Alex Colby raises a jar to Guinness, one of Ireland’s gifts to the world.

My late mother (God rest her soul) being Irish, was a firm believer in the restorative properties of stout. Given that the Irish are recognised for their worship of the full pantheon of alcohol that wasn’t a surprise in itself, but what might make the fingers of today’s Constantly Offended twitch towards the speed dial for CYF is that she fed it to us as children.

Not all the time, of course. But whenever we were pegged out after some childhood lurgy or other, out would come the stubby little bottle of Vita Stout. I haven’t seen the brand around for years now (and when I enquired recently with its former maker, Dominion Breweries, they told me production ceased several years ago) but I still remember its taste. It was on the sweet side for a stout – I believe it was a milk stout whose lactose ingredient adds body, sweetness and calories to the beer and thereby makes it more appealing to a child’s palate.

“It’s full of iron,”I can hear my mother say as she poured it. “It’ll build you up.” She may have been wrong about the iron (although stouts do contain some useful antioxidants) but we dutifully drank it down. As I recall, the administration of stout always preceded a restful afternoon nap – one suspects for the entire household. Some decades were to pass before stout crossed my palate again (I know – I’m half-Irish but only half-Irish) and when it did I made the acquaintance of Guinness.

Although many excellent stouts are made these days (and I particularly like the grunty ones you get at the Beervana craft beer event in Wellington which have real oysters in them) Guinness is widely regarded as the Prince of Stouts. Made in Dublin since 1759 and these days under licence around the world, it has a distinctive burnt flavour derived from the roasted unmalted barley that is used in its closely guarded “secret recipe”. Guinness aficionados also admire its dark chocolate colour, its aromatic nose in which some can detect notes of coffee and caramel, its malty, chocolately taste and its smoothness on the palate. In Dublin, you can take tours of Guinness’s St James Gate Brewery, a major city attraction.

You either like Guinness or you don’t, which pretty much applies to all stouts. The Irish love it so much that they cook with it, following the reasoning that just as you add red wine to a French cassoulet and brandy to a Christmas cake, so Guinness adds boldness and richness to a lamb stew.

Guinness consumption reaches an annual peak around St Patrick’s Day each March, but it is also an excellent tipple – and ingredient – through  the winter months. When it’s grey and cold and bleak and rainy outside (just like Ireland – and just like New Zealand until well into spring), Guinness comes into its own. It puts meat on your bones. It builds you up.

Lamb Shanks Braised In Guinness

Serves 6

6 lamb shanks
Flour, for dredging
Salt and pepper
1/3 cup olive oil
12 small white onions, peeled
3 large carrots, sliced
3 stalks celery, sliced
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
Pinch of rosemary
Pinch of thyme
1 cup Guinness
3/4 cup beef stock
12 small potatoes, peeled

Lightly moisten the lamb shanks with water. In a large bowl or plastic bag, combine the flour, salt, and pepper and dredge the meat. Heat the olive oil in a large, heavy-based frying pan over a medium heat, add the lamb shanks and cook on all sides until browned, about 10 minutes. Transfer to a deep, ovenproof casserole dish.

Add the onions, carrots, celery, garlic, rosemary, and thyme to the frying pan and cook for 5 minutes, stirring constantly to absorb the pan juices. Combine the vegetables and pan juices with the lamb.

Add the Guinness and beef stock, cover, and simmer for 45 minutes.
Add the potatoes, correct seasonings, cover again and cook until the meat is tender – approximately 1 1/2 to 1 3/4 hours.

To serve, place a lamb shank in the middle of a broad soup bowl and spoon the vegetables and broth around. Wash it down with a glass of cold Guinness.

Guinness Brownies

Makes a 9 x 13-inch baking pan of brownies

Clever old Guinness also makes excellent brownies with a satisfyingly bittersweet flavour.

1 cup plain white flour
3/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
¼ teaspoon salt
6 tablespoons butter, cut into cubes
8 oz. dark bittersweet chocolate, chopped
3/4 cup white chocolate chips
4 large eggs, at room temperature
1 cup granulated sugar
1-1/4 cups Guinness
1 cup semisweet chocolate chips.

Preheat the oven to 180 degrees C. Line a 9 x 13-inch baking pan.
In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, cocoa powder and salt until evenly combined. Set aside.

Melt the butter, bittersweet chocolate and white chocolate in a saucepan over another saucepan filled with water (or a double boiler) on a very low heat, stirring constantly until melted. Remove from heat.

In a large mixing bowl, beat the eggs and sugar on high speed until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Add melted chocolate mixture, beating until combined.

Beat the reserved flour mixture into the melted chocolate mixture. Whisk in the Guinness*. The batter will seem a bit thin, but that’s OK.

Drop the semisweet chocolate chips evenly on top of the batter. Pour the mixture into the prepared baking pan.

Bake for 25 to 30 minutes on the centre shelf of the oven until a toothpick inserted in the centre of the brownies comes out almost clean.

Let the brownies cool down, uncovered, to room temperature. Dust with icing sugar before serving.

*Note: The Guinness should be at room temperature. This recipe uses a little less than a standard 12oz bottle of Guinness. Do not include foam in the measurement. Either spoon off the foam or let it rest until the foam subsides.