Tuesday 30 March 2010

One in the Eye

This wine called to me, pulled me in. Strange, because the label's a bit naff, but it all made sense once I'd spun the bottle.
Last year, an encounter with a date palm nearly cost me an eye. Click here for details. Sitting endless hours in waiting rooms, waiting on specialists, a lot goes through your mind. One thing I wondered, was what to do if my eye was done for? Some sort of prosthetic number? Dark glasses? Live with the hole? Eventually I settled on a patch.

So ahead of this year's London Fashion Week, looking to play along and make a bit of impact, I decided to have a shot at making something...

In the end I didn't wear it. The Swarovski crystal was attached via a giant spike. One accidental nudge and an inch of steel would plunge straight into my retina. Of course it didn't matter, fashion being fashion, I'd have been seriously trumped...

The wine's pretty special for £9.99. Even if, from the back of the label, it looks like the guy who makes it is a bit 'special' too. I bought my bottle from The Cave on Great Western Road.

Sunday 21 March 2010

If I could paint it, I wouldn't need to keep talking about it...

It was a strange period in my life. I'd been hanging around with one too many conceptual artists and the strain was beginning to tell. One night after a few glasses of red wine I cracked, and out of the crevice emerged a new character, an alter ego... let's call him Splodgyoko.

Splodgyoko, as you may have guessed, was a contemporary artist, but he didn't call himself that, or anything else for that matter, because terms set boundaries and thus limits on creative expression. Splodgyoko's obsession was the space between spaces.

"For Splodgyoko the space between spaces represents the futility of existence. Yet by examining it's overlooked beauty, he also reveals an underlying message of continuous rebirth. That which was new will soon become old, usurped and eventually forgotten. In it's place, for a fleeting moment, the future, before it too begins it's inevitable decay".

This kept me amused for weeks. Some people actually believed it, which got me thinking, was me pretending to be an artist actually a work of performance art in itself? After a few more thoughts like that I decided it was time for Splodgyoko to retire.

Over a year later I found myself at an event trying to sit on one of those completely functionless pieces of furniture that haunt arts venues. I eventually came to rest with my feet in the air and my back leaning forwards, trying in vain to sip from a bottle of beer. Sitting perfectly upright next to me was a skinny young chap with bright red trainers and a white man's Afro. We got chatting...

"I'm an artist", he told me, "No shit", is what I thought... "Oh really, how interesting, what sort of work do you do?", is what I said. "Oh it's quite hard to explain", he ventured, before attempting to do so for the next twenty minutes, eventually concluding that essentially his work was all about... "Exploring the space between spaces".
If I wasn't being partially digested by it, I'd have fallen off my chair.

Chateau Musar is a bit of a wine between wines. From the Lebanon, a country between countries, ravaged by it's bigger neighbours intrigues. Made by the Hochar family from grapes grown in the Bekaa Valley, even during the civil war they managed to keep making it in all but one vintage. It's a remarkable wine although very individual and not to everyones taste. In my experience it's best, though not very practical, if bought a few weeks or even months before drinking. More than just about any other wine I know it seems to need to settle down. It lasts for years too. Picked this up in Waitrose for £17.99, and only one sip in I'd say it's worth every penny. A passionate and profound wine.

Friday 12 March 2010

Blazing on a Sunday Afternoon

It all started so well. Issi, Alan and baby Hamish came for lunch. A lovely civilised afternoon, culminating in my all time favourite food and wine pairing... Roquefort cheese with Sauternes... it is, quite simply, sublime.
We chatted and mused on whether the Chateau Filhot, despite it's nine years, was still way too young. I think it was. Then, after being freed from childcare duties for the night, Alan suggested the pub. That much I remember, but very little else.

It's always risky going drinking with chefs, that unquenchable thirst brought on from working inside a furnace. I've been getting snippets ever since, even photographs of me chatting away to people I've no recollection of whatsoever. Strange days indeed, most peculiar mama...

Sunday 7 March 2010

A Date With Douglas Blyde

I love Marylebone, London's your doorstep yet it feels like a place in itself. It would make a very nice Principality, one of those oddities the Europeans seem so fond of... like Monaco, Liechtenstein and Andorra. Of course it would require a Prince and something else quirky like it's own number plates, but once in place think of the benefits, tourists and tax dodgers would love it.

We were staying for a week with our lovely and very tolerant friends Jane and Andy, on Dorset Square, once home to George Grossmith, co-author of that brilliant satire on the aspiring middle classes, 'The Diary of a Nobody'. It was also the original site of Lord's cricket ground.

Douglas Blyde would make a good Prince of Marylebone. He certainly shines as an ambassador for the place, although he may need to swat up a bit on the geography. He recently spent time strolling and extolling it's foodie virtues to a Belgian journalist and suggested re-running some of the tour for our first formal meet up.

I've been a fan of 'Intoxicating Prose' since first stumbling across it, but you always wonder if you're going to meet the same 'person' in the flesh.

On arriving I could have sworn the woman at the desk of The Providores Tapa Room almost curtsied when we said who we were meeting. Douglas himself was ensconced in a large high backed banquette surveying all before him. I resisted the temptation to bow.

After shaking hands on the stroke of midday his first suggestion was a Wasabi Martini, my kind of ruler... and it was superb. The kick of the martini disguising the heat of the wasabi, what's left is a lovely earthy lick. I must find out how to make these.

The Providores belongs to Peter Gordon, fusion's original London practitioner and the food in the Tapa Room is very good, but we had other fish to fry so wandered off to Fishworks for some oysters.

... only to be informed there was a ban on British oysters because of poisoning incidents. Douglas was sceptical, so was I. Just two days before I'd been wolfing them down in Marylebone Farmers Market. Native, rock and a new find for me, hard shell clams, which I thought were quite possibly even better than the incredibly fresh oysters. All from the Maldon Oysters van, half a dozen for a fiver.

Anyway, Fishworks wouldn't sell us any, so we wandered down Moxon Street to visit La Fromagerie, a veritable temple to fermented milk.

As the name implies, it's the cheese you come here for, although they do good bread, food and wine too. The star attractions are kept in perfect condition in a giant walk in humidor. You can eat in, but at weekends the queues can be long.

Being rather obsessed by the Cathars I recognised this cross straight away. The label said it was mild and gently nutty... rather like the Cathars themselves. They were dualists who'd observed the world around them and concluded, not entirely unreasonably, that it must be the work of an 'evil' god. Their priests lived in holes in the ground and were determined to be unsullied by his evil matter. Hopefully this cheese came from a 'good' god's matter.

It was raining heavily by now and we were very hungry but still couldn't make up our minds about lunch. So we opted for a place where we didn't have to. Le Relais de Venise L'Entrecote on Marylebone Lane doesn't take bookings and the only choice is how you want your steak cooked.

You get a basic walnut salad first, followed by steak with very authentic frites and a bizarre sauce which had a whiff of Thai green curry about it. The waitress said it was made in France and heated up here, so no-one knew what was in it. Not terribly reassuring. According to the menu the beef comes from Donald Russell and it was very good. All this for £21 which is pretty good value in central London. Douglas chose a Corbieres from the short list, it had a slightly metallic tang which worked well with the bloody beef.

Le Relais de Venise is essentially a British teenagers take on a Parisian brasserie. All the 'yucky' French stuff is off the menu, just steak and chips remain. Nice steak and chips right enough and the place does have a lovely, buzzy atmosphere.

We popped down Thayer Street for ice cream and coffee in Cocorino.

Amazing ice cream. I tasted a few, incredibly the Sesamo was like an ice cream version of Nutrageous. Despite loving this particular confection, cold and melty seemed wrong, so I went for Pannacotta Caramello, coquettishly the Italian waitress said it was her favourite too. She's not daft.

Bouyed up on sugar and booze we slipped off to Farringdon.

I've wanted to visit St John for years. Founder and chef Fergus Henderson's mantra is if you're going to kill something for food then you'd better give it the respect of eating it all. Admirable, and in his place as it turns out, damn tasty too.

We weren't hungry but had to order one of his signature dishes.

Roasted veal marrow bones, spooned out onto toast and sprinkled with salt. Delicious.

Douglas chose a Minervois which I rather liked but he described as smelling like an excited Labrador. Inscrutably not offering whether he thought this was a good or bad thing. I suppose it depends how much you like sniffing dogs.

We had a nosey at the salting pigs livers, admired the genius of the tapering table in the very public private room then headed across the road to Vinoteca.

We finished off a great afternoon with a delicious Portugese number. They have a really fascinating range of wines in Vinoteca, almost too good, I'd have been ages choosing on my own. As we chatted, not in the slightest bit hungry, I glanced at the menu... it read so well I very nearly ordered something. All the dishes came with wine recommendations too. Nice touch.

Many thanks Douglas, we had a lovely afternoon, so good to finally meet up, but watch out... because when a London wine bar boasts a menu more apetising and imaginative than any place in Glasgow just now... there may soon be a pretender to the Marylebone throne!

Monday 1 March 2010

One for the price of two

I came up with a great plan recently. Drink less, drink better. Instead of two wines for £5.99 drink one at £11.99. Benefiting both pleasure and health. Cunning... or so I thought. This was my first venture.

Unfortunately it is utterly, totally delicious, I can't stop drinking it and at £10.99 a bottle it's costing me a fortune. Beguilingly complex wine with a gorgeous texture that's almost waxy. It smells like being inside a top notch Italian deli... salami, icing sugar, honey, lemon, nuts... panatone? On the palette it's a bit like when the runny centre of a boiled sweet bursts. Best drunk not too cold. My extensive experiments have determined ten minutes in the freezer box to be about perfect.

After picking up my latest bottle I was dithering over which red to buy. A very upright older gentleman turned to me and said in a thick French accent, "Zis one is a very good bottle of wine, it iz delicious for the money". What the hell, I'm of an age where acting on the suggestions of older strangers is no longer so much of a concern...

When a Frenchman recommends an Italian's wine you know it must be good. It was, exceedingly good for £7.99. Possibly not to everyone's taste... quite structured, with a piercing smell that reminded me of proper cider, the stuff where the farmers bung in the odd carcass with the fermenting apples to help "flavour it up a bit see".
I was thinking while drinking it, why is a Frenchman a Frenchman but an Italian just an Italian?

Both wines came from Waitrose:
Verdicchio di Matelica (not quite Metalica): £10.99
Barbera D'Asti Superiore, I Tre Vescovi: £7.99