Sunday, 29 November 2009

Cristal: hip or hype?

Last weekend we hosted our Decanter Fine Wine Encounter at the Landmark Hotel in Marylebone. It was a great turn out - just under 100 producers from around the globe came to show off their wines, including Château Palmer, Chapoutier, Seghesio and Craggy Range. Château Palmer were showing their 1996, which proved such a hit queues around the stand were five deep with tweed-clad gents jostling one another, glasses aloft, in hope of a drop.

A number of the wine world glitterati flew in to present masterlcasses, from Michel Chapoutier and Christian Moueix to the charismatic Angelo Gaja, who provided the highlight of the weekend by comparing Cabernet Sauvignon to John Wayne as a lover and Nebbiolo to Italian screen legend Marcello Mastroianni. Wayne, he argued, would be strong and powerful but a bit boring, whereas Mastroianni would bring something different to the table (or bed) every night.

I got to try some sensational wines over the two days, my highlights being Angelus 2004, Chryseia 2007, and Gaja 1976 Barbaresco, which was to die for. I'd been looking forward to the final masterclass of the weekend – Louis Roederer, as we were going to be serving Cristal 1999 in Jeroboam. They were brought into the kitchen in their bright orange wrappers like giant Christmas presents. Three of them; the three kings. We unwrapped them and left them to chill in the ice box until we received orders to pour.

Created for Tsar Alexander II of Russia in 1876, Cristal gets its name from its crystal clear, flat-bottomed bottle. Fearing assassination due to a rocky political situation, the tsar ordered the bottles of his favourite fizz to be made clear and flat so they couldn't be laced with poison or planted with a bomb.

In the late 1990s, with the emergence of 'bling' culture, rappers like the Notorious BIG, P Diddy and Jay-Z chose Cristal as their Champagne of choice, ordering it by the case load in clubs and boasting about their conspicuous consumption of it in their lyrics. Cristal became a byword for cool in the hip-hop world; the Champagne holy grail. Moët just wouldn't cut it anymore - it had to be Cris.

But the love affair with Cristal ended for Jay-Z at least in 2006, after Louis Roederer managing director Frederic Rouzard made the following comment in an interview with The Economist when asked if he thought the association with hip-hop would harm the Cristal brand: "What can we do? We can't forbid people from buying it. I'm sure Dom Pérignon or Krug would be delighted to have their business." Jay-Z quickly boycotted Cristal, moving on to Armand de Brignac or 'Ace of Spades' as it's been nicknamed, which is quickly replacing Cristal in hip-hop circles as the trophy bottle to be seen sipping from.

But what of the Cristal 1999? How did the cult cuvée perform on the night? By the time I got some in my glass, after two of the three bottles were poured in the masterclass, it had gone flat. It was like arriving at a party an hour too late. As I sipped it, I imagined what it might have been like, had I tried it as soon as the cork popped. It was certainly light and elegant with a complex and alluring honeyed nose, but worth £2,200 a bottle? Of course not. No wine is.

Panic grew in the kitchen post-masterclass when doing the routine bottle count. Where was the third Jeroboam? The masterclass leader sent a search party out to the Champagne room, while we combed the kitchen fearing the worst. Could an opportunistic ticket holder have crept in and shoved it up his lambs wool jumper? Surely not. The search party returned empty handed. We were still a Jeroboam down. Retracing the bottle's last steps, I rushed to the ice box and flung open the lid - there it was, laid back, luxuriating in the ice.

Thursday, 26 November 2009

Lanson vertical tasting

Yesterday afternoon I scuttled out of the office early to attend a vertical tasting of Lanson Champagne hosted by Tom Stevenson. The invite said it was to be held in the 'Masonic Temple' at the Andaz Hotel, Liverpool Street. I was intrigued.

Taking the lift to the first floor, I was directed through a series of carpeted corridors that lead to the temple, which was sealed off by a pair of huge varnished wooden doors etched with the words: 'For God And His Service'. The room was round, with a white marble floor and red and white marble columns evenly spaced along the walls. It was decked out like a strange courtroom - think Alice in Wonderland meets the Da Vinci Code, with rows of stern brown chairs at either side, each with their own emblem, from eagles and quills to coats of arms. 

On the ceiling, the signs of the zodiac circled a golden sun and at the far end, framed by the organ, stood a throne, its head decorated with a third eye hovering in a cloud emitting Bernini-esque beams of light. Standing next to the throne was an ashen-faced Tom Stevenson, remote control in hand. I was expecting a funny handshake, but thought better of attempting a greeting and quietly took my place next to Simon Berry.

We were handed a glass of Lanson rosé to help us get through the introduction, which, by Stevenson's own admission, was drier than a Brut Nature. The main thrust of his argument was that non-malolactic fermentation in Champagne is a trend on the rise, and we will soon see brands beyond Krug, Bollinger and Lanson experimenting with the technique. 

The fun began when we got to taste the 10 Champagnes, dating from 1996 back to 1976. It was interesting to compare the same vintages with different disgorgement dates. We tried two 1995s disgorged ten years apart (in 1999 and 2009 respectively), two 1985s disgorged in 1989 and 2006, and two 1976s disgorged in 1999 and 2008. I found myself preferring the wines that had been disgorged earlier, as they seemed to show more complexity and maturity than the recently disgorged examples, though opinion around the room was divided. 

After the tasting we got to enjoy some sensational food from the Andaz kitchen. Highlights included the goats cheese crumble with crushed walnuts (so good I had three), wild mushroom gnocci and apple cinnamon parfait with treacle sauce. At 7.30 I dashed to my second event of the evening at the HOST (Honduras Street) gallery in Old Street -  a tasting to celebrate the launch of, a wine website headed by Laura Lindsay, former sales manager of Edward Parker Wines. 

Top five 

Champagne Lanson 1996 (magnum) disgorged 2008

Clear, pale, lemon with ebullient bubbles. The nose was fascinatingly complex - with dairy notes of butter and cream lending it a Chablisian character. The Chardonnay screams out. Rounded and full in the mouth with citrus notes, good acidity and long length. Tom Stevenson once described it as 'like gargling with razor blades' (in a good way). 

Champagne Lanson 1988 (magnum) disgorged 2008

Clear, medium, gold, with a sharp citrus lemon nose and touches of honey. Crisp, fresh and silky on the palate with elegant Pinot Noir fruits, it had a good mousse, impressive length and hints of licorice and vanilla on the finish. 

Champagne Lanson 1985 (bottle) disgorged 1989

My kind of Champagne - it had a nose of hot buttered toast and a rich, full mouthfeel. It showed more complexity, body and depth than the recently disgorged 1985, with crisp acidity and a mushroomy finish. 

Champagne Lanson 1979 (magnum) disgorged 2007

Clear, medium, gold with an attractive, varnish-like nose. Light and fruity on the palate, it showed fresh lemons and apples coupled with appealing and intriguing truffle aromas. Although lighter than a lot of the Champagnes on show, it was elegant and surprisingly persistent.

Champagne Lanson 1976 (magnum) disgorged 1999

The fairest of them all, or at least the most golden. Deliciously complex with a nose of hot buttered crumpets and digestive biscuits. Round, rich, intense and full-bodied, the palate had a lovely mousse held up by a backbone of acidity and an attractive sherry-like nuttiness. I found the slightly oxidized aromas and long, toasty finish hugely appealing - my wine of the night.

Thursday, 12 November 2009

Foie gras and wine

Foie gras is like Marmite: you either love it or hate it. I love it. There's nothing quite like it. Eating a well cooked piece of foie gras is a semi-religious experience. The creaminess of the texture, the rich, delicate flavour and the way it melts on the tongue is indescribably divine. It's the nearest you can get to sex in food form.

Head chef Olivier Ripert of Le Bouchon Breton brasserie in Old Spitalfields Market is clearly in the 'love it' camp. For the month of November he has devised a menu of five seasonal starters showcasing the versatility of foie gras. Each of the dishes has been paired with a different wine, from Champagne to the more traditional Sauternes.

Never being one to turn down a challenge, I headed to the BB on Wednesday night to take on the whole menu and see which wine pairings worked best, bringing along a chef friend for an expert opinion. We were greeted in true Gallic style by a tall red-headed waiter, who appeared to glide across the tiled floor like a swan. Guiding us to our table, he thrust two glasses of Henriot Champagne - supposedly the Brut 1998, into our hands. After a whirl and a sniff we couldn't work out how this 11-year-old was still so ebullient and youthful. It also seemed to lack the complexity one would expect from vintage Champagne.

The swan soon returned with a further two glasses under his wing. 'This is the 1998' he said triumphantly, placing the flutes on the table in a graceful swoop and gliding off in the direction of the kitchen. The nose showed wonderful maturity and elegance, with an attractive honeyed bouquet and a crisp, rounded palate. It proved an excellent match for the foie gras brioche pairing - the toasty notes in the Champagne complimented the toastiness of the brioche, while the crispness of the Champagne lifted the dish, which could have easily come across too rich. We were off to a promising start.

Still only halfway through course one, we were presented with wine two: Clos Lapeyre Jurancon Sec Vitage Vielh 2005 , which had a zingy nose of freshly squeezed lemons and limes tempered with honeyed notes. Fresh and zippy on the palate it showed both the complexity of age and vigour of youth. Dish one was quickly cleared to make way for course two - Mille Feuille of foie gras with caramelised apple in a Calvados sauce. It was another great match - the apple in the rosti enhancing the citrus in the Jurancon, which had a lovely lip-smacking limey freshness. The foie gras was cooked to perfection - rich and creamy, it paired deliciously with the sweet apple in the dish, while the acidity in the wine cut through the fat brilliantly.

Without noticing, our Champagne had been swept away and replaced with two glasses of liquid gold - Castelnau de Suduiraut Sauternes 2004. Sauternes has always been considered the ultimate pairing for foie gras, its waxy sweet mouthfeel complimenting the rich creaminess of foie gras. On the night it proved the most disappointing match, paired with foie gras and ox tail terrine in a Sauternes jelly. The Sauternes was not necessarily at fault; the ox tail dominated the dish and the foie gras got completely lost. On its own the Sauternes was charming - with marmalade, apricot and orange peel on the nose and a smooth palate of white flowers and honey, but the match fell flat - the sweetness of the Sauternes jarring with the savoury ox tail.

Slightly deflated by the mismatch, we looked forward to dish four - Cassoulet of foie gras with cepes, butternut squash and spinach presented in a tiny black Le Creuset dish. The sommelier had chosen to pair it with Qupe Bien Nacido Cuvée Chardonnay Viognier 2007. Fresh, young, lively and acidic, it cut through the fat of the foie gras and lifted the dish wonderfully. We were both in raptures over this sublime combination - the mushrooms worked so well playing second fiddle to the foie gras in this symphony of flavour.

Four courses and five glasses of wine down, I had to try and find some room for the finale - Tagliatelle of girole mushrooms and foie gras, paired with Vincent Dureiul-Janthial Rully 1er Cru Les Mazieres 2005. The wine was delicious, with a crisp, fresh, apply nose and a rich creamy mouthfeel. Before I'd got my fork into the pasta, the swan had returned with a black truffle the size of walnut. He began shaving slithers onto my plate with vim, treating the truffle with the nonchalance you would a hunk of Tesco Value Cheddar. Of course I didn't want him to stop, so I refrained from lifting my hand until I could no longer see the pasta from beneath the sea of black. Diving in, it proved the epitome of what a good foie gras experience should be - an intense flavour sensation that makes you tilt your head back and close your eyes in the pure pleasure of it all.

Perhaps the beauty of foie gras lies in its exclusivity. The fact that it is saved for special occasions adds to the allure - a taste remembered that you long to experience again. How many days is it until Christmas?

Sunday, 8 November 2009

José Pizarro: Seasonal Spanish Food

On Thursday night I was invited by the Ambassador of Spain to celebrate the publication of Seasonal Spanish Food by José Pizarro, head chef across London's three Brindisa restaurants.

Making my way to the Spanish Embassy with my i-pod blasting out flamenco to get me in the mood, I was expecting the evening the follow the format of most book launches - a small intimate gathering in which to enjoy a glass or two of fizz and a sprinkling of canapés. I had clearly underestimated the size and scale of the event.

Spilling from the open door of the embassy was a long queue of smartly dressed human traffic that snaked around Belgrave Square. Party dress codes are something of a sartorial minefield. Should you err on the smart side of casual or the casual side of smart? The invitation said 'Lounge Suit', which is almost untranslatable for women. I began to panic as I notched up the number of evening dresses on display. Would my frilly dress cut the mostaza?

At the door the PR told me that the original guest list had started at 800 but had to be slashed to a mere 300. The best thing about these events is that you get to go behind closed doors and sneak a peek into realms that would otherwise remain forever closed. The interior of the building is breathtaking, with chandeliers hanging from the high ceilings.

Grabbing a glass of Cava, I entered the main room. It was heaving. It took me back to my days as a reporter for Pandora, the diary page of The Independent. Walking into a packed room where everyone appears to be in glittering conversation with one another can make for an unnerving minute or two, as you penetrate the room with an air of purpose, until that wonderful moment when you spot someone you know.

I spent my awkward minute admiring the goliath paintings adorning the walls of lords and ladies with hounds at their heels indulging in country pursuits. No sooner than I'd spotted some familiar faces a glass was tapped and the speeches began. Pizarro, looking jovial in a pink shirt, spoke of his childhood in Extremadura and how growing up in Spain all food was seasonal. The message of the book is about going back to basics: if you stick to fresh, good quality, seasonal ingredients they will speak for themselves.

After the speeches we got to try a selection of his creations. A modest 19 courses did the rounds. Standouts included the mushroom and chestnut soup, scallops with crispy ham, deep-fried goats cheese with orange blossom honey and Brandy-filled figs. When the Cava ran dry we were ushered out and given a goodie bag full edible treats - Ibérico Chorizo, sweet pimentón and vials of olive oil. A huge number of us then carried on the party into the early hours at Casa Brindisa in South Kensington.

Judging from the colossal turn out and the reaction to his speech, Pizarro is a much-respected figure who has been pivotal in putting quality Spanish food firmly on the London restaurant map. 

Photo credit: Seasonal Spanish Food by Jose Pizarro (Kyle Cathie, £19.99) with photography by Emma Lee

Saturday, 7 November 2009

Pétrus: the Pomerol powerhouse

Working as the editorial assistant at Decanter has opened a door onto another world. Every day is different and throws up new challenges. I've got to do some pretty bizarre things during my two years on the mag, none of which however were as strange as the task that befell me the other afternoon.

We are working on our Christmas issue and wanted to reflect the decadent and indulgent nature of the festive season on the cover – if you can't crack open your best bottles on Christmas Day when can you? Guy Woodward, our editor, made the bold decision of putting Pétrus on the cover.

It may sound strange describing the decision to put the most lusted after wine in the world on the cover of the the best-known wine magazine in the world as 'bold', but there is the danger that in doing so we'll alienate our readers. Pétrus is one of those wines most people can only dream about tasting. It's the holy grail and at the top of my wish list of wines to try before I die. The closest I've got so far is salivating over the tasting notes. Other luckier members of the team got to try the lauded '89 vintage last year at a dinner honouring Pétrus manager Christian Moueix as the Decanter Man of the Year 2008.

I was in full support of Guy's decision to put Pétrus on the cover, even in these dark times of recession, because magazines are all about aspiration. Glossy magazines at their best transport you to another world. If you can't wear the clothes you see in Vogue, at least you can imagine wearing them, and who can really afford to drive the Ferraris on the cover of Top Gear each month? Yet that doesn't stop the magazine from selling. People want to read about the things they can't afford to own - the fabric of the clothes, the interior of the car, the smell of the wine.

We went ahead with the Pétrus idea and I was asked to source a bottle. I called up a contact at Corney & Barrow and eased her into the idea by setting the scene of our Christmas cover. Then I dropped the bombshell - 'we were hoping to borrow a bottle of Pétrus for the shoot', I said in hushed tones, 'any vintage', I quickly added. I heard a gulp. 'Really', said the surprised voice, 'how long were you thinking of borrowing it for?' 'We'd only need it for the morning of the shoot and could have it couriered back straight after, so around 24 hours in total', I said confidently. 'I'll have to get back to you', she said, and the phone rang off.

A day later we were given the green light and were told a bottle of the 2004 vintage (currently retailing at around £800) would arrive the day before the shoot provided we could prove we were insured for damages. I had to be personally insured for the bottle and was the only person (bar the photographer and postman) allowed to handle it. £800 sounds like a ludicrously high sum, but it's a snip compared to the amount a case of the '82 vintage went under the hammer for this month at an Acker Merral auction in Hong Kong - £56,194, that's £4,682 a bottle!

On Tuesday afternoon an email pinged into my inbox that simply read, 'the Pétrus has left the building'. After an hour I made a couple of calls to the post room to check if it had arrived. It was eventually hand-delivered to me by our Polish postman. My heart started beating a little faster. Why was I getting so worked up over a wine? I get to taste fine wines nearly every day in my job but there was something about this bottle of Pétrus that incited almost evangelical reverence. I nervously grappled with the bubble wrap and eventually got it open. There it was in front of me, the embossed lettering on the glass adding to its beauty. I lingered on the label for a minute then safely stowed it away for the night.

After the shoot the next morning I was informed I had to hand deliver the bottle back to Corney & Barrow, as relying on a courier was deemed too risky. I packaged it up in polystyrene and hailed a taxi that took me across town towards Tower Hill. Unsure of the safest way to position the bottle during transit, I opted for the maximum security method of clinging to it tightly for the entire journey, petrified it might otherwise break.

I am happy to report that the bottle and I arrived safely at Corney & Barrow. It was a brief encounter - the perfect type of a perfect pleasure: exquisite and leaving me unsatisfied - what more can one want?

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

The Bathhouse: Cazadores 'día de los muertos' fiesta

I partied in a graveyard last night. Cazadores Tequila hosted an event at the Bathhouse bar in Bishopsgate churchyard to celebrate the Mexican fiesta 'el día de los muertos' – the day of the dead.

Tucked away from the bustle of the City, the Bathhouse is a hidden haunt harking back to Victorian London. Serving as a Turkish baths during the 19th century, it's now a quirky nightspot for those seeking an alternative to cookie cutter identikit clubs. Deceptively small on the outside, the venue is cavernous once you descend into its depths. Wonderfully, it has kept many of its original features, from the blue tiles on its roof to the marble bar.

On arrival I was greeted by a pair of girls in pretty dresses with skull faces. The juxtaposition of their lively outfits full of bright red flowers with their dead faces was brilliantly macabre. They offered me a Lolita cocktail - Cazadores and pomegranate with a salt rim - it was divine. I quickly moved onto the Vampiro - Cazadores with orange bitters.

Huge plates of nachos with mammoth bowls of home-made guacamole were brought in by the sexy skullstresses, theatrically carried at arms length above our heads. We were here to celebrate the day of the dead - a Mexican tradition dating back to the Aztecs, who dedicated the day to the goddess Mictecacihuatl (try saying that after a few Tequilas), known as the Lady of the Dead.

The fiesta coincides with All Souls' Day, and, rather than the spooky nature of Halloween, is seen as a chance for Mexicans to honour the deceased. During the festivities people give each other sugar skulls as gifts and graveyards are decorated with flowers while graves are turned into shrines in honour of the dead. The owner of Mestizo, a gourmet Mexican restaurant in Highgate, told me it's common for people to bring their dead loved one's favourite food, drinks and music to their graveside during the fiesta to encourage their soul to visit.

The Bathhouse had its own little shrine, with a cross centre piece made of orange marigolds, the 'flor de muerto' – flower of the dead. A nimble fingered face painter was on hand to deck us out with warpaint. I opted for the traditional black and white skull. Reading the paper on the tube home, I kept jumping at the sight of my reflection in the window – a memento mori indeed.

Monday, 2 November 2009

Fortnum & Mason: Dom Pérignon & jamón

There is possibly only one thing better than drinking Dom Pérignon 2000 on a Monday evening, and that's drinking Dom Pérignon 2000 with Joselito Gran Reserva ham, or jamón as I prefer to call it.

Fortnum & Mason had laid on a tasting of the latest 'vintage' of Joselito – 2007 – alongside millennium vintage Dom Pérignon and, as a comparison, 2006 Joselito. The two brands are more similar than you might think. Joselito is in the top tier of Iberico ham producers – a first growth of the ham world occupying the same sort of niche in its field as Dom Pérignon does Champagne, with an 'off the leg' slice price of £200/kg and an 8kg ham going for £600 a pop.

So do Dom Pérignon and jamón make for a match in gourmet heaven? You wouldn't think so, but they go surprisingly well. Neither dominates the other. The ham seems to bring out the freshness of the Champagne and tempers the acidity, while the wine cuts through the fat of the ham and cleanses the palate.

It was fascinating to compare the jamón 'vintages'. After tasting a few slithers of each, you quickly become aware of the vast differences between the two. The younger 2007 vintage was lighter in colour and more translucent. Fine as silk with marbly flesh, its delicacy and refinement proved a better platefellow for the DP than the richer '06.

The 2006 was noticeably darker - ham ages the opposite way to wine, gaining colour with age and turning from light red to dark purple at its oldest. The '06 was almost purple and had a much stronger, more intense flavour. Fattier, meatier and richer, you could taste the maturity. It had a delicious umami-rich savouriness that would pair wonderfully with a bone dry Fino or Manzanilla.

How good a ham tastes depends on three things: the breed, the feed and the ageing process. Hams are cured in cellars for varying lengths of time depending on their size. Joselito is aged for a minimum of three years and a maximum of seven. The heavenly ham, known as pata negra, comes from black Iberico pigs raised in south-west Spain. In order to be called Iberico, the pigs must have at least 75% Iberico blood, but Zac Innes, Brindisa's maestro cortador, assures me that Joselito only use 100% Iberico pigs.

The best hams, known as 'bellota', are fed acorns for their last few months, which impart a nutty sweetness to the jamón. The acorn harvest begins anytime between September and November, at which point the pigs are fattened up in a process called montanera, where they eat around 80% 0f their body weight in acorns over four months. But Iberico pigs are notoriously fussy and will only sniff out the best acorns to munch on.

Like wine, Iberico ham operates under a DO system, with four DOs currently in place in Salamanca, Extremadura, Huelva (home to the ham town of Jabugo) and Córdoba. The trend for Iberico ham is growing – earlier this year Harrods opened 5J Iberico Ham House, a restaurant dedicated to the marbled meat complete with in house 'maestro cortador' (master cutter).

Despite its rise in popularity, Iberico ham is sill very much a luxury product, making up only 5% of the Spanish ham market. Quality comes at a price – a pack of Joselito Gran Reserva will set you back £20, but the ham is at the top of its game and offers a melt-in-the-mouth taste that can't be copied – accept no imitations.

Dom Pérignon 2000 tasting note: attractive pale lemon colour with floral aromas and a light lemon lift. Subtle and refined, it showed elegance and finesse on the palate with wonderful freshness and delicate buttered biscuit aromas. Crisp, airy and rich in the mouth with honeyed nuances, the wine was surprisingly youthful for its nine years and had a long refreshing finish. Devastatingly drinkable.