Home Blog Blog Archive Wine & Food Diary Books Writings Other Activites Gallery Links Contact


M & S Wine Direct
Wine & Food Diary
It has been over thirty years now since I started writing about wine. I was living in Paris and doing research on the history of the Bordeaux wine trade, and it seemed a natural thing to do. I was passionate about food as well, and it was not long before I added that to my repertoire: Paris had a lot to offer in that line, and it still does. When I returned to live in England in 1985 and began writing for the nationals, I added travel too, as that provided me with another canvas for describing food, wine, and of course history.

Things have changed a lot out there, however, and the chances of making regular contributions to our knowledge of wine, food and travel have become few and far between. Newspaper wine writing has degenerated into short strings of tasting notes mostly concentrating on the sort of wines that hardly deserve comment, let alone praise. Such specialised magazines as there are publish the views of their own ‘specialists’. The ‘generalist’ has become an endangered species.

Beyond the headland of the press, lies a great, stormy sea of blogs - so many vociferous tub-thumpers bending the ears of anyone who will listen and hoping that they too will become authorities once the waters finally calm.

With the future of the press as we know it hanging in the balance, we are told the blog is the way forward. Having resisted manfully for several years, I have decided to refind my voice, and from now on I intend to present a monthly diary, reporting on any interesting wines, tastings or meals, and from time to time throwing in a recipe.

Dusty Bottles

Posted: 5th January 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And so I begin a new year...

Gifts from Greece

Posted: 1st December 2014

There is really so little to report, I have had my shoulder to the wheel for two months now, but am pleased to say that I have now rejigged the book I was writing, and I hope for calmer, more creative days in Advent, until the next storm blows up again in the New Year.

The most interesting wine event this month was an informal tasting of Greek wines at the house of a neighbour who lives up by the Heath. I have occasionally written about Greek wines and was aware that they were not the dire collection we used to poke fun at in Greek restaurants a generation ago - Domestos and Otello and all. They began to change in the eighties and from the nineties there were some really very impressive wines indeed. This tasting served as a useful reminder of all that.

Greece is hot, but it is also mountainous, which means that winemakers wanting to avoid head-busting, coarse wines can climb the rock escarpments and plant where the cold breezes preserve aromas in the grapes. Such was the 2013 white Mantinia from Tselepos in the Peleponnese, which was made from Moschophillero grapes and grown at 700 metres and was both lively and spicy. Another good white was the 2013 Malagousia from Gerovassiliou in Epanomi, Macedonia. It is made from the eponymous Malagousia grape, which was rediscovered in the nineteenth century and exists only in minute quantities. The wine was apparently vinified in oak before, rendering it ponderous, but this was good and sappy with a slight redolence of lemons and parsnips.

The dry whites that steal the show in Greece are those from the volcanic atoll of Santorini. Opinions were divided on the 2013 Assyrtiko from Gaia, but I was not so put off by the sulphury smell and revelled in its great length and structure. Many preferred the 2013 Assyrtiko from Hadzidakis, which had a nose reminiscent of freshly crushed raspberries and a pretty good weight to it, albeit worn gracefully. Unlike some of the wines that night, this was available for purchase from the Wine Society.

I am not a great fan of oaky whites but the 2012 Assyrtiko from Sigalas was really lovely: intensely lemony and creamy from the bâtonnage, a terribly impressive wine.

We passed onto reds and Greece’s top black grape the Agiorgitiko. The 2005 Nemea Reserve from Parparoussis is grown in an amphitheatrical vineyard at an altitude of some 700 metres. It had a red berry cheesecake nose - raspberries, strawberries and cherries, but plenty of acidity betrayed its mountainous origins. In the nineties I recall the Greeks - like everyone else for that matter - were keen to plant the MacVarieties, and there was a lot of Cabernet and Chardonnay about. Our tasting included a 2001 Tselopos Cabernet Sauvignon from Aviotopi in Tegea in the Peloponnese. Again it was high grown and both chunky and slightly alcoholic but redeemed by an alluring spiciness. The 2005 Estate Red from Alpha also led on foreign cultivars, in this case Syrah and Merlot topped up with a bit of native Xinomavro. It comes from Amynteo in Macedonia. I liked its coffee and plum aroma which I assumed derived from the 40 percent Syrah, and it was well made with fine, cooling tannins.

Quite an oddity was the 2010 Mavrotragano (‘black crunchy’) from Hadzidakis on Santorini. There was a little volatile acidity with an astringent plum and cherry taste, but the wine was long and endearing. Sometimes wines are better for being unusual - there are so many around now that have now character at all. The 2000 Cava from Mercouri in Korakohori in the Peloponnese was made from a blend of Refosco and Mavrodaphne. Refosco was one of the varieties the Venetians pedalled round the Aegean and is chiefly found on islands like Kefalonia. This had a nice mature nose with some of that cherry-astringency of the Refosco I like in Slovenia.

There were two desert wines we attacked after dinner: a 1991 vin santo from Argyros on Santorini and a 1997 Chortes Mavrodaphne from the Peloponnese. I presume the vin santo also owes its name to Venice and the days when their mechant marine shipped the sweet wines of Candy (Crete) throughout Europe. It is aged for fifteen years in big tuns and reeks of leather and figs. It was quite gorgeous. The Mavrodaphne is made from sun-dried grapes made using a method that blends Hesiod and the Douro Valley. One large cask is filled every year. It smells of Demerara sugar and is hugely good.

The Leithaberg tasting at the beginning of the month was perhaps slightly less inspiring. The Leitha Hills are the old demarcation between Austria and Hungary. They are chalky and rise above the misty, shallow Neusiedl Lake The land suits certain Burgundian varieties such as Pinot Blanc (Weissburgunder), Pinot Noir and St. Laurent and when growers plant Blaufränkisch, it has a richness to it you will not find in Mittelburgenland. They have recently benefited from one of the new Austrian DACs which imitate other protected regions in Europe. Some faces were familiar - although it has to be said that it was their fathers I knew best. Others at the tasting were new to me.

There highlights were the 2013 Blaufränkisch Ried Satz from Markus Altenburger which had the virtue of being light and approachable when so much Blaufränkisch is tough and heavy; the 2009 Blaufränkisch Thenau from Birgit Braunstein; the 2011 Leithaberg DAC Blaufränkisch from Schloss Esterhazy; the 2012 Blaufränkisch Rosenberg from Toni Hartl; the 2012 sweet Ausbruch from Winzerschlössl Kaiser; and the 2011 Blaufränkisch Tannenberg from Nittnaus. Nittnaus wines have come on by leaps and bounds of late. I find the Leithaberg wines are much more enjoyable than those from their vines in Gols.

Georg Prieler in Schützen has taken over the family estate from his sister and is just about as good as it gets in the region. His Seeberg Pinot Blanc is always recommended. There were three Blaufränkisch wines on show: the 2011 Johanneshöhe, the 2012 Leithaberg and the 2011 Goldberg. The last is the flagship wine and the most Burgundian of all. They are all good and Georg has inherited his father’s deft hand with oak. Erwin Tinnhof’s wines are also favourites of mine and far cheaper than Prieler’s I would be quite happy with his 2009 Leithaberg Blaufränkisch. The 2012 Leithaberg was also impressive from Wagentristl who was also showing a delicious Muskat-Ottonel and Muskateller Trockenbeerenauslese. Enquiries to www.leithaberg.at.

Just a few days ago I had a little pre-Advent treat when I went to Moët & Chandon’s HQ in Belgravia and had a glass or two of the 2002 Dom Ruinart. It was a vintage which only did well from Burgundy upwards, but it was very good in champagne. I am only sorry that I am not able to buy several cases of it for my son’s twenty-first, but it might be over the top by then. Moët recently sent me some sparkling wines from their Argentinean operation. I was very impressed, they were quite beefy, and the rose perhaps a bit too techno, but they knocked the spots off a lot of cheap champagnes.

Spey whisky had another party in the Tower of London to launch its Michael Owen malt, in honour of the football player. It is a great thing to go to an evening party in the White Tower: you climb the stairs feeling a bit like Saint Thomas More, but with perhaps a little less trepidation. The famous poppies were still in the moat when I arrived, and Tower Hill was heaving with tourists come for a last glimpse of the red sea before it parted. The whisky was young and quite coated with oak, but it was a nice dram for all that. This month I also took a shine to the 2003 Balblair malt, which is quite the opposite. It must have been made in reused Bourbon hoggies for there was scarce any feeling of oak at all. The result is perfectly linear and austerely pale with a little heather honeycomb sweetness.

The same stable delivered some Caorunn gin. I drink about six glasses of gin and tonic a year, but I enjoy them, especially when it is hot. This gin has unusual botanicals such as apples, dandelions, rowans, heather and bog myrtle (who caused a bit of hilarity in the house) but it was a lovely complex palate for all that, although I am not sure that the prescribed slice of red apple did it many favours. I also received a bottle of Three Barrels Honey brandy, which looks as if it might perform a small role in the mince pies this year.

The only other thing to report here has been the arrival Zebag smart wine carrier, a device that will either transport six bottles or may be transformed into a hanger with space for a case. I should say it would make an unusual but useful Christmas present. www.cuckooland.com.

Now I need to go and marinate the goose livers.

Why I Make My Own Bread

Posted: 3rd November 2014

We had an important anniversary in 2011: it was half a century since the Chorleywood Bread Process or ‘CBP’ was born, signalling an end - in dietary terms at least - to the prolonged horrors of the Second World War.

Twenty years before, in 1941, the government had decreed the addition of calcium to flour to prevent rickets. Then German U-Boats rendered flour itself scarce and in 1942 the authorities responded with their gritty, beige ‘National Loaf’ that exploited every scrap of a grain of wheat. The ‘wholewheat’ loaf was chiefly composed of bran - husks - and it continued to labour in the national stomach until rationing was abolished in the mid-fifties. Relief came when the all-singing, all-dancing pre-packed CBP sandwich loaf was announced, itself a spin-off from the American-style ‘Wonderloaf’ invented by Otto Frederick Rohwedder, which had rolled out sliced and wrapped as early as 1927.

After those long years of austerity, CBP bread was a runaway success; one of the first swallows of the Swinging Sixties that brought us cheap chocolate bars and deep-frozen battery chickens. Technologically speaking it was far more advanced that the American Wonderloaf. British baking scientists had isolated a method of using hard fats, doubling or tripling the amount of yeast and adding chemicals in a bid to bake a loaf in a fraction of the time it took to make a traditional loaf. Named after was the research station in Chorleywood in the northern suburbs of London which developed the method, CBP bread had the added advantage of being patriotic, as it made use of low protein wheat which was usually thought unsuitable for bread making, but it was pretty well all that British farmers could supply.

Now eighty percent of British bread is made according to the Chorleywood Process, and it is the object of some pride in industrial baking circles. The Bakers’ Federation even wheeled out Anthony Worrall-Thompson to make a series of videos extolling its virtues. From Britain it is set to conquer the world and its soft tentacles have pushed out as far as South America.  One by one the bastions fall. It even threatened the home of the world’s most famous bread: France. Délifrance had made considerable progress selling fresh dough to bakers until the public belatedly rang the tocsin at the violation of the breakfast baguette. Now a decree stipulates that bakers’ shops have to make it clear whether they bake their own bread or not.

Despite a smattering of fancy bakers in prosperous parts of London and elsewhere in Britain, CBP bread has routed the opposition. The traditional British loaf used to be quite easy to find. As a child living just off the Gloucester Road in London there was a lovely little bakery more or less where that whacking-great Waitrose is now. There were great fluffy white farmhouse loaves under a dusting of flour, bloomers, tins and split tins; and I remember the great slabs of pure white bread that fell from the bread knife at teatime. English bread was quite distinct from French, German or Italian bread. Ours was not a sourdough culture. When a treat was decreed, the baker sold meringues or choux pastries and filled them with whipped cream, but that was nothing to the man on the corner of Drayton Gardens and the Fulham Road who made an incredible confection of cream, walnuts, chocolate and toffee that was a sure-fire way to seduce children.

When we moved west, there was Beatons in the Earl’s Court Road, where stout Welsh ladies, dressed in pinnies and cotton bonnets, fetched white and wholemeal loaves from their racks. Beatons had another branch in the King’s Road in Chelsea offering much the same stock. It disappeared long before its sister, making way for the chichi Crabtree & Evelyn which had a line in biscuits, but not bread.

Returning from seven years in Paris in 1985 I went to live in Islington, then famous for housing Messrs Blair and Broon. There were still plenty of working-class local bakers then, but they fell victim to gentrification and the supermarkets. There was one of the Essex Road, possibly two in Upper Street, not to mention the place in Cross Street with its centennial ovens, where I was once sent by the FT to watch the chef Bruno Loubet cook a series of dishes ‘à la boulangère.’ That old baker’s shop has been many things since it closed, but every time I pass it I wonder what happened to those ovens.

When I took my daughter to the Almeida last week, I noticed that Islington had become a paradise for people looking for pâtisseries selling cakes, sourdough loaves and viennoiseries. There was an affluent, cosmopolitan, middle-class clientele that thought nothing of shelling out more than a fiver for a pain campaillou or a boule.  For we plebs, there are still industrially produced bloomers and tins from Greggs.

Around here in Kentish Town, the only traditional place left is Crusty Bloomers (sic) in Brecknock Road, which is admirably maintained by a family of Poles.

But, chin-up, nil desperandum: that deep ravine that separates the pain des pauvres from the rich man’s loaf is as old as bread. The Ancient Egyptians are credited as being the first people to make leavened bread, but it is almost certain that risen loaves were only available for the patricians. This remained the case both in Ancient Greece and Rome, where the poor ate barley cakes and the rich alone could run to white, wheaten loaves.

The risk of fire and the expense of creating and maintaining proper, pukka ovens meant that those white, wheaten loaves were only baked in monasteries or in the castles of the barons during the middle ages, while hoi polloi made do with bowl-shaped flatbreads into which they spooned their nourishing pottage.

For most people, white bread was a treat seen only at the monastery gates or at certain communion Sundays. One of the features of the Roman ‘saturnalia’ that survived in various forms into the nineteenth century was that once a year the servants were served by their masters, and on that day alone, they ate white bread. Envying the master and his bread has fuelled countless riots and revolutions over the years, most prominently during the French Revolution. Not for nothing was the baker formerly the most hated man on the high street and the miller the butt of the cruellest jibes. In 1789, French Jacobins immolated bakers whenever they got the chance.

Bread has been associated with revolution since Jesus Christ, God of Bread and Bread of God. Not for nothing have the prudent French continued to regulate the price of bread since the excesses of the Terror.

Industrialisation and the fierce heat of the coal fire allowed the poor to dream of white bread for all, but the possibility of making mass-produced risen loaves attracted adulterators from the first. Almost as soon as British grocers offered cheap risen loaves, Parliament was obliged to introduce legislation forbidding the use of chalk and other additives aimed at making cheap coarse flour look whiter and more refined than it actually was. Britain led the way in providing industrial bread but companies such as the Aerated Bread Company (ABC) and Hovis - itself remarkable in that it sought to make palatable wholemeal bread - were constantly looking for a means to cut costs by using cheaper materials.

Supermarkets are now the leading source of bread in the UK, but just what is the ‘hot, crusty bread’ they sell? Unless it is branded Gail’s, Baker & Spice or Poilane, it is most likely to be some cunningly disguised form of CBP heated up on the premises. Food served warm benefits from legislation that does not require suppliers to print a list of ingredients - at least not in this country.

Concern is growing about the nature of industrially produced bread, however, and some have gone so far as to suggest it should carry a health warning. I don’t mean the just the disgruntled customer a few years back who found an overcooked mouse in a loaf he bought from Tesco, but many dieticians who seek to explain the huge rise in allergies among young people. Just looking at the list of additives in an average loaf is likely top cause alarm. Let’s use remind ourselves of the basic ingredients - flour, water and yeast. I leave you with an appetising list

Fat comes in the form of palm fat or oils, to improve volume, soften the dough, prolong the shelf life of the bread and create a finer cell-structure. In traditional bread it is gluten that provides structure and prevents the bread from collapsing, but the British flour used in the CBP contains little or no gluten so Gluten is put in to provide texture. Hydrogenated fats have commonly been used in the past, though large bakers are fazing them out, possibly replacing them with fractionated fats. These don't contain or produce transfats, which have been associated with heart disease. Salt is added to allow yeast to grow while reducing competitive bacterial growth. It affects the flavour. Esters such as monoglycerides and diglycerides are thrown in to act as emulsifiers. They control the size of gas bubbles and enable the dough to hold more gas and therefore grow bigger, making the crumb softer. Emulsifiers also reduce the rate at which the bread goes stale. Calcium propionate is used to inhibit mould, as is vinegar (acetic acid). Commercial bread often gives off a telltale smell of vinegar. Preservatives are necessary for prolonged shelf life. Anti-fungal compounds are also used. A whiter crumb is ensured by enzymatically active soya flour containing lipoxygenase enzymes. Soya flour not only whitens flour but makes the dough softer and more malleable enabling more water to be added. Another method used by millers is to bleach the flour with chlorine dioxide gas, making white flour whiter and having an ‘improving’ effect. Bleaches have been used as a substitute for the natural ageing of flour. Another additive is the flour oxidizer azodicarbonamide. This is banned in EU, Canada, Japan, Australia and New Zealand, but permitted in the US. Small amounts of ascorbic acid (vitamin C) are used. It is either added by the miller or prior to baking. This is the most common oxidant used in the EU, mainly for wholemeal and whole grain breads and helps retain gas in the dough making it rise more and giving a false impression of value. It is used in all bread in the UK but mills are prohibited from adding it to wholemeal flour. Starch enzymes and protein enzymes are employed to break down wheat starches to sugars to feed the yeast and to ‘mellow’ the gluten to allow for reduced mechanical mixing times. Enzymes are also adapted to survive baking temperatures and great variations in pH to impart preservative and softening qualities to the finished products. All enzymes used for baking in the UK are de-natured hence are not required to be labelled. L-cysteine hydrochloride (E920), cysteine is a naturally occurring amino acid used in baking to create more elastic doughs, especially for burger buns and baguettes. It may be derived from animal hair and feathers. Some of the chemicals in the CBP have subsequently been banned: potassium bromate, for example.

America - the creator of sliced white - cannot use the CBP, as its strong flours are unsuitable. Widespread reports on the poor quality and unhealthiness of supermarket bread have led some customers to vote with their feet. Many people now resort to bread machines which replicate some of the processes of properly made bread, but often require additives and ‘dough conditioners’ of their own and are far from ideal. When all is said and done: the best and cheapest solution is to make your own.

Rare Treats in Scotland and Provence

Posted: 2nd October 2014

Cracking Oysters

September should start with oysters, and so shall I. I nipped out on Monday 8th September to watch the Tabasco British Oyster Opening Championship at the Holborn Dining Rooms in London. The idea of a few natives and some Pommery champagne was a powerful incentive, not to mention the spectacle of some spirited oyster-shucking.

Once I had been equipped with a glass and an oyster, I quickly noted Tristan Hugh-Jones proceeding at a sedate pace through his test lot of thirty molluscs. He had every right to, as the Loch Ryan natives came from his beds. I once went to see his father on a day trip to the Rossmore oyster beds near Cork. I ate dozens of Pacific oysters (superior natives were rare then), drank several pints of stout and slept soundly on the aeroplane all the way back to London.

The Championship is an annual event organised by Carolyn Cavele of Food Matters, but I could not recall how long it had been since the last time I attended. It was good to see a few old friends, including the chef David Dorricott who reminded me (as if I needed reminding) that he had cooked the dinner for the launch of my first book A Palate in Revolution back in 1987. I can still taste the truffle-laden turkey he prepared that day, according to the fragmentary recipe of the Société des mercredis. Another familiar face was the wealthy novelist Martin Amis. At least I thought it was Martin Amis, and I nearly went to commiserate him on the bad reviews he had received for his latest book, but at the last moment I was not so sure. Someone kindly went to ask him if he were indeed Martin Amis, but he denied it, telling his interlocutor he was ‘John the Journalist’ and promptly took out a sheath of paper and began writing feverish notes. Surely no one takes bad reviews that seriously?

Glenlivet at £18,000 a Bottle

September actually started in August on Speyside when I had a rare trip up to Speyside with the Glenlivet Distillery to taste their newest release: a 50-year old malt, but I had been forbidden to speak of it before now. It was one of those trips that meant getting up before five to catch a plane to Aberdeen and after I was treated to a post-prandial massage at my hotel, I fell asleep for a couple of hours in my hugely comfortable bed at Meldrum House Hotel and Golf Club. Once I had come back to life, I spent the time before dinner ambling about the course looking for wild mushrooms. I found a few phallus impudicus, and several golf balls, but nothing edible. After a fine dinner in the hotel, the Glenlivet’s Heritage Director, Peter Prentice, staged a tasting of the range of malts in a pigeon loft in another part of the hotel: as ever I was bowled over by the ‘new make’ with its redolence of sweet pears and honey. This Scottish ‘schnapps’ knocks the spots off a German ‘Korn’. The 12-year old was neither fish nor fowl: not the best age for the Glenlivet; but with the 15-year old French oak there was more character: crystallised fruits, chocolate and marzipan. An 18-year old had been in Bourbon casks before being finished off in Douro pipes. This was super: walnuts and Seville oranges; and then there was a gorgeous 25-year old that had grown up in a sherry-butt. It was followed by the crowning glory - the 1983, which tasted like rather good, runny marmalade.

There was a litany of special treats of that sort. For a start the sun came out and stayed out until the day we left. Then there was a huge fry at breakfast, with added haggis: a beast that appeared more than once on our plates. We then climbed into two buses and went to a ‘smugglers’ bothy’ on Carn Liath, the hill above the original Glenlivet distillery at Ballindalloch that was licensed in 1824, the Duke of Gordon taking advantage of 1823 Act that finally legalised distilling. Before then Glenlivet was made with a kettle and coil like any other moonshine and probably tasted a bit like that excellent ‘new make’.

There on the hill, we were entertained by a man with a collection of birds of prey. I volunteered to perform with two other men and a South American hawk, which then flew over our heads, under our arms and through our legs to demonstrate its extraordinary abilities. The pièce de la résistance was a bald-headed eagle. Once he made his appearance all bird-life on the mountain disappeared and even the beasts in the fields below looked nervous.

We took little moon-buggies and went up Carn Liath to a place where we could see for miles around. We were shown the Braes, where the Duke apparently protected the local Catholics. The purple heather was flowering and it was teaming with grouse and plover. We had a quick dram and some canapés before heading back down the hill for an elaborate lunch cooked by a proper French chef, with freshly grilled local lobster and venison he said he had despatched himself.

After looking at Josie’s Well (still the source for much of the water at the distillery) and a tour of the distillery in the company of the ebullient distiller, Alan Winchester, the great moment was upon us. Just a hundred bottles of the 1964 malt had been released and with a mighty price tag of £18,000 each. It was the colour of ancient tawny port and smelled very strongly of oranges, although Winchester identified the fruit as pineapples. The palate was predictably concentrated and smacked of honey, Seville oranges and toffee. 

There was another treat in the form of the 1966. The 1964 had been in a Bourbon cask, but this marginally younger whisky was in a sherry-butt. The cask had not been broached and at around 49 percent I found it sullen. A little water freed its tongue: it was tannic from its long incarceration in its butt, and sweet, but then a glorious taste of oranges broke through, like a Turner sunrise after a murky night.

That evening we went to Fyvie Castle, which is just everything that you could wish for from a Scottish castle with its massive, mediaeval towers and Frenchified ‘tourettes’. It was previously owned by the Setons - as in ‘The Queen, my lord is dead’ - then passed through many hands until it ended up in the possession of the Scottish National Trust. In England that would be the end of the story: those killjoys Health and Safety would take control, the place would be disneyfied, kiddified and little notices would be erected to tell you how wicked they were, the feudal lords who once lived within the walls. In Scotland it appears to be different: when the Forbes family moved out to a smaller house in the park, they left all their clutter behind, and the place is still inhabited by their spirits. The live-in custodian also proved a great host and entertained us with wit and a fine tenor voice so that he brought the castle brimmingly to life. They even allowed us to take our champagne with us as we toured the house with its magnificent furniture collection, its single Batoni and collections of Raeburns and Lawrences. At dinner Alan Winchester performed Robbie Burns’ Address to a Haggis with more mock-heroic humour than I have ever seen it done before, revealing a missed vocation as a comic actor. The evening was rounded off with Noel Coward and other songs around the piano.

I have been spoiled by other lovely whiskies too of late, such as the Devil’s Punchbowl III from Arran with its rich sweet marzipan body and pepper and salt finish.

Cold Comfort

I don’t know what I think about cold coffee. Gregory Peck orders one in one of my favourite films, Roman Holiday when Audrey Hepburn squanders his money on champagne. Unlike Peck’s coffee, Minor Figures was cold brewed rather than left to go cold.  It has had some take-up and I understand Selfridges and Harvey Nichols are now stocking it. I have a Tetra Pak of it beside me here now and am sucking it up through a straw as I write. Not a bad brew and it has a nice chocolate and malt taste. I think it might be better on a warm day, but what the hell! Maybe Gregory Peck knew something I didn’t?

Meat Porter is a new online butcher’s service for people who can’t get out to the shops. The boss, Stefan Porter, tells me he is pitching at the higher end, using sources that generally supply top restaurants, so that you can have your favourite steaks, roasts, sausages and game delivered to your door. I have to admit I am exceptionally lucky here in Kentish Town, in that I have now six butchers within easy walking distance, ranging from the cheap and cheerful to the chic and expensive and I would never buy a cut of meat that I hadn’t been able to admire first; but not everyone has that chance now, so maybe that is where Meat Porter will prove its worth.

Crew Bourgeois

On 25 September the Cru Bourgeois organisation of Bordeaux put on its annual tasting. It is a huge affair with 188 wines open for tasting. Like many others, I simply made a selection based on prejudice: been good in the past, was awful when I last had it, might have improved... The wines I liked best were as follows: La Cardonne (little classic), Haut Barrail, Loudenne, Les Ormes Sorbet (Cabernet dominated, another classic), Rollan de By, Arnauld, Dillon (which I liked enormously), Gironville (cheap), Magnol, Ramage la Batisse (one of my top wines), Le Boscq and Le Crock.

Provencal Revels

Last but not least, there was the September Provence gathering at the Domaine des Anges where our spirits were slightly dampened by the death of one of our number: Brian Shiels. As the new whites were in the vat and beginning to ferment, I made an onion tart (Zwiebeltorte) and Florent Chave obliged me with a couple of bottles of Sturm. I am not sure the idea of wine with 2-3 percent alcohol appealed much, but the tart went down all right. No one drank the 1985 Rozes port I brought down bar one chap who poured it into his Archange by mistake then complained to me that his wine tasted funny. Ah well, such is life.

The high point, as ever, was the tasting that Bob Huddie put on in his house. This time we looked at six wines from Pessac-Léognan in the Graves of Bordeaux in the 2008, 2009 and 2010 vintages: the modest Château Gazin-Rocquencourt, Château de Fieuzal, Château Malartic-Lagravière, Château Smith-Haut-Lafitte and Château Haut-Bailly. Irish-owned Fieuzal had quite a pull for our largely Irish group, most of whom knew the proprietor, Lochlann Quinn. I had pleasant memories of almost all the properties, including Smith-Haut-Lafitte, where Madame Cathiard once offered me the chance of a beauty treatment that involved soaking in the hulls of freshly-pressed grapes. Realising it was too late to do anything about my appearance I told her that ‘I preferred to take my treatment internally.’

Gazin-Rocquencourt amply proved his worth with an aggregate score of 90.3 for all three vintages - Bob Huddie likes to use 100-point Porker-ratings. Both Fieuzal (90.4) and Malartic (90.5) trailed behind the rest of the pack, not least because the 2010 Malartic was corked. I think I liked the Fieuzal more than most, as I gave spectacularly high marks to the 2008 and 2009. My top wine was the Domaine de Chevalier, which I have always loved and have always appreciated its excellent value-for-money. It was seductive, but not flashy. For me Smith has a hint of showiness about it which puts it in another camp. It is perhaps significant that Porker gives the 2009 Smith 100 points. Haut-Bailly was harder to taste, as it was nowhere near ready to drink in any of its incarnations.

The overall scores for the top three were as follows: Chevalier 94, Smith 93.6 and Haut Bailly 95.3. Our tasters preferred the 2010 vintage, the 2009 coming second, but there was not much in it and I have to say, they were a stunning set of wines.

Wine & War

Posted: 4th September 2014

I’m just back from a nine-day ramble taking in Germany, Austria, Belgium and France. The tour started with wine and ended in war, to be more specific: the opening engagements of the British Expeditionary Force in August 1914.

The first stop was the big VDP ‘sneak preview’ tasting in Wiesbaden in the Rhineland. I flew in on Sunday and we had a relaxed evening at their HQ in Mainz where were given an introduction to some of the better wines of the south German state of Württemberg - where the elite organisation has sixteen members - and a delicious meal cooked by a local (that is Württembourgois) chef: brawn, stuffed Hohenlohe pigeons with ceps, a peach sabayon and Württemberg cheeses.

The typical soil of Württemberg is Keuper: a marl that contains large quantities of gypsum. My friend Mario Scheuermann maintains that the soil makes excellent Sauvignon Blancs, and indeed the Aldinger Große Reserve is possibly the most convincing Sauvignon Blanc I have had from Germany. Aldinger is clearly a star: his 2009 Lämmler Lemberger (Blaufränkisch) was also among the best of the bunch. Of the other whites, there were good Rieslings from the Fürst Hohenlohe, Wachstetter, Schnaitmann and Wöhrwag and Schnaitmann also topped my score for his Pinot Noir (Spätburgunder). Wöhrwag and Fürst Hohenlohe made very good Lembergers, but the best of these, I felt, was the Grosses Gewächs (grand cru) from Graf Neipperg.

The tasting began in earnest the next morning, and I was able to deal with 299 2013 whites and red wines (chiefly from 2012) before I left the following afternoon. It was clearly a difficult vintage, and winemakers had responded by de-acidifying, putting the wines through malolactic fermentation and using every which means in order to make them easier to taste and sell. The usual platitude applies: the best winemakers will make the best wines even in the worst vintages. Some regions fared better than others. There were good white wines from the Nahe and the Mosel and some lovely 2012 reds from the Ahr; but in 2013 the Rheingau had a bad year, ending a succession of good vintages that goes back some twenty years; and equally disappointing was the Pfalz, which is usually thoroughly reliable.

So in the following list I have confined myself to the three star wines. First come the Rieslings:

In the Mosel I was impressed by Heymann-Löwenstein, whose most attractive wine for now is the unusually charming Hatzenporter Kirchberg. Clemens Busch made several excellent wines, but I felt the best was the Marienburger ‘Rothenpfad’. It is not surprising that Fritz Haag should have scored top marks for both his Brauneberger Juffer and his Juffer-Sonnnenuhr: there are few growers of this quality anywhere in the world.

It seems odd to leap from top growers like Haag to Bernard Pawis in Saale-Unstrut, but his Freyburger Edelacker was such a lovely wine that I feel I cannot pass over it in silence. Then came the lacklustre Rheingaus of which the Spreitzer Oestricher Rosengarten was my favourite, followed, perhaps by his Mittelheimer Sankt Nikolaus. Josef Spreizer has soared to the first rank of hock-makers in the last few years. The only other Rheingau to score top marks was August Kesseler’s Berg Roseneck.

The Nahe had the highest average score, but then, it has far fewer growers than the Rheingau and many of them are among the best in Germany. There were exciting wines from Kruger-Rumpf (also on the Binger Scharlachberg in Rheinhessen) and Crusius and some very promising ones from Gut Hermannsberg, but the best of all were from Dönnhof (Dellchen, Felsenberg), Schäfer-Fröhlich (Kupfergraben, Stromberg, Felseneck) and Emrich-Schönleber (Frühlingsplätzchen, Halenberg).

Quality was much more variable in Rheinhessen. The names that stood out from the Rhine terraces were Kühling-Gillot (Pettenthal and Ölberg), the Staatsweingut in Oppenheim for the Ölberg and St Anthony for Orbel. Elsewhere I admired the Brüder Dr Becker for their Dienheimer Falkenberg. There were no top scorers in the southern Wonnegau this year.

As I said earlier, the Pfalz had clearly had a hard time in 2013. The honourable exceptions were a startling Pechstein from Acham-Magin, two wines from Bassermann-Jordan: the Ungeheuer and the Kalkofen, and an unexpectedly good wine from Bergdolt-St. Lamprecht from the Reiterpfad. Rebholz’s Im Sonnenschein had an enchanting nose too: indeed I found his wines looser and less Calvinist than usual.

My discovery this year in Franconia was Fürst Löwenstein and his Homburger Kallmuth, although I was also enchanted by a Randersacker Pfülben from Schmitt’s Kinder.

The Franconian Rieslings led me directly to the Silvaners from the same region. Once again the Fürst Löwenstein wines were in the vanguard with their Kallmuth, but here there were also excellent wines from tried and trodden sources such as the Stein from the Juliusspital in Würzburg and the Eschendorfer Lump from Horst Sauer. The Juliusspital also made a fine wine at the Julius-Echter-Berg as did Paul Weltner, who was new to me but whom I now see was ‘newcomer of the year’ in Feinschmecker magazine in 2012.

I moved on to the mostly 2012 vintage Pinot Noirs (Spätburgunder) starting with the Ahr. You recognise the stylistic differences between the leading producers here: Kreuzberg and Mayer-Näkel make seductively fruity wines - chiefly strawberry or raspberry-scented, while Jean Stodden’s wines are distinctly earthy. Ludwig Kreuzberg excelled on the Silberberg in Ahrweiler and the Sonnenberg in Neuenahr. Mayer-Näkel was best from the Sonnenberg, the Kräuterberg in Walporzheim and the Dernauer Pfarrwingert. J J Adeneuer had a superb wine from the Walporzheimer Gärkammer. In the the Rheingau, the best reds were from Kesseler and the Staatsweingut in Aßmannshausen. Both excelled on their Berg Schlossberg sites.

Over in Saxony, I gave a gold medal earlier this year to a Pinot Noir Zadel from Schloss Proschwitz. I still find it a lovely wine. I unearthed nothing so good in Rheinhessen or the Pfalz, although one of Philipp Kuhn’s wines was promising. In Franconia I gave top marks to Fürst’s earthy, Burgundian Klingenberger Schlossberg. His other reds needed much more time.

There was a compensation in the wines from Baden. The late Bernahrd Huber, who died so tragically earlier this year, had left a really superb Maltedinger Bienenberg as well as a series of consistently good wines from his other sites. I also admired the wines of Andreas Stigler on the Kaiserstuhl.

I failed to taste the other ‘Burgunder’ varieties, as I had to catch an aircraft to Vienna that afternoon. That night I ate at the Dombeislin the First Bezirk, where I was told the manager, Hermann Botolen, was the best sommelier in Vienna. The purpose of the dinner was to taste the wines made by Dorli Muhr and Dirk van der Niepoort on the 300-metre Spitzerberg in Carnuntum, immediately to the east of Vienna. They have twelve hectares of the hottest spot in Austria and produce wines with plenty to fruit from their chalk soils and some impressive Syrah as well as a Merlot-Cabernet blend. Obviously the main accent is on their fine Blaufränkisch wines made from 50-60 year old vines which are rather richer and more powerful than the Lembergers from Württemberg I had tasted a couple of days before. These are foot-trodden in Dirk Niepoort’s trademark style. The 2011 struck me as the best of these. The estate also makes an orange wine which ferments in amphoras. I confess I am sceptical of these, which are currently the height of fashion, but the 2012 seemed very pretty, and had a little apricot taste.

I spent the night in Krems, and the next day was spent visiting (or rather revisiting) local growers beginning with Fred Loimer in Langenlois. Fred’s domain has grown to a massive sixty-three hectares since I last visited him and he has gone organic as well, something that necessitates doubling his costs and workforce. He has also taken over Gottfried Schellmann’s estate at Gumpoldskirchen south of Vienna, which used to make very good wines and I think these broad-shouldered brews are among my favourites in his collection. He also makes a good ‘Burgunder cuvee’ called Am Mannhartsberg and a flavoursome Pinot Noir on the Decant site to the north of the town. There are the ‘natural wines’ too labelled ‘Achtung’ (which should amuse British schoolboys) and Loimer proved his point about their lasting properties by bringing out a 2006 Gemischte Satz (field blend) which I liked the best of the Achtungen.

I had never paid a call on the man-mountain Bernhart Ott in Feuersbrunn before and I was much looking forward to that. I knew the wines well and his concentration on Grüner Veltliner, which in his hands produces great fat, almost sweet-tasting wines from his essentially loess soils on the south-facing Wagram. The Wagram looks for all the world like some Aztec pyramid rising up to over 300 metres above the Danube.

Like all modern Grüner Veltliner it seems, Ott’s wines have become a little less massive in the last few years, but his Faß 4 is a model with its pineapple aromas. Der Ott is nicely plump, it is a blend of his three ‘crus’: Spiegel, Stein and Rosenberg. I was still looking for the lentil taste by which I identify Grüner Veltliner, especially when grown on loess. I eventually found it in his Rosenberg 2013. Ott was keen to show how well they aged, and again the 2004 Rosenberg was the one I liked most among the mature wines. Ott is justly famous for QVEVRE: the wines he makes in Crimean amphorae like Roman wines. The idea was to allow the Grüner Veltliner to speak rather than the winemaker, so the fruit is shoved into the amphora and allowed to ferment dry. Six months later the wine is drawn off. It was here (naturally) that the lentil taste was at its most noticeable. Ott also has a lovely collection of schnapps including an apricot (Marillen) and his own take on London dry gin.

I had seen Markus Huber in the Traisental comparatively recently. Like everyone else, it seems, his hectarage has increased. He drove us up to the vines and we saw the bags of human hair he hangs around them to put off the deer that would otherwise eat his crop. He and the wonderful Ludwig Neumayer more or less carve up the small appellation between them, but if Huber is brasher, slicker and more savvy than Neumayer, his wines are still zingingly fresh and full of electrifying directness which makes them hard to resist. I was quite struck by his 2013 Riesling Engelsberg, his Weissburgunder Hochschopf from the same year, which is grown at 380 metres on limestone, not to mention a 2010 Berg Riesling and a 2013 Riesling Eiswein.

We finished the day at Willi Bründlmayer’s Heurige in Langenlois. Bründlmayer’s domain was always one of Austria’s biggest but with the huge growth of some of his neighbours he seems to have taken a step backwards; also his son, Vincent has now come of age, so he too has his own vineyards which Willi says he has sold him at cost price! Bründlmayer’s wines have slimmed down a lot over the years in a quest for lightness and elegance. In some cases I miss the old style, like - for example - the old-vine Grüner Veltliner with its hints of botrytis and a thundering alcoholic presence of 14-15 percent. The modern style of Grüner Veltliner seems to me to obliterate its character by rendering it some sort of second-rank Riesling. The one I liked best was actually Vincent’s Spiegel. Of Willi’s wines I still admired the Riesling alte Reben (old-vine) Heiligenstein wines. When we tasted the 2003, it had even a nuance of the baroque about it.

The next day was properly baroque in that our mature wine tasting of wines made by members of the Traditionsweingüter took place in the magnificent setting of Schloss Gobelsburg. The Traditionsweingüter is a collection of Austrian estates which has made considerable progress towards classifying sites and creating a system of crus in some (the Wachau, for example, won’t play) of the appellations in the Danube Valley. In this they resemble the VDP, and like the VDP, however laudable, they have yet to find any comprehensive official recognition. Again I shall mention only my top scorers: of the Grüner Veltliners they were the 2010 Stein from Ott, the 2009 Vordernberg from Buchegger and the 2006 Grub from Schloss Gobelsburg. The Türk winery in Krems has been a favourite for some time now, and I was not disappointed by their 2006 Frechau. Then came a 2002 Oberfucha from Ilse Mayer at Geyerhof, and a 2004 Rohrendorfer Gebling from Hermann Moser. Besides Ott on the Wagram, Karl Fritsch is still up there with his 2010 Kirchberger Schlossberg.

We then graduated to Riesling, of which my top wines were the 2006 Silberbichl from Malat, the 2004 Steinhaus from Hiedler, the 2004 Gaisberg from Schloss Gobelsburg and the 1999 Hollenburg Goldburg from Geyerhof.

The weather had picked up again and there was a lovely mood at lunch out in the garden under the shadow of the church. The afternoon was spent in the company of the geologist Professor Maria Heinrich who first gave us a lecture on the local soils then took us up onto the Gebling with its round pebbles and then the Heiligenstein. I found a pebble that she told me had been washed down from a riverbed in Bohemia by a glacier and some amphibolites that were part of the primary rock soils of the Heilgenstein and contained little sparkly bits of mica. These have now joined the other fragments here that will doubtless cause much mirth and bewilderment to my more distant descendants.

The day was crowned with a barbecue at the new Malat hotel in Furth-Palt in which the pièces de la résistance were two beasts despatched by our host: a boar and a deer, and jolly good they were too.

Our final tasting occurred next day at Schloss Grafenegg. I had been there many years before and met the old duke who resided in this vast pile and made decent wine in his vineyards. I recall that he used to keep the old wines among the tombs of his ancestors. Since then, the Metternich-Sandors have made an arrangement with the Lower Austrian government and a music festival now takes place here every year in a magnificent open-air concert hall. That night we were promised Klaus Florian Vogt singing extracts from Parsifal and Lohengrin, and Beethoven’s Seventh conducted by Andris Nelsons with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra.

There was work to do first: the 2013 Grüner Veltliners and Rieslings. I have already noted my disappointment with the 2013 Grüner Veltliners, but I realise that the problem is as much stylistic as anything to do with the vintage. It appears that winemakers make the wines too cold and clean up the must until all flavour has been removed before the ferment. The result in most cases is perfectly bland. Modern Veltliner is made reductively, meaning that the aromas are suppressed. In my case that means you can generally tell which wines you are going to like by looking at them: the darker ones appeal more.

Here then is a short list in no particular order: Hiedler Kittmannsberg, Türk Frechau, Gobelsburg Grub (this used to be a dream of a wine), Dolle Heilgenstein, Mantler Moosburgerin, Proidl Pellingen, Mantler Spiegel, Türk Thurnerberg, Markus Huber Berg, Neumayer Zwirch, Leth Brunnthal, Fritsch Mordthal, Ott Rosenberg, and Fritsch Schlossberg.

It is ironic that since many parts of the English-speaking world have learned to say ‘Grooner’, the character of the variety has been all but lost. In Austria it still plays second or third fiddle to Riesling, and the Riesling of that year has much more to recommend it. Those that shone for me were the Hiedler Gaisberg, Gobelsburg Gaisberg, Hirsch Heiligenstein, Hiedler Steinhaus, Topf Strasser Wechselberg Spiegel, Geyerhof Oberfucha, Malat Silberbichl and the Neumayer Rothenbart.

Two days later, after a twelve-hour pit stop in London, I went to war in Flanders, following the destiny of the First Battalion Irish Guards to the Marne. Neither wine nor food had much to do with it, although I should point out a couple of restaurants that hit the spot. Betty and Franck Helmlinger at Les Menus Plaisirs in Villers-Cotterêts were able to provide an excellent service in a pretty town which, like so many in France now, is losing its gastronomic face. They proved the most charming and amenable of hosts. On our second night went to A La Bonne Idee not for from Pierrefonds in the Forêt de Compiègne which has a Michelin rosette and had a sensational albeit hurried meal. We stayed at a lovely former coaching inn, Le Régent in Villers-Cotterêts, where the Helmlingers also do the catering when required.

‘Dungheap Food’ - Eating out in Berlin

Posted: 5th August 2014

I probably spent a good part of every year in Berlin between 1991 and 1997, after that my visits became increasingly sporadic until now, when I suppose I am lucky if I drop in for a day or two every three or four years. The city has certainly been stumbling to its feet since the fall of the Wall and when the rebuilding is finished (and who knows when that will be) there is little question that it will be the most exciting place in Europe.

From a purely gastronomic point of view, there is a danger that with so much rebuilding and in-filling the beastly chains will muscle in and Berlin will be packed with chain restaurants, branded cafés and ‘concepts’ (how do you eat a concept?) like everywhere else in the world. When Berlin was just an island in a hostile Soviet ocean, the multiples gave it as wide a berth as all but the hardiest tourists. There were few posh restaurants, and fewer comfortable hotels. In that time the standard offering was the wholesome Berliner Kneipe or pub where you ate local food. If we don’t look out, this might simply disappear.

I had this problem flying in to Berlin on the 2nd. By the time I had checked into my hotel in the Linienstrasse and obtained some cash, I was hungry, but the myriad restaurants at the top of the Friedrichstrasse did not seem right for a Londoner: Chinese, Japanese, Thai, Pan-Asian, Italian, tapas, pizza, eat-all-you-want etc. is just what I find at home. I craved something authentic. After much hesitation I found it on the Torstrasse: a proper old Kneipe with Gothic script and bogus beams and a long menu of regional German food. Mine host (who looked as if he had been drawn by Heinrich Zille) had to be chivvied away from the television he was studying closely, and I think there were no more than four of us eating that evening. Still I had good beer, good schnapps and good Rindsroulade. I went back to my hotel full and watched some sort of German Inspector Morse spin-off on the gogglebox.

From the following morning I fell into line with my university people. We lunched in an Italian place behind the Humboldt University which offered vast pizzas and pasta dishes not to mention heroic salads. I missed a trick though when I saw one of our number had a plate piled high with tagliatelli and girolles. At night we ate tapas: No Misthaufenkuche for us: visiting academics do not eat ‘dungheap food’, a word used by some foreign visitor to sum up the food of Wilhelmine Prussia.

Once I had quit my fellows I reverted to my quest for authenticity. Berlin is still good for small food shops. Where I was staying in the Bayrische Viertel there were three or four excellent bakers within easy walking distance with the Streuselkuchen and marzipan Plunderschleife my children liked for breakfast. There was a huge array of different breads, with a 50-50 wheat-rye loaf we ate until they ran out and we took the rye-dominated Schwarzwälder instead. From the local shop I discovered an excellent initiative to encourage Berlin beekeepers. You could buy packages of three 10cl pots of really strong-flavoured local honey. When I left I stocked up on Brandenburg linden honey for home. It has always been a great favourite. I used to buy it from a beekeeper who had a stall outside Schloss Rheinsberg.

Apart from huge numbers of pubs, the Viertel had wonderful greengrocers with masses of tempting ripe fruit and wild mushrooms. Most summers in Britain I don’t eat peaches or apricots, because the fruit seems to be suffering from an identity crisis which makes it believe it is some species of apple. There were delicatessens and butchers too and a wonderful old-fashioned confectioner. Downstairs from our flat was a large organic shop selling produce of all sorts. Perhaps the oddest place local to us was a hundred-year old winery restaurant in an alleyway off the Berliner Strasse where you could eat à deux in an adapted wine tun.

In a vaguely Teutonic idiom there are plenty of Austrian restaurants now in Charlottenburg and Wilmersdorf, where you may eat a half-decent schnitzel, but that is not really berlinisch. The first night we were all together as a family, we found an unpretentious place where we could buy Fritz Allendorf’s excellent hock by the litre and eat variations on matjes herrings or Pfifferlinge, the local German name for what the French call girolles and we (inaccurately) chanterelles. With the alternating rain and sun, it was a marvellous time for mushrooms, and I was able to buy a big punnet of them in Potsdam for my host’s dinner party on Saturday.

It was so hot in Berlin that I drank more beer than is my wont. Most of this was Weizen or wheat beer. There were old favourites such as the Weihenstephan that I drank in a themed place on the Hacke’scher Markt with white and Käsekrainer sausages from the Bavarian state farm, but the most interesting was the organic Weizen from Braumanufaktur I had in Potsdam. It was quite dark and tangy. The company has its own brew-pub and you can sample all their specialities there.

Most children like sausages, so from that point of view Berlin is ideal, but it was not always easy to get the message across to them that sausages tend to be bought from stalls or vans and not from bars and cafes. The Currywurst so beloved of Berliners was wholly disdained but some Berlin foods went down well, like the Bouletten we had in the Stadtklause in Kreuzberg. The Stadtklause was a discovery: a marvellous old pub quite close to the ruins of the old Anhalt Station. From its proximity to the offices of Tagespiegel and Die Zeit, I should say was frequented by hacks. It had a collection of old pictures of the station.

One nice thing about much of the old western parts of the city is that nothing changes quickly. Walking through another of my old stamping grounds in Wilmersdorf, I noted that a fair number of the places I used to go to twenty years ago are still operating, including a Swabian restaurant called Besenwirtschaft where I used to eat the local pasta. In my various stays in Friedenau over the years I had often seen a good looking pub-cum-restaurant on the corner of the Bundesplatz and one night we went out to look for it. I had heard more recently that my old host in Friedenau, Urs Müller-Plantenberg went there once a year in January to eat roast venison and celebrate his escape from East Prussia in 1945, when he was a boy of five or six. His family managed to get the last train from Marienwerder before the Red Army cut the Germans off. Many were killed outright. Others were starved to death. The rest were banished to the west, months and years later.

Zum Nussbaum was not only still there the food was much as I imagined it. There was wild boar on the menu, Sulze (aspics), Kartoffelpuffer (potato cakes), Pfannkuchen mit Speck (bacon pancakes), Königsberger Klopse (Königsberg meatballs) and other stock north-east German ‘delicacies’. I had some excellent Königsberger Klopse and my daughter and I shared a north German summer pudding or Rote Grütze afterwards. There is a pretty front garden under the nut tree of the name, but inside there are two dark-stained, panelled Ur-German rooms with antique posters and photographs and the old-fashioned ‘Theke’ or bar. I cannot recommend Zum Nussbaum too highly for those looking for proper old Berlin restaurants.

In a way, the experience of our last night in Berlin-Charlottenburg, was similar. We were looking once again for an authentic pub. Diener is a Kunstlerkneipe or artists’ pub just off the Savignyplatz. I went into look at the pleasantly authentic scruffy interior with lots of photographs of bohemian worthies. The waitress was in a bad mood and the customers were lining their stomachs in preparation for the Germany-Brazil match, which was crowned with such a sensational victory a few hours later. The menu, however, was just right: there was Griebenschmalz (dripping) and toasted rye bread, as well as Leberkäs (meatloaf) and Kartoffelpuffer with various toppings, and there were matjes herrings and Königsberger Klopse. It was proper Berlin food, and in one of the smartest corners of the spanking new capital: Diener Tattersall, Grolmanstraße 47, Charlottenburg, 10623 Berlin, 030/881.53.29.


For the rest, this has been a typical holiday month and I have not been out much. I went to a dinner at Boisdale in Canary Wharf on the 15th organised to celebrate smoking and smokers. Boisdale has a nice roomy terrace for puffers and lots of the guests staggered out for a relieving cigarette or cigar in the course of the evening, leaving telltale gaps at the table. Even if I gave up smoking thirty ears ago I have to say that I am an old-fashioned liberal about these things: that you should be allowed to do anything provided it does not impinge on the liberty of others. I am also pretty sure that carbon monoxide fumes from cars are more dangerous than inhaling tobacco smoke.

On the 28th I was entertained by South Africa’s Nederburg Wines at Quo Vadis in Soho. I had not been to this venerable London restaurant since it was owned by Marco Pierre White. Marco moved in his collection of Damien Hirst stuffed sharks, cows etc, and the suggestion was that they might soon end up on the menu. I had a nice little salad of smoked mackerel with apples, celery and walnuts and some smoked haddock fishcakes with back pudding and a fried egg, followed by an almond tart. I saw no mention of beef or shark on the menu so I presume they were gobbled up a long time ago. The Nederburg wines are extremely good value at £8.99, particularly the slightly old-fashioned oaky Winemaster’s Reserve Chardonnay and Cabernet. It was also a chance to meet the telegenic farmer Jimmy Doherty, who makes splendid things on his farm near Ipswich.

Vienna and Back

Posted: 1st July 2014

The sun has come out and life has perked up a little since May. June had the added charm of a few days in Vienna with fresh white asparagus, big black cherries, strawberries and wine.

Champagne Bars

Last month I forgot to mention the tremendous deals offered by Searcy’s London champagne bars which provide tasting menus that are good value for money. The Boller nights look particularly toothsome:

Champagne Tasting at One New Change
Tuesday 22nd July at 6.30pm 
Join us for the ultimate Henri Giraud Champagne tasting experience. You’ll enjoy 4 glasses of Henri Giraud Champagne and sumptuous Searcys canapés.
Tickets are £35 per person

Champagne Tasting at Westfield London
Thursday 17th July at 6.30pm 
Join us for the ultimate Bollinger & Ayala Champagne tasting experience. You’ll enjoy 3 glasses of Bollinger Champagne and a signature Brut from its sister House Ayala,  alongside sumptuous Searcys canapés. 
Tickets are £35 per person

Champagne Jazz Party at Westfield London
Thursday 14th August from 7.30pm
Join us for a perfect evening of live jazz soulfully paired with a Bollinger & Ayala tasting flight and nibbles to soothe you into the weekend.
£20 per person tickets include:
Reserved Table in our luxurious lounge area 
1 x 50ml of Bollinger Brut, NV, Bollinger Rosé, NV, Ayala Brut, NV. Nuts and Olives.

Bookings: 020 7871 1213 or events@searcyschampagnebars.co.uk

Quite distinct from these offers the price of a good sandwich at a glass of champagne is very reasonably pegged at £10. A salad and a glass of fizz is just two pounds more. I am not sure you’ll do much better than this in the current economic climate and when Jeffrey Osborne persists in seeing wine as his principal cash cow.

Spain and Sherry

The first week of June had a Spanish theme. On the 3rd I attended the lavish launch of Iberica’s new restaurant near Farringdon Station in the city. Albert Adria, brother of Ferran Adria of El Bulli fame, and Nacho Manzano designed an extraordinary molecular meal that was well lubricated with the best sherries (Tio Pepe fino en rama) and Spanish wines. Two days later on the 5th there was a tasting and dinner at the Hispania restaurant organised by the Andalucian Tourist Board.

It was prefaced by a tasting led by Beltran Domecq which was a chance to get my tongue round some lovely sherries, such as the fino en rama from Williams & Humbert and the exquisite palo cortado from Gonzalez-Byass. There were seven courses (yes seven - including dessert) of red tuna with different sherries. Strange as it might seem, the preparations were all quite different and the presence of the tuna in the pudding merely suggestive, so it was actually quite a nice dinner, and I am grateful.


Every two years the Austrian growers display their wares in the Hofburg - the Habsburg winter palace in Vienna. It is a mammoth undertaking arranged over three days with lots of parties in the evening for those who have spent their days slurping and spitting wine. Here are my findings - space only permits me to include those which struck me as very good or excellent.

The fair is for professionals only before midday and it is worthwhile getting to the Wachau room at ten each day before the area is swamped. As a friend from Langenlois said ‘Three types of people come here Giles: serious winelovers; people who want to get the full value of their €40 ticket back; and genuine alcoholics.’ By four o’clock all the stands are blocked by crowds of drinkers who look with horror at anyone who spits out their wine and it is quite impossible to taste any more. I have never actually seen a fight break out, but it would not surprise me in the least.

For the past 30 years, all coverage of Austrian wine has begun with the Wachau, a region that has grown in importance since the Second World War and which was already committed to dry wines before the 1985 scandal. It is also necessary to hit the stars first. These winemakers are as well known to Austrians as soccer slebs are here and growers often attribute only a few bottles to the fair which are quickly drunk up. I headed straight for the genial Franz Hirtzberger. The best were the 2013 Honivogl Grüner Veltliner Smaragd and the Hochrain and the Setzberg Riesling Smaragds. Lukas Pichler seems fully in control now at FX Pichler and the wines are more confident: the Loibner Steiner Smaragd was possibly the best Wachau Grüner Veltliner of the vintage and there were gorgeous Riesling Smaragds from the Loibenberg and the Kellerberg. Rudi Pichler makes his wines as tight as a spring. His best Grüner Veltliner - the Wösendorfer Hochrain - was up with the frontrunners. Of the Rieslings it was also the Hochrain that excelled. Toni Bodenstein at Weingut Prager continued his series of wonderful wines: Grüner Veltliner Achleiten Smaragd and its even greater ‘Stockkultur’ version (ie old vines planted in 1937 - he calls the vineyard ‘a hospital’), the Riesling Federspiel from Steinriegl and the Wachstum Bodenstein particularly struck me. The latter was one of the best Austrian wines of the year.

There was return to the top table for the wines of Emmerich Knoll sensational Riesling Smaragds from Loibenberg and Schütt; a glorious Vinothekfüllung and a sweet Auslese. The Nikolaihof was bathing in glory after the Wine Spectator gave one of their wines a perfection-rating. The 2006 Im Weingebirge ‘Baumpresse’ (tree press) was lovely with its rose-petal scent, but the 1997 Vinothek wine was even better.

It has been a while since I tasted the wines of the Tegernseerhof, but I have always admired them. They had a splendid Riesling Kellerberg Smaragd and an impressive Gemischte Satz Smaragd made from 80-year old vines in a promiscuous vineyard. Alzinger too had a promising Riesling Smaragd from the Loibenberg and a bottle of his 2009 Steinertal reminded how good that had been. My old friend Högl disappointed me this year: only his ‘Vision’ Riesling Smaragd stood out, and fortunately not just for its silly name: gimmicky names are a poor alternative to vineyard sites. Johann Donabaum made one of the few tip-top Grüner Veltliners this year with his Spitzer Point Smaragd. His Riesling Setzberg was also first rate. The Setzberg also nurtured the second best Riesling Smaragd from the Mauritiushof (Gritsch). Their best was from the Tausendeimerberg.

The Weingut Schmelz occasionally grabs at my heartstrings. This year I admired the off-dry ‘Beste von Riesling’ which had a little taste of fresh apricots like so many 2013 Rieslings. Schmelz also made one of the best Grüner Veltliners on Pichl Point with a beautiful, poised, lyrical finish. The big Domäne Wachau co-operative also made a top Grüner Veltliner Smaragd on Achleiten.

The Weingut Pichler-Krutzler is owned by Erich and Elisabeth Krutzler and has vines in the Wachau and the Kremstal. The core of their Wachau vines lies close to those of Elisabeth’s father and brother at FX Pichler in Loiben. For me the best Wachau wine was the Loibenberg Riesling, but there is also a wonderful Pfaffenberg from the Kremstal with that haunting fresh apricot smell.

As you have probably seen, the 2013 vintage appears to have favoured the Rieslings more than the Grüner Veltliners, but it may also have been a stylistic choice as there were some exciting Grüner Veltliners from the Kamptal (see below). Now that the world has discovered ‘Grooner’ (rhymes with ‘crooner’) Austrian winemakers seem to want to strip it down and concentrate on elegance, rather than any inherent character the grape might possess. The lentilly taste Grüner Veltliner gives off on loess or primary rock soils was more apparent on the 2012s, like the Bründlmayer Lamm. Bründlmayer’s best wine for me was the Zöbinger Heiligenstein Riesling 2012 with its classic ripe white peach taste. Some of Bründlmayer’s neighbours in Langenlois are Ludwig and Maria Hiedler whose organic wines which get better and better every year and as always, they have a lovely Weißburgunder (Pinot Blanc) with an ethereal finish. The Rieslings from Steinhaus and the blended Maximum also bowled me over. Another Langenloiser is Fred Loimer. The news is that he had taken over the old Schellmann estate in the Thermenregion which used to make great things in a ramshackle if palatial renaissance house in Gumpoldskirchen. I tasted a good, international style Chardonnay: one to watch. Rudolf Rabl is also in Langenlois. He has a vast estate by Austrian standards but he is able to make a large number of very good wines, like his sappy Grüner Veltliner from the Käferberg.

The Weingut Mantlerhof with its loess soils in Gedersdorf is another favourite of mine. They are well-known in Austria as one of the specialists for Roter Veltliner, which is a green grape. Black grapes are called ‘blau’ or blue in German. So far no one has heard of it so there has been no move to call it ‘Roater’ or worse: ‘Rotter’ in the wine trade. Sepp Mantler’s best Roter Veltliners come from the Reisenthal vineyard where he has been experimenting with open fermentation (‘botega’). He is not a one-horse winemaker and makes other lovely wines. Possibly his best are the Grüner Veltliner Reserve from Spiegel and his Riesling from Zehetnerin.

One of my favourite Kremstal estates is the Geyerhof, the home of the redoubtable Ilse Maier. She always picks late if she can and a bit of botrytis adds a taste of pineapples to the Veltliner. The very best is the Gutsreserve, which spends up to four years in cask. Nearby, the Weingut Malat has some of its best land on the slopes below the great monastery at Göttweig. The Grüner Veltliner from the Höhlgraben site has classic typicity with a smidgen of botrytis.

It is impossible to attend Vievinum without paying a call on Ludwig Neumayer from the Traisental whose wines have that zinging purity of fruit that first wooed me when I began to write about Austria a quarter of a century ago. There was a lovely Grüner Veltiner vom Stein, but once again in 2013 the Rieslings shone: the Grillenstein and Wein vom Stein above all.

Similarly, a visit to the man mountain Berhard Ott is a sine qua non. He has become the voice and benchmark of Wagram Grüner Veltliner. The wines have something of the corpulence of their maker, particularly ‘der Ott’ and the Feuersbrunner Rosenberg 2012 with its authentic lentil character of loess-grown Veltliner. The nec plus ultra, however is the 2013 Ampora wine which has not only the lentil taste, there is a little hint of bay leaves as well.

Other parts of Lower Austria yielded fewer two to three star wines. In the Thermenregion, I was very impressed by the Riesling from the Freigut Thallern. New to me was the Weingut Heggenberger with its very good 2010 Pinot Noir. I visited my old friend Walter Glatzer from Göttlesbrunn in Carnuntum and noted his lovely St Laurent from the Altenberg (see below) and Georg Prieler from Schützen in the Leitha Hills to taste his wonderful Weißburgunder from the Seeberg. Then two of Erwin Tinnhof’s wines caught my attention: the 2011 Blaufränkisch Feldmühle and the Gloriette from the same vintage. The vines for Gloriette are 55-years old and the Blaufränkisch is grown on limestone, giving it a Burgundian silkiness.

There were more sensations from Styria in the south of the country. In South Styria Willi Sattler presided over an impressive collection of 2013s, but two older wines caught my attention: a 2011 Morillon (Chardonnay) from the Pfarrweingarten and a 2007 Weißburgunder from the same site that was truly enchanting. How well these wines age! Polz’s wines disappointed me a little this year, but I did like the Sauvignon Blanc Therese, grown at 450 metres; while the two Gross wines that appealed most were the simple Steirische Klassik Sauvignon and the cru-wine from the Nußberg. Weingut Wohlmuth in Kitzeck’s best wine was a Sauvignon Hochsteinriegl grown at an altitude of 500 metres. Winkler-Hermaden in South-East Styria has absorbed the old Stürgkh estate in Klöch and had a good range of excellent if slightly understated Sauvignons.

Besides the stands where the vignerons offered their wares there were a number of side events. The most important of these for me was the red wine tasting in the Redoutensaal (either those pictures go or I do). I had recently made a selection of the best Blaufränkisch wines for Decanter and as I had a lunch that day I concentrated on St Laurent and Pinot Noir. Of the former the best seemed to me to be (in descending order) Glatzer (see above), Allacher, Dopler, Keringer, Trapl, Auer, Gisperg and Kurt Angerer; of the Pinots, Claus Preisinger, Aumann (Reserve), Heinrich Hartl, Schloß Halbturn,  Gisberg, Malat (Reserve), Cobenzl and Zahel’s Dolomit (both very good wines from within Vienna’s city limits) and Feiler-Artinger in Rust.

There was also an intriguing tasting that focussed on the geology of the Wachau and its effect on the taste of the wines which brought certain Wachaus into new focus, such as the Mauritiushof’s 2007 Riesling Tausendeimerberg, which derives some of its excellence from silicate marble; or Johann Donabaum’s Spitzer Point Grüner Veltliner of the same year which much like Bayer’s Ralais 2007 and Hitzberger’s Singerriedl of the same year is powered by paragneis. Perhaps the loveliest of these rocksucking exercises was the Riesling Schütt 2006 from Knoll the vineyard name of which commemorates the eroded shale (‘Schütt’) from the Gföhler Gneis terraces. FX Pichler’s 2007 Kellerberg Riesling owed some of its superiority to Gföhler gneis and loess.

Another exciting side event was an intimate dinner at Silvio Nickol, the new ‘gastronomic’ restaurant in the Palais Coburg. It was a celebration of Pinot Blanc/Weißburgunder organised by Georg Prieler, David Schildknecht of the Wine Spectator and the Austrian Master of Wine Andreas Wickhoff. Schildknecht in particular wanted to prove how subtle, complex and long-living were Austrian Weißburgunder (particularly those grown on limestone) and I think he succeeded admirably. The food was marvellous and some of the wines out of this world, and - as I was already aware - inextinguishable, like the Schenkenbichl from Hiedler, or Prieler’s Seeberg.

Spey Whisky Revisited

The rest of the month of was a bit anti-climactic, despite the Decanter Awards (plentiful Boller and oysters) and the annual TLS Party where the game it seems, is to try to avoid talking to anyone you might know and where, as I left, I heard a couple of ladies amusing themselves ecstatically on the other side of the lavatory wall. I had to suppress my desire to know which of our literary lionesses it might have been. I did, on the other hand, find the chance to go to Liberty Wines’ Piedmontese wine tasting and revelled in Aldo Conterno’s spicy 2009 Barolos Romirasco and Colonello.

I also had news of our friends at the Spey Distillery (sales at historicroyalpalaces.com ) who generously sent me samples of their range to taste in these rather more banal surroundings compared to their majestic launch in the Tower of London. I have to say that they all impressed me in their sweet, liqueur style, and I was struck by what tiny quantities they produce of each bottling. This is truly artisan whisky-making.

So, in ascending order, Tenné is matured in port casks and not subjected to chill-filtering. It tastes of sweet almonds and marzipan, but also has a young-ish classic Speyside character with a hint of fresh pears and some toffee on the finish. It gives the impression of sweetness and warmth.

12-year old. This is aged in new oak barrels and there is a little of that ‘Chardonnay’ character. On the other hand the dominant bouquet is of citrus fruits, oranges in particular and it is a very attractive whisky. This may be the best age-statement for the distillery?

18-year old. This was aged in sherry butts and was rich and sweet, and reminiscent of glace cherries and Dundee cake.

Chairman’s Choice. Here we enter into the range of real liqueur whiskies best enjoyed before a blazing fire. The nose is sweet and rich but behind it all is an irresistible flavour of cooked pears.

Royal Choice. This adds a further dimension of butterscotch and it is again rich, sweet and luscious. You do get the impression of long cask ageing here as the whisky is woody. I think it might be the perfect match for a Havana cigar.

An Unhappy Spring

Posted: 2nd June 2014

It has been an unhappy spring. The rain has bucketed down, and yet the Met Office has informed us this was the warmest May on record. It’s marvellous how that manage to turn bad news into something comforting. In terms of eating it has been dismal: not a cherry, nor a spear of white asparagus; a handful of sharp-tasting strawberries, and two nights ago, at long last, some minute, albeit authentic Jersey Royals. So I shall begin with royalty: the month began with a promising glimpse of it in the Tower of London, of all places, where I was invited to sample the whiskies made by a distillery I had not come across before: Spey Royal.

I suppose I must have visited at least half of the malt distilleries in Scotland, but I had never heard speak of this one in Scotland’s ski resort of Aviemore. The late and much missed Michael Jackson’s Malt Whisky Companion tells me that the modern distillery is better known for making Drumguish, which first ran off the stills in 1991. Its sister malt, Spey Royal, has been reputable in the Far East for some time, but it is unknown here.

The brand is the brainchild of two John McDonoughs, father and son, whose name should appeal to me - indeed, they might even be cousins of mine. They have splashed onto the scene through an arrangement with Historic Royal Palaces which will be selling the malts through their shops at the Tower, Hampton Court, Kew, Kensington and the Banqueting House in Whitehall at the fairly hefty price of £150 for a 70 cl bottle. The 18-year old is a toffee-rich whisky, which a pronounced, almond/marzipan taste. I wish them luck, and I was grateful, as always for the chance to see the Tower at dusk. It was a magical moment: not a tourist in sight, just the tolling of the bells and a few drilling squaddies taking orders from a barking NCO among a jumble of ancient buildings hardly known to us indigenous Londoners. It was a great treat.

Riesling is more in my parish than malt these days and there was a big tasting on 12 May. I only had time to taste the Germans but I noted some of the best Austrian producers were also there. I shall leave them for Vienna later this month. There is rather a dearth of German wine at the moment, with 2012 and 2013 making just small quantities and the bumper harvest of 2011 sold out. Hopes are now pinned on 2014, but severe hail has already eliminated large parts of the crop in some areas, the Ruwer, for example.

Many growers had only 2013s to show, although Steffen Christmann had brought his lovely 2012 Grosses Gewächs from Idig, and I was impressed by a collection of 2012s from Schloss Neuweier in Baden where the best Rieslings are grown on granite. Many growers had brought in special wines from their cellars: Schloss Saarstein, for example, topped a lovely 2013 Auslese with Gold Cap 2006, which was simply gorgeous. Maximin Grünhaus had no new wines, but a lovely Abtsberg Spätlese 2009 and a 2006 Auslese from the Herrenberg (N 14) that was out of this world.

Grünhaus’s neighbour in the Ruwer, Karthäuserhof, has had a change of ownership, but it has had no perceivable impact on the quality of the wines. There were exemplary Kabinetts, Spätlesen and Auslesen from 2013 and as a bonus, a Trockenbeerenauslese from that great sweet wine-year, 2011.

It is quite a privilege to taste JJ Prüm’s Mittelmosel wines. He is adamant that they cannot be drunk young, and the sulphury noses on his 2011s rather bore this out. They will be lovely in five years or so, particularly the Wehlener Sonnenuhr Spätlese with its taste of peaches and pears. The 2008 Sonnenuhr Spätlese is just beginning to give its all now, with its lovely cooling finish of yellow peaches. A 2009 Auslese from the same site added a hint of apricots, evidence of benign botrytis.

SA Prüm also had some decent things, but as ever it is more of a mixed bag. Very good were the 2007 Urziger Würzgarten Kabinett and 2005 Graacher Domprobst Spätlese; excellent the 2010 Erdener Treppchen Auslese. More consistent, perhaps is a Mosel traditionalist like Max Ferd Richter. I enjoyed his 2013 Brauneberger Juffer Kabinett and his 2007 Wehlener Sonnenuhr Kabinett as well as the 2002 Juffer Sonnenuhr Auslese. It is always a pleasure to try the Eisweine he picks from the Helenenkloster vineyard; in this instance harvested on 12, 12, 12. Every year the wild boars lay new plans to make off with the fruit, and every year Dirk Richter has to erect fresh defences to keep them out.

Heymann-Löwenstein is one of the Mosel’s leading terroirists, and his wines require an article of faith. Like many growers from the valley these days, he travels with a collection of stones which he thrusts at you as you taste. They tell you that the flavours of wine are dictated by the rock below the surface of the vineyard. When you sample the 2011 Vom blauen Schieffer, for example, some blue slate is brought out. The wine is stalky, wild and smoky, and yet very long and cooling. The 2011 Roth Lay is the very opposite: almost feminine and quite charming! Possibly the best was the 2012 Stolzenberg.

Another Mittelmosel stalwart is Selbach-Oster. The stars for me were the 2007 Graacher Himmelreich and the 2011 Zeltinger Sonnenuhr Spätlesen. There were a couple of properly mature wines too: the Zeltinger Sonnenuhr Auslesen from 1999 and 1995. Reichsgraf von Kesselstadt is always a curate’s egg, but there were some real highlights, such as the 2012 Ockfener Bockstein and 2011 Piesporter Goldtröpfchen Kabinetts, the 2007 Goldtröpfcehn Spätlese and the 2005 Wiltinger Scharzhofberg Auslese Fuder 10.

I passed briefly though the Nahe and Gut Hermannsberg which has reached new heights under its present owners, particularly good were the 2012 Steinterrassen and a 2013 traditional Kabinett. Also beautifully poised was the Steinterrassen Spätlese 2012. There was a majestic echo from the past: a 1989 Kupfergrube Trockenbeerenauslese. The colour was almost black, but it was all oranges and peaches on the palate. The Nahe’s greatest star, Hermann Dönnhoff was represented by a marvellous 2012 Oberhäuser Brücke Spätlese.

Wilhelm Weil in the Rheingau rarely disappoints. There was the 2012 Kiedricher Turmberg and the 2012 dry Grosses Gewächs from the Gräfenberg. The 2006 Turmberg Spätlese was sensational and the 2007 Gräfenberg Auslese wonderfully complex. There was also a wine from Joachim Flick, one of the rising stars of the Rheingau: his 2012 Hölle, which was very promising. From the Rheinterrassen in Rheinhessen came Heyl zu Herrnsheim with a good series of 2013s from its vines in Hipping and on the Brüdersberg. As a reward there was a 1983 Auslese from the Ölberg that seemed remarkably bright and youthful, and tasted of lychees.

The big Jura tasting occurred on the 14th. The region is wonderfully individual. Perched on the heights above Burgundy, the wines couldn’t be more different from those of the Côte d’Or. I think it must be true that it is hard to get grapes to ripen and the acidity levels are consequently high. Much of the wine is subjected to a second fermentation as sparkling wine, which allows for a good dose of sugar to be added. The famous name used to be Henri Maire with his ‘vin fou’. Still I like the light reds Trousseau and Poulsard, and the local Chardonnay. This time I decided to taste only Savagnin, which has an acidity comparable to Hungarian Furmint and which I am sure is some sort of cousin.

A good Vin Jaune or Château-Chalon should have bottle age to tame the acidity. With time an aroma of walnuts predominates. Some of this flavour comes from the ‘voile’, the friendly bacteria that settle on the surface of the wine much like the ‘flor’ in dry sherry. Most growers also make a reductive style where oxygen is banished from vat or cask and which highlights the primary fruit of the grape. Here is a little league table for top Savagnin:

Good: Domaine Hughes-Béguet (Savagnin 2009), Domaine Rijckaert (Arbois Grand Elevage 2010), Cellier des Tiercelines (Savagnin 2011); Very good: Domaine Jacques Tissot, Domaine Baud (Cuvée Tradition), Domaine Berthet-Bondet (Naturé, Tradition and Château-Chalon), Domaine de la Pinte (Arbois Savagnin), Champ Divin (Pollux), Domaine Joly (Vin Jaune), Domaine Rolet (Naturé 2011), Domaine André et Mireille Tissot (Château-Chalon 2007); excellent: Domaine de la Pinte (Vin Jaune), Daniel Dugois (Vin Jaune 2006), Jean Tissot (Vin Jaune 2006), Domaine Pignier (Vin Jaune 2006), Domaine Rolet (Côte du Jura Blanc 2008, Arbois Blanc Tradition 2008, Vin Jaune 2006), Chais du Vieux Bourg (Vin Jaune 2005), Domaine André et Mireille Tissot (Vin Jaune la Vasée 2007).

It’s not all white. I had some reds this month too! I had two rather lovely Malbecs from Trivento in Mendoza, a sharp-ish Reserve 2012 (£5.99 from Tesco) and a much richer Grande Reserve 2011. The Reserve had a nice high grown acidity about with lots of black cherry tastes, while the Grande Reserve was quite rich and creamy like a dish of rote Grütze, the German version of summer pudding.

Twenty years ago and more, I thought I might make my name as a tea-writer. Patronised by the charming Sethia family of London and Calcutta, I attended the long-discontinued auctions at Sir John Lyon House in London and travelled to Calcutta, Colombo, the mountains of Sri Lanka and Darjeeling. I wanted to go to the Nilgiris and Assam, but the former was dismissed as being ‘too ambitious’ in those days before the Hindu Tiger, and the latter was closed to foreigners due to civil war: they were frightened I might be kidnapped. The nearest I ever got was the airport.

There was civil unrest in Darjeeling too at the time of my first visit in 1991. I recall an envelope filled with baksheesh had to be made over to the policeman in the airport on the Terai before I could travel up to the gardens. I admired the way he was able to weigh it in the palm of his hand to ascertain that it contained the right number of crore rupees.

Although I was able to mug up a good deal about Indian and Ceylon tea, the subject was enormous: there was all the tea in China, African black tea (some of which was very good), Japanese green tea, and all those things which aren’t quite tea such as maté, Roibos and various herbal teas and infusions. I was reminded of the vastness of the subject by a visit to the Amanzi Tea Salon and shop in New Cavendish Street at the end of the month.

Amanzi paints with a broad brush. Using white (unfermented), green (slightly fermented) and black (fermented) forms of tea, maté and roibos, they make a range of refreshing flavoured drinks. They have a few classics too, such as Iron Goddess or Wuyi Oolong, St Margaret’s Hope first flush Darjeeling, a tar-and-bacon-scented Lapsang, sea-weedy Gyokuro, Yunnan Pu-erh, Japanese Gunpowder or Matcha tea. There is a lovely Jasmine tea, and some like Lychee Pomegranate that involve making artful blends of black, green and Oolong teas. They also make exciting infusions to put you to sleep or wake you up, help you to digest or inject you with energy. There are fruit teas and iced teas, smoothies, bubble teas, chais and lattes and a few cocktails - such as Mojito or Mar-Tea-Ni - that might have benefited from a slug of vodka.

I was very impressed by this new flavour-world. It was just the thing for a hot day in May, and better still, I hope for a sizzling June.


East of Eden

Posted: 6th May 2014

April should have been a nice, relaxing time after the travails of recent days; instead it lived up to its reputation as the cruellest month. If there was a high point, it was probably the lunch organised by Château Léoube on the 15th at Galvin at Windows in the Hilton. The chef, Joo Won, prepared a delightful meal full of vernal flourishes, and they all worked a treat with the limpid strawberry-scented rosé or its more serious brother ‘Secret’. The company was good and the sun shone, making the view of London interesting for once. How much nicer it is to be in the Hilton looking out, than to have to see that monstrosity from Hyde Park?

Léoube is one of two impressive rosé wines I’ve had this month, the other being the 2013 Pure Mirabeau which was wonderfully sappy and powerful. Léoube comes from the coast, right next to the presidential Fort de Brégançon where Flamby was snapped in his bathers with La Trierweiler not long ago, but I suggest you get that repulsive image out of your head before you try the wine and I am assured that Flamby will not be using his palatial retreat from now on. Léoube, by the way, is owned by Lord and Lady Bamford of JCB-fame.

At the beginning of the month there was an opportunity to celebrate the life of Hugo Dunn-Meynell who died last year. A stirring service was held at St. Brides in Fleet Street (although Hugo was a Catholic) with beautiful singing from their very professional choir. Memorial services are one of the things the British do best, and they provide a chance to sing all those stirring hymns we enjoyed at school. There was a reception at the Innholders Hall afterwards with plenty of champagne. I think Hugo would have wanted nothing less.

Hugo was one of the first people I met in the world of wine and food after I came back from Paris in 1985. We were both drummed in to judge a cocktail competition. He was hard to miss with his red socks and eyeglass and we ended up on the ITV news talking about the weird and wonderful things we had had to taste. In those days he ran the International Wine & Food Society in succession to its celebrated founder, André Simon. He had evidently made a lot of money in advertising and lived in some style in Mayfair. As he was passionate about the history of gastronomy, he used to commission the odd paper from me to go in the Society’s quarterly. The last time I saw him was about two years before he died when he came up with his wife Alice to have me sign a copy of my book on Grimod de La Reyniére. He seemed in good spirits, but very frail. He was a colourful figure who revelled in the joys of life; I doubt we’ll see many more like him.

On the 8th I went to a strange gathering in the East End laid on by Campo Viejo. Campo Viejo, a large rioja house in Logroño, has engaged Professor Charles Spence, who teaches psychology at Oxford, to conduct research into how wines fare under different lights and with varying musical backgrounds. There were about a dozen of us assembled there to act as guinea pigs. First of all we had to put a piece of paper on our tongues. The paper was unbearably bitter. To my surprise there were people present who found the paper quite tasteless. Spence explained that they were the ones with fewer taste buds who were rarely aware of what they eating or drinking. Then we were sent into in a whitewashed studio with a dark glass filled with rioja and had to note down how much we liked it under four different lights and an occasional blast of white noise. My scores did not vary much, but the wine seemed more astringent under green light.

Spence’s research should be of great interest to restaurants. Michelin used to award top marks to ‘palaces’ in the understanding that food tasted better in luxurious surroundings. You could achieve two stars for great cooking, but to obtain three, you needed to worry about ambience. Piped music must have a considerable effect. Charles Spence has proved that nasty lighting and annoying music don’t just put you off your food they make wine taste nasty too. As I caught the bus west, an old Swedish skin flick sprung to mind - I Am Curious: A Film in Yellow (Jag är nyfiken - en film i gult). Everybody was raving about it when I was at school, but I must have missed it.

On the 23rd George Sandeman was in town and at the old Sandeman cellars in the City. The Sign of the Don was showing a huge span of Sandeman vintage ports going back to 1944, and it was a fascinating opportunity to assess their performance since the Second World War. Many of these wines are actually available by the glass from the Sign of the Don, although some of the older vintages will naturally set you back a whack.

I visited Sandeman several times in the nineties, in what was almost certainly the nadir of their fortunes, but always enjoyed my visits immensely, largely because of George was so charming and put us all at ease. On one occasion I was part of the Sandeman crew in the barco rabelo race on the River Douro St John’s Eve. I remember tasting the 1977 in the Sandeman lodge in Oporto and being very disappointed. I ran into Michael Broadbent over breakfast in the Hotel Infante Sagres the next day, who muttered something about the 1928. That one I have yet to sample.

The 77 wasn’t performing too badly on the 23rd. The surprise for me was the 1944 (the 1945 was absent). These older vintages were really quite herbal, with a pronounced citrus and liquorice character. The 55 is still buoyant and the 63 and 66 too. Then there were some decent things in the early eighties, like 80 and 82. Sandeman returned to form with the 2007, and the 2011 looks like being quite stunning. We shall have to wait for that.

I was back in the East End again on the 28th. It was time for the Decanter World Wine Awards and I was due to do my stint as chairman of the German jury. Of course I got lost leaving the Underground station and I was half way to Essex before I smelled a rat. As it was, Tobacco Dock was quite a nice location, with exposed early nineteenth century beams and old ironwork, and there were bits of unblitzed Docklands down on the river around the Captain Kidd pub. I even passed a posh butcher on my way to Wapping. Things are clearly looking up!

We judges had been shoved into a new era of high-tech and had to perform out functions on iPads that crashed at every turn. We eventually got the hang of them, but we never did get our mid-morning coffee and lunch was after two. Your judgment is not always at its best when you see half your sentence has failed to appear on the screen or that the selfsame screen has disappeared yet again. Still, I think we did the wines justice and despite what were difficult vintages (principally 2012 for the whites and 2011 for the reds) we awarded a generous handful of golds.

The jury worked well. We are all old friends, or at least had become so before the end. The Ahr Pinots shone once again, even to the degree that we had a party of tourists from the Burgundy table who wanted to see for themselves how great Pinot Noir wines were made. I will take their visit as a compliment.

From Monday night the heirs to Bob Crow struck on the Underground and I was turfed off a train at Canonbury and made to walk home. In the absence of tube trains on Tuesday morning I schlepped from Blackfriars to Wapping, which took another hour. Had I been in a better mood I might have appreciated the occasional good view to be had from the river. That night I lingered talking of old times in the Captain Kidd, before boarding a mystery bus; then crossing from Aldgate to Moorgate to find another. We West-Enders will never get the hang of the East.

Marriage at Cana

Posted: 1st April 2014

Does it take a different sort of wine to tickle an historian’s palate? Not so long ago I gave a lecture on eighteenth century gastronomic literature at a seminar on the philosophy of taste that took place in the Maison française at Oxford. The distinguished classical historian Oswyn Murray, the world’s greatest authority on the Greek symposium, was presiding over the morning session and at half time he produced a curious bottle he had brought back from a trip to the Crimea.

It must have been an old cola bottle or something like that. He said that he had bought it from a Scythian peasant about fifteen years before, who had dug it out from behind a pile of logs. He was visibly excited, for this, he said, was produced in exactly the same way as the ancient Greek wine described in Hesiod’s Works and Days, with the grapes left out in the sun to dehydrate before being pressed for wine.

We had some of Oswyn’s wine with our sandwiches at lunchtime. I think it had once been very sweet, but with time and a less than perfect stopper, that sweetness had gone and what was left was rather sour and alcoholic. Still, it was a curiosity, and we had Oswyn to explain it, so we were quite pleased. I should probably add there was nothing else to drink with lunch, though we made up for the lack later.

In the Ratskeller in Bremen there is a barrel of wine dating back to 1648 and if you are very lucky and they think you are important they let you taste it. Again, the Peace of Westphalia and the end of the Thirty Years War make powerful calls for your historical imagination, yet the wine just tastes thick and sweet and is not an experience quite like so many of the hundred-year old and more Riesling wines I have had the privilege of tasting in Germany. The American army had the chance to drink it all up in 1945, but for some reason they let it be.

Some historical wines can actually be a pleasure - one has only to think of some fabulous old bottles of Madeira, for example. The oldest port I have ever drunk was a Dow’s 1832, made in the same year as the Great Reform Bill. It was still lively. As a rule sweet wines last longer than dry ones.

Once I was seated next to Prince Poniatowski at Lucas-Carton in Paris, which was just about the best restaurant in the world then. ‘Ponia’ was the owner of the Clos Baudoin in Vouvray and he had arrived with a few bottles of the 1871 from the domaine. The chef, Alain Senderens, had devised a special menu including a desert to do justice to the Clos Baudoin. It hardly needed Senderens’ wizardry to frame it: you had only to think of the brutal crushing of the Paris Commune at precisely the time when the flowers on the vines in the Loire Valley dropped their petals to become grapes; and this particular historic wine would have been stunning even if nothing significant had occurred that year.

Great vintages don’t always adhere to the years you might want to celebrate but some do. There was a tiny harvest in 1945, but the year produced some magnificent wines. I have had the good fortune to have had the fabulous Graham’s 1945 port several times, and courtesy of the wine writer James Suckling, on one occasion I even had the Lafite of the same year before hand, but never, I think the 1945 Mouton with its famous label ‘l’Année de la victoire’, designed by Philippe Julien. I am sorry to say that 1933, the year that Hitler came to power, was actually an excellent year for German wine.

I was in an historical mood when I tried Galilean wines for the first time. These are wines from near the ancient town of Cana and the Marriage at Cana must be one of the earliest extant description of a wedding feast. The canny groom (who had lamentably failed to provide enough wine) was accused of flying in the face of so many of his modern counterparts: ‘Every man at the beginning doth set forth good wine; and when men have well drunk, then that which is worse: but thou hast kept the good wine until now.’ (John 2, 10)

As I tasted them I imagined myself at the feast. The wines came from Lueria in Upper Galilee: a 45-acre estate owned by Josef Sayada where the grapes are grown on volcanic soils some 840-890 metres above sea level. I suspect that the wines Jesus was replicating were grown closer to the lake and both hotter and coarser.

The best of the Lueria wines was the 2011 Cabernet Sauvignon. It was quite cooling and had an authentic smack of Cabernet. It tasted of cooked blackberries but finished less well. It would cost around £20 in Britain. I quite liked the Terrace blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc. The Rosso I found hot and coarse, so perhaps more like the stuff served before Jesus was inveigled into providing the wine for the feast.

Also from the ancient world was a good wine from Cappadocia: the 2012 Kocabağ from Kaya Kapadokya. Made from the Ökuzgözü and Boğazkere grapes, it had a nice little whiff of raspberries with some of the same on the palate. It was fragrant and aromatic and there was a bit of tarry grip, but it was cooling, and not coarse or rustic. I liked it very much.

So the old wines of the Near East are raising their heads again? If you wanted, you could search out the modern descendants of Opimian or Falernian, but many of the wines of ancient Greece were nasty, and some of the modern ones not much better. And March was not exclusively taken up with the old world either: I had a nice wine from the Story Ridge Winery in California too: Panamera Cuvée Napa 2011. It was quite jammy with some confected, Cabernet Sauvignon tastes; slightly hot - a Napa failing - but not too alcoholic. There were hunky cassis tastes, length, power; it was a Napa wine all right, but good. It would also be near £20 a bottle if it were on sale here.

I have other concerns at present and spend my time praying for a miracle. Supplies dwindle while prices soar. If I only I could find someone to turn all this water into wine? But then again, I suppose he would only say ‘… what have I to do with thee. Mine hour is not yet come.’


Posted: 3rd March 2014

It is the second of March as I write and yesterday I finally put a monster to bed. I haven’t really thought about much other than this book for weeks, but in the middle of last month there was a little pause when I went on my usual February jaunt to the Domaine des Anges in Provence.

It is, as always, truffle season and I was getting good reports for the melanosporum, the local black winter truffles. Provence, rather than Périgord, is the source for sixty percent of these. My friend in the local village of Mormoiron, Bob Huddie, reported having eaten good things in January and February, but just before I left on 14 February, the weather warmed up and it began to rain. The last truffles of the season were consequently small (not much bigger than a cherry) and not as perfumèd as they might have been. They also shot up in price from €600 a kilo to nearer €800 locally, that means they would have sold for three-times that sum in Paris.

You win some, you lose some, I thought as I arrived in Marseille in the early afternoon on Friday to be greeted by brilliant sunshine and temperatures of around 15 Celsius. Apart from an occasional downpour and a light frost one morning, the weather stayed sunny and warm. On the way to the Domaine we stopped at the butcher in Mazan to buy some braising beef. Bob arrived later with a jar containing some rice and a dozen or so small truffles for our first course. He had obtained them from his cleaner, who had dug them up in her garden. Her soils were sandy. Up on the hill where we were, the land contains too much chalk to be good for truffles.

Despite their modest size, they were better than I expected. Bob wanted some served on crostini while the rest were committed to a brouillade de truffes, sometimes called an omelette aux truffes, which is essentially scrambled eggs, without milk, cooked in a bain-marie with a little cream and lots of butter. The truffles are then mixed in at the last minute or simply shaved over the top. The idea is that they should not get too hot, as that might dissipate the aromas. I think everyone was more than happy, as they were with the beef, which was not only excellent with the Domaine des Anges Archange, but also with Bob’s magnum of Château Cantemerle 2006.

The padrone, Gay McGuinness, was actually in seventh heaven, not so much as a result of the food, but because the powerful American critic, Robert Parker had finally pronounced on his wines, awarding 90 points to two of them and giving more than decent scores to the others.

The next morning we went in to the market in the lovely town of Pernes. It was very depleted. It was the beginning of half-term and the Parisians had yet to arrive. We stopped at my favourite baker with his hundred-year old oven and bought a vast miche or sourdough loaf. On Saturday afternoon we planned to visit a neighbouring estate, Domaine Vintur, which lies on the road between Carpentras and Malaucène. It is run by the Yorkshireman James Wood, who has wonderfully precise ideas about the sort of wine he wants to make and the way he wants his vineyard to look. We did an extensive tasting and I was extremely impressed by his whites. He inherited the 2011 reds from the previous owner as they were already in the vats when his boss bought the estate. They were good too, but I expect the 2012 and 2013 to be even better.

Winter is slow-cooking time, and we had a slab of belly pork to roast that night, which I had scored deeply to make some good crackling and put a lot of spice in the white wine it sat in as it slowly melted in the oven. The joy of cooking on a wine estate is that there is always plenty of material for marinades and braising, not least in the open bottles left over from the last night’s dinner. We still had two or three of Bob’s truffles and made some oeufs en cocotte with those.

Gay had had a visit from a lady that afternoon who had been restoring a portrait for him. She asked me if we wanted any wild boar, as her freezer was full of it. Her friend in Bédouin, she said, had been trying to rid Mont Ventoux of wild boars over the previous few weeks and had enjoyed a moderate success. I naturally said yes, and asked her if she knew of anyone who had truffles? When we got back that evening the boar and the truffles were there. The woman said that the truffles had been frozen, and I should put them back in the freezer if I was going to take them home. As for the boar, I left it in its blood and emptied a couple of bottles of Domaine des Anges over it and let it fester.

We motored up to Malaucène on Sunday, a larger and livelier town than Mazan with a huge hall-church at the centre. There were even a few people on the streets and stray dogs milling around - a rare vision in Provence in February. I made the usual Irish stew, starting it well before we went out. James Wood arrived for dinner bearing gifts: wine, eggs and more truffles, that he had obtained from a contact in a local bar. Again they were small, and lightly perfumed, but they made a lovely brouillade that was just what we needed before a steaming dish of Irish stew.

Monday was relaxed. We went to the splendid market in Bédouin for a vacherin Mont d’Or for that evening, then Dave Gargan and I went into Carpentras as I had ordered a book for my boy. To my horror I saw the bookshop was closed, but there was a light burning inside and a man moving around. I pleaded with him through the grille, and eventually he agreed to sell me my book. A good omen I thought. We spent a happy few hours in the Irish pub in Mazan celebrating while the lady behind the bar gave me tips on how to cook my boar.

The boar had been in blood, wine, and a little port for two days now. I sat in the feeble winter sun, filched it out of its marinade and cut it into manageable pieces. After browning it and setting it to cook it in its juices for a good three hours I went for a short sieste.

When I woke I was shivering. I think I must have caught a chill cutting up the boar. I am sorry to say that I missed a trick as a result, for I should have put our few remaining truffles into the mashed potatoes. As it was, I had very little appetite, but I noted that the boar was beautifully tender, and the marinade, reduced by a good half, was turned into a good, rich, black sauce.

And, after that short truffle break, I returned to London and the monster.


Posted: 3rd February 2014

As I seem neither to eat nor drink anything of consequence any more, the best I can do is talk about breakfast, which I suppose I must concede is an important part of a hard-working day. In the morning I have what is called ‘bed-tea’ in the Indian subcontinent, except I am not in bed when I drink it and I don’t get the biscuit they invariably give you in India. The tea is the fuel required to get the family on its feet. Once the children have left or have been delivered to their schools I have breakfast. This is comparatively simple: toast, butter, jam or marmalade and coffee. Simple yes, but I have to make virtually all the ingredients first.

I started making bread nearly a decade ago because decent loaves were almost impossible to find and what was only half-way good cost ridiculous prices from chichi shops. When I travelled a lot, I bought bread on the way home: a pain de campagne (there are still no decent baguettes in London), or a Landbrot: preferably something with a bit of shelf-life. I was no longer travelling much, however, so I started making simple white and wholemeal loaves and then, about six years ago, I created my starter. Since then, I have made a 1.4 kilo sourdough loaf about once a week.

I use 500 cls of the starter to 650 grams of white flour and 100 grams of rye and a bit of rock salt. Sometimes I think about increasing the amount of rye, but I have become lazy about experimenting. I buy either a fresh, crumbly English yeast which is hugely fast and enthusiastic but sloppy and unpredictable, or a tight German one called Rapunzel, that works slowly and methodically: it appears national character may be expressed by yeasts too. The bread is very filling. Two slices will sustain you till lunchtime. Event the best commercial bread is little more than air.

Jams and marmalades I also make myself. I have just done our Seville orange marmalade. That has to last the year, but I also make Robespierre (blood orange), King Billy (orange), Harry (lime), Jack (lemon) and the Imposter (grapefruit). The advantage of the rest of the citrus fruit ‘jams’ is that they can be made in batches when you need them; and they are good, so they run out fast.

Then there is coffee. I buy small green Ethiopian beans from a shop nearby, about 500 grams lasts for ten days or so, but then, I only make coffee in the morning. They have a slightly cheesy smell when roasted that derives, I’m told, from the fact they are allowed to ferment in their ‘cherries’ before they are hulled. As they are grown above 10,000 feet, they have a good acidity, which is what I want. The Ethiopians used to roast them for me, and I could smell them as I walked up Burghley Road to collect them. Then they got so busy serving the large local Ethiopian colony that they could no longer spare the time and they taught me how to do them myself. It is a lovely way of filling the house with the smell of fresh roast coffee. You just need to keep a clean old frying pan that is used for that alone, and then you shake them over a flame for about a quarter of an hour until you see the oil beginning to coat the swelling beans. The Ethiopian gentleman told me: ‘you will know they are ready by the smell.’ You let them cool in a bowl and keep them in the freezer until you need to grind them. I grind my coffee just before I make a pot.

Of course I regret to say don’t make the butter as well. Good, unsalted French butter is now extremely difficult to find, far harder to obtain than posh olive oil, which you can buy just about anywhere in London. Sometimes I head off to Borough Market to see the man on the Echiré stand who cuts me a slab from the ‘motte’, or mound. I can generally find it at the Cave à Fromages in South Kensington, but since my daughter left the Lycée in the summer, I have less reason to go there. I have thought about acquiring a cow, but there is little space out the back and I certain the council would complain. They complain about pretty well everything.


Posted: 2nd January 2014

So 2013 is behind us, but for me at least, 2014 has yet to arrive. I am still fighting last year’s battle, and the pleasures of the table don’t seem to be much to hand either. Two more months and I may emerge human again or I may lie lifeless at the bottom of the trench.

Still as I sit here alone (family away in Devon) at the dawn of a New Year, I can say that Christmas was remarkably good despite the lean times. I was able to find a few decent or interesting bottles and there were some lovely things to eat.

When friends came on the 21st, for example, I fished out a magnum of Schloss Vollrads Charta Rheingau Riesling Kabinet 2001. This was, I think, more interesting than good. It was a little throwback to the experimental years of the eighties when Rheingau growers wanted to make dry wines but failed to get their grapes ripe enough to produce an adequate balance. The result was a sharp-ish sort of Riesling: none of the sweetness that gave it ‘charm’ nor the power that made it viable as a dry wine. How much better have they become now that they have managed to get the grapes properly ripe. Dry Grosses Gewächs is surely the future for most German Riesling.

Then another friend came to dinner on Christmas Eve. We had already opened some Laurent Perrier NV while we decorated the tree. I generally find Laurent-Perrier is wound too tight, which makes it an unexciting NV champagne, but we’d had this bottle in the house for a couple of years and it was all the better for it. I had found a fresh foie gras at Harry’s in Kentish Town and marinated it the night before in half a glass of super-sweet Gonzalez-Byass Pedro Ximenez Noe, with some salt, pepper and nutmeg and cooked it in the morning for three-quarters of an hour in the lowest possible oven. It is lovely how the fat comes out and swims over the liver. That fat gives the foie gras a remarkable shelf life. There is still some left. I noticed it in the fridge this morning.

With the foie gras I brought out Franz Hirtzberger’s Singerriedel Riesling Smaragd 1990. I don’t recall 1990 being the greatest year, and this might have been better a while back, but it was still a super wine, in that baroque idiom that is Hirtzberger’s stock-in-trade and still makes him about the best grower in the Wachau.

Our guest has an aversion to white wine, and he had brought with him a bottle of Joseph Voilllot’s Volnay 1er Cru Les Fremiots 2005, which a Frenchman at Roberson had told him would go well with the lobsters I had popped in the pot shortly before he arrived. I was unable to confirm this, as I stuck resolutely to the Riesling: I didn’t fancy the idea of Volnay with lobsters. I drank the Volnay with the cheese and I thought it was wonderfully long and sinewy wine and an excellent choice. After our Stilton, there were a couple of bûches: one with chocolate and the other with marrons. I opened some of my old friend Johann Münzenrieder’s Bouvier Trockenbeerenauslese 1995. I think my daughter had a small glass, otherwise just me. I finished the rest watching Scrooge after my Christmas dinner.

The best wines should unlock memories, like some sort of Proustian madeleine. I don’t know when I first met Münzenrieder, but what struck me most about him was the fact that the more excited he became, the more he spoke Appetlönisch: the patois of his village on the Austro-Hungarian border. If you believe you have mastered German, think again.

We were just the family on Christmas Day. While the children unwrapped their presents there was a bottle of Roederer 2003, with a little whiff of fresh apricots which I imagined I found too on the Guerlain scent an uncle had so kindly given my daughter. The real treat was with the beef: Roumier’s Chambolle-Musigny 1er Cru Les Amoureuses 1994. It had perhaps lost a little weight in the ageing process, but the structure and length were just heavenly. I think that was the last Roumier I had: pity.

Boxing Day was back to work, although we did have a nice bottle of Denis Dubourdieu’s Clos Floridène Graves 2004. It all seems but a memory now. Back to my trench.

Wine & Food Diary entries posted before 2014 can now be found in the Wine & Food Diary Archive.