Fork and Barrel in the East Falls section of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania resonates with the rustic style of old-world Europe. Thick slabs of wood topped with earthenware pitchers cast a silent invitation to revel in imported libations. My imagination wonders if “Martha Stewart was here” is scrawled into a dark corner somewhere. Wrought iron fixtures, casting soft shadows on the walls … mason jars of water and malted grain, shimmering in the darkness… stocky candles of ivory, painting amorphous halos across antique tapestries … all work in harmony within this antique Belgian-farmhouse decor. An entire wall is covered, midway to the ceiling, with bottles that brag of origins from Belgium, France, Scotland, and the Scandinavian Peninsula. The air resonates with the sound of chatter, and I am drenched in the earthiness of Norwegian wood.
Owners Matt Scheller, Matt Swartz, and his wife Colleen Swartz are quickly becoming major restaurateurs in the artisanship of fine beer and food. In addition to Fork & Barrel, the trio has launched Tap & Table in Emmaus and the Bookstore Speakeasy in Bethlehem; infused new life into Franco’s Trattoria with its cold-as-ice themed bar; and has plans to open a new venture, The Grainery, in Center City Philadelphia in April 2011. This newest child will focus four taps on nano-brewed, small batch specialty beers, crafted by Terry Hawbaker, formerly of Bullfrog Brewery in Williamsport, Pennsylvania. They will also have 20 taps open for European and upscale craft beer, and a Victorian-Era cocktail menu.
The Scheller and Swartz team at Fork and Barrel have done things right. With Executive Chef Peter Felton, Sous Chef John Glut and crew, they run some of the classiest events in the Philly area. These events may focus on rare beer, highlight the PhilAbundance Food Drive, or introduce European Brewmasters of fine beer, paired with their American Importers. In December 2010, the Fork and Barrel troika orchestrated a Haandbryggeriet (pronounced Haand-brew-gare-ee-et) Beer Dinner, nestled in the stern-side dining area of the restaurant.
I was their invited guest, and shared in the dining experience with William Reed of Standard Tap, Peter (Bear) Brett of Stockertown Beverages and his wife Amy of Nodding Head, Philly beer-writer and author Don Russell and his wife Theresa Conroy, and Christian DeBenedetti, freelance writer who has penned columns for Outside Magazine, National Geographic, and a host of other recognizable periodicals. Kevin Brooks of Shelton Brothers Importers did a casual presentation of beers with Matt Scheller, interspersed with brief interludes by Don Russell (aka Joe Sixpack) and Bear Brett of Stockertown Beverages. Although the spotlight was on beer and food, exposure to other cultural traditions came as a natural aside.
Focusing on Norwegian cuisine, Chef Peter Felton meticulously researched traditional Scandinavian fare for this dinner, developing recipes that would pair well with the rare beers of the tiny, artisanal Haandbryggeriet Brewery. Located just 25 miles south of Oslo, Haandbryggeriet is operated by four homebrewers who have day jobs and brew when they have time. Rare, indeed.
By Norwegian tradition, it was not unusual to brew. In fact, the Gulatings law of 1100 required all farmers to brew a specific amount of beer, made from farm-grown barley and hops. If the minimum was not produced, their land was seized and divided-up between the Bishop and the King. In records dating back to 1786, the Bishop Wille decreed an additional requirement that beer must be “strong enough” to make their guests drunk; otherwise, it brought shame to the beer itself, one of God’s great gifts. They were not allowed to bury those who had passed away until a funeral beer had been brewed for the occasion.
Laws in Norway have dramatically changed since the 1700s. To sell beer in markets, the brew must be 4.75% ABV or less. Beers with higher alcohol content are sold in the special state monopoly shops called "Vinmonopolet". These high-alcohol beers are also taxed more heavily than the lighter brews. An understanding of these laws gives us a genuine appreciation for Norway’s fine, hard-to-acquire beers.
The cuisine of Norway is comfort food, largely reliant on salmon, coastal seafood, and game. It may be accompanied by vegetables and fruits that are often, but not always, pickled. The courses presented at Chef Felton’s Haandbryggeriet Beer dinner echoed these Norwegian traditions, immersing us in Nordic ambiance.
Most memorable, even now, was gravlox, a smoked salmon dish served with potato crisp that was dressed with dill soured crème and pickled red onion. Paired with Haandbryggeriet Good Force, it sang in the light, yeasty aromas of this 10% wheat beer, drenched in chamomile flowers, pears, and warmth that soothed the throat.
Hesjoel Harvest Ale lingers on the edge, similar to a Scandinavian gruit, a beer made with little or no hops. The delicacy of hay-smoked sweetbreads and celery root puree merged well with the colorful vermillion body of Hesjoel. Aromas of spices, fruit, rum and alcohol-drenched apricots lit up the creamy sweetbreads and brought out the smoky undertones of the dish.
Cauliflower stomp accompanied slow roasted pork belly and seared prawns, glistening with smoked beer glacé. Mirroring the smoky flavors, Norwegian Wood crafted with smoked, Munich, crystal and chocolate malts had been spiced with juniper berries, then smoked over twigs of juniper. Its deep walnut color reveled in the aromatic spices.
Fyr and Flamme, at 6.2% ABV, glowed as hazy chestnut in the candlelight. A thick, creamy head and nose of sweet melons elevated the intensity of spiced duck breast, drenched in roasty, melanoidin honeyish flavors.
Haandbaak, a sour ale fermented with wild yeast, served as an intermezzo. As the distinctive fruitiness touched my tongue, memories of my grandmother’s black currant and cranberry relish transported me into another place and time. Brewed with traditional malts, cranberries and juniper, Haandbaak’s tartness pulls at the tongue and scrubs it in preparation for the final course.
To complete the dining experience, a sticky, decadent, bittersweet-chocolate cake with poached fig preserve was married with Odin’s Tipple, Haandbryggeriet’s strong black ale with 11% ABV. Dark as the ebony keys on a piano and glistening like an oil slick, Odin’s Tipple held a thin ring as aromas of coffee, treacle, chocolate malt, and wild yeast swam in its base, reminiscent of peaty, single malt scotch. The alcohol picked up the sweetness of fig and chocolate, and blasted the sweetness from the palate. A joie de vivre experience at the hands of Matt, Matt and Swartz.
Fork and Barrel is located at 4213 Ridge Avenue, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA, at the site of the former Pour House. Their event page is available on Facebook at Fork and Barrel.
Photos are (from top): Candlelight and Haandbryggeriet Odin's Tipple in Fork & Barrel; Fork & Barrel Owner Matt Scheller with Kevin Brooks of Shelton Brothers Importers; Bear Brett, William Reed of Standard Tap, and author Christian DeBenedetti; Gravlox and Haandbryggeriet Good Force; Roasted Pork Belly and Seared Prawns with Norwegian Wood