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

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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