Thursday 30 January 2020

A glass of wine and three straws

It’s the latest instalment of "expert" advice on “safe” wine-drinking. Professor David Nutt, a former government adviser on drugs, has declared that alcohol is so bad for us that we should only consume about 5gm a day. That is the amount contained in about 40ml, or roughly a third of a small glass, of wine. A measure so small that pubs and restaurants do not serve it.

But Professor Nutt has proposed a solution: take three drinking straws to the pub, he suggests, and share that single glass of wine with two friends.

Seriously. That’s three adults, sharing one small glass of wine. Through drinking straws. In public.

This is just the kind of ill-considered suggestion which is Sediment’s meat and drink. Well, drink. All I needed were two adults with whom to try it out. For the sake of discretion I’ll just call them ‘Alan’ and ‘Simon’.

There is something infantilising about drinking straws. They immediately bring out the child in us all, even when drinking an adult drink. Fair enough, we were trying this before a Chelsea match. But even so – out of all of the multi-coloured striped straws I had brought, everyone only wanted blue ones. Yes, that’s how childish we chaps are. I’ve been accused of being childish ever since I was a child – when, in retrospect, it was a perfectly justifiable way of behaving.  But seeing as how they were my straws, I certainly wasn’t going to have a red one.

So I had to rummage through the whole pack of striped straws to find three blue ones. And then, with visions of the set of Reservoir Dogs, I had to stamp upon the suggestion that we might use the straws to blow wine at each other. God, it’s like a nursery. As Joyce Grenfell would have said, “’Alan’… don’t do that.”

Professor Nutt does not make clear whether you are supposed to sip sequentially, or simultaneously. Well, given three wine-drinking men, by now desperate for a drink, the latter is what happens. Three men, faces inches from each other, heads bowed as if in prayer over a sacred glass. Getting some pretty strange looks from the next table.

Our initial tentative sips revealed that wine simply does not taste the same through a straw. This is presumably because you get zero bouquet, as your nose is six inches or so away from the wine. You can still swirl it around your mouth, but it just doesn’t taste as flavoursome. It becomes simply a case, as ‘Alan’ phrased it, of “putting this stuff in your mouth and swallowing it”. Which is essentially true of all wine drinking, of course; but the practice is normally endowed with a little more poetry. And pleasure.

We then realised we could not let go of our straws. All three were blue. We might mistakenly use someone else’s straw. Or… someone else might drink all the wine.

Because Professor Nutt also fails to address what ‘Simon’ describes as “competitive drinking”.  We looked into each others’ (closer than we would like) eyes. And in fear of getting less than the other two, all three men immediately Hoovered up as much of the wine as possible. In seconds, the glass was empty. It was like watching fire hoses. 

Presumably, as far as Professor Nutt is concerned, that should be it for the night. Needless to say, it was not. After a third of a glass of wine, drunk through a straw, our whistles were not even moist. We subsequently wet them thoroughly. Without using straws.

This has been only a narrow exploration of drinking wine through a straw. For instance, using a straw  supposedly avoids staining your teeth. Perhaps you should similarly remove that risk from eating, by foregoing anything that needs to be chewed.

And then there is the notion, as ‘Simon’ reminded me, that when we were young, drinking through a straw was reputed to get you drunk more quickly. Some say that’s because you drink faster, some because of the way the liquid crosses the back of your throat, some because of air in the straw. In other words, no-one really knows. But I’m sorry to tell you that, after this straw-based fiasco, I am not tempted to find out.

Instead I have to consider what to do with the remaining drinking straws. I think I will leave them, one by one, in the lavatories of grand establishments. I mean, what would you think if you went for a pee in Downing Street, or Westminster, and found a straw on the cistern? 

And what, I wonder, would a former government adviser on drugs have to say?


Thursday 23 January 2020


So for no good reason whatsoever I find myself looking through our old travel guides and phrasebooks, wondering how it was we ever used them to ask for food and drink on our family holidays and to see if they held the key to why our holidays were so ghastly most of the time.

Tutto Inglese, our reverse-engineered Italian dictionary/phrasebook, suggests some possible answers. Quale whisky dobbiamo comperare? (Which whisky shall we buy?) starts off well, but soon enough, dissent appears - Voi un caffè? No grazie, ne ho appena bevuto uno (Would you like a cup of coffee? No thank you, I have just had one) followed by an attempt at finding common ground - Prenderò del vino bianco (I'll have some white wine) which is snarkily rebuffed - C'è della birra nel frigorifero - (There's some beer in the fridge) and a pall descends. This is followed by a brief, gently surreal, passage:

Terry è in il giardino - Terry is in the garden
Sta suonando le chitarra - He is playing the guitar
La balena azzura è una specie in via d'estinzione - The blue whale is an endangered species

Before it's back to the passive-aggressive needling - Sto mangiando un panino (I'm having a sandwich) - Quest' uomo è noioso (This man is boring) until Ha battuto la testa (She banged her head) and the whole sorry episode ends. Well, yes. We always end up speaking broken English when in Italy. Perhaps this is why.

Germany, then. They have wine, they have beer, they make no secret of it. We can get a drink. But Fodor's Germany (dating back to the mid-90's, it has to be said) merely hits us up with a combo of Glühwein (which it translates as mulled claret) and Eierlikör (egg liquor) before giving us a minatory Alkoholfrei at the start of the beer section, followed by something called Radlermaß, which is light beer and lemonade, a shandy, something a child could drink.Schnapps? The wines of the Mosel? Not there. Clearly Fodor is writing for an apprehensive American audience, so what do I expect? Especially when Ich bin Diabetiker (I am a diabetic) leaps off the page, pursued by Ich kann...nicht essen (I cannot eat) and Ich bin krank (I am ill/sick).The air is filled with melancholy.

All right, it's not much fun, Germany, whatever language you speak, maybe there's something in that, but in our household literature even France - France, for God's sake, where we can actually speak some French - comes off badly courtesy of our Collins French dictionary and grammar. Try this for a typical sequence:

Vous n'avez pas d'œufs? - Have you no eggs?
Donnez-moi du sucre - Give me some sugar
Il a ajouté du sucre - He added sugar to it
Il a tout gâté - He has spoiled everything
Il ne boit ni ne fume - He neither drinks nor smokes

In France, possibly in Marseille, this is meant to be happening. Or Burgundy, the home of French gastronomy. Incredibly, the alienation has set in even before we have left England.

It's only an ancient Collins Spanish grammar + lessons which does anything to lighten the mood. Señora, celebro la ocasión que me proporciona el gusto de conocerla (Madam, I am glad the occasion affords me the pleasure of meeting you) it beams out at one point; chasing this with a breezy A mi, tráigame un poco de arroz con pollo y una botella de vino tinto (Bring me some chicken with rice and a bottle of red wine), which is presumably why the speaker is with the Señora in the first place. She ripostes with a real faceful of greed: Yo deseo un plato de sopa, un filete de ternera con legumbres y patatas fritas, before continuing with un plato de pescado y ensalada de lechuga y tomate (I want a bowl of soup, a veal cutlet with vegetables and fried potatoes, a dish of fish and a lettuce and tomato salad). What a woman!

Generalmente bebo un vaso de vino y an vaso de agua (Generally I drink a glass of wine and a glass of water) her companion avers, but to no purpose, because what do you know, but Después de esta suculenta cena, ¿no le parece que debemos dar un paseo? (After this succulent supper do you not think that we ought to go for a walk?). This is what a phrasebook should be full of: food, drink and companionship. In a foreign language.

It's only when I turn the page that I realise that things aren't as sociable as I once thought. ¿Realiza usted muchas transacciones comerciales con Centro América? (Do you do much business with Central America?) is what's happening, followed by ¿Tiene usted que madar las mercancías en seguida? (Do you have to ship the merchandise immediately?). Yes. It relocates the action at once to Mexico, with you, the speaker, caught up in some kind of terrifying drug cartel, lethally wined and dined before being taken for a walk outside. How can this be happening? It was the only phrasebook which had any warmth, any sense of a life beyond these shores. It was the only one with charm. And yet this is where you are. And yes - I'm not making this up - Estaba en el parque cuando el hobre se pegó el tiro (I was in the park when the man shot himself) is how it ends. Where you're talking a walk after dinner. This very park.

PK, for what it's worth, has his holidays in Devon.


Thursday 16 January 2020

Grape Expectations

Of all the wine recommendations published for Christmas, I fell for this one. I was lured in by the promise of a Pinot Noir with “oodles of ripe, gamey, savoury, truffle and red cherry fruit”. It was hard to distinguish which adjectives applied where (Ripe truffle? Gamey red cherry fruit? ) but there was clearly a lot going on for £7.50.

And it wasn’t just the additional fact that it was in Sainsbury’s, which meant I could slip some into the trolley while Mrs K was looking at the herbal teas. Nor the fact that it was only £7.50, reduced further to the mere fiscal bagatelle of £6.50 in time for festivities. No, it was the fact that it was from Bouchard Ainé & Fils

Because we have history, Bouchard Ainé & Fils and me. Some years ago, I was treated by one of my oldest and most generous friends to a birthday trip to Burgundy, and among other, more welcoming visits, we went to the “House” of BA&F in Beaune, for their regularly scheduled tour and degustation. They couldn’t know that my friend is one of the most assiduous buyers and generous sharers of good Burgundy in North London – but we certainly do not look like (nor, indeed, are) affluent American customers.

So the time of the tour came and went, and we were left ignored, while the staff courted Ronald and Pammy from Bediddlyboing. We left without seeing, tasting or indeed buying, anything. And from then on I have avoided the wines of Bouchard Ainé & Fils.

(And am I the only one to feel that their BAF diamond device looks distressingly like an imitation of the WWII RAF cap badge which my parents wore and proudly showed me as a child?)

But then I saw their Pinot Noir recommended in The Times. Of course, it’s not actually a Burgundy; despite deploying the Bouchard Ainé & Fils name, and the design of their bottles of Burgundy, and phrases like “full of history”, and “home region”. As their website explains, this is a Vin de France, which gives them greater “liberty”, to “blend varietals from different regions and vintages, plus choose the best technique to enhance them.” In other words, it’s a blended, boosted, generic Pinot Noir from all over. In disguise.

Still, as The Times said, it was “as close to burgundy as any £6.50 drinker is going to get this winter.” It reeled me in with that grammatically challenged promise of oodles, etc. And it proved to be a pleasant surprise; it was a bright, tasty Pinot Noir, with some decent fruit dancing over quite a solid body. I felt smug enough to buy some more.

But the second bottle went straight into a boeuf bourguignon for a family occasion. “How much do you need?” I naively asked Mrs K. “A bottle,” she said. I could only echo her occasional remark to me at the end of an evening – “What, a whole bottle?”

As one who relishes the consumption of their wine uncooked, this seemed excessive. But I bow to her culinary authority. And this was a relatively inexpensive way of providing a key ingredient. Plus I thought great, I will serve another bottle with the meal, do my knowledgeable host number, explain that it’s also in the accompanying dish, and with that smug feeling still in place, tell everyone what a great find I am putting before them.

But that third bottle was…a nonentity. Bland, dull, with the alcohol outweighing the flavour. “It just isn’t very good, is it?” said my brother-in-law, And frankly, if you explain a wine to someone else, and then it turns out to be rubbish, you feel a right numpty. What could I have been thinking?

There was only one thing for it – try a fourth bottle by myself. Because I found it hard to believe that a single wine could vary to such an extent. I divided the bottle carefully over three evenings – it’s not a dry January, but it’s not tipping it down, either. 

And this time it was… okay. A bit lightweight, but with some fruit to savour. Still, not a lot of bang for your buck, as it were; more a squib for your quid. As I believe they say nowadays, meh.

Inconsistency is not something you expect in a mass-market, blended, screw-cap wine nowadays. But I should have known to lower my expectations of the House of Bouchard Ainé & Fils.


Thursday 9 January 2020


Five silver baubles got left behind in the great re-packing of all the Christmas decorations. Leave them out as a kind of vanitas vanitatum or dig out the bauble box all over again and re-pack as a penance?

A bottle of Magdalenenkreuz Riesling Kabinett which a pal of mine brought over from Germany (along with a bottle of Schnapps of deep and awful persistence) a while ago - now I've had time to neck it, how do I feel? More positive than ambivalent, in a spirit of Yule reconciliation, not a million miles from the way I felt about that mead a month or so back. Floral, fragrant, nicely-framed sweetnesses, apple sensations, leaves your teeth feeling as if they've been coated in flock. Would I want to drink it again? Maybe with duck?

Turkey soup is more consoling than one might imagine. My Brother-in-Law would claim that this is because, like chicken soup, it contains phytonutrients and glucosamine, both helpful in the prevention of colds and flu. He's the retired head of the international currencies department of a big chemicals company. Everyone's an expert, these days.

Only ever use Port in cooking.

Someone kindly gave me a small case of even smaller bottles of Merlot and Durif, assorted, enough in each bottle for one big glassful but no more. Were they trying to tell me something? What were they trying to tell me? Why would I even think they were trying?

Which famous playwright was afraid of Christmas? Noël Coward.

I got some socks. I actually wanted socks.

Sprouts and coriander are not a good mix. I only threw the coriander in because it was about to go off. We experienced repercussions all the way down the M4 on Boxing Day. Then again, I can't blame that wholly on the coriander. The Services at Magor, Monmouthshire, seem to have improved.

I was also given a mixed case of Italian reds by my Pa-in-Law, who, on his own account, drinks nothing but a furious kind of Primitivo, weighing in at 14% if not more, stuff you can use as a general anaesthetic if needs be and what with one thing and another it can be hard to get anything in his part of South West Wales, so a bottle of this and your appendix is as good as out. I mean, that's how he rolls. Among the mixed reds I notice a couple of Lambruscos. Thirty years ago they used to market this with a nylon Fun Bug attached to the neck - Lambrusco, according to the rationale of the time, being the sort of drink to appeal to young women out on a Hen Night and in need of a Fun Bug or equivalent. Am I ready for Lambrusco now, in 2020, at my age? I want to pair it, conceptually, with the Riesling, a sweetish drink I might have drunk back then but view with some apprehension now. On the other hand, it has got a nice cork/safety string arrangement at the top, plus strong violets according to the blurb on the back, which makes it a bit toney and therefore probably okay. And only 11%! I can take down a microbottle of Durif as aperitif, work through a whole Lambrusco while eating supper before, at last, winding down with a Schnapps or two, only to be found later in a confused state wandering the Hangar Lane gyratory system, claiming to be Oliver Reed.

Mince Pies actually help you lose weight.

I failed to get any dessert wine this year, a semi-intended omission on my part. I mean, I like a Beaumes de Venise, but these days not enough to want to drink it. Would the Lambrusco have done, if I'd actually got it on Christmas Day, to go with the pudding?

I found a very small, crap, artificial Christmas tree laced with battery-powered multi-function twinkling lights, in a bin-liner at the back of a cupboard. It became my tree. I'd keep it out all year, if I thought I could get away with it.