Thursday 26 January 2017

Cornering the market

An abandoned corner shop is being refitted and reopened. Only instead of being a traditional corner shop, or even its later incarnation, a convenience store, it’s going to be a delicatessen. Because that’s what people open on London street corners nowadays.

"We want to do all organic food,” the new owners explained to the local press, “using only refined flour to bake our breads, croissants and patisseries. We will sell salami, cheeses, smoothies, make our own pasta and sauces, patisserie, hand made chocolates, and…” (and here’s the crux of the matter) “sell top end wine.”

Well of course they will. Because that’s what you need in an emergency, isn’t it? “Oh, just pop out to the shop on the corner and get us a loaf of bread, love, so we’ve got some for the morning. Just make sure the flour’s refined.

“And don’t forget to pick up a bottle of top end wine!”

“Top end wine”. Oh, for goodness’ sake. Are there people who pop to the end of the road for a bit of salami and a bottle of Sassicaia – or Lafite and a loaf ?

People who drink genuinely “top end wine” buy it from trusted wine merchants. They buy it by the case and, for a special occasion, buy it in advance. I really wouldn’t build a business on people who forget their anniversary and have to grab a “top end” bottle from the corner shop on the way home.

And what is this “top end” wine, anyway? “Top end” is not some kind of classification, not an adjective which you can accurately put in front of the word “wine”, like “red”.

No, this is a delicatessen description, part of selling wine as some kind of lifestyle accessory.

The old corner shops, like mine in the picture (which is not the one in question) were known in the trade as CTNs – for Confectionery, Tobacco and News. Most have now disappeared; because you couldn’t really think of a worse business model for the 21st century. Confectionery and Tobacco are being actively shunned by society, while sales of News are simply collapsing. It would be difficult to offer less popular products to the public, unless they were school discipline canes or asbestos tiles.

But along with their fags, mags and bags of sweets, the old corner shops also sold wine. Cheap wine, with an industrial bouquet supported by a hint of desperation. This was wine for when you had absolutely no other wine, emergency wine, wine for when your friend came around red-eyed. Your expectations, like the price, were low. The whole idea was convenience – not quality.

And this was where many of us bought our first, cheap bottles of wine, to take to parties or to drink after someone’s parents had gone out. Because the corner shops were more likely than a supermarket to turn a blind eye to an underage purchaser, whether it was for cigs or booze. And because the man in the Off Licence knew your Dad.

Food shops, meanwhile, stuck to selling food. Not the plates off which to eat it, the cutlery with which to handle it, nor the wine with which to consume it. Do you see wine in your greengrocer’s? What if your butcher turned from packaging up your steak, and asked whether you wanted a Bordeaux to go with it – and then offered you a bottle you had never seen before. Would you trust his recommendation? Or his pricing?

Delis are different. The wine from the shop on the corner is now “top end”, to match the aspirations of an epicurean mish-mash of Italian, French and Spanish, held together with other delicatessen adjectives like “authentic” and “craft” and “hand-made”, and presented in shades of Farrow & Ball. 

This is lifestyle wine, wine as part of an image of eating and living and shopping, wine as part of a package, You’ve bought your organic salami, and your refined flour bread… oh, and here’s a bottle of wine that goes with it.

With its own set of delicatessen adjectives, which wouldn’t be used by an actual wine merchant. Like “authentic”, because it’s not just Italian, it’s really, really Italian. “Specially selected”, because wine merchants just pick their wines at random.

And “top end”. Because whatever else it is, something tells me that the wine from the shop on the corner is no longer going to be cheap.


Thursday 19 January 2017

Small And Cold

So to ring in 2017, the kitchen has decided to fall to pieces. To be honest, it's not a shock: the thing's been in a terrible state for at least a decade; but in the last couple of weeks we've reached that point where our growing nervousness about the state of the cutlery drawer and the thing that corrals the rubbish has coincided with the absolute decrepitude of the rest of the physical plant among which we sit every day, to create a real need to go out and seriously look at some kitchen shops.

Actually I don't mind this as much as I thought I would. I quite like snapping open corner cupboards and caressing induction hobs. I also like imagining myself as the kind of person who might possess a handle-free work arena in high-gloss gunmetal grey with a six-burner pro cooker straight out of an ocean liner and a vast splashback made of a single sheet of sunflower yellow glass. The kind of person with a lifestyle, in fact.

Indeed I am so enthralled by hand-crafted demountable cutlery drawers and articulated shelving for those hard-to-get-at corners crowded with wedding gifts from thirty years ago, that I scarcely notice one vital omission: somewhere to put the booze. Yes, there are fridges in all permutations, plenty of room to cool your whites and rosés and sparklings, but what about general storage? If, like me, you're the kind of person who prefers to keep his wine near at hand in the kitchen - not far, indeed, from the boiler and/or oven - then you need a wine rack.

But I see no wine racks. What I see are those little filler sections that slot in your island unit or wall-length workspace, designed to hold - vertically - five or six full-sized bottles and so plug a space too narrow for anything else, unless it be a pair of made-to-measure solid oak tea trays, which I also saw a few of. All right, I understand how that might work: your real collection is elsewhere, in a proper cellar, like PK's below-stairs wine hovel, and so you bring up the stuff as and when you need it, keeping it in readiness in the six-pack silo.

Which I suppose is also the thinking behind the dinky refrigerated versions which I kept spotting: this year's fitted kitchen must-have, a six-bottle cupboard with a glass door and a chiller unit so that you don't have the faff of actually opening the fridge door (itself the size of a lock gate) to get at your Chenin Blanc. It's another lifestyle thing, the presumption that you'll want to be able to reach down to knee-level and with practised economy of movement whip out a bottle of cool £10+ white to enjoy in a relaxed setting, with a member of the opposite sex and a dish of Thai-inspired prawns. I get that, too.

But where is the space for my preferred booze holder, a traditional wood and metal 6 x 8 Leviathan with room on the top for a tray holding the spirits and speciality drinks? I think I bought mine from Habitat, which really dates it - as does the rime of dust and spillage clinging to every surface - but it's been one of the few dependables in my anxiety-making international roller-coaster prawn-filled lifestyle and I don't want to see it go. It embodies my philosophy of wine just about perfectly: robust, affordable, shabby. It also fills up what was once a fireplace about a hundred years ago, so it's more than just a place to stack my crap: it's a feature. Not only all that, it is also easy to use, unpretentious and almost impossible to knock over. I'd have given it a name, if I was that sort of person.

So when the time comes to re-invent our busted old kitchen as a timelessly contemporary hospitality locus with space for efforlessly stylish food passions, I have a conviction that my filthy old wine rack is going to have to be integral to the experience. I can't imagine it not being there and in a way, neither can my wife. I mean, our kids used to pin things to its wooden cross-pieces, so, even then, years ago, it was being effortlessly multi-functional and timelessly polyvalent. Maybe it could be loved up a bit; certainly a rinse with the carbolic wouldn't come amiss. We could make it look like a mediaeval artifact stuck in a Los Angeles art gallery. Or what if we balanced a new induction hob on the top? Would that work?


Thursday 12 January 2017

Alan Bennett's Wine Diaries

3 March. There is nowhere in the new house to store wine, so an energetic young man called Colin comes round to explain how we could have a cellar dug out beneath our kitchen, accessed by a spiral staircase. I mention this to Mam the next time I phone. “That’s all well and good when it comes to getting it out of the cellar, Alan,” she says. “But how will you get the coal in?”

17 May. Looking through a merchant’s Wine List, I spy a bottle of Lafite ’83 at £599. “A real treat!” I can’t bring myself to buy it. It’s bad enough paying for a bottle of wine the price of a two-piece suit, or indeed a three-piece suite. But the whole experience has been tainted by that exclamation mark.

22 May. A wholly unsatisfactory visit to the little church of St Pilaf, in Trestle Potholder, its box pews and engraved tablature entirely spoilt after climbing to the lectern to see what I can only describe as an inappropriate copy of the Good News Bible.
    R and I repair to the pub opposite, which fortunately has a garden, where we can hopefully get a glass of wine and discreetly eat the sandwiches we have brought from home. As children, Mam would surreptitiously pass us home-made sandwiches under a teashop’s table, to avoid paying the higher price of the establishment’s own. It’s no longer a question of cost, just that R and I prefer our brie and grape sandwiches to any jauntily-described “pub grub”. And actually, it would now be cheaper to buy those of the pub, given the price of artisan sourdough in Primrose Hill.
    But we cannot get a glass of wine. “We’re a pub, not a wine bar,” grumbles the landlord. I point out that surely he’s not a gin palace either, but that he has a bottle of Gordon’s.
    Nevertheless I have to admit defeat, and I succumb to a glass of his micro-brewed real ale. “It’s hand-crafted,” he says. It’s something I wished I hadn’t heard, given the state of his fingernails.

7 July. Overheard: “Yes, get some more of that Clos de Vougeot. We’re not exactly flush with Burgundies.”

19 August. My local branch of Oddbins, which introduced me to the wines of the New World, has closed. I can only assume that Tony Blair is in some way responsible.

27 August. Rereading Brideshead Revisited. I remember reading Brideshead for the first time just before I went up to Oxford, when I had never tasted wine. The Hon Sebastian Flyte opens a bottle of Chateau Peyraguey for Charles Ryder, “Which isn't a wine you've ever tasted, so don't pretend. It’s heaven with strawberries.” Well, never mind the wine; I wasn’t that well versed in strawberries.
    It was a lesson I took to Oxford with me, that pretending to a knowledge of wine would be social climbing of the worst kind. Wine was clearly something for the Honourables of this world. I was in the pigeonhole marked ‘grammar school boy’, and did I drink Chateau Peyraguey I should still be a grammar school boy.

10 September. A visit to Jonathan M, who offers to “crack open” a bottle of white. I hate to hear a wine described in such a way. The clear implication is that it is closed with a screw-cap.

14 September. I still find it hard to believe people name their children after wines. Someone told me that there are now girls called Chardonnay; presumably if the fashion moves upmarket we will have boys called Petrus. I once encountered a somewhat hirsute young man whose friends called him Tâche, but I assumed, perhaps wrongly, that that was a nickname.
    Years ago, Thora H and I were introduced to Margaux Hemingway at an awards dinner. “You know where she got her name from,” someone said, “Don’t you?” Thora replied, “Was it The Good Life?”

25 October. I can never order Champagne in a restaurant. It’s not so much the appalling mark-up; it’s the way everybody turns to look when they hear the pop of the cork. Not the kind of attention I enjoy in any circumstances. Presumably they’re all wondering what is being celebrated, which in many cases is simply that someone has the wealth to drink Champagne in a restaurant.