Monday, August 31, 2009

Forty Beers - Part One.

A few posts back I declared my intention to try 40 new beers in this, my fortieth year. The first new ones I tried were on the day after my birthday, with the bottles picked up at the Berlin Beer Festival.

1) Černá Hora Pater (bottle): Bubblegum nose, mid gold colour. Toffee notes and a slightly sour "cheap cola" finish. Not unpleasant, but I won't be heartbroken If I never try it again.

2) Klosterbrauerei Neuzelle Neuzeller Porter (bottle): Sweet, lightly burnt toast nose. Lots of liquorice and black toffee - reminded me of Robinson's Old Tom. Very enjoyable and very more-ish.

Germany 3) Tegernseer Spezial (Herzoglich Bayerisches Brauhaus Tegernsee) (bottle and draught): The colour of august wheat, no discernable nose that I could detect. Clean, crisp. Very slightly tart with short 'buttercup syrup' finish. Refreshing. A couple of days later I had this vom fass in Bad Tolz. The waiter claimed it was "best beer in Germany - better than Augustiner!". While I can't agree with that, I preferred it to the bottled variety - it was full of sweet malt and fresh grassy-ness (if that's even a word), and a quite superb swig.

4) Badische Staatsbrauerei Rothaus Tannenzaepfle (bottle) : Slightly metallic nose. Darkish gold colour. Lots of heavy but quite sweet malt and hoppiness sustained into a long finish. Maybe it's that wonderful label, but notes of pine and resin kept creeping in. A real mouthful, anyway. I'd brought one bottle with me, only to find that Dan had got in a whole crate. Prost!

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Southern Beer

I "went" 40 somewhere between Berlin and Halle on our nachtzug to Munich. Long-distance train travel in Germany is always enjoyable - especially if you treat yourselves to a sleeper carriage (cheaper than a hotel plus flight) with its own shower and WC. Even the bunks were good - the most comfortable beds of the entire trip. So comfortable, in fact, that I was out like a light before I'd even cracked open any of the bottles I'd picked up in Berlin.

We spent my birthday in Munich with our chum Dan at the Chinese Tower beergarden in the Englischer Garten. This is one of the largest city parks in Europe with acres of trees, grass, compulsory naked sunbathers, river surfers and two beergardens. Of these, HofBrau's Chinese Tower is by far the most popular, with its oompah band and cycle tours, and none the worse for that. The other is the much quieter Seehaus, run by Paulaner which has a decidedly 'yuppie' reputation amongst Müncheners.


When I lived in Munich a litre of beer was the equivalent of three or four quid depending on where and what you drank. Ten years and a recession later the price of a litre mass of helles at the Turm is over six pounds, but the ever-resourceful Dan had a stack of vouchers he'd clipped from a local newspaper, which took the edge off a bit. I also noticed that the always-grumpy blokes pouring the beer were giving full measures rather than the usual half inch below what we always call the 'magic mark', so presumably the credit-crunched locals had finally complained about short litres. HB is such an easy, enjoyable drink that an afternoon in the garten can get a bit expensive - but who cares? It's worth it. We ended up at old favourite Lucullus (Birkenau 31), scoffing lamb cutlets and souvlaki until well into the night - though memories of that part of the day are admittedly hazy.

Next day we knocked the corners off my hangover with a visit to the Augustiner Biergarten on Arnulfstrasse, up past the main station. This is without doubt one of my favourite places to drink, anywhere. I'd probably love it even if they only sold John Smith Smooth, rather than the sublime Augustiner Edelstoff. It's a big, shady spot, with seating for about 5,000 people, but never feels overcrowded even when full to bursting. After a few mass I've often found myself wondering if they'd allow me to have my ashes scattered here.

Many Muencheners consider Augustiner to be the city's best beer. Can't say I can disagree with them. Augustiner places are often a class above those of their competitors, and sometimes downright quirky. If you're in the city, try and find the side door of the Bratwurst Glöckl am Dom, near the Frauenkirche. It'll probably be closed, but push it open. You'll find a tiny, boisterous room at the bottom of a set of stairs rammed with tipsy locals. There's a serving hatch where a character from a Louis Buñuel film will hand you a foaming Edelstoff poured straight from the barrel. Don't enter if you've got a plane to catch, and whatever you do , no matter how much the other drinkers prompt you - and they will - don't ring the bell above the hatch.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Ich Bin Berliner


After the sweaty streets of Madrid, Berlin felt positively arctic at "only" 28 degrees. It was good to be in beer country once again, and one of our first stops was the Georgen Brauhaus on the banks of the Spree near Alexanderplatz. This is a relative newcomer, only brewing since 1992. Their beers get something of a hammering in some bits of the blogoshire, but I like their helles. I'd enjoyed it at a couple of UK beer festivals and was keen to try it from the fountainhead, so to speak. Here it was lemony, zesty and refreshing. Just the ticket after all that Cruzcampo, Mahou and Estrella Damm.

We hadn't planned it, but we were in town at the same time as the International Berliner Bierfestival, which claims to be the "longest beer garden worldwide" stretching as it does almost the entire length of Karl Marx Allee. We got there on our last day in Berlin, but couldn't indulge too much. I am without doubt the clumsiest man alive even when I haven't been on the pop, and I didn't fancy drunkenly riding my hire bike under a tram. I slaked the thirst acquired cycling from Friedichstrasse with a (very decent) Lübzer Pils and picked up a few bottles of other beers for later. As miracles happen on holiday I thought there might be a chance that one of the bottle shops could have a Westvleteren under the counter, but no. As it happens, there wasn't that much out of the ordinary to try, but it's worth a visit and would make a quieter alternative to the overrated Oktoberfest down south. The endless row of beer stalls was broken up with music stages. At each one a tiny audience was watching a be-mulleted and enthusiastic guitarist. Bless the Germans - no matter how hard they rock, they always end up looking a bit camp.

The Brits were represented by Greene King, Newcastle Brown and er, Strongbow. I suspect these were stalls run by local agents rather than an expeditionary force by the parent companies. But still - must try harder. Vietnam had a bigger presence than the UK.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Jamon Jamon

I've always been quick on the uptake. It only took me 48 hours to realise that the ladies "shopping" in the streets around Madrid's Callao metro station weren't following some local fad for dressing like hookers. They actually were hookers.


The city was suffocatingly hot - upper 90s during the day, and seemed even hotter at night. We were staying in a hostal off Calle Luna, a pretty dodgy area undergoing a transition similar to that which has happened to Spitalfields and Shoreditch in London. Grubby, seedy and interesting with poky little shops, sweaty bars, Chinese restaurants and a population of prostitutes, hustlers, young hipsters and one or two older residents wondering why the bakery has become a tattooists.

After San Sebastian and Santiago, eating out in Madrid seemed incredibly cheap. Casa Mingo (Paseo de la Florida 34) is a long established no-frills barn of a place which serves nothing much more than roast chicken, which tasted like chicken did before the supermarkets started to pile it high and sell it cheap. They also have their own Asturian sidra, which was just the right side of sweet and filled my entire head with a huge hit of fresh apple.

At Casa Granada, (Calle Del Doctor Cortezo 17) you have to press a buzzer at street level and either brave the tiny lifts or walk to the top floor of a dingy office block off Plaza de Tirso de Molina‎. Worth it though, for the view of the city from the terrace, and to be brought tapas by a friendly Mexican with lurid special forces tattoos.


Museo Del Jamon are a chain which seem to share the original philosophy of Harry Ramsden's before it was bought out and became rubbish - that nothing is too good for ordinary folk. Scoffing the Spanish equivalent of ham, egg and chips washed down with a Mahou in a noisy, panelled room lit by chandeliers the bill only came to about 8 quid. If any verification of the Museo's scran were needed, the queue which stretched down the stairs into the standing-only deli/cafe below contained a group of elderly priests and a young, scowling nun. There's a joke here somewhere.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Sultans Of Swing

Leaving the Sabastianos to their gilded lives, we set off to Santiago De Compostela - by train. There's one RENFE service a day and it takes 12 hours. I devoured two books, listened to most of my ipod and had four different passengers sat next to me, only one of whom was sick all over themself. We passed through a landscape that went from lush, to parched - ooh look, an Osborne Bull - and eventually to green hills and swooping gorges spanned by elegant road bridges. Galicia.


In Santiago we hooked up with with Mrs TIW and our Spanish chum G who had both just completed a portion of the Camino Di Santiago - the pilgrimage sometimes described as the Catholic Hajj. Santiago's glory is the Cathedral Of St James - which, basking in the golden light of that evening resembled nothing less than Angkor Wat


Over the next couple of days I attended the Camino mass twice, a moving experience even for a heathen like me. The Camino reaches its peak in summer, and the cathedral was crammed with pilgrims, many with muddy shoes, still wearing rucksacks and often in tears. The scallop shell - symbol of St James - was everywhere, hanging from walking sticks and bags and hats. Some of the people here had trekked or cycled from as far away as Sweden. One lad we met had taken three months to trudge from Southern Germany, eating nothing but boiled potatoes. The emotion in the air was almost tangible, particularly when the priests read out the towns that the walkers had started from.


The climax - if that's the word - of the ceremony is the swinging of the Botafumeiro, the cathderal's gigantic incese burner, the largest of its type in Europe. It takes eight red-robed men pulling on ropes to move it on its 70 metre arc, dangling from a surprisingly frail-looking pulley system. It swishes above the congregation with such force that it almost - but not quite - touches the nave ceilings either side of the Shrine Of St James, filling the entire cathedral with holy smoke. Our spud-eating Bavarian claimed that the original purpose of this was to mask the smell of the pilgrims in the days before showers and deodorant. Not surprisingly, accidents have happened - most notably when Catherine Of Aragon stopped off in Santiago on the way to marrying our own Henry VIII. On that occasion the rope failed and the burner flew out of a high window.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Pintxo Point

San Sebastian is one of those places that has you gazing longingly into the windows of estate agents within hours of arriving. It's such a beguiling mixture of climate, beauty, people and food. Blimey, the food. There's such a load of cobblers written about San Sebastian - despite what the sunday broadsheets say, every bar does not deserve a Michelin Star - but the overall standard of nosh is exceptionally high. I'm not going to pretend to be an expert on tapas - or pintxos, as the Basques call them. I couldn't even tell you what most of them were called, but drifting from bar to bar in the Old Town scoffing whatever is on offer, is one of life's finest things. It's not cheap, but then it shouldn't be either - apart from the ever-present jamon, the pintxos are mainly seafood with an emphasis on cod, sardine, anchovy and tuna. The fruits of the sea are a matter of fierce pride for the famously outward-looking and seafaring Basques. EU quotas seemed to have decimated the number of fishing vessels in the harbour since our last visit, but it still buzzed with maritime activity and is still a focal point for the locals. Cod and tuna in particular are becoming a rarer and much more difficult and dangerous catch. To paraphrase Walter Scott, it's wasn't fish we we're eating, it was men's lives, so we made sure we finished every morsel, as we would in Whitby or Newlyn. Every bar we visited was pretty good, but the real standouts were the tiny Bar Tamboril (warning: annoying, overdesigned website) on Calle Pescaderia, Bar Aralar at 10 Calle Puerto which was so boistrous and friendly that we kept returning, and the place next door where I had anguillas, a pinxto of tiny eels so spectacularly gorgeous I'm still thinking about it.


Funny how beer you'd tip down your sink at home tastes just brilliant when you're on holiday - even something from Cruzcampo called (I think) 'Polar', a sort of Iberian Fosters Ice. Cruzcampo, along with their owners Heineken rule the roost here, with Amstel and the ubiquitous Mahou. Personally, I've always found Mahou a pretty decent drink home or away, but it was good to find the odd bar with a Pilsner Urquell tap.

Along with Asturias and Galicia, the Basque Country is one of Spain's cider regions. We'd missed the season for visiting San Sebastian's out-of-town cider houses, but we tracked some sidra down at anchovy-specialist Bar Txepetxa (picture in the post below) at 5 Calle Pescaderia. As in Asturias, It was poured from shoulder level by the barman to 'aereate' the liquid. I'm not sure this bit of theatre has any effect on the taste, but I'm not complaining. It was astringent, sour and made you want to suck your cheeks inside out - and utterly delicious. The perfect palate cleanser for more pintxos and more cerveza and more tinto.

We ended up spending a day longer than we planned in San Seb. The doughnut at the hire car agency in Lille forgot to give Our Lad his licence back, so the next leg of our journey was spent not in a Parador near Gijon, but rattling across country in a RENFE train that stopped at every lamppost and farm. Should you find yourself in a similar predicament, be assured that an extra 24 hours in this lovely city is definately no hardship.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Her Britannic Majesty Requests And Requires

There are two people that I am certain to meet on every holiday. One is the Over Friendly But Essentially Well Meaning Drunk. On this trip he popped up at the Highlander Bar in Albert, repeating several times the - to be fair very interesting - story of how as boys he and his mates would dig up rusty helmets to flog to tourists. Actually, the OFBEWMD can be a a highlight. I once spent an hour locked in conversation with one at a seedy railway bar in Segovia, talking about The Simpsons and my resemblance to Homer. This was despite the fact I speak barely any Spanish and my drinking chum had no English at all.

The other is the British Man Wearing A Straw Hat Who Shouts At Foreigners.

On this occasion we'd just settled into our couchette on the 23.14 Corail Lunea from Paris Gare D'Austerlitz to Irun. Our lad and me were on the top bunks, and an elderly, whispering Spanish couple were on the ones below. Suddenly, a red-faced man with a tricky little moustache barged in. He bellowed at the signor "WHERE. IS. THIS?" jabbing at a number on his ticket with a fat finger an inch from the Spaniard's face. He repeated the question to the señora. No "excusez moi", "perdóneme" or enquiry that any of us might speak English. Our shocked co-bunkers certainly didn't. The man then looked at me and and I looked back at him. He looked at my brother, who looked back at him. Then he looked back at me again, and I looked back at him again. We knew the answer, and he knew that we knew the answer. But there was no way we were helping this man. With a sweaty frown he left, barking the same question through each door along our carriage, with similar results. Along with the straw hat he was wearing sandals with grey argyll socks. For a brief moment it was like being in a Monty Python sketch.


(This incident is hard to illustrate, so here's a glass of sidra encountered the next day at Bar Txepetxa, San Sebastian. More later. I bet you can hardly wait can you?)

Friday, August 14, 2009

An Unfortunate Region

Our visit to that field in Picardy was part of a trip we cobbled together after the work stuff mentioned below was postponed. Better still, the roof was sorted quicker than I expected, and the computer seems to have fixed itself. Nothing else for it but to get away for a bit. It turned out to be quite a journey, but as there's nothing duller that reading about other peoples' holidays I'll spare you the details. Well, most of them. For our visit to the Somme battlefields we were holed up at Hotel Basilique in Albert, an old fashioned place where the staff always seemed to be having lunch. Considering the town was all but erased from the map during World War One, and rebuilt from scratch it's not a bad looking place, and a perfect base for exploring the region.


In the area there are two things that can be seen from almost anywhere. One is the Golden Madonna on the spire of Albert Basilica, famously knocked horizontal (and later knocked off) by German artillery. The other is the brooding Thiepval Memorial. Wherever you are, the arch of this massive structure seems to watch you like an unblinking eye. It's also surprisingly hard to get to. Despite being well signposted, it jumps around the landscape, always in the middle distance until - suddenly - there it is right in front of you. It's a moving and desperately melancholic place. There are more than 72,000 names carved here - all men without a known grave. Here and there, a name has been removed after the remains of a long lost brother, son, uncle or father have been discovered and carefully exhumed from their hurried battlefield grave, identified, and given a proper burial.

Modern agricultural methods have turned the Somme area into miles of luminous prairie, broken up by the glowing Portland stones of the immaculate Commonwealth cemetries - 188 in this area alone - but there are some patches where the war is still very evident. There are woods with no trees more than 90 years old. Near the site of the former Kiel trench is a paddock with three horses living among a series of trenches and craters. Farmers around here are still using British and German iron pickets for their original purpose - to hold up barbed wire and the amount of ordnance still brought up by the plough means a regional bomb disposal squad is on permanent standby. In the first week of the Battle Of The Somme nearly two million shells were fired by the British alone. A third of these were duds, and a lot of them are still out there.

The scale of loss and sacrifice is at the same time humbling and overwhelming. Each day we were glad to get back to Albert for a glass of Loburg and a steak haché, and after three days we were relieved to move on. Driving up the arrow-straight road from Albert to Bapaume on our way to Lille we followed the direction of the British advance - which cost 3 lives for every foot of land captured.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The Old Front Line


My brother and I are walking up a country lane just to the South West of Grandcourt, a tiny hamlet in Picardy. It's all nodding, golden corn and drowsy hedges now, but the gravel under our feet is full of rusty shards of iron, just this morning washed out of the fields by heavy rain. On the 23rd of august 1918 the Kings Own Yorkshire Light Infantry, The East Yorkshire Regiment and the 15th Battalion Durham Light Infantry crossed this point in their attempt to retake the nearby village of Miraumont, then held by the German army in their desperate scrabble to landgrab in the final acts of the Great War. We're here because among the Durhams was our grandad's eldest brother, Joe. Somewhere around here Joe copped what is described in bald military terms on his service record as 'Gunshot Wound - Neck (Mild)'. He was a rifle bomber - firing grenades from his Lee-Enfield - and had been in the army only since March. Despite the appraisal of his injury, the 'mild' wound was enough to keep Joe out of the front line for the remainder of the war. Or so we think. Joe died about 20 years ago, and in common with most returning veterans never breathed a word about his experiences. It's only due to luck that we know these meagre facts. Joe's military records were among the few saved when Somerset House was bombed in World War 2, and I discovered the singed microfiche copies when I was digging around on the National Archives website last year. Of another relative - our Great-Grandmother's brother Ernest - no such records exist. All we have is a locket containing his portrait in the uniform of a Royal Field Artillery gunner, and the handkerchief embroidered 'To My Dear Mother' he brought back. Ernest was also wounded - by a bullet that went through his leg and into his horse, and he was deaf as a farm gatepost thanks to the guns. Where did he serve? What did he do? We'll never know.