October 2008


A chance meeting at The Wine Show made a celestial match – or perhaps that should be fiendish marriage. 

So that’s the Wine Show done for another year, four days of unrelenting wine talk, still overall a good time was had by all. I made two discoveries this year. The first was Argentinean winery Doña Paula, 96 bottles of their wine passed through my hands over the weekend, but the one that left a lasting impression was Los Cardos Malbec. You’d be hard pressed to find a more supple and juicy glass of red, especially for £5.99 a bottle (Oddbins).

The second discovery was a weird and wonderful chocolate mix. Opposite the Wines of Argentina booth, where I was putting in the hours, was a stand for a company selling/promoting organic chocolate called Cocoa Loco (www.cocoaloco.co.uk) manned by owner Rory Payne. He took a shine to my colleague, the beautiful Rubenesque Rachel and threw chocolates across the aisle at her. But then Rachel is a woman who deserves to be pelted with truffles, so it all made sense.

As well as the usual delicious chocolate guises Cocoa Loco dished up chocolate bars flavoured with chili pepper. It’s an odd but very successful combination as the melting bitter opulence of the dark chocolate combines with the exhilarating heat of the pimento in a surprisingly smooth juxtaposition. But the pleasure isn’t limited to the palate, there’s also a natural high.

The chocolate releases seratonins in the brain creating a happy feeling, as seratonins are used to counteract depression it is a singularly potent ingredient. However combined with chili, which releases natural endorphins also giving a sense of physical and mental well-being, this confectionary is truly mind-altering.

The Aztecs knew about the power of these ingredients and believed them to be an aphrodisiac. They brewed a potent drink and ‘doubly’ hot chocolate is still probably the easiest way to serve up this flavoursome twosome.

Cocoa Loco offer both white and dark chocolate bars enhanced with chilli, (the latter are far superior in my bitter loving opinion). They also make wonderful squidgy brownies and suggest adding chocolate to chilli con carne to make a deep dark sauce. So there are clearly many ways to play this pair.

 However I have decided that such an exotic marriage of ingredients merits a presentation that also lifts the heart as well as the mind and that has to be the chocolate chilli cupcake. The cupcake has to be the most frivolous of cakes (although I’ll agree that the macaroon makes a close second). So imagine a chocolate cupcake individually iced with the darkest chocolate and laced with fiery chilli. Could a patisserie be a big tease? Now I just need to find some brave souls willing to taste these Lucifer’s fairies. Any takers?

 Katrina’s website


Working at consumer wine fairs is hard graft. But it is also – scary thought – a great opportunity to meet the general public and find out what really interests them.

The Wine Show at the Business Design Centre in Islington, aka the ‘UK’s only consumer wine fair’, has to be the coalface of the wine trade. Between Thursday 23rd and Sunday 26th October 2008, I, like the rest of the exhibitors from all over the wine producing world, will be pouring, talking and selling wine to the anticipated 15,000 visitors. If we can retain our enthusiasm for the product by the end of the show then it really is true love!

This year I will be working on the Wines of Argentina stand (a country which is increasingly capturing my imagination – wine and mountains, what could be better!) with a group of producers coming over especially from South American for the show. I am looking forward to meeting them but how they react to the Great British public is yet to be seen.

Most visitors are enthusiastic about wine. They come wanting to try different things, to learn something, to buy a few bottles to drink at home. While people always enjoy background information, questions about alcohol levels and price are by far the most commonly asked. However after a few hours and many, many free samples the noise level at the show goes up and up and people do revert to type.

There are those who want to pour as much free wine down their throats as they possibly can. There are the wine bores who try to trip you up with awkward questions and pontificate to all around in an attempt to intellectualise their alcoholism. There are those who obstreperously proclaim that they like ‘sweet white’ wine and leave converted to rich reds. There are those who change their mind about what they like when they discover a wine they dismissed sells for a higher price.

And finally there are those who are genuinely enthusiastic. Who block out the bedlam in the room around them while they have a conversation with the wine in their glass. They may ask you questions, but it is the drink that does the talking and convinces them whether they should or shouldn’t buy this bottle, or re-visit this style at some point in the future. Luckily this group of people are by far the majority or visitors to the wine show and most of them are genuinely pleasant and interesting.

Still 15,000 is an awful lot of people and I know that no matter how enthusiastically I will try to talk about Argentinean Malbec or Torrontés and answer their questions, I know that the best drink that I’ll have on Sunday will be the cup of tea I’ll have when I finally get home. 

To see Katrina Alloway’s webpage visit http://www.katrinaalloway.co.uk

 

The poor relation, bitter loses out to easy to please sweet, robust salt and even mean and lean sour. But as cooks are we also losing out by not consciously including bitter in our dishes? Is being bitter really such a crime?

‘Delicious, this is really bitter.’ Why does that sound so wrong? The other tastes don’t get such a bad press. No one curls up their lip at the phrase ‘lovely and sweet’ or a proffered salty crisp or even the prospect of a salvia-smacking sour grapefruit segment, but bitter never raises a smile.

Of course, the palate does have a natural aversion to bitter, because this is how many poisons taste, as do many medicines. For example quinine, used to treat malaria, is also a flavour component of tonic water and bitter lemon. But if we ignore the potential of bitter are we missing a culinary trick?

I have a recipe from the Cantinetta Antinori in Florence, a restaurant which always receives rave reviews, for crostini cavalo nero, or black cabbage on toast. I have never cooked it. Partially because I suspect it is a dish that needs to be tried in situ and would get lost in translation away from Tuscany, but also such a show of bitterness seems less than appealing compared with say sweet tomato or salty cheese or even tangy leaves laced with vinaigrette.

Still there are plenty of home grown examples where bitter is an essential component to a dish: bitter/sweet Oxford marmalade, carrot and walnut cake, endive salad with Roquefort and walnuts. But these are ‘homeopathic’ portions; they tease the bitter appreciating papillae on the tongue without causing them alarm. Even bitter dark chocolate with 70% cocoa solids is off set with fats and sweeteners and a few hardy souls may knock back a sugar-free espresso but most of us succumb to a cube of sugar, milk or diluting hot water rather than take a shot unadulterated.

But as a cook I can’t help but wonder if I shouldn’t be making a more conscious effort to include bitter flavours into my repertoire. After all as a wine lover one of my favourite grape varieties is Chenin Blanc which comes in many styles but even in its dessert wine guise it usually distinguishes itself with a bitter taste of pithy grapefruit. Fish Hoek, Chenin Blanc 2007 from the Western Cape (£6.99 in Tesco) is a good example and if you would like to upscale then Jacky Blot, Domaine de la Taille aux Loups, Remus, Montlouis Sec, Loire, 2006 at £101.52 for six bottles on www.everywine.co.uk is fantastic.

So should I come out and proclaim: I love bitter! Surely it is better to be a maverick than ignore one of the most exciting primary tastes? To live with meals only three-quarters enjoyed? Yes! I will no longer neglect my bitter taste buds. They will no longer cry out for attention only to be chastised with a spoon of medicine. I shall include radicchio and endives in my salads, I will braise brassicaceae, add coffee grinds to anything that they might possibly enhance, I will make bitter chocolate sauces and serve them with roast meats but will I make cabbage on toast for lunch? No. That one will have to wait for a visit to Tuscany. After all if it all goes wrong it could leave a worryingly bitter taste in my mouth.

To see Katrina’s webpage visit http://www.katrinaalloway.co.uk/

While building up a mental list of recognisable smells may be the key to analysing and understanding wine, it is still the involuntary memories that a glass can evoke that bring the greatest pleasure.


How many times have my non-wine loving friends dissolved into laughter after I have emerged from a glass and asked them if they too have discovered an aroma of tar and roses or pencil shavings or wet sheep in its depths? OK, I’ll admit, I sometimes play to the crowd.

But what I, and anyone who has more than a dilettante interest in wine, do, is call upon a memory bank of smells (pencil shavings and wet sheep amongst them) that provide clues to identity: variety, region, vintage, quality etc.  All wine enthusiasts deliberately work on turning what could be just a series of involuntary and random associations into a catalogue of olfactory trigger points that help navigate through the many sensory stimuli that a glass of wine creates with the goal of making a cool and objective assessment.

I had to work at this. I remember going through the spice rack and memorising aromas: turmeric, nutmeg, mace etc so that when I came across the smell of cloves in a glass of Châteauneuf-du-Pape my mind raced back to that hour spent with my nose in the kitchen cupboard and I slotted the smell into ‘Southern Rhône associations’.

Other smells came to me unexpectedly. I remember standing on the platform of an old fashioned London bus after a perplexing tasting of German wines when I got a blast of diesel in my face. ‘Now I understand Riesling,’ I thought as I jumped onto the pavement.

 

But despite all of this cool-headed aromatic analysis, one of the great pleasures of wine tasting for me will always be the unexpected associations; the uncategorised smells that trigger involuntary thoughts. Like the glass of Champagne Veuve Clicquot demi-sec with its perfume of muscovado sugar which makes me remember being in the Swiss Alps, and one snowy morning when somebody once spoilt me with a glass of this wine. Or the taste of Chinon from Domaine Baudry Dutour, Domaine du Roncée 2007 which smells of Autumn leaves and dark, fresh Cabernet Franc grapes. It is so evocative that the noise in the room around me fades and I am once again crouched amongst the vines picking the very fruit that made this wine.

Neuroscientists call these involuntary memories triggered by smell the Proust effect, in homage to the description in Remembrance of Things Past when the protagonist eats a madeleine:           

And suddenly the memory appeared. That taste was the taste of the little piece of madelaine which on Sunday morning at Combray (because that day I did not go out before it was time for Mass), when I             went to say good morning to her in her bedroom, my Aunt Léonie would give me after dipping it in her infusion of tea or lime-blossom.[1]

 

To be able to truly analyse the smell of wine: for a buyer to recognise a wine’s commercial viability, a winemaker to assess the liquid’s progress, for the amateur to build up a wider understanding of all the variations and permeations to be found within a region or variety, then cool unsentimental analysis is essential. But still, no matter how useful and important my ability to recognise and assess the aromas of different wine maybe, this will always just be an academic thrill or professional necessity.

           

What brings real pleasure, and is one of the many reasons why I love wine, are the involuntary memories: the Proust effect. The glass of Sauvignon Blanc that reminds me of dancing late into the night at a harvest party in Sancerre or the face of a friend with whom I shared a similar bottle while we ate a particularly delicious brace of seabass and his laughter as I described our wine with an increasingly outlandish stream of adjectives.

 


[1] Marcel Proust, The Way by Swann’s, In Search of Lost Time, Trans. Lydia Davis. Penguin Books, London 2002

Welcoming paying foreign guests to your home is an interesting, yet fraught experience, especially when confronted with their prejudices about English cooking. Still nothing that extreme gastronomic diplomacy and a date and walnut cake can’t over come.

 ‘What do you think of English food?’ asked the newly arrived Italian.

‘Disgusting’, replied the Russian with his mouth full of one of my homemade flapjacks.

I’d decided to fill my house with English language students over the summer to ward of the excesses of the credit crunch. This meant cooking ‘English’ food to a rolling cohort of five to eight youngish foreigners – Turkish, Serbs, Japanese and Chinese as well as the aforementioned Italians and Russians – every evening.

‘Do you really mean that?’ I asked. ‘Do you understand what disgusting means? Do you think my cooking is disgusting?’

‘Yes, yes. Everybody knows it,’ the Italian plunged on. ‘English food is like English weather,’ he gestured towards the rain outside. ‘It is very bad.’

I wanted to be a good hostess, after all there people were paying to stay in my house, but there are limits and being casually insulted at my own dinner table is definitely beyond acceptable.

‘Ok that’s it. Dinner is over. You can all leave.’

They looked at me astonished, then all trooped off to their bedrooms crest fallen and confused. I hoped they were still hungry.

 When I had calmed down a little, (three glasses of wine and a rant to my good friend Chris helped) I started to think about food and culture shock. The Russian didn’t really think that English food was disgusting, or at least not my food, after all he had been with me for a week and had eaten with increasing appetite. His wife had also tucked in – providing she could douse everything with tomato ketchup. And the Italians had only just arrived so they couldn’t make any sort of real judgement; they were just lashing out at a host country where they were trying to find their feet. (Irrational anger and/or prejudice, a common sign of culture shock: as any guidebook will tell you.)

And angry as I was, I still couldn’t pretend that I am such a seasoned world traveller that I too haven’t experienced food culture shock. My first samosa, newly arrived in Mumbai airport, caused me to panic. I became convinced, post-ingestion, that some virulent form of amoebic dysentery had lurked in its greasy corners and was now spreading through my body so I was seconds away from disintegrating into a pool of slurry.

Less dramatically, but more pertinently, I know how the basic things: oil, rice, flour and bread, can taste peculiar when grown/produced in a different country and how easy it is to criticise that difference.

So although I am aware of what it is to look at food with a mind full of fear and an empty belly full of butterflies, I still had to deliver an ultimatum to the students: move out; cook your own food or sit at my table and damn well enjoy it. They chose the latter with mumbled apologies and we all blamed the usual international whipping boy, cultural misunderstandings, for the mishap.

So the evenings rolled on, and I did my best to accommodate everybody’s habits. There were the obvious things like not serving pork or giving a choice of cutlery or chopsticks. But also putting everything on the table together so those who like to pile their plates high with meat, salad, potatoes etc could mix and match as they wished, while those who prefer to eat in a series of courses, not mixing hot and cold or protein and starch, could also eat as they preferred.

And I did my best to adopt a largesse d’esprit towards the food-habits of all peoples. I found myself unfazed by the Japanese guy who ate cornflakes and vanilla ice-cream for breakfast or a different Italian who piled chocolate digestive biscuits in a bowl, poured coffee over them and ate the resultant mush with a spoon.

 I also did what English people have done for centuries when confronted with insults about our cooking. I brought out the cakes and puddings: date and walnut, apple crumble, summer pudding… and I watched my visitors experience sweets that are not just frivolous bagatelles of cream and sugar but nutritious and filling.

 ‘Thank God for your hands,’ said the Turkish women as they ate queen of puddings. The Japanese guy just slurped and beamed and helped himself to another slice of ginger bread. As for the Russians? Well the food war melted. We chatted. We found common ground. We broke bread.

And the Italian guy? Never have I seen anyone make so much effort to sing for his supper. He could not have turned into a more considerate and charming guest. Just before he left, his wife asked me for my carrot cake recipe. So I am delighted to say that now, back in Italy, they can enjoy the pleasures of English food in the comfort of their own home. All they’ll need is a shower of rain and they might even feel nostalgia for their two weeks eating in England. Buono appetito! 

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