Monday, 28 May 2012

Meat Market

You have no idea how excited I am about this new venture from Yianni the genius behind the Meat Wagon and Meat Liquor.

I’ve been pretty obsessed with Burgers since I started reading Daniel Young and Burgerac and I’ve progressively gotten more passionate about tracking down the very best and most authentic burgers that the capital has to offer.

I’d been hearing all sorts of good things about the wonderful chilli cheeseburgers that the Meat Wagon was selling, but unfortunately because it was in south London I never actually managed to get myself down there to try one. Then, catastrophe, the Meat Wagon was stolen.

Thankfully for us burger obsessives, a plan was quickly hatched that saw the upstairs of a derelict pub get taken over for the seminal #meateasy. So for a short couple of months the only place to be of an evening was New Cross, stories of crazy queues, wild cocktails, klaxons, burgerettes and those motherflippers abounded from blog to page. The vicarious thrill of experiencing all this real time through twitter had me, on several occasions near breathless at my computer screen.

Sadly #meateasy was always going to be only for a limited period of time. But as a blessing for us devotees of the burger chase, along came Meat Liquor. Exploding into central London, just off Oxford circus. There were rumours of new menu items, fountains of Franks hot sauce flowing freely onto crack like chicken wings, a dark almost windowless room with even darker corners for people to indulge their dead hippy fetishes away from prying eyes. Largerita cocktails chasing beers chasing shooters chasing grease slicked trays of chilli fries like some debauched Ouroboros of hedonistic joy.

Then there were the queues, snaking out of the door and into the street, indeed the two times I ventured near there was such a clamour of activity outside the doors that I actually balked, having to make last minute plan changes while resolving to return when it was quieter.

Then, quite out of the blue came Meat Market, swaggering like a priapic gunslinger into the fetid touristic swamp that is Covent Garden. God knows that those of us who work nearby have been clamoring for something better than the Wagamamas and Fire and Stones that have here to for been our only choices.
So leaving no pun unturned Meat Market has arrived to save our lunches and preach the gospel of the burger to the masses. Offering take aways to those desk bound aficionados, and tooth janglingly sweet meth amphetamine like Miami Vice slush puppies for those brave enough to take on the pink and cream swirl of ice cold alcoholic electro joy. White Castle riffing newcomer the Black Palace offering a whole new strata of fried onion happiness while chilli poppers supposedly do just that. Seriously just thinking about visiting Meat Market brings me out in cold sweat slick of excitement while I’m having minor palpitations over proposing to my colleagues, what will undoubtedly be a lunch like revelation of Damascene proportions. 

(photos from @foodstories flickr stream, I hope she's ok with me using them as I really like her blog and have often wanted to cook some of the recipes she posts)

Friday, 25 May 2012

Silk not only cuts but it burns as well

I thought I was a man. I was wrong. Silk cuts, I should have known this from all the adverts I saw as a kid. What I hadn’t realized is that silk also burns.

Somewhere in Camberwell, Silk Road is a Xinjiang Chinese cuisine, I’ll be honest and admit that this doesn’t really mean very much to me, I’ve long come to terms with my ignorance of culinary traditions anywhere further east than Alsace. Still I’d heard tell of the joys and delights that awaited me beyond their unprepossessing doors.

I’d done my best to fit in with the manor, I’d rolled one of my trouser legs up a little bit and I’d untucked my shirt. I’d been practicing saying the right sort of things, good stuff was bare and I’d been appending my sentences with an appropriate amount of bluds. I figured I was ready.

I’d asked my local guide to order for me on account of my not really knowing what I ought to be eating. She assured me that so long as I was hungry we’d only have a couple of take away boxes. She lied.

cucumber as an offensive weapon
A couple of Tsing Tao beers came first, it’s one of those beers that seems to suit certain situations, it’s far from the best, but frankly it’s beery, bubbly and when cold has the required refreshment that’s asked for.

fatty fucking goodness
Cucumber came first, I feel it’s important not to be the one that comes first, so it was nice that this most refreshing of gourds beat me to the punch as pretty much everything that followed fucked me rotten. It was drenched in a chilli oil and commenced to making me feel a trifle inferior.

Swiftly following the cucumber salad were the lamb cumin skewers, though not as bedecked with cumin and chilli seeds as those at Manchurian legends, these were gloriously spiced with chunks of meat alternating with pieces of dribbling fat that made me think faintly naughty thoughts about sheep.

Home style cabbage arrived drowning in a seriously garlicky spicy dressing, though like a gypsy fortune teller it was bedecked with innumerable dark red bangles of dried chillies. Fuck it was tasty though. Also, I was starting to sweat.

sorry I'll alter the orientation of this later 
I think it was around this point that my companion started laughing at me. This was quite reasonable as it looked like I was coming up, I was sweating (sweat was running down the back of my ears for god’s sake, that’s never happened before), I was lolling around the table and starting to get a little insensible.

Next came a veritable battleship of a dish, a dark five spice and star anise flavoured brown broth filled with bits of bony chicken and (slightly too al dente) chunks of potato, the waiter returned moments later to slide a plate of biblically sized noodles into the broth. Slick and uncooperative like a well dressed but truculent teenager they evaded most of my attempts to trap them betwixt my chop sticks, opting instead to slither messily back into their brothy residence leaving me with nothing but their splashed signatures across my white shirt.
I was less enamoured with the middle belt chicken (as it was described on the menu), I don’t think the spicing of the broth was quite to my liking. I say I don’t think because at this point I was watching the room lurch around and listening to the laughter of my companion. Apparently I was a treat to behold, being utterly broken by the cumulative heat of all the chilli oil. Dark golden patches seemed to be forming beneath my eyes, I could feel every follicle on my head and sweat was running down the back of my neck. I’m pretty certain I wasn’t a pretty sight.

Finally, almost as an afterthought, the home-style aubergine arrived. I’m sad to say I didn’t really appreciate the dish, it was possibly the most wonderful aubergine I’ve ever tasted, meaty chunks interspersed with tomato and wrapped up with (yep more) chilli oil. It was fabulous, however I was by this time broken. A shell of a person all whacked up on chilli while watching my companion laugh at me on account of my lack of manliness.

I was broken, lost for words, sweating like peadophile in a crèche and quite confused as to where I was and what I was doing.

God Silk Road was good, every dish was excellent, however; this is (I feel) rather like complementing an Uzi for being able to deliver bullets. I had thought that I could handle heat. I couldn’t

Silk road broke me, it broke me in a great sort of way, everything that came to our table was great, however I have now realised that I need another four or fivre years of training before it becomes second nature to eat like the Xiag Jangaise…

Wednesday, 2 May 2012

Bad Ramen

I don’t really understand noodles. They’re rather like rice, not anything I grew up with. Yep I know how to make them, I’ve cooked them, I’ve followed detailed recipes from Harold McGee to make proper alkaline noodles to go in Tonkotsu broth lovingly distilled from a shit load of bones. This doesn’t mean I get them; it doesn’t confer upon me an appreciation of their finer subtleties.

Many moons ago I when I worked at Oddbins people would come in and ask for Champagne for special celebrations and the like, they’d ask about Dom Perignon or Krug, and I’d question them as to whether they thought it’d be money well spent? Did they drink Champagne enough to really justify all that extra cost, wouldn’t they prefer to buy a couple of bottles of Bollinger Grande Annee for the same price? I wasn’t trying to make people feel foolish, I was just worried that as we get to the higher price points the law of diminishing returns starts to gnaw away at the obvious differences, leaving subtleties. And the one thing I do know about subtleties, is how easy they are to miss. Just talk to me about interpersonal relations for a pretty swift demonstration of that.

So anyway, I’ve read loads about Ramen noodles, pretty much the whole of the first issue of Lucky Peach was one long soggy love letter to them. They sounded awesome. David Chang outlined their sheer wondrous brilliance in many a third person piece, and I wanted in on all this good stuff. But where was I to cut my teeth?

A full day’s worth of boiling, kneading, chopping and, well actually more boiling again, supplied me with a bowl of steaming porky, fatty broth. Rustically cut noodles curled around my fork (I didn’t have any chop sticks), the still ever so viscous yolk of my soft boiled egg leaked dangerously into the soup whiule scattered herbs and spring onions gleamed emerald round the puddles of fat languorously coalescing on the surface. Yet still I didn’t really feel that I’d got it. It was nice, I had a glorious sense of satisfaction over a dish well made, but it didn’t feel like it was mine to love. There was no tugging at heartstrings, no moments of wistful reminiscence; I just didn’t have any context. Not having grown up eating noodles, I didn’t really have a backlog of flavour memories with which to compare what I’d made. It was frustrating; deep down I knew that if it had been roast potatoes, I’d have had an opinion. Fuck yes I would have done, and I’d not have been backward about coming forward with it. You’d have known, because I’d have told you, how much better, or indeed worse, I could have done the potatoes. But with these noodles I was silent.

When you’re mighty geeky like I am, there’s a certain helplessness about being confronted by things that you can’t judge flavour wise. It’s sad, but I’ll admit to liking to know about what I’m eating, I feel a little lost at sea when I don’t, that little boy lost in China town not knowing what in the world to order.

Btw, read into this whatever you will….

Tuesday, 1 May 2012

On tasting notes and pretension and Ryan Gosling topless..

On pretention in tasting notes, or why we could use a pseud’s corner especially for the wine trade.

I won’t pretend that working in the wine trade is a terrible sort of drag. It’s not, we get to drink some of the worlds finest wines, we get invited to all sorts of fabulous dinners, and that’s not even going into the wonderful trips that we get invited on. However there’s a dark side. We have to try and express the glorious hospitality and generosity that we receive in ever so limited format of tasting notes. This is somewhat like trying to write useful and meaningful haikus, there is a certain length to which one aspires, there are certain constants that one must attempt to include, and yet one must strive for a degree of individuality married to an honesty of reportage. Unsurprisingly, like many of the best laid plans, they aft a gang awry.

“Striking mahogany, with hints of amber at its rim, the wine has an extraordinary aromatic intensity, redolent of old libraries, autumnal bonfires and distant poetry. The palate is profound and majestic, astonishingly intense and powerful, regal in its complexity, a timeless elixir. Notes of molasses, dried apricot, figs and clove, dance across the palate, elegant and symphonic in their structure, dignified and profound. Orange zest freshness and finely-wrought tannins underwrite structural harmony with the long finish indulging a gentle nostalgia and a real sense of worth.” Simon Field MW, Berry’s Port Buyer.

I’m being needlessly cruel in highlighting merely one example of this. Indeed I should include this quote from the most recent piece I wrote.

‘Which for want of a better description is basically a liquid sonnet to the principles and beliefs of biodynamic vine growing and the unique ability of the vine to transcript the subtleties of the terroir from which it comes. ‘

It’s always difficult to convey in words exactly why one wine, which tastes very similar to another, is actually that much more, exactly why it excited you as much as it did; quite why you felt it needed highlighting and setting apart from the others. At any long tasting I always find my notes converging towards certain constants, certain facets that seem constant amongst the wines, I note the differences, which nuance seems to stand out just that bit more, which wine seems to sing that little bit sweeter. And yes, afterwards when I come to place the notes in any sort of context I find that I’m reaching towards certain metaphors, metaphors that attempt to convey the grandeur that the wine evoked. Metaphors that, when re read the next day, seem hopelessly pompous and frankly a little embarrassing. As it is, I’ve learnt to quash my qualms about coming across as a bit of a nob. It’s either that or churn out tasting notes that are merely a list of flavours and objects. Each peach, pear, plum I spy Tom Thumb… (lustily consuming a glass of youthful Puligny-Montrachet).

I’ve yet to fully work out where I stand with regards to this conundrum of reportage and notation. Suffice to say I’ve all but stopped publishing tasting notes that I’ve myself written, and started to try and surround the wines about which I write with a story that places them in a context that is separate from merely attempting to relay their taste in words.

Feel free to judge me and tell me I’m wrong, I still enjoy a good and well written tasting note, however I’m well aware that the ones that I like are merely the ones that reference things that are of meaning to me, i.e. the ones that are the least universal, and yes the ones most likely to end up in my particular pseud’s corner…..
apologies to anyone who actually came to read the post...

(inspired by a short twitter conversation with Chris Pople, who pointed out the BBR quote to me, also apologies for forgetting to mention him earlier. I wrote the post rather quickly and it needed a lot of editing after I first posted it)

Champagne and name calling..

Jean-Sebastien Fleury in his vines

Much of the discussion regarding natural wine has descended into semantics. With people arguing that wine in itself is inherently a fabrication; that the hand of the winemaker in necessarily present, that oak barrels and steel tanks are not natural and that vines do not naturally grow in straight rows along carefully positioned wires.

Of that I will not argue, however as with everything in life there are shades of grey. If we accept certain manipulations as being essential in the creation of a product that we desire then we are left with a series of choices regarding how to proceed. That these will affect the final product is so evidently true that it barely warrants a mention. This leaves us with the winemaker, the person that makes these decisions, why? What motivates a winemaker to make decisions that make his life harder? Why choose a riskier path?

It is when we look into these questions that we start to see the appeal of minimal intervention wines. Their makers often have made a definite philosophical decision to follow their own path. It’s noticeable that many of the regions where minimal intervention winemaking has flourished are those that haven’t been the most successful commercially, the Beaujolais, which was languishing outside of the spot light of fashion while Chauvet’s gang of five were quietly rewriting the rules, or the Jura, perennial outsiders, for whom minimal intervention winemaking really just meant not changing what they’d pretty much always done. However, when we turn to more successful regions we realize that it takes much more of a risk to turn ones back on the formula that has worked so well. Take Pouilly-Fume for example, apart form Alexandre Bain there is virtually nothing even organic in the appellation, look at the top end of Bordeaux, one has Pontet Canet, working biodynamically, but even they’re not taking any risks with their winemaking. Or you could consider Champagne.

Champagne, the single most successful appellation yet created. Where the rising tide of success has genuinely lifted all the boats. Each year the CIVC, the growers and the houses engage in a stately dance of studied complexity, each eyeing the golden pot that is the market place, but each also playing their role in keeping that pot overflowing.

As the old joke goes, how can you tell the difference between a grower and a Champagne house owner? Well the grower washes his own Mercedes.

And yet, Champagne as a product is possibly the least natural of the wines we often drink. It is precisely the manipulations of the winemakers that have allowed it to scale such lofty commercial heights. Yes, you can bottle your still slightly fermenting must and leave the primary fermentation to finish in bottle for a delicious petillant natural, but if you want a proper secondary fermentation in bottle you’re going to need to add something containing fermentable sugars and something to do the fermenting. Then you’re going to have to disgorge your wines to prepare them for sale. A long way from natural I hear you scorn. Yet even here there is room for maneuver.

David Leclapart, with his 3 ha. In the village of Trepail on the East of the Montagne de Reims, is the epitome of biodynamic rigour, he truly believes in making the best and most honest representation of his northerly terroir. He uses the barest minimum of Sulphur in the vineyard, doesn’t filter, fine, use yeast flocculation assistants, does no cold settling and only uses a tiny amount of sulphur pre bottling. His three wines are about as unique as Champagne gets, idiosyncratic, always vintage, because how else would they be an honest expression of that bit of land in that year?

Dominique Courtin of Domaine Marie Courtin in the Cotes de Bar farms one small plot, from which she makes four cuvees. Her Concordance 09, made with no added sulphites at all is now firmly on my list of wines that everyone needs to try. There is something almost other worldly about the texture of the wines mousse. Being finer than any other Champagne I’ve yet tasted. On discussing this with her, she thinks it’s because the wild yeast strains are able to survive and prosper in the mostly sulphite free medium of the wine in a different way to that found in normal secondary fermentations.

Benoit Laheye

Also in the Cotes de Bar is Jean-Pierre Fleury, 20 years of biodynamics at his domaine have given him an unrivalled understanding of how his terroir really behaves. For me their Rose de Saignee is the wine that knocks me over, showing as the very best Rose de Saigness occasionally do a beautiful Pinot Noir like bouquet. Imagine a glass of De Montille Burgundy but with a delicate mousse and a great quiver of electrical like acidity.

Friends Benoit Tarlant and Benoit Laheye from either side of Epernay, Ouilly and Bouzy respectively, have each taken slightly different approaches towards looking at their terroir. Benoit Laheye, biodynamic since 2008 makes a startlingly expressive blanc de noir, while Tarlant has been making a selection of single vineyard Champagnes since long before they started to become the flavour of the month. What’s more the house has been focusing on zero dosage since the 70’s, allowing them to comprehensively disprove any doubts regarding zero dosage wines ability to age with grace and elegance.
Benoit Tarlant and his barrels

The charming Francoise Bedel, who sadly won’t be in London for RAW fair, her son in law is going instead as he speaks better English, is another of the Champenois who are seeking to rescue the region from the chemical atrocities committed during the 70s and 80s with her entirely biodynamic estate. Based in the Marne Valley, they have quite a lot of Pinot Meunier and show it off to lovely extent in their cuvee ‘Entre le ciel et terre’, between the sky and earth. Which for want of a better description is basically a liquid sonnet to the principles and beliefs of biodynamic vine growing and the unique ability of the vine to transcript the subtleties of the terroir from which it comes.

Francoise Bedel
All these growers will be at RAW fair in London towards the end of May, and I can’t stress enough how much I’d recommend meeting them and tasting with them. If only to completely change your perception of Champagne and what its individual terroirs have to offer.