The art of Campari

This is something I wrote a few years ago for the Daily Telegraph when Campari put on an exhibition of its posters in London.

You’d never get some the images in the forthcoming exhibition of classic Campari posters past the Advertising Standards Agency. There are figures who might appeal to children, adults who appear to be under 25 and, most shocking of all, images linking the consumption of Campari to seduction. Thankfully there were no such strictures in 20th century Italy when Campari commissioned a series of posters that blurred the line between art and advertising.

Campari has its origins in the heart of industrial Italy, Milan. In 1861, a cafe owner Gaspare Campari created a blend of 68 botanicals, neutral alcohol, water and sugar. That striking red colour came from cochineal beetles. A manufactured product, not governed by the whims of nature like wine nor weighed down by tradition, it was the perfect drink for a young country, Italy had only been unified in 1861, and for mass advertising. It was Gaspare’s son Davide who set about selling his drink first across Italy and then the world. 

The early advertising campaigns linked drinking Campari with glamour and sophistication. A 1913 poster by Marcello Dudovich shows a group of Edwardian ladies in elaborate pastel dresses and hats. It’s a classic image of Belle Epoque bourgeois contentment though one of the men standing with them is wearing a military uniform with sword which gives the poster a melancholy edge when one thinks what would happen the following year.  

Whereas the pre-war posters are fairly conventional, after the war, Campari advertising became decidedly avant garde. Futurism, the Italian artistic movement based on speed and modernity, embraced advertising wholeheartedly. The painter Giacomo Balla wrote: “any store in a modern town, with its elegant windows all displaying useful and pleasing objects, is much more aesthetically enjoyable than […] the grimy little pictures nailed on the grey wall of the passéist painter’s studio.” In the modern world people were not going to have time to stop in museums and look at pictures but will look at art on the street.  

This union of commerce and cutting edge art found its most playful exponent in Fortunato Depero (above). He wrote “the art of the future will be largely advertising” and in 1926 he began his long relationship with Campari. His style is instantly recognisable: monotone abstract images, tribal motifs, slogans and stylised figures collide  in a way that looks like early Russian revolutionary art but with a sense of humour. Most striking of all is his 1931 design for a pavilion, which was never built, where the entire structure is built out of the word Campari. Depero sealed his place in Italian culture with his design for the triangular premixed Campari and soda, the Italian equivalent of the Coca-Cola bottle. 

Campari’s advertising embraced others artistic styles: there was surrealism in the posters of Leonardo Cappiello, sinister-looking clowns jumping through hoops of orange, the dreamlike silhouettes of Ugo Mochi or my own personal favourites, cubist still lifes by Marcello Nizzoli where the Campari bottle takes centre stage (below). This was truly a melding of fine art and commerce.

All this took place under Mussolini’s fascist regime. Initially his vision chimed with the Futurists but following the 1929 Lateran treaty with the pope, Mussolini wanted art to show a Catholic, agrarian and family-orientated Italy. A similar reaction against the avant garde happened under Stalin but whereas Soviet propaganda art of the same period became kitsch, Campari cheerfully ignored Il Duce’s edicts and the adverts continued as before. Advertisers had more artistic freedom in fascist Italy than in modern day Britain.

After the war the adverts change, it’s out with modernism and in with pop art reflecting the optimism of Italy’s post-war boom. It’s advertising for the Fiat 500 generation. For me this part of the exhibition is less satisfying perhaps because the pop art style is already so soaked in advertising. Still there are some great images: a gamine Audrey Hepburn-esque figure (below – much too sexy for the ASA), a quirky image of Depero’s bottle with running legs (these first two by by Franz Marangolo), and a typographical poster that plays with the recognisability of the Campari brand. This last image by Bruno Munari is made of different fonts like a ransom note cut out of a newspaper. Again there’s dramatic irony here has it prefigures the political violence and kidnapping of the 1970s anni di piombo (years of lead) that would mark the end of Italy’s sunny postwar age. 

The golden age of poster advertising too came to the end at a similar time with the rise of television. Posters were now part of a larger multi media campaigns though Campari still aimed for the top: Federico Fellini directed a 1984 television advert. This exhibition celebrates a special moment in advertising history, a time when commercial art could be confident, joyful and beautiful. And effective too, aren’t you now craving the distinctive bittersweet taste of Campari? I know I am.

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Armenian brandy, the Johnnie Walker Black Label of the Soviet Bloc

This is something I wrote for a new drinks magazine called Tonic that I’m involved with. The first issue is out there, the second is coming and we’re working on the third. You can get a 10% discount off the magazine here with the code HWOB10 at check-out.

Armenian brandy was the Johnnie Walker Black Label of the USSR. If you wanted to smooth a transaction in Minsk, Smolensk or Vladivostock, then a bottle of konyak to the right man would usually do the trick. The Russian poet Osip Mandelstam referred to it as “the golden currency of cognac”. 

The Soviets had a parallel booze economy to the Western one: port and madeira-style wines were made at Massandra in Crimea, sturdy reds came from Georgia, Champanski from Moldova and, of course, Tokay from Hungary. Today Tokay has been revitalised and the Georgians are exporting to America but poor landlocked Armenia, trapped between enemies, Turks and Azeris, has little choice but to stay within the Russian sphere of influence.  Though the Armenians are nothing if not resourceful when it comes to their export markets: by the side of the road in Vayots Dzor province, you’ll see what looks like Coca Cola for sale; the bottles are actually filled with wine ready to be smuggled into the Islamic Republic of Iran.

It’s a mark of how bitterly the Armenians feel towards the Turks, that the Bolshevik occupation from 1920 to 1991 isn’t remembered too badly. In some parts of the USSR, the Russians tried to stamp out local culture but in Armenia, they encouraged it, to an extent. The capital, Yerevan, has many fine Soviet-era buildings that take their cues from traditional Armenian churches; they certainly look better than the kind of Dubai-lite architecture that is now springing up all over the city. 

The Ararat Distillery | Africa Thoughts

Two of these such buildings house the rival Ararat and Noy (Noy means Noah in Armenian and Mount Ararat was where Noah was said to have landed after the flood) distilleries. The former, housed in a redbrick building somewhat reminiscent of a monastery, is described in Vasily Grossman’s An Armenian Sketchbook (published in 1965) as “the distillery on a hill with a clear view of Mount Ararat”. The mountain, symbol of Armenia, towers over the city, but it’s now in Turkey.  

Both distilleries claim descent from the original Armenian brandy which was largely a creation of a Russian, Nikolay Shustov. So esteemed was Shustov brandy that at the International Exhibition in Paris of 1900, his firm won the right to call its product ‘cognac’.  During Soviet times, Armenian brandy was a great favourite of the Politburo. Churchill was said to have drunk it but then again Churchill was said to have drunk everything: no leader except perhaps Napoleon has done more to shift booze. 

Armenian brandy is double-distilled like cognac but from local grapes and aged in Caucasian oak. The cheaper ones are sweet and mellow, a small amount of sugar is added post-distillation, but the Ararat Nairi 20 year old can bear comparison with a good armagnac or cognac. The locals drink it rather as you would a dessert wine with coffee and chocolates. No meal in Armenia is complete until the bottle of cognac is on the table. 

Vasily Grossman wrote “cognac may be a French word but Armenian cognac is the best in the world; no grapes are as sweet as Armenian grapes. . .” Hyperbole certainly but there’s little doubt that even under Communism, it was a fine product. It’s better made today though.  Following independence in 1991, investors flocked in and cellars were modernised. Pernod-Ricard now own the Ararat brand, but it’s still little seen outside its traditional market. In a move the smacks of desperation, one distillery has taken to selling its brandy in novelty bottles in the shape of AK-47s and, oddly, penises. You can’t imagine them doing that in Cognac. 

I’ve just done an internet search and everyone in Britain seems to be out of stock with Ararat, perhaps something to do with Covid and the recent war with Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh.

The Tonic Magazine Ltd. Tonic Volume 1 Magazine
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Uncle Peter: a life in booze

Bit of a change of pace today. This is something I wrote based on the life of a relative who died a few years ago. It’s very lightly fictionalised. 

Uncle Peter wasn’t really an uncle. The day he called to invite me to lunch at his club in St. James’s was the first time he described himself as such. I told him I could take off an hour and half at most from work. ‘Nonsense my dear boy, we won’t have started eating by then,’ was his reply.

We agreed to meet the following week. I took a day’s holiday. He specified that I wear a business suit. The nearest thing I had was a shiny mohair number that I’d bought from a charity shop. The trousers were extremely tight. It was the kind of thing you can picture John Travolta wearing in Saturday Night Fever. That day the weather was sweltering and, as I sweated, the suit gave off a strong smell, a mixture of mothballs and the previous owner’s armpits. The doorman at the club looked at me sceptically. I almost asked for ‘Uncle Peter’ but at the last moment remembered his surname. I was shown in. The bar was full of men in impeccably conservative grey flannel suits. They looked up at me. My stinky old suit suddenly felt very tight on the crotch. The whole thing had been a terrible mistake.

Then Uncle Peter arrived. He was a handsome man in his early 60s with a big face like a friendly bear. He suggested we drink Pimms. He asked the barman to make it in pewter tankards with ginger ale and a shot of gin in each. ‘Pimms hasn’t been the same since they lowered the alcohol levels.’ I took a sip. He was right. I’d always found Pimms to be an insipid drink but with the gin and ginger ale, it was delicious. He drank his quickly and ordered another, it was a very hot day. He then acknowledged the waves, nods and ‘Peters’ from the other men in the room. ‘This is my nephew’ he said pointing at me, and they all smiled if not warmly then not coldly. 

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Peter hunting boar in Poland, before I knew him

We were the last to go through to the dining room. We began with a bottle of Sancerre to accompany our smoked eel followed by the house claret.  I can’t remember what we drank that with. Peter apologised for the quality of the red wine: ‘if I was still working I would have ordered Chateau Palmer’. Afterwards we sat in the lounge drinking Green Chartreuse with a QC who was dying of bowel cancer. 

They told me stories about the wild days of the club in the 1970s which were hard to follow but contained memorable lines such as: ‘do you remember that time when you fell asleep on the mantlepiece?’ or ‘and then I threw a stool at the Belgian ambassador’s chauffeur.’  Apparently the new members were terribly boring; Peter told me that when he was practising law, his working day would start work at 7am, he’d work until 1pm and then spend the rest of the afternoon at the club. 

That first  time we went to lunch, I hardly knew him. Peter appeared in our lives all of a sudden but very quickly it seemed like he’d always been there. My aunt had moved in with him when a house she was meant to be buying fell through and she found herself homeless. She had intended to move to France to eek out her meagre pension. 

She was a real aunt, my mother’s older sister, a rather grand lady in her 60s. She spoke like Katharine Hepburn but with rolled ‘R’s in the manner of her home city of Aberdeen. Years came out ‘yars’ and stereo was ‘steerrrrreo.’ In my teens I found her rather embarrassing and would try to avoid going for lunch with her. She’d never married. There had been boyfriends and proposals but none were good enough for her according to my mother. 

Though they never explicitly stated it, I gathered that she and Peter had been lovers back when he was married. Eventually she did buy a place in the Languedoc but carried on spending most of the year with Peter. They had rekindled their romance by this stage. He became her, I suppose the only word for it is, boyfriend. Not a very good word for a man of his age though there was something boyish about him. He brought out a girlish side to my aunt too especially when he teased her. She didn’t take teasing from anyone else. There are holiday photos of the two of them in the France, next to a huge plate of oysters and bottle of Picpoul de Pinet, looking like a couple of teenagers. She was nearly seventy at this point. 

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Peter and my aunt Marianne on their wedding day

Peter lived in a flat at the top of a building near Marylebone High Street. The next door’s flat used to belong to Ringo Starr. It was five floors up and there was no lift. The first time I met him, I was still recovering from climbing all those stairs when a beaming Peter, cigarette in hand, handed me a negroni. I’d never had one before. It tasted like the most alcoholic thing imaginable. Peter made them very large. We had two and then moved on to wine. I noticed that he got into a panic if he saw anyone’s glass getting low, ‘Maria!’ he’d bark at my aunt, ‘look at his glass, it’s almost empty.’ With the constant topping up of glasses, I  became very drunk. We all did. My aunt forgot to put the food on so we just carried on drinking. Again I began to have trouble following the conversation; Peter though just became more loquacious, his stories funnier though increasingly convoluted. 

Eventually supper was ready. Something involving duck, as I recall, but by this stage we are all much too far gone to care. The giddy atmosphere was only spoiled by a chart on the wall of the kitchen from Peter’s doctor with a step-by-step program to wean him off the drink. At the end it said ‘and then no alcohol again ever!’ This statement was underlined three times. It was really the only sign that he had a problem apart from the sheer amount that he drank. That and the odd lustrousness of his hair. Funny how alcoholics can be like that. You’ll see some old geezer on the streets, looking like he’s on his last legs, but with hair that most middle-aged men would kill for. About an hour after eating a look of deep melancholy came over Peter’s face and my aunt signalled that it was time for me to leave. 

Whenever I met Uncle Peter, we’d always drink. He loved old-fashioned boozers of the sort that are now dying out in London. One of his favourite pubs was a notorious place on Hackney Road called the British Lion. It was the sort of place where men in football shirts stand outside smoking aggressively and glaring at passers by. It didn’t intimidate Peter though. Whilst my aunt was at the nearby flower market on Columbia Road, Peter would drink Stella Artois with a whisky chaser and talk about racing with the locals. 

Despite his cravat and panama hat there was a classlessness about Peter that disarmed people. It helped that he knew his horses (though the time he gave me a list of tips for Cheltenham, none of them placed. ) He’d owned racehorses in the past. One of the happiest photos I have of him is with one of his horses at Aintree, whispering into its ear and looking absolutely at peace with himself. 

Peter loved all forms of gambling. He claimed to have paid his way through law school by playing poker. Later he gambled professionally in Las Vegas. One evening over drinks he leaned over to me and said: ‘if you want to stay up all night playing cards, never, ever take cocaine, promise me you won’t take cocaine, I’ve seen people lose their lives on cocaine. When I wanted to remain awake gambling, I stuck to whisky.’ He paused for a couple of seconds, then added ‘and Benzedrine.’ 

I laughed but when I look back now, I’m not sure his stories were meant to be funny. He wasn’t a raconteur, his conversation was always in earnest. One story in particular stayed with me: when he was at boarding school, Peter saved up and bought a bottle of whisky at the local pub. He told the landlord it was a present for a teacher. Peter then went out to the wood, built a fire and drank the whisky. A look of pure happiness came over his face as he reminisced. I asked him who he drank it with. ‘Oh no’ he replied ‘it was just me, the fire and the whisky. Mmmm bliss!’ There was a melancholy there so profound as to be unfathomable. Drink was the only thing that helped. He once managed to remain dry for a year whilst living in America, doing physical labour and taking antidepressants but he found life without alcohol intolerable.

Eventually the trips to the pub, the club or the East End became rarer and then dried up completely. It was all those stairs. He became housebound and, bored and irritated, he would drink more. He stopped eating. In the space of two years, he aged about twenty. The big bearish face became gaunt. The flat began to feel claustrophobic.  Far worse was the smell of stale alcohol and decay. The only trips out were to St Mary’s Hospital in Paddington when he would have to be carried down the stairs on a stretcher. 

Increasingly when I saw him, he talked about death. He would promise us paintings from the flat and then not remember next time we saw him. He wanted me to join his club. It was important to him that someone from the family continued the tradition. His own children had no interest. What kept him going was the thought that on his 70th birthday he’d have a big party there. It would be a last hurrah or as he described it, ‘one almighty piss-up.’ 

This didn’t always seem such an unlikely prospect. Some days he would rally and be like the Peter of old, full of stories and bonhomie. Fortunately one of these up days coincided with his marriage to my aunt. The ceremony was conducted in the flat which was packed with friends and family. Even Peter’s children attended. There was a seemingly endless supply of Pol Roger champagne. We all drank whilst Peter held court in the corner like a Mafia Don. Everyone came over to pay their respects but also, without quite realising it, to say goodbye.

The last time I saw him, my aunt invited me to share some foie gras she’d brought back from France. I came over to the flat with my wife and recently-born daughter who Peter doted on despite her terrible baby acne. He dug out some good claret, Chateau Gloria, though he stuck to whisky. For an hour we ate and Peter drank. 

He looked terrible. His skin yellow as if it had been rubbed with turmeric. Strange noises emanated from his stomach. Soon he grew tired, excused himself and went to bed. He didn’t rest quietly though, throughout the evening we heard him crying forlornly for my aunt to make him a negroni. He sounded like a frightened child.

He died the following week. Years later now, I still think of him often. Though I try to recall the Peter of our first lunch together, I can’t forget that the lost frightened voice of that last dinner.  And on a hot day, I order Pimm’s with an extra shot of gin though I try to limit myself to one. 

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A visit to Zorah wines in Armenia

I wrote this for the Spectator a few years ago but it doesn’t seem to be available online anymore. Perhaps something to do with Turkish computer hackers waging cyberwar on Armenia. Or perhaps a cock-up at the Spectator. One of the things that struck me when I visited back in 2016 was that the feeling among the people I spoke to that at any moment the country’s enemies would attack. They sounded paranoid to someone with my pampered English upbringing but as last year’s war with Azerbaijan backed by Turkey showed, the danger is very real. Anyway, hope you enjoy the article, and do try some of Armenia’s excellent wines.

Every 100 metres or so on the main road to Iran that runs through the Vayots Dzor province of Armenia there is a stall selling tomatoes, watermelons and Coca-Cola. I was with an Italian-Armenian businessman Zorik Gharibian and his wife Yeraz, and they suggested we stop at one. On closer inspection those bottles didn’t contain Coke, it was red wine cunningly packaged to smuggle into the Islamic Republic of Iran. We went into the nearby house and there was the winemaker, Haykaz Karapetyan, cigarette in mouth making that year’s wine in plastic bins. “No chemicals” he said. This was proper natural wine.  It smelt good, like a young Beaujolais with the same floral quality.  We then went into his cellar to try some older vintages. The 2015 had a distinct tang of vinegar. The 2012 tasted of old socks.

Diaspora Armenians

The Gharibians make wine too and from the same grape, Areni Noir, but it is rather different. Their nearby winery is called Zorah and their red, Karasi, costs about £25 in London shops. They are both diaspora Armenians, Zorik brought up in Italy, and Yeraz in London and New York. They wanted to buy a vineyard in Tuscany but following a visit to the mother country in 1998 decided to make wine in Armenia. “It was like I’d come home” as Zorik described it. Around 2000 they came across the region around the town of Areni (after which the variety is named) which turned out to be a viticultural paradise. It’s phylloxera free (though other parts of Armenia are not); there’s plenty of sunshine but the grapes preserve their acidity, “freshness comes naturally because of altitude” Zorik told me.  

Armenia is littered with the most amazing churches (photo from Liberty wines)

The landscape with its precipitous cliffs, caves and ancient monasteries would be the perfect setting for a new Indiana Jones film. The arid mountains are peppered with bright spots of cultivation including Zorah’s main vineyard thanks to a recently constructed irrigation pipe built with money from the World Bank. After they bought the land, experts in Armenia and back in Italy advised them to plant Cabernet Sauvignon.“When we said we wanted to do something with local varieties people were laughing at us.” Italian oenologist Alberto Antonini, though, saw the potential in Areni Noir. After years of experimentation with different Areni clones, they planted the vineyard in 2006. 

The first vintage was 2010. Straight away they knew that they had made  something exceptional but it hasn’t been easy. In the early years they made wine in a garage. It took an age to built their new winery because in Zorik’s words “the locals still have a Soviet mentality.” Apparently in their province there is only one cement mixer. In order to make wines to their exacting standards, they import almost everything, the presses, the fermentation tanks, the barrels, even the bottles, labels and the boxes, from Italy. The Gharibians had no idea how much they have spent on the project, “in winemaking you don’t do the maths” as Zorik put it. 

6,000 years of wine making

As well as local varieties, they wanted to use traditional Armenian winemaking techniques including ageing in amphora, Karasi in Armenian. Initially they aged some of the wine in barriques which imparts flavours from the wood but now they just use amphora and Italian botti (giant wooden barrels that don’t add any flavour). You can taste the results, the recent vintages have a whole new vivacity.  Zorah make a special cuvee, called Yeraz (after his wife, the word means dream in Armenian), from an unirrigated abandoned vineyard 1600 metres above sea level and around a hundred years old. It’s a good 45 minute drive up the mountain in a 4×4. Actually vineyard isn’t quite the right world as the Areni vines are basically growing wild amongst boulders and walnut trees. “So exciting when we discovered the vineyard. Zorik and Alberto were like kids in a sweet shop” Yeraz said. The yet to be released 2014 is undoubtedly one of the finest wines I have tried this year.

Zorik Gharibian in the winery with his amphorae

From the Zorah winery you can see a gaping cave in the cliffside. Here archaeologist Boris Gasparyan has found evidence of winemaking from about 4,000 BC. He showed me around the partially excavated site, it is not open to the public, and pointed out the jars that looked uncannily like Zorik’s amphora. He then pointed to other jars which contained traces of bones and blood probably from human sacrifice. Or a party that got out of hand.  Evidence of Armenia’s ancient wine culture is everywhere. There are grape motifs on monasteries, churches and even  on Soviet era buildings. I saw wild vines, vitis sylvestris, growing by a river and dotted around the country, by the side of the road, in restaurants and family houses, are amphora like the ones at Zorah winery.  

Regaining Armenia’s vinous roots

Nobody uses them for making wine anymore. Nobody even knows how to make them so the Gharibians dig them out of people’s basements. Armenia has lost touch with its vinous roots. Following the World War One and the massacres by the Turks, Armenians scattered around the world or were reduced to this mountainous country which was then invaded by the Bolsheviks. Armenia “caught between the hammer and the anvil” as the saying goes. It gives you some idea of how the Armenians suffered under the Ottomans that they aren’t particular bitter about Russian rule. But it was disastrous for wine. “Soviets broke link completely” Zorik told me. Central planning designated Georgia for wine and Armenia for brandy. Zorah have an amphora made in 1957 but shortly afterwards people stopped making them and then their own wine. 

There was more misery to come (something of a theme in Armenian history) the 1988 earthquake, and, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, war with Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh. It still feels like a precarious country. People half expect Turks, Mongols or Persians to come charging through at any moment. Nevertheless, Yerevan does have much of the trapping of a modern city with free wi fi, craft beer and wine bars. At one, Wine Republic, I tried a selection of good simple wines from small producers including Van Ardi and Sarduri. Quality wine of this sort has only been made in Armenia since the late 00s. “You couldn’t drink this stuff five years ago” Zorik said pointing to a bottle. Wine bars, though, are only for the well off.  Bottled wine is too expensive for most people.

The Gharibians aren’t the only diaspora Armenians involved with the wine business. Vahe Keushguerian, originally from Lebanon with spells making wine in Italy, runs a wine consulting company based in Yerevan called Semina Consulting. They have recently set up a nursery to supply Armenian winemakers with native varieties. But his biggest project, Karas, is based largely on international grapes and despite the name does not use amphora. It was set up by Eduardo Eurnekian, an Argentine-Armenian who made his fortune in airports including Yerevan’s. Superstar French oenologist Michel Rolland is also involved. The 2013 Reserve, made from Petit Verdot, Montepulciano and Tannat, I tried was not one of his finer efforts being rather overripe and over-oaked.  

My heart’s in the Highlands

Zorik is fiercely opposed to non-native varieties. On my last night in Armenia I had dinner with the Gharibians, Boris the archaeologist and Marina Dallakyan and Iskuhi Manukyan from Yerevan University who are cataloguing indigenous grapes. They were appalled that someone is planning on planting Chardonnay to make wine for the Russian market.  Their hope is that the international success of Zorah will inspire others to capitalise on Armenia’s viticultural riches. It’s a rich country in other ways with ancient monasteries that anywhere else would be thronged with visitors, great food, and fiercely proud friendly people. 


After dinner Boris stood up and glass in hand, made a toast, that ended, much to my surprise, with a Robbie Burns recitation: “my heart’s in the Highlands wherever I go.” It reminded me of a line from a short story by William Saroyan about how Armenians carry their country within them and “when two of them meet anywhere in the world, see if they will not create a New Armenia.” Zorik and Yeraz have done just this with Zorah. It could be the start of viticultural revival or, as Zorik said cheerfully, “it could all disappear tomorrow.” It is Armenia after all.

Waitrose have the latest vintage of Zorah Karasi in stock.

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You say Pinot Noir, I say Spätburgunder

This is something I wrote for a now defunct website a couple of years ago. Thought it held up quite well so I’m republishing it.

Germany makes wine from the most revered red grape in the world but you won’t see the words Pinot and Noir on the label. Whilst every other country uses variations on the French, trust the Germans to have their own word: Spätburgunder, meaning late (ripening) Burgundian (they also have Weissburgunder and Grauburgunder which are Pinots Blanc and Gris respectively.)

This idiosyncratic labelling is perhaps why few people realise that Germany is the world’s third biggest grower of Pinot Noir; one region, Baden in the south west of the country, grows more Pinot than New Zealand.  But these wines are also obscure because the Germans like drinking them so much that they are rarely exported.

Pinot Noir, sorry Spätburgunder, has been planted for so long in Germany that it is thought of as a local variety. It originated in Burgundy but probably came to Germany some time in the Middle Ages with Cistercian monks.  From Baden in the south to Ayr in the north, Pinot Noir is grown all over the country. Even in the the Mosel valley, Germany’s coldest region, very much Riesling central, they grow Pinot Noir. 

Anne Krebiehl , a German Master of Wine, told me that Pinot Noir was once widely planted in the Mosel but was outlawed in 1937 though nobody is quite sure why:  “most people jump to the very easy explanation “The Nazis outlawed it.” But it is incredibly difficult to find the substantiating paperwork” Kriebel said. Riesling was very valuable at the time so perhaps it was just a way of maximising returns from the land but it wasn’t banned anywhere else in Germany. Pinot Noir was only officially readmitted in 1987. 

The vine growers in the Mosel (above) are now making up for lost time. Martin Lehnert at Lehnert-Veit has planted some of his best vineyards with Pinot Noir instead of Riesling. In the Mosel’s cool climate only the steepest southern facing slopes that get the most sunlight will do for this often tricky grape. You might think therefore that the wines would be skinny, like an English red wine, but they are vibrant and ripe with an almost New Zealand intensity of fruit – perhaps not such a surprise as Martin Lehnert has worked in New Zealand.

In warmer regions such as Baden, Pfalz and Ayr, the wines are richer, sometimes positively overflowing with ripe fruit. Reds from Germany used to be a bit of a joke but now a German Pinot Noir is generally a much safer better than anything of equivalent price from Burgundy. “So far climate change has been good for us” Martin Lehner told me. But improvements in German reds are not just down to global warming. Producers are (re) discovering the best sites for red grapes, learning how much oak to use and planting better quality clones (there are different types of Pinot Noir.) Martin Molitor uses cuttings taken from from Chambolle-Musigny in Burgundy and I heard a rumour that one producer even pinched some cuttings from Domaine de la Romanee Conti, the world’s most expensive estate. 

Not everyone is so keen though. One of Germany’s biggest producers, Ernie Loosen, told me “Pinot Noir in the Mosel is like Shiraz in Burgundy”. He grows just a tiny bit which he makes into a sparkling rosé. Shiraz might be a bit outlandish but producers are seriously thinking about how the climate might change. Jan Matthias Klein at Staffelter Hof is hedging his bets with Portuguese varieties, Maria Gomes and Ariento.  “Maybe we’ll have to plant Cabernet in future” Peter Lehnert joked with me.

That’s a long way off though, I tried a Merlot, a variety that ripens before Cabernet, from the Mosel which tasted more like you’d expect a German red to taste i.e. a bit green. But I had another that wasn’t made from Pinot Noir that really impressed me. Made by Louis Klein, it was a Pinot Meunier, the least feted of the Pinot family. Naturally the Germans don’t call it anything as simple as Pinot Meunier, no way Josef, it’s Schwarzriesling – black Riesling. Those crazy Germans!

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Bomber – Len Deighton

With the news that Penguin is reissuing the Len Deighton back catalogue with snazzy new covers from April this year, I thought it was as good a time as any to post this article I wrote for Slightly Foxed on one of my favourite Deighton novels, Bomber.

Whilst reading Len Deighton’s Bomber, I was reminded of Solzhenitsyn’s line to do evil a human being must first of all believe that what he’s doing is good.” Bomber is a novel about the area bombing of Germany. Targeting German cities and civilians is a part of Britain’s war that is still extremely controversial. It doesn’t fit into the heroic narrative of the Battle of Britain, D Day or the Blitz. Almost alone amongst British forces in World War Two, bomber crews were not issued with a campaign medal when the war ended. The debate as to whether area bombing was a necessary evil or simply just evil inspires historians and writers to this day.

Deighton is perhaps uniquely placed to answer this question. After completing Bomber, he probably knew more about the entirety of the bombing campaign from both Allied and Axis perspectives than any man. It is based on years of research. The acknowledgements give you some idea of how much work Deighton put into the book. He flew as a passenger in a Heinkel so he could understand the experience of German fighter crew. He spoke not just with veterans and historians but also, in order to get the details right, to “Don Elms and Mike Wooller (who) helped me to find Anglo-American and German popular songs.” 

Bomber takes place over over 24 hours in June 1943 in three main locations: a British bomber airfield in East Anglia, a German radar station in Holland and a small German town called Altgarten near the Dutch border. The cast is vast but there are a few principles around whom the narrative is anchored. On the British side there’s Samuel Lambert who pilots a Lancaster bomber known as “the Creaking Door”. Despite captaining the plane, he isn’t an officer. In fact Lambert is disliked by some of the senior officers because he’s not what would be described now as a “team player.” Literally in this case, it is his refusal to play for his squadron cricket team despite his skill as a bowler that so annoys the Group Captain, a man fond of sporting metaphors. He says at one point: “cricket’s a little like flying in combat. . . . long leisurely times in the pavilion followed by brief moment when a chap faces some fast bowling.” There’s something of the Angry Young Man about Lambert in his disdain for this public school insouciance. 

As with other Deighton novels such as The Ipcress File (memorably made into a film with Michael Caine), class permeate the interactions of the British. The RAF is presented as snobbish and hidebound by rules: “the English believe that only gentlemen can be leaders” a character says at one point. But the class system isn’t Lambert’s only problem, early in the novel, he speaks out against bombing civilian targets and is quickly slapped down. Far more to the taste of the senior officers is Captain Sweet, an unpleasant scheming figure who lacks both Lambert’s experience and leadership qualities but was “regarded as office material from the day he joined up. He had a clear, high voice, energy, enthusiasm and an unquestioning readiness to flatter and defer to the voice of authority.” 

The German scenes revolve around Auguste Bach, a widower and commander of the radar station in Holland, whose young family are over the border in Altgarten. He is falling in love with the children’s nanny, Anna-Luisa, who is barely out of her teens. Initially she is portrayed as a dreamer and a naif but she’s not quite all she seems. The other principal Germans include the mayor of Altgarten, the Burgomaster, who is more preoccupied with organising his birthday party than the war and Lowenherz, a ace fighter pilot whose job it is to intercept RAF bombers. He’s from an old military family and torn between doing his patriotic duty and speaking out against the full horrors of the Nazi regime. 

The German sections are often the richest because we see more of the family life of the characters. There are no caricatures of heel-clicking Germans. Even the characters who commit the worst deeds are humanised and even made appealing such as the amoral Viennese doctor Hans Furth. Deighton  has done this before in his novel Winter: a Berlin Family 1899-1945 where the only Nazi in the Winter family is also the most charismatic character. 

The main plot is simple. A huge force of British aeroplanes, some 400, fly over to Germany to destroy the industrial city of Krefeld. It is the job of the Germans such as Lowenherz and Bache to stop them. Such bare bones don’t do justice to the swirl of subplots beneath the surface. Characters scheme, plot, fall in love, have personal triumphs and failures, and all the time we never forget that every single one of them is a human being. Bomber’s enormous cast includes airmen, soldiers, firemen, nurses, doctors, wives and civilians of all descriptions.  Deighton’s skill is in sketching them so deftly that the reader is never confused. For example Reinecke, Bach’s senior NCO, is both a “senior NCO of the old school” and a keen bird watcher. The first half of the novel is involved in establishing the characters.

It’s not only the characters who have back stories. The sleepy German market town of Altgarten is given such a rich history that you will be surprised to learn that it is not a real place. Deighton is particularly good at writing about inanimate objects. Each Lancaster bomber, such as the aptly-named “Creaking Door”, has its own personality. Julian Symons, a crime writer and contemporary, once remarked that Deighton was the only person he knew who actually liked machines. In Bomber the men are merely tiny cogs in a fighting machine. “It’s as though the plane goes to bomb Germany of its own predatory volition, as though it takes us along just for the ride” as a character notes.

Men and machines come together in a cinematic climax. The cuts between Germany, Holland and Britain that had taken place over chapters now take place over paragraphs or even lines. Deighton describes aerial combat as “three groups of men using every device that science could invent began to grope around the blackness like gunmen in a sewer.” If intercepting aircraft is a haphazard affair then precision aerial bombing is a chimera. Quickly the British plan unravels. A German fighter shoots down a light British aircraft, a Mosquito. The crew jettison their marker bombs over Altgarten rather than on the industrial city of Krefeld: “by now attention has centred on Altgarten and the plan had began to go terribly wrong.” The British were convinced they’d got the right target because Altgarten’s greenhouses looked to radar like “enormous factories”. 

The dry weather and wind whip the partly wooden town into a fireball. The portrait of a town being destroyed building by building is a tour de force. Area bombing as practised by the Allies is presented in horrific detail: “even after the last of the bombers had departed the effectiveness of the fire-fighting and salvage teams would be hampered by the delayed-action bombs. They would continue to explode for two more days.” Even those that survive are terribly damaged: “for some survivors it was the beginning of a mental breakdown from which they would never recover.” 

Rather as in Game of Thrones, characters with which we have become invested in are discarded with shocking suddenness and often appalling violence. The death of Kokke, a German pilot, killed by a bird through the windscreen, is described like this: “it was impossible to distinguish where the bird’s remains ended and Kokke’s face began.” A major character survives the raid and then dies in a motorcycle accident after he has landed.  Deighton follows his characters’ thoughts right to the bitter end; there is an epilogue where the surviving characters lives are sketched in a way that is both bathetic, humorous and peculiarly moving: “Peterson lives in Montreal and is vice-president of a small company that makes camping equipment.”

It is at times a very funny novel: “you don’t believe in this war” Cohen says. “Believe in it? . . . you make it sound like a rumour.” Lambert replies. It’s endlessly quotable: Hans Furth is described as “nibbling the German language like sachertorte. . “ For Gerda Pippert crashing the Burgomaster dinner is “the most exciting prospect she could remember since her holiday in Heidelberg in 1938”.  Voss, a German tailor, thinks: “some people said things against them, but the Nazis had done wonders for the uniform business, whatever other faults they might have.” 

We are used to World War One art being bleak but the popular view of the British role in World War Two is largely a creation of stirring films such as The Dam Busters or sentimental songs. In Bomber there are no patriotic cliches, nobody is ennobled by war. Sweet is still an unpleasant fool (spoiler alert here) as he crashes into the ground at 300mph. When an unnamed airman dies we are told that “they never mentioned his name again”. Ruth Taylor, Lambert’s wife sums up the antiheroic ethos of the novel: “Disgrace is only for men. Save talk of that for your schools and your clubs and your old comrades’ dinners. Save talk of disgrace until you lose your cricket match or for your next hesitant hero.”

Apart from the epilogue, the novel ends with the return of the surviving British bombers to East Anglia. The crew congratulate themselves on a job well done but a lowly WAAF corporal looks at the photos taken from the aircraft and realises that they have missed their target. It’s then that you realise that the men are going to have to go back on the next clear night and finish the job. This ending reminded me of Solzhenitsyn again, this time One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. All that struggle and to survive one day in the Gulag; Bomber shows only one day in one small corner of the war. Tomorrow there will be more bombing raids over Germany, occupied Europe and Japan. The horrors of a botched raid on a town such as Altgarten won’t even get a mention in histories of World War Two. Deighton leaves the reader to make up their own mind about the morality of area bombing. He is simply saying, this is how it was, and it’s impossible to argue with. 

 

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Booze interview: Anne Burchett

Today I’m delighted to have wine professional and writer Anne Burchett on the blog. She’s the author of a tale of skulduggery in the wine business, Tasting Notes.

There seems to be something in the air when it comes to wine and literature. I spoke with Peter Stafford-Bow last year about his series of wine farces, in 2019 top wine writer Jamie Goode released a novel, Richard Hemming MW has a novel in the pipeline, and rumour has it that Tim Atkin is working on a play loosely based the life of Andrew Adonis. Now into this semi-crowded arena marches Anne Burchett with Tasting Notes. She sent me over a massive biog but suffice to say that she’s done pretty much everything in the wine trade with stints in particular at Castel and Sopexa.

Her novel, which has just been published, features a heroine not unlike Burchett herself, born in France but has spent so long in Britain that she’s gone native. Chris, a lady, works for a French wine giant called Villa which has recently acquired a once vibrant but now ailing chain of British called The Wine Shop. Chris Losh, Mr Fake Booze himself, described it like this: “Sex and drugs and rocks and Rolle. It’s like Jilly meets Jancis with one-liners and a half-case of Chablis.” It’s that rare thing, a novel about office life with its tyrants, indignities, heroes and traitors. So even if you know nothing about wine or the wine trade, then you’ll find much to enjoy. There’s one character in particular, Arnaud, who reminded me of a publisher I once worked with who didn’t understand the difference between fiction and non-fiction. Having said that, if you used to work for an ailing chain of British wine merchants (hint, hint), much of the book, especially the carnage at the wine fair in Edinburgh, will be especially funny. She’s also particularly good at the mutual incomprehension between the British and the French, with Chris in the middle, neither one thing nor the other.

Here’s Anne to tell us more about the book and her career:

Anne Burchett author of Tasting Notes

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Was there a one bottle that first got you into wine?

Sadly no. Like most French children of my generation, I was exposed to wine early on but none of it was memorable: I drank champagne at family occasions from birth, and Sauternes, which I liked because it was sweet. My grandfather made his own wine, in Corrèze, which was almost undrinkable. I used to spend some of my holidays with him and my grandmother and they would add red table wine to my drinking water and to my soup to ‘faire chabrol’, a custom from the South of France whereas you drink the broth mixed with red wine straight from the bowl after you’ve eaten the chunks of vegetable with a spoon.

Why did you go into the wine trade?

My first job was with Procter & Gamble, selling nappies. I wasn’t overly fond of my clients but I liked the job. After about a year, I went on a Club Med holiday on my own and the heartthrob of the week – there’s always one on package holidays – told me in front of a large audience that, as I talked about my job all the time, I should consider something less boring than nappies [ouch! Ed.]. It stung and I resigned on my first day back. Wine seemed a suitable alternative to nappies. Also I liked the idea of my job making a difference, of doing my bit to preserve vineyards, landscapes and a way of life. I’m still friend with the heartthrob and never miss an opportunity to remind him he changed my life for the better.

Have you always wanted to write?

Yes. I’ve always been a voracious reader, although less so nowadays, and writing my own book, even though it felt like an impossible dream for many years, was always at the back of my mind.

Which novelists or other writers inspire you?

Far too many to give them all credit but I love three things in a novel: a good story, learning something new and those deceptively simple observations about places, characters and situations that stay in your mind for a long time after you’ve finished the book. Jane Austen was a master of the latter, as were Agatha Christie and Daphne du Maurier: I can’t look at rhododendrons without thinking of Manderley. I love Fred Vargas’ detective stories because of the added historical titbits and because they’re so intelligently written. When I first moved over here and my English wasn’t great, I devoured a mountain of easy-reading historical fiction, starting with Forever Amber and taking in long forgotten books such as Lady of Hay or Sarum, to ‘learn about British history’. When it comes to storytelling, Alexandre Dumas – the Count of Monte Cristo is one of the best tales ever – and Tolkien – which I was lucky to read for the first time when I was old enough to appreciate it – are masters. And then there are geniuses such as Toni Morrison, super talented wordsmiths such as Stephen Faulks, Douglas Kennedy, David Mitchell and books that made strong impressions: Alone in Berlin by Hans Fallada, The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair by Joel Dicker, Under the Skin by Michael Faber, Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. There are so many, as many and as diverse as wines.

Where did the idea for Tasting Notes come from?

Crisis at work are standard and there are processes to solve them. I’ve unfortunately found myself several times in situations where colleagues resorted instead to blame shifting and gaslighting, which wasn’t even a word then. Desperately trying to make sense of something nonsensical, to the point when you end up questioning your own sanity, is not an experience I would wish on my worst enemy but one I felt was worth sharing.

What has the reaction been from the trade?

99% supportive, and some people have been absolutely amazing.

What did you learn from doing a creative writing degree? Would you recommend it to budding novelists?

The MA was expensive and time consuming, but it was a glorious year when I did tons of reading and learned a craft. Remember that English isn’t my mother tongue. It was also brilliant to be surrounded by like-minded people from different walks of life. It made writing real, a bit like antenatal classes made motherhood real.

Would you rather be writer or a wine merchant?

A writer, but I still need to earn a living.

What’s your dream wine / best bottle you’ve ever had?

Possibly a Petrus 1995 at a party at Vinexpo. My one regret is that the best wines I’ve ever had were too often either at tastings, or business dinners or lunches when I couldn’t savour them properly.

And your everyday favourite wine at the moment?

It’s a bit like books, there are many. From the top of my head, current sub £10 – on special offer – favourites include Muga rose, Vidal Fleury Côtes du Rhône, Minervois Château Maris, Vasse Felix Chardonnay. I buy a lot of wine from Waitrose when they have 25% off, and Yapp too and The Wine Society through my ex-husband. I am a big fan of the Loire and the Languedoc, and in the summer I have Gruner Veltliner and Albariño on tap.

Find out more at Anne Burchett’s website

Tasting Notes Anne Burchett

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Could the sherry revival finally be happening?

With news that for the first time since the 1970s sherry sales are on the rise, I take a look at what might behind the (modest) boom.

The first article I ever wrote for this blog was on sherry back in 2010. At the time there was a lot of stuff in the press about how sherry was now cool for the first time since about 1920. I think it was the confluence of Gonzalez Byass doing a big PR push for Tio Pepe and the arrival of some proper Spanish restaurants in London like Fino and Barrafina rather than the brown earthenware dish plus microwave that typified most tapas places in England. Unfortunately, the great sherry revival never really went beyond the features pages of the Observer; sales continued to decline and wine writers continued to lament that nobody was drinking sherry. Even in these trendy new Spanish restaurants most people were drinking Albariño or Rioja.

Now, however, things really do seem to be changing with the Co-op, Majestic and Nielsen all reporting that sales are up in an article on the BBC website. This is put down to the ‘tapas effect’, people wanting to recreate the tapas experience in their own homes. From talking to restauranteurs like Jose Pizarro, apparently younger customers are more receptive to sherry so there’s definitely something in this but I think it’s a bit more complicated than that.

It was always the received opinion among enthusiasts that if you treated sherry like a table wine, serve it chilled in big glasses and make sure it’s in the wine section of menu, then people who loved Albarino or Godello would migrate to sherry. Jason Millar from Theatre of Wine wrote a very good article recently for Off Licence News Drinks Retailing News on how this was the wrong approach because sherry does not taste anything like a  modern. He writes: “In my experience, the greatest barrier with sherry is that despite the efforts of many to make us treat it like a table wine, it does not behave like a table wine.” He goes on to say how sherry is really more like whisky.

I think this gets to the root of the sherry revival. Sherry might taste peculiar for palates brought up on New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc but if you’re a whisky, vermouth or cocktail drinker, then sherry doesn’t taste strange at all. I’ve noticed this as I now write mainly about spirits and whisky fans tend to be very receptive to sherry partly because whisky is often aged in old sherry casks so learning about whisky involves learning about sherry, but also because the two drinks share certain similarities. Darker sherries like amontillados and olorosos often have flavours of nuts, dried fruit, orange peel, brown sugar and toffee, just like a good whisky. The spirits comparison is useful for thinking about the time to drink sherry too. Yes, it is a great food wine, but it’s also an excellent aperitif, after dinner sipper and indeed cocktail ingredient.

The other drink that did well during lockdown was port. Adrian Bridge from Taylor’s told me that the British market grew with sales of white port particularly strong. What’s interesting is that as the market for wine declines, fortified wines are bucking the trend precisely because they are perceived to be more like spirits than wines, and spirits are cool. It’s taken a ten years but sherry might finally be coming back into fashion.

Link here to something I wrote for BBC Good Food magazine on my top ten sherries. 

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Slightly Foxed article: two favourite drink books

This is an article that appears in the latest edition of Slightly Foxed magazine on two of my favourite drink books: The Hour by Bernard deVoto and Everyday Drinking by Kingsley Amis. It’s always a great privilege to contribute to SF, a quarterly magazine where writers are allowed to write a length about books they love. I’d highly recommend you subscribe. The team also reissues classic books, does an entertaining podcast and puts on very jolly reader days.

Sayre’s Law states: “In any dispute the intensity of feeling is inversely proportional to the value of the issues at stake.”  I’ve noticed this in the booze world. Some people take the question of whether a Martini should be shaken or stirred, or whether to put fruit in an Old Fashioned very seriously. This can make much speciality drink writing a little, how can I put it, niche.

There are two ways out of this bind: one is to take a bluff no-nonsense approach, and admit that it doesn’t really matter in the end. The other is to take it so seriously that it verges on but doesn’t quite drop into ridiculousness. You can see the contrasting approaches in my two favourite writers on the subject, Kingsley Amis and Bernard DeVoto (below).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I am sure for most readers, Amis needs no introduction but I’d never heard of DeVoto before my wife gave me a small hardback called The Hour: A Cocktail Manifesto. I learned later that DeVoto was an historian and journalist of some repute in America. He won both the Pulitzer and the National Book Award, he edited the letters of Mark Twain and for 20 years had a column in Harper’s Magazine. I am sure these were all worthy works but I cannot imagine that any of them has given the world as much pleasure as this slim volume first published in 1948.

The Hour was out of print for a long time but, thanks to its cult status amongst booze enthusiasts, has since been reissued. The book is in four parts: the first looks at a history of American drinking, the second the correct way to make drinks, the third the wrong way and final part is an ode to the joys of the cocktail hour. Born in 1897, DeVoto would have known the old tavern culture of New York and caught the end of the golden age of the cocktail. He would have seen them destroyed by Prohibition, visited speakeasies and known the deep sadness of being unable to find good liquor. But when I say the first section is history, it’s more of a riff on history. Reading De Voto ,one has to indulge in a kind of cognitive dissonance. He both means it, and doesn’t mean it. The trick is realising that whilst he is winking at you, he is also deadly serious. 

Take his view on whiskey, for example: for DeVoto it is the true American spirit. It brings the country together. Whether you’re a Northerner or a Southerner, Republican or Democrat, everything is better after a drink: “and I’ll have mine with soda but not drowned. The barb is blunted, the knife sheathed. . . in a few minutes we will see each other as we truly are, sound men, stout hearts, lovers of the true and upholders of the good.” I’ll have what he’s drinking. This is the DeVoto style, soaring, heroic but with a gleam in his eye.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Better even than whiskey (rye or bourbon not Scotch!) is “that other supreme American gift to world culture, the Martini.” His preferred ratio is 3.7 parts gin to 1 part vermouth with lemon oil expressed over the drink but don’t drop the twist in, no olives and certainly no onions, and don’t make them in advance either: “you can no more keep a Martini in the refrigerator than you can keep a kiss there.” This is what you read DeVoto for, the pedantry and a magical prose style that always stays the right side of purple. It’s like making a Dry Martini, too much gin and the magic is spoiled. A Martini should be strong enough that: “we believe, if we watch carefully, at any moment we may see the unicorn. But it would not be a Martini if we should see him.” The Hour is full of wonderful images like this.

Just as important as the proper way to make a cocktail, are the drinks that are verboten: “Remember that the three abominations are: (1) rum, (2) any other sweet drink, and (3) any mixed drink except one made of gin and dry vermouth in the ratio I have given.” DeVoto even gives name to his foes, Chuck and Mabel. They are the kind of suburban drinkers who have a bar with a sign on it saying “Danger: Men Drinking”, stirrers shaped like naked ladies, and make lurid sweet cocktails from recipes found in cookbooks and household magazines.

So yes, he’s a bit of an urban snob, disdaining the provincials, or perhaps posing as one. He writes at one point: “The Martini is a city dweller, metropolitan, all cultural subtleties belong to the city”. But it there’s also big-heartedness and even a sexiness here. Nobody has written as poetically about the transformative powers of alcohol than DeVoto: “how fastidiously cold a second Martini is to the palate but how warm to the heart.” But, you should never rule out a third: “Certainly I’ll have another one… one more, and then with a spirit made whole again in a cleansed world, to dinner.” Doesn’t an evening with De Voto sound fun?

If De Voto is the bard of the cocktail hour, then Kingsley Amis is the poet of the following day. You’d expect the man who wrote the famous hangover scene from Lucky Jim to write well about alcohol, and he doesn’t disappoint. Everyday Drinking is made up of three collections of articles: On Drink, Every Day Drinking (sic) and How’s Your Glass. You can safely ignore the last part which is made up of a series of quizzes but the first two, however, are worth your time. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In many ways, Amis (above) is the anti-De Voto. Indeed, he wrote the kind of magazine drinks columns that De Voto despised. Amis even invented a cocktail called the Lucky Jim (like a vodka Martini but, oddly, with added cucumber juice). They are different in other ways, De Voto has an American generosity about him but with Amis there’s a pinched lower middle class stinginess. DeVoto writes: “if you can’t serve good liquor to a lot of people, serve good liquor to few people”, but Amis states: “go for quantity rather than quality”. Amis’s Christmas Punch where he tells readers to “cut all the corners you can” sounds particularly revolting. 

But you’re not reading Amis for his advice, you’re reading him because he’s extremely funny. Every page has lines like: “Canadians are a great crowd, but are perhaps the only people who could have produced a boring whisky.” Or: “on the principle of not barking yourself if you keep a dog, test out the wine waiter whenever you eat in  a restaurant”. And one day I will try his boozing man’s diet: “The first, indeed the only, requirement of a diet is that it should lose you some weight without reducing your alcohol intake by the smallest degree.”

Inevitably from the author of Lucky Jim, the chapter on the hangover is a highlight: “a hangover is the result of a shock to the system, chiefly from alcohol, sure, but also from fatigue – lack of sleep, burning up energy in ridiculous and shameful activities like dancing – and thirdly from other poisons contained in tobacco”. Amis divides the hangovers into two parts: the physical and the metaphysical: “guilt and shame are prominent constituents of the M.H.” It requires spiritual solace, Amis suggests reading PG Wodehouse (but not Evelyn Waugh) and listening to Mozart. 

If such a disparate collection of writing could be said to have a unifying theme, it’s a battle against what Amis calls the “tyranny of wine”. When he wrote these columns in the 1970s and 80s, Britain was at last becoming a wine drinking country. Born in 1977, I remember the change myself: the older generation drank their whisky and gingers, and brandy and sodas, whereas my parents drank wine. So when Amis had to write about wine, which he was often paid (very handsomely, I imagine) to do, he can never resist saying how ridiculous it all is. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Amis is particularly scathing about wine connoisseurs: “you can call a wine red, and dry, and strong, and pleasant. After that, watch out. . .” Perhaps the best thing in the book, is a chapter on Boozemanship: “the art of coming of ahead when any question of drinking expertise or experience arises” inspired by Stephen Potter’s Gamesmanship. Amis’s tactic for dealing with a wine bore at the table is worth quoting in full:

“Wait for someone to drop a grain of knowledge, and work the old jujitsu trick of turning his strength to your advantage…. As soon as he mentions tannin. . . shush everyone and say: ‘Listen, chaps, here’s a chance for us all to learn something. Carry on Percy’ – the equivalent of dropping him on his head. 

When he’s finished which should be pretty soon, ask a lot of questions, the more elementary the better, like: “does that make it good or bad?. . . The object is to make knowing about wine seem like an accomplishment on the level of knowing about the flora and fauna of Costa Rica. . . “ 

In Amis’s world alcohol, especially wine, shouldn’t be taken too seriously and anyone who does is probably a bit suspect. It’s not that Amis doesn’t issue dictums, as a drinks writer you have to or what’s the point, you just know that he’d rather have a bloody drink than obsess about it being made the right way. His tastes are not subtle, one of his favourite drinks is Carlsberg Special Brew mixed half and half with standard Carlsberg. Ignore the tramp connotations, served very cold, it’s delicious. 

Above all, Amis hates the faff around wine. “Drink any wine you like with any dish”, he advises. He does have a point. I remember going to dinner with a group of whisky writers and they couldn’t believe the rigamarole with the wine: the special glasses, the decanter, the sommelier, and then after all the poncing about, the wine turned out to be corked. When was the last time that happened with a bottle of Johnnie Walker? 

Despite being written more recently, Amis’s book is more dated than DeVoto’s, perhaps because it contains contemporary references such as Cyprus sherry and a cocktail called “Reginald Bosanquet Golden Elixir.” There is, however, much in Amis’s writings that De Voto would approve of. They both abhorred fruit juice in cocktails and they were both great Martini men though Amis drank his at a whopping 15 parts gin to vermouth, and did heretically make them in advance. 

But if you’re looking for advice, get David Embury’s The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks, or Harry Craddock’s The Savoy Cocktail Book. With Amis and De Voto, you read them to enjoy two superb writers letting their hair down a bit. If The Hour is a perfectly-formed little gem, Everyday Drinking is full of treasure waiting to be discovered. Both are books that I refer to again and again for amusement and inspiration. Just don’t take everything in them too seriously.

To read more about the latest issue of Slightly Foxed click here

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Restaurant review: Posillipo, Faversham

This was my entry for this year’s AA Gill award. You can read the deserved winner Jemma Paek here and also something I wrote for The Critic on how Gill himself would not have a hope in hell of winning his own award. I don’t think mine is up to the standard of the winner or my wife’s entry which I posted last week. Let me know what you think.

The line “every man has two countries, his own and France” is usually credited to Thomas Jefferson. Whoever it was, it applies less and less these days as France’s cultural power wanes. But every man does have two cuisines, his or her own and Italy’s. Italian food is globally ubiquitous, there can be few towns that don’t have a pizzeria. 

Not everyone is happy about this. In 2004 the Italian ambassador in London, Luigi Amaduzzi, urged the British not to be taken in by so-called ‘Italian’ food that had no connection at all with the mother country. A hopeless wish, rather like the Académie Française trying to remove Anglicisms such as ‘Le Weekend’ from the French language. Italian food is out there now. It can’t be policed. There’s a restaurant in south east London that claims to be Sardinian. Yet, it is run by a Peruvian family. The story goes that the original family who owned it disappeared one day, something to do with organised crime, and the kitchen porter from Peru took over. The food is excellent but is it still Italian?

My mother is probably Italian enough for Signor Ambassador, her maiden name is Castiglione. But she was raised in Aberdeen by her mother (who was from Austria and cooked a mean schnitzel) and schooled by Irish nuns. Instead my Italian food awakening came from the mother of a school friend, James Levison. I used to cycle over to their old farmhouse near Great Missenden ostensibly to play with James but really to taste his mother’s cookery: homemade tagliatelle with a thick tomato ragu (I’ve spent 20 years trying tried to make that ragu at home and never come close), roast chicken covered with oregano and served at the table with poultry shears (very exotic for 1988) and frittata made with giant goose eggs. I won’t say that I was only friends with James because of his mother’s cooking, but it was a large contributory factor.

One day my mother served up her spaghetti Bolognese, a family favourite. But this time when she asked me how it was, I replied: “Not as good as Mrs Levison’s”. It became a sort of family joke but I don’t think I have ever hurt my mother more.

Since those days, I’ve eaten pizza in Naples, slow-cooked veal shin in Rome, horse meat steaks outside a butcher’s shop in Catania, and perhaps best of all, the arancini served at railway stations in Sicily. I’ve eaten at Bocca di Lupo and Locanda Locatelli in London, and when we got married my wife and I ate at the Bartolotta, a now defunct high end seafood restaurant in Las Vegas where everything including the waiters were flown in fresh from Italy that morning. And yet when I think of Italian food, I still think of Mrs Levison.

Photo credit: Misti Traya

Which brings me on to Posillipo in Faversham. We moved from Blackheath, well, Lewisham really, to Faversham in Kent earlier this year. It’s a funny old town: beautiful, quite prosperous, smelling sweetly of the Shepherd Neame brewery, bustling on markets days, near to such culinary hotspots as Whitstable and Margate, and full of people who used to write for the Guardian. By rights it should be heaving with bistros and yet the main shopping streets bear the scars of a couple of failed ventures. One which specialised in steak, and, err, rum, lasted less than a year. 

Posillipo, in contrast, is packed every time we visit. If you live locally then you will recognise people you know, which can be a mixed blessing. ‘Oh look’ my wife said on our last visit, ‘is that the man who gave us a massive quote for some fitted cupboards and I never got back to?’ It’s probably not the best place to conduct an affair with your neighbour’s wife. 

It’s part of a mini Kentish Italian food empire, there are sister restaurants in Broadstairs and  Canterbury, run by a family from Naples. The Faversham branch is housed in a former warehouse down by the creek which gives it an urban feel, like a trendy restaurant in Leeds or Manchester. The menu is regional but not pedantically so. The wine list for example, ranges all over Italy. It’s not a place for the trainspotter or the natural wine bore but there’s an excellent Langhe nebbiolo at £30 a bottle and the house Chianti is pretty good. For the high rollers, there’s cult wines like Sassicaia and Tignanello and a great selection of Barolos which I’ll probably never order. They do some tasty Italian craft beers too.

The Creek looks much prettier when the tide is in

There are always interesting specials making use of local produce like a rabbit with tagliatelle (I told my bunny-loving daughter that it was chicken) or pheasant ragu. The best dishes, chewy pizzas with a nice char on them or perfect calamari fritto, taste properly Neapolitan. But it’s also Anglo-friendly, meat and fish dishes come with vegetables and potatoes. The portions are enormous, the bruschetta starter is a meal in itself. As you’d expect from an Italian restaurant, they love children, our eight year old daughter gets treated like a celebrity when we arrive. 

Not everything is brilliant, an order of tuna carpaccio turned up frozen once. And despite, or perhaps because of the huge number of staff, both English and Italian, service can be a bit erratic. But it’s such a nice place to be that it never becomes a problem. 

Posillipo’s popularity with the locals suggests that Faversham could do with more places like this. Considering it’s almost the only game in town, the food is much, much better than it needs to be. Sorry, that sounds like faint praise. It’s not meant to be. We are lucky to have this place on our doorstep. The food is very good. . . but is it as good as Mrs Levison’s? That’s the problem with Italian food, it can never quite live up to the memory of mamma’s, even if it is someone else’s mamma.

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