A religious experience in a restaurant

To be “intoxicated” means, literally, to have been shot with a poisoned arrow, thanks to a roundabout philological journey involving the old Greek word for bow, toxon.

The same root led to the made-up word “toxophilite” for people who practice archery for sport. Early in the 19th century the Royal Toxophilite Society used butts (that is, “archery grounds”, unrelated either to “butt”, a 108-gallon cask, or “butt”, posterior) near Lancaster Gate, just north of Hyde Park in London. In an apparent attempt to attract the custom of the society’s members, a pub nearby in Bathurst Place changed its name some time after 1831, when it opened, from the Crown to the Archery Tavern.

The Archery Tavern was an airy, attractive retreat from the thundering traffic of the Bayswater Road, the sense of being deep in the country rather than just a short walk from Marble Arch and the hordes of Oxford Street increased by the occasional clack-clack of hooves as horses from the mews next door were ridden out to exercise in Hyde Park.

Sadly, the pub closed at the beginning of 2006. Some 18 months later, however, it reopened as the Angelus Restaurant, run by the French-born Thierry Tomasin, who was head sommelier at Le Gavroche in Mayfair for 12 years and then general manager at Aubergine in Chelsea, where he gained a reputation for open-minded willingness to try beer as well as wine with fine-dining menus.

The Angelus doesn’t seem to be that bold in its standard menu yet. But it was probably Tomasin’s known friendliness towards beer (and the name – the angelus bell is rung three times a day to summon Catholics to “dwell for a few moments on the mystery of the Incarnation”) that led the supermarket chain Waitrose and the beer importer James Clay to pick it for a “saintly beer dinner” earlier this week to publicise some of the beers now found on Waitrose’s shelves, with every dish and every beer having a religious hint in the name.

My own invitation to the event, I think, was down to another slightly oblique religious link: I’ve just written a short piece for the newsletter of the Rectory Society on the history of brewing in rectories, parsonages and vicarages*, at the instigation of Rupert Ponsonby, of R&R Teamwork, the PR firm. Rupert’s wife helps run the society, and R&R organised the dinner.

Other guests included the Dorbers, Mark and Sophie, of the Anchor at Walberswick, and Will Beckett, co-owner of the Hawksmoor in Shoreditch and co-author with his mother Fiona of the beer-with-food cookbook An Appetite for Ale, so the level of beery gastronomic knowledge around the table was high.

Waitrose has just started stocking Deus, the “champagne beer” from Bosteels in Belgium, which comes in at a hefty £12.15 a bottle, so that’s what we started with (and if you think that’s a lot of money for a beer, it was three times the price when Mr Tomasin had it on the winelist at Aubergine). Eyebrows, indeed hackles, will be raised at the price among the hairshirt crew at Camra, but since Deus is about 20 times better than any champagne you’d buy at the same price, and not much weaker, at 11.5 per cent, then poot to them. It makes for an excellent aperitif, drunk from champagne flutes, the sharpness and carbonation setting the palate up for what follows (angels on horseback, on this occasion, to go with the religious theme).

Round two was Colomba, the wheat beer from Corsica flavoured with herbs from the “maquis”, the island’s brushwood-covered interior. I helped with the publicity for Colomba, and its sister beer, Pietra, made with chestnuts, when they were launched in the UK three or four years ago, and it’s been pleasing to see them become almost mainstream. I wasn’t convinced by the pairing of Colomba and Coquille St Jacques, however: the beer and the food were very fine on their own, but the creamy scallops made the Colomba appear thin. Still, it was a worthy experiment, and it was useful to learn that wheat beer, usually a good match for fish, won’t cut the Dijon when paired with a rich cream sauce.

The main course was, naturally, monkfish and Jerusalem artichoke, served with Duvel (“devil”): normally I can’t stand artichokes of either genus, but this was excellent, missing the bitterness than normally makes me slide it to the side of the plate, while the monkfish, wrapped in Parma ham, was firm, moist, with all the subtle but assertive flavour that makes this unbelievably ugly deep-sea dweller the king of white fish. The Duvel was a good choice, creamy in its own right, spicy, and strong enough to support the food.

Next was a battle of heavyweights: Charles Martel’s Stinking Bishop cheese from Gloucestershire and Chimay Blue, the strongest of the beers from the Trappist monks of Scourmont Abbey. Stinking Bishop, its rind washed with the juice of perry made from the eponymous pear, which gives it an aroma most kindly described as “old socks”, is a very difficult cheese to match with beer: I’ve suggested in the past that a sulphury Burton-brewed IPA might do it. The pairing with the Chimay, I think, was an honourable draw: the Chimay was big enough to cope with the cheese, but was not actually enhanced by it, and ditto the cheese with the beer.

Finally it was Angel cake, with a raspberry sauce, served with both Lindemans Kriek and, as an alternative, Liefmans Frambozen. I don’t normally drink fruit beers (though I generally enjoy them when I do), and I’d forgotten how much of an almond note you can get with kriek, released when the cherry stones are crushed before the whole cherries are added to the beer. Red fruit beers and red fruit dessert were not as successful as might have been hoped: something with chocolate was suggested as a popular potential alternative match, though I’d like to try something like frambozen with caramel oranges, as a fruity contrast.

In all, it was a very enjoyable set of experiments: this appears to be the season for beer dinners, I’ve been invited to another one, organised by Young’s, next week. Yum.

*Since many rectories, parsonages and so on had glebe farms attached, many rectors, parsons and vicars, like other farmers, brewed ale for their farmworkers.

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