Saturday, August 27, 2011

Taking a backseat

Actually, it's always the passenger seat for me, but what I’m getting at is a metaphorical backseat when it comes to cooking with beer. As much as I like experimenting with beer in the kitchen, what I really like is having someone else do the beer cookery. You know, someone who actually knows what they're doing. Recently I've been to a few of the places that do great things with beer and food, and I felt like sharing (and raving) about them. I guess this is a bit of a personal journey story for me too, as I revisit some of the places that inspired me to try my hand at cooking with beer.

Holgate Brewery – Woodend

It all started for me at the Keatings Hotel in Woodend, home of the Holgate Brewery. This as the first brewery that the husband and I visited and we both had epiphanies of different sorts. His was about the beer, or more accurate a beer, a beer called Big Reg - a Vienna lager, which was once bottled, but is now only a seasonal release (but will hopefully be bottled again!). My light bulb moment was more about the food. The menu is full of items that use the brewery’s own beers (and occasionally the by-products), and it goes way beyond the old standard of beer-battered fish.

Since that first time, we’ve tried to get back there to eat and drink whenever possible. It’s a bit of a drive, which does make the drinking part difficult for at least one person. However, we recently discovered it only takes an hour on the train and you can drink as much as you like, as long as you can stumble back to the train station.

Such is our love for this place and its warm pub atmosphere, fantastic brews and beery food, we decided to spend our first wedding anniversary there. Oh, did I not mention that you can actually stay there, right above the pub and brewery? You can’t beat that for convenience!

We had our anniversary dinner in the dining room, and I think all the dishes we ordered used beer in some way. We started with some beer bread to share, made with the wonderful Temptress Chocolate Porter. This is not the yeasty style bread (like the type I blogged about right at the start), but the quick and easy beer bread. It’s less elastic and more crumbly,  like a savory cake really. However it is still incredibly delicious, especially when served warm with the porter butter. On this occasion the bread had also been made using the spent grain from the day’s brew.

For my main, I chose from the specials board, as I could not go past a risotto made with squid ink and the Big Reg lager. The waitress made sure she warned me that it was black – I guess not everyone might realize that squid ink is really…inky. It came topped with basa goujons (that's food speak for 'fish bites' I think). The risotto itself was just right, with that little extra flavor that I find beer lends a dish, and the goujons were possibly the crispiest fish bites I have ever have. I swear you could have heard the crunch across the room.
The husband treated himself to the kangaroo marinated in ESB, which came on a tasty bed of salad. Now is confession time for me – it looked and smelled so good, I had to take a bite outta skippy. It would seem that after a few pints of Big Reg and ESB I am open to the concept of eating our national emblem. It was actually not as bloody as I expected – I found the flavor quite subtle although the texture was a little chewy.

As it was a special occasion, we both ordered desserts. Mine was the porter fruitcake, I think with crème anglaise (things are getting hazy by now), while the husband went with the chocolate beetroot cake with ganache. They were both decadent, without being too much. The perfect end to the meal.

Red Hill Brewery – Red Hill

The next chapter in my beer-food journey concerns Red Hill Brewery. Sitting about two hours out of Melbourne, with no public transport and limited accommodation options in the immediate area, it's almost impossible to get there without a designated driver. However, it’s well worth the journey for the food alone. It has more of a restaurant / café feeling, with a light airy bar area and a huge outdoor deck nestled among the trees. While I’ve had a multitude of fantastic meals there, there is one thing I always order without fail – the Welsh Rarebit.

This is a classic beer-food dish and on paper is not really that special – just fancy cheese on toast, right? Yeah, but the cheese, it has beer in it. Let me just make that clear for you….it’s CHEESE with BEER in it. There is more than beer – there’s mustard and paprika and leeks too. To top if off (or more accurately, bottom it off…but no one says that) they use fantastic local baked bread. This would have to be my ultimate comfort food. The cheese sauce is creamy and packed with tangy flavor and a little spicy bite. I think I raved about it so much on one visit that the lovely Karen Golding actually gave me the recipe. I have made it at home, but its not the same really. Maybe it’s something about sitting out on the big deck with a beer, relaxing with that feeling of ‘all is well in the world’.

The Local Taphouse – St Kilda

As far as both Holgate and Red Hill are, I think we have visited them both more than this iconic beer pub located in St Kilda. To get there either involves an hour on a tram, or someone willing to battle with traffic on Punt Road. It’s a shame though, because they put a lot of thought and beer into the food they serve. I only really discovered this when we attended an excellent Good Beer Week event there, and not only did every single course contain beer (and some amazing beers too), but they really bent over backwards to look after this non-red-meat eater (that was before the skippy incident, okay?). I was pretty blown away by it and was lucky enough to bend the ear of one of the owners. I discovered they are very passionate about beer food and educating their kitchen staff in the use of beer in cooking, and yet they don’t make an issue out of it.

A great example of their work is a dessert we were served at the most recent Barley’s Angels meeting. It was a stout panna cotta, with strawberries macerated in Framboise and a barley malt brittle. It was A-MAZ-ING. Every element was seriously good. I expected the panna cotta to have a heavy, bitter flavor to it, but there was no bitterness at all. The sweetness was off-set by the slight sourness of the strawberries…and the barley malt brittle? It was just plain good – crunchy caramelized sugar coated barley good.

There are a growing number of places who are using beer and by-products in their dishes now, popping up all over Australia. I can highly recommend all the places I’ve mentioned, but there are plenty of places still on my to do list as well. If you are into beer and food, you should definitely pay a visit to these or any of the other establishments who are exploring the uses of beer in the kitchen.

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