Monday, November 24, 2008

Windsor Castle

** NOTE: if you're looking for the full notes from the Majestic tasting - they're here. I've updated the original post with the missing link!

Sat 22 Nov 2008

Usually when I'm planning on eating in a pub in London I have a variety of resources on which I draw to ensure that I've got a good chance of hitting a happy combination of good food, good beer and a good atmosphere. Normally I consult more than one such oracle and spend a disproportionate amount of time agonising over location, decoration, price and menu. Yes, it's very sad.

However, on Saturday as we left the Decanter Fine Wine Encounter (more on that later) the need for food was quite pressing. The weather wasn't great, so it had to be near to Marylebone station, and Andy was in need of a beer.

Thanks to the magic of internet enabled mobile phones I was able to make a quick visit to fancyapint and find us a venue. The closest 5 pint pub to Marylebone tube happened to be the Windsor Castle so off we headed.

The pub is home to a Thai restaurant, which is upstairs and opens at 6pm - which we found out as we tried prise open the door! So there was nothing to do but settle down at a table and ... have a beer. There's not a huge selection of beers on offer: three handpulls and a few standard lagers. Still, the pints of Wells Bombardier and Adnam's we ordered seemed in good order.

The pub is reasonably traditional in layout: small bar and a couple of rooms that aren't huge, but it's definitely not poky. The walls are crammed (and I mean, CRAMMED) with photographs. Celebrities adorn the bar and a couple of wall panels are dedicated to various shots of the royal family.

We were eventually allowed in the tiny restaurant. Wall decoration follows the royal theme and the tables are set with alarming plastic laminated green gingham tablecloths. To say we were a bit scared is something of an understatement! Still, putting on a brave face we decided our meal would either be excellent or monumentally awful.

And I'm so happy to say it was excellent and very cheap! The menu contains the usual suspects as well as a few new turns - so we needed some time (and some prawn crackers) to inspect it. The star turn of the starters was, without a doubt, my spicy Thai sausage. This was delicious: spicy, lemongrassy, full of flavour and dense with meat. Given the sausage's 1 chilli on the menu I was wondering how hot my 3 chilli main course would be. A milder version of the sausage also appeared at our table which, while good, had to play second fiddle to its spicier cousin. Six small vegetable spring rolls and some dumplings also got the thumbs up.

For our main courses we had both red curries on the menu. Mine was the spicier of the two: almost ferociously hot, with just barely cooked veggies (that's a good thing - I worry about vegetables sitting in curry sauces for days on end ...) and a curry base not too laden with coconut. We also had a vegetable green curry and a seafood noodle dish.

As we were starving it didn't take us long to polish off the food, but we were lingering over our drinks. The restaurant manager eventually asked us if we'd mind moving down to the bar as they had a reservation that needed seating! Throughout our meal the service was quiet, efficient and friendly - even when we were being asked to move it was done in the nicest possible way.

The final bill was just £66. For two courses each, for four people, in central London - I think that's something of a bargain. If you ever find yourself knocking around Marylebone/Edgware Road you could do a lot worse than nipping in for a drink or something to eat. Whatever you do - don't let the distinctive décor put you off!

Now I, for one, am on the hunt for spicy Thai sausage recipes!

1. The Windsor Castle, 27-29 Crawford Place, W1H 4LQ, phone: 020 7723 4371, map.

Another London pub we like: The Charles Lamb in Islington.
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Friday, November 21, 2008

Majestic Christmas Tasting

Thurs 13 Nov 2008

Back in June the Leeds Majestic closed after a fire. It's now re-opened (in time for Christmas!) and on Thursday night we went along for an 'exclusive tasting evening', showcasing some wines from the Winter range.

We weren't sure what to expect so set our expectations low. On arrival we were greeted with a glass of bubbly and a wine tasting card which listed the wines available for tasting with plenty of space for notes. Even though I'd brought along my tasting notebook and pen I was impressed.

There were ten wines on tasting, and very generous measures were being poured. As you'd expect, the staff were up to speed on what they were pouring so there was plenty of opportunity to learn about the wines. I was interested to see that people were asking lots of questions and I wasn't the only one taking notes!

After the sparkling, we tasted four whites and five reds. You can find the full list and read my full tasting notes here, but for now I'll mention just the standout wines.

To start with, the Langlois Crémant de Loire that we started with punched well about its £12 price tag (£7.99 if you buy two or more). It has an interesting, complex nose and drank well. It doesn't appear to hold its mousse that well though - the wine had obviously been poured prior to the tasting starting and the bubbles were rather thin on the ground by the time we got to it. Still, I doubt that would be a problem if you're opening a bottle in a social setting ...

On the still whites, both Andy and I agreed that we weren't overly fussed by either of the Chardonnays. We were split on the two Sauvignon Blancs we tasted: I preferred the Paul Mas (France) while Andy preferred the Lanner Hill (South Africa). While I did think that the Lanner Hill was the better wine in most respects it lacked the excellent structural acidity of the French wine. The Lanner Hill did have an aggressively asparagus nose so it may not be everyone's cup of tea.

On the reds we were in agreement. The star of the show for us was the Marco Porello Barbera d'Alba. At £8 a bottle it looks like a bit of a bargain. The nose was rich cherries and stewed rhubarb - and the cherries carried through to the palate. Good structure and a nice long, slightly bitter (and that's bitter in a good way) finish.

Runner up was the Premier Vin du Château de Pitray - a Côtes de Castillon Bordeaux. A typical blackcurranty Bordeaux nose with enough vegetal character on both nose and palate to lead me to guess there was some Cabernet Franc in the bottle. It turns out I was right: the wine's a Merlot Cab Franc blend from this new appellation.

Probably the most disappointing wine was the Roaring Meg Pinot Noir from New Zealand's Central Otago region. At £17.49 a bottle I want to be impressed and I just wasn't. To be totally fair to this wine - it was the 7th wine we tasted and we tasted it after the Barbera.

We left the tasting feeling that the hour or so we'd spent in Majestic was a massive improvement in experience over the time we'd spent in Vinopolis a few weeks ago. There were interesting wines on offer and plenty of opportunity to learn. My only criticism is that I would have liked a few more spittoons - I only spotted one, which meant I ended up drinking rather than spitting!
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Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Decanter Fine Wine Encounter

Wed 19 Nov 2008

A very quick post to let you know that on Saturday we'll be heading to the Decanter Fine Wine Encounter at London's Landmark Hotel.

I'm very excited because, not only will I be spending a day tasting wine (well, it might be half tasting, half drinking ...), but this year the show is featuring a Gold Room which is playing host to a selection of wines which won gold medals at the Decanter World Wine Awards. I've been doing plenty of research and hope to taste some really good wine!

More importantly - I plan to twitter about the experience - so, if you follow me* you'll be kept updated with what we're tasting and pictures too! It will be the ONLY thing I twitter about on Saturday so I won't be using hashtags.

Unfortunately, no mobile phone operator in the UK has cut Twitter a deal, so it's unlikely I'll be picking up too many (if any) tweets. This means that if you have something you'd like me to watch out you'll need to let me know in advance.

Of course - any readers (or twitterers) who will be at the event - please give me a shout before the end of the week.

Not really that into this whole internet mullarkey? Not a problem - as I'll round up the day next week!

*Firefox/Flock users may want to consider using the excellent TwitterFox add-on.
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Monday, November 17, 2008

SHF: Glitter

Sun 16 Nov 2008

This month's Sugar High Friday, hosted by the Well Seasoned Cook, is Glitter. Susan offered a few ideas to get participants started but I always knew where I was going.

When I was little, we used to have a tube of silver cachous in the cupboard. They were used, unsurprisingly, for decorating cakes. At one point, I also decided that they represented an important part of my diet and eating one (several times a day, obviously) probably granted me some kind of exciting, superhuman quality.

It was clear that, for SHF, I should revisit the cachou.


Now, thanks to the interent, it seems that 'cachou' is the Australian (and Kiwi) word for 'silver balls'. I prefer 'cachou' - 'silver balls', while descriptive, is just ridiculous.

Because I knew my cake decorating was likely to be a bit lame, I made up my own recipe for little chocolate studded cupcakes.

Take 50g of dark chocolate and either process or cut into small pieces. You could always use 50g of very small chocolate chips.

Cream 175g of unsalted butter with 130g of caster sugar. Add 150g of self raising flour, 1 tsp of baking powder and 2 (medium) eggs. Finish with 1 tbsp of rum. Finish by mixing through your chipped chocolate.

Spoon into your baking receptacle: I used my silicone muffin tray, without papers, and bake at 160°C (fan) for 20 minutes. A skewer should come out clean.

When the cakes were cool I made a basic vanilla icing. I used about 25g unsalted butter, which I melted. I then added icing sugar and hot water until I had about enough and it was the right consistency (this was around 6-8 tbsp of icing sugar), and finished with 1 tsp of vanilla essence.

I finished my iced cakes with writing icing (surprisingly difficult to use) and the cachous. I discovered that very long fingernails are utterly impractical for positioning tiny silver balls in soft icing.

In the end I was a little short on icing, so I had 10 iced cupcakes, and one plain (one had already been eaten for quality control purposes). My favourites are the circus-tent style cakes: this was the easiest decoration to do and it looks the best. Things like love hearts and lettering are clearly beyond me!

The cake itself has been rated highly: because I chipped my chocolate in a food processor it's very fine, so you don't end up biting into a big chunk. In addition, it's remained distributed throughout the cake batter. The rum flavour is there, but it's not overpowering and the cakes are nice and moist.

Cake - yes, we'll definitely visit the cake again. The cachous? I'm thinking it might be time for some superhuman qualities ...

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Sunday, November 16, 2008

Linseed Bread

Sun 16 Nov 2008

I am busy trying to use up stuff in the cupboards. This also means that stuff doesn't get replaced immediately it runs out. Last weekend I used up the last of my carraway seeds so I had to think about what else to put in the bread.

Every now and then I go through a stage of making my own breakfast cereal. When I do that, it's eaten topped with yoghurt, milk and golden linseed. As I've not managed to make cereal for a while, the golden linseed was looking lonely and neglected. A quick scoot around the internet and I'd decided I'd need about a quarter of a cup and I'd soak the seeds for an hour or so before using them.

I got quite a shock when I came to use the seeds: they'd not really swollen but they'd turned all slimy and sticky and they'd made their soaking water all ... sort of ... gelatinous. I tried rinsing them but they stayed slimy and even though I was having visions of food poisoning I put together my usual basic bread recipe.

1 tsp of dried, active yeast, 12 fl oz of warm water, 1 tablespoon of sugary stuff (in this case, maple syrup - more stuff to be used up). Once the yeast starts to bubble away, I added some salt, 500g of strong white flour and the slimy linseeds. As always, it was the KitchenAid that did the work.

Given the sliminess of the linseeds I wasn't surprised to have to add just over half a cup extra of flour. I also used a fair bit extra later, when kneading the dough.

The dough seemed to take a while to get going with its rising but eventually it got to the point where I could give it a kneading and shape my loaf. The second rising was a lot quicker and before I knew it - the loaf was out of the oven.

Linseed Bread

It looked fantastic and, as I was hungry, it wasn't long before I broke the rule about not slicing into your bread while it's still warm. The bread is delicious. The linseed hasn't weighed it down at all, hasn't imparted any sliminess and (best of all) I'm still here to tell the tale! It doesn't really add too much in terms of flavour (perhaps a slight nuttiness) but it does add to the texture. As linseed is a bit of a wonder food (high in omega-3 fatty acid, as well as B1, iron, phosphorus and magnesium, as well as good amounts of other B-group vitamins and various trace nutrients) it rather transforms the nutritional value of a slice of white bread!

Which is excellent ... as I've got rather a lot left to use up!

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Friday, November 14, 2008

Wine School of Excellence

Fri 14 Nov 2008

I'm not really one for blog awards (I'm not sure I'm a warm and fluffy enough soul!), but it has occurred to me that there is someone who really deserves a bit more of the limelight than she's received.

So, especially for Karen Hardwick, at the Northern Wine Academy, I've created the Wine School of Excellence award. Karen runs classes throughout Yorkshire: mainly Leeds, Harrogate and York. She covers the WSET Foundation, Intermediate and Advanced courses, as well as running small group tastings, themed days and corporate events. Regular readers will know that I completed my Intermediate and Advanced courses in full day formats in Leeds and Harrogate, but the Northern Wine Academy also runs evening courses.

Karen's an incredibly dedicated tutor: she's more than happy to field questions outside classroom hours (very handy when you're having a last minute panic), she provides masses of support material during the courses (yes, that means homework and practice exams ...) and (of course) a great selection of wine to learn about! She also organised the trip to Provence (souther Rhône) I went on in September. In the run up to my scholarship exam she was on hand to answer questions about everything from dress code to question format.

I know that this year Karen has been nominated for WSET Educator of the Year. I really hope she wins it because I've seen first hand that her dedication to her students extends well beyond just ensuring they get through their exams.

And, of course, if you're thinking you'd like to know more about wine - you should check out the Northern Wine Academy site. Karen runs events that cater for all levels of knowledge and hosts events in York regularly.

On top of all of this, the Northern Wine Academy is celebrating its tenth birthday this year! So, happy birthday!!

1. Northern Wine Academy (Karen Hardwick), phone: 01904 701180.

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Wednesday, November 12, 2008

WBW51: Madeira

Wed 12 Nov 2008

Ooooh, I think this is the toughest Wine Blogging Wednesday yet! Joe, the 1WineDude, chose Baked Goods. By this, he meant Madeira but he widened the field to fortifieds in general, recognising that Madeira may not be readily available.

I really wanted to source a high quality Madeira for this exercise, but Madeira has a rather poor reputation. Unfortunately, this poor reputation means that, in Leeds at least, you're a little stuck for choice. So, I ended buying a Blandy's Duke of Clarence Rich Madeira, available online from Oddbins at £11.49, or from Latitude Wine, Leeds, at £12.99.

It's a bit hard to know where to start with Madeira. I think the best place to start is that it's pretty much indestructible! This means you can buy a bottle now and next Christmas ... it will taste the same (certainly can't say that about Port!). This is all thanks to the wine's production: it's oxidised and, effectively, heat treated. After fortification the wine enjoys the estufagem ageing process: it's left to cook - either in the sun, in temperature controlled wine saunas, or in large warehouses (estufa) where it's stored high-up to be kept as warm as possible (the island of Madeira, while part of Portugal, is off the north coast of Africa). Temperatures easily top 40°C.

This interesting approach to wine making is all about emulating Madeira's origins. Fortified wine was used as ballast in ships stopping at Madeira and crossing either to the East Indies or to the New World. Sailing through the tropics, the wine was heated over a long period of time, sloshed around, oxidised ... and then it turned out that everyone liked it better after it had done its world tour.

Now, with Madeira being part of Portugal, the wine is subject to EU labelling legislation - and this has meant changes. Madeira used to be labelled according to style: from Sercial being the driest, to Verdelho, Bual and Malmsey. The problem is that these are all grapes ... and often some (or all) of the wine in the bottle had been made from other grapes (most commonly Tinta Negra Mole). Today - a bottle labelled with the grape variety will still fit that sweetness profile but it will actually be made from the grape. No grape variety - you'll have to rely on descriptors on the label for style (for example, sweet or rich) and the wine is likely to be made from mostly Tinta Negra Mole.

One final fact before we move on to the wine itself - unlike many wine producing areas Madeira is very fertile. Not only is it a volcanic island but, supposedly, early Portuguese settlers burnt the island's woods. The fire lasted for years and the fertile volcanic soil was further enriched.

So - today's wine was a rich brown colour, with a nutty, raisin nose with just a hint of chocolate. On the palate it was sweet, but not cloyingly so, and the sweetness was cut through with some good solid acidity which quite surprised me. The palate was all about raisins, nuts, chocolate: I'd describe this as half way between a Christmas pudding and a bar of fruit and nut chocolate. The length wasn't bad but it was dominated by the acidity - in itself quite refreshing - and the heat from the alcohol (19% abv). I found this alcohol a little too aggressive and persistent, but then, if I were drinking this with coffee and chocolate, or cake, I doubt I'd notice.

The surprise of the evening was Andy announcing that it wasn't too bad at all. Coming from someone who doesn't like, and actively avoids, sweet wines this is high praise indeed.

I think Joe's done really well with combining topic and timing for this WBW: as we head towards Christmas, seriously consider buying a bottle of Madeira instead of Port. Given you don't have to polish it off quickly, see if you can track down one of the varietally labelled examples (online, Laithwaites sell a Malmsey). You might have to spend a little extra, but it will last you through the year in a way no other wine can!

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Monday, November 10, 2008

Lemon Lime Cheesecake

Sat 08 Nov 2008

One of the British food celebrities you'll not find featured often on these pages is Jamie Oliver. When he first appeared I was too busy being wound up by the annoying voice over woman to realise how much he irritated me.

This, I suspect, is quite a shame, as more than once people have enthused about his recipes. On Friday I got to have a peak in his Jamie's Ministry of Food. For those not in the UK, this accompanies a television series in which he teaches 'ordinary' people to cook a couple of simple recipes, and the idea is that they go out and teach two friends and so on. Pyramid cooking.

Many of the recipes in the book are very basic, so the book itself might not appeal if you already know how to make scrambled eggs and knock together a stew. However, I did spot a cheesecake recipe that looked quick ... and, well, it's cheesecake ... what's not to like?

Firstly, I really admire that Oliver has put together his recipe without resorting to an array of esoteric kitchen kit. I recognise that failing in myself: if there's a gadget to do the job, I'll use it and rarely do I bother pointing out alternative means. I might have to start considering that.

So - we begin with our cheesecake base. Take 200g of Digestive biscuits and crush to fine crumbs. Oliver suggests wrapping the biscuits in a clean tea towel and battering them with a rolling pin. You so know I put them straight in the Magimix. Toast (in a dry pan) 100g of rolled oats. At this point I melted 150g of unsalted butter and added the melted butter and biscuits to the toasted oats. I'm not sure why I did that, and next time I'll follow the recipe, and dice the butter and then add it to the oats. Less washing up.

Combine the oats, butter and biccies and then press the mixture into the base of a greased 23cm springform tin. I found I had a little too much mixture - but any you don't use, keep to one side. You need to press the biscuit mix down firmly and evenly, and then cover with clingfilm and refrigerate for at least an hour.

For the filling, you'll need 600g of cream cheese (you'll find supermarket own brand just as good, and about a quarter of the price, of branded), 300mL of double cream, 150g of caster sugar, a vanilla pod and one lemon and one lime.

So, mix together the cream cheese and sugar. If the cream cheese is looking quite wet in its container, drain it off. Scrape the seeds from the vanilla pod (or substitute 1 tsp vanilla essence - a lot cheaper but you won't have all the little black flecks!) and mix in. Add the finely grated rind of the lemon and lime and the juice of the lime*. Make sure it's all mixed together well.

Whip the cream to soft peaks and fold this into the cream cheese mix.

Have a good taste and adjust as you feel necessary.

This probably won't take you an hour, so after you've made the base make yourself a cup of tea and have a rest.

Once your base has had a chance to set, remove it from the fridge and fill with the creamy filling. Smooth the top, cover with the clingfilm and refrigerate for at least another hour. You'll need to keep the cake refrigerated until you eat it all up!

Oliver finishes his cheesecake with an easy raspberry coulis (raspberries and caster sugar mixed together). You can easily manage without: the cake is rich and full of flavour. If you have some left over topping, sprinkle this over slices to serve - it's delicious!

I rate this cheesecake recipe highly because it's not baked and doesn't involve the use of gelatin. This means it's easy on the cook and also makes the end product suitable for various flavours of vegetarian. As I've already mentioned, I rate Oliver's instructions and the fact he doesn't resort to gadgetry. The only thing I think he should mention is the importance of covering the cake with clingfilm. With all that cream and cream cheese it will absorb the slightest smell from your fridge - which might be less than ideal if it happens to have last night's curry as a neighbour! Depending on your springform tin, it's may be a bit of a bother to slice: my base has quite a pronounced lip and next time (and there will be a next time) I'll go to the effort of base-lining the tin with baking parchment.

All in all - quite a result and a dish which is ideal for preparation in advance. With a fruit compote on the side (or the raspberry coulis) I would be more than happy to serve this as a dessert at a dinner party.

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*Oliver's recipe uses the rind of a lemon and an orange and then uses the juice of the lemon. Because of my rather strongly dislike of orange-flavoured food this was never an option ...
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Sunday, November 09, 2008


Sat 01 Nov 2008

Former housemate's 30th birthday party on the horizon, I cheerfully volunteered to do some cooking. All well and good, but, with the chocolate brownies under control I realised that I was going to struggle with the schedule AND tracking down sausage meat to make sausage rolls.

With my logistics head firmly on my shoulders there was no time to look at the post, even though it included this month's Australian Gourmet Traveller. What was I going to make for the party that was savoury? My first idea was macaroni cheese - soon scrapped because it's not finger food. The bed was covered in cookbooks and I was getting nowhere when I decided that, just perhaps, the AGT would have something suitable.

Given that it is coming up to Christmas, I shouldn't have been surprised to find the magazine stuffed with ideas for canapés. However, I ended up taking on board the Classic Dish: Champagne Chicken Vol-au-Vent.

I know you can buy pre-made vol-au-vent cases, but where's the fun in that? Especially if you've already bought the puff pastry (yes, I was going to make my own rough-puff but ran out of time during the week!).

Making the pastry cases is actually easy, if a little fiddly. I re-rolled the pastry as I was worried that it was not quite thick enough (the AGT recipe advises 4mm). Then, I cut out 4 cm rounds with a pastry cutter. As I didn't have a 3cm cutter, I then hand-cut inner circles - not quite all the way through the pastry. If I'd had a cutter this would have been a LOT quicker.

The oven heated to 200°C and the pastry discs brushed with an egg wash, they were baked for 7 minutes. This was long enough for them to puff up and I could remove the central disc. The trick here is to ensure that not only do you remove the lid but also enough of the inside. Anything you leave behind will bake hard and will take up valuable filling space. With the middles removed, return to the oven for 5 or so minutes, until crisp and golden.

In an ideal world (and, indeed, next time) this would have been done well in advance and the little blighters frozen, ready to be used.

Moving on to the filling ... well, really, you can stuff them with whatever you fancy!

For Champagne chicken ... take one chicken breast. In a small pan, combine 125 mL of water and 250 mL of sparkling wine with a sprinkle of dried tarragon (or a small twig off fresh) and a strip or two of lemon rind. Do this in a small pan, so the chicken fits snugly. Bring this mix to the boil, add the chicken, return to the boil. Turn off the heat, cover the pan and leave to cool in the liquid. The chicken cooks surprisingly quickly.

Once the chicken has cooled, shred by hand and mix with a little lemon juice and grated lemon rind, cream, strained cooking liquor and season with white pepper and salt.

When ready - fill the vol-au-vent (generously) and return to a hot oven for a minute or two, before serving immediately - garnished if you wish. If you need to transport your vol-au-vent, I recommend doing so separately, and filling the cases just before serving.

Very 1970s, but actually, very easy and very popular!

And, if you think about it, something a little retro is what you need at a 30th birthday anyway!
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Saturday, November 08, 2008

Round Up

Sat 08 Nov 2008

It's been a while since we've taken a quick tour around the Leeds' restaurant and bar scene ... so here goes!

Closures: both Nick's Brasserie on Dock Street and Battered at Brewery Wharf have fallen by the wayside. I always suspected that Battered might have been on a bit of a hiding to nothing selling scraps for something like £2 a pop!

Openings: Floridita has taken over from where Break for the Border left off.

The big news has been that earlier this week Carlsberg announced plans to close the historic Tetley's site in Leeds. The brewery, founded in 1822, won't be closing until 2011, but (unsurprisingly) there's already a fair degree of outrage. And not just from me! CAMRA's not happy and neither are some MPs. In a move typical of large corporations, Carlsberg is going to move production of Tetley's to Northampton. Clearly whoever makes the decisions at Carlsberg doesn't understand that one of the most important aspects of brewing is the water. If you're brewing in Northampton, you're not using Leeds water and you won't be producing Tetley's.

I know that many people aren't huge fans of Tetley's (and I know it travels badly and can be temperamental) but if you get an opportunity - have a pint while it's still brewed in Leeds!

And if you want to hit Carlsberg where it hurts, the other beers in the portfolio are: Carlsberg, Carlsberg Extra Cold, Tuborg, Carlsberg Export, Holsten Pils, Birra Poretti, Becks, Corona Extra, Budweiser (not the real Budvar!), San Miguel, Miller Genuine Draft, Carlsberg Special Brew, a frightening array of bitters, Guinness, and in the cider department, Magners, Olde English and Strongbow. All the details can be found on the Carlsberg trade site.

But let's finish on a positive note! There are rumours that a new Leeds Brewery pub is opening soon ... while Simpson's, on Dock Street, will be hosting a Christmas wine tasting in conjunction with the Malmaison.
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Thursday, November 06, 2008

Pin Bar

Thurs 6 Nov 2008

I've been toying with writing a review of my new favourite bar and place to eat for quite a while. At first, my friends encouraged me to do so, to increase patronage and ensure its survival. Now, they've started asking me not to, in case other people discover it.

A really rubbish lunch at another bar has finally forced my hand.

Pin, on Dock Street, is the Leeds Brewery's newest bar. It's only been open a couple of months and business appears to be getting brisker.

On our first visit (quite a while ago now, very soon after it opened) we were a bit perplexed. Was it a restaurant rather than a bar? Why was there a cocktail menu? What was going on with our beers? Then Nigel's pie arrived and everyone (especially him) shut up. After he demolished it, he announced that it was very good and that the mash was real potatoes and that the vegetables had not been over cooked. On that day, I had the steak and blue cheese sandwich and was also happy.

We decided that it was worth another visit. This time, I wasn't eating, which I regretted as soon as Andy S's chicken kiev appeared. Not only was it huge, but it had clearly been made on the premises. Think what a chicken kiev looks like out of a packet. And now think of a big chicken breast, stuffed with garlic butter, crumbed and fried. Two completely different beasts. There was a lot of lip smacking - perhaps there could have been a little more butter but the chicken was lovely and moist and the chips were fantastic. On this occasion, Nigel had the fish and chips, and again ... no complaints.

And you know what - we haven't had a duff pint, or a duff meal, yet. Amongst us we've tried risottos, burgers, soups, pies, sandwiches ... and it's all really good. And the chips remain fantastic. The lager drinkers are happy because the bar stocks some 'premium' types of draught. The bitter drinkers are happy: FOUR Leeds Brewery beers to choose from (I've been enjoying the Gathering Storm). I guess cocktail drinkers would be happy too ... we've not ventured into that territory yet!

While the food isn't cheap (£5.50 for the sandwiches, which do come with crisps and salad, around £8.50 for the rest of the menu) it's not a lot more expensive than the substandard out of the van/freezer type fare you'll find in most pubs. In fact, I think Pin is doing an excellent job of treading the middle ground: it's not gastropub food, it's pub food that happens to be very well done.

Today, I went to the other extreme: a cheap (except that a mistake was made in the bill, which I didn't notice until we'd left, so not actually so cheap at all) lunch in the Aire Bar. My burger arrived in a soulless white bun, a piece of iceberg lettuce and a wedge of hard tomato served as garnish. The burger itself was barely cooked (to be honest, if we hadn't waited 40 minutes in a near empty bar I might have been tempted to send it back). I'd almost finished eating by the time my chips arrived. A colleague's chips arrived and were undercooked.

I've spent the rest of the day feeling quite ill. I feel like I've just finished eating the burger and the stomach is not happy.

I, for one, am more than happy to pay the Pin premium. We reckon that Pin's food prices are about £1 up on those of nearby pubs selling equivalent, but not as good, food. And that is a very small price to pay.

Other people rate pin too: Katie at Leeds Grub also raves about the chips!

1. Pin, 24 Dock Street Leeds, LS11 9RU, map (the postcode doesn't give the right location on googlemaps!)
2. The Aire Bar, 32, The Calls, Leeds, LS2 7EW, phone: 0113 245 5500, map.
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Tuesday, November 04, 2008

More WSET Success

Wed 29 October 2008

Back in April I sat my WSET Advanced exam and at the beginning of July the results arrived. I was stoked to have received a distinction overall and relieved that the study and bad moods had not only been worth it but were also well and truly over.

Good things only last so long ...

Mid September I received a letter from the WSET inviting me to participate in the Advanced Scholarship Exam. Every year the top 30 students (this year, out of over 5000) are invited to take part in a viva voce exam, at the end of which a selection of very nice prizes are handed out. This year's exam took place last Wednesday at the WSET's headquarters in London.

So ... that was another six weeks of stress! In many respects, preparation for the viva was less stressful than preparation for the written exam, mainly because I had NO idea what to expect.

I was in the final group of 10, so midday last Wednesday saw me arrive at the WSET, collect my number (22) and wait to be shown into the room where the examiners had spent the morning examining the 30 candidates (an hour+ per group). The questions weren't questions are such: more like topics for discussion. At each table we had a minute to choose between two questions (they were in themed piles, and the examiners flipped over the top card, so they had no idea what was coming either) and then 5 minutes to answer. We had 8 of those, a blind tasting of two wines, and an interview.

Very briefly, I answered questions (in order) on: Chablis v vendange tardive, Fino Sherry, noble rot, European wine labelling legislation, Italian grape varieties (2 red, 2 white), Cognac, German labelling, and the white wines of Bordeaux and South West France. Most of my answers I was pretty happy with: the first wasn't great because I was nervous, no idea what to expect, and no idea how 5 minutes can be! I susprised myself by being able to talk non-stop about Sherry! And while I felt I made a few small factual errors overall I was pleased that I'd not made myself look like an idiot.

I wasn't thrilled with my tasting (2 wines in 5 minutes is tricky indeed) as I was worried I hadn't ticked off enough of the aspects of the systematic tasting, but I was pleased to subsequently discover that not only had I picked the region correctly but also the grapes (not as impressive as it sounds, as I got the grapes in the wrong order - though I suspect with a little more time I might have sorted that out too).

The examiners were all very kind and did a great job of maintaining interest and enthusiasm after three hours. By the end I was actually rather enjoying the experience - I know that sounds a bit perverse, but don't forget that I got to spend all that time talking about wine!

After the exam a fellow candidate and I had time for a glass of wine at the Wine Wharf. I had a 2006 Loimer Riesling from Austria's Kamptal. A hefty £8.65 for a large glass although this wine does look to retail around the £20 a bottle mark, so WW's £33.25 bottle price tag doesn't look too outrageous. It was very good - my mood wasn't quite right for serious tasting, but while I think that retail this might be a little rich, the relatively modest markup in WW makes this a better buy here than many whites you'll find in less wine focussed establishments.

Anyway, drink over and done with it was back to Leeds and time to settle down and wait for results.

Fortunately - I didn't have to wait long and I've found out already that I've won the Cálem Port Award! At this stage, I don't know any further details but at some point I'll be heading to the Douro as a guest of A A Cálem and I'll be learning all about Port! Fortifieds are probably my main weakness (hmm, should I be disclosing that here?) so I'm looking forward to the opportunity to strengthen both my technical knowledge and my palate.

I feel very privileged to have won this - I won't say lucky because I did study bloody hard and I do take my wine very seriously! However, I doubt that I'd have done as well without Andy's endless, patient quizzing and the classes with Karen, at the Northern Wine Academy, so a big thank you to both!

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Sunday, November 02, 2008


Sat 25 October 2008

Earlier this year I won a pair of tickets for Vinopolis's "The Vineyard" tour. These tickets are normally £22.50 a person, so I was pretty chuffed. We haven't been to London much this year, so we ended up planning a weekend with a trip to Vinopolis as its main focus.

The Vinopolis literature advised us to allow approximately 2.5 hours for the experience, so I booked us in for 11am. After breakfast at Borough Market we arrived at Vinopolis about 10 minutes early. Despite not actually being properly open, we were handed our tickets, tasting vouchers and Vinopolis notebooks.

The tour is self guided, although it does begin with a 15 minute class in 'how to taste wine' - and we were told that the first of these would be at 11:30. So we had just over half an hour spare.

The tour begins with a room which focuses on Georgia. There are a few interactive computer displays, a couple of display cabinets and that's about it. The idea that's being communicated is that Georgia was the birthplace of wine. Having established that in the space of a few minutes we wandered past the area where we'd learn how to taste wine and had a look at some very cursory displays covering Burgundy (a few road signs, a model of a vineyard), Bordeaux (displays showing the cru hierarchies for reds and sweet whites, a Jancis Robinson narrated video), past the Champagne bar, into a room dedicated to Australia (corrugated iron, an Oz Clarke narrated video) and then, a bit bored, we decided to have a sit down.

Despite now being after 11, Vinopolis was still drowsy. We appeared to be the only members of the public there, and staff were arriving for work, moving stuff around, setting out glasses. We had the surreal feeling of being somewhere we shouldn't - as though it wasn't open yet and we were being treated to a behind the scenes experience. By this stage, Andy was also pretty cross (quite a few strong things were said about what would have been happening if we'd paid for the tickets).

Finally, 11:30 arrived and we took our seats to learn how to taste wine. No complaints there - the information was well delivered and correct but covered very quickly - necessitated by its 15 minute slot. This part of the Vinopolis experience is, quite clearly, sponsored by Chamarré. The wine used was Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc blend. It didn't really do a lot for me (at all) and I was a little surprised at the selection. It's not a blend you'll see often and it wasn't varietally expressive. I would have something like a textbook Sauvignon Blanc.

Having learned to taste it was time to put this into practice. As The Vineyard tour includes 2 'premium' wine tasting tickets, we thought we'd start there. There are four tasting tables at Vinopolis and one is dedicated to the premium wines. The man staffing the table seemed quite surprised that we were there to taste - apparently on a Saturday it's usually people who are intent on knocking back a few drinks. Right.

We saw evidence of this later: in amongst hen parties and people who thought it clearly hilarious to make a huge amount of noise drawing air through wine there didn't seem to be a lot of serious wine action (or education) at all. Having gone to the effort of teaching people the physical process of wine tasting it's a shame it's not followed up by well ordered tasting tables (the premium table started with a Port!) and more information about the wines. Most of the staff were really pleasant, and reasonably knowledgeable, people, but almost all seemed somewhat jaded.

The heavy corporate sponsorship we'd seen in our first session continued throughout the tour and I got (rightly or wrongly) the feeling that much of the wine selection was dictated by cold hard cash.

I was also extremely disappointed to note an incredible lack of attention to detail. I observed at least one board which contained grammatical errors, and the Vinopolis tasting notebook is riddled with them. In just half an A6 page I spotted SEVEN errors - without even trying. This sloppiness is also evident on the website.

It's probably obvious that I wouldn't go again, and it's not an experience I'd recommend. If you are genuinely interested in learning a little about wine, I think you're better off experimenting in your local wine shop, quizzing the wine merchant and doing a bit of reading. Between two people, £45 is going to buy you a LOT of good quality wine! Keep a look out for tastings in your area - they're unlikely to cost anywhere near as much to attend and will often have a broad range of wines to keep you occupied.

Rather than go through everything we tasted, I'm going to note the standout wine, which was from Brazil: a 2005 Miolo Quinta do Seival, which is a blend of Touriga Nacional, Tinta Roriz (which you my know as Tempranillo) and Alfrocheiro. This retails for around £11 and, aside from the obvious curiosity value (Brazil ... Alfrocheiro ...), it's a very pleasant drop. There are some vegetal notes on the nose with blackcurrant, blackcurrant leaf and damp woods (perfect autumn drinking then!). These characteristics follow through to the palate, accompanied by some soft tannins. It's reasonably full bodied - so at this time of year it's perfect with both roast meat and slow cooked stews. I'm not entirely sure where I'd put it on a value for money scale - I tasted it directly after a rather unpleasant Dornfelder and just before an extremely nasty Thai wine. We took a bottle around to a friend's house for dinner but by the time it was consumed my palate was less than clear (ahem).

There's a lot around Vinopolis which should be recommended: Borough Market, the Majestic where the wine tour finishes (the only Majestic in the UK to sell single bottles), and the Wine Wharf, which has an impressive (but expensive) array of wines by the glass. All of which you can enjoy without subjecting yourself to a costly and soulless 'experience'.

1. Vinopolis, No.1 Bank End, London, SE1 9BU, phone: 0207 940 8300, map.

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