The organisation's full title is the Culinary Institute of America, but foodies call it the CIA. Others dub it a culinary Mafia, with its 'dons' running many of the most renowned kitchens in the US.
Either way, the organisation - established after World War II - can take considerable credit for the creation of a new American haute cuisine in the last couple of decades.
Our mission there was to create a dinner that would incorporate three current obsessions in the US: fine dining, speciality beers and healthy diet.
When the institute asked me to join a group of its chefs and students in this experiment, it had not mentioned the last requirement. I could just about accept that a diet-conscious meal might occasionally be enjoyable, but could it be reconciled with an adequate quantity of decent beer?
On the question of quality, I realised I was worrying unnecessarily: speciality beers would exclude anything as watery tasting as Miller Lite (96 calories per 12oz or 35cl, standard American bottle) or as bland as a regular Budweiser (150 calories). We could have a similar serving of a European-style lager or a pale ale for about 180 calories or less. And, curiously, a beer full of flavour and colour such as Guinness stout weighs in with only 140 calories per 35cl serving.
The same amount of wine could rack up more than 240 calories, although we usually serve grape in smaller glasses. But whichever the accompaniment to a meal, the drink contributes far fewer calories than the food.
Quantity was the real question. We decided that the calorific saving on uninteresting beers was not worthy of consideration. We would go ahead and choose the ones that best matched the foods, offering 20cl of each.
For the record, our menu was: consomme of oyster and watercress, served with the tart, dark-red beer Rodenbach Grand Cru from Belgium; cedar-roasted sturgeon, presented with Samuel Smith's rather calorific Imperial Stout from Yorkshire; sorbet made with, and accompanied by, a Belgian cherry beer; saddle of lamb with asparagus, washed down by an English-style pale ale from a brewery in Portland, Maine; a hop-shoot salad with a Trappist beer; and chocolate terrine with a rhubarb and raspberry sauce, offered with Thomas Hardy's Ale (another hefty brew), from Dorchester, Dorset.
The complete meal amounted to around 1,500 calories, with the beer accounting for about a fifth of the total.
I recalled this delightful experience the other day when the sun suddenly appeared and people began to talk about exposing their waistlines on the beach. When this sort of thing happens, the same people often change their drinking habits. Having been drafted by the CIA as a subversive, I would now like to make the following points to help such confused souls:
Although both vary according to type, wines are in general far more calorific than beers. If serving sizes are disregarded and a standard of 10cl is used, a dry white wine might contain around 66 calories, a sweet white 94 and a red 68; the same quantity of a standard lager has about 29 calories, an ale 25-32 and a very strong beer 72. Alcohol contains lots of calories (about seven per gram), and that is what makes the difference.
Diet Pils may have less sugar, but it has more alcohol (and therefore calories). It was designed for diabetics, not slimmers. There is now some question as to its advisability for diabetics.
Golden beers are not necessarily less calorific than dark ones. The colour of the dark ones is determined simply by the toasting of the grains.
Bland beers are not necessarily less calorific than flavoursome ones. Toasty, roasty, or chocolatey flavours come simply from darker malts; drier, more herbal notes derive from hops (which contain no calories), fruitiness from the types of yeast used in fermentation.
Lager and bitter have a similar level of calories (typically around 29-32).
Dark beers are not necessarily stronger than pale ones. Guinness has about 4.1 per cent alcohol by volume, while a premium bitter or lager will typically have between 4.5 and 5-plus. Belgium's golden classic Duvel has 8-8.5.
A 'heavy' beer will have more malt sugar but less of that calorific alcohol than a lighter-bodied beer of the same original gravity. Thus a malty Scottish ale labelled, for example, 'original gravity 1048', might turn out to be marginally less calorific than a drier English bitter bearing the same legend.
I used to argue that however anaemic the brew, no one ever lost weight by drinking. Now I am not so sure. A recent paper in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition reported on a study in which some women who had about 10 drinks a week remained slimmer than a group that abstained from alcohol. More work on this theme is being carried out in Britain at the Dunn Nutritional Centre in Cambridge. One explanation offered is that alcohol speeds up the metabolic rate. I wish it worked that way for me.
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