Thursday, 29 May 2014

Wine Urchin #4 - Berry Bros & Rudd Wine Club

Mail order wine clubs in my honest opinion are notoriously bad ideas. I say this speaking from experience as I belonged to one in the past. Way back when, I used to have the Sunday Times delivered so that I might feel all grown up and sophisticated and middle clarse at the weekends and it would take me practically the whole week to wade through the bloody thing. But one day, enamored by the sound of rather a good deal, 12 bottles of wine for £1.09, or something like that, I decided to join the Sunday Times Wine Club.

The phone call was made whilst I was sat perched on the throne (because that's where the stack of Sunday Times papers were kept) and the operator gleefully took my debit card details, asking at the time whether I was in a tunnel because it sounded all 'echoe-y' in the background and within a day or two, a heavy box of clinking wine was delivered. All for the price of £3.62, or something like that.

Now, there is nothing more joyous than receiving a box of clinking wine for the first time. I think I ran straight away into the kitchen and ripped the cardboard asunder with my bare hands. I sort of recall chucking the flimsy folder and 'literature' that lay on top over my shoulder but I definitely remember staring down at 12 glorious circles, all different colours, all housed in cardboard squares. Because seeing that gave me the goosebumps. Yes, I remember that.

"We have a box of wine!!" I shouted up towards the stairs and immediately a flurry of footsteps came tumbling down the stairs and into the kitchen.

"Really? How much did this wine cost us?" cooed my wife, suspiciously.

"Oh I don't know. £6.45? Or something like that."

We then commenced to pull out all the bottles out, to marvel and squint at, perusing all the pretty labels and to ponder what the 'Mer-lot' might taste like and then made the momentous decision to open one straight away to try a glass. Which was a silly idea because really we should have been getting ready for work. It tasted lovely. Tasting of red wine, with those lovely red wine flavours that you associate with most red wines.

Fruity? Yes. Full-bodied? Yes. Bursting with profound and harmonious undercurrents of farmyard tillage? Absa-frigging-lutely. The words just came tumbling out. From where, I do not know. We skipped off to the train station very happy (and also very late for work) with a buzz of excitement still flowing through our veins and I announced to my wife through chattering stained teeth that we should have some friends over for the weekend. To share in all the glorious wine that had been graced upon us. All for £12.34, or something like that.

The 'boys', as they are known, came over. I cooked something poncy like asparagus and radicchio risotto, a bare morsel of a plate (barely enough to soak up any booze) and we got smashed. Totally smashed. The bottles just kept getting pulled out of the fridge and out of the cupboard without much care or attention, I am ashamed to say. We were just caught by the moment, an act of spontaneity and laughter brought on by the splurging and sloshing into tumblers. The 'boys', mindful of their pink pound, were delighted that apparently I only paid £27.17 for the wine (or something like that) and were adamant that they were going to join the club too. 

Before long we sunk 9 or so bottles and everything came to a grinding halt when I fell face down, fast asleep into a bowl of tiramisu bought in from Londis. Which was lucky because someone suggested playing 'Dance of the Seven Sheets' (a variation of the one with the veils, using toilet paper and a lighter instead) or otherwise things would have really got out of hand.

Anyway, and to cut a long story short, the 2 remaining bottles were squandered later in the week, probably mid-week, with ne'er a nod to provenance or style. It was just great that we had wine in the house. Lovely, delicious, alcoholic, winey wine. And thereafter, every month, we would receive another box and something similar in our approach to drinking the box would happen. Like every time. We drank it like demons but we never really 'appreciated' it.

Things came to head though when I did a bit of scrutinizing of our bank statements and discovered that the wine club we belonged to was charging us somewhere in the region of £120.00 a pop. Every month! What cads! Bar stewards even! I thought the wine was free or cheap or something like £39.99 at the very least. So for the sake of our finances and for the sake of our livers, I cancelled the poxy direct debit, got us booked into rehab and have never looked back. Nor have I ever been taken with the notion of wine clubs since. Because like I said, they really are bad ideas.

It was with some trepidation then that I accepted the chance to sample a box of wine from Berry Bros and Rudd, ancient merchants and purveyors of wine by appointment to Queen Liz. Knowing me and my wife's previous conviction for this sort of thing, it could have led to disaster. But we have grown up now and I am glad to report that we treated the wines with a lot more maturity and consideration. Well, a lot more than we might have done 14 years ago. 

The Bourne case represents the beginning of the rung for the Berry Bros wine club, being the most economical and is full of delicious everyday drinking wine. "Showcasing typical examples of different grapes and styles, the Bourne selection is an enjoyable way to develop your wine knowledge or simply to ensure you always have a stock of excellent bottles in your wine rack, ready to be opened any night of the week." Or so the blurb says. 

Coming with a very snazzy box folder full of information and guidance to tasting, the box contained 6 pairs of wine which we managed to quaff over an amazing 6 weeks. The reds featured a raspberry kissed Dolcetto from Italy, a plum ruby Carmenère from Chile and a gutsy blend from Côtes du Rhône that went brilliantly with a plate of bangers and mash. But it was the whites that impressed us the most. The 2012 St Véran, Domaine des Gerbeau was cracking, full of juicy fruit with a touch of acidity and restored a lot faith in Chardonnay. The classic dry white from the Yalumba Winery in the Barossa Valley, saaff Aw-straalia also danced merrily on the tongue, flitting between grassy notes and tropical fruit.

The big hit of the box however was the unpronounceable Cserszegi Fűszeres from the Frittmann brothers in Kunság, Hungary. I have only just started trying wines from this country, Tokaji being a recent and wonderful discovery and this slightly odd, crisp white really pumped my nads (as quoted by John Bender in The Breakfast Club). I say odd because it really was unlike any wine I've tried before. Bitter yet sweet in a dessert wine sorta stylee, it was still very punchy and refreshing. With spice on the nose. Gorgeous in fact and we had a big ol' row over who should get the last drop. In the end, I played the more gentlemanly and refined card by letting my wife have it, which shows at least that one of us has moved on. Cow.

So given past history and torrid associations with wine clubs, would I give Berry Bros a whirl and sign up? Yes I think I would. I might still splutter a bit at having the wallet hit for 120 sovs every two months (so £60 a month basically) but that is much better than the scheme I was on before. And  considering that we are able to spread things out these days, drinking wise, it would be nice to start building a collection. How mature would that be?

And then come Christmas, we could get well and truly ars*holed.

Wednesday, 21 May 2014

Paul Ainsworth at No.6

This post first appeared on the Great British Chefs blog

Paul Ainsworth is a lovely, lovely guy, who wants nothing more than for his guests and customers to feel happy, relaxed and comfortable. I know this because I visited his restaurant recently and I bumped into the man himself on the upstairs landing. We probably chatted for no longer than a few minutes. Polite conversation about business; the effect of the winter storms on the local economy; travelling down from London, that kind of thing, and Paul was smiling and twinkling throughout. But you know when small talk leads a sort of impasse, when two strangers who don’t really know each other come to a full stop and that silent gap suddenly appears? Well that happened and the tumbleweed definite rolled in for a second or two.

Snatching a quick glance at his watch, it soon became apparent that Paul was desperate to get back into the kitchen. Me? Well I was gyrating like Tom Jones by that point because I was desperate for the loo. Thankfully the stand-off didn’t last too long and after shaking each other’s hand, we both soon got down to business. And so, if I had to be at all critical about my experience at Number 6, it would be that Paul very nearly made me wet myself. But other than that, everything else went off like a dream.


Based in the Cornish epicentre of food that is Padstow, Number 6 used to be a bed and breakfast and you can sort of tell. The modern interior may be relinquished of chintz and porcelain dolls but the main mantra of comfort and friendliness remains. And after stepping through the doors, it really does feel like you are stepping into someone’s home. Having been greeted by various members of front of house, who were all warm, engaging and funny, I felt the tension ease from my shoulders straight away. Some restaurants with Michelin stars on the door can create a vibe where you feel like you’re sitting there a broom pole shoved down the back of your jumper, but not here.

After reading the lunch menu, it obviously had flair and imagination but it was nice not to feel befuddled and overawed by whimsy or florid descriptions. The desserts had some curious titles sure but at least we knew what was coming, especially as some of us were fans of the Great British Menu. I did have to ask what a ‘crubeen’ was though and after listening to our waiter/sommelier, I was quickly sold on the idea. Based on a solid Irish delicacy, the Cornish version consisted of pig’s trotter, braised and rolled into ballotine and then fried and sliced, served with sweet red pepper, foie gras and smoked almonds. After taking our orders, I was left dribbling at the table, which couldn’t have been a pretty picture but thankfully some fantastic looking bread soon arrived afterwards.

Small yet perfectly formed, the sourdough served up had a good crust and tangy texture and the accompanying cod roe, sprinkled with pork crackling was something else. Give me a day on the beach, in the sun, slathering this light fluffy mousse on some crisp bread and I will be a very happy man. Just remind me to put some sun cream on.

My Cornish crubeen came up next and although I don’t like to get competitive at the table, I think I can safely say that I ordered best because it looked stunning.

The flavours that come through were no less remarkable. Combining an earthy, pork base with soft, saccharine peppers and rich, fatty liver amounted to a really special mouthful of food. And the smoked chopped nuts were the icing on the cake really. I tend to be vocal when I am enjoying my food and after eating this, I would say that I gave that Meg Ryan from that scene in ‘When Harry Met Sally’ a run for her money.

For mains, I ordered day boat monkish that came with wild garlic, roast bone marrow, sour cream and a veal shin salad. Again this was a very attractive looking plate of food yet I was intrigued as to how the meat elements would fit in, thinking that perhaps the monkfish would suffer. But it didn’t. The fish was more than robust enough and the wobbly bone marrow, which was just teetering on the edge of melting, partnered up very well indeed. The thing that really impressed me though was the veal shin. Tucked amongst some charred lettuce, the veal had the consistency of pulled pork but it was much silkier on the tongue and jam packed with dense, meaty flavour. Rolled my eyeballs so it did.

Battle lines were drawn for dessert but after a gentle nudge from the waiter, I settled on ‘a trifle Cornish’ which wasn’t as ambiguous as I thought it might be. Deconstructed trifle is what it is but that shouldn’t cause you to stifle a yawn because it was amazing. Vanilla panna cotta, a biscuit wafer, poached rhubarb and rhubarb puree and a handsome dollop of saffron cream all sits very merrily in the bowl. With a slice of squidgy saffron cake (a Cornish classic) set to the side for good measure. A friend who shared the same dessert thought that the pastry chef might have over-egged things a touch in the saffron stakes but I was more than happy. I would even go so far to say that it was better than the theatre of ‘A Trip To The Fairground’, Paul’s show stopping banquet dessert from the aforementioned Great British Menu of 2011. But I would be lying. The friends sat opposite ordered it and it was immense.

Built from memories from Paul’s childhood, a display of honeycomb lollipops peppered with popping candy, elongated cinnamon doughnuts (or beignets?), toffee apple set atop marshmallow, peanut and chocolate ice cream and an iddy biddy saucepan of raspberry curd had us all cheering like giddy school kids. If you ever go to Number 6 you must, must try this but do give yourself time to digest before getting the bus home though. Memories of coach journeys to the zoo came flooding back when we left and sped off down country lanes onto our next destination.

Given that this visit was part of a culinary whistle stop tour of Cornwall, I am definitely going to try and return to Number 6 to take in fully the chilled and relaxed atmosphere it so readily exudes. What was accomplished by the chefs and waiting staff in the space of time we were there, was nothing short of miraculous. And I am not just talking about the food here; I am talking about how the restaurant made us all feel. You have to be wary reading that last sentence of course; I was part of a privileged group of bloggers that was invited to review the place after all. But judging by the other diners, who calmly enjoyed their meals, ambivalent to our hustle and bustle; I think I can confidently say that’s what Number 6 is all about. They just want to make sure that their patrons simply have a good time, free of fussiness and pretension.

And I like that a lot.