Thursday, 11 October 2018

Wine? Or chocolate?

Chocolate? Or wine? And why the choice?

Well, the Marks & Spencer “Dine in” offer of a meal for two comprises a package deal of two starters, a shared main – and either wine or chocolates. (You cannot, it seems, go for an evening of just chocolate and wine, the ever-popular Bridget Jones option.)

So in its current Italian format, that’s a choice for your meal between a bottle of Italian wine, or some Italian dessert chocolates.

Now, what kind of choice is that? I presume it is meant to provide compensation for customers who don’t drink wine. But it’s rather like a hotel package offering a room, a meal, and the use of a car – or, for those who don't drive, flip-flops.

Because, let’s face it: a meal without chocolate is a disappointment. But a meal without wine is a disaster.

It’s intriguing to wonder at the kind of dinner M&S envisage here. Is this a romantic dinner à deux for the culinarily incompetent, just a notch above having a moped rider turn up with two carrier bags? If so, a bottle of wine might provide some much-needed social lubrication. And how many potential lovers are happy to be seen stuffing their face with chocolates?

Or is this a convenient meal for two established partners? Chances are that at least one of you drinks – and in my experience, a wine-drinker is going to be much more annoyed by an absence of wine than a non-drinker is going to be annoyed by an absence of chocolate.

As far as expectation at a meal is concerned, there can surely be no argument. As CJ so ably expressed it, in our entertaining, modestly priced and completely original e-book, Wining & Dining, “The wine must be there, and in quantity, to make a dinner worth attending, or giving, or ruining, or turning up late for, or hosting.

“The wine must be there,” he insists, “And it mustn't be so foul that it makes your armpits prickle.”

Whereas chocolate? It’s been a while since someone tried to persuade us that chocolates were a key part of a dinner, and that someone was After Eight. In fabulously dated TV ads, dinner was portrayed as a formal, black-tie affair, with candles and silver, and military men smoking cigars. People cast each other meaningful glances, although unlike many dinner parties today, the meaning of which they were full was not “Do you think we can leave yet?”

Black tie? Well, things may be different round at the Rees-Moggs’, but CJ classes it an upmarket dinner if all of the men wear socks.

And what was all this “after eight” business, anyway? At Casa K, we’re usually still on the pre-dinner nibbles just after eight, wondering if all of the guests are actually going to show up.

No, I’m sorry, whether it’s a romantic dinner for two or a full-blown dinner party, chocolates are not so much after eight these days as afterthought.

Okay, there are similarities between wine and chocolate. Neither is particularly good for your health. You can choose between damaging your liver, or your teeth. Wine seems to contain fewer calories, although at least you can drive after consuming a gutload of chocolate.

(And don’t you like the way M&S describe them as “dessert” chocolates, as if you should treat them as an actual course?)

Or is it that M&S perceive both as a “luxury” item? Unfortunately chocolate, like wine, is only as luxurious as you pay for. It is hard to conceive that a substance with the same name can be either the creation of an artisan chocolatier, or a Freddo bar. But then, it’s hard to believe that Chateau Lafite is the same product as Penguin Sands.

Look, if you don’t drink, take the wine anyway. Even if you don’t consume it, you can always take it as a gift to the next dinner you attend. Which perhaps explains the bottles of dodgy M&S wine now residing in my cellar…


Thursday, 4 October 2018

Home Brew II

So I put the idea of making our own booze to PK and, to my slight astonishment, he says, Well, maybe we should. I say, Really? He says Yes, and goes on to reveal that his Father used to make rhubarb wine which he left to mature in the pantry of the old family home, where it used to explode from time to time. We'd be sitting there, he says, and there'd be a crash and we'd know another bottle had gone. Really? I say, again, and he nods. Things you learn.

So then I explain about the kits and the YouTubes I've been half-arsedly scrutinisiing and the muck you apparently have to put in your mixing tub and where do you keep it all for the love of God? And he nods and says, Well it sounds quite interesting. Maybe we should do one each and compare them.

This is not what I was anticipating, not at all. Where is the regulation issue PK, with all his la-di-da beverages and do's and don'ts and wide-ranging shibboleths? My bluff appears to have been called, inadvertently or otherwise (how was I to know about his Dad and the rhubarb wine?) and now I have to make it seem that what I wanted all along, was to make my own wine. Actually, what I really wanted was for PK to volunteer to do everything, leaving me with the relatively easy job of sage onlooker, but life isn't like that. So I nod back at him, committing myself at the very least to a fresh trawl through the internet for tips and materials.

Back at the screen, the first thing is to weed out the American contributors, with their remorseless positivity and their facial hair. That done, I find myself back with this guy - the one who previously contented himself with merely showing the world the contents of a Wilko wine box, but who is now, affably enough, taking us through the process of making a complete Cabernet Sauvignon Wilko wine. He's from the Wirral, I'm guessing, somewhere Merseyside anyway, and his approach to film-making has some of the deconstructed grammar of the French New Wave, the same non-hierarchical approach to narrative and the nature of reality, but it hangs together. And he's wearing shorts.

In fact it's a pleasure to watch him mix the brew, apparently with the least possible forethought (the memory card in his camera runs out a third of the way through; he hasn't bought himself a plastic funnel) and fretting over what his wife will say about the marks on the dining table. At some point, it's true, I start to lose focus and gaze instead on YouTube's suggestions for what I might want to watch next (a brief history of electric guitar distortion; Seinfeld outtakes) and then, a bit later on, I skip forward to see how he's managing, but it all looks straightforward enough. He's got some fancy gear - a big old demijohn and an airlock to go in the bung - and he's clearly done it before, showing no nervousness around the various packets and sachets that come out of the Wilko box like deep space rations, and sure enough I start to feel that, given time and practice, I could manage the same level of dextrous ease. The whole thing, fermentation included, seems to take about a week and a half. I could find that time. And no actual grapes involved.

Only snag? At the end of the process, he siphons the proto-wine off into some washed-out old screwtop wine bottles, serves it up (not shown in video) and pronounces it good. Now, I reckon if we're dealing with a ten-day-old wine, then screwtops should be perfectly adequate. PK, on the other hand, is thinking of giving the wine he hasn't actually made yet a chance to lose some of its chemical textures and arrogant youthfulness by laying it down: which means, he says, corks. Which in turn means, if I were to match him all the way, that I would have to buy some wines which came in bottles that had corks in them. I mean, six fancier than usual wines with actual corks, plus the demijohn, plus the airlock, plus the kit itself, it's starting to stack up. Given that the whole, or nearly the whole, point is to get wine for next to nothing, this is the wrong direction of travel. Still. I'm seeing him again in a couple of weeks; a fresh item on the agenda.


Thursday, 27 September 2018

Last of the Summer Wine

Before you ask, this week’s title has nothing to do with the fact that CJ and I are ageing codgers at whom people sometimes laugh. No, it’s all down to the perceptible turn in the weather. It’s time for the wardrobe to switch from cotton to wool, from short-sleeves to long. It’s time to turn from my cold breakfast of bircher muesli – oats painstakingly prepared each evening – to my hot breakfast of porridge – oats painstakingly prepared each morning. And it’s time for the last of the summer wine.

Does our taste really change with the seasons? Or is this simply another of my ridiculous self-imposed edicts, which mean that wine-drinking ends up somewhere between ritual and ridicule?

Because we do have a summer wine at Casa K. We discovered El Perro Verde in a restaurant in Barcelona, on a blisteringly hot day. It’s a Verdejo, from Rueda, fresh and crisp and zingy, all of that stuff people say wines should be in the summer, with a bit of grassiness and a touch of apple. We went back, and it was just as good a second time. And when I found it in Barcelona’s “most prestigious” wine merchant (because where else would I go?)  I brought two bottles home in my case, each enrobed for transport in a carrier bag and two of my dirty socks.

And it travelled! It was just as clean and refreshing and zingy at home. And it extended our summer experience by a couple of London suppers.

But Verdejo really is a summer wine, best drunk young and fresh. It tends to get a bit bland as it gets older, and loses its zing. And it don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that zing (doo-wah doo-wah doo-wah doo-wah doo-wah).

This year, as we weren’t going to Barcelona, I dug around online, and found a Spanish wine specialist who would economically ship us a case. A bit more expensive than on even a prestigious Barcelona shelf, but less expensive than in a Barcelona restaurant. Twelve bottles duly arrived, packed in an enormously complicated folding cardboard case contraption. It took half an hour unfolding and dismantling before it could be recycled; but that was still preferable to each bottle being transported inside a carrier bag and two of somebody else’s dirty socks.

And that case has been our summer’s worth. Portioned out carefully for meals in the garden, for those light, spritely suppers that only work in the sun, for special occasions and largely just for the two of us, one of whom will inevitably say “Ah, Barcelona…”

With the weather turning, there are three bottles left. I can only hope that either some warm days come before the wine turns disappointing; or that the wine will stay zingy until some warm days come. Neither of which now feel terribly likely.

Is this just nonsense about the weather? What about drinking in climate-controlled restaurants, where the weather outside is irrelevant? Ah, but you’re now wearing autumn clothes. You haven’t had a dose of sunshine on your skin. You woke up to porridge, not muesli.

And to be honest, I’m now looking forward again to what David Williams, writing in The Observer,   describes as “the bear hugs of the heavy reds”. Oh, and the porridge. On a trip to Cornwall, I discovered the impossibly delicious luxury of porridge with clotted cream. My arteries are palpitating with anticipation…