I’m not exactly sure why, but celebrating Christmas puts me in a decidedly British state of mind. For the rest of the holidays circled on the calendar, I eat, drink and behave like an American (for better or for worse). But, for some reason, at Yuletide I shed my Yankee Doodle dandyisms and act all John Bullish.
Perhaps it’s a latent (and incurable) Anglophilia inherited at birth from my English/Irish/Scots relatives, most of whom I never met, and reinforced through a near-lifetime of reading the books, listening to the music, and watching the late-night TV comedy shows produced by the people of the British Isles.
I can place specific blame on my annual perusal of A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens, who incidentally is credited with having “invented” the holiday as we know it (at least according to Les Standiford’s new book). Then there’s my uncontrollable urge to play my copy of The Bells of Dublin, by The Chieftains, over and over again on Christmas morn. I can also point a finger at the fact that, as a kid, we ate a lot of hot-cross buns, mince pies, and bread pudding. And to this day, when we can find them, we still open crackers, reading the dopey jokes to each other and wearing the flimsy paper crowns meal-long.
And although Dickens reportedly convinced the public to switch to turkey as the main dish, we have eschewed that custom in favor of serving the old-fashioned Sunday dinner food at our table: roast beef. That is a tradition introduced by my wife and her family of closeted Anglophiles (a story for another day). On occasion we have cooked prime rib or the popular roast beef and Yorkshire pudding combo. This year, however, Amy roasted a tenderloin rubbed with chopped garlic and olive oil, and served it with roasted potatoes and vegetables, a salad, and some homemade bread. Dessert consisted of a plateful of cookies — spritz, oatmeal, chocolate chip, etc. — and a delicious handcrafted bouche de noel.
So, what do you drink to enjoy and wash down this rich, robust repast? Not red wine — leave that lavish libation to the inhabitants of the land on the other side of the Channel. No, what you need is British beer, of course! Pale ales, to be exact. Unlike red wines, which tend to be overtly complex and can compete with the flavors of the meal, pale ales have a malty sweetness and often slightly fruity quality that enhances the caramelized savoriness of the roasted meats and vegetables. Also, the earthy aroma and moderate bitterness of the hops, along with the inherent carbonation, act as a palate cleanser between bites. In other words, it’s a hearty accompaniment to a hearty meal.
I picked a wide array of ales, handcrafted on the mainland and served in pint-plus-sized bottles, to drink during the meal and after. Just enough good cheer, in fact, for six adults to share, sip, and savor.
Bass Ale, InBev. We opened a few bottles of this grand dame while we nibbled cheese and crackers and other noshes. It’s mild, malty and dry, and served as a nice mellowing follow-up to the preliminary (and tart) bourbon slush cocktail.
Old Brewery Pale Ale, Samuel Smith Old Brewery. Perhaps being a product of “Yorkshire’s Oldest Brewery” explains why this smooth, frothy, robust, copper-colored beer is a perennial favorite and went quickly at this year’s table.
Fuller’s ESB, Griffin Brewery. This award-winning “original” offers a flavorful balance of caramel, malt, and fruity hops (almost an orange tang) that is, as the label says, “extra special.”
Special London Ale, Young and Co.’s Brewery. This ale is slightly hoppier than some of its table mates, and thus a little drier and fruitier, and its bottle-conditioned ring of yeast keeps the palate (and the table-talk) buzzing.
St. Peter’s English Ale, St. Peter’s Brewery Co. This more delicately flavored ale, brewed with organically grown hops and barley, and sold in an elegant flask-shaped bottle, had diners asking for second helpings.
Old Hooky, Hook Norton Brewery. With a name that sounds like a long-lost chum from your Oxford schooldays, it’s no wonder this well-rounded beer proved to be such a jolly good fellow at our meal.
English Ale, Duchy Originals Organic. Another beer featuring organically grown ingredients, this stately brew would please Tiny Tim — its profits are donated to the Prince of Wales’s Charitable Foundation.
I also served three seasonal ales that provided sweet harmony to dessert: Ale Mary, from RCH Brewery, a bottle-conditioned beer that drank like liquid mince pie, with hints of rum, raisin, ginger and cloves; Winter Welcome Ale, from Samuel Smith, the spicier, slightly more pungent (though no less pleasing) cousin to the pale ale; and Santa’s Butt, from Ridgeway Brewing, a tasty, robust “winter porter” with a cheeky label.
Mr. Dickens, a true-blue Victorian, may well have raised an eyebrow at the overall menu mix, and especially at some of the names of the beers, but it was an English-minded meal nonetheless. And there is good cheer enough in the pairing of pale ales and beef to raise the spirits of any suppertime Scrooge, at any time of year.