Friday, July 31, 2009

To Dieppe, 24 July 2009

A few days before leaving for foreign parts one begins to think of what to take in the luggage, and to look at a list of “reminders”.
A glance before leaving this last time revealed, quite naturally, no mention of “teeth”. Had there been I might have taken more serious notice of a slight tooth ache that was being subdued by the application of neat TCP.
At the same time I should have connected the facts that, even to me, my breath smelled strange, and that I had a bad tooth.
A day before we were due to leave it felt as if the offending tooth was rising from its painful socket. Moreover, whenever I closed my jaw the protruding and painful wisdom tooth was the first to make contact with others.
We go to France to eat – among other things. So to be unable to enjoy French food without pain was a prospect not to be contemplated.
Margreet almost forced me to visit the dentist for an emergency appointment. She was absolutely right to do so. The tooth was extracted to my great relief.
Less one tooth (the first ever to have departed my jaw) we set off the following day for, unusually for us, a summer crossing of the Channel.
Because of the crowds of parents and children, coupled with the sea of rollers being funnelled into the Channel from the Bay of Biscay on a westerly wind, for Margreet to have booked a cabin was another piece of wisdom aforethought.
I write about Dieppe quite often, the changes over the years, the restaurants, people and history, because the town is really our second home in France – a home without the hassle of actually owning a house abroad.
We were last there barely four months ago. The changes in that short space of time were considerable for such an unchanging port. The recession had arrived. Shops (many) had closed and been re-opened by other hopefuls. Sales were in progress everywhere – and at the height of the holiday season. The place, mid-week, seemed to be only a little busier than in winter months.
The cancaillerie, where we bought Pro Ven Di soap, taps for our mother of vinegar jars, and accoutrements for winemaking and bottling, had closed for good.
Piles of scrap metal sat waiting on the dockside, waiting for times when steel would be more in demand – the gathering rust not making a lot of difference to its value. And on the quayside near to where the ferry pulls in to dock, the usual few piles of ballast were now enormous, with aggregates unwanted for building work.
And yet, a change of quite unnecessary expenditure was to be seen outside our favourite bar, the Café de la Paix, at the very hub of port and town activity. A monstrous bronze sculpture had been placed where before had been a hump roundabout. It depicts three mutilated women. Perhaps an awful disease had struck down the females of France in our absence and been commemorated. Or is it that, as I have been told, French men rather fancy crippled women. Who knows?
On the optimistic side, bars and restaurants were doing great business, like the New Haven, where it was necessary to book a table at week-ends or take a chance and arrive before 7 o’clock or after 9.
As a spectator sport, to see human kind and sheer efficiency of waiting and restaurant organisation, I can think of few places better to do it than at the Tout Va Bien Brasserie on a busy week-end evening or lunchtime.
On market day (Saturday), the main thoroughfare was packed with people and goodies. So there was certainly no sign of recession there.
And to relax after a good meal on a still summer’s evening, there are few more spectacular places for food to settle than to stand on the rounded seaside stones to watch an orange sun slide slowly into a deep blue sea, leaving behind a few coloured clouds. But in Dieppe it is often windy, and wet, too.
That dark blue sea must have been full of mackerel, because Maqueraux Mariné was on most menus. But scallops (the speciality for the seamen and diners of Dieppe), were resting safely on the sea bed, being out of season (15April – 15 October).
A bonus point on this visit was that a small booklet, called “The Taste of Dieppe”, was back, with its original author, Peter Avis, in command.
The booklet told us each year about where to eat and much more about the seaside town and its environs.
For some reason or other he had been no longer the author of it. Now he had regained his rightful place as a genuine informer of vital information for the interested tourist. Copies are available at no cost from the Tourist Information Office in the centre of town.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Wine Age

We buy low priced Champagne in France and leave the bottles untouched for at least a year, if not several more. This modest laying down of wine works wonders with Champagne.
But, when celebrating something the other day, a bottle had slipped through the net and had become oxidised (loss of charm and a bit heavy, coarse). So the wine was turned into excellent Champagne cocktails (usually made with cheaper fizz) with the addition of sugar, Cognac, Angostura Bitters, and one drop only per glass of real vanilla essence – and ice.
So the subject of laying down wine surfaced.
Most wines nowadays are made to be drunk soon after being purchased. This means that they have been made quickly in stainless steel at minutely controlled temperatures, micro filtered and sulphured. Those with a high alcohol content will keep longer, but most might as well be drunk right away.
Wines that will improve by being laid down are distinguishable by their region (mainly Bordeaux and Burgundy in France), price (high), and cork.
Close inspection of the cork may tell you more about the wine than bottle shape, price or label. Wines that the producer considers to be worth ageing will use long (real) corks that will be branded with the maker’s name, château, and often date (classy white Burgundy is sometimes an exception, where unbranded corks and swapping can occur).
A bottle with a short cork, granular (agglomerated) or horrible plastic, will tell you that you might as well swill down the contents right away.
Laying down wines will have been made with longer contact between juice, pips and skins, rested in oak barrels, and barely filtered, if at all. This all costs money and people’s time – hence the cost. The reds will contain raw tannins that pucker the mouth.
So, for how long should you lay down these wines, and in what conditions?
The conditions do not matter a great deal – whatever you are told to the contrary. I have kept wine for years in many places and conditions, but have never allowed the temperature in which they have been kept to rise or fall quickly.
In February 1968 I imported a hogshead of Bilbainas Rioja from Spain and bottled its contents – 350 bottles when I lived in London’s dockland. It may already have had up to 4 years in cask. Cellar book comments that I made in ’69, ’70, ’73 and ’77 all note that the wine, delicious when bottled, improved splendidly. At 10 years in bottle it was as good a wine as first class claret. For its second 10 years it remained a good wine but faded away slowly.
In 1968 I bought 8 dozen Château Cantenac Brown 1959 from J. Lyons Wine Cellars at the Hop Exchange, London, where all bottles were returned to be cleaned, filled again, and labelled by a little old lady with glue paste and brush. (She also labelled cheap Hock with grand labels for royalty.)
The wine was the best I can ever recall having tasted. Tested for note-taking in ’68, ’70 and ’72, it was still wonderful and with years in hand. In 1979 (20 years old) it was “…still a good glass…” But in 1993 (32 years old), commenting on the very last bottle, it was “…way beyond its wonderful self, still smelling nice and with good initial taste, but a lost finish”. I added to the note: ”Farewell dear old friend”.
These wines were part of my wine learning curve, and before many of the modern style wines entered the market.
Serious laying down of wines has now mainly become a rich person’s game. But it is worth an experimental try by buying a few bottles of the same wine and making notes when consuming one of them each year.
I have seen Australian reds, and especially whites, improve with bottle age, but mainly before they started to ape the lighter wines of Europe. It would be well worth the experiment of keeping some full flavoured and alcohol-ridden wines from both new and old worlds.
I count myself most lucky to have lived through and been interested in this product of the grape in an age (certainly the 1960s) when good claret was still a modestly-priced, everyday wine.
The choice of wines presently available is huge and wonderful. There must be plenty that won’t break the bank and be worth testing over time.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Potato Pancakes

A Jewish method is one of the quickest, easiest, most economical and delicious ways of cooking potatoes. So the recipe is very useful if you have reached home late, nothing is immediately available to eat, and you are hungry. Use these potato pancakes on their own, with other vegetables, with fried eggs, bacon, chops, hamburgers, cold meats, corned beef or fish fingers, etc.


For these you will need:
Pepper and salt
Oil, dripping or oil and butter
Onion (optional)
Cheese (optional)
Egg (optional)
Nutmeg (optional)

Heat a generous quantity of olive oil, cooking oil, or a mixture of oil and butter in a frying pan. Now, on to a plate or into a bowl grate well-washed potatoes. It is not necessary to peel them. Add pepper and salt, and a little grated onion if desired. Do not at this stage delay or the potatoes will discolour.
Spoon the mixture into the hot oil and flatten into small, thin pancakes. Make absolutely sure that each is separated from its neighbours. Cook until brown beneath and then turn them over until glowing brown on both sides. Drain the oil from each and, if thought necessary, place on kitchen paper to drain further.
Some grate the potatoes into a bowl and add salt, later squeezing out the moisture before dealing with them. Others grate cheese into the bowl before adding an egg and the grated potato. Nutmeg is sometimes added to these pancakes.
Serve with what you will.


The following is, like the pancake recipe above, simple to make, and delicious to eat with drinks.


You will need:
An egg
Grated cheese
Olive oil
Pepper and salt
Flour (plain or self-raising)
Tabasco (optional)
Dijon mustard (optional)
A grated potato

Into a bowl break an egg. Add a little water and whisk. Now add half that volume of plain or self-raising flour. Whisk again. Now add half the present volume of grated cheese (any). Put in some milled pepper and salt. Add a little Dijon mustard and a shake of Tabasco, if they are at hand. Now grate in a peeled, medium-sized potato.
Mix what you have together and put it into a frying pan containing hot olive oil. Flatten it out with a spatula and turn down the heat to its lowest. When the underside is glowingly brown, toss or turn the pancake. Cook until quite done – about 20 to 25 minutes in all.
Place the pancake on to a board and cut it into small squares. Eat the morsels when hot.

Saturday, July 04, 2009