bordeaux revisited …

In 1994, in the days before children and saggy tummies, I was lucky enough to visit Bordeaux et environs and returned to the UK with a rucksack full of grand cru classe 1990s (including a Chateau Margaux) which I thoroughly enjoyed sharing with some good friends at the turn of the millennium.

Two weeks ago, a return visit to the area resulted in a modest bounty of 4.5 bottles of Sauternes, over 1200 photographs (combined) and 3 additional kilos in bodily weight!

Laziness … or perhaps a dwindling interest in Bordeaux that provided the fiery baptism into a lifelong interest in wines all those years ago. Or maybe it’s just down to pure economics: the unfavourable exchange rate and the silly prices that the top chateaux believe they can command today.

What is abundantly clear is that we still do not skimp on fine dining. I know this because as the self-appointed budget analyst, I was able to track in real-time (thanks to my trusty iPad) our shared expenses, which also show a worrying increase in the category of accommodation. I guess the extra tummies now require bigger, more comfortable beds 馃槈

David (our francophile host) asked us at the end of the trip for our Top 5 highlights of the trip. So here they are, abridged using true 21st century efficiency and this time supported by better (digital) photographs.

1. Chateau d’Yquem (Sauternes)

2. Michel Forgeron (Cognac)

3. Chateau Latour

4. Printemps Dome

5. La Salamandre

RIP, my lovely father, my hero …

I cannot find the words to describe how I feel, but a kind friend reminded me of this poem …

Do not stand at my grave and weep,
I am not there, I do not sleep.
I am in a thousand winds that blow,
I am the softly falling snow.
I am the gentle showers of rain,
I am the fields of ripening grain.
I am in the morning hush,
I am in the graceful rush
Of beautiful birds in circling flight,
I am the starshine of the night.
I am in the flowers that bloom,
I am in a quiet room.
I am in the birds that sing,
I am in each lovely thing.
Do not stand at my grave and cry,
I am not there. I do not die.

the language of a disease …

I’m not entirely sure how to start this particular post, or whether it is appropriate that I should write about the man lying in the hospital bed beside me as if he is no longer with us … One of the things doctors are very keen to get through to you about cancer is that there is no cure; one only discusses the future in terms of survival, but alas for my father, the prognosis is, as one oncologist suggested, ‘very bleak indeed’.

Personally, I find the whole language surrounding cancer very … disengaging to the point of frustration. It is after all, one of the biggest killers of the human race, and so it seems a little disingenuous and totally baffling why people give it pet names like the Big C, as if to call it by its full name might somehow incite the wrath of the god of acronyms and bring about an earlier end for the victim.

At the other extreme, cancer also brings with it a whole unsavoury smorgasbord of technical vocabulary. There are abbreviations that require early familiarisation, cold-sounding terms such as HCC, AFP, CT, MRI, TACE, PEI. You also learn very early on which words are your friends and which ones are your enemies: metastasize, for example, is not a friendly word. And even when the doctors use big powerful terms like Interventional Radiology, Chemo Embolization and Radio Frequency Ablation, one gets the feeling that these action words promise so much, but yet deliver precious little. In the end, there is only one term that matters, and it is associated with a number. Unluckily for my father, his initial diagnosis cited Hepatocellular Carcinoma with a Staging of 4 – which basically means, he was fucked from the word ‘Go’.

I’m spending a second night with my dad who is in the palliative unit at Mount Miriam Hospice, Penang. I’ve heard people talk about the fragility of life before but never really understood its meaning but here, in this dark room I get it, I mean I really get it.

Imagine this setting: initially, your senses are drawn to the comforting hum of the air-conditioning unit which provides a calming backdrop for the oxygen pump which adds a water feature to this happy landscape with what sounds like bubbles dancing on an icy lawn. But this audial nirvana is short lived because you soon learn to look out for the little mechanical ‘whizz click’ sounds made by the automatic timed dispenser as it releases more morphine into the bloodstream. You look out for these tiny clicks because you know that they will take away the frowns from the forehead of a man who is trying not to wince from the pains of cancer that has already consumed his liver, lungs and bones.

But the sound that rips through the quiet hospital corridors in the early hours of the morning and reverberates incessantly around the room is the dyspnea – the hopeless and most pitiful sound of a short-breathed man who is using his entire torso to draw every last molecule of oxygen into his body in order to stay alive.

no easy way to earn 59p …

Every now and then, the creative juices start to bubble and I find myself toying with some random technology … if not to keep abreast of the latest gadgets out there, in the vain hope that I will one day find that elusive killer app.

I was extremely lucky to be given a Rovio by J this Christmas: the play factor of this latest gizmo is still to be fully tapped, but hacking prospects look healthy, supported by a stable following of geeks (btw, what is the collective noun for nerds?) already soldering lighting and camera modules to the unit, expanding UIRT capabilities via X10 to switch on electrical devices at home, and the ultimate mod, an AD convertor relaying voice commands received via Skype to tell Rovio to move! Anyway, this prompted me to download the JS library and the iPhone SDK with the cunning plan of creating a little app to run my Rovio whilst out and about.

Instead, I got a little side-tracked and made a travel photo diary app called iPlaces – partly because there isn’t anything out there that combines Google’s APIs (Picasa and Maps) with WordPress mobile blogging, partly because I’m fed up of losing bits of scribbled paper containing telephone numbers and links to nice restaurants, wines, cool places etc … but mainly because I’m curious to see how many 59p I can accumulate through this endeavour. Hard work it certainly is – I can’t remember the last time I did any proper coding, and Objective-C (including Apple’s Cocoa implementation) is not for the faint-hearted. Having struggled with the decision to code-up some database routines in SQLite, I’ve decided to opt for Core Data instead – costs a tad more in overheads but life’s too short to be messing around with basic (read boring) classes and methods.

Anyway, below are 2 screenshots of the imminent app. Don’t hold your breath since Apple require $99 from me to join the Developer’s programme before I can place it for sale in the App Store. Not bad eh for 1.5 days work! 馃槈

a very cheesy affair …

When the opportunity for an English cheese & wine tasting came up at Harvey-Nichols, my palate did a somersault at the thought of having to endure a number of less than satisfactory English wines … but I’m glad J & I put aside any pre-conceptions to attend, because if we hadn’t, we might still be living in ignorance of the range and quality of cheeses that hail from these western isles.

The venue was the Second Floor restaurant in Bristol, with Head Chef Louise McCrimmon kicking off proceedings by introducing Todd and Ben from the acclaimed Trethowan Dairy team, and Ivan from the London branch who had the unenviable task of marrying the wines to the proposed cheeses.

The programme was as follows:

1. Gorwydd Caerphilly (Wales) – matched with Verdejo 2008 from the Naia vineyard in Rueda, Spain.

This is Todd’s own cheese, hand-made using animal rennet and unpasteurised milk – apparently, the three tenets of artisanal cheese making. While the cheese was delicately delicious, I felt the Verdejo made a fair attempt at balancing the saltiness of the cheese with a healthy crisp acidity, while at the same time developing a grassy-ness very similar to a Sauvignon Blanc to complement the mushroom flavours from the rind.

2. St Gall (Irish) – matched with a Rasteau 2003 from Domaine Soumade in Southern Rhone.

St Gall is a mountain-style cheese, similar to a Comt茅, Gruy猫re etc. Now this was a brave match, and one that surprisingly worked proabably because the 2003 vintage (being an extremely hot year) delivered secondary flavours, such as nuttiness, that would be difficult to obtain from a predominantly Grenache wine.

3. Tunworth (English) – matched with Gewurtztramminer 2008, Seresin Marlborough N.Z.

Judy Cheney’s camembert style cheese has wonderful vegetal aromas that you will find around the farmyards in Basingstoke, where it is made. While the cheese was excellent (I challange anyone to find a better English camembert), the wine match was disappointing – the Gewurtz did not impart any floral smells and left a distinct bitter aftertaste in the mouth. Perhaps, a red Burgunday might have made a better pairing.

4. Ardrahan (Irish) – matched with an Austrian Berenauslese 2006 from Alois Kracher.

Remember the three rules of artisan cheese? This one is an exception (it uses vegetable rennet and pasteurised milk) but one which is particularly interesting as it develops from caramel to nuts, and finally that unique hit of burnt steak fat at the finish. The Berenauslese compliments this to perfection with the fresh orange pekoe flavours eventually giving way to caramelised onions, enabling the whole ensemble to deliver what felt like a small meal. I guess this is what all cheese & wine tastings should aspire too: the sum of the already good parts should be greater than the whole. Sublime!

5. Stichelton (English) – matched with Churchills 20yo Tawny Port.

The name of Stichelton came about to circumvent one of the few Protected Designation of Origin or PDO regulations (equivalent to the French AOC) in England. It is a Stilton-like cheese but made from unpasteurised milk, thus falling foul of the rule. Personally, I find Stichelton a bit of a girlie cheese, with a long and soft butteriness that fondles rather than attacks the palate, and simply doesn’t taste as mean as the blue mould suggests … which is why the Tawny provided such a great match to this cheese. Unlike LBV or vintage ports, Tawnys (especially served slightly chilled) are rounder and more elegant but still packs a hefty punch of alcoholic fruity freshness with every sip. Nevertheless, a great pairing.

half-term happiness …

Prompted by several news articles of a 20% slump in champagne sales and promises of lower prices in the run up to Christmas, J and I felt obliged to take advantage of this very French misfortune (not in a shardenfreuder way, ok well maybe a little) by making a trip to the Champagne region … via Disneyland. Methinks the days of having to bribe the kids with visits to theme parks so that the groan-ups can take in liquid culture are coming to an end. Not that J1 & J2 did not enjoy themselves hurtling around the dark on the Space Mountain ride, but both boys now seem to be actively interested in the tastings at the various producers we visited. In fact, we may even have a placomusophile in the making in J2 – and no, that’s not someone who has a sexual interest in bottom-sucking tropical fish but someone who collects the round metal plates, notably on the end of champagne corks!

Anyway, the trip to Champagne would not have been possible without the patience and collective planning of the group, which was made up of the Ong clan, David and our Belgian friends, Anne & Stephaan. No detail was overlooked in the preparation for our long week-end in the area, right down to the precise timing of our rendez-vous at J茅r么me Viard’s tonnellerie in Cauroy-les-Hermonville. Cooperage is a dying art, and so this visit was so much more special because we were taken around by a man whose passion for making artisan (read: very labour-intensive) oak barrels for his discerning clients was clearly demonstrated in speech and skill. And the free champagne tasting afterwards wasn’t too bad either 馃槈

camille saves

Although our travels took us from Boulard (in Cauroy) to Launois (in Mesnil-sur-Oger), the discovery of the trip was unanimously voted as Camille Sav猫s (pictured above). Every once in a while, you get lucky and stumble upon R茅coltant-Manipulants (Grower Producers) whose products sit at the top-end of the price/quality ratio – but the delicious champagnes (and his still red wine) are no result of accident, but a divine marriage between a talented winemaker (Herv茅) and the Grand Cru Pinot Noir terroir that surrounds Bouzy.

Oh, and just in case any of you out there fancy planning a similar trip, I’m enclosing David’s detailed itinerary below for reference:

FRIDAY 30 OCTOBER

– ONG/DG: 12h00: Meet Ongs at Marne la Vall茅e RER at 12h00
– ONG/DG: Follow A4 & Marne (quick lunch, e.g. at Relais du Tardenois at km 96 of A4)
– ONG/DG: 13h30/14h00: Marx-Coutelas (03 26 58 63 64)
– ONG/DG: 14h30: Leave Marx-Coutelas to go to A每.
– ONG/DG: 15h00: Collect keys from La Mongeardi猫re.
– ONG/DG: 16h00: Meet Anne & Stephaan at J茅r么me Viard’s Tonnellerie.
– ALL: 17h00: Raymond Boulard (03 26 61 50 54)
– ALL: 19h30: Dinner at Le Jardin Brasserie (Ch. des Cray猫res). 03 26 24 90 90. Brasserie opens at 19h15.
– Return to La Mongeardi猫re

SATURDAY 31 OCTOBER

– 08h00: Breakfast at chambre d’h么tes. Wander around A每 after breakfast (maybe buy some food for a picnic at the mini-supermarket in A每), or else we could choose to have a later breakfast if you prefer a lie-in.
– 10h00: Tasting at Henri Giraud, A每 (booked). Allow one hour for tasting.
– 11h00: Drive to Saves (Bouzy). N.B. There are roadworks in the middle of Bouzy, we might want to arrive via Ambonnay.
– 11h30: Tasting at Camille Sav猫s (03 26 57 00 33).
– 12h30-13h30: Lunch (as a restaurant might take up too much time, we could have a picnic in the vines if it’s nice weather, or get some things to eat at Leclerc Champfleury if it’s not). Most producers are closed from 12h00 – 14h00, so let’s use this time for driving & eating.
– 14h00: ??? [this was the Vilmart slot… suggestions on how we fill it welcome].
– 15h00: “Free-format” depending on our mood – we can call ahead to Gonet-Sulcova, Launois, Veuve Fourny depending on what we feel like.
– 18h00: Either return to chambre d’h么te to relax, or go to “C. Comme” in Epernay for an aperitif.
– 19h30/20h00: Dinner at Le Lys du Roy. 03 26 97 66 11.
– Return to La Mongeardi猫re

SUNDAY 1 NOVEMBER

– 08h30: Breakfast at chambre d’h么tes.
– 09h30: Check out of chambre d’h么tes.
– 10h00: Short walk around water gardens in Chouilly.
– 11h00: Visit Hautvillers, including the church with the tomb of Dom P茅rignon.
– 12h00: Go somewhere for lunch (maybe at a caf茅/bistrot/brasserie in Epernay or Reims… not many restaurants are open on Sundays outside of the larger towns).
– 13h30/14h00: Possibly go to the Faux de Verzy, or walk around Epernay/Reims.
– 14h45/15h00: Drop David at Reims
– DG: 16h15-17h00: TGV to Paris
– ONG: 17h50: Chunnel to England

a sign of the wines …

When the last blog entry dates back to some 7 months ago, one has to come up with an appropriately cunning plan to deliver a backlog of informative (and hopefully interesting) content with the greatest economy of words. I suppose the quickest and least painful way would be to point readers at a couple of picasa web albums, surrendering to the old adage of a picture painting a plethora of words etc etc … but that would be far too convenient, and besides, this is a serious blog, where serious subject matters are discussed 馃槈

So, I have decided instead to use wine (including a number of decent alcoholic beverages) as reference points, providing the contextual setting for great encounters between friends and family – a sort of nostalgic buoy if you like, anchoring fragmented memories of good times shared with people in places which I would have undoubtedly forgotten had it not been for some specific sensual trigger which a particular tipple aroused.

Let’s begin with the our most recent w/e excursion to Paris where our host David shared what is strictly an ‘illegal’ wine, at least by French AOC rules: Le R锚ve de Pennautier is the only sweet Chardonnay I have ever come across, made more rare by the fact that it is only produced by the Lorgeril family in years when the weather is favourable to do so. For me, the 2004 tasted similar to a late-harvest Rielsing or Sylvaner, or perhaps it was purposely put in a 50cl long-necked Alsace style bottle to deceive your casual wine enthusiast … nevertheless, an experience worthy of the mystery that surrounds it!

And speaking of Sylvaners, there was that exquisite bottle J and I lingered over recently at Harvey Nics restaurant in Bristol on my birthday dinner: Bruno Sorg is perhaps better known for his Grand Cru Rieslings but the 2006 Vieilles Vignes tasted decadently mineral-like, and quite unexpected considering the usual leanness you get from the humble Sylvaner grape.

Or another time when J and I were chilling in the bar of the T-Hotel last summer after long, lazy days lying on the sandy beaches on the Southern coast of Sardinia … on that occasion, a Buio Buio from a progressive wine maker called Mesa, teased and totally confused my taste buds into thinking big Bordeaux, when in truth it was made with 100% Carignano, a local grape variety but had spent a good few months in French oak. Impressed with the wine, I bought a bottle at Cagliari airport on the way home with every intention to dazzle our tame connoisseur David at our next meeting, but alas it did not travel well and we both agreed it might just have easily been made by a couple of miners from the Valleys and called ‘Boy-o Boy-o’ 馃槈

However, there can be no questioning the consistency of the good vintage champagne: David’s generosity of serving bubbly (and on this occasion, a Drappier Brut 1990) after our usual drive through the night to arrive at his Parisian pad at the crack of dawn, is becoming a customary ritual and one that I would like to see continued. Ah, if only you can age with such elegance without being confined to a bottle with 90 PSI of pressure upon you 馃槈

Staying with white wines, I’ve recently acquired a curious affinity to Chenin Blanc. Actually, I would even venture to predict the rise in popularity of this variety to challenge and finally extinguish the ‘has beens’ of the old world e.g. the Vouvrays and Saumurs with their wishy-washy apple and cinnamon combo. In particular the varietals coming from Stellenbosch not only provide great value for money, there can be no ambiguity about the intense fruit experience of pineapple, papaya and the citrus crispness of kumquat – all in one mouthful of joy that takes me back to my childhood days of rummaging around orchards in Malaysia. I attribute this latest discovery to the bottle of Dornier’s Cocoa Hills Chenin Blanc, shared in great company with our Belgian friends Anne & Stephaan on our visit to the Ghent Festival in late July. Served as part of the ‘menu deal’ in a great little resto called L’Homard Bizzare, I had my reservations, not least because we were drinking a South African wine … in a French restaurant … in Belgium … and this was at the end of a rather alcoholic week-end of sampling an exhaustive list of Belgian beers in Dulle Griet, exotic jenevers in Pol Reysenaer’s Dreupelkot bar by the river and meeting Bob Mineerkeer himself (and his moustache!) at the Glengarry Whisky Club where he attempted to convince us of the heavenly pairing of a 12 year old Clynelish to baked lobster!

And so, many adventures later and with our livers appropriately abused, I bring this post to a close. For me, drink does not just have that meta-physical convenience of uniting like-minded people in happy surroundings, it also triggers emotional connections at a spiritual level in a way that cannot and must not be explained by science. Therefore I bid y’all (to bastardise a famous Vulcan saying), “Drink long til you’re a cropper” … or to put it in more civilised French, La vie est trop courte pour boire du mauvais vin 馃槈

ooh la loire …

rillette

If you like rillette, you will love Hardouin. Whether it is worth a special trip to Vouvray to purchase it sur place is debatable, but as we were already in the Loire area visiting chateaux and wineries, it seemed the most natural thing to do.

What is unquestionable however is the beauty of Chenonceau – I doubt any of the photographs taken on my Canon EOS will do the place justice so you will have to click to the link to see the aerial shots, or better still, go in person! The Loire is driveable from Paris, but for a day trip I strongly suggest that you venture no farther west than Amboise to get the greatest bang per kilometer driven. We, however, decided to go as far as Chinon to track down the producer of Clos de l’Echo 1997 (Couly-Dutheil) which David was kind enough to share with us the night before, only to discover they are closed during the winter months!

chambord

Chambord looked nice from the outside – somewhat eerie for the time of day when we visited, with a low mist almost touching that highly recognisable, decorated roofline of Francois I’s royal pad.

And when we were not in the Loire, we loitered around La D茅fense, admiring the variety of office towers that line the cours leading down to a small but curious vineyard, overlooking the Arc de Triomphe in the distance.

Wandering around the 3e and 4e, we stopped for the best cup of hot chocolate I’ve ever tasted at Jacques Genin. His atelier on rue de Turenne looks more like a jewellery boutique than a place to buy chocolates – see below. Ummm, methinks this will now be a regular haunt whenever we visit Paris. Go easy on the Tonka bean ones as these contain coumarin which is lethal in large doses – why is it that the nice things in life are never good for your health 馃槈 Dinner afterwards at Les Enfants Rouges (Rue de Beauce) was made more pleasant when washed down with a lovely bottle of Cornas 1993 (Domain Courbis).

genin

Of course, no visit to Paris has ever escaped the generosity of our host David. This time, we were treated to Jaboulet Aine’s La Chapelle 1995 (Hermitage) which left our palates tinging with tobacco and leather, nor will we ever forget the youthful crispness of Pfaffenheim’s Sylvaner (a varietal from Alsace, but not from a noble grape family) despite having spent 24 years in the bottle! That’s what I love about David’s tastings – your taste buds are always challenged, from the sublime to the ridiculous.

bokehlicious …

almaviva

What happens when you combine an old pastime (getting phissed on nice wines) with a new hobby (photography) … well, you get this of course 馃槈 It is so much sweeter when the new hobby came about as the result of winning a new Canon EOS 450D digital SLR on a Swoopo bid for next to nothing.

So peeps, look out for more of the combo above … especially as we are visiting Paris next week.

a new hope …

A wonderful day indeed – especially if your name happens to be Barack Hussein Obama. And what a speech! You go boy 鈥 the world is in awe of your ascent to greatness and we are expecting you to deliver on your promises. Not bad indeed for the son of a man who 60 years ago might not have been served in a restaurant in some states in the US 鈥

p.s. Did anyone else think the prayer before the swearing in ceremony was a tad over the top for what is afterall a secular event – you know, references to Israel and the full Lords Prayer. And as for the Aretha Franklin number sung to the tune of 鈥楪od Save the Queen鈥 – what was that all about?!

on proposition 8 …

Ok, so this is a much debated issue in blogosphere and social networking sites … but I’m bored with it now. And quite how a local ruling affecting Californians was allowed to achieve limelight status on the global stage is just beyond me. Yes, banning gay marriages is probably unconstitutional – but only if you are American and you behold Jefferson’s declaration that “all men are created equal” as your pillar of faith in freedom, truth, justice and the American dream.

But here in Blighty, we have no constitution, and like it or not, our laws are founded on biblical laws聽(arguably past their sell by date) yet we are not immune to similar prejudices, for example the聽ordination of gay priests. In fact, I’m inclined to believe that because of our historical baggage, Americans through their Founding Fathers had the advantage of a unique opportunity to separate affairs of the State from those of the Church when drafting the Constitution: Proposition 8 is just one of聽many thorny modern issues that no one could have foreseen at that time.

So fellow Americans – count yourselves lucky! And just because progressive thinking appears to be drowned by bigots and zealots in the state of California does not mean the system is broken. The fact that you have a constitution should make you better placed to lauch a (hopefully) successful 3rd vote …聽but spare a thought for other less fortunate citizens around the globe who live in a environment that is still bogged down and handicapped by religious proprietary and legal precedents.

when to say sorry … not

I am confused. It doesn’t happen to me often, but today I am baffled … and for all my efforts to try and untangle and understand recent events, I find myself falling deeper and deeper into this … quagmire of very dark thoughts, drowning in an angry soup of paranoia that I never sought nor deserved. Yet, I must have caused offence somewhere … somehow … sometime. Otherwise, why would I be the recipient of such callous (or perhaps it’s deliberate) treatment from someone who purports to be a good friend?

William Blake observed that ‘It is easier to forgive an enemy than to forgive a friend’, which if you look at it another way, sort of translates to ‘It is easier to hurt a friend than an enemy’ – hence a friend’s forgiveness is that much more difficult to secure. Well, if that’s the case poor William couldn’t have had many good pals because my definition of a good friend is one I can afford to offend, and yes, sometimes hurt – without intent or malice of course, and more importantly I should be able to be myself, say the things I I feel passionate about, without fear of any recrimination, nor should I feel under constant pressure to apologise for the titchiest remark made, whether in bad humour or questionable taste.

There is a line of course, a boundary of tolerance one should never cross … but for crying out loud, I’m not Russell Brand … I haven’t bedded anyone’s grand daughter nor have I taunted her grand father in public, on live radio … and this is definitely not a resignation matter!

So, I shall soldier on … in ignorance of the cause of this tension, and beligerant to point of becoming an arse that my principles on friendship are sound: that friends are there for hurting, and the best ones are those you can afford to hurt the most, and to receive nothing but forgiveness in return.

the demons of capitalism …

Unless you have retreated to a yurt in deepest Mongolia, it would have been difficult to miss the headlines of meltdown in the global financial markets in recent days. But, tucked in a corner of yesterday’s FT was a curious rallying call by David Cameron to not allow the ‘lefties’ to destroy capitalism by putting the blame of the recent crises on ‘this important part of the British and world economy’. Excuse me???

When Gordon Gecko espoused the virtue of greed in the 80’s, Wall Street was awash with city yuppies with fast cars, and faster incomes. Two decades later, it seems not much has changed – the financial instruments have evolved in technicality but the basic desire to get rich quick is more prevalent, albeit a little less transparent. Today, simple debts have been transmogrified into complex securities and bonds, to the point that no party in the food chain fully understands the risks … until it’s too late, when bad creditors default on mortgage payments and savers like you and me start withdrawing our hard earned cash from the banks, thus fueling a bank run like the one we witnessed on Northern Rock. But as someone observed, banks buy long and sell short – that is what a bank does – so when they to use funds from their retail business (our money, and ultimately our pensions) to gamble in complex products in the wider financial markets … AND lose, should we feel sorry when we see images on the telly of jobless bankers and their sad office boxes walking out of the building of a collapsed bank? I think not!

I suppose the irony of the Lloyds and HBOS merger is not lost on the ‘lefties’ either: in the golden days of capitalism, mergers were used to promote growth and now they are being used for reasons of survival, and in the case of HBOS, handed on a silver platter to Lloyds TSB with the full blessing of the UK government. Whilst I agree that administrations have a duty to maintain financial stability, I can’t help thinking that perhaps it may be worthwhile to do nothing, thus sinking the economy in order to teach banks a lesson in liquidity and risk management. The only problem is that the collateral damage in these sorry times are folks like you and me – people who would feel the pain from a greed we never subscribed to. And the medicine used by governments to cure this ailment? Oh, that will be taxpayers’ money too. Someone please explain to me how this is good …

leisure – a myth …

Do y’all know this poem by William Henry Davies?

What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to聽stand聽and聽stare.

No time to聽stand聽beneath the boughs
And聽stare聽as long as sheep or cows.

No time to see, when woods we pass,
Where squirrels hide their nuts in grass.

No time to see, in broad daylight,
Streams full of stars, like skies at night.

No time to turn at Beauty’s glance,
And watch her feet, how they can dance.

No time to wait till her mouth can
Enrich that smile her eyes began.

A poor life this if, full of care,
We have no time to聽stand聽and聽stare.

Surely there must be more to life than the weekly commute to London/Milton Keynes!!! Ummmm, I so need another holiday …

social networking 2 …

I had hoped to break radio silence with a more uplifting post rather than returning to an old paradox that has been playing on my mind these past few months – that of online friendships. Loyal readers of this dusty corner of blogosphere may be familiar with a聽previous entry where I contended a somewhat cynical explanation for the explosion of social networking sites; that we use them to actively seek out long lost friends to satisfy ourselves of our comparative position on the social ladder, so that we do not need to feel inadequate in any way about our own modest achievements.聽

What utter poppycock!

Perhaps experience hardens our hearts and age softens our judgement but I must admit surprise at myself sometimes for writing some of the drivel I write. You see, on the question of online correspondence, there is and can only be one simple purpose – it is the opening gambit in a game of chess, a prologue to a yet unwritten book, a precursor to something that may become very special, or putting it in terms of today’s financial language – it is an investment for a future wealth that cannot and will not be realised … until friends actually physically meet!

Someone once said, if you want to bring someone into your life, you need to take a step into theirs. And last night, I made a move which hopefully will earn me a place in this person’s life. It helped that we shared some memorable times in the past, but we could have easily continued to ‘message’ each other without ever meeting and in doing so, lose the opportunity to become great friends.

a very bubbly affair …

champagne08.JPG

Lily Bollinger once said about champagne:

“I drink it when I’m happy and when I’m sad. Sometimes I drink it when I’m alone. When I have company I consider it obligatory. I trifle with it if I’m not hungry and I drink it when I am. Otherwise I never touch it, unless I’m thirsty.”

Such is the ambivalence created by this pale tipple that packs nearly 50 million bubbles in every bottle … and so humble too when you consider that its external appearance says so little about the labour and passion that has gone into its production.

So, we were in the Champagne region again – a holiday triggered partly by an invitation to accompany our good friend’s family on their first visit to the area, but mainly because our wine ‘cellar’ was bereft of white wines. Those of you who know me well will know that I only drink French wines – red Bordeaux to be precise … and the only white wines I tolerate are ones with bubbles … naturally 馃槈

Anyway, we were installed in a modern and comfortable Chambres D’Hotes in Reuil with a sporty itinerary devised by our good friend David that will have taken us from Ch芒tillon (to visit the commanding papal satue of Urbane II) to the south-east extreme of the Cote des Blanc to gorge ourselves on foie-gras and other duck by-products, punctuated by degustations at various producers such as Marx Coutelas (Venteuil), Guy Charlemagne & Launois (Mesnil s/ Oger) and Vilmart (Rilly-la-Montagne) to name a few. But the visit of the trip (and the one that scores the highest points for hospitality) must surely go to Philipponnat, and in particuar to Nicoletta who gave us treats that I doubt we will ever encouter again, treats such as:

  • sampling the reserve wine directly from an oak barrel (upto 19% of this wine is used to blend with current wines to give you that reliable consistency that Philipponnat champagnes are known for)
  • tasting the vintage ros茅 from the cuve (steel vat) after the 1st fermentation (there are only 2000 bottles of this made so we made a note to find a bottle sometime around 2013 when it will be availabl in the market, errr assuming we can buy one!)
  • witnessing and drinking a vintage Grand Blanc from 1988 that Nicolletta disgorged using the traditional method (i.e. using the bubble in the bottle to aggregate and expel the sediments requiring expert hand-eye coordination and a big, strong thumb – kids, don’t try this at home!), having located it in a corner during our cellar visit. The wine smelled and tasted magnificent, especially considering that it was in its pre-dosage form.
  • … but our real thanks go to David who organinsed this vist through Charles Philipponnat himself … which just goes to prove, it’s not what you kow but who you know that gets you nice things in life.

    A couple of discoveries worth mentioning include the red ‘illegal champagne’ that our B&B host produced one evening (actually, it wasn’t a particularly great experience but nevertheless it needed to be done) and the rare ros茅 from Edouard Barnaut (Bouzy), one of the few still wines carrying the Coteaux Champenois AOC that stand out in the middle of what is afterall bubbles country.

    So we are back home now, and our ‘cellar’ is looking a little less pathetic … but all the excess of the past few days have caught up with me in the form of abdominal cramps, so I’m on the wagon again … until such time when I feel lonely, hungry or thirsty 馃槈

    adios my little tiger …

    I’ve made the executive decision to retire my trusty Mac Mini. It has served me well, but now it is time to move back to the familiar territory of Microsoft. Speaking of which, I am now the proud owner of an EEE PC on to which I’ve shoe horned a nLited version of XP (having removed the gay Xandros OS that came with it) which only takes up 600Mb of the 4Gb SSD. A 7″ touch screen is also on order, and when installed will make it a formidable gadget for any mobile road warrior (see previous post on the 3 Skypephone). Oh happy days!

    Other new news … errrr, Pim’s blogged about the new Michelin France 2008 so you can read all about the movers and shakers here. There’s also a PDF to accompany the post which you can download – I’ve posted a copy here for those of you who can’t stand the suspense …

    3 skypephone …

    I am absolutely loving my Skypephone from 3 – see review here. Ok, it has a few bugs here and there (the most annoying being having to turn it off/on again after losing the dialup connection when using as it a modem) but on the whole, it’s a great gadget and definitely worth the 拢45 (I bought the discounted twinpack so SWMBO didn’t complain ;)) for the handset on Pay As You Go. A 拢10 top up every 30 days gives you free skype calling, even abroad in any 3 Like Home countries (e.g. Ireland, Hong Kong etc). You can use the top up to buy the 拢5 fair use data pack giving you unlimited Internet access at 3G speeds, which you can use with any laptop or PDA equipped with bluetooth. 拢2 gets you a number of mainstream TV channels (or you can stream live TV from your Orb/Slingbox/Webguide setup) and when you just want to sit back and enjoy some music or a podcast or two, the A2DP profile delivers stereo to your bluetooth headset effortlessly.

    Can’t wait to hook this up to my new toy (on order now for over a week) – the ASUS Eee PC … if retailers ever receive any from Taiwan this February, apparently the snow in China is playing havoc with logistics 馃槮

    geocoding cell id into google maps 鈥

    Ok, I think I’ve reach that point where I need to stop and catch up on lost sleep …

    There seems to be a lot of recent interest in location based technology, and now with the latest MyLocation functionality in Google Maps for Mobile (GMM), it wont be long before businesses start chomping at the bit to get their products/services mapped to make it easy for Joe Public to navigate to a shop or restaurant, using just a humble GSM mobile phone without GPS fitted.

    So I thought I’d join this race and get myself up to speed with the latest tools and development ideas – hence the insomnia and radio silence (haha pun not intended!). Anyway, I’ve written a number of PHP scripts to geocode LAC/CID data from the RIL module on my Windows Mobile WM6 PDA into a seachable AJAX google map – in English, this means that my PDA is continuously updating my webserver with the GSM cell tower information which I am currently connected to, and I then turn this into geogaphical references (Latitude & Longitude) which are plottable on Google Map. And just for fun, I nicked someone’s code to reverse geocode the Lat/Long into Street Name, Town, Postcode, Country etc … click here to see my last reported position, click on the pushpin to get details of timestamp. Next step, a J2ME app that will work on most GSM phones to query the RIL for cell data, do some triagulation onsignal strength to determine the hotspot (cell towers don’t provide GPS accuracy) and update a MySQL database with an ‘invisible’ http session. Now that will be an interesting project …

    Those of you who want to try this out, I’ve also knocked up a prototype script which you can access from http://fiftyone.no-ip.org/files/geocodecelltower3.php?lac=10&cid=16701 – you just need to put in the LAC (Local Area Code) and CID (CellID) – if you know what these are …

    Happy locating!

    tapastastic …

    Copy of TAPAS.jpg

    It is 9.30 a.m. in the morning. Under a blue and cloudless sky, a low Catalan sun easily melts away any remnant frost on the awnings of the stalls at La Bouqueria market on Las Ramblas. Inside, we wrestled with the crowd for a seat at a tapas bar, and once armed with a couple of cold cervezas (see pic), we begin to devise a cunning plan to punctuate our short week-end in Barcelona with as many eateries and wine bars as our stomachs and bladders can withstand. The list would be modest, but distinguished … for example, for dinner, we should try to eat at Santa Maria (Carrer del Comerq) where a number of chefs had trained under Ferran Adria聽 of el Bulli fame, or les 7 Portes (Pg. Isabel II), one of the city’s oldest and most reputable restaurants or visit Can Paixano (Carrer de la Reina Cristina), a rowdy bar serving cheap (but sometimes awful!) cava.

    And as always, we were prepared to be led by our noses and so chance also brought us to La Vinya del Senyor (Placa de Santa Maria) which stocked some 300 fine wines by the glass, Cuines (located in the new Santa-Caterina market with the amazing roof) – a foodie paradise with themed areas and a great tapas bar at the entrance, and Vascelum (also on Placa de Santa Maria) – I don’t think I will ever forget the taste and texture of my perfectly grilled cuttlefish.

    But the gastronomic highlight must go to Santa Maria. We had been told this place gets busy and as booking wasn’t viable, we arrived early and loitered aimlessly until we were invited in shortly before the opening time of 20:30, and 15 minutes later, every table in the restaurant was occupied! The wine list seemed very personal as if chef had made the selection from his own cellar, but as we had ordered the Menu Degustation, there seemed little point in attempting to match wine to food so I selected an Altun, a surprisingly elegant Rioja made 100% from Tempranillo. And so our dining adventure began …

    To say that our taste buds were raped that evening is an understatement, but I cannot remember another meal quite like this where the diner is taken on a journey from classic French cuisine to the far east, then whisked suddenly to Celtic delicacies, back to Mediterranean seafood before finishing with three desserts, one of which contained space dust (yes, space dust – I kid you not), which had the roof of our mouths crackling and popping with joy! Then there is the value for money aspect. For just under 32 EURO (plus taxes), we were treated to the following:

    – a refreshing home made lemonade with mint (to cleanse our palates before the meal)
    – delicious olives seasoned in cloves
    – tasty bowl of fresh cassava chips
    – an unusual pomegranate salad with toasted almonds
    – fried frogs legs, coated in sesame seeds
    – local giant mussels with a cheesy tomato topping
    – chicken sushi with a devilishly hot chilli sauce (and that’s before the wasabi was added!)
    – rib of rabbit, served with a pumpkin dip
    – pan seared fresh foie gras, served with a caramel pastry
    – delicate black pudding on an orange baked biscuit
    – savoury croquette with white chocolate drops
    – piping hot local salted cod with mash

    Ummmmmmmm, I so want to go back there …

    on social networking sites …

    So, good people – are sites like Facebook, MySpace, Friendster and dare I mention Bebo a curse on modern society or an asset? Discuss.

    I’ve procrastinated my deliberations on this very topic until now for a couple of reasons: firstly, it was necessary to amass enough entries on one’s ‘my friends’ list to enable useful analysis (afterall, one swallow does not a summer make!) and then, I needed to find and get in touch with an old friend the old fashioned way, i.e. by picking up the telephone.

    It is recognised that humans are a gregarious species, so why do we cower behind our computer screens, preferring to deliver one-liners to friends we have recently rediscovered, rather than pick up the phone to arrange a reunion? I partially accept that physical vanity may be to blame – faces do get wrinklier, breasts inevitably succumb to gravity, and tummies and hairlines do the inversely proportional thing of enlarging while the other recedes. Or perhaps, I suggest, there is another more sinister explanation.

    The Singaporeans call it kia su [lit. fear of losing] which loosely translates to that western nirvana of not only just keeping up with the Joneses, but to excel and be king of the hill, top of the heap. And whereas it might have been possible for friends and colleagues to disappear after school/university and retreat to places where one is considered a bigger fish in a smaller sea (e.g. the so-called White flight of city dwellers to the countryside, emigration to Australasia etc), today the phenomenon of the Internet has brought us back together with a big awakening bang. Not only has it shattered all geographical boundaries (real and notional), it has also created a global village where peer pressure is now on steroids, and living an ordinary existence is about as appealing as a fungal infection in the groin 馃槈 You can run, you may even choose to hide … and succeed … but god help you if the commit the mortal sin of coming out and admitting to mediocrity, online or worse, in person!

    Tomorrow I have an opportunity to telephone someone I have not seen in over 25 years. Back in those carefree days and what seemed like a lifetime ago, we didn’t have much to worry about – hell, we didn’t even worry about worrying! But I wonder – will we be more guarded on the phone or perhaps there is something to be said for getting through the ice breaking ceremony semi-anonymously via email. Churchill once observed We are stripped bare by the curse of plenty – his comment may yet have some relevance in our 21st century techno-rich world …

    o sole mio …

    positano.jpg

    And so we end our little Italian adventure that has taken us from Rome to Naples, and beyond. The Amalfi coast incorporating Sorrento, Positano, Priano, Amalfi and Ravello (pic is of east slope of Positano) has views that are simply breathtaking; it is fully understandable why folks continue to pile on dwelling above dwelling to create beautifully terraced suntraps that look even more appealing in real life. Think Big Sur on Highway-1, add a splodge of Donegal, then airbrush in a mosaic of pastel coloured facades and you have an approximation of something close to what I’m talking about …

    Then narrow the roads, add a few Alpine hairpin turns, some homicidal bus drivers, a stray dog or two and suddenly the most beautiful scenery is transformed into an ugly nest of hazzards, made worse by bumbling tourists who like us had not anticipated or fully appreciated the chaos of Italian motoring.

    Italians should stick to making performance sports cars, but leave the driving to other people … seriously.

    la dolce vita …

    trolley.jpg

    Apparently, if you toss a coin over your shoulder into the Trevi fountain, you will return to the Eternal City one day … actually we somehow managed to miss this spectacular place the last time we visited in 2003 but the matter is now rectified … but who needs legend as an excuse to re-visit this enchanting city 馃槈

    We are now installed at our wellness B&B after a day’s travelling which pretty much included planes, trains and automobiles … well, not necessarily in that order. And at one point in the taxi from Fiumicino airport, I was beginning to think we might actually arrive at St Peter’s pearly gates before seeing Rome – such was the ferocity of driving of our chauffeur, an aged disco queen with a particular passion for Barry White ballads. Or perhaps, he imagined himself on track at the Brazilian Grand Prix rather than the autostrada. But I digress …

    Last night, after strolling from Spagna, to the Fora Traiano (Imperial Forum just outside the Colosseum), we ate at a decent enough restaurant in Trastevere, away from the tourist honey traps of other more famous piazzas. Note to self: the next time Franco (the hotel manager) suggests an area of nice restaurants, be sure to extract an exact address for the GPS! After an hour or so of walking (Trastevere is a pretty sizeable area!), we eventually found several nice eateries that had already seated the locals and could accommodate no more diners that evening. We also found a lonely supermarket trolley by our bus stop (see pic) which provided some light entertainment to round up a long day …

    laurent …

    laurent.jpg

    Sometimes, only a Michelin starred restaurant will do … and what better way to celebrate the passing of one’s 40th (David’s & J’s on this occassion) than to re-visit an old haunt, Laurent.

    Those of you salivating already, here are the choices of yummy things we had to choose from …

    MENU DU PAVILLON

    LES ENTREES

    – Palette de l茅gumes raves relev茅s d’huiles aromatiques et 茅pic茅es
    – Saint-Jacques marin茅es dans un lait cr茅meux au go没t fum茅, perles de concombre et radis
    – Poule faisan et foie gras de canard en fine gel茅e et champgnons verjut茅s, r么tie aux abats
    – Fricadelle de t锚te de veau caram茅lis茅e sur un 茅ventail de pousses de moutarde
    – Trompettes de la mort juste rissol茅es, cr茅meux d’oeuf de poule et jaune coulant sur un sabl茅 fin au parmesan

    LES PLATS

    – Saint-Pierre cuit doucement dans un beurre d’algues, “purgatorio” aux cristes-marines et couteaux 脿 l’huile de ciboulette
    – Merlan de ligne frott茅 au safran et po锚l茅, parmentier l茅ger aux coquillages
    – Noix de Saint-Jacques l茅g猫rement blondies et servies dans un consomm茅 clair, pleurotes et borage
    – Epaule d’agneau confite et rouelles de l茅gumes aux 茅pices d’un tajine, c么tes caram茅lis茅es
    – Pigeon r么ti au sautoir, endives et pommes mitonn茅es dans leurs sucs, ravioles d’abattis
    – Friands de pied de porc croustillants, pur茅e de pommes de terre

    VOITURE DE FROMAGES

    LES DESSERTS

    – Coeur de poire william r么tie au gingembre, tuile pistach茅e et glace riz au lait
    – Glace vanille minute en corolle
    – Souffl茅 脿 l’Irish-coffee

    And tomorrow, to Rome and beyond …

    this and that …

    The kids are back at school at the start of a new academic year … the summer (feels like it) has been & gone … and work is … well, just that … work.

    Meanwhile, life is awash with new toys and interests – I’ve been messing around on Facebook and Picasa. Have a quick gander, if you (like me) have been recently struck with the malaise of getting back into the 9 to 5 routine, made considerably worse by the lack of sun this summer. Maybe, I need to dose up on the sunshine vitamin (D) after all.

    Ok, boys and girls … back to the grind.