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Books

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.

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Wine articles

You never need to pack a wanker – or how I learned to stopped worrying and love sommeliers

Last year there was an incident in a French restaurant involving a notable wine-maker (I’m not allowed to mention his name for legal reasons), who sent back a bottle of wine saying that it was corked. The sommelier disagreed and refused to produce another bottle. Instead he offered the wine to other customers who pronounced it fine. The wine-maker’s table refused to pay and the police were called. But by the time the police arrived all the evidence had gone, drunk by the customers. I imagine that the French have specially trained wine detectives to deal with just such incidents.

I’ve had many terrible experiences with wine in restaurants, though thankfully none that required police involvement. The worst was at a Spanish place in Fitzrovia. I ordered a bottle of their cheapest Rioja. When it arrived I took a sip and it was hot. Not warm but mulled-wine hot. I asked the waitress to bring me an ice bucket — she refused, pointing out to me that it was red wine. I asked to speak to the sommelier. He came over oozing condescension. I repeated my demand for an ice bucket. His response was, ‘But sir, this is a red wine.’ ‘I know and it’s very warm so I want to make it colder.’ ‘But sir, this is red wine, Rioja.’ This circular argument went on for about five minutes until I said, ‘Listen! I don’t care that you think I am mad, just bring me an ice bucket!’ Eventually the ice came and I had to put up with pitying looks from the staff for the rest of the evening. I never went back.

No transaction has such potential for unpleasantness as ordering wine in a restaurant. To read the rest of this article in Spectator Life click here

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Wine articles

Mama weer all crazee now

This is something I wrote for the Spectator on wackiness.

At Glastonbury in 2000 I noticed two young men both wearing enormous Y-fronts and carrying an even bigger pair with the word ‘pants’ written on it. They both looked miserable as you would if you’d come up with the idea while drunk and then found yourself stuck like that for the duration of the festival. Some of the more thuggish elements jeered and threw beer cans.

Seven years later, at another festival I attended, they wouldn’t have attracted a second glance, because dressing up had become ubiquitous. This year, seven years on from that, far from being weird, wearing Y-fronts superhero-style over your trousers is all the rage — not just at festivals but out and about in normal life. It’s the latest charity fund-raising craze, and come Christmas you’ll be a party pooper if your pants aren’t on display.

Of course, the odd eccentric has always done wacky things for charity: bathed in baked beans or run a marathon in a gorilla suit. The difference with Movember, the ice bucket challenge or the new fashion for Superman Pants is that the wackiness is communal, almost compulsory. It’s become the default setting for the British at play.

Read on here

Categories
Books Wine articles

The Bluffer’s Guide to Wine

‘Tea and toasted buttered currant buns, can’t compensate for lack of sun’                              The Kinks, Autumn Almanac

Perhaps tea and buns can’t help us through the winter but what Ray Davies really should have tried was fortified wine. I read a lovely article a few years back exploring this phenomenon in the Financial Times by Harry Eyres:

“The varied styles of sherry seem to me one of the most humane ways ever discovered of shepherding human beings through the changing seasons, and especially through the hard change to winter.”

Eyres does what few wine writers even attempt and melds history, wine and personal reflection into his article. Since then I’ve always looked out for his writings. He was wine columnist for the Spectator in the 1980s and has written a series of books on the subject. I was delighted when his publishers sent me an electronic copy of his latest, The Bluffer’s Guide to Wine. Normally I’d avoid a book with this sort of title but as it’s by Eyres, I thought it’s sure to be a quality product. It’s not entirely by Eyres though. This edition is written in conjunction with Jonathan Goodall whose work I am not familiar with it.

A book like this must succeed on two levels: 1) it must be funny 2) it must be accurate – if you’re going to bluff about wine you need a very firm based on which to bluff from. I wrote in an earlier post about the Les Dawson rule, in order to make playing the piano badly funny, you have to be a very good pianist.

So is it funny? Well I didn’t disturb my wife with snorts of hilarity but there are some funny bits:

‘An unfeasibly long and narrow strip of land. . . . Chile might seem a silly shape for a wine-producing country, certainly when compared with the no-nonsense square shapes of leading producers France and Spain’

Both nicely surreal and informative, this is a good wine joke. The tone of the book is light and witty and rarely descends into facetiousness. I abhor facetiousness! Unless I’m doing it, of course.The book opens with some general information about wine and wine tasting, moves logically onto grape varieties then takes a gallop around the world of wine and ends with a short section on wining and dining. The book is really just an amusingly written introduction to wine but scattered in it are tips to impress and to justify the bluffers guide title. Some of these are actually rather useful and on the nose such as recommending chilling some reds because it makes you look like you know what you’re doing (it does though it can also cause a furore in certain Spanish restaurants on Charlotte Street.)

Is it accurate? Again up to a point. The grape variety chapter initially seems a bit scant but there’s a very useful section where the authors not only tell us which wines are made from which varieties but also what they are often blended with.  The authors manage to distill quite complicated concepts accurately and their simplifications, on the whole, work. As a pedant, however, I was delighted to notice a few mistakes. This is probably the biggest one:

“the grand crus or top villages of the Cotes de Nuits include Gevrey-Chambertin. . . .” Grand Cru is not the same thing as top village. Gevrey-Chambertin is a village not a Grand Cru

Mistakes such as this one mean the reader has to be careful when bluffing from these pages. As Morrissey once sang: “there’s always someone somewhere, with a big nose who knows and trips you up and laughs when you fall.” I think I approached this book with the wrong expectations given it was co-written by someone of Eyre’s talents. On it’s own terms, it’s enjoyable and would make a good gift or something to read on a cold winter’s night with a roaring fire and a nice old amontillado.