Tuesday, 22 September 2009

American Beauty

Is it me or is there a distinct chill as the days draw to a close? There is a distinct change of smells, with leaves changing colours, and gusts bringing mini-whirlwinds of russets and gold. Autumn is definitely in the air and getting out warming gilets and scarves come to mind.

And so, with the exception of Dad’s gardener, visiting early this morning (very early), and Ben’s call to say that having partied hard he is now trying to remember when his wallet, amongst other things, was pinched, I managed to make the most of the solitude and the seasonal mood, choosing to cook a hearty supper and to pick some of the last apples from the tree for a pudding.

My take on a seasonal meal is Mutton with flageolet (an Elizabeth David recipe that I have altered to suit myself). The gamey richness of the meat and the muted colour of the beans, lifted slightly by the tomato, create the tone. A light Tarte Tatin to follow, and to go with this? A definite bargain from Waitrose: Hess Syrah 2005, Methode Traditionelle, Monterey County, USA (from £9.99 to £6.49), 14.5% (yes 14.5%! Remember, this is Schwarzenegger country!) I should really have considered Steak au Poivre to complement this punchy wine. However, I had mutton on my mind.

The Hess Collection has several hectares of vineyards (as well as art galleries) in California, mainly in Mendoza. But, sandwiched between other heady names such as Kendall Jackson and the more stellar Robert Mondavi, Donald Hess grows this Syrah in Monterey County. The longer growing time (sometimes a whole month longer than the average grape) and careful irrigation, due to the low average rainfall, influence the slow maturation of the grapes. On top of that, the variety of soils, a mix of loam, clay and sand (in layman’s terms: the baking clay can act as a thermostat, whilst the sand and loam the drainage), help create an excellent microclimate in which to produce this heady wine. Not forgetting that 1985, was considered a particularly good year for Monterey.

So, having said all that; I can return to the bottle and pour the wine into the waiting glass. And what richness of colour! What a bluey-red. What a plumy-ruby-red red. Coloured legs, which hint at the strength of the wine run down the glass. Joyous ‘Lacrima’ (Oh you can’t take the catholic out of the boy!).

On the nose this wine is rich. Rich, rich, RICH! Dark fruits and liquorice hit the senses, the strength of these aromas making the pupils dilate (I told you this was strong!) Spices of anise mixed with the sweetness of the raisins lead to thoughts of the exotic. Woods, especially a cedar-like sweetness, pencil and pencil lead reach out from behind the strong vanilla and cream (this caused in part by the French oak that this wine is aged in).

I am already heady, in part because of putting my nose into the glass enough times to give me a high, but also because this wine is just a pure temptation. As my tongue plays with the liquid fruit, I am seemingly rolling in dark fruit, any dark berry: mulberry, loganberry, that sort of thing. A velvety wrap, a rich compote of dark fruits made more intense by honey, vanilla and cream (think American Beauty, but with me and grapes! Better not, thinking about it, I need to go to the gym). Woodiness and tannins find their way through the smoothness, making the teeth dry and a high acidity leaves the mouth watering intensely. And then it comes: BAM! The syrah punch. Rich pepper, peppery-pepper, peppery spice, almost chilli pepper (did I mention the pepper?), and a really long ticklingly prickly finish on the tongue.

Letting the glass air a bit more, and in the spirit of California, I need to SHARE. Normally, I am not a great fan of many New World Wines. There, I have said it! I feel better now. To me, they are often too big in fruit and too heavy with alcohol; ‘confectionary wine’, sweet and filling, leaving room for little else. Quality is potentially sacrificed for commercial advantage and big flavours; the bigger the better (South Eastern Australian wines being particularly guilty in my mind, with their addition of flavoured staves or essences to increase the oak and smoke flavours).

With the Hess Collection (and many boutique producers), this is not the case; care and traditional methods of wine making mean that they are serious producers offering pleasurable, not ‘party’ wines. And this wine, even though at the cheaper end of their collection, whilst strong, is nevertheless delicious. I am exhausted by that sharing; that openness. Have another drink Lou!

Taking another mouthful; the creamier elements come to the fore with hints of apple (almost dried). A sharper citric tone rather like red apple or raspberry
(but sweeter than cassis which has a sharp acid lemony note to it) makes the mouth water; a top-note flavour that rises out of the deeper darker fruits (think of that top C in Allegri’s Miserere). Some powder on the tongue adds to the rich velvetiness, and the wood and liquorice, give added layers to this jammy wine. It is like having a pudding it is so rich (but I already have my Tarte Tatin in the Aga).

Carefree swinging to the oven to get my pudding, and even more carefree swaying back to the computer (helped by the mellow and soothing voice of Sarah Vaughn on the CD player) I feel as if I have been massaged, wrapped in a duvet and kissed goodnight. I can now slump in an armchair to slumber and digest. For a low end of the range, boutique (and not forgetting New World) wine, I am truly delighted. But for value, I got a real bargain and am gigglingly happy. Goodnight.

Tuesday, 15 September 2009

Death, the 80's and me

Slightly aside from my normal wine tasting tales, I have been away in Paris, so, I have been too distracted to do my usual tasting blog.

Instead I have been 'checking out' some unruly tenants, sympathising with my concierge (I have learnt a lot from Muriel Barbary) and generally trying to find IKEA from the Paris Circular, or Périphérique as it is known, painting, dusting, cleaning, scrubbing, checking in new tenants and finally, returning to the calm and tranquillity of Bath.

The family home makes me feel melancholy, with echoes of footsteps on the hall floor and only a buzz of traffic and people; maybe it is because of returning to Paris, which brings back memories of Dominique and our lost promises; maybe because it is still haunted by laughter and voices of yesteryear when we were a whole family and life was seen through the youthful tints of rose and sepia; maybe it is because I miss my father, who has extended his travels in the Southern Hemisphere for another couple of months (I like his style, but I would like a retirement fund like his much more); or, maybe it is just the weather and the news that Patrick Swayze and Keith Floyd have died.

Now don’t get me wrong, I am not, nor ever was a Patrick Swayze fan. No! He sparked up quite a few jealous flares when I was dating the girlfriends of the time. Constant chatter on double dates (take it from me, double dating is a bad move) of how ‘gorgeous’ he was, whilst we, the boys would sit and grumble in the corner of the bar listening to the trills, the ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ and wondering when we would get a ‘look in’ (I think that was when I made the decision to take my dates to scarier films so that I could get the girl in my arms at the crucial moments). I was too young, thankfully, for Dirty Dancing but not for Ghost, so never had to consider my dance moves, only my artistic side.

However, I was a Keith Floyd fan. I loved the way he cooked, chaos with a flare, going from failure to failure with enthusiasm, to paraphrase Churchill. I loved the fact that he was a Somerset boy like myself, which in my youth was a factor more so than today. Presentation was not as important as the sensations that came from flavours, something I am mostly in agreement with now, though debates on 'feasts for the eyes' can run and run.

His love of all things French was a healthy part of my decision to go to France to learn about food and wine, as he did, and with that, life and love. I ended up in Paris rather than the south, firstly poor and hungry, but later, with plenty of friends and eventually the love of my life. Story book stuff really, and it is partially thanks to him.

Inspired to learn, my first wine lesson was over a ropey Beaujolais, light in colour with cherries and a chewing gum flavour that I later learnt came from the carbonic maceration for which Beaujolais is famous. From there I progressed to other grape varieties, and then other wine producing countries. I did a wine course before working in a Parisian café bar (serving beer and more ropey wine, notably Morgan, and learning very quickly and from scratch how to cook as the owner demanded more from me).

It was through his inspiration that I read Elizabeth David, then Jane Grigson and the wider food writing community (I should say Julia Child given the film of the moment but I haven’t seen it and do not own her books), getting inspired by them too. Setting higher, and more chaotic standards for myself (I still love the chicken with leeks and cream recipe), and once, though thankfully only once, setting the kitchen of the café on fire.

It is thanks to Floyd that I understood why there is genuine and real pleasure to be found in food and wine, and I honestly felt that I was following in his footsteps (not forgetting his liking for The Stranglers, his theme tune). Sadly, seeing it all crumble around him, the drink, the illness, the bankruptcies, all that too is a lesson learnt. But it is not the latter that we should remember him by but the fact that he was a gourmand, a gourmet, a bon viveur. Full of fun, energy and passion about what he did.

So raise a glass to his memory as I will, and to Swayze (despite the arguments he caused), and to the fun times, the bad hair and turned up jacket sleeves; of the period that is becoming, more and more, just another decade in history.