Swarthy Chicken for Magical Realists

World of Booze is branching out into food. Man cannot live on booze alone; I know cos I’ve tried. This week we have guest writer Misti Traya cooking with Marsala. She is using Florio’s Terre Arse which is really too good for this but you only need a splash and then you can finish off the bottle with a nice aged Pecorino.


I look better with a tan.  I don’t care how gauche you think I am to say it.  My best friend is a dermatologist.  I know about the dangers of sun exposure.  My healthy fear of melanoma aside, I am also a Vanity Smurf.  I realize too much sun is bad and can render you a blotchy, freckly, ginger hag who has been living in the Canary Islands sans SPF* for twenty plus years (I have given this alter ego the name of Mrs. Rathbone).  No woman wants a face like a moccasin.  Nor do I believe does any man.  This is why I always slather myself with sunscreen.  Still, the fact remains.  I look better with a tan.  For me, a tawny complexion is tantamount to instantly losing five pounds.  It also makes one’s teeth look whiter.  Who in Britain wouldn’t want that?

The first time I met the man I had no idea would be my husband, I was so swarthy he thought I was Brazilian.  I wasn’t.  I’m not.  Though I had just spent two weeks in the Caribbean drinking caipirinhas with my family, building sandcastles with my baby sister, and soaking up the sun.

Ah, the sun.  The glorious sun.

Under the Sicilian sun, my husband and I had our beginnings.  For me, this heat will always be romanticized.  When life in London gets too cold and dreary or I‘ve gone as sallow as a Dickensian orphan, this Sicilian ideal is where I go in my mind.  One of the things that helps me get there is a dish we’ve dubbed Swarthy Chicken.  For us, it’s evocative of that glowing tan I had the first time I noticed how much I loved my future husband’s nose in profile.  It reminds us of the day we sat reading next to each other poolside, ignorant to what was written in the stars, under a sea of bougainvillea on the grounds of a 17th century mansion overlooking the Mediterranean.  Swarthy Chicken is for magical realists because one serving of this dish can transport you to our sultry jasmine-scented Sicily.  But only if you believe.

The recipe is as follows:

Preheat your oven to 225 Celsius.  You want it to have all the heat of Mount Etna when she roars.

Next, slice a large yellow onion into thin rounds.  Lay these rounds at the bottom of an earthenware casserole.  Be sure to use some sort of enameled ceramic dish.  Only philistines use glass or tin.  My favorites are either a Le Creuset lasagne dish or a pretty Italian Majolica piece.  Both are built in fire and can handle fire.  Add two thinly sliced red, yellow or orange bell peppers.  Make them thin, but do not julienne.  Now smash four garlic cloves and scatter them amongst the other vegetable ruins.

Take 8-10 chicken thighs.  Thighs are inexpensive, moist, full of flavor and most importantly, they can withstand long cooking at high heat.  Rub the chicken pieces with butter.  Be generous.  Use the butter as if it were the chicken’s sunscreen.  Add a light drizzle of olive oil then liberally salt, pepper, and sprinkle with spicy smoked paprika.  This will add a fiery oaky flavor to the dish that will hearken back to the Aragonese invasion of Sicily.

Bake for 20-30 minutes.  The skin should be crisp and brown.  The onions should be caramelized with a few charred bits as if seared to seal in deliciousness by Etna herself.  Every so often roll the chicken pieces in the savory drippings to keep moist.

Turn down the oven to 175 Celsius and bake for another 15 minutes.

Roll the chicken thighs in their juices and add a splash of good Marsala wine.  Bake for another 15 minutes so the alcohol cooks off but the flavor remains.  Terre Arse is the brand we use in our house.  My husband swears it tastes of Sicily’s past.  Perhaps he fought against the French during the War of Vespers in another life?  I have no idea.  But I take most of what he says, especially about wine, to heart. The oranges, cinnamon and pistachios that the Arabs brought to Sicily 1,000 years ago are very present in this fortified wine’s flavor notes and you will definitely be able to taste them in your gravy.  Let us not forget Marsala is Arabic for Port of Allah.  And it is from Allah (or at least his port) that Marsala must come as it really is the most otherworldly emulsifier.  It pulls together all the elements of this dish—the smoke and the spice of the paprika, the oak of the casks that aged the wine, the sweetness of the caramelized onions and peppers—to create the richest, most fragrant gravy.

Before serving, throw in a handful of roughly chopped green Italian olives.  My favorite are the giant meaty ones from Puglia that are so sweet and fruity, one could mistake them for cherries.

Serve atop basmati rice, turn on the Nino Rota and you’re there.  Swarthy in Sicily that is.

*Editor’s note – SPF stands for Sun Protection Factor and is being used as an abbreviation for suncream despite having more syllables.

Wine articles

Do wine writers need qualifications?

I was reading the comment section on a wine blog late one Friday night (how my life has changed in the last four years!) Someone had written in to voice his displeasure that people could start blogs and pronounce on wine without any formal training. My first reaction was that this seems fair enough, we don’t want ignorant people passing judgment on something that they know little about. Perhaps Leeds, my alma mater, could offer a course in wine writing where one could learn how to spit accurately from a distance, the correct use of the word austere and the difference between Verdelho & Verdejo. Knowing Leeds the course would also examine how a rich seam of African wine writing was suppressed by a conspiracy of dead white males. From reading British wine blogs however, I’m not sure this is necessary. The ones I have come across are curious, calm and none of them claim knowledge that they don’t have (there are some American ones that try to ape the authority of Robert Parker JR without the experience and some Australian ones that seem to have been written by excitable cricket commentators who have just had their first drink.) Sometimes I long, when trawling the internet, for a Clarkson of the wine world making absurd pronouncements based on enthusiasm and a cheerful ignorance of technical matters – if anyone knows of one please let me know.

What I like about wine is that you can explore a whole world from the comfort of your living room without any special equipment or training or even, unless you want to scale the heights, that much money. Combine this with the internet and there’s a forum for enthusiasts to opine away. Unlike say rock climbing or medicine, a little inaccuracy isn’t going to cause any serious ramifications.  And what Mr Appalled of Sonoma misses is how some of the best writing on wine comes not from Masters of Wine or vignerons but from the curious amateur. One thinks of Evelyn Waugh, Jay McInerney and Roger Scruton – all writers who manage the rare feat of putting the magic of wine into words. And who would dismiss Samuel Pepys’s pronouncement on the ‘good and most particular taste’ of ‘ho bryan’ because he didn’t have his WSET higher certificate? You can’t have the Waughs without the Clarksons and I say this as someone who is glad to have both.

I’m not saying that qualifications are worthless. If I want to know something or some disinterested advice before spending a lot of money, I turn to writers such as Tim Atkin and Jancis Robinson. Their qualifications and experience give them authority. But for me, this is secondary to the fact that they both write elegantly and, most importantly, I tend to like the wines that they like. In the end it comes down to how you write and what you like.

Wine articles

Being scrupulously honest

As well as writing about booze for which I earn very little, I have a day job where I earn obscene amounts of money so that I can keep my family in Krug and cashmere pyjamas. I am referring, of course, to publishing. The worlds of wine and books rarely cross especially in these days of dry lunches but sometimes I’m asked to work on a book about wine so I feel it is only proper to declare an interest. This month I started full time at Bloomsbury Publishing and they’re publishing a new book by Jay McInerney called The Juice; I’ll be doing the PR.  So if you read anything about Mr McInerney here, just be aware that I have a vested interest in the success of this book. Obviously I’m not going to review it but I hope readers don’t mind if I quote from it because it’s very hard not to. Whilst I am being scrupulously honest, I’ll also mention that Roger Scruton, another whose wine writing I admire, is published by Continuum who are now owned by Bloomsbury. And finally at Granta, my last employer, I worked with Victoria Moore, the Telegraph wine critic. My conscience is clear; suspicions about how I sustain my champagne lifestyle on a publishing salary and allegations that I am paid a ‘consulting fee’ by the sherry marketing board I find ugly and offensive.

Wine articles Wine of the week

Wine of the Week: Côtes du Rhone Guigal 2007

Some wines are so familiar that I ignore them when shopping. There’s an element of snobbery at work here; it feels so much cooler (do people still say cool?) to be drinking something obscure. When I worked at Oddbins we never touched the Moët, the Jacob’s Creek or the Campo Viejo; we even used to be snobbish about which lager we drank after work insisting that Superbok was vastly superior to Beck’s. Guigal’s Côtes du Rhone was just such a wine. I don’t remember any fellow Oddbinites drinking it or recommending it to customers. When people used to buy it, to my shame, I looked down my prominent nose at them.

Well more fool me because year in, year out, it’s one of the best value wines in existence. It’s made by one of the most lauded names in the Rhone, Marcel Guigal, a hero to most though not of course to Kermit Lynch who describes Guigal’s heavily oaked Côte-Rôties as ‘Freak Wines.’ These single vineyard wines cost ££££ but there is another side to his business producing wines from bought-in grapes. The Cotes du Rhone is his cheapest and it is made in vast quantities: over 3.5 million bottles of this latest vintage. It’s made from Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre and is a masterpiece of the blender’s art with Guigal buying in grapes from dozens of growers across the Southern Rhone. Unusually for a mass market wine, it’s also matured for at least 18 months before release.

It may be my memory playing tricks on me but the 07 seems even more delicious than previous vintages. It has more structure and so opens up after decanting or being left open overnight. There a lot of fruit – blackcurrants, figs, something red perhaps – but also some lovely mellow woody flavours owing to maturity with a very long finish. I ‘tested’ it against another 07 Côtes-du-Rhone from a legendary Northern Rhone producer, in this case JL Chave with his ‘Mon Coeur‘. The Chave tasted classier, cooler, more Northern Rhone whereas the Guigal is defiantly Southern but none the worse for it. Where the Guigal wins out is that it still tastes young & robust, in comparison the Chave is at its peak and starts to fall apart when left open overnight.

There’s an element of urgency to this post because not only is the Guigal only £7.99 at Waitrose until 20th March but they have the 07 whereas most other people are on to the 09. I’m sure the new vintage is good but 2007 was one of the great years in the Rhone and this wine does love a bit of age.