Published on May 15th, 2014 | by Alastair Gilmour


Pub food: Oh, burger

Has there ever been a foodstuff to have skipped through more hoops than the burger? Originally called a hamburger – though it needn’t have contained any ham – the burger has had so many first names in its career it has produced its own dynasty.

We recognise old Ham and would trust Beef till the cows come home and we’re familiar with their cousins Chicken and Veggie. But take a look at any pub menu and be bewildered by the choice – not to say the exotic company the simple meat patty keeps – the Relish and Cheese families together with a tribe of Sides. Being wedged between two slices of bun is only the half of it.

A Boston newspaper in 1884 was the first to use the term “Hamburg steak” to describe the way that seamen from the German port favoured a particular version of the cooked round meat patty or rissole. This was quickly shortened to “hamburger” and it seems that the St Louis World Fair of 1904 was the launching pad for the hamburger in a bun as we know it today.

Every pub needs a signature burger, like a quality pie or an ale they can call their own. Red Leicester, spinach, macaroni and cauliflower sounds original enough, as do piri-piri “fireball” burgers.

At The Town Wall, Newcastle, a line at the bottom of the Gourmet Burger menu warns: “Our beef burgers are handmade 100% beef – as such they are served pink”. It’s just so Birds Eye fans know what happens when something doesn’t come pre-prepared out of a packet – then you can enjoy something like the Cartel Burger, the Cajun Chicken Burger, Butchers, Mushroom and Char Grilled Chicken.

And famously at the Brandling Villa, South Gosforth – and its sister pub The Tannery in Hexham – you can revel in the delights of The David Dickinson, The Beef Chegwin, A Night In With Susan Boyle, The Norris McWhirter or the granny of them all – The Dirty Thoughts Of Cheryl Cole Burger which comes with a Greggs sausage roll. That’s before we mention The Day Emily Bishop Went Insane (8oz handmade beef burger served with thin slices of pork pie) or The Endless Regret Of Aled Jones (creamed leeks).

Burgers have taken over from fish and chips as our favourite pub meal, mainly through a perception of added value at a time when people are feeling the pinch. In short, you get a lot for your money, and it’s the sort of combination that stacks up well profit-wise for the publican.

The burger is classic pub food with universal appeal which can be prepared quickly, is extremely versatile with possibly thousands of combinations suitable for meat-lovers, vegetarians and vegans alike.

There has been enough written about the horsemeat and frozen burger scandal that came to light in January 2013, but suffice to say, horsemeat is not harmful to health and is eaten in many countries, but is considered a taboo food in the UK and Ireland. While not a direct food safety issue, the scandal revealed a major breakdown in the traceability of the food supply chain, and therefore some risk of harmful ingredients.

What makes the best burger then? Burgers themselves need a high fat content – 40% is the ideal – and that’s one of the keys to success. Well-aged beef such as chuck steak or brisket is a winner too.

Garnish? TGI Fridays recently ditched lettuce with its burgers – is there any sight worse than greenery wilting in the heat of a beef patty – but what about the sliced beef tomato which quickly turns soggy and is often the first thing to be fished out?

Don’t overlook the bun either – you need something with texture and structure with the cut ends toasted in the burger juices. Practicalities come into play with juices dripping everywhere and wallowing in piquant sauces so they are often best finished off with a knife and fork.

Cheese isn’t mandatory but one that you can actually taste will make all the difference – a mature cheddar is ideal here. Similarly with pickles and sauces, the variations are countless (one style uses bourbon, maple syrup and coffee) but the classic combo of ketchup and mustard just can’t be beat.

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Alastair Gilmour

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