CURTAIN UP, light the lights…yet again we’re on the cusp of the prison doors unlocking, pints on the bar (hopefully). But will everything come up roses for our micropubs? We’ll damn well have to make sure it does; they may be a fairly recent concept, but they are too precious to lose. In any event, surely it’s easier to re-open a smaller establishment that hasn’t had a huge staff on furlough…but what do I know?

You may wonder why a food writer is concerning herself with micros. Don’t they just do beer? That’s certainly what I used to think, and bore them no ill will. On the contrary, these were places that seemed to hark back to a time when pubs were all about the beer; simpler places. Quite often micros haven’t got a bar at all, your pint carried through from out the back – and often cheaper than in a normal hostelry where food now has equal status with drink. And there are more fringe benefits – chat instead of TV, for one, and a more communal atmosphere; regulars seem to be within walking distance, and that has to be applauded.

But last year I did a bit of research and discovered that more micropubs serve food than you might imagine. Mind you (and I’m wagging my finger now), it’s my firm opinion that micropubs should stick to simple, wholesome snacks that go with beer. And on the whole, they do.

Let’s face it, most micros don’t have space for a kitchen, their hosts – I hope I’m not maligning anyone – more known for their beer savvy than cooking skills. But they certainly know just the right snacks to complement a pint. Pork pies and sausage rolls made by their local butcher, pasties from the local baker, decent ham or cheese baps. I found a couple of micro owners pickling their own eggs, one making his own Scotch eggs – a fiddly task. Surprisingly, one sold slices of delicious cakes made by a neighbour (though why am I surprised? We’ve all heard of cakes and ale…) Micropubs by definition are smaller, so you really don’t want cooking smells wafting through; and please don’t turn up with a take-away vindaloo…

My own lively micro and beer shop, the Vessel in Plymouth, which has carried on with deliveries during Lockdown, gets the balance about right. Owner Sam Congdon confines food to special events such as Oktoberfest when he serves bratwurst or a ‘sour tasting’ with sourdough bread alongside lambics.

Possibly the supreme accompaniment to beer is cheese; why else is a ploughman’s so quintessentially pub food? So here is my suggestion for a snack combining beer and cheese that’s a little bit different, quickly and easily made by both micro bosses and real ale drinkers, the beer making the texture all the crisper. Don’t use an IPA or very hoppy beer, they’re too bitter; and I think stout would be too dark and make these nibbles look muddy. Go for a tawny beer with some malty sweetness; I chose St Austell’s bottle-conditioned Hicks. Great to serve with beer over the festive season. Cheers …and bon appétit!

Cheese ‘n’ ale straws and biscuits

100g plain flour; salt and cayenne pepper; 50g butter; 50g medium strong Cheddar cheese, grated; 1 egg yolk; beer to mix.

Pre-heat oven to 200C gas mark 6. Grease a baking tray. Put the flour into a mixing bowl and season with the salt and cayenne; cut butter into small pieces and lightly rub into the flour to produce fine crumbs. Stir in the cheese (you could choose another hard cheese if preferred), add the egg yolk, and add beer a little at a time until you have a firm (not sticky) dough. Roll out about half the pastry quite thinly into an oblong shape, the depth you want your cheese straws, and place it on the baking tray, then cut into strips with a sharp knife, separating them as you go. Roll out the rest of the pastry and use a medium size cutter to cut into rounds and place on the baking tray. Finally, brush a little beer on each as a glaze. Bake towards the top of the oven for 15 minutes, checking after 10 minutes, until crisp and golden. Remove from oven, allow to cool slightly, then place on a wire rack to go cold.

Susan Nowak

Susan Nowak, pictures by Fran Nowak

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