Eggs, crisps and all nice things
Matt Curtis celebrates the world’s greatest pub snacks (as determined by Matt Curtis)
Tuesday 09 June 2020
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Summer of love
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The Cock Tavern, on Mare Street in the centre of Hackney, is a London institution. The remainder of its vintage Truman’s livery greets you as you stride around the corner from the train station: a statuette of an eagle clad in gold paint, resplendent even under a gloomy, cloud covered East-End sky. With an imaginary flourish of its wing it beckons you inside for a pint.
At first glance the pub feels ramshackle, like it could do with a fresh coat of paint; the sink in the gents hasn’t had a proper tap in the 10 years I’ve been drinking there. But to do so would remove its homely charm. Once you’ve got past this, you are presented with a sight that’s quite typical for a decent pub these days: rows of taps and hand pulls serving the latest craft beers, real ales and the kind of cider that leads to a really, really good night’s sleep.
At the far end of its L-shaped bar, however, there are not taps, but jars. Each of these is full of the most divine of pub snacks, the pickled egg, in an array of flavours. There’s your regular, of course, then one with extra garlic, while the horseradish is a particular favourite of mine, and the masala spiced flavour is strictly for the decadent. Avoid the scotch bonnet, unless you enjoy pain.
“A traditional boozer like ours doesn’t have a kitchen, so it needs great snacks,” the pub’s manager, Christian Campbell, tells me. “A murky jar of pickled eggs is the kind of thing you would see on a bar counter back in the 1970s, so it’s nice to be able to offer an updated version.”
I like to order a pickled egg with my first beer, while my palate is still relatively fresh. There are a variety of different ways to eat them: scoffed down as quickly as possible (The Cock Tavern has a leaderboard for the fastest consumed) or perhaps scrunched up in a bag of crisps, a mark of a true egg connoisseur. For me however, the egg is a chance to pause and contemplate life as it whizzes by around me. I always opt for a dash of Tabasco and a sprinkle of white pepper over an egg that has been halved. The piquant spice and dusting of pepper serves to enhance the sharpness that prickles the tongue, before being met with a swig of perhaps Five Points Best or Railway Porter, brewed right around the corner. The acidity of the egg somehow brings out the malty sweetness in my beer. Glorious.
The piquant spice and dusting of pepper serves to enhance the sharpness
“I like to try mixing it up,” Campbell continues. “A garlic pickled egg in a bag of prawn cocktail Seabrook makes garlic prawn. Or a horseradish egg with a drop of sriracha on top is a fiery treat. Craft beer drinkers are an open minded lot who are interested in new flavours and experiences, so free range pickled protein is right up their street.”
Good pub snacks such as the humble pickled egg are essential to the makeup of any hostelry worth its salt, even those that do serve food. An opportunity to grab something quickly and absent-mindedly that serves as a stop gap while you think about which delicious beer you might taste next. The pickled egg is just the right size to stave off gentle pangs of hunger, without causing you to feel too bloated.
“Pickled eggs are one of the greatest pub snacks, primarily because they are, to my mind, one of the oddest,” my friend and fellow beer writer Lily Waite tells me. “The idea that an egg could be pickled is rather peculiar, but the fact that they’re also fucking delicious makes for an excellent snack. Why wouldn’t you want something that’s tasty and a little weird?”
Pork scratchings are also supreme in their snackability, but with all their fat, salt and own inherent weirdness (sometimes they are hairy) they can be a little heavy on the palate unless shared. When it comes to a bag of something crisp and salty that can be devoured on one’s own, nothing is finer than a packet of Smith’s Scampi Fries. In terms of pub crisps, these are practically fine dining. Flavoured to mimic the salinity of the noble langoustine – perhaps the finest of all shellfish, and livened with a touch of lemon, each Scampi Fry is the perfect primer for another sip of beer.
In terms of pub crisps, Scampi Fries are practically fine dining.
This particular salty snack plays well with IPAs, both the modern hazy and juicy kind and the bitter ones you can see through that proper grown-ups drink. It’s also excellent with lagers such as Augustiner Helles, or perhaps Lost and Grounded’s seminal Keller Pils.
For Daniel Price, head brewer at London’s Exale brewery and Scampi Fry gourmand, the snack’s irresistible quality boils down to three factors: texture, aroma and taste. “That comforting fishy whiff, reminiscent of seaside fish swathed in vinegar nestled next to steaming chips, followed by the tang of lemon citrus bite all wrapped up in the chip wrapper salinity,” he exclaims. “Perfection!” They also happen to pair exceptionally well with a can or two of his brewery’s Dormunder-style lager, Der Titan.
Imagine then, if you will, adding a bag of Scampi Fries as a side dish to your pickled egg. Blend and crush if that’s your style but I prefer to take them separately, letting the tang of the egg play off the salinity of the crisps. You need to pick the perfect beverage for such an occasion. Something robust enough to hold its own against such bold flavours, and with enough hop bite to cut through the oil and fat of the fries. Thornbridge Jaipur, on cask and pulled through a tight sparkler, would have little competition in this scenario.
In moments like this, the joy of pub snacks becomes incredibly palpable. They’re an essential, if seldom thought of, part of the makeup that makes pubs so great. Wonderful when enjoyed with a solitary pint as described. But I swear they taste ten times better when shared with friends.
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