Monday 29 February 2016

"Roast beef on Sundays, all right!"

In something of a shock move, pub chain JD Wetherspoon have announced the scrapping of their traditional Sunday lunch roast dinners. According to press reports, the Sunday Club roast dinner section has already been removed from the company’s website, but today my local JDW outlet in Tonbridge, the Humphrey Bean, was still advertising Sunday roasts.

The pub chain announced the decision to drop the Sunday staple meal as customers opt for more "fashionable fare" such as Mexican food and curries. Wetherspoon’s will concentrate instead on pub classics such as fish and chips, pies and sausage and mash, alongside more contemporary offerings such as burgers, hot dogs, ribs and wraps. This will enable the company to focus on the range of items on its all-day, "core" menu.

There are around 950 Wetherspoon’s outlets in the UK, and the chain has sold roasts for the last 15 years; offering meal deals as low as £6.59, normally with an alcoholic drink thrown in. Many customers were disappointed to hear the news, but a spokesman for the company, which has food sales of around £800 million per year, insisted the decision, was not taken as a result of plummeting sales. Despite this, he confirmed that the last roast dinner will be served this coming Sunday March 6th, Mothering Sunday, as the firm “just don’t want to do it anymore”.

There is obviously more to this decision than this throw-away remark, with cost-cutting and streamlining of the whole operation the most likely reasons. As a number of commentators have pointed out, there is a problem associated with Sunday Roast of keeping the food at a perfect condition to be served, throughout the period of service which, in Wetherspoon’s case, can often be several hours.

Others have claimed that the chain recently changed over from carved freshly cooked joints to pre cooked and sliced packet meats which, although would have made a reasonable sandwich, are no good when it comes to a proper roast dinner. I have noticed the use of frozen roast potatoes, as well as frozen (and under-cooked) vegetables, and many have gone so far as to accuse the firm of “penny pinching".

In contrast, there is very little waste with the rest of the Wetherspoon’s menu as it's all “ring and ping”. Food is pre-cooked and then held for up to three days when it is popped in the microwave and warmed for service Place your order for a burger and 6 minutes later there it is!

I have eaten a number of Wetherspoon’s roasts over the years; although I doubt that number reached into double figures. Nevertheless, like many customers, I will be sorry to see this traditional Sunday staple disappear. I would imagine too that farmers and meat suppliers are also rather concerned by the axing of a dish which many people still regard as part of the traditional British Sunday.
"Roast beef on Sundays, all right". From the Kinks' 1967 Top Twenty Hit,. "Autumn Almanc"; a song which encapsulates many quintessential things about English life.

Images are from the JDW website.

Sunday 28 February 2016

A New Challenge

I was away in Norfolk again at the weekend, and I’m pleased to report that my father has settles in well in the care home and is comfortable with his new surroundings and his fellow residents. Despite his Alzheimer’s he not only recognised me, but was genuinely pleased to see me.

As you can imagine, knowing that dad is being well cared for is of great comfort to my two sisters and I  expect  to carry on making regular visits to see him. One thing which doesn’t get any easier though is the journey up to Norfolk and back. I feel that I know every inch of both the M11 and the A11, and whilst on a good run I can accomplish the journey in just over two and a half hours, it is a tiring and rather monotonous trip.

Now that I am no longer bound by time constraints, I have decided to vary my route and, where possible, include the odd pub stop on the way. On previous trips I have visited the Green Dragon at Wymondham and the Chequers Inn at Thompson; both of which are listed on CAMRA’s Pub Heritage Website of Historic Pub Interiors, so I considered this to be a good selection criteria for future pub stops. I noticed though that the Green Dragon has a “Blue Star” listing, whilst the Chequers has just a “Yellow Star”. The former indicates “an historic pub interior of regional importance.”, whilst the latter signifies “an historic pub interior of some regional importance.” Pubs with “an historic pub interior of national importance”, qualify for a “Red Star”, on the site.

Now I wrote several years ago that I thought this was nit-picking; and the input here of English Heritage and their almost fanatical pursuit of architectural perfection hasn’t helped matters, but in some ways the rather strict guidelines set by CAMRA and EH have helped in my latest slightly obsessional quest. Some people set themselves the target of visiting every pub listed in the current CAMRA Good Beer Guide; others decide to visit every Red Lion in the country. Football fans will try and visit the nearest pub to every Football League ground, and cricket fans will do similar by visiting pubs close to each county ground. 

As I am still gainfully employed, and have a limited amount of annual leave, I thought something a little less arduous would suffice. So without setting any timescale I have decided to visit every pub in England (other parts of the United Kingdom may follow later), with a  “Red Star” listing on the Heritage Pub Website; in other words every pub with an historic interior of national importance.

I haven’t totalled them all up yet. The National Inventory Website states there are 275, but is unclear as to whether this includes blue and yellow star entries as well. Looking through the list there are quite a few which I have already been to, but I also notice that there concentrations of entries in certain areas, with Greater London topping the list. Certain counties do much better than others; for example there are five pubs listed in Suffolk, but none at all in Surrey.

I clocked off two “Red Star” pubs this weekend; one on the outward journey and one on the return. The first was in Suffolk, whilst the second was in Essex and surprisingly close to London.

I intend to write about both in a subsequent post, but in the meantime if anyone has any tips or recommendations as to the best way to approach this task, then please get in touch.

Thursday 25 February 2016

The Chiddingstones - Part One

Part One- Chiddingstone Causeway

Dukes Factory- Chiddingstone Causeway
For the past 10 years I have worked for a company which specialises in the manufacture of dental materials. The firm is based in the village of Chiddingstone Causeway; a small settlement about 6 miles west of Tonbridge. The village is a relatively modern one which sprung up around Penshurst station, on the Tonbridge to Redhill line. One of the quirks of the Victorian railway era was that many stations were often several miles from the places they were named after.

Penshurst is no exception, with the village being some two miles or so away, but it is worth noting that the station was originally built to provide rail access to Penshurst Place; ancestral home of the Sidney family, and one of the most complete surviving examples of 14th-century domestic architecture in England.

The settlement which grew up next to the station became known as Chiddingstone Causeway. The “Causeway” part of the name is thought to refer to the route across boggy ground towards Sevenoaks, whilst the first part comes from the nearby village of Chiddingstone; a much older settlement which dates back at least to Anglo-Saxon times, and possibly before.

There is also a small hamlet called Chiddingstone Hoath, which is about two miles to the south of Chiddingstone village. The three settlements are known collectively as “The Chiddingstones”; a name which is also the title of the local Parish Magazine.

Winter scene- Little Brown Jug
The initial settlements which grew up around Penshurst station, were those connected with the transport of rich and famous visitors to Penshurst Place. Before long these businesses developed into shipping firms, set up to transport farm goods to the towns via the railway, and soon after a number of other small businesses sprung up.

The most famous of these was the firm of Duke and Sons, who started to make cricket bats and balls in the 1860's; initially for Penshurst Place but then, due to the proximity of the railway, to sell further afield. When I started with my present firm, the former premises of Duke and Sons, housed the company offices, but in late 2008 these were relocated to the main manufacturing site across the road. A row of new cottages now occupies the site.

Because of the increase in population a church was built of corrugated iron but in 1898, as congregations increased in size, an attractive stone church was erected towards the crest of the hill, and dedicated to St Luke. Nowadays the village consists mostly of housing, a few local businesses, of which my company is the largest, plus a shop and post office. There is also a pub in the village, and as this blog is primarily about beer, the local hostelry is well worth a mention.

The pub started life as the Station Tavern; an appropriate name given its location directly opposite the station. It is an attractive late 19th Century building which despite being enlarged over the years, still retains much of its original character. For most of the last century, the pub traded under this name until it was bought by a jazz and big-band enthusiast and renamed the Little Brown Jug, after the well-known Glen Miller tune.

By the time I moved to the local area, the pub had been the Little Brown Jug for quite a number of years. The big-band enthusiast landlord was called Don, but that is all I remember of him.  As far as I recall the Jug was a Charrington’s house, and back then, it still had two bars. A change of management, in the later 1980’s, saw it dramatically increased in size, with new kitchens, a function room and even bed and breakfast accommodation added.

The new owner was a shrewd businessman called Charlie Cannon. He was a nice chap with a genuine interest in “real ale”, which obviously endeared him to the local CAMRA branch (myself included), but more tangibly saw a wide range of different cask ales being sold at the pub. One evening, Charlie gave a group of us a tour of his cellar; such was his pride in the beer he sold at the Jug.

Sometime towards the end of the 90’s, Charlie received an offer he couldn’t refuse, so he sold up and moved on. I think it was around this time that Greene King appeared on the scene. The extensive range of interesting beers was replaced by standard GK offerings and the pub fell out of favour with the local CAMRA branch, and generally off the radar altogether.

In the summer of 2006, I started work at my present company, and gradually renewed my acquaintance with the Little Brown Jug. Further alterations were made to the pub, with the B&B accommodation converted into additional dining space. It opened in its most recent incarnation in February 2007, and I must say the design team did a pretty good job on it. Although tied to Greene King, the Jug is owned a company called Whiting & Hammond, who operate a small chain of food-oriented pubs in this part of the county. The beer is still standard GK stuff, but local favourite Larkin’s Traditional is stocked, and is probably the pub’s best selling cask beer – certainly amongst the locals!
Walk across the old airfield
I've obviously known the pub over the years, especially as it's easy to reach by train, but despite walking past it most lunchtimes it’s not that often I call in. I am not a fan of lunchtime drinking these days; especially when I am working, but the Jug has been the venue for several memorable company Christmas meals, and it’s something of a tradition to pop in for a few beers when we close for business at lunchtime on Christmas Eve. The pub is also the obvious place for entertain customers, and I have been fortunate to partake of quite a few excellent lunches there.

If you walk up the hill from the Little Brown Jug, you will come to a tarmac footpath, on the same side of the road and just past the church. This will take you across an old World War II airfield to the Greyhound pub, situated in the tiny hamlet of Charcott.

The Greyhound is a pleasant bright and breezy local, with views across the fields towards the hills that form the start of the High Weald. It has a separate restaurant area, as like many country pubs these days it relies heavily on the food trade. There still seems to be three distinct areas in the main part of the pub, although the divisions that marked the former bars are long gone. During the winter months, open fires supplement the central heating.

The Greyhound is close to my workplace, and I often walk by during my lunch break noting the substantial number cars parked outside. The other day, I noticed Harvey’s Best, Tonbridge Copper Knob and a Westerham beer on sale, but the Greyhound has also featured Otter beers in the past. There is a secluded garden to the left of the pub, plus benches and tables directly outside.

Both pubs are easy to reach for those not fortunate to either live or work in the village. Penshurst station is just two stops from Tonbridge, on the line out to Redhill, and there are also buses from Tunbridge Wells.

Sunday 21 February 2016

Robertsbridge - East Sussex

Robertsbridge High Street
My friend Eric and I hadn’t intended to go to Robertsbridge, yesterday. Our original plan was to travel one stop further down the line to the town of Battle, where we had earmarked a couple of pubs to visit. Eric had been to the Bull, back in the summer, so it looked like a good option, and we also intended to visit the George as well.

The town of Battle grew up around the Abbey, which was erected on the site of the most famous battle in English history, by the victor, Duke William of Normandy. On 14th October 1066, the area witnessed the most celebrated confrontation to take place on English soil – the Battle of Hastings; an event so significant it completely changed the course of English history.

Following the battle William the Conqueror built Battle Abbey, as a penance ordered by the Pope for the loss of life incurred in the conflict. Today, Battle is a thriving market town featuring Georgian and medieval cottages amongst a host of interesting shops, restaurants, historic pubs and tea-rooms.

Battle Abbey
It seemed the ideal place to visit and with easy access by direct train from Tonbridge, we could be there in just under 40 minutes. Ideal, that is, until Network Rail placed a weekend closure on the line between nearby Robertsbridge and Hastings, in order to carry out essential engineering works. Eric had phoned me the previous day, to report the bad news so we agreed to each investigate other possibilities and then report back.

I looked at several options, but as well as somewhere with a decent pub (or pubs) serving good beer, I wanted a place which offered reasonably-priced food; something not always readily available on a Saturday evening. Quite independently we both decided on Robertsbridge; one stop nearer to home, and the place where trains would be terminating and the rail-replacement buses would be taking over.

We had noticed the village supports two pubs; with a third currently closed. The Ostrich Hotel, virtually opposite the station, looked the best bet so far as the reasonably-priced food was concerned, but the George Inn in the centre of the village, also looked worthy of closer inspection.

Robertsbridge is a large village which dates back to the 12th Century, when a Cistercian Abbey was founded there. The latter was dissolved in 1538, on the orders of that well-know Tudor vandal, Henry VIII, but the town continued to prosper and today contains some attractive half-timbered cottages and other buildings dating from the 14th and 15th Centuries. The opening of the London to Hastings Railway, in 1851, brought further prosperity to the town, and the completion of a bypass in 1992, removed much of the traffic which had been choking the town.

We caught the 16:29 train from Tonbridge, travelling down through the attractive countryside of this part of the Sussex Weald, and arrived in the village just before 17:10. After confirming the departure times for the return journey, we walked across the road to the Ostrich Hotel, which shone out like a friendly and welcoming beacon against the gathering dusk.

Ostrich - Main Bar
The Ostrich Hotel opened in 1851, following the completion of the railway from London. The name is derived from the coat of arms on its sign, which are those of the lordship of the Manor of Robertsbridge.  It is a comfortable pub with a large “L”-shaped bar and separate games room and restaurant. There is also an upstairs function room. The walls are adorned with an assortment of paintings, prints and other pieces from the landlord’s collection, and there are some rather saucy Edwardian prints in the gent’s toilets. (I gather there are some in the Ladies as well). With a number of comfortable old sitting chairs, the place had the feel of a 1920’s sitting room

Harvey’s Sussex Best and GK Old Speckled Hen were the two cask beers on offer, and I also spotted the Curious Brew lager, which I wrote about last week, available on keg. There was a group of walkers sat around one of the tables; we almost tripped over their boots which were stacked just inside the door!

Ostrich - Games Room
The Harvey’s was in excellent condition, and after quizzing the friendly barmaid about the availability of meals, the landlord, who is also the chef, came over for a chat. Fish is the speciality of the house; sourced locally from Hastings fish market, and his suggestions were either halibut or sea bass; both of which he’d procured that very morning. He particularly recommended the former, which neither of us could remember having tried before. We told him of our plans to try the George Inn up the road, but confirmed we would definitely be returning to eat later, and would make our menu choices then.

We had already decided not to dine at the George, having previously on-line at the menu options for both pubs. Prices at the George were around 50% higher than the Ostrich, but we set off anyway, just o give the pub a try. We walked up the narrow road, which leads from the station, to the High Street, and turned right towards the George, which we could just see at the end of the road.

The George is an imposing red tiled fronted building which, before the coming of the railway, was formerly a coaching inn. The pub dates from the 18th-century, and as expected has plenty of low beams. The bar area occupies the far right of the building, and most of the drinkers were gathered here in front of the warming inglenook fireplace. There are views from the bar, back down the High Street with the distinctive War Memorial clock tower, erected in 1926, featuring prominently just across the green.  Most of the interior though was given over to dining, and although there were plenty of tables laid out for dinner, none were occupied.

Beer-wise Harvey’s Sussex Best and Dark Star APA were available, but unfortunately the latter had run out, just as we arrived. We went for the Harvey’s again, even though the landlord said Tonbridge Rustic was about to come on. The Sussex Best was, if anything, even better than in the Ostrich. The landlady was quite chatty, but the locals were all busy engaged in their own conversations. We both liked the George, more than we thought we would, but as we were getting hungry, we headed off back down to the Ostrich.

George Inn - interior
We had missed out on the halibut, as in our absence there had been an influx of diners. Instead we each ordered an item off the lunchtime menu, which was still available. I opted for pie of the day, whilst my companion went for an omelette. We stood chatting at the bar until our food was ready and we were ushered in to the restaurant. My steak, ale and mushroom pie was a real homemade job, and a “proper pie” at that, with the filling completely encased in pastry. With new potatoes, green peas and carrots, plus a small jug of gravy to go with it, I was well set up. Eric’s omelette looked equally good.

We returned to the bar after our meal, and continued our pre-dinner conversation with one of the pub regulars plus, when he could spare the odd moment, the landlord. The latter told us he had bought the Ostrich from the owning brewery, back in the mid 1990’s, and described the establishment as a “proper pub”. It certainly is a good, old-fashioned sort of pub, of the type both of us remember with affection from our youth. We chatted briefly about the potential re-opening of the Rother-Valley branch line up to Tenterden, and also about the Seven Stars.

The latter is a 14th Century at the opposite end of the village to the George. It is a Harvey’s tied pub, which makes its current closure all the more strange, but there was talk of high rents and equally high business rates. Perhaps in today’s changing times, there just isn’t sufficient trade in a village the size of Robertsbridge, to support three pubs.

Interestingly, the locality boasts a further pub in the nearby hamlet of Salehurst. The Salehurst Halt is a traditional family run pub, popular with walkers and locals. It is adjacent to a disused railway halt on the aforementioned Rother-Valley rail line. The local sitting at the bar, had recommended it to us earlier, and had claimed it was only a 15 minute walk. A look at the map suggests it might have been a bit further, but we were happy with the two pubs visited that night, and will save a walk out to Salehurst for the hours of daylight, and also for the warmer weather.

We caught the 21:14 train back to Tonbridge; well-fed and suitably refreshed. We were glad that Network Rail had scuppered our original plans, but we will make the trip out to Battle before too long. We will also be returning to Robertsbridge and its two excellent pubs.

Saturday 20 February 2016

TW3 -That Was the Week that Wasn't!

TW3 – That Was the Week that Was; a satirical comedy programme, first aired on the BBC. Fronted by the late Sir David Frost, TW3 broke new ground for British comedy by poking fun at politicians and establishment figures. I was only seven years old at the time, so I don’t remember it. I don’t remember my parents watching it either, although they may well have done, as I suspect the programme went out long after my sister and I were tucked up in our beds.

All this is irrelevant really apart from using the acronym to describe the past week; the exception being that instead of the week that WAS, it was the week that WASN’T!

I spent a frustrating week trying to put a trip to Germany together, on behalf of a small group of local CAMRA members; only to see it all untangle on Thursday afternoon. I don’t want to say too much here, apart from the fact that I learnt a few things, and also learnt how NOT to organise such a trip, but all is not lost and there may be the opportunity to re-schedule something for later in the year.

Having a busy work schedule didn’t help matters, and whilst there has been quite a lot to write about recently, there has not been sufficient time for any serious blogging. There are nevertheless a few things I would like to share, which I may find time to expand on later, but for now it’s worth mentioning the following:

A mid-week CAMRA Meeting, at two pubs within walking distance of my workplace is certainly worthy of a post; as will be today’s outing with my friend Eric, across the border into deepest Sussex. Continuing the Sussex theme, I am still working on my piece about the legendary Bonfire Night Celebrations which take place in the ancient town of Lewes, every November 5th. I’ve also been making inroads into the beers left over from Christmas, discovering along the way one of the best Christmas Ales I’ve had in a long time, but also being rather disappointed with another.

Other matters are also conspiring to eat into my writing, especially as I will be away for the following two weekends. The first trip will see me driving back up to Norfolk, to visit my father. I’ll also take the opportunity to catch up with my sister, who lives nearby. I strongly expect there will be one or two pubs visited over the course of the weekend, but my main objective is to see how dad is getting on now that he has settled in at the care home.

The weekend after will see me flying off to Barcelona for three days. The city will be holding its annual Beer Festival; now in its 7th year I believe. There is a real burgeoning beer scene in the Catalonia region of Spain, and whilst we caught a brief glimpse of it during our visit in December 2014, it will be exciting to experience it at first hand, in all its full-on, in your face glory.

I haven’t a clue what the weather will be like there at the beginning of March, and it doesn’t really matter as I will be under cover most of the time. However, the city’s Maritime Museum, which hosts the event, is close to the seafront, so it would be nice to spill out into the open and enjoy some al fresco drinking.

Well that’s all until tomorrow. I must now hurry down to the station and meet my friend for a light evening’s drinking in Sussex. Cheers for now.

Sunday 14 February 2016

Curious Brew to Expand

After two posts with a somewhat negative theme running through them, this one is far more positive and upbeat, with some good news concerning a local business which is expanding its brewing operation.

The Chapel Down Winery, who are based at Tenterden, in the heart of the Kentish Weald have embarked on a crowd-funding campaign to develop further the brewing side of their off-shoot Curious Drinks division. Readers may have noticed some of their Curious Brew products, on the shelves in Waitrose. The range includes an IPA, a Porter and a cider, plus a lager, called "Curious Brew", which is re-fermented with Champagne yeast.

Now I realise I slated Meantime  in a recent post, for doing the very same thing with their strong IPA, but having tasted the Chapel Down product, I can safely say it is far cleaner tasting, and far more refreshing than the one which Meantime came up with recently.

At the moment, the beers are all contract-brewed (I don’t know about the cider), by Hepworth & Co in Horsham, but it was always the intention of Chapel Down to switch the production of these products to an “in-house” operation; hence the crowd-funding campaign.

I’ve picked up on this story quite late in the day, as the crowd-funding operation is nearing its end and approaching its target. This was initially £1 million, but in an interview in the “Index Magazine", (a glossy publication, promoting various aspects of local life in Kent and Sussex, and distributed free each month to local homes), Chapel Down Chief Executive, Frazer Thompson, expressed optimism that the final total will be around £1.5 million by the end of February, when the fundraising is due to finish.

He spoke regarding the creation of a “dedicated brewing facility” in nearby Ashford, which would be responsible for producing the full range of the company’s beers, as well as housing a visitor centre. He went on to say, “With Kent being the home of hops, it’s fantastic that we should be doing this here in the county, with our Curious Brew products. But we don’t just want people in Kent to be drinking them; we want them to be something known all over the world.”

Chapel Down have obviously got big ideas, and it will be interesting to see in what ways the Curious Brew side will expand, once the new plant has been built and is up and running. I can envisage an expanded range of beers as well as draught versions of some of them; although whether the company will want to offer cask variants remains to be seen. In the meantime, keep an eye out for some Curious Brew heading your way; and there is still a couple of weeks left if you wish to contribute to the crowd-funding.

Chapel Down produces a world-class range of sparkling and still wines, together with the award-winning range of Curious beers & cider.  Their sparkling wines are created using the Traditional Method, the same as Champagne, from fruit sourced from their own and partner vineyards across the South-East of England.
…..............................................….sourced from the company website.  

Saturday 13 February 2016

Not Cutting the Mustard

Fellow blogger The Pub Curmudgeon wrote a post a week or so ago, regarding what to do when food in a pub or restaurant isn’t quite up to scratch. The gist of the post was that it is often far easier to return an off-pint of beer than it is food; even when the latter is obviously not right. Blogger Ed Wray commented that it could be unwise to return food, owing to the risk of kitchen staff spitting on, or in it, before they bring it back to you. I backed up this concern with some horrendous stories of kitchen staff exacting their revenge in even more grotesque ways. These actions were recounted to me by a work colleague whose wife used to work in a restaurant.

Leaving these particularly unpleasant stories to one side for a while, Curmudgeon went on to recount how he’d had to return food in various pubs when things weren’t to his liking. He admitted to being a fussy eater; something which I certainly am not. With one or two exceptions, I will eat most things, but the article did  prompt me to think back to a couple of occasions where I had cause to either return my food, or had ended up leaving most of it on the plate.

Fortunately these instances have been quite rare, but oddly enough they both took place last year. The first "food fail" happened just over a year ago, whilst on a CAMRA bus trip in which we visited a few pubs in the Edenbridge area. I haven’t named the pub where the event took place; especially as it was over a year ago. If you are desperate to know which one it was though, I suggest you take a look back to a post I made last February.

Not as good as it looks
To recap we stopped for lunch at a pub in Edenbridge itself, where unfortunately the liver and bacon I ordered was definitely not up to scratch. Not only was the bacon tough chewy and rather fatty, but the liver was undercooked; in-fact it still looked bloody in the middle. Needless to say I didn’t eat it, but I brought it to the attention of the bar staff who weren’t at all sure what to do about it.

It turned out that the licensees were away, and I suspect that had they been present this incident would either not have occurred, or it would have been rectified to the satisfaction of both parties. For my part, I haven’t been back to the pub, and if I do return I will definitely not be eating there.

The other incident, where I was unable to eat what was put in front of me, was in no way the fault of the restaurant concerned; but rather my not liking the manner in which the food has been prepared. This particular "food fail" occurred last August on the evening of the first day of the European Beer Bloggers & Writers Conference in Brussels. It took place in the sumptuous surroundings of the Belga Queen, which is one of the Belgian capital’s finest restaurants.

Posh plates
Our hosts for the evening were the Belgium Family Brewers;  the elite sponsors of the conference, so after the day’s proceedings had finished we all walked the short distance from the conference hotel to the Belga Queen. Here we were to enjoy a three-course dinner, with an impressive selection of Belgian beers to accompany, in the opulent surroundings of this renowned restaurant.

Now this was all happening courtesy of the Belgium Family Brewers, so it seems rather churlish of me to criticise. The meal was a set course, although had I known what was going to be served up I would have gone for the vegetarian option! Roast rack of veal, was the main course – bloody, fatty and far too underdone, for my liking.  Unfortunately for me, this is how the Belgians like their meat! As stated earlier, I am not a fussy eater, but I am not a fan of meat which is rare, bloody or otherwise undercooked. Leaving health issues aside, I find rare meat more an exercise in chewing than enjoyment, and fail totally to see the attraction.

Posh nosh - rather too rare for my liking
I ended up leaving most of the barely-cooked veal, but the potatoes, vegetables and gravy were good, and were sufficient to “fill a hole”. I wasn’t overly concerned, especially as someone else was picking up the tab, and by way of compensation, the company at my table was very good; as was the conversation. In addition, the Belgian beers presented to us were all top-notch and helped increase our appreciation, enjoyment and knowledge of the country’s brewing traditions. We later moved on to the nearby Delirium Bar, where yet more strong beer was consumed.

It seemed however, that I was not alone in my distain of the main dish, as on the walk back to the hotel, I joined several other delegates in popping into a nearby kebab shop for some chips. Posh nosh is not always what it’s cracked up to be, and when you’ve had a belly full of beer you need some real “comfort food” to help soak it up!

A typical Japanese meal
I had some rather strange and exotic food placed in front of me on a business trip I made to Japan, back in 2013, but with the exception of the raw octopus, I managed to eat virtually everything which our hosts offered. The saving grace with Japanese meals is that a range of several dishes are presented to the diner, and you then help yourself; in theory to a portion of everything, but in practice just those items you think will be the most satisfying and least off-putting! The other saving grace is that copious amounts of beer are normally served at mealtimes. This certainly helps wash down food which might not quite be to your tastes, as well as helping to cleanse the palate and mask strong or unfamiliar flavours.

I have digressed somewhat from the question of whether or not to return food which isn’t to one’s liking. As mentioned earlier, my colleague’s wife worked in several restaurant kitchens, and had some horrendous tales to tell about what happened to customers foolish enough to return their food.

As I am sure you can imagine, many chefs have vastly over-inflated egos; just think of certain so-called “celebrity chefs" and you will know what I mean. They tend to take any criticism of their cooking, however well intended, as a personal affront. My kitchen informant recounted horror stories of bogies being mixed into food which had been sent back, as well as spit, but the worst one involved a returned steak. This was unceremoniously wiped around the inside of the toilet pan before being returned to the unfortunate and clueless customer.

I would like to think that most kitchen staff wouldn’t dream of acting in such a disgusting, and potentially heath-threatening manner; if they did, then they should never be allowed to work in catering again. But as it is difficult to know what exactly goes on behind the closed doors of a pub restaurant or kitchen, and hard to predict just how widespread such practices are, I would ere on the side of caution. So if you are served with a meal which isn’t quite right, don’t be too hasty in sending it back.

You may be better off just leaving the food, but if you feel sufficiently strongly about its poor quality, bring it to the pub or restaurant management’s attention. At the very least you should be entitled to a reduction in your bill. In the light of what I have described above, be wary of offers of vouchers or a free meal next time, as you may find the staff remember you, and not in a nice way!

However, most people out for a meal are not looking for confrontation, especially as this can further sour what should be an enjoyable occasion. If this is the case you may just prefer to never eat in that place again. Spread the word amongst your friends and family, if you feel that put out by your experience.

It’s a tricky thing, as we Brits don’t like to complain and cause a fuss, but if we wish to see high standards maintained in our pubs and restaurants, we really should say something; even if it is after the event.

Tuesday 9 February 2016

Sorry Meantime!

I am a big fan of Meantime Brewery, with an appreciation of the company and its beers which goes back many years; so when their PR people sent me a bottle of  IPA 2000 to review, from their “Brewers’ Collection”, I was both flattered and delighted.

IPA 2000 is a limited edition brew of just 1,200 bottles, with each one individually numbered. It is also a big beer in several ways, not least of which is its presentation in a wired corked, 750ml bottle. The other “big” selling point is its 8.0% ABV. 

According to the bottle the beer was brewed to celebrate their 2,000th beer tap; although initially I wasn’t sure what exactly is meant by this rather American sounding term. Apparently it refers to the brewery achieving its 2,000th beer tap listing, although I’m not quite sure how they keep such close tabs on what must be an ever changing market.

So what about the beer itself?  Well unfortunately, in spite of my  high initial expectations, this particular brew doesn’t do it for me at all. The clue lies with the rest of the write up on the back label, as the brewery claim they have combined one of their most traditional styles of beer (Meantime IPA), with Champagne yeast to infuse the beer with a delicate carbonation.

And there in lies the rub, as the label goes on to say that “The complex and fruity flavours of the IPA are allowed to develop and work with the Champagne yeast to give bready notes typically associated with sparkling wines.” Personally, I think the Champagne yeast has worked against the flavours of the IPA and smothered them. So sorry Meantime, this beer really doesn’t do anything for me, and whilst this might have been considered an interesting experiment, it hasn’t worked for me.

I am sure there are many out there who will really rave over this beer, but unfortunately I’m not one of them. This may sound rather churlish, seeing as I was given the beer for free, but I speak as I find, and whilst the beer has obviously been brewed according to the best traditions of Meantime, I am not at all keen on it.

I realise there are all sorts of strange fusions going on at present between the worlds of brewing and wine-making, and I saw plenty of evidence of this in Belgium last year with strong beer being matured in oak barrels formerly used to hold Burgundy wines. To me, these are novelty beers; interesting to try on the odd occasion, especially alongside certain foods, but I know what I like in a beer and feel that using Champagne yeast to ferment this beer muddies the water and detracts from the flavours and aromas one would expect from the malt and the hops.

Sorry Meantime, especially as I’m certain you were expecting a more positive review. That’s probably me off the Christmas card list, or worse and no more invites to new beer launches, but despite this I’ll continue looking out for your more “normal” beers, and more traditional styles, in both the on, as well as the off-trade.

Sunday 7 February 2016

The Compass Alehouse - Gravesend

Earlier today, I visited the Compass Alehouse in Gravesend, in the company of my brother-in-law, David who lives in the town. It was only a fleeting visit, but I was impressed with this clean, bright and airy micro-pub, which has only been open for 15 months.

David calls in at the Compass most Thursday lunchtimes, so he knows quite a few of the regulars, as well as the owners. We arrived shortly before 2pm, and whilst there were a few seats left around some of the high tables, we decided to stand. On tap were Dark Star Hophead, Gadds No. 5, Goachers Gold Star and RCH Old Slug Porter. All beers are on gravity dispense, and are served from an impressive array of casks kept in a temperature-controlled room at the rear of the pub.

I stuck with the Dark Star, as I was driving, but David said the Goachers was also good. Not long after we got there, more people began arriving, but everyone moved up and all those who wanted to sit down were able to do so. There was a good atmosphere in the pub, and being in such close proximity we all ended up talking to one another.

From what my brother-in-law was saying, the Compass has attracted a fair bit of local trade, and certainly makes a welcome change from the nearby Wetherspoon’s . I am certainly tempted to make a return visit, although next time I will make sure I arrive by public transport!

Footnote: no interior shots, I’m afraid as not only was the pub rather full, but the use of mobile phones is actively discouraged.

Saturday 6 February 2016

TJ's Winter Beer Festival Report

The strong ale end of the bar

I popped along to Tonbridge Juddians’ Winter Beer Festival yesterday evening, and spent a very pleasant two and a half hours sampling some of the excellent ales on sale. I bumped into several neighbours and friends; all like-minded souls out to enjoy something a bit different on the beer front and keen to see what the rugby club had on offer.

Like the much larger summer festival, which the club hold in conjunction with SIBA, the winter event has now become a firm fixture on the Tonbridge calendar, with many of the townsfolk looking forward to an occasion which helps chase the winter blues away. There was just the right amount of people in the clubhouse, with enough tables and chairs for those, like myself, who wanted to sit and chat, but with also ample space for those who prefer to do their drinking standing up.

With 24 beers on the programme there was something to suit everyone, ranging from light pale ales and ordinary bitters around the 3.8% ABV level, up to a couple of strong beers at 6.0% ABV. All beers were priced at £3.20 a pint, with purchase being by means of tokens.

I kicked off in the time honoured fashion of starting with something light and low strength, an the form of Redemption Trinity 3.0%, and worked my way on to the dark stuff, finishing with a couple of excellent porters – Brew Buddies Kent Hop Porter, and Five Points Railway Porter, both 4.8% ABV. In between I enjoyed a couple of stronger pale ales, from the same two breweries.

Some of the beers on sale
All the beers were sourced from London brewers, and a chat with TJ’s bar manager, Chris Hardwick, revealed this was quite deliberate. Chris told me that whilst in recent years he had looked to brewers based either in Kent or Sussex, this year he cast his net slightly further afield, towards the big city which encroaches on Kent’s north-western corner. Tonbridge is actually closer, in terms of mileage, to the metropolis, than it is to brewers in places such as Thanet, the far east of the county. Five Points Brewing came out tops for me, with both their 4.4% Pale and the aforementioned Railway Porter proving excellent examples of their respective styles.

This was a good choice so far as I am concerned, and most of the people I spoke to seemed in agreement. What was interesting was that three of the breweries Big Smoke, Brew Buddies and Five Points), had supplied beer which was unfined and unfiltered. Mention of this was made in the tasting notes, and there were also signs, plus a picture of a cloud, on the front of each unfined cask reiterating this and stating that the beer might be slightly hazy.

I remarked to both Chris and fellow organiser, Gary that this was a good idea, and from what I could see this extra piece of information was well-received, with few, if any complaints about cloudy beer. Both stated that the cloud pictures were there to help the bar staff as well as the punters, so full marks to all concerned. I will say though that there is a world of difference between a beer which is slightly hazy, because it contains no finings, and a pint of cloudy, yeast-laden beer common in many of the capital’s craft-beer bars, and famously described by fellow blogger, Tandleman as “London Murky”!
As mentioned in my previous post I had things to do on the domestic front today, so was unable to get back down to the festival this afternoon. Reports on social media, from friends who did manage to get along, suggest the festival was busy, but with a good selection of beers still left.

This is all very encouraging, as events like these help bring people together and, as I said earlier, give the townsfolk something to look forward to. Roll on July and the big SIBA Festival!

Tuesday 2 February 2016

Tonbridge Juddians Winter Beer Festival 2016

This coming Friday 5th and Saturday 6th February, sees our local rugby club, Tonbridge Juddians holding their Winter Beer Festival. Unlike last weekend’s Festival of Winter Ales at the Cooper’s Crowborough, the Juddians’ event is a beer festival held during the winter; but there are some dark winter ales included in the line-up.

Deciding that they couldn’t wait until the SIBA Festival returns in July, the rugby club are going ahead with their very own Beer Festival, which will be held in their warm (and dry) clubhouse.  A selection of 24 interesting looking ales, many of which are new to the area,  will be on sale, alongside a number of real ciders and perrys.

The festival kicks off on Friday 5th February at 5pm (until 11pm) and continues on Saturday from 11am to 11pm. All beers are £3.20 per pint (purchase with tokens) and a special souvenir glass has been commissioned for the festival.

Food and soft drinks will be available at all sessions and the Six Nations rugby will be shown on the big screen on Saturday, featuring France v Ireland at 2:30pm and the “big match", Scotland vs England at 5pm. Described as the "perfect antidote to the dark and chilly February blues", if last year’s event is anything to go by this one is certain to be busy.

Regrettably I’ve got other things planned for Saturday, but I’ll be heading down to TJ’s clubhouse on Friday evening. The beer list can be found by clicking on the link here, and I’m sure there will be quite a few here to whet your whistle.

If you are in the area, or fancy some time out in Tonbridge, then why not pop by and join me.