Given that we’ve been pairing food and beer for hundreds, if not thousands, of years it’s extremely challenging to come up with a new take on the topic. I first met Ben and Sashana shortly after they opened Edinburgh Food Studio, while I was still at The Hanging Bat, to discuss a really wacky idea I’d had for a beer dinner. The idea ended up being a bit too wacky to properly pull off (although it’s still on the back burner), but we had some really interesting discussions on the topic. I continued to follow them and was always fascinated by the events and produce I’d see coming out of their kitchen.
In my new guise in a sales role for beer importer James Clay, I’m constantly trying to build events and work with our products in novel ways. I’m completely transfixed by the lambic and ‘sour’ beer category, and have recently been doing research into the way developments and flavours in this scene are being mirrored in the fermented food movement. With Ben and Sashana’s rich collective experience, and the EFS motto “Keep Food Interesting” it made perfect sense to approach them to host a dinner looking at how ‘sour’ beer and food can work together. After some initial discussions they invited their friend and previous collaborator Craig Grozier of Fallachan Dining to get involved and share the experience.
Normally in fine dining there is the luxury of a sommelier who with their vast experience will reach in to a cellar and pull out something to work with the menu proffered by the chef. However, this is a very limited approach, as what is in the bottle is a fixed mark, and at best can fortuitously be a perfect match. For Spontanscran, I presented Ben, Craig, and Sashana with a menu of drinks that I wanted to work with. From here we enjoyed a nice long tasting a few weeks in advance of the dinner. This was a profoundly enriching experience, being sat with 3 of Europe’s finest culinary minds (and palates) and watching them throw suggestions into the air. As these kind of tastings go, we ended up with notes that would seem like total gibberish to the outside observer. Although can you honestly say that Orval doesn’t make you think “Bacon rosemary crust rich dark honey rye pineapple grapefruit grains spruce shoots pork fat crystal malt Orval cheese sprouts”?
Eventually our tasting notes were pulled together and processed into a modicum of sense, and then eventually the menu below.
Chicken Skin, Lovage, Apricot, paired with Boon Geuze Vat 109
We initially tasted the Boon Vat 109 side by side with the Lindemans Cuvée René, straight out of the fridge at the fantastic Salt Horse in Edinburgh. I’m crazy about both of these beers and was absolutely adamant that they’d both make the final cut. However at fridge temperature, the differences between the two were extremely subtle. We parked our samples for ten minutes, and on returning to them the Vat 109 had sprung to life. Suddenly tonnes of cognac and perfume had defeated the typically dank notes of the Geuze. Hiding right in the background was a really fascinating fenugreek/curry note, which Craig later picked up as potentially being Sotolon, which is present in both fenugreek and lovage, but critically can also be produced during spontaneous fermentation.
The crisp texture of the chicken skin provided a curious counterpoint to the inherent sourness in the gueuze blend, with the apricots helping to lift out the subtle curry in the nose.
Pesto Genovese, paired with Lindemans/Mikkeller Spontanbasil
Anybody that’s ever heard me talk about beer, will have probably heard me gush about Spontanbasil at some point. I keep a holding stock of two bottles in my house at all times, because you never know when a deep existential emergency will strike. Too often in beer and food pairing blunt force is applied, and neither element gets a chance to express itself. On tasting the beer Ben immediately declared the pairing would be a Pesto Genovese (interesting to note, this is also his request for his last meal). However, this would be a Pesto Genovese senza basilico. By leaving the basil out of the dish the beer is forced to do some work.
This dish was an absolute abundance of pleasure to behold, similar to Spontanbasil. The trofie pasta (my first ever) was an education in itself. Given the decadent nature of SpontanScran, this was no time for a light dusting of grated Parmesan, what you’re seeing there are hunks hewn from a glorious 30 month aged Parmesan. Unsurprisingly, a Gueuze infused with 45g/litre of basil was more than able to step in to the role of basil in the dish. Tutto Bene.
St. Nectaire, Wild & Cultivated Leek, Mushroom, paired with Lindemans Cuvée René
Easily one of my favourite discoveries of late. Despite being maligned by uneducated Lambic Bros., Lindemans are capable of making exceptional lambic, at an extremely friendly price point. This is a truly classic Gueuze, and gives plenty in terms of dank cellar aromas and flavours. Given that the beer itself smells akin to a damp forest it made sense to work with foraged elements for this dish.
This menu was great for showing what’s possible when a dish is pared back to it’s most basic elements. The mushroom broth for the dish was as basic as it comes, mushroom and water. A great example of a course where the beer and the dish worked together to lift the whole experience. The acidity of the beer bringing out more from the dish, and the earthy flavours from the St. Nectaire rind and mushrooms pulling out more and more from the cellar of Cuvée René.
Malted Grains, Barley Koji, Scots Pine paired with Orval
In a tasting surrounding fermentation by something other than Saccharomyces Cerevisiae there is always a seat reserved for Orval at the head of the table. Arguably, this should be the case for every social occasion. Truly the beer that keeps on giving. We ended up with a huge and complex string of flavours off the back of tasting orval. During the tasting I made the comment that it would be cool to keep this dish monastic and super simple. Which caused Craig to pull up this dish that is fast becoming a signature of his.
You could truly see this served at the table in the Abbaye D’Orval. A mix of grains malted by hand at Edinburgh Food Studio over the course of a week, served in the style of a risotto in a reduction involving a tonne of butter and Orval. The dish was garnished with a Pangrattato made from Craig’s Fircaccia (not a typo), itself made with Pine foraged from the Dalkeith Road Cemetery. Almost every guest I spoke with over the weekend was in love with how much of a juxtaposition this dish was, exceedingly intelligent but simple in execution.
Lamb, Charred Kohlrabi, Preserved Lemon, Wild Garlic, paired with Cascade Noyaux
Occasionally something comes along that can’t be ignored. The opportunity to import a small quantity of Cascade was precisely that. Cascade are the undisputed masters of the ‘North Western Sour’ style, a style of sour beer that truly expresses the terroir of the region. After our tasting, we very nearly ended up with a menu that didn’t contain a meat dish, mostly because none of the beers particularly called for it in a simplistic brute force manner. However, some of the subtle flavours in this beer set us on a path towards something along the line of a Tagine.
In true Edinburgh Food Studio style this dish started out with a whole lamb that was butchered on the centrepiece countertop (not during service), with three different cuts ending up in the dish. The Lamb belly and its texture was the real star here though. The preserved lemon rounded out the sourness in the beer and allowed some of the nuanced almond and apricot flavours to bound through.
Chocolate, Rowan Shoot, Dark Malt, paired with Cascade Sang Noir
This was the last beer we tried in our tasting, and at one point we were so excited by it we could have put together a menu of 6 courses matched with 6 glasses of it. Stupidly rich decadence that is cut through by the acetic undertones of the Flanders style. One of the beers that really makes you realise why Cascade demands the price tag that it does.
Initially Sashana went straight for a big giant Black Forest Gâteau, which I saw in my mind’s eye as being about 20 layers tall. Unfortunately time tempered our enthusiasm, and turned it in to something more sensible. Although this dish appeared to apply the formula of pairing rich beer with chocolate, the truth was far from it. The rowan shoot element was present in the form of a shrub, which had the amazing effect of developing the acetic notes of the beer further, to cut through the rich and abundant chocolate.
The dinner was rounded off with a Beer Marshmallow that Craig made with Six Degrees North’s Jiang Shi, and was completely unique amongst almost other every other beer marshmallow I’d had, insofar as it tasted of both the base beer, and marshmallow.
I also can’t get away with writing about dinner at Edinburgh Food Studio without commenting on the absolutely flawless Sourdough bread and butter produced there. I’d have happily seen away a few bottles of Orval and a couple rounds of toast there.
Beer Geek Interaction (or the lack of)
One thing that I had noticed about the event was that it hadn’t really managed to strike a chord with the Edinburgh Beer community, with the exception of a few. My understanding was that this was largely down to the price point, and the value in comparison to a night at a local hostelry or even an entire case of beer. This was really disappointing, as if they had been operating on normal restaurant margins, the guys at EFS would have had to charge almost double what they did for the drinks pairing. Beer drinkers are often left the most disappointed by restaurant drinks menus, but if the support isn’t there, and beer drinkers aren’t ready to pay the premium that comes with drinking good beer in a restaurant, this will never change.
Despite this, the event proved to be a fascinating opportunity to interact with an entirely different market. Many of the guests had never tasted a sour beer, and in fact were normally not beer drinkers. There were even guests who initially were not interested in the beer pairing, but after seeing reactions from other guests from the opening pairing, asked to be changed over to get the full experience.
The entire experience of putting together a list, and then watching a menu be built around it was truly exciting. However, it was profoundly inspirational to have the opportunity to spend three nights working in the company of Craig, Ben, Sashana, and the team at EFS. I can’t thank them enough for agreeing to work with me. As somebody who doesn’t actually produce anything it can be really intimidating to approach people with talent like they have, but all of the guys were extremely friendly and it was a real pleasure.
I’d like to think that this was the start of a series of projects that we will continue to develop, and hopefully there will be further opportunities to have fun together with beer and food there in future. Edinburgh is truly blessed by the contribution that the Studio makes to our culinary scene.