Posted: 4th January 2022
I suspect for most people Christmas is a time to bring out their best bottles, but in this house at least, it is also an opportunity to locate things that need drinking up. This occasionally leads to pleasant surprises, and at others to painful disappointments. This year I noted once again that my supplies are running low in many areas. We are lacking good dry whites. We have consumed all our stock of old Chianti and Barolo. My once impressive collection of vintage port has dwindled post-Christmas to just two bottles and there are fewer than a dozen old burgundy wines remaining, which might be a relief after this year’s experience.
On the food side there have been disappointments too. For the first time in years I was unable to locate the livers to make the much-loved terrine we broach at dinner on Christmas Eve. There were some available commercially, but not at a realistic price. When the day arrived there was only a tiny tin left over from some previous year, and a bit of stag pâté sent by the Lafite Rothschilds that was as good as its pedigree. We made up for the loss with some truly succulent Scottish lobsters. Last year economies reduced us to halibut. On the cheese front, the Stilton was oppressively salty, but I had found a vacherin mont d’or, a good camembert au lait cru, and a lovely little St Marcellin. Some of the cheeses were slow to come round in our freezing house but as Christmas warmed up, they came into their own. I have learned to chambrer the vacherin by putting it close to the stove. The meal culminated with a bûche de Noël.
With the tartines we had a bottle of non-vintage Taittinger which I must have had for fifteen years. I love old champagne and this had not suffered in any way - indeed, I have champagnes going back thirty years, and I have never (fingers crossed) found one to be out of condition. I had neglected the 1982 Chapoutier white Hermitage (a present from Michel Chapoutier), which had ullaged to low shoulder. It hadn’t suffered much: it might have been the colour of teak but tasted enchantingly of honey and gingerbread. The 2011 Domaine de Marroniers 1er Cru Montmains was a Chablis of an old-fashioned, austere school that may have been just a mite too austere for its own boots. The 1990 Pomerol from Château Bourgneuf was good (all toast and game) however and proved once again that claret tends to live to a healthier old age than burgundy these days. Maybe it always did.
We finished with a 1997 Sandeman Vau Vintage port. Vau was launched in the late nineties to create an early drinking vintage style, but we were assured that it would still be possible to lay it down. There was certainly nothing wrong with it and it had a pleasant raspberry and blackberry fruitiness about it, even if it was light for a top port. It drank well from a stoppered decanter for three or four days.
We had been too tired to go to Midnight Mass, and went to a much depleted service before opening our presents on the big day. Without the terrine, we needed something to nibble on. I had made two loaves of Venezuelan pan de jamón again as that had been a success a couple of years before. It proved just right, and the second loaf did service on Boxing Day. I leave out the raisins because one of our number dislikes them, but I am not sure they pull an awful lot of weight in the recipe, then again, I don’t like ‘sweet and sour’ much. We had a scrumptious dry-aged Simon Heffer forerib for our Christmas dinner with the usual red cabbage; then the cheeses reappeared followed by a magisterial Sussex pond pudding.
We had a bottle of 2004 Jacquart around the tree. It was a gorgeous champagne with a fine bead and delicate bouquet of apricots. With the beef there were two red burgundies: the 1992 Domaine René Leclerc Gevrey-Chambertin 1er Cru Combe aux Moines and the 1996 Domaine Loïs Dufouleur Beaune Clos du Roi (1948 bottles made). The Chambertin had a slight edge on the Beaune but neither was particularly distinguished. I have spares of both. I might just drink them sooner rather than later: they aren’t going to improve. A great hit with pudding was a half bottle of 1995 Bouvier Trockenbeerenauslese from my old friend Willi Opitz.
As is often the case, the Italian wine on New Year’s Eve was one of the stars of the show. It has to accompany a dish of zampone and lentils with mashed potato and tomato passata. In this case it was a 1996 Masi Amarone. I decanted it as we sat down, but I could have done so half an hour before. There was no shortage of fruit or power. With time it threw off increasing amounts of liquorice. With the Middle-Eastern semolina, pistachio and rosewater cake there was a 1995 Feiler Artinger Pinot Cuvée Ausbruch 1995 which tasted of dried apricots and was supremely rich - almost a cake itself.
The dawn of 2022 has already broken and real austerity starts now. Not that anyone will stop drinking in this house. I have had a really good Soave Superiore reeking of tobacco, with a salty, nutty palate that will get the taste buds marching again. Some Soaves have deserved their bad name, but wines like these can delight. Wonderful too was the 2020 Casa Roscoli organic Primitivo smelling of raspberries and tar. It was not one of those slightly sweet Primitivos. This was all fruit and structure.
A glass or two of a crisp, appley Blanquette de Limoux reminded me if I needed any reminding, that we were drinking a lot more sparkling wine in Britain now than we ever did before. In the past non-champagne sparklers were reserved for receptions - weddings in particular - but now everyone is tippling prosecco by the glass.
Anthony Rose’s book Fizz! came out at the end of November. The timing is right: there is a lot of talk (some of it clearly resulting from our newly rediscovered national pride) about the quality of English sparklers, but there are other good if not great, neglected sparkling wines in the world, including German and Austrian fizz. ‘Sekt’ has a history almost as old and distinguished as champagne. My friend, the Mosel grower Enno Lippold has been at pains to convince me of the quality of some of these, which can sell at the prices of top champagnes. With all its cavas, foaming Shirazes, Vouvrays, Shampanskoyes and crémants (to name but a few), it is a world with a huge amount to discover, and Rose has proved himself the best of guides.
Tasting With Covid
Posted: 6th December 2021
A little over a month ago, I caught Covid. It came as a surprise. I had always been very careful, even when the body language of those around me proclaimed the thing was over and done with. I was double-vaccinated and recently boosted, and yet I might have been nursing the disease when I had my latest jab. I thought I had a cold: I was sneezing, had a runny nose and slightly inflamed sinuses; but there was no fever, no racking cough, and no shortness of breath. I only realised I had Covid when I picked up a stale bottle of aftershave I keep on my desk to sanitise my hands and found to my dismay my sense of smell had disappeared.
For someone in my position, to lose your sense of smell is like being struck dumb or blind. I admit, I do far less professional tasting than I used to; but all my adult life - nay, all my life - I have used my nose when shopping, to test the foods on my shelves or in the fridge to see what is good or bad to eat, or to determine the moment when something is cooked and ready. I never season things from recipes, but use my nose and tongue to assess them first. All of a sudden I had entered a world where I was groping in the dark, hoping for the best.
I had only a mild dose of Covid. I could still identify sweetness, sourness and saltiness, but my nose was useless and I had lost the retronasal ability which conveys subtler impressions to the palate. The enormity of my loss was slow to dawn on me. I ground beans for my coffee, but there was no smell, even if the coffee hit the spot alright; I lit a cone of incense for my morning bath, the room filled with smoke, but I smelled nothing. The lavender savon de Marseille was also mute. At dinner that night we had a good Corbières, a Château du Trillol from the Wine Society: the structure was there, but not the nose. It was pleasant enough, but a cheap Chianti we drank the next night was just blowsy - it tasted of alcohol and nothing more. Whisky was no better: beyond alcohol the only noticeable thing was salt. Food was uninteresting without taste. For days I could work up no enthusiasm about eating aroma-free pap.
By day three I thought I might be getting a hint of sandalwood from the incense, but when I made some salmon paste for lunch not even pimenton or fresh, grated horseradish was able to give it oomph. I cooked fish for dinner, looking hopelessly for some Indian seasoning I kept in an unmarked jam jar, but again spices did little to cheer it up, even if a dry muscat wine worked on the palate better than most whites.
On day four I could distinctly smell sandalwood in the bathroom, but this did not signal the full return of my senses. I tried chocolate but tasted only of sugar. Relief came in the form of some boquerones: anchovies in oil and lemon juice. Here was acidity and salt, and a chewy texture. Later that evening my nose picked up some kitchen cooking smells from downstairs while I watched a film in my study.
By the fifth day I was getting a faint perfume from the aftershave. I tried various vinegar bottles: my nose recoiled from the smell. My sinuses were still sensitive and I had conjunctivitis. The next day I roasted some Ethiopian Sidamo coffee beans. There was a smell coming off the beans, but I was looking for the aroma that told me the beans were done. My beans smelled distressingly like Nescafe or Maxwell House. I began to fear that Covid would permanently disfigure my olfactory sense. Fortunately I knew the coffee was ready when the beans were covered by a thin sheen of oil.
I was still nervous that we were eating tainted foods, and partly relying on colour and texture to tell me if they were past their prime. On the seventh day I made a curry. My nose was able to pick up turmeric, fenugreek, ginger and garam masala. Raw onions proved an irritant to my sinuses. On the tenth day I tried blitzing my sinuses with a bowl of Vicks’ Vapour Rub. It made my eyes sting like billy-o but I was already getting coffee grinds, toothpaste and incense. The following day I tried tasting wine with a collection of cru bourgeois Bordeaux. To my delight I picked up a pronounced fresh-crushed blackcurrant aroma on the 2019s. I got through about sixty, but an attempt to taste a hundred top Ribera del Dueros proved too much, and I had to give up. That night I made a crab sauce with garlic, chilli and parsley. It all tasted proper. I declared myself cured on day twelve when I did an online tasting of some McLaren Vale wines. I heard the others tasting. My notes were in keeping with theirs. The beast was slain.
In the circumstances it is true to say that I tasted less in November than I might have done. I was able to come away with a very good impression of the 2019 Médocs in Bordeaux, even if I had to miss the big UGC tasting the week before. From the 2018 vintage I liked best the Château Haut Barrail, Château Pontey, Château Malescasse (**), Château du Moulin Rouge (**), Château Bellevue de Tayac (**), Château Paveil de Luze (***) the last two in Margaux, and the Château le Crock (**+) in St Estèphe. The 2019s are being touted as rivals to the 1982s. I was struck by the Château Haut-Madrac, Château Laborde (**), Château Peyredon Lagravette (**+), Château Ramage la Batisse (**+), Château Léon Veyrin in Listrac and Château Lilian Ladouys in St Estèphe.
There were some treats too from the Lafite Rothschilds. First up was the 2016 Château des Laurets Baron from Puisseguin St Emilion with a rich, plumy nose and super fine tannins. You quickly recognised superior wine-making associated with Lafite. The structure is lovely and it finished with fresh crushed blackcurrants. From the same stable came the 2016 Château Clarke (one of my friend Oz’s favourite wines) which was more subdued and Médocain with sweet ripe fruit. This might even be better next year. It costs £37.72 from Penistone Wine Cellars.
I also had a couple of very fine wines from Foncalieu near Narbonne: 2020 Petit Paradis, a rare white St Chinian with a lovely creamy, lemony taste that belied its 14% power, and the 2017 Château Haut-Gléon Corbières a lovely, well-mannered wine smelling of caramel, cherries and raspberries with a dense cherry flavour.
A tasting of Vouvrays evoked happy memories for me, especially when I met Nicholas Brunet, a man who had also had the stunning 1871 wine from Prince Poniatowski all those years ago at Lucas-Carton in Paris. There was an impressive series from the Domaine d’Orfeuilles, including an eight-year old sparkler, the honeyed 2019 Silex (flint) and the sweet 2009 Reserve d’Automne. Brunet’s wines were special too, particularly the 2015 Demi-Sec, the super-concentrated 2018 Moelleux and a wonderful 1990 with 150 grams residual sugar. Also very good were the 2020 wines from the Domaine d’Aubert (Yapp Bros).
Crossing to the Southern Hemisphere, from being the home of Grenache for Australian port production, McLaren Vale has gone all Italian. I enjoyed a Vermentino from Chalk Hill, a Sangiovese from Coriole and Nero d’Avola from Hither and Yon.
And there are the Christmas spirits to think about too. Lidl had the best bargains: for £15.99 there is a creditable peated malt called Abrachan and for a pound more the Ben Brachan range of 3-year old Highland, Speyside and Islay, of which the latter impressed me most. I shall speak of a luscious, rich 23-year old Glenfiddich perhaps on another occasion. From Tesco there was an unusual, but winning gin called The Melodist (£20). The label said it contained the botanicals yuzu, green tea and lemon grass. I certainly smelled coriander and it was nicely peppery. Juniper-loving gin stalwarts might raise an eyebrow or two. There were two Tesco 12-year old malts: Highland and Speyside - both at £23. It would be hard to choose: the Highland is more chocolate and butterscotch, while the Speyside is a classic with plenty of sweetness and a nose of creamy rice pudding. A real treat was an XO cognac, 50 cls for £35 with a pretty floral aroma with some rancio, dried apricot notes and a pretty nervousness on the palate. My one reservation would be that it tasted just a little too sweet.
At the end of the month I even had a foreign adventure when I was summoned to address the Sligo Wine Society. For all sorts of reasons I love going to the land of my fathers, but it is not often the food I relish most. Mistake me not: I like good brown bread and I always enjoy a fry with rashers and black and white pudding. I want a pint of proper stout too but otherwise most of what you eat in Ireland is little different to provincial food here. Things seem to be changing, however, if the plaudits going to Chapter One in Dublin are to be believed: for a first time ever, an Irish restaurant is being lauded by British critics. Ireland needs to seize its moment now that Great Britain has gone into isolation.
After my exertions on Rosses Point I was given a present of a side of Keem Bay smoked salmon from Achill Island off the coast of Mayo, where doubtless we MacDonoghs have poached fish for centuries now. This was great smoked salmon as I remember it, rich and smoky and great to taste.
A Little Sparkle
Posted: 2nd November 2021
It’s official - confirmed in last week’s budget - we are to become a nation of sparkling wine drinkers. The outmoded tax which penalised sparklers has been scrapped and unless the wine is over 15 percent ABV (and very few are), sparkling wines are actually going to come down in price in the spring. This is an obvious nod to the burgeoning production of sparkling wine in England and Wales which will not only make wines such as the very good champagne-style, bramley and apricot-scented Chapel Down I had from Tesco recently more competitive, it will also liberate (up a point) your foreign champagnes, proseccos, cavas and Sekts.
A few weeks before this new bounty was dangled before us, I was sent a collection of ‘Winzer Sekts’ made by my friend Fred Loimer in Langenlois in Austria. They were produced biodynamically on his two estates in the Kamptal and in the Thermenregion south of Vienna. A Winzersekt is a sparkling wine made by a small producer rather than some massive industrial concern. These are ten-a-penny in both Germany and Austria. The most expensive German examples can cost up to 100 Euros a bottle and boast a tradition going back over 150 years. Loimer’s wines were shipped by Oddbins, but that seems to have ceased. If they were here they would still sell for less than Chapel Down.
Loimer’s sparklers are all a touch on the austere side and had me thinking of baking soda. The Reserva Extra Brut, for example, had just two grams of sugar in it (a good deal less than Chapel Down) and tasted quite salty. The best of them were the Rosé which boasted a panoply of fruits from quinces and peaches to strawberries and honey and the lemon-zesty Blanc de Blancs which was a real pleasure to drink. Loimer also showed his still wine Gumpold with a gorgeous lemony acidity and a very impressively structured 2019 Pinot Noir also from the Thermenregion called Anning.
Both Aldi and Lidl are about to offer champagne for half the price of Chapel Down. It may not be the best you have ever tasted, but it is quite drinkable. Their basic champagnes are a little more: the Comte de Senneville from Lidl is just £12.99 and Aldi’s Veuve Monsigny is £13.49 - and both punch well above their price. If you fancy splashing out at Aldi there are two others that impressed me: the Philizot Blanc de Noirs (£18.99) and the Veuve Monsigny Rosé (£16.99). I would also recommend the Crémant du Jura at £8.49 and the Sparkling Shiraz from South Australia (£6.99). My friend Oz Clarke tells me it was Australia’s ‘Bacchus wine’ in the old days, left in the wedding suites of antipodean motels, it was meant to give creative strength to newlyweds.
Lidl keeps a tight list, but with some considerable bargains if you are as hard up as we are. There is an impressive raspberry-perfumed Argentinian Malbec at £4.49 and a textbook Chianti for £5.99. Aldi on the other hand has wheeled out some treats, many of which will be available online only. Widely distributed is the lemony Sicilian Grillo at £5.99. Online only is the Domaine La Roche white Pessac-Léognan (£19.99) which has proper complexity. Also online and at the same price a really super and ‘typical’ Chablis Premier Cru from Albert Lucas. Again only online but at an appealing £6.49 is a 2018 Okfener Bockstein from the Saar. I can’t think of a greater bargain.
Moving to reds, there is a proper juicy Fitou at £5.49, and online an exciting 2021 Central Otago Pinot Noir for £9.99. More generally available is the 2019 Lebanese red for £7.99 with a redolence of brown sugar and big, sweet, meaty tannins from its Bekaa fruit. Then a lovely raspberry-scented 2016 Paraiso Sur Chilean Syrah (online £9.99), or a Shiraz from Cannon Springs in California (£6.99) that is worth more than its modest price-tag; or a waxy 2018 Chianti Riserva (£6.49) or (online) a 2017 Barolo for £14.99.
The real treats tend to be on the expensive side, like the 2018 Amarone (online £19.99), the 2018 Barbaresco (online) at £17.99 or the 2019 Jean Lefort Gevrey Chambertin at £24.99. There are three more lovely wines from Bordeaux: the 2015 Château d’Arsac from Margaux (online £19.99) which was both ready and authentic, and the Château Moulinet from Pomerol (online £24.99) - this was rich, with a hint of liquorice - and a 2015 Grand Cru St Emilion - Château Laforge (online £19.99) which is perfect for drinking now.
If that is too much, I heartily recommend the 2020 Crozes Hermitage, a proper Syrah at £12.99 and the 2019 Priorat (£15.99), a strapping wine with fine, cooling tannins. In a similar idiom are the 2019 Gigondas (£17.99), with its tell-tale brown sugar nose and the jammy, figgy 2018 Le Moulin Teyroud Châteauneuf du Pape (online £19.99).
Finally two Christmas pudding wines: 2019 Canadian Vidal Ice Wine (online £13.99), and 2017 Six Puttonyos Tokay Aszu (50 cls for £12.99) which is all coconuts, mangoes and pineapples.
The Cistercian Schloss Gobelsburg is a neighbour of Fred Loimer in the Austrian Kamptal. This year the estate is 850 years old, and its tenant, Michael Moosbrugger is holding a series of tastings worldwide. In October we were privileged to taste a vertical of the Riesling wines from his top, Permian rock, Heiligenstein (‘The Rock of the Saints’) site. Moosbrugger acquired a 50-year lease on the monastic vineyards of Kloster Zwettl in 1997, but the tasting took us all the way back to 1971. His period at the helm corresponds to a hotter, riper growing season influenced by global warming, which has seen a distinct rise in alcohol in Austrian wines. The wines had by the Cistercians were more hit and miss. After the Wine Scandal of 1985 the estate became chiefly famous for Messwein - wine used by priests to celebrate mass. Drinkers felt this was reliable because the priest’s wine may not be adulterated. The majority of the wine made at Gobelsburg in the wake of the scandal was mass wine.
My favourites in descending order were the 2019, 2010, 2008, 2004, 2001 and 1999 - a famous ‘Neuner’ - the years with nine in them are meant to be particularly good in Austria, and this was probably the best of all. There were fewer good wines from the monks’ time. I gave high scores to the dry 1983 (there was a sweet Spätlese), the 1973 and the 1971.
Australia is not Austria (unless you are Japanese), but I enjoyed some very good wines from Western Australia too in a comparative tasting of Cabernets and Shirazes from the Margaret River and Great Southern regions. With Shiraz it is vital to rid yourself of any desire to find those peony/carnation characters you get from granite-grown Syrah in France. At its worst, Australian Shiraz can be a potent form of raspberry cordial. Fortunately none of the Western Australian examples were like this, they were more likely to be earthy or tarry than smoky or floral.
My favourite Shirazes were the 2018 Frankland Estate Isolation Ridge from Great Southern which was pleasantly smoky as well as tasting of raspberries, and the tarry 2018 Cape Mentelle from Margaret River which came in at a hefty 15 percent, but didn’t taste like it. It was 88% Shiraz. There were a lot of varietal additions made to season it.
I still preferred the Cabernets, which were part of Margaret River’s original claim to fame, with sea breezes and cool nights bringing a rare perfume to the grapes. The 2018 Alkoomi Black Label comes from the Franklin River (Great Southern) and has a pronounced cassis character. At £15 was good value. The 2018 Domaine Naturaliste (nudists?) Rebus was richer and more confected, but still delicious. And then there was Vasse Felix which seemed the least classically ‘Cabernet’ but which represents a benchmark Margaret River style and has done for a generation or more.
And finally I come to cider, another sparkler (sometimes) and one more drink that will cost less as a result of the budget. The following ciders are available from cideriswine.co.uk. Tinson’s Anatomy from Lewes is a nice dry cider made by the champagne method with a pleasant expression of apples. You should be warned that acidity levels can be twice those found in wines and without adding correcting sugar cider can be searing. Abel Méthode Cidre (with some perry - or pear cider) is another champagne-style cider from the North Island of New Zealand. The 2019 Eden Orogenies from Vermont mixes grapes and apples, which I found very satisfying. Templar’s Choice Perry (despite its name from France) was the sort of fresh, fruity, refreshing drink I have enjoyed many times in Normandy. Berryland Rhubarb and Mead 2019 from the Ukraine was a most unusual drink but very enjoyable for all that. And finally my favourite: Riestra Sidra Natural from the Spanish Asturias, where it has quenched miners’ thirsts since 1906. I could imagine it cutting through the fat in a hunk of pungent Cabrales cheese.
Nostalgia for France
Posted: 5th October 2021
When St Giles Day dawned on 1 September, I had not seen the Mainland for nearly a year. Well, almost, I had been to Calais, just before the curtain came down in December. We went to liberate some cases of a friend’s wine from a warehouse, but I was able to nip into an Auchan and buy one or two things I needed to ‘save Christmas’ (as they say now) before we rejoined the queue for the Tunnel. I did not break bread or drink wine in the short time I was there, so it hardly counts.
In February, when I normally spend a few days in Provence, France was locked down too, and it was not until August that it became completely clear that I could travel there without paying hundreds of pounds to some crook to put my PCR test in the nearest bin. By mid-September I was ready to risk it. Spurning the cowboys, I booked a test with Boots, and was tense with excitement when my daughter told me she had been teaching a boy whose whole class had come down with it. She took the test, and two days before my departure the result came back negative. I was free to leave.
Before I could join our depleted party at the Gare de Lyon I had to visit my ninety-four year old mother who was laid up with a broken tibia in a hospital in the 14th Arrondissement. Paris looked busy, but everyone wore masks, inside and out. At the railway station I had to present my covid passport as well. There was a perceptible rigour in force, one unknown in Britain, even at the height of the crisis. Health passports were demanded in not only in stations, but also in supermarkets and cafés. You could probably get away with not having one, but only if you knew the proprietor of the shop, café or restaurant.
We arrived at the vineyard at eight that night to find lamb grilling and corks pulled. The vintage had been paused due to rain - a rare thing in the Ventoux. France has suffered much this year, but the vineyard itself had been spared up to now. The weather remained changeable for the next twenty-four hours when the sun came out. It was a delight to be there, even if covid formalities hung over us all the time, from taking a test with Thibaut the wine-loving local pharmacist to filling in the dreaded ‘locator’ form. We went to local restaurants and we ate an enormous leg of Boris the Boar, which had been left for us by considerate huntsmen. This was moistened with various vintages of Domaine des Anges, of which my favourites were the pure Grenache 2018 Seraphim, and from the virtually pure Syrah Archange, the 2019, 2018 and 2015. Tasting the wines with the winemaker Florent Chave, he convincingly demonstrated the improvement in quality brought about by using terracotta amphorae. The wines have become softer and richer.
Then came the dreaded departure. Running the gauntlet at the Gare du Nord was a process as intimidating as the famous punishment meted out by the Prussian Army. At six or seven points papers are examined and those who are not ready are sent to the back of the queue. At the end of the process we looked for solace in a glass of beer, but no beer was available in the length and breadth of the Eurostar waiting pen.
There have been French-themed tastings in London such as the Languedoc-Roussillon top-100, which featured, among others, a fine Sauvignon Blanc from the Baron de Badassière, a man who must excite a lively interest in the United States. The bad-arse Baron makes a good Picpoul de Pinet but that was not available. On the other hand I was excited about the fresh, appley version from the Moulin de Gassac. From the Plaimont co-operative I liked the 2017 Empreinte with its redolence of guavas.
Among the reds I enjoyed a juicy, refreshing 2020 Picpoul Noir from the Villa Blanche (Waitrose) and a nice, violet-scented 2020 Cinsault from the Domaine la Voûte du Verdus. There was a meaty 2019 Syrah from the Domaine les Yeuses and an old friend from the Pic St Loup, the 2019 Mas Bruguière, a spicy blend of Syrah and Grenache which brought back memories of better days. Another wine I admired was the 2017 Rieutord Faugères from Florence Alquier which had me thinking of roses and 2019 Roches Noires from the Cave de Roquebrun in St Chinian. The Château de Pennautier in Cabardès is well known here. The Wine Society has the Terroirs d’Altitude which I warmly recommend. I also tasted a lovely fortified sweet wine from the Domaine F Jaubert: the 2002 Or du Temps Rivesaltes, and realised how much I missed these wines.
I attended a St Emilion Grand Cru Classés tasting in a City tower. Getting past security was much how I imagined visiting the Bond-villain Blofeld in one of his hideaways would be. I half expected to be whisked off down the Thames in a hydrofoil. Once admitted, you could peer down at the Tower and St Pauls. All I can say about the view was that it was far nicer looking out than looking up or in. The wines I liked most were the 2018 Château Barde-Haut, the 2016 Bellefont-Belcier, the 2018 Château Chauvin, the 2012 Les Grandes Murailles, the 2016 Clos de l’Oratoire, the 2016 Clos des Jacobins, the 2018 Château de Ferrrand, the 2016 Château La Fleur Cardinale, the 2017 Château Fombrauge, the 2011 Franc Mayne, the 2018 and 2016 Château Grand Corbin (yes, I know: wasted on him - he doesn’t drink), the 2018 Laniote, the 2015 Laroque, the 2018 and 2016 Château Ripeau and most of all, the 2018 and 2016 Château La Couspraude - only the 2018 and 2016 La Tour Figeac and the 2018 and 2016 Villemaurine came close.
For the time being I shall have to be satisfied with glassfuls of France, before I can get closer to the real thing.
A Little Taste of Germany
Posted: 1st September 2021
I haven’t been this immobile since 1985, when I had just returned from six-and-a-half years in Paris. In this poor, dull, summer month of August (where the sun has been absent, scorching vines and flesh in the Mediterranean Basin) I have attended a pleasant family lunch in the Thames Valley and been on two short excursions to Ely and Norwich. Although I have been to Cambridge many, many times, I have never gone the full ten miles to Ely, a pretty little city in the shadow of a massive cathedral. At last we had a good reason to do this.
Norwich is another kettle of fish. There is a cathedral in its close like Ely, certainly, but also thirty-five mediaeval churches lying within the city’s largely extant walls and lots and lots of ancient buildings in between. Our initial reaction to Norwich was anger, however. We were denied access to the cathedral nave because that plaster cast of a diplodocus that used to be in the Natural History Museum in South Ken had been fetched up for the amusement of little Norvicians. I had stupidly put the helter-skelter and miniature golf courses out of my mind, together with all the other extraordinarily desperate schemes the Church of England has dreamed up to make people spend money in its cathedrals. When I was told that the only way I would be able to see the nave was to join the gaggle of ‘Dippy’ worshippers. I bit my lip, but my thoughts were less than Christian.
I recovered. Norwich is mostly a lovely city. The purpose of our going had nothing to do with wine or food, but we did find first rate pork pies in the great market square, and bacon rolls; and we stopped for a pint at the sixteenth century Mischief pub and even had a Chinese meal at a friendly place in an otherwise bleak corner in the north of the city, but significantly, still within the walls.
The great event as far as wine was concerned was the arrival of twenty-four 50cl bottles from the VDP in Mainz: my chance to taste the latest GGs or Grosse Gewächse (grand crus) from Germany. It should be borne in mind that the big tasting in Wiesbaden provides tasters with the chance to review around 450 wines over two days, and that twenty-four wines is nothing more than a snapshot; but these are hard times, and many of us would find it difficult to get to Wiesbaden, so the mountain was obliged to go to Mohammed.
So, what were the highlights? The following are all Riesling wines, mostly from the 2019 harvest, but with a few 2018s. All received my top rating of three stars.
Van Volxem, 2019 Scharzhofberger Pergentsknopp GG (Saar): very pale, with a lovely lime, lemon peel and almond aroma and an elegant evocation of delicate white peaches and apricots on the tongue. This wine was beautifully fresh with the finest, teasing acidity and the juiciest finish concealing considerable power.
Forstmeister Geltz-Zilliken, Rausch GG (Saar): what a great name is ‘Rausch’ (extasy). This one evokes peaches and pears and the wine has something of the Bellini about it. The same fruit cocktail returns on the palate. Again there is an impression of delicacy about it, but effete it is not: there are all sorts of developments and the fruit fairly throbs. It is another wine that should have a long innings.
2019 Domdechant Werner, Kirchenstück GG (Hochheim, Rheingau): a slight vegetal note on the nose with a hint of sweetness; rich on the palate, I suspect this one was nudging the upper limit of 9 grams per litre residual sugar; but the counterpoise is the acidity, which leaves it bursting with life and promise.
2019 August Kesseler, Seligmacher GG (Rheingau): wonderfully crisp nose that had my nostrils flaring at the suggestion of frost; then peaches, pears and pine resin - the Rheingau as it should be, with fabulous length.
2018 Gut Hermannsberg, Hermannsberg GG (Nahe): pale again, slightly meaty, pretty limes and white peaches, and far less mineral and demanding than many wines from this estate; what really impressed me was the length and structure here and the waves of juicy acidity. I can imagine this wine giving huge pleasure for many years to come.
2018 von Winning, Ungeheuer GG (Pfalz): the von Winning estate is a love-or-loath place - you either like the smell and taste of oak on Riesling, or you hate it; most of the time I would sympathise with the detractors, but this Ungeheuer (‘Monster’) I actually liked. It had an earthiness about it, as well as oak, and it was indeed a big monster, with great length.
2019 Bürklin-Wolf, Gaisböhl GG (Pfalz): again some earthiness here along with fresh cut sorrel and rosewater; the wine has good bite and considerable length and the cleanest finish imaginable.
2019 Horst Sauer, Am Lumpen 1655 GG (Franken): the famous Guru of Maryland, Robert Parker uses ‘Kirsch’ as a descriptor in his tasting notes - a reference I think to dry cherry schnapps of the sort you find chiefly in South Germany or Austria. This Horst Sauer wine made me think of cherries, but more in a distilled idiom, coupled perhaps with rosewater. Again the finish here is playful and long.
The other wines I have had this month were certainly not as exciting as these, but then again they did not cost anything like as much. I was amused by the arrival of a white and a pink Harlot and rightly predicted controversy. They are two English sparkling wines made using the ‘charmat’ tank method (like prosecco) rather than in imitation of champagne. The grapes are champagne grapes, but with added Bacchus, a cultivar which gives the white in particular a little elderflower aroma, which I thought was nice. The pink is easier on the Bacchus and has less elderflower character, but is none the worse for it. The bottles are suitably lurid. People were volubly offended when the wines were launched and I suspect that might have been the point?
I had some rosés from Tesco including the champagne-method sparkler from Hush Heath, which I liked a little less than the excellent white version. Two wines impressed me more than the very decent Provencal rosés, and they were the 2020 L’Amistanza from Planeta in Sicily and the 2019 Primitivo from Terre di Chieti in the Abruzzo. L’Amistanza was a combination of Fiano and Grecanico, taking the lean, mineral fruit of the one, and the weight of the other to excellent effect; the Primitivo was a ‘fruit bomb’, like a dense reduction of fresh ripe cherries.
I also had some nice ciders and beers. Pulpt Flare cider was my sort of thing: not one of those cloudy, serious ones but with good fizz and nice fresh apple fruit, but then I have unsophisticated tastes when it comes to cider. The Salt Huckaback from the World Heritage site at Saltaire is a ‘Neipa’ or New England IPA and is supposed to have pronounced exotic fruit flavour, in this case it would seem to be mangoes. I suppose there is nothing unusual about finding mangoes in the West Riding of Yorkshire these days. It is certainly much less surprising and far more agreeable than finding a dinosaur in the nave of Norwich Cathedral.
Cutting the Mustard
Posted: 18th August 2021
July was a month of near normality in which I did nearly normal things like enjoy a long boozy lunch with old friends and go to the opera at Garsington (which is no longer anywhere near Garsington). There was even a family excursion to seek out Roman and Saxon remains in Saint Albans, and I made a second batch of Dijon mustard that was more successful than the first, but I might still have a little way to run before I achieve perfection.
There were wines to taste too. Some very good boxes of Nero d’Avola and Greco came from When in Rome, which specialises in the wines of the Mezzogiorno. I think there is still a suspicion when it comes to bag-in-box wines in Britain, but there is no intrinsic reason why they should be nasty, and with their airlocks, they keep pretty fresh for weeks. I came across them first at the friend’s house in the Lot. She used to buy the cheapest Cahors from the cellar doors of good local growers, the sort of thing they made from young vines or from their least distinguished terroirs. As an everyday wine it was fine, and it had the advantage of being very cheap; indeed it was all the cheaper for not having to dress up in bottles and corks. The When in Rome wines were predictably full-bodied: the white Greco maybe a little hot, the Nero d’Avola a proper fruit bomb, but also the sort of thing that might put a few hairs on your chest.
I attended a Washington State tasting, and was interested to see how the sort of wines I had tasted in Kelowna in British Columbia developed as they crossed the US Border and entered the steamy Columbia Valley. There were some lovely Rhone-style wines, such as the 2018 Syrah Domaine de Pierres from the Betz Family Winery. Also good were The 2018 Pundit from Tenet Wines and 2018 Nina Lee from the Spring Valley Vineyard (both virtually pure Syrah). The last two are part of the massive Sainte Michelle Group which was responsible for the splendid 2016 Col Solare Cabernet Sauvignon (made as a joint venture with Antinori)and the 2019 Eroica Riesling made with Ernst Loosen from Bernkastel.
Also from the US there were some wines from Gallo. Gallo has continued its policy of acquiring well-known Californian estates. Some of these wines I wrote about here. I am still just as much a sucker for the Bear Flag Zinfandel. Also striking was the 2017 Louis M Martini Napa Cabernet Sauvignon: a proper Californian classic of with a bouquet of big black fruits. Frei Brothers 2019 Sonoma Chardonnay was a touch on the sweet side for me. That tends to be a problem with the whites - I am assuming that some sugar is left in order to keep the wines under 15% ABV. If you ferment them out fully they can be hefty, like the 2018 Kali Hart Chardonnay with its whacking great toast-and-tinned-peaches aromas. It was very good, but to be consumed in moderation.
New to me was the J Cuvee 20 sparkling wine. This I thought all the better for not pretending to be champagne. It was far riper and more exotic, with plenty of mango and peach tastes, some notes of straw and orange and a lingering quince-like finish. I put it alongside a couple of excellent wines from Tesco, a nice, good-value rhubarb-and-vanilla-sugar pink from Gratien et Meyer in the Loire and a really impressive Tesco English Sparkling from Hush Heath which was properly elegant in an apply champagne idiom. I thought it was really quite distinguished in a low baumé sort of way.
A treat from the Baron Edmond de Rothschild was the 2020 Rimapere Sauvignon Blanc from the Marlborough Valley in New Zealand. This was a Marlborough Sauvignon as we have grown to expect it, although I thought once again that there might have been a little bit too much undigested sugar covering the acid? It was more white peach than gooseberry: a testament to greater ripeness. It came with a big bit of Brie de Meaux also from another of the Rothschild estates, but this time just east of Paris. If I am right it was produced at the Château de Ferrières where Bismarck and Jules Favre negotiated the end of the Franco-Prussian War. The cheese was delicious.
Brie de Meaux might take me in an admittedly circumlocutious sort of way back to mustard. In St Albans I dropped into Ellis the butcher by the railway station who recommended his sausages made according to a Saxmundham recipe brought first to the city by his father, who was a Suffolk man. When we got back we put them against my mustard. In theory I was trying to make a Dijon Mustard, where the grains are no longer identifiable, but in practise I had been unable to entirely eliminate the black casing to the seeds and it still looked much more like a Meaux Mustard. It wasn’t for want of trying: I had soaked the grains for two days, cooked them in wine and vinegar, drained off the liquor and taken them to a friend with a high-speed whizzer to grind them as smoothly as possible. That meant adding back the liquor to create an appropriately creamy emulsion and adding a teaspoon-full of turmeric to make it properly yellow. Next time I am determined to use white seeds in order to get it right at last. I’ll get there if it kills me.
The Soul of Wine
Posted: 5th July 2021
In June the chance to taste wine ebbed back at a sedate pace. The first stirrings of this new spring came in the form of a promissory case from Demeter and respekt-Biodyn in Austria. It did not make it in time for the online tasting with Monty Waldin, as British Customs and Excise grabbed it and held it hostage until I coughed up some money, but it was well worth waiting for.
The wines were all biodynamic, and therefore made according to the principles laid down for growing (potatoes) elaborated by the wine-hating Rudolf Steiner. Biodynamism involves doing a lot of things that many find ever-so-slightly baffling. Some, such as the application of various natural preparations to the soil, are obvious enough, and there are particular times and stages of the moon stipulated for planting and picking etc which follow a lead from the ancients. Horses are used for ploughing. Other ideas, such as the burying of cow horns filled with dung at the four corners of the vineyard are harder to digest, but all I can say is: if it works, it is fine by me.
In the last two or three decades wine has improved immeasurably on a technical level, but in a great many instances it has lost its soul. Biodynamism may sound like mumbo-jumbo, but it does aim to restore the soul of wine. So, in a more or less descending order, here were the wines - ten Austrians and two Germans:
2019 Grüner Veltliner Kalkvogel, Weingut Herbert Zillinger
Grüner Veltliner has been going through stormy times. Part of the problem with Austria’s workhorse grape is that climate change has reduced the acidity of many wines and encouraged greater levels of ripeness that can result in blandness. Add to this a new Austrian sensitivity to alcohol, which means trying to keep everything down below 13 abv. Some grape varieties don’t respond well to moves to cap their alcoholic effusiveness. Grenache would be a case in point for a black grape, Grüner Veltliner is a green grape that needs 13 plus.
The Wienviertel between Vienna and the Czech border has been the source of many decent Grüner Veltiners in the past, but a recent trip revealed some fairly boring wines, to the degree that I despaired of finding anything I liked there ever again. This Zillinger Kalkvogel has routed my doubts. The colour was deep, the wine slightly turbid, but I instantly recognised a proper ripe Veltliner by its smell of pineapples. On the palate there was a throbbing power and wonderful length. This was great Grüner Veltliner like those that ravished me in the good old days.
2017 Marienburger Fahrlay Grosses Gewächs, Grosse Lage Weingut Clemens Busch
Clemens Busch in Pünderich needs no introduction. A member of the VDP, he is one of the very best wine makers in the Mosel Valley. This was one of two German wines in the tasting. A wine with an absolutely enchanting nose that evoked a warm apricot tart, with lots of peach-like Riesling tastes on the palate and those apricots again. In contrast to the Veltiner, this is a Riesling that is all in delicacy; and it gets better and better in the glass.
2018 Blaufränkisch Leithaberg DAC Ried Oberer Wald, Weingut Feiler-Artinger
This was one of two red wines in the case. I met Kurt Feiler first in 1991, when he was still in his teens. I find it alarming to think that he is now a mature man! And this is a mature man’s wine too that comes from just behind the Neusiedlersee where Feiler-Artinger make their wonderful sweet Ausbruch wines.
For me, the style of Blaufränkisch made in the Leitha Hills is more attractive than the more famous examples from Mittelburgenland. I find it generally silkier and more Burgundian. Kurt’s wine is one of the best. It smells of creamy raspberries, revealing the use of oak casks a bit, but the touch is far lighter than it was. There is a lot of rich cherry fruit on the palate and plenty of life in it yet.
2019 Riesling Ried Gebling 1ÖTW, Weingut Sepp Moser
I have long been an admirer of Sepp Moser’s Ried Gebling in the Kamptal, where the wines are made by Sepp’s son Niki. The Mosers are members of the Traditionsweingüter organisation and part of the nobility of the Kamptal. This Riesling is at the opposite end of the scale to the Busch wine: it has considerable body, length and power. There is a pretty citrus note on the nose and a little taste of marmalade and quinces on the palate, it is long and complex.
2019 Kapelle Weißburgunder, Weingut Leiner
The second German wine comes from Sven Leiner in the Pfalz. It has a lovely citrusy nose, but it is above all an elegant, playful wine with great, ripe acidity and length. There is something that refreshes the palate in Leiner’s wines, and a complete absence of anything ponderous.
2017 Ried Zöbinger Hirsch 1ÖTW Kamptal DAC Riesling Weingut Hirsch
Another member of the Traditionsweingüter and in Johannes Hirsch another man I have known since he was not much more than a boy. This wine improved considerably in the bottle once opened. It was not such a typical Riesling at first, but carried plenty of weight and spice with a chunky, meaty finish. By the next day its character had fully emerged and it was showing really good length and structure.
2013 Blaufränkisch Thenau Biodynamisches Weingut Birgit Braunstein
The oldest wine in the tasting came from Birgit Braunstein in Purbach, famous for its fugitive Turk. I have admired Birgit’s wines for some time. This is a relatively light and supple Blaufränkisch and not deep in colour either. It is the polar opposite of some of the big, gummy Blaufränkisch wines you meet in Mittelburgenland. It is not robust but it is very pleasant now.
2019 Parcellaire Blanc #1, Weingut Johannes Zillinger
A wine made by another Zillinger from the Weinviertel and this time a blend of Welschriesling and Chardonnay. It produces a brew with just 11 percent alcohol. One element seems to have been aged in oak and makes for a creamy wine with a taste of pears with a good shuddering length and quite a searing, high-acid finish.
NV Hollenburger Riesling, Weingut Christoph Hoch
A blend of three vintages from limestone soils near Krems. Again this wine has a very modest alcoholic reading of 11.5. The acidity is up front, but it is a refreshing, summer wine with good peachy length.
2018 Cara, Weingut Ploder-Rosenberg
Vulkanland with its defunct volcanoes is famous for making Gewürztraminer, but this wine is an exception in that it is a blend of Bronner, Souvignier Gris (both new to me), Grüner Veltliner and Weißburgunder. This was the first of the orange wines, made naturally without using sulphur and obviously spurning the malolactic fermentation that converts the sharp malic acid into a creamy lactic acid. The alcohol was once again low at 11.5 and the wine was not hugely concentrated. There were some pretty fruit notes.
2018 Chardonnay Bambule, Weingut Judith Beck
Another orange wine, this time from Gols above the Neusiedler lake. The wine was cloudy with in-your-face acidity, rather than lengthening the tail. It was long and lively for all that, but reminded me of dill pickles and cider, relieved by a little taste of peaches.
2018 Weißburgunder, Weingut Schmelzer
Another wine from Gols, and another natural wine that had me thinking of cider. The ‘malic’ in malic acid derives from the Latin for apples. It was cloudy again and frothy; and the acid struck before anything else. It was not so bad, but I didn’t quite know how I’d serve it.
Besides these Central European wines I have been out and about, including attending a reception above a ladies’ club in Maddox Street for awards given out by Bloom’s Gin to encourage all-female businesses to get off the ground. It was fun to sip gin and nibble canapés on a sunny roof terrace after being locked up all this time.
I went to the big Spanish wine tasting in Westminster, a very well-organised affair with flights of wines brought to your table. I only had time for five or six flights, but tasted good things. I was struck by the fact that there are still parts of Spain that are great value for money - like Toro, particularly from Bodegas Rodriguez y Sanzo. There were three super wines from El Grifo on Lanzerote: a Malvasia, a Moscatel de Alejandria and the Listan Negro-Syrah blend that was best of all.
As chance would have it the Roussillon tasting was in the same place. This was a moment of great nostalgia for me, having been fourteen years a member of the tasting jury in the Roussillon and latterly president. Many of names were familiar to me, such as Mas Baux or the Château de Jau. The best of Jau’s straight wines was Jaujau Ier Red (awful name), but the real joy was the Rivesaltes Ambré with its aromas of honey and liquorice. These fortified VDNs are the region’s trump card. Dom Brial had a lovely figgy Primage, like a wonderful light port and a Rancio Sec with a tarry nose and a hint of seaweed like an excellent dry amontillado.
It was a huge joy to be reminded of Vaquer, where the late owner used to make astonishingly long-lived Burgundian-style wines. Their successors bear the ‘L’Exception’ label. There is also a VDN - Préface 1994 - which smells of pain d’épices.
I liked a leathery red Carmin 2018 at the Domaine F Jaubert, but again it was the VDNs that won me round: Or du Temps 2002 was all toffee and seaweed with the sweetness of oranges - a wonderful wine for chocolate. My real discovery of the day was the Domaine Vial Magnères in Banyuls and its gorgeous fortified 2018 Rimage or the Gaby Vial 7 Ans. The best wine in the tasting was the Banyuls Grand Cru André Magnères 2009: chocolate, toffee and butter, and utterly delicious.
Finally, my top wines and prices from the Aldi tasting in May:
Veuve Monsigny champagne brut £12.99 (hard to find a better price for drinkable champagne)
Castellore Fiano 2020, £4.99.
Picpoul de Pinet 2020, £5.99
Jurançon Sec 2019, £6.99
Assyrtiko 2020, £6.99 (already a huge favourite here)
Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre 2019, £6.99.
Uruguayen Tannat 2019, £6.99
Maremma Riserva 2016, £7.99 (a bargain for such a high-class wine)
Le Moulin Teyroud Châteauneuf-du-Pape 2018, £19.99.
Castellore Valpollicella Ripasso Superiore 2018, £7.99
Carta Carista Amarone della Valpollicella 2017, £13.49 (earth and strawberries)
Canyon Springs Zinfandel, £7.49 (juicy raisins).
Not big on soul, maybe, but low on price.
Posted:1st June 2021
I have had occasion to observe, and in print too, that fish is subject to great snobbery. Certain fish have always been grand: Dover sole and fly-fished salmon might be cases in point - true-born Englishmen would never have turned their noses up at these; other fish, however, have grandezza thrust upon them. They become fashionable for a time but often fall from grace. Trout is a spectacular example. It used to be a very posh fish when it was still caught from limpid streams. Now it is mostly distinctly cheap and farmed, and often tastes distressingly muddy.
Sometimes (not always), the snobbery is justified; at others it is not. When I wrote about this subject thirty years ago, the upstart was sea bass. Suddenly it had been discovered and restaurant-haunting Britons couldn’t get enough of it. These days it is largely farmed, and three perfectly acceptable small bass (or even better farmed sea bream) may be had for £9 or £10. Not all farmed fish is cheap, mind you. Good farmed salmon, for example, sells for over £25 per kg. I wonder if this price will be maintained. Were the salmon farmers tilting at foreign markets? If they were it might prove curtains? My old friend Lance Forman has discovered this to his dismay.
In the past, television cooks could cause price fluctuations too. I was annoyed when some sleb cook appeared on the box brandishing a brill. That meant the end of my supplies of cheap brill, one of the best of the flatfish. The price went up overnight.
At the moment, with the exception of the farmed fish sold by Billingsgate, virtually all fresh fish is overpriced in Britain. When I question them about this, fishmongers blame the fishermen, who, they say, won’t go out any more as a result of the post-Brexit trade deal. The fact that restaurants were closed as a result of Covid was another contributory factor, apparently, but that didn’t make much sense: if they couldn’t sell their fish to restaurants, they should have offloaded it on the general public who had none to go to? Most superior fish are caught by small boats from the southern ports. The successors to Peter Grimes who ply the North Sea tend to freeze their catches. Other fish - namely cod - now need to be imported as they are not so often caught in our diminished waters. Suddenly the humble codfish becomes a smart fish and you need to reckon with a bigger bill. When I had a decent (250g) slab of line-caught cod at the Seashell last month it was £18 a portion: not exactly cheap.
It may be that now pubs and restaurants have reopened again (at least for a while) that the fishermen might be induced to go out to sea? I understand that a great many of them were not British and that they may have left the country, but the truth is that the current treaty will mean that some fish are lost to us, and that we are left with an abundance of mackerel and Dublin Bay prawns, but relatively small amounts of everything else. That will mean more recherché fish will be caught by small vessels or by rod-and-line, and most of the time that will mean higher prices.
There are fortunately exceptions and they could actually halve the price of fish in your shopping basket. In our exploration of local fish shops we have found two relatively cheap sources for fresh fish. You need to take care. There are fish shops that sell an abundance of farmed or frozen fish, chiefly to ethnic communities, to which I generally give a wide berth, but these two seem to be kosher, and everything is properly labelled ‘fresh’, ‘wild’, ‘farmed’ etc. They are not exactly the closest shops to our door, and I generally take a bus, but who’s complaining? I am not talking about turbot or halibut, but some of the poor, downtrodden fish that are rarely the stars of cooking shows on the gogglebox. I draw the line (sic) at coley, ling or whiting for the time being, but I am sure they would be matter for a fish curry, for example. On the other hand I am quite happy to buy fresh gurnard, grey mullet or dogfish. There is a way to bring out the best in any fish, but sometimes it takes time to discover how.
I had been watching my new place for a while. On Saturdays there are queues of stout African ladies who buy prodigious quantities of fish. I tend to go on Tuesdays when the place is less busy. The grand fishmongers around here are happy to do fancy things for you, they will lift fillets etc, but I don’t mind doing that myself. The new fishmonger does offer. My first purchase from him was a couple of octopus. In a way I wished I had let him gut them. I had to find a little film on the Internet, but it wasn’t so hard. I felt slightly aggrieved that I had to throw out so much from the body of the beasts, but the tentacles and the heads made a really lovely arroz with paella rice.
Another time I bought monkfish at about half the price of fresh ‘monk’ around here, and cooked it with ginger and soya bean sauce - a recipe I learned from a Korean friend in Provence. She uses conger, but they didn’t have any. On another occasion my wife brought back a huge skate wing from her discovery, which is a bit closer to home, and I cooked that traditionally, serving it with black butter and capers.
Twice we’ve had grey mullet - a much scorned fish, but one that has the advantage of size. A good mullet can weigh well over a kilo and feed four. I tend to stuff it with sorrel (which grows like a weed on the kitchen roof) and butter, but it likes a drop of wine too.
Chiefly I was excited to find some dogfish at last. This is actually a little shark that I used to see washed up on the south coast as a boy. It was mostly used as ‘rock’ salmon for fish and chips. Like conger or monk it is firm and you can use it on skewers or fry it without it coming to grief. I first realised the value of dog in the Alentejo when I was writing about Portuguese wine. They love it, and cook it with fresh coriander and a liberal sprinkling of vinegar. A simple pleasure and quite delicious, and it was a timely reminder of a lost world.
Tales of a Hunter-Gatherer: The Frigid Spring
Posted: 4th May 2021
There’s something distinctly un-funny about the weather. I am tempted to blame the government and their ‘sunlit uplands’. Every week I ask myself when I might feel a little warmth again. I long for the eczema on my shins and belly to go away. I have dreams of being able to sit outside with a book. Every week I look at the BBC and see the good times are coming, but not this week: next week. As that next week then heaves into view I note that relief has been put back for another week, and so it goes on and on, and on. Nights hover just above freezing, and when the feeble sun dims each evening I start scratching about for a matchbox to turn a few scrappy logs in the grate into a crackling fire.
One reason why I am certain that the government is not responsible for this aspect of our misery is that their reopening of pub and restaurant terraces for al fresco boozing has arrived at a time when it would only prove tempting to hardened alcoholics. As my son was due to rejoin his fellow students in the middle of the month we even booked a couple of local pubs to drink a valedictory beer. The first one was at the Lord Palmerston in Tufnell Park where they were very keen to push their slightly comic menu on us. I had an Erdinger Weizen, which in contrast to the landscape was flat; but the pub has a nice view past the neo-baroque dome of the Boston Arms in the valley below and in the distance, the Shard rises up like the spire of a gothic church.
The second beer was at the Lion & Unicorn in Gaisford Street. Once again the menu was slapped down (at 5.45 pm). Once more it made funny reading. I suspected the author was the same and that some of the produce came out of a common kitchen? Both are Youngs’ pubs. Collusion was obvious, especially when the Erdinger proved flat again. I came to the conclusion the Erdinger must have been pre-Lockdown stock. Drink draft, British beer - I found out the hard way.
I have eaten out too. By the time I met up with a friend and went to the Spaniards I had learned my lesson and foreswore German brews. I had a good pint of IPA (and we followed it up with a bottle of Chablis with our fish and chips). Unless you sat smack in the middle of the sunlight, it was tooth-chatteringly cold. When I ate in a restaurant in Notting Hill Gate the following week I wore several layers. I wasn’t going to be caught out again.
Otherwise we have eaten and drunk at home. The first memorable meal was on the 6th. I had the night off cooking as it was my birthday and I had lined up my last two bottles of Biondi-Santi Brunello di Montalcino for after the Roederer champagne. We were just trying the 1975 Riserva when a mate rang to tell me that one of my dearest friends had died that morning. To say that the celebration was muted would be an understatement, but I can report that both the 75 and the 1981 Annata were still in good nick, despite bottles that had both ullaged to mid-shoulder - and I certainly needed drink to digest the news.
New season’s lamb continued to be sold at silly prices but one day I found a tiny leg of Greek lamb, which was a treat. Otherwise our butcher Paul has gone over to New Zealand lamb until greedy British farmers return to their senses. I am out of Greek reds, but intermittently Aldi has a delicious Assyrtiko at £6.99. It makes a lovely sappy aperitif and always seems to be better on the second day but worse on the third. A little Greek shop has opened in Highgate Village selling honey, cheese, sausages and other good things. The owner is a barber whose business has been temporarily put out action by Covid. Yesterday, I found the traditional Greek Easter bread there - tsoureki - made from three interwoven plaits to represent the Trinity. They also have the honey bees make from the pine trees, a wonderfully robust flavour, which will go with the bread.
The night before my son left for the north we had a lovely meal of bitter Puglian artichokes and calf’s liver and mash followed by meringues. After that there were fewer mouths to feed and we were even occasionally reduced to two at weekends. Today I plan to go to the market in Seven Sisters in search of a more earthy range of fish. They have fresh rock salmon and conger. We’ve had good lemon soles and haddock, but the prices are still out of this world. The other day I celebrated Brexit in my own way by making salmon and kipper fishcakes. They went down surprisingly well.
But there was still no spring, no fresh basil for tomato salads, no good melons for the prosciutto; in my rooftop kitchen garden the first leaves of marjoram began to unfurl at the beginning of May, the thyme turned green but has yet to flower. I have seen not one single tempting spear of asparagus. I’ve spotted Jersey Royals at £7 - £8 per kilo. I have not bought any, but I found a small bag in Aldi for £1.20. They weren’t too bad and a few sprigs of mint have now broken through the surface outside: I generally add mint to the potatoes in the steamer. The Italian chef in Notting Hill taught me how to make proper zucchine fritte. He told me to soak the courgette strips in milk overnight and then turn them in seasoned flour. So no eggs are required, and there is no need to wither the pieces. I tried the recipe last night. We’re on the right track now.
There is still no fruit of any quality about. We subsist on oranges and are bored. We would like some rhubarb but at £1.50 a ‘pound’ (how much is that? Two sticks?) I am not buying. Last year we had rhubarb coming out of our ears. I bought some Spanish strawberries in Kilburn on Saturday. They were whopping things, hard and crunchy. Blindfold you might have taken them for miniature apples. Sodding spring, bloody hurry up!
Tales of the Hunter-Gatherer: Marking Time
Posted: 6th April 2021
Marking time is never a good feeling, especially when you are getting on in life, but when I look at my children I note that it can’t be any fun at their age either and it is possibly even worse for my nonagenarian mother, for whom life now has no sense at all. Even the smallest things are banned while the plague lurks on every corner. Life is on hold for most of us but where she lives the pandemic is making new strides and claiming more lives.
I sit and wait for news of three or four things, just as I have waited for an upturn for months. Otherwise days slip by more or less unnoticed. I am reading the wrong book (which I am not enjoying and find any excuse to put it down), I pick up a gouge, a pen or a brush, then discard it. The pandemic is perfectly uncreative.
There is just the shopping to do, and then dinner to cook, a film and bed, and an awful lot of time wasted on social media in between.
So what do the shops yield? The pumpkins have gone. I was getting fond of pumpkin puree and it was popular with the troops. Abundant cauliflowers are still turned into fritters with lots of variant spicing and I have been making courgette fritters too using feta, but that is work in progress and the bore about courgettes is squeezing out the excess fluid. One thing I have discovered in the local ethnic markets is the Bavarian radish or ‘mouli’, which is delicious braised. For a quid I can get one about two feet long. There are fewer cheap pears, and the good oranges are over. So far no rhubarb has appeared in the local shops and it is far too early for soft fruits.
The butcher Paul continues to provide us with good cheap beef, and when roasted it is dressed up with homemade horseradish made from Styrian roots bought from the local Turks. Leftover beef goes into pies with onions and fresh ginger. Lamb on the other hand is getting hoggety and the price is way too high. There are 34 million four-legged sheep in this county and the carcasses have nowhere to go but the home market. What’s more lots of lambs were born at Christmas, so why is there no new season’s lamb about? Most of the stuff on offer is too old to be used for anything other than for highly spiced koftas, neck curries or Irish stew. Paul had some very good wigeon too, which were quite a delicacy, but these are now gone.
I have been pulling out recipes for Portuguese arroz and Catalan paella to vary the menu a bit, things I can cook in the paella pan my daughter gave me for Christmas a few years back. I have revived my blanquette de veau, which I can’t have made for thirty years. For a start it is hard to get the appropriate cut of veal here, but Paul had a lump of leftover escalope meat that was lean and tender. I used silverskin onions, a variation that I learned from my old friend Monique in the rue de Rennes. Once I experimented by using orange peel and scandalised that gourmand publisher, the late Eugene Braun-Munk so much that he was still complaining about it when I last saw him, issuing from the Aurum Press in Museum Street. Sans orange peel, I think that more traditional blanquette was the best thing we ate in the whole merry month of March.
I don’t generally do the puddings, but I made a drizzle cake for a family birthday (irrigated by my last bottle of 1995 Moët) and then I awarded myself the challenge of making a Breton kouign amann such as I ate in Saint Briac in the summer of 2019. The first attempt was a flop, but I persevered and the second at least tasted right (it never really looks like much). It is a cross between a loaf of bread and puff pastry, with lots of added butter and sugar, but a good one can be delicious.
March culminated in Holy Week and Easter. I was warned that Easter Eggs would be scarce, but warned too late. Over the years I have been used to buying Belgian chocolate, generally from Leonidas, which had a good half a dozen shops in London. It seems they have all gone bar one, in Kensington High Street. Neuhaus in St Pancras Station was boarded up, and I couldn’t make any sense out of Selfridges, where I bought my eggs last year. There is still Pierre Marcolini of course, but that is way beyond my means.
There used to be a good chocolate shop at the top of Highgate Hill which closed down a few years ago, but looking for wine recently I discovered Kokoa, which buys chocolates from British artisan producers and had up-market eggs too. That rather saved the day, as even the la-di-dah Waitrose was offering nothing better than a nationalistically triumphant Hôtel du Chocolat (name-change must be on the cards now - ‘Chocolate Hotel’?) and Lindt, which is a standard cheapie, scarcely better than Cadbury and made - I suspect - under license in Scunthorpe.
I bake a dozen Hot Cross buns on Maundy Thursday for use on Good Friday. Our venerable Italian deli Salvino is still on hand for the Paschal colomba from Bauli, even if they no longer have a number of other treats associated with our modest feast. We have the colomba for breakfast on the big day. I didn’t need lunch as I scoffed the chocolates from inside my Leonidas egg (my wife had got to Kensington High Street in time). Dinner was good: some Kalamata olives, a small leg of new season’s New Zealand lamb cooked so rare that was sopping with juice, together with some potatoes roasted in beef dripping, tiny, baby broad beans and mushrooms; some pecorino sardo and Montgomery cheddar and a green salad; and finally a lemon meringue pie. To drink with the lamb we had a 1989 Canon Fronsac from Château Mazaris. We had consumed its stablemate on March 10. Both bottles were at their peak with masses of vigour. Let’s hope that they might prove a metaphor for our resurrection, and spring.
The Birth of a Wine Writer
Posted: 1st March 2021
Faced with the twin plagues of Covid and Brexit, most wine writing must be on hold. Merchants are currently living on their fat; wine writers (I assume) on state handouts. It is still not clear what will remain once the fog disperses. For the time being there are no post-Christmas sales, no trade tastings, no visits to foreign vineyards, and no chance to consume meals in restaurants with specialised lists. The future of small shipments of those interesting wines that are the spice of wine writers’ lives is now in doubt, as transportation costs have risen sharply as a result of the new post-Brexit paperwork. Previously untaxed commercial samples are now subject to duty, so you need to travel to discover novelties, which for the time being you cannot do and in all probability they will never reach these shores either. What shops will offer in the future is more likely to be produced in industrial quantities. And we can expect prices to continue to go up.
I became a wine writer nearly forty years ago. It was quite by accident. The fact that I did might be ascribed very largely to one man: Tim Johnston, who was my mentor at the time. I was living in Paris and had been writing what was going to be my doctoral dissertation on the Bordeaux wine trade in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and spending as much time as I could in the Bibliothèque nationale. The library was in the rue Richelieu then, and round the corner from Willi’s Wine Bar which Mark Williamson opened to huge acclaim in 1980.
When I had stashed away my books, I’d drop in on Willi’s for a glass of wine; especially once Tim Johnston arrived from Provence to run it, bringing with him his considerable expertise when it came to the wines of the Rhone Valley. Like Steven Spurrier at the Caves de la Madeleine and the Académie du Vin, Tim had managed to become a respected figure in French wine circles, which was no easy feat. I got to know him a little bit then. In 1981 Tim moved to Bordeaux to manage a wine bar on the place Tourny. The bar is long gone. The site is now a branch of the industrial baker Paul.
I had planned to use the summer that year to get my work done in the Gironde Archives in the rue d’Aviau in Bordeaux. I was on a tight budget and had to find a very cheap room in the crummiest hotel around. In the evening I’d go to Tim’s bar. He understood the situation at once. When I arrived he’d line up six glasses on the counter: ‘I am trying to decide which of these Côtes de Fronsac I am going to put on the list. Try them all and let me know what you think.’
The glasses remained on the counter, and I tried them repeatedly before I gave him my verdict. Sometimes he cast similar doubts about a dish he was going to put on the menu, so I would have to try that too. Had it not been for Tim, I would have had to return to Paris a lot earlier than I did, and a lot thinner.
Tim had begun life as a wine trade trainee at Château Cantenac Brown, and he knew the region well. At the weekends he and I and his wife Steph used to explore the countryside and above all the vineyards. When I went off with just Tim I rode on the back of his motorbike. If Steph came we took his car. He wangled me in on the tastings he was invited to. I remember visiting Mouton for the first time and driving to Fronsac to call on a château-owner with a Francis Bacon triptych decorating his office wall. Tim had friends in various châteaux, we’d have a pleasant lunch in a bistrot somewhere, or go to that lovely café near the ferry at Lamarque and drink Bass beer with brown shrimps called ‘chevrettes’.
And I made other friends through Tim. I went up to Château Loudenne to spend the night and look at their extensive archives. I remember visiting Jenny Bailey (later Dobson) at Château Sénéjac and a picnic on the Battlefield of Castillon. My sister, pregnant with her daughter joined me for a few days in my hotel. What had seemed like a grim prospect of a month on my own in Bordeaux turned into a memorable summer.
Tim’s job didn’t last long and he came back to Paris. The fly paper for almost all my wine contacts in France was Steven Spurrier’s empire in the Cité Berryer. Apart from Tim, almost everyone - including Jenny and Mark Williamson - had worked for him at some stage. One of the oddest Spurrier old boys was the late Ivan Paul, the scion of a family of rich maltsters near Ipswich who kept a wine shop in the rue Vaneau and got into endless scrapes. His fellow Old Etonian Charles Lea proved more level-headed and went on to found the highly successful wine merchants Lea & Sandeman in London with Patrick Sandeman (another who went to a sadly early grave). Through the Académie I met the leading lights of French wine writing like Michel Bettane, Michel Dovaz and his friend Muriel de Potex, who had a vicious parrot and lived nearby in Montparnasse. Joel Payne the Texan editor of the indispensible GaultMillau Guide to German wines was another Académie man who worked for a while behind the bar at Willi’s.
My initiation into the world of wine writing came when Tim was asked by the Franco-British Chamber of Commerce to write an article on Beaujolais for their magazine. He said he couldn’t do it alone and asked me to write it with him. I am sure he would have managed it if he really wanted to. I think another commission came later from the same source. Even if I was increasingly drawn into tasting wine and attending major events, I was still just a historian whose interest in wine was confined to a period before the First World War. Wine writing only became (an unreliable) source of income when in the spring or summer of 1984. I was asked to take over the editorship of a consumer magazine owned by a clutch of seedy Marseillais brothers based in an office above the Champs Elysées. They wanted me to sell advertising space, but I refused, and wrote wine and food articles instead.
When I returned to live in England at the end of the year there was still a little translating work on offer from the circle around the Académie du Vin. I knew little or nothing of the much vaunted wine scene in Britain, even if Steven Spurrier had opened a wine shop in Fulham and lived close to my sister in Clapham. In France we tasted almost exclusively French wines. In England the range was naturally much broader.
In 1985 a friend commissioned a commercial radio series about drink called ‘Grape & Grain’. Together with a team of professional broadcasters we recorded interviews with members of the British trade about drink. I was still working on my thesis, even if I had lost my connection to the University of Paris I. In the time I had to spare I was in the Reading Room of the British Museum and hoped that I might be able to interest a publisher in a book on the subject. Apart from a brief trip to Ireland to taste whisky (my first to the land of my fathers), I didn’t budge from Britain all year.
The following year I began to travel again. I even went back to Bordeaux to do a piece for the boys in the Champs Elysées, a remarkable trip that involved never-to-be repeated treats like a lunch at Yquem, and a dinner at the Bordeaux home of the Prats of Cos d’Estournel. I travelled with the Dutch wine writer Hubrecht Duijker and Robert Joseph from WINE magazine, the force behind the recently created Wine Challenge tasting tournament. With Robert I finally came into contact with English wine-writing. As for the Bordeaux thesis-cum-book, it was reluctantly abandoned, although a long fragment was published last year. Instead I started another book on gastronomic French history and in November 1987 that became my Opus I.
The Return of the Hunter-Gatherer
Posted: 1st February 2021
January has been a dramatic sort of month although it was hardly billed to be anything else. We finally saw the back of Donald Trump and his Lady Macbeth, and I duly designed a dish to celebrate their departure. My ‘Melanzania trumpigiana’ is made by cutting an aubergine or aubergines in half and hollowing them out. The aubergine’s meat is then cooked in olive oil with plenty of diced tomatoes, salt, pepper and thyme before being spooned back into the empty hulls with a good scattering of parmesan cheese. The mixture should obviously have a striking, orange colour. The aubergines should be finished off in a hot oven for half an hour, or can be more quickly pushed under the grill. Remember you need to cook the hulls too. They are best eaten with something light, frothy and festive. Although I say it myself, the dish is rather good. Some people think that anything bearing the name of Trump should be as disgusting as its inspiration, but I drew the line at any sort of masochism and when a dish tastes as good as this, we should be able to celebrate Trump’s passing several times a month.
The news on the home front was not nearly so pleasing. We have finally quit our holding position and taken to the skies, leaving behind us the world we have known for forty-seven years. So with rampant COVID and cloggy borders, back here in London the Hunter-Gatherer has been dogged by market dearth. I am not talking about the empty supermarket shelves that have been plastered all over the social media - I don’t use supermarkets - but rather the notable gaps in the displays in the run-down North London street markets of Kilburn, Seven Sisters and Queen’s Crescent. Some of the little things I used to get from local shops also now look as if they might disappear for a while, if not for good.
Let’s start with poultry. A lot of the middle-range stuff used to come from France and formed a hyphen between the low-price battery birds produced here and high-priced free range and organic chickens. They are mass-produced of course, but benefit from a more regulated regime. At the end of December they stopped crossing the Channel but now they are back, albeit intermittently, but complete with a £10 surcharge on a 10 kg case. This means we will end up paying a pound more for a chicken, £7 rather than £6. Duck, quail, guinea fowl and various other foreign birds are also likely to go up in price for the same reason. They are not produced in anything like real commercial quantities here.
Most of the meat we eat is produced here, but that is not always the case when it comes cheap pork, or for speciality sausages and other ‘charcuterie’. I worry for my Spanish butcher Miguel. He doesn’t look happy. For the time being he has morcillas and chorizos in stock and the other day he even had a delivery of Catalan rice so vital for paella. The pork I buy is English, but price hikes for Danish pork will inevitably affect the sort of meat that goes into schools, hospitals and canteens.
Fish has raised a stink of late. Given that we are no longer successfully exporting fish and that the restaurants are closed you might have thought it was a good moment to offer cheaper fish to the general public? But no, not a bit of it: instead of prices coming down, they appear to have gone up. I bearded one of my local fishmongers about this, and he agreed with me ‘It makes no sense, as nobody has any money.’ He spelled out the origin of the fish in his shop. The cheaper, farmed fish (bass and bream) came from Billingsgate. He didn’t buy from Peterhead which sold largely frozen fish to fish and chip shops. They took nothing from the East Coast, where the trawlers froze the fish, but had separate deals with fishermen on the South Coast. The only explanation he could offer for the high prices was bad weather, but bad grace might also apply? At least the fishermen can’t be sulking in the pub, as the pub is closed along with everything else.
Now we turn to drink. My interest in wine is twofold: I like to consume it with my dinner, of course, but I am still writing about it too. January is traditionally the time of post-Christmas sales and tastings, of which none took place. Covid is the obvious villain here, but he shares the stage with his chum Brexit. Chaos at the ports and new post-EU paperwork for ‘third’ countries has meant less wine is getting through. The FT recently predicted that a £12 bottle of wine will go up in price by £1.50. In the future many smaller producers will find the voluminous paperwork involved in sending wine to a ‘third’ country defeating and will cease trading with the UK. This will apply mostly to the interesting small producers who find their way onto restaurant lists, and constitute the chief pleasure of wine connoisseurs and writers.
Ah! But you say, what about the New World: wine has broken its European bounds and reached a wider world? Some people add (ideologically) that European wine is bad, and wine from the New World is better. This could be true, but most new world producers are big, employ dozens if not hundreds of people, and can tailor their prices to their production. If you possess fewer than fifty acres you cannot do this so easily. The French specialised press has been advising readers to look for new markets for nearly five years. Unless they can learn to pool their exports and farm out their paperwork, we are going to see much less choice in restaurants and shops.
Whether wine writing will survive is also a question. My one attempt to get samples in January was met by an impolite refusal. Last month I tasted four good Bulgarian wines made by women winemakers and four German and Austrian wines made by biodynamic producers. They were all good, but there was not enough in either to make an article. Samples sent from abroad will now be charged at outrageous rates (there is no cost advantage in sending a small package), and the price makes the exercise ridiculous. Supermarkets may still send out wines to writers, but only from what might become increasingly diminished ranges.
We may see a brave new wine world of a few clarets and continental wines with holdings of 250 acres or more, and a lot of ‘imperial’ wines (as they used to be called) from the New World. It will look a little bit like wine shops did before 1973. Add South America to this. When I went to Chile in 1990 the wines were made by nine firms. I think there are many more now, but you will get the point. The mentality there is more commercial, it is not exactly a family business, so don’t expect diversity. There will be plenty of wines at over £100 a bottle of course. A bit more duty, a price hike or three, won’t mean much to hedgehogs or oligarchs. Also the Lafites and Moutons of this world are large commercial companies controlling hundreds and thousands of acres of vines.
And Sir John Redwood will now be able to preen himself that the street markets look much as I remember them in 1972, when almost all produce barring the odd orange or banana was British: British potatoes, British turnips and British cabbages. In January it looked a bit more like 1942, but things might get better in May. There weren’t many aubergines to be had in Queen’s Crescent on Saturday either, so we shan’t be eating much Melanzania trumpigiana for the time being.
Posted: 4th January 2021
The feast is not finished, nor have the lamps expired, the tree’s still up, and although I have yet to make the galette des rois, there is already a bottle of wine in the fridge earmarked to go with the pie when it rolls out at the Epiphany. It has been a quiet Christmas, for all sorts of reasons, but we celebrated stylishly enough, not least because I still had a few good wines stashed away. The stock is dwindling, however, and I am sure we will not see their like again.
In the nineties I still wrote a lot about wine: hundreds of articles and three whole books. That meant that there was always lots of wine about, and there was more money than I needed too in those days, so I used to buy doubletons in the vague idea I might ask people round to dinner. Either there were too many purchases, or too few invitations were sent out, but this stock is what feeds high days and holidays now.
Once the tree was decorated on Christmas Eve we started with some non-vintage Perrier-Jouët. We must have had it for at least five years, maybe longer? I like old champagne, the darker colour and more concentrated aromas. It went well enough with my terrine. I had managed to procure a liver on my whistle-stop trip to Calais on the 17th. Christmas Eve is the last day of the Advent fast, and a fish night. In the past we have eaten lobsters, either bought here or brought up from the coast by my Devon-based brother-in-law. I assume the poor lobsters we normally eat were dying slow and painful deaths in the backsides of lorries on Manston Field. We had a big piece of halibut instead, which I cooked with a little wine, saffron, butter and cream, and although I say it myself, it was a triumph.
For the first time ever there was no great white burgundy to go with the fish. All I had was a curiosity: a 2010 Pinot Blanc Les Avoines from Jean Fournier in Marsannay. It was a wonderfully concentrated wine. Pinot Blanc ages extremely well, and this was just further proof.
A friend had given us some Norman cheeses that were too much for his needs, and there was a ripe camembert to follow. My Calais-bought vacherin mont d’or never ripened properly, although I was assured it was delicious on toast. I opened a 1997 Sämling 88 (Scheurebe) Spätlese from my friend Johann Münzenrieder in Apetlon. It was still walking, but with a stick. It was supposed to go with an excellent chestnut bûche.
Fortunately I had decanted some port earlier. I have run out of wines from the ‘British’ houses, but I still had some Rozès, which used to be owned by Moët & Chandon. From what I could see (the label had gone and the cork came out in crumbs) it was a 1991. It was more Graham than Dow, if you know what I mean: opulent and sweet. There were tastes of cherries, chocolate and nuts, and it was deliciously creamy: a bit like a liquid Schwarzwaldtorte. It had considerable staying power mind you and was still pleasant to drink three days later. There wasn’t much time to swill port either, as we scrambled off to a rather muted Midnight Mass at the Dominican Friary in Hampstead.
The best champagne was kept for opening presents around the tree on Christmas Day. There was to be none served on New Year’s Eve. I had some 2003 Roederer left over from a lot I was given for judging a wine-writing prize. It was no disappointment: baked apples and crystallised fruits. Before the Simon-Heffer forerib we ate some more of the terrine, but this time with a mature Saar wine: the 2007 von Orthegraven Kanzemer Altenberg Riesling Spätlese. It was as good as I expected, changing dramatically in the glass over time, but reminiscent above all of exquisite Seville orange marmalade.
The beef was accompanied by a gratin dauphinois and red cabbage liberally basted with the Scheurebe from the night before. With the rib I opened my last bottle of the 1992 Domaine de l’Arlot Vosne Romanée Premier Cru (Les Suchots?). I had the other bottle of this on my birthday, which I remembered being wonderful. There was nothing wrong with this either, mind you: tremendous power with some slightly spirity cherry fruit. There was a hint of sweetness at first, but it was on thundering good form.
As the vacherin was still not playing I had a little camembert-style cheese with truffles and a pont l’evêque. A Sussex pond pudding followed with a 1993 Eiswein from the Weingut Unger. Wolfgang Unger had taken the lease on the thirty hectares of vines at Stift Göttweig across the Danube from Krems. He died shortly after making this wine and the arrangement was taken over by his daughter Petra. I remember a charming old gent who had spent many years in Manchester and South Africa. The label gave no indication of grape variety. The wine was the colour of tea and rich and jammy.
There was a Norfolk capon for Boxing Day; not a real capon - it is against the law to castrate a cock in Britain - but a mature male bird. We had one last year and I realised how good they could be. I had noted that the hot summer had taken its toll on a number of corks among the older wines. One victim was the 1992 Nuits Saint Georges Premier Cru Les Vaucrains from Robert Chevillon. It was weeping a bit so I thought it time to operate. There was nothing wrong with the cork, and I quickly decanted the wine just before I tried it. It was a gorgeous colour and gave off a heady bouquet of creamy strawberries. The only problem was that it faded fairly quickly once the oxygen got at it. I’d made a quince tart, which was paired with Münzenrieder’s 1997 Bouvier Trockenbeerenauslese. This was all buttery raisins, with a useful seam of acidity to prevent it from cloying.
Over the next few days there were important accommodations to be made concerning the leftovers. The capon gave us a short crust pie and a risotto ‘rustico’; the beef provided a beef and Guinness pudding, using some suet I had taken off two veal kidneys and frozen. None of these merited better-than-average wine. On the 31st, however, we have a north Italian meal: a stuffed pig’s trotter or zampone with lentils (they represent the money you are going to earn) potato purée and tomato passita. With this I brought out another weeper: the 1981 Biondi-Santi Brunello di Montalcino Reserva.
This was part of a three-pack I brought back from Il Greppo in (I think) 1988 when I visited the estate with friends. I was writing an article on Brunello and wanted to interview the late Franco Biondi-Santi and his son Tancredi. The Biondi-Santi family had started Brunello in the nineteenth century. I had intended to drink the wines with the same friends, but thirty years later we have all gone into our separate corners (and one tragically to heaven) and the time has come to drink up.
As it was the wine was already down to high shoulder. I treated it much like the Nuits Saint Georges. The cork came out in two bits and I decanted it immediately before drinking. The colour was once again magnificent and the wine gave off a delightful aroma of ceiling wax and oranges with a little bit of fresh meat. On the palate there were black fruits - blackberries and blackcurrants - a wonderful structure and a cooling finish. The only disappointment was a tiny ‘point’ (as the French say) of bitterness on the finish. It was a superb end to an otherwise abominable year.
Tale of a Tartiflette
Posted: 1st December 2020
I had a cheese from the Cotswolds last month. It was called ‘Baronet’ and was made in imitation of the famous washed-rind Reblochon cheese from the French Alps. Produced in Worcestershire from the milk of Jersey cows, it was predictably rich and creamy, in a way that the Alpine cheese is not, but then again the breeds that make Reblochon are different. They are the beautifully named Abondance, Montbéliarde and Tarine. Their unpasteurised milk is produced from a diet of mountain herbs, flowers and grasses. The Cotswolds aren’t flat either, but a few rolling hills do not in any way replicate the special terrain of the Alps. It is all a bit like our butter: there is nothing quite as fat as English butter.
Don’t get me wrong: Baronet is pleasant enough, but quite bland. Later on what was left of it went into a tartiflette along with the remains of a Brie de Meaux, which had been quite out of this world when I got it but was beginning to develop that smell of ammonia which comes when it’s past its best, and some English Ragstone goats’ milk cheese made in imitation of a Loire bûche by the great Randolph Hodgson of Neal’s Yard Dairy.
A tartiflette will be familiar to anyone who has skied in the French Alps: is made from two layers of diced or sliced potatoes, onions and pieces of smoked bacon (lardons) partitioned horizontally and subsequently topped by wodges of Reblochon shorn of their rinds. Yes, I cheated a bit by using those other cheeses, but if I’d had a good Reblochon I would have scoffed it rather than cooking it.
I was pleased with my first tartiflette and it went down well; but like a lot of other people I am worried that our future trading relations with the Mainland will leave us with at best these pallid imitations of the gastronomic models we know and love. It isn’t that we can’t make good cheese, ham or sausages, it is that our land is very different and breed and terroir count for a lot in determining the flavour of food and drink. It’s a bit like wine. You could try to produce Château Lafite in some favoured spot in the West Country, but I should bet you would have zero chance of success.
Now this could just be hogwash (there’s a lot of it about) but in recent news we have learned that we might have to be satisfied with British-made salame and chorizo. This seems to have inspired some extreme nationalists or optimists to say that ours was better than the Spanish stuff anyhow. I thought of my little Spanish butcher Miguel in Camden Town, and his array of imported morcillas, black and white, some for frying, others for stewing; ditto chorizo for all occasions; and then there are the fresh sausages he makes himself, sausages so garlicky that it isn’t just the vampires who run for cover. Without that range of produce I could hardly believe that Britain would be a better place and I wonder if Miguel will continue trading?
‘O Freunde nicht diese Töne...’ enough of these gloomy thoughts! So, what have I been doing for the second ‘lockdown’? The answer is cooking. I am in the habit of spotting things that I think might be popular at home and which fail to catch on in our small household so that I am forced to eat the lot myself. That was the case with the kilo of duck livers I bought for a song. I thought I might wrap them in bacon and cook them on skewers, but there was a distinct lack of enthusiasm, so I decided to make a pâté. I cooked them up with some spring onions and splashed cognac over them before putting them through the mouli. The mouli extracted some, but not all the rebarbative arteries but the pâté seemed a bit austere for all that, until I hit on the idea of adding in a lot of melted butter. Even I grew tired of eating it for lunch every day, however, and I ended up by freezing the remains.
My ox cheek fared slightly better, but then again I didn’t tell anyone what part of the ox it had come from, and as I had softened it up in the pressure cooker before I finished it off with onions and tomatoes, it was as tender as a heart in love. I had rather better luck with the tart I made from some huge, bulbous quinces I found in the Kilburn High Road (the boulevard of cheap fruit and veg). Another triumph this November was my attempt to imitate Transylvanian sarmales: cabbage leaves filled with minced pork, beef, rice and seasonings. It was a fiddly job, and I found I had blanched too few cabbage leaves and made too much forcemeat, with the result that I had to stuff a great many tomatoes as well. You cook sarmales very slowly and serve them with soured cream. By common consent, however, the lockdown laurels were awarded to the tartiflette - despite its hybrid nature.
A Golden October in the Kitchen
Posted: 3rd November 2020
At the beginning of month there was a proper ‘Oktoberfest’ here as I harvested my grapes. They were not easy to get at, as the vines are ‘trained’ à la romaine up a bay and an olive tree. I had to detach the blue-black bunches with a lopper, fish them out of the roses and gather them up into a yellow plastic tub.
Once I had warmed them up to below blood heat in a big pot, I added a kilo of sugar. It is the process known as ‘chaptalisation’ after the baron Chaptal, sometime Interior Minister to Napoleon, so we’ve been doing it for at least 200 years. The sugar made up for their obvious lack of ripeness and gave the yeast something to feed on. There is plenty of yeast flying around and I was grateful to see a few bubbles appear after two or three days, signalling the beginning a slow and not very tumultuous fermentation.
Once the bubbles became rare, I decanted the liquid into a big glass jar and loosely stoppered it. Not only did I want to allow the fermentation to begin again when it got warmer, I intended the odd, intrepid fruit fly to visit the wine. Fruit flies bring the bacteria that turn bad wine into useful vinegar. Our grapes would not be good enough to make anything else. Such is wine, in its rawest, earthiest manifestation. Once upon a time people drank this. Thank God we have not been reduced to that yet. Only time will tell.
October wasn’t such a bad month. Although we had been sad to see one child leave for university, the other one came home and I actually went out to FOUR restaurants! There was the Seashell in Lisson Grove - London’s premier fish and chippie. I went to Le Café du Marché in Charterhouse Square for fish soup and a lovely Châteaubriand and our best local restaurant, Anima e Cuore in the Kentish Town Road for its exquisite homemade pasta. Anima e Cuore has no wine list, and as it was a family birthday we drank some very mature non-vintage Perrier Jouët at home and took down a bottle of the 1996 Michaele Chiarlo Barolo. It was my last, but in peak form.
I had a truly memorable meal at Bentley's in Swallow Street. In a way it couldn’t have been simpler: we kicked off with oysters, pacifics from Carlingford Lough and some wonderful natives from West Mersea (the most palatable things in Essex); followed by half a lobster thermidor; ditto a grilled sole with Béarnaise sauce; and finished with some rice pudding ‘brûlée’ (well, not literally, but you know what I mean).
And I have been busy at home too. I am amazed at how unnecessarily complicated recipes can be. On several occasions I have had some mackerel fillets and turned them into a paste that makes a perfect snack lunch. Look the recipe up and all sorts of silly flourishes are added. All you really need is the mackerel, a fork, some soft butter, a bit of Dijon mustard (maybe horseradish if there is some to hand) and a teaspoonful of capers.
Anima e Cuore inspired me to stuff some courgette flowers. The Italian grocer Lo Sfizio, which is owned by them, had the flowers in stock and a lovely organic ricotta, which combined with an egg, nutmeg and some grated parmesan makes the perfect filling. The trick seems to be to bake them at quite a low temperature to maintain the pretty patterns in the petals.
Garlic has been a bit of a theme, as its chief opponent has been away in the north it has figured in rather more recipes than before. I felt sure it was good for our antibodies. I made a new version of my deboned chicken dish pollo alla corona, stuffing it with some garlicky salsa verde and mozzarella. Garlic is the soul of a proper gratin dauphinois, so I was able to abandon all restraint there too. Garlic was an important part of the gremolata sauce I made for an osso bucco - of beef this time - the appropriate veal vertebrae being unavailable.
My wife found a recipe for Lapin chasseur in Le Monde attached to a wine column written by my old friend Antoine Gerbelle. There was also a smidgen of garlic in the rabbit. My daughter has also been making pasta with her new machine, and we had some very seasonal pumpkin ravioli. This is one of my favourite things when I go to northern Italy (I wonder if I shall ever see the Po Valley again?). For the first time in years I made a proper Bolognese ragú using three broken meats, in this case pheasant, brisket and gammon.
Of course most people make a ‘Bolognese’ from mince and I have not neglected mince either: I have created a new dish I call ‘Scotch bonnet’ as a tribute to the Caledonian partiality to it. In this instance I use pork, an onion and a few cherry tomatoes. I add a little home-made stock to this and two serving spoonfuls of Calabrian nduja. This last ingredient gives the dish its name. It is hot enough to send your tam-o-shanter flying sky-high.
And pears, there are plentiful cheap pears at about £1 for six. That means lots cooked à la normande, in butter and sugar, or in red wine with orange zest, cloves and cinnamon. With the latest news from Downing Street announcing a fresh lockdown, cooking is set to continue throughout November.
A Dash for the Sun
Posted: 1st October 2020
In the middle of September I made a dash for Provence for a last look at the sun. Mainland Europe was and remains blighted by COVID. A half empty Eurostar took us to the Gare du Nord, then a packed regional express train to the Gare de Lyon. As I shuffled to make space I noted that a fair number of French people are as unaware as Britons that their noses are connected to their respiratory systems, although many more obey the rules. We stopped at the usual place for a beer and a sandwich, then took the TGV the rest of the way.
Again the train was not full, but the people fidgeted, unhappy with the obligation to wear masks. Noses came out, then when the inspectors had made their rounds some coverings were discretely discarded. One plump woman had thought up a wizard wheeze: if she ate she was not required to mask up. She had invested in a multi-pack of Maltesers and popped them all the way to Avignon.
For once the car rental was acquitted in a trice and thirty minutes later we were in the Ventoux Valley on our way to the Domaine des Anges. It was all very different: there was no haunch of Boris in the freezer, but the boar had been round alright and had quite methodically churned up the patch of lawn outside the door. Our host was on hand with cool champagne and a cold collation, but we were just four at table: a far cry from the noisy September meetings of the past. Our convives were tucked up behind bolted doors in Ireland and Portugal, and were much missed.
The next morning I went out to look for figs. There were plenty of little green ones on the tree by the cave. Some had fallen on the table below and dried in the sun. In the vineyard above there were delicious small black figs too. Over near the gardens that look out towards the ‘Giant’ (Mount Ventoux) a crew was making a film about climate change and no one was allowed to talk above a whisper. There were chores to be acquitted in Mazan as the barometer rose to 37C. We stopped for a beer at the bottom of the hill and used the opportunity to book La Bergerie for dinner that night. I had the pool all to myself that afternoon. It was almost too hot in the sun.
Later I had a chat with Florent Chave the winemaker. Almost all the grapes were in. It was another wonderful vintage, although the estate still had the 2018 reds to dispose of, not to mention the 2019 whites and rosés. The all-Grenache Séraphin had just won a Gold at the World Wine Awards, which was a consolation.
After an aperitif in the sun, we went down to the restaurant. La Bergerie struck just the right tone: the waitresses were fast, helpful and moderately saucy. The food was unfussy, plentiful and good: a vol-au-vent filled with snails accompanied by a little salad, a ‘pluma’ of Iberian pork (cut from near the neck) with a mustard sauce and a very garlicky portion of gratin dauphinois and finally a sundae called ‘Mount Ventoux’ (think of a Mont Blanc with ice cream replacing the meringue) all for €30. The ‘pluma’ was new to me, but I quickly realised I had made the right choice.
It was a short break and indulgently lazy. I spent hours in the sun reading Buddenbrooks while the others anatomised a lame car. The next day we went to Mazan to get food before it got too hot and when that happened I repaired to the pool. I wasn’t quite alone this time, as I encountered a baby adder in the grass, stretched out somewhere between the water and my shoes. I thought it was dead at first as it didn’t move, but when I returned it had squeezed its universe into a ball. I began to suspect that his mother might be lurking somewhere, which rather mitigated the pleasure of swimming.
That night we ate in. We bought some local Ventoux pork with a thick strip of white fat on the chops that disappeared in the grilling. I marinated them in wine and cooked them with a medley of tomatoes, garlic and peppers, sautéed some potatoes and served the dish with spinach and some buttered ceps I’d chanced upon in the shop.
The equinoctial storm was brewing up on Saturday. There was a wind and an occasional sprinkling of rain followed by intense heat. We went to the market in Pernes for the usual staples. The soap woman knows us now, and gives us presents of sachets of lavender; then there is Isa the beekeeper and her lovely honey. I stocked up on purple garlic bulbs and some less perishable bread for home as I knew we would have run out. The spice man wasn’t there, a pity because I normally buy his cinq épices. Experience has taught me never to transport squashy things like tomatoes. Anything can happen on the way home.
We went to Le Grillon in Bédouin that night. Bédouin is a village transformed by upmarket cyclists who huff and puff up Mount Ventoux by day and carouse by night. I have never seen the place so busy in September. It is bursting with new restaurants. Le Grillon is one of these. I hadn’t noticed it before but it was full to bursting with mostly male parties of cyclists. Next to us was a group of eight Australians telling yarns about those last hundred metres and the challenge to reach the summit.
Compared to La Bergerie, Le Grillon is fussy and chichi. I had a nice tartare of scallops on a bed of tomatoes and chorizo but the presentation involved a lot of Jackson Pollock-style slashing and splashing. This was followed by a small piece of grilled bull meat, with a couple of rather tweely presented vegetable dishes and a wire basket containing perhaps a dozen chips. I finished with some little pancakes with rum and vanilla ice. The rum was in a little plastic phial, so you could squeeze it out yourself. Again in contrast to La Bergerie, the service was cold and slow.
On the way back to Domaine there was a dramatic electrical storm centring on the Rhone north of Orange. At about four o’clock on Sunday morning the heavens opened accompanied by much crashing and banging.
It is not as difficult to leave when the weather is bad, but the sun came out as we passed Lyon in our half-empty train. It was warm and bright in Paris. We had time to kill and looked for a bar for a café crème near the Gare du Nord. There was an altercation in the street when the police tried to discipline two young men for refusing to wear masks. The waiting room in the Gare du Nord, usually so packed, was largely empty. The Eurostar leg proceeded without a hitch. I returned grateful for the sun on my back, but delivering myself up to two weeks of soul-destroying house arrest.
The Hunter-Gatherer at Large
Posted: 1st September 2020
In two weeks it will be six months. In that time I have cooked a proper meal every single night bar four (well, three and a half): on one night I joined two friends for fish and chips at the Seashell in Lisson Grove, on another occasion we all ate in a friend’s garden; on a third my daughter cooked dinner, and lastly my son did his chicken (I did the rest). And it is not as if the period preceding was very different. I have had very few nights off since mid-February, when I went to Provence (and I cooked there too). It’s not just the rigmarole of nightly cooking: I haven’t caught a plane or taken a train. The most I have done is to venture out on buses, albeit fewer than a dozen times. I have been largely confined to my corner of north-central London, bound in by the railway lines that issue from Euston and St Pancras; and I suspect I am acutely bored and about to go mad.
And it is not as if the meals I have cooked have been enjoyed by anyone other than our very modest family circle. Once or twice I have passed plates out into the front garden where my daughter entertains her many friends before she goes off with them to a pub or the Heath. Otherwise I try to vary what we eat and drink as well as I can. It is not always easy, given that X won’t eat this, and Y doesn’t like that. It’s a dog’s life.
Recently I was all alone for ten days when my wife and son went to the country. I still had to cook mind you, but only for myself. Eating by myself is naturally less complicated, but I cook a proper meal and sit down at the dinner table to consume it. The only difference is that I have a book ensconced on my left, to entertain me and stop me bolting my food. I recall one evening’s offering was well nigh perfection: an artichoke (£1 from the local Italian deli) with Moroccan olive oil and aceto balsamico (it is hard to eat an artichoke quickly), then two little lamb chops (£2.50 from Miguel the Spanish butcher in Camden Town) with a tomato à la provençale - cut in two and coated with garlic and breadcrumbs - and some polenta made good and runny with milk and butter. I drank half a bottle of Lidl’s best rioja 2015 Cepa Lebrel Reserva (a real bargain at £5.49). The only drawback to the choke was that I made little progress with Casanova’s memoires. I was worried about getting oil on the pages of the book. I then slunk upstairs and watched a film.
Twice recently I have been out for coffee with friends. In one instance I went all the way to Covent Garden, to Paul in Garrick Street, noting on the way the sad hulk of the Garrick Club all still and boarded up. At Paul the lavs had been cordoned off too for the duration of the virus. Someone should warn you not to imbibe too many diuretics like coffee or tea, but they don’t. At my most adventurous I even went out for lunch up the road with a good friend, although to my shame I failed to support the government’s buy-a-sandwich-and-save-the-nation scheme but almost certainly prevented myself from catching Covid or worse by eating commercial mayonnaise or battery chicken.
We went, as we often do, to the Bull & Last in the Highgate Road. You may still be able to get a pint at the Bull & Last, but it is much more of a restaurant than a gastropub. It has been through hell and back: it closed for months and months for refurbishment and emerged from its shroud only to lock up for the lockdown. Now it has reopened at last with fewer tables and two-and-a-half hour eating shifts but it has lost a little something on the way. The meal was impressively presented: a smorgasbord of salmon with horseradish cream under a little salad on some rye bread was as pretty as a picture. The salmon had been marinated in beetroot and had an eye-catching colour. I had a tender steak sandwich in two hunks of baguette and finally some mirabelles with good panna cotta stirred with a fig leaf or branch, much as I used to do to make my cheese. It wasn’t home cooking, and I was grateful for that. We had a gin each and a bottle of Languedocian Carignan with our meal, it wasn’t cheap (median price for wine must be £40), the meal wasn’t cheap (£100 - and only I really ate anything), but it was real food. The sole thing that rankled was the cold, charm-free service.
The Bull & Last is half-way between home and Swain’s Lane. When Covid struck back in March, the Earl of Listowel’s development was nearing completion. It had been controversial: the old one-storey structures on the north side had been ripped down and posh flats created overhead. Latterly the project was passed on to Noble House Properties. On the other hand the idea behind the redevelopment was to maintain the vocation of the street as a place where any form of food might be bought. Gone to another stage of history are all the old stagers: Martin the Butcher, Marseille Claude and Micky the Greengrocers, Soapy Sam the Wine Merchant, Covington Flowers, the dog-eared Café Mozart and the rest; now there is a new crew with the inevitable nod to the chains in the form of Gail’s the extortionate bakers, and FAM the good (but overpriced) Turkish greengrocer from Fortess Road. New to the scene are Bourne’s the fishmonger, Swain’s Lane Butchers, Citro’s Italian restaurant and the Wine Cellar, which looked like a wine shop at first, but on closer inspection is more like a wine bar - with separate on-the-spot and take-away prices.
I found time to make a tour of inspection during my period of solitude. I was particularly interested in the meat and fish elements in the new shopping street. I tried Bourne’s first, and settled on a piece of skate to cook ‘au beurre noir’. The chunk weighed about 600 grams but it was only slightly too big for one, given that skate is largely bone. The fishmonger offered to cut off a scant half, but I am glad I took the lot. It came to over £10, which is a lot for skate, but still I enjoyed it.
The butcher had lashings of fancy beef including American Prime. I suppose we must look that way now. There was a ‘Denver steak’ from the forequarters that was ravishing with its marbling but which cost all of £40 a kilo! The butcher pressed a great many things on me but in the end I settled for a bit of sirloin, which was good, but still twice the price I’d normally pay from my usual butcher. I am not sure I’m quite mad enough to pay that price again, but it made a change.
A Long Drink in Lockdown
Posted: 1st July 2020
July begins, and apart from my immediate family I have seen virtually no one since March; and no, I don’t mean I have seen them ‘virtually’: Skype and Zoom drinks and parties are not my thing. I do see the local traders on a fairly regular basis, and late last night I made an unscheduled visit to the outpatients’ department at the Royal Free, but humanity rarely looks its best in the wee hours, and if what I saw there was real life, well, you can keep it.
I try where possible to make family life as convivial as I can. With my son about to go up to university, we are now four drinkers. He doesn’t consume much still wine (he has no apparent objection to champagne) but even a bottle divided between three is not a lot, so I have tried to stock up the drinks cabinet a bit so that there is a little more choice.
It is summer now and of course spirits are not ideal when it’s hot and you’re thirsty. Most of the time a beer would be better but beer is not good before wine, so my mind turns to long drinks: whisky and ginger or maybe a whisky sour if you have a bit more time? A gin and tonic can be the perfect summer drink and a Tom Collins is also delicious once in a blue moon. I often have a gin and French, a walk down memory lane that evokes flashes of better times. I never know what to do with vodka, but there is a full bottle of Russian Standard in the fridge. Ideally you’d toss a glass back straight after a spoonful of caviar, otherwise vodka is just a way of turning fruit juice into alcohol. I prefer rum, which has more flavour: a petit punch is a lovely drink on a warm evening, and not too fussy; but you need good white cane rum, and preferably from the French islands. Rum from the old British islands is made from molasses and has a coarse character like some rough old tar sounding off in the pub.
The important point is that you don’t want to be fiddling around with jiggers and strainers and other paraphernalia if you are wrestling with dinner with the other hand, but you do need the basic materials: lemons, limes, soda water, non-dietary tonic water (Schweppes, Fever-Tree or Fentimans) and ginger ale. You also need Campari and Martini Rosso for those days when you can be fagged to knock up a Negroni. Sugar syrup is essential. I keep a bottle of it in the fridge and make a new batch when it’s empty by filling it a third full with granulated sugar and carefully pouring on boiling water to dissolve it; carefully, I might stress: if you do it too quickly you crack the bottle.
I use sugar syrup in my ‘tit punch. As a West Indian barman once told me: ‘two fingers of your favourite white rum, two fingers of sugar syrup and two fingers of freshly squeezed lime juice’. A couple of ice cubes don’t go amiss either. The principle of a Tom Collins is much the same, but uses gin and fresh lemon juice.
I am near the end of a bottle of Villa Ascheri gin, and then I have some Portobello Road Navy Strength gin kindly sent to me by friends. For most gin drinks, however, a bottle of Plymouth or Beefeater is fine, and costs about £16. Probably my favourite is Tanqueray 10, but is hugely pricy and I have not drunk it in a while. As a friend’s father who had been in the Sudanese Political Service taught me long ago, for a gin and tonic you need to have everything sitting prettily in the fridge, including the lemon. Only then is it a really refreshing drink. In the Subcontinent I have drunk gin with freshly squeezed limes, simply because the tonic was disgusting and limes are more reliable. A gin and French is a good measure of gin, a squeeze of lemon and a larger measure of dry vermouth. Noilly Prat is best, or Dolin from Chambéry. The Dolin will cost almost £15 from the Whisky Exchange, while the Co-op has its own brand at £6.35 a litre and it’s not even that bad.
I try to buy the Réunion white rum from Lidl. It has a proper rum taste and at under a tenner it is cheap. The last time I braved the Lidl in Camden Town they didn’t have any and I had to buy a bottle of Bacardi white rum from the local Co-op instead. This comes from Puerto Rico and costs nearly twice as much. It also has no rum taste. It might just as well be vodka.
The Co-op is the source of many of my bottles, not least because it is the local corner shop. For £22 I can have a litre of Famous Grouse, which is quite good enough for a whisky and ginger or a whisky sour; although I have to say that the whisky sour I had fashioned from peaty new-make Annandale malt was possibly the best ever. The Co-op has quite a range of cheap malts too, which are not great summer drinks but surely worth having in the drinks cupboard: Jura Journey (£22), Glenlivet (£25), Glenmorangie Ten (£26), Laphroaig Select (£28) and Tamnavulin (£22), most of these are new style marketing ‘concepts’ and probably assembled from very young malts. The exception is the Glenmorangie which has an old-fashioned age statement.
I have missed out brandy and cognac as cognac seems to me to be a winter drink to be savoured all on its own but our imperialists liked their brandy with ginger or soda, and the French (also James Bond) used to drink a ‘fine à l’eau’.
Summer is also the time for Pimms. There are the scant remains of a bottle of Pimms Vodka Cup in the cupboard but not enough to go round. You also need lemonade, cucumber, strawberries, fresh mint and borage. The current owners suggest you simplify the formula, but without the salad it is not only not Pimms, it ain’t summer either.
Further Adventures of a Hunter-Gatherer
Posted: 1st June 2020
We’re three months into a quarantine observed by fewer and fewer people. Out on my local streets, parks, gardens and proprietary woods, it might just as well have ceased to exist. I swear my neighbours have had more guests in their house in the past two days than they’ve had in the ten years they’ve lived there. Shopping for food and wine, however, remains much the same, as essential businesses food shops have remained open, but they have been subject to serious problems of supply and in many cases, escalating prices.
Some of the supply problems were created by the government, which delivered a message to the great unwashed right at the beginning: bake off! Some overheated civil servant hatched the bright idea of getting people making bread and red velvet cakes to pass the long hours without work, pubs or sport. As the Germans say ‘idleness is the origin of all vices’. Baking is a fine way to idle away the hours providing you make sure people can lay their hands on flour, yeast, eggs, sugar and the other little things that make a cake, or bread palatable or feasible. Periodically all these things have been impossible to obtain. Many people have beaten a path to my door asking me how they might secure a bit of yeast. Two days ago one of my neighbours told me the only flour she’d been able to find was spelt. Spelt is good for Roman recipes, I admit, but otherwise it is a tiny bit recherché. In many cases I suspect the result of the government’s advice has been frustration and anger.
The other source of anguish has been fruit and veg. I have been sent pictures of fruit and vegetables from Waitrose and Marks & Spencer that looked alright and I was told the price was not too high. I restrict my purchases to small shops and stalls, although my wife braves Sainsbury and other supermarkets. Mostly I go to Sally the Hat outside the underground who offers the great advantages of short queues and bowls filled with tired looking items offered for quick sale for a quid. Wilting spinach can be perked up in the cooking, a few rotten patches in a bell pepper may be surgically removed, tomatoes with wrinkled skins are generally more flavoursome than smooth ones, which reminds me of the untranslatable French saying ‘c’est dans les vieilles cocottes qu’on fait les meilleures soupes’.
On the other hand fruit has been worse than dire. There are still pears, and we had a delicious pear Tatin recently; but like Goethe I long for ‘grapes and figs’ and all those luscious fruits that come from the lands where lemon trees bloom. These seem to have problems getting here. Peaches and apricots are either unripe or rotten. Even native strawberries collapse into mush in the five minutes it takes to get them home. Prices are also excessive: at the stall a kilo of cherries is selling for £9!
I used to go to a good Turkish greengrocer near here, but now everything is hugely overpriced and not as fresh as it was. I bought some dill from them recently, which rapidly began to stink and rhubarb at £4.99 a kilo was twice the price of Sally’s. We have enjoyed the seasonal rhubarb, but that is beginning to get woody now. About the only things I can speak positively about are melons. I have had good green-fleshed ones from Sally, and even better orange ones from the excellent little Italian grocer on the way to Camden Town. The shopkeeper said they were from Verona. I love the smell of them ripening in my fruit bowls: the house is as fragrant as a Mediterranean summer.
Talking of the new Italian, he has good things and is not greedy. I had two enormous citrons from him and made them into a few pots of jam. Jam also excuses a bit of squidginess and unlovely-looking strawberries find a useful refuge there. Most apricots or peaches end up as compote. I have pectin for jam, even if I can’t find the pectin-and-sugar mix I normally buy from the Phoenicians. And for the time being, I have flour and yeast too: possibly enough for another month of bread. English flour is lousy. The French strong wheat flour I have is T65, which is adequate, but not quite the equal of the T80 I had before, but I am not complaining.
On Saturdays I take pains to leave early for my walk to the butcher who is often under siege now that many people have learned from the lockdown that you get better meat from the butcher than the supermarket. His prices are still keen, but his range is no longer as quirky as it was. The joy now is the arrival of the new season’s lamb, which seems to get later year by year. Fish remains a problem. I am told that most fishermen have stopped fishing because no restaurants are open to buy their fish. This results in high prices for the relatively small number of Britons who are prepared to cook fish at home. The range appears to be limited too. Cheap fish such as grey mullet, conger, pollack or gurnard has disappeared and middle-priced fish of the hake, cod or skate sort is rare; but you may have halibut and I am sure they could fit you out with a turbot if you were prepared to pay the price. We had a large plaice one night, it is the time of year when Germans wax lyrical over their ‘Maischolle’ but plaice was commonplace in my childhood, and I find it hard to get worked up about plaice.
The same mentality governs cheese: the best farmhouse cheeses were reserved for restaurants but now that option is denied them and most shops refuse to pay the sort of prices required to stock artisan cheesemakers. Both sides are unhappy: the farmers have to throw away milk or cheese and the general public is denied the chance to buy them. There is once again a brittle side to the market caused by the fact that the supermarkets have too much power and demand huge discounts from the people they deign to stock.
Of course when the restaurants reopen, there will be a chance for fishermen and cheese producers to make money again, but if we crash out of the EU at the end of the year, the present situation with its food queues and poor choice may just turn out to a full dress rehearsal for something much more life-changing: not just rotten tomatoes, no tomatoes.
Posted: 4th May 2020
It has been another month in quarantine, another month of survival. Our lives are similar to those led in wartime. We try to find provisions to feed our family and to distract ourselves from the danger around us. My neighbour, the literary scholar John Mullen, often taunts me for being a ‘hunter-gatherer’. Never has this been closer to the truth. I have abandoned all supermarket chains as they seem to want you to serve yourself these days, and I can’t see the point of queuing for hours outside a shop only to learn when I finally get in, that the thing I wanted has sold out. I pace the streets instead, hoping to see my quarry and it helps to know when this or that place has been freshly supplied.
Speculators have certainly been at work, and with the government’s blessing. I presume it is a tenet close to the heart of neo-liberalism to see price as a function of demand. If a commodity like flour is required, then the price should naturally go up; and to make sure it rises and rises, it is stockpiled and reintroduced to the market via eBay etc. ‘Profiteering’, which resulted in imprisonment and executions as recently as the Second World War, is now considered enterprising. As one local shopkeeper who tried to sell me an inedible Halloween pumpkin at an inflated price put it: ‘business is business.’ An instructive walk up Junction Road has shown me that half the corner shops have hoisted the price of capsicums to around £5-6 a kilo while a few honest traders are still selling bowls of four or five for a quid.
The government has recently told us all to stay at home and make cakes. So they are encouraging both demand and scarcity. Without ensuring that more flour (let alone eggs, dried fruit and nuts etc) reaches the market, this is irresponsible. Am I wrong to assume that there are people out there making proper money out of all this? Now that my French online source has dried up my bread flour has generally been Italian. The ‘0’ grade sometimes labelled ‘Manitoba’ is used for pizza or focaccia, as such it is a little bit too refined for bread, but it will just do. It made the hot-cross buns, which people liked. I can obtain this for about £1.40 a kilo, which keeps me in business. More recently, however, I have found a source of better T65 French flour in 5 kg bags for £6.50. As long as I can locate yeast I am a happy bunny again.
There is plenty of flour ordinarily; just British wheat is not good for much. Supply problems should not affect continental flour which is only used by professional bakers and these are not currently operating in hotels and restaurants. In other areas I am told there are problems. Fruit and vegetable traders have to deal with closed borders which lead to fluctuations in prices which rarely diminish. I don’t know why the price of fish has soared? Fishermen still go out and the principal destination for fish from our southern ports is the restaurant, which remains closed. If anything fish prices should have declined. Ditto meat: a lot of restaurant cuts should be looking for a market. I have not, however, seen big reductions in price even if I have not seen significant hikes either.
Shopping for fish for three with a maximum spend of £10 has resulted in an ever-worsening catch. At the beginning of April it easily bought two huge trout or a big slab of excellent farmed salmon; even mid-month it bought me three small bass. Since then the prices have gone a bit wild: a tenner now buys 420 grams of salmon, or at its very worst three small mackerel. That is about twice as much as I’d expect to pay for common or garden mackerel.
As a freelancer my income dwindles and dwindles and I doubt that any government scheme will be made to apply to my relief. We need to shop wisely but there is plenty of nutritious meat about and the occasional treat too. We had lovely oxtails on my birthday and several good lamb shoulders since. There was even some new season’s lamb for May Day. I have had good skirt and braising beef but none of the prime cuts of steak or the English cheese I pine for and which the government has told us we must eat to be ‘patriotic’. Patriotism, it seems, is a luxury unassailable to the poor.
Roasting pork is £6.60 a kg and mid-week knuckles almost absurdly cheap. The meat can be used in a variety of ways and the broth gives you stock for soups and sauces. There are minced meats and offal like lambs’ kidneys as cheap as 25p each; and curries, ragoûts, béchamels, stuffed peppers and shepherds’ pies put an acceptable spin on leftovers.
A little fad has been boning out and stuffing chickens. Mozzarella has been useful and I have cooked it in carrozza as well. My butcher hands out wild garlic which he picks near his Essex home. This made for lovely stuffing. Even if you don’t fancy deboning a chicken, it is always cheaper to buy the whole beast and chop it up for a sauté etc.
Every day olive oil has been another scarcity, but I have found it in one or other of our Italian delis. I have had my eye too on a second pressing oil with the comic name of ‘Sparta’ sold by the Iranian butcher. It will give me strength, I hope. Rice is a worry, it is periodically hard to obtain, but risotto and paella rice I can find easily enough and we had an excellent risotto alla rucola last week.
I haven’t seen many tempting spring vegetables. There has been some rubbery English asparagus on Sally the Hat’s stall, peas but no broad beans. The same applies to fruit: oranges are past their best, but we are still getting good conference pears for poires à la normande and we have made rhubarb cakes, pies and crumbles exploiting the current season. I am looking for a big bowl of damaged strawberries for jam but the moment for strawberries and cream has not yet returned.
We drink wine with dinner. A lot of old bottles are coming out, generally things that should have gone years ago. In this damp house the corks often have to be removed with tweezers but the surprises are mostly pleasant. We had a bit of a treat on my birthday with a heavenly 1998 Dom Pérignon and a 1991 Premier Cru Vosne-Romanée from Domaine de l’Arlot that was still massively on form. On Easter Sunday the liveliness of Jean Garaudet’s 1991 Monthelie came as a surprise, as did Peter Schandl’s exquisite pure Furmint Ruster Ausbruch from the same year.
The hunter-gatherer now gathers his skirts again for the merry month of May.
Cooking in Times of Corona
Posted: 1st April 2020
I’d be hard pressed to say how long we’ve been at it now, but I could look it up. Time just floats by. There are three of us shut up in this house and a fourth who might return any moment now, as her university course can be polished off online. We find ways of filling our days and no tempers have been lost to date.
I read (not enough), I polish off the occasional assignment (there aren’t many), I watch a film in the evening (thank God for DVDs), a go for the occasional walk to the top of the hill and back and from time to time I go shopping. And, of course, I cook.
Shopping is clearly a problem, and it doesn’t look as if it will get better for a while. When it comes to commodities, the problem is not just panickers and hoarders, it is also profiteers hoping to make a killing later. We don’t eat that much pasta, so rice was the first thing I noticed had disappeared and it wasn’t just the packets of Uncle Ben or Auntie Tilda. In my local Phoenician shop, the five kilo sacks of Egyptian Doha rice had been plundered along with the fragrant Thai rice, but I nabbed some old Basmati before that went too. A lot of people are going to find that their new rices behave differently when they try to cook them. Thai rice tends to go soggy like pudding rice, Doha too.
The Phoenicians have a wonderful shop filled with exotic things but it had never had so many Western customers before. I suspect there are Whatsapp groups that organise squads of marauders. Shortly after my visit they closed down. With any luck they will re-open on Sunday.
I haven’t tried to buy sugar: we don’t use that much, but eggs have been rare. I had a moment of reflection when I couldn’t bind my meatballs, but I remembered that I could use mozzarella and found what I was looking for in the new vegan greengrocer across the road. Meatballs bound with mozzarella proved more popular than the original recipe. One day I procured six French eggs from the butcher at a high price but my wife came in later with 30 dodgy-looking things from the corner shop. He would not sell her any lesser quantity. Still, it meant that we could make some cakes after all and I needed a couple for the Kartoffelpuffer my son and I cooked last night.
Talking of cakes, the locusts had hit the cake-making shelves in my local mini Co-op. Everything from glacé cherries to pine nut kernels has been mopped up. I had some egg-whites left over from making a Guglhupf and my wife wanted to use them to produce some little almond cakes. The only problem was that there were no ground almonds to be had for love nor money. She made meringues instead. I assume people are making cakes to pass the time. I blame Bake Off!
I make my own bread so I need strong flour. Once again, hours and hours of sitting in front of the Gogglebox watching Bake Off might have inspired the Coronavirus generation to make bread too? It could be, of course, that the panic buyers are unaware of the difference? Stocks of strong bread flour have vanished anyway. I saw a tweet about a £1.05, 1.5 kg bag of Sainsbury strong wheat flour being sold on e.Bay for £15, plus £5 for postage and packaging. That would mean enough for two small loaves at £10 each, even before you have acquired your yeast. For once you would be better off paying the outlandish charges levelled by Gail’s etc. I haven’t run out of flour or yeast yet, but I am apprehensive. If the worst comes to the worst I can make Irish brown bread with bicarbonate of soda.
I am worried about my coffee, as I buy green beans from an Ethiopian café and roast them myself. The café has now closed. Fearing the worst, the lady who runs the place gave me a big bag for a change, but I will need to locate an alternative source.
The shops have run out of both French and Italian unsalted butter. I have yet to try my online French supermarket, but they have been suspiciously quiet recently. I keep peering into Italian delis to see if they have had fresh supplies of lovely white butter from the Dolomites. One of my local Italians told me on Saturday I had arrived five minutes too late and he had sold the last packet. This reduces me to yellow, English unsalted butter, which is not quite the same beast. French butter uses slightly soured cream, not the sweet cream found here: it is the gustatory difference between French crème fraîche and the English single cream.
So far I have used the stall outside the tube station for fruit and veg. Sally the Hat tells me that prices have risen because the Spanish Border is closed. Lorries have to travel out empty and pick up their loads on the border itself. As we have nothing to sell to the French that means transport prices go up. I can see that difficulties in obtaining Spanish produce would have an effect on strawberries and tomatoes, but I have not yet bought any of the former and only precious few of the latter, as having a Lycopersicoaphobic son there is no great demand for tomatoes. Her stall has most of the things we do eat, and there is no problem with plastic wrappers or possibly contaminated packaging. I have seen pictures of people disinfecting their supermarket purchases in the bath with bleach or overpriced Dettol. I doubt this does any favours to the taste of your fruit and veg (it could even render it inedible). It might not be a good time to insist on salad, but anything boiled or steamed will be just fine, just like any fruit that you can peel. Strawberries could be iffy.
The fishmongers are open as usual and we still try to eat fish at least once a week. As for meat I make a weekly trip to Paul the Butcher and what with three or four things and reworking the leftovers we are more of less fine. Paul tells me that some meat prices have actually crashed as a result of the lack of restaurant sales. Certain cuts that were popular in gastropubs are up for grabs. I doubt the supermarkets will cut their prices, but a good butcher will. Four fresh meat meals for three cost a little over £30 last weekend, and you can toss in a couple more from the left over roast beef etc: £10 each for six days of protein is not a lot. I don’t eat at midday, but lunches tend to be improvised from what is lying about including any small amounts of leftovers that can’t be made into a ragoût or a curry.
And there is time to experiment. A few days ago we boned out and stuffed a small chicken with spinach and a mozzarella that was going cheap from the Italians.
We had a bit of wine before the crisis kicked off, but we are still buying. Some firms like the Wine Society, for example, have stopped trading temporarily, but there are plenty that are still working, and they are fairly keen to carry on given they have lost their restaurant sales. I noted too that when the restaurants around here closed, some were selling off their stocks, including wine, in the hope of financing the lockdown. I didn’t see if there were bargains to be had but I am sure there were.
So tout va bien for the moment, but anything can happen and in a week’s time, this relatively rosy rendition of locked down life might have become a true picture of hell.
My Night With Boris
Posted: 2nd March 2020
As regular readers of this blog are aware, in February I go down to the Domaine des Anges in the Ventoux region of Provence for a few days of R & R. It is a bit of a busman’s holiday in that there is a fair bit of cooking to do, but I am happy to perform that role when there is no shortage of good ingredients to be had.
February can actually be quite promising as you get close to the Mediterranean. The first spears of white asparagus are on sale as well as peppery little artichokes. There are blood oranges too. The butchers have tiny shoulders of new lamb and there is the last of the game. Truffles are also usually to hand, but the past few months have been too warm and too wet for them.
This year, my good friend Dave from Lucan had a mind to recreate what he said was an Italian dish called something like ‘volcanic tomatoes and eggs’. It sounded much like the sort of thing that I used to live on when I was hard up in Paris: tomatoes and aubergines cooked up in decent oil with a couple of eggs dropped in at the last moment. The slight difference here was the addition of a couple of fresh chillies, obtained like the tomatoes from the big vegetable shop by the war memorial in Carpentras.
The tomatoes were local, probably grown in a tunnel, but with plenty of flavour, and I dare say the eggs were fresh too. I just cut the tomatoes in half at the midriff, fried the open side in olive oil first and turned them over to add chopped chillies. Half a dozen eggs were accommodated in the gaps. ‘Dave’s eggs’ made a great light lunch.
Then there was the veal kidney. There was a call for me to devil that too, but it would have been a shame to add chillies to something as delicate as a veal kidney. As it was I mashed up butter with Meaux mustard and cooked the pieces of kidney pink in that, adding half a glass of white and a good big spoonful of crème fraîche at the last moment.
The kidney was a starter to a meal of sautéd rabbit. As it was I used a fair bit of the estate white to keep the bunny moist and threw in some whole cloves of garlic in their skins together the herbs that grow all around the mas. I then added some peeled baby turnips. I was pleased with this dish.
There is often a large bit of boar to deal with when I arrive. It is traditionally referred to as ‘Boris’. This year it was a proper haunch of Boris, which I committed to a bottle of red, oil and vinegar once I had wiped the dust off my boots and kept him marinating for a couple of days. Like that even an old boar can be tender. On his appointed day Boris was taken out of his bath which was reduced for the sauce with a lot of concentrated tomato paste and Madeira. Boris himself was roasted in the oven with a bouquet garni and came out soft and pink in well under two hours. He was served with a potato purée and the freshest of spinach.
Just three days after my return my neighbour Richard invited me to an all-star tasting of wines from the Mosel-Saar-Ruwer with one Pfälzer interloper. We started with a trio of sweet Kabinetts: 1993 Herrenberg from Maximin Grünhaus, 1997 Wehlener Sonnenuhr from Dr Loosen and a 2007 Abtsberg also from Maximin Grünhaus. The two older wines hardly even tasted sweet, although they must each have had thirty if not fifty grams of residual sugar. A stunning acidity favoured the first two, with the opening wine winning perhaps by a neck.
The next flight was the Spätlesen: the 2007 Abtsberg from Maximin Grünhaus, 2001 Piesporter Goldtröpfchen from Reinhold Haart, 2001 Brauneberger-Juffer Sonnenuhr from Fritz Haag, 2002 Wehlener Sonnenuhr from J J Prüm, 2003 Okfener Bockstein from Zilliken and the 2004 Wehlener Sonnenuhr again from Prüm. The 2001s possibly performed the least well and I expected the heat-wave year 2003 to be short on acidity, but it was not. The stars were the two Prüms and the Abtsberg. With some hesitation I think the Abtsberg was the best of the lot: interesting, when I had not been nearly so impressed by its Kabinett stablemate.
Then came Richard’s dinner and a trio of good German cheeses. We had some of the 2016 Maximin Grünhaus Pinot Noir with that, a wine born only a few years back, a decent Pinot Noir, but there are better to be had from elsewhere in Germany - even further north in the Ahr Valley. Many people opted to return to the Kabinetts which were not at all bad with the food. The super-sweet wines were served with raspberries and blueberries, or with cheese, according to taste. The third flight consisted of a 1998 Forster Ungeheuer Eiswein from von Buhl, a 2010 Zeltinger Sonnenuhr Beerenauslese from Selbach Oster and Daniel Vollenweider’s 2006 Wolfer Goldgrube Trockenbeerenauslese - an estate I had not encountered before. The Ungeheuer was a gorgeous wine without any shadow of doubt, but the Beerenauslese had a fresh apricot fruitiness that trounced it. The Trockenbeerenauslese was quite cloyingly sweet, more a miracle of nature than a wine.
Posted: 3rd February 2020
It seems appropriate to talk about British food this month, so we’ll start with Alexis Soyer and the food he cooked at the Reform Club in the Mall. Soyer was born in 1810 in Meaux - famous for both its grain mustard and its Brie cheese - and in 1858 went to Paradise by way of Kensal Green. Soyer was actually a rather remarkable man: both a culinary innovator and a social reformer who sorted out the British Army’s kitchens in the Crimean War. There is a so-so biography of him by Ruth Cowen. From 1838 to 1850 he received a stupendous salary working as the chef at the Reform Club in London, and many of his creations are still on the menu.
Last month I was entertained to a very good lunch at the Reform. I ate Soyer’s Devilled Kidneys, Lamb Cutlets ‘Reform’ and Sherry Trifle and drank my share of an excellent bottle of 2009 Château Potensac with it (which was à point). The cutlets in breadcrumbs were very good, but it was a strikingly dated dish largely as a result of the ‘Reform Sauce’ that unites tomato purée, vinegar, redcurrant jelly, cayenne pepper, beef stock, ham, beetroot, gherkins and cooked egg whites. I thought it marvellous the Reform was still serving this famous dish. My friend Michel Bourdin used to dish up an unbelievably old-fashioned French menu at the Connaught, but that has long gone. There can’t be many places around now where you can eat Victorian classics.
The sherry trifle I knew of old. I don’t think it is a Soyer recipe, but it must have been on the menu for at least a century. The Reform seems to have engaged a proper pâtissier because the dessert trolley looks ten times better than it did, and the trifle is presented in individual glasses rather than hewn out of a big glass bowl, as it was before. I love a good trifle. There was a time when we would travel appreciable distances to eat our favourites: the George in Dorchester springs to mind, or the Bear in Woodstock.
What I enjoyed most, however, was my starter of devilled kidneys, a dish I laboured to reproduce in my teens. Lambs’ kidneys are wonderfully cheap (25p each from my butcher) and I may even have even used pig. I found it remarkably difficult to locate the proper recipe the other night. Finally I stumbled on this survey by Felicity Cloake in the Guardian. I left out the anchovies in deference to my son’s aversion to fish, and served the dish with rice rather than roundels of toast as we were eating it for dinner, not breakfast. I re-located some excellent red pepper a friend had brought me from Kenya and I used Meaux mustard in deference to Soyer. I also lengthened the sauce with some stock; still, it was a triumph, and I am grateful to the Reform for reminding me how good devilled kidneys can be.
For some Britons, January also means Burns Night. Not being remotely Scottish I get out of this most years but I have no deep-seated opposition to haggis with ‘tatties and neeps (swedes)’. I like almost all things of a vaguely sausagey sort, but prefer them when they don’t go overboard on rusk, bread or oatmeal and lead on meat. Haggis can be too short on flesh and far too long on oats, making it distressingly formless once you have pierced its protective skin. At its positive worst it spews out of the hole like a damp squib or a half-extinct volcano. In Germany there is the firm and excellent ‘Saumagen’ which contains pork and potatoes and is presented in a pig’s tummy. It was just about Helmut Kohl’s number-one dish and he foisted it on everyone from Mrs Thatcher to the Queen at his favourite restaurant the Deidesheimer Hof. There is an Austrian version called a ‘Saumaise’ which I used to get from the little butcher in Weissenkirchen in the Wachau, but that is actually wrapped in a caul.
Haggis is far less meaty than Saumagen or Saumaise, but I have enjoyed good ones too. The very best was from the Ubiquitous Chip in Glasgow, which was made with venison umbles. Once the late and great Michael Jackson and I flew up to Inverness together to have a haggis lunch (I think it was) at the Dalmore Distillery on the Cromarty Firth. If I remember rightly, a lot of malt whisky was poured on the beast. On another occasion we had the meal in mid-summer with Alan Winchester of the Glenlivet (by far and away the best performer of the Burns Address to a Haggis I have ever encountered) in the baronial trappings of Fyvie Castle.
My Burns Supper was a bit closer to home: in the ancient cellars of Boisdale of Bishopsgate in the City with malt provided by the newly de-mothballed distillery at Annandale in the Borders. The whisky was even used as the basis for the whisky sours (peaty whisky sours are good). Malt whisky was on hand for the meal was well but there was also a Chilean Sauvignon Blanc and a nice 2016 Bordeaux Supérieur. I confess that drinking spirits with my food does not appeal to me much; and we had the works: the piper; several Burns poems; and the ceremonial killing of the haggis with Ranald Macdonald’s sgian-dubh. To eat there was Dunkeld smoked salmon with Morecambe Bay potted shrimps, a juicy, meaty Blackface mini-haggis about the size of a tennis ball with its traditional partners (I knew this version well as it is a favourite of my son’s); a little pie filled with braised shoulder of Highland red deer and girolles; and finally some Scottish cheeses. It proved as convivial an evening as I had any right to expect, and an experience that some of the people in these islands identify with their way of life.
Festive Wines 2019
Posted: 6th January 2020
With each passing Christmas I get the feeling that the wines we drink at home are too much a metaphor for me and my contemporaries: there are fewer of them, they are losing vigour, but - thank God - I still find some zest, excitement and the occasional surprise that makes the whole exercise worthwhile. And there is hope too in the form of the next generation, both of whom now partake and express an interest in the contents of the dusty bottles and decanters that make their way to the table.
We still celebrate a cranky sort of Christmas here, the end of the Advent fast; and try to forget any crushing disappointments we might have suffered for the duration of the feast at least. The tree goes up at sunset on Christmas Eve and comes down for the Feast of the Kings on the evening of 6 January. Each of the twelve days is a feast in theory, although I know of no one who cooks up a delicious meal for every one. The most they might do is cut another slice from the spiced beef or the Christmas ham. Most years I make a terrine, but this time neither money nor ingredients were to hand.
Christmas Eve is an Advent meal, and for us that means fish. When I was a child there was a carp, but we hated it. Not even stuffing it with vegetables or smothering it with beurre blanc could take away its pedestrian flavour. More recently there have generally been lobsters, but again the prices went through the roof this year with a kilo-weighing lobster fetching £50 - £60. We had some delicious halibut instead that I did with a little wine, butter, cream and capers. I had some puff pastry that I had failed to use up and I decided to celebrate the meatless Advent by making three vegetable tarts: red onion and sage, tomato and basil and aubergine and feta. The first two were made to look like tartes tatin with the rounded ends of the halved onions and tomatoes uppermost. I cheated a bit with the onion tart in that I used a bit of pork fat. The most ambitious one was the aubergine, where feta formed the basement storey and the aubergines were doused with olive oil and parmesan scattered on the top.
We started with a bottle of Mumm. It wasn’t a year to bring out the best champagne, but Mumm is decent enough; then with the fish we had a 2014 Cuvée Vieilles Vignes from the Domaine de la Motte in Chablis. It did its stuff - a classic chablis. There was a lively 2000 Trockenbeerenauslese from the Freie Weingärtner in the Austrian Wachau (now called the ‘Domäne Wachau’) with the chestnut bûche de Noël, which proved on top form. If I remember rightly it was largely Müller-Thurgau, which would make its performance an even greater achievement. Finally, with our Christmas cheeses (a Vacherin Mont d’Or, a Brillat-Savarin and some 36-month Comté) there was the 2000 ‘Word’ vintage port from Sandeman. It was light, as Sandeman ports tend to be, but had that authentic ‘cola’ or gum cistus smell of the best vintage port.
Christmas Eve tends to be a bit of a gallop as we stagger off to the Dominican Priory for Midnight Mass at 11.30. The church has the advantage of being just twenty minutes’ walk away. By the time we get back at 1.30 in the morning, the only thing we want to do is go to bed.
Christmas Day has a different routine. The children still get stockings (but that doesn’t mean they get up any earlier) then there are presents round the tree with champagne. I found a bottle of Boller I must have had for at least a decade: it was more amber than gold and gave off a whiff of Seville marmalade; still it was long and lively. I am consistently amazed at the longevity of champagne. Later I made some pumpkin soup for lunch. Dinner is timed for six pm. I had a bit of bought terrine and made some tartines that we ate while I put the finishing touches to the meal. There was a lovely heifer forerib that Paul the Butcher told me he had been dry-ageing since the end of October, and then red cabbage and roast potatoes. Here I brought out a 1995 Daniel Rion Gevrey Chambertin ‘Les Grandes Vignes’ which was pleasingly robust and flexed its muscles grandly in the face of Simon Heifer. The (same) cheeses and the treacle pudding had to make do with the wines we had opened on Christmas Eve.
We normally have a few people over for Christmas but this year we were alone for much of the time. Boxing Day was an exception. There were the remains of the Advent tarts and a bit of roast pork loin with braised fennel. With that I opened a magnum of 2012 d’Annona Barbera d’Asti from Il Cascinone which had been a Christmas present last year. It turned out to be huge surprise: a really lovely wine with lots of youthful energy and length.
I preferred the Barbera to the 2014 La Magia Brunello di Montalcino we drank at Boisdale’s on 30 December. Even decanted it failed to excite me, though it had received high praise from Italian wine experts. It was possibly a little young for my taste. On the other hand I thought the De Brimoncourt Extra Brut we had to start with was about the best champagne we drank this Christmas.
On New Year’s Eve we have adopted the north Italian practice of eating a zampone or a stuffed pig’s trotter with lentils, tomato passata and mashed potatoes. The lentils are supposed to represent all the money you are going to make in the coming year; fat hope as far as I’m concerned, but maybe they will bring luck for the others. There was some champagne to start then, looking for sweet wines I found a neglected bottle of 1998 Torres Viña Esmeralda made partly with Gewürztraminer grapes as a tribute to Miguel’s German wife. I wasn’t expecting too much from this wine, but it proved a very pleasant surprise; and more so than the 1996 Chiarlo Barolo, which, although still alive, was distinctly showing its age. We finished the meal with another disappointment: a 1992 Ruster Ausbruch from Karl Leitgeb, which was not at its best. Fortunately we rallied with an Italian hazelnut cake.
As I write little remains of this Christmas. I am rolling out puff pastry intermittently. On 6 January we consume my galette des rois after the tree comes down and the baubles return to their boxes. I will endeavour to find a vigorous sweet wine to go with that, a true tribute to the young life I witness flourishing about me.
Wine & Food Diary entries posted before 2020 can now be found in the Wine & Food Diary Archive.