Tuesday, 28 September 2010
Wednesday, 22 September 2010
Friends are arriving tomorrow at which point we will all decamp to a rented houses somewhere and I'm sure a small amount of food will be eaten, followed by the odd glass of wine..
Sunday, 19 September 2010
Wednesday, 15 September 2010
Tuesday, 14 September 2010
I occasionally feel that a nice bowl of consomme does a similar thing at the start of a meal. Made well it can be a kind of thrifty starter, of course if you're going for a real fine dining approach to consomme it can be made with fine meats, but a stock with a bit of extra mirepoix can go a very long way. A little bit of basic clarification leaves you with something quite beautiful, just off clear, with a little sheen of the fats still present just begging to coat your palette and get you ready for dinner.
As starters go it has several great benefits, it's not too filling, so you can usually manage a couple of other courses afterwards. But secondly it's beautiful limpidity means that you can garnish it with all sorts of baby veg which will float appealingly beneath the pale surface. Here in Hungary they're quite fond of cracking a quail egg into it just before service, meaning that it poaches ever so slowly as you eat the soup. Tempting you with it's creamy yolk and ghostly white.
Of course, it's not the most vegetarian of options, but I'm sure a rich vegetarian stock could quite easily be prepared with simple agar clarification, which would please most.
Unfortunately I've found that guests in restaurants where I work often look upon consommes as being a bit of a cop out, too liquid and watery to justify the price of the dish and not dazzling enough in terms of obvious technique (regardless of how much skill goes into their preparation). Which is a shame because I really like them a starter.
Oddly when you look at them they're not so far from the broth base of dishes like Vietnamese Pho which is super fashionable at the moment..... what price tradition? I'd certainly always prefer a good consomme to any amount of foam or excess reduction.
They grow a thick layer of subcutaneous fat which, rather like blubber, helps to keep them warm during the tough central eastern European winters, meaning that they can survive the whole year outside, perfect for small holders in times gone by.
Apparently they're very docile, and can become accustomed to human contact quite easily. On a far less serious note they look very cute.
So we have one more task on the list, track down some Mangalizas.....
Monday, 13 September 2010
Brill Palinka: http://www.brillpalinkahaz.hu/
The Hungarians quite like their Palinka, no, that's a bit too much of an understatement, the Hungarians love their Palinka. It's almost a national religion, though a pagan one at that, which about as many deities as I've had hot dinners, maybe more.
Anyway, it's a cold and very wet late afternoon at the Buda Castle wine festival, I'm sat with Adrienne from www.vinoport.hu and Marta from Pendits, we've all got bright green fleece rugs over our legs and frankly everyone's enthusiasm is waning. Then Adrienne makes a suggestion, Palinka, just what we need to warm cockles and generally put a happy glow on our faces, and then to go one better, the intruiging prospect of Asparagus Palinka...
Brill, the name sort of suggests what I though of them, though obviously they hadn't realised that it was a common shortened version of brilliant in the UK.
They're based in a town called Hardt in the south of the country near to the wine region Szeksard, where I'm informed that the climate is so Mediterranean that they get cicadas in the evenings. They're family owned and frankly I think they're a bit mad, but they do make good Palinka.
We started with an Irsai Oliver 09, one of the Hungarian indigenous grape varieties, this is similar in aromatics to Muscat and make pleasant low acid wines that need drinking in their first year or so. What Brill look for is extremely ripe or over ripe grapes, the acidity isn't important, but the aroma is. They harvest the grapes very carefully and then crush and distil. The resultant Palinka shows incredibly pure aromatics, very grapey, very floral and extremely clean on the palette.
They also make a Marc of the same variety, for this they purchased the grapes especially with the Marc in mind, apparently they made a wine out of the unneeded juice for friends and family, this might seem excessively devoted to quality, but it's the only way they can ensure they get the grape skins still with the essential 40% of juice remaining. The Marc shows similar aromatics, but much more complexity adding in waxy oily notes, and some lovely herbaceous characters.
Next up was a Marc of Cserszegi Fuszeres (yep that is close to impossible to spell) 07, this was aged in large format Cherry wood and Acacia barrels for 18 months. It was suggested that this would have been perfect with Indian food, given the high alcohol I'm not sure if I'd agree with matching it to Indian savouries, but with desserts it would be a treat. It was fabulously exotically spiced, with white pepper, camphor, clove and fresh lime flavours and an incredible smoothness on the palette, it managed to really hide it's alcohol. What made this most intriguing though was returning to the empty glass and watching how the aroma changed. After about a minute the most fabulous aromas of Bergamot and Earl Grey tea started to appear.
Elderberry 09 was powerful, oily and impressive, oddly coming across as stronger which we put down to weight of flavours it was packing.
Then for the teaser...... 3 tonnes of Asparagus, both white and green, due to the low sugar and high starch contents, they had to use an amylitic enzyme to make the sugars fermentable (similar to germinating barley grains for beer or whisky making), then after all the distillation, 35 litres remained. This was essence of Asparagus, slightly woody but very full flavoured and my word did it last on the palette.
Then to finish Bears Garlic http://www.uni-graz.at/~katzer/engl/Alli_urs.html , a herb I wasn't initially familiar with, but one smell took me right back to one of the herbal supplements we used to feel my horse, it's wild garlic and it has the most intriguingly earthy, garlicy, meaty nose. Apparently it's very trendy in German and Hungarian cooking at the moment and Brill decided to make a long maceration in apple Palinka to show off its flavour. Which they do very well. Though I'm not sure it'd be my go to Palinka to have after dinner it was certainly fascinating.
It's 4am, I'm sat drenched in sweat with my heart thumping on a stone step next to a nondescript green door. From inside, music is pounding and tendrils of steam seem to be curling out from the club within. Only hours earlier I'd been chatting with the head of the national bank. Yep this is a bit different to other wine festivals.
Back at the Vinoport after party, the cream of Hungary's young wine makers are dancing like a group possessed, shots of Palinka are doing the rounds and everyone is celebrating with relish, and celebrate they should, because Hungary is on the brink. Everywhere you look across the country there are wine makers who, 20 odd years from the fall of communism, are seeing the rewards of painstaking wholesale replanting of their vineyards, of dutifully relearning the nuances of their terroir, of casting aside the production techniques and methodologies that the previous generations had been forced to adopt. The era of the collective ended some time ago, and from those fertile ashes, we're seeing the age of the small wine grower start to blossom.
Almost every region has producers who are leading the way qualitatively, from Zoltan Heimann in Szeksard, Bolyki in Eger, Tornai in Somlo, and countless wineries in Tokaji. However what is frustrating is that the bodies that are supposed to be communicating this revolution to other markets like the UK seem to be intent on doing precious little. In the UK there was a generic Hungarian tasting the year before last. Confusingly for someone unfamiliar with the countries wines and regions, the wineries were arranged alphabetically around the room, making it very hard to taste like with like. Then due to disorganisation the tasting wasn't repeated last year. After forging quite close links with the Tokaji Renaissance organisation I hosted a tasting of their wines at my restaurant early on this year. Yet one of the biggest names in the group decided that they didn't need to be present and one of the smaller merchants who represents several of the wines, managed only to turn up on the day and hassle me (I was very busy putting the finishing touches to a couple of Tokaji and food masterclasses) for something to eat. Considering that I now have possibly more of his wines on my restaurant list than anywhere else in the capital I still havn't heard back from him.
When you talk to Hungarians about the way their wines seem to be presented abroad you tend to get a shrug and possibly a raised eyebrow or two. Which is a shame because there is a lovely sense of self-deprecating humour that runs through the trade, lots of fabulous personalities that would go a very long way to convincing anyone to list their wines (oh and did I mention that the wines aren't bad either).
I'm seeing slightly more press on their wines at the moment, though I know that a lot of it stems from the hard work being done by several devoted individuals, Cseke Gabor is one who deserves a mention here. But in a world where there are a lot of countries all fighting for the same slice of the wine buyers wallet, there are others that are being a lot more effective. Also quite a lot of the wineries that are making the most exciting wines are not exactly cheap, I understand that wine has a certain intrinsic cost and that a very patriotic domestic market keeps the prices quite high, but in the interests of spreading risk across a multitude of export markets along with the domestic one it would seem sensible to target some other countries. If only to garner the proper international repute that the wines deserve.
I'm quite certain that I don't have all the answers but I'm hoping that if I keep asking questions some will be forthcoming....
Tokaji is undoubtedly the best known of Hungary's wine regions, and it has also seen the most international investment and interest. The communist era was particularly painful for Tokaj, with well regarded vineyards on the steeper slopes being abandoned due to difficulties working them mechanically and the rest of the vineyards being adapted to 4 metre wide rows to accommodate the Soviet tractors. The communal farm units were producing wines of low quality designed to satisfy the eastern bloc markets and quality was a word that quietly lost and concept or meaning. The fall of communism allowed the more forward thinking members of the cooperatives to lay the foundations for a rebirth, people like Andras Bajo, who successfully transformed his cooperative into the Oremus winery, complete with the cream of the older vintages, and a desire to go back to what he believed Tokaji was before it had been so thoroughly debased. Hugh Johnson, the British wine writer corralled a group of investors to create the Royal Tokaji winery and AXA Millesimes, the wine branch of the French investment company arrived to create Disnoko, bringing with them the belief that Tokaji could be made in a different style. That it didn't have to be oxidised and nutty when young, that it could be fresh and extremely fruity at birth with the understanding, born of long experience in Sauternes, that the complex tertiary aromas of age would indeed arrive with age.
The ten years or so following the new wave of investment brought bitter arguments over what people though was the soul of Tokaji, long evenings were spent debating whether the Aszu berries should be macerated in must, in freshly made wine or wine of the previous vintage. All this while money kept on being poured in, and now a visit to Tokaj will find any number of dazzling high tech wineries. Patricius, currently heading the Renaissance group and financed entirely domestically, Beres, Alana, and Pajoz. But this wasn't to be the end of the changes.
Andras Bajo had envisaged Oremus as being like a Bordeaux Chateau, releasing a grand vin, followed by a decending ladder of second wines. However, due to the scattered nature of the Tokaj vineyards and the piecemeal ownership of land, the analogy that suits them best is of a Burgundian negotiant in the early 20th century and indeed the big boys do buy a lot of grapes, they couldn't do otherwise.
Back in Mad, Istvan Szepsy was working away, possessed of an inherent curiosity and a genius for wine making, he became the lightning rod around which progressive ideas fomented. The Mad boys as they became known were looking at the soils, thinking tirelessly about where they wanted their wines to be going. Wine makers such as Gabor Oroz and Samuel Tinon, both making small amounts of extremely high quality Aszus had found their feet and their niches. Up in Abaujaszanto Marto Wille-Baumkauff was tending to her beautiful hillside vines, initially going organic and then later fully biodynamic, her concept of Tokaji production was resolutely against the grain, minimal intervention with natural yeast and a definite aim of letting the terroir speak for iteslf.
What she was doing didn't go unnoticed and she is now a member of the Tokaji Bormivelok Tarsasaga (Tokaj company of wine producers, though in a very archaic agricultural sort of way, I guess it resonates if you're one of the 12 people who speak Hungarian outside of the country, but never the less it's very catchy, rolling off the tongue nice Szamorodni, or not). They were showing a selection of their dry wines at the wine festival. A large and detailed vineyard map showing all the crus set out their intentions. All their wines are single vineyard bottlings, and to anyone au fait with the more natural end of French wine making will make perfect sense.
Karadi-Berger, Palandor 08 – This is from a cru (Palandor) vineyard quite close to the town of Olaszliska, the terroir is decomposed slate and it shows a vibrant nose of slightly lifted (bit volatile) pears and ripe quince, the palette had a sort of electrified acidity with loads of pear fruit.
Bott, Csondos 08 – The Csondos cru is on the next hill side north and east of Palandor and has much more volcanic soil. The nose is very mineral with some apricot notes, on the palette there is a hint of something herbal, but this is all about the minerality.
Kiss Janos, Nagy Palant 08 – As if to emphasise how small scale some of these wines are, this is one of 1199 bottles produced, the cru is close to Bodrogkisfalud and has cold brown forest soils and rhyolitic tufa, a wild yeast ferment was folloowed by 18 months in large old oak, 12 of which were on the fine lees. A slighly stalky nose with bitter citrus accents led onto a rich and powerful palette, though I felt the alcohol was a bit evident.
Az Nektar Pince, Vioka 08 – This was one of two wines from Sátoraljaújhely (pronounced shat a rye you ee hay, for those that don't speak Magyar), a town in the northern part of the region just before the Slovakian boarder. The cru is one of the higher in Tokaj at 390 metres from sea level, again the soils are volcanic. This had a slightly lifted appley nose with some nice dill like herbal notes, a small amount of residual sugar gave the prominent acidity a little bit of padding. I though it was excellent.
Doragy, Elohegy 08 – A cru very close to the town of Tarcal, this had a lovely smoky, savoury almost salty nose, on the palette apple and pear fruits dominated, again excellent.
Erzsebet Pince, Zafir dulo 08 – This is from the cru next to Mezes-Maly (owned by Grof Degenfeld and Royal Tokaji who make a single vineyard Aszu from it), it's in between the towns of Tokaj and Mad. It's a blend of 66% FurmintThe wine was showing pear and white flowers, very fruity on the palette it finished with a nice leesy earthiness.
Tokaji Nobilis, Hars 08 – From the cru of Barakonyi dulo outside the village of Bodrogkeresztur. Tokaji Nobilis is the winery of Bardos Sarolta (surnames come first in Hungarian), who is the wife of Peter Molnar, president of Tokaji Renaissance and head of Patricius. The wine shows lovely honeyed white flowers with a steely mineral heart.
Kikelet, Lonyai dulo 09 – From just outside of Tarcal, this is a very fresh citrus dominated HVLU with apples, lime and some perfumed white pepper notes.
Az Nektar, Kacsard 09 – Again from the north of the region near Sátoraljaújhely this is slightly off dry and showed creamy pears, some floral notes and a nicely mineral finish.
Finally Pendits Dry Muscat from near to Abaujszanto. As mentioned earler Marta Wille-Baumfauff is one of the regions most interesting personalities, the first wine grower to be certified organic and now biodynamic, she passionately loves her vines and seems to be forever restless always looking for new ways to help the region and her fellow growers. Her Muscat is very different from the norm, always showing a sort of sweaty florality, but matched to a medium bodied palette with excellent length. What is so lovely about it is that if you taste the grapes, then the must followed by a couple of vintages, it is clear that there is a real consistency of flavour capture. Well worth seeking out.
For me this was a real eye opener of a tasting, showing that outside of the larger growers and houses there is a real groundswell of smaller producers who are making dry wines that really speak of the crus from whence they come. Sadly over a very wet weekend in Budapest it is clear that 2010 is going to be a terrible vintage, with growers telling me that mildew has ripped through the vineyards far faster than they can spray to combat it. Obviously for those that are organic this is even more of a problem. Yields will undoubtedly be very much down from previous years with some crus not producing anything. For the larger houses I doubt this will be a huge problem as many have large stocks of wine and good funding, but I fear greatly for the smaller growers as a year like this will no doubt put great strain on finances. Fingers crossed and they'll all survive, as it would be a tragedy if the hail of the early summer and the rain that has finished it damaged this beautiful flowering of individuality.
You know that friend who's just difficult over dinner, who complains that the youthful premier cru Chablis you've served is just too damn fruity, and that Rheingau Kabinett is frankly a bit flabby for his liking. Well don't worry, the answer you've been looking for is right here!
Sömlo. It's a minuscule region in the North West of Hungary, an isolated couple of volcanic hills that sit pretty much alone in an expanse of flat plain. Sömlo is pretty much entirely a white wine region (with one notable exception, which I'll come to later), and it's wines are characterised by a searingly direct minerality. Tasting the wines of Kalonics Karoly with their wine maker Karoly was an exercise in intellectual tasting. They don't really do opulence, in fact they don't really do anything other than just let their very low yields and careful stewardship of the terroir go straight into the bottle. They have plantings of the four main grape varietals Olaszriesling, Furmint, Harslevulu and Juhfark. We started with a mini vertical of the Olaszrisling, the 06 being restrained with a slightly leesy minerality, the bottle age had added a slight creaminess the to palette and there was a bitter almond finish that's quite characteristic of the varietal. The 08 was fresher with a slightly vegetal green bean and slatey nose and a slightly herbal green bean like character on the palette, again there was a core of minerally acidity that drove straight through the wine like an aggressive piece of crossing out. For the 09's they presented tree different barrel selections. Nor folk for following the crowd their three barrels are old 1000 litre Acacia wood that had been taken apart, the tartaric acid deposits scraped off and then re-toasted with increasing increments. However even the highest toast was quite low by others standards, as Karloy gnomically put it, “What are we looking at? God or his clothing?”. Szent Tomas Olasz 09 (oh and the barrels are all named after famous Hungarian kings, though obviously you spotted that straight away...) was giving very little, minerals, slate, the barest hint of something herbal, then a searingly mineral palette, like tasting a shadow play of slate and razors. The Bela III was my favourite of the three, the slightly higher toasting seemed to coax a degree of fruitiness from the wine, with notes of stone fruits and apricot, white flowers and fresh runner beans, whilst on the palette the minerally core was wrapped with a creaminess that mitigted the austerity of the terroir. A bit like listening to Chopin whilst reading Wittgenstein. Finally the Bela IV with the highest toasting, this confused me somewhat as the apricot fruit had me thinking of Furmint, but the salt caramel and white pepper threw me slightly. Again it showed the same steeliness of structure but with more fruit evident.
We then moved onto the Juhfarks, now I don't think that Juhfark is going to be a worldwide superstar of a varietal, but in Somlo it does have it's place, it's a wine that really shows off the poor volcanic soils. If that sounds like an euphemism for lean, acidic and devoid of fruit, then maybe, but they're certainly interesting. The 07 had a mineral and wet wool nose, with some sticky tangerine zest characters on the palette, the 08 was all about flintiness, with the fruit being a little curmudgeonly and refusing to come out. The 09, which hadn't long been bottled, was a little reductive, but still showing some slightly stalky mineral notes along with a fresh and orangy citrus peel character in the mouth.
The 09 Furmint, which again had just been bottled, was being truculent, but from having tasted previous vintages, I know that it tends to a very lean and mineral expression of the grape, with pear and quince characters rather than the riper stone fruits of the Tokaj wines.
Finally the Harslevulu's, these were the stars of the tasting. The 07 showing preserved lemon peel, wet stone, white flowers and a hint of pear, whilst the palette was a shock of powerful leesy minerals, rounded off with an incredible length, intensity and a finish of white flowers, bread and pears. The 09 (there was no 08 on show as someone had tasted it at the winery and bough the whole vintages production) was all lemon zest, Hawthorne flowers, and something almost akin to mint, then a supremely fresh minerality and a finish bursting with citrus peel.
The Kolonics Karoly wines might not be for everyone, certainly their high acidity and mineral like extract would put off someone looking for an amenable fruity white, however I found myself increasingly impressed by their determination to show off the soils of Somlo and the intellectual pleasure of working them out on the palette.
And I that's not enough you can have some juvenile tittering by making jokes about Kolonic irrigation.
Saturday, 11 September 2010
Arriving slightly late in the day at the house of Moncuit was slightly frustrating as they were one of houses that I was most looking forward to visiting. However lunch was at the Chateau de la Marquetterie with the garrulous Clovis Taittinger, and in my experience lunches are things that are best not planned too closely around.
Moncuit is in the village of Mesnil Sur Oger, which is Grand Cru and pretty much exclusively Chardonnay. The house is presided over by Nicole and Yves Moncuit, who we unfortunately didn't get the chance to meet (again, due to our tight scheduling and trying to get 3 extra visits into a short two day period). However we were very well looked after by a very cheery lady who took us through their wines and then on the obligatory tour of the cellars.
The house makes exclusively Blanc de Blanc which with the exception of the Huges de Coulmet are all Grand Cru.
Huges de Coulmet, this is from a single plot in the village of Cezannes which has particularly sandy soils, it's an NV and showed quite a simple nose of fresh green apples and just a touch of brioche.
The wines took a leap forward in quality when we moved onto the Grand Crus, Pierre-Moncuit Delos NV GC BdB, this showed a lovely mineral and floral nose, which opened up to show a vibrant minerally palette with notes of peach and stone fruit giving roundness.
Millesime 2004, this has been treated to five years of bottle ageing sur lie and it really shows. Again that same creamy mineral core, but this time it's swaddled with a panoply of creamy, toasty, caramel and yeasty bread flavours, on the palette the nose still shows but one also finds some toasted hazelnut characters too. This was serious champagne, direct, slightly restrained but very complete with it.
2002 Extra Brut, coming with only 3g per l dosage (compared to the usual 10) this was very direct but boasted some hints of mushroom, toasted wholemeal bread along with the shimmering mineral core.
The Moncuit rose is made by blending in Pinot Noir from Ambonnay, but this is still quite a small percentage so the wine remains predominantly Chardonnay. The nose was redolent of dusty white bloomers, but with an edge of red fruit compote, this is very much towards the more elegant end of roses and has a delicate poise that was a joy to taste.
Finally the Nicole Moncuit 2002, this is their top cuvee and is made from 90 year old vines. In keeping with the rest of the houses wines this was very elegant, with notes of farmhouse brown bread, some dried peach and apple compote characters.
The Moncuit wines are of a family and it's very satisfying to see the relationship between them, there is a shimmering minerality that weaves its way through the wines, with age and cellar time just adding complexity and sensuality to the wines. Rather like the way a silken black dress hangs on a beautiful lithe ladies body.
Our visit to Moncuit was somewhat brief, however I was very impressed by the consistency across their range of wines, there's a real familial trait that shows in all of their wines, an elegance in the way that they present themselves. The Chardonnay showing real minerality, but not in an austere fashion, a delicacy of character, but also one that is happy in it's own skin, none of the wines ever left me looking for something else, they all came across as being very complete.