Monday, 3 April 2017

Value Your Independents...

Here is a tale of woe; a tale of frustration and ineptitude.  My wife really ought to know better than to present me with a DIY job on a Sunday but, despite past experiences, she occasionally still tries to disrupt the usual Sunday routine by expecting me to turn into a jobbing builder for a couple of hours.  It never ends well. 
One of the bath taps had been dripping.  Not much (I hadn’t actually noticed) but it was enough to annoy the wife.  Odd really, because 99% of the time these taps are not used as each of us tends to use the shower rather than the bath.  Oh well.
Our Sundays usually follow a predictable pattern.  We are both church bellringers so the first thing on the list is ringing for Sunday service.  Coffee follows with our fellow bellringers, then we have to walk the dog who will by this stage have had his legs crossed for half an hour.  He gets a trip to the park on a Sunday rather than his usual walk and that takes a bit longer... Then I swing into “chef mode” with Sunday lunch preparation; joint in, veg prep, where’s the Sherry?  All very civilised.
On this particular Sunday I was also asked to tackle the dripping tap.  Water off, tap dismantled, problem identified (cracked washer – but of a variety I did not feel confident about being able to easily replace). Joint in, veg prep postponed, God knows where the Sherry is... Off we go to the nearest DIY store. 
I should at this point take time to explain a deeper problem.  I have many friends who have fathers who did lots of DIY.  One of my closest friends will tackle any plumbing job because he learnt how to do so from his Dad.  Another will decorate and lay floor tiles, carpets and lino in his sleep, again because his father showed him how.  My Dad was a schoolmaster; he taught Geography and subsequently Mathematics.  Give me a simultaneous equation or a grid reference and I’m away!  Sure, I can replace a fuse or change a lightbulb, maybe even put up a shelf (the bastards bought me a drill for my 50th) but much beyond that and I’m stumped.  So, when the tap was mentioned I knew that even if I found the bits, even if I had the tools (both long shots) there was still my DIY ineptitude standing in the way.
I can cook though, so I put the oven on timer so the joint wouldn’t be overdone.  I’d worry about the veg prep later.  Forget the Sherry, at least for now.  The first DIY store didn’t even come close to what I required.  Plenty of taps, plenty of washers but none resembled the bits I had removed.  The second DIY store was on the other side of town.  I checked my watch, the joint would be done in 20 minutes.  They had washers saying they’d fit all types of taps.  This was a lie, but for £1.78 a pack we thought it was worth a punt.  We also bought replacement tap tops and workings (or whatever they’re called).  Once I had deciphered the hieroglyphics that passed for instructions and brought forth my selection of spanners and screwdrivers I set about the task.  First, I replaced the dripping tap.  This went well, but the other tap (this is the one that was working fine) also needed to be changed so that they matched.  It should have been as simple as repeating the process of replacing the first one, but it wasn’t.  Part of it refused to budge but I saw the way round this. Then a tiny washer on the new fitting broke so I couldn’t fit the second new tap. 
In days gone by I would have waited until Monday and toddled off to an independent local hardware store in Ipswich called Martin & Newby.  An Aladdin’s cave of everything any home DIY-er could ever need.  I was a regular (though admittedly infrequent) customer, I don’t really do DIY you see... These chaps knew their stuff though and their advice would always go some way to mitigating my ineptitude.  On one occasion I needed a small metal washer for the carrier on my pushbike.  I took in a similar one from another part of the carrier and the chap behind the counter – sporting a comforting brown hardware shop coat – rummaged in a box of two and produced precisely the same washer.  “How much?” I asked.  “Tuppence each Sir” came the reply.  “Great, I’ll have five please” I responded, thinking it rude to expect change from a 10p piece.  I only needed one, but that wasn’t the point, they had precisely what I needed.  Martin & Newby closed several years ago now because people would go in there to try out the latest drills to buy for their DIY inept friends 50th birthdays and then buy the one they had selected from Amazon because it was cheaper.  Bastards. Nowadays you can’t buy one washer, you have to go to “Bodge It All” for a packet of 50.  I still have four for that pushbike carrier fitting though if ever you need one...
And so, this coming week, I will be driving to the other side of town, back to the DIY superstore, to buy another pair of replacement taps for £13.98, just because I need one bloody washer from that packet to replace the one that broke.  A washer I cannot even find, let alone try to buy, as a solitary item.  I expect to be throwing away two perfectly decent replacement taps (along with the perfectly decent one that is currently not in use that doesn’t drip but, crucially, doesn’t match the new one) minus one small washer.  It is, of course, perfectly possible that I will screw up another part of this job and need another part of the fitting that I’ve re-bought, but my money is on the washer breaking again if anything does.
We ate lunch at 4pm.  The meat was OK if a little dry by then.  The bells got rung, the dog got walked, the bath taps work but no longer match and we never did find the Sherry.  Life would have been so much easier if only we still had that small independent hardware store – people to ask who know stuff and who have what we need instead of doing half a job half as well.  It shut though, because everyone went to Amazon.  Sunday lunch was late, dry, a little cold (unlike the long lost Sherry) and the wife still isn’t happy because the taps we never use don’t match...  Support your local independent shops, trust me, you need them as much as they need you.

Wednesday, 8 February 2017

Food & Drink Faux Pas

Years ago I was told a tale about a young wife cooking a joint of ham.  It was something she did from time to time because her husband was particularly fond of ham.  Every time she did this she cut a piece off the corner of the joint and cooked it separately.  One day curiosity got the better of the husband and he asked why she did this.  His wife replied that it was how her mother cooked ham and she just did the same as her.  Refusing to be beaten he asked his mother in law the same question yet received the same answer – her mother had also done the same thing.  So it was that the husband directed the same question at his wife’s elderly grandmother and finally the mystery of the piece of ham cut off the joint before cooking was solved.  The grandmother told him that it wouldn’t fit in her pan otherwise.

I’m convinced that life is full of things like this, particularly relating to food and drink.  We do things without thinking and there are a few old habits that could do with breaking.  Here are some we’ve spotted:

Putting milk in scrambled eggs
It’s often said that scrambled eggs are easy to do, but difficult to do well.  Adding milk not only dilutes the flavour but makes them rubbery.  Perhaps the practice dates back to the days of food rationing when the eggs had to go a little further, but there is no reason to do this today.  If you want to add anything try a splash of double cream or butter to help the texture along.  Better still add an extra egg yolk as well for added richness.  Use a low heat, and turn it off before they’re done, the heat left in the pan will finish the job more slowly and widen the window when they’ll be just right!  Texture-wise you need to be short of “fully set” but nicely beyond “dog slobber”... 

Pricking sausages
Another habit from wartime perhaps – when meat was in short supply and your bangers were more likely to burst in cooking?  Maybe there was once some justification for sausage pricking, but not now.  If you prick a good sausage these days you just let out all the juices and your sausage will dry out.  If you think it’s the healthier option because you’re allowing some fat to escape then you might have a point I suppose, but if it’s the fat that worries you why did you buy sausages in the first place?  Sausages contain fat, deal with it. 

Cutting a cross in the base of sprouts
Supposedly done to aid the cooking process yet actually, if anything, you want to slow the cooking process down or you’ll arrive at a pile of green mush before you know it.  I hated sprouts as a lad, but they were so often overcooked and more grey than green.  Yuck. Nowadays I cook them in boiling water for just a minute or two, strain and plunge into iced water to stop them cooking further.  Only a few minutes before I’m ready to serve they go into a frying pan with a handful of pancetta cubes and some butter to both heat them through and give them some nice toasty edges.  They turn into little green toasty and crunchy nuggets of goodness which have converted hitherto hard-line sprout-haters.  If you cut a cross in the bottom before you cook them they overcook to slimy rather than remaining crunchy.

Vinegar on cabbage
A peculiarly East Anglian habit (or so it seems) which is employed by people who don’t like cabbage and don’t mind ruining the flavour of any wine that may be about by chucking vinegar all over the place.  If you don’t like cabbage fair enough (though you could try the aforementioned sprout technique of a frying pan or wok, some butter and a bit of decent bacon) but vinegar? It doesn’t belong on cabbage unless you’ve pickled it.

Keeping all red wine endlessly
It’s one of the questions we most often hear at wine tastings... “Will it keep?”...  Most of what we sell is ready to go now.  If you mean “will it get any better?” that’s a different (and more appropriate) question and the answer may well be “yes” but, just because it’s wine, why assume that you have to keep it for years before you can drink it?  In Australia the average time between a bottle of wine being purchased and being consumed is about 20 minutes.  Makes you think doesn’t it!  It’s almost certainly longer in the UK, but we do need to ditch the misconception that all wine must be kept.  With many wines, “keeping it” is the worst thing you can do, but you need to talk to the chap you bought it from and ask a sensible question such as “if I don’t drink this straight away, when should I be drinking it?”  I will confess to personally suffering from “Last Bottle Syndrome” though.  I have one bottle left of something that was really good, but delay opening it for far too long.  Usually this is because I’m looking for the right occasion, but all too often I realise that I’ve pushed my luck and missed my chance.

Adding salt to our meals before tasting the food
My finger is pointing at my Mother-in-Law here.  I like cooking and like to get it right.  I season as I go and constantly check flavours.  Unlike many, I always add a bit of salt to the water when cooking potatoes, rice or pasta so you don’t need to add more afterwards.  However, taste is a personal thing so I am quite happy to accept that, having tasted your food, you might want to add a little more seasoning.  That’s OK, carry on.  But my Mother-in-Law never tastes a thing on the plate which I have so lovingly prepared for her without first dumping a load of salt on it.  Bloody woman.  I now remove the salt from the table when she’s eating with us to prevent this.  I win (makes a change).

Keeping eggs in the fridge (or not, as the case may be...)
TV chefs tell us that we don’t need to, so why do fridge manufacturers put those little egg holder trays in the door?  We try to buy free range eggs.  Usually they come direct from the farm.  They are neither refrigerated in the shed that we collect them from, nor when they are still inside the chicken.  I guess central heating may be the problem and they last longer when kept cool (don’t we all).  Apparently this is because eggs contain a natural preservative which degrades over time and keeping them cool does slow that process down.  Makes sense I suppose.  I might go quietly on this one...

Opening a bottle of red to allow it to “breathe”
Actually this is usually quite a good idea, but just opening it and exposing an area of wine about the size of a 1p coin isn’t going to make a lot of difference.  If you’re going to bother opening it then at least take the time to get the air to it properly.  Decant it perhaps? Pour the wine into a jug and then pour it back into the bottle?  Just pouring a couple of glasses once you’ve opened it will make a massive difference, just pulling the cork won’t.

Over-chilling white wines
A trade customer once called us with a complaint, there was glass in his white wine and he wanted to send the whole lot back.  Further investigation revealed the “problem” to be tartrate crystals and a careful explanation was required.  The wines we stock are made by winemakers who take a “hands off” approach in both the vineyard and the winery.  They like to let nature do its thing and make the best wine they can.  They only offer their wines a gentle filtration (and many don’t filter at all) so that the wine you drink is as close as possible to that which nature intended.  More goodness and flavour remains than would be the case in the mass-produced stuff sold in the supermarkets.  The trouble with this is that red wines often throw a sediment and white wine, when chilled, might throw some tartrate crystals.  Both are harmless and actually both are a positive sign that the wine has not been over-fined or over-filtered.  Supermarkets will insist on these possibilities being eliminated at bottling (they can’t explain sediment or tartrates to customers you see) so their wines are given maximum filtration to remove this possibility (and most of their character too).  However, before you can filter out tartrate crystals you have to get them to precipitate and you do that by taking the wine down to quite a low temperature for quite some time, allowing the crystals to form, and then filtering.  The problem with the customer in question who complained was not the wine, but his fridge.  He’d been keeping his white wines in a food fridge set at 3 degrees Centigrade, which is just too cold.  Sorry, but it is.  At that level not only will the crystals form but you numb the wine to the point where it won’t taste of anything.  Only sweet whites need to be served as low as 4-6 degrees and fuller, dry whites really ought not to be much lower than cellar temperature (12-14 degrees Centigrade) with lighter, dry whites somewhere in between.  If you are a restaurateur and you’re keeping your white wines in the same fridge as you food, please stop.

Using the wrong glasses
Some (wine glass manufacturers mostly) will have you believe that you need a different shaped glass for each grape variety.  I’m unconvinced by this.  It needs to be the right size and shape certainly, but a different one for each grape variety?  That’s like telling me that I need a different pair of shoes for every trip out of the house (mind you, my wife does...). Personally, I’m looking for a glass of a decent size, with a stem, that allows me to give the wine in it a swirl to release its flavours, and a slightly tightening of the rim of the glass to hold the aromas in so I can enjoy those too.  No cut glass thank you.  No tumblers and nothing too small either.  If you have any Paris goblets in your house please throw them away.

Overfilling wine glasses
If you overfill the glass you won’t be able to enjoy the wine as much.  You need to swirl it, savour it, and allow it to develop its flavours.  Mind you, underfilling is probably worse...

Not being adventurous enough
My problem is that I don’t eat out often enough which means that when I do I tend to stick to the things I know I will enjoy.  This, in turn, means that I’m not sufficiently adventurous with my menu choices – I’d rather be safe and happy than adventurous and risk disappointment.  People have the same problem with wine of course and sometimes things are fashionable because they’re fashionable, like Prosecco where flavour appears eventually when you buy a good one, but I’m buggered if I can see what all the fuss is about otherwise.  Pinot Grigio? Same problem.  More interesting and characterful alternatives of both exist, if only people were bold enough.  I call it “Indian Restaurant Syndrome” – all that choice and I’m having the bloomin’ Jalfrezi again...

Getting the wine choice wrong
Look, wine is made first and foremost as an accompaniment to food.  French wines especially evolved alongside the gastronomy of their own native regions.  The same is true of Spain, Italy and the rest of Europe.  The New World are still catching up.  We are well advised not to bugger this arrangement up by trying to drink red with the seafood from the mouth of the Loire – the locals invented Muscadet for precisely that purpose.  Yes, I know you might prefer red wine, but you’ve got a Dover Sole on your plate (you idiot)...  Be guided, don’t force food and wine partnerships that are just plain daft.   It’s not as simple as red with meat, white with fish, there’s a bit more flexibility than that, and you can be creative as long as you’re still sensible.

Putting ketchup on everything (you know who you are...)
Claimed, by the older generation, to be the best way to get young children to eat their vegetables.  I have to say that it seems to work, though the downside is that they grow up thinking that the world tastes of ketchup and missing out on all those delicious flavours which your kitchen department spend hours creating.  For the same reason the Queen thinks the world smells like paint, because wherever she goes has just been given a fresh coat ahead of her visit...

Making coffee with boiling water
Please don’t do this, it burns the coffee apparently and brings out the bitter flavours.  Tea is a different matter, in fact freshly boiled water is best but it’s a no no for coffee.

Buying pre-grated cheese
I bet you’ve seen them too, on the supermarket shelves, bags of pre-grated cheese.  What’s all that about?  How hard is it to grate a bit of cheese?  You have a grater in the cupboard right? and cheese is a standard item you keep in stock in your kitchen?  So why the hell do you need to buy pre-grated cheese?  It’s just lazy.  I was thinking of starting a campaign to rid all shops of pre-grated cheese but it looks like Donald Trump has beaten me to it.  I heard him only the other day saying that he wanted to “Make America grate again.”

Confusing “this is bad” with “I don’t like it”
As wine merchants we are very clear on the difference between these.  We have to be.  We do a lot of tasting, and I mean A LOT.  We reckon that we taste 30-40 wines for every one that makes it into our selection, even if only briefly.  We weed out the poor, dull, bad value and just plain boring ones so you can be confident that anything that we put our name to is a good example of its type at its price.  So, please don’t tell us that one of our wines is poor.  You might not like it but that’s not the same thing, and not liking it is perfectly acceptable.  Odd as it may seem, we do actually list a few wines which we don’t actually like ourselves, but which we still recognise as good wines.   It is perfectly possible to not like Shakespeare, or cabbage, but just because you don’t like them doesn’t automatically make them bad.

Right, it’s your turn now.  Can you think of any other examples?



Friday, 3 February 2017

What Is It With Gravy Granules...?

Several years ago I read an excellent article by one of my favourite TV chefs, Nigel Slater.  It was about gravy with an understandable focus on the Sunday roast.  He recounted tales from his childhood of his mother making “proper” gravy, starting with the meat juices, maybe cooking off a bit of veg in them (onion especially) then adding and cooking out some flour before straining some cooking liquor (usually veg water).   What resulted was a sauce that was a natural accompaniment to the meat (whatever it happened to be) because the predominant flavour of that sauce was the meat itself.  Slater described the gravy as “belonging” to the dish.  Being a chef of course he also suggests a few possible “tweaks” to add even more character – roasting a couple of garlic cloves to squish into the sauce, a pinch of fresh herbs or even spices maybe, and dare we suggest a slug of wine?  But the point being that, because of its origins, your sauce will still be a natural match, be a better enhancement to the dish and provide more enjoyment.  It makes sense doesn’t it!

Crucially, it is also very easy to do.  The meat has to rest for a bit, and you may have some roast potatoes to wait for so what better way to fill those spare few minutes than preparing the prefect sauce to compliment your roast?  Given this, why is there a market for gravy granules?  My bet is that most people have everything in their store cupboards to make the perfect gravy, yet people willingly spend money buying this superfluous culinary abomination to make a less good sauce.  Why?  Surely it can’t be because all you have to do is just add water?  That’s essentially all you need to do to make gravy properly!

What worries me is that it’s not our cooking techniques which have become lazy as much as our tastebuds.  As one well-known regional brewery says on its advertising (as a taunt to drinkers of bland eurofizz) “Afraid you might taste something Lagerboy?”  Have decades of carvery lunches left our culture with an unnatural desire to cover all varieties of roast meats in a homogenised gloop because we’re frightened of real flavour?

Some wines encourage lazy tastebuds too.  I’m thinking of the mass-produced, pleasant enough (hopefully) but entirely forgettable easy-to-drink anonymous hooch which was probably on a “half price” deal at the local supermarket.  The customer is chuffed because they think they’ve got a deal, the producer is chuffed because, frankly, that’s the only way they’re going to shift it, and the supermarket doesn’t care as long as they get your money one way or another.  If the vast spectrum of wines from all over the world could be compared to the seven colours of the rainbow then supermarket wine ranges tend to occupy about 10% of “green”.  That’s the safe area right in the middle which doesn’t ask too many questions.  Wine for the masses if you like, with flavours you won’t notice unless you’re really concentrating (which you won’t be – it was half price after all).  The reds are bereft of any tannin to the point where UK palates now incorrectly seek to avoid it and the whites will have had a character bypass lest any flavour should offend anyone.  These bottles are vinous equivalent of lift music or the Morris Ital – those with low expectations will be fine, everyone else with be either disappointed or annoyed.  Possibly both.

Of course, we would say that wouldn’t we.  After all, we have a more exciting range of wines made by people with passion and enthusiasm (as opposed to a clipboard and calculator) many of whom fly by the seat of their pants in their constant strivings for that extra bit of excellence.  They want to make something you’ll notice and remember.  You might have had to part with a quid or two more for the experience, but they (and we) want that extra to be worth it, after all, if we didn’t think it was we wouldn’t be selling the stuff in the first place would we!  Generally speaking your extra quid or two goes on flavour and you’ll enjoy it all the more.  It’s a bit like making your own gravy really, ditch the mediocre and go for something that you can have real pride in.   It really isn’t that big a step you know.