Oz Clarke on Summer Food & Wine Pairings

Even though here in the U.S., people consider today the last day of summer, it is still technically summer until September 21!

In the above video, Oz Clarke — one of the world’s leading wine experts — gives some brief thoughts about food and wine pairings that he enjoys during the warmer months … from what do drink with Parma Ham and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese and more.

This version of the video was made for readers of Laissez Fare, and was made possible by the Discover the Origin Campaign (@discoverorigin). They are an EU and professional body that works to raise awareness of specific PDO products’ origins and production processes — celebrating the qualities of excellence, tradition, natural resources and fair production of these products.

Hope you enjoy the short video! (Oh, and the “hot weather” Oz refers to is in the UK, where people aren’t accustomed to the type of heat they’ve experienced this summer).

Stay tuned, as I will try to post some highlights from a recent trip to France in the coming weeks.

All the best,

LF

An Interview with Olivier Magny, Wine’s Leading ‘Terroirist’

Best-selling author Olivier Magny's newly released "Into Wine" has something for everyone who's "into wine"

Best-selling author Olivier Magny’s newly released “Into Wine” has something for everyone who’s “into wine”

Paris native Olivier Magny is a true entrepreneur. And, as a sommelier, wine educator and TV host with his own Parisian wine bar, he’s got quite an impressive wine résumé. But somehow I don’t think that’s what he really wants you to focus on. I believe his true aim is to pass on his boundless enthusiasm for the richly diverse world of wine to anyone who wants to listen, and to make sure they enjoy themselves along the way.

Hence his newly released book, entitled Into Wine. It serves as a wonderful gateway into the often confusing and complex world of wine. And I recommend anyone with even a passing interest in wine to read it, and take its contents seriously. For although the book comes across as simple, there’s quite a bit of thought hiding behind its playful diction. Even so-called ‘wine experts’ are sure to find some useful information within its pages (take note particularly of the detailed appendices).

Into Wine is written in a colloquial style and broken into tasting-size pours — with interesting, and often provocative, statistical and anecdotal call-outs sprinkled throughout. The book brims with energy, enthusiasm, an unmistakable joie de vivre and a somewhat boyish sense of humor. You could say it pulsates with life. And that’s just what Olivier believes that soil should do … because this is what leads to complex, unique, interesting wines that reflect their local cultures.

Yes, you see, Olivier is a self-proclaimed Terroirist. Now terroir is one of those French words that don’t translate well into other languages. But if you had to approximate it concisely, you could say it means “a sense of place.” And many people believe that certain methods of farming and winemaking can lead to wines that actually express the “place” they come from in your glass.

The starting point for someone looking to craft such a wine (well, actually, any wine at all) is the vineyard. Today, there are strongly held beliefs and feelings on both sides of the fence about organic and biodynamic farming, and the so-called ‘natural’ wines that such methods often help to produce. No matter what side you tend to gravitate towards — and especially if you’ve never thought or heard about any of these things in the first place — the best policy is to let everyone have his or her own say. And that’s exactly why I asked Oliver to do via the below questions.

So I invite you to listen. And if you have comments, please use the comment function below on this post or contact Olivier via his own website.

Chin-Chin!

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Q: Why did you decide to write Into Wine and who is your intended reader?

Anyone with an appetite for wine and an open mind should enjoy Into Wine. The idea behind it is not only to share knowledge and insights, but also to take a step back and look at the bigger picture of what wine teaches us, far beyond wine.

Q: Your book comes across as refreshingly direct and down-to-earth, and is injected with enthusiasm and humor. Indeed, this seems to be the point: to write a wine book that doesn’t talk down to the reader or use unnecessarily flowery terminology. How do you strike the delicate balance between (a) retaining this attitude at all times, while (b) conveying what is often necessarily a lot of complex information that people will need to learn about the subject(s) at hand?

Thank you very much. I’ve perfected this art for ten years at O Château. Every day, I have people in front of me that come from all walks of the wine life. Your wine pro will be sitting next to a complete novice, and my job is to make sure both have a great time and learn a lot. My daily challenge for ten years has been to strike that delicate balance between informative and fun, for everyone. Keeping things factual and genuinely helpful is as much of a requirement for me as keeping them light-hearted! The fact that both seasoned sippers and complete rookies have been raving about Into Wine tells me that I didn’t mess up completely!

Olivier … with his hands full

Olivier … with his hands full

Q: You place huge emphasis on the notion of terroir, and the importance of becoming a ‘Terroirist’ — not just with respect to wine, but also in terms of one’s whole approach towards living. How would define the concept of terroir in its simplest form. And, if you were to distill its importance for you into five points, what would they be?

To me, terroir is this: a wine, an apple, a cheese or a person from ‘here’ should be different from a wine, an apple, a cheese or a person from ‘there’. That is what makes life not only delicious but also interesting. Terroir is absolutely essential and if I were to give you five reasons, I’d say:

  • Our world destroys differences at an incredible pace: the logic of terroir is first and foremost a logic of cultural resistance that fosters genuine diversity.
  • Our world destroys our soil at an incredible pace: we need to re-think the way we farm and terroir is the most reasonable angle to tackle this fundamental issue.
  • We are a very unhealthy crowd: exponential expansion of certain diseases and afflictions is closely linked to the way we eat and drink. Terroir helps fix that problem.
  • Terroir gives us deliciousness — which is rather significant in my book!
  • Terroir is about caring: for the soil, for the food, for the wine, for the ones we love. I think this whole world would be better off with a bit more TLC. 

Q: A significant part of the book is spent discussing “living” soil versus “dead” soil. How does this manifest in a wine (or in food that’s grown on the soil)?

Wine or food made from dead soil is somewhat similar to what zombies are to humans: they’re there, but good lord are they dirty and soul-less!

Q: Speaking of soil, there has been a lot of debate in wine circles recently regarding whether you can actually taste the minerals present in the soil that surrounds the vines in the final, bottled wine. What is your take, and how does this (or doesn’t this) relate to terroir?

On these subject matters, I try to stay clear from all the ‘blah-blah’ and look only for the hard science. And well, current science is not conclusive on this point. What I believe in (and what science does corroborate) is that the complexity of a wine vastly mirrors the life of the soil. Does it follow that a chalky soil gives us a chalky tasting wine? Honestly, I don’t really care! What I want is for that chalky soil to be alive and well, and for the wine made from it to be delicious!

Q: Let’s forget bout “minerality” for a moment. Can you describe why you see organic and biodynamic farming — not just for wine, but also for all produce — as such an important thing for the world? And can this really, as you suggest, help solve our environmental and cultural woes as well?

Well, what’s for sure, and I explain why in the book, is that the status quo would lead to more famines, devastations, hurricanes and wars. So we need a new model. And I believe the best model is simply one based on common sense and empiricism. Many pioneers have been showing the way, proving to us that another model was not only possible, but also eminently viable — from an environmental, financial and cultural standpoint. The more people realize this, the closer we’ll get to getting our governments to stop rooting for toxic and destructive corporations, and to start rooting for us instead.

Q: Even if the mass market of global consumers eventually decided that this was the way to go, there is the troubling issue of the economics of it all. At the moment, even middle-class people might have a difficult affording organically or biodynamically grown foods and wines (unless you think this is just an issue of priorities?). So how can this be a realistic goal for the population at large, and can this type of farming ever become less expensive than the techniques employed by ‘Big Ag’ today (i.e. GMOs and so-called ‘industrial’ farming)?

When you go all the way to the ownership structure, you realize that ‘Big Ag’ is owned by the same crooks that own ‘Big Pharma’, ‘Big Banks’ and ‘Big’ whatever. We say corporations, but at the end of the day, the singular should almost apply. So what you’re looking at is a tremendously profitable business model: feeding people to make them sick while keeping them ignorant and making money every step of the way. But it’s also, and more importantly, a sickening project, if you take the time to think about it. The fact that any menu at any fast food restaurant is cheaper than two pounds of regular (i.e. organic) tomatoes is not chance; it is because one side of the system is subsidized while the other is penalized. So ‘the market’ gives us a price, and we’ve been conditioned to accept it as the reflection of a form of truth, or at least of an acceptable order of things. But then again, if we confront that with a hint of common sense, we quickly realize that ‘the market’ is full of crap. Literally. 

I explain in the book that so-called ‘conventional’ farming is not cheap at all and that it does not even have high yields. It simply means that each farmer will produce a lot. The fact that this one farmer is crippled with debt (often leading him to suicide), the fact that he produces toxic food (leading to exponential cancer rates in the general population), or the fact that he kills his soil (thus making future generations even more dependent on ‘Big Ag’) never seems to trouble anyone.

Resistance is of course in order, and education is Step 1. Step 2 is changing what and where we buy. And if enough of us do this, then we’ll have something good going on, for the powers that be will see something that they care about: a market! And when the market is big enough: things will change for everyone.

The vineyards of Paolo Bea in Umbria, one of Italy's leading biodynamic estates (taken from a visit there in 2011)

The vineyards of Paolo Bea in Umbria, one of Italy’s leading biodynamic estates (taken from a visit there in 2011)

Q: There has been a lot of talk about the decline of French cuisine (with recent books such as Au Revoir to All That, etc.). You add to this general sentiment, and touch on the fact that France’s wine culture is headed seriously in the wrong direction (and fast). Why is this, and how do you think it can be reversed?

France is in the eye of the tiger of the globalist project. Cultural destruction in France over the past 40 years has been absolutely mind-boggling. The loss of the wine culture is just one tiny aspect of this cultural tsunami. But I’m hopeful: some young French people are starting to get interested in wine again — though not because they love the French culture; rather instead to imitate New Yorkers! Plus French wines are going through such a phase of Renaissance right now that the French won’t be able to ignore it too long even if they tried.

Q: As a Frenchman, and self-proclaimed lover of French wine, do you think the iconic wines of Bordeaux (i.e. the Grands Cru Classeés) will eventually become more terroir-driven and/or farmed organically or even biodynamically? Is this important at all?

The results of biodynamic farming are obvious and the word is spreading fast throughout the world. When they refer to Bordeaux, most people actually think of the 61 Grands Crus Classés. There are thousands of wineries in Bordeaux that do not have the luxury of having the wealthiest people on earth buy their wine no matter what. In Bordeaux, change will come from below. And it will slowly but surely force the iconic châteaux to come to it. When you see the tremendous progress of Château Pontet-Canet since they adopted biodynamic farming, you can only imagine how amazing Latour would taste if they went down that road!

The influential California winery Ridge Vineyards has started to put detailed labels on its wines — is this a good thing?

The influential California winery Ridge Vineyards has started to put detailed labels on its wines — is this a good thing?

Q: What is your stance on how wine is labeled? Some brave pioneers like Ridge Vineyards, for instance, are beginning to label everything that goes into their wine. Is this the way forward?

I have a general uneasiness with our current reverence for transparency. If everybody does their job properly (the winery, and also the wine store), such extremes are not needed. Decency and professionalism go a long way!

Q: A lot of newcomers to wine might not know how loose the rules are in US wine regions. For instance, the fact that 15% (or more) of the wine may not be the variety, vintage or region stated on the label. French AOC rules (and similar systems in other European countries) tend to be stricter. But there has also been criticism and disenchantment over the AOC system as of late. Are you a supporter of the AOC system and what do you see as its key advantages and/or failings? 

I think the AOC system is terrific. It fosters expression of local differences and deliciousness, while doing something we rarely do these days: recognizing the importance of our local heritage. Now clearly, out of mere coherence, the agency that regulates it needs to ban usage of many terroir-killing pesticides, and I believe it will down the road. But overall, wine producers and wine drinkers alike all much better off with the AOC system than without it.

Q: For people that are just after a reasonably wine that tastes delicious, and don’t want to engage intellectually in the process of learning more about wine, what do you recommend? Do you believe that progressively drinking better wine over time inevitably leads to increased curiosity in wine drinkers, and does this really matter in the end?

I’d say stop buying wines from a supermarket and start buying from a wine store instead. Then let them guide you! It’s that simple … and then, well, some people will end up becoming more well-off or more interested and will go for better wines, and some won’t. And you know what? Both are just fine!

Q: Are some wines simply better than others, or is beauty (and deliciousness) in the mouth of the beholder?

Both — fully.

Q: Where can people find the best values in terroir-driven French wines? How about outside of France?

In France I’d say the Loire Valley, Alsace and the Languedoc. Outside of France: New Zealand, Italy and Portugal would be my destinations of choice. But we live in a formidable period where the culture of terroir is starting to spread everywhere. It’s a very exciting time to be a wine lover!

Q: You talk about how important it is for people to get out and visit actual wineries and winemakers. If someone from the US has never been on wine-centric vacation, what is the first region they should the visit — one at home and one abroad?

In the US, well, I’d recommend exploring the wine regions of Oregon or Washington state. It is easier to talk to the people in charge than in California, which makes learning more fun and easier. The general vibe is a bit more rural and a bit less commercial. Abroad, well, I think Alsace is one of Europe’s best-kept secrets (especially if you like whites).

Q: I’ve personally never experienced it, but many people say that certain wines give them headaches. Can you discuss the relationship between such headaches and SO2 (also the differences between volcanic S02 and SO2 that is a by-product of petroleum)? Is this what is causing these headaches?

The truth is, the hard scientific knowledge regarding wine and headaches is lacking. Excess is a common cause! Now, sulfites are a common scapegoat. But you look you at it in detail, you learn that the problem doesn’t lie in sulfites, but on the one part on their origin (that should ideally be volcanic) and in their dosage. Both for the wine and for the consumer, the problem is an excess of sulfites, not sulfites per se. As a general rule, do not settle for wines that give you a headache, as headaches from wine usually stem from sloppy grape growing or winemaking (or both). I have put together a list of wineries I recommend in the appendix of the book. Readers should find that to be a very helpful resource.

Q: What is the one thing you want people to take away from Into Wine?

That resistance has never been so necessary, and so delicious!

Q: You tell us quite about yourself in the book — but what is something that we may not know?

I am madly in love with my wife! :)

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If you want to get the book, there is a great deal if you purchase Into Wine through this link.

Please note: I have no personal relationship with Mr. Magny, and in fact have never met him or been to his wine bar.

Filip Verheyden is TONG – About Wine

A provocative publication about the world of wine – tackling one issue at a time

Being a self-confessed wine geek, I am always curious to read new and interesting takes about both wine itself and the industry. I don’t exactly remember when or where I first heard about TONG – About Wine magazine, but it was likely on twitter, and once I read a little more about it, I was intrigued.

Now is the point when I would normally introduce you to the magazine, but I recently had the opportunity to interview the editor and publisher, Filip Verheyden, so I will let him do it instead – in 140 characters or less.

Filip Verheyden, Editor & Publisher of TONG Magazine

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LF: If you had to explain what TONG is on twitter – i.e. in 140 characters or less – what would you say?

FV: Looking to demystify wine. One central theme, each time different specialists, broad spectrum towards the subject and no advertising.

LF: How does it feel to have pioneered the first international wine magazine from Belgium, and does national culture play any role in the thinking behind TONG?

FV: No, absolutely not. Wine is one of the most international agricultural (and cultural) products in the world. That’s why I’m also in the Master of Wine program. Wine takes you everywhere in the world. For that reason, TONG is in English, and not in Flemish. That market [Flemish] is simply too small. I used the name “TONG”, which is Flemish for “tongue”, because most of the people in the wine industry are not in fact native English speakers, but they all speak it.

LF: What do you make of the current trends in wine writing and analysis, and do you think it is due to change any time soon? Have we become over-complicated in the way we talk about wine?

FV: No, we haven’t become over-complicated. I have very strong views on this. We live in the age of the Anti-Specialist. Due to blogs, social media, etc. everybody has become a “specialist”. When something is written down, it looks as if it has more power than the same thing being spoken out. That is why people feel more “special” when they distribute their writings. But writing down something does not make you a specialist.

That is the reason why TONG does not work with journalists – unless they are specialists in their fields of work. Specialists only write about their specialty, wine writers write to order…making them the antipode of a specialist.

LF: Other high-quality wine quarterlies, such as The World of Fine Wine, have many intellectual and academic articles, but at the same time, they still review and rate wines, and also carry advertising. This means that they have an obvious way to attract and retain (in their case, wealthy) consumers. Who is TONG aimed at, why would consumers be interested in reading it, and how can you reach them?

FV: That’s a very difficult question! I started TONG the completely other way around: starting from what product I wanted to make and, only after that, trying to define the reader group. TONG is a very difficult product, in that way that there are no concrete marketing channels for it. If you make a cheap brand of jeans, you know in what kind of magazines, television programs, etc. you have to market it. There are no clearly defined channels where we can market TONG. And this is confirmed by our very heterogeneous reader group: wine geeks (especially in the US and in Scandinavia), wine students, and winemakers (especially in the new world). To be honest, no wine magazine wants to write about TONG. In the end, that is a big compliment. I am still looking in what format/magazine/social media I can find a lot of our possible readers together. But so far, I have not found them.

LF: You originally come from the world of food – what sparked your self-evident passion for wine?

FV: I don’t know. In essence, I am a man of nature. I am also a beekeeper. For me, working with my bees is the same as drinking wine or preparing a wild salmon, first trying to find its identity, the structure of its flesh, and then use my skills to prepare a superb dish to do it justice. Everything where there’s an interplay between man and nature intrigues me. But not intellectually; it’s more a gut feeling.

Can you really taste the minerals from the vines’ soil in the final wine?

LF: What is it that makes wine more than fermented grapes and a means to intoxication?

FV: Like food, wine is great when it has a personality, when it talks to you. In fact, I believe in the old sacral identity of wine. It makes you more human and at the same time brings you closer to nature (although wine is not a living product!).

At the same time, wine also has a scientific identity and reality, and that is what TONG wants to focus on. Both ‘realities’ exist and can live perfectly next to each other. But in our ‘wine communication’ world, many people mix these two realities, and that is what TONG wants to react against. For example, the concepts of ‘minerality’ or ‘terroir’ are not based on scientific proof. When somebody says: “This wine is very mineral because it rained a lot during summer, so that the minerals in the soil were solved into the water and could be taken up more easily by the vines. It’s minerals you smell and taste!” – then he or she is telling bullshit. Minerals are not only present in wine in very small amounts (very much below their threshold levels), they actually don’t have a smell. The taste of a wine is developed during fermentation. The soil only has an indirect effect on the taste (via the ripeness level of the grapes).

LF: How much do the following factors contribute to a wine, and which are the most important: land, fruit, climate, people, and technology?

FV: All of them. Wine is very complex. There’s no perfect recipe. But it is very clear that wine is a highly commercial and technical product. Wines with deliberately (induced by actions of the winemaker) high levels of Brettanomyces f.e. are often seen by journalists and consumers as ‘terroir’ wines (maybe also because French wines have high levels). Brett gives more broadness to a wine, with more smoky and meaty aromas. It makes it more ‘unique’. But, in fact, it is considered (by present quality standards and the definition of wine styles) a fault in the wine, which is spoiled by bacteria – yeast in this case.

LF: What impact do you think ‘natural wine’ has had on the industry and how much will it influence the coming decades of wine-making?

FV: It will pass very quickly and, in the wine industry itself, people are laughing about it. Natural wines are made by lazy winemakers. In my view, SO2 [sulfur dioxide] is as important to wine as grapes are. These so-called ‘natural’ white wines all taste the same: oxidised and without any varietal character or freshness, while the ‘natural’ reds are all dominated by Brettanomyces.

I think this trend was very cleverly developed, though. At a time when people want their food to be ‘natural’ again, very clear and straightforward. But I do not believe these wines will survive. Also because of the trend of global warming and rising pH levels in wine, these ‘natural’ wines will be even more difficult to stabilise chemically and microbiologically.

Is natural wine just a fad, or here to stay? (Image: americanappelation.com)

LF: What other publications – wine-related or not – do you read and enjoy reading, and why?

FV: When I am not studying about wine, I like to read poetry, especially in my native language. I like the sound of my language and I love the power of words. I don’t read newspapers – a waste of time when you can watch the news. I also don’t read tasting notes. They’re only a show-off of the author, and after one day they are outdated.

I also like looking in beautifully made books, no matter what the subject is. They bring me ideas. Ideas for new projects always originate in my guts. Only after that I start thinking about them.

 

LF: Do you have plans for any other wine or food projects up your sleeves?

FV: Yes. Something completely opposite to TONG. But related to wine. I can only give you the title: “A Secret”…

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Having now read three of the issues that have been published so far, I have a few thoughts of my own.

  • I find it commendable and encouraging that a publication like TONG now exists – it provides real, practical knowledge about wine from the people who are best placed to talk about their given subject – and the motives of the publication couldn’t be more clear or transparent
  • I like the way it looks: the fonts and typesetting changes with each issue (and therefore each subject), as does the style of photography, which is always engaging and often quite beautiful
  • While I must admit that some of the knowledge goes over my head due to the fact that it can be very technical in nature, it encourages me to learn more so that I can (eventually) understand what is being said
  • Sometimes the ‘reality’ of what is being discussed is in direct opposition to trends and/or perceived collective wisdom in the industry, which is always refreshing…some acidity to balance to often over-extracted world of wine journalism

TONG Magazine is published quarterly. The current issue is #8 and its subject is oak.

A 1-year subscription costs €100, while a 2-year subscription is €175, plus shipping (which varies depending which country you live in). Back issues are available for €28 each, plus shipping.

*Note: I have no personal or commercial relationship with TONG Magazine or its publisher.*

Best Bites & Superior Sips of 2010

Quite unintentionally iconoclastic in its timing, I am publishing a list of some of the best things I ingested during 2010, now that it’s already 2011. I know, I know…forever behind the times. (The ‘unintentionally’ part – if you happen to care – is because I was stuck in Florida due to the storms in the Northeast of the US and didn’t have access to my laptop with all of my photos and notes).

I have decided against posting favorite meals in favor of the most enjoyable dishes of food and glasses (or bottles) of wine, which gives the added benefit of highlighting some excellent establishments and vintners about which, for some reason or other – call it laziness or busyness – I have yet to post a fuller review.

I have made no distinction between the type of place in which the food was served and have included a few oddballs for the fun of it. I thought maybe it might be easier to digest (pardon the pun) by dividing the list into different parts of the day. I didn’t necessarily have all of the dishes at the specified time of the day (though I mostly did), but assigned them to the mealtime that people would be most likely to consume them.

But without further adieu, Maestro, drum-roll please…

BREAKFAST

Best Eggs Benedict:
The Heathman, Portland, Oregon

Smoked Salmon Eggs Benedict at The Heathman

Well, to come clean, I didn’t actually order this, it was Mrs. LF’s dish. But she swore at the time that “this is the best eggs Benedict I’ve ever had” – no small praise indeed. I tasted it and had to concur – it was pretty darn good, as many things are at The Heathman. Not particularly exciting, but very, very good. I think even Monica, Michel Roux’s sous-chef would have been happy with the perfect hollandaise sauce. :)

Heathman on Urbanspoon

Best Waffle:
Original Pancake House, Boca Raton, Florida

Belgian Waffle with Blueberries at The Original Pancake House

Exceedingly light and perfectly crispy, these were the surprise hit of our recent pilgrimage to one of the bastions of my childhood memories. Their famous apple pancake (which is about the size of a small horse) was still largely as I remember it, but I think my taste buds have moved on a bit since I was 10 years old – it’s pictured below so you can get an idea of what it looks like.

Childhood Memories (But No Award): Apple Pancake at The Original Pancake House

It is delicious, but just a little too sweet for me nowadays. It is still a unique and memorable dish, though.

Best Non-traditional Brunch Dish:
wd~50, NYC

Everything Bagel, Smoked Salmon Threads, Crispy Cream Cheese at wd~50

Out of all of the immensely whimsical and delicious dishes on wd~50’s tasting menu when I visited with Brother LF, this was quite possibly my favorite, in no small part due to the presentation. I mean, it does look like an ‘everything’ bagel, right?…but it’s ice cream, not bread! It tasted like one of the quintessential New York breakfasts of nova, cream cheese and bagel, but in a very grown up and refined way. It was a painstakingly and lovingly created reinterpretation of a piece of Americana – in a word: wonderful. I savored each dainty bite that I took. If I would have had Heston’s Nitro-Scrambled Egg & Bacon Ice Cream from The Fat Duck in 2010, this may have beat out wd~50.

wd-50 on Urbanspoon

Best Macchiato:
Stumptown Coffee Roasters, Portland, Oregon

Macchiato at Stumptown

My favorite place for my daily coffee (when I am near one, that is). I also like Joe the Art of Coffee too, and frequent the one in Grand Central Terminal when I commute into NYC…though the West Village one is much more cozy and you can sit down.

Stumptown Coffee Roasters on Urbanspoon

Joe The Art of Coffee on Urbanspoon

Best Cappuccino:
Café Umbria, Portland, Oregon

Cappuccino at Café Umbria

Father LF swore by it, and I swore it couldn’t be good, but in the end elderly wisdom one out. The foam was perfect and the espresso excellent.

Caffe Umbria on Urbanspoon

Best Mocha:
Kaffeine, London

Sorry, no photo for this one, but Mrs. LF swore it was the best mocha she ever had, and from my wee taste, I thought the balance between sweet and bitter was pretty amazing. I love this London coffee-house too – definitely one of my favorites, and the lunch fare is good too.

Kaffeine on Urbanspoon

ELEVENSES

Best Brownie:
Paul A. Young, London

Classic Brownie from Paul A. Young

I’ve tasted a lot of brownies in my time, but this blows them all out of the water. It is at once indulgent and addictive, and it became an expensive yet highly worthwhile habit of mine (at Mrs. LF’s begging, of course) to buy copious amounts of these rich brownies whenever we (she) had a hankering for them in the few months after we discovered them and before we were leaving London behind  us. If you are in London, or if you visit, try one at Paul’s charming shop in Camden Passage in Islington. If you like brownies, there is a very comprehensive review of some of the better ones on offer in the London area on @mathildecusine‘s blog here.

Paul A Young Fine Chocolates on Urbanspoon

Best Cream Puff:
Beard Papa’s, NYC

Classic Cream Puff from Beard Papas

I had read about these oddball cream puff shops somewhere or other and before realizing that they had a location in London (which closed a few months ago), I found one on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. They do what it says on the tin, so to speak – effortlessly light puff pastry gives way to a lovely cream filling – they are also very addictive, so be careful.

Beard Papa Sweets Cafe on Urbanspoon

LUNCH

Best Sandwich:
Bunk Sandwiches, Portland, Oregon

Pork Belly Cubano at Bunk Sandwiches

This cubano sandwich consisted of pork belly, ham, Swiss cheese, mustard and pickles. Let me just say this: it was not only my best sandwich of 2010, it was the best sandwich I’ve ever had. Mrs. LF concurred. Now, maybe I don’t know all that much about sandwiches, but I know what I know. If you ever go to Portland, go to Bunk and try this if it’s on the menu (which changes daily).

Bunk Sandwiches on Urbanspoon

Best Burger (Two-Way Tie):
Shake Shack, NYC
Café of Love, Mt. Kisco, New York

Cheeseburger at Shake Shack

Now I like a good burger just as much as the next guy, but I don’t eat them all that often…or at least I didn’t until I moved back to the New York area. In any case, I tend to like the more fast-food style burgers, and I prefer my patties smashed, thank you very much. Out of the ones I had this year, my favorite had to be Shake Shack, despite how unoriginal this may be and how many moans I may get from the New York and/or East Coast burgerati. But hey, it was just really good. In fact, I couldn’t fault it in any way. Oh, and by the way, my malted peanut butter shake was off the hook too, using the parlance of our times.

Shake Shack (UWS) on Urbanspoon

Grass-fed Beef Burger with Brie, Apple Butter & Smoked Bacon at Café of Love

Having said all that, every now and again, I get the hankering for one of the constantly-evolving offerings within the ‘gourmet’ burger category at more hoity-toity restaurants. In the not-so hoity-toity but horrendously named restaurant called Café of Love near where I live in Mt. Kisco, New York, they had a burger that I just had to try based on the description. Well, it tasted even better than it sounded on this occasion. The beef itself was excellent and had been perfectly charred on the outside and was nice and pink in the middle. The combination of creamy cheese, apple butter and smoked bacon was genius and the brioche bun was the perfect vessel for this mini heart-attack sandwich. It came with its own flowerpot on the side, which contained really good thin-cut frites that were perfectly salted. I certainly wasn’t expecting it, but this was probably the best burger I had in 2010. Now, maybe they can work on their name?!

Honorable Mention: Cheeseburger at Five Guys

In this category, I would like to make an honorable mention for Five Guys. I had two burgers of theirs before the end of the year and thought they were excellent. Although you can’t specify how you would like it cooked, it comes medium, which seems to work for their burgers. They are very, very good burgers from what I could tell from the two Manhattan outposts I visited. And their fries actually taste like potatoes – no, I mean that. It took me a second to get used to them, because they were clearly from very fresh Midwestern potatoes and prepared with fresh oil: delicious. Just be careful, all you can get there are burgers, hot dogs and fries. Seriously.

This year I hope to try the Black Label burger at Minetta Tavern, The Breslin‘s lamb burger, and also visit Corner Bistro…all in NYC.

Five Guys Burgers and Fries on Urbanspoon

Best Hot Dog:
Gray’s Papaya, NYC

Hot Dog Duo at Grays Papaya

Okay, so I didn’t eat too many hot dogs, but I was resolutely shocked when these turned out to be so good. A New York institution, and in my humble opinion deservedly so, these are exceptionally good hot dogs…

Recession Special is Still On!

…especially with the ‘Recession Special’ that’s currently on – you can save $1! :)

Gray's Papaya (UWS) on Urbanspoon

Best Pizza:
Dove Vivi, Portland, Oregon

Sausage Classico Pizza from Dove Vivi

After having my first-ever cornmeal-crusted pizza from Otto in London (see review here), I was eager to try the pizzas at their alleged source of inspiration in Portland, Oregon – Oregon being my home state. We actually ordered the pizza to pick-up, although there is a nice little dining room at the restaurant too. We had two varieties, but my favorite by miles was the ‘Sausage Classico’, which was made up of mozzarella, house-made fennel sausage and tomato sauce. These are actually more like pies than pizzas, but the crust is really unique given the cornmeal content. It is light, golden and crispy, and makes for the perfect base to the hearty toppings. I am now getting a taste for this stuff – when will NYC get a similar joint?

Dove Vivi on Urbanspoon

Best Meatball:
Polpetto, London

Duck & Porcini Meatball at Polpetto

When Russell Norman opened up Polpo in London’s Soho a while back, I was a fan from my first visit. The restaurant’s first offspring, though not originally planned to be by its parent, is the tiny and charming box of a dining room called Polpetto…or as I affectionately call it, Mini-P. Anyway, it was the venue for my last fun lunch in London – and my dining companion @BigSpud wrote about it (sort of) here. We mostly had cicchetti and my favorite of the bunch was this stunning meatball, in all its unadorned glory. Deep, rich duck and punchy porcinis mushroom with a robust sauce made this stand out as much in my mind as it did against its little stark white plate.

Polpetto on Urbanspoon

Best Risotto:
Gauthier Soho, London

Wild Garlic Risotto, Chicken Jus Reduction, Mousseron Mushrooms, Parmesan Tuille at Gauthier Soho

Okay, so it’s a French restaurant, but it’s risotto, so hey.

As I said in my preview of Alexis Gauthier’s new restaurant: “Alexis’ risottos were always a big strength at Roussillon, and this was no exception as his new Soho townhouse. The petite mousseron mushrooms worked well; they had quite a fleshy texture and were sort of like a really juicy piece of meat. The risotto itself was textbook – perfectly creamy, with the rice having just the right amount of bite left in it. The reduced chicken jus had a deep and rich flavor, which held the interest on the palate, and the razor-thin parmesan tuille added a nice contrast of sharpness and crunchiness. A really lovely dish.”

Honorable mention must go to an excellent seafood risotto I had at Fifteen Trattoria. You can read more about that here and there is a photo below.

Honorable Mention: Risotto Ai Frutti di Mare’ with Samphire, Chilli, White Wine, Garlic & Bottarga di Muggine at Fifteen Trattoria

Best Terrine:
The Bar Room at The Modern, NYC

Warm Lamb & Goats Cheese Terrine at The Modern

This dish wasn’t mine, but I got a few bites anyway. Besides its rather arresting beauty on the plate, it also tasted d*mn good. The richness of the lamb was cut through by the tangy goats cheese and the toasted pistachios added not only a note of sweetness and a pinch of saltiness, but also a chewy texture which rounded out the dish. The watercress provided a fresh and peppery contrast. It was original – to my mind – and superb.

The Modern on Urbanspoon

Best Steak Tartare:
Terroirs, London

Steak Tartare at Terroirs

Despite some odd sightings of fresh produce by @DouglasBlyde (see here), Terroirs is a haunt of mine, simply because they have consistently delivered me good and unfussy food that is well executed, plus they have a fantastic array of natural wines, many of which have proven to be very good. Anyway, on my last London meal of 2010 with my good Welsh friend, we ordered the steak tartare. The waiter said to order it spicy, so we complied. Thank god we did. It was one of the best versions of this bistrot classic I’ve had. We were both mesmerized. If it’s on the menu, order it.

Terroirs on Urbanspoon

AFTERNOON TEA

Best Afternoon Tea:
Hidden Tea Room, London

Ambience & Cupcakes at The Hidden Tea Room

If you live in London and haven’t been to the Hidden Tea Room, do yourself a favor and book it. Aside from having the best and freshest baked goods you are likely to get at an afternoon tea in London, it is also a lovely underground restaurant experience. There is a rectangular table with jovial strangers who obviously share at least one interest with you (food…or tea, I guess); or if you are particularly delicate in nature, you can go with your friends. In any case, Lady Gray’s scones and cupcakes are excellent and Mrs. LF and I popped our underground restaurant cherry here – so it will always hold a fond memory for us. Oh yeah, and there is an excellent assortment of fresh, diverse and exotic teas.

Other excellent afternoon teas we had in 2010 were had at The Wolseley (somewhat surprisingly), Browns Hotel and Bob Bob Ricard.

DINNER

Best Amuse Bouche:
Aldea, NYC

Kusshi Oysters & Lobster Gazpacho at Aldea

The kick-off to my first meal at George Mendes’ Aldea was as beautiful as it was flavorful. I savoured that rich bisque for as long as I could and soaked up even more of the sea with my oyster. It was an extraordinary beginning to a very good meal. You can see and read more photos of our meal here. I was also happy to see that the team picked up its first Michelin star this year.

Aldea on Urbanspoon

Best Tart:
The Sportsman, Seasalter, UK

New Season Asparagus Tart at The Sportsman

Pretty much everything we had at The Sportsman was excellent, but this was the bite that stood out in my memory as the best of 2010. Full stop.

As I said in my review earlier in the year: “This was basically spring arriving on a plate. It was one of the best and most memorable bites of food I’ve had in the last year. The pastry was spot-on, and the texture, temperature and combination of flavors was exemplary. Asparagus, spring onion, red onion cheese, shredded lettuce – it all came together in the best way possible.” It received a very rare 10 out of 10, and deservedly so.

Best Soup:
Arbutus, London

Curly Kale & Potato Soup at Arbutus

After this enjoyable meal with the London Food Detective, I remarked: “I was quite impressed when my soup was brought out: it was a good portion size and it looked very hearty and appetizing. The soup possessed a lovely soft texture, and the flavor of the fine olive oil that had been used in the broth came through subtly. It also surprisingly had a pleasant, gentle heat which sat in the background of my mouth as I ate it. The dollop of yogurt worked nicely, both subduing the slight spiciness and also serving a textural and temperature purpose that added a slight creaminess and also a touch of coolness to the dish. It was a very memorable soup and I really enjoyed every spoonful.”

Most Creative Use of a Bean in Supporting Role:
Viajante, London

Roasted Broad Bean at Viajante

This was one of the more interesting presentations of a plate (or in fact, slate) of food this year. In my review of the meal, I wrote:

“A roasted broad bean was presented on a small square black slab of slate. Inside the beautifully presented specimen lurked a cream of the peeled beans themselves, which was pierced by three square shards of São Jorge cheese with a thin snake-like link of pea shoots residing on top. On the side, there was a dusting of toasted brioche crumbs. It was a beautiful and dainty looking dish and it tasted very good. The peas themselves were just slightly seasoned, allowing their delicate natural flavor to shine, and they had a lovely soft texture. The cheese brought a nice sharpness to the dish, and I ate it with some of the crumbs which added a pleasant crunchiness. This was a very good second amuse, and further illustrated the inventiveness of the kitchen.”

Best Dish Incorporating Goose Eggs & Soldiers (of Toast):
Launceston Place, London

Poached Goose Egg, Somerset Truffle Risotto at Launceston Place

Firstly, apologies for the especially poor photo, but this was taken with my old, archaic and generally not so useful camera. Right at the beginning of 2010, this was nonetheless one of the best dishes I had for sure. My thoughts at the time, which haven’t changed, were: “It was cleverly conceived in terms of the flavors and stylish presentation. Hidden beneath a topping of black Somerset truffles (English truffles…I am learning something new every day) was an unctuous, rich and delicious risotto that was perfect in pretty much every way. I was surprised at how pungent the truffles were and the strong depth of flavor they possessed (I thought English truffles would have been much lighter than their Continental counterparts), and the addition of little toast soldiers was a cute nod to a British breakfast tradition of soft-boiled eggs (the French call it oeuf à la coque).” This was a 10 out of 10 all the way.

Best Vegetarian Dish:
Mathias Dahlgren (Matbaren), Stockholm

Baked Farm Egg from Sanda Farm, Forest Mushrooms, Garlic, Parsley, New Potatoes at Matbaren

I loved my meal at Mathias Dahlgren’s Matbaren and this was the stand-out dish for me of the evening.

As I wrote in my post about the meal: “…for me, it was really all about the mushrooms. They had such a deep, rich flavor and were some of the better ones I can remember tasting. Again, I felt the dish was perfectly balanced, with the soft and creamy new potatoes lending a fairly mellow base (with their crispy counterparts in ‘chip’ format providing both saltiness and crunch), and the garlic and parsley both coming through just enough. I detected the presence of a rich, buttery and unique oil, which I enquired about, and proved to be a bit of a revelation…but more on that later. Oh yes, the egg! You can see below a diagram of why it’s called a 63° egg as illustrated on the menu, and yes, it was very good, yielding a creamy yellow yolk, which added the final textural component to this superb dish. It didn’t look or sound like much, but it sure made up for that in taste!”

Best Scallop Dish:
Morgan M., London

Seared Diver-Caught Scallops, Poêlée of Cèpes, Glazed Pumpkin & Nut Biscuit, Butternut Coullis at Morgan M.

You may recall me saying something along the lines of…“This strikingly presented pair of trios was a wonderful beginning to the meal proper, no? Each scallop had been delicately handled and perfectly seared, revealing a fragrant sweetness that was enhanced by the succulent carrots and the crunchy biscuit below, which provided a good crunch in contrast to the fleshy feel of scallop and carrot. The cèpes themselves were excellent – intense, meaty, not at all overcooked – and might just have been the best thing on the plate. I personally didn’t think the butternut squash coulis added that much to the mushrooms (or the scallops for that matter), but it did create certain visual flair in the plating of the dish and represented autumn strikingly well on the plate.”

Best Raw Seafood Dish:
Sushi of Shiori, London

Raw Scallops with Secret Truffle Paste at Sushi of Shiori

Another memorable London meal took place at Sushi of Shiori, a sushi restaurant that accumulated a scale of press disproportionate to its own modest size (it seats about 12 at most). I dined with @LondonEater (see his reviews here and here), and thoroughly enjoyed the food and the company – my mini-review and photos are here. Aside from having the pre-ordered omakase, we ordered an extra course of truffled scallops. I remember exclaiming that this was an actual explosion of flavor in the mouth (so many times, people just use that term half-heartedly). I don’t know what the chef does to his secret paste, but the tiny amount dotting surface of the raw scallops really does explode in your mouth and somehow complements the sweetness of the scallops perfectly. I loved this, and it is quite affordable at about £2 a pop.

Sushi of Shiori on Urbanspoon

Best Chicken Dish:
wd~50, NY

Cold Fried Chicken, Buttermilk-ricotta, Tabasco, Caviar at wd~50

Okay, so nearly everything I had on the wd~50 tasting menu was pleasurably challenging for my senses – both visually and in terms of taste, texture and temperature – but this dish stood out in particular. This dish brought back so many memories of good fried chicken. It was served slightly cool and was absolutely delicious. My favorite part of it was the heat – those little dollops of orange sauce packed some serious power, and this enlivened the whole dish. Playing off against this was the creaminess of the buttermilk-ricotta cloud, which helped manage the spiciness. But the touch of genius here was the caviar, which added an extra element of saltiness on top of the chicken, cream and Tabasco. It was superb.

Best Duck Dish:
Eleven Madison Park, NYC

Lavender Glazed Duck at Eleven Madison Park

I don’t think anyone would be able to question Chef Humm’s ability to cook a whole bird. The even browning of the skin, its crispiness and the juiciness of the duck were outstanding. The lavender glaze gave it an intriguing and subtle flavor, with peaches and other hidden joys dancing around on my palate. While not quite as exceptional as the Canard de Challans a l’Hibiscus I had at l’Arpège last year – which is to date the best duck dish I’ve ever tasted – this was still pretty fantastic. It was an interesting and not unwelcomed contrast to some of the more modern elements during my first meal at the excellent Eleven Madison Park.

Eleven Madison Park on Urbanspoon

Best Dish Incorporating Frozen Foie Gras:
momofuku ko, NYC

But of course there is no photo due to the restaurant’s no-snapping policy – sorry, but don’t snap at me. The following description will be in my forthcoming review of ko, where I dined with @catty.

Shaved Foie Gras, Lychees, Pine Nut Brittle, Riesling Gélee

This was certainly one of the top dishes of the evening, and I guess it is one of the classic dishes at ko. When I got up the gumption to ask how they made the cool shavings, the chef matter-of-factly said: “We freeze a terrine and the grate it.” Basically, you should have known that, it’s so obvious. Well, I didn’t know 100%, but was glad for the confirmation. Anyway, the foie was shaved like grated cheese over the other components. The sweetness of the lychees and the sweet-yet-tart Riesling Jell-O worked miraculously well with the foie shavings, which melted when they ware placed in your mouth and became a deliciously gooey texture. It was rich yet light at the same time (therein lay the brilliance) and, to me, it tasted more like seared foie gras than a terrine once it had melted in the mouth…maybe due to the texture. The pine nut brittle was OTT too, and everything was complementary. I noted that they had also salted the dish well, which is important to bring out the flavor of foie gras properly. This was a really fun and great dish to eat.

I also immensely enjoyed one of our two foie gras dishes at wd~50, but I couldn’t give Chef Dufresne another award, so he gets an honorable mention. There is, however, a half-decent photo below and a full description here. (And yes, I know it’s not frozen in the process, but hey…).

Honorable Mention: Aerated Foie, Pickled Beet, Mashad Plum, Brioche at wd~50

Best Desserts (Three-Way Tie):
The Loft Project with Samuel Miller from noma, London
Fifteen Trattoria, London
Eastside Inn, London

Malt Parfait, Seabuckthorn & Freeze-dried Strawberry at The Loft Project

This was the most memorable dessert for me of the year. Although not particularly complicated in conception, the fresh combination of flavors was nonetheless dazzling.

Here’s what I said in my review of the amazing evening: “A dark brown rectangular log of malt parfait was dressed with freeze-dried strawberry crystals and micro herbs, with a side smear of havtorn purée (yellow-orange Scandinavian berries, which I believe are also called Seabuckthorn). The parfait itself was so intensely malty it almost had a charred or burnt flavor about it – much different from the sickly sweet ‘malt’ flavors to which most people from the UK or US would be accustomed. But there was a slight underlying sweetness that kept it balanced.  The sweet, acidic and sharp notes of the English mustard colored purée perfectly offset the rich and slightly bitter intensity of the malt, with the dry strawberry granules adding crunch and further bittersweet fruit to the mix. It all worked together perfectly and it was one of the best desserts I’ve had in recent memory.”

Vanilla Pannacotta, Raspberries & Homemade Biscotto at Fifteen Trattoria

Not too long ago I had a simple dessert that the kitchen knocked out of the park, as we say in America. It was the best pannacotta I can remember having and got the fabled 10 out of 10.

In case you didn’t read it, and care to, here’s what I said: “The quality of the pannacotta itself was just mental. It was so creamy, so full of delicate vanilla flavor, and so delightfully wobbly while at the same time retaining its form when shaken or portioned up on our plates. It was the best example of the dessert I can recall. I would have been perfectly happy having that by itself on a drip for a few hours, but it was very well paired with some surprisingly sweet raspberries (not the ‘raspberry compote’ that the menu advertised, by the way) – my hunch is that they were from Secretts, but I didn’t ask – and a really wonderful homemade pistachio-laced biscotto (not the biscotti that were promised on menu). In short, Italian food heaven on a plate.”

Araguani Chocolate & Tonka Bean Ice Cream at Eastside Inn

Unfortunately, I never got to properly review the ‘bistrot’ side of Bjorn Van der Horst’s Eastside Inn before it sadly closed towards the end of 2010. However, I vividly remember the intensity of chocolate that was perfectly paired with a memorable tonka bean ice cream. As always with Bjorn’s food, it was also stunning to look at.

Weirdest Dessert:
(Note: that doesn’t mean it was bad!)
Il Baretto, London

Fried Aubergine, White & Dark Chocolate, Pistachio, Red Berries at Il Baretto

When I had some time to digest the experience (and the dessert), I reflected: “It sounded so strange, we just had to try it. Yes, if you read the caption for the above photo, than you heard it correctly folks, it was an aubergine (eggplant) based dessert! It was certainly very pretty, at least in my estimation. Three discs of fried aubergine had been layered with white chocolate cream between them, and on the very bottom lay a hidden dark chocolate base. Leaning against this delicately balanced brown and white striped trunk was a branch of tart red berries. The whole thing was dusted with pistachio crumbs finished off with a dash of powdered sugar.

At first bite, the taste of aubergine was too prominent for my liking; however, when portioned up with an adequate amount of the white (and darker) chocolate and a berry or two, I could understand the rationale of its creator…it was actually strangely very good. In fact, I found myself liking it more and more and then suddenly, as fast as it had appeared (okay, it didn’t appear *that* fast), it ‘twas gone. I ended up really liking it, and bonus points for using an ingredient I would NEVER associate with dessert.”

LUSCIOUS LIBATIONS

Favorite Gin:
Sacred Spirits, UK

Favorite Vodka:
Chase Distillery, UK

Favorite Martini:
Dukes Bar, London

Martini at Dukes Bar

If you follow this blog, you will know my hands-down favorite martini is at Dukes Bar in London (see here and here), when it is served by the ever-affable and supremely knowledgeable Alessandro Palazzi.

Favorite Restaurant to Order Wine:
Bob Bob Ricard, London

A Glass of Pol Roger Brut Reserve at Bob Bob Ricard

Not only do Leonid and Richard have the now ‘soooo 2010’ Champagne buttons at the booth-seating-only tables at this fabulously individual creation, which could have only resulted from the marriage of Russian and English (business) partners, they also have the lowest mark-ups I’ve come across of some really excellent fine wine. This means you can (better) afford to indulge yourself in a special bottle or glass of wine when going out on the town. And the food is generally very good across the board too. For a peek at their current wine list, click here.

FYI, @gourmetraveller also has an excellent BYO guide for London restaurants here.

Bob Bob Ricard on Urbanspoon

Favorite and/or Most Memorable Wines:

This list is from across the board…glasses and bottles I remember that I particularly enjoyed and/or found memorable. I have probably missed some out, but I hope not. They are listed chronologically and then alphabetically within each vintage.

Sparkling

  • 1999 Pol Roger Blanc de Blanc
  • 2004 Duval-Leroy Champagne Blanc de Chardonnay, Brut
  • NV Charles Heidsieck Champagne, Brut Réserve
  • NV Henriot, Brut Souverain
  • NV Sainsbury’s Blanc de Noir
  • NV Thiénot, Brut
  • NV Vincent Laroppe, Cuvée Alfred Laropp

White

  • 1992 Haut-Brion Blanc
  • 2001 & 2009 Soula Blanc, Vin de Pays des Côtes Catalanes
  • 2004 Lafon Meursault
  • 2005 Huët Vouvray Sec, Le Mont
  • 2005 Les Plantiers de Haut-Brion
  • 2006 Domaine Leflaive Bourgogne Blanc
  • 2006 Domaine Sylvain Loichet, Ladoix
  • 2006 McHenry Hohnen, 3 Amigos
  • 2007 Casa Lapostolle Chardonnay, Cuvée Alexandre
  • 2007 d’Arenberg, The Hermit Crab
  • 2007 Domaine Gauby Blanc
  • 2007 E. Guigal Condrieu
  • 2007 Felton Road Chardonnay, Block 2
  • 2007 Olivier Leflaive Bourgogne Blanc, Les Sétilles
  • 2007 Sauvignon Blanc, Quarz, Terlano
  • 2008 Benmarl Riesling
  • 2008 Beringer Chardonnay, Private Reserve
  • 2008 Domaine William Fevre Chablis, Champs Royaux
  • 2008 Trimbach Riesling, Reserve
  • 2009 Adair Cayuga White
  • 2009 Arietta “On the White Keys” (Semillon)

Red

  • 1964 Haut-Brion
  • 1985 Haut-Brion
  • 1990 La Mission Haut-Brion
  • 1998 Bahans Haut-Brion
  • 1998 Château Haut-Bailly
  • 1998 Château Pichon-Longuevile Baron
  • 1998 Château Lafite-Rothschild
  • 1998 Poliziano Le Stanze
  • 2000 Château Vieux Chevrol
  • 2001 Château Musar
  • 2001 Château Palmer
  • 2001 Château Pavie
  • 2001 La Chapelle de la Mission Haut-Brion
  • 2005 Montes Carménère, Purple Angel
  • 2006 Domaine La Tourmente, Syrah, Chamoson
  • 2006 Herdade do Arrepiado Velho, Arrepiado
  • 2006 Neyen Syrah, Limited Edition
  • 2007 Ridge Lytton Springs
  • 2007 The Sum, Seventy Five Wine Company, Cabernet Sauvignon
  • 2008 A to Z Wineworks Pinot Noir
  • 2008 Domaine Gramenon, Côtes du Rhône, Sierra du Sud
  • 2008 Monty Waldin Vin de Pays des Côtes Catalanes
  • 2008 Mullineux Syrah, Swartland
  • 2008 Ponzi Vineyards Pinot Noir, Tavola

Sweet

  • 1999 Château Coutet
  • 2003 Château Rieussec
  • 2006 Inniskillin Vidal Icewine, Gold Reserve
  • 2006 Leduc-Piedimonte, Ice Cider
  • 2007 Ben Ryé Passito di Pantelleria, Donnafugata

In the coming year, I am aiming to develop a better understand of grower-producer Champagnes (i.e. ones that are terroir driven by the people who grow the grapes), deepen my cursory knowledge of some major European wine countries – namely Italy, Spain and Germany – and, of course, get a better handle on the domestic North American wine scene…as well as becoming more familiar with countries such as Chile and Argentina in South America.

#   #   #

So that is the end to a wonderful year of food, wine and friendship shared over the two. Here’s hoping 2011 will be even more exciting and enjoyable. I look forward to sharing with you what I can from the shores of America – or wherever else I may be lucky enough to travel – with an exciting review coming up very soon.

Thanks for putting up with me, and a very Happy New Year.

All the best for 2011!

McGuigan Goes Walkabout to Roussillon

A criminally good idea

The Aussies vs. The French

There are some invitations Laissez Fare does not turn down. After briefly meeting Chris Mitchell, one of the head honchos at Cube Communications (a boutique PR firm focusing on the wine trade) at the recent Blaggers’ Banquet, I somehow found myself getting an invite to one such event. A no-show was not an option.

The innovative and maybe somewhat ambitious plan was to pair the wines of one of Australia’s hottest wine producers with the light and refined French cuisine of Alexis Gauthier, who is head chef at the 1 Michelin star Roussillon, which is set on a quiet residential street in London’s Pimlico. The premise? Could Australian wines – which for so long have unfortunately been thought of as ‘sun in a bottle’ by many consumers, despite fairly radical revolutions in recent times at many of Australia’s wineries – blend in with the elegance and subtleness of Mr. Gauthier’s cuisine. Would they overpower and clash, or would they meld just as easily as French wine would? Even if they didn’t, I was much looking forward to a second visit to Roussillon, which was one of the first restaurants I reviewed on this blog, and which Mrs. LF and I enjoyed very much.

Shortly after arriving, we were appropriately plied with drink. All of McGuigan’s entry-level wines (which have a gray label in the UK) were on offer. As I tasted through them, I was introduced to Neil McGuigan, who is an MD at the company and oversees viticulture and winemaking at the eponymous firm. He is a very down to earth and affable fellow, and his love for humor becomes apparent quite quickly. One of the little anecdotes he told me, of which there were many, was the fact that his great-great grandfather had been deported from the UK to Australia for being a criminal. You see, he had stolen some wine from a nobleman, and Neil explained that his family had been trying to pay the world back for his ancestor’s transgressions ever since. Tuh-dum (drum roll please). It was hard to believe this laid-back dude was the at the helm of such a big winemaker, which is now one of the top-10 brands of Australian wine in the UK.

Neil gets serious...just for a minute

I was even more surprised when Chris asked Neil to give a little introductory speech, which while still peppered with his own brand of comedy, was also very eloquent, informative and to the point.

But we had rambled enough and it was time for the main event.

By the way, most of the wines from the classic range were quite pleasant and quaffable, and I remember particularly liking the Sauvignon Blanc, the Chardonnay (which had ripe apple and not too much oak), and the Pinot Grigio (which I found to be less fruity than Italian versions I’m familiar with, and which oddly seemed to have the aroma of petrol I normally associate with Riesling).

Some ‘pretty good piss’

So into Roussillon’s downstairs private dining room we went…

The table was set...as were our places...

...and the chef was explaining his special menu...

Alexis came in to go through the menu in detail and explain how, in theory, the wine should complement the food and vice versa. I was quite excited to taste what was on offer, especially after having recently seen chef Gauthier on Masterchef: The Professionals, where Marianne Lumb and viewers of the programme discovered his disdain for timers – indeed, he decides when things are cooked to the desired specification purely by touch and feel. I just hoped my lamb wouldn’t be totally raw!

I was also eager to taste the higher-end wines form McGuigan. Earlier on, as I tried to explain my struggle to better explain verbally how wines tasted to me, Neil had said that when he really enjoys a wine, he just says it’s “some pretty good piss.” Although it was a light-hearted joke, I did take what I gathered to be his point: that you should just enjoy really good wine, and not worry too much about trying to make sure you can describe it in exact detail. I just hoped that his top-end wines wouldn’t taste like, erm…

The basket of bread was full to the brim – woohoo!

While waiting for the first course to arrive, I hunkered down on one of the lovely little baguettes on offer, which was accompanied by some high quality French beurre.

Lobster & Purple Basil: Light Lobster Bisque Infused with Purple Basil with Scallops & Confit Tomato Tortellini – Paired with 2004 Earth’s Portrait Riesling

I enjoyed the lobster bisque, which was rich while remaining fairly light, and I did note that the purple basil was present but much milder than its green cousin, and that it worked well with the seafood flavors. I loved the two little tortellini in the center, too. I found that the Riesling’s acidity cut through the creaminess of the bisque rather well but, for me, the pairing didn’t set the world on fire. I didn’t feel that the wine either added to or detracted from the dish. Maybe being fairly new to Riesling myself, I just don’t ‘get it’ yet, but the wine wasn’t one I would probably go back to.

Wild Sea Bass & Razor Clams: Grilled Cut of Wild Sea Bass, Steamed Razor Clams with Szechuan Pepper & Lightly Spiced Fish Velouté – Paired with 2003 Bin 9000 Semillon

The next combination worked much better for my palate. The sea bass itself had been delicately cooked, and had a lovely soft firmness. I am a sucker for razor clams and felt that they worked well here. Looking at the description of the dish, I don’t now recall the pepper and spice that is alluded to, but I did like the dish overall, even though it didn’t really pack a punch. Peter Hall, the winemaker, was on hand to describe his Semillon himself. He explained that Hunter Valley Semillon is “one of the most distinct wines from Australia,” and that it is a lighter, finer style with usually about 9.5% – 10.5% ABV. Apparently, they have ‘Semillon & Seafood’ days locally, as the taste of the sea goes so well with this grape variety. I generally agreed with him in this case. The wine exhibited strong citrus and lime and had a wonderful structure. It didn’t dominate and seemed perfectly happy to swish along with the fish in my mouth. Peter mentioned that it was still “a little ways off yet”, and that its full toastiness and golden color were not quite showing through yet. I would certainly be happy to sample some more of that wine in a few years’ time.

Milk Fed Lamb & Thyme: Pyrenean Milk Fed Lamb Rubbed with Thyme, with Parmesan & Swiss Chard Gratin & Thyme Infused Lamb Jus – Paired with 2008 Shortlist Cabernet Sauvignon

The third course was highly enjoyable. The milk fed lamb was stupidly soft and had a mild and fine flavor which was subtly accented by the thyme. I was a little worried that a Cabernet Sauvignon might overpower a dish of such finesse, but I was wrong. The wine itself was very young (being a 2008), and my notes indicate that there was blackcurrant on the palate, that the wine was thick but not tannic (quite soft), that it was fairly jammy and fruit forward, and that there was a touch of spice present. The flavor of the wine actually went pretty well with the dish, especially the rich lamb jus. Neil pointed out that McGuigan was making a big push to give varietal definition to its range, especially at premium price points. He added that this wine was, after all, “only a baby” and that it had a “terrific future,” with the “oak being subservient to the fruit.” I agreed and think this will make a fantastic wine at its peak.

Blue d’Auvergne & Madeira: Feuillette of Blue Cheese, Madeira Reduction Jus, with Wild Rocket & Red Chard Salad – Paired with 2008 Handmade Shiraz

I don’t think I quite ‘got’ the last savory course. To me it seemed to be a nice, crispy puff pastry that was meant to have cheese inside, but that about 90% of that cheese had been sucked out prior to serving, leaving only the aroma and a few remnants of that blue from Auvergne. Possibly like so many other things, its subtly had passed me by. In any case, the Shiraz was a winner. It had a deep purple hue; it was voluptuous, rich, supple, and not overly tannic or oaky. This was not an aggressive Syrah from the Northern Rhone, it was a classically velvety red that had gentle spice and is bound to age well. I personally didn’t understand the pairing here, although chef Gautier said that the sweetness of the Madeira reduction should have gone well with the Shiraz flavors (black fruits)…

Quince & Yogurt: Quince & Sultana Parfait, Honey & Yogurt Sorbet – Paired with 2005 Personal Reserve Botrytis Semillon

But I soon forgot my little quandary when this little slice of heaven arrived, paired with some rather divine golden nectar from down under. ‘Tis the season to be jolly, and ‘tis also the season for that elusive yellow fruit called quince. This parfait was indeed parfait. It was gently cooled, firm, soft and full of that unique quince flavor, which had the softest touch of sultana essence infused throughout. The sorbet was creamy, dreamy and retained that tartness of yogurt which beautifully balanced the sweetness of the parfait. But the real discovery was how well the sesame tuile combined with the sweet wine – bloody brilliant. I really loved this dessert wine, which is made in the Sauterne style, and was much finer than other may Australian sweeties I’ve tasted. Peter said that it was not common for botrytis to develop in the Hunter Valley, and that they only made in a “hit and miss” fashion. Most recently, they have produced it in 2005, 2008 and 2009. If I remember correctly, I don’t think you can yet buy this in the UK, so there’s probably not too much point in rambling on about how much I liked it anymore :)

At the end of the rather extended luncheon, chef Gauthier re-emerged to share a celebratory glass with Neil, which was a fitting end to a great 3-hour partnership between the Aussies and the French.

The two creators smile & celebrate a job well done

I came away from the meal with a greater appreciation of McGuigan’s wines, which I had hencetoforth only tasted in their entry-level form. Neil explained over lunch that they were striving to innovate, modernize and drive their higher-end wines to become really special, and that this would have positive ramifications for their wines at every price point. I certainly did get the feeling that these guys care very much about making excellent wines and also liked the fact that they seem to have a great time doing it.

Their success has not gone unnoticed either, as Neil himself was recently awarded White Winemaker of the Year at the International Wine Challenge and McGuigan Wines was a few weeks ago crowned Winemaker of the Year and Australian Producer of the Year at the International Wine & Spirits Competition.

What else can I say but “Good-on-yah mayte” in my best Australian accent?

* * *

Many thanks to Chris and the Cube Communications for organizing the meal.

If you’re interested in eating at Roussillon, they have a number of good value deals, including a 3-course price-fixe lunch menu which includes ½ a bottle of wine for £35/person. All contact details and menus can be found on their website.

McGuigan Wines are broadly available at Majestic, Tesco and many other supermarkets and wine merchants nationwide.

Roussillon on Urbanspoon

An Indian Summer & Autumnal Eating in the Heart of Italy

An abbreviated version of this article was recently published on CheapOair’s Travel Blog.

My wife and I recently took a short break to Umbria, the green heart of Italy, to visit my parents who are in the process of finally realizing their little Italian dream. About three years ago, they purchased a rather remote piece of land in the rolling hills of Umbria just north of the largest lake on mainland Italy, Lago Trasimeno, and are now in the last stages of completing their home on the site which was previously home to just a few scattered ruins.

Note: you can click on any of the photos for higher-resolution images.

Ryanair's Window in the Sky

En route to Bella Italia

The closest airport to the property is the tiny one located just outside of Perugia (San Egidio), the largest city of the area. It is only a 2-hour direct flight from our hometown of London via Ryanair, the Marmite of airlines (i.e. you either love it or hate it, although most people probably fall in the latter category), making it very convenient for a quick trip.

the italian project

The Italian Project – ‘Under Construction’

As the property is not yet habitable, we stayed for five nights in the charming hill town of Montone which, although just off the E45 motorway, is not visible from the road and therefore less visited by tourists. The small village is well worth a diversion, if only for an hour or two. Our base was the lovely and very affordable Hotel Fortebraccio, a newly constructed hotel with well designed modern and functional rooms (we stayed for €80/night).

balcony of our room at hotel fortebraccio

The morning view from our large private terrace to the hills behind Montone at Hotel Fortebraccio

palo's window to the world

The view of Montone from our architect’s offices

As my parents were busy making final selections on furniture and paint colors during the weekdays, we were able to slip away and take a few day trips. We were very lucky as the weather was unseasonably warm during the days, with pleasant breezes in the evenings, enabling us to make the most of our time in Italy.

Tuscany, Part I: Volterra & San Gimignano

 

On the first day, we drove into central Tuscany to see the pristine hill town of Volterra and the nearby walled medieval commune of San Gimignano with its fabled collection of ancient towers. I had been to both places about 15 years ago and was eager to see if they would live up to my fond memories. While they are both prime tourist haunts, both are certainly worth a visit, and we especially enjoyed our time in San Gimignano, with its wide variety of shops, architecture and (most importantly) some very good gelato!

can you get more italian than this?

Can you get more Italian than this?! A new maroon Fiat 500 on the outskirts of Volterra

some towers in san gimignano

A few of the many towers in San Gimignano

being hung out to dry

Some laundry hanging on the back streets of San Gimignano – a common scene throughout Italy

pluripremiata gelato - the best in tuscany? maybe...

Pluripremiata Gelarteria in the central piazza of San Gimignano – apparently some of the best you can get in the world! It certainly lived up to my memories from 15 years ago...

coffee & chocolate were meant to together, right?

The coffee was particularly amazing, and the texture of the gelato was a perfect smoothness

Tuscany Part II: Montalcino & Castello Banfi

 

Our second day trip took us to the town of Montalcino, which is about a 1.5 hour drive from Montone. The town is perched atop a hill that is most famous for its native Sangiovese grapes, as these are what the ever popular Italian cult wine of Brunello di Montalcino are made from.

church bells ringing in montalcino

One of the churches in Montalcino

pedestrian street in montalcino

A steep pedestrian street in Montalcino

streetscape in montalcino

A typical scene from Montalcino

Montalcino is yet another beautiful little village, but we didn’t have that much time to spend in the town itself as we had a reservation for lunch at Castello Banfi, one of the best-known (and the largest) producer of Brunello di Montalcino. We believed it was just outside the town, according to some rough maps we had to hand…

After attempting to use my blackberry’s GPS to navigate our way to the winery (which took us, and our little Mini rental car, down an extremely steep and narrow dirt road that lead to the middle of nowhere), then losing my rag when I realized (and finally admitted!) that we were very lost, and finally having my wife not talk to me for a what seemed like forever, we eventually made it to the castle about 45 minutes past our reservation time :). If you ever go there, please be warned that Banfi is a good half-hour drive from Montalcino!

Luckily, their Taverna Restaurant was still serving lunch and our table had not been taken. The food was quite simple for such a formal room, and generally looked better than it tasted. It was okay, but we had much better meals elsewhere for less money (see the end of this post for more details).  That said, the free tour of the winery, which took place directly after lunch, was truly fascinating and entertaining, and we greatly enjoyed our visit overall.

taverna dining room at castello banfi

The Taverna dining room at Castello Banfi

 

 

banfi olive oil at taverna dining room

Aside from making wine, Banfi also produces its own olive oil

fusilli with chianina beef

Homemade Fusilli with Chianina Beef IGP Ragoût

roast pork loin

Roast Pork Loin with Rosemary Flavored Potatoes

pear & chocolate tart

Pear & Chocolate Tart

selection of tuscan pecorino

Selection of Tuscan Pecorino with Montalcino Honey & Pine Nuts

castello banfi wines at taverna dining room

The meal was naturally paired with wines from the estate, of which the <2004 Castello Banfi Brunello di Montalcino> (right) was by far the best, and one of the best I’ve had from this very good vintage for Brunellos

banfi guest pass

My guest pass for the winery tour

grappa is made from the dregs that don't make the cut (so to speak)

The remains of the day – they actually make Grappa (the popular Italian digestif) from the bits of the grapes that don’t make it through to wine production

new modern vats for white wine at banfi

Recently purchased gargantuan modern vats for fermenting the white wines

roll ‘em on out...

Roll ‘em on out...

the cellars at banfi - split over two levels

The cellars at Banfi are truly cavernous and take up two subterranean levels, with the smaller barrels located on the higher of the underground levels, and the larger barriques located further below

finest french oak and gamba italian barrels (the best)

They use only the finest French oak and the best barrel maker in Italy (Gamba)

cool light fixture down in the cellar at banfi

A very cool light fixture down below...and, before we leave the tour, did you know that Banfi produces 20% of all Brunello di Montalcino and a grand total of 10 million bottles per year when including all of their wines together?

Umbria: Deruta, Perugia & Assisi

 

The bulk of our remaining time was spent in and around Umbria with my family. I have to say that while Umbria may not be nearly as well-known or as well touristed as its more famous cousin Tuscany, whose central eastern border it shares, it certainly does have a lot to offer, and is often less full of foreigners and less costly than similar places in Tuscany.

The town of Deruta lies directly south of Montone down the E45. It is world-famous for its traditional, handmade ceramics industry, with a large percentage of most studios’ pieces being sold in the Unites States and other international markets. We were there to check out some potential designs for the dishes in our future Italian retreat (see below for some examples) and also meandered into the older part of the town which lies above the rows of ceramic shops that line the commercial streets below.

ceramics makers in deruta workshop

Some of the ceramic artists at work in Maioliche Originali Deruta (MOD), one of the better known ceramics houses

before the ovens...

Before the ovens...

traditional ceramic plates from deruta

...and after glazing, the final products

which way to the center of town?!

Heading into the old town...classic! Now which was it to the city center, again? Only in Italy :)

ceramics on the facades of old buildings in deruta's old town

The center of Deruta is small but cute, and there are clues to the town’s ceramic heritage, with beautiful old ceramic designs integrated into the facades of many buildings

We found a great little restaurant down a side street in the old town, which looked promising, and indeed had very good food. Unfortunately, I can’t for the life of me remember the name now, and can’t find it on the internet either – sorry!

prosciutto with melon

Prosciutto with Melon (all dishes were served on beautiful modern Donitiani plates, which were atypical of the designs we saw elsewhere)

spaghetti with butter & truffles

Spaghetti with Butter & Truffles

chianina beef with balsamic

Chianina Beef with Balsamic

brunello di montalcino in deruta

And, of course, what else but a nice Brunello to wash down the meat?

Our penultimate afternoon was spent in Perugia. In reality, we ended up there because one of my relatives knew there was a fantastic gelateria there, and somehow we ended up parking directly in front of it without even realizing we had done so!

I didn’t know that the place my relative had been searching for was none other than GROM, probably the most famous Italian gelato maker. In recent years, its popularly has swelled both within Italy – where you can now find a branch in most major towns (we had our first in Venice earlier this year and loved it) – and also internationally, with shops recently opened in New York, Paris and Tokyo. Anyway, it is probably the best gelato that you can get consistently across Italy, and I was very excited to be trying it again as I wasn’t even thinking about going to one on this trip.

The GROM facade in Perugia

A gelateria, an Italian man & his Piaggio – we had arrived

GROM laboratory

The ‘laboratory’ within Perugia’s own GROM

the menu - all in blue

What to order, what to order...

GROM gelato in Perugia

You can get three flavors in one small dish (a great value). I loved my original Crema de GROM, Cioccolato Fondente (the less strong of the two dark chocolate flavors, the other being Extranoir) & Caramello al Sale (Salty Caramel) – yummmm!

Grom on Urbanspoon

a fiat and shades in the autumn umbrian sun

A Fiat and an Italian gentleman in shades in the Autumn Umbrian sun

three old men in perugia

Three old men relaxing on the main pedestrian stretch in Perugia

On our last day, we made the quick 30-minute car journey to Assisi, the birthplace of St. Francis and home to the world-famous Basilica of San Francesco d’Assisi, which Christians from all over the world flock to for pilgrimage. We were pleasantly surprised at just how well-maintained this ancient town was, and couldn’t believe some if its immaculate preserved pedestrian streets. It was truly stunning.

meat & cheese in assisi

A food shop in Assisi

amazing little home on a pristine street in assisi

One of the pristine streets of Assisi

basilica of san francesco d'assisi

The front of Basilica of San Francesco d'Assisi

basilica di santa chiara atop assisi

Basilica di Santa Chiara atop Assisi

a dome viewed from afar

A dome viewed from afar

a snooze in the shade in assisi

An elderly gentleman having a snooze in the shade

Tuscany, Part III: The Hidden Gem of Sansepolcro & the Two Restaurant Jewels in its Crown

 

The one truly hidden gem of a town that we discovered on this trip just happened to be a little past the Umbrian border in the far eastern reaches of Tuscany. The town is called Sansepolcro and, while it certainly doesn’t look like much when you first drive in off the motorway, it has a little secret. Drive further in towards the middle and there lies an old walled city that is home to some very charming streets, some very good shopping and two restaurants which certainly deserve special mention, as the best meals we had on our trip were spent in them.

Da Ventura is both a restaurant and a small guest house. It is very traditional in its decor, with wooden beamed ceilings and wine bottles lining the open arched doorways.

traditional décor of da ventura restaurant in sansepolcro

The traditional décor of Da Ventura restaurant in Sansepolcro

Service is wonderfully personal and professional, and we quickly learned the one rule that all the locals abide by: order by the cart, live by the cart!

The wooden trolley is first rolled out at the beginning of the meal and is filled with an assortment of antipasti that will get you salivating. They also shave truffles on top of pasta on the cart if you order that for your appetizer.

gnocchetti starter at da ventura

A simple gnocchetti starter

pasta with fresh truffles being shaved on top

The neighboring table’s pasta, with fresh truffles being shaved on top

The cart is then pushed out again for the meaty main courses. On our visit, they were offering roasted Chianina beef, lamb and pork (by far the best of the three). The dessert selection is also presented on a trolley, and they just sort of put anything you want from the offering onto a plate for you.

veal carpaccio with truffles

My veal carpaccio with truffles

the meat cart with a wide selection of seasonal vegetables

The meat main course cart, with a wide selection of seasonal vegetables

desserts - off their trolleys

My selection of desserts - 'off their trolleys'

one of my parents’ desserts

And one of my parents’ selections

The neighboring table, which was made up of three Italian gentleman who were clearly locals and regulars, noticed that I kept staring at their food as it was being served – especially when the waiter just decided to give one of the men the last hunk of one of roasts, and slopped about 50 ounces of meat onto his plate along with the already large portion he had served him just before. While they were sipping on Vin Santo with their desserts, they asked me if I had tried it before, and told the waiter to give me a glass on their tab. The whole meal had that wonderful feeling throughout, and we really felt at home there even though our Italian left much to be desired.

 

But I would have to say the best meal we had by far was at Ristorante Fiorentino, which also doubles as a small hotel and is smack-bang in the center of the old town, a few blocks down from Da Ventura.

fiorentino’s night-time facade

Ristorante Fiorentino’s night-time facade

First established in 1807, the restaurant has been run by the Uccellini family for over 50 years. Alessio, the man who greets you at the desk upstairs, is clearly the owner and runs the show. He is a truly amazing character, who will regale you with tales of how he has played his little tricks and surprises on other customers over the years as he slowly plates up the restaurant’s wonderful homemade dessert from the impressive trolley. He has an amazing sense of humor and you can tell that this is a family affair through and through, which makes it all the more enjoyable. His daughter is a very professional sommelier and is also very affable.

alessio running the floor

Alessio running the floor

The food at Ristorante Fiorentino was also a bit of a departure from the menus we had become accustomed to in the region (which tend to be very similar, traditional and not all that inventive). They serve historical Tuscan dishes but also infuse elements of Renaissance cuisine into the dishes (i.e. in those times there were many sweet and sour combinations, or piquant and salty dishes at the same time), with some particularly interesting flavor, texture and temperature combinations.

legume soup with spelt ice cream

Legume Soup with Spelt Ice Cream – we were told it was inspired by Italian Renaissance cuisine

For example, I absolutely adored my starter of Legume Soup with Spelt Ice Cream. The bean soup by itself was perfectly fresh and good, but when eaten with the ever so slightly sweet spelt ice cream (which also had little bits of chewy grains scattered throughout) it was truly delicious and interesting.  You can see some more photos of the restaurant below, which I believe is a fitting way to bid you adieu from central Italy. Until next time: arrivederci!

alessio's momentos at ristorante fiorentino

On the way upstairs to the toilets, you can see a portrait of Alessio and some old memorabilia

grappa contraption at ristorante fiorentino

A fascinating contraption containing all types of grappa

alessio doing his thing - entertaining

Alessio does his thing – he juggles dessert dishes and flips them over (with the desserts still inside!) and somehow the contents don’t ever escape...

my home-made desserts at ristorante fiorentino

My selection of desserts tasted were out of this world...Strawberry Shortcake, Chocolate Pudding & Coffee Crème Caramel...I will definitely return to Ristorante Fiorentino on our next trip!

A Bit More Wining – Saturday at Vinopolis with Oz Clarke + Some Chefs, Critics & Tapas

oz clarke five wines for tasting

We spent a long and enjoyable Saturday at Vinopolis, first enjoying a wine tasting with noted wine expert Oz Clarke, then a self-guided tour of Vinopolis, then popping out for some satisfying tapas at Tapas Brindisa in nearby Borough Market, and finally a front-row seat at a Chef vs. Critics quiz show which included some of the UK’s best known food personalities

The Wine Wizard, Oz

For better or for worse, twitter seems to be my best friend as of late in terms providing access to some great food and wine experiences, and often for free!

As readers of the blog will already be aware, it was through an early leak of the booking line number from fellow tweeter @richardvines that I was able to secure a table at Pierre Koffmann’s pop-up restaurant on top of Selfridges.

More recently, I also scored two free tickets to a wine tasting with well-known wine personality Oz Clarke held at Vinopolis through a competition organized by none other than @vinopolislondon. I was very excited to meet Oz after seeing the first two series of his program with James May, where they first visited France and then California in order to educate the lager-loving petrol head about the merits of fermented grape juice. Oz’s down-to-earth attitude and no-nonsense (and, for that matter, no-pretence) approach to wine is refreshing and, in my view, well suited to today’s average wine consumer, who can easily be put off and alienated by wine experts preaching from upon high.

So Mrs. LF and I headed down to Borough Market for our 3pm date with Oz and five of his top wines for 2010. The event took place within the cavernous vaults at Vinopolis, which are used for their own events and I presume would also make an excellent venue for corporate events and other private shindigs as well. The vaults originally stretched from Vinopolis’ location (just a few steps Northwest of Borough Market) Eastward down the river all the way to the end of Tooley Street and were the center of the British wine trade in Victorian times up through the beginning of the second world war.

As you can see below, it is quite a cool space, and so it was that…

...the stage was set...

...the stage was set...

...then was filled.

...then was filled.

The audience was ready...

The audience was ready...

...and Oz’s eye was on the prize.

...and Oz’s eye was on the prize.

I wasn’t exactly sure of the format of the session, but it ended up being a lot of Oz doing what he does best: storytelling. In fact, he is a master storyteller, which makes sense given his earlier career in theatre with such troops as the Royal Shakespeare Company, the Royal National Theatre and The Old Vic, amongst others.

While we did taste each of the five wines he had selected – usually with him nonchalantly asking the audience “Shall we have a swig of this one?” or something similar – and while he did offer some brief and insightful thoughts on how he thought the wine tasted, what I remember most are the accompanying stories he used to bring the countries and wineries that these wines came from to life. It was brilliant entertainment that was educational at the same time, and everyone seemed to be having a good time, Oz included. Although I did wonder if it would be a bit boring for him doing two further sessions of a similar nature that same afternoon, complete with book signings at each. But, alas, I guess these are the trappings of success, eh?

Oz’s storytelling reaches its peak as he recounts the gales he experienced while at a vineyard in Northern Chile

Oz’s storytelling reaches its peak as he recounts the gales he experienced while at a vineyard in Northern Chile

You can find my brief notes about the wines we sampled below, some of which were pretty outstanding for their respective price brackets.

  • Roederer Estate Quartet, Brut Sparkling Wine NV (Anderson Valley, California)
    • Notes: Very fruity (notably pear) with beautiful miniscule bubbles, a tad of toastiness and serious depth. Interesting to note that, according to Oz, there are about 7 million bubbles in each glass of champagne (to be fair, though, he didn’t know which poor sod had been sad enough to do that research). Fair value at £19.99 in my view, as it is comparable to decent entry-level champagnes, if not a fair bit nicer than some of them.
  • 2008 Villa Maria Cellar Selection, Sauvignon Blanc (Marlborough, New Zealand)
    • Notes: I have tried the 2007 ‘normal’ version and thought it was a great, classic Kiwi Sauvignon. This wine had a light and bright appearance, a nose of apple, lime and fresh grass, and on the palate it was dominated by greens as well (green apples, grass, nettles, even green pepper). The bottle has a screwcap, which Oz rather likes as he believes it is better for fresh, young white wines and obviously far more consistent than cork. A fine Sauvignon for £10.19.
  • 2005 Kooyong Estate, Chardonnay (Mornington Peninsula, Australia)
    • Notes: For me, this was the clear winner out of the five. It was a marvellous chardonnay, with a golden, rich straw color in the glass, a slightly citrusy and floral nose (plus some butter), and a little streak of refreshing acidity along with some fruitiness to balance what I thought was mostly a creamy, buttery, smoky and nutty depth. It had excellent length. Not inexpensive at £18.95, but it was one of the better chardonnays I’ve tasted recently, and certainly compares strongly with white Burgundies in the same price range. I wasn’t all that shocked to see that it was Oz’s #1 wine for 2010 in his new book when I opened it up after getting home.
  • 2006 Vina Falernia, Syrah Reserva (Elqui Valley, Chile)
    • Notes: A lovely deep, dark red in the glass, with a lot of smoke on the nose. On the palate it was again smoky, with notes of cigar tobacco and also some blackberry fruit. It was a very intense wine, and I agree with Oz in that it does have a very Northern Rhône feel about it. Cracking value at £10.95 in my opinion.
  • 2006 Yalumba ‘The Scribbler’, Cabernet Sauvignon/Syrah (Barossa Valley, Australia)
    • Notes: To be honest, I forgot to write anything down about this wine as I was a bit caught up on one of Oz’s stories. Oz says it “has a fascinating initial flavor of blackcurrant and mint, scented with a few drops of eucalyptus oil and a scrape of lemon zest. There’s some decent rasping tannin too and the whole experience is hugged by plump, chocolaty Shiraz.” Literally couldn’t have said it better myself! £14.99 a pop.
Oz and Laissez’s Big Wine Photo

Oz and Laissez’s Big Wine Photo

After the session, we purchased a copy of his pocket-sized 2010 wine guide and I had a brief conversation with the big man himself while he signed our book. I have used his 2009 guide quite a bit this year, and found his recommended wines to be very good for the price in general, with the exception of one or two which didn’t suit my taste. So I am much looking forward to taking advantage of his 2010 guide, which seems to be composed of much different wines than last year’s collection of 250 recommendations, although some of the same producers do feature heavily in both (i.e. Tim Adams, Primo Estate and Villa Maria).

Wine guide authors & publishers: how can you can make your readers’ lives easier?

Wine guide authors & publishers: how can you can make your readers’ lives easier?

One thing I would suggest, both for Oz, and for other authors (and publishers) of such annual guides, is to make their recommendations more usable for readers. For example, while they do list which suppliers carry each wine at the end of the description, there is no way for you to easily find which bottles out of the hundreds in the book are available at, say, Waitrose or Tesco when you walk in.

At the beginning of the year, I actually created my own spreadsheet, which is broken down by supermarket/wine shop (the ones I tend to visit the most), and what wines are available at each place that I have found interesting from all of the different wine magazines, guides and books I have read as of late. It is a fairly simple thing to do, but it is extremely time consuming and labor intensive for the consumer (and only geeks like me will take the time to do so).

So, my suggestion to publishers and authors is simple: include an index in the back of your book that is organized by store. It should just be a simple list with the largest national supermarkets and wine merchant chains in bold and all of the wines in your book that are sold at each store underneath (organized by white, rosé, red, sweet), along with the page number that the detailed review can be found on. There is no need to include all of the smaller/independent wine shops in this index if there are tons of them mentioned in your book/guide, but it would be great if the next time we walk into a supermarket or major wine merchant, we can be armed with a list of wines we might be interested in buying without having to commit the information to memory or create Excel workbooks :).

…In any case, the tasting session and chat with Oz were great, and Mrs. LF and I both enjoyed our time very much. But it turned out that our day at Vinopolis wasn’t over just yet. The kind people there had given us complimentary tickets for a tour around Vinopolis itself (which I had done before and enjoyed doing again), and also some more free tickets to attend the ‘Starter for Ten’ quiz show, which was one of the London Restaurant Festival events, that happened to be held at Vinopolis in another of their many private function rooms. With the prospect of seeing such chefs as Richard Corrigan and Rowley Leigh fight it out with critics including Giles Coren and Matthew Norman, we would have been stupid to pass the opportunity up.

So, after winding our way through the Vinopolis tour, we headed to Borough Market to get a spot of early dinner before the quiz began.

Briskly to Brindisa

Unfortunately, the market had pretty much wound down by the time we headed out, but fortunately Tapas Brindisa was open, and somehow they had a table for two. Perfect! I had always wanted to eat here given how popular it seems to be amongst foodies, but this was the first time I’d actually tried, so I was excited.

After perusing the menu for a while, we decided on a few dishes and they came out very quickly, with the exception of my sardines, which I checked on twice, and after assuring me they had been ordered (twice) finally appeared about 10 minutes after all of the other dishes had been polished off (?!).

Spanish Potato Omelette (£4.50); Grilled Lamb Cutlets with Allioli & Fresh Mint Sauce (£8.75); Onion & Rocket Salad with Pear, Quince & Kokos Vinaigrette (£3.20)

Spanish Potato Omelette (£4.50); Grilled Lamb Cutlets with Allioli & Fresh Mint Sauce (£8.75); Onion & Rocket Salad with Pear, Quince & Kokos Vinaigrette (£3.20)

First to arrive were the omelette, lamb chops and salad.

The potato omelette was surprisingly good for being such a plain dish. I thought it was seasoned well and it had a very good texture of half egg, half soft potato. Mrs. LF agreed, and enjoyed it mucha. 7/10.

The lamb chops were also well seasoned and nice and moist, though they had spent maybe a minute too long on the heat for my liking and were just barely pink in the middle. While there was a fairly spicy allioli to accompany them, I didn’t particularly like it and ate them solo for the most part. They were fine, but didn’t have that extra flavor hit to make them stand out and be memorable. 6/10.

The salad was the disappointment of the bunch. It was really a salad of red onions, with not much rocket and the pears being almost nonexistent. But the thing we both noticed (and still remember) was that it had a very strange taste permeating throughout. At first, we thought it must have come from the quince, but then again quince is a fruit, and that didn’t make any sense. I thought it tasted like corn nuts, but slightly sour ones. Maybe it was the ‘Kokos’, but I don’t know what it/they are. In any case, neither of us liked this distinct flavor. 3/10.

Pan Fried Padrón Peppers (£5.00)

Pan Fried Padrón Peppers (£5.00)

Despite at first glance all looking alike, there were a couple different types of peppers on the plate, some of which had a wicked little kick (Mrs. LF’s nose began to run), and some of which were very mild. They all had a rich, sweet taste and a nice sour acidity to boot. We only ordered them because the huge and rambunctious table next to us had a plate of them and they looked too good to pass up. Plus Mrs. LF fancied eating them with her omelette, which did turn out to be a good combination. We really enjoyed these green little guys. 7/10.

Pan Fried Sardines with Red Onion Salad & Chilli (£6.50)

Pan Fried Sardines with Red Onion Salad & Chilli (£6.50)

The sardines finally arrived and they were alright too (they certainly were very nicely presented). The fish was soft and meaty and had a nice flavor to it, and I enjoyed the hints of chilli. The skin was pretty soggy though, and seemed to be intentionally so (don’t know if it’s supposed to be for fried sardines?), which didn’t make it all that pleasurable to eat. All in all, another solid but uninspiring dish. 6/10.

I have to say that I did rather like the place overall. I enjoyed the buzzy atmosphere, the quick turnover of tables, and it seemed like everyone there was genuinely having a good time. It is certainly a good place to come with friends and spend a leisurely weekend afternoon. They also have some decent Spanish and Portuguese wines available, both by the glass and bottle. We didn’t order that much, but what we did have was generally cooked well, although from the dishes we chose, I didn’t really see what all the fuss was about. When in the area again, I would definitely go back to try sample more of the food.

Tapas Brindisa on Urbanspoon

Chefs vs. Critics & One Confused Host

After the tapas, we headed back to Vinopolis to watch the quiz show that pitted four famous critics against four well-known chefs. In true University Challenge style, the event was hosted by none other than Bamber Gascoigne, the original host of University Challenge before Paxman began residing over proceedings in 1994.

Another empty stage at another of Vinopolis’ private rooms

Another empty stage at another of Vinopolis’ private rooms

Richard Corrigan (Corrigan’s Mayfair & Bentley’s) and Thomasina Meirs (Masterchef Winner and of Wahaca fame) arriving to take their places

Rowley Leigh (Le Café Anglais) and Thomasina Meirs (Masterchef Winner and of Wahaca fame) arriving to take their places

The questions had been designed by Fay Maschler, one of the two key organizers of the London Restaurant Festival, and were actually quite difficult, with a number of them baffling the chefs, the critics and audience alike. There were some obscure music-related questions (one where the contestants had to name the composer of songs that ostensibly had something to do with food) and also a few image-based questions (one where they had to name what restaurant was being pictured).

Confound this newfangled technology, thinks Bamber

Confound this newfangled technology, thinks Bamber

The most amusing part of the whole evening was the fact that the very posh and measured Gascoigne could not for the life of him figure out how to change the contestants’ scores correctly. He kept giving points to the wrong side and detracting them from the right one. The audience kept heckling him, but he just didn’t seem to understand how the heck to work the controls. The tech guy from the back of the room had to interject a number of times, coming up to the stage and changing the scores for him. Gascoigne did seem to keep correct scores by writing them down on a piece of paper (old school indeed :)), and one of the organizers in the back of the room was paying attention to every detail and seemed to have the same score as Bamber. I’m not so sure they had it right, but it made for a lot of laughter and fun for the audience.

Giles Coren was licking his lips at something...however there was no food to be seen

Giles Coren was licking his lips at something...however there was no food to be seen & can't we have a smile Toby?

The chefs got off to a bad start, but it was neck-to-neck at the finish – at least they had a good time

The chefs got off to a bad start, but it was neck-to-neck at the finish – at least they had a good time (can't remember what Thomasina was laughing about)

Rowley Leigh (Le Café Anglais) seemed be by far the most knowledgeable of the chefs, while Richard Corrigan only seemed to know the answers to questions he wasn’t allowed to answer, continuously ringing his buzzer during the other side’s bonus questions, which was also quite comical

Rowley Leigh seemed be by far the most knowledgeable of the chefs, while Richard Corrigan (of Corrigan's Mayfair and Bentley's) only seemed to know the answers to questions he wasn’t allowed to answer, continuously ringing his buzzer during the other side’s bonus questions, which was also quite comical

In the end, the hour-long quiz was extended by about another half-hour or so and was quite enjoyable for all, especially the audience. We were glad to have been able to see these two often hostile factions let down their hair and have a good time in the spirit of friendly competition.

After a very long day out, mostly spent within various parts of Vinopolis, and with probably a bit too much wine involved (we had complementary cocktails before the quiz show too :)), we headed back towards London Bridge station to get some z’s.