Italy can be tricky

I have always struggled with Italian wine. I don’t mean I have struggled to drink it (almost always a pleasure) but as a topic to learn about in the wine sense – it’s mammoth, and it’s tricky. This probably has something to do with the fact that Italy, as a country, wasn’t actually fully unified as we know it today until sometime around 1870 (I apologise for my vagueness – dates were never my strong point). Pretty much the entire of Italy produces wine, and I mean everyone; from the big big producers right down to the local postman with a few rows of vines in his back garden. And up until relatively recently they were all doing it completely differently with different grape varieties and different vinification techniques. It took a long time to modernise the Italian wine industry in terms of production because of this fragmentation. It produces some truly incredible wine (and of course food) in a range of different styles; the one helpful trick is that local food and local wine tend to go together so if you’re ever lucky enough to find yourself in Italy you don’t need to worry too much about your food and wine pairings – this should happen pretty organically.

This week I bought an Italian white and 2 Italian reds to have at home. Two out of the three were fairly successful purchases. The disappointing third was probably my fault as I reverted to the good old tactic of buying a wine based on the label. In my defence this does sometimes work but it’s a lazy way to buy wine and it serves me right.

Malvira’ Roero Arneis – £10.99

Arneis is the grape variety and Roero is the region which can be found to the south of Piedmont in the north west corner of Italy. Arneis means ‘rascal’ in Piedmontese, so called because it is such a difficult grape to grow. The Malvira’ is a great example of the fantastic wines that can be produced from this grape and region. A beautifully delicate nose of stone fruits and pears with the merest hint of rose petals and a firm streak of minerality. The palate is savoury, more so than the nose suggests, with flavours of green apples and minerals with relatively high acidity and a lovely buttery texture. For such an elegant wine it is actually quite full bodied and would go with all manner of fish dishes, grilled chicken or antipasti.

Tesco Finest Barbera d’Asti Superiore 2009 – £7.29

We can stay in Piedmont while we talk about this wine, Asti being the village it’s from and Barbera being the grape. Perhaps less recognisable as a grape than Sangiovese or Montepulciano it is nonetheless one of the most planted grape varieties in Italy. Ruby red in colour this wine has a nose of cherries and a hint of drink fruit and sweet spice. These flavours follow through on the palate but with more of a white pepper spice and earthiness. It’s nice and pleasant but lacks a bit of depth. What did confuse me is that it’s described on the bottle as being ‘rich and full’. It’s not. This is on the thin side of medium bodied. Nonetheless it’s enjoyable and its tannins give the wine a decent structure. I might try a glass of this with my lamb tomorrow.

Piccini Super Tuscan 2008 Toscana – £8.99

The term ‘Super Tuscan’ can be applied to any wine from Tuscany that does not adhere to the tight legal restrictions of the region in terms of grape varieties and winemaking techniques. The first Super Tuscan was Sassicaia which is now hailed as one of the great wines of the world. There have been many since then which have been extremely high in terms of quality, normally full bodied, modern styles of red wine which often use Cabernet Sauvignon as the dominant grape. Let me be clear – this is not one of those wines. Sadly the Piccini was a real disappointment; a mediocre nose was followed by a palate that lacked any real depth of flavour or body. I also feel a little ripped off as this cost almost a full £2 more than the Barbera d’Asti.

What have we learnt today – don’t judge a wine by its label! As if I didn’t already know that… Luckily the other two wines (especially the Roero Arneis) have made up for it.

Languedoc wines and a delicious dinner


I was absolutely beside myself with excitement last week to be invited to a tasting of a selection of Languedoc wines followed by a delicious dinner at the Ampersand Hotel in South Ken. It was a fantastic evening with some exceptional wines and a real chance to hear from the winemakers about their wines and the recent developments within the region. The Languedoc may not be the first region that leaps to mind when you think about France and wine but it would be so boring to just talk about Bordeaux and Burgundy all the time. Not only that but I think the winemakers of the Languedoc would be horrified by any implication of comparison.

OllieThe trouble is that it can be a bit tricky (the French can be so tricky) for the casual wine drinker to know what to get if you’re after a wine from the Languedoc. We’re talking about a region in the south of France that is made up of 36 different appellations and produces red, white, sparkling and dessert wines. It grows grape varieties you’ve probably never heard of (Carignan, Mouvedre or my new personal favourite – Bourboulenc) over a fairly vast geographical area with an array of different soil types and ‘terroirs’. But this is what makes the Languedoc so exciting; it offers something individual and a plethora of wine styles to satisfy just about anyone.

RouvioleOne of my favourite wines of the evening was the Domaine la Rouviole 2006 which was a beautifully smooth yet full-bodied wine with a nose of cassis and perfumed fruit. Similar in style was the Chateau Maris Les Planels Old Vine Syrah 2009 which had darker fruit, chewy tannins and great depth of flavour. Both wines needed food – a rich beef stew would have been a welcome accompaniment. The Chateau les Ollieux Romains Cuvee Or 2010 was a stunner with great balance and fruit concentration tasting unusually developed for a relatively young wine.

The Ampersand Hotel provided a completely delicious dinner (the pistachio and olive oil cake was extraordinary) but the wine and food match of the evening for me was the baked scallops (beautifully presented) paired with the Chateau d’Angles Grand vin 2008. This wine was full and Marislush with a nutty, creamy, marzipan flavour and a hint of oak. Ordinarily I would have said that this wine was far too much for scallops, that it would have completely overpowered them, but it works. Brilliantly.

I think the key with the Languedoc is to experiment. Try not to be put off by the ever so slightly confusing wine labels and perhaps unfamiliar grape varieties. As a region it produces some smashing wines and often for exceptionally reasonable prices. Look out for Corbieres, Cabardes, Fitou and Languedoc La Clape. Happy hunting.

Hunting for a haggis

MacSweenHunting for haggis in south London is more difficult than I had previously anticipated. I had to go all the way to Waitrose in Clapham as none of the Brixton supermarkets (shockingly) stocked them. Despite spending 4 years of my life living in Scotland I certainly don’t pretend to be any sort of haggis expert. Of course I’ve eaten it but I’ve never cooked it and so never had to buy one before. So on this particular occasion I had to consult my Scottish friend, and to all intensive purposes haggis expert, Katie. Apparently there’s only one acceptable brand of haggis to buy, which is MacSween’s, so that is what I bought. The cooking instructions on the back suggested two methods of cooking, one which was considerably less hassle than the other. Second question to Scottish Katie: “Is it bad form to cook my haggis in the microwave?” Apparently not. All the better. This therefore turned into possibly the easiest dish I have ever cooked. Please don’t get the wrong idea, I would never NEVER normally cook anything in the microwave, but if Mr and Mrs MacSween and Scottish Katie say that’s the way to go, I am in no position to argue.

If the best thing about this dish is how easy it was to cook, the second best was that I tricked Mr F into eating swede. The phrase “haggis, neeps and tatties” was bandied about the house all day without him ever bothering to ask what neeps were. Anyone who’s known my husband for any considerable length of time will have heard the story about when, aged 9, he threw a swede across the kitchen in outrage and disgust after his poor mother had tried to cook it for him for dinner. Needless to say no one, to my knowledge, has ever attempted to give it to him again… until now!


Peel and chop the potatoes and swede into large cubes. Boil them together in the same pan (the swede will need about 5 mins longer so put this in first). While the potatoes and swede are cooking prepare the haggis as per the packet instructions.

When it is all nearly ready make your sauce; reduce 3 tablespoons of whisky in a small saucepan over a medium heat until it has almost (but not quite) all evaporated, then add half a small carton of double cream. Bring back to the boil and then remove from the heat.

Drain your neeps and tatties and mash with a generous slice of butter (and more cream if you like). Serve by piling your haggis on top of the neeps and tatties and drizzling with a generous couple of spoonfuls of sauce.

How easy is that?! Now since Friday night is Burn’s Night I’m sure this is what you’ll all be eating. Of course you could stick to the hard stuff and just have Whisky but over an entire evening that would be a bit much for me. If it’s wine you’re having it definitely needs to be red; something with big, fruity flavours and a bit of spice. An Australian Shiraz would be nice, or if it’s Old World you’re after than anything from the Rhone Valley.

Whatever you’re drinking make sure you have lots of it and revel in the knowledge that you’re enjoying one of the easiest and cheapest meals you’ll probably eat all year. Thank you Robbie Burns!!Haggis

Some very important pork meatballs


I have this thing about cooking. If I have someone coming for supper I will have been thinking about what I’m going to cook pretty much since the moment I invited them. That isn’t to say that it’s necessarily something fancy, more that it’s something that fits with the person I’m cooking for and it gives me an excuse to try certain recipes that I haven’t been able to justify for just myself. Some people warrant ‘safe recipes’ – ones you’ve tried and tested and know are crowd pleasers but don’t take too much thinking about. This tends to be an evening where all element of risk is removed from the equation; generally speaking people you know less well. This was not one of those evenings.

The second thing about me and cooking is that once I’ve decided what I’m cooking, that’s it. There are no last minute changes and no backing out. Usually I will have bought food at least the day before. As I said… not one of those evenings.

I really really thought that pork mince is the kind of thing you can buy anywhere but on this particular day it felt as if it was sold out of every single mini supermarket in London. I’ve never had to ask someone I’ve invited for dinner to bring their own food before, but this is what happened. Charlotte, I’m very very sorry and I promise, the next time you come back from Africa I will not send you to THREE SUPERMARKETS looking for pork mince just because I’m too stubborn and unimaginative to think of something else to cook.

Confession out the way (I really did feel jolly guilty about that); let’s focus on the fact that I had been planning to cook these for supper since at least the weekend before which shows immense effort and thoughtfulness on my part (clutching at straws here??) – and that they were really rather good.

Another corker from Nigel Slater (thanks Nige) – this time it was from Apetite:

  • smoked pancetta – a handful or so
  • minced pork – 500g
  • groundnut oil – a little for frying
  • onions – either a couple of shallots or 4 small spring onions
  • chillies – 3 or 4 small, hot red chillies
  • coriander – a small bunch
  • lime leaves or lemon grass – 4 lime leaves or 2 thick stalks of lemon grass
  • garlic – 3 or 4 cloves, peeled and crushed

Chop the shallots or spring onions finely, then chop the chillies even finer, first removing the seeds if you don’t like things too hot. Scrub the roots of the coriander and chop them and the leaves finely, discarding the stems. Roll the lime leaves up and shred them finely, then chop them: if you are using lemon grass, remove the coarse outer leaves and discard them, then chop the tender inside leaves very thinly.

Chop the bacon or pancetta and add it, with the seasoning above, to the minced pork. Mix in a good pinch of salt, then cover with clingfilm and leave to rest in the fridge for half an hour.

Shape the seasoned pork into small balls and flatten them slightly. To cook you will need to warm a little oil in a heavy frying pan, then lay the meatballs in – without crowding them – and let them colour on both sides before turning the heat down a bit and letting them cook all the way through. They should be done after 4 or 5 minutes – the centre should be juicy but not especially pink.

We had this with basmati rice and spinach and it was delicious. A really clean dish that was straightforward to cook but something a bit different. It was a pretty good match with the La Grille Chenin Blanc (see Tuesday’s post); texturally speaking it was perfect and the chilli in the meatballs was complemented really well by the off dry edge to the wine.

So not too much of a disaster in the end despite the somewhat hectic beginning. What jolly important meatballs these are to warrant so much fuss.


Two Chenin Blancs and a Mexican red

I tried to buy a third Chenin Blanc from Sainsbury’s on my way how (we were so close to having a ‘Chenin Blanc Week’) but unfortunately all it had to offer was row upon row of Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and Pinot Grigio. Mr Sainsbury is not making it easy for someone trying to ‘think outside the box’ in terms of their January drinking habits.

I feel like Chenin Blanc often gets a bit left behind. No one has that much of an opinion about it. You’ll have people jumping up and down saying how much they luuuurve Sauvignon Blanc or Chablis and how much they HATE Riesling (remember you don’t really though) but when it gets to Chenin it rather feels like all you get is a shrug of the shoulders, and a resounding “we don’t care”. It probably doesn’t help that it is the second wine on almost every wine list in the country, the one that proves it’s not quite as bad as the house but not worth you spending any good money on. Poor Chenin Blanc, that’s just not fair.

It’s a tricky sort of grape; uneven ripening can be a problem for the grower; and for the consumer it can vary hugely in style. If this was Chenin Blanc week then I would go into more detail but I feel like there’ll be a better opportunity for this in the future (and on a week where I’ve been a bit more organised). Traditionally it was planted in the Loire Valley, most notably Vouvray, where it produces a variety of styles from the steely dry to the sweet, depending in how ripe the grapes are before they are picked and pressed. The more overripe they become, the more sugar in the grapes and the sweeter the resulting wine will be. If it’s dry you’re after, look for ‘sec’ on the bottle, ‘demi-sec’ = off-dry etc. In the New World, Chenin Blanc seems to have found its natural home in South Africa where it is produced to varying levels of quality.

This week I drank the La Grille Chenin Blanc from the Loire Valley and the Crow’s Fountain Chenin Blanc from Stellenbosch. Very different in style but both really quite good. The La Grille is off-dry with a floral and peachy character. Despite the hint of sweetness it is fresh, clean and elegant and pretty good for £5.99 – find out on Thursday what I had to eat with it! The Crow’s Fountain was a bit more expensive and a much fuller style of Chenin. The nose literally makes your mouth water (a good sign) with aromas of ripe apples, melon and a streak of minerailty. It is dry and the body is much fuller than the La Grille with a slight spice to the palate from the oak. There could be a bit more intensity of flavour here but it is really rather good. This would go well with barbecued or flame grilled chicken due the the slight spice from the oak.

My Mexican wine was generously given to me by one of my clients this afternoon after I spotted it on his wine list. You don’t come across Mexican wine that often (certainly not in Sainsbury’s local) and I have only tried a handful. This wine is made by a producer called L.A. Cetto, the grape is Petite Sirah and it comes from Baja California. Baja California is just a hop down the coast from better known vine-growing sites such as the Napa Valley. I was a little baffled by the Petite Sirah (note this is not quite the same as the more recognisable Syrah) but it is a grape otherwise known as Durif that is widely planted in both North and South America. The nose is very plummy, as is the palate, with chunky tannins and a slightly medicinal and herbaceous edge. This doesn’t feel like a ‘quality wine’ but is perfectly pleasant. At the very least I feel like I’ve learnt something new today.

Annoyingly L.A. Cetto also make a Chenin Blanc so it could have been Chenin Blanc week after all! Maybe we’ll try that next time.