Categories
Film and TV Recipes

Jonathan Meades – the Plagiarist in the Kitchen

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The tributes to AA Gill who died earlier this year tended to focus on his humour, his famous rudeness, and his ability to write movingly about those on the margins of life. But for me what made him compulsively readable was the sheer certainty of his views. The thrill of his spat with Mary Beard wasn’t saying that he said she was ugly but the audacity of a hack like Gill with no formal education taking to task a Cambridge classics professor on the subject of the Roman Empire with such elan.

Gill’s schtick never really worked on television. He just came across as a bit of an arse. His counterpart as restaurant critic at the Times from 1986 to 2001, Jonathan Meades, however, is an auteur of the medium. In his idiosyncratic programmes, Meades made use of his seemingly bottomless well of opinions not just on food and architecture, his specialities, but also Mussolini, the fate of the Algerian pied-noirs and why Essex is unfairly maligned. Sometimes I struggled to keep up but they make such a refreshing change from the “join me on my journey” school of BBC documentaries.

Now Meades has written a cookbook, The Plagiarist in the Kitchen, the title a knowing rip off of Julian Barnes’ The Pedant in the Kitchen. Its premise is that all cookbooks are attempts to pass off borrowed or stolen recipes as your own work (I know having contributed to one.) “In the kitchen there is nothing new and nor can there be anything new. It’s all theft” as Meades puts it. Part of the joy of the book is the glee with which Meades tramples on foodie (a word I imagine he loathes) shibboleths:

“The olive oil trade is just as rackety and bent as the wine trade. Which is a boon to those who dislike the peppery throat-assault of the echt product. In olive oil, as in life, the impure is more satisfying than the pure.”

Or

“‘Homemade begs one question. Whose home? Have you ever actually seen people’s homes? Why should biscuits made at home be better than those baked in a factory, a factory that specialises in biscuits? I’m thinking of Nairn’s Oatcakes, Rakusen’s Matzo Crackers and Carr’s Water Biscuits. We don’t seek treatment from amataur surgeons.”

The short bibliography is telling because alongside the likes of Simon Hopkinson, Elizabeth David and Fergus Henderson, there’s Inside Mr Enderby by Anthony Burgess and the not to be missed Testicles: Balls in Cooking and Culture by Blandine Vie. As well as recipes there are strange unhelpful illustrations, anecdotes about Jane Grigson and some top pop trivia:

“Hardly surprisingly, Jacques Brel’s favourite dish was mussels and chips. However, he once claimed that the single best meal of his life was a ham sandwich he ate on the train from Paris to Brussels; he had just secured a recording contract.”

But asides aside, The Plagiarist in the Kitchen is actually a very thorough cookbook taking in classic French food as well as Italian, Spanish, North African, Scandinavian, German and British recipes. There’s perhaps more on eels and tripe than you might want but on the whole it’s surprisingly user friendly. His risotto milanese recipe is particularly good “the risotto will take about 30 minutes (many recipes state 20 minutes; they are wrong. . .” and “do not add grated cheese. It fights the flavour the saffron. . .” For all his humour, Meades is deadly serious about food. The books shows a deep understanding of cookery.

In an age of instant internet criticism this sort of rigour is bracing. You get the impression that he has thought everything through from first principles. He doesn’t take the easy option of contrarianism nor does he see things through a political filter ie. environmentalism, soft-left activism or post-colonial theory. With most writers you can guess their views on everything after reading a couple of articles, with Meades it’s not so easy.

Both Meades and Gill are/ were autodidacts. Meades’ writing displays his love of learning and the even greater love of showing off that learning. With food, he clearly know his onions but what about everything else? Does he really have a deeply-held original point of view on Charles de Gaulle or does he sit up all night honing opinions on the matters of the day? I suspect that as with Gill there’s a fair dose of prejudice in there but importantly, they’re his prejudices. The trick that both Meades and Gill mastered is never to explain. In prose and on television, Meades simply states his opinions and moves on. The Plagiarist in the Kitchen is full of gnomic statements such as:

“So far as I can recall I have not eaten guacamole.

or

“I can’t think of any circumstances in which I’d use oregano.”

Crucially he’s not on twitter to battle the outraged keyboard warriors. AA Gill too prided himself on not doing “the internet” as he put it.  In an age when even the President of America argues on twitter, this aloofness makes Meades one of the last of a breed.

The Plagiarist in the Kitchen by Jonathan Meades is published this month by Unbound

This article originally appeared in Spectator Life 

 

Categories
Wine articles

Chinese wines – full of eastern promise?

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Below is something I wrote for Waldorf Astoria magazine about Chinese wines. After talking to a lot of people and trying quite a few wines, I have come to the conclusion that China really isn’t the ideal place to make wines. It would be much easier and cheaper just to import the stuff from Spain or Australia. In the main wine region Ningxia the winters are so cold that they have to bury the vines to stop them dying. This is a very expensive operation and many die anyway. And yet China is beginning to make some good wines. Amazing what lots and lots of money can do.

On a recent visit to the restaurant at Chateau Lynch-Bages in Bordeaux, I noticed that the majority of the visitors were Chinese. These weren’t nouveau riche showing off, the cliche of wealthy Chinese businessmen mixing their Chateau Petrus with Coca-Cola is at least ten years out of date, they were clearly educated enthusiasts.

There are now as many people studying WSET courses (Wine and Spirits Education Trust) in China and Hong Kong as there are in Britain. Fongyee Walker MW (Master of Wine) who runs a wine consulting business in China describes how “consumers are incredibly engaged and very very eager to try all sorts of wine and to discuss it.” At this November’s Decanter Shanghai Fine Wine Encounter held just across the river from the Waldorf Astoria on the Bund, Christelle Guibert from Decanter told me that “the clientele were very young, much younger than you would get in Britain.”

In 2014 Vinexpo reported that China was now the world’s largest consumer of red wine. This was a mistake caused by the Chinese characters for red wine also being used generically for wine. Still the Chinese drink a lot of wine and the amount is increasing every year. Much of it will home produced but it’s hard to know exactly how much as though International Organisation of Vine and Wine places China as the country with the second biggest vineyard area in the world much of these vines are table grapes. What is safe to say is that with its expanding middle class, China has just the base needed to sustain a quality wine industry.

The capital of China’s wine production is Ningxia, a semi-arid region 1200 km inland from Beijing where the local government has done much to encourage viticulture. I tried some impressive wines recently from Changyu-Moser: a collaboration between Changyu, one of the country’s largest producers, and Lenz Moser from Austria. According to Moser “Ningxia has ideal conditions for winemaking.” The major challenge is the freezing winters where vines have to be buried in the soil to protect them – an expensive laborious operation.

Just back from a trip to Ningxia, Christelle Guibert recommended wines from Kanaan winery. Other critics have tipped Silver Heights with their young winemaker Emma Bau. The majority of these wines are Cabernet blends made in the image of Bordeaux though Chandon produce a champagne-style sparkling wine and Grace Vineyards make a highly regarded Aglianico, a grape from Southern Italy.

Tourism is a big thing: most wineries having dramatic buildings in either French Chateau, traditional Chinese or modern style. China’s other main wine region, Shandong, is handier for Western tourists being only 500 km from Beijing. Here Chateau Lafite have an estate though the wines aren’t yet for sale and the local government is building a $900 wine city to attract visitors  The climate is less extreme than Ningxia but the damp weather can cause fungal problems.  

These wines have been making waves outside China. Back in 2011 the Jia Bei Lan 09  from Ningxia won a  trophy at the Decanter Awards. Berry Bros & Rudd, the British wine merchant, are backing Chinese wine with a selection from Changyu-Moser. Buyer Mark Pardoe MW said: ‘China is already the eighth largest producer of wine in the world so it was only a matter of time before it entered the international market.” As well as reds, they will also be stocking some ice wines, intensely sweet wines made from frozen grapes from Liaoning near the border with North Korea.

These are all expensive products but not compared with a new wine from Moet Hennessy made in Yunnan province which will retail for £225 a bottle for the inaugural 2013 vintage. It’s called Ao Yun (see image above) meaning flying above the clouds. The winemaker Maxence Dulou, formerly of Cheval Blanc, told me:  “we were searching for the terroir to make world class wine in China. We needed a microclimate that was sheltered from the monsoon by mountains but not too cold.”

The place they found was ridiculously remote: over 2,000 metres up in mountains on the border with Tibet and Laos, five hours drive from the nearest town. Cabernet Sauvignon vines were planted in the 2000 by the far-sighted local government looking to diversify farming. Ao Yun is made from over 300 plots of land at various altitudes. It’s a stunning wine with the most gorgeously pure fruit and once you realise how much effort goes into it, the price tag does not seem unreasonable. Even so, Dulou told me that they don’t make any money on it.

It’s very much a wine to be appreciated by wealthy connoisseurs rather than displayed and as such epitomises how Chinese attitudes to wine have changed. It’s still early days for quality wine production in China but the success of this first vintage of Ao You demonstrate that China has the potential to create truly world class wine. Look at China now and in the words of Lenz Moser “think of Chile 25 years ago or Napa 30 years ago.”