Tales of a Hunter-Gatherer: The Frigid Spring
Posted: 4th May 2021
There’s something distinctly un-funny about the weather. I am tempted to blame the government and their ‘sunlit uplands’. Every week I ask myself when I might feel a little warmth again. I long for the eczema on my shins and belly to go away. I have dreams of being able to sit outside with a book. Every week I look at the BBC and see the good times are coming, but not this week: next week. As that next week then heaves into view I note that relief has been put back for another week, and so it goes on and on, and on. Nights hover just above freezing, and when the feeble sun dims each evening I start scratching about for a matchbox to turn a few scrappy logs in the grate into a crackling fire.
One reason why I am certain that the government is not responsible for this aspect of our misery is that their reopening of pub and restaurant terraces for al fresco boozing has arrived at a time when it would only prove tempting to hardened alcoholics. As my son was due to rejoin his fellow students in the middle of the month we even booked a couple of local pubs to drink a valedictory beer. The first one was at the Lord Palmerston in Tufnell Park where they were very keen to push their slightly comic menu on us. I had an Erdinger Weizen, which in contrast to the landscape was flat; but the pub has a nice view past the neo-baroque dome of the Boston Arms in the valley below and in the distance, the Shard rises up like the spire of a gothic church.
The second beer was at the Lion & Unicorn in Gaisford Street. Once again the menu was slapped down (at 5.45 pm). Once more it made funny reading. I suspected the author was the same and that some of the produce came out of a common kitchen? Both are Youngs’ pubs. Collusion was obvious, especially when the Erdinger proved flat again. I came to the conclusion the Erdinger must have been pre-Lockdown stock. Drink draft, British beer - I found out the hard way.
I have eaten out too. By the time I met up with a friend and went to the Spaniards I had learned my lesson and foreswore German brews. I had a good pint of IPA (and we followed it up with a bottle of Chablis with our fish and chips). Unless you sat smack in the middle of the sunlight, it was tooth-chatteringly cold. When I ate in a restaurant in Notting Hill Gate the following week I wore several layers. I wasn’t going to be caught out again.
Otherwise we have eaten and drunk at home. The first memorable meal was on the 6th. I had the night off cooking as it was my birthday and I had lined up my last two bottles of Biondi-Santi Brunello di Montalcino for after the Roederer champagne. We were just trying the 1975 Riserva when a mate rang to tell me that one of my dearest friends had died that morning. To say that the celebration was muted would be an understatement, but I can report that both the 75 and the 1981 Annata were still in good nick, despite bottles that had both ullaged to mid-shoulder - and I certainly needed drink to digest the news.
New season’s lamb continued to be sold at silly prices but one day I found a tiny leg of Greek lamb, which was a treat. Otherwise our butcher Paul has gone over to New Zealand lamb until greedy British farmers return to their senses. I am out of Greek reds, but intermittently Aldi has a delicious Assyrtiko at £6.99. It makes a lovely sappy aperitif and always seems to be better on the second day but worse on the third. A little Greek shop has opened in Highgate Village selling honey, cheese, sausages and other good things. The owner is a barber whose business has been temporarily put out action by Covid. Yesterday, I found the traditional Greek Easter bread there - tsoureki - made from three interwoven plaits to represent the Trinity. They also have the honey bees make from the pine trees, a wonderfully robust flavour, which will go with the bread.
The night before my son left for the north we had a lovely meal of bitter Puglian artichokes and calf’s liver and mash followed by meringues. After that there were fewer mouths to feed and we were even occasionally reduced to two at weekends. Today I plan to go to the market in Seven Sisters in search of a more earthy range of fish. They have fresh rock salmon and conger. We’ve had good lemon soles and haddock, but the prices are still out of this world. The other day I celebrated Brexit in my own way by making salmon and kipper fishcakes. They went down surprisingly well.
But there was still no spring, no fresh basil for tomato salads, no good melons for the prosciutto; in my rooftop kitchen garden the first leaves of marjoram began to unfurl at the beginning of May, the thyme turned green but has yet to flower. I have seen not one single tempting spear of asparagus. I’ve spotted Jersey Royals at £7 - £8 per kilo. I have not bought any, but I found a small bag in Aldi for £1.20. They weren’t too bad and a few sprigs of mint have now broken through the surface outside: I generally add mint to the potatoes in the steamer. The Italian chef in Notting Hill taught me how to make proper zucchine fritte. He told me to soak the courgette strips in milk overnight and then turn them in seasoned flour. So no eggs are required, and there is no need to wither the pieces. I tried the recipe last night. We’re on the right track now.
There is still no fruit of any quality about. We subsist on oranges and are bored. We would like some rhubarb but at £1.50 a ‘pound’ (how much is that? Two sticks?) I am not buying. Last year we had rhubarb coming out of our ears. I bought some Spanish strawberries in Kilburn on Saturday. They were whopping things, hard and crunchy. Blindfold you might have taken them for miniature apples. Sodding spring, bloody hurry up!
Tales of the Hunter-Gatherer: Marking Time
Posted: 6th April 2021
Marking time is never a good feeling, especially when you are getting on in life, but when I look at my children I note that it can’t be any fun at their age either and it is possibly even worse for my nonagenarian mother, for whom life now has no sense at all. Even the smallest things are banned while the plague lurks on every corner. Life is on hold for most of us but where she lives the pandemic is making new strides and claiming more lives.
I sit and wait for news of three or four things, just as I have waited for an upturn for months. Otherwise days slip by more or less unnoticed. I am reading the wrong book (which I am not enjoying and find any excuse to put it down), I pick up a gouge, a pen or a brush, then discard it. The pandemic is perfectly uncreative.
There is just the shopping to do, and then dinner to cook, a film and bed, and an awful lot of time wasted on social media in between.
So what do the shops yield? The pumpkins have gone. I was getting fond of pumpkin puree and it was popular with the troops. Abundant cauliflowers are still turned into fritters with lots of variant spicing and I have been making courgette fritters too using feta, but that is work in progress and the bore about courgettes is squeezing out the excess fluid. One thing I have discovered in the local ethnic markets is the Bavarian radish or ‘mouli’, which is delicious braised. For a quid I can get one about two feet long. There are fewer cheap pears, and the good oranges are over. So far no rhubarb has appeared in the local shops and it is far too early for soft fruits.
The butcher Paul continues to provide us with good cheap beef, and when roasted it is dressed up with homemade horseradish made from Styrian roots bought from the local Turks. Leftover beef goes into pies with onions and fresh ginger. Lamb on the other hand is getting hoggety and the price is way too high. There are 34 million four-legged sheep in this county and the carcasses have nowhere to go but the home market. What’s more lots of lambs were born at Christmas, so why is there no new season’s lamb about? Most of the stuff on offer is too old to be used for anything other than for highly spiced koftas, neck curries or Irish stew. Paul had some very good wigeon too, which were quite a delicacy, but these are now gone.
I have been pulling out recipes for Portuguese arroz and Catalan paella to vary the menu a bit, things I can cook in the paella pan my daughter gave me for Christmas a few years back. I have revived my blanquette de veau, which I can’t have made for thirty years. For a start it is hard to get the appropriate cut of veal here, but Paul had a lump of leftover escalope meat that was lean and tender. I used silverskin onions, a variation that I learned from my old friend Monique in the rue de Rennes. Once I experimented by using orange peel and scandalised that gourmand publisher, the late Eugene Braun-Munk so much that he was still complaining about it when I last saw him, issuing from the Aurum Press in Museum Street. Sans orange peel, I think that more traditional blanquette was the best thing we ate in the whole merry month of March.
I don’t generally do the puddings, but I made a drizzle cake for a family birthday (irrigated by my last bottle of 1995 Moët) and then I awarded myself the challenge of making a Breton kouign amann such as I ate in Saint Briac in the summer of 2019. The first attempt was a flop, but I persevered and the second at least tasted right (it never really looks like much). It is a cross between a loaf of bread and puff pastry, with lots of added butter and sugar, but a good one can be delicious.
March culminated in Holy Week and Easter. I was warned that Easter Eggs would be scarce, but warned too late. Over the years I have been used to buying Belgian chocolate, generally from Leonidas, which had a good half a dozen shops in London. It seems they have all gone bar one, in Kensington High Street. Neuhaus in St Pancras Station was boarded up, and I couldn’t make any sense out of Selfridges, where I bought my eggs last year. There is still Pierre Marcolini of course, but that is way beyond my means.
There used to be a good chocolate shop at the top of Highgate Hill which closed down a few years ago, but looking for wine recently I discovered Kokoa, which buys chocolates from British artisan producers and had up-market eggs too. That rather saved the day, as even the la-di-dah Waitrose was offering nothing better than a nationalistically triumphant Hôtel du Chocolat (name-change must be on the cards now - ‘Chocolate Hotel’?) and Lindt, which is a standard cheapie, scarcely better than Cadbury and made - I suspect - under license in Scunthorpe.
I bake a dozen Hot Cross buns on Maundy Thursday for use on Good Friday. Our venerable Italian deli Salvino is still on hand for the Paschal colomba from Bauli, even if they no longer have a number of other treats associated with our modest feast. We have the colomba for breakfast on the big day. I didn’t need lunch as I scoffed the chocolates from inside my Leonidas egg (my wife had got to Kensington High Street in time). Dinner was good: some Kalamata olives, a small leg of new season’s New Zealand lamb cooked so rare that was sopping with juice, together with some potatoes roasted in beef dripping, tiny, baby broad beans and mushrooms; some pecorino sardo and Montgomery cheddar and a green salad; and finally a lemon meringue pie. To drink with the lamb we had a 1989 Canon Fronsac from Château Mazaris. We had consumed its stablemate on March 10. Both bottles were at their peak with masses of vigour. Let’s hope that they might prove a metaphor for our resurrection, and spring.
The Birth of a Wine Writer
Posted: 1st March 2021
Faced with the twin plagues of Covid and Brexit, most wine writing must be on hold. Merchants are currently living on their fat; wine writers (I assume) on state handouts. It is still not clear what will remain once the fog disperses. For the time being there are no post-Christmas sales, no trade tastings, no visits to foreign vineyards, and no chance to consume meals in restaurants with specialised lists. The future of small shipments of those interesting wines that are the spice of wine writers’ lives is now in doubt, as transportation costs have risen sharply as a result of the new post-Brexit paperwork. Previously untaxed commercial samples are now subject to duty, so you need to travel to discover novelties, which for the time being you cannot do and in all probability they will never reach these shores either. What shops will offer in the future is more likely to be produced in industrial quantities. And we can expect prices to continue to go up.
I became a wine writer nearly forty years ago. It was quite by accident. The fact that I did might be ascribed very largely to one man: Tim Johnston, who was my mentor at the time. I was living in Paris and had been writing what was going to be my doctoral dissertation on the Bordeaux wine trade in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and spending as much time as I could in the Bibliothèque nationale. The library was in the rue Richelieu then, and round the corner from Willi’s Wine Bar which Mark Williamson opened to huge acclaim in 1980.
When I had stashed away my books, I’d drop in on Willi’s for a glass of wine; especially once Tim Johnston arrived from Provence to run it, bringing with him his considerable expertise when it came to the wines of the Rhone Valley. Like Steven Spurrier at the Caves de la Madeleine and the Académie du Vin, Tim had managed to become a respected figure in French wine circles, which was no easy feat. I got to know him a little bit then. In 1981 Tim moved to Bordeaux to manage a wine bar on the place Tourny. The bar is long gone. The site is now a branch of the industrial baker Paul.
I had planned to use the summer that year to get my work done in the Gironde Archives in the rue d’Aviau in Bordeaux. I was on a tight budget and had to find a very cheap room in the crummiest hotel around. In the evening I’d go to Tim’s bar. He understood the situation at once. When I arrived he’d line up six glasses on the counter: ‘I am trying to decide which of these Côtes de Fronsac I am going to put on the list. Try them all and let me know what you think.’
The glasses remained on the counter, and I tried them repeatedly before I gave him my verdict. Sometimes he cast similar doubts about a dish he was going to put on the menu, so I would have to try that too. Had it not been for Tim, I would have had to return to Paris a lot earlier than I did, and a lot thinner.
Tim had begun life as a wine trade trainee at Château Cantenac Brown, and he knew the region well. At the weekends he and I and his wife Steph used to explore the countryside and above all the vineyards. When I went off with just Tim I rode on the back of his motorbike. If Steph came we took his car. He wangled me in on the tastings he was invited to. I remember visiting Mouton for the first time and driving to Fronsac to call on a château-owner with a Francis Bacon triptych decorating his office wall. Tim had friends in various châteaux, we’d have a pleasant lunch in a bistrot somewhere, or go to that lovely café near the ferry at Lamarque and drink Bass beer with brown shrimps called ‘chevrettes’.
And I made other friends through Tim. I went up to Château Loudenne to spend the night and look at their extensive archives. I remember visiting Jenny Bailey (later Dobson) at Château Sénéjac and a picnic on the Battlefield of Castillon. My sister, pregnant with her daughter joined me for a few days in my hotel. What had seemed like a grim prospect of a month on my own in Bordeaux turned into a memorable summer.
Tim’s job didn’t last long and he came back to Paris. The fly paper for almost all my wine contacts in France was Steven Spurrier’s empire in the Cité Berryer. Apart from Tim, almost everyone - including Jenny and Mark Williamson - had worked for him at some stage. One of the oddest Spurrier old boys was the late Ivan Paul, the scion of a family of rich maltsters near Ipswich who kept a wine shop in the rue Vaneau and got into endless scrapes. His fellow Old Etonian Charles Lea proved more level-headed and went on to found the highly successful wine merchants Lea & Sandeman in London with Patrick Sandeman (another who went to a sadly early grave). Through the Académie I met the leading lights of French wine writing like Michel Bettane, Michel Dovaz and his friend Muriel de Potex, who had a vicious parrot and lived nearby in Montparnasse. Joel Payne the Texan editor of the indispensible GaultMillau Guide to German wines was another Académie man who worked for a while behind the bar at Willi’s.
My initiation into the world of wine writing came when Tim was asked by the Franco-British Chamber of Commerce to write an article on Beaujolais for their magazine. He said he couldn’t do it alone and asked me to write it with him. I am sure he would have managed it if he really wanted to. I think another commission came later from the same source. Even if I was increasingly drawn into tasting wine and attending major events, I was still just a historian whose interest in wine was confined to a period before the First World War. Wine writing only became (an unreliable) source of income when in the spring or summer of 1984. I was asked to take over the editorship of a consumer magazine owned by a clutch of seedy Marseillais brothers based in an office above the Champs Elysées. They wanted me to sell advertising space, but I refused, and wrote wine and food articles instead.
When I returned to live in England at the end of the year there was still a little translating work on offer from the circle around the Académie du Vin. I knew little or nothing of the much vaunted wine scene in Britain, even if Steven Spurrier had opened a wine shop in Fulham and lived close to my sister in Clapham. In France we tasted almost exclusively French wines. In England the range was naturally much broader.
In 1985 a friend commissioned a commercial radio series about drink called ‘Grape & Grain’. Together with a team of professional broadcasters we recorded interviews with members of the British trade about drink. I was still working on my thesis, even if I had lost my connection to the University of Paris I. In the time I had to spare I was in the Reading Room of the British Museum and hoped that I might be able to interest a publisher in a book on the subject. Apart from a brief trip to Ireland to taste whisky (my first to the land of my fathers), I didn’t budge from Britain all year.
The following year I began to travel again. I even went back to Bordeaux to do a piece for the boys in the Champs Elysées, a remarkable trip that involved never-to-be repeated treats like a lunch at Yquem, and a dinner at the Bordeaux home of the Prats of Cos d’Estournel. I travelled with the Dutch wine writer Hubrecht Duijker and Robert Joseph from WINE magazine, the force behind the recently created Wine Challenge tasting tournament. With Robert I finally came into contact with English wine-writing. As for the Bordeaux thesis-cum-book, it was reluctantly abandoned, although a long fragment was published last year. Instead I started another book on gastronomic French history and in November 1987 that became my Opus I.
The Return of the Hunter-Gatherer
Posted: 1st February 2021
January has been a dramatic sort of month although it was hardly billed to be anything else. We finally saw the back of Donald Trump and his Lady Macbeth, and I duly designed a dish to celebrate their departure. My ‘Melanzania trumpigiana’ is made by cutting an aubergine or aubergines in half and hollowing them out. The aubergine’s meat is then cooked in olive oil with plenty of diced tomatoes, salt, pepper and thyme before being spooned back into the empty hulls with a good scattering of parmesan cheese. The mixture should obviously have a striking, orange colour. The aubergines should be finished off in a hot oven for half an hour, or can be more quickly pushed under the grill. Remember you need to cook the hulls too. They are best eaten with something light, frothy and festive. Although I say it myself, the dish is rather good. Some people think that anything bearing the name of Trump should be as disgusting as its inspiration, but I drew the line at any sort of masochism and when a dish tastes as good as this, we should be able to celebrate Trump’s passing several times a month.
The news on the home front was not nearly so pleasing. We have finally quit our holding position and taken to the skies, leaving behind us the world we have known for forty-seven years. So with rampant COVID and cloggy borders, back here in London the Hunter-Gatherer has been dogged by market dearth. I am not talking about the empty supermarket shelves that have been plastered all over the social media - I don’t use supermarkets - but rather the notable gaps in the displays in the run-down North London street markets of Kilburn, Seven Sisters and Queen’s Crescent. Some of the little things I used to get from local shops also now look as if they might disappear for a while, if not for good.
Let’s start with poultry. A lot of the middle-range stuff used to come from France and formed a hyphen between the low-price battery birds produced here and high-priced free range and organic chickens. They are mass-produced of course, but benefit from a more regulated regime. At the end of December they stopped crossing the Channel but now they are back, albeit intermittently, but complete with a £10 surcharge on a 10 kg case. This means we will end up paying a pound more for a chicken, £7 rather than £6. Duck, quail, guinea fowl and various other foreign birds are also likely to go up in price for the same reason. They are not produced in anything like real commercial quantities here.
Most of the meat we eat is produced here, but that is not always the case when it comes cheap pork, or for speciality sausages and other ‘charcuterie’. I worry for my Spanish butcher Miguel. He doesn’t look happy. For the time being he has morcillas and chorizos in stock and the other day he even had a delivery of Catalan rice so vital for paella. The pork I buy is English, but price hikes for Danish pork will inevitably affect the sort of meat that goes into schools, hospitals and canteens.
Fish has raised a stink of late. Given that we are no longer successfully exporting fish and that the restaurants are closed you might have thought it was a good moment to offer cheaper fish to the general public? But no, not a bit of it: instead of prices coming down, they appear to have gone up. I bearded one of my local fishmongers about this, and he agreed with me ‘It makes no sense, as nobody has any money.’ He spelled out the origin of the fish in his shop. The cheaper, farmed fish (bass and bream) came from Billingsgate. He didn’t buy from Peterhead which sold largely frozen fish to fish and chip shops. They took nothing from the East Coast, where the trawlers froze the fish, but had separate deals with fishermen on the South Coast. The only explanation he could offer for the high prices was bad weather, but bad grace might also apply? At least the fishermen can’t be sulking in the pub, as the pub is closed along with everything else.
Now we turn to drink. My interest in wine is twofold: I like to consume it with my dinner, of course, but I am still writing about it too. January is traditionally the time of post-Christmas sales and tastings, of which none took place. Covid is the obvious villain here, but he shares the stage with his chum Brexit. Chaos at the ports and new post-EU paperwork for ‘third’ countries has meant less wine is getting through. The FT recently predicted that a £12 bottle of wine will go up in price by £1.50. In the future many smaller producers will find the voluminous paperwork involved in sending wine to a ‘third’ country defeating and will cease trading with the UK. This will apply mostly to the interesting small producers who find their way onto restaurant lists, and constitute the chief pleasure of wine connoisseurs and writers.
Ah! But you say, what about the New World: wine has broken its European bounds and reached a wider world? Some people add (ideologically) that European wine is bad, and wine from the New World is better. This could be true, but most new world producers are big, employ dozens if not hundreds of people, and can tailor their prices to their production. If you possess fewer than fifty acres you cannot do this so easily. The French specialised press has been advising readers to look for new markets for nearly five years. Unless they can learn to pool their exports and farm out their paperwork, we are going to see much less choice in restaurants and shops.
Whether wine writing will survive is also a question. My one attempt to get samples in January was met by an impolite refusal. Last month I tasted four good Bulgarian wines made by women winemakers and four German and Austrian wines made by biodynamic producers. They were all good, but there was not enough in either to make an article. Samples sent from abroad will now be charged at outrageous rates (there is no cost advantage in sending a small package), and the price makes the exercise ridiculous. Supermarkets may still send out wines to writers, but only from what might become increasingly diminished ranges.
We may see a brave new wine world of a few clarets and continental wines with holdings of 250 acres or more, and a lot of ‘imperial’ wines (as they used to be called) from the New World. It will look a little bit like wine shops did before 1973. Add South America to this. When I went to Chile in 1990 the wines were made by nine firms. I think there are many more now, but you will get the point. The mentality there is more commercial, it is not exactly a family business, so don’t expect diversity. There will be plenty of wines at over £100 a bottle of course. A bit more duty, a price hike or three, won’t mean much to hedgehogs or oligarchs. Also the Lafites and Moutons of this world are large commercial companies controlling hundreds and thousands of acres of vines.
And Sir John Redwood will now be able to preen himself that the street markets look much as I remember them in 1972, when almost all produce barring the odd orange or banana was British: British potatoes, British turnips and British cabbages. In January it looked a bit more like 1942, but things might get better in May. There weren’t many aubergines to be had in Queen’s Crescent on Saturday either, so we shan’t be eating much Melanzania trumpigiana for the time being.
Posted: 4th January 2021
The feast is not finished, nor have the lamps expired, the tree’s still up, and although I have yet to make the galette des rois, there is already a bottle of wine in the fridge earmarked to go with the pie when it rolls out at the Epiphany. It has been a quiet Christmas, for all sorts of reasons, but we celebrated stylishly enough, not least because I still had a few good wines stashed away. The stock is dwindling, however, and I am sure we will not see their like again.
In the nineties I still wrote a lot about wine: hundreds of articles and three whole books. That meant that there was always lots of wine about, and there was more money than I needed too in those days, so I used to buy doubletons in the vague idea I might ask people round to dinner. Either there were too many purchases, or too few invitations were sent out, but this stock is what feeds high days and holidays now.
Once the tree was decorated on Christmas Eve we started with some non-vintage Perrier-Jouët. We must have had it for at least five years, maybe longer? I like old champagne, the darker colour and more concentrated aromas. It went well enough with my terrine. I had managed to procure a liver on my whistle-stop trip to Calais on the 17th. Christmas Eve is the last day of the Advent fast, and a fish night. In the past we have eaten lobsters, either bought here or brought up from the coast by my Devon-based brother-in-law. I assume the poor lobsters we normally eat were dying slow and painful deaths in the backsides of lorries on Manston Field. We had a big piece of halibut instead, which I cooked with a little wine, saffron, butter and cream, and although I say it myself, it was a triumph.
For the first time ever there was no great white burgundy to go with the fish. All I had was a curiosity: a 2010 Pinot Blanc Les Avoines from Jean Fournier in Marsannay. It was a wonderfully concentrated wine. Pinot Blanc ages extremely well, and this was just further proof.
A friend had given us some Norman cheeses that were too much for his needs, and there was a ripe camembert to follow. My Calais-bought vacherin mont d’or never ripened properly, although I was assured it was delicious on toast. I opened a 1997 Sämling 88 (Scheurebe) Spätlese from my friend Johann Münzenrieder in Apetlon. It was still walking, but with a stick. It was supposed to go with an excellent chestnut bûche.
Fortunately I had decanted some port earlier. I have run out of wines from the ‘British’ houses, but I still had some Rozès, which used to be owned by Moët & Chandon. From what I could see (the label had gone and the cork came out in crumbs) it was a 1991. It was more Graham than Dow, if you know what I mean: opulent and sweet. There were tastes of cherries, chocolate and nuts, and it was deliciously creamy: a bit like a liquid Schwarzwaldtorte. It had considerable staying power mind you and was still pleasant to drink three days later. There wasn’t much time to swill port either, as we scrambled off to a rather muted Midnight Mass at the Dominican Friary in Hampstead.
The best champagne was kept for opening presents around the tree on Christmas Day. There was to be none served on New Year’s Eve. I had some 2003 Roederer left over from a lot I was given for judging a wine-writing prize. It was no disappointment: baked apples and crystallised fruits. Before the Simon-Heffer forerib we ate some more of the terrine, but this time with a mature Saar wine: the 2007 von Orthegraven Kanzemer Altenberg Riesling Spätlese. It was as good as I expected, changing dramatically in the glass over time, but reminiscent above all of exquisite Seville orange marmalade.
The beef was accompanied by a gratin dauphinois and red cabbage liberally basted with the Scheurebe from the night before. With the rib I opened my last bottle of the 1992 Domaine de l’Arlot Vosne Romanée Premier Cru (Les Suchots?). I had the other bottle of this on my birthday, which I remembered being wonderful. There was nothing wrong with this either, mind you: tremendous power with some slightly spirity cherry fruit. There was a hint of sweetness at first, but it was on thundering good form.
As the vacherin was still not playing I had a little camembert-style cheese with truffles and a pont l’evêque. A Sussex pond pudding followed with a 1993 Eiswein from the Weingut Unger. Wolfgang Unger had taken the lease on the thirty hectares of vines at Stift Göttweig across the Danube from Krems. He died shortly after making this wine and the arrangement was taken over by his daughter Petra. I remember a charming old gent who had spent many years in Manchester and South Africa. The label gave no indication of grape variety. The wine was the colour of tea and rich and jammy.
There was a Norfolk capon for Boxing Day; not a real capon - it is against the law to castrate a cock in Britain - but a mature male bird. We had one last year and I realised how good they could be. I had noted that the hot summer had taken its toll on a number of corks among the older wines. One victim was the 1992 Nuits Saint Georges Premier Cru Les Vaucrains from Robert Chevillon. It was weeping a bit so I thought it time to operate. There was nothing wrong with the cork, and I quickly decanted the wine just before I tried it. It was a gorgeous colour and gave off a heady bouquet of creamy strawberries. The only problem was that it faded fairly quickly once the oxygen got at it. I’d made a quince tart, which was paired with Münzenrieder’s 1997 Bouvier Trockenbeerenauslese. This was all buttery raisins, with a useful seam of acidity to prevent it from cloying.
Over the next few days there were important accommodations to be made concerning the leftovers. The capon gave us a short crust pie and a risotto ‘rustico’; the beef provided a beef and Guinness pudding, using some suet I had taken off two veal kidneys and frozen. None of these merited better-than-average wine. On the 31st, however, we have a north Italian meal: a stuffed pig’s trotter or zampone with lentils (they represent the money you are going to earn) potato purée and tomato passita. With this I brought out another weeper: the 1981 Biondi-Santi Brunello di Montalcino Reserva.
This was part of a three-pack I brought back from Il Greppo in (I think) 1988 when I visited the estate with friends. I was writing an article on Brunello and wanted to interview the late Franco Biondi-Santi and his son Tancredi. The Biondi-Santi family had started Brunello in the nineteenth century. I had intended to drink the wines with the same friends, but thirty years later we have all gone into our separate corners (and one tragically to heaven) and the time has come to drink up.
As it was the wine was already down to high shoulder. I treated it much like the Nuits Saint Georges. The cork came out in two bits and I decanted it immediately before drinking. The colour was once again magnificent and the wine gave off a delightful aroma of ceiling wax and oranges with a little bit of fresh meat. On the palate there were black fruits - blackberries and blackcurrants - a wonderful structure and a cooling finish. The only disappointment was a tiny ‘point’ (as the French say) of bitterness on the finish. It was a superb end to an otherwise abominable year.
Tale of a Tartiflette
Posted: 1st December 2020
I had a cheese from the Cotswolds last month. It was called ‘Baronet’ and was made in imitation of the famous washed-rind Reblochon cheese from the French Alps. Produced in Worcestershire from the milk of Jersey cows, it was predictably rich and creamy, in a way that the Alpine cheese is not, but then again the breeds that make Reblochon are different. They are the beautifully named Abondance, Montbéliarde and Tarine. Their unpasteurised milk is produced from a diet of mountain herbs, flowers and grasses. The Cotswolds aren’t flat either, but a few rolling hills do not in any way replicate the special terrain of the Alps. It is all a bit like our butter: there is nothing quite as fat as English butter.
Don’t get me wrong: Baronet is pleasant enough, but quite bland. Later on what was left of it went into a tartiflette along with the remains of a Brie de Meaux, which had been quite out of this world when I got it but was beginning to develop that smell of ammonia which comes when it’s past its best, and some English Ragstone goats’ milk cheese made in imitation of a Loire bûche by the great Randolph Hodgson of Neal’s Yard Dairy.
A tartiflette will be familiar to anyone who has skied in the French Alps: is made from two layers of diced or sliced potatoes, onions and pieces of smoked bacon (lardons) partitioned horizontally and subsequently topped by wodges of Reblochon shorn of their rinds. Yes, I cheated a bit by using those other cheeses, but if I’d had a good Reblochon I would have scoffed it rather than cooking it.
I was pleased with my first tartiflette and it went down well; but like a lot of other people I am worried that our future trading relations with the Mainland will leave us with at best these pallid imitations of the gastronomic models we know and love. It isn’t that we can’t make good cheese, ham or sausages, it is that our land is very different and breed and terroir count for a lot in determining the flavour of food and drink. It’s a bit like wine. You could try to produce Château Lafite in some favoured spot in the West Country, but I should bet you would have zero chance of success.
Now this could just be hogwash (there’s a lot of it about) but in recent news we have learned that we might have to be satisfied with British-made salame and chorizo. This seems to have inspired some extreme nationalists or optimists to say that ours was better than the Spanish stuff anyhow. I thought of my little Spanish butcher Miguel in Camden Town, and his array of imported morcillas, black and white, some for frying, others for stewing; ditto chorizo for all occasions; and then there are the fresh sausages he makes himself, sausages so garlicky that it isn’t just the vampires who run for cover. Without that range of produce I could hardly believe that Britain would be a better place and I wonder if Miguel will continue trading?
‘O Freunde nicht diese Töne...’ enough of these gloomy thoughts! So, what have I been doing for the second ‘lockdown’? The answer is cooking. I am in the habit of spotting things that I think might be popular at home and which fail to catch on in our small household so that I am forced to eat the lot myself. That was the case with the kilo of duck livers I bought for a song. I thought I might wrap them in bacon and cook them on skewers, but there was a distinct lack of enthusiasm, so I decided to make a pâté. I cooked them up with some spring onions and splashed cognac over them before putting them through the mouli. The mouli extracted some, but not all the rebarbative arteries but the pâté seemed a bit austere for all that, until I hit on the idea of adding in a lot of melted butter. Even I grew tired of eating it for lunch every day, however, and I ended up by freezing the remains.
My ox cheek fared slightly better, but then again I didn’t tell anyone what part of the ox it had come from, and as I had softened it up in the pressure cooker before I finished it off with onions and tomatoes, it was as tender as a heart in love. I had rather better luck with the tart I made from some huge, bulbous quinces I found in the Kilburn High Road (the boulevard of cheap fruit and veg). Another triumph this November was my attempt to imitate Transylvanian sarmales: cabbage leaves filled with minced pork, beef, rice and seasonings. It was a fiddly job, and I found I had blanched too few cabbage leaves and made too much forcemeat, with the result that I had to stuff a great many tomatoes as well. You cook sarmales very slowly and serve them with soured cream. By common consent, however, the lockdown laurels were awarded to the tartiflette - despite its hybrid nature.
A Golden October in the Kitchen
Posted: 3rd November 2020
At the beginning of month there was a proper ‘Oktoberfest’ here as I harvested my grapes. They were not easy to get at, as the vines are ‘trained’ à la romaine up a bay and an olive tree. I had to detach the blue-black bunches with a lopper, fish them out of the roses and gather them up into a yellow plastic tub.
Once I had warmed them up to below blood heat in a big pot, I added a kilo of sugar. It is the process known as ‘chaptalisation’ after the baron Chaptal, sometime Interior Minister to Napoleon, so we’ve been doing it for at least 200 years. The sugar made up for their obvious lack of ripeness and gave the yeast something to feed on. There is plenty of yeast flying around and I was grateful to see a few bubbles appear after two or three days, signalling the beginning a slow and not very tumultuous fermentation.
Once the bubbles became rare, I decanted the liquid into a big glass jar and loosely stoppered it. Not only did I want to allow the fermentation to begin again when it got warmer, I intended the odd, intrepid fruit fly to visit the wine. Fruit flies bring the bacteria that turn bad wine into useful vinegar. Our grapes would not be good enough to make anything else. Such is wine, in its rawest, earthiest manifestation. Once upon a time people drank this. Thank God we have not been reduced to that yet. Only time will tell.
October wasn’t such a bad month. Although we had been sad to see one child leave for university, the other one came home and I actually went out to FOUR restaurants! There was the Seashell in Lisson Grove - London’s premier fish and chippie. I went to Le Café du Marché in Charterhouse Square for fish soup and a lovely Châteaubriand and our best local restaurant, Anima e Cuore in the Kentish Town Road for its exquisite homemade pasta. Anima e Cuore has no wine list, and as it was a family birthday we drank some very mature non-vintage Perrier Jouët at home and took down a bottle of the 1996 Michaele Chiarlo Barolo. It was my last, but in peak form.
I had a truly memorable meal at Bentley's in Swallow Street. In a way it couldn’t have been simpler: we kicked off with oysters, pacifics from Carlingford Lough and some wonderful natives from West Mersea (the most palatable things in Essex); followed by half a lobster thermidor; ditto a grilled sole with Béarnaise sauce; and finished with some rice pudding ‘brûlée’ (well, not literally, but you know what I mean).
And I have been busy at home too. I am amazed at how unnecessarily complicated recipes can be. On several occasions I have had some mackerel fillets and turned them into a paste that makes a perfect snack lunch. Look the recipe up and all sorts of silly flourishes are added. All you really need is the mackerel, a fork, some soft butter, a bit of Dijon mustard (maybe horseradish if there is some to hand) and a teaspoonful of capers.
Anima e Cuore inspired me to stuff some courgette flowers. The Italian grocer Lo Sfizio, which is owned by them, had the flowers in stock and a lovely organic ricotta, which combined with an egg, nutmeg and some grated parmesan makes the perfect filling. The trick seems to be to bake them at quite a low temperature to maintain the pretty patterns in the petals.
Garlic has been a bit of a theme, as its chief opponent has been away in the north it has figured in rather more recipes than before. I felt sure it was good for our antibodies. I made a new version of my deboned chicken dish pollo alla corona, stuffing it with some garlicky salsa verde and mozzarella. Garlic is the soul of a proper gratin dauphinois, so I was able to abandon all restraint there too. Garlic was an important part of the gremolata sauce I made for an osso bucco - of beef this time - the appropriate veal vertebrae being unavailable.
My wife found a recipe for Lapin chasseur in Le Monde attached to a wine column written by my old friend Antoine Gerbelle. There was also a smidgen of garlic in the rabbit. My daughter has also been making pasta with her new machine, and we had some very seasonal pumpkin ravioli. This is one of my favourite things when I go to northern Italy (I wonder if I shall ever see the Po Valley again?). For the first time in years I made a proper Bolognese ragú using three broken meats, in this case pheasant, brisket and gammon.
Of course most people make a ‘Bolognese’ from mince and I have not neglected mince either: I have created a new dish I call ‘Scotch bonnet’ as a tribute to the Caledonian partiality to it. In this instance I use pork, an onion and a few cherry tomatoes. I add a little home-made stock to this and two serving spoonfuls of Calabrian nduja. This last ingredient gives the dish its name. It is hot enough to send your tam-o-shanter flying sky-high.
And pears, there are plentiful cheap pears at about £1 for six. That means lots cooked à la normande, in butter and sugar, or in red wine with orange zest, cloves and cinnamon. With the latest news from Downing Street announcing a fresh lockdown, cooking is set to continue throughout November.
A Dash for the Sun
Posted: 1st October 2020
In the middle of September I made a dash for Provence for a last look at the sun. Mainland Europe was and remains blighted by COVID. A half empty Eurostar took us to the Gare du Nord, then a packed regional express train to the Gare de Lyon. As I shuffled to make space I noted that a fair number of French people are as unaware as Britons that their noses are connected to their respiratory systems, although many more obey the rules. We stopped at the usual place for a beer and a sandwich, then took the TGV the rest of the way.
Again the train was not full, but the people fidgeted, unhappy with the obligation to wear masks. Noses came out, then when the inspectors had made their rounds some coverings were discretely discarded. One plump woman had thought up a wizard wheeze: if she ate she was not required to mask up. She had invested in a multi-pack of Maltesers and popped them all the way to Avignon.
For once the car rental was acquitted in a trice and thirty minutes later we were in the Ventoux Valley on our way to the Domaine des Anges. It was all very different: there was no haunch of Boris in the freezer, but the boar had been round alright and had quite methodically churned up the patch of lawn outside the door. Our host was on hand with cool champagne and a cold collation, but we were just four at table: a far cry from the noisy September meetings of the past. Our convives were tucked up behind bolted doors in Ireland and Portugal, and were much missed.
The next morning I went out to look for figs. There were plenty of little green ones on the tree by the cave. Some had fallen on the table below and dried in the sun. In the vineyard above there were delicious small black figs too. Over near the gardens that look out towards the ‘Giant’ (Mount Ventoux) a crew was making a film about climate change and no one was allowed to talk above a whisper. There were chores to be acquitted in Mazan as the barometer rose to 37C. We stopped for a beer at the bottom of the hill and used the opportunity to book La Bergerie for dinner that night. I had the pool all to myself that afternoon. It was almost too hot in the sun.
Later I had a chat with Florent Chave the winemaker. Almost all the grapes were in. It was another wonderful vintage, although the estate still had the 2018 reds to dispose of, not to mention the 2019 whites and rosés. The all-Grenache Séraphin had just won a Gold at the World Wine Awards, which was a consolation.
After an aperitif in the sun, we went down to the restaurant. La Bergerie struck just the right tone: the waitresses were fast, helpful and moderately saucy. The food was unfussy, plentiful and good: a vol-au-vent filled with snails accompanied by a little salad, a ‘pluma’ of Iberian pork (cut from near the neck) with a mustard sauce and a very garlicky portion of gratin dauphinois and finally a sundae called ‘Mount Ventoux’ (think of a Mont Blanc with ice cream replacing the meringue) all for €30. The ‘pluma’ was new to me, but I quickly realised I had made the right choice.
It was a short break and indulgently lazy. I spent hours in the sun reading Buddenbrooks while the others anatomised a lame car. The next day we went to Mazan to get food before it got too hot and when that happened I repaired to the pool. I wasn’t quite alone this time, as I encountered a baby adder in the grass, stretched out somewhere between the water and my shoes. I thought it was dead at first as it didn’t move, but when I returned it had squeezed its universe into a ball. I began to suspect that his mother might be lurking somewhere, which rather mitigated the pleasure of swimming.
That night we ate in. We bought some local Ventoux pork with a thick strip of white fat on the chops that disappeared in the grilling. I marinated them in wine and cooked them with a medley of tomatoes, garlic and peppers, sautéed some potatoes and served the dish with spinach and some buttered ceps I’d chanced upon in the shop.
The equinoctial storm was brewing up on Saturday. There was a wind and an occasional sprinkling of rain followed by intense heat. We went to the market in Pernes for the usual staples. The soap woman knows us now, and gives us presents of sachets of lavender; then there is Isa the beekeeper and her lovely honey. I stocked up on purple garlic bulbs and some less perishable bread for home as I knew we would have run out. The spice man wasn’t there, a pity because I normally buy his cinq épices. Experience has taught me never to transport squashy things like tomatoes. Anything can happen on the way home.
We went to Le Grillon in Bédouin that night. Bédouin is a village transformed by upmarket cyclists who huff and puff up Mount Ventoux by day and carouse by night. I have never seen the place so busy in September. It is bursting with new restaurants. Le Grillon is one of these. I hadn’t noticed it before but it was full to bursting with mostly male parties of cyclists. Next to us was a group of eight Australians telling yarns about those last hundred metres and the challenge to reach the summit.
Compared to La Bergerie, Le Grillon is fussy and chichi. I had a nice tartare of scallops on a bed of tomatoes and chorizo but the presentation involved a lot of Jackson Pollock-style slashing and splashing. This was followed by a small piece of grilled bull meat, with a couple of rather tweely presented vegetable dishes and a wire basket containing perhaps a dozen chips. I finished with some little pancakes with rum and vanilla ice. The rum was in a little plastic phial, so you could squeeze it out yourself. Again in contrast to La Bergerie, the service was cold and slow.
On the way back to Domaine there was a dramatic electrical storm centring on the Rhone north of Orange. At about four o’clock on Sunday morning the heavens opened accompanied by much crashing and banging.
It is not as difficult to leave when the weather is bad, but the sun came out as we passed Lyon in our half-empty train. It was warm and bright in Paris. We had time to kill and looked for a bar for a café crème near the Gare du Nord. There was an altercation in the street when the police tried to discipline two young men for refusing to wear masks. The waiting room in the Gare du Nord, usually so packed, was largely empty. The Eurostar leg proceeded without a hitch. I returned grateful for the sun on my back, but delivering myself up to two weeks of soul-destroying house arrest.
The Hunter-Gatherer at Large
Posted: 1st September 2020
In two weeks it will be six months. In that time I have cooked a proper meal every single night bar four (well, three and a half): on one night I joined two friends for fish and chips at the Seashell in Lisson Grove, on another occasion we all ate in a friend’s garden; on a third my daughter cooked dinner, and lastly my son did his chicken (I did the rest). And it is not as if the period preceding was very different. I have had very few nights off since mid-February, when I went to Provence (and I cooked there too). It’s not just the rigmarole of nightly cooking: I haven’t caught a plane or taken a train. The most I have done is to venture out on buses, albeit fewer than a dozen times. I have been largely confined to my corner of north-central London, bound in by the railway lines that issue from Euston and St Pancras; and I suspect I am acutely bored and about to go mad.
And it is not as if the meals I have cooked have been enjoyed by anyone other than our very modest family circle. Once or twice I have passed plates out into the front garden where my daughter entertains her many friends before she goes off with them to a pub or the Heath. Otherwise I try to vary what we eat and drink as well as I can. It is not always easy, given that X won’t eat this, and Y doesn’t like that. It’s a dog’s life.
Recently I was all alone for ten days when my wife and son went to the country. I still had to cook mind you, but only for myself. Eating by myself is naturally less complicated, but I cook a proper meal and sit down at the dinner table to consume it. The only difference is that I have a book ensconced on my left, to entertain me and stop me bolting my food. I recall one evening’s offering was well nigh perfection: an artichoke (£1 from the local Italian deli) with Moroccan olive oil and aceto balsamico (it is hard to eat an artichoke quickly), then two little lamb chops (£2.50 from Miguel the Spanish butcher in Camden Town) with a tomato à la provençale - cut in two and coated with garlic and breadcrumbs - and some polenta made good and runny with milk and butter. I drank half a bottle of Lidl’s best rioja 2015 Cepa Lebrel Reserva (a real bargain at £5.49). The only drawback to the choke was that I made little progress with Casanova’s memoires. I was worried about getting oil on the pages of the book. I then slunk upstairs and watched a film.
Twice recently I have been out for coffee with friends. In one instance I went all the way to Covent Garden, to Paul in Garrick Street, noting on the way the sad hulk of the Garrick Club all still and boarded up. At Paul the lavs had been cordoned off too for the duration of the virus. Someone should warn you not to imbibe too many diuretics like coffee or tea, but they don’t. At my most adventurous I even went out for lunch up the road with a good friend, although to my shame I failed to support the government’s buy-a-sandwich-and-save-the-nation scheme but almost certainly prevented myself from catching Covid or worse by eating commercial mayonnaise or battery chicken.
We went, as we often do, to the Bull & Last in the Highgate Road. You may still be able to get a pint at the Bull & Last, but it is much more of a restaurant than a gastropub. It has been through hell and back: it closed for months and months for refurbishment and emerged from its shroud only to lock up for the lockdown. Now it has reopened at last with fewer tables and two-and-a-half hour eating shifts but it has lost a little something on the way. The meal was impressively presented: a smorgasbord of salmon with horseradish cream under a little salad on some rye bread was as pretty as a picture. The salmon had been marinated in beetroot and had an eye-catching colour. I had a tender steak sandwich in two hunks of baguette and finally some mirabelles with good panna cotta stirred with a fig leaf or branch, much as I used to do to make my cheese. It wasn’t home cooking, and I was grateful for that. We had a gin each and a bottle of Languedocian Carignan with our meal, it wasn’t cheap (median price for wine must be £40), the meal wasn’t cheap (£100 - and only I really ate anything), but it was real food. The sole thing that rankled was the cold, charm-free service.
The Bull & Last is half-way between home and Swain’s Lane. When Covid struck back in March, the Earl of Listowel’s development was nearing completion. It had been controversial: the old one-storey structures on the north side had been ripped down and posh flats created overhead. Latterly the project was passed on to Noble House Properties. On the other hand the idea behind the redevelopment was to maintain the vocation of the street as a place where any form of food might be bought. Gone to another stage of history are all the old stagers: Martin the Butcher, Marseille Claude and Micky the Greengrocers, Soapy Sam the Wine Merchant, Covington Flowers, the dog-eared Café Mozart and the rest; now there is a new crew with the inevitable nod to the chains in the form of Gail’s the extortionate bakers, and FAM the good (but overpriced) Turkish greengrocer from Fortess Road. New to the scene are Bourne’s the fishmonger, Swain’s Lane Butchers, Citro’s Italian restaurant and the Wine Cellar, which looked like a wine shop at first, but on closer inspection is more like a wine bar - with separate on-the-spot and take-away prices.
I found time to make a tour of inspection during my period of solitude. I was particularly interested in the meat and fish elements in the new shopping street. I tried Bourne’s first, and settled on a piece of skate to cook ‘au beurre noir’. The chunk weighed about 600 grams but it was only slightly too big for one, given that skate is largely bone. The fishmonger offered to cut off a scant half, but I am glad I took the lot. It came to over £10, which is a lot for skate, but still I enjoyed it.
The butcher had lashings of fancy beef including American Prime. I suppose we must look that way now. There was a ‘Denver steak’ from the forequarters that was ravishing with its marbling but which cost all of £40 a kilo! The butcher pressed a great many things on me but in the end I settled for a bit of sirloin, which was good, but still twice the price I’d normally pay from my usual butcher. I am not sure I’m quite mad enough to pay that price again, but it made a change.
A Long Drink in Lockdown
Posted: 1st July 2020
July begins, and apart from my immediate family I have seen virtually no one since March; and no, I don’t mean I have seen them ‘virtually’: Skype and Zoom drinks and parties are not my thing. I do see the local traders on a fairly regular basis, and late last night I made an unscheduled visit to the outpatients’ department at the Royal Free, but humanity rarely looks its best in the wee hours, and if what I saw there was real life, well, you can keep it.
I try where possible to make family life as convivial as I can. With my son about to go up to university, we are now four drinkers. He doesn’t consume much still wine (he has no apparent objection to champagne) but even a bottle divided between three is not a lot, so I have tried to stock up the drinks cabinet a bit so that there is a little more choice.
It is summer now and of course spirits are not ideal when it’s hot and you’re thirsty. Most of the time a beer would be better but beer is not good before wine, so my mind turns to long drinks: whisky and ginger or maybe a whisky sour if you have a bit more time? A gin and tonic can be the perfect summer drink and a Tom Collins is also delicious once in a blue moon. I often have a gin and French, a walk down memory lane that evokes flashes of better times. I never know what to do with vodka, but there is a full bottle of Russian Standard in the fridge. Ideally you’d toss a glass back straight after a spoonful of caviar, otherwise vodka is just a way of turning fruit juice into alcohol. I prefer rum, which has more flavour: a petit punch is a lovely drink on a warm evening, and not too fussy; but you need good white cane rum, and preferably from the French islands. Rum from the old British islands is made from molasses and has a coarse character like some rough old tar sounding off in the pub.
The important point is that you don’t want to be fiddling around with jiggers and strainers and other paraphernalia if you are wrestling with dinner with the other hand, but you do need the basic materials: lemons, limes, soda water, non-dietary tonic water (Schweppes, Fever-Tree or Fentimans) and ginger ale. You also need Campari and Martini Rosso for those days when you can be fagged to knock up a Negroni. Sugar syrup is essential. I keep a bottle of it in the fridge and make a new batch when it’s empty by filling it a third full with granulated sugar and carefully pouring on boiling water to dissolve it; carefully, I might stress: if you do it too quickly you crack the bottle.
I use sugar syrup in my ‘tit punch. As a West Indian barman once told me: ‘two fingers of your favourite white rum, two fingers of sugar syrup and two fingers of freshly squeezed lime juice’. A couple of ice cubes don’t go amiss either. The principle of a Tom Collins is much the same, but uses gin and fresh lemon juice.
I am near the end of a bottle of Villa Ascheri gin, and then I have some Portobello Road Navy Strength gin kindly sent to me by friends. For most gin drinks, however, a bottle of Plymouth or Beefeater is fine, and costs about £16. Probably my favourite is Tanqueray 10, but is hugely pricy and I have not drunk it in a while. As a friend’s father who had been in the Sudanese Political Service taught me long ago, for a gin and tonic you need to have everything sitting prettily in the fridge, including the lemon. Only then is it a really refreshing drink. In the Subcontinent I have drunk gin with freshly squeezed limes, simply because the tonic was disgusting and limes are more reliable. A gin and French is a good measure of gin, a squeeze of lemon and a larger measure of dry vermouth. Noilly Prat is best, or Dolin from Chambéry. The Dolin will cost almost £15 from the Whisky Exchange, while the Co-op has its own brand at £6.35 a litre and it’s not even that bad.
I try to buy the Réunion white rum from Lidl. It has a proper rum taste and at under a tenner it is cheap. The last time I braved the Lidl in Camden Town they didn’t have any and I had to buy a bottle of Bacardi white rum from the local Co-op instead. This comes from Puerto Rico and costs nearly twice as much. It also has no rum taste. It might just as well be vodka.
The Co-op is the source of many of my bottles, not least because it is the local corner shop. For £22 I can have a litre of Famous Grouse, which is quite good enough for a whisky and ginger or a whisky sour; although I have to say that the whisky sour I had fashioned from peaty new-make Annandale malt was possibly the best ever. The Co-op has quite a range of cheap malts too, which are not great summer drinks but surely worth having in the drinks cupboard: Jura Journey (£22), Glenlivet (£25), Glenmorangie Ten (£26), Laphroaig Select (£28) and Tamnavulin (£22), most of these are new style marketing ‘concepts’ and probably assembled from very young malts. The exception is the Glenmorangie which has an old-fashioned age statement.
I have missed out brandy and cognac as cognac seems to me to be a winter drink to be savoured all on its own but our imperialists liked their brandy with ginger or soda, and the French (also James Bond) used to drink a ‘fine à l’eau’.
Summer is also the time for Pimms. There are the scant remains of a bottle of Pimms Vodka Cup in the cupboard but not enough to go round. You also need lemonade, cucumber, strawberries, fresh mint and borage. The current owners suggest you simplify the formula, but without the salad it is not only not Pimms, it ain’t summer either.
Further Adventures of a Hunter-Gatherer
Posted: 1st June 2020
We’re three months into a quarantine observed by fewer and fewer people. Out on my local streets, parks, gardens and proprietary woods, it might just as well have ceased to exist. I swear my neighbours have had more guests in their house in the past two days than they’ve had in the ten years they’ve lived there. Shopping for food and wine, however, remains much the same, as essential businesses food shops have remained open, but they have been subject to serious problems of supply and in many cases, escalating prices.
Some of the supply problems were created by the government, which delivered a message to the great unwashed right at the beginning: bake off! Some overheated civil servant hatched the bright idea of getting people making bread and red velvet cakes to pass the long hours without work, pubs or sport. As the Germans say ‘idleness is the origin of all vices’. Baking is a fine way to idle away the hours providing you make sure people can lay their hands on flour, yeast, eggs, sugar and the other little things that make a cake, or bread palatable or feasible. Periodically all these things have been impossible to obtain. Many people have beaten a path to my door asking me how they might secure a bit of yeast. Two days ago one of my neighbours told me the only flour she’d been able to find was spelt. Spelt is good for Roman recipes, I admit, but otherwise it is a tiny bit recherché. In many cases I suspect the result of the government’s advice has been frustration and anger.
The other source of anguish has been fruit and veg. I have been sent pictures of fruit and vegetables from Waitrose and Marks & Spencer that looked alright and I was told the price was not too high. I restrict my purchases to small shops and stalls, although my wife braves Sainsbury and other supermarkets. Mostly I go to Sally the Hat outside the underground who offers the great advantages of short queues and bowls filled with tired looking items offered for quick sale for a quid. Wilting spinach can be perked up in the cooking, a few rotten patches in a bell pepper may be surgically removed, tomatoes with wrinkled skins are generally more flavoursome than smooth ones, which reminds me of the untranslatable French saying ‘c’est dans les vieilles cocottes qu’on fait les meilleures soupes’.
On the other hand fruit has been worse than dire. There are still pears, and we had a delicious pear Tatin recently; but like Goethe I long for ‘grapes and figs’ and all those luscious fruits that come from the lands where lemon trees bloom. These seem to have problems getting here. Peaches and apricots are either unripe or rotten. Even native strawberries collapse into mush in the five minutes it takes to get them home. Prices are also excessive: at the stall a kilo of cherries is selling for £9!
I used to go to a good Turkish greengrocer near here, but now everything is hugely overpriced and not as fresh as it was. I bought some dill from them recently, which rapidly began to stink and rhubarb at £4.99 a kilo was twice the price of Sally’s. We have enjoyed the seasonal rhubarb, but that is beginning to get woody now. About the only things I can speak positively about are melons. I have had good green-fleshed ones from Sally, and even better orange ones from the excellent little Italian grocer on the way to Camden Town. The shopkeeper said they were from Verona. I love the smell of them ripening in my fruit bowls: the house is as fragrant as a Mediterranean summer.
Talking of the new Italian, he has good things and is not greedy. I had two enormous citrons from him and made them into a few pots of jam. Jam also excuses a bit of squidginess and unlovely-looking strawberries find a useful refuge there. Most apricots or peaches end up as compote. I have pectin for jam, even if I can’t find the pectin-and-sugar mix I normally buy from the Phoenicians. And for the time being, I have flour and yeast too: possibly enough for another month of bread. English flour is lousy. The French strong wheat flour I have is T65, which is adequate, but not quite the equal of the T80 I had before, but I am not complaining.
On Saturdays I take pains to leave early for my walk to the butcher who is often under siege now that many people have learned from the lockdown that you get better meat from the butcher than the supermarket. His prices are still keen, but his range is no longer as quirky as it was. The joy now is the arrival of the new season’s lamb, which seems to get later year by year. Fish remains a problem. I am told that most fishermen have stopped fishing because no restaurants are open to buy their fish. This results in high prices for the relatively small number of Britons who are prepared to cook fish at home. The range appears to be limited too. Cheap fish such as grey mullet, conger, pollack or gurnard has disappeared and middle-priced fish of the hake, cod or skate sort is rare; but you may have halibut and I am sure they could fit you out with a turbot if you were prepared to pay the price. We had a large plaice one night, it is the time of year when Germans wax lyrical over their ‘Maischolle’ but plaice was commonplace in my childhood, and I find it hard to get worked up about plaice.
The same mentality governs cheese: the best farmhouse cheeses were reserved for restaurants but now that option is denied them and most shops refuse to pay the sort of prices required to stock artisan cheesemakers. Both sides are unhappy: the farmers have to throw away milk or cheese and the general public is denied the chance to buy them. There is once again a brittle side to the market caused by the fact that the supermarkets have too much power and demand huge discounts from the people they deign to stock.
Of course when the restaurants reopen, there will be a chance for fishermen and cheese producers to make money again, but if we crash out of the EU at the end of the year, the present situation with its food queues and poor choice may just turn out to a full dress rehearsal for something much more life-changing: not just rotten tomatoes, no tomatoes.
Posted: 4th May 2020
It has been another month in quarantine, another month of survival. Our lives are similar to those led in wartime. We try to find provisions to feed our family and to distract ourselves from the danger around us. My neighbour, the literary scholar John Mullen, often taunts me for being a ‘hunter-gatherer’. Never has this been closer to the truth. I have abandoned all supermarket chains as they seem to want you to serve yourself these days, and I can’t see the point of queuing for hours outside a shop only to learn when I finally get in, that the thing I wanted has sold out. I pace the streets instead, hoping to see my quarry and it helps to know when this or that place has been freshly supplied.
Speculators have certainly been at work, and with the government’s blessing. I presume it is a tenet close to the heart of neo-liberalism to see price as a function of demand. If a commodity like flour is required, then the price should naturally go up; and to make sure it rises and rises, it is stockpiled and reintroduced to the market via eBay etc. ‘Profiteering’, which resulted in imprisonment and executions as recently as the Second World War, is now considered enterprising. As one local shopkeeper who tried to sell me an inedible Halloween pumpkin at an inflated price put it: ‘business is business.’ An instructive walk up Junction Road has shown me that half the corner shops have hoisted the price of capsicums to around £5-6 a kilo while a few honest traders are still selling bowls of four or five for a quid.
The government has recently told us all to stay at home and make cakes. So they are encouraging both demand and scarcity. Without ensuring that more flour (let alone eggs, dried fruit and nuts etc) reaches the market, this is irresponsible. Am I wrong to assume that there are people out there making proper money out of all this? Now that my French online source has dried up my bread flour has generally been Italian. The ‘0’ grade sometimes labelled ‘Manitoba’ is used for pizza or focaccia, as such it is a little bit too refined for bread, but it will just do. It made the hot-cross buns, which people liked. I can obtain this for about £1.40 a kilo, which keeps me in business. More recently, however, I have found a source of better T65 French flour in 5 kg bags for £6.50. As long as I can locate yeast I am a happy bunny again.
There is plenty of flour ordinarily; just British wheat is not good for much. Supply problems should not affect continental flour which is only used by professional bakers and these are not currently operating in hotels and restaurants. In other areas I am told there are problems. Fruit and vegetable traders have to deal with closed borders which lead to fluctuations in prices which rarely diminish. I don’t know why the price of fish has soared? Fishermen still go out and the principal destination for fish from our southern ports is the restaurant, which remains closed. If anything fish prices should have declined. Ditto meat: a lot of restaurant cuts should be looking for a market. I have not, however, seen big reductions in price even if I have not seen significant hikes either.
Shopping for fish for three with a maximum spend of £10 has resulted in an ever-worsening catch. At the beginning of April it easily bought two huge trout or a big slab of excellent farmed salmon; even mid-month it bought me three small bass. Since then the prices have gone a bit wild: a tenner now buys 420 grams of salmon, or at its very worst three small mackerel. That is about twice as much as I’d expect to pay for common or garden mackerel.
As a freelancer my income dwindles and dwindles and I doubt that any government scheme will be made to apply to my relief. We need to shop wisely but there is plenty of nutritious meat about and the occasional treat too. We had lovely oxtails on my birthday and several good lamb shoulders since. There was even some new season’s lamb for May Day. I have had good skirt and braising beef but none of the prime cuts of steak or the English cheese I pine for and which the government has told us we must eat to be ‘patriotic’. Patriotism, it seems, is a luxury unassailable to the poor.
Roasting pork is £6.60 a kg and mid-week knuckles almost absurdly cheap. The meat can be used in a variety of ways and the broth gives you stock for soups and sauces. There are minced meats and offal like lambs’ kidneys as cheap as 25p each; and curries, ragoûts, béchamels, stuffed peppers and shepherds’ pies put an acceptable spin on leftovers.
A little fad has been boning out and stuffing chickens. Mozzarella has been useful and I have cooked it in carrozza as well. My butcher hands out wild garlic which he picks near his Essex home. This made for lovely stuffing. Even if you don’t fancy deboning a chicken, it is always cheaper to buy the whole beast and chop it up for a sauté etc.
Every day olive oil has been another scarcity, but I have found it in one or other of our Italian delis. I have had my eye too on a second pressing oil with the comic name of ‘Sparta’ sold by the Iranian butcher. It will give me strength, I hope. Rice is a worry, it is periodically hard to obtain, but risotto and paella rice I can find easily enough and we had an excellent risotto alla rucola last week.
I haven’t seen many tempting spring vegetables. There has been some rubbery English asparagus on Sally the Hat’s stall, peas but no broad beans. The same applies to fruit: oranges are past their best, but we are still getting good conference pears for poires à la normande and we have made rhubarb cakes, pies and crumbles exploiting the current season. I am looking for a big bowl of damaged strawberries for jam but the moment for strawberries and cream has not yet returned.
We drink wine with dinner. A lot of old bottles are coming out, generally things that should have gone years ago. In this damp house the corks often have to be removed with tweezers but the surprises are mostly pleasant. We had a bit of a treat on my birthday with a heavenly 1998 Dom Pérignon and a 1991 Premier Cru Vosne-Romanée from Domaine de l’Arlot that was still massively on form. On Easter Sunday the liveliness of Jean Garaudet’s 1991 Monthelie came as a surprise, as did Peter Schandl’s exquisite pure Furmint Ruster Ausbruch from the same year.
The hunter-gatherer now gathers his skirts again for the merry month of May.
Cooking in Times of Corona
Posted: 1st April 2020
I’d be hard pressed to say how long we’ve been at it now, but I could look it up. Time just floats by. There are three of us shut up in this house and a fourth who might return any moment now, as her university course can be polished off online. We find ways of filling our days and no tempers have been lost to date.
I read (not enough), I polish off the occasional assignment (there aren’t many), I watch a film in the evening (thank God for DVDs), a go for the occasional walk to the top of the hill and back and from time to time I go shopping. And, of course, I cook.
Shopping is clearly a problem, and it doesn’t look as if it will get better for a while. When it comes to commodities, the problem is not just panickers and hoarders, it is also profiteers hoping to make a killing later. We don’t eat that much pasta, so rice was the first thing I noticed had disappeared and it wasn’t just the packets of Uncle Ben or Auntie Tilda. In my local Phoenician shop, the five kilo sacks of Egyptian Doha rice had been plundered along with the fragrant Thai rice, but I nabbed some old Basmati before that went too. A lot of people are going to find that their new rices behave differently when they try to cook them. Thai rice tends to go soggy like pudding rice, Doha too.
The Phoenicians have a wonderful shop filled with exotic things but it had never had so many Western customers before. I suspect there are Whatsapp groups that organise squads of marauders. Shortly after my visit they closed down. With any luck they will re-open on Sunday.
I haven’t tried to buy sugar: we don’t use that much, but eggs have been rare. I had a moment of reflection when I couldn’t bind my meatballs, but I remembered that I could use mozzarella and found what I was looking for in the new vegan greengrocer across the road. Meatballs bound with mozzarella proved more popular than the original recipe. One day I procured six French eggs from the butcher at a high price but my wife came in later with 30 dodgy-looking things from the corner shop. He would not sell her any lesser quantity. Still, it meant that we could make some cakes after all and I needed a couple for the Kartoffelpuffer my son and I cooked last night.
Talking of cakes, the locusts had hit the cake-making shelves in my local mini Co-op. Everything from glacé cherries to pine nut kernels has been mopped up. I had some egg-whites left over from making a Guglhupf and my wife wanted to use them to produce some little almond cakes. The only problem was that there were no ground almonds to be had for love nor money. She made meringues instead. I assume people are making cakes to pass the time. I blame Bake Off!
I make my own bread so I need strong flour. Once again, hours and hours of sitting in front of the Gogglebox watching Bake Off might have inspired the Coronavirus generation to make bread too? It could be, of course, that the panic buyers are unaware of the difference? Stocks of strong bread flour have vanished anyway. I saw a tweet about a £1.05, 1.5 kg bag of Sainsbury strong wheat flour being sold on e.Bay for £15, plus £5 for postage and packaging. That would mean enough for two small loaves at £10 each, even before you have acquired your yeast. For once you would be better off paying the outlandish charges levelled by Gail’s etc. I haven’t run out of flour or yeast yet, but I am apprehensive. If the worst comes to the worst I can make Irish brown bread with bicarbonate of soda.
I am worried about my coffee, as I buy green beans from an Ethiopian café and roast them myself. The café has now closed. Fearing the worst, the lady who runs the place gave me a big bag for a change, but I will need to locate an alternative source.
The shops have run out of both French and Italian unsalted butter. I have yet to try my online French supermarket, but they have been suspiciously quiet recently. I keep peering into Italian delis to see if they have had fresh supplies of lovely white butter from the Dolomites. One of my local Italians told me on Saturday I had arrived five minutes too late and he had sold the last packet. This reduces me to yellow, English unsalted butter, which is not quite the same beast. French butter uses slightly soured cream, not the sweet cream found here: it is the gustatory difference between French crème fraîche and the English single cream.
So far I have used the stall outside the tube station for fruit and veg. Sally the Hat tells me that prices have risen because the Spanish Border is closed. Lorries have to travel out empty and pick up their loads on the border itself. As we have nothing to sell to the French that means transport prices go up. I can see that difficulties in obtaining Spanish produce would have an effect on strawberries and tomatoes, but I have not yet bought any of the former and only precious few of the latter, as having a Lycopersicoaphobic son there is no great demand for tomatoes. Her stall has most of the things we do eat, and there is no problem with plastic wrappers or possibly contaminated packaging. I have seen pictures of people disinfecting their supermarket purchases in the bath with bleach or overpriced Dettol. I doubt this does any favours to the taste of your fruit and veg (it could even render it inedible). It might not be a good time to insist on salad, but anything boiled or steamed will be just fine, just like any fruit that you can peel. Strawberries could be iffy.
The fishmongers are open as usual and we still try to eat fish at least once a week. As for meat I make a weekly trip to Paul the Butcher and what with three or four things and reworking the leftovers we are more of less fine. Paul tells me that some meat prices have actually crashed as a result of the lack of restaurant sales. Certain cuts that were popular in gastropubs are up for grabs. I doubt the supermarkets will cut their prices, but a good butcher will. Four fresh meat meals for three cost a little over £30 last weekend, and you can toss in a couple more from the left over roast beef etc: £10 each for six days of protein is not a lot. I don’t eat at midday, but lunches tend to be improvised from what is lying about including any small amounts of leftovers that can’t be made into a ragoût or a curry.
And there is time to experiment. A few days ago we boned out and stuffed a small chicken with spinach and a mozzarella that was going cheap from the Italians.
We had a bit of wine before the crisis kicked off, but we are still buying. Some firms like the Wine Society, for example, have stopped trading temporarily, but there are plenty that are still working, and they are fairly keen to carry on given they have lost their restaurant sales. I noted too that when the restaurants around here closed, some were selling off their stocks, including wine, in the hope of financing the lockdown. I didn’t see if there were bargains to be had but I am sure there were.
So tout va bien for the moment, but anything can happen and in a week’s time, this relatively rosy rendition of locked down life might have become a true picture of hell.
My Night With Boris
Posted: 2nd March 2020
As regular readers of this blog are aware, in February I go down to the Domaine des Anges in the Ventoux region of Provence for a few days of R & R. It is a bit of a busman’s holiday in that there is a fair bit of cooking to do, but I am happy to perform that role when there is no shortage of good ingredients to be had.
February can actually be quite promising as you get close to the Mediterranean. The first spears of white asparagus are on sale as well as peppery little artichokes. There are blood oranges too. The butchers have tiny shoulders of new lamb and there is the last of the game. Truffles are also usually to hand, but the past few months have been too warm and too wet for them.
This year, my good friend Dave from Lucan had a mind to recreate what he said was an Italian dish called something like ‘volcanic tomatoes and eggs’. It sounded much like the sort of thing that I used to live on when I was hard up in Paris: tomatoes and aubergines cooked up in decent oil with a couple of eggs dropped in at the last moment. The slight difference here was the addition of a couple of fresh chillies, obtained like the tomatoes from the big vegetable shop by the war memorial in Carpentras.
The tomatoes were local, probably grown in a tunnel, but with plenty of flavour, and I dare say the eggs were fresh too. I just cut the tomatoes in half at the midriff, fried the open side in olive oil first and turned them over to add chopped chillies. Half a dozen eggs were accommodated in the gaps. ‘Dave’s eggs’ made a great light lunch.
Then there was the veal kidney. There was a call for me to devil that too, but it would have been a shame to add chillies to something as delicate as a veal kidney. As it was I mashed up butter with Meaux mustard and cooked the pieces of kidney pink in that, adding half a glass of white and a good big spoonful of crème fraîche at the last moment.
The kidney was a starter to a meal of sautéd rabbit. As it was I used a fair bit of the estate white to keep the bunny moist and threw in some whole cloves of garlic in their skins together the herbs that grow all around the mas. I then added some peeled baby turnips. I was pleased with this dish.
There is often a large bit of boar to deal with when I arrive. It is traditionally referred to as ‘Boris’. This year it was a proper haunch of Boris, which I committed to a bottle of red, oil and vinegar once I had wiped the dust off my boots and kept him marinating for a couple of days. Like that even an old boar can be tender. On his appointed day Boris was taken out of his bath which was reduced for the sauce with a lot of concentrated tomato paste and Madeira. Boris himself was roasted in the oven with a bouquet garni and came out soft and pink in well under two hours. He was served with a potato purée and the freshest of spinach.
Just three days after my return my neighbour Richard invited me to an all-star tasting of wines from the Mosel-Saar-Ruwer with one Pfälzer interloper. We started with a trio of sweet Kabinetts: 1993 Herrenberg from Maximin Grünhaus, 1997 Wehlener Sonnenuhr from Dr Loosen and a 2007 Abtsberg also from Maximin Grünhaus. The two older wines hardly even tasted sweet, although they must each have had thirty if not fifty grams of residual sugar. A stunning acidity favoured the first two, with the opening wine winning perhaps by a neck.
The next flight was the Spätlesen: the 2007 Abtsberg from Maximin Grünhaus, 2001 Piesporter Goldtröpfchen from Reinhold Haart, 2001 Brauneberger-Juffer Sonnenuhr from Fritz Haag, 2002 Wehlener Sonnenuhr from J J Prüm, 2003 Okfener Bockstein from Zilliken and the 2004 Wehlener Sonnenuhr again from Prüm. The 2001s possibly performed the least well and I expected the heat-wave year 2003 to be short on acidity, but it was not. The stars were the two Prüms and the Abtsberg. With some hesitation I think the Abtsberg was the best of the lot: interesting, when I had not been nearly so impressed by its Kabinett stablemate.
Then came Richard’s dinner and a trio of good German cheeses. We had some of the 2016 Maximin Grünhaus Pinot Noir with that, a wine born only a few years back, a decent Pinot Noir, but there are better to be had from elsewhere in Germany - even further north in the Ahr Valley. Many people opted to return to the Kabinetts which were not at all bad with the food. The super-sweet wines were served with raspberries and blueberries, or with cheese, according to taste. The third flight consisted of a 1998 Forster Ungeheuer Eiswein from von Buhl, a 2010 Zeltinger Sonnenuhr Beerenauslese from Selbach Oster and Daniel Vollenweider’s 2006 Wolfer Goldgrube Trockenbeerenauslese - an estate I had not encountered before. The Ungeheuer was a gorgeous wine without any shadow of doubt, but the Beerenauslese had a fresh apricot fruitiness that trounced it. The Trockenbeerenauslese was quite cloyingly sweet, more a miracle of nature than a wine.
Posted: 3rd February 2020
It seems appropriate to talk about British food this month, so we’ll start with Alexis Soyer and the food he cooked at the Reform Club in the Mall. Soyer was born in 1810 in Meaux - famous for both its grain mustard and its Brie cheese - and in 1858 went to Paradise by way of Kensal Green. Soyer was actually a rather remarkable man: both a culinary innovator and a social reformer who sorted out the British Army’s kitchens in the Crimean War. There is a so-so biography of him by Ruth Cowen. From 1838 to 1850 he received a stupendous salary working as the chef at the Reform Club in London, and many of his creations are still on the menu.
Last month I was entertained to a very good lunch at the Reform. I ate Soyer’s Devilled Kidneys, Lamb Cutlets ‘Reform’ and Sherry Trifle and drank my share of an excellent bottle of 2009 Château Potensac with it (which was à point). The cutlets in breadcrumbs were very good, but it was a strikingly dated dish largely as a result of the ‘Reform Sauce’ that unites tomato purée, vinegar, redcurrant jelly, cayenne pepper, beef stock, ham, beetroot, gherkins and cooked egg whites. I thought it marvellous the Reform was still serving this famous dish. My friend Michel Bourdin used to dish up an unbelievably old-fashioned French menu at the Connaught, but that has long gone. There can’t be many places around now where you can eat Victorian classics.
The sherry trifle I knew of old. I don’t think it is a Soyer recipe, but it must have been on the menu for at least a century. The Reform seems to have engaged a proper pâtissier because the dessert trolley looks ten times better than it did, and the trifle is presented in individual glasses rather than hewn out of a big glass bowl, as it was before. I love a good trifle. There was a time when we would travel appreciable distances to eat our favourites: the George in Dorchester springs to mind, or the Bear in Woodstock.
What I enjoyed most, however, was my starter of devilled kidneys, a dish I laboured to reproduce in my teens. Lambs’ kidneys are wonderfully cheap (25p each from my butcher) and I may even have even used pig. I found it remarkably difficult to locate the proper recipe the other night. Finally I stumbled on this survey by Felicity Cloake in the Guardian. I left out the anchovies in deference to my son’s aversion to fish, and served the dish with rice rather than roundels of toast as we were eating it for dinner, not breakfast. I re-located some excellent red pepper a friend had brought me from Kenya and I used Meaux mustard in deference to Soyer. I also lengthened the sauce with some stock; still, it was a triumph, and I am grateful to the Reform for reminding me how good devilled kidneys can be.
For some Britons, January also means Burns Night. Not being remotely Scottish I get out of this most years but I have no deep-seated opposition to haggis with ‘tatties and neeps (swedes)’. I like almost all things of a vaguely sausagey sort, but prefer them when they don’t go overboard on rusk, bread or oatmeal and lead on meat. Haggis can be too short on flesh and far too long on oats, making it distressingly formless once you have pierced its protective skin. At its positive worst it spews out of the hole like a damp squib or a half-extinct volcano. In Germany there is the firm and excellent ‘Saumagen’ which contains pork and potatoes and is presented in a pig’s tummy. It was just about Helmut Kohl’s number-one dish and he foisted it on everyone from Mrs Thatcher to the Queen at his favourite restaurant the Deidesheimer Hof. There is an Austrian version called a ‘Saumaise’ which I used to get from the little butcher in Weissenkirchen in the Wachau, but that is actually wrapped in a caul.
Haggis is far less meaty than Saumagen or Saumaise, but I have enjoyed good ones too. The very best was from the Ubiquitous Chip in Glasgow, which was made with venison umbles. Once the late and great Michael Jackson and I flew up to Inverness together to have a haggis lunch (I think it was) at the Dalmore Distillery on the Cromarty Firth. If I remember rightly, a lot of malt whisky was poured on the beast. On another occasion we had the meal in mid-summer with Alan Winchester of the Glenlivet (by far and away the best performer of the Burns Address to a Haggis I have ever encountered) in the baronial trappings of Fyvie Castle.
My Burns Supper was a bit closer to home: in the ancient cellars of Boisdale of Bishopsgate in the City with malt provided by the newly de-mothballed distillery at Annandale in the Borders. The whisky was even used as the basis for the whisky sours (peaty whisky sours are good). Malt whisky was on hand for the meal was well but there was also a Chilean Sauvignon Blanc and a nice 2016 Bordeaux Supérieur. I confess that drinking spirits with my food does not appeal to me much; and we had the works: the piper; several Burns poems; and the ceremonial killing of the haggis with Ranald Macdonald’s sgian-dubh. To eat there was Dunkeld smoked salmon with Morecambe Bay potted shrimps, a juicy, meaty Blackface mini-haggis about the size of a tennis ball with its traditional partners (I knew this version well as it is a favourite of my son’s); a little pie filled with braised shoulder of Highland red deer and girolles; and finally some Scottish cheeses. It proved as convivial an evening as I had any right to expect, and an experience that some of the people in these islands identify with their way of life.
Festive Wines 2019
Posted: 6th January 2020
With each passing Christmas I get the feeling that the wines we drink at home are too much a metaphor for me and my contemporaries: there are fewer of them, they are losing vigour, but - thank God - I still find some zest, excitement and the occasional surprise that makes the whole exercise worthwhile. And there is hope too in the form of the next generation, both of whom now partake and express an interest in the contents of the dusty bottles and decanters that make their way to the table.
We still celebrate a cranky sort of Christmas here, the end of the Advent fast; and try to forget any crushing disappointments we might have suffered for the duration of the feast at least. The tree goes up at sunset on Christmas Eve and comes down for the Feast of the Kings on the evening of 6 January. Each of the twelve days is a feast in theory, although I know of no one who cooks up a delicious meal for every one. The most they might do is cut another slice from the spiced beef or the Christmas ham. Most years I make a terrine, but this time neither money nor ingredients were to hand.
Christmas Eve is an Advent meal, and for us that means fish. When I was a child there was a carp, but we hated it. Not even stuffing it with vegetables or smothering it with beurre blanc could take away its pedestrian flavour. More recently there have generally been lobsters, but again the prices went through the roof this year with a kilo-weighing lobster fetching £50 - £60. We had some delicious halibut instead that I did with a little wine, butter, cream and capers. I had some puff pastry that I had failed to use up and I decided to celebrate the meatless Advent by making three vegetable tarts: red onion and sage, tomato and basil and aubergine and feta. The first two were made to look like tartes tatin with the rounded ends of the halved onions and tomatoes uppermost. I cheated a bit with the onion tart in that I used a bit of pork fat. The most ambitious one was the aubergine, where feta formed the basement storey and the aubergines were doused with olive oil and parmesan scattered on the top.
We started with a bottle of Mumm. It wasn’t a year to bring out the best champagne, but Mumm is decent enough; then with the fish we had a 2014 Cuvée Vieilles Vignes from the Domaine de la Motte in Chablis. It did its stuff - a classic chablis. There was a lively 2000 Trockenbeerenauslese from the Freie Weingärtner in the Austrian Wachau (now called the ‘Domäne Wachau’) with the chestnut bûche de Noël, which proved on top form. If I remember rightly it was largely Müller-Thurgau, which would make its performance an even greater achievement. Finally, with our Christmas cheeses (a Vacherin Mont d’Or, a Brillat-Savarin and some 36-month Comté) there was the 2000 ‘Word’ vintage port from Sandeman. It was light, as Sandeman ports tend to be, but had that authentic ‘cola’ or gum cistus smell of the best vintage port.
Christmas Eve tends to be a bit of a gallop as we stagger off to the Dominican Priory for Midnight Mass at 11.30. The church has the advantage of being just twenty minutes’ walk away. By the time we get back at 1.30 in the morning, the only thing we want to do is go to bed.
Christmas Day has a different routine. The children still get stockings (but that doesn’t mean they get up any earlier) then there are presents round the tree with champagne. I found a bottle of Boller I must have had for at least a decade: it was more amber than gold and gave off a whiff of Seville marmalade; still it was long and lively. I am consistently amazed at the longevity of champagne. Later I made some pumpkin soup for lunch. Dinner is timed for six pm. I had a bit of bought terrine and made some tartines that we ate while I put the finishing touches to the meal. There was a lovely heifer forerib that Paul the Butcher told me he had been dry-ageing since the end of October, and then red cabbage and roast potatoes. Here I brought out a 1995 Daniel Rion Gevrey Chambertin ‘Les Grandes Vignes’ which was pleasingly robust and flexed its muscles grandly in the face of Simon Heifer. The (same) cheeses and the treacle pudding had to make do with the wines we had opened on Christmas Eve.
We normally have a few people over for Christmas but this year we were alone for much of the time. Boxing Day was an exception. There were the remains of the Advent tarts and a bit of roast pork loin with braised fennel. With that I opened a magnum of 2012 d’Annona Barbera d’Asti from Il Cascinone which had been a Christmas present last year. It turned out to be huge surprise: a really lovely wine with lots of youthful energy and length.
I preferred the Barbera to the 2014 La Magia Brunello di Montalcino we drank at Boisdale’s on 30 December. Even decanted it failed to excite me, though it had received high praise from Italian wine experts. It was possibly a little young for my taste. On the other hand I thought the De Brimoncourt Extra Brut we had to start with was about the best champagne we drank this Christmas.
On New Year’s Eve we have adopted the north Italian practice of eating a zampone or a stuffed pig’s trotter with lentils, tomato passata and mashed potatoes. The lentils are supposed to represent all the money you are going to make in the coming year; fat hope as far as I’m concerned, but maybe they will bring luck for the others. There was some champagne to start then, looking for sweet wines I found a neglected bottle of 1998 Torres Viña Esmeralda made partly with Gewürztraminer grapes as a tribute to Miguel’s German wife. I wasn’t expecting too much from this wine, but it proved a very pleasant surprise; and more so than the 1996 Chiarlo Barolo, which, although still alive, was distinctly showing its age. We finished the meal with another disappointment: a 1992 Ruster Ausbruch from Karl Leitgeb, which was not at its best. Fortunately we rallied with an Italian hazelnut cake.
As I write little remains of this Christmas. I am rolling out puff pastry intermittently. On 6 January we consume my galette des rois after the tree comes down and the baubles return to their boxes. I will endeavour to find a vigorous sweet wine to go with that, a true tribute to the young life I witness flourishing about me.
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.
Wine & Food Diary entries posted before 2019 can now be found in the Wine & Food Diary Archive.