Thursday 28 May 2015

And if one green bottle… : Mateus Rosé

Of course I went to the London Wine Fair. How else am I going to taste wine I cannot afford? The unaffordable 2012 Grands Crus de Bordeaux, for example (tasting note: meh…). The glorious but equally unaffordable Lupicaia; and the superb, good value but still unaffordable Tassinaia. Why is it that the only people who have the means for rich, powerful and significant wines are those with similar traits?

But by now, most of you will understand how things work within Sediment’s purview. So you will not be surprised to find me writing about a wine at the other end of the Fair/market. I was drawn to the stand featuring Mateus Rose, starter wine for so many of us, rich with nostalgia if nothing else – to be shocked by the news, announced on collar bands,  that Mateus is abandoning its classic green bottle for a clear one.

Why oh why?, I asked in true Daily Mail fashion. And the answer from the rep on the stand was disturbing. There’s a generation out there who don’t know that Mateus is rosé.

Oh, come on. This is hard to comprehend. Surely the two terms are synonymous, like Trebor mints or Typhoo tea. The Portuguese themselves are emphatic: “MATEUS, o ROSÉ mais famoso do mundo!”, they declare, with little fear of contradiction. 

But no, it seems that Mateus need to “show off our wonderful rosé colour”, because young people nowadays (as I believe they are described) aren’t aware that inside the famous green Mateus bottle is a rosé wine.

I am not embarrassed to say that Mateus Rosé was one of the first wines I drank. And here is the reason why I am not embarrassed:

This compensates for the fact that Mateus was revealed to be the favourite wine of Saddam Hussein after his death.

In the 1970s, we teenagers not only had to make our own fun, we had to make our own alcopops. For girls, this meant a teeth-coating vodka and lime. For boys, Southern Comfort. And for a classy evening on the sofa, swap the Players No 6 for a packet of Dunhill, turn on Bouquet of Barbed Wire and break out the “Mattius”.

Mateus Rosé is still the bland, slightly fizzy, slightly sugary concoction I dimly remember from my youth, and from which I moved on rapidly to the relative sophistication of Sainsbury’s Corbieres. But in yet another misguided attempt to update a brand, Mateus has been through a succession of changes since Jimi and I were drinking it.

The shape of the bottle has been subtly modified from its original design (based on a WWI soldier’s flask). The label has been altered in size and appearance. Mateus even has to call itself “the original” (distinguishing itself from its host of imitators).

What it has abandoned in the process is something which most brands today are desperate to flaunt, even to artificially create, but which Mateus has cheerfully thrown away – authenticity.

Its marketing has instead an air of desperation. Mateus, they say, is “ideally suited to accompany all life’s moments”. What, all  of them? Surely not, for example, the best accompaniment to your driving test?

Something tells me that actually, this “generation” discovering wine today probably know more about the drink than we ever did in our youth. And no matter how literacy standards may have slipped, the word “rosé” would surely enlighten just as many of them as abandoning an iconic bottle in order to display the colour of its contents.

It does seem odd that, when so many brands are returning to original designs in order to stress their heritage, here is one going in the opposite direction. Mateus will now look like something intended to be poured into your bath.

(Which, some might say,…)

Pah. The original bottle will always have a place in some people’s memories. To say nothing of some people’s homes.


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.