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!
On a Half-Empty Eurostar:
Paris and the Loire
Posted: 7th December 2015
At the end of last month a variety of issues led me to make a rare sally out to Paris and the Loire. It had been an age since I had been to the French capital to do any more than change trains I took a half-empty Eurostar and just over two hours later I was walking from the Gare du Nord to friends in the rue des Martyres. The state of emergency was still in force after the Friday 13th Massacres and armed soldiers patrolled the streets, but that had failed to completely dampen the spirits of the market folk and when I dropped into a florist I was dragged into a light-hearted, bogus matrimonial row between the owners of the shop.
Evenings were spent in the company of old friends too long neglected, but on Sunday I slipped away for lunch in Montparnasse, noting that many of the smaller restaurants in the backstreets were shut, probably as a result of the preposterous 35-hour week. That left little more than a collection of nasty-looking crêperies and the garish cookshops on the boulevard. I am told that since so many people were gunned down on restaurant terraces, Parisians now avoid going out at night, but in most areas restaurants still function well at lunchtime. In the evening only a few bewildered American tourists venture out to eat.
After lunch in a dismal chain-joint, I allowed myself a nostalgic walk back to the slopes of Montmartre. As I emerged from the rue de Montparnasse I recalled the atelier above the Théâtre de Poche and the alleyway that ran down to it, and the midget hockey player who used to park her mini outside the concièrge's lodge in the early hours; there was the late George Hayim's flat in the next-door building, painted garish colours to lure in roughs from the cinema queues. I suppose those crude murals are long gone.
The cinemas were mostly still there, but the magnificent interiors of Chez Hansi appeared to have been ripped out (choucroute has gone out of fashion?) and the place turned into a fashion shop; and there was Félix Potin's art nouveau building, and there 106 bis rue de Rennes, a place of many happy and some sad memories. I walked down the rue du Cheche Midi - the good Italian restaurant was still operating, but closed that day. I looked at all the magnificent hôtels particuliers on the way. Sometimes a light illuminated some fabulous boiseries on the piano nobile of the many palaces in the Quartier Saint Germain.
In the rue du Bac there was the Frégate where I used to eat in solitary splendour until they took away my credit card; and there the bollard in the Louvre where Anne B crashed her Mercedes in a fit of passion. I strolled through the gardens of the Palais Royal and had a look at the prices at the Grand Véfour, the first three-star restaurant I ever ate in. In the Galérie Vivienne was the wine shop of the late Père Legrand and A Priori Thé, which used to be run by a large, sententious American lady married to an Englishman we called Terry the Cake. I have to take my hat off to her creation: it has endured more than thirty years.
I walked past more wonderful buildings in the rue de Montmartre and the rue du Faubourg de Montmatre. The monster gargote Chartier, which used to be filled with poor students eating bread and rillettes for a franc, now has its own souvenir shop like the Hard Rock Cafe in London and the prices have gone up a bit. Avoiding a man sitting in a pool of his own urine I crossed the road and noticed A la bonne mère de famille for the first time. It has a perfectly preserved interior of c1860. I was now within striking distance of the friends who were putting me up and more than ready for a flute of champagne. An old mucker came to dinner who regaled us with wicked stories and provided just the sort of merry distraction I needed.
On the Monday morning Tim Johnston and I set off for the Loire. After a lifetime in French wine, Tim runs Juvenile's Wine Bar together with his daughter Margaux. There was a time when Tim and I used to make this sort of road trip fairly often: in the summer of 1981, I got to know the vineyards of Bordeaux on the back of his motorbike and later he introduced me to the Beaujolais, Sancerre and many different parts of the Rhone Valley. It wasn't easy getting out of Paris that day: the world's leaders were meeting in Le Bourget and much of the Right Bank was shut off. There was a suggestion that the Mouche and her daughters had hitched a lift in Air Force One and were getting some shopping done on the Champs Elysées.
Once we crossed the Seine the traffic flowed rather more freely and we are able to reach Vouvray by lunchtime. We ate in the Val Joli opposite the famous Hardouin delicatessen. We had Hardouin cochonailles to eat and I had a veal chop after. We drank a 2012 dry Haut Lieu from Huet. Later we popped across the road and stocked up on rillettes and other good things.
We had gone to Vouvray to see Catherine Champalou as Tim needed some of her wine for the bar. We tasted some lovely 2013s, 2014s and 2015s from their clay and clay-cum-sand soils: dry, off-dry and sweet; as well as a splendid little sparkler. Then after a mishap or two we headed down to Chinon as darkness enveloped the Loire Valley.
We were making for the Clos des Capucins, which was recently acquired by my old friend Fiona Beeston. It was a little too dark to admire the view so we all settled down to a cosy evening tasting Fiona's lovely second wine: 'Perfectly Drinkable' (and epithet conferred on it by her charming father, the journalist Dick Beeston, who died earlier this year) as well as the much more serious wine from the Clos itself. The 2015s were still under wraps, but the vintage looks very promising.
The full glory of the estate's position dominating the castle in Chinon was not revealed until the following morning when I went out past a gaggle of hens onto the front lawn and took in a breathtaking view of the favourite castle of England's Angevin kings, not to mention the mediaeval bridge over the Vienne. We were due to meet François Houette at ten, who has a business selling truffle trees, and who figures large in the revival of truffle hunting in the region around Chinon. Houette showed us dogs, and two miniature sows which he had trained to sniff out truffles in the local woods. The trees he sells - chiefly oaks and hornbeams - are impregnated with truffle spores so that customers can be assured of harvesting a few precious tubers of melanosporum in the appropriate season.
We drove round various terroirs of Chinon where Fiona explained that some of the best such as Les Piquasses have a percentage of sand in the soil that gives the local Cabernet Franc (called 'Breton' in Chinon) its distinctive qualities. We had a look at the vines that made 'Perfectly Drinkable' and then went into Chinon itself for a coffee and a walk.
Chinon is still a lovely little town with its huge castle and there are several fine mediaeval churches and plenty of good houses too. Like all of provincial France, parts are decaying. The present mayor, Jean-Luc Dupont, thinks he knows the cure. He seems to be determined to leave his mark on the place and achieve a leg up in politics by building a shopping centre in the car park under the castle. I presume this will mean the supermarkets will drive a breach through the walls and the small businesses that are the pleasure of country towns of this sort will be destroyed by trash and the discounted prices of super-national competitors. Perhaps Prince Charles should take up Chinon's cause and protect it from this dreadful mayor? Charles's family used to live in the castle after all.
We had lunch at the Auberge des Coteaux at Cravant which stocks virtually all the cheaper cuvees produced in Chinon. It is a proper, rustic bistrot with a generous all-inclusive menu. We drank Pascal Lambert's 2014 Chinon Les Terrasses.
In the afternoon we had a look round Fiona's walled vineyard and all the delightful nooks and crannies carved into the rock where she keeps her wine and the different preparations for biodynamic viticulture. One nook I envied most revealed itself as a proper bread oven. Under the lawn there is a sort of grotto containing an ancient kitchen range, a perfect setting for bacchanalian revels.
We went to see the local grower Etienne de Bonnaventure at the Château de Coulaine who has a small amount of white wine as well as some ungrafted vines like those that existed all over France before the scourge of phylloxera struck at the end of the nineteenth century. Phylloxera cannot live in pure sand, but Chinon's soils would be sandy loam at best and the risk of infection would still be there. Of the wines from the ungrafted vines I liked the 2006. Etienne revealed that the ungrafted vines ripened later than the others. The best of the grafted vines were from his vines in Les Piquasses and the Clos de Turpenay.
The depressed economic state of France is obvious pretty well everywhere. We went to see one grower whose majestic home had seen better days and whose family were crammed into the one or two rooms they were still able to heat. The local ring road now raced past their door. After a series of disasters, the winemaker himself had taken to sleeping above one of his vats. The most striking thing about our visit was the behavior of his dog, which became visibly worried whenever he picked up a bottle. When the dog heard the cork pop she barked furiously for a minute before calming down. As he had a lot of corks to pop, we witnessed the performance several times. The dog was touchingly worried about her master.
After that, we went to the Café Français, a rather good bar. It was in the centre of Chinon and had been some sort of municipal brothel in the nineteenth century. Today it is more like a good pub. We were joined by a young English chap who lived in Chinon and was well versed in local politics. It was hard to imagine being young and living in sleepy Chinon, but he seemed to manage. When it became too much he had a flourishing business designing nightclubs in Paris. We had dinner at the Auberge Val de Vienne à Sazilly, a stylish restaurant some way outside Chinon. I had foie gras, a copious tête de veau sauce ravigotte, cheese and a tarte fine with an almond ice. After some white burgundy were drank Bernard Baudry's 2012 Clos Guillot. A good cognac was needed to get that down. I was more than ready for bed when we returned to the Clos des Capucins.
Tim and I drove back to Paris early the next day. The police were still swarming, trying to find the missing perpetrator of Friday 13th. We had lunch in Juveniles and I ate a rather good poached egg with bacon and mashed salsifis and some veal breast. Then there was a bit of shopping to do: spices from Roellinger; sweets from that marvelous old-fashioned Tetrel, the sweetshop in the rue des Petits Champs that remains unchanged since the thirties and which still sells some unusual bottles of wines as well; and bread from Tim's favourite baker in the rue des Martyres. I slept for most of the journey back to London, on a half empty Eurostar.
Adieu Mario, German Gourmandises, Rare Whisky and a 40-Year Old Decanter
Posted: 2nd November 2015
RIP Mario Scheuermann (1948-2015)
Mario expired from a heart attack on 15 October. He was sixty-seven. It is an indication of how suddenly he was taken from us that his last tweets were sent on the day of his death and still give every indication that he believed all was well.
Along with Rudi Knoll, Mario was credited with being the pioneer of modern German wine writing. In the Eighties he was enmeshed with the men behind the reforming Charta movement - Bernhard Breuer and Graf Matuschka (both of whom incidentally died premature deaths) - in their call for dry German wines, and he was one of the first to hanker after the classification of German wines that would eventually be realised by the VDP, the association of top German wine estates.
Mario always claimed he was the only German wine writer who had had a proper journalistic training. I have no idea if that was true, but he was a fine taster and his judgements on wine were invariably sound. Later on he became one of the first wine writers to embrace the Internet and see the possibilities of working with Twitter.
Mario was born into a wine making family from Neustadt on the Pfalz wine road and graduated from his grammar school or Gymnasium to the local press before branching out into food writing at the end of the seventies. He was the author of a dozen books, the first of these - on wine - appearing in 1985. In those early days he wrote as much about food. He was quite a sybarite.
Somewhere along the road he became a friend and Boswell to the controversial Hardy Rodenstock (real name Meinhard Görke), a Walter-Mitty figure who earned his bread managing German pop-singers and who was famous for collecting ancient vintages of Yquem, Lafite and Latour. Rodenstock now stands accused of cooking up bogus bottles of these First Growths, feeding them to the great and good at his Munich dinner parties and occasionally selling them off to unwitting American millionaires. Virtually every famous wine writer you might choose to name fell for these concoctions hook, line and sinker and jotted fulsome notes about them in between making small talk with the Schlagersängerinnen (Bavarian equivalents of Sandy Shaw or Millie Small sporting spurious Anglo-Saxon monikers) and the football players who were Rodenstock's habitual côterie. When Rodenstock went to ground after the revelations contained in the excellent book The Billionaire's Vinegar Mario absented himself from his usual haunts for years, although to do him credit, he defended his friend Rodenstock to the last and angrily maintained there was no truth in the allegations that he had knocked up those precious nectars in the basement of his home.
Looking back at it, I must have got to know Mario thought the official Salon tastings in Klosterneuburg. He and I were the only foreigners invited to judge Austrian wines in the sober surroundings of Austria's top wine school. The juries were presided over by the school's wonderfully dignified principal, Hofrat Josef Weiss. Mario and I were very often in agreement about the wines, and in particular about the tiresome and ill-advised use of oak in so many, and we became firm friends.
Mario used to set up wine-tastings in Hamburg and elsewhere at which contributing growers paid hefty fees for participation. There is nothing wrong with that - all wine competitions are organised to make profits for their organisers after all. If you were not careful, however, you were roped in to help and I don't think much money ever was ever reassigned to his assistants! I was warned about this very early on, and always resisted manfully. He used to try to get me to translate his books into English as well and once endeavoured to lure me to Hamburg to talk about my book on the last German Kaiser. There was no money offered and my fares were not to be paid either, but it would apparently have been a 'great honour' for me to attend. For some reason I declined.
I did occasionally consent to work with Mario. For two or three years he arranged a wine 'challenge' at the beautiful castle of the Winkler-Hermadens, Schloss Kapfenstein in Styria and I used to come as one of two or three professional tasters who joined a panel composed of famous growers from the South Styrian wine road. Mario was at his best then, mellow and warm with his fetching baritone voice, petting the family dog Moritz, avuncular with the Winkler-Hermaden children, puffing on a big cigar, encouraging (at a price!) the local growers and above all telling them to enter his Hamburg wine fairs where they might achieve the recognition they deserved.
My favourite memory of Mario, however, will remain an evening in Vienna, when Berthold Salomon had organised a dinner in a private room at Steirereck, then the city's best restaurant, in its original location in the IIIrd Bezirk. Mario arrived late with a young and bewildered-looking girl on his arm whom he described as his secretary. Gently questioned across the table, however, she denied holding that or any other position under Mario and confessed uneasily that she had not met him before that day when he had picked her up in the street. Our host, Berthold did his best not to notice, but somewhere towards the end of the meal, Mario's captive saw her chance and bolted. When Mario perceived that his butterfly had escaped he ran off after her but she evidently gave him the slip, for he returned a few minutes later, empty-handed and red in the face. He did not remain flustered for long: warming to a rowanberry schnapps and a cigar he acted as though the girl had been a figment of our collective imagination. Shortly afterwards he married his Hungarian wife, confiding in me that her parents were younger than he was.
As I said, there were a number of years after the Rodenstock story broke when Mario went off the radar. I noticed him again three years ago when he came to the Vievinum wine fair in Vienna and seemed reborn to past form. I last saw him in Wiesbaden in August, plotting as ever, constantly conferring with two men during the Sneak Preview tastings, but a cheering sight for all that as he trotted between the tables saluting old friends left and right of the central aisle of the tasting room at the Kursaal. It is his warm, engaging presence that I shall miss the most.
Adieu, and take thy praise with thee to heaven!
Nils Henkel and Gut Hermannsberg
Two days before Mario's death, on 13 October, I was invited to a dinner at Christie's in South Kensington organised by Tesi Baur and the World Gourmet Society. The food was prepared by Nils Henkel, who had taken over the famous Gourmetrestaurant Lerbach in Mönchengladbach from Dieter Müller, and had two Michelin rosettes. The wines came from my old friends at Gut Hermannsberg and were presented by the estate's administrator, Tobias Fricke.
There were four little dishes: a plate of 'burnt' mackerel, couscous and 'oxalis' (wood sorrel); Arctic char with mashed cress, char hard roes and an elderflower/caper vinaigrette; some fine preserved belly pork (which might have benefited from longer braising) with sour fennel (in the manner of sauerkraut) and a roast onion bouillon; and an excellent coconut rice pudding with a pomegranate-cum-ginger sorbet, mangoes and coriander.
As I said, the wines were all from Gut Hermannsberg, the former Prussian State Wine Domaine constructed after closing the copper mine at Schlossböckelheim a century ago. The present owners positively cultivate the terroir aspect which means that the wines can be austere - although the sekt we started with was fairly bland. The 2014 dry Schlossböckelheimer Riesling was still quite aggressively sulphury, but promising; while its 2013 stable mate from the Steinterrassen was typically high in acidity from its less-than-favoured vintage; the 2010 Grosses Gewächs from the Kupfergrube was the best of the dry wines, nicely balanced with a nutty nose and a peachy palate; a classic 2013 sweet Spätlese from the Steinberg stole the show: the solution in 2013 was to leave a little more residual sugar to cover the otherwise searing acidity.
Diageo Special Releases
The world of whisky writing has changed almost beyond recognition in the last decade. I attended a tasting of wonderful old whiskies on the 20th of October and was amazed not to see a single journalistic face I knew at the old Doric Armoury in Hyde Park, not even that stalwart of hard liquor Ian Wisniewski, although I was later assured that he had been there, I must have missed him in the depths of the immense crowd. Still there were compensations for the lack of old cronies in the whiskies themselves.
There was, for example, a 40-year old Cally from the huge Edinburgh Caledonian distillery that closed in 1988. It was pure grain and had an estery, nail-varnish-like nose and a fruity, nervous palate quite marked by oak (£750); an unpeated 17-year old Caol Ila from the northern tip of Islay with an intense, chocolate-like aroma and a typical salty tang on the palate with a hint of chilli (£90); a 'Select Reserve' from Clynelish, rich and oily with a waxy favour and charming fruit (£550); the fourth official bottling of Dailluane, a 34-year old malt with a heathery nose and a flavour of pears and chocolate together with a suggestion of peat (the floor-maltings closed in 1983 - £380); a 25-year old Dalwhinnie with a nose reminiscent of pastry and a light, feminine body (£325); a 25-year old Pittyvaich from a still that lasted only twenty years, that I found heathery, earthy, rich and chocolatey to the degree that I regretted that the place had been so pitilessly slaughtered in its prime (£250); a 12-year old Lagavulin smelling of kippers with a hint of dried apricots on the palate. It was almost my favourite, and the cheapest in the collection (£80); a peaty 32-year old Port Ellen from the now demolished distillery on Islay with a touch of kippered herring about it, but not nearly so domineering as the Lagavulin. The palate was leathery and salty (£2,400); and finally my favourite, a 37-year old Brora that was fruity and leathery all at once and had the perfect balance of fruit which seemed to go on and on forever (£1,300).
It was Decanter magazine's 40th Birthday Party on the 22nd, held upstairs at the ICA in Carlton House Terrace. I had only visited the bit of the building on the Mall before, and was surprised to find there was a civilised part where you could admire the Nash architecture, not to mention the view out over St. James's Park on an unbelievably balmy night in late October.
I could not pretend my connection with the magazine goes back to its foundation. I began working for the now defunct WINE in the early eighties and only flipped to Decanter at the end of the decade. I knew two of the three founders well enough: Colin Parnell, a shy man who rarely emerged from his office, and the Australian Tony Lord, who was Parnell's perfect opposite: coarse, rude and drunken for all the time I saw him, if he had a more sedate side to his character it possibly only revealed itself while he was asleep.
Not that he slept or ate much as it might have interfered with his drinking. When a doctor put him off alcohol because he had managed to contract typhoid in South America, he drank beer, because he said that wasn't alcoholic. There was a story about his staying in smart hotel where he had got out of bed to find the sheets smeared with alarming brown stains. Assuming the worst he stripped the bed before calling the laundry. While he was discretely folding the sheets, however, he got a whiff of the brown stuff and it dawned on him that it was nothing more sinister than the chocolate the obliging chambermaid had laid on his pillow as a goodnight treat.
There were usually fireworks when the good Lord turned up at tastings. He would generally get it into his head to be rude to someone. Once it was a highly respected lady MW who drew his fire, when he loudly speculated on the colour of her pubic hair. Her husband was a gentleman of the old school, and for a moment I thought he was going to have to satisfy his wife's outraged dignity by striking Lord, but at that precise moment a group of men picked Tony up and ushered him out of the building.
When I first started working for the magazine it was based in a Gothic Revival building by Battersea Park Station and from the tasting room you could watch the trains coming in and out. After the tastings we sat down to lunch to evaluate the wines. A barrel-shaped former restaurateur called David Wolfe was often there, sleeping between mouthfuls but he would spring to life when his opinion was canvassed. The commissioning was performed by a shy young chemistry graduate called David Rowe. I went all the way to Chile with David, a man possessed of a fine sense of humour and I remember him doctoring bottles of wine with vinegar that were discretely passed to an annoying know-all we called 'Arturo Prat', who was insisting that the Sauvignon Blanc he was drinking in heroic draughts was not acetic. We knew better.
None of these lively early figures in the magazine's history was at the birthday bash, Colin and Tony have departed this life, David went to live in Bordeaux and I think might still be there. His successor as editor fell foul of the publishers and went to Paris where he led a wild and picaresque existence for a while. The only witness to those distant days present was a radiant Emma Wellings, who worked under Rowe for a while, and is now running a wine PR firm. Decanter is a much sleeker, tighter, slicker institution now and a reflection of a more serious, professional approach to wine that is in keeping with the Zeitgeist. When Tony Lord retired to Australia he found to his chagrin that there were few people left who would drink wine with him at breakfast. Still, fuelled by lashings of Gosset champagne, we let our hair down that night and let us hope the magazine outlives us all.
More German Wines and Chablis in Provence
Posted: 5th October 2015
As if the tasting marathon in Wiesbaden were not enough, there were more German wines to be tasted in London last month, courtesy of Justerini & Brooks. With the admirable Hew Blair at the helm, J & B has the agencies for some of the very best domaines in Germany. Again the focus was on 2014, but the estates had been kind enough to tack on a few other wines and unlike Wiesbaden, the focus was not necessarily on the dry grand cru GGs so there was a chance to taste the rare Kabinetts and Spätlesen and even the odd Auslese that was made last year.
One of those I had not seen was August Kesseler's Lorcher Seligmacher ('the one that blesses you'), a really lovely wine. Emrich-Schönleber brought along some really super traditionally sweet wines from his Halenberg site (blue slate and quartz) in the Nahe, a splendid Kabinett, a Spätlese and even an Auslese. There were more treats from Helmut Dönnhoff: a spicy Riesling from his 45-year old vines on the red sandstone soils of the Höllenpfad; another from the slate soils of the Leichenberg; a Spätlese from the Oberhäuser Brücke and another (even better) from the Hermannshöhle. There was even a drop of gorgeous Auslese, made from the ripest grapes: there was little or no 'noble' rot in 2014, just pernicious 'green' rot.
For an ostensibly old-fashioned wine merchant like J & B, selling often to died-in-the-wool customers who like off-dry and sweet German wines and abjure the 'newfangled' dry wines, this was of course a chance to show off the sort of things you don't meet in Wiesbaden. Forstmeister Geltz Zilliken had a sensational Saarburger Rausch Spätlese that exuded almost tropical fruit aromas. The Auslese might overtake it with time, and to remind us how good these things can be, there was a delicious 1999 Spätlese.
Maximin Grünhaus is one of the rare top estates that is not part of the VDP. The wines come from former monastic vineyards that were segregated to provide wine for the abbot's table, while lesser quality stuff was doled out to mere monks. The monks drank leaner wines, but still, I would have been a joyful cenobite with the 2014 vintage, and an even happier abbot with the Herrenberg Spätlese, although it should not be approached for four or five years yet.
Fritz Haag has been one of a handful of top players in the Mosel for a generation. Again the sweeter wines were pleasant surprise, such as the 2014 Brauneberger Kabinett and the Brauneberger Juffer Sonnenuhr Spätlese and Auslese No. 10, with its redolence of peaches and mangoes.
Willi Schaefer in Graach is another one of those Mosel estates that has Riesling fans salivating at the mere thought of the wines. Two Kabinetts shone for me: the Himmelreich and the Domprobst. Willi Haag's son Thomas makes the wines at Schloss Lieser. The GG had impressed me greatly in Wiesbaden, but here in the Caledonian Club I had the chance to sample the Helden Spätlese with its whiff of lavender and a glorious Auslese and a Goldkapsel (top Auslese) too. These wines are still quite closed. It would be a great pity to open then for five years or more.
Riesling enthusiasts think of JJ Prüm as a sort of place of pilgrimage. It is very rare that you get the chance to taste the wines anywhere else, which are made in tiny quantities. Nor are they easy to evaluate as the sulphur on them does not clear for around five years, and as young wines they are frankly stinky. It is a bit like the Battle of Austerlitz, when the battlefield was shrouded by mists which were eventually burned off by the sun allowing Napoleon to trounce the Russians in one of his most celebrated victories. After half a dozen years or so, the wines are sweetness and light. In this collection the 2009 Graacher Himmelreich Spätlese was just about ready to drink (even if it would be better to wait) with its creamy peachiness, while the Wehlener Sonnenuhr from the same vintage was hugely lush and dense. The best of all was the 2008 Wehlener Sonnenuhr Spätlese.
A couple of Rheingauer to finish: Josef Spreitzer, the current star of Oestrich had brought in a lovely collection, and Wilhelm Weil in Kiedrich had produced a powerful Kabinett that should satisfy anyone who shuns the dry GGs.
September means Provence and the Ventoux. They had had a blistering summer that was quite unlike our non-event here. By the time I arrived on the 16th, the whites were in but storms were gathering and Florent Chave, the winemaker at the Domaine des Anges, thought he would be forced to bring in the black grapes as quickly as possible. The Grenache looked good, and the Syrah, he said, was very healthy. It would would certainly be a fine year. Rain came down in torrents on the morning of the 17th, but the next few days were hot and windy and you would not have known there had been a drop of moisture, as the ground was very soon rock hard again.
A good summer was reflected in the quality of the fruit and vegetables in the market, melons were good and sweet and the lavender honey was back. Last year the cold and rain disorientated the bees and there was almost none to be had. The prices have shot up and I doubt they'll come down again. Pierre Bruno brought up a few kilos of figs from his place in the Var and taught me how to make fig jam. Figs being so sweet, you only need to add 500 grams of sugar per kilo of fruit, and then you stop the cooking as soon as the mixture begins to bubble. It makes a delicious brew, somewhere between a jam and a compote.
There were moments when our fare was more Provencal this time than it usually is and I even ate an aïoli one night at La Calade in Blauvac although I search the markets high and low for brandade de morue, I never see it.
The highlight of the trip was once again our tasting at Bob Huddie's place down in the village. He had brought out a collection of chablis from the 2012 vintage. I used to go to Chablis in January every year at a time in the nineties when many growers used to smother their wines with oak. It was nice to see that most have given up now, and the wines had that characteristic flinty, 'mousseron' character untrammelled by alien vanilla aromas and with impressive length.
Indeed, I think I liked them all, from the humble Petit Chablis wines of Agnes and Didier and Vincent Dauvissat to the Premier crus Les Fourneaux from J-P Grossot, the Montée de Tonnerre from Louis Michel and above all the Vosgros from Gilbert Picq. There were two Premier crus from William Fèvre: Vaillons and Vaulorent, both of which were slightly marred by the smell of sulphur. I think this will come off with time. Certainly there was nothing wrong with the structure. Of the two Grands crus: the Louis Michel's Grenouilles and the Moreau Naudet Valmur, I'd say the former could be happily drunk now, but the latter needs a couple of years yet before you might broach it. Both are classics.
As usual, we settled into an excellent lunch cooked by the wonderful Isabelle: summer truffles with rock salt, Bob's spicy tomato soup, a magnificent daube, cheese and lemon or orange givrés (a sorbet served in the fruit's shell) Magnums of 2006 Château Cantemerle accompanied the daube, and an envoi came in the form of some Domaine Charvin Châteauneuf-du-Pape, one of our host's favourite wines and rightly so: the wines are full of fruit and spice and the winemaker neither dresses up the fruit with oak nor does he impoverish his basic cuvées by making small batches of overpriced wine to impress American critics. It was sheer delight.
A Tasting Marathon in Wiesbaden
Posted: 1st September 2015
For the last few years I have travelled to Wiesbaden in late August to taste three or four hundred of the new vintage's Grosses Gewächs wines released by the VDP, the organisation that represents almost all of Germany's top estates. Grosses Gewächs ('GG') are dry wines made according to a Burgundian notion of 'climat'; products of the best individual plots of soil or terroir. Sites are therefore deemed more important than they were in the old German tradition of 'Prädikat,' or grading by residual sugar content, which implied that the best wines were the sweetest.
Dinner in Münster-Sarmsheim
The night before the big tastings in Wiesbaden, we hacks were treated to a tasting and dinner at the Kruger-Rumpf estate in the Nahe. As the Nahe is a very small region, they had teamed up with the red wine-producing Ahr to present some good bottles from the cool 2004 vintage. The 2004 had been chosen not just because it was now mature, but also because it was said to resemble the 2014. As we assembled in the courtyard armed with a glass of local Sekt, a small trickle of rain fell, the first drops to bless the torrid growing season in 2015. The summer heat had been so unrelenting that picking had already begun in the neighbouring Pfalz.
The 2014 vintage was presented by the affable Georg Kruger-Rumpf. I was dreading another 2013, where the wines were often sharp and unripe and where all sorts of unsatisfying shenanigans had been used to correct the acidity, but Georg assured us that the grapes were ripe at the time of the September rains which caused the rot to set in. Those who were careful to discard putrid bunches and berries (that means the top estates who can be assured of a higher price for their wines) were able to make good if not great dry wines. On the other hand there was no return to the long slow autumn, or 'goldener Oktober', so beloved of German winemakers and there will be few good traditional sweet wines in 2014, beyond a scattering of Kabinetts.
I am a great fan of the Nahe, and of Kruger-Rumpf in particular, and their first wine, a 2004 GG from the steep, slate Pittersberg was no disappointment. The real star of the Nahe, however, is the Hermann Dönnhoff estate and the 2004 Hermannshöhle was a dream of a wine. Just a few steps behind it in quality was the Schäfer-Fröhlich Felseneck, grown on one of the Nahe's many patches of volcanic soil.
After these flights came dinner served with a set of 2014 Nahe wines and some 2012 reds from the Ahr. We had a salad of Saumagen (a stuffed pig's stomach, a sort of Palatine haggis), lambs lettuce and Bergkäse and my favourites were the lemony Emrich-Schönleber 'Mineral' and the apricot and grapefruit-scented Steinrossel from Prince Salm. Next we were served some braised oxcheek topped with a slab of foie gras which worked best with the Nelles Burggarten Pinot Noir, the Mayer-Näkel Sonnenberg and the Deutzerhof Eck. We finished off with an arty plum crumble and some traditional sweet Kabinetts from the 2014 vintage. The two most promising seemed to be the Gut Hermannsberg and the Dönnhoff Leistenberg, but it is early days for these classics yet.
The Show Continues in Wiesbaden
The real tasting began the following morning and continued for two days. I started with the Rieslings. My impression seemed to confirm everything that Georg Kruger-Rumpf had said: these wines (north of the Main at least) were exemplary German dry whites. In the Mosel, Heymann-Löwenstein was on top form, with both the Kirchweg and Stolzenberg in Hatzenport promising great things. In a more well-mannered, feminine style, the Winninger Röttgen was also lovely. Clemens Busch also had a great year (but the leading French wine guru Michel Bettane disagreed with me at the party that night!) with his wines from the Marienburg in Ponderich. I felt Ernst Loosen had come down a notch (again Bettane was of the other opinion) but he has had the ball in the air for so long it would be only human for him to tire. Still, his Wehlener Sonnenuhr will be a treat.
It is a sad fact of life that estates go up and down. One that seemed to have regained its past form in 2014 was Geheimrat J Wegeler which also produced a stunning Wehlener Sonnenuhr as well as a delightful wine from the legendary Bernkastler Doctor site. There is a lot of legend at the Doctor, and a good deal of myth too, but this wine I would recommend highly to anyone.
Thomas Haag at Schloss Lieser made a very fine Niederberger Helden as well as lovely Brauneberger Juffer Sonnenuhr and his father Wilhelm at Fritz Haag (unsurprisingly) produced a wonderful wine from the Sonnenuhr as well. Reinhold Haart on the Wintricher Ohligsberg and in his slice of the Goldtröpfchen in Piesport, made sublime wines as usual, and built to last. Grans Fassian in Trittenheim turned out both a delicious Laurentiuslay and a gorgeous Apotheke.
In the Ruwer my top wine was the chunky, citrussy Kanzemer Altenberg from von Orthegraven who also made a wonderful Ockfener Bockstein in the Saar. Also from the Saar came a marvellous Saarburger Rausch from Geltz Zilliken. My discovery of the year here was Peter Lauer, the author of a splendid Ayler Kupp and a Schodener Saarfeilser that was almost as good.
It did not surprise me that there was nothing outstanding from the Saale-Unstrutt or the Mittelrhein, but I have to say that Pawis's Freyburger Edelacker from the former is a very creditable wine, while Toni Jost, the former star of the Mittelrhein, now produces better wines from his sites in the eastern Rheingau. I approached the Rheingau nervously, as it had been more or less routed in 2013. As it transpired, I had no need to worry: the region has returned to top form.
In Hochheim the top wine was the super-dependable (but oddly unfashionable) Domdechaney from Domdechant Werner. In Martinsthal, the best estate was Diefenhardt which seems to be surging ahead at the moment. Weil's first rate Kiedricher Gräfenberg was still very closed but also extremely promising, while in Hallgarten, Prinz at the Jungfer and Barth on Schönhell brought forth super wines. There was a fine Hallgartener Hohenrain from Jung, and a wonderful Marcobrunn from the State Domaine at Eberbach.
In Oestrich, both Wegeler and Spreitzer made masterly wines in the Rosengarten. Spreitzer might have used a bit of oak on his Mittelheimer St Nikolaus but it is lovely for all that. In Hattenheim the leaders were Spreitzer (Wisselbrunnen) and Barth (Hassel), while in Winkel Fritz Allendorf made superb wines in Hasensprung and the Jesuitengarten. His chief rivals for supremacy in the latter are J B Schönleber - also a beautiful wine - and our old friend Wegeler.
Schloss Vollrads had returned to form, and on the Johannisberg there were great wines from the Schloss itself and from the Prinz von Hessen at Klaus. At Rüdesheim, the best Berg Rottland was from Johannishof and the nicest Berg Schlossberg from Wegeler who also produced a first rate, playful wine on the Geisenheimer Rothenberg.
By now I had reached the Nahe and two outstanding wines from Kruger-Rumpf: the Dautenpflänzer and Im Pitterberg from Münster-Sarmsheim. It came as no surprise to me to find that Dönnhoff's Norheimer Dellchen was one of the best wines of the year, nor was the Hermannshöhle or the Schlossböckelheimer Felsenberg far behind. Helmut Dönnhoff has received some stick of late, since he transferred responsibility for winemaking to his son, Cornelius, but these 2014s show that the estate is by no means be written off.
In the southern Nahe, the wines become more powerful, especially as they approach Monzingen. The best here were from Schäfer-Fröhlich.
There was good news from Prince Salm at the old Villa Sachsen estate at Bingen in Rheinhessen. I liked both the Kirchberg and the Scharlachberg. The south-east facing Rhine Terraces did well in 2014, with a good Nackenheimer Rothenberg from Gunderloch and an even better one from Kühling-Gillot (who also came into his own with this vintage). The star of Pettenthal was Rappenhof (another estate to watch), but closely followed by St Antony and Gunderloch. St Antony made good things in Ölberg and Hipping, and the Rappenhof on the Herrenberg.
I was less impressed by the wines of the Wonnegau this year, although I admired Groebe's Westhofener Aulerde as well as both Gutzler's and Wittmann's Morstein. Wagner-Stempel in Seifersheim made a spectacular Höllberg, and the Heerkretz was good as well. In Dittelsheim, the star was Winter, particularly on the Kloppberg.
In general, as I proceeded south, I was less and less impressed. There were good things in the Pfalz but few outstanding wines. Philipp Kuhn's Im Grossen Garten vineyard in Grosskarlbach stood out and Pfeffingen's Ungsteiner Herrenberg was not far behind. For the first time ever, I think, none of the top holdings of the famous 'Bs' (von Bühl, Bassermann-Jordan and Bürklin-Wolf) in Forst or Deidesheim stole my fancy. In Forst the best for me were Achim-Magin and Georg Mosbacher. Achim-Magin and possibly Bürklin-Wolf led the pack in Pechstein, and Mosbacher excelled on the Freundstück.
In the Jesuitengarten, Achim-Magin led the field by a length while the most monstrous Ungeheuer was Mosbacher's, followed by Bürkin-Wolf's. Achim-Magin romped home in the Kirchenstück beating Bassermann-Jordan by a furlong. The best of the Bassermann-Jordan collection was the Deidesheimer Kalkofen. In general the 2014 wines from the Pfalz lack some of their characteristic power. There was some decent stuff from Rebholz in the south.
In Franconia the Staatlicher Hofkeller in Würzburg made a very good Stein, but there were no other wines from within the city walls that thrilled me. The top scorers were Sauer, Wirsching and Paul Fürst. Sauer was at his best on the Lump, Wirsching on the Julius-Echter-Berg and Fürst the Centgrafenberg.
Württemberg seems to have stepped a few paces forward, at least as far as Riesling is concerned. I liked the Verrenberg from Prince Hohenlohe-Oehringen, and Graf Neipperg's Ruthe. The best of all is Aldinger, particularly his Lämmler, although it is worth looking out of Schnaitmann too. Nothing at all excited me among the crop of Badenese Rieslings on show.
That finished off the Rieslings for me. For the Franken Silvaners it came as no surprise that the quality should reside with Wirsching on the Julius-Echter-Berg and Kronsberg and Horst Sauer on the Lump. I liked Schmitt's Kinder's Pfülben and Bickel-Stumpf's Mönchsberg too.
Weisser Burgunder (Pinot Blanc) is quite often coshed with oak in Germany - a simple formula that makes creamy wines that are pleasant enough but lack breed. The best tend to be from the south, but my favourite 2014 was actually Pawis's pretty, buttery Edelacker from Saale-Unstrutt. I also liked Philipp Kuhn and Bergdolt in the Pfalz and even more, Seeger's Herrenberg Oberklamm from Baden. The Grauer Burgunders (Pinot Gris) tend to be big, oaky, alcoholic monsters. The best for me were Andreas Laible's Plauelrain am Bühl, Freiherr von und zu Franckenstein's Abtsberg Pfaffengässle, Bernhard Huber's Bienenberg and Salwey's Eichberg and Henkenberg in Baden, all of whom avoid the pitfalls of over-oaking the pudding.
The reds shown in Wiesbaden this year were mostly 2013s and not really very promising from north of the River Main. I was short on time by then and took advice from my friend Claude Kolm, who pushed me towards Franconia and Baden. The results were fairly predictable. In Franken the star was once again Paul Fürst. All his wines need time but the most approachable was the Centgrafenberg, and the most closed the Hundsrück. In Baden the honours fall to Bernhard Huber. The most open for the time being are the Bienenberg and the Wildenstein; the Schlossberg and the Sommerhalde need to be put away for a few years. My next favourite in Baden was Salwey on the Kaiserstühl. The Eichberg is particularly good. Both Huber and Salwey have lost their paterfamilias recently, but it seems that in both estates, the winemaking is in safe hands with the new generation. Dr Heger is also very good.
It should be borne in mind that many top estates were absent from the tasting and that a lot of the smaller wines may well have been affected by rot, but from what I saw, the dry white wines from north of the Pfalz were often excellent, and there were some good reds in 2013.
Just one more thing: I also had some Moldovan wines from Laithwaites which I thought worth a few lines of praise. The Chateau Vartely Cabernet Sauvignon 2013 was really excellent quality for £8.99: quite chunky, but full of tangy blackcurrant fruit. The other wines in the series were a big, supple red and an oaky white, both of which came in heavy glass bottles. The quality of the wine-making was excellent in both cases, but I would have preferred a more integrated use of oak in the white: Purcari Rara Neagra 14 (£11.49), Alb de Purcari 13 (£16.49).
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.
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.
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)
30g Black Winter Truffles
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
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.
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.