ON THE AVENUES: Not to mention rack of lamb.
A weekly web column by Roger A. Baylor.
Louisville’s Against the Grain brewpub staged a “swanky” beer dinner earlier this week. The occasion was a visit to Louisville by the gypsy brewers known to the world as To Øl, a pair of twenty-something homebrewing Danes gone commercial, and now making the most of their newfound stardom on a stateside tour.
Prior to the dinner, there was a “happy hour” and meet ‘n’ greet a few blocks over at the Louisville Beer Store, which featured To Øl’s beers and a chance to learn what makes them tick. Unlike NABC, To Øl has no brewery of its own. Rather, the beers are brewed at other existing European breweries with capacity to spare … or this week, in Louisville.
Part of the reason for To Øl’s visit was to brew a collaboration beer with Against the Grain, and it must be conceded that in doing so, Tobias and Tore found just the right hopster partners in creative beer-themed lunacy, the only difference being the customary experience of Danes speaking English better than most Americans. Apart from superb hosts, witty guests and their fine beers, I’ll always remember two aspects of the beer dinner.
First was Chef Reed Johnson’s commendable decision to go raw with a course of quail egg-topped steak tartare, served with sprouts, fried capers and pecerino, and paired with To Øl’s Snowball Saison, an example of “wild” ale with a funky, sour character.
“Yummers,” writ large.
The olfactory memories were immediate and compelling, because the dish reminded me of my good fortunate in being introduced to the concept of traditional Danish lunch many years ago by friends in Copenhagen.
“Lunch” in this usage is a refreshingly elastic concept meant for stretching one’s food and drink consumption from just after breakfast until almost closing time, featuring a steady succession of small plates, tapas-style, and mostly served raw: Herring, steak and eggs, with dense dark flatbread for stacking as well as acorn-sized capers and pungent onions for use as condiments.
Granted, sour ale in the Belgian style would not have been available to us back in those halcyon days, although we somehow made do with glasses of lager and beakers of akvavit (regional schnapps), all of them repeated until the last traveler’s check was gone. One time I spent roughly $300 for my share of such a repast, recalling almost nothing about it the next day.
I’ll never forget not remembering.
Second, on Tuesday night I soon realized that my beer dinner’s glow was not exclusively derived from the sheer joy of ingesting raw meat and quaffing sour ale. In fact, it was almost uncomfortably warm outside following a 70-degree Kentuckiana shirtsleeves day in January, with high winds and even tornadoes expected overnight.
It seems that my memories of steak tartare and uncooked victuals are tied to cooler climes, and crisp evening sweater temperatures in places like Denmark and Finland, even during high summer. It’s a bit incongruent, but this being the Ohio Valley, one merely must wait patiently for a few hours to pass and the weather to turn upside down.
It’s now Thursday morning, and the mercury’s below freezing. I’ll be bundling for a restorative walk, and craving more food designed for colder weather. As I’ve noted in the past, whenever it isn’t a fit night out for man or beast, some dining options are inadequate in spite of their ready availability owing to the wonders of long-distance trucking.
Let’s face the facts: Salade Nicoise, gazpacho, watermelon and corn on the cob neither were meant to be consumed in winter, nor are calculated to warm one’s increasingly creaky bones. Waxen imitation veggies can do no more than offend. Rather, hearty soups, stews, goulash, cabbage rolls and casseroles form integral recipe files deep within the genetic code.
Foodstuffs like these arouse the slumbering distance of ancestors on the continental steppes and in the northern forest, those enduring and resourceful people who during winter reached for the pickled vegetables, delved into cellar for potatoes, beets and onions, and cracked open stocks of salted beef and fish.
This also is the point where the oenophile loses traction. Wine’s fine, the redder the better, but beer excels when it comes to winter’s fortification. It’s true that I’m an evolving apostle of session-strength (lower alcohol) beer styles, but when it’s cold outside and the ham and beans in the tureen are steaming, real beer matches the occasion — beer that is cool, not cold; solid, not puny; and challenging, not simple.
Winter – assuming suntans are appropriately impossible – provides the most suitable conditions for sampling and studying the heavyweight classics that have come to us from Old World brewing cultures, and in turn are embraced and redefined by America’s innovative craft brewers … and Europeans like To Øl.
Among these are multi-faceted imperial stouts, deeply affecting barley wines, potent Belgian Trappists and big, brawny German “double” bocks. Not only do these styles provide ample warming for bodies iced and chilled in the great outdoors, but they also stick to the food that sticks to your bones, when it matters most.
These needn’t necessarily boast double-digit alcohol contents. Doppelbock and Baltic Porter are in the 7%-8% range, ideal to wash down roasted pork and sauerkraut. Robust, jet-black Imperial Stout, once an English export beverage for markets in Russia and Scandinavian port cities, retains its roasty fruitiness in examples at 9% ABV. Forget the fridge and place your bottles and growlers in the basement, or by a cold wall, and begin thinking about the meals to come.
I’m swooning: Steak and kidney pudding, or Bavarian-style Schweinehaxe (pork knuckle with a crisply chewy rind). Smoked salmon and mackerel. Dilled potatoes with butter or sour cream. Pickled eggs and mushrooms as an opening appetizer course. Smelly cheeses and nuts afterward, with the sherry-like vintage Barleywine you’ve been saving, and cigars if permitted. Of course, a snifter of Kentucky bourbon never hurt, either.
Thanks to everyone who made Tuesday such an adventure.