“A Cruel Month”-Wine and Food Diary of Giles MacDonogh

A Cruel Month

Posted: 2nd May 2017

I was in Austria at the beginning of the month. Somehow I managed to miss the Prince of Wales in Schwechat. He arrived at much the same time as me. I spent my birthday in Burgenland, at a wine conference talking about awarding points to wine. It was nice to be back. I saw familiar, generally friendly faces that have filled out a bit in the intervening years, in some cases their hair has thinned, or was dusted with wintry grey. Such faces hold a mirror up to your own – if they look much older you can take it for granted you do too!

It is not the prettiest part of the country. The area between the Neusiedlersee and the Hungarian Frontier is flat and uneventful and the weather was wet and cold. At lunch an excitable Christine Saahs told me of her audience with Prince Charles in Vienna the night before, and how he and Camilla had ordered more wine from the excellent Nikolaihof for Highgrove. After my various turns on the stage I went to a big bottle party and met ‘der Metzger’ for the first time, the famous local butcher-cum-winemaker was trailing around with huge bottles of his wine, and I fell to drinking with a Viennese architect, a schoolmaster-cum-winemaker from the Weinviertel and a Mongolian surgeon who was hoping to stage a comparative tasting of fermented mares’ milk. I wisely took myself off to bed at ten.

And then Vienna the next day, when I had a little time to see old haunts and talk to old friends. I am only sorry to say it was all so quick; still it was nice to get home for a birthday dinner on the eighth when we assembled at Boisdale’s new branch in Mayfair. I waited at a table on the pavement for my family to turn up, nursing a flute of champagne in the sunlight.

The following week I had a chance to visit my good friend Salvatore Calabrese’s new premises near Liverpool Street station. I was expecting a basement, but I should have known Salvatore better. The Holy Birds, with its Mule Bar is a restaurant with bars on two levels and the whole thing has been designed in a retro style to look like 1960s chic. There is sixties clobber everywhere and wallpaper and carpets made to designs furnished by his children and based on sixties originals. Salvatore took us through a few of his favourite cocktails including that dry martini I first experienced some time in the eighties when he was head barman at Duke’s in St James’s. He told the story about how he hit on the idea of adding the vermouth with a vinegar dropper. We had a Negroni made from a bottle of Sarti gin produced in the forties, Campari from the sixties and a red vermouth dating from the seventies or eighties. We were later allowed to taste the individual ingredients: the gin seemed have no botanical character but the vermouth had aged well and had a pronounced nutty flavour. The Campari appeared to have altered but little. I resolved to buy the ingredients for Negronis for home. I’ll teach my son to make them. It will be my Friday night treat.

The following weekend was Easter. As my family was in Devon during Holy Week I did not have to make Hot Cross buns this year, but they returned on Saturday in time for the Paschal feast. New season’s lamb was terribly rare in London, but I procured a shoulder from one of the two beasts allocated to our local butcher. Two special wines were served with it. I had long been wondering when to open a bottle of 1989 Clos de la Chainette. As the bottle proclaims, this is the former Clos de l’Abbaye de Saint Germain in Auxerre, one of the most ancient vineyards in France – possibly dating back to the 7th Century and a favourite of Thomas Jefferson’s. By some bizarre twist of fate the estate fell into the hands of the local asylum after the revolution, and the small print at the bottom of the label tells you that the owner is still the departmental ‘hôpital psychiatrique.’ I think I was hanging on, hoping to find a suitably crazy guest to help me consume a bottle clearly given to me by the winemaker on one of my many visits to Auxerre.

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Giles MacDonogh

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