Thursday, April 24, 2014

Organic Gluten Free Belgian Beer

I've just been sent some samples of an organic Belgian beer range, by Van Bulck. They've recently started importing to the UK, having signed up their first few trade customers.

The exciting thing for me is that the range includes a gluten free lager, pictured below. A few years ago, my brother was on a mission to make gluten free beer for my other brother who shouldn't consume gluten. Attempts were made with various GF cereals and seeds, with varying degrees of success. We discussed whether it had the potential to be produced on an industrial scale, but as usual with our numerous business ideas, that's as far as it got.

Since then, a close friend and lager lover has become acutely gluten intolerant, and increasingly fed up by the lack of beer in her life.

I'm very pleased to say that Van Bulck's 5.2% GF lager is delicious. I'm tasting it now. Light straw in colour. Actually smells a bit straw-like and fruity too. It's hoppy and well-balanced, with a long, moreish, malty finish.

Well done Van Bulck! I'm looking forward to seeing your beer in pubs across the UK, and hope it will soon be stocked in shops too, so I can get some in for when my gluten intolerant friend comes to stay. I know this isn't the first GF lager here, but I think it's likely to become widely available and popular. Is it the first organic GF beer in the UK?

Interestingly, it is gluten free due to a 'special brewing process', rather than the use of GF base materials (it is made with barley), so all my brother's brewing efforts with things like quinoa are slightly irrelevant. Although they did taste good, so maybe that could be a possible new branch of GF beer production?

I'm looking forward to trying Van Bulck's white and wild fruit beers over the weekend. They're not GF but I do particularly love white and fruit beer when it's sunny.

Monday, April 14, 2014

La Plagne Family Holiday

In March, I went on a skiing/ snowboarding holiday with my family. I often go with my brothers and various family friends, but this time my parents came for the first time in years, and my sister-in-law and nephew came for the first time ever.

We went to La Plagne 1800, and stayed in a very nice catered chalet. [Gossip: Boris Johnson had stayed in the same chalet two weeks earlier.] The ski lifts and slopes were a short walk away and the snow was in good condition. The food at the chalet was OK - not unpleasant but far from very good. Other chalet guests really enjoyed it so maybe we're too fussy (discerning). The box wine was also OK.

The trip was my nephew's first experience of snow, which of course he loved. One major problem, though, was that he fell ill with a 24 hour stomach upset, undoubtedly picked up from the crèche. The bug then swept through the entire chalet over the course of the week, and almost everyone fell ill and had to have a day in bed. That includes people that were not in our family group, so we felt quite guilty that little Laith had infected everyone on their holiday. What can you do?

View from our chalet at sunset

Most of the patients fell ill on the chalet hosts' night off, i.e. the evening we had been anticipating with the most excitement, as we could go to a restaurant and eat vast quantities of fondue, raclette and the trimmings. So, 1/3 of our family stayed home in bed and 2/3 went to Le Refuge in Plagne Centre. 1/2 of those who went to the restaurant (me and my mum) couldn't eat much. My mum had a couple of mouthfuls of vegetable soup and I didn't order anything as I felt like I might throw up at any second, but nicked some of my dad's and brother's fondue and salad. Others in the chalet fell ill directly after they had enjoyed whole fondues and raclettes, and said they have been put off the dishes for life. Heavy cheese + sick bug = worst combination.

Le Refuge restaurant is highly recommended in online reviews. My brothers had been there last year and enjoyed it. The décor and ambience are 'luxe Alpine' and the food is good; better than the standard mountain tourist fare. We felt a bit smug not going to the restaurant recommended by the chalet hosts, who may have received backhanders for bookings, as Le Refuge was clearly much better in every way.

The Green Team - my bros at the summit

Apart from the bug ruining the gastronomic highlight of the trip, we all had a great holiday, the skiing was fantastic, and it was really special all being together. One or other of us is usually abroad, and my brother, his wife and their baby live in Tunisia.

And after a decade of boarding (badly), I have gone back to skiing. It's a big relief, as I was so anxious if conditions weren't right for boarding that I couldn't turn or do anything and it ruined things for everyone. I couldn't board if the snow was icy or hard or flat or narrow, like in a chemin, or if I was tired. Now I'm only going to board after powder dumps, and am free to roam the mountains on skies for the rest of the time.

A Week Back in France

At the end of Feb, I took my first trip back to France in a whole year. I've never had a gap like that since I moved there in 2002. Anyway, I had a very lovely time, mainly made up of boozy lunches and dinners with old friends.

One lunch party went on all day and all evening, starting with a Vietnamese feast. Julie and Peter Harris had just been on holiday to Vietnam, and as Julie is a chef they had taken cooking classes on the beach. About 20 of us were invited to taste Julie's new Vietnamese repertoire. We had pho to start, which was completely authentic and delicious, and you couldn't tell that some ingredients like Thai basil had been missed out due to not existing in rural France. Normal basil with mint and coriander did the trick. After that we had two different curries with sticky rice. We had such a good time that I somehow didn't get home from lunch until about 1am.

Julie's pho
Me with the Harris' sweet dog, Caramel
Other meals included pizzas cooked in a wood fired oven, a birthday party of raclette with caiparinhas, and lunch at the La Mule Blanche local restaurant. I cooked a couple of times, including roasting a big free-range chicken from a farmer lady at the market - incomparable to supermarket chickens or any that I've had in the UK. The flavour was wonderful, and it came with giblets (including its still-attached head), so I could make really tasty gravy.

Flowers from a friend, in my kitchen

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Wine & Spirits Course

I’ve just had one of my favourite drink adventures so far, and I didn’t even make or swallow any booze. Apart from taking tiny sips here and there, which is unavoidable when tasting very old or expensive or magical wines.

I took the intermediate (level 2) Wine & Spirits Education Trust course, which included lots of home study and preparation, followed by three days of intense learning and tasting – we tried 44 wines. Previously, I considered myself reasonably knowledgeable on wine. Now I know how ignorant I was. It’s embarrassing! No wonder I was lost when choosing Bordeaux! And how can I not have ensured I fully understood the whole process of champagne production, and what makes one champagne differ from another?! And fortified wines? I was clueless!

The problem is, although I am a lot less ignorant than I was before the course, I am now also aware of the remaining gaps in my knowledge. I’ve only gently prodded at the musty surface of a giant vat of wine education. So now I’ve got to save up for the advanced course. 

Rather more encouraging was finding that I do seem to know something about spirits.

UPDATE: I passed Level 2 with Distinction! Whoop whoop!