About Henry

I worked in the wine trade and publishing before becoming a freelance writer and broadcaster. My work has appeared in the Spectator, the Guardian, the Oldie and Food & Wine magazine. I now works as features editor on the Master of Malt blog. Ihave been on BBC Radio 4, Radio 5 and Monocle Radio, and a judge for the BBC Radio 4’s Food & Farming Awards and for the Fortnum & Mason food and drink awards 2018. My book Empire of Booze: British History through the Bottom of a Glass won Fortnum & Mason debut drink book 2017. My second, The Home Bar, was published in October 2018.

The En Rama revolution

This is something I wrote for Root + Vine magazine, the vinous off-shoot of Root + Bone magazine (which is always worth reading).

I tend to base family holidays around wine much to my six year old daughter’s annoyance. On a recent visit to Sanlúcar de Barrameda, we spent a wonderful (for me) afternoon at Hidalgo La Gitana. Fermín Hidalgo (below, stopping for a restorative plate of jamon and a copita at 11am), oblivious to my six year old daughter’s increasingly sulky antics, gave me sherry after sherry to try. With his venencia, that cup on a stick thing that you have to learn how to use if you want to be taken seriously in sherry, he delved into different casks and brought out treasures including a 90 year old pedro ximenez, a 50 year old amontillado and manzanillas with tiny bits of yeast floating in them. Until recently this last wine was an experience for visitors only, most manzanillas are sold filtered and blended, but now you can have something like the full venencia experience in the comfort of your own home. Just look for the words ‘En Rama’ on the bottle.

The word ‘rama’ literally means ‘branch’ or ‘on the vine’ which translates roughly as ‘in its natural state’. There’s no legal definition but the best way to think of En Rama is an attempt to preserve that straight from the barrel magic. They tend to be only very lightly filtered and are often from a single cask. The first sherry labelled En Rama was launched back in 1999 by Barbadillo but it was when Gonzalez Byass launched its Tio Pepe En Rama in 2010 that the style really took off. It was a revelation trying it next to the ordinary Tio Pepe, the world’s best selling fino. 

Martin Skelton from Gonzalez Byass told me that the sherry changed in the 70s and 80s. Finos used to be closer to amontillados in colour and flavour but with new technology such as temperature-controlled fermentation and sterile filtering they became the pale products like Tio Pepe or Manzanilla La Gitana that we know today. Don’t get me wrong, these are delicious wines: consistent, moreish and excellent value for money, there’s nothing better for knocking back well-chilled on a hot day. En Ramas tend to be fuller, richer and darker, in short wines to consume slowly.

En Rama is also the answer to a marketing problem. How do you get wine bores interested in a product that by design is unchanging? En Rama solves this at a stroke because each year is different. The back of the bottle will have the saca date, when it was taken out of the barrel. You can drink your wine young to get all that fresh flor flavour or keep it in bottle for richer, nuttier aromas. They are wines for people who are happy to have a bit of inconsistency. 

The En Rama revolution, if you can call it that, has raised quality across the board. Many wines don’t have En Rama on the label but nevertheless are now bottled with less or no filtration. I can’t claim this as objective truth, apart from the fact that I drink a lot of sherry, but the big brand pale sherries now seem to me to have more flavour than in the past.

There is the feeling in the sherry business that something was lost when production was industrialised. Now in an effort to reposition itself as a fine wine, sherry is rediscovering its past and this means making a virtue of the raw materials. Some bodegas are returning to single vineyard wines. Hidalgo were market leaders here with their always excellent Manzanilla Pastrana. The first thing Fermin Hidalgo did when I visited was to take me out to the vineyards (thankfully there was a dog for my daughter to play with). Unusually amongst sherry companies, they only use grapes from their own vineyards. All their finos are made from free run juice and fermented using natural yeasts. 

Some producers are taking the return to sherry’s roots even further. A 10 minute walk from downtown Sanlúcar, I met Ramiro Ibáñez who makes recognisably sherry-style wines but outside the DO (Denominación de Origen, like a Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée in France) because they are so unconventional. He doesn’t just use palomino grapes but a whole range of different varieties that for the most part disappeared after phylloxera hit in the 19th century. He doesn’t fortify his wines instead the strength comes from drying the grapes in the sun, a practice known as asoleo. And finally his wines are single vintage. According to Ibanez these are all practises that were once routine but disappeared. In contrast to the giant cathedral of the Hidalgo bodega, he works out of an old fisherman’s cottage by the Guadalquivir river. With his lighter manzanilla-style wines you can really taste the difference between different vineyards but his crowning achievement is a palo cortado made from rare grape varieties.

Afterwards, much to my daughter’s relief, we went for lunch at the nearby Bar Bigote. Here manzanilla was €1.20 a glass, the same price as beer but the sherry is aged for five years before it is sold. Clearly this is not sustainable. En Rama is a much needed attempt to push sherry upmarket where it belongs and finally it seems to be working. Sherry has seen some tough times but Fermin Hidalgo thinks the worst is over, sales by volume may still be declining for the region as a whole but they are picking up by value. According to IWSR (International Wines and Spirits Record) premium sherry sales doubled between 2011 and 2015. 

Andrew Ward who runs a great blog on sherry bars in Madrid, ‘Under the Flor’, told me: “There is indeed a lot more interest in sherry in Madrid these last two or three years – wine stores and restaurants almost always have a big selection these days”. And talking with London restaurateurs such as José Pizarro, I discovered that there is a confidence in the category that wasn’t there even two years ago. According to Pizarro it is the young customers who are the most adventurous. People who drink natural wines aren’t going to mind a bit of yeast floating in their fino.  Ibáñez is even more confident: he told me that sherry is actually on the verge of new golden age. It certainly tastes that way

 

Booze interview: Fergus Butler-Gallie

This week I’m delighted to have writer, man of the cloth and most notable ambassador for the double-breasted blazer since Jerry from The Good Life as guest on World of Booze, Fergus Butler-Gallie. You might know him as one of the funniest people on twitter, he recently created an infographic to show how far on foot each C. of E. Diocesan Bishop has to walk from his cathedral to the nearest Nando’s, important stuff, I think we can agree. By day he works as a curate in Liverpool while finding the time to write two books: Field Guide to the English Clergy, an extremely funny look at the great eccentrics from the Church of England, and Priests de la Resistance, about the clergy who fought fascism. The former is one of those books perfectly-formed books that you’ll keep wanting to read bits out to your wife/ life-in-lover/ congregation, and it’s so good that she/he/they won’t mind. Favourite entries include the Right Reverend Howell Witt who entertained his rural Australian parishioners by dragging up as the Dowager Duchess of Dingo Creek, and the Reverend Harold Davidson, the lady-loving Rector of Stiffkey, who was eaten by a lion at a circus in Skegness. As you might expect, there’s quite a bit of booze, so I thought that the author would be just the person to talk to us about drink.

HGJ: When did you first realise that wine was something special? Was there a particular bottle that was an epiphany?

FBG: There was, I remember a particular bottle- a deep brown Australian pudding wine (its provenance beyond those details I forget) which I pilfered from the back of the parental drinks cabinet whilst I was at school and then drank with my friends (as was our custom instead of, well, doing any work). I remember it being such a marvellous change from the warm gin and half-curdled limoncello that such heists normally provided us with; warm raisin flavours with all the datey stickiness of a nursery pudding. I suppose that was, in its own way revelatory, but it didn’t stop us from returning to the warm gin and bootleg whisky the following week.

Jerry Leadbetter from the Good Life

HGJ: Did you have a similar epiphany about becoming a priest?

FBG: There was no burning bush moment for me, rather a slow, dawning sense that this was a vocation I should take seriously (a task I am still working on if I’m honest). It was something I would joke about but, as I became more convinced of the claims of Christianity, the joke, as is so often the case, became a reality. There are various points where that sense became clearer- experienced everywhere from Kent country churches and soaring Oxford chapels to the back streets of Prague and freezing French mountainsides. My conversion though, perhaps unusually, was always in head before heart, and it’s something I hope I’m still working on. They say God calls those to priesthood whom he cannot save by other means, and, whilst slightly facetious (and exhibiting a profoundly dubious soteriology) there’s an element of that which rings true for me.

HGJ: How does one become a priest?

FBG: Blood, sweat, tears etc. Really it’s a series of initial hoops to jump through, followed by filling in the same form multiple times, being locked in a retreat centre/borstal in Staffordshire for three days, followed by three years at a theological college (though one can get time off for good behaviour). Then it’s up to the bishop and the imparting of the Holy Ghost.

HGJ: What’s your favourite hymn?

FBG: This is a tough one- I’m afraid I’ll have to be very C of E and not commit to one but rather provide a list: Thine be the Glory for Easter, When I survey the wondrous Cross for Lent, Lo, He comes with Clouds descending, for Advent, All Praise to Thee my God this night for the saintly insight of Bishop Ken, Jerusalem the Golden for its vision of the Heavenly City, And can it be for Wesley’s ingenious distillation of the miracle of Grace. Frankly, as befits an innately negative person, I actually find it easier to name my most hated rather than my best loved.

HJ: Who was the booziest clergyman you encountered in your research?

FBG: Plenty of live ones, but I feel I ought to redact this part of the answer for legal reasons. In terms of the dead rather than the quick it was either The Reverend Dr Edward Drax Free, who locked himself in his rectory after stripping his own roof of lead to cover gambling debts, and only came out and surrendered to the Bishop of Lincoln when his wine cellar ran dry or Canon Felix Kir, a Roman Catholic cleric of Dijon who drank so much blanc de cassis that they simply cut out the middleman and named the drink after him.

HGJ: I like to imagine being in the Church of England is a bit like the scenes in Father Ted when Ted goes to Dublin ie. lots of excellent port. Is it anything like that?

FBG: Ha! The reality is a little more prosaic- especially up here in Liverpool where there’s a little more ‘front line’ work to be done than elsewhere. That said, there are moments where a nice glass of something can be enjoyed- I was recently sent a bottle of 1977 port (so encrusted with cellarial goodness that the label had malted off, but I am assured it is good) from the Dean of Emmanuel College in thanks for giving a talk to the clergy of the parishes where they are patron. I’m hoping to enjoy that soon.

HGJ: Does the C. of E still have cellars of old wines like Oxford colleges or gentlemen’s clubs?

FBG: I fear these days it’s more a case of grabbing a Pinot Grigio from the inside of a fridge at the end of a long day for many clergy! That said, I’ve rarely been served bad wine when dining with clerics. I know an archdeacon with an excellent collection and we try to serve decent wine when we have events at Liverpool Parish Church. We are lucky to have a first class wine merchant round the corner who does us excellent deals on various bottles.

HGJ: Do you still get offered sherry when you visit parishioners?

FBG: Absolutely- I always assure them that they’re very much on trend when they do. In my experience all Shoreditch is now alight with Fino pairings.

HGJ: Where do you buy your wine from? Do you have a favourite merchant?

HGJ: I use Berry Bros in London and both Cultural Wine and R&H Fine wines here in Liverpool. Cultural Wine introduced me to Txakoli (perfect for a working lunch) and converted me from Rioja sceptic to fan and R&H have some of the best priced Sauternes I have ever encountered, as well as being my source for the odd bottle of really farmyardy Jura.

HGJ: What’s your favourite region?

FBG: Depends- I love a white Burgundy. I was in Chablis last summer and could have quite happily drunk myself to death there. Red wise, I adore any of the heavier, tanniny, headache inducing left bank clarets. A proper hangover soup.

HGJ: What were the highlights of your Christmas drinking?

FBG: I actually didn’t do a huge amount of Christmas drinking! The job rather prevents too much of that. That said, my sister recently returned from the Lebanon and so my parents sourced some Chateau Musar from her which I had a tipple of on a brief New Year visit home. It was sublime. Otherwise I spent Christmas with some parishioners who furnished me with excellent champagne all day and then on Boxing Day evening I visited some friends and had a glass of a positively geriatric armagnac, whose appellation escapes me, it was nectar.

HGJ: Where’s your favourite place to drink in Liverpool? Or anywhere really.

FBG: Too many places, arguably! The city is awash with absolutely first class pubs- Ye Cracke, The Roscoe Head, The Baltic Fleet, Peter Kavanagh’s, The Belvedere Arms- all are on my standard tour of Liverpool for a newcomer. Otherwise it is the Artist’s Club on Eberle Street- a venerable city institution where an afternoon can easily dissolve into a bottle of excellent red. Otherwise, the Rose and Crown in Oxford was my go to for my student years- I still kiss the threshold on arrival. In town I have a softspot for the Prince Arthur, tucked away in a housing estate north of Old Street, Kentish ales on tap and where the regulars have named chairs, the French House in Soho for as many Pernods as is necessary to get me speaking French, The Southampton Arms in Kentish Town, for pork sandwiches, beer after beer and hours lost to endearingly stupid arguments among friends or the Pride of Spitalfields, a proper boozer I’ve only recently been introduced to but think very fine.

HGJ: Who do you think writes well about wine and drink in general?

FBG: Review wise, about the only thing I read in the Spectator now is Bruce Anderson– whose wine column has the glorious air of a pub conversation, wending its way, eventually to the real matter in hand, the booze, and Tanya Gold (who although she strictly does the restaurant reviews and so just about qualifies as ‘writing about drink in general’)- her reviews manage that perfect balance of giving you an exact sense of what the place is like, whilst refusing to get bogged down in boring detail- whimsical, informative and sharp at the same time. Perfection. Naming Kingsley Amis on Everyday Drinking might be a cliche but it’s such a wonderful piece, funny and so familiar to any seasoned drinker. Ned Ward’s London Spy, a piece from the turn of the seventeenth and eighteenth century, is first class too, giving such a clear picture of how nocturnal drinking and later staggering hasn’t changed a bit.

HGJ: And finally, can wine or drink in general bring you closer to God?

FBG: If Christ saw fit to make wine his Blood and to turn mere water into booze (when, as the Gospel reminds us, they were already well drunk) then I think the answer must be an unequivocal yes.

Is there such a thing as good taste?

In this essay, I put on my thinking beret, stroke my chin and delve into the vexed question of to what extent taste in food and wine is entirely arbitrary.

“Everybody thinks they have good taste and a sense of humor but they couldn’t possibly all have good taste.” When Harry Met Sally, Nora Ephron

At a local Chinese restaurant there are asterisks by certain dishes with an explanation underneath that reads simply: “not recommended.” The asterisks appear next to delicacies such as chicken feet or cold jellyfish salad so what I think they mean is not recommended for non-Chinese people. It made me realise that much of what we think of as good taste is cultural. The Chinese appreciate the chewy and the gelatinous, urrggh!, but isn’t it equally strange that we eat what is essentially rotten milk in the form of blue cheese?

classic statue of Socrates

Wine can be equally counter-intuitive. I remember my first glass of claret drunk at Christmas. I expected it to taste sweet and fruity but it was earthy, bitter and full of mouth-drying tannins. Why would anyone drink this? As a student I would grimace my way through French reds rather than the sweet jammy, and lets face it much more appealing, Hardy’s shiraz that everyone else was drinking. Later I drank bone dry fino sherry whilst thinking, is it really meant to taste like  yeasty water? I taught myself to enjoy vermouth and Campari, olives and anchovies. But why?

As humans we naturally crave sugar and salt but bitterness warns us about poison and high acidity means something isn’t ripe. Our tastes, however, can be perverse perhaps because as omnivorous hunter gatherers we had to be adventurous in what we ate. We like spicy food because our bodies produce opiates to counteract the pain in chillies and some have suggested that eating bitter food gives us a frisson of danger.

Many people, however, don’t push their tastes. They don’t want bitterness or astringency and they couldn’t give a toss about a long finish. You can put this down to different palates, some people crave sugar in particular whilst others are abnormally sensitive to bitterness. 

But if I’m being honest with myself there was more than a little snobbery in my acquired enjoyment of difficult flavours. French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu in his book Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste wrote that good taste is about getting acceptance from our peers. I worked in the wine trade after university and based my tastes on people I admired, and, importantly, defined them in opposition to people I didn’t.

fannyandjohnnycradock

We think our tastes are timeless but look at pictures of 1970s food especially anything by Fanny Cradock (above with husband and sidekick, Johnny) and tell me they don’t look revolting. And today’s Jackson Pollock-esque splatters from Masterchef will look similarly inedible in ten years time. In the Middle Ages, luxury food would have been cooked with lots of sugar and expensive spices as a way of showing your wealth. Bottles of champagne opened recently from a ship that went down in the early nineteenth century contained a dentist-worrying 150 grams of sugar per litre, modern day champagne contains around eight grams.  Sweet wines went out of fashion as sugar became the fuel of the masses. Food that we dismiss as well, a bit common like a plain white bap from Gregg’s would have been miraculous luxuries to our ancestors.

Luxury today is about being close to nature. The latest thing in wine is ‘natural’ wine, made without additives but more importantly difficult for the uninitiated to understand as much of it smells like scrumpy. Chefs too bang on about sustainability and seasonality, some even forage for food, but in the past haute cuisine was about breaking free of nature. Only the poor would have eaten seasonally. In an essay on taste in the New Yorker, Adam Gopnik cites the example of the poet Lucien in Balzac’s novel Lost Illusions who is forced by lack of funds to eat in a restaurant that “has only local and seasonal produce.” He goes on to describe: “the shame and suffering that the diners feel in having to eat in so peasant like a manner right in the middle of Paris.” 

Whereas nowadays we pay through the nose at the River Cafe to eat authentic Italian peasant food but I am sorry to say that authenticity like good taste is largely made up. Most traditional foods and drinks are relatively recent creations. In The Discovery of France, the historian Graham Robb writes “the Dijon area was not particularly rich in blackcurrants until an enterprising cafe owner made an explanatory trip to Paris in 1841, noted the popularity of cassis and began to market his own liquor as a regional speciality”. 

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So is it all pointless then then? Should we just crack open a bottle of Blossom Hill and settle into a KFC mega bucket? Well if you want to go for it. But just because taste is cultural and changeable doesn’t make it pointless. Think of it as learning a language (a rapidly evolving one). You can appreciate the beauty once you have learned the rules, just don’t pretend there’s anything natural about them. 

Developing ‘good taste’ can be enjoyable, it should be an adventure, and I find the awareness that it’s made up liberating. I can appreciate haut cuisine but I know that the cheap restaurant from the acclaimed chef will be more fun than the three star temple of gastronomy, that bottle of chilled red had on holiday in Sicily with my wife will always be more delicious than first growth claret drunk surrounded by hedge fund managers, and there’s nothing better with a cup of tea than a McVities Hobnob. Don’t worry about what others think. Go with whatever you fancy which means you don’t have to try those local delicacies, unless you’re dining with some Chinese businessmen who you want to impress. 

A version of this essay appeared in Boat Magazine.

World of Booze returns

Merry Christmas! Here’s a picture of what I drank over the festive period. Obviously, we drank a lot more than this but these were the highlights:

crop xmas

But I’m not writing to show off the fine booze consumed. Well, I am actually but I’m also writing to say that Henry’s World of Booze is back. The blog, which has been going since 2010 (which is at least 63 in terms of the internet which works like dog years), was getting very patchy when I was writing my second book, The Home Bar (which came out in September 2018). I then stopped updating completely in summer 2018. I had just got a job as features editor on the Master of Malt blog and then about the same time I was asked to write a book for Mitchell Beazley, The Cocktail Dictionary (coming September 2020).

So I got out of the habit but also it felt like blogging was sort of over. At least the personal, amateurish sort of blog that I wrote. Most people got their fix of interaction with like-minded individuals from social media rather than the comments section on blogs (or even met them in real life). I look back to the kind of in-depth discussions that used to go on in the comments sections and marvel; I know friends who met in the comments section! But then it was all about social media, why get into arcane arguments about who invented sherry or the correct way to fry an egg in the comments when you could do it on twitter?

Actual photo of recent twitter spat

And this was all great for a while but gradually the people who one used to have fun conversations with became obsessed with bigger issues. Which is fine. There’s a lot to get exercised about but twitter etc. stopped being fun around 2015 and seemed to be more about competitive frothing at the mouth than the good-natured banter of old. Naming no names. I now find that I spend less and less time on social media. During big events like elections, I don’t go on at all and it’s like taking a long hot bath with a glass of armagnac. Yes, there’s instagram which is great for showing off fancy bottles of whisky but I’m not really suited to it. There’s my complete inability to take a decent picture for starters but also I find I enjoy a bottle more if I’m not thinking about how to brag about it online. The sweetest meal is usually the unphotographed one.

So I’ve started blogging again. I’m hoping blogging will make a return in 2019 as everyone leaves twitter, realises that things aren’t so bad and get back to discussing more important matters. The reason I started the blog originally is because I had a head full of thoughts about drink that needed letting out. And once again my head is filling up and I need to relieve the pressure. I drink a lot of interesting booze of all sorts and meet interesting boozy people, and not just in the pub, so anything that won’t make a proper feature for my employer, Master of Malt, will work here.

There will be lots of good fresh locally-sourced content as well as some reheated articles. ‘Tis the season for leftovers after all. Or I might just draw people’s attention to things that I find interesting. It’ll be mainly about booze, naturally, but there might will be some food stuff and maybe some Kenty things, I have just moved to Faversham after 19 years in London.

Please do subscribe and comment or just email me at henry g jeffreys at gmail dot com (I’m writing it like that to dissuade spam though god knows I get enough of it. Mainly mature Russian lady dating.)

Here’s to a boozy bloggy happy 2020.

 

Posh fast food

“We’ve spent £70, I’m hungry and, worst of all, I’m sober” I complained. My wife was similarly disgruntled.  We were at the Model Market in Lewisham. This was a derelict covered market that has been taken over by Street Feast and sells fast food during the summer months. We left vowing never to go back but decided to return last month with friends and children to see if we had judged too harshly. It was a beautiful August evening, a DJ was spinning soul music records and the trendy things of south east London seemed to be lapping it up despite the prices: £9 for fried chicken and chips, £7 for a small plate of fried squid, not as good as Royal China according to my daughter, and most galling of all, £6, £6!, for a 355ml can of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. Another bar on site was selling a pint of the same beer for £5 but I definitely felt trendier holding a can.

The appearance of posh fast food is one of the stranger trends to have swept Britain in the last few years. The food of poor America tarted up and priced up to be eaten by middle class British people. There’s a chain called Bubble Dogs that will charge you £15 for a hot dog and a glass of fizz. Hot dogs should cost $2.50 and be eaten on the street.

We’ve even taken to that weird distinctly American hybrid of savoury fried chicken and sweet waffles with maple syrup. Duck & Waffle in London offer the ultimate posh take on this swapping the fried chicken for a confit duck leg. What’s interesting about these gourmet versions is how we get it so wrong. The food is beautifully presented but there’s just not enough of it. With American food you’re not meant to be able to walk afterwards.  

That said some fast foods do benefit from a little poncification. I like George Osborne’s favourite, Byron Burger. I am willing to pay for good quality steak, chopped up and served rare especially if I’m eating it in a booth. In fact I’ll pay almost anything if I’m seated in a booth. But I am baffled by places such as Shake Shack or 5 Guys which offer burgers no better than McDonald’s and chips that are significantly worse (McDonald’s french fries are superb). At Shake Shack a burger, fries and shake will cost about £17. The equivalent at Maccy D’s will cost you about £6. The middle classes look down their noses at McDonald’s and yet are happy to eat essentially the same food as long as it is expensive enough.

So why do these places charge so much? Well first of all because they can. There are plenty of people for whom spending £10 on a hamburger isn’t a lot of money. But also in the case of Street Feast you are not just paying for the food and the overheads. All vendors are smartly branded. We bought our chicken from the amusingly-named Mother Clucker. The dream is to do a Meatliquor which started as a food truck and now has branches throughout London. Your average chicken shack in Louisiana doesn’t have a PR firm or a marketing strategy.

Street Feast are owned by a company called London Union. They don’t just sell overpriced burgers but are also, according to their slogan, “Transforming Lives And Communities Through The Awesome Power Of Street Food”. It’s the brainchild of restaurateurs Jonathan Downey and Henry Dimbleby. Street Feast run similar markets around the country and put on events with celebrity chefs such as Thomasina Miers.

One thing you will notice about the names above is that they’re not exactly salt-of-the-earth types. Alexei Sayle in his recent stand-up routine joked about how the poshing up of jobs such as journalism (I admit I am part of this trend) and comedy has spread to fast food: “burger vans! burger vans! all the burger vans down my local market are run by the class of Charterhouse of 2005.” Sayle also mocks the sort of gap year cookery where rich English kids discover the authentic street food of somewhere poor and decide to bring it back home at a price, “there’s a Vietnamese Phô stall in Peckham run by the Queen and Prince Philip.”

At Oak Fisheries in Headingley which I used to visit when I was a student, you were served by a woman with enormous arms who looked like she was born to work in a fish and chip shop whilst an unsmiling man with a comb over fried the fish in dripping. It’s still the best fish and chips I’ve ever had. There was no branding, no mission statement, and no plans to roll it out into a chain.

The day after Model Market, I went to a barbeque put on by some of the parents on our street. They all agreed that Street Feast was a rip off, and yet at the same time they would go back. One mother told me that what she loved about it was that it’s like not being in Lewisham, you could pretend that you live in a nice bit of London for the evening.

It occurred to me that Street Feast is the opposite of street food. You are not in the street.  You are in a carefully curated middle class fantasy land, like being at a music festival but without bands. If the high prices don’t deter the wrong sort of people from wandering in, the entry fee after 7pm will. Whilst the stalls are run by the middle class, the people collecting rubbish were immigrants. It was London in a microcosm.

Meanwhile at Lewisham’s actual street market you can buy a proper bratwurst hot dog for £3, jerk chicken made by real Jamaicans for £4 and a pint at the nearby Wetherspoons for £1.80. They even sell Sierra Nevada Pale Ale though you do have to mix with some ghastly people.

A much shorter version of this article appeared in the Oldie magazine

 

Booze interview – Glen David Gold

Glen David Gold is probably best known for his debut novel, Carter Beats the Devil, and its follow up Sunnyside. When I was in publishing I worked on the publicity for the latter and we spent a very pleasant, at least for me, few days together when he came over to England for publication. I didn’t know him well but he always came across as about the nicest most relaxed author one could wish for. Note for readers here, not all authors are nice and they are very rarely relaxed. There’s a very good line in his memoir, I Will be Complete, which comes out this month:

“When I describe what happened, people tend to ask ‘but how did you end up so – ‘ they dance around the world ‘ normal’. then realise it doesn’t apply, and instead they say, ‘so nice’?”

I’m not nice. I’m polite. Nice is a quality and polite is a strategy. But I have ended up happy.”

Glen David Gold c. Sara Shay

Glen David Gold looking happy. Credit: Sara Shay

Glen was brought up in affluence in southern California but when his parents broke up he moved with his mother to San Francisco. By the age of 12 he was living much of the time by himself whilst his mother was in New York. His relationship with his unstable and increasingly erratic mother provides the engine of the book. As a memoir it bears comparison with This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolff, and in a neat link, Glen was taught by Wolff’s brother Geoffrey at the University of California who himself wrote a memoir about his bizarre childhood called the Duke of Deception. Glen’s book has the fluency of the former and the honesty and hard-won wisdom of the latter but with a strangeness and, at the end, a darkness, that is all it’s own. It deserves to sell by the container load as well as win every prize going.

In my correspondence with Glen I discovered that he is a fairly recent but already hopeless wine bore so here he is talking about one of his passions:

Hello Glen, what are you working on at the moment?

My memoir I WILL BE COMPLETE comes out June 26th and although there’s very little (no) wine in it you may very well want to pour yourself a glass while reading it. I’m writing a few brief essays to support it, I’m starting research on the next historical novel, and I’m looking to sit in a writers room for a good TV show and play in someone else’s kingdom for a while.

You mention your father has got into wine at 80, was that your work?

A little bit. My brother Seth started a rum company, SELVA REY, and spent five years coming over to every single family gathering with samples to test on us. My dad is a collector at heart and he loves the stories behind things, so he was a perfect sucker for the small batch bourbon thing. Like myself, he loves stories of growers and stories that begin, “This wine is now $100 but when I bought it en primeur it was $40,” but as you know those stories are very rare. His favorite wine is now Myriad Cabernet Sauvignon. (Update: I think the Sarah Francis Beckstoffer GIII now wins.)

Would you say wine has brought you closer together?

Yes but so has age. He’s a good dad for an adult.

What are you drinking at the moment? 

2016 Henri Boillot Bourgogne. That interview with Mike D in Noble Rot tipped me off to how to surf Burgundy by getting the $20/30 Bourgognes and Bourgogne Blancs of high-end producers, and as a result I am beginning to understand why that region is so terrifying. Dujac’s Bourgogne Blanc is hypnotic, delicious, has massive bottle variation and is utterly unavailable. Is there anything else to know about Burgundy?

Was there a eureka moment with wine or was it a gradual process?

Very gradual. About eight years ago, my friend David came to a party with three William Selyam pinots from different vineyards. He had a complicated experiment he wanted to conduct involving decanting and the terroir of single vineyard designates. Unfortunately another friend saw what he interpreted as giant glasses of wine, and he literally upended an entire, to the brim glass, said “wow, that’s great,” then took down the next one, and the next. I wish you could have seen the solid O of horror on my friend David’s face.

Maybe a year later, I was at a restaurant called Prospect in San Francisco. They’re friendly to me there and someone had left without finishing his bottle of 2007 Radio Coteau Savoy Pinot Noir, so they poured the rest of the bottle for me and my date, and I was intrigued.

About a year after that I had a 2009 Clos St Julien, which is a fairly weird St Emilion, and I realized I was in love with how I was tasting something I was unable to describe — just experience. My writing powers were nullified. Huzzah!

Who do you think writes well about wine/ drink?

I like how detailed Chris Kissack gets in his reports on producers, though he and I don’t have aligning palates.  I also like Kermit Lynch’s book — he was my local wine shop long long before I understood anything about what I was drinking.

Do you have a favourite drink scene in literature?

Wilton Barnhardt has a novel called LOOK AWAY LOOK AWAY about the contemporary American South, and there’s a lovely scene in which a rich relative works dark magic on a family meal, gleefully giving glasses of 1989 Lynch Bages to people who don’t know what they’re drinking. Quite the indictment of social mores.

What’s your favorite everyday wine?

I try to not have an every day wine. When I don’t crave a spectacular experience, but a familiar one, I’m drawn toward gamay in the summer months and older cru bourgeois bordeaux at other times — the 2010 Senejac, which was $17 a bottle, is a stupid value right now. 

Do you have a favourite restaurant for wine?

In St Helena there’s an unassuming place called COOK on the main drag; we’d been told to go in for a bite and a glass. The wines were written on a dry erase board because they changed daily, and sometimes hourly. I recognized some of the names but not all of them. I asked the waiter what we should have and he brought out…something. A cabernet with a little age on it. It was outstanding. What was it? He said not to worry about it. His old landlord owed him some money and had paid him in wine instead. What wine? Oh, something he’d taken in trade for a job done. There was a label on the bottle but it didn’t explain much. It wasn’t a label I ever saw again. And it was perfect.

Do you have a dream wine?

That’s interesting — because of their prices and everyone else singing their praises I’m curious about 1961 first growths and good vintages of Jayer and DRC and all that, but the wine I’m hoping someone will open for me one day would be a 1990 Henri Bonneau Celestins. I’ve had his basic Chateauneuf, and his Marie Beurrier, and even the vin de pays, but I haven’t yet managed to get near his grand achievement, which the ecstatic tasting notes suggest will put you through puberty all over again.

 

You live in San Francisco? Do you often visit nearby vineyards if so which ones?

It’s odd — only an hour trip, but I always felt like I needed to mentally prepare for a day before going. It was like visiting Comicon. My two guaranteed stops were at Acme Fine Wines, which is the Sun Records of St Helena, and the To Kalon vineyard. There is a lovely man, Tom Garrett, who runs DETERT, a very small winery, on something 17 acres of Cab Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon. His wines are extraordinary and close to unknown, which is bizarre to me, given his location. We also visited CARTER (the name is a coincidence), as their wine maker, Mike Smith, does some of my other favorite California Cabernets via MYRIAD, SCARLETT and BECKLYN. That varietal can be loud, obnoxious, clever yet facile, designed for mass appeal and have a finish that’s far too long (I have just described every Marvel movie, haven’t I?) Mike’s work is intriguing — it flirts with all that stuff before veering into a better place. But if you want to try something that is far more St Julien like, the final wine maker on my list is Massimo Di Costanzo of DI COSTANZO wines, whose work is exceptionally elegant.

 

Thank you Glen! Some greats tips there. Now everyone, buy the book.

 

 

Talking proper

George Bernard Shaw wrote “it is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman hate or despise him.” I don’t think my father ever despised me but he did wince when I said “eether” instead of “ither” or maybe it was the other way round. He thinks of himself as a stickler for correct usage but, horrible little snob that I was, I would cringe when he said serviette instead of napkin. And in turn a girlfriend once thought I was a bit common because we used the word lounge instead of drawing room. She came from an old army family and would get in trouble at school because her father insisted she say what instead of pardon.

I blame the pernicious influence of Nancy Mitford’s Noblesse Oblige which turned many middle class people into stuttering wrecks constantly worried about using the wrong word. I promised myself when I became a father that I would be more relaxed about such things but I find my mood darkening when my daughter says “haitch” instead of “aitch” when spelling out words. My wife’s bugbear is the word ate pronounced “et.”

Perhaps I should just accept that my daughter is not going to speak the same as me. She goes to a very different school to the ones I went to. It’s in South London and she has Lithuanian, Israeli, Chinese and French friends. Furthermore her mother is American, so it is unlikely that she is going to end up speaking with an RP accent or know or indeed care about the difference between toilet and lavatory. Though my public school was multicultural too, we were all being moulded into English gentlemen, or that was the theory, so farmers’ sons from Yorkshire spoke with the same accent as Nigerian princes and boys from Hong Kong.

For those with Mitford-induced anxiety, I recommend reading Oliver Kamm’s Accidence Will Happen: The Non-Pedantic Guide to English. He writes: “to the purist, the way people speak and write is an opportunity to find fault rather than listen.” One of the points he makes in the book is that meaning and pronunciation are always changing. Doing a little research for this article I discovered that ate used to be pronounced “et” (and still is by many) and only recently came to be pronounced to rhyme with eight probably due to American influence (which might mean that the American version is older.) I wonder whether the English language might be evolving faster than before because of the globalisation of media and immigration. Though we cannot hold back the tide of change, part of me does mourn the disappearance of words with a distinct meaning such as disinterested, now mainly used as a synonym for uninterested.  

Kamm counsels the reader to embrace change rather than trying to fight it but he does emphasise that having a standard usage is important. This is what we want to instill in our daughter. We worry about her picking up bad habits from her peers or even from her teachers: at her nursery school her class was called “Gruffalo’s” (sic) and during one meet the teacher session my wife complained about Helena’s burgeoning glottal stop to which the teacher replied “you wan’er to speak be’er?”

Insisting that she say “think” instead of “fink” isn’t elitist as the son of a (middle class) friend maintains. I know a pub landlord with a thick Cockney accent whose daughter speaks standard English because he wants her to have the best start in life. The important thing is that one knows the standard usage even if one doesn’t always use it. My daughter is going to speak differently with her friends to how she talks to us. I sometimes find myself adopting an involuntary Mockney accent in order to sound a bit less posh, usually when talking to plumbers.

We want her to speak with confidence therefore we have a total ban on uptalk, that irritating verbal tick where every sentence becomes a question. Whenever my daughter’s voice starts to rise, I say: “say it like you mean it”. And she laughs and then says whatever she was saying confidently and loudly. Worse even than uptalk is that strange way of talking common amongst young Americans where they say every word with a strange emphasis as if they don’t know what it means.

If she can speak articulately then it doesn’t matter whether she says “ither” or “eether”. I don’t want her to have the same anxieties I had. To quote from Oliver Kamm “the task of English should be to instill the conventions of fluent communication not Shibboleths”.  And yet to some extent the problem with his approach is that Shibboleths are there for a reason: I want my daughter to be part of my tribe, I want her to get my references, I want us to talk the same language. It’s instinctive. So though I’m trying to be relaxed about her English, “Haitch” is where I say “here I stand; I can do no other”.

A version of this article appeared in The Oldie magazine.