Friday, December 9, 2016

The Monarch of the Glen with Douglas Laing's Rock Oyster

If you remember the tv version of 'Monarch of the Glen' forget it, all it has in common with Compton Mackenzie's work of comic genius is some names and a vague location. If you haven't read it, do. It's a book I've given, and tried to give, to a few people (a total fail to turn up a copy in the second hand bookshops of Inverness thwarted my most recent attempt.)

Not so much really happens, the glens are alive with impoverished lairds doing their level best to separate rich Americans from some of their hard earned dollars, and there's an unfortunate run in with some hikers. The joy of Compton Mackenzie is in the details, and in his affection for the people he's caricaturing. Hector Macdonald's might not be as common a type as they once were, but they're still around if you know where to look, and in an uncertain world there's something comfortingly nostalgic about this book. Mostly though, it's just brilliantly funny.

I believe Hector Macdonald had some fine (possibly illicit) malt whisky, but the usual thing in the 1940's when this book was published, and earlier when it's set, would have been a blend, and as interesting things seem to be happening on that front it feels like a good time to enjoy both.

Whisky terminology can get a bit involved, but basically you get single malt which means malt whisky (barley base, pot distilled) from a single distillery. Blended whisky is a mix of various single malts, and grain whisky, which doesn't have to be all barley, is made in a continuous still, a process that gives a spirit with a higher alcohol content and which is smoother and lighter than pot stilled spirit. It's also cheaper to produce. It basically to smooths out the rough edges and help marry everything together in a blend. There is also vatted malt, which is a blend of single malts but no grain whisky- which is what Rock Oyster is.

As the profile, and price, of single malt has grown, blends have been rather looked down upon, but for generations they represented quality and consistency which single malts, when available, didn't provide.

Rock Oyster has who knows what in it (Jura and Arran for sure, possibly Scapa, maybe Bunnahabhain, maybe Old Pultney - part of the fun is trying to guess). It's a salty sweet sort of a whisky, maritime is definitely the best way to describe it, and for my money the best in This range from Douglas Laing (though I would like both Timorous Beastie and Scallywag just for the glorious packaging, never mind the decent dram inside). That's the best in a pretty strong selection (I really like this whisky).

At around £40 this is a premium product, but it's worth it, and generally I'm finding malt blends to be more interesting than their single no age statement cousins (though that's a personal, rather than a quality, judgement) at the same kind of price.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

The Long Goodbye with a Gimlet

I always wonder if it's in questionable taste to recommend books by, and featuring, alcoholics (or very heavy drinkers) with yet more alcohol. But then I think if I avoided every writer who had had a drink problem I'd have to get rid of a lot of books I love and maybe it doesn't do to be overly worried about these things.

I love a bit of Raymond Chandler, and hard boiled noir generally, both on film and in book form, for it's stylishness, but also for the very real feeling that the world weary cynicism has come from a generation who had genuinely seen, and lost, to much. There's more than a whiff of ptsd about some of these characters.

I have a copy of 'The Long Goodbye' but I haven't read it yet. If I didn't have it it would be right at the top of my wish list - you can't go wrong with a handful of modern classics under the Christmas tree either (annoyingly when talk turns to presents this year people keep telling me they're not going to buy me more books - which is fine, but they say it like someone can have to many books, which is obviously nonsense).

Meanwhile the reason I've chosen this book with this drink is because Chandler (who I would more naturally associate with bourbon or other whisky) basically defines the gimlplet in this book. Before 'The Long Goodbye' a gimlet seems to have quite commonly have had soda water in it as well as gin and lime, since 'The Long Goodbye' it's accepted that the proper way to make one is half and half gin and rose's lime cordial (well chilled and in a martini glass).

The Gin Foundry recommends Sipsmith's VJOP (very junipery over proof) as the gin to use. It's an excellent gin, but it's very strong, so I'd be more inclined to go for an old fashioned classic like Tanqueray, Beefeater, or Plymouth - especially Plymouth if you want to honour the naval connections the gimlet has. The other option would be to go for one of the new wave American gins. Whatever the choice I'm seeing this combination as perfect for Boxing Day.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Brideshead Revisited with Brandy

Evelyn Waugh is another writer who's more than a bit of a snob, though in his case it's one of the things I find interesting about him rather than off putting. I loved 'Brideshead Revisited' when I first read it in my late teens and early twenties, but haven't revisited it for a long time. I might try and make it a New Years resolution.

It was written during the war which is probably one reason why it's so full of food, and most interesting from my point of view, drink. There's a dinner about half way through where Charles Ryder is dining with Rex Mottram, who we are given to understand is not quite a gentleman which has particularly stuck with me. Rex is paying, but Charles has chosen the dinner. It finishes with a fine old pale cognac served in a tulip glass, it's stated as being a year or two older than Rex - so at a guess I'm thinking 30 years or so. Rex declaring he knows about brandy demands a balloon glass warmed on a spirit burner, disparages the original cognac, and ends up with something dark and syrupy.

Whatever the reader knows about the respective merits of different cognacs the message is clear - Rex is an outsider who lacks class, Charles, the restaurant staff, and the rest of us are now judging him for not being able to recognise quality. I think it stuck because it feels like the distilled essence of Waugh to me, containing everything that I find both attractive and repellent about him. 

Brandy is the spirit you get when you distill wine and it can be made anywhere. Cognac and Armagnac are the most famous brandy producing regions in France, both are brandys but there are some key differences between them. Armagnac, which I believe is the first recorded distilled drink in France, is made in a sort of continuous still, Cognac is pot distilled. The way the two are regulated is slightly different too, and whilst Armagnac comes in vintages, generally speaking, cognac does not. 

The initial V.S, V.S.O.P, and X.O that appear on bottles stand for very special, very superior old pale, and extra old. With cheaper brandy the dark colour is more likely to come from caramel than from oak barrels. I'm not quite sure if Charles is drinking a particularly old V.S.O.P or what would have been the equivalent of an X.O, but either way we can be sure it was expensive. 

Again, very generally speaking, pot distilling gives more character to a spirit than continuous distilling, it's also a more expensive process which is one reason why the difference between an X.O Armagnac and an X.O cognac is upwards of £100 a bottle (though there are cheaper supermarket own label versions around). It's also worth noting that not everyone likes 'character' and that many prefer (for want of a better word) the smoothness of Armagnac against the 'bite' of cognac. 

With budgetary considerations to the fore, my Brideshead recommendation would be an X.O. Armagnac (Waugh might not entirely have approved - though then again, he might - if it seemed exclusive enough), sipped, of course, from a tulip shaped glass. 

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

The Nine Tailors with a good Hock

Wherever else I might find myself taking issue with Dorothy L. Sayers, one thing I love about her books is how often she mentions wine. Admittedly since reading 'Ask a Policeman' it's been harder ignore the affectation involved, maybe more so because I can recognise a touch of my own wine snobbery there as well.

Sayers approach to drinks and drinking is even more codified than Georgette Heyer's, with far more class nuances added. It makes me curious about how well informed her average reader was then, and now, because the impression I get is very much us and them. One day I'd really like to have a proper look at what she's up to with details like that.

Meanwhile I've chosen 'The Nine Tailors' specifically for its bleak midwinter setting, though in truth any Sayers would fit the bill here, because what Sayers does, that Heyer cannot, is shine a light on what the inter war wine connoisseur might have been drinking.

I'm going to skip over Lord Peter's love of vintage port in favour of his, to me, much more interesting love of a good German wine. In the U.K., German wine still hasn't recovered its reputation from the 1970's craze for Blue Nun and cheap Liebfraumilch. Which is a shame because we're really missing out on something good.

In Sayers day German wines were still extremely highly regarded (rightly so) even if now it's hard to imagine. My introduction to the joys of an excellent Riesling came at the end of my first shift at oddbins. A bottle was opened (it was a Von Buhl, over a tenner then, and has never been forgotten) and it was a revelation. I'd picked up the common prejudice about sweeter wines but fortunately was to shy to question the choice, and open minded enough to embrace it.

Hock is a generic English term for German wines generally (just as claret refers to reds from Bordeaux) and if I can persuade anybody to go out in search of German wine the only thing I'm going to specify is this - don't be cheap about it, you get what you pay for. There are reasonable wines to be had for around the ten pound mark (think about what a couple of drinks would cost in a pub and that's not really a lot).

What makes these wines so exciting is the balance between their sweetness and acidity. The acidity gives them a freshness and zing that means there's nothing cloying about the wine. That they're lower in alcohol is a good thing too, especially if you're looking for a lunch time wine, and that sweetness makes them an interesting match with spicier food too. They're also really interesting wines to cut your tasting teeth on, or so I found, precisely because they are rather unfashionable which encouraged me to drop my preconceptions and really think about the wine in the glass. Lord Peter, and Miss Sayers knew a good thing long before I did.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Snowdrift and Other Stories with Negus

'Snowdrift', the repackaged edition of Heyer's "Pistols For Two' with three rediscovered stories added has to be the perfect present for any Heyer fan, or at least any Heyer fan who has managed to hold of buying it for two months. To be fair that may be quite a few, if you already have 'Pistols For Two' buying shelling out for another copy might not be an immediate priority, unless like mine the old one was falling apart.

Anyway, if you do like Heyer you can't go wrong with this, especially if you're in need of some light hearted fluff which mixes old fashioned romance and humour. I'm often in need of Heyer's brand of escapism, I also find her attitude on drinks and drinking interesting. 

Gentleman drink a lot, they drink port, brandy, maybe a rum punch, claret, and burgundy, sometimes ale for breakfast, but despite drinking a lot they more or less handle it - being obviously drunk would not be gentlemanly. When women are disguised as men appearing to be able to drink like a man is a vital part of the masquerade, though generally they pull this of by discreetly disposing of the alcohol in question. Some of her more forceful heroines favour the masculine drinks listed above, the others drink ratafia or negus, which Heyer sometimes dismisses as a sickly sweet confections.

The regency period undoubtedly had a hard drinking culture, and the details are right (lots of port, smuggled brandy, you can feel the effects of war with France) but I don't know if contemporary attitudes would have been quite as fastidious about actual drunkenness - I feel this might rather reflect Heyer's generation instead. The idea that a gentleman should know his limits certainly seems more Victorian than Georgian.

Meanwhile she certainly mentions negus, as do any number of other Writers (Trollope, Dickens, and Charlotte Brontë included, also John Buchan) and having looked up a few recipes I think it sounds pretty good. The general idea seems to be to gently heat port, add lemon juice and rind along with sugar to taste, top up with an equal amount of boiling water to port, and grate a little nutmeg in. One recipe also calls for cinnamon and cloves - I'd be inclined to use cinnamon bark rather than powdered (as suggested) to avoid a sludge at the bottom of the pan or glass, and only use either if making a considerable quantity. The simpler versions seem like a sensible way to use up any left over port that's hanging around after Christmas, though perhaps not vintage or single Quinta examples...

Generally though, port doesn't keep especially well. It should be drunk within a couple of weeks of opening, so anything bought for cooking would be better off going into something like this than left to gently oxidise in a corner.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Pride and Pudding with Quince liqueur

'Pride and Pudding' was another unexpectedly gorgeous book. One that I thought sounded interesting and which then went on to so utterly exceed expectations that I'm a bit evangelical about it. Regula Ysewijn (Missfoodwise on Instagram, her pictures are a treat) is a Belgian food historian and photographer (artist is probably a better description) who has written this fantastic book about the history of puddings in Britain. She's also just written a book about Belgian cafe culture which I hopefully put on my Christmas wish list, but nobody seems to have taken the hint yet (please, somebody, anybody, take the hint).

The history of the puddings themselves is fascinating, especially if food history is your thing (it is mine). The recipes come in original and updated forms, and there's all sorts of interesting things in here. Some probably best just read about, quite a lot on a list of things to make at some point. What really makes this book though is the illustrations. Both Ysewijn's photographs which are inspired by Dutch and Flemish still lives from the Renaissance onwards, and her husband, Bruno Vergauwen's exquisite illustrations. They're hard to describe in a way that does them justice - all I can say is go and have a look at the book. It's altogether a magical object.

The part of my imagination that's fascinated by antique recipes is the same part that can't resist an unusual sounding liqueur, especially if it has a hint of the romantic about it. It's not an impulse that's always served me well, notable failures have included an expensive holly eau de vie that everybody who tried it loathed, a creme de coquelicot (poppy) which tasted like cough medicine, was a lurid red, and eventually went down the sink, and a homemade rhubarb affair which tasted like nothing so much as cabbage.

Bramley and Gage's Quincy, quince liqueur, is a happy exception to my general run of bad luck in that direction. It tastes like baked quinces smell and is as mellow and golden as you could hope for. It is infinitely nicer than the quince brandy I tried making last year. It's around £15 for a half bottle and would work particularly nicely with an apple pie or a cheeseboard. Buying it, rather than trying to make it, is likely to save a lot of trouble (and possibly disappointment - at least until I find a fail safe recipe) it's going to cost about the same as well, and as its both a little unusual and enjoyable to drink it's worth seeking out.

I guess quinces are making something of a comeback in that it's possible to buy them on farmers markets, in specialist grocers, and in Waitrose - which is all to the good. The trees are beautiful, and there are a lot more recipes around for them each year (again my experience with them is mixed - great jelly, never quite been happy with anything else), and they have history which brings me back to the hint of romance.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Scotland: Mapping The Islands with Lagavulin 16 year old

It's hard to overstate how fascinating I found 'Scotland: Mapping the Islands'. It helped that I opened it with, if not low expectations, then definitely well managed ones. I expected it to be interesting, but not to feel like a child presented with a genuine treasure map - which I did. D continues to try and appropriate it, and as it's very definatley his area of interest I suppose I should gracefully give in, but it's a real inner struggle to do it. (Not that it really makes much difference if it's his book or mine, but still...)

The obvious drink to go with this book is whisky, and obviously it should be an island whisky. There are some great ones to choose from which cover a range of styles but I'm opting for Lagavulin 16 year old in all its peaty splendour.

When I started out in the wine trade whisky, specifically single malt whisky, was very much the spirit of the moment and I fell in love with it. It was the late 1990's and the ideal time to discover it. Single malt as a category was effectively invented by Glenfiddich in the '70's, before then it had been a really niche market with blends still pre-eminent. When I got started interesting whisky's were easy to find at what felt like reasonable prices (God bless those pre mortgage days) and there was plenty of interesting stuff to be found (a more sensible woman would be sitting on a decent collection now).

These days the market feels distinctly over heated, the distillery bottlings have doubled in price over the last decade, and special editions, which often come in huge runs, routinely have 3 figure price tags. It takes a lot of the fun out of it if what you buy feels to expensive to drink.

Meanwhile the traditional bottlings with an age statement on them are increasingly being replaced by those without (no age statement or nas's). The marketing line is that it frees the master distiller to do more interesting things and whilst this may be true, it also means you can sell much younger whisky and get a quicker return on the sizeable investment involved.

Lagavulin 16 year old currently retails at around £50 which is the upper end of my budget but I really love a peaty malt so once in a while I'll get a bottle. When I was learning my way round whisky they were defined geographically (highland, island, speyside, lowland, Campbeltown) which wasn't actually very helpful as island and highland can mean all sorts of things, Campbeltown only has 2 working distilleries left, and there aren't actually that many lowland malts around either.

Currently it seems more popular to use a flavour map of some sort and categorise by style, which makes more sense, but debates with customers suggest that those classifications can be just as problematic and open to interpretation as the previous system.

Which ever way you look at it though Lagavulin, from the southern end of Islay, is peaty. It's a challenging aroma and flavour for some (think of tcp, smoke, and maybe a touch of seaweed). Peat smoke is part of the smell of a Shetland childhood so I was always predisposed to like it, it's also another reason I think the whisky goes so well with this book.

If it's a style of malt you're unfamiliar with I suggest finding a bar that sells it, or a miniature to try, before committing to a full bottle. Underneath that peat smoke there's a rich, malty, sweetness that chases out the cold of a winters day. The whole package is essentially the Scottish islands (in all their rugged glory) in a bottle.

Friday, December 2, 2016

Crimson Snow with Mulberry Gin

'Crimson Snow' (splendid title) is this years Christmas collection from the British Library crime classics series. How I love these books. Martin Edwards has done a great job on finding stories with a suitably Christmassy/wintery setting and which range from the gently numerous to surprisingly chilling.

If I wasn't basically up to date with the entire series, these books, and especially the short story collections, would be precisely what I want to find in a stocking or under the tree. 'Crimson Snow' has some absolute belters in it - 'Death in December' features a castle in Derbyshire, ghostly goings on, a house party of riotous young things, a Death Room, and everyone getting snowed in with a murderer. It was a particular highlight. S. C. Roberts 'Christmas Eve' Sherlock Holmes skit is great fun too, as is Michael Gilbert's 'Deep and Crisp and Even'. Ianthe Jerrold's 'Off the Tiles' is rather more disturbing - there's a genuine sense that someone has died and that it's a tragedy (no bad thing to remember). Josaphine Bell's 'The Carol Singers' does that to, but at more length, and also reminds us how vulnerable the elderly and lonely are at this time of year.

It's that balance between cosy escapism along with glimpses of something distinctly un-cosy that make this such a strong collection. It's a must for any lovers of vintage crime out there.

Meanwhile, Boodles Mulberry gin is a new acquisition. M&S have lots of gin on offer this week, and this one proved irrisistable - they're generally worth a look for interesting liqueurs, spirits, and bitters. They have an imaginative range for the high street, and whilst not all of it appeals to me, there's generally something really interesting to be found.

In line with the general gin explosion, flavoured gins are obviously becoming a much bigger thing, with mulberry suddenly appearing all over the place (also rhubarb, raspberry, elderflower, damson, sloe, and so on). In the past I've made my own (damson) but it's increasingly tempting to buy a range rather than committing to quite a lot of one flavour.

More gins on the market has also meant more suggestions as to how you might want to drink it, and for mulberry/sloe/damson gin there are all sorts of mulling recipes around. The general idea seems to be to gently heat it with apple juice, a cinnamon stick, a couple of cloves, and maybe some cardamom (I might throw in some slices of orange or clementine as well). I meant to try doing this tonight but got sidetracked by making gingerbread for the Christmas tree. Maybe tomorrow.

I think more warm punches in the world are an excellent idea, and the apple juice versions which are going to be easy to make in smallish quantities, and could be made with relativley little alcohol, seem like a great idea all round. It's exactly the sort of cosy with a bit of a kick drink to settle down with to read 'Crimson Snow' (or last years 'Silent Nights') with.

*The wrench is because the bottle lid was extremely unwilling to be undone, there were almost tears of frustration, but fortunately it did the job without breakages so the day was saved

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Marcus Sedgwick's Snow and Ice Wine

It's December which means that I've already had a solid month of full on Christmas, complete with migraine inducing flashing lights, at work. What I'd really like to do right now is retire to some relativley peaceful spot where I could bake and read until it's all over. By some cruel twist of fate that's not an option, so instead I'm going to mark the days off on my advent calendar and focus on great books and matching drinks and hope for the best.

When I have more time to do 'Snow' justice I'll write about it again, it's the second of the Little Toller monographs I've read 'Mermaids' was the first) and its confirmed my impression that I really want the whole series. They're beautifully produced, elegant, little books that fit perfectly into a pocket and odd moments for reading (the chapters in this one neatly filled my bus journey to and from work - perfect). They're exactly the sort of book I like to give and receive, both because short as they are they pack a lot in, and they're so perfectly desirable as objects.

In 'Snow', Sedgwick covers a little bit of science, etymology, art, mythology, and history. He shares a few stories, and considers the transformative effects of snow, all in a way that sends the reader off on their own journey through memory and association, gently signposting some possible directions of thought along the way.

The obvious wine to go with a book like this has a magic and romance of its own - Ice Wine, or Eiswein can only be made under very specific conditions. The grapes, often Riesling (which is suitably disease resistant) are left on the vine to continue ripening deep into winter, until a frost of at least -8 comes along, and they're frozen on the vine. At this point they have to be quickly picked by hand as the grapes need to be 'clean' (no noble rot desired) and then they're pressed, still frozen. The result is a small amount of very concentrated juice which creates an intense, sweet, wine.

Because making it is both risky (if the frosts don't come in time and the grapes rot, there's no wine) and labour intensive, Ice Wine ranges from comparitivley, to eye wateringly, expensive. It's also very sweet - though well balanced with a zingy acidity that makes it taste incredibly fresh, and for want of a better word, pure.

There's a lot of prejudice against sweet wine which I do my bit to fight against. There will be people who don't like them under any circumstances, but for most of us its just a question of how we think about it. For me that means treating the wine as the main event rather than as an accompniement to a dessert (though if you like a salty blue cheese, these wines love them, and it's an incredible match). A modest glass of something as exquisite as an Ice Wine is a great alternative to a pudding, and as it deserves a bit of leisurely appreciation enjoying it with a book seems entirely sensible too.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

The Seven Acts of Mercy

Our final RSC trip of the year was chosen on the back of not being able to get tickets to see a lecture about original pronunciation in Shakespeare (which obviously sounded really interesting to enough people to sell out really quickly). Stratford seemed the next best option, there were plenty of preview night tickets left for 'The Seven Acts of Mercy' and early pictures of the set looked amazing.

The set, was amazing. I'm always impressed with what they do at The Swan, but this was exceptional. The play explores themes in several Caravaggio paintings, the set plays with the chiaroscuro lighting effects he was famous for, and also uses projected images of his paintings to excellent effect.

I don't read very much contemporary fiction, and don't think I've ever been to see a contemporary play before - I find I feel much the same about both. I'm much more interested in the novels which survive, or resurface, the ones which stand the test of time. The same is definatley true of theatre, so it was probably inevitable that I wouldn't be overly taken with this one.

Switching between Caravaggio painting his altarpiece showing the seven acts of mercy in Naples, and contemporary Liverpool where a dying man is trying to instil both a love of art, and a sense of compassion, into his grandson. Throughout both strands some of the reality of extreme poverty is explored, with specific reference to food banks and the social housing crisis.

Our problem was that as good Guardian reading socialists it was preaching to the choir. I'm not an expert on the iniquities of government policy and how it affects the most vulnerable in society (my companion is, it's her job), I am very aware of how the Just About Managing manage, because that's me and many of my friends.

The issues covered and examples given are important and horrifying, but I'm not sure who this play is meant to reach. Who will see it who isn't fully aware, and already quite angry, about all of these things?

More fundamentally it worried me that all of these people were essentially decent, they were the deserving poor. In my line of work (retail) I see a fair number of people who just about manage by stealing. I'm lucky, I've never been seriously threatened - though I have been threatened, and spent a goodish bit of this year waiting for the police to pick up a shoplifter who has the endearing habit of arming himself with taped together bunches of used syringes. It is mostly my job to avoid him, but in such a way that puts him off stealing (I don't actually know how to do that - if you were wondering). I have colleagues who have been spat on, hit, and threatened with knives as well as syringes. I've seen parents with teenage children come shoplifting as a family, a heavily pregnant woman break down in tears after realising she'd been spotted trying to steal litres of vodka, organised gangs who will clear £500 of spirits of the shelf and be gone in less than 5 minutes. I've also seen alcoholics open bottles and drink them on the shop floor, beyond caring if they're caught or not, and many, many, more.

These are not always the easiest people to feel compassion for, for many of them the system has beyond failed, and conversation about what the answer might be often leads to some really uncomfortable places. I would much rather have watched a play that tried to make sense of that.

We also felt that the Liverpool setting was something of a stereotype. Stratford has food banks, as do the affluent market towns around me in Leicestershire. That speaks to me far more of how big a problem we have as a society, of how badly things are failing, and it's much more uncomfortably close to home for the average attendee at the RSC.