Thursday, 21 May 2015

Cooking à la Cordon Bleu: Margaux

So PK says to me the other day, 'The thing is, you think you can cook, but can't; while I think I can't cook, but can.' Well, whether he has a point or not, he's evidently not going to get another meal out of me. At the same time, what if he does have a point? A few nights ago we gave some chums a Yotam Ottolenghi-styled chicken with saffron plus what was, by my standards, rather a subtle Barbera D'Asti Superiore. I don't know about Yotam, to be honest. I want to like his recipes, but in my hands they tend to spiral out of control, what with all the fancy ingredients, and the arduously sophisticated preparation. The chicken looked a lot more desirable while it was still sitting in the marinade, if you must know. I am starting to have doubts.

Which are confirmed when I dig out a book which has been a mysterious resident in our household for decades, one of those books which arrived with my wife all those years ago for no good reason and which, for no equally good reason, has never been thrown out. It is Cooking à la Cordon Bleu, by Alma Lach, published in the States by Harper & Row around 1970 (no actual publication date) and with a foreword - well, I never - by Andre Simon, whose ghost hung benignly over our prize, seven weeks ago.

And it is a terrifying book. It is written to appal early Seventies Americans with their ignorance of the finer arts of cooking, containing as it does, sections on Dark Warm Sauces; Porc, (with its we're-all-perfectly-relaxed-about-this opening line 'Pig is the only critter on God's green earth that goes the whole hog for mankind'); Homard au Cognac; Poularde Sainte Hélène (twenty-four separate ingredients, including foie gras and truffles); French-fried Cauliflower ('Dip in batter coating no. 3'); Poached Eggs in Gelatin, Pain D'Epinards ('Put a 2-inch buttered foil collar [step 1, p.336, for instructions on making collars] around the top of the mold'), and more. And if that wasn't enough, the wines.

Whoever picked wine pairings (someone called Dr. George Rezek gets especially fingered in the Acknowledgments) must have had pockets as deep as the Pacific. To accompany Jambon en Croûte (Ham in Crust)? A nice Margaux. Rognons de Veau aux Champignons (Kidneys in Mushroom Sauce)? Gevrey-Chambertin. Fish Steaks? Puligny-Montrachet. Chicken in White Wine? Pomerol. Chicken with Artichokes? Corton Charlemagne. Sauteed Pork Chops? Erdener Treppchen (German, as it points out). Roast Beef? Chateau Latour.

It's an exercise in intimidation, something expressly designed to draw your own shortcomings to your own, haggard, lack of attention. That's what cookery books did in the Anglo-Saxon world in those days: they traumatised housewives and set domestic cooking back a decade. Besides, if you could afford all those things, either you'd get someone else to cook them and decant them, or go out to a restaurant. I mean lobster, truffles, Chateau Latour, I'd have to sell my Kodak stock and get out of Eastern Airlines just to pay for the main course.

And yet: there's a part of me that wants to believe in this terrible gastronomic ransom note, a part that accepts the necessity of impossible catering when guests come round, because that trauma is an essential part of the transaction. Most of the time for the hard-pressed housewife two generations ago? Chops, baked beans, Arctic Roll, some kind of dismal salad. Once in a terrifying blue moon? Aubergines Farcies and a Chateauneuf du Pape, whatever that was. Without wholesale terror and a superabundance of unfamiliar, deathly, ingredients, there is no commitment, no genuine giving. I now understand that I must raise my game to a point at which it is impossible for me to succeed, and give up kidding myself that I'm basically cool with Yotam. It's Medaillons de Veau St. Fiacre (with a nice Fleurie, apparently) from now on, and hang the expense. Not that PK will ever know.


Thursday, 14 May 2015

Don't tell me how to drink my wine!

It’s a terribly English trait to resent being told what to do. Tell an Englishman that he might be standing too close to an edge, has possibly been in the sun too long, or may be drinking more than is good for him, and his natural response is, “I think I’ll be the judge of that!”

So the people who want to turn wine drinking into an everyday English activity should be tearing their hair out at the sheer number of instructions which now hinder anyone considering a casual enjoyment of wine. Labels are becoming littered with barked-out commands about how and when it should be drunk.

What, for example, am I to make of a bottle of Syrah which instructs me to “Drink in moderation but always with enthusiasm and food”? As opposed to my usual mode of drinking to excess with grudging resentment?

How dare they? Quantity, mood, context…perhaps they would like to dictate my drinking posture while they’re at it?

Another label tells me to “Decant before serving.” Thank you, but I’ll decide about that. You think it makes your wine sound like a distinguished, elderly claret. But, really? A £5.99 New World bottle? How much sediment has it actually thrown during its fast-track route from stainless steel tank to supermarket shelf? Will its flavour develop with aeration – or disappear? And how many shoppers will be halted by the fact that, er, they haven’t got a decanter? “S’alright Kayleigh, we can use that old vase…”

But it sounds posh, doesn’t it, as if Carson is about to serve it for dinner at Downton Abbey:


And the same is true of “Best with…”. Often this is another directive hijacked by the marketing department, an attempt to associate the wine with fayne dayning dishes, like scallops.  Wines are often “Best with…” game, which hardly anyone eats, but the suggestion of which hopefully imbues the wine with an air of the aristocracy. So at least I can feel I’m drinking a sophisticated wine, even if I’m eating a KFC Bucket.

Some wine label instructions, like “Best before…”, must have been carried over from other foodstuffs. Foolishly, perhaps, I still like to think of good red wines ageing gracefully into a maturity which rewards one’s patience. Naturally I find it depressing when the label orders me that a red is “Best drunk within the next six months”.

And other instructions are just not realistic. When I am told to “Serve between 15-16°C”, I am not, actually, going to start taking the temperature of a £6.79 Rioja.

Buy a potato, a steak, or a loaf of bread, and you don’t get a whole sheaf of orders about how to consume it. It goes against the whole notion of everyday consumption. Imagine if you bought a nice sirloin, and the butcher’s wrapping told you that it was best served between 52-77° C, with chips, should be put on a plate before serving, and that he advised the use of a knife and fork.

Oh, and, of course, enjoy your sirloin responsibly. Some people who are buying steak might be advised to cut down on their consumption of red meat.

For producers are now bound to instruct us to “drink moderately”, a euphemism which glides over the fact that one man’s moderation may be his wife’s “Did you start that bottle this evening?”

And as for that edict to “Enjoy responsibly”… Kindly allow me to drink in the manner I choose! What if I want to enjoy it frivolously? Put my burdens of responsibility aside, and enjoy my wine in a totally carefree manner?

You may well say that manufacturers now have to state a lot of this stuff. It’s rather like the instructions hidden away in your car manual, where it tells you to turn on your headlights at night, and not shut your fingers in the door. It’s been said, just in case it ever comes to court. But at least those instructions aren’t on open display, like a wine label. And is there really anyone stupid enough to need them?

Well. The dumbest instruction on a wine bottle still surely rests with the screwcap of a bottle of Jacob’s Creek – “Twist to open”. I suppose, if someone’s stupid enough to buy a bottle of Jacob’s Creek in the first place, they may need to be told how to turn a screwcap?

Or perhaps I should ignore their instruction, and adopt the belligerent “No-one’s telling me…” attitude of a proper Englishman?

“Twist to open”? Pah! Pass me the corkscrew, Carson…


Thursday, 7 May 2015

The Race To The Bottom: Bella Vite

So the wife and I are in Sicily for a week, and everything is very agreeable, sun shining,

delightful little streets, 

fantastic markets selling eye-boggling fresh fruit,

and seafood, 

adorable faded Baroque grandeur, 

some ruins.

But what seals the deal? Some of the cheapest, and, it has to be admitted, least drinkable wine I have ever come across. The most provoking being a half-litre of white which appears on our dinner table one night (along with an overflowing skipload of fish stew) and which looks fab until you get within sniffing range, at which point it turns out to have a nose like uncapped Araldite plus an oily, bilious mouthfeel so startling that I am quite unable to do anything about it, like send it back, instead humbly chewing my way through about a third of it before admitting defeat. Oddly, there's no perceptible hangover the next morning, even though I am convinced at the time of drinking that I will end up blind and hospitalised.

Everything other than that is a step up: nameless reds and whites, brush cleaner/emetic combinations, a meaningful encounter with some Nero D'Avola, and all is fine and inexpensive, until I get to this: 

a whole litre of anonymous red, branded Bella Vite, whatever that means, in a waxed carton, with a plastic stopper and a gouache of a sexy bicycle girl on the label, all for 1.40. It is only 10% alcohol, but that's fine, too: I can drink it unheedingly without getting tinnitus or the blue horrors. You tell me if life gets better than that.

Actually, I may know the answer even before I ask the question: the day after my 1.40 red, I find what seems to be exactly the same stuff - minus the girl on the bicycle - for a scant 1.30. And next to that, a terrifying stockade of clear, two-litre plastic bottles, each the size and shape of a party Fanta, completely unlabelled, holding red, pink and white. Wine, I guess. They work out at 1.00 per litre, but I am half-way through my holiday, and with the best will in the world, I cannot get outside two-thirds of a litre of unmarked gutrot every day, just before dinner. The experiment must remain untried. There may be yet lower highs I can try; but for now, the bottom-dollar Bella Vite will do about as well as anything costing less than a daily paper possibly can.


Thursday, 30 April 2015

Spring wine – a cautionary tale

Mrs K: “Evening, dear!”

PK: “Evening!”

“Oooh, it’s so nice to finish work and have the sun shining. Lovely! Shall we have a glass of wine in the garden?”

“Oh! Er…yes! But…”

“Shall I get glasses?”

“Hang on a minute…I need…We haven’t sorted out the garden furniture yet this year. It’s only April. I just need to put the table up. Needs a bit of a wipe. Bit of bird poo.”

“Will tumblers do?”

“How does this chair go…? No, tumblers will not  do. If we’re going to do this thing…”

“Alright, I’ll get the proper glasses down, then. Is there some white wine in the fridge?”

“Well, there is. It’s the bottle left over from last night, though. We put about a quarter into the poached salmon, and then I drank about half before you took it away. Put  it away. So there’s only about a quarter of a bottle left. I don’t think that’s quite enough…”

“Don’t you have any in your famous ‘cellar’?”

“There’s that gorgeous Pouilly-Fumé I brought back from Paris, the one I was telling you about… But of course, that’s not chilled. And we haven’t started putting ice into the freezer yet. It’s only April.”

“I know! Isn’t it nice to have such lovely sunshine in April?”

“Even if we did have ice, it would take ages to chill now. Should have thought of this earlier. There’s that puffa jacket thing which does chill a bottle faster. But we haven’t got that in the freezer yet either.”

“Oh, well…”

“Really, if we’re drinking in the garden, it should be rosé. That’s your wine for drinking in the sun.”

“Ooh yes, a glass of rosé! That would be lovely. Have you got any of that?”

“Well yes, I have, a really interesting Provencal rosé actually, which we didn’t get around to last summer. But of course that’s not cold, either. And you don’t want warm rosé. And remember, you wouldn’t let me buy an ice bucket. Not that we’ve got any ice, anyway.”

“Well, what about a glass of red, then?”

“Oh I’ve got that alright! Red, yes. Something light, something… Spring-like?”

“A Spring-like  red?”

“Yes, honestly! Like a Beaujolais. You can have that chilled, you know. With ice. Well, not tonight, obviously, but it’ll be cold from the cellar.”


“From the basement. It’s still quite cold down there. Not cold enough to chill a white or a rosé, but a Beaujolais will be fine. That’s certainly Spring-like. And we could carry on drinking it indoors, with supper.”

“What are we having? Something Spring-like?”


“Oh dear. The sun’s gone in…”



Thursday, 23 April 2015

Wine Night on BBC4

CJ is away this week; but don't forget that to-morrow night on BBC4 is Wine Night - a celebration of all things winetastic - starting with:

7.00 pm: Last of the Summer Wine Special
A one-off return to the much-loved, long-running comedy series - with the main parts being taken by much-loved, long-running wine writers. In this special episode, 'Foggy' Dewhurst finds his taster's notes overrun by ferrets; while Compo attempts to open a case of 1986 Château Beychevelle using a combine harvester.
Norman Clegg - Hugh Johnson
'Foggy' Dewhurst - Andrew Jefford
Compo - Oz Clarke
Nora Batty - Jancis Robinson

7.30: Michael Portillo's Great Wine Journeys of the World
This week, the former Member for Enfield Southgate travels at the TV licence-payer's expense from the Central Valley Region of Chile to the Barossa Valley of Southern Australia, via the Majestic Wine store, Uttoxeter, and the Co-Op in Honiton.

8.30: Phylloxera! The Musical That Wouldn't Die
Documentary about what became known as 'Shaftesbury Avenue's Killer Infestation': the 1990s musical Phylloxera!, based on the great scourge of nineteenth-century European vineyards. The musical proved to be almost as pernicious as the original aphid-like insect, taking seventeen years to eradicate from the West End Stage. Michael Ball - who appeared in the original production - talks to performers, writers and musicians who found themselves unable not to participate in a song-filled spectacular described by The Times as 'Simply excruciating'. Also appearing: Bonnie Langford, Sir David Hare, Esther and Abi Ofarim, Ritchie Blackmore, Professor Sir Roger Penrose, Joan Armatrading.

9.30: Telly Beverage Madness! Your Thirty Greatest Wine Shows!
Count down your favourite wine, or wine-themed, TV shows from the last fifty years - and vote for your number one, the all-time greatest wine show! Among the candidates:
Late Night Wine-Up - classic wine discussion format from the 1960s
The Rockford Oenophiles - starring James Garner as the eponymous Sonoma Valley-based crime-fighting detective
Thunderbirds Are Go! - classic 1960s marionette action series, fortified by the preferred drink of bums and hobos across the generations
Top of the Papes - remember how, every Thursday night, we used to tune in to now-disgraced BBC TV presenters uncorking the latest from a famous French wine-making region?
Whose Wine Is It Anyway? - popular TV improv series (on both sides of the Atlantic) in which comedians dispute the ownership of a glass of wine
The Riojaford Files - spin-off from the American original, starring Javier Bardem as the bodega-based crime-fighting detective
Presented by Phillip Schofield.

11.00: Wine Movie Classic - My Grapes Are Unpalatable (1959)
Legendary winecentric drama starring Anthony Quinn, Sophia Loren, Gert Frobe. Quinn plays Nikos, a Greek wine-maker who sees real export potential in his particular blend of Retsina. Aided by gorgeous love interest Susanna and buffoonish UK wine importer Sir Geoffrey Stirrup, he maps out a five-year business strategy to make Retsina the most popular wine on the British dining-table. But arch-rival Gunther has other ideas... 
Little-known movie facts: Quinn was a secret teetoller in real life; and see if you can spot a very young Robert Parker, playing the part of Kostas, the peasant boy.
Nikos Kyriakou - Anthony Quinn
Susanna - Sophia Loren
Gunther Mannheim - Gert Frobe
SIr Geoffrey Stirrup - Thorley Walters
Police Chief - Thanassis Vengos
Army Officer - Ernest Borgnine
Interrogator - Telly Savalas
Chief Torturer - Martin Balsam
Director: John Ford

1.00 am: Wine News and Weather
Tonight from Puligny-Montrachet.

Thursday, 16 April 2015

Top glass

All too often I visit IKEA. Or to rephrase, to visit IKEA at all is too often. But once in a while you encounter an IKEA product which is well designed, well made and, well, cheap. And here is one such: the Hederlig red wine glass.

This is a lovely, large wineglass, as you might expect in a classy restaurant. As IKEA rightly states in its description, “The glass has a large round bowl which helps the wine’s aromas and flavours to develop better, enhancing your experience of the drink.” It’s big enough to sniff and swirl to your heart’s content, it has a balanced shape, and the glass feels good in both hand and mouth. And… it’s only £1 !

Perhaps there are horrible, exploitative reasons why this glass is so cheap. Perhaps it is shaped around balls stolen from the hands of small children. I don’t think I want to know. What I do know is that I no longer need worry about the cost of breakages, when this lovely, big wineglass costs just £1.

It’s not drinking itself which seems to break wineglasses. I can count on the fingers of a hand the number of times a wineglass has actually fallen from the fingers of a hand. No, it’s the washing up afterwards which sees wineglasses knocked over on the draining board, bashed into the tap, falling into the sink or slipping, detergent-lubricated, on to the floor.

Frankly, at £1 a glass, I no longer care. This is surely the answer to all those fellow wine drinkers whose connoisseurship must be tempered with their cackhandedness.

Whatever you do, don’t confuse it with the other Hederlig red wine glass. Which has a completely different, tapered shape – but the same name. And confusion is easy, not only because it has the same name, but because despite its tapered shape, it has the same description: “a large round bowl which helps the wine’s aromas and flavours to develop better…”etc.

As indeed does the Svalka red wine glass, only half the size (with a modest 30cl bowl) and therefore half the price – yet bizarrely also described as having “a large round bowl”, despite its bowl not being very large at all.

You might even confuse it with the Rattvik red wine glass, with its steeply sloping goblet shape fundamentally different to the others, neither large nor round nor indeed even a bowl… and yet – you guessed it – still described as having “a large round bowl…”

Is that just the default IKEA description of any red wine glass? I don't imagine they similarly describe as “large round tables” items which are actually “small square tables”.

They do have cheaper wine glasses. Forsiktigt is a Paris goblet by any other name, and it’s only unfortunate that of  any other name they chose… Forsiktigt. These are £1.25 for six, just over 20p each which, given the prices of gas and washing-up liquid, means it’s probably economic simply to smash them after use. However, they are Paris goblets, favourite of the hired caterer and the student party, on which my position remains unchanged; too thick and too small to enhance a wine's flavour, too shallow and open to enhance the bouquet, and too mimsy to suggest generosity. A hideous little tennis ball of a glass,

Or at the other end of the IKEA scale, there’s the Stockholm glass. This costs a stonking (by IKEA standards) £4 per glass,  because it “is mouth blown by a skilled craftsperson” (as opposed to someone who has just graduated from bubblegum). Stockholm “has a handmade decor, making each glass unique”. Because, of course, who wants a matching set of glasses?

I’m afraid I cannot recommend many of the other IKEA wine accessories. There is the Vurm  four-bottle wine rack, for the unlikely member of our readership who keeps only four bottles of wine. There is the Vardefull combination foil cutter and corkscrew, suspiciously moderne to those of us wedded to the practicality of the Waiter's Friend. Or the Lonsam carafe which, filled with white wine, would look exactly as if it has just been withdrawn from beneath a patient’s blanket.

But I remain delighted with the Hederlig red wine glass. Which, at the risk of repeating myself, only costs £1.

I am reminded of CJ’s astute observation that in wine writing, the moment you read about something interesting it immediately becomes unobtainable.  But the IKEA website allows you to see how many glasses are in stock; my own local branch had 772, somewhat more than the number of guests I am likely to invite, let alone provide with red wine.

And you will have to visit an IKEA store in order to purchase your wineglasses, as they can’t be purchased online. But visiting IKEA has been made less challenging lately; thanks to their recent diktat that it is forbidden to play hide-and-seek in the stores.  So at least you won’t be startled to open a Pax wardrobe and find someone lurking inside.

Finally, perhaps we should consider whether, given some of the rubbish wines we encounter, we actually want “to develop their aromas and flavours” as opposed to stifling them. Is there perhaps a market for a “bargain wine glass”, which actively suppresses the aromas and flavours of shoddy wine, rendering it more drinkable? Now, that could be a market…


Thursday, 9 April 2015

Countdown to Ecstasy: Denbies Surrey Gold

So a week has passed since all the excitement, and it's back to business, here in the parched and seamy banlieue which I call home.

10.10: I read an email from PK in which he talks urgently about storytelling. I have no idea what he means. I go and make a cup of (instant) coffee.

10.25: For no good reason, I decide to get back to basics and investigate those low-level supermarket chains which I haven't already had a brush with, i.e. Costcutter, Londis, Nisa, Mace. These are the real out-of-town, abandoned A-road, padlocked light-industrial, single chiller-cabinet operations, the sort who sell you a top-up for your electricity bill and keep the liquors and spirits in a special unit behind the counter. These are places for the desperate and the feckless. Depressingly, it turns out my nearest Costcutter is less than a mile away. Londis is even nearer.

10.34: Actually, I know why I'm being drawn to Londis, Costcutter et al. I'm punishing myself for an unexpectedly bibulous few days, starting with a Dry Martini on prize night, followed by some impromptu wine-packed dinner invites on subsequent nights, in the course of which I put on four pounds and my wife lost her voice. Oh, and it involved a Costières de Nîmes which somehow took five days to finish, and was great at the start, but tragic, frankly, by the end. Still slightly dizzy with liver fatigue, I know that I must atone for this, somehow, and that somehow means drinking nothing but the least best wine money can buy.

10.52: Yes, but this is fruitless. A moment's thought (eighteen vague minutes by the clock) is enough to remind me that just because the shops are small and charmless, it doesn't mean that the drink is going to be cheaper than anywhere else. Generic reds and whites are going for a fiver plus at Costcutter, and that's on special offer. Convenience stores (for that's what they are, even allowing for the branding) are graveyards of good value. What I need to do, of course, is drag myself to the nearest Asda or Aldi, some inhuman hypermarket, and prowl the bin-ends like a ghoul, picking among shreds of cold cardboard and damaged plastic for something that costs less than two quid if you buy eighty. The thought is too sad for words.

11.14: No! Here's what I'm going to do. I'm not going to lumber myself with yet another pile of low-end grifter's slurry. I'm going to snap out of the impasse by nipping down to the inexpressible Waitrose at the end of the road, and buying the first wine I see which has no resonance for me at all. A wine about which I know nothing, in which I don't even recognise the grapes, let alone the maker's name. I'm talking about a whole new taste sensation. I'm talking about the thrill of the unknown, something to startle me back into life. It's crazy; but it might just work.

12.03: English wine. A bottle of Denbies Surrey Gold. It's made in Dorking, Surrey, an otherwise charisma-free commuter town! That's about fifteen miles from where I live! This is my local wine, practically. Yes, £7.63 seems a lot to pay for something that I could almost harvest and press myself, but there you are. I can't get beyond Waitrose, I haven't the strength. Handsome label, nice pale straw colour. A mixture of Müller-Thurgau, Ortega and Bacchus, the website informs me. Denbies do reds, as well. And organise tours round the vineyard. Some good reviews. I'm excited.

12.45: It's not without merit. I would query, though, the 'Fragrant nose of peaches' which leads to 'a well structured fruit driven palate with a flinty backbone and hints of ginger', as trumpeted on the packaging. I'm getting almost nothing at the start or finish, but a lot of posturing right in the centre of my mouth, roughly one-third of the way through the encounter - zesty, yes, slightly antiseptic, a kind of palatable rinse if you're suffering from, say, mouth ulcers or thrush, and that's good, we all respond to that. Maybe it's too cold. It does get a bit more articulate over time, and at least it's not a Pinot Grigio, which must now be cultivated on half the planet's land mass, judging by the number of Pinot Grigios filling the shelves.

13.12: And it goes very nicely with a piece of Cambozola which I find in the fridge, or nicely enough, at any rate. Am I going to argue? The day has regained its colour. There are good times ahead. Seriously, that's how they roll in Dorking.