The problems of getting a drink in Amersham

I wrote something for the Oldie earlier in the year (I’ve just put it up on my blog) about how my home town of Amersham (on the Hill, the old town is a different matter) which had been dying a slow death by estate agents and hairdressers has got a bit more life to it. One of the problems was that for a long time there was nowhere decent to get a drink. Oddly for such a prosperous town the local pubs when I was growing up were all very rough:

The Boot and Slipper – the snug bar was ok but on the whole this was a pub for people who drove souped-up Vauxhall Astras to nightclubs in High Wycombe in order to brawl in the car park. It’s now a Chef and Brewer – a bad chain restaurant.

The Iron Horse – the notorious Iron. Frequented by bikers, metallers and school children. Famous for its £1 a pint night on Wednesdays and the smell of rare herbs coming from the garden. No real ale. In fact all the beer was usually revolting. This is where I spent most of my late teen years. Closed in 2004. Demolished to make way for flats.

The Red Lion – aka the Dead Red. This was just outside Amersham in the village of Chesham Bois. A real smoking and drinking locals pub. The pub was one of the few places where you would hear the old Bucks accent before it became all estuary. It sounds a bit like a West Country burr, Chesham is pronounced Chess ‘um. My brother used to work here. He thinks the smoking ban must have hit them hard. Knocked down in dodgy circumstances in 2012.

Earlier this year, a local brewery, Red Squirrel, opened a shop in Amersham. I’d already seen their shop in nearby Chesham and was mildly interested. Both sell beer to drink off and on the premises. The difference is that Chesham still has lots of pubs so the shop is generally very quiet. In Amersham, the locals have taken to it with gusto. This summer the outside area has been packed with enthusiastic drinkers.

What was so nice about it is not only how good and cheap the beer is, £2.80 (!!!) for best bitter, but what a heterogeneous crowd it attracted. On my last visit, there was a group of elderly cyclists, families, young couples and a rowdy group who looked like they’d been wandering the streets since the Iron Horse closed in 2004. I recognised a couple from my misspent youth. One was telling me that he had once been barred from the Iron Horse which considering the what was allowed to go on there must have been something.

Basically it’s a Kent-style micro pub come to Amersham. It shows that Amersham really wanted somewhere to get a good pint of beer and have a chat. Previously nobody had managed to make it work financially or even perhaps even tried. It means that when I’m at my parents house, I make lots of important errands so that I can have a sneaky pint. Which is what having a good local pub is all about.

Normally these seats are crowded with drinkers. 



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In praise of chain shops

This is something I wrote for the Oldie earlier in the year:

Last month I was back in my home town of Amersham and I noticed that the main shopping street, Sycamore Road, was doing something that it hadn’t done for years, bustled. Since the 1990s it had been dying a slow death from hairdressers, estate agents and charity shops, but now the streets were thronged with people. And where was the centre of the activity? A designer boutique? A pop-up seafood stall? A celebrity book signing? No, it was Marks & Spencer. The appearance of such boring high street stalwarts as M&S, Waitrose and Robert Dyas have reinvigorated the town.

Every so often there is a scare story in the papers about how all Britain’s high streets are beginning to look the same. In historic cities such as Cambridge and Gloucester more than 90% of the high streets are chains.  It is always so depressing to arrive somewhere new and find the usual Next, Greggs and WHSmith. My dream high street would consist of useful shops such as bakers, butchers, and greengrocers, mingled with places to browse such as a gentlemen’s outfitter, a bookshop and a wine merchant plus some cosy old-fashioned pubs. All of these would be independent family-run businesses staffed by people in it for the sheer love of cheese, for example, rather than desire to make money.

The problem is that towns without chains rarely look like this. They’re either too poor to attract chains so consist of kebab houses, tattoo parlours and ‘fancy goods’ shops that sell plastic colanders, or they look like Chipping Campden, a mixture of delicatessens and gift shops. The latter is great for tourists but not so good for local residents. The urban equivalent of the Cotswold tourist town is a gentrified district made up of clothes shops, bars and artisan coffee shops. When I lived in Shoreditch in East London, I remember the excitement amongst residents when a sign went up saying ‘A Butcher of Distinction.’ Finally a useful shop, we thought, but instead it was another trendy clothes shop with the twist that the clothes were hung on meat hooks.

A common complaint about chain shops is that they make all towns look the same but most independent shops slavishly follow a look too. If you go to gentrified seaside resorts in Norfolk or Suffolk, everything is painted in pale blue. In cities, independent coffee shops are always decked out in white tiles with a chalkboard on the wall. They do identical-looking sandwiches that sit on black slates on the counter. It’s a similar story in bars with their exposed light bulbs, brickwork and mismatched wooden furniture. They often stock the same craft beers and get their wines from the same distributor. The hipster bar/ restaurant look is now international. One can go to places in Budapest, Sydney or Buenos Aires that look identical to somewhere in Hackney or Brooklyn. I have a theory that there is a company based just outside Antwerp that supplies the complete hipster restaurant package right down to the ‘natural’ wines, pressed tin ceilings and jam jar glasses.  The staff all look the same too with their beards, tattoos and check shirts. They might as well being wearing a uniform.

I’m not denying that some chains are dismal. WHSmith looks like it’s in the middle of a closing down sale. I get a headache the moment I walk into H&M. Chain pubs can be particularly sad though I must admit that I am sometimes partial to a pint of discount real ale at Wetherspoons. Some chains, though, are excellent. My wife who is American often points out how good British chain restaurants can be. Places like Polpo, Royal China and Byron Burger offer consistently good food. It’s not just restaurants, any town that has a Gail’s, a Paperchase or an Oddbins should count itself lucky. Don’t forget that one person’s dismal chain could be another’s shopper’s paradise. When I was a teenager I would have killed for H&M in Amersham.

It’s anachronistic to complain about chains versus independents now because the real competition is online. It doesn’t matter whether your local bookshop is a Waterstone’s or an independent, they are both threatened by Amazon. The high street of the future is going to look very different to the one we are familiar with. As more retail moves online, it’ll be the shops that provide good service that will survive whether they are chains or independent.

Both can help each other. I can see a symbiotic relationship between shops when I visit Amersham. People might go into town for a new toaster at Robert Dyas, buy uniforms at Wheatleys, the long-established schools outfitter, and then have a coffee at one of the independent cafes. Without the big chains, the high street was dying. Now for the first time since the closure of the notorious Iron Horse, the pub my parents always warned me about going to, there is somewhere to get a pint in the town centre, a bar called the Metro Lounge (part of a small chain naturally.)

The revitalised Amersham isn’t exciting, it isn’t glamorous, it’s not going to pull the tourists in, but it is a useful place to shop and provides employment. For local residents, a good chain-led high street is better than the alternatives: tattoo parlours and kebabs shops or estate agents and hairdressers.


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Is vodka’s highest calling to be tasteless?

This appeared in Harper’s Wine and Spirits magazine earlier this year.

It seems like not a day goes by without the launch of a new gin. I thought we’d reached peak gin two years ago but it shows no signs of slowing down. People are not only buying these new products but also talking about them when out drinking and on social media.

It’s the kind of genuine engagement that vodka would kill for. Matt Bruhn Global Brand Director for Smirnoff has been quoted as saying that the Britain is a ‘tough market’ for them. Stuart Westwood Product Marketing Manager at Matthew Clark wholesalers said “standard vodka sales are in decline by around 11%”. Absolut in particular have been hit hard. Pernod-Ricard, the parent company, had to write down 652 million euros on global sales.

They haven’t been helped by badly-conceived products such as Absolut Amber, an oak-aged vodka. This used oak chips just like a cheap wine rather than barrels. It picked up some terrible reviews and was quickly withdrawn. Absolut have been particularly affected by the decline of the flavoured spirit market. Stolichnaya have drastically streamlined their flavoured offerings in response. “I think flavoured is on its way out, the big brands have over saturated flavoured vodkas” Nik Koster from Garnish PR, a specialist drinks agency, told me.  

We shouldn’t get too carried away though: “vodka is still the clear number one, with over 32% share of the spirits category compared to gin’s (ever increasing) 9%” says Stuart Westwood. Nik Koster agrees: “Smirnoff is still the biggest selling spirit worldwide and I don’t see that changing soon”. Worldwide Smirnoff sold 9.7 million cases (down 1% on previous year) cases and Absolut 4.6 million cases (down 1.5%).

At the top end of the market. CÎROC a grape-based vodka who have Puff Daddy (or is it P Diddy?) as their brand ambassador is rapidly growing. Guy Dodwell, Sales Director for the Off Trade, Diageo: “our ultra-premium vodka brand, CÎROC, is up by 205%” . According to a 2015 IWSR report the luxury end of the market is still experiencing good growth levels. Beluga, a high end brand with hand finished bottles, is seeing double digit growth according to Katie Warren their Group Marketing Manager.

But there might be uncertain times ahead for the super premium market. The rise of gin, and return of amari, vermouth, bourbon and rye, show that people once again want strong flavours. The cocktails that are popular now, the negroni, the martini, the old-fashioned, reflect this. The fruit-based cocktails that made vodka are out. “We don’t sell a massive amount (of vodka) in our bars, “ said Max Venning operations manager at London bars, Drink Factory, 69 Colebrooke Row & Bar Termini. When I asked Ian Goodman, formerly head barman at the Oxo tower and now with new bar Darkhorse in East London, which cocktails he liked to make with vodka, he replied ‘none really. . .. Vesper at a push.’ This lack of interest is reflected on the high street: a PR representing All Bar One told me that they were concentrating on gin when I asked them for their take on the vodka market.  Vodka is seen as a reliable workhorse rather than something to get excited about.

You can see why barmen might be bored: even the most expensive brands trade to some extent on lack of flavour. All the stuff about filtering and triple, quadruple or in the case of Ciroc, quintuple distillation, are designed to make them as smooth ie. bland as possible. The owner of Bob Bob Ricard, who stock Russian Standard vodka, Leonid Shutov, is quoted as saying: “flavour in vodka indicates you can’t afford a more expensive drink.” The top Russian Standard that they stock is filtered through quartz, for some reason.

They’re a tiny percentage of the market but there are some vodkas out there offering something a different. Some are a side product of the gin explosion: “By default many gin producers also create excellent vodkas” said Liam Cotter Senior Project Manager with events company Heads, Hearts and Tales. Adnams, the Suffolk brewer, produce some vodkas though their gins outsell them by ten to one. Head distiller John McCarthy is doubtful about the UK artisan vodka market ‘you can’t make a fortune selling high end vodka in UK. From our experience majority of British public aren’t willing to pay premium for vodka.’

William Borell, founder of Vestal  who make Polish potato vodka, disagrees. He started in 2009 with 2,000 bottles and now produces around 40, 000 bottles a year. Vestal is now stocked in some of the world’s top bars and Michelin-starred restaurants. He has noticed a weariness in the on trade with gin which will at some point percolate down to the consumer. Barmen are looking for something new and weightier, flavourful vodkas might be it. Nik Koster has set up a festival called Vodka Rocks to try to reengage the trade and the public with vodka.

Other brands proving popular with the on-trade are Aylesbury Duck from 86 Company in America and Konik’s Tail from Poland. The key is letting that quality of the raw material shine so there’s no heavy filtering or triple distillation. These are vodkas that you should sip neat and not too cold. They’re more like new make single malt whisky than traditional Russian-style vodka. The line between vodka and whisky is blurring with some distilleries such as Highland Park releasing unaged whisky (though they can’t call it whisky) and Vestal producing a barrel-aged vodka (superb, a far cry from Amber Absolut). They also produce vintage vodka (from a single harvest) and even do varietal vodka (from a single potato variety). Other innovations in the sector include Babicka, a wormwood-infused vodka from the Czech Republic and a botanical-infused London Dry Vodka, produced by gin distiller Sacred.  

The big four, Pernod-Ricard, William Grants, Diageo and Bacardi, are fighting back: “The birth of so many artisanal or craft brands certainly creates a hell of a lot of excitement, but the onus is on the big brands to re-invent their image and demand attention back” said Liam Cotter from Hearts, Heads and Tail. Absolut have just launched Elyx made with wheat from a single estate. The spirit is distilled in a 1920s copper rectifier just as with craft gin. Just to be sure though they’d roped in Chloe Sevigny  and put it in a super glitzy bottle.  “Provenance, ‘craft’ and something with a point of difference will continue to drive any green shoots in the category” Stuart Westwood told me.

Vodka’s success in the 80s and 90s was built on a lack of flavour and history. It was a blank canvas onto which marketers could project their ideas. Brands such as Absolut epitomised this with their brilliant advertising. Now the market has moved on and some brands are looking dated. Vodka today is in a similar position to beer with huge but declining brands dominating sales and a small (in vodka’s case miniscule) though rapidly expanding craft sector. In the next few years, we’ll start to see more and more premium and luxury vodkas taking their marketing and perhaps even production cues from the new challengers. Just as with beer, some of the stronger craft brands will be snapped up by the big boys. Despite sluggish growth overall, it’s an interesting time for vodka. Though there will always be a huge market for something tasteless and alcoholic, competition is likely to push up quality at the top end. Potentially, people could start taking vodka as seriously as they do gin or even whisky.


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These wines are Absolutely Fabulous

Many writers will be using the release of the Absolutely Fabulous movie to reminisce about the crazy 1990s: cocaine, clubbing and Kate Moss. Drink writers will be going on about Bolly and Stolly which Eddy and Patsy put away in heroic quantities. There is one episode though, where they try something a bit different. It’s the one where they have a Withnail and I esque holiday by mistake in the South of France. There’s no light, food or power but there is plenty of local wine which they proceed to tear into with abandon.

If you look carefully at the labels you’ll see that they aren’t just drinking any old plonk. No, they are drinking Chateau La Canorgue, an extremely good wine from Provence. stocked by more than reputable West Country wine merchants Yapp Bros. It comes in all three colours, all of which are usually excellent: the red is a blend of Syrah and Grenache and tastes like a particularly fragrant Cotes-Du-Rhone, lots of fruit and wild herbs; the rose is classic Provencal but with a bit more body than some, it’s a wine that can hold its own against some quite serious food; the white is a blend of Grenache blanc, Clairette, Roussanne and Marsanne and manages to be fresh and floral but with a good nutty weight to it. All three are serious wine but also manage to be very drinkable (as you can see from the photo above.)

Rather appropriately I first tried these wines whilst visiting the house of a top television producer who had more than a hint of Patsy about her. She had designated room for yoga complete with healing crystals and an enormous statue of the Buddha. After a hard day’s schmoozing, she’d come home, do some eastern chanting and then crack into the Provencal rosé



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Is this the best wine in the world?

Scroll to the bottom for the answer if you can’t be bothered to read the article.

It’s not often that the talk at my daughter’s primary school gate is about wine but this week was an exception. One of the mothers asked me if I’d heard about this wine that cost £4 and was the best in the world. Another mother had read about it in the papers. Best in the world and only £4. They seemed disappointed that I hadn’t tried it. The one time when being a wine writer should have come in useful and I’d failed. I had to try this wine.

It wasn’t hard to find out about it. The Independent, the Telegraph, the Huff Post, Marie Claire, Metro, City Am and the mighty Dorset Echo have all covered the La Moneda Malbec Reserva 2015 winning best in show at the Decanter World Wine Awards (click here to find out more about the award). It’s currently on sale for £4.37 a bottle (normally £5.75). Apparently such has been the stampede to obtain The Best Wine in the World that Asda’s website has crashed.

I spoke to the Asda press office and explained how I was losing credibility with the Blackheath mothers and they kindly sent me a bottle. I opened it with much excitement. Actually I didn’t. I opened it with a fair degree of scepticism. When I worked at Oddbins years ago, we often used to be surprised at the wines eg Bin 65 Chardonnay that won trophies at the IWC or the Decanter. Nevertheless we stocked up and they sold out.

So this Malbec then? Is it the best in the world under £15? No, I doubt it’s the best at Asda under £15. Instead it’s a well made clean tasting fruity wine that’s far far better than you’d expect for around £4. What I liked about it was its lowish alcohol (12.5%) and lack of pretension. There’s a tiny bit of vanilla suggesting some oak treatment but this is a wine that isn’t trying to taste like something more expensive. If, however, you’re expecting the best wine in the world, you are going to be disappointed.

My wife was not keen at all and didn’t even finish her glass but then she has expensive tastes. So all in all not a wine worth getting excited about but having tried it, at least I have saved some professional face at the school gates.


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London’s Best Wine Bars


Today, wine bars are fashionable. There’s even been talk that wine itself might be… *whisper it* cool. Things were very different when I was growing up. Wines bars were considered terribly old-fashioned. Most weren’t even aimed at wine lovers. Instead, they were places to drink that were open later than pubs. You might have gotten some cheese and crackers or shop-bought pate to eat, if you were lucky. There was a chain in the north of England called Yates’s Wine Lodge; from the name, you’d imagine it was a good place to discuss the difference between left bank and right bank Bordeaux. If you tried, you’d be in for a rude shock. On a Friday and Saturday night, Yates’s would be crammed with people getting uproariously drunk on anything but wine.

Even during the dark days, however, there were places serving good quality wine and food, and some of them are still around. What the newer places offer is sharper cookery and more adventurous wines, many of which are available by the glass thanks to the wonders of Enomatic machines or the Coravin (a sort of handheld Enomatic that dispenses a tasting measure and then seals the bottle with an inert gas). So I thought it would be interesting to examine the now-thriving wine bar sector in London. I’ve tried to group them roughly in order of opening, so you go from very old school to bang up to date.


El Vino, 47 Fleet St, London EC4Y 1BJ

A legend since 1879. Fleet Street used to be the home of London’s newspapers and this is where the journalists would drink and gossip. Women weren’t allowed at the bar until the 1980s! It’s less raucous now as the customers are mainly lawyers. The food is basic, the meat pies are the thing to go for. The wine list extremely old-fashioned, lots of claret, generic white burgundy by the glass, and none the worse for it. It’s recently been taken over by Davy’s, a wine bar chain, so it’s not clear what the future is.


Gordon’s 47 Villiers St, London WC2N 6NE

Entering Gordon’s is like being in one of those Roger Corman adaptations of Edgar Allen Poe. The ceiling is incredibly low, there’s cobwebs and candles everywhere. I keep expecting Vincent Price to be on the next table. It’s also a total tourist trap and can get unpleasantly busy, but is worth visiting for the amazing atmosphere. The by the bottle wine list is a bit dull so I’d recommend you order sherry or madeira which come directly from the barrel.  


Le Beaujolais, 25 Litchfield St, London WC2H 9NJ

It feels like nothing at all has changed in here since it opened in 1972. The wine list consists of mainly negociant Beaujolais. It’s not the kind of place to share your obsession with low sulphur Morgon producers.  You’re here to have fun. Sobriety is positively frowned upon and don’t be surprised if you ended up leaving with someone else’s wife or husband. The food is good especially the Boeuf Bourguignon.


Cork & Bottle 44-46 Cranbourn Alley, London WC2H 7AN

Another 70s stalwart. This place used to be very popular with the wine trade. They’ve probably moved on to somewhere trendy in East London which is a shame because this place is rather good. The room, a spacious and nicely lit cellar, is inviting. The, not particularly cheap, wine list is full of tempting stuff especially from Southern Rhone and Australia.  It’s recently changed hands and the food has improved.


Albertine, 1 Wood Lane, London W12 7DP

Out in Shepherd’s Bush in West London, in the old days when BBC TV centre was around the corner, you might trip over  Jeremy Irons or Maggie Smith sipping a glass of Muscadet. Since the studios closed in 2013, the clientele is now mainly newish locals who have been priced out of Notting Hill. The wine list very solid, with producers such as De Martino from Chile, just the sort of stuff that I like to drink at home. The food is good home-cooked stuff, beef stroganoff, chicken curry, that sort of thing. It has a proper family feel.


Andrew Edmunds , 46 Lexington St, London W1F 0LP

A Soho stalwart, this is more of a restaurant but notable for it’s extensive and often good value wine list. I often run into the eponymous proprietor at tastings around London and he really knows his stuff. Cooking is simple bistro stuff, usually delicious. It’s very romantic too.


Mr Lawrence, 391 Brockley Rd, London SE4 2PH

I’m count myself very lucky to have this place on my doorstep in south east London. They import their own wine from south west France as well as champagne and armagnac . You can order food from the pub next door and eat it in the wood-panelled splendour of the dining room. A neighbourhood gem but worth going to visit as well.


Planet of the Grapes, 9/10 Bulls Head Passage, Leadenhall Market, London EC3V 1LU

This business started out as a shop in Holborn, they’ve since expanded to three wine bars in the City and one further west in the neo-baroque Sicilian Avenue. You can buy wines to take away or for a corkage fee, drink them on site with food. The wines are excellent, very much the kind of thing that you can imagine prosperous stock brokers drinking, claret, burgundy, Brunello, and Californian cabernets.  Just don’t ask for natural wine.


Terroirs, 5 William IV St, London WC2N 4DW

This was the only natural wine bar in London when it opened in 2009. Some of the wines are a too natural for me but the knowledgeable  staff are always happy to steer me towards something more conventional. Whilst the wines can a be a little wacky, the food is decidedly classic, very French, cassoulet etc with particularly good shellfish. They have a sister restaurant in East London called Brawn.


10 Cases,16 Endell St, London WC2H 9BD

The name comes from their policy of buying ten cases each of special wines and selling them until they’re gone. They also do a regular house selection. On my last visit I had a very good mosel riesling by the glass and a Xinomavro from Greece with some great tapas. They’re currently trialling a one hour wine delivery service in central London so you don’t even need to leave your home to get the 10 Cases experience.


Sager & Wilde, 193 Hackney Road, London E2 8JL

Where Sager & Wilde sits used to be the roughest pub in East London, the British Lion. My Uncle used to go there to talk about horses with the locals. It was opened in 2013 by Charlotte and Michael Sager-Wilde and has since become wildly popular not least with the wine trade. The list is very modish with orange wines, Santa Barbara pinot noirs and Jura whites. Their cheddar cheese toastie has achieved mythical status. They have another venue which is more of a restaurant under the arches in nearby Bethnal Green


Wine Pantry, 1 Stoney St, London SE1 9AA –

A few years ago a bar that only sold English wine would be a punchline to a joke. Not now. English sparkling wines in particular are winning plaudits all over the world. The still whites, even some reds are catching up fast.  Julia Stafford, the owner of this place in Borough Market, bursts with enthusiasm. If you come sceptical, like I did, you’ll leave converted especially after half dozen oysters and a glass of Henners Brut Reserve.


Quality Chop House, 88-94 Farringdon Rd, London EC1R 3EA

This London institution was closed for a few years but reopened in 2014 under new management. It lives up to its name by offering the finest pork chop I think I’ve ever had (sorry mum) especially with their signature confit potato. It has a great wine list, of course, with a very nice Bergerac as the house red. Particularly exciting are the early 20th century Rivesaltes and Maurys (sweet French wines not dissimilar to port) which they offer by the glass.


Wine makers club, 41a Farringdon St, London EC4A 4AN

This was once a branch of Oddbins, the chain of wine merchants where I worked in the late 90s. It’s an incredible space under the Holborn Viaduct but beware, it’s basically a cellar, so wrap up warm. The cold smell of damp mingled with wine when you walk into the bar took me back to my days in the wine trade. They offer a very interesting selection of wines, particularly good on Tuscany with Brunello from Sesti and Chianti from Riecine. There’s simple food available to eat alongside.


Noble Rot, 51 Lamb’s Conduit St, London WC1N 3NB

The owners, Marks Andrew a former wine merchant, and Dan Keeling, former A&R man who discovered Coldplay, are geniuses are self-promotion. I’ve never known a new wine bar opening to get so much attention. Fortunately the place lives up to the hype, they’ve taken on a top chef, Paul Weaver, formerly of St. John’s, and the wine list made me want to empty my savings account.  On my last visit, I had some mouthwateringly juicy hogget (somewhere between lamb and mutton in age) which went down nicely with a well-priced bottle of Vina Tondonia Rioja. The owners edit a wine magazine also called Noble Rot which you can read whilst you wait for your food.


67 Pall Mall, London SW1Y 5ES

I shouldn’t include this place because it’s a private members club but the by the class list is so extensive that I thought it worth mentioning. I had an a delicious Cote Rotie from Jasmine for £9 a glass. It would be double anywhere else. With it I had some, very good, bar snacks but there is a proper restaurant too. My advice is to befriend a member next time you’re in London.

This originally appeared in Food & Wine magazine. 



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A not very boozy interview with Lucy Madison

I’ve been reading a delightful book that combines food with memoir called Pen & Palate: Mastering the Art of Adulthood with Recipes by Lucy Madison and Tram Nuguyen. It’s one that has made me smile and laugh more than any food book I’ve read in a long time. It’s written by two childhood friends and it’s about them growing up and growing apart and coming back together with food being the glue that binds the story together. It’s the sort of book that I wish I’d read in my 20s. There’s no melodrama, no Steel Magnolias-style death bed weepathons, instead it sort of crept under my skin and hooked me gently but firmly. What kept me reading was the quality of the writing, the honesty and the deadpan humour. This is Lucy on her attempts to become a reporter:

“The chief activities I fear in life include speaking on the telephone; talking to strangers; giving people a reason to be mad at me; dealing with people who are mad at me; and asking people to do things they don’t want to do. These activities loosely describe the day-to-day activities of being a reporter.”

There’s a chapter where Tram becomes a cartoon animal costume builder which manages to be slapstick and intensely moving at the same time. And the recipes at the end of every chapter, especially the Vietnamese ones, sound delicious. Lucy has very kindly agreed to answer to some questions :

So what’s your problem with Malbec?

To be fair to Malbec, I first experienced it as a broke 20-year-old while studying abroad in Argentina—so I wasn’t exactly tasting the finest examples of the grape. I would love to go back to Argentina and learn more about it, because I know there are so many winemakers making amazing bottles there now. But I’ve often found Malbec to be a bit harsh and acidic for my palate.

What wine do you like?

Right now I’m craving a crisp, minerally white—like a nice, nutty Grüner Veltliner. Maybe it’s because it’s almost summer. I’m also into Falanghina; I discovered it on my honeymoon in Italy and I’ve been seeking it out ever since. Oh, and I’ll never say no to champagne.

What’s your favourite drink to reward yourself after a long day’s writing?

I love a strong Manhattan.

Do you have a favourite bar in New York?

I’m about to move from the West Village to Brooklyn, so I’m feeling especially nostalgic about some of my neighborhood spots right now. The West Village can get a little touristy and overrun, so I feel a lot of fondness for my local dive bar, Automatic Slims, which is never too packed. It’s got cheap wine, great bartenders, and decent bar food. For something more upscale I like Anfora, which has an excellent wine list and the best ricotta toast I’ve ever had.

What’s your ultimate comfort food?

Cacio e pepe. Or an elaborate cheese plate. Basically any iteration of pasta and cheese.

Is there anything that you are terrible at doing in the kitchen?

I’m not super comfortable cooking red meat in a sophisticated way. I was a vegetarian for a long time, so I didn’t get a lot of practice preparing meat-heavy dishes until I was in my mid-20s. I’ve gotten better over the years, but I don’t have that built-in confidence I have with baked goods and starches.

Which food writers are an inspiration to you? (or writers in general)

Nora Ephron’s Heartburn is only tangentially about food, but it’s one of my favorite books of all time. It’s so funny. It has the perfect hilarious-to-heartbreaking ratio. And Laurie Colwin’s Home Cooking. I love anything that’s funny and cozy and embraces the idea of imperfection.

And favourite cookbooks?

I love the Cook’s Illustrated books. I like imagining their whole team of professional cooks in the kitchen, testing out a million variations on a recipe so that I don’t have to. I also like to read recipes online and then scour the reviews for comments on what worked and what didn’t, and tailor the recipe accordingly.

How did you get into writing about food?

My best friend Tram Nugyen and I started a food blog, Pen & Palate, a few years ago. We had wanted to collaborate on a project for years, and we both love food and cooking. We’d write about what was going on in our lives and then include a recipe at the end of each post. Tram is an amazing artist, and she illustrates the whole thing.

How did the book come about?

In a lot of ways the book felt like a natural extension of what we were already doing, because the blog was always driven by the stories and the narrative as much as by the recipes. So when someone approached us about the possibility of doing a food memoir, it seemed like a natural fit.

Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?

Don’t get too caught up in how terrible you think you are! The first draft is allowed to suck; just put down whatever you can and then edit the shit out of it. Also, try not to take criticism too personally. This is impossible but, I’m told, invaluable.

Are you working on another book?

Not yet! Right now I’m trying to take one thing at a time—the book, a baby that could drop at any moment, and a new apartment. Once that’s all settled, I’m going to try to figure out what’s next.

Thank you Lucy! 

Find out more about the book here: Pen & Palate: Mastering the Art of Adulthood, with Recipes . You can read more about Lucy Madison and Tram Nguyen on their blog: Pen & Palate.  




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