Saturday, 11 November 2017

A day in Antwerp drinking beer with Miss Foodwise Regula Ysewijn

Regula Ysewijn, Oud Arsenaal, Antwerp,

Regula Ysewijn,  Antwerp, Modeste beer festival
cafe, Antwerp, Belgium
beer sign, Antwerp, Belgium
Regula Ysewijn,  Antwerp, Modeste beer festival

She looks like a children's book character, drawn perhaps by Ronald Searle; a Flemish Mary Poppins, a tiny waist, auburn hair piled up in ornate pin curls, red flowers clipped in.
'Hook in!' she cries, proferring a red-coated elbow, the hand at the end of the sleeve holding aloft a tall frilly umbrella.
We link arms as we cross the rainy main square in Antwerp. There's the grand station at one end, the central zoo next door, heralded by a copper boy on a verdigris camel. As we stride, petticoats swirl and brush the full skirted tartan dress, her lips cherry red against pale skin. Regula Ysewijn gets up at 4am every day to coif her metre-long hair, which has never been cut.

She admits to being a little bit OCD, using consecutively her mobile phone, the umbrella handle or that sharp elbow to press lift buttons or open doors.
'I like things clean. I'm a bit strange,' she explains in her Flemish accented English with slightly anomalous cockney glottal stops. 
'I usually carry anti-microbial gel. I'm such a busy bee. I know life is short.'
Regula is organised and energetic. At the moment she is simply glowing - her career has taken off. Her first book 'Pride and Pudding' was a triumphant success, winning Radio 4's The Food Programme's best cookbook of 2016. Her second book 'Belgian Café Culture' came out in Belgium and the UK simultaneously. She has also been chosen to be a judge on the Belgian version of Bake Off

Following her around Antwerp, I see people do double takes 'is that...?'. She's becoming famous.

Today she is taking me to visit a small festival called appropriately The 'Modeste' Beer Festival, which showcases craft beer companies from Belgium. At the entrance we pay three euros for a glass, and at each stall we pay a euro for refills. People are pleased to see Regula, they hug her. The men are thrilled that a woman knows her beer. We walk around the festival, sipping beers, while Regula tells me stories.

  Antwerp, Modeste beer festival

Why do you like beer?
I like the heritage of beer; it’s such a big part of our history. If we didn’t have any beer, we would have died. We wouldn’t be here anymore. Beer kept us alive. 
The whole misconception is that people drank beer rather than water, because the water wasn’t clean enough, some part of that is true. The main reason was that it gave much needed sugar and calories. Children drank beer.
It's the most beautiful, natural drink in the world. I’m extremely proud of that. It makes me proud to be Belgian or Flemish.  
There are 2 types of beer that are incredibly special to Belgium, which can’t be reproduced anywhere else in the world - our Lambic and our Gueuze beer.
These are made with spontaneous fermentation and can only be made in the Zenne valley because of the specific bugs in the air, a certain bacteria. It is purely terroir. It is more like a wine than a beer. It tastes like certain natural wines.
Like a sourdough mother? 
Yes. You don’t often see Lambic out of the brewery. 
We have this process of 'cutting' the beer - Gueuze is basically a blend. We call it 'cutting', but it's blending a young lambic and and an aged lambic. Those two mixed then fermented a little bit more in the bottle, becomes Gueuze beer. It's more approachable than Lambic beer. 
They also make a heritage cherry beer, Kriek. It's not like cherry beer in the UK, which is sweet. This is sour, tangy, tastes like the kernel of the cherry, bitter almonds. It's made by chucking in whole cherries in the last fermentation. No sugar involved. 
In commercial Kriek beer, there are added sugars, adding cherry juice not actual cherries. They also make it with plums.
 Do you prefer beer or wine?
Beer is cheaper. My husband and I prefer to share a bottle of beer for our dinner. We prefer to have one bottle, then perhaps open another. Our beer is stronger. 
People in the UK are made for drinking a lot of liquid. If I meet UK drinkers they always say, when are you finishing our beer? I drink slowly.

Do you have your favourites at this festival?
I have to say hi to the man who made my beer - Zageman or 'Sawman' beer featured in my book 'Belgian Café Culture'. Another beer I like is Flemish red, a beer that was created in Belgium to mimic English Porter ales. It's from the west of our country, named after Rodenbach, who was a poet in West Flanders. It's also made by cutting a young and old beer, with spontaneous fermentation. But this is sour but sweet, while Lambic is sour and bitter. This is my favourite beer, but it has an old-fashioned reputation. When I was travelling around working on my book and drinking, when I asked for Rodenbach, they'd say 'you are so young to order that!'. 
I taste the beer. It has an amazing colour. The glass is filled with an effervescent burgundy liquid. The taste is surprising.
It's very special. I want to make sure this beer is kept (as part of our heritage). Each beer has its glass. Rodenbach had a rebrand in the 1990s. This is a balloon glass with a narrow neck. Before it was a straight-sided glass for Rodenbach. 
We don’t do pints in Belgium. This is a regular Rodenbach. It's really smooth; they usually have a grand cru too.
We sip. Regula notes expertly as we taste...
Sour, interesting, complex, dark, glowing colour. Smooth. Fruity, malty, caramel, no added sugars. It’s brewed and put into wooden barrels that are standing a bit tilted, so the air can get in. You can get lacto-fermentation. 
It tastes like natural wine, I can see that.
You can’t compare this to a hoppy beer. This is heritage beer: much older. You would go to the seaside and drink Rodenbach with a free bowl of grey shrimp. 
There is one cafe in Antwerp that still does this, but only in October. The prawns  are not peeled you have to peel them yourself, the cats are happy to get the shells. I last went there in February which is crazy because I try to visit them regularly.
So grey shrimp and red beer...

It’s like you feel a personal responsibility to keep the Flemish beer going? 
Yes, I do feel that responsibility, and to keep the cafes going. That’s why I did my book. I like to keep track of them. I told them all: 'If something is going wrong with your café, let me know'. If there is a problem, contact me, so I can try to do something. We have to make sure that no more cafés disappear.
A lot of them are disappearing? 
Yes, sadly. 
What are they being turned into?  
Burgers bars, hipster hangouts, sometimes just flats. Quintessentially a Belgian cafe is a living room cafe. It's a female job. They are often started in someone's front room. It’s like a supper club. They feel like homes. 
There are different cafés in Belgium of course, like the big Grand Cafés, which have nearly all disappeared. Cafés around the fin de siècle. 
Are landlords whacking up the rents?
Yes. Landladies are retiring, Children don’t want to take over. They often just get turned back into houses. They often don’t look like cafés. My dad went with me on my café tour. And we were looking for a café, but the sign had already gone from the facade, you didn’t even know which house was the café. The neighbours said: 'Oh just go in, just push that front door'. It was like a normal front door. And behind it was a café. The only thing you could hear was the ticking of the clock. And there was no one there. It was really warm. It looked like someone had just left. There was that kind of ambiance. No empty glasses. It felt like someone had just got up and left. So we were like: Hello? Hello? Helloooo? A lady came, who was really old, like 96,97. Really old. The oldest café landlady in Belgium. She just got a glass, got a pint, filled it up.  
I believe that having a café keeps you young. It’s like making a pact with the devil. All those café landladies look beautiful. They are all old women but they have this glow, because they are so loved, the kind of love that they are surrounded with in the community, makes them beautiful. They are queens of their community. There are a couple of landladies that I visited, and they told me that their birthdays turned into village fetes. Everyone would come, people would bring stuff, and they'd create this whole feast because the landlady was like everyone's grandmother.
What about the legalities of it? The one area I have to be careful of is that I can’t sell alcohol.
It is easier. I haven’t seen any hard liquor. They just do beer. It's alright. They have this kind of deal because they are so old, they can continue.
So if you tomorrow wanted to set up something like this, could you do it legally?
No, I think I'd have to get a license. I think it's quite easy though. I know from Eastenders that you have to have a licence and get an education. 
I have a personal but not a premises license. People bring their own. Do these cafes do food?
No. They are open, very traditional village ones, or the ones that are close to a factory, from 6 in the morning, closing around 9 or 10. Open again at lunchtime. Then again in the evening at 5pm until 8 and then they close.
People going to work, coming home from work?  
With cheese you’d start with the mildest. How do you taste these beers? Is there an order?
In beer you’d start with the sours.
You can’t start with the hoppy ones. 
We taste another beer, Liefmans, 'Golden ribbon', which is darker, creamy, more like Guinness or Pelforth Brune. We share a glass as neither of us wants to get too drunk. I watch the barman slice off the foam with a knife.
Just smell it.  
A lot of sweetness, very malty. Horlicks almost. It's like gravy.
Only one beer like this. New beer cut with brown beer. Very close to older type of beer, sour. They become better and better, that's why they use Champagne corks. You can keep them for years like good wines. Some Trappist beers are 20 years old.
Regula frowns: 
This is also one of my favourites: but I feel like it’s changed.
It’s now owned by Duval, which is a big brewery buying up other breweries. They also own De Koninck. They are magnates.
It’s a very good beer, but it’s an everyday beer. 

Liefmans beer,, Antwerp, Modeste beer festival
Harbour cafes do food - home cooked things like bangers and mash. In the harbour of Antwerp, workers would wait until the foremen came in and say 'I need 5 guys'. If they don’t get a job, they stay in the cafe, otherwise their wives will be angry.
Like 'On the Waterfront'? Are there harbour cafes left?

There's one left. In Antwerp, it's called ‘Diner’ - well, not exactly, but that's the nearest translation. It has long benches. But as the port of Antwerp moved more and more out of the city, all those cafes disappeared, only a couple left. 
You don't really enter them but I did. I nearly got my face smashed in. It was a real harbour cafe with dock workers, they have a waiting room across the street. They created this so people don’t drink up their pay. But if they don't get a job they go across to the café cos they don't want their wives to know they don't have any work that day. 
So I went in there. The first question I got was not 'What do you want to drink?' but 'What are you doing here?'.
There were pretty girls behind the counter and a bunch of dockworkers around but the conversation stopped, the moment I walked in. This is not a place that women come. This is a man's place. There are no women in dock workers cafés because all the men have a wife. It's not considered proper that a woman would be in there, like a prostitute or something.They are all working fathers and husbands. If you are someone's wife, someone's girlfriend, then you are completely welcome but usually they don't go there. If there are regular women coming in, the wives at home would be annoyed. 
So I said 'Who is the owner? I’m writing a book and I need to include this'. There was this Afghan guy who was managing the place, he said: 'You can take photographs because a lot of the people here will not take it well.' 
Were they possibly not legal? 
They are legal, they are all Belgian people. But there's this atmosphere around dock workers. They are not criminal but they like to keep up that sort of appearance. A lot of them do have problems with the police. They do not want their pictures to turn up anywhere.
No female dockworkers, I assume?
There is one. They do not like her. Problem is she can’t take the work. It’s hard physically. So the others have to pick up the slack. They don't dislike her personally but they don't want to be in a crew with her. Because we have to work twice as hard. She thinks: 'It’s my right, you can't discriminate.' If something drops. She will not be able to lift it. 
I went in and I took a picture and it was against the light, so the people in the photo would be black. They were really cross with me, yelling at me. So I flipped a switch in my head and starting talking their language.
Listen men, I want to document your cafe. For my book about cafes. And they said: 'You want to include our cafe?' 
I explained: 'I want real cafes. I want where people are attached to the café.' He went, 'Tell me about it'. He completely defrosted. Like 'Wow you are respecting my gaff.'
I can tell you watch Eastenders. (Laughs.)
He’s used to people looking down on him, because he's a dock worker. He’s considered the lowest of the low, historically. Many of the people working at the Antwerp docks, still today in Antwerp, generations have been working there. 
I explained: 'I am here to honour your place here.' Ok, there was some dirty language. 
I suddenly noticed there was a fish on the table. I asked why. The angry guy mellowed: 'It’s my fish. It’s smoked trout. I smoked it. Another guy caught it, I smoked it.' He was really proud. I could see his face change. He was not used to being considered as a person. He said: 'Hey, do you want to taste my fish? 'Hahaha,' everyone laughed. He took the fish with his hands.  
I wasn’t offended. I said: 'Oh yeah I’ll have a taste.' It was the best smoked fish I’ve ever tasted. It was really good, really natural. He was proud, and told me: 'When it's summer we are eating crabs, entire crabs here. In posh places they’d cost a lot.' These people are living the real life. Not hipsters with their aeropresses. In crab season, the guy you know from around the corner, he’s got crabs. I spent the entire afternoon with them at the cafe. The second cafe I went to, even old café owners, asked me: 'You went to Petra? You actually went in?'
Really, it is their defence mechanism. Their entire community is built around a lot of respect. They keep to themselves; they’ve suffered a lot of disrespect. They had a big demonstration in Antwerp a couple of years ago.The dock masters have changed the system, the workers can no longer choose who they will be in a crew with. It was a new law, put into practice so they could get more foreigners. The problem is, this is unsafe. They all know each other. They have each others' backs. Every month or so, people die. The big containers they drop, they drop. They have eyes on each others back. If they are being put together with an immigrant who doesn’t speak the language, it’s dangerous. It’s nothing to do with racism, it’s dangerous.
There were fires in the street, vandalism. It wasn't them, but it was blamed on the dock workers. They didn’t even consider that there were other people starting those fires. They are so disappointed by our society, that they keep to themselves. Me going in there, I became one of them. They have their own society: for instance, they just smoke in their cafe, they don’t give a fuck. 

We spend a long time at a final stall, with the man that has brewed a special beer for Regula 'Zageman' or 'Sawman'. Zageman is a kinetic toy that is placed on the bar or a table when someone is nagging or droning on. Regula collects them. 

I taste his Kriek or cherry beer. It's my favourite so far. 
frites, Antwerp, Modeste beer festival
I also order some frites with fantastic mayonnaise and some cheese croquettes. Sublime. Especially in the rain. Some foods always taste better when eaten outside.
In the afternoon, Regula and I take the metro to the centre to visit the wooden panelled Oud Arsenaal bar. The atmosphere is friendly, noisy and warm - the sound of enjoyment. The owner makes jokes with Regula as she perches over the bar, tartan skirts and petticoats sticking out behind her. Regula points out the decor:
These tables used to be red. The owner he wanted this to be exactly as his father had it. They used to be marble so he got someone to paint them with a marble effect.
There are regulars. Opposite us, sitting at the table, a couple always come here every Saturday for a bottle of Cava.
They all know me as the lady of the book. I did my launch here. My lady 'Sawman' is behind the bar. 

owner of Oud Arsenaal bar, Antwerp, Belgium
Oud Arsenaal, bar, Antwerp

Regula and I are collaborating on a Flemish style supper club on December 6th, which is also 'Sinterklaas', the feast day of St. Nicholas, the historical basis for Santa Klaus. 

Inspired by Breugel's table, Regula's knowledge of Flemish historical food, and my visits to Ghent and Antwerp, we will create a Belgian supper club with a twist. 

Do book quickly as tickets are bound to be popular. 

Sinterklaas supper club with Regula Ysewijn (Miss Foodwise) and MsMarmitelover, tickets £50 with Belgian beer tasting.

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Tuesday, 31 October 2017

Southern style pumpkin cinnamon buttermilk 'biscuits' recipe

pumpkin cinnamon buttermilk 'biscuits'

These aren't your normal English biscuits, twice-cooked until crisp in an oven, rather, they are American style biscuits, something we'd call savoury scones (which don't really exist). In the south, they have biscuits with gravy for breakfast which I think sounds vile. But then again I'm not a big fan of the whole crispy/soggy food combo thing; I'd never touch chips with curry sauce either.
But I ate American biscuits in New York at Dirt Candy: light, flaky, fudgey, sweet, a little sour, with yellow pepper jam and pumpkin butter which was brilliant. This is my version, tweaked from this recipe. You could also add cheese to the recipe which I would do next time. I paired this with a tomatillo chutney but pumpkin butter is a great idea.

Southern style pumpkin cinnamon buttermilk biscuit recipe

pumpkin cinnamon buttermilk 'biscuits'

Makes 10

1 small squash, skinned, chopped, roasted
2tbsp olive oil
300g plain flour
1/4tsp bicarbonate of soda
1tbsp baking powder
1tsp sea salt
1tbsp soft brown sugar
1tbsp cinnamon, ground
90g butter, cold, grated
150ml buttermilk

Preheat your oven to 220cº
Prepare your chosen squash by roasting it in a little olive oil in an oven at 220cº for 30 minutes or until soft when prodded with a skewer.
Combine the flour, bicarb, baking powder, sea salt, sugar and cinnamon. You can freeze the butter or use directly from the fridge, grating it into the dry ingredients and rubbing it together or pulsing it in the food processor. I used salted butter as I like salt but you can use unsalted butter if you like.
Add the buttermilk and the pumpkin, pull the mixture together for a few minutes without over-mixing.

Flour your clean work surface and press out your dough, folding it several times to get layers, then pat down until it is half an inch thick (1.5cms).
Using a round cutter dipped in flour, cut out as many circles as you can. Don't twist the cutter, you want them to bake upright not bent. Gather the scraps and cut out some more until the dough is finished.
Place them on a baking tray covered with parchment paper or a silpat (touching or not touching - touching gives you 'soft sides', not touching gives you 'crusty sides').
Bake for 20 minutes or until golden.

More pumpkin recipes and what wine to drink with them in my column at winetrust100.

Wednesday, 25 October 2017

Swede wins the Golden Spurtle World Porridge Championships

Porridge with dried Moscatel grapes

October marks both 'World Porridge Day' and the Golden Spurtle World Porridge Championships, the latter in its 24th year. Virtually every culture has some kind of porridge: the Chinese have 'congee' rice porridge for breakfast, Russians eat buckwheat 'kasha' every day,  Indians have 'Daliya' a cracked wheat porridge, Persians have 'halim' a savoury wheat porridge. But this closely fought competition takes place in the small misty Brigadoon style village of Carrbridge, in Scotland, arguably the home of porridge. 
On Saturday morning, during a light drizzle, a bagpipe band in full kilted regalia, piped the 24 contestants into the village hall where the contest would take place. They hailed from all over the world: Iceland, Sweden, Norway, Ireland, England, Switzerland, Holland, and Russia. Last years winner Bob Moore of Bob's Red Mill, from Portland, USA, had returned to defend his crown. 
There are two categories to the competition:  classic porridge, which could use only three ingredients, oats, salt and water. Rolled oats are not allowed, only milled or pinhead oats. 
In the other 'speciality' category, entries included the 'full English breakfast' (with cheese, eggs, bacon, sausage and mushrooms) porridge, a porridge frittata, a porridge waffle, a porridge Cranachan, and a blueberry syrup porridge. In the past winners have included a curry porridge by Aberdeen surgeon Dr Khan who always brings his lucky spurtle.
What is a spurtle? Simply described, it's a thick wooden stick. The thinking is that a spurtle is preferable to a wooden spoon, for porridge does not get stuck in the crevice, although one regular competitor Neil Robertson, who is so proud of winning that he's had it tattooed on his arm, has invented a 'double backed' spoon called a 'spon'.  
"I sell thousands of these every year" he claims.
Nick Barnard is so obsessed with porridge that he started a company Rude Health, selling oats. His secret trick is to use a copper pan and whip the porridge rapidly with the spurtle. Virtually all the competitors soak the oats overnight:
 'An oat is a seed, it needs soaking, slight fermentation in order to access the nutrients'. 
Some competitors use a mixture of oats, coarse, medium and fine. 
'Fine milled for the creamy texture, coarse to give some al dente bite' said Nick 'it's very much like a risotto'. 
Porridge oats, Avena Sativa, tend to grow best in cold rainy northern hemisphere: places like Scotland, Scandinavia, Russia or Canada. Finland is the biggest producer of oats. Bob Moore explains:
 'You need a miserable climate to grow oats'. 

The Golden Spurtle has four different heats in which six contestants stand before a double burner: one for the traditional, the other for the speciality. 
The atmosphere was tense, an excitable buzz, in the village hall as the Mistress of ceremonies declared:
 'Light your burners' then
 'You now have 30 minutes to make your dishes'. 
The Swedish and the Irish had noisy supporters singing football chants. Watching the competitors I could see that Thorbjorn Kristensen from Norway had shaking hands and a sweaty brow. 
I sneaked backstage to listen in on the judges discussion of the first heat entries. 
A series of white bowls containing porridge, from pale to ivory, from stiff to loose, were lined up down the table.
 'This is a bit claggy.' said one judge with a look of distaste. 
I tasted all six bowls of porridge of the finals. It was incredible how different the same ingredients can turn out. 
The Golden Spurtle winner was Sweden's Ellinor Persson:
 'I don't have measurements I just go with the feeling' 
She bounced up to accept her gold plated trophy while wearing a blue and yellow Swedish traditional costume (mini skirt version). Her compatriot Per Carlsson, who practises every morning, won the Speciality category with his cloudberry porridge.
The celebration in the pub afterwards, with traditional Scottish music, was lengthy and joyous. The trophy was passed around while drunken participants swung each other around in a version of a Ceilidh dance. 
What did you think of the winner? I asked Nick Barnard.
'There are two ways of making porridge and I'm clearly on the wrong side of the divide' said Nick with a brave smile.
'Do you think the winners are picked for political reasons?' I probed.
'Oh no. No. '
Guorùn Kristjànsdottir from Iceland was more direct:
 'The Swedes win everything - the Eurovision and now the porridge championships' she said glumly.
Will you be back?
'Oh yes.' 

The Perfect Porridge recipe

Serves 1

40g pinhead or milled oats, soaked overnight
250ml water
pinch of sea salt

Bring the oats and water to the boil, then turn down to a simmer, adding the salt. Cook for around ten minutes.

To top you can either add one ingredient or several, to make a 'micro biome' healthy porridge.
In the version at the top of this post I added dried moscatel grapes to add sophisticated sweetness. 
In this version I added 14 ingredients including nuts, seeds, spirulina powder,  desiccated coconut, carob molasses, goji berries, bee pollen, baobab powder. 

Judging porridge: Golden Spurtle Porridge Championships, Carrbridge, Scotland, 2017