Bremen food and drink roundup

Bremen town hall. Image from Bremen tourist board.

I wonder if there’s a body out there that can rescind qualifications you’ve acquired in the past. Since a GCSE passed with flying colours 20 years ago, the only German I’ve encountered has been sung at me on my iPod by David Hasselhoff and the odd choir – and you can tell. Reduced to gurning, miming and pointing over schnitzel and pig knuckles, I am reminded that the brain is a muscle, blah blah blah, and that a mild attempt to keep up learned skills in adulthood might not have been a bad thing. If you intend to enjoy eating while travelling in a European country where you don’t speak the language, you could do a lot worse than pick up a copy of Eating Out in Five Languages, which fits nicely in your handbag or a coat pocket and covers 10,000 restaurant and food terms in English, French, German, Spanish and Italian. I found it invaluable, and it’s always reassuring to know that the words for lark, nettle or lung are just a quick flip away.

If there were such a thing as a bloggers’ licence, I should probably have that rescinded too. I’ve just spent a week in a city a-throb with UNESCO World Heritage sites, and I managed to leave my camera out of the hand luggage while trying to get the case to meet Ryanair’s weight restrictions, and forget to put it back in again. All the pictures you see here are courtesy of the Bremen tourist board.

So, you’re in North Germany. You’re probably thinking sausage, and you’re definitely thinking beer. The local cuisine is heavy on the meat, light on the vegetables, tends towards onions for flavouring rather than garlic, and favours mustard and caraway above pretty much every other spicing. You’ll find the local foods all over the city, in bierkellers, restaurants, and in the biergartens strung like beads along the river Weser.

Your first destination in Bremen should be the market square. This is where all the UNESCO World Heritage goodies are – a statue of Roland and the gothic fruitcakery of the Ratshaus (town hall), both built around 1405. If it isn’t supper time yet, you can fill any gaping holes you might possess with a wurst; there are three permanent stalls here to the left of the town hall where you can pick up a sausage in a bun, with some potato salad, or without any accompaniment at all. Currywurst (in Bremen sometimes called Kanzlerschnitzel, or Chancellor’s Schnitzel – any German speakers know why?) is a popular choice: a grilled sausage slathered with sweet tomato sauce, then dusted with garam masala. There’s no chilli heat at all in one of these beasts, but plenty of flavour from the curry spices.

Bremen Ratskeller. Image from Bremen tourist board. Kobolds etc. probably lurking in barrel.

Underneath the Ratshaus, you’ll find the Ratskeller, an enormous cellar tavern which originally housed all the wine sold in the 15th century city. Now, if you are someone with a horrible addiction to computer role-playing games of the medieval fantasy sort (not that I know anyone like that. Oh no), you’ll be all over this place. It’s the perfect instantiation of ye olde cellar tavern, all vaulted ceilings, sconces just aching for a flaming torch, cast-iron stands for your coat and your sword, and gorgeously baroque dark wood carvings. Seated next to a gargantuan wine barrel with armorial markings from 1740-odd, I was perfectly primed for an attack from a party of kobolds while I wrestled with my Bremer Knipp.

Knipp (pronounced with a hard “K”) is a very local dish you’re unlikely to find elsewhere in Germany. The closest you’re likely to have come to it in the UK is a haggis; Bremer Knipp is made from oats, beef liver, pig’s head and pork belly, seasoned with onion and some sweet spices, all minced together into a patty and fried crisp in lard. You’ll be thankful for the pickled gherkin it’s served with, which neatly cuts the fatty richness of the Knipp. We found ourselves big fans of Bremer Knipp; if you’re someone who enjoys offal, you’re likely to like it too. (If you’re a haggis-avoider, give it a miss.) The local dishes seem to be by far the best at the Ratskeller: try the Labskaus, a sort of corned beef, potato and onion hash.

Two minutes’ walk away you’ll find Böttcherstrasse, about 100m of narrow medieval street as reimagined by 1920s expressionist architects in brick. It’s a jewel of a place (look out in particular for the Haus des Glockenspiels, where a carillon of bells made from Meissen porcelain plays an eight-minute concert on the hour in the daytime) lined with little shops and restaurants. We particularly enjoyed the cavernous Ständige Vertretung, a beer hall themed, rather weirdly, around German politics. My, the conversations we ended up avoiding for reasons of cultural sensitivity over our herrings. Beer here – frothy, crystal-clear Kräusen from the local Haake Beck brewery by default, although you can choose other beers – is sold in little 20cl glasses, which are topped up as the evening goes on. (They’re fragile; clink, if you must, with the bottoms rather than the tops. My friend T ended up with a shard of glass in his pilsner.) A tally is kept on your beermat; it’s easy to drink a lot like this, but when you feel you’ve had enough, just pop your beermat on top of your glass.

Take a left at the top of Böttcherstrasse, and with another few minutes’ brisk trotting, you’ll find yourself in the Schnoor district, a maze of medieval streets. Restaurants here tend towards the touristy (avoid the Beck’s restaurant), but Schröter’s Leib und Seele, especially on a sunny day, is a great lunch spot – and there were more vegetables on the menu here than I saw anywhere in the rest of the city. It’s attached to Schröter’s Konditorei (cake shop), so save plenty of room for dessert, which is the best part of the meal here.

Paulaner's beer garden in the evening. Image from Bremen tourist board.

The city’s set up for long, drinky evenings. You’ll find atmosphere in buckets in all the places I’ve mentioned, but on a sunny day you’re best off by far along the river embankment (Schlachte). Here, you’ll find a line of terraces under the trees, where you can eat from the restaurants opposite the river. At weekends, pigs appear on spits, mackerel is grilled over coals and things get substantially busier than they are in the week. We spent a lot of time sitting at the picnic tables here, soaking up a positively professional amount of beer with sausages and schnitzel. My favourite spot along the Schlachte is Paulaner’s, where there are actual honest-to-god beer wenches, with boobs hoisted up near their chins on a sort of lacy shelf arrangement. Great schnitzel, too, served at this time of year with beautiful fat white asparagus and hollandaise (everywhere has a seasonal menu featuring asparagus at the moment; I wish we’d pick up on this idea in the UK), along with a totally unnecessary lake of butter.

Alcohol-aided bravery might be necessary for you to try out another local trick in the beer gardens: white wheat beer with a shot of flavoured syrup. You’ll find banana (a really surprisingly good flavour match to the hoppy Weissbier), cherry and Waldmeister (woodruff), which turns your beer a startling green and gives it an aromatic, honeyed flavour. Woodruff beer is also called Mai-Bier (May beer), and is meant as a particular springtime drink. Just be ready for a little teasing when you order one of these – on ordering a Pilsner and a banana-flavoured Franziskaner Hefe-Weisse I was told by a smirking fella in an apron: “Hier ist das Bier für einen Menschen. Und hier ist ein Bier für ein Mädchen.”

Even I have enough German to understand that.

Little break in Lille

The nice folks at Eurostar and Little Break, Big Difference invited me and a gaggle of other food bloggers to come with them to Lille for a day of foodie tourism. The basic idea here seems to be to demonstrate that destinations like Lille are so close to London that you can hop on a train in the morning, fill a day with Gallic excitement, and then pop back home on that same train in the evening. Once you’re at St Pancras, you’re less than an hour and a half from Lille – and Lille’s station is under five minutes’ walk from the old town centre, so there’s really very little excuse for my not having been before. It’s also, at around £60 a return ticket, far cheaper than I’d realised.

And if you’re the sort of person for whom a day’s food shopping, hunting for French tableware, tasting nibbly bits, soaking up atmosphere and dabbling at cookery lessons sounds just about perfect, you could do a lot worse than emulate the day’s itinerary that was organised for us, perhaps with a slightly later start and an evening meal in France (we left London at 7am, which meant a 5am start for lots of us, and returned before supper time). I don’t usually enjoy pre-organised, structured tourism (I get a lot of pleasure out of organising and planning things myself and get depressingly snobbish about guided tours and package holidays). Fortunately the company was so good and the city so packed with interesting food and drink – breakfast, a lunch cooked by the group at l’Atelier des Chefs, a cheese and beer tasting and an awful lot of pâtisseries – that I found myself enjoying being in something that would have felt a bit like a tour group if everybody hadn’t been quite so single-mindedly seeking out and photographing food.

It’s August, so northern France has emptied out. Lille was wonderfully quiet, especially before 10am, when the shops opened, giving us a great opportunity to take some pictures of a quiet, sunny city. We started with a spot of pâtisserie and chocolate shopping; this bread is from Aux Merveilleux de Fred (67 rue de la Monnaie), where fez-sized meringue merveilleuxes, sandwiched together with a dollop of buttercream and encased in chocolate, were also being prepared. (Sadly, a fez-sized meringue does not travel well, so Fred’s merveilleuxes remain unsampled – if you can visit in the morning you’ll have a very enjoyable few minutes watching them being made through the window.) We did buy a baguette here to sample as soon as the shop opened, and it was excellent in the way only something this fresh can be, with a crackling crust, a soft and yeasty crumb, and a total refusal to fit comfortably in anyone’s bag. We then overwhelmed the poor staff at Patrick Hermand (Rue Basse), a modern pâtisserie in a tiny lacquered box of a room, where about twenty varieties of macarons were on offer, alongside these joyous pâtisseries. Note – what you are seeing here is cakes with macarons embedded in them. A large box of macarons came home with me.

On to Meert (27, Rue Esquermoise), a pâtisserie and restaurant opened in 1761, where we sampled deceptively slim and delicate waffles in the beautiful baroque dining room at the back of the shop. They might be slim, but these waffles or gauffres are, unusually, stuffed with an incredibly dense buttercream spiked with flecks of vanilla, and at this time in the morning I could only manage one, praying inbetween bites that death from an overwhelmed gall bladder would wait until I was finished. A photograph of me enjoying a waffle a little bit too much has been put on Flickr by the ladies from Little Break, Big Difference. Note that I’ve only managed one mouthful so far in the picture. Merveilleuxes were available here too, and we split one between four, helped down with some scented, fruity iced tea and a few gallons of coffee. Shopping at Meert is well worth your time even if you don’t choose to sit down for a bite to eat; you’ll find all kinds of pâtisseries, caramels, fruit jellies, chocolates, miniature waffles and some excellent teas and coffees.

A brisk trot through town, giving us a chance to enjoy the sunny morning, to a cookery class at l’Atelier des Chefs. If I’d been planning the day myself, there’s absolutely no way I’d have been involved in cooking my own lunch, but if you are the sort of person who enjoys casual classes and an introduction to local produce a
nd flavours, you might want to look into a session here. (L’Atelier also runs classes in London and many other cities – check their UK website for details.) Divided into groups of four and clad in very swanky Eurostar-branded aprons, we had a quick drink in a room full of kitchen equipment for sale. Once in the kitchen, we were talked through the preparation of tiramisu made with speculoos, the delicious caramel and cinnamon biscuits you’ll find served alongside coffee in these parts; then we prepared cod flambéed in honey and fleur de bière, a hoppy, floral eau de vie distilled from beer. A pleasant but not fabulous meal (the honey/fleur de bière sauce made for a very unbalanced, candied flavour profile which doesn’t sit well with cod) – and once we were perched on stools to eat our meal at a table surrounded by shelves and shelves of more expensive merchandise, I found myself wishing we’d gone to L’Huîtrière in the old town instead. But I am an avowed grump who does a lot of cooking – as you are doubtless of a sunnier disposition, your mileage may vary.

We were met at Le Capsule (25 Rue des 3 Molettes), a fantastically atmospheric little bar full of French emo kids, by Aymeric Gillet-Chevais, the president and founder of ATPUB, the French version of CAMRA. Down in the damp (and very dark, so I’m showing you a picture of the town square instead) cellar, he talked us through French beer culture, and told us about the different producers. The bar is not tied to a specific brewery (unlike a shocking 99% of French bars), so you’ll find 130 beers on the list from minuscule breweries, many very close to Lille itself. We worked our way through four beers; I particularly liked Page 24, from a small brewery 35km outside the city. Chicory is a common addition to northern French beers, says Aymeric, who must have France’s very best name; and this blonde beer packs a bitter punch, rounded off with a lovely coriander nose. Four local cheeses from Philippe Olivier (3, Rue Curé St Etienne) were served too, and it is to my eternal misery that a family emergency had closed the shop for the afternoon, because I would have murdered for a slab of the Maroilles we ate to take home.

We had about twenty minutes before having to dash for the train, so I visited La Capsule’s sister shop, l’Abbaye des Saveurs and stocked up on beers and some other local goodies. Happily for all those of us in the EU, the shop also has an e-commerce arm. Homeware shops, cookware shops and delicatessens proliferate all the way round the old town, so you should be able to find some foodie bits and pieces to take home (save this for the end of the afternoon – if you’re only around for a day, you’ll be doing a lot of walking and this is no fun with four litres of beer, a camera and a bushel of macarons in your bag) no matter how little time you have.

You’ll find more about the day on the blogs listed at the top of the post, and video and more pictures have been unleashed on the Internet by the Little Break Big Difference ladies. I have to admit, I’m not too sure what went on on the train on the way home. I fell asleep.

Plevna, Tampere, Finland

I’ve just spent a few glorious computer-free days in Tampere, about 200 miles north of Helsinki. The snow is deep, the sausages are plentiful, and the best of the local beer is flavoured with birch tar.

Tampere, like most Finnish cities outside Helsinki, has surprisingly few Finnish restaurants. Every other restaurant seems to be a burger place or a kebab shop. Our flight got in very late, and the only open restaurant in our hotel was Amarillo (every Finnish town has a branch of Amarillo – some have two), a Finno-Tex-Mex. Remarkable stuff, like nachos made by people from the Frozen North who appear to have seen a picture of some nachos once upon a time. They came with bits of smoked Finnish sausage, smetana and soft Finnish cheese. Surprisingly tasty, but not nachos like you’ve ever seen them.

Happily for those looking for honest Finnish stodge that hasn’t been interpreted through a Mexican filter, Plevna, a microbrewery in an old cotton mill by the city’s rapids (incidentally, this was the first building in the Nordic countries to be lit by electric light back in 1882), produces some seriously stodge-tastic drinking food and some breathtakingly good beers. We’ve suggested to them that they send a couple of barrels to this year’s Cambridge Beer Festival. You’ll find local favourites like perry, cider and sparkling mead on the drinks list, along with light-(ish) choices like wheat beers and pilsners. Things start to get seriously, seriously good with the stouts, porters and syrupy dark lagers, which seem perfectly adapted for a cold, snowy Finnish March. There’s a long list of hearty, beer-friendly food like reindeer steaks, sausages, pork knuckles and rostis with mushroom sauces.

Each of the menu items has a little number at the top, indicating which of the beers on the list will be best alongside it. Portions are enormous – the Hop Grower’s Board (the bock is recommended with this starter) here, with rolls of smoked ham and beef, a local garlic brie, creamy prawn tartare, pate and lovely sweet Finnish pickled cucumber is meant to be for one person. We split it between two. A goat’s cheese salad arrived for one of the friends we were dining with. It was a bowl of salad about the size of his head with a whole, hand-sized grilled cheese perched on top.

The main food event at Plevna is the sausages. You can try Tampere’s local speciality, mustamakkara (Tamperelainen on the menu), which is a black pudding, crisp on the outside and moist with rye grains in the middle, traditionally served with a spoonful of lingonberry jam. It’s delicious, and at €9.50 it’s one of the cheapest things on the menu. (Mustamakkara also pops up at every hotel breakfast buffet in town, and it’s a great way to start the day.) You can choose from a selection of several German-style sausages, and if you’re unable to make a sausage decision, you can just ask for the sausage pan, full of bratwurst, Thuringerwurst, herb and cheese sausage and little sausages stuffed with pearl barley. It’s served with a creamy potato gratin full of bacon, and I defy you to finish the whole dish. Spoon over some of the sweet Finnish mustard (a real treat, this mustard, and I’ve come across Finns on holiday in England who keep tubes of it in their pockets when they are invited to barbecues – look out for toothpaste-like tubes marked sinappi in supermarkets) and enjoy.

It wasn’t the recommended beer, but #11, the Rauchbier James was a wonderful accompaniment to the smoky sausages. It’s a smoked, tarry drink; dark, fruity and syrupy. Don’t worry about tomorrow’s headache – you can deal with it in the sauna while you sit back and plan another meal.

Beer-leavened rye bread

Why is rye flour so tricky to get your hands on in the UK? I’ve been craving rye bread ever since we were in Finland, and ended up sending away to Shipton Mill in Gloucestershire, where you’ll find some extraordinary speciality flours. How about mucking around with some Swiss dark flour, organic chestnut flour or something called Emmer wholemeal – an ancestor of modern wheat? There are eight white flours alone, including a specialist cake flour, a French white flour especially for baguettes and an Italian variety for ciabatta. Shipton Mill is fantastic for baking nerds.

I ordered a few kilos of flour, including some dark rye. I’ve not handled rye flour before, so I’ve started here with a relatively easy recipe (no sourdough starters, which need feeding for days), where the rye flour is supported by some strong white wheat flour. The gluten in rye is more fragile than wheat gluten, so you’ll need to treat the bread dough a little more gently than you might with a loaf made entirely from wheat. The beer and brown sugar give the bread a lovely malty quality, and we really enjoyed it with some smoked salmon, capers, diced shallot and crème fraîche. To make two loaves you’ll need:

375 ml beer (use something with some bite – I used an English bitter)
125 ml water
5 tablespoons softened butter
1 tablespoon soft brown sugar
1 teaspoon salt
200g dark rye flour
350g-400g strong white bread flour
1 pack instant yeast

Melt the butter and heat the beer and water together until they are lukewarm. They should be around body temperature – test the liquid on the inside of your wrist. Stir two tablespoons of the butter, the sugar and the salt into the beer and water mixture until the sugar and salt are dissolved.

Sift the rye flour and instant yeast into a large bowl, and add the lukewarm liquid to the bowl, beating with a wooden spoon until the mixture is smooth. Add the strong white bread flour to the bowl a handful at a time, stirring all the time, until you have a soft dough. (You may find you do not need as much as 400g of flour to achieve a soft dough; you will probably need somewhere between 350g and 400g.) Make the dough into a ball and leave in the bowl, covered with a damp tea towel, for 15 minutes. This will help the gluten develop.

When the dough has rested for 15 minutes, knead it for five minutes. (This is less kneading than you would require with an all-wheat bread.) The dough should be soft and no longer sticky. Coat the inside of another large bowl with another tablespoon of butter and put the ball of kneaded dough into it, covering the dough ball with a tablespoon of softened butter too. Cover the bowl with the damp tea towel and leave in a warm (not hot) place for two hours to allow the dough to rise.

After two hours, punch the dough down and knead it gently for one minute. Divide the dough into two and form it into two round, flat loaves on baking sheets covered with greaseproof paper. Allow the bread to rise in a warm place again, this time uncovered, for forty minutes, while you heat the oven to 190° C (375° F). When the loaves have risen, drag a serrated knife across the tops to make a pattern.

Bake the loaves for around 45 minutes (start checking them from about 35 minutes in) until they are golden on top and sound hollow when you knock on the bottom. Glaze the loaves with the rest of the butter, melted. This bread is delicious served while it is still warm, but will keep for a few days in the bread crock.

Beer can chicken

Your eyes aren’t deceiving you – this is a chicken with a can of Guinness bunged up its how-do-you-say. With a dry rub, it’s a brilliant, if slightly obscene way to cook chicken. The beer, flavoured with some of the spicy rub, steams the chicken from inside, resulting in a juicy, delicate flesh, while the skin cooks to a crackling, caramelised crispness.

My friend Lorna pointed me at this extraordinarily cheap roasting stand from Amazon when I complained that my beer can often threatens to topple when I make this dish. It’s worth spending a couple of pounds on a stand like this (bend one of the wire loops to fit the can onto the little dish; it’ll keep the chicken nice and sturdy along with the can). If you don’t own a stand, just make sure that the chicken is resting levelly on the can. Don’t be fooled into using the chicken’s legs to balance the beast – they’ll shrink and change shape when they cook.

To roast one rude-looking chicken to perfect succulence you’ll need:

1 plump chicken without giblets
1 can of beer
2 heaped tablespoons ground cinnamon
1 heaped teaspoon mustard powder
1 teaspoon chilli powder (I like powdered chipotles for this, but you can use cayenne pepper)
1 teaspoon allspice
1 tablespoon salt
3 heaped tablespoons soft dark brown sugar

Snip through any strings holding the chicken’s legs neatly together, and spread them out. Mix all the dry ingredients together in a bowl and rub them all over the chicken, then add a tablespoon of the rub to the cavity of the chicken and smear it around a bit with the back of a spoon. Leave for the flavours to penetrate for two hours at room temperature. Meanwhile, open the beer can, pour half of the beer out and drink it. (This is a fun recipe.) Use a metal skewer or a nail and hammer to make a few more holes in the top of the half-full beer can.

Put a tablespoon of the remaining rub in the can with the beer. It will froth and bubble, so add your rub carefully. After the two hours are up, rub any remaining spice mix onto the chicken and push the bird carefully, bottom (that’s the end with the legs) first, onto the upright beer can, as in the picture. Roast the whole apparatus at 180° C (350° F) for 1 hour and 30 minutes, remove the bird carefully from the can without spilling any beer, and rest for ten minutes before serving. (If you are a lucky person with a large and easily controlled barbecue, try cooking the chicken in there over some flavourful wood – it’ll be delicious.)

Don’t be tempted to use the hot beer as a sauce. It’ll taste bitter and revolting, so just pour it down the sink. Let the chicken’s natural juices (there will be plenty, and they’ll come out of the bird as it rests) act as a gravy. This is a great dish with a salad and a pilaf or cous cous. Serve with a couple of nicely chilled cans of whatever beer you used in the cooking.

If you’d like to try a different take on beer can chicken, I’ve come up with a recipe for a slightly Chinese-ified version too – enjoy!

Prague – beer, dumplings, veal, more beer

I think they knew I was coming; nothing in the world is more likely to get me into a restaurant than the words SLOW FOOD in great big yellow capitals.

I am delighted to note that every single restaurant menu in Prague appears to be bi-, and occasionally tri- and quadri-lingual, so ordering is a doddle. This sign was displayed outside a restaurant called U Modrého Hroznu (Husova 15 Praha 1 – Staré Mesto). It’s next to a beer hall frequented by Václav Havel, the ex-president (it was shut this morning; I’ll try to post from there later in the week), and good smells were seeping out through the cracks around the door. We spent about thirty seconds wondering just how we would feel about dumplings, decided that those feelings were mostly positive, and went in.

The restaurant is tiny, and has two rooms; the one we were in has only three tables, so if you’re going in the evening you’d be well-advised to book.

Our waiter was strangely dour. I can only surmise that his puppy had just died. We grovelled with gratitude over the excellent food, beamed at him, told him how happy we were to be in his beautiful city – and were rewarded with a stubbly glare which later degenerated into an outright snarl. No matter. The food was coming thick and fast, and my, it was good.

Czech food is heavy. This is a country where protein is king, and offal is treated with the respect it deserves rather than being consigned to emulsified bags of pulp, fried and fed to schoolchildren and cats, which is what we seem to do with it in England. Dumplings there were in profusion. I had spoken earlier to a Czech lady who told me the story of her parents’ courtship; her father had nearly jilted her mother a week before their marriage, when she first cooked him a dumpling. ‘It was like tennis ball, or dinosaurus egg’, she said. ‘Fortunately she also was very pretty.’ The dumpling clearly occupies an important place in Czech culture which elevates it to the position of National Preferred Starch, and is, apparently, surrounded by all kinds of arcane etiquette. Perhaps our attitude to dumplingkind was what was making the waiter so grumpy.

Flavoured butters arrived. The red one was pounded in a pestle and mortar with sun-dried tomatoes and a very strong onion, the round yellow one with roast garlic. The long sliver is a beautifully lactic and sweet butter of the kind it’s easy to find on the continent and almost impossible to get your hands on in the UK.

Mr Weasel and my Dad led the field in beer-ordering. Only one was on offer in this restaurant – a pale, wheaty Pilsner with a glorious flowery aroma.

Intent on the whole Czech experience, I ruined it all by ordering something Italian for a starter – a carpaccio of beef. My Mum, across the table, had an endive and carrot salad with a sugary lemon dressing, and Mr Weasel and my Dad opted for a pate. The carpaccio was advertised as coming with Parmesan shavings, so it was a surprise to find soft gratings of something a bit like Gouda spread about the plate, but it was extremely good; the raw steak was soft, tender and meaty. The pesto in the centre of the plate was home-made and sharp, but again made with something that wasn’t Parmesan; it was still very good indeed.

The main course arrived, heavy with dumpling. These were bread dumplings (that which looks like moulded potato around the edge of the plate), and I had been expecting something small and round; instead we got slices of something loaf-shaped. (I found a recipe here if you feel like having a go. The dumpling is so light that it has to be sliced with a thread.) The dumplings were airy, and soaked up the rich, reduced sauces with our meats. In the picture is a pork potroast which was strangely delicious, but somehow not entirely European. The glossy, dark sauce had been spiked with a light soya sauce and some sesame oil; the richness of the sauce, the thick meat and the light-as-air dumplings were a triumph together.

Weiner Schnitzel came, fried to a perfect gold in that delicious butter. Two goulashes (‘the best in Prague’, according to the waiter, who now appeared on the verge of suicide) were inhaled by the men almost as fast as the beer. The only low point came with the one dessert that was ordered (Mr Weasel, hypoglycaemic again); his chocolate banana was a banana dipped into Nutella. In the restaurant’s defence, it was pretty clearly a dessert marked out for children, and, as my mother pointed out, it was a very nice ripe banana.

Now, clearly, it is not in your interests if I keep going back to the same restaurant every day until Tuesday. I am, however, sadly tempted. Tomorrow, I shall be investigating the Christmas market, and attempting to purchase edibles and somehow store them until Christmas for presents without eating them. Perhaps I will get something for the sad waiter and see if I can make him crack a smile.

Beer or pudding?

Meantime Chocolate Beer, from the Greenwich brewery, is, they say, specifically aimed at women, who, according to those marketing it, drink alcopops in preference to beer. Nonsense. Some of the best nights (and worst mornings) of my life have been courtesy of the Cambridge Beer Festival, where both Mr Weasel and I have ‘worked’ (I use the term advisedly) as staff in previous years. One of the things that swung the choosing of our present house for me was its handy location next to a real-ale freehouse with a fantastic restaurant (nothing like having your Fenland ale within staggering distance – those who email me and appear reasonably sane will be told where it is, but I’m not publishing its name here for fear of people breaking into the house to steal my cake). Beer and I have a glorious, long and ultimately pretty intimate relationship. Girlie beers are not for me.

Or are they? A while ago, when Sainsbury’s started stocking Meantime Chocolate Beer, I thought I would try an experimental bottle of the stuff. Damn me if they haven’t come up with something grown-up, silky and both beery and chocolatey at the same time. I may be a real-ale bore, but this stuff, marketed to death and not out of a pump (it is, however, bottle-conditioned, which means that new beer and yeast is added to the finished beer in the bottle, making it finish its fermentation and develop fizz after the lid has been put on) is just magnificent. There’s not a hint of sweetness to it; any chocolate flavour is the smooth, dark, dry taste you get from a very high cocoa-mass chocolate and not overpowering, and it combines beautifully with this extremely malty, quietly hoppy beer to make something quite disturbingly drinkable. A note of vanilla ties the malt and chocolate together. This is definitely not a novelty beer. If you’re in Sainsbury’s, pick up a bottle; I think you’ll like it.

Now, clearly, buying only one bottle of beer would be the action of someone who wasn’t thinking awfully hard. I was thinking hard. So I bought another. My second bottle was one of Liefmans‘ utterly gorgeous Kriek, or cherry beer, which comes wrapped in a pretty twizzle of printed paper.

Perhaps I do like girlie beers.

Liefmans Kriek is considered one of the very best cherry beers. (Kriek, by the way, is pronounced ‘Creek’, if ever you are in Belgium and struck with a terrible craving.) It’s an unexpectedly sour drink which almost makes your mouth pucker; tart and fruity, but rounded and terribly, terribly delicious.

The beer is a deep, wine-red, with a pretty pink head. (No photograph in the glass, I’m afraid; I forgot to take one before I started drinking, and the glass has lipstick and fingerprints on it. Disaster.) It’s unfiltered and unsweetened (important, this; lots of cherry beer is sweetened, and it’s not anything like as good), and so full of cherries they almost dance in front of your eyes as you sip it. There’s a hint of almond, possibly from the cherry stones. It’s like a wonderful fruit juice. A wonderful fruit juice that makes you fall down and giggle.

Yeast. This week it’s my number one microbe.