Sunday, December 31, 2017

Happy New Year (and all about my love for Pol Roger)

It's the time to make some resolutions for 2018, and I'm going to keep mine realistic (and champagne based). This year will end and the next one begin with Pol Roger's vintage rose, which sits high on my list of favourite champagnes (because it's absolutely gorgeous).

I've specifically chosen it for tonight because the last few months have been punctuated by Pol Roger. I got to revisit the peerless Cuvée Winston Churchill at a tasting late in October (it's the champagne I celebrated moving into my flat with, and would choose for any occasion where price wasn't an object - it has incredible finesse and richness, and is the match of any other premier Cuvée I've yet tried).

We had the splendid non vintage for a family gathering at the end of November, their vintage (2006) for a Christmas Eve tradition (I meant to drink it for my birthday, but fell asleep before we got to it), and Pol Roger Pure on Christmas Day. This extra brut has no sweetening sugar added as dosage (because of geography champagnes grapes are naturally very high in acidity, sometimes so high that a little sugar is required to even them out, or to make a sweeter style - dosage) so it's a 'pure' expression of the grapes.

Despite the lack of sugar it's a surprisingly rich (and again, bloody gorgeous) champagne. This seems to have been achieved by very careful grape selection from chosen vineyards (the blend is a 3 way split between the 3 permitted grape varieties) and longer aging time which gives the acidity time to soften. Mine had been sitting quietly in a cupboard for a year or two as well, which hadn't hurt.

So my resolution for 2018 - finally try their blanc de blanc (100% Chardonnay) which I have inexplicably failed to do yet; Pol Roger tends to be a trade favourite, something we seek out in all it's forms - and share stories of when we're alone together (that last bit is sadly true), and their Demi sec (off dry). I feel these are realistic goals.

Meanwhile, the dog, who I am staying with for New Year, looks like she's resolving to spend more of 2018 on the sofa (where she isn't currently really allowed) her plans also appear to be getting off to a flying start.

Happy New Year!

Friday, December 29, 2017

Christmas Round Up

As ever, after the long months of build up to Christmas at work, the hectic and exhausting sprint through the last couple of weeks as we sell, sell, sell, and the all to brief few days off, it's hard to believe it's all over. About now I'm normally focused on a trip back to Scotland for New Year, a bit of family time, and general unwinding. Unfortunately we're no longer allowed to take holiday in the first week of January, I'm not happy about this for a few reasons (it makes it very difficult to get any time off with my partner for a start), but mostly it's the general unwinding.

I say this every year, but retail really sucks the joy out of Christmas. People can be horribly rude, but what really bothers me is the over consumption - we sold about 30 tons of booze in the week before Christmas, it's a lot of bottles and a lot of money. The chances are it's also a lot of over extending or outright debt - and for what (apart from keeping people like me in work)? I keep deleting the things I'm thinking here on the grounds that nobody wants an anti capitalism rant from someone who may well just have flogged them a bottle of very expensive champagne - but my current mood is exactly why I need some time off to regain a sense of perspective.

Meanwhile I was lucky enough to be given some generous and lovely gifts, including some excellent books, I have Christmas cake to look forward to every night I get home (it may well see me through to lent), the tree is still up and looking suitably jolly, and there's a lot to be grateful for.

I've mostly been rereading books that were childhood favourites (The Scarlet Pimpernel, and The Dark is Rising particularly) and enjoying them, and am making tentative reading plans for next year. My old years resolution should probably be to finish a couple of half read books before midnight on Sunday (I'm especially looking at you Zola...) There are also knitting plans, and other things to look forward to as life slips back into a less festive routine.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Traditional Fair Isle Knitting with Vintage Pol Roger

There's a quote from Lily Bollinger, that obvious marketing potential aside, sums up how I feel about champagne: “I drink Champagne when I'm happy and when I'm sad. Sometimes I drink it when I'm alone. When I have company I consider it obligatory. I trifle with it if I'm not hungry and drink it when I am. Otherwise, I never touch it -- unless I'm thirsty.”

Not that I drink quite that much Champagne (or anything like it) but it's always seemed a shame to keep it for special occasions. The better the bottle the bigger the shame - it deserves to be appreciated. My mother and I have a Christmas Eve tradition, when everything is done we open the best bottle I have, drink it, relax and talk - including about all the things we're planning.

It's a nice moment - everything is prepared for Christmas, the stress is more or less over for the year, and it's time to look forward. It's Pol Roger for us tonight, and a good hunt through Sheila McGregor's 'Traditional Fair Isle Knitting' to start working out a pattern for some boot toppers I'm meant to be knitting mum. Champagne is the perfect accompaniment for making plans of all sorts- big or small.

Quality matters with fizz, which isn't to say you need to spend a fortune on it, it's just not worth being mean about. The same goes for prosecco, cava, and so on (which are made with different grapes and are for another occasion). English sparkling wine goes from strength to strength - Ridgeview is my favourite widely available brand (I think it has the edge on Nyetimber, and it's often on offer for £20 or less) and it's a match for plenty of champagnes at twice the price. Lindauer special reserve from New Zealand is excellent, and relatively overlooked these days - it's hard to go wrong with New Zealand generally. Sparkling Burgandy is an excellent bet too.

Veuve Clicquot, Moët, Mumm, and Lanson are all fine, but better kept for a while after buying. In the old days wine merchants would keep champagne for at least 6 months before putting it on sale, they don't do that now so the chances are that it will taste quite 'green' and acidic if you open it directly after buying. Taittinger, Laurent Perrier, Perrier Jouet, and Louis Roederer are all widely available and excellent. Pol Roger is the best big brand for my money, Billecart Salmon when I can find it.

Non vintage champagne is blended to be consistent from year to year, and will happily keep somewhere cool, dark, and with an even temperature, for 3 - 5 years. Not the fridge though, keep fizz in the fridge to long and it loses its sparkle. It is arguably a better bet than vintage champagne.

Vintage Champagne reflects a specific year, with vintages only being declared after particularly good harvests. You can expect a richer, more characterful champagne and it's nice if the year has specific meaning for you. However the price tag is often almost double so if you're not particularly curious to see what the vintage is like, it's not neccesarilly worth spending the extra on it.

It's the same for things like Dom Perignon, Krug, and so on. They're amazing champagnes but they're only worth the money if you have it spare (though if anyone else is offering to buy than the answer is an unequivocal yes). Still, there's something very satisfying at the end of the busiest week of the work year to sit down with something that feels really decadent and just enjoy it.

Happy Christmas!

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Ambrose Heath's Good Drinks with Burnt Coffee

I noticed the recipe for Burnt Coffee in 'Good Drinks' when I was looking for one for Lambswool the other day and thought it might be the perfect way to celebrate finishing work for Christmas. You have to set it alight which seemed a suitably cathartic action to match my end of the day mood. It was.

Burnt Coffee:
"Make some good strong coffee (obviously not instant, filter or cafetière would be most authentic for the 1939 date of the book), sweeten it rather more than usual (soft brown sugar for preference, and I'm assuming it's neccesary to help float the brandy), and pour into small cups. Pour a little brandy into each over a spoon, set light to it, and when the brandy is partly consumed, blow out the flame and drink the coffee at once.

I don't know if it was because I didn't add enough brandy, or possibly enough sugar, but the flame I got was a quick blue flicker across the top of the Coffee that was gone almost in an instant. It was both pretty and dramatic, without looking like it was going to burn out of control. The combination of strong slightly bitter Coffee, the fudgey nutty flavour of the sugar, and the decent Armagnac I used was perfect. Think of a slightly refined Irish coffee without the cream, not quite as sweet, and with brandy perfume rather than whiskey fire. I like Irish coffee when it's made well (with a bit of love, and good ingredients), I like this far more.

It's less fuss (floating the cream takes a bit of practice and technique), more elegant - it would make a good end to a dinner where you want something a little bit sweet and decadent but not an actual pudding - and that dancing blue flame provides a bit of theatre. It would be an excellent drink to go and watch stars with, or to come back in from the cold to, and it's obviously excellent with a book.

The question of who in literature would drink this is intriguing - I'm thinking of Elizabeth Von Arnim in her German Garden when she sets off in a sleigh for a moonlight picnic (I think I have the right book, it might be the sequel) or maybe someone in Somerset Maugham. But then I read the Foreword to 'Good Drinks':
"This collection of divers drinks is offered for all those occasions when drinking is desirable: on a winter's evening by the fire, on the shady verge of the tennis-court, at a party, in a pub, with friends, or acquaintances and those even dearer, wherever they may happen to be together: to the advancement of the brewer and the wine merchant, and the confusion of all dull dogs."
Heath is a delight; I've enjoyed all of his books that I've managed to find, but 'Good Drinks' most of all. I've spent quite a bit of time with it this year researching vintage cocktails, and of all the old drinks books I have it's my favourite. It's partly Heath's humour that I love so much about it, but more importantly it's that he includes a lot of soft drinks, and that this more than any of the others is designed for home use. It's a treasure trove of ideas which every kitchen should have.

It seemed fitting to raise my Burnt Coffee to Heath, who is an entirely desirable drinking companion, and friend - even if it is only in book form.

Friday, December 22, 2017

The Moonstone with a 15 year old Malmsey

For the first time in 8 years, and only the second time in the last 20 years, I won't be working in Christmas Eve. I can't tell you how excited I am by this. Today has been quite hard going at work (there doesn't seem to be a part of me that doesn't ache or have a bruise on it) tomorrow will be even more full on, knowing that I can stop at the end of it for 3 days will certainly help me keep it together.   The idea of a Christmas Day when I'm not overtired, and therefore over emotional and grumpy, is an almost dizzying prospect filled with potential. I'm even beginning to feel a little bit festive.

Following that festive feeling I tried mixing something called a Golden Hamper that Fortnum and Mason were advertising. It was a mix of Madeira, English Cassis, a whole egg, saffron, pepper, and nutmeg. It had a flavour that might well remind you of the interior of an old hamper, I couldn't recommend it.

Madeira on it's own is a much better idea. It's something I get even more excited about than not working on Christmas Eve. I read early in my wine career that Madeira under 15 years old isn't worth bothering with. On the whole it's a good rule of thumb, though it's sensible to keep a bottle of something more basic for cooking with.

The thing that makes Madeira so unique is the way it's made. Its heated (something you would never normally do to wine) to replicate what used to happen whilst it crossed the Atlantic to America. The result is a wine that doesn't change much after a bottle has been opened - which is also unusual, but makes it worth investing in the best quality bottles you can because they make the perfect occasional treat that can be hoarded for special occasions.

The older the Madeira the more complex it becomes. One of the biggest treats I've ever had was the chance to try some really old Madeiras at a D'Oliveiras tasting. Wines from 1905, 1922, and 1936 featured. They were incredible, I wish I'd had the money to buy them at the time. (Wines like this are not cheap, coming in at a few hundred pounds, but they're unique, wonderful, fascinating, and worth it).

The rather more modest bottle of Blandy's 15 year old Malmsey I have in front of me is still delicious. The best way I can describe it is as tasting like brown sugar, coffee, and nuts. It's beautifully balanced, soft, and lovely. It is the perfect wine to sip with a good book, it's also going to go very well with Christmas pudding, Madeira cake, or a nice bit of cheese.

The oxidised and cooked quality of Madeira gives it both an old fashioned and quite sophisticated flavour (like smelling Shalimar or Mitsouko) which make me feel it's best enjoyed with an equally classic book. I find the same freshness and complexity in Wilkie Collins, and am thinking of reading The Moonstone this weekend, so that's my choice for it. An eighteenth century book would be more authentic, because they were drinking far more of it then (there were diseases in the 19th century that interrupted production) but the complexity and opulence of this particular wine feels particularly right for Collins with all his sensationalist twists.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

The Once and Future King with 'Lambswool'

I'm beginning to feel like I'm in a one woman mission to mull things this year (it's not something I'd thought of as habit forming before now, but so it is). Back in August I tried making a Dog's Nose (a mix of stout and gin) which I had assumed would be disgusting. It was not, and since then I've been more open minded about the idea of hot beer based drinks.

Yesterday's Wassail bowl shouldn't really be scaled down, the whole idea of it is that it's for sharing - and if I'm honest I'm still not convinced by the toast element, it sounds messy. Whilst I was reading about Wassail though, I saw a few references to Lambswool, and I have various recipes for that too. It's a mix of ale and apples, which sounded about as appealing as the Dog's Nose - but I was wrong about that so...

Lambswool seems to be another version of Wassail bowl, and was traditionally drunk on 12th night, Regula Ysewijn has written an excellent piece about it Here. My guess is that it's origins are very old indeed, and I particularly like the mix of everyday ingredients (ale, and the last of the autumns apples) with the more luxurious sugar, ground ginger, and nutmeg.

All those ingredients are common place today, but the need to bake the apples first and the time that takes, still makes this a relative luxury in a busy life. My recipe is adapted from the one in Ambrose Heath's (increasingly indispensable) 'Good Drinks' and has been shrunk to make just enough for 2.

Core 3 apples, (we used 3 Braeburn sized eating apples that weren't to sweet, left over from a bag a friend gave me in the autumn, they were going a bit soft and on the verge of being thrown out - but that fits with the idea of using up the last of the fruit before it goes off that Ysewijn talks about), slit round the middle and bake in an oven until good and soft. Scrape the apple out of its skins and purée it, stick it into a pan. Add a bottle of ale (I don't think you need to be too specific about sort) and season with grated nutmeg, and ground ginger. Sweeten with sugar to taste and gently warm it, giving it a good stir for the flavours to blend. Check to see if you need more sugar or spice, and then serve. It's excellent. The trouble is minimal, but waiting for the apples means you can't knock it up in 5 minutes, unless you happen to have some apple sauce lying around.

Such an old drink feels like it wants something that nods to its history. I looked at The Mabinogion and  Le Morte Darthur  (The Dark is Rising' has left me wanting to read something Celtic or Arthurian or I might have followed a different route, it's also a drink that speaks of the countryside, apple orchards, and the changing seasons). I thought about Beowulf (wrong mood altogether) and remembered that I still haven't got a copy of 'Sir Gawain and the Green Knight' (either the Simon Armitage, or Bernard O'Donoghue, versions - a terrible oversight). None felt quite right, and then I remembered T. H. White's 'The Once and Future King' which did. It also feels like a good choice to be reading on midwinters day - so that's what I'm off to do.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

The Dark is Rising with a Wassail bowl

An omnibus edition of 'The Dark is Rising Sequence' was my Christmas present in 1984 (when I had just turned 11, the same age as Will Stanton in the book). I was just growing out of Enid Blyton books and beginning to discover what my wider reading tastes might be, I clearly recall not being very impressed with the look of this book, starting it as a duty rather than with any real enthusiasm, and then loving it, almost, but not quite, to bits.

I still have that very battered copy, and have just re read 'The Dark is Rising' (the second book in the sequence) as part of the #thedarkisreading read along on Twitter (more Here). The book starts on Mid Winters eve (tonight) and finishes on 12th night. It's been a while since I'd read it, so I was a little bit nervous about the book I'd find - would it still have enough magic to raise the same enthusiasm my much younger self felt.

More or less, yes it does. 'The Dark is Rising' was first published in 1973, so apart from the specific geography the everyday world it describes was still familiar in 1984. 30+ years down the line the past is just beginning to slip into another country. What I really noticed though is how much time Susan Cooper spends talking about ritual and tradition, and how important it is to the way that Christmas is kept.

There is something about the way that the Stanton family Christmas is framed by these traditions - Christmas tree on Christmas Eve, a Yule log, Carol singing finishing with punch at the village manor, stockings (in actual old socks, and full of nuts, possibly a tangerine in the toe, and small things - just as I remember them) and the excitement of waking up to feel the weight of them at the end of the bed, church, and all the other things that fall into a familiar pattern. They ground the fantasy elements of the book both in an everyday reality, but also the lingering sense of magic the season brings (even to cynical adults).

All of those traditions are designed to keep the literal midwinter dark at bay. Near the start of the book there's a blizzard raging outside, buffeting the Stanton's house, and feeding a growing sense of unease in Will. It vividly recalls the vicious winter storms in Shetland, where even the most solid houses would feel like they were shaking, and there would be moments of disquiet - would the storm get in? It must be a fear as old as humanity, and the way that Cooper uses it is what makes this book so special to me.

The internet tells me that Wassailing and wassail bowls are becoming a thing again (at least in Bristol and Hackney), there seem to be two slightly different traditions, one specific to apple trees, where the drink is to encourage a good harvest the following year, and offerings are made to them. The other sounds like a cross between Carol singing and trick or treating - and a little bit like the Shetland tradition of guising.

I've never tried wassail, much less tried making it (it's the toast that puts me off), a bit of research suggests that it's evolved a lot and that there would have been considerable variation dependant on area, and resources, this recipe is from Ambrose Heath's good drinks so is twentieth century. My guess is that Will's parents must have been born in the late 1920's/early 1930's, so this is the wassail they would know. It might also be close to the sort of punch served at the manor when the Stanton children go Carol singing.

Wassail Bowl
To a quart of hot Ale add a quarter of an ounce each of grated nutmeg, powdered ginger, and cinnamon, half a bottle of Sherry, two slices of toast, the juice and peel of a lemon, and two baked apples. Sweeten to taste.

If you plan on serenading an apple tree, use cider.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Rough Spirits and High Society with Warner Edwards Honey Gin

I had meant to write properly about Ruth Ball's 'Rough Spirits and High Society: The Culture of Drink' weeks ago, but things have a habit of getting in the way of good intentions, there will be more about this book in due course.

I loved Ruth Ball's first book 'Rebellious Spirits' for its mix of enthusiasm and erudition (reading it was the initial inspiration for posting book and drinks matches) so a second book from her about drinking history was always going to be something to get excited about. This one is published by the British Library and has an absolute treasure trove of pictures to illustrate our historical relationship with drinking - this includes the impact that coffee houses, and tea, along with the public spaces in which they're consumed in have had on our culture too. It's a brilliant book which would make a great present for anyone with a passing interest in food, drink, or history.

I'm matching it with Warner Edwards Honey gin because the history of gin consumption in Britain is interesting (there's an excellent short history in the book). In the eighteenth century it was a craze that threatened public order, the Victorian gin palace changed our expectations of what a pub looked like, and it's place in cocktail history. There is also the current gin craze, which shows no signs of diminishing just yet, and which continues to challenge old ideas of what gin is and how it might be drunk.

That's where Warner Edwards come in. They're one of the new wave of small distilleries, and I think they're one of the more interesting. Based on Falls farm in Harrington (just over the border into Northamptonshire) their usp is all about the provenance of the product. All of their gins, and there are 6 of them now, are excellent starting with the Harrington dry and going through Sloe, elderflower, rhubarb, Mellisa, and now Honey gin.

There might be better gins out there (it's a big and ever growing field) but not that many. The current packaging is extremely handsome (a detail, but if you're paying more than £30 a bottle you want the product to look damn good), but it's the flavours that make these gins really interesting. The honey gin has a gentle sweetness to it, which is in no way overpowering. It makes a great gin and tonic, and a very good martini. I haven't yet made a Bees Knees with it, but I will. There are more suggestions Here. It's the perfect gin to go with if you want something unusual and distinctive, but not too outlandish. It's also a great example of the next chapter in the story of both gin, and our relationship with spirits generally, which is why I think it's the perfect thing to crack open with book.

Monday, December 18, 2017

A Hero of Our Time with 'Orange Wine'

This is the book that single handedly changed all my prejudices about classic Russian literature. Before I read this (because it was short and I thought I'd have one last crack at trying to appreciate something Russian) everything I'd ever looked at seemed both impossibly long and desperately depressing.

Mikhail Lermontov's masterpiece is not to long, and whilst it's not notably cheerful, there are flashes of humour in it which balance the inevitably gloomy outcome. There's also a few mentions of food - which I particularly noticed because I was reading it at the same time as Caroline Eden and Eleanor Ford's 'Samarkand' came out. The first section of 'A Hero of Our Time' is also set in the Caucasus so there was a sense of serendipity as the two came together.

Georgian wine is both legendary, and yet something of a well kept secret in the U.K (it is probably less of a secret in London). It's one of the oldest wine producing regions in the world, and what wines they are. Waitrose lists one red online which is excellent (I mean seriously excellent and well worth the price tag), Marks and Spencer's sells at least one Orange wine (Tbilvino Qvevris) which can be found in larger branches,p. For more choice this is the information that Georgian Wine U.K Has.

I've chosen the Tbilvino both because it's the easiest to get hold of (at least I can buy it locally, although judging by the dust on the bottles I picked up in M&S not many others are) and because of it's now almost unique method of production. This is an amphora wine. The grapes, skins and all, are fermented in large clay amphora which are buried in the ground. This is what gives them their unique orange colour, and style.

This one has notes of quince and Apple, is a richly impressive wine, and very good with tagine - I think it would also stand up to Maxim Maximych's pheasant recipe too.

Finding wines like this are what makes my job exciting. It's the variety of wine, and the never ending chances to learn something new, which make it such a fascinating rabbit hole to tumble into. It's much easier to write about spirits where there is less temptation to give over completely to hyperbole,  or to come up with something which reads like very bad teenage poetry. Maybe it's because spirits, once bottled, are static things, whereas wine continues to develop in the bottle - it's a living thing, and when the opportunity comes along to combine wine, food, and beloved books (favourite things right there)... Well it is exciting, because each element brings a bit more context to the others, and each becomes more memorable.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

After Supper Ghost Stories with Hot Cider Punch

My flat is currently in a state of pre Christmas chaos (so much as it always is, but with cards hiding books, a fine layer of glitter over everything making me worry about micro plastics and, fairy lights). I have hunted high and low for Jerome K. Jerome's ''After Supper Ghost Stories', which I know I saw recently, but cannot currently put my hand to.

It's annoying me because I know everyone gets roaring drunk in the main story, but I can't remember what they were drinking (I think there's a list) and I'd like to know. I'd also quite like to read it again generally. I was a little bit disappointed by this book first time around because it wasn't all ghost stories, after dinner or otherwise. That wouldn't really matter, but that the 'ghost story' bit is so very good that I wanted more of the same rather than Jerome's general observations (although also funny).

We have rather lost the tradition of telling ghost stories on Christmas Eve, which is a shame, especially when they're more funny than frightening. In this case there's much talk of murdering Carol singers that I'm sure anyone ever subjected to bad carol singing will feel some sympathy with. I ended up reading most of this to assembled family last year (not on purpose, but they kept asking what I was laughing at) which makes me think it would make a great party piece.

I don't recommend getting as drunk as Jerome's characters do, the resulting hangover would be a terrible way to spend Christmas Day, and would probably see you into the new year, but for the purposes of a family gathering, with or without ghost stories, hot punches or mulled drinks are a very good idea.

This cider one is low enough in alcohol to be fairly benign, and can be scaled up or down. Start with enough cider to go around (not very precise I know, but it depends on how many people there are) and stick it in a pan to warm it through, add a couple of cinnamon sticks, some cloves (3-6 depending on how much you're making should be plenty) star anise, and a good grating of nutmeg, bring up to simmering point and keep just below boiling. At this point you want to add some fruit juice, and there are options. I've seen pineapple, cranberry, and orange all being touted. I'd go with a mix of pineapple and cranberry, but it's a matter of personal taste. If you use pineapple you probably won't need to add any more sugar, but taste, adjust to suit, and keep on the heat for 10 minutes or so, stirring occasionally, until everything has infused nicely together. Drink.

The other good thing about this is that it's just as good made with apple juice instead of cider for an entirely alcohol free, child friendly, version.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Nancy Mitford's Christmas Pudding with a Pink Gin Cocktail

I sometimes wish I could recapture the enthusiasm I had when I first discovered Nancy Mitford, but as time passes I find her less amusing, her characters grate on me more, as does her snobbery. I think that might partly be because the Mitford sisters were so over exposed a few years ago with volumes of letters appearing all over the place, along with reprints of just about all of Nancy's books - which exposed just what a patchy writer she was.

'Christmas Pudding' which was her second novel is by far the best of the early ones though, with a bitter cynicism running through it that gives the perfect acid bite to act as an antidote to all the Christmas cheer and those feel good adverts that seem to exist only to highlight how imperfect most of our lives are. 

Amongst the froth and fun is an unflinching look at a group of bright young things at their least bright and young (in the death grip of a New Year's Day hangover). To provide just such a hangover, and to celebrate the bitter edge I recommend a Pink Gin, which I suppose is best described as a very dry martini. It's gin with a couple of drops of Angostura bitters, shaken well over ice and strained into a cocktail glass. 

It's a no nonsense, single minded, kind of a cocktail, designed for potency rather than frivolity. It perfectly matches the brittle, bitter, edge to Mitford's writing where an ingrained sense of superiority excuses really appalling behaviour.

I would recommend a gin like Martin Millers for this kind of thing, it's smooth enough to drink on its own, but with a traditional juniper driven flavour profile, so no unique selling point botanicals to mess with the flavour profile of the cocktail. Angostura is both aromatic and bitter (as the name suggests) a bottle goes a long way but is a useful thing to have around for all sorts of drinks, and other culinary purposes. Even better would be something like The Bitter Truth's Travellers set (which I would really like, and have been meaning to buy for an age). There aren't many times when it makes more sense to buy miniatures rather than full size bottles, but this is one of them, and bitters are the perfect way to invigorate otherwise dull drinks. 

There is also Fever Tree's Aromatic tonic water which uses Angostura bark, it will give you the more sensible long version of a pink gin, or if you want to go entirely alcohol free, tastes grown up enough (aromatically, and pleasingly, bitter) on its own to all but forget there's no gin involved.

Friday, December 15, 2017

Whisky Galore with Blended whisky (again)

Yesterday I bought a DVD of the 'Whisky Galore' remake. Now in all honesty I had my doubts about this film, it didn't really seem to make much impact when it came out, and the original was so good it was always going to be a tough act to follow. That film is one of my all time favourites for it's warmth, humour, and atmosphere. It's that rare thing, a film that's as good as the book it's based on.

Compton Mackenzie wrote a lot, and I have read a little of what he wrote - enough to know that some books work better than others, and that 'Whisky Galore' and 'Monarch of the Glen' deserve their classic status (or just about classic status, they haven't quite had the full treatment yet, but they're both brilliant, it's telling that whenever I've been in Leakey's* there's about a yard of Mackenzie's books, but never either of these two).

Anyway, the remake is pretty bad. The characterisation is generally poor, there's a ridiculous sub plot shoe horned in about the Duke of Windsor and a missing despatch box, and a secret service man who doesn't really end up doing anything. Captain Wagget lives in a lighthouse, which you wouldn't particularly want to do in war time, and doesn't leave anywhere for the lighthouse keepers to live either, but more importantly looses the sense of how he sees his social position as the local Laird. Mostly though, it's just not funny, which is unforgivable.

In case anyone doesn't know, 'Whisky Galore' was based on actual events, in 1941 the SS Politician went down off Eriskay, 28,000 cases of whisky in her hold, and amongst other things the modern equivalent of several million pounds in cash. Islanders from across the outer Hebrides looted the wreck until customs and excise had it blown up. The money doesn't appear in 'Whisky Galore' and whilst grabbing the liquor might (and was) seen as legitimate salvage, taking the money which subsequently turned up all over the world is perhaps a bit harder to justify.

The whisky would most likely have been 'blended', a term that's currently used slightly dismissively for a product that has been seen as second rate compared to a single malt. That's starting to change again for a few reasons. Blended whisky is a mix of single malts, made from malted barley in a pot still, and grain whisky, which also uses other grains and is made in a continuous still which gives it a much smoother, somewhat sweeter, lighter, style. You can use any number of single malts to create the flavour profile you want, with the grain whisky providing a background that for itvall to marry together in.

Traditionally blends, especially the bigger brand names, offered consistency and quality - and they still do. The Famous Grouse for example uses significant amounts of Highland Park and Macallan, Johnnie Walker has some of Islay's finest in it, and there's a whole new generation of premium blends and 'Vatted Malts' (a mix of several single malts) and they're worth looking at.

Given the choice between a no age statement malt at around £40 or a premium blend at between £20 - £30, I would expect to find rather better drinking with the blend, and any familiar brand of blended scotch will reliably give value and quality (some of the very cheap ones might not make for particularly interesting or characterful drinking, but you might not be looking for that). I'm very pleased to see that slight prejudice against disappear.

*The second hand book heaven in Inverness

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Vin Santo with 'A Room With a View'

I'll be spending Christmas with my mother and sister, neither of whom much care for dessert wines, which is a shame because I love them with a passion. They're rare and precious things to be sipped and savoured, but the very opulence and complexity that makes them such a treat also means a little goes a long way. A whole bottle, even when it's only a half bottle, to yourself can feel like a lot (especially to someone who desperately wants to talk about this miracle of winemaking skill in a glass and dissect it's many fascinating elements - people who greet some legendary liquid, a liquid that glints like amber in the glass, with ‘I don't really like sweet wines’, or ‘It’s okay’ are hopeless for this purpose).

I keep trying to persuade them to treat the wine like a dessert - and there are liqueur muscats and Pedro Ximenez sherries that make an excellent alternative to mince pies or Christmas pudding (the same rich dried fruits and brown sugar flavours) but it hasn't worked so far. What I haven't tried them with is Vin Santo and cantuccini where the wine could be viewed as a kind of sauce. My mother sneaks alcohol of some sort into just about everything she cooks, so this might work...

A good Vin Santo (actually, pretty much any Vin Santo I've seen) can look off puttingly pricey, but it's a treat, and the process of making it (from partially dried grapes, then aged for years in barrels where the wine slowly evaporates) is expensive. It's something I end up explaining a lot to people who balk at paying about the same as they would for a house wine in a restaurant, for something really exquisite in a shop. As someone who'd far rather drink less, but better, it's a hard attitude to understand, as someone who's been in the wine trade for 19 years I can promise you that if you spend a little more you will get infinitely better value*.

Dipping cantuccini into wine feels like holiday behaviour to me, and very much part of the English fantasy of Tuscany, and as my first experience of that fantasy was through 'A Room With a View' that's what it makes me think of (first the film, and swiftly after the book). Leicestershire on a frozen Winters day feels like a long way from Florence, but the warmth of a fire, and the sweet depth of the wine brings it a lot closer as long as I don't look out the window at red brick buildings - immersion in E. M. Forster on the other hand works a treat.

* Anything over £10, there's still some really good stuff to be had from between £5 and £10, but it's getting harder to find. Spend between £10 and £30 you can expect to find something really exciting . Above that price point you're getting into more specialised territory and the rules change a bit.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

The Death Box with Rum and Lime

After enjoying last years re-issue of Lorna Nichols Morgan’s ‘Another Little Christmas Murder’, I pounced on ‘The Death Box’ when I saw it a few weeks ago, but quite honestly haven't enjoyed it nearly as much - partly because of all the Rum and Lime.

One of the things I love about older books are the sidelights they throw on contemporary drinking culture, and vintage crime is a treasure trove for this kind of information. I find it fascinating in itself; Cyril Hare’s ‘An English Murder’ had a wonderful scene where a very venerable bottle of vintage Port is opened with all due ceremony and which leaves the butler finally respecting the policeman. It was no surprise to learn that Hare had wine trade connections. Drinking habits are also clues to character though (both the authors and their creations), some of which are easier to decor than others as habits change over the generations.

Broadly speaking a knowledge of wine is a sign that someone is a gentleman (Sayers lavish descriptions of Lord Peter’s drinking habits are an example, and then there's Brideshead Revisited, which is full of wine references, and explicitly uses them to sort the sheep from the goats).

My problem with ‘The Death Box’ is that although it's set in London (published in 1946, but I think set pre war) it feels like it's trying to be American. There are a lot of gangsters running about doing odd things, everybody keeps breaking into houses, and there's near constant drinking (no hint of rationing) much of it Rum and Lime. Rum, rather than whisky, or the more gentlemanly brandy, has a hint of exoticism about it (at least it does to me, reading now, but I guess the origin is the rum and lime the navy would have drunk?) but the simplicity of rum with a dash of bottled lime (juice or cordial I wonder, probably cordial?) has a no nonsense masculine edge to it. Definitely a clue to the hero’s personality…

I generally have Rum about the house, mostly for cooking, sometimes for cocktails, but I rarely drink it on its own, because I rarely want that particular sugar based flavour profile. My current bottle is Gosling’s Black Seal which is heavy on the muscovado sugar/dark treacle/ cloves and cinnamon flavours. I'd call it a good quality mixing Rum, rather than a sipping Rum, the flavours which are a bit too punchy on their own, do a very good job of holding their own with other things.

I didn't have any lime cordial, but plenty of limes so I just added juice - in keeping with the book, where it's just Rum and lime, no ice. The result was surprisingly good; the lime juice cuts through the muscovado/burnt fruit cake notes of the Gosling’s, but doesn't overwhelm it, it just provides a balancing acidity. The next step would be to add water and more sugar to make grog (or to replicate the general feel of the thing in a marmalade).

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Hercule Poirot with Cassis

I've been thinking about cassis all day and wondering quite what to match it with until I was reminded that Hercule Poirot was fond of it - which makes perfect sense for the character - I can see him now liqueur glass in hand, appreciating the finer points of a good cassis.

It does need to be a good cassis though, my current preference is for White Heron British Cassis, which is twice the price of the French one we sell, but much better. The reason it needs to be good, and that it's worth spending more on, is that as it's bottled at only 15% it won't keep its freshness especially long once it's open*. You need a bottle you want to drink.

Once you've found a brand you like though, it's a useful thing to have around. There is the ubiquitous Kir royale (a drink I particularly dislike, if your champagne needs Cassis you shouldn't have bought it, if it doesn't, why add it... but that's a personal prejudice) and the now over looked Kir which I far prefer. Traditionally it was made with Bourgogne Aligote, but it's become much harder to find in the U.K. Much bette to use any good ordinary French white (house wine kind of standard, so perfectly drinkable without being terribly exciting, because the Cassis is going to provide the excitement here). There is also the Cardinal, where Cassis is used to pep up a red wine in a twist in the Kir formula. It's certainly not the worst way to rescue a slightly disappointing bottle (by which I mean thin, or maybe
just going over the hill, if it's got a definite fault get rid of it).

There are plenty of other Cocktails that call for Cassis, and it's a handy kitchen ingredient too, adding a bit of booze blackcurrenty glamour to all sorts of things, and a great potential match with something like a chocolate tart, or very dark and rich chocolate cake or torte (beware to many other flavours though). It can be a port alternative with the cheeseboard as well, or just good on its own at the end of a meal, or the end of the evening - it's versatile stuff.

I think Poirot might have looked askance at an English version, but he would be far to particular to accept a lesser quality Cassis, and once he tried White Heron I know he'd approve. What Agatha Christie's personal opinion of Cassis was is a mystery I haven't yet looked into.

* It's the case with a lot of liqueurs, vermouths, and other fortified wines that they really don't keep as well as people think. Contact with oxygen destroys the freshness of the flavours, which is really noticeable with something fruity where you definitely want that freshness and vibrancy. To get the best out of them refrigerate after opening and aim to use within a month. Unless it smells really bad, or has developed mould, it won't do you any harm to drink it after this point (cream based liqueurs are another matter) but it won't taste as good.

Monday, December 11, 2017

Isherwood's Berlin Stories with Kümmel

Until Meg pointed me in a different Direction I had associated Kümmel with Silver Bullet and Silver Streak Cocktails along with a sort of pre war glamour not unlinked with the classic Mercedes Silver Arrow racing cars (it's all the Silver that does it). Those cocktails don't seem right for the coldest night in years though, when I'm writing this hunched over a candle and next to a heater, trying not to melt my iPad, like some latter day Bob Cratchit (muffler in place, fingerless gloves about to be fetched).

Kümmel is a sweet and sticky colourless liqueur flavoured with caraway, cumin, and fennel which gives it an aniseed edge, but nowhere near as pronounced as the aniseed notes of Pastis. I find the the flavour of Pastis overpowering, but the gentler caraway of Kümmel appeals to me (not to my mother or partner who both declared it the most disgusting thing they'd ever tried - either a gross exaggeration or they've been lucky) and it's sweetness is a definite benefit in cocktail making.

Still there's that line about kümmel on the handle of the door, and it so beautifully sums up the morning after the night before feeling of seedy excess. Kümmel seems to have originated in Holland before making a hit in Germany and Russia, its Germany that is now the principle producer and consumer of it. The cold certainly makes consuming it in shots, schnapps style, attractive (having to get up for work in the morning does not, common sense prevails).

It's also making me think of Christopher Isherwood, or more specifically, Sally Bowles, along with sticky nightclub floors, hangovers, and regrets. It's a shame Kümmel is relatively tricky to find (though apparently it's popular in golf clubs - can anybody confirm that?) because it is quite a particular flavour, the sort you should try before you buy. If you do find you like it though, it's well worth having around. I'll certainly have a glass of it to hand next time I watch Cabaret.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Hot Brandy and Rum Punch with Dickens Christmas Stories

We've had snow, my street has looked even more picturesque than usual (although not my view especially, which is of a car park) so when I ventured out into town it was in high hopes of getting the full festive hit. I didn't.

It's the 10th of December, still a couple of weeks to go before Christmas, but there was a flat feeling about the place, the Christmas decorations that are left for sale look a bit bedraggled, and there's a general impression that people are waiting for sales to start. Bargain hunting doesn't bother me, but the sense of the excitement being over before Christmas has really begun does.

So I came home, made a lot of gingerbread and lebkuchen dough, and started thinking about hot punch and Christmas spirit. I read somewhere that making a punch like this used to be quite a communal affair, with everyone involved giving their opinion about what to add and in what quantity - which is a lovely image. By the time Dickens was mixing punch as his party piece in the 1850's it was already something of a throwback. Because of Dickens, and his references to theses kind of punches I'd thought of them as quintessentially Victorian, but they weren't, they're a much more 17th and 18th century custom that had started to go out of fashion. Like Dickens I feel they need reviving.

The recipe he described at length in a letter to a friend has a lot of flourishes and involves fire, but I found a much simpler version in Jerry Thomas (How to Mix Drinks was first published in 1862, so it's roughly contemporary). This recipe is for a party of 15 and calls for a quart of Jamaica Rum, a quart of cognac brandy, one pound of white loaf sugar, four lemons, three quarts of boiling water, and one teaspoon of nutmeg. You rub the sugar over the lemons until it has absorbed all the yellow parts of the skin, then put the sugar in a punch bowl, pour over the boiling water, stir well and add the rest of the ingredients, and mix thoroughly.

I'm one person, and I've never actually seen a sugar loaf (though plenty of hills named after them) so some adjustments were neccesary. My main criteria were that it shouldn't taste like a hot toddy, or be to sweet. A spoon of white sugar in a mug with a good grating of nutmeg, the zest of half a lemon, and a serving spoon (early 19th century for both size and ambience) each of Rum and brandy were the starting point. The Rum came dominated at this point (like very watered down honey) so some lemon juice to balance it, soft brown sugar to add a bit more depth and character to the sweetness, a touch more brandy to up the kick of the thing, and more nutmeg because I really like it later and it tasted about right. A piece of star anise added a final note and made it just about perfect.

Adjustments and personal flourishes, including over spices, seem very much in the spirit of the thing, and I really love the idea of making this with lots of input and debate from all the drinkers. The end result wasn't particularly strong, just fragment, rich, and warming. I'm definitely dedicating it to Dickens, and I'm thinking especially of his collobaritive collections of Christmas stories to further the sense of goodwill and fellowship.

Saturday, December 9, 2017

A House in the Country with Lustau Emperatriz Eugenia Oloroso

Numerous articles keep telling me Sherry is 'back', and whilst much of Leicestershire apparently remains to be convinced of this, I'm celebrating. The good news for those of us who recognise a good thing when we see it is that the easily available range of Sherry is increasing to include some very good things indeed, and that Sherry isn't yet so fashionable that prices are prohibitive. Another good thing is that better bottles come in smaller sizes, because fortified wines do not keep as well as we sometimes think they do.

My introduction to Sherry came courtesy of my godparents. They observed a certain old world stateliness about dinner, much as their parents generation must have (and that would have been a pre war standard), so it was dry Sherry before dinner. A polite glass of Tio Pepe was not what most of my teenage contemporaries were drinking, but it's a sensible thing to give a 16 year old because the chances are they won't overdo it (Port with its deceptive sweetness is another matter). I didn't disgrace myself either by drinking to much, or by being unable to drink that bone dry fino, and even now the taste of it takes me back to that house.

It's one reason that I consider Sherry such a very civilised drink, suitable to go with any civilised book.

Jocelyn Playfair's 'A House in the Country' was one of the first a Persephone books I bought, written in 1943, set in 1942, the outcome of the war was not only not certain, but looking pretty grim for the allied forces. It focuses on Cressida as she makes do and mends on the home front, opening her home, Brede Manor, to paying guests, and generally trying to do her bit, and her husband, Charles, injured and lost at sea. It's a world full of sacrifices large and small, and where there are also battles to maintain or reject old standards.

It's definitely a world where the luxury of sitting at ease, lights blazing, in a well heated room, with a glass of old Sherry to hand would be something to both look back on, and look forward to again. Something civilised.

Sherry comes in a whole range of styles from very dry, pale, fino, through to thick, treacly, sweet, Pedro Ximénez. Oloroso is fortified early which stops a protective layer of yeast forming in it (called flor) which keeps oxygen from getting to fino styles. It's the oxidation that gives this wine its distinctive character - nutty (walnuts?) and very complex with raisin, coffee, hints of chocolate, lemon, something almost briney, and fig notes - amongst others. It's pretty incredible for something that costs about £13 for 50cl. That oxidised character also means that it'll keep relatively well - a month or more in the fridge, serve at 12-14 degrees (cool room temp rather than fridge temp). Food wise it works really well with game, a handful of dried nuts, or cheese.

People (in Leicestershire at least) can be a bit funny about Sherry, but honestly, start exploring it with an open mind - it's a whole world of excitement beyond the Christmas familiars of Harvey's Bristol Cream or Croft original.

Friday, December 8, 2017

A Time To Keep with Scapa Whisky

Whilst whisky, specifically Scottish whisky (Irish whiskey has an e in it by the way) is on my mind there are a few more things I want to say about it and my relationship with it.

When I started out in the wine trade (August the 5th 1999, my first day in Oddbins) I found myself in a shop with some extremely knowledgeable people who were generous about sharing that knowledge and I learnt a lot. I also found that they each had their specific vinous passions, and to be taken seriously by the customers I felt I needed to find my own particular niche. There was also a vague assumption that because I'd grown up in Scotland I knew about whisky.

Reader, I did not. I wasn't even convinced I could drink a whole glass of it at the time, but it seemed like a good place to start, not least because 20 odd years ago it was a somewhat more conservative market - distilleries released a very limited number of expressions, blends where unfashionable, and all of it was much cheaper. Basically it was an easy place to start. We had quite a few tasting bottles under the counter, and as I worked my way through them, read more, and learnt how to taste* the stuff, I fell in love with it.

There is a misconception that malt whisky should be drunk neat - it can be if that's how you prefer it, but it's not how a lot of people prefer it. Everyone I've met in the trade adds a drop of water, apart from anything else it helps release subtler flavours and aromas. Cutting the alcohol is also easier in the nose (stick your nose straight into a glass of spirits and sniff and you'll get a burning sensation and be unable to detect anything much. You have to approach the glass with care, and sort of waft the fumes towards you - things like this are why it's so easy to ridicule tasting as an activity) which matters. If you want to add coke, lemonade, ginger, green tea, coconut water, whatever - it's up to you, and don't let anyone suggest otherwise. Drinking whisky is meant to be a pleasure.

Meanwhile, Scapa is Orkney's other distillery (the first one is the rather better known Highland Park). Scapa has had a bit of a chequered history in the past few decades. Unloved and in the verge of being mothballed for a while it's now back in production, finally has a visitors centre, and a couple of nas expressions on the market. Like Highland Park there are honey and heather flavours in Scapa, but it doesn't have as much smoke or peat, and there's more of a hint of salt (like on a gentle sea breeze; and descriptions like this are another invitation to ridicule, but you have to describe it somehow). It's the sort of flavour profile that makes it a good beginnners** malt, as well as one for aficionados.

It's also an excuse to push George Mackay Brown's short stories at you again. He liked his whisky (a bit to much to be fair) and reading him the scent of a dram feels as present as the smell of a peat fire. He captures the Orkney he knew so well, recording the islands of his childhood and before, finding the timeless elements of the place. There is nostalgia here, but he avoids sentiment, and I much as I struggle with his novels, I find the short stories wonderful.

*Tasting is different to drinking, it's primarily about evaluating, mostly with your nose, and there's every chance you'll spit out whatever you've been trying at the end. It's an intellectual exercise that assesses quality before preference which in turn encourages me to keep an open mind about everything but cream based liquors which do a horrible mouth coating thing that I cannot like.

**A bad malt for beginners would be something at the really peaty smokey end of the spectrum. The iodene/seaweedy/tarry notes of something like Ardbeg can be offputting, as can the hot pepper of a Talisker. Much better to start at the gentler honey/toffee end and work up.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Hebridian Sharker with Talisker Skye

There are many things I enjoyed about Tex Geddes' 'Hebridean Sharker', which is a real curiosity of a book. When it was reissued about 5 years ago I was mostly interested because Geddes had worked as a harpooner for Gavin Maxwell, he features in 'Harpoon at a Venture', Maxwell's first, and arguably best book, and I wanted to know more.

I was even more intrigued when I read that Geddes (by all accounts quite a character, and once described as a sort of cross between Ivan the terrible and Popeye) wrote this book partly to have a bit of a (I think friendly) dig at Maxwell and the success of his book. Geddes isn't the writer that Maxwell was, and 'Hebridean Sharker' is a less complex affair than 'Harpoon at a Venture' - it's straight boys own adventure and biography - but then all things considered Geddes was probably a better balanced personality.

Accounts of shark fishing won't be for everybody, but this book also documents life on the west coast at a very particular time, and there are some great anecdotes in here. Reading out one of them to D, it turned out I was telling him a story about his uncle, which was an added bonus, though it's the almost opening scene as Tex sets out with a lifeboat crew (pretty much on his wedding night) which is most remarkable. It's certainly genuine heroism. (Original review is Here)

Anyway, 'Hebridean Sharker' particularly came to mind as I see all the updates from Shetland friends currently being battered by Storm Caroline tonight, and contemplate our chances of snow in rather less storm lashed Leicester (calm, but temperatures dropping). In either location it's a night for getting cosy and reading about other people's adventures.

Talisker, distilled on Skye, is an obvious choice, not just because of its physical location, but for its peppery, smokey, character. My preferred expression of Talisker is the distillers edition, where the spirit spends a bit of time in ex amoroso Sherry casks - it's a politer, toned down version of Talisker. I like the 10 year old too with its peppery kick, it's a great sit by the fire after a walk in wild weather malt. Skye, along with Storm, are relatively recent additions to the Talisker stable, and both of them accentuate different characteristics of the Talisker malt. With Skye there's a real chilli pepper note that comes through, especially if you hold the spirit under your gums for a moment (a sales rep made me do it, I wouldn't necessarily recommend the exercise).

One of the surprising things about single malt is how relatively modern the concept is - the form we're familiar with only really dates from the 1970's, before that blends were far more common - brand names being a guarantee of both style and quality. Since then the whisky market has continued to evolve, and demand has continued to increase. This can cause problems for distillers, whisky isn't whisky until it's 3 years old, and the age statement on a bottle refers to the younges spirit in there. To get consistency in your 10 year old whisky (each barrel of spirit will be different depending on how wood and liquor have reacted to each other) there will be much older whisky in the mix. It means you have to guess your market a decade or more ahead, and the current popularity of whisky has meant that those age statements are rather limiting. They've also taught customers that age equals quality.

It doesn't necessarily do so, older whisky is more expensive because the production costs are higher; more of it has evaporated into the angels share and you have to store it. Young whisky has a freshness that can be really appealing, but who would pay the same for something that says 5 years old as they would for a 12 year old malt? The No Age Statement (nas) whiskies have been the answer to that. I also wonder if they have more in common with the single malts of earlier years when it was more of a niche product.

Either way this particular malt, like the book, won't be for everybody, but if you don't mind a few rough edges both have a lot going for them.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

The Scarlet Pimpernel with Proper Hot Chocolate

I really wanted to include this hot chocolate recipe because it's fantastic (and a handy way to use up some excess double cream and dark chocolate) and not all good drinks are alcohol based, but what book does it make me think of specifically?

I could have cheated, it is after all the Chocolatl recipe from Kate Young's brilliant 'The Little Library Cookbook'* and her inspiration is Philip Pullman's 'Northern Lights', for which she wanted something 'so warm and rich and comforting that you'd willingly follow a strange woman and her very sinister monkey' for it. Well she nails it with this. It also makes me think of 'The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe', and the other direction that hot chocolate sends me in is the eighteenth century.

Proper eighteenth century hot chocolate seems to have been rather more elaborate though, doesn't have cream in it, and uses water (I'm curious about the latter because normally water makes chocolate seize, I want to see how it works), so this version isn't really authentic. This would normally be the point where I roll out Georgette Heyer because her eighteenth century isn't entirely authentic either - but it is exceptionally well researched, and I think she'd insist on the real thing.

'The Scarlet Pimpernel' is another matter, this was my favourite book when I was about 11, (I read it so many times I must have almost memorised it) and I'm very excited that Oxford World's Classics are reprinting it (January 11th according to amazon), when I will be rereading it. It's the perfect combination of comfort reading and high adventure to suit a dreich winters day, and hot chocolate isn't going to hurt in that scenario.

This takes about the same amount of time you need to tidy a kitchen before sitting down to an afternoon with a good book... For 1 person you need 150mls of milk, 40mls of double cream and some flavourings. Young uses a cinnamon stick, a couple of cardamom pods, and a bay leaf. I prefer powdered cinnamon, and have used nutmeg and orange zest as well. Star anise, long pepper, chilli, and mace would all be in the 18th century mood. Rosemary or myrtle would be good in the chocolate, you might want to use vanilla, or ginger, or allspice... the list could go on and on, choose some flavours, not to many, that work well together and add them to the milk and cream, and heat gently.

Bring almost to the boil, and then remove from the heat and allow to cool for a minute. Break 40g of dark chocolate (darker the better really) into the pan and set aside to melt undisturbed for 10 minutes. Now whisk vigorously (this is the important bit that's so often not mentioned) until everything comes together. Add a pinch of salt (go easy on the salt) and soft brown sugar to taste. Gently reheat with a bit more stirring, the end result should have thickened slightly into a decadent creamy, velvety, bit of heaven.

The Little Library Cookbook is really worth a look if you haven't already seen it, and would be the perfect present for anyone who likes food and fiction in equal measures. It's imaginative and charming with some great stuff in it.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Barchester Towers with a 'Bishop'

There are a few drinks that go under the name of 'Bishop', and several variations on the theme of mulled Port that include Bishop, Smoking Bishop, and Oxford Bishop, but I particularly like the sound of the Bishop I've found in Ambrose Heath's invaluable 'Good Drinks'.

Dickens mentions Smoking Bishop in 'A Christmas Carol' and Eliza Acton gives a recipe in 'Modern Cookery' but my guess is that it was popular long before then. Acton's version is elaborate:
Make several incisions in the rind of a lemon, stick cloves in these, and roast the lemon by a slow fire. Put small but equal quantities of cinnamon, cloves, mace, and allspice, with a trace of ginger, into a saucepan with half a pint of water: let it boil until it is reduced one-half. Boil one bottle of port wine, burn a portion of the spirit out of it by applying a lighted paper to the saucepan; put the roasted lemon and spice into the wine; stir it up well, and let it stand near the fire ten minutes. Rub a few knobs of sugar on the rind of a lemon, put the sugar into a bowl or jug, with the juice of half a lemon (not roasted), pour the wine into it, grate in some nutmeg, sweeten it to the taste, and serve it up with the lemon and spice floating in it.
Bishop is frequently made with a Seville orange stuck with cloves and slowly roasted, and its flavour to many tastes is infinitely finer than that of the lemon.

It would need to be a special occasion to want to make that. Modern recipes are a little simpler, but the cinnamon puts me off a bit. There's a lot of cinnamon around at this time of year, and much as I love it, it doesn't have to be ubiquitous. Oxford Bishop recipes definitely favour lemon, which apparently lose their bitterness when roasted, whilst oranges become bitter.

Heath quotes Professor Saintsbury
''It is, as I have found more people not know than know in this ghastly thin faced time of ours, simply mulled Port. You take a bottle of that noble liquor and put it in a saucepan, adding as much or as little water as you can reconcile with your conscience, an Orange cut in half (I believe some people squeeze it lightly) and plenty of Cloves (you may stick them in the Orange if you have a mind). Sugar or no Sugar at discretion, and with regards to the character of the wine. Put it on the fire, and as soon as it is warm, and begins to steam, light it. The flames will be of an imposingly infernal colour, quite different from the light blue flicker of spirits or of Claret mulled. Before it has burned too long pour it into a bowl, and drink it as hot as you like. It is an excellent liquor, and I have found it quite popular with ladies.' 
I like the relative simplicity of this version (no oranges need roasting for a start), burning it will reduce the alcohol which is probably a good thing, as well as being theatrical. I haven't tried this yet, but it sounds like just the thing for Boxing Day, or New Year's Day - sometime when there are enough family or friends around to drink it with, but at the point where it's acceptable to read a book or watch a film.

It could be almost any Victorian book I can think of to fit the mood of this drink, but Bishops mean Barchester, and Trollope to me, and the pared down Saintsbury/Heath recipe also seems more Trollope than Dickens. It would be another sensible use for a bottle of ruby port, and would certainly scale down to half bottle quantities without any difficulty.

Monday, December 4, 2017

The Living Mountain with Dalwhinnie 15 year old malt

Nan Shepherd's 'The Living Mountain' is one of the most heart achingly perfect things I've ever read. I have a slight acquaintance with the Cairngorms and the Grampians, mostly as background scenery from various journeys. My partner knows them much better, and loves them in a way that reading Shepherd has certainly helped me understand.

I may not know the mountains well, but growing up in Shetland taught me to look at the details of an outwardly bleak landscape to find the beauty in it, in much the same way that Shepherd describes her mountains - and it's something I consider to be a real gift. The Cairngorms have the harshest climate in the U.K. when I did get up close (courtesy of the funicular railway, which is certainly the easy way) it was to a wind scoured plateau and a view of the inside of a rain cloud. It was stunning, but definitely on the bleak side. That first taste and Shepherd have not had given me the urge to see and experience more.

In many ways Shepherds prose puts me in mind of gin - both it's clarity and the juniper tang of it seem appropriate, but the Cairngorms are in whisky country, there are a few distilleries within the national park area (including Royal Lochnagar which is a particular favourite) but in the end Dalwhinnie seems more appropriate.

It's almost the highest distillery in the country, and is just off the A9 (a great road to take both for scenery and distilleries) in what looks a lot like the middle of nowhere, the 15 year old is definitely the expression to start with. Until a couple of years ago it was their entry level whisky, now there's something called Dalwhinnie Winter's Gold which has no age statement (nas) and is perfectly good, but I don't think it has quite the same elegance as the 15 year old (I'd also say it's sweeter and smokier, it's on offer pretty much everywhere at the moment, and at around £25 is excellent value - I might put ice in it, but I wouldn't freeze it as suggested).

Dalwhinnie is an excellent beginner whisky which essentially means not to peaty, smokey, or peppery - instead what you get is a smooth, elegant, malt with a hint of toffee sweetness, some honey, light fruity notes, and a whiff of heather about the finish. There's more than enough complexity to give you something to think about, and plenty of character, it's just a smoother, easier going, character than some other whiskies have.

It's that smoothness, the touch of honey, and the generally well made feel of the stuff, that makes me think it's right for 'The Living Mountain', that and the distillery setting in the hills. Terroir is something of a romantic conceit when it comes to whisky (the shape of thevstill, and the wood it's aged in, along with decisions about eat matter more), but it's easy to imagine that something of the spirit of the place gets in the bottle.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Who Is Dracula's Father with a Ruby Port

I have a weakness for John Sutherland's books, I find them utterly irresistible- so when I spotted 'Who Is Dracula's Father' on my way through Waterstones yesterday, and remembered I had a voucher to spend the result was inevitable. I've even followed no time to start reading it this afternoon, and it's every bit as much fun as I expected.

What makes me love Sutherland's books so much is the way they ask, and answer, questions about a book I'd never thought to ask, but feel so much richer for reading. I've read Dracula a couple of times, watched more film versions than I can count, and then there are all the other vampire incarnations he influenced, as well as the ones Stocker was influenced by. With that in mind who wouldn't want to read an essay that asks 'What colour is Dracula's moustache?' or 'Who washes Dracula's pinafore?' Sutherland's answer to the latter is that it's Dracula himself, based on Jonathan Harkers observation of the Count making the beds and laying the table. I'm not sure why he doesn't consider the trio of female vampires he keeps around the castle as possibilities for domestic chores - but is Dracula a new man isn't one of the questions on the list.

It's an amusing, erudite, sometimes tongue in cheek look at a well loved classic, and obvious stocking filler material, but what to drink with it...

In the past I've been a bit snobbish about Ruby port. I like Port a lot, particularly the complexity of a really superior LBV (Late Bottled Vintage, there's more about the different styles Here). Sadly Port doesn't like me quite as much, it's altogether to easy to forget how strong it is by the end of the sort of meal where it makes an appearance, and therefore far to easy to drink more of it than is sensible. The result is, at best, a truly foul headache, I will not dwell on or describe the worst case scenario. Because of this really good Port makes only rare appearances in my life now, and only when there are enough people to help ensure no one is drinking to much of it.

Ruby is the cheapest, least complex, expression of Port. It's bottled young with the intention of preserving colour, fruit, and freshness - which is hardly a bad thing, and then chill filtered so there's no need to decant. That means it won't really develop in the bottle, but it does also mean you don't get the bitter soup of dregs at the bottom of the bottle to deal with. It's the Port you'd buy for cooking with, but as fortified wines don't keep nearly as long as people think they do (it's weeks, not months, and certainly not years) having a glass to help the bottle along is only sensible.

We spent ages debating what to drink with this book (D suggested claret, cherry brandy, and then rather hopefully a Percy Special) but in the end nothing seemed quite as appropriate as deep blood red, sweetly unctuous, ruby Port* - sipped from a small, preferably antique for full atmosphere, glass.

*In the spirit of full disclosure I was actually drinking coffee as I read it this afternoon,

Saturday, December 2, 2017

Mulled wine and cookbooks

The first books and booze post I did was for mulled wine and cookbooks (Here) a couple of years ago, but I feel strongly enough about it to revisit the whole sorry topic.

This is my last weekend off before Christmas, and I'm enjoying it, I've made mince pies, we've put up the tree (early I know, but I see it as an advent thing), and mulled some wine (with the result that it's half past five in the very early evening and we both feel really sleepy). There are things to do with the Christmas cakes and puddings, and decisions to be made about biscuits (gingerbread, lebkuchen, or both?) and lists to be written concerning presents, cards, and shopping for other edible treats. Will I make St. Lucia buns for my birthday (the only good thing about having a December birthday is that it falls on a day that has its own buns).

It's busy without being hectic and all very satisfying- unlike work which is hectic, chaotic, and immensely stressful, not least because we see such a lot of the worst of human behaviour as people struggle to make the best possible Christmas and everything we're told that involves.

To me, contentedly childfree - not even a niece or nephew to my name, there's no pressure to make it magical for anyone else, or buy a kings random in plastic tat that will end up broken or abandoned before you know where you are. It means that the rituals and traditions I observe are more adult ones, and that there is a bit more time to make the cakes, the puddings, the mincemeat - all and any of it, than for someone juggling a job and a young family.

Nevertheless if there's one thing that drives me crazy at this time of year (there isn't one thing, there's dozens of things, but this one is high on the list) it's the weird belief that making mulled wine from scratch is 'to much trouble'. It really isn't. It certainly isn't less trouble to go to another retailer in search of a bottle of readymade low quality aromatic wine based beverages, than it is to buy a bottle of wine, dome orange juice, a packet of spice sachets, and heat them up. It's not even much trouble to lob a cinnamon stick, a couple of cloves, and a bit of star anise in a pan if you happen to have those around.

To test that theory I made today's mulled wine from scratch - which means I juiced some oranges, and found an inexpensive bottle of wine on the rack. (You want a drinkable wine, something like a good ordinary claret, or a supermarket own label that's got decent reviews. The rule should be if you wouldn't drink it happily enough on its own, don't buy it for any reason at whatsoever, not even cooking. Especially not cooking in fact, it won't do your food any favours.) Then I dug out some soft brown sugar, star anise, cloves, a cinnamon stick, and some grains of paradise - because I have them, and need to use them for something, heated the whole lot up till just about boiling point, added a little more sugar because it wasn't quite sweet enough, and a good slosh of brandy along with some orange slices, and then we drank it. I did use a tea strainer to avoid bits of cinnamon stick and grains of paradise floating around, that's about as troublesome as it got.

The nice thing about doing it this way is that it's infinitely variable according to taste. I could have added a slice of fresh ginger, or some sultanas, I could have used cardamom pods, and if I'd made any this year I might have used a syrup base (Ribena do a spiced version in winter which works well for this too). I have mulberry gin, Drambuie, Cointreau, or cherry brandy - all of which could have gone in instead of the brandy, as might port if I had the end of a bottle that wanted finishing.

It certainly felt more creative than just emptying a bottle into a pan - though if that's what you prefer there's nothing wrong with doing that, but it's worth remembering that it's really easy to make yourself. Post tree decorating, and the rest of the mulled wine has indeed been imbibed whilst consulting cookbooks.

Friday, December 1, 2017

Scents & Sensibility - Perfume in Victorian Culture with Noble One

It's December and amongst all the other things going on it's time for more books and booze matches - it's a lovely opportunity for me to get on various drinks related hobby horses and go on at much greater length than the majority of my customers would ever tolerate.

One of the great vinous passions in my life is sweet wine. The uninitiated or unconverted look askance at it, which is their loss, because there are some amazingly exciting wines out there. If you remain to be convinced think of these things as a dessert in their own right, and treat them as such - a small glass of something very good is an excellent way to finish off a meal, and lighter than an actual pudding. Sweet wine also really loves cheese.

I'm currently finishing off a bottle of Noble One left over from last weeks family get together. Noble One is a botrytis semillon from Australia, essentially an Australian take on the great wines of Sauternes. Noble refers to the botrytis which is also known as noble rot. It's a very specific sort of mould that removes the water from the grapes leaving wonderful complex flavours (in this case think marmalade, quince, glacé pineapple, and butterscotch). It's sweet, but has a beautiful balancing streak of acidity, I'm very much a fan.

The way we talk about wine and perfume has a lot common, which isn't surprising as it's your sense of smell that you really rely on to evaluate wine - nosing it is at least half the pleasure of drinking something good. And Noble One smells great.

Catherine Maxwell's 'Scents & Sensibility: Perfume in Victorian Literary Culture' (published by Oxford) is a long overdue exploration of Victorian literature through scent. I get the same frisson of excitement whenever I meet a familiar perfume or wine in a book, because suddenly there's the chance to make another connection, and to immerse yourself deeper in the text through the senses of smell and taste.

This is particularly interesting in Victorian literature because of their complicated and evolving relationship with perfume, and cosmetics generally. Scent is a shorthand for all sorts of things, so Maxwell's help in decoding what it means is fascinating. It's a thoroughly scholarly work (complete with splendidly academic chapter titles) that covers a whole range of writers from the canonical to the frankly obscure. It is also the perfect book for anyone who loves scent and Victorian literature (two of my favourite things), if I didn't already have a copy it would be top of my Christmas wish list.