Friday Flick

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Couple of years ago I wrote a few bits for a great online magazine called The Flick. Unfortunately they’re just about to call it a day and take down their content. So here, reproduced for your LNID Friday reading pleasure, a guide to How to Buy Wine This Weekend Without Losing Your Mind.


Sometimes there’s just too much choice when you want some wine. Sometimes all you really want is for someone to hand you a glass or a bottle, clasp your hand and say in a calm and maternally reassuring voice, “I have a feeling you’re really going to like this”.

Let’s face it, even to people like me who work with wine or study it, a supermarket wine aisle or a wine list of biblical proportions can be just a bit overwhelming, particularly when you’re looking to spend a normal, sane, everyday amount of money.

To cut at least some of the crap, here are some ideas for getting good value when all you really want is something decent to drink and some tips on what to avoid in all but the most serious of circumstances.

What to drink in a pub:

  • Unless you want something sweet and nasty that will give you one massive clanger of a hangover, steer clear of any Californian house wines – Blossom Hill and Gallo being the most popular examples. To be blunt, they’re everything that’s wrong with big, industrially-made wine by numbers, which is often more like alcoholic Ribena. Fine, if that’s your thing. But in that case it’s probably cheaper to add a good swig of value vodka to a mug of the blackcurranty goodness and stop reading this article.
  • Instead, choose a Southern Italian or Spanish varietal. These climates are naturally perfect for growing grapes and produce ripe, juicy, sunny flavours ideal for pub drinking. They’re not too complex, they’re not over-priced due to a big name or region and they should drink pretty well by themselves without food. Likely candidates would be Nero d’Avola or Grillo from Sicily,Primitivo from Puglia, and Garnacha or Macabeo from Spain.

What to drink in a restaurant:

  • Drink anything you damn well want. By which I mean it is no business of the waiter, sommelier, manager or anyone else to tell you how much to spend or what to drink if they’re acting in anything other than your best interests.
  • I would honestly steer clear of famous names and regions if you’re looking for a good value option. Some wines are just expensive to produce and so would look a bit dodgy to me if they’re too far down the list. In short, drinking cheap Chablis, Barolo or Napa Cabernet is probably going to be a slightly miserable experience – save it until you’re feeling a bit more flush and enjoy something else.
  • So, if all of that still leaves you flicking wildly through the pages of the wine list trying to avoid a bill that resembles your monthly rent, find something a bit unusual that you can afford. You’re going out on a bit of a limb so just conjure a spirit of adventure – at worst, you can chalk it up to experience; at best you have an incredible new discovery that you can bore everyone with. This happened to me with an excellent value Slovenian Pinot Gris two years ago and I’m still banging on about it. If you spot something at your price point from anywhere like Eastern Europe or Portugal, preferably made from a grape you’ve never heard of, get stuck in. Go rogue.

What to drink in a supermarket:

  •  Nothing, you alcoholic. You have to take it to the counter, pay them money, then take it home and pour it into a glass before you drink it. For God’s sake, at least make it out of the car park. You know those people who manage to snack on half a croissant at the checkout while looking so cool and laissez-faire in a ‘oh, I’m so bohemian and hungry I just couldn’t wait’ way? Even they’re not going to manage it with a bottle of wine.

What to buy in a supermarket:

  • Some brands prove that big isn’t necessarily bad. A case in point for me –Jacob’s Creek. I’ve not tasted a bad wine from them for years and while they’re never going to produce superstar wines for ageing, they’re really reliable for a relatively toned-down style from Australia. If that hasn’t persuaded you, as part of my wine diploma (yes: it is a real qualification, no: the exams are not one long drinking game) we did a blind tasting of chardonnays, and most of the class had Jacob’s Creek pinned as a decent Chablis.
  • Do not EVER buy ANYTHING on promotion based on the reduction that’s shown. It was never worth the full price. You’re going to have to trust me on this. I could tell you exactly why but, due to my day job as a wine importer and supplier to some of the major supermarkets, I’d have to kill you. Or, more likely but less dramatically, I’d be very promptly sacked.

What to buy from the corner shop:

  • I’m assuming that, like most of humankind, you’ve found yourself stuck with only the sad contents of a corner shop between you and a dinner or party at which you’re expected to bring a bottle. Don’t panic; just go South – specifically, South American. While Chilean and Argentinian wine isn’t quite the bargain it used to be, mainly due to the important but boring factor of exchange rate, it still offers some good, widely-stocked brands that can get you out of a hole. Casillero del Diablo and Concha Y Toro are on the shelves of most local offies – go for a Sauvignon or Chardonnay for whites and Cabernet or Carmenere for reds.
  • Avoid the Pinot Grigio and the New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. They’ll be getting away with whatever they can buy because they know they’re easy choices for nervous, panicky customers – yes, that’s you. The PG will taste of dishwater and the NZ SB will be like drinking sweetened battery acid.

Drinking at lunchtime. Turns out I do care about it.

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Yesterday, I read something which made me very angry. The surprising thing is that it was an article about drinking; specifically, an article expressing sadness at the demise of the days of sinking a couples of bottles at lunch, of returning for an afternoon of slightly pissed presentations, evoking the halcyon days of Roger, Don and martinis at noon.

Initially, I couldn’t work out why I was so enraged. I love drinking. I love a proper lunch. I don’t personally adore getting soused before six, but I appreciate the attraction of a glass of good wine with a good lunch, and equally hate the lack of ability in many to distinguish between the two.

But this article wasn’t about the habit of eating and drinking in the leisurely and measured manner of a stereotypical Parisien office worker, it was about the practise of getting actively wankered before going back to the office. The writing seems to be pure click bait on so many levels that attempting to form a logical and calm argument to counter it is surely a complete waste of time, but luckily it’s my day off, so I have time to waste.

My major objection to the piece and its thesis is not just that it gives Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage as its two shining exemplars (sufficient though this would be. I mean, seriously.); nor is it that it’s written by an ex mens mag editor who celebrates the results of his historic lunch consumption, including the zenith of his achievements: seeing how many helium balloons it would take to float a dwarf.

It’s the sheer small-minded, prejudiced inability of these braying, drunken buffoons to realise that they are the only people who ever enjoyed this privilege. It’s so bloody obvious that for anyone of a non-white, non-posh background, anyone in a job which relies on fixed hours in a fixed place, anyone who works at an administrative or assistant level, anyone who doesn’t work in politics, in advertising, in men’s magazines, in the city, in any traditionally ego-driven, male-dominated world, this behaviour never happened.

It was never an option for them, they would never have been invited to pull up a chair, or a glass. They would in fact have been among the 99% of the working population not invited. The 99% working soberly throughout the day and doing the work passed over by the loud, joshing post-lunch crowd rolling in to the office for a token hour at 4pm.

In only the last few decades, we’ve begun to move toward a more inclusive, equal, decent workplace to the benefit of the whole society. That it is no longer a place where boorish, old-boy behaviour is acceptable, even benevolently encouraged, has been a major factor in opening up the boardrooms. I would hope that the days of deciding to “buy or sell post-lunch depending on the direction the nipples were pointing on Page 3 of The Sun” are merely distant memories.

Below the line, there is the usual mix of comment, concern and complete loons, but one for me stands out – the assertion that the demise of the liquid lunch has been but one more example of, and I paraphrase, ‘political correctness gone mad’. My objections to this article are so very far from any kind of correctness which this commenter may imagine; drink at lunch, don’t drink at lunch, sip your 1.27 glasses of 11% wine a day which the government deems appropriate, down a pint of 7.3% craft IPA, I really don’t care.

My problem is this: even as a white, educated, privileged member of the middle classes, I would have had very different career opportunities if all the important decisions were still made over the lunch table by these men, these drunk, selfish, careless men after their third pint, or their second bottle of claret.

…weirdly

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This is one of my number one favourite things to drink: bubble tea. I say this as if I’ve been drinking it for years when I had my first one around a year ago but I’ve been necking it ever since like it’s going out of hipster fashion. That’s one of the truly great things about living in London, you can get addicted to things you never even knew existed. Things which, up to a few years ago, were the sole province of Taiwanese school girls but are suddenly the coolest thing to hit Shoreditch. Luckily the London bubble tea revolution really burst (sorry) onto the scene in Chinatown and Soho, so I get a pretty regular hit.

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It’s essentially a refreshing drink based on some kind of tea, it can be more like fruit juice, more of a blended creamy smoothie, the choice is yours. The bubbles in question are large, chewy globes of tapioca, cooked until it’s the most intriguingly bouncy texture. I can imagine this is a real marmite drink. Much like seaweed crisps, squid or pannacotta, you can’t get away from the texture – it’s really the entire point of the drink. If you don’t like weird, squidgy, firm, jelly-like food, there’s really no point in going there.

I tried almond tea with milk today. Sort of like artificial semi-sweet chilled marzipan soup. Which, frankly, was absolutely amazing.

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Those Taiwanese school girls and all the young hip things on the streets of London may enjoy a bubble tea en masse, but for me it’s a solo quest. Along with a bowl of noodle soup which I can eat like the noodle soup equivalent of the Cookie Monster.

Chewy tapioca and a face covered in soup. And no one to judge me on either. Table for one, please.

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…some really really good wine

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I taste and drink some really good wine. I go to tastings, I go to trade dinners, we taste in the office, I spend a fair bit of time in the premises of my Employer Supremo that is Vinoteca.

What is significantly more rare is that I drink really seriously good wine with good friends. It’s just not my normal operating pattern – I don’t hang out with other winos. I’m not married to a wino. Even though I work with phenomenally knowledgeable, experienced wine people, when we drink, we usually go to the pub and have a pint like everyone else.

I can’t state this strongly enough, I love wine SO MUCH that sometimes I get overwhelmed by how incredible it is that simple grapes can produce a bottle of something intriguing, complex and entirely delicious. I just don’t always want to talk about it.

I’ve got a cellar full of fantastic bottles and magnums to drink this year and over the next decade. I want to look forward to them, to share them with beloved friends and family, I just don’t want to talk about it.

I’ll definitely have drunk something amazing in the last week, I’ll really have enjoyed it and probably have thought quite a bit about what made it so incredible, I just don’t want to talk about it.

If you know me then a) thanks for reading! and b) you’re probably thinking I’ve been a big dirty faker all this time, and every time we’ve talked about wine I’ve been desperately trying to change the subject. But that’s not true. You’re just the people I ACTUALLY want to talk about (and drink) wine with. You know who you are.

And one of you is Gavin who I saw last weekend. Not only is he massively into and knowledgeable about Austrian wine, but an enthusiastic lover of all food and drink in the best possible way. We started with the most fantastic Gruner Veltliner from Weingut Brundlmayer (I’m definitely missing at least one umlaut somewhere there), a Gavin Special as he’d brought it back from the winery on a recent visit. It’s not available in the UK nor can I find anything about it online, I think it’s made by the son of the main Mr Brundlmayer (Herr Brundlmayer? Senior? I’m palpably making this up now).

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It is without doubt one of the finest Gruners I’ve ever tasted, really showing off the potential of the grape and just how magnificent it can be. Retaining the crisp minerality you’d expect but with layers and layers of full, ripe, glorious stone fruit.

Another brilliant thing about wine and friend is, sometimes, when you give them wine for their weddings, they save it until you come round at the right time, then you get to drink it too. Massive result. Particularly when it’s a magnum of Allegrini’s 2005 Palazzo Della Torre, a mini-Amarone made with just some influence of dried grapes, making it seriously intense but also hugely balanced and drinkable. This, along with a roaring fire, really was a proper start to Autumn. Thanks G & A.

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…like a ripped-off health freak

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This is grasping at straws. It’s hope over experience. It’s being given the old razzle dazzle and falling for it hook, line and sinker.

What do I mean? Buying stuff because on some level, however subliminal or simply stupid, you think it will make you healthier. There’s really no other excuse for things like this.

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To be fair, I really do like how it tastes. I actually like the weird mix of slightly stale coconut, generic herbalness from the matcha tea, and a grainy texture that’s like licking bottom of a pot pourri bowl. Aaaaaaa, you think I’m being ironic BUT I’M NOT. I really really actually like this shit. Maybe it’s a hang up from my ongoing stomach balls-up and a natural predilection for hummus, but somehow I’ve really got a taste for anything which Wholefoods can overcharge me for.

I think the deal is that I spend so much of my life with a glass of wine or a pint of beer in my hand that I’m a sucker for all this Happy Health lobby stuff. Blame Innocent, they’re where it all started. As if anything in a small bottle is really going to make a significant impact on the overall health of your body. Still, if it makes even a small dent in the constant onslaught which I call my life, it’s worth it.

Back to school

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There’s a chill in the air, the nights are drawing in, you’re struck by a sudden and unmitigated urge to buy new stationery. Sounds like time to start writing a blog again to me.

Last night I went to a spinning class. For the uninitiated, this is essentially a room full of what, in the eighties, we use to call ‘exercise bikes’ which you ride for an hour at varying levels of difficulty while someone shouts encouraging instructions and motivating phrases at you. If you go somewhere in Shoreditch like I did, you do this in the dark, with a club-level sound system and candles that cost more than the bikes. What can I say, it works for me.

To complete the urban parody, I picked up some sushi on the way home (half price! Class!) and dug out a small bottle of sake I got free at a launch party a few weeks ago (more class!).

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For all I know, it may not even be sake. All the writing is in Japanese. It doesn’t even have an abv % on the bottle, which I thought was actually illegal in the UK. To anyone who’s EVER accused me of drinks snobbery: this is a sign of my truly low standards. Drinking something in a small green bottle that I got for free.

Sake rocks. It really does. I love it slightly warm which gives it a sort of nourishing, comforting feeling. You can’t heat all sake, but I think I’m safe with a miniature giveaway bottle of dubious quality.

I’m vowing now that this is the last time I write about sake without a) buying some of the good stuff to drink at home and b) actually learning something about it. For now, all I can add is that it’s the perfect mid-week drink – savoury and particular enough to make you happy with just a glass. If you’ve spent a hour pedalling and sweating in the dark, then maybe a very large glass.

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30 Days Without Restaurants : week 1 (and a bit)

Well, one and a half weeks in, it’s all going rather smugly well. Whether this is due to the large and generous Ocado orders or the rampant plundering of the overstocked cellar, I couldn’t possibly say, but we’re certainly heading in the right direction.

Major positives:
– cooking things like this:

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And this:

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And this:

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And this:

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all in one week. I’m finally cooking a few new recipes properly instead of relying on the old favourites or half-arsed versions of things made too late, too drunk and with too few of the right ingredients. Last night’s Chicken Pappardelle from the new Bill Granger italian book was a particular result in the FRICKING DELICIOUS department.

- spending less money generally. Unexpected result – making myself avoid spending £40 on an average meal of a weekday evening has made me think seriously about all other spend. It hasn’t avoided the Oyster fares and the odd £4 pint but it’s made me think twice about a quick post-work trip to Cos or an Amazon splurge.

- spending more time in with my husband. Whether ‘awwww’ or ‘bleuuuurgh’, this has genuinely been a really nice side effect. We’re both taking more time to cook, spend time making our flat a nice place, and generally hanging out in the evening, which just has to be a Good Thing.

Major Negatives:

- drinking our way through the cellar. After months of complaining that we’re not making any headway brought our overstocked cellar, we’re now powering through it at an alarming rate. So as well as cracking too many bottles of youthful Nebbiolo, I’m also using staying in as an excuse to get stuck in most nights. Truly, staying in more has led to a distinct upturn in consumption. It’s not that I need a drink to have a good evening in, but the novelty of having my own cellar and drinks cabinet on tap every night hasn’t yet worn off. Add to that the change in dynamic – before, a night in was a rare opportunity to sit one out, to have a welcome night off, an evening of mint tea and steamed greens. Now that every night is a night in, it’s significantly harder to draw those boundaries, so essentially my mind and body have reached the conclusion that EVERY NIGHT IS FUN NIGHT. This is not a sustainable situation.

- that’s kind of it. Genuinely quite enjoying the whole thing, apart from the odd moment, usually post-pub, where the strength required to fight the takeaway compulsion is superhuman. Also, knowing that this is only for a month is a godsend, I make no promises about my behaviour and bank balance come May.

Austerity April

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In lieu of lent, I’m signing up for Austerity April. This isn’t a thing, it’s not sponsored, it’s not for any social, spiritual or meaningful reason, other than absolute lack of cash. Don’t panic, I’m not exactly out on the streets, but having gone from a steady sales job to a part-time marketing role with a bit of minimum wage bar work thrown in, my incomings have changed relatively dramatically, whereas my outgoings are taking a while to catch up.

 

With no wish to exaggerate, mine and my husband’s one major financial downfall is eating out. There’s no getting away from it, we are food people. We live and work in London and are soldered to the very heart of its restaurant trade. We’ve fallen into the very tasty trap of eating out almost as a foregone conclusion. I used to be much more of a home cook, but working in the wine and hospitality business means I love nothing more than inhabiting it in my time off, and my husband’s work as a lifestyle journalist and editor puts him right in the centre of London’s restaurant scene.

 

We embrace restaurants without prejudice. We love regular Byron burgers, our local Sicilian pizzeria, Ten Ten Tei in Soho for kid-ourselves-healthy rice bowls & sake, taking advantage of my staff discount in Vinoteca wherever possible, Brasserie Zedel for a quick cocktail and choucroute, the Ledbury or Chiltern Firehouse for a birthday treat, and 10 Greek Street as often as humanly possible. And this all has to stop. Not forever, just for a bit. For a month. 30 days without paying to eat out. Obviously there’ll be the odd press meals or work things which I’m not going to turn down because FREE FOOD, but other than that, it’s time to dive into domestic dining, bust out the bangers & mash, and cash in on the casserole.

 

File this right under middle class crises / first world problems as you will, but here we go. 30 days without restaurants. This is serious shit.  20140331-232218.jpg(Our last meal out for 30 days. Crikey.)

 

…elsewhere

Let’s be honest. This blog has become infrequent to nonexistent. This is largely because I’m now blogging, writing and tweeting for Vinoteca as their Head of Communications (in, lest we forget, a department of one).

Recent (vaguely) drinking-based blogs can be read here, I might start using this as a platform to go in a few different directions. Or I’ll half-heartedly post something about booze every couple of months – let’s wait and see.

In the meantime, please follow my Instagram on the left hand sidebar (or bottom of page if you’re reading this on tablet) or @boozeismymuse for most recent drinking and eating updates, and thank you for past, present or future reading.

…to round off 2013 and starting the new year as I mean to go on.

A very happy new year to everyone. It really IS a very happy new year here at Last Night I Drank. I am now a contributor to GQ Magazine (starting with a piece on a new English Vermouth on the front page of their food and drink section in the February issue – out now, with a big picture of Michael Fassbender on the front) and am working with them on a book project for later in the year, certainly more details to follow on that. I’m still having a brilliant time working at Vinoteca Soho, am working on some musical bits and bobs, have a few other irons warming nicely, and overall am really quite vehemently delighted with life.

All of the above has meant the blog has taken a bit of a back seat which a) I’m hoping to remedy in 2014 and b) means that I’m going to post much of the last month’s drinking in one go below. I’m hoping that pictures really ARE worth a thousand words, because I’m going to give you far more of the former than the latter.

So, in a roughly sensible order:

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This was ‘a cocktail’ at a very cool new bar in Camberwell called Communion, arranged by my very finger-on-the-pulse friend Lindsey. It’s a great place, totally unexpected and suitably dark and crypt-like. It’s ‘a cocktail’ because I can’t unfortunately remember what it was – the evening confirmed to me yet again (though, as evidenced, not for want of trying) I’m yet to find a new cocktail to make it in to my limited repertoire of favourites. After this one, I switched back to a Manhattan.

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Incredible food at Silk Road in Camberwell, after Communion. Plenteous, warming and almost illegally cheap.

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Some warm sake at Bone Daddies. This was a much-needed break in a day of solo Christmas shopping. I can confirm that a bowl of tonkotsu and a beaker of sake is EXACTLY right to warm the freezing stomach and ease the aching wallet.

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A mid-double-shift ice cream from Gelupo. I don’t do many double shifts as I’m only a part-timer. The cons of a very long working day are almost entirely offset by having the perfect excuse to have a mid-afternoon lunch in Soho. This was about a week before Christmas so I rounded my lunch off with some Nutmeggnog (yes, actually) gelato, the coldest Christmassy thing in existence.

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I can’t remember exactly when I opened this but it must have been just a few days before Christmas as that’s the only time I made mince pies, and there they are, next to a bottle of the stunning Vajra Barbera. It’s bottles like this that remind me I don’t always want a heavy, spicy wine in winter – sometimes I want to be uplifted out of the cold gloom with a glass of berry purity. This was perfect – juicy, precise, balanced and mouth-watering.

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Champagne in the Bassoon Bar at the Corinthia Hotel on Christmas Eve. We had a London Christmas on our own for the first time, and this bit was particularly good. I think I may have genuinely found my favourite London bar. Old school, relaxed, calm, proper. Looking at that list, sort of everything that I am not. Which is probably why I love it.

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I love it so much that here is another picture of it.

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Then we went onto Berners Tavern, a place that is so gilded and warm and festive, I imagine it feels like Christmas even when it’s not. The food was good (starters superb, mains disappointing), the wine was alright (hard to find much of interest/value under £40/50) but I would definitely go back just for the room alone. I mean JUST LOOK AT IT.

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This was the drinking of the week or so around Christmas, including the day itself. The highlight was undoubtedly and slightly surprisingly the Crystallum 2009 Clay Shales Chardonnay. God, it was good. The clarity and sunshine of Chardonnay at its most joyful, but at the same time restrained and elegant. Seriously, this blew me away. All the Crystallum wines are excellent, I would really recommend looking out for them – a great representation of the new face of premium South African wine.

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What I was drinking in early January. There are many deceptively tasty green smoothies. This was not one of them. I desperately need a more nutrient-heavy diet but there is no chance it will be coming through the medium of this.

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Beers and a small sipping tequila for a family lunch at Wahaca on the southbank. There are few places where three generations of my family, including a two nephews under seven, one with a serious dairy allergy, could all be fed, watered and kept happy, and this entirely did the trick. Tasty, fresh food, good drinks, and really friendly service. A winner.

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A red vermouth I tasted at Toast in East Dulwich when I was researching a piece. Yep, this drinks writing lark really is as fun as it sounds.

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A 500ml bottle of takeaway wine from Toast. They have their own house white and red in tank that you can buy in re-usable bottles at ridiculously good value prices and in very handy sizes. The red was excellent (a Southern French blend I believe) and I’ll be going back for more.

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A grapefruit spritz at Boopshi’s, a new Schnitzel and Spritz restaurant just off Charlotte Street. They have a great-looking bar downstairs which I want to go back and visit for a few more of these. After which I will attempt to say ‘Schnitzel and Spritz’.

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Another Toast triumph (what with buying my dad’s Christmas present there too, it did very well for me over the last few weeks) – two moderately priced Northern Italian wines to continue the theme of pure, fruit-driven reds to counteract the grey, miserable weather. One and a half of them have been drunk so far, can report only good things.

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And finally, not sure why this has uploaded at the end. This was just one of the wines I tried at a tasting evening at the Compagnie des Vins Surnaturels, a new wine bar in Neal’s Yard. Covent garden. Although I’m not sure it’s entirely my kind of place, I think it’s absolutely beautiful (owned by the same people as the Experimental Cocktail Clubs and just as stunningly furnished) and quite thrilling to have a stylish destination bar in which to drink such brilliant, interesting wines. It’s not cheap but that’s more to do with their choice to make the list premium, the wines they’ve selected are actually quite sensibly priced. If £13 for a cocktail in a plush bar is just part of a swanky night out, then I think £10 for a glass of well-chosen wine in perfect condition should be just another option. More places to drink more wines with more choice of atmosphere and surroundings is never a bad thing and I’m sure they’ll do very well.

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