Naked In Napa

by on May.20, 2012, under Food/drink, Planet Sam

avatarIt’s strange, sitting here on a relatively sunny day, during which the temperature hauled itself into double figures with the effort of a powerlifter attempting to beat his deadlift personal best, to think that a couple of weeks ago I was baking in the heat of California.

What it was all about

The story of how this came about starts last Christmas. My family gets together over Christmas —I hardly see them during the rest of the year— and my brother does the drink while I do the food. Being picky, I usually take a few bottles of wine for the Christmas meal itself. Last year I happened to have an Amazon voucher for a £40 discount from Naked Wines, a company I’d already been following on twitter because of a #FollowFriday, but about which I knew very little. We looked at the website, realised we could get a case of decent wine for around 4 quid a bottle using an introductory deal plus the voucher, and thought we’d take a punt.

When I bought my wine, the website told me all about the Angel programme. You give them £20 or more a month, which they invest in wines that otherwise wouldn’t get made, or winemakers who have all the skill but no support, and in return you get at least a 25% discount on wine sold through the site. As one of many new writers struggling to make it out of the slush pile, I know that talent and passion for one’s art isn’t always enough. You also need someone to take notice, to believe in what you are doing and give you a chance. I feel very strongly that artistic talent should be rewarded, and winemaking is, as Jason Moore says, “an art form supported by science”.

I signed up. I didn’t need any more persuading than that.

Roll on a few months. We were still without internet but I was making tasting notes of the wines I bought and posting them when I could. I don’t like reviews that say “I liked it!” or “This was lovely!” They tell me nothing about whether I might like it. You wouldn’t go to see a film based on someone else saying they enjoyed it without finding out what genre it was, at least. You wouldn’t buy a perfume just because someone on a website said it smelled nice. Well, I suppose there are those who would, but I’m not one of them. Having been exposed to plenty of the handwritten tasting notes produced by Oddbins staff over the years, I tried to post reviews that would tell others what the wine was like so they could decide whether or not they might like it.

Converting my synaesthetic experience into something that will make sense to others has been an interesting writing exercise.

Naked Wines have a number of volunteers helping out on their site, called Archangels. These are customers who are good at interacting, who post helpful reviews and do their bit to be welcoming of newcomers, both winemakers and customers. One of the staff asked if there were any Angels who would like to become one. I applied. A while later I got a phone call. I’d been successful. Not only had I been successful, would I like to go to California? A group of Archangels were being sent to Napa to taste wines and choose some to go on sale in the UK.

Yes, of course I would.

Which is how come I ended up flying to San Francisco with 9 other wine enthusiasts for two intense days of tasting.

After the party on the plane (it took me the entire flight to get through the Sherlock Holmes sequel) and dinner at a fabulous Mexican restaurant (I have no idea which one it was, but I didn’t know you could do that with pineapple), we were back to the hotel for a sleepless night before an early start the next morning.


We started with Jessica Tomei, where we sampled half a dozen rather fine wines, then moved on to Jason Moore, where we sampled another selection, including some of the best wines I’ve ever tasted. After that it was a trip to the Patz and Hall winery, by way of a rather famous Champagne house (I had to resist the urge to crawl into the cotoneaster hunting the Californian tree frog I could hear in there), where we were talked through more than a dozen wines by winemakers Robin Langton, William Henry and Randall Grahm. If Robin doesn’t bring me some of that Tallman Sauvignon Blanc I shall be forced to have words.

Lunch was a picnic provided by the rather wonderful William Henry, with me a bit starstruck by the big Ravenswood sign on the way up to the vineyard where we were to have it.


For someone who isn’t used to tasting wines in such rapid succession, and has never had the opportunity to do so in what amounts to a professional context —all the Archangels were very much focused on the job we were there to do— this was an amazing experience. The biggest issue for me was that I can’t taste and listen at the same time, because the synaesthesia means that sound interferes with my tasting, and so I had to choose between being able to taste the wine or listening to what the winemakers had to say about them. I chose the former, and my apologies if anyone thought I was being rude. I did have to explain the synaesthesia about 20 times over the course of the trip!

There was a social evening on the Friday night, where we were able to taste another couple of wines, although I hadn’t been expecting to do another tasting so didn’t have my notebook to hand. We also had the opportunity to speak to the winemakers and get to know them a bit better.

Saturday we started off with a trip to the Farmer’s Market in Napa, the mirthmobile in full swing already. I haven’t been to the Aberdeen one yet, but I hope it’s half as good as the Oxbow. Then we went to the Darioush winery, to experience the bling of the wine world. Bottles here started at around $70, and went up. Boy, did those numbers go up. I think the fact that the winery is apparently a reconstruction of the temple at Persepolis says enough about this particular winery without me having to add anything (although I still enjoyed the Cabernet Franc, even if I was the only person to do so).

Table decoration at Darioush

From Darioush we went to visit the hugely contrasting Campesino, where we met the lovely Macario Montoya, who is making Spanish wines in homage to the heavy Spanish influence in California. There are not enough decent Albarinos in the world. I’m delighted that Macario has added to them.

Our final stop was one of the major highlights of the trip for me. So high up a mountain I felt I needed oxygen, we visited Christina Pallmann, who offered us some truly delectable wine, including an unoaked Chardonnay that belongs on my wine rack right this very moment, and an example of Zinfandel that caused me to fall in love with the grape after a decade or so of us not speaking to one another any more. It was an absolute privilege to taste her wines in that location, and get to meet her grower, Joe. It was clear that they have a fabulous relationship and acres of respect for one another.

On top of a mountain

Meeting the winemaker

That was the real eye-opener of the trip. These are people who are deeply passionate about their art. It is important to them, and they care about what they are doing. Anyone engaged in a creative endeavour knows that this is what makes the difference. If you don’t have that love and passion then you are in the wrong business. Every winemaker we met was eloquent and engaging about what they were doing and what they were trying to achieve.

If I ever had any doubts that my £20 a month was going to deserving winemakers, this trip got rid of them for ever.

The trip was also part of the Naked Wines launch for the US and Australia. The sales model for wine in the US is a product of Prohibition, and British wine lovers would be surprised by the pricing. Naked Wines intends shaking things up a bit, so wine lovers can pay what a wine is worth rather than what the label suggests someone thinks they can get for it. If you want to be part of that, go to and sign up as a beta-taster (geddit?).

In the end we could choose only six out of the many fine wines we tasted. The Naked in Napa pack is now on sale for British customers on marketplace at Naked Wines. You’ll have to be quick, though, because it’s selling fast. I’ll put my tasting notes below for the wines that are in this pack, but don’t take my word for it: place a bid and get yourself some.

Naked Wines British Invasion with Jason Moore. Photo by Adam Reiter.

I’m putting the synaesthetic notes in italics, in brackets, for the sake of completion. Feel free to ignore or point and laugh.

1 x Christina Pallmann Santa Maria Pinot Noir 2010
Berry red and perfumed in the glass, this gives off wafts of violets, panna cotta and roses. It caresses the tastebuds with soft tannins, giving a smooth mouthfeel, but offers up an exciting and tantalising combination of flower petals and pollen with spicy notes of pepper and a structural component reminiscent of juniper.
(Star with rounded spikes made of soft silicon, coated in powdered purple.)

1 x Coloma Syrah “Meatgrinder” 2009
In the glass this is leggy, with a redcurrant translucency tinted by a note of plum. The legs carry on into the nose. It is moderately astringent, ever so slightly disjointed because it has not had a chance to breathe. Exuberant. To taste it is a block of structured tannins, following through with the redcurrant and adding cranberry and sloe wax.
(Honeycomb shape. Almost effervescent. Happy and eager.)

1 x Sin Fronteras Reserve Tempranillo 2009
Blood red, with the most evenly spaced legs I’ve ever seen on a wine. The nose offers an immediate hit of fruit, rounded out by toasted vanilla and locust bean. The taste has enough acidity to give good structure without crossing the line into pungency, and backs up the fruit with hints of coffee and spice.
(Mille Feuille of opaque, teflon-coated microbeads)

1 x Credence Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2010
Soft red, bluish, lilac meniscus. Long, fading legs. It doesn’t hang about in the glass waiting for you, this one. It’s forward, leaping out to greet you. Big fruit with structural astringency. Damsons and redcurrants, quite leafy. Wholemeal toast and roasting seeds. Tasted quite youthful and a bit of an attention-seeker. Good talking point for a main meal at a dinner party, but give it something robust to lean against or give it plenty of time to breathe.
(Invasive, architecturally hard, but with soft fruit in the spaces.)

1 x Back Door Napa Cabernet Sauvignon 2006
We didn’t taste this as it was away for bottling at the time.

1 x William Henry Riesling NV
We’re pretty sure that this is a 2011 rather than the non-vintage, as that’s what we tasted. I found this shy on the nose, with the odd note of athletic jockstrap. On taste, however, this was as balanced as an Olympic gymnast on the beam, with good acidity and excellent dry but unctuous fruit. This struck me immediately as the sort of white I would want to drink curled up in front of a roaring fire with snow thick on the ground and dripping off pine trees.
(The wine equivalent of Chris Brosius’s Winter 1972. Not immediately stunning but something that lingers in the back of your mind and keeps coming back long after other forms have faded.)

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Adventures in ice cream

by on Feb.27, 2011, under Food/drink

avatarI am, it has to be said, a bit of a foodie. I don’t talk about food on this blog nearly as much as one might expect given the amount of time I spend thinking about it.

Some genetic quirk left me with a digestive system of the temperamental variety and my interest in food was born from the necessity of dealing with its quirks and foibles. I have a range of variable sensitivities and intolerances, as well as synaesthesia, which together mean I am often uninterested in eating. When food can make you sick for no apparent reason it is easy to develop negative associations with it. Meals can also be awkward when a food, because of its texture, tastes of something that is entirely unrelated to the food’s actual flavour. Especially when it’s not always possible to tell which one is which.

Except for celery. Celery is evil by nature.

Taking an interest in ingredients and preparation isn’t a hobby or a hankering after a future career — I have not contemplated entering Masterchef, not seriously anyway — it’s a survival requirement. If I didn’t care about my food, I wouldn’t bother. Some days it feels like I’ve got some sort of multiple personality disorder, with the other personality occupying the brain in my gut and pissed off about not getting much of a say in anything other than what happens after I swallow (please do pipe down at the back).

For my birthday last year one of my friends, knowing that I have an intermittent sensitivity to dairy but a liking for ice cream, bought me an ice cream maker and a book of vegan ice cream recipes. The first one we tried was a bit of disaster — Frood wanted grapefruit ice cream, and I foolishly agreed to give it a go even though the belly brain (henceforth to be known as RB2) was yelling blue bloody murder and threatening strike action and rebellion and talking about a military coup, while my synaesthesia was building flavour blocks and looking at the resultant abomination like it was the dessert equivalent of the Ryugyong Hotel. Impatience and exuberance with the orange liqueur got the better of me and we ended up with an oddly sepia-toned, crystalline concoction that tasted of hot newspaper ink and air freshener.

The ice cream machine went back into the freezer. At least the alcoholic jellies worked.

Next we tried one of the recipes that came with the machine, which was for raspberry yoghurt ice cream. Although it grumbled somewhat about the combination of fruit and animal fats/proteins, RB2 agreed that the Lactobacillus in the yoghurt went some way to ameliorating the crime and didn’t kick up too much of a fuss, but did caution me not to make a habit of it. This caution turned into a final warning the next time we had raspberry yoghurt ice cream.

Last night we had friends round for dinner. They brought with them some Sake obtained from an artisan winery in Canada, and had requested some of the raw food sushi I had mentioned to them on an earlier occasion.

(My raw food sushi is not really raw. I mean, raw sushi rice wouldn’t be nice. It would be crunchy and wouldn’t stick together. The miso soup I did last night wasn’t raw, nor was the drenched radish, and the tofu wasn’t a raw food either. If I’m fully honest I have to allow that one of the sushi rolls was filled with a chilli, garlic and hot smoked paprika roasted butternut squash, which is neither raw nor traditional. But the other ingredients were a mix of home-grown sprouts, avocado, grated raw carrot and freshly-squeezed ginger juice, so mostly raw. Other than the thin egg omelette. Which was neither raw nor vegan. But it was optional.)

I was in the mood to try making vegan ice cream again, and having friends round for dinner, which I do very rarely, is a great excuse to make dessert. RB2 can be more tolerant when roped in for ideas and the synaesthesia is very useful when it comes to putting flavours together, because when flavours have shape it’s easier to see what goes together and what doesn’t — hence I really should have paid attention when neither agreed on grapefruit. I had some plums and we were having Japanese food, so the obvious thing to do was use Oriental spices to flavour some stewed plums.

The recipe book uses a mixture of soy milk, soy cream, sugar, vanilla extract and arrowroot to form the base for almost all of the recipes, which made for an easy adaptation as there was nothing directly equivalent in there.

The base I made with 2 cups soy milk, 1 pot (250ml) soy cream, a scant third of a cup sugar, 1 tablespoon (15ml) vanilla extract and 2 tablespoons (30ml) arrowroot. It was only supposed to be 1.5 cups soy milk, but I forgot to reduce the arrowroot to suit and ended up with this horrible gelatinous disaster-in-the-making, requiring swift dilution and vigorous whisking to rescue it. The whisking had an added benefit — the resulting texture was light and airy and beautiful, like a zabaione, and I shall be whisking it in future for that reason.

The half-dozen plums I washed, stoned, cut into quarters and stewed in approx. 2 tablespoons of lemon juice with barely a quarter cup of sugar, a little salt, a cinnamon stick, two 5p coin sized pieces of raw ginger and a whole star anise. I passed the result through a sieve after removing the spices and refrigerated everything for several hours.

When it came time to make the ice cream I folded the plum mix into the base and then poured as much of it as would fit into the ice cream maker. Twenty minutes later we had a gorgeous, soft, crystal-free, perfectly smooth and silky, fragrant ice cream.

I don’t think that fruit mixture would have worked so well on a dairy base. Although plums are a soft, round fruit, they have a sharp, almost metallic tang of a flavour that can be reminiscent of rhubarb or other more brittle fruits. This flavour is mellowed by stewing in fat and sugar, making it a suitable eiderdown for comforting pastry, but the spice and the lemon and absence of fat enhanced it. I would not have wanted to put that in the oleaginous, vanilla-scented softness of dairy ice cream. It would have been like taking sandpaper to silk. Nor would I have wanted to go the other way and make a sorbet: there was still some of the round mellowness of the plum (a word that has the same shape as the flavour of the very ripe fruit) in there and a sorbet is bright and brittle and sparkly. That would have been like serving champagne in a leather tankard. Just plain weird.

Vegan ice cream is not, as Wheeler Del Torro claims, indistinguishable from dairy. I wouldn’t be overly keen on a straight vanilla and I’m almost 100% certain that I would not want to make vegan chocolate ice cream (although carob might work. The powdery undernotes would tie the two together quite nicely). On the other hand, there are flavours I can see myself making with a vegan base that I wouldn’t make using a dairy one, particularly using spices that have or combine to make a pointier texture than I think dairy cream can take.

And RB2? Belly brain is complaining about something. I’m not going to accept it was the ice cream, because I want to try more of that, and any new food that makes me say “more please!” is to be treasured. Even Frood said it was nommy and he has no reason not to eat proper ice cream.

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Not a paper hat in sight

by on Nov.13, 2010, under Food/drink, Miscellany

avatarIt’s going to be my birthday soon and I’ve never had a party. Not a birthday party. Not like the parties to which I was occasionally invited as a child, with the party staples of small children running around screaming and arguing over cake, harassed parents and, importantly, ice cream and jelly.

Frood, because he am be wuvly, has said that this year I can have a proper birthday. There will be a few select people coming to our flat (I’d invite more but we have very limited space and it’s too cold to party outside at this time of year) and there shall be, as mentioned in a previous post, cake, jelly, ice cream and party games (most of which will be on the Wii, because this is the 21st century after all, and Sardines isn’t as much fun unless… Actually let’s leave that for the moment because you never know who’s reading).

While Frood may still have the mental outlook of a five year-old, I do not, Stitch obsession notwithstanding. Therefore I don’t want the sort of lime green jelly that comes from a Rowntrees packet and is set using stuff made by boiling pig hooves in a vat. I want a posh, adult jelly that has booze in it and is set using seaweed extract. My birthday party food is going to be proper adult birthday party food. There will not be half a grapefruit with cocktail sticks shoved in it bearing cubes of cheese and pineapple. There will be a substantial lack of platters piled high with mini sausage rolls and tiny triangular sandwiches filled with luncheon meat.

I might put out big bowls of crisps, but only because it’s easy and you need something to nibble on while performing the Wednesday afternoon dance slot on Rabbids TV Party.

This is where you lot come in. Party food. Suggestions? Particularly for the jelly. I’m contemplating attempting a gin and tonic sorbet, even though I don’t have an ice cream maker.

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A pleasing resemblance to food

by on Jun.11, 2010, under Food/drink, Miscellany

avatarThere used to be a food section on this website, before the grand redesign prompted by Blogger’s removal of ftp support (the bar stewards). It had recipes on it for things like the carrot cake recipe that makes the sunflower seeds turn budgerigar green; the rabbit and puy lentil stew that went down so well that time in Oxford; the salad dressing that had everyone from the Britwitch New Forest camp asking for it; and the chilli that has more chocolate in it than any sane person would think sensible, until tasting.

There currently is no food section on this website. In fact, most of the legacy pages — the science, the not-pagan, the megalithomania, the short fiction and the other weblog — have not made it across. This is mostly not much of an issue and I have no intention of putting it back. However, I think I might need a new food section.

Cooking is one of my interests. I take it seriously. It’s not because I harbour any great ambition to carve out my living as a chef, otherwise I’d enter Masterchef; I’m one of those people who takes any given interest seriously. If a thing is interesting enough for me to spend time doing it, it’s interesting enough for me to get good at it. I do things properly.

I’m also synaesthetic, and my synaesthesia is a taste/smell/shape sort of affair. Flavours and aromas are important to me because my life is imbued with them.

Recently I had a stomach upset, which has left me unable to tolerate animal products in any great quantity. I’m not best pleased about this. While I have no issue with other people making whatever choice they wish to make about their diet, I tried vegetarianism before, for a number of years, and I didn’t thrive on it. I’ve always been healthier with flesh in my diet.

The other issue is that I’m intolerant of tomatoes and peppers (and, more recently, of wheat) and we can’t have nuts in the house because Frood is allergic in a get-him-to-hospital-pronto sort of a way. This has left us with what would seem to be a fairly restrictive diet. And it’s about now that my years-long obsession with food and diet and nutrition comes into its own.

We’re eating more Japanese. We’re looking at classical cuisines from the Far East, where it took longer for the ubiquitous American foodstuffs of peppers, potatoes and tomatoes to penetrate. I’m discovering new ways of flavouring and balancing seasoning, and I’m doing it all without recourse to the junk food option of tubs with obfuscated ingredients.

I managed some vegetarian stovies recently, a recipe simple enough that it can be deduced from the series of photos on my Flickr site. They were quite nice.

What we were missing, though, was a recipe for macaroni cheese, one of the great comfort foods. I decided that I would make it my mission to come up with a wheat-free, dairy-free alternative. It’s not macaroni cheese and it tastes only very vaguely cheesy, however — and it does pain me to say this, for reasons with which Munky will be only too familiar — it does bear a comforting resemblance to macaroni cheese. And it’s quite nice in and of itself.

So, because it has been requested, here is how to make it,

Wheat, gluten and dairy-free savoury pasta in the style of macaroni cheese

Serves, er, probably 4. 2 hungry cyclists if served with garlic bread. Quantities are approximate because I was making it up as I went along.

  • 200g brown rice pasta shapes
  • 3 tbsp vegan margarine
  • 4 heaped tbsp Dove’s farm gluten-free all purpose flour (or use corn flour)
  • Half a cup (100ml) white wine
  • 400ml rice or soy milk
  • 3tsp vegetable bouillon powder
  • Pinch saffron threads (I suppose you could use turmeric)
  • 2 tbsp soy sauce
  • 1 tbsp white miso
  • 1 crushed garlic clove
  • (If using low salt bouillon) 1 tsp salt
  • 1 tbsp plain soy yoghurt
  • Nutmeg and black pepper to taste
  • 1 cup (or approx. 200ml) nutritional yeast (available from health food stores)

Put the pasta shapes on to cook according to the directions. Use plenty of water in a big pot. Pre-heat oven to 170°C.

Make the bouillon powder up to about 200ml with boiling water. Add the saffron and stir in the miso and the soy sauce.

Melt the margarine in a medium pot over a low heat and fry off the crushed garlic gently, avoiding colouring it. Grate some nutmeg in there or add some pre-ground. Add the flour. Stir vigorously until the flour has absorbed all the fat. Add the wine, a little at a time, stirring continuously, to make a smooth paste. Switch your wooden spoon for a small hand whisk if you have one. Add the stock mixture, a little at a time, stirring rapidly so as not to create lumps. Once the stock mixture has been used, switch to the soy/rice milk. Add a bit at a time and then turn up the heat, if necessary, to bring to a boil and allow to thicken. Add the yoghurt. Add more milk-substitute if it gets too thick. Stir all the time. Any lumps can be whisked out. If it’s too thin, (or you want more sauce) mix a tablespoon of flour with 2 tablespoons of milk substitute until it is smooth and add it to the mix, stirring rapidly.

Grind some pepper in there and whisk in the nutritional yeast. Taste to check seasoning.

Once pasta has cooked to just al dente, drain and pour sauce over the top. Bake in the oven, uncovered, for 15 minutes.

Serve with garlic bread (gluten-free bread spread with crushed garlic in olive oil) or salad.

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by on Feb.19, 2009, under Food/drink

Because Andy Miller has asked for it, and I’m quite proud of this concoction, here is a recipe for our new food of the month: Vegetarian Kedgeree.

This isn’t the traditional Madhur Jaffrey, pre-colonial dish. This is the colonial English breakfast with the fish swapped out. Healthy, tasty, and great for leftovers.

Curry paste:
1 tsp whole cumin seeds
1 tsp whole black onion seeds
1 tsp whole mustard seeds
1 tsp garam masala
1 tsp turmeric
1″ fresh, peeled ginger root
2 – 4 cloves garlic
1 tsp ready-chopped smoked chipotle chilli in oil (I get mine in Morrisons)

2 blocks firm smoked tofu (I use a really nice, very solid variety with herbs and sunflower seeds)
4 – 6 eggs (optional for vegans)
1 large onion
3 cups (not mugs!) Brown basmati rice
Two mugs of frozen peas, thawed in boiling water.

Put eggs on to hard boil. Put the rice onto cook (we use a rice cooker). While they are going toast the seeds and put in a mortar and pestle. Grind. Finely chop the garlic and grate the ginger. Put the toasted spices, the garam masala, the turmeric, the chilli, ginger and garlic in the mortar and pestle with the ground seeds. Pound and grind to a paste, adding a little vegetable oil if necessary.

Finely chop the onion. Chop the tofu into dice.

Once the eggs have boiled (about ten minutes), take them off the heat, crack the shells and cover with cold water. Peel and chop into dice.

Once the rice has cooked, strain (if not using a rice cooker) and keep in the pot with a lid so it stays warm. Put the paste in some hot oil in a large, heavy bottomed pan and cook for about a minute. Add the onions and sweat in the paste. Drain the peas. Add the peas and the tofu and stir until well mixed with the onions and paste. Add the rice and mix thoroughly. Add salt (or soy sauce) and pepper to taste. Fold the chopped egg into the mixture and serve immediately.

Serves 4 – 6. Or possibly two hungry cyclists for dinner plus leftovers for lunch.

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