Thursday, 30 October 2014

More Fish Fingers

So I'm reading through PK's most recent post and it occurs to me that even by PK's standards it is so flagrantly deficient in its reasoning, I must say something in reply. Which is

1) The traditional accompaniment (to use a PK term) for fish fingers and tinned baked beans never was water, but is instead a cup of tea and a slice, and quiet cig. Also a copy of the Daily Mirror to hand, or a half-completed pools coupon. A light ale is okay if that's the way things are going. The Breakfast of Champions, whatever the time of day, and nothing to stop him treating himself to exactly that. But

2) If you really really want to drink wine, then why not? You can drink wine with just about anything if you try hard enough. Cornflakes would be pushing it, and I don't think you can chew gum and drink wine at the same time, although I'm agnostic on that one. But fish fingers? What about a nice cool Loire red of some sort? Or a Beaujolais, ditto? Indeed, some thoughtful readers came up with their own suggestions, including a chenin blanc or a Valpolicella. I could go for any of those.

3) On the other hand - I know for a fact that there are at least four respectable food shops immediately outside PK's front door. There is nothing to stop him putting the fingers'n'beanz back into storage, nipping out for ten minutes and coming back with a chicken leg, a bag of salad and a nice bit of bread. Grill the chicken, do up the salad how you like it, open whatever bottle of non-confrontational wine you fancy, then, half an hour later, round the meal off with a fresh espresso (yes, he's got a classic espresso machine in the kitchen, and it works) and voilà! A brasserie-style meal such you might get anywhere in provincial France and you don't even have to leave a tip. Come on PK! It's not as if Mrs. K has abandoned you, trembling and defenceless and unable to shape your own dinner destiny. Cruel fate has not decided to stand between you and a proper drink, cramming your cheeks in the meantime with fatty, sugary, pap. You are capable of looking after yourself, except -

4) You don't really want to. This is the real thing: if you are prepared to fill your mouth with cheap and horrible beanz'n'fish fingers, which you clearly are, why aren't you prepared to drink an equivalently cheap and horrible wine? There is no inner consistency. Your standards went out of the window the moment you voluntarily stuck the fish fingers under the grill, and so did any reason to complain. But no, the unstillable voice of the wine snob must make itself heard, and, as we all know, one of the great pleasures of snobbery is that it's rationally indefensible, that it actually makes life more, rather than less, difficult. The idea must prevail in your understanding of the world, rightly or wrongly, that wine is in a different class from all other foods and drinks; that it axiomatically deserves reverence; that it can only be seen in the company of proper food. Fatal! Wine is just another commodity, like potatoes or mince (that's the everyday meat people buy, they do it every day). There is plenty of good wine about, but there's a tonne more which is very ho-hum, and (I'm guessing, I'll level with you) an even larger amount which is only just drinkable, although God knows, it gets drunk. Wine is an alcoholic drink made from fermented grape juice which can be obtained in fancy, look-at-me bottles, unmarked plastic containers, and everything in between. That's all. And the more that wine snobs beat us about the head with the idea that we're betraying ourselves and the rest of wine-drinking mankind every time we blithely snap the cap on a bottle of who-cares cornershop white to go with our fish fingers, the more incensed I get. It's just stuff. Claiming that it isn't, that it's categorically different, only sets us further back on the path to understanding.

5) Any more ranting and I will start to sound like one of the many zealots at whom I rant. This is how international crises start. So it's time to say:


Thursday, 23 October 2014

When wine just isn't right...

I’ve made my feelings clear in the past about the notion of everyday wine. (“Everyday wine? You don’t get people selling everyday meat...”) I retain, in the face of  growing evidence, a notion that wine is somehow special, and not just a commodity. And so surely, if you have any modicum of respect for wine, there are some meals from which you should excuse its presence?

I suppose you could argue that last Friday’s was not, in fact, an everyday meal. That it was significantly below that benchmark. If fish fingers and baked beans was actually my everyday meal, I suspect I would be suffering the unwelcome largesse of one of Jamie Oliver’s training courses. No, this was not so much an everyday meal as a desperate meal, an end-of-week, last-minute, empty fridge meal. Unfortunately, Casa K appears to lack the “larder” of the Nigels and Nigellas of this world, whose kitchen cupboard doors seem to open into a neighbouring delicatessen.

And the issue is, when you’re reduced to such basic sustenance as fish fingers and baked beans, is it right to open a bottle of wine to go with it?

This is not like pairing wine with fresh cod. I suppose somewhere there may be gourmet fish fingers, or bâtonnets de poisson, no doubt, which do taste of cod and not of shredded paper. Similarly, there will be people out there who bake their own beans. But we are talking here about frozen fish fingers, and baked beanz from tinz. Would a glass of wine improve, or even numb, this sorry experience? 

Out of interest, I looked at the suggestions of Fiona Beckett, a very reliable recommender of both wine and restaurants, on, “the most comprehensive food and drink pairing resource on the web.” And her suggestion was… Krug. Yes, that’s the Champagne, Krug, the one which Tesco list, in what I assume is not an accounting error, for £129.99 a bottle, with an admonishment to “Bring out the oysters with this one.” Not, I note, the fish fingers. 

Not that I have got a bottle of Krug in my cellar; but even if I came up the stairs with an ‘ordinary’ bottle of Champagne, I don’t know what Mrs K would think. I can, however, imagine the scorn which would ensue when it emerged that this was my proposed accompaniment and, no, we had not won the lottery.

I don’t believe that a decent wine could possibly be enhanced by fish fingers, or for that matter baked beans, or particularly by the dollop of vinegary HP sauce which is a required accompaniment to the two. The food could only detract from the pleasure I might have got from the wine itself.

And there is surely even less point in heaping some rubbish wine upon my rubbish food, in a kind of dual assault on my palate. I’m sure that down there, in the three-for-£10 category, there will be a wine that can counter the blandness of the fingers and the sugariness of the beans, with the acidity to compete with the HP sauce. And perhaps after we’ve eaten, we could use the rest to remove Mrs K’s nail polish. 

No thanks. I decided to pair this meal with…water. 

I know, I know, I’ve seen it in a dozen old Italian restaurants; “A day without wine is a day without sunshine”, an aphorism which seems particularly fatuous after dark. I prefer the observation by Adam Gopnik that “A meal with water is a meal for prisoners”. Which seemed particularly appropriate for the basic rations last Friday here in Cell Block K.

But we all eat rubbish meals on occasion. Don’t tell me that at your place it’s always seared this and a tagine of that and Ottolenghi recipes as long as your loo-roll. And when you’re eating fish fingers, or baked beans, or pizza straight from its cardboard box, surely drinking wine with it is as ridiculous as laying the white table linen and silverware. Some of us don’t want wine to become a commodity, like salt or paper napkins, an unremarked accompaniment to each and every meal whatever it might be. And perhaps the solution to that is to forgo it once in a while, on those rare occasions when the food doesn’t actually deserve wine. 

Plus, you appreciate it more on the following night. Abstinence does make the heart grow fonder.


Thursday, 16 October 2014

French Excess: Gerard Depardieu

So PK is badgering me about this story which appeared in The Daily Mail - to the effect that legendary French actor Gérard Depardieu routinely knocks off fourteen bottles of wine a day, plus extras: in effect, champagne for breakfast and elevenses, followed by some red wine, then more champagne along with a couple of anisettes to ring the changes, more wine at lunch, some beer in the afternoon, a few more anisettes, some more wine - red, or maybe rosé - and, to round off the day, spirits - whisky, vodka, perhaps both. 'I can't drink like a normal person,' he claimed litotically in an interview with So Film, adding that the way to handle things if they get a bit out of order is: 'A ten-minute nap and voilà, a slurp of rosé wine and I feel as fresh as a daisy.'

This, not long after a recent in-flight toilet catastrophe, in the course of which M. Depardieu peed over the floor of an Air France plane, unable to keep everything in for the fifteen minutes during which the toilets were locked for takeoff. 'Je veux pisser, je veux pisser,' he was reported to cry out in his distress. It took two hours to clean the plane up.

'All right,' PK says in what he imagines to be a persuasive tone, 'why don't you try the Depardieu routine for a day? Just to see what it's like?'
'What? Fourteen bottles?'
'It would be interesting, wouldn't it?'
I know I am the de facto crash test dummy for Sediment, but even I can see that this suggestion is ludicrous.
'It's ludicrous,' I say.
'What if you just had fourteen glasses instead of bottles?'
'Then I'd be pissed, that's all.'

PK gives me a look of sorrowing reproach, but I mean, really. In fact, the more I think about Depardieu's claims, the more I reckon they must be intended not as a genuine lifestyle statement, but as satire. Yes, Gérard's a big lad in all directions, and has survived heart surgery and a motorbike crash (he was drunk at the time), and is as tough as pavement gum, but this much booze would kill anyone, if not on day one, at least by day seven, even Depardieu.

No, it looks more like a semi-calculated insult directed at the French, whose society he has spurned on account of not wanting to pay the income tax. Now a citizen of lawless, hard-drinking Russia, he is free to have as many snorts as he likes and critique what he deems to be prissy French moderation. Because that's one of those French conundrums: for a nation which is supposed to consume quite a lot, the French don't actually drink that much, or if they do, they don't drink it that fast. When we were sponging off our French friends and acquaintances last summer, the wine was certainly there, as were all the tiresome apéros and sometimes the digestifs, but with nothing like the profligacy I associate with eating and drinking in England. I don't think I'm betraying any secrets if I say that when someone has a meal at our house it's an excuse for a) a tonne of fatty food b) litres of drink to dissolve it. And I am not alone.

But in France they are more civilised, and make their drinks last, to the extent that one bottle of wine was deemed enough for five people - five - on one occasion. (I would also note, parenthetically and ungraciously, that our hostess on this occasion was also a rabidly assertive Parisienne who assured us that not only was it impossible to get decent bread outside Paris - we were in Provence at the time - but that the British were the mauvais élèves, her words, of the EU, with our subsidy-grabbing and rule-flouting, and that we should quit at once and leave the project to the original six. Oh, and her daughter swore blind, having looked it up on her smartphone, that only 0.1% of the French working population was employed by the state. Seriously).

Everywhere you turn, in fact, the French appear to be consuming less, drinking mineral water at their desks, not even loading up on brandies and calavados in the deep countryside before starting half a day's highly-subsidised labour, not even there. It wasn't that long ago - no more than a few years - that I was in a fantastic old-school restaurant on the Rive Gauche, where a party of middle-aged blokes, they must have been profs from the Sorbonne - tweed coats, specs, frizzy grey hair, noisy abstractions - did stupendous justice to a three-hour weekday lunch, and were still doing justice to it as I left. But no more, it seems, or possibly yes, more, if you're a university don, but otherwise, no.

At any rate, I take it to be this new dispensation which Depardieu is attacking with his surreal claim about fourteen bottles. And in this sense, I am behind him all the way. If France is not emblematic of indulgence, of highly-refined excess, what is it emblematic of? What's its point? There would be no point to France, apart from the scenery. Non! Depardieu's on-the-face-of-it insane boast is actually a lament, a sublimated threnody for a vanishing culture. It is an intervention, a plea on behalf of us all, for the soul of his native land, delivered by a 180-kilo alcoholic millionaire who nearly shorted out an Air France jet with his own pee. Salut!


Thursday, 9 October 2014

Investing in wine – without money

The other day, some chap asked CJ and me what we thought about investing in wine. I mean, for goodness’ sake. Why on earth ask us? You might as well ask us about investing in pork bellies, because we happen to eat sausages. 

Still, there is a sense in which we all ‘invest’ money in wine, as we do in anything we buy. You ‘invest’ in a can of baked beans – although, unless you’re CJ, probably quite a bit less than you invest in a bottle of wine. If I remember my Economics A-Level, we all consider the opportunity cost of buying something else instead, and weigh up the value, the cost/reward ratio, of the wine we buy. All of which sounds like investment to me.

And it struck me that actually, I invest a great deal in my wine. Not in terms of money, but in other, more personal ways.

Ego, for example. Every time I serve a wine to guests, every time I choose a wine in a restaurant, every time I pluck a wine from a shelf under the beady eye of a wine merchant, I feel that my standing is on the line. Rightly or wrongly, I feel I will be judged by my selection; I’m investing my knowledge, my experience and my financial acumen in a choice of wine. And I feel proud when I get it right. That’s a much more emotional investment than money.

Then there is time, the most valuable commodity of all nowadays, or so I believe we are being told by people I haven’t got time to read. 

Standing in front of the shelves of wine, staring at the dozens of alternatives, is like Indiana Jones trying to choose the true Grail.

Oh, the time spent, wondering what on earth to buy, whether that one is worth it, and who on earth thought that was an attractive label? Is that the one I read about last week, or is it that one? Can that one possibly be worth it? Trying to remember what you’re buying it for, what are you eating, who’s coming, and is Gruner Veltliner a wine or a cruise ship? Time ticks away, marked only by the increasingly impatient noises from the chap behind the counter. You can easily invest half an hour of your valuable time in all of this, or until they call security.

And that’s not to include in shopping time the piles of mailings which come through the door, and e-mails which come through the ether, which eat up time with their offers and announcements. Or the subsequent comparative shopping online, juggling the price with the minimum purchase with the delivery charge…“Ridiculous the waste sad time”.

Far greater than the shopping time can, of course, be the storage time invested in a bottle. I am storing a number of cases of wine which, for the sake of marital harmony, I shall define as few. My cellar is nothing like the sophisticated storage of true investment wines, in which cases are bought and sold without ever being seen, let alone handled or drunk, by their nominal owners. No, my cellar is not a bonded, temperature-controlled warehouse. Retrieval from sophisticated warehouse storage does not incorporate the risk of tripping over my toolbox. And my cellar is no more ‘secure’ than the rest of our house, although because I happen to know they’re a bugger just to get down there, good luck to any burglar who wants to carry a wooden case of wine up our cellar stairs in the dead of night. 

Mrs K imagines the space invested in wine could perhaps be occupied by other household essentials. I, too, regret the inability to store more half-used tins of paint. 

But I look at my bottles of 1983 Port, my 1989 claret, my unopened cases of 2009 Bordeaux, and see the years invested in waiting for their maturity. Time well spent.

And at the end is that most emotional investment in wine – expectation. Am I the only one who feels something between excitement and anxiety at opening a bottle? One that I’ve finally decided to bring out of my cellar. Or a bottle I’ve bought specially, or someone else has provided. Or perhaps I’m looking at the label in the hands of a wine waiter. Or sometimes I’m just reading the tasting notes in a merchant’s list before I buy. 

Anticipating the flavour, trying to imagine it; then going through the rituals of opening the bottle, sniffing it, perhaps even decanting it, before actually tasting the wine. Will it live up to all the great expectations I’ve invested in it? 

Time, space, self-esteem, hope, delight and pride, all invested in the pulling of a cork. Emotional investments can disappoint as well as delight, and past performance is no guarantee of future returns, etc. But I would rather open a bottle of wine than a trading position.

And at least my investment might provide pleasure as it goes down.


Thursday, 2 October 2014

Filthy Port

So I'm talking to this bloke who reveals that he once owned a cottage deep in the English countryside, and that a previous owner of this same cottage was reputed to open a new bottle of port at the end of every day, consume half its contents for supper, before leaving the now half-empty bottle on the doorstep overnight. When he came down again in the morning, it would be to find that the bottle had been topped up to the brim with fresh cow's milk, delivered by the cowherd? Dairyman? At any rate, a man with access to fresh milk - and this port'n'milk mix was the erstwhile cottage-dweller's daily breakfast.

Absolutely true, this bloke (whom, it must be noted, I have never met before in my life) swears as much. And I want to believe in the port'n'milk breakfast concoction so badly that I go home and try it out. Apprehensively, of course, not wanting another Queen Victoria's Tipple near-death sensation, yet emboldened by a desire to screw around with some port, a drink I can now barely tolerate at any level, especially in the context of PK's crazed reverence for the stuff, his fantasy that we routinely dine at the High Table of Magdalen College, Oxford, killing bottle after bottle of the '63 Graham's. So I fish out some elderly and mainly ignored Ruby Port that we use for cooking, plus a bottle of milk. Half a small glassful of each mixed together, and my breakfast is good to go.

Drinkable? Well, yes, oddly enough, in a blackcurrant and raspberry yoghurt/smoothie kind of way. It's thick, unctuous, sweet, with an unexpectedly generous barf of alcohol at the finish. Kids would love it. Obviously, I can't get through more than a couple of sips before questioning my own sanity, and how anyone ever knocked off a bottleful at seven in the morning is beyond comprehension. But still. I gaze at it, watching the curds and whey separate out in drifting flocculence like a mackerel sky. Is that the acidity in the port prompting the change? How acidic is our port, now I think of it? Has it, effectively, become a sweetish vinegar?

Who cares? Port is there to be interfered with. 

All right, then. How many ways are there, to adulterate and denature port? Apart from this slightly kinky milkshake? After all, port abuse has been going on for years, all over Great Britain. Port & lemon used to be the Old Lady's Favourite; someone told me that you could mix port & Coke (really? Two undrinkable drinks in one? Really?); no. 2 son assures me that a Cheeky Vimto can be cobbled together from port and Blue Wkd; there are endless appalling cocktail recipes that call for port, I can't begin to describe them, although a Hangman's Blood, containing beer, port, rum, gin, champagne, just about anything, was a favourite of the late Anthony Burgess - novelist, polymath and world-class alcoholic - and sounds uncannily like a suicide note you can drink, I mean, you've got to respect it for that alone -

- And then it occurs to me, increasingly queasily, that port could provide the USP for a new kind of bar, a genuinely British-themed port cocktail/tapas nightmare: in which the punters sit around on old G-Plan furniture; relax beneath discreetly shaded fluorescent lights; drink from NHS toothmugs; and are surrounded by Union Jacks, redundant Photofits on loan from the Metropolitan Police, messages from the now-defunct UK Border Agency ('Go Home Or Face Arrest') and tea-bag advertisements.

The port-based beverages being dished out from behind the bar (made of surplus catering kit from Sellafield, ideally) take care of themselves, but the uniquely British tapas? A few possibilities float through my consciousness:

Pieces of fried egg
Miniature fish fingers
Pork pie segments
Baked beans
Chicken McNuggets
Digestive biscuits
Cheese footballs
Hand-selected peanuts

At which point I start to feel positively ill: the port'n'milk slurry clearly reminding me that there can only be one winner in drinking trials of this kind: the drink itself. Forget everything I just said about the port-themed tapas bar. No-one should have to consume this stuff, adulterated or otherwise. It is simply wrong.

I am now going to lie down. Goodnight, everybody.