Spiced shoulder of pork

Some Sunday meals are all in the planning, some are hasty and last-minute, but in my house, they’re always treated seriously. You’ll never find me skimping on Sunday lunch. I’m a traditionalist. It just wouldn’t feel right.

But I also live in the modern world, and yesterday I had work to finish and no time to plan and prepare. So come 2pm, when I suddenly realised that I had nothing but a frozen pack of sausages in the house (and feeling the need for a good meal and a nice bottle of wine), I ran down to the shops, leaving the gods of fate in charge of my lunch, and picked up what I could find… in this case, a rather nice looking rolled shoulder of pork (I’m lucky to have a decent, farm shop-quality butchers in my local co-op).

Now, personally, I’m not a fan of boned and rolled joints. I like fatty cuts (whole or half shoulders, usually) with their bones left in. Sure, they can be tricky to carve, but they also cook much better and have a lot more exposed surface area to infiltrate with various ‘aromatics’. I find boned and rolled joints just too tightly bound, so that the heat has to spend ages working its way through to the middle and the outside takes all the punishment. Anyway, it’s hardly the end of the world, but this particular joint posed a challenge to me. So here’s what I did:

Spiced shoulder of pork

Firstly, I loosened the string that was keeping it so tightly bound. I thought about unwrapping the whole joint, but I was worried about it drying out if it didn’t have its bone inside. The last thing I wanted was dried out roast pork. I then toasted fennel and coriander seeds and ground them with three garlic cloves, two tblsps sea salt and enough olive oil to make a paste. This was rubbed and massaged all over the pork, specifically into the scored fat. Then I sprinkled the whole thing with a mixture of smoked paprika and thyme and laid the joint on top of a halved onion, a split carrot and two celery stalks. I poured some water into the roasting tin and put it into the oven at 220° fan for 30 mins, to dry out and ‘crackle’ the crackling.

After 30 mins of 220° fan heat, I turned the oven right down to 130° (fan) and let the pork roast slowly for another hour and a half. 30 mins from the end, I added two Bramley apples to the pan, halved and cored (the EASIEST apple sauce ever). I also let the joint rest, upside down, for about 15 minutes before carving it. I made a gravy using the pan juices, the mashed up trivet veg, white wine and cider vinegar. The fluffy baked apples were served alongside the pork, and I accompanied it with mashed potato and steamed spring greens. Very easy, and very delicious.

Spiced roast pork with cheats apple sauce and 'trivet' gravy

And to drink? Well, if I’m honest, the whole point of cooking this meal was that I really fancied opening a nice bottle of wine, and what better way to enjoy a good wine than with a nice plate of roasted meat. I opted for a bottle of Prunotto Dolcetto d’Alba (available here), a gorgeous medium-weight Italian red with a good mix of sweetish ripe fruit (to balance the sweetness of the apples), cutting acidity (to handle the juicy fattiness of the pork) and enough spicy, licquorice-y flavours to stand up to the smoked paprika, fennel and coriander flavours. Even if I do say so myself, it was a cracking match, although I was let down a bit by the meat, which, as I suspected, suffered from being a rolled and didn’t fall apart like a proper roasted shoulder should.

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Champagne: it’s all down to character

Sometimes, this is all it's good for…

I’ve got a problem with champagne (and it’s not just that I can’t afford to drink it every day – well, actually it is, but that’s another post…). Let me explain: I’m a big fan of terroir, that elusive French term that encompasses climate, soil type, elevation, aspect, and lots more, and champagne eschews terroir for something much more industrial. What I personally love about wine is the beautiful confluence of a vigneron matching his piece of land to a specific grape and using all his skill, dedication, instinct and know-how to get the best out of both and ensure wines of wonderful character are created.

But champagne doesn’t operate like this. All those big houses (or brands, as we call them) that you see lined up on the shelves, your Moëts, Jouëts, Rogers, Roederers, Clicquots, et al, the ones we’re all so familiar with, don’t make their wine this way. Instead, they produce a consistent product by blending grapes of varying quality from all over the Champagne region, bought in from myriad different growers, from different harvests and years, to create a blend (or cuvée) that’s indistinguishable from the previous year’s, or the one in ten years’ time. This champagne isn’t made in the vineyard, it’s constructed methodically in the winery, with an almost scientific approach that’s not interested in grape attribute or vineyard characteristic, but simply in recreating a ‘standard’, an end-product that is identifiable, that sits within a larger brand and forms part of a ‘lifestyle choice’ for the consumer standing at the shelf trying to make a selection.

Vineyards in Epernay, Champagne. Where the magic happens (or not).

And what’s wrong with that? Well, for me, a great deal. As far as I’m concerned, that’s pretty much how McDonald’s approach making a Big Mac. Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE champagne, but over the years I’ve come to realise that it could (and can be) so much more interesting. It’s a process, and every individual element of that process is stripped of its own character to ensure that the end product is always the same. And that’s not what I want when I pour a glass of wine. I want to taste the earth the grapes were grown on, I want to feel the sun, get a sense of the area, connect with the winemaker’s toil in the vineyard that year. Call me a romantic, call me a idealist, call me a massive idiothole if you like, but that’s what I want.

A Big Mac, yesterday.

But fortunately, it doesn’t have to be like this. There IS an alternative. Away from the mighty champagne houses, the little guy is fighting back. Known as ‘grower champagnes’, these champagne winemakers are the opposite of the big houses: small domaines who grow their own grapes and make them into their own champagne. These are sparkling wines a million miles away from the big houses’ consistent cuvées: rich, characterful wines made in often minute quantities, but bursting with distinctive charm, and susceptible to change year on year.

These types of champagnes are much more popular in France, where savvy consumers know to look beyond mighty marketing budgets and get a far more interesting return for their expense. Granted, not all RM champagne (RM means Récoltant-Manipulant, as opposed to NM – Négociant-Manipulants – such as the majority of the big houses are, who buy in grapes and make their wines from these) are good, some can be distinctly iffy, but when they are good, boy do they deliver some characterful and terroir-focused wine. Here are three particularly noteworthy examples:

Probably one of the most well-known RM champagnes is Pierre Gimmonet, a family-owned Epernay estate with prestigious vineyards on the famed Côtes des Blancs. Working only with Chardonnay grapes, some from vines up to 80 years old, the domaine produces a range of exceptional wines, from its entry-level non-vintage Cuis Premier Cru to its Gastronome and Oenophile vintage cuvées and its top-end wines. What separates Pierre Gimmonet from the big houses, for me, is both their humble price (these are champagnes that make you feel like the expense and the incredible contents of the bottle actually match) and the great class and refinement of the wine. Characterised, across the range, by a soft and silky opulence that is (or at least, should be) the very essence of this ‘luxury wine’, they are an absolute joy to drink and experience, time and time again. And it’s probably why the wines are so hard to get hold of!

The secret's in the label… Look for the RM code to tell you it's grower champagne

Another particular personal favourite is Bénédicte Jonchère, available in the UK through The Perfect Cellar, who, rather impressively, have managed to bottle their own exclusive house champagne from this estate called Brisson-Jonchere. Based in Bar-sur-Aube, in the Côtes des Bar area of the Champagne region, Bénédicte Jonchère is a small, family-owned estate, but one highly focused on quality and expressing the individual character of their terroir. The Grande Reserve, a classic blend of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier grapes, shows a wonderful aromatic intensity and incredible balance between fruit and yeasty depth. Their Grand Reserve Rosé has a beautifully fine mousse and is not overly sweet, as some rosé champagnes can be. The red fruit flavours balance perfectly with the richness of the toasty, yeasty notes. An absolutely perfect Valentine’s Day treat.

Bénédicte Jonchère RM champagne

Lastly, and sadly a champagne I haven’t seen over here for some time now, is the lovely Ruelle Pertois, another small RM champagne house, this time based in Moussy. These wines really hark back to a bygone era, before the advent of the modern giant houses, when things in Champagne were, presumably, much simpler and a great deal more humble. Ruelle Pertois are a family affair and produce their wines with great care and peerless commitment to quality and tradition. Elegance and freshness seem to be the key to these champagnes, from the beautiful, Pinot Meunier-heavy non-vintage cuvée, to the wonderfully complex Blanc de Blanc vintage, a wine simply bursting with richness but also an incredible delicacy. Their Rosé, made from high quantities of Pinot Noir, is pure opulence and celebration. I really miss these wines.

What a crock

©William Thomas 2012

100% spelt sourdough loaves freshly baked inside a Le Creuset crock

I’ve been baking bread at home for around four years now. While I enjoy using sourdough starters and emulating a stone based oven with a thick tile, the holy grail for me has always been a proper bread oven, something with a brick interior that absorbs the heat of a long firing and radiates that ferocious heat back to the bread for maximum crust formation and oven spring. There are many shapes and sizes, dating back to Roman times, but I would ideally want something like this. Hey, it’s my dream.

One alternative to baking in a proper Roman oven, so I’d heard, is to use a heavy enamelled crock, such as a Le Creuset. Left in a HOT oven, the entire pot becomes a sort of mini oven in itself, so when the bread is dropped in and the lid replaced, the radiant heat from all sides, not to mention the trapped steam, cooks the bread far more intensely than a normal domestic oven can. Well, it turns out I got one of these for Christmas, so let the baking fun begin…

Not being much of a scientist, of course my first foray was a rubbish experiment. I couldn’t get hold of my normal flour (Burcott Mill’s wonderful Glastonbury spelt) and ended up using Dove’s farm spelt, which I’ve never used before. As all flours are different, it’s hard to get consistent results when you use a new one, especially the first time.

Anyway, to cut a long story short (if you really want to know about sourdough bread baking, my best advice would be to get yourself a copy of Dan Lepard’s excellent The Handmade Loaf) I ended up making a very wet dough (70% hydration) which might have scuppered my desire to get a really dramatic oven ‘spring’ (the magical bit when the heat of the oven expands the air trapped inside the loaf and it blooms). As you can see from the pic above, the loves came out a little flat, but having said that, the quality and colour of the crust itself was very encouraging.

And the results? Well, I definitely need to experiment more here, but as a first foray, I’m simultaneously impressed and underwhelmed. I guess I was expecting miracles, but that’s not how bread works. It’s a process, and when you change any part of the process, you change the finished loaf. I guess I’ll just have to adjust my method. But as you can see, the crumb is lovely and open, even though the dough ‘flowed’ more than ‘sprang’ in its first stages. The overall bread is different to usual, it definitely feels like it hasn’t dried out as much and has retained more moisture in the crumb, but at the same time it feels like it’s better cooked.

As to the taste, well, that was never in question really. I’ve been doing this long enough to know that good organic stoneground flour, made overnight with sourdough starter and plenty of salt, is always going to taste good, no matter how it’s cooked. But with the added sweet dark crust, this is a lovely tasting loaf, perfect for cheese and ham sandwiches. And as it’s nearly lunchtime, that’s exactly what I’m going to have. Right. Now.

©William Thomas 2012

Good crust, nice crumb, who's hungry?

Bitter ––> sweet

©William Thomas 2012

Seville orange marmalade 'blessed' with Monbazillac dessert wine

As a sort of footnote to my recent post about dessert wines (here), I just wanted to share with you my recipe for yesterday’s homemade marmalade, which I ‘pimped’ with Monbazillac dessert wine.

I’ve been making marmalade at home for a couple of years now. Really, if you’re a fan, you’ve got to either try making it yourself or at least get hold of some good quality homemade stuff. The difference is incredible.

In the past I’ve followed Delia’s recipe, which always worked well and felt right as my Mum used to make marmalade when I was a kid, and was a big fan of Mrs Smiths. But this year I changed tack and went with Dan Lepard’s recipe. I’m a huge fan of Dans, his recipes are always really well thought out, and I love the ‘demystified’ professionalism of them: the way he explains, in very simple terms, the underlying science of a recipe so you can understand it and adapt it to your own tastes. Seriously, if you’re interested in baking, his book Short & Sweet is an essential purchase.

But I had one problem: I’d bought too much fruit for one batch, and I didn’t want to make two. So instead, I followed Dan’s recipe to the sugar and water calculation stage, then cut back on both in order to fit the whole lot in one pan. This essentially gave me a super-intensified marmalade, with a far higher percentage of fruit than normal. Nothing wrong with that, plus I knew it would be much easier to set this way.

And then I got to thinking, inspired no doubt by my recent musings on dessert wines, would the caramelised orange peel nuances of a botrytized sweet wine add another layer of loveliness to a marmalade? It’s a pretty expensive experiment, but hell, no-one makes marmalade to save money, you do it because you want great quality, so why not push that as far as you can go?

I actually consulted Dan on this idea, as I wasn’t entirely confident about when to add the wine or if it was indeed a good idea. He very kindly got back to me and explained that by adding a tablespoon of the wine to the jar before pouring in the hot marmalade, I’d get the maximum amount of flavour into the preserve. And so that’s what I did…

The result? Well, I only made it last night and in my experience, marmalade improves greatly with a bit of ‘jar age’, but yes, it worked a treat. The tingling tanginess you get from homemade marmalade is buoyed by a cheeky, boozy edge, and you get nuances of those petrolly, grapey notes from the Monbazillac. Worth the expense? Hmm, probably not, but if you asked that question about everything, life would be pretty dull. So if you want a jar, let me know, I’m only charging £20. Bargain.

Hey sweetie!

Ok, I admit it, I’ve got a seriously sweet tooth, and nothing tickles my fancy at the end of a meal quite like a rich, absorbing and deliciously sticky dessert wine. Whether you pair yours with pudding, balance it with a powerful blue cheese or just zone in on the complex golden loveliness in the glass (as I tend to), if you’re a fan of dessert wines, you’re all right by me.

Let’s take a look at some of the different types of sweeties and count the ways we love them…

Top of the pile are of course the ultra complex botrytized sweet wines, where rare and highly temperamental climactic conditions bring about ‘noble rot’ – actually an air-born fungus called Botrytis cinerea – on ripe, unpicked grapes. I tip my hat to whomever it was who first decided to make wine from these wrinkled, mouldy grapes, because frankly, they look revolting. What happens is that the air-born fungus (which tends to drift in on early-morning mists) attacks the ripe grapes and withers them on the vine, shrinking and drying them by thinning the skins, encouraging water to evaporate and concentrating the sugars and acids. It leaves them looking really funky (see pic), but also holding the potential to make some of the most rewarding of all wines.

Riesling grapes affected by noble rot

The ‘great’ botrytized wines are of course the luscious and world famous sweet wines of Sauternes and Tokaji, two wines that have been held in reverence the world over for hundreds of years. Characterised by great complexity and depth, good examples of these wines show powerful sweetness and acidity, all exquisitely balanced with an endless variety of citrus, apricot, honey, mineral (especially in Tokaji, where the volcanic soil adds an extra layer of loveliness), vegetal and, well, just heavenly tastes and aromas. They may be really hard work to make (hence the expense), but let’s be thankful for those winemakers who can, and do, take the trouble to.

Vineyards and cellars in Tokaj-Hegyalja, Hungary

Other botrytized wines of note include Monbazillac from nearby Bergerac in Southwest France, which is made in similar ways to Sauternes from botrytized Sémillon and Sauvignon Blanc grapes, but with a higher proportion of Muscadelle grapes giving it a more ‘grapey’ character. From the Loire valley we have the extraordinarily long-lived Coteaux du Layon wines, made from Chenin-Blanc grapes, while over in Germany, the famously rare botrytized Rieslings of Beerenauslese and Trockenbeerenauslese (no, I can’t pronounce them either) are a mouth-watering treat – if you can find any. Nearby you find the Sélection de Grains Nobles of Alsace (which basically translates as ‘the selection of noble berries’, hinting at the time-consuming work involved in hand-harvesting rotten grapes) and in Italy, the opulent and again rare muffato wines from Orvieto in Umbria.

However, if you’re a confirmed sweetie lover, you’ll know we don’t need all that ‘noble rot’ rot to have a good time. There are plenty of other really rather wonderful dessert wines out there (and some pretty bad ones, be warned!) that, while they may not have the depth and complexity of their botrytized cousins, can offer up myriad honeyed charms at a fraction of the cost.

One particularly noteworthy and oft-overlooked sweetie that I return to again and again is the lovely Maury from France’s Rousillon region. Both red and white wines are made here – in the gently fortified vins doux naturels style such as Riversaltes (where the sweet muscat grape reigns supreme) and Banyuls – although it’s the reds you mostly see. Made predominantly from Grenache Noir grapes and often aged in oak before bottling, these sumptuous reds are perfect from the fridge, offering wonderful earthy complexity behind the luscious sweet fruit. Pair one with a gooey chocolatey pudding and you’ll be grinning from ear to ear. Guaranteed.

Not far from Roussillon, in the foothills of the Pyrenees, another lovely sweetie can be found. Jurançon is a commune in Southwest France that produces both dry and sweet wines from the local Manseng and Courbu grape varieties. The dry wines are very pleasant, but the sweet ones are just wonderful, full of luscious honeyed opulence and, in the best examples, delicious tropical fruit nuances with a splash of minerally freshness. A cold glass of Jurançon makes a cracking 5 o’clock wine, especially if you missed a little afternoon treat and fancy something sweet before the day ends.

Manseng grapes ripening in the sun in Jurançon

But probably one of the sweetest and most joyful dessert wines is Moscato d’Asti, from Piedmont in the northwest of Italy. With its fine moussey bubbles, easy-going low alcohol and lovely mouth-watering orange blossom flavours, a good Moscato can be a thing of delicious beauty and unbridled pleasure. It tends to come into its own on summer days/nights, as it makes such a hedonistic partner for fresh fruits (or fruit tarts, meringues, cakes, etc). Of course, it can just be a blissfully easy and cheeky little dessert on its own too. I doubt you’d hear any complaints.

Other sweet wines of note include the wonderful ‘straw’ wines: those made from grapes that are left to raisin in the sun (usually on straw mats) after picking. Although the Italians have really perfected this style of winemaking, the king of them all is probably Pedro Ximénez from Jerez in Spain. Known as vinos de pasas, the Spanish make tremendous dessert wines in this style, with the rich, dark and luxurious PX being the most intense. In fact, wines made solely from this grape in the sherry solera style are often too much for even me to sip cordially, but pour some over ice cream and I’m in sweet treat heaven. In Spain’s La Mancha region, you also find wonderful sweeties made from raisined Moscatel Morisco grapes, the best examples of these having a real botrytis-like zestiness and complexity.

Lastly, there are the super concentrated (and über-expensive) ice wines, or Eiswein’s, from cold places like Canada and Germany, where the grapes are harvested while still frozen on the vine so all the water is crystallised and only the grapes’ sugary core is extracted. And while I don’t wish to overlook the New World completely (for there are some very interesting sweet wines being produced there too – for instance, the ever-popular Rutherglen Muscat from Australia, a delightfully intense, raisiny number that always goes down well with a mince pie (or three) – that feels like another post altogether.

This way happiness lies… Vanilla ice cream

Yes, I’m sure I’ve overlooked plenty, but my wine journey isn’t over yet and I know I’ve many more pleasures to discover. The point is, I’m proud of my sweet afflictions and I urge you to indulge yours if you feel the same. There are a lot of wines out there (and wine people) getting bogged down in the seriousness of studious appreciation. Sometimes you’ve just got to let indulgence take you for a ride. So sit back, grab a sweetie and give those tired taste buds a treat. Cheers!

Welcome!

An abundance of tasty, regional delights (in this instance, the lovely, weirdly pâté-like sobrasada salami) in Palma de Mallorca. Just my kind of place.

Welcome to The Perfect Blog?, the continuing adventures of me, William Thomas, through the wonderful world of food & wine. And who am I? Well, I’m a trained chef, a writer, a wine lover, a bread baker and a passionate supporter (and consumer) of all delicious things made with love and integrity.

So why the name? Well, whenever I tell people what I do for a living (writing about food & wine, basically) they invariably say ‘you lucky b*****d, that’s the perfect job!’. And if that really is the case (and frankly, I can’t argue with them) then writing about what I do for a living must be the perfect blog, non?

Essentially, this is a blog about wine, but as the world of wine really has no borders, it’ll also be a blog about food, cooking, travel, winegrowers and winemakers, agriculture, farming and all the lovely things that go with – and into – a bottle of wine.

I’ll be sharing my findings, opinions, tastes, knowledge and passions as I make my way along. These will be in the form of notes, recipes, travelogues, videos, essays, photos and musings (and no doubt the occasional rant), but they’ll always be heartfelt, informative and, hopefully, of interest.

Now this blog may have my name on it, but really it’s as a collaboration with you. As wine-lovers, we’re all on a journey, and if we can help each other out on the way we’ll all get more out of it. So if you like what you see, get in touch. If you disagree with my opinions, then tell me. Found something you’d like to share? I’d love to know about it. Mi casa es su casa, as they say.

Anyway, enough yakking. Hopefully I’ve set my stall out well enough, but in all honesty, who knows where this is going to lead? It will grow as I grow. So let’s get on with it…