Friday, 22 May 2020

Keeping busy during lockdown

Like almost everyone else, I am staying at home almost all the time except for daily walks (I haven't run anywhere since I left school) and weekly trips to the supermarket. I did manage to find a local baker who sells flour by the sack so, inevitably, I have been trying my hand at sourdough. Not the prettiest loaf but quite tasty.

Anyway, back to work. I have been quiet recently as (a) I thought I would take the opportunity of an extended period without school runs (so more time to get things done) to re-work my website (to be unveiled soon, I hope) and (b) lots of people have been enjoying wine so I have been kept busy with that side of things. This has necessitated new purchases so, along with I Campi and Chateau Juvenal, I have just taken delivery of a consignment from Domaine Ste-Anne near the sleepy southern Rhone village of St-Gervais.

The cellars at Ste-Anne are clearly very old. You have to walk through several sections before reaching an opening where wine tastings are conducted, often by winemaker, Jean Steinmaier who, with his brother Alain owns and runs the estate. It was their father, Guy, who arrived here from Burgundy in the 1960s and established what Robert Parker called 'one of the best estates in the entire Rhone Valley'.

The range comprises a very successful pair of Cotes du Rhone wines. The white has proved very popular in the past so, of course, we have brought it back (2017 vintage: very successful) but we decided to bring in some red as well this time - 2018 is an opulent year so the youthfulness of the wine is not an issue. Juicy fruit from Mourvedre, Syrah and Grenache with, I believe, some Cinsault too, medium-bodied but with more depth on the palate than an initial sniff would suggest.

The star wines in the collection are the mono-varietal wines, in particular the Viognier (which has to be bottled as Vin de France) which is almost certainly the best example of this variety in the whole of the southern Rhone and, frankly, better than quite a lot of Condrieu even though it is less than half the price.

We still have good stocks of the increasingly stylish 2015 Rouvieres from 100% Mourvedre so we loaded the rest of the pallet with some 2017 Mourillons, pure Syrah, aged in barrel (the only wine in the range to see any wood). This is always a winner with us but 2017 was the third successive successful year and the sweetness of the fruit really shines out this year. The nose has a little vanilla from the barrel as well as gorgeous blackberry fruit. This all follows through well on to the palate which has good spice and dancing tannins. A lovely wine which we will be enjoying with barbecued red meats in the summer months and roasts later in the year (and over several years, no doubt).

Friday, 1 May 2020

Harissa chicken with Juvenal's Perseides

I would like explicitly to invite you to post comments in response to this or any other post on this blog. You must have opinions which are more relevant than mine about some of the things I come up with and I would really like to read them.

Anyway, a vaguely Middle Eastern barbecued chicken meal was planned for a few days ago so we thought we should make a couscous to go with it. The kettle boiled and hot water stirred into the couscous before we realised we had no harissa in the house and, frankly, I wouldn't go into our local town for a tin of harissa at the best of times so that wasn't going to happen. An alternative had to be thought up and fast.

The good side of the internet is the sharing of recipes and tips on cooking, DIY, fixing lawnmowers and all sorts. OK, so not all the tips are good but you quickly recognise which sites are not going to offer anything credible. We combined a couple of recipes to come up with the following harissa which was fresher and tastier than any I have had in any restaurant and livened up the couscous fantastically. I also had a large dollop on the side.

Wine? With slightly spicy foods, I find the sweetness and richness (not to say fullness) of Grenache works so we had Chateau Juvenal's 2016 'Perseides' which was everything you would expect from this vintage. Rich but never heavy because Sebastien knows how to get the extraction just right. It's one of those wines that puts a smile on your face for all the right reasons. Not the cheapest, admittedly, but anyone who objects to paying £24 for this should think about the smart Burgundies in their collection or even a modest Chateauneuf, one that's worth drinking, anyway, and if you don't have a cellar or well stocked wine rack, consider how much you would pay in your favourite restaurant and what you would get for even twice the price when it's open again (which I hope it will be and soon).

It's like freshly squeezed orange juice: once you've had this, you're spoilt. You can never go back to the simpler stuff and I will never buy harissa again. This is so simple as well as being absolutely delicious.

The plan is, next time, to marinade the chicken in the harissa (slightly diluted with a little olive oil) for a few hours and barbecue it as before. It will be fantastic with couscous or wraps and salad (with some extra harissa, of course). The recipe makes enough for a few meals so whatever you don't use should be put into a sterilised jar and covered with a little olive oil to protect it.

Soak 20 dried chillies in boiling water for 30 minutes then hull and de-seed.
Toast 1 tsp each caraway seeds and coriander seeds with 2 tsp cumin seeds then grind.
Blitz with:

4 garlic cloves
1 tbs white wine vinegar
2 tbs lemon juice
80ml olive oil
1 tbs tomato puree
1 tsp salt
2 tsp smoked paprika

Friday, 17 April 2020

Is this some good news about the lockdown?

Wine stocks have been running low recently. After the dry pasta and paper products flew off the supermarket shelves, it was the turn of the wine aisles to empty and it wasn't long before many people realised they didn't really like what they found there. Rather than give up wine (although, apparently, some people have done precisely that), it soon became clear that wine merchants are in the category of permitted business so many of us saw huge spikes of trade, especially in the run up to Easter weekend. As I say, wine stocks have been running low.

It is good news, then, that we have been able to start to replenish our supplies but even better news that our first pallets are coming in today from Italy. I hope this signals that, as we are being told, we are over the worst of the crisis and things will soon start to normalise (not just yet though).

I CAMPI is an estate we started to work with a couple of years ago but, for some reason, I never fanfared the arrival of the wines at the time or, indeed, when a second shipment came in from the last year. That was selfish of me and I can only apologise for my failure to highlight these fantastic wines made at the estate of one of Veneto's leading oenologists, Flavio Pra who advises many top estates in the Valpolicella/Soave denominations around Verona but it is his own production that interests me as it shows the quality of many of the outstanding estates he directs but at much more attractive pricing.

White wines
There are two white wines arriving today, both of which have been in stocks already but we have shipped more because they are so very good. A well-priced (£14.40) 2018 Lugana 'Campo Argilla', from the shores of Lake Garda was the perfect match for roast chicken just last weekend. It has some quite exotic characters and has become one of our go to whites. Pra makes two Soave wines but we decided just to import the more grown up of the pair, the 2017 Soave Classico 'Campo Vulcano' (£16.50) which has more citrus character. It vies with the red Ripasso for Gambero Rosso's coveted Tre Bicchieri and never seems to be awarded fewer than two "glasses".

Red wines
A trio of fabulous reds starts with an expressive 2017 Valpolicella Superiore (£14.40) which, despite relatively low alcohol for a red wine, has great intensity and lively tannins. A great wine to have with a barbecued steak. A step up is the Tre Bicchieri winning 2015 Valpolicella Ripasso Superiore 'Campo Ciotoli' with its hints of Amarone. It is a little pricier (£18.60) but it's a steal compared with any other Ripasso I have tasted. Also arriving with today's shipment is the (also Tre Bicchieri winning) 2016 Ripasso.

Finally, the majestic 2015 Amarone della Valpolicella 'Campo Lunghi', packed full of fruit dried traditionally on straw mats giving it an alluring bitter character. The intensity of the 2015 is such that I would recommend cellaring it for a few years and enjoying the 2013 Amarone in the meantime - we had this quite recently with the most simple meal of all: a wedge of Parmesan cheese. Delicious.

Special Offer for April 2020: 12 bottles of Lugana for the price of 11 - 1 bottle free!

Wednesday, 15 April 2020

2013 Joblot revisited gives an answer to the biodynamics question

In the end, I opened both of Domaine Joblot's 2013 Givry Premier Crus, Servoisine and Clos du Cellier aux Moines, on Thursday. Both were fantastic wines, much better than on previous occasions. The differences between the two sites were apparent - Servoisine's density and power coupled with sweeter fruit against Cellier aux Moines' elegance and poise - but the vintage, never one of the most venerated in any part of Burgundy (anywhere?), has proved itself worthy of the Joblot name on this occasion, at least.

The last time I tried Servoisine was not a "wine night" according to the biodynamic calendar and the flavours were muted, muddied even. On Thursday the fruit in both cuvees was ablaze, vibrant and the acidity levels were good, making for wines that danced on the palate. I will be reserving more of these for myself but following the advice of the wine app, money well spent.

Since Thursday, a few other corks have been popped including Pierre Gaillard's 2015 Cote Rotie special cuvees. I won't brag. They were fabulous and amazingly forward. Enough said.

Now the weather seems to be improving or, at least, levelling out, I wanted to try I Campi's 2018 Lugana again, especially since I have, somewhat incredibly, managed to get a pallet from this outstanding estate into the country amid the Coronavirus lockdown. There will be a special offer on this in the next few days and anyone who enjoys an extremely well made white wine should take heed and loosen their purse strings. We had this with a simple roast chicken (Simon Hopkinson style) on Sunday and it was as perfect a match as I could envisage. Most of the wines coming in from I Campi are the same vintages as before but I am looking forward to the 2016 Ripasso, another The Bicchieri winner.

Thursday, 9 April 2020

Is there anything in biodynamics or am I a bit gullible?

A couple of years ago I was introduced to an app called 'When Wine Tastes Best', essentially the biodynamic calendar. Good days for wine are called Fruit or Flower days; bad ones are Leaf and Root days. There's a bit of explanation for all this but, it comes down to the theory that the same wine tastes better on some days (fruit or flower) than others (leaf or root) because the movement of the moon affects all living things on earth and wine is, in some respects, a living thing which responds to the 'rhythms of the moon' as it ages.

What is doesn't suggest is that, if all living things respond to the movements of the moon, then that includes us so, perhaps, rather than the wine tasting different, it is our perception of the wine that changes.

Either way, this gives rise to the only question that matters: do wines taste (or is our perception of them) any different according to the movements of the moon?

Supermarkets and many leading wine merchants seem to think so, holding tastings only on fruit or flower days. Also, some of the world's leading wineries, including the greatest of them all (DRC - not the Democratic Republic of Congo but Domaine de la Romanee-Conti - for anyone who doesn't know) are guided by biodynamic principles through all stages of viticulture and vinification. So there must be something in it, surely.

Well, there is only one way to find out. Taste, taste and taste more. In the last couple of years, we have done just that, tasting all sorts of wines over and again and yet again just in case of bottle variation. I can report that, scientific understanding notwithstanding, there really does seem to be something in this. Some golden rules:

1. NEVER open a bottle of mature wine on a leaf or root day. It will taste like Marmite gravy which is not something you will enjoy even a glass of and, frankly, what a waste of those long-loved bottles.

2. Avoid fragile wines such as most Pinot Noir and Nebbiolo except on fruit or flower days.

3. Most important, what we have found is that, by following these two rules, we are able to experience a wider range of wines than we would otherwise. Like many people, after years of experimenting, we have found particular styles we enjoy and for a period of time we will want to drink one style of wine almost exclusively. This rule ensures that, whilst Burgundy is a perennial favourite, we still get stuck into some old favourites such as Domaine Brusset's Chabriles Cairanne from time to time. And every time we do, we remember how much we enjoy it!

Anyway, as luck would have it, the app informs me that, as of about 1pm today (until 3am tomorrow), it is a flower day so I will now sign off and see if I can find a 2013 Givry 1er Cru (Cellier aux Moines or Servoisine - either will do!) from Domaine Joblot.

Happy drinking and stay safe!

Wednesday, 1 April 2020

Venison stew with chestnut sauce

I was asked if I had any recipes which use chestnuts - here's one. It goes fantastically well with a mature Rhone such as any Raymond Usseglio Chateauneuf-du-Pape.

Serves 6-8
A variation on any basic stew recipe.

Fry 250g pancetta (otherwise, bacon or salted pork belly) until the fat is rendered and remove to a bowl. Brown 1.5kg diced venison in small batches and transfer to the bowl with the pancetta.

Sweat 2 onions, finely sliced, chantenay carrots, 2 sticks of celery (chopped into small pieces) and some chopped garlic. Deglaze the casserole with a good slug of brandy and set alight. Add half a bottle each of Port and red wine (preferably Pinot Noir or Nebbiolo, otherwise any light and fruity red – not a heavy one). Bring to the boil then add beef stock2 bay leaves and a sprig or two of thyme, 1tbs Dijon mustard and 1tbs redcurrant jelly. Return the meat to the casserole and, if necessary, add enough boiling water to cover the meat. Season (no salt should be required as this is already in the pancetta) and simmer for 3 hours, occasionally checking there is enough liquid.

Serve with Chestnut sauce, roast parsnips and some cavolo nero.

Chestnut sauce
I found a recipe for chestnut sauce in The Square cookbook. It involved deep frying the chestnuts before peeling them. The first time I tried this, without a proper deep fat fryer, one of the chestnuts popped and a load of oil shot into my face... I ended up in A&E, somewhat concerned that my quest for culinary perfection may have rendered me blind. I have since realised that the only reason for doing this is to ensure the sauce is as white as possible. If you want the flavour and texture and don't mind the sauce being light brown, use vacuum sealed chestnuts. It's a lot easier! The method below is a safe compromise.

Heat oven to 150°C.

240g fresh chestnuts
, crossed and roasted with a little oil for 15-20 minutes (covered) or deep fry at 180°C for 4 minutes. Peel the skins, leaving just the white chestnut flesh.

Melt 25g butter and add chestnuts with a pinch each of salt and sugar then place in oven for 10 minutes. Remove to hob and simmer for 30 minutes with

250ml chicken stock
150ml milk
Allow to cool then blitz in a blender to a smooth paste. If the sauce is too runny, gently simmer, stirring regularly. It will thicken a little as it cools anyway.

Tuesday, 31 March 2020

Salami fest

After I posted yesterday about my current obsession with curing meats, I was challenged by a few, no doubt sceptical, readers (yes, apparently I do have them) so here is a shot of what's maturing right now. On the left, some venison pancetta (I just had a bacon sandwich: very meaty but really rather good) and the salamis: pork, venison and (pork) chorizo. These were all started on 17th March so they'll need a few weeks to reduce to 70% of their original weight which, apparently, is the point where they are ready to eat although, from my first attempts, they will need much longer to dry to the point where I would want to enjoy them. At that point I can vacuum seal any that need to have their maturation slowed down.

Basic salami recipe:

500g pork belly
500g pork shoulder – both should be ground fairly thick then mixed with the wine and:
100ml red wine (I used Muro's Rioja Crianza 2015 'Bujanda' since I was also making chorizo, saving the rest of the bottle for later, of course)
1/2tsp garlic powder
1tsp chilli flakes
1tsp black pepper, ground
1tsp black peppercorns
26g Prague Powder #2 (about 2.5g Prague Powder with the rest Himalayan salt)

Mix and leave in a fairly warm environment overnight to start the fermentation before putting into well washed beef middle cases and hanging to dry (somewhere cool and dark, ideally with air flow) until they are no more than 70% of their original weight. This will take at least four to six weeks and probably longer to firm up. A white mould may (should) form - this is good: it helps to develop flavour and protects the salami from any unwanted light.