Thursday, 20 October 2011

Beers for Souvenirs

Beer. Such a small word for such a wonderous and varied beverage. From crisp, refreshing lager to dark, creamy stout. From deep, nutty bitter to sweet, sickly fruit beers. I like beer. Clare likes beer too. So, when I received an email about the Nottingham Beer Festival, and as neither of us had been before, we had to get tickets.

The Nottingham Beer Festival has been going for, well, as long as I can remember. Formerly hosted in a leisure centre near the city centre, for the last few years it has been held in the grounds of Nottingham Castle. As mentioned above, we'd never been to the Nottingham, or indeed any Beer Festival, before. The mere words conjure up images of thick woolly jumpers and thicker, woollier beards. Years ago, the thought of such a thing would have filled me with horror. Nowadays it sounded remarkably compelling and both Clare and I were thoroughly looking forward to it.

The day of the festival arrived, and a gloriously sunny Autumn day it was too. Pre-festival food consisted of stodgy, alcohol-soaking-up burgers, courtesy of a well known chain of 'restaurants.' No Michelin-starred tomfoolery today. Today was strictly spit and sawdust.

Upon wondering up to the street outside the Castle we were greeted by a very long queue, even though it was still before 13:00 and the festival had only been open a couple of hours. Upon inquiring however, it turned out that this queue was for people without tickets. We already had ours so scurried round the corner to join a shorter, though still sizeable, queue. The aforementioned tickets afforded us entry to the festival, a commemorative glass and 10 beer tokens each. The queue was full of myriad different people. Yes, there were beards and jumpers. There were also sportswear-clad youths, a group of gents that wouldn't have looked out of place watching a polo match, stag and hen night groups and a sprinkling of students. A diverse bunch indeed.

After a short wait we finally entered the festival proper in the Castle grounds, received our glass and tokens, picked up a programme and went exploring. The festival was split over two main areas. On the lower level by the Castle grounds entrance was one large beer tent, a live music area and a number of different purveyors of food, from sausage cobs to paella to pie and faggots (bleugh). Higher up, on the field used for jousting during the Robin Hood pageant, was the main beer tent. As well as beer, lots of beer, was more food, souvenirs and a CAMRA stall - but more of that later. As we'd already eaten, we dived straight into the beer!

Even the smaller of the two tents had an almost overwhelming number of ale-filled barrels. The choice was vast and bewildering, with beers of all shapes and sizes. Well, colours and names anyway. Clare opted first for a golden ale called Wellow Gold, while I chose a stout whose name escapes me now (and that I can't find in the programme). A third of a pint cost two tokens. Both ales were pleasant if not amazing. Once these had been quaffed (it is impossible to write about beer without saying 'quaffed') we wondered up to the main tent to sample more.

This tent was even bigger and crammed full of intriguing barrels. At the entrance was a CAMRA (Campaign for Real Ale) stand at which we duly decided to become members. This task done, it was time for more ale. While queueing we'd noticed a sign for a wonderfully named brewery called Dancing Duck. They had a mini-bar in the main tent so we decided to try this next. This time Clare had some Nice Weather 4 Ducks, which was a coppery coloured summer ale. I had a Dancing Drake, another dark stout but this time with a fantastic burnt toffee flavour which conjured up thoughts of Bonfire Night. This was probably the nicest beer we tried all day.

Round the tent we walked, sampling chilli-infused chocolate on the way, before trying a couple more beers. Cherry Stout was Clare's beer of choice this time. Definitely a stout but not particularly cherryish. I plumped for a Berry Blonde which was meant to have raspberry notes, but they were lost on me.

Both feeling a bit merry now, we decided to up the pace by trying a couple of the many ciders which were also on offer. Things start to get a bit hazy from here. I know my choice was called Stoke Red and it was delicious, though not red. Sweet, soft and, at 7.5% ABV packing a decent punch. I can't remember what Clare had though I know it tasted a bit sharper. Alas the cider proved to be Clare's undoing and, not wishing to make herself ill, she curtailed her drinking early. This did mean though that I got to use her tokens...

And use them I did, on another cracking stout called Sgt. Pepper Stout, brewed with black peppercorns which added a pleasantly mild kick to the taste. The final drink was called Lurch's Liquor, whose name lingers longer than the taste did. Tokens all used up, we enjoyed a sit down in the October sunshine before staggering off for the bus home.

All in all the Nottingham Beer Festival was a fantastic day and we'll definitely be going next year. I may even grow a beard and buy a woolly jumper in anticipation.

Sunday, 2 October 2011

Indian (food) Summer and a Special Anniversary

Oops. Apologies everyone for slipping back to bad habits and not blogging regularly. I do enjoy it - honestly - but just never seem to find the time. But Saturday 1st October 2011 was definitely well worth taking the time to blog about.

Those of you who read my last blog may remember that at the end of it I alluded to seeing Phantom of the Opera in October. This wasn't just any showing of Phantom however, this was the 25th Anniversary performance at the Royal Albert Hall. Never having seen Phantom live before, and never having been to that particular venue before, it's fair to say we were more than a little excited. Even more so because two of the lead roles - The Phantom and Raoul - were being played by two of our favourite musical theatre performers: Ramin Karimloo and Hadley Fraser respectively.

As the Royal Albert Hall is in London, we took the chance to partake in a nice lunch. This time we decided to revisit a restaurant we'd been to previously; a wonderful Indian tapas bar called Imli. On our first visit we had a really nice set lunch. That didn't seem to be available this time, so instead we plumped for four tapas dishes; two smaller ones for starters and two larger mains, with rice and a naan bread as accompaniments.

For our starters we went for the Kheema Pav and Spicy Chicken Satay. The Kheema Pav was a wonderfully spicy dish of minced lamb, potatoes, peas and chillies served with pieces of lightly toasted bread. The Satay Chicken was what you'd expected, thin chicken strips and a spicy coating, served with salad and a delicious beetroot chutney. The chicken was beautifully flavoured, hot but not overpowering, and left a really nice tingle in the mouth long after eating.

Our main course choices were the Honey Grilled Duck and the Palak Methi Chicken Curry, with the aforementioned rice (pilau) and naan (cheese and coriander). The duck was sweet, lightly spiced and tender, served on some fluffy and tasty turmeric mash. While not overdone, the duck was not as pink as we'd have liked, but that's only a minor criticism. The chicken curry was wonderful; strongly flavoured and pleasingly hot, with tasty thigh meat rather than often-bland breast. The naan deserves special mention too, tremendous with coriander flavour and molten cheese.

We enjoyed this meal even more than our first visit, and would definitely recommend Imli to anyone that likes Indian food with a bit of a difference. It is slightly more expensive than a typical curry house, but the extra money is definitely worth it for the quality of food and service on offer.

Food devoured, we set off for another usual London haunt of The Porterhouse. We're both big fans of this place which has an excellent atmosphere and an extensive range of draft and bottled beers. As well as one of their own-brewed stouts each, Clare had a bottle of honey beer (delicious) while I had a pint of strawberry beer (nice but sickly). Then after a quick sit down in Tavistock Gardens and a wash and brush-up at the hotel, it was off to the show.

The Phantom of the Opera needs no introduction. Sir Andrew Lloyd-Webber's creation has been wowing crowds worldwide for 25 years now, though, as said before, this was our first time seeing the show. It's fair to say we were impressed! From our seat up in the Gods we still had an excellent view of the lavish set, which included boats, bridges and the famous chandelier.

The casting for this production saw Ramin Karimloo play The Phantom, as he had done in the West End production of the Phantom sequel Love Never Dies. Christine Daae was played by Sierra Boggess, who had also played the same role in the sequel, and the main triumvirate was rounded out by Hadley Fraser (whom you may recognise from my previous blog) as Raoul. All three of these performers provided stunning vocals and presence. Ramin and Sierra's rendition of the title song was spine-tingling stuff.

The rest of the ensemble were also excellent, including Wynne Evans as Piagi. Don't recognise him? Picture him with a stupid zigzag moustache signing a VERY annoying song about comparing prices and he might become more familiar...

After a fantastic performance, we received a few extra-special surprises. Sir Andrew Lloyd-Webber himself gave a speech about the show, and was then joined by producer Sir Cameron Mackintosh who added his own choice words. Then, in a wonderful finale, the original Christine Daae - Sarah Brightman - treated us to a rendition of a couple of the most well known songs, accompanied by four Phantoms including Colm Wilkinson and the current wearer of the famous mask, John Owen-Jones. Brilliant stuff and a fitting end to the evening.

So, another fun weekend is now at an end. What to blog about next? Considering the goings-on at Nottingham Forest today, it might have to be that.....