Giles MacDonogh

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Wine & Food Diary

The Sorry Demise of D R Harris

Posted: 11th August 2015

I normally write about wine and food in these pages, but bitter constraint and sad occasion dear compels me to diversify a bit, and talk about the chemist D R Harris. Harris's has been a feature of St James's for some 225 years and I have been buying soaps, shampoos, lotions, oils and ointments from Harris's since I was a lad of eighteen. First of all it was the almond oil soap that seduced me, then the coconut oil shampoo. For a while I used their 'His' brand of aftershave, but since I became a mature brute I feel I have less need of the great smell of Brut and have forsworn all forms of scent. There was a nice face lotion apparently made from cucumbers which I bought for a while, and a 'His Silky' bath oil which also found favour. It was rebranded (I think) 'Albemarle' (my publishers were in Albemarle Street, so that was cosy), and of course there was the lavender oil shaving cream which I use to this day. I am quite devoted to anything with lavender oil in it.

Harris's is part of the extended purlieus of Jermyn Street where old-fashioned men buy shirts, shoes, soap and occasionally cheese. Although it is patronised by royalty and must take in its share of dukes from Whites and earls from Brooks's, it is not a snooty place, at least not until recently. For years and years, two delightful ladies in white coats have served customers with considerable charm. As Harris's was always a dispensing chemist, licensed to issue aspirin to any griping grandee who might have been poisoned by the food in his club, there was nothing chichi about the shop. The problems began (as always) when the marketing men got their feet in the door and then the products I liked so much began to mutate. The first run in I had with Harris's concerned 'Albemarle', which appeared to change its nature (and its colour) overnight. As it was already fiendishly expensive, I wrote off it as an unjustifiable luxury. Then there was a problem with the soap, which no longer smelled of roses and carnations, but they rectified that soon after and I have had no more cause to complain. In the course of my gentle remonstrations with the ladies in the white coats, however, I learned the reason for the 'drift': Harris had long since ceased to manufacture its wares, but commissioned others to make them up from their recipes, often with unfortunate results. The next hiccup concerned the shampoo: what had been dense and granular suddenly became sloppy. A new manufacturer was tried out, and it returned almost to normal, and that was how things remained until a few months ago.

The big changes occurred when Harris's owners decided to redevelop their wonderful old premises. The shop itself, which is regularly besieged by groups of admiring tourists, was considered to have insufficient window-display space and the heritage-boffins have been hoodwinked into allowing them a bit more. I doubt the upper floors have been generating sufficient income either. The premises were shut and remain shut, although we are told that they will reopen soon. Until that day, the business has been split in two. The nice ladies in the white coats who made up the prescriptions were relocated to Bury Street, while the more profitable business of selling soaps and unguents was moved to a small shop at the southern end of the Burlington Arcade in Piccadilly.

The real rot seems to have set in in this Piccadilly branch (which I was told will be retained when St. James's reopens). The first time I went into the new premises I was told by a rude young assistant there were no large pots of shampoo and there would not be any for months. Had I tried shopping online? The next two occasions I dropped in passed off without major incident. I was even given a 'loyalty card' by a well-spoken managerial type and told if I spent an awful lot of money I would get something for nothing. When I finally did obtain the shampoo, however, it bore not the slightest resemblance to the original, it was both sloppy and gelatinous - and not in the least bit granular - and it smelled of bananas rather than coconuts. It could have been any cheap shampoo, except that it was very expensive. Last week I entered Harris's new branch for what was possibly the last time. The man who gave me the loyalty card looked at me as if I was something the cat had brought in. He was serving some tourists who were dithering over their purchases and he was clearly expecting to make a lot of money. I wanted a refill for my shaving bowl which a cost a mere £10.99. Apparently at that price, I did not even merit a paper bag let alone a smile or a word of welcome. Enough is enough, I said to myself, as I slipped the soap into an old canvas bag I had on me, I don't think I shall be coming here again.

In truth, Harris's decline mirrors a general malaise that has affected much of Jermyn Street and the streets around. The old gentlemanly trade has been written off as worthless. Loyal customers are shoved aside in the hope of appealing to tourists. Some parts of Jermyn Street they can keep. Nothing in the world would have ever induced me to enter the spivs' paradise that is Turnbull & Asser. Hilditch & Key is only marginally better and hosts semi-permanent sales. Paxton & Whitfield has changed hands, but it is, at least, still a good cheesemonger. I have ceased to patronise the barber Ivan, as I now use Cypriot Michael here where I live, and it has become part of the Trumper's empire. Harvie & Hudson is still very much its old self, and even if Mr Hudson is no more, an octogenarian Mr. Harvie still serves customers in the shop at the Haymarket end. The shoemaker Trickers is also largely unaffected, but I have heard grumbles about New & Lingwood, and even from Old Etonians, whose loyalty is formed early on at the branch in Eton High Street.

I suppose I must now take my trade to Floris? It is a hard, hard thing to change the habits of a lifetime.

Irish Days

On Bastille Day I was invited to be guest speaker at a Provençal dinner a the Kildare Street Club in Dublin, at which the wines of the Domaine des Anges were to be served. It was a sunny day, and I had a nice - if sober - walk round the city before I had to perform my role. The next day I was driven up to a friend's Queen Anne house in Termonfeckin in County Louth, a delightful place buzzing with bees and animals of all descriptions. My family was arriving that night so we went to the fishmonger in the harbour at Clogherhead, and popped into various shops in Drogheda to lay in supplies.

The Fisherman's Catch in the Clogherhead Harbour is owned by John and Michelle Kirwan, who supply it from their own fishing boat. There is a splendid range and we bought turbot and 'black' sole. It seems the black sole is the same as the British 'Dover' sole, but many people in Ireland dispute this and claim the black sole is a native of Dublin Bay. The local beach is covered with the remains of razor clams. They are extensively fished and a big earner locally as they are all shipped out to an insatiable Chinese market. The natives, it seems, won't touch them. In Drogheda, butchers' shops revealed the strong tradition of Irish pork butchery, which pops up at the fictional Dlugacz in Joyce's Ulysses with its' hanks of sausages, polonies, black and white'. Nowadays at least, Irish butchers' shops are very pink, with their mounds of sausages, boiling bacon and 'rashers.' Strangely enough, natural casings seem to be a rarity and the sausages that accompany rashers, eggs, black and white puddings in the standard 'fry' are straight. The fry deserves 'World Heritage Status' as it is still just about the most reliable meal in Ireland now that you need to drive for miles for a stew or a plate of bacon and cabbage.

The weather blew hot, cold and wet, although there was glorious sunshine on the day we left. We went into Dublin, to look at Trinity among other things. The city seems to have completely recovered from the gloom of five years ago and is so crowded with Continental teenagers it is hard to maintain your feet on the pavement. The collapse of so  many businesses, however, has resulted in their places being taken by chains so that, with the exception of the traditional pubs, much of the city's character has seeped away. It is hard enough now, to find an old fashioned baker in the centre of town, but you can get sourdough and ciabatta virtually anywhere. Irish 'brown' or 'soda' bread, on the other hand, is available pretty well everywhere in the country. Our local town, Drogheda is still depressed and there is a lot of unemployment. We paid the obligatory visit to Saint Oliver Plunkett, or rather his head, which after it quit his body at Tyburn was taken home and eventually set up in St Peter's church.

Our homage to St. Oliver took place before a feast for which a local butcher had pickled and smoked a great length of pork. Friends arrived from the North, bearing gifts, including a magnum of 1955 Margaux from Château Marquis de Terme. It was mid-shoulder, and becoming acetic. Still it had a good twenty minutes life in it before it became too sharp. There was also a 1955 port from the Real Companhia - perhaps not the greatest '55, but still a treat. The best wine with the pork was a 2012 Hochheimer Kirchenstück GG from Domdechant Werner. We all seem to drink red wine with pork these days, but a good dry Riesling like this has the cut and thrust to deal with the fat and seemed to me at least, a much better solution. People are very down on white wines these days, I suppose because now that they are mostly technically correct, they have become utterly boring.

Our idyll in Ireland was sadly short. On Sunday night we flew home to spend a quiet summer in London.


Wines from the Brno Road

Posted: 1st July 2015

The road from Austrian Vienna to Brno in the modern Czech Republic has enormous historical resonance. For a large percentage of Austro-Hungarian Jews, it used to be the highway to success. Brno was one of the staging posts for the Imperial capital, just as Breslau was for Jews starting out on their way to fame and fortune in Berlin. Southern Moravia remained largely German speaking after 1918 and Brno (or Brünn, as Austrians and Germans called it) was still to a great extent a German city twenty-one years later when Hitler invaded Bohemia and Moravia and harangued the crowd from the steps of the town hall. At the end of the War, a furious Czech minority wrought its revenge by ousting the city's German-speakers. The expellees hit the road to Vienna on the so-called Brno Death March, dying in droves along the way.

They were driven along the Brno Road or Brünnerstraße to the Thaya River where Czech Southern Moravia ends and the Austrian Weinviertel begins. There Austrians rescued the luckier ones. I don't suppose there are many survivors left, but if there are, they won't have forgotten.

Both the Weinviertel (nomen est omen) and Southern Moravia are wine regions, the Czechs produce their wines with the same grapes as the Austrians, particularly in the vineyards around the town of Mikulov formerly Nikolsburg: and that means Grüner Veltliner and Weissburgunder (Pinot Blanc). Nikolsburg was incidentally where the Hochheim star-winemaker Gunter Künstler's father came from. He was another of the German-speakers hounded out in 1945, eventually finding his way to the Rheingau where he worked as a cellar hand for the Michels at Domdechant Werner.

I am happy to say, however, that not every story of the Brno Road, is as tragic. These days the 'Brünnerstraße' is chiefly a metaphor for wine. The road was famous for the vineyards found right and left and little wines that - according to a coarse local epithet - had the capacity to draw in your shirt tails up through your backside. The 'Brünnerstraßler' was therefore a byword for a lip-smackingly, shoulder-shudderingly, acidic wine. But sharp wines have their uses too and the village of Poysdorf on the Brünnerstraße is the home of the base wines for Austrian Sekt or sparkling wine.

The high watermark of Austrian Sekt was the Gründerzeit, after the formation of the Dual Monarchy in 1867. It was the time of Strauss waltzes and louche comings-and-goings in Vienna's Prater park; of Der Rosenkavalier and the slightly risqué tales of  Schnitzler and Stefan Zweig; of Lehár and the Merry Widow. It was also the period chiefly associated with Dr Freud. All those libidos and lots more were fuelled by Sekt, and notably from the establishments of Schlumberger, Mounier and Kattus in the Viennese suburb of Döbling. In the nineteenth century there were dozens of other names to conjure with, but their numbers declined with the fortunes of Empire. There was even one in Retz with the delicious and possibly well-founded name of 'Verderber' (Despoiler).  Kattus no longer uses the champagne method but it makes some excellent still wine in Nußdorf. The base wines for its Sekt still come from Poysdorf. If you are interested, Schlumberger has a good Weissburgunder cuvée, and Mounier makes a pure Riesling Sekt.

I mention Poysdorf and the Brünnerstraße because I was entertained to a lavish dinner last Monday by those hospitable Merry Widows Linn Rothstein and Charlotte Bendel and to my surprise they had a collection of bottles from Helmut Taubenschuss, the best grower in Poysdorf by a very long chalk, and an estate which I have always believed to have been massively undervalued. Naturally we started out with a nicely zingy Sekt, but then proceeded to Grüner Veltliners and Weissburgunders that were every bit as good as I remembered them from my first encounter with the wines a quarter of a century ago.

As I said, most of the grapes grown in Poysdorf are used for Sekt, and Sekt houses like Welschriesling for its clean, neutral character. This will explain why the Taubenschusses make still wine with it. Unlike most Weinviertel growers, who lead with that Grüner Veltliner which adapts well to their mostly clay soils, Helmut Taubenschuss's best wines have always been his Weissburgunders from the Steinbergen, which (and this is often true of the cultivar) have remarkable ageing potential. Nor are his Grüner Veltliners bad: with time they throw off interesting peachy aromas. He also has respectable Riesling wines gown on the loess soils of the Waldberg.

Taubenschuss is not the sole good grower in the northern stretch of the Brünnerstraße and there is always new blood bubbling up - Taubenschuss himself is a good example of this, as he has largely handed over the reins to his sons Markus and Thomas. In Wilfersdorf, for example, there is the last fragment of what was once a vast Liechtenstein estate. When I last visited, they had forty-two hectares (100 acres) of vines and made some very creditable reds from Zweigelt and Merlot and well as highly-prized Traminers and Rieslings. It has been a long time since I have seen the wines or the estate, but I hope one day to be able to taste what progress they have made.

The vineyard accounts for only a fraction of the 3,000 property which is still owned by the Princes Liechtenstein, more famous for their tiny principality on the Swiss Border. Eight thousand acres may seem pretty big, but in 1945, the section south of the Thaya was little more than an annexe. The Czechs made off with the rest of it, as that was located north of the river. That bit of land amounted to around 200,000 hectares, or half a million acres. I don't suppose the Liechtensteins have forgotten either.


The Land of Dumplings

Posted: 1st June 2015

I have been spending many happy hours leafing through Willi Kinger's beautiful tribute to his mother Hedi's cooking (Hedi Klingers Familienkuche Brandstätter, 2015 ISBN 978-3-85033-888-2). While I am extremely familiar with Lower Austrian food, the Klingerhof, Willi's family restaurant, was at Gaspolthofen in the Hausruckviertel in Upper Austria, and the cooking reflects a more pastoral if not rustic world (with some similarities to Bavaria and Bohemia). There are far fewer allusions to the original multicultural society that was Vienna, where Slavs, Magyars, Jews and Italians rubbed shoulders with the more Teutonic Viennese and the confusion flowered on the plate.

Cheese spreads - without the nod to Hungary that is Liptauer - are reminiscent of Bavaria. Broth is served with 'Einlagen' (floaters) as it is all over the southern half of the German-speaking world. Hedi's Frittatensuppe, for instance, with its strips of pancake, is the Flädlesuppe of Swabia. The commoner Einlagen are things like Leberknödel (liver dumplings) which I have craved since childhood when I was served them in the great - and long-since vanished - Schmidt's restaurant, the favourite resort of academic 1938-ers in London's Charlotte Street, before I scoffed a portion of roast goose and Sauerkraut.

Some of the ingredients that are vital for reproducing the flavours of Upper Austrian cooking have a bad reputation here. I went across the road to buy semolina ('Griess' in German), which not only makes the Grießknödel or semolina dumpling to go in soup, it is a vital part of many other dumplings. My mind travelled back to school, and semolina puddings with a great splodge of jam in the middle which you stirred vigorously to incarnadine the thick and otherwise tasteless gruel. On other days we had tapioca, which was every bit as nasty. The boys called it 'frog spawn'.

I paused over the meat dumplings, they were stuffed with fat bacon, 'Grammeln' ('pork scratchings' - those packets of dessicated cartilage you buy in pubs do not offer an adequate translation) or lard. My children have been raving about them ever since we were given them at lunch by Micki Moosbrugger at Schloss Gobelsburg. Some ingredients, however, would be hard to obtain or replicate, and not just those crunchy bits left over when the pork fat is rendered to lard, but also good Austrian Speck, which isn't quite our bacon. Paprika, for instance, comes in all shades and sizes in Austrian grocers' shops. One thing I can get easily, however, is fresh Styrian horseradish, which brings tears to your eyes as you shred it. My wife was taken with the Krenfleisch she had in a Viennese Beisl once. That was boiled beef, while Hedi uses a pork knuckle. The horseradish is then shaved on top and the whole served with a 'julienne' of vegetables. I shall use Hedi's recipe for boiled beef (meat from the shoulder) and adapt that.

Hedi's food is 'Hausmannskost' - really good home cooking -  rather than 'gastronomy'. A Fleischloaberl meatloaf looked just the thing, and there were useful tips on how to improve even the roasting of a chicken or making a better Wiener Schnitzel or Backhendl (fried chicken) or indeed 'gezogene' apple strudel, which is superior to the one I make with filo-style pastry. I reflected that the one man around here (the butcher Martin at Elite Meats in Swaine's Lane) who knew how to prepare veal for a Schnitzel, had recently shut up shop after a lifetime serving fussy 1938-ers and their heirs, the victim of another greedy landlord. I will miss him greatly. Austrians and South Germans are also masters at cooking veal sweetbreads. They are good in France, of course, but it is sometimes worth crossing the Rhine to see them at their best.

Where the Upper Austrian idiom is strangest to us is in the frequent use of potato starch to replace flour. The foundation stone of so many recipes is simply mashed potatoes. We come across this style of cooking only when we eat Italian gnocchi and I don't suppose many people do their own, although I have a certificate somewhere which says I learned to make them on a cookery course in the magnificent setting of the Gritti Hotel in Venice. Potatoes are boiled in their skins, peeled and pressed or riced. Once cold they are mixed with butter or soured cream, eggs and semolina before being worked into a dough. They are pressed down to make a two-centimetre-thick paste. The paste is formed into cups, filled, topped and scattered with flour. With some small variations for sweet and savoury, this is the basis for the region's rich and varied dumpling culture.

I decided that I had better make some dumplings and pressure from the family meant trying out the famous Marillenknödel (apricot dumplings) they had first experienced in the Wachau. There were more problems with ingredients: the recipe called for 'Topfen' (quark), but fresh curd is hard to come by here so I bought ricotta instead.  Nor could I say that the apricots available in my Turkish greengrocer were quite up to those from the Danube Valley, but so be it: I was able to get pretty close to Hedi's list.

It is remarkable how quickly the mixture of potatoes, ricotta, flour, semolina, sugar and lemon peel loses any taste you might associate with mashed spuds. The next stage was to make a sort of sausage out of the paste, cut off two centimetre-thick slices, flatten them and wrap them round raw apricots. These were then covered in flour and set aside to poach in boiling water. When they began to 'dance', I turned them to a pan filled with breadcrumbs fried in butter before bringing them to the table.

I was worried that the apricots had had a chance to cook in the water, but they were perfect, even if there might have been just a jot more sugar. The dish was a huge success, not least with my fruit-hating son, but he was adamant that he really wanted Fleischknödel, so it looks like Hedi's book will have to come out again soon.


Judgement of Wapping

Posted: 5th May 2015

One of the nicer sides of judging the Decanter World Wine Awards is its new location in London's Docklands. Once you have negotiated the bleak hinterland around Shadwell Station, the tastings are in the old Tobacco Dock, which despite some fairly crude restoration and adaptation, is what it says on the packet: the place where tobacco leaves were matured in Georgian and Victorian England (wine was housed downstairs) before being made into cheroots, cigarettes and pipe tobacco. Many of the original iron columns and roof beams are still in situ, which makes for a pleasant distraction when your jury is slow to reach a decision on a particular flight of wines.

Another pleasant aspect is the new judges' pub. Until we moved two years ago we had the famous Sloaney Pony on Parson's Green to hand to cool down after a day's tasting; but now we go to the Captain Kidd, a former riverside Georgian workshop that was sympathetically and convincingly turned into a pub in the late eighties. From the windows or the terrace you look out on the estuarine river below Tower Bridge, with its muddy banks, ravening seagulls and occasionally surviving wharves, and can reflect on how all this land - north and south - served to provision a mighty empire on which the sun never set.

Many of our tasters don't give the thing a thought, of course, they simply amble down to the Captain after they have finished work and generally find a lot of familiar faces from the wine trade and wine journalism mingling with the locals.

After the second day of judging Germany I was happily ensconced in the Captain while I listened to a senior Master of Wine talking about her beginnings in the trade. The MW-qualification has now become so famous that people have lost touch with its primary purpose, which was to master the technical aspects of trading in wine in those far off days when such activities also centred on London - and to some extent these very same docks. Until the seventies, most wine shipped to Britain arrived in cask, to be bottled here. Only incredibly posh wine arrived by the dozen in smart, branded wooden cases. While it was on the water, wine shipped in bulk often developed sicknesses and fell apart and before it quit London Docks, it had to be treated with various cures and chemicals to bring it back to life. All this 'primary care' was part of the original MW's remit.

Performing some sort of technical wizardry to rescue a sickening wine was very relevant to our panel this year, as the mainstay of the German wines before us was from the 2013 vintage. It was not a great year. It rained a lot and rot set in, causing many growers to harvest before the grapes were properly ripe. The result was high acidity on the one hand and insufficient body on the other. Growers scratched their heads to find a means to solve the problem of making attractive wines out of such unpropitious material. One solution was to lower the acidity by performing a secondary, malolactic fermentation that would turn the sharp malic acid into lactic acid, giving the wines a tell-tale creaminess that Riesling-lovers generally abhor. Another was to ferment the wines in small oak casks (or - as was often the case - to perform both a malolactic fermentation AND ferment them in cask). This was also meant to soften the wines and give them a little more fat, but Riesling-aficionados don't usually like that either. The third way was simply to deacidify, but that ran the risk of leaving the wines soft and spineless. That option was also not likely to please lovers of proper German wines.

Not too many people - sadly - thought of an obvious fourth solution, and that was to stop the fermentation early and make semi-dry to semi-sweet wines. Ideally, 2013 should have been a 'Kabinett-year'. Leaving 25 or more grams of sugar in the wines might have achieved a balance between acidity and sugar making them at once more attractive and easier to drink. They would have been low in alcohol, which was also the tradition for German wines until quite recently. This could have been the perfect way out for the Rheingau, for example, where the wines were very disappointing in 2013. The Pfalz was also lacklustre, with many of the wines missing their usual substance, but we are not so used to Kabinett wines from the Pfalz which was one of the first German regions to develop a reputation for dry Rieslings. I can see that it was not an easy decision to make.

The reds too were slightly less thrilling than they have been before now. The bulk was from 2012, which was not the easiest of years either. Despite all the publicity given to Pinot Noir of late, we have not seen really good German reds since 2010.

All of this sounds a bit gloomy, but it was not. I think we awarded eight gold medals over two days, and I satisfied a long-held ambition by seeing a sparkling Riesling receive a trophy. There were also some lovely sweet wines that are often a compensation for us Teutons.

And fortunately the Nahe managed to make some very good wines. The Mosel, once again, did better than the rest because the grapes ripened later there, after the damaging, rot-inducing rain and were able to take advantage of the autumn sun.

Back at the Captain, a woman for a neighbouring jury was describing the depressing experience of tasting flight after flight of Chinese wines. 'Yours', she told me, 'was the merry table'. It appears that despite all the reservations that we might have had about the 2013s, we were having lots of fun and she was deeply envious. Nature may bowl us a tricky ball from time to time, but if any team really knows how to whack it, it must be the Germans.


Rhône-Rangers

Posted: 1st April 2015

Some time in the first months of 1980 I was standing with a friend on the platform of St Paul station on the Paris Metro. A big man was sitting on a bench nearby with his head sunk deep in his hands. The friend remarked sopra voce: ‘he’s got a hangover.’

The man on the bench looked up, and stared at us through bloodshot eyes and speaking in accents that distinguished him as a former British public schoolboy, he grunted, ‘I certainly have’.

That man was Charles Lea, founder of the excellent London chain of Lea & Sandeman and one of the more endearing - and now most senior - men in the British wine trade. We talked, and he told us that he was doing up a zinc opposite the formal entrance to the Bibliotèque nationale for another Englishman called Mark Williamson. This was the incubation of Willi’s Wine Bar which was to become a sensation over the next few years. It is still alive and kicking, and continues to be the first stop for most Americans wanting to know about the wines of the Rhône Valley.

I told Lea I worked almost daily in the library’s reading room and he suggested I come in and look the place over. It wasn’t long before I put my nose round the door and saw Charles at the top of a ladder with a paintbrush in his hand. He introduced me to Mark and I came to the opening party. For several years after that, I repaired to Willis whenever I had put in a long stint at the library.

Mark had trained as a chef, but he also was part of an interesting little group of Anglo-Saxons who worked in Paris at the time. The flypaper was Steven Spurrier, proprietor of the Caves de La Madeleine in the Cité Berryer. Steven’s shop, and the wine courses he ran there, was highly in vogue. He trained large numbers of young English people who shifted cases and fetched wine from the warren of cellars downstairs. Most of his trainees have long since resurfaced as pillars of the wine trade. Mark too was a former intern, as was the late Ivan Paul, who had bought his own wine shop in the rue Vaneau by then, a congenial place where much more wine was drunk by the owner and his friends than was ever sold to customers. The oddest of all the Caves de la Madeleine apprentices was ‘Gilly’, who, despite being quite the rudest man I have ever met, was put to work serving customers. Thank heavens for the unflappable Mauricette who was there to restore any damaged egos.

A few months after he opened, Mark Williamson was joined by Tim Johnston. Tim was a considerable authority on the wines of the Rhône. A decade before, he had tumbled out of the wrong end of his public school and ended up in the wine trade. After a period in the Médoc he was chosen to run a vineyard in Provence and learned more about the practical side of wine than was usual then. Tim was suspicious of me at first but we became good friends when he moved on to Bordeaux to run a wine bar there and I was working the summer in the archives in the rue d’Aviau. I was writing a dissertation on the history of the Bordeaux trade, but it was never submitted, and my attempts to get the project published in book form never came to anything either.

It was Tim who introduced me to many of the greatest wines in the Northern and Southern Rhône. Having started out as a claret-man, I became passionate about the Rhône, and the first book I ever wrote on wine dealt with the Rhône Valley’s three noblest grape varieties: Syrah, Grenache and Mourvèdre in their various manifestations all over the world. I see it can be bought for as little as 28p! When it came out in 1992, I dedicated it to my infant Goddaughter Margaux Johnston, who now manages Juveniles, the Paris wine bar Tim created when he split off from Mark.

Although I have specialized in other things since (Austria, Portugal, Germany, to name but three) I always return to the Rhône with particular pleasure. Last month, after a gap of more than a decade Rhône Vignobles had a tasting in London. I started with the growers from the north. The Condrieu Le Grand Vallon from Domaine Villard was all the better and more authentic for not being blighted by new oak, for the same reason I liked its stable-mate, De Poncins, far less. There were superb whites from Louis Chèze too, indeed I loved all four wines he brought along. I would have been happy with his simple Côtes du Rhône white, with its little aroma of hay from the Marsanne grape, but real class was apparent in his Pagus Luminus Condrieu with its typical apricot blossom aroma. Chèze has two gorgeous red St Josephs (both 2012), an ordinary one, and a superior version called  ‘Les Anges’.

Laurent Combier is an old friend, but he seemed to have tripled the amount of land he farmed since I saw him last. When growers do this, the quality often suffers, but his Crozes Hermitage wines seem as good as ever: with those haunting tar-and-peony aromas so typical of granite-grown Syrah. The best, however, was the 2013 Clos des Grives made from vines planted in 1952, where the soil is pebbley and not granite.

I used to love Alain Graillot’s wines, but I was disappointed this time. The best was the 2005 La Guiraude. Domaine Voge in Cornas has always been a reliable house, as much for its hay-scented St Péray (Terre Boisée) as for its reds. The 2013 Cornas Les Chailles had just been bottled. It looked very promising. The rest of the tasting covered the Southern Rhône, with a few Châteauneufs, like the Domaines de Beaurenard and La Janasse. Beaurenard has an excellent Rasteau as well, but naturally the Châteauneufs are best, such as the 2009 Classique. The real treat, however, was the old vine wine, made from a plot planted in 1902. La Janasse had a pure Grenache ‘Chaupin’ which was wonderful, but even that was also upstaged by a multi-varietal old vine wine from 2011.

Portuguese wines also preoccupied me at one stage of my life. I don’t suppose many people read my book on the subject, but I was amused to see that German Amazon had disposed of several copies of it recently. I dropped into the New Douro tasting at the Ambassador’s Residence last week, but I was sorry not to have enough time to talk to so many familiar faces.

I did make it to see Tiago Alves de Sousa, who is the real rising star of the Lower Douro and Cristiano van Zeller to taste his wines from the Quinta Vale Donna Maria. A rare bird was Dirk Niepoort who has become one of the world’s wine superstars. The quality of the wine, however, has not diminished and Coche (the label of which reproduces the dashboard of his Ferrari) was quite new to me, and stunning.

Another old friend it was a pleasure to see again was David Baverstock of Esporão. He now makes the wines at Quinta dos Murças in the Douro as well as those from the big estate in the Alentejo. Murças had a splendid 2011 Old Vines Reserva. David has the privilege of making Sir Cliff Richard’s wines on his Algarve property too. Vida Nova must be a consolation to Sir Cliff in these difficult times.

On the way home I dropped off at the Westbury Hotel to see Matt Wilkin, who was showing the wines from Domaine de Bargylus in Syria. The Saadé family owns both this property on the Syrian Coast and the very successful Château Marsyas in the Lebanon which is now nudging the great Château Musar as the Lebanon’s most celebrated wine. While the Lebanese Civil War has fizzled out, the Syrian one continues its sickening course, and yet, this Christian family somehow contrives not only to produce the most civilized of beverages from their lofty vineyards, but also make wines of fabulous quality and finesse. Their determination goes some way towards restoring my faith in the survival of civilization.

As I was leaving, Matt packed me off to Richard Kelly of Dreyfus Ashby who was presenting a vertical of Moulin Touchais in the Loire Valley stretching back to 1971. They were all very different, but the 1997 and 1971 appealed to me most. The latter was wonderfully youthful and exuberant. Richard is now importing the wines of my friends at Domaine des Anges which can only be good news. He reminded me of our last meeting in Tournon in the Rhône Valley in 1993, when the late Gérard Jaboulet opened a bottle of his 1961 La Chapelle.  For both of us, it was a testament to how good top Northern Rhône wines could be. I noted ‘a bouquet of game and liquorice, with a feeling of sweetness - almost sweet pastry - on the palate.’ Richard said, even after a lifetime in the trade, it was ‘still the best wine’ he had ‘ever tasted.’


Quiet Days in Mormoiron

Posted: 2nd March 2015

Twice a year for two decades now, I have travelled south to the Domaine des Anges near Mormoiron in the Ventoux region of Northern Provence. I go for a few nights in February and September, but the February trip is billed as a quiet time, when good food and wines from the estate are enjoyed by a relatively small number of convives.

I normally fly to Marseille, and then there is a drive lasting about an hour and a half. For the first time this year, however, I made the entire journey by train; setting out from St Pancras (four minutes from Kentish Town) and arriving in Paris two and a half hours later, in time for lunch with members of the party who had flown in from Dublin. I met them at the flat of another, who sadly could not join us, as he had just undergone major surgery. After lunch we took a taxi to the Gare de Lyon for the second leg of what proved a wonderfully painless journey. One up for the train, I thought.

A part of my job is to cook, but we got in fairly late that evening, and a recipe for pork chops with a duxelle of mushrooms was pushed under my nose. The star that night was a magnum of winemaker Florent Chave’s latest triumph: the pure Grenache 2011 Séraphin. I have been sceptical of this wine up till now, as I found it too reductive and believed it needed a few months in an old cask to develop the nose, but our host, Gay McGuinness, had opened it hours in advance and it was producing plenty of very attractive aromas.

In the kitchen there was considerable excitement over hunks of boar Gay had picked up that afternoon, together with a score or more smallish truffles. I put the haunch straight into a marinade composed of two bottles of estate red, half a pint of wine vinegar and some olive oil, naturally adding a large bouquet garni of the herbs that grow around the mas or farmhouse. It was a small haunch, evidently from a very young beast. The truffles had been frozen in late December, but they still smelled promising when I opened the plastic box. The season had been extremely short due to warm, wet weather latterly crowned by heavy snow. France’s truffles have been struck by irregular harvests these last few years: the tubers don’t like warmth or excessive rain, nor to they respond to heavy frosts. It seems that good harvests happen one year in three or four now. There used to be many more truffles on the market and they were bigger and of better quality.

The problem with freezing truffles is that they lose their texture and become mushy. Once they had defrosted, I put them straight in to olive oil to prevent further oxidation, but there was no getting round the fact that they were not as pungent as they might have been.

We deployed them for the first time the following evening, when we obtained a large guinea fowl from a new shop selling fresh fruit and veg and other local specialities on the road to Mazan. Once we had done our shopping, we took off for Le Barroux, a hilltop village with a large castle between Caromb and Malaucène. The Germans apparently destroyed the castle because they saw signs it was being used by the Resistance. In fact, the mess inside had been caused by German units that had been billeted there some time before. In the sixties a new house was constructed within the ancient walls. There was no one around to let us into the castle but we enjoyed an aperitif in the sun at a friendly local restaurant instead. The Guinea hen was cooked ‘en demi-deuil’ with slivers of truffle inserted under the skin on the breast. I then worked up a sauce with the juices and fresh cream. We had the Domaine’s top Archange red that night, as well as a rogue bottle of Pauillac - a 1998 Château Haut-Batailley. No one was very clear as to where it had come from, but it was welcome for all that.

I have become used to the fact that shops pop off one by one in the region - like ten green bottles. Mormoiron has lost both its butchers. The shop on the Mazan road was a notable exception in this farewell symphony. It was market day in Carpentras on Friday and we found another impressive newcomer there called Le Grenache where we were able to stock up on some things which the estate does not make (champagne). Carpentras has but a few pockets of decent shops, as most of the smarter folk have moved out to the more genteel atmosphere of Pernes, leaving the town to its mainly North African inhabitants. Much of Carpentras now looks little different to the Mahgreb.

Still, the sun was shining again and we bought the few things we needed from the market before settling at a café opposite the lovely, truncated fifteenth century cathedral.

We cooked our haunch of boar that night. It was impressively tender after its 48-hour soak in Domaine des Anges red. I made some mashed potatoes and shaved in a great many truffles. The boar was acknowledged to have been a triumph, even if the truffles were somewhat less than heroic.

So far, we had had three lovely late winter days with glorious sunshine, but on Saturday the rain came down in torrents until the Mistral rose late in the afternoon to blow it away. On Saturdays the market is in Pernes, but with half-term starting that weekend and the miserable weather, there were few stalls set up beside the little river that borders the old town with its many fountains. We went to the tiny baker’s shop, Martin Richard in the rue Valentins, who makes his wonderful organic bread in a century-old oven. One woman sold us her last pigeons and quails and made us a present of some duck pâté as she was impressed by our fortitude. The two women who normally sell the local lavender honey were absent, possibly because of the school holidays, possibly because there have been a couple of bad harvests in succession and the bees have made but little. On the way back I tried the organic greengrocer in Mazan and the new shop, but neither had any. I finally tracked down a few pots in the cave Cooperative in Mormoiron. The price had risen sharply.

We had bought some good fresh ravioli in the market stuffed with ceps and ate those before we attacked our pigeons and quails that night. We left on Sunday. The wind had chased away the rain and it was brilliantly sunny again. We had our duck pâté and a pot of foie gras ready for a picnic on the train, but things began to go wrong around Lyon, when the train made an unscheduled stop. I had premonitions of disaster. There was too little turn-around time in Paris and I realised I risked missing my Eurostar.

Because half-term was drawing to an end in Paris, the queue for taxis snaked three times around the station forecourt, and yet I had too many bags filled with hunks of fresh boar, sausages, butter, honey and wine for the Métro. Every set of traffic lights seemed to be against me. We coasted by the shrine to Charlie Hebdo on the place de La République, but I had little heart for sightseeing. I arrived at the Gare du Nord two minutes before the train was due to leave and the man at the gate agreed that I had missed it. He told me to go to the ticket office where they would issue me with a ticket for the next train.

But it wasn’t as simple as that. The trains were full. The woman in uniform could not put me on a train before following morning. I wondered which Parisian friend might put me up for the night, but before I accepted my destiny I mentioned the late incoming train from Avignon. Her demeanour changed: how late, she asked. I saw my chance and exaggerated a little (not much). In that case she told me, ‘I can put you in First Class, leaving at 18.40.’ It was a hair-raising quart d’heure but in the end, I got home for dinner, and somehow even managed to travel in luxury.


The Power of Sex:
Hunting the Black Winter Truffle

Posted: 3rd February 2015

The black truffle season runs from December to March and God willing - in a fortnight or so - I shall be at the epicentre of the truffle-producing area in northern Provence. Between them, the Vaucluse and Drôme départements account for some sixty percent of French truffles. Périgord, which has the higher-sounding name, is good for about a third of this. I have been told it has been a short, poor season and truffles have been scarce since Christmas. Prices are quoted locally between €600 - €750, and twice that in Paris. I placed my orders early with reliable locals and with any luck my short stay will be blessed by a few memorable meals.

Not everyone is ready for truffles. The smell of a ripe truffle is earthiness made flesh. It is reminiscent of the bedroom: tangled sheets after a sticky night of sex. For the uninitiated, it can be disgusting. Travelling back from the professional truffle market in Richerenches in the Vaucluse a few years ago, I wrapped my precious acquisitions in a paper handkerchief and popped them in my pocket. I did not think of them again until I was 30,000 feet above the ground, somewhere between Marseille and Lyon.

I was conscious that the man sitting next to me was eyeing me with a blend of discomfort, suspicion and malevolence. When the fasten-seat-belt light went off, he got up and moved well away to another seat further down the aircraft. It was only then that I realised that he objected to the smell emanating from my pocket.

Had my fellow passenger known the odour hailed from that small, black, carbuncular tubers that the founding father of gastronomy, Grimod de La Reynière called ‘the foretaste of paradise,’ I imagine he would have asked to have a look (or even a sniff). Few people have the good fortune to experience the true flavour of truffles. At most the truffle they encounter is represented by a tasteless black fleck in the centre of a piece of foie gras (and probably only a piece of beetroot or horn of plenty mushroom - the standard duplicity), or some inert summer or Chinese truffle, fraudulently labelled Tuber melanosporum and sold at a huge price from a fancy delicatessen. The nearest thing to an authentic smell comes from those the little phials of oil in which a truffle has allegedly been bathed, and which are as often as not manufactured by an adroit combination of chemicals.

To a pig or a dog, however, that smell is meaningful enough. They know where to find them in the tangled mass of oak scrub that is the Mediterranean forest or maquis. A dog will need training, but for pigs it is innate. A sow finds the smell reminiscent of the boar’s scrotum, a thought so delicious to her that she is reluctant to yield up the truffle once she has taken it from the earth. Dogs are more pliant: a piece of bread or a biscuit will generally induce them to drop the truffle. In the old days there were proper turf wars over the maquis as truffle hunters asserted their rights to operate in a small piece of land known to yield the plumpest and the best. The land was never their own, but they assumed hunters’ rights whether the landlord liked it or not and most of the latter would have lacked the courage to stand in their way. These days, however, many of them have created truffières: a collection of local oaks planted on sandy soils that remind the truffles of their natural habitat. Truffières have the advantage of being easier to police.

As Pierre Sogno’s novel Le Serre aux truffes so vividly narrates, criminality and truffles are never far apart. Prized truffle-dogs are poisoned, sacks of truffles go missing from the gatherer’s homes and all manner of theft is a daily occurrence until the sources run dry at the end of February.

Some of the greatest fraud takes place at the market where the brokers come to acquire truffles for leading restaurants and grocers. Payments are strictly in cash. The French revenue service - ‘le fisc’ - must never know how many truffles have been sold. The hunter trades from the boot of his car. Any unfamiliar face caught snooping, and the hatch is slammed shut. The truffle-hunter sits on the boot brows knitted, his arms fiercely crossed until the stranger goes away.

The brokers are used to their shenanigans and some fraud is tolerated. They will buy if at least seventy percent of the bag is good. The more cynical brokers then sell the thirty percent of Chinese and tasteless summer truffles on to the canners who promptly defraud gullible consumers. Another trick is to increase the weight of the truffles by sticking clods and lumps of iron into the crevices of the tuber and then rounding it off with mud. Before he buys, the broker goes to work with a sharp knife, dipping into the sack offered by the hunter and scraping at the truffle to find any concealed weights. Too many instances of fraud from the rugged-looking fellow in the cloth cap and windcheater and the broker will never buy his truffles again.

At the restaurant Beaugravière at Mondragon near Orange, the chef Guy Jullien takes his truffles very seriously. In season black truffles are piled two or three feet high in a huge salver in the centre of his kitchen. He is so well known in the area that he gets the pick of the crop: tubers the size of tennis balls are scrubbed clean and glisten like so many pieces of wet coal. The aroma is sensational. At the slightest provocation he will design a menu entirely around the truffle: soupe VGE was created for the former President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing - truffle slices cooked in a goose stock under a puff pastry lid, the smell of which explodes under the diner’s nose when he breaks through the crust; a truffle omelette (in reality, scrambled eggs with truffles - the standard Provencal preparation); a chicken demi-deuil (‘half-in-mourning’) with slivers of black truffle inserted between the skin and the flesh to perfume the bird; a whole brie cheese, horizontally cut in two and filled with truffles; and vanilla ice cream, peppered with truffle flakes... The taste is indescribable. The atmosphere is electric. There are moments when you can hear a pin drop - so enchanted are the diners by the taste of heaven.

Black Truffle Risotto

(Starter for 4)

Ingredients

30g Black Winter Truffles approx.
1 litre of chicken stock
180g Carnaroli or Arborio rice
1 small onion, chopped very fine
2 tbsp Extra Virgin Olive Oil
250ml dry white wine
50g butter, diced
50g finely grated Parmesan
Salt to taste

Method

Using a mandoline, shave two-thirds of the fresh truffles into a mixing bowl. Grate the cheese into the same bowl, and add the diced butter and 1tbsp olive oil. Mix gently.

Bring a small saucepan to the boil with the stock and keep it simmering. Meanwhile using a heavy based flat-bottomed pan, sauté the onion in olive oil until translucent. Add the rice to the onion and heat through until all grains are hot and coated in oil.

Add the wine to the rice and stir until dissolved. Then add 1 ladleful of hot stock, again stirring until dissolved. Keep adding small quantities of stock until rice is cooked. This will take approx. 15-20 minutes from adding the wine. Rice should be al dente and the risotto the consistency of a thick soup. Turn off heat, add the butter-fresh-truffle & parmesan mixture and quickly beat into the risotto until it is creamy. Leave for 1 minute.

Serve the risotto in bowls. Shave any remaining truffles over the individual portions at the table.


Dusty Bottles

Posted: 5th January 2015

December is the party season and even in these lean, twilight years there are plenty of invitations if you want them. I don’t take many bites from the apple, but on the corporate side I went to both the Pernod-Ricard and the Chivas Brothers lunches, the latter in the Burroughs Distillery in Kennington where Jim Long showed me how they had recently turned the place into a museum with many opportunities to sample the gin as you admired the exhibits. This seemed an admirable development from the days when the distillery turned its back on its public; after all gin and London have walked out hand in hand for centuries.

I went to most of the Christmas parties given by friends and agents and to a curious concert at the Bulgarian Embassy where a man played a traditional Balkan flute while a lady sang and children amused themselves by scampering through the guests’ legs.

Among December’s special treats I would have to list the dress rehearsal of Tristan und Isolde and the Bad Sex Awards. In Stephen Gould, Nina Stemme had a tenor who was her equal, although I have to say John Tomlinson was sadly croaky. The Bad Sex Awards crowned Ben Okri - or rather, didn’t, because he didn’t turn up - but it remains about the best party of the season and a great tribute to the late Bron Waugh, who conceived it, and his son Alexander, who presents the show now. After I had my share of such distractions, London shut down as usual and Christmas reared its head.

Christmas feasts have become more paltry with the passing years, particularly when it comes to wine. Gone are the days when - in my mid-twenties - I went off to Hédiard on the place de la Madeleine and returned FF400 (£40) the poorer but armed with a bottle of 1971 La Tâche. There were just two of us then, with champagne, a haunch of wild boar and even a bottle of indifferent Pomerol in reserve. Needless to say I drank most of it. That wine costs over £3,000 a bottle today - and in bond. If anyone is interested, Berry Brothers has magnums at £26,000 and rising.

There was a little shop opposite the church of St. Roch in the rue St. Honoré that had a nice collection of first growth clarets. I remember being able to buy good years like 1961, 1962, 1966 or 1970 for a few hundred francs, which was possible for a once-a-year treat; also Nicholas used to bring out old bottles from its massive cellars in Charenton and these were distributed around its Paris branches. Their Yuletide window displays were the source of many, largely unfulfilled fantasies, but one Christmas I recall the 1966 Haut-Brion, and there were surely other wines of that quality. Another year a couple of friends (the German-wine guru Joel Payne was one) clubbed together to buy me a bottle of 1955 Yquem for my birthday. The cheapest I can find it now is £555 a bottle but I don’t imagine they paid a tenth part of that.

The globalisation of wine snobbery seems to have put paid to these cheap-ish treats. Ordinary people simply cannot afford to drink the top wines anymore and even those plutocratic Tampa or Orlando dentists who used to collect first growths and send first-class airline tickets to the likes of Michael Broadbent, seem to have ceded their places to Hong Kong businessmen and Shanghai traders; although one new friend admitted to me last month that he had bought three cases of 1982 Mouton thirty years ago and that now they were ripe, he opened one every Christmas and believed his 36-bottle cache would see him out.

There are still one or two half-decent things derrière les fagots here, although they won’t console us quite like the friend with his rack of Mouton. We started with some Mumm, a champagne that has got so much better in recent times that you feel obliged to take back all the nasty things you have ever said about it. Food had come from all over, it seemed: some fabulous goose livers flew in from the Central Market in Budapest and two of the largest lobsters I have ever cooked came up from Devon for Christmas Eve. They deserved a bottle of Corton-Charlemagne at the very least, but I had only some Chablis Montmains from my old friend Bernard Légland to give them, and the 2011 was greatly superior to the 2010, which I found rather stringy. There was a little treat in the wine for the Vacherin Mont d’or, a 2001 Castello Vicchiomaggio Riserva which was rich and luscious and tasted of blackberries.

I opened some Pol Roger on Christmas Day, still non-vintage, but from a case I bought when After the Reich came out, so 2007. It must have been cellared in 2004. Old NV champagne from good houses is rarely disappointing. That went with the liver. With our goose I had planned to sacrifice a magnum of 1998 Château Talbot had been hoarding since 2001 and as it transpired, one of our guests had brought a bottle of Haut-Batailley from the same vintage.

I was mildly disappointed by the Talbot, which I found a bit crumbly and wondered whether I hadn’t stored it badly. The Haut-Batailley, though a less prestigious wine, was more unctuous. We finished off with some 2003 Gewürztraminer Eiswein from my favourite Styrian grower Alois Gross, which was a rather more lyrical dessert than our commercial Christmas pudding, which had been made by Bloomers - or so it said - and he’d hidden a very sweet orange in the middle of it. After that we went upstairs and wept at Random Harvest.

My family went to the country soon after Christmas, leaving me with a fridge full of leftovers. There was more than enough there to last the week they were away. Only one night did I rebel and buy something different, and that was for New Year’s Eve. In Britain we do not have any culinary traditions for the end of the year besides getting drunk and throwing up. Many years ago I decided I would adopt the Italian practise of eating a zampone or cotechino sausage with lentils and mashed potatoes. The lentils are supposed to represent the money you hope to earn in the following year. I thought they would be enough and this year I omitted the mash - after all, it’s the money that counts.

I also bought some Italian lentils, but discovered far too late, that I was supposed to soak them, so I used red, Ethiopian ones instead, cooking them in goose stock. Even a small cotechino proved plenty of sausage.

Naturally an Italian meal calls for Italian wine and poking around in a little stash I keep I found some 1997 Pronotto Barolo which I thought would do me fine. There was a pipkin of Mumm in the fridge, about a glass and a quarter, and that I drank as an aperitif.

The star of the show was the Barolo, which was I think the best wine I drank during the Christmas feast; although it should be added that this was not the single-vineyard wine. It had quite pronounced aromas of violets and the most gorgeous filigree acidity and a huge length that kept coming and going in waves across my tongue. The tannins were fine and silky, and it provided voluble company while I watched Greta Garbo as Queen Christina. There were even a couple of glasses left over for New Year’s Day.

And so I begin a new year...


Wine & Food Diary entries posted before 2015 can now be found in the Wine & Food Diary Archive.