Thursday 28 May 2020

Mrs. Miniver

So as we all slowly lose our minds in lockdown or whatever it is we’re currently in, I turn to drink for solace. And when that fails, I turn to liquids of any kind. My top six this week?

- Penguin Sands Chardonnay, £3.85 from Sainsbury’s. An Argentinian white at a fantastically affordable price. PK didn’t much like their Shiraz, typically short-sighted of him, but the Chardonnay works just fine if you put it in the freezer an hour beforehand. Only snag, Penguins and sand? Apparently they do walk around a beach in South Africa, but normally you’d say, rocks, ice, pack snow, that kind of thing. Sand is just wrong. But what do I know? Great with shellfish and soft cheeses.

- Mr. Muscle Sink Unblocker, £3.95 from Tesco. Never drunk sink unblocker before? Try this from Mr. D. Trump of D.C.: I’m taking it, it’s been tested by the best doctors in the world, many people have taken it, people in the medical profession all over the world, it’s a highly effective way of preventing the Coronavirus. I don’t need a mask. I’ve inhaled some Mr. Muscle, enough to count, can we just leave it at that? Ideal with venison and red meats.

- All discount whiskies. Leave it to Tesco or Sainsbury’s to knock a few quid off a litre of whatever it might be, and move in: Famous Grouse, Bell’s, Whyte & Mackay, something’s going to be on offer this week and that’s the one you want. At present we’re getting through about half a litre of Grouse a day and neither of us has yet shown symptoms of the virus. Some alcohol poisoning, I won’t lie, but worth it for that moment when the time comes for a sundowner and we can blot out the ongoing situation. Owing to a geographical quirk, sundown where we live is around 4.00 pm. Great with linguine, Genoa cake and kippers.

- London tapwater - probably going to be rationed if the heatwave goes on, so get it while you can. Massively chlorinated, which means it’s like drinking the contents of the Putney Swimming Baths, but so good for you. I sometimes pour a glass of tapwater and merely inhale the bouquet with all its memories and associations, all its bounty. Then I pour it away. That’s just how I roll. Also, you can use it to wash the car, boil potatoes and ward off pandemic infections. Tea made with London tapwater is like no other tea. Instant coffee takes on a new savour. Great with sliced bread, game, toothpaste.

- B & Q Brush Cleaner, in the big bottle, £9.97 for two litres. This stuff a) cleans paint brushes and b) is an appealing sapphire colour. You want to put it in a cocktail, soon as look at it. And the smell! Is there any experience better than cleaning your paintbrush after a long lockdown half-morning’s painting the bathroom, standing there, inhaling the crisp aroma of brush cleaner? You feel like a king, a king who’s successfully painted a couple of doors. Plus this, from D.T. of D.C.: There are lots of things, brush cleaner, it’s a thing with a lot of uses, of lot of great uses, many people in the scientific community are using it. It’s a beautiful blue colour, it works for Covid-19, I don’t have to say it but it’s well known. Also great with curries, hard cheeses, game.

- Dominic Cummings’ four star petroleum promise! Yes, you can get petrol for £1 a litre or less if you hunt around. Remember the days of filling up the car and sucking in those petrol fumes while you stood there in a freezing draught, nozzle in hand? Remember the sense of promise those fumes held, the promise of journeys to come, of new landscapes to explore? Remember that tingle of anticipation? Well, petrol’s back! It’s time to gas up the tank and go for a drive! With petrol! Or diesel! It’s time to shake off the musty integuments of lockdown and make a nuisance of yourself somewhere miles away! Great with vegan burgers, Tesco Puff Snacks, Twixes, egg sandwiches.

Next week: cooking with Vitalis Hair Tonic and other amazing lockdown tips.


Thursday 21 May 2020

The great wine gambles

I am not a gambling man. Or rather, I didn’t think that I was.

I spotted this extraordinary wine ad just the other day. The gist of it is that you can buy a case of wine which has come from one of eight named wineries, whose wines sell for up to £300 a bottle – but they won’t tell you which one.

It’s as if someone was selling a leather bag, and said that it’s made by either Pugh, Pugh, Barney McGrew, Cuthbert, Dibble… or Gucci.

What kind of purchasing roulette is this meant to be? At what point did guesswork enter the already challenging business of buying wine? And what other £89 purchase would you make on this sort of basis?

At least they’ve got the decency to admit in the caption that the wine is not from the £300-a-bottle winery. Because the wine-drinking gamblers out there might just have thought that their luck was in. And there are a lot of them, because as we know, one is born every minute.

Before now I always thought the most absurd gambles in wine buying were those ‘mystery cases’. The ones where you don’t know what you’re going to get, but it’ll be a bargain, honestly. The word “probably” is often judiciously applied, as in “They will all be quality wines and there will probably be some proper gems in there…” They won’t tell you what’s in the case – it's an "adventure" – but you’ll save money on what they would have charged if they could have sold them by name. Which presumably they couldn’t.

There’s a reason why merchants have to get rid of unwanted wine – nobody wants it. Call me cynical, but the only ‘mystery’ likely to be resolved by one of these cases is how to fob off unwanted wine.

(At least two retailers recently came up with a different story; they said that they had assembled their mystery cases because of “damaged labels”, which meant they couldn’t sell the bottles in store. “Do hurry,” one of them encouraged customers, “only 400 mystery cases are available.” That’s 4,800 bottles which accidentally had their labels damaged. Clumsy or what?)

Perhaps the wine merchants have got it right, and other retailers should learn from them. The next time I enter a bookshop, perhaps I will see a table of wrapped books. “They’re by one of eight authors,” the shopkeeper will say. “We can’t tell you which one. Alright, not Hilary Mantel. But their books normally sell for at least £19.99. Yours for a tenner.”

And then I started thinking about the other gambles we take as wine drinkers. The age of a wine, for instance, which could indicate that it’s ready for drinking, somewhere near its best, past its prime, or bloody hell that’s awful.

You take that chance, don’t you, when you open the bottle you stuck away to “mature”. You gamble on the prospect of the upside. So it’s not like those sausages you discover in a corner of the freezer, because you know with frozen sausages that you can no longer trust their date; they’re never going to taste better than the day they went in; and if you’ve left them too long to, er, mature, they might actually poison you.

No, you believe with wine that it might actually have got better. And some of it will. Perhaps. To improve your chances you’ve scoured the vintage charts like someone studying form in the Racing Post. With a similar ambition of improving your odds.

Then there’s the whole matter of price. I often end up waiting for a supermarket to offer 25% off six or more bottles, only to find that the wine I want has disappeared from the shelves (in another of those retailing “mysteries”). Frankly I’d rather have had a couple of bottles at full price than no bottles at all. My fault for gambling.

And the issue of health and wine seems to be a constant gamble. Is it going to benefit my heart, or damage my liver? Help me lose weight, or put it on? If I ignore the government’s alcohol guidelines, will my body explode, or will I just have a much more enjoyable evening?

Finally of course, the ultimate wine gamble – will it be corked? Read all you like, take all the advice you want, but you won’t know until you open the bottle. Roll me and call me the tumblin' dice.

So the whole wine thing is one enormous gamble. And with higher stakes than I would ever consider wagering in any other way.

Is there anything to be said in favour of all of this? Perhaps just one. That feeling of pleasure you get on first sipping a wine which tastes great. Is it partly the feeling of satisfaction at beating the odds?


Thursday 14 May 2020

Millions Like Us

Boredom has now taken over from anxiety, although anxiety remains as a dull rumour in the background. Still. Things are happening:

a) I seem to have lost three-quarters of a stone (10.5 pounds; 4.8 kilos) in weight since my post-Christmas peak at the start of the year. This is good. I put it down to the immense effortful quantities of decorating and home improvements I’ve been managing in the last few weeks; plus, cutting right back on the red. Seriously. It’s the red wine that lards you up. Don’t take my word for it: try a month on whisky and tea and see how you are at the end. I guarantee success. You will be amazed. I am also available for motivational talks and seminars.

b) The theme tune to this time has to be Noël Coward’s There Are Bad Times Just Around The Corner. If you don’t know it already you can listen to it here, but just to get you in the mood, the first chorus begins:

There are bad times just around the corner,
There are dark clouds hurtling through the sky
And it's no good whining
About a silver lining
For we know from experience that they won't roll by.

And goes from there.

c) I keep buying whisky. It’s a nervous compulsion. We now have nearly five litres of Scotch in the house, just in case.

d) A pal of mine tipped me off about Boris Vian and his incredible Pianocktail. Vian (b.1920) was a novelist, trumpeter, avant-gardist, party-thrower, enfant terrible, jazz obsessive, Parisian, pataphysician, friend of Duke of Ellington, engineer, friend of Albert Camus, playwright, virtuoso scamp and inventor of the Pianocktail. His novel L’écume Des Jours, published in 1947, is, from all accounts, mostly an Existentialist love story; but it is also the place where the Pianocktail makes its entrance:

- Prendras-tu un apéritif? demanda Colin. Mon pianocktail est achevé, tu pourrais l’essayer.
- Il marche? demanda Chick
- Parfaitement. J’ai eu du mal à le mettre au point, mais le résultat dépasse mes espérances.

What does the Pianocktail do? Each note on the keyboard corresponds to a different liquor, these liquors contained in an array of bottles built into the piano and connected by a sytem of pipes, levers, relays and valves. Play a sequence of notes and the machine transposes the music alcoholically, pouring an equivalent sequence of beverages into a glass. At the end of a piece, you have a cocktail. The length of any given note determines the amount of drink poured. The loud pedal dispenses beaten egg while the soft pedal distributes ice. There’s an injunction not to play your jazz too hot or you’ll make an omelette. The first cocktail to come out of the machine, according to L’écume Des Jours, is a Black and Tan Fantasy, a product of Ellington’s famous 1927 number. Colin pronounces it vraiment ahurissant. Thus the mood of any given piece finds tangible expression in a mixture of cocktail ingredients. Music becomes drink, the drink is consumed, the art becomes truly internalised. It is genius in action.

And what do you know? Ça existe. One version appears in the 2013 movie Mood Indigo, directed by Michel Gondry (of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) and starring, among others, Audrey Tatou - but, yes, this is a delightful film prop rather than a real working model. On the other hand: a pair of Romanian bartenders cobbled together a kind of working Pianocktail in 2015; while a Swiss musician called Géraldine Schenkel has also got one to function. In other words, this fabulous device has escaped the confines of fiction and become a work of art in its own right. This, more than ever, is why we need the French.

e) Georges Perec: Il n’y a pas de lettre e

My work h r is don .


Thursday 7 May 2020

Boxing not so clever

How much is left in my wine box? Your guess is as good as mine – and it’s my box.

You might recall that at the beginning of lockdown I bought a box of wine, as a desperate measure when it seemed as if we might never be able to purchase wine again. I went happily along for several days, pouring myself a nightly pichet from the box for supper, before it became possible to order, purchase and drink wine pretty much as ever before. And when I switched to the newly delivered bottles, I lost track of how many evenings I had drunk from “the bottomless well”.

Then Mrs K asked whether it was okay to use some for cooking – and reported back with the ominous news that she had had to tip the box to make it pour. Oh no. Like those wretched rechargeable devices such as radios, which simply run out of power without warning, the box is running out of wine.

It’s hard enough to judge how much is left in a bottle of wine, when you can see through the glass, given that you have to allow for the narrowing of the neck. Can you pour yourself just a bit more, or are you going to leave yourself short for the next time? It’s a difficult calculation, and can have consequences, when you realise you’ve gone that bit too far so that, sod it, you might as well drink the lot.

But with a box, there’s no visual indication at all of how much is left. And shaking it doesn’t really help. There’s just a vague sloshing noise, which I can’t relate to any particular quantity. What does a glass of wine sound like?

Nor does shaking it seem to release any more of the wine. It’s not like freeing the last glutinous contents of a bottle of sauce, of which I was warned as a child, “Shake and shake the ketchup bottle; None’ll come out, and then a lot’ll.”

Although I remember drinking with someone once who showed me how they would remove the silver bag from inside a wine box, and literally wring it out to get at the last few drops. It may sound mean, or desperate, or even borderline alcoholic, but actually you’d be surprised how much extra you can squeeze out…

Why get worked up about it, you might ask? Because there is no point in coming to the box and finding that it only pours out half a glass. Assuming you don’t have another box of the same (and no, of course I don’t), what do you do then? Mix it, with something different from the cellar? Switch wine halfway through supper? Down it in one and open a new bottle? Throw it aw… no, forget that one.

It cannot be beyond the wit of man to devise a solution. Like a clear column in the side of the box which shows you the level inside, as with some designs of kettle. Or something like a fuel gauge, which goes down, not so much into the red as out of it. Or some kind of thing, I don’t know, floating on the wine which you can see through a window. I’m thinking of that little flotation device in the dishwasher which tells you when you need more salt. Allegedly.

Or must I resort to weighing the box? There are three bottles of wine in there, so as I think I remember (find the tables on the back of my Silvine exercise book) height times width times depth to get the cubic capacity in inches, sir, then convert to, er, fluid ounces, then 16 to a pint, er, a pint weighs a pound… oh, it says here on the box 2.25 litres. Which is 2.25 kilos. God, kids today…

So I’d have to weigh the full box, noting anything over 2.25 kilos as the weight of the packaging, and then monitor the ongoing weight of the box (minus the weight of the packaging) as an indication of how much liquid is left inside? But it somehow sounds like you're drinking so much more. "You've drunk half a kilo of wine tonight!"

And it’s a bit of a faff, isn’t it? Writing the ongoing weight/quantity on the box itself each night to keep track? Oh, and just where one’s partner can see it and remark upon the amount one appears to have consumed in three nights? Perhaps not.

In the meantime, the box just sits there, guarding the secret of its contents like Colonel Sanders’s recipe. There may be enough wine inside to accompany a meal – or there may not. And having lost track in all this excitement, I can only ask myself one question. 

Do I feel lucky?