Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Wine Corks (probably again, as I go on about it)

I do not like to write about wine nowadays. I’m just an ordinary punter again.
When I had written masses of articles and 14 books, mainly on wine and vines, and was tasting some 2,000 wines a year, I knew, more or less, what I was about – especially with lower cost wines.
When I did write on the subject, I hope that I made it well known that you can learn almost as much about a wine from the bottle corks as from the labels stuck to the outside. That is still true.
A lot of wine is bottled with nondescript cork brands so that the bottles can be labelled and sold as wines that dealers think will sell. This not only applies to “plonk” but to wines in the highest bracket – as I learned once at an upper class white Burgundy tasting.
This cork business was brought to my notice of late when wines from Italy, Spain and France, bought in a supermarket that exists here and elsewhere in Europe, bore the same marked plastic corks.
These wines tasted of their origin, so must have been shipped in bulk to Germany and bottled there with “etiquettes” (labels, etc.) stuck on that may have been shipped along with the wine.
At this same supermarket I bought a test bottle of a wine made near Barcelona that was so “original” and delicious that Margreet and I rushed back to buy more. But I was fooled. It, too, had gone from Spain to Germany to be bottled and labelled there – though it was none the worse for this treatment. The plastic cork, though, was different, being longer and unmarked. The bottling must have been a special one for a better wine. “Corks can speak”.
I am not in favour of plastic corks in any form, and, because of them, conscious of the decline of cork forests and those who work in the cork industry. So I would like to see real corks back in the place of plastic. However, screw-top bottle closures for minor wines, or even major ones, make sense. They are convenient, easy to open and close, and save time.
When I started to write on wine in the early 1980s, wine writers were recommending wine in the top price bracket. So I had the jump on them by writing on supermarket wine – then at under £2 a bottle.
Now I notice that newspaper-recommended wines are, once more, in the upper bracket price range – often astronomically so. You do not have to buy expensive wine to enjoy good wine.
Judicious selection when visiting France is still an excellent way of buying wine – but beware the offloading of unsuccessful wine at Channel ports.
It is now an especially good time to buy in France, with 2009 and 2010 examples on the shelves.
But if tasting a bottle of wine before buying more – look at the cork. It will tell you so much.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Cheese and garlic pancake for drinks

Margaret Costa, the well-known cookery writer at the time, was coming to dinner and my then girl friend decided to make a gougère. It was not a success, being rather flat and solid. But our culinary guest loved the result. There must, I thought, be an easier and quicker way of making such a delicious failure. A taste-alike, quick-to-make equivalent was needed for times when people were invited for drinks on the spur of the moment. The following was the result. Everyone loves it - especially children. It is not just a Shrove Tuesday treat, but one to be enjoyed at any time of the year - especially with drinks. And as I am often asked for the recipe, here it is.


You will need:
Self-raising flour
Baking powder
Salt and pepper
Turmeric (for colour and optional)
Chilli powder (optional)
An Egg
Dijon mustard
Cheddar cheese (or a stronger kind)
Olive oil

Put plenty of olive oil into a frying pan. Into it press a clove or two of garlic, spreading it evenly around.. Heat up the pan until the garlic begins to turn colour. Turn off the heat.
Into a mixing bowl sieve 3 ½ heaped dessert spoons of self-raising flour, into which you have added salt, pepper, a level teaspoon of baking powder, 1/8 teaspoon of turmeric and 1/8 teaspoon of chilli powder.
Break a large egg so that its contents fall into a depression in the centre of the sifted flour. To it, add a good dollop of Dijon mustard.
Have ¼ pint of milk at the ready, as well as some grated Cheddar cheese.
Break the egg with a whisk and start to stir the egg and mustard from the centre outwards, adding the milk as you go. Keep stirring and beating until the batter is smooth and free of even the smallest lumps. Or I’m sure a blender would do the same job.
Now put maximum heat under the pan with its oil/garlic mix.
Add the grated Cheddar to your batter. Stir again.
Now pour in the mixture to coat the bottom of the pan evenly. The edges will just rise. Immediately reduce the heat to very low and wait until the bubbling mix begins to dry out on its upper surface. This will take about 20 to 25 minutes (depending on the heat and the pan),
It is now time to toss the pancake - or turn it over as best you can. Make sure the pancake is not stuck to the pan in any way. Shake the pan or use a spatula to be certain.
Tossed, with its brown and garlic side now uppermost, with the point of a knife cut small holes slits in the browned surface to allow steam to escape from within. For a moister interior, don’t bother.
Cooking will take about a further 10 minutes. Lift an edge to inspect the under side. When cooked and golden brown, turn off the heat and, if the guests have not yet arrived, allow the pancake to keep warm in the pan.
Turn the pancake on to a board. Cut it into small pieces.
With my frying pan, and with gas heat from a large ring at its lowest setting, the whole cooking process takes 30 - 35 minutes. So just over half an hour before guests arrive for drinks I start to cook the pancake.
If more convenient, the simple preparation can be accomplished hours before the pancake is needed. Then, note the time, add the liquid, whisk the mix, and cook as above.
It is a good idea to make quite a lot of the mixture if guests for a party will be arriving over the period of an hour or two. Then, as you leave the kitchen with the first hot pancake, add some more oil, garlic and mixture to the frying pan - and so on. The success of this delicious pancake will surprise you, and delight your guests. Children love it, too. But don’t tell the young about the garlic, as some don’t like the sound of it.
If children are present, get them to hand around these pancake squares. Reward them. Like dogs, if given a job to do, they (and you) will be happy.


Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Wasps and Drains

Jorgen, a grape-grower in our street, complained to me that wasps in large numbers were tackling his crop. Had I seen any nests?

Now, I’m rather adept at locating the homes of these little varmints, being given the task as a boy and when I worked on a farm. In those days Cyanide was the substance for destruction, which now seems incredible.

So I gave yet another look at gardens within sight of our own. There were no nests to be seen.

We were having 6 o’clock drinks in the garden of a partially sighted friend, Anne, in a nearby street, when Margreet, facing the garden, saw a lot of insect activity. It came from a wasp nest in the roof of the house extension. It was a huge nest, but unusual, inasmuch as there was no single entry and exit hole, but lots - all in between slates.

I volunteered to deal with the problem, returning when all the wasps had returned home for the night.

Nowadays, wasp killer comes as a white powder, and is easily applied from a plastic container.

So I climbed a ladder and squirted powder into the many cracks that I had seen used by the wasps.

The next day it rained in the early morning. Had my powder been effective?

In the light rain, all traces of the powder had been washed away. But there was not a wasp in sight. Sunny weather returned and I re-inspected the roof. The powder had been completely successful. Our district will at least be wasp-reduced for the remainder of the summer.

The rain that washed away my wasp-killing powder coincided with a blocked drain at the rear of our house. Something was preventing water from the roof, sink and washing machine from escaping to the main sewer. Where was this blockage? And what might it be? The use of caustic soda had no beneficial effect.

When our terrace of six houses was built in the 1830s there would have been no drainage. An alleyway was provided at the bottom of our gardens for night soil to be collected and dispensed with.

Later, a sewer was installed in the gardens, running the length of our terrace, which may have deposited the effluent in the nearby Thames. Then the Victorian sewer was built beneath the street outside. So now our waste liquid travels one way under our gardens at the rear and then turns right and right again to join the Victorian sewer to run back below and in front of our front doors. It is well-travelled sewage.

At one time the garden sewer for our houses became blocked, and we had to locate our inspection covers and open them - to view the overflowing liquid detritus before the blockage was dealt with and the drain cleared.

So when our sink water, etc. overflowed at the back of our house, the first thing to do was to see if there was, perhaps, another main blockage. But the pipes were seen to be clear when a retired doctor friend, Mike, at the end of the terrace, lifted the drain cover in his garden with the help of a sharp spade and lumps of wood.

So the blockage was local and belonging to our house.

Some water was extracted from the drain in a small jug. Then a flexible drain rod, borrowed from my sister June, was inserted into the drain, but proved to be ineffective.

Then Mike and I removed some flagstones in our garden to find and then lift off the cast-iron drain-inspection cover. The drain beneath was clear.

Therefore, somewhere between that sewer drain and the house was the blockage.

From where house drainpipes join the sewer, up the blocked pipe went the flexible drain rod for its full length, touching nothing. So the trouble must have been in the U-bend drain just outside the house.

There was only one thing to do. I rolled up my sleeve, lay on the wet and muddy earth and plunged my arm down the dark and caustic soda water to pull out handfuls of mostly white plaster – until, eureka, away flowed the murky liquid to where it should have gone in the first place. And it was bloody water, too, as I had somehow cut my hand in the operation.

We had had an extension made to the house 19 years before, when the plasterer must have thought that excess plaster would happily flush away if poured down this drain. It didn’t. But also it didn’t completely block the drain.

Gunge, over the years, must have been slowly building up on the plaster, now extracted and waiting in a pile nearby for disposal. But it won’t go back down the drain. That’s for sure.