Wednesday, 30 November 2011

An evening in the arse of a chicken

Sticking to my stated aim of visiting the grottoes and hideouts of the natural wine folk, my second days dinner was at le cul d’un poule, the current home of a chef called Yannig Sabro.

Faintly mushroom inspired doodlings decorated the side wall, with meccano framed pictures on the other, it was a narrow little neighborhood place that nonetheless had a certain swagger.

The menu, when in French is full of puns and joke names for dishes, ‘Bette et Rave’, was far from stupid and didn’t contain any turnips. It was, as one might guess a play on beetroot, diced, sliced and bundled with its leaves, a slick of sweetened puree accenting the side of the plate with salted ricotta cheese providing welcome counterpoint.

I followed this with the cod, vegetable linguine and black rice. This was a good a piece of fish cooking as I’ve had in a while, the cod coming apart in generous flakes, pearlescent in their sheen. However, the whole dish was dressed in a slightly sweet soy sauce based dressing that had the unfortunate effect of reminding me of cheap sweet and sour Chinese takeaway dishes. Not that it wasn’t nice, but it came across as terribly wrong. A la recherch√© du plats j’essaye a perdu…

A glass of JP Thevenet Morgon 09 with the starters had verve, a lovely acidic dark berry crunch and plenty of character. However the surprise of the meal was the Chilean white I was recommended to go with the fish. I’d discounted it when I ‘d seen it earlier as an aberration. Tiny wine list, all French and natural, surely there was nothing Chilean that could fit with it. Well yes Le Clos Ouverte, Verano Chardonnay 2010 from the Maule Valley, made by tree French men, organic and made naturally with zero Sulphur, it had a certain salty tang to the nose, almost as if someone had marinated ripe peaches in vin jaune. The palette was rich with salt caramel, peach and a lick of autolytic creaminess. The obvious comment here being that I was rather presumptuous to assume I knew all the interesting wines coming from Chile, but this was still a bit of a surprise, and a welcome one at that. My only slight gripe would be that the alcohol level in the wine meant that it finished a little hot and was consequently a bit short on the palette.


Tapioca in a Carambar fondue with a little bit of whisky topped with whipped cream. Fuck. Yes. This was as good as it sounds, the sort of thing that had I been served it as a child might have gone some way to convincing me that tapioca wasn’t the devils dessert.

Earlier, when I was ordering the waitress made a passing mention that the fish dishes were slightly smaller than the meat one. As I was leaving the table next to me received their starters, I should have taken a photo of paving slab sized steaks, and more impressively the leg of turkey, arriving bone in and whole like a caveman sized version of a chicken drumstick. It dominated the plate calling forth school boy historical images of obese kings feasting with the blood of their enemies still wet on the floor. Sorry I digress, but it was a very impressive piece of meat.

Croissant no.2

Maison Laurent,  following the advice of @mathildecuisine I trekked over to the wrong side of Montmartre to the home of dishy French television chef Gontran Cherrier. The best French pattiseries are like fashion boutiques, their glittering jewels the slices of chocolate and fruit tarts, confections of no small wonder vying for your attention all lined up with couture precision on thick marble slabs.
They leave me cold.

Behind the counter there are baskets of baguettes, proper baguettes, baguettes that taper to an almost needle like point, bread you imagine you could storm a Bastille with. Good bread.

And croissants. Sadly, not hot, but very good, a lovely caramel butter edge to the pastry and the proper crumble of the outer layers, with stray pieces attaching themselves to my lips.

A croissant as a croissant ought to be. 4.5*

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Croissant no.1

Many years ago when I lived in Glasgow I started what was obviously a precursor to a blog, but in a notebook and dedicated to trawling the cafes of Glasgow in search of a decent croissant.

I am now in Paris and thus much better placed to record my travails in the bars and patisseries of the city searching for that ultimate pastry.

Having made inquiries the previous evening I'd been directed to the Rue des Martyrs where I was to find Delmontel - find it I did, however it was closed.

So, needing sustenance I popped over the road to the nearest cafe for my fix.

As an aside, on the platonic ideal of a croissant. 

As I see the in my mind there is an almost impossible amount of butteriness within the delicate leaves of the pastry, the interior shouldn't have too much resistance to pressure, in a sense it should almost blush to the touch. 

The exterior though should be possessed of an impish desire to nestle fine leaves of golden brown pastry in all the crevices of whatever clothes you're wearing. These leaves though should disappear into a golden caramel butter haze of joy the second they meet the tongue.

Obviously this is not the most possible of mental constructs, but it has suited me well for many years and as such I'm going to stick with it.

Anyway this morning at Le Select Bar:

The atmosphere was convivial with two French workers enjoying a coffee each whilst dressed in what appeared to be a version of a white hazmat suite (not pictured). A nice zinc bar was at a good leaning height, and my request for un cafe et un croissant was met promptly with very little querying of my pronunciation (so far so good).

The coffee was standard French bar, espresso, muddy water dark with a limescale like scum on the top.

The croissant was mediocre, as you'll see in the second photo, the interior architecture is just a little too even, and there isn't quite enough cooking on the outside, however this isn't the end of the world, particularly for croissants that need to sit on a bar, it is better to be a trifle underdone than overdone.

All in all, I enjoyed my breakfast and will probably plump for about a 3* mark (this mark may be subject to later amendment should other Parisian croissants raise the bar more than expected)

A slightly rambling post about natural wines and their adherents

One of my stated intentions of my trip to France was to really get under the skin of the natural wine movement.
As I see it there are two main thrusts to natural wines.
Firstly there is the ethical and philosophical argument that posits the viticulteur as the guardian of the soil and preserver of the uniqueness of the local terroir. There is a lot to be said for parts of this argument, however from a strictly consumer led point of view it is in a sense less than pointless. Good intentions do not necessarily a good taste make. There may well be a large group of people who argue that the practices involved in organic and biodynamic viticulture contribute to better quality wine, however there are equally those who reject the dogmatic adherence to some faintly ridiculous practices as being unnecessary, so long as there is a proper consideration of the effect of each treatment.

The better end of modern viticulture is a long way from the maligned industrial producers of old pumping their soil full of pesticides and fertilisers. For a start the chemical products are all rather expensive, profligacy really doesn’t pay.

Now, looking from the other side of the fence, that of the consumer brings other issues into play.  What if there are certain elements to the natural wine making practices (and here I am now talking almost exclusively about the zero/minimal sulphur end of the spectrum) that influence the final taste of the wine. As a wine drinker, if I’m happy with slightly raised levels of volatile acidity, if I can cope with the low levels of wine-making faults as being symptomatic of a certain type of wine that I happen to like, then surely there is no real problem. The question that follows is how many of these characters are intrinsically linked with organic/biodynamic farming. Could I take conventionally farmed grapes, process them in such a way as to allow a chunk of wild yeast to arrive in the must, then bottle with a small level of dissolved CO2, no added SO2 and simply watch as the wine became ‘natural’. Now many wine makers would argue that conventionally farmed grapes will be lacking in the necessary micro-floral to initiate and sustain fermentation. However I’m of the view that unless their wineries are cleaned to a CDC approved aseptic level then there are going to be wild yeasts present in the winery, merely waiting for the right sugar rich solution for them to fall into and wake up in. As Wayne Stehbens of Katnook estate once pointed out to me, to get a reliable ‘wild’ ferment every year all you need to do is make sure you don’t quite clean your winery after fermentation.

This leads me to another, slightly more disturbing, question. The style of wines that many of us in the UK have come to know and appreciate as being part of the ‘natural’ wine movement, are often (to put it gently) a trifle funky. When I compare these wines with wild ferment examples from wineries with immaculate winery hygene, such as Schiopetto in Fruili, there is a much ‘wilder’ and varied set of aromatics present. Are we in fact fooling ourselves with the idea that the vineyard micro-flora has anything other than a minor role in the very early stages of fermentation? It is at this point worth remembering that there are many different yeast species that are present during a ferment, with different strains having population explosions at different points during the ferment depending on variables such as sugar concentration and alcohol concentration. Also the dormant yeasts in the winery are likely to be the ones that were most successful in the previous years ferment, implying that they are best adapted to the particular environment of the fermenting must, a very different environment than the skin of the unbroken grapes in the vineyard.

So, to recap, how much of the vogue for natural wines is an emotional and philosophical response to the environmental questions posed by monoculture vine viticulture, and how much of it is related to an appreciation of the particular aromatics and flavours that a slightly dirty wild ferment provides?

Monday, 14 November 2011

Kvevri - Romanian Amphora (sorry) wines


Some thoughts on Kvevri:

Having been invited to attend an evening in honor of Georgia by the lovely Isabelle Legeron, I was privileged to taste a selection of wines made in the old fashioned Kvevris.

These are some thoughts, based on a small amount of reading and tasting six wines. As such, I’m mostly posing the questions that occurred to me.

How much micro oxidation do the Kvevri enable, they surely can’t be too porous otherwise they’d be a bit shit for winemaking.
How are the kvevri cleaned out, obviously the old grape pomace needs removing, but how much tartaric acid residue is present and what effect does this have.

Is there any leaching of minerals from the clay of the kvevri? And if so, does this affect the resultant wine?

Given the liquid is not moved all that much inside the kvevri (they are buried) how much actual contact is there between the wine and the skins, surely the skins will form some sort of semi solid in the base of the kvevri above which there is no contact.

now some notes on the wines –

Iago, Chinuri (cultivar, non aromatic and mostly used for sparkling production) Kartli (region) 2009 – this is from the east of the country and has had 6 months on skins. The wine was a pale golden colour, it had a slight acetyl note, quite grippy tannins, very full bodied for a white, orange peel, black tea, white flowers, something honeyed. All of this was wrapped around a savoury mildly oxidative sort of core flavor. On the palette there was an intriguing feeling of coating on the finish, rather like I imagine lime scale to feel like.

Nika Antadze, Mtsvane (again the cultivar), Kakheti (region) 2009 – this had 1.5 months of skin ageing and was bottled especially for the tasting. Also a light golden colour, this showed a slightly vegetal and volatile nose with green pea notes, and oddly enough an aroma that really reminded me of sugar beet that’s been soaked overnight. On the palette there was the same weighty tannic presence,  as well as the sensation of having a mineral mouthwash.

Aleksi Tsikhelashvili, Rkatsiteli (cultivar) Kakheti 2010 – 6 months skin contact, now the only time that I’ve previously come across aromatics as incredibly redolent of Christmas as this wine was in a Solera aged Maury vin doux naturelle, with wines going back 100yrs in the blend. This was a riot of spiced raisins, currants, cloves and toasted cinnamon, aged mincemeat with an brandy like oxidative tang, it may not have been my favourite wine of the evening but it was vertainly the most distinctive. On the palette it had that cold tea tannin and sugarbeet sweetness of the Antadze that it followed.

Our Wine, Rkatsiteli, Kakheti 2006, a deep burnished orange glowing with browned edges, this had a rich warm earthy sort of aroma, redolent of clay dust, on the palette there was an astringent saltiness that brought to mind what I imagine preserved salted apricot skins would taste like, the finish was wooly, salty and earthy, with a great moreish complexity. This was my wine of the evening.

I’ll come back to the reds at a later date as I felt they were substantially less impressive.

If Irancy had cheekbones like Kate Moss

Pinot Noir, the cultivar that prompts more poetic flights of fancy than any other, about which there has probably been more chin stroking and idle speculation than all other varieties put together. It is also one of the more planted red grapes in the UK.

English wine has taken no small amount of criticism over the years, despite vigorous fighting back on the bubble front and a nice rear guard action from the aromatic whites the reds have still largely been left to suffer in silence.

It was a morning of twitter discussion that brought the idea of an English Pinot Noir tasting into fruition. Now at this point, I should mention that virtually all the organization was undertaken by the fabulous Dominique and Julia; of the Wine Pantry in Borough Market. They harangued producers into submitting bottles, sorted a glorious spread of nibbles and arranged a room in which we could sup.

I managed to bring along a bottle of ropey Sancerre Pinot, which did at least make everything else look well made and beautiful.

A short aside regarding clonal diversity, nomenclature, influence and language:

Pinot Noir is an incredibly old vine cultivar. As such it is rather plastic with regards to genetic homogeneity, there are multiple clones (often known simply by their nursery numbers, 113, 114 etc). Aficionados will drop these into conversation as a signifier of their elevated knowledge. In the UK there is less of a clonal issue at the moment, except relating to the difference between Early Pinot and Late Pinot. The Germans, who as far as I can gather, have the most that makes it to market call it Fruhburgunder as opposed to Spatburgunder, the French plump for Pinot Noir Precoce. The EC regards the two cultivars as being distinct and thus they need to be labeled as such.
I shall use the term on the label, though I prefer early and late.

Some wines..

Sharpham Estate 2010, Pinot Noir Precoce (Totnes, Devon)
This showed a slightly smoky cherry/raspberry edged nose with vibrant acidity and a spritz of tannins.

Welcombe Hills 2010 Pinot Noir Precoce (Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire)
Minerally strawberry inflected fruit overlaying a definite autolytic leesy like character. Just a hint of clove, with a fresh juicy palette.

Three Choirs 2010 Pinot Noir (Newent, Gloucestershire)
This wine caused a degree of disagreement, there is a very obvious oak influence on the nose, I found this unsettling, though there were comments that it would really help in a dining context.

Chapel Down 2009 Pinot Noir (Tenterden, Kent)
Slightly mute initially on the nose, some meaty bread like characters, again cherry scented fruit and an almost chalkiness to the acidity.

Gusbourne Estate 2010 (Appledore, Kent)
The palest of the wines, almost a schiller wine sort of colour, however this didn’t detract from the aromatics, clove scented cherries, a touch of something floral, this was for me the prettiest of the wines, a steely yet elegant palette made this my favourite wine of the day.

Plumpton College 2010, Sutherland’s Block (Plumpton, East Sussex)
This had a sort of caramel, milk chocolate hobnobs character that I found quite disconcerting, lending the wine an air of confectionary, sharpish acidity and a little short. I’d like to point out that I have in the past raved about this wine.

Bolney 2010 (Bolney, West Sussex)
Strawberries and a lactic sort of note, a touch of orange peel and some swish acidity.

So seven Pinot Noirs, coming across like Irancy but with the cheekbones and steely hauteur of Kate Moss at her prime. As I expected I liked the wines that had the least done to them, as it’s a slight struggle to get the real ripeness to the wines, it’s the growers with the gentlest touches that impressed me the most. As a final thought, I’d love to see these wines in ten to twenty years, as many of the ancient Burgundies were probably of a comparable ripeness and alcohol, so I have an inkling that these wines could age surprisingly well.