Post-Election Sardines

Today. Today is not a good day, and was never going to be a good day. Today is a day on which to find objects of gratitude rather than (as is the temptation) of rage.

So, today, I bought sardines.

Sardines, four of the buggers — whole — for under £1.50, are the kind of thing I buy whenever I see them — irrespective of weather, mood or recent national tragedy. Sardines are the polar opposite of the choice in front of me on yesterday’s ballot paper: you can’t go wrong with sardines.

Today, you want a largely hands-free dinner, don’t you? So you can concentrate on drinking. Sardines are your friend. As is roast cauliflower. This is pretty much my favourite way to eat what can be a somewhat dull vegetable. Rather than boiling it, I break it into chunks (not too small) and leaves (for Christ’s sake, don’t throw away the leaves) and chuck it onto a baking tray. Slosh over plenty of olive oil, season with your characteristic generosity, and whack into an oven at 180 degrees centigrade or so (200 for a conventional oven) for 25 minutes. The leaves crisp up and the florets brown. When it comes out of the oven, squeeze a good quarter of lemon over it and serve.

Meanwhile, the sardines. You wipe them clean of any stray scales, lay them on your grill, season and grill under a high heat. The skin blisters and blackens after a few minutes. Turn them and do the same on the other side. Then you’re done.

I had mine, today, with a glass or four of the Wine Society’s very good White Rioja. Lemony, dry, full.

Still, though, somehow — at the end of it — I still had a bitter taste in my mouth.

A plate of sardine bones
Oh, could it be a visual metaphor too?

The Best Wine I Drank All Week

In which Old Parn touts his latest guest post — an attention-seeking spiel about the circumstantial merits of mediocre Pinot Grigio.

A cold bottle of Pinot Grigio made by HardysHow does a cheap, mass-produced bottle of mediocre Pinot Grigio become The Best Wine You Drank All Week?

That’s the question I pose in my latest guest post for eVines. As a bonus, you also get to find out how your hero came to be mesmerising the rural population of Kent with a natty pair of white disposable slippers, and encounter vaguely slapstick anecdotes involving cow pooh.

WHAT’S NOT TO LIKE?

Anyhow, please be my guest and read the whole thing over at eVines.

Portugal diary finale: wine, branding & stories

In which Old Parn concludes his Portuguese wanderings with a delicious dinner at Afros Winery, and is moved to meditate upon wine and the ancient art of the story

Here’s part two of my final day in Portugal (grab a look at part 1 if you missed it, yeah?)

Two crosses on a red-tiled roof and, in the background, a view of sun-bathed countryside, hills and skySo — for our final tastes of the Vinho Verde region we found ourselves at Afros.

Well, strictly speaking, they weren’t my final tastes of the trip — which were my pre-flight breakfast of yoghurt and jasmine tea, and my in-flight sandwich of reconstituted dead children of which I took but one traumatic bite.)

But let’s not dwell on that, eh? Back to Afros. (Two words of warning for that link: 1. the website doesn’t do the winery justice, and 2. IT PLAYS MUSIC AT YOU WITHOUT YOUR ASKING IT TO. So beware.)

Vasco Croft of Afros is a biodynamic wine producer. He tries to do things in a natural kind of way. The upshot of this is that he preserves biodiversity (in other words, tries to grow vines in harmony with, rather than in replacement of, all that other nature stuff that exists), he keeps bees, his grass is grazed by roaming sheep, and he concocts exotic potions from, um, walnuts and stuff? Or whatever that is in those jars.

In the foreground, a large jar of walnuts; in the background, green leavesNow, people who are far better informed than I have strong views on this stuff. I’m not going to venture into that territory, because, honestly, beyond an instinctive, kneejerk scepticism, I don’t know squat. And, in any case, what you want of me — am I right? — is shallow, superficial aesthetic observations and predictable bouts of strained humour. So if you’re hoping for Old Parn’s rigorous deconstruction of the principles of biodynamism, I’m afraid you might be better cutting your losses and fucking off somewhere more scholarly.

What struck me about Vasco was that this is a man who has opinions, who feels. Coincidentally, I’d scribbled (in that achingly tedious way I have) in my notebook, earlier in the day, a little memorandum: ‘Knowing about wine vs understanding wine… FEELING wine’.

(Hat-tip to Freya Reinsch for getting my old brain churning along these lines, thanks to a remark she made on the distinction between knowing & understanding wine.)

And I think this is pretty important. Because so much is spoken and written about wine that insulates it from everything else. Puts it in the lab, hermetically sealed. Obviously this approach has its place, but for me wine is all about experience. On its own, I’m not really interested in wine, you know? I’m interested in what wine makes people feel. In the crossover between wine and people. Wine and stories. Wine and emotion. Wine and laughter.

It’s like the difference between being interested in a painting and being interested in paint.

A bottle of Afros sparkling wine, black-labeled, on a white tablecloth

And, at Afros, we got painting. We drank Sparkling Loureiro Reserve on the terrace, looking out over dusky vineyards, soaked in slow evening sun. To me, this was hands down the best sparkling Vinho Verde we tasted. But, you know what? It might not have been, objectively speaking. I honestly can’t tell you. But it felt fucking awesome.

Then we ate. De-goddamn-licious. Monkfish and orange. Sardine and lime… Lovely combinations — regional elements with a global twist. And beautifully matched to Afros’ wines. In each case, Vasco told us about the food we were eating: its origins, the reasons for its pairing with the wine.

Finally, after an intriguing (and excellent) fortified, Port-style red — and some gob-hoofing grappa — I found myself (alarmedly) in the unaccustomed position of after-dinner speaker. A position to which I was elected, ad hoc, on account of my ‘wonderful Oxford English’. Unlike the occasion on which I found myself compelled to make an unprepared speech at the end of our school Christmas dinner (aged 13) — a humiliating memory that still kicks me in the emotional bollocks each time I recall it — I was fortunately able to think of something to say other than ‘Thank you.’ I said that, as well as offering us hospitality, giving us delicious food and wine, he’d also inspired us with his passion — and, most of all, with his stories.

Portrait of Vasco Croft, talking to an audience, off-camera. In the background, out of focus, Vinho Verde countryside, a spired church, bathed in evening sunlight

In his reply, he cast himself as something akin to a figurehead or conduit. ‘I, the winemaker, am really just the last stage of a process that goes so much deeper.’ An ancient process. An old, old story, whose beginnings are obscure.

And I cast my mind back (not that hard, because it’s only a day ago that I wrote it) to my post about the surprising lack of ‘commercialism’ in many of the winemakers we visited. And realise that ‘commercialism’ isn’t necessarily what I mean, at root. What I mean is simpler (and potentially more innocent). I mean a story.

Because here’s the thing: we’re all people, and we’re all build around these wobbly, fragile, sporadic hearts. And we can’t help but respond to the other wobbly, fragile, sporadic hearts around us. This is what the fucking thing is all about. And by the fucking thing, I mean life. Right? And it’s stories that span those gaps between us. If I’m grabbed by a story that give me a sense of a passion, a journey — this will stay with me longer than any number of statistics about residual sugar, acidity and alcohol levels.

That’s all branding is: imbuing a product with people and passion and stories.

And, yes, it’s the man who says he doesn’t give a crap about marketing and fashions and the like who (as far as I’m concerned) did the best job of actually creating a brand. Because he knows his wine, sure — but he also knows his story.

(Now he just needs a website that tells it as well as he does.)

Edit: I’m not the only one, it turns out, to admire Vasco and his wines. Have a read of Robert McIntosh’s thoughts on the Afros experience.

Smoked trout and Saumur: wine pairing

In which a drool-inducingly acidic Saumur Chenin Blanc proves the perfect foil for a smokey old trout

A bottle of Saumur, fresh and frosted from the fridge, stands bathed in afternoon sunshine. Your gob is watering already.

A quick blast from the Parn. Less of a review; more of a passing observation I thought I’d share with y’all.

We just had a bottle of Saumur alongside some smoked trout from Inverawe Smokehouses. A damn fine lunch, mark ye. But also a reminder that the right wine/food match can be fucking sublime.

On its own, Les Andides Saumur is certainly on the bracing side — like a dip in ice-cold riverwater for your tastebuds. It’s pretty dashed acidic stuff, and you’d be salivating like a rabid dog if you drank more than a glass of it without food.

Sharp, fresh, clean stuff.

With the smoked trout, it was perfect. That acidity was taken into hand by the salt’n’smoke, allowing the wine to sing in its modest, mineral-laced kind of way.

There was no awkward drooling.

A more peaceable, smooth’n’fruity number would’ve been left dead on the side of the road in the wake of that trout. Hoofing, strong, salty flavours don’t take no prisoners.

Les Andides Saumur costs £7.11 from Waitrose Wines. You might’ve expected it to be made from Sauvignon Blanc, given its Loirey home, but it’s actually 100% Chenin Blanc, that other (undersung) white hero of the Loire. 12% ABV.
Approbatory side-note, meanwhile, to Inverawe Smokehouses, who supplied my parents with extra smoked trout for easter (free) in recompense for delayed delivery back amidst those Christmas snows we had. Good chaps.

Moroccan wine and food in Marrakech

… in which Old Parn chronicles his imbibitions during a brief sojourn to the city of Marrakech in Morocco — including Medaillon Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Sauvignon

Three women in colourful Moroccan dress walk along a road shiny with recent rainfall

I return to your screen, dear reader, revitalised by a brief sojourn to the city of Marrakech. A city where the streets are narrow and the mopeds are fast.

Composite image. On the left, a man rides his moped through a crowded Moroccan souk; on the right, a narrow Marrakech street

This is not the place for an exhaustive travel diary (indeed, there is no place for an exhaustive travel diary. Because that crap is boring as hell.) So I’ll limit myself to the tastes of Marrakech.

And what tastes, what tastes.

I think of bitter lacings of the chargrill, the zing of salt and lemon, the matt tang of cheese. Cinnamon, sugar, prune and lamb. Thrilling collisions of sweet and savoury.

An array of Moroccan starters in beautiful, multicoloured earthenware bowls

And the wine? Well.

Wine ain’t all that easy to come by in Morocco. Religion’n’all, y’know? But most any restaurant seems to have a few bottles around.

A golden-labelled bottle of Medaillon wine, as served in a Marrakech restaurantSo, during our stay, we sampled Medaillon Sauvignon Blanc, Medaillon Cabernet Sauvignon and a Syrah the name of which I foolishly neglected to note. All were Moroccan.

Impressions? Curious beasts, the lot of ’em — the white perhaps most odd of all (a slight tingle of fizz, stewy fruit, decaying blossoms), but all far from usual. A common feature seemed to be a whopping old dose of residual sugar (both reds had a mild whiff of communion wine to them), meaning that all three were far sweeter than you’d expect.

Finesse-wise, they were sorely lacking. But, you know what? In the context, they were damn nice. Perhaps simply because, after a day of being harangued, near-run-over, sun-beaten and bewildered, an alcoholic relaxant was delicious in any form. But also, I suspect, because Moroccan cuisine is so impressive in its marrying of the sweet and the savoury that many finer wines would’ve been entirely out of their depth. Paired with the food, all that sugar actually made a lot more sense.

And, y’know, sometimes (yes, it may sound heretical, but I’ll say it) — sometimes, the wine is just a backdrop.

Anyhow, normal reviewing service will be resumed shortly. Meanwhile, I cordially invite you to peruse my photographs of Marrakech, should you so desire…