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.”

“Really?”

“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’???”


PK


Thursday, 7 November 2019

Mead




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 pétillant. 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.

CJ




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.”

PK


Thursday, 24 October 2019

The Winemaker's Shirt



This week's style icon: Roland Barthes


The winemaker's shirt embodies a contradiction. The winemaker himself belongs to a priesthood largely unknowable to those who drink his wine. His shirt, it will be readily admitted, is therefore a garment whose sacerdotal power belongs to a whole typology of priestly raiments, including copes, cassocks, wreaths, stoles, sacred threads, birettas, clothing whose emblematic function serves both a reality (the authority of a state religion) and a condition of submissive dreaming, a rêve from which the element of transubstantion is never far. 


As in a dream, the priestly garment must be perfect insofar as it can never be other than its perceived lineaments suggest: there is an iconographic component in every button, every seam, in the way the shirt hangs negligently and yet without apology from the shoulders of the wearer (and what shoulders must they be, to sustain such an item of clothing?). The psychology of the dream in itself repels the secularization of the everyday.


This is of course necessary, given the mythical status of the wine which is being created. It is well known that wine, far from inheriting the morphological birthright of a Proteus or a Zeus, has always created the conditions in which its seemingly galvanic powers generate reversals or alternative modes of existence. When we drink wine, we engage with an archetype whose singularity lies in its ability to contain a multiplicity of outcomes: good cheer, aggression, lacrimosity, invention, nostalgia, amorousness, candour, somnolence and so on. Just as it inhabits two planes of existence in the ritual of the eucharist, so it antithetically liberates and enslaves at the moment of earthly consumption.


Capitalism, on the other hand, insists that the image of the winemaker should express not only a sense of ritualized condescension on the part of the wearer, but of social communality, a sense that We're all in this together and that We all drink wine because it is understood that it would be wrong not to. The morphology of the shirt therefore embraces a type of synesthesia in which the sacerdotal garment elicits feelings of shared purpose, of routine experience at the same time as it invokes the mystery of the altar. 


In photographs, the winemaker's shirt is not always properly ironed; sometimes it is neatly tucked into the waistband of the trousers, sometimes left outside, as if the wearer has been in too much of a hurry to get to work to dress properly; sometimes the shirt is clearly a business shirt casually opened at the neck (once back from his business meeting, comfortably at the locus of his authority, framed by casks and stone floors, he can devote himself to his calling) in order to evoke the human tensions the winemaker encounters every day.


But what is more characteristic is the fact that we consume the shirt at the same time as we consume the wine made by the inhabitant of the shirt. It is a bourgeois necessity to appropriate and envelop: the shirt becomes part of this process of consumption, which is why so many winemakers submit to this iconographical levelling, demanded by the business they work in. Without his shirt (if such a condition were possible) the winemaker would merely be another artisan; with it, he is elevated to the status of creator, the shirt, as we have seen, endowed with true gestural significance. This, then, becomes the contradiction: the winemaker's shirt endows him with a mythical otherness at the same time as it renders him indistinguishable from his peers; while simultaneously advertising his sacrificial materiality, a materiality which is both necessary for the gratification of his customers and for the process of winemaking to be reborn, year after year.



Translation: CJ



Thursday, 17 October 2019

Wine in Succession – Power meets Pinot Noir

If you ever needed a lesson in the social signalling of wine, Succession has provided it. The Netflix HBO drama, following the maneouverings and manipulations of the rich and powerful Roy dynasty, has featured wine across both of its seasons so far – as a revealing backdrop to the behaviour of the impossibly rich.

Because despite what we are often told about the sobriety of successful Americans, the Roys certainly seem to pile into their wine. There’s none of that abstemious drinking of water or iced tea. Indeed, one of the ways in which a putative CEO, Rhea, an outsider, was crushed by the Roy siblings, was when a waiter was halted from topping up her champagne glass with a cry of “No! She doesn’t drink!”

The irritated look from magnate Logan Roy said it all. Expensive wine is one of ‘the King’s favours’. “Look at the fucking wine I’m serving you!” he once berated a recalcitrant banker. “I’m fucking wining and dining you!”

But is that wine, like so much else in the Roy lifestyle, ultimately about the money?  Marcia, Logan’s third wife, savoured the French wine at a patrician family’s dinner; asking the waiter for more, she grumbled that her husband’s cellar is “all New World, so it doesn’t suit me”. Surely the ultimate putdown of a nouveau riche? Or, as Time put it, “a first class burn for the one percent set”.

Logan’s son Kendall, in an adulatory rap, praises his father’s “A1 rating, 80k wine”. But what kind of connoisseur spends $80,000 on New World wine?

And Logan’s eldest son Connor “hyperdecants” his Burgundy – which means putting it into his kitchen blender. “I hyperdecant,” he declares proudly. “You don’t hyperdecant? You’re just doing regular decanting?”

(This process was “invented” by Nathan Myhrvold, formerly of Microsoft, a man who also, presumably, has more money than time, and better Burgundy than you or I. Wielding his blender jug, Connor claims that “it softens the tannins, ages the aromas. You can age your wines five years in ten seconds, truly.” Which shows that wealth and wisdom do not necessarily go hand in hand.)

In the first season’s finale, the ‘wining and dining’ came to an abrupt end for one character, as Tom forced his bride’s former lover, Nate, to pour his glass of banquet wine back into the bottle. What better signalling of banishment from the kingdom?

And this week’s season finale did not disappoint with its wine moments. There was former country Cousin Greg, sunbathing on the family’s yacht, the wine in his ice bucket illustrating his final ascent from distant relative to inner family status. “What are you drinking, Greg?” Tom asks him.

“This is…I’m not sure…it’s a rosé…it’s not my favourite.”

“What?” Tom exclaims, “You’ve got a favourite champagne now?”

“Well,” says Greg, “You can’t help noticing…it’s fine, I’ll drink it. But it’s not my favourite.” Welcome to the family.

In which Connor Roy, asked by a waitress what he would like to drink with breakfast, replies “I will take a full bottle of Burgundy please, thank you.”

“For breakfast?” queries his anxious partner, Willa. Was it the Burgundy she was concerned about – or the “full bottle”?

“Well yes,” Connor replies. “For breakfast. Why not?” And who will gainsay him? At least he didn’t ask for it to be hyperdecanted.

Over the two fabulous seasons to date, it was of course an English woman, Lady Caroline, who used wine to deliver the perfect social putdown. For if the English know anything about the super rich, it’s that money can buy them wine, but not class. “So kind of your parents to have paid for all this delicious wine,” she says to future son-in-law Tom at his wedding rehearsal.

“So clever the way they’re letting every single person know.”

PK

Thursday, 10 October 2019

Beetroot



So the problem is this. On the one hand, I have a chirpy little article in front of me from the Waitrose food & drink magazine urging me to enlarge my beverage horizons. Love pinot grigio? it demands - then why not, it wants to know, try a Waitrose & Partners Petit Manseng at £9.99 a bottle, instead of the £5.99 a basement Pinot Grigio will normally cost you? Love valpollicella (and who doesn't)? Then it's a Waitrose & Partners Mencia, from Spain, apparently, also £9.99. Love côtes du rhône (no capitalisation on the R)? Cannonau di Sardegna, only £8.99. And so on.

I mean, you can't blame them for wanting to upsell until we're sick of living, but quite apart from the sheer nakedness of the endeavour, the business of moving me into new and exciting realms gets up my nose not least because it has taken me years, years, to reach the point where I stand a more-or-less evens chance of identifying a Cabernet Sauvignon, or a Merlot, or a Sauvignon Blanc, or, maybe , just maybe, a Shiraz, without looking at the label on the bottle. And I am not going to endanger that footling semi-ability by trying to get my head round a petit manseng or a mencia or an arinto from Lisbon, assuming such a thing even exists. I know, I'm closing myself off from a world of extravagant novelties, but penury, anxiety and small-mindedness make powerful allies in this case.

Added to which, and on the other hand: I have a sack of beetroot to deal with. I mean, it's fantastic beetroot, don't get me wrong - given to us by some pals in Cheshire who grow a superabundance of fruit and veg in their loamy Cheshire soil, some of which has made its way back to our place clinging to these gigantic beetroots, as big as cannonballs, not even beetroot-shaped, but full of cavities and whorls, like Barbara Hepworth sculptures in places, crowned with topknots of leaf stems, elemental beetroots in fact - and it's as much as I can do to cut them down to size, stick the pieces on a roasting tray and hope for the best. Seriously, it's a good half-hour of slashing and hacking with my biggest, most urgent, knife, just to get them into some kind of order. The kitchen's covered in red juice; it looks like the site of a gangland slaying. Which then compels me to ask myself, Which wine, of the handful of wines available to me, would go with an incredibly bloody mediæval beetroot? It's a real-world problem and one not helped by all the beseechings from Waitrose.

I sit down and gnaw at the issue. After about three-quarters of an hour I get the beetroots out of the oven, a cloud of steam emerging with them as if a boiler's exploded and I stare at my handiwork. They still look savage and undignified, even cut into bits and shimmied around a bit on the roasting tray. They are, to be frank, unreconstructedly Northern European. Bruegel would have recognised them, possibly stuck them in a corner of one of his larger compositions. They speak of mud and cold and tragedy. They are simply not a wine-related foodstuff. Down in the south, heading towards the Mediterranean, they get truffles and aromatic herbs. They have wine. Up in the north, in parts of Cheshire, they get dahlias and beetroots. What to do? Somehow honour the rootsiness of the beetroot by nipping out and buying some beer? By dousing myself in warm gin? I can't see a bottle of Cannonau di Sardegna fitting in, even if I wanted to make that effort.

As it happens, I find a couple of duck legs, roast them up too, and, with blank inevitability, reach for a half-finished bottle of generic Australian Cabernet Sauvigon which has been sitting around for a few days and let it fight it out with what's on the plate. I call it food pairing. It's okay. Can we just leave it at that?

CJ



Thursday, 3 October 2019

That which makes me pour

An odd thing happened this week. I poured myself a second – or was it a third? – glass of wine. I looked at it. And then I poured it back into the bottle.

Was this abstemiousness? Parsimony? Senescence? (Or have I just suffered a bad case of orotundity?)

Why did I pour it in the first place? Well, it’s that automatic hand again, the one which always moves to take another handful of nuts, another crisp from the packet and another glass from the bottle.


I could, perhaps should, have drunk it, of course. When you pour a glass of wine, you feel you’ve made some kind of commitment to it. I’ve started, so I’ll finish. It’s a bit like beginning a cycle on the washing machine; God knows what’s going to happen if you just terminate before completing the process. 

But when it was sitting there, I just looked at it, and thought… no. And I carried bottle and glass into the kitchen and carefully, over the sink, poured the wine from the glass back into the bottle.

What else might I have done? Some people could have just thrown it away, I suppose. But that’s such a waste, of wine and of money. There’s a couple of quids’ worth of wine in that glass. I’m not made of money. And, despite the osmosis which must have taken place over the years, I’m not made of wine.

Is it a sign of age not to finish a glass that you’ve poured? I’ve put in quite a bit of practice at this drinking malarkey over the years, and thought I had it cracked. But then, I’ve also started making involuntary noises when I put on my shoes. Is a failure to anticipate consumption a similar indication of the encroaching years?

Of course some people might positively flaunt it as impressive self-control. Look at the way I can pour out a glass of booze, look at it, then pour it back again. I don’t need to drink another glass. Dependent, me? Clearly not. Even if I am already thinking about tomorrow night.

Because by pouring it back into the bottle, I would have enough for the following evening. I hate that thing of drinking 2/3rds of a bottle. Because when you hold the bottle up to the light next day, you see there’s only 1/3rd of a bottle left, and what can anyone realistically do with that?

So there could be an element of forward planning involved here. There must be a Biblical parable about keeping stuff back for the next occasion. Something about loaves, or talents, or indeed bottles of Campo Viejo.

That must be it, then. Now it sounds rational. Nothing to worry about. Move along.

PK




Thursday, 26 September 2019

Fizzy


So I'm reading PK's ruminations on champagne last week and this at once sets me thinking about soda syphons. I mean, in my world, champagne gets drunk about as often as liquid nitrogen, given our preference for cheap sparkling knock-offs at anything from half to a third the price of the serious stuff - but, on the other hand, we do get through a huge amount of fizzy water, so much so that what we spend on bottled water we very likely ought to save by drinking from the tap instead, using the funds released thereby to pay for champagne.

Is this a problem? If so, what to do? Go back a couple of generations and you find an answer in the form of the soda syphon. My Pa always had a couple stashed in the drinks cabinet - immense, heavy ribbed, reinforced glass things supplied by Schweppes (maker's name extravagantly emblazoned on the side) with proper levers to dispense the contents in a barely-governable torrent. Part of his Saturday morning ritual involved a trip down to the off-licence to exchange the spent syphons for full ones. This is what we did, back then: we got milk, orange juice and fizzy water in glass bottles which were then recycled by the businesses which owned them. Apart from the petrol used by my Pa in the drive to the offie (two-and-a-half-mile round trip) the system was as ecologically sound as hell.

Time to get back to something approaching this model? Given that Schweppes, as far as I'm aware, don't do the refillable syphons any more, what about getting a fizzy water maker? There's millions out there: I mean, this thing from Grohe, I'm not making it up, a built-in sparkling water chiller/dispenser; or this, at just over one-thirtieth of the cost of the Grohe and resembling the soda syphons we all know and respect; and, of course, everything in between. Why not buy something affordable and effective and present it as a fait accompli to my wife? And put an end to financial ruin as well as all those planet-killing plastic empties?

Immediately, however, I can think of three objections. First, the business of making some sparkling water as opposed to opening a bottle involves a pitiful amount of labour, all things considered, but I am also pitifully lazy, so no. Secondly - and I burn with shame to admit it - in the days when my Pa was tending his Schweppes bottles, there was a tacit understanding in our house that it was somehow slightly common to use Sparklets-type DIY soda syphons. I never really found out why it was common - maybe it was the hint of manual labour involved instead of getting a paid underling to do the dirty work; maybe it was the jazzy brushed steel exterior of the Sparklets bottle, turning the sitting-room chimerically into the guest lounge of a businessman's hotel somewhere around Hounslow, which did the damage - either way, I never knew. But the prejudice lingers. I just can't treat the things with any degree of conviction.

But third - and more significant than either of these - is London's tapwater. I mean, I love London's tapwater, it's a great water for all everyday use, especially washing the car or having a bath in, but it does taste like a swimming pool. The thought of carbonating it before chucking it into the evening whisky makes my gorge rise. That's why we spend something equivalent to the revenue of a county the size of Hampshire on the ready-made embottled sort. And the idea that we might buy sweet-tasting still water, in bottles, just to carbonate it ourselves makes no sense because (a) there's no real ecological or cost benefit, given the number of plastic bottles we'd be consuming and (b) we can't be arsed (see above).

All that said, I can see a day coming, fairly soon, when, in order to get a fresh bottle of sparkling water we will first have to present an empty, used one (probably made of glass) as a key. Same for marmalade, window cleaner and aftershave, and why not? That, or a return to the old days of milk deliveries, but with a float tinkling around with Perrier, San Pellegrino and Badoit, dropping it off at the front door in exchange for the empties. Which, now I think about it, sounds so London middle-class it's not even funny.

CJ


Thursday, 19 September 2019

Drinking champagne alone

Why do we rarely drink a bottle of champagne alone? Could it be that champagne is quintessentially social, an experience like kissing, which has to be shared in order to be properly enjoyed?

It can’t simply be the cost – I would think it a personal treat if I drank by myself a bottle of good claret or white Burgundy costing the same as a bottle of champagne. And can any drink really be reserved for “special occasions”? – in which case surely the drinking of it should make any occasion special by default.

There are of course famous quotes about drinking champagne at every possible opportunity. In victory you deserve it, in defeat you need it, and so on. That line of Coco Chanel’s: “I only drink champagne on two occasions – when I am in love with a Nazi, and when I am not.” (She may not actually have mentioned the collaboration bit.)

But drinking champagne by yourself somehow suggests decadence, indulgence, an unacceptable sort of wealthy languor. So what actually happens if you detach it from its image, and drink it alone as you would any other wine?

Only one way to find out. Mrs K was going to a Do, an awards event where she might well drink fizzy in both social and celebratory contexts. So as I will be alone, I decide that instead of my usual everyday red or white, I will try drinking champagne, alone, thoughout the evening. It already feels weird.

Lurking in the cellar I find a bottle, which must have been brought by a guest but stashed,  because its journey had rendered it either too warm to drink, or too Elvis. (All shook up.)

It’s surprising how odd it feels to open a bottle of sparkling wine with no-one else around. No-one to “Ooh!” and “Ah!”. And no-one to appreciate my opening technique, avoiding a loud pop and wasteful spume by opening it like a skilled sommelier, with only the gentle hiss of a duchess breaking wind,

(Although, as I have got older, I find I am less impressed by the skill of the sommelier and more by the technique of the duchess.)

However, like the tree which falls when there is no-one listening, there is definitely a sense of deflation when no-one witnesses my opening.

Should I get down a single champagne glass? I wouldn’t get down the best glasses for a weekday bottle of red; but again, the rituals of champagne are hardwired, like some kind of vinous firmware. I climb a stepladder and retrieve a single flute.

Things begin well with a glass while I cook. Perhaps it's the collective unconscious of years of cooking for get-togethers, making me think that tonight must be a special occasion. Or perhaps it's just that I always find cooking is more enjoyable with wine, whether or not it’s in the food.

And it is a reasonably tasty champagne, which I shall describe, as most wine critics describe most champagnes, as “biscuity”, without specifying whether that “biscuit” refers to Rich Teas, Digestives or, for that matter, Jammy Dodgers.

Before now I have certainly carried a pre-dinner glass of fizz through to the table, and drunk it with my starter. But I can’t actually remember drinking sparkling wine with a main course. A champagne flute certainly feels odd in this context; it’s one thing when you’re simply drinking, but when you’re washing down a meal, this glass tube feels slightly absurd. And after a meal, as things begin to settle down, raising a lightweight glass of fizz seems simply inappropriate.

By the end of the evening, I’m afraid the champagne has also become rather sickly. The first mouthful of chilled champagne is surely the best, sparkling as much as it ever will, cold as it can be. But it’s downhill from there on. Unlike a good claret, champagne does not improve in the glass over an evening. It gets sugary. And two hours on, it’s not so much crisp biscuit as soggy Custard Cream.

Clearly no, I am not Sebastian Flyte, nor was meant to be. There are things which are immensely satisfying when pursued alone, which start well and often get better. Like reading. But drinking a bottle of champagne clearly benefits from company. When you can each enjoy those first, fresh glasses from the bottle, and then move on.

A bottle alone? In the end, the experience is mirrored by the final mouthfuls of the champagne itself – just a little bit flat.

PK



Thursday, 12 September 2019

En Vacances: Some Burgundy



So we come back from our trip to see our pals in the South of France and France does not disappoint. In fact it goes out of its way to be ultra-obliging and sunny and crammed with delicious food and drink, so much so that, in honour of all that France has done for us, the British, over all the years, I am now going to use as many French loan words and phrases as I can in an act of sincerest homage or even hommage. In practice this means non to creaky Edwardianisms such as amitié amoureuse and faites comme chez vous, but oui to anything else from the last forty-five years. Alors.

Key points in the trip? Number one is when the wife and I are enjoying a quiet tête-à- tête at an eaterie in the almost too wonderful city of Dijon; and as we scan the menu what happens but I fall for a bottle of unmarked white Burgundy, at a price way beyond my usual? Nevertheless, some kind of amour propre overwhelms me and I suggest, in as nuanced a way as I can that holidaying gives me carte blanche to make a pig of myself, so why not? In fact I manage this with such élan - panache, even - that I persuade myself and any bystanders that paying three times my standard rate is a beau geste worth making.

And what do you know? It is. Something arrives in a label-free container and it is white, delicious, full of bourgeois solidity. I strike up a wordless rapport with it tout de suite and instead of feeling hopelessly gauche - my usual state in any French restaurant - after a couple of glasses consider myself not only alarmingly au fait with the wine list but, by sheer good fortune, quite the connoiosseur. My wife, who regards me as an idiot savant at the best of times, just lets me get on with it. Laissez faire rules for a couple of hours.

The sense of bien-être builds, the further south we get. I could write a whole billet-doux to France, just north of Avignon. Leaving behind the architecture, the chic dress boutiques and the teasing bric-à-brac sellers of Dijon, we sink into a world of pure sensual pleasure. A moment of déjà vu assails us as we pass some familar landmarks, but this then acts as a kind of apéritif of memory for things to come. Once we are in the deep South, surrounded by dust, vines, mountains and olive trees, the usual mood has taken over. Plus ça change, I nearly say, à propos of all this loveliness, but don't. By the time we reach our pals, nestling at the foot of Mt Ventoux, I'm drowning in delectable clichés.

The pals, of course, have got savoir-vivre down to a fine art. Everything is utterly comme il faut, but with the lightest of touches. Indeed, the whole place is, with the Rhône valley shimmering in the distant haze, strictly entre nous, borderline magical. Perhaps the most magical thing (and key point number two) being the carafe of rosé which lives in the fridge and which never seems to run out. Every time I peer inside to help myself to a refresher, the wine is brimming. What genre of rosé is this? Vin d'une nuit, apparently, hence its almost non-existent blush. But it wouldn't matter either way. It represents largesse at the highest level, the dernier cri of hospitality.

A few days of this is enough to banish all ennui, to restore one's lost esprit de corps, to achieve, frankly, a renaissance of all one's hopes and ambitions. But what do you know? No sooner have we got the hang of Provençal douceur de vivre than we must clear up the débris of our stay, bid au revoir to this adorable venue, achieve a complete volte-face in our progress and start north again. Our pals wish us bon voyage back to England, where a Parliamentary coup appears to be taking place, where democracy has reached an evil-tempered impasse and the great Brexit débâcle grinds on, all attempts at détente having been thrown out of the window in one protracted and possibly unlawful contretemps. The closer we get to home, the worse our mood gets. We experience a kind of mal de mer long before we even reach the sea. Eventually and en masse, we and a load of other gloomy Brits cross the Channel in a ferry piled high with old coffee cups.

You have to hand it to the French: when they get it right, they really get it right. I only hope we can reprise our trip next year and continue the va-et-vient of Anglo-French tourism, passports, no-deal Brexit and French goodwill permitting. If not, then quel cauchemar!

CJ