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An Ode to Antwerp

Screen Shot 2015-11-03 at 15.20.35As the colder darker weather closes in I am reminded of my first evening in that oh so much more than a diamond den of Antwerp. A beautiful medieval city full of things to see and having done some homework its share of fine ale houses too. Making my way down the quiet cobbled streets towards ‘t Antwaerps Bierhuyske I wondered what sort of place I would find.Screen Shot 2015-11-03 at 14.40.09 Cozy, friendly and stocked with fine malted libations I hoped. As it turned out I was more than right. It was as though a calm comfort enveloped me as I wandered inside. The warmth of the place, the artefacts, the joyful reverence and wisdom with which the bar woman spoke of and carefully poured each beer into its intended individual receptacle. It felt like a place of worship, someplace sacred.   

Screen Shot 2015-11-03 at 15.12.05I began my meditations with the “beer of the moment”, a Bastogne Pale Ale from Brasserie de Bastogne in the French-speaking south of the country. Vibrant, tangy white grapefruit, wild yeasty, with complex lemon oil, and dry bay leaf finish. A real palate waker-upper. 

Screen Shot 2015-11-03 at 14.40.44Then I made a choir boy error; I decided to order their house sampler of four draft beers. Now Belgian beer is notoriously high in alcohol and blending a quartet of them on an empty stomach is a risky venture. I calmed myself somewhat by nibbling on some local cheese, but less than halfway through I was pretty tiddly. However, there was more, I felt something… else. It was if some unseen banished cleric had slipped a few magic mushrooms or some other such hallucinogen into one of my beers. I wasn’t hallucinating as such and it was not an altogether unpleasant feeling, but twere as if the top of my head had slipped over into another dimension. I’m not ashamed to say it; I was high on Belgian (& Dutch) beer. 

Despite feeling a touch other-worldly, I managed to make a few notes about the beers while I hoped that consuming the aforementioned dairy product would stem a complete mental slide resulting in me singing hymns with the urinal.  

Classic Rodenbach Foederbier showed its oak ageing through sour cherry, woody mushroom, lactic black cherry and smooth easy drinking texture. 

Screen Shot 2015-11-03 at 14.41.10I most enjoyed Maximus Brutus, an amber/Vienna lager from new Dutch kids on the block Maximus Brouwerij. It had burnt sugar, some piney resin, pithy citrus, a lovely rich yet clean feel and quite complex. Very very good.

I never found out exactly what Struise Brouwers beer I drank as it changed regularly. What I got was all Fernet Branca and boozy molasses. A truly mystical pagan herbaceous brew with tea tannins on the finish. It scared me a little.  

Screen Shot 2015-11-03 at 14.41.24Last but not least was Lupulus “Dark”, a brown ale from Brasserie Les 3 Fourquets. It picked up the narcotic theme of the evening smelling heavily of “special tobacco” as my father used to call it. My unedited word for word note at the time read “Like drinking BC bud smoothie with essence of pineapple, passion fruit, camp coffee, hint of pine resin”. Nuff said. 

Screen Shot 2015-11-03 at 14.41.35With no more substantial fare than cheese, I was forced to exit stage left for something to sustain me. The place I found was quite inviting, decent food and judging by this photo I thoroughly enjoyed the bread and butter. I managed a couple more beers: La Chouffe Soleil & Patrasche Nello’s but forgotten the name of the restaurant. How odd…

The next night like a good parishioner I returned to ‘t Antwaerps Bierhuyske and having tried all the keg beers the previous evening I endeavoured to find a bottle or two that might be a rare sight in the UK.

Screen Shot 2015-11-03 at 14.42.08My friendly barkeep suggested Westmalle Extra and at 4.8% was a welcome break from the high-octane brews. A good clean mouthfeel held half ripe banana, white pepper, lemon zest, razor sharp acids, faintly grassy, super refreshing and very drinkable. 

Screen Shot 2015-11-03 at 14.42.24The final beer of my pilgrimage was the excellent Cuvée des Jacobins Rouge by Brouwerij BockorLovely tart cranberry, underpinned by some oaky grip, fleshy red fermenting fruits, slightly iron rich and a sanguine finish. I really took my time over this beer, it really asked for your attention. Not in a bullish manner but in a silent focused way that made me appreciate drinking it all the more. A Flanders sour red ale of the highest order. 

And just like that my fleeting communion in Antwerp was over.

Screen Shot 2015-11-03 at 15.01.56I have been to many cities and drunk plenty of beer, but my time in ‘t Antwaerps Bierhuyske ranks right up there with the very best.

Good Beer and food in Tel Aviv

I went out to Israel for work last year, where I happily stumbled upon a vibrant and growing micro brew scene. Though on my 1st night I only managed to try Goldstar, one of only a few mass produced beers in Israel. They had it on IMG_1966draft at Frank, a hot dog palace of some quality. IMG_1962The Goldstar was amber brown, had some dark malt flavours and was very cold. It obviously did the trick with my red hot, because I didn’t even get a picture of it before it was woofed down. IMG_1975

The next day it was as if some unknown force drew me along the beach to Jaffa Port Market, in the beautiful bustling seaside to the south of Tel Aviv. Once inside the market I was reminded of Granville Island in Vancouver, back in my native Canada. A buzzing modern space with restaurants, cafes and stalls selling all manner of consumables. I hadn’t gone more than 30 feet when there it was, my El Dorado. Occupying a prime corner space near an entrance stood Beer Market, one of only a handful of craft beer shops/bars in all of Israel. I felt giddy and exalted perusing the shelves of local brews.

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To begin I sampled the 2 keg beers on offer: Dancing Camel IPA & Hamaka Harishona (First Punch) a Smoked Ale by HaDubim. The Dancing Camel was everything a modern style IPA should be, well hopped, fresh fruity & fully flavoured. HaDubim HH was subtle on the smokiness, had a good balance, overall a decent effort. Beers in hand I installed myself at the little bar attached to the shop, and blissfully spent the next five or so hours drinking beer, eating and talking to anyone who came near me.
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After the draft beers I was getting peckish and was directed by the boys at Beer Market to the hummus stand about 8 feet to my right. The line wasn’t too long, but I waited for nearly 15 minutes because every transaction became a negotiation: more of this, less of that, give me a few of those, before finally the money was handed over. I was getting a lesson in culture while I cued! I got my traditional hummus and spicy Israeli salad. Now I just needed a something to drink… After some back and forth I settled on a Wheat Ale From Malka. Screen Shot 2013-11-06 at 17.04.29Tucking into my grub & sipping the beer I fell into a sort of trance, the kind where the harmony of food and drink are completely in tune. The hummus was out of this world, as good as I have ever had; the sort of texture that bordered on the sensual. I was thankful for the bracing electrical chilli heat and citrus crunch of the cucumber tomato salad, as it kept my moaning with every bite to a minimum. Screen Shot 2013-11-06 at 17.03.21

Personally I think wheat beers are a versatile match for lots of cuisines. Good examples like Malka have a fresh lemony acidity and herbaceousness to them, which cuts through richness and cleans the palate. At the same time they have a freshness which allows them to pair well with more delicate dishes as well.

IMG_1997I chatted some more with the guys and met Hadubim brewer Dagan while I sipped a draft pale ale from Shapiro, which was perfectly good.

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I was getting hungry again and only had to go about 3 meters to a stall selling sandwiches, where I procured this rare roast beef beauty. The bread was as soft as velvet and biting into it, I felt a surge of endorphins as my pleasure center lit up. The flavours of that oh so tender beef balanced perfectly against the crunch of lettuce and sting of mustard. Of course another beer was needed so I returned to Dancing Camel and their very good APA. It had a lovely weight and richness, with a persistent but not overwhelming hop character. A superb match for the sandwich.Screen Shot 2013-11-06 at 17.05.08

What struck me most as I sat watching men and woman of different ages come and go at Beer Market, was the genuine excitement that illuminated on so many faces as they saw or heard that all these beers were brewed in Israel. The country doesn’t have a brewing history as such and I felt as if I was glimpsing something at it’s very beginning.

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My most vivid recollection was of three men in their late 50’s. Working lads with broad shoulders and calloused hands, one with a pack of cigarettes rolled up in his short sleeve shirt. They were hunting the shelves, asking questions and making their individual selections with the all the care and focus of school boys in a candy or comic shop. Their purchases made; they stood at the till admiring their choices, smiling to each other, giggling here and there, their eyes glinting with mixture of mischief, anticipation and pride.

Screen Shot 2013-11-06 at 17.03.01Time was getting on so I had to get back to my hotel and freshen up. But I wasn’t about to leave without a few souvenirs, so I bought a half dozen bottles and bid farewell to my very gracious hosts.

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My gastronomic adventures did not end there though. IMG_2018That evening I went with a colleague to the heaving Port Sa’id for dinner. It was obviously a place very popular with the young and trendy set of Tel Aviv and we had to wait for a table. Once sat the menu arrived, all in Hebrew, so after some help from the waitress we ordered an array of dishes.

This smoky fruit Barkan Shiraz hit the right notes without being too in your face and paired well with our meal. Though the first thing I tasted wasn’t even ours,IMG_2008 it belonged to the very friendly locals on the next table, who let me try this beautiful beetroot carpaccio with garlic yogurt while we waited for our food to arrive. IMG_2012

Now not having a menu to refer to I sadly I don’t have an exact recall each plate. But the flavours! I can still taste the unique spicing, texture and seasoning nearly a year on.

Things like Beans ‘Masabaha’ Salad, slow cooked beef, BBQ lamb and an astonishing roasted cabbage were all utterly delicious.

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The menu changes daily depending on what the eclectic chefs are able to source, but Port Sa’id is a must for any foodie visiting Tel Aviv. A real gem.

Sadly I wasn’t able to see much more of the city during my short visit, due to my work commitment. I felt though that I’d gotten a small taste of this exceptional city, and it’s fascinating inhabitants. I came away with a greater appreciation and respect that I had not anticipated. For that I am truly grateful.

La Degustation Boheme Bourgeoise, Prague

Last September I was in Prague for a stag party. Though I use the term “party” in the loosest sense as it consisted of the groom to be, the best man and myself. Being a trio of mature (ish) men we thought that we would buck the trend and have a Michelin starred meal… before we got terribly drunk and shot automatic weapons with a stinking hangover.

I knew nothing about Degustation Boheme Bourgeoise, a smart 40 seat spare corner building in Prague’s Old Town.  They only do tasting menus, 6 or 11 courses with the option of a wine to pair. Of course we went the full 11 with wine.

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Honestly, I was a bit tipsy when we started but believe things went a bit like this…

We started off with an amuse-bouche: I loved the fatty/creamy/texture combo of the Fried Chicken Skin, Chicken Liver Pate with Lokus Sweet Wine Jelly. Never having tasted anything like Black Bean & Black Truffle Croquette before I was suitably wowed by their rich earthiness which complemented each other wonderfully. The Grilled Onion, Sheep Yoghurt with Thyme & Onion Chips was a perfect palate cleanser and delicious foil to the others.

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The courses that followed were…

1. Trebon Carp & Sour Milk. A fascinating, delicious & beautifully textured dish of shaved frozen local carp, poppy seeds & sour milk semi freddo. It was served with an excellent Matthias Czech Sekt (Love saying that!) by Proqin Ltd. It was a pairing made in heaven as the crunchy textures played off the spitz of the fizz. A real winner!Screen Shot 2013-08-19 at 15.56.27

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2. Russian Sturgeon Caviar & Prague Ham. A bit foggy on this one. Do recall the sweet smoky ham set against the sharp saline intensity of the caviar. The yellow stuff was a mayo… I think. Loved the texture of the spoon as well. Was paired with a very good Riesling In der Wand by Pichler-Krutzler. The combo I don’t think wowed me.

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3. Farm Chicken, Sweet Corn & Radish. This was one of the most memorable pieces of poultry that I have ever eaten. Crispy skin, the meat pink shiny & pale was so moist that I needed a towel. The foil of pillow soft sweet corn puree set against the sharp crunch of the radish & cauliflower was supremely judged, a dish of real skill. The wine was local Ryzlink Vlašsky (Welschriesling) 2010 by Mikrosvin Mikulov which did the job just fine.Screen Shot 2013-08-19 at 15.57.44

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4. This Langoustine, Oyster & Amaranth certainly looked impressive served atop it’s warm cobble stone. But for me it lacked execution and the langoustine itself came off 2nd best. We were served a homemade lemonade to break up things up booze wise which was a nice change.

Though our waiter did slip us a rather special Gavi MonteRotondo Villa Sparina. Bad waiter…

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5. Local Třeboň Catfish, Moravian Sparkling Wine Sauce & Cabbage was sublime. Texture as well as flavour played off each other wonderfully. The gentle crunch of cabbage, meaty tenderness of the catfish & all held together with the acidity of the Sparkiling wine sauce. Wine was an accomplished Veltlinske Zelené aka Grüner Veltliner by Kořínek.

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6. Foie Gras & Grape juice Jelly.  Chef returned to his frozen grating method that worked so well with the opening dish of carp and translated beautifully with the foie gras melting in your mouth supported by the sweet acidity of the grape jelly. Never experienced foie gras like this before. A highly intelligent dish. Wine, an excellent Barriques Oubliées, Muscat de Frontignan 1995 which matched perfectly.

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We had just past the mid point of the 11 courses and I was really starting to feel all that wine not to mentioned several beers before dinner. But backing out now was not an option…

7. Beef Tenderloin & Dill Sauce was so less than a revelation. Another combination that absolutely sent my palate into rapture. Even a year on I can still taste that sous vide tender beef (cuddled to death I’m sure) and robed in rich slightly aniseed dill sauce. We stayed local with a decent oaked Sauvignon Blanc by František Mádl.

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8. Mnetěš Pigeon, Lokus Wine, Pumpkin was perfectly nice dish. I don’t recall it changing my life in anyway and having to follow that beef was always going to be tough. I probably have served the pigeon before the beef. But hey it ain’t my restaurant. The wine was an superb Barolo Sori Ginestra 2005 which paired well.Screen Shot 2013-09-04 at 17.05.14Screen Shot 2013-09-04 at 17.04.36

 

 

 

 

9. Beef Tongue, Yellow Pea Puree, Mustard was another tasty dish but it didn’t stay with me. To be fair I haven’t eaten much beef tongue. Recall the sauce being rather special, rich and textured. The wine was another Czech offering from Stapleton & Springer Cuvee Rouci which honestly I don’t think I was wild about. But I may have hit the wall.

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We were nearly the end, my energy was waning but just two more dishes to go.

10. Wagyu Kobe Style Beef, Eggplant, Ponzu Sauce would normally have caused much more of a stir around around the table were it not right at the end of a long boozy meal and and even longer boozier day. The execution was faultless, a balanced and delicious dish. Wine was a Hess Cabernet Sauvignon 2007 that didn’t wow nor offend. Screen Shot 2013-09-04 at 17.37.41Screen Shot 2013-09-04 at 17.37.14

 

 

 

 

Nearly there…

11. For dessert we had a couple choices and I opted for the unpronounceable Olomoucké Tvarůžky. Tvaruzky is a mature cheese made of skim milk which has been produced in the region for hundreds of years. Soft & sticky in texture it had a salty, spicy flavour. The biggest reason that I ordered it though was because it came with a wheat beer from cult Czech brewer Matuška. It did not disappoint and was a great match for the cheese. My pals went for the Chocolate Sorbet, Raspberries & Mint which looked melted to me. But perhaps that was the look they were after…Screen Shot 2013-09-04 at 18.06.03

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All things considered in terms of the amount to drink and the marathon nature of the meal I was quite impressed. There were some divine dishes, flavours that have stuck with me over a year on without a single note.

So if you are going to Prague and want to treat yourself then do book a table at Degustation Boheme Bourgeoise. If you are on a budget though I can heartily recommend Lokal next door. It’s a beautiful beer hall serving all manner of traditional Czech food and is owned by the same group Ambiente.

Slovenia Part 2

Last year I travelled to Slovenia a guest of P & F wineries to sample the wine and food of this much underrated wine producing country. This is the 2nd half of my time there where I visited P&F’s cellars in Ormoz & Ljutomer. Our farewell lunch was Gostilna Ribic in Slovenia’s oldest village Ptuj.

Storm Beer Bali & Mee Goreng

Last September I had the pleasure of attending a friend’s wedding on the beautiful Indonesian island of Bali. Before that though I was hanging out in Seminyak and came across Storm Beer. I was very impressed with their Golden Ale and it went a treat with the Mee Goreng.
I shot this on my iPhone and the quality wasn’t too bad at all.

Pic St Loup: Part Two

I wanted to get Part 2 & the final instalment to mark the year (plus a few months) anniversary of my very special trip to Pic St Loup in Coteaux de Languedoc.
After falling in love with the south of France on a trip to Roussillon a few years back this trip was another memorable adventure in gastronomy, culture and of course wine.
The passion & warmth of the people of this region will be with me for a long time and for that I thank them from the bottom of my heart.

Sipping in Slovenia Pt 1

I travelled to Slovenia this year invited by winery Puklavec & Friends to sample the wine and food of this much underrated wine producing country. My first 24 hours were spent on the Istrian coast near the town of Portoroz. We stayed at the beautiful Kempinski Palace Hotel, sampled wines from Vina Koper, Tilia Estate and ate at Solni Svet. More to come…

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