A Lovely Wine Book for Christmas

I love wine and I love books and I really, really like books about wine, so when my friend Robert Smyth gave me a copy of his excellent new book I leapt into action and little more than a year later I wrote this review.

hungwine2Hungarian Wine: A Tasting Trip to the New Old World
Robert Smyth
ISBN-10: 1905131682
ISBN-13: 978-1905131686
September 2015, Blue Guides

Available in the UK from Amazon.co.uk for £10.71.
Available in the US from Amazon.com for $10.00.

Robert lives in Budapest, lucky man that he is, and he really knows his stuff about Hungarian wine, so it was natural for him to write an English language guide to the wines of Hungary. I say ‘an’ English language guide, but I suspect that this is the definitive guide of the moment.

nagyeged

Vineyards on the Nagy-Eged hegy hill near Eger. Copyright Robert Smyth.

If you don’t know, Hungary really does make superb wines. It isn’t just the sweet whites of Tokaji either. Hungary is perhaps most famous for white wines from regions such as Lake Balaton, Somló, Neszmély, Mór and Pécs, amongst many others, but  there are first rate reds from regions like Villány – in the south near the Croatian border, Sopron in the north west by the Austrian border and Eger in the north east.

If Hungarian wine has passed you by and you want to explore it, either from the comfort of your own home, or by physically visiting the country and travelling around seeing the wine regions and their wines, then this could be the perfect book for you.

At just 351 pages, this handsome paperback is not a mighty tome of reference, but something that you can carry around and read and indeed use to guide your movements on that Hungarian wine road trip. I like the sub-title, A Tasting Trip to the New Old World, because that describes the book perfectly. It really does take you on that trip, whether you physically leave home or not, and Hungary is in some ways the New Old World of wine.

Hungary Map

It’s nicely, but unfussily written and manages to convey the sense of excitement that I know Robert has about Hungarian wine. There is a useful general overview about the Hungarian wine scene and industry, there’s a chapter on the fascinating history of Hungarian wine – don’t skip that bit out, chapters on the wide and wonderful palette of grapes that Hungary grows – most of them are indigenous. Who could resist grape varieties with exciting names like Ezerjó, Hárslevelű, Irsai Oliver, Cserszegi Fűszeres, Királyleányka, FurmintJuhfark and Kéknyelű? I know that I can’t. Even grape varieties we know often have wonderfully exotic names in Hungary, for instance Blaufränkisch is Kékfrankos and Pinot Gris / Pinot Grigio is Szurkebarat.

Once we have enjoyed all that and started to get a flavour of the country,  we come to the real meat of the book. This takes us on a journey around the country, giving us a little background about each region before taking us through all the wineries that Robert recommends from that area. Robert manages to distill a lot of information into these portraits and you feel that you really get a glimpse of these people, their wineries and what they do, as well as what their wines are like. Then there is some information on where to eat and where to stay in each production zone. At the back there is also a section on the wine bars of Budapest – now I know how Robert fills his time.

I loved this book. I have not been to Hungary for a long time and it is obvious from reading this that Hungarian wine has come on even since then – although I thought it was very good at the time. So thank you Robert. You have plugged a good few gaps in my knowledge and whetted my appetite for a return trip to Hungary. I cannot wait and will remember to pack your book.

Robert Smyth’s Hungarian Wine: A Tasting Trip to the New Old World is a really pleasurable wine book and hedonist’s travel guide. It would make a great Christmas present for almost anyone who is interested in good wine and travel.

Slovenia – a big little place with lots of style & great wines

Dobrovo perched on top of a terraced vineyard slope in Brda, Slovenia.

Dobrovo perched on top of a terraced vineyard slope in Brda, Slovenia.

I really like going to Slovenia, it’s a beautiful country with lots of different of landscapes and influences. The people are charming and the food and wine are terrific. I wrote about a recent trip here.

Firstly let’s clear up a couple of misconceptions about Slovenia. It is not the same place as Slovakia, formerly part of Czechoslovakia. No that, much larger country is to the north and east of Austria, whereas Slovenia is to Austria’s south. Also Slovenia is not part of the Balkans and they will not thank you for thinking that it is. To the Slovenians the Balkans start further south and east.

Slovenia is a tiny country, at 8,000 square miles it is slightly smaller than Wales and New Jersey, but with only just over 2 million inhabitants it is less populous than either of those. Indeed as the capital city, Ljubljana, only has around 280,000 inhabitants, it cannot even claim to be the largest Slovenian city in the world – strangely it seems that honour is held by Cleveland, Ohio – depending on your definition of a Slovenian of course.

Slovenia enjoys a continental climate, 46˚ north runs through the country, just to the south of Ljubljana, and if you look around the world at all the wine regions that are situated at between 45˚ and 46˚ north, it will certainly make you salivate. As you might imagine, the coastal zone also has a Mediterranean influence to its climate.

Historically Slovenia was past of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, when it was part of Austria, and then Yugoslavia. Before that it was the border area between the Western and Eastern Roman Empires and even today it is a link between the East and the West, Germanic cultures to the north, Romanesque cultures to the west and Slavic to the east and south.

All of which helps to explain the wonderful variety you find in the country. Germanic, Hungarian, Italian and Slavic influences can be found in the in different parts of the country, making touring it an exciting experience – like travelling around Europe in miniature.

All of this effects the wines too, as you might expect. Those from the Istrian coastline often have an Italian and Mediterranean feel to them, while the wines of North Eastern Slovenia have a feel of Austrian purity about them.

Recently I have put on some very well received Slovenian tastings, so I thought that I would tell you about them as I really want more people to discover the delights of Slovenian wine.

Wine map of Slovenia - click for a larger view.

Wine map of Slovenia – click for a larger view.

Slovenia has three main wine regions, Primorska, Posavje, and Podravje, which are then divided into districts.

Podravje is in the north east of the country, it borders Austria and Hungary and includes the important districts of Jeruzalem-Ormož and Ptuj.

Posavje is in the south east and borders Croatia – I have not shown any wines from there.

Primorje means coastal or littoral and incorporates all the districts near the sea and the Italian border in the west of Slovenia. This region includes the districts of Goriška Brda / Brda, Vipavska Dolina / Vipava Valley and Kras.

Podravje Region Wines

My first two wines come from Puklavec & Friends. The Puklavec family had been growing grapes and making wine since at least the 1930s and Martin Puklavec ran the cooperative in Jeruzalem-Ormož from the 1930s to the 1950s. The family had lost their vineyards over the years and in 2008 decided to buy back the old family estates and to get back into the wine business. They have done so in a very clever and focussed way. They make clean, well made, international wines that have wide appeal and so are readily available, even in the unadventurous UK, they also make Tesco Finest Slovenian Sauvignon Blanc-Furmint, which is also very drinkable.

Puklavec-Freinds-Sauvignon-Blanc-Pinot-Grigio-2011-e13334456961882013 Puklavec & Friends Sauvignon Blanc-Pinot Grigio
Puklavec & Friends
Z.G.P. / P. D.O. Jeruzalem-Ormož

Jeruzalem-Ormož is a beautiful place of rolling hills between the Drava and Mura rivers. The rivers temper the heat, as do cool winds from the north, which makes it perfect for fresh, ripe and balanced white wines.

A light fresh, easy drinking white with just 10.5% alcohol. It’s bright, grassy, floral and fruity with a light touch of the tropical about it and it gives plenty of uncomplicated pleasure – 84/100 points.

Available in the UK for £7.99 a bottle from Waitrose Cellar.

411628_a_puklavec---friends-furmint-4116282013 Puklavec & Friends Furmint
Puklavec & Friends
Z.G.P. / P. D.O. Jeruzalem-Ormož

I love Furmint, it’s a classic Hungarian grape where it famously makes the sweet wines of Tokaji as well as some very exciting dry whites. The grape is widely grown in eastern Slovenia, where it is used to make dry white wines and is traditionally called Šipon.

This wine is a little more complex and has a lovely bright, floral aroma with fresh citrus and some richer herbal notes as well. The palate is a little broader with some apple as well as lemon, lime and a dash of orange and those herbs again. Lees ageing has given some body to the palate and there is a little touch of spice too. All in all an attractive and refreshing wine – 85/100 points.

Available in the UK for £9.99 a bottle from Waitrose Cellar.

Bojan Kobal, a photograph I took when we were both judging in Dubrovnik.

Bojan Kobal, a photograph I took when we were both judging in Dubrovnik.

The next two wines are made by Bojan Kobal, a friend of mine who is a very talented winemaker – not that I would say that to his face, obviously. He is a very nice fellow whose family have been involved in winemaking since 1931. In fact Bojan grew up surrounded by vineyards and wine and went on to study oenology, which led on to a series of senior winemaking jobs to hone his craft before he returned to run the family estates.They are based in the Haloze district of Lower Styria / Štajerska, which is a stretch of hills along the banks of the Drava River near the charming city of Ptuj. The vineyards in this part of the world look gorgeous, as they grow grass between the rows to prevent soil erosion on the steep slopes.

For some reason Bojan’s wines are not yet available in the UK, which is strange, because they are really very, very good. If any importers are reading this, do yourselves a favour and bring in Bojan’s wines.

Kobal SB2015 Kobal Sauvignon Blanc
Kobal Wines
Ptuj
Z.G.P. / P. D.O. Štajerska (this translates as Lower Styria, Upper Styria is a region of Austria)

If you think you know Sauvignon Blanc, think again. This is an amazingly good take on the grape. Yes it is fresh, yes it is bright and has plenty of zing, but it isn’t a caricature of a wine as so many commercial Sauvignons can be. This is serious stuff with depth, concentration and richness as well as that lovely refreshing zing of acidity that Sauvignon does so well. There is grapefruit, mandarin, passionfruit and lime on the nose and palate, while the palate also has a lovely creamy texture from ageing on the lees. This is amazingly long and fine and carries its 14% alcohol effortlessly. If more Sauvignon tasted like this, I’d drink it! A great wine that really excited everyone at my tastings – 93/100 points.

b400000489962012 Kobal Blaufränkisch
Kobal Family Estates
Ptuj
ZGP / PDO Štajerska

I like Blaufränkisch, it’s known as Lemberger in Germany and Kékfrankos in Hungary and in Slovenia it is more properly called Modra Frankinja, but I guess Blaufränkisch might be an easier sell. The grape is known sometimes as the Pinot Noir of the East, because it produces wines with similar weight to Pinot and that often have a similarly fragile quality. Despite being associated with Austria and Hungary more than anywhere else, the grape goes back to the time of Charlemagne, hence the Frankish part of the name. There is actually a small town called Lemberg – Lemberg pri Šmarju – in Lower Styria and some sources say it was from there that the grape was exported to Germany and hence the reason for the Lemberg name there and in the USA – although of course the area was part of Austria at that time.

The nose is rich and enticing with ripe plum and earthy notes with a touch of spice and some leather showing development. The palate is soft and round with juicy fruit and smooth tannins giving a velvety texture. There are rich plum, prune and dark chocolate flavours going through to the incredibly long finish. This is a fine wine, beautifully made and very polished, everybody was impressed and I didn’t want the bottle to finish – 93/100 points.

Available in the US, click here for stockist information.

Primorska Region Wines – the Vipava Valley

The beautiful Vipava Valley.

The beautiful Vipava Valley.

I was very taken with the Vipava Valley. It is a beautiful rural landscape and is home to a bunch of dedicated winemakers who use the sub-Mediterranean climate together with the cooling winds that rip through the valley, to craft some stunning wines. Like most of the country, the wines are mainly white, but there is a little bit of red too. Excitingly the valley is home to two indigenous white grape varieties not found anywhere else, Pinela and Zelen.

Zmago Petrič, on the right, explaining his wines.

Zmago Petrič of the Guerrilla Estate, on the right, explaining his wines.

CP2014 Guerila Pinela
Guerila Estate
ZGP / PDO Vipavska Dolina / Vipava Valley

This is a new estate, created by Zmago Petrič in 2006, but they are really going places. Zmago farms their 7 hectares bio-dynamically and use spontaneous fermentations with the wild yeast. This Pinela is fermented in stainless steel tanks and aged on the lees for 9 months.

This lovely wine manages to straddle being both rich and fresh. It has mouthwatering acidity with fresh apple, rich citrus and some creaminess on the palate. This has lovely concentration and focus and it is a lovely, delicious and appetising style of wine that would go with just about anything. I have a hunch it would be great with pesto – 91/100 points.

CC2012 Guerila Cuba
Guerila Estate
ZGP / PDO Vipavska Dolina / Vipava Valley

Zmago produces this unusual, to me anyway, blend of 50/50 Merlot and Barbera – Barbera is of course from Piemonte in Italy, but is quite widely used in the Vipava Valley. This wine is fermented in stainless steel to accentuate the fruit and then aged 2 years in 225 litre oak casks.

There are savoury aromas here, together with some black fruit and coffee notes. It is a medium bodied wine with soft tannins and lots of red and black fruit, with touches of espresso and cocoa from the oak ageing. There are dried fruit characters too and a distinct note of blackberry. A lovely wine – 89/100 points.

Primož Lavrenčič

Primož Lavrenčič of the Burja Estate.

Burja_Petite-Burja-Zelen_0.75L2014 Petite Burja Zelen
Burja Estate
Podnanos
ZGP / PDO Vipavska Dolina / Vipava Valley

Another small, 6 hectare, estate that is farmed bio-dynamically. Primoz’s family own the well known Sutor Esate , but in 2009 he decided to set out on his own and so created Burja, which is named for the Bora wind that roars down the valley. I was thrilled to try the other local grape, Zelen means green in Slovene.

The wine is aromatic and fresh smelling with some light creamy notes. There is plenty of apple and grass and fresh blossom too. The palate has a nice creamy touch, but apart fro m that it’s a zesty wine and has citrus flavours, green apple and something saline and mineral about it. A delicious and easy to drink wine that would be perfect as a classy aperitif or with shellfish – 91/100 points

Burja_Burja-Bela_0.75L2013 Burja Bella
Burja Estate
Podnanos
ZGP / PDO Vipavska Dolina / Vipava Valley

The main white wine of the estate is this blend, which is a very different style. It is a blend of 30% Laski Rizling / Welschriesling, 30% Rebula and ‘other varieties’, I assume some Malvasia, Pinela and Zelen. Fermented in upright wooden casks with 8 days maceration on the skin. Spontaneous fermentation with the wild yeast, 18 months ageing in oak barrels and no filtration.

The nose is attractively waxy and smoky with some sweet spices and nuts. The palate is smooth and soft, but mouth filling, with nuts, cream and rich peach together with a seam of fresh grapefruit acidity keeping it all balanced and thrilling. This is very fine, with a long satisfying finish – 93/100 points.

Primorska Region Wines – the Kras & Istria

These two districts are a little more demanding I find. The wines are very specific to their place and style and they use grape varieties that are often very difficult to tame. In fact the main black grape in these areas is Refošk, which is also widely used over the border in the nearby regions of Italy. Over there it is called Refosco. In the Kras / Karst district Refošk is often called Teran. The main white grape around here, and also very often over the border, is Malvazija, Malvasia in Italy.

Branko & Vasja Čotar - photo courtesy of the winery.

Branko & Vasja Čotar – photo courtesy of the winery.

Cottar fizz2009 Čotar Črna
Branko & Vasja Čotar
ZGP / PDO Kras / Karst / Carso

I have long admired the wines of Čotar – pronounced Cho’tar – it is a father and son run winery in the Carst, or Kras in Slovenian, district that is just inland from Trieste. That city, now so obviously Italian was once a principally Slovene city and the principal port of Austria. The Italian Carso district has the same limestone soil riddled with cave systems and underwater rivers and produces similarly fascinating and unruly wines. They are thoroughly European wines with astringent characters and often more minerality than fruit.

Branko & Vasja Čotar began making wine for their restaurants in 1974 and slowly winemaking took over. They bottled their first vintage in 1990 and today they farm 7 hectares in this harsh limestone landscape that has an iron-rich topsoil. They grow Refosco, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Malvasia, Sauvignon Blanc, Vitovska, or Vitovska Grganja or Garganja which is a local white grape. All the farming is organic, the fermentations spontaneous and they use as little sulphur as possible. In my experience they make a stunning Cabernet Sauvignon.

This wine is a sparkling red Refošk, which is not to everyone’s taste, but i love red sparklers. Rich and refreshing, as you drink them cold and serve them with fatty meat dishes. The base wine spent 3 years in big wooden vats and the finished wine spent 12 months on the lees, but was never disgorged. The lees remain in the bottle.

The froth is lovely, a bright deep blackberry crush and raspberry colour. The nose is forest floor and smoke from the oak, as well as dried fruits of the forest. The palate is rich and fresh with lots of blackberry and spice. An acquired taste, but a good one I think – 89/100 points.

Cottar red2006 Čotar TerraRosa
Branko & Vasja Čotar
ZGP / PDO Kras / Karst / Carso

This is an amazing wine. I do have to admit that there was some bottle variation, but the best ones were wonderful. It is a blend of 40% Teran, 40% Merlot and 20% Cabernet Sauvignon. A wild yeast fermentation in open wooden vats, no added sulphur and long maturation in 6 year old barrels. It is unfixed and unfiltered.

There was plenty of funk on the nose as you might imagine, but loads of freshness and fruit too, plums, blueberries and blackberries, as well as a little dusting of peppery, coffee oak. The palate offers loads of fruit all mixed up, plums, raspberries and blackberries, as well as spice, herbs and espresso tones. The finish is long and satisfying, but the wine cries out for slow roast lamb or suckling pig – 92/100 points.

The 2005 is available in the UK for #22.50 from VinCognito.

The view from the estate towards the sea. Photo courtesy of the winery.

The view from the Polič Estate towards the sea. Photo courtesy of the winery.

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Polič Estate terrace by night. Photo courtesy of the winery.

Polic2013 Polič Organic Refošk
Polič Estate
Truške
PGO / PGI Slovenska Istra

This is yet another new winery and once again everything is organic and biodynamic. This is only the second vintage and Neja and Peter Polič could not have chosen a more wonderful spot to build his winery. It is in the hills looking down at Slovenia’s short stretch of coast with the city port  of Koper and the beautiful seaside town of Piran in the distance. Strictly speaking this wine would be a ZGP / PDO Koper, but Peter keeps to the looser rules of the PGI Slovenska Istra, which is the same as Vin de Pays. He only grows 3 things, Refošk, Malvazija and olives.

I have only tasted the red and I was very impressed. Refošk is a difficult grape to tame. It can appear rustic, old fashioned and lacking in charm to someone not used to it. Not this one. Everyone loved its stylish character. It’s unusual too, but in a good way. The wine was aged in french barriques for 7 months.

The nose gives rich blackcurrant fruit together with prunes, malty loaf, chocolate and raisins. The tannins are smooth and velvety while it gives flavours of rich bitter cherry and cherry stones, more chocolate and kirsch. There is plenty of acidity, earthy, herbal Mediterranean flavours and a long, fresh finish. A wonderful take on a grape that I often find hard to love, I did love this. Drink it with Mediterranean food, even a little bit chilled – 91/100 points.

Primorska Region Wines – Goriška Brda

Traditionaly this region is known as Goriška Brda after the local capital of Gorizia, which was awarded to Italy in 1947, so Tito’s regime built the replacement town of Nova Gorica right on the border. Strictly speaking Brda is a sub-region, or district, of the Primorje wine region. This means by the sea and the whole place enjoys a broadly Mediterranean climate. The sheer range of wines produced in Brda is quite bewildering, especially when you realise that the estates are all pretty small, normally between 4 and 20 hectares in size, many with vineyards on both sides of the border.

Looking north in Brda.

Looking north in Brda.

Aleš Kristančič on the terrace at Movia.

Aleš Kristančič in full flow on the terrace at Movia.

Ambra-1500-sq2012 Movia Sivi Pinot Ambra
Movia Estate
Ceglo
Dobrovo
ZGP / PDO Goriška Brda / Brda

Movia was the first estate that I visited in Slovenia, back in 2002 and it was a total revelation – I wrote about the visit here. I thought the wines were amazingly good then and I do now as well, but they have got a lot more quirky in recent years. Movia has belonged to the same family since 1820, eight generations of winemakers so far, and has long been the most famous producer in Slovenia. Since Aleš Kristančič took over from his father – also Aleš – a few years ago he has taken the estate in a new direction, towards natural wines. It isn’t a big estate, just 15 hectares – 7 of which are actually over the border in Italy – you can spit over the frontier from the winery terrace, but it is now farmed organically and bio-dynamically. The passion, some might say manic exuberance with which Aleš assaults everything, really shines through in his wines. Like him they have something to say and have a vital energy about them. He is a dedicated winemaker with great attention to detail and all his wines are good, many are astonishing.

There are three things that I generally don’t like, Pinot Grigio, Natural Wine and Orange Wine – these are white wines fermented on their skins like a red wine – and this is all three in one! And what do you know, I loved it. It was fermented in barrels on the skins, with no added sulphur or yeast and then aged for 18 months in oak – they like oak at Movia, but the wines hardly ever seem oaky as they leave it in the wood for so long that the flavours seem to fall away again, or so they tell me.

The colour is a rich apricot, while the nose has aromas of peach skin, red apple and dried apricots, there’s some orange peel notes together with ripe melon and something salty and gently smoky like ham. The palate is a beguiling mix of fresh, rich and salty / savoury with a deep core of sweet ripe, dried fruit and lots of minerality too. The finish is long and the wine is rather moreish, which is a shame as I have none left. A great wine, that shows what you can do with Pinot Grigio, but it isn’t for everyone – 92/100 points.

Available in the UK for around £14 a bottle from Meadowvale Wines.
Available in the US, click here for stockist information.

Marjan Simčič, the quiet winemaker of Brda.

Marjan Simčič, the quiet winemaker of Brda.

Just a stroll away from Movia, you come to Marjan Simčič’s winery and Marian could not be more different from his neighbour. Where Aleš Kristančič is loud and gregarious and turns every tasting into a karaoke party, Marjan is quiet and unassuming. And yet he is equally passionate about his wines and it shows too. Again this is not a big estate, just 18 hectares that the family have tended since around 1860 and again half of them are in Italy. Until 1947 Brda and Collio were the same region, the words both mean hill in their respective languages. Marian farms organically and bio-dynamically and does not fine or filter his wines and only uses the natural yeasts.

Sim Sauv2012 Simčič Sauvignon Blanc Selekcija
Marjan Simčič
Ceglo
Dobrovo
ZGP / PDO Goriška Brda / Brda

Barrel fermented Sauvignon aged in cask for 24 months, so again not to everyone’s taste, but this is a great wine none the less. There is a real polish to this wine, you can tell that it’s good as you drink it. The oak and the lees ageing and the spontaneous fermentation have all worked together to make this a richly textured wine. There is fresh acidity there, but it still feels fat, there is varietal character too with that rich blackcurrant leaf note. The palate feels pristine and beautifully balanced and it is very rich with a silky texture. If you like good white Bordeaux, then this is for you. I would love to try it with a sole – 93/100 points.

Available in the UK from Bancroft Wines.

Sim PN2012 Simčič Pinot Noir Selekcija
Marjan Simčič
Ceglo
Dobrovo
ZGP / PDO Goriška Brda / Brda

This Pinot was fermented in stainless steel tanks with a long skin maceration and then aged for 28 months in French oak vats. The nose is wild and intoxicating, possibly from the wild yeast, light smoke and coffee and cedar as well as a touch of kirsch and even a twist of orange peel. It is wonderfully concentrated with rich, ripe cherry fruit, smooth, velvety tannins and a plump, sumptuous feel to the palate. Nothing like a Burgundy, but a magnificent wine – 94/100 points.

Available in the UK for around £30 a bottle from Bancroft Wines, Hedonism Wines, Red Squirrel and Slurp.
Available in the US, click here for stockist information.

The reason for writing this was to pass on the fact that lots of people really enjoyed these wines when I showed them in recent tastings. In fact they found them exciting. There was such variety, everything in fact from brisk, pure white varietals, to fine white blends, natural wines and complex long aged reds. There was winemaking and grape growing of the highest order – most of these wines were made in the vineyard and not the winery – there was passion, there was ambition and above all there was joy.

These were wines that could really be enjoyed and isn’t that what it’s all about?

So the next time you are feeling adventurous, try some Slovenian wine. I can guarantee that you will enjoy it.

Great British Food – it is great

It was only in 2005 that French President Jacques Chirac memorably damned British food with those astonishingly ill-chosen words, “you can’t trust people who cook like that“. So, there was no doubting his view, which was once that of the world at large – even the British themselves. When I was growing up in the 1960s and ’70s, very few people seemed interested in good food in Britain at all and looking back it seems the menus, both at home and out, were very limited and dull. I well remember watching items about the French lifestyle on Blue Peter and hearing that old cliché; “the British eat to live, while the French live to eat.”

In those days there were still the last vestiges of the old British view that things should be plainly cooked, that anything fancy was suspect and that being interested in food was not quite right and really a funny foreign idea altogether. Certainly the British of the day were unlikely to indulge in earnest conversation about food, the way Spaniards will about Jamón, the French about cheese or the Italians the relative merits of oils and vinegars.

So, if Chirac has made that statement in 1975 I would have probably agreed with him, but all that really has changed now. Enjoyment of food now seems to be an integral part of British life and food is no longer regarded as just fuel. I love eating out anywhere I go in Europe, but in reality the variety and quality of food available in Britain now is as good as anywhere – different, but certainly as good. I don’t just mean fine dining either, this country is full of exciting affordable places that turn out delicious food at all price levels and from an enormous array of ethnic backgrounds.

However food isn’t only about eating out, restaurants and fine-dining. It’s also about the ingredients and this is where it seems to me there has been a more profound change. Everywhere I go there seem to be local producers of fabulously tasty things, wonderful cheese shops and delis and nowadays we all take it for granted – my mother would have loved it. She died in 1978 when just buying spaghetti involved a special journey to an Italian shop in town and we had to bring our garlics and olive oil back from Spain.

One of these exciting food producers really appeals to me – The Artisan Smokehouse – and I have been fortunate enough to try quite a few of their products. Frankly if you are at one of the events where they show their wares – I regularly bump into them at the excellent Three Wine Men tastings – then you just cannot miss them as the smell is wonderfully enticing. I love the smell of smoked food and so it always beckons me over.

However, much as I like the aromas and flavours of smoked food, Tim Matthews has a palpable passion for it – which is why he and his wife Gillian started The Artisan Smokehouse some seven years ago. Talking to him he really does come across as a sort of Heston Blumenthal of smoking. There doesn’t seem to be anything he won’t have a go at smoking and precious few things that he hasn’t actually smoked – even maple syrup apparently.

Indeed Maple seems quite a thing with Tim, he does all his smoking over natural maple wood chippings and I know from personal experience that maple wood has a wonderful smell of sugary maple syrup.

Tim & Gillian

Tim and Gill Matthews

“It started off as something fun to do, but we now supply delis county-wide and see ourselves as part of the growing Suffolk food mafia!” said Tim.

In truth the smoking process is only something that I have a superficial understanding of, but whenever I speak to Tim he really draws me in. He is passionate about his craft and food in general, flavour seems very important to him and this enthusiasm is infectious.

His passion shows in the foods he produces and in the raw materials he smokes. The flavours he achieves strike me as being very delicate. Sometimes with smoked food that is all you can taste – the smoke. With Tim’s products the smoking seems subtle and integral to the other flavours. The texture and the flavour of the raw material are as important as the smokiness.

Truthfully though the thing that originally got me interested in his wares seems pretty unsubtle, it was smoked garlic. He smokes whole heads of British garlic and the aromas are just so enticing. Wrapped in foil and roasted, the soft flesh of the garlic is unctuous and delicious with a rich smoky note and pungent character – trust me it is fabulous on toast!

I am not the greatest fan of smoked salmon, but their Freedom Food Smoked Scottish Salmon was a revelation with a deep flavour that seemed to have a fruity quality to it. Even better, to my mind, was the Freedom Food Hot Smoked Scottish Salmon Fillet, the flakes of fish were firm yet succulent with a fragrant flavour reminiscent of Chinese tea. The hot smoking actually cooks the fish and so the texture is unlike most smoked salmon and like a piece of cooked fish, but with that delicious fragrant smoky quality.

Just before trying the smoked fish I wondered what wine to have with it. Something about the aromas of the food made me think of  that Grüner Veltliner would be good, so went in search of a bottle. However I found a lone bottle of something else that got me thinking and changed my mind. I am glad I did as the combination was perfect:

Dr%20F%202009%20Rkatsiteli2008 Dr Frank Rkatsiteli
Dr Konstantin Frank’s Vinifera Wine Cellars
Hammondsport
New York Finger Lakes A.V.A.
New York State

An unusual grape, Rkatsiteli is from Georgia, but was widely used throughout the USSR, including Ukraine as well as more widely in Eastern Europe. It has an aromatic, floral and spicy kind of character, so will appeal to fans of Grüner Veltliner and dry Furmint.

This was great with both the smoked salmons. Just a lingering succulent softness showed this was a mature white and it balanced the acidity, which was still enough to be a perfect foil to the smoky flavours and fatty feel of the smoked salmon. The aromatic and fragrant nature of the wine was a great match for the fish too, as was the delicate spice character. A terrific dry white wine and a great combination – 90/100 points.

The 2010 vintage is available in the US from the winery at $15 a bottle.
Dr Frank’s wines are available in the UK from Wine Equals Friends.

Artisan Smokehouse hamper

A hamper from The Artisan Smokehouse

The meats are equally good by the way, the Smoked British Fillet Beef is so tender and fresh tasting with the flavour of the meat and that of the smoke sitting perfectly together. Tim’s Smoked Free Range Duck Breast is delicious too, despite being smoked you can taste the duck as well as the fragrant smoky flavour – it would be great in a gourmet salad.

I was also delighted to be able to try his speciality Violino di Capra – marinated, cured and smoked goat leg – which was stunningly delicious, fragrant, delicately meaty and fragrantly smoky.

The smoked meats would be wonderful with any red that wasn’t too strong by the way, earthy, umami flavours help too. Wines with the weight of a rich Beaujolais or fruity Pinot Noir are perfect. A smooth Syrah or a Barolo could be good too, like Spar’s excellent value earthy and meaty 2007 Valle Vento Barolo.

So, as you can see from my reaction to a small cross section of the range from The Artisan Smokehouse, what they make is delicious and terrific quality. It strikes me that one of their hampers would make a wonderful present for the foodie in your life.

The Artisan Smokehouse
Tim and Gill Matthews
Telephone: 01394 270609
Email: info@artisansmokehouse.co.uk
http://www.artisansmokehouse.co.uk

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The Rusty Pig’s cooking chorizo

The Rusty Pig 
As if all this smoked gorgeousness wasn’t enough, I was recently tutoring a wine tasting and Robin Rea was giving tastes of the charcuterie that he makes down in Ottery St Mary in Devon. Robin is an experienced chef and still cooks at River Cottage HQ, but he has a passion for curing and air drying charcuterie. I really think what he makes is as good as anything I have had from France, Spain or Italy – the chilli salami was amazing, intensely hot and sweetly tasty by turn, like a gourmet’s Russian Roulette! It was all, as Robin says, “pigging delicious.”

What’s more, it isn’t only a shop where you buy amazing sausages and bacon, you also can eat there.

Robin Rea

Robin in full swing

Rusty Pig
Robin Rea
Telephone: 01404 815580
Email: robin@rustypig.co.uk
http://www.rustypig.co.uk/gb.aspx

It would seem that Chirac was completely wrong, we have thrown out that old view of British food and are now as keen as anyone else to eat great food, cook great food and to produce great food.

Hungarian Rhapsody

Everywhere I go at the moment I keep stumbling across excitingly different white wines. Many of them are made from grapes and in regions that I am aware of, but have only very limited experience of tasting until now – I suspect that is a good thing as wines are so much better now than in my youth. I am sure that if I had tried wines from these places 28 years ago then I might have not been anything like as impressed as I am now.
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