’s supervision, ingredients have been selected on the basis of the findings made at several Italian archaeological sites.” According to a post on the Dogfish Head site, meanwhile, “the team clearly found that the Etruscans had a taste for ale.”

I know the ancient Romans drank beer, so it’s not a stretch to imagine the Etruscans did too true. Although grain-based beer is more associated with northern Europe, grain was of course grown in ancient Italy too, and the Dogfish site continues “The backbone of Birra Etrusca comes from two-row malted barley and an heirloom Italian wheat.” This wheat is ‘Senatore Cappelli’, which I saw in several Italian craft beers on this recent visit.

Italian society never underwent the seismic changes experienced in Britain during our comprehensive industrial revolution. Nor did it embrace as fully as Britain or the US the post-war approaches to agriculture based on rejecting ancient practices in favour of plying farmland with tonnes and tonnes and endless tonnes of petrochemical industry derived fertilisers, pesticides and herbicides. Plus, pockets of mountainous Italy remain isolated to this day. Unlike Britain, where we rejected our heritage grains in favour of modern varieties bred by agri-corporations to thrive with said chemicals, Italy still grows some of the same varieties of grain it has grown for centuries. Cappelli, however, arguably isn’t such a grain: it was selectively bred from Tunisian ‘Jenah Rhetifah’ durum wheat at the start of the 20th century. It’s conjecture, but ‘Jenah Rhetifah’ may have ancient heritage, and may indeed have been related to grain traded or cultivated by the Etruscans. I don’t know; I need to consult an expert more. Or find some funding to bloody well do a PhD!

Weird and wonderful
The beer also contains various other weird and wonderful ingredients, based on, according to the Baladin site, “research carried out on Etruscan habits, as they would [have] spiced fermented drinks with hazelnut flour, pomegranate and pomegranate juice, honeys, sultanas, natural resin and gentian root”. The “natural resin” in question is probably what the Dogfish site refers to as “the sarsaparilla-like Ethiopian myrrh resin.” The myrrh and gentian are the bittering agents, though the recipe does also include a “handful of whole-flower hops”.

Recording cultivation of hops in Europe didn’t come until centuries later, though as Humulus lupulus is native to Eurasia and north Africa there’s the chance it was utilised by the Etruscans. Wondering about this, I sent an email to Dr McGovern, the “Indiana Jones of ancient ales, wines, and extreme beverages”. Though busy on a lecture tour in Australia he kindly replied and said, “There is some evidence of hops being found in association with beverages at Etruscan sites, but not much.” I’ve just ordered his most recent book, ‘Uncorking the Past: The Quest for Wine, Beer, and Other Alcoholic Beverages’ (Berkeley: University of California, 2009) so perhaps that will tell me more. Check out the article ‘The Brewing of Etrusca Beer’ via Dr Pat’s site here (a PDF download) as it gives more detail of the procedure, while a second article on the same page, ‘Ancient Italic Beer The archaeological finds at Pombia (NO), discusses the evidence of hop usage in this era, though it refers to finds from a “proto-Celtic” population in Piedmont/Piemonte, nortern Italy, that is north of ancient Etruria.

Birra del Borgo's Etrusca

So what does it taste like?
Evaluating the experience of drinking a beer like this is tricky as the story of its genesis is so fascinating it’s potentially distracting. Not only was the recipe created with Dr Pat’s expert input, but the three breweries used different materials for the ferment. Dogfish used some bronze plates in in the vats, Baladin used wooden barrels, and Borgo used specially made terracotta jars. This is appropriate given the importance of terracotta for storing liquids in ancient Italy. We were staying in Testaccio, and drank our bottle of Etrusca there, a mere 100m or so from Monte Testaccio, which is also known as Monte dei cocci – which could be translated as “Hill of the earthenware shards”. Yes, the hill is a massive mound of broken ancient Roman amphorae.

Suitably enough, given our day trip, Fran said the beer, which is a pale, cloudy golden colour, “smells like an old cave somewhere”, with all that nuttiness, fruit and fermentation giving a certain mustiness.

Dammit can't read the label

Fran got more earthy smells from it – mushrooms, humus (leaf litter not chickpea). I got a more sharp, sauerkraut smell, with honey. The taste was sour, honey, balsamic, metallic. Fran thought it tasted like fermented tomato juice: not that she’s ever drunk that, as far as I know, but it did have a certain minerally, Bloody Mary quality.

It’s not a beer to spend a relaxing evening with, perhaps, but it’s unique. I wish I could try the Dogfish Head version, but I’ve never seen any of their ales for sale in Italy or the UK, sadly. The comparison would be interesting, and Dr Pat says that he finds the “pomegranate and myrrh are more pronounced and better integrated” with the Dogfish version.

Either way, I love these historical experiments, like Harveys’ Priory Ale from earlier this year, commemorating a slightly more recent bit of history, the Battle of Lewes 750 years ago. Dogfish Head has produced a series of these experimental brews, with their most recent collaboration with Dr McGovern a prehistoric-style Nordic ale they’re called Kvasir. There’s more about their working process, and why we lost our inclination to make such diverse brews, in an article on The Atlantic’s site here.

So anyway, Etruscan remains, Etrusca archaeological ale recreations: what a great day. And far too long a post. I was planning to mention a few other beers I tried on the trip but that will have to wait.

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A week in Rome: pizza and pizza bianca

Biddy on the beach, where we had pizza bianca for our lunch

A couple of my pizza or pizza-related ambitions for this trip didn’t come to fruition – a trip to the vaunted Pepe in Grani pizzeria and a chance to try the intriguing pinse. The former just felt like too much of a mission, as it’s in the sticks, a two-hour drive or doubtless convoluted journey by public transport from Rome. The latter because the place I’d been told about by Hande Leimer, not just the expert sommelier of Vinoroma, but a great knowledge on Roman eating, was closed when we passed by around midday on our way back from closing our Italian bank account. Or attempting to close it. I’ll eat my hat – okay, I’ll just nibble it a bit – if that cheque ever arrives at our UK address.

Shame really, as pinse are a kind of rare Roman and Lazio relative of the pizza, made with a dough based on grains other than wheat, such as millet, oats or barley, in a mix with older wheat varieties. Next time.

And it’s not like we were otherwise deprived.

The best meal we had was for Fran’s birthday lunch, which we celebrated at the excellent trattoria Da Cesare (Via del Casaletto 45, Casaletto/Monteverde Nuovo, 00151 Rome – at the end of the number 8 tram route). It’s an old favourite, via Rachel, Hande and her colleague Katie Parla, and the place where I had one of my most memorable meals ever, last year on Ferragosto – the public holiday that’s celebrated on 15 August, the day that’s considered the hottest of the year. For Fran’s birthday, we gorged ourselves on amazing fritti (deep-fried antipasti) and fresh pasta dishes, like these giant ravioli, accompanied by some great wines recommended by Hande (who told me the boss is also a sommelier and has a great selection). They do do pizza, though I’ve never tried it.

Giant ravioli of ricotta and spinach at Cesare a Casaletto

More basically though, we also ate a fair amount of pizza, including at one one of my favourite pizzerias. Da Remo (Piazza di Santa Maria Liberatrice 44, Testaccio, 00153 Rome) is isn’t a place that sells products that are entirely in line with my more ardent principles about long fermentation and whatnot, but it does offer a consistent, consistently tasty product: classic, thin Roman-style pizzas, nicely charred from their wood-fired oven and served an atmospheric slightly rough, rushed setting.

When we went there I had a pizza without tomato sauce – that is, a white pizza or pizza bianca. The topping was simply mozzarella, a few zucchine flowers and some anchovies and it totally hit the spot, washed down with dubious house wine.

Da Remo

Shades of white
The term pizza bianca can be a little confusing in Rome as the other thing it refers to is a simple snack of basic pizza dough embellished with little more than a slosh of olive oil and a sprinkle of salt. I love the stuff. Can’t get enough. Which is good, as it’s ubiquitous in bakeries and pizza takeaways, which bake long planks of it and sell it by weight. It’s such a popular staple with Romans, I suspect even mediocre outlets put more effort into getting it right.

I’ve got a recipe here, but I’ll be honest – while I’m pleased with it, it’s never quite as good as the real thing, baked in a proper commercial oven oven, cut from a massive plank, eaten on a Roman street. Or nearby beach (where the old biddy, above, was our neighbour), here topped with some caciotta di pecora (sheep’s milk cheese) and prosciutto.

Pizza bianca 'sandwich'

Or as part of a simple lunch, here accompanied by burrata – not a Roman cheese, but from Puglia, and one of the most stupidly indulgent simple pleasures that exists.

Simple lunch

We bought ours from Il Panificio Passi (Via Mastro Giorgio 87, Testaccio), which was basically underneath the flat we were staying in and fortunately does decent pizza bianca.

Pizza bianca torn open, showing its moliche - crumb or guts

Name games
Rome, and Italy in general, is a great place for getting confused about the names of foods you might previously have considered yourself well-acquainted with. So while pizza bianca refers to both plain pizza, or topped pizza, pizza rossa refers to both pizza based topped with little more than a smear of tomato sauce, and the types of topped pizzas that have that sauce along with other elements.

Furthermore, Romans even use the word focaccia to refer to a very thin, crisp, crunchy bread that some trattorie serve in their baskets of bread that accompany every meal. I love it, though I didn’t take a photo when we had some as the waiter was so grumpy about my query it put me off my stride.

The plumper flatbread us Brits (and I suspect Americans) know as focaccia, meanwhile, can be simply called pizza alla genovese, as that style is from Genova/Genoa and Liguria.

Pizza rossa, pizza bianca and (the fatter stuff) pizza/focaccia alla genovese at Passi, Testaccio.

It’s all six of one and half a dozen of another though, as arguably all flat breads can be considered focaccia. The name simply means “hearth bread”, bread cooked on the hearth, from the Latin focus. Furthermore, Wikipedia’s attempt at making a distinction between focaccia and pizza is clearly spurious as it says things like “while focaccia dough uses more leavening, causing the dough to rise significantly higher” and “focaccia is most often square whereas conventional pizza is more commonly round”, both things fairly disabused by the kind of Roman food mentioned above.

It’s also worth noting, no one really seems to know the etymology of the word pizza anyway, so sod it – if you want to make something thin or thick, round or square, with a hole in the middle or not, heavily topped or simply sprinkled with salt, I’m not sure it’s really worth any fuss if you call it focaccia or pizza. Or indeed pinsa, a word that some suggest has the same roots as pizza anyway. Or not. Chissa?

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A long week in Rome: breakfasts

Cornetto, saccotino, maritozzo

If a long weekend involves stretching it to three nights, we’ve just had a long week in Rome, stretching over nine days, and celebrating Fran’s birthday in the middle. It was our first visit to the Eternal City since we left in October 2013, after having lived there since August 2011. So inevitably it was emotional. Although our time in Rome had involved challenges, it culminated in us having a great bunch of friends and an affectionate, nay obsessive relationship with the city and some of its fruits.

Fran and me are both somewhere on the gourmet-gourmand spectrum. She’ll a carnaholic and has a thing for salumi (charcuterie) and things like tagliata di manzo (sliced steak). My interests, on the other hand, are those in the name of this blog. So it was a great pleasure to get back to interesting Italian craft beers and Roman baked goods. Notably indulgent, sweet pastry-based breakfasts.

Luca and the pastry display

I can’t do it every day, and as I’m not a coffee drinker I am missing out on half of the appeal of an Italian café at breakfast time (with the Italian word caffè meaning both coffee and café), but I’m more than happy to scoff multiple Roman breakfast pastries in a sitting. And do that for several days in a row, until my body starts to put its stamp its foot and demand the more nutritionally fulfilling virtues of my homemade granola.

At its simplest, an Italian breakfast is a cornetto, the Italian equivalent of the French croissant, which I wrote about here, and a cappuccino. I worry about breaking Italian food etiquette. Even ordering tea or hot chocolate, instead of coffee makes me a little nervous. The latter, I found out, would only be served in most cafés in the winter; as soon as the weather started warming up a request would be met with a typically Roman café rejection, which somehow carried the message of “Don’t be ridiculous, idiot” in a gesture or expression even if when the words weren’t used.

It’s not that I’m always keen to conform to etiquette, but I am possibly a bit on that other famous spectrum, so like to know what the rules are. I worry and worry – then I see a bloke ordering a cornetto semplice (simple or basic, ie plain) and asking for it to be split in two and filled with aerosol whipped cream in Barberini café in Testaccio (via Marmorata 43). Despite being one of those places that gets frequented by the pavement-clagging Testaccio food tourists, Barberini retains a traditional vibe. So if the guy can ask for his cornettolike that, I suppose I shouldn’t worry too much.

I’d never seen this treatment of a cornetto before, but it shouldn’t have come as a surprise – firstly, as cornetti do come with various fillings, include crema (custard), which Luca spent a good ten minutes mining out on one of our visits, accompanied by a snazzy babycino.

Babycino crop

And secondly, another classic Roman breakfast pastry is the maritozzo, which I wrote about here and give a recipe for here. The maritozzo is an enriched dough bun that comes in two typical forms: plain or filled with vast amounts of cream. I’d had a session recipe testing with Luca’s mum, Rachel, busy on her capolavoro recipe book, so the following morning I had to try a maritozzo from Bernebei, alongside a saccotino al cioccolato, the equivalent of a pain au chocolat. Ours stood up well against theirs I’m pleased to report.

Now we’re living in Lewes, a small English town, it can be a little challenging to even get a good croissant (Flint Owl Bakery does great ones, but they can sell out fast), and I’m dubious one could get a real cornetto anywhere in the UK. So it was good to gorge. The other quotidian baked product I really miss from Rome, and is again nigh-on impossible to get in Britain, is the classic street snack of pizza bianca, which I’ll talk about in the next post.

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The Eighteenth South Downs Beer & Cider Festival, Lewes, 20-21 June 2014

18th South Downs Beer Festival in Lewes town hall. With many empty casks.

The poster for the 18th South Downs Beer and Cider Festival nicely riffs on the cover design of Neil Young’s 1972 classic album ‘Harvest’. As I’m a fan of both real beer and that album, it got me excited about the event when I first spotted it. As Fran was interested in going, and couldn’t do the first day, a Friday, due to work commitments, I got tickets for the 11am to 5pm Saturday session.

South Downs Beer Festival 2014 PosterHarvest album cover

A week or so before the event, I went to the CAMRA site and printed off the list of breweries represented, going through it to highlight all the local ones. This festival, being held in the handsome Lewes Town Hall, marked forty years of the Brighton and South Downs Branch of CAMRA, so promised to be special.

So it was a kick in the teeth when we arrived at about 1pm on the Saturday to find pretty much all the local beers had run out, bar those from Harveys. Now I love Harveys, but I drink it most days, so I was most keen on trying other stuff from around Sussex. So it was disappointing to see crosses through the signs for both the beers from 360 Degree brewery at Sheffield Park, just north of Lewes; through those of Bedlam in Aldbourne, West Sussex; through both the beers from Burning Sky at nearby Firle; ditto Downlands, at Small Dole, West Sussex; ditto both beers from Goldstone, from nearby Ditchling; ditto Kissingate of Lower Beeding, West Sussex; ditto Brighton’s Laine; ditto Pin-Up Brewery of Southwick, East Sussex; ditto the intriguing Rectory of Streat, East Sussex, brewed by a priest.

Guttering and empty casks. Sorry, bad photo.

The few local beers I tried were: Lammas Ale from 1648 Brewing Co in East Hoathly, East Sussex. This had bubblegum-ish aroma, from malted wheat, and low carbonation, medium body. Then a Wolseley Best from The Stanley in Portslade, also East Sussex (though currently brewed at Downlands). This had nice hints of liquorice, charcoal and nuts, but frankly, I drink Harveys Best all the time and I wasn’t here for the best bitters. Cavedweller from Caveman Brewery, over in Kent, was a bit more interesting, a porter nicely combined blackcurranty flavours with more piney, resiny hints from UK Bramling Cross hops. I wouldn’t call porter a summer beer though. Another more interesting one was Regaler from Franklins, in Bexhill-on-Sea, East Sussex. The notes called it a “cold-fermented lager-style ale”. I assume it was a Kölsch-style beer, top-fermented like an ale and more full-bodied and less carbonated than most lagers.

Festival beer list

All of which was fun, but not what I was hoping for. Interestingly, a lot of what had run out was the more hoppy American craft beer-style stuff: not what you typically associate with CAMRA, which can he thanked for keeping British cask ale, notably bitters, alive through the 1970s and 1980s when dreadful industrial lagers took over British pubs. Although Britons still drink mostly industrial lager by proportion now, we’re coming back round to real beer – in part thanks to CAMRA, but also in part thanks to the vitality of the highly influential US craft beer movement and the exciting flavours and aromas offered by US hops.

My favourite beers these days are those that take our incredible British brewing heritage but aren’t afraid to be inspired by US beers and US hop flavours. That’s what I was hoping to try more at the festival, things like Burning Sky’s ‘Arise’ “Session strength IPA”, here available in cask. But it had run out.

Drinking out third-pints at the 18th South Downs Beer Festival

Now, I’m aware that things do – and have to – run out at these beer festivals, but considering the event was running from 11am on the Friday to the evening of the Saturday, when everything was finished, a total of about 20 hours of sessions, it seemed pretty poor that so much was gone already when we arrived – at roughly just after the mid-point. I realise part of the buzz of a beer festival is the first rush to try the latest products of interesting breweries on the first day, but well, it just seemed like poor event management that so many punters like us who didn’t arrive till the second day were deprived of the so many of the beers, in particular those local brews.

Now if I was writing about the event in a journalistic capacity, I would contact the Brighton CAMRA branch and the festival organiser, Ruth Anderson, but instead I’m just blogging about it as a disappointed punter and don’t feel like chasing around after them for quotes. Plus, I suspect they’d just reiterate the line about how it’s normal for casks to run dry after the initial evening throng has been at them. I really didn’t want to be writing a moany post about the event I’d been so looking forward to but, well, here we are.

Lewes Corn Exchange, with surprisingly mixed crowd at the beer festival

Still, while pretty much all the stuff I’d marked on my print-off had run out, at least it meant we’d only drunk a few third-pint samples each and were subsequently able to cycle down to the Kingston village fete, along a lovely traffic-free path. The festival was held in the Lewes Town Hall and corn exchange, a great venue where I usually just go to give blood, but as it was a gorgeous hot, sunny day, being outside appealed greatly.

Pints at the Kingston village fete

At the fete, we met some friends. And visited the beer tent – which not only had a cask of Burning Sky’s delicious Plateau pale ale, but the guy serving the drinks even gave us a free glass from Long Man, another nearby brewery. We went home via The Swan in Southover, where we had a Harveys Olympia golden summer ale in the lovely garden, so the day turned out well in the end.

Bikes outside fete, nr pub

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Strawberry tart

Strawberry tart

We’ve had some proper summer weather here in southern England the past few weeks. I’m quite shocked. It’s potentially looking like a good year for fruit too. All that rain in January-Febuary then a strangely hot and sunny spell in March might count for something in that department. Already our plum tree is sagging under the weight of ripening fruit, and out goseberry bush is starting to look ready to yield its sour green offerings.

I was planning to use the goosebrrries, a fruit I ate a fair amount as a child but haven’t touched for years, if not decades, for a tart yesterday, when we had friends visiting for lunch, but decided they weren’t quite ripe (the bush is in a very shady spot). Instead, the farmers market had a stall loaded with (ripe) gooseberries, cherries, strawberries and tayberries. I hadn’t encountered the latter before, but they’re a common blackberry (Rubus fruticosus)/raspberry (Rubus idaeus) cross. We bought a punnet, but mostly we bought strawberries as I’d seen a handsome looking recipe in Dan Lepard’s ‘Short & Sweet’. Another version of his recipe is available here on the Guardian.

It involves a slightly unusual custard, or sort-of custard. I’m not sure it’s a strict definition but I always assumed custard referred to things made with a mixture of milk or cream and egg yolk. This one, however, is made with egg white. Which is a typically nifty Lepard trick, as you use yolk in the pastry, and can then use up the leftover white. You make a mixture of milk, cornflour, sugar and the egg white, cook it till thick, then cool this, later on combining it with crème fraîche. Lepard uses a similar process for another of his custards, though that one does use yolks, then is mixed with double cream. It’s very handy.

So anyway.

Strawberries
About 500g strawberries
A little caster sugar

Pastry
125g plain flour (all-purpose or cake flour)
25g icing sugar (confectioners sugar)
Pinch salt
75g unsalted butter, cold, cut in small cubes
1 egg yolk
A little cold water

Custard
130g milk
20g cornflour (corn starch)
1 egg white
50g caster sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract
250g crème fraîche

1. Cut the stalky bits off the strawberries then slice into two or three or four, depending on the size of the individual fruit.
2. Put the strawberries in a bowl, sprinkle with caster sugar, then leave in the fridge to macerate, stirring occasionally.
3. Make the pastry by sieving together the flour and icing sugar, adding the salt then the cubed butter. Rub together until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs (you could do this in a food processor), then add the egg yolk and water and bring together a dough. Don’t be tempted to add too much water. A tablespoon or so should be enough. You want the pastry crumbling not sticky.
4. Form the pastry into a disc then wrap in plastic and rest in the fridge.
5. Combine the milk, cornflour, egg white sugar and vanilla in a saucepan.
6. Whisking well, put over a low heat. Continue whisking, increasing the heat slightly, until the mixture thickens. It can get pretty thick, so don’t get too carried away. And watch it doesn’t burn.
7. Put the thick mixture into a bowl, cover with a plate and allow to cool. Then leave in the fridge until you need it.
8. Roll out the pastry and use it to line a 25cm-ish pie or flan tin.
9. Preheat the oven to 170C.
10. Bake the pastry case blind – that is, covering the pastry with a lining of parchment and filling it with baking beans. I used to use my childhood marbles, but I’ve lost them (ahem), so currently I’m just using kidney beans. Bake for about 15 minutes then remove the beans and parchment and keep baking until the case is golden.
11. Allow the pastry case to cool.
12. Put the thick custard mix in a large bowl and loosen it up with electric beaters.
13. Add the crème fraîche and keep beating until it’s all nicely blended.
14. Put the crème fraîche-custard in the cooled pastry case.
15. Arrange the macerated strawberries over the top.
16. Serve.

Strawberry tart 2

I was hoping we’d have a little of ours leftover but eight of us – five adults, three kids – demolished it in mere seconds. Well, a few minutes perhaps. All in all, it was a lovely end to a very satisfying lunch. For starters we did some fiore di zucca: battered, deep-fried zuccchine flowers, filled with mozzarella and a little anchovy. Then for the the main course we did honey-glazed roast chicken with lemon thyme and smoked paprika, a great Tom Kerridge recipe that can be found here; smashed new potatoes with mint; broad bean, pea and mint salad with Medita (our local version of feta, from High Weald Dairy); and a simple lettuce salad. The kids didn’t fuss about any of it – indeed, they demolished most of the mains in seconds too. Kids can really be the worst critics of food, so we were very chuffed with this result. Wish we’d taken a few photos.

All accompanied by local beer and incredible sunshine, and a post-prandial walk on Malling Down, part of the South Downs, an area that’s just received a special Biosphere status from Unesco alongside places like the Amazon and the Rockies, it was a wonderful day. Which compensated nicely for my disappointment about the 18th South Downs Beer & Cider Festival, which we’d attended the day before.

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Peanut butter tahini swirl chocolate brownies

Plate
Peanut butter and tahini, two lovely, tasty oily pastes that can be great editions to baked goods. I love peanut butter, especially good stuff made without daft additives. It doesn’t need added sugar, it doesn’t need artificial sweeteners and it doesn’t need palm oil, soya oil, rapeseed oil, especially not hydrogenated oil.

Peanuts, simply ground up, make for a delicious and suprisingly nutritious product. Peanuts are actually legumes – more pea than nut – so are full of protein for starters. I remember learning about calories in biology at school (many many years ago) by weighing then burning then weighing a peanut. They’re essentially half fat, but much of that is unsaturated: 31% polyunsatuared, 46% monounsatured, 18% saturated*. Peanuts also contain fibre, antioxidants, vitamins thiamin (B1), niacin (B3), folate (B9) and others, and minerals magnesium, potassium, phosphorus, copper and manganese . Tahini, ground-up sesame seeeds, meanwhile contains essential fatty acids, copper and manganese.

Adding peanut butter and tahini to a brownie mix makes it especially gooey and delectable. I’d seen recipes online that used some one or the other, but as I had a jar of each, both running out, my version involved both, plus the tahini swirl. My version also involves both cocoa and chocolate, cut up into coarse chunks. If you’re making brownies, you can’t mess around with the chocolate – it has to be plentiful, rich and dark.

As for the peanut butter, I used my normal type, which is wholenut crunchy, with skins and all, no added sugar. Some brownie recipes might suggest you use a smooth type with all that sugar and extra oil but meh to that. The wholesome crunchy type adds depth of flavour and texture. I’ve also used some oats as they help keep it moist. And as I don’t have a problem with wheat – indeed, I love the stuff, especially well-husbanded grain ground into quality flour – I added some wheat flour too.

Pile

This recipe is loosely adapted from Lick and Spoon, who adapted it from here, though the my tahini swirl is inspired by yet another recipe, here.

I’m not going to pretend these are “skinny” – there’s enough sugar in there for them to qualify as a properly sweet, calorific treat, an indulgent part of a balanced diet and relatively active lifestyle. They do at least contain a smattering of the abovementioned vitamins and minerals if you’re the type who likes to beat themselves up about their foods.

70g peanut butter
50g tahini
80g full-fat yoghurt
160g full-fat milk
1 egg
1 tsp vanilla essence
Pinch salt
1 tsp baking powder
50g plain flour
50g cocoa powder
50g oatmeal
130g light brown sugar
100g dark chocolate (60% cocoa mass or more), chopped into chunks

Tahini swirl
1 egg
60g tahini
20g caster sugar
1/2 t vanilla essence

1. Preheat oven to 180C.
2. Grease and line a square 20 x 20cm baking tin.
3. Sieve together flour, cocoa and baking powder.
4. Stir in the salt, oats, sugars and chocolate chips.
5. Beat together the peanut butter, yogurt, milk, egg.
6. Pour the wet mix into the dry, beating with hand blender.
7. Blend to a runny mixture.
8. Pour into the baking tin.
9. Beat together the tahini swirl ingredients until well combined and blended.
10. Drop blobs on top of choc mixture and swirl with tip of a knife.
11. Bake for 20-25 minutes.
12. Cool, cut and serve.

Tin

* ‘The Food Bible’, Judith Wills

 

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