Sunday, December 16, 2018

Shelf Life with a Malmsey Madeira

Alex Johnson's 'Shelf Life' is a delight, a collection of short pieces about books and reading by a range of writers and notable figures. It's funny, thoughtful, and would make a perfect little gift for anybody who likes reading about books.

It has the feel of something intended mostly for gift giving, or to be the sort of book you would find in a bibliophiles bathroom - but it's much better than that might suggest - I'd treasure it for William Blades opinion on should children be allowed near your shelves; 'The Enemies of Books', and his horrid vision of precious first editions launched as missiles. It's a hard no from William Blades.

The thing about books like these is that so often after one reading the charm wears thin, but Johnson has unearthed things that don't lose their charm through repeated contact which makes it a total winner in my view.

I feel the same about Madeira. If ever there was a wine for which you could claim age does not wither it, nor custom stale it's infinite variety - to sort of quote Shakespeare  - I'd say it was this one. Especially on the age front. I was told as a young wine merchant that it wasn't worth drinking Madeira less than 15 years old. It's a sentiment that a broadly agree with, I'd only really use younger Madeira to cook with - but I know I like it, so I'm happy to make the investment in an older bottle. I did take my time to work up to those though, and taste is very much a personal matter and others may well enjoy younger Madeira more than older bottles.

The great thing about this wine is the unique way in which it's made (it's both heated and oxidised, two things you normally try to avoid at all costs) which means it's almost indestructible in the bottle, something that you can keep open for years rather than weeks. I always have a bottle for cooking with, it does great things for a gravy for a start, I've been splashing some over pheasant all this winter too (if that sounds decadent, a free range, well fed, fat free pheasant, that will comfortably feed 3 costs £3.99, or a brace for £7, on the market at the moment) and very nice it's been.

Malmsey is the sweetest, richest, style of Madeira and my favourite. Because of its complexity it's not a sugary sweetness (think of nuts, dried fruit, coffee, and dark brown sugar flavours) and I find it the most versatile in the kitchen, as well - good not just with those pheasants, but with sweeter things too.

A small glass to finish a meal, either with cheese, or perhaps something with dark chocolate, or a sticky toffee pudding is great. Mostly I'd drink it in it's own though, or as a reading wine - a comfortable, interesting, companion to bring out on a cold wet night when it's an absolute pleasure to be at home with a good book and a good wine.


  1. Last night, here, was - an absolute pleasure to be at home with a good book and a good wine. "The Vicar's Daughter" by E H Young was the book and a rather toothsome Vigonier was the wine, tonight is milder and drier, the book finished and so is the wine...

    1. A good Viognier is a tremendous wine, I still remember the first time I drank such a thing (maybe 18 years ago?) and being delighted by that distinctive apricot flavour. I think I have the E H Young, and must look that out too. It's fascinating the way wine develops as well, it's a living thing - definitely keeps it interesting!