Thursday, 14 November 2019

Can I help you, sir?

“Hello there! I wanted a bottle of wine, about twelve pounds or so, for a dinner party…” 

“And there’s just so much to take in, on the internet and so on, isn’t there sir? Well, I think we’re ‘up to speed’ with all of it, as they say,… A formal dinner party? As opposed to a kitchen supper?”

“Well, just a few friends…”

“When and where, sir?”

“Does that matter? I mean, I…”

“Oh yes, sir, I mean this weekend, next weekend…? We track the local weather, you see, because atmospheric pressure and humidity can alter flavour perception.”


“Oh yes, sir! Makes a difference!  But if you’re travelling…”

“Oh, it’s local, I’m local, I just don’t usually come in here, only I wanted to get something decent for this dinner.”

“Of course, sir. Serious matter. Serious matter. Before I make so bold as to suggest some wine, do you have the menu with you? Our pairing advice is based on the dishes’ fattiness, acidity and so on, and of course it’s the sauces that matter, not the meat or fish itself…”

“Well, my wife…”

“And what will be playing, sir – classical, rock, jazz…?”

“I’m sorry?”

“Your background music, sir. Rhythm, pitch, articulation, it all alters the taste, you know. Oh yes."

“I haven’t…”

“And are you decanting, sir?  Aerating?  Or hyper-decanting?  How far ahead of the meal? Did you bring your timetable with you, sir? And how will you be maintaining the temperature? Are you centrally-heated? What is your room temperature?

“Look, I don’t know that much about wine…”

“Oh, forgive me, sir, then I should have asked, do you actually possess a corkscrew? Because we do have bottles I can offer you with screwcaps. But there’s a wealth of advice on how to remove corks by other methods, using a shoe, or a knife, or a hammer, if you have any of those. Or if you’d rather, we can sell you a corkscrew? Waiter’s Friend? Screwpull? Pronged?”

“I’m not…”

“And glasses, sir?”

“I’m okay for glasses, thank you.”

“No, what shape, sir? Makes a difference!  And what kind? Riedel, Zalto? I can see you’re what Jancis Robinson describes as ‘big-nosed’.”

I beg your pardon??”

Her glasses are designed to accommodate the big-nosed, sir. And they’re ‘gossamer-thin’. ‘Gossamer-thin’, sir. ‘Once you have experienced this delicacy,’ as she says, ‘you really can't go back.’” 

“Well I can, actually. Back to the supermarket. Thank you.”

“Oh dear, sir. Well, perhaps one day…” 

(The door closes.) “’Twelve pounds’???”


Thursday, 7 November 2019


So, mead: I mean, you can't really call it a divisive drink because nobody drinks it, therefore there's no-one to be divided by it. It's just that stuff you sometimes find in heritage gift shops which sometimes seems like a good idea for an elderly relative but more often not, and anyway, have you ever tasted it? It seems familiar enough while at the same time being unknown. I feel sure that I must have drunk it, I can feel the stuff coating the inside of my mouth, honey, yes, that's what it's made from, maybe a faint alcoholic rasp at the back, it's up there with egg nog as something you never want to tangle with unless you've decided to live in a cave in the Welsh Marches. Perhaps it's good to steep fruit in? If you like your fruit almost inedibly sugary? The stuff stopped being an everyday drink at the time of Beowulf, surely.

But here we are in 2019 and what do you know but I find myself sitting at a bar in Peckham Rye, where a good many hipsters have taken root, tasting 21st Century mead with its creator, Tom Gosnell, who - following an epiphany a few years back in the US, where mead is big, or bigger than it is here, anyway - is determined to get mead back on our tables, where it belongs. Seriously. His meadery - I'm not making this word up - is a mile away and he sources as many of his ingredients locally as he can. Not only that, but he offers a whole range of mead sensations, none of them in the least like what I think mead might be.

We actually start with several examples of mead-in-a-can, which is a funkier, more contemporary kind of mead done as a long drink, plenty of sparkle, only 4%, so the same as a glass of beer but evidently not, especially in the form of Gosnells Hibiscus Mead and I'm not making this up, either. Yes, we are in SE15, but Hibiscus? Only, guess what? It's really not bad. Comes out of the can a deep blush colour, looks a bit like a Kir Royale, sits there quite confidently in the glass, the honey undertow (you can't escape it, it's still mead, even if there is plenty of water mixed in) working with the drier hibiscus additions and the fizz to stop your palate from furring over completely. Yes, it's weirdly stimulating and refreshing. Indeed I'm so startled that all I can do is sit there saying Well I'll be damned under my breath. I don't even want to give my glass up when we move on to the next round of beverages.

These, by way of contrast, are your more classic mead stylings, presented in a smart glass bottle, not a can, and once again I am caught on the hop. Two in particular: Gosnells Finsbury Mead (5.5%) and Gosnells Saffron Walden Mead (7.5%) leave me writing Rather fantastic in my tasting notes, and Forget you're drinking mead. The Finsbury Mead actually uses honey from Finsbury, just up the road, and I start to entertain the slightly hallucinatory idea that I'm drinking the essence of London, a concept I rather like. We're talking about something slightly sterner than the canned stuff, not dry exactly, but not a Sauternes either. Also with a hint of p├ętillant. Someone suggests that it would go well with a blue cheese. I nod, as if what I think might matter.

And this mood returns, not surprisingly, with the Gosnells Hackney Mead (a full-on 9%) which Tom Gosnell describes as Telling the story of the summer which the bees have experienced. I don't even do a double-take at this. We're not in wine territory, nor are we in craft beer or cider country, although the latter might be this kind of mead's nearest rival, what with the pastoral overtones and a sense of reaching back into a shared past. Complex, I manage to write down. Still, I feel I'm doing well to achieve as much as that. Complex is what this whole thing is: not just the drink itself but the need to reclassify this kind of mead as something better than a mere comedy beverage. It is a whole new taste and one which will take some processing. We finish up and I leave Peckham Rye, fuddled and yet, somehow, slightly sharpened.

Two points remain: Tom Gosnell himself is in a very cheerful mood, not least because he's just inked deals to supply his product to the United States and Korea, two countries with a confirmed taste for the new mead; and if you want to buy some from the Gosnells website, it's £25 for a 75cl bottle of the Saffron Walden variety. Which suggests to me that now might be a good time to invest in some bees, especially if you live in Hackney.


Thursday, 31 October 2019

Excuse me, sir…

There is an alarming tendency now for news programmes to go out and seek the opinions of “ordinary people”. These are known in the media as “vox pops”, and this “voice of the people” was once summarised as “the man on the Clapham omnibus”. Nowadays it’s more likely to be the woman in a Leicester market, the man in Tunbridge Wells, or the couple who stray into the Ground Zero surrounding any broadcaster’s HQ, within which an interview team can work and return without missing their lunch.

Ordinary people have a great deal to offer, but insightful and well-informed views do not seem to be among them. Yet for some baffling reason these cost-saving, time-filling commentaries persist. And what if these vox pops, which seem to have replaced informed political, economic, even sports comment, replaced wine commentators too?

“They’ve been coming over here from France and Italy and Spain for years. Now they’re coming from South Africa and Australia and South America. Honestly, I saw some from China the other day. I mean, we’ve got to do something about it.”

“Wines? They’re all the same, the whole bloody lot of ‘em.”

“Yes, they asked us what we wanted. But people simply weren’t told what kind they would be getting. You can’t just ask people whether they want wine or not, you have to tell them what kind it’ll be. Now that we know what ‘wine’ really means, they should ask us again.”

“I’ve lost faith in the whole system, frankly. We told them what we wanted, and they said they were going to deliver it back in March. It’s now October, and they’re saying that we might have to compromise and accept alternatives. Why can’t they just deliver what they said they were going to?”

“Well I don’t know that much about wine myself, but I know what I like.”

“To be honest, I’m just sick of hearing about wine. These so-called ‘experts’ go on and on and on, it’s like they talk a different language, and they never really answer the question, do they?”

“It’s shocking. You’ve only got to look at our High Street. There used to be a wine merchant on that corner, but it’s gone now. It’s a shame really. I mean, obviously I get mine from the supermarket, ‘cos it’s cheaper, but I used to like looking in the window.”

“No, that sort of thing is unacceptable, really. It’s just not the way to discuss these things. They ought to know better. We used to discuss it properly, we’d say it was ‘splendid’, or ‘not quite right’, and that was enough. All this stuff that’s going on now, the language, the spitting and all that… There’s really no need for that.”

“It’s all very well saying give ‘em time. But if they’re not improving, something’s got to change. There’s only so long you can wait. Because at the moment, they’re just waiting there in the box, and nothing’s happening. In the short term, you’ve got to go out there and spend. Maybe bring in some Italians with a bit of flair, or some heavyweights from Spain. Long term, like, we'll just have to hope the young ones come through.”

“Don’t talk to me about wines. They’re all as bad as each other.”