Felix Nash, ciderman at your service

There has been a clamouring for a follow-up to my last post on bargain reds at the Wine Society. Well, perhaps not a clamouring, but at least two people have asked for some whites. Sadly, the Society has stopped trading while it works out how to deal with this virus thing that everyone is talking about. But there are some merchants still in business including my employer Master of Malt, for all your spirits needs, and Felix Nash from the Fine Cider Company

Nash is a bit of a hero of mine for championing uncompromisingly good, mainly English, cider. He’s also written a brilliant book to try to change people’s preconceptions about his favourite drink. “Cider is perhaps the most industrialised of all alcohols. People see it as  sweet sparkling thing or something rustic,” he told me. For most people cider falls into two categories:

Cheap cider:

To be legally called cider you only need to have 35% apple content, the rest can be sugar, water and flavourings. And that 35% can be concentrate made from apples grown anywhere. You’ll be very lucky if your cider contains any English fruit.

Farmhouse cider:

At the other extreme are farmhouse ciders made in the West Country from bittersweet native apples. Much prized by aficionados, some are made with little regard to hygiene or fruit quality. In fact it’s standard practise to let the fruit rot a little before pressing. They can be raspingly tannic and heady with bacterial infections: all very authentic but hard for the uninitiated to appreciate. 

Nash’s cider producers are very different. Taking their inspiration from wine, they are working with perfect fruit and to a much higher standard of cleanliness than previous artisan makers, but they are also reviving traditional techniques and working with the classic English varieties. “People tell me they I don’t like cider but I do like that,” he told me. 

He started the Fine Cider Company six years ago as a hobby but it quickly became a full time job. He now supplies some seriously fancy restaurants such as L’Enclume, St. John and the Clove Club.

Here are five ciders of his that I particularly like, in descending order of dryness:

Little Pomona Orchard & Cidery Art of Darkness 2016

Made in the heart of Herefordshire cider country. This is aged in old whisky casks. Deep, dry and complex with quite noticeable tannins, this is world away from what most people will think of as cider. Treat it like a wine and serve it with some farmhouse cheddar and it will amaze you.

Oliver’s Dabinett 2017

Tom Oliver is the godfather of modern English cider. Working in Herefordshire, he keeps some cider in inert containers to preserve fresh fruit flavours whereas others are aged in wooden barrels where they develop complex aromas. Tom then blends them together. Felix Nash describes the result as a “controlled funk”, yes Tom is the James Brown of cider making. Bone dry and another one that should be served with food.

Gregg’s Pit Dabinett & Yarlington Mill 2018

Classic English off-dry sparkling wine made from two of the West Country’s best cider varieties. Deliciously fruity with complex flavours that comes from bottle fermentation (like with champagne though the technique was pioneered by English cider makers in the 17th century).

Find & Foster Huxham 2018

Another bottled-fermented one, this time by husband and wife team who work with threatened orchards and rare apple varieties in Devon. This uses a technique called keeving to preserve sugar giving this an off-dry tarte tatin sort of flavour. Absolutely gorgeous and only 5% ABV.

Brännland Iscider Barrique 2017

An ice cider (made from frozen apples which concentrates the sugar) from Sweden aged in oak casks, this is incredible stuff. Very fruity and very very sweet but with the most amazing tang of acidity so it never gets cloying and rich butterscotch notes from ageing. Try this with Roquefort.

Nash will ship anywhere in the country, as few as three bottles. With small bottles from as little as £3, and big bottles from £7, including delivery! He told me: “If you’re in East or North London, we are giving you £10 off all orders, getting rid of the shipping charge. We can’t cover all postcodes East and North, but there’s a list on our website.”

So, what are you waiting for? It’s time you realised that you are the cider drinker.

 

 

 

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Budget bargains from the Wine Society part one

I’ve been a member of the Wine Society for so long that I faxed my very first order which seems bananas to even contemplate now. Though I like to think that there’s a colonel in deepest Worcestershire who stills faxes his order in every month. When I first joined, I imagined that after a few years shopping at the bottom end of the list, in a few years I’d be buying en primeur Bordeaux and vintage champagne. Well it never happened, I’m still buying the same old wines even though some have nearly doubled in price. So in these dark times etc. etc. I thought it would be useful to share my unrivalled knowledge of the bottom end of the the list. These are all wines that I have enjoyed multiple vintages of and never disappoint. None will cost you more than £11 a bottle. Today I’ll do the reds and later in the week some whites. Let me know if there’s anything I’ve overlooked. With wines like these, you never need to leave the house. Useful, as soon you might not be able to. I am praying that the Wine Society vans will keep running. 

Chateau Courac Cotes-du-Rhone 2015

A toss up between this and the widely available Guigal Cotes-du-Rhone as my favourite budget wine from this region. It’s all ripe strawberries and mellow spices. As you can see from the vintage, it ages beautifully too. Where else can you get a sub £9 mature Rhone of this quality?

Billi Billi Grampians Shiraz 2017

Head buyer at the Wine Society, Pierre Mansour, once described this as a sort of Australian Rioja. And I can see what he means, it majors on American oak without ever overwhelming the raspberry and bramble fruit. It’s a good one to give to people who think they don’t like Australian wine. Its big brother, Exhibition Victorian Shiraz, is a total steal, btw. 

Weinert Carrascal 2015

My friend refers to this as the funky Mendoza and in some vintages, blimey is it funky. A blend of malbec, cabernet and merlot aged in large old oak barrels until it’s mellow and good. A world away from most Argentine wines, it’s more like old school Rioja or Chateau Musar. The cabernet (see photo above) is always excellent, a bit more refined than the Carrascal but still unashamedly old fashioned. At the moment the Wine Society has the 2008 vintage.  

The Society’s Rioja Crianza 2016

Rioja seems to be something of a theme here. I’ve compared two wines to Rioja and now here’s the real thing. This is for those who like  the old fashioned style like Tondonia, but are on a budget. Made by Bodegas Palacio, it’s all about the American oak but they haven’t stinted on the fruit either. Also check out the Urbina range (crianza and gran reserva) if you like mature Rioja, the wines are absurdly undervalued. 

Pinot Noir Puy de Dome 2018

Cheap pinots seem to fall into two categories, the insipid and the jammy. Somehow this wine from the Auvergne (which I always have to google, it’s nearly in the middle of France just to west of Lyon) manages to be neither. It’s a bit rustic and stalky with masses of dark cherry fruit. Not elegant but always delicious. 

Salvaje de Moncayo Garnacha 2017

Garnacha (grenache in French) at its best, like here, comes across like a sort of boozy pinot noir. It’s light in colour, fragrant, delightfully drinkable, and good chilled. I always have a few bottles in the house as its so versatile. Just watch out as it’s much stronger than it tastes. For garnacha lovers, I’ve rounded up a few wines here.

Saumur les Plantagenets 2017

Cabernet franc from the Loire is one of my all time favourite wines. It’s that slatey refreshing edge that makes it so addictive. Forget about wine and food matching, just get a load of this in, chill if slightly and it will go with pretty much anything. If you get a taste for cab franc, this Saumur-Champigny is worth trading up to. 

Ribeiro Santo 2018

 Dão makes some of Portugal’s most distinctive reds (you can read something I wrote on the region here). This is a great example, combining ripe plummy fruit, quite grippy tannins (this is not a Netflix and chill* sort of wines) and a floral herbaceous quality. It’s a serious wine at a silly price. 

*I mean as a wine to drink without too much thought in front of the telly. A kind reader has informed me that this phrase has come to be a euphemism for casual sex.

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Oporto: city of wine and stodgy food

Like a lot of wine writers, I have a particularly soft spot for Oporto and the Douro valley, possibly the most beautiful wine region in the world. Here’s something I wrote for Boisdale Life magazine on just this subject:

After three days in Porto, the true reason for the ancient alliance between the English and the Portuguese dawned on me. Yes there’s wine and having a common enemy in the Spanish, but it’s really about a shared love of stodgy food. The city’s most famous dish is called a Francesinha, a sandwich stuffed full of steak, sausage and ham, covered in melted cheese and baked in a spicy beer sauce. With a fried egg on top. And it’s served with chips. Of course it is! It tastes like it was invented after rather too much herbal refreshment. 

Forget any thoughts about a Mediterranean diet, the other classic local dishes are tripe stew and salt cod served dozens of ways (my favourite are the deep-fried croquettes stuffed with cheese from Casa Portuguesa do Pastel de Bacalhau.) The English originally brought the cod, caught on the Grand Banks, and exchanged it for wine. The Portuguese noted how enthusiastically the English drank the stuff: there is still a popular insult, bebabo Inglez, English drunk.

Oporto! (credit Misti Traya)

And that’s how it was for centuries, Porto was a working town based around wine, and the vast majority of the visitors were British. But now the world and his wife have woken up to the city’s charms. This is my third visit and, according to Richard Bowden from the Yeatman Hotel,“the city is rocking at the moment.” Why has it taken so long? It’s a stunning-looking place, built up the steep side of the valley leading down to the Douro river with bridges (one of them designed by Gustave Eiffel) linking Porto with Vila Nova de Gaia on the opposite bank. This is where the British built their warehouses so that they would be outside the jurisdiction of the city. All the old names are still there emblazoned above the old warehouses:Taylors, Fonseca, Croft, Dow etc. But they’ve been joined by bars and restaurants along the shore. The grungy city that I first visited in 2014 is fast disappearing. 

It was the Yeatman Hotel which put Porto on the international tourist map when it opened in 2010. It was the brainchild of Adrian Bridge, CEO of the Fladgate partnership, which owns Taylor’s, Fonseca, and Croft. The hotel has a two Michelin-starred restaurant but what our seven year old daughter loved most were the breakfasts: tables laden with cake, custard tarts, and bacon and eggs. Something for everyone. Afterwards she had fun running up and down the long Shining-style corridors. From the terrace you get the most splendid view of the sun setting over Porto, and from the infinity pool everyone tries to get the instagram shot of the city taking in river, bridge, and collagen-enhanced pout.

At the moment the famous view is rather spoiled by the cranes working on Bridge’s latest project: 350 million museum of wine which is set to transform Vila Nova. It has already affected some of the old warehouses which are like working museums. The old Croft lodge which dates back to the 17th century is being turned into part of the new museum and all the wine is being moved out. I’d recommend visiting Taylor’s which has a brilliant visitor centre.

Port has been through some tough times. Many of the old names were bought by multinationals and quality deteriorated, but the wines are now better than ever. Sales by volume may be down (hence the switch to tourism) but the premium market is booming. In Porto they drink tawny port, wood-aged, mellow and pale in colour, drunk lightly chilled, as well as white port and tonic instead of a G&T. The table wines are now also excellent.

Christian Seely with enormous bottle of port

To get across the river you can take a boat, or cross at one of the bridges.The city has a modern tram and metro system but we spent two days walking fueled by ice cream (our daughter) and Port (my wife and I). The Fladgate empire continues on the other side of the river at the Infante Sagres hotel. It’s a Porto institution (Christian Seely from Quinta do Noval told me louchly, “I had one of my honeymoons there”) now returned to its former glory. The attached Vogue cafe has a glamorous bar and does recognisably Portuguese food like salt cod, but lighter than the traditional style. Well, it is called the Vogue cafe.

After two nights in Porto, we went up country to find the source of the wine. It would have taken early British merchants weeks to get there braving bandits, rapids and extremes of temperature. We took the train: a charming little number straight out of the 1960s. It trundled along slowly whilst we watched the scenery change from the lush vegetation of Porto to the dramatic sunbaked Douro valley. 

It takes about an hour and half to Pinhão. I was expecting the station to be a sleepy one-donkey kind of place, but it was crammed with buses and umbrella-wielding Chinese tour parties. Luckily, our driver Manuel was waiting for us in an old Mercedes to whisk us up to Quinta da Gricha, owned by the Churchill Graham family. Very soon we were alone with only ancient pickup trucks ferrying grape pickers for company. 

Quinta da Gricha (credit Misti Traya)

The weather was baking so on arrival we cooled off in the pool and then ate oranges and grapes straight off the trees. Our daughter befriended the vineyard dogs and went exploring. At night I got an idea of just how remote the quinta (estate in Portuguese) is. From the terrace there were almost no other lights on the hillside. Peace at last! That night we ate with the other guests, the inevitable salt cod (which I love, I am not complaining) and not even the doctor couple from the West Midlands complaining about Brexit could spoil the moment. With a glass of 20 Year Old Churchill tawny in my hand, I fell into a Port-fuelled reverie.

If you’re keen to try some Port, here’s something I wrote for BBC Good Food on my favourites. 

 

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The En Rama revolution

This is something I wrote for Root + Vine magazine, the vinous off-shoot of Root + Bone magazine (which is always worth reading).

I tend to base family holidays around wine much to my six year old daughter’s annoyance. On a recent visit to Sanlúcar de Barrameda, we spent a wonderful (for me) afternoon at Hidalgo La Gitana. Fermín Hidalgo (below, stopping for a restorative plate of jamon and a copita at 11am), oblivious to my six year old daughter’s increasingly sulky antics, gave me sherry after sherry to try. With his venencia, that cup on a stick thing that you have to learn how to use if you want to be taken seriously in sherry, he delved into different casks and brought out treasures including a 90 year old pedro ximenez, a 50 year old amontillado and manzanillas with tiny bits of yeast floating in them. Until recently this last wine was an experience for visitors only, most manzanillas are sold filtered and blended, but now you can have something like the full venencia experience in the comfort of your own home. Just look for the words ‘En Rama’ on the bottle.

The word ‘rama’ literally means ‘branch’ or ‘on the vine’ which translates roughly as ‘in its natural state’. There’s no legal definition but the best way to think of En Rama is an attempt to preserve that straight from the barrel magic. They tend to be only very lightly filtered and are often from a single cask. The first sherry labelled En Rama was launched back in 1999 by Barbadillo but it was when Gonzalez Byass launched its Tio Pepe En Rama in 2010 that the style really took off. It was a revelation trying it next to the ordinary Tio Pepe, the world’s best selling fino. 

Martin Skelton from Gonzalez Byass told me that the sherry changed in the 70s and 80s. Finos used to be closer to amontillados in colour and flavour but with new technology such as temperature-controlled fermentation and sterile filtering they became the pale products like Tio Pepe or Manzanilla La Gitana that we know today. Don’t get me wrong, these are delicious wines: consistent, moreish and excellent value for money, there’s nothing better for knocking back well-chilled on a hot day. En Ramas tend to be fuller, richer and darker, in short wines to consume slowly.

En Rama is also the answer to a marketing problem. How do you get wine bores interested in a product that by design is unchanging? En Rama solves this at a stroke because each year is different. The back of the bottle will have the saca date, when it was taken out of the barrel. You can drink your wine young to get all that fresh flor flavour or keep it in bottle for richer, nuttier aromas. They are wines for people who are happy to have a bit of inconsistency. 

The En Rama revolution, if you can call it that, has raised quality across the board. Many wines don’t have En Rama on the label but nevertheless are now bottled with less or no filtration. I can’t claim this as objective truth, apart from the fact that I drink a lot of sherry, but the big brand pale sherries now seem to me to have more flavour than in the past.

There is the feeling in the sherry business that something was lost when production was industrialised. Now in an effort to reposition itself as a fine wine, sherry is rediscovering its past and this means making a virtue of the raw materials. Some bodegas are returning to single vineyard wines. Hidalgo were market leaders here with their always excellent Manzanilla Pastrana. The first thing Fermin Hidalgo did when I visited was to take me out to the vineyards (thankfully there was a dog for my daughter to play with). Unusually amongst sherry companies, they only use grapes from their own vineyards. All their finos are made from free run juice and fermented using natural yeasts. 

Some producers are taking the return to sherry’s roots even further. A 10 minute walk from downtown Sanlúcar, I met Ramiro Ibáñez who makes recognisably sherry-style wines but outside the DO (Denominación de Origen, like a Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée in France) because they are so unconventional. He doesn’t just use palomino grapes but a whole range of different varieties that for the most part disappeared after phylloxera hit in the 19th century. He doesn’t fortify his wines instead the strength comes from drying the grapes in the sun, a practice known as asoleo. And finally his wines are single vintage. According to Ibanez these are all practises that were once routine but disappeared. In contrast to the giant cathedral of the Hidalgo bodega, he works out of an old fisherman’s cottage by the Guadalquivir river. With his lighter manzanilla-style wines you can really taste the difference between different vineyards but his crowning achievement is a palo cortado made from rare grape varieties.

Afterwards, much to my daughter’s relief, we went for lunch at the nearby Bar Bigote. Here manzanilla was €1.20 a glass, the same price as beer but the sherry is aged for five years before it is sold. Clearly this is not sustainable. En Rama is a much needed attempt to push sherry upmarket where it belongs and finally it seems to be working. Sherry has seen some tough times but Fermin Hidalgo thinks the worst is over, sales by volume may still be declining for the region as a whole but they are picking up by value. According to IWSR (International Wines and Spirits Record) premium sherry sales doubled between 2011 and 2015. 

Andrew Ward who runs a great blog on sherry bars in Madrid, ‘Under the Flor’, told me: “There is indeed a lot more interest in sherry in Madrid these last two or three years – wine stores and restaurants almost always have a big selection these days”. And talking with London restaurateurs such as José Pizarro, I discovered that there is a confidence in the category that wasn’t there even two years ago. According to Pizarro it is the young customers who are the most adventurous. People who drink natural wines aren’t going to mind a bit of yeast floating in their fino.  Ibáñez is even more confident: he told me that sherry is actually on the verge of new golden age. It certainly tastes that way

 

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Booze interview: Fergus Butler-Gallie

This week I’m delighted to have writer, man of the cloth and most notable ambassador for the double-breasted blazer since Jerry from The Good Life as guest on World of Booze, Fergus Butler-Gallie. You might know him as one of the funniest people on twitter, he recently created an infographic to show how far on foot each C. of E. Diocesan Bishop has to walk from his cathedral to the nearest Nando’s, important stuff, I think we can agree. By day he works as a curate in Liverpool while finding the time to write two books: Field Guide to the English Clergy, an extremely funny look at the great eccentrics from the Church of England, and Priests de la Resistance, about the clergy who fought fascism. The former is one of those books perfectly-formed books that you’ll keep wanting to read bits out to your wife/ life-in-lover/ congregation, and it’s so good that she/he/they won’t mind. Favourite entries include the Right Reverend Howell Witt who entertained his rural Australian parishioners by dragging up as the Dowager Duchess of Dingo Creek, and the Reverend Harold Davidson, the lady-loving Rector of Stiffkey, who was eaten by a lion at a circus in Skegness. As you might expect, there’s quite a bit of booze, so I thought that the author would be just the person to talk to us about drink.

HGJ: When did you first realise that wine was something special? Was there a particular bottle that was an epiphany?

FBG: There was, I remember a particular bottle- a deep brown Australian pudding wine (its provenance beyond those details I forget) which I pilfered from the back of the parental drinks cabinet whilst I was at school and then drank with my friends (as was our custom instead of, well, doing any work). I remember it being such a marvellous change from the warm gin and half-curdled limoncello that such heists normally provided us with; warm raisin flavours with all the datey stickiness of a nursery pudding. I suppose that was, in its own way revelatory, but it didn’t stop us from returning to the warm gin and bootleg whisky the following week.

Jerry Leadbetter from the Good Life

HGJ: Did you have a similar epiphany about becoming a priest?

FBG: There was no burning bush moment for me, rather a slow, dawning sense that this was a vocation I should take seriously (a task I am still working on if I’m honest). It was something I would joke about but, as I became more convinced of the claims of Christianity, the joke, as is so often the case, became a reality. There are various points where that sense became clearer- experienced everywhere from Kent country churches and soaring Oxford chapels to the back streets of Prague and freezing French mountainsides. My conversion though, perhaps unusually, was always in head before heart, and it’s something I hope I’m still working on. They say God calls those to priesthood whom he cannot save by other means, and, whilst slightly facetious (and exhibiting a profoundly dubious soteriology) there’s an element of that which rings true for me.

HGJ: How does one become a priest?

FBG: Blood, sweat, tears etc. Really it’s a series of initial hoops to jump through, followed by filling in the same form multiple times, being locked in a retreat centre/borstal in Staffordshire for three days, followed by three years at a theological college (though one can get time off for good behaviour). Then it’s up to the bishop and the imparting of the Holy Ghost.

HGJ: What’s your favourite hymn?

FBG: This is a tough one- I’m afraid I’ll have to be very C of E and not commit to one but rather provide a list: Thine be the Glory for Easter, When I survey the wondrous Cross for Lent, Lo, He comes with Clouds descending, for Advent, All Praise to Thee my God this night for the saintly insight of Bishop Ken, Jerusalem the Golden for its vision of the Heavenly City, And can it be for Wesley’s ingenious distillation of the miracle of Grace. Frankly, as befits an innately negative person, I actually find it easier to name my most hated rather than my best loved.

HJ: Who was the booziest clergyman you encountered in your research?

FBG: Plenty of live ones, but I feel I ought to redact this part of the answer for legal reasons. In terms of the dead rather than the quick it was either The Reverend Dr Edward Drax Free, who locked himself in his rectory after stripping his own roof of lead to cover gambling debts, and only came out and surrendered to the Bishop of Lincoln when his wine cellar ran dry or Canon Felix Kir, a Roman Catholic cleric of Dijon who drank so much blanc de cassis that they simply cut out the middleman and named the drink after him.

HGJ: I like to imagine being in the Church of England is a bit like the scenes in Father Ted when Ted goes to Dublin ie. lots of excellent port. Is it anything like that?

FBG: Ha! The reality is a little more prosaic- especially up here in Liverpool where there’s a little more ‘front line’ work to be done than elsewhere. That said, there are moments where a nice glass of something can be enjoyed- I was recently sent a bottle of 1977 port (so encrusted with cellarial goodness that the label had malted off, but I am assured it is good) from the Dean of Emmanuel College in thanks for giving a talk to the clergy of the parishes where they are patron. I’m hoping to enjoy that soon.

HGJ: Does the C. of E still have cellars of old wines like Oxford colleges or gentlemen’s clubs?

FBG: I fear these days it’s more a case of grabbing a Pinot Grigio from the inside of a fridge at the end of a long day for many clergy! That said, I’ve rarely been served bad wine when dining with clerics. I know an archdeacon with an excellent collection and we try to serve decent wine when we have events at Liverpool Parish Church. We are lucky to have a first class wine merchant round the corner who does us excellent deals on various bottles.

HGJ: Do you still get offered sherry when you visit parishioners?

FBG: Absolutely- I always assure them that they’re very much on trend when they do. In my experience all Shoreditch is now alight with Fino pairings.

HGJ: Where do you buy your wine from? Do you have a favourite merchant?

HGJ: I use Berry Bros in London and both Cultural Wine and R&H Fine wines here in Liverpool. Cultural Wine introduced me to Txakoli (perfect for a working lunch) and converted me from Rioja sceptic to fan and R&H have some of the best priced Sauternes I have ever encountered, as well as being my source for the odd bottle of really farmyardy Jura.

HGJ: What’s your favourite region?

FBG: Depends- I love a white Burgundy. I was in Chablis last summer and could have quite happily drunk myself to death there. Red wise, I adore any of the heavier, tanniny, headache inducing left bank clarets. A proper hangover soup.

HGJ: What were the highlights of your Christmas drinking?

FBG: I actually didn’t do a huge amount of Christmas drinking! The job rather prevents too much of that. That said, my sister recently returned from the Lebanon and so my parents sourced some Chateau Musar from her which I had a tipple of on a brief New Year visit home. It was sublime. Otherwise I spent Christmas with some parishioners who furnished me with excellent champagne all day and then on Boxing Day evening I visited some friends and had a glass of a positively geriatric armagnac, whose appellation escapes me, it was nectar.

HGJ: Where’s your favourite place to drink in Liverpool? Or anywhere really.

FBG: Too many places, arguably! The city is awash with absolutely first class pubs- Ye Cracke, The Roscoe Head, The Baltic Fleet, Peter Kavanagh’s, The Belvedere Arms- all are on my standard tour of Liverpool for a newcomer. Otherwise it is the Artist’s Club on Eberle Street- a venerable city institution where an afternoon can easily dissolve into a bottle of excellent red. Otherwise, the Rose and Crown in Oxford was my go to for my student years- I still kiss the threshold on arrival. In town I have a softspot for the Prince Arthur, tucked away in a housing estate north of Old Street, Kentish ales on tap and where the regulars have named chairs, the French House in Soho for as many Pernods as is necessary to get me speaking French, The Southampton Arms in Kentish Town, for pork sandwiches, beer after beer and hours lost to endearingly stupid arguments among friends or the Pride of Spitalfields, a proper boozer I’ve only recently been introduced to but think very fine.

HGJ: Who do you think writes well about wine and drink in general?

FBG: Review wise, about the only thing I read in the Spectator now is Bruce Anderson– whose wine column has the glorious air of a pub conversation, wending its way, eventually to the real matter in hand, the booze, and Tanya Gold (who although she strictly does the restaurant reviews and so just about qualifies as ‘writing about drink in general’)- her reviews manage that perfect balance of giving you an exact sense of what the place is like, whilst refusing to get bogged down in boring detail- whimsical, informative and sharp at the same time. Perfection. Naming Kingsley Amis on Everyday Drinking might be a cliche but it’s such a wonderful piece, funny and so familiar to any seasoned drinker. Ned Ward’s London Spy, a piece from the turn of the seventeenth and eighteenth century, is first class too, giving such a clear picture of how nocturnal drinking and later staggering hasn’t changed a bit.

HGJ: And finally, can wine or drink in general bring you closer to God?

FBG: If Christ saw fit to make wine his Blood and to turn mere water into booze (when, as the Gospel reminds us, they were already well drunk) then I think the answer must be an unequivocal yes.

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Is there such a thing as good taste?

In this essay, I put on my thinking beret, stroke my chin and delve into the vexed question of to what extent taste in food and wine is entirely arbitrary.

“Everybody thinks they have good taste and a sense of humor but they couldn’t possibly all have good taste.” When Harry Met Sally, Nora Ephron

At a local Chinese restaurant there are asterisks by certain dishes with an explanation underneath that reads simply: “not recommended.” The asterisks appear next to delicacies such as chicken feet or cold jellyfish salad so what I think they mean is not recommended for non-Chinese people. It made me realise that much of what we think of as good taste is cultural. The Chinese appreciate the chewy and the gelatinous, urrggh!, but isn’t it equally strange that we eat what is essentially rotten milk in the form of blue cheese?

classic statue of Socrates

Wine can be equally counter-intuitive. I remember my first glass of claret drunk at Christmas. I expected it to taste sweet and fruity but it was earthy, bitter and full of mouth-drying tannins. Why would anyone drink this? As a student I would grimace my way through French reds rather than the sweet jammy, and lets face it much more appealing, Hardy’s shiraz that everyone else was drinking. Later I drank bone dry fino sherry whilst thinking, is it really meant to taste like  yeasty water? I taught myself to enjoy vermouth and Campari, olives and anchovies. But why?

As humans we naturally crave sugar and salt but bitterness warns us about poison and high acidity means something isn’t ripe. Our tastes, however, can be perverse perhaps because as omnivorous hunter gatherers we had to be adventurous in what we ate. We like spicy food because our bodies produce opiates to counteract the pain in chillies and some have suggested that eating bitter food gives us a frisson of danger.

Many people, however, don’t push their tastes. They don’t want bitterness or astringency and they couldn’t give a toss about a long finish. You can put this down to different palates, some people crave sugar in particular whilst others are abnormally sensitive to bitterness. 

But if I’m being honest with myself there was more than a little snobbery in my acquired enjoyment of difficult flavours. French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu in his book Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste wrote that good taste is about getting acceptance from our peers. I worked in the wine trade after university and based my tastes on people I admired, and, importantly, defined them in opposition to people I didn’t.

fannyandjohnnycradock

We think our tastes are timeless but look at pictures of 1970s food especially anything by Fanny Cradock (above with husband and sidekick, Johnny) and tell me they don’t look revolting. And today’s Jackson Pollock-esque splatters from Masterchef will look similarly inedible in ten years time. In the Middle Ages, luxury food would have been cooked with lots of sugar and expensive spices as a way of showing your wealth. Bottles of champagne opened recently from a ship that went down in the early nineteenth century contained a dentist-worrying 150 grams of sugar per litre, modern day champagne contains around eight grams.  Sweet wines went out of fashion as sugar became the fuel of the masses. Food that we dismiss as well, a bit common like a plain white bap from Gregg’s would have been miraculous luxuries to our ancestors.

Luxury today is about being close to nature. The latest thing in wine is ‘natural’ wine, made without additives but more importantly difficult for the uninitiated to understand as much of it smells like scrumpy. Chefs too bang on about sustainability and seasonality, some even forage for food, but in the past haute cuisine was about breaking free of nature. Only the poor would have eaten seasonally. In an essay on taste in the New Yorker, Adam Gopnik cites the example of the poet Lucien in Balzac’s novel Lost Illusions who is forced by lack of funds to eat in a restaurant that “has only local and seasonal produce.” He goes on to describe: “the shame and suffering that the diners feel in having to eat in so peasant like a manner right in the middle of Paris.” 

Whereas nowadays we pay through the nose at the River Cafe to eat authentic Italian peasant food but I am sorry to say that authenticity like good taste is largely made up. Most traditional foods and drinks are relatively recent creations. In The Discovery of France, the historian Graham Robb writes “the Dijon area was not particularly rich in blackcurrants until an enterprising cafe owner made an explanatory trip to Paris in 1841, noted the popularity of cassis and began to market his own liquor as a regional speciality”. 

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So is it all pointless then then? Should we just crack open a bottle of Blossom Hill and settle into a KFC mega bucket? Well if you want to go for it. But just because taste is cultural and changeable doesn’t make it pointless. Think of it as learning a language (a rapidly evolving one). You can appreciate the beauty once you have learned the rules, just don’t pretend there’s anything natural about them. 

Developing ‘good taste’ can be enjoyable, it should be an adventure, and I find the awareness that it’s made up liberating. I can appreciate haut cuisine but I know that the cheap restaurant from the acclaimed chef will be more fun than the three star temple of gastronomy, that bottle of chilled red had on holiday in Sicily with my wife will always be more delicious than first growth claret drunk surrounded by hedge fund managers, and there’s nothing better with a cup of tea than a McVities Hobnob. Don’t worry about what others think. Go with whatever you fancy which means you don’t have to try those local delicacies, unless you’re dining with some Chinese businessmen who you want to impress. 

A version of this essay appeared in Boat Magazine.

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World of Booze returns

Merry Christmas! Here’s a picture of what I drank over the festive period. Obviously, we drank a lot more than this but these were the highlights:

crop xmas

But I’m not writing to show off the fine booze consumed. Well, I am actually but I’m also writing to say that Henry’s World of Booze is back. The blog, which has been going since 2010 (which is at least 63 in terms of the internet which works like dog years), was getting very patchy when I was writing my second book, The Home Bar (which came out in September 2018). I then stopped updating completely in summer 2018. I had just got a job as features editor on the Master of Malt blog and then about the same time I was asked to write a book for Mitchell Beazley, The Cocktail Dictionary (coming September 2020).

So I got out of the habit but also it felt like blogging was sort of over. At least the personal, amateurish sort of blog that I wrote. Most people got their fix of interaction with like-minded individuals from social media rather than the comments section on blogs (or even met them in real life). I look back to the kind of in-depth discussions that used to go on in the comments sections and marvel; I know friends who met in the comments section! But then it was all about social media, why get into arcane arguments about who invented sherry or the correct way to fry an egg in the comments when you could do it on twitter?

Actual photo of recent twitter spat

And this was all great for a while but gradually the people who one used to have fun conversations with became obsessed with bigger issues. Which is fine. There’s a lot to get exercised about but twitter etc. stopped being fun around 2015 and seemed to be more about competitive frothing at the mouth than the good-natured banter of old. Naming no names. I now find that I spend less and less time on social media. During big events like elections, I don’t go on at all and it’s like taking a long hot bath with a glass of armagnac. Yes, there’s instagram which is great for showing off fancy bottles of whisky but I’m not really suited to it. There’s my complete inability to take a decent picture for starters but also I find I enjoy a bottle more if I’m not thinking about how to brag about it online. The sweetest meal is usually the unphotographed one.

So I’ve started blogging again. I’m hoping blogging will make a return in 2019 as everyone leaves twitter, realises that things aren’t so bad and get back to discussing more important matters. The reason I started the blog originally is because I had a head full of thoughts about drink that needed letting out. And once again my head is filling up and I need to relieve the pressure. I drink a lot of interesting booze of all sorts and meet interesting boozy people, and not just in the pub, so anything that won’t make a proper feature for my employer, Master of Malt, will work here.

There will be lots of good fresh locally-sourced content as well as some reheated articles. ‘Tis the season for leftovers after all. Or I might just draw people’s attention to things that I find interesting. It’ll be mainly about booze, naturally, but there might will be some food stuff and maybe some Kenty things, I have just moved to Faversham after 19 years in London.

Please do subscribe and comment or just email me at henry g jeffreys at gmail dot com (I’m writing it like that to dissuade spam though god knows I get enough of it. Mainly mature Russian lady dating.)

Here’s to a boozy bloggy happy 2020.

 

Posted in Wine articles | Tagged , , , , , | 15 Comments