In the 1960s making proper coffee singled you out as a dangerous maverick

The paperback of the Breakfast Bible comes out this month and I’ve written something for the Guardian about coffee. The two events aren’t related, it’s just a happy coincidence. The new edition of the book looks beautiful. It’s perhaps even lovelier than the hardback so even if you’ve already bought it, you might want to buy another copy for on the move breakfast inspiration.

The Coffee House: the Beating Heart of the City

One of the most famous scenes in British cinema is the beginning of The Ipcress File where the spy Harry Palmer (played by Michael Caine) grinds beans and then makes coffee in a cafetiere. This seems a humdrum activity to us, but in the 1960s making proper coffee singled you out as a dangerous maverick. No wonder that Ian Fleming, too, was very particular about the apparatus James Bond used to make coffee: (a Chemex), and the variety (Blue Mountain, from Jamaica). For my parents’ generation and even when I was growing up in the 1980s, “coffee” meant instant coffee. Britain was a tea-drinking nation. From the look of intense concentration on his face, Caine gives himself away as a tea drinker in the film. He looks like he’s diffusing a bomb rather than making a cup of coffee.

It’s a far cry from when England was the coffee capital of Europe. London’s first coffee house was opened in 1652 by a Greek man called Pasqua Rosée. Between 1680 and 1730, London consumed more coffee than anywhere else on earth, second only to Constantinople in its number of coffee houses. They were the commercial heart of London, functioning as offices and meeting places. The Tatler, the Spectator and Lloyds insurance all started life in coffee houses. Wine merchants Berry Bros & Rudd originally sold coffee; they still have the original weighing scales in their St James’s shop.

Because of the coffee house’s role in Britain’s intellectual life, I have this mental image of them as sober places where men in powdered wigs delighted in fine Java and discussed the latest Adam Smith. They weren’t.

Wine articles

Extract from Empire of Booze – Sicily

I’ve put an extract from my forthcoming book, Empire of Boozeup on the Dabbler website. I’m probably about halfway through the book and hoping it will appear as planned in very early 2016 or even extremely late 2015. 

From the top of the tower I could see right across the vineyards of Marsala, across to the Mediterranean and the nearby island of Mozia. The tower I was standing on was built, according to its present owner, Giacomo Ansaldi, by the Spanish in the 15th century. It was used to keep a look out for ‘Saracenas’ – pirates from North Africa. Marsala is only about 100 miles from the coast North Africa. The tower had been built into a fortified courtyard known as a Baglio. The word has the same derivation as the English word Bailey as in a Mott and Bailey castle. It now generally means a winery.  Only in Sicily would the word for winery mean fortress. I was so captivated by the view across the sea that I didn’t notice in the foreground a peculiar looking ruined building until Giacomo pointed it out that.  With its elegant Georgian lines, it looked for all for all the world like a chunk of Regency Bath had been dropped in the baking heat of Western Sicily. This is the ruins of the Baglio Woodhouse.  Once it was pointed out to me, I started to notice ruined Baglios dotted all over Trapani province.

The marsala story traditionally starts in 1773 with the arrival of a merchant from Liverpool called John Woodhouse. He tried the local wine and noticed a similarity with madeira and being a canny Scouser saw an opportunity. There was huge demand for madeira style wines not least from America and growers and producers were struggling to keep up. To ensure the safe journey back to England Woodhouse fortified it with brandy.

Sicilians, however, would say that the marsala story starts long before the arrival of John Woodhouse because the marsalans had been making a unique style of wine since antiquity.  It was known as vino perpetuo or everlasting wine.. It was made by topping up barrels of wine with the newest vintage so the wine was continuously blended like a version of the solera system. A little space was left in the top of the barrel so the wine would gently oxidise and the wine would develop flavours of almonds. The resulting wine would contain minute quantities of very old wine. It certainly would not have been fortified until the British came along. Giacomo Ansaldi keeps a nursery of old unfortified marsala in his cellar at the Baglio Donna Franca. He let me try some from a barrel started in 1957 by an old farmer who wanted a wine to pass on to his grandchildren but they’re now pursuing professional careers in the North and don’t have the space or interest to look after an enormous Botti of old wine. The smell filled the room, initially a little musty and then almonds and spiced oranges. It didn’t taste like marsala, it was more like a very old table wine. There was none of the caramel or alcoholic burn that I’d come to expect from marsala. It was fascinating to try a wine that Woodhouse would have recognised on his first trip to Sicily.

The great ingredient that the British brought to Marsala was not brandy but capitalism. As Giacomo Ansaldi put it to me ‘the British were experts in the market, the Sicilians were sleeping.’ He is echoing Lampedusa’sThe Leopard here, perhaps consciously:

Sleep, my dear Chevalley, eternal sleep, that is what Sicilians want. And they will always resent anyone who tries to awaken them, even to bring them the most wonderful of gifts.

To read on click here 

Wine articles

Rhone Olympics

As a student I got into a drunken argument with someone about who made the best Cotes-du-Rhone, Guigal or Chapoutier (it was in the bar of University College, Oxford, I was visiting.) I knew very little about wine at the time, in fact I had never tried the Guigal, I just thought the label was rubbish and therefore the wine must not be very good. Since then the Guigal has become a firm favourite of mine whilst I rarely buy the Chapoutier anymore.  I thought that it would be fun to put these two great names head-to-head to find out once and for all who is best and whilst I was at it try the cheapest wines from some of the other big names of the Rhone. There is one glaring omission: Jaboulet – I couldn’t find a bottle of their once-ubiquitous Parallel 45.

To make things more interesting we tasted all the wines blind and I threw in a Spanish red made from Rhone varieties. I asked my guests to give them a score out of ten but they ignored me and decided to guess how much each one cost. The tasting was not entirely scientific as the wines were of different vintages, different prices and we were eating cheese and quite spicy salami. Also there was no spitting. I’m not sure Michael Broadbent would approve.

The unanimous winner was: Cotes-du-Rhone Mon Coeur JL Chave 09 – this was easily the most expensive wine (£15.95 from Berry Bros) and everyone guessed this one at £15. It’s powerful stuff almost like a baby Hermitage with real structure and length. Really excellent.

Silver went to Pigeolet de Brunier 09 – if the Chave was a baby Hermitage this is a baby Chateauneuf: heady, spicy, mellow, raspberry fruit, very elegant with gentle tannins. Just the sort of thing you would expect from the second wine of Vieux Telegraphe. My guests said £12 – House of Townend have it for under a tenner.

Bronze went to Gran Sangre de Toro Reserva 07 (Co-op £7.99) I guessed this as the Spanish one probably because it was clearly the oldest.  We agreed that it tasted like £12’s worth of wine. Nose was rich and spicy and in the mouth it’s mellow with a very long finish. There may have be some nuttiness there too. I can’t read my handwriting. And in no particular order the other wines were:

La Veille Ferme 2010 – my wife guessed this one immediately. It’s like Rhone Beaujolais. Nice but completely different animal to the above wines and pointless to compare them. (£7.99 Majestic)

Cotes-du-Rhone, Belleruche, Chapoutier 2010 – I thought this was awful. A little green on the nose and then it was short rough, sweet and raw. I remember it used to be light and peppery. What’s going on here? Other people quite liked it. We guessed £7 (Majestic £9.99 on offer now two bottles for £6.99)

Cotes-du-Rhone Guigal 2009 – normally a favourite of mine. This one suffered from following the Chave. Nice meaty stuff with some brambly fruit but no real length. Perhaps it just needs a little time. We gave it a £9 rating. (£10 Waitrose)

Cotes-du-Rhone ‘Les Vignes Rousses’ Jean-Luc Colombo – tasted very young, very fruity, damsons and plums on the nose, light-bodied. I was very surprised to have something so light from this producer. £7 rating which I think is a little unfair. (Majestic £9.99 on offer two bottles for £6.99)

Cotes-du-Rhone Reserve Perrin 2010 – another one from the Perrin stable. Violets on the nose, light-bodied, some red fruit. Very nice stuff.  The team scored it at £9 (Wine Society £8.99)

Thanks to Berry Bros, House of Townend, Majestic and the Wine Society for providing the wines. Winners will appear in a forthcoming Lady column. Thanks for my guests for being Rhone guinea pigs. Finally here’s hoping that I don’t get arrested for using the words Olympics, bronze, gold and silver all in the same article.