Wine articles

The legendary lost wine of Marsala

When I was a youngster I read Melody Maker every week. Sadly my pocket money could not keep pace with my interest in indie music so most of the bands I read about, I had never heard. Nowadays almost everything is just a click away but then I was limited to what was available from Record House in Amersham and what John Peel played on his show. Still it was important to have an opinion on everything. Often the bands that I hadn’t heard, I would have the strongest views on.

I feel this way about certain wines especially the ones that are extinct or nearly extinct. Wines such as malaga from Spain, constantia from South Africa and most of all marsala from Sicily. I have read so much about them but  can only imagine what they taste like. Marsala as a commercial product was the creation of a Liverpool merchant called John Woodhouse in the late 18th century who tried the local wine of Western Sicily and saw something of madeira in it.  He took this wine, usually made from a grape variety called grillo and added brandy and/ or cooked grape must (accounts vary) in order to make it hardier for long sea voyages. Business really took off when Nelson tried it and declared ‘the wine is so good that any gentleman’s table might receive it, and it will be of real use for our seaman.’ The wine became a staple of the Royal Navy and a marsala boom started on the island. One that was exploited first by the British merchants (for a brief period during the Napoleonic wars Sicily was a British colony), the Woodhouses and the Inghams, and later by Italian families from the mainland, Florios and Pellegrinos. Huge fortunes were made. Much of the Ingham fortune went into financing America’s railways whereas the Florio warehouses were once spread over a kilometer of the harbour. The wines fetched as high prices as the best madeiras and sherries.

Sadly as with madeira and sherry, the producers reacted to fluctuations in the market by creating a cheaper product through planting inferior grape varieties, overcropping, irrigating and then sweetening heavily to mask deficiencies in the base wine. The low point came in the 1969 when wines flavoured with eggs, almonds and bananas were allowed to be sold as marsala. Whereas in Spain and Portugal the bad stuff never quite destroyed the reputation of the regions and good wines continued to be made,  marsala is now only available in debased form as a sweetened liqueur wine used in Italian cookery.

Or not quite. There are still a couple of producers making something like the real thing. One is Cantine Florio, one of the first families, who make a vergine (unsweetened) wine from 100% grillo called Terre Arse. For obvious reasons it is not widely available in Britain. I brought a bottle back from Sicily a few years ago. I think it cost me about 8 euros. I was amazed by its nutty exotic flavour. It’s like biting into a brandy-soaked North Africa.

And then there is Marco de Bartoli. According to Nicholas Belfrage, the Italian wine expert, Mr Bartoli has a grudge against the British for ruining his native wine by sweetening and fortifying it. His signature product is a wine that he claims reflects Marsala’s pre British wines. It is called Vecchio Samperi and because it is so atypical of most marsalas, is simply sold as a vino di tavola. Mr Bartoli’s opinion of British tastes is so low that for a time he refused to export his wines to these shores.

Terre Arse is the only true marsala I have tried. I have spent far longer reading about the stuff rather than drinking it. As I mentioned in an earlier post, Terroirs wine bar stock de Bartoli. I went along to their sister place, Brawn, a couple of nights ago. The food was very good but I was really there for the wine. We started with a pungent Las Medallas mazanilla sherry and moved on to a delightful Sicilian red which smelt of cinnamon and had a yeasty finish like a good bitter all the while dreaming of that first sip of the legendary true marsala. Sadly they only sold it by the bottle and my finances would not stretch that far. Oh gods why do you taunt me! Despite the excellent meal, I left Brawn crushed and disappointed. Perhaps I will never get to try marsala again or I will just have to bite the bullet and order a case from one of the merchants below:

Terre Arse is available from Enotria and Fareham Wine Cellars.

De Bartoli’s wines are imported by Cave de Pyrene.


The perfect pub

George Orwell wrote an essay in which he describes the merits of his favourite pub, the Moon Under Water. As you might expect from Orwell, these are very particular, so particular in fact that he had to invent a fictional venue; the Moon Under Water did not exist. It does now of course. It’s in Soho and looks like the sort of place to avoid. I am far less choosy when it comes to having a drink.  This is what I look for in the perfect pub:

1) Real ale. The main reason I go to a pub is for proper English beer. I don’t mind if they only have one beer on as long as it is in good condition. I’d prefer a well-kept pint of London Pride to an exciting selection of badly-kept beers. Keeping real ale is a skill which takes time and care to master. It is not something that musicians ‘resting’ between gigs should entrusted with. This is the main reason why it is difficult to find good beer in Camden town.

2) A proper landlord/lady. This follows on from my first point; it’s good to know that someone is in charge who cares about the beer and knows the customers.

3) A mix of people. When I go to the pub, I don’t want to be surrounded by people like me. I want to see grizzled old geezers, overweight skinheads who love their mums and a betting shop lothario giving racing tips to a barmaid with the slutty laugh. Any potential trouble will be swiftly dealt with by the landlord.

4) Food is not a priority. I think it’s a shame when an old boozer closes down and turns into a restaurant but without table clothes. I’d like some nice sandwiches and maybe a pie but nothing lavish.

5) Drinks other than beer. I never drink wine in pubs. I do, however, like to see some decent ciders, Aspall’s or Addlestone’s, on draught and some malt whiskies for when I’m feeling expansive.

That is it. I’m not very keen on sport but I can normally blot it out. Same with loud music. It would be nice if the interior was a perfectly-preserved Victorian gin palace but I’m happy in a pub where the seats have been repaired with gaffer tape.

Here are a few places that I like:

The Red Lion – Little Missenden, Bucks. A proper country pub that has not been tarted-up and does simple home-cooked food. Mainly frequented by dog walkers and my father but there is also a lively clique of gangster builders who turn up in 4x4s resplendent in their plus fours.

The Hare – Bethnal Green, London. The landlord is ex-Young’s brewery in Wandsworth so the beer, Landlord, Green King IPA and one guest, is always tip top. A bit too much football to be perfect but a great atmosphere. They closed a few years ago for refurbishment and put a sign up saying ‘don’t worry, we haven’t gone bistro.’ When the place reopened, the only discernible change was that they had moved the bar back a couple of feet.

The King and Queen – Fitzrovia, London. Well-kept Cornish beers, Doom Bar and Tribute, and lethally strong salt and vinegar crisps. The interior looks like it has not been touched since the early 60s.

The Marble Arch – Manchester. Not only a  haven for real ale bores, a group to which I am proud to be a member, but also a lively place for a night out. Good food too.

and an example of how to ruin a good pub:

The King’s Arms – Amersham. It makes me furious what they did to this place. It’s a 16th century coaching inn with lots of low interior beams. It used to have an uneven tiled floor, dark worn-in furniture and barrels of beer in cooler jackets behind the bar. It was one of the busiest places in town. In 2007 it closed for refurbishment. I remember the shock when  it reopened: the floor had been replaced with what looked like laminate, chairs and curtains from a chain hotel had been installed, and the dark beams had been coloured/ cleaned so that they were beige. The beer barrels were gone replaced with gaudy lager displays and the one ale on tap, the ubiquitous London Pride, was awful. The place was deserted.

Wine articles

Must be more assertive

My wife and I were out having dinner with a couple of friends and we got onto the topic of annoying habits of waiters in restaurants. The one  that troubled us most was when the staff keep topping your glass up and before you know it the bottle is gone and they are trying to sell you another. My wife, who is American, was surprised by our grouching. ‘Why don’t you just ask them not to?’ We didn’t know quite what to say. It really hadn’t occurred to us that the answer might be that simple.

We as a nation are not very good at being assertive in restaurants. I used to think it was a relic of the class system where no one wanted to appear as if he was lording it but of course most staff in British restaurants would not have the same instinctive awareness of class being from Poland, France or Australia. Nevertheless, assertiveness over here often results in a cold reception and very often spoiled meal.

I remember an incident at Navarro’s Spanish restaurant in Fitzrovia a couple of years ago where I asked for an ice bucket  to go with my very warm bottle of red wine. I was refused and told that I was drinking Rioja which should not be chilled. Eventually I had to ask for the manager who again tried to explain to me that I had ordered a red wine which shouldn’t be chilled. In the end I got my bucket and the rest of the meal had the waiters shaking their heads at me in disbelief.

More recently at the normally flawless Galvin on Baker street I had to send back two lots of fino sherry which weren’t cold. When I told the waiter that it should be served cold, he told he that he knew this. I imagine he thought that I wasn’t worth serving correctly. I had to ask for the undrunk wine to be taken off the bill which they did gracelessly and without apology.

Both times the good (in the case of Galvin superlative) food was spoiled by waiters either thinking they knew best or just not caring. I cannot imagine ever being treated like that in America. There they may think you’re mad but they will always do whatever you ask. We eat out not only to have good food but also to be looked after. If you’re not going to be cared for then what is the point?

Nevertheless, my New Year’s resolution is to be more assertive when I eat out. I am going to combine it with an other worldly cheerfulness. A cheerfulness so cheery that it cannot be dented by even the surliest of waiters. I may need drugs to achieve this state.

My other resolution is to stop ordering expensive wines out. When I had a full time employer who often paid for these excursions, it was fun to explore the £40 price range at restaurants. How I miss the gravy train! My current reduced circumstances mean I have to stick to the house wine or take advantage of the increasing amount of places that are offering wine by the carafe. This way I can still drink the good stuff but sadly not get drunk.  Here are two of my favourite places which offer this service:

32 Great Queen Street, Covent Garden, London – I like this place so much that I had my wedding reception here. The food is gutsy and based on whatever their butcher and fisherman suggest that day, the staff are informal and knowledgeable and the wine list is full of the kind of pungent French wines that I love. Try the marcillac which tastes of iron and cherries.

Terroirs, William IV Street, London – The French (with Spanish and Italian flourishes) food served tapas style is good and occasionally excellent but the highlight is the wine list. All the wine are ‘natural’ (I am going to write a post on ‘natural’ wines shortly) and imported by Cave de Pyrene. Best of all, they have a marsala (Sicilian wine akin to madeira) from De Bartoli – the last traditional producer on the island. They have just opened a new place called Brawn on Columbia Road which I will be visiting shortly.