This event, staged as part of the York Food and Drink Festival 2004, was hosted by the excellent new hotel and bistro Four High Petergate, located in the shadow of York Minster. I was asked to host this evening because in my capacity as "beer expert" (and how I blush to write those words of myself), I'd recently helped them put together a beer menu and tasting notes. This has garnered them a great deal of praise, although I shouldn't take all of the credit; having excellent staff, talented chefs, a great location and that all important sprinkling of fairy dust may also have contributed to the accolades that are presently being heaped upon them.
We adopted the classic "compliment or contrast" scheme of food and drink matching, opting to pair the starter and dessert with one beer a piece, and the fish and meat courses with a pair of beers each. This bit was fine; anyone with a modicum of beer-drinking experience would be able to do this. The interesting bit was arriving at the sell-out event (20 tickets, so a full bistro) and finding "Zak Avery on Food and Gourmet Beer" printed across the menu. Me? Presenting this sold out event? With no mention of the chef or the legion of dedicated brewers who contributed so much more than I ever could? Surely the crowd will cry "Fraud!" as soon as I open my mouth.
OK, enough of the false modesty. There was serious eating and drinking to be done. The welcoming round of Corsendonk Agnus was dispensed and dispensed with. Perversely, this actually proved to be one of the favoured beers of the evening, perhaps because it was enjoyed in its own right rather than paired with food; a visceral rather than a cerebral pleasure? This little-known blonde abbey beer has long been a favourite of mine, its light, perfumed aroma and taste (hints of lemon balm and elderflower) knocking the likes of Leffe and Grimbergen into a cocked bottlecap. Four High have adopted it as their house beer, and apparently it's a huge hit.
The first course of wild mushroom soup with a truffle oil drizzle, paired with Chimay Wit (8% abv) was just right. The soup was very good, fairly light but with a nice earthy depth of flavour, further enhanced by the swirl of truffle oil, which was warmed by the soup and carried the truffle scent all round the room. The beer match was spot on, the earthy muskiness of the soup complimented by the dry, peppery hoppiness of the beer, giving another layer of flavour that was greater than the sum of its parts.
The seared scallops in pancetta (on mixed leaves and with a chilli dressing) were paired with two very different beers, Hop Back Summer Lightning, and Rodenbach Ordinaire (both 5% abv). The rationale was that the Summer Lightning's light citrus and spice notes would work with the scallops, while the Rodenbach's sharpness would act as a foil. In the event, the Summer Lightning was a little bit too light to cope with the dish's surprising robustness, acting more as a palate cleanser, albeit a very pleasant one. However, the Rodenbach was a surprise hit. While I know that it is classically paired with shellfish, especially shrimps, in its home country, I was surprised at its success with scallops. The combination of the sweetness of the scallops and the skillfully crisped pancetta gave an extra savoury, smoky edge to the beer, working in harmony with the sharp lactic and oaky notes, which was such a successful pairing that I couldn't tell if was a compliment or a contrast.
The secret of a good lamb shank, I think, is what it's paired with. The red pepper and chorizo mash and rich red wine sauce that Four High use accentuates the richness of the meat, and so a beer that can cut through and refresh the taste buds is what's needed. Sierra Nevada Pale Ale (5.5% abv) is just such a beer, the classic pithy hop dryness cutting through the rich tastes, refreshing the palate and priming it for another rich, meaty mouthful. Conversely, I suspected that pairing the famed Trappist beer Orval (6.5% abv) with this dish was always going to produce an exaggerated richness. It did, but rather than producing an overpowering mess of flavours, the spicy hop notes in the Orval seemed to give the separate ingredients in the dish an extra harmony, each note (chorizo, lamb, red wine) found some sort of gustatory harmonic resonance in the beer, the Trappist beer demonstrating that the Lord does indeed move in mysterious ways.
Liefman's Kriek (6.5% abv) is a great beer in its own right, and a corker when paired with chocolate, specifically bitter chocolate truffle torte with creme fraiche and wild raspberries. The complex sweet and sharp kriek contrasts beautifully with the smooth richness of the skilfully excecuted torte; the beer glimmers like a polished ruby on a velvet cushion, or if you prefer more prosaic comparison, like a cherry in a bar of chocolate.
Overall, the evening was a great success, and I'd like to thank Neil and Lewis, and their dedicated team at Four High Petergate, for letting me loose on their guests. Long may your beer fridge be emptied and replenished, guys.