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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Restaurant review: El Floridita in Los Angeles

On Sunday the results of the AA Gill award for food writing were announced in The Sunday Times. Today, I’m delighted to publish Misti Traya’s entry which unbelievably wasn’t even shortlisted. She was an actress in LA for many years before moving to England and becoming a writer, winning YBF food writer of the year and runner up for the Spectator’s Shiva Naipaul prize. She’s also my wife. 

It was a cigar smuggler who recommended El Floridita to my Da. He had flown to Havana in the spring of ‘94 to research a script. Americans in Cuba, especially writers, must adhere to an unspoken rule: Drink at least one daiquiri in Hemingway’s favourite bodeguita, the original Floridita. That is where my father met the cigar smuggler and gave him a few contacts in L.A. He’s the mayor of a small town in Northern California now. Da? His script didn’t get made, but he got a few Cohibas and a top restaurant recommendation to boot.

A recommendation is imperative for El Floridita; otherwise you’d never go there on purpose. I drove past it hundreds of times whilst sitting in the backseat of my mother’s Volvo with the girls of the Mulholland carpool, but I never noticed it. I was thirteen and busy sipping an ice blended vanilla, and being quizzed by my fellow carpoolers on French irregular verbs, and if we had time for it, counting the number of hookers we saw on the way to school. 

Imagine my shock the evening mum and I piled into Da’s car and came down out of the hills, then rather than driving through the insalubrious section of Hollywood like we usually did en route to somewhere else, we stopped. Not far from where Hugh Grant would get picked up by LAPD a year later for getting a blowie, my father pulled into a shabby strip mall at the corner of Fountain and Vine and parked. I had never seen him leave his Range Rover at a restaurant without a valet before. He undid his seatbelt and flashed a Cheshire Cat grin. I had to wonder, did we go to dinner “by mistake?” 

Misti Traya and Marisa Mandabach at El Floridita

As we entered, Armando, the owner greeted us. He sat us at a table near the oxblood red bar. Like a young magpie, I was enchanted by everything that glittered. The disco ball, the twinkling fairy lights, the white paper lanterns that illuminated the room like miniature moons casting shadows on the parquet dance floor. I wouldn’t step foot on that floor for years though as salsa nights were only for those 21 and older. All the same, I was content just going for the food. 

And what food! The best bocaditos are the tostones which are fried banana pancakes you dip into a sauce of watercress, citrus, and cilantro (That’s coriander to you, Red Coats.) If feeling celebratory, go for the Churrasco. It’s a grilled butterflied fillet mignon that comes with Cuban chimichurri. Unlike the Argentine variety that calls for parsley, this one is punchier as it’s made with. . .  you guessed it, cilantro.

Traditionalists and magical realists favour the ropa vieja which is Cuba’s national dish and its legend is like something out of a fairy story. Once upon a time, a pauper had no food to feed his family so he shredded his clothes and cooked them. As the pot simmered, he prayed. Hours later, a miracle occurred as the contents transformed into a delicious beef stew. Some think this speaks to the power of prayer. I think it speaks more to slow cooking. 

My favourite has long been the masitas de puerco. Cubans liken these to carnitas. Imagine tender pork chunks sautéed to crispy perfection that are meltingly soft inside. The main flavours are rich and earthy with garlic, oregano and cumin but they are cut and lifted by a sharp tang that’s fresh with oranges and lemons. The whole dish is then slathered with sweet onions. It’s the most moreish dish on the menu and for me, the quintessence of Cuban soul food.    

Misti Traya – LA woman

That’s the thing about Los Angeles. Its soul speaks Spanish even if you don’t. Call any customer service line and the first thing you’ll hear is “Para español, pulse uno.” Lots of children from English speaking families learn Spanish first because it’s the mother tongue of those who take care of them. My fifteen-year-old sister still can’t say the word hammock. Hamaca instinctively comes out of her mouth and in a pure, beautiful, Colombian accent just like her beloved nanny had. L.A. is a city with a Latin heartbeat and El Floridita is its powerful left ventricle pumping life into those who live there, not just with fantastic food, but also with music.

I had to wait until I graduated from college to be old enough for salsa nights at El Floridita.   They took place three times a week. Doors opened at 7. At 8, there were complimentary salsa lessons with Oscar. At 9:30, the band would start to play. For 24 years, Mondays at El Floridita belonged to Johnny Polanco. These were the best nights. He was a Latin musician from the Bronx who provided the best entertainment around. Prince loved him and would occasionally fly in to hear him play. Sadly, Johnny died in 2015, but I still have staccato flashbacks of dining and dancing with my friends to his music which was the soundtrack to it all. 

When getting ready, my girlfriends and I always went for a cocaine disco Barbie aesthetic, cf. Michelle Pfeiffer in Scarface. Guys opted for crisp white guayaberas and a moistured tan. If they had the huevos, a fedora, but there was always a sixty-year-old abuelo who wore it better.  

If you go, never order mojitos by the glass. Be an adult and get a pitcher. Don’t roll your eyes at me. El Floridita’s are the original. Before mojitos became the Basic Bitch beverage of choice, bartenders here were slapping mint like it’d been naughty and sticking it into ice cold cocktails of rum, lime, sugar cane, and soda water for decades. Done correctly, a mojito is a perfectly balanced thirst quencher. Done badly, it tastes like a cheeky ice lolly for village cricket mums.

The musical sets that get the most people on the dance floor feature an upbeat piano in the foreground that beckons you like a child to play. Then the grinding rhythm of a güira joins in. This instrument is played by being stroked up and down with a firm stick. If lust had a sound, this is it. Then the melody climaxes with a flute or a horn flying high above the instruments like a flirty little bird, rather like the citrus notes in the mojo sauce. 

As someone with Evangelical missionary family in the States, I’ll tell you that snake-handlers down South terrify me. I also don’t believe in Pentecostals being filled with the Holy Spirit being compelled to speak in tongues. I do, however, believe in the power of a good brass band and will prosthelytise about it until I die. 

Like much of the world, El Floridita is closed and there are no salsa nights. Though I hear they’re doing curbside pick-up and making deliveries. After weeks of Coronavirus quarantine, I can’t help but feel nostalgic for those lost Johnny Polanco nights. What I’d give for a Cubano sandwich and an iced café con leche or to be in a room full of sweaty strangers dancing within such close proximity, they can smell the gardenias in my hair. 

Read more Misti Traya on her blog.

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Beyond Badoit: a look a Japanese wine

This is something I wrote for Kanpai! last year on Japanese wine. It’s Suntory’s magazine but it’s not boringly on-brand. Worth a read if you see a copy. 

I was on my way to the annual Koshu wine event last year when I ran into a friend who works as a sommelier. “Ah, Koshu”, he said “tastes like Badoit”. That comment almost ruined the tasting for me because, when I first tried the wines, they did taste like mineral water.

It sounds like one of those hoary old cliches about Japan, but you really do have to approach Koshu wine a bit differently. The flavour is about as far from Sauvignon Blanc as you can get. Koshu’s qualities are ethereal: Helena Nicklin from Amazon TV Programme The Three Drinkers told me describes it as “the geisha of wine grapes: elegant, pale, complex and understated.” Ben Franks from Novel Wines (a shop in Bath that specialises in unusual wines) said: “Koshu needs the right context, people say it’s too neutral, but the third time they try it they realise there’s more to this than I thought.” 

What is this grape that tastes of so little? Koshu is native to Japan. Its origins are a bit mysterious but it is now generally accepted that it is a hybrid of European (vitis vinifera) and Chinese (vitis silvestrii) varieties. It might not wow when you first try it but Koshu in all its understated glory means that Japan has something that most emerging wine countries would kill for, a completely unique style of wine. 

Koshu

Koshu grapes, don’t they look weird?

Koshu is well suited to Japan’s, ahem, challenging climate. Yamanashi, where about 60% of Japanese wine comes from, is about 1.5 hours on the bullet train west of Tokyo. It has long summers but also high rainfall and humidity. Koshu with its large berries and loose bunches is particularly resistant to rot. Even then, the damp requires ingenious solutions:  “We have to put paper hats over the grapes to keep the rain off them for instance”, said Yuji Aruga owner of Katsunuma Jyozo Winery, the largest independent producer in the country. To further shield the grapes, growers plant at altitude in sheltered places.  Some vineyards are fitted with fans that blow when the humidity goes above a certain level. Nagano, the next biggest province for grapes has similar problems, whereas the island of Hokkaido has a drier climate but ferocious winters so the vines need to be protected from the cold.

So California, it ain’t; ripening grapes in Japan is hard work. In fact, with its high acidity wines and wet climate, Japanese wine has more than a little in common with English wine. And if the English can make world-class wines, why not the Japanese?

Wine has been made in Japan since the 19th century but the 1970s and 80s were when modern Japanese viticulture really started.  Large drinks companies, like Suntory, Kirin and Sapporo, established vineyards. Along with Koshu, they planted French varieties like Chardonnay and Merlot as well as hardy (if peculiar-tasting) American grapes like Niagara and Concorde. Quality wine did not immediately follow. It didn’t help that much so-called Japanese wine was actually imported either as concentrated grape juice or ready made wine, and relabelled as Japanese (some ‘Japanese’ whisky is still made today by blending the real thing with imports from Scotland or Canada). 2018 was an important year for Japanese wine as this practise became illegal.

Since those pioneering years, Japan has become more of a wine drinking country. Though wine is always going to come a long way behind sake, beer and whisky, Japanese wine drinkers tend to be educated and knowledgeable. There are now wine bars in Tokyo dedicated to native wines. 

Jamie Goode, an English wine writer who has visited Nagano a few times told me the industry is “very much in a dynamic phase. In Nagano, there are lots of micro producers practising gardening style viticulture with beautifully-tended vines.” The man who literally wrote the book on Japanese wines, Anthony Rose, thinks that quality has improved dramatically in the last five years. Producers are learning to best places to grow particular varieties and much better-trained than before. Rose told me that at Katsunuma Jozo winery, one of Yuji Aruga’s sons Hirotake, studied at Beaune in Burgundy; “there’s a new confidence about about this generation, they’re prepared to take risks.” Hirotake is even experimenting with Georgian qvevri to make skin contact Koshu. I must say I didn’t particularly like the resulting wine but you certainly couldn’t accuse it of tasting like Badoit. 

Kanpai! Magazine

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Producers are learning just how adaptable Koshu can be: you can age it on its lees to create something like Muscadet, it can be barrel-fermented as in Burgundy, and it’s very well-suited to making champagne-style sparkling wines. As with whisky and beer, Japanese wine producers are taking European techniques and making them their own.

It’s not all Koshu, however, Rose told me that Japan now makes excellent Chardonnays and good Albariño. And despite the difficult climate, some interesting reds are being made too. Aruga senior said, “we see potential for Syrah and Petit Verdot in particular.” The best reds I’ve tried were made from Cabernet Franc, but I’ve also had some nice Bordeaux blends and even a Zweigelt, an Austrian variety. 

But it’s Pinot Noir that has perhaps the greatest potential. So much so that in 2017, Etienne de Montille from the noted Burgundy wine family announced plans for a winery on Hokkaido. Finally, there’s a local curiosity, Muscat Bailey A, a hybrid variety. Once it was used to make semi-sweet red wines but producers now turn it into light juicy Beaujolais-style reds. I tried one from Suntory recently aged in mizunara oak (like some whiskies). I can’t say I loved it but it was certainly like nothing else I have ever tasted.

The best Japanese reds have a distinctive perfume and elegance about them. These are gastronomic wines, the kind of things that get sommeliers all hot and bothered. But the they are made in tiny quantities and largely consumed domestically. So if you see Japanese wine in Europe, then it’s most likely to be white, made from Koshu and from Yamanashi (Nagano wines currently aren’t exported in any quantity). 

Kelvin McCabe, formerly of Zuma in London who now works with British celebrity chef Adam Handling, is a fan: “Grace Winery does two style of Koshu which I really enjoy, a more mineral linear style and a slightly voluptuous style”, he said.  According to McCabe, Koshu “works really well with micro herb salads, ceviche and light fish dishes”. In my experience, it can also be a perfect fit for sushi, and even fish and chips. Not so surprising when you think of the Japanese skill with the deep fat fryer.  

They might be niche but there is a market for these wines. I was amazed to learn from Ben Franks that when he first opened Novel Wines, his bestselling white was a Koshu from Grace Vineyards. Helena Nicklin said, “consumers are looking for more subtle, elegant, low alcohol wines from off the beaten track. I personally feel Koshu is on a par with Swiss Chasselas style-wise” (another wine that is often dismissed as neutral). I think the appeal is that now it’s very easy to get wines crammed with fruit, alcohol and flavour in your local supermarket. Japanese wine is the opposite of that: it’s subtle and requires a little effort to understand. Combine this with interest in Japanese food, drink and culture, and you might have the ultimate hipster wine.

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We’re going down the pub!

As English pubs open today, 4 July, I thought it as good a time as any to try to put into words why I love certain pubs and fear for their future.

Perhaps my proudest moment as a father was when one long boring Sunday my daughter who couldn’t have been more than four at the time, said, in her south London accent, “Dad, shall we go to the pub?” I once overheard her playing ‘going to the pub’ with one of her friends. She was teaching her friends the game, explaining how to order crisps, apple juice, and beer for daddy. I was half expecting to be reported to the social services.

It’s not that I drink that much, a couple of pints at most, but those moments sitting with my daughter by the fire talking about which My Little Pony is my favourite, I’ll cherish for the rest of my life. I think one of the best things to happen in Britain in the last 20 years is that children are now allowed in pubs (though only if they are well-behaved). As a child I remember the long hours, probably only about half an hour, sitting in the car eating crisps whilst my father went to the pub.

The first pub I took my daughter too was the Hare in Bethnal Green. The noise soothed her as a newborn and the locals would coo at her while my wife had a well-earned half of Aspall’s and me a pint of Landlord. Incidentally, the Hare is the only pub where I’ve ever had ‘a usual.’ Once my brother tried to order something apart from Landlord and Kylie, the barmaid, corrected him. Another proud moment. 

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If I have a spare hour, I like nothing more than to have a pint on my own and watch the world go by. I have that first sip and my worries fall away, time seems to stop, and the world seems more vivid but with a sort of fuzziness around the edges. I feel a general benevolence towards mankind. Suddenly those thuggish-looking men in Arsenal tops seem like salt of the earth types. 

We moved to Lewisham in 2013. It wasn’t why we moved but south east London is peculiarly rich in the kind of pubs I love, unspoiled, defiantly un-gastro, a little rough round the edges and with excellent beer. Places like the Dacre Arms in Lewisham, the Blythe Hill Tavern in Forest Hill and our family’s favourite, the Dog and Bell in Deptford. The latter in a back street by a sprawling 1930s council estate near the Thames; it’s not the kind of place you stumble across. The landlord is Irish and the clientele is a mixture of old locals, newer locals like us and beer enthusiasts, it’s got a great range of real ales at mid 00s prices, £3.40. In fact the whole place feels like the last 20 years never happened. My daughter loves it especially when the landlord’s grandchildren are around.

The Dog and Bell is the place we miss the most now that we’re in Faversham in Kent. I admit a large part of the appeal was the numerous pubs, and the sprawling Shepherd Neame brewery at the heart of the town. Inevitably, it dominates the scene, owning most of the pubs including our favourite, the Anchor down by the creek, and I have to say that I do get a bit sick of the ubiquitous Masterbrew. Happily, there’s some good freehouses, the Elephant with an ever-changing selection of beers, the Shipwright’s Arms on the marshes which does Goachers, two micropubs, Furlongs (which I’ve been calling Furloughs recently) and the Corner Tap. 

The town was missing its heart during lockdown though the smell of brewery brewing helped keep my spirits up. And it was good to see Furlongs and the Elephant doing takeaway beer. Today, the town is bustling once more as the pubs have opened up though sadly, I won’t be going. My wife having lung problems and being pregnant is considered high risk. In fact, part of the reason my daughter and I used to spent so much time in the pub together is a couple of years ago my wife’s lung problems were particularly severe. 

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It looks like a pub, but it isn’t

Faversham is unusually rich in pubs but it used to be a lot richer, almost every road has a corner pub that’s now a house. I haven’t counted them, but there must be at least 20 former pubs in town. The famous Ship  is now a beauty parlour. Oh the times! My worry is that the kind of pub I love, a place that relies on locals drinking rather than food, is doomed if things don’t go back to normal soon. Many were, I’m sure not terribly profitable before lockdown but partly run because the landlord or landlady loved the job, the chatter, the locals. If people have to keep apart, taking will be down dramatically. How many of my favourites will be houses in five years time?

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What next for English wine?

It’s English Wine Week so as good a time as any to post this thing that I wrote for the Observer earlier this year for an advertorial spot sponsored by Tesco. Don’t let that put you off, as they pretty much let me write what I wanted though they did remove all the jokes from the finished article. That’s subs for you!

Ten years ago if you’d invited me to Bridge Place, a 16th century manor house near Canterbury, for dinner with a group of Kent wine producers, I don’t think I’d have been terribly keen. That’s mainly because the venue was then an over 30s only nightclub, notorious for what our cab driver Kevin called ‘grab-a-granny’ nights. But also because I wouldn’t have thought the wines would be that good. How things have changed: when I visited this spring, Bridge Place was about to open as a Pig Hotel and to celebrate, the Pig team had laid on a dinner for the Wine Gardens of England, a group of local producers. We drank some excellent old vintages of the sparklers, some very good still whites and even some ripe juicy reds (the 2018 Gusbourne Pinor Noir, below, is staggeringly good as is the 2017 Chardonnay).

It all felt so normal, winemakers showing off their best wines; it’s hard to recall how recent this success is. Richard Balfour-Lynn owner of Hush Heath Estate filled me in on how things used to be: “If you said you made English wine people would laugh at you. When you went abroad people would look at you like you were slightly odd.” He made his money in among other things a couple of hotel chains you may have heard of, Hotel du Vin and Malmaison. As he tells it, he became a vine grower in Kent by accident. When most of us buy something on a whim, it might be a hat or a particularly snazzy pair of shoes, but Richard bought a 400 acre farm not far from Tunbridge Wells called Hush Heath.

Always a wine fan, his wife suggested that he might want to plant vines there rather than France or Italy. This was back in 2002, and the first wine, a pink sparkler, came out in 2007, inspired by his favourite champagne, Billecart-Salmon rosé with a price to match. He’s nothing if not ambitious. It was an immediate success winning a gold medal and trophy at the International Wine Challenge. Since then the estate has won many other awards and production has expanded dramatically. It now produces a range of wines all from estate-grown fruit, all the way from £80 a bottle to two wines for the Tesco Finest range, a sub £20 sparkler and a still white blend. “The difference is stylistic, not in quality,” Richard told me.

I asked him why English wine had gone from joke to success story in such a short time. He was candid: “global warming, we could not do what we are doing 25 years ago.” But the climate is still very marginal, 2017 was a disaster. When I visited Hush Heath, they were bringing in the harvest in the pouring rain (I pinched a few Pinot Noir grapes and they were sweet, with ripe skins and an electric charge of acidity that makes them perfect for sparkling wine). What has also changed is there’s a more professional attitude in the industry. “People have invested in higher quality equipment,” Richard told me, “and we’re getting to know the area, finding out which clones and rootstock work where. We’re all starting out, there’s no real history here.”

Money helps too, you need deep pockets to make sparkling wine, particularly in England. Vines need time to bear fruit and the wine needs at least 18 months to mature in bottle. You won’t see a return on your money for at least seven years. Richard said that to establish a premium spirits brand is the work of 20-30 years. “I wish I’d started when I was ten,” he joked. Building a brand is important, those who don’t, will not survive, Richard thinks. Some producers might resort to selling their grapes rather than making their own wine, just like in Champagne. And yet, there’s no shortage of people splashing money around. In some ways it’s like California in the 1970s, only without the nice weather.

Another way the English industry is very like California is the emphasis on tourism. In fact, they do it a lot better than many established wine regions. I’m looking at you Bordeaux. Hush Heath has a magnificent tasting room with a restaurant and views across the Kent Downs. The Home Counties have a distinct advantage over most other up-and-coming wine regions in that they have a massive wealthy city on their doorstep: Hush Heath is 45 minutes from London Bridge station. Kent has become a food and drink lovers destination. No wonder the Pig group chose to open its first hotel outside the West Country near Canterbury. 

Wine might be a young industry but Kent has long been famous for its high quality produce like apples and hops. Richard noted that areas where vines thrive, where there’s good drainage, sunlight and shelter from frost, were famed for fruit growing in the 19th century. There’s continuity in other ways: “We have the same viticultural team, the Turner family, since 2002. They’re third generation on the estate, the grandfather was head gardener. They are invested in the land.”

As I learned from my dinner at the Pig, the English wine business is very supportive. There are some wine regions where you couldn’t get all the local producers around the table but in Kent, they bask in each other’s success and Richard often has budding growers over to see how it is done. 

Currently most producers are concentrating on the British market which, considering we drink something like 30 million bottles of champagne a year but only produce 3-4 million bottles of sparkling wine, is still relatively untapped. We also drink 100 million bottles of prosecco and Richard thinks that we shouldn’t be afraid to make similar wines which are much cheaper to produce. “English wine should be innovative,” he told me. 

The home market is so strong that export is not a priority for most producers. Hush Heath currently exports about 10% of its production to America, Hong Kong, mainland China and, surprisingly, Spain, but this is likely to increase as the reputation of the England’s wines grows. The moment I realised that English wines had arrived was not when one came top in a blind tasting against champagne, or even in 2017 when Taittinger champagne planted vines in Kent (naturally it was pouring with rain that day) but when I gave a wine from one of Richard’s neighbours, Biddenden, to a French friend. She swore it was from the Loire. Exporting English wine to France, wouldn’t that be something?

If you want some English sparkling wine recommendations, here’s a round-up of my favourites I put together for BBC Good Food.

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Booze interview: Peter Stafford-Bow

Today on the blog I’m delighted to have mysterious author Peter Stafford-Bow, author of a series of comic novels set within the wine business featuring Felix Hart. The latest, Firing Blancs, has just come out.

Firing Blancs, what a good title, is the third in a series featuring roguish supermarket wine buyer Felix Hart. If it all sounds rather like an in-joke for members of the wine trade, don’t worry because you don’t need to know anything about the booze business to enjoy it. In this book Felix Hart, his job on the line at the supermarket chain where he works, is sent to South Africa to get the company out of PR disaster after an Afrikaaner vineyard owner is accused of mistreating his workers. There are some great characters, not least the former Rhodes scholar turned land seizure militant whose army of disenfranchised black workers sing songs that he picked up on the terraces at Oxford United including ‘Come and have a go if you think you’re hard enough’ and ‘Swindon Town is falling Down.’ It’s a fast-paced romp from one amusing set piece to another but, as companies today fall over themselves to demonstrate their ethical credentials, also a timely satire on the cynicism of woke capitalism. I read it over the course of a weekend with my feet in the paddling pool and a bottle of rosé at my side, chuckling to myself every few pages. Tom Sharpe is the obvious comparison but there are shades of Kingsley Amis and even J.G. Farrell at his most farcical. In short it’s a good old fashioned comedy of the kind that publishers don’t offer any more. You’ll also learn a lot about South African wine.

Try it with wine

Right, that’s enough preamble. Welcome Mr Stafford-Bow!

Why do you write under a pseudonym?

Anyone who has read Corkscrew will realise that it doesn’t depict the retail business, and management in general, in a particularly flattering light. Add to that the cheerfully amoral behaviour of Felix Hart, the protagonist, you can see why current and former employers might take a dim view of the type of person to dream up such shenanigans.

Where did the character of Felix Hart come from?

I had a vision of modern-day supermarket buyers as 18th century privateers, in all their cynical, mercenary glory. In terms of literary inspiration, Harry Flashman, from George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman Papers, is an influence, plus there are bits of James Bond, Bertie Wooster and Withnail in there too.

Where did the idea for Firing Blancs come from?

My years in South Africa, that beautiful, flawed but ultimately optimistic country, were the inspiration for the setting. Key scenes, particularly at Gatesave’s head office, were based on my own experience working for big supermarkets, while the main plot is shaped by the arguments around 21st century identity politics and its deathly reflection, corporate woke-washing.

What next for Felix Hart?

Felix will travel to East Asia for his most mind-scrambling adventure yet. The story’s all still in my head, I’m afraid, but I’ll begin writing later in the summer.

Is the supermarket business anywhere near as cynical as you make out when it comes to fair trade etc.?

Large supermarkets are driven solely by the profit motive. They react to what their customers want but they don’t have their own inherent moral imperative. I don’t think the cynicism of corporations lies in their pursuit of shareholder value – we all deserve to earn a living – it lies in their pretence that they care about ethical issues in the same way that a consumer might, summed up in the sick-bag phrase “we do it because it’s the right thing to do…” I mean, all those pictures of smiling workers and farmers that you see on in-store advertising… who do you think you’re kidding, Mr Supermarket?!

Have you always written?

No, I started around six years ago with the first edition of Corkscrew. I’ve always known I could just about string a sentence together, but that was my first attempt at serious long-form writing.

Did you have an epiphany bottle of wine?

Yes, I studied wine tasting at school, on the sixth form general studies curriculum. I remember sampling a Barsac and thinking it was the most incredible liquid ever to have passed my lips. I decided right then that working in an off-licence was the career I wanted to pursue. When I think back, I can’t quite believe our school allowed us to drink wine during lessons, but there you go, it was the olden days I suppose.

Why did you go into the wine trade?

I’ve partly answered that in the question above, but my career was given a helping hand by being expelled from university for being bone idle.

Do you still work in the wine trade?

No, I’ve been expelled from the wine trade too.

What’s your house wine de jour?

I’m chugging through a case of Le Boit Sans Soif from Jean-Francois Chene at the moment. It’s a Loire Grolleau with only 8% abv, so it’s perfectly chilled on warm weekday evenings.

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

It’s as much about the occasion as the wine, I don’t think you can separate the two. A bottle of 2004 Dom Pérignon paired with fish and chips on Dungeness beach, in the shadow of the nuclear power station, stands out as a special moment.

Firing Blancs is available from Waterstones, Amazon and lots of other good bookshops as well as some bad ones. 

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5 things I’ve learnt from 10 years in drink

I’ve been writing this blog on and off for ten years, so I’ve now got a decade’s worth of experience as a drinks writer to share with you, dear reader. I’ve witnessed the rise of natural wine, I’ve seen the choice of gin in a pub go from two to 22 and I’ve watched the price of Scotch whisky go bananas. And yet I’ve got nothing interesting to say about any of them. Instead, here are my bits of wisdom:

Big brands can be good:

When I worked in the wine trade back before the internet or mobile telephony, we used to turn our noses up at people who asked for Moet. Well, I tried Moet recently and it’s delicious. Everything you want from an NV champagne. For a G&T, nothing beats Beefeater and Schweppes, the Johnnie Walker range is excellent, and ignore Stanley Tucci, ordinary Martini Rosso is great in a Negroni

You can cook with a wine you wouldn’t drink:

Oxidised wine, flat champagne, and tired port are all fine to cook with. Especially if you’re going to cook it for a long time. I’ve made boeuf bourguignon with dozens of wines and the biggest difference is always the quality of the meat. And that aggressively sharp white wine that someone brought round, it’ll probably be great for making gravy. 

Lemon ruins a Martini:

I had this epiphany recently, a spray of lemon oil totally obliterates the taste of the gin. Distillers spend time getting the balance right. Don’t spoil it with a massive wack of lemony oil. Have an olive instead.

Cheap reds are better than cheap whites:

I am sure someone can explain to me why this might be, probably something to do with flavour in the grape skin, but you know it’s true.

Just order the Beaujolais:

Unless you’re dining with fellow wine bores (or maybe especially if you’re dining with fellow wine bores when getting a drink can take hours as everyone wants to look at the list), don’t spend ages looking through the wine list for the perfect bottle to go with everyone’s food. Order a bottle of decent Beaujolais, it goes with pretty much everything and then you can get on with enjoying people’s company. The white wine equivalent is Macon. 

 

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Budget bargains from the Wine Society part two

It’s back by popular demand, my round-up of the best budget wines from the Wine Society. This time I’m looking at whites and sherry. 

Apologies for the delay since the reds post, the Society warehouse closed down for a bit because of that thing that’s in the news.  The marketing department, however, didn’t seem to be affected. So many emails when all we wanted was one saying that they are once again taking orders. Well, now they are (though only in cases of the same wine, or pre-mixed cases) so it’s a good time to round-up some of my favourite whites. I notice that I’ve chosen a lot more Wine Soc own labels this time. I’ve been thinking about why this should be: perhaps I drink a lot less white wine than red which means I don’t know the range so well so I order more conservatively. Or perhaps because it’s much harder to make an interesting cheap white than a cheap red so under £11 one needs every watt of the Wine Society’s formidable buying power. Anyway, the own label range is excellent so it’s not such a problem. So without further ado, here they are. Please let me know any that I have missed in the comments:

Fino Perdido Sanchez Romate £8.50

Fino sherry is for me the Pringles of wine, once I’ve popped a bottle, I find it very hard to stop. It was a toss up between this and the excellent own label fino (£6.95!) but I’ve gone for this as it offers so much. It’s a very mature style of fino (look at its colour above) so the nuttiness and creamy texture have been turned up but without losing the sheer drinkability that a fino should have. The price is an absolute joke. I’d buy it at £15. 

The Society’s White Burgundy 2018 £9.95

I find the answer to almost all wine/ food problems can be solved by either Beaujolais or a nice drop of white Burgundy (or similar). Creamy, leesy and lemony, this Macon is a stalwart wine and seems particularly good in the latest vintage. If I’m going a bit uprmaket in Burgundy, I find the Domaine Cordier range unbeatable for the money. 

Muscadet Sèvre-et-Maine sur Lie, Château L’Oiselinière de la Ramée, Chéreau-Carré 2016 £8.50

My parents used to drink a lot of Muscadet in the ‘80s but it was nothing like this. Another deliciously creamy wine from lees contact with a salty saline tang and green apple. Ridiculous value too for a mature wine from one of the region’s top producers. The name’s a bit of mouthful, though isn’t it? 

Picpoul de Pinet, Felines-Jourdan 2018 £8.95

And this is what my parents drink these days instead of Muscadet. And damn good it is too. Has that lip-smacking quality that I love in Picpoul (the name of the grape apparently means something like ‘sting lips’) but there’s also some weight and honey there too. My late aunt used to have a house in the Pinet region so I always think of her when I drink Picpoul.

The Society’s Saar Riesling 2017 £10.95

I once went on a wine trip to the Mosel and despite three days of pretty much solid tasting, drinking and feasting, I never once had a hangover. That’s the magic of these wines, low alcohol and masses of flavour. This is made by Von Kesselstatt, one of the region’s great estates, it majors on limes and apple blossom with just a touch of sweetness. Great aperitif wine. 

The Society’s Vinho Verde 2018 £6.95

Portugal green wine, named as it’s drunk young rather than the colour, is another lowish alcohol charmer. I don’t know how the Wine Society do it for the money, it’s ripe and lemony with a slightly chalky edge and just a little spritz of carbon dioxide. Great summer garden sipping.

Painted Wolf Peloton Blanc 2016 £9.95

Much of the excitement around South African wine comes from Rhoney reds grown in Swartland but for my money the country’s best wines are the chenin blanc-based white blends. Alongside the chenin this contains viognier, roussanne, grenache blanc, clairette and just a soupcon of kitchen sink. It has a honeyed, nutty sort of texture alongside its peach and apple fruit. 

 

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Old wines with the old folks

A few years ago a friend introduced me to a mutual friend thinking we’d get on because of our shared love of wine. We met for dinner to which this mutual brought some superlative Burgundy but sadly I couldn’t stand him (to be fair, I’m not sure he liked me that much either.) A part of me though, thought perhaps I should try to get on with him because of his amazing cellar. I didn’t and I’m glad I didn’t, wine is only ever as good as the company you drink it in. I wrote a while back on the circle surrounding wine forger Rudy Kurniawan:

“Jay McInerney was affiliated with a bunch of high-rolling wine enthusiasts who styled themselves “The Angry Men”. Think of Patrick Bateman’s friends in American Psycho only with Grand Cru Burgundy. One of their number, wine auctioneer John Kapon, had the charming habit of referring to wines as “call girls” or “t&a” (tits and ass.)”

Not even the promise of Romanée-Conti could make me want to spend some time with that lot. I’ve never met people that awful in wine but I have been to dinner where the quality of the wine could not make up for the awkward stilted conversation. The converse is true,  I don’t think anything has tasted finer than those bottles of rosé drunk in Victoria  Park with my wife in 2010. Of course, the jackpot is when fine wine and good company collide which is what happened last month.

My parents had come to visit for my birthday. We didn’t know it but it would be the last time we saw them before the lockdown started. That weekend, 7/8 March, had the air of unreality as we knew something was coming (but what?), and yet my father and I went to pubs as if nothing had changed. He had brought with him some wine from his cellar as a birthday present plus two rogue bottles he’d recently acquired. They’d come from a deceased member of the Chiltern wine club who’d left his collection to the members. Everyone got two bottles picked at random and these were the ones my father got:

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Looking at the two bottles, I thought the Rauzan-Gassies would be at the very least drinkable, good chateau, great vintage, but the Burgundy, excellent vintage but a negociant house I’d never heard of (not that I know terribly much about Burgundy), would probably be knackered. Reassuringly both bottles had a very high ullage. We opened the Burgundy without much ceremony, no decanting, to go with roast chicken, and it was. . .  spectacularly good. No mustiness, no off notes, just lots of tobacco followed by dark cherry fruit. It tasted about 10 years old, not 24. And the Margaux? Well, it was probably past its best but not by a lot, fruit a little stewed, some mushroom, cigars and cedar, didn’t fall apart in the glass, in fact it got better with every sip. Reminds me a bit of myself.

Charmingly the Chambolle-Musigny had a note written on the label saying, I think, “We had this wine in Beaune with Becky’s husband 15 June ’99 at 10.30am!!” We raised a glass to my father’s deceased friend, and then there were lots of ‘mmmmms’ and ‘ooohs’ from the table. Enjoying wine with someone you love, who also appreciates wine is one of life’s great pleasures. But it’s even better when the enjoyment is so unexpected, both these wines could well have been disappointing, the fact that they far exceeded our expectations made the evening all the more special. Next time I see my parents, I’ll bring something treasured to drink. I hope that day is not too far off.

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