Thursday, 2 July 2015

Dry Land. Some Californian Red

So the wife and I are just back from our sailing trip, filthy, bruised, exhausted, scorched by the wind and sun to the point where we both now resemble Julio Iglesias, and quite literally the first thing I do is sit down and ponder Sediment.

Only problem is that for the last three and a bit weeks, wine has been so far down my list of priorities as to be virtually invisible. All that matters in a cruise to the West Country is making it to the end of the day without falling overboard or freezing to death. What you put in your mouth after that - and I can now tell you that a baked ham will not last three weeks in an ageing boat fridge without developing at least some mould - is starch, fat, and narcotics with a light top dressing of prayer.

You might ask why I put myself through this experience. Truth is, the wife really likes sailing, and I was doing it to keep her happy, an occasional weekend potter around the Solent not being enough as far as she's concerned. Also, the West Country in June can be - indeed, was - quite lovely, the little harbours at which we turned up all glazed with solstice light and beauty. So it is not without reward. Equally, it is not an existence that PK would understand. It is not about dinner parties and tablecloths and decanters and social gênes and all that crap. It isn't in the least winecentric.

In fact, the only time wine made it onto my front page was with a Calfornian red which I am convinced in retrospect was an own brand which we bought at the Co-Op in pretty St Mawes, Cornwall. It had a gee-whizz label, that's for sure, broadly hinting at Rodeo Drive and botched facelifts, and was made from, I think, Malbec and Petite Sirah.

Drinking-wise, on the other hand, it was so ape-like that I actually recoiled from the glass after the first swig, and stared at it as if it was throwing out cinders. Spangles and Drano came to mind, followed by a kind of dust-devil in the back of the throat, ending with a sensation of deep personal loss. And this after a day spent getting stuck in a ghastly fog bank at the entrance to Dartmouth: a long moment of terror topped off with a glassful of garbage.

The good news, though, was that this horrible drink eventually turned out to be sound enough, at least within the ethos of boat wine - two days of spiteful neglect, including some heavy-handed churning at sea, doing wonders for its approachability, taming the stuff to the point where I could drink it without crying. I even got quite fond of it. It was, it turned out, a rebel child, one whom no laws could control, but also a rebel who understood that sometimes we were all in this damn thing together, and that there were times when a chronic inability to play nice could transform itself into a steeliness, an inner resolve which compensated for any rough edges, any spontaneous belligerence, a wine with more heart than at first appeared, Godammit, it was a man's wine, that's what I'm trying to say.

The rest of the time? Gin and whisky, as much of them as I could lay my hands on. Not Lieutenant-Commander Tommy Woodrooffe level, but near enough. Right at the end we even acquired a sack of ice cubes. And some limes. If I'd been able to get some rum, Royal Navy style, I'd have had that, too. I mean, who ever drank a glass of wine as a sundowner? Just look at the picture, if you're not persuaded.


Thursday, 25 June 2015

4 Bad Wine Drinking Habits

For most of us, nervousness about surveillance is not based upon its possible revelation of our major crimes, but of our minor ones. We’re not worried about a CCTV camera capturing us killing our spouse, but of it filming us picking our nose. And like all activities, wine drinking has its bad habits.

You know how it is. At the start of a dinner party, you’re obliged to give everyone an initial, equal portion of the really nice wine you’ve brought out especially for the occasion. But as the levels go down around the table, you notice that someone in the corner has hardly touched their glass. Perhaps they’re driving, perhaps they just don’t like powerful old clarets (there are, I am told, such people); but they politely accepted the first pour you offered, took one sip and drank no more.

And so, after the goodbyes have been said, and the arguments about Uber have subsided, you notice that there’s still a good portion sitting there on the table. A good portion, of a good wine.

So, what do you do? It seems almost blasphemous to pour it down the sink. Be honest;  there’s a terrible temptation to drink it there and then, to help fuel the clearing up, and to ease the tense discussion about why on earth you had to bring up that particular subject over the cheese.

in our e-book, Wining & Dining, CJ was scathing about this bad habit. Writing about the process of clearing up after a dinner party, he insisted that “You will not finish up any of the dregs, not unless you are actually sixteen years old.”

But what if we're not talking about “dregs”; what if we're talking about more than half a glass, about significant remains? As Dylan almost said, you just kind of wasted my precious wine. So, what about pouring significant remains back into the bottle for consumption the following night?

I mean, waste not, want not and all that. Do it quickly, before anyone notices, and it becomes just leftover wine in the bottle, to be acceptably polished off next day. Does it matter that it has been on a circuitous route via someone’s glass?

Here’s my final one. Reusing last night’s wine glass. It’s a regular night, you’re off to bed and, because your wine glass doesn’t fit in the dishwasher, you put it to one side to wash up the next day. Then, next day, one thing leads to another, yet surprisingly none of them leads to the sink. When it comes to supper time, you have half a bottle of wine to finish off – and the previous night’s glass is still sitting there, unwashed.

It has a little red stain in the bottom of the glass. A smidge on the rim. A speck of sediment maybe. Slightly crusty. But, with a twinge of guilt, you go ahead and pour in tonight’s helping of last night’s wine.

It would take more than a rinse to clean the glass. And anyway, a rinse would get water into the wine. And…it’s the same wine.

Oh, you could go into some saving-the-world number about using less water. About the folly of firing up a boiler to wash a single glass. About the waste of detergent. About unnecessarily dirtying a second glass.

But it’s just as much about laziness – although given today’s political obsession with “hard-working people”, laziness is presumably no longer acceptable, let alone a domestic ambition.

Perhaps there’s a touch of nostalgia in all of this, for those student days when so many of our habits were bad. Like sniffing your socks before you put them on?  Or, as Martin Amis wrote of the bachelor lifestyle, blowing your nose into a coffee filter?

And it could be worse. You could be swigging wine directly from the bottle. That would be a bad habit. No-one would do that.


Thursday, 18 June 2015

Wind, waves and Valpolicella

So it’s CJ’s slot this week but, as you may recall, he is away, sailing along our South-West coast. He left promising to send me texts when possible, which I could “aggregate into CJ’s diary of pain.” I am anxious, rather like a concerned gap-year parent, albeit with fewer worries about drugs, tattoos or hostage taking. Mind you, he is heading for Falmouth…

And then on Sunday evening, I received the picture on the right, with a text message: “When it’s gusting 28 knots, for me a Sainsbury’s Valpolicella is the only way out.”

Now, from anybody else, the word Valpolicella might be a bit of a red flag. Most of us lost faith in Valpolicella when the Italians drastically enlarged its regional classification, “opening the floodgates” as Berry Bros puts it, “to gallons of poor quality Valpolicella”.

It is now a wine whose popularity rests primarily upon the fact that its name can be pronounced not only easily, but mellifluously.

“Valpolicella,” asked jolly Olly Smith, no doubt mellifluously. “When did you last order it? In a pizza place in 1983 perhaps?” Well not if you are CJ, who I can remember ordering Valpolicella in a pizza place only last February. 

The only one I can find at Sainsbury’s is their Winemakers’ Valpolicella, so-called no doubt to distinguish it from less appropriate manufacturers such as the Carmakers’ Valpolicella. (Or perhaps the Cabinetmakers’ Valpolicella, with its touch of oak…). It’s £6 a bottle, which is steep for CJ, but hey, he’s on holiday. He has literally pushed the boat out.

But perhaps I should be more concerned about the circumstances driving him to such drink? The only follow-up I get is “Yes, it was a bit rough.” But while “Gusting 28 knots” sounds very impressive to a landlubber like myself, I haven’t a clue what it means. Nor do I understand why sailors insist on measuring speed in a manner different to everybody else. I mean, I know it’s all delightfully historic, but so are roods, and you don’t get anyone uniquely declaring speeds in roods per hour.

So I revert to the Beaufort Scale, that handy descriptive guide to wind force I remember from an encyclopaedia as a child. I recall an illustrated version, whose description of zero wind was that “Smoke rises vertically from a pipe”. I imagine it somewhat difficult to measure wind force today if it depends upon finding a pipe-smoker.

The land version of the Beaufort Scale is “to help observers who do not have properly sited anemometers to report the wind force”. That’ll be me, then.

And intriguingly, it seems that if I wanted the effects of winds “gusting 28 knots” on land, I could save myself some bother and simply guzzle the Valpolicella.

Take, for example, Force 6, Strong Breeze, 21-26.9 knots. Beaufort observes “Large branches in motion. Whistling heard in overhead wires. Umbrella use becomes difficult. Empty plastic bins tip over.” Now, after a bottle or two of Italian wine, I have often found it difficult to erect an umbrella, or indeed much else. And at the time, I have observed empty plastic bins tipping over, with a sure conviction that I did not stumble into them.

And Force 7, High Wind, Moderate and Near Gale, 26.9 to 33.4 knots, finds “Whole trees in motion. Effort needed to walk against the wind.” I have seen those trees moving, really. And after sufficient wine, there has indeed been an effort needed to walk, regardless of any bloody wind.

Now that I look at it, both the sea and the sky in his picture appear blue, rather than grey, which surely posits decent weather. And there’s land on the horizon, which must be reassuring if you’re at all worried about whatever it is that sailors worry about. Sinking?

And then I wondered. “Yes,” he had said. “It was a bit rough”. Did he mean the weather – or the wine…?

PK for CJ

Thursday, 11 June 2015

Free wine!

A free bottle of wine. Just for you. That’s what it says. So…where’s the catch?

I can’t be the only person who is immediately wary of something free. I say this with caution, however, because most times when I declare that “I can’t be the only person who…”, it turns out that I am.

Nevertheless. I live my life as an instinctive cynic, the kind of person who believes that the light at the end of the tunnel is a train coming the other way.

And generally, when someone offers you a free bottle of wine, there is a catch. You have to buy another bottle, or even a case, in order to get it. You have to sign up for something, or attend something, like a time-share presentation. Or you have to consume a meal, at a time of day or on a day of the week, at a place or at a price, that you wouldn’t otherwise have chosen.

But I have no idea why Messrs Sainsbury decided to send me a voucher for a free bottle of wine – or what the catch might be. Perhaps it’s a bribe, to lure me into Sainsbury’s wine aisle, where I might spend voraciously? Or as a reward, for having in the past been lured into Sainsbury’s wine aisle where indeed I have spent voraciously.

Or perhaps (watch out for that train…) the wines are so vile that the only way in which they can finally shift their overstock is to give them away.

So my initial thinking was, which is the least bad choice of the two bottles on offer?

In this, I am probably echoing the “play safe” approach of most people when it comes to wine. Perhaps the greatest imperatives when choosing a bottle in the face of ignorance are (a) will it taste alright? (b) am I being ripped off? And coming up a close third, for me at any rate, (c), am I going to make myself look a plonker?

Well, as far as (c) is concerned, obviously, I mean obviously,  I’m not going to be serving a free bottle of wine to anyone else. CJ is away. But, there’s the girl on the checkout to think of. Is she going to be sneering inwardly? “You mug! Wait until you taste that!”

I think (b) is pretty safe going – there doesn’t appear to be any requirement to sign, attend, provide or commit to anything in return.

So it’s down to (a). Is this going to be drinkable? Even a free bottle is worthless if the wine goes down the sink, and my removal of the bottle from the store merely helps Sainsbury out of some stock crisis; or goes towards some absurd statistical claim about the number of bottles they have shifted this year.

The least worse choice, then. A bad Montepulciano d’Abruzzo can be an awful thing. Heavy, pungent, like a simultaneous punch in the throat and kick in the nose. A bad Pinot Grigio, on the other hand, is probably tasteless. OK, it could veer in the opposite direction, and be paint stripper acidic, but I’ll take my chances. This is after all Pinot Grigio, the bland leading the bland.

I was just a little concerned to see that the shelf price of these wines is £5. And last week, if you bought 6 bottles, there was 25% off. Allowing for tax, duty and so on, that means that the actual wine content is already practically free.

But I was reassured by the fact that this is the Winemakers’ Selection. We are not told the criteria for that selection – they could have been selecting the grapes that looked most like testicles, or the blend that is closest to Covonia. But at least it’s been selected.

And so I returned home with a bottle of Pinot Grigio gratis and for free,having survived the sullen suspicion of the checkout girl, past whom it would be easier to get a dodgy £50 note than an invalid coupon.

And here’s the thing. Against all expectations, chilled down in the fridge and drunk on a warm evening, it was perfectly drinkable. A little bit of fragrance, a slight peachiness in the mouth. For £5 it would have been reasonable. For £3.75, a bargain. For nothing, it was an absolute treat.

So far, no catch has emerged. I presume I am now on some database, as a drinker of wine, or a person susceptible to offers, or as someone who will drink any old rubbish as long as it’s free – but they only had to ask.

And I did notice in their Fine Wines selection a rather nice Fontanafredda Barolo. If there’s any of that going begging…


Thursday, 4 June 2015

Way Out West

So the wife and I are going to sail the boat to the West Country. The plan is to get from Southampton, where the boat lives, to Falmouth, which is about as far as you can reasonably travel without having to go right round Land's End and press on to North Cornwall, an idea too ghastly to contemplate. Really brutal yachties get there non-stop in twenty-four hours. Because we are old and infirm and incompetent, we are going to take weeks, in a twenty-five-year-old boat whose keel was once nearly knocked off in Brittany (not by me, I might point out); and whose engine imploded the last time we went Way Out West.

Provisioning, as the stupidest sailor will tell you, is the key. Most of the boat is going to be filled with drink: a lot of it non-alcoholic, but also as many of the stronger beverages as I can lever into the gaps between two-litre bottles of sparkling water and stained bulkheads. When the great Cunarders used to cross the Atlantic in the last century, they would routinely carry two hundred jars of foie gras, a thousand lobsters, and tens of thousands of bottles of wine. This is what I bear in mind, as I fuddle querulously between the chandler's store and the supermarket.

The reality, as it happens: that fizzy water, plus discount whisky in litre bottles, plus a jacuzzi of really filthy grog. These days, I am sticking remorselessly to £5-and-less, partly on account of price, partly on account of its indestructability. Even after three days open, it doesn't get any worse - in fact it improves, especially after that first encounter which leaves you wiping your eyes with a tea towel and coughing into the sink. You let a Léoville Barton breathe for three days and see what happens. Not only that, but you can hurl the cheap stuff recklessly about without degrading it or compromising its character. This is important if it blows up or you're stuck in a wind-against-tide situation, with all the crockery flying around and the drawers bursting open - just like the Cunard days, when they had to board up the portholes, lash the potted plants down and dampen the tablecloths so that the plates didn't shoot off. Masses of fence paint red, therefore, plus some rosés for if we get a heatwave.

The edible provisions, though, are more problematic. We already have some tinned and bottled goods lying around in the boat, most of them dating back years, even decades. But why so much canned sweetcorn? We must have four tins of the Jolly Green Giant's grisly little pellets. I don't remember buying them. I don't even like canned sweetcorn. What do you do with it? Use it in omelettes? It's a kind of comedy vegetable. Also a profusion of tinned tuna and long-life red kidney beans: what do we do with these? I can see that if we were absolutely wretchedly starving, if we'd been drifting in the Atlantic for six days, we could tip them into a battered metal container and eat them cold, using MoD surplus spoons while wearing fingerless mittens and composing notes to our next of kin. And the wine pairing with this picture of misery? Now I think about it, some of PK's Mateus would go down just fine. We could chill it by trailing it in the icy waters for an hour (watch out for those cheeky killer whales!) before serving it in our bombproof boat tumblers. Oh God.

No, well, let's assume that a) it won't come to that b) I can get something to eat that can be eaten by anything more refined than a camel. Frankly, after a long and horrible slog to windward, I am not fussy so long as it numbs the pain. A giant sausage and a bottle of Calvados would be good. We even have a little jar marked Poudre de Curry, clearly acquired in France, to put the colour back in our cheeks. That and a nice relaxing Doris Lessing novel to curl up with at the end of the day. We shall see. Either way, I'm going to be silent for a while. Which means that if we take some time to be equivalent to about four weeks, I am just going outside and may be some time.


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.