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Saturday, 17 September 2016

Well I Wonder…

Sometimes events stir your passions, and make you think! Maybe they’ll change your views and perceptions…

As I write this post, I am sitting at an oversized cotton reel, on a stool that’s too high, trying to decipher the bizarre debate that I have just been to. The occasion in question is FutureFest a forward-thinking event all about innovation. It’s at this stage that I declare the event does take place at a client’s venue, Tobacco Dock, but I don’t think that’s going to be an issue in writing this post.

The discussion in question focused on the future of the EU and I was frankly dismayed by the negativity, pessimism and misinformation shared by a distinguished panel (all of whom were vociferous remainers). At this point, I should also declare that I voted remain, before a brick gets chucked through my window by some misguided zealot. 

Of course, there were some interesting points regarding the future of Europe, but I got the feeling that the speakers and the majority of the room still harbour a bad case of sour grapes about the decision. They seek to highlight the problem, moaning about the outcome, yet offer no solutions aside from going back to the way things were. 

This was meant to be an event about vision and ambition, yet I heard nothing regarding the potential opportunities the UK has in terms of business and society in a post-leave world (aside from strengthening trade bonds with Europe, of course).

I am not knocking the event itself, let me be clear. I like to think that its purpose is to generate thought-provoking content which spurs writers like me on to develop or challenge the ideas further. It’s delivered that in spadefuls. 

But the direction of the session was pessimistic, offering none of the pragmatism for which Britain was once famous. The usual messages were spun, that the public had been duped by the right-wing media, the decision was only advisory, we don’t have to do it… the more I look at Europe, the more I feel the choice of the nation was correct. I’m big enough to say that perhaps I was rather sentimental and cautious in my decision back in June, who knows maybe I was wrong. 

Furthermore, the panel talked about accountability. When you have characters like Jean-Claude Junker and countries with the financial regulatory reputation of Luxembourg in the current EU, I don’t think you can come close to transparency. I was left thinking, ‘take the log out of your own collective eye’ before you start levelling your guns at the Daily Mail and Daily Express (which, incidentally exist to sell newspapers and make money, not act as your moral compass). It seemed the panel wanted to sweep the 52% of the nation who voted under the carpet, ‘not today thank you very much!’. 

Ted Heath, who took us into Europe, was famous for having the ‘longest sulk in history’ after he was defeated by Margaret Thatcher for the Conservative leadership in 1975. It seems the remain camp’s going to do the same, being unhelpful instead of constructive, stubborn instead of open and to me, deeply, deeply boring. 

I know this article will draw its share of criticism, but let’s look forward and be excited for opportunity rather than adopting a doom and gloom approach which might be completely unfounded.

Of course, I welcome debate on the above, but no abuse, please! 

Sunday, 11 September 2016

On burgers…

A very good friend of mine is obsessed by burgers. Whenever we go to a restaurant it’s the first thing he looks out for. Whether it be topped with cheese, bacon, avocado, even pineapple, he can think of nothing better than sinking his gnashers into a patty of ground beef sandwiched between two buns. These days he’s not spoilt for choice with every joint offering a ‘signature’ take on this American classic. Burgers are now as much of a staple on the British menu as ham, egg and chips, steak and ale pie and fish and chips.

Now it seems you can have it any way you want it: with the bun, without the bun, slathered in special mustard, complemented by rosemary-salted fries or topped with a birdseye potato waffle and a fried egg… it’s insane. As Five Guys, Byron and Gourmet Burger Kitchen battle it out on every identikit high-street (sadly becoming the norm in suburbia), hipsters in London’s more fashionable, eastern districts are flipping minced-meat discs in uber-cool, customised vans. They use esoteric ingredients, making baps from ramen noodles, wasabi mayonnaise, kimchi… the mind-boggles when you see some of the creations. 

Then you have the Buzzfeed community, faithfully documenting some of the groaning, gargantuan burgers under such monikers as ‘the most ridiculous…’, ‘you ain’t had a burger, until you’ve had…’,  ‘This burger will make you want a burger now!’. These beasts have more in common with modern sculpture than they do with food. Often these towering infernos are balanced precariously, supported with a skewer just long enough for some beatnik or other to snap it and upload it to Instagram before it topples under the shear weight of onion rings, beetroot, bacon chops, smoked eggs and Domestos-brined pickles! (I kid!). 

Goodness, I’ve got burger ennui just listing the above. It’s all got a little bit silly hasn’t it? Let’s go back to basics, back to reality. Let’s cast-off these over-complicated - and often badly cooked - pretenders to the burger throne and opt for the reliable, the decadent and the downright vulgar…

It was with great relish, last Friday, that I tucked into a McDonalds Quarter Pounder with cheese. I’m almost ashamed to admit that, after polishing off the first, I went straight back in for a second. 

What I love about McDonalds burgers is that there is no pretension, no delusions of grandeur, just a nice thin patty (all burgers should be thin), topped with cheese, pickle, raw onion, ketchup and mustard. All served between two sugary slices of bun, it’s the perfect balance of sweet and savoury  and I would take it any day over some of the ostentatious, over-sized examples you see on menus up and down the land. Let’s not gentrify the humble burger any further.

I’m not talking about quality, I’m talking about tastiness. Whatever you think of McDonalds and its practices, I don’t think you can seriously level a case against how instantly tasty their burgers are, and how guilty/dirty you feel after you’ve had one; as if you had broken a social taboo in eating it! For me that’s how a burger should be eaten and then remembered post-meal! 

So I say this, take your piss-pretentious burger away from my plate! Give me my Quarter Pounder with cheese any day.

Tuesday, 16 August 2016

Don’t turn around… ‘cause your gonna see a blog comeback

Yes, another long hiatus, I am back trying to pen another cracking blog for you on some such subject of pleasure as my wont takes me. 

Easier said than done, I have been suffering from something of a ‘writer’s block’ over the last few months which has disinclined me to the medium. However, it was the fellow guests at a rather jolly barbecue that I went to last weekend which convinced me to resume this intermittent content vehicle and amuse you with merry musings and awesome anecdotes. 

In this short post, unusual for me; I want to take the opportunity to sing the praises of a favourite song, and one which I think really captures the summer spirit. 

Most of my friends, peers and colleagues are aware that I am a big fan of 80s music but most, except for those in the know, will be blissfully unaware that I am also partial to a bit of reggae. Yes reggae! 

From the popular Bob Marley and Jimmy Cliff, through to Desmond Dekker, Skatalites, Toots & the Maytails, Peter Tosh, Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, Sly & Robbie, Black Uhuru, UB40 and Eddie Grant (however, his music is technically Guyanese) I like it all, even Chaka Demus & Pliers! The music’s full of soul, rhythm, passion and a unique, bass-led quality you seldom find in any other genre. 

There’s one band I’ve left out for special mention… Aswad! 

‘Who?’, you young whipper-snappers might well cry. This fab band were once a mainstay on the UK radiowaves. Tracing their roots back to the 70s, they made a name for themselves in 1980s UK when reggae really took root in the popular psyche. 

Before 1988 (incidentally, a great year for music) they had a few rumblings in the charts, but it was in the aforementioned year that these lads really made a big splash. Distant Thunder, divided critics, it was a perfect pop album with reggae inflection according to some. However, I think this does the full record, which is now criminally difficult to get hold of, a disservice. It’s accessible and it’s brill. 

But that’s besides the point of this post, which has been written to sing the praises of a particular track on the Distant Thunder album, in fact it’s something of a eulogy. 

Don’t Turn Around never ceases to bring a smile to my face on a hot summer’s day, despite its rather gloomy lyrics. The track just gets it right on so many levels: great instrumentalism, production and vocals. It also has a crackingly dated video which seems to sledgehammer the song’s message through to great effect. 

It’s a shamelessly period piece, stuck in the late 1980s; I’m listening to it as I write this piece, it will signify the start, I hope of a blogger’s comeback! 

Saturday, 25 June 2016

We need a new political party



Like many, many people I was disappointed by the result I woke up to on Friday morning. I wouldn’t say I was a fan of the EU, but I could not see the advantages of leaving (or rather, no-one put a case to me which I felt convincing enough). No matter, that’s now water under the political bridge. 

Watching the fallout of this momentous decision, one which took everyone by surprise, I have been most surprised by how distinctly ungenerous the crowing pundits and critics have been towards David Cameron (I’m sure they would have been equally ungenerous in defeat). 

Ungentlemanly conduct

Reading the lead headline of the Mailonline this morning, written by reactionary bore Max Hastings and a vitriolic, arrogant comment piece by former cabinet minister and right-wing windbag Norman Tebbit, I was saddened that the reputation of the man who has done so much to make the Conservative party a credible, electable and palatable party is starting to have his legacy dragged through the mud. I was very proud to play my part in getting him elected in 2010, and I always will be! 

Of course, history is written by the victors and Cameron is set to have his career judged merely on his defeats in Brussels and in this Referendum. I think this is a sad state of affairs, and I think it’s worth commemorating some of the brave decisions he took during his tenure, no least when trying to manage his own party. 

Let’s rediscover some of that generosity of spirit, which we were once famous for, and thank the outgoing Prime Minister for his work than snipe at him from the turrets.

New direction

Of course, there have been some wild overreaction and exaggeration to this fallout. Anyone out in London last night might have supposed that some great tragedy had occurred. Putting it in context, no one was murdered, we have not declared war, all we have done is chosen to conduct our political and economic decisions in a different way (wrongly in my opinion, but there we are).

It’s far easier to moan, be negative and throw your toys out of the pram. The amount of booties being stamped across social media yesterday was quite extraordinary, especially from our ghastly ‘celebrity class’ who creep out of the woodwork when the oxygen of publicity becomes too irresistible. 

Let’s be pragmatic (another mark of a good Conservative) and work with the outcome. Some reading this might think I’m irritatingly buoyant, but I have respect for our electoral system and live with the result. There’s been plenty of moaning from ‘Millennials’ that the ‘Baby Boomers’ have sold us down the river; how much more mature it would be if we just got on with it and offered intelligent debate when it arises! We are supposed to have an unshakeable stiff-upper lip, let’s live up to this reputation, keep calm and carry on to make the best of the situation.

Another Party

Last year, I was ecstatic when I realised that the Conservatives were going to carry the day at the 2015 General Election. This elation soon soured when I realised the slim majority we had, beholden to a cynical, right-wing, reactionary rump who would stop at nothing to confound government policy until they achieved their vote on Europe. 

I have spoken to someone who said that, now they have their head, they will pipe down… I don’t care, if they were prepared to wreck the Conservative Party to achieve their ends I don’t really want to be a part of it. I’m sure Peter Bone and Bill Cash feel particularly smug this weekend! 

My sincere hope is that, perhaps we have a shake up of the political parties. How refreshing it would be if the left-wing of the Conservatives (of which I am one) and the right-wing of the Labour Party came together and cast of the zealots which populate their rumps! Perhaps a pipe dream but one worth holding out for. 


As the dust settles, I think there is going to be plenty of speculation, exaggeration and tough-talk. Let’s just get on with it, this Sceptred Isle has never been more divided, let’s unite it and try and make the best of what I believe to be a bad decision. 

Sunday, 12 June 2016

Whatever happened to the Lad on Tours?

“You look like Neil Pearson”, my mother said to me the other day. It was true that my haircut rather resembled this comic actor of yesteryear, but what did I care? With my Depardieu-esque locks, I was off to Tours, France for a customary late-spring week of over-indulgence. Think fine food, wonderful wine, cracking culture and of course a cheeky chateau or two to boot!

So on a mizzly Sunday morning, armed with my flowing, mousy brown locks, a trusty duffle bag and a bucket load of coffee I embarked on the plane to Nantes (some readers might remember I went there last year for a night). Leaving the farcical EU Referendum debate behind, I breathed a sigh of relief as a I sank the usual, first G&T of the holiday, looking forward to a week uninterrupted by slippery fish, truffling buffoons and swivel-eyed loons. 

It was all about getting away from it all and immersing myself in something completely different. Perhaps this was he last time I go to could go to Continental Europe without a Visa! Who knows? Indeed who cares? This was my holiday and I wasn’t going to let Cameron, Osborne, Izzard, Gove, Johnson or Farage spoil it for me! 

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A little geography first. Tour is roughly equidistant between Nantes and Paris (around 200 kilometres each way). It is situated on the banks of the river Loire and has long had an association with wealth and prosperity alongside its neighbouring region of Anjou. The rich flood plains of the Loire Valley give fertile pastures for growing all manner of crops and vegetables and the surrounding limestone escarpments offer the perfect vehicle for terraces of vines and caves for mushroom growing. It’s a lush area, punctuated by thick woods, medieval towns and of course the world famous Chateaux. 

I visited the area briefly last year and was immediately struck by both the charm of the city and the rich culinary heritage of the surrounding countryside, it was high-time for a return and I want to share the best bits with you from this trip! 

Aside from the restaurants, I have intentionally not included links because I feel you, as the reader, should hopefully be inspired enough by this post investigate details for yourself! 

The Flight

easyjet flights from Gatwick to Nantes go daily so shouldn’t be too hard to track down. My advice is to fly out on Monday and come back on Saturday. For anyone who has ever been to France, Sundays and Mondays are dead days, everything (except for the tourist traps) is shut, a little bit of strategic planning will avoid this.

Transport

A car is recommended as it means you have the freedom to get to some of the harder-to-reach chateau you might have on your itinerary. You’ll just have to sort this out for yourself from the usual suspects of messrs Hertz, Avis or Europcar. It’s an easy, two hour journey from Nantes-Atlantique airport via two motorways to Tours. 

However, you can also do plenty on the very extensive and sophisticated train network operating across France. A short journey from the airport to Nantes’ main station, followed by a 1.5 hour journey by train to Tours is all it takes.

Accommodation

There are a number of options, it’s not a one-horse town so there’s plenty available from the budget chains to something a little more chichi, this can range anywhere from £35-£175 a night (season dependent).

My preference is for Airbnb, I stayed in a lovely apartment this time, right in the heart of town with parquet floors, high ceilings and that 'je ne-c’est quoi' you only find in French flats! 

Water pressure can be an issue as I found out but it’s a small price to pay when everything else is top notch. On this latter option, expect to pay around £70-£110 per night. 

Chateaux

Let’s put it this way, if you’ve read this far then you must have an interest in Renaissance chateau… there are plenty to whet the appetite, in fact, there’s no escaping them. From my last visit there were three which I think are essential:

Amboise - It’s striking position, built up on a promontory overlooking the Loire offers an awe-inspiring approach. Overlooking a pretty, if tourist-spoilt town, this castle is the final resting place of none other than Leonardo Di Vinci who occupies a spot in a very fine late-medieval chapel. The main building itself is sparse in its interior but set within a very tasteful gardens. The view from the top over the surrounding countryside is worth the admission itself. 

Chenonceau - Possibly the most well-known (with Chambord) of all the chateaux in the Loire Valley. Chenonceau is a visual feast for the eyes. Set deep within a wood, the structure straddles the river Cher with great majesty. The interior is not much to shout about, most of these buildings have had their best objects removed and plonked in The Louvre. However, the manicured gardens are elegant and pristine and Chenonceau’s is viewed on a sunny day, from these trained terraces, its beauty takes your breath away!  

Villandry - What a place! Villandry's gardens are, rightly, world famous. In fact, the grounds are some of the most important in the world and have had a staggering influence on modern horticulture. It has to be seen to be believe, especially the vegetable garden which is both ambitious but equally breathtaking, interesting and sophisticating it’s a must see. The chateau is also worth a look but has nothing on its setting.

Other things to do

Unfortunately, I cannot list everything, the chateau section in itself takes up a pretty healthy whack of space, but my way of enjoying a holiday is to live like the local. I don’t tend to go around, glued to the guide book, ticking things off on a list. However, a trip to Tours has a couple of ‘must see’ attractions, so I list them below. 

Tours Cathedral - What a magnificent example of Gothic architecture, this grand building is quite a spectacle. You can spend hours entranced both by the fine, ornate exterior or by the understated interior with its fine stained glass. As a church it’s free to attend however I hope, like me, you will put a donation into the collection box (whatever your religion) to ensure structures like this are preserved for generation to come. 

Les Halles (the market) - This makes Borough Market look pretty paltry. The food market in Tours has a dedicated building (a pretty unattractive one but a dedicated one nonetheless), full of the most wonderful regional treats. Think huge dishes of terrines and salads, all sorts of sausages and hams, the numerous French cuts of meat, fresh vegetables at reasonable prices, river fish… I could go one, but that is for another blog. It was a feast for the eyes, a bountiful forum full of the freshest produce. Alas, if only we had this in every quarter of this Sceptred Isle! Go and see it for yourself. 

Drinking

As a town with a large, thriving student population, there are plenty of places to go and find a tipplee in Tours at any time of the day. The Place Plumereau is as good a place as any to start. It’s a bit touristy but you can get a good glass of the local, very agreeable wines: Touraine, Chinon,  Vouvray Rose d’Anjou. 

By the glass, wine is terrific value and good quality with plenty of variety, I’d recommend exploring source of drinking on your visit. The beer offering is often constricted to the usual, mass-market suspects. A brief mention should be made to Cointreau which is distilled just down the road in Angers, and makes the perfect, appropriate end to a meal in these parts. 

Where to eat

Restaurant Maison Des Halles - I had two, incredible meals at this restaurant. Right next to the market, this establishment has a menu which should appeal to both the most conservative palettes and the more adventurous. For my part, I dined (on both occasions) on calf sweetbreads, sautéed in butter until golden and served with a beautiful macaroni gratin, carrot puree and veal jus. I also sampled delicate bone marrow, a tranche of foie gras, Iles Flotante and the most delicate apple tart. The wine was excellent and of course, like any restaurant worth their salt, they had a cracking selection of eau de vie to round off the meal! 

L’Arome - A lovely little restaurant, perfect for an evening meal. Its small menu is not recommended for the unadventurous but for those who like meaty, offaly dishes, this is a must. I had a bizarre but very tasty warm cep and potato terrine, followed by a thick slice of braised ox cheek with gnocchi and spring vegetables. All this was finished off with a simple poached pear with ginger ganache. Beautifully balance, masterfully executed. 

Bistrot les Tontons - I have a bias to this place, in Saumur, not Tour, but worth the visit (accesible both by car and train). It was the charm of the proprietor which first won me over, with his perfect English, quick wit and knowledge of the menu. A bro-mance was born. Using local produce to the best effect I dined on a perfect mousse of smoked eel, a pleasingly textured steak tartare and a rhum baba. On that hot day, this largely (and I should add, intentionally) cold meal was most pleasing. Gerald, our host, chose the wines and I must say did us very proud. All I can say is please, please visit! 


There, that’s your lot! I hope I’ve given a rounded enough indication of why this part of France demands your attention and, perhaps, requires your visit very soon! 

Sunday, 29 May 2016

Addiction

Much is written about impulse and addiction in society these days, and I suppose if there was something - for me - that encapsulated this, it would be Snoggy’s South African shop in Wimbledon Station. I have be a patron of this particular store for over 10 years, spending enough money there that I should be a share holder by now! 

Whenever I get out at platform five and ascend the stairs on my way to the ticket barrier, there it is, with its signature sides of air-dried beef beckoning me to either buy a whole piece or a bag of chunks (which usually get consumed within five minutes of purchase). I think I have a problem, and an expensive one at that, but the stuff is so damn good. 

Biltong, for the uninitiated is air-dried, marinated beef; think Bresaola, but from a thinner cut and marinated in salt, coriander seeds, vinegar and other spices before being hung and air dried. I will say, it’s an acquired taste but once you get used to it, moreish in the extreme. 

Here’s a plug, the aforementioned Snoggy’s does the best in London. Correction, for me, Snoggy’s does the best in London, because I have never tasted anything like it from other vendors or the disappointing packs of the stuff (over-salted and as dry as leather) now available in pubs and off licenses across the UK. 

Snoggy’s, like a proper South African shop, sells the stuff in varying different styles. From the bone-dry, lacquer-like lean variety to the unctuous ‘wet’ and fatty. The latter is my favourite and has a flavour profile all of its own. 

Given that we’re a nation of beef lovers, I’m surprised this snacking food has not got more traction, I’m waiting to see bowls of it on the bars of smart hotels made to a house recipe. 

If you’re looking to give your jaw a good workout then this is for you. It’s beefy but with a delicate, spicy and slightly piquant taste, perfect when matched with an ice-cold lager. Coming from Wimbledon, where there’s a big South African community, there’s tonnes of the stuff available but it seems to be harder to find (in it’s fresh form) elsewhere. 

Drowoers come a close second, air-dried sausages which pleasingly snap as soon as you sink your choppers into them. Chock-full of coriander they have a savoury taste which makes them perfect as a snack to complement an afternoon in front of the box watching the rugby. 

If you haven’t tried the stuff yet, I suggest you head to Snoggy’s and queue up behind the scores of expats who are beguiled by the quality, and also the charm of the staff at who serve there. 

Go on, treat yourself to some of South Africa’s best! 

Sunday, 22 May 2016

I’m turned off!

"What the hell is he on about?” I hear you cry, he hasn’t even bothered to give us a new blog in almost six months and now he decides to publish something polemic and incendiary. I’m sure you’re thinking: ‘but I signed-up for food, travelogues and witty banter’, rest assured, there will be more of this to come! However, as a lifelong politico, I feel that I must raise my head above the parapet and indicate how thoroughly cheesed off I am with the current state of affairs. 
More and more, I am becoming disenchanted with the UK Government, opposition and the deeply, deeply unimpressive calibre of a large number of elected politician. As a passionate supporter of the Conservative party, this appalling referendum has brought some of the worst excesses to the surface. 

I’m turning off more and more as I hear ‘the failure’, Iain Duncan Smith, throwing toys out of his metaphorical pram willy-nilly. His arrogant, drawling rhetoric disingenuously claiming he’s acting in the interests of the people when, in actual fact, it’s more a personal crusade. It’s a great way to mask how relatively ineffectual I believe he’s been over the many years I’ve observed him. 

Equally, the gimmicky Queen’s Speech earlier this week shows that this government is stagnating under a powerful group of bloody-minded, self-serving MPs who cannot seem to rationalise and compromise for the greater good. I’d like to see some of the policy I voted for in 2010 and 2015 actually be implemented rather than have this system held to ransom by a tyranny of the minority. 

Many like to talk about principles, well I say sod off, go and work in a different industry. Politics is about pragmatism, adaptation and evolution. Both sides of the house are seeming to suffer from an unhealthy degree of hubris which has consigned them to pointless, bitter in-fighting that impresses neither their supporters or the wider electorate as a whole.

I don’t envy Cameron’s position, but a braver man would seek to drive through unpopular, necessary policies, taking a risk to implement positive change.

The lacklustre performance of the opposition is lamentable and, how they could become embroiled in an anti-Semitism row (much of it whipped-up by the media) demonstrate how it is ever-spiralling out of control into irrelevance. 

For interested parties, the whole thing is a sorry state of affairs! a couple of weeks ago, for the first time in my voting life, I spoiled my ballot paper in the mayoral elections. I thought Zac’s campaign was scurrilous and I cannot vote for Sadiq because I deeply disagree with his political vision. 

Furthermore, both waxed on and on about unity, social concepts and the like. As I sit here now, writing this, delayed on a London Overground, I was gobsmacked at how no candidate wanted to discuss the one and only thing I cared about in this race for mayoralty, transport (in particular trains and tubes). I have no regrets on spoiling the ballot and would do it again at the General Election if there was no choice.

At the end of the day our elected representatives need to get their heads out of their own fundaments and start looking at practicalities and real problems opposed to intellectual dramas cooked up in their ivory towers!


Friday, 15 January 2016

Sketches from a cigar smoker’s diary: Rub-a-dub-dub

On New Year’s Eve, I made a promise to a friend, one Mr P. Spencer, that I would re-activate the ‘Sketches’ series (which sees me enjoying stogies in extraordinary places). Perhaps he is right, I certainly need to break up the protracted travelogue that I have spent eight wearying months writing! However, I initially felt at a loss, I’ve smoked some cracking cigars in the past year yet, I feared that I was not really going to add much to the discussion, is a pack of Cafe Cremes smoked on a Barge in the Ardenne that different to a Punch chugged on the Boisdale’s terrace? 

Troubled by such rumination and fruitless thoughts, I decided to run myself a nice hot bath. Not being a gentleman of any repute, I had to draw it myself, although, wearing a very fetching Turkish smoking jacket made me feel a little more chi-chi as I put a few drops of lavender soap in the tub. It was a brisk December evening and I was looking forward to a long soak, where the desired result is that your fingers and toes look akin to prunes. 

The evening was all about personal decadence - I had just polished off a dish of Gamberi Arrabiata (Spicy, Italian prawns) with crusty bread and plenty of roughly chopped parsley and a few glasses of Gavi. To round off a very agreeable evening, aside from the bath, I thought a wee dram or two of Bruichladdich were in order and a few pages of Dorothy L Sayers (the author of the Lord Peter Wimsey series)… and the bath.

I had once written a facebook message, expressing my horror at people who ate in the bath yet I allowed both drinking and smoking, it was time to put this rule to the real test. In the past I have enjoyed many alcoholic beverages in the company of water: the cheeky beer in the pre-night out shower, the G&T or Pimms in the swimming pool, the plastic cup of rose at the beach… you catch the drift. Smoking doesn’t really work in the shower and in proximity to water I’m usually more of a French cigarette kind-a-fella. I had smoked a few times in the bath previous, but these were cigarillos and the most adventurous I had got was a Villager Export, there’s something a little sleazy about it, a bit like Burt Reynolds at the Playboy Mansion in 1978. 

I had to give it a go with something special. Reaching into my humidor, I withdrew a fine NUB Cameroon, a short, stout cigar (much reflecting the writer’s current build!) for the purpose. 

As I slid into the bath I was enveloped in a plume of steam, I like ‘em hot and I started to question as I sweated from the heat, whether this was a great idea. A slug of the Scotch persuaded me that it definitely was and I set to work lighting up and drawing deep from this ever reliable cigar as I read my murder mystery and bouyantly poured myself a large measure (the tub has a very convenient and spacious pair of corners just right for an ashtray, a bottle and a cut glass tumbler. 

I languished, relaxed, pondered, read at leisure, it was all going so well until a very rude, vulgar but ultimately important sound roused me from my sedate position. The agonising beep of the smoke alarm, tested to its very limits decided to kick into action. ‘For F%$&s sake’ I exclaimed, almost sending the tumbler crashing to the floor, as I emerged from the bathroom starkers with a cigar clenched in my jaws (probably much like Burt Reynolds at the Playboy Mansion sans the medallion and moustache). Perching clumsily on a chair I managed to disarm the wretch, damn those machines pack a punch and settled back to my bathtub to continue this very indulgent pastime. 

As I soaked, I wondered, would I recommend this to others? In a word… Yes! It’s cracking good fun and one of the best mediums in which to smoke, whether it is a Turkish cigarette or a Romeo e Julieta Churchill, consider the bath a certified smoking den for the connoisseur!  

Friday, 11 December 2015

I’m back! Continuing my travels in Reims

It’s been a shockingly long time since I posted, call it a sabbatical if you will… I’m not going to apologise. What with taking on a bigger role, indulging in the fairer sex and moving house I feel I have, understandably, been quite out of the loop. Be it from taking in the impressive Simon Schama re-hang at the National Portrait Gallery (or NPG to those in the know) or dining at Polpo, I have become something of a louche fellow about town, much in the cast of Dorothy L Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey… but I jest, I lack the requisite style, panache and the ability to drop my ‘g’ for that accolade. Let’s put it this way, I’ve had a good time and left you quite on tenterhooks for the next leg of a French adventure. 

While it seems like a long while ago it still seems burnt in my memory. I’ve been back to France since and have just booked a few more trips to that magical place (North France to be exact), but it will hopefully keep me informed to write an extended piece on the subject at some stage. Here it seems apt to pick up where I left things, in the capital of Champagne, Reims. 

For those who can cast their minds back, Reims in my mind was a rather underwhelming city. Yes, it had a marvellous Cathedral and a couple of very impressive museums, but it wasn’t really for me. I had been underwhelmed by the surrounding countryside on the train journey in. The hills were too soft, there was something of a malaise about the whole area and the drizzling, overcast sky did nothing to help things. 

No matter, as I sat in a very agreeable Champagne bar with my coup of Blanc de Blancs, nibbling on shavings of saucisson, I reflected on the mysticisms of Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha. A book read when sixteen didn’t hold as much resonance, maybe it had something to do with the location? Who knows. 

I made my way to the main drag and had a small beer before I made my way to what was the crowning glory of Reims, L’Alambic - recommended in the travel supplement of a one-time Saturday Daily Telegraph. 

Again, it was table for one in this eccentric, contemporary restaurant in which the dining room was situated in a former wine cellar. I was greeted on arrival by Karol, the charming owner of the restaurant who addressed me by name (I was the only solo diner) and led to my table, past the vast copper alembic which lends its name to the restaurant. For those not in the know, it’s an essential part of the distilling process. On a little side table next to it, proudly presented, were some bottles of eau de vie (fruit brandy) from their favourite supplier, one Rene de Miscault. I knew as soon as I saw it, I was going to enjoy the food here as this is my favourite distiller, based in a small Alsatian village called Lapoutroie in the Vosges foothills. 

I was going hell for leather on this one, and as the very attractive and engaging Karol informed me she was going to tend to my table, I knew I was in excellent hands. Here’s how it panned out: 

A glass of house Champagne 

*

Smoked duck breast stuffed with foie gras, green salad, vinaigrette

A glass of Chablis

*

Rack of lamb (pink) with Dauphinoise potatoes, savoy cabbage and a light ratatouille

1/2 bottle of Pomerol 

*
Vanilla parfait with Raspberries drenched in Marc de Champagne

*

Coffee and eau de vie (Marc de Gewürztraminer)

It was an exquisite meal, more so for its simple, bold flavours and bone fresh ingredients. It was a very clever chef who prepared the meal. The lamb was so so succulent and the Dauphinoise was luxurious without being too-rich, the use of garlic was judicious. The great surprise was the starter, the juxtaposition of the duck breast against the smooth liver… divine. The pudding was pure decadence with a real kick of alcohol and tang of fresh raspberries and coulis. I’m almost transported back now, to that low ceilinged dining room as I write. All through the meal I was given impeccable service, friendly and not overbearing. What a meal, and topped of with some of Mr Miscault’s (who I had the pleasure of meeting a few years ago) glorious Marc de Gewürztraminer.

The real fun started though when I went up to the reception desk to pay the bill and I was encouraged by Karol to enjoy a glass of homemade cherry liqueur before I left! Let’s just say that I stayed for more, trying the full range of homemade ratafias and I experimented with my broken French and she spoke to me in her impeccable English! Of course two or three more toasts were consumed, this time from her stash of Miscault! Plum, Mirabelle (a type of plum) and pear were dispatched very merrily before I paid the bill and staggered out for a night-cap and a Gitane or ten! 

What an evening, what a host and what a restaurant. If you find yourself in Reims, make sure you visit L’Alambic for an experience you will never forget! 

Saturday, 29 August 2015

Raiders of the Lost Fromage: Raucousness in Reims

It was time to leave the west of France, the majestic Loire, the charming landscape, delicate foods and gentle wines behind and head east. The robust cuisine, the bold wines and the distinctly northern European feel would be in sharp contrast to my previous destination. Having been to Alsace before, I had an inkling of what to expect, but nothing would prepare me for the welcoming people and, frankly, the pointless hedonism that was to characterise this half of the adventure. 

The sun shone as I left Tour, armed with a good slab of pate, a crusty loaf, some wild strawberries and a half bottle of red. It was a simple lunch but one which suited the long journey I was taking across the breadth of France. As I finished my customary pint of train station beer, I focused my attention on Reims, the legendary capital of Champagne, the next leg of my French tour. 

It was a long journey, with a brief stop in Paris, where I saw the inside of the Metro and Gare L’Est but little else, but I was content having enjoyed that nice, rough and gamey country pate and a light red. An hour later I was in Reims, holding such a significant place in French history, not so much for the famed wine but for its place in confirming the legitimacy of country’s monarch. 

In this relatively, gentle landscape, the cathedral dominated. It’s an imposing structure, more built for pomp and grandeur as opposed to beauty. Whatever your feelings when you see this building, it certainly merit a visit. Who can forget the iconic WW1 image of this bomb battered church, implying as it did a sense of stubborn defiance and fortitude in the midst of the destruction. 

Where the Loire Valley had been sunshine, the weather turned in the north east, shifting to that close, overcast, drizzly sky, unique to the UK, northern France and the low countries. Outside the cathedral it was not a picturesque town, in fact I found it to be quite ordinary and there was a definite malaise in the air, you could see the terrible legacy everywhere of a city which had been at the centre of many of Europe’s most devastating conflicts. 

But enough of bleak history, let’s get down to brass tacks. I got a little diorientated, turning and weaving through these rather uninspiring streets looking for a very unassuming hotel on a very unassuming street.

Hotel Gambetta was finally found after an infuriating series of exchanges with locals who I fear were trying to lead me off on a wild goose chase every step of the way. I arrived, and tried to check in...

“Non monsieur, ne pas le reservation.”
“Excuses moi?!?!”
“Non... desolee’

Fuck that, I’d booked a room at this sodding place and I was tired, it was not a mood to cross me. However, I fixed my most saccharine smile, trying to be civil; there must have been some mistake, an error in the booking?

Apparently not, he said looking through his book of printed off reservations. I was adamant, standing my ground, an angry young man quaking in his little boots (or suede loafers). It’s one of the very few times I have felt confrontational but I had paid for the room so I felt a little aggrieved. 

By this time, knowing he could speak the lingo, I switched back to English. He kept phaffing and then looking through his database for this booking. He was about to cast me out on my arse but, being a nosey bastard, I craned over the desk and there saw my booking which he had overlooked... oh dear. 

There are times to be smug and there are times to think that you might like a room, I chose the latter. Once I had discovered the error it was all smiles and courtesy. I apparently could have the master suite, a privilege, it had just been completed. 

Just completed was an apt description, the paint had barely set on the walls. As the proprietor opened the door to show off this new addition to his portfolio, the smell of freshly laid matt emulsion hit my nostrils. It was quite overpowering, my first impressions were that  I was going to expire this evening in a mixture of paint and alcohol.

“Sir!” he announced in his very good English, “here it is...” 

I surveyed the scene, it was impressive, an eight bedroom apartment, I could’ve had a party in this top-floor cavern. It was not furnished, apart from a single bed and the sockets had not even been adhered to the walls. The paint fumes were almost overwhelming... 

“You could cook in here, have a meal this evening...” Said my landlord, pointing at the Meile unit at one side of the living area, very proud. 
“On what? The floor?!” I retorted, then pointing to the expanse of unfurnished room facing me. 
“Well, it’s yours to do as you like this eve!” He nudged me and gave a disconcerting wink. Creepy as it was, I liked this charlatan who had palmed an unfinished, three room apartment on me to try and make up for an error. I went with it, paint fumes (I soon became accustomed) and all. 

Embracing this rather odd situation, I dumped my bags and headed into Reims. Yes, the Cathedral held a mystical charm as did a neighbouring full of medieval and 19th century artifact, but I was here for the gastronomy and I had been well briefed.

First and foremost, I found a little Champagne bar serving a cheeky Blanc de Blanc, non-descript but gorgeous against some shaved saussicon sec and a few salted almonds. I indulged in my book, occasionally looking up to see couples entwining and businessmen in fervent conversation, a working city. 


Taking my leave of these rather fun people I made my way slowly, stopping at a few watering holes, to another stand out restaurant L’Alembic... I shall cover this in the next post!