Friday, 21 November 2014


The taxi was taking me and the (then) kittens back from the vets while my charmingly (if a trifle unnervingly) loquacious driver was explaining to me the intrinsic fighting qualities of the Thracians. By his reckoning, the Thracians (a sort of pan-Balkan ancient ethnicity) were the greatest and hardest fighters, it was their genetic grit that took Alexander to the edges of the known world, and were it not for their failure to appreciate their obvious fraternity they'd have ruled Europe for millenia to come.
Now, for obvious reasons, I don't take taxi driver's wisdom as writ, but it did get me to thinking about how I draw arbitrary lines on maps when it comes to thinking about wines and where they come from. In modern times ancient Thracia is split between Greece, Bulgaria and Western (European) Turkey, which puts it firmly in my sights as a wine producing area.
The Greek part of Thrace is known as Drama, and without wanting to be overly dismissive is characterised by far too many people planting international varieties and making dull as dishwater wines for a supposed international market. Something I've precious little interest in. The Western Turkish parts seem to have some interesting things bubbling under, however the few tasting notes I written have been lost in the morass of my terrible hand writing and drunken organisation. So it's left to the Bulgarian representatives to fly the flag for interest, indigenous varieties and all round good drinking.
For some time now my house red has been a Mavrud made my the Zagreus winery (St. Dimitar), it's gloriously drinkable, all red fruits, friendly acidity and a little hint of something herbal to tease the palate into thinking another large glug is the most advisable course of action. The rest of the Zagreus family bears consideration as well; their Reserve Mavrud, while possibly possessing just enough new oak to be on friendly terms with deceitful flattery, is none the less a pretty decent wine. While the Amarone style Vinica Mavrud seems entirely content in its capacity to blow most other wines out of whatever water is being paddled in. However I'm going to overlook my tried and tested favourites (I'll elaborate more on them at a later date, probably after I get to learn a bit more about them from their winemaker) in favour of a terribly unprofessional whizz through a selection of sample bottles from Southern Bulgaria (one has to learn somehow).
Villa Yustina, Monogram (Mavrud, Rubin) 2010. A grower, initially I rather dismissed this as being all ripe fruit and cheap painter/decorator new oak, but returning to it made me think I'd been needlessly harsh in my initial criticism. While there is obviously some very modern winemaking afoot betwixt cork and bottle, there is none the less some pretty decent wine here. Darkish berried fruit (still obviously oak ameliorated) a touch of spice and some nicely balanced oak and grape tannins. My initial concerns that there was a spot of brett appear to have receded leaving me with a pretty sext, albeit mannered, dark cherry and black fruit scented red. It's a bit on the hot side, which stops the palate a bit early, but does have a decent lingering finish.
Orbelus, Melnik 2011. Also from the Southern Thrace valley this is early Melnik, which is also known as either Melnik 82 or 55 and is not as implied on the back label the same variety that was supposed brought to the region in 200BC by Thracians returning from the middle East, but is in fact a crossing of Shirok Melnishka with pollen from Durif, Jurancon Noir and ValdiguiƩ, much less romantic I think you'll agree. However, ampelographical origins not withstanding this is a pretty decent wine. Slightly tarry with notes reminiscent of broken twigs, there is still a decent amount of dark cherry like fruit, mid weight with some slightly pedestrian tannins.
Aplauz, Melnik 55, 2011. Also from near the village of Melnik (where the crossings were made) which is in the hotter southern part of the country.
Dark, slightly earthy fruit nose, quite international in style. On the palette this is fuller bodied with some quite chewy if rough tannins. There's some big liquorice infused fruit characters and a slight anise like finish.
Villa Melnik, Bergule, Ruen 2011. Quite apart from very obvious puns about any visit to the winery surely being a road to Ruen, this was an odd one. Ruen is a cross between Sirovska Melnishka and Cabernet Sauvignon, and as with all these wines it's the first time I've come across it. Dark in colour with a nose that initially gave me some Beaujolais like impressions, before opening up to show some quite lovely strawberry characters. My one slight gripe was a very slight metallic note on the palette which made me wonder whether there was a bit of brett obscuring the fruit.

So Southern Bulgaria. So many crosses of Sirovska Melnishka. I'll be honest and say that I still don't really know what to make of the grape and its progeny. I can't work out whether I've actually tried any of the old original Melnishka (possibly called broad leafed Melnik as well). It seems to work reasonably well with oak (as does Mavrud), and I've certainly enjoyed my little exploration (though I reckon a visit to Thrace is going to be necessary to get properly under then skin of the region and its grapes).

Wines from Theatre of wine and Pacta Connect.

Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Macedonia (feel free to insert some sort of pun here)

I've had Macedonian wines on my radar for a while now. They're pretty much the heart of the Balkans (everyone has fought over them, and at least 4 countries regard Macedonia as being part of their ancestral lands - an essential part of being Balkan), and they make wine. What more could I want for my list. However, getting my hands on samples and a ready supply has proved harder than I'd hoped (one supplier has now failed to respond to four separate email requests for samples). So it was with some excitement that I reacted to John bringing me a bottle of Bovin Vranec from some North East London deli he'd stumbled across.
Bovin is in Tikves, one of the largest growing regions, it's pretty central and is the driest of the Balkan wine regions, with temperatures hitting 40 degrees in the summer and it being suitably far from the coast to avoid water regulated diurnal cooling I was expecting something pretty ripe and soft.
As it happened I was pleasantly surprised, the nose was elegant, if weighted towards some wild strawberry, creme de myrtle and bramble fruit. Palette wise it seemed a little disjointed, the acidity a little out, the tannins arriving in ever so slightly the wrong places, generally not quite there. That said it was very pleasant. Needless to say, I'll not be confident offering any sort of commentary on the wine and its intrinsic quality until I've had the chance to taste a lot more Vranec.

Sunday, 5 October 2014

Sleep (or lack thereof)

Saturday night.
It's 9:00 in the evening, I'm sitting in the downstairs office, my hands are shaking and I'm trying to control my breathing because I want to be sick.
Going back a few hours.
7:00 am Saturday morning. Waking up it's like wading through badly made porridge, I can barely string words together, I think H (my partner) has brought me several cups of tea, none of which has had any noticeable effect on my ability to function. I've managed to make a breakfast for us both, I'm quite sure it wasn't exactly what was planned but I maintain that it was for the best that I ate something.
I'm at the restaurant, I'm helping, not as much as I might have hoped but still I'm contributing. Lunch is looking busyish, we've got a decent complement of kitchen staff in for the day, I can hover on the wings of service. I'm liking this, I can watch, satisfied that things are progressing as hoped, talk to the tables that need talking to, absent myself when necessary.
Post lunch service it becomes clear that things are about to change, one of our chefs has to be away that evening. Her brother's 30th, or some other similarly unmissable family occasion.
This evening, I'm crossing the pass.
The pass is like the Rubicon of the restaurant, it delineates two very different worlds. On the one side the graft is primarily physical, non stop food prep and service, yet cut with a need to be mentally acute enough to keep track of a host of different activities and needs. What checks are waiting, what checks are away, what's on the grill, what ought to be on the grill. When it works well it's a model of conservative action. Talk is limited to a minimum, only the most pertinent issues are raised. There's a steady stream of updates and questions. All relating to what is being done and what ought to be being done. No one minds if you're not smiling, so long as the food is coming out, smiling can wait.
On the other, the facade is king. You might be running, juggling several tables and trying to balance multiple guests requests, but thankfully there are far fewer knives.
Front of house fatigue endangers the fingers far less.
The call comes.
We're one down tonight, can you step into the kitchen.
I'm not a chef.
The restaurant is mine and my partner John's. It's John that's asking.
I've worked shifts on the pass quite a few times before, it can be quite fun. It's amazingly satisfying when it all comes together, however it's not something I find easy.
Front of house; I can bang out a shift in all sorts of states. My game face is great; hangovers, fatigue, all the trade's inherent issues are easily navigable. I've got years of practice. While I've never actually done it in my sleep I've come pretty close.
Crossing that fence however. Much less easy. We're pretty busy, the little white printed tickets keep arriving, I don't seem to be brandishing the marker pen. What was originally two tables worth of starters seems to have mushroomed into five. My all day counts are rising, but I can't seem to hold more than one number in my head at any one time. The assertive persona that I try to adopt when at the front of the kitchen is being strip mined of any effectiveness by my almost complete inability to grasp any inertia. I take some plates out of the hot cupboard. Look for garnishes. Ask John whether he has the requisite things on the grill. I put the plates back in the plate warmer. I've got no fucking clue what garnishes I'm supposed to have heating. Christ, I'm having to keep checking the pass to remember what dishes I'm supposed to be serving.
It's 8.45pm. I've gone to look at the iPad till, hoping to see 10.45pm, knowing that's not what I'm going to see. I'm looking at the reservations diary. I can see another wave of tables. I can't do this any more.
I look at John, I try to put my case across that I'm sure I'm being less than useful in my current position, that of being in charge of the flow of food out of the kitchen, it's plating, and generally the organisation of said kitchen's work flow.
He pats me on the shoulder and says 'ok'.
I'm getting changed.
It's 9:00pm.
Getting into a taxi to go home, the only thing I can think is that I've only worked 12 hours straight. At least I'll be ok to be back in for 7am. It's Sunday tomorrow and I need to get the mangal going early for the spit roast.

Monday, 2 June 2014

Liminal Zones

The question was, what are the main differences in style between Slovenian, Austrian and Hungarian expressions of Furmint? It got me thinking.

I’d spent a large part of the day tasting wines from the Easternmost parts of Slovenia, the North Western European part of Turkey and form both the Greek and Bulgarian sides of the Thracian lowlands. All wine regions where, I’d argue, the wine makers have more in common with their neighbour’s over the boarder than they do with the rest of the country.  This got me thinking about the Balkans and the way that a semi-homogenous group of people was broken up by the early 20th century mania for drawing boarders between nation states.

I guess that in Europe we did marginally better than in the near East where wars seem to ravage the region with a disturbing regularity (mind you I did taste quite a bit of Serbian and Croatian wines and there have certainly been wars in their part of the world in living memory). But still, growing up in the UK where for better or worse we’ve had a pretty firm set of boarders for most of our recent history it’s hard to really understand the mind sets of regions that only partly reflect the nation within which they’re located.

So how exactly do I think about and categorise these liminal zones? Do I keep them within my existing mental country maps or do I redraw my own map of Europe, boarder free with all the sensible wine regions existing as their own autonomous states within my mental geography?

I’ll be honest, it’s the latter, I’ve always based my geographical understanding of the world on where wine is grown and really countries have only ever been a small part of it. After all, anyone who’s ever been to the Sud Tyrol will know that it’s about the least Italian part of the world you’d ever expect to find within what we understand as Italy.

Wednesday, 30 April 2014


I’m looking at ‘happy cookies’, imported New Zealand lamb, organic salmon fillets (neatly vacuum packed) and I’m pretty certain I saw at least one person selling cup cakes. There were definitely chocolate brownies.
Souk el Tayeb, the Beirut farmer’s market is an oddity. There’s something a bit wrong about the way that the small-scale agricultural produce of a country that still has a large amount of said small-scale agriculture is being packaged up and sold back to itself (at a hefty premium of course).
We’re in the main Beirut souk, where marble walls glisten; well-groomed Arab men partake of oversized cigars whilst strolling with their families. On display are luxury watches, expensive fashion, and now, labneh balls preserved in oil, bright turnip pickles, and cheery Lebanese women rolling out balls of dough to slap on their dome shaped grills; applying oil and za’atar, pre-sliced white cheese and the occasional dollop of chilli before rolling up their man ‘ouches. As with so many a sandwich glimpsed in the wild, the restraint is what first catches the eye; really no more than a couple of ingredients, the pungent tang of wild oregano providing more than enough flavour to interest.
A gaggle of children are painting plaster casts of Easter bunnies. Over the road stand soldiers, their rifles lazily slung over their shoulders, chatting disinterestedly with some members of the city police*.
This is Beirut. It’s pretty fucking odd.
You can’t go anywhere unless you’re in a taxi, though none of the taxi drivers have the faintest clue where anything is. The constant switching between Arabic, French and English spellings renders street names next to useless. Drivers will stop two to three times to shout questions at passers by for even the shortest of journeys. I’m left baffled as to what anything costs by the need to try and work out parallel exchange rates between Sterling, Lebanese Pounds and Dollars. Change regularly arriving in mixed currency format. A $50 note and 14000LP thank you very much.
Dusk turns pleasant roads derelict and less inviting corners terrifying. Cars careen about with little thought to their own safety. 8 hours in the city and we’d already seen two accidents. It’s as if the collective memory of civil war has rendered the concept of automotive safety null and void. Who needs seatbelts when everyone can remember the acrid smoke of suicide bombs? There’s a Ferrari stopped at the lights on our left, next to it pulls up a battered Honda motorbike. The Greek Orthodox Christians are streaming out of their churches candles held votive before them. Chanting echoes out of the ornate facades, mingling with the amplified wail of the Muezzin call to prayer and the omnipresent chorus of car horns.
Three hours later and midnight has transformed the louche atmosphere of the bars from lazy afternoon drinking to a frenzied Faliraki street sprawl; bad cocktails and bottles of beer, aggressive posing and pounding Euro pop. I argue with a lingering taxi driver over the cost of the return to our hotel. Curse that the bar is closed and go instead to corner shop next door. The owner, smoking at the counter sorts me a quarter bottle of Arak and some ice. I retreat to my room for bed. Exhausted.
 * Sadly I don't have any photos of soldiers or police officers. I'm a bit of a pussy when it comes to potentially pissing off people with assault rifles.