“an oeuf is an oeuf”

The most-repeated Jeffreys family story concerns the time my grandfather tried to explain the joke “an oeuf is an oeuf” to a waiter in France. My father squirms with embarrassment when he recalls it, yet it never stopped him indulging in painful repartee with the locals on family holidays, and I have to admit when it comes to Franglais jokes I am a chip off the old block. Yet this great family tradition may be coming to an end. On a recent visit to Bordeaux, whenever I tried some of my schoolboy French on the locals, they would reply in perfect English.

In Pauillac, however, it was a different story.

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Me? Put in charge of a classic Alfa Romeo alongside a beautiful American actress? With MY reputation?

This is something I wrote for the Dabbler . It has nothing to do with booze, honest. 

The Alfa Romeo Giulietta has a special place in my heart. Six years ago I was given the job of driving one from Nice to London in the company of a beautiful Californian actress. The owner of the car, an American TV producer, was too busy to do it herself. A pretty car with a pretty companion, what could go wrong?

The 50s and 60s were a golden age for the Italian car. Ferrari, Maserati, FIAT and Lancia were producing some of the most beautiful cars ever made.  None of them though, quite had the charm of the little Giulietta. It was introduced by Alfa Romeo in 1954. Before the war Alfa had a position in Italian car manufacturing somewhat like Ferrari today. They made racing cars and handmade road cars. The Giulietta was quite a departure. It wasn’t that expensive, it was mass-produced and it wasn’t particularly fast. The early Giuliettas produced about 65 horsepower and could barely reach 100 mph. In their performance they were much more MG than Jaguar. But where they differed from their British rivals was in their engineering. Whereas your MGs and Triumphs were built from bits of more prosaic cars, the Alfas were at the cutting edge of 1950s technology. The Brits had lazy agricultural engines from pre-war saloons, the Alfas had an amazing high revving twin cam engine like a miniature racing car.

The Giulietta was a huge hit for Alfa with over 180,000 sold. The Americans in particular took it to their hearts. The first model was the two door Sprint designed by Bertone. This was followed in 1955 by the Berlina, a four door saloon, and the achingly beautiful Spider, a convertible designed by Pininfarina. It’s the one driven by Edward Fox in the Day of The Jackal. The combination of red-blooded Italian sports car and cold-blooded English killer was a potent one. Cinema loves the Giulietta: it appears in Fellini’s 8 ½ and La Dolce Vita though oddly in the latter film Marcello Mastroianni spends more time in a Triumph TR 3. A gorgeous red Giulietta Spider steals the show in the 1999 film the Talented Mr Ripley.

Our trip didn’t wasn’t quite as glamorous. Compared with the sleek lines of the Sprint or the Spider, ‘My’ Giulietta, a 1963 Berlina TI, looked a bit like an old police car. I looked decidedly scruffy in my shorts and polo shirt as we roared our way through dusty Provence. My raven-haired companion, however, could have passed for an Italian film star and the Berlina was hot stuff under the bonnet as it had a 1600 engine meaning it was as quick as a modern car (though the brakes were terrifyingly old-fashioned). The joy of driving one of  these is not so much in the outright speed, it’s in the driving experience. You have to learn to drive like an Italian, always be in a gear lower than you think you should and then rev that little engine so that it howls with joy. So will you as it’s one of the most intoxicating sounds known to man. Be warned though, do it too often enough and you might find yourself becoming an Alfaholic.

Sadly only 100 miles into our trip one of the tyres fell to pieces on the motorway and I ended up banging the side of the Giulietta on the concrete barrier of the hard shoulder. We were lucky not to be seriously hurt. The car survived, however, and is now living in semi-retirement near Swindon. And the beautiful Californian actress? Reader, I married her.

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What would drink marketers do without Napoleon, Nelson and Wellington?

It probably says something about me that I associate the forthcoming 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo on Sunday 18 June with alcohol more than anything else. I don’t think I’m alone though; British children are no longer taught about the Napoleonic wars at school, but the great names from the conflict are familiar to us from the labels on bottles. For drink marketers, Napoleon is the gift that keeps on giving.

Admiral Nelson, apparently.

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Is Steven Spurrier the most influential man in wine…. Ever?

The Munchies part of the Vice media empire have made a short film about Steven Spurrier.  If you’d told me that a few years ago that I’d see the words Vice and Spurrier in the same sentence, I would have said that’s about as likely as Kate Moss flying Easyjet. Truly we live in extraordinary times. The hyperbolic billing made me want to dislike this film:

“If it weren’t for him (Steven Spurrier), the industry would still be run by French aristocrats, and none of us would ever have heard of the Napa Valley.”

But I suppose they have a film to sell to people who have never heard of Steven Spurrier so one can forgive the rather breathless tone. The film itself is more understated and provides an interesting summary of Spurrier’s illustrious career. He comes across as a courteous man albeit someone with no sense of false modesty about his own influence or abilities as a taster. In short, he’s about as far away from the bumbling gentleman amateur that you might associate with a doyenne of the British wine trade. What was interesting was how mid-Atlantic his accent is, like an 80s Radio 1 DJ, thirties becomes thirdees.

The elephant in the room is of course Robert Parker (no offence, Bob) who is not mentioned in the film. You have to be very interested in wine to know who Spurrier is whereas Parker is a critic who has transcended his job. Parker, for better or worse, actually changed how wine tasted. Wine makers made wines that they thought he would like. He changed how people talked about wine too with his 100 point scale. I don’t think that Spurrier can or indeed would claim to exert anywhere near the same influence. Without his Judgement of Paris, there can be no doubt that Californian and other New World wines would still have become recognised as world-class. The Judgement was a symptom of, not the cause of, change in the wine world.

Spurrier’s timing, however, was impeccable and the contest has proved a talking point ever since spawning books, articles and films including Vice’s one which is well worth watching. Oh and this blogpost which is well worth reading too.

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You can no more keep a Martini in the refrigerator than you can keep a kiss there.

Tor the dedicated drinker, there’s no happier time than 6pm (or sometimes 5, if I’m on childcare duty). And there’s no better ode to this magical time than a very short book by American historian Bernard DeVoto, called The Hour: A Cocktail Manifesto. For DeVoto, only one drink will do when the clock strikes 6: the Martini – and he has strict views on how to make them.

A Martini must be freshly made – “You can no more keep a Martini in the refrigerator than you can keep a kiss there.”

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Right wing views, plus fours and Kummel

“He’s been at the kummel again,” the world-weary butler sighed deeply. He was a regular customer at the Knightsbridge wine merchant where I was assistant manager. Every week, he’d turn up in a black Range Rover and buy a case of this liqueur for his dipsomaniac charge, who he referred to with heavy irony as “the young master”. Our shop got through more Kummel than any other in the country. This went on for weeks until one night a dishevelled-looking youth ran into the shop waving a £20 note and screamed the word “kummel” over and over again until we gave him a bottle. He ran out, never to be seen again. It was clearly the young master, but what was this drink that had such a hold on him?

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Is vodka’s highest calling to be tasteless?

Why does no one make vodka this good?, I thought as I tried the sublime colourless liquid. I was at the Glenfarclas distillery on Speyside sampling their new make spirit (it cannot legally be called whisky until it has been aged for a minimum of three years but in Glenfarclas’ case it will be aged for much longer in former sherry casks). I’d assumed that most of the flavour in whisky came from the barrels but this liquid had so much character. There was a bready, beery quality that is hardly discernable in the aged spirit.

Vodka’s highest calling, in contrast, seems to be absolute (or perhaps that should be Absolut) tastelessness.  Russian Standard vodka bills itself as: ‘ultra-clean, smooth & delicious’ and made from ‘pure glacial water from the frozen north.’ The marketing guff for premium vodkas always concentrates on smoothness, purity, and how many times they have been distilled and charcoal-filtered. It’s the adman’s dream, a product with no distinctive flavour to get in the way of the marketing.

Until the mid-19th century most Russian and Polish vodkas would have been made much like whisky. This changed in 1895 when Czar Alexander III made vodka a state monopoly. Distillation switched to the recently invented rectification column which produces a stronger, purer and blander spirit. This neutral industrial spirit, only a whisper away from pure ethanol, became the model for vodka around the world. Happily for the discerning drinker there are a few companies doing things the old way. One is Vestal Vodka from Poland who produce highly-distinctive vodkas from potatoes. You can really taste the potato but also distinct notes of spice, fruit, caramel and pepper with a creamy texture.  You must drink them cool rather than ice cold.  Most of their vodkas are not only vintage, ie from a single potato harvest, but also from a single variety of spud.  These are vodkas that can compete with wine for complexity and sense of place.

It’s interesting to see if whisky might go down the same route. The barley in Scotch can come from anywhere – the only terroir qualities come from the climate and the water – but some distilleries are returning to local raw materials. A new distillery, Ballindalloch  just up the road from Glenfarclas (full disclosure – the master distiller Charles Smith is my uncle), have just started distilling from barley grown on their estate but won’t have anything to sell for a good few years. Perhaps they should sell a little vodka until their spirit matures. Vestal produce a vodka aged in sherry-seasoned barrels which has something of the single malt about it. Soon we won’t be able to tell where vodka ends and whisky begins. These are confusing times for booze traditionalists but with spirits this good, who really cares?

This originally appeared in the Guardian. 

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