Categories
Books

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.

Categories
Wine articles

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.

 

Categories
Restaurants

Posh fast food

“We’ve spent £70, I’m hungry and, worst of all, I’m sober” I complained. My wife was similarly disgruntled.  We were at the Model Market in Lewisham. This was a derelict covered market that has been taken over by Street Feast and sells fast food during the summer months. We left vowing never to go back but decided to return last month with friends and children to see if we had judged too harshly. It was a beautiful August evening, a DJ was spinning soul music records and the trendy things of south east London seemed to be lapping it up despite the prices: £9 for fried chicken and chips, £7 for a small plate of fried squid, not as good as Royal China according to my daughter, and most galling of all, £6, £6!, for a 355ml can of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. Another bar on site was selling a pint of the same beer for £5 but I definitely felt trendier holding a can.

The appearance of posh fast food is one of the stranger trends to have swept Britain in the last few years. The food of poor America tarted up and priced up to be eaten by middle class British people. There’s a chain called Bubble Dogs that will charge you £15 for a hot dog and a glass of fizz. Hot dogs should cost $2.50 and be eaten on the street.

We’ve even taken to that weird distinctly American hybrid of savoury fried chicken and sweet waffles with maple syrup. Duck & Waffle in London offer the ultimate posh take on this swapping the fried chicken for a confit duck leg. What’s interesting about these gourmet versions is how we get it so wrong. The food is beautifully presented but there’s just not enough of it. With American food you’re not meant to be able to walk afterwards.  

That said some fast foods do benefit from a little poncification. I like George Osborne’s favourite, Byron Burger. I am willing to pay for good quality steak, chopped up and served rare especially if I’m eating it in a booth. In fact I’ll pay almost anything if I’m seated in a booth. But I am baffled by places such as Shake Shack or 5 Guys which offer burgers no better than McDonald’s and chips that are significantly worse (McDonald’s french fries are superb). At Shake Shack a burger, fries and shake will cost about £17. The equivalent at Maccy D’s will cost you about £6. The middle classes look down their noses at McDonald’s and yet are happy to eat essentially the same food as long as it is expensive enough.

So why do these places charge so much? Well first of all because they can. There are plenty of people for whom spending £10 on a hamburger isn’t a lot of money. But also in the case of Street Feast you are not just paying for the food and the overheads. All vendors are smartly branded. We bought our chicken from the amusingly-named Mother Clucker. The dream is to do a Meatliquor which started as a food truck and now has branches throughout London. Your average chicken shack in Louisiana doesn’t have a PR firm or a marketing strategy.

Street Feast are owned by a company called London Union. They don’t just sell overpriced burgers but are also, according to their slogan, “Transforming Lives And Communities Through The Awesome Power Of Street Food”. It’s the brainchild of restaurateurs Jonathan Downey and Henry Dimbleby. Street Feast run similar markets around the country and put on events with celebrity chefs such as Thomasina Miers.

One thing you will notice about the names above is that they’re not exactly salt-of-the-earth types. Alexei Sayle in his recent stand-up routine joked about how the poshing up of jobs such as journalism (I admit I am part of this trend) and comedy has spread to fast food: “burger vans! burger vans! all the burger vans down my local market are run by the class of Charterhouse of 2005.” Sayle also mocks the sort of gap year cookery where rich English kids discover the authentic street food of somewhere poor and decide to bring it back home at a price, “there’s a Vietnamese Phô stall in Peckham run by the Queen and Prince Philip.”

At Oak Fisheries in Headingley which I used to visit when I was a student, you were served by a woman with enormous arms who looked like she was born to work in a fish and chip shop whilst an unsmiling man with a comb over fried the fish in dripping. It’s still the best fish and chips I’ve ever had. There was no branding, no mission statement, and no plans to roll it out into a chain.

The day after Model Market, I went to a barbeque put on by some of the parents on our street. They all agreed that Street Feast was a rip off, and yet at the same time they would go back. One mother told me that what she loved about it was that it’s like not being in Lewisham, you could pretend that you live in a nice bit of London for the evening.

It occurred to me that Street Feast is the opposite of street food. You are not in the street.  You are in a carefully curated middle class fantasy land, like being at a music festival but without bands. If the high prices don’t deter the wrong sort of people from wandering in, the entry fee after 7pm will. Whilst the stalls are run by the middle class, the people collecting rubbish were immigrants. It was London in a microcosm.

Meanwhile at Lewisham’s actual street market you can buy a proper bratwurst hot dog for £3, jerk chicken made by real Jamaicans for £4 and a pint at the nearby Wetherspoons for £1.80. They even sell Sierra Nevada Pale Ale though you do have to mix with some ghastly people.

A much shorter version of this article appeared in the Oldie magazine

 

Categories
Books Wine articles

Booze interview – Glen David Gold

Glen David Gold is probably best known for his debut novel, Carter Beats the Devil, and its follow up Sunnyside. When I was in publishing I worked on the publicity for the latter and we spent a very pleasant, at least for me, few days together when he came over to England for publication. I didn’t know him well but he always came across as about the nicest most relaxed author one could wish for. Note for readers here, not all authors are nice and they are very rarely relaxed. There’s a very good line in his memoir, I Will be Complete, which comes out this month:

“When I describe what happened, people tend to ask ‘but how did you end up so – ‘ they dance around the world ‘ normal’. then realise it doesn’t apply, and instead they say, ‘so nice’?”

I’m not nice. I’m polite. Nice is a quality and polite is a strategy. But I have ended up happy.”

Glen David Gold c. Sara Shay

Glen David Gold looking happy. Credit: Sara Shay

Glen was brought up in affluence in southern California but when his parents broke up he moved with his mother to San Francisco. By the age of 12 he was living much of the time by himself whilst his mother was in New York. His relationship with his unstable and increasingly erratic mother provides the engine of the book. As a memoir it bears comparison with This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolff, and in a neat link, Glen was taught by Wolff’s brother Geoffrey at the University of California who himself wrote a memoir about his bizarre childhood called the Duke of Deception. Glen’s book has the fluency of the former and the honesty and hard-won wisdom of the latter but with a strangeness and, at the end, a darkness, that is all it’s own. It deserves to sell by the container load as well as win every prize going.

In my correspondence with Glen I discovered that he is a fairly recent but already hopeless wine bore so here he is talking about one of his passions:

Hello Glen, what are you working on at the moment?

My memoir I WILL BE COMPLETE comes out June 26th and although there’s very little (no) wine in it you may very well want to pour yourself a glass while reading it. I’m writing a few brief essays to support it, I’m starting research on the next historical novel, and I’m looking to sit in a writers room for a good TV show and play in someone else’s kingdom for a while.

You mention your father has got into wine at 80, was that your work?

A little bit. My brother Seth started a rum company, SELVA REY, and spent five years coming over to every single family gathering with samples to test on us. My dad is a collector at heart and he loves the stories behind things, so he was a perfect sucker for the small batch bourbon thing. Like myself, he loves stories of growers and stories that begin, “This wine is now $100 but when I bought it en primeur it was $40,” but as you know those stories are very rare. His favorite wine is now Myriad Cabernet Sauvignon. (Update: I think the Sarah Francis Beckstoffer GIII now wins.)

Would you say wine has brought you closer together?

Yes but so has age. He’s a good dad for an adult.

What are you drinking at the moment? 

2016 Henri Boillot Bourgogne. That interview with Mike D in Noble Rot tipped me off to how to surf Burgundy by getting the $20/30 Bourgognes and Bourgogne Blancs of high-end producers, and as a result I am beginning to understand why that region is so terrifying. Dujac’s Bourgogne Blanc is hypnotic, delicious, has massive bottle variation and is utterly unavailable. Is there anything else to know about Burgundy?

Was there a eureka moment with wine or was it a gradual process?

Very gradual. About eight years ago, my friend David came to a party with three William Selyam pinots from different vineyards. He had a complicated experiment he wanted to conduct involving decanting and the terroir of single vineyard designates. Unfortunately another friend saw what he interpreted as giant glasses of wine, and he literally upended an entire, to the brim glass, said “wow, that’s great,” then took down the next one, and the next. I wish you could have seen the solid O of horror on my friend David’s face.

Maybe a year later, I was at a restaurant called Prospect in San Francisco. They’re friendly to me there and someone had left without finishing his bottle of 2007 Radio Coteau Savoy Pinot Noir, so they poured the rest of the bottle for me and my date, and I was intrigued.

About a year after that I had a 2009 Clos St Julien, which is a fairly weird St Emilion, and I realized I was in love with how I was tasting something I was unable to describe — just experience. My writing powers were nullified. Huzzah!

Who do you think writes well about wine/ drink?

I like how detailed Chris Kissack gets in his reports on producers, though he and I don’t have aligning palates.  I also like Kermit Lynch’s book — he was my local wine shop long long before I understood anything about what I was drinking.

Do you have a favourite drink scene in literature?

Wilton Barnhardt has a novel called LOOK AWAY LOOK AWAY about the contemporary American South, and there’s a lovely scene in which a rich relative works dark magic on a family meal, gleefully giving glasses of 1989 Lynch Bages to people who don’t know what they’re drinking. Quite the indictment of social mores.

What’s your favorite everyday wine?

I try to not have an every day wine. When I don’t crave a spectacular experience, but a familiar one, I’m drawn toward gamay in the summer months and older cru bourgeois bordeaux at other times — the 2010 Senejac, which was $17 a bottle, is a stupid value right now. 

Do you have a favourite restaurant for wine?

In St Helena there’s an unassuming place called COOK on the main drag; we’d been told to go in for a bite and a glass. The wines were written on a dry erase board because they changed daily, and sometimes hourly. I recognized some of the names but not all of them. I asked the waiter what we should have and he brought out…something. A cabernet with a little age on it. It was outstanding. What was it? He said not to worry about it. His old landlord owed him some money and had paid him in wine instead. What wine? Oh, something he’d taken in trade for a job done. There was a label on the bottle but it didn’t explain much. It wasn’t a label I ever saw again. And it was perfect.

Do you have a dream wine?

That’s interesting — because of their prices and everyone else singing their praises I’m curious about 1961 first growths and good vintages of Jayer and DRC and all that, but the wine I’m hoping someone will open for me one day would be a 1990 Henri Bonneau Celestins. I’ve had his basic Chateauneuf, and his Marie Beurrier, and even the vin de pays, but I haven’t yet managed to get near his grand achievement, which the ecstatic tasting notes suggest will put you through puberty all over again.

 

You live in San Francisco? Do you often visit nearby vineyards if so which ones?

It’s odd — only an hour trip, but I always felt like I needed to mentally prepare for a day before going. It was like visiting Comicon. My two guaranteed stops were at Acme Fine Wines, which is the Sun Records of St Helena, and the To Kalon vineyard. There is a lovely man, Tom Garrett, who runs DETERT, a very small winery, on something 17 acres of Cab Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon. His wines are extraordinary and close to unknown, which is bizarre to me, given his location. We also visited CARTER (the name is a coincidence), as their wine maker, Mike Smith, does some of my other favorite California Cabernets via MYRIAD, SCARLETT and BECKLYN. That varietal can be loud, obnoxious, clever yet facile, designed for mass appeal and have a finish that’s far too long (I have just described every Marvel movie, haven’t I?) Mike’s work is intriguing — it flirts with all that stuff before veering into a better place. But if you want to try something that is far more St Julien like, the final wine maker on my list is Massimo Di Costanzo of DI COSTANZO wines, whose work is exceptionally elegant.

 

Thank you Glen! Some greats tips there. Now everyone, buy the book.

 

 

Categories
Books

Talking proper

George Bernard Shaw wrote “it is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman hate or despise him.” I don’t think my father ever despised me but he did wince when I said “eether” instead of “ither” or maybe it was the other way round. He thinks of himself as a stickler for correct usage but, horrible little snob that I was, I would cringe when he said serviette instead of napkin. And in turn a girlfriend once thought I was a bit common because we used the word lounge instead of drawing room. She came from an old army family and would get in trouble at school because her father insisted she say what instead of pardon.

I blame the pernicious influence of Nancy Mitford’s Noblesse Oblige which turned many middle class people into stuttering wrecks constantly worried about using the wrong word. I promised myself when I became a father that I would be more relaxed about such things but I find my mood darkening when my daughter says “haitch” instead of “aitch” when spelling out words. My wife’s bugbear is the word ate pronounced “et.”

Perhaps I should just accept that my daughter is not going to speak the same as me. She goes to a very different school to the ones I went to. It’s in South London and she has Lithuanian, Israeli, Chinese and French friends. Furthermore her mother is American, so it is unlikely that she is going to end up speaking with an RP accent or know or indeed care about the difference between toilet and lavatory. Though my public school was multicultural too, we were all being moulded into English gentlemen, or that was the theory, so farmers’ sons from Yorkshire spoke with the same accent as Nigerian princes and boys from Hong Kong.

For those with Mitford-induced anxiety, I recommend reading Oliver Kamm’s Accidence Will Happen: The Non-Pedantic Guide to English. He writes: “to the purist, the way people speak and write is an opportunity to find fault rather than listen.” One of the points he makes in the book is that meaning and pronunciation are always changing. Doing a little research for this article I discovered that ate used to be pronounced “et” (and still is by many) and only recently came to be pronounced to rhyme with eight probably due to American influence (which might mean that the American version is older.) I wonder whether the English language might be evolving faster than before because of the globalisation of media and immigration. Though we cannot hold back the tide of change, part of me does mourn the disappearance of words with a distinct meaning such as disinterested, now mainly used as a synonym for uninterested.  

Kamm counsels the reader to embrace change rather than trying to fight it but he does emphasise that having a standard usage is important. This is what we want to instill in our daughter. We worry about her picking up bad habits from her peers or even from her teachers: at her nursery school her class was called “Gruffalo’s” (sic) and during one meet the teacher session my wife complained about Helena’s burgeoning glottal stop to which the teacher replied “you wan’er to speak be’er?”

Insisting that she say “think” instead of “fink” isn’t elitist as the son of a (middle class) friend maintains. I know a pub landlord with a thick Cockney accent whose daughter speaks standard English because he wants her to have the best start in life. The important thing is that one knows the standard usage even if one doesn’t always use it. My daughter is going to speak differently with her friends to how she talks to us. I sometimes find myself adopting an involuntary Mockney accent in order to sound a bit less posh, usually when talking to plumbers.

We want her to speak with confidence therefore we have a total ban on uptalk, that irritating verbal tick where every sentence becomes a question. Whenever my daughter’s voice starts to rise, I say: “say it like you mean it”. And she laughs and then says whatever she was saying confidently and loudly. Worse even than uptalk is that strange way of talking common amongst young Americans where they say every word with a strange emphasis as if they don’t know what it means.

If she can speak articulately then it doesn’t matter whether she says “ither” or “eether”. I don’t want her to have the same anxieties I had. To quote from Oliver Kamm “the task of English should be to instill the conventions of fluent communication not Shibboleths”.  And yet to some extent the problem with his approach is that Shibboleths are there for a reason: I want my daughter to be part of my tribe, I want her to get my references, I want us to talk the same language. It’s instinctive. So though I’m trying to be relaxed about her English, “Haitch” is where I say “here I stand; I can do no other”.

A version of this article appeared in The Oldie magazine. 

 

Categories
Books

Free gin (and a book reading)

I’ve been up to my ears in a new book hence the rather sporadic posting of late. It should be out in October. I’ll post more about it when it’s up online. Meanwhile a paperback of my last book Empire of Booze will be out in May. Not only does it have a spanking new jacket but it’s been updated for 2018, this is a euphemism for all the typos that I noticed have been corrected. It’s therefore about 6% better than the hardback despite being cheaper.

To celebrate I’m going to be reading at the Blackheath Bookshop (this is actually a Waterstone’s but without the branding) on Thursday 31st May at 6.30pm. I’ll only read for 15 minutes and then we can get stuck into the all the free gin that I’ve accumulated in the last couple of years. Honestly there’s going to be so much gin. I might have some water and prosecco for non-gin drinkers but mainly it’s all about the gin. . . . and the book.

Please RSVP by emailing enquiries@theblackheathbookshop.co.uk or calling 02034091463. Click on the jacket for more information.

So if you’re in South East London please do come and if you’re not, do buy the book. It’s 6% better than the hardback.

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Categories
Restaurants Spirits

I wish I lived nearer O Gourmet Libanais

Gourmet Lebanese Food in Wandsworth

I’ve been meaning to write about a restaurant that I was going to refer to as a neighbourhood gem but thought that sounded a bit tripadvisor.  Now I’ve just learned that Winemakers in Deptford is to close. If only I’d written about then it might have been saved by loyal World of Booze readers hotfooting it down to SE8 to sample the food.

I’m not going to make that mistake with my latest “neighbourhood gem”. I discovered it after attending a friend’s book launch in a part of London I don’t know very well, Wandsworth. Slightly drunk we left her party at 9pm on a Monday night and almost literally stumbled on a Lebanese restaurant, O Gourmet Libanais, in the glass and steel complex where she lived. As you’d expect at that time on Monday on a (upmarket) Wandsworth housing estate, it was empty, but the manager rather than shooing us away, seemed pleased to see us. He was even more pleased when I expressed a love for arak, the traditional Lebanese spirit which is the perfect accompaniment to mezze.

We just asked him to bring us some dishes and what followed was some of the best mezze I’d had outside Lebanon. Certainly far far superior to anything on the Edgware Road. We had Fattoush, salad with toasted bread, oil and sumac, hummus, moutabal, excellent flatbreads and some sublime chicken livers cooked in pomegranate. Everything tasted so fresh. They also had a decent Lebanese house red from Chateau Heritage but I was far more interested in the arak from Al Kaissar (Caesar, yeah!) What I loved about the Lebanese product is that it tastes like like biting into aniseed rather than having the rather sweet muddy flavour of raki or ouzo. For comparison this week, I tried some arak Brun from Domaine de Tourelles opposite some raki from Turkey and ended pouring the Turkish one down the sink. Did I mention I love arak?

Lebanese Arak Kaissar

If I lived in Wandsworth I would go to O Gourmet Libanais at least once a month. Make use of your neighbourhood gems or they might go the way of Winemakers in Deptford.

Categories
Film and TV This Week I'm Drinking

This week I’m drinking. . . . sweet vermouth on the rocks with a twist

Cocktails are a lot of work, aren’t they? They require precision, in fact making a cocktail is much more like baking than say making a stew. If you don’t get the proportions right, it’ll taste all wrong. If you’re doing this at home, it’s fine for the first one or two and then I just can’t be bothered faffing around with a jigger, a pair of scales and teaspoon. I’d much rather pay someone else to make them so I can spend more time unsettling my friends with outlandish conspiracy theories.

Which is why I love vermouth, a mixture of herbs, spices, wine and brandy, it’s basically a ready mixed cocktail. Vermouth is going through a bit of a moment at the moment with new producers cropping up all over the place. There’s even two brothers making an vermouth in a garage in Forest Hill. Perfect for Londoners trying to cut down on their booze miles. This week I’m going a bit more further afield with the delicious Paso-Vermu from Spain. It’s made by an English couple in Somontano who also produce some very well-regarded wine and being sold by Tanner’s at a very reasonable £15.95.  It’s much gentler and more wine-like, you can really taste the wine base, than say Martini Rosso with just a touch of bitterness at the end. It was rather overpowered by the Campari and gin in a negroni but made an excellent Gin and It (equal parts gin and ITalian vermouth with ice and orange.) The best way to drink it, however, is like Andie MacDowell in Groundhog Day, “on the rocks with a twist” and don’t care for a moment what the grumpy Bill Murrays of the world might think of it.

 

Categories
Film and TV

Why I love wearing a tie

This is something I wrote last year for Boisdale Life magazine:

I owe my high flying career in publishing to the tie. It was the early 00s and I was a lowly PR assistant at Hodder & Stoughton. I’d been there for three years and I was going nowhere. Senior editors would patronise me, journalists would ignore me and authors would look at me askance wondering what happened to that bright efficient blonde who used to do their publicity. Then one day on whim I decided to wear a tie to the office. The effect was amazing: within a couple of weeks I was invited to meetings because people were interested in my opinion, at parties people would assume that I was in charge and literary editors would seek me out saying that we should have lunch. In an industry as scruffy as publishing wearing a jacket and tie marked me down as someone important even if I wasn’t. Even better, some days I’d wear a suit and tie for no reason at all and then smile mysteriously when people asked if I had a job interview.  A year later I was put in charge of the literary imprint. . . . and it was all downhill from there.

Ties don’t just look smart and mark the wearer out as someone professional but they say to whoever you are dealing with that they are important. The tie has reigned triumphant since it emerged as distinct from the bowtie and the cravat in the 19th century. Everyone used to wear ties. The only time I saw my grandfather without a tie was when he was on the golf course. Now, however, it looks like the tie might be going the way of the hat or the codpiece, once mighty items of clothing that disappeared almost overnight. Wear a proper hat such as a trilby today and it just looks like an affectation, and try wearing a codpiece to a job interview and see how far you get.

Clothes have been getting less formal since the 60s but I think the two harbingers of the demise of the tie were Tony Blair and hip hop music. Before hip hop, even as recently as the 1980s, pop singers, soul singers and the like used to dress up. I particularly liked the funky stockbroker look worn by Alexander O’ Neal and Robert Palmer. Hip hop stars who emerged in the late 80s, in contrast, wore baggy jeans, track suits and trainers. Young people lost their tie-wearing role models. At the same time Tony Blair, the archetypal trendy vicar, ditched the tie in order to be down with kids. His official portrait unveiled in 2008 was the first of a male British prime minister without a tie. Where Blair led Cameron followed. The Notting Hill set look was suit and white shirt worn without a tie which made them look like they’d always just finished work, apt I suppose. Now John Bercow, the pint size Speaker of the House of Commons, has said that ties and jackets are now no longer mandatory in the chamber.

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Businesslike and funky

It’s the end of an era. Now no one wants to look like members of the establishment, especially members of the establishment. People in professions such as advertising would not be seen dead in a suit and tie. You often see them, middle-aged ad men, skateboarding down Charlotte Street in skinny jeans. At hangout for the self-consciously creative, Shoreditch House, they don’t allow ties but they have to allow in the suits to pay the bills for so you have the peculiar sight of dozens of heavy set city types removing their ties as they go in. I fell foul of this rule one night and was told by a doorman to take off my tie. Later the manager came over and apologised, apparently the rule wasn’t meant for me, a trendy type (as I was then), but for the suits.

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“You are important”

Some of the last holdouts for ties are not in traditional gentleman’s clubs, many allow you just to wear a jacket, but in service industries. Waiters in smart restaurants wear ties as if to say that your pleasure is a serious business. And a tie is still part of the uniform for professionals such as lawyers and accountants. When I meet with my fund manager, it’s reassuring to know that my money is being slowly lost by an ex-army officer in a suit and tie.

Not all ties, however, are so respectable. In the 70s the enormous kipper ties worn by Noddy Holder from Slade parodied the sobriety one associates with tie-wearing. How you wear your tie says a lot about you. Schoolboys subvert the tie by wearing theirs either very long or very short. And if a tie says trust me then estate agents with their enormous Windsor knots in shiny pink or silver say the opposite. The Duke of Windsor never actually tied his tie in a Windsor knot, his were just made of very thick silk so he had a naturally large knot. In From Russia with Love Bond has his suspicions about a British agent because of his tie: “Bond mistrusted anyone who tied his tie with a Windsor knot. It showed too much vanity. It was often the mark of a cad”. The Windsor wearer turned out to be a Russian spy.

For me a tie should always be tied in a schoolboy knot, it should be silk, not too thick and hang down to the belt, not inches below like George W. Bush. The right tie can lift an outfit. At Hodder most of the time I wore a rather shabby corduroy jacket but with a splendid tie. A tie is one of the few ways that a buttoned-up Englishman can express himself. I have a magnificent blue and red polka dot Chloe tie that belonged to my grandfather. He was a rather forbidding figure but that tie showed that he had a playful side.That’s what I love about ties, they are a way of dressing up, showing off and being a bit of dandy without looking like a ponce.

Ties tell a story. There are old boys ties, regimental ties, livery ties and club ties. I know a few people who would kill to have an MCC tie.  They can have sentimental value too. As well as a number of my grandfather’s I have an old Oratory tie that belonged to a favourite uncle. As I didn’t go to the Oratory, I’m probably not supposed to wear it but I haven’t been pulled up on it yet.

Finally there’s a secret about the tie which the tieless hoards are missing out on, far from making you look stuffy and pompous, women love them. Very few women pick up on an expensive watch but I’ve lost count of the number of compliments that Chloe tie has received. If she plays with your tie, you’re probably in luck and a tie is custom designed for pulling you in for a kiss. Ties are sexy, dammit. We’d be mad to let them go without a fight. So wear a tie, even in fact especially when it’s not necessary. You’ll be happier, wealthier and sexier.

 

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Spirits This Week I'm Drinking

This week I’m drinking. . . . whisky & soda

It’s been a while since I did one of these and probably will be  a while before I do another one because I have been hard at work on a book which is due to come out in October this year (!) I’ll tell you more about it soon but it’s going to be a coffee table book about drinking and entertaining at home.

To fortify myself I’ve been drinking highballs. Well I’m not sure mine are quite highballs.  I was introduced to the joy of the highball by a semi-Japanese friend last month. Before then I’ve always tended to drink whisky neat or very lightly watered but the Japanese drink it heavily diluted with lots of ice to make a drink that’s as refreshing as a gin and tonic. In fact more refreshing because it’s much less sweet.

A proper high ball should be served in a tall glass with lots of ice and soda water. Mine are I suppose closer to an old whisky and soda like my nanny (my grandmother, not a lady in a starched outfit who was paid to look after me) used to drink. Mine are about 1 part whisky to 4 parts sparkling water with 3 or 4 standard size ice cubes.

But which whisky? I tend to use whatever comes to hand. There’s my heretical house blend which is tasting particularly fine at the moment thanks to an influx of Xmas whisky samples. Also the smoky Compass Box No Name whisky worked a treat as did Four Roses Small Batch bourbon. Whichever whisky goes in, a dash off orange bitters and a piece of orange or satsuma peel lifts the whole drink and gives it a liquid marmalade type quality.

You can drink them very weak indeed and they still taste marvelous. When I grow old and deaf, I’m going to be like nanny and answer every question after 12 noon with the word ‘whisky.’