May 24, 2009

abbott 002

Abbott Ale is full-flavoured and smooth. There’s a hint of malt and overtones of spice and really I can think of no better brew to settle down with in the corner of a pub and get quietly sozzled.

When I lived in Cambridge this was my favourite tipple. It’s brewed in Bury St Edmunds by Greene King (who also make the lighter IPA – Indian Pale Ale). So I associate Abbott with the huge, melancholy sweetness of the flat East Anglian landscape. Big skies and nothing but fields and streams from here to the horizon, with only the occasional church spire soaring up, from Cambridge to King’s Lynn to the Norfolk Broads.

Cambridge is a great town. The Backs, where the river’s sandwiched between ancient colleges and a meadow, is perhaps the loveliest spot. You can picnic on the grass, or take a punt, or wander over bridges and through cobbled streets to find a likely watering hole.

If you want a bite to eat with your pint of Abbott, a Ploughman’s Lunch would be good, or a fish pie, or just cheese on toast with a dash of Tabasco sauce.  Try to get your Abbott on draught. While the canned version crops up in most supermarkets, it doesn’t match the real thing. The delicacy of the drink simply disappears.

And if you can’t find it on tap, take a visit to Cambridge. You could work your way through dozens of brilliantly old-school English pubs. The Eagle, just near Market Square, was one of my favourites. Or there’s The Anchor, The Granta and The Mill, all right on the river.


Bishop’s Finger

November 11, 2008

What is it with the British and Real Ale?

I used to think it was just nostalgia, in a similar vein to gentlemen’s clubs and scones for tea. And that the paid-up members of CAMRA (the Campaign for Real Ale, don’t you know) would be rather the kind of people who might belong to a Lord of the Rings Appreciation Society (the book, not the film). You know the type I mean, with a predominance of facial hair and brown cords. A liking for plaits (the men that is). Dressing up as Bilbo Baggins at every opportunity. Over engraved silver tankards of home-brew, considering earnestly whether Frodo was actually the illegitimate son of the Elf-Lord. 

Maybe it’s the names of the ales that put me off. What sort of drink is called Dog’s Bollocks? Or Lion Slayer for that matter, or Roaring Meg, or the tongue-twisting Boat Brewery’s Locky’s Liquor Locker Liquor? (Try saying that when you’ve had one or two.) Like the quaint villlage names of middle England (Much-Happening-in-the-Marsh, Little Piddling) or the hamlets of Middle-Earth, they sound ever so nice, but rather hard to take seriously.

As far as I was concerned, there was only one point to Real Ale. To get drunk quicker. Period.

I had my first encounter with local hops when I was about 17 and staying in Wiltshire with a school friend. It was my first really rural experience too and I remember how large the sheep were, so shaggy they were almost menacing. In the local pub everyone stared at us, of course, as we necked 5 or 10 pints each of something very dark and strong and flat.

We had a thing for pork scratchings at the time, I remember. The ones in this pub were so much the genuine article that they were covered with bristles, which we found a little bit too rural.

The purpose of the evening, naturally, was to get utterly and irrevocably pissed. I succeeded in this very well indeed, so well that the room actually went round and round, a phenomenon I’d heard of but never witnessed. It was quite exciting. And then I was sick, and slept and in the morning woke feeling hungry and very pleased with myself.

Which all in all, seemed like an interesting milestone of a memory but no incitement to explore ales any further.

And then I came across this and realised How Wrong I Was.

The Bishop

The Bishop

Otherwise known as Nun’s Delight. Number 4 in a poll by the Independent of the best British bottled beers (just below Waggle Dance and Summer Lightning). With a generous fruity flavour, says the Independent. Yummy, I say. Good with some strong English cheese, like Stilton. Certainly not a tipple to get drunk on, it’s too rich for that and why waste it?

I know you’re dying to ask, so I’m going to do it for you. Why is it called Bishop’s Finger? This bit is a tad cutesy, but there you go, we’re English and we do cute well…it’s called Bishop’s Finger after the finger-shaped wayside signposts in Kent (where it’s brewed) that pointed the way for pilgrims travelling to see the shrine of Thomas a Becket in Canterbury.

And it has it’s own charter (really!) and can only be brewed on a Friday (sorry, this is real Tolkien appreciation territory) by a head brewer using an antique Russian teak mash tun (honest!). And wearing a white druid’s robe and silver headdress.

Actually I made that last bit up. Ignore it. Hand on heart, Bishop’s Finger is the dog’s bollocks.