Saturday, 19 March 2011

Lessons for the beginner cigar smoker (Vol. 1)

When I was a young rascal studying for my degree in Politics at the University of Leeds I often employed the cheap trick of opening an essay with a quotation in order to use up some of the word count on drier essays. Although this does not apply to what I promise will be a thoroughly interesting post, I feel that it will add some legitimacy to me forthcoming post on the pleasures of leisurely and infrequent smoking:

I have every sympathy with the American who was so horrified by what he had read of the effects of smoking that he gave up reading.’ – Henry Strauss, Lord Conesford

Finding this quote nestling in the nether regions of  Advanced Banter: The QI book of quotations, I have a lot of sympathy with that American! Of course as someone who enjoys cigars and cigarillos not too infrequently I get fed up with the constant nanny-statism of supposedly liberal governments, thinkers and public who think it quite acceptable to create social lepers from smokers but let thuggery and hooliganism develop from irresponsible drinking. Now, before I go any further I do not want this piece to become a preachy plea for smokers across the land. We all know now that it’s detrimental to public health (although I am still to be convinced by the ‘passive’ smoking argument!) and gone are the days when sports stars like Stanley Matthews advocated cigarettes as part of a balanced diet! I am not even going to talk about the crazy legislation that has been proposed to deter people from tobacco. This piece is all about the enjoyment of a good smoke every now and again as one would write about a great brandy or a Foie Gras!

Let me set the scene for you: a rare quiet Friday evening, a spacious drawing room in a late Victorian house in SW19 where sits a chap who has just come back from a range of interviews and meetings. He’s still in his suit (double-breasted of course) but with the top button undone and the Hermes tie at a slight tilt. The ipod is playing a mix of jazz standards, all the greats like early Ponty, Hancock, Humaire, Peterson, Grapelli, Dankworth, Barker, Mingus and Davis to name a few. On the coffee table, amongst the copies of World of Interiors, Country Life and House & Gardens sits a bowl of salted pistachio nuts in their shells with a few empties scattered on the table. Further towards the chap there’s a makeshift ice bucket (fashioned from a china pudding basin), a bottle of Campari and one of Soda. Next we see a glass full of a vulgar, candy apple red liquid brimming with ice and a slice of orange which one could only surmise as being a classic preparation of the aforementioned Italian aperitif. Suddenly the sound of a match and the shallow plume of smoke as a Churchill format Bolivar is lit and the chap settles in for an evening of pompous decadence while the improvised musings of George Benson wash over the rooms and the smoke wafts gently to the ceiling.

Of course, you can probably guess that the chap in that rather verbose passage was yours truly! Essentially what I am trying to convey is that leisurely smoking is an extremely civilised pastime and taken in moderation is one of the great simple pleasures in life – be the master of your cigar and don’t let the cigar become master of you! For anyone interested I will now give a few of my golden rules to get the ultimate enjoyment out of your intended smoke.

  1. Choose your brand carefully and seek advice from someone with good cigar knowledge if unsure. I have lived long enough to have had plenty of bad cigars in my time. Recently on a trip to Brussels I purchased a tin of mid-range De Wilde which were so dry they unravelled as soon as I put one to my lips. Quality with cigars is so very important and I think that a lot of people are put off by substandard products. Of course, like any luxury goods industry there is a thriving black market and I have had certain big brand cigars in the past which I am very sure were not the real thing. Whether it be cutting the native tobacco with cheap imported varieties to poor storage and shipping make sure when you spend your money you are spending it wisely. Generally you can be pretty safe with big Cuban brands so make sure you start out on makes like Cohiba, Montecristo, Romeo e Julieta or Bolivar and commence what might become a long and fascinating adventure into good smokes from there!

  1. I recommend never buying a lone cigar unless you intend to smoke it within a day or two. Good tobacco depreciates very quickly after processing so the quicker you smoke it the better. Of course this factor is non-essential if you have a humidor in which you can keep your cigar indefinitely, unfortunately I am too impatient!

  1. After a while everyone has their favourite format of which they like to languidly smoke and pompously inform other is the best, and only way a good cigar should be enjoyed. Nomenclatures for differing sizes are numerous and it is more often than not that a particular cigar house will choose their own system of measurement. This is often shrewd branding practice but it also helps distinguish non-marked cigars from others. The best example of this is Cohiba, which is a relatively new if renowned manufacturer who have a wholly unique system of classification. One the whole, I myself prefer the short, fat, Robusto cigars which have a lengthy smoke and quite a strong flavour (it is important to note that it is usually the width and not the length that determines the duration of a cigar). But make sure you experiment with different lengths and widths until you find a format which best suits you!

  1. In terms of Atmosphere: For me a stogie is something to be savoured either in good, select company or solo. There is no point in smoking anything of any good quality when you are planning to get shitfaced and go to a club, play a drinking game or the like. The sensation will be lost amid the alcohol and it will be more than likely that you will smoke the thing far too quickly. This in turn will make the novice decidedly ill or, even for the experienced cigar smoker, provide a not entirely unpleasant rush of nicotine to the head! So first thing first, make sure you enjoy your intended smoke in a relaxed setting where the only distractions are either: your chosen companions banter, the erudite comedy of Woody Allen or the gentle musings of classic and fusion jazz or soul!

  1. Good drink and good cigars go together like Daryl Hall & John Oates, Phil Collins & drum machines or James Caan and roles portraying violent antagonists! Either way, make sure that the booze that you are consuming matches the cigar you are smoking! It doesn’t have to be vintage port, nor does it have to be 100 year old brandy, a good scotch like black label or even high quality blended varieties are acceptable. I personally like aperitifs like Campari or a digestif such as Cointreau when I am chomping my way through a good smoke. Again likes so many of the recommendations that I am giving, it is all a matter of personal choice but ensure you choose something which compliments the cigar so as not to loose the drink’s integrity of flavour.

  1. Finally, and very importantly, NEVER light your cigar with a Zippo or any other petrol based lighter as it will compromise the flavour. This is not a recommendation but an order!

Like so much in this blog I have only scratched the surface of the wonderful world of smoking. Don’t let the thought police put you off, done once in a while and with good quality products it is no crime and nor should you feel guilty…I know I don’t. You only live once and I feel you might as well enjoy all sides of life while you can. Certainly, no one can call themselves a ‘Bon Viveur’ if they’ve never really enjoyed the taste of a fine cigar!

Next weeks post will be decidedly food based, about the three visits I have made to Wimbledon’s latest gastronomic hotspot, ‘The Fox and Grapes’. Hopefully this will appease my foody followers who might feel my blog has neglected this topic of late! But fear not cigar smokers I will be back next week with my top ten smokes for the first half of 2011, so keep your eyes peeled! 

Friday, 11 March 2011

Local Radio’s Twilight Years – A real concern for the future of the BBC’s local stations.

It seems to be rare occurrence when I can make any comment on public affairs without bringing my political opinions into the equation. It is for this reason that I have so far refrained from giving my verdict on a number of contentious topical issues. However, flicking through today’s copy of the Telegraph on my way to a meeting in sunny Hounslow my attention was arrested by a story occupying a small section at the bottom of the front page: ‘BBC ‘preparing to pull the plug’ on local radio’. Having spent all three years of my student days on (Leeds Student Radio) and as a consequence have many friends who have (or still are) negotiating local radio on their paths to DJ stardom, I felt that I could not hold my tongue any longer.

To give some context: I have always been a great fan of ‘the wireless’, especially talk radio and spoken word stations like BBC Radio 4 and LBC as well as music stations like Magic and Smooth (which generally appeal more to middle-aged women judging from the numbers of requests for Celine Dion, Roxette and Starship that are made daily!). I also love the local radio stations, those fantastic hotbeds of new and rising talent coupled with the reassuring tones of old hands who command loyal followings on BBC Rutland. Look at the marvellous array of DJs who have come up through the ranks from the shires: John Inverdale (Lincolnshire), Victor Lewis Smith (York), Andy and Liz Kershaw (Leeds), Libby Purves (Oxford) and of course Timmy Mallet (Oxford) to name a few.

Of course there is a lot of hit and miss and there are some things that just aren’t to my taste, but on the whole I like a lot of the content on the BBC local stations that I have listened to. This is why it came as a bit of a shock that the BBC are ready to dissolve their local output and replace it with a rolled out version of 5 Live (Accompanied with the relevant local news updates). Inevitably this decision stems from a drive to cut costs in the wake of the 6 year license fee freeze that the BBC have agreed to. Although no cast iron decisions have been made, it would be wrong to overlook this serious matter - it is being considered by Broadcasting House bigwigs as I write!

As everyone has felt the pinch of the economic downturn it is quite right that the BBC should be looking for ways in which it can save money. This has become increasingly difficult as its main source of income has been frozen for the foreseeable future. I would be the first to commend the networking of 5 Live if I felt that it was a necessary step to help the BBC save money, however in this case I disagree.

One look at BBC iPlayer should be enough to inform even the most naïve person as to where the corporation needs to make its cuts: bad and wasteful programming. This of course applies across both mediums, but in particular to television. The amount of weak writing, purchased programme and tired formats that occupies the unnecessary plethora of channels offered by the BBC is shameful. For every deserving programme there are at least two which make me question the license fee! In that statement alone I can already hear my critics citing the poor programming on ITV and Channel 4. I do not disagree, but I’m not paying for their services and as such each respective commissioning editor in these organisations is allowed to do as they please.

The list of programmes is endless and the choice to the viewer is mind boggling. There are old favourites that will always justify the fee just from viewing and listening figures. These are things like The Archers, Eastenders, In Our Time, Antiques Roadshow, Natural World, Countryfile and the like; which to all intents and purposes are as familiar as bread and butter to swathes of the public. There are the news and current affair staples, which for the most part are worth their expenditure (although I remain increasingly unconvinced by the pointless News 24!). Then there is the new and original programming which for me comprises of mostly patchy material.

Whilst I understand why my grandmother cooed over the incredibly dull Canford  (I cannot be the only one who thinks Gaskell incredibly overrated?) and other well executed, lavish period drama. Comedy, on the other hand, occasionally hits but so often misses. If BBC Three showed its worthwhile original output there would only be two programmes on a week! Shows like the 198th season of ‘Two Packets of Lager and a Packet of Crisp’; the plain awful Snog, Marry, Avoid; The inversely sexist ‘How to Live with Women’; the tedious ‘Total Wipeout’ (like a worse version of the appalling It’s a Knockout) and the naff ‘Don’t Tell the Bride’ do not merit the money spent on there production. Can someone honestly defend this sort of programming in the wake of massive cuts to BBC local radio?

One of many arguments I have heard on the grapevine is that the BBC have been ‘forced’ into this position through the recent growth of commercial radio. I understand that syndication has become a problem for local radio and that companies like Global have decimated the numbers of such institutions by purchasing and converting them to become subsidiaries of parent stations like HeartFM. However (as with ITV and C4), in a world of free and private enterprise this is hardly surprising. Global are well within their rights to do so and as such irrelevant to this argument.

I don’t want anyone to think from this that I am in any way against the BBC diversifying their output, and there is nothing wrong with human interest content and seeking to make programming which appeals to the Zeitgeist. I really like much of BBC’s cookery output and a good number of their documentaries (I am often impressed by BBC Four) and I am an avid watcher of the excellent Daily Politics. But please, paying for Clare Balding to go round Britain on a bike, Stephen Fry to champion endangered species in far flung reaches, or even paying for a channel to broadcast the proceedings in the Commons/Lords 24/7… Perhaps I am merely being cynical as I cannot comprehend how the BBC Board have been allowed to reach a decision that will effectively kill local radio.

I know that a BBC big bod with far more information, statistics and figures would be able to boggle me into believing that this is a necessary step, and if so, I am happy to stand aside. However, whilst there is still a shred of doubt (which has always been an Englishman’s privilege) I would like to know why cuts cannot be made in other departments, especially lacklustre programming. As a spokesman was at pains to point out, no decision had been made and discussions were still in their early days. I just hope that all other options are carefully considered before an irreversible decision for British radio is made. In light of the recent Question Time fiasco, I don’t hold out much hope…but then again, who does?

I am sorry that I have only scratched the surface of this issue as there is so much to be said! I could write for pages but sadly your attention might wane after a while! I have only presented one argument of many but I hope that this will begin the start of further discussion. I really believe this is an important issue facing the broadcasting and entertainment industry and I would love to hear your comments or – if you have the stamina – a rebuttal to my post. Please feel free to post and I will try to respond as best I can.

Until next time… Henry

Monday, 7 March 2011

The morning after the night previous - Fallacies behind the cure-alls!

They say that everything is best in moderation and that restraint is a virtue that we should all strive to master. So why is it that when it comes to a Thursday or Friday night, I so seldom listen! In the pub followed by a club or a session back at mine/friend’s house, I feel like the king of the world, I can drink like Oliver Reed, dance like David Bowie and ultimately drift into wonderful, beer induced dreams of cabbages and kings…then I wake up!

Bleary eyes, newly sprouted stubble, perhaps a bit of drool and a hairstyle swept slightly out of kilter by an awkward pillow angle – all symptoms that one has enjoyed themselves a bit to freely on the previous night! There was once an instance when I worked in Parliament: I got home, went to bed and woke up at 07:00 fully dressed, still wearing my shoes, jacket and tie (needless to say I did have a shower and change before I went if for a very painful Friday’s work)! I shall not be doing that again in a hurry, and it taught me a valuable lesson about getting three sheets to the wind on a ‘school night’… not to make a habit of it! I think by now you have by now guessed that this post is going to focus on that dreaded payoff you make when you drink too much: The Hangover.

 Whilst none of us would expect to wake up in the situation facing the three chaps in the fantastic 2009 comedy The Hangover, I have no doubt that many of us would prefer to wake up as fresh as a daisy (rather than spend the majority of the following day in a state of sluggish self-recrimination). How many times have I said -or have heard other people saying - that fantastically insincere phrase ‘ohhhh, never again…’ or ‘must make sure I drink less next time…’. In true form, these are always accompanied by: pitiful grunts and groans, a clumsy gait, over-relaxed shoulders and a general beeline to the kitchen in order to find some sort of relief for all the self-inflicted ill wracking your body!

Of course, each person swears by their own methods to get them over this most unpleasant of afflictions. Back in those halcyon days of the late 1990s, when Jamie was merely the cheeky Essex lad known as ‘The Naked Chef’, he was one of a number of chefs who implied that the best way to beat those Saturday morning blues was with an old fashioned British fry up. Whilst the idea sounds very pleasant and, to the hung over mind, the smell off bacon and sausages frying in a ton of grease is intoxicating, only the fool would venture to start tucking into this fat laden meal when they are still over the limit! I have made this mistake often enough and am now the wiser for it. I find that there is nothing to make your delicate state worse than the nauseous feeling arising from the stomach after swallowing a fatty piece of salty bacon! Some of you hardier souls will scoff, but I promise, fried foods on a hangover set you back ten paces and it will take longer to recover.

The hilarious, if incredibly dated Floyd on Hangovers VHS offer highly amusing if very ambitious advice for those feeling a little ropey! As much as I’d like to think that I would be in any state to prep and cook a Vietnamese Pho as soon as I woke, I fear that I would pass. Nor do I live in an area on which I can catch a fresh mackerel and eat it as sashimi as the great Floyd does before capsizing into the River Dart. I’m not sure the fish in the boating lake at Wimbledon Park are for the taking and might be a little muddy on the palate!

Next we have fad concoctions and cures. Of all the bizarre drinks that barkeeps, critics and general food writers offer, perhaps my favourite comes from popular culture. In my opinion, one of the greatest cinema creations of the last 30 years has been that of Doug Coughlin in the 1988 film Cocktail. The cynical Australian barman (played masterfully by the great Bryan Brown) teaches a naïve Tom Cruise all the right moves to become a top barman. In one of many great scenes where Coughlin propounds his philosophies (such as ‘Beer is for breakfast…’) he asks Cruise whether he can make a ‘Red Eye’ a seemingly vile concoction of which I will recount the recipe as I perceived it:

1 pint glass

½ pint Tomato Juice
½ pint lager
2 paracetamol
Lea & Perrins
1 egg

Method: Mix all the ingredients into the pint glass and crack in the egg.

The resultant slop should taste like beery tomato juice (which is not entirely awful). The real problem comes from the egg which adds a remarkably unpleasant viscosity to the whole affair making it a hard battle to get down. Just when you think you are through the fire you are hit with the grim realisation that you still have the red eye itself to gulp down. As it gets nearer and nearer you have to really summon up all of your courage and take the plunge. It slides down your gullet like a cold gob, it is all that you can do not to gag…And the result… sweet FA! I just felt even worse as that raw egg and tomato juice tied my stomach in yet more knots. Ultimately, a sad gimmick for a film in which more drink is poured and consumed than in any other, and yet they look so fresh, now I know it can’t have been because of the ‘Red Eyes’.

Another fantastic - if ludicrous - movie invention that plays the ‘hair-of-the-dog’ cure is ‘The Breakfast of Champions’ quaffed by Emilio Estevez in the Lethal Weapon spoof Loaded Weapon 1. A repulsive mix of Chocolate syrup, half a bottle of Jack Daniels topped up with irish whisky and vodka, I can hardly see how this would ever settle your stomach after a night on the razz! I have myself experimented with HOTD when I was a little younger and a lot more foolish and, as a result I cannot even smell Jack Daniels any more without feeling very queasy! I am determined to brave this particular drink over the week (scaled down to a glass rather than a stein) and I will be sure to let you know of my wellbeing after the event!

As fun or disgusting as these all sound, I am sorry to inform you, dear reader, that there is no miracle cure for a hangover! The best methods are, as is so often the case, the boring ones! Nothing beats continuous and gradual consumption of good old-fashioned tap water accompanied by a brisk walk in the fresh air, and perhaps a Berroca. My other (but this is highly subjective), favourite method is to sit outside in my dressing gown with a large pot of strong black coffee, a box of Villiger Exports (pressed) and Martin Jarvis reading an anthology of Just William on cassette tape. I think this is more a case of mind over matter, for I can hardly see how this method would do much for my physical constitution!

Whichever way you look at it there will be more and more outlandish and wild claims to cure hangovers whilst people continue to drink too much, excessively enjoy themselves and then feel guilty about it the next day. I am sure that you will all have your specific placebos that help you get over the day after the night before and I would be fascinated to hear them. So please post below on the comments board and let me know of your miracle cures!

Until later this week… Regards, H. 

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

A Fruitcake by Any Other Name…Review of 'My Cottage Kitchen' Rich Fruitcake

There is something distinctly - and pleasingly - British about the fruitcake. This makes it so tragic when the shopper sees the many dried out, margarine laden and distinctly unimaginative attempts to capture the essence of a much loved teatime snack on sale at stores across the country. I was in desperate straights; my grandmother used to make a wonderful Christmas cake topped with decadent brandy butter icing (which would last me a few months) but sadly she has decided to discontinue this tradition! My only alternative was to go for tea at some overpriced hotel in London (where they give the stingiest little finger of Dundee cake) or tolerate the lacklustre efforts displayed in plastic wrap on the supermarket shelves. Not even Marks & Spencer was able to seduce me with its promise of moist, juicy fruits, lacings of brandy and a delicate crumb.

Salvation was closer to hand than I thought. I won’t say that I was having fruitcake withdrawal symptoms but I was getting increasingly fed up that it was so hard to find a decent cake in the capital. It looked like I was going to have to go to the trouble of making it for myself and then wait patiently for the maceration and aging process to finish. With an air of despondence I sat down at my computer and consoled myself with a quick look at Twitter to see if my fan base had increased. Seeing I had some new messages I scanned through them with a casual air as one who has lost his taste for all things cake-related. There were ‘thanks for the follows…’, exchanged pleasantries and the like. Suddenly I looked at one message that I had receive from @MCKitchenHQ, more commonly known to the locale of Shropshire (where the company is based) as My Cottage Kitchen run from the home of the cook Ursula Evans. Essentially the message rose to the challenge set out in the bio for my Twitter page, which I reproduce verbatim:

‘thanks for the follow. Looking for new tasting experiences....have you tasted my cakes yet?’

The gauntlet had been thrown down and I felt it was only fair in my cake-less torpor to step up the metaphorical plate.  I responded with glee, I checked out the website and well shot pictures of carefully prepared cakes made my mouth water. I dispatched my address and waited with anticipation for Ursula’s cake to arrive in the post – I have never heard of sending a cake in the mail but, now I have had time to think, it is something that I think should happen more often!

A tin arrived at my door on Wednesday lunchtime, be-sashed with a Union Jack ribbon it was the perfect size for solo consumption! Stripping off the wrapping I lifted the lid and unleashed the most delicious aroma…

Is there any smell more reassuring than that of a well made, rich fruitcake full of juicy raisins, aromatic mixed peel and a good slug of brandy? Perhaps, dear reader, you associate a fruitcake with the smoke overtones of a cup of Lapsang Souchong or the delicate citrus undertones of a cup of Earl Grey. You can keep your cups of the nation’s favourite beverage! I personally like it with a couple of glasses of Australian pudding wine and only then can you feel really indulgent (which is how any good fruitcake should make you feel). A glance at the ingredients on the base of the tin confirms the high volume of fruit and spices contained within, but this is nothing compared to the absolutely delicious and complex taste of the article itself.

Removing the surrounding cling film I could already feel the soft delicacy of the cake far removed from the dense, dry bricks found on the shelves of the supermarket.  The top was crammed with all manner of dried fruits: figs, prunes, apricots glace cherries and a delicious array of nuts. The knife went through as if it was butter, but the cake was so moist that it was not the neatest one in the world, I could already tell that it was going to be deliciously sticky with an almost melt in the mouth texture and I was not to be disappointed.

The taste was just awesome and more than lived up to the cool packaging and enticing look of the cake. There was a deep spice with the slightest hint of caramel and molasses. One thing that I really appreciated was that the fruit and the brandy had been allowed to speak for themselves and were not bogged down in too much sugar. It is so often that both home-made and mass-produced products have way too much sugar in their cake mix, making it over-sweet and sickly. This had none of that sickly sensation, in fact it was dangerously moreish!

The texture was surprisingly light and crumbly and implied that Ursula had carefully ensured that the cake mixture received the minimum amount of handling from conception to creation – which is how it should be. There was a generous portion of fruit, but not so much that is became a heap of raisins with an incidental scattering of crumbs, which was evenly spread. Ultimately, each bite gave away the amount of consideration and attention that Ursula had put into the finished product. This is indeed a fantastic cake and I have absolutely no reservations in saying that it is well worth the great-value price that it commands. It is wonderful to see such fine products coming from the Shires and it is highly encouraging that there are people like Ursula Evans who have the skill and passion to craft such wonderful delicacies.

PS. If you like the sound of My Cottage Kitchen please make sure that you check out the website to order your very own scrumptious fruitcake: