Tuesday, 16 February 2010

A mixed bag of Ozzie wines

I attended a tasting recently organised by wine educators David Swaddle and Sarah Tohill.  The speaker was the ebullient Ray O'Connor who was Young Wine Writer of the Year in 2007.  He has spent time visiting vineyards and wineries in Australia, a country he is passionate about.  

I more or less stopped drinking Australian wines (or in fact, any New World wines) when I moved to France in 2000 but having moved back to the UK recently I have inevitably ended up drinking Chilean Chardonnay instead of Mâcon, New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc instead of Sancerre, Australian Shiraz instead of Crozes Hermitage and Argentinian Malbec instead of Cahors.  I still hanker after the leaner, less ripe, more acidic and tannic, food-friendly French style but I must say that through the odd New World wine event in London recently I have noticed that many wine makers are holding back on the upfront, over ripe, jammy, sweet vanilla, overly oaked, in your face tastes of the 1980s and 1990s and are making more subtle, interesting wines that benefit from ageing, and being partnered with food just like good French wines (or those from Italy, Spain etc.).  As Ray said, Australia wants to lose its supermarket image. 

We tasted a Wolf Blass Sparkling 2008 Yellow Label (£9.99) made by the traditional (Champagne) method from Pinot Noir & Chardonnay which had a lot more finesse than I expected with an attractive fruit and yeasty, bready character whilst remaining bone dry.

The Chardonnay Juniper Crossing 2007, Margaret River (£8.75) had a slightly reduced, sulphury nose but a very attractive pineappley, rich albeit crisp palate.  I wondered what oaked Burgundy one could find any where near this bargain price.

The Riesling Annie's Lane 2006, Clare Valley (£9.99) was bone dry and had an intense lime scent and flavour and cried out for a seabass baked with a few herbs.

The Semillon Mount Horrocks, Clare Valley 2008 (£14.95) was a little subdued still (an equivalent Bordeaux would need years and years to be truly approachable) but classy with zesty fruit and well integrated oak.

Next wine was an unscheduled Mac Forbes Pinot Noir, Coldstream Hills 2008 (£22) which Ray had been given by Lance Foyster MW (whose Austrian as opposed to Australian wines shown that day at the annual event were very good). This was perhaps trying just too hard to be "French" and had, in spite of a tinned strawberries' nose, quite a tight palate with plenty of fine tannin but a green edge.  I thought Chile, for example, with the same grape would offer more quality and value.  I felt that at £22 this wine was encroaching on Burgundy prices too.  And Ray didn't think this wine would age either.

Another unscheduled wine was Voyager Estate Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot/Malbec/Petit Verdot, Margaret River 2005 (£18) which was more successfully "French" with a Médoc-like nose, quite ripe but herbal too, a rich texture on the palate but plenty of acidity as well.  I would pay the price but if you prefer something slightly less alcoholic (this was 14%) and leaner then a carefully picked petit château or cru bourgeois from Bordeaux would cost about the same if not less.

The Old Vine Shiraz "The Antiquus", Peter Lehmann, Barossa Valley 2001 at £12.50 for me was the bargain of the evening and  provided a black hue, a tarry, plummy, liquorice, rubbery, complex nose and palate.  Truly outstanding and still with years of life ahead of it.  I imagined partnering this with well hung game.  You could probably throw a really strong, mature, tangy Cheddar or Manchego at it and it would take them in its stride.  A Rhône wine with this much power and flavour would cost a lot more.  There are plenty of powerful Shiraz from Australia but this one had the bonus of not being 'sweet' and jammy.

The Shiraz Mount Edelstone, Henschke, Eden Valley 2005 (£50) in comparison was more refined, more French in a way with a nose very reminiscent of Northern Rhône Syrah.  Again, too young but already very classy.  It would have benefitted from being served before the Antiquus.  

To end we had the fabled Grange, 2004 (£250+).  This was completely undrinkable, black, dumb and in its shell even though it had been decanted 2 hours before.  Obviously destined for a very long life, extremely concentrated, almost salty, chewy, alcoholic, impressive, though with a hint of shoe mender's glue on the nose (volatile acidity perhaps).

I shall keep trying Ozzie wines and also match them with food: all the above would have benefitted from being served à table rather than with just a few water biscuits!

Saturday, 13 February 2010

A little water and a few snacks: Vintage Vodka Vertical at Bob Bob Ricard

The first thing that strikes you about this restaurant is its name, Bob Bob Ricard.  It is owned by two young men, one English, the other Russian.  The Englishman is Richard, hence Ricard, and the Russian is Leonid, hence, erm, Bob.  Bob owns two thirds and Ricard one thus two Bob (Bob Bob) to one Ricard (not sure if Bob, or Leonid, knows the significance of two bob as in 10p in modern parlance.  Not sure either, come to think of it, whether Ric(h)ard knows the significance of Ricard, the French lorry driver's apéritif of choice).  Anyway, the restaurant's stated aim is to offer posh English food all day long, and well into the night, though from a cursory glance at the menu one notices quite a Russian influence.    Indeed, the point of the event I was invited to was to pair Russian vodkas, including a couple of vintage ones, to a variety of Russian hors d'oeuvres, or zakuski,  and, as a sop to Ricard perhaps,  a main course of beef Wellington.
I am not a great spirits drinker though enjoy peaty Islay malts with smoky kippers and recently have drunk and enjoyed Johnny Walker at Indian Zing and various malts at a Burn's Night Chinese dinner at Min Jiang.  Smoked or spicy or sour food can be very challenging for most wine and I came to Bob Bob Ricard with an open mind on teaming up food with vodka.
A small group of us, all bloggers, joined the co-owners in a charming little room off the main restaurant where we were eased into the idea of spirit drinking with the house apéritif, rhubarb gin & tonic which tasted gently of fresh rhubarb.  We then moved onto Kauffman Vodka 2006 which we were instructed to drink in one gulp and to follow immediately with the jellied ox tongue & creamed horseradish.  The visual impact of the dish outweighed its flavour though the aspic was carefully made, very clear and not too bouncy through excess gelatine.  The vodka was smooth and tasteless.  Leonid explained that vodka doesn't have its own flavour and so needs to be partnered with food.  Mmm.

The next dish was the cliché one associates with vodka: caviar, blinis and sour cream.  In fact, caviar and blinis (and vodka) are the only Russian words I can think of which have entered the English language (though bistro we use as if it were French but it is actually the Russian for quickly).  This caviar was the equivalent of Oscietre and came from Catalonia (Cold River) at a safe distance from the mafia in the Caspian Sea who control much of the traditional industry today.  It was mild, delicately salty, and hardly fishy at all.  The Kauffman 2003 vodka again was practically tasteless and didn't react with the fish eggs in any positive (or negative) way.

Next we had a break from vodka (the previous group of bloggers having disgraced themselves apparently) and four different dishes arrived to share: thin slices of cured Orkney beef with celeriac, blueberries & roasted hazelnuts; thin slices of pickled beetroot with goat's cheese & mint; potted shrimps; and rabbit, foie gras & date terrine.

I was hankering after wine and when launching into the goat's cheese my taste buds cried out for some sauvignon blanc.  I was beginning to think the dishes were too refined  and polite for my taste, ladies-who-lunch fare, but then tasted the potted shrimps which were rich, tasty and quite outstanding.  Now I needed some white Burgundy!    The salty butter had been softened (so often it's fridge hard) and the piscine character of the little brown shrimps had been heightened by a sleight of hand addition of anchovy (not sure if any lady-who-lunches would want to know this detail).  

Just as I felt as if I was turning into a lady-who-lunches myself glasses of Russian Standard Platinum vodka were poured.  The retail price of £15 a bottle was announced for this (as opposed to the £170 for the Kauffman 2003) which reassured me we might get more than just a thimbleful.  This was served with salt-cured herring, raw onion    & new potatoes.  The vodka was tasteless (so I shall be buying this brand for home and saving £155) but somehow took the salty edge off the fish.  I felt perhaps I was beginning to get the hang of this.

The next vodka was Russian Standard Imperia (£20 retail).  The extra cost premium over Platinum was because of the extra filtration the spirit goes through resulting in yet even less flavour.  This was served with salmon roe on hard-boiled quails' eggs.  I think roe of the salmon superior, or at least tastier, to that of sturgeon and enjoyed the fishy aftertaste mingling with the fumes of the vodka.  I mentioned to my erudite neighbour Sig (aka Scandilicious amongst the twitterati) that Fino sherry would have coped with the multifarious flavours we were trying but she rightly pointed out that wine transforms food whereas vodka stays in the background and at most cleanses the palate in between mouthfuls.  A concept my oenophile palate was struggling with (Sig is half Norwegian). 

The evening was really taking on an egg theme, appropriately so in the week leading up to Shrove Tuesday, and the next dish was quails' eggs mayonnaise with anchovies.  At this stage, any ladies-who-lunch would have moved onto sorbet or been past caring and whole anchovy fillets proudly adorned each egg in a puddle of mayo.  Beluga was the vodka served here.  

The next dish was stand out for texture alone: perfect little meat pelmeni dumplings of sublimely smooth pasta enveloping mince.  Here we were treated to Beluga Gold Line from Siberia.  

Next was salo on rye bread.  This is thinly sliced backfat and is a traditional accompaniment to vodka apparently.  Much humour was derived by calling it lard on toast.  It had a pleasant, mildly piggy taste, not as strong as Iberico ham fat.  We were served Stolichnaya Gold with this which turned out to be the strongest tasting vodka of the evening; or should I say, the least mild tasting of the evening.  Leonid pointed out that this vodka is made more for Western tastes and isn't one he would choose himself.  I found it quite fruity and enjoyed it with the pig.  

The final zakuska was malosol (lightly salted) cucumber which accompanied Stolichnaya Elit.  This costs £80 retail and consequently had less flavour than the cheaper Gold.  The cucumber tasted of, well, salty cucumber.  As Ricard said when spotting me taking notes and the pic: "it's only a f***ing cucumber!"  I felt like retaliating by pressing the button below.

After zakuski came the main course proper which was Aberdeenshire Longhorn 28-day aged beef in a Wellington with veg.  The beef was good if a tad overcooked because allowed to sit (politely) under the hotlamp awaiting the extremely late arrival of a fellow diner.  Now I was gagging for wine.  One day, I'd like to return and try out a claret maybe from the very appealing and relatively sensibly priced wine list.

To follow, we were offered pud and I shared a very good crème brûlée which actually floored the half bottle of château Rieussec 2003.  Sauternes is normally such an apt combination with this dish but perhaps wine in a half bottle from a heatwave vintage was not the ideal choice.  Ricard's crème caramel was a milder match.  Sig's very pretty fruit jelly tasted pleasantly vinous (ah, decent wine at last!).  Ollie's soufflé looked outstanding but he wasn't sharing.

All in all, the evening was enjoyable, the staff charming, the hosts genial and an entertaining double act, natural restaurateurs in spite of their advertising backgrounds, the food refined and carefully prepared, the design of the restaurant art deco-ish, reminiscent of certain Parisian brasseries, but more darkly lit and in parts laid out like an upmarket railway wagon.  The gents' loos however are not very Parisian or railway wagon and are the smartest (and amongst the cleanest) I've come across in London.  Not normally worthy of a mention I know but I did regret not taking some photos.  The ladies, I imagine, are sumptuous.

On my way home, I had to remind myself that vodka is the diminutive of water (voda) in Russian and I understood that taste is not really the point: clean, pure, smooth, colourless spirit is all and the more you pay, the more the spirit is distilled (and redistilled), and filtered (and refiltered) through silver, quartz and sand and so the less it has any taste.  And presumably, the less it gives you a hangover.  And if you drink it at 4'C to 7'C, as we did, you barely notice the alcohol, much.
I was a guest of Bob Bob Ricard at this event and the shots of the restaurant entrance & members' bar are taken from their

Friday, 12 February 2010

Mussels with Mettle

I think mussels are underrated.  They are deliciously sweet, easy to prepare, nutritious, pretty, equally good raw or cooked, and plentiful in the UK and much of Europe.  They are also cheap (£3.50/kg); perhaps they do not receive the recognition they deserve because of this.
Posh fish like turbot and brill and shellfish like lobster have special, often expensive implements for cooking and eating them.  But when it comes to the "humble" mussel any old saucepan will do to boil them up; and then, one is expected to eat them using empty shells as utensils.
Using the shell as a kind of combined fork, knife and spoon is good though after a few mouthfuls the hinge breaks or one's fingers crush the shell in hasty enthusiasm.  Through my friend Amanda at the Goldsmiths' annual fair I met a silversmith who makes these exquisite and very realistic gold-plated mussel shells which possess an indefatigable hinge and a solid sterling silver body.
Eating mussels with one of these is a real joy and whilst one might feel a little foolish using one at home whilst sprawled on the sofa watching News at Ten on the box I reckon they have their place in smart fish restaurants like Scott's, Bentley's or Sheekey's.
Just make sure the plongeur doesn't end up chucking them in the bin.

Tuesday, 2 February 2010

Ham, Egg & Chips

A dish associated with greasy spoons and yet when prepared with care using good quality ingredients it is a culinary tour de force.  I do not understand why it isn't seen more often on restaurant menus.  

Here, the eggs were from my mother's Marans chickens, the potatoes were fried in duck fat, and the gammon ham came from Macken Brothers in Chiswick.  Normally, I would boil ham in water with maybe an onion or two, studded with cloves if I had any, and parsley stalks, a bit of celery, some carrot too.  But my sister Abi who is a Nigella fan (thought they were normally blokes) was dying to try out a recipe which involves Coca Cola.  Having not drunk coke since the age of 8 when it was a weekly treat at the vending machine of Loughton municipal baths I wasn't sure this was a good idea.  I know some fellow foodies drink it in the middle of the night when they've had too many sherberts and certain regiments use it to clean their rifles.  But poaching a ham in it?  Mmm.  

It was one of those be kind to sister days so she won and the ham did turn out very well.  The only downside to this recipe is that the poaching liquor cannot be turned into pea & ham soup, unless you're a coke head of course.