There’s a lot wrapped up — pun intended — in the ham rolls you see on the back bar of a certain type of pub.
Roll.noun. A round individually portioned bread product usually split before eating. Synonyms: bap, cob, batch.
They are not in any sense ‘artisanal’. The bread is usually of the soft, gummy white and processed variety — eight for a pound. The ham is from a packet, pre-sliced, rubbery and pink. If there is butter, it isn’t butter, though you may not believe it. Instead of waxed paper they’re bundled up in clingfilm (US: Saran Wrap) — convenient, certainly, but prone to sweating and squashing the rolls into faintly obscene shapes. And, most importantly, they don’t cost £5 but more like £1, or perhaps £1.50 if they’re especially substantial.
Some variants: the roll might be crusty; there is sometimes mustard, or raw sliced onion; and there might be cheese rolls too — mild cheddar, probably pre-sliced.
This is how we remember pub food when we were kids — piles of rolls like this, kept under plastic covers, and slung across the counter with packets of peanuts, the intention being to soak up beer in the belly, and keep bums on banquettes, pounding pints.
And that’s the point: they are functional accessories to beer, satisfying in their own way but without being a culinary experience.
No-one plans to eat these rolls. They’re a side effect of being in the pub and not wanting to leave for whatever reason, and of the munchies that strike after a round or two. You see them and you just fancy one, just as in the terminal phase of the same evening you might fancy a kebab you wouldn’t touch with a broom-handle while sober.
In the 21st Century they’re a way for a pub to signal that it is unpretentious but not uncivilised; old-fashioned rather than rough. If you’re going to drink ten pints here, mate, which you’re very welcome to do, then make sure you don’t do it on an empty stomach.
But they’re becoming rare these days as pubs become ever more polarised between haves and have-nots and as environmental health regulations make it harder for a publican to knock up something even this simple without a dedicated food preparation area.
Which is a shame because we’re beginning to think that Ham Roll Pubs™ might be the best pubs.
I took my parents to the Star Inn at Crowlas, our favourite pub, on two occasions last week and they were amazed at how busy it was.
They are former publicans, albeit almost 40 years ago now. It didn’t work out for them — they talk about Whitbread much the same way present day campaigners talk about pubcos — and kept muttering, astonished, and jealous: ‘We’d have been happy with this on a Saturday night, never mind a weekday teatime!’
Everything is stacked against the Star, on paper at least. It’s way out of town, and there’s no food. It’s a handsome building but not a quaint old inn by any measure, not with the A30 running right past the front door. Though there are campsites nearby Crowlas isn’t really a tourist destination either.
And yet, there the customers are, session after session, day after day.
It’s tempting for us to argue that the Star’s success is down to the exemplary products of the Penzance Brewing Co, the onsite microbrewery, that dominate the pumps, alongside exotic guest ales from the North. Certainly that’s what gets into the Good Beer Guide and draws in at least part of the crowd — people who might otherwise not make the trek on public transport from places like Hayle, Penzance and even St Just. That the beer is relatively cheap by Cornish standards, as well as being great, probably doesn’t hurt either.
But there’s more to it than that. It’s a proper village local with a loyal core of regulars attracted, we guess, by the same thing my parents particularly liked: it’s completely unpretentious, without being rough. A tightrope walk for sure.
People come in tracksuit bottoms and trainers, overalls and work boots, tweeds and wellies, suits and ties, hiking boots and anoraks — in short, they wear whatever they like, in whatever condition they like, and no-one cares. Well-trained dogs roam about licking up pork scratching crumbs, sometimes joined by a child or two in the after-school window, drifting quietly from parents to relatives to family friends with pop bottles in hands. The management sets this familial tone — informal, low-key, bluster-free.
We’re not against food in pubs, or even anti-gastropub (see the upcoming book for more on that) but my Mum was right when she observed that it made a change not to smell deep-fat frying the whole time. The lack of dining also seems to encourage friendly groups to form in what would otherwise be inconvenient places. It also leaves tables free for scattered newspaper pages or for elbows-on-the-wood deep-level conversation. The absence of food changes the mood, in other words. It’s certainly another blow for the received wisdom that a pub can’t thrive without a kitchen in 2017.
When we left after our trip on Wednesday my Dad, not a demonstrative bloke, turned and looked back at the door. ‘Bloody lovely pub,’ he said, sounding almost annoyed to have been so seduced by an establishment 150 miles from his house.
Disclosure: the Penzance Brewing Co’s Peter Elvin has shouted us a few pints over the years, including a round for Dad and me last week.
The photo above is from 1957 and the young man at the drawing board is Reg Norkett, who we managed to track down.
We found the photo in the autumn 1957 edition of the Hopleaf Gazetteas shared by Raymond Simonds on his website — a wonderful trove of archive material from his family’s brewery. It accompanies a brief profile of the Architects’ Department which mentions Reg Norkett’s name in passing.
Without any great expectations we Googled him and found his address on the website of a professional organisation for architects; we wrote him a letter and have since exchanged a few emails. What follows is a lightly edited version of his responses to our questions with a little commentary from us here and there.
First, we asked Mr Norkett for some general background – where was he from, and how did he end up at Simonds?
I was born in Reading in 1936, educated at Redlands Primary School – then Junior school – which was the local school. I then went to Reading Blue Coat School at Sonning near Reading as a boarder from 1948 to 1953.
During my time at school I realised I was interested in a career in the building/construction industry as, e.g. a surveyor or architect. I managed to obtain the required number of O levels to commence professional training and was initially employed in the Borough Architects Deparment at Reading Borough Council, as Junior Assistant in the Clerk of Works Section. I commenced training in part-time study for a National Certificate in Building at the local Technical College.
However I was keen to be involved in the Design and preparation of drawings and so on, which I discussed with the Borough Architect. He approached the Chief Architect at H&G Simonds, Mr Reginald Southall, who is shown in one of the photographs in the Hop Leaf Gazette which you forwarded.
I was offered a junior position in the Architects Department, joining the company in 1954, and commencing study part-time at the Oxford School of Architecture.
The artist is uncredited but it’s not unlike the work of Gustav Doré whose own collection of evocative drawings of London was published a few years before.
We came across it thanks to an article by Jan Bondeson in the latest edition of the Fortean Times — actually an extract from his new book, The Ripper of Waterloo Road, about the 1838 murder of Eliza Grimwood in a house near The Feathers, on Waterloo Road.
And there’s the fascinating thing: The Feathers, as you can see, had entrances on two roads on different levels: Commercial Road was low and ran parallel to the Thames while Waterloo Road was high and merged with Waterloo Bridge.
The drawing depicts the view from, or near, the top of the staircase marked at the point where Waterloo Wharf meets the bridge and, of course, P.H. is the public house in question — the large building on the corner.
There’s a bit more information on The Feathers in an odd little book in our collection, H.E. Popham’s 1927 Guide to London’s Taverns, revised in 1928:
Before we leave the south side of the river there is one more house that is worthy of attention, as as it is situated at the end of Waterloo Bridge, it can easily be visited on the return journey to central London… The present house was erected at the same time as the bridge, which was opened on the second anniversary of the battle of Waterloo. On the original site of The Feathers were Cuper’s Gardens. it is said… that the house was opened as a tavern by one, the widow Evans, who could not get a licence to open as ‘gardens’ under the act of 1752, which enacted that all places kept for public amusement within twenty miles of the City should be licensed. The law was evaded by the wily widow’s… statement on her programmes that the entertainment was given by gentlemen for their own private diversion… Boswell mentions the establishment in his Life.
(If he does, we can’t find it, but we only ran a quick search of the six volumes available via Gutenberg.org — if you can dig up this reference, let us know.)
The Survey of London entry for Waterloo, undertaken in 1951, tells us that Popham was substantially right: Ephraim Evans took on the tavern and gardens in 1738 and his widow continued to run it after his death in 1740, advertising it like this:
Cuper’s Gardens. This is to acquaint all Gentlemen and Ladies, that this present Saturday, the 25th instant, will be perform’d several curious Pieces of Musick, compos’d by Mr. Handel, Sig. Hasse, Mr. Arne, Mr. Burgess, etc., in which will be introduced the celebrated Fire-Musick, as originally compos’d by Mr. Handel … the Fireworks consisting of Fire-Wheels, Fountains, large Sky-Rockets, with an Addition of the Fire-Pump, etc., made by the ingenious Mr. Worman … play’d off from the Top of the Orchestra by Mr. Worman himself … The Widow Evans hopes, that as her Endeavours are to oblige the Town, they will favour her Gardens with their Company; and particular Care will be taken there shall be better Attendance, and more commodious Reception for the Company.
Based on its location, we can say with some certainty that The Feathers was demolished in around 1970 to make way for the construction of the National Theatre, but we’ll keep an eye out for firmer evidence one way or the other. (UPDATE 08/05/2017: See comments below — the pub was demolished in 1951.)
In the meantime, you can get a hint of what The Feathers and the streets around it might have been like by walking one bridge further along to London Bridge where staircases still lead to pubs down below and up above.
When Martin, Amund, and I were invited to visit Roar to explore the local beer style stjørdalsøl, Roar figured that he might as well make use of the three visiting beer ‘experts,’ and have us do a set of talks for the local home brewing association… They’d set it up as a rather grand affair, and the mayor himself came by to open the evening. I was a bit surprised by this, until the mayor started talking. He said a few words about the cultural importance of the local brewing, and then added that ‘Usually, when I do something like this I give the organizers flowers. But in this case I thought beer would be more suitable.’ At which point he took out a bottle and handed it to the chairman of the brewer’s association. It turned out that the mayor is also a farmhouse brewer, and since this is Stjørdal, he of course makes his own malts, too.
The most simple answer is that these paintings are the early modern version of searching for “dog who thinks he’s a human” on YouTube. They’re funny. Paintings of intoxicated monkeys were actually a sub-set of a larger genre of paintings known as Singerie, which poked fun at occupations ranging from drunkard to painter by portraying the participants as frivolous simians… [But] I think that what we’re missing when we simply see these as a form of social satire is that these are also paintings about addiction.
Great atmospheres are created with our ears as much as our other senses. Conversation and laughter emit from secluded seats, across bars and around rickety tables. Why is this? The simplicity of the everyday – the nicks and scratches and bare wood – isn’t trying to be more or any better. As such, more honest and heartfelt and open conversations are debated around pub tables… Informality and a certain lack of posturing put people at ease. If you want to hear the truth from someone, talk to them in the pub. The point they put their drink down and say: ‘Look, the truth is…’ you’ve figuratively helped them remove their armour.
We were regaling the bar staff about our quest to explore all 270 London tube stations when a bystander sauntered over:
‘I used to do a similar thing, but on the national rail network,’ he boasted nonchalantly.
We made noises of the noncommittal variety, half impressed and half mistrustful.
‘Yeah, me and the lads would stick a pin in the rail map on a Friday night and go out boozing all weekend. Glasgow was a great one – I had to buy myself some new clothes there mind you.’
Since working on Gambrinus Waltz we’ve been itching to taste an authentic recreation of a 19th century Vienna beer — what were they really like? Now Andreas Krenmair, who is working on a book about homebrewing historic styles, has some new information from close to the source:
I visited the Schultze-Berndt library located at VLB and curated by the Gesellschaft für Geschichte des Brauwesens… [where] I stumbled upon a Festschrift regarding 100 years of brewing Vienna lager, aptly named ‘Schwechater Lager’. While not having that much content, it still had some bits and pieces that gave away some information, including the beautiful water colour illustrations… One image in particular contained something very interesting: pictures of huge stacks of hop bales… These hop bales clearly show the marking ‘SAAZ’.
Brewery Takeover News
It’s been a busy week in the US: AB-InBev swooped in to acquire Wicked Weed of North Carolina. Good Beer Hunting partners with AB-InBev on various projects and takes a broadly positive line to such acquisitions these days but its story covers the key points well: Wicked Weed is a niche buy for AB; fans have reacted with particular irritation to this one; and other breweries are responding in various ways, including withdrawing from Wicked Weed’s Funkatorium Festival.
Then the following day Heineken picked up the part of Lagunitas it didn’t already own. This story was covered at Brewbound which generally takes an editorial line which seems to us moderately critical of big beer and AB-InBev in particular. Its editor seems to spend quite a bit of time bickering about disclosure and propriety with Good Beer Hunting on Twitter, too.
Two Saturdays hence (May 13), AB InBev is hosting a massively expensive party in Bend. They’re promoting it the way only one of the largest companies in the world can–with prizes, a big music lineup (including De La Soul!), and the kind of overheated marketing gloss the finest agencies supply. The occasion celebrates the founding of a brewery AB InBev purchased in 2014. Shockingly enough, this is not the way they’re talking about it… Indeed, the entire event is an exercise in disguising this detail.
But we’re with Jeff: a brand built primarily on the value of Independence is being dishonest, even exploitative of consumers, if it doesn’t actively disclose its change in status for at least a few years after acquisition.
There’s more paperwork and bureaucracy to work through now, but not a lot more. I’ve worked in this industry for a while, and the biggest thing I learned during that time is how jaw-droppingly loosey-goosey most breweries are and how little structure there is with most craft breweries. You’d be surprised how many craft breweries don’t even know their real margins. It’s just basic business things. So to answer your question about whether there’s more bureaucracy and oversight now, I’d say no more than your average company; it’s just that most breweries have so little.
The only problem with this anonymous account is that it’s exactly the kind of thing we’d authorise if we worked in PR for AB — broadly upbeat with the only negatives, like the one above, actually being backhanded boasts.
But maybe this is really how it is and all this intrigue is just making us paranoid.
And, finally, this seems like a good advertisement for the Tour de Geuze which is underway in Belgium at this very moment: