Grapevine Archive for March, 2017
Gin’s shiny new image may have been cultivated by luxuriously bearded Hoxton dwellers with slightly-too-short trousers, but British gin has a history that goes much deeper than stylish blends and chrome-embellished bars!
From much-debated beginnings (was it a Dutch medicine, invented to treat stomach pains, or does its invention go way back to the medieval times? No one can be exactly sure), gin is a spirit that has become as synonymous with Britain as tea, fish and chips and the Chuckle Brothers.
As we celebrate the launch of The Society’s Gin Club with two delicious London gins, we’ll be exploring the seedy, decadent and more practical side of Britain’s relationship with Mother Gin.
Mother’s Ruin and the Victorian Gin Crisis
While it’s almost unthinkable in today’s age of public health warnings, 10-a-day fruit and veg recommendations and chia seed puddings, gin consumption was readily encouraged by the UK government in the mid-18th century. The burgeoning industry was good for trade relationships within Britain’s colonies (imports of French wine and spirits had been banned due to various European conflicts) and supported British grain prices by allowing the distillation of grain that was too poor to use in beer production.
However, the availability of homemade gins known as ‘Old Tom’ (often mixed with cheap filler ingredients such as sulphuric acid and turpentine) and the lack of licensing led to a crisis in the capital. The popularity of the spirit as a ‘pauper’s drink’, and the use of it to make up wages in some areas, led to widespread cases of civil disobedience.
Hogarth’s depiction of the gin crisis, ‘Gin Lane’, is etched in the nation’s collective memory as a picture of the spirit’s insalubrious heyday. Glassy-eyed drunks fight with dogs for bones to gnaw on, a mother covered in sores carelessly drops her squalling infant down a stairwell and rambunctious mobs brawl drunkenly in the street (if you’re having trouble picturing it, imagine the scene outside any UK high street kebab shop on a Friday night, but with less fabulous teeth).
Eventually, new laws which restricted the bootleg production and sale of the liquor put an end to the worst of the crisis, but not before the spirit had left an indelible mark on British history. You can still see evidence of this today in London’s many gin palaces, often now converted into gastropubs and bars; with their huge mirrored walls and ornate fittings, they are a beautiful evocation of London’s historic love affair with gin.
How do you solve a problem like malaria?
‘The gin and tonic has saved more Englishmen’s lives and minds than all the doctors in the Empire’ Winston Churchill.
While we certainly don’t look back on the Empire with a rosy perspective, it is an (un)sobering truth that gin and tonic played a vital role in establishing British rule in India. In the early days of the Empire parasitic diseases such as malaria had threatened to wipe out British troops, killing soldiers as well as government officials with deadly efficiency.
If Britain was to retain its grip on rule in India – and therefore the Empire itself, so important was India to the crown’s colonial ambition – malaria had to be stopped.
The answer? Quinine, an apparently miraculous cure originally procured from the bark of the cinchona tree, native to South America. Not only could this magic ingredient stop and prevent the spread of parasitic diseases, it also tasted pretty great when mixed with soda, sugar and – you guessed it – gin. An icon was born.
However, the G&T couldn’t save the Empire, and British Imperialism began to crash and burn in the latter part of the 19th century. For the G&T itself it was another story; the popularity of the drink began to spread beyond the confines of the army into the bars and pubs of Britain, and onto the high road of middle-class respectability.
Cocktail culture boomed. James Bond demanded gin as well as vodka in his famous ‘Vesper’ martini. Suddenly, gin was even endorsed by the British aristocracy (including the Queen Mother herself) adding a much-needed lacquer of glamour and gloss to the notion of fixing yourself a G&T.
But gin’s mid-century heyday came to an abrupt end. The late 70s and 80s saw it ousted by vodka on cocktail lists and in mixers, and as wine became more readily available, gin was left languishing at the back of the nation’s drinks cabinets.
Happily, the noughties has seen an incredible renaissance in this most resilient of tipples. Thanks to the influence of Don Draper and his penchant for a gin martini, as well as the resurgence of ‘craft culture’, focusing on traditional British recipes and local artisan products, the number of UK distilleries doubling over the last six years, and nearly 50 opening last year alone.
Here at The Society, we’re celebrating gin’s comeback with the launch of our Gin Club, so keep an eye out for our programme of gin and spirit-related content over the next few weeks.
We’ll be chatting to craft distilleries, musing on what makes the ultimate gin cocktail and more.
Try two of our new craft gins, fresh from London’s most exciting new distilleries.
Made at the site of a renovated former-glue factory in London’s East End (as charmingly illustrated by the ‘dead horse’ label!), Alex Wolpert – who founded the company in 2012 – makes this gin to a classic London Dry recipe. With a vibrant juniper bouquet and pink-grapefruit flavours developing on the palate, this is a very appealing and fresh-tasting gin. Great for a simple, but decadent, G&T. (70cl, 40%)
Jensen’s Bermondsey Gin
London’s dockland has an illustrous gin distilling history, coupled with a less-than-illustrous reputation as a former slum district fuelled by the 18th century gin craze. However, Chris Jensen is putting the area back where it belongs by recreating a traditional London gin at his distillery in the heart of Bermondsey. Juniper, citrus and intense coriander notes make this craft gin wonderful for a classic Martini. (70cl, 43%)
Around 11,000 members buy and enjoy our Society-label Rioja every year. One of them is Pete James from our Member Services team. Indeed, Pete wins the title of ‘quickest email reply in Staff Choice history’, so enthusiastic was he to recommend this wine.
Consistency is a virtue when it comes to Society-label wines, but feedback from both members and the press suggests that the current 2012 vintage is singing especially sweetly. We were very pleased to see that it was recently selected by Decanter Magazine as one of their 50 top ‘Best-buy Riojas’ – it was the best value of all 50 too!
Here’s why Pete was so quick on the button to sing its praises.
This is a wine that I have enjoyed for a very long time and is currently the preferred red in our household, which is no mean feat!
With this being such a staple wine I’ve really come to appreciate the consistent level of quality. No matter what quantity I purchase it in, it never lasts long (surely the perfect endorsement). This has led me to recommend it to many a friend and family member and I would urge anyone reading this to give it a try.
Nice and smooth with a little bit of oak, this is keenly priced everyday-drinking Rioja, which for my mind is very hard to beat. Over the years we’ve tried it with many different dishes (as well as on its own plenty of times), the most recent being a delicious rendang curry which worked an absolute treat.
Member Services Team Leader
£7.50 – Bottle
£90 – Case of 12
View Wine Details
Today is World Book Day, and it was great seeing so many young Harrys, Hermiones, Matildas, Mad Hatters, Megs and Mogs on their way to celebrate at school this morning.
That said, why should they have all the fun? As ‘wine is bottled poetry’ (Robert Louis Stevenson), we turned to our most bookish colleagues to ask for a few of their favourite literary libations.
The results are below for you to curl up with at your leisure. But, like wine, literature is an endless source of new discoveries…
…so if you’ve got a favourite passage or poem, please leave us a comment and let us know!
Accept what life offers you and try to drink from every cup. All wines should be tasted; some should only be sipped, but with others, drink the whole bottle.
Paulo Coelho, Brida
As I ate the oysters with their strong taste of the sea and their faint metallic taste that the cold white wine washed away, leaving only the sea taste and the succulent texture, and as I drank their cold liquid from each shell and washed it down with the crisp taste of the wine, I lost the empty feeling and began to be happy and to make plans.
Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast
Wine initiates us into the volcanic mysteries of the soil, and its hidden mineral riches; a cup of Samos drunk at noon in the heat of the sun or, on the contrary, absorbed of a winter evening when fatigue makes the warm current be felt at once in the hollow of the diaphragm and the sure and burning dispersion spreads along our arteries, such a drink provides a sensation which is almost sacred, and is sometimes too strong for the human head. No feeling so pure comes from the vintage-numbered cellars of Rome; the pedantry of great connoisseurs of wine wearies me.
Marguerite Yourcenar, Memoirs of Hadrian
The fragrant odour of the wine, O how much more dainty, pleasant, laughing (Riant, priant, friant.), celestial and delicious it is, than that smell of oil! And I will glory as much when it is said of me, that I have spent more on wine than oil, as did Demosthenes, when it was told him, that his expense on oil was greater than on wine.
François Rabelais, Gargantua & Pantagruel
I rejoiced in the Burgundy. It seemed a reminder that the world was an older and better place than Rex knew, that mankind in its long passion had learned another wisdom than his.
Evelyn Waugh, Brideshead Revisited
‘A Drinking Song’
Wine comes in at the mouth
And love comes in at the eye;
That’s all we shall know for truth
Before we grow old and die.
I lift the glass to my mouth,
I look at you, and I sigh.
…There’s wisdom in wine, goddam it!’ I yelled. ‘Have a shot!’
Jack Kerouac, The Dharma Bums
These recipes, while hopefully of use and interest to all, was written with the spring selections of our Wine Without Fuss subscription scheme particularly in mind. Wine Without Fuss offers regular selections of delicious wines… with the minimum of fuss!
Why not join the growing band of members who let their Society take the strain, and are regularly glad they do?
Molecular gastronomy, you’ve had your moment! Dry ice, foams and fizzes, move aside for those useful ingredients that happily absorb any others you may throw at them, depending on which bottle in your recently arrived Wine Without Fuss case you are most impatient to uncork.
I like to call this vehicular gastronomy, and you won’t find a better chassis than a chicken breast or an aubergine.
In the case of the chicken, I’m afraid needs must. Unless you happen to live on an island that time forgot, where chickens do what comes naturally, or you can justify the cost of a bird defined strictly by labyrinthine rules on breed, feed and, probably, what it’s allowed to read, bring on the garlic, pesto and garam masala.
By contrast, the aubergine needs neither towing nor jump-starting. It has a flavour engine of its own, not turbocharged, but definitely ticking over. Its glossy sheen draws me inexorably to those artfully piled ‘obo’s’ (sic) at the greengrocer’s. It matters not whether or not they were ripened by the sultry sun of the Levant: the ones grown in a Benelux hothouse can still do the designer haulage thing very nicely, and I’ll take half a dozen, please.
‘Versatile’ barely conveys its myriad applications. Consider (I can’t) an Indian take-away without a soft and shamelessly oily brinjal bhaji, or a Chinese one minus sea-spiced aubergine. The nearer east has countless variations on the theme, from baba ghanoush to imam bayildi: there are hundreds of recipes in Turkey alone as there are in any book by Yotam Ottolenghi. Moussaka, caponata, pasta alla norma and melanzane alla parmigiano bring us west and north, to the sunny tians of Provence, and an unforgettable dish I once had in Bordeaux – slices of aubergine, simply dusted with seasoned flour and fried, served alongside lamb so tender you could eat it with a spoon, and washed down with good claret.
If this sounds familiar, this is not my first paean to the aubergine. In fact, I said as much to Fuss subscribers many years ago when blogs were back pages that came with case notes. Online, I have space to go to town so in this, my last official Food Without Fuss blog post, after more, after more than a decade at the Wine and Dine coalface, I’m bowing out with a proper tribute.
Aubergines are ubiquitous, inexpensive and – you want more? – ready to do business with whatever you may have in the fridge or store-cupboard.
And I do mean ready. Salting is optional these days, and, as Jamie Oliver says, a microwave will reduce an aubergine to melting tenderness in 8 minutes flat (prick the skin first). I give thanks for this top tip every time I crave a squidgy little boat with a cargo of flavourful toppings that can be quickly flashed under the grill.
The recipe challenge for Easter has been whittling the possibilities down to a manageable six of the best, for casual snacking, for serving with the paschal lamb as those Bordelais did, or for inspiration at a time of year when seasonal produce may be a bit betwixt and between. The asparagus may be tardy and the Jersey royals, if the flag of residence is, indeed, up, at their wallet-wrenching dearest. An aubergine will always be there for you. Isn’t it time you loved it back?
It’s time to thank all readers of Food Without Fuss, firstly for reading,and also for the truly invaluable feedback I’ve received over the years, whether a resounding thumbs-up, a frank appraisal in the other direction or an impressive display of vigilance, most notably when I sent my fellow-members out for 800kg of fish for my Languedoc seafood pie. It’s been a blast, and you don’t get many of those with a fan oven!
I’m delivering the honour of writing this blog, and our Wine and Dine notes for ‘Fuss’ subscribers into very safe hands. They are those of my colleague Steve Farrow, The Society’s Database Editor by day, accomplished and adventurous cook at all other times. You’re in for a treat.
Janet Wynne Evans
Fine Wine Editor
Inspired by Claudia Roden’s carefully curated Mediterranean Cookery (BBC Books, 1987) this fuss-free dip, a variant of Baba Ganoush requires merely that you bake an aubergine until tender and mix the flesh with tahini paste, crushed garlic, lemon juice, a dash of thick yoghurt and seasoning, all to taste. Finish with a little olive oil and some chopped parsley and serve with flatbreads and black olives.
Wine: Like hummous (it must be the palate—coating tahini), this has a rapport with the piquancy of sauvignon. Try Saleta Moscatel-Sauvignon Blanc (Buyers’ Everyday Whites & £6.50) or Kaapzicht Chenin Blanc (Buyers’ Premium Whites & £7.95), accurately described by its producer as ‘chenin blanc for sauvignon lovers’.
There are countless throwaway recipes for this but the one I never discard belongs to Provence grand master Roger Vergé of Mougins, whose precision is palpable in Les Légumes de Mon Moulin (Flammarion, 1991). Slice your aubergine in half lengthwise and slice through the flesh to about a depth of about 2.5cm, stopping well clear of the skin,, in a diamond pattern. Rub in a lick of olive oil and a pinch of salt and bake, cut side down at 220C/Gas 7 for about 35 minutes, until tender.
Process the scooped flesh until tender, with a couple of peeled and deseeded tomatoes, half a clove of garlic, minced, and either a pinch of cayenne pepper or a few chopped basil leaves. Add a thin, steady stream of olive oil as for mayonnaise. About 150ml should suffice, unless your specimen is a veritable Titan from the Ray Harryhausen school of special effects. The texture should be luxuriously silky. I like to chill this slightly before bringing back to room temperature and serving with flatbreads and plump olives.
Wine: M Vergé is persuaded that the aubergine is a red wine kind of chap, recommending fruity southern Rhônes No shortage of this style in Easter Fuss, and I’d especially recommend Cairanne, Domaine Romain Roche 2014 (French Classic Reds), especially if you’ve gone the cayenne route. However, I love this with a, fragrant but upstanding white like Auzelles, Costers del Segre 2015 (Buyers’ Premium Whites & £9.95).
Simon Hopkinson’s Grilled Pesto Aubergines
The acknowledged Chefs’ Chef and my own personal pin up naturally preroasts his aubergines and makes his own superior pesto. Dare I suggest that this is such a glorious combination that you might get away with the quick Jamie method and a handy jar? I freely admit that I have.
To do it by the book – the seminal Roast Chicken and Other Stories (Ebury Press, 1994, and never, I think out of print since) – prepare and cook your aubergines exactly as above, but for a little less time, say 20-30 minutes. Remove for the oven, spread lavishly with your home-made pesto and grill until golden brown and bubbling. Mop up joyfully with a good baguette.
Wine: White is best here, and by all means play the Italian card with the concentrated, herb-friendly Orvieto Castagnolo (Buyers’ Premium Whites), but another good match is Limoux, Dédicace, Chateau Rives-Blanques 2014 (French Classic Whites & £11.50).
Steamy Oriental Aubergines
This light but natty roadster is fuelled by a five-star dressing comprising a couple of tablespoons each of rice wine (or dry sherry) and soy sauce, a teaspoon each of toasted sesame oil and clear honey, and a thumb of fresh root ginger, finely grated. Whisk all these together and put in a wide frying pan.
Steam two big aubergines, wedged into eighths, over a pan of simmering water for about 15 minutes. Let the steam subside before adding them to the dressing, on a low heat. Braise gently for five minutes or so until the dressing is absorbed. Scatter with toasted sesame seeds. The wedges will cool to a slight stickiness, lovely with chicken, lamb or fish, and equally toothsome in a salad with crunchy leaves or blanched mangetout.
Wine: on the guiding principle of a bit of grapy richness with salt, especially if there’s some honey about, I’d plump for Australia, where they know a thing or two about fusion cuisine, and go for Felix Swan Hill Victoria Chardonnay-Viognier 2016 (Buyers’ Premium Whites & £8.75). If serving with lamb, I’d plump for the sweet fruit of Wakefield Promised Land Shiraz 2015 (Buyers’ Everyday Reds & £7.75).
This bold dressing for grilled aubergines kicks off with a good pinch each of cumin and coriander seeds, dry-toasted with a couple of black peppercorns until they are dancing in the pan. If you bought a bag of dried poeja (pennyroyal) while on holiday in Portugal and are wondering what to do with it, now’s your chance! Lovers of smoked paprika or pimientón could add a pinch of that too, sweet or hot as you like.
Transfer this rhythm section to a small saucepan with a tablespoon of top-notch sherry vinegar, a dash of lemon juice and 5 tablespoons of fruity olive oil. You’ll need some coriander or parsley later on, so separate the leaves and pop the stalks into the dressing. Apply heat and as things begin to sizzle, take the pan off the hob and leave the contents to infuse for as long as it takes for the oil to cool.
Strain the dressing over your grilled aubergines while they are still warm and serve at room temperature with country bread and perhaps a platter of Ibérico ham.
Wine: an embarrassment of Iberian and hispanic richesse awaits in the Easter Wine Without Fuss selections. Our appealing Alentejo find Monte da Ravasqueira Tinto 2015 (Buyer’s Premium Reds & £8.95) will do admirably and my favourite white with these bold flavours is the intriguing Boplaas Cape Portugese White Blend (Buyers’ Everyday Whites & £6.95).
An Effortless Easter Curry
Aubergine is heavenly curry fodder, whether with lamb, or leftover turkey or, best of all in a vegetarian subzi dish. You can feed four people on one big aubergine, a large onion, thickly sliced, and a fat clove of garlic supplemented with pumpkin, sweet potato, green pepper and okra – about 600g in total, and all cut into generous bite-sized pieces as the aubergine should be.
Starting with the onion, simply brown everything in a bit of groundnut oil, stirring in a good pinch of your favourite spice mix and a crumbled red chilli to taste, remembering that you want to taste the wine too. Add can of light coconut cream and a generous squeeze of tomato puree. Bring to the boil, cover and simmer gently until the vegetables are tender and the juices thickened. At this stage you might wish to add a few cooked chickpeas for extra crunch, a generous scoop of thick yoghurt and some chopped coriander leaves. Serve with your favourite flatbread or rice.
To make use of that surplus Easter turkey, replace the extra vegetables with 500g cooked meat along with the coconut cream, bring to the boil and bake for 40 minutes or so at 190C/Gas 5, until the turkey is piping hot.
To give it a Greek or middle-eastern vibe, brown 500g generously cubed lamb neck fillet first, before adding your onion, garlic and aubergine. Instead of coconut milk, use stock or wine, and instead of curry spices, try dried oregano, za’atar and sweet, mild spices like ginger, cumin and cinnamon. Bake at 180C/Gas 4 for a couple of hours until tender.
Wine: Step forward multi-tasking Zarcillo Bío-Bío Gewürztraminer 2015 (Buyers’ Everyday Whites & £6.50) but I was also impressed with the spice-busting savvy of Boplaas ‘Tinta Chocolat’ Tinta Barocca (Buyers’ Premium Reds) which put in me in mind of the sweetness and layered spicing of Cape Malay cuisine. If you’re making the Greek or middle-eastern version, try the The Little Prince Cretan Red, Karavitakis 2014 (Buyers’ Premium Reds).