I had a relatively mild case of COVID-19 in March and, after losing my sense of smell, I found it has returned mostly intact… barring one or two peculiarities.
The first is that certain hop varieties – as well as passionfruit, Sauvignon Blanc and figs – taste less sweetly musky now and more like savoury spices and sweaty onions. The second is that alcohol and solvents smell to me like fresh bread, which makes the regular hand sanitiser ritual surprisingly appealing. It also makes malt-driven beer styles taste like manna from heaven.
As a result, I've stopped drinking quite so many pale ales and IPAs in favour of lagers of all stripes. Dark lagers and pilsners, fluffy pints of helles and potent bocks. I've developed a particular affinity for the amber-hued lagers that fall somewhere in between the extremes: your Vienna lagers, your märzens. Nutty and toasty as oven-warmed bread rolls, sweetly toffee-like but still crisp, still refreshing – honestly, I can't believe I never appreciated these beers as much as I do now.
October – well, Oktoberfest – might as well be Christmas for malty lager lovers like myself, and I've slaked my thirst with recent festbier iterations by Donzoko, Duration, Anspach & Hobday and Lost and Grounded. Now, I'm happy to add Braybrooke's Harvest Festbier to the stable. Braybrooke has been one of my favourite British lager breweries since it debuted in 2017 and its festbier is happily as moreish as its flagship Keller Lager. The brewery describes it as a “celebration of malt” and its bready notes are balanced by just enough hops to keep the sweetness in check. The brewery describes its notes of marzipan; I got a whiff of banana bread, myself.
If many of these British lagers are modern, slantwise iterations of classic German styles, then this dish follows in the same spirit. It is a hearty, Germanic, barley-based stew – with a twist. Dried porcini mushrooms add chocolatey depth to the broth, marmite and Worcestershire sauce lend it a thrumming heart of umami, while blackberry jam gives it sweetness and acidity. And then there are the duck legs, whose fat the onions and carrots are roasted in, and whose braised meat makes this stew also feel impossibly luxurious.
Credit for the inspiration goes to James Dawe @jamesdawecooks, whose cheffy exploits I follow on Instagram. He recently cooked a Sunday-lunch version of this dish, with perfectly roasted duck breasts and celeriac puree on the side.
Against the backdrop of this gloom-filled October, his barley stew caught my eye, and I've simplified the preparation to make this more weeknight-friendly (though do start the prep early – the barley and duck need a good amount of time to simmer).
Though the rain has been cascading down for weeks here in London, this stew fortifies and fixes, making the downpour feel almost welcome, and appropriately cosy. And while we might be far from the big tents of Oktoberfest, having a liquid reminder of it still lifts the spirits.
Braised Duck and Barley Stew
50g dried porcini mushrooms
4 duck legs, skin-on and bone-in
Fine sea salt, to taste
2 large carrots
2 large onions
200g mixed mushrooms (I used oyster, shiitake and king oyster)
8-10 cloves garlic
1-2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
2-3 tablespoons tomato purée (tomato paste)
1 tablespoon dried juniper berries (optional)
4 fresh bay leaves
1 ½ litres beef stock
4 tablespoons blackberry, redcurrant, or mixed berry jam, divided
1 tablespoon marmite, divided
4 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce, divided
250g pearl barley
Small handful fresh parsley
- Begin by making a quick mushroom broth. Add the dried mushrooms to a medium bowl and pour over 500ml boiling water. Leave to infuse for 30 mins, stirring occasionally to ensure the dried mushrooms are saturated.
- Meanwhile, prep the duck legs. Pat dry with paper towels. Carefully score the skin in a crosshatch pattern, without cutting into the meat below; this will help the fat render out. Sprinkle salt on both sides and set aside for 20-30 mins, so the duck loses a bit of its fridge chill.
- Next, prepare the vegetables. Peel and chop the carrots; peel and dice the onions. Brush any dirt off the mushrooms with a paper towel or mushroom brush and roughly chop. Finely chop the garlic cloves.
- When ready to cook, place a Dutch oven or other large, lidded saucepan over high heat. Once hot, add two of the duck legs, skin-side down. Cook undisturbed for 5 mins, or until the duck skin is golden-brown and most of the fat has rendered out. Flip and sear for one minute on the reverse. Remove from the pan, repeat with the remaining duck legs and set aside.
- You’ll likely have enough rendered duck fat in the pan to cook the vegetables, but if not, supplement with 1 tablespoon of olive oil. Turn the heat down to medium and add the carrots, onions and mushrooms. Cook for 3–4 mins, or until the onions are starting to turn translucent, before adding the garlic. Cook for 2–3 mins more, seasoning with black pepper, until the onions are translucent and the mushrooms look cooked.
- Add the tomato purée, dried juniper berries (if using) and the bay leaves to the vegetables and mix to combine. Pour in the porcini mushrooms and their stock together before adding the beef stock. Add 2 tablespoons jam, ½ tablespoon marmite and 2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce, and mix to combine.
- Return the duck legs and any accumulated juices to the pot. Turn the heat to high and bring the mixture to a boil before reducing the heat down to a simmer. Partially cover. Cook, pausing to stir occasionally, for roughly 45 mins–1 hour, or until the duck is tender and starting to pull away from the bone.
- Remove the duck legs and place on a cutting board or plate to cool. Strain the stock into a large bowl, reserving the vegetable mix (discard any juniper berries or bay leaves that you see), and return the stock to the Dutch oven.
- Wash the pearl barley under running water. Add to the Dutch oven full of reserved stock and turn the heat to high until it reaches a boil, before reducing to a simmer. Cook for approximately 45 mins, or until the barley is almost tender. Shred the duck meat, discarding the skin and bones, and return to the pot, alongside the reserved vegetable mix. Cook for approximately 15 mins more, or until the barley is tender. If the mixture is looking too thick at any point, thin out with additions of water.
- Add the remaining jam, marmite and Worcestershire sauce, and stir through. Taste and season with any additional salt or pepper if needed. Divide between bowls and garnish with a few sprigs of parsley; serve with crusty bread on the side.
Claire M Bullen is a professional food and travel writer, a beerhound and an all-around lover of tasty things. Our award-winning first book with Claire, The Beer Lover’s Table: Seasonal Recipes and Modern Beer Pairings, is out now and available in all good book stores (and at HB&B). Follow her on Twitter at @clairembullen, and for more beers like this one, sign up for our All Killer No Filler subscription box here.