Wine and Food Diary of Giles MacDonogh

The Return of the Hunter-Gatherer

Written by Giles MacDonogh

The Return of the Hunter-Gatherer

Posted: 1st February 2021

January has been a dramatic sort of month although it was hardly billed to be anything else. We finally saw the back of Donald Trump and his Lady Macbeth, and I duly designed a dish to celebrate their departure. My ‘Melanzania trumpigiana’ is made by cutting an aubergine or aubergines in half and hollowing them out. The aubergine’s meat is then cooked in olive oil with plenty of diced tomatoes, salt, pepper and thyme before being spooned back into the empty hulls with a good scattering of parmesan cheese. The mixture should obviously have a striking, orange colour. The aubergines should be finished off in a hot oven for half an hour, or can be more quickly pushed under the grill. Remember you need to cook the hulls too. They are best eaten with something light, frothy and festive. Although I say it myself, the dish is rather good. Some people think that anything bearing the name of Trump should be as disgusting as its inspiration, but I drew the line at any sort of masochism and when a dish tastes as good as this, we should be able to celebrate Trump’s passing several times a month.

Historian and Wine Writer/Author of the Wine and Food Diary- Giles MacDonogh

The news on the home front was not nearly so pleasing. We have finally quit our holding position and taken to the skies, leaving behind us the world we have known for forty-seven years. So with rampant COVID and cloggy borders, back here in London the Hunter-Gatherer has been dogged by market dearth. I am not talking about the empty supermarket shelves that have been plastered all over the social media – I don’t use supermarkets – but rather the notable gaps in the displays in the run-down North London street markets of Kilburn, Seven Sisters and Queen’s Crescent. Some of the little things I used to get from local shops also now look as if they might disappear for a while, if not for good.

Let’s start with poultry. A lot of the middle-range stuff used to come from France and formed a hyphen between the low-price battery birds produced here and high-priced free range and organic chickens. They are mass-produced of course, but benefit from a more regulated regime. At the end of December they stopped crossing the Channel but now they are back, albeit intermittently, but complete with a £10 surcharge on a 10 kg case. This means we will end up paying a pound more for a chicken, £7 rather than £6. Duck, quail, guinea fowl and various other foreign birds are also likely to go up in price for the same reason. They are not produced in anything like real commercial quantities here.

Most of the meat we eat is produced here, but that is not always the case when it comes cheap pork, or for speciality sausages and other ‘charcuterie’. I worry for my Spanish butcher Miguel. He doesn’t look happy. For the time being he has morcillas and chorizos in stock and the other day he even had a delivery of Catalan rice so vital for paella. The pork I buy is English, but price hikes for Danish pork will inevitably affect the sort of meat that goes into schools, hospitals and canteens.

Fish has raised a stink of late. Given that we are no longer successfully exporting fish and that the restaurants are closed you might have thought it was a good moment to offer cheaper fish to the general public? But no, not a bit of it: instead of prices coming down, they appear to have gone up. I bearded one of my local fishmongers about this, and he agreed with me ‘It makes no sense, as nobody has any money.’ He spelled out the origin of the fish in his shop. The cheaper, farmed fish (bass and bream) came from Billingsgate. He didn’t buy from Peterhead which sold largely frozen fish to fish and chip shops. They took nothing from the East Coast, where the trawlers froze the fish, but had separate deals with fishermen on the South Coast. The only explanation he could offer for the high prices was bad weather, but bad grace might also apply?  At least the fishermen can’t be sulking in the pub, as the pub is closed along with everything else.

Now we turn to drink. My interest in wine is twofold: I like to consume it with my dinner, of course, but I am still writing about it too. January is traditionally the time of post-Christmas sales and tastings, of which none took place. Covid is the obvious villain here, but he shares the stage with his chum Brexit. Chaos at the ports and new post-EU paperwork for ‘third’ countries has meant less wine is getting through. The FT recently predicted that a £12 bottle of wine will go up in price by £1.50. In the future many smaller producers will find the voluminous paperwork involved in sending wine to a ‘third’ country defeating and will cease trading with the UK. This will apply mostly to the interesting small producers who find their way onto restaurant lists, and constitute the chief pleasure of wine connoisseurs and writers.

Ah! But you say, what about the New World: wine has broken its European bounds and reached a wider world? Some people add (ideologically) that European wine is bad, and wine from the New World is better. This could be true, but most new world producers are big, employ dozens if not hundreds of people, and can tailor their prices to their production. If you possess fewer than fifty acres you cannot do this so easily. The French specialised press has been advising readers to look for new markets for nearly five years. Unless they can learn to pool their exports and farm out their paperwork, we are going to see much less choice in restaurants and shops.

Whether wine writing will survive is also a question. My one attempt to get samples in January was met by an impolite refusal. Last month I tasted four good Bulgarian wines made by women winemakers and four German and Austrian wines made by biodynamic producers. They were all good, but there was not enough in either to make an article. Samples sent from abroad will now be charged at outrageous rates (there is no cost advantage in sending a small package), and the price makes the exercise ridiculous. Supermarkets may still send out wines to writers, but only from what might become increasingly diminished ranges.

We may see a brave new wine world of a few clarets and continental wines with holdings of 250 acres or more, and a lot of ‘imperial’ wines (as they used to be called) from the New World. It will look a little bit like wine shops did before 1973. Add South America to this. When I went to Chile in 1990 the wines were made by nine firms. I think there are many more now, but you will get the point. The mentality there is more commercial, it is not exactly a family business, so don’t expect diversity. There will be plenty of wines at over £100 a bottle of course. A bit more duty, a price hike or three, won’t mean much to hedgehogs or oligarchs. Also the Lafites and Moutons of this world are large commercial companies controlling hundreds and thousands of acres of vines.

And Sir John Redwood will now be able to preen himself that the street markets look much as I remember them in 1972 when almost all produce barring the odd orange or banana was British: British potatoes, British turnips and British cabbages. In January it looked a bit more like 1942, but things might get better in May. There weren’t many aubergines to be had in Queen’s Crescent on Saturday either, so we shan’t be eating much Melanzania trumpigiana for the time being.

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Giles MacDonogh

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