“The Bollocks” To Be Minded At All Costs

How daft do we think people are..?

There’s been much discussion lately about “de-mystifying” wine: does the traditional wine vocabulary still have any great relevance, or does it merely obfuscate; does it deter people from the specialist shops; did it ever make a ha’porth of sense, anyway? You know the sort of thing. But has nobody given any thought to the intelligence of the wine drinker, or to where “de-mystification” – especially by specialists – will leave them? The issue could raise lengthy debate, but for now I’ll address it by way of a tasting event I hosted recently…

A large group of good-natured people are quietly weighing up the first of eight or so wines on display, and I ask them what they think. There is a wide range of knowledge and experience in the room, but one or two people seem to think I’m expecting a “wine buff’s” response, and a few more simply look worried. Diffidently, one of them breaks the ice: “it’s quite nice, yes. Fruity.”

“Certainly is! Any advance on fruity?”

But of course. There always is. Not immediately, but the snowball is rolling. Throughout the evening, conventional wine terms garner differing responses, even from the shy ones, and it is clear that people are aware not only of what I’m talking about, but of what I might be talking about. Neither the meanings nor the ambiguities are getting past anybody!

“How would you describe the nose on this, Mike?”

“Well, I’d be inclined to agree with the producer’s note, and say it was quite elegant.”

Another voice: “Is that ‘elegant’ in the sense of ‘not smelling of much?'”

“Er, yes, elegant can imply pleasing restraint, but I take your point that in this case it might be used in its, ah, ‘unassuming’ sense…”

“Well it must have an elegant palate as well, because it doesn’t taste of much either!”

And we’re off. As the evening wears on, the language of wine is deconstructed. “Flinty” becomes “pungently smoky,” “steely” becomes “painful,” “velvety” comes to describe a merciful antidote to the steely and flinty wines. Terms like “volatile acidity” invite as piquant a variety of responses as can be imagined! “Cat’s pee,” however, remains cat’s pee, and we find much to agree on – acidity can make a fruity wine a little more interesting, if a little less fruity, and tannin, while reassuringly indicative of longevity, can make it even less fruity. It can also turn a “soft finish” (a pleasant lingering aftertaste) into a “dry finish” (a vicious, lingering afterburn).

As we approach the end of the evening, we spotlight a couple of mightily impressive showstoppers from an esteemed Australian winery. As luck would have it, I have the winery’s own rather florid blurbs to hand, which I suspect will elicit a colourful response…

“You realise, don’t you, that you are sampling the ‘serious side’ of Grenache?” The desired effect is instantaneous. “Is that the side that sits in the house all day listening to Pink Floyd albums and thinking all the other wines are a shower of big soft kids?”

“It is also, it says here, ‘a thought-provoking wine.'” Again, I didn’t have to wait. “They’re spot on there, Mike – it’s provoked me into thinking I’d be crackers if I paid thirty-five quid for it!”

And for a final shot, squinting theatrically at the small print: “you will already have noticed its – let’s see – ‘loud fruit,’ and I’m sure its ‘huge length’ will have you struck dumb for a moment…” No. Not even for a moment. “There’s a job going for a proofreader?”

Of course, the effort to describe wine will occasionally result in some misguidedly picturesque language, and anybody who claims he can taste caramelised lemon zest in a wine is no less deranged now than ever he was. But where will “de-mystification” take us? Away from the odd bizarre, if well-intentioned, attempt to describe and share some massive personal impact? To a place where rows of wine are graded from “fairly decent” to “doubleplusgood,” by way of “gerrit down yer neck?” The wine vocabulary is a part of the wine experience, and it will grow as the wine lover’s journey progresses. Without encouragement he will simply walk in circles. Did Charlie Parker muscle his way around chord progressions before leaping off the top note into a whirlwind of improvisation, or did he play dead fast and that, like? Over the years, I’ve considered him to have done both, and much more besides, and while in that time I’ve responded differently to various approaches to jazz criticism, they’ve all added to my understanding of the music. Have we really abdicated our equal responsibility to the wine lover?

Those of us in the wine trade owe it to ourselves to grace something we love with some effort to convey its delightful indefinables. But we surely owe the same to others. To the wine growers, who spend the whole year fussing over crops in the quest for perfection. To the winemaking teams, working indescribable hours throughout the harvest and beyond to bring a thoroughly enriching experience to our table. And to the customers, their intelligence, curiosity and humour abiding all of the trends of the trade. They really are quite nice!

(An edited version of this article was published in Harper’s Wine and Spirit Magazine’s online edition: http://www.harpers.co.uk/home/13011-mike-stoddart-how-daft-do-we-think-consumers-are-.html)

Post Punk Liverpool: Ten Tales of Tea Shop Delirium.

1976. An eccentrically creative theatre director, Ken Campbell, has chanced upon Robert Anton Wilson’s “Illuminatus!,” a brain-tangling trilogy of novels examining colossal conspiracy theory in minute detail. It strikes Campbell as ideal for theatrical adaptation, and it becomes the source text for an imminent production. He puts the idea to a local set designer, Bill Drummond, who asks, incredulously, which part of the massive book he intends to focus on. “All of it,” comes the reply. “What else?”

Inspired by an arcane number theory, work begins on dividing the unwieldy opus into five plays, each play consisting of five acts, each act lasting 23 minutes. It is scheduled to open on November 23rd. Five cast members were forced to pull out due to injury at the eleventh hour. Or would that be the 23rd hour? Bill Drummond has to set the stage for many hours of intricately bizarre drama. But of course, it wouldn’t be happening in a conventional theatre. It’s happening in the Science Fiction Theatre of Liverpool, part of the Liverpool School of Language, Music, Dream and Pun. This was a creative nexus on Mathew Street, the brainchild of local poet Peter O’Halligan, who believed it to be at the spot Carl Gustav Jung was dreaming about when he declared Liverpool to be The Pool Of Life. Earlier that summer, the school had hosted the first of its festivals dedicated to Jung, and Mathew Street rang to the music of a theatrical local rock group, Deaf School, and a newly-formed Art College band called Albert Dock and the Codfish Warriors. The Alberts’ bass player took to the stage by abseiling down the front of the building, dressed in full skiing outfit, while audience and participants alike enjoyed jumping in and out of a skip full of custard, laid on specially for the purpose of jumping in and out of. Welcome, dear friends, to Liverpool, where even Punk Rock might have wondered what on earth was going on…

For all of its excitements, Punk Rock became even more fascinating when added to the exotic stews of home grown weirdness cooked up in the provinces and served to people who cared little, if at all, about what might have been going on in the capital: poets and potherbs, tosspots and troubadours, shamen and shitehawks, but always, always, impassioned music lovers of every stripe. Late 70s Liverpool, then, was a blessed and magical place to be a music-obsessed mid-teenager; it’s one thing to be discovering your own music at that age, but to see its movers and shakers in the middle of town felt like something else altogether. How lucky was the music fan who could buy the NME’s Single of the Week in a shop where it’s creator would be hanging around the end of the counter? Was this ever going to happen to kids from Loughborough? Similar things may have been going on in other cities, but as the man said, neither of their bands were any good! Liverpool’s musical history has been documented more thoroughly elsewhere, of course, but for now, some fondly-remembered snapshots of an age, and half an hour of unique and hopefully diverting music.

(Technical note – this piece uses Youtube clips instead of MP3 files. I hope you’ll excuse the minor inconvenience, and agree that it’s far better than bugging the artists).

Suffice to Say – Yachts   http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WC-VOYJf-mQ

The Yachts look forward to a skiing holiday

Yachts evolved from Albert Dock and the Codfish Warriors, and it was their bass player, Martin Dempsey, who had abseiled on to the stage in skis during the Jung festival. They specialised in whacking out witty, catchy pop songs, chivvied along by a Farfisa organ, and the delightful “Suffice to Say” could have been given an equally good home by Sparks or the Kursaal Flyers. When they split in 1981, their members moved variously to It’s Immaterial, The Christians and Pink Military, Dempsey eventually becoming a music teacher while pursuing various other projects. He now plays with the raucously energetic Gentle Scars, wonderfully theatrical fun in glorious defiance of the band’s collective age of 427 years.

Iggy Pop’s Jacket – Those Naughty Lumps   http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aXDWm8WE8S4

Four fifths of Those Naughty Lumps heave a sigh of relief at not having to wear The Pullover.

And on the bass guitar, Martin “Armadillo” Cooper. Martin took over Aunt Twacky’s Tea Shop in the Pun School building, and re-named it The Armadillo Tea Rooms. It remained a creative nexus. Colossal pots of Good Old Rosie Lee would last for hours, fuelling the fervid imaginations of any number of local dreamers, musicians of real or imagined ability who would convene in varying number and construct bands which might never play a gig/write a song/actually meet each other. Of course, it was also a place where more realistic and successful ideas were nurtured, a petri dish for imaginative alchemy, a first step to global renown, in which case food was also available. The self-effacing Those Naughty Lumps formed in 1976, and enjoyed regular gigs around Liverpool and the Wirral, often by invitation. Iggy Pop’s Jacket, recorded in 1978 and one of the first releases on Zoo Records, offered two minutes of good clean fun, and a reassuring indication that the better Liverpool bands maintained a degree of humility and a sense of humour. Their follow-up record was even longer, and a 2012 Lumps reunion remains an ongoing threat. Martin Cooper was a far better chef than he was a bass player, and he has long enjoyed a position of great respect in Liverpool’s culinary arena. Maybe if we all eat enough he’ll be too busy for the band to get back together.

Big in Japan – Big in Japan   http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R3lo37uOK8E&feature=related

Ye Gods, this was inept even by the measure of its day (November 1977). What lyrics it seems to have are screechingly indecipherable and its infantile melody soon becomes almost hallucinatory. After a minute and a half it falls apart and starts all over again, finally ending with a bit of vaguely oriental piano noodling. Needless to say, it’s one of the greatest rock ‘n’ roll records ever made! Singer Jayne Casey ran a clothes stall in the aforementioned Aunt Twacky’s, so when Roger Eagle opened a new club across the street she was well placed to form a group with some of its regulars, which famously included Ian Broudie, Budgie, Holly Johnson and Bill Drummond. By 1978, having learned how to write words and music, they had no option other than to disband. Jayne took her new-found skills to Pink Military Stand Alone, before becoming an integral part of many of Liverpool’s cultural milestones. From her hefty catalogue of achievements we could choose the global success of Cream and the artistic directorship of Liverpool’s Capital of Culture year in 2008. She is to be applauded for building upon the Eric’s legacy and not merely squandering it.

Sleeping Gas – the Teardrop Explodes   http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aSDQkfB7_mg

Ethereal it might be, but it’ll do you no good.

Perhaps the archetypal Liverpool record of the time, an NME Single of the Week and a John Peel favourite. Alongside Echo and the Bunnymen, the Teardrop Explodes played their earliest gigs in Erics, with just two or three songs, three or four chords and a million ideas. Making a virtue of their limitations, this, their debut single, revolves around Julian Cope’s repeated five-note bass pattern, a single chord played on a tinny organ by Paul Simpson, Mick Finkler’s two-chord guitar loop and some opaque, even nonsensical lyrics. Really, it should have drifted into a bad Syd Barrett out-take, but Gary Dwyer’s drums turn it into a little miracle, keeping the simple mechanics turning over like an antique music box, and making the whole band sound like a bunch of kids making something brilliant out of spare parts. This was another release on Bill Drummond and David Balfe’s Zoo label, and weighing the quality of the record against the frugality of its resources, you have to wonder just how much Drummond learned from designing “Illuminatus!” with bits and pieces.

(Context note  – Sleeping Gas was released in the same month, March 1979, as Breakfast in America by Supertramp!)

Touch – Lori and the Chameleons    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w5-H_Lqfm24

Balfe and Drummond were shameless lovers of great and glamorous 60’s pop records, especially girl groups, and took it upon themselves to make one of their own. Christening themselves The Chameleons and recording a backing track, the story goes that they drafted in an exotic-looking girl called Lori Larty who they’d seen hanging around the Armadillo and Eric’s, and wrote some lyrics around her memories of a holiday in Tokyo. It was brilliant! If the Liver Birds had made an album, this would have been Polly James’ feature song. It was snapped up by Sire Records, who reissued it with a picture on the cover of Lori holding a balloon, and it reached the lower end of the charts. Another single followed, The Lonely Spy, with a big production and a James Bond soundtrack feel to it, but Lori took herself off to art college and there were no more records. It was left to another Eric’s regular to build upon the tradition that had started with The Vernons Girls…

Electricity – Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark   http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZB1J57LGQfY

Paul Humphries wonders what Andy McCluskey is trying to tell him.

Paul Humphries wonders what Andy McCluskey is trying to tell him.

These were the days when marketing could wait until the ideas had been hatched, the music written and the teapot drained. Andy McCluskey and Paul Humphries had met in primary school on the Wirral, and during the mid-70s played in various local groups, including Equinox and Pegasus. Yes, the mid-70s. In 1977, when the lure of their beloved electronic music finally became irresistible, they formed an eight-piece band called the Id, sidelining as a weirdo synthesiser duo called VCL XI (taking their name, of course, from a picture of a valve on the cover of a Kraftwerk LP). The Id had no shortage of gigs, but split due to musical differences in 1978. McCluskey briefly assumed vocal duties with Dalek I Love You, but, fearful that their daft name may take them nowhere, he rejoined Humphries to form Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark. Electricity, their debut single, was released in 1979 on Manchester’s Factory label, and remains one of the few great pop records to concern itself with hydro-electric power. A major label soon recognised the band’s commercial potential, and their 1980 debut LP was fresh and immediate and rightly successful.  Their second LP, therefore, had a duty to start with a jaunty hit single about a plane dropping an atom bomb, before offering eight more pieces in declining order of melancholy, culminating in “Stanlow,” a stately paean to an oil refinery in Cheshire.

After enormous and lasting success, OMD called it a day in 1996. Andy McCluskey, by then having learned a thing or two about strings of irresistible hit records, took responsibility for the Liverpudlian girl group tradition and launched Atomic Kitten!

Have One Yourself…

A piece like this can’t begin to be exhaustive, and may be judged by its omissions. Liverpool, then as ever, had a huge number of bands, not all of them Eric’s regulars; some had cut their teeth at places like the Moonstone or Stairways, or by playing third on the bill to the Edgar Broughton Band at the Stadium, and they are a chapter in themselves. A lot of them went unrecorded, or were unjustly neglected, or wished to avoid the “hip Liverpool band” tag. Still more were just plain terrible. So now’s your chance to have one yourself, as it were, to take five minutes for your very own Youtube trawl. Maybe you didn’t like the Teardrop Explodes, perhaps you preferred the proto-metal of Marseille, or the electrifying, primal rock ‘n’ roll of Lies All Lies, or maybe you had to pretend to enjoy a lousy band because your cousin played the drums. Whatever, now’s your chance to go and wonder what happened to them all while you scour the Internet for Torchy and the Moonbeams, or 29th And Dearborn, or even Supercharge!

(Since you asked…the singer of Marseille arrived at a successful TV career as the host of Art Attacks. The late drummer from Lies All Lies became a world class musician, first joining Dogs d’Amour and then the Quireboys. The band’s singer, James John Turner, took his commanding stage presence to the Electric Morning before opening a studio/rehearsal centre in Liverpool, to nurture new talent. He now makes fine solo albums that come in to wild acclaim in Europe and the USA)

Yes To The Neutron Bomb – The Moderates   http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ANf7xl4Jzug

And down it comes to dumb luck… The Moderates started as something of an ad hoc outfit, (an “arts band”, according to Pete Burns), revolving around the Everyman Bistro and some of its staff. Inspired to some extent by Deaf School’s theatricality, gigs would involve poetry readings, the odd novelty song and the lengthy ramblings of one Dame Looney. Soon enough the line-up settled and the band became a tighter outfit, ditching the peripherals to focus on the songs and swiftly releasing a well-received EP. Then everything that they’d want to happen, did –but all at the wrong time. A planned John Peel session fell foul of a Musician’s Union dispute; a Melody Maker feature didn’t go to press thanks to a Fleet Street strike; an interested major label got cold feet about a song parodying sexism. Yes to the Neutron Bomb, eh… was any other band better qualified to sing about things blowing up in their face?

A suddenly-hectic recording schedule – demos, a Peel session, another single – brought tensions within the band to a head, and with cruel irony, they split up, on account of everything going right. But not before they played to a crowd of over 200 in the confines of the Armadillo Tea Rooms, on the same night as a young Dublin group, playing the UK for the first time, struggled to attract 60 people to the club across the road. Should the Moderates have been bigger than U2? Well, for one night they were, at the very least…

Seven Minutes to Midnight – Wah! Heat    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1zPoxDifsPw

Pete Wylie gets ready to nip out for a pint of milk.

It would be gratifying to think that all of the records in this piece, like good wines, are imbued with certain qualities of their birthplace, offering some or other vision of their genesis. By this token, Wah! Heat’s Liverpool would be a place where you’d do well to hurry up. It was a neglected and occasionally dangerous place by the end of the 70s, and it was already clear that the newly-elected Tory Government wasn’t about to stop the rot. Wah! Heat managed to capture much of the city’s anxious urgency and embattled pride, and their early records, sounding like they were running from one apocalyptic dread into another, came across like terrace chants for Camus fans. And they were loud! For all his cavilling about rock’s traditions, Pete Wylie led the noisiest and most rocking band of them all, plainly enthralled by the viscerality of the Big Beat. And yet he scarcely needed a band to fill a room – Wylie was an incessant barrage of ideas and opinions, and everywhere he went was his court. He was fast, he was ebullient, sometimes he was brash and he was unshakeably convinced of his own legend, but the early recordings – one album, a handful of singles and an epochal Peel session – pretty much bear him out. Maybe Liverpool didn’t need a Johnny Rotten, but it was certainly blessed with its own Jelly Roll Morton!

Subsequent records by Wylie’s various incarnations enjoyed more lavish production and chart success. The messages stuck fast, however, and many of them now sound like latter-day Liverpudlian folk songs, uplifting, defiant and deathless. He’s still performing regularly and keeping any number of fine compositions under his hat, and he’ll never be written off.  Would we want him to be?

Revolutionary Spirit – The Wild Swans   http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wdrLarbWEMY

“You look like a star, but you’re still on the dole” – Ian Hunter, “All The Way From Memphis”

After a year or so of punk rock, leather and gob, Fancy Dans were more than welcome!

And who looked more like a star than Paul Simpson, the Baudelaire of Bold Street? Simpson formed the Wild Swans in 1980, with Jerry Kelly and Ged Quinn, a little while after his departure from the Teardrop Explodes. They weren’t really given to the sweaty dues-paying expected of a young band, and some of their early gigs carried a distinct sense that something unique was happening. Indeed, it was – a bunch of well turned-out young rakes playing in a venue that didn’t have drain problems, rodents or sticky carpets was not yet a regular occurrence. Revolutionary Spirit, with Pete de Freitas of Echo and the Bunnymen on drums, sounded just like they looked – distinguished, dissolute, esoteric and frankly posh, even though not a single one of them had a proper job. And here we find the essence of all the music featured here, a common thread to all of these Oxfam Rimbauds, thrift shop Keefs and quid-deal decadents. Punk may have got them out of the house, but it was the place it sent them to that mattered; somewhere altogether stranger and more wonderful, where Language, Music, Dream and Pun were all far more important than making a living, where they could do or be anything they wanted, where they could shoot at the moon while sleeping on the floor. And where they could drink plenty of tea.

Mike Stoddart.

Anybody seeking the flavour of Liverpudlian music fandom in the pre-punk 1970s is encouraged to have a rummage around Craig McIntosh’s warmly accommodating Liverpool Stadium website:


Child Friendly Vegetable Soup

“You can make a meal out of nothing, if you’ve got the stuff.”

An ideal way to use up some bits of veg that might not otherwise constitute a full meal, and a quick, vegetable-rich dinner that can be prepared ahead of time and frozen into meal-sized microwaveable portions. The day after your kids have had this, you can give them pizza in front of the telly without your conscience pricking you!

You will need:

Butter (or vegetable oil)

Cumin seeds (optional)



Turmeric (optional)

About six Maris Piper potatoes, or whatever you’ve got hanging around that will eventually get thrown away

Three carrots

A cauliflower

Some broccoli – a bit that’s starting to go slightly bendy in the back of the fridge will be fine

An apron

A hand blender

Salt and pepper

Cream (optional)

French Sauvignon Blanc

1. While you gently heat up a decent-sized lump of butter in a large saucepan, roughly chop 3 small onions (or two whoppers, whatever you’ve got)

2. Throw in a small handful – at least two teaspoons – of cumin seed. This will impart a discreet, autumnal warmth, as well as making your kitchen smell nice. Don’t worry if you haven’t got any, it won’t spoil your dinner.

Cumin and turmeric, the very soul of any self-respecting kitchen.

3. Add the onions and sweat/gently fry until soft. While this is going on, quickly peel and dice the potatoes.

4. Crush, or coarsely chop, four cloves of garlic (or more, if you really like garlic) and add it to the onions.

5. Put a kettle on to boil.

6. If you have turmeric, put a teaspoon into the pan and stir into the onion/garlic mixture. It will enrich the final colour of the soup. If you don’t have turmeric, make a mental note to get some tomorrow, which your brain will erase instantaneously.

7. Pile in the diced potatoes, and stir until they look attractively yellow and have bits of seeds and onion sticking to them. This brings no proven culinary advantage, but it’ll make you feel as though you’re doing something a little more exotic than just tossing stuff into a pot.

8. Go and get the newly-boiled kettle, and pour enough water into the pan to cover the potatoes. Then pour in a little extra, because you’ll be adding more vegetables in a moment.

9. Peel and chop the carrots, and add them to the now cheerfully boiling spuds. Leave them at it for a few minutes, while you clear up the terrible mess you’ve made of your worktop.

10. Cut the cauli into florets, and as little bits fall off left, right and centre, mumble a few dark imprecations about messing up your worktop again. Place into the pan, and do your best to stir them up while there’s already so much other stuff in there. Add some more water, probably.

Your kitchen will never speak to you again!

11. Quickly set the table, then repeat step 10 with the broccoli.

12. When everything in the pot is verging on mushiness, put on the apron, plug in the hand blender and cordon off the kitchen. Blend the contents of the pot to the desired consistency – if serving to children, you may wish to eliminate every trace of veg-betraying texture. Season, and add cream if desired.

13a. Grown-ups: serve with hot, crusty bread and a glass of either French Sauvignon Blanc, or, if heavier on the cumin, a decent entry-level Chianti. You can be forgiven for having opened these already, especially during step 12, when there mightn’t be much to do except wait for things to get squidgy.

13b. Kids: serve with a couple of soft rolls or a few slices of Sunblest, while cleaning up the kitchen and issuing constant reminders that they need to hurry up and get ready for cubs/guides/grade 2 bassoon/beginners’ cage fighting etc.

The kids need never know that this innocent-looking concoction contains health-giving ingredients!

Winery of the Month – Agricola I Fabbri, Chianti Classico

Where time permits, we all like to find out a little more: about the farm which produced our reassuringly smelly cheese, the microbrewery responsible for that third pint of delicious murk, the saxophonist undaunted by the odd reed squeak or horn honk in the urgent unfolding of his solo. With this in mind, every month, or thereabouts, we’ll be looking at a winery and its machinations, to offer some small insight into the characters and processes that comprise your bottle of individuality. It doesn’t have to be small to be beautiful – let’s not forget that it was EMI and not Rough Trade who brought us the Beatles – but we’ll start with something very small. And very beautiful.
High in the hills of Lamole, Chianti Classico, the Grassi family have owned Agricola I Fabbri since 1620. The farm covers 35 hectares, much of it hillside woodland around the village, with just 9 hectares (about 22 acres) under vine and a further 2 given to olive oil production.

I Fabbri’s impressive grapevine amphitheatre

To get some idea of the scale involved, think of a hectare as one and a half Premiership football pitches, and bear in mind that Cloudy Bay’s estate vineyards alone amount to 250ha. I Fabbri is currently run by Susanna Grassi, a woman blessed with an uncompromising dedication to quality and value, who, with her sister Maddalena, has spent the past twelve years developing sustainable farming practices. All of I Fabbri’s grape cultivation has now been certified organic and biodynamic.

Olive workers showing us that it’s not all beer and skittles in the wine business

And the wine..? I Fabbri produce six wines and an award-festooned olive oil. The vineyard is given largely to Sangiovese (more specifically Sangiovese Grosso di Lamole), together with some Canaiolo and Merlot. All grapes are picked by hand in the first two weeks of October, and painstakingly vinified according to generations of family tradition. There is absolutely no confection here – nothing is concocted in a laboratory to produce wine of popular but compromised appeal. And the wines taste gorgeous, of course. The Lamole Chianti Classico alone tastes like a wholesome melange of light red fruit and licorice, concentrated berries and a touch of coffee. Others have rich floral aromas and flavours of plums and chestnuts, and they all have a wonderfully proportioned structure which pushes the flavours all around your mouth, and makes sure they stay there. But above all, they taste like a tiny Italian vineyard. And if you’re really paying attention, you’ll swear you can hear a reed squeak.

(Susanna Grassi will be in Liverpool on Tuesday, 12th June, hosting a five-course winemaker dinner on the glorious top floor of the London Carriage Works. For further information: http://www.thelondoncarriageworks.co.uk/news/winemakers–dinner—i-fabbri.phuse)

Susanna Grassi braces herself for a big night out in Liverpool

Staring At Beer

The only way to prove a small point to myself, it seemed, was to spend several weeks staring at a bottle of beer. It was not unbroken staring, you understand; indeed, there may only have been a few sly stares per week, but it was always the same beer. I had a suspicion that it was doing something other than sitting there quietly getting people hammered; involved, perhaps, in some low grade commercial drama. The shifty lager bastard. The beer I was staring at was in my cosy local supermarket, and cost 1.56 for a 66cl bottle, a fact announced by the smallest available price ticket. It enjoyed an unruffled life in the middle of the shelves, and for weeks it stood patiently with the other extras, waiting for Act One to come to a close and looking forward to big changes during the interval.

Sure enough, the evening came when Act Two began, and a merchandising shindy finally visited the continental lager stage. The old trouper that had held my attention had now joined a spotlit chorus of beers at the top of the shelves. Its script, for so long demanding only the odd mumble of “onepoundfiftysix,” was now trumpeted in the largest typeface possible: “Three For Five Pounds, or 1.99 each!” Typical. Yesterday an honourable mainstay of the supporting cast, today a cynical ham in a commercial pantomime. Boo! I asked one of the front-of-house staff, a good-hearted youth with a haircut that made him look a bit daft, what made this such a bargain, when yesterday it had cost 4.68 for three. He clearly didn’t have a clue, bless him, but at least he was game enough to burble on a little about increased supplier prices. It sounded like he’d heard some lukewarm gossip from a meeting to which he hadn’t been invited.

A lot of people going to the store in question would think that they were being offered a good deal. Indeed, for a fiver they’d be getting the equivalent of six 33cl bottles of something innocuously drinkable, the beer equivalent of switching on Radio Two while you do your chores. But the fact remains that the price had increased significantly before the “bargain” could be presented. As the customer doesn’t have time to spend staring at beer for weeks on end, he can find himself distracted by such bargains, real or perceived, rather than focussing on the compendious delights offered by the beer range as a whole, and the life-affirming joys of choice and growing knowledge. An hour of ELO or twenty minutes of the Clash and Charlie Parker followed by forty minutes of fulfilled silence? Don’t be duped into the former, it’s never a real bargain – ELO are fine for a while, but five quid’s worth, whatever the “real” price, is going to become background noise soon enough.

Although to be fair, I seldom get invited round to anybody’s house for a drink nowadays. Well, where do you think I find all that time to stare at beer..?


No Frills Chicken Curry

“One pot and it’s dinnertime, two pots and it’s Christmas!”



You will need…

Vegetable oil

Eight chicken thighs

Three medium onions

At least half a bulb of garlic

One red chilli, finely chopped, with seeds left in.

Turmeric  (mainly to enrich the colour)

One tablespoon and one teaspoon of cumin seeds

Half a tablespoon of coriander seeds

Six cloves

Six cardamoms

Six black peppercorns

One-inch cinnamon stick, broken up

A big tub of plain yogurt, set

Salt, to taste

A bunch of fresh coriander

Half a cucumber

To start, you will need a good sized chunky saucepan, and a frying pan. This might seem contrary to the “one pot” aspect, but the alternative is to try and fry eight chicken thighs in a saucepan that already contains everything else. You will thank me.

First, put your two pans on to warm up. Then roughly chop the onions and garlic, add a couple of tablespoons of water, and blend them to a smooth paste. Remove the skin from the chicken thighs.

Put a little oil into the hot frying pan, and add four chicken thighs to seal. You’ll need to turn these, and repeat with the other four thighs, while you’re cooking the sauce. You’re a grown up, you don’t need me to tell you how to do this kind of stuff. Into the saucepan, put a glug of oil, and when it’s hot, throw in the teaspoon of cumin seeds for a few seconds, until they go a shade darker. Pour in the onion/garlic paste, pretending not to be startled by the noise this makes, and while the mixture fries on a medium heat, put on your marigolds and finely chop the red chilli, leaving the seeds in. Add this to the saucepan, the contents of which should be turning slightly brown, together with half a teaspoon of turmeric.

Now put the cumin, coriander seed, cardamoms, cloves, cinnamon and peppercorns into a coffee grinder and grind to a powder. The cumin and coriander are non-negotiable, I’m afraid, but the others are more for depth of flavour and warmth of aroma, so your dinner won’t be spoiled if you haven’t got one of them. Stir the powder into the saucepan, and fry for thirty seconds or so, while wondering how you’re going to get all that powder out of the tricky bits of your grinder.

Remove the saucepan from the heat, and whisk the yogurt. Stir it in to the saucepan a tablespoon at a time – five or six tablespoons will usually be fine, but you can use as much as you wish, as long as you leave a little for later. When you have a yellowy-brown sauce that looks vaguely appetising, return the pan to the heat and add the chicken. No matter how much yogurt you’ve used, you won’t be convinced that there’s anywhere near enough liquid in the pan to simmer the chicken, so add half a cup or so of water (where “one cup” = your morning coffee mug). In times of austerity, you might first rinse this round the pot that you blended your onions in, or even heat it up in the frying pan, to gather up all the oil and chicken-y gunge that’s sticking to it. Waste not, want not! Add salt to taste.

Put some rice on while the chicken’s simmering. In the meantime, sort out your worktop, which is now covered in onion peel, chicken skin, and hurriedly discarded marigolds. You have taken them off, haven’t you? Cut your cucumber in half lengthways, and get one of the kids to scoop out the fleshy middle with a teaspoon. Finely chop your coriander, and stir all but a teaspoon of it into the saucepan.  Mix the rest with the remaining yogurt, chop the cucumber, put it all together in a bowl and lo and behold, a simple raita accompaniment.

Finally, serve with your choice of bread and a bottle of the kind of Australian blended red that has plenty of body and spice and a touch of vanilla creaminess.

Handy coriander hint – if you don’t live near a reputable fresh coriander outlet, you can freeze it by the tablespoon in ice cube trays topped up with water. Then when you need some for a sauce, just pop a cube in!