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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 alesbymail.co.uk.
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.
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.
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.
Wine & Food Diary entries posted before 2017 can now be found in the Wine & Food Diary Archive.