Sunday, 7 June 2015

Eat father eat.

When I was growing up we didn't eat out all that much, well, not unless we were on holiday, but that's a different topic all together. There were a few places that we'd get take aways from, fish and chips after swimming or trampolining of an evening and very occasionally a Chinese from the Golden Coin. However the restaurant that figures strongest in my childhood eating memories is Ye Bambam Ye at Cemetery Junction (nothing at all like the execrable film presents it to be). This was a Turkish place, split between a take away on one side and a smallish traditionally decorated restaurant on the other. Dark carpets, shishas and tapestries were the order of the day as far as decoration was concerned and for us Edwards children it was the nec plus ultra of dining sophistication. It's funny thinking back to the sorts of dishes I remember, platters of rice, grilled meats and vegetables, chilli and garlic dips, flat bread, actually all the things that I love to find in restaurants now.

The restaurant was to the left, what is now sadly the Up The Junction bar

Moving swiftly through the wilderness years of living in Glasgow where despite BBQ Kings' best efforts, their chicken shish was really only a sideline to their bread winners of large doners and chips'n'cheese (both yellow and orange cheese if memory serves), I found myself travelling to Turkey with my sister to visit various Anatolian Greek sites as part of her degree. This naturally meant we would spend several days in Istanbul, where from a hotel in the Beyoglu we did all of the touristy things and ate quite a few kebabs. Sadly, beyond a couple of slightly disappointing fish dishes I don't have any great recollections of the food, slightly odd given that even at that time I was beginning to pay undue attention to whatever it was I shovelled into my mouth.

25th birthday dinner somewhere in Istanbul

Several years later I was in Izmir for a wine conference, the European wine bloggers conference to be precise, hold oddly in the Asian side of Turkey, but I'll drop my geographic pedantry and get back to the food, which with one exception was pretty awful. Large banqueting style dinners are never the way to get under the skin of a countries eating culture. Thankfully my desire to avoid paying extortionate hotel fees had seen me book a place in the centre of the town some twenty minutes walk from the conference site, a walk that took me down the back lanes of Izmir and right past the lines of outdoor kebab stalls, intoxicating would be one way of describing the smell. Rickety white plastic tables and chairs, seemingly snaffled from a children's party (the only way I could explain their diminutive size) would be swiftly wiped down while I drank sweet black tea. For the record I favour half a sugar cube per glass, yes I concede that over the course of a day one edges into diabetes threatening levels of sugar consumption, but it is only on holiday that this happens. Then the unshaven chap in the filthy white apron would bring me my wrap. The small round flat bread wrapped ice cream cone like round freshly sliced beef (I know it was beef because when I queried what it was he put his hands to the side of his head like horns and proceeded to moo, who needs to speak the language) that had been grilled on a horizontal spit in front of wooden embers. A small amount of lettuce, tomato, cucumber and yoghurt completed the snack. I returned every day of my stay. I was hands down the best food I'd ever eaten in Turkey, smokey, succulent, tantalisingly fatty and just the right size to allow me to eat a modicum of whatever rubbish was going to be put in front of me later in the day.

How it's done properly

I now live in South London, disgustingly close to the palace of joy that is FM Mangal and as such have lamb shish and adana wraps mere moments from my door, it's no surprise that they now know me by name.

Friday, 5 June 2015

Ragu and authenticity

I think about authenticity quite a lot. It tends to haunt me when I'm thinking about wine lists, I want the wines I list to speak of the places from which they come. I want to show grapes that belong, made by people that understand them. I feel similarly about cooking, I've been to so many wonderful places and eaten food made by people who've lived there for generations cooking the things that they grew up with. It's while eating food like this that one tastes the authenticity that comes from the marriage of product and place, season and style, and yes I'll accept that much of this may well be entirely of my own imagining it's still very satisfying.

This tends to cause me concern when cooking at home. How ever can one hope to emulate this on a daily basis? Instead, I fall back on the kinds of dishes I like. No I don't live in the Eastern Med, however I'm quite happy to get very liberal with my sumac application. Nope I'm not in Dhaka (never been, sadly) but that's not going to stop me playing with panch phoron when I'm grilling a chicken, however that lack of authenticity does still linger in the back of my mind.

Anyway, Sam, one of my old friends from Pony Club (yes I did write that, and yes you can fuck right off if you have an issue with it) posted to facebook that they were slaughtering some of their one year old sheep. I was actually slightly slow off the mark as my sister had already bagsied one, needless to say several weeks later we were in possession of about half a hogget and a bag of offal bits because 'I figured you'd find something to do with them'. Nothing quite like a fun challenge based around somewhat unidentifiable frozen bits of sheep in plastic bags.

Now I'm quite an adventurous cook, though this does come with a degree of worry. I guess I'm consciously torn between my principles and what I've actually had experience cooking with. Suffice to say I didn't really know what I was going to do with several lamb hearts. I've cooked with ox heart before, but I didn't really know to what extent lamb's heart was going to be a) tough, b) gamey, c) tasty. So I went for the easy option and decided (courtesy of a suggestion by @siepert) to make a ragu with it.

It was here that I hit against the issue of authenticity, ragu is essentially an Italian peasants dish, I'm guessing made from whatever was around with the glut of ripe tomatoes that arrived in the summer. I'm neither Italian, nor is it the height of summer in my groaning kitchen garden (I don't have one) so this left me with several options. I could find the best ragu recipe I knew of and follow it word for word (with obvious offaly substitutions) or I could wing it. Naturally I started with the best intentions, did all sorts of research, then drank half a bottle of cheap white wine, went shopping, forgot to pick up various things and ended up winging it.

A ragu starts with a good soffritto, that is finely diced onion, carrot and celery, two parts of the first, to one part each of the second and third. I forgot to buy celery so my aromatic base was left to resemble a castrated Toulouse Lautrec. Still, I added a shit load of garlic instead, after all I like garlic and for various reasons there's a sack of it in my hall way. This was left to sweat and turn all tanned and golden while I fortified myself with the remaining half bottle of cheap white and turned my attentions to the lamb offal.

What I had thought was going to be two lamb hearts turned out to be one lamb heart and a lamb's liver, no harm no foul I figured, liver's got great flavour and will be equally delicious if somewhat more frustrating to dice finely and neatly. The heart was actually quite beautiful, much more human in scale than that of an ox and oddly reminded me of something one might see in a piece of devotional stained glass, the fat around the top appearing almost like mother of pearl or loosely applied cake icing. On slicing it in half I was stuck by the mechanical functionality of it, something you don't really see when cutting more prosaic pieces of meat. Ventricles and atria, muscles stretched at angles ready to pump. I was genuinely quite taken aback by it's elegance. Still it was nothing that a couple of minutes with a sharp blade couldn't reduce to neatish chunks.

Offal sorted, and by this time my veg base approaching readiness, it was browned off in a hot pan, added to the soffritto, swiftly followed by similarly browned beef and pork mince and five cans of plum tomatoes (aisle three of Morisson's being Camberwell's equivalent of a bounteous tomato crop),  several bay leaves, two smallish sprigs of rosemary, some water, some soy sauce and fish sauce for authenticity (to any raised eye brows I counter you with several texts pertaining to garum and its ubiquity in Roman cuisine) and a healthy slug of wine.

This was then left for a period of time, roughly equivalent to the time it took me to get on a bus to Euston, meet several friends from Manchester to catch up over a few pints before catching a somewhat delayed bus back home.

Duly fortified with both grape and grain I arrived back at my house to be welcomed by the scent of long slow cooking, whatever it was I'd made had worked to some degree, indeed on tasting it'd acquired the umami richness of long cooked tomatoes and meat and I'd go so far as to say it was delicious. Also, possibly as a result of my hearty fortification I felt able to pronounce on its authenticity. I'd made a version of a classic dish, without any particular adhesion to instruction in a way that I felt at least matched the spirit of someone needing to feed a family whilst faced with a set of basic ingredients and a source of heat. In which I found at least a temporary respite from nagging doubts as to my worthiness to cook/play with other cultures heritages.

Indeed I'm happy to say that it was magnificent with linguine and a gremolata (@foodstories suggestion, and one that really completed the dish by adding the requisite freshness and top notes that its bass heavy meatiness required). Also, the four tubs that I froze sated my latent desire to attempt some sort of frugality with regards to my food expenditure.
An all round success.
Quite possibly the lamb whose heart and liver I cooked, if not then one of its kin.

Monday, 23 February 2015

Pinot Noir masterclass with Sarah Ahmed

GRINGOTT'S BANK (no goblins though only Aussies)
I visited Australia many moons ago on Tim Wildman's inaugural James Busby tour and properly fell for the place. I was there just after a period of extended drought, a bunch of hot vintages that ended while I was there. Which means I've got memories of flooded fields in Victoria and a Koorong that was unusually very full of water..

However I digress, the good folk at wine Australia had put on a Pinot Noir masterclass at Australia house to be hosted by Sarah Ahmed, one last minute email and I was there.

On show were two Yarra Pinots, one from Giant Steps, one from De Bortoli, and three from Mornington, respectively Paringa, 10X and Crittenden. Now I've visited De Bortoli and Giant Steps and I know 10X pretty well but Paringa and Crittenden were somewhat unknown.

First up a brilliant comparison of Northern Yarra (Dixon's Creek) all MV4/5 and no whole bunch against Apple Jack vineyard from Giant Steps in Gladystone in the steeper South Eastern part of the region. Filigree dark fruits, delectable acidity and tannin balnace with silken dark/raspberry fruit and delicate perfume was the order of the day for the Apple Jack fruit versus chunkier dried red berries and exotic fruit with some forceful tannin from the Dixon's Creek bottles.
Things I noticed; 11 and 12 were noticeably leaner with more silken tannins and better balanced alcohols, guess this is symptomatic of the vintages following the cessation of drought.

As for the Mornington wines, the Paringa samples were lovely but lacked the focus of the Yarra single vineyard ones, though the 11 (coolest year) was a very appealing shy prettiness. The 10X seemed to exemplify the cooler up the hill sites perfectly, especially the 12 and 11. The 12 in particular showing a beautiful aromatic herbaceousness. The Crittenden wines, from a Northern down the hill site were noticeably more muscular, much more whole bunch and a lot darker in colour. Oddly I loved the 09, from the vintage with all the bush fires in the Yarra (hot as hell) it showed a shameless opulence of soft fruit and perfume, not the best of the selection but hard not to love.

Finally we got a little sample of the Crittenden cri de coeur 2013, 100% whole bunch. Filthy tasty, all stalky green edges along with dark ripe fruit. Over the top, but in such an appealing way, it reminded me of the way that some natural wines flirt with shittiness just to the point where it's great and complex and earthy but just stopping before it becomes an issue. Not for everyone, but damn it I loved it.

A superb way to spend an afternoon reminding myself of why I'm partial to Australian Pinot.

Post tasting quick and dirty hummus recipe.

Take a jar of chick peas, wash throughly and pop in the food processor, add 3 large cloves of garlic and about a large table spoon of tahini (you've got a jar sitting in the fridge right?), a generous pinch (about a teaspoon's worth in my house) and blitz. Drizzle in quite a lot of olive oil until it looks nice and creamy. Drizzle with more olive oil then chop some coriander onto it, sprinkle with paprika and eat with torn bits of the flat bread you bought at the shop after you got off the bus. Should take about 3 minutes to sort out and will leave you with plenty for lunch/breakfast etc the net day.

Oh and I thoroughly amused myself on the bus back by listening to L7 Bricks are heavy.

Oh and I was a bit surprised at how evolved a lot of the wines were colour wise.

Saturday, 7 February 2015

The thrill of the familiar

Some of you who know me may know that the last year or so have been spent throwing myself at the rock face that is Peckham Bazaar. Part of this has been an almost complete immersion in the wines of the Eastern Mediterranean (of which more to come). However it's taking a step back when you realise quite how much you love other things.

Marcel Lapierre. One of the gang of five, an acolyte of Jules Chauvet. If not quite the key stone then one of the pieces of the arch that stands beneath almost everything I love about French wine. Sadly I never met Marcel, I did meet his wife and son at le dive bouteille a few years back, I think I babbled at them for a few minutes before I was dragged away. In my defence I was flirting with hypothermia due to the intense snowy cold. Needless to say I've been a fan of Lapierre's wines for many years now, probably dating back to the days when I used to sell bucket loads of his Chateau Cambon by the glass at le Bouchon Breton.

As I was in Brixton I popped into Market Row wines where they had Lapierre's Beaujolais Nouveau 2014 two for twenty quid. I couldn't really pass on that.

Maybe I was just feeling a bit emotional but the first sip was like diving into a pool of happy recollections. Slightly vegetal, chewy cherries, some bramble fruit. Structure that just makes you want to drink more, a back ground funkiness that's flirting around the line of noticeability and ends up just adding a savoury complexity. Like the vinous red rag to a bull, it just pulls you back, daring you to try and put your finger on exactly what it is that you appreciate quite so much. And oh, god it tastes like so many evenings enjoying Lapierre, Metras, Lapalou, Foillard, the rush of recollection, the thrill of the familiar.

Monday, 12 January 2015

Corner shop blending masterclass 2.0

Round two, this is where shit starts to get real.

By shit I'm obviously referring to Jacob's Creek 'Classic' Merlot 2013, and by real I'm referring to it getting into my glass.

I've got ahead of myself, the rationale was fucking on point, the reasoning was spot on. Baroncini, Chianti Riserva 2011 (apparently 100% Sangiovese, though this was something I read on the internet so I'm pinching salt), cheap dirty Chianti, matched with a nice and ripe Aussie Merlot. The only way I could have been more positive about the sheer logic of my blending decision would have been to add a third of Poppers to the blend.

I figured, flabby, overly fruity Merlot, vegetal and tart Sangiovese, a blend matched by the more internationally orientated Super-Tuscan winemakers. How could I possibly go wrong.


Baroncini, Chianti Riserva 2011. We're a bit beyond wicker baskets, but not all that far. Lifted orange peel, bitter cherries, something unpleasantly metallic about the tannins on the palate, possibly a wink of meatiness just as it's slinking out the back entrance. Poor.

Jacob's Creek 'Classic' Merlot 2013. As I've already implied, I had high hopes for this combination. However those hopes were dashed, dashed like an ill prepared ship against the rocks. I wasn't so much tasting the wine as mourning the poor conscripted sailors, salt water filling their lungs, the sharp coastal rocks smashing their skulls. Their dreams passing, drowned, just like my hopes for a second week of blending magic.
A sort of fizzy pop bramble fake fruit nose, this barely tastes alcoholic. A simulacrum of wine, it reminds me of the the paintings and carvings of pineapples you find in old churches that were made by people who'd only ever heard of them. Similar but oh so different. On the palate it's as if the wine knows how poor it is as it disappears, vanishing in an embarrassed flash.

Well onto the evenings blending. I started with a straight 50:50 and you know what it pointed towards a better wine, I could see how a plusher Merlot would have worked a treat, it'd have been like the austere priest straight out of seminary college putting on love handles as he settles down to village life. It wasn't though. The Jacob's Creek was so thin and unprepossessing that it just added nothing, maybe it diluted the Chianti a bit, shit I'm clutching at straws here.

Result. I've given up, I'm cooking with the Jacob's Creek and saving the rest of the Chianti for when I've got something better to ameliorate it with.

Sunday, 11 January 2015

Enira or the benefits of cellaring

I'm not the greatest when it comes to placing events correctly in my own personal timeline. I tend to joke that there's been too much wine under the bridge for me to be expected to remember exactly where and when things actually took place. Really, I think I'm just not that great an observer, I tend to enjoy the moment and move on, I think it's the same reason why I'm a terrible photographer, I just don't observe things in that sort of way.
Digression aside, I opened a bottle of 2005 Enira, Stephan Von Niepperg's Bessa Valley, Bulgarian red. It'd been relaxing in my cellar for probably the last five or six years, though to be honest I can't for the life of me remember when I bought it. I can remember where, Caversham Waitrose, it was £15 or £16ish a bottle but on some sort of discount 20% off if one bought 6 or more. I think I bought 6. As always with wines that have aged well, I'm raging that I didn't buy 12 (or 24). Anyway, at the time I knew the mighty Stephan Von Niepperg, the man single handedly rescuing the reputation of cravats and pristinely matched tweed suits. I'm kidding, Clos de L'Oratoire, D'Aguilhue, all the right bank goodness, a bit modern in style but never too garagiste. So seeing a bundle of the man's Bulgarian kit on deal I pounced.
So Enira is resolutely non Bulgarian in its blend, Bordelais varieties, if memory serves a little bit of Syrah, it's firmly Thracian a little way to the East of Plovdiv (Plovdiv, a playground insult if ever there was one) and has classic clay on limestone terroir (or Argilo-Calcaire if you're trying to chat up a French enologiste).
Moving on from recollections and digressions (shit I googled) pertaining to the region etc, the wine itself was showing pretty darn well, sweet clove-spiced jammy fruit, liquorice, beautifully sexy oak integration, a touch of liquorice tinted red fruit. A sort of liquid black forest gateau by way of a Damascene spice market. Being picky it was a touch hot, possibly the 14.5% showed a bit too obviously, but I'm not going to hold it against the wine. Incidentally I remember the early bottles as showing all sorts of dark inkiness and black olive notes married with a fullsome but supple palate.
Anyway, it's a timely reminder of the benefits of cellaring. Now I just need to find the cash to buy a couple of cases of the Zagreus Vinica... Fucking cash flow issues*

*alluded to in the previous post

Thursday, 8 January 2015

Method and Metaphor: A Special Sort of Pickle

CAT RIDING A NARWHAL (specially for Kerstin xx)

What is biodynamics? Over the last ten years or so, anyone with more than a passing interest in wine will have come across wines made from grapes farmed in accordance with Rudolph Steiner’s biodynamic agricultural principles. Delve a little deeper than the standard ‘more than organic' description, and you uncover a bafflingly esoteric world of lunar calendars, homeopathic dilutions of herbal teas, buried horns filled with manure, cosmic energy waves and, in some cases, the etheric Jesus on a journey through the varying levels of the earth and back. What is a rational, educated person to make of all this? A look at the creator of the theory goes some way to providing an answer. 

Rudolph Steiner was born in 1861 to educated parents in modern-day Croatia, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. This was a period of enormous upheaval, with new technologies and industrialization sweeping the population off the land and into the cities. In a relatively short period of time, central Europe witnessed the near-dissolution of the rural peasantry and the creation of an urban proletariat. Steiner, growing up amidst this maelstrom, was a talented student and quite conventional in many ways but he was also convinced that he was clairvoyant. His belief that he could commune with spirits and speak with the dead blossomed into a firmly-held belief that there was a deeper, unseen spiritual world underlying this one. 

Steiner took this curious brew of ideas to the Technical College in Vienna where he also found the time to attend lectures at the main university, providing himself with an introduction to philosophy, literature, medicine and psychology. He struck up a friendship with Felix Kogutski, who became Steiner’s muse and the inspiration behind his theory of biodynamics. Kogutski was a licensed herb-gatherer and, in Steiner's eyes, had a deep spiritual connection with the earth. 

Later in his life, Steiner was to describe how he had sought a philosophy that would touch on and embrace all aspects of peasant life: this was to be one of the central tenants of his concept of biodynamics. The other would emerge from the academic work of his formative years.

Steiner was a renowned scholar of Goethe, and began working on and editing the scientific papers of the German author. Goethe, while most famous for his literature and poetry, had maintained an active interest in science, pursuing detailed studies on the metamorphosis of plants. Goethe’s approach to biological science was holistic: he believed that the standard reductionist approach failed to take into account the complexity of interdependent interactions present in ecosystems.  Goethe spent many springs and summers walking in the Hochwald, studying plants, and looking for what he termed the ‘ur’ plant — the plant that would possess elements of all other plants within its form. He gradually came to realize that this plant couldn’t exist but rather that each plant represented both a whole in itself and an element of the greater whole. His final treatise on the subject is a beguilingly poetic piece of work that demonstrates a profound understanding of how plants grow. Steiner seems to have taken from Goethe the idea that a farm is a system of such complexity that a full understanding of its workings is never possible, but is something to be striven towards; that by constantly observing and trying to open oneself up to the subtleties of the natural world, a spiritual understanding can be reached. 

So, in Steiner we have an esoteric clairvoyant philosopher who has studied science, yet still feels a deep connection with the peasant traditions of the past: an interesting mix, I’m sure you’ll agree. It was late in life that Steiner was asked to deliver his lectures on agriculture. He looked back to the peasant lore that he had long held dear, and arranged it according to a system that owed much to Goethe’s approach to explaining the natural world. He brought this all together by drawing on his polytheistic spiritual beliefs — and so biodynamics was born.

What relevance does this have to modern agriculture, and why in God’s name are so many top winemakers adopting biodynamic practices? Firstly, the prevailing, reductionist understanding of agricultural ecosystems has caused an enormous number of problems. The discovery that potassium, nitrogen and phosphorus are the key nutrients for plant growth led to the development of chemical fertilisers. This, in turn, led to a need for more irrigation — a bit like the way you get thirsty after eating lots of salty crisps — and thus to overgrown plants which, like bloated teenagers full of fast food and fizzy drinks, are more susceptible to pests and diseases (the pursuit of ever-larger monocultures did nothing to assuage the pest issue) and so pesticides and fungicides became a necessity. It didn’t take long before farmers were being told that to successfully cultivate the crops which had been grown in their region for hundreds of years, they needed to purchase a veritable pharmacy of expensive agrochemicals. Understandably, this caused many farmers to wonder about the alternatives. Nicolas Joly, a winemaker in the Loire Valley, is a prime example. He  first encountered biodynamics in the 1970s and subsequently embraced its principles on his family’s Savenni√®res estate, Clos de la Coul√©e de la Serrant. He is now one of the world’s foremost advocates of biodynamics and has inspired many other winemakers to follow suit. “In biodynamics we are connecting the vine to the frequencies it needs: like tuning a radio, we are tuning the plant to the frequencies that bring it life. Organics permits nature to do its job; biodynamics permit it to do its job more. It is very simple.

Biodynamic practices can seem mystical and magical but in fact there is often a rational explanation. One of the most mocked practices is the burying of cow's manure in a fresh cow's horn over the winter months, supposedly while the earth is inhaling energy from the cosmos. It sounds less silly when you view it as burying manure in a partially permeable silica container over the cooler half of the year, allowing very slow bacterial decomposition and leaving stable and highly useable concentrated compost. Taking said compost and diluting it to homeopathic levels while stirring a certain number of times anticlockwise so as to energize the water before the preparation is used also seems to be verging on the batty. However, when making compost teas it’s important to ensure the water is hyper-oxygenated, as the anaerobic bacteria that can otherwise proliferate are pathogenic. The biodynamic focus on maintaining a high level of biodiversity in and around the vines does, in fact, lead to a much healthier vineyard. And the lunar planting calendar, while suffused with astrological nonsense, does make a degree of sense when you realise that a peasant would have put the rhythms of the earth at the centre of their routine. Indeed, all else would have been fitted in around these natural cycles. The lunar calendar, then, is a neat corrective to the desire to make the vineyard or farm follow modern human demands and routines.

I’m not going to pretend that I have exhaustively justified every practice advocated by Steiner, but there are enough that stand up to scrutiny to persuade me that the others may well do the same. Even if they’re not genuinely effective, at least they’re almost certainly harmless — something that can't be said about many conventional chemical practices. All things considered, the biodynamic method is one of the best currently available ways to look after a plot of land. 

There is an old Chinese proverb that states that the best fertilizer is the gardener’s shadow. It comes as no surprise to me that among my friends, it's the biodynamic growers - who know their vineyards inside out, and who speak of each vine as if it’s a member of their extended family - that make some of the very best wines I know.