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.
Posted: 2nd December 2019
As he leaves us for pastures new, Willi Klinger, the director of the Austrian Wine Marketing Board, has sent us all a parting present in the form of an impressive clothbound book (English language version) covering the history and geography of Austrian wine. It is a work of many hands. One of the essays that has excited the most attention is by Daniel Deckers, the author of a history of German wine (abridged and translated by me). It is about the late Dr Friedrich Zweigelt.
Everyone who knows Austrian wine will be aware of the ‘Zweigelt’ cultivar. It is a crossing between Blaufränkisch and St Laurent and with 6,400 hectares it is the most widely planted black grape in the country. It can crop at ridiculously high levels, but providing you are not greedy it is capable of making a lovely, full-bodied, deep-coloured wine. It is one of three grape varieties created by the Zweigelt, the others being the insipid Blauburger and the increasingly rare green grape Goldburger.
So who was he? Of Bohemian German descent, Zweigelt was born in Styria in 1888 and brought up near Graz. He read Botany at the local university and was engaged by the wine and fruit-growing school in Klosterneuburg in 1912, where he rapidly gained a reputation for his skill in crossing grape varieties. It is tempting to think that the idea of perfecting a species made him inclined towards Nazism, which also sought to create a master race through selective breeding?
Whatever the answer, he was a ‘May Violet’ joining the Party in May 1933 when it was still illegal in Austria. This put him in a prime position to reap the rewards in March 1938 when German armies reclaimed the country of Hitler’s birth. Zweigelt used his column in the specialist revue Das Weinland to praise Hitler and all that he would do for Austria. He didn’t mention Austria’s 200,000 odd Jews, who were bound to disagree.
He met with little resistance from Austrian winemakers in the praise he scattered before the invaders. Most Austrian growers were smallholders and it was hardly a parish smitten with philosemitism. An exception was Austria’s biggest wine merchant, and a distant relative of mine, Sándor Wolf, who also possessed a vineyard near Eisenstadt. He was forced to relinquish his collection of antiquities which had formed the rump of Burgenland’s Provincial Museum, and where my Godfather Alphons Barb worked as his curator. Robbed and chastened by a period in Gestapo detention, he made his way to Palestine, where he died in 1946.
Zweigelt expected to be made Principal of the Klosterneuburg Wine School, but in this he was temporarily thwarted and for the time being he merely stood in for a head who was indisposed. He concentrated on purging the institution of its non-Nazi staff, observant Catholics or members of the hated Christian Social Party, sneaking to the authorities that they were indolent or drunken. In Nazi eyes, however, Zweigelt was not entirely free from sin: he had shown himself to be friendly towards Jews, and Das Weinland, the periodical where he had published learned and political papers in the past, was owned by one. At the time of his trial he received valuable support from a half-Jew (or ‘first-grade mongrel’) called Heinrich Weil.
I had heard that Zweigelt had banished all Jews from his school, but in all fairness, Deckers reveals Zweigelt to have been only a mild Nazi who cannot really be said to have perpetrated any major crimes. In May 1943 he finally achieved his aim of becoming Principal but that was shortly after the Battle of Stalingrad announced the beginning of the end. The School profited from the closing of the great monastery of Klosterneuburg and the eviction of its monks, as forty hectares of its vines came their way. He was enthusiastic about German victories, and saw great potential in the return of Nether Styria from Jugoslavia as the 1919 border had been erected in the middle of its best vineyards. His only child was killed fighting in the German army and he ended the war on the run in Langenlois, lodging in the house of one of his wife’s relatives.
In October 1945, Zweigelt was arrested and charged with high treason. He was released on bail on Christmas Eve that same year. The prosecution of Nazis in Austria was somewhat reluctantly pursued, but Zweigelt was in the Soviet Zone, so he might have expected a little more zeal. As it was he was declared only slightly incriminated and discharged in June 1946. Despite being a passionate National Socialist, he had not used this to his advantage and the sterling services he had performed for Austrian viticulture were taken into account. As time went on, his work on creating viable grape varieties eclipsed his errors of political judgement and probably rightly so. Zweigelt lost his position as Principal of the wine school in Klosterneuburg and worked as a consultant in his native Styria planting Zweigelt vineyards for the Liechtenstein family. He died in 1964.
For the time being, Zweigelt’s greatest creation still went by the name of ‘Rotburger’, which was probably all for the good. Austria is a small place and most people in the business would have heard he had had a run in with the courts. At the instigation of Lenz Moser III, it was officially renamed ‘Zweigelt’ in 1975, but some people still clung to the original name. This was certainly still the case in the early nineties when I started work on Austrian wine. The fact that Friedrich Zweigelt had been a Nazi was an open secret. As Deckers points out, Zweigelt was not the only celebrated grape inventor who was a member of the Nazi Party. There was Dr Georg Scheu as well, the man responsible for the excellent Scheurebe, which Austrians piously refuse to call anything other than ‘Sämling 88’. Ironically it was originally named ‘Dr Wagner-Rebe’ as a tribute to Gauleiter Josef Wagner. After the war it was reattributed to Scheu because there was a little less of the smell of sulphur about him.
Posted: 1st Novemeber 2019
I became acquainted with the Central European grape variety Blaufränkisch at the beginning of the nineties, when I was working on my first book on Austrian wine. It was Austria’s most prestigious black grape and naturally they were plugging it for all its worth. I went sucking and spitting from estate to estate in Mittelburgenland where some of the wines struck me as being like decent cru bourgeois claret, while others were rather dried out and hard. The problem, it seemed to me, was a certain fragility of fruit. The simplest were the best. If you put the wines into small oak, particularly new barriques, they suffered. The best way to proceed was to age the wine in large tuns, and not for too long, but in those days small oak was the emperor’s new clothes - Austrians couldn’t get enough of it.
There were exceptions, and they were principally on the Leitha Hills where Engelbert Prieler made exquisite, silky, Burgundian-style Blaufränkisch wines on his Goldberg site, and down on the western side of Lake Neusiedl, where Ernst Triebaumer, in particular, was justly famous for his Mariental wines. In most cases I had to say Blaufränkisch needed a friend: another grape variety that could give it the velvet texture and fruit that it otherwise lacked. The Zweigelt grape variety - invented by the politically suspect Friedrich Zweigelt - was just that: a crossing of Blaufränkisch with the fruity St Laurent, and providing you weren’t too greedy, it was capable of producing very attractive wines. There were other successful blends too, particularly in the Seewinkel on the other side of the lake, where Merlot, Cabernet, Syrah and Younameit were combined with Blaufränkisch to provide what were often spectacular results.
But Austrians persisted with oaking up their Blaufränkisch wines, often to horrendous effect. I have painful memories of some of these coming under my nose in the years I judged the country’s main wine competition: the Salon, and again during the ten years I was in charge of the Austrian jury at the World Wine Awards. With time I learned to take the back seat, as others liked the wines more than I did. I let them decide if any top medals were to be awarded for Blaufränkisch: wine is a matter of taste, and our tastes fortunately vary.
Since then there have been changes to the law. Austria has a DAC regulation for Mittelburgenland or ‘Blaufränkischland’ now which separates the simpler Blaufränkisch wines from the superior sort. That means provision is made for a more cheerful wine which suits my taste, and the people who really like serious Blaufränkisch can opt for the reserve wines. I have to admit, however, there are some very good reserve wines now that Austrians have toned down the oak a bit or got the hang of using it.
Blaufränkisch was also one of the main black grapes of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and there are a great many hectares of it planted in Hungary, Romania, Czechia, Slovakia, Croatia and Slovenia (not to mention Bulgaria, Spain and Australia) which often give different results to Austria; and we mustn’t forget Germany either, where hiding under the name of Lemberger, it is grown in southerly Württemberg, making wines that are considerably lighter than those of Austria or Hungary. Some of these have their merits too.
On 29 October, Wines from Hungary put on a tasting of Blaufränkisch/Kékfrankos wines in London partly fronted by my friend Elizabeth Gabay MW. The accent was naturally on Hungary, but there were plenty of other wines besides and a lot of Hungarian ‘cuvées’ in which the mainstay was Kékfrankos. It shouldn’t come as a surprise to hear that I often preferred the ‘Bikaver’ blends in which Kékfrankos dominated. These are most famous from Eger (remember ‘Bulls’ Blood?), but they also come from Szekszárd the region that nurtured my family before they departed for Vienna, and which must necessarily find a special place in my heart.
In Eger then, the wines I liked were the 2016 Bikaver from St Andrea - Nagy-Eged-Hegy (Big Hill of Eger) which had weight and fruit due to the clever admixture of Merlot, Syrah, Kadarka (the otter) and Pinot Noir. From Toth Ferenc I favoured the quince-scented Bikaver Superior where the Kékfrankos was supplemented by Cabernets Franc and Sauvignon, Merlot and Pinot Noir. The Osteros wines had a faint smell of horseradish to them, but I liked the 2015 pure Kékfrankos.
Matra is a cool region between Budapest and Tokay which I would have thought unsuitable for Kékfrankos, but the 2016 Kerekés Örszáz (500) limited to 500 bottles was impressive, but certainly pricy - indeed none of these Hungarian wines was exactly cheap. I also liked the smoky, earthy 2018 Kékfrankos from Kovács es Lanya.
And so to Szekszàrd, near to my family crucible of Bonyhad, which produces nice, friendly, juicy Kékfrankos. The Bordri winery has a good, big, strawberry-scented 2016 straight Kékfrankos in ‘Gurovica’. That strawberry character I also found in the 2018 Szivem Baranya-völgy Kékfrankos from Heiman & Fiai. Schieber makes a luscious Bikaver with additions of Cabernet Sauvignon, Kardarka Siller and Kadarka.
Sopron or Ödenburg is on Lake Neusiedl and just a hop and a skip from Austria. It was awarded to Hungary in 1921, but much of the population was German-speaking, and they looked more towards Vienna than Budapest. I liked the supple 2017 Kékfrankos from Vincellér and the wines from Linzer Orosz in particular: their 2015 PS Kekfrankos was one of the best wines in the tasting. I needed no introduction to the Kékfrankos wines from Pfneiszl: I had discovered them in Austria in June.
Back on Lake Balaton, I admired the 2017 Szent Donat single-vineyard Kékfrankos and the 2017 Gilvessy Kékfrankos grown on basalt in Badacsony. In Balatonfüred, there were good things from Homola too.
Hungary’s hottest wines come from Villány or ‘Wieland’ in the south. This was a village colonised by industrious Saxons in the eighteenth century. After the war they suffered a bit, but since 1989 the reputation of their wines has soared and their prices with it. I very much liked the 2016 Heumann Kékfrankos Reserve as well as the minty 2016 Kékfrankos from Vylyan and the Montenuovo Cuvée made with the addition of Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Zweigelt. The wine commemorates a dispossessed grandee who was the former owner of the vineyard.
We crossed the border into Slovakia where Blaufränkisch is called ‘Frankovka’ as it is in Southern Moravia (now part of Czechia). I was reminded that much of Slovakia is ethnically Hungarian, as is some of Romanian Transylvania where there were good examples from the Nichbil Winery and Balla Géza. The big surprise came from two former Hungarian territories to the south: Istria and Slavonia, now parts of Croatia. From Istria (on the coast) where Blaufränkisch is called ‘Borgonja’ or ‘Burgundy’) came the leathery 2013 Clemente blend of Borgonja, Merlot, Cabernet and Teran while from northern Slavonia I liked the 2016 ‘Frankovka’ Cabernet Sauvignon blend from Ilocki Podrumi as well as the straight 2015 Frankovka Premium. In neighbouring Slovenia, my old friend Robert Gorjak at Dveri Pax presented a 2012 Frankovka Modra that was also excellent.
There was a single Spanish ‘Lemberger’ a 2013 Anicipo from F Schatz in Ronda! Not only Spain, but about as far south as you can get. It was a big monster which had spent twelve months in Slovenian oak, but it was by no means disagreeable.
Which brings us back to Austria: Austria had a small presence at the tasting with Weingut Nittnaus (there are two - these are not the Gols Nittnäuser, Hans and Anita) presenting a supple 2017 Edelgrund and the 2016 Blaufränkisch Reserve from Günter and Regina Triebaumer. Günter is the son of the late Paul Triebaumer, the brother of Ernst. I was very fond of Paul, an eccentric who used to make wine from a bewildering number of grape varieties in Rust on Lake Neusiedl. There was also a lovely Anton Bauer Blaufränkisch Reserve (no date and allegedly from Burgenland) from the loess soils of the Wagram west of Vienna, that was soft and elegant and was apparently worth nearly £40 at retail. These Austrians had a suavité lacking in many of the other wines in the room, but their position is by no means unassailable and the Magyars are massing at the frontier and daily growing in strength.
From the Battlefields of the Somme to Provence
Posted: 2nd October 2019
At the beginning of last month I was called away suddenly to Arras to lead a poetry and battlefield tour of the Somme. Picardy is not a region I know well. It lies between Paris and the sea and most of the time you pass it in a car or train without even reflecting on the grisly things that happened there in the First World War. In the days before Eurostar made life easier (ahem!) I recall coming to drowsily in a sleeper car in Arras and muttering (maybe even shouting) ‘Á bas Robespierre!’ knowing it was his home town. A well-meaning Frenchman tried to restrain me by assuring me there were no more Robespierres in Arras.
It was not as gastronomic tour, but we ate well at the old school Hôtel de l’Univers in the city centre and also at La Coupôle in the boulevard de Strasbourg. At L’Univers there was the occasional nod to regional specialities, such as the addition of some ‘pain d’épices’ to the beef carbonnade and a nice big chicory salad served on the side; and on the final night there was a good terrine and spéculoos biscuits with the crème brûlée. Gastronomically speaking Arras is Flemish.
One of the more exciting moments in our meal at La Coupôle was a late night visit to a subterranean thirteenth-century chapel round the corner from the restaurant. It is a magnificent survival with its ribbed vaults and elaborately carved capitals. It must have been part of a monastery destroyed at the time of the Revolution, or smashed by shelling during the First World War? If your party is of sufficient size you can arrange to eat there.
While we explored the battlefields themselves we were fed by Avril Williams in Auchonvillers. Avril has become something of an institution in the Somme since she moved there in 1992. The house, like so many in around the front line, rebuilt from the waist upwards after the shelling, is delightfully homely with its gaggles of hens, cockerels and pet sheep. She knows the bloodsoaked landscape like the back of her hand and is the first pole of attraction to the many British, Commonwealth and American citizens who come to explore or tour the war graves. In the meantime she beefs them up with copious lunches and teas, all wrought in a distinctly British idiom.
Before we left for blighty again, I nipped out into the centre of Arras to get a few things for home. I wanted to find a charcutier: the ‘pork butcher’ who used to exist on every French shopping street from Menton to Morbihan. The charcutier not only sold fresh pork, black pudding or more conventional sausages (and offal that did not necessarily derive from pigs), it sold an array of made up salads of various sorts, wine and spirits, biscuits, jars and tins and all the local specialities that were not the province of the cake-making pâtissier. The charcutier was open until 7.30 at night, so for many of us it was the last stop before getting home - suitably armed for the evening with some pâté, a pork chop, a couple of hundred grams of salade piémontaise and a bottle of Beaujolais. It seems the charcutier is no more, however, and the French lifestyle is teetering on the brink of death.
The artisan baker I had spotted on the corner of the rue Gambetta and the boulevard de Strasbourg was closed. I found a place on the rue Gambetta where the bread must have been baked elsewhere. The lightness of the boule should have told me all I needed to know. It was air-bread (for air-heads?), an indication if ever you needed one that bread can now be as bad in France as it is in Britain. In the Somme most of the villages are without bakers now. In some I saw fresh baguette dispensers and wondered if they were filled by responsible local bakers or simply peddled industrial baguettes.
We passed through Folkestone on the way back to London and I saw a branch of Morrison’s emblazoned with the legend ‘All our bread made with 100% British flour’. English flour is of very poor quality, capable only of making putty bread; but what is ‘British flour’? Most of Scotland lies outside the wheat-belt.
Ten days later I was back in France again for our twice-yearly Provencal jaunt. We have been coming for so many years they recognise our party when we stop at teh bistrot Aux Cadrans opposite the Gare de Lyon. After that the journey was smooth to Avignon and there was dinner waiting at the Domaine des Anges.
We went shopping in Carpentras the next morning. Certain things required a trip to the big Leclerc but none of the fruit and few of the vegetables were ripe. Everything felt as if it had just been taken out of the cold store. There was an excellent woman on the cheese counter, but when I asked for a camembert for that night she shrugged her shoulders. A generation ago every French housewife would have demanded and received the cheese she wanted: for that day, the next or the one after. I made a mayonnaise for the cold chicken and a tomato salad from some lovely fleshy marmandes that hardly needed any more dressing than a little salt and olive oil. It was curry night and I was off duty that evening.
The local butchers have almost all given up the ghost. Apart from the one up by the arcades in Carpentras, there are now none in Mormoiron, Mazan or Bédoin. I was reduced to the butchery counter at Super U in Mazan, which is perfectly good and specialises in Ventoux pork. We spent the afternoon chasing cyclists up Mount Ventoux. The mountain was shrouded in mist and only occasionally the cloud would thin out and allow to us to look down on the vineyards around Bédoin. That night we had roast pork and ratatouille.
On our last night we went to La Calade in Blauvac with its fabulous views across the valley. There is a rumour doing the rounds that the proprietor is going to close because he cannot make ends meet. We asked him that evening. He made it clear he’d sell if someone came up with the price. It would be a pity to see him go: there are only few good places around now. Bédouin has become a tourist trap for Dutch cyclists, all but one of the bars in Mazan were closed when we were there and there is really nothing left in Mormoiron, bar the baker.
Dawn announced the long journey home. Half an hour out of Paris on the Eurostar and we were informed that there had been an accident involving some power cables. We had to return to the Gare du Nord and take the ordinary, slow-train lines, which led us up through Picardy, past then art deco station at Albert and through the battlefields of the Somme to Arras before we could pick up speed up again at Lille for the journey home. We limped into Saint Pancras six hours late. I might as well have taken the boat-train.
Posted: 2nd September 2019
In August I led a vegetable life enhanced by fruits. With the exception of a day away in Winchester, I didn’t go anywhere far or do anything important. I saw virtually no-one beyond my immediate family and for more than a week I didn’t even see them. I abandoned shoes and socks, wearing plimsolls for my excursions to a high street almost entirely denuded of commerce. As resources were virtually non-existent there wasn’t very much I could do, but, it was summer, so I made jam.
Earlier this year I saw a recipe in an airline magazine for strawberry jam made the Austrian way. Maybe there is some truth in what people say about Britain being at loggerheads with the Mainland, because they make their jam differently there, using less sugar and with a rather more liquid consistency. So when I chanced on a few tubs of mangled strawberries at the fruit and veg stall I thought I’d have a go. I selected around a kilo of decent ones, relegating the rest to a compote. I put the good strawberries through the mouli, added 500 grams of sugar-with-pectin and let them sit a while. They were on the boil for five minutes or so before they achieved a runny set. A kilo made about seven small pots, and it was by far the best strawberry jam I’d ever made.
The next two jams were less successful. We have had a lot of white peaches this year, and some of them have even been ripe. I tried the same method, but neglected to put the fruit through the mouli, which then showed no sign of wanting to set. The relatively small amount of sugar (half the fruit weight again) meant that the jam was quite sharp. It has been set aside for compote, to be added to yoghurt to mitigate the nasty taste of the latter.
Similar, but not quite the same was the story of the greengages. My Albanian friend by the station had some lovely little ones, hardly bigger than cherries. I wanted to keep their handsome appearance and therefore cooked them whole, but again they failed to set. The jam tastes nice but it is too liquid for toast. I made only four or five pots that have been lodged right at the back of the ‘jam cellar’. They’ll soon be eaten up, but I shall need to find them first.
The best fruit is wild. Commercial fruit is always short on pectin and acidity. You add sugar to jam, so the fruit doesn’t have to be very ripe. And so it was with my neighbour’s apricots, which grow over our kitchen roof. I had been watching them throughout the stop-and-start spring and summer and biding my time before the moment came to pick. I pulled in four kilos in two batches (yes, she got some jam as compensation) and chopped the fruit as small as I could, adding sugar-and-pectin totalling fifty percent of the fruit weight. This jam was a huge success, a bit like the Marillenmarmalade which is one of the huge pleasures of an Austrian summer. Because the fruit was not completely ripe, there is acidity as well as the freshest of flavours. I am very pleased with this jam.
The last jam of the season was the blackberry which goes by the name of Ganymede - an allusion to the place where I cull the fruit. The summer was bad for blackberries. What appeared to be a good berry was overripe in parts and underripe in others, so that the juice ran down your fingers rather than landing in the bucket. My fingers were not only purple, they were like pin cushions, and I frequently had to stop to extract prickles. Yields were tiny. I made about ten pots from the first forage before the mini-heat wave at the end of the month, and another dozen after. In the first jam there were a few sloes too, which help provide pectin; in the second batch I added a few elderberries and a lot more sloes. The second edition was the better jam even if it meant a lot of tiny, very hard stones.
I did not try to make the blackberry jam the continental way as I wanted something durable for the winter. The sugar (without pectin this time) therefore equalled fifty percent of the total. I had some for breakfast this morning. The blackberry-sloe-elderberry Γανυμήδης is a triumph, much like the apricot Ρικο - named after a fat boy at school.
The only drawback with continental-style jam is that it doesn’t keep as well as English jam. In my jam cellar I have pots of unrefrigerated jam and marmalade that are more than a decade old. As the great Hans Staud (Stauds makes the best commercial jam in the world) told me once if you err below fifty percent sugar by volume you need to keep any open pot of jam in the fridge. Like Theresa May, I am forever scooping spots of mould off the top of the jam, but that doesn’t bother me much.
Anyway, when someone asks (if anyone cares) what I achieved in August I can say in all honesty: about sixty pots of jam.
Posted: 1st August 2019
Before last month I recall going to the famous London nightclub Tramp just once. To be honest, nightclubs are not really my thing. I am happy to go for a drink in the early hours of the morning, but I want to be able to hear what my interlocutor is saying, otherwise I might as well be drinking by myself, or better still - at home in bed. I have never enjoyed dancing much, and these days I don’t even go through the motions.
So let’s us travel back to the previous time I went to Tramp when I was a guest of the great chef and Yorkshireman Marco Pierre White. This must have been before 1994, for Marco was still cooking at Harvey’s in Wandsworth and had yet to move to the Hyde Park Hotel where he was awarded his third Michelin star. Five years later he chucked it all in, together with his stars, and decided the time had come to make money rather than food. Many top chefs do, and have done, the same.
I had gone along to do a piece on Marco’s kitchen. This meant watching the ‘coup de feu’ with a glass of champagne in my hand. The ‘coup du feu’ is the moment (generally around eight p.m.) when the orders start to come in thick and fast. As I recall there were eleven chefs in a space little bigger than a domestic kitchen. Then there was me in my corner with my frequently topped up glass of champagne (Marco: ‘Get Giles another glass of f**king champagne’) plus waitresses who came in to collect plates and who were routinely abused by Marco.
The abuse was also dished out to the chefs, who spoke - like Marco himself - a sort of kitchen patois that contained a large element of French. In Marco’s case (‘Pierre’ being fantasy name) this contained no perceivable element of grammar.
Never having worked in a modern kitchen I found the process gripping enough. Quite a lot of the food was already packaged up in sous-vide bags and slipped out onto salamander or plate while Marco added the final flourishes. I noted with interest (we were all sweating like pigs) that a thin stream of sweat ran off Marco’s nose and onto the plate, there to mingle with the delicate sauce or seasoning: a signature touch - the real taste of Marco guaranteed for every diner.
After the adulating crowd retreated I was taken out into the dining room and fed more champagne, while a sous-chef knocked up some eleven dishes from the menu. These I was to taste while Marco explained this and that, possibly with his feet on the table. The dishes were quite delicious though, and I am sure I ate much too much.
I was heading back to Islington, which is about as far from Wandsworth as you can be while still remaining in London. Marco had an idea: we would go to Tramp in Jermyn Street in a taxi and then I would be half way home. When he got there we were (from memory) led into in a large-ish dining room. Marco promptly ordered more champagne and some bowls of chips with ketchup. I demurred: I had had quite enough to eat. ‘They are not for eating’ he said, and he shook his mane in the direction of the next table where was sitting Bill Wyman of the Rolling Stones. ‘They’re for throwing, at ‘im’.
I picked one up and lobbed in the right direction. It struck Wyman squarely on the head. The great musician looked slightly put upon, but otherwise took it in his stride. Marco, on the other hand, was critical of my performance: ‘They didn’t teach you anything at public school, did they? You ‘ave to dip it int’ sauce! Otherwise it doesn’t stick!’
After my bad behaviour all those years ago I was slightly surprised to be invited to sample the new menu at Tramp, but the story of my assault on Bill Wyman was well received. A charming Italian waiter who had served the club for more than thirty years and waited on our table put out bowls of chips and ketchup, just in case Bill Wyman should come in. He had been seen in the dining room as recently as four weeks back, so the episode had not dented his fondness for Tramp and nor should it have done.
The pretext for my latest visit was the club’s fiftieth jubilee. There was a new range of champagnes in dumpy bottles (I tasted only a very nice blanc de noirs with a telltale aroma of raspberries) and an addition to the menu in a ‘Golden Anniversary Tramp Burger’ which alluded not only to the filling but also the founder Johnny Gold. This turned out to be plated (sic) with 24 carat gold leaf, with foie gras on top - in the tradition of the ‘tournedos Rossini’- and a truffley relish underneath. Beforehand I ate some Spey salmon with pickled cucumber and wasabi yoghurt, and for pudding there was a glazed banana mille-feuille with vanilla ice-cream and toffee popcorn. My friendly waiter plied me with wines from New Zealand, a Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc and a Mount Holdsworth Pinot Noir. Bill Wyman, however, wisely kept to hearth and home and did not go to Tramp that night.
After dinner I had a little cognac and watched the floor show, but my attempts to communicate with my neighbour failed, and I thought it wisest to make my way back to my cot.
No Weddings, Two Funerals
Posted: 2nd July 2019
June was a month when the deaths of the near and dear greatly exceeded births and when bears generally outnumbered bulls; but that is the standard drawback at my time of life. As champagne has become a feature in my life once again, I went along to the tasting organised by the Australian Tyson Stelzer in Christ Church Spitalfields. It was an unusual venue for a wine event. The pews had been removed but apart from that everything was much as you’d expect in Hawksmoor’s baroque masterpiece, except that, instead of devout Anglicans primly arrayed in pews, there were the massed ranks of the British wine trade sipping and spitting champagne; and in the place where you might have expected to find the high altar, there were baskets piled high with bread. That was canonically correct at least, but there were also some very appetising looking cheeses: caseus Christi.
I am sorry I had so little time for champagne or food, as I had to proceed to the big press lunch at Boisdale’s in Canary Wharf. I am glad I went, however, as there were some lovely things like the superbly structured 2008 Billecart-Salmon Extra Brut or their distinctly un-woody Cuvée Sous Bois. From Gosset I loved the Grand Rosé Brut and the rare, creamy Grand Blanc de Meunier Extra-Brut: another testimony to the quality of Meunier if well used. It is not a grape variety to write off. Both of these, however, were trounced by the soft, rich 2006 vintage.
Elsewhere the tasting brought back happy memories. At Pommery I tasted another good 2006, this time with distinct toffee notes, and then the lovely 2004 Louise - also with a little hint of toffee. I remembered the 1988 Louise, and drinking my last bottle just four years ago, and my meetings with its creator, Prince Alain de Polignac, who seems to be well-retired from the business. Pol Roger is everyone’s idea of a gentlemanly champagne house, a position that does it credit now that many of the bigger houses have become so cold and mechanical. The NV makes me think of pineapples and it was a great treat to taste the current vintage of Sir Winston Churchill: 2008.
Sometimes you need to drop down to the smaller grandes marques to rediscover the real personality of champagne. Philipponat is one of these. I loved the 2012 Blanc de Noirs Extra Brut and the 2009 1522 Grand Cru Brut (31% Chardonnay from Le Mesnil) with its amazing length. Pierre Gimonnet is even smaller: a big grower’s house in the Côte des Blancs that I have held in high regard for decades. Their champagnes are remarkable constructions, assembled like clocks from their various vintages and reserve wines. New to me was the 2014 Gastronome 1er Cru Blanc de Blancs and the 2012 Special Club Grands Terroirs de Chardonnay Extra Brut.
It seems odd to descend from top champagne in some cases well over £100 a bottle to Lidl, where very little costs much more than a tenner, but such is life, and bless Lidl for thinking of us poor drinkers. I had the honour of being shown through a short flight by Richard Bampfield, Lidl’s British MW. Quite quickly we hit the champagne, Comte de Senneval, which costs a derisory £11.49. It is hard to fault - pleasantly appley, faint taste of peaches, no faults but possibly a little bit on the sweet side. The Crémant de la Loire is possibly a better sparkling wine, but I don’t get the impression that it will be on the shelves much before Christmas. The Prosecco at £7.99 is also exemplary.
Among the still whites, the Clare Valley Riesling (£6.99) is an absolute (white) peach and has all the typicity you might want from this variety. From the reds, £5.99 buys you a really classy Marlborough Pinot Noir, once again with the classic aromas of the grape; or even better a Chianti Riserva at £6.99. Richard showed me the Rioja Crianza from Casa Lebrel. This is not my favourite. I find it too obviously oaky, but I adore the Reserva, which costs only a little bit more at £5.79 and which I buy quite regularly. We finished off with the 2016 St Emilion Grand Cru at the staggering price of £10.99 (most shops these days seem to start around here). This is authentic stuff! Not a wimpy thing but a proper claret with guts that you would enjoy with your Sunday lunch! Bravo Lidl!
I hurried out, passing groaning boards covered with roast geese and turkeys, Brussels sprouts and roast potatoes and all the trimmings. It looked very tempting all in all. On one table there was a whole Serrano ham complete with its stand: mine for £30, they said. I didn’t stop to taste it or anything else: I was late for a funeral.
Wine and Food in the Borderlands
Posted: 4th June 2019
These days when I go to Austria I seldom chance it beyond the Vienna’s wide city limits. Last week it was different: almost as soon as I arrived I was whisked off in a coach driven by Wolfgang the Bavarian and taken to Poysdorf on the ‘Brünnerstrasse’, the famous Brno Road. The Brünnerstrasse used to go all the way to Brünn or Brno in Southern Moravia but after Austria-Hungary lost the First World War it stopped at the River Thaya. The other side was the new state of Czecho-Slovakia. This rather downsized picture of Austria and the history of its wines was the theme behind the trip.
The ‘Brünnerstrasse’ was famous for the sharpness of its ‘Brünnerstrassler’ wines. They even had a coarse epithet to describe them, claiming they were so acid they would draw your shirt tails into your entrails via your fundament. When the sparkling wine craze hit Austria in the 1840s, the Brünnerstrasse found a new vocation: it became the plinth for wines made by the champagne-method: sour wines could be fattened up with sugar for the second fermentation.
Despite the vicissitudes of the twentieth century, the wines made either side of the frontier have remained very much in the same idiom, but I doubt that the sparkling wine producers in Vienna’s Döbling have access to wines from the Czech side of the border any more. I used to like the simple Grüner Veltliner wines from the eastern Weinviertel very much. They rarely achieved great ripeness but they were fairly priced and refreshing. This time I struggled: warmer summers have nudged them up by a degree or two robbing them of much of their acidity. I began to see the sense in the sparkling wines: they could be picked early, and that way retain some of their bite.
After lunch in a local inn we went to a tasting of Carnuntum wines at Schloss Hof, the former summer residence of Prince Eugene of Savoy: it is so close to the Slovakian Border that the gardens seem to collide with the tower blocks in the suburbs of Bratislava. The tasting was in the ballroom, which was in a muted, early classical style distinct from the original baroque and rococo conception of the house. We were urged to go out and look at the newly restored gardens, passing through the sublime sala terrena on the way. The tasting showed beyond doubt that Carnuntum is producing some of the best red wines in Austria: not just my old friend Hans Pitnauer, with his Bienenfresser, but also Muhr-van der Niepoort, Gerhard Markowitsch, and the new star Michael Auer.
We had a considerable treat that night in dinner at Zur Dankbarkeit in Podersdorf on the Neusiedlersee: the most authentic country inn on the far side of the lake and now in the fourth generation of ownership by the Lentsch family. You might have found the great sweet winemaker Alois Kracher enjoying a fag at the bar here before his untimely death a decade ago. Some two hundred years before, a Prussian count is supposed to have sought refuge in this building after killing a man in a duel and somewhere in the bowels of the inn there is a quaint series of paintings describing his life.
It was good to see Josef Lentsch presiding in person at our Pannonian feast and celebrating the current asparagus season. He told me that the local sandy soils are famous for it and asparagus found its way into several courses of the meal: a terrine of goats’ cheese, Mangalitza sausage with some cabbage steeped in paprika; zander with braised radishes (brilliant idea) braised ox cheeks with asparagus and semmel terrine, finishing up with chocolate cake with asparagus ice. To go with this there was a really nice Veltliner from Sommer in the Leithagebirge with the fish, a St Laurent Ried Rosenberg from Gerhard and Brigitte Pittnauer (the Golser Pittnauer not the Göttlesbrunner Pitnauer) with the ox cheeks; and a fantastically sweet (360 grams per litre), coffee-coloured 2008 Welschriesling Trockenbeerenauslese from Velich with the pudding.
The following morning we had a rare treat (rara avis perhaps?) when we went on safari in the national park. It wasn’t really a safari - although we did see some hares and deer speeding by - it was chiefly about birds and the very many sorts that congregate around the salt-water ponds and lakes. I wish I could remember them all, but there were plenty of egrets and buzzards, pied avocets, lapwings, cormorants, storks and a sole marsh harrier out looking for lunch. Done twitching, we went to Austria’s hottest spot: Andau on the Hungarian Border, home to Kracher’s friend Hans Schwarz the big butcher and his suitably voluminous wines.
Our goal was the little bridge across which thousands of Hungarians fled to the West in 1956. It is not the original bridge, which was subsequently demolished, but one put up for a film. Our lecturer not only recounted that moving story, but taught us about how little wine culture there was on the eastern shores of the lake before the seventies and eighties. South of Gols there was too much mist, making the area by the lake suitable only for luscious sweet wine production. This used to be mostly cattle country, with vegetables planted in the sand like the asparagus we had eaten the night before.
After lunch at the enormous Scheiblhofer Winery at Andau (the outgoing Austrian wine chief Willi Klinger designated Scheiblhofer’s 200 hectares of vines as the ‘new face of Austria’) we cut through Hungary to Central Burgenland. From the coach window I could see the Esterhazy Summer Palace. My Polish neighbour reminded me that it was there that Haydn’s Farewell Symphony was first performed to quietly intimate that it was time the orchestra had some compassionate leave. Our destination was the Kirnbauer Winery in Deutschkreuz with its spectacular views over the vineyards to the north. Here we had a Blaufränkisch tasting animated by David Schildknecht among others and including a few Hungarian wines from the far side of the border. There were decent things from Reumann, Iby, Wieder and Gesellmann. Moric, made from ancient vines in Lutzmannsburg, I tend to love more with my head than my heart. More enjoyable wines came from Kirnbauer himself, Prieler in the Leithagebirge and Schiefer on the Eisenberg but my favourite of those tasted that afternoon was the 2011 Ried Sonnensteig from Wellanschitz.
We continued our journey south to the Eisenberg with its vineyards rising to 440 metres and overlooking the Pinka Valley as it meanders into Hungary. We had an elaborate dinner at Wachter Wieslers Ratschen in Deutsch Schützen. It was a far cry from my first meal in South Burgenland twenty-eight years before, when there wasn’t so much as an upmarket Beisl for miles around and I spent the evening on a pub-crawl through smoky bars led by my host, a Herr Körper-Faulhammer. This meal was very soigné with small dishes flanking contrasting ingredients and exotic flourishes of wasabi, calamondin oranges and shiitake dim sum accompanying salmon trout, kingfish, blacktail chicken, Angus beef and white chocolate mousse...
Wines included a 2015 Leithaberg Cuvee from Nehrer, a 2005 Velich Tiglat (of which there was less than a thimbleful as a result of a supply mishap), 2015 Leberl Blaufränksich Ried Föllikberg and the two stars: a 2015 Eisenberg Blaufränkisch Senior from Schützenhof and a 2013 red Pannobile from Gernot Heinrich. We finished off on an eccentric note with a sparkling Uhudler - a wine made from ungrafted American vines. Sometime in the early nineties when it was still illegal, I reported on an Uhudler tasting in a thatched cottage out there in the woods, orchestrated by Erich Krutzler and the self-proclaimed Uhudler Queen. I have a lemonade bottle full of the winning wine. It might be the oldest Uhudler in existence?
The next morning we gathered on the Eisenberg to hear a lecture on the fate of the border dwellers after Hungary was torn from Austria in 1919. A few wines were served there and then. Eisenberg red wines have a certain sharpness to them, and you are tempted to taste the abundant iron that is a large part of the mineral content of the Eisenberg. Then we left Burgenland for Styria and a simple lunch of fried chicken and pumpkin seed dumplings with elderberry sauce at Schloss Kapfenstein.
It was a pleasure to see George Winkler-Hermaden again and recall the few years when I made an annual pilgrimage to the castle to taste Styrian wines with the late Mario Scheuermann. There were wines to try with lunch. Some of those that hit the spot were surprises, some not: a nice Gelber Muskateller from Fuchs and excellent Sauvignon Blancs from Lackner-Tinnacher, Gross (Nussberg), Sattler (Kranachberg) and Neumeister; a Weissburgunder (Pinot Blanc) from Winkler-Hermaden, a Grauburgunder (Pinot Gris) from Harkamp and a Gewürztraminer from Skoff at Domäne Kranachberg.
Lunch was followed by a sit-down tasting, of which the stars were Tement’s Ehrenhausen Sauvignon Blanc, Walter Skoff’s Eichberg Sauvignon and Schauer’s Kitzeck Riesling. The best wine of all for me was the Gamlitz Muskateller from Alois Gross, but then I’m a sucker for these things.
It was time for Wolfgang to ferry us back to Vienna. On the Sunday the loose ends were tied up in the grandiose Renaissance debating chamber of the old Lower Austrian Estates while we heard more details of the epic history of Austrian wine that is to be issued in September. I am counting the days.
Posted: 1st May 2019
Back in the nineties I seemed to spend half my life padding around the Champagne region. I did pieces for the magazines, and occasionally I’d write about the wine in the FT. Latterly I used to put together the annual champagne supplements both for Decanter and (I think) the now defunct WINE. Sometimes my brief extended to gastronomy: what went well with champagne, or simply rounding up the best restaurants in the region. Even when I was not in Reims or Epernay specifically to look at food, I went to the top restaurants with my hosts from the various champagne houses, men and women with suitably robust expense accounts.
In those days the top of the pyramid was Les Crayères, formerly the residence of the Pommery family who married into the princely Polignacs and where the chef Gérard Boyer had three stars for his predictably luxurious cooking. I must have eaten there at least once with Prince Alain de Polignac, who was born there and rose to become an exemplary chef des caves at Pommery. More to my taste was the rather more earthy style of the Grand Cerf at Montchenot on the Montagne de Reims. I had memorable meals at the Assiette Champenoise too. Now I see Les Crayères has lost Boyer and dropped down to two Michelin rosettes, Le Grand Cerf to one, while L’Assiette champenoise has rocketed up to three!
On a more everyday level I also used to enjoy the buzz of art deco Brasserie du Boulingrin near the market, although various people have told me that the place has lost its spark of late. Epernay was never so good for restaurants, but La Briqueterie was more than a cut above the rest. It was the only one of my old haunts I visited when I returned to the region last week.
La Briqueterie’s Michelin star has migrated to Les Berceaux in Epernay now, but you still eat well. We had a rather autumnal dish of chicken medallions stuffed with chestnuts, wild mushrooms and an allegedly ‘perfect (poached) egg’, and then a pretty plate of gurnard (Bernard the gurnard) with chicory and oranges served with a rosé des Riceys from René Bauser. The best course was probably the chocolate tart with a cranberry and tarragon sorbet flanked by one of those ubiquitous pink biscuits that are a culinary speciality of Reims.
La Briqueterie is in Vinay, south of Epernay. In the centre of the one-track town is La Banque in (wait for it) a converted branch of the Banque de France where we had a good meal of a marinated salmon tataki, some beef fillet with morels followed by strawberries with balsamic vinegar. With the salmon there was a wonderful oeil de perdrix (rosé) champagne from Jean Vesselle in Bouzy while a still, red Bouzy from Bernard Tornay came with the beef.
In Reims I visited several places that were new to me: L’Excelsior (formerly Flo), a converted mansion near the railway station that was once an officers’ mess retaining some original murals. There was a little cake of local chaource and parmesan cheese and some cod with a cockle sauce and broad beans. At Le Crypto near the Cathedral one night, I limited myself to a rather French prawn risotto (with lots of foam and decorative vegetables) and a very good plate of regional cheeses obtained from the Julie Verzeaux’s excellent shop next door - the best being the chaource and Langres but I felt they might have included a brie de Meaux or a Coulommiers (both from the peripheries of Champagne). A good, sappy Pouilly fuissé from the Domaine Lasserat proved a fine counterpoint.
On another evening we went to Le Petit Comptoir near the market where I had some excellent veal sweetbreads en cocotte. Here we made a wise decision to abjure local wines: the sweetbreads were much better with a 2017 Crozes Hermitage from the Cave de Tain. Since my last visit to Reims most of the food shops in the city have disappeared. There is a small clutch around the Place du Forum, but otherwise you need to go to the area around the market to find butchers, charcutiers, or fish and cheesemongers, the staples of French life.
The most memorable meal I had this time round was in the art deco pavilion at Charles Heidsieck, an enchanting spot overlooking a private park. We had crab and lobster salad with an emulsion of peas; a crown roast of lamb with a crust of herbs and pain d’épices; chaource and comté and a series of little desserts - all moistened with some of the very best of champagnes. The meal was prepared by the caterer Tony Blasco. There is nothing unusual about bringing in caterers in Champagne. In old days I remember a fabulous celebratory lunch in Bruno Paillard’s home. When I turned round to see what was going on in the kitchen I realised that the meal was being prepared by the late Joel Robuchon.
It was naturally champagne wine that took me to Champagne. We visited a couple of the most famous houses. At Moët I remembered my first visit in 1983 or 1984. I had met an English girl in Paris was working at their private hotel, the Château de Saran, and she suggested I get myself invited to lunch. I arrived at Epernay at eight or nine in the morning and a smartly dressed, middle-aged woman took me off into one of the many elegant salons in their HQ to cross-examine me. She needed to determine whether I was important enough to go through to stage two: the tour and tasting, and stage three: lunch. I remember she poured us both a glass of champagne, but didn’t touch her own. I must have passed, for I lunched at Saran. The gradations of welcome at Moët are quite byzantine in their complexity. I reflected that in my time I had been to the very top, and dined with the company chairman in the little Trianon on truffes sous la cendre - truffles cooked in ashes - a dish so expensive that few have ever tasted it. The boss had been airlifted in from one of the LVMH group’s several parfumiers - Dior or Guerlain - and seemed rather taken aback when I capped his quotation from the comte de Buffon.
That champenois grandezza can be oppressive at times. The polar opposite I experienced this time when we went to the friendly, workaday cooperative in Mailly, or when we toured the more modest house of Charles Fourny in Vertus; and then there were the tastings in which the party got to sample a host of good things they had possibly never experienced before. It has been a while, but I was happy to be back, and I hope to be able take the boat out again next year.
Disappearing Kentish Town
Posted: 2nd April 2019
When I first moved to Kentish Town in central North London twenty-four years ago there were plenty of high street wine merchants. There were two branches of Victoria Wine within easy walking distance (not that you ever wanted to buy anything there except fags and I had stopped smoking long before); two Unwins’ shops, one in Camden Town and another on the Mansfield Road, and there was Soapy Sam (‘Corks’) in Swaine’s Lane, in those pre-Earl of Listowel-days when that street still offered the full panoply of butchers, bakers and greengrocers; plus the two lovely Spanish chaps with their dogs in Highgate Village. Even the encyclopaedic beer shop in York Way has been redeveloped, but in mitigation there are two new swillers’ merchants in Kentish Town itself.
Then there was Oddbins. Oddbins was the last of our local high street merchants to go belly-up, and I suppose they will never come again. I know it wasn’t the same Oddbins. The place had already gone through a variety of incarnations since I first frequented the branch on the corner of the High and Oriel Street. That was the real Oddbins, before it was bought by Seagrams. I remember a rich friend buying a double-magnum of an off-vintage of Château Lafite and our sitting down and drinking it with a piece of beef we had purchased in the Covered Market. The man who ran the shop was called Richard. I still used to run into him until quite recently. He ended up working for Stevens Garnier, a subsidiary of the Portuguese company Sogrape but I see that’s gone too. I wonder what he does now? He has probably retired.
There were the specialists of course and some of them are still with us. The Wine Cellar used to have an impressive range of Portuguese wines and was the source of much of our everyday wine, but the owner, Nuno sold up after the Referendum and went back to the Beira where he came from. The current owners seem less interested in wine. There is still Lisboa in Plender Street in Camden Town, but its selection is minute in comparison. Salvino in Brecknock Road has some good things, mostly from Sicily, Sardinia and southern Italy, but they can’t command the discounts supermarkets obtain and their prices are naturally higher. More recently an excellent little Italian grocer has opened in the Kentish Town Road called Lo Sfizio, and they have a small range of wines too. There is an excellent selection of French wines to be had from the Authentique Epicerie and Bar in Fortess Road; but if you want a proper wine merchant now, you have to slog up the hill to Nicolas in Highgate Village, or go to the excellent Theatre of Wine in Tufnell Park.
Other gastronomic amenities have also disappeared. The last one down was the Café Tolli, where until recently local poets met to compare verse or worse. They made wonderful fiorentini and torte delle nonna. In their place have come Costa and Prêt and the usual chains but to be fair there have been a few improvements. Apart from Salvino, two dozen years ago there was just one grocer, Charlie and Maria at Paradise Foods, catering for anyone who wanted anything out of the usual. Now there is a lot of competition from the Earth (which put Charlie and Maria out of business) and Natural Foods, the rather sparse Naturally delicatessen (decent bread) and of course Lo Sfizio which has the pleasing smell of a shop that has been there forever, even though it opened under than a year ago.
About twenty years ago I wrote a piece for the Evening Standard in which I said Kentish Town was heaven because we had no supermarkets. I think the marketing people must have read it, for now we can’t move for supermarkets, institutions that kill high streets, encourage cars and diminish choice. We have two Sainsburys now (and a whacking great one on the canal in Camden Town where there is also Marks & Spencer), a Tesco, two Co-ops and Lidls in both Kentish Town and Camden Town. I use the Co-op for small things and occasionally wine and am always charmed by the politeness of the staff. I go to Lidl in Camden Town because unlike the place in Kentish Town I don’t have to tot up my bill myself. I might add in Kentish Town there is a huge amount of quite blatant theft, and several people have to be stationed by the door to catch the thieves. In Camden Town people in the queue quite often scoff part of their shopping before they reach the tills. I suppose they shove the empty packets in among the taters.
Lidl’s wines are not only good, they are excellent value for money, but in Camden Town at least they are limited to about a dozen lines and far fewer good things than there were. Waitrose, the upper middle-class supermarket, seems to have foundered in Camden Town. Its departure may have had something to do with the opening of an ultra-chic branch on the canal behind King’s Cross Station. Waitrose’s site in Camden High Street is being prepared for the arrival of that other German discounter Aldi. Aware that I might soon be rummaging around for bargains on their shelves I went to their spring tasting. This is what I found:
Veuve Monsigny Champagne Brut Grand Reserve NV (£14.99): pleasant baked apple character, good length.
Philizot Organic Champagne NV (£26.99): Decent stuff, limes and apples - nearly twice the price of the Veuve Monsigny, mind you.
Exquisite Collection Lyme Block English Wine 2018 (£9.99): I was surprised by the complexity here. It had a lot more to say than most of Aldi’s white wines. It is chiefly Bacchus, a grape variety I would usually cross the road to avoid.
Hive and Honey Gewurztraminer 2017 (£6.99): from Monterey in California and quite pleasant in a merely sweet sort of way.
‘Gym’ Dão red 2017 (£5.69): with a name like that it should be lively. It had a convincing nose but was a bit short on body.
Baron de las viñas rioja gran reserva 2010 (£9.99): one of the better wines in the tasting, has typicity, appeal and convincing length.
The Fire Tree Sicilian Nero d’Avola 2018 (£4.99): very good value for money here, there is a touch of sweetness too it, but body too. The Riserva version is £3 more and not worth the extra money.
Nero di Troia 2016 (£5.99): again a bit of sweetness but a decent everyday wine with body - ideal for your midweek pasta.
Exquisite Collection organic Malbec 2018 (£6.99): quite meaty, almost stinky on the nose, but a wine with more character than you’d expect at this price.
Château Jean Gue Cuvée La Rose, Lalande de Pomerol 2015 (£11.99): a proper little claret for Sunday lunch. 100% Merlot.
Moulins de Citran Haut Médoc 2009 (£13.99): probably my favourite wine of the tasting - second wine of Château de Citran and with plenty of blackcurrant Cabernet Sauvignon character. It’s from a top vintage and is now quite mature.
Posted: 6th March 2019
Given that February is normally the grimmest of months, this year was better than I expected. There were some good wines on offer at the annual Austrian tasting, chiefly 2017s, including some Grüner Veltliners that were bursting at the seams, and possibly slightly sweet in an attempt to stop them becoming too alcoholic? It turned out to be a very ripe vintage, but I doubt it will be as rich as the 2018 which I fear may result in rather more atypical wines a bit like the 2015s.
The Austrians had instituted a new sit-down policy for the tasting which is considerably more efficient, even if you no longer get the chance to see some of your favourite growers you avoid the risk of being button-holed by some of your least favourite. I had more Austrian wines at Mark Savage’s tasting the next day, old friends like Gritsch, Geyerhof and Ludwig Neumayer; and elsewhere that week there was a happy reunion with another friend, the wine journalist Marc Médevielle from Montpellier who came to London to put his muscle behind the wines of Picpoul de Pinet, about which he had written a handsome book. I can’t have seen Marc for a couple of decades.
On the food front I joined the Academy of Chocolate for two sessions to sample ‘filled chocolates’ (people who imagine chocolate tasting to be fun are out of their minds) and was invited to lunch in a traditional London club, and ate potted shrimps, shepherd’s pie and Welsh rarebit: proper club food. I joke not: there are clubs that serve the most extraordinary food these days almost like restaurants. But the real pleasure of February remains the Domaine des Anges in the Ventoux.
We went down on the 14th and already the weather seemed unusually bright in London. Paris was radiant, and although it was dark by the time we reached the domaine, there was a wonderfully clear, starlit sky above me when I got out of the car. While we waited for Padrone’s stew, I had a peek in the freezer and discovered a haunch of boar Boris had been deposited there as in previous years. The same unseen, benevolent hand had left 250 grams of black truffles. I put Boris in a bath of domaine wine, oil and vinegar before I sat down to dinner.
The sun came up bright behind Mount Ventoux the next morning. We went to Villes sur Auzon to get the bread and croissants. The baker there is wonderfully old-fashioned, unlike the one at the bottom of the hill in Mormoiron who buys in her stock, ready-made, like a London supermarket. There is a flanking room with a table where you can see the loaves proving. That morning being Friday she had puff pastry fish filled with brandade de morue an emulsion of salt cod and olive oil which is a traditional fasting dish in Provence.
The sun continued its ascent and by the time we’d done our shopping in Carpentras it was properly hot. We stopped in Mazan for a beer. Jérôme’s bar was sadly shut and boarded up, waiting for its new proprietor to make his mark. We went to a well turned-out place nearby filled with raucous, cackling women from Malaucène. I stripped down to my t-shirt. That afternoon it was warm enough to sit outside. We had procured a couple of sturdy local chickens. I chopped them into a number of pieces then combined the cooking juices with crème fraîche and a few of our truffles. They had a good aroma, but were sadly squishy from having been deep-frozen.
There is a market one day a week in most of the local towns and villages. Saturday morning is the turn of Pernes, which is one of the nicest towns around. I generally get my lavender honey from Isa the beekeeper and lavender-scented olive oil soap from a woman who sells it at €2 a bar. I particularly like the fact it has a picture of Mont Ventoux stamped on the surface it cheers me up on cold winter mornings at home. This time the soap was half-price and I was as happy as Larry the Cat. One woman had expensive fresh morels for sale they worked out at about €1 each, but we bought a few for all that.
That evening we consumed Boris. I roasted him in the oven and reduced the marinade with the stock I’d made from the chicken bones and a little tomato purée. We had mashed potatoes enriched with some of our truffles and braised pak choi. The few morels were simply turned in butter and cream. Padrone honoured us with some of his top Archange wines and we had a fine and merry evening.
Most of Sunday was spent out in the sun rescuing an antique vine plough we had located behind the new cellar. It was eventually hooked up to a tractor and dragged out of the undergrowth before being installed in pride of place at the entrance to the domaine. We dined in the pizzeria in Mazan on that our last night. Pizza was somehow naturalised as Provencal food sometime after the last war and it remains the popular choice. I had a local, seasonal variation with raclette and ham while we tried out rival wines from Fondrèche and Valcombe. We all agreed that neither could hold a candle to the quality of our host’s wines from the Domaine des Anges.
Posted: 1st February 2019
Gérard Basset died from throat cancer this month. It is sad news, not least because he was younger than me and had everything to live for. I had known him from the late eighties, since the first time I stayed at Chewton Glen in the New Forest. He was the sommelier and the hotel was managed by his young friend Robin Hutson. Their partnership survived until Gérard’s death, linked by any number of hotels that had been spawned by the successful Hôtel du vin chain that they launched together. I think it was also at Chewton Glen that Gérard met his wife Nina, the mother of his child. I have a memory of a sunny day, a good lunch and a tour of the cellar. The owner, Martin Skan, was in close attendance, as he always was.
As for Gérard he was shy, attentive and genuinely humble. He struck me as quite different from most other French sommeliers, the ones I had to stomach at so many tastings in France and who worked in restaurants with Michelin rosettes; the more stars the restaurant possessed, the more arrogant they became. They didn’t taste like us, they had a system: first ‘bouche’, second ‘bouche’, and then an interminable list of fruits and flowers that would have flummoxed a nation of gardeners. They looked down on us as amateurs, which I suppose we were.
There was one in particular, whom we knew as ‘Cricket Bat’ who was quite insufferably full of himself and we got our own back by teasing him relentlessly. In contrast Gérard was modest, maybe because he had fallen into the world of wine by chance, having started out as a kitchen skivvy here and had been put through his paces in England rather than France. He had been born near St Etienne in the Rhone Valley but he gradually became an Anglo-French wine man, with a foot on either side of the Channel. That being said, he was very much at home in Britain.
The Rhone Valley is my next recollection of Gérard. We were visiting vineyards, several of us crammed into an Espace. When I became conscious of Gérard he was sitting nonchalantly by the opposite window with his head plunged into my book on Syrah. I remembered a story about Hilaire Belloc entering a railway carriage to find a man reading one of his books. He strode over to the window and opened it wide, grabbed the book and hurled it out of the moving train. I was half inclined to do the same, but it would have involved leaning over two people and wrestling with the window handle. By that time even the placid Gérard would have become suspicious. He carried on reading my book and didn’t look the slightest bit embarrassed. I thought it was even possible he was not aware of the fact I had written it.
That book caused a storm later. There was a front-page story in the New York Times about ‘young’, iconoclastic wine-writers upsetting the older generation. As a measure of how wrong the piece was, I was compared to the Guru of Maryland, Robert Parker. They quoted a tasting note from Syrah about a Northern Rhone wine smelling like a hamster’s cage. This had set off a cacophony among the stuffed shirts of wine at the time but Gérard was clearly impressed. Several years later when he published his first book on wine, Wine Experience, he made reference to that tasting note. With pride he showed me a page illustrated with a photograph of a very clean, empty hamster’s cage.
Another time I saw Gérard in his native France was at the Crillon-le-Brave hotel in the Ventoux in about 1998. I was with my small family, and we had been staying nearby at the Domaine des Anges. Gérard was giving talks on wine to the guests and I had been invited to write them up. Gérard was reverential as always and deferred to me on a number of points, but he was soaring ahead in his quest to win all the world's wine competitions and accumulate all the honours that could be bestowed in the vinous world. He was Britain’s best sommelier and eventually the best sommelier in the world, he was a Master Sommelier, a Master of Wine, managed to acquire an MSc and - I think - an OBE; and yet, he was still the same old Gérard. Nothing really went to his head.
The last time I remember seeing him was at the World Wine Awards three years ago. At first he had served on one of the juries in his usual modest way but, with his talents, he was quickly appointed a sort of ‘cardinal’ serving directly under our Pope Steven (Spurrier). I was a mere bishop, in charge of my clergy of chiefly MWs from Austria and Germany. Teutonic wines were not, think necessarily Gérard’s strongest suit - not so hedonistic and possibly a shade too cerebral. He was nonetheless called in to resolve questions of orthodoxy when I could not convince the people myself. It was always the same, humble, smiling Gérard, full of charm and bonhomie. We shall all miss him.
I have had my head in Anthony Rose’s new book on Sake since Christmas. It reminded me that I had written an article on sake many years before and quite fallen in love with the poetic side of traditional Japanese life. I longed to go, to explore the towns and cities that had been spared the relentless destruction of the Second World War and watch people singing to cherry trees. This never happened. The nearest I ever got to the country was a Japanese restaurant and the occasional glass of sake.
The book starts well, with an epigraph by Alex Kerr, one of the most stylish men in my college, who later emigrated to Japan to serve a living god and was last reported living in Thailand. One story I loved was about ‘virgin sake’ where the rice that made the wine was chewed by the purest maidens and spat into a vat before it fermented. The tasting of sake, in little cups decorated with bulls eyes I also found charming. Emphasis was placed on the ‘tail’ of the sake: what wine tasters would call the finish, the length. I resolved that were I ever to get the chance to go to Japan, Anthony’s book would be my vade mecum, but it was undiscovered territory and would probably remain terra incognita. As I put the book down I remembered - there was a small bottle of sake at the bottom of the fridge that had been there for at least fifteen years if not twenty. I fetched it up to my study: ‘Izumi Jungmai Ginjo made by Suwa in the Prefecture of Tottori’. I looked it up but found no reference. I suppose it might be no good. I shall put it back in the fridge. Who knows when I shall finally drink it?
Before Christmas I had some excellent beer from the Edinburgh Beer Factory. All the beers are named after paintings by Eduardo Paolozzi, the Leith-born Italian-Scottish painter and sculptor whose family was decimated by the sinking of the Arandora Star by a German U-Boot in the Second World War. We had a hoppy, chocolaty Futurismo; a smoky wheat beer called Moonstrips which seemed to lean more towards an IPA; an excellent unfiltered Helles lager; a lemony Z.E.E.P (with a touch of rosemary); and Soho Jazz Cherry Saison, which had the faintest hint of cherry; and a citrus-fruity ‘Untitled’. All really nice brews and you don’t even have to go to Edinburgh to drink them.
Finally an item of local news: Fortess Road in Kentish Town has become more and more French over the past decade, I presume because of the French college in nearby Holmes Road. The presence of a discerning public has improved shopping no end: first a good, if expensive Turkish-run greengrocer opened, then a classy butcher in ‘Meat NW5’, then a charmless but stylish fishmonger opposite. The Authentique Epicerie & Bar has declared its red-white-and-blue colours since then, with French wines, cheeses and sausages, while at the bottom of the road is the Patron restaurant (which I have yet to try) and the Tabac Bar which used to be a ‘cave-à-manger’ offshoot of the Patron but has now been rebranded to make a small-but-cosy Paris-style ‘zinc’, serving rather better wines than you’d expect from a bar tabac with sausage, pâté and cheeses. I dropped in before Christmas and had a rather lovely Meursault, but if you don’t want to splash out they serve honest, cheap wine in ‘ballons’ filled to the brim. On Saturday they put the papers out and you can have a long and leisurely breakfast. A warning though: despite the name, and the pictures on the site, cigarettes are not on the cards.
The Spirit of Christmas Present
Posted: 2nd January 2019
Christmas is certainly not what it was. Even in my callow twenties I recall one year in Paris when we drank 1966 Château Margaux (currently £500 a bottle) out of whisky tumblers, and another when I was all alone with a friend and I bought a bottle of 1971 La Tâche (400 francs or forty quid then, now a modest £4,418 a bottle). Life was pretty good! When I look back on it, on the second occasion I was in seventh heaven because the girl got drunk on the champagne before dinner and I had most of the bottle of burgundy and a haunch of wild boar to myself.
If I still had a repository of these things now I dare say someone would tell me to sell them and in mitigation it is true that Christmas has a lot more meaning when you have children and you are not just indulging yourself; you happily accept that their happiness is what it’s about even if the wine and food is perhaps not all it was. The worst of all worlds is when you aren’t happy, and the children aren’t either.
I am glad to say that I don’t think we quite reached that level this year, although we have been close in the past. This Christmas was more sociable than many previous occasions and only Christmas Day was completely free of guests or trips to see friends. So it kicked off with a blazing fire and the decoration of the tree on Christmas Eve while we waited for the arrival of a couple of guests for dinner. I decanted a bottle of 1985 Warre’s port I had been given as a present and put some slightly underperforming white burgundy in the fridge. We had a predictable but otherwise undistinguished bottle of Perrier Jouët before we sat down the terrine of foie gras I’d made over the weekend. The burgundy was intended for the baked sea bass and beurre blanc, then a friend’s Saint Emilion, 2007 Château Petit Faurie de Soutard went with the cheeses, including a sensational vacherin mont d’or. It was a really lovely wine, quite creamy and modern in style, but without that clunking sweetness of so many Saint Emilions today. Then there were meringues and mince pies with brandy butter and what proved to be a truly lovely, classic port.
Suitably fortified with went to Midnight Mass. As we ambled back after 1.30 on Christmas morning we surprised a fox tucking into his Christmas dinner: a takeaway jettisoned in the street. He wasn’t drinking wine.
Later that day we had a bottle of Mumm around the tree and slices of a Venezuelan pan de jamon I had made on impulse because it looked nice in the picture. The bread dough is enriched with eggs and butter and rolled up with ham, bacon and olives. I was supposed to add raisins too but one child won’t eat them and I wasn’t certain they added that much. It proved remarkably popular, and I may have to make it again. We were just three drinkers at dinner, which was a wonderful heifer forerib (we had baptised it ‘Simon’). I had decanted the oldest Bordeaux I had left: a 1988 Château Lynch Moussas for which I had no great expectations. As it was it turned out, it proved to be a model pre-Parker claret with just 12.5 by volume, a lovely balance together with an enchanting redolence of cedar and cassis. There was no sign of decay. Then there was cheese and treacle pudding. After that we took the port upstairs to watch Scrooge.
My brother-in-law had brought up a couple of cooked lobsters from Devon on Christmas Eve, and these formed the centre point of the meal on Boxing Day when a couple of friends came to dinner. They brought an orange Khikvi wine with them from the Vazisubani Estate in Georgia. That afternoon my daughter and I had done sterling work with a hammer and skewers and I had turned the lobsters into a salad by whipping up some mayonnaise. The brown meat was incorporated into the leftover beurre blanc and served with toast. The wine for this was a 2013 Meursault Clos du Cromin from Patrick Javillier which was as magical as the other white burgundy had been flat. There was some roast pork and cabbage afterwards for which the intended partner was the 2000 Domaine du Grand Tinel Châteauneuf-du-Pape. This was a disappointment: it was distinctly on the wane. I had had the 2001 earlier in the year and it was a great deal more robust. I had always suspected the millennial wines had been over-hyped. More cheeses came out later, including an interesting camembert that had been enhanced with ceps.
For the next few days we managed the leftovers and on New Year’s Eve we had our Italian feast of stuffed pig’s trotter or zampone with lentils and potato purée. There was even a bit of foie gras left too which we ate with a 1997 Weißburgunder Auslese from my friend Johann Münzenrieder in Apetlon. Once again the star was a 1997 Prunotto Barolo, a wine that kept throwing out new faces, sparkling like the fireworks that even then were starting to illuminate London’s Southbank.
We had no champagne on New Year’s Eve this year. We’ll have champagne again when there is something to celebrate.
Austerity and Prosecco
Posted: 3rd December 2018
November was grim month. Sometime in the twilight days of October I realised I could no longer fit into my clothes. I had a clear choice: new clothes or lose weight. As I could not afford the former, it had to be the latter; so I gave up lunch.
Lunch was only ever what the others had failed to finish, but there was quite a lot of that and then there were cakes and biscuits and all sorts of things that lay about the house. Anyway, I reduced my daily diet to two slices of my own (substantial) bread with my coffee and then perhaps a couple of tangerines during the day. Dinner accompanied by wine was at eight as usual. One or two things broke up the day and stopped me going mad: a cup of tea at four and a couple of pints of water at half past six.
After just over a month I feel quite well adapted. Members of my family offer me biscuits, even lunch sometimes, but I do not waver. From time to time I feel like St. Anthony in the desert, but I am even more adamantine in my commitment than he was. I knew that as Christmas approached there would be a few evening parties and even the occasional lunch, and that I would have to make an exception here or there, but I aim to persist, at least until the end of Advent.
So far I have had two lapses. On one occasion friends invited me to Bedford for an Anglo-German birthday party and we ate, almost without a break, all day; and the other was on the last day of the month when I attended a tasting at the Osteria in the Barbican, followed by lunch! The tasting was of Bottega prosecco. Now, I am not a huge prosecco drinker but I have noticed how popular it has become in Britain. I had first witnessed the prosecco craze in Munich and elsewhere in Germany where affluent young ‘Schickimickis’ sat around in cafés drinking it in preference to still wine or beer. Germans drink lots of Sekt or sparkling wine, so this wasn’t particularly revolutionary. In Britain, on the other hand, sparkling wine was restricted to high days and holy days: weddings and birthdays, and if you couldn’t run to champagne for the occasion you tended to drink Catalan cava instead.
That, it seems, has changed; and people are now prepared to drink a glass of sparkling wine where, in the past, it was always still. It is also true that champagne has priced itself out of many people’s budgets: with the found flailing, the price of champagne has increased by 12% meaning that the average cost of a bottle is over £20 for the first time. Sales have decreased by 20% since 2016. Sandro Bottega demonstrated that proper prosecco, made from Glera grapes grown on the steep slopes of the Dolomites, is not any cheaper to produce than champagne, despite the fact that the second fermentation is in tank, rather than bottle. The ‘Charmat’ tanks cost a lot of money. What makes champagne more expensive is the fact the champagne producers have to pay more than five times as much for their grapes. On the other hand, not all prosecco is as well made as his and at around £20 his top prosecco - Gold - is more expensive than many champagnes. Rough and ready prosecco may be had for as little as £5.25 a bottle.
Britain is now the top destination for prosecco wines and to my shame I don’t think I was aware of ever having tasted it analytically before last Friday. I was pleasantly surprised. Sandro Bottega wanted to show us that the wine had the potential to age. We tasted six vintages of his Vino dei Poeti Valdobbiadene Superiore and it was quite clear there were considerable variations between vintages. The one I liked best was the powerful 2016, the 2013, however, I thought was already oxidised. This short-ish life does contrast quite sharply with champagne; champagne ages better than many still wines. I have the odd 1990, and it is very good.
The tasting went on, and we tried the new ‘Ancestrale’: a prosecco filled with its yeast to create a second fermentation in the bottle, but, unlike champagne, the Ancestrale is not disgorged, so the yeast remains at the bottom, like a German wheat beer. I thought this rather wonderful stuff. It had that green apple character which is a sine qua non, but was slightly cidery.
We finished the tasting with the Bottega Gold, the Prosecco Rosé and the Bottega Rosé Gold. Unlike ordinary proseccos, Gold has a dosage of 11 - 12 grams of sugar to make it richer and it has a pleasant length too. The Gold rosé has a bit of added Pinot Noir from Oltreppo Pavese and has an attractive saltiness.
Then we went into lunch, and an excellent lunch at that. An aperitif of prosecco with Bottega vermouth was served with lots of lovely things including a very gooey triple cream goats’ cheese from Piemonte and three different sorts of bruschetta. Then we sat down to grilled vegetables and dried meats and cheeses, excellent Bottega six-year old balsamico and olive oil and then a delicious spaghetti cacio e pepe and fruit salad served with (Bottega) soave, Valpolicella ripasso and sparkling moscato. Bottega is a very big company indeed and has its fingers in a great many vinous pies. There was even a cask-aged grappa to go with my coffee. All my vows lay in tatters and my pious intentions were utterly crushed.
I made for the tube at Moorgate. I remembered we needed food for the evening and stopped to buy lamb and morcilla negra sausages from Miguel the Spanish butcher in Camden Town but before dinner there was a book launch in Westminster for the new edition of the late Jocasta Innes’s excellent Country Kitchen first published in 1979. It proved a delightful evening in an old house within spitting distance of Jacob Rees Mogg’s London residence and sure as eggs his name was pronounced again and again. I was far from hungry, but somebody pressed a plate of kedgeree into my hand, made, of course, according to Jocasta Innes’s recipe. I write these words on the first Sunday in Advent. I am not at my best. I have promised I shall be made of sterner stuff between now and Christmas.
On Culinary Fashion: a Tale of Two St John’s: St John’s in Clerkenwell and the Oslo Court in St John’s Wood
Posted: 5th November 2018
I don’t eat out much anymore; frankly, I can’t afford to. To some extent I have lost the thrill I used to feel about picking up a menu and deciding what I’d like to eat. Other considerations tend to weigh in: such as the fact that I am invariably someone else’s guest, and if I am actually paying I need to be aware of just how much we can afford to spend. We eat pretty well at home and on the rare occasions we go out many things have changed, not least in the sparse presentation of food, the peculiar syntax of the menu, the nature and degree of seasoning and the surroundings: luxury is out, restaurants are often just bare boards and blank walls. There is a hell of a lot less ‘comfort’ than there was back in the old days.
I remember visiting Paul Bocuse in Lyon a few years back, probably around the time of the millennium. His restaurant was ‘plush’ to the degree of vulgarity. To get three stars then you needed pictures on the walls, carpets, good silver and tableware. Marco Pierre White was a case in point. When he was looking for his third Michelin Star he used to show me all the paintings he’d acquired that week: ‘Nicholas, show Giles my paintings!’ They were frightful things, but he thought they’d help.
To be honest, I wasn’t very concerned about Marco’s pictures or Bocuse’s ringard interiors, I had come to eat. Bocuse’s waiters laid out various things that had justifiably brought him fame since the sixties and I ate, with gusto. I had truffle soup and sea bass with potato scales, and lots, lots more, and my host sat before me with his arms folded across his chest and his big chef’s hat on the top of his head. When he took it off, he was about a foot shorter. It was one of the most delicious meals I’d ever had. And yet, in culinary terms it was all well out of fashion, even then.
I remembered Bocuse, as I always do, when I had lunch last month in Fergus Henderson’s London restaurant St. John’s. Not because either decoration or food reminded me of Bocuse, rather it was because both were really the complete antithesis of Bocuse: the stark white walls, the uncomfortable chairs and the food that simply juxtaposes bold, but unusual ingredients without uniting them under a sauce. I had a good meal: smoked eel with a little mound of wonderfully piquant creamed horseradish (the star of the show) and a pickled prune, a fat cake of pigs’ blood topped with a couple of fried eggs, and finished off with an Eccles cake with Lancashire cheese. What could go wrong there, I asked? And nothing did.
Only a week or two before I had been to another restaurant for lunch that was distinctly UN-fashionable: the Oslo Court in St John’s Wood. In fact it might just win the prize for being the most unfashionable restaurant in London. I had come across it by chance when a wine merchant asked if I might consent to pick up some samples from there as he was not prepared to come all the way to me in Kentish Town. I arrived before the lunchtime service. A waiter or possibly the maître d’hôtel brought me a coffee while I waited for my bottles and soaked up the vision in pink. The dining room seemed to have been inspired by the late Barbara Cartland. The waiter took a telephone call, looking at me and talking in a tone worthy of the great Frankie Howerd: ‘He has such a nice face. I do hope he comes here again!’ I took a peek at the menu. It was then I realised that I had somehow contrived to travel there by Tardis: steak diane! Steak au poivre? Sole meunière? Duck in Cherry Sauce? - dishes as out of date now as top hats at funerals.
I did intend to come again, but the years rolled by. I learned the Oslo Court was popular with people who watch the cricket at Lords. I heard that David Cameron had been seen there, which put me off. This summer I told some kind American friends who spend their summers in St John’s Wood about it and they invited me to go along with them; then I forgot all about the booking and to my horror received an e.mail from them at about two, asking where I was? When they asked me a second time I made sure I put the date firmly in my diary.
This time I arrived on the bus. The place was heaving. I am not young, but I was certainly one of the youngest there. With its soft carpets and genteel atmosphere and art deco allure it might have been an up-market old people’s home on the South Coast. The ladies wore pearls and the men were in suits and ties. I felt hugely underdressed. There was a big bowl of crudités on the table and a great profusion of waiters in dinner jackets bringing hot rolls and Melba toast, each one clearly famed for his comic routine. I great list of specials was recited as a prologue to each course, but I wanted to stick to a menu marinated in nostalgia and opted for a scallops in a shell, fillets of sole with a lobster sauce and sherry trifle.
It was not Bocuse, to be sure, but it was purest Escoffier. The scallops were just the ticket: there seemed to be several in there with prawns in a creamy sauce hemmed in by mashed potato piping. The last time I had eaten one of these was when I dined with a schoolmaster at Eton who had called me in to give a talk to the boys. Then there was the sole. It came on a massive plate with lots of cream. The lobster sauce could have been a bit more concentrated, and there might have been a bit more cognac in it, but these are quibbles. There were more vegetables than anyone could cope with and pommes dauphinoises popped down in some distant part of the plate. Then the trifle (I scarcely had room for the trifle), but it was a serious blast from the past. It took me back to the George at Dorchester, and the Bear at Woodstock, and all the gorgeous trifles I had eaten, and not eaten in the past forty years. It was a massive comfort to know such things were still being made.
The Palate Revives
Posted: 3rd October 2018
After the dog days of this summer working life has gradually returned. I’ve actually been pleasantly busy, though not so much on the food and drink front. For many weeks it seemed to me that I had done nothing more than add the odd dab of paint to a canvas. I began to understand how unjust it was to accuse those who live in torrid latitudes of laziness. For much of July and August here in London it was too hot to work.
As I don’t get to go to Wiesbaden now to taste the dry Grosses Gewächs (GGs) anymore, Justerini & Brooks’ German wine tasting at the beginning of September is a useful way of seeing where we are, and one which has the further advantage of letting me sample the full range and not just the dry wines. J & B has been just about the top importer of German wines for some time, and they are still adding wonderful new growers to their portfolio. Germans themselves rarely drink semi-sweet wines, but the great estates still make them, I suspect for an ageing category of connoisseurs who know how glorious they can be. That means proper Kabinetts, Spätlesen, Auslesen, and the higher band of Auslese: numbered casks (Fuder), gold caps and long gold caps, before you reach the super sweet levels of Beerenauslesen and Trockenbeerenauslesen.
Unless otherwise mentioned, all the wines in my round up of the very best from J & B are Rieslings from the 2017 vintage.
- Fritz Haag (Mosel): Brauneberger Juffer Sonnenuhr Grosses Gewächs (£25.60), Brauneberger Kabinett (£14.10), Brauneberger Juffer Spätlese (£16.60), Juffer Sonnenuhr Auslese Fuder 10 (£27.60), Juffer Sonnenuhr Auslese Gold Cap (£50.60), for the Beerenauslese from the same site the prices are on application! Otherwise the sums demanded are notably modest for wines of this quality with almost unlimited ageing potential.
- Schloss Lieser (Mosel): the wines to look out for from the Haag cousins are the Rieslings from the Brauneberger Juffer Sonnenberg Spätlese (£19.60), the Piesporter Goldtröpfchen Spätlese (£19.60) and the fabulous gold cap from the Niederberger Helden (£39.60). Again there is no greed in evidence here.
- Willi Schaefer (Mosel): Wehlener Sonnenuhr Spätlese (£28.60), Graacher Domprobst Spätlese Fuder 5 (£32.60).
- JJ Prüm (Mosel): Wehlener Sonnenuhr Spätlese (£28.60), Auslese from the same site (£33.60), Graacher Himmelreich Auslese Gold Cap (£63.60), Wehlener Himmelreich Auslese Gold Cap 2003 (£81.60).
- Maximin Grünhaus (Ruwer): the Abtsberg Spätlese (£22.60) and the Abtsberg Auslese (£41.60).
- Zilliken (Saar): Saarburger Rausch Spätlese (£28.60), Auslese (£45.60) and Gold Cap (£97.60).
- Emrich-Schönleber (Nahe): Monzinger Frühlingsplätzchen Spätlese (£25.60) and the Monzinger Halenberg Auslese (£46.60).
- Dönnhof (Nahe): Oberhäuser Leistenberg Kabinett (£17.60), Oberhäuser Brücke Spätlese (£33.60), Niederhäuser Hermannshöhle Spätlese (£40.60), Hermannshöhle Auslese Gold Cap (£63.60).
- Wilhelm Weil (Rheingau): Kiedricher Gräfenberg Grosses Gewächs (£41.60) and the Spätlese from the same site (£41.60).
- Josef Spreitzer (Rheingau): Hattenheimer Wisselbrunnen Grosses Gewächs (two earlier vintages of this wonderful wine were served at the launch of my book On Germany in July) (£28.60), Oestricher Lenchen Spätlese (£25.60).
- August Kesseler (Rheingau): Rüdesheimer Trocken (£18.60), Rüdesheimer Berg Schlossberg Grosses Gewächs (£41.60), Berg Roseneck Grosses Gewächs (£41.60).
- Benedikt Baltes (the new red wine sensation from Franken): Buntsandstein Pinot Noir 2015 (a bargain at £16.60), Bürgstädter Berg Pinot Noir 2016 (£38.60). Schlossberg, Klingenberg Grosses Gewächs Pinot Noir 2016 (£66.60).
- Fürst (Franken): Klingenberger Pinot Noir 2016 (£35.60), Centgrafenberg Pinot Noir 2016 (£75.60), Hunsrück Pinot Noir 2016 (£149.60).
- Bernhard Huber (Baden): Bienenberg Grosses Gewächs Pinot Noir 2016 (price to be announced). Schlossberg Grosses Gewächs Pinot Noir 2016 (price to be announced), Wildenstein Grosses Gewächs Pinot Noir 2016 (price to be announced).
- Kühling Gillot and Battenfeld Spanier (Rheinhessen - the owners are a married couple, each with an estate of their own): KG Pettenthal Grosses Gewächs (£43.60), BS Frauenberg Grosses Gewächs (£43.60).
- Rebholz (Pfalz): Riesling vom Rotliegenden (£21.60), Ganz Horn Grosses Gewächs (£43.60), Kastanienbusch Grosses Gewächs (£48.60).
Prices are necessarily high for these hand-made wines, but it should be borne in mind that these are some of the greatest wines made anywhere in the world. There is a compensation in the fact there is often an estate Riesling which is good value for money. Schloss Lieser, for example, has one at £9.30 inc. VAT, Kesseler’s (Daily August) is at £11.60.
Of the two German supermarkets trading in the UK, I am familiar only with Lidl. Aldi has been absent from this part of central north London until now, although I am told they are about to take over the old Waitrose site in Camden High Street. This year I therefore made an effort to go to the Aldi tasting to see what their wines were like. Our domestic budgets are small and we have been devotees of Lidl for some time, chiefly because they produce real quality at low prices.
I was particularly interested in anything that in our inflated times could come in under the £7 mark (what would have been £5 in those halcyon days that ended two years ago). The following more or less fitted the bill: Gavi di Gavi (£6.99), Limestone German Riesling (£6.49), Monte Cão Alentejo (£5.99), Venturer Costières de Nîmes (£5.99), Californian Lodi Zinfandel (£6.29), and ‘This... Loves’ Sangiovese from Sicily (which was the best buy of all at £4.99).
Aldi’s chief strength is in its range of spirits. Nothing in the world would induce me to swallow a gin called ‘Cromwell’ (and it is pink!), but Harrison’s (rose water £15.99), Gingerbread Gin Liqueur (good on a cake £9.99), Mason’s (or freemasons’? £24.99 - classic), Eden Mill (spice £19.99 for 50 cls), Boyle’s (sounds a bit chemical like the law - names are not their strongpoint - £19.99 and more fruit based) are all recommended. From 14 November there is also a 2004 cognac at £39.99 and a 32-year old ‘brandy’ at £29.99. Neither is to be sniffed at, if you get my drift.
One of the reasons why Waitrose abandoned their site in the Camden High Street must have been their decision to open a flagship supermarket with a cookery school on the canal behind King’s Cross Station. This year I went along to a product launch to see what they were up to. The thrust was towards vegetarians and vegans; although there was a bit of meat about in the new range of prepared dishes from our old friend Bloomers. A vegetable diet should not be a punishment and I kept an open mind as I examined and sampled beetroot burgers, jackfruit parcels, beetroot risottos, spinach and cheese parcels (boreks)... Bechamels had been replaced by cauliflower creamed with soya; bread was made with rice flour. It all looked good and pandered to an affluent and above all sensitive North London public. I asked about gluten allergies. It appears that sufferers feel bloated by wheaten bread. I may be rare but my metabolism is affected by a great many chiefly root vegetables and pulses that I avoid if I possibly can. The only thing that causes me no problems is meat!
I passed over to the chocolates. Here the concern was about nuts, but they were otherwise normal. I enjoyed a passion fruit bellini and tasted an IPA flavoured with passion fruit. I was not so keen, as I want a beer that has a character of its own and not one derived from alien elements (bring on the Reinheitsgebot) I turned and went to see what Bloomers had been up to. Dried ceps featured in a piece of skirt rubbed with coffee (quite chewy this), better was the pork cooked with black pudding and calvados. The lucky Waitrose buyers had been packed off to find new spices and returned with an array of exotic flavours from India and Asia. Turmeric figured large but did little for me. There was an interesting black garlic too, but the condiment I liked most was ‘zhoug’ which was a bit like the parsley sauce you get with a bollito misto in northern Italy, but with an added dash of chilli.
In September we enjoy an Indian meal at the Domaine des Anges in the Vaucluse, where for the last twenty-three or so years I have been going at around the time of the autumnal equinox. It is always delicious and we all tuck in with great gusto even if its oriental character is in marked contrast to the Mediterranean world around us with its olives and olive oils, its fresh fruit and vegetables, lamb and pork all enhanced with fresh herbs and garlic. It strikes me sometimes that our growing desire to eat only heavily-spiced food is beginning to rob us of our ability to appreciate the subtlety of many formerly highly-prized European gastronomic styles, where the best seasoning was the subtlest. I am guilty too, as I apply spices to reinvigorate the more banal foods we eat at home. After such strong flavours it is hard to readjust our palates. Personally I still enjoy the flavour of the local produce (although Provencal beef can be tough) not least because it best sets off the excellent wines made on the hillsides around us.
This year the trip to the Domaine was slightly later and I returned to England on the very last day of the month. I have to say the weather was perfection: up to 30 C during the day but nights that were so cool that there were no problems sleeping. Incidentally, this was the ideal weather for the as yet unfinished harvest: cool nights bring subtle flavours and aromas. One night a three-quarter moon hung low in the sky above Mont Ventoux and all the stars shone like a picture from an astronomer’s text book. I have never known the place look quite so beautiful.
Posted: 3rd September 2018
Last month I spent ten days in British Columbia. It was not only my first ever visit to Canada, it was the first time I’d set foot in North America for nearly sixteen years. It was also my first sally beyond the European mainland since 2005, when I last went to Australia.
I went with my son to visit an old friend who taught me as a boy. We had a lovely time. We burned the midnight oil and put the world to rights, listened to country music (his favourite) and met his friends and former students. We explored Vancouver and the country beyond and we ventured up to the Okanagan Valley where British Columbia’s best wine is made.
It was not billed as a voyage of culinary discovery, but certain things did stand out for all that. Vancouver is a multi-ethnic city, apparently dominated by first generation Canadians: Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, Indians and above all Sikhs are much in evidence. The Chinese people now are not necessarily the same as those who virtually created the place in the mid-nineteenth century when, as in other West Coast North American cities, coolie labour was brought in for the gold rush. Later they built the railways that spanned the great arc across the US border from Ottawa to Vancouver. For all that Chinatown seems a quite modest part of the inner city which otherwise shows the same jumble of ethnicities you might see here in London, although my friend assures me the food is subtly different: not so much ‘Brindian’ and Anglo-Chinese but ‘Canindian’ and Canado-Chinese. While we were there we ate both Indian and Chinese, the former in a local restaurant, the latter in the form of a take-away complete with sweet and sour chicken balls. It seemed pretty old-fashioned to me, but I think there were lots of places downtown where Chinese cooking had adopted a more modern approach and there was a lot of dim sum on offer.
Of white Canadian cooking I knew but little before I went. There are still quite a lot of people in Canada (and not just old people) who were born in these islands. I met a young, formerly English woman in Kelowna who regretted the fact she had lost her accent. I asked her where she was born. She said Birmingham. I reassured her that was one accent she could afford to lose. Culinary traditions, however, have not all been abandoned. I have had lovely cheddar from Ontario: mature and crumbly, often sealed in thick wax. I had some in Vancouver and tried to procure a truckle or a wedge on the way back, but it was not for sale in the airport. There is Pacific salmon of course, and I presume all sorts of game to shoot up in the mountains. There is of course maple syrup, which is everywhere, and good too. The airport was full of smoked salmon and every possible permutation of maple syrup but besides that, zilch. The other faintly British thing is ‘muffins’ which look like cupcakes and come with every conceivable sort of filling. Apart from that there is little more to say about muffins.
On our second night we dined downtown at the Tap and Barrel in Vancouver where there was a chance to taste the much vaunted ‘poutine’. I have to say that by its description (curds and gravy smothering a plate of chips) it seemed frankly untempting. I might have given it a go but the rest of the table advised against, and so I have yet to have that ‘poutine’ moment. Perhaps it is more popular out east?
Probably the most Ur-Canadian experience I had was when we were holed up for a few hours in Merritt or our way to Kelowna in the Okanagan Valley. Our host’s car broke down on Loon Lake (shades of A Place in the Sun) and we were obliged to spend some time in the Grand - Merritt’s best bar. There was poutine on the menu and much more besides, but we were happy to drink Belgian Moon wheat beer with great slabs of orange floating on the top, as we knew that an excellent dinner was waiting for us in Kelowna.
I suspect that non-ethnic food is pretty similar on either side of the border. In Kelowna’s Harvest golf club I ate my first hamburger since I visited Washington, and that must have been a quarter of a century ago. It was just what it said on the packet. The problem posed by the menu was avoiding a sweet element, something like onion chutney, which all the other choices seemed to include. Golf clubs loom large for al fresco eating. Back where we were staying in Coquitlam, restaurants were chiefly housed in the purlieus of shopping malls, which meant they could not easily cash in on the good weather that comes with a Vancouver summer. When we had lunch with my hosts’ friends in Furry Creek on Howe Sound it was a delight to the eyes as well as the palate: we had our aperitifs looking out over the water and our main meal looking back at the mountains. The views were sensational.
Before I left for Canada my butcher showed me some Canadian entrecote which he said was out of this world. When I asked in Vancouver they told me it very likely came from Alberta, and that was where the best beef herds were. In the summer (and it was very hot) this meat and other good things like local corn cobs go onto the barbecue. Barbecued meat needs a nice marinade otherwise even the best can taste dry and unseasoned. In North America you get round this by having recourse to bottled sauces, but they are just too sweet for me. One night we celebrated a neighbour’s birthday and there were delicious little chicken kebabs done on the barbie, with a hottish satay sauce. That was delicious.
It was my first opportunity to try wines from British Columbia, in particular those from the very hot Okanagan Valley. I took the plunge with the Rieslings. Uninspired by Maria’s Block Riesling from Kitsch, I tried the flowery Gehringer and the slightly less overblown Wild Goose before I settled on Quail’s Gate as a sappy, modern, German-style dry Riesling. Road 13 Vineyards, Merlot, Syrah and Viogner I liked, however, as I did most things I tried from Mission Springs, their Pinot Noir in particular. Up in Kelowna we were staying next to Summerhill where the wines are made by Eric von Schwerin-Krosigk. There are lots of Germans in the Okanagan Valley but I assume Eric to be a near relative of Count Lutz, a Rhodes Scholar whose name has a certain sonority in recent German history. He would also be a nephew of Beatrix von Storch of the AfD, but then there is no reason why he should carry the can for either. The wines are severely biodynamic, and the owner has interesting theories about the beneficial effects of ageing under pyramids.
Looking back on it I should have gone to the pyramid while I was there to see if it made me age more gracefully. I did find the time to visit Quail’s Gate, the winery that impressed me the most. Not only was the straight Riesling top notch, but I was struck by the cheapest of the Pinot Noirs (there were three) and a wonderful - if pricy - Syrah. And now I am back at home, watching the old car spin out of control and wondering if, after it has struck the wall we will manage to continue living according to our European mores, or whether, once we have climbed out of the wreck, we will have opted for the North American model.
Pimm’s Number 6 Cup
Posted: 1st August 2018
In the earlier part of this summer at least, I spent a lot of time thinking about Pimm’s. There was a rumour that the Number 6, Vodka Cup had been revived and that there would be a series of launch events involving the great and good. Being neither great nor good, these passed me by, but I saw pictures of the usual slebs slurping away at Pimm’s cocktails. Then a bottle was promised and I planted some borage specially. The sample failed to materialise and the borage was attacked by a malevolent fly that turned it black and lank before it wilted and died. That made no odds as I still hadn’t had the Pimm’s. Then one evening we were sitting down to dinner drinking red wine from a bottle in an ice-bucket when there was a knock at the door. It was some never-previously-seen neighbours from three houses to the north. They had had ‘this bag’ for some time. I had a quick look: there was the Pimm’s Number 6 and a few mixers too: it had finally made it.
Two boiling days later I made up a couple of drinks for my daughter and myself. I found cucumber and strawberries and in the absence of borage, I picked some fresh mint from my herb-garden. Some people used to throw in apples and slices of orange in the past. I remembered that too much greenery became tiresome by the second round, so I went easy. Also party-givers tended to make it up in a punchbowl, so that the brewage quickly began to look jaded and was diluted by too much ice added in an attempt to revive it.
When I finally made up my Pimm’s the other day, it proved a moment to savour; a properly Proustian evocation as a profusion of Pimm’s memories came flooding back. Pimm’s was a drink enjoyed above all in May and June, and therefore a marketing-man’s (or woman’s) nightmare. Even more of a bind was the fact it required a lot of kit (where the hell did you obtain borage if you didn’t have any in the garden?). Drinks marketeers want things that will sell all the year round and can be adapted to a hundred different uses. As an undergraduate I associated Pimm’s above all with Eights’ Week, when the colleges raced their boats on the river and it was served up in the ornamental boat houses at the bottom of Christ Church Meadow. In my memories of Pimm’s the sun is naturally always shining.
There was very little interest in the oarsmen, who came racing past us at regular intervals, but there was a lot of interest in Pimm’s. One year a man in a straw hat and a stripy blazer fed me eight whole pints of it. He later read for the church and became a college chaplain but then some unexplained faux-pas blighted his career, much as that fly destroyed my borage. I suspect his designs were less than honourable, but the Pimm’s failed to have the desired effect and after a series of adventures with a girl who might have been conjured out of a painting by Titian I ended up falling down the stairs at the Union Society with an Asian lady in my arms. The lady is now sadly dead, but on that occasion she recovered of her fall and went on to make quite a name for herself in politics.
Of course we were aware of the reason why the would-be chaplain was unlikely to succeed: a glass of Pimm’s just isn’t that strong once you have drowned it in lemonade. Some people hoped to counteract this by adding more gin (this was the gin-based Number 1 Cup) or topping it up with cider. There were even those who put in champagne, but I think that would have been a waste. The college barmen used a double measure from an optic, which meant the usual half pint was unlikely to go to your head.
Pimm’s weakness is really its strength: you can serve it as a refreshing drink in the middle of the afternoon without too much ill-effect, and it seems to suit a certain sort of almost vanished Englishness: sleek lawns, men and women in spotless whites playing croquet or bowls or cricket, randy Anglican clergymen in straw hats and stripy blazers; in short the full Monty; an antediluvian vision of the past, often invoked in the pages of the Daily Mail, but in most respects gone forever. Perhaps for this reason, the few occasions when I have drunk Pimm’s in Vienna or Paris have never seemed quite right. It would be far better suited to India and other former colonies where cricket is played.
We can but try, however, to bring back the flavour of the lost world. To make a good glass of Pimm’s it is probably best to use a superior lemonade such as Fever Tree (mixers have actually improved) and it is worthwhile keeping everything (glasses included) in the fridge to make it properly cold: which will make the drink taste less sweet. Then you do need some of that greenery-yallery: mint (or borage - but not both), cucumbers and strawberries and perhaps apples. Slices of cucumber are I think a sine qua non: the cucumber was the active addition in my memory game the other day.
The revival of the Number 6 Cup has doubled the range of summer Pimm’s Cups. There is, apparently, still a Number 3, Brandy Cup, billed as a winter drink, but I find the idea of drinking Pimm’s in winter untempting. The other cups: whisky, bourbon and rum have been scrapped and not even I can remember them now from my all-too distant youth, but it is good that the Vodka Cup has returned to us, and I for one was grateful for my trip down memory lane.
Posted: 2nd July 2018
It has been a while since I have been in Vienna for the biennial Vievinum wine fair and a lot of things have changed in Austria. New appellations have emerged, but there is more and more spin-marketing and attempts to brand the unbrandable; also the approaches to certain grape varieties has altered, and not always for the best. Without a definite programme, I decided the most useful approach was to dip in among the very many growers I have known these past twenty-seven years, and see where they were now. In several cases the fresh, young grower of the early nineties has transmogrified into a stouter, greyer figure, cut more in the image of myself; in others the father has passed on the reins to a son or daughter and now confines himself to the day-to-day work in the vines, or has possibly taken a suitcase of cash and headed for the hills or the Riviera!
One estate where the son has been in charge for several years now, is Austria’s most famous: F X Pichler in Loiben in the Wachau. Now visitors to the fair must try to distract Lukas Pichler’s attention to taste the wines. They are famously hard to assess in their youth. None of the 2017 wines was ready. Some were brimming with CO2, the others largely inchoate. At the top end the Kellerberg Grüner Veltliner Smaragd was showing signs of life, and the Riesling Steinertal was an absolute delight. The Loibenberg was less easy to judge, but then came ‘Unendlich’ (Infinite) and the Riesling from the Kellerberg and finally Grüner Veltliner ‘M’ which was suitably massive. Time will tell, but if their track record is anything to go by, they will surely be magnificent.
The 2017s from the Wachau failed to impress me as much as they have in some years. The younger Emmerich Knoll’s wines (the new generation has also been in the hot seat for some years) seemed a little less sensational than they were but I loved the Riesling Smaragd from Ried Schütt. Franz Hirtzberger is a reference for Grüner Veltliner. The Axpoint Smaragd had varietal character at least but the benchmark Honivogl was slighter than I recalled. There was a gorgeous 2017 Riesling Smaragd from Ried Setzen, however. This new ephemerality seems to have affected Prager too, whose wines were formerly colossal and now seem but a shadow of their former selves. Is the model for these lighter wines Germany?
I went to see Rudi Pichler, whose wines I have always admired. They are wound up as tightly as clocks. There was a lovely Weissburgunder from Kollmütz, the grape that should have been number two in the Wachau, and a fine Grüner Veltliner from the same. The best of the Grüner Veltliner Smaragds was from Achleiten; the loveliest of the Rieslings from Kirchweg. Erich Krutzler of Pichler-Krutzler is F X Pichler’s son-in-law. The 2017 Rieslings were far better than the Veltliners although I liked the Klostersatz. Look out for the Kellerberg, Loibnerberg and In der Wand - a ‘cru’ marketed by Erich alone.
Leaving the Wachau I feel a particular affection for the Weingut Thierry-Weber from the time when my children were still small. They rescued us from forlornly wandering down a country lane looking for a dinner and delivered us to a well-provisioned Weingasse containing a clutch of Heurige inns. Much more than that: they picked us up later and delivered us to the cage outside Krems where we had been lodged. I like the wines too, the simple, powerful Grüner Veltliners and Rieslings that grow on the sand and loess soils to the east of Krems, although I am sceptical of the need to flavour them with oak casks. The youngest vines appealed to me most: a Kremser Veltliner 2017 with proper varietal character and a Riesling from Ried Gebling from the same year that had a pretty peachiness.
My hard time with the formerly wonderful wines of Bründlmayer continues. This chiefly affects the Grüner Veltliners that have become evanescent - I can only assume - in an attempt to pursue lightness and elegance. I can’t help feeling that they have collared the wrong horse, and that Grüner Veltliner is neither of these things. I have loved Veltliner in my time, but she is a country wench, an ‘Amaryllis’ more at home in a rustic kitchen than an urban salon. These new-style Veltliners are dressing her up to play a role she cannot act. Once again I have to say they would have been better off with Weissburgunder.
Still there were good things: Bründlmayer was always the leading name for ‘Winzersekt’ or proper sparkling wine, and they have introduced a slightly austere rose to the range. The best remains the Brut. Above all the Rieslings continue to shine, such as the Alte Reben from the Terrassen and the Heiligenstein. The only Veltliner I liked was Spiegel, made by Willi’s son Vincent. I suppose we must accept that to be encouraging, and encourage Vincent at the same time.
Many of the Lower Austrian estates were showing a vertical of different vintages. At Schloss Gobelsburg they were serving their top Riesling from Heiligenstein. Once again the bigger wines were the older ones. The 2016 was notably light; the 2012 had more flesh; the 2010 has a honeyed opulence; the 2008 was all peaches and lemon zest while the 1998 was perhaps dipping a bit with its redolence of lychees. I went to Ilse Maier at the Geyerhof and consoled myself with Grüner Veltliners from Ried Steinleithn which retain something of their original power. I am not a great believer in old Veltliner, but the 2006 was lovely with its aroma of rosewater, and the 2002 even better. Sadly the 1988 was corked.
I rarely miss the opportunity to taste Ludwig Neumayer’s wines from the Traisental either. Ludwig’s wines have a beautiful purity of fruit, and a most glorious finish to them. He was showing the Riesling Ried Rothenbart. They were all good, but I think I liked the 2014 best. Rudi Rabl had a good 2016 from Ried Käferberg and a lovely DAC Riesling 2017. And so it went on round the room: a 2006 Grüner Veltliner from Ried Lindberg from Salomon Undhof, a 2004 Riesling from Ried Grillenparz from the Weingut Stadt Krems, these were all wines to treasure.
I went to Burgenland, or rather I walked upstairs. There I chanced upon my friend Erwin Tinhof closeted with the American writer David Schildknecht - always a good omen. A succession of lovely wines filled my glass, from a Klassic 2017 Neuburger to a lovely Leithaberg DAC Weissburgunder. The real treat was possibly the Blaufränkisch. Blaufränkisch from the Leithagebirge tends to be more supple and Burgundian than its cousin in the Mittelburgenland. The simplest 2015 had a redolence of tobacco, the Leithaberg DAC was naturally more complex; the most luscious was the Gloriette.
I was on my way to meet Louise Höpler, Christof Höpler’s charming English wife and taste their wines, which I had not done for several years - indeed not since Christof’s succession to the role of winemaker. The estate on the northern shores of the mighty Neusiedlersee has grown immensely and has plenty of wine to sell. I was chiefly impressed by the Weissburgunder/Pinot Blanc, and the Pinot Noir. Axel Stiegelmar, despite his apparent youth, took over Juris from his father Georg a generation ago. The estate in Gols has always been tip-top. I had some fresh whites, such as a delightful aperitif-style Muscat Ottonel, a catty Sauvignon Blanc and a lovely pink Pinot Gris (the skins have a pink hue). The reds are best here, from the Ungerberg Blaufränkisch to the St Laurent Reserve. My real favourites are the Pinot Noirs, and it was a Stiegelmar Pinot that I drank in 1988 or 1989 that first alerted me to the quality of new wave Austrian wine. The 2015 Hochreit and Haide are excellent - the latter a little earthy; the best is the plush, unctuous Reserve.
My destination was the stand representing with wines of Carinthia, which were new to me. I found a couple in Tracht doling out the produce of a handful of producers, of which the best was a 2017 Sauvignon Blanc from the Weingut Vgl. Ritter. In the Weinviertel I popped into see Josef Pleil whose wines had a certain typicity in the past. I was not disappointed by his 2017 Klassic Grüner Veltliner but he had belaboured his DAC wine with new oak which I thought a terrible mistake. I preferred the Gemischte Satz made from a promiscuous vineyard planted with several cultivars which was pleasantly peppery like an old-fashioned Grüner Veltliner.
From the hot, mostly red-wine region of Carnuntum, Robert Payr makes an excellent Welschriesling that I find far better than his Veltliner. ‘Grooner’ (rhymes with ‘crooner’) is now an item in the US and people grow it to please their exporters. His best wines are naturally red: Blaufränkisch from the Ried Spitzerberg, Zweigelt from Ried Steinäcker and his cuvee: P1. Gerhard Markowitsch has enjoyed star-status since the nineties. Last year I tasted a great many of his wines, but there were exceptions like his famous Pinot Noirs. The basic 2016 was very good, but the Scheibner of the same year was excellent; possibly his best wine, however, remains the Rubin Carnuntum Zweigelt: good, honest Austrian wine without the spin.
Posted: 4th June 2018
I had a remarkable meal in the middle of last month.
It happened in Brighton: a long way to go for dinner, you might say, but I had noted some time ago that I could get there relatively easily on Thameslink and that late at night trains actually ran directly between where I live and Britain’s answer to San Francisco; the journey taking just an hour and a half. Thameslink, however, was not what it was: I had failed to spot the fact the line is now called ‘Gove-Via Thameslink,’ but in all honesty, the trains were not affected that day, except (and this is a big ‘except’), there were not only the usual illiterate announcements repeated ad nauseum about ‘save it and sort it,’ there was an excruciating American telling me to beware of new timetables. Most people were plugged in to their own noises and couldn’t hear a word of this. Only the few of us who had opted to read were plunged into misery by this incessant prattle.
I arrived about twenty minutes early and walked towards Upper Gardiner Street by a circular route. I thought I spotted the pub from the Richard Attenborough film of Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock, but I decided in the end they had probably mocked it up in a studio, although a lot of the film was actually shot in Brighton. Like many Londoners I used to go to Brighton as a child and pobble across its uncomfortable pebble beach to paddle in the sea, or enjoy the pier or the funny little louche lanes and alleys close to the water. What I saw was shabby and run down; everything needed a lick of paint and dirty, concrete, brutalist buildings had been strewn about the place with no feeling for the more picturesque character of the old town. In North Street I saw one magnificent, neglected eighteenth century coaching inn. It looked derelict.
I had been invited to dinner at Silo, an adventurous new wave restaurant that has declared war on waste to the degree they have made plates and dishes out of all the plastic bags and wrappers they have received over the years. Virtually all that has been eliminated now, and deliveries are made in reusable or biodegradable containers. The food was down to the restaurant’s chef, Dougie McMaster. The wines were supplied by Charles Heidsieck, one of the best of the smaller champagne grandes marques.
Silo wasn’t exactly what you might associate with a restaurant hosting a top champagne house: rather than some sort of luxurious Michelin-starred establishment it is a multi-purpose space, part-bakery, part-brewery, part-café that draws some of its inspiration from Noma in Copenhagen. A glass of creamy Charles Heidsieck non-vintage was put in my hand, and my misgivings were soon dispelled. We were all taken in to watch Dougie making butter. He had a rather snazzy machine to do the churning, it has to be said, but all you seemed to need was a litre of cream. In this case, Dougie had a suitably pre-industrial cow working entirely for him. After that you had butter and buttermilk (which you drained off in a piece of muslin), or you could leave the two together and have ‘virgin butter’. Dougie also made a runny beurre blanc with some champagne and we had this on his really fabulous sourdough bread while we tasted through the range of Charles Heidsieck champagnes.
‘Charles’ as its Glasgow-born boss Stephen Leroux called it, has been a champagne to watch for a couple of decades now. It makes only a relatively small amount of champagne but it is all top quality, blended from 150 base wines and made up with forty percent reserve wines aged between fifteen and twenty years. At the top of the pyramid is the Blanc des Millenaires - one of Champagne’s greatest wines. There was no Blanc des Millenaires that night, but there was a wonderful new pure chardonnay blancs de blancs served with the virgin butter, while the 2006 vintage was sent in with the beurre blanc. The smoked butter with seaweed didn’t work so well with the 2005 rosé.
Then the fun started with the menu: brined tomatoes with pumpkin seeds and roses; slow-grown shiitake mushrooms with walnuts and garlic flowers; pollock with brown butter and vinaigrette; beetroot, prune, hispi cabbage terrine and fermented potato skin miso; local rhubarb with bullets of half frozen crème fraîche, honey and elderflowers; and pumpkin seed ice cream with douglas pine seeds, sesame and seaweed powder. Apart from two square inches of pollock, I had no flesh to eat all evening.
Dougie had done lots of foraging and the emerging sun had brought him things he could add to the menu such as the first roses and elderflowers. Having ceased to be a regular restaurant reviewer before the Noma age, all this sort of thing was new to me, as were many of the flavours. Some - like the tomatoes - were relatively bland, others like the rather complicated mille-feuilles of potato skins was adventurous and fascinating. The dish that pleased me most was the rhubarb desert, which was a winner.
The Charles Heidsieck champagnes tackled this novel menu extremely well, the 2006 vintage with the mushrooms and the lovely 2005 with the fish. The mille-feuilles was paired with the 2005 rosé while the rosé reserve was poured with the rhubarb. By then it was time to think about trains again and make a quick dash through the back streets to Brighton’s magnificent railway station.
I am glad I made my excursion to Brighton when I did. By the end of the month Gove-Via Thameslink had descended into a chaos that was nothing less than a full and fitting metaphor for the state of Britain today.
Turning from Whisky to Wine
Posted: 1st May 2018
Almost exactly a quarter of a century ago, on 4 May 1993, I was in Milan with Allan Shiach for the launch of the second tranche of the 1926 Macallan sixty-year old malt. Shiach was the major shareholder in the distillery then. As ‘Allan Scott’ he was a great name in the world of films too and he had a flamboyant style that not surprisingly outstripped most of the people in the whisky business. The first batch had been sold off in 1986 at £20,000 a bottle. I tasted the whisky, but I understandably I didn’t get a bottle, cheap as it was in those days! I was given a small lithograph by Valerio Adami of a bald woman instead. This was the prototype for the 1993 label. Allan said the woman in the picture looked like Mrs Thatcher.
We stayed at the Principe di Savoia and I had a jolly time wandering around the streets with the late Michael Jackson, while whisky-mad Italians genuflected at his approach. This, I hasten to add, was not the pop-singing mooncalf Jackson, but the beer and whisky hunter, a genial, paunchy, Jewish Yorkshireman who could not have been more different. I had time to interview Armando Giovinetti, the man who had made so many Italians fall in love with malt - and therefore Michael - and who sold his own hugely popular bottling of seven-year old Macallan on the Italian market. Armando didn’t speak much English, but we managed somehow in a combination of French and Italian (he was the owner of Janneau Armagnac) although he kept referring his favourite whiskies as being ‘morbido’, which I learned meant soft or tender, and not ‘morbid’ at all.
Last week two bottles of this sixty-year old whisky - one from each batch - sold for $600,000 a piece. A lot has happened in the whisky world since I hung up my hat.
There was a time when I was north of the border half a dozen times a year trailing from distillery to distillery from the Lowlands to the Highlands and the Islands. I would meet some strong silent type who managed the distillery, ask him a few questions, receive monosyllabic replies and then after a bacon bap and cup of tea, taste the distillery’s offering. That was two or possibly three bottles: a young age-statement, say eight or ten-year old, and an older one that was fifteen, twenty or twenty five. A bottle of the better whisky was generally slipped into my hand before I left. Sometimes we would wander around the warehouses and nose a few casks. Once or twice I was allowed to dabble my fingers in one. Every now and then there would be an independent bottler’s rendition to taste too. That was above all for the older age-statements which had long since fallen into the hands of Gordon & MacPhail in Elgin or one of the others who mopped up casks that had somehow come adrift from the blending process.
Whisky was in a bad way. There was a whole lake of it out there which they were desperate to foist on the Chinese, the Indians or the Vietnamese. Malt was a drop in the lake. No one took much notice of it. It was there to give its oomph to the proprietary blends of the various whisky companies. Then malt took off. Collectors (a lot of them Russian oligarchs) couldn’t get enough of it. They bought up all the old age-statements, and they bought any new whisky run off into cask as an investment. Very soon there was a dearth of malt, and really no really mature whisky unless you were prepared to pay the earth. Instead collectors had to make do with young malts dressed up with different sorts of ‘finishes’ (oak) to make them marketable. Sherry casks cost the earth now, but there are plenty of redundant wine barrels. The collection of malts that once lined my kitchen (and which I have now drunk), would have been worth thousands at today’s prices.
Even blends have changed. It used to be that you put a number of different malts of different ages totalling some forty percent into sixty percent anodyne grain whisky. They all had their styles: some were Islay-based, some Speyside, some less easy to pinpoint. Compass Box started playing around with blends and omitting the bland grain whisky to combine a few interesting malts. Doug McIvor, working for Berry Brothers & Rudd, the former proprietors of Cutty Sark, did the same to make Blue Hangar. I met Doug McIvor last month when he talked us through some of his blends at the Whisky Lounge, a heaven for whisky-lovers upstairs at the pretty Punchbowl Pub next to the Jesuits in Mayfair. A sweet, almondy Speyside relied heavily on Glen Rothes, which used to be a constituent part of Cutty Sark; a Sherry Cask whisky that was principally Glen Rothes matured in an oloroso cask and two more unnamed whiskies (it was predictably sweet and raisiny); a peppery peaty whisky blended from Glen Rothes, Ardmore and Glen Garioch; and a pale Islay blend that was both smoky and grassy. McIvor was pleasingly frank when it came to the quality of whisky in old casks. At times it’s good, and at others it’s a disaster. When he started at Berry Bros he tasted his way through their 400 casks. Only ninety were worth hanging on to. A delightful old whisky is a proper rarity - most of it needs to be lost in some blend.
Doug’s whisky and some fascinating Antipodean whiskies from Starwood in Melbourne are all available to for sampling at the London Whisky Weekend which runs from 11 to 13 May at the Oval.
Whisky was not all there was to offer in April. I was happy to attend the tasting organised for the Savage Selection at 67 Pall Mall. Mark Savage remains faithful to some of my favourite Austrian growers like Erwin Tinnhof, Ilse Maier, Ludwig Neumeyer, Heidi Schröck, Reinhold Krutzler and Bernhard Ott. He has lots of other things too, as I discovered on my short visit: Schoffit from Alsace or Zoltan Demeter’s Tokays or indeed Robert Gorjac’s Dveri Pax wines from Slovenia. There will be more to report on these when I return from Vienna in June.
Finally there is Provencal rosé which seems to cause a groan within these old walls, but not from me. Mirabeau en Provence reminded me of their elegant sparkling Folie, although I would say I preferred the more gutsy still 2017 with its hint of spice and striking purity of fruit. Sensational, however is the 2017 Etoile, with its wonderful structure and length. This is a proper wine, and not to be sneezed at, and it proved just the stuff for that little burst of sunshine in the middle of the month. At the time of writing, whisky would seem much more suitable.
Posted: 3rd April 2018
A few weeks ago I received an invitation out of the blue to a dinner at Bentley’s from the Spice Island resort and hotel in Grenada in the Windward Islands. After a brief moment of head-scratching it all came back to me, but I was naturally curious. So I told the PR agency I would be delighted to renew my acquaintance with the hotel, which I had seen for the first and last time in June or July 1997.
The dinner was held on the 20th of March. I was warmly received by our host, the proprietor of the hotel, Sir Royston Hopkin, and shook a few hands and kissed a few cheeks I had not seen these last few years. We watched a video and I saw that the hotel I stayed in on Grand Anse Beach had been torn down and put back up again at least twice. On one occasion Hurricane Ivan was to blame. Ivan destroyed virtually every solid structure on the island when it passed through in 2004. The Spice Island I had experienced bore little physical resemblance to the one that was there today. It was a very nice evening for all that and I went home filled with the warmth of good food and wine, enhanced with a flickering glow of reminiscence and nostalgia.
My one trip to Grenada was quite traumatic in its way. Things were changing rapidly in my life then and I was about to become a father for the first time. Perhaps for this reason I decided I would abstain from all those treats they used to offer you when you sat in the front seats on the long flight from London to Grenada and that I would pop a pill so that I might sleep out that great gap of time. I was true to my word: I ate and drank nothing - not even a glass of water.
When we arrived there was the usual West Indian welcome: steel drums and rum. I certainly had too much of the former and probably a bit too much of the latter. Anyhow, I had dinner, went to bed and woke up to a slightly wet morning a few hours later. The height of summer is not always the best time to visit the Caribbean.
The hotel was on the beach, but my room came with a small pool behind a high wall. I suppose that meant I didn’t need to wear my cosy there. I dipped in the pool then plunged around in the sea before going to a press conference with the Minister for Tourism. My hand had felt funny in the water but when I started taking some notes I saw to my horror that my handwriting was peculiar and that I was evidently no longer able to hold my pen properly. Apart from that I felt fine. I mentioned the upset to our Sherpa. She was very unsympathetic and pointed to the ramshackle local hospital with an unconcealed sadistic pleasure. I decided I would be better off seeing a doctor when I got home.
In those days Grenada was chiefly famous for the coup d’état of 1983. The island had been flirting with Stalinism since 1979. In 1983, the deputy Prime Minister, Bernard Coard had his superior, the Prime Minister, Maurice Bishop executed. The Americans were alarmed by reports the islanders were building a proper airport on the island and that a good many Cubans had been recruited as consultants. The American flap was compounded by the presence of an American medical school on Grenada and American students to protect.
The idea of a second Bay of Pigs in America’s back yard drove Ronald Reagan to a frenzy. He formed a coalition with various other Caribbean countries to add a smidgen of legitimacy and squared the operation with the British PM. Mrs Thatcher owed him a favour for the logistical help America had given Britain in the recent Falklands War, but there were long faces when it was discovered that neither Queen nor Commonwealth had been consulted and the Queen’s anointed Governor, Sir Paul Scoon, was roughly handled by the invading forces who, finding an ordinary islander at Government House, refused to believe he was the Governor-General. The invasion had all the elements of tragic-comedy you would expect and included the bombing of the lunatic asylum and the killing of a large number of its inmates but the Grenadine Stalinist experiment was brought to an abrupt end and Bernard Coard and his fellow ministers were sent down with draconian sentences. These were only finally commuted by the Privy Council a decade ago.
I explored the island from top to bottom as well as neighbouring Carriacou. I can’t remember now how many there were of us. There was a lady who was working on her tan, a spirited vegetarian hack from the Glasgow Herald (‘if it has eyes I won’t eat it’) and a man from the Press Association. I recall some sort of party in a village on the west side of the island with my new Glaswegian friend. That time we had taken a taxi but sometimes we had a driver, a young man who appeared to have sired most of the illegitimate children on Grenada and who had pithy comments to make on virtually all the females between the ages of fourteen and forty.
I was chiefly anxious to find authentic food and drink, rather than the bland offerings of the hotels. The island is famous for spices: nutmeg, mace, cinnamon and cloves and we were taken into the interior to see them harvested along with the excellent local cocoa. There was lambie or conch, landcrab, dolphin (mahi-mahi) and meat-filled rotis, the recipe for which had been brought to the island by Indian shopkeepers. Most of the places that cooked local food were closed in the evening, but at Morne Fendue we had callaloo soup and pepperpot: a pork, oxtail and cassareep stew that had been on the boil since 1984. The date was significant: the pot was temporarily switched off during the invasion. I never managed to procure a portion of ‘oil down:’ salt pork cooked in a reduction of coconut milk, breadfruit and callaloo, but I located a decent curry goat in the capital, St George’s.
There were two rum distilleries: Clarke’s Court, which was housed in the building reminiscent of Piranesi’s Carceri crossed with some of the wilder inventions of Heath Robinson, which made a ferocious white and a dark rum called G.R.O.G. (apparently standing for ‘Georgius Rex Old Grenada). The other, River Antoine was positively antediluvian by comparison. It made just one white rum that was marked ‘slightly overproof’ - it turned out to be 75% abv. At dinner in March this year, I brought up the subject of ‘Under the Counter’ which was a rare Grenadian speciality: an aphrodisiac made of rum (naturally), nutmeg, cinnamon, peanuts, cubes of raw beef and a venomous millipede or centipede. The active ingredient, however, is the bark of the ‘bois bandé’ tree - Grenada was previously French, and ‘bander’ is the French verb for to have an erection.
I tracked down a demijohn of it to a bar in St George’s, but it tasted so nasty that I had to wash my mouth out with a bottle of Carib, or better still, a Piton from nearby St Lucia. The woman promised me that I would not be able to lie on my stomach for a week. That was not the case but in her excitement she pulled another treat out from under the counter in the form of a deep-frozen ‘tatou’ or armadillo. This is the favourite ‘wild food’ of the island, along with mona monkeys. I had actually had the opportunity to try ‘tatou’ at Seabreeze, a ‘restaurant’ (more of a roofless hut) out in the wilds. At the London dinner, the Caribbean authority James Henderson assured me that Seabreeze had closed down some time back, after the death of the proprietor Rosanna Moore.
One night, fearing another festive plate of grilled fish I took a taxi to a remote spot. I had asked the driver to wait for me, as I was worried about getting home. Although he was parked at some distance from the place, he began to retch noisily at the mere thought of ‘wild food’, which was not exactly conducive to good appetite. Still, I put on a brave face and Rosanna brought me a bottle of Carib and a plate of salad: rice and pigeon peas, carrots, beets, callaloo greens and coleslaw; a piece of fish fried in flour with black pepper and cloves and a third dish which offered four or five pieces of meat with reptile skin and some others with a hard coating like overlapping leather soles. The one was iguana and other armadillo. The iguana was like an oilier version of chicken with fish vertebrae while armadillo was much gamier with a musky smell and a gelatinous texture. You had to scoop the flesh off the inside of the animal’s armour-plating to eat it. It was like dining on edible cricket balls.
When I got back to London I had to face the music. The future father was despatched to the Institute of Neurology in Queen Square for a brain scan and my heart was examined in the old Middlesex Hospital in Fitzrovia. They suspected a ‘TIA’ or transient ischemic attack: a sort of minor stroke. The doctors found nothing, but my GP reported the tests to the mortgage brokers and my monthly life-insurance premiums were doubled. Eventually they returned to normal because a TIA is generally perceived as a forerunner to a proper stroke, and so far (fingers crossed), no such thing has come to pass. A few years back a cardiologist friend revealed to me what he believed had happened on the flight to Grenada: I had suffered minor brain damage as a result of dehydration, but the damage had repaired itself within days. I don’t get the chance to travel long distances any more, but if I ever do so again, I shall make sure I drink, plenty.
In the South
Posted: 1st March 2018
When I make my Lenten excursion to Provence I am often greeted by the first mutterings of spring: a sun warm enough to allow you to eat outside at lunchtime generally appears in the last half of February along with almond blossom and the first crocuses. This time the weather in the Ventoux was more troubled. On the Friday we sat outside for coffee by the cathedral in Carpentras and later for a beer at Jerôme’s cafe in Mazan where we soaked up the sun until it began to spit with rain. Saturday was a write off and cold drizzle and half-term conspired to empty the market in Pernes. Most of my favourite producers were absent. Where the soap-seller is normally to be found was a van selling ‘la gastronomie polonaise’. By the time I left on the 18th, a Mistral had blown up and was chasing away the rain clouds but it was bitterly cold.
There were good things to eat and drink and an extra pair of hands in the kitchen. The hunters had been by and left a haunch of Boris in the fridge which was duly pickled in the Ventoux red from the Domaine des Anges and proved a fine dish with mashed potatoes and a simplified caponata the night before we left. We went out a couple of times. In the first instance we returned to Chez Léon in Bédouin for lunch. Chez Léon is a new-wave cave-à-manger serving small, tapa-like plates of food: iberico hams and sausages, local cheeses, black pudding, anchovies, hand of pork, cod balls... accompanied by a long list of local wines (including the Domaine des Anges). On our penultimate night we went to the local La Calade which has changed hands yet again. Everyone agreed that it had got better. The menu had been shortened with a choice of just three dishes for each course. I had some oeufs en cocotte with truffles, a slab of bull meat and huge plate of cheese.
I was back for two nights before a small family holiday to Rome. I can’t have been in the city for twenty years and feared the sort of depressed atmosphere I witness whenever I cross Paris, but Rome was more cheerful than that and although La Cronica di Roma was filled with stories of crimes committed by marauding migrants, I saw little that was unsettling on the streets. On the contrary, the groups of armed soldiers congregating around the tourist attractions were rather reassuring: at least you didn’t feel quite so much like game as you normally did, particularly if you went anywhere near Termini station.
I was also struck by how terribly helpful the Romans were when we failed to get the correct tram back to our digs in Trastevere or asked for information or directions. Often they went out of their way to put us on the right track. Huddling under an awning by the Colosseum to avoid the incessant rain I was drawn into a conversation by two old Romans who were complaining about the city administration, dismissing it as ‘schifo’ (disgusting). Did I think that it was the Colosseum or the Vatican that had brought all the tourists to the city? The former, I said: not everyone is Catholic. One of the old boys shepherded us onto the appropriate tram and showed us where to change. We never really got the hang of the number eight, which seemed reliable in one direction, and totally unreliable in the other.
Once upon a time I wrote an article for the FT about the proper Roman restaurants in the abattoir quarter of Testaccio just across the Tiber from us in Trastevere. The abattoir has closed since but there are still the places serving various organs: tripe, pajata (the tripe of a weaning calf or lamb still containing its mother’s milk which is generally served with rigatoni - tube mingling with inner tube), and of course coda alla vaccinara or braised oxtails. What is Rome without oxtails? The ‘vaccinaro’ was the abattoir man who took home the tail after the slaughter, cooked it slowly and served it up with a thick tomato sugo.
The best place to eat oxtails used to be the Thespian Sora Lella on the Isola Tiberina. The famous Lella died three years ago, and the restaurant was all shut up last month. We had no budget for that sort of establishment anyhow, but we did remarkably well considering. It is still possible to eat well for under €20 in Rome, and that includes wine.
In the morning I went out to fetch sticky buns and bombe (doughnuts) from a café in the via Benedetta. A scruffy little bar downstairs provided me with coffee. We didn’t eat much in the way of lunch - just a snack in a bar where it was possible to obtain that other Roman standby: fried food (fritti). Some people claim fish and chips came to London from Rome, and it is certainly possible to find delicious little bits of fried cod in batter in bars, as well as other things such as deep fried courgette flowers (fiore di zucche) or supli rice balls. It was coming up to the time of the deep-fried artichokes which are associated with the old Jewish quarter on the other side of the Isola Tiberina from Trastevere.
The following places were all a stone’s throw from our B&B in the via della Scala:
The Taverna della Scala was recommended by the owner of the B&B. The restaurant is on the pretty piazza with its church, but is very touristy. Two of us had a four-course menu at €15 - a modest antipasto of a crostino with tomatoes and basil, a primo - in my case penne all’ arrabiata - ‘the angry woman’ I associate with Rome - meatballs (polpette) with tomato sauce and some crème caramel. The wine list was extensive and expensive, but drinkable red house wine was only €12 a litre. Eating à la carte is much dearer with secondi averaging out at €15 and more.
The Ristorante Carlo Menta was a huge surprise. It is on the busy via della Lungaretta and with its menu at €13 and prices as low as €5 for a primo or secondo it looked suspiciously cheap; and yet it was full of Italians and had a real homely feel about it very largely generated by our waiter, an elderly fellow with a moustache, a firm control of everything that took place around him and considerable charm. I had the Roman speciality of spaghetti cacio e pepe which uses pecorino and lots of black pepper and then a rather rubbery scallopina alla valtellina. There was a passable Montepulciano d’Abruzzo for €10. The Roman red novello had come off the menu in December. No one seemed to have any Roman wines, not even frascati. The meal for three came to a very reasonable €47.50.
The Casetta di Trastevere in the piazza de’ Renzi was possible the most disappointing place we went to. It lacked the intimacy of the others and sported a silly Turner-Prize-like installation of a washing line with underwear hanging off it. We sat at a table with a couple from Manchester who were on honeymoon (not their first in either case) and the woman talked loudly about her daughter’s lavatorial habits. They spoke a fair bit about us too apparently. It appears we were the sort of people who drove a ‘four-four’. Once the ‘four-four’ was explained to me I was quite flattered. I have never learned to ride a bicycle, let alone drive a car. If I had one it would probably be a second-hand 2CV and not one of those expensive tanks Americans call ‘gas-guzzlers’. What it is to talk posh! Once in Prague an angry East German told me that I had to pay inflated prices for my drinks - ‘weil du stinkst Geld!’ Despite the cruel vicissitudes of my later life, apparently the stench of money has yet to wear off.
The food was not bad. I had some decent lasagna and a classic ‘saltimbocca all Romana’ (veal plated with ham and sage). Some fritti arrived at the table for the others, not only fiori di zucca but deep-fried mozzarella ‘in carrozza’. There was good-value Cannonau di Sardegna for €12.
We went to La Casetta because we couldn’t get into the Trattoria da Augusto across the street. This place has been written up so many times and in so many lands that there is a queue outside it half an hour before it opens for dinner at 8.00 pm. We had better luck the following evening, standing in a queue in the rain behind Italians, Danes and Germans. Later we were joined at our table by enthusiastic French people.
Despite fame and antiquity (1954), Da Augusto was the second cheapest (€52). I had some stracciatella soup with eggs and cheese and a marvelous little dish of rabbit alla cacciatore (just a hint of chili). There was very good boiled beef and an artichoke done to death so you could scoff the whole thing. My son wolfed down a pine nut tart so quickly I did not get the chance to taste it, but it looked very good. One French couple ate some substantial bean soup and tripe. Both looked extremely good and filling, but we missed a trick by not ordering pasta, which is clearly made fresh daily. There is a proper atmosphere to Da Augusto, unlike the Casetta across the road. The wine list amounts to all of four bottles. We had a litre of house red for €8.
Finally I must mention the Cantina dei Papi across the road from our bolthole, which drew us in for a snack because the hams and cheeses looked so good and the presentation was so stylish overall. They cut us some lovely Tuscan ham from the bone and we drank some half-way decent sangiovese too. I would certainly go back if fate takes me to Rome again. It proved a useful shelter from the rain as well, which was coming down in buckets by then and had been enhanced by an ice-cold tramontana wind. All promise of spring had disappeared. Thirty-six hours after we left, Rome was covered in a thick pall of snow.
The Philharmonic Ball
Posted: 5th February 2018
Only one thing stood out like a beacon this January and that was our very brief visit to Vienna for the Ball der wiener Philharmoniker at the Musikverein. We were the guests of the Michael and Eva Moosbrugger at Schloss Gobelsburg: an incredibly kind and thoughtful invitation and one which gave us tremendous pleasure.
Of course, making a two-day dash to Vienna is bound to be fraught. After domestic arrangements had been made for cats and sons (not necessarily in that order) then there was the business of getting there that did not involve sleeping on a bench at Stansted. The solution required changing in Cologne and reboarding the same aircraft by now filled with Catholic Rhinelanders exuding good cheer and excited about going to one or other of the carnival balls the following night. They all seemed to have been practicing their paces. Apart from our ball at the Musikverein, there was the more popular and populous Kaffeesieder Ball at the Hofburg: the old Royal Palace.
We had a bit of a rush to get to the Hotel Sacher and our lift to the Kamptal, but transport from the airport at Schwechat to the centre of Vienna has become even easier now that there are S-Bahn trains as well as the rather more expensive CAT. That meant we could actually enjoy a few minutes in our room before we set off for the evening and even enjoy the redolence of The Third Man that has survived at the desk and on the stairs.
Our destination was Schloss Gobelsburg itself, where Micky and Eva had prepared a tour of the Schloss together with dinner. The Schloss is a quadrangular eighteenth century building owned by the Cistercian Order with some 120 hectares of arable land, half of which are planted with vines. The Moosbrugger family owns the Gasthof Post in Lech, one of the world’s great skiing hotels. In the mid-nineties they took out a fifty-year lease on Schloss Gobelsburg after Micky learned the practical side of winemaking from the great Willi Bründlmayer in nearby Langenlois. It was naturally not my first visit and I knew the lovely painted saloons of old and the grand staircase and the baroque ceiling painted by the local worthy - the ‘Kremser Schmidt’. This time went down into the cellars so that we could hear about the wines. This was followed by a tasting in one of the small vaulted rooms on the ground floor.
We tried our first 2017 and then a series of 2016s, for me the best wine being the Riesling Heiligenstein. The top estates of the Danube Valley now largely limit themselves to Riesling and Grüner Veltliner, grape varieties that to some extent complement one another. Riesling likes dry soils and dry years while Veltliner likes moisture and can prosper in more humid vintages. A good Grüner Veltliner is a splendid wine that can be the perfect foil to the solid ‘Hausmannskost’ you eat in Austria. It is not really a ‘delicate’ grape variety, and I think expresses itself better at 14 degrees or so when it can produce aromas that are sometimes vegetal (lentils and bay) and sometimes fruity (ripe pineapples).
I have said it several times, and have no need to repeat myself here, that I am iffy about the way that many growers in Lower Austria want to vinify Grüner Veltliner now, and I often wonder if they might not have been better off using Pinot Blanc (Weisser Burgunder) as their second fiddle. Grüner Veltliner can be attractively coarse, a comely dairy maid and not the refined soul that is Riesling. A long time ago now, some British MWs tumbled for a trick and mistook some good Veltliners for top white Burgundies. I don’t suppose they imagined for a moment that their folly would have such a wide-reaching effect.
I liked the Gobelsburg Veltliners, which are now made in a refined style, but the big surprise was the reds. The Danube Valley is not well-known for red wines but Micky has isolated some pebbly areas closer to the river where there is suitable soil and more heat than you find higher up the slopes. He has planted these with Pinot Noir, St Laurent and Zweigelt and to really impressive effect.
We had a lovely, relaxed evening and an excellent meal of Tafelspitz (calling it ‘boiled beef’ doesn’t do it justice at all!) and ‘Mohr im Hemd:’ a steamed pudding with a chocolate sauce and cream. The name, it was pointed out, is controversial. It means a ‘moor’ in a (white) shirt. I pointed out that the French equivalent ‘La négresse en chemise’ is a rather more graphic. It used to be very much part of the standard repertoire but it is apparently found less and less on French menus these days.
The next morning we braved the cold and occasional rain and took the 71 tram out to the Central Cemetery in Simmering. I have done this before to visit relatives in the Jewish Section. We plodded over there and looked at the graves, some askew after wartime sacrilege and bombing and many frankly neglected; but then again, there aren’t very many Jews left to keep them up. Then something broke cover about ten metres away and I was amazed to see a brace of deer disappear towards a clump of dilapidated headstones. Something made me want to believe they represented the Hirsch family. Once we’d spotted the first pair, others emerged not far off scampering about the tombs. Later I heard that there were pheasant too, and people told me that there was at least one annual shoot arranged to keep their numbers down. I presume the gravediggers eat well that day.
We took a circumlocutious route back, passing my grandfather’s cousin Friedrich Adler and his father Victor. Friedrich managed to die as late as 1960, which was pretty good going for the man who assassinated the Austrian Prime Minister Graf Stürgkh in 1916. After Adler all sorts of grandees appeared from Adolf Loos and Salieri to Hans von Makart, Mozart and Beethoven. The nicest tomb in Composers’ Corner was undoubtedly Hugo Wolf’s.
We took the tram back into the centre and had a snack at the Würstelstand by the Albertina. They specialize in horse, so I had a Pferdeleberkäs’ which was both excellent value at €2.60 and filling. We were meeting a friend at the Café Sluka in the Kärntnerstrasse, which has slipped into the place of the old tea rooms that were part of the Modehaus Zweiback and from 1933 converted into the top restaurant Zu den drei Husaren, which is sadly now no more. The tea rooms were commissioned by my great-aunt Ella and designed by art nouveau architect Friedrich Ohmann in the early twenties. He is most famous for the monument for the Empress Elisabeth and the layout of the Stadtpark. The rooms have recently been magnificently restored, although it is a pity that the present proprietors have taken so much trouble to strike the ‘z’s (for Zwieback) off the column capitals. Dotted around the café are photographs of the original with jolly Viennese ladies and gentlemen sipping cocktails and in a room to the side is Rebecca, a sculpture that belonged to my family, and was only recently relocated in the Jewish old people’s home in the Seegasse. She is on loan from my cousin the actor August Zirner.
It was time to change. Apart from a very quick dancing lesson on the pavement opposite the Café Mozart (photographed by an untold multitude of Japanese tourists) we had done very little to prepare ourselves for the evening. Some of the party were being specially fitted into their evening attire, particularly a charming eighty-year old hotelier from Antibes who informed me that it was the first time in his life he had worn white tie and tails. It wasn’t the same for me, but it had been a long time, and although the kit was hanging in my cupboard, there wasn’t a hope in hell of my getting into it. I had had recourse to Lipman instead.
There was Gobelsburg’s sparkling wine in magnums in the Blue Bar and dinner in the Red before the ball: salmon trout, pumpkin soup, venison (we were assured it had not come from the Zentral Friedhof) and chestnut mousse together with the 2009 Riesling Heiligenstein, the 2013 Grüner Veltliner Tradition, the wonderful 2010 St Laurent Reserve and a 2015 Veltliner Trockenbeerenauslese with dessert. Then we set out for the ball. The Musikverein was so near it made no sense to try to take a taxi and we walked.
The ball was founded in 1924, after the extirpation of the Monarchy. These republican balls replaced the institutions that revolved around the court and were designed to show off the latest batch of debutantes to reach the marriage market. Something of that survives in the opening ceremony where - in this case Placido Domingo conducted the Vienna Philharmonic - young dancers performed the first waltzes of the evening under the sumptuous painted ceilings of the Musikverein. Providing you are of a suitable age and an excellent dancer, you can obtain free tickets to the balls. Later some of the male ‘Eintänzer’ were on hand to dance with women whose husbands were too tired or clumsy to join in, although I suspect they required a small consideration.
Not being much of a waltzer myself I spent a lot of time in the bowels of the building listening to some of the special performances that had been laid on by the orchestra. There were a huge number of these little gatherings taking place around the building, with music to suit all tastes. It was not my first Viennese carnival ball. I had been to the Concordia, or press club ball before, and even the Life Ball (both in the great neo-gothic Rathaus), but I could not recall the music at the former. At the Life Ball there were a lot of different pop groups. The music was decidedly better this time, and I almost surprised myself that I was still on my feet at three.
The next day started late, too late for breakfast. We went to the pleasingly shabby Tirolerhof round the corner and soon afterwards joined friends for lunch at the Zum Schwarzen Kameel. I had not been to the Kameel for a quarter of a century. It used to be run by a formidable lady called ‘Frau Walli’. With very little encouragement, she brought out Beethoven’s order for Gumpoldskirchen wine and sausages which is their prized possession. There is a photograph of it in my first Austrian wine book - currently selling for all of 1p! A lot of the business is in open sandwiches and well-chosen wines, but we had more substantial things and I ate an excellent goulash.
The rest of the time we whiled away chasing Dürer hares around the Albertina museum before we made our return dash for the airport, and home. We’d had a wonderful time. If only getting from Gatwick to London were as easy or as comfortable as taking the train from Schwechat to Vienna.
Posted: 2nd January 2018
It wasn’t easy laying in stocks of wine this Christmas. Prices for the sort of everyday western European wines I drink had gone up by about twenty-five percent and bargains there were none. I used to buy a couple of cases from Majestic but looking at the list I realised they had largely lost the plot. You plough through page after page wondering what happened to the old days when Dominique Vrigneau used to put on all those lovely Corbières and Minervois. I looked here and there to see if there was an attractive deal for champagne, but I ended up buying a few grande marques from Amazon of all places as no one else seemed to have such fair prices. One côte des blancs I bought for £20 a bottle from Oddbins last year was selling for £32 this year. Although after Christmas Oddbins slashed champagne prices by up to fifty percent and possibly other retailers have done the same.
To add to my woes my local Portuguese merchant Nunu has gone home in disgust at the political situation and apart from the range of chiefly southern Italians from Salvino in the Brecknock Road the wretched supermarkets have taken over the local market. One brave little Portuguese shop in Plender Street continues to sell a smallish selection of Portuguese wine at reasonable prices. Long may it prosper! I have to confess that I occasionally pop into Lidl round the corner now, to see what they have, and I have to say that their German buyers seem to do a bloody good job.
These are not really festive wines, of course, and Christmas wines have to be a bit special. In general I was disappointed by our selection this year. On Christmas Eve a friend came round and we started the foie gras I made with a bottle of Perrier Jouët that we must have had for three or four years. It is nothing special, but at least it was ripe. With the traditional Christmas Eve lobsters I found a bottle of Chablis Grand Cru 2006 Les Preuses from La Chablisienne. A bit of creaminess and vanilla works quite well with lobster but after eleven years this was still stiff with new oak and rather a proof that if you pile it on in this way the vinous element will not reassert itself over the flavouring, as growers are wont to try to convince you. Probably the best wine we had that night was the five puttonyos 2001Tokay from Disznoko we drank with the cheese and the bûches de Noël. The cheese was a triumph: there was a lovely stilton, a vacherin mont d’or and a queijo da serra. Then we had to hot foot it to Midnight Mass.
Christmas Day was also a mixed bag. While we unwrapped presents from under the tree, I opened a bottle of Piper-Heidsieck demi-sec. It was a bottle I’d had for a quarter of a century and a gorgeous golden colour. It wasn’t particularly sweet, just quite rich and rather lovely on its own. They are certainly not sweet enough for most puddings. I might have a couple more somewhere - I must dig them out. We had a guest to lunch and when he pitched up I opened some simple Coteaux de Layon 1976 from the local co-op so that he could have a bit of foie gras and then we drank the rest with some jamon iberico. It was showing its age with a slight bitterness in the finish. My butcher Paul had found us some wonderful beef loin he’d been dry ageing since August. I served it rare with some 1995 Domaine François Lamarche Vosne-Romanée 1er Cru Les Chaumes. I had put it into a jug but only as we sat down, but I came to the conclusion that it was past its best. The friend had brought a bottle of 2005 Château Cantemerle. I didn’t think that there was any chance of that having shuffled off its coil, but it was strangely flat so that I couldn’t derive much pleasure from it at all. We had the same cheeses as the night before. Most of us had had enough by then but I had a half bottle of 1991 Calem vintage port and drank that while we watched a Rita Hayworth film. It was also not that robust, even if it showed a bit more life than the others.
I was on my own for the New Year. I ploughed through eleven or twelve episodes of the old Brideshead adaptation (I was abroad when it was first shown) after I knocked off work each evening, but I thought I’d have a little treat on the night, something different to the diet of leftovers that had sustained me since my family went away. I made the Italian New Year’s Eve feast of a zampone - stuffed pig’s trotter with lentils, denoting the money I was going to make in the coming year (some hope!), a potato puree and a tomato passito. With that I opened a 1997 Prunotto Barolo.
This excited me, it had a beautiful colour and a lovely chocolate and cherry nose and a wonderful acidity that went backwards and forwards across my palate. After dinner I took the jug upstairs and finished it off as I finished off Brideshead. It was not long-lasting, however, and after it had been open for an hour or more it began to lose it grip. Still, it was the best red I had this Christmas by a long chalk.
Wine & Food Diary entries posted before 2018 can now be found in the Wine & Food Diary Archive.