Armagnac trip

My wife and I have just come back from a trip to Armagnac which was organised by Amanda Garnham (most of these photos are courtesy of her) from the Armagnac marketing board (BNIA). I arrived knowing next to nothing about this Gascon brandy and I left, not only full of knowledge, but also full of love (and full of booze.) I’ve taken to having a small glass after meals, ‘to help with my digestion’ just like an old Frenchman. I’ll be writing more about Armagnac soon but meanwhile here are a few photos from the trip:

My wife at the main station in Toulouse. We had arrived in Toulouse during the traditional cabbies’ strike, an annual event that dates back to the time of Charlemagne, so had to take a rather circuitous route to Armagnac country.
Beautiful vines in Armagnac #vines #grapes #wine #armagnac #natural #flowers #newlife #gers
Vines in Armagnac country
Hand stamping at #armagnac_delord #gold #wax #craftspirits #armagnac #artisanal #france #gers
 Hand-waxed bottles at Delord.
I lied about my age.
Hero #bergerallemand #dog #majestic #big #loving #handsome
There are some excellent dogs in Armagnac. This one at Baron de Sigognac.
Château du Tariquet #basarmagnac #copper #alambic #continousdistillation #woodfired #shiny #authentic
At the heart of every Armagnac producer is a still that looks like something out of Jules Verne. This one is at Domaine du Tariquet. They use the most up-to-date technology for their wines, you’ve probably tried their exemplary Cotes de Gascogne, but for their brandies they use a wood-fired copper still.
Baron de Sigognac #armagnac #alambic #serpentine #copper #distillation
Close up of still used by Baron de Sigognac (I think.) It has some plates removed so you can see inside. The process is extremely clever as the wine for distillation cools the distilled spirit making the process very energy efficient.
#Armagnac_delord #alambic #beautifuldrawing #colour full #armagnac #continousdistillation #artisanal #handmade #plan #diagram
What interested me is that most producers in Armagnac use a continuous still like the one above. They say it produces a spirit with more character. This is the exact opposite of what whisky producers in Scotland will tell you. They say pot stills producer a spirit with more flavour. They only way I can explain this is that an Armagnac continuous still has less layers in than one used in whisky, gin and vodka production, hence why the resulting spirit contains more of the character of the wine. The still is also run at a lower temperature which will also preserve more of the non-ethanol compounds. (Probably, I am not certain of this.)
Baron de Sigognac #armagnac #spirit #gers #france #vintage #1924 #age #delicious
Most producers have very old vintages for sale. This one will set you back around £1000 which reflects it’s rarity. More recent vintages, say from 70s and 80s, are much more affordable.
Janneau Armagnac #Armagnac #janneau #condom #oldpublicity #blackandwhite #janneausaitquoi #lovers
Excellent old advert for Janneau. They should revive this. And finally my wife and I after a few old Armagnacs trying to recreate the ad.


11 places to go out in Peckham

Il Giardino

This is an article I wrote for Food & Wine. If you’d told me 10 years ago that an American magazine would run an article on Peckham’s food scene, I’d have thought you were barking mad. It’s thrilling and a little terrifying how quickly London is changing. 

For a long time, Peckham was notorious among Londoners for its gang violence, bad schools and decaying housing estates. Until recently, this unloved part of South East London didn’t even have the urban glamour of other rough neighborhoods like Brixton or Hackney; there was just no reason to go there. Then, about ten years ago, artists who had been pushed out of East London by rising rents began colonizing the neighborhood’s old industrial buildings, and soon people with money began moving in. The usual story really, but in Peckham it happened so fast. Seemingly overnight, SE15 went from being a postcode I wouldn’t even consider moving to, to one I couldn’t afford.

Peckham has certain advantages over other gentrifying suburbs. It was developed in the 19th century for the newly affluent middle classes and it still has lots of good quality (albeit increasingly expensive) Victorian houses. There’s large park in the form of Peckham Rye. And it’s well-connected: from the beautiful if dilapidated Italianate station at Peckham Rye, you can catch trains to all over London. The schools are improving with independently run state schools getting outstanding results.

The best thing about Peckham, though, is the food. I live in nearby Lewisham, which is still stubbornly resisting gentrification and some of its trappings, like good restaurants. So whenever we want to eat or drink well, we go to Peckham. Despite all the great restaurants, even on a Friday night, it’s not that busy. The bridge and tunnel crowd haven’t discovered the neighborhood yet—unless you count my wife and me. Here are a few places to try:

Il Giardino7 Blenheim Grove, London SE15 4QS

This Sardinian restaurant must have seemed like an emissary from another world when it opened in 1987. Now run by a Peruvian family*, it’s the sort of old-fashioned trattoria that you dream of but so rarely find. The food is basic but lovingly prepared, with particularly good pizzas, and the atmosphere is never less than joyful. (photo above courtesy of Il Giardino.)

*I heard an unsubstantiated story that the original owners did a runner for tax reasons and the only member of staff left was the Peruvian kitchen porter who arrived at work to find the place deserted. So with his family he took the place over.

Miss Tapas46 Choumert Rd., London SE15

When you leave the train station en route to Miss Tapas, you might be forgiven for wondering when exactly the gentrification is going to arrive. The streets around it are a riot of places offering hair weaves, halal meat, and exotic fruit and veg. Nestled amongst all this, though, is this tiny place. It offers excellent tapas and a good, all-Spanish wine list that includes some unusual sherries. The owners run a business importing Spanish produce, so you can be assured that everything—drinks and food—is of the highest quality.

The NinesUnit 9A Copeland Park, 133 Copeland Road, London SE15 3SN

The Nines is a fun cocktail bar in the Bussey Building. This building is the epicenter of the new Peckham, an in fact it serves as a pretty good metaphor for the whole area. The former warehouse now houses a peculiar mixture of bars, studio spaces, and African evangelical churches. You access the Nines via an alley—it’s in a car park behind the building. The decor is basic in the extreme, but the drinks are good, strong and relatively inexpensive.

Brick Brewery, Blenheim Grove, London SE15 4QL

Just down the road from the station is this craft brewery. The taproom is open at night, so you can sample the beer alongside salty snacks, like the cured meats they offer—ingeniously designed to get you to drink more. What could be more Peckham than having cured meats at a micro brewery?


Peckham Bazaar,119 Consort Rd, London SE15 3RU

You’ll walk down Consort Road thinking, surely nothing could be down here, and then, just when you’re about to give up, there is Peckham Bazaar. The food is broadly Turkish and Georgian but anything at the intersection of Europe and Asia goes. Char-grilled meats are the thing, but what really lifts it above standard Levantine fare is the bold seasoning and the imaginative use of seasonal vegetables. The wine list, mainly Greek and Croat, is brilliantly chosen. Booking in advance is essential for what is in my opinion not just one of the best restaurants in Peckham but in all of London.

Peckham Refreshment Rooms,12-16 Blenheim Grove, London SE15 4QL

Located opposite a couple of Afro-Caribbean hairdressers, the street outside gets lively in the summer with Peckham, old and new, mingling together. Inside it can be very noisy, but it’s worth it for good simple food, steaks, terrines, and charcuterie, with a short, quality wine list and craft beers (everywhere in Peckham sells craft beers). Also handy for breakfasts and coffee, this is the perfect neighborhood stalwart.

The Begging Bowl,168 Bellenden Rd., London, Peckham SE15 4BW

Oddly for a city as diverse as London, it’s really hard to find good Thai food here. The Begging Bowl offers bold, fresh flavors, with unusual things such as a duck offal salad (much nicer than it sounds). Peckham these days can be a bit us and them, so it’s nice to see that the Begging Bowl is popular with a broad cross-section of the community. It’s been open since 2012 and already feels like an institution.

The Pedler8 Peckham Rye, Peckham, London SE15 4JR

Restaurant critics are now regularly making the journey down to SE15 to try the latest places. Pedler, which is right near Peckham Rye, is just the kind of place that I wish someone would open in Lewisham. The food is what used to be called eclectic—think British with Italian, Spanish, and French influences, and Eastern flourishes. Like lemon sole served with ginger and Sriracha butter. They also take their gin-based cocktails very seriously.


Ganapati, 38 Holly Grove, London SE15 5DF

Most Indian restaurants in Britain are run by Bangladeshis. Ganapati is a little different. It serves authentic Southern Indian food in a relaxed cafe atmosphere. Again unlike most British Indian restaurants, the owners change the menu regularly to reflect what is in season. Their dosas and parathas are particularly fine. It has a nice terrace for outside dining in the summer.

Artusi, 161 Bellenden Rd., London SE15 4DH

Bellenden Road is a hotbed of gentrification, bustling with with upmarket delicatessens, restaurants and an organic butcher, so it’s no surprise to find a voguish Italian place such as Artusi. They offer charcuterie, offal, cheeses and excellent homemade pasta. The menu changes daily but everything on it is always mouth-watering. The wine list can veer towards the funky end of ‘natural’ wines, so if you’re a wine conservative like me, ask before you order.

Rosie’s Deli28 Peckham Rye, London SE15 4JR

Rosie’s Deli in nearby Brixton has been offering excellent food to South Londoners since 2003. The owner, food writer Rosie Lovell, has just opened this much bigger branch near the Rye. It’s a great place to have breakfast, and it has very good coffee. While you’re there, you must try her signature dish of scrambled eggs with chilli jam.






London’s most old-fashioned restaurants

This originally appeared in Food & Wine magazine. They’ve made a fancy slideshow out of it.

I read a review recently of Simpson’s-in-the-Strand, a restaurant that opened in 1850, in which the writer described the restaurant as “old-fashioned.” It went on to say: “Simpson’s does not look like a place that changes.” That could have been written yesterday—but is actually from 1899. The reviewer, Lieutenant-Colonel Newnham-Davis (how many restaurants reviewers nowadays have a military rank?), went on to say: “carvers. . . leisurely push carving dishes, with plated covers, running on wheels, from customer to customer.” Simpson’s is a bit faded round the edges now but in the wood paneled-dining room, white-coated waiters still push huge joints of roast beef around on trolleys.  

In a city such as London, with its vibrant culinary scene, it’s easy to get swept up in the new, in pop-ups and food trucks, in Instagram-friendly dishes and on-trend vegetables, and forget about the familiar faces. So I thought it would be interesting to look at some of the city’s longest-established restaurants. The places I’ve chosen aren’t just old, they are like stepping back in time.

First stop is the 1970s. The menu at Maggie Jones behind Kensington High Street in West London has not changed in 40 years. There’s prawn cocktail, duck pate and chicken in tarragon sauce. The prices have barely budged either, with starters at £6 ($9), mains at £9 ($13) and £4 ($6) for a glass of wine. Best of all, they bring the wine bottle to your table and charge you by how much you drink. It’s a rabbit warren inside with tables in little nooks and crannies. All the couples look like they’re having affairs.

Also inhabiting the 1970s but rather more upmarket is Oslo Court in St John’s Wood, North West London. Again, the menu is a time warp that includes veal holstein, duck a l’orange and beef wellington. The interior is a riot of pastel. It’s a great place to take deaf relatives as there’s so much sound absorbing fabric. The napkins alone could be used to soundproof a small recording studio.

These places are mere babies compared with the daddy of London restaurants, Rules in Covent Garden, which was founded in 1798. The interior is gentleman’s club heaven with thick carpets, old paintings and dark wood. The wood-paneled private dining rooms are particularly convivial and you get your own personal waiter for the evening. Unlike Simpsons, which is considered a bit of a tourist trap, Rules has never really gone out of fashion. It’s still popular with actors from the nearby theaters, politicians, and anyone with a bit of money to splash around. The thing to order here is game such as pheasant, rabbit and grouse.

A short walk away is J. Sheekey’s fish restaurant, founded in 1893. Try to eat in the wood-paneled (are you detecting a theme here?) dining room rather than at the bar for the full old-fashioned experience. Along with Scott’s and Wilton’s both in Mayfair, Sheekey’s makes up the holy trinity of West End fish restaurants. Both Sheekey’s and Scott’s are part of the Caprice group and their menus have been updated somewhat, but Wilton’s is still resolutely traditional. It began as a shellfish store in 1742, and though it’s moved around a lot since then and has only been at its current address on Jermyn Street since 1984, it has the air of an unchanging institution. The lobster and crab omelet is legendary.

Also famous for its seafood is Sweetings in the City, which has been going since 1830.  Only open at lunchtime, the regular clientele are largely bankers, lawyers and stock brokers, and the prices reflect this (none of these places I’ve mentioned so far except Maggie Jones are anything but very expensive.) Dover sole and oysters are the specialties – washed down with pints of Black Velvet, a mixture of Guinness and champagne served in pewter tankards – but it’s also famous for traditional heavy puddings.

The first Indian restaurant in London, the Hindoostane Coffee House, opened in 1810. It didn’t survive, unfortunately, but Veeraswamy, which opened in 1926, has prospered. Sadly the premises just off Regent Street, largely unchanged until the 1990s, have had a number of makeovers since then—as has the menu. The current look is best described as colonial bling. The food can be very good, but I feel that it’s lost some of its history. Instead, for the ultimate old Anglo-Indian experience, go to the India Club in the Strand Continental Hotel. It was founded in 1946 and not much has changed since then.  The threadbare white ocean liner style jackets worn by the waiters look like they were made when the place first opened. The food is delicious: good lamb bhuna, great dosas and chapatis. Added bonus: it’s very cheap and you can bring your own drink, as they don’t sell alcohol.  

Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India, used to meet Edwina Mountbatton, wife of the last Viceroy of India, for very friendly meals at the India Club. They are rumoured to have been lovers. It sits almost next door to Simpson’s-in-the-Strand. The two restaurants may be a world away in price, but they share a similar grandeur. As long as they sit in the Strand, London will still be in touch with its culinary roots. Last January, however, management at the Savoy Hotel, which owns the Simpson’s building, announced that it was looking for a new tenant to open a more modern restaurant. It seems that over 150 years of history will soon be coming to an end.  At the moment Simpson’s is still there, but the staff don’t know for how long. Go before it’s too late.  I heartily recommend the steak and kidney pudding.


Wine articles

Bring me your finest Taurasi!

This is something I wrote for Espress, a magazine that you can pick up for free in Benugo:

There has only been one moment in my life when I’ve had an inkling of what it’s like to be an oil sheik. It was about ten years ago; I was on holiday in Naples and it was two euros to every pound. Naples is a cheap city compared with London anyway but with that exchange rate, I was rich. At restaurants, Il Patrono would come over and I’d declare in lordly fashion: ‘bring me your finest Taurasi.’ That trip, I fell in love with the wines of Campania in southwestern Italy, only to find that back in England, most wine merchants had never heard of them.

The vinous treasures of Campania felt like my secret. The region’s grandest wine, Taurasi, is made from the Aglianico grape in the hills to the east of Naples. It’s known as the Barolo of the south and needs at least seven years’ age to show its best. The grape is one of the world’s greats, producing a deeply coloured tannic red with surprising delicacy and perfume. The more affordable Aglianico del Vulture offers some of that magic at a younger age.

Most of the viticulture in this region is at high altitude and the cold mountain nights are the reason the wines maintain freshness despite the daytime heat –  the opposite of the rather rustic reds of neighbouring Puglia. Aglianico aside, there is also a holy trinity of white grapes: Fiano, which makes nutty, lemony wines that can age, especially from the province of Avellino; Falanghina, which tastes of oranges and warm spices; Greco which is floral and peachy.

The term Greco is apt given that Naples was founded by the Greeks in the 6th century BC as Neapolis, meaning ‘new city’. Later Campania became the playground of ancient Rome – the Emperor Tiberius had a villa on the nearby island of Capri. Falernium, the most prized wine of Roman times was from this region and inspired Pliny the Elder to write: ‘No other wine has a higher rank.’ Made from raisined grapes and boiled to concentrate the must (unfermented grape juice), it would have been intensely sweet with a consistency close to oil. The best Falernium vintages lasted for decades; the nearest thing nowadays would be a Pedro Ximinez sherry.

There is no continuity between the wines of ancient times and the present day. Just as with Biondi-Santi in Montalcino and Baron di Ricasoli in Chianti, the modern Campanian wine story starts with one ambitious producer, the family firm of Mastroberardino. In a region more used to producing cheap bulk wines, this great firm has been exporting wine in bottles since 1878.  To put this into perspective, Bordeaux chateaux such as Lafite and Latour were shipped in cask throughout that era, so Mastroberardino were making a big statement of intent and guarantee of authenticity. They mapped out the best land to grow the noble Campanian grapes, and for a long time was the only firm making Taurasi and Fiano di Avellino.

When I visited in 2004, Campania was in the middle of a wine explosion, with new producers appearing at a fast pace. Everywhere we went we tried amazing local wines from simple gluggers to drink with fried seafood (normally Falanghina), to serious Aglianicos. In the last five years, these wines have crossed the water to England. Mastroberardino is still the king, but other firms are challenging. Of the bigger producers, Feudi di San Gregorio makes excellent wines, both red and white. Smaller producers to try include Fattoria Alois, who make exquisite Fiano, and Quintodecimo, who make some extremely fine and expensive Taurasi.
These characterful grapes are finally getting the recognition they deserve outside their home region. One can buy some decent affordable Fianos from Sicily and Grecos from Puglia; of potentially more interest to serious wine lovers is the fact that Fiano and Aglianico are now planted in Australia. The climate in South Australia’s Clare Valley, with its hot days and cool nights, is not dissimilar to Campania. One firm in particular, Grosset, has made a fine wine called Apiana, a blend of Fiano and Semillon. Like the best Campanian wine, it’s not exactly cheap; luckily you don’t need to be an oil sheik to afford it.