Monday, 29 March 2010

The Sampler: top 10

It's a grizzly grey Monday night in Islington and I feel like a kid in a candy shop. I'm at The Sampler armed with a loaded card. Admiring the 80 wines on display in the Enomatic machines like paintings in a gallery, I don't know where to begin.

I try to keep on top of wine trends, but am three years late in discovering this North London gem. Walking round the shop is a genuinely exciting experience - it feels Decanter magazine has come to life, and all the top wines have leapt from the pages onto the shelves. All the key world wine regions are represented and at every turn is an A-lister: Salon, Ausone, Richebourg, Aldo Conterno, Castillo Ygay, Caymus...

The bottles stand side by side on the shelves begging to be bought. I have to resist the urge to pick them up and drool over them. As I ponder what wine to try first, I catch sight of a man in his mid 50s in a purple flat cap, outsized glasses and yellow Crocs enjoying a slurp or two whilst listening to his i-pod. He looks French. That's the beauty of The Sampler - everyone is free to enjoy the delights of this wine juke box at their own speed and to their own soundtrack. The shop's soundtrack, a trendy mix of noughties indie – Kasabian, Kings of Leon and Arctic Monkeys, is seriously cool to sip to.

A selection of the much-hyped Bordeaux 2009s will be available to try from the end of April, but if your budget doesn't stretch that far fear not. I topped up my card with a humble £10 and managed to try 10 impressive wines from a fantastic variety of regions. Where else in London can you do that? I'm a little in love with The Sampler, and plan on making a return visit soon, if only to catch a glimpse of Ivy the dog. Here are my top ten...

Lopez de Heredia, Viña Gravonia, Rioja, 1999 (84p)
Made in Lopez de Heredia's Haro-based winery where architect Zaha Hadid has recently set up shop, the aged white is an attractive amber-gold colour with a wonderfully developed nose of apricot, poached pear and vanilla. Unlike any white Rioja I've ever tasted, its oxidized aromas lends it a Sherry-like quality. Full, rich and weighty on the palate, it tastes of toffee apples with a floral, honeysuckle finish. Lush and alluring, creamy yet fresh, it's a fascinating find. I fear I may have peaked too soon...

Au Bon Climat, Wild Boy Chardonnay, 2007 (74p)
I had to try this wine, if only for the mad label – winemaker Jim Clendenen's head in the middle of a psychedelic triangle looking like a modern day Jim Morrsion. Going on the label, I was expecting a full on cream and oak explosion, so was pleasantly surprised by the restrained and dare I say elegant nose of lemon and green apple. The oak certainly comes through, but in a violin rather than an electric guitar sort of way. It's rich, rounded and creamy on the palate – delicious.

Loimer Steinmassl Riesling, 2006 (£1.54)
From winemaker Freddie Loimer's single vineyard estate, the nose shows wonderful ripe juicy fruit: peaches, pear drops and baked apples. Elegant on the palate, with mouth-puckering citrus fruits, lovely structure, complex minerality and hints of vanilla perfume, it's luscious long length hints at tremendous ageing potential.

Briseu Patapon, 2008 (75p)
If you can get past the scary Jack Nicholson-esque clowns on the label, then this is a really interesting wine. Made from Pineau d'Aunis, a black grape from the Loire, the raspberry coloured wine displays lovely Gamay-style fruit: bright Morello cherries and ripe raspberries. The nose explodes with soft summer fruits, and on the palate are hints of spice, cigar smoke and tar. Grippy and peppered with great structure, it would be amazing served chilled on a summer picnic.

Reichsrat von Buhl, Spätburgunder, 2007 (79p)
I tried my first Spätburgunder last Friday and was seriously impressed by its smokey bacon character - it tasted like liquid Frazzles, so was very excited to see this Pfalz Pinot Noir in the line up. A pale ruby colour, it has a pretty strawberry and cherry blossom nose with an earthy undercurrent. Medium bodied, the slightly perfumed red berry palate mirrors the nose, with bright red fruit mixing into an attractive savoury finish. Quite lovely.

4 Kilos, 12 Volts, 2008 (91p)
Being an unashamed hispanophile, I was keen to try this effort from Mallorca, made from the indigenous Callet-Fogoneu grape, with a little help from Syrah, Cabernet and Merlot. Still very young, the palate shows savoury aromas and dense black fruit: blackberries and juicy blueberries, with hints of coffee and spice from the oak. On the opulent palate the thick bramble fruit continues, with blueberry jam coming to the fore. Suave in the mouth, with lovely vanilla and sweet spice from the oak, it's rich, mouthfilling and seriously quaffable.

Innocent Bystander Shiraz Viognier, 2005 (53p)
Already won over by the enigmatic label, this Yarra Valley gem didn't disappoint. The nose is full of bright, vibrant black cherries, chocolate and nutmeg, and yet it retains a wonderful savoury quality. Rich, full bodied and fruit forward, the palate is lush and velvety, with delicious ripe black fruit mingling with alluring meaty notes and hints of spice. Big and grippy, yet elegant, with a spicy liquorice finish, the savoury notes make it dangerously moreish.

Château Musar, Musar Jeune, 2008 (45p)
Château Musar is high up on my wish list of wines to try, so I saved this until last. Made in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley, this young, unoaked upstart is vibrant, fruity and unashamedly exotic. Made from a blend of Cincault, Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon, the nose shows lovely red and black cherries, raspberries and red currants. The palate is rich, smooth and red-fruited with sweet spice, structure and grip. Magnificent.

Paxton AAA Shiraz, 2007 (77p)
They call this AAA for a reason. Made from 70% Shiraz and 30% Grenache at the reputed McLaren Vale biodynamic winery, the wine has a spice-box perfumed nose of kirsch and mulberry. Supple, forward and textured, it's a seriously easy going wine. Pleasantly perfumed, elegant and restrained, it smells of the Old World, the Grenache powering through to give it a cherry and raspberry kick. Velvety and smooth, it has a creamy and meaty core with sweet cinnamon spice on the long, full finish. Quite delicious.

Fontanafredda Barolo, 2004 (£1.19)
And finally... One of only two wines I paid over a pound for, this was worth the extra pennies. The Fontanafredda estate used to be the hunting lodge of the late King Emmanuel II, and was also home to his mistress Bella Rosa Rosin. The blood red wine from this superb vintage has a clear-cut, intense nose of withered roses and underbrush with overtones of vanilla and spice. Dry but soft, the palate is haunting – full bodied, silky and well balanced, it's complex and lengthy with alluring spices, smoke and crushed rose petal aromas. Grippy and spicy on the palate with lingering sour cherries, it could only be Italian – it could only be Barolo.

Wednesday, 24 March 2010

Remy Martin masterclass at Boisdale

Boisdale is becoming something of a second home. No sooner had I been kicked off the roof terrace for making too much noise at the end of a very merry Groundhog Day dinner sampling the delights of Chivas Regal, than I was invited back for a Rémy Martin masterclass.

The event was hosted by the gallantly-titled Louis XIII Brand Ambassador Alexandre Quintin, a young Frenchman with clear blue eyes and a voice that could melt glass.

A duo of Rémy Martin cocktails – the Side Car and French Mojito, kicked off the evening in style, which I enjoyed whilst quizzing Alexandre about the alleged Bruni-Sarkozy ménage a quatre. A French colleague had told me the affairs hadn't been reported in the French press at all, and I was keen to find out why.

'We're not interested in what Sarkozy gets up to in his spare time', Alexandre says, before we're ushered into the dining room. There are ten of us, and I'm one of only two women. I suppose Cognac has always been, and still is, a male domain. Alexandre introduces himself and his aim for the evening – to turn the concept of Cognac on its head and break the rules by playing with temperature and food matches.

The word brandy comes from the Dutch brandewijn, meaning burnt wine, which came into use when Dutch traders introduced brandy to Northern Europe from Southern France. Alexandre explains that all Cognacs are brandies but not all brandies are Cognacs. In order to be classified as Cognac, the brandy needs to be from the Cognac region, have been double distilled and aged in French oak for at least two years, and be 40% abv or above when bottled.

The best Cognacs come from Grand and Petit Champagne regions due to their Champagne-like chalky soils that impart the Cognacs with minerality and high acidity, making them more refined and elegant and giving them greater ageing potential.

Time to put all this theory into practice... the waiter emerges with shot glasses of Rémy Martin VSOP frozen to -18 degrees, which is paired with smoked salmon blinis. It has a lovely floral nose with toffee and caramel undertones and hints of aniseed and banana brought though by the freezing temperature.

Next up we try the same VSOP, but this time at room temperature paired with Roquefort and wild rocket. At the higher temperature more of the fruit and floral aromas come through – I find peach, apricot and violet, and vanilla from the oak. The tangy Roquefort pairing is inspired.

We move swiftly on to the Remy Martin XO at room temperature with a steak-sized slab of foie gras and brioche. Alexandre tells us not to swirl our glasses. Unlike wine, which needs a swirl to release the aromas, swirling Cognac has little benefit, as it only releases the alcohol.

The XO is delicious – soft and smooth, with toffee apple, vanilla, lightly-whipped cream and a hint of lemon on the nose, and a spicy, woody, floral palate of cinnamon, iris, dried figs and marzipan. The creaminess of the wine blends wonderfully with the richness of the foie gras, making for an unashamedly decadent combination.

For the grand finale we try the Coeur de Cognac at room temperature with blood orange sorbet and on crushed ice with tarte tartin and vanilla ice cream. Aimed at a younger audience and for a more European palate, the Coeur de Cognac is fruit driven and smooth. Served in a magically light Riedel that almost floats out of my hand, on taking a sniff I'm whacked with a wall of alcohol and a nose of figs, smoke and strawberry shortcake. The palate is woody, with hints of dark chocolate and marshmellow that marry well with the vanilla ice cream.

Before we retire to the roof terrace to puff on Punch Habana cigars, a rather squiffy member of the group in a pink shirt and red braces stands up, glass in hand, and declares: 'Claret for boys, Port for men and Cognac for heroes' – I'll drink to that.

Tuesday, 23 March 2010

Dans le Noir?

I'm walking in complete darkness into the unknown, my right hand on the shoulder of the stranger in front of me. I have no idea where I'm going, and am totally at the mercy of Cyril, my blind guide.

Twelve of us make up this strange human train. We keep calling out to each other for reassurance, scared by the prospect of both silence and darkness. I cling tightly to the shoulder in front. Cyril, at the head of the train, leads us slowly to our table, guiding our hands to our chairs.

I tentatively feel around me, comforted by the presence of the chair. It seems so solid in this world of uncertainty. Standing in the pitch black, I wait for instructions. I've never felt so vulnerable. Cyril tells us to sit down. I slowly feel my way around my chair and locate the table. It serves no purpose, but I keep my eyes open. It makes me feel safer.

The first few minutes are incredibly disconcerting. My natural reaction is one of mild panic. I want to be back in the safety of the light and wonder how I'll get through the next hour in the dark.

I'm at Dans le Noir? in Farringdon taking part in a blind tasting with a difference. A few days before I received a cryptic invite asking me to turn up at the restaurant at a certain time. All details were kept secret. Before we do the conga into the unknown, we’re given a talk about the five tastes: sweet, salt, bitter, sour and umami; the elusive fifth taste.

Our sense of taste protects us from danger – newborn babies instinctively accept sweet liquids and spit out bitter ones as a safety mechanism, while salt drives the appetite, sugar gives us energy and umami protein.

Around 80% of our perception of flavour comes through our sense of smell. This is true in wine tasting, where it's an accepted fact that tasters get much more from a wine's bouquet than its flavour profile. So much so in fact, that aside from detecting body and tannins, you should be able to get a full picture of a wine’s character simply by smelling it.

Studies into how we taste are still surprisingly incomplete - there is currently no understanding of the mechanism for how tannin or metallic tastes are perceived. Our challenge tonight is to taste without the influence of vision, which has such a stronghold on perception. Vision begins the process of perception; it primes us. We can't help but be influenced by the way things look, and immediately attach our preconceived ideas onto them.

I've made it to the table and managed to sit down without injuring the tasters either side of me. I introduce myself in the dark - unsurprisingly, no hands are shaken. Cyril informs us we have six wines each – three reds and three whites. He asks us to locate them. I lunge my hand forward and knock one of the plastic glasses over, presumably all over my neighbour. I find it amusing that I can't see the spillage, and take to imagining a little river of wine cascading down the table.

I gently feel around the table and find my five remaining glasses. We're told to pick up the first and take a sip. It's simple, fresh and zippy – Sauvginon Blanc perhaps? I don't feel the darkness has widened my olfactory horizons, it just makes you focus on the wine more. The second white is far more interesting – it has a lovely complex nose and developed flavours. I think it might be Chardonnay.

On to the reds... The first is light, fresh and fruity - possibly a Tempranillo. As with the whites, they seem to move up in complexity, the second showing some lovely ripe fruit and vanilla sweetness, while the third is a full on vanilla bomb. Rich, rounded and creamy, with gorgeous black fruit, I'm pretty sure it's Syrah. It's absolutely delicious. Can you bring the bottle over? I joke to Cyril. The voices round the table seem to agree and soon the air is buzzing with superlatives.

After we've tried and rated the wines, we're presented with a bowl of food and are told to tuck in with our fingers. I feel my way around the edge of the bowl and dive in, greeted by an array of canapés. While the wines' aromas didn't seem particularly heightened, these appear the best canapés I've ever tasted. As I bite into each, my tongue rewards me with an explosion of flavour and texture. The cucumber is extra crunchy, the dill more dominant, the cheese more, well, cheesy. Dining in the dark certainly seems to bring out the best in the food. With nothing to distract you, all focus is on flavour.

With the experiment over, Cyril asks us to stand up. After an hour, I've got strangely used to the dark to the point where it feels like I can see. As humans, we seem to have a remarkable ability to adapt to almost any environment, but I'm relieved to be leaving the black hole.

My hour in the dark has given me a fresh perspective. It's the closest a seeing person will ever get to stepping into a blind man's shoes. The tables turn and it's the sighted people who have to rely on their blind guides, an experience I found truly humbling. Returning to the light, the six wines are unveiled. They're all Jacob's Creek – three Rieslings and three Shirazs. It turns out I have expense taste – my two favourites are the 2009 Steingarten Riesling and the 2004 Centenary Hill Shiraz.

I'm surprised to see the line up. Having all raved about the third red, with some guessing it was a top Rioja or Cal Cab, it's made me rethink my preconceptions about the brand, the old 'don't judge a book by it's cover' adage coming to mind. As clichéd as the saying is, there is truth in it. It's hard not to judge things by the way they look, just as it's hard not to judge a wine by the brand name on the label, but the more open-minded we can be, the more we will be continually surprised and impressed by what life flings at us. Nothing is ever as it seems.

Monday, 22 March 2010

Bar Pepito: London's first Sherry bar

It’s a drizzly Thursday night, but inside Bar Pepito it’s as hot as pimiento. Opening the door of the tiny bodega in King’s Cross, I’m whacked with the intoxicating smell of jamón.

The bar sweats Andalusian charm – a slice of Jerez squeezed into 30 square feet, from the floor covered with azulejos (traditional Spanish tiles), to the flamenco posters and esparto-grass mats lining the walls, it’s easy to feel transported to Southern Spain; it even comes complete with an authentic Spanish racket.

I’m standing shoulder to shoulder with friends around a Tio Pepe barrel table dotted with brightly-coloured bowls of kikos (fried corn) and habas fritas (fried broad beans). Plates of pan con tomate, jamón ibérico and sheep’s cheese emerge from the miniscule kitchen and four small glasses of Tio Pepe Fino are brought over to our barrel.

It’s the launch night of Bar Peptio; London’s first Sherry bar. The tiny bar, a converted storage shed, lies a few Spanish steps away from sister restaurant Camino in Varnisher’s Yard.

Keen to shake off Sherry’s grandma image is Pepito’s hispanophile owner Richard Bigg. He’s on a mission to convert London into a city of Sherry sippers and give Sherry the makeover it desperately deserves. Once described as the grand druid of hip hangouts, Bigg has a bloodhound nose for the next big bar, having started up Cantaloupe in Shoreditch years before the cool kids invaded.

‘Sherry is druggingly deliciously and the public are ready for it’, Bigg begins with brio. ‘Wine knowledge is going through the roof – people are becoming more confident and want to experiment with new styles. It’s a risk’, Bigg concedes, ‘but I like taking risks. It would have been riskier if I’d opened a stand-alone bar, but I think it would still work.’

Bigg has collaborated with Gonzáles Byass, whose wines make up nine of the 15 Sherries on offer, along with one beer and a seasonal Sherry-based cocktail. The list is deliberately short, so as not to intimidate novices, but Bigg already plans to edit the offering and include a different 'wild card' wine each month.

Team GB are out in full force – managing director Martin Skelton and marketing director Jeremy Rockett flock to our barrel, armed with a bottle of Gonzáles Byass 1968 Oloroso. It’s outstanding, with a nose of varnish, walnut skins and mahogany. On the palate is sweet spice, orange peel, dried figs and hazelnuts. It’s deliciously long and amazingly vibrant for its years.

Accompanying the wines is a well thought out tapas menu including venison carpaccio and devon crab salad. Each dish comes with a Sherry recommendation. ‘Sherry has to be drunk with food – it’s the best food matching wine there is’, says Bigg. ‘It’s all about serving fresh styles at the right temperature in the right glasses’, he adds.

Written on mini blackboards is a selection of six wine flights (three 50ml measures), including the Oloroso-based ‘Glorioso’ and the PX-fuelled ‘Decadencia’. A cage-like cellar lines the back wall, and next to it, a single Enomatic machine. Bigg is offering Bar Pepito cards, which you can load up with credit to buy 25, 50 and 75ml Sherry shots starting at 95p and going up to £4.50 for the ‘68 Oloroso.

Sherry has always been the wine world’s best kept secret, but it looks like the secret is out. I woke up with a head thicker than peasant bread, but it was worth it. Pepito looks set to change London’s wine drinking landscape – make the detour while you still can.

Tuesday, 16 March 2010

Wines from Spain Trade Fair

Last week was something of a Spanish affair. After the Caballeros dinner at the Dorchester on Tuesday came the annual Wines from Spain trade fair on Thursday, where I bumped into a number of the Caballeros minus their red robes.

A staggering 1,500 wines were on show. I made it my mission to taste as many of them as humanly possible in two hours. After the tasting I was ushered into a car with blacked out windows and driven to Devonshire Terrace in the über trendy (and canopied) Devonshire Square for the Wines of Navarra press supper.

The restaurant was buzzing with wine hacks from the tasting. We got to enjoy a spread of Navarra wines and delicious tapas including golf ball-sized cod croquettes and juicy pork belly. Here are my top 10 wines of the day...

Bodegas Gerardo Méndez, Albariño do Ferreiro, Rías Baixas, 2008
This 100% Albariño from Galicia's quality DO is painstakingly made from grapes from eight different vineyard sites. All eight are separately vinified and aged on the lees for six months. The wine showed superb purity and elegance, with a stone fruit nose of peach and apricot wrapped around ribbons of honeysuckle. Bone dry with bags of texture, the palate is honeyed, rich and round, with a steely mineral core and persistent notes of lemon, apple and lime. Classy stuff.

Celler Joan Sangenís, Mas d'en Compte Barrel-Fermented Blanco, Priorat, 2007
Made from 60% Garnacha Blanca and barrel-fermented for two weeks on the skins, the nose is an enticing and complex mix of honeyed pear and apple, pineapple, cocoa and apricot. Full and buttery on the palate, with toasty mineral notes, hints of sweet vanilla and a concentrated, rich texture of fleshy peach, it had wonderful balance and lingering length. A fascinating find.

Equipo Navazos, Navazos-Niepoort, Sherry, 2008
Without a doubt the most curious wine of the tasting. It wasn't even in the catalogue – I got a tip off from Peter McCombie to try it. Only 4,500 bottles are being released. Made in collaboration with Dirk Niepoort from 100% Palomino Fino, it is fermented in butt and aged without fortification under a layer of flor for five months. Rediscovering the roots of Jerez with an unfortified white, it had a salty Fino nose that mixed with fresh notes of melon and green apple. The palate was equally fresh with a nutty finish. Sherry, but not as you know it...

Bodegas Naia, Naiades, Rueda, 2007
My wine of the night from the Caballeros dinner, I couldn't resist trying this 100% Verdejo again as it's so sensational. On the nose I got creamy toffee, caramelized white peaches, and poached pears dipped in honey. The rich, creamy palate is as velvety as it gets, with slightly nutty aromas and honeysuckle soaring from the glass. Toasty, full-bodied, and wonderfully rounded, it's utterly delicious, and not dissimilar to some of my favourite white Burgundies.

Bodegas Chivite, Colección 125 Reserva, Navarra, 2005
Being a huge Chardonnay fan, I was excited about trying this. Already won over by the retro font on the label, the wine didn't disappoint. Aged for 10 months in French oak, the nose was rich, creamy and enticing with notes of hazelnut, brioche and freshly baked bread. The palate was voluptuous and decadent, fresh and well structured, with a long, rounded, toasty finish. Divine – I needed intervention.

Cortijo los Aguilares, Pinot Noir, Sierras de Malaga, 2008
Based in the beautiful hilltop town of Ronda, the vineyard shares space on the estate with free roaming Iberian black pigs. Planted in 2000, the vines are still incredibly young, but are showing great potential. Made from 100% Pinot Noir, the wine had lovely aromatic, earthy strawberry fruit on the nose and great structure on the palate. Subtle, soft and rounded, it was quite lovely. A Pinot with promise!

Jean León, Cabernet Sauvignon Gran Reserva, Penedes, 2000
A legendary figure in the world of Spanish wine, before tending the vines Jean León opened La Scala restaurant in Hollywood with James Dean. Returning to his native Penedes in 1963, León used cuttings from Lafite to develop his signature Cabs. The 2000 vintage has a dense black fruit nose that mixes with enticing smokey, meaty aromas. Velvety on the palate, with grippy tannins and a robust body, it showed wonderful complexity – sweet herbal aromas danced with the liquorice on the finish. One for laying down.

Torres, Perpetual, Priorat, 2006
A homage to the monks of the courageous Carthusian order who arrived in Priorat in 1095 and began cultivating the vines, the wine is a blend of Garnacha from 50-year-old vines and Cariñena from 80-year-old vines from steeply-sloped licorella soils. So dark it was almost opaque, it had a beautifully dense, complex character of black cherries, sweet plums, liquorice and tar. Grippy, rich and mouthfilling with a chocolatey, spicy edge, it's drinking well now, but will be even better in a few years.

Marqués de Murrieta, Castillo Ygay Gran Reserva, Rioja, 1978
Tasting this was a real treat. The wine spent a remarkable 18 years in barrel before bottling, and has retained an attractive brick red colour. It had a delicious savoury nose of game, spice, tea and tobacco, along with the ever-present red fruit and soft leather core. The mature fruit had a slightly wild, savage character. Smooth and elegant on the palate, it showed remarkable vibrancy for its years. Worth the wait!

Bodegas Hidalgo, Palo Cortado Wellington VORS NV, Sherry
I'm a Sherry nut, so it doesn't take much to get me excited, especially if it's a Palo Cortado. This fine example from Javier Hidalgo, who was watching my reaction from the side of the stand, had a lovely rich nose of roasted almonds and caramel. The palate was round and plush, with sweet and savoury notes of toasted nuts and toffee. The tangy, salty thread, gave the wine a zing in its tail. Lively, long, lovely.

Saturday, 13 March 2010

Mad Hatters Afternoon Tea at Sanderson

2010 is getting curiouser and curiouser by the day. No sooner had I seen in the New Year with an Alice in Wonderland-themed party, complete with giant chess board, flamingo croquet and cocktails in teapots, than Tim Burton followed my lead by releasing a film version of the Lewis Carroll classic starring Johnny Depp as the Mad Hatter.

In honour of the movie, a host of wonderful Alice-themed events have been popping up around London, including the Mad Hatters Afternoon Tea at the Sanderson hotel, which runs throughout March. The pastry chefs have tumbled down the rabbit hole and created a menu filled with curious treats that play tricks on the tastebuds.

Alice in Wonderland provides the perfect springboard for culinary creativity. Carroll's creation is full of unforgettable food scenes, from the drink me potion that makes Alice bigger and smaller, to the over-seasoned soup made by the plate-throwing cook and the jam tarts that become the subject of a ludicrous court case.

Served in the flower-filled courtyard garden of the hotel, the afternoon tea features rainbow-coloured finger sandwiches – smoked salmon and cream cheese is served between bright green spinach bread, while the ham and English mustard comes on canary yellow saffron bread.

Excitement builds as you go up the cake stand. Alongside the rainbow sarnies are a pair of quintessentially English scones with strawberry jam and a scoop of clotted cream. Moving up to the second tier, all manner of curiosities await. The Queen of Hearts tea cake with its white chocolate pink shell, is full of strawberry mousse that melts in the mouth. It's a full-on sugar injection.

The chocolate and raspberry crackle cupcake is sprinkled with popping candy that explodes like a firework in your mouth, bringing back delicious memories of the paper-thin packets sold in the school tuck shop. My favourite of the quirky cakes was the hazelnut and passion fruit tart topped with the White Rabbit's pocket watch set to teatime: 3pm. The passion fruit took a back seat to the smooth, creamy hazelnut, and its pastry base was cooked to perfection.

Moving up to the teacup on the top tier, things became even curiouser. Four lollies stood in a sea of blue chips. Thinking it might be popping candy, I ate a handful. My smile turned sour when I realised it was rock salt. I shoved the mint choc-chip ice cream lolly into my mouth to drown out the flavour. It exploded in a single bite.

The finale came in the form of a double-sided pineapple lollipop that turns your mouth from hot to cold. The most Heston-like of all the culinary creations, one side of the lolly is covered with a sugar coating that turns your tongue cold, but when you flip it to the pineapple side, your mouth warms up again. I was quite taken with the trick and kept flipping the lolly round to make the most of the strange sensation.

With such excitement to be had from the cakes, the tea is something of an afterthought, but they offer the usual suspects in black cast iron teapots. If you're feeling flush, for an extra £6 (the standard tea is £20), you can pimp your tea with a glass of Vueve Cliquot. I left feeling full as a flamingo, sleepy as a dormouse and just that little bit madder.

Friday, 12 March 2010

Caballeros dinner at The Dorchester

Being a huge fan of Spanish wine, I was delighted to get a phone call last week from a winemaker friend, Amelia Aragon, inviting me to the annual dinner of the loftily-titled Gran Orden de Caballeros del Vino at the Dorchester.

Accepting her offer without hesitation, I set about trying to find a suitable dress for the occasion. I mentioned the dinner to a colleague and she looked and me pitifully. 'Poor you', she said, rolling her eyes. 'All I remember are the interminable speeches. Make sure you're sat near the back so you can talk.'

Undeterred, I was determined to have a good night. Donning my hot pink ruffle dress in the office after work, I hotfooted it over to Park Lane, and tried my best to glide swan-like into the ballroom, passing a smiling, tuxedo-clad Steven Spurrier en route.

The Gran Orden de Caballeros del Vino was set up 26 years ago as a way of promoting and developing knowledge of Spanish wines in the UK. Each year two new members join the likes of Oz Clarke and Tim Atkin and are invested into the order for their exceptional contribution to the promotion of quality Spanish wines in the UK.

Tonight we were to witness the knighting of the order's two newest recruits. Grabbing a glass of Cava, I made my way over to my menagerie of a table. It was full of familiar faces: a radiant Amelia, her cheeky-looking brother Oscar, head chef of Brindisa José Pizarro, M&S winemaker Jo Ahearne and Richard Bigg, the charismatic owner of Spanish restaurant Camino and soon-to-open Sherry bodega Bar Pepito. I was sat next to a tall, jazz-loving Fin called William, a Cambridge undergraduate, who got me talking on subjects as diverse as the merits of atheism and the orgasmic potential of Mozart.

We got to enjoy some sensational wines, my favourite being the Bodegas Naia Naiades 2006 from Rueda. Recommended recently by José Peñin in Decanter as one of the Spanish whites to watch and winner of the best white over £10 in the New Wave Spanish Wine Awards '09, I was blown away by its complexity and depth. Made from Verdejo from pre-phylloxera vines then fermented and aged in new French oak for 8 months, the result is a vibrant mix of ripe, honeyed fruit, structure and richness.

The food was outstanding too, from the seafood 'guisito' with Jerusalem artichoke and blood orange foam to start, and the perfectly pink loin of salt marsh lamb with wild mushrooms for main, to the divine desert: pear poached in Moscatel with shavings of dark chocolate.

Other wines in the line up included a delicious golden Manzanilla Pasada Pastrana from Javier Hidalgo and the Chivite Colección 125 Vendemia Tardía 2007 from Navarra. The sweet wine from 40-year-old vines had hints of ginger that lingered in the long, luscious finish.

While I was busy enjoying all this liquid pleasure, the new Caballeros were announced: Decanter's own Sarah Jane Evans MW and Pablo Alvarez, head of iconic Ribera del Duero producer Vega Sicilia. Before the new recruits were knighted, the current Caballeros paraded into the ballroom in their fire engine red robes and gold-rimmed mortarboards. Cue graduation flashbacks.

The evening was rounded off with Spanish cheese and a speech from Allan Cheesman about time, energy and money, and how you never have them all at once. As the Brandy de Jerez made its way round I made a dash for the exit, swapping my Cinderella shoes for a practical pair of ballet pumps for the tube ride home. Leaving the ballroom behind, I fished my i-pod from my bag and stepped out into the chilly spring night, aware of what a wonderfully paradoxical life I lead.

Sunday, 7 March 2010

Blowfish fin Sake, and other curiosities

Have you ever eaten a blowfish? They're highly poisonous and if cooked incorrectly can cause all number of exciting symptoms: intoxication, light-headedness, numbness of the lips, dizziness and deadening of the tongue to name but a few.

Extreme eaters seek out blowfish in the hope of experiencing some of these strange sensations. In severe cases, eating a dodgy blowfish can result in death, as the poison can paralyze your diaphragm muscles, leading to suffocation. It can also cause comas that last several days where you remain semi-conscious.

I'm all for new experiences and pushing the envelope, but have to admit to being more than a little nervous about sipping on the blowfish fin Sake I was offered last Thursday at a delightfully curious Sake tasting in the basement of Chisou, a sushi restaurant in Oxford Circus.

The cup was being passed round and it would have been rude to refuse, so I took a deep breath and hoped for the best. The Sake was served warm and had a potent nose of mushroom, truffle, forest floor, cigar smoke, earth, peat and charcoal. It tasted, unsurprisingly, of fish, but after a few seconds the fishiness subsided, clearing the way for the forest floor aromas to reappear. Potent, pungent and intense, a couple of sips told me all I needed to know. After a minute I hadn't keeled over, which I took as a good sign. Not a numb lip in sight.

The event aimed to showcase a series of Sakes from Okayama, a city in the Chugoku region of Japan. Three producers had flown in, and were showing four Sakes each. I'm a Sake novice, but enjoyed getting stuck into the tasting, applying my wine knowledge wherever I could.

We were asked to analyse the aroma, flavour and balance, much like you would a wine. One of the producers tells me (via his translator) that in order to make a quality Sake you need three things: good rice, good water and a good brewing technique.

Before it's fermented, the rice is polished to remove the protein and oils, leaving the starch behind. The quality of the Sake depends on how polished the rice is. A grain can be polished up to 30% of its original size, and the more polished the grains, the more refined the Sake.

After trying a few, I realise it's impossible to apply wine speak to Sake. The vocabulary is much narrower. Sake styles are described simply as being fruity, dry, or sweet rather than through a ream of descriptors.

The latest trend in Japan is for fruit-flavoured Sake liquors made with peach, pear and plum. They were all pleasant enough, but the low alcohol and pulpy texture made them more like an Innocent Smoothy than a Sake. My favourite was the Gyutto Tesgibori Yuzu Shu, made from hand-squeezed yuzu juice, a small citrus fruit like a sour mandarin. Mouth-puckering, zingy and fresh, the lemony flavour danced around my mouth and brought it to life. I wanted to put the bottle up my jumper and run out the door it was so delicious.

I was excited to see a pink Sake in the line-up that would make Hello Kitty proud. At 13.5% abv, it had more of a kick than the peach, pear and plum, but it looked like milkshake and tasted like alcoholic strawberry Yop. A drink for naughty schoolgirls. There were plenty of serious Sakes on show, but they took our tasting sheets away at the end for feedback, so it's hard to remember what they tasted like. The Bizenmaboroshi was a highlight. It won a trophy at the IWSC last year, and had a delicate, sweet nose and full, rounded palate.

Our entertainment for the evening came in the form of Yoko Hallelujah, a diminutive Japanese Beatles fanatic armed with a jewel-encrusted acoustic guitar. She belted out fab four classics with brio, as we slurped our way round the remainder of the Sakes.

Saturday, 6 March 2010

Chateau d'Anglès at Hix

Last week I found myself at Hix restaurant twice in as many days. I partied in the downstairs bar on Monday night at the launch of KitchenAid's new range of blenders. It doesn't sound very glam, but the cocktails that were coming out of those bad boys were amazing. KitchenAid is the i-pod of the blender world. The range comes in a series of cool colours, so you can sync it with your Smeg.

I was invited back on Wednesday for a wine dinner hosted by Eric Fabre of Languedoc-based Château d'Anglès. Fabre, a tall, svelte, silver fox, spent eight years at Château Lafite as technical director, before moving to the lesser-known Médoc estate Château La Cordonne for six years. He's now making interesting wines in the Languedoc.

Ten of them were on show, alongside a sensational tasting menu whipped up by Hix himself. First up we tried the 2009 rosé, which was an attractive flamingo pink. Rounded and creamy, with notes of strawberries and cream, it made for delightfully easy drinking.

Our appetizers were divine – cods tongues with whipped squash and hazelnuts served alongside the Classique Blanc 2008. Made from 50% Bourboulenc, a grape much-championed by Fabre, the wine had a lovely stone and tropical fruit nose, with peach, pineapple and melon in the mix. I also found citrus notes, and hints of cut grass. Rounded, creamy and almost waxy in the mouth, its searing acidity kept it fresh.

Next up were the starters – wood pigeon on toast with chickweed, served with the Classique Rouge 2007. The pigeon was wonderfully cooked, albeit slightly overpowered by the pungent paté underneath. As for the wine, the Syrah dominated the blend, with velvety black fruits and white pepper dancing out of the glass.

For our main, Mark served Glencoe red deer haunch with bashed neeps, beetroot sauce and french fries. Pink and juicy, the deer was cooked pefectly and was a stunning match for the Grand Vin Rouge 2007, my wine of the night. The nose was an opulent mix of bramble fruits, plums, black cherries and black berries, wrapped in soft, creamy vanilla. The fruit was ripe, juicy and mouthfilling, with sweet spice lingering on the finish. It had amazing balance and elegance despite being a blockbuster, and disappeared very quickly from my glass.

Fabre laid on a vertical tasting of his Grand Vin Blanc with the cheese course, where we compared the '03, '04 and '05 vintages. It was fascinating to track the wine's evolution, and to find so many differences from year to year. The '05 was the lightest and freshest of the three, with a peachy nose and a rich, buttery mouthfeel.

2004 was a crowd pleaser. Fuller-bodied than the '05, the honeyed aromas were starting to come through, and yet it retained a wonderful freshness, with notes of ginger lingering. My favourite was the '03. It showed lovely development, with a delicious nose of honeysuckle, white flower and faint petrol aromas. Rounded, rich and complex, the unctuous palate retained its youthful vigor. I found it utterly charming.

Top cap off the evening, we got to try something special with our Bakewell puddings – Oorain Victoria 2006 (pictured), a sweet wine made from 90% Syrah and 10% Maple Syrup. Fabre's cousin is a chocolatier and encouraged him to add it to the blend. It worked surprisingly well. By this stage tasting notes eluded me, so I have no record of the wine, but I remember fresh figs on the nose. A smily and unassuming Mark Hix came through the sliding doors and got stuck into a glass. He seemed to like it. I left as the Venezuelan black truffles started doing the rounds feeling full as a goose, in a good way.

Tuesday, 2 March 2010

Sherry and tapas: the perfect marriage?

I'm a huge Sherry fan. I think it's the most underrated and unappreciated wine in the world. When you say Sherry, most people think of their Grandma reaching for the Harvey's Bristol Cream at Christmas, but there's so much more to it. Sherry is the most versatile wine style. It runs the gamut of the flavour spectrum, from bone dry to treacle sweet. My favourite styles lie somewhere in between.

Sherry and food matching is an exciting arena for experimentation. So much so that culinary alchemist Heston Blumenthal wrote a foreword in a book on the topic, The Perfect Marriage: the Art of Matching Food and Sherry. Heston has been doing a great job alongside Wines of Sherry in promoting Sherry as the perfect food partner.

I went to an event he hosted at Shoreditch House just over a year ago where he'd created a special tasting menu of Sherry and food pairings. The dishes were sensational – Fino with Gruyere fondue, Amontillado with Pata Negra ham, peach and almond, Oloroso with smocked mackerel and Pale Cream with warm quails egg Scotch eggs.

It's a common misconception that you can only drink Sherry as a desert wine. According to Heston, it 'delivers in the mid-tongue acidity area making food perceptibly juicier'. Sherry literally whets the appetite and acts as a taste booster. It also contains compounds that enhance the flavour of foods rich in Umami, the elusive fifth 'savoury' taste, such as meat, fish, Parmesan cheese and shiitake mushrooms.

Last Friday I headed down to the West London Wine School for a Sherry and food pairing event hosted by my flatmate and director of the school, Jimmy Smith. Like me, Jimmy is a Sherry nut, and used the tasting as a platform to try out some exciting new pairings.

Seven wines were on show, from the salty La Gitana Manzanilla to the super sweet Gonzales Byass Nectar Pedro Ximenez NV. Following Heston's philosophy that 'the most exhilarating and enjoyable moments in food are often those when the contrast is at its greatest', Jimmy pushed the experimental envelope with his matches, pairing the Manzanilla with sardine and green apple. It worked surprisingly well. The acidity of the apple enhanced the natural acidity in the wine, giving it extra freshness and lift, while the saltiness of the sardine emulated the wine's sea air aromas on the nose and palate.

My favourite match was Amontillado and gingerbread. The two flavour profiles harmonized beautifully, weaving in and out of one another to the point where the one became indistinguishable from the other. The sweet spice of the gingerbread fused with the nuttiness of the Amontillado, creating more rounded, rich and complex flavours in the wine. It exemplified the Platonic ideal of the coming together of two perfect halves. My tastebuds were in heaven.

The Lustau 15-year-old Dry Oloroso, with its heady nose of orange peel, cinnamon and sweet spice went deliciously well with one of Jimmy's more adventurous matches: Manchego cheese and golden syrup. For his final trick, Jimmy offered up the classic Sherry and food pairing: PX and vanilla ice cream. PX is my least favourite Sherry style, as I find it a bit too sweet, but when tasted with spoonfuls of vanilla Häagen-Dazs, it takes on a more subtle flavour profile. The pairing is inspired.

The wine of the night was the Gonzales Byass Apostoles 30-year-old Palo Cortado. It had a fascinating nose unlike any of the other wines we tried. Tropical and sweet, it was almost rum-like, with vanilla and desiccated coconut taking centre stage. The unctuous palate was tangy and rich, bursting with hazelnuts, toffee and caramel. London's first Sherry bar opens next week – I'll be first in line with my tasting glass.