Thursday 29 October 2015

A Meal At PK's House: Haut-Médoc 2005

This week's style icon: Cormac McCarthy

They drew up outside the house later that evening. The wind had got up and was stirring the plane trees and the ragged fescues growing between the stones. As they stepped out of the car, a squall hit them, spattering the night with leaves and rain and odd speckled shadows thrown by the electric lights like some ancient painting done in a time when there had been no buildings between them and the river. Away in another county, the horses stirred in their dark stabling and nickered and rubbed their flanks against the estacada.

PK opened the front door. The light from the hallway broke over them, revealing Mrs K standing some way behind, elegant, her large dark serious eyes taking them in. They had lit the heating for their guests, but the house was still cool and PK wore a charcoal colored jersey and shook hands with CJ and formally kissed Mrs J and Mrs K kissed them both and said that they were to admire the new floor which had been laid in the kitchen and the eating area. They solemnly looked at it and envied its smooth conformities, unlike the sad ruins which they had left behind in their own place.

That's a hell of a floor, said CJ.
Aint it though.
Must of cost a couple weeks' wages.

PK said nothing and they sat down to eat. The food was delicious, delicate cheese-flavored hojaldres followed by a stew of wine and beef and a lemon cream served in small white pots, one for each guest, and the utensils were new and hard to master, and after some time they spoke of the game known as fútbol and the women spoke of other, graver, matters and then they spoke of the wine which PK had brought out and placed upon the table like a monstrance, that they should see it in its particularity and uniqueness.

Must of cost a couple weeks' wages too.
You got me.
What's its name?
Chateau Tour du Haut Moulin 2005.
Where'd you get it at?
Some place.
Aint my usual.
You better believe that. You want some more?
I'm full as a tick.
Of the wine.
I believe I do.
You're gettin it down.
I'm next the heater. I'm dry.

It was a dark and withholding wine whose secrets did not make themselves clear at first but only later told of the earth in which the grapes once grew and the strange sense of a faded tapestry such as travellers might find in an abandoned homestead on the mesa. It left a black residue on the sides of their glasses.

Could plant a whole stand of cottonwoods in there. You got any more?
I'll see.

PK got up from the table and was gone some time and when he returned he held in his hand another bottle which he said was Taste the Difference and was not the same kind of wine. It had no cork, only a metal cap to plug the contents. He unscrewed the cap with a snapping noise before pouring the drink into their glasses.

Take a fresh glass, you dont want that shit in there.

CJ made a face as he tasted the new wine and looked for somewhere to spit it out but there was nowhere, only the smooth dark floor divided into even squares with thin cream lines between the squares and although they had said these squares could not be stained by wine or blood, still he felt uneasy at the thought of spitting the red wine out and made himself drink it down. He turned to PK.

That's somethin.
I wont dispute it.

PK held the bottle towards the light and looked at it and held his head at an angle and shook it as if the bottle had told him a lie of some kind.

You think this is okay?
I dont know.
Maybe it wants some time.
How much time we got?
I dont know.

By now they had eaten the last of the meal and they brought out coffee and spoke of the great sorrowfulness of the world. Outside the storm had abated and a thin clear moon could be seen among the shifting banks of cloud while the rainwater shivered in pools and the people of the town began to make their way home in the darkness. The women stopped talking and looked at the men.

Do you believe in fate, said Mrs J.
No mam.
Neither do I. That is why we must leave.

The complexities of that remark stayed with PK and CJ a long time, long after they had parted in that same hallway and CJ and Mrs J had said their thanks and remarked a last time on the beauty of the floor. Then they headed south towards the river which lay like a rope uncoiled and passing between the lives of those who had grown up beside it.


Thursday 22 October 2015

Does giving mean taking? – Trusting in St Emilion

A weekend on the South Coast, including lunch at friends, and a new twist on the old dilemma of which wine to take as a gift. Do I really have to carry a bottle all that way on public transport?

Now that you can’t carry bottles of wine back home in an airplane, I’d forgotten just how heavy they are in an overnight bag. Never one to stint on clothing options, I was already weighed down in case of an unpredicted storm or, alternatively, heatwave, let alone the impossibility of precisely interpreting the dress code, “relaxed”. So really, the last thing I wanted was the additional weight, let alone breakage hazard, of a bottle of wine.

The obvious solution was to find a wine shop at our destination, and buy a bottle there.

Now once, Mrs K and I were walking towards a neighbour’s dinner party, when we met another couple of mutual friends from the other side of London. They were walking from the tube station, but in the opposite direction, towards us. It soon emerged that all four of us were actually going to the same dinner party. We therefore pointed out helpfully that they were walking the wrong way.

Ah, they said, but isn’t there a wine shop in that direction, where they could buy a bottle to take as a gift?

Something about this manoeuvre seemed both disturbingly calculated, and frighteningly risky. Travelling comfortably to a dinner party, yes, without lugging a bottle all the way across London. Smart move. But then, relying on finding your gift on arrival. Having to buy whatever a local wine shop could offer, with no opportunity to shop around. Possibly turning up with a bottle you couldn’t talk about, or even recommend yourself, because it’s a wine you didn’t actually know.

No, I would usually rather rely upon my little cellar to provide dinner party gifts; not only do I know what it has to offer, but providing gifts helps to mitigate its existence to Mrs K. Failing that, there is a reliably good wine merchant on my High Road. Giving a decent bottle invariably means taking one with me. And so I will carry a bottle all the way, advertising our social life to everyone on public transport. Even if it does alert potential cutpurses that I might be worth a few bob, in the unlikely event that any mugger is familiar with the 1855 classification.

But in this case, the weight and distance were just too much. I would have to trust to finding a wine shop in this South Coast town. It would be what I believe they call… an adventure.

I soon learnt that to Mr Google, with all his infinite variety, the term “wine shop” covers a multitude of sins. There was nowhere whose name offered that comforting confusion with a legal practice.

The first establishment to which it steered me was little better than a newsagent; it did, presumably, meet the technical description, in that you could shop for wine there, but not for a wine you would drink with anyone else, unless you were drinking together on a bench. And the second, despite actually calling itself a wine shop, was basically an off-licence, specialising in beer, baccy and Blossom Hill.

Fortunately the third was an actual wine shop; if a bit young and enthusiastic, keen on hipster varieties and distinctly lacking in traditional wines (‘because it’s so hard to get the value in Bordeaux these days’ – well, tell me about it…) Instead, they had the familiar glossy culprits from the New World, the Cloudy Bays, Chocolate Blocks and d’Arenbergs. At least those give you some kind of pricing benchmark. (Dead Arm at £34.95? Ouch.)

But when you’ve taken a chance on finding a decent wine shop at all, you’re going to play safe on your choice of wine as a gift. Arrive bearing a bottle labelled St Emilion Grand Cru Classé, and most recipients are going to feel you’re knowledgeable, grateful and generous. Just how I like to be regarded. 

And you know what you're going to get. No matter what you tell me about that Ruritanian organic wine, I am not taking it to my friends for lunch if its main description is that it’s “interesting…”.

So I settled for Chateau Mangot 2009, a St Emilion somewhat ambitiously priced at £24.95. And the assistant stifled my financial concerns and sent me off instead with an indulgently warm feeling, easily awarded by simply saying, “Good choice, sir!”

Well, if I say so myself, it was. Because it was soft and smooth and rich and smoky and all the things you want from a mature claret for a Sunday lunch. And the hostess said it was lovely, when she managed to get a glass in between her husband and me polishing off the rest.

I would never wish to associate myself with the English tourists who eat egg and chips in Spain. But when you’re in strange territory, there is comfort to be found in the familiar. Even in the most exciting young wine shops, there’s a place for traditional wines, which establish a benchmark of knowledge (and price) by which first-time customers can measure the offering. 

And yes, for meeting situations like mine. When you’re looking for a gift, a traditional wine is hard to beat. A safe bet, maybe, but a good choice indeed.


Thursday 15 October 2015

Great Wine Moments In Movie History VII: An Eternal Golden Braid

...Caché (2005): This wonderfully unsettling psychological thriller from Michael Haneke, deconstructs the supercomfortable middle-class wolrd of Daniel Auteuil, menaced by a hidden observer with a surveillance camera. Terrible truths are, inevitably, revealed. Being a film about well-heeled French domestic life - however threatened - it also contains several eating and drinking moments, and some handsome red wines: one of the absolute cornerstones of French culture, invisibly corrupted, as it turns out, by the invisible presence of Auteuil's stalker. That's how dreadful the threat is: even the innocent, pleasurable, wine becomes a part of it. So what antidote can there be to this existential terror?

Carry On Up The Khyber (1968): Best of the Carry Ons by a considerable margin, not least because of the celebrated sequence at the end of the film in which Sid James, Joan Sims and the rest, plough (with full decorations) through a formal British Raj dinner, under heavy bombardment from an army of enraged tribesmen led by the Khasi of Kalabar (Kenneth Williams) and his lieutenant, Bungdit Din (Bernard Bresslaw). Bottles explode with shot, the chandelier crashes from the ceiling onto the table centrepiece, the orchestra is hit by a mortar shell, but the civilities never waver - not least in the the consoling and civilising presence of fine wines, a countervailing force against the dark barbarism outside. Clarets, from the look of them. Lady Ruff-Diamond (Sims), picking a chunk of ceiling from her pompadour hairstyle: 'Oh dear! I seem to have got a little plastered!'

Bicycle Thieves (1948): But what if you are the outsider? What if you are marginalised - like the father and son in Vittorio de Sica's masterpiece? Wine becomes implicated in your misfortune, an index, even, of your poverty and despair. Father (Lamberto Maggiorani) treats son (Enzo Staiola) to a restaurant meal with wine, a consolation for their latest round of misfortunes. 'Let's forget everything and get drunk!' he cries. But the next table is occupied by a family of gallingly prosperous suburban Romans. Their wine is plentiful and arrives in smart bottles with labels; the father and son's comes in a greasy blank carafe. The father's good mood begins to slip away. Within minutes, he is compulsively rehashing the events that have led to his downfall - the theft of his bike, mainly - and outlining the humiliation that threatens to overwhelm them. The wine is a false friend, confirming the mood, rather than banishing it. 'We'll find it,' says the son, braver than his father, 'we'll go every day to the Porta Portese'. Do they get drunk? No. But Dumbo does.

Dumbo (1941): This is one which Disney himself had to finish off, when most of his studio went on strike. It is also the one in which Dumbo and his friend, Timothy Mouse, accidentally get soused on some leftover grog - resulting in the authentically troubling Pink Elephants On Parade sequence. As anyone with children will tell you, this is one of the hardest episodes in a cartoon film to explicate to a four-year-old - harder, in its way, than the death of Bambi's mother or the surprising uselessness of The Jungle Book. Its vertiginous transformations and distortions (multicoloured devil elephants, amoebal ghost elephants) have something of the Little Nemo cartoons, but without the charm; while the atmosphere of sick menace is as bad as anything from Max Fleischer. This is not drink as we know it. This is a trip to the pharmacopeia, and one which tells you a lot about America's grimly conflicted relationship with drink and self-loathing. Not entirely dispelled by

The French Connection (1971): Another great film: William Friedkin's best, Gene Hackman's best, an unimprovable car chase, and a terrific stake-out sequence with Popeye Doyle (Hackman) freezing his butt off as he watches bad guy Charnier (Fernando Rey) tuck into a gourmet meal in a discreetly sumptuous New York restaurant (actually the Copain). Hackman gnaws a congealing pizza and blows on his chapped fingers; Rey luxuriates in, yes, a fine wine, a wine whose very fineness indicates how terrible and heartless he can be. This is wine as metaphor for evil - rather a remorseless depiction, especially from the country which gave us Dean Martin, but there you are. There is no necessary benevolence in the drink after all - only the capacity to take on a moral colour from whatever its surroundings happen to be. Which leads us handily back to the bottle on the sleek Parisan dining table...


Thursday 8 October 2015

A site-specific wine – Barramundi

As falling temperatures and foggy mornings herald the arrival of our Autumn, what better time to put on to UK shelves a wine whose theme is…camping.

Perhaps the supermarket buyer did not notice that our summer is over. Or perhaps they thought that someone had launched a wine for people moving into a new house*, given that the label depicts a van with three tons of shite lashed to its roof.

But no, this is an Australian wine, with a theme of Australian camping. Which is around 10,000 miles away from the notion of camping in England right now.

“NEW!” shouts the collar band – unlike the exhausted old meme they then exploit: “Keep calm and go camping with Barramundi”.

“Perfect with sun, summer and BBQ steak”. Which in England puts it, oh, about four months out of date. Or perhaps someone thinks we will be transported as we drink this wine, from a warming Autumn supper under leaden English skies to a summer picnic at Hanging Rock?

And the problems are only just beginning. When people talk about the difficulty of interpreting wine labels, they are usually talking about the Bordeaux classification structure, or the complexity of German names. They are not usually talking about the English description on the back label. Did I say English? “Listen to the currawongs serenade as the sun goes down,” they suggest. “Just watch out for the bindi-eyes and mozzies!” I’m sorry, but this is gibberish.

Perhaps one might also enjoy this wine when the borogoves are mimsy, and the mome raths outgrabe?

They clearly have no idea about English camping. On our campsites, we do not listen to the currawongs, whatever they may be, serenade as the sun goes down. We listen to the singing of the drunken Mancs.

Barramundi seem to be arriving on campsite with half of their attic lashed to the top of their van. Poorly lashed, I will point out, before they head for our motorways and become an item on Police, Camera, Unstable Load.

Surfboard, shorts, barbeque equipment, picnic hamper, an electric fan, a cricket bat…it’s like a summer episode of The Generation Game. About the only thing relevant to the English outdoors is a pair of wellies. Oh, and a walkie-talkie, presumably to radio for evacuation.

Some of the things pictured on this label, if not actually banned, are guaranteed to bring misery to a British camping site. A saxophone! Someone walking on to a camping site carrying a saxophone would probably be assaulted. “Do you do requests, pal? Yeah? Well, why not have a go at putting that back in your van?”

And Barramundi also encourages you, while “lying on the grass”, to “Kick off your thongs,” which our site supervisors will be quick to point out refers in Australia to flip-flops, and not underwear.

Of course the wine itself is a Shiraz, the only varietal hefty enough to knock in tent pegs. And it’s pretty challenging; not one of those fat, comfortably soupy versions, presumably redolent of sluggish stay-at-homes, but sharper and more abrasive, with a catch in the throat.

But then, given the privations of food, comfort and hygiene that most campers are willing to endure, perhaps a degree of personal suffering in the wine is only appropriate?



*Actually, a wine aimed at people moving into a new house is rather a good idea, isn’t it? A suitable housewarming gift from neighbours, or something to share with one’s partner as you sit surrounded by boxes. Screwcap of course, because you won’t be able to find the corkscrew. That’s © Sediment, that one.

Thursday 1 October 2015

Flying Wine, Mostly Tempranillo

So the wife and I have just been on a quick trip to New York and naturally the one question worth answering is what kind of wine does British Airways serve? Since I only ever go steerage, my answer is necessarily reduced in scope, but on this occasion it was a Tempranillo rosé on the way out (perfectly drinkable, could have been a bit colder) and something called Cencibel red on the way back, which turned out to be Tempranillo by another name (perfectly drinkable, can't remember much about it, to be honest). Can we learn anything from this?

Well, the best in-flight wine I have ever had was on Qatar Airways. Nothing to do with the wine itself (it was red), but with the quantity. Instead of arriving in a Lilliputian screw-top bottle, it was poured out by hand from a big, proper, glass container, the wine brimming my plastic beaker, a real meniscus serving. In fact the stewardess said she wouldn't be back to give me a refill for some time, and would I like an extra beaker of wine there and then to keep me going? Obviously, I said Yes, and sat there with my crappy fold-down table luxuriously burdened with drink, feeling like a king.

Of course, it didn't much matter what was in the glass, as - we all know this, don't we? - your tastebuds are shot the moment you get into a plane. In-flight meals are massively sweeter and saltier than their ground-level equivalents, because you can barely taste anything in the dessicated, pressurised, environment of a jet, and the cook must compensate accordingly. At the same time, airlines avoid serving wines which are heavily tannic or acidic, because those flavours do persist: so a fruity Tempranillo is about right, whereas a Claret is not going to work, and champagne generally tastes lousy, even though it accords with that sexy jetset lifestyle we've been aspiring to since 1959.

Would I have had a better drinking experience if I'd been flying pre-Jet Age, pre-pressurisation, pre-War, in fact? Essentially, no. The earliest commercial flights - Croydon to Le Bourget, always a favourite - were appalingly noisy, cold, bumpy, and smelled of petrol. The old Imperial Airways planes could drop a hundred feet in a second when they hit turbulence, so going to the toilet was something you put off until Paris. Wines too would have been shaken to perdition, so the stock in-flight booze was lager beer and whisky. It got a bit better as the planes themselves improved, but there was still no real pleasure to be had, not until the Boeing 707 showed us how it should be done; by which time you could drink and eat what you liked, and it all tasted the same.

No: the way to drink wine is on an airship - and not just any airship, I mean the R101 and The Hindenburg would be poor choices in any event, no, it has to be the Graf Zeppelin, the behemoth of the skies from 1928 to 1937. This incredible vehicle - it was actually crowd-funded, you know - was seven hundred and seventy-six feet long and held nearly four million cubic feet of hydrogen. In its years of service it made just under six hundred flights, travelled over a million miles, carried more than thirteen thousand passengers, circumnavigated the globe, crossed and re-crossed the Atlantic, went to Brazil, Russia and the Arctic - without a single injury to passenger, crew or freight. A stupendous record: much of it due to Dr Hugo Eckener, legendary captain of the Graf, a man known as The Magellan of the Air, a giant in the history of flight. With Dr Eckener in charge, you might hit the odd spot of turbulence, or get held up by a squall line, or even spill your soup; but you would arrive in one piece.

Better yet, you would, with luck, have experienced a kind of travel which was authentically dream-like in its ease and strangeness. Not, it must be said, in northern latitudes, and not in winter: there was no heating on board, so you had to spend those flights wrapped in a leather overcoat and cashmere scarf, waiting for beef tea, but - anywhere warm, you could float a few hundred feet above the earth, with the windows open, listening to distant cow bells, the hum of traffic, even raised voices, with no sound audible from the remote airship engines; and you could sip, frankly, whatever wine you had brought with you. Hock was popular; even a white Burgundy might have survived. And afterwards, you could go and smoke yourself stupid in a pressurised, asbestos-lined smoking room, where electric cigarette lighters were your flame. Did it matter that you were, basically, attached to a gigantic floating bomb? As Lady Grace Drummond Hay, traveller and Zeppelin enthusiast put it: 'I cannot conceive a greater thrill'.