I don’t really understand vegans. This should come as no real surprise to anyone who knows me, especially if they’ve seen me anywhere near a platter of appetizers at a beer event. If the beer blogger was a species and we were doing a hinterland who’s who episode, it would be something like: “The northern reticulated beer blogger is an opportunistic omnivore and we’re going to need more hot wings on the buffet table, stat.”
I mean, I appreciate many of the arguments for vegetarianism. I understand it from an intellectual position. There’s the issue of food chain biomass. You can probably feed ten people with the resources needed to feed one animal. In addition to that, cows produce methane in vast quantities and it’s ruining the environment. Also, you’ve probably seen videos of the factory farmed chickens and had terrible nightmares afterwards. Also, no one wants to eat the cute animals. Otter kebabs are out.
Clearly, vegetarianism and veganism are defensible positions taken by responsible people. It’s a reasonable choice. It’s not my choice, but I understand it.
It’s just that this is not food that I’m familiar with. I don’t know what the standard is for vegan food, so when Greg Clow from Canadian Beer News emailed me a couple of weeks ago to invite me along to a vegan beer dinner at the uber-swanky Windsor Arms, I hemmed and hawed for a bit because I knew that I would eventually be doing this write up and that there would be bits of it that I almost certainly would’t like. It’s the first in a series of beer dinners for Greg, so I didn’t really think that coming down on the dinner like a ton of bricks would help anyone.
The vegetarian food that I’m used to raises my hackles slightly because it reminds me slightly of Baudrillard’s treatise on Simulacrum. I’ll give you an example of what I mean. In the past, I have purchased Yves’ Vegan Hot Dogs. Now, the entire concept should throw you because a hot dog is a meat slurry that is formed into a tube by intestinal casing; this is if you get the really good ones. The vegan ones are a soy slurry that are simply formed into a tube. I don’t understand why you would attempt to replicate the form if you were vegan. Just the concept that you are eating something that is a reproduction of what is essentially viscera should be offensive. The form speaks to an ugly truth; that being a subversion of an existing construct which is nonetheless a reminder of the thing which is being avoided. It exists alongside the item it’s mimicking.
It seems like that’s a legitimate criticism, and I’m sure I’m not the first to point it out.
I figure that if I’m really honest about it the best I’ll be able to do is to not offend anyone personally while criticizing things I don’t know about.
Our chef for the evening was Doug McNish, who’s a remarkably upbeat man and clearly very talented and passionate. He’s got a compelling backstory as well, having lost 100 pounds after switching to a plant based diet. This made him decide to become a professional vegan chef. He’s something of a media personality in his own right, with a cookbook due out in march and numerous TV appearances under his belt.
The beers were provided by Beau’s and the ambience was provided by the dazzlingly metropolitan Windsor Arms. I like the idea of eating at the Windsor Arms. I’m told that A-list celebrities stay there. I figure that if it’s good enough for Mick and Keith, It’s good enough for me.
The Hors D’oeuvres were threefold. Tempeh Crab cake with spicy chipotle aioli and baby seedlings. Crisp Polenta with a slow cooked barbecued burdock root. Nori rolls with creamy sunflower seed lemon ginger pate, red pepper, avocado and cucumber and a sweet lemon, ginger and tamari reduction. These were paired with Lug Tread.
The polenta was an early flash of genius and paired really well with the Lug Tread. None of the flavours overpowered each other and it was a lovely mouthful with some decent depth of flavour. The Tempeh crab cake was my first experience with Tempeh (as far as I know) and it emulated the texture very nicely. I didn’t care for the Nori Rolls, mostly because the closest thing I’ve had to that is a maki roll and I found that I missed the texture of the sushi rice. It seems like an important textural element that was missing, allowing for a vaguely mushy bite. I would suggest that I was alone in this assessment, but I noticed that no one else was jumping at those trays when the servers came by.
The first course was Crispy Fries smothered in black bean chili, a vegan cheese sauce, cashew sour cream, tempeh bacon bits and green onion. It was paired with Beau’s Dr. Jekyll, which is a blend of their Marzen and Lug Tread. This worked extremely well, but I notice that the components are just different enough that it is really its own dish, rather than a simulated chili cheese fries. The cashew sour cream was, if anything, slightly tangier than a regular sour cream. The tempeh bacon bits did have a smoky flavour you’d associate with pork, but kind of more of a pork belly sort of thing. It worked well with the beer.
The second course was a Red Beet Ravioli stuffed with a creamy red pepper dill cashew ricotta cheese and served with a red pepper marinara sauce. Doug was quick to point out, after getting out attention by wailing on a skillet with a wooden spoon, that this was raw food. The assumption is that by avoiding heating anything past 105 degrees farenheit, you retain nutrients that would otherwise be cooked away. This means, I guess, that instead of a pasta, the casing for the ravioli is raw beet. It was paired with Mr. Hyde, which is Beau’s Roggenbier/RyePA cross.
This was, incidentally, where I realized that I was more than slightly out of my depth. I’m not really used to the texture of raw beet. My mental map includes al dente pasta, but not the crunchy texture evident here. It’s odd. The filling was extremely rich, which I supposed stands to reason when you consider that it was mostly cashew. I was also not familiar with a raw red pepper marinara sauce, which sort of replaces the depth of flavour you might get out of a traditional simmered marinara with a freshness. I understand the form, but I don’t understand the simulacra. This is not a criticism of the dish, really, but an explanation. If I had a criticism, I would suggest that it could have been a touch spicier in order to take advantage of the rye character of the beer.
The third course was grilled chermoula rubbed tofu with braised collard greens, sweet potato quinoa croquettes and a spiced almond butter beurre blanc. Chermoula is apparently a north African seafood seasoning. It’s an interesting dish because it incorporates a lot of disparate elements. Chermoula is distinctly old world, while the croquettes are mostly new world ingredients. It’s distinctly comfort food, though and puts me in mind of a fish fry somehow. Sort of greens and hush puppies, you know? The collard greens were excellent, by the way. Braised in vinegar with jalapenos, they had just enough heat that the beer pairing of Beau’s Bog Water (Bog Myrtle Gruit) couldn’t quite catch up with them and you ended up wanting more of both.
The dessert was raw food as well: Warm Apple Crumble with sticky toffee caramel sauce and coconut banana puree. The beer pairing was Beau’s Dunkel Buck, which has pretty significant notes of chocolate and banana. I don’t know whether the pairing worked. I had trouble with the dessert, but mostly because of my frame of reference. The only time I encounter raw apple is when I eat an apple. It doesn’t really make sense to me in other contexts, except maybe on a cheese plate.
It was an interesting experience, and a bold choice for the first in a series of beer dinners. Everyone had fun, which I think was the important thing. If the remainder of the events in Greg Clow’s series are as well thought out and as well presented as this one, we’re in for a treat.
I’m finding myself conflicted by the dinner. I would not have missed it. I like the idea of vegan beer pairings intellectually. I find that beer pairings are typically pork heavy. This is the result of generations of happy Bavarians roaming the landscape with a bellyful of Weisswurst and of Britons mirthlessly choking down a Sunday pub lunch. The problem is that while I have a lifetime of pub grub under my belt, I have no basis for comparison for this food. I suspect that it was extremely good as vegan fare goes, but I don’t really know. I do know that the pairings worked about as well as they do at any beer dinner. Three out of five ain’t bad.