Solveig Tofte, baker and co-owner of Sun Street Breads, has been pondering the question of American food — what defines it? She thinks the answer may lay along our vast highway systems, which like the great spice roads, connect not only different parts of the country, but also different culinary traditions.
Tofte grew up along the North Shore — the town of Tofte, of course — in close proximity to Brian Hoffman of Fulton Beer, who came up in Grand Marais. Thus on Monday evening, bakery and brewery teamed up to host “A Road Trip Down Highway 61,” which applied Tofte’s theory to a pairing of Fulton beers with four courses inspired by Lake Superior and points south.
About 55 people showed up for the event, tucking in beside each other at long, communal tables in the dining room and kitchen. The bread basket, made special for the evening, included some rather irresistible Lonely Blonde Ale pretzels and a Libertine Red Rye Ale bread that was very nutty (and, when slathered in butter and dipped in the sauce of our third course, very hearty). The crew gave introductions to each pairing, a rare opportunity to peek into the process and enthusiasms of the bakers, brewers, and chefs. But the highlight of the evening was the pairings themselves, which were thoughtful and satisfying. We could not help but note that, while everyone was well behaved, a convivial din grew with each new beer — the pours were generous, refills were granted, and a good time was had by all.
Word has it that beer tastings could become a regular feature at the bakery café, so watch the website.
Here are some highlights:
At the first stop was a solid composed salad inspired by Lake Superior, featuring smoked white fish, onion sour cream, bleu cheese, a tiny pile of pickled Haralson apple slices, and baguette. All of these things make natural and tasty pairs, but the apples stole the plate. Lightly pickled, they were still sweet and crisp, but with a delicate cumin flavor reminiscent of chutney. On the whole, the salad was very nice with Fulton’s undemanding Lonely Blonde Ale. Hoffman called it easy — a gateway beer for newbies, he said — and it really does go down like water.
Second stop: St. Louis, MO, where apparently “toasted ravioli” is all the rage and a source of great culinary debate. Here, Sun Street chef Anette Colón ditched the pasta for triangles of challah, stuffed with Ringer-cheese (a house-made combo of Ringer Pale Ale, Milton Creamery Prairie Breeze, and Tillamook aged white cheddar), and deep fried. The ravioli was served in a sweet corn cream with a pinch of red peppers. The table went wild for this one. Light, sweet, and toasty, it provided the perfect, creamy foil for its beer pairing — the very full Ringer Pale Ale, which starts out tea and honey and ends on a pleasantly bitter note.
In Louisiana, our third stop, we were served a spicy bowl of Jambalaya, which featured all the shrimp, roasted chicken, and andouille sausage you might expect. With a nod to the dish’s Caribbean origins, Colón added portuguese notes of smoked paprika, fennel, sherry vinegar, oranges, and fresh fennel, creating a rich and layered sauce. As part of her guest grains program, Tofte contributed a silky bed of Anson Mills polenta, an artisanal from South Carolina. This course came paired with the fall launch of Libertine Red Rye Ale, a lush, well-rounded beer that balanced the heat of the Jambalaya, bringing out all its sweetness and oranges.
Mysteriously labeled, “Somewhere South of Here,” our fourth stop was for dessert. Here, Tofte used a Gold malt syrup from Northern Brewer to create a pecan pie that tasted of caramel, but was not so sweet that it killed the earthy, toasty flavor of the nuts. Citing “the greatest band ever and the greatest song ever,” the fellows from Fulton paired the pie with their flagship Sweet Child of Vine, a classic English IPA that, true to their promises, was less bitter hops, more mild and malty — or so it seemed, after a big mouthful of pie.