Sunday, 31 July 2011

Benoit Gouez, Moët et Chandon

Wine and the City talks to Benoit Gouez, Chef de Cave at Moët et Chandon, at the Wineries for Climate Protection conference in Barcelona, about lighter weight bottles, Moët's new eco winery, and how Champagne is leading the way in sustainable development.

Tuesday, 26 July 2011

Jamie Goode

Wine and the City chats to wine writer and Portuguese wine specialist Jamie Goode at the Vinho Verde tasting in Tower Hill about developments in the Vinho Verde region, the huge potential of Alvarinho, and the charm of the region's undiscovered reds.

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Apsleys, a Heinz Beck Restaurant

"Cookery is orderly insanity. Cookery is life. Mine. Which I taste in little, intense bites to relish it all," Heinz Beck tells me over an early morning coffee in his Venetian pleasure dome of a restaurant in The Lanesborough Hotel. He's about to catch a flight back to Rome, where he heads up the three Michelin-starred La Pergola, the first restaurant in Rome to receive such an honor, so our meeting is spitefully early. Curiously, we are both wearing orange. We ponder over the probability of such an unlikely occurrence. Complementing the dramatic old masters mural on the far wall, Beck tells me he desperately wanted to be a painter. His father wouldn't allow it, so he became a chef instead. I suggest that cooking is an art form, and the resulting dishes often painterly in their presentation.

The week before I had dined under the same glass roof. The room is spectacular in its splendour. Designed by Adam Tihaney – the man behind Thomas Keller's Napa jewel The French Laundry, and more recently Dinner by Heston Blumenthal, the light and airy space is dominated by a trio of chandeliers that hover like calamari rings in suspended animation, while pencil-shaped bulbs dangle languidly mid-ring. The capacious space is populated by a polite number of tables, all far enough apart to give the impression of privacy. The cappuccino-coloured upholstery is plush, and the pillows plump. I could dine out on the visuals alone.

It took Beck a mere four months to earn his first Michelin star in London, which was awarded last January after the restaurant reopened post refurb in September 2009. Sharing the reins with Beck is Massimiliano Blasone, ex executive chef of the Tuscany-based Brunello powerhouse Castello Banfi. Despite Beck's German heritage, the menu – beige, suede to the touch, and illustrated rather oddly with a cross section of an onion, has distinct Mediterranean flourishes, while a number of the dishes are cooked sous-vide.

My companion and I opt to go à la carte, bypassing the tempting tasting menu offering seven courses for £85 (or £125 with wine). Removing a chivalric looking plate from in front of me, an ice-cold glass of Taittinger NV is served with a shallow bowl of luminous watermelon soup. A pair of aubergine croquettes float on the surface like brown Dolly Mixtures amid razor-thin Parmesan shavings. The fresh flavours cleanse and enliven my palate before the forthcoming flavour invasion. Bread comes in the form of peach wafer-thin strips flecked with sesame seeds. Munching on the shards feels like eating strips of paint fallen fresh from the wall. I find this strangely satisfying.

My starter is a work of art. Three fudge-like cubes of foie gras terrine with smoked apple and amaretti lie like building blocks among a foie garden composed of orange cubes, chocolate soil and herbal hedges. With a roof of amaretti crumble, the rich, decadent, Madeira-marinated squares are umami-rich and utterly delicious, both when spread across the accompanying brioche, and when popped whole in the mouth. The marmalade-fueled Jurançon wine match is inspired, its bright acidity cutting confidently through the fat.

Next I bypass Beck's signature dish: Carbonara fagottelli, opting instead for the croissant-shaped Tagliolini with lobster and almonds – a dish I still dream about. Served with a dollop of pesto on top and the lobster weaved throughout, it smells pleasingly of the sea. The perfectly al dente pasta mixes with the lobster into a rich symphony of flavour, which is helped along immensely by a glass of bright and vibrant Greco di Tuffo; my new favourite grape. Waxy and unctuous, it has bags of character and yet retains its elegance.

As if deliberately trying to order the richest trio off the menu, my main is a quartet of suckling pig medallions coated in a golden layer of crispy crackling served with a token sprinkling of mangetout. The pork is juicy, tender and comforting – like a hug from the inside. My companion's black cod, while lacking the sweet miso I so enjoy about the dish, is served with a top layer of powdered Spanish ham, lending it a salty savouriness. It meatifies the fish, which I like, but its intense, bacony flavour overpowers the dish, leaving the humble, fall-off-the-fork cod shivering in the shadows.

My accompanying wine, a 1996 Poderi Colla Barbaresco, is dusty and brooding, with fine-grained tannins. The fruit, having receded into the background, has paved the way for savoury cedar flavours. My companion's Franz Haas Pinot Nero is as bright as a ruby and alive with vibrant red fruit – raspberries and cherries abound. I'm tempted to switch glasses.

The culinary adventure ends with the "Crunchy", a biscuit-based diamond with a dulce de leche filling and rasberry jam lid, served with a scoop of yoghurt ice cream and a pair of edible lilac flowers. Tangy, zesty, salty and sweet, it ticks all the taste boxes and yet leaves me deflated. All the elements are there, but the whole is an anticlimax. The wine match however, a 2007 G. Allegrini, Recioto della Valpolicella Classico, is infinitely interesting. Strangely, our sommelier explains Amarone as meaning "the sweet one", when it means the exact opposite: "the bitter one." Despite this schoolboy error, the wines are expertly matched and enthusiastically served.

Apsleys has much to recommend it – the palatial space is the most beautiful public dining room in London. Service is attentive but unobtrusive, while the food is extravagant, yet leaves you pleasantly satiated rather than trouser-poppingly full. There is a thread of freshness running throughout both the food and the wine that lends the dishes life. The flavours dance across the palate like nimble nymphs. If cookery is life, then Beck's plates have a heartbeat.

Apsleys, a Heinz Beck Restaurant, The Lanesborough Hotel, Hyde Park Corner, London, SW1X 7TA; Tel: +44 (0)20 7259 5599;

Friday, 15 July 2011

Melanie Tesseron, Château Pontet-Canet

Wine and the City chats to Melanie Tesseron of Bordeaux fifth growth Château Pontet-Canet and Tesseron Cognac at Sketch in Mayfair about the UK release of the super premium Tesseron Extreme Cognac, bonkers Bordeaux 2010 pricing, and the surge in popularity of natural wines.

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Ms Marmite Lover Bacchanalia at Blacks

“Follow the pineapples” Ms Marmite Lover announces, holding one under each arm like dumbbells. Resplendent in a mustard yellow dress (echoing the colour of a Marmite jar), flame red hair prettified with a black fascinator, and a frilly white pinny, Ms Marmite Lover, otherwise known as Kerstin Rodgers, leads her guests up the wooden staircase of Blacks members club in Soho, and into its power blue dining room.

My first encounter with Ms Marmite had been in the same room three months prior, when Tom Parker Bowles had whipped up Tequila-fueled Mexican feast with a little help from chef Alberto Figueroa. After the lunch, while a few guests remained drinking the dregs of their wine and eking out the afternoon, Ms Marmite had educated my friends and I about the joys of “figging”. We listened incredulous. Historical examples of horses were given, along with a suggestion that red chili works just as well as root ginger in achieving the desired affect.

I digress. With Ms Marmite Lover pulling the apron strings, I was curious as to what I’d be served – would ginger make it onto the menu? Opting to take the 18th century as a theme in homage to the Georgian townhouse playing host to our reveries, Rodgers explains that in the 18th century, pineapples were the height of luxury. Much like a Louis Vuitton handbag today, the tropical fruits, grown in hot houses in Bermondsey, were excruciatingly expensive, and thus seen as the epitome of chic. Ladies could even pay to hire a pineapple for a few hours to serve as a centerpiece on their dinner tables in order to uphold the appearance of a luxury lifestyle, returning them after the meal.

Our feast begins in a sober fashion with unctuous lemon barley water. Thick with sugar, it tastes like lemon curd. Huge platters filled with fiery orange fritters then emerge, and are quickly devoured by the hungry crowd. “Gentlemen used to cook these on their bedroom fireplaces,” says Rodgers. “A dangerous pursuit,” I venture. The fritters are magnificently moreish – the batter light and crispy, the centre soft and gooey, and filled with those faithful bedfellows: pea and mint. Accompanying the fritters is celery soup with truffle oil, which, according to Rodgers, served as 18th century Viagra. Slightly too cold, it’s refreshing and redeemed by the richness of the truffle oil.

Mid-feast, Rodgers explains that while seasonality is trendy today, in the 18th century it was the poor who ate seasonally because they couldn’t afford to eat any other way. The lunch continues with an 18th century classic that has Blumenthal written all over it: Stargazy Pie, served with garden peas and vermicelli. The pie is a visual spectacle, recalling the theatre of 18th century cooking. While there aren’t four and twenty blackbirds backed in it, I count no less than five fish heads peeping out of the pastry.

I fail to notice them at first, and get quite a fright when I scoop a head onto my plate. Being so visually close to what you’re eating is an odd experience. As diners, we like to distance ourselves from the animals our food comes from. The Stargazy Pie brings you face-to-face with your plate mate and its unfortunate fate. Eating the rustic concoction was like going back in time to an era I’m not sure I’d want to live in.

Luckily, many a sweet treat was to follow, beginning with black pepper strawberries and a sugar mountain piece montée of profiteroles stuffed with orange flower water and drizzled, Jackson Pollock style, with toffee. Notching our sugar intake up to dangerous levels, we’re then offered tuck shop style salted caramels and sugar-coated candied orange peel. Both look and taste of childhood.

Rounding the lunch off with a fiery Bloody Mary, I step out into the summer sunshine and pontificate about the pineapples. Which foods today are considered the height of luxury – Lobster? Caviar? Foie Gras? Truffles? And more interestingly, what will the luxury foods of tomorrow be? In colonial times, lobster was considered poverty food in America, and was often fed to prisoners and servants. The law even limited the number of days lobster could be fed to prisoners before it became abuse. Today ordering lobster off a menu is the ultimate display of decadence. The beauty of food is its cyclical nature – you can never predict what’s around the next culinary corner.

Saturday, 9 July 2011

Jerez Feria in pictures

For three days in mid May, I was lucky enough to experience the unbridled madness of the Feria de Jerez first hand. During a year abroad in Spain, I'd made it to both the Seville and Granada ferias, but they pale in comparison to Jerez. The Jerezanos live and breathe the feria each night as if the world were about to explode. Following the bright lights, on arrival you're greeted with a cacophony of Spanish sounds, as Sevillanas flamenco music blasts from the hundreds of casetas lining the sand-filled main stretch.

The party lasts a week. By the end, everyone seems to have lost something – Gonzalez Byass GB head Martin Skelton lost his voice, John Chapman of The Oxford Wine Company his passport – and me, my Jerez feria virginity. But perhaps it's in pictures that the feria can best be captured. Below are the edited highlights from three intoxicating days under the Spanish sun. Hemingway would be proud...

The sea of lights make the night appear day, illuminating the casetas
Lanterns adorning the ceiling in the Gonzalez Byass caseta
GB's Andrew Sinclair initiating me in the ways of the Rebujito (Tio Pepe & Sprite), and incredibly popular and refreshing feria drink
In the early hours of the morning, a señorita belts out a flamenco tune
A lady in traditional flamenco dress takes time out from dancing
A galleon full of prawns at the Gonzalez Byass winery, where we ate our way around the world
Caviar canapés in engagement ring boxes - a quirky touch during a curious culinary adventure
I got two proposals that night!
Gonzalez Byass GB head honcho Martin Skelton enjoying the puds
Toothpaste tubes filled with chocolate begging to be squeezed...
A señor enjoys a Cuban cigar while awaiting entry into the bullfight
With the sun high in the sky, the seats quickly fill up and the flags come out in anticipation of the matadors
Dressed in their trajes de luz (suits of light) the matadors file out and do a pre-fight glory lap of the ring
A pair of señoritas dressed in opposing orange and green make their way to the feria through the sun drenched streets of Jerez
A besuited caballero takes a break from parading through the feria
At night the feria comes to life, when the lights look almost lace-like
Soaking up the experience: my Shawshank Redemption moment

Friday, 8 July 2011

Simon Staples, Berry Bros

Wine and the City chats to Simon Staples, fine wine sales director for Berry Bros & Rudd, at the Royal Horticultural Halls in London about the Bordeaux 2010 en primeur campaign, through the roof pricing, interest from Asia, and whether the Bordeaux bubble is about to burst.

Thursday, 7 July 2011

Miguel Torres Jr

From father to son: Wine and the City talks to Miguel Torres Jr, head of Miguel Torres Chile, about his new sparkling Pais rosé, why Chile needs a sparkler with its own identity, Torres' green initiatives in Chile and who will take over the company when Miguel Torres Sr retires.