In the days when every small settlement had such a thing Jack ran the general stores and off-licence in the village near us.
His range of stock extended from food to hardware, via a brief detour through ladies' toiletries. But it was out the back in the brick-floored store room that the real magic was to be found: Jack stocked ciders made on local farms, most of them disastrously astringent to the point of being caustic but all the same strangely addictive.
There were two-pint brown glass flagons of beer and, at Christmas, draught sherry of dubious provenance but undoubted potency – because this was in the days before the alcoholic content of sherry was universally lowered.
It was when I was out obtaining my usual half-gallon of fino that Jack whispered conspiratorially that his son, who was at university in Hull, would be bringing a small consignment of Newcastle Brown Ale down with him at Christmas. There would, he muttered, be a limited supply for those who registered a prior interest.
The offer was couched in terms which suggested that this was some dodgy contraband operation, that his lad was a tobacco-runner or had been knocking up his own poteen in the university labs. But it was an unrefusable one.
In the days before a motorway network and mass distribution getting one's hands on a bottle of Newcastle Brown was almost impossible without driving to Newcastle itself.
But if the supply hadn't reached the West Country its reputation had. The ale perfected, after three years of research, by Col. Jim Porter in 1927 was already a legend. The eyes of travellers from distant reaches of the kingdom would mist up as they related their experiences of drinking it.
When the promised supply did arrive it was almost more than we could bear to open and drink it. But we did. And we savoured every drop.
The story of Newcastle Brown is one of the great successes of British regional food and drink. Although no longer (since 2005) actually brewed in Newcastle – much to the disgust of aficionados, who claim the water in Tadcaster, its present home, bequeaths an entirely different character – little has changed either in the appearance, the branding or the formula.
Despite now being owned by Heineken, famed for buying up brands and turning out its own pale and certainly disappointing imitations, its distinctive character remains.
Now while this might read like a commercial for Newcastle Brown (or 'Dog' as it's more succinctly referred to in the North East, presumably to allow more time for supping) it isn't. What it is, is a tribute to an excellent ingredient, one which adds a truly robust flavour to any dish where beer is called for.
And one which will make you some of the finest bread you'll ever taste. Read on.
Ingredients for four
600g rump steak; 250ml Newcastle Brown Ale; half a cauliflower; two onions; two carrots; two bay leaves; a few sprigs of thyme; 250ml each beef or veal stock (use cubes) and milk; 70g butter; 2tblspns double cream; sea salt; freshly ground black pepper
Trim the steak, cut into one-inch cubes, place in a shallow dish and add enough ale to cover. Seal the dish with film and refrigerate overnight. Peel and dice the carrots and chop the onions. Melt 25g of butter in a heavy-based pan and sweat the vegetables for a few minutes. Reserve. Chop the cauliflower into small pieces and cook in salted boiling water for 10 minutes then transfer to a food blender, add the milk, a good pinch of salt and 25g of butter and whiz to a puree. Place in a warmed dish, cover and keep in a warm place. Drain and dry the meat, reserving some of the beer, sear on all sides in butter in a frying pan, drain and reserve. Add the cream, stock, four tablespoons of beer, the thyme and the bay leaves to the pan and heat steadily while stirring until the sauce has reduced and thickened. Return the meat and vegetables to the pan, heat through thoroughly, check the seasoning and serve accompanied by the cauliflower.
Ingredients for four to six
One large, free-range chicken, cut into eight pieces; 200g diced smoked bacon; 150g green olives; 250ml Newcastle Brown Ale; 1tblspn fresh chopped thyme; 3tblspns sunflower oil; sea salt; freshly ground black pepper
Season the chicken pieces generously and brown them on all sides in the sunflower oil in a flame-proof casserole. Add the olives, ale and thyme, cover and simmer gently for 40 minutes. Five minutes before the end of cooking dry-fry the bacon until browned on all sides, drain on kitchen paper. Sprinkle over the top of the chicken and serve immediately.
Beer can chicken
Ingredients for four to six
One large chicken; two garlic cloves, peeled; large sprig of thyme; one can Newcastle Brown Ale; olive oil; sea salt
Pre-heat the oven to 200C gas mark 6. Rub the chicken all over with olive oil then with salt. Rub a teaspoon of salt around the cavity. Open the can of ale and drink about a quarter. Place the garlic and thyme in the can, set the can on a roasting tin and push the chicken down over it so it stands up. Roast for 20 minutes then reduce the heat to 190C gas mark 5 and roast for a further 80 minutes. Remove from the can, carve and serve with a well-dressed green salad and home-made rolls (see below).
Newcastle Brown ale and walnut rolls
Ingredients for eight
480g strong white flour; 50g chopped walnuts; 330g Newcastle Brown Ale, warmed until hand-hot; 10g salt; 7g sachet dried yeast
You should weigh all ingredients, including the ale, carefully. Place the flour, nuts and yeast in a large bowl and mix together with a scraper. Add the salt and the warmed ale and gather to form a loose dough. Turn out on to a lightly-floured surface and knead, stretching the dough out and folding it back on itself. Continue the process for seven or eight minutes until the dough becomes smooth and elastic. Flour generously, return to the cleaned bowl, cover and leave in a warm place such as an airing cupboard for two hours. Turn out, shape into a rough log shape then cut into eight. With well-floured hands form into round rolls. Space out on the worktop, cover with a cloth and leave for an hour or until doubled in size. Preheat the oven to 220C gas mark 8 and place an upturned baking sheet or a baking stone on the middle shelf. Slide the rolls on to it and bake for 14 minutes. Place on a wire rack to cool.