Saturday, 30 April 2011

Oddbins: the best of times, the worst of times

Yesterday I heard some particularly sad news – the Notting Hill Gate branch of Oddbins was due to close last night. Oddbins has been in a fragile state for some time and a few weeks ago went into administration. However, the closure of its probably most iconic branch is particularly moving.

Later this year I will be celebrating 20 years in the wine trade. I started my career as a graduate trainee at Oddbins in High Street Kensington, a short distance from the flagship Notting Hill branch. As now, we had been in recession and I was thrilled to have been appointed by what was, at the time, probably the world's most exciting and distinctive wine merchant. It certainly wasn't the salary (or the hours) that had attracted me to Oddbins, it just seemed, without question, the best place to begin a career in wine. The staff-training was exemplary and, of course, there was that enormous, eclectic range. As a recent graduate, it was the perfect place to start full-time employment. The atmosphere was casual (even subversive); you worked hard, but you played hard, too, and almost always with like-minded people, crazy about wine. It was thrilling working for Oddbins during its pomp and it has informed a great deal of what I have done since.

The Notting Hill Gate branch played host to our staff tastings – memorable because of the wines and the huge characters often present. The branch represented the peak of achievement within the company – the manager was better paid than most head office staff because of the continually successful sales figures – so it attracted some charismatic individuals. It was an exciting time. In the early 1990s London felt like the centre of the wine world and Oddbins was at its beating heart. In those days Oddbins was owned by Seagram and, as long as we sold a certain proportion of their products, the business remained viable.

There was a trade-off. Working at Oddbins became your life and you need to be tough (physically and mentally). Being a retailer, the hours were exhausting, but exacerbated by being an off-licence. Most branches didn't close until 9pm and were obviously open at weekends, and Christmas was the busiest period. That would be tiring enough but, being a key-holder, I would occasionally be called by the police in the middle of the night because the shop alarm had gone off. Sitting in the Camden branch on my own in the early hours with a gaping hole in the window wasn't much fun (with colourful nocturnal street-life ensuring you didn't nod off). Someone had to be there until the glaziers arrived the following morning! One busy Saturday afternoon when I was in charge of the shop the IRA set off a bomb across the road hidden a litter bin outside McDonalds. That was truly terrifying. A few months later once I had moved to the attractive Charlotte Street branch (gorgeous location and closed on Sundays) I was held at gun-point while alone in the shop with a customer on a sunny Thursday morning. Our attackers didn't get away with much as I couldn't remember where the safe key was kept (I'd just started working there), so they only took some notes from the till, cartons of cigarettes and some bottles of spirits and Champagne. Terrifying again, but pointless and pathetic. They committed 19 similar offences and went to prison for several years. These experiences demonstrate the extent to which working in retail makes you vulnerable.

Despite all the delicious perks and entertaining, knowledgeable colleagues, it was good to move on. I left Oddbins to join André Simon, the retail arm of Layton's (now Jeroboam's). I was only there a few months before quitting retail entirely to join Mitchell Beazley book publishers. For so long Oddbins led the way, attracting the most enthusiastic staff and offering a genuinely innovative range. Things have changed dramatically over the past 20 years, with wine retailing increasingly polarised between supermarkets and specialist merchants, leaving the high street "offie" struggling in the middle ground. I'm keeping my fingers crossed for the future of Oddbins in some form and hope it stands a realistic chance of competing in this challenging marketplace.

The photograph is of the London Bridge branch, overshadowed by the Shard. I took the picture as I left the Big Fortified Tasting as it was such a powerful image of the old and the new.

Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Easter: treat yourself to fine chocolate

You've got to love Easter. It's an especially long bank holiday weekend – good food, drink and company and the chance to relax. And, of course, there's chocolate. On Good Friday, after enjoying hot cross buns for breakfast, I headed out to Borough Market to catch up with a friend and her baby. Returning home, I had to make a little detour to the Angel for some important shopping.

I had to visit my favourite chocolate shop, Paul A Young to pick a few little Easter treats. So far, we haven't enjoyed them all – we have yet to turn our attention to my husband's wine inspired treat (he's always sickeningly self-controlled), but we've already had mine – utterly gorgeous to look at and perhaps my most delicious Easter egg ever.

It was a couple of inches tall, exquisitely decorated and made of fruity tasting dark Madagascan chocolate, filled with salted caramel and a pistachio foam. A work of art.

I can't remember precisely what it cost as I've lost the receipt, but it was probably about £5 – I spent the same amount in Sainbury's for three standard Cadbury Easter eggs. Indulgent, yes, but this was like having a Fabergé egg that you can eat. But it's gone now. At least there's hubbie's Château Civrac 2006 Ganache Grapes still lurking in the cupboard and a packet of Lindor mini eggs left over from our Easter egg hunt. Great stuff.

Thursday, 21 April 2011

Hot cross buns

It's been like high summer this week in London – very un-Easter like – and I had the surreal experience of making hot cross buns in such unseasonal conditions. Their spicy comfort seems much more suitable to cool weather, yet I forged ahead and gave them a whirl.

I used Daniel Steven's recipe from the River Cottage Handbook as for the soda bread I made earlier and was surprised how easy it is to bake hot cross buns yourself using a food mixer and dough hook.

Makes 8

250g strong white bread flour, plus extra for dusting
250g plain white flour
125ml warm water
125 warm milk
5g powdered yeast
10g salt
50g caster sugar
1 medium free-range egg
50g butter
100g raisins, currants or sultanas (or a mixture)
finely grated zest of half an orange (I doubled this)
1 tsp ground mixed spice (I used mainly cinnamon with some ginger and cloves)

For the crosses:
50g plain white flour – I kept adding more flour as the paste was too runny and it was still too runny!
100ml water

To finish:
1 tbsp apricot or other jam, sieved (I used quince jelly)
1 tbsp water

Combine the flours, water, milk, yeast, salt and sugar in the bowl and fit the dough hook. Add the egg and butter and mix to a sticky dough. Now add the dried fruit, orange zest and spice and knead on a low speed until silky and smooth.

Cover the dough and leave to rise for about an hour, or until doubled in size.

Knock back the dough and divide into 8 equal pieces. Shape into rounds and dust with flour. Place on a floured board and leave to prove, covered with a linen tea towel (or in a large plastic bag) for about 30 minutes until doubled in size.

Preheat the oven to 200°C and make the paste for the crosses by beating the water into the flour until smooth (add enough flour to make a fairly thick piping consistency – mine was too liquid). Transfer the paste into a piping bag or plastic food bag and snip off a corner to make a small hole.

Pipe crosses on to the risen buns and bake for 15–20 minutes.

In a small saucepan, melt the jam with the water. Brush over the buns to glaze them while they are still warm. Allow them to cool on a wire rack and serve warm, cold or toasted (and, ideally, spread with decent butter).

Tuesday, 19 April 2011

Soda bread: last-minute baking

Today we were due to meet friends on Hampstead Heath for a picnic and I didn't have any suitable bread to take with us. What I had was fine for toast, but not ideal for hungry youngsters. I should add that I'm currently well into my baking obsession and reluctant to buy any bread (particularly given the feeble offering at our local Sainsbury's). I've discovered that baking bread tends to be anything but a last-minute affair (unless you don't use yeast).

Well, this was a good opportunity to test out soda bread – something I haven't enjoyed home-baked since my childhood best-friend's Irish mother knocked up one Saturday afternoon when we were about 8. I turned to my copy of Bread by Daniel Stevens from the River Cottage Handbook series and quickly got on with it, mixing some malty flour into the white.

Soda bread

Makes 2 loaves

350g plain white flour, plus extra for dusting
150g malthouse flour
10g salt
4 tsp baking powder
300ml milk (or buttermilk, thin yoghurt or water)

For coating:
A little flour (they suggest that rye would be good)

Preheat the oven to 200°C. In a large bowl combine the dry ingredients and mix in the liquid to make a dough. I needed to add a bit more milk as my dough came up quite dry. I also added a splash of maple syrup. (The book suggests adding a good tablespoon of black treacle if you use wholemeal flour.)

Knead briefly and divide the dough into two. Shape into two rounds, flatten them a little until they are about 5cm thick. Shake flour over the loaves and place on a lightly oiled baking tray. (I'm suggesting this as my loaves got a bit stuck and I needed to use a fish slice to lift them off.) Cut a cross in the top of each loaf, almost through to the bottom and then gently stab all over with the knife.

Bake for 20–25 minutes, or until the bread sounds hollow when tapped on the base. Allow to cool on a wire rack.

We pulled the soda bread apart by hand and ate it filled with ham or sticky cheese, nibbling cherry tomatoes and sliced cucumber, while sitting in the sunshine. A bit scone-like (maybe because it had cooled right down), but good nonetheless, and the malthouse flour adds decent texture and flavour. With a hearty soup or casserole – for dunking or mopping – it would be fabulous.

Friday, 8 April 2011

Fortified wines: treasures of the wine world

Earlier this week I had the fortune of attending the Big Fortified Tasting in London. Last year I was working there, standing in for a port producer unable to fly to London because of the volcanic dust cloud. This year, with no such commitments, I was free to fully enjoy this remarkable event. Remarkable because it's an opportunity to taste so many fascinating, distinctive wines together, rather than in a geographical context with regular strength table wines, where they are overlooked or have an overwhelming effect, being so much more alcoholic. The other remarkable aspect of the BFT is the quality and pedigree of so many of the wines on show.

That said, it still required quite an effort to make sense of the mind-boggling (and palate thwacking) array of treats – it was a warm, sunny day, so I narrowed my focus to take in the lighter, drier styles of sherry and their international equivalents and, after a quick break for lunch, heavier, sweeter wines from less mainstream regions (so not port, sherry or Madeira). Some of these were pretty quirky. The joy of an event like this is to taste things you wouldn't otherwise be able to.

On what was, so far, the hottest day of the year, the fino and manzanilla sherries showed extremely well, but there were some less obvious wines that were particularly memorable.

While I was tasting lighter, dry (or drier) fortified wines, white port, Sercial from Madeira and a South African solera aged Chenin stood out. Niepoort's Dry White Port and 10 Years Old White Port were showing handsomely. The former was off-dry, freshly balanced, honied with a spicy vanilla finish. The latter, a superior wine, had a deeper yellow colour and a richer, nuttier nose. It had a big, broad, syrupy mouthfeel with complex honey and nut aromas and a vibrant savoury finish. A beautiful, seductive wine.

The independent Madeira house of Pereira d'Oliveira treated us to wines dating back to 1922 (after a big jump from 1966), but I  stuck with the comparatively youthful Reserva Sercial 1971. This had a deep burnished colour and a complex nose of nuts and dried fruits, but was fresh and lively. I was a bit disappointed by the palate which, despite the complex nutty aromas, seemed too hot and alcoholic and disjointed. However, the finish was more mellow and rounded.

In contrast, the D'Oliveiras 10 Year Old Dry punched above its weight – tangy and complex, with a delicious spicy, yet perfumed finished. Simpler than the 1971, but charming and more complete tasting. This house was founded in 1820 and they boast substantial quantities of old and rare wines.

Barbeito Sercial Frasqueira 1988 was another fine example: broad and mouth-filling, with a touch of honied sweetness and a fresh, complex finish. Gorgeous.

Axe Hill Dry White, a white port style wine from South Africa's Calitzdorp region (the centre of Cape 'port' production) was off-dry, with a toothsome honied palate, yet finishing dry. It would make a great aperitif, while nibbling on some spicy nuts or salty blue cheese. It would would also work well with foie gras dishes.

It was great to taste the full range of wines by Californian sweet wine enthusiast, Andrew Quady. The Essensia Orange Muscat and Elysium Black Muscat showed predictably well in a clean, modern style, reminding me how well they'd cope with a broad spectrum of desserts (Elysium being especially good with chocolate). Deviation is a recent cuvée – a Muscat flavoured with rose geranium and damiana that was a Turkish delight-like confection; fragrant with botanical notes. I thought they were trying too hard with this and spoiling the natural scented quality of the Muscat. Their vermouths were a revelation, though, especially the Vya Sweet Vermouth: fresh, juicy red fruit with delicious aromatic complexity and fragrance. A really stylish choice for cocktails.

Of what I tasted, the star of the show for me was the Maury 1928 Solera, demonstrating the unsung treasures that exist in the wine world. As you can see in the picture, the wine had a mature, rich mahogany colour, with a yellow rim (which classically suggests age). It tasted of the past, evoking haunting sepia tinted photographs. Decades of ageing have transformed sweet red berry aromas into a complex mouthful of treacle, date and walnut, yet finishing tangy and dry. Maury is a traditional Grenache-based vin doux naturel from Roussillon, aged for long periods in soleras. British importers, Richards Walford, work with the local co-operative, Les Vignerons de Maury who have stocks of these old 'mother' wines dating from the 1920s and bottle them from individual casks (numbers are shown on the labels), all varying in character – some more sherry-like in style, others more Madeira-like. Currently not that popular with French consumers, these forgotten old treasures are finding their way to our shores and retailing for less than £20 per 50cl bottle. Their loss is our gain.