Wednesday, 26 June 2013

I can go for that... a tale of The Alsace part 1

I must first declare that I have had, for many years, a desire to go to The Alsace. Ever since seeing the marvellous Keith Floyd making a programme in the region in his landmark cookery programme ‘Floyd on France’ I became intrigued by the picture book quality of the medieval architecture and the rolling vineyards nestling on the foothills of the Vosge Mountains and the banks of the Rhine. In recent years I had also developed a taste for the region's delicious white wines, what little arrive on our shores, and had been waiting for a perfect time and travelling companion to accompany me to this land brimming with a rich history and choc-full of fine gastronomic experiences. So it was I found myself travelling on the 11:25 flight from Gatwick to Mulhouse-Basel airport on Sunday 9th June with my father for what would turn out to be an epic holiday by anyone’s standards. 

A bit of context first. For those of you who don’t know it, The Alsace region is situated on the Eastern tip of France Stretching across from the Vosge Mountains to the banks of Upper Rhine, across which are the South German State of Baden-Wuttermberg and the Swiss city of Basel. An area punctuated by turmoil and uprising galore it has been the scene of some of Europe’s most bloody conflicts from the 30 Years War to World War 1 and World War 2  and has changed hands between the French and the Germans intermittently over the last 1000 years making it a veritable melting pot of different influences and a unique places where both cultures meet for a fantastic experience. History lesson over for now, let’s get on with the trip. 

Arriving at the airport following a strangely fuss-free flight we were greeted by one of my father’s friends from Basel, with who we ushered in the holiday in style over the Swiss border with a few drinks at the world famous Drei Koeniger Hotel where, sipping on some cooling demi-pressions of dreadfully expensive beer and smoking relatively cheap cafe creme blues we watched the teal Rhine rush through the medieval bridge that connects the upper and the lower town. The sun was out and the conversation was sparkling but soon over and we were on our way back over the border to our intended destination Labaroche in the heart of the Vosge Massif. One day, when I make my millions inventing something thoroughly useless that no-one can do without, I would like to return to this luxurious venue and partake in some of the incredible collection of cigars, that they keep and sell at highly luxurious prices, in the comfort of their plush smoking saloon (which I couldn’t resist having a peak at), although in my rolled-up sleeve pink linen jacket, Sting and the Police t-shirt, tan jeans and deck shoes (as I was dressed that day) I think I would turn me away millionaire or not! 

It took me a little bit of time to get used to the map, much to my father’s frustration as we tried and failed many times to find a road that lead out of the highly uninspiring suburbs of Colmar. Soon, however, we were on the twisting and turning roads that lead into the mountain range and after a picturesque journey through tarn and gully we rolled into the small village of Labaroche  and to our hotel the Spa Tilleule. It was a clean, friendly establishment run by a charming, hunchbacked old crone who seemed to do everything from booking us in to manning the bar to serving the food - a real trooper of the old school of hospitality, the weight of the recent poor weather and as a result poor season on her shoulders. 

Where the hotel was simple but comfortable the food was hale and hearty, trencherman sizef portions for hungry walkers who had braved the mountain slopes at 17 euros for four courses. Over the first three evenings of our holiday we tucked into fabulous plates of charcuterie, fillet steak, roasted best end of lamb, maigret de canard, perfectly ripe Munster cheese and fresh fruit as well as one of the best cheese souffles I have ever eaten, full stop! The cooking was simple country food but prepared with experience, and was very tasty, the perfect thing to round off the evening after a day of site-seeing and rich food. All this of course was preceded by a few demi-pressions of the saucily named ‘sans coullote’ Alsatian beer and accompanied by delicious wines from Ammerschwir (just four miles down the road), of particular note was Heitzmann 2007 Pinot Gris (100 times better than the Italian acid-water also known as Pinot Grigio, which is made with the same grape).

Looking beyond the hotel, we jumped in the car and headed down ‘Rocky Mountain Way’ or the Route des Cretes as it is more commonly known in France and indeed the rest of the world. Bucolic mountain pastures punctuated with the gentle sound of cowbells and the heady smell of alpine herbs played off against rugged rocky outcrops under a brooding sky, the weather was not looking promising on this, the first day of the holiday. After turning and turning around winding roads stopping every now and then for a cigarillo break here, a photo opportunity there we drove into the town of Munster, so famous for both the pungent (but delicious) cheese they produce and the most majestic storks that nest atop every building in the town, the air was filled with the sound of their call as they flew back and forth gathering material for their nest and food for their young. 

After walking around town for a bit we became both thirsty and peckish. After a glass of refreshing but slightly tart Edelzwicker (the vin ordinaire of the region, used in much of the cooking) we moved onto a small restaurant and a very agreeable Riesling which went very well with my beautifully cooked rabbit and my father’s Flammekeuche (a very thin pastry base topped with white sauce, cheese, bacon and mushrooms toasted under the grill - a speciality of the Alsace) followed by a fortifying plum eau de vie which slipped down the gullet like fire. 

Sustained by our vittles we headed back into the mountains and up to the largest of the peaks, the Balon de Vosge, stopping on the way to enjoy a coffee and an a delicious tarte au myrtille (bilberries, another speciality of the region), giving us the energy to take on this sizeable peak. Parking the car the wind started to whip up and rain began to fall ever so lightly as we started our ascent, the radar station sitting atop the peak looming over. What should have been a spectacular view from the summit was slightly marred by the weather, yet the sky was so dramatic it seemed wholly appropriate when looking out on the lush green mountains and populated valleys which, in their time probably posed a formidable obstacle to many a lonely wanderer.

After some more breathtaking views a couple of eau de vie and a lot more cafe creme cigarillos two weary travellers made their way back to the hotel for some of Madame’s hearty food and gracious hospitality. The next day the weather was to improve and I was to have one of the best meals I have every eaten, but that will have to wait until the next instalment...

Tuesday, 18 June 2013

Bloody Good Chap Hall of Fame: Robert Palmer

Fear not dear readers for I am currently writing an account of a most marvellous trip that I took to the Alsace last week! There's just so much of it I am struggling to pick the highlights, there were too many! In he meantime I want to draw you attention to a sadly missed bloody good chap from the world of music...

It's coming up to 10 years since singer Robert Palmer's passed away, and looking at the reviews that his albums (a few of which I own) are begrudgingly given an accolade or critically slated. The critics in question insist on bludgeoning his reputation with the same old 'style over substance' cudgel which they take to any alternative band/singer who finds overnight meteoric success with a pop record - they did it to Rod Stewart and Phil Collins so why shouldn't Palmer get the same treatment. 

It seems that many of them almost resent the fact that in ten year he achieve stellar success with an album of the yuppie era (Riptide, 1985 - which I have reviewed previously <insert link>), albeit a a great album with taught production, great writing and some incredible vocal performances. The way the critics review that album you'd think you'd purchased some mediocre guilty pleasure, but this is so far from the truth in a career that definitely had more highs than lows from a Yorkshireman with one of the finest voices in music. 

Of course he was not without a few stinkers in his back catalogue and 1983's 'Pride' is best forgotten except for a sterling remake of Kool & The Gang's 'You can have it (take my heart)' and a funky reinterpretation of The System's 'In my system'. But it is in these diamonds amongst the coals of the majority of 'Pride' that lay the root of Palmer's unique quality. much like Rod Stewart and Mick Hucknall their interpretations of other's compositions was as good, if not better, than their original writing. Palmer had a knack of adding his own unique stamp to a number of classics including 'Trick Bag' (1985), 'Pressure Drop' (1975), 'I didn't mean to turn you on' (1985), 'Mercy, Mercy Me/I Want You' (1990) - all delivered with the raw power of a man who would probably been as comfortable on a blues or heavy rock album as on the reggae- infused pop, new wave and slick soft rock that typified the music he made throughout his career. 

The other charm of Robert Palmer's music was his love of diverse genres and the great value he put in his influences which wee firmly routed in soul legends Billie Holliday, Sam Cooke and Marvin Gaye as well as a plethora of blues musician and reggae stars (most of which neither I, nor I'm sure many of you readers will have heard of before!). His albums, excluding the brilliant New Wave record 'Clues' (1980),  were not just of one genre they were a collection of different grooves Palmer had obviously picked-up on through his esoteric taste in music. Just listening to one of his most underrated albums 'Heavy Nova' (1988) or the epic 'Double Fun' (1978) there are just so many different sounds he could almost be the Todd Rundgren of 'Blue eyed soul'! 

Sadly, one of the reasons his reputation has suffered is through his association with his most famous song 'Addicted to Love' a song of the money making generation, featured in any 80s corporate film or anti capitalist documentary decrying the monstrosity of champagne swilling pinstripes with big glasses and bad haircuts! This is a pity as it is a great song, rooted in all the sensibilities of a great rock n roll track - I'd love The Rolling Stones to do a 60s pastiche of it! Granted it's not my most favourite Palmer but it is a great tune and a deserved hit. But of course the video with its backing band of monochromatic women in tight black dresses miming the instruments and Palmer in black tie, white shirt and suit trouser became (like Phil Collins's White Converse AllStars) a symbol of everything they hate... Success! 

It's easy to forget that Palmer was no chip of the block and his success was hard fought, having been plugging away  in the industry for fifteen year previous with his first band Vinegar Joe (alongside the legendary Elkie Brooks) and then as a solo artist with a number of minor hits - surely he deserved some walk in the sunshine after years of toil? Sadly he was greeted with critical snobbery but, thankfully, awesome sales and public plaudits.

A consummate tourer he was supposed to be a fantastic live act and in this arena it is said his voice really came into its own - I'm sorry I never got a chance to see him before his untimely death. He also had a great career as a collaborator and was always interested in exploring new avenues. 1984's 'The Power Station' was a wonderful meeting of minds between him, Duran Duran's Roger ad John Taylor and Chic's Tony Thompson to create a sadly neglected but rollickingly fun album which has easily got the best version of The Isley Brother's 'Harvest For the World' on it! 

I could go on for much longer about this fellow, how original his interpretations of other artists tunes were, what a good composer he could be when he got it right, and what a phenomenally entertaining experience his vocals are to listen to but I don't think I could keep your attention. Sadly Robert Palmer died suddenly in 2003 but I hope that this inspires you to either reappraise earlier thoughts or explore some of his back catalogue for the treasures they possess.

Thursday, 6 June 2013

30 years on and the magic's still there!

1983 was a interesting year for music with a healthy mix of some very fine albums, and although to my mind not a vintage year, now 30 years here are a few choice morsels: 

Hall & Oates - Rock n Soul (Pt. 1)

By 1983 Hall & Oates had established themselves as one the number one live draws as well as one of the most successful acts in the world having release 'Private Eyes' (1981) to great critical acclaim and 'H2O' (1982) to great commercial success as well as a plethora of instantly recognisable No.1 singles played across the clubs of America and Europe. Of course it seemed like a great time to make a record of their greatest hits up until this point, as well as throwing in a couple of new singles into the mix to ensure fans got something extra from the purchase. At their roots Daryl and John where a singles band and nowhere is this better showcased than in this record which includes 'Private Eyes', 'You Make My Dreams', 'Sara Smile', 'Maneater' and 'Private Eyes' amongst others. 

David Bowie - Let's Dance

Bowie had hit something of a cultural block following the success of 'Scary Monsters' in 1980 and he was in danger of falling out of fashion very quickly like Stevie Wonder and Bob Dylan who found it difficult to repeat the magic of the 1970s with the new studio technology and production techniques being used. Thank goodness he had the fortune to link up with former Chic guitarist turned crack-producer Nile Rodger who hone Bowie's sound and brought him kicking and screaming into the 80s throwing of the shackles of avant-garde rock and positioning him as a pop artist with some thoroughly danceable tunes. Many times have I been caught in front of the mirror dancing along to the title track or the album's triumph 'China Girl' (written by Iggy Pop' 

The Police - Synchronicity

In 1983 the Police were arguably as big as Michael Jackson. Their on stage humour and catchy pop music had made them one of the most prolific bands of the era, but behind the scenes - as is now well documented - the group was plagued by bitter infighting between the twin egos of drummer Stewart Copeland and vocalist/bassist Sting. This would be the band's final album before their official split in 1986 but they went out in style with and album that would contain their biggest hit and a couple of other brilliant singles: 'Every breath you take', 'King of pain' and 'Wrapped around your finger' 

Yes - 90125 

If someone had suggested in 1982 that progressive rock group Yes would have album at any point during the 1980s I am sure they would have been laughed out of the room, but happen it did on the back of the stellar 90125. The band had been working hard to redefine their sound since prog had fallen out of favour and a string of lacklustre album had not help. Cue the arrival of production legend Trevor Horn who had joined the group in 1980 an had started to work their music into something that consumer audience would like on 'Drama' (1980). Following the return of the group's lynchpin, vocalist Jon Anderson, after a hiatus (the highlight of which was 'State of Independence' made in collaboration with Vangelis. The resulting album under the direction of Horn, 90125, was to be the 'Big one' for the group. Driven by the driving slice of 80s rock 'Owner of a lonely heart' it was a lesson in Horn's signature style which would define much of the music of this period. Highlights include 'Leave It', 'It can happen' and 'Cinema'. 

Genesis - Genesis

What better way to cement your position as one of the decade's most prolific and successful acts than to name your 11th album after the band? Lack of inspiration perhaps or just arrogance? Who knows? This was the album that was to position Genesis as a world conquering machine, culminating in their next release 'invisible Touch' (1986). Choc full of great tracks including the infectious 'Mama' and the toe-tapping 'That's All' this is the sound of a band very comfortable in what it's doing. 

So there you have it, my five favourites from 1983, what are yours?