Posted: 3rd January 2017
So that's it for 2016. The family was united again, but it was never going to be a really happy Christmas. It was the end of a very bad year and as yet, 2017 offers little solace. Even from the wine point of view, nothing has been replenished in what passes euphemistically for a cellar; we are just living on our fat. Still, we still put a brave face on things, don the party hats that tumble from a bargain box of crackers and celebrate as best we may.
The Perrier Jouët on Christmas Eve was deemed too blowsy and the usual Devon lobsters were absent from the feast, but we did well for all that: we scorned Canadian interlopers and the excellent Persian fishmonger in Archway found us a beautiful turbot instead. We started with some deep-fried cuttlefish, then I made a little beurre blanc for the turbot (perhaps overdoing the vinegar?), some braised turnips and a potato purée and with that we drank a bottle of Grand Cru Chablis - a 2006 Château des Grenouilles from the excellent Chablisienne cooperative. I found it annoyingly oaky at first, but it opened out quite a lot, and it might have been even better had I decanted it.
The usual more-than-welcome friend brought the cheese: a lovely Vacherin Mont d'Or, a big piece of Montgomery cheddar, a bit of Colston Bassett Stilton and some tomme. I had decanted a bottle of 1997 Nuits St Georges Aux Saint Julien from Daniel Bocquenet, this was wonderfully opulent. The friend brought a couple of bottles too and we opened the 2006 Château Batailley (the 1998 was terribly good last Christmas), but sadly it was irredeemably corked.
And then there were two bûches my wife had made - one with coffee, the other a chestnut cream. With that we had a rather lacklustre 2002 Château Suduiraut which seemed distinctly short on noble rot. To finish there was the 1987 Burmester Colheita port, which was lovely in its way - very mild-mannered and understated, lacking that more muscle-bound character you would find in old 'British' tawny ports which are 'refreshed' with younger wines to give them 'grip'. I had another glass of it when I got in from Midnight Mass at 1.30 a.m.
There were just the four of us on Christmas Day (one of whom doesn't really drink - yet). After a walk on a damp and muggy Heath I made a fire and opened a bottle of 1992 Drappier champagne. This was possibly the best wine we had this Christmas, wonderfully long and filigree: a champagne to savour. Later we had a snack of some lambs' sweetbreads in breadcrumbs, to replace the more usual homemade foie gras terrine. There was a rib of well-hung heifer meat and I decanted some 2003 Château Pichon-Longueville Baron. It was a tremendously well-turned wine from a very difficult year, classical in its way but something you loved more with your head than your heart. The beef came with the usual red cabbage and roast potatoes; and we ate more of the cheese and some wonderful meringue snowmen stuck together with crème aux marrons. The only fault I could find with them was that they looked horribly like Boris Johnson. We retired upstairs to watch Scrooge taking with us the decanter of port and the remains of the Sauternes.
The family then departed for Devon leaving me to a frigid house and leftovers. They were back for New Year's Eve when I made the usual Italian festive meal of a zampone with lentils, potato purée and tomato passata. I normally spend the last hours of the year alone with a bottle of old Barolo but a very welcome magnum of 2015 Beleda arrived from the Cantine Rallo in Marsala and we drank that, its nervous acidity coping manfully with the sausage and lentils, and so we proceeded to midnight, and 2017.
Shortly before Christmas I received a copy of the Oxford Companion to Cheese, edited by Catherine Donnelly. I had been very anxious to see this. Many years ago a woman in New England whose publisher husband had once offered me a wine book, inveigled me into writing entries on Germany, Austria and Hungary for a similar project. There were months of frustration drumming up samples from bemused Magyars and trying to find something fair to say about the rather imitative and lacklustre cheeses of Austria. The compensation - if there was any - came in the form of aged German and Austrian Bergkäse. Meanwhile there was no sign of any money and I began to suspect the editor had never actually signed a deal with OUP and that she was hoping she could secure the contract by packaging the work that I (and possibly other suckers) had written for her. After a quick search I noted to my alarm that the woman had been blacklisted by the New York Writers' Guild for failing to pay writers and I eventually contacted the publishers in Oxford in the hope they might reassure me. OUP denied all knowledge of her and the book, but cautiously referred me to New York which ran its own operation. I can't remember if New York ever gave me an acceptable answer, but by that time my patience had snapped and I threw in the towel. I never heard another word from the so-called 'editor' of the Oxford Companion to Cheese. I need not add that her name was not Catherine Donnelly.
The project was a good one and I turned the pages with interest. I noted that some familiar writers had been assigned to individual areas - Darina Allen, Andrew Dalby, Juliet Harbutt, Ursula Heinzelmann, Paul Kindstedt (the author of an excellent small volume on the history of cheese), Patricia Michelson, Jill Norman, Francis Perceval and Bee Wilson - but I have to say I was very quickly disappointed: the editor has opted for a technical manual rather than a conventional anthology of cheese, and placed the centre of gravity very firmly in the United States. I am sure there are growing numbers of good cheeses there, but we don't really see any of them here. Nor do they have the run of the European stable, as the US is subject to very draconian measures preventing the importation of good, unpasteurised European cheeses or indeed old Mimolette - because they have decided it is somehow 'dirty'. The listing of so many American cheeses comes at the expense of European cheeses, very few of which seem to have been accorded more than a mention in a collective entry. I shall naturally look for place for it on my shelves, but I suspect that it will not be consulted nearly as often as Rance or Androuet or any number of other well-thumbed books on the subject.
Bulli For Me!
Posted: 1st December 2016
The big treat this month was a dinner at the excellent Iberica restaurant in Canary Wharf. Iberica has been spreading its wings of late, opening in Glasgow and Leeds, but, as ever, letting the chefs in each location put their own spin on things. What remains a constant is the use of excellent materials and of course before anything else that means iberico ham - the greatest in the world!
The other sine qua non is Nacho Manzano who controls the menus in the various branches of Iberica as well as running his own Michelin Two-Star, Casa Marcial in the Asturias. In November, however, he welcomed three former right-hand men from Ferran Adria's famous - and now even more famously defunct - El Bulli to London and Manchester: Oriol Castro, Eduard Xatruch and Mateu Casañas, the owners of the restaurant Compartir in Salvador Dali's Cadaqués and Disfrutar in Barcelona. Together with Manzano they prepared an eight-course menu moistened with wines, beer and cider from the Asturias.
I never made it to El Bulli, but I know it was all about bites of food, novel taste experiences and intense flavours. There was a lot of 'foam' and bubbles of olive oil 'caviar', and all sorts of test-tube wizardry that might or might not have worked as an alternative to a slap up feast. Adria's most famous disciple here is obviously Heston 'Bloomers' Blumenthal.
So I was prepared for little things: a beetroot and strawberry salad with an ajoblanco - white garlic - sorbet (Compartir); clams, parsley juice and seaweed emulsion from Casa Marcial; Iberico red tuna (Compartir); tongue and lentils with mole sauce, a caramel-coated onion, pickle gel and marshland herbs (Casa Marcial); Crispy egg yolk on mushroom jelly (Disfrutar); sardine with monkfish liver and saltmarsh herbs (Casa Marcial); cheesecake with raspberry sorbet (Compartir); and finally celery panna cotta with fennel slush (ugly word), apple soup and seaweed (Casa Marcial).
There were plenty of - mostly fishy - flavours. The clams, the sardines and the monkfish liver made big demands on the sommelier's skill, not everyone at my table was happy with the food: some wouldn't eat shellfish, others didn't like offal etc. Fortunately, I have no qualms about this sort of thing. The thinly-sliced raw red tuna was a highlight, scattered with a few 'bubbles' of olive oil ('Caviaroli'), and this will now join the menus at all branches of Iberica. The runny egg yolk - in the middle of a crispy deep-fried white and served in an eggshell on top of a mushroom reduction, reminded me of the very many recreated eggs with truffles and sea urchins and Lord knows what I scoffed as a gastronomic critic in the old days. I enjoyed a rather Proustian moment as I lapsed into culinary nostalgia.
The sommelier had known to vary the drinks - there was Alhambra beer, for example, and a sort of 'ice-cider' (Diamantes de Hielo) to go with pudding. In between there was the sharp, untannic red called La Fanfarria (Mencia and Albarin tinto) and a properly chunky Emporda 5 Fincas which blended Grenache with Syrah, Merlot and Cabernet. It was also a pleasure to run into a few old friends, such as Maria-José Sevilla from the Spanish promotional body who drove me up to Jabugo to worship at the Temple of Ham, and the lovely manager of Iberica Portland Place, who once carved ham for my infant son, pushing the pieces at him with a huge and terrifying knife, an experience he has never forgotten.
A tasting of Douro Boys wine in London's Poland Street stirred up memories of The Man from Uncle. We went in through a large shop selling records and then, right at the back, was a utilitarian staircase leading down to a roomy subterranean space filled with wine, old friends and a close relative. Almost my first stop was the Prats & Symington stand. I was sceptical about the venture at the beginning, as I didn't feel Bordeaux was the right model for the Douro, but the wines seem to have really blossomed and they are anything but claret-like now. Both the 2015 and 2014 were superb, and the 2014 Post-Scriptum possibly the best of the lot. Also in that English stable is Churchill's where I much admired Johnny Graham's 2013 Grand Reserve and an absolutely stunning 2014 port.
Other wines that stood out were the 2015 white Reserva from Duas Quintas and an incredibly good value (€4) 2014 Tons from Duorum (I know it's the Latin name for the Douro, but it always sounds like a medical condition to me). I must look to see if Manu has that at the Wine Cellar in Kentish Town. I also liked the well-structured 2014 Quinta Nova Reserva, which should keep an even keel for several years yet. One small cooperative which seems to consistently make super wines is the Lavradores de Feitoria. Particularly good are the Três Bagos, Meruge and Quinta de Costa das Aguaneiras.
The Quinta do Val do Meão is an old favourite. It has to be one of the half dozen best estates in the Douro Valley by anyone's reckoning. I should be happy with any of the wines from the simple Meandro to the Monte Meão or the Quinta do Val do Meão itself. Another front runner is the Quinta Vale D. Maria owned by Cristiano van Zeller. Here 41 different grape varieties and vines with an average age of 60, contribute to the complexity of the wine. The best for me was the Vinha do Rio, where the Tinta Barocca grapes are a century old. Even here there are 29 cultivars. This diversity is a big step forward from the efforts made a generation ago to whittle down the number of grape varieties in Portuguese vineyards. The estate's top wine is Curriculum Vitae. The 2014 was certainly one of the best wines in the tasting. Van Zeller was previously responsible for the Quinta do Crasto too where I loved the 2014 Superior Syrah and the Reserva wines.
On the 8th there was a tasting on non-aligned Germans looking for representation in Britain. There were only a few surprises: Heitlinger from Baden (a VDP estate); Rauen (the Auslese in particular), Dahm (2005 Bernkasteler Badstube Riesling Auslese) in the Mosel; lovely dry and sweet Gewürztraminers from Oberhofer in the Pfalz; the well-known August Eser (a sensationally powerful 2015 Rauenthaler Rothenberg), Corvers Kauter, Bickelmaier and Schumann-Nägler in the Rheingau; Alexander Gysler, Frey and Jean Buscher in Rheinhessen; but above all my friends Nick and Annette Köwerich in Leiwen, whose wines have made such a huge leap forward in the last few years.
And for the rest I have been keeping the cold at bay with a sweet, treacly grain whisky - Haig Club. It comes in a vulgar blue bottle, is endorsed by a football player, but hell! It keeps out the draft in this windy old house.
The Last of Decanter
Posted: 2nd November 2016
I am not unduly upset by the idea of doors shutting on me as long as others open in their place, but it does seem to me that this year an inordinate number have closed, and we have already entered November and I have yet to see a single handle turn. The latest blow has been the loss of my chairmanship of the German Jury at the Decanter World Wine Awards, a position that I had held (coupled with Austria for a decade) for fourteen years. This has now been awarded to the Swiss-German sommelier Markus del Monego. I wish him luck, particularly in the irksome business of convincing any half-way decent German growers to contribute wines to a tasting marathon awash with new world wines.
The news from Decanter was hardly unexpected. Gradually all the old guard are being swapped for sleb sommeliers and MWs. I had the impression that they had been looking for my replacement for years, but couldn't find anyone brave enough to do the job, but there is a little sadness on my part when I consider I have been contributing to Decanter for nearly thirty years, and this recent gesture will almost certainly mean the end of that relationship too.
I continue to taste wine, for all that. There has been one German wine of note this month, and one Austrian. From Nick and Annette Köwerich in Leiwen in the Mosel Valley came a wonderfully sappy, intense 2015 dry Riesling called Einblick No 1 - a sure winner. The Austrian wine came from the Eisenberg on the border of South Burgenland and Hungary. The Csaterberg's soil is shale and the cultivars are not revealed on the label so I presumed it is a field blend of several unrecognised sorts, an impression reinforced by the fact the wine came in a litre bottle, which is generally an indication that non-approved grape varieties have been used. As it transpires, the wine is made from a respectable cocktail of Welschriesling, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. Whatever the wine's secret, it is wonderfully zesty and powerful and I would say it was easily the match of many foods which would usually call for strong red wine. The litre bottle is a boon really: it means you get two extra glasses.
There was a big tasting of the range at Laithwaites on the 25th, which was a nice chance to reacquaint myself with some things I don't taste often these days, such as Gosset Grande Réserve (£49.99), the Brut Réserve from Charles Heidsieck (£42), or the 1995 Charles Heidsieck Blanc des Millénaires (£120). I think it was the zesty Gosset that stole my heart, but in truth I'd be happy with any of them. If (like me) these come in a bit over budget, there were some good-value things from the Loire, such as the 2015 Pouilly Fumé Les Rochettes (£14.95), the 2015 Vouvray Réserve Champalou (£13.99) and the 2014 Montlouis Domaine de la Taille aux Loups Plus (£22). From Chablis the 2014 Domaine Servin Grand Cru Bougros (£30) was a real classic as indeed was the 2014 Drouhin Puligny-Montrachet (£40).
The 2015 Domaine de la Chanaise from Dominique Piron in Morgon was a really lovely 'cru' Beaujolais with a proper taste of sour cherries (£13.99) while the Cuvée Reine Joly from Domaine Camus Bruchon in Savigny (£22) brought on a little wave of nostalgia for authentic Burgundy. The 2000 Château Belgrave (£45) is a mature cru classé with attractive, chunky fruit that might fit a festive meal at the end of the year.
From Italy, the 2015 Pieropan Soave Classico (£13.99) was every bit as good as I remembered it. A red 2011 Castello Solicchiata (£22) from Sicily was nicely spicy, but I felt cost too much for a Sicilian wine. I am more disposed to pay £35 for a top Amarone like the 2013 Villa Cavarena.
The bargains appeared to come from Spain: 2014 Triunfo Cariñena (£8.49) or 2014 Infierno Monastrell from Yecla (£8.99). For £28 there is a proper, old-style Rioja in the 2003 Viña Tondonia Reserva - a very rare bird these days when Rioja has largely ceased to taste like Rioja.
In Portugal, it is always worth looking at any Alvarinho signed by Anselmo Mendes (£11.99 for the 2015) while the 2014 Amoras from Lisbon (£7.99) might have been the best bargain of the tasting. The 2014 Caladessa da Calada Tinto was twice the price, but a lovely wine.
In Germany, you can't go far wrong with the 2015 estate Riesling from Leitz in the Rheingau - 'Eins Zwei Dry' (groans at silly pun - £14.99), but for a good buy, try Max Ferd Richter's 2015 Mülheimer Sonnenlay Riesling Zeppelin from the Mosel (£12.49). There were a couple of von Bühl 2015 GGs from the Pfalz, In der Höhl and the Ungeheuer, but I am still worried that they seem so soft. From Hungary the 2009 Royal Tokay Blue Label 5 Puttonyos (£21) was a treat with its triumphant acidity.
I then sank into a spirits tasting with the appropriate buyer. I am an admirer of new gins such as The Botanist from Islay (£34.99) with its fresh, complex flavours, and I got the chance to sample the Warner Edwards Rhubarb gin at last (£32.95).
On the 18th there was a tasting of the 2015s from the Perrins in the Southern Rhone. There was a time when I visited their flagship estate often: the Château de Beaucastel in Châteauneuf-du-Pape; but although I coast past the region frequently I do not find the chance to drop in. The year 2015 promised to be superb, however, so I ventured down to Berry Brothers & Rudd to see. The Coudoulet white was no disappointment, nor indeed the white Châteauneuf. The white Beaucastel I found a little flabby, but the old vines Roussanne was as wonderful as ever.
The red village wines were very promising, and some of them I would happily have drunk there and then, like the Cairanne or the Vacqueyras 'Les Christins'. Others like the Vinsobres, the Gigondas 'La Gille' and the simple Châteauneuf are more aggressively tannic and need time. The Rasteau 'L'Andéol' was rather more charming and feminine than some, with a fine, cooling finish and really good was the Domaine du Clos des Tourelles in Gigondas with that hint of brown sugar that marks it down as proper Gigondas: the muscular, male counterpart to Châteauneuf. The red Coudoulet was as enchanting as the white. Then came Beaucastel itself. I could find no fault with the 2015 and the 2009 was not ready yet. I was excited also by the 2007, which might have been at its peak, for even though I loved the truffly 2000 I thought it might have lost something already, and the 1995 appeared to be on downward slide.
Light relief comes in the form of Henry Jeffreys' Empire of Booze: a peon to British achievements in the world of wine and spirits where Johnny Foreigner - despite making the stuff - hasn't got a bloody clue. It is the perfect book for Brexit-Britain. There is a strong element of 1066 And All That but behind the self-mockery and light-hearted banter, there is plenty of information. It might have benefitted from a little more editing mind you and Jeffreys' wild, rambling asides that can take you, well, just about anywhere. Those blemishes notwithstanding, it is not a doorstop and it might even make a stocking-filler.
The Last of Summer
Posted: 3rd October 2016
We left a chilly England at eight on the first day of autumn, and two and a quarter hours later, we emerged from a dark tunnel into a brilliantly sunny, hot Paris. The train was on time, but the long and fateful summer had delayed its departure for a few days.
We stopped at a friend's flat on the way for a glass or two of Chermette Fleurie then joined the Irish party in the usual bar opposite the Gare de Lyon. The rest of the journey passed in a pleasant haze, until we tried to pick up the rental car at Avignon Station: why is renting a car so complicated? Why do you need to do any more than show a driver's licence and pick up a set of keys? The process is positively Byzantine.
We arrived at the Domaine des Anges in Mormoiron to surprise Padrone dissecting chickens and mixing salads. The last glimmers of the day were disappearing behind Mont Ventoux as the lights went on like strings of pearls scattered on the Ventoux Valley floor. I found 'Boris' the boar a frozen lump. It was only once he had thawed out that I realised we had the ribcage, and plunged it into a cocktail of Ventoux wine, cider vinegar and crushed black peppercorns.
The next day it was hard not to drift into a lazy, holiday mood - there was not a cloud to seen. The green grapes were fermenting in their vats but everywhere there were perfect purple clusters of Grenache and Syrah. After shopping in Carpentras, some sardines were grilled and the rest of the chicken was mixed with mayonnaise and sprinkled with thyme from the garden. There were salads and cheese out on the terrace by the Cabernet vines. The wasps seemed particularly keen on the chicken, but they were the only unwelcome presence. It was our curry night, but while saucepans clashed and clattered in the kitchen we had a tasting of the Domaine des Anges' top cuvée Archange, a wine that is made chiefly of Syrah (with ten percent Grenache) and which sees a small amount of new oak. There is a white version as well, which is 100% Roussanne. Archange is made only in the best years. The 2015 had not been bottled, so we began with the 2014, which is potentially a great year and I am sure it will not disappoint. The 2013, on the other hand was a very difficult vintage everywhere, and the wine showed signs that the fruit had not been fully ripe. It was a classy performance for all that, but probably destined for earlier drinking. I am mad about the ordinary Ventoux wine in 2012, so it came as no surprise that its thoroughbred stable mate should be so good with its cigar box aromas and classic Syrah fruit. It was possibly my favourite wine of the flight.
The 2011 seemed to be built for the long haul, but it was marred by a whiff of nail varnish (acetate) on the nose. You could wait for the 2010 as well, but it is quite porty. Then, there was a long jump to the 2003, which was what we expected: a bit hot on the nose, tarry on the palate, sweet and porty, and a bit tired out all round. It was a very hot year, and a great challenge to wine makers all over Europe. The 2000 was sadly corked; the 1999 showing its age now, but still good to drink. The 1998, on the other hand, was less so - a shadow of itself.
We generally have a tasting at the house of a friend in the village who possesses a deep cellar and provides both the wine and a sensational al fresco lunch. This time, however, our two doctors - Mahen Varma and to a slightly lesser extent Finnian Lynch - had agreed to put on a tasting of top Bordeauxs from the 2003 vintage in the friend's house, and he had invited Jerôme the pharmacist to come along too. Jerôme is not only an important local dignitary, he collects top Meursault. We had seen what that ferocious summer had done to the wines from Domaine des Anges the night before. Now we were going to experience what had happened in Bordeaux: repeated days above 40 degrees are not good for vines, which tend to shut down operations under stress. Grapes get overripe and produce too much sugar while the pips stay green, the result is excessive alcohol, low acidity and a lot of dry tannin. Good vintages are not necessarily the result of blazing hot years, but a balance of warm days, cool nights and the occasional light sprinkling of water.
We had a dozen wines. The first one, the Clos St Martin in Saint Emilion, was new to me. It had a nice prune-like nose, but a rasping aspirin-like taste on the palate - an indication of added acidity - and hardly a surprise, but it marred what was otherwise a nice little wine. The popular Château Caronne-St Gemme was decent enough, if a little meaty. The first really famous wine was the Pauillac Château Grand Puy Ducasse with a good Cabernet nose and some ripe, plumy fruit, but on the palate there were some leathery notes that were a sure fire indication of heat. I was keener on its neighbour Château Batailley with its black cherry nose. It was very gummed up at first behind its big chewy tannins but something more distinguished was trickling out by the time the tasting finished and we went down to lunch.
The Paulliac classed growth Château Pontet Canet was one of my favourites. It scored for freshness (in an overcooked year) and an attractive, balanced palate that showed little sign of heat wave; more, the finish was cooling, almost minty - a sign of how well it had been constructed - against all odds. I suspect I was unfair to the Château Duhart Milon. It seemed to be wearing a gold chain, and sporting too much 'bling'; a handsome tanned man with a hairy chest and a shirt slit to the waist; but there was no denying it was well made, with its nose reeking of expensive oak; a slickly creamy palate (oak again), but in its defence it had a very long finish and was both cool and cooling. Our Irish contingent jumped up at the next two wines: St Juliens from the Irish-owned estate of Château Langoa-Barton. I have a lot of time for Anthony Barton and his wines as well, but these were not my favourites: the Château Langoa-Barton I found dry and leathery and although there was much I admired in the Château Léoville-Barton, I was put off by a slight bitterness on the finish.
Many voices cried out for the Château Ducru-Beaucaillou, but I could not get a decent perch on the nose even if I noted the wine was very long. I suspect we needed to come back to it that evening, by which time it would certainly have been drunk up. I found the Château Lascombes much more accessible. It was one of the best wines in the tasting for me. I remember the days when it was an undistinguished outpost of the Bass-Charrington brewing empire and run by a fruity English MW. The wines were pretty so-so then but this was both spicy and cooling and had a brilliant development on the palate. I could not say that much for that other classed growth Margaux, Palmer, which came up next. This is a seriously grand and shatteringly expensive wine, and yet the nose was so oxidised I suspected it had fallen apart. The wine was better on the palate, though quite sweet, and not as bad on the nose had suggested, but it was hopelessly rustic for a Palmer! The last wine of all was La Mission Haut Brion from the Graves, and the only first growth. Again it was hard to assess: there wasn't a vast amount of fruit, but it was probably the one wine on the table that could have been comfortably left for a few years more. The message from the others was 'drink me', and fast!
Before we proceeded to some fine Châteauneuf, there was 2004 Château Sénéjac with lunch. It reminded me of far off days when the wine was made by Jenny Bailey and she lived in the courtyard at the back of the château. We used to drop in and see her when we were in the Médoc and she was always more than hospitable. She married Charles Dobson, I recall, but I have no idea what has happened since.
After double helpings of Isabelle's delicious gazpacho and her alouettes (not larks - but beef olives) there was little appetite for food that night and I made a Bauernomelette. Boris was cooked for lunch the next day, stewed in his corrected marinade and served with mashed potatoes and leaks à la mode de Mayo. He proved wonderfully tender and a lot more palatable than his namesake. While I was putting the boar on the table the heavens broke and there was a tremendous thunderstorm that went on for most of the evening. We sat inside the Café Le Siècle in Mazan, listening to a jazz concert, but the good weather appeared to be returning when we left some time after dawn the next day. It was cold and raining, however, by the time we reached Paris: for we hyperboreans the summer was over. It had all reminded me a bit too much of Rilke's Herbsttag
Herr: es ist Zeit. Der Sommer war sehr groß.
Leg deinen Schatten auf die Sonnenuhren,
und auf den Fluren laß die Winde los.
Befiehl den letzten Früchten voll zu sein;
gib ihnen noch zwei südlichere Tage,
dränge sie zur Vollendung hin und jage
die letzte Süße in den schweren Wein.
Wer jetzt kein Haus hat, baut sich keines mehr.
Wer jetzt allein ist, wird es lange bleiben,
wird wachen, lesen, lange Briefe schreiben
und wird in den Alleen hin und her
unruhig wandern, wenn die Blätter treiben.
Lord it's high time to end summer's glories.
On the sundial's surface let your shadow fall
And through the meadows let loose the furies.
Command the last fruits to be ripe, luscious and fine;
Give them two more days to roast in the southern sun
Push them to finish that process, long since begun:
Drive the last sweet juice in the heavy wine.
He who's alone, so will he end his days.
Will remain alone in all that matters
Will wake, read and write long-winded letters
And up and down the alleyways
Will wander unquiet while the foliage scatters.)
The 2015 Vintage in Germany
Posted: 1st September 2016
A few days ago, it was time to go to Wiesbaden again, to sit in my seat on the Colonnade opposite the stage that hosted the Kaiser's annual Theatre Festival and taste my way through 450 wines from the 2015 vintage. This is also an annual occasion that mixes hard work with the pleasure of seeing some international colleagues again who now only rarely cross my horizon, and the wines are often a revelation too, especially in a year like the last when the sun shone brightly all over Germany.
And before Wiesbaden there was an excursion to Gut Hermannsberg, the former Prussian State Domain at Niederhausen Schlossböckelheim in the Nahe. The vineyard is only just over a century old and once a copper mine - hence the name of the most famous plot - the Kupfergrube. The mine had proved economically unviable, and so the Prussians decided to make a model wine estate there instead; exploiting the ubiquitous volcanic soils. The forests covering the hillsides were cleared by felons and grapes planted. It was a massive undertaking, but when the first wines were released from the 1907 vintage it was clear that the work had been worthwhile. Being a Prussian state domaine, Weimar President Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg was an especial fan. The later Prussian Minister President Hermann Göring liked it too and the wine seems to have sustained him throughout the war years.
Prussia was abolished in 1947, and the estate passed into the hands of the newly concocted region of Rhineland Pfalz. They sold it to Erich Maurer in 1998, and he in turn made way for the present owners Christine Dinse and Jens Reidel in 2010. They quickly divested it of its long and cumbersome name. Until a few years back labels would announce something like: Staatliche Weinbaudomäne Niederhausen Schloßböckelheim Schloßböckelheimer Kupfergrube Riesling Trockenbeerenauslese... While it is true that our world has lost a deal of its poetry by shortening German wine names, I can write my tasting notes much more quickly now.
When I was there last month I was able to see some of the improvements the present owners have made, including creating a new vathouse, a comfortable guesthouse and providing catering for visitors. It was 36 degrees when I arrived, but there was some shade on the terrace which provided views of the vineyards the Prussians hewed out of the rock. These terraces rise to 350 metres above the canyon of the Nahe River. Not all the land they own now is in that original hub. The estate owns a piece of the vineyard at the base of the Bastei, the tallest cliff face north of the Alps and another impressively steep slope on the Rothenberg where we watched a deer inspect the as yet unripe grapes.
There was an extensive tasting before dinner during which we tasted the top-flight dry GGs (Grosse Gewächse or 'grand crus') made since the new owners took over. In most years this meant the wines from three sites where the vines are 70 years old or more: Bastei, Hermannsberg and Kupfergrube. In almost all vintages my favourite was the Kupfergrube, followed by the Bastei and the Hermannsberg. My top wines were the Kupfergrubes 2010 and 2013, the Hermannsberg 2010, followed by the Kupfergrube 2011 and 2014, and the Basteis 2010, 2011 and 2012. The 2015s from these sites were deemed unready and we were shown GGs from Rothenberg and Steinberg instead.
Work began in earnest on Monday morning. Our task was to get through the 'GGs' in two working days. There were eighty flights of wines. The whites were mostly from the eagerly awaited 2015 vintage, and the reds chiefly from 2014, which promised rather less. I started at the top with the Riesling wines in the Mosel Valley.
It proved a wise choice: the terroiriste Heymann-Löwenstein had had possibly his most rewarding year to date. The best might have been the Winninger Uhlen 'Laubach,' with its great explosion of ripe fruit, and the Winninger Uhlen 'Blaufüsser Lay' but the Hatzenporter Kirchberg was very promising as well. The wines of Clemens Busch, which are normally in the front rank, seemed more closed up. One estate that showed no such reticence was Schloss Lieser, where the Wehlener Sonnenuhr was one of the best wines I had all day. Geheimrat Wegeler also produced a superlative wine on the same slope.
S A Prüm presented a good collection, of which the best was the Graacher Domprobst 'Prevot'. There was a beautiful example of the celebrated Bernkasteler Doctor from Wegeler. Fritz Haag's Brauneberger Juffer and Juffer Sonnenberg were superb, much like Reinhold Haart's Piesporter Grafenberg. A Neiderberger Held from Schloss Lieser was unsurprisingly excellent, and was followed by a trio of wonderful wines from Grans Fassian: Dhroner Fassberg, Trittenheimer Apotheke and Leiwener Laurentiuslay.
In the Saar sub-region the stars for me were van Volxem, Geltz Zilliken and Nik Weis. Van Volxem's best was the Wiltinger Volz; Geltz Zilliken, the Saarburger Rausch and Nik Weis starred with his Ockfener Bockstein and Schoder Saarfeilser. In the Ruwer the Karthäuserhof returned triumphantly to the fold with its Karthäuserhofberg as did Maximin Grünhaus, which got top marks from me for both the Abtsberg and the Herrenberg.
Not for the first time, in Saale Unstrutt, Pawis's Freyburger Edelacker stood out, but the real surprise was the generally underperforming Mittelrhein where all the wines were greatly better than usual and Ratzenberger with his Steeger St Jost and Bacharacher Wolfshöhle received top marks.
It was also a tip-top year in the Rheingau. The best in Hochheim was Domdechant Werner's Domdechaney, while Toni Jost, whose wine had greatly improved in Bacharach, was the best in Walluf. Robert Weil remains, of course, king in Kiedrich with his Grafenberg. In Erbach, the Staatsweingut had to share the honours with Achim Ritter und Edler von Oetinger for the Marcobrunn, while the laurels for the Wisselbrunnen in Hattenheim were divided between Hans Lang and Josef Spreitzer, who made a marvellous Mittelheimer St Nikolaus as well.
Fritz Allendorf proved yet again that he can make wonderful wines with his Winkeler Hasensprung and Jesuitengarten. In the latter, Geheimrat Wegeler was also a star. Up on the Johannisberg the best wines were from Schloss Johannisberg together with the Hölle from the Johannishof. Wegeler made a wonderful Geisenheimer Rothenberg. The prize for the Berg Roseneck site in Rüdesheim went to Fritz Allendorf. In Berg Rottland the honours were due to Leitz and G H von Mumm. Wegeler made the best Berg Schlossberg.
In recent years the Nahe has often been Germany's top region, but in 2015 some of the best winemakers failed to deliver, but the field was not barren by any means. In Dorsheim I admired the Goldloch from J B Schäfer and I think probably all three GGs presented by Kruger-Rumpf will get there in the end. Dönnhoff rarely disappoints, and both his Dellchen and Hermannshöhle were above reproach. My friends at Gut Hermannsberg had fielded their Steinberg - a gorgeous wine. For the rest, the only wine that stole the show for me was the Monzinger Halenberg from Emrich-Schönleber.
Rheinhessen was also a much more mixed bag but there were some pretty good things from the Rhine Terraces such as the Niersteiner wines from the Pettenthal and the Ölberg sites from Kühling-Gillot. The newcomer Schätzel also made a lovely Ölberg and his Hipping was almost as good. Elsewhere Wagner-Stempel continues to make great wines on the Siefersheimer Höllberg and in the Wonnegau, Philipp Wittmann was first home with his Westhofener sites: Aulerde, Morstein and Brunnenhäuschen. The other top-notch grower in Rheinhessen is Battenfeld-Spanier who produced great things in his Zellerberg am schwarzen Herrgott, Frauenberg and Kirchenstück sites.
I adore the wines of the Pfalz, in particular the Mittehaardt and so 2015 was a bit of a disappointment to me in that I found many of them too soft and lacking acid backbone. It may have been just that bit too hot. Of course it is possible that the wines were going through a difficult stage, and I shall have to drink my words. So starting from the north I was struck by the Ungsteiner Weilberg from Pfeffingen Fuhrmann-Eymael and the Herrenberg from Fitz-Ritter. Also from the home town of Donald Drumpf, Philipp Kuhn made a lovely Kallstadter Saumagen. The disappointments occurred where the greatest wines should have been - in Deidesheim and Forst. Once again probably my favourite was from Acham-Magin: his Jesuitengarten. The only other wines that really stood out for me came from Rebholz in the deep south - Im Sonnenschein in particular.
Fürst Hohenlohe Oehringen, Dautel, the Herzog von Württemberg and Jürgen Ellwanger all made good Rieslings in Baden-Württemberg but they did not challenge the frontrunners from elsewhere; and similarly, although there were some nice wines from Fürst Löwenstein and Rudolf Fürst in Franken they were not the best they've ever made. Sadly Hans Wirsching's wines were not present and the Juliusspital in Würzburg actually submitted 2014s, which were pretty good. I suppose we might see the 2015s next year?
The best Silvaners were obviously from much the same sources: Fürst Löwenstein and Horst Sauer. The top Silvaner wines were 2014s from the Juliusspittal - Stein and Julius-Echter-Berg. They were far better than any of the 2015s.
I shall run quickly through the other whites. For Weisser Burgunder (Pinot Blanc), the most striking were from Rebholz (Pfalz) and the Staatlicher Hofkeller in Würzburg (Franken), although the 2014 Volkacher Karthäuser from the Juliusspittal was really quite impressive too. There were also some good Weisser Burgunders from Baden: Schlör and Heger stood out, but the best were from Salwey, the Oberrottweiler Henkenberg in particular. I found all the 2015 Grauer Burgunder (Pinot Gris), too fat and soupy.
Again the 2014 reds should not detain us for too long. The good weather ended early in the south at least, and there was a lot of rot. The best wines are pleasant, but they lack complexity. First Spätburgunder (Pinot Noir): in the Ahr there were good things from Adeneuer and Meyer-Näkel. In the Rheingau, Künstler was fine and Fritz Allendorf really stood out with his Assmannshäuser Höllenberg, which reminded me of a good chocolate cake (with raspberries). In Rheinhessen the top man was Gutzler while in the Pfalz, Knipser presented a decent 2012 and Philipp Kuhn a lovely 2013 Laumersheimer Kirschgarten.
Moving south, I was surprised by the quality of Christmann's 2013 Idig. It is a vineyard I have long associated with Riesling. There were fewer revelations in Franken: Fürst is still the best with his Bürgstädter Centgrafenberg. In Württemberg Neipperg is very good, and so are Aldinger and Heid. The better Pinot Noirs of Baden came from Franz Keller, Heger and Salwey, but the throne is still occupied by Bernhard Huber, whose son has carried on the good work since his father's premature death. The 2014 Bienenberg, Schlossberg and Sommerhalde will surely be among Germany's best reds for this vintage? That leaves only the Württemberg Lembergers (Blaufränkisch). The only one wine that stood out head and shoulders was Aldinger's Fellbacher Lämmler. The best of the rest came from Dautel, Drautz-Able and Ellwanger.
The obvious conclusion as far as 2015 Riesling is concerned is that it flourished in the cooler climates and found it more difficult to withstand the more oppressive heat of the Pfalz and to some extent the Nahe. I was not expecting to fall in love with the 2014 Pinots, but I shall look forward to next year, as I can expect some more complexity and body from the 2015s.
Eating in Venice
Posted: 16th August 2016
Looked at from the bottom up, the offerings of Venice's shops and taverns can seem very similar: the same trinkets: commedia dell'arte masks, Murano glass and beads, Burano lace; the same chunky cakes; the same snacks - pot-bellied tramezzini sandwiches and dried-up cicchetti (the local form of tapas) on roundels of baguette ... so that you might reach the uncharitable conclusion that they were all made in the same factory. When I advanced this theory to a colleague in Venice recently, and proposed they might all be supplied by the same outfit in Calabria, he slapped me down: the factory, he said, was in China.
He could have been right about the commedia dell'arte things and possibly some of the Murano and Burano artefacts are not what they seem, but the food (I presume) comes from a little nearer home. Venice has a permanent population of just 75,000 people and the bulk of the population at any given time is formed of tourists who stay a couple of days at the most. In some cases it is just a few hours. The food offered by most restaurants is essentially the same, and there is remarkably little innovation. Apart from a few restaurants often harnessed to luxury hotels, not much stands out. A generation ago, for example, La Corte sconta in Castello was considered a hot property, and so it remains. When I first went to Venice 23 years ago, there was much talk of Ai Gondolieri in Dorsoduro. Walking past it recently it still looks pretty swish. Both are in the current Michelin Guide. It takes a long time to tarnish a reputation in Venice.
We were lucky enough to have a little shopping street near our B&B, with a couple of bakers providing various forms of croissant (best with apricot jam or crème patissière) plum or apple cake and organic bread at €7 a kilo. There was a greengrocer and a fruit and veg stall with a witty proprietor (me: 'are the peaches ripe?' Him: 'no, but if you keep squeezing them like that they will be') and a couple of little supermarkets. The butcher was temporarily closed.
As always, quality starts in the market and the Rialto, across the famous bridge, is still a proper market. The late Marcella Hazan, who had a cookery school in Venice, used to wax lyrical about all the different forms of artichokes and asparagus she used to find there. Fresh courgette flowers are often stuffed with bacala (died cod), a dish I had at the restaurant Vinaria near the Accademia last month. Even in the afternoon, once the market traders have mostly gone home, the price of fruit from the few remaining stalls in the Rialto can be half what you pay elsewhere in the city. We bought some lovely ripe white peaches there (they were the purest poetry!) and ate them on the Campo San Polo on our way to the Frari. I remember the fish stalls best: the sight of the sea bass still buckled in rigor mortis. I assume the trawlers take their loads to Chioggia at the bottom of the lagoon, but it doesn't take long for small boats to bring the fish up the Grand Canal to the Rialto.
If you are not feeling flush - as was my case recently - one way to eat is at a bacaro, or traditional wine tavern. The Cantinone gia schiavi, for example, was recommended to me by Steven Spurrier. There was quite an array of cicchetti and an impatient man drumming his fingers on the counter while I made up my mind: bacala mantecato (dried cod with butter), gorgonzola with walnuts, smoked herrings all tasted pretty good with a sappy Sauvignon Blanc from Collio. Elsewhere the bacari serve little meatballs or polpettine, or deep-fried aubergine. The disadvantage of the bacari is that they tend not to be open in the evening.
You can fill up on cakes as well. The fifty years that Venice was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire is evident from the piles of strudel, Kränze and Krapfen in practically every baker's shop. The Austro-Hungarian word Kren is also still used for horseradish. The cultural exchange naturally went both ways, however and rixi e bixi - a risotto of peas and bacon - appears as 'Risibisi' in Vienna. I had my first taste of it there, in the flat of some cousins, almost half a century ago.
Venice has its own suitably sumptuous ducal cakes too, but many of these seem to be supplied from some source outside the city because they look identical from one pasticceria to the next. The busola, or compass cake, is pretty well everywhere available, as are the zaleti made from corn flour like polenta. We stopped at a theatrical cake shop in Barbarie de le Tole and had a lovely glass of Pantelleria muscat from the other extremity of Italy which made up for most of the deficiencies in the cakes.
I have made gnocchi in Venice and there is plenty of pasta such as the famous bigoli, but to be properly Venetian you must eat polenta. It comes hard or soft, yellow or white. I was told that the later was made using a special white corn but I suspect this is not true, and that milk is used as well as water to cook the flour. At the Quaranta ladroni in Cannaregio I had the classic dish of runny polenta with 'schile' or tiny shrimps. For the most part the specialities are pretty well the same: sarde in saor (sweet and sour herrings), seppia alla veneziana (squid cooked in its ink) or risotto nero (with squid and ink), seafood risotto, or fritto misto (deep-fried seafood). The best we encountered when we were looking for good value places with atmosphere was Da Alberto on the borders of Castello and Cannaregio. There we were amused at least by what appeared to be a party of very high-minded English priests.
With a teenaged son who won't eat fish, we landed with some trepidation, but he liked the fegato alla veneziana (calves' liver with onions) and almost everywhere it was possible to have a thin slice of steak with some roast potatoes and a contorno of vegetables. There were pizzas too, and the best we ate were at the Pizzeria da Paolo outside the gates of the Arsenale, but there is nothing intrinsically Venetian about pizza, and most of it was very similar (if not inferior) to what we eat at home.
'Saudouso' for the Alentejo
Posted: 11th July 2016
My very modest contribution to the literature on Portuguese wine appeared fifteen years ago. It is not a good book. Turning the pages now I feel quite pleased that it has lapsed into obscurity. Others have taken up the Portuguese mantle since and they do it better. The pictures and the maps did it no favours either. In justification, however, it had always been my ambition to write something on Portugal and although I knew the country reasonably well, there were a number of corners I had never seen. Writing the book gave me the chance to complete the picture. Of all the parts of Portugal I visited on this project, the Alentejo attracted me most.
Most of Portugal is cluttered and overcrowded. Huge swathes of the population have emigrated over the past forty or fifty years, mostly to France and Germany. Leaving, however, is not generally perceived as a complete divorce from the old country, and every summer the emigrants return en masse and add a few bricks and stridently multi-coloured tiles to a monstrous house all covered in plastic sheets somewhere beside a main road. They live in the old family shack while they tinker around with the plumbing. Then September dawns, and it is time to go home to Paris or Frankfurt. The worst concentration of these half-houses is in the damp Minho region that borders Spanish Galicia in the north. The abominations thin out a bit south of the Mondego, and by the time you cross the mighty Tagus, they disappear almost completely leaving the Alentejo with its vines and wheat fields and its hot summer sun.
Of course, to write off the whole of Portugal north of the Tagus is unjust: the Douro Valley, the mountainous Beiras that form the border with Spain and the wilder parts of Trás-os-Montes in the North-East can also be delightful, but it is only really in the Alentejo that you see big, wide-open spaces that have a truly Mediterranean feel to them as distinct from the unpredictable Atlantic climate that dominates the north and centre.
And I liked the towns and cities of the Alentejo, particularly Evora, with its Roman temple to Diana and Os Loios, the mediaeval cloister that has become one of Portugal's most famous pousadas or state-owned hotels. The restaurant with its Manueline door was good for desserts such as morgado (landlord's pudding) or barriga de freira (nun's belly), but eating was better at Fialho, where the chef had worked for Bocuse, and latterly the tiny A Taquinha d'Oliveira became an interesting alternative. I could not say whether this was still the case, but I see both places are still going strong. Estremoz has a vast market square and a lovely castle, another pousada, with procrustean beds and bad food (it might have improved since). The best place was nearby, within the castle bailey: São Rosas, where in the spring you could eat 'tubera:' little things that looked like white truffles that grew in the sandy scrubland. Again it is still there, but the vastly more experienced Charles Metcalfe tells me that for him, the best restaurant in the Alentejo is at the winery at Esporão.
I was there for the wine before all else. The best came from Cartuxa, not just the fabulously rare Pera-Manca, a wine only made in great years which even back then was trading at over £100 a bottle (more like £250 for a recent vintage), but also the straight red and white. More recently I have discovered the baby of the family, Vinea, which sells for under £8 at my local Portuguese shop in Kentish Town and which is a knockout.
Others I liked were the smoky Tapada de Coelheiros (made by the same Dr Rosario who was consultant to Pera-Manca), Quinta do Mouro made by the dentist Miguel de Orduna, the reserve wines from the Marques de Borba made by João Portugal Ramos, the Tapada de Chaves from Portalegre (another wine designed by João Ramos), the top wines made by the Australian David Baverstock at Esporão, Cortes de Cima and two old Reynolds properties - the Quinta do Carmo and the Herdade de Mouchão. The Reynoldses were and are an English family who settled in Portugal in the middle years of the nineteenth century and made it big in wine, cork and eucalypts. Behind those top estates there were some really good value wines made at the cooperatives founded by Dr Salazar during the Estado Novo time, often dirt cheap and really quite delicious and some others, often slightly on the rustic side that continued the ancient Alentejan tradition of vinification in terracotta talhas, or large, potbellied amphorae.
On 27 June there was a tutored tasting at the very swish (and delicious) looking Noble Rot wine bar in Lambs Conduit Street. Peter McCombie did the honours, taking us through eight of his own favourites and these were followed by three olive oils, with some rather good 'petiscos' (tapas).
White wines are a comparative rarity in the Alentejo, but they are not unknown (Pera-Manca has a famously rare and expensive one). The first wine in Peter's line up was the 2014 'Argilla' - a white from the Herdade de Anta de Cima in Portalegre, which was made in an amphora. These vessels, twenty years ago virtually unknown outside the Alentejo, have now scaled the heights of fashion! Argilla turned out to be a nice full complex wine grown on clay soils (hence the name), and if the estimated price was accurate (€5), extremely good value for money.
The next wine was actually called Tinto da Talha Grande Escolha (2010 Amphora Red Grand Reserve), but... this one was not made in an amphora! It came from Roquevale and I recalled going there years ago. It was the first time I had seen a working amphora. The process was remarkably simple: the wines fermented in them, and once the lees had settled it could be drawn off by a tap at the bottom. It was quite a rustic place then, and my memory evokes chickens. Indeed, the owners offered us some typical local plates decorated with cockerels (now sadly all broken) and somewhere nearby I bought a big earthenware bowl which is now used for making my weekly loaf.
The Roquevale wine was still a little coarse with its big chewy tannins, but it had come on a lot. It was also cheap - the retail price was quoted as €7.99. It was not really to be compared to the 2012 Cartuxa Colheita we tasted next. Like many wines in the Alentejo it was made from a cocktail of Aragonez, Alfrocheiro, Trincadeira and Alicante-Bouschet. The latter, a notorious member of the dark-fleshed Teinturier family - is despised in its native France as a common hybrid formerly used only to 'stain' wines that lacked colour. In the Alentejo, however, it somehow manages to produce outstanding results. The wine was still closed, but betrayed that rich creamy fruit that is the hallmark of good Alentejo reds.
The Torre do Frade Reserva was a mature wine from 2007. Peter told us that it had been aged in all new oak and yet it was pleasantly approachable with a little taste of redcurrants and a fresh finish. The cost was a bit high, however, at €40. The 2011 Reserva from the Herdade da Ajuda was a return to reason at €12. The wine came from Evora and contained some Cabernet which I didn't like much: I found the finish pasty and dry.
David Baverstock is one of two Australians who has put down roots in Portugal - the other one being Peter Bright who is mostly to be found making his brews in the middle of Portugal. Baverstock is now largely anchored to Esporão and I am not sure whether he still makes Sir Cliff Richard's 'born again' wine in the Algarve. Peter's choice was the 2012 Esporão Private Selection (€30). I think it is pretty young yet, but for the time being I found it blighted by oak. This was not the case of the 2009 Quinta do Mouro (€37.99), which with the silky richness of its fruit was an impeccable Alentejo wine and every bit as good as I remembered vintages in the old days. The last wine was Gloria Reynolds Red (€48). Again this got the thumbs down as far as I was concerned. I am sure it was carefully made from tiny yields, with every grape picked and polished and carried to the vat, but for me it was big and sweet like a garage wine.
We had our little olive oil tasting at the end, which was fun: the quite common Galega olive versus the slightly more rarefied Cordovil. Then we mixed the two to blend away some of the rough edges. Some olive oils, especially those where the olives are picked early, can be hot and rasping. Late picked oils tend to be rich and buttery. Some nice petiscos circulated: octopus, bacalao with tomatoes and chickpeas, spicy chouriço and rice pudding. They were all very good, and I felt nostalgic for better days. 'Saudouso', as they say over there.
Posted: 1st June 2016
I am suffering, suffering badly. It is the first of June and I have not eaten a single spear of proper asparagus. I have no plans to travel to the Mainland this month and the season ends on St John's Eve - 24 June - so the chances are that I shall miss out entirely in 2016.
Now you will say there is asparagus everywhere you look: native English asparagus from the Vale of Evesham and elsewhere - the asparagus of Shakespeare, Elgar and Nigel Farage. I have seen this too, I have even bought some. Last week, campaigning in the Farmers' Market outside London University, I found a stall operated by a thin wispy man who was (appropriately enough) selling thin wispy asparagus. I asked him if he had any white stuff and wished I hadn't: 'It's the same plant you know... [I knew], but it's not good.' I let it drop. I thought I might get a lecture on English nationalism if I were to go on. I inspected at his wares instead: the spears were all at the point of flowering. The presence of fuzzy clusters at the top was one of two differences between the man and his asparagus: he was not only pale and white, he was as bald as an egg. 'Do you have any thicker spears at least?' I asked. He pointed to the thickest he had, which I bought, more out of politeness than anything else. It was reasonably fresh at least, but I was not going to make a sauce for anything of such poor quality, it would lie alongside the meat: as a German friend is wont to say: green asparagus is a vegetable, white asparagus is a meal.
It is usually just a little too early for asparagus when I go to the Ventoux Valley in February. I see it in the fields close to the road leading from Mazan or Mormoiron, down by the River Auzon and identifiable by their semicircular ridges capped with plastic sheeting. In Provence the first spears normally appear in March. The plants are banked up like that to allow the pickers to cut in without exposing the plant to sunlight, and the plastic ensures that cracks in the soil will not result in any purple splashes in the tips. Some French people like a purple tint, and o tempora, o mores - some even eat it green.
The best asparagus might be the earliest, at least the Spanish think so. They say April asparagus is 'for me, May asparagus for you and June asparagus for nobody.' With the exception of Italy, most of Mainland Europe prefers to eat their asparagus white. I suspect the Italians brought the green fad to the United States, and that influenced us when we started producing commercial quantities of asparagus about a generation ago. If you let the plant break through the surface it will naturally go green, and it is far easier to cut. It will also develop a characteristic bitter taste which is quite distinct from the nutty delicacy of the white stuff.
The problem of finding people who are prepared to do the backbreaking work of cutting asparagus under the earth might end up by turning the rest of Europe green one day, but I am thankful that this has not happened yet. In Germany, where asparagus amounts to something akin to a religion, the traditional seasonal farm worker came from Poland or further east. Before 1989, even senior civil servants would take their holidays in Germany and pick asparagus, thereby earning enough money to buy a car when they got home. It was thought that when the Poles achieved a higher standard of living they would disdain the work, but the panic seems to be over, although I don't know where the present generation of pickers comes from, I assume there will be migrant labour that welcomes well paid work for many years to come.
Asparagus likes sandy soil, and the best regions of Germany (as well as the Marchfeld in Austria) where asparagus is grown are known to every native gourmand. Some of the best comes from Schwetzingen, near Heidelberg in Baden, or from the sandy suburbs of Stuttgart in Württemberg. In the Prussian east, Beelitz is best. Germans cut and market it with the same attention that they might give to flowers. It is never even a day old when it reaches the roadside stalls and markets, and the stems are often placed in wet cotton wool to keep the asparagus fresh and prevent it from becoming dry and woody. It must be stiff: if it is bendy it is too old. Last year a kind German lady brought me a couple of kilos from a farmer's market in Stuttgart: she had wrapped them in damp cotton tea cloths for the short plane journey. I naturally cooked them that night. White asparagus needs to be peeled a bit at the bottom end, and Germans cook it standing up in special lofty saucepans, with a knob of butter and a pinch of sugar and salt. It is ready when you can easily pierce the sides with a knife. The tips should stand well above the water line and be cooked by the steam.
In Central Europe - Germany, Austria and Holland - the six or seven week asparagus season is a blow out. A friend in Vienna complains every year that the city stinks of it. Most restaurants offer asparagus menus, with half a dozen different options from asparagus soup, made from the discarded tough end bits, to 'solo' asparagus, the thickest, meatiest spears. In general, the 'solo' asparagus is served with a thick blanket of Hollandaise sauce. If anything joins it, it will be the local new potatoes or possibly some thick cut cooked ham. Local wine producers also run competitions to find the ideal wine for asparagus, with interesting results: it is not always the asparagus-scented Sauvignon Blanc that works best: quite often it is a sappy, non-oaked Pinot Blanc or Silvaner, or a Grüner Veltliner in Austria.
Eating asparagus also has a worthy political tradition in Germany. Sometime in May 1935, a group of Saxo-Borussia corps students in Heidelberg were enjoying some spears of Schwetzingen's best when the subject arose of how one was supposed to eat asparagus in polite society? Did you pick it up with your fingers or cut it with a knife and fork? The students had been drinking, and had managed to upset some local Nazi sensibilities that day with their braying for wine and asparagus, not to mention a less than reverent attitude to the regime. One of the students felt it was a question to ask the Führer, as he knew everything. A call was duly put through to the Chancellery in Berlin and was answered by one of Hitler's adjutants. Hitler's did not take the story well (although as a vegetarian he might well have eaten asparagus and without doubt he would have eaten it with both hands), and he introduced a ban on the socially smart German duelling societies which persisted until the end of the Third Reich. The association of eating asparagus ('spargelessen') and teasing the Nazi authorities remained, however, emerging every May until 1945. I think of this often at times like these when I am deprived of decent asparagus.
Oh Maille Mustard!
Posted: 3rd May 2016
Fifteen or so years ago now, I joined a press trip organised on behalf of the famous mustard-makers Maille. We went to Dijon, ate in a hotel restaurant and visited a shop that sold a hundred (if not two hundred) different sorts of mustard. I truth it was the same mustard (the smooth one - the one with the whole grains is the pride of Meaux, a fine cathedral city east of Paris) with various flavourings bunged in. They didn't interest me much. What caught my attention was some stuff they were selling on draught. This proved to be an un-pasteurised mustard that had considerably more bite than the bottled version but with a shorter shelf-life. It transpired that anyone in possession of a Maille mustard pot could come in and fill up. The mustard was by no means expensive and proprietary pots came in all sizes.
Our party went up to Paris that day and we were treated to an everything-cooked-with-mustard lunch at Le Grand Véfour, with three Michelin rosettes, billed as one of the best restaurants in the world. The chef, Guy Martin, hovered around us but I am not sure I was so thrilled with the meal. After lunch we went to Maille's new shop on the place de La Madeleine. There I seized the moment and bought myself a 500 cl Maille pot and had it filled with the standard mustard with white wine. That was more or less the end of trip. The excursion went a little sour when our taxi got stuck in traffic in the rue Lafayette and we reached the Gare du Nord to find our train had not only left but our platoon commander had gone with it. We bought new tickets and boarded the next one.
It was a while back, as I said, but something tells me I paid 70 FF (about £7) for my pot. It is grey and monumental and sits quite smartly on the dinner-table when there is boiled gammon, steak or sausages to eat. When I went to Paris in the following years I took it with me and was careful to have it refilled in the little shop in the Madeleine. The women who worked there were always charm incarnate and afterwards I'd go to Ladurée in the rue Royale to buy macarons - which were quite unknown outside France in those days. The last time I did this was a few years ago. Francs had already become Euros, but the figure of €6.90 leaps to mind - paying about £5 for half a litre of mustard was a trifle dear, but not expensive enough to stop me. I even convinced a Paris restaurateur friend to buy his mustard from Maille and he would sometimes bring over a loaded pot for me, and I'd give him back the empty.
I don't go to Paris as often as I'd like, and so I was excited to hear a couple of years ago that Maille was opening a shop in Piccadilly and that the mustard would be on draught there too. Soon after the shop opened I was there with my pot. If I recall rightly I recoiled, mildly, when they charged me £11. They had me taste all sorts of silly schickimicki mustards with truffles and Lord-knows-what in them, but I was not tempted. I insisted on my mustard 'au vin blanc'. For some reason they had to fetch it from behind the scenes, or to be more precise, upstairs.
Last month, I paid another visit to the Maille shop in Piccadilly. I was informed there was no simple mustard with white wine but I could buy the superior version with Chablis. This made me cross: not least because it was clearly going to be even more expensive, but also as there can be no earthly reason for putting good wine in mustard. I defy any winetaster to spot Chablis in a pot of mustard: it would be like identifying the style of port in a bag of winegums. While I was reeling from this infamous suggestion, the boy proceeded to demand £24 for my refill. I left in high dudgeon.
I checked up with the Madeleine branch and it appears that this marketing-inspired price-hike has taken place throughout Maille Empire, which is soon to extend to New York: in France you now pay €20 for the refill and €30 - €35 if you buy the pot ready-filled with mustard. I called Piccadilly too, and putting a hankie over the receiver and adopting an oligarchian accent I made the same enquiry. It was £20 for the mustard (if they had it) and £12 more for the pot. So it is still cheaper in Paris, but hardly worth lugging your pot over there. I am loath to concede, but buying draught Maille mustard is clearly no longer worthwhile, and is probably a bit of a swindle. It can't be any more expensive to make the un-pasteurised version, after all? It should actually be cheaper: they are saving money on packaging. If you go to an ordinary shop and buy Maille mustard in a 280 cl glass, you can pay as little as £1.80 for it. Alright: it is pasteurised, but if you think about it, they throw in the glass for nothing.
As it was, I was on my way that day to a tasting of Wachau wines at Berry Brothers & Rudd, a scaled-down repeat of a wine and geology tasting they had put on in Vienna a couple of years ago. Instead of what seemed to be an infinite variety of different rocks, the London tasting limited itself to a comparison between wines grown on gneiss and others planted in loess soils. As a general rule, gneiss will be associated with elegance and refinement; loess with muscle: that generally means Riesling for gneiss and Grüner Veltliner for loess. It was a fascinating tasting, and there were some good wines on show, not least FX Pichler's 2009 'M' Grüner Veltliner and Emmerich Knoll's 1999 Loibenberg Riesling. I raised the subject of alcohol and Grüner Veltliner, saying that I thought that it expressed nothing at all below 13.5 and was better over 14. This was flying in the face of the present fashion for low-strength wines in Austria, but I was gratified that the younger Emmerich Knoll agreed with me whole-heartedly. Most modern Grüner Veltliners are utterly without interest, just dull white wines, and I would include the majority of top Austrian estates in that category.
It has been a busy month on the gustatory side. I even spent two afternoons tasting for the Academy of Chocolate: as gruelling a task as one might ever perform. I am not vastly enthusiastic about chocolate, but I am always curious to watch my fellow tasters who not only live and breathe the stuff, they are clearly addicted. I always wonder if I am going to be able to eat my dinner after three or four hours nibbling on chocolate bars (even though I calculate I have digested only between 100 and 150 grams), but I have found that the best solution is to rinse my mouth out with vodka and try to forget all about it.
April is the month of the Decanter World Wine Awards, but a week before the tasting at Tobacco Dock there was a panel tasting at Decanter's offices featuring the 2014 dry Rieslings. There were just the three of us - myself, David Motion from the excellent Winery in Little Venice and wine writer Matt Walls. I think we were all pretty impressed not only by the standard of the wines but by the number of top German producers who had submitted samples. Many of these do not send in wines to the DWWA, which is a pity and the shocking truth is that the German Jury now deliberates for less time than its Turkish counterpart! I was joined at the DWWA by Caro Maurer, Anthony Barne and Martin Campion, and we were pleased by our modest tally of wines, and awarded all of eleven Golds. Most of these were Rieslings, but we also elected one apiece of sparkling wine, Weissburgunder (Pinot Blanc), Grauburgunder (Pinot Gris), Sauvignon Blanc and Silvaner. They were lovely wines, and deserved their accolades. I am particularly happy about the Grauburgunder, as getting a Gold for one has been a personal ambition for some time. Sadly we were not able to find any red Golds this year, but then recent German vintages have not greatly favoured red wine.
Once again the quality of the Mosel-Saar-Ruwers stood out in 2014. The week before, I had spoken to one of Germany's stars: Egon Müller of the Scharzhof in the Saar Valley, about the 2014 vintage at a tasting for the Portfolio agency. The grapes had ripened at the beginning of October, he said, but rot set in three days later, so the picking had to be accomplished at top speed. He was able to make even a little Auslese and a tiny quantity of Goldcap. I tasted the Kabinett and the Spätlese: they were tremendous wines.
I was also impressed by the wines of another Portfolio winemaker - Kai Schätzel in Nierstein. The estate has recently been elected to the VdP and you can see why. He is a firm believer in wild, spontaneous yeasts and terroir, which shows in the nose of the wine. I liked his off-dry and sweet wines most: a lovely 2015 Kabinett from the Pettenthal and a simply gorgeous Auslese from the same site and year - one to watch.
After my labours at the DWWA I attended the annual German tasting in London. There isn't space to enumerate all my finds, but there were some good things worth recording (VDP members I'll hold back for the August tasting): Lisa Bann in Nierstein, for example, with her loess Grauburgunder 2014; Fritz Ekkehard Huff in Nierstein-Schwabsburg who produced a melodic 2014 Riesling from red slate soils and an apricot-scented Pettenthal; Nico Espenschied at Espenhof in Flonheim who made another sappy 2015 Grauburgunder; Thörle near Bingen scored with a 2015 Riesling Kabinett; and down in the balmy Wonnegau the Weingut Frey in Hangen Weisheim impressed me with their 2015 Riesling.
In the Rheingau, I was struck by the 2015 Roter Riesling from a new estate, Meine Freiheit in Oestrich and by several wines from Dr Corvers Kauter in the same village - particularly the 2015 Alte Reben Spätlese, the Berg Rottland Auslese from the same vintage and the even lovelier Berg Roseneck Auslese.
The gentleman from the Weingut am Nil in Kallstadt in the Pfalz had to put up with my teasing him about Donald Trump, but he patiently confirmed that there were no more members of the Drumpf family in Kallstadt, even if there was a baker called Drumpf in a village nearby whom he presumed to be a cousin. His best wine was inevitably the 2015 Saumagen. It needs time yet. Oliver Zeter from Neustadt had an excellent 2013 Ungsteiner Weilberg from terra rosa soil; I admired a Chardonnay and Weissburgunder from Wambsganss in the south; while Hanewald-Schwerdt in Bad Dürkheim in the north of the region had an impressive 2014 Herrenmorgen; Gemünden in Kreuznach presented a 2015 Riesling Brückes with cooling apricot fruit. There were some strange offerings from the Nahe, but a decent 2014 Riesling from Schmidt Kunz and there were some impressive wines from the cooperative at Ruppertsberg.
There were some super wines from Dirk Richter in the Mosel (no surprise there): the 2015 Brauneberger Juffer Kabinett, and the even lovelier Sonnenuhr Spätlese which was of course trounced by a magnificent Auslese of the same year. There was a little treat in the form of a 2007 Auslese too. From Witwe Dr Thanisch there were exemplary Bernkasteler Doctors - Spätlese and Auslese - from 2013.
Portuguese Sparklers and Indian Wines
As I said, this has been a busy month as far as wine is concerned, I even dropped into the Portuguese Embassy (this used to be the ambassador's residence but the old embassy is now all boarded up, and I think the poor Ambassador has had to make room for his staff under his own palatial roof) to taste some sparkling wines from Bairrada. When I wrote my book about Portuguese wines I was shown round Bairrada and did extensive tastings of the excellent reds they make from the Baga grape. No one who visits the region near the pretty old university city of Coimbra can be unaware of the many roadhouses selling suckling pig, generally illuminated by big, gaudy neon lights showing an ecstatic piglet launching itself onto a grill or carving fork. There are some places in Germany that scoff pig and piglets with similar abandon, but I have to say that elsewhere it is rare.
Now in Bairrada it is not the dignified red that is proposed to accompany the 'leitão' but the sharp, champagne-style white sparkling wine made from the very same black Baga grapes. When you think about it, it is not such a bad idea? Aggressive sparkling wines, with high acidity and small bubbles deal admirably with the greasy, fatty meat of a roast piglet. As I tasted Poço do Lobo (wolf trap) from Caves São João I got quite excited about the idea. I am only sorry to say there was no roast piglet to hand.
The sparkling Baga tasting was not the most recherché I attended last month, as I also went along to the launch of Peter Csizmadia-Honigh's book on the Wines of India at the Vintners' Hall. I could not say whether the last occasion I was in India was before my visit to Maille in Dijon or after the time I accompanied some Bairrada leitão with a fluteful of local fizz; but I used to go to the Subcontinent quite often, and as I found the local beer far too frothy, my mind often dwelled on wine. In Calcutta you used to see bottles of deep pink wine on sale that I was assured was sickly sweet and undrinkable; while in Simla there was a thin, sharp rosé and white that they served at the Cecil and which was just about alright. In Bombay I was given a bottle of the sparkling Marquise de Pompadour which I opened somewhere in Rajasthan and I followed with interest the attempts of various Bordeaux-wallahs to start vineyards there - notably the Prats family, formerly of Cos d'Estournel. The most memorable wine experience I ever had in India was on Lake Pichola when I was staying at the Lake Palace in Udaipur. We were entertained all evening in a sailing ship and plied with wine and food while lights were switched on and off in corners of the lake, and pretty dancing ladies performed little acts. It was a memorable night - but the wine it was Chambertin.
Now almost a decade and a half later, it seems that India is making good wines. I suppose the growing season must make allowances for the monsoon which arrives at different times in different places, but it appears that Indian wine is picked in February or March, so at the same time as the Southern Hemisphere, despite the fact it is winter in India.
Anyone who has been in say, Rajasthan in January, knows that the days can be very hot but that the nights are perishing cold. Warm days and cold nights is generally the secret of intense, aromatic wines and many of those at Peter's tasting were just that. I particularly admired 2014 and 2012 Cabernet Sauvignons from KRSMA in Hampi in Karnataka; the 2012 Shiraz and Cabernet from Mandala in Bangalore; and the 2015 Reserve Chardonnay and Syrah from Reveilo wines in Nashik. They are not cheap - the latter cost £6 - £7 a bottle in Bombay - but let's face it: that's a mere bagatelle compared to the cost of refilling a crock of Maille mustard?
Posted: 4th April 2016
The great disadvantage of an early Easter is that there is no spring lamb, and that we have to make do with a limb of a semi-mature sheep for our Paschal feast. I have had baby lamb in France already this year, but British farmers are quite obstinate about maximising their returns and I was told very firmly that they would not be killing lambs for Easter.
I deduce that the Archbishop of Canterbury was equally aggrieved: for he went as far as to suggest that the date of Easter should be fixed in the future, provoking an Easter Controversy such as that which raged at the time of the Venerable Bede. I suppose if Easter were on the same day (or the nearest Sunday) every year, farmers could plan to put a bit of new lamb on the market and schools would know when to schedule their spring holidays? Wearing my theological mitre, however, I cannot see where the Heresiarch finds his justification: Easter is calculated from the first full moon following the Vernal Equinox, just like Passover, and it was Passover that brought Jesus to Jerusalem, where he sacrificed himself on Good Friday, taking the place of the traditional Passover lamb. In fairness to British farmers, I suppose I should divulge that the Torah demands that the lamb be a year old, but then I think Jews are required to eat it in groups of ten and a baby lamb would be too small.
Theological disputes failed to overshadow our own Easter which reunited our little family, scattered for the first time, when my daughter returned briefly from Vienna. So the old family rituals persisted: chocolate eggs were bought from Le Chocolatier in Highgate Village, possibly for the last time, for his landlord seems determined to turn the village high street into a chain of estate agents and has shoved up the rents again shutting down the halfway good grocer in the process. I made my own hot-cross buns and my wife her Simnel Cake with its eleven marzipan Apostles; I acquired the Colomba for Sunday morning before Mass and with some distaste, a leg of Easter hogget. After that everyone ate too much chocolate and we all felt ill.
I was only well enough to go out again on Wednesday when I went to Berry Brothers and Rudd in St James's to try the Queen's 90th Birthday tawny port. Just 500 bottles of this were made by blending three years lying in wood in Vila Nova de Gaia: 1935, 1924 and 1912, which makes an average age of ninety-one. The Instituto do Vinho do Porto then had to agree to the innovation as by their laws tawnies may only be bottled at 10, 20, 30 or 40 years, or with a vintage date. A 'vintage' tawny is known as a 'colheita,' to differentiate it from vintage port, which is bottled two years after the harvest. Traditionally the 'English' houses do not release colheitas. Their top wines are vintage ports.
We were allowed to taste the constituent parts and finally the blend. They were all three very distinguished years for port. Sandeman, Graham and Cockburn declared the 1935; most houses did the same for the '24; and the 1912 was universally declared. The proportions used were 40-20-40 resulting in a wine that took a lot of its honey character from the oldest wine (which was remarkably dark). It was - I thought - like Manuka honey, because behind the honey there was not only a powerful acid bite, but also an immensely satisfying cooling aftertaste. For a ninety-year old wine, the Queen's tipple had tremendous power.
Paul Symington justified the hefty price of £700 a bottle by comparing it to various much younger Bordeaux. The 2010 Le Pin, for example, is as much as £2,600 a bottle. Berry Brothers is doing a small mail-out for the 500-bottle release. I doubt they will have any problem getting rid of them.
I went directly from St James's to La Cave à Fromage in South Ken where their top cheese man, David Deaves was holding a tasting to flag the fifth year of the Cheese Makers' Market in Beaconsfield on 9 April. The market will offer up to 200 cheeses to taste and purchase. There will also be a number of tutored tastings of this sort during the day.
Armed with simple, but effective dry Muscat wine from the Cévennes, I tasted some of the cheeses on offer: Colline aux chèvres from the Tarn, a soft and delicious goat; a Brillat-truffe; a triple-cream Brillat-Savarin cut in two and lined with truffles before being put back into the cellars to acquired a new bloom; a soft-pressed Italian Fontina; a nutty, aged Montgomery cheddar; a very mild-tasting Grossmont cheese from Wales made in imitation of Reblochon but wiped with cider aged in old rum casks; Ossau-Iraty - pressed ewe's milk cheese from Aquitaine (an old favourite); a tomme (similar in consistency to the Fontina) which had been lined with espelettes - the mild chillies that are one of the gastronomic specialities of the Basque country; Crosier Blue, a sister-cheese of Cashel Blue in Ireland which has an enchanting spiciness; and finally some Stilton that had been macerated in port, cheaper port, I think than the nectar I drank in the board Room at Berry Bros. There was nothing controversial at all - they were all fine cheeses.
Eating Truffles With Angels
Posted: 1st March 2016
After twenty years of travelling to the Ventoux, I think I have cracked it at last: the best way is to shun the plane and take the train, changing in Paris. I admit, there is now a moment of anxiety when you emerge from the Channel Tunnel, but we were not stormed on this occasion and the train slid into the Gare du Nord on time. I gathered up a friend who had flown in from Dublin and we picked up another in a café opposite the Gare de Lyon. There was even time for a quick slab of bavette. A bottle of burgundy on the train down made the journey doubly smooth.
We did not get in much before eight that night but food had been left out for me to cook, and there was a box stuffed with truffles in the fridge and some big packets of local wild boar which had been put in the freezer. I took them straight out and arranged them in a dish to defrost overnight. Our host had raided his cellar in Kilkenny and there were some fine looking bottles lined up on the table to join the hardy perennials of the estate: Château Talbot 1982, Château Léoville Barton 1989; a rare Sandeman 1965 and a more promising Graham's Malvedos 1976, as well as a bottle of Geantet-Pansiot's Gevrey-Chambertin vieilles vignes 2003 and the Huet Vouvray Le Mont moelleux première trie 1996.
Both clarets went down well, the robust Talbot showed little sign of age, and the Léoville was on top form. The Sandeman port was very light, but I was ready for that: I have done several verticals of their ports. A surprise was the village Chambertin which had a great deal of charm. I was the only person to show much interest in the Vouvray, but I found it delicious with some local pain d'épices. The Malvedos was put aside for September. Naturally, first and foremost, we drank the wines from the Domaine des Anges and jolly good they were too.
A novelty was to try some older vintages of the Domaine des Anges which had come down with the claret etc.. The 1991 was kaput, but the 1992s were still on form, both the simple wine and the prototype for the top wine were drinkable even if the latter was spoiled by poor use of oak. The biggest surprise was the Cabernet Sauvignon 2000. This wine is still made in tiny quantities. It was a crazy idea to plant Cabernet in the Ventoux but it has proved consistently good. If I were a local restaurateur I'd make sure that I had a few cases in my cellar to show people what the region can do.
I got up early the following morning and put the boar in a bottle or two of the simpler red 'Ventoux' wine of the estate. I then scrubbed the mud off the truffles. It has been a warm winter and quite wet too, so not ideal weather for melanosporum. Still, I thought they were better and more aromatic than last year's crop, which were quite short on aroma. They weren't big, but the ones we had were firm, and I suspect had not been out of the earth for too long.
It was sunny, and heating up as it often does in the second half of February. The promised mistral failed to work up a head of steam and by the end of our stay it was warm enough to sit outside in the sun. The odd lizard even poked its head out of the cracks in the rubble walls. There was shopping to be done in Mazan but first we went into Mormoiron and wandered around the village while one of the party had his hair cut.
I had been unaware that the swollen hamlet of Mormoiron had suffered an earthquake a century ago, and many of the buildings at the top of the village perché still bear the scars: the church with its funny little pointed Romanesque apse window has been wrapped in a concrete girdle. Behind it there is a rather grand old stone arch but the room to the south of it is open to the elements. Here are there are a few traces of the old walls and the castle too, but perhaps the most interesting bits of the village are at the extreme north end looking towards Bédouin and Mount Ventoux. There is a big house with a pediment dated 1550. The building across the road seems to have been part of the same collection at one time and it contains an impressive vaulted chamber.
Mormoiron has been dying on its feet in the past couple of decades. The butchers have all closed and the one fully functioning baker has moved down to the main road next to the cave cooperative to catch the traffic using the road from Carpentras to Sault. A new bar has opened but it was closed while I was there. Mazan is both livelier and more impressive with its two or three ancient gates and the Château des Astaud-Causans, a huge, solid house built up against the walls by the Mormoiron Gate. I have been coveting this place for years and itching to see the rooms but it has always been boarded up. No one has ever seen the shutters open let alone any sign of life inside.
Compared to Mormoiron, Mazan is busy. There are at least two decent bars, like Le Siècle run by Jerôme, who used to play rugby for Mullingar in Ireland, speaks English and has turned the place into something more like a pub. More recently Lou Carri has smartened itself up as well. It used to be a dim, stuffy dive and chiefly notable for being one of the local betting shops, now it has reinvented itself as a bistrot and has good menus at lunchtime.
We had set off to Mazan to get a proper shoulder of lamb: a tiny thing weighing about 1.3 kgs. The beast itself can't have been more than a month old. We had other plans for dinner that night however: a small bit of boiling bacon had been brought over from Ireland and I made a parsley sauce to go with it. As the piece was so small we supplemented it with some calves' liver and a big pork sausage.
I also made a starter of an omelette aux truffes (this is the local name for a dish of scrambled eggs with truffles). The jury remained divided over the truffles. While they are clearly not the most pungent I had ever known the 'omelette' was good and smelled and tasted properly of truffles.
The leg of lamb was for Friday night. I should have made some little ramekins of eggs and cream to show off our truffles but we had no cream and so I made a truffle butter for the potatoes instead. There were some quite delicious artichokes, which were properly in season. The lambkin's flesh was white, as new lamb should be and the truffle butter was used with the potatoes, which I had poached in white wine alongside the meat. The only disappointment was some locally obtained Saint Marcellin cheeses. On second thoughts we should have cut open some Brie and stuffed it with truffles as they do at the famous Beaugravière restaurant in Mondragon near Orange.
The weather was predictably at its best the day before we were due to leave. We went to the market in Pernes where I wanted to buy lavender honey and bread. The wonderful baker with his hundred-year old oven had sold out of bread as usual, but there was a good presence in the market and a little chap with a scrubby beard was selling eggs and a number of loaves he'd obviously got up for the market: spelt, mixed grain and wheat. The wheat loaf was gnarled and seemingly unleavened but it had great flavour.
Saturday was our final night and the boar had been soaking in wine and the remains of the Sandeman port for three days. We poached some leaks in red wine and I made a purée of potatoes and mixed a great many truffle shavings into that. Mashed potatoes are probably the best of all vehicles for truffles.
We had time to kill in Paris on the way back. I had a good two hours; my companion many more. I took him for a walk in the Marais, where he complained about his feet. Still for me there was the pleasure of the Hôtel de Sully and the Place des Vosges and the flat my sister took during my last long vac and where the rooms at the front gave out onto the square and its playing fountains. I still remember the noise of the plashing water at night. We looked in at the little Place du Marché Sainte Catherine. There was a third-rate restaurant there, now gone, where we used to bury the fishes' heads under slices of lemon so as not to shock young Americans on the illuminations tour: they didn't like the fish looking at them while they were eating. We also even inspected a few old haunts such as the flat of a friend in the rue du Foin who lived above a hack with an obscene monkey who was the scourge of the local gendarmerie lunching in the restaurant below: Lord knows what the cheeky ape used to throw at them. After that bout of nostalgia I was ready to kip most of the way back to London.
The Making of Mentmore
Posted: 1st February 2016
Our Januarys are not dry, but they are arid. Nothing came to irrigate this one, beyond family setbacks, snivelling colds and tickling coughs seasoned by the annoying nannying strictures of the government's very own Aunt Sally. I am tempted to tell her what she can do with her 'units', but that is by the by.
One routine operation reserved for January is the making of marmalade, specifically Seville orange marmalade, as that gnarled, irregular, tart fruit makes its appearance at the greengrocers' shortly after Christmas. I make quite a lot of different marmalades at different times of the year. They all have names, some of them made up by the children over the years. There is a lime version, called Harry and a lemon one called Jack. For some reason my son called the grapefruit sort the 'Imposter' (perhaps because it is not very pink?) and then there is Robespierre, made from blood oranges and a multi-citrus fruit marmalade called 'Susan Hitch'. The Seville orange marmalade is our 'top seed,' as I believe they say in tennis. It is called 'Mentmore', a nickname that derives from the hair of an art historian of my acquaintance which is, or rather was, strikingly red.
I have been making Mentmore for over a decade now, and I am very much aware of the vintage variation. Oranges, like grapes, have good or bad growing seasons. Sometimes the peel is rough and dry and the segments pithy; sometimes the skins have a waxy sheen and are distinctly oily; on other occasions the juice is quite sweet because the fruit has been stewed in the Andalusian sun. The essential thing about Seville orange marmalade, however, is that it should have a little bitter tang, offset by the sweetness that comes from the added sugar. Other oranges will not give you that. Ordinary orange marmalade can be cloyingly sweet.
The 2015, for example, was unctuous and quite sweet, while the 2014 was dark, almost black, and bracingly sharp. The 2016 is near perfection; to the degree that I wonder whether I should not go back to that nice Albanian woman's stall and get a few more kilos before the season closes. I have jars from several years going back to my last remaining 2005 in my 'marmalade cellar'. One day I must put them all out for a vertical tasting. The only time I see some of these old vintages is when I go to see the kind friends who look after the cat when we go away. In their house my marmalade is apparently appreciated for it is strictly rationed.
The onerous side of marmalade making is the peeling and pressing of the oranges. To obtain very thin peel I use a mandolin, and I pull out some of the pith too. The pips go into a bit of muslin and I add twice-as-much water as juice and simmer for about two or three hours. Once the fruit is reduced by half, I take the liquid off the heat and add a kilo of sugar for every kilo of Seville oranges. It certainly does not require more. I then bring it back to the boil and test drops of the marmalade on a plate with my fingernail: when the marmalade becomes reluctant to let go of your finger it is time to stop. You don't want your marmalade too thick or rubbery.
Most people fill up sterilised pots with the piping hot marmalade as soon as it is deemed done. If you put the lids on immediately it is meant to form a vacuum which will stop mould from developing at some later date. Some people then turn the jars upside-down to eliminate all contact with oxygen. This is all well and good but inevitably there are times when you discover the marmalade is too runny once the pots have cooled down. When that happens you have to empty them out into the pan again and bring them back to the boil adding the juice of a couple of lemons. You should not need to use pectin for Seville orange marmalade: there is plenty in the fruit. I buy pectin for fruits such as peaches and strawberries, which are short on it; citrus fruits have lots.
If you are worried that the marmalade might not set then the best solution is to leave it in the cooking pot until the morning. This way you dispense with the chore of emptying the pots out again, and washing and sterilising them with boiling water. As often as not, however, you find that a miracle has happened overnight and the marmalade has set as it cooled down.
When that happens you can martial your various old jam and honey jars. It is good to fill a few small ones: these make perfect presents for house and dinner parties. This year I have even given one to the jolly Albanian woman.
Now let's get on with February.
Living Off Our Fat
Posted: 4th January 2016
Christmas is almost behind us. There is still a sliver of foie gras in the terrine, a few mince pies in the tin and the great, solid Christmas cake has been splendidly iced and decorated with figures from the spare crib. That tends to provide combustion throughout the colder days of January. The only thing yet to make is the galette des rois for Twelfth Night. On Tuesday, I'll start folding the puff pastry; the other ingredients I'll throw together on Wednesday morning. I must see if there is still a suitable sweet wine left to go with it.
They may not have seemed so fat at the time, but there were fatter years when I used to buy doubletons of good wine with some mythical future dinner party in mind. Now supplies have dwindled but there are occasional gems that surface when I explore my secret places armed with a torch: we never did have any of those elegant dinner parties.
This year we are even less hospitable than usual: no one came to dinner on Christmas Eve, although a friend called before dinner and shared a bottle of Mumm with us, a simple, non-vintage champagne that has improved immeasurably in the last few years and which remains relatively cheap while other champagnes (and some of them far less pleasant to drink) have lifted off to stratospheric prices. Christmas Eve is the last day of Advent and that means fish: we had our usual lobsters - lively little fellows they were - with some mayonnaise I whipped up, then a wonderfully à point queijo da serra I had bought from Nuno at the Wine Cellar in the Kentish Town Road. This is the Portuguese version of the vacherin mont d'or, in this instance a ewes' milk cheese that liquefies between December and March. In my opinion, it is one of the world's greats.
We were just three drinkers at dinner and I located a bottle of Marc Morey's 2004 Chassagne Montrachet Les Chenevottes. I think a friend must have brought it round several years ago, and with its creamy, buttery texture it was perfect with the lobster. People say the ideal for lobster is Corton Charlemagne, but I'm not sure you could do much better than this and I didn't have any Corton anyway. With my wife's bûche de noel I opened some sauternes - a 2001 Château Suduiraut. It was on excellent form, but we didn't drink much. I recorked it in preparation for Christmas Day and we all trooped off to Midnight Mass.
As far as champagne was concerned, the real treat was on Christmas morning. I had been anxious about a single bottle of 1992 Dom Pérignon for some time, in that part of the foil had come away and exposed the cork. As it was, I needn't have worried: the cork was as tight as a drum, there was a lively bead and the wine showed no sign of oxidation. It is a delight to drink Dom Pérignon at this age, particularly now when most of it disappears down the gullets of oligarchs when it is scarce ready to butcher. I have memories of honey and saffron - utterly divine.
There was the usual problem about what to have with the foie gras, which I had marinated in amontillado sherry. I spotted an oddity in the form of a bottle of 1990 Chignon Bergeron from René Quénard. The principle with this Savoyard wine is that if you fail to drink it when it is very young, you must wait until it is very old. It was certainly fine at first, but it did not last too long in the glass and by the end there was a slight bitterness.
There was the usual schism over goose and turkey and so we opted for beef. The admirable Paul Langley at Cramer's in York Way sold me a piece of forerib he had been dry-ageing since August. As it turned out, goose was scarce, apparently because Walter Gabriel on The Archers had opted for goose that year. I had decided to match that to a stray bottle of Christophe Roumier's 1995 Chambolle-Musigny. Our one guest had brought some 1983 Château Chasse-Spleen. We had the burgundy first, but I made a mistake in failing to decant it. It was inchoate at the beginning, but after half-an-hour it filled out magnificently. The claret on the other hand was much more immediately accessible, with perhaps a hint of greenness from a vintage that got wetter the further north you travelled up the Médoc.
The claret went principally with the cheese: the remains of the serra, a vacherin mont d'or, a saint-marcellin and one of those silly stiltons in pots that I had bought cheap from Lidl. The rest of the Suduiraut then came out for the Christmas pudding before we went upstairs and watched Platinum Blonde (we watched Scrooge before lunch).
The family went away after Christmas and reappeared on New Year's Eve. As usual I grazed on leftovers. As there is no English tradition for New Year's Eve other than getting drunk and throwing up, I have adopted the Italian one. We eat lentils, lots of them, because they are meant to represent all the money you will earn in the coming year. I reflected, if we ate a lot of lentils I could buy some more wine? I took the trouble to soak them for more than twenty-four hours, as I thought they'd be less gassy like that, and I think I was right. With the lentils came a stuffed pig's trotter or zampone, a potato purée and a reduced tomato sauce. A purely Italian meal is an excuse for a great Italian wine. I located a last singleton of Barolo: the 2003 Ascheri Barolo Sorano, which had a sensational aroma of sour cherries and the strength (14.5) to deal with the rustic food. By that time we were reduced to two drinkers, and so after dinner we polished off a bottle of champagne from Heidsieck Monopole, sold by Winerack at the attractive price of £14.99. I had long held a low opinion of Heidsieck Monopole but I had to concede that it had improved by leaps and bounds since my last encounter with it, but perhaps I should keep Mumm about that, while stocks last!
Wine & Food Diary entries posted before 2016 can now be found in the Wine & Food Diary Archive.