Giles MacDonogh

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Tale of a Tartiflette

Posted: 1st December 2020

I had a cheese from the Cotswolds last month. It was called ‘Baronet’ and was made in imitation of the famous washed-rind Reblochon cheese from the French Alps. Produced in Worcestershire from the milk of Jersey cows, it was predictably rich and creamy, in a way that the Alpine cheese is not, but then again the breeds that make Reblochon are different. They are the beautifully named Abondance, Montbéliarde and Tarine. Their unpasteurised milk is produced from a diet of mountain herbs, flowers and grasses. The Cotswolds aren’t flat either, but a few rolling hills do not in any way replicate the special terrain of the Alps. It is all a bit like our butter: there is nothing quite as fat as English butter.

Don’t get me wrong: Baronet is pleasant enough, but quite bland. Later on what was left of it went into a tartiflette along with the remains of a Brie de Meaux, which had been quite out of this world when I got it but was beginning to develop that smell of ammonia which comes when it’s past its best, and some English Ragstone goats’ milk cheese made in imitation of a Loire bûche by the great Randolph Hodgson of Neal’s Yard Dairy.

A tartiflette will be familiar to anyone who has skied in the French Alps: is made from two layers of diced or sliced potatoes, onions and pieces of smoked bacon (lardons) partitioned horizontally and subsequently topped by wodges of Reblochon shorn of their rinds. Yes, I cheated a bit by using those other cheeses, but if I’d had a good Reblochon I would have scoffed it rather than cooking it.

I was pleased with my first tartiflette and it went down well; but like a lot of other people I am worried that our future trading relations with the Mainland will leave us with at best these pallid imitations of the gastronomic models we know and love. It isn’t that we can’t make good cheese, ham or sausages, it is that our land is very different and breed and terroir count for a lot in determining the flavour of food and drink. It’s a bit like wine. You could try to produce Château Lafite in some favoured spot in the West Country, but I should bet you would have zero chance of success.

Now this could just be hogwash (there’s a lot of it about) but in recent news we have learned that we might have to be satisfied with British-made salame and chorizo. This seems to have inspired some extreme nationalists or optimists to say that ours was better than the Spanish stuff anyhow. I thought of my little Spanish butcher Miguel in Camden Town, and his array of imported morcillas, black and white, some for frying, others for stewing; ditto chorizo for all occasions; and then there are the fresh sausages he makes himself, sausages so garlicky that it isn’t just the vampires who run for cover. Without that range of produce I could hardly believe that Britain would be a better place and I wonder if Miguel will continue trading?

‘O Freunde nicht diese Töne...’ enough of these gloomy thoughts! So, what have I been doing for the second ‘lockdown’? The answer is cooking. I am in the habit of spotting things that I think might be popular at home and which fail to catch on in our small household so that I am forced to eat the lot myself. That was the case with the kilo of duck livers I bought for a song. I thought I might wrap them in bacon and cook them on skewers, but there was a distinct lack of enthusiasm, so I decided to make a pâté. I cooked them up with some spring onions and splashed cognac over them before putting them through the mouli. The mouli extracted some, but not all the rebarbative arteries but the pâté seemed a bit austere for all that, until I hit on the idea of adding in a lot of melted butter. Even I grew tired of eating it for lunch every day, however, and I ended up by freezing the remains.

My ox cheek fared slightly better, but then again I didn’t tell anyone what part of the ox it had come from, and as I had softened it up in the pressure cooker before I finished it off with onions and tomatoes, it was as tender as a heart in love. I had rather better luck with the tart I made from some huge, bulbous quinces I found in the Kilburn High Road (the boulevard of cheap fruit and veg). Another triumph this November was my attempt to imitate Transylvanian sarmales: cabbage leaves filled with minced pork, beef, rice and seasonings. It was a fiddly job, and I found I had blanched too few cabbage leaves and made too much forcemeat, with the result that I had to stuff a great many tomatoes as well. You cook sarmales very slowly and serve them with soured cream. By common consent, however, the lockdown laurels were awarded to the tartiflette - despite its hybrid nature.

A Golden October in the Kitchen

Posted: 3rd November 2020

At the beginning of month there was a proper ‘Oktoberfest’ here as I harvested my grapes. They were not easy to get at, as the vines are ‘trained’ à la romaine up a bay and an olive tree. I had to detach the blue-black bunches with a lopper, fish them out of the roses and gather them up into a yellow plastic tub.

Once I had warmed them up to below blood heat in a big pot, I added a kilo of sugar. It is the process known as ‘chaptalisation’ after the baron Chaptal, sometime Interior Minister to Napoleon, so we’ve been doing it for at least 200 years. The sugar made up for their obvious lack of ripeness and gave the yeast something to feed on. There is plenty of yeast flying around and I was grateful to see a few bubbles appear after two or three days, signalling the beginning a slow and not very tumultuous fermentation.

Once the bubbles became rare, I decanted the liquid into a big glass jar and loosely stoppered it. Not only did I want to allow the fermentation to begin again when it got warmer, I intended the odd, intrepid fruit fly to visit the wine. Fruit flies bring the bacteria that turn bad wine into useful vinegar. Our grapes would not be good enough to make anything else. Such is wine, in its rawest, earthiest manifestation. Once upon a time people drank this. Thank God we have not been reduced to that yet. Only time will tell.

October wasn’t such a bad month. Although we had been sad to see one child leave for university, the other one came home and I actually went out to FOUR restaurants! There was the Seashell in Lisson Grove - London’s premier fish and chippie. I went to Le Café du Marché in Charterhouse Square for fish soup and a lovely Châteaubriand and our best local restaurant, Anima e Cuore in the Kentish Town Road for its exquisite homemade pasta. Anima e Cuore has no wine list, and as it was a family birthday we drank some very mature non-vintage Perrier Jouët at home and took down a bottle of the 1996 Michaele Chiarlo Barolo. It was my last, but in peak form.

I had a truly memorable meal at Bentley's in Swallow Street. In a way it couldn’t have been simpler: we kicked off with oysters, pacifics from Carlingford Lough and some wonderful natives from West Mersea (the most palatable things in Essex); followed by half a lobster thermidor; ditto a grilled sole with Béarnaise sauce; and finished with some rice pudding ‘brûlée’ (well, not literally, but you know what I mean).

And I have been busy at home too. I am amazed at how unnecessarily complicated recipes can be. On several occasions I have had some mackerel fillets and turned them into a paste that makes a perfect snack lunch. Look the recipe up and all sorts of silly flourishes are added. All you really need is the mackerel, a fork, some soft butter, a bit of Dijon mustard (maybe horseradish if there is some to hand) and a teaspoonful of capers.

Anima e Cuore inspired me to stuff some courgette flowers. The Italian grocer Lo Sfizio, which is owned by them, had the flowers in stock and a lovely organic ricotta, which combined with an egg, nutmeg and some grated parmesan makes the perfect filling. The trick seems to be to bake them at quite a low temperature to maintain the pretty patterns in the petals.

Garlic has been a bit of a theme, as its chief opponent has been away in the north it has figured in rather more recipes than before. I felt sure it was good for our antibodies. I made a new version of my deboned chicken dish pollo alla corona, stuffing it with some garlicky salsa verde and mozzarella. Garlic is the soul of a proper gratin dauphinois, so I was able to abandon all restraint there too. Garlic was an important part of the gremolata sauce I made for an osso bucco - of beef this time - the appropriate veal vertebrae being unavailable.

My wife found a recipe for Lapin chasseur in Le Monde attached to a wine column written by my old friend Antoine Gerbelle. There was also a smidgen of garlic in the rabbit. My daughter has also been making pasta with her new machine, and we had some very seasonal pumpkin ravioli. This is one of my favourite things when I go to northern Italy (I wonder if I shall ever see the Po Valley again?). For the first time in years I made a proper Bolognese ragú using three broken meats, in this case pheasant, brisket and gammon. 

Of course most people make a ‘Bolognese’ from mince and I have not neglected mince either: I have created a new dish I call ‘Scotch bonnet’ as a tribute to the Caledonian partiality to it. In this instance I use pork, an onion and a few cherry tomatoes. I add a little home-made stock to this and two serving spoonfuls of Calabrian nduja. This last ingredient gives the dish its name. It is hot enough to send your tam-o-shanter flying sky-high.

And pears, there are plentiful cheap pears at about £1 for six. That means lots cooked à la normande, in butter and sugar, or in red wine with orange zest, cloves and cinnamon. With the latest news from Downing Street announcing a fresh lockdown, cooking is set to continue throughout November.

A Dash for the Sun

Posted: 1st October 2020

In the middle of September I made a dash for Provence for a last look at the sun. Mainland Europe was and remains blighted by COVID. A half empty Eurostar took us to the Gare du Nord, then a packed regional express train to the Gare de Lyon. As I shuffled to make space I noted that a fair number of French people are as unaware as Britons that their noses are connected to their respiratory systems, although many more obey the rules. We stopped at the usual place for a beer and a sandwich, then took the TGV the rest of the way. 

Again the train was not full, but the people fidgeted, unhappy with the obligation to wear masks. Noses came out, then when the inspectors had made their rounds some coverings were discretely discarded. One plump woman had thought up a wizard wheeze: if she ate she was not required to mask up. She had invested in a multi-pack of Maltesers and popped them all the way to Avignon.

For once the car rental was acquitted in a trice and thirty minutes later we were in the Ventoux Valley on our way to the Domaine des Anges. It was all very different: there was no haunch of Boris in the freezer, but the boar had been round alright and had quite methodically churned up the patch of lawn outside the door. Our host was on hand with cool champagne and a cold collation, but we were just four at table: a far cry from the noisy September meetings of the past. Our convives were tucked up behind bolted doors in Ireland and Portugal, and were much missed.

The next morning I went out to look for figs. There were plenty of little green ones on the tree by the cave. Some had fallen on the table below and dried in the sun. In the vineyard above there were delicious small black figs too. Over near the gardens that look out towards the ‘Giant’ (Mount Ventoux) a crew was making a film about climate change and no one was allowed to talk above a whisper. There were chores to be acquitted in Mazan as the barometer rose to 37C. We stopped for a beer at the bottom of the hill and used the opportunity to book La Bergerie for dinner that night. I had the pool all to myself that afternoon. It was almost too hot in the sun.

Later I had a chat with Florent Chave the winemaker. Almost all the grapes were in. It was another wonderful vintage, although the estate still had the 2018 reds to dispose of, not to mention the 2019 whites and rosés. The all-Grenache Séraphin had just won a Gold at the World Wine Awards, which was a consolation.  

After an aperitif in the sun, we went down to the restaurant. La Bergerie struck just the right tone: the waitresses were fast, helpful and moderately saucy. The food was unfussy, plentiful and good: a vol-au-vent filled with snails accompanied by a little salad, a ‘pluma’ of Iberian pork (cut from near the neck) with a mustard sauce and a very garlicky portion of gratin dauphinois and finally a sundae called ‘Mount Ventoux’ (think of a Mont Blanc with ice cream replacing the meringue) all for €30. The ‘pluma’ was new to me, but I quickly realised I had made the right choice.

It was a short break and indulgently lazy. I spent hours in the sun reading Buddenbrooks while the others anatomised a lame car. The next day we went to Mazan to get food before it got too hot and when that happened I repaired to the pool. I wasn’t quite alone this time, as I encountered a baby adder in the grass, stretched out somewhere between the water and my shoes. I thought it was dead at first as it didn’t move, but when I returned it had squeezed its universe into a ball. I began to suspect that his mother might be lurking somewhere, which rather mitigated the pleasure of swimming.

That night we ate in. We bought some local Ventoux pork with a thick strip of white fat on the chops that disappeared in the grilling. I marinated them in wine and cooked them with a medley of tomatoes, garlic and peppers, sautéed some potatoes and served the dish with spinach and some buttered ceps I’d chanced upon in the shop.

The equinoctial storm was brewing up on Saturday. There was a wind and an occasional sprinkling of rain followed by intense heat. We went to the market in Pernes for the usual staples. The soap woman knows us now, and gives us presents of sachets of lavender; then there is Isa the beekeeper and her lovely honey. I stocked up on purple garlic bulbs and some less perishable bread for home as I knew we would have run out. The spice man wasn’t there, a pity because I normally buy his cinq épices. Experience has taught me never to transport squashy things like tomatoes. Anything can happen on the way home.

We went to Le Grillon in Bédouin that night. Bédouin is a village transformed by upmarket cyclists who huff and puff up Mount Ventoux by day and carouse by night. I have never seen the place so busy in September. It is bursting with new restaurants. Le Grillon is one of these. I hadn’t noticed it before but it was full to bursting with mostly male parties of cyclists. Next to us was a group of eight Australians telling yarns about those last hundred metres and the challenge to reach the summit.

Compared to La Bergerie, Le Grillon is fussy and chichi. I had a nice tartare of scallops on a bed of tomatoes and chorizo but the presentation involved a lot of Jackson Pollock-style slashing and splashing. This was followed by a small piece of grilled bull meat, with a couple of rather tweely presented vegetable dishes and a wire basket containing perhaps a dozen chips. I finished with some little pancakes with rum and vanilla ice. The rum was in a little plastic phial, so you could squeeze it out yourself. Again in contrast to La Bergerie, the service was cold and slow. 

On the way back to Domaine there was a dramatic electrical storm centring on the Rhone north of Orange. At about four o’clock on Sunday morning the heavens opened accompanied by much crashing and banging.

It is not as difficult to leave when the weather is bad, but the sun came out as we passed Lyon in our half-empty train. It was warm and bright in Paris. We had time to kill and looked for a bar for a café crème near the Gare du Nord. There was an altercation in the street when the police tried to discipline two young men for refusing to wear masks. The waiting room in the Gare du Nord, usually so packed, was largely empty. The Eurostar leg proceeded without a hitch. I returned grateful for the sun on my back, but delivering myself up to two weeks of soul-destroying house arrest.

The Hunter-Gatherer at Large

Posted: 1st September 2020

In two weeks it will be six months. In that time I have cooked a proper meal every single night bar four (well, three and a half): on one night I joined two friends for fish and chips at the Seashell in Lisson Grove, on another occasion we all ate in a friend’s garden; on a third my daughter cooked dinner, and lastly my son did his chicken (I did the rest). And it is not as if the period preceding was very different. I have had very few nights off since mid-February, when I went to Provence (and I cooked there too). It’s not just the rigmarole of nightly cooking: I haven’t caught a plane or taken a train. The most I have done is to venture out on buses, albeit fewer than a dozen times. I have been largely confined to my corner of north-central London, bound in by the railway lines that issue from Euston and St Pancras; and I suspect I am acutely bored and about to go mad.

And it is not as if the meals I have cooked have been enjoyed by anyone other than our very modest family circle. Once or twice I have passed plates out into the front garden where my daughter entertains her many friends before she goes off with them to a pub or the Heath. Otherwise I try to vary what we eat and drink as well as I can. It is not always easy, given that X won’t eat this, and Y doesn’t like that. It’s a dog’s life.

Recently I was all alone for ten days when my wife and son went to the country. I still had to cook mind you, but only for myself. Eating by myself is naturally less complicated, but I cook a proper meal and sit down at the dinner table to consume it. The only difference is that I have a book ensconced on my left, to entertain me and stop me bolting my food. I recall one evening’s offering was well nigh perfection: an artichoke (£1 from the local Italian deli) with Moroccan olive oil and aceto balsamico (it is hard to eat an artichoke quickly), then two little lamb chops (£2.50 from Miguel the Spanish butcher in Camden Town) with a tomato à la provençale - cut in two and coated with garlic and breadcrumbs - and some polenta made good and runny with milk and butter. I drank half a bottle of Lidl’s best rioja 2015 Cepa Lebrel Reserva (a real bargain at £5.49). The only drawback to the choke was that I made little progress with Casanova’s memoires. I was worried about getting oil on the pages of the book. I then slunk upstairs and watched a film.

Twice recently I have been out for coffee with friends. In one instance I went all the way to Covent Garden, to Paul in Garrick Street, noting on the way the sad hulk of the Garrick Club all still and boarded up. At Paul the lavs had been cordoned off too for the duration of the virus. Someone should warn you not to imbibe too many diuretics like coffee or tea, but they don’t. At my most adventurous I even went out for lunch up the road with a good friend, although to my shame I failed to support the government’s buy-a-sandwich-and-save-the-nation scheme but almost certainly prevented myself from catching Covid or worse by eating commercial mayonnaise or battery chicken.

We went, as we often do, to the Bull & Last in the Highgate Road. You may still be able to get a pint at the Bull & Last, but it is much more of a restaurant than a gastropub. It has been through hell and back: it closed for months and months for refurbishment and emerged from its shroud only to lock up for the lockdown. Now it has reopened at last with fewer tables and two-and-a-half hour eating shifts but it has lost a little something on the way. The meal was impressively presented: a smorgasbord of salmon with horseradish cream under a little salad on some rye bread was as pretty as a picture. The salmon had been marinated in beetroot and had an eye-catching colour. I had a tender steak sandwich in two hunks of baguette and finally some mirabelles with good panna cotta stirred with a fig leaf or branch, much as I used to do to make my cheese. It wasn’t home cooking, and I was grateful for that. We had a gin each and a bottle of Languedocian Carignan with our meal, it wasn’t cheap (median price for wine must be £40), the meal wasn’t cheap (£100 - and only I really ate anything), but it was real food. The sole thing that rankled was the cold, charm-free service.  

The Bull & Last is half-way between home and Swain’s Lane. When Covid struck back in March, the Earl of Listowel’s development was nearing completion. It had been controversial: the old one-storey structures on the north side had been ripped down and posh flats created overhead. Latterly the project was passed on to Noble House Properties. On the other hand the idea behind the redevelopment was to maintain the vocation of the street as a place where any form of food might be bought. Gone to another stage of history are all the old stagers: Martin the Butcher, Marseille Claude and Micky the Greengrocers, Soapy Sam the Wine Merchant, Covington Flowers, the dog-eared Café Mozart and the rest; now there is a new crew with the inevitable nod to the chains in the form of Gail’s the extortionate bakers, and FAM the good (but overpriced) Turkish greengrocer from Fortess Road. New to the scene are Bourne’s the fishmonger, Swain’s Lane Butchers, Citro’s Italian restaurant and the Wine Cellar, which looked like a wine shop at first, but on closer inspection is more like a wine bar - with separate on-the-spot and take-away prices.

I found time to make a tour of inspection during my period of solitude. I was particularly interested in the meat and fish elements in the new shopping street. I tried Bourne’s first, and settled on a piece of skate to cook ‘au beurre noir’. The chunk weighed about 600 grams but it was only slightly too big for one, given that skate is largely bone. The fishmonger offered to cut off a scant half, but I am glad I took the lot. It came to over £10, which is a lot for skate, but still I enjoyed it.

The butcher had lashings of fancy beef including American Prime. I suppose we must look that way now. There was a ‘Denver steak’ from the forequarters that was ravishing with its marbling but which cost all of £40 a kilo! The butcher pressed a great many things on me but in the end I settled for a bit of sirloin, which was good, but still twice the price I’d normally pay from my usual butcher. I am not sure I’m quite mad enough to pay that price again, but it made a change.

A Long Drink in Lockdown

Posted: 1st July 2020

July begins, and apart from my immediate family I have seen virtually no one since March; and no, I don’t mean I have seen them ‘virtually’: Skype and Zoom drinks and parties are not my thing. I do see the local traders on a fairly regular basis, and late last night I made an unscheduled visit to the outpatients’ department at the Royal Free, but humanity rarely looks its best in the wee hours, and if what I saw there was real life, well, you can keep it.

I try where possible to make family life as convivial as I can. With my son about to go up to university, we are now four drinkers. He doesn’t consume much still wine (he has no apparent objection to champagne) but even a bottle divided between three is not a lot, so I have tried to stock up the drinks cabinet a bit so that there is a little more choice.

It is summer now and of course spirits are not ideal when it’s hot and you’re thirsty. Most of the time a beer would be better but beer is not good before wine, so my mind turns to long drinks: whisky and ginger or maybe a whisky sour if you have a bit more time? A gin and tonic can be the perfect summer drink and a Tom Collins is also delicious once in a blue moon. I often have a gin and French, a walk down memory lane that evokes flashes of better times. I never know what to do with vodka, but there is a full bottle of Russian Standard in the fridge. Ideally you’d toss a glass back straight after a spoonful of caviar, otherwise vodka is just a way of turning fruit juice into alcohol. I prefer rum, which has more flavour: a petit punch is a lovely drink on a warm evening, and not too fussy; but you need good white cane rum, and preferably from the French islands. Rum from the old British islands is made from molasses and has a coarse character like some rough old tar sounding off in the pub.

The important point is that you don’t want to be fiddling around with jiggers and strainers and other paraphernalia if you are wrestling with dinner with the other hand, but you do need the basic materials: lemons, limes, soda water, non-dietary tonic water (Schweppes, Fever-Tree or Fentimans) and ginger ale. You also need Campari and Martini Rosso for those days when you can be fagged to knock up a Negroni. Sugar syrup is essential. I keep a bottle of it in the fridge and make a new batch when it’s empty by filling it a third full with granulated sugar and carefully pouring on boiling water to dissolve it; carefully, I might stress: if you do it too quickly you crack the bottle.

I use sugar syrup in my ‘tit punch. As a West Indian barman once told me: ‘two fingers of your favourite white rum, two fingers of sugar syrup and two fingers of freshly squeezed lime juice’.  A couple of ice cubes don’t go amiss either. The principle of a Tom Collins is much the same, but uses gin and fresh lemon juice.

I am near the end of a bottle of Villa Ascheri gin, and then I have some Portobello Road Navy Strength gin kindly sent to me by friends. For most gin drinks, however, a bottle of Plymouth or Beefeater is fine, and costs about £16. Probably my favourite is Tanqueray 10, but is hugely pricy and I have not drunk it in a while. As a friend’s father who had been in the Sudanese Political Service taught me long ago, for a gin and tonic you need to have everything sitting prettily in the fridge, including the lemon. Only then is it a really refreshing drink. In the Subcontinent I have drunk gin with freshly squeezed limes, simply because the tonic was disgusting and limes are more reliable. A gin and French is a good measure of gin, a squeeze of lemon and a larger measure of dry vermouth. Noilly Prat is best, or Dolin from Chambéry. The Dolin will cost almost £15 from the Whisky Exchange, while the Co-op has its own brand at £6.35 a litre and it’s not even that bad.

I try to buy the Réunion white rum from Lidl. It has a proper rum taste and at under a tenner it is cheap. The last time I braved the Lidl in Camden Town they didn’t have any and I had to buy a bottle of Bacardi white rum from the local Co-op instead. This comes from Puerto Rico and costs nearly twice as much. It also has no rum taste. It might just as well be vodka.

The Co-op is the source of many of my bottles, not least because it is the local corner shop. For £22 I can have a litre of Famous Grouse, which is quite good enough for a whisky and ginger or a whisky sour; although I have to say that the whisky sour I had fashioned from peaty new-make Annandale malt was possibly the best ever. The Co-op has quite a range of cheap malts too, which are not great summer drinks but surely worth having in the drinks cupboard: Jura Journey (£22), Glenlivet (£25), Glenmorangie Ten (£26), Laphroaig Select (£28) and Tamnavulin (£22), most of these are new style marketing ‘concepts’ and probably assembled from very young malts. The exception is the Glenmorangie which has an old-fashioned age statement.

I have missed out brandy and cognac as cognac seems to me to be a winter drink to be savoured all on its own but our imperialists liked their brandy with ginger or soda, and the French (also James Bond) used to drink a ‘fine à l’eau’.

Summer is also the time for Pimms. There are the scant remains of a bottle of Pimms Vodka Cup in the cupboard but not enough to go round. You also need lemonade, cucumber, strawberries, fresh mint and borage. The current owners suggest you simplify the formula, but without the salad it is not only not Pimms, it ain’t summer either.

Further Adventures of a Hunter-Gatherer

Posted: 1st June 2020

We’re three months into a quarantine observed by fewer and fewer people. Out on my local streets, parks, gardens and proprietary woods, it might just as well have ceased to exist. I swear my neighbours have had more guests in their house in the past two days than they’ve had in the ten years they’ve lived there. Shopping for food and wine, however, remains much the same, as essential businesses food shops have remained open, but they have been subject to serious problems of supply and in many cases, escalating prices.

Some of the supply problems were created by the government, which delivered a message to the great unwashed right at the beginning: bake off! Some overheated civil servant hatched the bright idea of getting people making bread and red velvet cakes to pass the long hours without work, pubs or sport. As the Germans say ‘idleness is the origin of all vices’. Baking is a fine way to idle away the hours providing you make sure people can lay their hands on flour, yeast, eggs, sugar and the other little things that make a cake, or bread palatable or feasible. Periodically all these things have been impossible to obtain. Many people have beaten a path to my door asking me how they might secure a bit of yeast. Two days ago one of my neighbours told me the only flour she’d been able to find was spelt. Spelt is good for Roman recipes, I admit, but otherwise it is a tiny bit recherché. In many cases I suspect the result of the government’s advice has been frustration and anger.

The other source of anguish has been fruit and veg. I have been sent pictures of fruit and vegetables from Waitrose and Marks & Spencer that looked alright and I was told the price was not too high. I restrict my purchases to small shops and stalls, although my wife braves Sainsbury and other supermarkets. Mostly I go to Sally the Hat outside the underground who offers the great advantages of short queues and bowls filled with tired looking items offered for quick sale for a quid. Wilting spinach can be perked up in the cooking, a few rotten patches in a bell pepper may be surgically removed, tomatoes with wrinkled skins are generally more flavoursome than smooth ones, which reminds me of the untranslatable French saying ‘c’est dans les vieilles cocottes qu’on fait les meilleures soupes’.

On the other hand fruit has been worse than dire. There are still pears, and we had a delicious pear Tatin recently; but like Goethe I long for ‘grapes and figs’ and all those luscious fruits that come from the lands where lemon trees bloom. These seem to have problems getting here. Peaches and apricots are either unripe or rotten. Even native strawberries collapse into mush in the five minutes it takes to get them home. Prices are also excessive: at the stall a kilo of cherries is selling for £9!

I used to go to a good Turkish greengrocer near here, but now everything is hugely overpriced and not as fresh as it was. I bought some dill from them recently, which rapidly began to stink and rhubarb at £4.99 a kilo was twice the price of Sally’s. We have enjoyed the seasonal rhubarb, but that is beginning to get woody now. About the only things I can speak positively about are melons. I have had good green-fleshed ones from Sally, and even better orange ones from the excellent little Italian grocer on the way to Camden Town. The shopkeeper said they were from Verona. I love the smell of them ripening in my fruit bowls: the house is as fragrant as a Mediterranean summer.

Talking of the new Italian, he has good things and is not greedy. I had two enormous citrons from him and made them into a few pots of jam. Jam also excuses a bit of squidginess and unlovely-looking strawberries find a useful refuge there. Most apricots or peaches end up as compote. I have pectin for jam, even if I can’t find the pectin-and-sugar mix I normally buy from the Phoenicians. And for the time being, I have flour and yeast too: possibly enough for another month of bread. English flour is lousy. The French strong wheat flour I have is T65, which is adequate, but not quite the equal of the T80 I had before, but I am not complaining.

On Saturdays I take pains to leave early for my walk to the butcher who is often under siege now that many people have learned from the lockdown that you get better meat from the butcher than the supermarket. His prices are still keen, but his range is no longer as quirky as it was. The joy now is the arrival of the new season’s lamb, which seems to get later year by year. Fish remains a problem. I am told that most fishermen have stopped fishing because no restaurants are open to buy their fish. This results in high prices for the relatively small number of Britons who are prepared to cook fish at home. The range appears to be limited too. Cheap fish such as grey mullet, conger, pollack or gurnard has disappeared and middle-priced fish of the hake, cod or skate sort is rare; but you may have halibut and I am sure they could fit you out with a turbot if you were prepared to pay the price. We had a large plaice one night, it is the time of year when Germans wax lyrical over their ‘Maischolle’ but plaice was commonplace in my childhood, and I find it hard to get worked up about plaice.

The same mentality governs cheese: the best farmhouse cheeses were reserved for restaurants but now that option is denied them and most shops refuse to pay the sort of prices required to stock artisan cheesemakers. Both sides are unhappy: the farmers have to throw away milk or cheese and the general public is denied the chance to buy them. There is once again a brittle side to the market caused by the fact that the supermarkets have too much power and demand huge discounts from the people they deign to stock.

Of course when the restaurants reopen, there will be a chance for fishermen and cheese producers to make money again, but if we crash out of the EU at the end of the year, the present situation with its food queues and poor choice may just turn out to a full dress rehearsal for something much more life-changing: not just rotten tomatoes, no tomatoes.

The Hunter-Gatherer

Posted: 4th May 2020

It has been another month in quarantine, another month of survival. Our lives are similar to those led in wartime. We try to find provisions to feed our family and to distract ourselves from the danger around us. My neighbour, the literary scholar John Mullen, often taunts me for being a ‘hunter-gatherer’. Never has this been closer to the truth. I have abandoned all supermarket chains as they seem to want you to serve yourself these days, and I can’t see the point of queuing for hours outside a shop only to learn when I finally get in, that the thing I wanted has sold out. I pace the streets instead, hoping to see my quarry and it helps to know when this or that place has been freshly supplied.

Speculators have certainly been at work, and with the government’s blessing. I presume it is a tenet close to the heart of neo-liberalism to see price as a function of demand. If a commodity like flour is required, then the price should naturally go up; and to make sure it rises and rises, it is stockpiled and reintroduced to the market via eBay etc. ‘Profiteering’, which resulted in imprisonment and executions as recently as the Second World War, is now considered enterprising. As one local shopkeeper who tried to sell me an inedible Halloween pumpkin at an inflated price put it: ‘business is business.’ An instructive walk up Junction Road has shown me that half the corner shops have hoisted the price of capsicums to around £5-6 a kilo while a few honest traders are still selling bowls of four or five for a quid.

The government has recently told us all to stay at home and make cakes. So they are encouraging both demand and scarcity. Without ensuring that more flour (let alone eggs, dried fruit and nuts etc) reaches the market, this is irresponsible. Am I wrong to assume that there are people out there making proper money out of all this? Now that my French online source has dried up my bread flour has generally been Italian. The ‘0’ grade sometimes labelled ‘Manitoba’ is used for pizza or focaccia, as such it is a little bit too refined for bread, but it will just do. It made the hot-cross buns, which people liked. I can obtain this for about £1.40 a kilo, which keeps me in business. More recently, however, I have found a source of better T65 French flour in 5 kg bags for £6.50. As long as I can locate yeast I am a happy bunny again.

There is plenty of flour ordinarily; just British wheat is not good for much. Supply problems should not affect continental flour which is only used by professional bakers and these are not currently operating in hotels and restaurants. In other areas I am told there are problems. Fruit and vegetable traders have to deal with closed borders which lead to fluctuations in prices which rarely diminish. I don’t know why the price of fish has soared? Fishermen still go out and the principal destination for fish from our southern ports is the restaurant, which remains closed. If anything fish prices should have declined. Ditto meat: a lot of restaurant cuts should be looking for a market. I have not, however, seen big reductions in price even if I have not seen significant hikes either.

Shopping for fish for three with a maximum spend of £10 has resulted in an ever-worsening catch. At the beginning of April it easily bought two huge trout or a big slab of excellent farmed salmon; even mid-month it bought me three small bass. Since then the prices have gone a bit wild: a tenner now buys 420 grams of salmon, or at its very worst three small mackerel. That is about twice as much as I’d expect to pay for common or garden mackerel.

As a freelancer my income dwindles and dwindles and I doubt that any government scheme will be made to apply to my relief. We need to shop wisely but there is plenty of nutritious meat about and the occasional treat too. We had lovely oxtails on my birthday and several good lamb shoulders since. There was even some new season’s lamb for May Day. I have had good skirt and braising beef but none of the prime cuts of steak or the English cheese I pine for and which the government has told us we must eat to be ‘patriotic’. Patriotism, it seems, is a luxury unassailable to the poor.

Roasting pork is £6.60 a kg and mid-week knuckles almost absurdly cheap. The meat can be used in a variety of ways and the broth gives you stock for soups and sauces. There are minced meats and offal like lambs’ kidneys as cheap as 25p each; and curries, ragoûts, béchamels, stuffed peppers and shepherds’ pies put an acceptable spin on leftovers.

A little fad has been boning out and stuffing chickens. Mozzarella has been useful and I have cooked it in carrozza as well. My butcher hands out wild garlic which he picks near his Essex home. This made for lovely stuffing. Even if you don’t fancy deboning a chicken, it is always cheaper to buy the whole beast and chop it up for a sauté etc.

Every day olive oil has been another scarcity, but I have found it in one or other of our Italian delis. I have had my eye too on a second pressing oil with the comic name of ‘Sparta’ sold by the Iranian butcher. It will give me strength, I hope. Rice is a worry, it is periodically hard to obtain, but risotto and paella rice I can find easily enough and we had an excellent risotto alla rucola last week.

I haven’t seen many tempting spring vegetables. There has been some rubbery English asparagus on Sally the Hat’s stall, peas but no broad beans. The same applies to fruit: oranges are past their best, but we are still getting good conference pears for poires à la normande and we have made rhubarb cakes, pies and crumbles exploiting the current season. I am looking for a big bowl of damaged strawberries for jam but the moment for strawberries and cream has not yet returned.

We drink wine with dinner. A lot of old bottles are coming out, generally things that should have gone years ago. In this damp house the corks often have to be removed with tweezers but the surprises are mostly pleasant. We had a bit of a treat on my birthday with a heavenly 1998 Dom Pérignon and a 1991 Premier Cru Vosne-Romanée from Domaine de l’Arlot that was still massively on form. On Easter Sunday the liveliness of Jean Garaudet’s 1991 Monthelie came as a surprise, as did Peter Schandl’s exquisite pure Furmint Ruster Ausbruch from the same year.

The hunter-gatherer now gathers his skirts again for the merry month of May.

Cooking in Times of Corona

Posted: 1st April 2020

I’d be hard pressed to say how long we’ve been at it now, but I could look it up. Time just floats by. There are three of us shut up in this house and a fourth who might return any moment now, as her university course can be polished off online. We find ways of filling our days and no tempers have been lost to date.

I read (not enough), I polish off the occasional assignment (there aren’t many), I watch a film in the evening (thank God for DVDs), a go for the occasional walk to the top of the hill and back and from time to time I go shopping. And, of course, I cook. 

Shopping is clearly a problem, and it doesn’t look as if it will get better for a while. When it comes to commodities, the problem is not just panickers and hoarders, it is also profiteers hoping to make a killing later. We don’t eat that much pasta, so rice was the first thing I noticed had disappeared and it wasn’t just the packets of Uncle Ben or Auntie Tilda. In my local Phoenician shop, the five kilo sacks of Egyptian Doha rice had been plundered along with the fragrant Thai rice, but I nabbed some old Basmati before that went too. A lot of people are going to find that their new rices behave differently when they try to cook them. Thai rice tends to go soggy like pudding rice, Doha too.

The Phoenicians have a wonderful shop filled with exotic things but it had never had so many Western customers before. I suspect there are Whatsapp groups that organise squads of marauders. Shortly after my visit they closed down. With any luck they will re-open on Sunday.

I haven’t tried to buy sugar: we don’t use that much, but eggs have been rare. I had a moment of reflection when I couldn’t bind my meatballs, but I remembered that I could use mozzarella and found what I was looking for in the new vegan greengrocer across the road. Meatballs bound with mozzarella proved more popular than the original recipe. One day I procured six French eggs from the butcher at a high price but my wife came in later with 30 dodgy-looking things from the corner shop. He would not sell her any lesser quantity. Still, it meant that we could make some cakes after all and I needed a couple for the Kartoffelpuffer my son and I cooked last night.

Talking of cakes, the locusts had hit the cake-making shelves in my local mini Co-op. Everything from glacé cherries to pine nut kernels has been mopped up. I had some egg-whites left over from making a Guglhupf and my wife wanted to use them to produce some little almond cakes. The only problem was that there were no ground almonds to be had for love nor money. She made meringues instead. I assume people are making cakes to pass the time. I blame Bake Off!

I make my own bread so I need strong flour. Once again, hours and hours of sitting in front of the Gogglebox watching Bake Off might have inspired the Coronavirus generation to make bread too? It could be, of course, that the panic buyers are unaware of the difference? Stocks of strong bread flour have vanished anyway. I saw a tweet about a £1.05, 1.5 kg bag of Sainsbury strong wheat flour being sold on e.Bay for £15, plus £5 for postage and packaging. That would mean enough for two small loaves at £10 each, even before you have acquired your yeast. For once you would be better off paying the outlandish charges levelled by Gail’s etc. I haven’t run out of flour or yeast yet, but I am apprehensive. If the worst comes to the worst I can make Irish brown bread with bicarbonate of soda.

I am worried about my coffee, as I buy green beans from an Ethiopian café and roast them myself. The café has now closed. Fearing the worst, the lady who runs the place gave me a big bag for a change, but I will need to locate an alternative source.

The shops have run out of both French and Italian unsalted butter. I have yet to try my online French supermarket, but they have been suspiciously quiet recently. I keep peering into Italian delis to see if they have had fresh supplies of lovely white butter from the Dolomites. One of my local Italians told me on Saturday I had arrived five minutes too late and he had sold the last packet. This reduces me to yellow, English unsalted butter, which is not quite the same beast. French butter uses slightly soured cream, not the sweet cream found here: it is the gustatory difference between French crème fraîche and the English single cream.

So far I have used the stall outside the tube station for fruit and veg. Sally the Hat tells me that prices have risen because the Spanish Border is closed. Lorries have to travel out empty and pick up their loads on the border itself. As we have nothing to sell to the French that means transport prices go up. I can see that difficulties in obtaining Spanish produce would have an effect on strawberries and tomatoes, but I have not yet bought any of the former and only precious few of the latter, as having a Lycopersicoaphobic son there is no great demand for tomatoes. Her stall has most of the things we do eat, and there is no problem with plastic wrappers or possibly contaminated packaging. I have seen pictures of people disinfecting their supermarket purchases in the bath with bleach or overpriced Dettol. I doubt this does any favours to the taste of your fruit and veg (it could even render it inedible). It might not be a good time to insist on salad, but anything boiled or steamed will be just fine, just like any fruit that you can peel. Strawberries could be iffy.

The fishmongers are open as usual and we still try to eat fish at least once a week. As for meat I make a weekly trip to Paul the Butcher and what with three or four things and reworking the leftovers we are more of less fine. Paul tells me that some meat prices have actually crashed as a result of the lack of restaurant sales. Certain cuts that were popular in gastropubs are up for grabs. I doubt the supermarkets will cut their prices, but a good butcher will. Four fresh meat meals for three cost a little over £30 last weekend, and you can toss in a couple more from the left over roast beef etc: £10 each for six days of protein is not a lot. I don’t eat at midday, but lunches tend to be improvised from what is lying about including any small amounts of leftovers that can’t be made into a ragoût or a curry.

And there is time to experiment. A few days ago we boned out and stuffed a small chicken with spinach and a mozzarella that was going cheap from the Italians.

We had a bit of wine before the crisis kicked off, but we are still buying. Some firms like the Wine Society, for example, have stopped trading temporarily, but there are plenty that are still working, and they are fairly keen to carry on given they have lost their restaurant sales. I noted too that when the restaurants around here closed, some were selling off their stocks, including wine, in the hope of financing the lockdown. I didn’t see if there were bargains to be had but I am sure there were.

So tout va bien for the moment, but anything can happen and in a week’s time, this relatively rosy rendition of locked down life might have become a true picture of hell.

My Night With Boris

Posted: 2nd March 2020

As regular readers of this blog are aware, in February I go down to the Domaine des Anges in the Ventoux region of Provence for a few days of R & R. It is a bit of a busman’s holiday in that there is a fair bit of cooking to do, but I am happy to perform that role when there is no shortage of good ingredients to be had.

February can actually be quite promising as you get close to the Mediterranean. The first spears of white asparagus are on sale as well as peppery little artichokes. There are blood oranges too. The butchers have tiny shoulders of new lamb and there is the last of the game. Truffles are also usually to hand, but the past few months have been too warm and too wet for them.

This year, my good friend Dave from Lucan had a mind to recreate what he said was an Italian dish called something like ‘volcanic tomatoes and eggs’. It sounded much like the sort of thing that I used to live on when I was hard up in Paris: tomatoes and aubergines cooked up in decent oil with a couple of eggs dropped in at the last moment. The slight difference here was the addition of a couple of fresh chillies, obtained like the tomatoes from the big vegetable shop by the war memorial in Carpentras.

The tomatoes were local, probably grown in a tunnel, but with plenty of flavour, and I dare say the eggs were fresh too. I just cut the tomatoes in half at the midriff, fried the open side in olive oil first and turned them over to add chopped chillies. Half a dozen eggs were accommodated in the gaps. ‘Dave’s eggs’ made a great light lunch.

Then there was the veal kidney. There was a call for me to devil that too, but it would have been a shame to add chillies to something as delicate as a veal kidney. As it was I mashed up butter with Meaux mustard and cooked the pieces of kidney pink in that, adding half a glass of white and a good big spoonful of crème fraîche at the last moment.

The kidney was a starter to a meal of sautéd rabbit. As it was I used a fair bit of the estate white to keep the bunny moist and threw in some whole cloves of garlic in their skins together the herbs that grow all around the mas. I then added some peeled baby turnips. I was pleased with this dish.

There is often a large bit of boar to deal with when I arrive. It is traditionally referred to as ‘Boris’. This year it was a proper haunch of Boris, which I committed to a bottle of red, oil and vinegar once I had wiped the dust off my boots and kept him marinating for a couple of days. Like that even an old boar can be tender. On his appointed day Boris was taken out of his bath which was reduced for the sauce with a lot of concentrated tomato paste and Madeira. Boris himself was roasted in the oven with a bouquet garni and came out soft and pink in well under two hours. He was served with a potato purée and the freshest of spinach.

Just three days after my return my neighbour Richard invited me to an all-star tasting of wines from the Mosel-Saar-Ruwer with one Pfälzer interloper. We started with a trio of sweet Kabinetts: 1993 Herrenberg from Maximin Grünhaus, 1997 Wehlener Sonnenuhr from Dr Loosen and a 2007 Abtsberg also from Maximin Grünhaus. The two older wines hardly even tasted sweet, although they must each have had thirty if not fifty grams of residual sugar. A stunning acidity favoured the first two, with the opening wine winning perhaps by a neck.

The next flight was the Spätlesen: the 2007 Abtsberg from Maximin Grünhaus, 2001 Piesporter Goldtröpfchen from Reinhold Haart, 2001 Brauneberger-Juffer Sonnenuhr from Fritz Haag, 2002 Wehlener Sonnenuhr from J J Prüm, 2003 Okfener Bockstein from Zilliken and the 2004 Wehlener Sonnenuhr again from Prüm. The 2001s possibly performed the least well and I expected the heat-wave year 2003 to be short on acidity, but it was not. The stars were the two Prüms and the Abtsberg. With some hesitation I think the Abtsberg was the best of the lot: interesting, when I had not been nearly so impressed by its Kabinett stablemate.

Then came Richard’s dinner and a trio of good German cheeses. We had some of the 2016 Maximin Grünhaus Pinot Noir with that, a wine born only a few years back, a decent Pinot Noir, but there are better to be had from elsewhere in Germany - even further north in the Ahr Valley. Many people opted to return to the Kabinetts which were not at all bad with the food. The super-sweet wines were served with raspberries and blueberries, or with cheese, according to taste. The third flight consisted of a 1998 Forster Ungeheuer Eiswein from von Buhl, a 2010 Zeltinger Sonnenuhr Beerenauslese from Selbach Oster and Daniel Vollenweider’s 2006 Wolfer Goldgrube Trockenbeerenauslese - an estate I had not encountered before. The Ungeheuer was a gorgeous wine without any shadow of doubt, but the Beerenauslese had a fresh apricot fruitiness that trounced it. The Trockenbeerenauslese was quite cloyingly sweet, more a miracle of nature than a wine.

Burns Night

Posted: 3rd February 2020

It seems appropriate to talk about British food this month, so we’ll start with Alexis Soyer and the food he cooked at the Reform Club in the Mall.  Soyer was born in 1810 in Meaux - famous for both its grain mustard and its Brie cheese - and in 1858 went to Paradise by way of Kensal Green.  Soyer was actually a rather remarkable man: both a culinary innovator and a social reformer who sorted out the British Army’s kitchens in the Crimean War. There is a so-so biography of him by Ruth Cowen. From 1838 to 1850 he received a stupendous salary working as the chef at the Reform Club in London, and many of his creations are still on the menu.

Last month I was entertained to a very good lunch at the Reform. I ate Soyer’s Devilled Kidneys, Lamb Cutlets ‘Reform’ and Sherry Trifle and drank my share of an excellent bottle of 2009 Château Potensac with it (which was à point). The cutlets in breadcrumbs were very good, but it was a strikingly dated dish largely as a result of the ‘Reform Sauce’ that unites tomato purée, vinegar, redcurrant jelly, cayenne pepper, beef stock, ham, beetroot, gherkins and cooked egg whites. I thought it marvellous the Reform was still serving this famous dish. My friend Michel Bourdin used to dish up an unbelievably old-fashioned French menu at the Connaught, but that has long gone. There can’t be many places around now where you can eat Victorian classics.

The sherry trifle I knew of old. I don’t think it is a Soyer recipe, but it must have been on the menu for at least a century. The Reform seems to have engaged a proper pâtissier because the dessert trolley looks ten times better than it did, and the trifle is presented in individual glasses rather than hewn out of a big glass bowl, as it was before. I love a good trifle. There was a time when we would travel appreciable distances to eat our favourites: the George in Dorchester springs to mind, or the Bear in Woodstock.

What I enjoyed most, however, was my starter of devilled kidneys, a dish I laboured to reproduce in my teens. Lambs’ kidneys are wonderfully cheap (25p each from my butcher) and I may even have even used pig. I found it remarkably difficult to locate the proper recipe the other night. Finally I stumbled on this survey by Felicity Cloake in the Guardian. I left out the anchovies in deference to my son’s aversion to fish, and served the dish with rice rather than roundels of toast as we were eating it for dinner, not breakfast. I re-located some excellent red pepper a friend had brought me from Kenya and I used Meaux mustard in deference to Soyer. I also lengthened the sauce with some stock; still, it was a triumph, and I am grateful to the Reform for reminding me how good devilled kidneys can be.

For some Britons, January also means Burns Night. Not being remotely Scottish I get out of this most years but I have no deep-seated opposition to haggis with ‘tatties and neeps (swedes)’. I like almost all things of a vaguely sausagey sort, but prefer them when they don’t go overboard on rusk, bread or oatmeal and lead on meat. Haggis can be too short on flesh and far too long on oats, making it distressingly formless once you have pierced its protective skin. At its positive worst it spews out of the hole like a damp squib or a half-extinct volcano. In Germany there is the firm and excellent ‘Saumagen’ which contains pork and potatoes and is presented in a pig’s tummy. It was just about Helmut Kohl’s number-one dish and he foisted it on everyone from Mrs Thatcher to the Queen at his favourite restaurant the Deidesheimer Hof. There is an Austrian version called a ‘Saumaise’ which I used to get from the little butcher in Weissenkirchen in the Wachau, but that is actually wrapped in a caul.

Haggis is far less meaty than Saumagen or Saumaise, but I have enjoyed good ones too. The very best was from the Ubiquitous Chip in Glasgow, which was made with venison umbles. Once the late and great Michael Jackson and I flew up to Inverness together to have a haggis lunch (I think it was) at the Dalmore Distillery on the Cromarty Firth. If I remember rightly, a lot of malt whisky was poured on the beast. On another occasion we had the meal in mid-summer with Alan Winchester of the Glenlivet (by far and away the best performer of the Burns Address to a Haggis I have ever encountered) in the baronial trappings of Fyvie Castle.

My Burns Supper was a bit closer to home: in the ancient cellars of Boisdale of Bishopsgate in the City with malt provided by the newly de-mothballed distillery at Annandale in the Borders. The whisky was even used as the basis for the whisky sours (peaty whisky sours are good). Malt whisky was on hand for the meal was well but there was also a Chilean Sauvignon Blanc and a nice 2016 Bordeaux Supérieur. I confess that drinking spirits with my food does not appeal to me much; and we had the works: the piper; several Burns poems; and the ceremonial killing of the haggis with Ranald Macdonald’s sgian-dubh. To eat there was Dunkeld smoked salmon with Morecambe Bay potted shrimps, a juicy, meaty Blackface mini-haggis about the size of a tennis ball with its traditional partners (I knew this version well as it is a favourite of my son’s); a little pie filled with braised shoulder of Highland red deer and girolles; and finally some Scottish cheeses. It proved as convivial an evening as I had any right to expect, and an experience that some of the people in these islands identify with their way of life.

Festive Wines 2019

Posted: 6th January 2020

With each passing Christmas I get the feeling that the wines we drink at home are too much a metaphor for me and my contemporaries: there are fewer of them, they are losing vigour, but - thank God - I still find some zest, excitement and the occasional surprise that makes the whole exercise worthwhile. And there is hope too in the form of the next generation, both of whom now partake and express an interest in the contents of the dusty bottles and decanters that make their way to the table.

We still celebrate a cranky sort of Christmas here, the end of the Advent fast; and try to forget any crushing disappointments we might have suffered for the duration of the feast at least. The tree goes up at sunset on Christmas Eve and comes down for the Feast of the Kings on the evening of 6 January. Each of the twelve days is a feast in theory, although I know of no one who cooks up a delicious meal for every one. The most they might do is cut another slice from the spiced beef or the Christmas ham. Most years I make a terrine, but this time neither money nor ingredients were to hand.

Christmas Eve is an Advent meal, and for us that means fish. When I was a child there was a carp, but we hated it. Not even stuffing it with vegetables or smothering it with beurre blanc could take away its pedestrian flavour. More recently there have generally been lobsters, but again the prices went through the roof this year with a kilo-weighing lobster fetching £50 - £60. We had some delicious halibut instead that I did with a little wine, butter, cream and capers. I had some puff pastry that I had failed to use up and I decided to celebrate the meatless Advent by making three vegetable tarts: red onion and sage, tomato and basil and aubergine and feta. The first two were made to look like tartes tatin with the rounded ends of the halved onions and tomatoes uppermost. I cheated a bit with the onion tart in that I used a bit of pork fat. The most ambitious one was the aubergine, where feta formed the basement storey and the aubergines were doused with olive oil and parmesan scattered on the top.

We started with a bottle of Mumm. It wasn’t a year to bring out the best champagne, but Mumm is decent enough; then with the fish we had a 2014 Cuvée Vieilles Vignes from the Domaine de la Motte in Chablis. It did its stuff - a classic chablis. There was a lively 2000 Trockenbeerenauslese from the Freie Weingärtner in the Austrian Wachau (now called the ‘Domäne Wachau’) with the chestnut bûche de Noël, which proved on top form. If I remember rightly it was largely Müller-Thurgau, which would make its performance an even greater achievement. Finally, with our Christmas cheeses (a Vacherin Mont d’Or, a Brillat-Savarin and some 36-month Comté) there was the 2000 ‘Word’ vintage port from Sandeman. It was light, as Sandeman ports tend to be, but had that authentic ‘cola’ or gum cistus smell of the best vintage port.

Christmas Eve tends to be a bit of a gallop as we stagger off to the Dominican Priory for Midnight Mass at 11.30. The church has the advantage of being just twenty minutes’ walk away. By the time we get back at 1.30 in the morning, the only thing we want to do is go to bed.

Christmas Day has a different routine. The children still get stockings (but that doesn’t mean they get up any earlier) then there are presents round the tree with champagne. I found a bottle of Boller I must have had for at least a decade: it was more amber than gold and gave off a whiff of Seville marmalade; still it was long and lively. I am consistently amazed at the longevity of champagne. Later I made some pumpkin soup for lunch. Dinner is timed for six pm. I had a bit of bought terrine and made some tartines that we ate while I put the finishing touches to the meal. There was a lovely heifer forerib that Paul the Butcher told me he had been dry-ageing since the end of October, and then red cabbage and roast potatoes. Here I brought out a 1995 Daniel Rion Gevrey Chambertin ‘Les Grandes Vignes’ which was pleasingly robust and flexed its muscles grandly in the face of Simon Heifer. The (same) cheeses and the treacle pudding had to make do with the wines we had opened on Christmas Eve.

We normally have a few people over for Christmas but this year we were alone for much of the time. Boxing Day was an exception. There were the remains of the Advent tarts and a bit of roast pork loin with braised fennel. With that I opened a magnum of 2012 d’Annona Barbera d’Asti from Il Cascinone which had been a Christmas present last year. It turned out to be huge surprise: a really lovely wine with lots of youthful energy and length.

I preferred the Barbera to the 2014 La Magia Brunello di Montalcino we drank at Boisdale’s on 30 December. Even decanted it failed to excite me, though it had received high praise from Italian wine experts. It was possibly a little young for my taste. On the other hand I thought the De Brimoncourt Extra Brut we had to start with was about the best champagne we drank this Christmas.

On New Year’s Eve we have adopted the north Italian practice of eating a zampone or a stuffed pig’s trotter with lentils, tomato passata and mashed potatoes.  The lentils are supposed to represent all the money you are going to make in the coming year; fat hope as far as I’m concerned, but maybe they will bring luck for the others. There was some champagne to start then, looking for sweet wines I found a neglected bottle of 1998 Torres Viña Esmeralda made partly with Gewürztraminer grapes as a tribute to Miguel’s German wife. I wasn’t expecting too much from this wine, but it proved a very pleasant surprise; and more so than the 1996 Chiarlo Barolo, which, although still alive, was distinctly showing its age. We finished the meal with another disappointment: a 1992 Ruster Ausbruch from Karl Leitgeb, which was not at its best. Fortunately we rallied with an Italian hazelnut cake.

As I write little remains of this Christmas. I am rolling out puff pastry intermittently. On 6 January we consume my galette des rois after the tree comes down and the baubles return to their boxes. I will endeavour to find a vigorous sweet wine to go with that, a true tribute to the young life I witness flourishing about me.

Friedrich Zweigelt

Posted: 2nd December 2019

As he leaves us for pastures new, Willi Klinger, the director of the Austrian Wine Marketing Board, has sent us all a parting present in the form of an impressive clothbound book (English language version) covering the history and geography of Austrian wine. It is a work of many hands. One of the essays that has excited the most attention is by Daniel Deckers, the author of a history of German wine (abridged and translated by me). It is about the late Dr Friedrich Zweigelt.

Everyone who knows Austrian wine will be aware of the ‘Zweigelt’ cultivar. It is a crossing between Blaufränkisch and St Laurent and with 6,400 hectares it is the most widely planted black grape in the country. It can crop at ridiculously high levels, but providing you are not greedy it is capable of making a lovely, full-bodied, deep-coloured wine. It is one of three grape varieties created by the Zweigelt, the others being the insipid Blauburger and the increasingly rare green grape Goldburger.

So who was he? Of Bohemian German descent, Zweigelt was born in Styria in 1888 and brought up near Graz. He read Botany at the local university and was engaged by the wine and fruit-growing school in Klosterneuburg in 1912, where he rapidly gained a reputation for his skill in crossing grape varieties. It is tempting to think that the idea of perfecting a species made him inclined towards Nazism, which also sought to create a master race through selective breeding?

Whatever the answer, he was a ‘May Violet’ joining the Party in May 1933 when it was still illegal in Austria. This put him in a prime position to reap the rewards in March 1938 when German armies reclaimed the country of Hitler’s birth. Zweigelt used his column in the specialist revue Das Weinland to praise Hitler and all that he would do for Austria. He didn’t mention Austria’s 200,000 odd Jews, who were bound to disagree.

He met with little resistance from Austrian winemakers in the praise he scattered before the invaders. Most Austrian growers were smallholders and it was hardly a parish smitten with philosemitism. An exception was Austria’s biggest wine merchant, and a distant relative of mine, Sándor Wolf, who also possessed a vineyard near Eisenstadt. He was forced to relinquish his collection of antiquities which had formed the rump of Burgenland’s Provincial Museum, and where my Godfather Alphons Barb worked as his curator. Robbed and chastened by a period in Gestapo detention, he made his way to Palestine, where he died in 1946.

Zweigelt expected to be made Principal of the Klosterneuburg Wine School, but in this he was temporarily thwarted and for the time being he merely stood in for a head who was indisposed. He concentrated on purging the institution of its non-Nazi staff, observant Catholics or members of the hated Christian Social Party, sneaking to the authorities that they were indolent or drunken. In Nazi eyes, however, Zweigelt was not entirely free from sin: he had shown himself to be friendly towards Jews, and Das Weinland, the periodical where he had published learned and political papers in the past, was owned by one. At the time of his trial he received valuable support from a half-Jew (or ‘first-grade mongrel’) called Heinrich Weil.

I had heard that Zweigelt had banished all Jews from his school, but in all fairness, Deckers reveals Zweigelt to have been only a mild Nazi who cannot really be said to have perpetrated any major crimes. In May 1943 he finally achieved his aim of becoming Principal but that was shortly after the Battle of Stalingrad announced the beginning of the end. The School profited from the closing of the great monastery of Klosterneuburg and the eviction of its monks, as forty hectares of its vines came their way. He was enthusiastic about German victories, and saw great potential in the return of Nether Styria from Jugoslavia as the 1919 border had been erected in the middle of its best vineyards. His only child was killed fighting in the German army and he ended the war on the run in Langenlois, lodging in the house of one of his wife’s relatives.

In October 1945, Zweigelt was arrested and charged with high treason. He was released on bail on Christmas Eve that same year. The prosecution of Nazis in Austria was somewhat reluctantly pursued, but Zweigelt was in the Soviet Zone, so he might have expected a little more zeal. As it was he was declared only slightly incriminated and discharged in June 1946. Despite being a passionate National Socialist, he had not used this to his advantage and the sterling services he had performed for Austrian viticulture were taken into account. As time went on, his work on creating viable grape varieties eclipsed his errors of political judgement and probably rightly so. Zweigelt lost his position as Principal of the wine school in Klosterneuburg and worked as a consultant in his native Styria planting Zweigelt vineyards for the Liechtenstein family. He died in 1964.

For the time being, Zweigelt’s greatest creation still went by the name of ‘Rotburger’, which was probably all for the good. Austria is a small place and most people in the business would have heard he had had a run in with the courts. At the instigation of Lenz Moser III, it was officially renamed ‘Zweigelt’ in 1975, but some people still clung to the original name. This was certainly still the case in the early nineties when I started work on Austrian wine. The fact that Friedrich Zweigelt had been a Nazi was an open secret. As Deckers points out, Zweigelt was not the only celebrated grape inventor who was a member of the Nazi Party. There was Dr Georg Scheu as well, the man responsible for the excellent Scheurebe, which Austrians piously refuse to call anything other than ‘Sämling 88’. Ironically it was originally named ‘Dr Wagner-Rebe’ as a tribute to Gauleiter Josef Wagner. After the war it was reattributed to Scheu because there was a little less of the smell of sulphur about him.


Posted: 1st Novemeber 2019

I became acquainted with the Central European grape variety Blaufränkisch at the beginning of the nineties, when I was working on my first book on Austrian wine. It was Austria’s most prestigious black grape and naturally they were plugging it for all its worth. I went sucking and spitting from estate to estate in Mittelburgenland where some of the wines struck me as being like decent cru bourgeois claret, while others were rather dried out and hard. The problem, it seemed to me, was a certain fragility of fruit. The simplest were the best. If you put the wines into small oak, particularly new barriques, they suffered. The best way to proceed was to age the wine in large tuns, and not for too long, but in those days small oak was the emperor’s new clothes - Austrians couldn’t get enough of it.

There were exceptions, and they were principally on the Leitha Hills where Engelbert Prieler made exquisite, silky, Burgundian-style Blaufränkisch wines on his Goldberg site, and down on the western side of Lake Neusiedl, where Ernst Triebaumer, in particular, was justly famous for his Mariental wines. In most cases I had to say Blaufränkisch needed a friend: another grape variety that could give it the velvet texture and fruit that it otherwise lacked. The Zweigelt grape variety - invented by the politically suspect Friedrich Zweigelt - was just that: a crossing of Blaufränkisch with the fruity St Laurent, and providing you weren’t too greedy, it was capable of producing very attractive wines. There were other successful blends too, particularly in the Seewinkel on the other side of the lake, where Merlot, Cabernet, Syrah and Younameit were combined with Blaufränkisch to provide what were often spectacular results.

But Austrians persisted with oaking up their Blaufränkisch wines, often to horrendous effect. I have painful memories of some of these coming under my nose in the years I judged the country’s main wine competition: the Salon, and again during the ten years I was in charge of the Austrian jury at the World Wine Awards. With time I learned to take the back seat, as others liked the wines more than I did. I let them decide if any top medals were to be awarded for Blaufränkisch: wine is a matter of taste, and our tastes fortunately vary.

Since then there have been changes to the law. Austria has a DAC regulation for Mittelburgenland or ‘Blaufränkischland’ now which separates the simpler Blaufränkisch wines from the superior sort. That means provision is made for a more cheerful wine which suits my taste, and the people who really like serious Blaufränkisch can opt for the reserve wines. I have to admit, however, there are some very good reserve wines now that Austrians have toned down the oak a bit or got the hang of using it.

Blaufränkisch was also one of the main black grapes of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and there are a great many hectares of it planted in Hungary, Romania, Czechia, Slovakia, Croatia and Slovenia (not to mention Bulgaria, Spain and Australia) which often give different results to Austria; and we mustn’t forget Germany either, where hiding under the name of Lemberger, it is grown in southerly Württemberg, making wines that are considerably lighter than those of Austria or Hungary. Some of these have their merits too.

On 29 October, Wines from Hungary put on a tasting of Blaufränkisch/Kékfrankos wines in London partly fronted by my friend Elizabeth Gabay MW. The accent was naturally on Hungary, but there were plenty of other wines besides and a lot of Hungarian ‘cuvées’ in which the mainstay was Kékfrankos. It shouldn’t come as a surprise to hear that I often preferred the ‘Bikaver’ blends in which Kékfrankos dominated. These are most famous from Eger (remember ‘Bulls’ Blood?), but they also come from Szekszárd the region that nurtured my family before they departed for Vienna, and which must necessarily find a special place in my heart.  

In Eger then, the wines I liked were the 2016 Bikaver from St Andrea - Nagy-Eged-Hegy (Big Hill of Eger) which had weight and fruit due to the clever admixture of Merlot, Syrah, Kadarka (the otter) and Pinot Noir. From Toth Ferenc I favoured the quince-scented Bikaver Superior where the Kékfrankos was supplemented by Cabernets Franc and Sauvignon, Merlot and Pinot Noir. The Osteros wines had a faint smell of horseradish to them, but I liked the 2015 pure Kékfrankos.

Matra is a cool region between Budapest and Tokay which I would have thought unsuitable for Kékfrankos, but the 2016 Kerekés Örszáz (500) limited to 500 bottles was impressive, but certainly pricy - indeed none of these Hungarian wines was exactly cheap. I also liked the smoky, earthy 2018 Kékfrankos from Kovács es Lanya.

And so to Szekszàrd, near to my family crucible of Bonyhad, which produces nice, friendly, juicy Kékfrankos. The Bordri winery has a good, big, strawberry-scented 2016 straight Kékfrankos in ‘Gurovica’. That strawberry character I also found in the 2018 Szivem Baranya-völgy Kékfrankos from Heiman & Fiai. Schieber makes a luscious Bikaver with additions of Cabernet Sauvignon, Kardarka Siller and Kadarka.

Sopron or Ödenburg is on Lake Neusiedl and just a hop and a skip from Austria. It was awarded to Hungary in 1921, but much of the population was German-speaking, and they looked more towards Vienna than Budapest. I liked the supple 2017 Kékfrankos from Vincellér and the wines from Linzer Orosz in particular: their 2015 PS Kekfrankos was one of the best wines in the tasting. I needed no introduction to the Kékfrankos wines from Pfneiszl: I had discovered them in Austria in June.

Back on Lake Balaton, I admired the 2017 Szent Donat single-vineyard Kékfrankos and the 2017 Gilvessy Kékfrankos grown on basalt in Badacsony. In Balatonfüred, there were good things from Homola too.

Hungary’s hottest wines come from Villány or ‘Wieland’ in the south. This was a village colonised by industrious Saxons in the eighteenth century. After the war they suffered a bit, but since 1989 the reputation of their wines has soared and their prices with it. I very much liked the 2016 Heumann Kékfrankos Reserve as well as the minty 2016 Kékfrankos from Vylyan and the Montenuovo Cuvée made with the addition of Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Zweigelt. The wine commemorates a dispossessed grandee who was the former owner of the vineyard.

We crossed the border into Slovakia where Blaufränkisch is called ‘Frankovka’ as it is in Southern Moravia (now part of Czechia). I was reminded that much of Slovakia is ethnically Hungarian, as is some of Romanian Transylvania where there were good examples from the Nichbil Winery and Balla Géza. The big surprise came from two former Hungarian territories to the south: Istria and Slavonia, now parts of Croatia. From Istria (on the coast) where Blaufränkisch is called ‘Borgonja’ or ‘Burgundy’) came the leathery 2013 Clemente blend of Borgonja, Merlot, Cabernet and Teran while from northern Slavonia I liked the 2016 ‘Frankovka’ Cabernet Sauvignon blend from Ilocki Podrumi as well as the straight 2015 Frankovka Premium. In neighbouring Slovenia, my old friend Robert Gorjak at Dveri Pax presented a 2012 Frankovka Modra that was also excellent.

There was a single Spanish ‘Lemberger’ a 2013 Anicipo from F Schatz in Ronda! Not only Spain, but about as far south as you can get. It was a big monster which had spent twelve months in Slovenian oak, but it was by no means disagreeable.

Which brings us back to Austria: Austria had a small presence at the tasting with Weingut Nittnaus (there are two - these are not the Gols Nittnäuser, Hans and Anita) presenting a supple 2017 Edelgrund and the 2016 Blaufränkisch Reserve from Günter and Regina Triebaumer. Günter is the son of the late Paul Triebaumer, the brother of Ernst. I was very fond of Paul, an eccentric who used to make wine from a bewildering number of grape varieties in Rust on Lake Neusiedl. There was also a lovely Anton Bauer Blaufränkisch Reserve (no date and allegedly from Burgenland) from the loess soils of the Wagram west of Vienna, that was soft and elegant and was apparently worth nearly £40 at retail. These Austrians had a suavité lacking in many of the other wines in the room, but their position is by no means unassailable and the Magyars are massing at the frontier and daily growing in strength.

From the Battlefields of the Somme to Provence

Posted: 2nd October 2019

At the beginning of last month I was called away suddenly to Arras to lead a poetry and battlefield tour of the Somme. Picardy is not a region I know well. It lies between Paris and the sea and most of the time you pass it in a car or train without even reflecting on the grisly things that happened there in the First World War. In the days before Eurostar made life easier (ahem!) I recall coming to drowsily in a sleeper car in Arras and muttering (maybe even shouting) ‘Á bas Robespierre!’ knowing it was his home town. A well-meaning Frenchman tried to restrain me by assuring me there were no more Robespierres in Arras.

It was not as gastronomic tour, but we ate well at the old school Hôtel de l’Univers in the city centre and also at La Coupôle in the boulevard de Strasbourg. At L’Univers there was the occasional nod to regional specialities, such as the addition of some ‘pain d’épices’ to the beef carbonnade and a nice big chicory salad served on the side; and on the final night there was a good terrine and spéculoos biscuits with the crème brûlée. Gastronomically speaking Arras is Flemish.

One of the more exciting moments in our meal at La Coupôle was a late night visit to a subterranean thirteenth-century chapel round the corner from the restaurant. It is a magnificent survival with its ribbed vaults and elaborately carved capitals. It must have been part of a monastery destroyed at the time of the Revolution, or smashed by shelling during the First World War? If your party is of sufficient size you can arrange to eat there.

While we explored the battlefields themselves we were fed by Avril Williams in Auchonvillers. Avril has become something of an institution in the Somme since she moved there in 1992. The house, like so many in around the front line, rebuilt from the waist upwards after the shelling, is delightfully homely with its gaggles of hens, cockerels and pet sheep. She knows the bloodsoaked landscape like the back of her hand and is the first pole of attraction to the many British, Commonwealth and American citizens who come to explore or tour the war graves. In the meantime she beefs them up with copious lunches and teas, all wrought in a distinctly British idiom.

Before we left for blighty again, I nipped out into the centre of Arras to get a few things for home. I wanted to find a charcutier: the ‘pork butcher’ who used to exist on every French shopping street from Menton to Morbihan. The charcutier not only sold fresh pork, black pudding or more conventional sausages (and offal that did not necessarily derive from pigs), it sold an array of made up salads of various sorts, wine and spirits, biscuits, jars and tins and all the local specialities that were not the province of the cake-making pâtissier. The charcutier was open until 7.30 at night, so for many of us it was the last stop before getting home - suitably armed for the evening with some pâté, a pork chop, a couple of hundred grams of salade piémontaise and a bottle of Beaujolais. It seems the charcutier is no more, however, and the French lifestyle is teetering on the brink of death.

The artisan baker I had spotted on the corner of the rue Gambetta and the boulevard de Strasbourg was closed. I found a place on the rue Gambetta where the bread must have been baked elsewhere. The lightness of the boule should have told me all I needed to know. It was air-bread (for air-heads?), an indication if ever you needed one that bread can now be as bad in France as it is in Britain. In the Somme most of the villages are without bakers now. In some I saw fresh baguette dispensers and wondered if they were filled by responsible local bakers or simply peddled industrial baguettes.

We passed through Folkestone on the way back to London and I saw a branch of Morrison’s emblazoned with the legend ‘All our bread made with 100% British flour’. English flour is of very poor quality, capable only of making putty bread; but what is ‘British flour’? Most of Scotland lies outside the wheat-belt.

Ten days later I was back in France again for our twice-yearly Provencal jaunt. We have been coming for so many years they recognise our party when we stop at teh bistrot Aux Cadrans opposite the Gare de Lyon. After that the journey was smooth to Avignon and there was dinner waiting at the Domaine des Anges.

We went shopping in Carpentras the next morning. Certain things required a trip to the big Leclerc but none of the fruit and few of the vegetables were ripe. Everything felt as if it had just been taken out of the cold store. There was an excellent woman on the cheese counter, but when I asked for a camembert for that night she shrugged her shoulders. A generation ago every French housewife would have demanded and received the cheese she wanted: for that day, the next or the one after. I made a mayonnaise for the cold chicken and a tomato salad from some lovely fleshy marmandes that hardly needed any more dressing than a little salt and olive oil. It was curry night and I was off duty that evening.

The local butchers have almost all given up the ghost. Apart from the one up by the arcades in Carpentras, there are now none in Mormoiron, Mazan or Bédoin. I was reduced to the butchery counter at Super U in Mazan, which is perfectly good and specialises in Ventoux pork. We spent the afternoon chasing cyclists up Mount Ventoux. The mountain was shrouded in mist and only occasionally the cloud would thin out and allow to us to look down on the vineyards around Bédoin. That night we had roast pork and ratatouille.

On our last night we went to La Calade in Blauvac with its fabulous views across the valley. There is a rumour doing the rounds that the proprietor is going to close because he cannot make ends meet. We asked him that evening. He made it clear he’d sell if someone came up with the price. It would be a pity to see him go: there are only few good places around now. Bédouin has become a tourist trap for Dutch cyclists, all but one of the bars in Mazan were closed when we were there and there is really nothing left in Mormoiron, bar the baker.

Dawn announced the long journey home. Half an hour out of Paris on the Eurostar and we were informed that there had been an accident involving some power cables. We had to return to the Gare du Nord and take the ordinary, slow-train lines, which led us up through Picardy, past then art deco station at Albert and through the battlefields of the Somme to Arras before we could pick up speed up again at Lille for the journey home. We limped into Saint Pancras six hours late. I might as well have taken the boat-train.


Posted: 2nd September 2019

In August I led a vegetable life enhanced by fruits. With the exception of a day away in Winchester, I didn’t go anywhere far or do anything important. I saw virtually no-one beyond my immediate family and for more than a week I didn’t even see them. I abandoned shoes and socks, wearing plimsolls for my excursions to a high street almost entirely denuded of commerce. As resources were virtually non-existent there wasn’t very much I could do, but, it was summer, so I made jam.

Earlier this year I saw a recipe in an airline magazine for strawberry jam made the Austrian way. Maybe there is some truth in what people say about Britain being at loggerheads with the Mainland, because they make their jam differently there, using less sugar and with a rather more liquid consistency. So when I chanced on a few tubs of mangled strawberries at the fruit and veg stall I thought I’d have a go. I selected around a kilo of decent ones, relegating the rest to a compote. I put the good strawberries through the mouli, added 500 grams of sugar-with-pectin and let them sit a while. They were on the boil for five minutes or so before they achieved a runny set. A kilo made about seven small pots, and it was by far the best strawberry jam I’d ever made.

The next two jams were less successful. We have had a lot of white peaches this year, and some of them have even been ripe. I tried the same method, but neglected to put the fruit through the mouli, which then showed no sign of wanting to set. The relatively small amount of sugar (half the fruit weight again) meant that the jam was quite sharp. It has been set aside for compote, to be added to yoghurt to mitigate the nasty taste of the latter.

Similar, but not quite the same was the story of the greengages. My Albanian friend by the station had some lovely little ones, hardly bigger than cherries. I wanted to keep their handsome appearance and therefore cooked them whole, but again they failed to set. The jam tastes nice but it is too liquid for toast. I made only four or five pots that have been lodged right at the back of the ‘jam cellar’. They’ll soon be eaten up, but I shall need to find them first.

The best fruit is wild. Commercial fruit is always short on pectin and acidity. You add sugar to jam, so the fruit doesn’t have to be very ripe. And so it was with my neighbour’s apricots, which grow over our kitchen roof. I had been watching them throughout the stop-and-start spring and summer and biding my time before the moment came to pick. I pulled in four kilos in two batches (yes, she got some jam as compensation) and chopped the fruit as small as I could, adding sugar-and-pectin totalling fifty percent of the fruit weight. This jam was a huge success, a bit like the Marillenmarmalade which is one of the huge pleasures of an Austrian summer. Because the fruit was not completely ripe, there is acidity as well as the freshest of flavours. I am very pleased with this jam.

The last jam of the season was the blackberry which goes by the name of Ganymede - an allusion to the place where I cull the fruit. The summer was bad for blackberries. What appeared to be a good berry was overripe in parts and underripe in others, so that the juice ran down your fingers rather than landing in the bucket. My fingers were not only purple, they were like pin cushions, and I frequently had to stop to extract prickles. Yields were tiny. I made about ten pots from the first forage before the mini-heat wave at the end of the month, and another dozen after. In the first jam there were a few sloes too, which help provide pectin; in the second batch I added a few elderberries and a lot more sloes. The second edition was the better jam even if it meant a lot of tiny, very hard stones.

I did not try to make the blackberry jam the continental way as I wanted something durable for the winter. The sugar (without pectin this time) therefore equalled fifty percent of the total. I had some for breakfast this morning. The blackberry-sloe-elderberry Γανυμήδης is a triumph, much like the apricot Ρικο - named after a fat boy at school.

The only drawback with continental-style jam is that it doesn’t keep as well as English jam. In my jam cellar I have pots of unrefrigerated jam and marmalade that are more than a decade old. As the great Hans Staud (Stauds makes the best commercial jam in the world) told me once if you err below fifty percent sugar by volume you need to keep any open pot of jam in the fridge. Like Theresa May, I am forever scooping spots of mould off the top of the jam, but that doesn’t bother me much.

Anyway, when someone asks (if anyone cares) what I achieved in August I can say in all honesty: about sixty pots of jam.


Posted: 1st August 2019

Before last month I recall going to the famous London nightclub Tramp just once. To be honest, nightclubs are not really my thing. I am happy to go for a drink in the early hours of the morning, but I want to be able to hear what my interlocutor is saying, otherwise I might as well be drinking by myself, or better still - at home in bed. I have never enjoyed dancing much, and these days I don’t even go through the motions.

So let’s us travel back to the previous time I went to Tramp when I was a guest of the great chef and Yorkshireman Marco Pierre White. This must have been before 1994, for Marco was still cooking at Harvey’s in Wandsworth and had yet to move to the Hyde Park Hotel where he was awarded his third Michelin star. Five years later he chucked it all in, together with his stars, and decided the time had come to make money rather than food. Many top chefs do, and have done, the same.

I had gone along to do a piece on Marco’s kitchen. This meant watching the ‘coup de feu’ with a glass of champagne in my hand. The ‘coup du feu’ is the moment (generally around eight p.m.) when the orders start to come in thick and fast. As I recall there were eleven chefs in a space little bigger than a domestic kitchen. Then there was me in my corner with my frequently topped up glass of champagne (Marco: ‘Get Giles another glass of f**king champagne’) plus waitresses who came in to collect plates and who were routinely abused by Marco.

The abuse was also dished out to the chefs, who spoke - like Marco himself - a sort of kitchen patois that contained a large element of French. In Marco’s case (‘Pierre’ being fantasy name) this contained no perceivable element of grammar.

Never having worked in a modern kitchen I found the process gripping enough. Quite a lot of the food was already packaged up in sous-vide bags and slipped out onto salamander or plate while Marco added the final flourishes. I noted with interest (we were all sweating like pigs) that a thin stream of sweat ran off Marco’s nose and onto the plate, there to mingle with the delicate sauce or seasoning: a signature touch - the real taste of Marco guaranteed for every diner.

After the adulating crowd retreated I was taken out into the dining room and fed more champagne, while a sous-chef knocked up some eleven dishes from the menu. These I was to taste while Marco explained this and that, possibly with his feet on the table. The dishes were quite delicious though, and I am sure I ate much too much.

I was heading back to Islington, which is about as far from Wandsworth as you can be while still remaining in London. Marco had an idea: we would go to Tramp in Jermyn Street in a taxi and then I would be half way home. When he got there we were (from memory) led into in a large-ish dining room. Marco promptly ordered more champagne and some bowls of chips with ketchup. I demurred: I had had quite enough to eat. ‘They are not for eating’ he said, and he shook his mane in the direction of the next table where was sitting Bill Wyman of the Rolling Stones. ‘They’re for throwing, at ‘im’.

I picked one up and lobbed in the right direction. It struck Wyman squarely on the head. The great musician looked slightly put upon, but otherwise took it in his stride. Marco, on the other hand, was critical of my performance: ‘They didn’t teach you anything at public school, did they? You ‘ave to dip it int’ sauce! Otherwise it doesn’t stick!’

After my bad behaviour all those years ago I was slightly surprised to be invited to sample the new menu at Tramp, but the story of my assault on Bill Wyman was well received. A charming Italian waiter who had served the club for more than thirty years and waited on our table put out bowls of chips and ketchup, just in case Bill Wyman should come in. He had been seen in the dining room as recently as four weeks back, so the episode had not dented his fondness for Tramp and nor should it have done.

The pretext for my latest visit was the club’s fiftieth jubilee. There was a new range of champagnes in dumpy bottles (I tasted only a very nice blanc de noirs with a telltale aroma of raspberries) and an addition to the menu in a ‘Golden Anniversary Tramp Burger’ which alluded not only to the filling but also the founder Johnny Gold.  This turned out to be plated (sic) with 24 carat gold leaf, with foie gras on top - in the tradition of the ‘tournedos Rossini’- and a truffley relish underneath. Beforehand I ate some Spey salmon with pickled cucumber and wasabi yoghurt, and for pudding there was a glazed banana mille-feuille with vanilla ice-cream and toffee popcorn. My friendly waiter plied me with wines from New Zealand, a Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc and a Mount Holdsworth Pinot Noir. Bill Wyman, however, wisely kept to hearth and home and did not go to Tramp that night.

After dinner I had a little cognac and watched the floor show, but my attempts to communicate with my neighbour failed, and I thought it wisest to make my way back to my cot.

No Weddings, Two Funerals

Posted: 2nd July 2019

June was a month when the deaths of the near and dear greatly exceeded births and when bears generally outnumbered bulls; but that is the standard drawback at my time of life. As champagne has become a feature in my life once again, I went along to the tasting organised by the Australian Tyson Stelzer in Christ Church Spitalfields. It was an unusual venue for a wine event. The pews had been removed but apart from that everything was much as you’d expect in Hawksmoor’s baroque masterpiece, except that, instead of devout Anglicans primly arrayed in pews, there were the massed ranks of the British wine trade sipping and spitting champagne; and in the place where you might have expected to find the high altar, there were baskets piled high with bread. That was canonically correct at least, but there were also some very appetising looking cheeses: caseus Christi.

I am sorry I had so little time for champagne or food, as I had to proceed to the big press lunch at Boisdale’s in Canary Wharf. I am glad I went, however, as there were some lovely things like the superbly structured 2008 Billecart-Salmon Extra Brut or their distinctly un-woody Cuvée Sous Bois. From Gosset I loved the Grand Rosé Brut and the rare, creamy Grand Blanc de Meunier Extra-Brut: another testimony to the quality of Meunier if well used. It is not a grape variety to write off. Both of these, however, were trounced by the soft, rich 2006 vintage.

Elsewhere the tasting brought back happy memories. At Pommery I tasted another good 2006, this time with distinct toffee notes, and then the lovely 2004 Louise - also with a little hint of toffee. I remembered the 1988 Louise, and drinking my last bottle just four years ago, and my meetings with its creator, Prince Alain de Polignac, who seems to be well-retired from the business. Pol Roger is everyone’s idea of a gentlemanly champagne house, a position that does it credit now that many of the bigger houses have become so cold and mechanical. The NV makes me think of pineapples and it was a great treat to taste the current vintage of Sir Winston Churchill: 2008.

Sometimes you need to drop down to the smaller grandes marques to rediscover the real personality of champagne. Philipponat is one of these. I loved the 2012 Blanc de Noirs Extra Brut and the 2009 1522 Grand Cru Brut (31% Chardonnay from Le Mesnil) with its amazing length. Pierre Gimonnet is even smaller: a big grower’s house in the Côte des Blancs that I have held in high regard for decades. Their champagnes are remarkable constructions, assembled like clocks from their various vintages and reserve wines. New to me was the 2014 Gastronome 1er Cru Blanc de Blancs and the 2012 Special Club Grands Terroirs de Chardonnay Extra Brut.

It seems odd to descend from top champagne in some cases well over £100 a bottle to Lidl, where very little costs much more than a tenner, but such is life, and bless Lidl for thinking of us poor drinkers. I had the honour of being shown through a short flight by Richard Bampfield, Lidl’s British MW. Quite quickly we hit the champagne, Comte de Senneval, which costs a derisory £11.49. It is hard to fault - pleasantly appley, faint taste of peaches, no faults but possibly a little bit on the sweet side. The Crémant de la Loire is possibly a better sparkling wine, but I don’t get the impression that it will be on the shelves much before Christmas. The Prosecco at £7.99 is also exemplary.

Among the still whites, the Clare Valley Riesling (£6.99) is an absolute (white) peach and has all the typicity you might want from this variety. From the reds, £5.99 buys you a really classy Marlborough Pinot Noir, once again with the classic aromas of the grape; or even better a Chianti Riserva at £6.99. Richard showed me the Rioja Crianza from Casa Lebrel. This is not my favourite. I find it too obviously oaky, but I adore the Reserva, which costs only a little bit more at £5.79 and which I buy quite regularly. We finished off with the 2016 St Emilion Grand Cru at the staggering price of £10.99 (most shops these days seem to start around here). This is authentic stuff! Not a wimpy thing but a proper claret with guts that you would enjoy with your Sunday lunch! Bravo Lidl!

I hurried out, passing groaning boards covered with roast geese and turkeys, Brussels sprouts and roast potatoes and all the trimmings. It looked very tempting all in all. On one table there was a whole Serrano ham complete with its stand: mine for £30, they said. I didn’t stop to taste it or anything else: I was late for a funeral.

Wine and Food in the Borderlands

Posted: 4th June 2019

These days when I go to Austria I seldom chance it beyond the Vienna’s wide city limits. Last week it was different: almost as soon as I arrived I was whisked off in a coach driven by Wolfgang the Bavarian and taken to Poysdorf on the ‘Brünnerstrasse’, the famous Brno Road. The Brünnerstrasse used to go all the way to Brünn or Brno in Southern Moravia but after Austria-Hungary lost the First World War it stopped at the River Thaya. The other side was the new state of Czecho-Slovakia. This rather downsized picture of Austria and the history of its wines was the theme behind the trip.

The ‘Brünnerstrasse’ was famous for the sharpness of its ‘Brünnerstrassler’ wines. They even had a coarse epithet to describe them, claiming they were so acid they would draw your shirt tails into your entrails via your fundament. When the sparkling wine craze hit Austria in the 1840s, the Brünnerstrasse found a new vocation: it became the plinth for wines made by the champagne-method: sour wines could be fattened up with sugar for the second fermentation.

Despite the vicissitudes of the twentieth century, the wines made either side of the frontier have remained very much in the same idiom, but I doubt that the sparkling wine producers in Vienna’s Döbling have access to wines from the Czech side of the border any more. I used to like the simple Grüner Veltliner wines from the eastern Weinviertel very much. They rarely achieved great ripeness but they were fairly priced and refreshing. This time I struggled: warmer summers have nudged them up by a degree or two robbing them of much of their acidity. I began to see the sense in the sparkling wines: they could be picked early, and that way retain some of their bite.

After lunch in a local inn we went to a tasting of Carnuntum wines at Schloss Hof, the former summer residence of Prince Eugene of Savoy: it is so close to the Slovakian Border that the gardens seem to collide with the tower blocks in the suburbs of Bratislava. The tasting was in the ballroom, which was in a muted, early classical style distinct from the original baroque and rococo conception of the house. We were urged to go out and look at the newly restored gardens, passing through the sublime sala terrena on the way. The tasting showed beyond doubt that Carnuntum is producing some of the best red wines in Austria: not just my old friend Hans Pitnauer, with his Bienenfresser, but also Muhr-van der Niepoort, Gerhard Markowitsch, and the new star Michael Auer.

We had a considerable treat that night in dinner at Zur Dankbarkeit in Podersdorf on the Neusiedlersee: the most authentic country inn on the far side of the lake and now in the fourth generation of ownership by the Lentsch family. You might have found the great sweet winemaker Alois Kracher enjoying a fag at the bar here before his untimely death a decade ago. Some two hundred years before, a Prussian count is supposed to have sought refuge in this building after killing a man in a duel and somewhere in the bowels of the inn there is a quaint series of paintings describing his life.

It was good to see Josef Lentsch presiding in person at our Pannonian feast and celebrating the current asparagus season. He told me that the local sandy soils are famous for it and asparagus found its way into several courses of the meal: a terrine of goats’ cheese, Mangalitza sausage with some cabbage steeped in paprika; zander with braised radishes (brilliant idea) braised ox cheeks with asparagus and semmel terrine, finishing up with chocolate cake with asparagus ice. To go with this there was a really nice Veltliner from Sommer in the Leithagebirge with the fish, a St Laurent Ried Rosenberg from Gerhard and Brigitte Pittnauer (the Golser Pittnauer not the Göttlesbrunner Pitnauer) with the ox cheeks; and a fantastically sweet (360 grams per litre), coffee-coloured 2008 Welschriesling Trockenbeerenauslese from Velich with the pudding.

The following morning we had a rare treat (rara avis perhaps?) when we went on safari in the national park. It wasn’t really a safari - although we did see some hares and deer speeding by - it was chiefly about birds and the very many sorts that congregate around the salt-water ponds and lakes. I wish I could remember them all, but there were plenty of egrets and buzzards, pied avocets, lapwings, cormorants, storks and a sole marsh harrier out looking for lunch. Done twitching, we went to Austria’s hottest spot: Andau on the Hungarian Border, home to Kracher’s friend Hans Schwarz the big butcher and his suitably voluminous wines.

Our goal was the little bridge across which thousands of Hungarians fled to the West in 1956. It is not the original bridge, which was subsequently demolished, but one put up for a film. Our lecturer not only recounted that moving story, but taught us about how little wine culture there was on the eastern shores of the lake before the seventies and eighties. South of Gols there was too much mist, making the area by the lake suitable only for luscious sweet wine production. This used to be mostly cattle country, with vegetables planted in the sand like the asparagus we had eaten the night before.

After lunch at the enormous Scheiblhofer Winery at Andau (the outgoing Austrian wine chief Willi Klinger designated Scheiblhofer’s 200 hectares of vines as the ‘new face of Austria’) we cut through Hungary to Central Burgenland. From the coach window I could see the Esterhazy Summer Palace. My Polish neighbour reminded me that it was there that Haydn’s Farewell Symphony was first performed to quietly intimate that it was time the orchestra had some compassionate leave. Our destination was the Kirnbauer Winery in Deutschkreuz with its spectacular views over the vineyards to the north. Here we had a Blaufränkisch tasting animated by David Schildknecht among others and including a few Hungarian wines from the far side of the border. There were decent things from Reumann, Iby, Wieder and Gesellmann. Moric, made from ancient vines in Lutzmannsburg, I tend to love more with my head than my heart. More enjoyable wines came from Kirnbauer himself, Prieler in the Leithagebirge and Schiefer on the Eisenberg but my favourite of those tasted that afternoon was the 2011 Ried Sonnensteig from Wellanschitz.

We continued our journey south to the Eisenberg with its vineyards rising to 440 metres and overlooking the Pinka Valley as it meanders into Hungary. We had an elaborate dinner at Wachter Wieslers Ratschen in Deutsch Schützen. It was a far cry from my first meal in South Burgenland twenty-eight years before, when there wasn’t so much as an upmarket Beisl for miles around and I spent the evening on a pub-crawl through smoky bars led by my host, a Herr Körper-Faulhammer. This meal was very soigné with small dishes flanking contrasting ingredients and exotic flourishes of wasabi, calamondin oranges and shiitake dim sum accompanying salmon trout, kingfish, blacktail chicken, Angus beef and white chocolate mousse...

Wines included a 2015 Leithaberg Cuvee from Nehrer, a 2005 Velich Tiglat (of which there was less than a thimbleful as a result of a supply mishap), 2015 Leberl Blaufränksich Ried Föllikberg and the two stars: a 2015 Eisenberg Blaufränkisch Senior from Schützenhof and a 2013 red Pannobile from Gernot Heinrich. We finished off on an eccentric note with a sparkling Uhudler - a wine made from ungrafted American vines. Sometime in the early nineties when it was still illegal, I reported on an Uhudler tasting in a thatched cottage out there in the woods, orchestrated by Erich Krutzler and the self-proclaimed Uhudler Queen. I have a lemonade bottle full of the winning wine. It might be the oldest Uhudler in existence?

The next morning we gathered on the Eisenberg to hear a lecture on the fate of the border dwellers after Hungary was torn from Austria in 1919. A few wines were served there and then. Eisenberg red wines have a certain sharpness to them, and you are tempted to taste the abundant iron that is a large part of the mineral content of the Eisenberg. Then we left Burgenland for Styria and a simple lunch of fried chicken and pumpkin seed dumplings with elderberry sauce at Schloss Kapfenstein.

It was a pleasure to see George Winkler-Hermaden again and recall the few years when I made an annual pilgrimage to the castle to taste Styrian wines with the late Mario Scheuermann.  There were wines to try with lunch. Some of those that hit the spot were surprises, some not: a nice Gelber Muskateller from Fuchs and excellent Sauvignon Blancs from Lackner-Tinnacher, Gross (Nussberg), Sattler (Kranachberg) and Neumeister; a Weissburgunder (Pinot Blanc) from Winkler-Hermaden, a Grauburgunder (Pinot Gris) from Harkamp and a Gewürztraminer from Skoff at Domäne Kranachberg.

Lunch was followed by a sit-down tasting, of which the stars were Tement’s Ehrenhausen Sauvignon Blanc, Walter Skoff’s Eichberg Sauvignon and Schauer’s Kitzeck Riesling. The best wine of all for me was the Gamlitz Muskateller from Alois Gross, but then I’m a sucker for these things.

It was time for Wolfgang to ferry us back to Vienna. On the Sunday the loose ends were tied up in the grandiose Renaissance debating chamber of the old Lower Austrian Estates while we heard more details of the epic history of Austrian wine that is to be issued in September. I am counting the days.


Posted: 1st May 2019

Back in the nineties I seemed to spend half my life padding around the Champagne region. I did pieces for the magazines, and occasionally I’d write about the wine in the FT. Latterly I used to put together the annual champagne supplements both for Decanter and (I think) the now defunct WINE. Sometimes my brief extended to gastronomy: what went well with champagne, or simply rounding up the best restaurants in the region. Even when I was not in Reims or Epernay specifically to look at food, I went to the top restaurants with my hosts from the various champagne houses, men and women with suitably robust expense accounts.

In those days the top of the pyramid was Les Crayères, formerly the residence of the Pommery family who married into the princely Polignacs and where the chef Gérard Boyer had three stars for his predictably luxurious cooking. I must have eaten there at least once with Prince Alain de Polignac, who was born there and rose to become an exemplary chef des caves at Pommery. More to my taste was the rather more earthy style of the Grand Cerf at Montchenot on the Montagne de Reims. I had memorable meals at the Assiette Champenoise too. Now I see Les Crayères has lost Boyer and dropped down to two Michelin rosettes, Le Grand Cerf to one, while L’Assiette champenoise has rocketed up to three!

On a more everyday level I also used to enjoy the buzz of art deco Brasserie du Boulingrin near the market, although various people have told me that the place has lost its spark of late. Epernay was never so good for restaurants, but La Briqueterie was more than a cut above the rest. It was the only one of my old haunts I visited when I returned to the region last week.

La Briqueterie’s Michelin star has migrated to Les Berceaux in Epernay now, but you still eat well. We had a rather autumnal dish of chicken medallions stuffed with chestnuts, wild mushrooms and an allegedly ‘perfect (poached) egg’, and then a pretty plate of gurnard (Bernard the gurnard) with chicory and oranges served with a rosé des Riceys from René Bauser. The best course was probably the chocolate tart with a cranberry and tarragon sorbet flanked by one of those ubiquitous pink biscuits that are a culinary speciality of Reims.

La Briqueterie is in Vinay, south of Epernay. In the centre of the one-track town is La Banque in (wait for it) a converted branch of the Banque de France where we had a good meal of a marinated salmon tataki, some beef fillet with morels followed by strawberries with balsamic vinegar. With the salmon there was a wonderful oeil de perdrix (rosé) champagne from Jean Vesselle in Bouzy while a still, red Bouzy from Bernard Tornay came with the beef.

In Reims I visited several places that were new to me: L’Excelsior (formerly Flo), a converted mansion near the railway station that was once an officers’ mess retaining some original murals. There was a little cake of local chaource and parmesan cheese and some cod with a cockle sauce and broad beans. At Le Crypto  near the Cathedral one night, I limited myself to a rather French prawn risotto (with lots of foam and decorative vegetables) and a very good plate of regional cheeses obtained from the Julie Verzeaux’s excellent shop next door - the best being the chaource and Langres but I felt they might have included a brie de Meaux or a Coulommiers (both from the peripheries of Champagne).  A good, sappy Pouilly fuissé from the Domaine Lasserat proved a fine counterpoint.

On another evening we went to Le Petit Comptoir near the market where I had some excellent veal sweetbreads en cocotte. Here we made a wise decision to abjure local wines: the sweetbreads were much better with a 2017 Crozes Hermitage from the Cave de Tain. Since my last visit to Reims most of the food shops in the city have disappeared. There is a small clutch around the Place du Forum, but otherwise you need to go to the area around the market to find butchers, charcutiers, or fish and cheesemongers, the staples of French life.

The most memorable meal I had this time round was in the art deco pavilion at Charles Heidsieck, an enchanting spot overlooking a private park. We had crab and lobster salad with an emulsion of peas; a crown roast of lamb with a crust of herbs and pain d’épices; chaource and comté and a series of little desserts - all moistened with some of the very best of champagnes. The meal was prepared by the caterer Tony Blasco. There is nothing unusual about bringing in caterers in Champagne. In old days I remember a fabulous celebratory lunch in Bruno Paillard’s home. When I turned round to see what was going on in the kitchen I realised that the meal was being prepared by the late Joel Robuchon.

It was naturally champagne wine that took me to Champagne. We visited a couple of the most famous houses. At Moët I remembered my first visit in 1983 or 1984. I had met an English girl in Paris was working at their private hotel, the Château de Saran, and she suggested I get myself invited to lunch. I arrived at Epernay at eight or nine in the morning and a smartly dressed, middle-aged woman took me off into one of the many elegant salons in their HQ to cross-examine me. She needed to determine whether I was important enough to go through to stage two: the tour and tasting, and stage three: lunch. I remember she poured us both a glass of champagne, but didn’t touch her own. I must have passed, for I lunched at Saran. The gradations of welcome at Moët are quite byzantine in their complexity. I reflected that in my time I had been to the very top, and dined with the company chairman in the little Trianon on truffes sous la cendre - truffles cooked in ashes - a dish so expensive that few have ever tasted it.  The boss had been airlifted in from one of the LVMH group’s several parfumiers - Dior or Guerlain - and seemed rather taken aback when I capped his quotation from the comte de Buffon.

That champenois grandezza can be oppressive at times. The polar opposite I experienced this time when we went to the friendly, workaday cooperative in Mailly, or when we toured the more modest house of Charles Fourny in Vertus; and then there were the tastings in which the party got to sample a host of good things they had possibly never experienced before. It has been a while, but I was happy to be back, and I hope to be able take the boat out again next year.

Disappearing Kentish Town

Posted: 2nd April 2019

When I first moved to Kentish Town in central North London twenty-four years ago there were plenty of high street wine merchants. There were two branches of Victoria Wine within easy walking distance (not that you ever wanted to buy anything there except fags and I had stopped smoking long before); two Unwins’ shops, one in Camden Town and another on the Mansfield Road, and there was Soapy Sam (‘Corks’) in Swaine’s Lane, in those pre-Earl of Listowel-days when that street still offered the full panoply of butchers, bakers and greengrocers; plus the two lovely Spanish chaps with their dogs in Highgate Village. Even the encyclopaedic beer shop in York Way has been redeveloped, but in mitigation there are two new swillers’ merchants in Kentish Town itself.

Then there was Oddbins. Oddbins was the last of our local high street merchants to go belly-up, and I suppose they will never come again. I know it wasn’t the same Oddbins. The place had already gone through a variety of incarnations since I first frequented the branch on the corner of the High and Oriel Street. That was the real Oddbins, before it was bought by Seagrams. I remember a rich friend buying a double-magnum of an off-vintage of Château Lafite and our sitting down and drinking it with a piece of beef we had purchased in the Covered Market. The man who ran the shop was called Richard. I still used to run into him until quite recently. He ended up working for Stevens Garnier, a subsidiary of the Portuguese company Sogrape but I see that’s gone too. I wonder what he does now? He has probably retired.

There were the specialists of course and some of them are still with us. The Wine Cellar used to have an impressive range of Portuguese wines and was the source of much of our everyday wine, but the owner, Nuno sold up after the Referendum and went back to the Beira where he came from. The current owners seem less interested in wine. There is still Lisboa in Plender Street in Camden Town, but its selection is minute in comparison. Salvino in Brecknock Road has some good things, mostly from Sicily, Sardinia and southern Italy, but they can’t command the discounts supermarkets obtain and their prices are naturally higher. More recently an excellent little Italian grocer has opened in the Kentish Town Road called Lo Sfizio, and they have a small range of wines too. There is an excellent selection of French wines to be had from the Authentique Epicerie and Bar in Fortess Road; but if you want a proper wine merchant now, you have to slog up the hill to Nicolas in Highgate Village, or go to the excellent Theatre of Wine in Tufnell Park.

Other gastronomic amenities have also disappeared. The last one down was the Café Tolli, where until recently local poets met to compare verse or worse. They made wonderful fiorentini and torte delle nonna. In their place have come Costa and Prêt and the usual chains but to be fair there have been a few improvements. Apart from Salvino, two dozen years ago there was just one grocer, Charlie and Maria at Paradise Foods, catering for anyone who wanted anything out of the usual. Now there is a lot of competition from the Earth (which put Charlie and Maria out of business) and Natural Foods, the rather sparse Naturally delicatessen (decent bread) and of course Lo Sfizio which has the pleasing smell of a shop that has been there forever, even though it opened under than a year ago.

About twenty years ago I wrote a piece for the Evening Standard in which I said Kentish Town was heaven because we had no supermarkets. I think the marketing people must have read it, for now we can’t move for supermarkets, institutions that kill high streets, encourage cars and diminish choice. We have two Sainsburys now (and a whacking great one on the canal in Camden Town where there is also Marks & Spencer), a Tesco, two Co-ops and Lidls in both Kentish Town and Camden Town. I use the Co-op for small things and occasionally wine and am always charmed by the politeness of the staff. I go to Lidl in Camden Town because unlike the place in Kentish Town I don’t have to tot up my bill myself. I might add in Kentish Town there is a huge amount of quite blatant theft, and several people have to be stationed by the door to catch the thieves. In Camden Town people in the queue quite often scoff part of their shopping before they reach the tills. I suppose they shove the empty packets in among the taters.

Lidl’s wines are not only good, they are excellent value for money, but in Camden Town at least they are limited to about a dozen lines and far fewer good things than there were. Waitrose, the upper middle-class supermarket, seems to have foundered in Camden Town. Its departure may have had something to do with the opening of an ultra-chic branch on the canal behind King’s Cross Station. Waitrose’s site in Camden High Street is being prepared for the arrival of that other German discounter Aldi. Aware that I might soon be rummaging around for bargains on their shelves I went to their spring tasting. This is what I found:

Veuve Monsigny Champagne Brut Grand Reserve NV (£14.99): pleasant baked apple character, good length.

Philizot Organic Champagne NV (£26.99): Decent stuff, limes and apples - nearly twice the price of the Veuve Monsigny, mind you.

Exquisite Collection Lyme Block English Wine 2018 (£9.99): I was surprised by the complexity here. It had a lot more to say than most of Aldi’s white wines. It is chiefly Bacchus, a grape variety I would usually cross the road to avoid.

Hive and Honey Gewurztraminer 2017 (£6.99): from Monterey in California and quite pleasant in a merely sweet sort of way.

‘Gym’ Dão red 2017 (£5.69): with a name like that it should be lively. It had a convincing nose but was a bit short on body.

Baron de las viñas rioja gran reserva 2010 (£9.99): one of the better wines in the tasting, has typicity, appeal and convincing length.

The Fire Tree Sicilian Nero d’Avola 2018 (£4.99): very good value for money here, there is a touch of sweetness too it, but body too. The Riserva version is £3 more and not worth the extra money.

Nero di Troia 2016 (£5.99): again a bit of sweetness but a decent everyday wine with body - ideal for your midweek pasta.

Exquisite Collection organic Malbec 2018 (£6.99): quite meaty, almost stinky on the nose, but a wine with more character than you’d expect at this price.

Château Jean Gue Cuvée La Rose, Lalande de Pomerol 2015 (£11.99): a proper little claret for Sunday lunch. 100% Merlot.

Moulins de Citran Haut Médoc 2009 (£13.99): probably my favourite wine of the tasting - second wine of Château de Citran and with plenty of blackcurrant Cabernet Sauvignon character. It’s from a top vintage and is now quite mature.

Boris Revisited

Posted: 6th March 2019

Given that February is normally the grimmest of months, this year was better than I expected. There were some good wines on offer at the annual Austrian tasting, chiefly 2017s, including some Grüner Veltliners that were bursting at the seams, and possibly slightly sweet in an attempt to stop them becoming too alcoholic?  It turned out to be a very ripe vintage, but I doubt it will be as rich as the 2018 which I fear may result in rather more atypical wines a bit like the 2015s.

The Austrians had instituted a new sit-down policy for the tasting which is considerably more efficient, even if you no longer get the chance to see some of your favourite growers you avoid the risk of being button-holed by some of your least favourite. I had more Austrian wines at Mark Savage’s tasting the next day, old friends like Gritsch, Geyerhof and Ludwig Neumayer; and elsewhere that week there was a happy reunion with another friend, the wine journalist Marc Médevielle from Montpellier who came to London to put his muscle behind the wines of Picpoul de Pinet, about which he had written a handsome book. I can’t have seen Marc for a couple of decades.

On the food front I joined the Academy of Chocolate for two sessions to sample ‘filled chocolates’ (people who imagine chocolate tasting to be fun are out of their minds) and was invited to lunch in a traditional London club, and ate potted shrimps, shepherd’s pie and Welsh rarebit: proper club food. I joke not: there are clubs that serve the most extraordinary food these days almost like restaurants. But the real pleasure of February remains the Domaine des Anges in the Ventoux.

We went down on the 14th and already the weather seemed unusually bright in London. Paris was radiant, and although it was dark by the time we reached the domaine, there was a wonderfully clear, starlit sky above me when I got out of the car. While we waited for Padrone’s stew, I had a peek in the freezer and discovered a haunch of boar Boris had been deposited there as in previous years. The same unseen, benevolent hand had left 250 grams of black truffles. I put Boris in a bath of domaine wine, oil and vinegar before I sat down to dinner.

The sun came up bright behind Mount Ventoux the next morning. We went to Villes sur Auzon to get the bread and croissants. The baker there is wonderfully old-fashioned, unlike the one at the bottom of the hill in Mormoiron who buys in her stock, ready-made, like a London supermarket. There is a flanking room with a table where you can see the loaves proving. That morning being Friday she had puff pastry fish filled with brandade de morue an emulsion of salt cod and olive oil which is a traditional fasting dish in Provence.

The sun continued its ascent and by the time we’d done our shopping in Carpentras it was properly hot. We stopped in Mazan for a beer. Jérôme’s bar was sadly shut and boarded up, waiting for its new proprietor to make his mark. We went to a well turned-out place nearby filled with raucous, cackling women from Malaucène. I stripped down to my t-shirt. That afternoon it was warm enough to sit outside. We had procured a couple of sturdy local chickens. I chopped them into a number of pieces then combined the cooking juices with crème fraîche and a few of our truffles. They had a good aroma, but were sadly squishy from having been deep-frozen.

There is a market one day a week in most of the local towns and villages. Saturday morning is the turn of Pernes, which is one of the nicest towns around. I generally get my lavender honey from Isa the beekeeper and lavender-scented olive oil soap from a woman who sells it at €2 a bar. I particularly like the fact it has a picture of Mont Ventoux stamped on the surface it cheers me up on cold winter mornings at home. This time the soap was half-price and I was as happy as Larry the Cat. One woman had expensive fresh morels for sale they worked out at about €1 each, but we bought a few for all that.

That evening we consumed Boris. I roasted him in the oven and reduced the marinade with the stock I’d made from the chicken bones and a little tomato purée. We had mashed potatoes enriched with some of our truffles and braised pak choi. The few morels were simply turned in butter and cream. Padrone honoured us with some of his top Archange wines and we had a fine and merry evening.

Most of Sunday was spent out in the sun rescuing an antique vine plough we had located behind the new cellar. It was eventually hooked up to a tractor and dragged out of the undergrowth before being installed in pride of place at the entrance to the domaine. We dined in the pizzeria in Mazan on that our last night. Pizza was somehow naturalised as Provencal food sometime after the last war and it remains the popular choice. I had a local, seasonal variation with raclette and ham while we tried out rival wines from Fondrèche and Valcombe. We all agreed that neither could hold a candle to the quality of our host’s wines from the Domaine des Anges.

Gérard Basset

Posted: 1st February 2019

Gérard Basset died from throat cancer this month. It is sad news, not least because he was younger than me and had everything to live for. I had known him from the late eighties, since the first time I stayed at Chewton Glen in the New Forest. He was the sommelier and the hotel was managed by his young friend Robin Hutson. Their partnership survived until Gérard’s death, linked by any number of hotels that had been spawned by the successful Hôtel du vin chain that they launched together. I think it was also at Chewton Glen that Gérard met his wife Nina, the mother of his child. I have a memory of a sunny day, a good lunch and a tour of the cellar. The owner, Martin Skan, was in close attendance, as he always was.

As for Gérard he was shy, attentive and genuinely humble. He struck me as quite different from most other French sommeliers, the ones I had to stomach at so many tastings in France and who worked in restaurants with Michelin rosettes; the more stars the restaurant possessed, the more arrogant they became. They didn’t taste like us, they had a system: first ‘bouche’, second ‘bouche’, and then an interminable list of fruits and flowers that would have flummoxed a nation of gardeners. They looked down on us as amateurs, which I suppose we were.

There was one in particular, whom we knew as ‘Cricket Bat’ who was quite insufferably full of himself and we got our own back by teasing him relentlessly. In contrast Gérard was modest, maybe because he had fallen into the world of wine by chance, having started out as a kitchen skivvy here and had been put through his paces in England rather than France. He had been born near St Etienne in the Rhone Valley but he gradually became an Anglo-French wine man, with a foot on either side of the Channel. That being said, he was very much at home in Britain.

The Rhone Valley is my next recollection of Gérard. We were visiting vineyards, several of us crammed into an Espace. When I became conscious of Gérard he was sitting nonchalantly by the opposite window with his head plunged into my book on Syrah. I remembered a story about Hilaire Belloc entering a railway carriage to find a man reading one of his books. He strode over to the window and opened it wide, grabbed the book and hurled it out of the moving train. I was half inclined to do the same, but it would have involved leaning over two people and wrestling with the window handle. By that time even the placid Gérard would have become suspicious. He carried on reading my book and didn’t look the slightest bit embarrassed. I thought it was even possible he was not aware of the fact I had written it.

That book caused a storm later. There was a front-page story in the New York Times about ‘young’, iconoclastic wine-writers upsetting the older generation. As a measure of how wrong the piece was, I was compared to the Guru of Maryland, Robert Parker. They quoted a tasting note from Syrah about a Northern Rhone wine smelling like a hamster’s cage. This had set off a cacophony among the stuffed shirts of wine at the time but Gérard was clearly impressed. Several years later when he published his first book on wine, Wine Experience, he made reference to that tasting note. With pride he showed me a page illustrated with a photograph of a very clean, empty hamster’s cage.

Another time I saw Gérard in his native France was at the Crillon-le-Brave hotel in the Ventoux in about 1998. I was with my small family, and we had been staying nearby at the Domaine des Anges. Gérard was giving talks on wine to the guests and I had been invited to write them up. Gérard was reverential as always and deferred to me on a number of points, but he was soaring ahead in his quest to win all the world's wine competitions and accumulate all the honours that could be bestowed in the vinous world. He was Britain’s best sommelier and eventually the best sommelier in the world, he was a Master Sommelier, a Master of Wine, managed to acquire an MSc and  - I think - an OBE; and yet, he was still the same old Gérard. Nothing really went to his head.

The last time I remember seeing him was at the World Wine Awards three years ago. At first he had served on one of the juries in his usual modest way but, with his talents, he was quickly appointed a sort of ‘cardinal’ serving directly under our Pope Steven (Spurrier). I was a mere bishop, in charge of my clergy of chiefly MWs from Austria and Germany. Teutonic wines were not, think necessarily Gérard’s strongest suit - not so hedonistic and possibly a shade too cerebral. He was nonetheless called in to resolve questions of orthodoxy when I could not convince the people myself.  It was always the same, humble, smiling Gérard, full of charm and bonhomie. We shall all miss him.


I have had my head in Anthony Rose’s new book on Sake since Christmas.  It reminded me that I had written an article on sake many years before and quite fallen in love with the poetic side of traditional Japanese life. I longed to go, to explore the towns and cities that had been spared the relentless destruction of the Second World War and watch people singing to cherry trees. This never happened. The nearest I ever got to the country was a Japanese restaurant and the occasional glass of sake.

The book starts well, with an epigraph by Alex Kerr, one of the most stylish men in my college, who later emigrated to Japan to serve a living god and was last reported living in Thailand. One story I loved was about ‘virgin sake’ where the rice that made the wine was chewed by the purest maidens and spat into a vat before it fermented. The tasting of sake, in little cups decorated with bulls eyes I also found charming. Emphasis was placed on the ‘tail’ of the sake: what wine tasters would call the finish, the length. I resolved that were I ever to get the chance to go to Japan, Anthony’s book would be my vade mecum, but it was undiscovered territory and would probably remain terra incognita. As I put the book down I remembered - there was a small bottle of sake at the bottom of the fridge that had been there for at least fifteen years if not twenty. I fetched it up to my study: ‘Izumi Jungmai Ginjo made by Suwa in the Prefecture of Tottori’. I looked it up but found no reference. I suppose it might be no good. I shall put it back in the fridge. Who knows when I shall finally drink it?

Before Christmas I had some excellent beer from the Edinburgh Beer Factory. All the beers are named after paintings by Eduardo Paolozzi, the Leith-born Italian-Scottish painter and sculptor whose family was decimated by the sinking of the Arandora Star by a German U-Boot in the Second World War. We had a hoppy, chocolaty Futurismo; a smoky wheat beer called Moonstrips which seemed to lean more towards an IPA; an excellent unfiltered Helles lager; a lemony Z.E.E.P (with a touch of rosemary); and Soho Jazz Cherry Saison, which had the faintest hint of cherry; and a citrus-fruity ‘Untitled’. All really nice brews and you don’t even have to go to Edinburgh to drink them.

Finally an item of local news: Fortess Road in Kentish Town has become more and more French over the past decade, I presume because of the French college in nearby Holmes Road. The presence of a discerning public has improved shopping no end: first a good, if expensive Turkish-run greengrocer opened, then a classy butcher in ‘Meat NW5’, then a charmless but stylish fishmonger opposite. The Authentique Epicerie & Bar has declared its red-white-and-blue colours since then, with French wines, cheeses and sausages, while at the bottom of the road is the Patron restaurant (which I have yet to try) and the Tabac Bar which used to be a ‘cave-à-manger’ offshoot of the Patron but has now been rebranded to make a small-but-cosy Paris-style ‘zinc’, serving rather better wines than you’d expect from a bar tabac with sausage, pâté and cheeses. I dropped in before Christmas and had a rather lovely Meursault, but if you don’t want to splash out they serve honest, cheap wine in ‘ballons’ filled to the brim. On Saturday they put the papers out and you can have a long and leisurely breakfast. A warning though: despite the name, and the pictures on the site, cigarettes are not on the cards.

The Spirit of Christmas Present

Posted: 2nd January 2019

Christmas is certainly not what it was. Even in my callow twenties I recall one year in Paris when we drank 1966 Château Margaux (currently £500 a bottle) out of whisky tumblers, and another when I was all alone with a friend and I bought a bottle of 1971 La Tâche (400 francs or forty quid then, now a modest £4,418 a bottle). Life was pretty good! When I look back on it, on the second occasion I was in seventh heaven because the girl got drunk on the champagne before dinner and I had most of the bottle of burgundy and a haunch of wild boar to myself.

If I still had a repository of these things now I dare say someone would tell me to sell them and in mitigation it is true that Christmas has a lot more meaning when you have children and you are not just indulging yourself; you happily accept that their happiness is what it’s about even if the wine and food is perhaps not all it was. The worst of all worlds is when you aren’t happy, and the children aren’t either.

I am glad to say that I don’t think we quite reached that level this year, although we have been close in the past. This Christmas was more sociable than many previous occasions and only Christmas Day was completely free of guests or trips to see friends. So it kicked off with a blazing fire and the decoration of the tree on Christmas Eve while we waited for the arrival of a couple of guests for dinner. I decanted a bottle of 1985 Warre’s port I had been given as a present and put some slightly underperforming white burgundy in the fridge. We had a predictable but otherwise undistinguished bottle of Perrier Jouët before we sat down the terrine of foie gras I’d made over the weekend. The burgundy was intended for the baked sea bass and beurre blanc, then a friend’s Saint Emilion, 2007 Château Petit Faurie de Soutard went with the cheeses, including a sensational vacherin mont d’or. It was a really lovely wine, quite creamy and modern in style, but without that clunking sweetness of so many Saint Emilions today. Then there were meringues and mince pies with brandy butter and what proved to be a truly lovely, classic port.

Suitably fortified with went to Midnight Mass. As we ambled back after 1.30 on Christmas morning we surprised a fox tucking into his Christmas dinner: a takeaway jettisoned in the street. He wasn’t drinking wine.

Later that day we had a bottle of Mumm around the tree and slices of a Venezuelan pan de jamon I had made on impulse because it looked nice in the picture. The bread dough is enriched with eggs and butter and rolled up with ham, bacon and olives. I was supposed to add raisins too but one child won’t eat them and I wasn’t certain they added that much. It proved remarkably popular, and I may have to make it again. We were just three drinkers at dinner, which was a wonderful heifer forerib (we had baptised it ‘Simon’). I had decanted the oldest Bordeaux I had left: a 1988 Château Lynch Moussas for which I had no great expectations. As it was it turned out, it proved to be a model pre-Parker claret with just 12.5 by volume, a lovely balance together with an enchanting redolence of cedar and cassis. There was no sign of decay. Then there was cheese and treacle pudding. After that we took the port upstairs to watch Scrooge.

My brother-in-law had brought up a couple of cooked lobsters from Devon on Christmas Eve, and these formed the centre point of the meal on Boxing Day when a couple of friends came to dinner. They brought an orange Khikvi wine with them from the Vazisubani Estate in Georgia. That afternoon my daughter and I had done sterling work with a hammer and skewers and I had turned the lobsters into a salad by whipping up some mayonnaise. The brown meat was incorporated into the leftover beurre blanc and served with toast. The wine for this was a 2013 Meursault Clos du Cromin from Patrick Javillier which was as magical as the other white burgundy had been flat. There was some roast pork and cabbage afterwards for which the intended partner was the 2000 Domaine du Grand Tinel Châteauneuf-du-Pape. This was a disappointment: it was distinctly on the wane. I had had the 2001 earlier in the year and it was a great deal more robust. I had always suspected the millennial wines had been over-hyped. More cheeses came out later, including an interesting camembert that had been enhanced with ceps.

For the next few days we managed the leftovers and on New Year’s Eve we had our Italian feast of stuffed pig’s trotter or zampone with lentils and potato purée. There was even a bit of foie gras left too which we ate with a 1997 Weißburgunder Auslese from my friend Johann Münzenrieder in Apetlon. Once again the star was a 1997 Prunotto Barolo, a wine that kept throwing out new faces, sparkling like the fireworks that even then were starting to illuminate London’s Southbank.

We had no champagne on New Year’s Eve this year. We’ll have champagne again when there is something to celebrate.

Austerity and Prosecco

Posted: 3rd December 2018

November was grim month. Sometime in the twilight days of October I realised I could no longer fit into my clothes. I had a clear choice: new clothes or lose weight. As I could not afford the former, it had to be the latter; so I gave up lunch.

Lunch was only ever what the others had failed to finish, but there was quite a lot of that and then there were cakes and biscuits and all sorts of things that lay about the house. Anyway, I reduced my daily diet to two slices of my own (substantial) bread with my coffee and then perhaps a couple of tangerines during the day. Dinner accompanied by wine was at eight as usual. One or two things broke up the day and stopped me going mad: a cup of tea at four and a couple of pints of water at half past six.

After just over a month I feel quite well adapted. Members of my family offer me biscuits, even lunch sometimes, but I do not waver. From time to time I feel like St. Anthony in the desert, but I am even more adamantine in my commitment than he was. I knew that as Christmas approached there would be a few evening parties and even the occasional lunch, and that I would have to make an exception here or there, but I aim to persist, at least until the end of Advent.

So far I have had two lapses. On one occasion friends invited me to Bedford for an Anglo-German birthday party and we ate, almost without a break, all day; and the other was on the last day of the month when I attended a tasting at the Osteria in the Barbican, followed by lunch! The tasting was of Bottega prosecco. Now, I am not a huge prosecco drinker but I have noticed how popular it has become in Britain. I had first witnessed the prosecco craze in Munich and elsewhere in Germany where affluent young ‘Schickimickis’ sat around in cafés drinking it in preference to still wine or beer. Germans drink lots of Sekt or sparkling wine, so this wasn’t particularly revolutionary. In Britain, on the other hand, sparkling wine was restricted to high days and holy days: weddings and birthdays, and if you couldn’t run to champagne for the occasion you tended to drink Catalan cava instead.

That, it seems, has changed; and people are now prepared to drink a glass of sparkling wine where, in the past, it was always still. It is also true that champagne has priced itself out of many people’s budgets: with the found flailing, the price of champagne has increased by 12% meaning that the average cost of a bottle is over £20 for the first time. Sales have decreased by 20% since 2016. Sandro Bottega demonstrated that proper prosecco, made from Glera grapes grown on the steep slopes of the Dolomites, is not any cheaper to produce than champagne, despite the fact that the second fermentation is in tank, rather than bottle. The ‘Charmat’ tanks cost a lot of money. What makes champagne more expensive is the fact the champagne producers have to pay more than five times as much for their grapes. On the other hand, not all prosecco is as well made as his and at around £20 his top prosecco - Gold - is more expensive than many champagnes. Rough and ready prosecco may be had for as little as £5.25 a bottle.

Britain is now the top destination for prosecco wines and to my shame I don’t think I was aware of ever having tasted it analytically before last Friday. I was pleasantly surprised. Sandro Bottega wanted to show us that the wine had the potential to age. We tasted six vintages of his Vino dei Poeti Valdobbiadene Superiore and it was quite clear there were considerable variations between vintages. The one I liked best was the powerful 2016, the 2013, however, I thought was already oxidised. This short-ish life does contrast quite sharply with champagne; champagne ages better than many still wines. I have the odd 1990, and it is very good.

The tasting went on, and we tried the new ‘Ancestrale’: a prosecco filled with its yeast to create a second fermentation in the bottle, but, unlike champagne, the Ancestrale is not disgorged, so the yeast remains at the bottom, like a German wheat beer. I thought this rather wonderful stuff. It had that green apple character which is a sine qua non, but was slightly cidery.

We finished the tasting with the Bottega Gold, the Prosecco Rosé and the Bottega Rosé Gold. Unlike ordinary proseccos, Gold has a dosage of 11 - 12 grams of sugar to make it richer and it has a pleasant length too. The Gold rosé has a bit of added Pinot Noir from Oltreppo Pavese and has an attractive saltiness.

Then we went into lunch, and an excellent lunch at that. An aperitif of prosecco with Bottega vermouth was served with lots of lovely things including a very gooey triple cream goats’ cheese from Piemonte and three different sorts of bruschetta. Then we sat down to grilled vegetables and dried meats and cheeses, excellent Bottega six-year old balsamico and olive oil and then a delicious spaghetti cacio e pepe and fruit salad served with (Bottega) soave, Valpolicella ripasso and sparkling moscato. Bottega is a very big company indeed and has its fingers in a great many vinous pies. There was even a cask-aged grappa to go with my coffee. All my vows lay in tatters and my pious intentions were utterly crushed.

I made for the tube at Moorgate. I remembered we needed food for the evening and stopped to buy lamb and morcilla negra sausages from Miguel the Spanish butcher in Camden Town but before dinner there was a book launch in Westminster for the new edition of the late Jocasta Innes’s excellent Country Kitchen first published in 1979. It proved a delightful evening in an old house within spitting distance of Jacob Rees Mogg’s London residence and sure as eggs his name was pronounced again and again. I was far from hungry, but somebody pressed a plate of kedgeree into my hand, made, of course, according to Jocasta Innes’s recipe. I write these words on the first Sunday in Advent. I am not at my best. I have promised I shall be made of sterner stuff between now and Christmas.

On Culinary Fashion: a Tale of Two St John’s: St John’s in Clerkenwell and the Oslo Court in St John’s Wood

Posted: 5th November 2018

I don’t eat out much anymore; frankly, I can’t afford to. To some extent I have lost the thrill I used to feel about picking up a menu and deciding what I’d like to eat. Other considerations tend to weigh in: such as the fact that I am invariably someone else’s guest, and if I am actually paying I need to be aware of just how much we can afford to spend. We eat pretty well at home and on the rare occasions we go out many things have changed, not least in the sparse presentation of food, the peculiar syntax of the menu, the nature and degree of seasoning and the surroundings: luxury is out, restaurants are often just bare boards and blank walls. There is a hell of a lot less ‘comfort’ than there was back in the old days.

I remember visiting Paul Bocuse in Lyon a few years back, probably around the time of the millennium. His restaurant was ‘plush’ to the degree of vulgarity. To get three stars then you needed pictures on the walls, carpets, good silver and tableware. Marco Pierre White was a case in point. When he was looking for his third Michelin Star he used to show me all the paintings he’d acquired that week: ‘Nicholas, show Giles my paintings!’ They were frightful things, but he thought they’d help.

To be honest, I wasn’t very concerned about Marco’s pictures or Bocuse’s ringard interiors, I had come to eat. Bocuse’s waiters laid out various things that had justifiably brought him fame since the sixties and I ate, with gusto. I had truffle soup and sea bass with potato scales, and lots, lots more, and my host sat before me with his arms folded across his chest and his big chef’s hat on the top of his head. When he took it off, he was about a foot shorter. It was one of the most delicious meals I’d ever had. And yet, in culinary terms it was all well out of fashion, even then.

I remembered Bocuse, as I always do, when I had lunch last month in Fergus Henderson’s London restaurant St. John’s. Not because either decoration or food reminded me of Bocuse, rather it was because both were really the complete antithesis of Bocuse: the stark white walls, the uncomfortable chairs and the food that simply juxtaposes bold, but unusual ingredients without uniting them under a sauce. I had a good meal: smoked eel with a little mound of wonderfully piquant creamed horseradish (the star of the show) and a pickled prune, a fat cake of pigs’ blood topped with a couple of fried eggs, and finished off with an Eccles cake with Lancashire cheese. What could go wrong there, I asked? And nothing did.

Only a week or two before I had been to another restaurant for lunch that was distinctly UN-fashionable: the Oslo Court in St John’s Wood.  In fact it might just win the prize for being the most unfashionable restaurant in London. I had come across it by chance when a wine merchant asked if I might consent to pick up some samples from there as he was not prepared to come all the way to me in Kentish Town. I arrived before the lunchtime service. A waiter or possibly the maître d’hôtel brought me a coffee while I waited for my bottles and soaked up the vision in pink. The dining room seemed to have been inspired by the late Barbara Cartland. The waiter took a telephone call, looking at me and talking in a tone worthy of the great Frankie Howerd: ‘He has such a nice face. I do hope he comes here again!’ I took a peek at the menu. It was then I realised that I had somehow contrived to travel there by Tardis: steak diane! Steak au poivre? Sole meunière? Duck in Cherry Sauce? - dishes as out of date now as top hats at funerals.

I did intend to come again, but the years rolled by. I learned the Oslo Court was popular with people who watch the cricket at Lords. I heard that David Cameron had been seen there, which put me off. This summer I told some kind American friends who spend their summers in St John’s Wood about it and they invited me to go along with them; then I forgot all about the booking and to my horror received an e.mail from them at about two, asking where I was? When they asked me a second time I made sure I put the date firmly in my diary.

This time I arrived on the bus. The place was heaving. I am not young, but I was certainly one of the youngest there. With its soft carpets and genteel atmosphere and art deco allure it might have been an up-market old people’s home on the South Coast. The ladies wore pearls and the men were in suits and ties. I felt hugely underdressed. There was a big bowl of crudités on the table and a great profusion of waiters in dinner jackets bringing hot rolls and Melba toast, each one clearly famed for his comic routine. I great list of specials was recited as a prologue to each course, but I wanted to stick to a menu marinated in nostalgia and opted for a scallops in a shell, fillets of sole with a lobster sauce and sherry trifle.

It was not Bocuse, to be sure, but it was purest Escoffier. The scallops were just the ticket: there seemed to be several in there with prawns in a creamy sauce hemmed in by mashed potato piping. The last time I had eaten one of these was when I dined with a schoolmaster at Eton who had called me in to give a talk to the boys. Then there was the sole. It came on a massive plate with lots of cream. The lobster sauce could have been a bit more concentrated, and there might have been a bit more cognac in it, but these are quibbles. There were more vegetables than anyone could cope with and pommes dauphinoises popped down in some distant part of the plate. Then the trifle (I scarcely had room for the trifle), but it was a serious blast from the past. It took me back to the George at Dorchester, and the Bear at Woodstock, and all the gorgeous trifles I had eaten, and not eaten in the past forty years. It was a massive comfort to know such things were still being made.

The Palate Revives

Posted: 3rd October 2018

After the dog days of this summer working life has gradually returned. I’ve actually been pleasantly busy, though not so much on the food and drink front. For many weeks it seemed to me that I had done nothing more than add the odd dab of paint to a canvas. I began to understand how unjust it was to accuse those who live in torrid latitudes of laziness. For much of July and August here in London it was too hot to work.

J & B Germans

As I don’t get to go to Wiesbaden now to taste the dry Grosses Gewächs (GGs) anymore, Justerini & Brooks’ German wine tasting at the beginning of September is a useful way of seeing where we are, and one which has the further advantage of letting me sample the full range and not just the dry wines. J & B has been just about the top importer of German wines for some time, and they are still adding wonderful new growers to their portfolio. Germans themselves rarely drink semi-sweet wines, but the great estates still make them, I suspect for an ageing category of connoisseurs who know how glorious they can be. That means proper Kabinetts, Spätlesen, Auslesen, and the higher band of Auslese: numbered casks (Fuder), gold caps and long gold caps, before you reach the super sweet levels of Beerenauslesen and Trockenbeerenauslesen.

Unless otherwise mentioned, all the wines in my round up of the very best from J & B are Rieslings from the 2017 vintage.

Prices are necessarily high for these hand-made wines, but it should be borne in mind that these are some of the greatest wines made anywhere in the world. There is a compensation in the fact there is often an estate Riesling which is good value for money. Schloss Lieser, for example, has one at £9.30 inc. VAT, Kesseler’s (Daily August) is at £11.60.


Of the two German supermarkets trading in the UK, I am familiar only with Lidl. Aldi has been absent from this part of central north London until now, although I am told they are about to take over the old Waitrose site in Camden High Street. This year I therefore made an effort to go to the Aldi tasting to see what their wines were like. Our domestic budgets are small and we have been devotees of Lidl for some time, chiefly because they produce real quality at low prices.

I was particularly interested in anything that in our inflated times could come in under the £7 mark (what would have been £5 in those halcyon days that ended two years ago). The following more or less fitted the bill: Gavi di Gavi (£6.99), Limestone German Riesling (£6.49), Monte Cão Alentejo (£5.99), Venturer Costières de Nîmes (£5.99), Californian Lodi Zinfandel (£6.29), and ‘This... Loves’ Sangiovese from Sicily (which was the best buy of all at £4.99).

Aldi’s chief strength is in its range of spirits. Nothing in the world would induce me to swallow a gin called ‘Cromwell’ (and it is pink!), but Harrison’s (rose water £15.99), Gingerbread Gin Liqueur (good on a cake £9.99), Mason’s (or freemasons’? £24.99 - classic), Eden Mill (spice £19.99 for 50 cls), Boyle’s (sounds a bit chemical like the law - names are not their strongpoint - £19.99 and more fruit based) are all recommended. From 14 November there is also a 2004 cognac at £39.99 and a 32-year old ‘brandy’ at £29.99. Neither is to be sniffed at, if you get my drift. 

Waitrose Spices

One of the reasons why Waitrose abandoned their site in the Camden High Street must have been their decision to open a flagship supermarket with a cookery school on the canal behind King’s Cross Station. This year I went along to a product launch to see what they were up to. The thrust was towards vegetarians and vegans; although there was a bit of meat about in the new range of prepared dishes from our old friend Bloomers. A vegetable diet should not be a punishment and I kept an open mind as I examined and sampled beetroot burgers, jackfruit parcels, beetroot risottos, spinach and cheese parcels (boreks)... Bechamels had been replaced by cauliflower creamed with soya; bread was made with rice flour. It all looked good and pandered to an affluent and above all sensitive North London public. I asked about gluten allergies. It appears that sufferers feel bloated by wheaten bread. I may be rare but my metabolism is affected by a great many chiefly root vegetables and pulses that I avoid if I possibly can. The only thing that causes me no problems is meat!

I passed over to the chocolates. Here the concern was about nuts, but they were otherwise normal. I enjoyed a passion fruit bellini and tasted an IPA flavoured with passion fruit. I was not so keen, as I want a beer that has a character of its own and not one derived from alien elements (bring on the Reinheitsgebot) I turned and went to see what Bloomers had been up to. Dried ceps featured in a piece of skirt rubbed with coffee (quite chewy this), better was the pork cooked with black pudding and calvados. The lucky Waitrose buyers had been packed off to find new spices and returned with an array of exotic flavours from India and Asia. Turmeric figured large but did little for me. There was an interesting black garlic too, but the condiment I liked most was ‘zhoug’ which was a bit like the parsley sauce you get with a bollito misto in northern Italy, but with an added dash of chilli.

Domaine des Anges

In September we enjoy an Indian meal at the Domaine des Anges in the Vaucluse, where for the last twenty-three or so years I have been going at around the time of the autumnal equinox. It is always delicious and we all tuck in with great gusto even if its oriental character is in marked contrast to the Mediterranean world around us with its olives and olive oils, its fresh fruit and vegetables, lamb and pork all enhanced with fresh herbs and garlic. It strikes me sometimes that our growing desire to eat only heavily-spiced food is beginning to rob us of our ability to appreciate the subtlety of many formerly highly-prized European gastronomic styles, where the best seasoning was the subtlest. I am guilty too, as I apply spices to reinvigorate the more banal foods we eat at home. After such strong flavours it is hard to readjust our palates. Personally I still enjoy the flavour of the local produce (although Provencal beef can be tough) not least because it best sets off the excellent wines made on the hillsides around us.

This year the trip to the Domaine was slightly later and I returned to England on the very last day of the month. I have to say the weather was perfection: up to 30 C during the day but nights that were so cool that there were no problems sleeping. Incidentally, this was the ideal weather for the as yet unfinished harvest: cool nights bring subtle flavours and aromas. One night a three-quarter moon hung low in the sky above Mont Ventoux and all the stars shone like a picture from an astronomer’s text book. I have never known the place look quite so beautiful.

Eating Canada

Posted: 3rd September 2018

Last month I spent ten days in British Columbia. It was not only my first ever visit to Canada, it was the first time I’d set foot in North America for nearly sixteen years. It was also my first sally beyond the European mainland since 2005, when I last went to Australia.

I went with my son to visit an old friend who taught me as a boy. We had a lovely time. We burned the midnight oil and put the world to rights, listened to country music (his favourite) and met his friends and former students. We explored Vancouver and the country beyond and we ventured up to the Okanagan Valley where British Columbia’s best wine is made.

It was not billed as a voyage of culinary discovery, but certain things did stand out for all that. Vancouver is a multi-ethnic city, apparently dominated by first generation Canadians: Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, Indians and above all Sikhs are much in evidence. The Chinese people now are not necessarily the same as those who virtually created the place in the mid-nineteenth century when, as in other West Coast North American cities, coolie labour was brought in for the gold rush. Later they built the railways that spanned the great arc across the US border from Ottawa to Vancouver. For all that Chinatown seems a quite modest part of the inner city which otherwise shows the same jumble of ethnicities you might see here in London, although my friend assures me the food is subtly different: not so much ‘Brindian’ and Anglo-Chinese but ‘Canindian’ and Canado-Chinese. While we were there we ate both Indian and Chinese, the former in a local restaurant, the latter in the form of a take-away complete with sweet and sour chicken balls. It seemed pretty old-fashioned to me, but I think there were lots of places downtown where Chinese cooking had adopted a more modern approach and there was a lot of dim sum on offer.

Of white Canadian cooking I knew but little before I went. There are still quite a lot of people in Canada (and not just old people) who were born in these islands. I met a young, formerly English woman in Kelowna who regretted the fact she had lost her accent. I asked her where she was born. She said Birmingham. I reassured her that was one accent she could afford to lose. Culinary traditions, however, have not all been abandoned. I have had lovely cheddar from Ontario: mature and crumbly, often sealed in thick wax. I had some in Vancouver and tried to procure a truckle or a wedge on the way back, but it was not for sale in the airport. There is Pacific salmon of course, and I presume all sorts of game to shoot up in the mountains. There is of course maple syrup, which is everywhere, and good too. The airport was full of smoked salmon and every possible permutation of maple syrup but besides that, zilch. The other faintly British thing is ‘muffins’ which look like cupcakes and come with every conceivable sort of filling. Apart from that there is little more to say about muffins.

On our second night we dined downtown at the Tap and Barrel in Vancouver where there was a chance to taste the much vaunted ‘poutine’. I have to say that by its description (curds and gravy smothering a plate of chips) it seemed frankly untempting. I might have given it a go but the rest of the table advised against, and so I have yet to have that ‘poutine’ moment. Perhaps it is more popular out east?

Probably the most Ur-Canadian experience I had was when we were holed up for a few hours in Merritt or our way to Kelowna in the Okanagan Valley. Our host’s car broke down on Loon Lake (shades of A Place in the Sun) and we were obliged to spend some time in the Grand - Merritt’s best bar. There was poutine on the menu and much more besides, but we were happy to drink Belgian Moon wheat beer with great slabs of orange floating on the top, as we knew that an excellent dinner was waiting for us in Kelowna.

I suspect that non-ethnic food is pretty similar on either side of the border. In Kelowna’s Harvest golf club I ate my first hamburger since I visited Washington, and that must have been a quarter of a century ago. It was just what it said on the packet. The problem posed by the menu was avoiding a sweet element, something like onion chutney, which all the other choices seemed to include. Golf clubs loom large for al fresco eating. Back where we were staying in Coquitlam, restaurants were chiefly housed in the purlieus of shopping malls, which meant they could not easily cash in on the good weather that comes with a Vancouver summer. When we had lunch with my hosts’ friends in Furry Creek on Howe Sound it was a delight to the eyes as well as the palate: we had our aperitifs looking out over the water and our main meal looking back at the mountains. The views were sensational.

Before I left for Canada my butcher showed me some Canadian entrecote which he said was out of this world. When I asked in Vancouver they told me it very likely came from Alberta, and that was where the best beef herds were. In the summer (and it was very hot) this meat and other good things like local corn cobs go onto the barbecue. Barbecued meat needs a nice marinade otherwise even the best can taste dry and unseasoned. In North America you get round this by having recourse to bottled sauces, but they are just too sweet for me. One night we celebrated a neighbour’s birthday and there were delicious little chicken kebabs done on the barbie, with a hottish satay sauce. That was delicious.

It was my first opportunity to try wines from British Columbia, in particular those from the very hot Okanagan Valley. I took the plunge with the Rieslings. Uninspired by Maria’s Block Riesling from Kitsch, I tried the flowery Gehringer and the slightly less overblown Wild Goose before I settled on Quail’s Gate as a sappy, modern, German-style dry Riesling. Road 13 Vineyards, Merlot, Syrah and Viogner I liked, however, as I did most things I tried from Mission Springs, their Pinot Noir in particular. Up in Kelowna we were staying next to Summerhill where the wines are made by Eric von Schwerin-Krosigk. There are lots of Germans in the Okanagan Valley but I assume Eric to be a near relative of Count Lutz, a Rhodes Scholar whose name has a certain sonority in recent German history. He would also be a nephew of Beatrix von Storch of the AfD, but then there is no reason why he should carry the can for either. The wines are severely biodynamic, and the owner has interesting theories about the beneficial effects of ageing under pyramids.

Looking back on it I should have gone to the pyramid while I was there to see if it made me age more gracefully. I did find the time to visit Quail’s Gate, the winery that impressed me the most. Not only was the straight Riesling top notch, but I was struck by the cheapest of the Pinot Noirs (there were three) and a wonderful - if pricy - Syrah. And now I am back at home, watching the old car spin out of control and wondering if, after it has struck the wall we will manage to continue living according to our European mores, or whether, once we have climbed out of the wreck, we will have opted for the North American model.

Pimm’s Number 6 Cup

Posted: 1st August 2018

In the earlier part of this summer at least, I spent a lot of time thinking about Pimm’s. There was a rumour that the Number 6, Vodka Cup had been revived and that there would be a series of launch events involving the great and good. Being neither great nor good, these passed me by, but I saw pictures of the usual slebs slurping away at Pimm’s cocktails. Then a bottle was promised and I planted some borage specially. The sample failed to materialise and the borage was attacked by a malevolent fly that turned it black and lank before it wilted and died. That made no odds as I still hadn’t had the Pimm’s. Then one evening we were sitting down to dinner drinking red wine from a bottle in an ice-bucket when there was a knock at the door. It was some never-previously-seen neighbours from three houses to the north. They had had ‘this bag’ for some time. I had a quick look: there was the Pimm’s Number 6 and a few mixers too: it had finally made it.

Two boiling days later I made up a couple of drinks for my daughter and myself. I found cucumber and strawberries and in the absence of borage, I picked some fresh mint from my herb-garden. Some people used to throw in apples and slices of orange in the past. I remembered that too much greenery became tiresome by the second round, so I went easy. Also party-givers tended to make it up in a punchbowl, so that the brewage quickly began to look jaded and was diluted by too much ice added in an attempt to revive it.

When I finally made up my Pimm’s the other day, it proved a moment to savour; a properly Proustian evocation as a profusion of Pimm’s memories came flooding back. Pimm’s was a drink enjoyed above all in May and June, and therefore a marketing-man’s (or woman’s) nightmare. Even more of a bind was the fact it required a lot of kit (where the hell did you obtain borage if you didn’t have any in the garden?). Drinks marketeers want things that will sell all the year round and can be adapted to a hundred different uses. As an undergraduate I associated Pimm’s above all with Eights’ Week, when the colleges raced their boats on the river and it was served up in the ornamental boat houses at the bottom of Christ Church Meadow. In my memories of Pimm’s the sun is naturally always shining.

There was very little interest in the oarsmen, who came racing past us at regular intervals, but there was a lot of interest in Pimm’s. One year a man in a straw hat and a stripy blazer fed me eight whole pints of it. He later read for the church and became a college chaplain but then some unexplained faux-pas blighted his career, much as that fly destroyed my borage. I suspect his designs were less than honourable, but the Pimm’s failed to have the desired effect and after a series of adventures with a girl who might have been conjured out of a painting by Titian I ended up falling down the stairs at the Union Society with an Asian lady in my arms. The lady is now sadly dead, but on that occasion she recovered of her fall and went on to make quite a name for herself in politics.

Of course we were aware of the reason why the would-be chaplain was unlikely to succeed: a glass of Pimm’s just isn’t that strong once you have drowned it in lemonade. Some people hoped to counteract this by adding more gin (this was the gin-based Number 1 Cup) or topping it up with cider. There were even those who put in champagne, but I think that would have been a waste. The college barmen used a double measure from an optic, which meant the usual half pint was unlikely to go to your head.

Pimm’s weakness is really its strength: you can serve it as a refreshing drink in the middle of the afternoon without too much ill-effect, and it seems to suit a certain sort of almost vanished Englishness: sleek lawns, men and women in spotless whites playing croquet or bowls or cricket, randy Anglican clergymen in straw hats and stripy blazers; in short the full Monty; an antediluvian vision of the past, often invoked in the pages of the Daily Mail, but in most respects gone forever. Perhaps for this reason, the few occasions when I have drunk Pimm’s in Vienna or Paris have never seemed quite right. It would be far better suited to India and other former colonies where cricket is played.

We can but try, however, to bring back the flavour of the lost world. To make a good glass of Pimm’s it is probably best to use a superior lemonade such as Fever Tree (mixers have actually improved) and it is worthwhile keeping everything (glasses included) in the fridge to make it properly cold: which will make the drink taste less sweet. Then you do need some of that greenery-yallery: mint (or borage - but not both), cucumbers and strawberries and perhaps apples. Slices of cucumber are I think a sine qua non: the cucumber was the active addition in my memory game the other day.

The revival of the Number 6 Cup has doubled the range of summer Pimm’s Cups. There is, apparently, still a Number 3, Brandy Cup, billed as a winter drink, but I find the idea of drinking Pimm’s in winter untempting. The other cups: whisky, bourbon and rum have been scrapped and not even I can remember them now from my all-too distant youth, but it is good that the Vodka Cup has returned to us, and I for one was grateful for my trip down memory lane.

Austrian Wines

Posted: 2nd July 2018

It has been a while since I have been in Vienna for the biennial Vievinum wine fair and a lot of things have changed in Austria. New appellations have emerged, but there is more and more spin-marketing and attempts to brand the unbrandable; also the approaches to certain grape varieties has altered, and not always for the best. Without a definite programme, I decided the most useful approach was to dip in among the very many growers I have known these past twenty-seven years, and see where they were now. In several cases the fresh, young grower of the early nineties has transmogrified into a stouter, greyer figure, cut more in the image of myself; in others the father has passed on the reins to a son or daughter and now confines himself to the day-to-day work in the vines, or has possibly taken a suitcase of cash and headed for the hills or the Riviera!

One estate where the son has been in charge for several years now, is Austria’s most famous: F X Pichler in Loiben in the Wachau. Now visitors to the fair must try to distract Lukas Pichler’s attention to taste the wines. They are famously hard to assess in their youth. None of the 2017 wines was ready. Some were brimming with CO2, the others largely inchoate. At the top end the Kellerberg Grüner Veltliner Smaragd was showing signs of life, and the Riesling Steinertal was an absolute delight. The Loibenberg was less easy to judge, but then came ‘Unendlich’ (Infinite) and the Riesling from the Kellerberg and finally Grüner Veltliner ‘M’ which was suitably massive. Time will tell, but if their track record is anything to go by, they will surely be magnificent.

The 2017s from the Wachau failed to impress me as much as they have in some years. The younger Emmerich Knoll’s wines (the new generation has also been in the hot seat for some years) seemed a little less sensational than they were but I loved the Riesling Smaragd from Ried Schütt. Franz Hirtzberger is a reference for Grüner Veltliner. The Axpoint Smaragd had varietal character at least but the benchmark Honivogl was slighter than I recalled. There was a gorgeous 2017 Riesling Smaragd from Ried Setzen, however. This new ephemerality seems to have affected Prager too, whose wines were formerly colossal and now seem but a shadow of their former selves. Is the model for these lighter wines Germany?

I went to see Rudi Pichler, whose wines I have always admired. They are wound up as tightly as clocks. There was a lovely Weissburgunder from Kollmütz, the grape that should have been number two in the Wachau, and a fine Grüner Veltliner from the same. The best of the Grüner Veltliner Smaragds was from Achleiten; the loveliest of the Rieslings from Kirchweg. Erich Krutzler of Pichler-Krutzler is F X Pichler’s son-in-law. The 2017 Rieslings were far better than the Veltliners although I liked the Klostersatz. Look out for the Kellerberg, Loibnerberg and In der Wand - a ‘cru’ marketed by Erich alone.

Leaving the Wachau I feel a particular affection for the Weingut Thierry-Weber from the time when my children were still small. They rescued us from forlornly wandering down a country lane looking for a dinner and delivered us to a well-provisioned Weingasse containing a clutch of Heurige inns. Much more than that: they picked us up later and delivered us to the cage outside Krems where we had been lodged. I like the wines too, the simple, powerful Grüner Veltliners and Rieslings that grow on the sand and loess soils to the east of Krems, although I am sceptical of the need to flavour them with oak casks. The youngest vines appealed to me most: a Kremser Veltliner 2017 with proper varietal character and a Riesling from Ried Gebling from the same year that had a pretty peachiness.  

My hard time with the formerly wonderful wines of Bründlmayer continues. This chiefly affects the Grüner Veltliners that have become evanescent - I can only assume - in an attempt to pursue lightness and elegance. I can’t help feeling that they have collared the wrong horse, and that Grüner Veltliner is neither of these things. I have loved Veltliner in my time, but she is a country wench, an ‘Amaryllis’ more at home in a rustic kitchen than an urban salon. These new-style Veltliners are dressing her up to play a role she cannot act. Once again I have to say they would have been better off with Weissburgunder.

Still there were good things: Bründlmayer was always the leading name for ‘Winzersekt’ or proper sparkling wine, and they have introduced a slightly austere rose to the range. The best remains the Brut. Above all the Rieslings continue to shine, such as the Alte Reben from the Terrassen and the Heiligenstein. The only Veltliner I liked was Spiegel, made by Willi’s son Vincent. I suppose we must accept that to be encouraging, and encourage Vincent at the same time.

Many of the Lower Austrian estates were showing a vertical of different vintages. At Schloss Gobelsburg they were serving their top Riesling from Heiligenstein. Once again the bigger wines were the older ones. The 2016 was notably light; the 2012 had more flesh; the 2010 has a honeyed opulence; the 2008 was all peaches and lemon zest while the 1998 was perhaps dipping a bit with its redolence of lychees. I went to Ilse Maier at the Geyerhof and consoled myself with Grüner Veltliners from Ried Steinleithn which retain something of their original power. I am not a great believer in old Veltliner, but the 2006 was lovely with its aroma of rosewater, and the 2002 even better. Sadly the 1988 was corked.

I rarely miss the opportunity to taste Ludwig Neumayer’s wines from the Traisental either. Ludwig’s wines have a beautiful purity of fruit, and a most glorious finish to them. He was showing the Riesling Ried Rothenbart. They were all good, but I think I liked the 2014 best. Rudi Rabl had a good 2016 from Ried Käferberg and a lovely DAC Riesling 2017. And so it went on round the room: a 2006 Grüner Veltliner from Ried Lindberg from Salomon Undhof, a 2004 Riesling from Ried Grillenparz from the Weingut Stadt Krems, these were all wines to treasure.

I went to Burgenland, or rather I walked upstairs. There I chanced upon my friend Erwin Tinhof closeted with the American writer David Schildknecht - always a good omen. A succession of lovely wines filled my glass, from a Klassic 2017 Neuburger to a lovely Leithaberg DAC Weissburgunder. The real treat was possibly the Blaufränkisch. Blaufränkisch from the Leithagebirge tends to be more supple and Burgundian than its cousin in the Mittelburgenland. The simplest 2015 had a redolence of tobacco, the Leithaberg DAC was naturally more complex; the most luscious was the Gloriette.

I was on my way to meet Louise Höpler, Christof Höpler’s charming English wife and taste their wines, which I had not done for several years - indeed not since Christof’s succession to the role of winemaker. The estate on the northern shores of the mighty Neusiedlersee has grown immensely and has plenty of wine to sell. I was chiefly impressed by the Weissburgunder/Pinot Blanc, and the Pinot Noir. Axel Stiegelmar, despite his apparent youth, took over Juris from his father Georg a generation ago. The estate in Gols has always been tip-top. I had some fresh whites, such as a delightful aperitif-style Muscat Ottonel, a catty Sauvignon Blanc and a lovely pink Pinot Gris (the skins have a pink hue). The reds are best here, from the Ungerberg Blaufränkisch to the St Laurent Reserve. My real favourites are the Pinot Noirs, and it was a Stiegelmar Pinot that I drank in 1988 or 1989 that first alerted me to the quality of new wave Austrian wine. The 2015 Hochreit and Haide are excellent - the latter a little earthy; the best is the plush, unctuous Reserve.

My destination was the stand representing with wines of Carinthia, which were new to me. I found a couple in Tracht doling out the produce of a handful of producers, of which the best was a 2017 Sauvignon Blanc from the Weingut Vgl. Ritter. In the Weinviertel I popped into see Josef Pleil whose wines had a certain typicity in the past. I was not disappointed by his 2017 Klassic Grüner Veltliner but he had belaboured his DAC wine with new oak which I thought a terrible mistake. I preferred the Gemischte Satz made from a promiscuous vineyard planted with several cultivars which was pleasantly peppery like an old-fashioned Grüner Veltliner.

From the hot, mostly red-wine region of Carnuntum, Robert Payr makes an excellent Welschriesling that I find far better than his Veltliner. ‘Grooner’ (rhymes with ‘crooner’) is now an item in the US and people grow it to please their exporters. His best wines are naturally red: Blaufränkisch from the Ried Spitzerberg, Zweigelt from Ried Steinäcker and his cuvee: P1. Gerhard Markowitsch has enjoyed star-status since the nineties. Last year I tasted a great many of his wines, but there were exceptions like his famous Pinot Noirs. The basic 2016 was very good, but the Scheibner of the same year was excellent; possibly his best wine, however, remains the Rubin Carnuntum Zweigelt: good, honest Austrian wine without the spin.

Hispi Duck

Posted: 4th June 2018

I had a remarkable meal in the middle of last month.

It happened in Brighton: a long way to go for dinner, you might say, but I had noted some time ago that I could get there relatively easily on Thameslink and that late at night trains actually ran directly between where I live and Britain’s answer to San Francisco; the journey taking just an hour and a half. Thameslink, however, was not what it was: I had failed to spot the fact the line is now called ‘Gove-Via Thameslink,’ but in all honesty, the trains were not affected that day, except (and this is a big ‘except’), there were not only the usual illiterate announcements repeated ad nauseum about ‘save it and sort it,’ there was an excruciating American telling me to beware of new timetables. Most people were plugged in to their own noises and couldn’t hear a word of this. Only the few of us who had opted to read were plunged into misery by this incessant prattle.

I arrived about twenty minutes early and walked towards Upper Gardiner Street by a circular route. I thought I spotted the pub from the Richard Attenborough film of Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock, but I decided in the end they had probably mocked it up in a studio, although a lot of the film was actually shot in Brighton. Like many Londoners I used to go to Brighton as a child and pobble across its uncomfortable pebble beach to paddle in the sea, or enjoy the pier or the funny little louche lanes and alleys close to the water. What I saw was shabby and run down; everything needed a lick of paint and dirty, concrete, brutalist buildings had been strewn about the place with no feeling for the more picturesque character of the old town. In North Street I saw one magnificent, neglected eighteenth century coaching inn. It looked derelict.

I had been invited to dinner at Silo, an adventurous new wave restaurant that has declared war on waste to the degree they have made plates and dishes out of all the plastic bags and wrappers they have received over the years. Virtually all that has been eliminated now, and deliveries are made in reusable or biodegradable containers. The food was down to the restaurant’s chef, Dougie McMaster. The wines were supplied by Charles Heidsieck, one of the best of the smaller champagne grandes marques.

Silo wasn’t exactly what you might associate with a restaurant hosting a top champagne house: rather than some sort of luxurious Michelin-starred establishment it is a multi-purpose space, part-bakery, part-brewery, part-café that draws some of its inspiration from Noma in Copenhagen. A glass of creamy Charles Heidsieck non-vintage was put in my hand, and my misgivings were soon dispelled. We were all taken in to watch Dougie making butter. He had a rather snazzy machine to do the churning, it has to be said, but all you seemed to need was a litre of cream. In this case, Dougie had a suitably pre-industrial cow working entirely for him. After that you had butter and buttermilk (which you drained off in a piece of muslin), or you could leave the two together and have ‘virgin butter’. Dougie also made a runny beurre blanc with some champagne and we had this on his really fabulous sourdough bread while we tasted through the range of Charles Heidsieck champagnes.

‘Charles’ as its Glasgow-born boss Stephen Leroux called it, has been a champagne to watch for a couple of decades now. It makes only a relatively small amount of champagne but it is all top quality, blended from 150 base wines and made up with forty percent reserve wines aged between fifteen and twenty years. At the top of the pyramid is the Blanc des Millenaires - one of Champagne’s greatest wines. There was no Blanc des Millenaires that night, but there was a wonderful new pure chardonnay blancs de blancs served with the virgin butter, while the 2006 vintage was sent in with the beurre blanc. The smoked butter with seaweed didn’t work so well with the 2005 rosé.

Then the fun started with the menu: brined tomatoes with pumpkin seeds and roses; slow-grown shiitake mushrooms with walnuts and garlic flowers; pollock with brown butter and vinaigrette; beetroot, prune, hispi cabbage terrine and fermented potato skin miso; local rhubarb with bullets of half frozen crème fraîche, honey and elderflowers; and pumpkin seed ice cream with douglas pine seeds, sesame and seaweed powder. Apart from two square inches of pollock, I had no flesh to eat all evening.

Dougie had done lots of foraging and the emerging sun had brought him things he could add to the menu such as the first roses and elderflowers. Having ceased to be a regular restaurant reviewer before the Noma age, all this sort of thing was new to me, as were many of the flavours. Some - like the tomatoes - were relatively bland, others like the rather complicated mille-feuilles of potato skins was adventurous and fascinating. The dish that pleased me most was the rhubarb desert, which was a winner.

The Charles Heidsieck champagnes tackled this novel menu extremely well, the 2006 vintage with the mushrooms and the lovely 2005 with the fish. The mille-feuilles was paired with the 2005 rosé while the rosé reserve was poured with the rhubarb. By then it was time to think about trains again and make a quick dash through the back streets to Brighton’s magnificent railway station.

I am glad I made my excursion to Brighton when I did. By the end of the month Gove-Via Thameslink had descended into a chaos that was nothing less than a full and fitting metaphor for the state of Britain today.

Turning from Whisky to Wine

Posted: 1st May 2018

Almost exactly a quarter of a century ago, on 4 May 1993, I was in Milan with Allan Shiach for the launch of the second tranche of the 1926 Macallan sixty-year old malt. Shiach was the major shareholder in the distillery then. As ‘Allan Scott’ he was a great name in the world of films too and he had a flamboyant style that not surprisingly outstripped most of the people in the whisky business. The first batch had been sold off in 1986 at £20,000 a bottle. I tasted the whisky, but I understandably I didn’t get a bottle, cheap as it was in those days! I was given a small lithograph by Valerio Adami of a bald woman instead. This was the prototype for the 1993 label. Allan said the woman in the picture looked like Mrs Thatcher.

We stayed at the Principe di Savoia and I had a jolly time wandering around the streets with the late Michael Jackson, while whisky-mad Italians genuflected at his approach. This, I hasten to add, was not the pop-singing mooncalf Jackson, but the beer and whisky hunter, a genial, paunchy, Jewish Yorkshireman who could not have been more different. I had time to interview Armando Giovinetti, the man who had made so many Italians fall in love with malt - and therefore Michael - and who sold his own hugely popular bottling of seven-year old Macallan on the Italian market. Armando didn’t speak much English, but we managed somehow in a combination of French and Italian (he was the owner of Janneau Armagnac) although he kept referring his favourite whiskies as being ‘morbido’, which I learned meant soft or tender, and not ‘morbid’ at all.

Last week two bottles of this sixty-year old whisky - one from each batch - sold for $600,000 a piece. A lot has happened in the whisky world since I hung up my hat.

There was a time when I was north of the border half a dozen times a year trailing from distillery to distillery from the Lowlands to the Highlands and the Islands. I would meet some strong silent type who managed the distillery, ask him a few questions, receive monosyllabic replies and then after a bacon bap and cup of tea, taste the distillery’s offering. That was two or possibly three bottles: a young age-statement, say eight or ten-year old, and an older one that was fifteen, twenty or twenty five. A bottle of the better whisky was generally slipped into my hand before I left. Sometimes we would wander around the warehouses and nose a few casks. Once or twice I was allowed to dabble my fingers in one. Every now and then there would be an independent bottler’s rendition to taste too. That was above all for the older age-statements which had long since fallen into the hands of Gordon & MacPhail in Elgin or one of the others who mopped up casks that had somehow come adrift from the blending process.

Whisky was in a bad way. There was a whole lake of it out there which they were desperate to foist on the Chinese, the Indians or the Vietnamese. Malt was a drop in the lake. No one took much notice of it. It was there to give its oomph to the proprietary blends of the various whisky companies. Then malt took off. Collectors (a lot of them Russian oligarchs) couldn’t get enough of it. They bought up all the old age-statements, and they bought any new whisky run off into cask as an investment.  Very soon there was a dearth of malt, and really no really mature whisky unless you were prepared to pay the earth. Instead collectors had to make do with young malts dressed up with different sorts of ‘finishes’ (oak) to make them marketable. Sherry casks cost the earth now, but there are plenty of redundant wine barrels. The collection of malts that once lined my kitchen (and which I have now drunk), would have been worth thousands at today’s prices.

Even blends have changed. It used to be that you put a number of different malts of different ages totalling some forty percent into sixty percent anodyne grain whisky. They all had their styles: some were Islay-based, some Speyside, some less easy to pinpoint. Compass Box started playing around with blends and omitting the bland grain whisky to combine a few interesting malts. Doug McIvor, working for Berry Brothers & Rudd, the former proprietors of Cutty Sark, did the same to make Blue Hangar.  I met Doug McIvor last month when he talked us through some of his blends at the Whisky Lounge, a heaven for whisky-lovers upstairs at the pretty Punchbowl Pub next to the Jesuits in Mayfair. A sweet, almondy Speyside relied heavily on Glen Rothes, which used to be a constituent part of Cutty Sark; a Sherry Cask whisky that was principally Glen Rothes matured in an oloroso cask and two more unnamed whiskies (it was predictably sweet and raisiny); a peppery peaty whisky blended from Glen Rothes, Ardmore and Glen Garioch; and a pale Islay blend that was both smoky and grassy. McIvor was pleasingly frank when it came to the quality of whisky in old casks. At times it’s good, and at others it’s a disaster. When he started at Berry Bros he tasted his way through their 400 casks. Only ninety were worth hanging on to. A delightful old whisky is a proper rarity - most of it needs to be lost in some blend.

Doug’s whisky and some fascinating Antipodean whiskies from Starwood in Melbourne are all available to for sampling at the London Whisky Weekend which runs from 11 to 13 May at the Oval.  

Whisky was not all there was to offer in April. I was happy to attend the tasting organised for the Savage Selection at 67 Pall Mall. Mark Savage remains faithful to some of my favourite Austrian growers like Erwin Tinnhof, Ilse Maier, Ludwig Neumeyer, Heidi Schröck, Reinhold Krutzler  and Bernhard Ott. He has lots of other things too, as I discovered on my short visit: Schoffit from Alsace or Zoltan Demeter’s Tokays or indeed Robert Gorjac’s Dveri Pax wines from Slovenia. There will be more to report on these when I return from Vienna in June.

Finally there is Provencal rosé which seems to cause a groan within these old walls, but not from me. Mirabeau en Provence reminded me of their elegant sparkling Folie, although I would say I preferred the more gutsy still 2017 with its hint of spice and striking  purity of fruit. Sensational, however is the 2017 Etoile, with its wonderful structure and length. This is a proper wine, and not to be sneezed at, and it proved just the stuff for that little burst of sunshine in the middle of the month. At the time of writing, whisky would seem much more suitable.

Grenada Revisited

Posted: 3rd April 2018

A few weeks ago I received an invitation out of the blue to a dinner at Bentley’s from the Spice Island resort and hotel in Grenada in the Windward Islands. After a brief moment of head-scratching it all came back to me, but I was naturally curious. So I told the PR agency I would be delighted to renew my acquaintance with the hotel, which I had seen for the first and last time in June or July 1997.

The dinner was held on the 20th of March. I was warmly received by our host, the proprietor of the hotel, Sir Royston Hopkin, and shook a few hands and kissed a few cheeks I had not seen these last few years. We watched a video and I saw that the hotel I stayed in on Grand Anse Beach had been torn down and put back up again at least twice. On one occasion Hurricane Ivan was to blame. Ivan destroyed virtually every solid structure on the island when it passed through in 2004. The Spice Island I had experienced bore little physical resemblance to the one that was there today. It was a very nice evening for all that and I went home filled with the warmth of good food and wine, enhanced with a flickering glow of reminiscence and nostalgia.

My one trip to Grenada was quite traumatic in its way. Things were changing rapidly in my life then and I was about to become a father for the first time. Perhaps for this reason I decided I would abstain from all those treats they used to offer you when you sat in the front seats on the long flight from London to Grenada and that I would pop a pill so that I might sleep out that great gap of time. I was true to my word: I ate and drank nothing - not even a glass of water.

When we arrived there was the usual West Indian welcome: steel drums and rum. I certainly had too much of the former and probably a bit too much of the latter. Anyhow, I had dinner, went to bed and woke up to a slightly wet morning a few hours later. The height of summer is not always the best time to visit the Caribbean.

The hotel was on the beach, but my room came with a small pool behind a high wall. I suppose that meant I didn’t need to wear my cosy there. I dipped in the pool then plunged around in the sea before going to a press conference with the Minister for Tourism. My hand had felt funny in the water but when I started taking some notes I saw to my horror that my handwriting was peculiar and that I was evidently no longer able to hold my pen properly. Apart from that I felt fine. I mentioned the upset to our Sherpa. She was very unsympathetic and pointed to the ramshackle local hospital with an unconcealed sadistic pleasure. I decided I would be better off seeing a doctor when I got home.

In those days Grenada was chiefly famous for the coup d’état of 1983. The island had been flirting with Stalinism since 1979. In 1983, the deputy Prime Minister, Bernard Coard had his superior, the Prime Minister, Maurice Bishop executed. The Americans were alarmed by reports the islanders were building a proper airport on the island and that a good many Cubans had been recruited as consultants. The American flap was compounded by the presence of an American medical school on Grenada and American students to protect.

The idea of a second Bay of Pigs in America’s back yard drove Ronald Reagan to a frenzy. He formed a coalition with various other Caribbean countries to add a smidgen of legitimacy and squared the operation with the British PM. Mrs Thatcher owed him a favour for the logistical help America had given Britain in the recent Falklands War, but there were long faces when it was discovered that neither Queen nor Commonwealth had been consulted and the Queen’s anointed Governor, Sir Paul Scoon, was roughly handled by the invading forces who, finding an ordinary islander at Government House, refused to believe he was the Governor-General. The invasion had all the elements of tragic-comedy you would expect and included the bombing of the lunatic asylum and the killing of a large number of its inmates but the Grenadine Stalinist experiment was brought to an abrupt end and Bernard Coard and his fellow ministers were sent down with draconian sentences. These were only finally commuted by the Privy Council a decade ago.

I explored the island from top to bottom as well as neighbouring Carriacou. I can’t remember now how many there were of us. There was a lady who was working on her tan, a spirited vegetarian hack from the Glasgow Herald (‘if it has eyes I won’t eat it’) and a man from the Press Association. I recall some sort of party in a village on the west side of the island with my new Glaswegian friend. That time we had taken a taxi but sometimes we had a driver, a young man who appeared to have sired most of the illegitimate children on Grenada and who had pithy comments to make on virtually all the females between the ages of fourteen and forty.

I was chiefly anxious to find authentic food and drink, rather than the bland offerings of the hotels. The island is famous for spices: nutmeg, mace, cinnamon and cloves and we were taken into the interior to see them harvested along with the excellent local cocoa. There was lambie or conch, landcrab, dolphin (mahi-mahi) and meat-filled rotis, the recipe for which had been brought to the island by Indian shopkeepers. Most of the places that cooked local food were closed in the evening, but at Morne Fendue we had callaloo soup and pepperpot: a pork, oxtail and cassareep stew that had been on the boil since 1984. The date was significant: the pot was temporarily switched off during the invasion. I never managed to procure a portion of ‘oil down:’ salt pork cooked in a reduction of coconut milk, breadfruit and callaloo, but I located a decent curry goat in the capital, St George’s.

There were two rum distilleries: Clarke’s Court, which was housed in the building reminiscent of Piranesi’s Carceri crossed with some of the wilder inventions of Heath Robinson, which made a ferocious white and a dark rum called G.R.O.G. (apparently standing for ‘Georgius Rex Old Grenada). The other, River Antoine was positively antediluvian by comparison. It made just one white rum that was marked ‘slightly overproof’ - it turned out to be 75% abv. At dinner in March this year, I brought up the subject of ‘Under the Counter’ which was a rare Grenadian speciality: an aphrodisiac made of rum (naturally), nutmeg, cinnamon, peanuts, cubes of raw beef and a venomous millipede or centipede. The active ingredient, however, is the bark of the ‘bois bandé’ tree - Grenada was previously French, and ‘bander’ is the French verb for to have an erection.

I tracked down a demijohn of it to a bar in St George’s, but it tasted so nasty that I had to wash my mouth out with a bottle of Carib, or better still, a Piton from nearby St Lucia. The woman promised me that I would not be able to lie on my stomach for a week. That was not the case but in her excitement she pulled another treat out from under the counter in the form of a deep-frozen ‘tatou’ or armadillo. This is the favourite ‘wild food’ of the island, along with mona monkeys. I had actually had the opportunity to try ‘tatou’ at Seabreeze, a ‘restaurant’ (more of a roofless hut) out in the wilds. At the London dinner, the Caribbean authority James Henderson assured me that Seabreeze had closed down some time back, after the death of the proprietor Rosanna Moore.

One night, fearing another festive plate of grilled fish I took a taxi to a remote spot. I had asked the driver to wait for me, as I was worried about getting home. Although he was parked at some distance from the place, he began to retch noisily at the mere thought of ‘wild food’, which was not exactly conducive to good appetite. Still, I put on a brave face and Rosanna brought me a bottle of Carib and a plate of salad: rice and pigeon peas, carrots, beets, callaloo greens and coleslaw; a piece of fish fried in flour with black pepper and cloves and a third dish which offered four or five pieces of meat with reptile skin and some others with a hard coating like overlapping leather soles. The one was iguana and other armadillo. The iguana was like an oilier version of chicken with fish vertebrae while armadillo was much gamier with a musky smell and a gelatinous texture. You had to scoop the flesh off the inside of the animal’s armour-plating to eat it. It was like dining on edible cricket balls.

When I got back to London I had to face the music. The future father was despatched to the Institute of Neurology in Queen Square for a brain scan and my heart was examined in the old Middlesex Hospital in Fitzrovia. They suspected a ‘TIA’ or transient ischemic attack: a sort of minor stroke. The doctors found nothing, but my GP reported the tests to the mortgage brokers and my monthly life-insurance premiums were doubled. Eventually they returned to normal because a TIA is generally perceived as a forerunner to a proper stroke, and so far (fingers crossed), no such thing has come to pass. A few years back a cardiologist friend revealed to me what he believed had happened on the flight to Grenada: I had suffered minor brain damage as a result of dehydration, but the damage had repaired itself within days. I don’t get the chance to travel long distances any more, but if I ever do so again, I shall make sure I drink, plenty. 

In the South

Posted: 1st March 2018

When I make my Lenten excursion to Provence I am often greeted by the first mutterings of spring: a sun warm enough to allow you to eat outside at lunchtime generally appears in the last half of February along with almond blossom and the first crocuses. This time the weather in the Ventoux was more troubled. On the Friday we sat outside for coffee by the cathedral in Carpentras and later for a beer at Jerôme’s cafe in Mazan where we soaked up the sun until it began to spit with rain. Saturday was a write off and cold drizzle and half-term conspired to empty the market in Pernes. Most of my favourite producers were absent. Where the soap-seller is normally to be found was a van selling ‘la gastronomie polonaise’. By the time I left on the 18th, a Mistral had blown up and was chasing away the rain clouds but it was bitterly cold.

There were good things to eat and drink and an extra pair of hands in the kitchen. The hunters had been by and left a haunch of Boris in the fridge which was duly pickled in the Ventoux red from the Domaine des Anges and proved a fine dish with mashed potatoes and a simplified caponata the night before we left. We went out a couple of times. In the first instance we returned to Chez Léon in Bédouin for lunch. Chez Léon is a new-wave cave-à-manger serving small, tapa-like plates of food: iberico hams and sausages, local cheeses, black pudding, anchovies, hand of pork, cod balls... accompanied by a long list of local wines (including the Domaine des Anges). On our penultimate night we went to the local La Calade which has changed hands yet again. Everyone agreed that it had got better. The menu had been shortened with a choice of just three dishes for each course. I had some oeufs en cocotte with truffles, a slab of bull meat and huge plate of cheese.

I was back for two nights before a small family holiday to Rome. I can’t have been in the city for twenty years and feared the sort of depressed atmosphere I witness whenever I cross Paris, but Rome was more cheerful than that and although La Cronica di Roma was filled with stories of crimes committed by marauding migrants, I saw little that was unsettling on the streets. On the contrary, the groups of armed soldiers congregating around the tourist attractions were rather reassuring: at least you didn’t feel quite so much like game as you normally did, particularly if you went anywhere near Termini station.

I was also struck by how terribly helpful the Romans were when we failed to get the correct tram back to our digs in Trastevere or asked for information or directions. Often they went out of their way to put us on the right track. Huddling under an awning by the Colosseum to avoid the incessant rain I was drawn into a conversation by two old Romans who were complaining about the city administration, dismissing it as ‘schifo’ (disgusting). Did I think that it was the Colosseum or the Vatican that had brought all the tourists to the city? The former, I said: not everyone is Catholic. One of the old boys shepherded us onto the appropriate tram and showed us where to change. We never really got the hang of the number eight, which seemed reliable in one direction, and totally unreliable in the other.

Once upon a time I wrote an article for the FT about the proper Roman restaurants in the abattoir quarter of Testaccio just across the Tiber from us in Trastevere. The abattoir has closed since but there are still the places serving various organs: tripe, pajata (the tripe of a weaning calf or lamb still containing its mother’s milk which is generally served with rigatoni - tube mingling with inner tube), and of course coda alla vaccinara or braised oxtails. What is Rome without oxtails? The ‘vaccinaro’ was the abattoir man who took home the tail after the slaughter, cooked it slowly and served it up with a thick tomato sugo.

The best place to eat oxtails used to be the Thespian Sora Lella on the Isola Tiberina. The famous Lella died three years ago, and the restaurant was all shut up last month. We had no budget for that sort of establishment anyhow, but we did remarkably well considering. It is still possible to eat well for under €20 in Rome, and that includes wine.

In the morning I went out to fetch sticky buns and bombe (doughnuts) from a café in the via Benedetta. A scruffy little bar downstairs provided me with coffee. We didn’t eat much in the way of lunch - just a snack in a bar where it was possible to obtain that other Roman standby: fried food (fritti). Some people claim fish and chips came to London from Rome, and it is certainly possible to find delicious little bits of fried cod in batter in bars, as well as other things such as deep fried courgette flowers (fiore di zucche) or supli rice balls. It was coming up to the time of the deep-fried artichokes which are associated with the old Jewish quarter on the other side of the Isola Tiberina from Trastevere.

The following places were all a stone’s throw from our B&B in the via della Scala:

The Taverna della Scala was recommended by the owner of the B&B. The restaurant is on the pretty piazza with its church, but is very touristy. Two of us had a four-course menu at €15 - a modest antipasto of a crostino with tomatoes and basil, a primo - in my case penne all’ arrabiata - ‘the angry woman’ I associate with Rome - meatballs (polpette) with tomato sauce and some crème caramel. The wine list was extensive and expensive, but drinkable red house wine was only €12 a litre. Eating à la carte is much dearer with secondi averaging out at €15 and more.

The Ristorante Carlo Menta was a huge surprise. It is on the busy via della Lungaretta and with its menu at €13 and prices as low as €5 for a primo or secondo it looked suspiciously cheap; and yet it was full of Italians and had a real homely feel about it very largely generated by our waiter, an elderly fellow with a moustache, a firm control of everything that took place around him and considerable charm. I had the Roman speciality of spaghetti cacio e pepe which uses pecorino and lots of black pepper and then a rather rubbery scallopina alla valtellina. There was a passable Montepulciano d’Abruzzo for €10. The Roman red novello had come off the menu in December. No one seemed to have any Roman wines, not even frascati. The meal for three came to a very reasonable €47.50.

The Casetta di Trastevere in the piazza de’ Renzi was possible the most disappointing place we went to. It lacked the intimacy of the others and sported a silly Turner-Prize-like installation of a washing line with underwear hanging off it. We sat at a table with a couple from Manchester who were on honeymoon (not their first in either case) and the woman talked loudly about her daughter’s lavatorial habits. They spoke a fair bit about us too apparently. It appears we were the sort of people who drove a ‘four-four’. Once the ‘four-four’ was explained to me I was quite flattered. I have never learned to ride a bicycle, let alone drive a car. If I had one it would probably be a second-hand 2CV and not one of those expensive tanks Americans call ‘gas-guzzlers’. What it is to talk posh! Once in Prague an angry East German told me that I had to pay inflated prices for my drinks - ‘weil du stinkst Geld!’ Despite the cruel vicissitudes of my later life, apparently the stench of money has yet to wear off.

The food was not bad. I had some decent lasagna and a classic ‘saltimbocca all Romana’ (veal plated with ham and sage). Some fritti arrived at the table for the others, not only fiori di zucca but deep-fried mozzarella ‘in carrozza’. There was good-value Cannonau di Sardegna for €12.

We went to La Casetta because we couldn’t get into the Trattoria da Augusto across the street. This place has been written up so many times and in so many lands that there is a queue outside it half an hour before it opens for dinner at 8.00 pm. We had better luck the following evening, standing in a queue in the rain behind Italians, Danes and Germans. Later we were joined at our table by enthusiastic French people.

Despite fame and antiquity (1954), Da Augusto was the second cheapest (€52). I had some stracciatella soup with eggs and cheese and a marvelous little dish of rabbit alla cacciatore (just a hint of chili). There was very good boiled beef and an artichoke done to death so you could scoff the whole thing. My son wolfed down a pine nut tart so quickly I did not get the chance to taste it, but it looked very good. One French couple ate some substantial bean soup and tripe. Both looked extremely good and filling, but we missed a trick by not ordering pasta, which is clearly made fresh daily. There is a proper atmosphere to Da Augusto, unlike the Casetta across the road. The wine list amounts to all of four bottles. We had a litre of house red for €8.

Finally I must mention the Cantina dei Papi across the road from our bolthole, which drew us in for a snack because the hams and cheeses looked so good and the presentation was so stylish overall. They cut us some lovely Tuscan ham from the bone and we drank some half-way decent sangiovese too. I would certainly go back if fate takes me to Rome again. It proved a useful shelter from the rain as well, which was coming down in buckets by then and had been enhanced by an ice-cold tramontana wind. All promise of spring had disappeared. Thirty-six hours after we left, Rome was covered in a thick pall of snow.

The Philharmonic Ball

Posted: 5th February 2018

Only one thing stood out like a beacon this January and that was our very brief visit to Vienna for the Ball der wiener Philharmoniker at the Musikverein. We were the guests of the Michael and Eva Moosbrugger at Schloss Gobelsburg: an incredibly kind and thoughtful invitation and one which gave us tremendous pleasure.

Of course, making a two-day dash to Vienna is bound to be fraught. After domestic arrangements had been made for cats and sons (not necessarily in that order) then there was the business of getting there that did not involve sleeping on a bench at Stansted. The solution required changing in Cologne and reboarding the same aircraft by now filled with Catholic Rhinelanders exuding good cheer and excited about going to one or other of the carnival balls the following night. They all seemed to have been practicing their paces. Apart from our ball at the Musikverein, there was the more popular and populous Kaffeesieder Ball at the Hofburg: the old Royal Palace.

We had a bit of a rush to get to the Hotel Sacher and our lift to the Kamptal, but transport from the airport at Schwechat to the centre of Vienna has become even easier now that there are S-Bahn trains as well as the rather more expensive CAT. That meant we could actually enjoy a few minutes in our room before we set off for the evening and even enjoy the redolence of The Third Man that has survived at the desk and on the stairs.

Our destination was Schloss Gobelsburg itself, where Micky and Eva had prepared a tour of the Schloss together with dinner. The Schloss is a quadrangular eighteenth century building owned by the Cistercian Order with some 120 hectares of arable land, half of which are planted with vines. The Moosbrugger family owns the Gasthof Post in Lech, one of the world’s great skiing hotels. In the mid-nineties they took out a fifty-year lease on Schloss Gobelsburg after Micky learned the practical side of winemaking from the great Willi Bründlmayer in nearby Langenlois. It was naturally not my first visit and I knew the lovely painted saloons of old and the grand staircase and the baroque ceiling painted by the local worthy - the ‘Kremser Schmidt’. This time went down into the cellars so that we could hear about the wines. This was followed by a tasting in one of the small vaulted rooms on the ground floor.

We tried our first 2017 and then a series of 2016s, for me the best wine being the Riesling Heiligenstein. The top estates of the Danube Valley now largely limit themselves to Riesling and Grüner Veltliner, grape varieties that to some extent complement one another. Riesling likes dry soils and dry years while Veltliner likes moisture and can prosper in more humid vintages. A good Grüner Veltliner is a splendid wine that can be the perfect foil to the solid ‘Hausmannskost’ you eat in Austria. It is not really a ‘delicate’ grape variety, and I think expresses itself better at 14 degrees or so when it can produce aromas that are sometimes vegetal (lentils and bay) and sometimes fruity (ripe pineapples).

I have said it several times, and have no need to repeat myself here, that I am iffy about the way that many growers in Lower Austria want to vinify Grüner Veltliner now, and I often wonder if they might not have been better off using Pinot Blanc (Weisser Burgunder) as their second fiddle. Grüner Veltliner can be attractively coarse, a comely dairy maid and not the refined soul that is Riesling. A long time ago now, some British MWs tumbled for a trick and mistook some good Veltliners for top white Burgundies. I don’t suppose they imagined for a moment that their folly would have such a wide-reaching effect.

I liked the Gobelsburg Veltliners, which are now made in a refined style, but the big surprise was the reds. The Danube Valley is not well-known for red wines but Micky has isolated some pebbly areas closer to the river where there is suitable soil and more heat than you find higher up the slopes. He has planted these with Pinot Noir, St Laurent and Zweigelt and to really impressive effect.

We had a lovely, relaxed evening and an excellent meal of Tafelspitz (calling it ‘boiled beef’ doesn’t do it justice at all!) and ‘Mohr im Hemd:’ a steamed pudding with a chocolate sauce and cream. The name, it was pointed out, is controversial. It means a ‘moor’ in a (white) shirt. I pointed out that the French equivalent ‘La négresse en chemise’ is a rather more graphic. It used to be very much part of the standard repertoire but it is apparently found less and less on French menus these days.

The next morning we braved the cold and occasional rain and took the 71 tram out to the Central Cemetery in Simmering. I have done this before to visit relatives in the Jewish Section. We plodded over there and looked at the graves, some askew after wartime sacrilege and bombing and many frankly neglected; but then again, there aren’t very many Jews left to keep them up. Then something broke cover about ten metres away and I was amazed to see a brace of deer disappear towards a clump of dilapidated headstones. Something made me want to believe they represented the Hirsch family. Once we’d spotted the first pair, others emerged not far off scampering about the tombs. Later I heard that there were pheasant too, and people told me that there was at least one annual shoot arranged to keep their numbers down. I presume the gravediggers eat well that day.

We took a circumlocutious route back, passing my grandfather’s cousin Friedrich Adler and his father Victor. Friedrich managed to die as late as 1960, which was pretty good going for the man who assassinated the Austrian Prime Minister Graf Stürgkh in 1916. After Adler all sorts of grandees appeared from Adolf Loos and Salieri to Hans von Makart, Mozart and Beethoven. The nicest tomb in Composers’ Corner was undoubtedly Hugo Wolf’s.

We took the tram back into the centre and had a snack at the Würstelstand by the Albertina. They specialize in horse, so I had a Pferdeleberkäs’ which was both excellent value at €2.60 and filling. We were meeting a friend at the Café Sluka in the Kärntnerstrasse, which has slipped into the place of the old tea rooms that were part of the Modehaus Zweiback and from 1933 converted into the top restaurant Zu den drei Husaren, which is sadly now no more. The tea rooms were commissioned by my great-aunt Ella and designed by art nouveau architect Friedrich Ohmann in the early twenties. He is most famous for the monument for the Empress Elisabeth and the layout of the Stadtpark. The rooms have recently been magnificently restored, although it is a pity that the present proprietors have taken so much trouble to strike the ‘z’s (for Zwieback) off the column capitals. Dotted around the café are photographs of the original with jolly Viennese ladies and gentlemen sipping cocktails and in a room to the side is Rebecca, a sculpture that belonged to my family, and was only recently relocated in the Jewish old people’s home in the Seegasse. She is on loan from my cousin the actor August Zirner.

It was time to change. Apart from a very quick dancing lesson on the pavement opposite the Café Mozart (photographed by an untold multitude of Japanese tourists) we had done very little to prepare ourselves for the evening. Some of the party were being specially fitted into their evening attire, particularly a charming eighty-year old hotelier from Antibes who informed me that it was the first time in his life he had worn white tie and tails. It wasn’t the same for me, but it had been a long time, and although the kit was hanging in my cupboard, there wasn’t a hope in hell of my getting into it. I had had recourse to Lipman instead.

There was Gobelsburg’s sparkling wine in magnums in the Blue Bar and dinner in the Red before the ball: salmon trout, pumpkin soup, venison (we were assured it had not come from the Zentral Friedhof) and chestnut mousse together with the 2009 Riesling Heiligenstein, the 2013 Grüner Veltliner Tradition, the wonderful 2010 St Laurent Reserve and a 2015 Veltliner Trockenbeerenauslese with dessert. Then we set out for the ball. The Musikverein was so near it made no sense to try to take a taxi and we walked.

The ball was founded in 1924, after the extirpation of the Monarchy. These republican balls replaced the institutions that revolved around the court and were designed to show off the latest batch of debutantes to reach the marriage market. Something of that survives in the opening ceremony where - in this case Placido Domingo conducted the Vienna Philharmonic - young dancers performed the first waltzes of the evening under the sumptuous painted ceilings of the Musikverein. Providing you are of a suitable age and an excellent dancer, you can obtain free tickets to the balls. Later some of the male ‘Eintänzer’ were on hand to dance with women whose husbands were too tired or clumsy to join in, although I suspect they required a small consideration.

Not being much of a waltzer myself I spent a lot of time in the bowels of the building listening to some of the special performances that had been laid on by the orchestra. There were a huge number of these little gatherings taking place around the building, with music to suit all tastes. It was not my first Viennese carnival ball. I had been to the Concordia, or press club ball before, and even the Life Ball (both in the great neo-gothic Rathaus), but I could not recall the music at the former. At the Life Ball there were a lot of different pop groups. The music was decidedly better this time, and I almost surprised myself that I was still on my feet at three.  

The next day started late, too late for breakfast. We went to the pleasingly shabby Tirolerhof round the corner and soon afterwards joined friends for lunch at the Zum Schwarzen Kameel. I had not been to the Kameel for a quarter of a century. It used to be run by a formidable lady called ‘Frau Walli’. With very little encouragement, she brought out Beethoven’s order for Gumpoldskirchen wine and sausages which is their prized possession. There is a photograph of it in my first Austrian wine book - currently selling for all of 1p! A lot of the business is in open sandwiches and well-chosen wines, but we had more substantial things and I ate an excellent goulash.

The rest of the time we whiled away chasing Dürer hares around the Albertina museum before we made our return dash for the airport, and home. We’d had a wonderful time. If only getting from Gatwick to London were as easy or as comfortable as taking the train from Schwechat to Vienna.

Festive Wines

Posted: 2nd January 2018

It wasn’t easy laying in stocks of wine this Christmas. Prices for the sort of everyday western European wines I drink had gone up by about twenty-five percent and bargains there were none. I used to buy a couple of cases from Majestic but looking at the list I realised they had largely lost the plot. You plough through page after page wondering what happened to the old days when Dominique Vrigneau used to put on all those lovely Corbières and Minervois. I looked here and there to see if there was an attractive deal for champagne, but I ended up buying a few grande marques from Amazon of all places as no one else seemed to have such fair prices. One côte des blancs I bought for £20 a bottle from Oddbins last year was selling for £32 this year. Although after Christmas Oddbins slashed champagne prices by up to fifty percent and possibly other retailers have done the same.

To add to my woes my local Portuguese merchant Nunu has gone home in disgust at the political situation and apart from the range of chiefly southern Italians from Salvino in the Brecknock Road the wretched supermarkets have taken over the local market. One brave little Portuguese shop in Plender Street continues to sell a smallish selection of Portuguese wine at reasonable prices. Long may it prosper! I have to confess that I occasionally pop into Lidl round the corner now, to see what they have, and I have to say that their German buyers seem to do a bloody good job.

These are not really festive wines, of course, and Christmas wines have to be a bit special. In general I was disappointed by our selection this year. On Christmas Eve a friend came round and we started the foie gras I made with a bottle of Perrier Jouët that we must have had for three or four years. It is nothing special, but at least it was ripe. With the traditional Christmas Eve lobsters I found a bottle of Chablis Grand Cru 2006 Les Preuses from La Chablisienne. A bit of creaminess and vanilla works quite well with lobster but after eleven years this was still stiff with new oak and rather a proof that if you pile it on in this way the vinous element will not reassert itself over the flavouring, as growers are wont to try to convince you. Probably the best wine we had that night was the five puttonyos 2001Tokay from Disznoko we drank with the cheese and the bûches de Noël. The cheese was a triumph: there was a lovely stilton, a vacherin mont d’or and a queijo da serra. Then we had to hot foot it to Midnight Mass.

Christmas Day was also a mixed bag. While we unwrapped presents from under the tree, I opened a bottle of Piper-Heidsieck demi-sec. It was a bottle I’d had for a quarter of a century and a gorgeous golden colour. It wasn’t particularly sweet, just quite rich and rather lovely on its own. They are certainly not sweet enough for most puddings. I might have a couple more somewhere - I must dig them out. We had a guest to lunch and when he pitched up I opened some simple Coteaux de Layon 1976 from the local co-op so that he could have a bit of foie gras and then we drank the rest with some jamon iberico. It was showing its age with a slight bitterness in the finish. My butcher Paul had found us some wonderful beef loin he’d been dry ageing since August. I served it rare with some 1995 Domaine François Lamarche Vosne-Romanée 1er Cru Les Chaumes. I had put it into a jug but only as we sat down, but I came to the conclusion that it was past its best. The friend had brought a bottle of 2005 Château Cantemerle. I didn’t think that there was any chance of that having shuffled off its coil, but it was strangely flat so that I couldn’t derive much pleasure from it at all. We had the same cheeses as the night before. Most of us had had enough by then but I had a half bottle of 1991 Calem vintage port and drank that while we watched a Rita Hayworth film. It was also not that robust, even if it showed a bit more life than the others.

I was on my own for the New Year. I ploughed through eleven or twelve episodes of the old Brideshead adaptation (I was abroad when it was first shown) after I knocked off work each evening, but I thought I’d have a little treat on the night, something different to the diet of leftovers that had sustained me since my family went away. I made the Italian New Year’s Eve feast of a zampone - stuffed pig’s trotter with lentils, denoting the money I was going to make in the coming year (some hope!), a potato puree and a tomato passito. With that I opened a 1997 Prunotto Barolo.

This excited me, it had a beautiful colour and a lovely chocolate and cherry nose and a wonderful acidity that went backwards and forwards across my palate. After dinner I took the jug upstairs and finished it off as I finished off Brideshead. It was not long-lasting, however, and after it had been open for an hour or more it began to lose it grip. Still, it was the best red I had this Christmas by a long chalk.

The Spirit of Christmas

Posted: 4th December 2017

I flew briefly to Dublin and back last month, and I while I hung around in Stansted Airport I looked to buy a suitable present for someone over there. I thought a bottle of spirits might be appropriate. That meant buying in one of those places that used to be called ‘duty-free shops’ in the old days and which is now a hundred-yard stretch of branded goods with a row of tills at the end which call out siren-like from the left and right as you beetle towards your gate. Just a casual glance assured me that there was no price advantage at all, just that they have you over a barrel because you are not allowed to take more than 100 cls of liquid through immigration.

Most of what was on offer was actually cheaper at my local Co-op: buyers of drink in airports are plucked with a ruthlessness that would make the most notorious oriental souk appear like a place of charity. On the way back to London I fancied a bottle of Cork Dry Gin, as it somehow sums up a certain sort of genteel Irish lady (and the odd Irish gent) who likes a pink gin or G & T at sundown as opposed to the more usual rough diamonds who drink a pint of stout or glass of the Paddy. It too came with a hefty price-tag, so much so that I was almost tempted to buy one of the multitudinous new-fangled Irish gins that were also on sale, but then again, you need to sample them first. Cork Dry is tried and tested as far as I’m concerned: there are no strange new botanicals there - one man’s bog myrtle can turn out be another man’s dog violet.

Spirits are an area of huge growth, and for anyone outside the business it would be nigh impossible to keep up with the number of new brands. I have a had a few of these Johnny-come-lately gins, and generally liked them, the reason why many have emerged is because they make it possible for a whisky distillery, say, to sell spirits under three years old, which means generating profits earlier. Other new gins are the fruit of a more liberal policy in granting distilling licenses. Another area that seems to be growing is grain whiskies.

I have yet to see the future Duke of Beckham’s advertisements for Haig Club on the television. The whisky comes in a blue bottle that looks a little like some oil or ointment from an old-fashioned hairdresser’s saloon. I have to admit I quite like its sweet, Turkish delight-style and quite often pour myself a little noggin at bedtime.  A few days ago I had the good fortune to be introduced to another grain whisky: Bain’s from the Cape. It is the baby of Yorkshire-born former county cricketer Andy Watts and is only now being projected to various points in the greater world. Unlike the wheaten Haig Club, it is made from maize, which is something of a staple in the Cape, and then matured in two sets of secondhand Bourbon casks. So that means more maize than is used in Bourbon, but also a big nod to Bourbon from the casks. It is hot in the Cape, and things age quickly. The whisky is sold at a respectable five years giving it a sweet taste again, and an aroma of bananas and honey.

Andy made an interesting parting comment (I was parting) when he referred to the corn used in British grain whiskies. These days, he said it was wheat, or whatever was surplus to requirements; but going back to the time before we joined the EU, he thought that they might have used as much Imperial maize. Anyone with a very old bottle of Invergordon or North British might see if they can recognize the taste. The oldest commercial age statements out there seem to be twenty-five years, so that would already mean the whisky was made from wheat.

It has not been all gin and whisky this month by any means. I discovered, among other things, the Wanderlust Wine Club which will deliver wines by courier to most parts of London. I was particularly struck by the champagnes from Roger Barnier (£23.40) which seemed to offer good quality for money given the fantastic prices of champagne this year that have come about as a result of the weakness of our currency. There were also a number of very good wines from Wanderlust’s Rhone supplier Fontaine du Clos, including an excellent Vacqueyras at £13.67.

It was also a great pleasure to meet up once again with my old friend Margo Todorov, the man who brought Bulgarian wine to England in the early eighties. When Margo started out, he was an emissary of a communist government trying to offload Bulgarian production in Britain after a puritanical wave cut off supplies to the previously thirsty market in the Soviet Union. The eighties were the boom-years, and that was when I first came across Margo in his HQ off the Caledonian Road. Ironically it was the demise of communism which put an end to ‘Uncle Bulgaria’ as some people persisted in calling Bulgarian wine. The land reverted to its former owners after communism was abandoned, but they had to pay for any ‘improvements’ made by the state. Rather than do that, they let the vines rot to avoid having to compensate the government. Many of the state-owned wineries closed as they too reverted to private ownership. Margo, however, was able to salvage a couple of wineries from the general rubble and carried on crushing and selling Bulgarian wine under the brand name Domaine Boyar and based at the Blueridge Winery in Sliven. The main range is now called ‘Bolgaré’. I was quite pleased with the Sauvignon Blanc and Merlot varietal wines (£7.50) and even more so with the Merlot/Mavrud blend (£9.50). I was reminded of a number of trips to Bulgaria in the old days, and the many adventures I had there.

I wish Margo luck in relaunching his Bulgarian wines in Britain. He told me that he was writing his memoirs and said it was an idea I had suggested to him once as we drank beer together at a café in Shumen in eastern Bulgaria. Suddenly I remembered the occasion, and the stories he told about the different agencies trying to get him to spy on the British and how if you were smart you could fob one off against the other. He also brought to life the atmosphere in Sofia at the time of perestroika when it became increasingly clear that Zhivkov’s regime had only a very short time to run. I am looking forward to the book. I think it could be a gripping read.

Heady Beer and Wine

Posted: 6th November 2017

I returned from Flanders yesterday, from a two-night pit-stop in Ypres. The more serious matter concerning my trip I shall reserve for a more fitting place, but those thirty-six hours gave me the chance to renew my acquaintance with Belgian beer, which is surely the most varied and original brewed anywhere in the world. I learned about Belgian beer first and foremost from the late Michael Jackson, the whiskery, paunchy beer and whisky expert, and most certainly not that other fellow with the chimpanzee. Michael was always such a fount of knowledge who inevitably led you to good things. He was also a warm and gentle presence, I miss him terribly.

Coming back on the Eurostar yesterday afternoon I overheard a group of four Englishmen talking about their evening out - I presume in Brussels. It was punctuated by tales of woe, of drunken antics, sleeping in clothes; of ‘frites,’ ketchup and vomit. I realised that my own experiences were mild by comparison, but at the root of the problem lies - I warrant - the prodigious strength of Belgian beer. And the strength seems to be creeping up. I rooted around to see if I could find evidence of this, but all I learned was that Belgian beer is strong because being a neighbour to France, beer is drunk at dinner and in moderation and not sloshed back in the manner preferred by greedy British swillers - so much for the men on the train. It was also strong because Belgians do not heed the German ‘Reinheitsgebot’ and they may add what they like to beer and that means sugar and sugar added to the wort will translate into higher alcohol levels. The best Belgian beers are bottled as well, allowing for a second fermentation and even more prodigious alcoholic strength.

Belgian beer is definitely bullish just now. Michael died ten years ago. In my last - 2002 - edition of his Belgian Beer Book (this is out of date now - and the CAMRA guide would be more useful these days), there were around 120 breweries producing 500 beers. In the bar I was in late on Saturday night, there were as many as 300 beers available. From what I glean, in 2015, there were 1600 beers emanating from 146 breweries. That means a twenty percent increase in the number of breweries, but more than five times as many beers. Firms have been busy creating new brands, for better or for worse and I am sure that a lot of gimmicky things have been produced as a result, but possibly a few masterpieces too?

When our morning work was finished, I sat down with the others to a hearty plate of black pudding and a Westmalle Tripel appeared at my elbow.  It was simply delicious but was nudging 10% - so it was stronger than some German wines, I had my eye on a local hoppy Hommel bier, but even that packed a punch of 7.5%. Trying to go easy on the alcohol as we had a long night ahead, I chose a nicely sour Rodenbach at a very reasonable 5.2. I began to grow sleepy for all that, and the next few rounds I opted for white beers in the hope that they would not knock me out. My final drink of the evening was actually a draft lager from Bruges. It was very good but I was pretty shell-shocked after the artillery barrage struck up by those earlier bottled beers.

The rest of the month has not been so promising, but I attended a charming dinner at the Garrick Club to celebrate the ballet-critic Nicholas Dromgoole’s ninetieth birthday on the 27th. Not only was there excellent music and scintillating company, but the food and wine was better than I had any right to expect. True, I have eaten at the club many times, and never been disappointed, but then again your expectations are not always that high in ‘gentlemen’s’ clubs and they are still dogged by a bad reputation that dates back to the time when they dished up something more reminiscent of school food.

These days the food at the Garrick is more classical, as befits the architecture - paupiettes of sole Véronique, for example, would be hard to find in a modern London restaurant, and I was amazed to see cheddar soufflés come out for fifty diners and they weren’t at all bad either.

My meal at the Garrick contrasted starkly with dinner the following evening when a friend and I went to Fischers in Marylebone High Street. When this place opened I felt compelled to defend it after I read the most preposterous restaurant review I had ever seen in my life in the pages of the London Standard. I believed, and still believe, that a Viennese-style restaurant is a good idea; indeed I had always suggested converting a pub and creating a sort of ‘coffee-house’ cum-Beisl (the equivalent of a trattoria or bistrot) downstairs and having a modern Austrian restaurant the floor above. Fischers tries to incorporate both on the same floor, which doesn’t really work. Also it throws in everything vaguely Teutonic it can find and a few other things besides: so there are Austrian dishes, like Tafelspitz or Schnitzels (chicken Schnitzel was new to me), but also German ones such as Himmel und Erde. There are also sausages, which are not restaurant food, but I don’t care so much about that and at least they are relatively cheap. The wine list contains a lot of (pricey but well-chosen) Austrian wines, as well as German ones, etc. The result is anything but authentic, a bit like a women’s magazine pull-out supplement to eating out in Central Europe.

We had a glass of the Bründlmayer Sekt but looking at the prices, had a bottle of 2015 Brouilly from the Château des Tours rather than any Austrian or German red. The butter had a funny taste, and we had to ask the waiter what it was. He said there was a bit of paprika in it, but not enough to cause offence! Why didn’t they put out some Liptauer? I ate some herrings, done three ways, which was decent enough and then some Tafelspitz which was misconceived, coming out more like braised beef with apples on top. Tafelspitz is boiled, and a mixture of apple purée and horseradish is served alongside with fried potatoes and a white sauce with chives. My friend had some odd looking thing that turned out to be a spatchcock chicken favoured with tarragon. We both had a Dobostorte, which was fine, but the chef had cut off the top layer and laid it to one side in an affected way, which spoiled the effect. Such things are never done in Vienna, or indeed Budapest, where the Torte comes from and these affected little twists and fetishes got in the way of enjoying the food. The overall impression I had was that the owners were frightened of going the whole hog and presenting anything remotely like proper Austrian food.

And now to wine: I went to the Laithwaites tasting in their arch in Southwark and found some excellent things that were also good value for money at a time when wine prices are soaring because of our puny pound’s inability to keep up with the Euro.

Laithwaites are pushing English sparklers at the moment, including one made in Windsor Great Park, but I am still sceptical. A lot of them - including the ‘royal’ sparkler from Windsor, have a strange frothiness to them which makes them look as if they have been using beer yeasts. It is anything but the elegant ‘bead’ of top champagne. Of all the fizz on offer at the tasting, the best for me was the Laithwaite Blanc de Blancs from Champagne (£29).  

Vinho verde has been changing its spots for years now, so that it hardly resembles the light, frothy, thirst-quenching wine of old, but I found some more authentic character in the 2015 Alvarinho from Deu la Deu (£14.99). Admittedly this is not exactly vinho verde, but a rather more serious wine from Monção. It has a slight prickle from CO2, and lovely peachy taste and something of that yeasty sourness I associate with good vinho verde.

The Portuguese produced some of the stars that day: I thought the 2016 Quinta das Mouras (£8.99) from the Alentejo was volatile at first, but that wore off and was a really lovely, Syrah-dominated wine. I liked the earthy 2015 Quinta do Espirito Santo from Lisbon (£9.99) and the strapping 2013 Gáudio Classic (£14.99) also from the Alentejo.  The name would signify enjoyment; for that it would repay decanting. I know the quality of the Quinta da Gaivosa in the Douro of old. The 2013 is no exception, although it comes at a hefty price (£28). Also from the Douro is a 40-Year old tawny port from Andresen (£60) which is wonderfully raisiny and has a super acidity.

A big surprise was a really impressive wine from Bulgaria: the 2012 Coline d’Enira from Bacchus’s homeland of Thrace (£12.99). It is made by the same Marc Dworkin who produces wine in Bordeaux and is a rich and silky Bordeaux-Syrah blend. There was also a nice little Moldovan sweetie, the 2013 Château Vartley Dulce (£14.99 for 50 cls).

Two riojas next (or maybe four) from one of my favourite domaines: Martinez Bujanda: a magnum of the 2009 Finca del Marquesado Gran Reserva will cost you £45 - but it is a proper rioja rather than these confused wines that seem to dominate these days. And there is a trio of Valpiedra Reserva (2001, 2004 and 2010) for £80 of which the 2001 is clearly the winner, but the others look set to catch up. Also from Spain was a wonderfully floral 2016 Ponte da Boga from Mencia (£16.99).

From Germany there was a super 2016 Rüdesheimer Kirchenpfad Riesling Kabinett from the Rheingau (£14.99) and then some treats from Italy: a 2016 Campodora Albana Secco tasting of fresh ginger (£10.99), a lovely 2016 Nero d’Avola from Tenuta Fenice in Sicily (£9.99), a rather more grandiose 2013 Vecciano supertuscan (£19.99). More than anything, however, I was impressed by the 2015 Borgo di Marte Apassimento from Puglia (£10.99) which had a huge persistence and struck me as great value for money.

From France I was most struck by the 2015 Minervois Château Villerambert Les Truffiers which was all the better for being half Syrah. At 14%, it was also marginally stronger than a Belgian beer.

The Last Rays of Summer

Posted: 2nd October 2017

September starts in the embers of summer with St Giles’s Day, which is almost always an excuse for champagne. In this instance it was the new Cuvée Essentiel from Piper Heidsieck which was a lovely surprise. Piper have not perhaps done themselves any favours in recent years, but this wine was a breakthrough, with great length and vigour. Let us hope it gives me some of the same to see me through the months to come.

A few days later the oyster season opened with the annual shucking match which determines which British oyster shuckers (to be honest, not many are British) will go through to the European heats. I must say that it is always a good occasion to see some cherished old friends and eat a few natives (molluscs that is). British contestants are not always at an advantage in this challenge because our consumption of oysters is tiny compared to France, say. Outside Parisian brasseries there are teams of men who do nothing else all day other than shuck oysters.

A few days later I made my first contact with some of the German stars of 2016 at the Justerini & Brooks tasting at the Caledonian Club. The growers seemed very happy with the harvest, but quantities are minute. August Kesseler was showing his 2015 Pinot Noirs: the best red wine vintage for several years. Their top wine that day was a magnificent Höllenberg made from seventy year old vines. There were also excellent things from their vineyards in Lorch. More excellent 2015 reds came from Paul Fürst in Franconia. The wines are perhaps a touch more elegant than Kesseler’s, and they are far less ready. Here the top wine was the Hunsrück, but I would expect the Centgrafenberg to catch up. More reds were on show from Julian Huber who seems to have stepped very ably into the shoes of his late lamented father Bernhard. My desert island wine here would be the 2015 Schlossberg with its faint whiff of tobacco.

The Rheingau grower Robert Weil is always a safe place to start a Riesling tasting: he rarely disappoints. The 2016s were a triumph - not just the top, dry Grosses Gewächs from the Gräfenberg, but also the Spätlese and Auslese from the same vineyard. You don’t always see these sweeter styles, not in Germany anyway because they are not favoured by the top growers’ association, the VDP, but J & Bs customers are still cut and dried in the old way and they appreciate traditional German wines. The lyrical Weil Auslese was made entirely without botrytis this year: the growers in the Rheingau having benefitted from a good, warm, dry November and no rot. The result is a haunting aroma of fresh apricots. Josef Spreizer is another Rheingau grower who is always a treat. The best of his 2016s was the Grosses Gewächs from the Hattenheimer Wisselbrunnen again with a wonderful aroma of fresh apricots.

Another grower you learn to approach on your knees is Helmut Dönnhoff, although the wines are now chiefly made by his son Cornelius. There was a beautifully structured Hermannshöhle, but once again the sweeter styles came to the fore, Spätlesen from Niederhäuser Brücke and Hermannshöhle, the latter with a gorgeous taste of gooseberries. Gooseberries again dominated on the best wine from Emmerich Schönleber, the Spätlese from the Halenberg.

Carl von Schubert was there with his Maximin Grünhaus wines from the Ruwer. I had not tasted his light, red Pinot Noir before. He has been making it since 2010. Again the stars here were the traditional Spätlesen: the Herrenberg and the Abtsberg and the delicious Herrenberg Eiswein. From the Saar Hanno Zilliken’s top wine was the Saarburger Rausch Spätlese, but he warned me there was very little to sell. Fritz Haag in the Mosel itself is another place of pilgrimage for German wine lovers. His best wines come from the Brauneberger Juffer Sonnenuhr (these lucky sundial vineyards see the sun all day long).  Once again a long growing season allowed Haag to make exemplary Kabinetts and Spätlesen. There was even a bit of top-notch Goldkapsel; and then the immortal JJ Prüm. This tasting is one of the few where you get the chance to taste Prüm’s wines. They are famously challenging before they are six years old, but this time I thought I managed to get a perch on them. The Graacher Himmelreich and Wehlener Sonnenuhr Spätlesen and Auslesen were wonderful. If I were forced to choose one it would probably be the Himmelreich Auslese.

Willi Schaefer also has his vineyards in Graach, in the Domprobst vineyard. Here the Kabinett and Spätlese both promised superb wines in years to come. Finally from the Mosel there was Thomas Haag at Schloss Lieser. These were the hardest wines to assess this year, harder than Prüm as the noses were dominated by sulphur. He has spread his wings, and got a bit of the famous Doctor, as well as some Piesporter Goldtröpfen. The wine that stood out for me, however, was the Kabinett from Graacher Himmelreich.

Lastly, two wines from outside the main drag: from Battenfeld-Spanier in Rheinhessen was a lovely, complex 2016 Am Schwarzen Herrgott and from Rebholz in the Southern Pfalz, a Pinot Noir Grosses Gewächs 2015: a real return to form.

I spent much of the second half of September away in Germany and France. In Germany I was at a conference in North Hesse, a region with no wine, only rolling hills and dense woods and quite a few sheep - a novelty for me in Germany. Above the house where I was staying a biodynamic farmer cultivated potatoes with the help of three dray horses. He also grew interesting herbs, and was part of a network of biodynamic farmers that sold their wares all over Germany. The farmer offered three sorts of potatoes, something for every occasion. Since Frederick the Great’s time, German rustics have eaten a simple supper of potatoes in their skins and fresh curds. The latter may be flavoured, and we even had the sophistication of Goethe’s famous ‘green sauce’. Otherwise potatoes thicken soup: pumpkin soup or plain potato soup, which can be a delight.

Bread is the other great German staple. The country doesn’t go in for tempting soft, white breads like baguettes, but makes good solid loaves from wheat and rye which are as delicious as they are nourishing. One of the moments we all looked forward to was the coffee break when there were trays of Streusel and Pflaumenkuchen (crumble and plum crumble cake). There was even a regional Schmandkuchen with soured cream.

Of course Provence was somewhat different. We missed Boris the Boar this year but we had a fine celebration as one of our brethren, Professor Mahen Varma, was given the OBE so that meant a special dinner and lots of champagne. We went out a bit more than usual; to a new place in an old garage in Bedoin called Chez Léon where they have adopted the ‘cave à manger’ style with small plates and a good range of wines. There were a few funny products such as sardines in tins, lovely Iberico hams, squid and excellent black pudding with a puree of potatoes. The cheeses looked good too. On our last night we went to Le Four à Chaux near Caromb and had a lovely meal: a little pea soup as an appetizer, courgette flowers stuffed with crab and little cake of dried cod brandade on the side, pungent lamb rack flavoured with thyme accompanied by local vegetables and a cake of goats’ cheese wrapped in bacon, a disappointing selection of non-local cheeses (the alternative was a crottin from the Loire!) and a lovely almond bavaroise with peach ‘scales’ - except that the peaches were nectarines and they were unripe. It was still a delicious meal and a special treat.

For the rest of my time I visited my favourite green fig tree and sopped up the last rays of the summer sun.

Austria Burns

Posted: 1st September 2017

At the end of August I enjoyed a glorious five days in sunny Austria. When I arrived it was a modest and bearable 27 degrees. When I left it was a sweltering, unbearable 34. Most people were predicting a very early harvest, probably in the first or second week of September. I went east first, to the region of Carnuntum which is only half an hour away from Vienna, beginning near the airport at Schwechat and ending just beyond the walled town of Hainburg and not only in sight of the screaming spires of Bratislava but of both Slovakian and Hungarian Borders. Carnuntum is the hottest part of Lower Austria and has developed a justified reputation as a red wine area - Zweigelt in the west and Blaufränkisch in the east; but there is the usual story - Viennese wine lovers like to stock up on a range of different wines from local producers - and that means that many growers offer a gamut of up to a dozen, and not always the ones that might reasonably be expected to prosper. Many plant Grüner Veltliner in soils that are simply too dry.

It was naturally not my first visit to Carnuntum, as long ago as 1991, I spent a day there organised by the German vet Florian Kruse and tasted some of the up-and-coming producers. Those people have now truly upped and come. Walter Glatzer was one, and the Artner family, as well as my friend Hans Pitnauer, who seems to have beaten his own path and left the organisation that is planning to produce a vineyard classification for the region. By the time I wrote my second book on Austrian wine (1997) other names had emerged: Gerhard Markowitsch, Hans Grassl and Franz Netzl. There are now about 900 hectares of vines in Carnuntum, and some 270 growers. Only a small percentage of these people actually bottle their wines, the rest sell grapes or wine to the others.

I was familiar with Göttlesbrunn, but it was my first glimpse of the rocky outcrops that mark the eastern part of the region and they are indeed impressive. The day I landed we had a nice tasting and picnic on the Spitzerberg where Dorli Muhr and Dirk van der Niepoort have their vines and which is rapidly regaining some of the reputation it used to have in the old days, when it was served at state banquets. In that tasting Robert Payr and Gerhard Markowitsch appeared the best among the whites, with Muhr-van der Niepoort and Auer, Gratzer Sandriesen and Lager topping the simpler reds.

The following morning we visited the region’s most easterly vineyards on the south-facing slope of the Braunstein within spitting distance of the ruined castle of Hainburg. These are now exclusively farmed by Michaela Riedmüller.  On the way to Göttlesbrunn we passed the granite slopes of the Hundsheimberg in Hundsheim where most of the vines seem to belong to the Lugschitz family. They produce very promising Blaufränkisch.

After scaling the heights of Göttlesbrunn with Gerhard Markowitsch I sat down to a tasting of 132 wines, sampling each village and slope in turn. It seemed to be that the leader in Stixneusiedl was Trapl on the Gaisberg; on the Göttlesbrunner Altenberg it was my old friend Glatzer who also excelled on Kräften and the Schüttenberg. On the Haidacker, the laurels go to Lukas Markowitsch and F & C (formerly Frank) Netzl. Martin Netzl makes nice wines on the Steinriegl (Grüner Veltliner) and Ott (Chardonnay) on the Hagelsberg.

F & C Netzl are the top producer on the Höfleiner Bärnreiser (Weisser Burgunder) along with Walter Glatzer (Blaufränkisch), while Grassl (Chardonnay) is best on the Rothenberg. Payr comes into his own with Zweigelt from the Steinäcker and Auer with the same black grape on Bühl. Gerhard Markowitch had an excellent Zweigelt from Kirchweingarten; he didn’t show his famous Pinot Noir. On the Spitzerberg in Prellenkirchen, the leaders are without doubt Muhr-van der Niepoort, but there are good things from Payr as well. The right grape to plant is obviously Blaufränkisch.

If I had to choose a collection I should name Hans and Philipp Grassl, who make lovely reds on the Schüttenberg and whites on the Rothenberg. The most flavoursome whites are probably Weisser Burgunder (Pinot Blanc). The best reds in the west are mostly Zweigelt, in the east Blaufränkisch, but it will be years yet before they eliminate some of the weirdos - not just Grüner Veltliner but Merlot and Syrah.

We were working towards an exploratory classification for the region. When it comes to the Danube Valley around Krems, however, the structure is pretty well in place even if it has yet to be sanctioned by State or Federal Government. The Traditionsweingüter organisation encompasses some of the top wine estates in Austria - particularly for white wines and they have already selected their ‘premier cru’ sites much like the VDP in Germany and are hoping to decide what will become ‘grand cru’ before a couple of decades are out. It is all part of the process of changing Austria over from a ‘Prädikat’ system based on sweetness to one where the right grape is chosen to represent the correct soil and exposition. This is not only derived from growers’ experience of where the most interesting wines hail from, but also the cadastre of 1823, which had already designated the better soils, I presume for fiscal purposes. Producers from the regions of Kamptal, Kremstal, Traisental and Wagram (the Wachau won’t play the game), have got together to encourage the process and that means the selected grapes are Riesling or Grüner Veltliner.

As an appetiser on our first night under Toni Mörwald’s accommodating roof in Feuersbrunn, we tasted thirty-three wines from the 2012 and 2007 vintages. I should confess that I am having a bit of a problem with Grüner Veltliner at the moment (just as people in the US are getting their tongues round it): the decision has been taken - collectively it seems - to lighten the wines and try to vinify at 13%, which I believe damages the expression of the grape variety which only comes into its own at over 13.5. Grüner Veltliner has lots of character, but it has a tendency to be coarse and alcoholic. I don’t believe that it ages that gracefully either. There are some magnificent older Veltliners, but they generally come from the likes of FX or Rudi Pichler in the Wachau, who make them as tight as drums so that they take years to soften. If you want delicacy in wine, it could be that Veltliner is not your bag? Again Weisser Bugunder (Pinot Blanc) might be a better bet? That ages divinely and is much more tolerant about being vinified at a lower strength.

So, of the Veltliners that night, just these stood out for me: Martin Nigl’s Senftenberger Pellingen 2012, Bründlmayer’s Langenloiser Käferberg 2012, Fritsch’s Kirchberger Schlossberg 2012, Jurtschitsch’s Kammerer Lamm 2007 (one of the best Grüner Veltliner sites of all) and Franz Leth’s 2007 Felser Scheiben.  Of the Rieslings, the top scores went to Allram’s Zöbinger Heiligenstein 2012, Markus Huber’s excellent Reichersdorfer Berg 2007 and Rainer Wess’s 2007 Steiner Pfaffenberg. My favourite wine was Sepp Mantler’s 2007 Geldersdorfer Wieland: a Riesling grown on loess (it is meant to be Veltliner that you grow on loess).

The next day we began the tasting of the 2016s. It was a difficult year with some heat and a lot of rain. The wines were only just bottled and some were a little blighted by the experience too. The sites are mostly familiar: the Gaisberg is shared between the villages of Kammern, Strass and Zöbing where according to rule, Riesling is planted on primary rock and Veltliner in the scree. The most famous site in the region is the steep Zöbinger Heilgenstein, where possibly most of the top wines come from and has much more Riesling. Steinmassl is also best for Riesling. In Langenlois, the Käferberg is mostly a Veltliner site while the Kogelberg is shared with Veltliner. Lamm and Renner are excellent Veltliner sites.

In Krems the vineyards are not always so steep or distinguished, but Frechau stands out for Veltliner; in Senftenberg the Hochäcker is Riesling-dominated. Then there are the top sites in Stein, on the borders of the Wachau, such as the Pfaffenberg and the famous Hund. On the south side of the Danube, the vineyards of Furth are often planted in the great volcanic knoll that is crowned by Göttweig’s Benedictine Abbey. Some of the most exciting wines come from the Traisental to the west, from Getzersdorf and Inzersdorf. Crossing the river again, much of the land between between Krems and Kirchberg is loess, and favours Grüner Veltliner: Gedersdorf, for example, and in the Wagram, Fels and Feuersbrunn.

My top wines were mostly Riesling, probably for the reasons explained above. Top golds (18.5): Hiedler Kammerner Gaisberg, Jurtschitch, Zöbinger Heiligenstein, Jurtschitsch, Langenloiser Käferberg, Bründlmayer, Langenloiser Steinmassl, Hiedler, Zöbinger Kogelberg, Stadt Krems, Steiner Grillenparz and Salomon Undhof, Steiner Pfaffenberg. I gave half a mark less (18) to Allram, Zöbinger Heiligenstein, Jurtschitsch, Zöbinger Heiligenstein Alte Reben, Jurtschitch, Langenloiser Loiserberg, and Neumayer, Inzersdorfer Rothenbarth. I awarded top silver (17.5) to Schloss Gobelsburg’s Zöbinger Gaisberg and Sepp Moser’s Rohrendorfer Gebling.

Of the Grüner Veltliners, top golds (18.5) went to Jurtschitsch’s Langenloiser Käferberg and Schloss Gobelsburg’s Kammerner Lamm. Golds (18) I attributed to Hiedler’s Langenloiser Kittmannsberg, Proidl’s Senftenberger Ehrenfels and Petra Unger’s Further Gottschelle. Top silver (17.5) I gave to Weszeli’s Langenloiser Käferberg, Jurtschitch’s Langenloiser Loiserberg, Mantlerhof’s Gedersdorfer Spiegel and Huber’s Getzersdorfer Berg.

My favourite wines of all were the Hiedler Gaisberg and Berthold Salomon’s Pfaffenberg Rieslings. The best collection of wines came without any doubt from Jurtschitsch.

There was some light relief: when I crawled out of the tasting into the sunshine an orchestra was rehearsing Strauss’s Alpine Symphony. I plonked myself down on a bench and soaked it up. The day before the redoubtable Frau Doctor Heinrich had marched us up to the top of a hill above the River Traisen to show us the composition of the soil in 33 degrees of heat, which left us frazzled and parched, so that we might have done a little more than justice to a whole pool filled with bottles we found at Markus Huber’s house later. And on the last day we had a special treat in the form of a concert performed by the Czech Philharmonic and conducted by Tomas Netopil: Dvorak’s Cello Concerto (cellist Truls Mørk) and his Eighth Symphony. The ubiquitous Toni Mörwald made a splendid picnic to go with it.

In four days of tasting I evaluated 266 wines, not including those consumed at lunch and dinner.

Dutch René

While I was in Austria I learned of the death of my old friend René van Heusden in Hoogvliet near Rotterdam on 26 June. Thinking back on it I must have met René for the first time in Tresserre in the Pyrenées Orientales in 1986 or 1987, but since then virtually everywhere that good wine is tasted and drunk, principally in Germany - for he loved a good Riesling. He was one of a group of great chums from the Low Countries whose company you always enjoyed, with whom you shared pleasure and pain, meals and late night drinking sessions; and yet you had never encountered in your home or theirs. Indeed, I stumbled only recently on a diary entry from 1995, when I had met him by chance tasting schnapps in Berlin - well wide of the normal wine trial. He was generally at the annual ‘Sneak Preview’ tasting in Wiesbaden. As my own wine activities diminished I saw him less. In France he was referred to affectionately as ‘the Dutchman’.

He had started his life, I recall, a German master in a Dutch school. He was a mine of information on many things - particularly music, literature and the German language which he naturally spoke perfectly. I remember him trying to explain the Dutch ‘e’ comparing it to the way Austrians pronounce it - ‘eh’. Later he moved to Belgium which he claimed to like more than Holland. He was back living in Holland, however, at the time of his death. He liked to drive to Germany, he told me once, because it gave him the chance to listen to music on the way. I remember his characteristically negative judgement of the nationalist hymn Die Wacht am Rhein. He liked Wagner best, racing through the Rhineland accompanied by the Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde.

Since 1996 he had been the editor of the magazine Perswijn, and I see that he also taught at the Dutch wine academy. At one stage he married a buxom American wine importer, but I think that did not last long, even if Lars Daniëls told me that period of life was his happiest. He had the letters ‘ML’ printed on his card, signifying ‘Master of Lunch’ but that was no more than his good sense of humour. In recent years I felt his love of life was slightly muted. He snapped a lot and looked grumpier than usual and failed to join us when we gathered in the bar. What in the past had been sharp repartee began to sound like bitterness. I have no idea what caused his death and looking at the Dutch obituaries, no one seems to want to spell it out. His sister found his body in his flat. He had been due to leave on a two-day trip to the Beaujolais. He was fifty-eight.

Other News

Otherwise there is not much to report this August, just school holidays and trying to think if suitable things to do. One day we went to Canterbury to see the cathedral and had lunch in a brewpub called the Foundry. Suddenly I had a flashback: I had been here before, or somewhere very like it. When I got home I realised I had made some beer for the FT about twenty-five years before in a place just thirty feet away. There were a hundred bottles produced from a recipe I chose and the resulting brewage was sent up to the Weekend Desk where it was eagerly mopped up by the hacks. One paid me a compliment, telling me it was the sort of beer that tasted better out of a glass. We sampled two of the range the other day in Canterbury: a Pale Ale and an IPA. I liked both. I wonder if they were as good as mine?

The Mirabeau Vineyard in Provence also sent me a bottle of their new sparkling wine: La Folie. It was a nice summer rosé redolent of strawberries with a good, pert acidity. I liked it very much. (£12.99 from Waitrose). Now this summer madness comes to an end - au travail!

Confirmation, Cheese and Cocktails

Posted: 2nd August 2017

The second Saturday in July was earmarked for my son's Confirmation lunch: the actual Mass was in May, when I was lost somewhere in l'Angleterre profonde. Beside the traditional and religious significance, these milestones represent important occasions that bring together old friends you see comparatively rarely. Indeed, in my own case it is seldom I see anybody at all and it is surely right and fitting to make a little splash to thank the Godparents. Theirs is often quite literally a thankless task and most are kind enough to remember birthdays and give the children presents when there is no obvious reward for their generosity.

Four sets came to the feast: three doubletons and a singleton to join the home team of four. That was a lot for this little house. Only one pair stayed away. I had intended to obtain all sorts of special things, but when the tour guiding scheduled for June failed to materialise I had to make do with what I had stashed away. That included some puff pastry I had made for the galette des rois back in January and which I had shoved in our tiny ice box. I turned this into a nice, big tarte aux courgettes, put lots of mozzarella on top and strewed it with some fresh marjoram that has largely taken over the herb garden on the kitchen roof.

I had intended to bring down a big leg of salt-meadow lamb from Grange-over-Sands, but in the end the gigot came from Paul Langley from Cramer the butcher in York Way. I marinated it in some dark Portuguese wine and provided a lot of potatoes as ballast. Then there was a green salad to which I forgot to add pine nuts - this was the one culinary tip I had brought back from the Côte d'Azur. This was followed by a big hunk of mature Appleby Cheshire I had bought at Paxton & Whitfield. Finally there was some excellent lemon curd ice that my wife whipped up the day before.

The wines probably suffered rather more than the food as a result of my cancelled tour. We started with a brace of Perrier-Jouët and then with the tart, had the two bottles of Ludwig Hiedler's 2002 Maximum Riesling. Ludwig gave them to me in Langenlois when I paid a call on him in his house with my children a few years ago. When I told him Joseph was born in 2002 he fetched the bottles stressing they were to be drunk at his Confirmation. The tasting turned from a professional into a social occasion with me and Ludwig on one side of the pool and the children on the other. It certainly was a splendid, mellow wine. I wanted Joseph to taste it at least, although I am not certain that he did. The wine served with the lamb and cheese was a rather less distinguished Costières de Nîmes. Later we uncorked a bottle of the 1995 Laurent-Perrier that had been the champagne we served at Joseph's baptism. I remember when the Laurent Perrier was just eight years old, it was rather tight. Now, at twenty-two I found it in perfect condition. I'm so glad I managed to keep a few bottles back.

It was still hot in early July. I recall attending a tasting of El Jimador Tequila in a pretty roof garden at the Ham Yard Hotel in Soho in blistering heat. I don't suppose Mexico was much cooler. In many ways a tequila cocktail was precisely what the doctor ordered, although it was hard not to knock it back to quench your thirst, especially mixed with limes and diluted with soda. As such it is hardly more lethal than a mojito. Besides proving that tequila was a lot more versatile than I had previously believed, the session was designed to show the work of the jimador who harvests the great prickly agaves. One had been flown in with his equipment, and made short work of a number of plants isolating the fermentable 'piña'. I thought back to the agaves that grow everywhere on the Côte d'Azur, and wondered if anything good might come of them? At ten years they shoot up a floral crown and die - a sort of botanical swansong. They are not the right 'blue' agave for sure, but who knows, maybe the juice is delicious?

I went straight on to one of the many Christmas in July events at Paxton & Whitfield. Paxton's has been around for rather longer than me, but it is striking to remember that I have been patronising this Jermyn Street cheesemonger for well over forty years. It has had several owners in that time. In those far-off days after I left school they had rather special sausages as well as the famous range of cheeses. Much later on, I used to go there to buy Echiré butter, which they no longer stock. Now the operation is a lot bigger, with four branches in London, Bath and Stratford upon Avon and they benefit from a sort of revolution in British and Irish cheeses which began in around 1980, largely as a result of the inability of dairy farmers to make a living from milk sales. While some traditional British hard cheeses have suffered during that time (notably Stilton and Cheshire) there have been a good number of soft cheeses based on Continental models that have developed an enthusiastic following.

Bix from Nettlebed was one of these new cheeses. I found it quite delicious: essentially a smaller, creamier version of the Champenois Chaource. Sometimes top restaurants ripen their Chaources themselves and they can be superb; but more often they are chalky at the heart and disappointing, unlike this Bix. Many of the Paxton cheeses that day were old friends, like the Appleby Cheshire and the Montgomery cheddar, the Manchego and the St Félicien. There was a curiosity Toma from the Dolomites: a blue cheese with cocoa and rum: cheese doubling up as dessert. At Christmas Paxtons packs up these cheeses into hampers. They start modestly priced and end up in the stratospheres. Naturally potted Stiltons are a speciality.

The Fine Cheese Company is in Motcomb Street in Knightsbridge. They too have some lovely offerings for the Christmas season that they are flagging up now, including an amazing-looking cheese cake (cheeses of different sorts stacked on top of one another). There are the usual truckles of cheddar and Stilton, plus the indispensable Vacherin mont d'or and some excellent little waxed cheddars. I tasted a lovely ewe from Robiola in Piedmont, a hoppy Margot beer cheese and a Somerset goat called Eve. The Red Wine farmer in Switzerland washed his Gruyère in... red wine; and there was all sorts of lovely things to have with them from relishes made from sour cherries, cranberries and port to damsons macerated in gin.

It rained that day, in great spasmodic torrents, but I should not forget a sticky day at the end of the month when I stopped at a place called Bronte in Trafalgar Square for some Johnnie Walker Gold Label cocktails and was treated to a tasting of the very expensive Blue Label. They say about Krug champagne that it takes a man of genius to make the ordinary brut, while God makes the vintage. By that logic you might stretch a point and say God makes malt whisky and talented blenders make the rest. More significantly, blended drinks have now returned to a glamour they have not possessed since the sixties or seventies. One more point: you wouldn't want to make a cocktail from a top malt; and little beats a good cocktail on a hot day. It's 'orses for courses, as they say here.

All Balls and Memories of the Côte d'Azur

Posted: 6th July 2017

Rumours have reached this ivory tower that my friend Jonathan Meades is cross with me and that he has denounced me in some sort of Spectator podcast. It is bad enough living in semi-enforced pseudo-retirement without being hauled over the coals for something I cannot cure. I have been told that he is angry because I suggested he could obtain sheep's testicles from Harry the butcher in Kentish Town (or indeed porky ones from Paul the butcher in York Way). This was in response to an e-mail from Jonathan some time ago, on the basis of which he cited both butchers as a source for these delicacies in his new cookery book, The Plagiarist in the Kitchen. Now, Jonathan is as aware as I am that male animals have but two, and for that reason alone such things are rare. Should he wish to buy some in the future he needs to ring up in advance (Harry 020 7485 0346 or Paul 020 7607 3208) preferably on a Thursday before the butchers go to market to stock up on suitable treats for the weekend.

Actually Meades' manual is very much my kind of cookery book. I rarely if ever follow recipes slavishly and look to books for inspiration. Meades's approach is unsurprisingly Meadesian and I look forward to plagiarising the plagiarist. Another cookery book I have obtained recently is Ugly Food by Richard Horsey and Tim Wharton, which focuses on octopus (I am sure they are not ugly to other octopuses), offal, rabbits and squirrels (which are actually rather cute) and vegetables deemed ugly such as salsify and Jerusalem artichokes (the effects of the latter are distinctly anti-social if not plain ugly). Just to prove the point I made above: there are no recipes for testicles, presumably because they are a joy to have and behold. I did actually make an arroz do polvo (octopus) from the recipe in the book and was more than pleased with the results.

An arroz is a Portuguese rice dish that has more in common with a paella than a risotto, combining meat (duck) or fish with rice (long grain) and stock. As it turns out, one of the few tastings I attended this month was of the wines of the Alentejo, which has been my favourite Portuguese region for some time. In recent years the number of producers using amphorae (talhas) to age the wine has increased considerably. The result is a wine that expresses the taste the grape varieties used rather than flavourings like oak. Most wines, however, are run into casks. The tasting took place at the Taberna do Mercado restaurant in Spittalfields and the highlights were the Monte do Pintor 2015 (branco - no importer), Herdade São Miguel's Art. Terra Amphora 2016 (Raymond Reynolds), Herdade da Maroteira's Dez Tostões 2015 (no importer), Herdade do Sobriso Cellar Selection 2014 (Nick Oakley - this is a lovely wine), Ribafreixo Gáudio Classico 2013 (Laithwaites), Cortes do Cima 2013 (Oddbins), Cartuxa 2013 (Atlantico UK - how well I remember drinking a bottle of an earlier vintage of this in an otherwise dull Lisbon restaurant with my then two-year old daughter stretched out across two chairs fast asleep), Herdade da Mingorra Reserva 2013 (no importer) and Herdade Paço do Conde 2014 (no importer).

I had some good, hoppy bottled beers from Magic Spells, the best of which, I thought, was the IPA. Then there were the parties: the TLS at Gray's Inn and History Today in the battle-scarred church of Saint Ethelburga in Bishopsgate. I was not invited to the Spectator's. The big treat came at the end of the month when a friend asked me to stay with him in his house in Antibes. As I climbed into an air-conditioned bus at Nice Airport I recalled the many times I had patrolled this rich-man's playground before, and how on many occasions I had reviewed fabulous restaurants way beyond my own means: at old Roger Vergé's Moulin in Mougins (for years I used to receive a huge Christmas card from him), or Alain Ducasse's hideaway in Moustiers; then there was Les Roches in Le Lavandou; and a Chinese-owned Relais et Châteaux place in Saint Maxime the name of which I have now forgotten. There was the time the Ritz sent me to Monaco to review a sister-establishment and gave me a wad of banknotes to pay for the helicopter from airport; or the weekend in Eze, where you could hardly venture out during the day for the number of grokels that filled the streets. I stayed by the pool and read Nietzsche, who wrote parts of Also sprach Zarathustra in Eze and walked the perilous path down to the water, a ramble still called 'le chemin de Nietzsche'.

Sometimes the pretext was wine. There was the week I spent tasting Bandol based at the Hostellerie Bérard in La Cadière d'Azur (come to think of it I used to receive a card from them too) further down the coast towards Marseille culminating in an al fresco birthday lunch with the delightful Henri de Saint Victoire at Château de Pibarnon;  or on another occasion when I stayed in Les Arcs and knocked up a piece on the Grands Crus de Provence. I once spent a holiday in a 'maison noble' nearby where you swam in the ice-cold water of a great cast-iron tank that collected from the mountains and fed the household pipes. If you looked down there was a shoal of trout living at the bottom. I made a journey to the Iles de Lérins with my ex-friend Caliban whose bathers split open the moment he strode into the water in full view of a tourist boat lying some fifty metres out - more balls. When we had recovered I bought holy honey from the ancient monastery on the island. Another time I spent a fraught few days in Saint Tropez with a girl in a house next to Brigitte Bardot who had been forced to open her stretch of beach to hoi polloi when Mitterand declared the coast the property of the people.

I used to spend most holidays from the mid-seventies to the early eighties in a little village called Claviers in the back country, and occasionally, when it wasn't too hot, we'd be driven to Saint Tropez, or slummy Fréjus for a swim in the ocean. On one occasion we went to Antibes, where I discovered a Roman carving of three interlocking penises which formed the prototype for the crest of the Piers Gaveston Society; I merely swapped couchant for rampant. We later enjoyed a picnic on the beach in Nice. Much later I came to Bormes les Mimosa with my children and we took the bus to bathe at Le Lavandou - a fraught experience with a boy of three or four, as we had to walk huge distances to find food, water and wine every day, living as we were in a dormitory villa a couple of miles from the village.

This last time was far, far smoother. On the first night I discovered the hardly spoiled village of Biot, and dined at Les Arcades, a simple Provencal restaurant on stuffed courgette flowers and ox cheek daube. Later we discovered the fifteenth century church and witnessed a wedding in the town hall that looked like an episode from an old film with the bride tossing the bouquet out from a first floor window. Saint Paul de Vence was sleek and manicured by comparison, and full of twee little galleries; but in a cafe I was reminded how good a proper salade niçoise could be in the heat. We ate at the Royal Beach in Antibes and explored the coast in a speed boat, pootling along among the flotillas of floating gin palaces belonging to oligarchs and Chinese millionaires, to park between the islands of Sainte Marguérite and Saint Honoré. From the shore twinkled the occasional old villa or palace hotel, like the Belles Rives in Juan-les-Pins, outnumbered ten-to-one by the gimcrack contemporary residences and the seraglios of Saudi princes. It was a long, long way from Kentish Town.


Posted: 5th June 2017

I haven't been in London much this month. For reasons best left unexplained, I elected to tour the island of Great Britain, making a serpentine journey from Oxford to Inverness. My overriding impression was of sheep: big shaggy ewes, gambolling baa-lambs born at Christmas or Easter, and every now and then, the rare, hornèd ram lying exhausted in the midst of his womenfolk. I was not in Kent, East Anglia, Sussex, Devon or Cornwall but that notwithstanding everywhere I saw sheep, from the Cotswolds to the Welsh Mountains, from the Yorkshire Moors to the Pennines, from the Lake District to the Scottish Lowlands and from Fife to the Cairngorms: sheep, sheep, sheep. In all fairness, Great Britain should be renamed 'Sheep Island,' as it is not so very different from the Falklands with their famous '365' - that is the number of times in a year the islanders are apparently reduced to eating lamb or mutton. We are luckier, I suppose, at least we have chicken breasts for those days when sheep meat is simply de trop.

I ought to add that, statistically speaking, there were 31,350,000 sheep and lambs on the island at the time David Cameron was re-elected Prime Minister in 2015 - half a sheep for every man, woman and child. If you include two-legged ovines (and that is not including bovines) they would win any poll by a landslide.

Before I left on my Odyssey, however, there were a couple of things to detain me in London. Castelnau champagne relaunched on 9 May at the excellent Sakagura restaurant off Regent's Street. Castelnau is a cooperative in Rheims which takes grapes from 900 hectares of Champagne and 149 'crus' or more distinguished sites - so they have a lot of good value champagne to sell. What really marks it out is the extended times in which the champagnes remain on their lees: six years for the Brut Réserve and as much as a dozen for the blanc de blancs or the vintage. There was also a summer tasting at Laithwaites' HQ under the arches at Borough Market with a little flight of English sparklers, some of which were quite good, but at the price (£29.99) there was no question that the Cazals Carte d'Or champagne was better value. Otherwise the wines that took my fancy were the 2014 Domdechant Werner Hochheim Classic (£14.99) and a sensational 2015 Yellow Muscat from Royal Tokay (£12.49). There was a nice white Macon - 2015 Château de la Greffière. Among the reds was an old friend - Heinrich Hartl's 2015 Classic from Austria's Thermenregion (£14.99), and a strapping Tuscan, 2015 Saracosa Governo (£14.99). The 2015 Portinho Covo was one of my favourite wines of the tasting, and one of the cheapest too (£8.29). Another cheapie was the 2015 Prince de Courthézon (£8.99). Rather pricier was the 2014 Cuvée du Vatican Châteauneuf du Pape (£19.99), which was rich and truffly, and the 2014 Mas de la Devèze from the Roussillon had that enticing Grenache aroma of brown sugar. For £40 there was a 2009 Château Berliquet from Saint Emilion, perhaps for a special occasion? It was damned good.

So that business being despatched, off we went to explore the mighty mainland, pausing at Oxford to see how the Cornmarket and the Westgate Centre have been conquered by the 'major brands' we apparently all crave. Nursing a coffee at Marks & Spencer's on Queen Street I tried to identify the old premises of the Gridiron Club, where public schoolboys used to bray for lunch all those years ago. The need for lemons and tonic water drove us into two supermarkets in Magdalen Street. It was decidedly not the Oxford I knew.

Despite the abundant sheep, it proved a whole month of chicken breasts. Anything other than chicken breasts, it seems, is beyond the imagination of British hotel kitchens. The gastronomic awareness that apparently colours the small screen, is largely absent from the bigger hotels. I suspect almost everything arrives pre-prepared in catering packs, and the chefs only have to overcook the vegetables and curdle the sauce.  The other thing you are struck by is the paltriness of it all: a couple of square inches of chicken breast with a serving spoonful of sauce, a coffee-cup's capacity of vegetables, and a similar portion of potatoes. Unless they are kind enough to toss in some pudding, that, my friend is that. I can, however, offer a tip: if you are still hungry after dinner there are usually two biscuits hidden among the sachets of instant coffee in your bedroom.

Bath is probably more propitious than Oxford. Since posh undergraduates were evicted in the eighties, the smart restaurants went elsewhere, leaving only the chains. At least there is still money in Bath, but you wouldn't know it in the centre, where only chains are in evidence. I had dinner in a pub near Cirencester. There was a decent enough shepherds' pie and a nice lemon roulade. With a couple of pints of IPA I felt almost human. When the publican's mother was asked the secret of her pie, she proudly replied: 'Bisto!' And there you have it: eat your heart of Jamie! Our great culinary revival isn't even skin-deep.

Not being a motorist I was innocent of motorway services. This was perhaps my biggest discovery of all. There is one not so far from the Oxford park-and-ride, and jam-packed with 'high-street brands.' Possibly the only thing that would make it different to America was the presence of Harry Ramsden's fish and chip shop. As I learned from Telford ('Salope!') and elsewhere, Oxford's version was positively luxurious. None possessed any features that identified them with the locality.

In Llangollen I was introduced to an oggi, a Welsh version of a Cornish pasty. It looked too vast to negotiate at lunch and I opted for a small pork pie: the meat was loosely minced, not solid or couched in gelatine like a normal pie.  Our destination was Carnavon again and we ate that night in the Black Boy, where I had a nice bit of brisket, only marred by a silly barbecue sauce and an atrocious bung-it-all-in-and-toss-on-salad-dressing salad. Still, it was a lot better than Fu's, a Chinese place down by the Marina. It looked quite swish for Carnavon, but the food seemed to have altered not a jot since I last ate in a provincial Chinese restaurant forty odd years ago.

And so on to Chester and York. We were offered a chance to try some cheeses on the way: Double Gloucester, Cheshire and Lancashire, but sadly from clammy Cryovac packets. You become aware too, that decent British cheeses come in at a hefty £20-£30 a kilo, and that the supermarket alternatives are really not worth buying. A shall forebear from commenting on 'British' wine served with it. At some point I was told that Decanter had given a Regional Trophy to an East Anglian wine made from the Bacchus grape: nice to hear that my old employers are doing their bit for Brexit.

There was another chicken breast at my hotel in York, a place where I had the sinister experience of entertaining a young American who burst into my room in the middle of the night and told me emphatically that I was sleeping in his bed. York was all chains: one night I had a decent Indian at Akhbar, another in an Anatolian of many branches. In both cases I concentrated on the genius loci - lamb. I might have been better off looking at pubs for my dinner, but I didn't want all that bustle, beer and discomfort.

When you eat hotel, chain or street food over a long period of time, you rapidly get a pasty mouth from monosodium glutamate. You try to offset matters by eating whatever appears to be healthy from the breakfast buffet. Some (not all) three or four-star hotels provide fruit, like apples and oranges, others have compotes, prunes etc, and most can offer live yoghurt. Many travellers 'pig out' on huge platefuls of cooked breakfast with the (for me at least) unlovely option of baked beans. The cooked tomatoes, on the other hand, I found quite useful in the general dearth of fruit and veg. As a rule, lunch was just a chain sandwich, I mostly skipped it altogether, fortifying myself by adding a slice of black pudding, bacon or (north of the border) haggis to my breakfast plate.

From York we made an excursion to Whitby, much, as I would imagine, holiday-makers from Darlington did a century before. We went to Trenchers where there were plates of bread and butter on the table and pots of tea; and ate fish and chips cooked in beef dripping which repeated on me for the rest of the day. It was an authentic gastronomic experience, however, and I was grateful for that. I even had a nibble at some mushy peas which Peter Mandelson is famously supposed to have mistaken for guacamole.

The next day we passed the Pennines to Grange-over-Sands. I looked in on the butcher Higginson, whose rather more solid pork pies I had enjoyed in the past. He was a specialist in local salt-marsh lamb, where the pastures are impregnated with brine by the retreating tides. Farmers on the flatlands build dams to protect their houses from the encroaching sea. The idea of feeding sheep on salt was culled from the French Cotentin, where this sort of meat has always fetched very fancy prices. We went to see a farmer, who entertained us with his sheep dogs and a donkey, and told us that he imported the semen for his Holsteins from the United States. He didn't admit it, but he doubtless voted for Brexit and now appeared to regret it because he wasn't going to receive the very generous subsidies the EU paid him in the past.

After a pit-stop in twee Bowness-on-Windermere we ducked into Westmoreland and ended up in an unlikely motorway hotel for another chicken breast. The next day we crossed the border to Moffat and had a sort of school lunch, but it was beef (beef!) and the parsnips had been rolled in cornmeal and curry powder which made them a bit different at least. I bought a bit of Kendal Mint Cake and we set out for Edinburgh.

Leaving York I had spotted Lo Spuntino, which looked like a more promising place on the city outskirts. I had some foolish thought that I might find a pleasant family-run trattoria in Edinburgh, but even my attempts to stray from the garden path yielded little. On my first night I despaired and wandered into a Nepalese place on the other side of the university quadrangle. Most of the menu was anything but Nepalese, but there were some good chicken dumplings and another dish I didn't know, so I settled down with a book and a glass of some of the ropiest wine I'd drunk in decades. The second one was marginally better: I suppose they must have opened a new bottle. They gave me a ticket telling me I had twenty percent off my next meal, but when I went back a few days later they were unaccountably shut and I had to make do with another - and very similar - Nepalese in Cockburn Street.

I hit on the idea that the hotly desired trattoria might be in Leith Walk, but apart from a couple of Sc-Italian places opposite Valvona and Crolla there was nothing to write home about. I recalled a Swiss place in Leith itself, and a snazzy bistrot run by Allan Corbett, the brother of the late and great Ronnie, but they were too far. I popped into Valvona and Crolla for a panatela and a decent glass of wine from Brindisi - the first palatable thing I had had since I hit the road. Although the Continis have gone on to bigger, more commercial things, their old shop remains a beacon of light in the Athens of the North. That evening I witnessed a stupendous vulgarama at Prestonfield House, a sort of Scottish bonanza with yard upon yard of tartan, three Scottish tenors, haggis (plus Ode) and a soprano with that annoying broken voice that people affect for musicals. My Edinburgh sojourn ended with a bit of rubbery pork in my hotel the next day. 

We set out for Saint Andrews on a sunny morning. The place was teeming with American golfers. I found a butcher, but not the one whose whole sides of beef I had so admired a couple of decades before - although someone told me it was still there. Little Willie and his trysts seemed to have injected fresh life into the city. On my first visit I think there was only a curry place, the hotels and the Peat Inn: a posh restaurant near Cupar with Michelin stars a few miles down the road. Now Saint Andrews was heaving with smart shops and bistrots. We proceeded up the coast to Dundee then joined the A9, Scotland's never ending narrow trunk road. In Pitlochry I was cheated by a shop purportedly selling local honey, which, I learned when I read the back label, was a blend of honeys from Auckland to Timbuktu. Astonishing numbers of tourists appeared to have descended on the place. I never did see any decent honey the whole time I was in Scotland.

My journey came to a premature end in Inverness. We had a half-way decent dinner at the Mustard Seed restaurant in an old chapel on the quay. Early the next morning I received instructions to return home: I had not been showing sufficient enthusiasm. I had an excruciating day to kill in the city before my flight and ambled about, taking in a couple of expensive butchers and two paltry fishmongers with very modest bits of fish to sell. One fishmonger offered fruit and vegetables - and indication that there was something cranky about eating fish. I suppose I might have found more in a supermarket but I very much doubt any of it would have been local, although my fondness for Scottish raspberries had been sapped by the sight of so many polystyrene tunnels on the hillsides. I had a salty sandwich from an Italian shop and a pint of English ale (the Scottish stuff was off) while I finished the Hardy I was reading, then I made my way to the airport and home.

It was a great relief to be back. I could appease my longing for home cooking and start working to cure the digestive problems I had developed during my profound investigations into the eating habits of my two-legged compatriots.

A Cruel Month

Posted: 2nd May 2017

I was in Austria at the beginning of the month. Somehow I managed to miss the Prince of Wales in Schwechat. He arrived at much the same time as me. I spent my birthday in Burgenland, at a wine conference talking about awarding points to wine. It was nice to be back. I saw familiar, generally friendly faces that have filled out a bit in the intervening years, in some cases their hair has thinned, or was dusted with wintry grey. Such faces hold a mirror up to your own - if they look much older you can take it for granted you do too!

It is not the prettiest part of the country. The area between the Neusiedlersee and the Hungarian Frontier is flat and uneventful and the weather was wet and cold. At lunch an excitable Christine Saahs told me of her audience with Prince Charles in Vienna the night before, and how he and Camilla had ordered more wine from the excellent Nikolaihof for Highgrove. After my various turns on the stage I went to a big bottle party and met 'der Metzger' for the first time, the famous local butcher-cum-winemaker was trailing around with huge bottles of his wine, and I fell to drinking with a Viennese architect, a schoolmaster-cum-winemaker from the Weinviertel and a Mongolian surgeon who was hoping to stage a comparative tasting of fermented mares' milk. I wisely took myself off to bed at ten.

And then Vienna the next day, when I had a little time to see old haunts and talk to old friends. I am only sorry to say it was all so quick; still it was nice to get home for a birthday dinner on the eighth when we assembled at Boisdale's new branch in Mayfair. I waited at a table on the pavement for my family to turn up, nursing a flute of champagne in the sunlight.

The following week I had a chance to visit my good friend Salvatore Calabrese's new premises near Liverpool Street station. I was expecting a basement, but I should have known Salvatore better. The Holy Birds, with its Mule Bar is a restaurant with bars on two levels and the whole thing has been designed in a retro style to look like 1960s chic. There is sixties clobber everywhere and wallpaper and carpets made to designs furnished by his children and based on sixties originals. Salvatore took us through a few of his favourite cocktails including that dry martini I first experienced some time in the eighties when he was head barman at Duke's in St James's. He told the story about how he hit on the idea of adding the vermouth with a vinegar dropper. We had a Negroni made from a bottle of Sarti gin produced in the forties, Campari from the sixties and a red vermouth dating from the seventies or eighties. We were later allowed to taste the individual ingredients: the gin seemed have no botanical character but the vermouth had aged well and had a pronounced nutty flavour. The Campari appeared to have altered but little. I resolved to buy the ingredients for Negronis for home. I'll teach my son to make them. It will be my Friday night treat.

The following weekend was Easter. As my family was in Devon during Holy Week I did not have to make Hot Cross buns this year, but they returned on Saturday in time for the Paschal feast. New season's lamb was terribly rare in London, but I procured a shoulder from one of the two beasts allocated to our local butcher. Two special wines were served with it. I had long been wondering when to open a bottle of 1989 Clos de la Chainette. As the bottle proclaims, this is the former Clos de l'Abbaye de Saint Germain in Auxerre, one of the most ancient vineyards in France - possibly dating back to the 7th Century and a favourite of Thomas Jefferson's. By some bizarre twist of fate the estate fell into the hands of the local asylum after the revolution, and the small print at the bottom of the label tells you that the owner is still the departmental 'hôpital psychiatrique.' I think I was hanging on, hoping to find a suitably crazy guest to help me consume a bottle clearly given to me by the winemaker on one of my many visits to Auxerre.

Old white wine like this is obviously risky, but in fact it was in fine condition, even if the colour was pale amber. It was redolent of honey and apricots. It was quite a surprise, a great treat and not in the slightest bit mad! I don't suppose there are many more bottles where that one came from - it might have been the very last. With our lamb we had a 1994 Beaune Avaux from Bruno Colin. I had no idea this was going to be so good: fairly throbbing with power still, and biting cherry fruit.

This month I received some interesting wines from Domaine Gayda near Carcassonne. There was a Syrah in a screw-capped bottle that was sadly out of condition and another red that made only a small impression. What really struck me were the whites, in particular a wonderfully bracing 2015 Chenin Blanc wearing the Figure Libre label. Chenin is an unusual grape variety in these parts, but the Gayda team came together in South Africa, where Chenin is the most popular green grape. Another 2015 Figure Libre white called 'Freestyle' is made from southern grapes - Grenache Blanc, Maccabeu, Marsanne and Roussanne. I thought this was tremendous as well.

From Tesco I had a box of summer reds: a 2014 La Cometas Carmenère Reserva from Chile's Central Valley had nice, creamy upfront fruit but was quick to fade. I preferred the 2015 Most Wanted Malbec from Argentina's San Juan district that put someone in mind of cranberries, but I found it more redolent of incense and in the end recognised a Christmas pudding character. I expected a bit of thunder from the 2009 Valtier Utiel Requena Reserva from Spain, but it proved rather more elegant and mild-mannered, altogether claret-like - which was, of course, also true of the 2010 Château Destau Bordeaux Supérieur which turned out to be a first-class everyday Bordeaux with plenty of raspberry/strawberry Merlot fruit and an excellent structure. The 2013 Higgovale Heights Western Cape Shiraz from South Africa lacked varietal typicity. In comparison The Regions Cabernet Sauvignon from Coonawarra in Australia from the same vintage had much more to offer with its tangy fruit.

Finally, towards the end of the month when the weather turned bitter cold once again, I went to give a lecture in Kempten in the Allgäu in Bavarian Swabia. After a long day's travel from London and Munich I arrived famished and plodded in under the rain keeping an eye open for somewhere to eat. I took advice from the receptionist at the Fürstenhof, my seventeenth century hotel and I went to Schalander for dinner, which had the advantage of being less than 100 metres away. I had been fantasising about white asparagus, and here it was on the menu. A waitress breezing self-confidence took my order in a gently mocking way and I added a small steak to the dish which was offered as a 'supplement'.  Having dealt with me, she moved over to a table populated by Chinese men and prodded them in an English of prodigious fluency.

When my asparagus arrived it was atypically paltry for Germany: just a few spears, hollandaise sauce and some potatoes in a little bowl. I was pleased I had ordered the tiny steak (which cost almost as much as the asparagus). I resolved that should I come to Kempten again I'd try to locate a place that was more typically Bavarian! The next day I had a lovely Fürstab Hefeweizen beer at Zum Stift on the Stiftsplatz in the shadow of the great basilica, and seeing the enormous plates go past my nose on their way into the dining room I think I found the answer.  

I couldn't go to the Allgäu without going to a dairy to see the famous Bergkäse and I was very kindly driven up to the Sennerei Diepolz. The idea was that I should get a good view of the Alps as well, but the cloud was so low that I could see very little; still the 24-month cheese made up for it. Needless to say the cows go up the mountains here in the summer months and return to the plains for the winter. I don't know where they were on that late-April day, but it was no time to be up a mountain. I bought a big slab to take home, and about the same weight of serious Swabian bread from the Hofpfisterei in town. When I reached the airport at Memmingen the next morning, the runway was thick with snow and while they de-iced the aircraft the local papers informed me that the cruel return of winter had blighted the fruit crop.

Bordeaux Odessa

Posted: 3rd April 2017

A month without travel, and a month without glory; but there were a few consolations. I had some nice Belgian ales from Petrus that boasted their degrees of sourness on the label. Petrus is made by De Brabandere brewery in Bavikhove, somewhere between Ghent and Dunkirk, and aged in huge oak tuns. I liked the Aged Pale best, which was the most uncompromisingly and refreshingly sour, but both the Oud Bruin (Old Brown) and the cherry-flavoured Red were delicious. The two-year old Pale also acts as the mother to the others. In Oud Bruin, the Pale is mixed with a younger brown ale while the Red has the attraction of cherries - like a Kriek, but not fermented spontaneously, like a Kriek, if you know what I mean. All these beers are available from

While we are on the subject of barley brews, I also had a nice new malt: Bacalta from Glenmorangie. I have a little reservation about modern malts, which seem to be all about bling-bling and not really the taste of the product as it comes off the still, but rather more the way you tart it up. Of course, to some extent this was always so - the whisky tasted different from a sherry butt, a new-from-Kentucky ex-bourbon 'hoggie', or a second use cask; but each distillery had its own style, and that style was represented by one or two or three 'expressions' that defined the malt whisky, and was generally identifiable by an 'age statement' (10, 15, 20-years old etc). Now there are bedevilling numbers of different malts with fantasy names from even quite indifferent distilleries, some of which, until very few years ago, you would have crossed the glen to avoid.

I would never have said that about Glenmorangie, mind you, which I always liked, even if it always struck me as unusual as a hard-water whisky. Bacalta is pale, and bottled at a respectable 46 percent. I presume second-use Bourbon casks were used to give it that vanilla flavour, although they seem to have been softened up with some Madeira which might have imparted a small, lemony taste. On the palate Bacalta reminded me of a nice creamy panna cotta, with walnuts.

On 23 March I headed west to a dinner at the Design Museum in Kensington. This was on the site of the old Commonwealth Institute which I used to haunt as a free-range child. There were little niches then, featuring the typical products of places like Southern Rhodesia and Bechuanaland - shields and drums and assegais - and a curious odour of stale buns and stewed tea. With time I graduated to the Science Museum in South Ken, and then with the onset of puberty, to the cast galleries in the Victoria & Albert. I expected the old building - a handkerchief dropped onto a box - to have been knocked down, but no - it was still there and far more fragrant inside than it was when I was a nipper.

The evening celebrated the work of Olivier Dauga, 'le faiseur du vin' ('The Winemaker') who is active in Bordeaux and the Ukraine and has made the wines at Châteaux Sociando Mallet, La Tour Carnet and many others. Dauga was formerly of the 'garage' school of winemakers who grew up around Jean-Luc Thunevin in the 1990s. Thunevin took the wine-world by storm with his obscure Château Valandraud which came out at the same price as the first growths. Thunevin's success inspired many others who then selected and polished their grapes as he did, and aged the wine in not one but two new oak casks.

Dauga is currently working with the interior decorator Jean Guyon of the 100-hectare Domaines Rollan de By which owns the huge Château Greysac estate and several others near the northern tip of the Médoc Peninsula, a wild place an hour from the big city where vines alternate with fields filled with cows as the traveller nears the Atlantic Coast. Dauga also advises the Kolonist Winery in Krynychne in Danubian Bessarabia in the Ukraine, owned by Ivan Plachkov. Both the Rollan de By and the Kolonist wines were featured that night.

It was the Ukrainian wines I tasted first: a Bisser sparkler made from 100 percent Chardonnay with a yeasty nose and a plump body; a 2012 Cabernet Merlot with a pleasant, mellow character; the 2015 was still a bit raw but promising, with decent length and fine, cooling tannins. Then we tasted the Merlot-dominated Rollan de By range, starting with the 2011 Greysac - a château with a huge following in the United States. It was a fine racy Bordeaux, but not perhaps the most concentrated. The Rollan de By 2014 was more attractive, but this was upstaged by the 2012 from the same estate, which was a little classic. The last in the series was a 2014 Château Tour Séran made by my former colleague, the Swede Andreas Larson, a one-time World's Greatest Sommelier. It was very heady on the nose with almost tropical fruit and very soft on the palate, but the finish was a trifle abrupt.

Possibly the more interesting wines were served with dinner: 2015 Sukholymanske (a crossing of Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay) and the 2011 Kolonist Cabernet Merlot with a 'Mediterranean platter'; then guinea fowl was matched with three vintages of Château Haut-Condissas and one of Greysac: 1999, 2010, 2014 and 2012. The first was predictably mellow and waxy, the 2010 impressive but the 2014 appeared to steal the show, however, with its rich fruit. The 2012 Greysac trounced both: it was understated and elegant and everything a claret ought to be.

The crème brûlée was served and we went native again, with the Kolonist Riesling and an Odessa Black 2015. Plachkov used to travel to Germany a lot on business before he started his winery in 2005, and his first love was Mosel Riesling. It was a nice wine, but decidedly not a Mosel Riesling. I liked the 'Odessa Black' more, a grape that crossed Cabernet with Alicante Bouschet. This was a strapping wine, and I couldn't help feeling that the Ukraine should be looking more for this sort of thing than the delicate balance that is traditional Bordeaux. I am now looking forward to learning more about the Ukrainian identity; more travel, and more glory.

Life After Boris

Posted: 1st March 2017

The better side of February began late in January with the launch of Colman Andrews' tantalising new cookbook at Quo Vadis in Soho. It was a joy not only to see Colman again after a lapse of many years, but other familiar faces. Similarly, a Boisdale Life Editor's Lunch in Belgravia brought together a large majority of the people who have contributed to Ranald Macdonald's new and successful magazine.

Otherwise February was chiefly remarkable for the fact that, for the first time in ages, I was ten days on the road. First came a working week in Welsh Wales. I am embarrassed to say that all I had hitherto known of this part of the country was what I had gleaned from the windows of the ferry train to Hollyhead. Leaving aside dubious charms of Milton Keynes and Crewe, the journey becomes spectacular after you reach Chester: not only are there impressive beaches that seem to lie right under the lee of the train, but after the Telford-designed suspension bridge from Llandudno you pass below the magnificent ruins of Conway Castle. Look out to the left and the peaks of Snowdonia rear up, while rapid streams come gushing down the hills like an image from a late Victorian watercolour.

My destination was another of Edward I's strongholds: Caernavon - a short journey from the nearest railway station at Bangor.  Out of season Caernavon did not give the impression of being the most gastronomically inspired town in the British Isles. A well-informed local taxi-driver later told me I might have found Betws-y-Coed more inviting, but the town has a remarkable number of pubs and fish and chip shops and on Saint Valentine's Day I had a good Indian meal at the Curry Scene in Bangor Street (the only lovers present seemed to be a man in his eighties and a woman who was perhaps ten years his junior) and on our last night we had a copious meal at a proper old pub - the Black Boy - within the walls of the old English citadel. 

Strolling around Caernavon I found a number of promising shops, however. Palace Street is clearly the centre of Caernavon chic with its artisan ice cream-maker  and chocolate shop and a baker selling bara brith fruit bread (like an Irish barm brack) and Victoria sponges. Opposite an effigy of the 'Goat' Lloyd-George was a shop selling wax-bound Welsh cheeses. Elsewhere in the little town I found three butchers purveying good black beef and local lamb. The one in the Bangor Street had faggots and excellent pork pies. It was more or less next to a more workaday baker. In all of these shops I was greeted cheerfully in Welsh and virtually everybody I met communicated in that language. Welsh seems to have taken over in the last generation. How different to Ireland where despite huge efforts on the part of the government for the best part of a century, real Irish-speaking is still confined to a few distant corners of the west, and has made no significant progress towards a meaningful revival.

I had the briefest of pit-stops in London before heading down to the Domaine des Anges in Provence on the train. Where North-West Wales showed some more advanced plant life than London, the almond trees were white with blossoms in the south and in the time I was there we languished in the brightest of sunlights and the balmiest of temperatures, with the midday sun at around 17 degrees. So much midnight oil was burned on Saturday night that no one was fully awake before noon on Sunday and there was a small-scale crisis finding anything for dinner. However, one of our number managed to squeeze through the door of the butcher in Carpentras before the last rolled shoulder was put away and round the corner we found a charming Arab shop which provided us with hot roast chickens, courgettes, floury potatoes, onions, garlic and tomatoes. The more we bought the more presents we received: a bunch of parsley, a chicken salad with olives and potatoes flavoured with cumin and finally a small loaf of bread. All this might have been happily consumed outside on the communal table but it had been freshly oiled so we ate inside instead.

It was half-term in the region, and many shops were closed as their owners had gone to the mountains and snow, there was nonetheless a good showing in the market in Bédouin. Some of the traders have become old friends over the years, from the spice girl who provided us with all we needed to curry the left-over hens to the various men and women selling tomme and comté cheeses. There was the lady with lavender soaps incised with an image of Mount Ventoux, the two or three honey stalls and a woman selling gnarled and pitted potatoes from her garden who thrust a pungent truffle up my nose when I wasn't looking.

In Mazan the Irish-educated publican Jerôme let us taste the wine he has been making in Argentina. We stopped to mop up the sun and the plates of pâté, ham, chips and cheese he set before us. There was a magnum of 2009 Grand Corbin d'Espagne with the curry that night. Despite its unfortunate name ('Jeremy's more impressive Spanish cousin'), it proved an unctuous St Emilion and a great treat.  

Some hunters had killed a boar on the estate and we had been left a haunch in payment. This new 'Boris' was steeped in wine for forty-eight hours. It must have been only half grown and was as soft as butter by the time we cooked it on Tuesday night. I made a sauce by thickening the marinade with flour and smoked bacon. We had some potatoes roasted in goose fat and sautéed baby turnips. A magnum of Hautes Côtes de Bourgogne saw Boris off but the winemaker Florent had also produced barrel samples of the 2016s and after the white and rosé (en apéritif) we blended the reds up and produced some impressive wines. Florent is clearly very proud of his work - and with good reason. 

After Boris, the rest of the month has been mildly anticlimactic. February passed away with Shrove Tuesday pancakes - heavily steeped in sugar and limoncello.

Bacchus' Wine

Posted: 2nd February 2017

One of the economist Bernard Maris's favourite sayings was 'nul chagrin ne résiste à un morgon de chez Marcel Lapierre' ('there is no anxiety that cannot be banished by the bottle of Marcel Lapierre's Morgon'). Maris claimed to be quoting the revolutionary, Guy Debord, but he made the line very much his own. It seemed to sum up the better side of French, even Western life, but as cruel destiny would have it, Maris was gunned down in the offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo on 7 January 2015. His killers, the Kouachi Brothers, stood in fierce opposition to everything the highly educated, liberal, secular, republican, hedonistic Frenchman represented.

It seems no accident that Maris was such an 'amateur' of Beaujolais. Beaujolais could make a fair claim to being the wine of French satire. From the 1930s, that other, more ponderous anti-establishment weekly, Le Canard enchainé served Juliénas at its editorial conferences. Beaujolais even sums up a certain side of French life: claret might be more classical, burgundy more hedonistic, the Rhone headier, champagne more frivolous; but Beaujolais stakes a strong claim to being the accompaniment to the 'douceur de la vie' that has always been the best of France.

Beaujolais is an unashamedly a French wine, until half a century ago it was unknown outside France itself. It was the favourite tipple of the city of Lyon, a little bit to the south of the granite massif with its steep rolling hills where the grapes are grown. It is without question one of the most attractive regions in the centre of France and the hills and granite subsoil are important clues to the quality of its wines.

The top wines come from those granite slopes, while the bulk of the fresh, fruity Beaujolais beloved of gastronomes the world over comes from designated villages that fall either side. From the flatter land comes the simple 'Beaujolais'. A Beaujolais Villages wine, made by a master such as Chermette can be a revelation and Beaujolais connoisseurs are able to find wines there that can rival or even trounce the more expensive cru wines in blind tastings.

Back in Lyon, a 46-centilitre 'pot' of simple Beaujolais was considered a starter ration in the 'bouchons,' as the little family-owned restaurants of Lyon are called. There it accompanied the charcuterie, pike quenelles, offal, boiling sausages, bowls of fromage blanc and cheeses that made the city famous as the 'gastronomic capital of France'. Beaujolais also plays its part in creating that food: with most of the land turned over to the vine, pigs are reared in the remaining spaces, and their flesh is used above all to make sausages and other items of charcuterie, as well as some excellent goats' and ewes' milk cheeses, all of which are perfect foils for the wines.

That proximity to Lyon has ensured fame for the wine and food of Beaujolais - the Lyonnais make no bones about the sort of wine they like to drink. When I lunched with Paul Bocuse a decade and a half ago, I was brought half a dozen dishes that had ensured his fame as France's most famous chef, but when the sommelier arrived to take his order, he disdained more sonorous wines on his fat list to accompany them and filled my glass from a bottle of cru Beaujolais instead. 

He might well have chosen a highfaluting Burgundy, which is not very far from Lyon either, or one of the better wines from the northern Rhone. Beaujolais is the southernmost incarnation of Burgundy, and yet stylistically it is not Burgundy any more than it is in the Rhone. Before metalled roads were laid out, Beaujolais was in a perfect position to furnish wines for the tables in the bouchons: wines were easily despatched to Lyon by boats laded on the River Saone. It was not until the twentieth century that Paris discovered Beaujolais. Getting the wine to the capital was a laborious process until the railway age.  

Beaujolais is made from the happy-go-lucky, high-yielding Gamay grape, which was despised so much in both Champagne and Burgundy that local rulers issued orders to have it grubbed up. When no one was looking, both regions made use of Gamay and even Beaujolais wine well into the twentieth century, particularly on the Côte d'Or where it could provide colour and alcoholic support in thin years. Beaujolais received its AOC in 1937 and became increasingly recognised as an excellent wine in its own right. This was just three years after the Lyonnais Gabriel Chevalier set his most famous novel, Clochemerle, in the Beaujolais. Chevalier presented a satire of corrupt political life in the 'sale époque' with left-wing republicans fighting for control of the wine-sodden village against the Church and nobility, but much of the charm of the novel is the bucolic immorality of the village folk: Bacchus lurks behind every haystack.

In 1951, Beaujolais-producers received the green light to market their fresh young wine, made by fermenting whole bunches of grapes, as 'Beaujolais-nouveau' - a festive foretaste of the new vintage. Lyon was the natural first stop, but very soon little barrels of 'nouveau' were making their way to Paris. In the sixties, Beaujolais-nouveau conquered London and the world. At its height races were organised to bring the first bottle to the capital after its November release-date. Everyone, it seemed, loved the heady young wine and more and more Beaujolais was vinified as nouveau, to the neglect of the region's real treasure: the nine crus of Juliénas, Saint-Amour, Chénas, Moulin-à-Vent, Fleurie, Chiroubles, Morgon, Côte de Brouilly and Brouilly (a tenth cru, Régnié, was recognised in 1988). These 'crus' are the more serious side of the region's wines. Each has its own distinct character, ranging from the lyrical wines of Chiroubles and Fleurie to the almost ponderous Moulin-à-vent. Moulin-à-vent is the one Beaujolais wine that is meant to be well-cellared before drinking, and can improve for up to a decade. As such it provides a 'hyphen' to the wines of Burgundy to the north. Good Moulin-à-vent is said to 'pinoter' - ie, with time it will taste of Pinot Noir.

In recent years, however, some of the other crus have challenged the supremacy of Moulin-à-vent and produced wines that are masterpieces in their own right. The first wines to break the mould were those of the Côte de Brouilly, but in recent years the impetus has come from Morgon - the Côte de Py and Jean Foillard in particular. 

The Beaujolais-nouveau bubble began to deflate in the nineties, however, when more and more people tired of the fruity wine with its short shelf-life and shorter finish. When Beaujolais-nouveau crashed, it threatened to take the rest of the appellation down with it.

It was still an excellent money-spinner for the wine trade, however, when I made my I made my first proper trip to the Beaujolais region in the second week of November 1983. I travelled with Steven Spurrier to taste the new wines in Pierre Ferraud's cellars and observed while Steven made up his blend for the Caves de la Madeleine in Paris. Ferraud took me to the market and bought me an enormous cardoon which took me the best part of a week to eat. That year I wrote his first ever article on Beaujolais with my friend Tim Johnston. Whenever we went on subsequent occasions we used to eat (and I think stay) at the Cep in Fleurie which then boasted two Michelin rosettes. For a generation it was the first port of call for any gastronome visiting the Beaujolais. Alas, the Cep is no more, but there are plenty of good places left, mind you - and some of France's top restaurants lie within striking distance, such as the wonderful Georges Blanc at Vonnas.

By the time the bubble burst, however, a new school of producers was growing up, men who were turning their backs on the bottlers who sold the bulk of the nouveau wine and were discovering the excellence of new sub-regions such as the Côte de Py in Morgon, where the late Marcel Lapierre made the wine that had proved such balm to Bernard Maris.

Hard Cheese

Posted: 3rd January 2017

So that's it for 2016. The family was united again, but it was never going to be a really happy Christmas. It was the end of a very bad year and as yet, 2017 offers little solace. Even from the wine point of view, nothing has been replenished in what passes euphemistically for a cellar; we are just living on our fat. Still, we still put a brave face on things, don the party hats that tumble from a bargain box of crackers and celebrate as best we may.

The Perrier Jouët on Christmas Eve was deemed too blowsy and the usual Devon lobsters were absent from the feast, but we did well for all that: we scorned Canadian interlopers and the excellent Persian fishmonger in Archway found us a beautiful turbot instead. We started with some deep-fried cuttlefish, then I made a little beurre blanc for the turbot (perhaps overdoing the vinegar?), some braised turnips and a potato purée and with that we drank a bottle of Grand Cru Chablis - a 2006 Château des Grenouilles from the excellent Chablisienne cooperative. I found it annoyingly oaky at first, but it opened out quite a lot, and it might have been even better had I decanted it.

The usual more-than-welcome friend brought the cheese: a lovely Vacherin Mont d'Or, a big piece of Montgomery cheddar, a bit of Colston Bassett Stilton and some tomme. I had decanted a bottle of 1997 Nuits St Georges Aux Saint Julien from Daniel Bocquenet, this was wonderfully opulent. The friend brought a couple of bottles too and we opened the 2006 Château Batailley (the 1998 was terribly good last Christmas), but sadly it was irredeemably corked.

And then there were two bûches my wife had made - one with coffee, the other a chestnut cream. With that we had a rather lacklustre 2002 Château Suduiraut which seemed distinctly short on noble rot. To finish there was the 1987 Burmester Colheita port, which was lovely in its way - very mild-mannered and understated, lacking that more muscle-bound character you would find in old 'British' tawny ports which are 'refreshed' with younger wines to give them 'grip'. I had another glass of it when I got in from Midnight Mass at 1.30 a.m.

There were just the four of us on Christmas Day (one of whom doesn't really drink - yet). After a walk on a damp and muggy Heath I made a fire and opened a bottle of 1992 Drappier champagne. This was possibly the best wine we had this Christmas, wonderfully long and filigree: a champagne to savour. Later we had a snack of some lambs' sweetbreads in breadcrumbs, to replace the more usual homemade foie gras terrine. There was a rib of well-hung heifer meat and I decanted some 2003 Château Pichon-Longueville Baron. It was a tremendously well-turned wine from a very difficult year, classical in its way but something you loved more with your head than your heart. The beef came with the usual red cabbage and roast potatoes; and we ate more of the cheese and some wonderful meringue snowmen stuck together with crème aux marrons. The only fault I could find with them was that they looked horribly like Boris Johnson. We retired upstairs to watch Scrooge taking with us the decanter of port and the remains of the Sauternes.

The family then departed for Devon leaving me to a frigid house and leftovers. They were back for New Year's Eve when I made the usual Italian festive meal of a zampone with lentils, potato purée and tomato passata. I normally spend the last hours of the year alone with a bottle of old Barolo but a very welcome magnum of 2015 Beleda arrived from the Cantine Rallo in Marsala and we drank that, its nervous acidity coping manfully with the sausage and lentils, and so we proceeded to midnight, and 2017.

Shortly before Christmas I received a copy of the Oxford Companion to Cheese, edited by Catherine Donnelly. I had been very anxious to see this. Many years ago a woman in New England whose publisher husband had once offered me a wine book, inveigled me into writing entries on Germany, Austria and Hungary for a similar project. There were months of frustration drumming up samples from bemused Magyars and trying to find something fair to say about the rather imitative and lacklustre cheeses of Austria. The compensation - if there was any - came in the form of aged German and Austrian Bergkäse. Meanwhile there was no sign of any money and I began to suspect the editor had never actually signed a deal with OUP and that she was hoping she could secure the contract by packaging the work that I (and possibly other suckers) had written for her. After a quick search I noted to my alarm that the woman had been blacklisted by the New York Writers' Guild for failing to pay writers and I eventually contacted the publishers in Oxford in the hope they might reassure me. OUP denied all knowledge of her and the book, but cautiously referred me to New York which ran its own operation. I can't remember if New York ever gave me an acceptable answer, but by that time my patience had snapped and I threw in the towel. I never heard another word from the so-called 'editor' of the Oxford Companion to Cheese. I need not add that her name was not Catherine Donnelly.

The project was a good one and I turned the pages with interest. I noted that some familiar writers had been assigned to individual areas - Darina Allen, Andrew Dalby, Juliet Harbutt, Ursula Heinzelmann, Paul Kindstedt (the author of an excellent small volume on the history of cheese), Patricia Michelson, Jill Norman, Francis Perceval and Bee Wilson - but I have to say I was very quickly disappointed: the editor has opted for a technical manual rather than a conventional anthology of cheese, and placed the centre of gravity very firmly in the United States. I am sure there are growing numbers of good cheeses there, but we don't really see any of them here. Nor do they have the run of the European stable, as the US is subject to very draconian measures preventing the importation of good, unpasteurised European cheeses or indeed old Mimolette - because they have decided it is somehow 'dirty'. The listing of so many American cheeses comes at the expense of European cheeses, very few of which seem to have been accorded more than a mention in a collective entry. I shall naturally look for place for it on my shelves, but I suspect that it will not be consulted nearly as often as Rance or Androuet or any number of other well-thumbed books on the subject.

Bulli For Me!

Posted: 1st December 2016

The big treat this month was a dinner at the excellent Iberica restaurant in Canary Wharf. Iberica has been spreading its wings of late, opening in Glasgow and Leeds, but, as ever, letting the chefs in each location put their own spin on things. What remains a constant is the use of excellent materials and of course before anything else that means iberico ham - the greatest in the world!

The other sine qua non is Nacho Manzano who controls the menus in the various branches of Iberica as well as running his own Michelin Two-Star, Casa Marcial in the Asturias. In November, however, he welcomed three former right-hand men from Ferran Adria's famous - and now even more famously defunct - El Bulli to London and Manchester: Oriol Castro, Eduard Xatruch and Mateu Casañas, the owners of the restaurant Compartir in Salvador Dali's Cadaqués and Disfrutar in Barcelona. Together with Manzano they prepared an eight-course menu moistened with wines, beer and cider from the Asturias.

I never made it to El Bulli, but I know it was all about bites of food, novel taste experiences and intense flavours. There was a lot of 'foam' and bubbles of olive oil 'caviar', and all sorts of test-tube wizardry that might or might not have worked as an alternative to a slap up feast. Adria's most famous disciple here is obviously Heston 'Bloomers' Blumenthal. 

So I was prepared for little things: a beetroot and strawberry salad with an ajoblanco - white garlic - sorbet (Compartir); clams, parsley juice and seaweed emulsion from Casa Marcial; Iberico red tuna (Compartir); tongue and lentils with mole sauce, a caramel-coated onion, pickle gel and marshland herbs (Casa Marcial); Crispy egg yolk on mushroom jelly (Disfrutar); sardine with monkfish liver and saltmarsh herbs (Casa Marcial); cheesecake with raspberry sorbet (Compartir); and finally celery panna cotta with fennel slush (ugly word), apple soup and seaweed (Casa Marcial). 

There were plenty of - mostly fishy - flavours. The clams, the sardines and the monkfish liver made big demands on the sommelier's skill, not everyone at my table was happy with the food: some wouldn't eat shellfish, others didn't like offal etc. Fortunately, I have no qualms about this sort of thing. The thinly-sliced raw red tuna was a highlight, scattered with a few 'bubbles' of olive oil ('Caviaroli'), and this will now join the menus at all branches of Iberica.  The runny egg yolk - in the middle of a crispy deep-fried white and served in an eggshell on top of a mushroom reduction, reminded me of the very many recreated eggs with truffles and sea urchins and Lord knows what I scoffed as a gastronomic critic in the old days. I enjoyed a rather Proustian moment as I lapsed into culinary nostalgia.

The sommelier had known to vary the drinks - there was Alhambra beer, for example, and a sort of 'ice-cider' (Diamantes de Hielo) to go with pudding. In between there was the sharp, untannic red called La Fanfarria (Mencia and Albarin tinto) and a properly chunky Emporda 5 Fincas which blended Grenache with Syrah, Merlot and Cabernet. It was also a pleasure to run into a few old friends, such as Maria-José Sevilla from the Spanish promotional body who drove me up to Jabugo to worship at the Temple of Ham, and the lovely manager of Iberica Portland Place, who once carved ham for my infant son, pushing the pieces at him with a huge and terrifying knife, an experience he has never forgotten.

A tasting of Douro Boys wine in London's Poland Street stirred up memories of The Man from Uncle. We went in through a large shop selling records and then, right at the back, was a utilitarian staircase leading down to a roomy subterranean space filled with wine, old friends and a close relative. Almost my first stop was the Prats & Symington stand. I was sceptical about the venture at the beginning, as I didn't feel Bordeaux was the right model for the Douro, but the wines seem to have really blossomed and they are anything but claret-like now. Both the 2015 and 2014 were superb, and the 2014 Post-Scriptum possibly the best of the lot. Also in that English stable is Churchill's where I much admired Johnny Graham's 2013 Grand Reserve and an absolutely stunning 2014 port.

Other wines that stood out were the 2015 white Reserva from Duas Quintas and an incredibly good value (€4) 2014 Tons from Duorum (I know it's the Latin name for the Douro, but it always sounds like a medical condition to me). I must look to see if Manu has that at the Wine Cellar in Kentish Town. I also liked the well-structured 2014 Quinta Nova Reserva, which should keep an even keel for several years yet. One small cooperative which seems to consistently make super wines is the Lavradores de Feitoria. Particularly good are the Três Bagos, Meruge and Quinta de Costa das Aguaneiras.

The Quinta do Val do Meão is an old favourite. It has to be one of the half dozen best estates in the Douro Valley by anyone's reckoning. I should be happy with any of the wines from the simple Meandro to the Monte Meão or the Quinta do Val do Meão itself. Another front runner is the Quinta Vale D. Maria owned by Cristiano van Zeller. Here 41 different grape varieties and vines with an average age of 60, contribute to the complexity of the wine. The best for me was the Vinha do Rio, where the Tinta Barocca grapes are a century old. Even here there are 29 cultivars. This diversity is a big step forward from the efforts made a generation ago to whittle down the number of grape varieties in Portuguese vineyards. The estate's top wine is Curriculum Vitae. The 2014 was certainly one of the best wines in the tasting. Van Zeller was previously responsible for the Quinta do Crasto too where I loved the 2014 Superior Syrah and the Reserva wines.

On the 8th there was a tasting on non-aligned Germans looking for representation in Britain. There were only a few surprises: Heitlinger from Baden (a VDP estate); Rauen (the Auslese in particular), Dahm (2005 Bernkasteler Badstube Riesling Auslese) in the Mosel; lovely dry and sweet Gewürztraminers from Oberhofer in the Pfalz; the well-known August Eser (a sensationally powerful 2015 Rauenthaler Rothenberg), Corvers Kauter, Bickelmaier and Schumann-Nägler in the Rheingau; Alexander Gysler, Frey and Jean Buscher in Rheinhessen; but above all my friends Nick and Annette Köwerich in Leiwen, whose wines have made such a huge leap forward in the last few years.

And for the rest I have been keeping the cold at bay with a sweet, treacly grain whisky - Haig Club. It comes in a vulgar blue bottle, is endorsed by a football player, but hell! It keeps out the draft in this windy old house.

The Last of Decanter

Posted: 2nd November 2016

I am not unduly upset by the idea of doors shutting on me as long as others open in their place, but it does seem to me that this year an inordinate number have closed, and we have already entered November and I have yet to see a single handle turn. The latest blow has been the loss of my chairmanship of the German Jury at the Decanter World Wine Awards, a position that I had held (coupled with Austria for a decade) for fourteen years. This has now been awarded to the Swiss-German sommelier Markus del Monego. I wish him luck, particularly in the irksome business of convincing any half-way decent German growers to contribute wines to a tasting marathon awash with new world wines.

The news from Decanter was hardly unexpected. Gradually all the old guard are being swapped for sleb sommeliers and MWs. I had the impression that they had been looking for my replacement for years, but couldn't find anyone brave enough to do the job, but there is a little sadness on my part when I consider I have been contributing to Decanter for nearly thirty years, and this recent gesture will almost certainly mean the end of that relationship too.

I continue to taste wine, for all that. There has been one German wine of note this month, and one Austrian. From Nick and Annette Köwerich in Leiwen in the Mosel Valley came a wonderfully sappy, intense 2015 dry Riesling called Einblick No 1 - a sure winner. The Austrian wine came from the Eisenberg on the border of South Burgenland and Hungary. The Csaterberg's soil is shale and the cultivars are not revealed on the label so I presumed it is a field blend of several unrecognised sorts, an impression reinforced by the fact the wine came in a litre bottle, which is generally an indication that non-approved grape varieties have been used. As it transpires, the wine is made from a respectable cocktail of Welschriesling, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. Whatever the wine's secret, it is wonderfully zesty and powerful and I would say it was easily the match of many foods which would usually call for strong red wine. The litre bottle is a boon really: it means you get two extra glasses.

There was a big tasting of the range at Laithwaites on the 25th, which was a nice chance to reacquaint myself with some things I don't taste often these days, such as Gosset Grande Réserve (£49.99), the Brut Réserve from Charles Heidsieck (£42), or the 1995 Charles Heidsieck Blanc des Millénaires (£120). I think it was the zesty Gosset that stole my heart, but in truth I'd be happy with any of them. If (like me) these come in a bit over budget, there were some good-value things from the Loire, such as the 2015 Pouilly Fumé Les Rochettes (£14.95), the 2015 Vouvray Réserve Champalou (£13.99) and the 2014 Montlouis Domaine de la Taille aux Loups Plus (£22). From Chablis the 2014 Domaine Servin Grand Cru Bougros (£30) was a real classic as indeed was the 2014 Drouhin Puligny-Montrachet (£40).

The 2015 Domaine de la Chanaise from Dominique Piron in Morgon was a really lovely 'cru' Beaujolais with a proper taste of sour cherries (£13.99) while the Cuvée Reine Joly from Domaine Camus Bruchon in Savigny (£22) brought on a little wave of nostalgia for authentic Burgundy. The 2000 Château Belgrave (£45) is a mature cru classé with attractive, chunky fruit that might fit a festive meal at the end of the year.

From Italy, the 2015 Pieropan Soave Classico (£13.99) was every bit as good as I remembered it. A red 2011 Castello Solicchiata (£22) from Sicily was nicely spicy, but I felt cost too much for a Sicilian wine. I am more disposed to pay £35 for a top Amarone like the 2013 Villa Cavarena.

The bargains appeared to come from Spain: 2014 Triunfo Cariñena (£8.49) or 2014 Infierno Monastrell from Yecla (£8.99). For £28 there is a proper, old-style Rioja in the 2003 Viña Tondonia Reserva - a very rare bird these days when Rioja has largely ceased to taste like Rioja.

In Portugal, it is always worth looking at any Alvarinho signed by Anselmo Mendes (£11.99 for the 2015) while the 2014 Amoras from Lisbon (£7.99) might have been the best bargain of the tasting. The 2014 Caladessa da Calada Tinto was twice the price, but a lovely wine.

In Germany, you can't go far wrong with the 2015 estate Riesling from Leitz in the Rheingau - 'Eins Zwei Dry' (groans at silly pun - £14.99), but for a good buy, try Max Ferd Richter's 2015 Mülheimer Sonnenlay Riesling Zeppelin from the Mosel (£12.49). There were a couple of von Bühl 2015 GGs from the Pfalz, In der Höhl and the Ungeheuer, but I am still worried that they seem so soft. From Hungary the 2009 Royal Tokay Blue Label 5 Puttonyos (£21) was a treat with its triumphant acidity.

I then sank into a spirits tasting with the appropriate buyer. I am an admirer of new gins such as The Botanist from Islay (£34.99) with its fresh, complex flavours, and I got the chance to sample the Warner Edwards Rhubarb gin at last (£32.95).

On the 18th there was a tasting of the 2015s from the Perrins in the Southern Rhone. There was a time when I visited their flagship estate often: the Château de Beaucastel in Châteauneuf-du-Pape; but although I coast past the region frequently I do not find the chance to drop in. The year 2015 promised to be superb, however, so I ventured down to Berry Brothers & Rudd to see. The Coudoulet white was no disappointment, nor indeed the white Châteauneuf. The white Beaucastel I found a little flabby, but the old vines Roussanne was as wonderful as ever. 

The red village wines were very promising, and some of them I would happily have drunk there and then, like the Cairanne or the Vacqueyras 'Les Christins'. Others like the Vinsobres, the Gigondas 'La Gille' and the simple Châteauneuf are more aggressively tannic and need time. The Rasteau 'L'Andéol' was rather more charming and feminine than some, with a fine, cooling finish and really good was the Domaine du Clos des Tourelles in Gigondas with that hint of brown sugar that marks it down as proper Gigondas: the muscular, male counterpart to Châteauneuf. The red Coudoulet was as enchanting as the white. Then came Beaucastel itself. I could find no fault with the 2015 and the 2009 was not ready yet. I was excited also by the 2007, which might have been at its peak, for even though I loved the truffly 2000 I thought it might have lost something already, and the 1995 appeared to be on downward slide.

Light relief comes in the form of Henry Jeffreys' Empire of Booze: a peon to British achievements in the world of wine and spirits where Johnny Foreigner - despite making the stuff - hasn't got a bloody clue. It is the perfect book for Brexit-Britain. There is a strong element of 1066 And All That but behind the self-mockery and light-hearted banter, there is plenty of information. It might have benefitted from a little more editing mind you and Jeffreys' wild, rambling asides that can take you, well, just about anywhere. Those blemishes notwithstanding, it is not a doorstop and it might even make a stocking-filler.

The Last of Summer

Posted: 3rd October 2016

We left a chilly England at eight on the first day of autumn, and two and a quarter hours later, we emerged from a dark tunnel into a brilliantly sunny, hot Paris. The train was on time, but the long and fateful summer had delayed its departure for a few days.

We stopped at a friend's flat on the way for a glass or two of Chermette Fleurie then joined the Irish party in the usual bar opposite the Gare de Lyon. The rest of the journey passed in a pleasant haze, until we tried to pick up the rental car at Avignon Station: why is renting a car so complicated? Why do you need to do any more than show a driver's licence and pick up a set of keys? The process is positively Byzantine.

We arrived at the Domaine des Anges in Mormoiron to surprise Padrone dissecting chickens and mixing salads. The last glimmers of the day were disappearing behind Mont Ventoux as the lights went on like strings of pearls scattered on the Ventoux Valley floor. I found 'Boris' the boar a frozen lump. It was only once he had thawed out that I realised we had the ribcage, and plunged it into a cocktail of Ventoux wine, cider vinegar and crushed black peppercorns.

The next day it was hard not to drift into a lazy, holiday mood - there was not a cloud to seen. The green grapes were fermenting in their vats but everywhere there were perfect purple clusters of Grenache and Syrah. After shopping in Carpentras, some sardines were grilled and the rest of the chicken was mixed with mayonnaise and sprinkled with thyme from the garden. There were salads and cheese out on the terrace by the Cabernet vines. The wasps seemed particularly keen on the chicken, but they were the only unwelcome presence. It was our curry night, but while saucepans clashed and clattered in the kitchen we had a tasting of the Domaine des Anges' top cuvée Archange, a wine that is made chiefly of Syrah (with ten percent Grenache) and which sees a small amount of new oak. There is a white version as well, which is 100% Roussanne. Archange is made only in the best years. The 2015 had not been bottled, so we began with the 2014, which is potentially a great year and I am sure it will not disappoint. The 2013, on the other hand was a very difficult vintage everywhere, and the wine showed signs that the fruit had not been fully ripe. It was a classy performance for all that, but probably destined for earlier drinking. I am mad about the ordinary Ventoux wine in 2012, so it came as no surprise that its thoroughbred stable mate should be so good with its cigar box aromas and classic Syrah fruit. It was possibly my favourite wine of the flight.

The 2011 seemed to be built for the long haul, but it was marred by a whiff of nail varnish (acetate) on the nose. You could wait for the 2010 as well, but it is quite porty. Then, there was a long jump to the 2003, which was what we expected: a bit hot on the nose, tarry on the palate, sweet and porty, and a bit tired out all round. It was a very hot year, and a great challenge to wine makers all over Europe. The 2000 was sadly corked; the 1999 showing its age now, but still good to drink. The 1998, on the other hand, was less so - a shadow of itself.

We generally have a tasting at the house of a friend in the village who possesses a deep cellar and provides both the wine and a sensational al fresco lunch. This time, however, our two doctors - Mahen Varma and to a slightly lesser extent Finnian Lynch - had agreed to put on a tasting of top Bordeauxs from the 2003 vintage in the friend's house, and he had invited Jerôme the pharmacist to come along too. Jerôme is not only an important local dignitary, he collects top Meursault. We had seen what that ferocious summer had done to the wines from Domaine des Anges the night before. Now we were going to experience what had happened in Bordeaux: repeated days above 40 degrees are not good for vines, which tend to shut down operations under stress. Grapes get overripe and produce too much sugar while the pips stay green, the result is excessive alcohol, low acidity and a lot of dry tannin. Good vintages are not necessarily the result of blazing hot years, but a balance of warm days, cool nights and the occasional light sprinkling of water.

We had a dozen wines. The first one, the Clos St Martin in Saint Emilion, was new to me. It had a nice prune-like nose, but a rasping aspirin-like taste on the palate - an indication of added acidity - and hardly a surprise, but it marred what was otherwise a nice little wine. The popular Château Caronne-St Gemme was decent enough, if a little meaty. The first really famous wine was the Pauillac Château Grand Puy Ducasse with a good Cabernet nose and some ripe, plumy fruit, but on the palate there were some leathery notes that were a sure fire indication of heat. I was keener on its neighbour Château Batailley with its black cherry nose. It was very gummed up at first behind its big chewy tannins but something more distinguished was trickling out by the time the tasting finished and we went down to lunch.

The Paulliac classed growth Château Pontet Canet was one of my favourites. It scored for freshness (in an overcooked year) and an attractive, balanced palate that showed little sign of heat wave; more, the finish was cooling, almost minty - a sign of how well it had been constructed - against all odds. I suspect I was unfair to the Château Duhart Milon. It seemed to be wearing a gold chain, and sporting too much 'bling'; a handsome tanned man with a hairy chest and a shirt slit to the waist; but there was no denying it was well made, with its nose reeking of expensive oak; a slickly creamy palate (oak again), but in its defence it had a very long finish and was both cool and cooling. Our Irish contingent jumped up at the next two wines: St Juliens from the Irish-owned estate of Château Langoa-Barton. I have a lot of time for Anthony Barton and his wines as well, but these were not my favourites: the Château Langoa-Barton I found dry and leathery and although there was much I admired in the Château Léoville-Barton, I was put off by a slight bitterness on the finish.

Many voices cried out for the Château Ducru-Beaucaillou, but I could not get a decent perch on the nose even if I noted the wine was very long. I suspect we needed to come back to it that evening, by which time it would certainly have been drunk up. I found the Château Lascombes much more accessible. It was one of the best wines in the tasting for me. I remember the days when it was an undistinguished outpost of the Bass-Charrington brewing empire and run by a fruity English MW. The wines were pretty so-so then but this was both spicy and cooling and had a brilliant development on the palate. I could not say that much for that other classed growth Margaux, Palmer, which came up next. This is a seriously grand and shatteringly expensive wine, and yet the nose was so oxidised I suspected it had fallen apart. The wine was better on the palate, though quite sweet, and not as bad on the nose had suggested, but it was hopelessly rustic for a Palmer! The last wine of all was La Mission Haut Brion from the Graves, and the only first growth. Again it was hard to assess: there wasn't a vast amount of fruit, but it was probably the one wine on the table that could have been comfortably left for a few years more. The message from the others was 'drink me', and fast!

Before we proceeded to some fine Châteauneuf, there was 2004 Château Sénéjac with lunch. It reminded me of far off days when the wine was made by Jenny Bailey and she lived in the courtyard at the back of the château. We used to drop in and see her when we were in the Médoc and she was always more than hospitable. She married Charles Dobson, I recall, but I have no idea what has happened since.

After double helpings of Isabelle's delicious gazpacho and her alouettes (not larks - but beef olives) there was little appetite for food that night and I made a Bauernomelette. Boris was cooked for lunch the next day, stewed in his corrected marinade and served with mashed potatoes and leaks à la mode de Mayo. He proved wonderfully tender and a lot more palatable than his namesake. While I was putting the boar on the table the heavens broke and there was a tremendous thunderstorm that went on for most of the evening.  We sat inside the Café Le Siècle in Mazan, listening to a jazz concert, but the good weather appeared to be returning when we left some time after dawn the next day. It was cold and raining, however, by the time we reached Paris: for we hyperboreans the summer was over. It had all reminded me a bit too much of Rilke's Herbsttag

Herr: es ist Zeit. Der Sommer war sehr groß.
Leg deinen Schatten auf die Sonnenuhren,
und auf den Fluren laß die Winde los.

Befiehl den letzten Früchten voll zu sein;
gib ihnen noch zwei südlichere Tage,
dränge sie zur Vollendung hin und jage
die letzte Süße in den schweren Wein.

Wer jetzt kein Haus hat, baut sich keines mehr.
Wer jetzt allein ist, wird es lange bleiben,
wird wachen, lesen, lange Briefe schreiben
und wird in den Alleen hin und her
unruhig wandern, wenn die Blätter treiben.

(Autumn Day

Lord it's high time to end summer's glories.
On the sundial's surface let your shadow fall
And through the meadows let loose the furies.

Command the last fruits to be ripe, luscious and fine;
Give them two more days to roast in the southern sun
Push them to finish that process, long since begun:
Drive the last sweet juice in the heavy wine.

He who's alone, so will he end his days.
Will remain alone in all that matters
Will wake, read and write long-winded letters
And up and down the alleyways
Will wander unquiet while the foliage scatters.)

The 2015 Vintage in Germany

Posted: 1st September 2016

A few days ago, it was time to go to Wiesbaden again, to sit in my seat on the Colonnade opposite the stage that hosted the Kaiser's annual Theatre Festival and taste my way through 450 wines from the 2015 vintage. This is also an annual occasion that mixes hard work with the pleasure of seeing some international colleagues again who now only rarely cross my horizon, and the wines are often a revelation too, especially in a year like the last when the sun shone brightly all over Germany.

And before Wiesbaden there was an excursion to Gut Hermannsberg, the former Prussian State Domain at Niederhausen Schlossböckelheim in the Nahe. The vineyard is only just over a century old and once a copper mine - hence the name of the most famous plot - the Kupfergrube. The mine had proved economically unviable, and so the Prussians decided to make a model wine estate there instead; exploiting the ubiquitous volcanic soils. The forests covering the hillsides were cleared by felons and grapes planted. It was a massive undertaking, but when the first wines were released from the 1907 vintage it was clear that the work had been worthwhile. Being a Prussian state domaine, Weimar President Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg was an especial fan. The later Prussian Minister President Hermann Göring liked it too and the wine seems to have sustained him throughout the war years.  

Prussia was abolished in 1947, and the estate passed into the hands of the newly concocted region of Rhineland Pfalz. They sold it to Erich Maurer in 1998, and he in turn made way for the present owners Christine Dinse and Jens Reidel in 2010. They quickly divested it of its long and cumbersome name. Until a few years back labels would announce something like: Staatliche Weinbaudomäne Niederhausen Schloßböckelheim Schloßböckelheimer Kupfergrube Riesling Trockenbeerenauslese... While it is true that our world has lost a deal of its poetry by shortening German wine names, I can write my tasting notes much more quickly now.

When I was there last month I was able to see some of the improvements the present owners have made, including creating a new vathouse, a comfortable guesthouse and providing catering for visitors. It was 36 degrees when I arrived, but there was some shade on the terrace which provided views of the vineyards the Prussians hewed out of the rock. These terraces rise to 350 metres above the canyon of the Nahe River. Not all the land they own now is in that original hub. The estate owns a piece of the vineyard at the base of the Bastei, the tallest cliff face north of the Alps and another impressively steep slope on the Rothenberg where we watched a deer inspect the as yet unripe grapes.

There was an extensive tasting before dinner during which we tasted the top-flight dry GGs (Grosse Gewächse or 'grand crus') made since the new owners took over. In most years this meant the wines from three sites where the vines are 70 years old or more: Bastei, Hermannsberg and Kupfergrube. In almost all vintages my favourite was the Kupfergrube, followed by the Bastei and the Hermannsberg. My top wines were the Kupfergrubes 2010 and 2013, the Hermannsberg 2010, followed by the Kupfergrube 2011 and 2014, and the Basteis 2010, 2011 and 2012. The 2015s from these sites were deemed unready and we were shown GGs from Rothenberg and Steinberg instead.

Work began in earnest on Monday morning. Our task was to get through the 'GGs' in two working days. There were eighty flights of wines. The whites were mostly from the eagerly awaited 2015 vintage, and the reds chiefly from 2014, which promised rather less. I started at the top with the Riesling wines in the Mosel Valley.

It proved a wise choice: the terroiriste Heymann-Löwenstein had had possibly his most rewarding year to date. The best might have been the Winninger Uhlen 'Laubach,' with its great explosion of ripe fruit, and the Winninger Uhlen 'Blaufüsser Lay' but the Hatzenporter Kirchberg was very promising as well. The wines of Clemens Busch, which are normally in the front rank, seemed more closed up. One estate that showed no such reticence was Schloss Lieser, where the Wehlener Sonnenuhr was one of the best wines I had all day. Geheimrat Wegeler also produced a superlative wine on the same slope.

S A Prüm presented a good collection, of which the best was the Graacher Domprobst 'Prevot'. There was a beautiful example of the celebrated Bernkasteler Doctor from Wegeler.  Fritz Haag's Brauneberger Juffer and Juffer Sonnenberg were superb, much like Reinhold Haart's Piesporter Grafenberg. A Neiderberger Held from Schloss Lieser was unsurprisingly excellent, and was followed by a trio of wonderful wines from Grans Fassian: Dhroner Fassberg, Trittenheimer Apotheke and Leiwener Laurentiuslay.

In the Saar sub-region the stars for me were van Volxem, Geltz Zilliken and Nik Weis. Van Volxem's best was the Wiltinger Volz; Geltz Zilliken, the Saarburger Rausch and Nik Weis starred with his Ockfener Bockstein and Schoder Saarfeilser. In the Ruwer the Karthäuserhof returned triumphantly to the fold with its Karthäuserhofberg as did Maximin Grünhaus, which got top marks from me for both the Abtsberg and the Herrenberg.

Not for the first time, in Saale Unstrutt, Pawis's Freyburger Edelacker stood out, but the real surprise was the generally underperforming Mittelrhein where all the wines were greatly better than usual and Ratzenberger with his Steeger St Jost and Bacharacher Wolfshöhle received top marks.

It was also a tip-top year in the Rheingau. The best in Hochheim was Domdechant Werner's Domdechaney, while Toni Jost, whose wine had greatly improved in Bacharach, was the best in Walluf. Robert Weil remains, of course, king in Kiedrich with his Grafenberg. In Erbach, the Staatsweingut had to share the honours with Achim Ritter und Edler von Oetinger for the Marcobrunn, while the laurels for the Wisselbrunnen in Hattenheim were divided between Hans Lang and Josef Spreitzer, who made a marvellous Mittelheimer St Nikolaus as well.

Fritz Allendorf proved yet again that he can make wonderful wines with his Winkeler Hasensprung and Jesuitengarten. In the latter, Geheimrat Wegeler was also a star. Up on the Johannisberg the best wines were from Schloss Johannisberg together with the Hölle from the Johannishof. Wegeler made a wonderful Geisenheimer Rothenberg. The prize for the Berg Roseneck site in Rüdesheim went to Fritz Allendorf. In Berg Rottland the honours were due to Leitz and G H von Mumm. Wegeler made the best Berg Schlossberg.

In recent years the Nahe has often been Germany's top region, but in 2015 some of the best winemakers failed to deliver, but the field was not barren by any means. In Dorsheim I admired the Goldloch from J B Schäfer and I think probably all three GGs presented by Kruger-Rumpf will get there in the end. Dönnhoff rarely disappoints, and both his Dellchen and Hermannshöhle were above reproach. My friends at Gut Hermannsberg had fielded their Steinberg - a gorgeous wine. For the rest, the only wine that stole the show for me was the Monzinger Halenberg from Emrich-Schönleber.

Rheinhessen was also a much more mixed bag but there were some pretty good things from the Rhine Terraces such as the Niersteiner wines from the Pettenthal and the Ölberg sites from Kühling-Gillot. The newcomer Schätzel also made a lovely Ölberg and his Hipping was almost as good. Elsewhere Wagner-Stempel continues to make great wines on the Siefersheimer Höllberg and in the Wonnegau, Philipp Wittmann was first home with his Westhofener sites: Aulerde, Morstein and Brunnenhäuschen. The other top-notch grower in Rheinhessen is Battenfeld-Spanier who produced great things in his Zellerberg am schwarzen Herrgott, Frauenberg and Kirchenstück sites.

I adore the wines of the Pfalz, in particular the Mittehaardt and so 2015 was a bit of a disappointment to me in that I found many of them too soft and lacking acid backbone. It may have been just that bit too hot. Of course it is possible that the wines were going through a difficult stage, and I shall have to drink my words. So starting from the north I was struck by the Ungsteiner Weilberg from Pfeffingen Fuhrmann-Eymael and the Herrenberg from Fitz-Ritter. Also from the home town of Donald Drumpf, Philipp Kuhn made a lovely Kallstadter Saumagen. The disappointments occurred where the greatest wines should have been - in Deidesheim and Forst. Once again probably my favourite was from Acham-Magin: his Jesuitengarten. The only other wines that really stood out for me came from Rebholz in the deep south - Im Sonnenschein in particular.

Fürst Hohenlohe Oehringen, Dautel, the Herzog von Württemberg and Jürgen Ellwanger all made good Rieslings in Baden-Württemberg but they did not challenge the frontrunners from elsewhere; and similarly, although there were some nice wines from Fürst Löwenstein and Rudolf Fürst in Franken they were not the best they've ever made. Sadly Hans Wirsching's wines were not present and the Juliusspital in Würzburg actually submitted 2014s, which were pretty good. I suppose we might see the 2015s next year?

The best Silvaners were obviously from much the same sources: Fürst Löwenstein and Horst Sauer. The top Silvaner wines were 2014s from the Juliusspittal - Stein and Julius-Echter-Berg. They were far better than any of the 2015s.

I shall run quickly through the other whites. For Weisser Burgunder (Pinot Blanc), the most striking were from Rebholz (Pfalz) and the Staatlicher Hofkeller in Würzburg (Franken), although the 2014 Volkacher Karthäuser from the Juliusspittal was really quite impressive too. There were also some good Weisser Burgunders from Baden: Schlör and Heger stood out, but the best were from Salwey, the Oberrottweiler Henkenberg in particular. I found all the 2015 Grauer Burgunder (Pinot Gris), too fat and soupy.

Again the 2014 reds should not detain us for too long. The good weather ended early in the south at least, and there was a lot of rot. The best wines are pleasant, but they lack complexity. First Spätburgunder (Pinot Noir): in the Ahr there were good things from Adeneuer and Meyer-Näkel. In the Rheingau, Künstler was fine and Fritz Allendorf really stood out with his Assmannshäuser Höllenberg, which reminded me of a good chocolate cake (with raspberries). In Rheinhessen the top man was Gutzler while in the Pfalz, Knipser presented a decent 2012 and Philipp Kuhn a lovely 2013 Laumersheimer Kirschgarten.

Moving south, I was surprised by the quality of Christmann's 2013 Idig. It is a vineyard I have long associated with Riesling. There were fewer revelations in Franken: Fürst is still the best with his Bürgstädter Centgrafenberg. In Württemberg Neipperg is very good, and so are Aldinger and Heid. The better Pinot Noirs of Baden came from Franz Keller, Heger and Salwey, but the throne is still occupied by Bernhard Huber, whose son has carried on the good work since his father's premature death. The 2014 Bienenberg, Schlossberg and Sommerhalde will surely be among Germany's best reds for this vintage? That leaves only the Württemberg Lembergers (Blaufränkisch). The only one wine that stood out head and shoulders was Aldinger's Fellbacher Lämmler. The best of the rest came from Dautel, Drautz-Able and Ellwanger.

The obvious conclusion as far as 2015 Riesling is concerned is that it flourished in the cooler climates and found it more difficult to withstand the more oppressive heat of the Pfalz and to some extent the Nahe. I was not expecting to fall in love with the 2014 Pinots, but I shall look forward to next year, as I can expect some more complexity and body from the 2015s.

Eating in Venice

Posted: 16th August 2016

Looked at from the bottom up, the offerings of Venice's shops and taverns can seem very similar: the same trinkets: commedia dell'arte masks, Murano glass and beads, Burano lace; the same chunky cakes; the same snacks - pot-bellied tramezzini sandwiches and dried-up cicchetti (the local form of tapas) on roundels of baguette ... so that you might reach the uncharitable conclusion that they were all made in the same factory. When I advanced this theory to a colleague in Venice recently, and proposed they might all be supplied by the same outfit in Calabria, he slapped me down: the factory, he said, was in China.

He could have been right about the commedia dell'arte things and possibly some of the Murano and Burano artefacts are not what they seem, but the food (I presume) comes from a little nearer home. Venice has a permanent population of just 75,000 people and the bulk of the population at any given time is formed of tourists who stay a couple of days at the most. In some cases it is just a few hours. The food offered by most restaurants is essentially the same, and there is remarkably little innovation. Apart from a few restaurants often harnessed to luxury hotels, not much stands out. A generation ago, for example, La Corte sconta in Castello was considered a hot property, and so it remains. When I first went to Venice 23 years ago, there was much talk of Ai Gondolieri in Dorsoduro. Walking past it recently it still looks pretty swish. Both are in the current Michelin Guide. It takes a long time to tarnish a reputation in Venice.

We were lucky enough to have a little shopping street near our B&B, with a couple of bakers providing various forms of croissant (best with apricot jam or crème patissière) plum or apple cake and organic bread at €7 a kilo. There was a greengrocer and a fruit and veg stall with a witty proprietor (me: 'are the peaches ripe?' Him: 'no, but if you keep squeezing them like that they will be') and a couple of little supermarkets. The butcher was temporarily closed.

As always, quality starts in the market and the Rialto, across the famous bridge, is still a proper market. The late Marcella Hazan, who had a cookery school in Venice, used to wax lyrical about all the different forms of artichokes and asparagus she used to find there. Fresh courgette flowers are often stuffed with bacala (died cod), a dish I had at the restaurant Vinaria near the Accademia last month. Even in the afternoon, once the market traders have mostly gone home, the price of fruit from the few remaining stalls in the Rialto can be half what you pay elsewhere in the city. We bought some lovely ripe white peaches there (they were the purest poetry!) and ate them on the Campo San Polo on our way to the Frari. I remember the fish stalls best: the sight of the sea bass still buckled in rigor mortis. I assume the trawlers take their loads to Chioggia at the bottom of the lagoon, but it doesn't take long for small boats to bring the fish up the Grand Canal to the Rialto.

If you are not feeling flush - as was my case recently - one way to eat is at a bacaro, or traditional wine tavern. The Cantinone gia schiavi, for example, was recommended to me by Steven Spurrier. There was quite an array of cicchetti and an impatient man drumming his fingers on the counter while I made up my mind: bacala mantecato (dried cod with butter), gorgonzola with walnuts, smoked herrings all tasted pretty good with a sappy Sauvignon Blanc from Collio. Elsewhere the bacari serve little meatballs or polpettine, or deep-fried aubergine. The disadvantage of the bacari is that they tend not to be open in the evening.

You can fill up on cakes as well. The fifty years that Venice was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire is evident from the piles of strudel, Kränze and Krapfen in practically every baker's shop. The Austro-Hungarian word Kren is also still used for horseradish. The cultural exchange naturally went both ways, however and rixi e bixi - a risotto of peas and bacon - appears as 'Risibisi' in Vienna. I had my first taste of it there, in the flat of some cousins, almost half a century ago.

Venice has its own suitably sumptuous ducal cakes too, but many of these seem to be supplied from some source outside the city because they look identical from one pasticceria to the next. The busola, or compass cake, is pretty well everywhere available, as are the zaleti made from corn flour like polenta. We stopped at a theatrical cake shop in Barbarie de le Tole and had a lovely glass of Pantelleria muscat from the other extremity of Italy which made up for most of the deficiencies in the cakes.

I have made gnocchi in Venice and there is plenty of pasta such as the famous bigoli, but to be properly Venetian you must eat polenta. It comes hard or soft, yellow or white. I was told that the later was made using a special white corn but I suspect this is not true, and that milk is used as well as water to cook the flour. At the Quaranta ladroni in Cannaregio I had the classic dish of runny polenta with 'schile' or tiny shrimps. For the most part the specialities are pretty well the same: sarde in saor (sweet and sour herrings), seppia alla veneziana (squid cooked in its ink) or risotto nero (with squid and ink), seafood risotto, or fritto misto (deep-fried seafood). The best we encountered when we were looking for good value places with atmosphere was Da Alberto on the borders of Castello and Cannaregio. There we were amused at least by what appeared to be a party of very high-minded English priests.

With a teenaged son who won't eat fish, we landed with some trepidation, but he liked the fegato alla veneziana (calves' liver with onions) and almost everywhere it was possible to have a thin slice of steak with some roast potatoes and a contorno of vegetables. There were pizzas too, and the best we ate were at the Pizzeria da Paolo outside the gates of the Arsenale, but there is nothing intrinsically Venetian about pizza, and most of it was very similar (if not inferior) to what we eat at home.

'Saudouso' for the Alentejo

Posted: 11th July 2016

My very modest contribution to the literature on Portuguese wine appeared fifteen years ago. It is not a good book. Turning the pages now I feel quite pleased that it has lapsed into obscurity. Others have taken up the Portuguese mantle since and they do it better. The pictures and the maps did it no favours either. In justification, however, it had always been my ambition to write something on Portugal and although I knew the country reasonably well, there were a number of corners I had never seen. Writing the book gave me the chance to complete the picture. Of all the parts of Portugal I visited on this project, the Alentejo attracted me most.

Most of Portugal is cluttered and overcrowded. Huge swathes of the population have emigrated over the past forty or fifty years, mostly to France and Germany. Leaving, however, is not generally perceived as a complete divorce from the old country, and every summer the emigrants return en masse and add a few bricks and stridently multi-coloured tiles to a monstrous house all covered in plastic sheets somewhere beside a main road. They live in the old family shack while they tinker around with the plumbing. Then September dawns, and it is time to go home to Paris or Frankfurt. The worst concentration of these half-houses is in the damp Minho region that borders Spanish Galicia in the north. The abominations thin out a bit south of the Mondego, and by the time you cross the mighty Tagus, they disappear almost completely leaving the Alentejo with its vines and wheat fields and its hot summer sun.

Of course, to write off the whole of Portugal north of the Tagus is unjust: the Douro Valley, the mountainous Beiras that form the border with Spain and the wilder parts of Trás-os-Montes in the North-East can also be delightful, but it is only really in the Alentejo that you see big, wide-open spaces that have a truly Mediterranean feel to them as distinct from the unpredictable Atlantic climate that dominates the north and centre.

And I liked the towns and cities of the Alentejo, particularly Evora, with its Roman temple to Diana and Os Loios, the mediaeval cloister that has become one of Portugal's most famous pousadas or state-owned hotels. The restaurant with its Manueline door was good for desserts such as morgado (landlord's pudding) or barriga de freira (nun's belly), but eating was better at Fialho, where the chef had worked for Bocuse, and latterly the tiny A Taquinha d'Oliveira became an interesting alternative. I could not say whether this was still the case, but I see both places are still going strong. Estremoz has a vast market square and a lovely castle, another pousada, with procrustean beds and bad food (it might have improved since). The best place was nearby, within the castle bailey: São Rosas, where in the spring you could eat 'tubera:' little things that looked like white truffles that grew in the sandy scrubland. Again it is still there, but the vastly more experienced Charles Metcalfe tells me that for him, the best restaurant in the Alentejo is at the winery at Esporão.

I was there for the wine before all else. The best came from Cartuxa, not just the fabulously rare Pera-Manca, a wine only made in great years which even back then was trading at over £100 a bottle (more like £250 for a recent vintage), but also the straight red and white. More recently I have discovered the baby of the family, Vinea, which sells for under £8 at my local Portuguese shop in Kentish Town and which is a knockout.

Others I liked were the smoky Tapada de Coelheiros (made by the same Dr Rosario who was consultant to Pera-Manca), Quinta do Mouro made by the dentist Miguel de Orduna, the reserve wines from the Marques de Borba made by João Portugal Ramos, the Tapada de Chaves from Portalegre (another wine designed by João Ramos), the top wines made by the Australian David Baverstock at Esporão, Cortes de Cima and two old Reynolds properties - the Quinta do Carmo and the Herdade de Mouchão. The Reynoldses were and are an English family who settled in Portugal in the middle years of the nineteenth century and made it big in wine, cork and eucalypts. Behind those top estates there were some really good value wines made at the cooperatives founded by Dr Salazar during the Estado Novo time, often dirt cheap and really quite delicious and some others, often slightly on the rustic side that continued the ancient Alentejan tradition of vinification in terracotta talhas, or large, potbellied amphorae.

On 27 June there was a tutored tasting at the very swish (and delicious) looking Noble Rot wine bar in Lambs Conduit Street. Peter McCombie did the honours, taking us through eight of his own favourites and these were followed by three olive oils, with some rather good 'petiscos' (tapas).

White wines are a comparative rarity in the Alentejo, but they are not unknown (Pera-Manca has a famously rare and expensive one).  The first wine in Peter's line up was the 2014 'Argilla' - a white from the Herdade de Anta de Cima in Portalegre, which was made in an amphora. These vessels, twenty years ago virtually unknown outside the Alentejo, have now scaled the heights of fashion! Argilla turned out to be a nice full complex wine grown on clay soils (hence the name), and if the estimated price was accurate (€5), extremely good value for money. 

The next wine was actually called Tinto da Talha Grande Escolha (2010 Amphora Red Grand Reserve), but... this one was not made in an amphora! It came from Roquevale and I recalled going there years ago. It was the first time I had seen a working amphora. The process was remarkably simple: the wines fermented in them, and once the lees had settled it could be drawn off by a tap at the bottom. It was quite a rustic place then, and my memory evokes chickens. Indeed, the owners offered us some typical local plates decorated with cockerels (now sadly all broken) and somewhere nearby I bought a big earthenware bowl which is now used for making my weekly loaf.

The Roquevale wine was still a little coarse with its big chewy tannins, but it had come on a lot. It was also cheap - the retail price was quoted as €7.99. It was not really to be compared to the 2012 Cartuxa Colheita we tasted next. Like many wines in the Alentejo it was made from a cocktail of Aragonez, Alfrocheiro, Trincadeira and Alicante-Bouschet. The latter, a notorious member of the dark-fleshed Teinturier family - is despised in its native France as a common hybrid formerly used only to 'stain' wines that lacked colour. In the Alentejo, however, it somehow manages to produce outstanding results. The wine was still closed, but betrayed that rich creamy fruit that is the hallmark of good Alentejo reds.

The Torre do Frade Reserva was a mature wine from 2007. Peter told us that it had been aged in all new oak and yet it was pleasantly approachable with a little taste of redcurrants and a fresh finish. The cost was a bit high, however, at €40. The 2011 Reserva from the Herdade da Ajuda was a return to reason at €12. The wine came from Evora and contained some Cabernet which I didn't like much: I found the finish pasty and dry.

David Baverstock is one of two Australians who has put down roots in Portugal - the other one being Peter Bright who is mostly to be found making his brews in the middle of Portugal. Baverstock is now largely anchored to Esporão and I am not sure whether he still makes Sir Cliff Richard's 'born again' wine in the Algarve. Peter's choice was the 2012 Esporão Private Selection (€30). I think it is pretty young yet, but for the time being I found it blighted by oak. This was not the case of the 2009 Quinta do Mouro (€37.99), which with the silky richness of its fruit was an impeccable Alentejo wine and every bit as good as I remembered vintages in the old days. The last wine was Gloria Reynolds Red (€48). Again this got the thumbs down as far as I was concerned. I am sure it was carefully made from tiny yields, with every grape picked and polished and carried to the vat, but for me it was big and sweet like a garage wine.  

We had our little olive oil tasting at the end, which was fun: the quite common Galega olive versus the slightly more rarefied Cordovil. Then we mixed the two to blend away some of the rough edges. Some olive oils, especially those where the olives are picked early, can be hot and rasping. Late picked oils tend to be rich and buttery. Some nice petiscos circulated: octopus, bacalao with tomatoes and chickpeas, spicy chouriço and rice pudding. They were all very good, and I felt nostalgic for better days. 'Saudouso', as they say over there.


Posted: 1st June 2016

I am suffering, suffering badly. It is the first of June and I have not eaten a single spear of proper asparagus. I have no plans to travel to the Mainland this month and the season ends on St John's Eve - 24 June - so the chances are that I shall miss out entirely in 2016.

Now you will say there is asparagus everywhere you look: native English asparagus from the Vale of Evesham and elsewhere - the asparagus of Shakespeare, Elgar and Nigel Farage. I have seen this too, I have even bought some. Last week, campaigning in the Farmers' Market outside London University, I found a stall operated by a thin wispy man who was (appropriately enough) selling thin wispy asparagus. I asked him if he had any white stuff and wished I hadn't: 'It's the same plant you know... [I knew], but it's not good.' I let it drop. I thought I might get a lecture on English nationalism if I were to go on. I inspected at his wares instead: the spears were all at the point of flowering. The presence of fuzzy clusters at the top was one of two differences between the man and his asparagus: he was not only pale and white, he was as bald as an egg. 'Do you have any thicker spears at least?' I asked. He pointed to the thickest he had, which I bought, more out of politeness than anything else. It was reasonably fresh at least, but I was not going to make a sauce for anything of such poor quality, it would lie alongside the meat: as a German friend is wont to say: green asparagus is a vegetable, white asparagus is a meal.

It is usually just a little too early for asparagus when I go to the Ventoux Valley in February. I see it in the fields close to the road leading from Mazan or Mormoiron, down by the River Auzon and identifiable by their semicircular ridges capped with plastic sheeting. In Provence the first spears normally appear in March. The plants are banked up like that to allow the pickers to cut in without exposing the plant to sunlight, and the plastic ensures that cracks in the soil will not result in any purple splashes in the tips. Some French people like a purple tint, and o tempora, o mores - some even eat it green.

The best asparagus might be the earliest, at least the Spanish think so. They say April asparagus is 'for me, May asparagus for you and June asparagus for nobody.' With the exception of Italy, most of Mainland Europe prefers to eat their asparagus white. I suspect the Italians brought the green fad to the United States, and that influenced us when we started producing commercial quantities of asparagus about a generation ago. If you let the plant break through the surface it will naturally go green, and it is far easier to cut. It will also develop a characteristic bitter taste which is quite distinct from the nutty delicacy of the white stuff.

The problem of finding people who are prepared to do the backbreaking work of cutting asparagus under the earth might end up by turning the rest of Europe green one day, but I am thankful that this has not happened yet. In Germany, where asparagus amounts to something akin to a religion, the traditional seasonal farm worker came from Poland or further east. Before 1989, even senior civil servants would take their holidays in Germany and pick asparagus, thereby earning enough money to buy a car when they got home. It was thought that when the Poles achieved a higher standard of living they would disdain the work, but the panic seems to be over, although I don't know where the present generation of pickers comes from, I assume there will be migrant labour that welcomes well paid work for many years to come.

Asparagus likes sandy soil, and the best regions of Germany (as well as the Marchfeld in Austria) where asparagus is grown are known to every native gourmand. Some of the best comes from Schwetzingen, near Heidelberg in Baden, or from the sandy suburbs of Stuttgart in Württemberg. In the Prussian east, Beelitz is best. Germans cut and market it with the same attention that they might give to flowers. It is never even a day old when it reaches the roadside stalls and markets, and the stems are often placed in wet cotton wool to keep the asparagus fresh and prevent it from becoming dry and woody. It must be stiff: if it is bendy it is too old. Last year a kind German lady brought me a couple of kilos from a farmer's market in Stuttgart: she had wrapped them in damp cotton tea cloths for the short plane journey. I naturally cooked them that night. White asparagus needs to be peeled a bit at the bottom end, and Germans cook it standing up in special lofty saucepans, with a knob of butter and a pinch of sugar and salt. It is ready when you can easily pierce the sides with a knife. The tips should stand well above the water line and be cooked by the steam.

In Central Europe - Germany, Austria and Holland - the six or seven week asparagus season is a blow out. A friend in Vienna complains every year that the city stinks of it. Most restaurants offer asparagus menus, with half a dozen different options from asparagus soup, made from the discarded tough end bits, to 'solo' asparagus, the thickest, meatiest spears. In general, the 'solo' asparagus is served with a thick blanket of Hollandaise sauce. If anything joins it, it will be the local new potatoes or possibly some thick cut cooked ham. Local wine producers also run competitions to find the ideal wine for asparagus, with interesting results: it is not always the asparagus-scented Sauvignon Blanc that works best: quite often it is a sappy, non-oaked Pinot Blanc or Silvaner, or a Grüner Veltliner in Austria.

Eating asparagus also has a worthy political tradition in Germany. Sometime in May 1935, a group of Saxo-Borussia corps students in Heidelberg were enjoying some spears of Schwetzingen's best when the subject arose of how one was supposed to eat asparagus in polite society? Did you pick it up with your fingers or cut it with a knife and fork? The students had been drinking, and had managed to upset some local Nazi sensibilities that day with their braying for wine and asparagus, not to mention a less than reverent attitude to the regime. One of the students felt it was a question to ask the Führer, as he knew everything. A call was duly put through to the Chancellery in Berlin and was answered by one of Hitler's adjutants. Hitler's did not take the story well (although as a vegetarian he might well have eaten asparagus and without doubt he would have eaten it with both hands), and he introduced a ban on the socially smart German duelling societies which persisted until the end of the Third Reich. The association of eating asparagus ('spargelessen') and teasing the Nazi authorities remained, however, emerging every May until 1945. I think of this often at times like these when I am deprived of decent asparagus.

Oh Maille Mustard!

Posted: 3rd May 2016

Fifteen or so years ago now, I joined a press trip organised on behalf of the famous mustard-makers Maille. We went to Dijon, ate in a hotel restaurant and visited a shop that sold a hundred (if not two hundred) different sorts of mustard. I truth it was the same mustard (the smooth one - the one with the whole grains is the pride of Meaux, a fine cathedral city east of Paris) with various flavourings bunged in. They didn't interest me much. What caught my attention was some stuff they were selling on draught. This proved to be an un-pasteurised mustard that had considerably more bite than the bottled version but with a shorter shelf-life. It transpired that anyone in possession of a Maille mustard pot could come in and fill up. The mustard was by no means expensive and proprietary pots came in all sizes.

Our party went up to Paris that day and we were treated to an everything-cooked-with-mustard lunch at Le Grand Véfour, with three Michelin rosettes, billed as one of the best restaurants in the world. The chef, Guy Martin, hovered around us but I am not sure I was so thrilled with the meal. After lunch we went to Maille's new shop on the place de La Madeleine. There I seized the moment and bought myself a 500 cl Maille pot and had it filled with the standard mustard with white wine. That was more or less the end of trip. The excursion went a little sour when our taxi got stuck in traffic in the rue Lafayette and we reached the Gare du Nord to find our train had not only left but our platoon commander had gone with it. We bought new tickets and boarded the next one.

It was a while back, as I said, but something tells me I paid 70 FF (about £7) for my pot. It is grey and monumental and sits quite smartly on the dinner-table when there is boiled gammon, steak or sausages to eat. When I went to Paris in the following years I took it with me and was careful to have it refilled in the little shop in the Madeleine. The women who worked there were always charm incarnate and afterwards I'd go to Ladurée in the rue Royale to buy macarons - which were quite unknown outside France in those days. The last time I did this was a few years ago. Francs had already become Euros, but the figure of €6.90 leaps to mind - paying about £5 for half a litre of mustard was a trifle dear, but not expensive enough to stop me. I even convinced a Paris restaurateur friend to buy his mustard from Maille and he would sometimes bring over a loaded pot for me, and I'd give him back the empty.

I don't go to Paris as often as I'd like, and so I was excited to hear a couple of years ago that Maille was opening a shop in Piccadilly and that the mustard would be on draught there too. Soon after the shop opened I was there with my pot. If I recall rightly I recoiled, mildly, when they charged me £11. They had me taste all sorts of silly schickimicki mustards with truffles and Lord-knows-what in them, but I was not tempted. I insisted on my mustard 'au vin blanc'. For some reason they had to fetch it from behind the scenes, or to be more precise, upstairs.

Last month, I paid another visit to the Maille shop in Piccadilly. I was informed there was no simple mustard with white wine but I could buy the superior version with Chablis. This made me cross: not least because it was clearly going to be even more expensive, but also as there can be no earthly reason for putting good wine in mustard. I defy any winetaster to spot Chablis in a pot of mustard: it would be like identifying the style of port in a bag of winegums. While I was reeling from this infamous suggestion, the boy proceeded to demand £24 for my refill. I left in high dudgeon.

I checked up with the Madeleine branch and it appears that this marketing-inspired price-hike has taken place throughout Maille Empire, which is soon to extend to New York: in France you now pay €20 for the refill and €30 - €35 if you buy the pot ready-filled with mustard. I called Piccadilly too, and putting a hankie over the receiver and adopting an oligarchian accent I made the same enquiry. It was £20 for the mustard (if they had it) and £12 more for the pot. So it is still cheaper in Paris, but hardly worth lugging your pot over there. I am loath to concede, but buying draught Maille mustard is clearly no longer worthwhile, and is probably a bit of a swindle. It can't be any more expensive to make the un-pasteurised version, after all? It should actually be cheaper: they are saving money on packaging. If you go to an ordinary shop and buy Maille mustard in a 280 cl glass, you can pay as little as £1.80 for it. Alright: it is pasteurised, but if you think about it, they throw in the glass for nothing.


As it was, I was on my way that day to a tasting of Wachau wines at Berry Brothers & Rudd, a scaled-down repeat of a wine and geology tasting they had put on in Vienna a couple of years ago. Instead of what seemed to be an infinite variety of different rocks, the London tasting limited itself to a comparison between wines grown on gneiss and others planted in loess soils. As a general rule, gneiss will be associated with elegance and refinement; loess with muscle: that generally means Riesling for gneiss and Grüner Veltliner for loess. It was a fascinating tasting, and there were some good wines on show, not least FX Pichler's 2009 'M' Grüner Veltliner and Emmerich Knoll's 1999 Loibenberg Riesling. I raised the subject of alcohol and Grüner Veltliner, saying that I thought that it expressed nothing at all below 13.5 and was better over 14. This was flying in the face of the present fashion for low-strength wines in Austria, but I was gratified that the younger Emmerich Knoll agreed with me whole-heartedly. Most modern Grüner Veltliners are utterly without interest, just dull white wines, and I would include the majority of top Austrian estates in that category.


It has been a busy month on the gustatory side. I even spent two afternoons tasting for the Academy of Chocolate: as gruelling a task as one might ever perform. I am not vastly enthusiastic about chocolate, but I am always curious to watch my fellow tasters who not only live and breathe the stuff, they are clearly addicted. I always wonder if I am going to be able to eat my dinner after three or four hours nibbling on chocolate bars (even though I calculate I have digested only between 100 and 150 grams), but I have found that the best solution is to rinse my mouth out with vodka and try to forget all about it.

April is the month of the Decanter World Wine Awards, but a week before the tasting at Tobacco Dock there was a panel tasting at Decanter's offices featuring the 2014 dry Rieslings. There were just the three of us - myself, David Motion from the excellent Winery in Little Venice and wine writer Matt Walls. I think we were all pretty impressed not only by the standard of the wines but by the number of top German producers who had submitted samples. Many of these do not send in wines to the DWWA, which is a pity and the shocking truth is that the German Jury now deliberates for less time than its Turkish counterpart! I was joined at the DWWA by Caro Maurer, Anthony Barne and Martin Campion, and we were pleased by our modest tally of wines, and awarded all of eleven Golds. Most of these were Rieslings, but we also elected one apiece of sparkling wine, Weissburgunder (Pinot Blanc), Grauburgunder (Pinot Gris), Sauvignon Blanc and Silvaner. They were lovely wines, and deserved their accolades. I am particularly happy about the Grauburgunder, as getting a Gold for one has been a personal ambition for some time. Sadly we were not able to find any red Golds this year, but then recent German vintages have not greatly favoured red wine.

Once again the quality of the Mosel-Saar-Ruwers stood out in 2014. The week before, I had spoken to one of Germany's stars: Egon Müller of the Scharzhof in the Saar Valley, about the 2014 vintage at a tasting for the Portfolio agency. The grapes had ripened at the beginning of October, he said, but rot set in three days later, so the picking had to be accomplished at top speed. He was able to make even a little Auslese and a tiny quantity of Goldcap. I tasted the Kabinett and the Spätlese: they were tremendous wines.

I was also impressed by the wines of another Portfolio winemaker -  Kai Schätzel in Nierstein. The estate has recently been elected to the VdP and you can see why. He is a firm believer in wild, spontaneous yeasts and terroir, which shows in the nose of the wine. I liked his off-dry and sweet wines most: a lovely 2015 Kabinett from the Pettenthal and a simply gorgeous Auslese from the same site and year - one to watch.

After my labours at the DWWA I attended the annual German tasting in London. There isn't space to enumerate all my finds, but there were some good things worth recording (VDP members I'll hold back for the August tasting): Lisa Bann in Nierstein, for example, with her loess Grauburgunder 2014; Fritz Ekkehard Huff in Nierstein-Schwabsburg who produced a melodic 2014 Riesling from red slate soils and an apricot-scented Pettenthal; Nico Espenschied at Espenhof in Flonheim who made another sappy 2015 Grauburgunder; Thörle near Bingen scored with a 2015 Riesling Kabinett; and down in the balmy Wonnegau the Weingut Frey in Hangen Weisheim impressed me with their 2015 Riesling.

In the Rheingau, I was struck by the 2015 Roter Riesling from a new estate, Meine Freiheit in Oestrich and by several wines from Dr Corvers Kauter in the same village - particularly the 2015 Alte Reben Spätlese, the Berg Rottland Auslese from the same vintage and the even lovelier Berg Roseneck Auslese.

The gentleman from the Weingut am Nil in Kallstadt in the Pfalz had to put up with my teasing him about Donald Trump, but he patiently confirmed that there were no more members of the Drumpf family in Kallstadt, even if there was a baker called Drumpf in a village nearby whom he presumed to be a cousin. His best wine was inevitably the 2015 Saumagen. It needs time yet. Oliver Zeter from Neustadt had an excellent 2013 Ungsteiner Weilberg from terra rosa soil; I admired a Chardonnay and Weissburgunder from Wambsganss in the south; while Hanewald-Schwerdt in Bad Dürkheim in the north of the region had an impressive 2014 Herrenmorgen; Gemünden in Kreuznach presented a 2015 Riesling Brückes with cooling apricot fruit. There were some strange offerings from the Nahe, but a decent 2014 Riesling from Schmidt Kunz and there were some impressive wines from the cooperative at Ruppertsberg.

There were some super wines from Dirk Richter in the Mosel (no surprise there): the 2015 Brauneberger Juffer Kabinett, and the even lovelier Sonnenuhr Spätlese which was of course trounced by a magnificent Auslese of the same year. There was a little treat in the form of a 2007 Auslese too. From Witwe Dr Thanisch there were exemplary Bernkasteler Doctors - Spätlese and Auslese - from 2013.

Portuguese Sparklers and Indian Wines

As I said, this has been a busy month as far as wine is concerned, I even dropped into the Portuguese Embassy (this used to be the ambassador's residence but the old embassy is now all boarded up, and I think the poor Ambassador has had to make room for his staff under his own palatial roof) to taste some sparkling wines from Bairrada. When I wrote my book about Portuguese wines I was shown round Bairrada and did extensive tastings of the excellent reds they make from the Baga grape. No one who visits the region near the pretty old university city of Coimbra can be unaware of the many roadhouses selling suckling pig, generally illuminated by big, gaudy neon lights showing an ecstatic piglet launching itself onto a grill or carving fork. There are some places in Germany that scoff pig and piglets with similar abandon, but I have to say that elsewhere it is rare.

Now in Bairrada it is not the dignified red that is proposed to accompany the 'leitão' but the sharp, champagne-style white sparkling wine made from the very same black Baga grapes. When you think about it, it is not such a bad idea? Aggressive sparkling wines, with high acidity and small bubbles deal admirably with the greasy, fatty meat of a roast piglet. As I tasted Poço do Lobo (wolf trap) from Caves São João I got quite excited about the idea. I am only sorry to say there was no roast piglet to hand.

The sparkling Baga tasting was not the most recherché I attended last month, as I also went along to the launch of Peter Csizmadia-Honigh's book on the Wines of India at the Vintners' Hall. I could not say whether the last occasion I was in India was before my visit to Maille in Dijon or after the time I accompanied some Bairrada leitão with a fluteful of local fizz; but I used to go to the Subcontinent quite often, and as I found the local beer far too frothy, my mind often dwelled on wine. In Calcutta you used to see bottles of deep pink wine on sale that I was assured was sickly sweet and undrinkable; while in Simla there was a thin, sharp rosé and white that they served at the Cecil and which was just about alright. In Bombay I was given a bottle of the sparkling Marquise de Pompadour which I opened somewhere in Rajasthan and I followed with interest the attempts of various Bordeaux-wallahs to start vineyards there - notably the Prats family, formerly of Cos d'Estournel. The most memorable wine experience I ever had in India was on Lake Pichola when I was staying at the Lake Palace in Udaipur. We were entertained all evening in a sailing ship and plied with wine and food while lights were switched on and off in corners of the lake, and pretty dancing ladies performed little acts. It was a memorable night - but the wine it was Chambertin. 

Now almost a decade and a half later, it seems that India is making good wines. I suppose the growing season must make allowances for the monsoon which arrives at different times in different places, but it appears that Indian wine is picked in February or March, so at the same time as the Southern Hemisphere, despite the fact it is winter in India.

Anyone who has been in say, Rajasthan in January, knows that the days can be very hot but that the nights are perishing cold. Warm days and cold nights is generally the secret of intense, aromatic wines and many of those at Peter's tasting were just that. I particularly admired 2014 and 2012 Cabernet Sauvignons from KRSMA in Hampi in Karnataka; the 2012 Shiraz and Cabernet from Mandala in Bangalore; and the 2015 Reserve Chardonnay and Syrah from Reveilo wines in Nashik. They are not cheap - the latter cost £6 - £7 a bottle in Bombay - but let's face it: that's a mere bagatelle compared to the cost of refilling a crock of Maille mustard? 

Easter Controversies

Posted: 4th April 2016

The great disadvantage of an early Easter is that there is no spring lamb, and that we have to make do with a limb of a semi-mature sheep for our Paschal feast. I have had baby lamb in France already this year, but British farmers are quite obstinate about maximising their returns and I was told very firmly that they would not be killing lambs for Easter.

I deduce that the Archbishop of Canterbury was equally aggrieved: for he went as far as to suggest that the date of Easter should be fixed in the future, provoking an Easter Controversy such as that which raged at the time of the Venerable Bede. I suppose if Easter were on the same day (or the nearest Sunday) every year, farmers could plan to put a bit of new lamb on the market and schools would know when to schedule their spring holidays? Wearing my theological mitre, however, I cannot see where the Heresiarch finds his justification: Easter is calculated from the first full moon following the Vernal Equinox, just like Passover, and it was Passover that brought Jesus to Jerusalem, where he sacrificed himself on Good Friday, taking the place of the traditional Passover lamb. In fairness to British farmers, I suppose I should divulge that the Torah demands that the lamb be a year old, but then I think Jews are required to eat it in groups of ten and a baby lamb would be too small.

Theological disputes failed to overshadow our own Easter which reunited our little family, scattered for the first time, when my daughter returned briefly from Vienna. So the old family rituals persisted: chocolate eggs were bought from Le Chocolatier in Highgate Village, possibly for the last time, for his landlord seems determined to turn the village high street into a chain of estate agents and has shoved up the rents again shutting down the halfway good grocer in the process. I made my own hot-cross buns and my wife her Simnel Cake with its eleven marzipan Apostles; I acquired the Colomba for Sunday morning before Mass and with some distaste, a leg of Easter hogget. After that everyone ate too much chocolate and we all felt ill.

I was only well enough to go out again on Wednesday when I went to Berry Brothers and Rudd in St James's to try the Queen's 90th Birthday tawny port. Just 500 bottles of this were made by blending three years lying in wood in Vila Nova de Gaia: 1935, 1924 and 1912, which makes an average age of ninety-one. The Instituto do Vinho do Porto then had to agree to the innovation as by their laws tawnies may only be bottled at 10, 20, 30 or 40 years, or with a vintage date. A 'vintage' tawny is known as a 'colheita,' to differentiate it from vintage port, which is bottled two years after the harvest. Traditionally the 'English' houses do not release colheitas. Their top wines are vintage ports.

We were allowed to taste the constituent parts and finally the blend. They were all three very distinguished years for port. Sandeman, Graham and Cockburn declared the 1935; most houses did the same for the '24; and the 1912 was universally declared. The proportions used were 40-20-40 resulting in a wine that took a lot of its honey character from the oldest wine (which was remarkably dark). It was - I thought - like Manuka honey, because behind the honey there was not only a powerful acid bite, but also an immensely satisfying cooling aftertaste. For a ninety-year old wine, the Queen's tipple had tremendous power.

Paul Symington justified the hefty price of £700 a bottle by comparing it to various much younger Bordeaux. The 2010 Le Pin, for example, is as much as £2,600 a bottle. Berry Brothers is doing a small mail-out for the 500-bottle release. I doubt they will have any problem getting rid of them.

I went directly from St James's to La Cave à Fromage in South Ken where their top cheese man, David Deaves was holding a tasting to flag the fifth year of the Cheese Makers' Market in Beaconsfield on 9 April. The market will offer up to 200 cheeses to taste and purchase. There will also be a number of tutored tastings of this sort during the day.

Armed with simple, but effective dry Muscat wine from the Cévennes, I tasted some of the cheeses on offer: Colline aux chèvres from the Tarn, a soft and delicious goat; a Brillat-truffe; a triple-cream Brillat-Savarin cut in two and lined with truffles before being put back into the cellars to acquired a new bloom; a soft-pressed Italian Fontina; a nutty, aged Montgomery cheddar; a very mild-tasting Grossmont cheese from Wales made in imitation of Reblochon but wiped with cider aged in old rum casks; Ossau-Iraty - pressed ewe's milk cheese from Aquitaine (an old favourite); a tomme (similar in consistency to the Fontina) which had been lined with espelettes - the mild chillies that are one of the gastronomic specialities of the Basque country; Crosier Blue, a sister-cheese of Cashel Blue in Ireland which has an enchanting spiciness; and finally some Stilton that had been macerated in port, cheaper port, I think than the nectar I drank in the board Room at Berry Bros. There was nothing controversial at all - they were all fine cheeses.

Eating Truffles With Angels

Posted: 1st March 2016

After twenty years of travelling to the Ventoux, I think I have cracked it at last: the best way is to shun the plane and take the train, changing in Paris. I admit, there is now a moment of anxiety when you emerge from the Channel Tunnel, but we were not stormed on this occasion and the train slid into the Gare du Nord on time. I gathered up a friend who had flown in from Dublin and we picked up another in a café opposite the Gare de Lyon. There was even time for a quick slab of bavette. A bottle of burgundy on the train down made the journey doubly smooth.

We did not get in much before eight that night but food had been left out for me to cook, and there was a box stuffed with truffles in the fridge and some big packets of local wild boar which had been put in the freezer. I took them straight out and arranged them in a dish to defrost overnight. Our host had raided his cellar in Kilkenny and there were some fine looking bottles lined up on the table to join the hardy perennials of the estate: Château Talbot 1982, Château Léoville Barton 1989; a rare Sandeman 1965 and a more promising Graham's Malvedos 1976, as well as a bottle of Geantet-Pansiot's Gevrey-Chambertin vieilles vignes 2003 and the Huet Vouvray Le Mont moelleux première trie 1996.

Both clarets went down well, the robust Talbot showed little sign of age, and the Léoville was on top form. The Sandeman port was very light, but I was ready for that: I have done several verticals of their ports. A surprise was the village Chambertin which had a great deal of charm. I was the only person to show much interest in the Vouvray, but I found it delicious with some local pain d'épices. The Malvedos was put aside for September. Naturally, first and foremost, we drank the wines from the Domaine des Anges and jolly good they were too.

A novelty was to try some older vintages of the Domaine des Anges which had come down with the claret etc.. The 1991 was kaput, but the 1992s were still on form, both the simple wine and the prototype for the top wine were drinkable even if the latter was spoiled by poor use of oak. The biggest surprise was the Cabernet Sauvignon 2000. This wine is still made in tiny quantities. It was a crazy idea to plant Cabernet in the Ventoux but it has proved consistently good. If I were a local restaurateur I'd make sure that I had a few cases in my cellar to show people what the region can do.

I got up early the following morning and put the boar in a bottle or two of the simpler red 'Ventoux' wine of the estate. I then scrubbed the mud off the truffles. It has been a warm winter and quite wet too, so not ideal weather for melanosporum. Still, I thought they were better and more aromatic than last year's crop, which were quite short on aroma. They weren't big, but the ones we had were firm, and I suspect had not been out of the earth for too long.

It was sunny, and heating up as it often does in the second half of February. The promised mistral failed to work up a head of steam and by the end of our stay it was warm enough to sit outside in the sun. The odd lizard even poked its head out of the cracks in the rubble walls. There was shopping to be done in Mazan but first we went into Mormoiron and wandered around the village while one of the party had his hair cut.

I had been unaware that the swollen hamlet of Mormoiron had suffered an earthquake a century ago, and many of the buildings at the top of the village perché still bear the scars: the church with its funny little pointed Romanesque apse window has been wrapped in a concrete girdle. Behind it there is a rather grand old stone arch but the room to the south of it is open to the elements. Here are there are a few traces of the old walls and the castle too, but perhaps the most interesting bits of the village are at the extreme north end looking towards Bédouin and Mount Ventoux. There is a big house with a pediment dated 1550. The building across the road seems to have been part of the same collection at one time and it contains an impressive vaulted chamber.

Mormoiron has been dying on its feet in the past couple of decades. The butchers have all closed and the one fully functioning baker has moved down to the main road next to the cave cooperative to catch the traffic using the road from Carpentras to Sault. A new bar has opened but it was closed while I was there. Mazan is both livelier and more impressive with its two or three ancient gates and the Château des Astaud-Causans, a huge, solid house built up against the walls by the Mormoiron Gate. I have been coveting this place for years and itching to see the rooms but it has always been boarded up. No one has ever seen the shutters open let alone any sign of life inside.

Compared to Mormoiron, Mazan is busy. There are at least two decent bars, like Le Siècle run by Jerôme, who used to play rugby for Mullingar in Ireland, speaks English and has turned the place into something more like a pub. More recently Lou Carri has smartened itself up as well. It used to be a dim, stuffy dive and chiefly notable for being one of the local betting shops, now it has reinvented itself as a bistrot and has good menus at lunchtime.

We had set off to Mazan to get a proper shoulder of lamb: a tiny thing weighing about 1.3 kgs. The beast itself can't have been more than a month old. We had other plans for dinner that night however: a small bit of boiling bacon had been brought over from Ireland and I made a parsley sauce to go with it. As the piece was so small we supplemented it with some calves' liver and a big pork sausage.

I also made a starter of an omelette aux truffes (this is the local name for a dish of scrambled eggs with truffles). The jury remained divided over the truffles. While they are clearly not the most pungent I had ever known the 'omelette' was good and smelled and tasted properly of truffles.

The leg of lamb was for Friday night. I should have made some little ramekins of eggs and cream to show off our truffles but we had no cream and so I made a truffle butter for the potatoes instead. There were some quite delicious artichokes, which were properly in season. The lambkin's flesh was white, as new lamb should be and the truffle butter was used with the potatoes, which I had poached in white wine alongside the meat. The only disappointment was some locally obtained Saint Marcellin cheeses. On second thoughts we should have cut open some Brie and stuffed it with truffles as they do at the famous Beaugravière restaurant in Mondragon near Orange.

The weather was predictably at its best the day before we were due to leave. We went to the market in Pernes where I wanted to buy lavender honey and bread. The wonderful baker with his hundred-year old oven had sold out of bread as usual, but there was a good presence in the market and a little chap with a scrubby beard was selling eggs and a number of loaves he'd obviously got up for the market: spelt, mixed grain and wheat. The wheat loaf was gnarled and seemingly unleavened but it had great flavour.

Saturday was our final night and the boar had been soaking in wine and the remains of the Sandeman port for three days. We poached some leaks in red wine and I made a purée of potatoes and mixed a great many truffle shavings into that. Mashed potatoes are probably the best of all vehicles for truffles.

We had time to kill in Paris on the way back. I had a good two hours; my companion many more. I took him for a walk in the Marais, where he complained about his feet. Still for me there was the pleasure of the Hôtel de Sully and the Place des Vosges and the flat my sister took during my last long vac and where the rooms at the front gave out onto the square and its playing fountains. I still remember the noise of the plashing water at night. We looked in at the little Place du Marché Sainte Catherine. There was a third-rate restaurant there, now gone, where we used to bury the fishes' heads under slices of lemon so as not to shock young Americans on the illuminations tour: they didn't like the fish looking at them while they were eating. We also even inspected a few old haunts such as the flat of a friend in the rue du Foin who lived above a hack with an obscene monkey who was the scourge of the local gendarmerie lunching in the restaurant below: Lord knows what the cheeky ape used to throw at them. After that bout of nostalgia I was ready to kip most of the way back to London.

The Making of Mentmore

Posted: 1st February 2016

Our Januarys are not dry, but they are arid. Nothing came to irrigate this one, beyond family setbacks, snivelling colds and tickling coughs seasoned by the annoying nannying strictures of the government's very own Aunt Sally. I am tempted to tell her what she can do with her 'units', but that is by the by.

One routine operation reserved for January is the making of marmalade, specifically Seville orange marmalade, as that gnarled, irregular, tart fruit makes its appearance at the greengrocers' shortly after Christmas. I make quite a lot of different marmalades at different times of the year. They all have names, some of them made up by the children over the years. There is a lime version, called Harry and a lemon one called Jack. For some reason my son called the grapefruit sort the 'Imposter' (perhaps because it is not very pink?) and then there is Robespierre, made from blood oranges and a multi-citrus fruit marmalade called 'Susan Hitch'. The Seville orange marmalade is our 'top seed,' as I believe they say in tennis. It is called 'Mentmore', a nickname that derives from the hair of an art historian of my acquaintance which is, or rather was, strikingly red.

I have been making Mentmore for over a decade now, and I am very much aware of the vintage variation. Oranges, like grapes, have good or bad growing seasons. Sometimes the peel is rough and dry and the segments pithy; sometimes the skins have a waxy sheen and are distinctly oily; on other occasions the juice is quite sweet because the fruit has been stewed in the Andalusian sun. The essential thing about Seville orange marmalade, however, is that it should have a little bitter tang, offset by the sweetness that comes from the added sugar. Other oranges will not give you that. Ordinary orange marmalade can be cloyingly sweet.

The 2015, for example, was unctuous and quite sweet, while the 2014 was dark, almost black, and bracingly sharp. The 2016 is near perfection; to the degree that I wonder whether I should not go back to that nice Albanian woman's stall and get a few more kilos before the season closes. I have jars from several years going back to my last remaining 2005 in my 'marmalade cellar'. One day I must put them all out for a vertical tasting. The only time I see some of these old vintages is when I go to see the kind friends who look after the cat when we go away. In their house my marmalade is apparently appreciated for it is strictly rationed.

The onerous side of marmalade making is the peeling and pressing of the oranges. To obtain very thin peel I use a mandolin, and I pull out some of the pith too. The pips go into a bit of muslin and I add twice-as-much water as juice and simmer for about two or three hours. Once the fruit is reduced by half, I take the liquid off the heat and add a kilo of sugar for every kilo of Seville oranges. It certainly does not require more. I then bring it back to the boil and test drops of the marmalade on a plate with my fingernail: when the marmalade becomes reluctant to let go of your finger it is time to stop. You don't want your marmalade too thick or rubbery.

Most people fill up sterilised pots with the piping hot marmalade as soon as it is deemed done. If you put the lids on immediately it is meant to form a vacuum which will stop mould from developing at some later date. Some people then turn the jars upside-down to eliminate all contact with oxygen. This is all well and good but inevitably there are times when you discover the marmalade is too runny once the pots have cooled down. When that happens you have to empty them out into the pan again and bring them back to the boil adding the juice of a couple of lemons. You should not need to use pectin for Seville orange marmalade: there is plenty in the fruit. I buy pectin for fruits such as peaches and strawberries, which are short on it; citrus fruits have lots.  

If you are worried that the marmalade might not set then the best solution is to leave it in the cooking pot until the morning. This way you dispense with the chore of emptying the pots out again, and washing and sterilising them with boiling water. As often as not, however, you find that a miracle has happened overnight and the marmalade has set as it cooled down.

When that happens you can martial your various old jam and honey jars. It is good to fill a few small ones: these make perfect presents for house and dinner parties. This year I have even given one to the jolly Albanian woman.

Now let's get on with February.

Festive Wines:
Living Off Our Fat

Posted: 4th January 2016

Christmas is almost behind us. There is still a sliver of foie gras in the terrine, a few mince pies in the tin and the great, solid Christmas cake has been splendidly iced and decorated with figures from the spare crib. That tends to provide combustion throughout the colder days of January. The only thing yet to make is the galette des rois for Twelfth Night. On Tuesday, I'll start folding the puff pastry; the other ingredients I'll throw together on Wednesday morning. I must see if there is still a suitable sweet wine left to go with it.

They may not have seemed so fat at the time, but there were fatter years when I used to buy doubletons of good wine with some mythical future dinner party in mind. Now supplies have dwindled but there are occasional gems that surface when I explore my secret places armed with a torch: we never did have any of those elegant dinner parties.

This year we are even less hospitable than usual: no one came to dinner on Christmas Eve, although a friend called before dinner and shared a bottle of Mumm with us, a simple, non-vintage champagne that has improved immeasurably in the last few years and which remains relatively cheap while other champagnes (and some of them far less pleasant to drink) have lifted off to stratospheric prices. Christmas Eve is the last day of Advent and that means fish: we had our usual lobsters - lively little fellows they were - with some mayonnaise I whipped up, then a wonderfully à point queijo da serra I had bought from Nuno at the Wine Cellar in the Kentish Town Road. This is the Portuguese version of the vacherin mont d'or, in this instance a ewes' milk cheese that liquefies between December and March. In my opinion, it is one of the world's greats.

We were just three drinkers at dinner and I located a bottle of Marc Morey's 2004 Chassagne Montrachet Les Chenevottes. I think a friend must have brought it round several years ago, and with its creamy, buttery texture it was perfect with the lobster. People say the ideal for lobster is Corton Charlemagne, but I'm not sure you could do much better than this and I didn't have any Corton anyway.  With my wife's bûche de noel I opened some sauternes - a 2001 Château Suduiraut. It was on excellent form, but we didn't drink much. I recorked it in preparation for Christmas Day and we all trooped off to Midnight Mass.

As far as champagne was concerned, the real treat was on Christmas morning. I had been anxious about a single bottle of 1992 Dom Pérignon for some time, in that part of the foil had come away and exposed the cork. As it was, I needn't have worried: the cork was as tight as a drum, there was a lively bead and the wine showed no sign of oxidation. It is a delight to drink Dom Pérignon at this age, particularly now when most of it disappears down the gullets of oligarchs when it is scarce ready to butcher. I have memories of honey and saffron - utterly divine.

There was the usual problem about what to have with the foie gras, which I had marinated in amontillado sherry. I spotted an oddity in the form of a bottle of 1990 Chignon Bergeron from René Quénard. The principle with this Savoyard wine is that if you fail to drink it when it is very young, you must wait until it is very old. It was certainly fine at first, but it did not last too long in the glass and by the end there was a slight bitterness.

There was the usual schism over goose and turkey and so we opted for beef. The admirable Paul Langley at Cramer's in York Way sold me a piece of forerib he had been dry-ageing since August. As it turned out, goose was scarce, apparently because Walter Gabriel on The Archers had opted for goose that year. I had decided to match that to a stray bottle of Christophe Roumier's 1995 Chambolle-Musigny. Our one guest had brought some 1983 Château Chasse-Spleen. We had the burgundy first, but I made a mistake in failing to decant it. It was inchoate at the beginning, but after half-an-hour it filled out magnificently. The claret on the other hand was much more immediately accessible, with perhaps a hint of greenness from a vintage that got wetter the further north you travelled up the Médoc.

The claret went principally with the cheese: the remains of the serra, a vacherin mont d'or, a saint-marcellin and one of those silly stiltons in pots that I had bought cheap from Lidl. The rest of the Suduiraut then came out for the Christmas pudding before we went upstairs and watched Platinum Blonde (we watched Scrooge before lunch).

The family went away after Christmas and reappeared on New Year's Eve. As usual I grazed on leftovers.  As there is no English tradition for New Year's Eve other than getting drunk and throwing up, I have adopted the Italian one. We eat lentils, lots of them, because they are meant to represent all the money you will earn in the coming year. I reflected, if we ate a lot of lentils I could buy some more wine? I took the trouble to soak them for more than twenty-four hours, as I thought they'd be less gassy like that, and I think I was right. With the lentils came a stuffed pig's trotter or zampone, a potato purée and a reduced tomato sauce. A purely Italian meal is an excuse for a great Italian wine. I located a last singleton of Barolo: the 2003 Ascheri Barolo Sorano, which had a sensational aroma of sour cherries and the strength (14.5) to deal with the rustic food. By that time we were reduced to two drinkers, and so after dinner we polished off a bottle of champagne from Heidsieck Monopole, sold by Winerack at the attractive price of £14.99. I had long held a low opinion of Heidsieck Monopole but I had to concede that it had improved by leaps and bounds since my last encounter with it, but perhaps I should keep Mumm about that, while stocks last!

On a Half-Empty Eurostar:
Paris and the Loire

Posted: 7th December 2015

At the end of last month a variety of issues led me to make a rare sally out to Paris and the Loire. It had been an age since I had been to the French capital to do any more than change trains I took a half-empty Eurostar and just over two hours later I was walking from the Gare du Nord to friends in the rue des Martyres. The state of emergency was still in force after the Friday 13th Massacres and armed soldiers patrolled the streets, but that had failed to completely dampen the spirits of the market folk and when I dropped into a florist I was dragged into a light-hearted, bogus matrimonial row between the owners of the shop.

Evenings were spent in the company of old friends too long neglected, but on Sunday I slipped away for lunch in Montparnasse, noting that many of the smaller restaurants in the backstreets were shut, probably as a result of the preposterous 35-hour week. That left little more than a collection of nasty-looking crêperies and the garish cookshops on the boulevard. I am told that since so many people were gunned down on restaurant terraces, Parisians now avoid going out at night, but in most areas restaurants still function well at lunchtime. In the evening only a few bewildered American tourists venture out to eat.

After lunch in a dismal chain-joint, I allowed myself a nostalgic walk back to the slopes of Montmartre. As I emerged from the rue de Montparnasse I recalled the atelier above the Théâtre de Poche and the alleyway that ran down to it, and the midget hockey player who used to park her mini outside the concièrge's lodge in the early hours; there was the late George Hayim's flat in the next-door building, painted garish colours to lure in roughs from the cinema queues. I suppose those crude murals are long gone.

The cinemas were mostly still there, but the magnificent interiors of Chez Hansi appeared to have been ripped out (choucroute has gone out of fashion?) and the place turned into a fashion shop; and there was Félix Potin's art nouveau building, and there 106 bis rue de Rennes, a place of many happy and some sad memories. I walked down the rue du Cheche Midi - the good Italian restaurant was still operating, but closed that day. I looked at all the magnificent hôtels particuliers on the way. Sometimes a light illuminated some fabulous boiseries on the piano nobile of the many palaces in the Quartier Saint Germain.

In the rue du Bac there was the Frégate where I used to eat in solitary splendour until they took away my credit card; and there the bollard in the Louvre where Anne B crashed her Mercedes in a fit of passion. I strolled through the gardens of the Palais Royal and had a look at the prices at the Grand Véfour, the first three-star restaurant I ever ate in. In the Galérie Vivienne was the wine shop of the late Père Legrand and A Priori Thé, which used to be run by a large, sententious American lady married to an Englishman we called Terry the Cake. I have to take my hat off to her creation: it has endured more than thirty years.

I walked past more wonderful buildings in the rue de Montmartre and the rue du Faubourg de Montmatre. The monster gargote Chartier, which used to be filled with poor students eating bread and rillettes for a franc, now has its own souvenir shop like the Hard Rock Cafe in London and the prices have gone up a bit. Avoiding a man sitting in a pool of his own urine I crossed the road and noticed A la bonne mère de famille for the first time. It has a perfectly preserved interior of c1860. I was now within striking distance of the friends who were putting me up and more than ready for a flute of champagne. An old mucker came to dinner who regaled us with wicked stories and provided just the sort of merry distraction I needed.

On the Monday morning Tim Johnston and I set off for the Loire. After a lifetime in French wine, Tim runs Juvenile's Wine Bar together with his daughter Margaux. There was a time when Tim and I used to make this sort of road trip fairly often: in the summer of 1981, I got to know the vineyards of Bordeaux on the back of his motorbike and later he introduced me to the Beaujolais, Sancerre and many different parts of the Rhone Valley. It wasn't easy getting out of Paris that day: the world's leaders were meeting in Le Bourget and much of the Right Bank was shut off. There was a suggestion that the Mouche and her daughters had hitched a lift in Air Force One and were getting some shopping done on the Champs Elysées.

Once we crossed the Seine the traffic flowed rather more freely and we are able to reach Vouvray by lunchtime. We ate in the Val Joli opposite the famous Hardouin delicatessen. We had Hardouin cochonailles to eat and I had a veal chop after. We drank a 2012 dry Haut Lieu from Huet. Later we popped across the road and stocked up on rillettes and other good things.

We had gone to Vouvray to see Catherine Champalou as Tim needed some of her wine for the bar. We tasted some lovely 2013s, 2014s and 2015s from their clay and clay-cum-sand soils: dry, off-dry and sweet; as well as a splendid little sparkler. Then after a mishap or two we headed down to Chinon as darkness enveloped the Loire Valley.

We were making for the Clos des Capucins, which was recently acquired by my old friend Fiona Beeston. It was a little too dark to admire the view so we all settled down to a cosy evening tasting Fiona's lovely second wine: 'Perfectly Drinkable' (and epithet conferred on it by her charming father, the journalist Dick Beeston, who died earlier this year) as well as the much more serious wine from the Clos itself. The 2015s were still under wraps, but the vintage looks very promising.

The full glory of the estate's position dominating the castle in Chinon was not revealed until the following morning when I went out past a gaggle of hens onto the front lawn and took in a breathtaking view of the favourite castle of England's Angevin kings, not to mention the mediaeval bridge over the Vienne. We were due to meet François Houette at ten, who has a business selling truffle trees, and who figures large in the revival of truffle hunting in the region around Chinon. Houette showed us dogs, and two miniature sows which he had trained to sniff out truffles in the local woods. The trees he sells - chiefly oaks and hornbeams - are impregnated with truffle spores so that customers can be assured of harvesting a few precious tubers of melanosporum in the appropriate season.

We drove round various terroirs of Chinon where Fiona explained that some of the best such as Les Piquasses have a percentage of sand in the soil that gives the local Cabernet Franc (called 'Breton' in Chinon) its distinctive qualities. We had a look at the vines that made 'Perfectly Drinkable' and then went into Chinon itself for a coffee and a walk.

Chinon is still a lovely little town with its huge castle and there are several fine mediaeval churches and plenty of good houses too. Like all of provincial France, parts are decaying. The present mayor, Jean-Luc Dupont, thinks he knows the cure. He seems to be determined to leave his mark on the place and achieve a leg up in politics by building a shopping centre in the car park under the castle. I presume this will mean the supermarkets will drive a breach through the walls and the small businesses that are the pleasure of country towns of this sort will be destroyed by trash and the discounted prices of super-national competitors. Perhaps Prince Charles should take up Chinon's cause and protect it from this dreadful mayor? Charles's family used to live in the castle after all.

We had lunch at the Auberge des Coteaux at Cravant which stocks virtually all the cheaper cuvees produced in Chinon. It is a proper, rustic bistrot with a generous all-inclusive menu. We drank Pascal Lambert's  2014 Chinon Les Terrasses.

In the afternoon we had a look round Fiona's walled vineyard and all the delightful nooks and crannies carved into the rock where she keeps her wine and the different preparations for biodynamic viticulture. One nook I envied most revealed itself as a proper bread oven. Under the lawn there is a sort of grotto containing an ancient kitchen range, a perfect setting for bacchanalian revels.

We went to see the local grower Etienne de Bonnaventure at the Château de Coulaine who has a small amount of white wine as well as some ungrafted vines like those that existed all over France before the scourge of phylloxera struck at the end of the nineteenth century. Phylloxera cannot live in pure sand, but Chinon's soils would be sandy loam at best and the risk of infection would still be there. Of the wines from the ungrafted vines I liked the 2006. Etienne revealed that the ungrafted vines ripened later than the others. The best of the grafted vines were from his vines in Les Piquasses and the Clos de Turpenay.

The depressed economic state of France is obvious pretty well everywhere. We went to see one grower whose majestic home had seen better days and whose family were crammed into the one or two rooms they were still able to heat. The local ring road now raced past their door. After a series of disasters, the winemaker himself had taken to sleeping above one of his vats. The most striking thing about our visit was the behavior of his dog, which became visibly worried whenever he picked up a bottle. When the dog heard the cork pop she barked furiously for a minute before calming down. As he had a lot of corks to pop, we witnessed the performance several times. The dog was touchingly worried about her master.

After that, we went to the Café Français, a rather good bar. It was in the centre of Chinon and had been some sort of municipal brothel in the nineteenth century. Today it is more like a good pub. We were joined by a young English chap who lived in Chinon and was well versed in local politics. It was hard to imagine being young and living in sleepy Chinon, but he seemed to manage. When it became too much he had a flourishing business designing nightclubs in Paris. We had dinner at the Auberge Val de Vienne à Sazilly, a stylish restaurant some way outside Chinon. I had foie gras, a copious tête de veau sauce ravigotte, cheese and a tarte fine with an almond ice. After some white burgundy were drank Bernard Baudry's 2012 Clos Guillot. A good cognac was needed to get that down. I was more than ready for bed when we returned to the Clos des Capucins.

Tim and I drove back to Paris early the next day. The police were still swarming, trying to find the missing perpetrator of Friday 13th. We had lunch in Juveniles and I ate a rather good poached egg with bacon and mashed salsifis and some veal breast. Then there was a bit of shopping to do: spices from Roellinger; sweets from that marvelous old-fashioned Tetrel, the sweetshop in the rue des Petits Champs that remains unchanged since the thirties and which still sells some unusual bottles of wines as well; and bread from Tim's favourite baker in the rue des Martyres. I slept for most of the journey back to London, on a half empty Eurostar.

Adieu Mario, German Gourmandises, Rare Whisky and a 40-Year Old Decanter

Posted: 2nd November 2015

RIP Mario Scheuermann (1948-2015)

Mario expired from a heart attack on 15 October. He was sixty-seven. It is an indication of how suddenly he was taken from us that his last tweets were sent on the day of his death and still give every indication that he believed all was well.

Along with Rudi Knoll, Mario was credited with being the pioneer of modern German wine writing. In the Eighties he was enmeshed with the men behind the reforming Charta movement - Bernhard Breuer and Graf Matuschka (both of whom incidentally died premature deaths) - in their call for dry German wines, and he was one of the first to hanker after the classification of German wines that would eventually be realised by the VDP, the association of top German wine estates.

Mario always claimed he was the only German wine writer who had had a proper journalistic training. I have no idea if that was true, but he was a fine taster and his judgements on wine were invariably sound. Later on he became one of the first wine writers to embrace the Internet and see the possibilities of working with Twitter.

Mario was born into a wine making family from Neustadt on the Pfalz wine road and graduated from his grammar school or Gymnasium to the local press before branching out into food writing at the end of the seventies. He was the author of a dozen books, the first of these - on wine - appearing in 1985. In those early days he wrote as much about food. He was quite a sybarite.

Somewhere along the road he became a friend and Boswell to the controversial Hardy Rodenstock (real name Meinhard Görke), a Walter-Mitty figure who earned his bread managing German pop-singers and who was famous for collecting ancient vintages of Yquem, Lafite and Latour. Rodenstock now stands accused of cooking up bogus bottles of these First Growths, feeding them to the great and good at his Munich dinner parties and occasionally selling them off to unwitting American millionaires. Virtually every famous wine writer you might choose to name fell for these concoctions hook, line and sinker and jotted fulsome notes about them in between making small talk with the Schlagersängerinnen (Bavarian equivalents of Sandy Shaw or Millie Small sporting spurious Anglo-Saxon monikers) and the football players who were Rodenstock's habitual côterie. When Rodenstock went to ground after the revelations contained in the excellent book The Billionaire's Vinegar Mario absented himself from his usual haunts for years, although to do him credit, he defended his friend Rodenstock to the last and angrily maintained there was no truth in the allegations that he had knocked up those precious nectars in the basement of his home.

Looking back at it, I must have got to know Mario thought the official Salon tastings in Klosterneuburg. He and I were the only foreigners invited to judge Austrian wines in the sober surroundings of Austria's top wine school. The juries were presided over by the school's wonderfully dignified principal, Hofrat Josef Weiss. Mario and I were very often in agreement about the wines, and in particular about the tiresome and ill-advised use of oak in so many, and we became firm friends.

Mario used to set up wine-tastings in Hamburg and elsewhere at which contributing growers paid hefty fees for participation. There is nothing wrong with that - all wine competitions are organised to make profits for their organisers after all. If you were not careful, however, you were roped in to help and I don't think much money ever was ever reassigned to his assistants! I was warned about this very early on, and always resisted manfully. He used to try to get me to translate his books into English as well and once endeavoured to lure me to Hamburg to talk about my book on the last German Kaiser. There was no money offered and my fares were not to be paid either, but it would apparently have been a 'great honour' for me to attend. For some reason I declined.

I did occasionally consent to work with Mario. For two or three years he arranged a wine 'challenge' at the beautiful castle of the Winkler-Hermadens, Schloss Kapfenstein in Styria and I used to come as one of two or three professional tasters who joined a panel composed of famous growers from the South Styrian wine road. Mario was at his best then, mellow and warm with his fetching baritone voice, petting the family dog Moritz, avuncular with the Winkler-Hermaden children, puffing on a big cigar, encouraging (at a price!) the local growers and above all telling them to enter his Hamburg wine fairs where they might achieve the recognition they deserved.

My favourite memory of Mario, however, will remain an evening in Vienna, when Berthold Salomon had organised a dinner in a private room at Steirereck, then the city's best restaurant, in its original location in the IIIrd Bezirk. Mario arrived late with a young and bewildered-looking girl on his arm whom he described as his secretary. Gently questioned across the table, however, she denied holding that or any other position under Mario and confessed uneasily that she had not met him before that day when he had picked her up in the street. Our host, Berthold did his best not to notice, but somewhere towards the end of the meal, Mario's captive saw her chance and bolted. When Mario perceived that his butterfly had escaped he ran off after her but she evidently gave him  the slip, for he returned a few minutes later, empty-handed and red in the face. He did not remain flustered for long: warming to a rowanberry schnapps and a cigar he acted as though the girl had been a figment of our collective imagination. Shortly afterwards he married his Hungarian wife, confiding in me that her parents were younger than he was.

As I said, there were a number of years after the Rodenstock story broke when Mario went off the radar. I noticed him again three years ago when he came to the Vievinum wine fair in Vienna and seemed reborn to past form. I last saw him in Wiesbaden in August, plotting as ever, constantly conferring with two men during the Sneak Preview tastings, but a cheering sight for all that as he trotted between the tables saluting old friends left and right of the central aisle of the tasting room at the Kursaal. It is his warm, engaging presence that I shall miss the most.

Adieu, and take thy praise with thee to heaven!

Nils Henkel and Gut Hermannsberg

Two days before Mario's death, on 13 October, I was invited to a dinner at Christie's in South Kensington organised by Tesi Baur and the World Gourmet Society. The food was prepared by Nils Henkel, who had taken over the famous Gourmetrestaurant Lerbach in Mönchengladbach from Dieter Müller, and had two Michelin rosettes. The wines came from my old friends at Gut Hermannsberg and were presented by the estate's administrator, Tobias Fricke.

There were four little dishes: a plate of 'burnt' mackerel, couscous and 'oxalis' (wood sorrel); Arctic char with mashed cress, char hard roes and an elderflower/caper vinaigrette; some fine preserved belly pork (which might have benefited from longer braising) with sour fennel (in the manner of sauerkraut) and a roast onion bouillon; and an excellent coconut rice pudding with a pomegranate-cum-ginger sorbet, mangoes and coriander.

As I said, the wines were all from Gut Hermannsberg, the former Prussian State Wine Domaine constructed after closing the copper mine at Schlossböckelheim a century ago. The present owners positively cultivate the terroir aspect which means that the wines can be austere - although the sekt we started with was fairly bland. The 2014 dry Schlossböckelheimer Riesling was still quite aggressively sulphury, but promising; while its 2013 stable mate from the Steinterrassen was typically high in acidity from its less-than-favoured vintage;  the 2010 Grosses Gewächs from the Kupfergrube was the best of the dry wines, nicely balanced with a nutty nose and a peachy palate; a classic 2013 sweet Spätlese from the Steinberg stole the show: the solution in 2013 was to leave a little more residual sugar to cover the otherwise searing acidity.

Diageo Special Releases

The world of whisky writing has changed almost beyond recognition in the last decade. I attended  a tasting of wonderful old whiskies on the 20th of October and was amazed not to see a single journalistic face I knew at the old Doric Armoury in Hyde Park, not even that stalwart of hard liquor Ian Wisniewski, although I was later assured that he had been there, I must have missed him in the depths of the immense crowd. Still there were compensations for the lack of old cronies in the whiskies themselves.

There was, for example, a 40-year old Cally from the huge Edinburgh Caledonian distillery that closed in 1988. It was pure grain and had an estery, nail-varnish-like nose and a fruity, nervous palate quite marked by oak (£750); an unpeated 17-year old Caol Ila from the northern tip of Islay with an intense, chocolate-like aroma and a typical salty tang on the palate with a hint of chilli (£90); a 'Select Reserve' from Clynelish, rich and oily with a waxy favour and charming fruit (£550); the fourth official bottling of Dailluane, a 34-year old malt with a heathery nose and a flavour of pears and chocolate together with a suggestion of peat (the floor-maltings closed in 1983 - £380); a 25-year old Dalwhinnie with a nose reminiscent of pastry and a light, feminine body (£325); a 25-year old Pittyvaich from a still that lasted only twenty years, that I found heathery, earthy, rich and chocolatey to the degree that I regretted that the place had been so pitilessly slaughtered in its prime (£250); a 12-year old Lagavulin smelling of kippers with a hint of dried apricots on the palate. It was almost my favourite, and the cheapest in the collection (£80); a peaty 32-year old Port Ellen from the now demolished distillery on Islay with a touch of kippered herring about it, but not nearly so domineering as the Lagavulin. The palate was leathery and salty (£2,400); and finally my favourite, a 37-year old Brora that was fruity and leathery all at once and had the perfect balance of fruit which seemed to go on and on forever (£1,300).


It was Decanter magazine's 40th Birthday Party on the 22nd, held upstairs at the ICA in Carlton House Terrace. I had only visited the bit of the building on the Mall before, and was surprised to find there was a civilised part where you could admire the Nash architecture, not to mention the view out over St. James's Park on an unbelievably balmy night in late October.

I could not pretend my connection with the magazine goes back to its foundation. I began working for the now defunct WINE in the early eighties and only flipped to Decanter at the end of the decade. I knew two of the three founders well enough: Colin Parnell, a shy man who rarely emerged from his office, and the Australian Tony Lord, who was Parnell's perfect opposite: coarse, rude and drunken for all the time I saw him, if he had a more sedate side to his character it possibly only revealed itself while he was asleep.

Not that he slept or ate much as it might have interfered with his drinking. When a doctor put him off alcohol because he had managed to contract typhoid in South America, he drank beer, because he said that wasn't alcoholic. There was a story about his staying in smart hotel where he had got out of bed to find the sheets smeared with alarming brown stains. Assuming the worst he stripped the bed before calling the laundry. While he was discretely folding the sheets, however, he got a whiff of the brown stuff and it dawned on him that it was nothing more sinister than the chocolate the obliging chambermaid had laid on his pillow as a goodnight treat.

There were usually fireworks when the good Lord turned up at tastings. He would generally get it into his head to be rude to someone. Once it was a highly respected lady MW who drew his fire, when he loudly speculated on the colour of her pubic hair. Her husband was a gentleman of the old school, and for a moment I thought he was going to have to satisfy his wife's outraged dignity by striking Lord, but at that precise moment a group of men picked Tony up and ushered him out of the building.

When I first started working for the magazine it was based in a Gothic Revival building by Battersea Park Station and from the tasting room you could watch the trains coming in and out. After the tastings we sat down to lunch to evaluate the wines. A barrel-shaped former restaurateur called David Wolfe was often there, sleeping between mouthfuls but he would spring to life when his opinion was canvassed. The commissioning was performed by a shy young chemistry graduate called David Rowe. I went all the way to Chile with David, a man possessed of a fine sense of humour and I remember him doctoring bottles of wine with vinegar that were discretely passed to an annoying know-all we called 'Arturo Prat', who was insisting that the Sauvignon Blanc he was drinking in heroic draughts was not acetic. We knew better.

None of these lively early figures in the magazine's history was at the birthday bash, Colin and Tony have departed this life, David went to live in Bordeaux and I think might still be there. His successor as editor fell foul of the publishers and went to Paris where he led a wild and picaresque existence for a while. The only witness to those distant days present was a radiant Emma Wellings, who worked under Rowe for a while, and is now running a wine PR firm. Decanter is a much sleeker, tighter, slicker institution now and a reflection of a more serious, professional approach to wine that is in keeping with the Zeitgeist. When Tony Lord retired to Australia he found to his chagrin that there were few people left who would drink wine with him at breakfast. Still, fuelled by lashings of Gosset champagne, we let our hair down that night and let us hope the magazine outlives us all.

More German Wines and Chablis in Provence

Posted: 5th October 2015

As if the tasting marathon in Wiesbaden were not enough, there were more German wines to be tasted in London last month, courtesy of Justerini & Brooks. With the admirable Hew Blair at the helm, J & B has the agencies for some of the very best domaines in Germany. Again the focus was on 2014, but the estates had been kind enough to tack on a few other wines and unlike Wiesbaden, the focus was not necessarily on the dry grand cru GGs so there was a chance to taste the rare Kabinetts and Spätlesen and even the odd Auslese that was made last year.

One of those I had not seen was August Kesseler's Lorcher Seligmacher ('the one that blesses you'), a really lovely wine. Emrich-Schönleber brought along some really super traditionally sweet wines from his Halenberg site (blue slate and quartz) in the Nahe, a splendid Kabinett, a Spätlese and even an Auslese. There were more treats from Helmut Dönnhoff: a spicy Riesling from his 45-year old vines on the red sandstone soils of the Höllenpfad; another from the slate soils of the Leichenberg; a Spätlese from the Oberhäuser Brücke and another (even better) from the Hermannshöhle. There was even a drop of gorgeous Auslese, made from the ripest grapes: there was little or no 'noble' rot in 2014, just pernicious 'green' rot.

For an ostensibly old-fashioned wine merchant like J & B, selling often to died-in-the-wool customers who like off-dry and sweet German wines and abjure the 'newfangled' dry wines, this was of course a chance to show off the sort of things you don't meet in Wiesbaden. Forstmeister Geltz Zilliken had a sensational Saarburger Rausch Spätlese that exuded almost tropical fruit aromas. The Auslese might overtake it with time, and to remind us how good these things can be, there was a delicious 1999 Spätlese.

Maximin Grünhaus is one of the rare top estates that is not part of the VDP. The wines come from former monastic vineyards that were segregated to provide wine for the abbot's table, while lesser quality stuff was doled out to mere monks. The monks drank leaner wines, but still, I would have been a joyful cenobite with the 2014 vintage, and an even happier abbot with the Herrenberg Spätlese, although it should not be approached for four or five years yet.

Fritz Haag has been one of a handful of top players in the Mosel for a generation. Again the sweeter wines were pleasant surprise, such as the 2014 Brauneberger Kabinett and the Brauneberger Juffer Sonnenuhr Spätlese and Auslese No. 10, with its redolence of peaches and mangoes.

Willi Schaefer in Graach is another one of those Mosel estates that has Riesling fans salivating at the mere thought of the wines. Two Kabinetts shone for me: the Himmelreich and the Domprobst. Willi Haag's son Thomas makes the wines at Schloss Lieser. The GG had impressed me greatly in Wiesbaden, but here in the Caledonian Club I had the chance to sample the Helden Spätlese with its whiff of lavender and a glorious Auslese and a Goldkapsel (top Auslese) too. These wines are still quite closed. It would be a great pity to open then for five years or more.

Riesling enthusiasts think of JJ Prüm as a sort of place of pilgrimage. It is very rare that you get the chance to taste the wines anywhere else, which are made in tiny quantities. Nor are they easy to evaluate as the sulphur on them does not clear for around five years, and as young wines they are frankly stinky. It is a bit like the Battle of Austerlitz, when the battlefield was shrouded by mists which were eventually burned off by the sun allowing Napoleon to trounce the Russians in one of his most celebrated victories. After half a dozen years or so, the wines are sweetness and light. In this collection the 2009 Graacher Himmelreich Spätlese was just about ready to drink (even if it would be better to wait) with its creamy peachiness, while the Wehlener Sonnenuhr from the same vintage was hugely lush and dense. The best of all was the 2008 Wehlener Sonnenuhr Spätlese.

A couple of Rheingauer to finish: Josef Spreitzer, the current star of Oestrich had brought in a lovely collection, and Wilhelm Weil in Kiedrich had produced a powerful Kabinett that should satisfy anyone who shuns the dry GGs.

September means Provence and the Ventoux. They had had a blistering summer that was quite unlike our non-event here. By the time I arrived on the 16th, the whites were in but storms were gathering and Florent Chave, the winemaker at the Domaine des Anges, thought he would be forced to bring in the black grapes as quickly as possible. The Grenache looked good, and the Syrah, he said, was very healthy. It would would certainly be a fine year. Rain came down in torrents on the morning of the 17th, but the next few days were hot and windy and you would not have known there had been a drop of moisture, as the ground was very soon rock hard again.

A good summer was reflected in the quality of the fruit and vegetables in the market, melons were good and sweet and the lavender honey was back. Last year the cold and rain disorientated the bees and there was almost none to be had. The prices have shot up and I doubt they'll come down again. Pierre Bruno brought up a few kilos of figs from his place in the Var and taught me how to make fig jam. Figs being so sweet, you only need to add 500 grams of sugar per kilo of fruit, and then you stop the cooking as soon as the mixture begins to bubble. It makes a delicious brew, somewhere between a jam and a compote.

There were moments when our fare was more Provencal this time than it usually is and I even ate an aïoli one night at La Calade in Blauvac although I search the markets high and low for brandade de morue, I never see it.

The highlight of the trip was once again our tasting at Bob Huddie's place down in the village. He had brought out a collection of chablis from the 2012 vintage. I used to go to Chablis in January every year at a time in the nineties when many growers used to smother their wines with oak. It was nice to see that most have given up now, and the wines had that characteristic flinty, 'mousseron' character untrammelled by alien vanilla aromas and with impressive length.

Indeed, I think I liked them all, from the humble Petit Chablis wines of Agnes and Didier and Vincent Dauvissat to the Premier crus Les Fourneaux from J-P Grossot, the Montée de Tonnerre from Louis Michel and above all the Vosgros from Gilbert Picq. There were two Premier crus from William Fèvre: Vaillons and Vaulorent, both of which were slightly marred by the smell of sulphur. I think this will come off with time. Certainly there was nothing wrong with the structure. Of the two Grands crus: the Louis Michel's Grenouilles and the Moreau Naudet Valmur, I'd say the former could be happily drunk now, but the latter needs a couple of years yet before you might broach it. Both are classics.

As usual, we settled into an excellent lunch cooked by the wonderful Isabelle: summer truffles with rock salt, Bob's spicy tomato soup, a magnificent daube, cheese and lemon or orange givrés (a sorbet served in the fruit's shell)  Magnums of 2006 Château Cantemerle accompanied the daube, and an envoi came in the form of some Domaine Charvin Châteauneuf-du-Pape, one of our host's favourite wines and rightly so: the wines are full of fruit and spice and the winemaker neither dresses up the fruit with oak nor does he impoverish his basic cuvées by making small batches of overpriced wine to impress American critics. It was sheer delight.

A Tasting Marathon in Wiesbaden

Posted: 1st September 2015

For the last few years I have travelled to Wiesbaden in late August to taste three or four hundred of the new vintage's Grosses Gewächs wines released by the VDP, the organisation that represents almost all of Germany's top estates. Grosses Gewächs ('GG') are dry wines made according to a Burgundian notion of 'climat'; products of the best individual plots of soil or terroir. Sites are therefore deemed more important than they were in the old German tradition of 'Prädikat,' or grading by residual sugar content, which implied that the best wines were the sweetest.

Dinner in Münster-Sarmsheim

The night before the big tastings in Wiesbaden, we hacks were treated to a tasting and dinner at the Kruger-Rumpf estate in the Nahe. As the Nahe is a very small region, they had teamed up with the red wine-producing Ahr to present some good bottles from the cool 2004 vintage. The 2004 had been chosen not just because it was now mature, but also because it was said to resemble the 2014. As we assembled in the courtyard armed with a glass of local Sekt, a small trickle of rain fell, the first drops to bless the torrid growing season in 2015. The summer heat had been so unrelenting that picking had already begun in the neighbouring Pfalz.

The 2014 vintage was presented by the affable Georg Kruger-Rumpf. I was dreading another 2013, where the wines were often sharp and unripe and where all sorts of unsatisfying shenanigans had been used to correct the acidity, but Georg assured us that the grapes were ripe at the time of the September rains which caused the rot to set in. Those who were careful to discard putrid bunches and berries (that means the top estates who can be assured of a higher price for their wines) were able to make good if not great dry wines. On the other hand there was no return to the long slow autumn, or 'goldener Oktober', so beloved of German winemakers and there will be few good traditional sweet wines in 2014, beyond a scattering of Kabinetts.

I am a great fan of the Nahe, and of Kruger-Rumpf in particular, and their first wine, a 2004 GG from the steep, slate Pittersberg was no disappointment. The real star of the Nahe, however, is the Hermann Dönnhoff estate and the 2004 Hermannshöhle was a dream of a wine. Just a few steps behind it in quality was the Schäfer-Fröhlich Felseneck, grown on one of the Nahe's many patches of volcanic soil.

After these flights came dinner served with a set of 2014 Nahe wines and some 2012 reds from the Ahr. We had a salad of Saumagen (a stuffed pig's stomach, a sort of Palatine haggis), lambs lettuce and Bergkäse and my favourites were the lemony Emrich-Schönleber 'Mineral' and the apricot and grapefruit-scented Steinrossel from Prince Salm. Next we were served some braised oxcheek topped with a slab of foie gras which worked best with the Nelles Burggarten Pinot Noir, the Mayer-Näkel Sonnenberg and the Deutzerhof Eck. We finished off with an arty plum crumble and some traditional sweet Kabinetts from the 2014 vintage. The two most promising seemed to be the Gut Hermannsberg  and the Dönnhoff Leistenberg, but it is early days for these classics yet.

The Show Continues in Wiesbaden

The real tasting began the following morning and continued for two days. I started with the Rieslings. My impression seemed to confirm everything that Georg Kruger-Rumpf had said: these wines (north of the Main at least) were exemplary German dry whites. In the Mosel, Heymann-Löwenstein was on top form, with both the Kirchweg and Stolzenberg in Hatzenport promising great things. In a more well-mannered, feminine style, the Winninger Röttgen was also lovely. Clemens Busch also had a great year (but the leading French wine guru Michel Bettane disagreed with me at the party that night!) with his wines from the Marienburg in Ponderich. I felt Ernst Loosen had come down a notch (again Bettane was of the other opinion) but he has had the ball in the air for so long it would be only human for him to tire. Still, his Wehlener Sonnenuhr will be a treat. 

It is a sad fact of life that estates go up and down. One that seemed to have regained its past form in 2014 was Geheimrat J Wegeler which also produced a stunning Wehlener Sonnenuhr as well as a delightful wine from the legendary Bernkastler Doctor site. There is a lot of legend at the Doctor, and a good deal of myth too, but this wine I would recommend highly to anyone.

Thomas Haag at Schloss Lieser made a very fine Niederberger Helden as well as lovely Brauneberger Juffer Sonnenuhr and his father Wilhelm at Fritz Haag (unsurprisingly) produced a wonderful wine from the Sonnenuhr as well. Reinhold Haart on the Wintricher Ohligsberg and in his slice of the Goldtröpfchen in Piesport, made sublime wines as usual, and built to last. Grans Fassian in Trittenheim turned out both a delicious Laurentiuslay and a gorgeous Apotheke.

In the Ruwer my top wine was the chunky, citrussy Kanzemer Altenberg from von Orthegraven who also made a wonderful Ockfener Bockstein in the Saar. Also from the Saar came a marvellous Saarburger Rausch from Geltz Zilliken. My discovery of the year here was Peter Lauer, the author of a splendid Ayler Kupp and a Schodener Saarfeilser that was almost as good.

It did not surprise me that there was nothing outstanding from the Saale-Unstrutt or the Mittelrhein, but I have to say that Pawis's Freyburger Edelacker from the former is a very creditable wine, while Toni Jost, the former star of the Mittelrhein, now produces better wines from his sites in the eastern Rheingau. I approached the Rheingau nervously, as it had been more or less routed in 2013. As it transpired, I had no need to worry: the region has returned to top form.

In Hochheim the top wine was the super-dependable (but oddly unfashionable) Domdechaney from Domdechant Werner. In Martinsthal, the best estate was Diefenhardt which seems to be surging ahead at the moment. Weil's first rate Kiedricher Gräfenberg was still very closed but also extremely promising, while in Hallgarten, Prinz at the Jungfer and Barth on Schönhell brought forth super wines. There was a fine Hallgartener Hohenrain from Jung, and a wonderful Marcobrunn from the State Domaine at Eberbach.

In Oestrich, both Wegeler and Spreitzer made masterly wines in the Rosengarten. Spreitzer might have used a bit of oak on his Mittelheimer St Nikolaus but it is lovely for all that. In Hattenheim the leaders were Spreitzer (Wisselbrunnen) and Barth (Hassel), while in Winkel Fritz Allendorf made superb wines in Hasensprung and the Jesuitengarten.  His chief rivals for supremacy in the latter are J B Schönleber - also a beautiful wine - and our old friend Wegeler.

Schloss Vollrads had returned to form, and on the Johannisberg there were great wines from the Schloss itself and from the Prinz von Hessen at Klaus. At Rüdesheim, the best Berg Rottland was from Johannishof and the nicest Berg Schlossberg from Wegeler who also produced a first rate, playful wine on the Geisenheimer Rothenberg.

By now I had reached the Nahe and two outstanding wines from Kruger-Rumpf: the Dautenpflänzer and Im Pitterberg from Münster-Sarmsheim. It came as no surprise to me to find that Dönnhoff's Norheimer Dellchen was one of the best wines of the year, nor was the Hermannshöhle or the Schlossböckelheimer Felsenberg far behind. Helmut Dönnhoff has received some stick of late, since he transferred responsibility for winemaking to his son, Cornelius, but these 2014s show that the estate is by no means be written off.

In the southern Nahe, the wines become more powerful, especially as they approach Monzingen. The best here were from Schäfer-Fröhlich.

There was good news from Prince Salm at the old Villa Sachsen estate at Bingen in Rheinhessen. I liked both the Kirchberg and the Scharlachberg. The south-east facing Rhine Terraces did well in 2014, with a good Nackenheimer Rothenberg from Gunderloch and an even better one from Kühling-Gillot (who also came into his own with this vintage). The star of Pettenthal was Rappenhof (another estate to watch), but closely followed by St Antony and Gunderloch. St Antony made good things in Ölberg and Hipping, and the Rappenhof on the Herrenberg.

I was less impressed by the wines of the Wonnegau this year, although I admired Groebe's Westhofener Aulerde as well as both Gutzler's and Wittmann's Morstein. Wagner-Stempel in Seifersheim made a spectacular Höllberg, and the Heerkretz was good as well. In Dittelsheim, the star was Winter, particularly on the Kloppberg.

In general, as I proceeded south, I was less and less impressed. There were good things in the Pfalz but few outstanding wines. Philipp Kuhn's Im Grossen Garten vineyard in Grosskarlbach stood out and Pfeffingen's Ungsteiner Herrenberg was not far behind. For the first time ever, I think, none of the top holdings of the famous 'Bs' (von Bühl, Bassermann-Jordan and Bürklin-Wolf) in Forst or Deidesheim stole my fancy.  In Forst the best for me were Achim-Magin and Georg Mosbacher. Achim-Magin and possibly Bürklin-Wolf led the pack in Pechstein, and Mosbacher excelled on the Freundstück.

In the Jesuitengarten, Achim-Magin led the field by a length while the most monstrous Ungeheuer was Mosbacher's, followed by Bürkin-Wolf's. Achim-Magin romped home in the Kirchenstück beating Bassermann-Jordan by a furlong. The best of the Bassermann-Jordan collection was the Deidesheimer Kalkofen. In general the 2014 wines from the Pfalz lack some of their characteristic power. There was some decent stuff from Rebholz in the south.

In Franconia the Staatlicher Hofkeller in Würzburg made a very good Stein, but there were no other wines from within the city walls that thrilled me. The top scorers were Sauer, Wirsching and Paul Fürst. Sauer was at his best on the Lump, Wirsching on the Julius-Echter-Berg and Fürst the Centgrafenberg.

Württemberg seems to have stepped a few paces forward, at least as far as Riesling is concerned. I liked the Verrenberg from Prince Hohenlohe-Oehringen, and Graf Neipperg's Ruthe. The best of all is Aldinger, particularly his Lämmler, although it is worth looking out of Schnaitmann too. Nothing at all excited me among the crop of Badenese Rieslings on show.

That finished off the Rieslings for me. For the Franken Silvaners it came as no surprise that the quality should reside with Wirsching on the Julius-Echter-Berg and Kronsberg and Horst Sauer on the Lump. I liked Schmitt's Kinder's Pfülben and Bickel-Stumpf's Mönchsberg too.

Weisser Burgunder (Pinot Blanc) is quite often coshed with oak in Germany - a simple formula that makes creamy wines that are pleasant enough but lack breed. The best tend to be from the south, but my favourite 2014 was actually Pawis's pretty, buttery Edelacker from Saale-Unstrutt. I also liked Philipp Kuhn and Bergdolt in the Pfalz and even more, Seeger's Herrenberg Oberklamm from Baden. The Grauer Burgunders (Pinot Gris) tend to be big, oaky, alcoholic monsters. The best for me were Andreas Laible's Plauelrain am Bühl, Freiherr von und zu Franckenstein's Abtsberg Pfaffengässle, Bernhard Huber's Bienenberg and Salwey's Eichberg and Henkenberg in Baden, all of whom avoid the pitfalls of over-oaking the pudding.

The reds shown in Wiesbaden this year were mostly 2013s and not really very promising from north of the River Main. I was short on time by then and took advice from my friend Claude Kolm, who pushed me towards Franconia and Baden. The results were fairly predictable. In Franken the star was once again Paul Fürst. All his wines need time but the most approachable was the Centgrafenberg, and the most closed the Hundsrück. In Baden the honours fall to Bernhard Huber. The most open for the time being are the Bienenberg and the Wildenstein; the Schlossberg and the Sommerhalde need to be put away for a few years. My next favourite in Baden was Salwey on the Kaiserstühl. The Eichberg is particularly good. Both Huber and Salwey have lost their paterfamilias recently, but it seems that in both estates, the winemaking is in safe hands with the new generation. Dr Heger is also very good.

It should be borne in mind that many top estates were absent from the tasting and that a lot of the smaller wines may well have been affected by rot, but from what I saw, the dry white wines from north of the Pfalz were often excellent, and there were some good reds in 2013.  

Moldovan Wines

Just one more thing: I also had some Moldovan wines from Laithwaites which I thought worth a few lines of praise. The Chateau Vartely Cabernet Sauvignon 2013 was really excellent quality for £8.99: quite chunky, but full of tangy blackcurrant fruit. The other wines in the series were a big, supple red and an oaky white, both of which came in heavy glass bottles. The quality of the wine-making was excellent in both cases, but I would have preferred a more integrated use of oak in the white: Purcari Rara Neagra 14 (£11.49), Alb de Purcari 13 (£16.49).

The Sorry Demise of D R Harris

Posted: 11th August 2015

I normally write about wine and food in these pages, but bitter constraint and sad occasion dear compels me to diversify a bit, and talk about the chemist D R Harris. Harris's has been a feature of St James's for some 225 years and I have been buying soaps, shampoos, lotions, oils and ointments from Harris's since I was a lad of eighteen. First of all it was the almond oil soap that seduced me, then the coconut oil shampoo. For a while I used their 'His' brand of aftershave, but since I became a mature brute I feel I have less need of the great smell of Brut and have forsworn all forms of scent. There was a nice face lotion apparently made from cucumbers which I bought for a while, and a 'His Silky' bath oil which also found favour. It was rebranded (I think) 'Albemarle' (my publishers were in Albemarle Street, so that was cosy), and of course there was the lavender oil shaving cream which I use to this day. I am quite devoted to anything with lavender oil in it.

Harris's is part of the extended purlieus of Jermyn Street where old-fashioned men buy shirts, shoes, soap and occasionally cheese. Although it is patronised by royalty and must take in its share of dukes from Whites and earls from Brooks's, it is not a snooty place, at least not until recently. For years and years, two delightful ladies in white coats have served customers with considerable charm. As Harris's was always a dispensing chemist, licensed to issue aspirin to any griping grandee who might have been poisoned by the food in his club, there was nothing chichi about the shop. The problems began (as always) when the marketing men got their feet in the door and then the products I liked so much began to mutate. The first run in I had with Harris's concerned 'Albemarle', which appeared to change its nature (and its colour) overnight. As it was already fiendishly expensive, I wrote off it as an unjustifiable luxury. Then there was a problem with the soap, which no longer smelled of roses and carnations, but they rectified that soon after and I have had no more cause to complain. In the course of my gentle remonstrations with the ladies in the white coats, however, I learned the reason for the 'drift': Harris had long since ceased to manufacture its wares, but commissioned others to make them up from their recipes, often with unfortunate results. The next hiccup concerned the shampoo: what had been dense and granular suddenly became sloppy. A new manufacturer was tried out, and it returned almost to normal, and that was how things remained until a few months ago.

The big changes occurred when Harris's owners decided to redevelop their wonderful old premises. The shop itself, which is regularly besieged by groups of admiring tourists, was considered to have insufficient window-display space and the heritage-boffins have been hoodwinked into allowing them a bit more. I doubt the upper floors have been generating sufficient income either. The premises were shut and remain shut, although we are told that they will reopen soon. Until that day, the business has been split in two. The nice ladies in the white coats who made up the prescriptions were relocated to Bury Street, while the more profitable business of selling soaps and unguents was moved to a small shop at the southern end of the Burlington Arcade in Piccadilly.

The real rot seems to have set in in this Piccadilly branch (which I was told will be retained when St. James's reopens). The first time I went into the new premises I was told by a rude young assistant there were no large pots of shampoo and there would not be any for months. Had I tried shopping online? The next two occasions I dropped in passed off without major incident. I was even given a 'loyalty card' by a well-spoken managerial type and told if I spent an awful lot of money I would get something for nothing. When I finally did obtain the shampoo, however, it bore not the slightest resemblance to the original, it was both sloppy and gelatinous - and not in the least bit granular - and it smelled of bananas rather than coconuts. It could have been any cheap shampoo, except that it was very expensive. Last week I entered Harris's new branch for what was possibly the last time. The man who gave me the loyalty card looked at me as if I was something the cat had brought in. He was serving some tourists who were dithering over their purchases and he was clearly expecting to make a lot of money. I wanted a refill for my shaving bowl which a cost a mere £10.99. Apparently at that price, I did not even merit a paper bag let alone a smile or a word of welcome. Enough is enough, I said to myself, as I slipped the soap into an old canvas bag I had on me, I don't think I shall be coming here again.

In truth, Harris's decline mirrors a general malaise that has affected much of Jermyn Street and the streets around. The old gentlemanly trade has been written off as worthless. Loyal customers are shoved aside in the hope of appealing to tourists. Some parts of Jermyn Street they can keep. Nothing in the world would have ever induced me to enter the spivs' paradise that is Turnbull & Asser. Hilditch & Key is only marginally better and hosts semi-permanent sales. Paxton & Whitfield has changed hands, but it is, at least, still a good cheesemonger. I have ceased to patronise the barber Ivan, as I now use Cypriot Michael here where I live, and it has become part of the Trumper's empire. Harvie & Hudson is still very much its old self, and even if Mr Hudson is no more, an octogenarian Mr. Harvie still serves customers in the shop at the Haymarket end. The shoemaker Trickers is also largely unaffected, but I have heard grumbles about New & Lingwood, and even from Old Etonians, whose loyalty is formed early on at the branch in Eton High Street.

I suppose I must now take my trade to Floris? It is a hard, hard thing to change the habits of a lifetime.

Irish Days

On Bastille Day I was invited to be guest speaker at a Provençal dinner a the Kildare Street Club in Dublin, at which the wines of the Domaine des Anges were to be served. It was a sunny day, and I had a nice - if sober - walk round the city before I had to perform my role. The next day I was driven up to a friend's Queen Anne house in Termonfeckin in County Louth, a delightful place buzzing with bees and animals of all descriptions. My family was arriving that night so we went to the fishmonger in the harbour at Clogherhead, and popped into various shops in Drogheda to lay in supplies.

The Fisherman's Catch in the Clogherhead Harbour is owned by John and Michelle Kirwan, who supply it from their own fishing boat. There is a splendid range and we bought turbot and 'black' sole. It seems the black sole is the same as the British 'Dover' sole, but many people in Ireland dispute this and claim the black sole is a native of Dublin Bay. The local beach is covered with the remains of razor clams. They are extensively fished and a big earner locally as they are all shipped out to an insatiable Chinese market. The natives, it seems, won't touch them. In Drogheda, butchers' shops revealed the strong tradition of Irish pork butchery, which pops up at the fictional Dlugacz in Joyce's Ulysses with its' hanks of sausages, polonies, black and white'. Nowadays at least, Irish butchers' shops are very pink, with their mounds of sausages, boiling bacon and 'rashers.' Strangely enough, natural casings seem to be a rarity and the sausages that accompany rashers, eggs, black and white puddings in the standard 'fry' are straight. The fry deserves 'World Heritage Status' as it is still just about the most reliable meal in Ireland now that you need to drive for miles for a stew or a plate of bacon and cabbage.

The weather blew hot, cold and wet, although there was glorious sunshine on the day we left. We went into Dublin, to look at Trinity among other things. The city seems to have completely recovered from the gloom of five years ago and is so crowded with Continental teenagers it is hard to maintain your feet on the pavement. The collapse of so  many businesses, however, has resulted in their places being taken by chains so that, with the exception of the traditional pubs, much of the city's character has seeped away. It is hard enough now, to find an old fashioned baker in the centre of town, but you can get sourdough and ciabatta virtually anywhere. Irish 'brown' or 'soda' bread, on the other hand, is available pretty well everywhere in the country. Our local town, Drogheda is still depressed and there is a lot of unemployment. We paid the obligatory visit to Saint Oliver Plunkett, or rather his head, which after it quit his body at Tyburn was taken home and eventually set up in St Peter's church.

Our homage to St. Oliver took place before a feast for which a local butcher had pickled and smoked a great length of pork. Friends arrived from the North, bearing gifts, including a magnum of 1955 Margaux from Château Marquis de Terme. It was mid-shoulder, and becoming acetic. Still it had a good twenty minutes life in it before it became too sharp. There was also a 1955 port from the Real Companhia - perhaps not the greatest '55, but still a treat. The best wine with the pork was a 2012 Hochheimer Kirchenstück GG from Domdechant Werner. We all seem to drink red wine with pork these days, but a good dry Riesling like this has the cut and thrust to deal with the fat and seemed to me at least, a much better solution. People are very down on white wines these days, I suppose because now that they are mostly technically correct, they have become utterly boring.

Our idyll in Ireland was sadly short. On Sunday night we flew home to spend a quiet summer in London.

Wines from the Brno Road

Posted: 1st July 2015

The road from Austrian Vienna to Brno in the modern Czech Republic has enormous historical resonance. For a large percentage of Austro-Hungarian Jews, it used to be the highway to success. Brno was one of the staging posts for the Imperial capital, just as Breslau was for Jews starting out on their way to fame and fortune in Berlin. Southern Moravia remained largely German speaking after 1918 and Brno (or Brünn, as Austrians and Germans called it) was still to a great extent a German city twenty-one years later when Hitler invaded Bohemia and Moravia and harangued the crowd from the steps of the town hall. At the end of the War, a furious Czech minority wrought its revenge by ousting the city's German-speakers. The expellees hit the road to Vienna on the so-called Brno Death March, dying in droves along the way.

They were driven along the Brno Road or Brünnerstraße to the Thaya River where Czech Southern Moravia ends and the Austrian Weinviertel begins. There Austrians rescued the luckier ones. I don't suppose there are many survivors left, but if there are, they won't have forgotten.

Both the Weinviertel (nomen est omen) and Southern Moravia are wine regions, the Czechs produce their wines with the same grapes as the Austrians, particularly in the vineyards around the town of Mikulov formerly Nikolsburg: and that means Grüner Veltliner and Weissburgunder (Pinot Blanc). Nikolsburg was incidentally where the Hochheim star-winemaker Gunter Künstler's father came from. He was another of the German-speakers hounded out in 1945, eventually finding his way to the Rheingau where he worked as a cellar hand for the Michels at Domdechant Werner.

I am happy to say, however, that not every story of the Brno Road, is as tragic. These days the 'Brünnerstraße' is chiefly a metaphor for wine. The road was famous for the vineyards found right and left and little wines that - according to a coarse local epithet - had the capacity to draw in your shirt tails up through your backside. The 'Brünnerstraßler' was therefore a byword for a lip-smackingly, shoulder-shudderingly, acidic wine. But sharp wines have their uses too and the village of Poysdorf on the Brünnerstraße is the home of the base wines for Austrian Sekt or sparkling wine.

The high watermark of Austrian Sekt was the Gründerzeit, after the formation of the Dual Monarchy in 1867. It was the time of Strauss waltzes and louche comings-and-goings in Vienna's Prater park; of Der Rosenkavalier and the slightly risqué tales of  Schnitzler and Stefan Zweig; of Lehár and the Merry Widow. It was also the period chiefly associated with Dr Freud. All those libidos and lots more were fuelled by Sekt, and notably from the establishments of Schlumberger, Mounier and Kattus in the Viennese suburb of Döbling. In the nineteenth century there were dozens of other names to conjure with, but their numbers declined with the fortunes of Empire. There was even one in Retz with the delicious and possibly well-founded name of 'Verderber' (Despoiler).  Kattus no longer uses the champagne method but it makes some excellent still wine in Nußdorf. The base wines for its Sekt still come from Poysdorf. If you are interested, Schlumberger has a good Weissburgunder cuvée, and Mounier makes a pure Riesling Sekt.

I mention Poysdorf and the Brünnerstraße because I was entertained to a lavish dinner last Monday by those hospitable Merry Widows Linn Rothstein and Charlotte Bendel and to my surprise they had a collection of bottles from Helmut Taubenschuss, the best grower in Poysdorf by a very long chalk, and an estate which I have always believed to have been massively undervalued. Naturally we started out with a nicely zingy Sekt, but then proceeded to Grüner Veltliners and Weissburgunders that were every bit as good as I remembered them from my first encounter with the wines a quarter of a century ago.

As I said, most of the grapes grown in Poysdorf are used for Sekt, and Sekt houses like Welschriesling for its clean, neutral character. This will explain why the Taubenschusses make still wine with it. Unlike most Weinviertel growers, who lead with that Grüner Veltliner which adapts well to their mostly clay soils, Helmut Taubenschuss's best wines have always been his Weissburgunders from the Steinbergen, which (and this is often true of the cultivar) have remarkable ageing potential. Nor are his Grüner Veltliners bad: with time they throw off interesting peachy aromas. He also has respectable Riesling wines gown on the loess soils of the Waldberg.

Taubenschuss is not the sole good grower in the northern stretch of the Brünnerstraße and there is always new blood bubbling up - Taubenschuss himself is a good example of this, as he has largely handed over the reins to his sons Markus and Thomas. In Wilfersdorf, for example, there is the last fragment of what was once a vast Liechtenstein estate. When I last visited, they had forty-two hectares (100 acres) of vines and made some very creditable reds from Zweigelt and Merlot and well as highly-prized Traminers and Rieslings. It has been a long time since I have seen the wines or the estate, but I hope one day to be able to taste what progress they have made.

The vineyard accounts for only a fraction of the 3,000 property which is still owned by the Princes Liechtenstein, more famous for their tiny principality on the Swiss Border. Eight thousand acres may seem pretty big, but in 1945, the section south of the Thaya was little more than an annexe. The Czechs made off with the rest of it, as that was located north of the river. That bit of land amounted to around 200,000 hectares, or half a million acres. I don't suppose the Liechtensteins have forgotten either.

The Land of Dumplings

Posted: 1st June 2015

I have been spending many happy hours leafing through Willi Kinger's beautiful tribute to his mother Hedi's cooking (Hedi Klingers Familienkuche Brandstätter, 2015 ISBN 978-3-85033-888-2). While I am extremely familiar with Lower Austrian food, the Klingerhof, Willi's family restaurant, was at Gaspolthofen in the Hausruckviertel in Upper Austria, and the cooking reflects a more pastoral if not rustic world (with some similarities to Bavaria and Bohemia). There are far fewer allusions to the original multicultural society that was Vienna, where Slavs, Magyars, Jews and Italians rubbed shoulders with the more Teutonic Viennese and the confusion flowered on the plate.

Cheese spreads - without the nod to Hungary that is Liptauer - are reminiscent of Bavaria. Broth is served with 'Einlagen' (floaters) as it is all over the southern half of the German-speaking world. Hedi's Frittatensuppe, for instance, with its strips of pancake, is the Flädlesuppe of Swabia. The commoner Einlagen are things like Leberknödel (liver dumplings) which I have craved since childhood when I was served them in the great - and long-since vanished - Schmidt's restaurant, the favourite resort of academic 1938-ers in London's Charlotte Street, before I scoffed a portion of roast goose and Sauerkraut.

Some of the ingredients that are vital for reproducing the flavours of Upper Austrian cooking have a bad reputation here. I went across the road to buy semolina ('Griess' in German), which not only makes the Grießknödel or semolina dumpling to go in soup, it is a vital part of many other dumplings. My mind travelled back to school, and semolina puddings with a great splodge of jam in the middle which you stirred vigorously to incarnadine the thick and otherwise tasteless gruel. On other days we had tapioca, which was every bit as nasty. The boys called it 'frog spawn'.

I paused over the meat dumplings, they were stuffed with fat bacon, 'Grammeln' ('pork scratchings' - those packets of dessicated cartilage you buy in pubs do not offer an adequate translation) or lard. My children have been raving about them ever since we were given them at lunch by Micki Moosbrugger at Schloss Gobelsburg. Some ingredients, however, would be hard to obtain or replicate, and not just those crunchy bits left over when the pork fat is rendered to lard, but also good Austrian Speck, which isn't quite our bacon. Paprika, for instance, comes in all shades and sizes in Austrian grocers' shops. One thing I can get easily, however, is fresh Styrian horseradish, which brings tears to your eyes as you shred it. My wife was taken with the Krenfleisch she had in a Viennese Beisl once. That was boiled beef, while Hedi uses a pork knuckle. The horseradish is then shaved on top and the whole served with a 'julienne' of vegetables. I shall use Hedi's recipe for boiled beef (meat from the shoulder) and adapt that.

Hedi's food is 'Hausmannskost' - really good home cooking -  rather than 'gastronomy'. A Fleischloaberl meatloaf looked just the thing, and there were useful tips on how to improve even the roasting of a chicken or making a better Wiener Schnitzel or Backhendl (fried chicken) or indeed 'gezogene' apple strudel, which is superior to the one I make with filo-style pastry. I reflected that the one man around here (the butcher Martin at Elite Meats in Swaine's Lane) who knew how to prepare veal for a Schnitzel, had recently shut up shop after a lifetime serving fussy 1938-ers and their heirs, the victim of another greedy landlord. I will miss him greatly. Austrians and South Germans are also masters at cooking veal sweetbreads. They are good in France, of course, but it is sometimes worth crossing the Rhine to see them at their best.

Where the Upper Austrian idiom is strangest to us is in the frequent use of potato starch to replace flour. The foundation stone of so many recipes is simply mashed potatoes. We come across this style of cooking only when we eat Italian gnocchi and I don't suppose many people do their own, although I have a certificate somewhere which says I learned to make them on a cookery course in the magnificent setting of the Gritti Hotel in Venice. Potatoes are boiled in their skins, peeled and pressed or riced. Once cold they are mixed with butter or soured cream, eggs and semolina before being worked into a dough. They are pressed down to make a two-centimetre-thick paste. The paste is formed into cups, filled, topped and scattered with flour. With some small variations for sweet and savoury, this is the basis for the region's rich and varied dumpling culture.

I decided that I had better make some dumplings and pressure from the family meant trying out the famous Marillenknödel (apricot dumplings) they had first experienced in the Wachau. There were more problems with ingredients: the recipe called for 'Topfen' (quark), but fresh curd is hard to come by here so I bought ricotta instead.  Nor could I say that the apricots available in my Turkish greengrocer were quite up to those from the Danube Valley, but so be it: I was able to get pretty close to Hedi's list.

It is remarkable how quickly the mixture of potatoes, ricotta, flour, semolina, sugar and lemon peel loses any taste you might associate with mashed spuds. The next stage was to make a sort of sausage out of the paste, cut off two centimetre-thick slices, flatten them and wrap them round raw apricots. These were then covered in flour and set aside to poach in boiling water. When they began to 'dance', I turned them to a pan filled with breadcrumbs fried in butter before bringing them to the table.

I was worried that the apricots had had a chance to cook in the water, but they were perfect, even if there might have been just a jot more sugar. The dish was a huge success, not least with my fruit-hating son, but he was adamant that he really wanted Fleischknödel, so it looks like Hedi's book will have to come out again soon.

Judgement of Wapping

Posted: 5th May 2015

One of the nicer sides of judging the Decanter World Wine Awards is its new location in London's Docklands. Once you have negotiated the bleak hinterland around Shadwell Station, the tastings are in the old Tobacco Dock, which despite some fairly crude restoration and adaptation, is what it says on the packet: the place where tobacco leaves were matured in Georgian and Victorian England (wine was housed downstairs) before being made into cheroots, cigarettes and pipe tobacco. Many of the original iron columns and roof beams are still in situ, which makes for a pleasant distraction when your jury is slow to reach a decision on a particular flight of wines.

Another pleasant aspect is the new judges' pub. Until we moved two years ago we had the famous Sloaney Pony on Parson's Green to hand to cool down after a day's tasting; but now we go to the Captain Kidd, a former riverside Georgian workshop that was sympathetically and convincingly turned into a pub in the late eighties. From the windows or the terrace you look out on the estuarine river below Tower Bridge, with its muddy banks, ravening seagulls and occasionally surviving wharves, and can reflect on how all this land - north and south - served to provision a mighty empire on which the sun never set.

Many of our tasters don't give the thing a thought, of course, they simply amble down to the Captain after they have finished work and generally find a lot of familiar faces from the wine trade and wine journalism mingling with the locals.

After the second day of judging Germany I was happily ensconced in the Captain while I listened to a senior Master of Wine talking about her beginnings in the trade. The MW-qualification has now become so famous that people have lost touch with its primary purpose, which was to master the technical aspects of trading in wine in those far off days when such activities also centred on London - and to some extent these very same docks. Until the seventies, most wine shipped to Britain arrived in cask, to be bottled here. Only incredibly posh wine arrived by the dozen in smart, branded wooden cases. While it was on the water, wine shipped in bulk often developed sicknesses and fell apart and before it quit London Docks, it had to be treated with various cures and chemicals to bring it back to life. All this 'primary care' was part of the original MW's remit.

Performing some sort of technical wizardry to rescue a sickening wine was very relevant to our panel this year, as the mainstay of the German wines before us was from the 2013 vintage. It was not a great year. It rained a lot and rot set in, causing many growers to harvest before the grapes were properly ripe. The result was high acidity on the one hand and insufficient body on the other. Growers scratched their heads to find a means to solve the problem of making attractive wines out of such unpropitious material. One solution was to lower the acidity by performing a secondary, malolactic fermentation that would turn the sharp malic acid into lactic acid, giving the wines a tell-tale creaminess that Riesling-lovers generally abhor. Another was to ferment the wines in small oak casks (or - as was often the case - to perform both a malolactic fermentation AND ferment them in cask). This was also meant to soften the wines and give them a little more fat, but Riesling-aficionados don't usually like that either. The third way was simply to deacidify, but that ran the risk of leaving the wines soft and spineless. That option was also not likely to please lovers of proper German wines.

Not too many people - sadly - thought of an obvious fourth solution, and that was to stop the fermentation early and make semi-dry to semi-sweet wines. Ideally, 2013 should have been a 'Kabinett-year'. Leaving 25 or more grams of sugar in the wines might have achieved a balance between acidity and sugar making them at once more attractive and easier to drink. They would have been low in alcohol, which was also the tradition for German wines until quite recently. This could have been the perfect way out for the Rheingau, for example, where the wines were very disappointing in 2013. The Pfalz was also lacklustre, with many of the wines missing their usual substance, but we are not so used to Kabinett wines from the Pfalz which was one of the first German regions to develop a reputation for dry Rieslings. I can see that it was not an easy decision to make.

The reds too were slightly less thrilling than they have been before now. The bulk was from 2012, which was not the easiest of years either. Despite all the publicity given to Pinot Noir of late, we have not seen really good German reds since 2010.

All of this sounds a bit gloomy, but it was not. I think we awarded eight gold medals over two days, and I satisfied a long-held ambition by seeing a sparkling Riesling receive a trophy. There were also some lovely sweet wines that are often a compensation for us Teutons.

And fortunately the Nahe managed to make some very good wines. The Mosel, once again, did better than the rest because the grapes ripened later there, after the damaging, rot-inducing rain and were able to take advantage of the autumn sun.

Back at the Captain, a woman for a neighbouring jury was describing the depressing experience of tasting flight after flight of Chinese wines. 'Yours', she told me, 'was the merry table'. It appears that despite all the reservations that we might have had about the 2013s, we were having lots of fun and she was deeply envious. Nature may bowl us a tricky ball from time to time, but if any team really knows how to whack it, it must be the Germans.


Posted: 1st April 2015

Some time in the first months of 1980 I was standing with a friend on the platform of St Paul station on the Paris Metro. A big man was sitting on a bench nearby with his head sunk deep in his hands. The friend remarked sopra voce: ‘he’s got a hangover.’

The man on the bench looked up, and stared at us through bloodshot eyes and speaking in accents that distinguished him as a former British public schoolboy, he grunted, ‘I certainly have’.

That man was Charles Lea, founder of the excellent London chain of Lea & Sandeman and one of the more endearing - and now most senior - men in the British wine trade. We talked, and he told us that he was doing up a zinc opposite the formal entrance to the Bibliotèque nationale for another Englishman called Mark Williamson. This was the incubation of Willi’s Wine Bar which was to become a sensation over the next few years. It is still alive and kicking, and continues to be the first stop for most Americans wanting to know about the wines of the Rhône Valley.

I told Lea I worked almost daily in the library’s reading room and he suggested I come in and look the place over. It wasn’t long before I put my nose round the door and saw Charles at the top of a ladder with a paintbrush in his hand. He introduced me to Mark and I came to the opening party. For several years after that, I repaired to Willis whenever I had put in a long stint at the library.

Mark had trained as a chef, but he also was part of an interesting little group of Anglo-Saxons who worked in Paris at the time. The flypaper was Steven Spurrier, proprietor of the Caves de La Madeleine in the Cité Berryer. Steven’s shop, and the wine courses he ran there, was highly in vogue. He trained large numbers of young English people who shifted cases and fetched wine from the warren of cellars downstairs. Most of his trainees have long since resurfaced as pillars of the wine trade. Mark too was a former intern, as was the late Ivan Paul, who had bought his own wine shop in the rue Vaneau by then, a congenial place where much more wine was drunk by the owner and his friends than was ever sold to customers. The oddest of all the Caves de la Madeleine apprentices was ‘Gilly’, who, despite being quite the rudest man I have ever met, was put to work serving customers. Thank heavens for the unflappable Mauricette who was there to restore any damaged egos.

A few months after he opened, Mark Williamson was joined by Tim Johnston. Tim was a considerable authority on the wines of the Rhône. A decade before, he had tumbled out of the wrong end of his public school and ended up in the wine trade. After a period in the Médoc he was chosen to run a vineyard in Provence and learned more about the practical side of wine than was usual then. Tim was suspicious of me at first but we became good friends when he moved on to Bordeaux to run a wine bar there and I was working the summer in the archives in the rue d’Aviau. I was writing a dissertation on the history of the Bordeaux trade, but it was never submitted, and my attempts to get the project published in book form never came to anything either.

It was Tim who introduced me to many of the greatest wines in the Northern and Southern Rhône. Having started out as a claret-man, I became passionate about the Rhône, and the first book I ever wrote on wine dealt with the Rhône Valley’s three noblest grape varieties: Syrah, Grenache and Mourvèdre in their various manifestations all over the world. I see it can be bought for as little as 28p! When it came out in 1992, I dedicated it to my infant Goddaughter Margaux Johnston, who now manages Juveniles, the Paris wine bar Tim created when he split off from Mark.

Although I have specialized in other things since (Austria, Portugal, Germany, to name but three) I always return to the Rhône with particular pleasure. Last month, after a gap of more than a decade Rhône Vignobles had a tasting in London. I started with the growers from the north. The Condrieu Le Grand Vallon from Domaine Villard was all the better and more authentic for not being blighted by new oak, for the same reason I liked its stable-mate, De Poncins, far less. There were superb whites from Louis Chèze too, indeed I loved all four wines he brought along. I would have been happy with his simple Côtes du Rhône white, with its little aroma of hay from the Marsanne grape, but real class was apparent in his Pagus Luminus Condrieu with its typical apricot blossom aroma. Chèze has two gorgeous red St Josephs (both 2012), an ordinary one, and a superior version called  ‘Les Anges’.

Laurent Combier is an old friend, but he seemed to have tripled the amount of land he farmed since I saw him last. When growers do this, the quality often suffers, but his Crozes Hermitage wines seem as good as ever: with those haunting tar-and-peony aromas so typical of granite-grown Syrah. The best, however, was the 2013 Clos des Grives made from vines planted in 1952, where the soil is pebbley and not granite.

I used to love Alain Graillot’s wines, but I was disappointed this time. The best was the 2005 La Guiraude. Domaine Voge in Cornas has always been a reliable house, as much for its hay-scented St Péray (Terre Boisée) as for its reds. The 2013 Cornas Les Chailles had just been bottled. It looked very promising. The rest of the tasting covered the Southern Rhône, with a few Châteauneufs, like the Domaines de Beaurenard and La Janasse. Beaurenard has an excellent Rasteau as well, but naturally the Châteauneufs are best, such as the 2009 Classique. The real treat, however, was the old vine wine, made from a plot planted in 1902. La Janasse had a pure Grenache ‘Chaupin’ which was wonderful, but even that was also upstaged by a multi-varietal old vine wine from 2011.

Portuguese wines also preoccupied me at one stage of my life. I don’t suppose many people read my book on the subject, but I was amused to see that German Amazon had disposed of several copies of it recently. I dropped into the New Douro tasting at the Ambassador’s Residence last week, but I was sorry not to have enough time to talk to so many familiar faces.

I did make it to see Tiago Alves de Sousa, who is the real rising star of the Lower Douro and Cristiano van Zeller to taste his wines from the Quinta Vale Donna Maria. A rare bird was Dirk Niepoort who has become one of the world’s wine superstars. The quality of the wine, however, has not diminished and Coche (the label of which reproduces the dashboard of his Ferrari) was quite new to me, and stunning.

Another old friend it was a pleasure to see again was David Baverstock of Esporão. He now makes the wines at Quinta dos Murças in the Douro as well as those from the big estate in the Alentejo. Murças had a splendid 2011 Old Vines Reserva. David has the privilege of making Sir Cliff Richard’s wines on his Algarve property too. Vida Nova must be a consolation to Sir Cliff in these difficult times.

On the way home I dropped off at the Westbury Hotel to see Matt Wilkin, who was showing the wines from Domaine de Bargylus in Syria. The Saadé family owns both this property on the Syrian Coast and the very successful Château Marsyas in the Lebanon which is now nudging the great Château Musar as the Lebanon’s most celebrated wine. While the Lebanese Civil War has fizzled out, the Syrian one continues its sickening course, and yet, this Christian family somehow contrives not only to produce the most civilized of beverages from their lofty vineyards, but also make wines of fabulous quality and finesse. Their determination goes some way towards restoring my faith in the survival of civilization.

As I was leaving, Matt packed me off to Richard Kelly of Dreyfus Ashby who was presenting a vertical of Moulin Touchais in the Loire Valley stretching back to 1971. They were all very different, but the 1997 and 1971 appealed to me most. The latter was wonderfully youthful and exuberant. Richard is now importing the wines of my friends at Domaine des Anges which can only be good news. He reminded me of our last meeting in Tournon in the Rhône Valley in 1993, when the late Gérard Jaboulet opened a bottle of his 1961 La Chapelle.  For both of us, it was a testament to how good top Northern Rhône wines could be. I noted ‘a bouquet of game and liquorice, with a feeling of sweetness - almost sweet pastry - on the palate.’ Richard said, even after a lifetime in the trade, it was ‘still the best wine’ he had ‘ever tasted.’

Quiet Days in Mormoiron

Posted: 2nd March 2015

Twice a year for two decades now, I have travelled south to the Domaine des Anges near Mormoiron in the Ventoux region of Northern Provence. I go for a few nights in February and September, but the February trip is billed as a quiet time, when good food and wines from the estate are enjoyed by a relatively small number of convives.

I normally fly to Marseille, and then there is a drive lasting about an hour and a half. For the first time this year, however, I made the entire journey by train; setting out from St Pancras (four minutes from Kentish Town) and arriving in Paris two and a half hours later, in time for lunch with members of the party who had flown in from Dublin. I met them at the flat of another, who sadly could not join us, as he had just undergone major surgery. After lunch we took a taxi to the Gare de Lyon for the second leg of what proved a wonderfully painless journey. One up for the train, I thought.

A part of my job is to cook, but we got in fairly late that evening, and a recipe for pork chops with a duxelle of mushrooms was pushed under my nose. The star that night was a magnum of winemaker Florent Chave’s latest triumph: the pure Grenache 2011 Séraphin. I have been sceptical of this wine up till now, as I found it too reductive and believed it needed a few months in an old cask to develop the nose, but our host, Gay McGuinness, had opened it hours in advance and it was producing plenty of very attractive aromas.

In the kitchen there was considerable excitement over hunks of boar Gay had picked up that afternoon, together with a score or more smallish truffles. I put the haunch straight into a marinade composed of two bottles of estate red, half a pint of wine vinegar and some olive oil, naturally adding a large bouquet garni of the herbs that grow around the mas or farmhouse. It was a small haunch, evidently from a very young beast. The truffles had been frozen in late December, but they still smelled promising when I opened the plastic box. The season had been extremely short due to warm, wet weather latterly crowned by heavy snow. France’s truffles have been struck by irregular harvests these last few years: the tubers don’t like warmth or excessive rain, nor to they respond to heavy frosts. It seems that good harvests happen one year in three or four now. There used to be many more truffles on the market and they were bigger and of better quality.

The problem with freezing truffles is that they lose their texture and become mushy. Once they had defrosted, I put them straight in to olive oil to prevent further oxidation, but there was no getting round the fact that they were not as pungent as they might have been.

We deployed them for the first time the following evening, when we obtained a large guinea fowl from a new shop selling fresh fruit and veg and other local specialities on the road to Mazan. Once we had done our shopping, we took off for Le Barroux, a hilltop village with a large castle between Caromb and Malaucène. The Germans apparently destroyed the castle because they saw signs it was being used by the Resistance. In fact, the mess inside had been caused by German units that had been billeted there some time before. In the sixties a new house was constructed within the ancient walls. There was no one around to let us into the castle but we enjoyed an aperitif in the sun at a friendly local restaurant instead. The Guinea hen was cooked ‘en demi-deuil’ with slivers of truffle inserted under the skin on the breast. I then worked up a sauce with the juices and fresh cream. We had the Domaine’s top Archange red that night, as well as a rogue bottle of Pauillac - a 1998 Château Haut-Batailley. No one was very clear as to where it had come from, but it was welcome for all that.

I have become used to the fact that shops pop off one by one in the region - like ten green bottles. Mormoiron has lost both its butchers. The shop on the Mazan road was a notable exception in this farewell symphony. It was market day in Carpentras on Friday and we found another impressive newcomer there called Le Grenache where we were able to stock up on some things which the estate does not make (champagne). Carpentras has but a few pockets of decent shops, as most of the smarter folk have moved out to the more genteel atmosphere of Pernes, leaving the town to its mainly North African inhabitants. Much of Carpentras now looks little different to the Mahgreb.

Still, the sun was shining again and we bought the few things we needed from the market before settling at a café opposite the lovely, truncated fifteenth century cathedral.

We cooked our haunch of boar that night. It was impressively tender after its 48-hour soak in Domaine des Anges red. I made some mashed potatoes and shaved in a great many truffles. The boar was acknowledged to have been a triumph, even if the truffles were somewhat less than heroic.

So far, we had had three lovely late winter days with glorious sunshine, but on Saturday the rain came down in torrents until the Mistral rose late in the afternoon to blow it away. On Saturdays the market is in Pernes, but with half-term starting that weekend and the miserable weather, there were few stalls set up beside the little river that borders the old town with its many fountains. We went to the tiny baker’s shop, Martin Richard in the rue Valentins, who makes his wonderful organic bread in a century-old oven. One woman sold us her last pigeons and quails and made us a present of some duck pâté as she was impressed by our fortitude. The two women who normally sell the local lavender honey were absent, possibly because of the school holidays, possibly because there have been a couple of bad harvests in succession and the bees have made but little. On the way back I tried the organic greengrocer in Mazan and the new shop, but neither had any. I finally tracked down a few pots in the cave Cooperative in Mormoiron. The price had risen sharply.

We had bought some good fresh ravioli in the market stuffed with ceps and ate those before we attacked our pigeons and quails that night. We left on Sunday. The wind had chased away the rain and it was brilliantly sunny again. We had our duck pâté and a pot of foie gras ready for a picnic on the train, but things began to go wrong around Lyon, when the train made an unscheduled stop. I had premonitions of disaster. There was too little turn-around time in Paris and I realised I risked missing my Eurostar.

Because half-term was drawing to an end in Paris, the queue for taxis snaked three times around the station forecourt, and yet I had too many bags filled with hunks of fresh boar, sausages, butter, honey and wine for the Métro. Every set of traffic lights seemed to be against me. We coasted by the shrine to Charlie Hebdo on the place de La République, but I had little heart for sightseeing. I arrived at the Gare du Nord two minutes before the train was due to leave and the man at the gate agreed that I had missed it. He told me to go to the ticket office where they would issue me with a ticket for the next train.

But it wasn’t as simple as that. The trains were full. The woman in uniform could not put me on a train before following morning. I wondered which Parisian friend might put me up for the night, but before I accepted my destiny I mentioned the late incoming train from Avignon. Her demeanour changed: how late, she asked. I saw my chance and exaggerated a little (not much). In that case she told me, ‘I can put you in First Class, leaving at 18.40.’ It was a hair-raising quart d’heure but in the end, I got home for dinner, and somehow even managed to travel in luxury.

The Power of Sex:
Hunting the Black Winter Truffle

Posted: 3rd February 2015

The black truffle season runs from December to March and God willing - in a fortnight or so - I shall be at the epicentre of the truffle-producing area in northern Provence. Between them, the Vaucluse and Drôme départements account for some sixty percent of French truffles. Périgord, which has the higher-sounding name, is good for about a third of this. I have been told it has been a short, poor season and truffles have been scarce since Christmas. Prices are quoted locally between €600 - €750, and twice that in Paris. I placed my orders early with reliable locals and with any luck my short stay will be blessed by a few memorable meals.

Not everyone is ready for truffles. The smell of a ripe truffle is earthiness made flesh. It is reminiscent of the bedroom: tangled sheets after a sticky night of sex. For the uninitiated, it can be disgusting. Travelling back from the professional truffle market in Richerenches in the Vaucluse a few years ago, I wrapped my precious acquisitions in a paper handkerchief and popped them in my pocket. I did not think of them again until I was 30,000 feet above the ground, somewhere between Marseille and Lyon.

I was conscious that the man sitting next to me was eyeing me with a blend of discomfort, suspicion and malevolence. When the fasten-seat-belt light went off, he got up and moved well away to another seat further down the aircraft. It was only then that I realised that he objected to the smell emanating from my pocket.

Had my fellow passenger known the odour hailed from that small, black, carbuncular tubers that the founding father of gastronomy, Grimod de La Reynière called ‘the foretaste of paradise,’ I imagine he would have asked to have a look (or even a sniff). Few people have the good fortune to experience the true flavour of truffles. At most the truffle they encounter is represented by a tasteless black fleck in the centre of a piece of foie gras (and probably only a piece of beetroot or horn of plenty mushroom - the standard duplicity), or some inert summer or Chinese truffle, fraudulently labelled Tuber melanosporum and sold at a huge price from a fancy delicatessen. The nearest thing to an authentic smell comes from those the little phials of oil in which a truffle has allegedly been bathed, and which are as often as not manufactured by an adroit combination of chemicals.

To a pig or a dog, however, that smell is meaningful enough. They know where to find them in the tangled mass of oak scrub that is the Mediterranean forest or maquis. A dog will need training, but for pigs it is innate. A sow finds the smell reminiscent of the boar’s scrotum, a thought so delicious to her that she is reluctant to yield up the truffle once she has taken it from the earth. Dogs are more pliant: a piece of bread or a biscuit will generally induce them to drop the truffle. In the old days there were proper turf wars over the maquis as truffle hunters asserted their rights to operate in a small piece of land known to yield the plumpest and the best. The land was never their own, but they assumed hunters’ rights whether the landlord liked it or not and most of the latter would have lacked the courage to stand in their way. These days, however, many of them have created truffières: a collection of local oaks planted on sandy soils that remind the truffles of their natural habitat. Truffières have the advantage of being easier to police.

As Pierre Sogno’s novel Le Serre aux truffes so vividly narrates, criminality and truffles are never far apart. Prized truffle-dogs are poisoned, sacks of truffles go missing from the gatherer’s homes and all manner of theft is a daily occurrence until the sources run dry at the end of February.

Some of the greatest fraud takes place at the market where the brokers come to acquire truffles for leading restaurants and grocers. Payments are strictly in cash. The French revenue service - ‘le fisc’ - must never know how many truffles have been sold. The hunter trades from the boot of his car. Any unfamiliar face caught snooping, and the hatch is slammed shut. The truffle-hunter sits on the boot brows knitted, his arms fiercely crossed until the stranger goes away.

The brokers are used to their shenanigans and some fraud is tolerated. They will buy if at least seventy percent of the bag is good. The more cynical brokers then sell the thirty percent of Chinese and tasteless summer truffles on to the canners who promptly defraud gullible consumers. Another trick is to increase the weight of the truffles by sticking clods and lumps of iron into the crevices of the tuber and then rounding it off with mud. Before he buys, the broker goes to work with a sharp knife, dipping into the sack offered by the hunter and scraping at the truffle to find any concealed weights. Too many instances of fraud from the rugged-looking fellow in the cloth cap and windcheater and the broker will never buy his truffles again.

At the restaurant Beaugravière at Mondragon near Orange, the chef Guy Jullien takes his truffles very seriously. In season black truffles are piled two or three feet high in a huge salver in the centre of his kitchen. He is so well known in the area that he gets the pick of the crop: tubers the size of tennis balls are scrubbed clean and glisten like so many pieces of wet coal. The aroma is sensational. At the slightest provocation he will design a menu entirely around the truffle: soupe VGE was created for the former President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing - truffle slices cooked in a goose stock under a puff pastry lid, the smell of which explodes under the diner’s nose when he breaks through the crust; a truffle omelette (in reality, scrambled eggs with truffles - the standard Provencal preparation); a chicken demi-deuil (‘half-in-mourning’) with slivers of black truffle inserted between the skin and the flesh to perfume the bird; a whole brie cheese, horizontally cut in two and filled with truffles; and vanilla ice cream, peppered with truffle flakes... The taste is indescribable. The atmosphere is electric. There are moments when you can hear a pin drop - so enchanted are the diners by the taste of heaven.

Black Truffle Risotto

(Starter for 4)


30g Black Winter Truffles approx.
1 litre of chicken stock
180g Carnaroli or Arborio rice
1 small onion, chopped very fine
2 tbsp Extra Virgin Olive Oil
250ml dry white wine
50g butter, diced
50g finely grated Parmesan
Salt to taste


Using a mandoline, shave two-thirds of the fresh truffles into a mixing bowl. Grate the cheese into the same bowl, and add the diced butter and 1tbsp olive oil. Mix gently.

Bring a small saucepan to the boil with the stock and keep it simmering. Meanwhile using a heavy based flat-bottomed pan, sauté the onion in olive oil until translucent. Add the rice to the onion and heat through until all grains are hot and coated in oil.

Add the wine to the rice and stir until dissolved. Then add 1 ladleful of hot stock, again stirring until dissolved. Keep adding small quantities of stock until rice is cooked. This will take approx. 15-20 minutes from adding the wine. Rice should be al dente and the risotto the consistency of a thick soup. Turn off heat, add the butter-fresh-truffle & parmesan mixture and quickly beat into the risotto until it is creamy. Leave for 1 minute.

Serve the risotto in bowls. Shave any remaining truffles over the individual portions at the table.

Dusty Bottles

Posted: 5th January 2015

December is the party season and even in these lean, twilight years there are plenty of invitations if you want them. I don’t take many bites from the apple, but on the corporate side I went to both the Pernod-Ricard and the Chivas Brothers lunches, the latter in the Burroughs Distillery in Kennington where Jim Long showed me how they had recently turned the place into a museum with many opportunities to sample the gin as you admired the exhibits. This seemed an admirable development from the days when the distillery turned its back on its public; after all gin and London have walked out hand in hand for centuries.

I went to most of the Christmas parties given by friends and agents and to a curious concert at the Bulgarian Embassy where a man played a traditional Balkan flute while a lady sang and children amused themselves by scampering through the guests’ legs.

Among December’s special treats I would have to list the dress rehearsal of Tristan und Isolde and the Bad Sex Awards. In Stephen Gould, Nina Stemme had a tenor who was her equal, although I have to say John Tomlinson was sadly croaky. The Bad Sex Awards crowned Ben Okri - or rather, didn’t, because he didn’t turn up - but it remains about the best party of the season and a great tribute to the late Bron Waugh, who conceived it, and his son Alexander, who presents the show now. After I had my share of such distractions, London shut down as usual and Christmas reared its head.

Christmas feasts have become more paltry with the passing years, particularly when it comes to wine. Gone are the days when - in my mid-twenties - I went off to Hédiard on the place de la Madeleine and returned FF400 (£40) the poorer but armed with a bottle of 1971 La Tâche. There were just two of us then, with champagne, a haunch of wild boar and even a bottle of indifferent Pomerol in reserve. Needless to say I drank most of it. That wine costs over £3,000 a bottle today - and in bond. If anyone is interested, Berry Brothers has magnums at £26,000 and rising.

There was a little shop opposite the church of St. Roch in the rue St. Honoré that had a nice collection of first growth clarets. I remember being able to buy good years like 1961, 1962, 1966 or 1970 for a few hundred francs, which was possible for a once-a-year treat; also Nicholas used to bring out old bottles from its massive cellars in Charenton and these were distributed around its Paris branches. Their Yuletide window displays were the source of many, largely unfulfilled fantasies, but one Christmas I recall the 1966 Haut-Brion, and there were surely other wines of that quality. Another year a couple of friends (the German-wine guru Joel Payne was one) clubbed together to buy me a bottle of 1955 Yquem for my birthday. The cheapest I can find it now is £555 a bottle but I don’t imagine they paid a tenth part of that.

The globalisation of wine snobbery seems to have put paid to these cheap-ish treats. Ordinary people simply cannot afford to drink the top wines anymore and even those plutocratic Tampa or Orlando dentists who used to collect first growths and send first-class airline tickets to the likes of Michael Broadbent, seem to have ceded their places to Hong Kong businessmen and Shanghai traders; although one new friend admitted to me last month that he had bought three cases of 1982 Mouton thirty years ago and that now they were ripe, he opened one every Christmas and believed his 36-bottle cache would see him out.

There are still one or two half-decent things derrière les fagots here, although they won’t console us quite like the friend with his rack of Mouton. We started with some Mumm, a champagne that has got so much better in recent times that you feel obliged to take back all the nasty things you have ever said about it. Food had come from all over, it seemed: some fabulous goose livers flew in from the Central Market in Budapest and two of the largest lobsters I have ever cooked came up from Devon for Christmas Eve. They deserved a bottle of Corton-Charlemagne at the very least, but I had only some Chablis Montmains from my old friend Bernard Légland to give them, and the 2011 was greatly superior to the 2010, which I found rather stringy. There was a little treat in the wine for the Vacherin Mont d’or, a 2001 Castello Vicchiomaggio Riserva which was rich and luscious and tasted of blackberries.

I opened some Pol Roger on Christmas Day, still non-vintage, but from a case I bought when After the Reich came out, so 2007. It must have been cellared in 2004. Old NV champagne from good houses is rarely disappointing. That went with the liver. With our goose I had planned to sacrifice a magnum of 1998 Château Talbot had been hoarding since 2001 and as it transpired, one of our guests had brought a bottle of Haut-Batailley from the same vintage.

I was mildly disappointed by the Talbot, which I found a bit crumbly and wondered whether I hadn’t stored it badly. The Haut-Batailley, though a less prestigious wine, was more unctuous. We finished off with some 2003 Gewürztraminer Eiswein from my favourite Styrian grower Alois Gross, which was a rather more lyrical dessert than our commercial Christmas pudding, which had been made by Bloomers - or so it said - and he’d hidden a very sweet orange in the middle of it. After that we went upstairs and wept at Random Harvest.

My family went to the country soon after Christmas, leaving me with a fridge full of leftovers. There was more than enough there to last the week they were away. Only one night did I rebel and buy something different, and that was for New Year’s Eve. In Britain we do not have any culinary traditions for the end of the year besides getting drunk and throwing up. Many years ago I decided I would adopt the Italian practise of eating a zampone or cotechino sausage with lentils and mashed potatoes. The lentils are supposed to represent the money you hope to earn in the following year. I thought they would be enough and this year I omitted the mash - after all, it’s the money that counts.

I also bought some Italian lentils, but discovered far too late, that I was supposed to soak them, so I used red, Ethiopian ones instead, cooking them in goose stock. Even a small cotechino proved plenty of sausage.

Naturally an Italian meal calls for Italian wine and poking around in a little stash I keep I found some 1997 Pronotto Barolo which I thought would do me fine. There was a pipkin of Mumm in the fridge, about a glass and a quarter, and that I drank as an aperitif.

The star of the show was the Barolo, which was I think the best wine I drank during the Christmas feast; although it should be added that this was not the single-vineyard wine. It had quite pronounced aromas of violets and the most gorgeous filigree acidity and a huge length that kept coming and going in waves across my tongue. The tannins were fine and silky, and it provided voluble company while I watched Greta Garbo as Queen Christina. There were even a couple of glasses left over for New Year’s Day.

And so I begin a new year...

Gifts from Greece

Posted: 1st December 2014

There is really so little to report, I have had my shoulder to the wheel for two months now, but am pleased to say that I have now rejigged the book I was writing, and I hope for calmer, more creative days in Advent, until the next storm blows up again in the New Year.

The most interesting wine event this month was an informal tasting of Greek wines at the house of a neighbour who lives up by the Heath. I have occasionally written about Greek wines and was aware that they were not the dire collection we used to poke fun at in Greek restaurants a generation ago - Domestos and Otello and all. They began to change in the eighties and from the nineties there were some really very impressive wines indeed. This tasting served as a useful reminder of all that.

Greece is hot, but it is also mountainous, which means that winemakers wanting to avoid head-busting, coarse wines can climb the rock escarpments and plant where the cold breezes preserve aromas in the grapes. Such was the 2013 white Mantinia from Tselepos in the Peleponnese, which was made from Moschophillero grapes and grown at 700 metres and was both lively and spicy. Another good white was the 2013 Malagousia from Gerovassiliou in Epanomi, Macedonia. It is made from the eponymous Malagousia grape, which was rediscovered in the nineteenth century and exists only in minute quantities. The wine was apparently vinified in oak before, rendering it ponderous, but this was good and sappy with a slight redolence of lemons and parsnips.

The dry whites that steal the show in Greece are those from the volcanic atoll of Santorini. Opinions were divided on the 2013 Assyrtiko from Gaia, but I was not so put off by the sulphury smell and revelled in its great length and structure. Many preferred the 2013 Assyrtiko from Hadzidakis, which had a nose reminiscent of freshly crushed raspberries and a pretty good weight to it, albeit worn gracefully. Unlike some of the wines that night, this was available for purchase from the Wine Society.

I am not a great fan of oaky whites but the 2012 Assyrtiko from Sigalas was really lovely: intensely lemony and creamy from the bâtonnage, a terribly impressive wine.

We passed onto reds and Greece’s top black grape the Agiorgitiko. The 2005 Nemea Reserve from Parparoussis is grown in an amphitheatrical vineyard at an altitude of some 700 metres. It had a red berry cheesecake nose - raspberries, strawberries and cherries, but plenty of acidity betrayed its mountainous origins. In the nineties I recall the Greeks - like everyone else for that matter - were keen to plant the MacVarieties, and there was a lot of Cabernet and Chardonnay about. Our tasting included a 2001 Tselopos Cabernet Sauvignon from Aviotopi in Tegea in the Peloponnese. Again it was high grown and both chunky and slightly alcoholic but redeemed by an alluring spiciness. The 2005 Estate Red from Alpha also led on foreign cultivars, in this case Syrah and Merlot topped up with a bit of native Xinomavro. It comes from Amynteo in Macedonia. I liked its coffee and plum aroma which I assumed derived from the 40 percent Syrah, and it was well made with fine, cooling tannins.

Quite an oddity was the 2010 Mavrotragano (‘black crunchy’) from Hadzidakis on Santorini. There was a little volatile acidity with an astringent plum and cherry taste, but the wine was long and endearing. Sometimes wines are better for being unusual - there are so many around now that have now character at all. The 2000 Cava from Mercouri in Korakohori in the Peloponnese was made from a blend of Refosco and Mavrodaphne. Refosco was one of the varieties the Venetians pedalled round the Aegean and is chiefly found on islands like Kefalonia. This had a nice mature nose with some of that cherry-astringency of the Refosco I like in Slovenia.

There were two desert wines we attacked after dinner: a 1991 vin santo from Argyros on Santorini and a 1997 Chortes Mavrodaphne from the Peloponnese. I presume the vin santo also owes its name to Venice and the days when their mechant marine shipped the sweet wines of Candy (Crete) throughout Europe. It is aged for fifteen years in big tuns and reeks of leather and figs. It was quite gorgeous. The Mavrodaphne is made from sun-dried grapes made using a method that blends Hesiod and the Douro Valley. One large cask is filled every year. It smells of Demerara sugar and is hugely good.

The Leithaberg tasting at the beginning of the month was perhaps slightly less inspiring. The Leitha Hills are the old demarcation between Austria and Hungary. They are chalky and rise above the misty, shallow Neusiedl Lake The land suits certain Burgundian varieties such as Pinot Blanc (Weissburgunder), Pinot Noir and St. Laurent and when growers plant Blaufränkisch, it has a richness to it you will not find in Mittelburgenland. They have recently benefited from one of the new Austrian DACs which imitate other protected regions in Europe. Some faces were familiar - although it has to be said that it was their fathers I knew best. Others at the tasting were new to me.

There highlights were the 2013 Blaufränkisch Ried Satz from Markus Altenburger which had the virtue of being light and approachable when so much Blaufränkisch is tough and heavy; the 2009 Blaufränkisch Thenau from Birgit Braunstein; the 2011 Leithaberg DAC Blaufränkisch from Schloss Esterhazy; the 2012 Blaufränkisch Rosenberg from Toni Hartl; the 2012 sweet Ausbruch from Winzerschlössl Kaiser; and the 2011 Blaufränkisch Tannenberg from Nittnaus. Nittnaus wines have come on by leaps and bounds of late. I find the Leithaberg wines are much more enjoyable than those from their vines in Gols.

Georg Prieler in Schützen has taken over the family estate from his sister and is just about as good as it gets in the region. His Seeberg Pinot Blanc is always recommended. There were three Blaufränkisch wines on show: the 2011 Johanneshöhe, the 2012 Leithaberg and the 2011 Goldberg. The last is the flagship wine and the most Burgundian of all. They are all good and Georg has inherited his father’s deft hand with oak. Erwin Tinnhof’s wines are also favourites of mine and far cheaper than Prieler’s I would be quite happy with his 2009 Leithaberg Blaufränkisch. The 2012 Leithaberg was also impressive from Wagentristl who was also showing a delicious Muskat-Ottonel and Muskateller Trockenbeerenauslese. Enquiries to

Just a few days ago I had a little pre-Advent treat when I went to Moët & Chandon’s HQ in Belgravia and had a glass or two of the 2002 Dom Ruinart. It was a vintage which only did well from Burgundy upwards, but it was very good in champagne. I am only sorry that I am not able to buy several cases of it for my son’s twenty-first, but it might be over the top by then. Moët recently sent me some sparkling wines from their Argentinean operation. I was very impressed, they were quite beefy, and the rose perhaps a bit too techno, but they knocked the spots off a lot of cheap champagnes.

Spey whisky had another party in the Tower of London to launch its Michael Owen malt, in honour of the football player. It is a great thing to go to an evening party in the White Tower: you climb the stairs feeling a bit like Saint Thomas More, but with perhaps a little less trepidation. The famous poppies were still in the moat when I arrived, and Tower Hill was heaving with tourists come for a last glimpse of the red sea before it parted. The whisky was young and quite coated with oak, but it was a nice dram for all that. This month I also took a shine to the 2003 Balblair malt, which is quite the opposite. It must have been made in reused Bourbon hoggies for there was scarce any feeling of oak at all. The result is perfectly linear and austerely pale with a little heather honeycomb sweetness.

The same stable delivered some Caorunn gin. I drink about six glasses of gin and tonic a year, but I enjoy them, especially when it is hot. This gin has unusual botanicals such as apples, dandelions, rowans, heather and bog myrtle (who caused a bit of hilarity in the house) but it was a lovely complex palate for all that, although I am not sure that the prescribed slice of red apple did it many favours. I also received a bottle of Three Barrels Honey brandy, which looks as if it might perform a small role in the mince pies this year.

The only other thing to report here has been the arrival Zebag smart wine carrier, a device that will either transport six bottles or may be transformed into a hanger with space for a case. I should say it would make an unusual but useful Christmas present.

Now I need to go and marinate the goose livers.

Why I Make My Own Bread

Posted: 3rd November 2014

We had an important anniversary in 2011: it was half a century since the Chorleywood Bread Process or ‘CBP’ was born, signalling an end - in dietary terms at least - to the prolonged horrors of the Second World War.

Twenty years before, in 1941, the government had decreed the addition of calcium to flour to prevent rickets. Then German U-Boats rendered flour itself scarce and in 1942 the authorities responded with their gritty, beige ‘National Loaf’ that exploited every scrap of a grain of wheat. The ‘wholewheat’ loaf was chiefly composed of bran - husks - and it continued to labour in the national stomach until rationing was abolished in the mid-fifties. Relief came when the all-singing, all-dancing pre-packed CBP sandwich loaf was announced, itself a spin-off from the American-style ‘Wonderloaf’ invented by Otto Frederick Rohwedder, which had rolled out sliced and wrapped as early as 1927.

After those long years of austerity, CBP bread was a runaway success; one of the first swallows of the Swinging Sixties that brought us cheap chocolate bars and deep-frozen battery chickens. Technologically speaking it was far more advanced that the American Wonderloaf. British baking scientists had isolated a method of using hard fats, doubling or tripling the amount of yeast and adding chemicals in a bid to bake a loaf in a fraction of the time it took to make a traditional loaf. Named after was the research station in Chorleywood in the northern suburbs of London which developed the method, CBP bread had the added advantage of being patriotic, as it made use of low protein wheat which was usually thought unsuitable for bread making, but it was pretty well all that British farmers could supply.

Now eighty percent of British bread is made according to the Chorleywood Process, and it is the object of some pride in industrial baking circles. The Bakers’ Federation even wheeled out Anthony Worrall-Thompson to make a series of videos extolling its virtues. From Britain it is set to conquer the world and its soft tentacles have pushed out as far as South America.  One by one the bastions fall. It even threatened the home of the world’s most famous bread: France. Délifrance had made considerable progress selling fresh dough to bakers until the public belatedly rang the tocsin at the violation of the breakfast baguette. Now a decree stipulates that bakers’ shops have to make it clear whether they bake their own bread or not.

Despite a smattering of fancy bakers in prosperous parts of London and elsewhere in Britain, CBP bread has routed the opposition. The traditional British loaf used to be quite easy to find. As a child living just off the Gloucester Road in London there was a lovely little bakery more or less where that whacking-great Waitrose is now. There were great fluffy white farmhouse loaves under a dusting of flour, bloomers, tins and split tins; and I remember the great slabs of pure white bread that fell from the bread knife at teatime. English bread was quite distinct from French, German or Italian bread. Ours was not a sourdough culture. When a treat was decreed, the baker sold meringues or choux pastries and filled them with whipped cream, but that was nothing to the man on the corner of Drayton Gardens and the Fulham Road who made an incredible confection of cream, walnuts, chocolate and toffee that was a sure-fire way to seduce children.

When we moved west, there was Beatons in the Earl’s Court Road, where stout Welsh ladies, dressed in pinnies and cotton bonnets, fetched white and wholemeal loaves from their racks. Beatons had another branch in the King’s Road in Chelsea offering much the same stock. It disappeared long before its sister, making way for the chichi Crabtree & Evelyn which had a line in biscuits, but not bread.

Returning from seven years in Paris in 1985 I went to live in Islington, then famous for housing Messrs Blair and Broon. There were still plenty of working-class local bakers then, but they fell victim to gentrification and the supermarkets. There was one of the Essex Road, possibly two in Upper Street, not to mention the place in Cross Street with its centennial ovens, where I was once sent by the FT to watch the chef Bruno Loubet cook a series of dishes ‘à la boulangère.’ That old baker’s shop has been many things since it closed, but every time I pass it I wonder what happened to those ovens.

When I took my daughter to the Almeida last week, I noticed that Islington had become a paradise for people looking for pâtisseries selling cakes, sourdough loaves and viennoiseries. There was an affluent, cosmopolitan, middle-class clientele that thought nothing of shelling out more than a fiver for a pain campaillou or a boule.  For we plebs, there are still industrially produced bloomers and tins from Greggs.

Around here in Kentish Town, the only traditional place left is Crusty Bloomers (sic) in Brecknock Road, which is admirably maintained by a family of Poles.

But, chin-up, nil desperandum: that deep ravine that separates the pain des pauvres from the rich man’s loaf is as old as bread. The Ancient Egyptians are credited as being the first people to make leavened bread, but it is almost certain that risen loaves were only available for the patricians. This remained the case both in Ancient Greece and Rome, where the poor ate barley cakes and the rich alone could run to white, wheaten loaves.

The risk of fire and the expense of creating and maintaining proper, pukka ovens meant that those white, wheaten loaves were only baked in monasteries or in the castles of the barons during the middle ages, while hoi polloi made do with bowl-shaped flatbreads into which they spooned their nourishing pottage.

For most people, white bread was a treat seen only at the monastery gates or at certain communion Sundays. One of the features of the Roman ‘saturnalia’ that survived in various forms into the nineteenth century was that once a year the servants were served by their masters, and on that day alone, they ate white bread. Envying the master and his bread has fuelled countless riots and revolutions over the years, most prominently during the French Revolution. Not for nothing was the baker formerly the most hated man on the high street and the miller the butt of the cruellest jibes. In 1789, French Jacobins immolated bakers whenever they got the chance.

Bread has been associated with revolution since Jesus Christ, God of Bread and Bread of God. Not for nothing have the prudent French continued to regulate the price of bread since the excesses of the Terror.

Industrialisation and the fierce heat of the coal fire allowed the poor to dream of white bread for all, but the possibility of making mass-produced risen loaves attracted adulterators from the first. Almost as soon as British grocers offered cheap risen loaves, Parliament was obliged to introduce legislation forbidding the use of chalk and other additives aimed at making cheap coarse flour look whiter and more refined than it actually was. Britain led the way in providing industrial bread but companies such as the Aerated Bread Company (ABC) and Hovis - itself remarkable in that it sought to make palatable wholemeal bread - were constantly looking for a means to cut costs by using cheaper materials.

Supermarkets are now the leading source of bread in the UK, but just what is the ‘hot, crusty bread’ they sell? Unless it is branded Gail’s, Baker & Spice or Poilane, it is most likely to be some cunningly disguised form of CBP heated up on the premises. Food served warm benefits from legislation that does not require suppliers to print a list of ingredients - at least not in this country.

Concern is growing about the nature of industrially produced bread, however, and some have gone so far as to suggest it should carry a health warning. I don’t mean the just the disgruntled customer a few years back who found an overcooked mouse in a loaf he bought from Tesco, but many dieticians who seek to explain the huge rise in allergies among young people. Just looking at the list of additives in an average loaf is likely top cause alarm. Let’s use remind ourselves of the basic ingredients - flour, water and yeast. I leave you with an appetising list

Fat comes in the form of palm fat or oils, to improve volume, soften the dough, prolong the shelf life of the bread and create a finer cell-structure. In traditional bread it is gluten that provides structure and prevents the bread from collapsing, but the British flour used in the CBP contains little or no gluten so Gluten is put in to provide texture. Hydrogenated fats have commonly been used in the past, though large bakers are fazing them out, possibly replacing them with fractionated fats. These don't contain or produce transfats, which have been associated with heart disease. Salt is added to allow yeast to grow while reducing competitive bacterial growth. It affects the flavour. Esters such as monoglycerides and diglycerides are thrown in to act as emulsifiers. They control the size of gas bubbles and enable the dough to hold more gas and therefore grow bigger, making the crumb softer. Emulsifiers also reduce the rate at which the bread goes stale. Calcium propionate is used to inhibit mould, as is vinegar (acetic acid). Commercial bread often gives off a telltale smell of vinegar. Preservatives are necessary for prolonged shelf life. Anti-fungal compounds are also used. A whiter crumb is ensured by enzymatically active soya flour containing lipoxygenase enzymes. Soya flour not only whitens flour but makes the dough softer and more malleable enabling more water to be added. Another method used by millers is to bleach the flour with chlorine dioxide gas, making white flour whiter and having an ‘improving’ effect. Bleaches have been used as a substitute for the natural ageing of flour. Another additive is the flour oxidizer azodicarbonamide. This is banned in EU, Canada, Japan, Australia and New Zealand, but permitted in the US. Small amounts of ascorbic acid (vitamin C) are used. It is either added by the miller or prior to baking. This is the most common oxidant used in the EU, mainly for wholemeal and whole grain breads and helps retain gas in the dough making it rise more and giving a false impression of value. It is used in all bread in the UK but mills are prohibited from adding it to wholemeal flour. Starch enzymes and protein enzymes are employed to break down wheat starches to sugars to feed the yeast and to ‘mellow’ the gluten to allow for reduced mechanical mixing times. Enzymes are also adapted to survive baking temperatures and great variations in pH to impart preservative and softening qualities to the finished products. All enzymes used for baking in the UK are de-natured hence are not required to be labelled. L-cysteine hydrochloride (E920), cysteine is a naturally occurring amino acid used in baking to create more elastic doughs, especially for burger buns and baguettes. It may be derived from animal hair and feathers. Some of the chemicals in the CBP have subsequently been banned: potassium bromate, for example.

America - the creator of sliced white - cannot use the CBP, as its strong flours are unsuitable. Widespread reports on the poor quality and unhealthiness of supermarket bread have led some customers to vote with their feet. Many people now resort to bread machines which replicate some of the processes of properly made bread, but often require additives and ‘dough conditioners’ of their own and are far from ideal. When all is said and done: the best and cheapest solution is to make your own.

Rare Treats in Scotland and Provence

Posted: 2nd October 2014

Cracking Oysters

September should start with oysters, and so shall I. I nipped out on Monday 8th September to watch the Tabasco British Oyster Opening Championship at the Holborn Dining Rooms in London. The idea of a few natives and some Pommery champagne was a powerful incentive, not to mention the spectacle of some spirited oyster-shucking.

Once I had been equipped with a glass and an oyster, I quickly noted Tristan Hugh-Jones proceeding at a sedate pace through his test lot of thirty molluscs. He had every right to, as the Loch Ryan natives came from his beds. I once went to see his father on a day trip to the Rossmore oyster beds near Cork. I ate dozens of Pacific oysters (superior natives were rare then), drank several pints of stout and slept soundly on the aeroplane all the way back to London.

The Championship is an annual event organised by Carolyn Cavele of Food Matters, but I could not recall how long it had been since the last time I attended. It was good to see a few old friends, including the chef David Dorricott who reminded me (as if I needed reminding) that he had cooked the dinner for the launch of my first book A Palate in Revolution back in 1987. I can still taste the truffle-laden turkey he prepared that day, according to the fragmentary recipe of the Société des mercredis. Another familiar face was the wealthy novelist Martin Amis. At least I thought it was Martin Amis, and I nearly went to commiserate him on the bad reviews he had received for his latest book, but at the last moment I was not so sure. Someone kindly went to ask him if he were indeed Martin Amis, but he denied it, telling his interlocutor he was ‘John the Journalist’ and promptly took out a sheath of paper and began writing feverish notes. Surely no one takes bad reviews that seriously?

Glenlivet at £18,000 a Bottle

September actually started in August on Speyside when I had a rare trip up to Speyside with the Glenlivet Distillery to taste their newest release: a 50-year old malt, but I had been forbidden to speak of it before now. It was one of those trips that meant getting up before five to catch a plane to Aberdeen and after I was treated to a post-prandial massage at my hotel, I fell asleep for a couple of hours in my hugely comfortable bed at Meldrum House Hotel and Golf Club. Once I had come back to life, I spent the time before dinner ambling about the course looking for wild mushrooms. I found a few phallus impudicus, and several golf balls, but nothing edible. After a fine dinner in the hotel, the Glenlivet’s Heritage Director, Peter Prentice, staged a tasting of the range of malts in a pigeon loft in another part of the hotel: as ever I was bowled over by the ‘new make’ with its redolence of sweet pears and honey. This Scottish ‘schnapps’ knocks the spots off a German ‘Korn’. The 12-year old was neither fish nor fowl: not the best age for the Glenlivet; but with the 15-year old French oak there was more character: crystallised fruits, chocolate and marzipan. An 18-year old had been in Bourbon casks before being finished off in Douro pipes. This was super: walnuts and Seville oranges; and then there was a gorgeous 25-year old that had grown up in a sherry-butt. It was followed by the crowning glory - the 1983, which tasted like rather good, runny marmalade.

There was a litany of special treats of that sort. For a start the sun came out and stayed out until the day we left. Then there was a huge fry at breakfast, with added haggis: a beast that appeared more than once on our plates. We then climbed into two buses and went to a ‘smugglers’ bothy’ on Carn Liath, the hill above the original Glenlivet distillery at Ballindalloch that was licensed in 1824, the Duke of Gordon taking advantage of 1823 Act that finally legalised distilling. Before then Glenlivet was made with a kettle and coil like any other moonshine and probably tasted a bit like that excellent ‘new make’.

There on the hill, we were entertained by a man with a collection of birds of prey. I volunteered to perform with two other men and a South American hawk, which then flew over our heads, under our arms and through our legs to demonstrate its extraordinary abilities. The pièce de la résistance was a bald-headed eagle. Once he made his appearance all bird-life on the mountain disappeared and even the beasts in the fields below looked nervous.

We took little moon-buggies and went up Carn Liath to a place where we could see for miles around. We were shown the Braes, where the Duke apparently protected the local Catholics. The purple heather was flowering and it was teaming with grouse and plover. We had a quick dram and some canapés before heading back down the hill for an elaborate lunch cooked by a proper French chef, with freshly grilled local lobster and venison he said he had despatched himself.

After looking at Josie’s Well (still the source for much of the water at the distillery) and a tour of the distillery in the company of the ebullient distiller, Alan Winchester, the great moment was upon us. Just a hundred bottles of the 1964 malt had been released and with a mighty price tag of £18,000 each. It was the colour of ancient tawny port and smelled very strongly of oranges, although Winchester identified the fruit as pineapples. The palate was predictably concentrated and smacked of honey, Seville oranges and toffee. 

There was another treat in the form of the 1966. The 1964 had been in a Bourbon cask, but this marginally younger whisky was in a sherry-butt. The cask had not been broached and at around 49 percent I found it sullen. A little water freed its tongue: it was tannic from its long incarceration in its butt, and sweet, but then a glorious taste of oranges broke through, like a Turner sunrise after a murky night.

That evening we went to Fyvie Castle, which is just everything that you could wish for from a Scottish castle with its massive, mediaeval towers and Frenchified ‘tourettes’. It was previously owned by the Setons - as in ‘The Queen, my lord is dead’ - then passed through many hands until it ended up in the possession of the Scottish National Trust. In England that would be the end of the story: those killjoys Health and Safety would take control, the place would be disneyfied, kiddified and little notices would be erected to tell you how wicked they were, the feudal lords who once lived within the walls. In Scotland it appears to be different: when the Forbes family moved out to a smaller house in the park, they left all their clutter behind, and the place is still inhabited by their spirits. The live-in custodian also proved a great host and entertained us with wit and a fine tenor voice so that he brought the castle brimmingly to life. They even allowed us to take our champagne with us as we toured the house with its magnificent furniture collection, its single Batoni and collections of Raeburns and Lawrences. At dinner Alan Winchester performed Robbie Burns’ Address to a Haggis with more mock-heroic humour than I have ever seen it done before, revealing a missed vocation as a comic actor. The evening was rounded off with Noel Coward and other songs around the piano.

I have been spoiled by other lovely whiskies too of late, such as the Devil’s Punchbowl III from Arran with its rich sweet marzipan body and pepper and salt finish.

Cold Comfort

I don’t know what I think about cold coffee. Gregory Peck orders one in one of my favourite films, Roman Holiday when Audrey Hepburn squanders his money on champagne. Unlike Peck’s coffee, Minor Figures was cold brewed rather than left to go cold.  It has had some take-up and I understand Selfridges and Harvey Nichols are now stocking it. I have a Tetra Pak of it beside me here now and am sucking it up through a straw as I write. Not a bad brew and it has a nice chocolate and malt taste. I think it might be better on a warm day, but what the hell! Maybe Gregory Peck knew something I didn’t?

Meat Porter is a new online butcher’s service for people who can’t get out to the shops. The boss, Stefan Porter, tells me he is pitching at the higher end, using sources that generally supply top restaurants, so that you can have your favourite steaks, roasts, sausages and game delivered to your door. I have to admit I am exceptionally lucky here in Kentish Town, in that I have now six butchers within easy walking distance, ranging from the cheap and cheerful to the chic and expensive and I would never buy a cut of meat that I hadn’t been able to admire first; but not everyone has that chance now, so maybe that is where Meat Porter will prove its worth.

Crew Bourgeois

On 25 September the Cru Bourgeois organisation of Bordeaux put on its annual tasting. It is a huge affair with 188 wines open for tasting. Like many others, I simply made a selection based on prejudice: been good in the past, was awful when I last had it, might have improved... The wines I liked best were as follows: La Cardonne (little classic), Haut Barrail, Loudenne, Les Ormes Sorbet (Cabernet dominated, another classic), Rollan de By, Arnauld, Dillon (which I liked enormously), Gironville (cheap), Magnol, Ramage la Batisse (one of my top wines), Le Boscq and Le Crock.

Provencal Revels

Last but not least, there was the September Provence gathering at the Domaine des Anges where our spirits were slightly dampened by the death of one of our number: Brian Shiels. As the new whites were in the vat and beginning to ferment, I made an onion tart (Zwiebeltorte) and Florent Chave obliged me with a couple of bottles of Sturm. I am not sure the idea of wine with 2-3 percent alcohol appealed much, but the tart went down all right. No one drank the 1985 Rozes port I brought down bar one chap who poured it into his Archange by mistake then complained to me that his wine tasted funny. Ah well, such is life.

The high point, as ever, was the tasting that Bob Huddie put on in his house. This time we looked at six wines from Pessac-Léognan in the Graves of Bordeaux in the 2008, 2009 and 2010 vintages: the modest Château Gazin-Rocquencourt, Château de Fieuzal, Château Malartic-Lagravière, Château Smith-Haut-Lafitte and Château Haut-Bailly. Irish-owned Fieuzal had quite a pull for our largely Irish group, most of whom knew the proprietor, Lochlann Quinn. I had pleasant memories of almost all the properties, including Smith-Haut-Lafitte, where Madame Cathiard once offered me the chance of a beauty treatment that involved soaking in the hulls of freshly-pressed grapes. Realising it was too late to do anything about my appearance I told her that ‘I preferred to take my treatment internally.’

Gazin-Rocquencourt amply proved his worth with an aggregate score of 90.3 for all three vintages - Bob Huddie likes to use 100-point Porker-ratings. Both Fieuzal (90.4) and Malartic (90.5) trailed behind the rest of the pack, not least because the 2010 Malartic was corked. I think I liked the Fieuzal more than most, as I gave spectacularly high marks to the 2008 and 2009. My top wine was the Domaine de Chevalier, which I have always loved and have always appreciated its excellent value-for-money. It was seductive, but not flashy. For me Smith has a hint of showiness about it which puts it in another camp. It is perhaps significant that Porker gives the 2009 Smith 100 points. Haut-Bailly was harder to taste, as it was nowhere near ready to drink in any of its incarnations.

The overall scores for the top three were as follows: Chevalier 94, Smith 93.6 and Haut Bailly 95.3. Our tasters preferred the 2010 vintage, the 2009 coming second, but there was not much in it and I have to say, they were a stunning set of wines.

Wine & War

Posted: 4th September 2014

I’m just back from a nine-day ramble taking in Germany, Austria, Belgium and France. The tour started with wine and ended in war, to be more specific: the opening engagements of the British Expeditionary Force in August 1914.

The first stop was the big VDP ‘sneak preview’ tasting in Wiesbaden in the Rhineland. I flew in on Sunday and we had a relaxed evening at their HQ in Mainz where were given an introduction to some of the better wines of the south German state of Württemberg - where the elite organisation has sixteen members - and a delicious meal cooked by a local (that is Württembourgois) chef: brawn, stuffed Hohenlohe pigeons with ceps, a peach sabayon and Württemberg cheeses.

The typical soil of Württemberg is Keuper: a marl that contains large quantities of gypsum. My friend Mario Scheuermann maintains that the soil makes excellent Sauvignon Blancs, and indeed the Aldinger Große Reserve is possibly the most convincing Sauvignon Blanc I have had from Germany. Aldinger is clearly a star: his 2009 Lämmler Lemberger (Blaufränkisch) was also among the best of the bunch. Of the other whites, there were good Rieslings from the Fürst Hohenlohe, Wachstetter, Schnaitmann and Wöhrwag and Schnaitmann also topped my score for his Pinot Noir (Spätburgunder). Wöhrwag and Fürst Hohenlohe made very good Lembergers, but the best of these, I felt, was the Grosses Gewächs (grand cru) from Graf Neipperg.

The tasting began in earnest the next morning, and I was able to deal with 299 2013 whites and red wines (chiefly from 2012) before I left the following afternoon. It was clearly a difficult vintage, and winemakers had responded by de-acidifying, putting the wines through malolactic fermentation and using every which means in order to make them easier to taste and sell. The usual platitude applies: the best winemakers will make the best wines even in the worst vintages. Some regions fared better than others. There were good white wines from the Nahe and the Mosel and some lovely 2012 reds from the Ahr; but in 2013 the Rheingau had a bad year, ending a succession of good vintages that goes back some twenty years; and equally disappointing was the Pfalz, which is usually thoroughly reliable.

So in the following list I have confined myself to the three star wines. First come the Rieslings:

In the Mosel I was impressed by Heymann-Löwenstein, whose most attractive wine for now is the unusually charming Hatzenporter Kirchberg. Clemens Busch made several excellent wines, but I felt the best was the Marienburger ‘Rothenpfad’. It is not surprising that Fritz Haag should have scored top marks for both his Brauneberger Juffer and his Juffer-Sonnnenuhr: there are few growers of this quality anywhere in the world.

It seems odd to leap from top growers like Haag to Bernard Pawis in Saale-Unstrut, but his Freyburger Edelacker was such a lovely wine that I feel I cannot pass over it in silence. Then came the lacklustre Rheingaus of which the Spreitzer Oestricher Rosengarten was my favourite, followed, perhaps by his Mittelheimer Sankt Nikolaus. Josef Spreizer has soared to the first rank of hock-makers in the last few years. The only other Rheingau to score top marks was August Kesseler’s Berg Roseneck.

The Nahe had the highest average score, but then, it has far fewer growers than the Rheingau and many of them are among the best in Germany. There were exciting wines from Kruger-Rumpf (also on the Binger Scharlachberg in Rheinhessen) and Crusius and some very promising ones from Gut Hermannsberg, but the best of all were from Dönnhof (Dellchen, Felsenberg), Schäfer-Fröhlich (Kupfergraben, Stromberg, Felseneck) and Emrich-Schönleber (Frühlingsplätzchen, Halenberg).

Quality was much more variable in Rheinhessen. The names that stood out from the Rhine terraces were Kühling-Gillot (Pettenthal and Ölberg), the Staatsweingut in Oppenheim for the Ölberg and St Anthony for Orbel. Elsewhere I admired the Brüder Dr Becker for their Dienheimer Falkenberg. There were no top scorers in the southern Wonnegau this year.

As I said earlier, the Pfalz had clearly had a hard time in 2013. The honourable exceptions were a startling Pechstein from Acham-Magin, two wines from Bassermann-Jordan: the Ungeheuer and the Kalkofen, and an unexpectedly good wine from Bergdolt-St. Lamprecht from the Reiterpfad. Rebholz’s Im Sonnenschein had an enchanting nose too: indeed I found his wines looser and less Calvinist than usual.

My discovery this year in Franconia was Fürst Löwenstein and his Homburger Kallmuth, although I was also enchanted by a Randersacker Pfülben from Schmitt’s Kinder.

The Franconian Rieslings led me directly to the Silvaners from the same region. Once again the Fürst Löwenstein wines were in the vanguard with their Kallmuth, but here there were also excellent wines from tried and trodden sources such as the Stein from the Juliusspital in Würzburg and the Eschendorfer Lump from Horst Sauer. The Juliusspital also made a fine wine at the Julius-Echter-Berg as did Paul Weltner, who was new to me but whom I now see was ‘newcomer of the year’ in Feinschmecker magazine in 2012.

I moved on to the mostly 2012 vintage Pinot Noirs (Spätburgunder) starting with the Ahr. You recognise the stylistic differences between the leading producers here: Kreuzberg and Mayer-Näkel make seductively fruity wines - chiefly strawberry or raspberry-scented, while Jean Stodden’s wines are distinctly earthy. Ludwig Kreuzberg excelled on the Silberberg in Ahrweiler and the Sonnenberg in Neuenahr. Mayer-Näkel was best from the Sonnenberg, the Kräuterberg in Walporzheim and the Dernauer Pfarrwingert. J J Adeneuer had a superb wine from the Walporzheimer Gärkammer. In the the Rheingau, the best reds were from Kesseler and the Staatsweingut in Aßmannshausen. Both excelled on their Berg Schlossberg sites.

Over in Saxony, I gave a gold medal earlier this year to a Pinot Noir Zadel from Schloss Proschwitz. I still find it a lovely wine. I unearthed nothing so good in Rheinhessen or the Pfalz, although one of Philipp Kuhn’s wines was promising. In Franconia I gave top marks to Fürst’s earthy, Burgundian Klingenberger Schlossberg. His other reds needed much more time.

There was a compensation in the wines from Baden. The late Bernahrd Huber, who died so tragically earlier this year, had left a really superb Maltedinger Bienenberg as well as a series of consistently good wines from his other sites. I also admired the wines of Andreas Stigler on the Kaiserstuhl.

I failed to taste the other ‘Burgunder’ varieties, as I had to catch an aircraft to Vienna that afternoon. That night I ate at the Dombeislin the First Bezirk, where I was told the manager, Hermann Botolen, was the best sommelier in Vienna. The purpose of the dinner was to taste the wines made by Dorli Muhr and Dirk van der Niepoort on the 300-metre Spitzerberg in Carnuntum, immediately to the east of Vienna. They have twelve hectares of the hottest spot in Austria and produce wines with plenty to fruit from their chalk soils and some impressive Syrah as well as a Merlot-Cabernet blend. Obviously the main accent is on their fine Blaufränkisch wines made from 50-60 year old vines which are rather richer and more powerful than the Lembergers from Württemberg I had tasted a couple of days before. These are foot-trodden in Dirk Niepoort’s trademark style. The 2011 struck me as the best of these. The estate also makes an orange wine which ferments in amphoras. I confess I am sceptical of these, which are currently the height of fashion, but the 2012 seemed very pretty, and had a little apricot taste.

I spent the night in Krems, and the next day was spent visiting (or rather revisiting) local growers beginning with Fred Loimer in Langenlois. Fred’s domain has grown to a massive sixty-three hectares since I last visited him and he has gone organic as well, something that necessitates doubling his costs and workforce. He has also taken over Gottfried Schellmann’s estate at Gumpoldskirchen south of Vienna, which used to make very good wines and I think these broad-shouldered brews are among my favourites in his collection. He also makes a good ‘Burgunder cuvee’ called Am Mannhartsberg and a flavoursome Pinot Noir on the Decant site to the north of the town. There are the ‘natural wines’ too labelled ‘Achtung’ (which should amuse British schoolboys) and Loimer proved his point about their lasting properties by bringing out a 2006 Gemischte Satz (field blend) which I liked the best of the Achtungen.

I had never paid a call on the man-mountain Bernhart Ott in Feuersbrunn before and I was much looking forward to that. I knew the wines well and his concentration on Grüner Veltliner, which in his hands produces great fat, almost sweet-tasting wines from his essentially loess soils on the south-facing Wagram. The Wagram looks for all the world like some Aztec pyramid rising up to over 300 metres above the Danube.

Like all modern Grüner Veltliner it seems, Ott’s wines have become a little less massive in the last few years, but his Faß 4 is a model with its pineapple aromas. Der Ott is nicely plump, it is a blend of his three ‘crus’: Spiegel, Stein and Rosenberg. I was still looking for the lentil taste by which I identify Grüner Veltliner, especially when grown on loess. I eventually found it in his Rosenberg 2013. Ott was keen to show how well they aged, and again the 2004 Rosenberg was the one I liked most among the mature wines. Ott is justly famous for QVEVRE: the wines he makes in Crimean amphorae like Roman wines. The idea was to allow the Grüner Veltliner to speak rather than the winemaker, so the fruit is shoved into the amphora and allowed to ferment dry. Six months later the wine is drawn off. It was here (naturally) that the lentil taste was at its most noticeable. Ott also has a lovely collection of schnapps including an apricot (Marillen) and his own take on London dry gin.

I had seen Markus Huber in the Traisental comparatively recently. Like everyone else, it seems, his hectarage has increased. He drove us up to the vines and we saw the bags of human hair he hangs around them to put off the deer that would otherwise eat his crop. He and the wonderful Ludwig Neumayer more or less carve up the small appellation between them, but if Huber is brasher, slicker and more savvy than Neumayer, his wines are still zingingly fresh and full of electrifying directness which makes them hard to resist. I was quite struck by his 2013 Riesling Engelsberg, his Weissburgunder Hochschopf from the same year, which is grown at 380 metres on limestone, not to mention a 2010 Berg Riesling and a 2013 Riesling Eiswein.

We finished the day at Willi Bründlmayer’s Heurige in Langenlois. Bründlmayer’s domain was always one of Austria’s biggest but with the huge growth of some of his neighbours he seems to have taken a step backwards; also his son, Vincent has now come of age, so he too has his own vineyards which Willi says he has sold him at cost price! Bründlmayer’s wines have slimmed down a lot over the years in a quest for lightness and elegance. In some cases I miss the old style, like - for example - the old-vine Grüner Veltliner with its hints of botrytis and a thundering alcoholic presence of 14-15 percent. The modern style of Grüner Veltliner seems to me to obliterate its character by rendering it some sort of second-rank Riesling. The one I liked best was actually Vincent’s Spiegel. Of Willi’s wines I still admired the Riesling alte Reben (old-vine) Heiligenstein wines. When we tasted the 2003, it had even a nuance of the baroque about it.

The next day was properly baroque in that our mature wine tasting of wines made by members of the Traditionsweingüter took place in the magnificent setting of Schloss Gobelsburg. The Traditionsweingüter is a collection of Austrian estates which has made considerable progress towards classifying sites and creating a system of crus in some (the Wachau, for example, won’t play) of the appellations in the Danube Valley. In this they resemble the VDP, and like the VDP, however laudable, they have yet to find any comprehensive official recognition. Again I shall mention only my top scorers: of the Grüner Veltliners they were the 2010 Stein from Ott, the 2009 Vordernberg from Buchegger and the 2006 Grub from Schloss Gobelsburg. The Türk winery in Krems has been a favourite for some time now, and I was not disappointed by their 2006 Frechau. Then came a 2002 Oberfucha from Ilse Mayer at Geyerhof, and a 2004 Rohrendorfer Gebling from Hermann Moser. Besides Ott on the Wagram, Karl Fritsch is still up there with his 2010 Kirchberger Schlossberg.

We then graduated to Riesling, of which my top wines were the 2006 Silberbichl from Malat, the 2004 Steinhaus from Hiedler, the 2004 Gaisberg from Schloss Gobelsburg and the 1999 Hollenburg Goldburg from Geyerhof.

The weather had picked up again and there was a lovely mood at lunch out in the garden under the shadow of the church. The afternoon was spent in the company of the geologist Professor Maria Heinrich who first gave us a lecture on the local soils then took us up onto the Gebling with its round pebbles and then the Heiligenstein. I found a pebble that she told me had been washed down from a riverbed in Bohemia by a glacier and some amphibolites that were part of the primary rock soils of the Heilgenstein and contained little sparkly bits of mica. These have now joined the other fragments here that will doubtless cause much mirth and bewilderment to my more distant descendants.

The day was crowned with a barbecue at the new Malat hotel in Furth-Palt in which the pièces de la résistance were two beasts despatched by our host: a boar and a deer, and jolly good they were too.

Our final tasting occurred next day at Schloss Grafenegg. I had been there many years before and met the old duke who resided in this vast pile and made decent wine in his vineyards. I recall that he used to keep the old wines among the tombs of his ancestors. Since then, the Metternich-Sandors have made an arrangement with the Lower Austrian government and a music festival now takes place here every year in a magnificent open-air concert hall. That night we were promised Klaus Florian Vogt singing extracts from Parsifal and Lohengrin, and Beethoven’s Seventh conducted by Andris Nelsons with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra.

There was work to do first: the 2013 Grüner Veltliners and Rieslings. I have already noted my disappointment with the 2013 Grüner Veltliners, but I realise that the problem is as much stylistic as anything to do with the vintage. It appears that winemakers make the wines too cold and clean up the must until all flavour has been removed before the ferment. The result in most cases is perfectly bland. Modern Veltliner is made reductively, meaning that the aromas are suppressed. In my case that means you can generally tell which wines you are going to like by looking at them: the darker ones appeal more.

Here then is a short list in no particular order: Hiedler Kittmannsberg, Türk Frechau, Gobelsburg Grub (this used to be a dream of a wine), Dolle Heilgenstein, Mantler Moosburgerin, Proidl Pellingen, Mantler Spiegel, Türk Thurnerberg, Markus Huber Berg, Neumayer Zwirch, Leth Brunnthal, Fritsch Mordthal, Ott Rosenberg, and Fritsch Schlossberg.

It is ironic that since many parts of the English-speaking world have learned to say ‘Grooner’, the character of the variety has been all but lost. In Austria it still plays second or third fiddle to Riesling, and the Riesling of that year has much more to recommend it. Those that shone for me were the Hiedler Gaisberg, Gobelsburg Gaisberg, Hirsch Heiligenstein, Hiedler Steinhaus, Topf Strasser Wechselberg Spiegel, Geyerhof Oberfucha, Malat Silberbichl and the Neumayer Rothenbart.

Two days later, after a twelve-hour pit stop in London, I went to war in Flanders, following the destiny of the First Battalion Irish Guards to the Marne. Neither wine nor food had much to do with it, although I should point out a couple of restaurants that hit the spot. Betty and Franck Helmlinger at Les Menus Plaisirs in Villers-Cotterêts were able to provide an excellent service in a pretty town which, like so many in France now, is losing its gastronomic face. They proved the most charming and amenable of hosts. On our second night went to A La Bonne Idee not for from Pierrefonds in the Forêt de Compiègne which has a Michelin rosette and had a sensational albeit hurried meal. We stayed at a lovely former coaching inn, Le Régent in Villers-Cotterêts, where the Helmlingers also do the catering when required.

‘Dungheap Food’ - Eating out in Berlin

Posted: 5th August 2014

I probably spent a good part of every year in Berlin between 1991 and 1997, after that my visits became increasingly sporadic until now, when I suppose I am lucky if I drop in for a day or two every three or four years. The city has certainly been stumbling to its feet since the fall of the Wall and when the rebuilding is finished (and who knows when that will be) there is little question that it will be the most exciting place in Europe.

From a purely gastronomic point of view, there is a danger that with so much rebuilding and in-filling the beastly chains will muscle in and Berlin will be packed with chain restaurants, branded cafés and ‘concepts’ (how do you eat a concept?) like everywhere else in the world. When Berlin was just an island in a hostile Soviet ocean, the multiples gave it as wide a berth as all but the hardiest tourists. There were few posh restaurants, and fewer comfortable hotels. In that time the standard offering was the wholesome Berliner Kneipe or pub where you ate local food. If we don’t look out, this might simply disappear.

I had this problem flying in to Berlin on the 2nd. By the time I had checked into my hotel in the Linienstrasse and obtained some cash, I was hungry, but the myriad restaurants at the top of the Friedrichstrasse did not seem right for a Londoner: Chinese, Japanese, Thai, Pan-Asian, Italian, tapas, pizza, eat-all-you-want etc. is just what I find at home. I craved something authentic. After much hesitation I found it on the Torstrasse: a proper old Kneipe with Gothic script and bogus beams and a long menu of regional German food. Mine host (who looked as if he had been drawn by Heinrich Zille) had to be chivvied away from the television he was studying closely, and I think there were no more than four of us eating that evening. Still I had good beer, good schnapps and good Rindsroulade. I went back to my hotel full and watched some sort of German Inspector Morse spin-off on the gogglebox.

From the following morning I fell into line with my university people. We lunched in an Italian place behind the Humboldt University which offered vast pizzas and pasta dishes not to mention heroic salads. I missed a trick though when I saw one of our number had a plate piled high with tagliatelli and girolles. At night we ate tapas: No Misthaufenkuche for us: visiting academics do not eat ‘dungheap food’, a word used by some foreign visitor to sum up the food of Wilhelmine Prussia.

Once I had quit my fellows I reverted to my quest for authenticity. Berlin is still good for small food shops. Where I was staying in the Bayrische Viertel there were three or four excellent bakers within easy walking distance with the Streuselkuchen and marzipan Plunderschleife my children liked for breakfast. There was a huge array of different breads, with a 50-50 wheat-rye loaf we ate until they ran out and we took the rye-dominated Schwarzwälder instead. From the local shop I discovered an excellent initiative to encourage Berlin beekeepers. You could buy packages of three 10cl pots of really strong-flavoured local honey. When I left I stocked up on Brandenburg linden honey for home. It has always been a great favourite. I used to buy it from a beekeeper who had a stall outside Schloss Rheinsberg.

Apart from huge numbers of pubs, the Viertel had wonderful greengrocers with masses of tempting ripe fruit and wild mushrooms. Most summers in Britain I don’t eat peaches or apricots, because the fruit seems to be suffering from an identity crisis which makes it believe it is some species of apple. There were delicatessens and butchers too and a wonderful old-fashioned confectioner. Downstairs from our flat was a large organic shop selling produce of all sorts. Perhaps the oddest place local to us was a hundred-year old winery restaurant in an alleyway off the Berliner Strasse where you could eat à deux in an adapted wine tun.

In a vaguely Teutonic idiom there are plenty of Austrian restaurants now in Charlottenburg and Wilmersdorf, where you may eat a half-decent schnitzel, but that is not really berlinisch. The first night we were all together as a family, we found an unpretentious place where we could buy Fritz Allendorf’s excellent hock by the litre and eat variations on matjes herrings or Pfifferlinge, the local German name for what the French call girolles and we (inaccurately) chanterelles. With the alternating rain and sun, it was a marvellous time for mushrooms, and I was able to buy a big punnet of them in Potsdam for my host’s dinner party on Saturday.

It was so hot in Berlin that I drank more beer than is my wont. Most of this was Weizen or wheat beer. There were old favourites such as the Weihenstephan that I drank in a themed place on the Hacke’scher Markt with white and Käsekrainer sausages from the Bavarian state farm, but the most interesting was the organic Weizen from Braumanufaktur I had in Potsdam. It was quite dark and tangy. The company has its own brew-pub and you can sample all their specialities there.

Most children like sausages, so from that point of view Berlin is ideal, but it was not always easy to get the message across to them that sausages tend to be bought from stalls or vans and not from bars and cafes. The Currywurst so beloved of Berliners was wholly disdained but some Berlin foods went down well, like the Bouletten we had in the Stadtklause in Kreuzberg. The Stadtklause was a discovery: a marvellous old pub quite close to the ruins of the old Anhalt Station. From its proximity to the offices of Tagespiegel and Die Zeit, I should say was frequented by hacks. It had a collection of old pictures of the station.

One nice thing about much of the old western parts of the city is that nothing changes quickly. Walking through another of my old stamping grounds in Wilmersdorf, I noted that a fair number of the places I used to go to twenty years ago are still operating, including a Swabian restaurant called Besenwirtschaft where I used to eat the local pasta. In my various stays in Friedenau over the years I had often seen a good looking pub-cum-restaurant on the corner of the Bundesplatz and one night we went out to look for it. I had heard more recently that my old host in Friedenau, Urs Müller-Plantenberg went there once a year in January to eat roast venison and celebrate his escape from East Prussia in 1945, when he was a boy of five or six. His family managed to get the last train from Marienwerder before the Red Army cut the Germans off. Many were killed outright. Others were starved to death. The rest were banished to the west, months and years later.

Zum Nussbaum was not only still there the food was much as I imagined it. There was wild boar on the menu, Sulze (aspics), Kartoffelpuffer (potato cakes), Pfannkuchen mit Speck (bacon pancakes), Königsberger Klopse (Königsberg meatballs) and other stock north-east German ‘delicacies’. I had some excellent Königsberger Klopse and my daughter and I shared a north German summer pudding or Rote Grütze afterwards. There is a pretty front garden under the nut tree of the name, but inside there are two dark-stained, panelled Ur-German rooms with antique posters and photographs and the old-fashioned ‘Theke’ or bar. I cannot recommend Zum Nussbaum too highly for those looking for proper old Berlin restaurants.

In a way, the experience of our last night in Berlin-Charlottenburg, was similar. We were looking once again for an authentic pub. Diener is a Kunstlerkneipe or artists’ pub just off the Savignyplatz. I went into look at the pleasantly authentic scruffy interior with lots of photographs of bohemian worthies. The waitress was in a bad mood and the customers were lining their stomachs in preparation for the Germany-Brazil match, which was crowned with such a sensational victory a few hours later. The menu, however, was just right: there was Griebenschmalz (dripping) and toasted rye bread, as well as Leberkäs (meatloaf) and Kartoffelpuffer with various toppings, and there were matjes herrings and Königsberger Klopse. It was proper Berlin food, and in one of the smartest corners of the spanking new capital: Diener Tattersall, Grolmanstraße 47, Charlottenburg, 10623 Berlin, 030/881.53.29.


For the rest, this has been a typical holiday month and I have not been out much. I went to a dinner at Boisdale in Canary Wharf on the 15th organised to celebrate smoking and smokers. Boisdale has a nice roomy terrace for puffers and lots of the guests staggered out for a relieving cigarette or cigar in the course of the evening, leaving telltale gaps at the table. Even if I gave up smoking thirty ears ago I have to say that I am an old-fashioned liberal about these things: that you should be allowed to do anything provided it does not impinge on the liberty of others. I am also pretty sure that carbon monoxide fumes from cars are more dangerous than inhaling tobacco smoke.

On the 28th I was entertained by South Africa’s Nederburg Wines at Quo Vadis in Soho. I had not been to this venerable London restaurant since it was owned by Marco Pierre White. Marco moved in his collection of Damien Hirst stuffed sharks, cows etc, and the suggestion was that they might soon end up on the menu. I had a nice little salad of smoked mackerel with apples, celery and walnuts and some smoked haddock fishcakes with back pudding and a fried egg, followed by an almond tart. I saw no mention of beef or shark on the menu so I presume they were gobbled up a long time ago. The Nederburg wines are extremely good value at £8.99, particularly the slightly old-fashioned oaky Winemaster’s Reserve Chardonnay and Cabernet. It was also a chance to meet the telegenic farmer Jimmy Doherty, who makes splendid things on his farm near Ipswich.

Vienna and Back

Posted: 1st July 2014

The sun has come out and life has perked up a little since May. June had the added charm of a few days in Vienna with fresh white asparagus, big black cherries, strawberries and wine.

Champagne Bars

Last month I forgot to mention the tremendous deals offered by Searcy’s London champagne bars which provide tasting menus that are good value for money. The Boller nights look particularly toothsome:

Champagne Tasting at One New Change
Tuesday 22nd July at 6.30pm 
Join us for the ultimate Henri Giraud Champagne tasting experience. You’ll enjoy 4 glasses of Henri Giraud Champagne and sumptuous Searcys canapés.
Tickets are £35 per person

Champagne Tasting at Westfield London
Thursday 17th July at 6.30pm 
Join us for the ultimate Bollinger & Ayala Champagne tasting experience. You’ll enjoy 3 glasses of Bollinger Champagne and a signature Brut from its sister House Ayala,  alongside sumptuous Searcys canapés. 
Tickets are £35 per person

Champagne Jazz Party at Westfield London
Thursday 14th August from 7.30pm
Join us for a perfect evening of live jazz soulfully paired with a Bollinger & Ayala tasting flight and nibbles to soothe you into the weekend.
£20 per person tickets include:
Reserved Table in our luxurious lounge area 
1 x 50ml of Bollinger Brut, NV, Bollinger Rosé, NV, Ayala Brut, NV. Nuts and Olives.

Bookings: 020 7871 1213 or

Quite distinct from these offers the price of a good sandwich at a glass of champagne is very reasonably pegged at £10. A salad and a glass of fizz is just two pounds more. I am not sure you’ll do much better than this in the current economic climate and when Jeffrey Osborne persists in seeing wine as his principal cash cow.

Spain and Sherry

The first week of June had a Spanish theme. On the 3rd I attended the lavish launch of Iberica’s new restaurant near Farringdon Station in the city. Albert Adria, brother of Ferran Adria of El Bulli fame, and Nacho Manzano designed an extraordinary molecular meal that was well lubricated with the best sherries (Tio Pepe fino en rama) and Spanish wines. Two days later on the 5th there was a tasting and dinner at the Hispania restaurant organised by the Andalucian Tourist Board.

It was prefaced by a tasting led by Beltran Domecq which was a chance to get my tongue round some lovely sherries, such as the fino en rama from Williams & Humbert and the exquisite palo cortado from Gonzalez-Byass. There were seven courses (yes seven - including dessert) of red tuna with different sherries. Strange as it might seem, the preparations were all quite different and the presence of the tuna in the pudding merely suggestive, so it was actually quite a nice dinner, and I am grateful.


Every two years the Austrian growers display their wares in the Hofburg - the Habsburg winter palace in Vienna. It is a mammoth undertaking arranged over three days with lots of parties in the evening for those who have spent their days slurping and spitting wine. Here are my findings - space only permits me to include those which struck me as very good or excellent.

The fair is for professionals only before midday and it is worthwhile getting to the Wachau room at ten each day before the area is swamped. As a friend from Langenlois said ‘Three types of people come here Giles: serious winelovers; people who want to get the full value of their €40 ticket back; and genuine alcoholics.’ By four o’clock all the stands are blocked by crowds of drinkers who look with horror at anyone who spits out their wine and it is quite impossible to taste any more. I have never actually seen a fight break out, but it would not surprise me in the least.

For the past 30 years, all coverage of Austrian wine has begun with the Wachau, a region that has grown in importance since the Second World War and which was already committed to dry wines before the 1985 scandal. It is also necessary to hit the stars first. These winemakers are as well known to Austrians as soccer slebs are here and growers often attribute only a few bottles to the fair which are quickly drunk up. I headed straight for the genial Franz Hirtzberger. The best were the 2013 Honivogl Grüner Veltliner Smaragd and the Hochrain and the Setzberg Riesling Smaragds. Lukas Pichler seems fully in control now at FX Pichler and the wines are more confident: the Loibner Steiner Smaragd was possibly the best Wachau Grüner Veltliner of the vintage and there were gorgeous Riesling Smaragds from the Loibenberg and the Kellerberg. Rudi Pichler makes his wines as tight as a spring. His best Grüner Veltliner - the Wösendorfer Hochrain - was up with the frontrunners. Of the Rieslings it was also the Hochrain that excelled. Toni Bodenstein at Weingut Prager continued his series of wonderful wines: Grüner Veltliner Achleiten Smaragd and its even greater ‘Stockkultur’ version (ie old vines planted in 1937 - he calls the vineyard ‘a hospital’), the Riesling Federspiel from Steinriegl and the Wachstum Bodenstein particularly struck me. The latter was one of the best Austrian wines of the year.

There was return to the top table for the wines of Emmerich Knoll sensational Riesling Smaragds from Loibenberg and Schütt; a glorious Vinothekfüllung and a sweet Auslese. The Nikolaihof was bathing in glory after the Wine Spectator gave one of their wines a perfection-rating. The 2006 Im Weingebirge ‘Baumpresse’ (tree press) was lovely with its rose-petal scent, but the 1997 Vinothek wine was even better.

It has been a while since I tasted the wines of the Tegernseerhof, but I have always admired them. They had a splendid Riesling Kellerberg Smaragd and an impressive Gemischte Satz Smaragd made from 80-year old vines in a promiscuous vineyard. Alzinger too had a promising Riesling Smaragd from the Loibenberg and a bottle of his 2009 Steinertal reminded how good that had been. My old friend Högl disappointed me this year: only his ‘Vision’ Riesling Smaragd stood out, and fortunately not just for its silly name: gimmicky names are a poor alternative to vineyard sites. Johann Donabaum made one of the few tip-top Grüner Veltliners this year with his Spitzer Point Smaragd. His Riesling Setzberg was also first rate. The Setzberg also nurtured the second best Riesling Smaragd from the Mauritiushof (Gritsch). Their best was from the Tausendeimerberg.

The Weingut Schmelz occasionally grabs at my heartstrings. This year I admired the off-dry ‘Beste von Riesling’ which had a little taste of fresh apricots like so many 2013 Rieslings. Schmelz also made one of the best Grüner Veltliners on Pichl Point with a beautiful, poised, lyrical finish. The big Domäne Wachau co-operative also made a top Grüner Veltliner Smaragd on Achleiten.

The Weingut Pichler-Krutzler is owned by Erich and Elisabeth Krutzler and has vines in the Wachau and the Kremstal. The core of their Wachau vines lies close to those of Elisabeth’s father and brother at FX Pichler in Loiben. For me the best Wachau wine was the Loibenberg Riesling, but there is also a wonderful Pfaffenberg from the Kremstal with that haunting fresh apricot smell.

As you have probably seen, the 2013 vintage appears to have favoured the Rieslings more than the Grüner Veltliners, but it may also have been a stylistic choice as there were some exciting Grüner Veltliners from the Kamptal (see below). Now that the world has discovered ‘Grooner’ (rhymes with ‘crooner’) Austrian winemakers seem to want to strip it down and concentrate on elegance, rather than any inherent character the grape might possess. The lentilly taste Grüner Veltliner gives off on loess or primary rock soils was more apparent on the 2012s, like the Bründlmayer Lamm. Bründlmayer’s best wine for me was the Zöbinger Heiligenstein Riesling 2012 with its classic ripe white peach taste. Some of Bründlmayer’s neighbours in Langenlois are Ludwig and Maria Hiedler whose organic wines which get better and better every year and as always, they have a lovely Weißburgunder (Pinot Blanc) with an ethereal finish. The Rieslings from Steinhaus and the blended Maximum also bowled me over. Another Langenloiser is Fred Loimer. The news is that he had taken over the old Schellmann estate in the Thermenregion which used to make great things in a ramshackle if palatial renaissance house in Gumpoldskirchen. I tasted a good, international style Chardonnay: one to watch. Rudolf Rabl is also in Langenlois. He has a vast estate by Austrian standards but he is able to make a large number of very good wines, like his sappy Grüner Veltliner from the Käferberg.

The Weingut Mantlerhof with its loess soils in Gedersdorf is another favourite of mine. They are well-known in Austria as one of the specialists for Roter Veltliner, which is a green grape. Black grapes are called ‘blau’ or blue in German. So far no one has heard of it so there has been no move to call it ‘Roater’ or worse: ‘Rotter’ in the wine trade. Sepp Mantler’s best Roter Veltliners come from the Reisenthal vineyard where he has been experimenting with open fermentation (‘botega’). He is not a one-horse winemaker and makes other lovely wines. Possibly his best are the Grüner Veltliner Reserve from Spiegel and his Riesling from Zehetnerin.

One of my favourite Kremstal estates is the Geyerhof, the home of the redoubtable Ilse Maier. She always picks late if she can and a bit of botrytis adds a taste of pineapples to the Veltliner. The very best is the Gutsreserve, which spends up to four years in cask. Nearby, the Weingut Malat has some of its best land on the slopes below the great monastery at Göttweig. The Grüner Veltliner from the Höhlgraben site has classic typicity with a smidgen of botrytis.

It is impossible to attend Vievinum without paying a call on Ludwig Neumayer from the Traisental whose wines have that zinging purity of fruit that first wooed me when I began to write about Austria a quarter of a century ago. There was a lovely Grüner Veltiner vom Stein, but once again in 2013 the Rieslings shone: the Grillenstein and Wein vom Stein above all.

Similarly, a visit to the man mountain Berhard Ott is a sine qua non. He has become the voice and benchmark of Wagram Grüner Veltliner. The wines have something of the corpulence of their maker, particularly ‘der Ott’ and the Feuersbrunner Rosenberg 2012 with its authentic lentil character of loess-grown Veltliner. The nec plus ultra, however is the 2013 Ampora wine which has not only the lentil taste, there is a little hint of bay leaves as well.

Other parts of Lower Austria yielded fewer two to three star wines. In the Thermenregion, I was very impressed by the Riesling from the Freigut Thallern. New to me was the Weingut Heggenberger with its very good 2010 Pinot Noir. I visited my old friend Walter Glatzer from Göttlesbrunn in Carnuntum and noted his lovely St Laurent from the Altenberg (see below) and Georg Prieler from Schützen in the Leitha Hills to taste his wonderful Weißburgunder from the Seeberg. Then two of Erwin Tinnhof’s wines caught my attention: the 2011 Blaufränkisch Feldmühle and the Gloriette from the same vintage. The vines for Gloriette are 55-years old and the Blaufränkisch is grown on limestone, giving it a Burgundian silkiness.

There were more sensations from Styria in the south of the country. In South Styria Willi Sattler presided over an impressive collection of 2013s, but two older wines caught my attention: a 2011 Morillon (Chardonnay) from the Pfarrweingarten and a 2007 Weißburgunder from the same site that was truly enchanting. How well these wines age! Polz’s wines disappointed me a little this year, but I did like the Sauvignon Blanc Therese, grown at 450 metres; while the two Gross wines that appealed most were the simple Steirische Klassik Sauvignon and the cru-wine from the Nußberg. Weingut Wohlmuth in Kitzeck’s best wine was a Sauvignon Hochsteinriegl grown at an altitude of 500 metres. Winkler-Hermaden in South-East Styria has absorbed the old Stürgkh estate in Klöch and had a good range of excellent if slightly understated Sauvignons.

Besides the stands where the vignerons offered their wares there were a number of side events. The most important of these for me was the red wine tasting in the Redoutensaal (either those pictures go or I do). I had recently made a selection of the best Blaufränkisch wines for Decanter and as I had a lunch that day I concentrated on St Laurent and Pinot Noir. Of the former the best seemed to me to be (in descending order) Glatzer (see above), Allacher, Dopler, Keringer, Trapl, Auer, Gisperg and Kurt Angerer; of the Pinots, Claus Preisinger, Aumann (Reserve), Heinrich Hartl, Schloß Halbturn,  Gisberg, Malat (Reserve), Cobenzl and Zahel’s Dolomit (both very good wines from within Vienna’s city limits) and Feiler-Artinger in Rust.

There was also an intriguing tasting that focussed on the geology of the Wachau and its effect on the taste of the wines which brought certain Wachaus into new focus, such as the Mauritiushof’s 2007 Riesling Tausendeimerberg, which derives some of its excellence from silicate marble; or Johann Donabaum’s Spitzer Point Grüner Veltliner of the same year which much like Bayer’s Ralais 2007 and Hitzberger’s Singerriedl of the same year is powered by paragneis. Perhaps the loveliest of these rocksucking exercises was the Riesling Schütt 2006 from Knoll the vineyard name of which commemorates the eroded shale (‘Schütt’) from the Gföhler Gneis terraces. FX Pichler’s 2007 Kellerberg Riesling owed some of its superiority to Gföhler gneis and loess.

Another exciting side event was an intimate dinner at Silvio Nickol, the new ‘gastronomic’ restaurant in the Palais Coburg. It was a celebration of Pinot Blanc/Weißburgunder organised by Georg Prieler, David Schildknecht of the Wine Spectator and the Austrian Master of Wine Andreas Wickhoff. Schildknecht in particular wanted to prove how subtle, complex and long-living were Austrian Weißburgunder (particularly those grown on limestone) and I think he succeeded admirably. The food was marvellous and some of the wines out of this world, and - as I was already aware - inextinguishable, like the Schenkenbichl from Hiedler, or Prieler’s Seeberg.

Spey Whisky Revisited

The rest of the month of was a bit anti-climactic, despite the Decanter Awards (plentiful Boller and oysters) and the annual TLS Party where the game it seems, is to try to avoid talking to anyone you might know and where, as I left, I heard a couple of ladies amusing themselves ecstatically on the other side of the lavatory wall. I had to suppress my desire to know which of our literary lionesses it might have been. I did, on the other hand, find the chance to go to Liberty Wines’ Piedmontese wine tasting and revelled in Aldo Conterno’s spicy 2009 Barolos Romirasco and Colonello.

I also had news of our friends at the Spey Distillery (sales at ) who generously sent me samples of their range to taste in these rather more banal surroundings compared to their majestic launch in the Tower of London. I have to say that they all impressed me in their sweet, liqueur style, and I was struck by what tiny quantities they produce of each bottling. This is truly artisan whisky-making.

So, in ascending order, Tenné is matured in port casks and not subjected to chill-filtering. It tastes of sweet almonds and marzipan, but also has a young-ish classic Speyside character with a hint of fresh pears and some toffee on the finish. It gives the impression of sweetness and warmth.

12-year old. This is aged in new oak barrels and there is a little of that ‘Chardonnay’ character. On the other hand the dominant bouquet is of citrus fruits, oranges in particular and it is a very attractive whisky. This may be the best age-statement for the distillery?

18-year old. This was aged in sherry butts and was rich and sweet, and reminiscent of glace cherries and Dundee cake.

Chairman’s Choice. Here we enter into the range of real liqueur whiskies best enjoyed before a blazing fire. The nose is sweet and rich but behind it all is an irresistible flavour of cooked pears.

Royal Choice. This adds a further dimension of butterscotch and it is again rich, sweet and luscious. You do get the impression of long cask ageing here as the whisky is woody. I think it might be the perfect match for a Havana cigar.

An Unhappy Spring

Posted: 2nd June 2014

It has been an unhappy spring. The rain has bucketed down, and yet the Met Office has informed us this was the warmest May on record. It’s marvellous how that manage to turn bad news into something comforting. In terms of eating it has been dismal: not a cherry, nor a spear of white asparagus; a handful of sharp-tasting strawberries, and two nights ago, at long last, some minute, albeit authentic Jersey Royals. So I shall begin with royalty: the month began with a promising glimpse of it in the Tower of London, of all places, where I was invited to sample the whiskies made by a distillery I had not come across before: Spey Royal.

I suppose I must have visited at least half of the malt distilleries in Scotland, but I had never heard speak of this one in Scotland’s ski resort of Aviemore. The late and much missed Michael Jackson’s Malt Whisky Companion tells me that the modern distillery is better known for making Drumguish, which first ran off the stills in 1991. Its sister malt, Spey Royal, has been reputable in the Far East for some time, but it is unknown here.

The brand is the brainchild of two John McDonoughs, father and son, whose name should appeal to me - indeed, they might even be cousins of mine. They have splashed onto the scene through an arrangement with Historic Royal Palaces which will be selling the malts through their shops at the Tower, Hampton Court, Kew, Kensington and the Banqueting House in Whitehall at the fairly hefty price of £150 for a 70 cl bottle. The 18-year old is a toffee-rich whisky, which a pronounced, almond/marzipan taste. I wish them luck, and I was grateful, as always for the chance to see the Tower at dusk. It was a magical moment: not a tourist in sight, just the tolling of the bells and a few drilling squaddies taking orders from a barking NCO among a jumble of ancient buildings hardly known to us indigenous Londoners. It was a great treat.

Riesling is more in my parish than malt these days and there was a big tasting on 12 May. I only had time to taste the Germans but I noted some of the best Austrian producers were also there. I shall leave them for Vienna later this month. There is rather a dearth of German wine at the moment, with 2012 and 2013 making just small quantities and the bumper harvest of 2011 sold out. Hopes are now pinned on 2014, but severe hail has already eliminated large parts of the crop in some areas, the Ruwer, for example.

Many growers had only 2013s to show, although Steffen Christmann had brought his lovely 2012 Grosses Gewächs from Idig, and I was impressed by a collection of 2012s from Schloss Neuweier in Baden where the best Rieslings are grown on granite. Many growers had brought in special wines from their cellars: Schloss Saarstein, for example, topped a lovely 2013 Auslese with Gold Cap 2006, which was simply gorgeous. Maximin Grünhaus had no new wines, but a lovely Abtsberg Spätlese 2009 and a 2006 Auslese from the Herrenberg (N 14) that was out of this world.

Grünhaus’s neighbour in the Ruwer, Karthäuserhof, has had a change of ownership, but it has had no perceivable impact on the quality of the wines. There were exemplary Kabinetts, Spätlesen and Auslesen from 2013 and as a bonus, a Trockenbeerenauslese from that great sweet wine-year, 2011.

It is quite a privilege to taste JJ Prüm’s Mittelmosel wines. He is adamant that they cannot be drunk young, and the sulphury noses on his 2011s rather bore this out. They will be lovely in five years or so, particularly the Wehlener Sonnenuhr Spätlese with its taste of peaches and pears. The 2008 Sonnenuhr Spätlese is just beginning to give its all now, with its lovely cooling finish of yellow peaches. A 2009 Auslese from the same site added a hint of apricots, evidence of benign botrytis.

SA Prüm also had some decent things, but as ever it is more of a mixed bag. Very good were the 2007 Urziger Würzgarten Kabinett and 2005 Graacher Domprobst Spätlese; excellent the 2010 Erdener Treppchen Auslese. More consistent, perhaps is a Mosel traditionalist like Max Ferd Richter. I enjoyed his 2013 Brauneberger Juffer Kabinett and his 2007 Wehlener Sonnenuhr Kabinett as well as the 2002 Juffer Sonnenuhr Auslese. It is always a pleasure to try the Eisweine he picks from the Helenenkloster vineyard; in this instance harvested on 12, 12, 12. Every year the wild boars lay new plans to make off with the fruit, and every year Dirk Richter has to erect fresh defences to keep them out.

Heymann-Löwenstein is one of the Mosel’s leading terroirists, and his wines require an article of faith. Like many growers from the valley these days, he travels with a collection of stones which he thrusts at you as you taste. They tell you that the flavours of wine are dictated by the rock below the surface of the vineyard. When you sample the 2011 Vom blauen Schieffer, for example, some blue slate is brought out. The wine is stalky, wild and smoky, and yet very long and cooling. The 2011 Roth Lay is the very opposite: almost feminine and quite charming! Possibly the best was the 2012 Stolzenberg.

Another Mittelmosel stalwart is Selbach-Oster. The stars for me were the 2007 Graacher Himmelreich and the 2011 Zeltinger Sonnenuhr Spätlesen. There were a couple of properly mature wines too: the Zeltinger Sonnenuhr Auslesen from 1999 and 1995. Reichsgraf von Kesselstadt is always a curate’s egg, but there were some real highlights, such as the 2012 Ockfener Bockstein and 2011 Piesporter Goldtröpfchen Kabinetts, the 2007 Goldtröpfcehn Spätlese and the 2005 Wiltinger Scharzhofberg Auslese Fuder 10.

I passed briefly though the Nahe and Gut Hermannsberg which has reached new heights under its present owners, particularly good were the 2012 Steinterrassen and a 2013 traditional Kabinett. Also beautifully poised was the Steinterrassen Spätlese 2012. There was a majestic echo from the past: a 1989 Kupfergrube Trockenbeerenauslese. The colour was almost black, but it was all oranges and peaches on the palate. The Nahe’s greatest star, Hermann Dönnhoff was represented by a marvellous 2012 Oberhäuser Brücke Spätlese.

Wilhelm Weil in the Rheingau rarely disappoints. There was the 2012 Kiedricher Turmberg and the 2012 dry Grosses Gewächs from the Gräfenberg. The 2006 Turmberg Spätlese was sensational and the 2007 Gräfenberg Auslese wonderfully complex. There was also a wine from Joachim Flick, one of the rising stars of the Rheingau: his 2012 Hölle, which was very promising. From the Rheinterrassen in Rheinhessen came Heyl zu Herrnsheim with a good series of 2013s from its vines in Hipping and on the Brüdersberg. As a reward there was a 1983 Auslese from the Ölberg that seemed remarkably bright and youthful, and tasted of lychees.

The big Jura tasting occurred on the 14th. The region is wonderfully individual. Perched on the heights above Burgundy, the wines couldn’t be more different from those of the Côte d’Or. I think it must be true that it is hard to get grapes to ripen and the acidity levels are consequently high. Much of the wine is subjected to a second fermentation as sparkling wine, which allows for a good dose of sugar to be added. The famous name used to be Henri Maire with his ‘vin fou’. Still I like the light reds Trousseau and Poulsard, and the local Chardonnay. This time I decided to taste only Savagnin, which has an acidity comparable to Hungarian Furmint and which I am sure is some sort of cousin.

A good Vin Jaune or Château-Chalon should have bottle age to tame the acidity. With time an aroma of walnuts predominates. Some of this flavour comes from the ‘voile’, the friendly bacteria that settle on the surface of the wine much like the ‘flor’ in dry sherry. Most growers also make a reductive style where oxygen is banished from vat or cask and which highlights the primary fruit of the grape. Here is a little league table for top Savagnin:

Good: Domaine Hughes-Béguet (Savagnin 2009), Domaine Rijckaert (Arbois Grand Elevage 2010), Cellier des Tiercelines (Savagnin 2011); Very good: Domaine Jacques Tissot, Domaine Baud (Cuvée Tradition), Domaine Berthet-Bondet (Naturé, Tradition and Château-Chalon), Domaine de la Pinte (Arbois Savagnin), Champ Divin (Pollux), Domaine Joly (Vin Jaune), Domaine Rolet (Naturé 2011), Domaine André et Mireille Tissot (Château-Chalon 2007); excellent: Domaine de la Pinte (Vin Jaune), Daniel Dugois (Vin Jaune 2006), Jean Tissot (Vin Jaune 2006), Domaine Pignier (Vin Jaune 2006), Domaine Rolet (Côte du Jura Blanc 2008, Arbois Blanc Tradition 2008, Vin Jaune 2006), Chais du Vieux Bourg (Vin Jaune 2005), Domaine André et Mireille Tissot (Vin Jaune la Vasée 2007).

It’s not all white. I had some reds this month too! I had two rather lovely Malbecs from Trivento in Mendoza, a sharp-ish Reserve 2012 (£5.99 from Tesco) and a much richer Grande Reserve 2011. The Reserve had a nice high grown acidity about with lots of black cherry tastes, while the Grande Reserve was quite rich and creamy like a dish of rote Grütze, the German version of summer pudding.

Twenty years ago and more, I thought I might make my name as a tea-writer. Patronised by the charming Sethia family of London and Calcutta, I attended the long-discontinued auctions at Sir John Lyon House in London and travelled to Calcutta, Colombo, the mountains of Sri Lanka and Darjeeling. I wanted to go to the Nilgiris and Assam, but the former was dismissed as being ‘too ambitious’ in those days before the Hindu Tiger, and the latter was closed to foreigners due to civil war: they were frightened I might be kidnapped. The nearest I ever got was the airport.

There was civil unrest in Darjeeling too at the time of my first visit in 1991. I recall an envelope filled with baksheesh had to be made over to the policeman in the airport on the Terai before I could travel up to the gardens. I admired the way he was able to weigh it in the palm of his hand to ascertain that it contained the right number of crore rupees.

Although I was able to mug up a good deal about Indian and Ceylon tea, the subject was enormous: there was all the tea in China, African black tea (some of which was very good), Japanese green tea, and all those things which aren’t quite tea such as maté, Roibos and various herbal teas and infusions. I was reminded of the vastness of the subject by a visit to the Amanzi Tea Salon and shop in New Cavendish Street at the end of the month.

Amanzi paints with a broad brush. Using white (unfermented), green (slightly fermented) and black (fermented) forms of tea, maté and roibos, they make a range of refreshing flavoured drinks. They have a few classics too, such as Iron Goddess or Wuyi Oolong, St Margaret’s Hope first flush Darjeeling, a tar-and-bacon-scented Lapsang, sea-weedy Gyokuro, Yunnan Pu-erh, Japanese Gunpowder or Matcha tea. There is a lovely Jasmine tea, and some like Lychee Pomegranate that involve making artful blends of black, green and Oolong teas. They also make exciting infusions to put you to sleep or wake you up, help you to digest or inject you with energy. There are fruit teas and iced teas, smoothies, bubble teas, chais and lattes and a few cocktails - such as Mojito or Mar-Tea-Ni - that might have benefited from a slug of vodka.

I was very impressed by this new flavour-world. It was just the thing for a hot day in May, and better still, I hope for a sizzling June.


East of Eden

Posted: 6th May 2014

April should have been a nice, relaxing time after the travails of recent days; instead it lived up to its reputation as the cruellest month. If there was a high point, it was probably the lunch organised by Château Léoube on the 15th at Galvin at Windows in the Hilton. The chef, Joo Won, prepared a delightful meal full of vernal flourishes, and they all worked a treat with the limpid strawberry-scented rosé or its more serious brother ‘Secret’. The company was good and the sun shone, making the view of London interesting for once. How much nicer it is to be in the Hilton looking out, than to have to see that monstrosity from Hyde Park?

Léoube is one of two impressive rosé wines I’ve had this month, the other being the 2013 Pure Mirabeau which was wonderfully sappy and powerful. Léoube comes from the coast, right next to the presidential Fort de Brégançon where Flamby was snapped in his bathers with La Trierweiler not long ago, but I suggest you get that repulsive image out of your head before you try the wine and I am assured that Flamby will not be using his palatial retreat from now on. Léoube, by the way, is owned by Lord and Lady Bamford of JCB-fame.

At the beginning of the month there was an opportunity to celebrate the life of Hugo Dunn-Meynell who died last year. A stirring service was held at St. Brides in Fleet Street (although Hugo was a Catholic) with beautiful singing from their very professional choir. Memorial services are one of the things the British do best, and they provide a chance to sing all those stirring hymns we enjoyed at school. There was a reception at the Innholders Hall afterwards with plenty of champagne. I think Hugo would have wanted nothing less.

Hugo was one of the first people I met in the world of wine and food after I came back from Paris in 1985. We were both drummed in to judge a cocktail competition. He was hard to miss with his red socks and eyeglass and we ended up on the ITV news talking about the weird and wonderful things we had had to taste. In those days he ran the International Wine & Food Society in succession to its celebrated founder, André Simon. He had evidently made a lot of money in advertising and lived in some style in Mayfair. As he was passionate about the history of gastronomy, he used to commission the odd paper from me to go in the Society’s quarterly. The last time I saw him was about two years before he died when he came up with his wife Alice to have me sign a copy of my book on Grimod de La Reyniére. He seemed in good spirits, but very frail. He was a colourful figure who revelled in the joys of life; I doubt we’ll see many more like him.

On the 8th I went to a strange gathering in the East End laid on by Campo Viejo. Campo Viejo, a large rioja house in Logroño, has engaged Professor Charles Spence, who teaches psychology at Oxford, to conduct research into how wines fare under different lights and with varying musical backgrounds. There were about a dozen of us assembled there to act as guinea pigs. First of all we had to put a piece of paper on our tongues. The paper was unbearably bitter. To my surprise there were people present who found the paper quite tasteless. Spence explained that they were the ones with fewer taste buds who were rarely aware of what they eating or drinking. Then we were sent into in a whitewashed studio with a dark glass filled with rioja and had to note down how much we liked it under four different lights and an occasional blast of white noise. My scores did not vary much, but the wine seemed more astringent under green light.

Spence’s research should be of great interest to restaurants. Michelin used to award top marks to ‘palaces’ in the understanding that food tasted better in luxurious surroundings. You could achieve two stars for great cooking, but to obtain three, you needed to worry about ambience. Piped music must have a considerable effect. Charles Spence has proved that nasty lighting and annoying music don’t just put you off your food they make wine taste nasty too. As I caught the bus west, an old Swedish skin flick sprung to mind - I Am Curious: A Film in Yellow (Jag är nyfiken - en film i gult). Everybody was raving about it when I was at school, but I must have missed it.

On the 23rd George Sandeman was in town and at the old Sandeman cellars in the City. The Sign of the Don was showing a huge span of Sandeman vintage ports going back to 1944, and it was a fascinating opportunity to assess their performance since the Second World War. Many of these wines are actually available by the glass from the Sign of the Don, although some of the older vintages will naturally set you back a whack.

I visited Sandeman several times in the nineties, in what was almost certainly the nadir of their fortunes, but always enjoyed my visits immensely, largely because of George was so charming and put us all at ease. On one occasion I was part of the Sandeman crew in the barco rabelo race on the River Douro St John’s Eve. I remember tasting the 1977 in the Sandeman lodge in Oporto and being very disappointed. I ran into Michael Broadbent over breakfast in the Hotel Infante Sagres the next day, who muttered something about the 1928. That one I have yet to sample.

The 77 wasn’t performing too badly on the 23rd. The surprise for me was the 1944 (the 1945 was absent). These older vintages were really quite herbal, with a pronounced citrus and liquorice character. The 55 is still buoyant and the 63 and 66 too. Then there were some decent things in the early eighties, like 80 and 82. Sandeman returned to form with the 2007, and the 2011 looks like being quite stunning. We shall have to wait for that.

I was back in the East End again on the 28th. It was time for the Decanter World Wine Awards and I was due to do my stint as chairman of the German jury. Of course I got lost leaving the Underground station and I was half way to Essex before I smelled a rat. As it was, Tobacco Dock was quite a nice location, with exposed early nineteenth century beams and old ironwork, and there were bits of unblitzed Docklands down on the river around the Captain Kidd pub. I even passed a posh butcher on my way to Wapping. Things are clearly looking up!

We judges had been shoved into a new era of high-tech and had to perform out functions on iPads that crashed at every turn. We eventually got the hang of them, but we never did get our mid-morning coffee and lunch was after two. Your judgment is not always at its best when you see half your sentence has failed to appear on the screen or that the selfsame screen has disappeared yet again. Still, I think we did the wines justice and despite what were difficult vintages (principally 2012 for the whites and 2011 for the reds) we awarded a generous handful of golds.

The jury worked well. We are all old friends, or at least had become so before the end. The Ahr Pinots shone once again, even to the degree that we had a party of tourists from the Burgundy table who wanted to see for themselves how great Pinot Noir wines were made. I will take their visit as a compliment.

From Monday night the heirs to Bob Crow struck on the Underground and I was turfed off a train at Canonbury and made to walk home. In the absence of tube trains on Tuesday morning I schlepped from Blackfriars to Wapping, which took another hour. Had I been in a better mood I might have appreciated the occasional good view to be had from the river. That night I lingered talking of old times in the Captain Kidd, before boarding a mystery bus; then crossing from Aldgate to Moorgate to find another. We West-Enders will never get the hang of the East.

Marriage at Cana

Posted: 1st April 2014

Does it take a different sort of wine to tickle an historian’s palate? Not so long ago I gave a lecture on eighteenth century gastronomic literature at a seminar on the philosophy of taste that took place in the Maison française at Oxford. The distinguished classical historian Oswyn Murray, the world’s greatest authority on the Greek symposium, was presiding over the morning session and at half time he produced a curious bottle he had brought back from a trip to the Crimea.

It must have been an old cola bottle or something like that. He said that he had bought it from a Scythian peasant about fifteen years before, who had dug it out from behind a pile of logs. He was visibly excited, for this, he said, was produced in exactly the same way as the ancient Greek wine described in Hesiod’s Works and Days, with the grapes left out in the sun to dehydrate before being pressed for wine.

We had some of Oswyn’s wine with our sandwiches at lunchtime. I think it had once been very sweet, but with time and a less than perfect stopper, that sweetness had gone and what was left was rather sour and alcoholic. Still, it was a curiosity, and we had Oswyn to explain it, so we were quite pleased. I should probably add there was nothing else to drink with lunch, though we made up for the lack later.

In the Ratskeller in Bremen there is a barrel of wine dating back to 1648 and if you are very lucky and they think you are important they let you taste it. Again, the Peace of Westphalia and the end of the Thirty Years War make powerful calls for your historical imagination, yet the wine just tastes thick and sweet and is not an experience quite like so many of the hundred-year old and more Riesling wines I have had the privilege of tasting in Germany. The American army had the chance to drink it all up in 1945, but for some reason they let it be.

Some historical wines can actually be a pleasure - one has only to think of some fabulous old bottles of Madeira, for example. The oldest port I have ever drunk was a Dow’s 1832, made in the same year as the Great Reform Bill. It was still lively. As a rule sweet wines last longer than dry ones.

Once I was seated next to Prince Poniatowski at Lucas-Carton in Paris, which was just about the best restaurant in the world then. ‘Ponia’ was the owner of the Clos Baudoin in Vouvray and he had arrived with a few bottles of the 1871 from the domaine. The chef, Alain Senderens, had devised a special menu including a desert to do justice to the Clos Baudoin. It hardly needed Senderens’ wizardry to frame it: you had only to think of the brutal crushing of the Paris Commune at precisely the time when the flowers on the vines in the Loire Valley dropped their petals to become grapes; and this particular historic wine would have been stunning even if nothing significant had occurred that year.

Great vintages don’t always adhere to the years you might want to celebrate but some do. There was a tiny harvest in 1945, but the year produced some magnificent wines. I have had the good fortune to have had the fabulous Graham’s 1945 port several times, and courtesy of the wine writer James Suckling, on one occasion I even had the Lafite of the same year before hand, but never, I think the 1945 Mouton with its famous label ‘l’Année de la victoire’, designed by Philippe Julien. I am sorry to say that 1933, the year that Hitler came to power, was actually an excellent year for German wine.

I was in an historical mood when I tried Galilean wines for the first time. These are wines from near the ancient town of Cana and the Marriage at Cana must be one of the earliest extant description of a wedding feast. The canny groom (who had lamentably failed to provide enough wine) was accused of flying in the face of so many of his modern counterparts: ‘Every man at the beginning doth set forth good wine; and when men have well drunk, then that which is worse: but thou hast kept the good wine until now.’ (John 2, 10)

As I tasted them I imagined myself at the feast. The wines came from Lueria in Upper Galilee: a 45-acre estate owned by Josef Sayada where the grapes are grown on volcanic soils some 840-890 metres above sea level. I suspect that the wines Jesus was replicating were grown closer to the lake and both hotter and coarser.

The best of the Lueria wines was the 2011 Cabernet Sauvignon. It was quite cooling and had an authentic smack of Cabernet. It tasted of cooked blackberries but finished less well. It would cost around £20 in Britain. I quite liked the Terrace blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc. The Rosso I found hot and coarse, so perhaps more like the stuff served before Jesus was inveigled into providing the wine for the feast.

Also from the ancient world was a good wine from Cappadocia: the 2012 Kocabağ from Kaya Kapadokya. Made from the Ökuzgözü and Boğazkere grapes, it had a nice little whiff of raspberries with some of the same on the palate. It was fragrant and aromatic and there was a bit of tarry grip, but it was cooling, and not coarse or rustic. I liked it very much.

So the old wines of the Near East are raising their heads again? If you wanted, you could search out the modern descendants of Opimian or Falernian, but many of the wines of ancient Greece were nasty, and some of the modern ones not much better. And March was not exclusively taken up with the old world either: I had a nice wine from the Story Ridge Winery in California too: Panamera Cuvée Napa 2011. It was quite jammy with some confected, Cabernet Sauvignon tastes; slightly hot - a Napa failing - but not too alcoholic. There were hunky cassis tastes, length, power; it was a Napa wine all right, but good. It would also be near £20 a bottle if it were on sale here.

I have other concerns at present and spend my time praying for a miracle. Supplies dwindle while prices soar. If I only I could find someone to turn all this water into wine? But then again, I suppose he would only say ‘… what have I to do with thee. Mine hour is not yet come.’


Posted: 3rd March 2014

It is the second of March as I write and yesterday I finally put a monster to bed. I haven’t really thought about much other than this book for weeks, but in the middle of last month there was a little pause when I went on my usual February jaunt to the Domaine des Anges in Provence.

It is, as always, truffle season and I was getting good reports for the melanosporum, the local black winter truffles. Provence, rather than Périgord, is the source for sixty percent of these. My friend in the local village of Mormoiron, Bob Huddie, reported having eaten good things in January and February, but just before I left on 14 February, the weather warmed up and it began to rain. The last truffles of the season were consequently small (not much bigger than a cherry) and not as perfumèd as they might have been. They also shot up in price from €600 a kilo to nearer €800 locally, that means they would have sold for three-times that sum in Paris.

You win some, you lose some, I thought as I arrived in Marseille in the early afternoon on Friday to be greeted by brilliant sunshine and temperatures of around 15 Celsius. Apart from an occasional downpour and a light frost one morning, the weather stayed sunny and warm. On the way to the Domaine we stopped at the butcher in Mazan to buy some braising beef. Bob arrived later with a jar containing some rice and a dozen or so small truffles for our first course. He had obtained them from his cleaner, who had dug them up in her garden. Her soils were sandy. Up on the hill where we were, the land contains too much chalk to be good for truffles.

Despite their modest size, they were better than I expected. Bob wanted some served on crostini while the rest were committed to a brouillade de truffes, sometimes called an omelette aux truffes, which is essentially scrambled eggs, without milk, cooked in a bain-marie with a little cream and lots of butter. The truffles are then mixed in at the last minute or simply shaved over the top. The idea is that they should not get too hot, as that might dissipate the aromas. I think everyone was more than happy, as they were with the beef, which was not only excellent with the Domaine des Anges Archange, but also with Bob’s magnum of Château Cantemerle 2006.

The padrone, Gay McGuinness, was actually in seventh heaven, not so much as a result of the food, but because the powerful American critic, Robert Parker had finally pronounced on his wines, awarding 90 points to two of them and giving more than decent scores to the others.

The next morning we went in to the market in the lovely town of Pernes. It was very depleted. It was the beginning of half-term and the Parisians had yet to arrive. We stopped at my favourite baker with his hundred-year old oven and bought a vast miche or sourdough loaf. On Saturday afternoon we planned to visit a neighbouring estate, Domaine Vintur, which lies on the road between Carpentras and Malaucène. It is run by the Yorkshireman James Wood, who has wonderfully precise ideas about the sort of wine he wants to make and the way he wants his vineyard to look. We did an extensive tasting and I was extremely impressed by his whites. He inherited the 2011 reds from the previous owner as they were already in the vats when his boss bought the estate. They were good too, but I expect the 2012 and 2013 to be even better.

Winter is slow-cooking time, and we had a slab of belly pork to roast that night, which I had scored deeply to make some good crackling and put a lot of spice in the white wine it sat in as it slowly melted in the oven. The joy of cooking on a wine estate is that there is always plenty of material for marinades and braising, not least in the open bottles left over from the last night’s dinner. We still had two or three of Bob’s truffles and made some oeufs en cocotte with those.

Gay had had a visit from a lady that afternoon who had been restoring a portrait for him. She asked me if we wanted any wild boar, as her freezer was full of it. Her friend in Bédouin, she said, had been trying to rid Mont Ventoux of wild boars over the previous few weeks and had enjoyed a moderate success. I naturally said yes, and asked her if she knew of anyone who had truffles? When we got back that evening the boar and the truffles were there. The woman said that the truffles had been frozen, and I should put them back in the freezer if I was going to take them home. As for the boar, I left it in its blood and emptied a couple of bottles of Domaine des Anges over it and let it fester.

We motored up to Malaucène on Sunday, a larger and livelier town than Mazan with a huge hall-church at the centre. There were even a few people on the streets and stray dogs milling around - a rare vision in Provence in February. I made the usual Irish stew, starting it well before we went out. James Wood arrived for dinner bearing gifts: wine, eggs and more truffles, that he had obtained from a contact in a local bar. Again they were small, and lightly perfumed, but they made a lovely brouillade that was just what we needed before a steaming dish of Irish stew.

Monday was relaxed. We went to the splendid market in Bédouin for a vacherin Mont d’Or for that evening, then Dave Gargan and I went into Carpentras as I had ordered a book for my boy. To my horror I saw the bookshop was closed, but there was a light burning inside and a man moving around. I pleaded with him through the grille, and eventually he agreed to sell me my book. A good omen I thought. We spent a happy few hours in the Irish pub in Mazan celebrating while the lady behind the bar gave me tips on how to cook my boar.

The boar had been in blood, wine, and a little port for two days now. I sat in the feeble winter sun, filched it out of its marinade and cut it into manageable pieces. After browning it and setting it to cook it in its juices for a good three hours I went for a short sieste.

When I woke I was shivering. I think I must have caught a chill cutting up the boar. I am sorry to say that I missed a trick as a result, for I should have put our few remaining truffles into the mashed potatoes. As it was, I had very little appetite, but I noted that the boar was beautifully tender, and the marinade, reduced by a good half, was turned into a good, rich, black sauce.

And, after that short truffle break, I returned to London and the monster.


Posted: 3rd February 2014

As I seem neither to eat nor drink anything of consequence any more, the best I can do is talk about breakfast, which I suppose I must concede is an important part of a hard-working day. In the morning I have what is called ‘bed-tea’ in the Indian subcontinent, except I am not in bed when I drink it and I don’t get the biscuit they invariably give you in India. The tea is the fuel required to get the family on its feet. Once the children have left or have been delivered to their schools I have breakfast. This is comparatively simple: toast, butter, jam or marmalade and coffee. Simple yes, but I have to make virtually all the ingredients first.

I started making bread nearly a decade ago because decent loaves were almost impossible to find and what was only half-way good cost ridiculous prices from chichi shops. When I travelled a lot, I bought bread on the way home: a pain de campagne (there are still no decent baguettes in London), or a Landbrot: preferably something with a bit of shelf-life. I was no longer travelling much, however, so I started making simple white and wholemeal loaves and then, about six years ago, I created my starter. Since then, I have made a 1.4 kilo sourdough loaf about once a week.

I use 500 cls of the starter to 650 grams of white flour and 100 grams of rye and a bit of rock salt. Sometimes I think about increasing the amount of rye, but I have become lazy about experimenting. I buy either a fresh, crumbly English yeast which is hugely fast and enthusiastic but sloppy and unpredictable, or a tight German one called Rapunzel, that works slowly and methodically: it appears national character may be expressed by yeasts too. The bread is very filling. Two slices will sustain you till lunchtime. Event the best commercial bread is little more than air.

Jams and marmalades I also make myself. I have just done our Seville orange marmalade. That has to last the year, but I also make Robespierre (blood orange), King Billy (orange), Harry (lime), Jack (lemon) and the Imposter (grapefruit). The advantage of the rest of the citrus fruit ‘jams’ is that they can be made in batches when you need them; and they are good, so they run out fast.

Then there is coffee. I buy small green Ethiopian beans from a shop nearby, about 500 grams lasts for ten days or so, but then, I only make coffee in the morning. They have a slightly cheesy smell when roasted that derives, I’m told, from the fact they are allowed to ferment in their ‘cherries’ before they are hulled. As they are grown above 10,000 feet, they have a good acidity, which is what I want. The Ethiopians used to roast them for me, and I could smell them as I walked up Burghley Road to collect them. Then they got so busy serving the large local Ethiopian colony that they could no longer spare the time and they taught me how to do them myself. It is a lovely way of filling the house with the smell of fresh roast coffee. You just need to keep a clean old frying pan that is used for that alone, and then you shake them over a flame for about a quarter of an hour until you see the oil beginning to coat the swelling beans. The Ethiopian gentleman told me: ‘you will know they are ready by the smell.’ You let them cool in a bowl and keep them in the freezer until you need to grind them. I grind my coffee just before I make a pot.

Of course I regret to say don’t make the butter as well. Good, unsalted French butter is now extremely difficult to find, far harder to obtain than posh olive oil, which you can buy just about anywhere in London. Sometimes I head off to Borough Market to see the man on the Echiré stand who cuts me a slab from the ‘motte’, or mound. I can generally find it at the Cave à Fromages in South Kensington, but since my daughter left the Lycée in the summer, I have less reason to go there. I have thought about acquiring a cow, but there is little space out the back and I certain the council would complain. They complain about pretty well everything.


Posted: 2nd January 2014

So 2013 is behind us, but for me at least, 2014 has yet to arrive. I am still fighting last year’s battle, and the pleasures of the table don’t seem to be much to hand either. Two more months and I may emerge human again or I may lie lifeless at the bottom of the trench.

Still as I sit here alone (family away in Devon) at the dawn of a New Year, I can say that Christmas was remarkably good despite the lean times. I was able to find a few decent or interesting bottles and there were some lovely things to eat.

When friends came on the 21st, for example, I fished out a magnum of Schloss Vollrads Charta Rheingau Riesling Kabinet 2001. This was, I think, more interesting than good. It was a little throwback to the experimental years of the eighties when Rheingau growers wanted to make dry wines but failed to get their grapes ripe enough to produce an adequate balance. The result was a sharp-ish sort of Riesling: none of the sweetness that gave it ‘charm’ nor the power that made it viable as a dry wine. How much better have they become now that they have managed to get the grapes properly ripe. Dry Grosses Gewächs is surely the future for most German Riesling.

Then another friend came to dinner on Christmas Eve. We had already opened some Laurent Perrier NV while we decorated the tree. I generally find Laurent-Perrier is wound too tight, which makes it an unexciting NV champagne, but we’d had this bottle in the house for a couple of years and it was all the better for it. I had found a fresh foie gras at Harry’s in Kentish Town and marinated it the night before in half a glass of super-sweet Gonzalez-Byass Pedro Ximenez Noe, with some salt, pepper and nutmeg and cooked it in the morning for three-quarters of an hour in the lowest possible oven. It is lovely how the fat comes out and swims over the liver. That fat gives the foie gras a remarkable shelf life. There is still some left. I noticed it in the fridge this morning.

With the foie gras I brought out Franz Hirtzberger’s Singerriedel Riesling Smaragd 1990. I don’t recall 1990 being the greatest year, and this might have been better a while back, but it was still a super wine, in that baroque idiom that is Hirtzberger’s stock-in-trade and still makes him about the best grower in the Wachau.

Our guest has an aversion to white wine, and he had brought with him a bottle of Joseph Voilllot’s Volnay 1er Cru Les Fremiots 2005, which a Frenchman at Roberson had told him would go well with the lobsters I had popped in the pot shortly before he arrived. I was unable to confirm this, as I stuck resolutely to the Riesling: I didn’t fancy the idea of Volnay with lobsters. I drank the Volnay with the cheese and I thought it was wonderfully long and sinewy wine and an excellent choice. After our Stilton, there were a couple of bûches: one with chocolate and the other with marrons. I opened some of my old friend Johann Münzenrieder’s Bouvier Trockenbeerenauslese 1995. I think my daughter had a small glass, otherwise just me. I finished the rest watching Scrooge after my Christmas dinner.

The best wines should unlock memories, like some sort of Proustian madeleine. I don’t know when I first met Münzenrieder, but what struck me most about him was the fact that the more excited he became, the more he spoke Appetlönisch: the patois of his village on the Austro-Hungarian border. If you believe you have mastered German, think again.

We were just the family on Christmas Day. While the children unwrapped their presents there was a bottle of Roederer 2003, with a little whiff of fresh apricots which I imagined I found too on the Guerlain scent an uncle had so kindly given my daughter. The real treat was with the beef: Roumier’s Chambolle-Musigny 1er Cru Les Amoureuses 1994. It had perhaps lost a little weight in the ageing process, but the structure and length were just heavenly. I think that was the last Roumier I had: pity.

Boxing Day was back to work, although we did have a nice bottle of Denis Dubourdieu’s Clos Floridène Graves 2004. It all seems but a memory now. Back to my trench.

A Modest Proposal

Posted 2nd December 2013

It will look as if I have done sod all this month, but the truth is quite the opposite. I have written and written like a fiend. I have a deadline for a fat book looming on the 1st of March and on top of this, I was preparing an ancient tome of mine for republication as an e-book. That meant rewriting a whole chapter as well as other emendations. So I have been glued to my desk and away from the more pleasant world of wine and food.

What if anything do I have to report? Well, I tried a lovely new whisky from the isle of Arran - the Millennium Casks. It is an un-chillfiltered dram for purists at 53.5 percent with a heathery nose and a little sweetness on the palate offset by a slight saltiness on the finish; evidence that the island is lashed by a cruel sea. There was no dressing up with wood, just a lovely little malt - simple of itself.

I had the latest edition from the Vigneti Trebbio. The 2010 seemed on the light side, but an elegant wine, cool in the nose and on the palate, with some tannic grip, but not overstated, there was a bit of damson fruit, worn lightly. I see our Italian jury gave it a well-deserved silver medal.

I had a nice sinewy Garnacha from the Rioja house of Campo Viejo (£8.69 and available from Ocado, Sainsbury’s Local and ASDA). I have been to Logroño many times, but the wine particularly reminded me of the week I spent on my own in Haro about a decade ago, and my various visits to venerable bodegas to sample their old Gran Reservas. As I swirled the wine around my glass I had a quiet little nostalgic indulgence, as I remembered the half dozen restaurants around the main square with its storks’ nests and the little pedestrian street off it, which was lined with tascas. The wine companies dropped me back at my hotel in the evening, and I filled the time before dinner by teaching myself Spanish. I even bought my son his first pair of shoes in Haro. They were blue, and terribly cute.

The restaurants didn’t open before 9.30, but I looked forward to those evening meals spent in the company of a book, and the inevitable baby lambs cooked in a bread oven with a little salad and bread: a diet unchanged since Roman times.

Last week I attended a tasting of E F Wines at the Sub-Zero Wolf showrooms in Knightsbridge of a range of wines that they are selling for Christmas. Before I started however, I was shown their range of wine storage articles. This is obviously quite the Rolls Royce of above-ground cellaring. I hate to think what these things cost, but they look nice and they obviously do the trick. Wine survives quite nicely here because we never turn on the heating, but that is not something I’d recommend to the faint-hearted.

After a welcome bumper (and a mean bumper) of Taittinger Comtes de Champagne 2004, I tasted the cheaper range of wines and was quite smitten with a Château Bone 2009 at £4.45 a bottle, but then I read the small print and saw that the price included neither duty nor VAT: so £4.45 becomes a rather more meaty £7.35 and the tight, zippy Pierre Grandet champagne I tasted, was not £12.25, as stated, but £16.75. I then went over to some nice Bordeaux wines from well-known estates, and even if the prices were more substantial than they seemed, they were far from being at the level of those wines vaunted by Robert Parker. Remember: Parker points put the price up.

They were perhaps not from the greatest vintages, but I liked the old-fashioned, classic, savoury restraint in the Château Cantemerle 2008 (real price £38, case sales only) and the Pomerol Feytit-Clinet 2007 (real price £34.40) I perhaps liked even more, if in the end I decided it didn’t have sufficient length. My favourite, however, was the Domaine de Chevalier 2008 (£35.60), an estate I have known for decades and always loved. It had a little autumnal whiff about it followed by black pepper, blackcurrants and raspberries, and the most satisfying persistence. I could imagine myself enjoying that with the rib of beef that has become our ordinary Christmas dinner.

There was no beef around for me to try it out with, indeed, of the advertised canapés I saw little more than cheese, but there was a gentleman from Kelly Turkeys slicing up a brace of fowl he had cooked in one of those super smart ovens they sold in the shop. So while I chewed on a bit of turkey ‘crackling’, he explained to me why the Kelly Bronze was a superior bird. The reason is, I learned, because they grow so slowly, taking six months to reach a minimum of five kilos. Also Mr Kelly hangs them for five weeks so that the bird that arrives on 23rd December is as tender as a dream on Christmas Day. Prices start at around £80 for a five-kilo turkey.

Turkeys open the prospect of Christmas, and I am sorry to say I cannot muster a great deal of excitement. There will be squabbles over this and that and questions over whether we can run to lobster on Christmas Eve or foie gras on Christmas Day… If I had my way I’d just tick the boxes in the Foreman and Field catalogue sent to me by my old friend Lance Foreman. It all looks so good: wild Scottish salmon, game pie, Suffolk black ham, Montgomery’s cheddar… but I don’t suppose it will work out like that. In the meantime I am going to indulge myself for once by making a modest proposal which, I feel, would make Britain a better place, and it goes like this.

We hear a lot about going green and avoiding waste. This involves putting everything organic out in special containers to be taken away by the dustmen. In our case I have to confess it isn’t much, as I don’t like waste, but I throw out bones after I have made the stock and the peelings of root vegetables etc. Even that strikes me as wicked, but up to now I couldn’t think of any other use for them.

Now I have had a better idea: every ten houses should be obliged to keep a pig at some small distance from their houses but obviously not so far that it would require using motorised transport to deliver its feed. All suitable waste would therefore go into the pig rather than into the dustbin. The council would be spared the expense of collecting it and their saving would be reflected in our council tax charges. Then we can forget about these fussy, ugly little containers: pigs will eat potato peelings and a lot more besides. They would probably eat the chicken bones.

The pig would grow fat on the waste and once a year the moment would come when it would be slaughtered for hams, roasting meat, sausages etc. In many countries around the world this is a joyful occasion and an excuse to eat the perishable bits - grillades, liver, black puddings etc. Pig killing usually takes place close to Christmas.

The ten houses would chip in to pay veterinary bills and to pay the slaughterman, who would have the right to claim the traditional prizes due to a man of his cloth: the hog’s ears and tail. It would be possible for several groups of ten houses to place their pigs in common pens, that way ensuring a production of piglets. The flesh is sweeter on the sow, but one boar pig should be allocated to each pen. Obviously, if certain households wanted more than one pig that could be arranged, it would only be a matter of finding suitable space. This is easier than you think. Even in quite central London there is plenty of land which fails to earn its keep.

And if the scheme were to be a success (and why would it fail?) we might consider demolishing a few supermarkets to provide space for more pigs.

My second idea concerns fruit. Here where I live in urban north London, there are quite a number of fruit trees. Within say not much more than a hundred square feet I can think of two plums, two grape vines, one pear, one apple, one quince, one mulberry, one fig, one cherry not to mention the excellent blackberries in the old railwayman’s club. They used to be the mainstay of my blackberry jam but now developers have put up high fences and I suppose that no one touches them now. Even the foxes disdain them. Come to think of it, that derelict site would be an excellent home for our pigs.

With the exception of the apples in our garden, none of this fruit is consumed; not even by local brats. Modern children don’t scrump: they eat crisps and sweets and swill pop. This year I looked with horror into my neighbour’s gardens to see all the mulberries on the ground, and not even used to make jam. The pears from the stately tree in front the big Georgian house by the bus stop lie festering all over he pavement kicked by idle boys and picked at by soporific, autumnal wasps.

Now, my second proposal is this: every hundred houses should pay for the upkeep of a small still. I have seen then on sale for around £300. In addition they would have to pay for the services of a trained distiller in the summer and autumn months. Pace Nigel Farage, there are plenty of central and eastern Mediterranean types living here now for whom distilling fruit is second nature. I am not sure I’d trust some of the wilder Irish types who live in Kentish Town who are more used to making poitín in kettles in the west of Ireland or Caledonians who brew up Scottish moonshine in the Highlands; but then, I value my eyesight.

Naturally, like the pork, ham and sausages it is not obligatory to consume these things yourself. You could sell them either to your neighbours or to local shops. Certain areas might become famous for ham or bacon while others might attract visitors from all over Europe who just come to taste a succulent Camden hog or a limpid Kentish Town eau de vie de poire.

Come on, what’s stopping us?

Falling Asleep on Buses

Posted: 5th November 2013

Noilly Prat

I had a big treat in the middle of the month: I went down to Noilly Prat in Marseillan. The vermouth is made near Sète on the southern French coast and they are currently celebrating their bicentenary. It wasn’t my first visit, but in my senility I find it hard to put my finger on when I was there last, a British Airways boarding card wedged into the Histoire ancienne et moderne de Marseillan tells me only that I came back on 18 September. The year is not specified, and I travelled in Club - those were the days!

For the uninitiated, Noilly Prat is the vermouth at the heart of many cocktails, not least a classic dry Martini. I came across it first as an undergraduate when we were allowed to top up our 18p measures of gin with as much vermouth as we liked for 2p. This extended form of a ‘Martini’ was called a ‘gin and French’, and quite a bargain for 20p. Mixed with sweet, red vermouth, the drink was called a ‘gin and It’ - gin and Italian. ‘Gin and mixed’ combined green and red. I never saw anyone drink that. It must have been an ugly colour.

Of course the weather helped to put me in the mood. It was lovely in the south. The late September storms had passed and the harvesters were out bringing in the black grapes. Marseillan is on the Etang de Thau, a salt-water lagoon that lies behind a narrow isthmus that runs from Sète to Marseillan. The lagoon is the source for about a fifth of France’s oysters and a certain amount of gilthead bream that feed on their young.

We stayed at the Port Rive Gauche, a collection of roomy flats looking out on the lagoon which, apart from its molluscs, was home to a colony of cacophonous ducks. They knew how to make their presence felt when they thought they might be in for a bit of my - and presumably everybody else’s - breakfast. We looked due south and in the mornings the sunrises were worthy of Turner himself. I woke on my last day to see the sky from the Fighting Téméraire in the National Gallery, only, where the warship is in the painting rose the substantial hills that frame the pretty fishing port of Sète.

The sun was up when we got in from Montpellier Airport at three or so, and I went for a walk through the little town. It was equipped with a new quay for the colonial trade with North Africa, but there is an ancient core. I passed the usual codgers playing pétanque and a cluster of old buildings near the church. The shops around the stone market were just opening after the midday lull, and I was able to find a piece of fougasse and a beer. I was hungry: no food on Sleazyjet. I hadn’t eaten since breakfast.

We reconvened for dinner at the Taverne du Port in Marseillan: a party of three Italian barmen and two hacks plus attendant PRs. As Marseillan is so intimately linked to oysters, they crop up everywhere: here they were offered as a ‘mise en bouche’ with the ineluctable glass of Noilly Prat, which - yes, they proved their point - worked quite well with them. Then I had some pumpkin soup, the sweetest of scallops deglazed with Noilly Prat and some prunes soaked in armagnac with vanilla ice. I then left the bartenders to their merrymaking: too late for me.

The trip proved to be a three-day rendez-vous with the local Picpoul de Pinet white, and as luck would have it, one of the base wines of Noilly Prat. First at dinner there was a 2012 from the Domaine de Bridau, which, with its sappiness upstaged a Château de la Mirande of the same year. Better, perhaps than both was the Bergerie from the Domaine de l’Hortus. The Taverne, by the way has a most astonishing collection of whiskies and other spirits, and the owners close up shop at regular intervals to go on buying trips.

The next morning we met Jean-Louis Mastoro, the charming cellarmaster at Noilly Prat. He had set up a tasting of Picpoul and Clairette wines on a table in the vines above the lake. In the distance we could see the half-submerged wooden scaffolds of the oyster farms, and there were oyster shells everywhere in the soil, a constant reminder of the primary vocation of the lagoon. Noilly buys in its wine, but only these two varieties are used. Picpoul gives the body to the blend and Clairette the length. Italian vermouth charcoal-filters the base wines, but Noilly respects them more, making for a far more vinous vermouth.

Back at the firm’s headquarters, Jean-Louis filled us in on the history of the firm. It was founded by Joseph Noilly in Lyons: a more probable place to find a vermouth company than Marseilles. Vermouth (after all) comes from the word ‘wermut’ meaning absinthe. Absinthe was culled from the mountains, along with the herbs and flowers used to flavour the ‘vin cuit’ or ‘vino cotto’ of Savoy. Claude or ‘Claudius’ Prat, who married Joseph’s granddaughter, decided to move the firm to Marseilles, where he’d be closer to the export trade to the French colonies in North Africa and elsewhere. In 1855, he officially became part of the office furniture and the company became Noilly-Prat. After Claudius’ death, Noilly-Prat was run by his widow, the fearsome Anne-Rosine. The last of the Prats were her two boys, who never married.

The vermouth is a complicated amalgamation of a ‘mistelle’ made from adding grape must to neutral alcohol and wine. The wine in this case are those Picpouls and Clairettes that the company leaves outside to oxidise in the sun. Some evaporates leaving a gap at the top of the cask and the wine is impregnated with the briny air that blows off the lagoon. The wine is therefore married to the sea. The founders thought they were replicating the process of ‘travelling’ the wine known to the ancients, who thought it improved as a result of a bracing sea voyage. 

The next stage is to infuse the casks filled with wine with dried herbs and spices in the ‘salle des sécrets’ or the hall of secrets. Then the casks are stirred twice a day with a an instrument looking like a scythe. This is later blended with some alcohol flavoured with raspberries and strawberries and married up to the mistelle. A bottle of Noilly Prat is on average, 16 to 17 months in the making.

There are now three versions of Noilly Prat, but the favourite is very much the ‘dry’, which is flavoured with a blend of twenty so-called ‘botanicals’: they include elderberries, coriander, lavender, oris root, camomile, Provencal herbs and orange peel. A red, created in 1956 with Manhattan cocktails in mind, has a different range of botanicals: traces of quinine, Seville orange, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg and saffron. The third blend, the Ambré, is a comparative infant, having been released in 1986. It leads on cinnamon, bitter orange peel, cardamom and lavender.

We had lunch that day at Entre Ciel et Mer, on the quayside in Marseillan. Once again oysters were the first things dished out with our glasses of Noilly Prat. Most of them were fresh, live oysters but there were others that had been grilled with a julienne of leaks, cream and cheese. I had some crab soup, a delicious gilthead bream with a buttery polenta and some fromage blanc with red fruits. Having learned the day before how good the new range of wines from Domaine de l’Hortus was, we had their rosé. It was no disappointment. We whiled away the afternoon playing pétanque with of Jean-Louis, who was both mentor and player. Our team won.

That evening we took our coach into Montpellier for dinner at Cellier et Morel at the Maison de Lozère. It was not the first time I had sat under these thirteenth century arches and eaten the restaurant’s stock in trade of mountain ham and aligot (puree of potatoes with fresh cream and Cantal cheese). It is a bit flashy: the waiters whip up the aligot at your table and stretch it on forks to show you how elastic it is.

The ham and aligot are still de rigueur, but the menu has become more ‘inventive’ with time, ergo fussy; so that we had a steamed, lacquered foie gras served with corn, almonds, ginger and a miso emulsion, a filet of meagre on a fricassee of Paimpol coco beans, preserved lemons, lovage and olives and a ham emulsion; and finally there were some figs poached in Maury, with nougatine, a cream of spice vinegar and a yoghurt sorbet. I wonder if such elaborate descriptions really help? What happened to ‘à ma façon’? Or ‘à la façon du chef’?

Noilly had prescribed different forms of Noilly Prat to go with the menu but we rebelled and drank a 2012 Picpoul from Mas Aubanel instead. The restaurant seemed stuffy, snooty, and in the end, and despite the elaborate presentation of the dishes, not much better than the simple places we had been to in Marseillan; but I am sure that I would be wrong to judge a place on a chance visit like this and to receive a proper impression, you must order from the full menu.

Our next stop was the excellent cocktail bar at Papa Doble in the old quarters of the city. With the possible exception of Aix-en-Provence, Montpellier is the loveliest city in the south of France, full of glorious old palaces that formerly belonged to the nobility of the Languedoc. At Papa Doble, we tried out a variety of cocktails prepared with Noilly and I met a lady from Rheims who gave me excellent advice on bars and restaurants in her home town. It was about two when we left, I had no problem falling asleep on the bus back to Marseillan.

The next day started early, and was mostly about oysters. We went to see a cheerful cove at his oyster farm on the lagoon who explained the process of renting space on the lagoon from the landlord - the state. There are 650 concessions, but some people have a large number of them. You need at least three to make a living wage. A good plot can cost as much as €50,000, with a poor one at a fifth of that. The lagoon is of varying quality, with the best oyster-rearing water in the east near Bouzigues, where it is at its deepest. Marseillan is relatively shallow. It must be for that reason that the commercial name most often used for the oysters from the lagoon is ‘Bouzigues’, although our chap said there was no difference in flavour between the different oysters grown on the lake: all Bouzigues oysters taste alike. Arcachon oysters have an Arcachon taste, those of Marennes, a Marennes flavour and so on. The ‘bed’ gives the nuance of flavour to the oysters.

Oysters grow twice as fast in the warm water of the lagoon than they do in the sea. On the Atlantic coast they take four years to reach an edible size, here two, as it is warm, there is no tide and plenty of plankton to eat. Atlantic oysters, like those I have seen in Britain, are grown in bags made of metal mesh, on The Etang de Thau the seeds are hung on rope.

The oyster has an interesting sex life and one which would go a long way towards stilling the battle of the sexes in homo sapiens: the mollusc changes sex every year after procreation. The reason that we abstain from eating oysters when there is no R in the month is that they secrete an unpleasant milky liquid. This only takes place, however, when the temperature of the sea has reached 25 degrees or more; so British oysters are unlikely to give you any trouble.

So far, so good: our friend was merely reminding me of other trips to oyster beds, but there was news for me too: there is a fresh plague wiping out our oysters. In my day it was called bonamia, and was thought to derive from some product used for painting the hulls of boats, but now the molluscs are stricken with a form of herpes which is killing eighty percent of all young cultivated oysters. The other thing I learned was that, in response to this blight perhaps, scientists have bred a sort of metrosexual, eunuch oyster which grows much more quickly and therefore gives a better return. It cannot, obviously, reproduce by itself. We ate some, and apart from their impressive size, I could not tell the difference between them and the more sexually conventional oysters.

A big snack of oysters and prawns was laid out for us with a few tots of Noilly Prat. Then we got into a brace of speedboats and crossed the lagoon to Bouzigues and our restaurant, La Côte Bleue. I staggered off the boat in a state of shock: I felt as well-travelled as any wine. The copious elevenses of oysters in Marseillan had largely sapped our appetite. We had a classic fish soup and then a couple of platters of shellfish. Lots of molluscs returned to the kitchen uneaten as we climbed back into our bus and made for the airport.

Protecting Typicity

We had a last bottle of Picpoul de Pinet at the Côte Bleue, the wine which had played second fiddle to Noilly Prat during our time at Marseillan. The Appellation Protégée Languedoc-Picpoul de Pinet covers some 1400 hectares of limestone and sandy soils north of the Etang de Thau. Naturally, only wine made from the Picpoul grape has the right to the protection accorded by the AOP. Many of my wine writing colleagues dislike the system of AOPs, as they believe they restrict choice and retard evolution, but fashion has a habit of making growers do stupid things, like planting Chardonny in the southern Rhone or Grüner Veltliner in the Rheingau. I had meant to write about protected regions when I went to the Douro a few months ago, as it and Chianti were possibly the first regions to delimit their territory and create rules as to how the wine should be made, but I forgot. For more information, go to

Bob Huddie’s Burgundy Tasting

Burgundy is a much larger and more prestigious AOP than Picpoul de Pinet and one that takes a lot of getting to know. After our Burgundy tasting in Mormoiron in September, Bob Huddie was kind enough to send me back my tasting notes along with the results. Bob insisted we use the Parker 100-point scale, which essentially means you give the wine 80 for being a wine, and then mark it out of twenty for quality. Nothing below 85 is worth drinking. This is apparently something to do with admissions tests to American law schools (Mr Parker is an American lawyer), where all dunderheads are given 80 lest they sue the universities for elitism, selective admission, blighting their lives, upsetting their cats etc., or worse still: take out a machine gun and murder everyone in sight. While I appreciate their concern, I am not sure I am ready for such inflationary scores myself, and I mark out of twenty. As a favour to Bob I tweaked (perhaps I should say ‘twerked’) my scores a bit to make them look a little more authentic. All the wines were from the ‘approachable’ (Bob’s word) 2009 vintage.

I get to drink very little Burgundy these days, so it was good to be shown an overview of the 2009s. I was fully in agreement with the two front-runners, but I was not so keen on the Santenay or the Côte de Nuits Villages as the other tasters. I was also a bit more generous towards the Marsannay than some and concluded that it might make a decent everyday (or at least every week) Burgundy for those of us who are unlikely to be able to afford the Bonnes Mares or the earthy Echézeaux.

1) Bonnes Mares, Grand Cru, Domaine Bart, 97
2) Echézeaux Grand Cru, Domaine Vincent Girardin, 94
3) Clos de Vougeot Grand Cru, Château de la Tour, 93
3) Beaune 1er Cru Vigne de L’Enfant Jésus, Bouchard Père &Fils, 93
3) Nuits St Georges, Vieilles Vignes, Domaine de Douaix, 93
6) Pommard 1er cru, Bouchard Père et Fils, 92
7) Pommard les Vignots, Vincent Girardin, 90
7) Marsannay Les Champs, Salomon Domaine Bart, 90
7) Côte de Nuits Villages, Vieilles Vignes, Domaine de Douaix, 90
10) Santenay 1er Cru Les Gravières, Vincent Girardin, 87

Zonin Lunch

On Tuesday 22 October I went to a wonderfully copious lunch at L’Anima, a stylish restaurant behind Liverpool Station in the City. It was half-term and the family was away, which was just as well.

The meal was arranged for top sommeliers and a smattering of wine writers, to show off the wines made by the Zonin family, either at their property in Sicily - Principi di Butera - or at their estate in Puglia - Masseria Altemura in Salento. With each course, therefore, we had two wines, one from each estate.

The meal began with a few antipasti outside in the bar: bruschetta and some squid and deep-fried courgettes with Rosamaro a zippy, pugnacious, sparkling Negroamaro from Puglia. Then we moved into a private dining room conceived in a Mussolini-Roman idiom: chunky and cavernous. If the architecture was funereal, the atmosphere was anything but, and everyone around the table seemed very merry.

The first proper course was some crab with green apple and ‘fresh leaves’ which was paired with the 2012 Fiano from the Altemura and an Insolia from Butera. The Sicilian wine I found too soft for the dish and I preferred the Fiano which seemed to have the acidity and length. A vote was taken, it seems most of the sommeliers disagreed with me.

The next course was a dish of pasta: cavatelli with sausage and thinly sliced black truffles. This was a lovely little recipe, but I didn’t think the summer truffles added much to it (except presumably to make it more expensive). It was paired with a 2004 Sasseo Primitivo from Puglia and a 2011 Symposio Bordeaux blend from Sicily. The Puglian wine was quite sweet, and despite that rustic touch, it didn’t seem to match the dish as well as the refined Sicilian.

Then came some slow roasted belly pork with n’cantarata sauce. On the left, I had a glass of Nero d’Avola Deliella from Butera and on the right a Altemura Primitivo from Puglia, which benefits from its own appellation. The Nero d’Avola was ultra-refined, with the tightest yields, but again it was perhaps less than a match for the earthiness of the belly pork. I preferred the Primitivo, which, with its fine, cooling tannins seemed to me to be about as good as it got.

At this stage I thought that I might see a bite of cheese and be off. After all, that was what was written on the menu; but no: big bowls were slapped down on the table containing roast kid (one of my very favourite dishes) with roast potatoes and artichokes and a mystery wine was brought out to accompany it. We all made a mess of guessing what it was. In the end we were told it was the 2000 San Rocco Cabernet Sauvignon from Butera. It was sublime, but the extra course certainly did me in: I fell asleep on the bus.

Halves Sherry

I admit to being a sherry junkie. Apart from a glass of champagne, I find it had to conceive of a better aperitif. Recently I tasted the range from and was quite bowled over. Halfwine sells just 37.5 cl bottles. This is a traditional size for sherry, as finos and manzanillas oxidise quite quickly and in this format, you have generally drunk them up before they have had the chance to go off. The San Léon Manzanilla Clasica has all that rough-and-tumble character you would expect, but somehow it was trumped by the fino del Puerto from Gutierrez Colosia, which had a salty intensity I can only suppose was culled from its proximity to the sea: echoes of Noilly Prat! The 12-year old oloroso from Williams & Humbert was stunning: cream, caramel, nuts and soft plums but with a fiercely dry finish. If anything, however, it was upstaged by the 12-year old Williams & Humbert amontillado: which was hugely intense and searing, a real pick-me-up. A tasting pack of all four is recommended. It costs just £30.25.

Dinner at Dinner

I hung up my restaurant reviewer’s hat before the emergence of the autodidact Bloomers at the Fat Duck in Bray and I have never eaten there. Until recently I had not tried his London embassy, Dinner, either. I went to the latter for the first time on 30 October as a guest of The Wine Club, a new venture which brings the recommendations of three top London sommeliers directly to your door for as little as £50 for a case of six.

I felt a little pang of nostalgia entering the Hyde Park Hotel that night. I remember when Marco Pierre White moved in there in his bid to get a third Michelin rosette. We got on well in those days and I witnessed him stocking up on art works and refining the dishes in his repertoire, and then the great day came when all his work paid off, and he became the first native chef to win his three stars. Soon after he moved on to the Piccadilly Hotel and lost the plot.

For a while the dining room upstairs was called Foliage, but I never really got the measure of that, meanwhile the historic Hyde Park had become the Mandarin Oriental. It was in the Foliage, so to speak, that I sat next to the late Alan Whicker at a press lunch and found him excellent company even if he had developed a distinct animus against the travel journalist Victoria Mather.

These memories came flooding back as I went through the lobby of the hotel, which was teeming: no austerity here, I thought. I was instantly put at ease by a glass of Krug Grande Cuvée while I talked to Danny Kaljee and the other men behind the club. We were in a private room but could see the dining room through the glass. It was also incredibly busy.

Like Marco’s menu, Bloomers’ comes with dates next to the dishes, but they are a bit more ancient than Marco’s were: they represent an historical dish that Bloomers has reworked before putting it on the menu. One of the club’s sommeliers (who is also the sommelier at Dinner), João Pires talked us through the menu. We ate ‘Earl Grey Tea Smoked Salmon’ which had been perked up with a sauce of ‘lemon, gentleman’s relish, wood sorrel and smoked roe’. Again I wondered why we had to know the mechanics, but it was an impressive and unusual combination. The wine that went with it was a 2012 Soave Classic from Tamellini in the Veneto (£78 for six), a lovely fresh spirited wine and just the ticket for the salmon. 

It worked less well with the chef’s ‘meat fruit’: a chicken liver and foie gras parfait that appears ravishingly in the form of a mandarin orange, and apparently dates back to the time of Henry VII. It is a very impressive creation, and very light with just enough tang from the mock-peel upholstery to stop the mousse from cloying. It needed a more aromatic wine, I thought: a dry Muscat or Gewürztraminer.

Next came a Spiced Pigeon with ale and artichokes. I didn’t like this dish so much. I wanted the skin of the almost raw pigeon to be firmer, crunchy even. It came with chips, carrots and a lovely purée of potatoes, saturated in butter à la Robuchon (but perhaps with a mite too much salt). The wine for this was a 2007 Morey Saint Denis Vieilles Vignes from the Domaine Lignier. It was very sour cherry-like and immensely long and linear, I was impressed but I missed some of the opulence I like from the generally, spicy, velvetty Côte de Nuits.

Next came the famous Tipsy Cake (1810) with spit-roast pineapple. The cake was a sort of brioche that had been basted and re-basted with cream and cognac while the pineapple had also turned on a spit and been subjected to various embellishments. I had to say that had I not known I would have been unaware of how elaborate the dish was. We had an excellent sauternes with it: a 2007 Castelnau de Suduiraut - the second wine of the estate - which set it off to a tee.

After that I felt quite stuffed, and savoured a glass of vintage armagnac before I waddled back to the tube.

This time I think I managed to stay awake.

Back to School

Posted: 2nd October 2013

The long (too long) school holidays are over, and as the children packed their bags and satchels for the new term, the wine trade came back to life. My personal rentrée begins on St Giles’s Day (1 September) with a fortifying glass of champagne. This year it was a 2006 Mumm Cordon Rouge with a lively bead and nice hint of apricot paste on the nose, Granny Smith and guava tastes on the palate, bowing out with a flavour of golden delicious apples and all the power you’d expect from a Pinot Noir-based cuvée. I like these new-wave Mumm wines more and more. It seems to me that a lot of good work has gone into improving them.

My professional duties (and predilections) have brought me to German wines again this month. On the 17th September my friend Caro Maurer presented a tasting of VDP Grosses Gewächs and other wines to her fellow Masters of Wine at the Saddlers’ Hall in the City. I am sorry that I had to leave early and miss the JJ Prüm wines but I was happy to renew acquaintance with the 2007 dry Erstes Gewächs from Schloss Johannisberg and note how much the wines have steadied now that Christian Witte is on the bridge. I was also happy to discover the 2009 Kirchberg Spätburgunder from Weingut Salwey and the traditional 2009 Riesling Spätlese from Balthasar Ress. I don’t always like hocks from Ress, but then there has been a change of steward both there and at Salwey since Wolf Salwey’s untimely death in 2011.

Two days later the Rheingau was back in town and Franz Werner Michel gave his customary press tasting at the ambassador’s residence focussing on the 2012 vintage with a few little sweeteners thrown in, such as the 1983 Hochheimer Domdecaney Beerenauslese, the 1953 Rauenthaler Baiken Beerenauslese. In contrast to these oldies, there was a 2011 Trockenbeerenauslese from Schloss Johannisberg. I was sorry not to have enough time to do justice to all the wines downstairs, but I was impressed by the 1976 Johannisberger Klaus from Prinz von Hessen and by the collection of 2012s presented by the Weingut Spreitzer in Oestrich, the Hattenheimer Wisselbrunnen in particular. From the neighbouring Weingut Wegeler the 2011 Geisenheimer Rothenberg Auslese was wonderful. There was also a fantastic 2007 Kiedricher Gräfenberg Auslese from Robert Weil.

I had to run over to the British Academy after that to taste a daunting collection of 183 2011 Médoc crus bourgeois. With a child to pick up early from school again, I selected thirty-four for tasting. My two favourites were the Château Paveil de Luze in Margaux and Château Lilian Ladouys in Saint-Estèphe. I wonder if I alarmed the mothers at the school gate with my red teeth?

Domaine des Anges

On 26 September I went to the Domaine des Anges in the Ventoux for my twice-yearly visit. The new winemaker, Florent Chave is beginning to branch out and inject some of his own personal style into the wines which are now perhaps more true to local tradition than they were when Ciaran Rooney was at the helm.

We tasted eight of the latest wines the day I arrived:

  1. Domaine des Anges white 2012. This was Ciaran Rooney’s creation - a white wine from the Southern Rhone with proper bite and freshness. This new baby doesn’t look disappointing: there is camomile and saffron on the nose, it is fat but has proper length for all that; good, honey-rich concentration and more important still, good acidity.
  2. Domaine des Anges Viognier 2012. It has a hay-like aroma on the nose that is not entirely typical of the variety, and is fat and powerful. I think it was a little muted that night, as the final blend had not been made up. A small proportion is housed in oak, the rest in stainless steel.
  3. Domaine des Anges Archange - white - 2012. This is pure Roussanne. There is a little of that hay aroma here too, but more dried apricots. It has something of the same richness I found in the ordinary Ventoux wine but there is a great liveliness here; an endearing playfulness that carries on and on: a great success.
  4. Domaine des Anges red 2011. This is the estate’s real bread-and-butter and it should be the sort of everyday wine that you are happy to drink with your dinner night-in, night-out. It was certainly spot-on: the fruit slightly jammy with suggestions of plums and cherries from a predominately Grenache blend. It is a wine of the torrid south and packs quite a punch, leaving an abiding legacy of chocolate and fruitcake on the palate.
  5. Domaine des Anges Archange 2011. The Archange is mostly Syrah. This is an impressive wine with a smell of the Provencal garrigue, liquorice, cherries and blackberries. It is clear that it was housed in oak, but I am convinced that this underpinning will soon be covered by the fruit. The tannins are fine and cooling. It needs at least another two years before it should be broached. It finishes with more memories of the south: wild thyme and tobacco.
  6. Domaine des Anges Archange 2010. There is an ever-so-slight whiff of game here, which is hardly alarming in a Syrah-based wine, as well as raspberries and redcurrants; the fruit is good, but it seems a spot lighter than the 2011. There is some tobacco and quite a lot of alcohol and wood tannins. It leaves you with the impression of power. Perhaps it is not quite the equal of the 2011, but it is still very good.
  7. Domaine des Anges Sérafin 2011. This is a pure Grenache cuvée. This wine was drawn from tank and only a very small amount is made. Reminiscent of fruit pastilles, it seemed to be going through a difficult stage. I am hoping the middle palate is going to fill out before it is bottled.
  8. Domaine des Anges Cabernet Sauvignon 2011. This is an oddity created by Malcolm Swann when he founded the estate in the seventies. It seems peculiar to have Cabernet in the Southern Rhone, but people did odd things back then. The important point about it is that is a lovely wine with an attractive cassis-like sweetness on the nose and a pronounced aroma of cigar boxes. There is a lot of that sweet blackcurrant fruit on the palate and quite a bit of alcohol too, but it closes with creaminess and more cigar box: delightful - long may it reign.

For the rest, my three days in the south were punctuated by the usual Franco-Hibernian high-jinks: curry night, Pierre’s Provencal lunch, the annual Irish stew, Bob Huddie’s wine tasting and lunch (2009 Burgundies this time) and a trip to La Calade, the local restaurant in Blauvac; and most important of all - that last glimpse of the sun before the lights go out in London for the winter.

A Tasting Marathon in Wiesbaden

Posted: 2nd September 2013

The last Monday in August is generally the first of two days tasting in the old pumprooms in Wiesbaden. They are dedicated to the ‘Grosses Gewächs’ or dry, ‘grand cru’ wines produced by the VDP organisation in the previous vintage. The VDP (Verband Deutscher Prädikatsweingüter) has around 250 members, and almost all the top estates are members. It is therefore a marvellous opportunity to bring yourself up to date on which is happening in Germany, who is on the way up and who is on the way down and just what was the quality of the last harvest.

I flew out on Sunday morning because Caro Maurer MW had very kindly got me involved in tasting in Nierstein on the Rheinterrassen organised by Felix Peters at St. Antony. Together with the famous neighbouring estate of Heyl zu Herrnsheim, St. Antony is owned by the Hanover clothing magnate Detlev Meyer. Meyer had recently acquired some new land up on the renowned Roter Hang (the Red Cliff) which looks east over the Rhine from the estate of Franz Karl Schmitt and with it he had mopped up about 300 bottles of very old wine. Some of it going back well over a century. According to Peters, Schmitt’s was one of the best wineries in Germany before the war. It was that we were going to taste that Sunday.

‘Pour faire la bouche’ were given a taste of the 2012 St. Antony Riesling - a particularly dense and attractive wine, and a 1911 wine from the Hermannshof, owned by the Schmitts. Although the latter was 102 years old, it was still lively, even if it had an unmistakable smell of cep mushrooms.

Wines of this age are always rare, but particularly so in Germany, where, if they were not drunk up during the war, they were either swilled by the armies of occupation or bartered for food in the lean years that followed; but that 1911 was not the oldest, and it was far from being the best.

We then kicked off with an 1893 Nierstein Fläschenhahl Feinste Auslese from Franz Karl Schmitt: an excellent steep site with shallow topsoil. There was also a bit of that ‘cep’ smell, but it was recognisably Riesling with a tingling acidity. 1893 was the first great vintage after the Phylloxera Blight. The grapes were harvested early after a hot summer. The wine was surprisingly powerful.

The 1895 Schmitt Auslese from Fläschenhall, was perhaps not the equal of 1893, but it was not to be written off. It smelled of horseradish and was spicy and cooling on the tongue. Peters told us that analysis had been carried out on these Auslesen, and that in the 1928 vintage, the wines had an average of 15-20 grams of sugar, 10-12 percent alcohol and about 8-10 grams of acidity. So higher in alcohol and lower in sugar than a post-war equivalent, even if they were hardly dry. Today they would be called ‘half-sweet’.

Yields were probably much lower and the wines consequently more concentrated. In the mid-19th century they amounted to just 17 hectolitres per hectare. Today it is likely to be nearer 70.

The 1914 vintage made when German armies were already deep in French and Russian territory, was not supposed to be good, but I enjoyed the Auslese from the chalky Zehnmorgen vineyard, which gave off a little whiff of apricots and ripe apples and had a long tickling acidity. It had eaten up what sugar it had and tasted bone dry.

For me it was the famous 1900 (super-sweet Trockenbeerenauslese from Fläschenhahl) that was a disappointment: but then I think we had a bad bottle.

The 1921 Trockenbeerenauslese was on excellent form, on the other hand. This is another of Germany’s most famous pre-war vintages. It tasted of caramelised apples and had a glorious rich, cooling finish.

Politics should tell you nothing about wine or vice versa, but it is perhaps sad to say that 1933 was such a fabulous year, with a long hot spring and summer. It showed in the Orbel Trockenbeerenauslese from Schmitt. The wine as astonishingly fresh and perfumed even if the finish was disappointingly hot. The Pettenthal and Auflangen (Orbel) from 1934 was also exquisite. Again it smelled of cooked apples and tasted of caramel cream. It was immensely rich, but not cloying. I think it was possibly the best of all the pre-war wines we tasted that day.

Then came a 1937 Heiligenbaum from Franz Karl’s wicked brother Gustav Adolf. Gustav Adolf made very famous Trockenbeerenauslesen before the war, and we can assume they were pure as the Nazi authorities took a very dim view of adulteration. After the war, however, Gustav Adolf resorted to malpractice and was even sent to court. He was declared bankrupt in 1993.

1937, however, was possibly the best year of the Third Reich, and even the chancellery of the teetotal Hitler stocked up on it with a massive order from the State Domaine in Oppenheim. There must have been some botrytis, because the wine smelled massively of apricots. It was wonderfully concentrated and long.

The next Trockenbeerenauslese was the legendary 1945 and from Kehr and Fläschenhahl, and once again from Franz Karl. In 1945 the spring was very cold and a late frost froze the buds off the vines and killed the German POWs in their camps along the Rhine. The old men and women who brought in the harvest can’t have picked more than a bunch or two per vine. The result was something extraordinarily unctuous, smelling of fresh figs and tasting hugely sweet. It is sixty-eight years old and will keep for decades yet. Beside it the 1942 Auslese from the Rehbach vineyard tasted weedy and smelled fungal.

Those wartime wines were remarkable given the lack of men, herbicides and equipment, but the immediate post-war wines were also miraculous: there weren’t even any foreign slave labourers about. In 1949, Germany officially split in two and the Federal Republic took power in the west. The Beerenauslese made from the Kehr vineyard that year was one of the best wines of the run: pastry, a bit of mushroom, dried apricots (botrytis), dried herbs, wonderful structure that dappled its way backwards and forwards over my tongue, cooling, powerful and long.

We leapt a decade over the economic miracle to the 1959. I suspected the wine had had a new dose of sulphur, it was bright, and well-structured, but a little short on acidity.

The first wine from Heyl zu Herrnsheim was the 1971: a lively, pear-scented Spätlese from the Brudersberg.  The year is famous for the new German Wine Law which ran so many small ancient sites together, abolishing hundreds of sonorous names. Zehnmorgen disappeared, Fläschenhall became part of Hipping etc., and to add insult to injury, it created the misleading ‘Großlagen’ such as ‘Niersteiner Gutes Domtal’, where vineyards from all over the region were able to cash in and make indifferent wine under the banner of ‘Nierstein’.

From 1978 to 1993, the dreaded Flurbereinigung began in Nierstein. Originally a measure favoured by the Nazis, it was meant to rationalise estates and make them easier to cultivate by planting rows up and down, rather than on the traditional terraces. Driving in that afternoon, I had seen just how drastic it had been in Oppenheim and Nierstein. Just one little bit on the crown of the cliff had been spared.

I didn’t like the 1982 Kranzberg Spätlese from Heyl zu Herrnsheim either much: it smelled of coffee and chicken stock cubes, but the 1993 Orbel Spätlese from St. Antony was something else. This reeked of peaches, honey and lavender and after twenty years it was immensely powerful.

We returned to the eighties with the 1988 Brudersberg Spätlese Trocken from Heyl zu Herrnsheim. I remember these wines as babies. It was the time of Charta in the Rheingau when wines were made bone dry but were terribly thin and unbalanced. You appreciated their efforts but the results were hard to love. By 1993, they had clearly worked it out: the Brudersberg Spätlese Trocken was naturally a bit strong, as the sugar had been fermented out, but it had a nice aroma of tobacco and dried herbs. Better still was the Spätlese Trocken Ölberg from St. Antony with its smell of blackcurrant leaves, great concentration and acidity.

Now came the off dry ‘Halbtrockens’: first Heyl zu Herrnsheim’s 1991 Pettenthal Spätlese with creaminess, balance and length and a touch of earthiness that was perhaps the hallmark of the winemaker Peter von Weymarn. Then the 1992 Pettenthal Spätlese Halbtrocken from St. Antony, which was all power.

After an ungainly 1997 Brudersberg QbA Trocken from Heyl zu Herrnsberg, we went on to three 2003 Grosses Gewächs wines - fermented dry in the style of French grands crus. The Pettenthal from St. Antony was slightly hot, but the other two: Brudersberg from Heyl and Orbel from St. Antony were wonderful - the Brudersberg soft in its attack while the Orbel had a more muscular approach.

There was 2004 Grosses Gewächs Brudersberg from Heyl and a 2008 Orbel from St. Antony, of which I marginally preferred the Orbel and a remarkable Orbel (St. Antony) from the difficult 2010 vintage, which had taken a year to ferment. Peters had lowered the sugar to the limit (9 grams) and somehow reduced the acidity from a massive 13 grams to eight.

We finished off with five 2012s, the last two being ‘Große Lage’ wines, which are half-sweet. There was a truly lovely Pettenthal from Heyl zu Herrnsheim.


The real fun and games began at ten the next morning: 418 wines to taste over two days. I managed 341. I suppose if I had missed lunch, coffee and refused to talk to my neighbours I might have tasted them all. As it was I managed all the Rieslings and all the Pinot Noirs.

I will note only the top-scoring wines: those that would merit four Decanter stars or above.

The whites were all 2012, and the majority of the reds 2011. It was a very good vintage for white wines, but a fairly short one, so that there were virtually no Beerenauslesen and Trockenbeerenauslesen. I am told there were some Auslese Goldkapseln, so top Ausleses, but probably not many. Here and there I got a whiff of botrytis, but I think there can have been very little. On the other hand for dry, Grosses Gewächs, 2012 was an almost perfect year, as there was enough sugar in the grapes to produce rounded balanced wines, but not so much to cause headaches during fermentation.

The vintage seems to have favoured the northern appellations - in particular the Mosel-Saar-Ruwer; but not so many Mosel growers present their wines for the tasting (although this is improving) because classic Mosel wines are not bone dry, as stipulated by the VDP.

The reds came from 2011 or before. The 2011 vintage was excellent, although there were some reds from the much more difficult 2010. If there were no sweet wines to speak of in 2012, there were huge quantities made in 2011 and some very good ones from the previous vintage.

Newcomers who have impressed me this year: Friedrich Fendel, F B Schönleber, August Eser (Rheingau); Battenfeld-Spanier (Rheinhessen); Lothar Keßler (Pfalz); Seeger (Pinot Noir - Franken).

Mosel-Saar-Ruwer 2012

Herman-Löwenstein, Hatzenporter Kirchberg. One of the rare wines that seemed to have a whiff of botrytis (pineapples), but maybe it was a terroir character. The fruit was slow to emerge but very delicate and playful, a delicious Mosel wine.

Willi Schaefer, Graacher Himmelreich. Hint of oatmeal on the nose; apples and peaches, maybe even white peaches, some CO2, I see this becoming quite lovely in about five years.

Dr. Loosen, Wehlener Sonnenuhr. Slightly earth, lovely smell of cooked apples, lots of fruit on the palate, very delicate, filigree finish where the trickles out from the core; lovely wine.

Fritz Haag, Brauneberger Juffer-Sonnenuhr, Some citrus on the nose, lovely delicacy of expression, classic Mosel prettiness, elegance; some apple fruit, very lyrical.

Fritz Haag, Brauneberger Juffer, Some earthiness, some citrus, some evident CO2, citrus again on the palate, all subdued now but coming slowly to the fore. This is a wine you could talk to for hours.

Dr. Loosen, Ürziger Würzgarten, Spiced pears, cloves, citrus, apples; lovely structure. It suddenly flips and becomes all ethereal lightness - wonderful.

Grans-Fassian, Trittenheimer Apotheke, Enchanting nose of granny-smith apples; there is a really captivating intensity here, power; maybe not very typical. A truly mighty wine - I can think of no better medicine.

Grans-Fassian, Leiwener Laurentiuslay, Golden delicious apples, very fresh, very appealing; very up-front in style: all sap and power.

St. Urbans-Hof, Leiwener Laurentiuslay, Grapey, apples, pears; a lot of fresh fruit here; quite forward, but with delicacy too and a Mosel prettiness. It has a lovely , seemingly endless finish.

Karthäuserhof, Eitelsbacher Karthäuserhofberg, Bit of cat, apples, earthy; lovely slate intensity, very long and impressive. Massive length.

Von Kesselstatt, Oberemmeler Scharzhofberger, Pear, but the nose is reticent, some powerful acidity, lots of oomph! This is her best wine here.

Von Hövel, Oberemmeler Scharzhofberg, Pear again (fruit of the year), fresh and lyrical, restrained but pretty, the structure is superb.

Von Othegraven, Ockfener Bockstein, slightly meaty (sulphur); pears - lovely apple and pear fruit; some citrus, great thumping power on the palate with a huge, Wagnerian finish.

St. Urbans-Hof, Ockfener Bockstein, Bit of caramel, lovely pear-like fruit; creamy, a wine that sings - super.

Forstmeister Geltz-Zilliken, Saarburger Rausch, One of those wines that you hope will live up to its vineyard name - ‘rush’ - and it does, creamy at first, but then that ‘high’ - the power. The taste is like licking the inside of a pear. The ‘rush’ is in the huge power of the finish.


August Kesseler, Rüdesheimer Berg Schloßberg, medicinal nose, cooling, announces its craftsmanship straight away, restrained for a modern Hock - not a Zeus - but a beautifully conceived wine.

Künstler, Rüdesheimer Berg Rottland, It was news to me that Gunter Künstler from Hocheim was making wine in Rüdesheim. It was mute on the nose (young yet), but there is masses at work below the surface; above all you note the great thrusting power. This is the Künstler we knew and loved.

Fritz Allendorf, Rüdesheimer Berg Roseneck, Pineapples and oatmeal, quite creamy, a mighty Hock with a throbbing finish, like the opening bars of Siegfried’s Death March.

Friedrich Fendel, Rüdesheimer Berg Roseneck, Nervous nose like a crisp, frosty day, very mouth-filling, with a superb development on the palate; rapier-like - Great Hock!

Schloß Vollrads, Schloßberg, Some earthiness, some pineapple; lovely classic Hock.

F. B. Schönleber, Mittelheimer St Nikolaus, Very striking nose, really quite breathtaking - rich cooked apples, huge palate and a wonderful finish. New one on me.

Josef Spreitzer, Mittelheimer St Nikolaus, Maybe not quite the equal of Schönleber, but an impressive performance. The second time I have admired his wines.

August Eser, Oestricher Lenchen, Bit of oatmeal, very attractive, excellent structure, power and length. Will reward keeping.

F B Schönleber, Hallgartener Schönhell, Oats again, again a marvellous balance. To keep.

Diefenhardt’sches Weingut, Martinsthaler Langenberg, Slightly catty; big full wine redolent of rosemary and lavender; glorious length.

Baron Knyphausen, Erbacher Siegelsberg, Very attractive nose, a little like coffee, on the lean side, but nonetheless attractive, very playful finish.

Detlev Ritter und Edler von Oetinger, Erbacher Hohenrain, barley sugar, big and mouth filling, structure, a bit of sweetness here, but it will fade over the years.

Baron Knyphausen, Erbacher Marcobrunn, Pears, Band-aid, on the palate this seemed an absolute classic Hock, long and luscious.

Jakob Jung, Erbacher Hohenrain, Bit of caramel here, brimming with force, pretty acidity cuts through it, rises to a crescendo.

Künstler, Kostheimer Weiss Erd, Nose of pears, big, concentrated and delicious, a mighty wine.


Dönnhoff, Norheimer Dellchen, Apples, very lyrical, superb mouthfeel - what a master! Slightly peppery.

Dönnhoff, Niederhäuser Hermannshöhle, I had taste this before in London and thought it the man of the match, it is incredibly intense, with a huge impression of pears.

Gut Hermannsberg, Schloßböckelheimer Kupfergrube, The name of the estate has got shorter, but the wine is longer. Quite flinty now, but behind there is lots of fruit character and huge staying power.

Schäfer-Fröhlich, Schloßböckelheimer Kupfergrube, Bit of wet sheep (what’s in a name?), quite earthy, soft at first but with lots of class. Finishes earthy.

Dönnhoff, Schloßböckelheimer Felsenberg, Classic limes and white peaches aroma: shudderingly good.

Schäfer-Fröhlich, Bockenauer Felseneck, Earthy again, tarry and dense, this has a strong terroir character, but it is also long and distinguished.

Emrich-Schönleber, Monzinger Frühlingsplätzchen, Goethe was informed that Monzingen made the most powerful wines in the Nahe, and this is evidence: parsnips on the nose, but power that seems all rolled up into a ball - a Lazarus wine (two poets).

Emrich-Schönleber, Monzinger Halenberg, This does not have the Monzingen parsnip character, prettier on the nose, more lyrical and delicate; has a lovely tickly, flirtatious finish.


Kühling-Gillot, Niersteiner Pettenthal, Pretty fruit and impressive structure, the best of the Pettenthals. Second best - St. Antony, then Gunderloch.

Staatliche Weinbaudomäne Oppenheim, Niersteiner Ölberg, The best of the Ölbergs after Kühling-Gillot: caramel.

St. Antony, Niersteiner Orbel, Going through a difficult stage, but its potential is in its structure and a very pretty finish.

Wagner-Stempel, Seifersheimer Höllberg, This is a strikingly lovely wine, very fresh with a fine structure.

Wittmann, Westhofener Aulerde, Some coffee on the nose (as on several of his wines), a very powerful wine with impressive acidity.

Wittmann, Westhofener Morstein, very pretty nose, even prettier wine, gorgeous in its broad Wonnegau idiom.

Battenfeld-Spanier, Nieder-Flörsheimer Frauenberg and Battenfeld-Spanier, Hohen-Sülzener Kirchenstück, two noteworthy wines: consistency and power from a winemaker on the up.


Achim-Magin, Forster Pechstein, Rye bread and fresh pears, big and rich, long tickling finish, a little acidity oozing out, lovely.

Bürklin-Wolf, Forster Pechstein, Quite mute, some peaches (yellow) on the palate, needs time, very promising. Bürklin-Wolf the best of the Deidesheimer ‘Bs’ this year, followed by von Bühl.

Bürklin-Wolf, Forster Jesuitengarten, Barley sugar and pears, lovely mouthfeel, cooling, long, and seemingly delicate.

Achim-Magin, Forster Kirchenstück, A-M very impressive this year. Pears and incense, big and luscious from the best vineyard in Forst, slightly covered in baby fat, huge palate, peppery finish.

Bürklin-Wolf, Forster Kirchenstück, Figs (von Winning also), has a wild fig character, very delicate play on the palate, a little spice too: caraway.

Bürklin-Wolf, Forster Ungeheuer, The ‘Monster’, but not a big monster, this has a beery, yeasty smell, but a pretty structure behind.

Münzberg, Lothar Keßler & Söhne, Godramsteiner Münzberg ‘Schlangenpfiff’, seems woody, apples and very cooling fruit. New to me.


Fürst, Bürgstädter Centgrafenberg, Very nervous on the nose, like frost. Intense palate of white peaches.

Horst Sauer, Eschendorfer am Lumpen, (what happened to the ‘Lump’? One of the most evocative names in German wine) Slightly catty, very intense, pears, cats again, very long.

Of the big, big charities in Würzburg, none appealed much this year. Of the three I liked the Staatlicher Hofkeller best.

Pinot Noir

Ahr 2011 unless otherwise stated.

Meyer-Näkel, Neuahrer Sonnenberg, Some cat, raspberries, has good grip - will last - the raspberry taste pervades as does liquorice, long tarry finish.

J J Adeneuer, Ahrweiler Rosenthal, Strawberries, very luscious gooey strawberries, has an opulence to it: a hedonist’s wine.

Meyer-Näkel, Dernauer Pfarrwingert, Raspberries again, again with grip, this is a big wine that needs more time. It will develop very well.


Fürst, Klingenberger Schloßberg, Caraway, spice wine from the Master: spices and brown bread. Very long.

Seeger, Leimaner Herrenberg 2010, From the difficult vintage and a new name, one of the best Pinot Noirs in the tasting.

Silly Season

Posted: 1st August 2013

The Germans call it the ‘Sommerloch’ - the summer gap - when there is little or no news. I sit at home and work and attend to the needs of my children who are on holiday. I am happy to say they are not in a hurry to get up in the morning, so that gives me a bit more time to do what I have to do. Other households are enlivened by the earth-shattering news of sports competitions, the antics of politicians or the arrival of royal babies, but ours seems more or less immune; and long may it so remain.

Of course we heard about the Cambridge boy, and various wine merchants passed on increasingly fatuous suggestions via Twitter as to what we might drink to celebrate his arrival on this stage of fools. From what I surmised: anything they had overstocked and thought might still be hanging around when the weather broke in August.

To the best of my knowledge, Prince Charles has yet to venture into organic grape-farming at Highgrove and unless he is planning to surprise us with a Romanian wine, we have no royal vineyards. Best, therefore, to look to his cousins for a suitable tipple to celebrate the birth. Prince Donatus of Hesse looks a bit like Prince Andrew, which may or may not be a recommendation. Perhaps it is better to recall that he is a direct descendant of Queen Victoria and might be even closer to the Duke of Edinburgh. For my part, I am utterly prejudiced in his favour because his secretary, Isolde Helbig, shares a Christian name with my daughter.

Prince Donatus’s estate is next door to the famous Schloss Johannisberg in the Rheingau and is called Prinz von Hessen. It makes excellent, if rather angular wines that show their mettle in dry, sunny years like 2011 and 2012, including a reasonable estate Riesling obtainable from Majestic and which I have often seen on the shelves of my local Oddbins. Given the quality of those last two harvests, you can’t go far wrong here. If you are truly obsessed with princes, there is even a cuvee called ‘Royal’ (PDF). For all I know, it might be Carole Middleton’s favourite juice.

Last month I neglected to speak of a remarkable tasting I went to at Gaggenau in London’s, Wimpole Street in June. Gaggenau is an unbelievably smart oven showroom (I was assured it was not a shop - not even suitcases filled with fivers will convince them to part with the goods on display), and during a lull in the wine event I was shown some wonderfully swanky things. I felt more than a bit of a fraud, seeing as my oven at home scarcely works, and I have to make bread by sticking a chair against the door and turning the loaf over for five minutes at the end to make sure the dough has cooked through to the bottom.

The tasting was organised by Gaggenau together with the glossy German wine magazine FINE in Wiesbaden and was part of a week-long odyssey for seven German wine makers together with the chefs Nils Henkel, Hans Stefan Steinhauer and Harald Wohlfahrt, who were separately on hand to match their wines with the best of German food.

Having travelled a lot of Germany, I am quite aware that you eat well there. Indeed, despite all the massed choruses or rather, brass-bands that blast on and on and on over here about the wonders of British food, I would venture to say you eat rather better in Germany - particularly in the provinces. This might even be borne out by the fact that Germany is second only to France in the number of Michelin rosettes possessed by its chefs. Our little samplers that day were prepared by Nils Henkel who has two stars at the Schlosshotel Lerbach near Bergisch Gladbach in the Lower Rhine.

With the gratin of Germany’s kitchen we had some of the cream of Germany’s wine scene, all of them old friends. For these seven winemakers, Henkel had designed a little dish (it was very little) to go with a wine from each. So, with a 2012 Robert Weil Riesling Tradition from the Rheingau, we had a bit of marinated kingfish with redcurrants, kefir and sea fennel. This was perhaps the least successful dish made from frozen tropical fish, but the traditional Hock with its residual sweetness was lovely, as you’d expect from this source. Next was some lake char in a vinaigrette of watercress and capers with a Badenese wine: the 2011 Ihringer Winklerberg Grauburgunder *** Großes Gewächs Trocken from Weingut Dr Heger which was a much more winning combination. The third little dish was a Dublin Bay prawn with purple carrots and pistachios. This was matched to a truly exquisite 2011 Hermannshöhle Riesling trocken Großes Gewächs from Weingut Dönnhoff in the Nahe. It was probably my favourite wine of the tasting.

The next dish looked truly un-tempting on paper: beetroot with beechnuts and beechnut oil. It was to accompany our first red and was actually quite good. The 2009 Centgrafenberg Frühburgunder R, from Weingut Rudolf Fürst was predictably impressive. It is wonderful how Fürst sits there on his rock like Brünnhilde in her ring of flames, far away from virtually all other wineries in Franconia and makes some of the loveliest Pinot Noirs in Germany.

A nice, earthy plate of belly pork with onions and radishes was put beside some 2009 Neuenahr Sonnenberg Großes Gewächs Spätburgunder trocken from Weingut Meyer-Näkel in the Ahr Valley near Bonn. Werner Näkel explained to us the uses of oak, comparing it to salt on a potato: too little and it is tasteless, too much and you ruin the wine. A small piece of beef skirt with marrow balls and truffle vinegar was coupled with a 2009 Burgweg Großes Gewächs Spätburgunder from Weingut Knipser in the Pfalz, an estate that we have justifiably heaped with prizes before now. Finally there was a bell pepper and basil sorbet that was meant to go with a the 2012 Graacher Riesling Trocken from Weingut Dr Loosen, but at the last moment Ernst Loosen took fright at the effect of sugar on his dry wine and it was poured before the dish was distributed. The sorbet, I should add, was as delicious as the wine, and the taste kept coming back to me as I took my sedate bus ride home.

We were only a small number enjoying these lovely pairings, but the wine men said they were doing another event that night. I hope their audience realised what a right royal treat they were getting for their money.


Posted: 1st July 2013

In the second week of June I was in Romania, more precisely Transylvania, to taste wine. There was a wonderful feeling of continuity about the short trip, as the person who met us off the aircraft was none other than Dan Muntean of Halewood Vintners in Southport, Lancashire, who had performed exactly the same role when I made my last visit in 1991.

Besides being the man who created the infamous Lambrini, John Halewood, was one of the first men in the West (and the first in Britain) to see the potential in Romanian wines. This was back in Ceausescu’s time. In the early eighties, Halewood observed the success of the Bulgarian Vintners operated by the genial Margo Todorov, which marketed Bulgarian wines in Britain once the Soviet Union began to turn their back on them. Halewood thought he could do the same with the wines from north of the Danube. With time and considerable effort, the company acquired 300 hectares of vineyard land, including 100 near Sebeş or Mühlbach in Transylvania. By the mid-nineties, Halewood was selling a million cases of Romanian wine a year.

Halewood amassed a huge fortune but did not live long to enjoy it. He was found dead in his swimming pool at the age of sixty-four in the summer of  2012 and never saw his new vineyards in Sebeş. He had the gratification, however, of seeing his horse Amberleigh House win the Grand National in 2004. That had been his dream since childhood.

I am not sure whether I had done a comprehensive tasting of Halewood’s Romanian wines since the nineties before we had our first experience of them in the ancient cellars of the Casa Weidner in Sibiu. These wines came from the hot region of Murfatlar, east of the Carpathians and were made by Lorena Deaconu: decent La Umbra Chardonnay, and surprisingly good Viognier with a dash of the muscatel Tămâioasă (available from The Wine Society and Adnams for around £7). Also good was the 2009 SVS Pinot Noir from Dealu Mare (Wine Society) and rather more mineral 2009 Kronos. These Pinot Noirs from Dealu Mare were the wines that impressed me most on my previous visit. The picture that I took of the oil wells among the Pinot Noir vines eventually found its way into Hugh Johnson’s World Atlas of Wine.

The Fetească family were generally good:  the Fetească Neagră - the ‘black girl’ - is apparently a bitch in the vineyard, but the 2012 SVS was really everything that you could want - colour, punch, structure, sap, and about £8.99 from Waitrose. My favourite Fetească Neagră was the 2010 Hyperion which really shows what the girl can do. It looks hard to find in Britain, however. The Shiraz (sic) was nice, but not very Syrah or Shiraz-like.

The Romanians, and more especially the Transylvanians, insist that they are more Byzantine than Balkan and many of the things they eat betray a Turkish influence which dates from the time of the Ottoman occupation. There have also been shaped by the cooking cultures of Magyars and Germans. The Hungarians, for example, must have been responsible for the wonderful smoked pork fat I had in Sibiu, which you can obtain if you look hard in the Naschmarkt in Vienna. Brinza, or fresh ewes’ milk curd comes with every first course, along with fleshy tomatoes, spring onions, cold cuts and sliced sausages. A local taramasalata is made using fresh-water zander roes. At the Casa Weidner there were more typical Transylvanian things, such as some meat baked in bread dough - or ciolan asfumat, mamaliga muraguri or polenta with meat and cheese, Siebenbürger Sauerkraut with soured cream, a Sibiu goulash or paprikaš, pickled cauliflower and finally, ceafa - or collar of pork.

We were in Sebeş the next day. Halewood’s Transylvanian operation is not hard to spot. There is an enormous sign on the side of the hill. Many of these south-facing terraces were fallow until the replanting started. They rise to a height of some 400 metres and now the vines jostle with the former lords of the slopes: sheep and their peripatetic shepherds.

Transylvania is a white-wine region, and apart from a little Pinot Noir, there is scant ambition to change things. We tasted a good, apple-scented 2012 Fetească Albă with a nice bite and I also admired the Pinot Gris before we had lunch at the excellent Casa la Mesteceni which I extolled in my Blog last month. However, I forgot to mention his lovely thin boar, pork and lamb sausages, and a delicious plum tuica or schnapps aged in mulberry wood.

We went next to the Boieru Domeniile in Ciumbrud-Aiud. This is a very new domaine with 150 hectares of freshly planted vines. They bottled their first wines just three years ago and have invested four million euros to date. Some of the money to develop the project was granted by the EU.

When vines are young and projects as new as this one, it is often best to wait a while before judging. I was impressed by the various forms of Muscat Ottonel but most, if not all the wines seemed a little lean, and I hope they will fatten up with time. They also had a rather interesting sparkling Furmint. Although it hadn’t been long since our last meal, we were offered a ‘pup’ (kiss): flat breads filled with ricotta (urda) and either cabbage or honey. As we tasted, the weather broke and there was a tremendous storm. Shepherds anxious to protect their flocks rushed by making a tremendous noise that reminded me a train, while their dogs barked the sheep into line.

We were domiciled at Jidvei for the next two nights where a microclimate is created by the intersection of the two Rivers Tarnava. With the land rising from 380 to 600 metres, the nights are cool and instil a certain fragrance into the green grapes for white wine. The summers are hot, but the winters cruelly cold, descending to -22 in the valley, and some of the vines need to be buried to stop them from perishing in the frost. The estate owned by Claudiu Necşulescu is vast: nearly 2,500 hectares planted, and about 300 more beyond the Carpathians. Even if there are more vines at Jidvei than the whole of England and Wales put together, it is still only the third biggest domaine in Romania.

We had Würstli and fried eggs for breakfast; the sausages are a wonderful German-Balkan fusion of mutton with garlic and chilli. Apparently Transylvanians believe that ‘the best fish is a sausage’. You can forget kippers.

We drove north towards Bistriţa and Liliac. Liliac is a new vineyard created by the Austrian property developer Alfred Michael Beck, and the irrepressible sweet winemaker Willi Opitz of Illmitz acts as a consultant. Indeed, Willi made me taste the Liliac wines at Vievinum in Vienna last year, so I was prepared. The estate is run by Micu Ionna, a former teacher from the faculty of oenology in Cluj or Klausenburg.

Liliac means both ‘lilac’ and ‘bat’ (of the vampire sort), and while so much of Tranylvania shuns this very obvious image, Liliac wisely markets its wines with it. Nor, is the estate too large: there are fifty-two hectares planted on local sand and clay soils, with some thirty-eight in production. In deference to Willi Opitz perhaps, Liliac makes a sweet ‘Schilf’ or reed wine, drying bunches on reeds like an Italian recioto. After the rotten grapes have been picked off, just thirty percent of the juice remains in the bunches. The estate is at the top of a hill under a forest that shelters the odd bear who comes out at harvest time when the grapes are at their sweetest. This region used to be more famous for apples. I don’t know what bears think of those.

Micu’s wines are very good, in fact it was one of the two most promising new estates in Transylvania In encountered.  I recommend the Fetească Albă (the ‘white’ girl), the Fetească Regală (royal girl: a cross between the white girl and the Grassa that makes the famous sweet wines of Cotnari - a good restorative for the Duchess of Cambridge, perhaps) and their Sauvignon Blancs (particularly the Private Selection). They have an enchanting structure to them, and good acidity without being mean. There is an interesting Chardonnay, a Pinot Gris blend and a Pinot Noir rosé, not to mention an impressive Merlot and that famous Muscat Ottonel Schilfwein.

The other new estate that impressed me was Villa Vinea, which is owned by the South Tyrol businessman Heini Oberrauch. The first wines were made here in 2011. It is an impressive site, and once again the EU has poured a cool million into the vats. It is not too large at thirty-two hectares. The key to its quality is a little bit of Italian chic: the wine is made by the celebrated Celestino Lucin who also makes the wines at the Abbatia di Novacella in the South Tyrol.

As Kerner works at Novacella, it is planted here too. The wines I liked were the beautifully balanced Fetească Regală, the Riesling (even if it was hardly typical), the dry Gewürztraminer as well as the Fetească Neagră with its taste of morello cherries. There was also an excellent Rubin blend, with Zweigelt and Merlot and a pure Zweigelt. I left impressed, with two bottles under my arm which the baggage handlers at Heathrow Terminal Five managed to smash to smithereens, to my eternal dismay.

Our last hours were dedicated to the wines of Jidvei. There was a big dinner at the castle with a lot of Polish wine people. I had given up tasting by the time the tocaniţa arrived - a veal goulash - and boiled pig’s knuckle with cabbage. My host explained there was a lot of preserved cabbage in Transylvanian cooking. It is stored in barrels for the perishing winter. The leaves are used much as vine leaves farther south and account for sixty percent of the vegetables cooked in the winter months. Sometimes they bottle it up with some sausage - but never with fish.

The next day we were shown round the vast winery. A smell of communist times still clings to it, despite modernisation and EU gold. The only small-scale winemaking that continued in those dark years was performed by small farmers with under a hectare of land, particularly the Germans. Most men in Romania still seem to prefer palinka or tuica to wine, something I understood after drinking Vinars from Jidvei.

Obviously, when wine is made on this brobdingnagian scale it is hard even to think of nuance, but there are good things to be had from Jidvei, such as the Sauvignon Blanc named after Necşulescu’s daughter Maria, and the Muscat Ottonel which is dedicated to his other daughter Ana. There were good Sauvignons in ‘Mysterium’ and a decent ‘classic’ Sauvignon as well.  Ana had also given her name to a sappy Chardonnay. Finally I liked the pink sparkler which we drank just before a valedictory Spanish lunch.   Then it was off to the airport and home.

Confirmation Wines

Posted: 3rd June 2013

My daughter Isolde’s confirmation early in May was a lovely excuse to open some old bottles. I had been looking at a couple of dusty bottles of Pommery Cuvée Louise 1988 and wondering if they were still good. The cork came out a dream. It was a pale amber colour, but it still bubbled merrily and had the mellowness of a rich old wine. It was quite a success. It is very rare that good, old champagne disappoints. Next was Bernard Legland’s Chablis Premier Cru Montmains 2005. I like these 2005 chablis more and more, they have a lovely weight to them. Then there was the 2000 Château Haut Bages Montpelou, Pauillac, which came as a bit of a surprise with its ripe, chunky, blackcurrant-like fruit. It was à point.

And finally the 1997 Domaine des Lambrays, Clos des Lambrays which was all sinew and morello cherries: really lovely: not a velvety burgundy, but as racy as an Arab stallion. I look forward to Joseph’s confirmation. If I can coax him through First Communion, it shouldn’t be too far off.

California Dinner

A remarkably good meal at Goodman in Maddox Street on 13 May reminded me of how much I had been neglecting Californian wines. The steak was very enjoyable too: particularly the belted Galloway meat, which rather stole the show - at least as far as the food was concerned. Of the wines I noted the 2010 Bucella Merlot, the 2008 Wind Gap Syrah, the Tor Cabernet Sauvignon Clone 4 2009, and the Duckhorn Merlot 2008.

That Italian Wine

From Laurenz Moser I had the chance to taste one of his latest ventures: the Castello del Trebbio Vigneti Trebbio 2010. The wine is a joint venture between the owners of the Tuscan estate, the Swiss Felix Christen and Moser. Sangiovese, Cabernet, Merlot and Syrah grapes are fermented in amphorae to make a memorable wine, tasting of chocolate and cherries with a long, cooling finish. It is remarkable what you can do if you eschew oak, but then, giant amphorae are the height of fashion at the moment.

Jura Wines

France may be in the doldrums, but it is still a remarkable country with infinite variety where food and drink is concerned. I was reminded of this by a tasting of Jura wines on 14 May. They are incredibly individual. I have known and supported the Domaine Rolet sicne the early eighties, but I went to the region for the first time in 1988, accompanied by a friend from Lyon. She introduced me to a charming man in Poligny who opened a hand-blown bottle for us, saying that he thought it was an 1865 vin de paille. It was an extraordinary wine. Apparently people made tiny quantities which they then gave to the sick to rally them like the original aceto balsamico from Modena. This man (I forget him name) had made quite a collection.

I came back from the Jura with cases filled with samples and put on a tasting for the now defunct Octagon of Wine Writers at Stephen Brook’s flat in Maida Vale. I remember Jancis came. She admitted candidly that she had written about the wines, but never tasted them. She was also at the tasting in May.

Apart from Pinot Noir, there are two red cultivars: Trousseau, which has an aroma of brown sugar, and Poulsard or Ploussard which smells of sausages - tripe sausages or andouilettes. Chardonnay is the mainstay of the whites, but the most interesting wines are Château Chalon and Etoile made from the Savagnin grape which reminds me a little of the Hungarian Furmint with its searing acidity.

Casks of Savagnin develop a flor - a bacterial veil - like fino sherry and when that happens, the wines have a nuttiness that resembles the taste of an amontillado. There are Savagnans made in a reductive style too (no exposure to air) and Chardonnays ullaged with Savagnin or filled into Savagnin casks so that they inherit some of the taste. There are those wonderful sweet vins de paille which can be made from Savagnin, Chardonnay or Poulsard and finally Macvin, a mistelle made from local grape juice and brandy, which can be surprisingly good. A very large part of the wine produced in the Jura is sold as a sparkling crémant.

As space is short this month, here is a list of the best:

German Pinot Noir

Tom Conrad of Philadelphia has asked me to mention the exciting tours he has put together for people interested in tasting lots of German Pinot Noir. The parties are guided by the philosopher-cum-wine-critic David Schildknecht, who is also Robert Parker’s voice when it comes to Germany and Austria. Anyone interested should go to

Portuguese Diary

[I have not written detailed tasting notes for the following post because the article is already long enough. The top wines are represented by ***. Naturally tasting notes are available on request]

It has been a couple of years since I was last briefly in Oporto, and seven since my most recent visit to the Douro Valley, so when I received an invitation to return I leapt at the chance. Of course, I am more than familiar with the country, but much has changed, even since my little book on Portuguese wines was published in 2001.

I had hoped for some decent weather, but most of Portugal has an Atlantic climate and the forecast looked grim, even in the Douro Valley. We got in on the TAP flight late and after dropping our bags at the Infante Sagres, went to the Instituto do Vinho do Porto to learn about the criteria they employ to assess port and Douro table wines.

Seven men are chosen to evaluate all port wines and decide if they conform to the various styles: ruby, tawny, late bottled vintage or vintage. The scientists at the IVP have a full panoply of tests at their disposal, but in the end, determining whether a wine is typical or not comes down to the human palate.

The IVP’s judgements are sometimes considered pedantic, especially when one of the five big houses that produce eighty percent of port decides to market something like the new-wave pink port. If they pull weight there is an appellate jurisdiction, but our guide did not believe that body was subject to pressure from the big boys.

We emerged onto the pavement from the splendours of the building. To my surprise, neither of my travelling companions had ever been to Oporto or the Douro before. I was able to point things out from time to time. Below the old stock exchange or Bolsa, where the IVP is housed, was the jumble of ancient riverside buildings that have been tarted up in recent years, particularly when Oporto was on duty as European City of Culture.

When I first came to Oporto in 1980, you walked around this part of town at your peril, particularly at night. Not that Oporto was particularly dangerous, but there was every chance you might step on a dead cat or rat and twist your ankle tumbling down the steep slopes and slippery cobbles that lead to the famous quay where Henry the Navigator disembowelled cattle to provision his naval expeditions. The Oportans ran off with the tripe, and have been know as tripeiros even since.

One night on that first visit, when I was staying in the comfort of the Lawn Tennis and Cricket Club, I escorted a party of Royal Navy sailors whose minesweepers had docked at Leixões through the streets near the Douro. We were inevitably collared by a group of prostitutes who took us back to their brothel and fed us stale biscuits and sweet wine. The women were short, fat and hairy, and not even the sailors were tempted.

The Factory House that is the centre of the British port trade is in the thick of this pungent heart of the old city, a lovely stone building designed by Consul Whitehead in the middle of eighteenth century and contemporary with the hospital by Carr of York. It is there that the members of the Association have their Wednesday lunches. It used to be an all-male affair, and of a stuffiness to take your breath away. My only taste of the occasion was in the summer of 1980 when the former headmaster of the British school agreed to take me along. Just as I was preparing to enter the hallowed portals he asked me whether I was ‘CofE’, I said ‘no, Catholic’:

‘We’ll keep quiet about that.’ He said.

For the rest, I recall a Dickensian occasion with a lot of fierce men staring at me. Finally a decanter full of port was pushed in my direction and I poured myself a glass. All eyes were on me. The pedant nudged me: ‘They want you to guess the vintage.’

I was twenty-five and not very experienced when it came to port. So I said I hadn’t a clue. It turned out to be a 1962 vintage anyhow: undeclared. So there was no chance of my having had it.

Back to 28 May 2013: we were driven across the magnificent Dom Luís Bridge to Vila Nova de Gaia. I see that now it was designed by Téofil Seyrig, who had worked with Gustav Eiffel on the railway bridge a few hundred yards up river. There seemed to be some confusion as to what part of the Taylor’s empire we were going to, but we got there in the end. Amanda Lloyd had organised a tasting for us of the most important wines made by the group. I had actually tasted the vintage ports in London, but it did no harm to look at them again.

The ones that stood out for me were the 2002 Quinta de Roeda from Croft, the 2008 Taylor’s LBV (a style invented here and one in which they still excel), the Taylor’s 10-Year Old Tawny, the Taylor’s 20-Year Old Tawny (***) and 30-Year Old Tawny (***), 40-Year Old Tawny (***), and the 2001 Vargellas Single Quinta.

Of the Fonseca ports, I liked the Terra Prima (organic port - which came as a surprise with its fine tannins and cherry-raspberry fruitiness), the Fonseca 10-Year Old Tawny, 20-Year Old Tawny (***), and the Guimaraens 1996 Single Quinta.

I have always been more of a Fonseca man than a Taylor’s person. Amanda told me that Taylor’s was meant to be masculine, and Fonseca feminine. I find Fonseca is more baroque, more opulent, and Taylor’s has a style which is all black fruits and violets. These days vintage port seems to be accessible much earlier than it was. Tasting a two-year old vintage was tough work once. First you appraised its colour by its opacity: if you could see light through it, it wasn’t good. Then you tried to dislodge the bouquet by shaking it in the glass, but for the most part it was stumm; finally there was the mass of brandy and tannin on the palate, which only gave you the faintest inkling of the fruit that would emerge after twenty years or so.

These days these babies have become quite appealing. You can already sense the mass of blackberries, figs and raspberries on the Taylor, and the more chocolate-and-cherry-like intensity of the Fonseca. What made me to favour the latter was the acidity which was pounding against he walls of my palate for minutes on end: I liked the Taylor, I adored the Fonseca.

In London, the more ready Croft impressed me too, like the good-value Skeffington. Skeffington has something episcopal about it: a tipple for bishops.

Taylor’s also has a Vargellas Vinha Velha - a sort of super premium vintage port. They make tiny quantities. It seemed marked by that fresh fig nose of Taylor’s port which is hardly surprising as both ports derive from the Quinta de Vargellas. It apparently costs the earth.

Amanda took us to dinner at the Barão Fladgate restaurant in Gaia. The main port companies are now operating swanky dining rooms like these. Taylor’s also has a restaurant with a Michelin star in its new Yeatman Hotel. The views over to the centre of Oporto are stunning, but it was too cold that late May night to stand outside with the stroppy peacocks. We came inside for white port and croquetas instead.

It used to be hard to eat well in Oporto. Most people headed out to Matosinhos where you ate simple grilled fish. There was also the trendy Bull & Bear and the rather more traditional Casa Aleixo near the country station. The Fladgate tries to use Portuguese ideas and materials, and I had a sort of chartreuse of alheira (a chicken sausage of allegedly Jewish origins) with spinach. I am sorry to say my tournedos was not good, but we made up for it with the wines: a 2011 Alvarinho from Soalheiro, a 2010 Crasto Superior and some 1997 Taylor’s port.

We had a nightcap at a local bar before turning in: bagaceira. It takes a brave man to drink bagaceira, especially after port.

29th May 2013

Still I survived it. I even slept. I met the others in the rather grand and lofty dining room of the hotel. On occasions I have found the great Michael Broadbent here, perched over an elegant breakfast, but this morning he was absent.

We had arranged to go to the art nouveau Majestic for a coffee before heading up to the Douro. We set off through the rain and arrived as they were putting out the tables. We had to take our pingos in a much less attractive place. I had been searching in my mind for the most delightful Oportan café of all. Only later did I see it: A Brasileira. No one knows what is happening.

The journey up to the Cima Corgo at the heart of the Douro used to take the best part of a day. When I first travelled to Pinhão in the summer of 1980, I took the train from São Bento station which was quick-ish but tiresome. I went by road with Johnny Graham in the spring 1981. There was a restaurant on the river in Amarante where shippers habitually stopped for lunch. I still recall the fresh shad. Then you took to the windy roads again that led over the Serra do Marão mountains which fence the Douro Valley off from the capricious climate of Oporto and which bottle up the generally baking heat of the valley itself.

This morning we crossed the Marão in freezing fog. You could not see two metres in front of you. Normally, you see the Douro in all its splendour at Mesão Frio, but that morning it was just ‘frio’, the Marão had failed us. We went to the Quinta da Gaivosa on the Corgo River. I knew the wines of Domingos Alves de Sousa from way back. They tended to be a little hit or miss. Somewhere at home I had a signed poster of him dressed in a cowboy costume.

Domingos is still in charge, but for the last decade, the wines have been made by his son Tiago. Tiago is a viticulturalist who believes that good wine begins in the vineyard. He took us up to the top of his vineyards in a four-by-four, pointing out the different forms of cultivation, from the ancient walled terraces to the modern up-and-down Mosel-style rows to hideous Aztec-style patamares, both of the latter ultimately derive from Germany. Replanting started in the seventies and eighties, when it was believed that the future lay in these new methods, but Tiago was against them, and pointed out that the vines were happier in the old walled terraces.

He drove us up to his Abandonado vineyard, where the eighty-year old vines struggle to keep alive on the steep slopes, then to Lordelo, where vines were planted in an amphitheatre-like vineyard a century ago. There are dozens of old varieties at work here, and not the check-list of five that became popular in the eighties and nineties. From both of these vineyards, Tiago makes a separate cuvée. 

The tasting with Tiago was a revelation: I had not imagined wines like these. It was certainly the best tasting of table wines we experienced in Portugal. There were some extraordinarily well judged whites, such as the Branco de Gaivosa Riserva 2009 (***) or Berço 2011, or Alves de Sousa Reserva Pessoal 2007 (***) which were sappy, crisp and long.

The reds too were stunning, models of concentrated fruit with great Wagnerian climaxes: Vale da Raposa Sousão 2010, a Quinta da Gaivosa 2008, the Reserva Pessoal 2005 (***), Lordelo 2009 (***), and Abandonado (***) - all available from Top Selection in the UK.

We had a break for a homely meal of braised turkey cheese and seasonal cherries before we tasted the ports. They were no disappointment either - spicy wines like the 2009 LBV and the 20-Year Old Tawny. I was almost surprised to hear how committed Tiago was to port, but in his view, it was a vital part of the tradition of the Douro Valley.

Calços do Tanha in Peso da Régua, does not appear to make port, although the beautiful azulejos on the vathouse walls describe the process of production perfectly. The estate, consisting of Calços do Tanha in the Baixo Corgo, Quinta do Zimbro in the Cima Corgo and the table wine Poleiros, is managed by Manuel Hespanhol and his five enchanting daughters. The wines were not quite on a par with Gaivosa, but I enjoyed the white Zimbro 2010, the simple, supple 2009 Poleiros, the 2008 Calços, the Zimbro from the same vintage and the Zimbro Grande Reserva 2007. My favourite of all was the single-varietal Touriga Franca 2007 from Calços, which had a lot of character.

We crossed Régua and drove along the south bank of the Douro to Pinhão, the centre of the region. As we approached Pinhão memories came back of earlier trips: there was Crasto on its impressive slope, there the mighty terraces of Boa Vista, here was La Rosa, the scene of the anniversary party in 2006, and up there, Eira Velha, where I stopped with Johnny Graham in 1981 and waited an age for him to settle some business upstairs with the manager of the quinta.

It was cold and raining, but there were good looking oranges on the tree outside and I decided would treat myself to one. Just as I, Eve-like, reached for the fruit, a shot rang out, and decided that the farmer was shooting at the thief. I withdrew into the drawing room of the quinta where Johnny joined me a few minutes later. He was in excellent spirits: he had spotted a partridge in an orange tree outside and seeing a loaded gun, had shot it from the upstairs window.  

Pinhão certainly used to be a dull, dusty little place. I am not sure there was even a guesthouse then. When I went in 1980 I was entertained by a ten or eleven-year old David Guimaraens and his friends in the Taylor’s lodge. The lodge is now the core of the swanky Vintage House Hotel and David is the winemaker for Taylor’s and Fonseca. He was a good host, despite his tender years: and made sure I had a good meal with plenty of port, and even took me out in a boat on the Douro to visit some farmers, carefully laying a plaid across my lap to stop me from being splashed by the motor.

It is a very short drive up hill from Pinhão to Quinta do Noval, where we were met by Cátia Moura. She gave us time to settle into our rooms before a little tour and tasting. I had only stayed at Noval once before, when the boss, Christian Seeley opened several vintages of the famous ungrafted Nacional. This time I was not expecting such largesse.

We walked round the terrace that overlooks the Douro and the Pinhão River and up some steps to see the ungrafted vines. There are just a few rows of them, about three hectares in all. On the way we passed ducks and chickens that provide fresh eggs (and the odd fowl) and a brace of black spotted pigs which came out to greet us with a few grunts and a friendly oink.

Then Cátia took us into the vathouse and through another door, back into the quinta where the tasting was set out. Christian has developed a range of table wines to add to the ports, and we tasted them first. They all had an austere, quite mineral character to them, particularly Cedro do Noval (commemorating a two-hundred-year old cedar on the terrace) and Quinta do Noval DOC, both of which I liked, as I did the single-varietal Touriga Nacional. The wine I did not get on with was the Syrah, which being grown on granite schist like the Northern Rhone, I assumed would have all that peony, carnation fruit of Côte Rôtie or Hermitage. Sadly, it does not.

The ports were familiar territory, with the exception of ‘Black’, which is billed as an attempt to win over young drinkers. As the intention was to mix it with lemonade in trendy Brixton dives, I thought it would be impertinent of me to comment. I was on firmer ground with the LBV which I tasted before a marvellous range of tawnies: 10-Year Old (***), Colheita (single vintage tawny) 2000, Colheita 1997 (***), 20-Year Old and 40-Year Old (***). The quality of these wines was wonderfully consistent with, to varying degrees, the flavours of dried figs, honey, ginger, gingerbread, liquorice and vanilla.

There were three vintages to follow: 2003, 2007 and the baby - 2011: all good, but I had the impression, all made for much younger drinking (the 2003 was to all intents and purposes ready). The most interesting was the 2007 (***), which had an appealing spiciness to it. It smelled of Jamaica Ginger cake. The 2011 (***) also promises great things.

After an aperitif of white port and tonic, together with lovely grilled and salted almonds from the estate trees and with some salami from the butcher in Pinhão, we sat down to a wonderful meal of roast kid. Serra cheese accompanied the port.

30th May 2011

There is something very old-fashioned and British about bathtubs in Douro quintas: the water comes gushing out incredibly hot and at great speed, as if a permanent team were on hand to fire the boilers. It took a while to reduce the heat and by the time I got downstairs someone had kindly placed a plate of startlingly yellow eggs and bacon before my seat. The egg must have been from the hens I’d seen the night before. I thought about the pigs: no, they could not have cured the bacon in that time.

The most cheering news that morning was that the sun had come out and it was nice and warm again. After a tour of the table wine facilities, we went to Pinhão to see the pretty azulejos in the railway station. I had been impressed by the sausages at dinner and went to the butcher as well. I hadn’t realised what I was in for. One of the two men serving instantly began to cut slices of smoked loin for me. Then came various different sorts of sausage and some raw bacon. Then he began to grill the bacon, and while he did this he cut pieces from a sourdough loaf. Then he fetched a strange metal bombe, and pressed on the top causing white wine to come gushing out into a tin cup. That I was supposed to try too.

I wondered whether this was ever going to end, but I took heart at the sight of the disgruntled faces in the ever-growing queue behind me. Thanking him for this bounty, I ordered a few sausages, which stretched my less-than-proficient Portuguese to the absolute limit. I was very grateful when I got my little package and was able to make an escape.

We drove to the Quinta de Napoles in Santo Adrião, one of the Niepoort quintas. The last time I was here Dirk was still with my old friend from Vienna, Dorli Muhr and an Austrian photographer kept popping up and taking pictures of them together. The quinta was a wreck, someone was grilling meat, and a stout Douro matron was standing miserably in a large bucket pressing botrytised grapes to make the Douro’s first ever Trockenbeerenauslese.

The place was scarcely recognisable from those days. Had it not been for the Douro River in the distance I might have imagined I was in the Napa Valley. A swanky new winery had opened, all built in the local granite. The old house has been gutted and there was no sign of Dirk, who was probably milling round the world somewhere, selling his wonderful wines.

In his place a dully efficient PR girl showed us round with two other groups: one composed of middle-class Turkish women accompanied by a solitary German man from Heidelberg (‘come and visit me, I live next to the castle’) and the other made up of three Swedish men. What they had in common was they were both missing the fireworks at home: riots in Stockholm and Istanbul.

We did a tour of the barrels, but I found the wines less exciting than before, but there was a form of compensation in a truly lovely lunch in the sun. I offended Turkish pride by talking about the Istanbul taxi driver who cheated me during Ramadan, but the women recovered and the Swedes became quite gay after a few glasses of wine. We had bolinhos de bacalao, croquetas, caldo verde soup, roast lamb and baked rice, serra cheese, an orange and an almond tart together with a range of lovely wines. I particularly like his German style white Douro: Tiara, also the 2011 Vertente and 2008 Ridoma reds. The best of the lot seemed to be the 2008 Battuta, but as I said, they were not as good as I remembered. Maybe I was still thinking of Gaivosa. There was a lovely 2005 Colheita port with the pudding.

We dashed back up the Douro after lunch for the Quinta La Rosa where I had last been in the summer of 2006. My friend Sophia Bergquist was apparently on her way to Brazil, but her parents were there and Tim showed us round the improvements made since that anniversary year. La Rosa was about the first Douro quinta to hive itself off from the big port companies (in La Rosa’s case, Sandeman) and go it alone. That was back in 1988. Since then it has led on its table wines from La Rosa and Bandeiras in the Douro Superior, although it still makes some very good port.

The table wines from La Rosa have always been a reliable bet: the 2011 white, 2010 Dou Rosa, the simple but supple, spicy red, 2010 Quinta La Rosa, 2009 Passage - which I had not met before - with its morello cherry character, and 2009 La Rosa Reserva.

The best of the ports were the 10-Year Old tawny, the 1997 Colheita, a surprisingly good ruby (you don’t see a lot of these now) and a truly stunning ruby reserve, along with a good LBV. There is also an excellent 2009 vintage.

We now faced the drive back to Oporto, but I needed to buy some cherries and some corn bread or broa in Régua. When we located the bread it was as flat as a cowpat: I presume a hundred percent maize, which means yeast would not be able to make it rise.

We were running late, so our driver took us straight to the Graham’s lodge in Vila Nova de Gaia for our meeting with Johnny Symington. We were shown the new Graham’s museum before our tasting. The lodge has been transformed out of recognition. It has a marvellous view (this hasn’t altered), which looks across the water to the Bishop’s Palace and the Cathedral. Just below the lodge is Oporto’s last big farm, a lovely ramshackle affair owned by a local nobleman who seems to like it that way and has no intention of selling the land.

Unlike the Taylor-Fonseca stable, the Symington family that own Dow, Warre, Graham and Cockburn have embraced table wines and have had quite a success with them. I was quite surprised by the quality of their organic 2011 Altano red, which I just preferred to the more expensive 2009 Reserva and the 2010 Post Scriptum, which seemed to me to be too slavishly claret-like.

The quality of the ports was no surprise, though from the Symington family brands I have to say I am more of a Dow’s man, Grahams being a mite too sweet. There were some super tawnies: 10-Year Old and 30-Year Old, and the neglected 1980 Graham’s vintage (***) as well as the Single-Quinta Malvedos 2001. We also tasted the fabulous 2011 (***). I have still to taste Dow’s, Warre’s and Cockburn’s.

After the tasting we were given a lavish dinner in the new Graham’s restaurant ‘Vinum’ which was all the nicer for the fact that people kept dropping in like Cristiano van Zeller, the owner of Crasto, and former proprietor of Noval. Some crunchy suckling pig preceded by a huge array of starters including grilled sardines and Iberico ham, with two lovely table wines: white Altano 2011 and the 2009 Quinta do Vesuvio. The real treat, however, was the 1952 Colheita port, specially bottled for the Queens Diamond Jubilee (***), a mouthful of honey, leather and gingerbread which seemed to take my palate by storm.

That should be where my visit ended, as I left before nine the following morning. I wanted to say at word about the hotel I stayed that night, however: Teatro. The slightly camp, theatrical theme did not annoy me too much - dim lights, endless curtains, racks of costumes - although it might have got on my nerves with time; no, it was this modern obsession with fancy systems. Being forced to check in your passport when you arrive at one a.m. is presumably a police requirement, on the other hand no one wants to have to fathom the switches to the spotlights in his or her bedroom when all he wants to do is go to sleep in a dark room. In the end I merely collapsed the system by pulling out the ‘key-card’, an object which makes your heart sink anyway, as it always seems to fail, and all you really want is a proper old-fashioned key.

Worse still was getting up early to find that I had to anatomise the shower (no bath) and that meant experimenting with all the knobs until something like hot water came out. Meanwhile the soap had slid off the shelf and had to be retrieved from the slippery floor. Next I had the joy of attempting to shave in a sink with no obvious plug, and in an alcove lit by two dim bulbs.

Wow, it was hip! My, it was modern! And pooh, it was useless! Time to clear out the systems - back to basics.

Happy Returns

Posted: 1st May 2013

A Multiculti Birthday

It was my birthday on the sixth and we all went out for dim sum at the lovely Leong’s Legend Taiwanese restaurant in Lisle Street. Apparently the purists shun it because the owners are not from the mainland, but it tasted pretty good to me and I noted lots of Chinese people came in and looked more than happy. I adore dim sum, possibly because some ancestral voice tells me this is the oriental version of Austrian stuffed dumplings or Fleischknödel.

After lunch, and a brief moment of reflection with some Titians in the National Gallery, my daughter and I walked up to Iberica in Great Portland Street to collect some provisions for a picnic supper. It never fails to impress me how much dedication goes into carving this pata negra. It took ages, but our patience was occasionally rewarded by a sliver of the greatest ham in the world, and that made it all worthwhile.

Some friends dropped in for cake and champagne and there was some 1995 Laurent Perrier with our simple meal: a Spanish omelette (which I made), iberico ham, green olives ‘sabor anchoa’, an old manchego cheese and a little turrón to follow. The champagne was gorgeous: it tasted of very ripe fresh apricots.

Quietly Flows the Don

For parents and godparents and those who need to think about more recent births than mine, the port houses of Vila Nova de Gaia have declared their 2011s and this month I was able to try the Sandeman release at their old HQ in St Swithin’s Lane in the City. The place was sold off decades ago and more recently the building with its ancient cellars has become a swish restaurant-cum-wine bar called - you guessed it - The Don.

It was a great pleasure to see George Sandeman again, who, despite the fact that the company is now part of the Portuguese-owned Sogrape group, is retained to front operations of this sort, and it is hard to imagine anyone doing it better. Assessing young vintage port was quite a task in the old days, but the Sandeman 2011 was an approachable wine already giving off a little hint of violets and raspberries, cola and caraway. It was really luscious already, with a certain creaminess and a taste of black fruits. It might well go into a sulk now it has been bottled, but I suspect that this wine will be drinking rather younger than most vintage port.

As a special treat there was a ‘tregnum’ of 1955. As this is my year, I considered it a late birthday present. The three-bottle size itself is a rarity and its eighteenth century form was much admired. It was a lovely port: spicy (cinnamon), liquorice, dark chocolate, figs and caramel. I only hope the 2011 ages as gracefully.

Biodynamic Wines

Floris Books has very kindly sent me a copy of Monty Waldins Best Biodynamic Wines guide. People understandably laugh at biodynamism, which is several degrees to the left, or the right of mere ‘organic’ farming. As a school of agriculture it owes its origins to Rudolf Steiner, who formulated his ideas with potatoes in mind. He was hugely suspicious of wine; also - but this doesn’t necessarily mean it is bogus - some of this sort of moon-worshipping hocus-pocus is eerily reminiscent the lunatic fringe of Himmler’s SS, whose nostrums were more or less contemporary with Steiner’s. But then, I suppose you could say, that if the SS had stuck to making wine, or indeed growing potatoes, we would all have been better off.

Be that as it may, as a French winemaker once put it to me, wine needs to cultivate its ‘beaux péchés’ and sin for the good. Most modern wine is simple stuff, better than it was, I admit, but industrially produced in great juicing plants. The ‘flavours’ of peaches, blackcurrants and strawberries are all pre-planned in much the same way as they are in other commercial foodstuffs. To achieve wine with character you have to make it by hand and you have to run the risk of accidents that could just as easily leave you with a gamma wine as an alpha.

You may not have the spankingly clean stainless steel vats, computerised temperature controlled fermentation tanks or brand new oak barrels; you might even have an ancient cellar full of cobwebs and wild yeasts, populated by venerable old casks riddled with enzymes. Some of this wildlife could possibly go on to produce unexpected aromas in the wine, but that is surely better than the fruit bonbon tastes of most of the plonk you get from the supermarket. And if biodynamists think they can achieve character by baying at the moon, stuffing cow dung into bulls’ horns and sticking them in the sod, or smearing their vineyards with nettle compote, then all I can say is, more power to them. Let’s all drink to the perdition of boring wine.


I was cooking up a sauce made from some tender little squid the other day and remembered I had some new PET bottles of Cirio passata. I have been a Cirio man for several years now, ever since the firm was kind enough to invite me on my one and only trip to Naples and convince me that their range of tomato products was superior to their rivals’.

It was in 1998, and I stayed at the Hotel Vesuvio, and not only did they take me to the best restaurant in town (I forget the name) but we also visited a scruffy little place close to the Porta Nolana market that just made pizza bianca or Margherita, the latter naturally using only Cirio tomatoes, basil and the freshest mozzarella from Caserta, as it had done for a century or so.

In a bookshop by the Teatro San Carlo I saw a copy of my Prussia: La perversione di un’idea: da Federico il Grande a Adolf Hitler which gave me a little buzz of pleasure, then we drove up to a hill in the north of the city in a taxi driven by ‘un’ pazzo’ to admire the bay and the volcano behind. The high point of the trip, however, was a visit to their research station in the suburbs where I looked at the favoured San Marzano tomato and dozens of other cultivars. It was an odd thought that this formerly yellow-skinned pomodoro should have been introduced from the new world and that modern Italian cooking was now wholly unimaginable without it.

Cricket at the George

I have lost the knack of pubs. I am beginning to find them intimidating and it is very rare that I go into one. I really have no excuse: there are still plenty of thriving places near me, like The Vine, which is virtually next door, or The Southampton across the road, which I am told, is considered the trendiest pub in London. A couple of decades ago both were deemed to be what the Germans call ‘Kaschemmen’: criminal dives where the topers had shooters. Now, even Kentish Town is coming up in the world.

When my family was away at Christmas time, I went into the Southampton for a pint of Camden Lager, which is brewed in a railway arch here in Kentish Town. It was a good, serious pint of lager all right, but I found the pub claustrophobic. I kept having to shift around at the bar to let other people in, who tarried while they had a go at chatting up an ice-cold barmaid. I was relieved when I got to the bottom of my glass and I could go home and open a bottle of wine.

During the Easter holiday, I went to The George in Belsize Park, which was having an opening party after its refit as a gastropub. The other guests looked at ease, knew how to look relaxed standing at the bar, but I felt awkward. Some little dishes of modern pub food were passed round, but had a habit of missing me. I was only able to grab one as the Australian waitress hurried away tossing a word out from the corner of her mouth in explanation: ‘Cricket’.

I was impressed. I had never eaten cricket before. It tasted quite meaty, but it wasn’t all cricket because a large pea rolled out of it and lodged itself in the gap between two of my teeth. The rest of the time I spent in the pub was taken up with trying to poke the pea out with my tongue.

Funny sort of cricket, I thought as I walked home, I had thought it would be rather dry and crunchy, like locust in fact; and then I realised what the girl meant: croquette.


By the end of April most of us had decided it was spring anyway, even if the temperature seemed as frigid as that barmaid. I had a collection of Fordham and Dominion American craft beers from Delaware to taste and put aside my usual copita of fino or manzanilla while I went through the range. They were nice enough without being exceptional. The Wisteria Wheat was authentic, but I prefer the cloudy yeast version, and there was a decent Oak Barrel Stout and a fine Hop Mountain Pale Ale. The one that stood out for me was the Beach House Pilsner (£2.20), which had a pronounced hoppiness, and so it should, Bohemian Pilsen was bang in the middle of one of Europe’s most important hop-growing regions.

Fordham and Dominion beers are available online at and and at Wholefoods High Street Kensington, London, plus other boutique beer outlets across the UK.

Arran Whisky

When the Arran Distillery opened its doors in June 1995 and a colourless barley spirit began to flow into vats and casks, the people I met in the distilleries of Scotland prophesized doom. For a distillery to survive in Scotland, it needed to fill for the big bottlers, the likes of Diageo (as it is now) or Allied Distillers. No one I saw thought the magnates would want to add the outpourings of this johnnie-come-lately to their proprietary blends.

Whisky has changed, however, and instead of remaining marginal, malt whisky has seized an ever-greater part of the drinker’s imagination. Marketed intelligently - as is the case of Benromach - for example, malt whisky can exist outside the world of blends and create a global reputation for itself.

And now I have tasted an Arran 16-year old, and a fine drop it is too: not peaty like an Islay malt - that must be intentional - but heathery, with a marvellous structure and a lovely honeycomb and chocolate-like texture on the palate.

Another Milestone

At the end of the month there were the tastings for the Decanter World Wine Awards. It is the tenth anniversary and the organisers had decided it was time for a change. Looking around this week I had to admit that it was true that several of us judges are getting a bit long in the tooth. Some faces were both sadly missing and sorely missed. One prominent absentee was Arturo Prat who was commonly known as ‘Signor Confetti’ for his habit of scattering gold medals over assorted brands of expensive champagne. For my own part, I could see an advantage in this, in that there was always a bottle - or twenty - of champagne open on the gold medal table when I came down for lunch. Now the chairman of that jury is a serious Finn, and on Monday I counted just two bottles on the table, both sadly empty.

Austria is now the domain of the Swedish sommelier Andreas Larson so I retain just Germany. Once again the number of entries was disappointing, but we had some good things, and a lively new team made up of Martin Campion from Laithwaites and the MWs Caro Maurer from Germany, Andreas Wickhoff from Austria and Igor Ryjenkov from Russia, via Canada. We managed to award thirteen golds, largely as a result of the wonderful 2011 vintage: not quite in Arturo’s league, I admit, but not bad for all that.

Tonight I am off to the birthday party.

The Ides of March

Posted: 2nd April 2013

Souvenirs de Venise

March was a subdued month after that hectic February. On the sixth I went to an elegantly appointed house in Chelsea for the launch of Francesca Bortolotto Possati’s cookery book Celebrate in Venice. Francesca is the woman in change of the venerable Bauer Hotel plus a swanky new place on Giudecca, and if anyone knows how to celebrate in Venice, it must be her. There was lots of prosecco and nice little canapés, Jeremy Irons breathed in and so did a footballer I hadn’t heard of (I don’t know much about football), but I am sorry to say I never got hold of the book itself.

Still, it was jolly party and there were some old faces which gradually came into focus. As I shunted back on the tube I recalled that I have only enjoyed la serenissima on two occasions: once when I did a week’s cookery course at the Bauer’s neighbour, the Grittiand another when I judged a wine competition called the Premio Marco Polo.

When I stayed at the Gritti I had my evenings free - even if I had the unpleasant chore of reading a biography of Dr. Goebbels for a hesitant publisher. After dark my brief was to find some good, un-touristy restaurants for the paper. Unfortunately, the Gritti was next to Haig’s Bar, about the only late-night haunt in the city, so a lot of excursions finished off there, but only after I had experienced some decent if simple food across the canal in Dorsoduro.

On the second occasion, the administrators of the Marco Polo Prize gave us a few little treats to thank us for our work. One of these was a trip to the distant islands of Murano and Burano in a proper ship with masts. One of my fellow judges was a moonlighting bass baritone from an opera house in Canada, so, as we coasted back round the Arsenale to the Grand Canal, I asked him if he knew Reynaldo Hahn’s Venetian Songs. He did, and he began to sing, and I can recall few experiences more beautiful in all my born days.

Frau Schratt’s Guglhupf

There was a birthday in the house on the tenth and I made the Guglhupf from Katharina Schratt’s recipe in the Große Sacher Kochbuch.

Many Austrians decry this cookery book because they find it old-fashioned, but it hits the spot for me because it contains all the traditional things I am looking for, like this recipe from Emperor Francis Joseph’s actress-friend. In fact, the Sacher book tells you very little: ingredients ‘170g butter, 140g icing sugar, grated lemon peel, 4 egg yolks, 40g raisins, 40g blanched almonds, 280g flour and a little packet of baking powder.’

‘Cream butter, sugar, lemon peel and eggs until they are frothy. Stir in almonds and raisins and carefully fold in sieved flour, baking powder and raisins (for a second time apparently) into the stiff snow before putting the mixture into a butter and flour-covered Guglhupf mould and baking the cake at a middling temperature in the oven. At first leave the oven door slightly open...’

No, it’s not exactly a hand-holding modern recipe, and you will need at least a ring-mould. Fortunately I have a proper Guglhupf-mould because a friend bought me one in Vienna. To help with the lacunae in the recipe, I find that the amount of baking powder you need for a cake of this size is helpfully written on the packet. It takes a little over an hour to cook at 180C. The mixture is anything but ‘frothy’, indeed, it comes out a bit too dense, and you will probably need to add some milk to it before you spoon it into the mould. It certainly does no harm.

I served this with a bottle of non-vintage Pol Roger from a case I bought in 2007 for the launch of my book, After the Reich. Never have I felt so justified in my habit of ageing non-vintage champagnes: it was sheer delight, and in its playful lemoniness, one of the best glasses of champagne I have had in ages.

As for the Guglhupf, we were all as delighted with ours as the Emperor was with his.

Berry Brothers & Rudd

I am ashamed to say that I did not get out to many wine events this month, but I did pop along to Berry Bros in St James’s for their spring tasting. It was very cold outside, and pretty frigid in the cellar, which seemed to have a deleterious effect on the chiantis in particular, which were all mute and austere. Italians need more heat.

Berry Bros is hardly the place where you expect to find bargains, but most of the prices were way beyond my reach. I noted a lovely 2010 Savennières l’Enclos from Eric Morgat with a creamy, lime-like taste but was brought down to earth by the price tag of £34.25. I became similarly excited at tasting a proper Condrieu Chaillées de l’Enfer from Georges Vernay after years and years of so many lacklustre Viogniers from the south of France and elsewhere, but then at £70 a bottle...

On the other hand, one of the wines I liked best was a real bargain: the 2010 Bourgeuil Peu Muleau from the Domaine de la Chevalerie with its great sappy, raspberry-like nose which cost only £13.95. I think that was my favourite wine of all.

Also decent value (£22.95) was the 2009 Bandol Rouge fro the Domaine du Gros Noré with its very ripe blackberry character, or the sweet Pacherenc du Vic-Bilh from Domaine Pichard (£18.75 for 50cls) and the 2010 Dog Point Pinot Noir from Marlborough in New Zealand (£27.50). I also liked a 2003 sweet Vin Santo from Santorini which tasted of baked bananas (£19.95 for a half), but I don’t suppose that even if it sold like hot cakes it would help put the Greek economy back on the rails.

I had come to taste some Chinese wines from Château Changyu, particularly a range of ice wines. I had had a decent bordeaux-blend from them, but I was able to taste its more expensive big brother as well. The ice wine that appealed to me most was the cheapest - the Gold Label (£19 for a half) which had a luscious, cooked peach character. I liked the top Black Diamond Label too, but at three times the price I felt I was better off with Gold.

Hot Cross Buns

March rounded off with Easter. Having spent the evening of Maundy Thursday baking bread, I was left to make the Hot Cross Buns on Friday morning. The recipe I used said preparation took two hours, but that didn’t include the cooking. I got up at 7.30 and finally turned the buns out onto the rack at noon. It has to be said that they did taste wonderful.

Easter requires a number of special purchases: chocolate eggs, a colomba, and new season’s lamb. I would be happy with a kid, which is what they eat in Portugal, but I don’t know anyone who sells kid.

My favourite place to buy chocolate in London is Neuhaus in St Pancras Station. At Christmas time I had a saucy lady who fed me a couple of chocolates while I designed my own box. This year I made the mistake of going to Leonidas in New Bond Street. Not only were the girls decidedly un-saucy, they wouldn’t let me do my own egg saying everything arrived pre-packed from Belgium. I ended up taking a lot of Manons away in a box - sod the egg.

I was also disappointed by my friend Leo in King’s Cross, who was selling his last colomba to a Spanish family when I went in on Thursday. Quite by chance, however, I found a small one in Salvino on Easter Saturday. Honour was saved.

There was no spring lamb this Easter - there has been no spring! My butcher told me that lots of lambkins have simply died of cold. For something verging on mutton our paschal feast didn’t taste too bad. Fingers crossed for April.

Up With The Angels

Posted: 4th March 2013

Prize Whines

February was a surprisingly busy month, but not without its blessings: among other things, I was commended for the Scott Moncrieff Prize for literary translation for my translation of Blandine Vié’s book on testicles, which was a nice slap on the back.

The judges seemed to have liked my ability to tackle French slang. The receipt of my certificate, however, was a long drawn-out and rather arid business. We had to arrive at the King’s Place to take up our seats at 6.30 pm and then sit through the awards, followed by an hour of lecture by Boris Akunin and questions. If you survived that, sometime around nine you were promised a drink. I am happy to say I squashed in a cucumber-flavoured Miller’s gin before going down to the auditorium, but the spirit proved weak for all that and we did not survive the full tally of awards, let alone the lecture. We celebrated with a glass of the wonderfully stylish Duval-Leroy Femme 2004 blanc-de-blancs champagne when we got home.

Pressure of work meant missing the big Austrian tasting this year - I needed to finish the talk I was giving on Hitler’s foreign policy at St Alfred’s School in Golders Green. On the other hand I did get the chance to taste Heinrich Hartl’s excellent wines from the Thermenregion at the home base of Merry Widows Linn Rothstein and Charlotte Bendel the Sunday before. He makes tip-top Rotgipfler, St Laurent and Pinot Noir and richly deserves the many prizes we have given him at the Decanter World Wine Awards.

‘Barbarous Scythians’

I had been invited to Colchis that night: a sleek Georgian restaurant at a smart address in Notting Hill. ‘Sleek’ might strike you as an odd epithet for Georgian food, for the Georgians are descendants of the ‘barbarous’ Scythians, of whom Herodotus said they ate their own babies. This food, however, was terrific stuff:  lots of aubergines; lots of walnuts - even aubergines stuffed with walnuts; khachapuri flat bread filled with cheese; khinkali dumplings filled with beef and pork; skewers of chicken mtsvadi; chanakhi lamb stew; and roast suckling pig. My neighbour declined to eat the eye, so I scoffed it myself - delicious.

The wines were an eccentric collection proposed by Isabelle Legeron, who goes by the name of ‘that crazy French woman’. They were all interesting, if not all pleasant. Lagvini Rkatsitelli from Lagvinari was one of those super-fashionable ‘natural’ white wines which is virtually unfiltered and unsulphured which come out hazy and colloidal. It is wonderful to be able to taste such wines as this, which would have delighted the ancient Scythians, but sometimes you have to admit - albeit reluctantly - that technology has made a contribution to pleasure. I was also at odds with Le Casot des Mailloles, Poudre Escampette from the Roussillon, which tasted sweet. I much preferred the gutsy, Saperavi-based Georgian 2011 Gvino and the Georgian brandy called ‘chacha’ which caused the resident Scythians to gambol with delight.

101 Dalmatians

I was still grappling with the wines of the ‘new’ Europe the next day, when there was a major tasting of Croatian wines at Decanter’s offices. I think the coastal wines of Istria and Dalmatia went down best with me: Malvasia for the whites and Teran for the reds. I awarded scores of high silver to the following: Posip (Korta Karina), Bolfan (Riesling) and Cattunar (Muscat); Josic (Ciconia Nigra) was a ‘solid’ silver; followed by Josic (Grasevina), Cattunar (Malvasia), Piquentum (Terre) and Meneghetti; slightly less good were those worthy of a ‘solid’ bronze: Boskinac (Cabernet-Merlot and Grand - sic - Cuvée), S v Roho (Plavac), Meneghetti, Piquentum (Rouge) and Gerzenic (Muscat).

Cattunar proved the best all rounder followed by Meneghetti, Josic and Piquentum. The prices were quite high, and we felt that many of the wines would be best appreciated in a good restaurant in Dubrovnik, especially as they were unlikely to mark the wines up as much as restaurants do here.

Stillman for a Day

On the evening of the 11th I went to Scotland to be installed as Honorary Stillman at Benromach Distillery on Speyside. Benromach is owned by the Elgin bottlers Gordon & MacPhail and in my FT days I worked closely with the ex-marketing director David Urquhart in choosing the readers’ annual Christmas malt. I did not expect too arduous a time.

Early the following morning I was left in the hands of Keith Cruickshank and Mike Ross, respectively manager and stillman of the distillery, and, as it turned out, the entire team of this little gem which produces just 5,000 litres of spirit a week. The important work at Benromach takes place in a couple of interconnecting spaces: one contains the mash tun and the other the two stills and the wash backs. Virtually all the work was acquitted before lunch: the three ‘mashes’, two of which went to the wash backs to ferment, the distilling of the low wines and the making of the spirit. Once a week, on Monday morning, the spirit is filled into casks, hogsheads (hoggies) and butts and lodged in one or other of the distillery’s three warehouses.

Although, like most Speyside distilleries, Benromach was founded during the boom years at the end of the nineteenth century, it was mothballed in the early nineteen-eighties and Gordon & MacPhail did not get it working again until 1998. They acquired some stocks, which go into the old age-statements, but the new spirit of Benromach is just fifteen years old.

As production had ceased altogether, the owners had an opportunity to create what they saw as the best possible Speyside malt and they came up with a solution that looked backwards to the days when peat-kilns were still in evidence on Speyside. The resulting whisky combines a slight peatiness with all the honey-like softness that you associate with the region. They also use more than fifty percent sherry butts, which adds a fruity taste and golden colour to the spirit when it emerges in bottle after a decade in cask.

As I said, the work was hardly arduous, and the most I had to do was toss in two kinds of yeast into the wash. At Benromach there are a couple of washes, a two-day and a three-day, which make different sorts of strong beers that contribute to the complexity of the spirit. In a philosophical moment, Keith described the action of the yeast, madly scrambling to reproduce before turning to drink, comparing it to the futility of man’s destiny. I could see a new slogan coming up: make whisky, not love.

Mike then took me over to the stills to explain the significance of their shape and the angle of the lye pipe. Engineering has a big role to play in the production of whisky. Then I tasted the range with Keith: the ten-year old Benromach is slightly peaty but more dominated by a light oloroso character. There are various special editions, like the Wood Finish which goes into old Sassicaia barrels and a rare organic spirit.

On the way to Inverness Airport I bought a fore rib of heifer beef from Fraser Brothers in Forres (01309 672601). I have never understood the practice in England of celebrating the last day of meat prior to a supposed forty-day fast by eating sweet pancakes. As I cooked the rib, I imagined all those poor people out there poking at their Findus Lasagne and Tesco Bolognese sauce with nervous fingers, wondering if a horse might come galloping out. The Highland beef was perfection: meat doesn’t come much better than this.

Fizz with Food

Back in London, we had been experimenting with champagne and food. It is a notoriously tricky combination and I take my hat off to those chefs who depend on trade from the champagne houses around Rheims and Epernay: one false move and you kill the wine that provides you with the bulk of your business. There used to be a brave soul half way between Rheims and Epernay who served offal, but he already had a couple of Michelin stars, so he was hard to ignore.

We started well with the Mumm Cordon Rouge non-vintage brut. It has a pleasant pineapple and apricot-like bouquet. We paired it with a plaice in a creamy, mildly spicy sauce, which was an excellent foil and concluded that a powerful champagne won’t object to a little masala spice. There was a faint whiff of vanilla or puff pastry on the Perrier-Jouët brut which we had with a roast chicken, but the wine was killed stone-dead by a grilled red pepper - a most definite no-no. Nor did it like being matched to a homemade Bakewell tart. No surprise, you might say, but the French persist in drinking brut champagnes with sweet tarts (let no one mention actresses or bishops - let alone cardinal archbishops).

The Mumm rosé had a pretty smell of rose petals. It had to deal with an earthy dish of lambs’ kidneys in a thick sauce and stood up to the test with great fortitude. I think the clue lies in the wine’s excellent structure because the Perrier Jouët rosé, which faced a relatively easy test in the children’s home-made half-term pizzas, fell at the hurdle. It had a nice nose of plum skins, but less acidity and less power than the Mumm, which has clearly pulled its socks up in recent years. In the old days, wise men gave Mumm a wide berth. Mumm’s renaissance was confirmed by the 2004 vintage which faced a rare and bloody onglet steak and carried off the challenge with aplomb.

Looks like Mumm’s the word for Mothers’ Day.

Schloßböckelheimer Kupfergrube

I don’t like it when German wines change their labels, and even less when they alter their names. Gut Hermannsberg used to be called Staatliche Weinbaudomäne Niederhausen-Schloßböckelheim, and if you go back a little bit further, it was the Königlich Preußisch Weinbaudomäne. It lay right on the border dividing Prussia’s Rhineland provinces from Bavaria’s. It was originally created as the centre of a copper mine - hence Kupfergrube. Now the state of Rhineland-Pfalz has sold it off and - I suppose I understand - the new owners have simplified the name.

I had four wines from 2011: the Jubiläumsriesling, celebrating the century that the estate has been making wine; two village wines - Schloßböckelheimer and Niederhäuser and a ‘second growth’ Steinterrassen. The 2011s are so good that I am generally happy with estate Rieslings, which in the case of Gut Hermannsberg had a pleasant smell of apricots and a good, linear thrust. The Schloßböckelheimer was very mineral with a hint of white peaches, its leanness made it an excellent aperitif wine. The Niederhäuser was fatter and more lemony with a some peach taste on the palate - really super. Finally the Steinterrassen has an enchanting redolence of yellow peaches.

Ah, they can muck about with the name as much as they like as long as they make wines as good as this!

Domaine des Anges

Twice a year I go to the Domaine des Anges, my friend Gay McGuinness’s domaine in Mormoiron in northern Provence and the most beautiful estate in the Ventoux. The vineyard rises to 450 metres on the Montagne de Boeuf and faces the mountain, which at nearly 2,000 metres is often capped with snow in February. I find the most enchanting time of day is at sunset, when the lights begin to glimmer in the valley below, shimmering like strings of pearl necklaces in the hazy evening light.

There is a rumbustious time in late September and a rather more sedate meet in February. On this occasion were just six in the flat, buffeted by a fierce mistral most days, but there were sunny moments when we ventured out to the markets in Carpentras and Pernes to look for the ingredients for lunch and dinner. February is the time for cardoons, Swiss chard and little artichokes; spring lambs grown to winter hoggets are to be avoided.

Many of the traders have become familiar over the past decade and more, like Madame Ziaja (+33 4 90 6131 08), who sells her excellent, creamy lavender honey in Pernes; the organic baker round the corner who bakes his baguettes in an oven that is more than a hundred years old; or the itinerant, German-speaking cheese merchant who claims to milk three hundred ewes twice daily and who sells the results to make a lovely, fresh, flat gooey ewes’ milk cheese. This year there was inevitably much talk of Findus. I enquired as to whether anyone had a horse sausage and had to be satisfied with donkey. The horse butcher’s refrigerated stall was there with the rest. I noted that he had little meat to sell and concluded that must have been a shortage of horseflesh on the market.

At some later date I shall publish some of our recipes, which make full use of the simpler wines of the estate, such as ‘les poireaux façon de Mayo’ (Mayo leeks - as opposed to Wiki or Vati leeks), or the pork dish we call ‘le rôti des ivrognes’ (the drunkards’ roast) which is basted with the basic red.  I was surprised (and delighted) to find some jars of the ‘confiture des Anges’ we made in September using some very ripe greengages brought up by one of our members from the Var.

The wines of the estate are now made by Florent Chave. Florent has retained the best of his predecessor’s cuvees like the wonderfully crisp white and rosé, but added a few novelties in the form of a pure Viognier and a Grenache (St Patrick and Séraphin). Carried over are the white and red Archanges: top cuvees which are matured in oak and which repay longer cellaring. The red Archange is Syrah-dominated - cooler and more elegant than the simple ‘Ventoux’ wine; while the pure-Roussanne white is quite Burgundian in character.  Florent is very much in control, and a tasting of the last three vintages of Archange showed that there are lots of good things to come and that he also managed pull off an impressive wine in the cold, wet 2012 vintage.

Patata Brava

I was home for just one night before we left for a short family holiday in Catalonia. Palafrugell is a couple of miles from the sea, and about twenty-five south of Dali’s Cadaquès. This stretch of coast, with its secluded coves, was highly prized by the jet set in the sixties and if you avoid the bed-factories which have given the Costa Brava such a bad name you can still find pretty, and largely unspoiled beaches like those at Calella and Llafranc.

We stayed at the Casa Cox in the centre of the town and enjoyed the wonderful markets and food shops. After four days, some of the shopkeepers and stallholders had become quite friendly, such as the French-speaking woman who carved our Iberico ham, her colleague who cut the two-year old Manchego cheese, the baker with her lethal custard-filled xuxos,the bored-looking boy in the local convenience shop who wanted to chat; or the man who weighed the zingingly fresh oranges from Girona. It was all cheap and wholesome. Near the bus station was even a simple restaurant where we ate a copious, all-inclusive, three-course lunch with wine for €10.

For the most part, lunch was a picnic at home. In the evening we ate tapas in the local bars: as its name might suggest, Gretel’s Frankfurter was rather a Gothic conception decorated with lurid photographs of sausage sandwiches oozing with cheese, but upstairs there was authentic local food - proper ham, ham or chicken croquetes, Spanish omelette or ‘truita’, boquerones - anchovies steeped in lemon and garlic - Galician-style pop or octopus with pimentón; and the inevitable pa amb tomàquet: bread soaked in freshly pulped tomatoes.

Possibly the best tapas available at this quiet time of the year were from the Basque Txacoli bar near the market. Crisp patatas bravas came with a mild allioli and a bit of hot tomato sauce on the side - when we went to the cute little town of Begur, a few miles to the north, the version proved too garlicky for my daughter. Txacoli had a superb hot chorizo and fiery, deep-fried piquillo peppers.

In the ruined castle of Begur we met a middle-aged French woman who was picking wild asparagus. She explained that she had come across the mountains from Foix where the ground was still heavy with snow, then proceeded to give me a recipe for the asparagus pointing out that a certain plant would always indicate the whereabouts of the spears. Apparently you toss the ends of the little sprigs in some butter and cook them for a few minutes until tender before pouring your omelette on top.

Most people gather in the Fraternel in Pallafrugell: the big, former socialist club on the main square. I imagine that many important political questions were put to rights here in their day but now it is more like a Catalan version of a Viennese coffee house: you pop in for the newspapers, to play a rubber of bridge or a game of chess with your cronies; and like a coffee house you can eat too or simply drink a glass of beer, anisette or wine.

The wines of the Costa Brava have improved beyond measure: the local appellation of Empordà seems to have taken a hint from the wines across the border to the north and started to make some big reds rather than the usual indifferent rosés. They are mainly Grenache, spiced up with a bit of Syrah or Cabernet and the local Samsó (Carignan). Good was the 2006 Sàtirs from the Celler Arché Pagès in Capmany.

That was the last thing I drank in February: when I got home to London, it was already March.

Bloody January Again!

Posted: 1st February 2013

Christmas Leftovers

We English are rather limp when it comes to the remaining eleven days of Christmas. After the leftovers of the goose (now largely superseded by that galumphing, interloping turkey from the New World) and the cold, uninviting ruins of the Christmas pudding on Boxing Day, in purely gastronomic terms, the feast has come to a halt. New Year’s Eve, which is an excuse for dozens of oysters in France, is purely liquid - all about getting legless and throwing up to baptise the New Year. As a family, we adhere to the more sober northern Italian solution and eat a zampone with lentils, mashed potatoes and tomato sauce. The lentils - zecchine - represent the money you hope to make in the next twelve months. I am sorry to say that lentils don’t agree with me, which may be one of the reasons I earn so little. As it was, we were out at a party on New Year’s Eve, getting back just in time for a glass of Ruinart Blanc de Blancs before bed. The zampone had to wait for the morrow.

The English used to eat a Twelfth Cake at the Epiphany, it is mentioned somewhere in Swift’s Journal to Stella,but that custom too has disappeared. Because my children have always been at French schools, we have a galette des rois instead. I recall that the best Parisian pâtissiers used to put out a wonderful array of galettes of differing dimensions on the sixth, but the ones my children brought home from their London schools were miserable, dried out, butter-less things. So about five years ago I resolved to produce the galette myself. Making puff pastry is a bit like bread: you have to remember to roll and turn it from time to time, but you can attend to other tasks; and when you make your own you can use plenty of butter and add a proper tot of rum to the frangipane filling. I even found some leftover crème pâtissière knocking around to mix into the frangipane. My only problem is where to obtain the fève or bean. I imagine this used to be a real dried bean which, once found in the cake, won you the crown and made you king of the feast. Nowadays, however, they are not beans but plastic effigies of kings or queens.

These ‘beans’ are doubtless easy to find in France, but not here. I have resorted to the pound shop in Kentish Town, where I buy some gimcrack figure from The Hobbit which comes with small parts and slip two of the latter (one for each child) into the cake. This time I was hoisted by my own petard: the first fève was in my slice!


The other culinary chore that falls just after the Epiphany, is the making of Seville orange marmalade. The bitter oranges were a bit dry this year and I had to produce two batches to replenish our stocks. I also tried making marmalade from blood oranges (‘Robespierre’). It was good, benefiting from the high acidity in the oranges, but only half of them were bloody in colour and so the resulting confection is only a slightly dark shade of orange: drat - a vindication for the monstrous Robespierre!

A Chile Start

The professional year is always slow to start. On the 14th it kicked off with a Cabernet tasting and dinner organised by Santa Rita at Claridges. There was a blind tasting of twelve wines, four of them Chilean. The turnout was impressive, with many of the great names of wine present, but deliberations was marred by the simian antics of a prominent MW who interrupted everyone mid-sentence, jeering and heckling. The poor old 2009 Sassicaia (which admittedly was not at its best) was dismissed with the b-word - ‘brett’: brettanomyces, the name of a controversial wild yeast. It used to be true that to accuse a wine of having ‘brett’ was akin to casting doubts on a man’s paternity. Now it is thought that a little brett does no harm. To be fair, chairman Peter McCombie, seemed to know how to deal with the heckler. I thought he might have gone off his rocker.

I have written before about the idea behind these blind tastings, but this one was remarkably fair and the guest speaker Brian Croser had a lot of very interesting things to say about Cabernet Sauvignon. The Chileans were impressive: the 2010 Carmen Gold Reserve was like putting your nose into a punnet of fresh blackcurrants. The best of them was the 2008 Santa Rita Casa Real, which was remarkably opulent. There were some other old-world wines there besides the Sassicaia, and the two Bordeaux stood out for me: the 2009 Domaine de Chevalier and the 2008 Pontet Canet. Neither was nearly ready to drink. I also liked the 2009 Ridge from Santa Cruz in California. The 2009 Te Mata Coleraine from New Zealand showed the worst of the dozen and the 2008 Jordan Cabernet from Stellenbosch was not very good either.

This One Will Run and Run

There was comic relief from an austere January in the form of the Tesco ‘Dobbinburger’ Scandal which erupted on the 16th. While I did my shopping in Kentish Town that day I canvassed the opinions of the locals. The Lebanese head-honcho at the excellent Phoenicia assured me that Arabs had no religious objection to horse flesh, but they respected horses and were reluctant to eat them. I suspect it wasn’t good news for the many Somali women in their flowing robes I see loading up their trolleys in Iceland across the road. That too was found to be selling Dobbinburgers, and we later learned they contained pork as well. My Albanian friend at the fruit and vegetable stall, who so kindly administered a tumbler full of bourbon in an attempt to cure my cough in the run-up to Christmas, told me he didn’t like the sound of English horsemeat as our nags were too big. In his country horses were smaller and more tender.

As it turned out, the meat did not hail from our leafy shires, but from Poland. On Twitter, someone suggested that it might have come from the horses that had so gallantly and foolhardily challenged Hitler’s tanks in September 1939. Other Twitterers had a field day at Tesco’s expense, and I laughed a lot at ‘My Lidl Pony’. In truth, I really have no objection to eating horse except that it tends to be a bit too lean, like kangaroo. Tesco’s suppliers had the right idea to mix it with beef or pork or both. In Vienna I often buy Pferdeleberkäs from the stall opposite Sacher’s, especially when I have lost money on a slow horse at the Freudenau. I used to eat the pork version, but the old Viennese in the queue were so insistent (‘aber Pferd ist besser!’) that I gave in. I note too that there is a purveyor of horse sausages just by the gates to Frederick the Great’s Sanssouci palace in Potsdam: perhaps to bait the manes of the hippophile king.

While I am on the subject of comic relief, it is that time again: for six weeks from the 1st of February wine merchants will be giving a part of their profits to charity. I tasted a slightly crumbly 2011 Côtes du Rhône Villages from Arc du Rhône (Waitrose £6.39), a sappy 2011 Visionario Bianco delle Venezie (Laithwaites £9.99) and a new-style, barrel-fermented white Rioja from CUNE (Waitrose £7.49). I was a great fan of the old-style white Riojas that were so rich and buttery after their years in oak, but they are largely a thing of the past, and there is no denying that this Rioja is a nice wine which will make you feel good while you feel you are doing good.

Germany 2011

On the 21st the German wine specialists Wine Barn gave a portfolio tasting at the former East German Embassy. There was still snow everywhere, but the sun had appeared, which lit up the creamy, regency facades of Belgrave Square. The snow had the adverse effect, however, of stranding most of the winemakers billed to present their wines in Frankfurt Airport. Walter Bibo from Schloss Reinhartshausen was one of these, so Prince Nicholas of Prussia and his son Frederick had to step in. Prince Nicholas looks uncannily like his grandfather, Crown Prince William who led the German armies at the Battle of Verdun. Schloss Reinhartshausen in the Rheingau was once owned by the Prussian royal family and Prince Nicholas retains shares in the estate.

Space does not permit me to name all the wonderful wines that I tasted that morning but it was abundantly clear that 2011 will be a great year for Germany. It is a vintage when even estate Rieslings - often the cheapest wines from the property - come into their own. Of the more highfaluting wines, the Nussbrunnen from Schloss Reinhartshausen impressed me most; Philipp Wittmann was showing two lovely Grosses Gewächs wines (Kirchspiel and Morstein) from the Wonnegau in southern Rheinhessen but I was also struck by a lovely little Scheurebe; Bassermann-Jordan had two exemplary Grosses Gewächse from the famous Pfalz vineyards of  Jesuitengarten and Kalkofen; Göttelmann’s Kapellenberg Auslese and Beerenauslese - from the Nahe - were quite delicious; Clemens Busch had made a wonderful Marienburg Grosses Gewächs in the Mosel; Bockstein Spätlese and Auslese from St Urbanshof were predictably good; there were very impressive wines such as Tausend Sterne from Laible in Baden; and some wonderful Pinot reds from Mayer-Näkel, ‘S’ in particular.

And it turns out that 2011 was a marvellous sweet wine-year too, and huge amounts were made. I should add that 2012 is also looking good, but that there will be few sweeties, as the good weather came to an abrupt end.

I might note too: excellent champagne-style sparking wines from Solter; a 2009 Wisselbrunnen Auslese and Beerenauslese from Schloss Reinhartshausen; a 2006 Schlossböckelheimer Felsenberg Auslese from Schäfer-Fröhlich; a 2006 Rothenpfad Auslese from Clemens Busch; and a 2009 Sonnenberg Pinot Noir from Mayer Näkel.

Edwin G Boring

My discovery of the month has been the works of the immortal Edwin G Boring: ‘Edwin Boring, the great historian of psychology at Harvard, discussed Hänig’s thesis in Sensation and Perception in the History of Experimental Psychology published in 1942. Boring did not reproduce Hänig’s summary sketch but rather calculated the actual sensitivities by taking the reciprocals of the average thresholds given in Hänig’s tables. On Boring’s figure, there is no way to tell how meaningful the sizes of the variations are on the ordinate. Boring’s graph led other authors to conclude that there was virtually no sensation at the loci where the curves showed a minimum and that there was maximum sensation where the curves showed a maximum and so we have the familiar tongue maps labelled “sweet“ on the tip of the tongue, “bitter“ on the base of the tongue, etc.’

I was so impressed by all that I read of Boring that I wanted to start a club in his honour. I e-mailed a former politician friend of mine to suggest that we do just that but he wanted to amalgamate it with the ‘Vowel Shift Society’ which is some pet project of his. We’ll see if this one makes it into space or falls victim to the usual post-Christmas inertia.

Resolutions in Adversity

Posted: 2nd January 2013


I must have caught whooping cough in October. It is a cunning bacillus which at first misleads you into believing that it is simply a mild, dry cough; then the real fun and games start about three weeks later. I realise I have been spared proper pain up until now: at its height whooping cough has to have been the nastiest ailment I have suffered in adult life. For a week there was no question of sleep, and the pain in my ribs might have been likened to a kick from a horse. Even now there are occasional rumbles but they are manageable. I see that the Chinese call it the ‘three-month cough’ so it should be over soon.

Once the antibiotics had killed off the bacteria, I struggled to attend one or two seasonal parties such as the Bad Sex Awards on 4 December. It was, I think, the twentieth year, and I must have attended almost, if not all of the hoolies since the Awards were founded by the late Bron Waugh to ridicule gratuitous sexual stuffing in modern fiction. For the past few years, the party has been held in one of London’s most beautiful rooms: the ballroom of the new In-and-Out Club at 4 St James’s Square. While waiters ply you with champagne and things on sticks, passages from offending books are read out by an actor and an actress and it can be painfully funny, particularly this year when laughter resulted in paroxysms of coughing. Although Nancy Huston won the prize for Infrared, both Paul Bailey and I felt that Noughties by Ben Masters had a better claim - at least, on the basis of the extract we heard.

The following week was my agency party where there was plenty of mellow Perrier Jouët. I was beginning to realise by then that champagne was the best medicine; that and a stiff hot toddy before bed - made from whisky with the juice of a single lemon heated up with a large dollop of honey. Champagne dries you out, turns off the nasal drip and allows you a big burst of sleep, while the hot toddy temporarily stuns the windpipe. The Pakistani doctor I saw gave me no leave to hope that any medicine could assuage the pain, and he should have known: whooping cough is endemic in Pakistan. He thought whisky as good a cure as any.

Memories of Chablis

On the 15th was a lavish two-day event to celebrate a friend’s seventieth birthday at the Savile Club. The champagne was from Deutz, but that was upstaged by a grand cru Chablis: Guy Robin’s Valmur 2005 which was a classic - all flint and honeycomb and perhaps a whiff of those little wild mushrooms the French call ‘mousserons’ and which we encumber with the name ‘Saint George’s agarics’.

The wine reminded me that for several years I was invited to attend tastings in the little town of Chablis to chose the best wines of the previous vintage. The event was in January, when that part of northern Burgundy was particularly bleak, but still the local growers put on a good show and some hogs were roasted outside and served up with hunks of andouillette and black pudding once the morning’s hard work was over. I went back again a couple of years ago, and saw some of the same faces grown longer and greyer and heard the gossip that had accumulated after a ten or fifteen-year absence.

In the old days I was part of the furniture. One year I shared the presidency with Charles Metcalfe and was introduced to the deputé for the town who was then garde des sceaux or minister of justice. At that time the annual presidents were inducted into the ordre des Piliers, albeit at the lowly level of stylobates.

The leading growers were ‘chapiteaux’: a group of crusty old men who used to meet up to drink and shoot. According to a jolly wag I met regularly at the tastings, they had a nasty accident one year when they were out duck shooting and rain forced them to take refuge in a hut with their casse-croûtes and dusty magnums. One of the chapiteaux, feeling the worse for wear, stepped outside for a leak and failed to return, but in their enthusiasm for their mature vintages, nobody bothered to check whether he was all right.

When the rain ceased, they tumbled out into mist and in the absence of ducks, took pot shots at a dark form floating on the surface of the lake. Despite the drink, several scored direct hits. Once they had emptied their ammunition they went to see what they had shot: it was their friend. No one ever found out whether he was dead when the target practice began, or whether he died from his numerous gunshot wounds. The wag claimed the affaire had been hushed up, but for all I knew he may have made the whole story up from start to finish.

When I was in Chablis most recently, Laure Gasparotto from Le Monde assumed the presidency. There were a handful of French journalists there together with a Japanese, two Americans and myself. It was a marked change from the armies of hacks who used to arrive by the coach load and who had to be put up in hotels in Auxerre for want of beds in Chablis itself. A regular was a late Jan Bertin-Roulleau, a magnificently rotund figure in a three-piece suit and watch-chain. You might have been convinced he had served as the model for the gourmand in Marcel Rouff’s wonderful novella La vie et la passion de Dodin Bouffant, had it not been penned around the time of Bertin-Roulleau’s birth.

One year when we had risen late from a lavish dinner at the Hostellerie Les Clos we found the coach driver watching a pornographic video on the screen above his seat. He tried to turn it off but we made him to rerun it to pass the time: it was two a.m. and a good half hour’s drive to Auxerre. Bertin-Roulleau was in raptures: he kept slapping his thighs and pointing at the leading man: ‘Ma foi! Il a de la santé lui! Quelle santé lui!’

He couldn’t be convinced that these endless ejaculations might have been rigged.

Oh, and with the Savile Club beef there was a Château Lannessan of the same vintage, it was good but the Valmur put it in the shade.


At the beginning of December I had a go at making some pineapple jam. I thought the steam might prove soothing.

Despite the small size of my household, a pot of jam can disappear in two breakfasts and that means I make up to twenty batches of jam and marmalade a year. With an average quantity of two kilos of fruit, plus the same weight of sugar, that makes my annual production about eighty kilos.

I always make a few small pots: they make useful presents.

Marmalade is particularly important as my young son refuses to eat jam. We have quite a list: ‘Mentmore’ (Seville orange) is named after the once strikingly auburn hair of a well-known architectural historian; ‘King Billy’ (sweet orange - should require no explanation); ‘Jack’ (Lemon - the coinage is Joseph’s and derives from Some Like It Hot); ‘Harry’ (obviously lime); and the ‘Imposter’ (grapefruit - Joseph dubbed it thus because it wasn’t really pink. I wanted to call it ‘Bracken’ but was overruled).

This year I aim to make a blood orange marmalade.

I assumed, wrongly, that the large pineapples I bought from the stall outside Kentish Town station would be rich in pectin. Until 2012, I was a stranger to pectin, but last year wasn’t just notable for poor flowering and pollination (no flowers on my apple and the olive blossoms on my trees dropped - so no Kentish Town olives for 2013), it was also marked by an absence of pectin. I had to add pectin to my greengage jam (‘Anne’ of greengages - but when I made some in the Ventoux from sun-baked Provencal fruit it set, albeit softly, all by itself) and I was forced to use it on both editions of the grapefruit marmalade as well.

This year only two jams that required no added pectin were blackberry I make from fruit culled from Cohen’s Field on Hampstead Heath (the name ‘Ganymede’ is inspired by mercifully chiefly nocturnal sexual acrobatics which are apparently tolerated by the Heath police) and an excellent blend of damsons and sloes which is also partially gathered on the Heath. The latter is called ‘Slow Spanker’ - commemorating a former friend who used to supplement his income by starring in porn films. Come to think of it, it might even have been his performance that Bertin-Roulleau admired so much.

Perhaps I should be less worried about using pectin. When I went to see my old friend Hans Staud in Vienna last summer, the world’s greatest commercial jam-maker showed me that he used pectin on all his jams, but then, he uses under fifty percent sugar and once opened, they need to be kept in the fridge.

I confess I was impatient with the pineapple. I should have cut it into smaller chunks and eliminated some of the core that proved so slow to soften. I added the usual amount of sugar (half by weight) but despite giving the appearance of setting when I checked the jars in the morning I found they were filled with liquid. So once again I poured the contents back into the pot, added the juice of two lemons and a spoonful of liquid pectin and brought it back to the boil.

That did the trick.

The resulting jam was quite good. It has a faint taste of fresh ginger. It has been baptised ‘Achtung Schweinhund’, but I shall let you decide why.

Memorable Bottles

Christmas is a time to bring out some of my dwindling collection of good bottles. On Christmas Eve, I made a terrine of fresh foie gras, and procured some lobsters which I had to kill a day early as they had begun to droop in the mild weather. A friend came, most generously bringing a bottle of excellent Meursault to go with the lobster, and I opened a Châteaux Grand-Puy-Lacoste 1988 to go with the Vacherin Mont d’Or. My wife had made two bûches de Noël before we rounded off with the usual sweetmeats.

I have always been a champion of the 1988 vintage, which tended to be overlooked after the very rich, ripe vintages of 1989 and 1990. Those two were more in line with the 1982, the year that brought Robert Parker fame, and I think the Guru of Maryland was unnecessarily severe when it came to the first of the ‘trois glorieuses.’ Of course my predilection has had an advantage: the 88s are still comparatively cheap!

The Pauillac was no disappointment. It had a fabulous, classic structure and elegance with magnificent persistence and a trademark taste of blackcurrants. Out of curiosity I poked my nose into Parker the next day: 85 - virtually a fail - and I was meant to have finished it up a decade ago: if you have any left don’t panic, drink it within the next three years.

We have terrible problems deciding what to eat on Christmas Day, as one child clamours for goose and the other for turkey and most years I am left to deal with the bulk of the carcass when they go to Devon. For the past couple of years, therefore, we have simply bought a nice rib of mature, heifer beef.

I had sat next to a woman from Sheffield at the Savile Club who had told me that the Yorkshire pudding should be served as a first course, so we followed suit. Then there was rib, with some red cabbage as a sop to my partly Central European origins, the remains of the Vacherin and both a Christmas and a steamed treacle pudding.

With the beef I brought out a Saint Emilion, Château Canon 1988. Again there was no disappointment. The wine had a wonderful structure. It was less sinewy than the Pauillac and there was a bit more heat from oak and alcohol. It was rich and spicy and packed with fruit paste tastes. I marginally preferred the Pauillac, but there was not much in it. Again I looked at the Guru: 87, and 2012 was billed as its last outing. I think you could ignore that and safely hang on for another decade.

After dinner it was time for the annual Christmas films: Scrooge and It’s a Wonderful Life.

How wine has changed since 1988, and very largely as a result of Parker and his favourite oenologist Michel Rolland, was brought home by a Graves brought here by a friend on the 27th: a 2004 Château Larrivet Haut-Brion. This was not a jot like the Graves wines I remembered: very ripe, very hot, very Merlot, and reeking of Russian leather. Parker thought this the best of the lot: 89 points.

By the 27th we were all looking peaky, and the fridge was full of leftovers waiting to be converted into the sort of dishes children shun (although my daughter loves a good ragú). I was relieved when the pannetone dried up and I could bake a fresh sourdough loaf. The galette des rois on the sixth will be the last throw and we can then all nurse our livers through gloomy January.

Make it Hot and Spicy

Posted: 1st December 2012

A Sparkling Lunch

It was a busy day on 25 October. I had let myself be lured out to lunch at The Greenhouse in Mayfair by Carol Duval-Leroy, the feisty head of the champagne house of that name in Vertus on the Côte des Blancs. I first met her in Vienna some fifteen years ago or more, when she was host to a lively evening at the venerable Reiss Bar on the Neuer Markt.

The Greenhouse had a new chef in Arnaud Bignon, who had cooked up a name for himself and two Michelin rosettes at Spondi in Greece. In the present circumstances it is perhaps not surprising that he has decided to come west.

It was not entirely the combination of fine food and champagne that lent the lunch its charm, it was also the very good company: I sat down with Harry Eyres, Simon Hoggart and Michael Edwards, and inevitably the conversation drifted onto political scandals. Despite Jimmy Savile (I learned he was universally called ‘Jim’ll f*** it’ at the BBC), however, or the possible identity of Tory pederasts in Wrexham, I was able to observe that a) ‘Fleur de Champagne’ - the basic Duval-Fleury cuvée - and long preserve of Sainsbury and Waitrose - was a more than reliable Chardonnay-based sparkler; b) that the vintage cuvee ‘Femme’ 2000 (virtually pure Chardonnay), is very impressive indeed, and that was also true of the 2005 Clos des Bouveries, made from a 2.5 hectare plot of old vines near the firm’s HQ.

Bignon matched ‘Femme’ with a pretty little bowl of Cornish crab covered with a dark green glaze of granny smith apples and flavoured (why do French chefs like curry powder so much?) with Indian spices. The Clos des Bouveries came with a piece of chicken breast posing as a zebra: the stripes were made from black truffles and there was a playful allusion to Halloween in the accompanying pumpkin puree.

The Great Grüner Veltliner Cover Up

Laurenz Moser V has been touring the world with his collection of Grüner Veltliners and that same day he hit the new Hotel Ampersand in London. He observed that Grüner Veltliner is now made in ten different countries and that Austria might no longer have a monopoly on the best. Of course he has a deeper purpose, he wants to show off the different Veltliner wines he makes under his Laurenz V label.

The use of blind tasting to promote wines is surely ancient. The Austrian Wine Marketing board or ÖWM has never forgotten (and I suspect they never will) the success it had with a tasting of Chardonnays organised by Masters of Wine in London on 30 October 2002, when a few ‘ringers’ or concealed Veltliners trounced some of the best-known Chardonnays in the world.

The Swedish dentist-turned-wine merchant Jan-Erik Paulson had tried out the idea on a collection of high-ranking hacks at the Bristol in Vienna earlier that year, but the results had been quite different. On that occasion I was present. Although we had all appreciated the Veltliners and many of us had put them among our favourites, none, I think, was fooled into believing they were Chardonnays. At the Master of Wine tasting in London (where I was not present), to a man or woman, they tumbled into the trap.

Laurenz Moser is also no stranger to the blind tasting technique. It used to be the stock-in-trade of the late Robert Mondavi and after Laurenz left the family firm of Lenz Moser he distributed Mondavi wines in Germany. In the eighties, I saw Mondavi putting his reserve wines on the table (Napa Bordeaux blends and Pinot Noirs) together with Bordeaux first growths and Burgundy grands crus in the hope that they would steal the show; and they often did, but maybe because the French wines were either too young or from less favoured vintages than the Californian wines. Top French wines go through a longer, more troubled adolescence than the best of California. 

When I first visited Moser in Rohrendorf bei Krems in 1991. He had his father’s (Lenz Moser IV) pioneering Bordeaux blends from Mailberg in the Weinviertel wrapped up in leaves from the Standard newspaper along with a few posh Bordeaux which were either very young or from grotty vintages. If I remember rightly, the tasting did not go well for him because I decided that the Lenz Moser wine was volatile.

The ‘Generation Grüner’ tasting in London was cut from the very same cloth. For whatever reason, most of the tasters were from Laurenz’s distributers, Bibendum, but a guarded Jancis Robinson was there too, defending the MW tasting by citing the quality of the palates on the day. She obviously felt she needed to name some of these, but the only one she managed to come up with was that of the late John Avery. I do not doubt the keenness of the palates that sampled the wines, they were probably all good Chardonnay people; only they were perhaps not as well versed in the vagaries or qualities of Grüner Veltliner as they might have been.

Moser’s selection was odd: Veltliner needs to be relatively high in alcohol to show its character, and he had intentionally only selected those that fell below say 12.5 (except for his own ‘Charming’ - officially 13.5, if not a spot more). That meant that the very best wines from the Wachau or the Kamptal or the loess-grown Veltliners from the Wagram were ineligible and Austria competed with one hand tied behind its back. Most of the Austrian wines came from the dull clay soils of the Weinviertel rather than primary rock of the Danube Valley.

And there is no reason to suppose that other countries cannot make great Veltliner. To be aromatic, the variety likes a bit of humidity, but Austria has no monopoly on rain. Austria’s present borders are political: the River Thaya, for example, which separates Lower Austria from the Czech Republic, hardly marks a climatic boundary and the same would be true of the River March that cuts Austria off from Slovakia. The only difference between the Austrian wines of the Weinviertel and those from the other side of the Czech or Slovakian Borders, is the quality of the wine-making. The same might be said of Hungary. 

My favourite wines were the following: joint first - Markus Huber, Ried Berg DAC Reserve 2010 from the Traisental (Austria) and Tamas Szecskö, Gyögyöpata/Matra 2010 (Hungary); joint third - Domaine LandArt, Pfalz 2011 (Germany) and Laurenz V Charming (Austria); joint fifth - Yealands Estate, Malborough 2011 (New Zealand) and Loos Weine - Walter Buchegger, Lengenfelder Pfeiffenberg, Kaptal DAC Reserve 2011 (Austria); seventh - Knoll, Loibner Federspiel 2011; eighth - Karpatská Perla, Male Karpaty 2011 (Slovakia); ninth The Paddler, Malborough (New Zealand); and finally, tenth - Hammel, QbA Pfalz, 2011 (Germany). It is interesting to note that my tenth choice was the wine that won the tasting.

Oxford Blues

On Tuesday 30 October I was summoned up to Oxford to give a wine tasting to ‘Bacchus’: the Oxford University Wine Club. I left plenty of time to get there but Great Western positively excelled itself in making my journey nothing short of an Odyssey. On the way out I was obliged to hop on the first train to Reading because it transpired that someone had died on the line that morning. We were all packed into the corridors like sardines, but from Reading I was able to find a relatively uncluttered slow train to Oxford, which - in the immortal phrase of Edmund Crispin - ‘stopped at every tree like a dog’.

If the journey up was bad, the down train was far, far worse: there were just three carriages, which got into Reading fifteen minutes late. Then the real fun began: we were suddenly overrun by triumphant Arsenal fans (I don’t need to ask who put the arse in Arsenal) drunk on booze and victory; each and every one of them armed with either a stinking ratburger or a six-pack of lager. The little train promptly gave up the ghost and the driver suggested we run for another. This we did, but that one took a while before it began to trundle along at a snail’s pace towards Paddington.

Earlier my ears had been scorched by that curious tuneless singing-cum-chanting associated with football matches, but now I was obliged to listen to the lilting tones of the sort of man who - in Michael Flanders’ words - ‘knew all about baboons and the number of quills a porcupine has got’. He was a corpulent, drunken, middle-class man in a suit had got onto the first train at Reading, where he had been sharpening his wits on a group of Sikhs. After we shifted onto the second train he found some real baboons and set about playing a sort of game of Trivial Pursuit with them: ‘who won the FA Cup in 1934 and by what margin?’

The yahoos were temporarily mesmerised, but one by one they recovered their spirits and began to laud their win in very un-Homeric stanzas. As Wormwood Scrubs had appeared in the distance (a place where I wanted them all confined) I wandered to the front of the train. Here I met a philosophic fan who told me ‘The English, they can’t really do this sort of thing - trains. Foreigners, well, they got trains that run on time. Not ‘ere.’ 

We crept into London after the departure of the last tube. To my chagrin the Arsenal fans kept me company on the night bus. To make the experience even more pungent, they had managed to find some malodorous cookshops opposite the station and with a tray of McNuggets in each hand they found new voice.

The actual tasting was calm in comparison. The wines had been kindly donated by the VDP in Germany and there were some lovely 2011 Rieslings, including a Münsterer Pittersberg Grosses Gewächs from Kruger Rumpf in the Nahe which I thought was sensational, as well as a Oestricher Lenchen Rosengarten Erstes Gewächs from Spreitzer in the Rheingau and a Kastanienbusch Grosses Gewächs from Dr Wertheim in the southern Pfalz which were not far behind.

I had expected the students to be badly behaved, but apart from talking among themselves much of the time, they were pretty tame. I used to crash the Food and Wine Society in the old days and the tastings often descended into a bloody riot. I remember once at a tasting in Oriel, Benazir Bhutto’s ill-fated brother Mir smashed all the empty bottles, one by one, against the wall, until that year’s Bullingdon Joke - a portly Mancunian rolling in flesh and dough who had been elected to pay for the Etonian members’ unquenchable thirst for champagne - got it into his head to throw the debris about the room. One of the shards caught a friend above the eye, and for him the evening ended in the Radcliffe Infirmary. I suppose I should count myself lucky: at least I got home in one piece.

A Bar on the Piccola Marina

On 2 November I braved the onset of frosty weather to gain first-hand knowledge of my old friend Salvatore Calabrese’s latest venture. I think it was at Duke’s Hotel that I met him - probably in the mid-eighties. His dry martinis were reputed the best in London. He was lured over to the Lanesborough when it opened and soon perfected his practice of giving you a history lesson over a glass of ancient cognac. I lost track of him after that, but I heard somewhere that he was in a suitably smart bar in St James’s. Now it seems he has put down roots at Salvatore’s bar in the Playboy Club behind Park Lane.

Now I had the chance to taste ‘Maestro’, a version of ‘limoncello’, the lemon-flavoured spirit which - like Salvatore himself - hails from the Amalfi coast. Instead of steeping the rind in rough pickling alcohol, however, Salvatore has opted to blend the lemons from his village of Maiori with his favourite tipple - cognac.

The result is obviously a more serious drink, and quite lovely on its own. He supervises production himself, making a special trip in May to ensure he only gets the best lemons. Of the various versions I tried, my favourite was Maestro as a long drink with ice and soda. I can imagine it being quite a wow on a warm day.

Salvatore’s new Liquore di Limoni is £28.90 from the evocatively-named Hedonism Wines at 3-7 Davies Street, Mayfair Tel: 0207 290 7870. At Harrods it is £31.50 per bottle.

Clouds of Glory

On 14 November I went to Davidoff in St. James’s to try Hine’s Cigar Reserve. In theory, at least, I should have puffed on a Romeo y Julieta in order to savour the qualities of the cognac, but as I have not smoked for a quarter of a century I decided to let that pass. I was, on the other hand, struck by the light and floral nature of the ‘cigar’ cognac. Most whisky distilleries - in Scotland and Kentucky - opt for the splintery old barrel that they cannot accommodate in a blend, and dub it a ‘cigar malt’ in the wild hope that the woody whisky will marry the smoky cigar. I got the distinct impression that Bernard Hine had given more thought to the matter.

Cigar merchants benefit from a clause in the law that allows customers to sample their wares in the shop (although they have to purchase something first!). It was nice to witness the rare sight of so many happy puffers smoking their Hunters and Frankau cigars indoors for a change, and Bernard Hine had been brought over from Jarnac for the occasion.

A gift box containing a 20 cl bottle of Cigar Reserve and a brace of Romeo y Julieta no 2s retails for around £48 from Davidoff and other serious shops.

The High Point of Chilean Wine

On 19 November I paid my first visit to the so-called Gherkin skyscraper in the City for a tasting of Montes Alpha wines from Chile followed by dinner. I was quite anxious to see what the Gherkin was like from the inside, and of course, take in the view, but in all honesty, close up it still looks like a child’s toy and when you are on the thirty-eighth floor you look out onto a sea of other children’s toys, only somewhere in the middle of all, seemingly calling them to order, is the backside of St Paul’s Cathedral.

I don’t think many people would describe me as an authority on Chilean wines. These days I am supposed to know about Germany - and until very recently Austria, with occasional forays into its neighbours Switzerland and Hungary. If we go back to the beginning of a thirty-year involvement with wine, however, I kicked off as an authority on Bordeaux, then switched to being and expert on the Rhone. Then for a long time it was the South of France and latterly Portugal.

My acquaintance with Chile goes back more than two decades, however. I was part of the second British specialist party to visit the country in the autumn of 1990, along with Manny Moreno - the far-sighted importer of Santa Rita - his PR-guru, the late David Balls, and the wine writers Alice King, Jim Ainsworth, Peter Bathe, David Rowe (the then editor of Decanter), Tom Stevenson, Tim Atkin and myself. We had been pipped at the post by a group composed of a handful of MWs and the then publisher of Decanter, Tony Lord: an old-fashioned Australian who loudly subscribed to W C Fields’ views on the consumption of water.

The MWs had all caught paratyphoid and one of them was brought home on a stretcher. Given Tony Lord’s aversion to water (he wasn’t known to eat much either), I cannot explain why he fell ill, but he was in such a lamentable state that his doctor put him off the sauce. He did not take that injunction lying down and made it clear he would still drink beer: because that wasn’t really alcoholic after all.

We reached Santiago several months after the MWs and the Chilean wine producers we met were extremely anxious that we should remain healthy: only bottled water, no ice in our pisco sours, steaks cooked until they were stiff, no fish… After a couple of days of this nursery food, we all longed to slope off and eat some greasy empanada from a wayside stall just for sake of a little flavour.

We got around, visiting the cellar where the great Bernardo O’Higgins hid his freedom fighters. We saw beautiful gardens and met ministers and I bought a rug and a lovely pair of lapis cufflinks, which I sadly lost, from a jewellery shop under the mountain that divides the city of Santiago in two. In the sleazy port of Valparaiso we admired the statue of the great Chilean naval hero Arturo Prat and noted his resemblance to Tom Stevenson.  Stevenson has been known as Arturo Prat ever since.

When we got home (and I am glad to say: in one piece) Tim Atkin and I wrote the trip up in depth for WINE with Tim doing the whites and me the reds.  My interest in Chilean wines was short-lived, however as I saw the Chilean export market was carved up between half a dozen companies owned by phosphate millionaires. And that ordinary Chileans could not afford these wines. They drank pisco brandy, or a coarse plonk made from the Pais grape. The wines they had taken us to see were conceived for export alone and created in a style the producers thought we’d like.

This picture has changed a lot. Aurelio Montes mentioned the huge number of producers in Chile today and Chile has produced a trump card in the Carmenère variety - which has virtually died out in Bordeaux. The country continues to discover the potential of its terroir squashed between the Andes and the sea and the vines are now longer just on the irrigated plains, but cling to the perilous escarpments of the mountains themselves.

The big treat of the evening was a vertical of ten vintages of ‘M’: Montes’ top Cabernet-based Bordeaux blend (the Carmenère equivalent is called ‘Purple Angel’). I liked the 2009 and the 2005 best, the former is big and sassy and rather obviously new world, while the latter has (despite 14.5 abv) rather more Bordelais restraint. All the Ms achieved high marks in my book, with the possible exception of the 2004, which had a little nose of tar and Bovril, and which I liked less.  

I travelled far and wide in 1990. In the spring I spent a month in Australia. I was putting together a book on Syrah/Shiraz, but as the budget for these trips came from the big producers, I was sent off to see them irrespective of whether they made any Shiraz or not. One of these was Brown Brothers in Milawa.


Milawa was one of those cute, old-fashioned towns that seem to abound in the state of Victoria. Had it not been for their rubble-stone gothic churches, with their nineteenth century ‘hotels’, (pubs) wooden colonnades and barge-boarded bungalows, they were faintly reminiscent of the Wild West. Apart from Brown Brothers, the only gastronomic port of call was an eccentric cheese-maker who had landed in the town a couple of years before and produced a cheese using indigenous yeasts that looked a bit like a Chaource. There was also a mustard manufacturer, a pot of whose rosemary mustard I took home with me. I still use the jar for seasoned salt.

Old John Brown was suspicious of the cheese-maker and his yeasts, because he feared that some of these things might get into his wine and launch an unscheduled fermentation. He was a handsome man, looking a little bit like the actor Ray Milland, who had made his first vintage in 1934. In his shorts and white socks, he was every inch an old fashioned Presbyterian, the product of the famous Scotch College in Melbourne.

I imagine the idea of a spontaneous fermentation had about as much charm for him as a visit from the Pope. At that time Old John was surrounded by his four sons, one of whom, Roger, was to die from a brain tumour later that year.

I mention Brown Brothers because I have tasted a few of their wines again recently. They used to be safe but dull. One the stars was the Orange Muscat, which was a bit of a tarts’ wine, but as an occasional lapsus, it had its charm. I did not take to ‘Cienna Rosso’ which is a sort of Lambrusco look-alike: red, sweet and frothy. I ended up cooking some leeks in it, and adding a good measure of white-wine vinegar. It tasted much better like that.

The surprise was 2008 Chardonnay from Banksdale in the King Valley. These Australian Chardonnays used to be sickeningly oleaginous, have the texture of lanoline, were clobbered with oak and reeked of whatever - mostly tropical fruit - flavours that were suggested on the winemaker’s packet of the cultured yeast. A sip of one of these monsters was enough to make you fall head-and-heels in love with the first Grüner Veltliner that came along. But as people have got fatter in the past couple of decades, wines have got slimmer, and this Chardonnay has a relatively subtle coco-nutty oakiness and fresh, lemon and pineapple fruitiness; but more important by far, the wine has the sort of filigree acidity that makes it good with food - in our case a slab of poached smoked haddock.

Bloody Mary

By late November a racking cough confined me to barracks. I made one last outing: to watch a bloody Mary competition at the ravishing Brasserie Zédel in Piccadilly organised by Carolyn Cavele of Tabasco Sauce. Although I was not judging, I was given samplers for the various cocktails which performed wonders in my throat. Of course these tournaments have the barmen seeking originality at all cost, which means a lot of very silly, new wave bloody Marys. It may have been my sickness speaking, but the rule for a bloody Mary seemed to be crystal clear: make it hot and spicy.