Wine Tasting and Cookery Demonstration at La Cucina Caldesi

9th September 6.30pm – 9.30pm

One thing about blogging that constantly surprises me is how sociable it is. I’ve met interesting people, been to great events and had some lively debates, both on and off line, about all sorts of topics. Which is one reason why I’m very excited about hosting another bloggers evening on Thursday 9th September.  It will be a great chance to catch up with old friends and meet people whose blogs I’ve read.

The second reason is because all the food and wine will be supplied by  ‘Discover the Origin‘. This is a campaign promoting ‘Products of Designated Origin’ or PDO. Like a lot of people I am very keen on knowing where my food comes from and that it is produced in an ethical way. The PDO system does just that.

Discover the Origin promotes five PDO products: Parmesan cheese, Parma Ham, Burgundy wines, Douro wines and Port. It would be fantastic if it did more, but these five are a great start.

The bloggers event will take place at La Cucina Caldesi. Katie Caldesi will demonstrate some Autumn recipes. I’ve seen Katie cook before and she is an inspiring and accomplished chef and her recipes are authentic and approachable.

I will talk through a selection of really delicious Burgundy and Douro wines, plus a few ports. Selecting wines and ports  from two of the greatest wine regions in the world means I am spoilt for choice!

Of course it will also be a great opportunity to chat with friends and meet other bloggers, after all who wants to sit in front of a computer all the time?

Bona fide bloggers are welcome, please send a link to your blog to

Places are limited and will be allocated on a strictly first come first served basis.

To whet your appetite here is the list of canapes:

Parma Ham, Toasted Parmesan Focaccia, Red pepper Jam and rocket Cress
Cornish crab, avocado puree, Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese biscuit
Sautéed Artichoke, Parma Ham and truffle Frittata, Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese cream.
Smashes pea and mint Tart with Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese shards
Seared Beef Sirloin, Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese and truffle oil polenta, Rocket Pesto, Tomato Confit
Raspberry Shortcake with vanilla cream

I have being spending a lot less time on my beloved Chocolate Chilli Cupcakes blog this year as I’ve been busy with  work, study, creative writing and love. BUT it is not forgotten and I hope to start blogging again one day…

However I am still organising bloggers events and I have some interesting wine and food dates coming up. I’ll let you know. In the meantime if you want to be added to my invitation list then send me an e-mail to

Three decades of serious cooking, eating, drinking and tasting wine have not only garnered me an impressive pair of hips, but the accolade of being a ‘food and wine expert’. It is a terrific pedestal to be placed on (the food is fantastic up here) and I get to make lofty pronouncements on the best wine to serve with toad-in-the-hole or sweet and sour crab claws etc etc (Côtes du Rhone, Australian Riesling respectively).

Sometimes it can get a little rocky up here on my judges bench especially when someone wants a binding promulgation on what goes with what, only to later discover that their palate is completely different to mine and my meat, if not their poison, is a yukkie, grimace inducing mouthful. The only thing I can say in my defence is that food and matching is not cast in stone, there’s no accounting for taste and there is really no reason for it all to degenerate into a food fight.

I’ve been wearing my ‘food and wine expert’ hat a lot recently as I have been working as an ambassador for Vive le Cheese, a PR campaign promoting French cheese. So far this job has been a cheesy delight and one of the best things was hosting an evening for food bloggers at London cheese mecca, also known as La Fromagerie.

One of my tasks was to pick a handful of French wines and present them at a workshop matched to recipes using French cheese. I wanted to show a real cross-section of French wines and as I had free reign I decided to opt for five of my own firm favourites:

Pouilly-Fumé AOC, de Ladoucette 2007,

100% Sauvignon Blanc

I’m a big fan of Loire wines, I love their crispness, their aroma and I really like the minerality of Sauvignon Blanc. I often find that Pouilly-Fumé are more floral than their more famous neighbours: Sancerre.

The Ladoucette Château is a fairytale affair with turrets and towers, there is also something ethereal about this wine. It is pretty and dances on the tongue.

Chablis AOC, William Fevre 2008

100% Chardonnay

I recently went to a Chablis tasting where 70 producers were all gathered showing off their wares. The event called alternatively been called variations on the theme of Chardonnay. After the event, once the hullabaloo had faded, one producer stuck in my mind: William Fèvre. Its clarity, purity and sheer deliciousness are a delight.

Crozes-Hermitage AOC, E. Guigal 2006

100% Syrah

I like this wine because it doesn’t overwhelm with pedigree as some wines, especially from a prestigious house like Guigal, can do. This wine doesn’t demand to be stored in a cellar where it can endlessly accrue value and finesse, instead it simply requests you to drink it and enjoy its fruity spicy flavours. Lip-smacking stuff.

Madiran AOC, Plénitude, Producteurs Plaimont 2006

Tannat 80%, Cabernet Sauvignon 20%

I love Madiran’s individuality, it’s SW France Basque country quirkiness. The vineyard’s proximity to the Pyrenees and my spiritual path: The Way of Saint James.

The Tannat grape is a delicious, tarry and uncompromising dark. Great stuff.

I also, at the risk of sounding superficial, love this bottle’s wax seal and metal label. Sometimes it’s fair to judge a wine by its appearance!

Sauternes-Barsac AOC, Château Coutet 2004

Sémillon 80%, Sauvignon Blanc 18%, Muscadelle 2%

I’ve been aware of Château Coutet for a while but since my lunch with Aline Baly (see my previous post) it has become a firm favourite. I love its feminine elegance, its intensity and minerality.

2004 is not a great hoopla vintage, so this wine is flirtatiously sweet rather than beguilingly unctuous.

So there are my five wines. Which one went with which dish? (click on the links for the recipes)

Reblochon PDO Fritters and Spiced Butternut Squash Soup

The Chablis and Reblochon chatted away liked old friends while the spice in the Crozes Hermitage and the spice in the soup got frisky together.

French Emmental, Smoked Lardons and Roasted Cherry Tomato Quiche

The crisp Pouilly-Fumé sparred well with the big flavours of the dish, while the Madiran worked the lardons in the tart with the aplomb of a PR girl at a reception and made them shine.

French Camembert and Fig Tart with Hazelnut and Parsley Vinagrette

The Crozes Hermitage and the Camembert were like two on-line daters who have ticked all the same boxes and really are as compatible in real life as they are supposed to be. The Sauternes and the figs fell head over heels in love.

Roquefort and Walnut Soufflé with Spiced Pear Chutney.

Chardonnay and eggs are always a compatible match and this was no exception but the smouldering match of the evening was Roquefort and Sauternes-Barsac. Powerful chemistry as opposites attract.

A wine by any other name would still taste as sweet.

I hope the Shakespearian purists will forgive this misquote. Here’s why…

A couple of days ago I had a lovely ladies lunch at The Greenhouse Restaurant, London, with Aline Baly from Château Coutet in Bordeaux. We tried a couple of vintages of her wine: 2001 (truly luscious) and 2002 (fresher and more floral) along with the daily menu, (sweet onion tart followed by wood pigeon for me and sardines and coley fish for Aline).

Now those of you in the know will be aware that Château Coutet is a Sauternes, which means it is a sweet/dessert/pudding wine, undeterred by these suggestive monikers we drank it with our savoury courses. Our wild and maverick ways paid off because the wine complimented and flattered the food fantastically.

It was not the first time I’ve enjoyed pairings between Sauternes and savoury foods. Of course the two classic matches are a good salty, blue Roquefort cheese which makes a saline/sweet opposites attract pair and the unctuous combination with foie gras pâté which makes for an über-bling foodie experience. I’ve also had success marrying Sauternes with spicy foods and game.

‘I think a lot of people misunderstand Sauternes because it is called a dessert or sweet wines which suggests it can only be served with sweet things. As this lunch proves that simply isn’t the case’, said Aline. ‘We need to think of a new name which shows how versatile Sauternes can be.’

I took another long draft of the 2001 and thought about it for a moment, examining my glass, it was a perfect alchemist’s golden colour. Then it came to me.

‘Gold wines’, I said. ‘There are red wines, white wines and then there are gold wines. All the other wines are described by their appearance, so why shouldn’t Sauternes be as well?’

‘Perfect’, replied Aline with a laugh. ‘It’s a new category. Gold wines.’

We then discussed other wines which go into the gold wine sector, these include Hungarian Tokaji, German trockenbeerenauslese and beerenauslese and Loire Quarts de Chaume and Coteaux de Layon. The list goes on and they are very, very delicious.

Of course this doesn’t change the fact that these wines are sweet, most will have at least 45g of residual sugar per litre. But the best also have a lot of acidity which keeps them fresh and zingy and why calling them sweet wines is only half of the story, they could almost be described as sweet ‘n’ sour.

I hope the ‘gold’ wine tag catches on and that more people are prepared to try these wines with different foods and drink them outside the narrow dessert/pudding pairing. I am sure there are all sorts of food pairings that are great with gold wines. I would love to hear about them. In the meantime here’s my new recipe for Gold Chicken.

Gold Chicken

Four chicken thighs

Two generous glasses of gold wine (I used a Gaillac Doux Muscat from Domaine de Labarthe, 2004, keep the elegant likes of Château Coutet for the glass not the casserole dish!)

Marinade the chicken in the gold wine for at least four hours.

Brown the chicken in an oven proof dish, add the remaining wine marinade. Then bake in a moderate oven for twenty-thirty minutes.

I served it with pilau rice laced with walnuts, fresh pineapple and parsley and the rest of the bottle of Gaillac Doux Muscat. Delicious!

Does Bottle Aged or Wood Aged Port make the best festive match?

So there’s about a week to go before Christmas, which mean I, like a lot of us, am planning my menu and thinking about what wines to serve. Since my recent trip to the Douro Valley, Portugal, I am giving far more thought to which Port to buy than I have done in previous years.

Broadly speaking Ports fall into two categories: those that are aged in bottle, such as Vintage or Late Bottle Vintage (LBV). They are red/purple in colour and have a black/red fruit and chocolate flavour profile. Then there are those which are aged in wood barrels, such as Tawnies or Colheitas, which are more oxidised so are browner in colour and have a caramel, nut and saline flavour profile.

At Christmas I like to be a generous host which means at various points over the holiday: mince pies, Christmas cake, pudding, walnuts, stilton and my, some would say ubiquitous, Chocolate Chilli Cupcakes will all make an appearance. This means the food that I serve with my port (if I group together the dried fruit baking) will also have three very different flavour profiles. So the big question is: what foods go best with tawnies and which go best with bottle aged ports? Surely this is a question that is worth mulling over! So I decided to do a taste test and I invited two willing friends: Paul and Samantha to join me.

I opened a bottle of Ramos Pinto 30 year old Tawny, a gift from my charming host at the Quinta do Bom Retiro: Sr. João Nicolau de Almeida. It is a fantastic port with lots of caramel and toffee flavours off set with notes of almonds and seaweed. This is a top-notch Tawny.

The second, W&J Graham’s Late Bottle Vintage 2003, I had bought from my new favourite wine shop: The Good Wine Shop in Kew, London for a very reasonable £15.00. It was sweet and chocolaty with lots of plum and dark cherry fruit. It might not have had the quality of the Ramos Pinto, but then it is a mere 6 year-old colt. It is nevertheless a good example of a bottle-aged style.

For the food we had a festive spread of Stilton, Mince Pies, and a lovely light Christmas Pudding made by professional pudding maker Susan Gardner and this year’s new, traditional favourite, Chocolate Chilli Cupcakes. This is what we found:

W&J Graham’s LBV 2003 Ramos Pinto 30 year old Tawny
Stilton The contrast is too marked. A taste in two halves. A melodious match. The saltiness in the Tawny matches the saltiness in the cheese. The wines sweetness makes a good underlay for all the flavours.
Mince Pies Works wells. A good dark, fruity combination. Less good. The wine becomes over sweet.
Christmas Pudding A terrific match! Juicy and festive. Delicious. Interestingly this makes the pudding taste nuttier than when it is served with the LBV. A good match.
Chocolate Chilli Cupcakes Fabulous! The great marriage of chocolate flavours with a spank of chilli on the finish.

Not so good. The flavours of the two components are individually complex enough; together it is too complicated.

So our conclusions are: go for a bottle aged Port (LBV or splash out on Vintage) with the cake, pudding, mince pies and chocolate chilli cupcakes and a Tawny with the stilton and walnuts. So yes you will need two bottles: no matter it’s Christmas!

Here are a few other ports I particularly enjoyed on my trip to the Douro:


Quinta do Crasto, Vintage 2007

This port has an opaque, black colour which shows how young it is, plus the alcohol is still very obvious on the nose, further proof of its juvenility. But there are a myriad of flavours on the palate: plums, chocolate, raisins and spice and the texture is so thick, juicy and robust that this wine will definitely age and improve for years, perhaps decades, yet.

Quinta da Gricha, Vintage 2007, Churchill Graham Ltd

A sweet smelling nose with notes of dried flowers and hay. The palate has lots of fine damson notes and a touch of spice. An elegant and feminine port which I hope to re-visit when it has aged a little more and no doubt become even more graceful.

Porto Calem, Late Bottle Vintage 2004

A fresh young ruby colour. Rather than having a strong sweet /alcohol fortified wine smell, the nose is quite ‘winey’. The palate has herbaceous notes with a touch of chocolate.

Portal Vintage Port 2003

Far more elegant than an LBV, this port is very juicy with a complex range of flavours: plums and prunes, rosemary and mint, coffee and chocolate. The alcohol is still fairly obvious but will meld into the wine with time.


Quinta de la Rosa, Colheita 1997

A pretty Tawny colour with a nutty, woody nose. The palate is intense and very, very nutty with a long finish. Tasty!

Kopke Colheita 1978

The colour is like beeswax polished wood with a hint of green. The nose has an attractive vegetal/saline note which reminds me of seaweed salad in Japanese restaurants. The palate has notes of pepper, salt and almonds. A distinctive wine.

Burmester Colheita 1963

The colour is of a French polished antique table. The palate has flavours of barley sugar and linseed oil. It is very, very intense.

Portal 40 Year Old Aged Tawny Port

An attractive polished old oak colour with a greenish tinge, typical of older tawnies. The nose is very pungent and nutty with notes of linseed oil. Very rich.

Poet Carol Anne Duffy, was presented with a butt (720 bottles) of sherry at a recent ceremony in Jerez, Spain, to celebrate her appointment as Poet Laureate.

Carol Ann Duffy signs her butt of sherry.

The Sherry Institute of Spain revived the old tradition of paying The Poet Laureate a ‘butt of sack’ when Ted Hughes was appointed Laureate in 1984. Andrew Motion was also presented with more sherry than he could possibly drink when he took up the Laureate mantel in 1999.

The press release that the Sherry Institute sent me includes a rather banal quote from Duffy. ‘With your Third British Poet Laureate standing here, I think we can say that we have a tradition – and a lovely connection between two countries who value both poetry and great Sherry.’

I think Duffy is a fantastic poet – funny, insightful, original – so I was disappointed to read this bland sentence, especially as wine is one of my favourite topics and I love seeing it described in a way that is poetic and full of life. So I pulled my copy of Duffy’s poems The World’s Wife off the shelf and had a look to see if I could find anything about wine.

I did in the poem Mrs Midas. The poem is the story of Midas who is granted a wish by Dionysus, he asks for a special power so that everything he touches turns to gold. When he comes home to Mrs Midas she pours him a glass of wine ‘with a shaking hand, a fragrant bone dry white from Italy, then watched as he picked up the glass, goblet, golden chalice, drank.’

Here wine is a metaphor for the simple, everyday pleasures in life, something special that brightens up a quiet evening, something that has now been lost in a foolish pursuit of extreme wealth. It is the sort of witty and intelligent, feet on the ground, writing that has earned Duffy so many fans.

I hope Duffy enjoys her butt of sherry especially as I doubt that she would let such a generous accolade go to her head.

Here is Mrs Midas in full:

Mrs Midas by Carol Ann Duffy

It was late September. I’d just poured a glass of wine, begun

to unwind, while the vegetables cooked. The kitchen

filled with the smell of itself, relaxed, its steamy breath

gently blanching the windows. So I opened one,

then with my fingers wiped the other’s glass like a brow.

He was standing under the pear tree snapping a twig.

Now the garden was long and the visibility poor, the way

the dark of the ground seems to drink the light of the sky,

but that twig in his hand was gold. And then he plucked

a pear from a branch – we grew Fondante d’Automne –

and it sat in his palm like a light bulb. On.

I thought to myself, Is he putting fairy lights in the tree?

He came into the house. The doorknobs gleamed.

He drew the blinds. You know the mind; I thought of

the Field of the Cloth of Gold and of Miss Macready

He sat in that chair like a king on a burnished throne.

The look on his face was strange, wild, vain. I said,

What in the name of God is going on? He started to laugh.

I served up the meal. For starters, corn on the cob.

Within seconds he was spitting out the teeth of the rich.

He toyed with his spoon, then mine, then with the knives, the forks.

He asked where was the wine. I poured with shaking hand,

a fragrent, bone-dry white from Italy, then watched

as he picked up the glass, goblet, golden chalice, drank.

It was then that I started to scream. He sank to his knees.

After we had both calmed down, I finished the wine

on my own, hearing him out. I made him sit

on the other side of the room and keep his hands to himself.

I locked the cat in the cellar. I moved the phone.

The toilet I didn’t mind. I couldn’t believe my ears:

how he’d had a wish. Look, we all have wishes; granted.

But who has wishes granted? Him. Do you know about gold?

It feeds no one; aurum, soft, untarnishable; slakes

no thirst. He tried to light a cigarette; I gazed, entranced,

as the blue flame played on its luteous stem. At least,

I said, you’ll be able to give up smoking for good.

Seperate beds. In fact, I put a chair against my door,

near petrified. He was below, turning the spare room

into the tomb of Tutankhamun. You see, we were passionate then,

in those halcyon days; unwrapping each other, rapidly,

like presents, fast food. But now I feared his honeyed embrace,

the kiss that would turn my lips to a work of art.

And who, when it comes to the crunch, can live

with a heart of gold? That night, I dreamt I bore

his child, its perfect ore limbs, its little tongue

like a precious latch, its amber eyes

holding their pupils like flies. My dream-milk

burned in my breasts. I woke to the streaming sun.

So he had to move out. We’d a caravan

in the wilds, in a glade of its own. I drove him up

under cover of dark. He sat in the back.

And then I came home, the women who married the fool

who wished for gold. At first I visited, odd times,

parking the car a good way off, then walking.

You knew you were getting close. Golden trout

on the grass. One day, a hare hung from a larch,

a beautiful lemon mistake. And then his footprints,

glistening next to the river’s path. He was thin,

delirious; hearing, he said, the music of Pan

from the woods. Listen. That was the last straw.

What gets me now is not the idiocy or greed

but lack of thought for me. Pure selfishness. I sold

the contents of the house and came down here.

I think of him in certain lights, dawn, late afternoon,

and once a bowl of apples stopped me dead. I miss most,

even now, his hands, his warm hands on my skin, his touch.

Meat Loves Salt 1

When the old man looked ahead at his dwindling days he grew lonely and afraid.  So he called his three daughters to him.

‘Before I draw up my final will you must each give me a gift which shows how much you love me.’

The next day the eldest daughter presented him with a bejewelled crown.

‘My love for you is as rich and bright as this crown,’ she said.

The old man placed it on his head and was reassured by its heavy weight pressing down on him.

‘I will give you a third of my wealth,’ he replied.

‘The middle daughter presented the old man with an opulent fur coat.’

‘My love is as rare as this coat.’

Her father wrapped the fur about him and was reassured by its warmth even though it stifled his breathing.

‘I will give you a third of my wealth,’ he said.

Finally the youngest daughter approached. She handed him a small and simple paper bag.

The old man grabbed it, full of anticipation, sure that this gift from his favourite daughter would be the greatest of the three. He poured out the contents, then stood shocked, open mouthed, as a pile of white salt streamed into the palm of his hand.

‘What does this mean?’

‘I love you like meat loves salt,’ the youngest girl said.

The two elder girls sniggered and the old man grew angry.

‘Salt! How dare you! Get out of here you ungrateful wretch. Leave my house now if this is how much you love me then I care nothing for you.’


That evening the old men was bad tempered as he ate his dinner alone. He missed his youngest daughter, as she usually kept him company in the evening. His new crown was too heavy and the fur coat was itchy against his skin. He also had a sneaking feeling that he looked ridiculous.

He stabbed at the meat on his plate and started to chew. It was bland and unpalatable.

‘Salt,’ he cried. ‘I need salt.’

Then he fell silent and realised how very, very foolish he had been.

When he looked up there was somebody standing in front of him, it was his youngest daughter, she was holding a salt cellar out to him.

‘I love you like meat loves salt,’ she said.

‘Yes,’ he replied. ‘I love you like meat loves salt.’



Like Meat Loves Salt II


When the waitress offers the woman seated at a table in the corner of the restaurant a drink she just shakes her head. Ten minutes later she asks again but receives the same response. The woman doesn’t fidget and fiddle with the cutlery or glance at her watch or look up every time the door opens, she just sits, hands in lap, looking at the white cloth. Another ten minutes pass. The restaurant is busy now, the bustle of a Thursday night.

Then suddenly the door is flung open and a man rushes in. He is tall, middle aged, wearing an expensive wool coat, bejewelled with beads of rain. He doesn’t pause at the reception desk but rushes into the dining room and falls on one knee in front of the seated woman.

‘I’m so sorry. Something came up. I’m so sorry.’

The woman looks at him and gives him a small resigned and lifeless smile. The man stands up and shrugs off his coat and drapes it over the chair then calls to the waitress.

‘A bottle of Champagne please. Your best.’

‘You don’t have to,’ the woman said. ‘It doesn’t matter.’

‘Of course it matters, it’s our anniversary and it’s the first time you’ve been out since….’


The waitress brings the bottle of champagne. They clink glasses then silence falls between them. And now they both stare at the cloth. There is nothing to say. Then the man picked up the salt cellar and let the salt stream out and he draws the shape of a heart. The crystals are a glistening white against the matt starch of the cloth.

‘I love you like meat loves salt,’ he says.

The woman gasps.

‘You remember!’

‘Of course, I remember everything. I remember your face, so beautiful twenty-five years ago when I lifted up your veil and kissed you as my wife for the first time. I remember the first time I saw you dancing and I was too afraid to speak to you. I remember when you were lying in the hospital bed…’

The woman gasps again. But the man continues to speak.

‘Holding our children for the first time. I remember how you grew and changed from a girl to a woman. And I remember how just a few weeks ago again seeing you lying in a hospital bed, just waking up, and how I was still amazed at how beautiful you are.’

The woman puts a hand to her breast and slowly tears fall down her cheek. She cries silently and he leans over and kisses her face. Her tears taste salty. Then she picks up the salt cellar and draws a heart that intertwines with his.

‘I love you like meat loves salt,’ she says.

Then they both put their index finger into the salt and lick it off.

Then somehow, it was a stupid mistake, an accident, when the woman licks the salt she bites her lip and it starts to bleed. Blood flows out and run down her chin. She tries to check the flow with her napkin but it won’t stop.

‘Darling, are you alright?’

‘I should go to the bathroom’, she says, but she is unable to move.

‘Come, let me help you,’ her husband helps her out of her chair. The waitress watches them and is shocked to see such grief.


In the bathroom the woman washes her face. The man strokes her hair and then he holds her to him. She isn’t crying any more. He starts to kiss her tasting her blood and some grains of salt that still linger on her skin. Slowly she starts to kiss him back. It has been a long time. They rediscover the shape of the others mouth, teeth and tongue, once to familiar, so sweet to remember.

Then they start to kiss harder and the man runs his hands over her back. Then he unzips her dress.

‘Don’t I’m too…’

‘Sssh. I love you like meat loves salt.’

Now her sobbing comes from deep in her throat. And she holds the sides of his head and tips her own against the back of the wall.

‘No’, she cries as he undoes her bra. ‘No.’

‘Ssh’ he says again as the soft, liquid filled rubber that fills the left cup falls to the floor with a thud. ‘Ssh.’ Then he licks the scar where her left breast had been and she throws her body back against the wall as she feels his lips tingle against her. He cups her right breast and he slowly kisses the skin flat against her ribs just above her heart. She grips on to him tightly and wraps her legs around him. When he pushes inside her her body thuds against the wall.

‘I love you…’ she cries.

‘Like meat…’ he gasps in reply.

Her back thuds against the wall again.

‘Love salt’

‘Like meat,’ he says.

‘Loves salt,’ she whispers.








‘Salt. Salt. Salt.’


When they return to table the waitress looks at them. She had heard the thudding and drawn the obvious conclusion but she couldn’t believe that this respectable middle aged couple would do such a thing. Then she sees the woman’s face, gone is the grey pallor, the stillness, here is a person full of life. Full of hope.

‘Do you need anything?’ she asks the couple.

‘No thank you. We have everything we want,’ the woman smiles at the girl, the smile reaches her eyes, and then she turned to her husband.

‘Yes,’ replies the man, ‘we have everything we want.’

They reach out their hands to each other across the table.


On a recent trip to the Douro I discovered that crushing grapes by foot is still in full swing, however it’s not Port that’s being made but still wines and I thought they were delicious.


If you need some extra special pampering then wrap your toes in rose petals and have a glass of Douro wine.

My friend Stephanie and I recently had a conversation about the ultimate pedicure. We debated various potions and unguents then Stephanie suggested having each toe individually wrapped in a rose petal. I think that sounds perfect and the only way that this could be improved upon would be to drink an excellent glass of wine at the same time. 

One group of people whom I feel are deserving of such pampering (although I am first in the queue) are the grape crushers in the Douro Valley, Portugal. I recently visited the Douro and found out more about crushing grapes by foot than I ever expected to know short of jumping in the vat and paddling about myself.

The Douro is the only place where fruit is still crushed by the human foot (Unless there’s somewhere I haven’t heard of?). Grapes are put into huge concrete baths called lagars and then the crushers get in and set to work. It is easy to assume that immediately a bacchanalian free-for-all ensues.

‘Not so’, says João Nicolau de Almeida, lead winemaker for Ramos Pinto. ‘People have to follow the controller. For the first two hours it is like a military march, very slow, very strict, they have to make sure all the grapes are crushed. Then we all have a glass of wine, the music starts and people can dance and enjoy themselves. The guy playing the accordion has to understand how people need to move to make sure all the grapes are crushed and macerated. Sometimes people form a train, other times they have to go backwards or right into the corners. The different dances and movements ensure that there is the right amount of pressure and the right amount of movement. But all of this is empirical knowledge; it is not something that has been scientifically researched.

Quinta do Bomfin

Quinta de Bomfin - it was a rare treat to stay in such a beautiful Quinta.

In this age where most wineries look like computerised factories there is something folksy and quaint about foot crushing and dancing to accordions. However what surprised me most was not that this tradition continues but that it has been adapted for a relatively recent development: these dancing feet are not only making ports for which the Douro is renowned, but also still wines (i.e. around 13-14° alcohol). Most Quinta (that’s winery in Portuguese) have only started making non-fortified wines in the last decade so it is surprising that they have chosen to continue with this labour intensive method when the rest of the wine-making world advocates hands-off (never mind feet) techniques.

‘Foot crushing is a more gentle method and it is part of our Bacchus culture. It is unique to the Douro. We like it here,’ says João Nicolau de Almeida with a smile under him moustache.

Over the river is Quinta do Crasto a winery that dates back to 1615. They have also embraced still wine making and have five different bottlings.

‘Table wine is becoming more important each year,’ explains owner Miguel Roquette. He is kindly taking me for a bit of a wander around his vineyard, one day I’d like to come back here and hike the Douro properly, but for the moment I’m content with gazing at the stunning views of the terraced vineyards.

Some of these plots of vines are pre-phyloxera. Most are such a salmagundi of varieties that Roquette jokes they are like a ‘fruit salad’. I also heard wines made from this haphazard mix of grape varieties referred to as a ‘field blend’.

My two favourites wines were Vinha Maria Teresa 2007 and Vinha da Ponte 2007.  They are both field blends, hand picked, foot crushed and hand plunged. Vinha Maria Teresa is dark and tarry on the nose with very juicy, cherry and leather notes on the palate. The tannins are nice and soft but still quite obvious; this wine has bags of ageing potential.

The Quinta only made 3,000 bottles of Vinha da Ponte in 2007 so it is a real treat to get to taste it. This is softer than Maria Teresa with lots of raspberry and chocolate flavours. It is a very complex, sophisticated wine.

What I liked about both of these wines is they are not obvious flavours because the ‘field blend’ means that each wine has an individual and unique character. In a world where so many wines can be monosyllabic and ‘do what they say on the tin’ I think this is very refreshing.

Another ‘field blend’ favourite was the toothsome and spicy Quinta de Griche 2007 from Churchill Estates. I’d hoped to visit the Quinta but a dramatic thunder-storm over night meant the road was impassable. So I met up with owner Johnny Graham and winemaker Maria Emilie Campos in a fancy restaurant instead. (Tough!) As they’d also had their harvest party the night before which had included some serious dancing in the lagars they had clearly had a night to remember. If they were worse for wear then it wasn’t showing.

Maria Emilie suggested we ordered the salt cod and also surprisingly suggested red Quinta de Griche 2007 to go with it. They made a terrific partnership both as both were robust, full flavoured and generous.

However I think my most memorable wine from the trip was one made at Quinta de Bonfim called Duas Quintas, Special Reserva ’07.

‘I made this in a special way. It is crushed in the lagar, no filters are used and it is aged in a large barrel called a tonel’, explains João Nicolau de Almeida.

How much wine does João Nicolau de Almeida expect me to drink?

How much wine does João Nicolau de Almeida expect me to drink? Oh alright then...

The wine is very dark and smoky on the nose with liquorice, spice and herb notes. It is very savoury and meaty with big tannins.

‘I was researching for a book I co-wrote called Porto Vintage[1] and I discovered how wine would have been made here 300 years ago. I followed their methods and made Duas Quintas. It is half way between a wine and a port,’ says João.

I’ve read quite a lot on the history of wine and always thought that it is impossible to know how wines would have really tasted, but Duas Quintas is probably as close a replication as it gets. (They drank some good stuff in the seventeenth century!) What it also proves is that the Douro has always evolved and that arguably the ports we know today are not the original wines, meaning that today’s adaptation i.e. table wines are simply the latest incarnation in an on-going development.

I really liked these contemporary Douro wines, I think they’ve got character and are well adapted to modern tastes and drinking habits. However the fact that they are still foot crushed proves that they are very much in-keeping with their region’s viticultural history. I think this demonstrates that winemakers here have a healthy respect for tradition all the while keeping an astute eye on what consumers want. I’m sure that Douro still wines will be around for a while and will probably adapt further. I intend to follow their progress with interest.

For the moment though I’m going to drink a glass of Quinta do Vesuvio 2007 from Symington Family Estates and pamper my feet by wrapping my toes in rose petals. Just a whim of mine.

[1] Porto Vintage Gaspar Martins Pereira and João Nicolau de Almeida, Instituto do Vinho de Porto, 2002.


After walking the Camino de Santiago I headed back to Rioja. I was ready for a good glass of wine.

I may have walked 850km across Spain got to Santiago de Compostelle  but I wasn’t done yet as when I passed through Rioja I hadn’t done any serious wine tasting there. As this woman does not live on bread alone, this was remiss of me. So I retraced my steps, (on a coach this time) back to Logroño, the regional capital of Rioja, so I could visit some wineries. 

When I’d been in Logroño three weeks earlier walking the camino, the whole town had been crawling with pilgrims and as there was no room in the hostel, I, and around 50 other people, ended up sleeping on the floor of a parish building. I was exhausted and was simply grateful for a roof over my head, in the morning I happily donated a few euros to the church fund. But this time it was different I was a guest of the Rioja Consejo and they were treating me to the 4 star Hotel Carlton. I had a room with a proper bed all to myself and, oh halleluiah, an en suite bathroom. This was a reversal of fortune. 

I was also aiming high with the wineries I visited. I’d had some pretty basic food and wine on the pilgrim trail; I needed some gastronomic pampering.



My first trip was to Faustino. Faustino Rioja can seem rather ubiquitous, in Britain Faustino VII is a safe bet if you have to run into the corner shop for emergency rations, but I was not in the mood for the common place so I was delighted when my host brought out a bottle of Faustino I, 1996, Gran Reserva for me to taste.

The company has gone to some lengths to make this wine look high brow: heavy bottle, frosted glass, wire mesh and a portrait of a wily looking Dutch burgher on the label which I discovered was painted by Rembrandt, no less.

The wine itself is everything you want from a top end Rioja: leather, tobacco and cherry aromas and a full flavoured palate with subtle tannins and a smooth long finish. Delicious.



At Salceda I met Nuria Lagunilla and we had a leisurely lunch looking out of the window at a view that made me wonder I didn’t just stay in Spain forever: the vineyards rolled away to the distant mountains and above us the sky was a perfect blue,what’s more the lunch was elegant and delicious. I’d had some pretty rough cooking on the camino so I really relished these dishes. They were made from the same ingredients: christoria or spicy sausage, tuna with tomato sauce and roast rack of lamb with peppers, but we were a world away from the 9€ menu peregrino.

The wine we shared was a Conde Salceda 2001. It has the soft garnet hues of a mature wine and was something of a treat for a grown-up chocoholic. It was very fresh, very elegant very gentle and very juicy. Perfect.

Bodega LAN.

Wood ageing in Rioja is a big part of the wine style, so much so that wines are classified by the amount of time they spend in barrel. Crianza: twelve months in oak and six months in bottle; Reserva: twelve months in oak and two years in bottle and Gran Reserva two years in oak and three years in bottle.

 Bodega Lan. jpegSmall wonder then that Bodega LAN takes wood very, very seriously and has built a huge barrel room which they describe as a ‘cathedral to wood’. As I’d seen quite a few cathedrals on my pilgrimage, culminating in the Barroque exuberance that is the Cathedral in Santiago de Compostela, I initially thought Lan’s description was self-aggrandising but when I walked into the huge, vaulted, sweet smelling chamber, stacked high with barrels, and felt the room’s quiet atmosphere, I decided it was appropriate.

However all of this emphasis on wood did make me nervous for the tasting, I’ve had Rioja’s in the past which taste like a hit over the head with a 2 by 4 but Bodegas Lan Gran Reserva 2003 was not what I feared. The wood flavours had become very, very integrated and but still brought some terrific spicy notes to the wine, along with the fruit flavours this was as satisfying as a hunk of Dundee cake.


Remirez de Ganuza

 samaniego-from-localBodega Remirez de Ganuza is in the village of Samaniego in Rioja Alavesa. Samaniego is just a small cluster of houses round an early Medieval church.  Somebody drives by on a tractor,  a black cat crosses my path.  This is not a place where you expect to find radical ideas but Remirez de Ganuza has reinvented winemaking to such an extent that they have patented some of their techniques.

 Points of difference start in the vineyard when bunches of Tempranillo grapes are picked, the ‘shoulders’ of the bunches are used for the top quality wines and the base are used for rest. But the clever engineering can be seen in the vats where instead of using a normal press a balloon is inserted into the tank which is filled with water, this slowly presses the wine so there is very little contact with oxygen.

 The fruits of this apogee of pressing can be tasted in Remirez de Ganuza, Trasnocho 2005. It has a meaty nose with lots of dark fruit flavours, smoke and liquorice notes. The palate has lots of dark flavours which are complimented by a fresh note. It is an intense experience.

However the wine I’d prefer to put on my dining table is the Fincas de Ganuza Reserve 2003. It is light and elegant with lots of fruit flavours and an integrated oak flavour which gives the wine an attractive savoury balance and is a pleasure to drink.


It’s a climb up a rough track into the Sierra de Cantabria mountains to get to Remelluri, but it is worth it as this has to be one of the most beautiful bodega in Rioja. It describes itself as being a ‘château’ winery meaning that all the vineyards are owned by the company and grouped around the winery. In the fourteenth century the estate was owned by the Monastery of Toloño, this building is long gone but a sanctuary high above on the Toloño summit still exists.


From the winery to the outlying vines it is a further climb, luckily MD Jose Maria Nieves Nuin can handle a Land Rover. Unusually for the region Remelluri has a selection of white grapes (Roussanne, Marsanne, Viognier, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Petit Courbu, Granache Blanc and Muscat des Petits Grains) which make a delicious white Rioja. The 2006  has a lovely glycerol texture like olive oil and, like a Golden Age still life in a well-chosen frame, the fruit flavours are off set by a background of wood.

But this is Rioja and red wines are king, and the crown of Remelluri is is La Granja Remelluri Gran Reserva 1999, which is only made in exceptional years. This is an old fashioned wine which has had some deliberate oxidative ageing that brings some eucalyptus and rosemary aromas to the nose and elegant tobacco and liquorice flavour to the palate.

Ramón Bilbao

This was my last stop before I left Spain. There were two wines that particularly caught my attention here the first being Ramón Bilbao Mirto 2005. Paula Zúñiga, marketing manager, described the wine as being the ‘Formula 1 of the range’. It is made from 70 year old vines, although it comes under the Rioja DOC umbrella it does not fit into a Reserva or Gran Reserva category, making it something of a modern maverick.

On the nose Mirto is fabulously intense, meaty and smoky with a back note of dark damson fruit. The palate is gentle with quite dusty tannins and chocolate, damson and spice notes. Modern and fruity this wine remains firmly Spanish.

 PIC_0351Appropriately one of my last wines in Spain was not from Rioja but from Galicia, where my pilgrimage ended. It is made by Mar de Frades, a sister company to Ramón Bilbao. There is a lovely story that alleges that Albariño is the same as Riesling and was brought to Galicia by monks travelling from the Rhine to Santiago de Compostela. Science has proved this not to be the case, (once again spoiling a good story!) but Mar de Frades, Albariño has a zingy, salty quality that reminds me of the sea at Finisterre. It is fitting that the last stop on my Rioja wine tour reminds me of my last stop on the Way of Saint James.

When I leave the hotel in Logroño some businessmen spot my backpack and scallop shell, the sign of the pilgrim, and shake my hand and wish me well. I know this is the last time that this will happen, I’m about to go back to being a normal citizen, I will no longer be a pilgrim, I have a pang of regret but the stay in Rioja has reminded me of the things that I’ve been missing: fine wine, good food and hot baths. I was ready to go home.

That is one of the oddest titles I have ever written – I couldn’t resist it.


Here’s what happened: during August I walked the Way of Saint James or the Camino de Santiago to Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, Northern Spain. The route follows the Milky Way and is one of Europe’s most ancient and significant pilgrimages. There are starting points all over Europe, but I set off from Saint Jean Pied de Port in the Pyrenees in France which meant in total I walked about 850km.

 Why? Why did I do such a thing? There were two reasons, firstly the physical challenge. I’ve done a lot of long distance walking but never for more than two weeks. These 850km took me 30 days and there were times when I struggled, particularly in the blazing heat of the Meseta, but by the end I was fitter and healthier than I have ever been and I was easily walking 40km most days. My weight loss was pleasing.

 The second reason was because The Way of Saint James is a spiritual journey. Now I’m of the old-school opinion that believes that discussing sex,

roncevauxsignreligion or politics in public is usually inappropriate but it’s hard not to mention the R word when you are on a pilgrimage.

Before I left I had a number of preconceptions about spirituality and pilgrimage, the first to be blown away was that I would spend hours sitting cross-legged on the side of a mountain communing with nature. I should have known better. I have an English degree. The awe of nature and the sublime is a Romantic idea, Pilgrimage pre-dates that, it is a Medieval concept. Remember Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and that plethora of people? Pilgrimage is as much about community as it is about the individual. Each person who is walking the ‘camino’ is doing it because they want to experience something more profound than just a holiday.  Together we formed a loose-knit community. That mass of people, each persons’ highs and lows, became almost as important as my own individual journey (not quite though – I retained some of my selfish/self-preservation streak I wouldn’t have got through it if I hadn’t!). 

 My second understanding about pilgrimage was that what you do physically is mirrored by what happens to you mentally and spiritually. You carry few possessions, anything that is too heavy can’t be kept. You pare things down to what is really important, slowly this happens to you internally too and the clutter of the everyday falls away. The French Medievals called it thérapie de l’espace, which is a bit like saying ‘blue sky thinking’, the big ideas come when you have clarity of mind. Now I am back in London I am bemused by all the fuss about nothing. Why?


The third stage of my camino was perhaps the hardest. I had to let go of home and live in the moment. I didn’t want to do this, I have family and friends whom I love very much. I didn’t want to leave them behind. But events conspired that I had to. Other pilgrim’s had problems with their feet, (I learnt to say blisters in four different languages) or their knees and there was something called tendonitus which sounded very grim, although I’m not sure exactly what it was, as for me I had problems with communication.

 I had wanted to maintain Chocolate Chilli Cupcakes, my beloved blog, while I was away. However uploading in an internet café whilst shovelling euros into the slot proved impossible. (I’d even had a lunatic idea that I would Twitter my pilgrimage as I walked – thank God I never pursued that one.) I found that my regular e-mail address was inaccessible and then, one blazing hot day just outside Burgos, I lost my mobile phone. That shook me badly. I was out of touch.


It took me a while to realise that I needed to do this. That I needed to disengage from London and that I would feel the intensity of the pilgrimage experience all the more if I wasn’t getting texts from friends letting me know the latest news. I had to let go of my friends and family and they had to let go of me. It made me more open to new people, it pushed me to overcome language difficulties and to talk to people whom I might have shied away from if I could simply have ‘phoned a friend. It made me live in the moment more.

 In total I was away for forty days (appropriately Biblical I thought) and when I came back I was refreshed and pleased to see people, particularly my loved ones. I appreciated their familiar faces and their foibles all the more because I had been so far away.


These three factors: being part of a community, a physical stripping down mirroring a mental/spiritual cleansing and disengagement from the norm are all a part of the spiritual journey but they are not the goal in itself.

 I heard it said that if you had any religious doubts or are just vaguely agnostic then walking the Camino de Santiago will sort your conviction out one way or another. In fact I met a man who was questioning his Catholicism and by the time he reached Santiago de Compostela (one of the greatest Catholic Cathedrals in Europe) he decided that he definitely wasn’t a Catholic.


I had a number of religious questions that I was wrestling with before I left and I did resolve them as I walked but now my dislike of discussing sex, religion and politics is kicking in again and I’ve decided that my thoughts on religion are between me and my God and are nobody else’s business, so I’m not going to write about them on this blog.


There are two greetings used by pilgrims, the first is ‘Buen Camino’ which literally means ‘Good Way’. At it’s simplest it is like wishing someone a ‘Bon Voyage’ but it is also an acknowledgement that a person is not just on an external journey but is looking for some kind of internal growth. The second greeting is ‘Ultreia’ which is Galician for ‘walk further’ or ‘reach higher’ and is often accompanied by a hand raised with the for-finger pointing towards the sky. It is an encouragement to strive forward, to have conviction, to take a risk, and that means both physically and spiritually. Now I am back in London I am trying to keep that Camino spirit alive within me. I walk as much as I can and I try not to let the clutter of the every day drain my good mood. It’s hard though and sometimes I think that perhaps I could just slip away…


To find out more about the Way of Saint James visit: