The Wine Society

A friend of mine introduced me to The Wine Society through one of their guide to tasting cases. I’d just started to become interested in wine, but was still buying all of my wine from Tesco. I wanted to try and get more serious about wine and what I was drinking, but the prospect of having to deal with merchants, wine lists, or paying a lot of money for unreliable wines didn’t appeal. So when I’d tasted a few bottles from the society’s guide to tasting case, heard about the goals of the society, and browsed their catalog, I knew that a membership here was the next step to take to better understand wine. The same friend was kind enough to buy me a share for my birthday that year, and I have been enjoying the benefits ever since.

The Wine Society is unique in the wine trade because it is owned by and sells only to its members. The Society does not seek to maximise profit nor does it advertise outside its membership base.

Taken from The Wine Society’s website, this quote pretty much sums up what has set the framework to make the society great. Founded as a co-operative in 1874, each member has one share of the society. The buyers then stock wine for the members, which means you end up with a selection that the members want, not the supermarket fare with special offers on high-profit wines.

A Methuselah of The Society’s Champagne with a bottle of The Society’s Exhibition Crusted Port.

The society consequently stock a wide selection of wines, as well as a few extras, like sherry and port. They also have the society label, “The Society’s Côtes-du-Rhône” for example, which is a good value wine, representative of that region; very helpful for me when I started to explore wine a little. Building on the society label is the Exhibition label, which is a better quality, a “flagship” example of the region, and these have been excellent in my experience. And you don’t need to worry about delivery costs, as the society has their own delivery van.

Delivering wine is not the only thing The Wine Society do, though. They offer a cellaring service, a “wine without fuss” system, where you are delivered a selection of wines at regular intervals, a vintage guide, a food and wine matcher, and guides to buying in different regions and grape varieties. If you happen to be in France, you can save on tax by buying at the showroom in Montreuil. You can also attend one of their many wine tastings around the country, including a couple in Oxford recently.

If you’re looking to start exploring wine more seriously, or even if you are more experienced with wine, I’d thoroughly recommend The Wine Society. Every time I’ve had to contact them they have been incredibly helpful, even once changing their delivery route to help me out. It’s £40 for a membership, which amounts to £30, as you’ll receive £10 off on your first order. Really, as has been said before about The Wine Society, it’s the best wine decision you’ll ever make.

Five favourites (in no particular order):

1.  The Society’s Exhibition Crusted Port
Crusted port is port which has some sediment left in to speed up the aging process, hoping to get a vintage character without the vintage price. As a result of the sediment, you do have to decant it, so if you don’t have a decanter it will be a problem. Given that crusted port is not widely sold nowadays, I was very pleased to see The Wine Society stocking it, and it has become my regular port ever since. Great value at £13.95 a bottle.

2. Alsace Pinot Noir, Hugel, 2009
I’m a big fan of red Burgundy, but not at red Burgundy prices. New world pinot noirs haven’t quite hit the mark for me, but this Alsace pinot noir definitely has. Lovely fruit, acidity, and structure from a great Alsace vintage, this makes a great food wine too.

3. The Society’s White Burgundy, Mâcon-Villages
One of The Wine Society’s most popular products, it’s easy to see why. Classic white Burgundy character with citrus, minerality, and acidity, it’s great value for money at £7.50, and very reliable year to year. This one’s has been a family favourite for a while.

4. Hochar, 2005
The second wine of Lebanon’s Chateau Musar. These wines have a little bit of a cult following, and have been known for great value for a long time. The cinsault, carignan, cabernet and grenache blend gives a unique character, showing the hot climate of Lebanon without the fruit dominating the wine. A lovely food wine, and very versatile as to the food pairing.

5. Cidre Bouché de Normandie, 2010
Something special, it’s not cheap at £4.95 a bottle, but it’s definitely worth it. More to come on this at a later date.


Restaurant Review: Mission Burrito

One week last year, I was in the Mission District in San Francisco, eating a burrito, on the way to play bridge. The next week, back in Oxford, I was in Mission Burrito, eating a burrito, on the way to play bridge. So I’d like to think I have some base for comparison when looking at a place that is named after this Californian hot-spot for Mexican cuisine.

With the busy student life in Oxford, burritos from Mission Burrito have become key to me for getting a meal in around afternoon and evening activities. Reasonably priced at just under £6 for a burrito, prices are student friendly, and a few minutes is all you’ll need to wait for your burrito to be made. But for me, the biggest attraction is that burritos here will keep you going through those evening commitments- you won’t be hungry for a while after eating one of these.

Food 9/10: Much like Subway, in the sense that you choose your basic meal then customise it, you can start with a burrito (rice and pinto or black beans), fajita burrito (rice, peppers, and onions), tacos, or a salad or rice box. You filling is then steak, chicken, vegetarian, or carnitas (slow roasted pork). Finish it off with salady bits, sour cream, guacamole, cheese, and salsa, and you’re good to go.

I’ve never had the vegetarian, but everything else has been more than up to scratch. The carnitas is particularly soft and flavoursome, and the pinto beans are cooked to just the right texture, so these two end up being my usual burrito combination. I rarely order the cheese- I find it gets drowned out with all the other flavours- and the chipotle salsa, while at the right heat, could have a bit more of a smoky flavour, given that chipotles are just smoked jalapeños. All in all, though, the food is excellent, you can tell all the ingredients are fresh and well sourced, and that a lot of effort has gone into making sure the product is a good one.

Drinks 9/10: Not a significant part of the experience for me- in fact, I rarely order a drink. However, if you do want to sit down and enjoy a drink with your meal, the drinks selection complement the food and atmosphere well. In addition to the usual fare like Coke, they have a few of Mexican beers, like Corona, and frozen margeritas. Also, they’ve recently started importing American root beer, which has been tricky to find in Oxford otherwise. Hard to ask for much more from drinks, I feel.

Atmosphere and Service 8/10: There are many nice touches to make it seem like Mission Burrito came right out of California: the red baskets your burrito is placed in, the nice wooden tables, or the pictures of the Mission District on the walls. The staff are friendly; I’ve often seen them giving helpful suggestions to people in front of me who don’t know quite what they want to order. There can be quite a lot of variation in the size of the burrito, however- some servers are more generous than others- so it can be sad if you end up with a smaller burrito. But overall, it’s relaxed environment, which is just right for that quick evening meal.

Mission Burrito. There are two branches in Oxford, one on King Edward Street, one on St. Michael’s Street.

Xanthan Gum and Strawberry Milkshakes

Can anybody guess what this is?

Water, cellulose, sugars (fructose, sucrose, glucose, maltose), oligosaccharides, starch (amylose, amylopectin), citric acid, malic acid, lactic acid, alcohols, aldehydes, ethylene, aromatic sulfur compounds, tomatine, furaneol, glutamate, carotenoids, lycopene, glutation, vitamin C, vitamin A, potassium, fatty acids and acyglycerols (one or more of the following: myristic acid, palmitic acid, stearic acid, oleic acid, linoleic acid, arachidic acid, behenic acid or other free fatty acids), phospholipids, phytoene, phytofluene, tocopherols, sterols.

No? Me neither. It’s a tomato. Kind of shocking when you look at it, but at the same time unsurprising: food is just made up of chemicals.

It’s harder for me to think of food in this way, as atoms, molecules, and compounds, as chemistry is an area I don’t know a lot about. When food says “no additives or preservatives”, I just assume these “additives” and “preservatives” are undesirable to consume, without a second thought. But when I do stop to think about it, I do wonder: salt, vinegar and lemon juice are all preservatives, and we have these all the time. So which preservatives are the ‘okay’ ones, and which ones are the ‘bad’ ones? Perhaps we’ve just given bad press to anything that sounds science-y in our food.

Xanthan gum is a victim of this bad press, I feel, and the name starting with an ‘x’ hardly helps. It’s produced by the fermentation of sugar by the bacterium Xanthomonas campestrisin a similar way to how Saccharomyces cerevisiae (common yeast) ferments sugars to produce alcohol, or in bread-making. You could even call Xanthan gum a natural ingredient.

The gum produced by the bacterium is used as a thickening and stabilising agent, with applications like gluten-free baking, keeping the oil and vinegar together in a vinaigrette, or thickening sauces without using a roux. The Kitchen as Laboratory use it, along with nitrous oxide, to create the perfect sponge cake texture. It is usually used at only 0.5% of the volume of the liquid, such is its thickening power. For me to see the benefits of using Xanthan gum, though, like with the Balsamic Caviar it was important to have an application that would be useful, and not just novelty, as some molecular gastronomy experiments can be.

My desired use of Xanthan gum was in a strawberry milkshake. I personally like really thick milkshakes, and the solution to this is usually “add loads of banana”. Of course, the problem is that the milkshake just ends up tasting like banana. What’s more, if you’ve started off with a more delicate flavour, like strawberry, the banana can be so overpowering, you forget what fruit you put in to begin with. So, hopefully, with the addition of Xanthan gum, I could create a nice thick milkshake, tasting solely of strawberry, to go with the nice weather we are beginning to have.

So, to test the thickening effects of the gum, I made a simple strawberry milkshake recipe below, firstly without the Xanthan gum, so that I could get a base for comparison. The taste of the first batch was nice, but the texture was thin and sloppy, almost like drinking strawberry milk. Putting the Xanthan gum in, though, and it was a different story. A nice thick milkshake had been produced, tasting entirely of strawberry, exactly what I was looking for. The change in thickness really was remarkable, just caused by putting the gum in. Another great result for molecular gastronomy; an application where traditional methods would have struggled. All that’s left now is to enjoy the leftover milkshake, and to bring on the summer.

Strawberry Milkshake

300g strawberries
1 tbsp sugar
250ml milk
6 ice cubes
1g Xanthan gum

1. Put all the ingredients in a blender. Blend.

The finished milkshake, with Xanthan Gum. It’s hard to see the change in viscosity in a photo, but this was one thick milkshake.

Oxford Farmers Market

Leela: This is what I’m talkin’ about! See all the dirt and earwigs? That’s the sign of healthy food.
Hydroponic farmer: You think that’s healthy? Try this. I found it growin’ at the bottom of my hamper.
Leela: Mmm! So fresh and musty!

Leela: You’re a lucky man. But are [these eggs] way more expensive than regular eggs?
Brown-haired Man: Way more.
Leela: Ooh! I’ll take a dozen.

This exchange is taken from Futurama, when the characters visit a farmers market. They eat tree roots which are still alive, have maple syrup squeezed directly from the tree into their mouths, and finally discuss with a man who claims to be married to a mongoose. Clearly this exchange is just a bit of fun, but we can sometimes stereotype farmers markets through these eyes, and forget to see the many benefits they bring.

Did you know that in the UK there is legislation governing the straightness of bananas, and only since recently have misshapen carrots and cucumbers been allowed to be sold? It’s easy to bang the drum about eating organic, environmentally friendly, and local produce, but if we simply buy the organic food from the local superstore, then we’ve only seen half of the point. Farmers markets, of course, used to be the only way people would buy food, with the local butchers, baker and everybody else coming out to show their wares. Now, although they are often less frequent than they used to be, the markets still allow an opportunity to support the local producers and local sustainability. And if you’re not convinced by this alone, consider that the food you will get here will likely taste a lot better than the equivalent at Tesco or Sainsbury, which, for me, is what keeps me coming back.

The Oxford Farmers Market happens in Gloucester Green, near the bus station, on the first and third Thursdays of every month, from 9am – 3pm. There’s also the Gloucester Green market, every Wednesday from 9am – 5pm, also at Gloucester Green, and organised by the city council. If you don’t live in the city centre, you’re not left out, there are a whole range of markets around Oxford. And if you’re not from Oxford, there are a lot of easily available resources to find your local farmers market.

Before I went to a farmers market, I assumed that all you could get there was fruit and veg, and perhaps some eggs. But many local producers come and bring their products: on Thursday I saw people selling meat, doughnuts, pastries, goat’s cheese, Brazilian waffles, preserves, and varietal apple juices, among many more. It’s not just food people are coming to sell either, with half of the market dedicated to things like second-hand books, cds and dvds, and antiques of sorts. Fun to look around, and you almost could do your weekly shop here.

The price isn’t what you might think it is as well. I’ve been to some food markets with silly prices: £12 for a bottle of locally produced wine, which tasted horrible, for example. But a look at the picture below will reassure you. Three packs of sausages for £6, or a huge chicken pie for £4 make very attractive buys, especially when you consider the quality of the product, compared to what you might get at a local superstore. The rest of the stalls were similarly good value, particularly with the fruit and vegetables, and my ability to carry things home ended up being the limiting factor.

So, get out there and support local producers at the market. With great food, great prices, and better attitude towards sustainable food, it’s hard to see why not to go.

‘Chuck Norris’ Breakfast Banana Bread

I have a problem with breakfast.

I’ve essentially eaten muesli for breakfast over the past sixteen years, and it’s got to a point where I don’t want to see another bowl of it. No more. Too many early mornings have been spent forcing the stuff down before the rowing outing or cycle into the office, just trying to make sure I am not hungry again at 10am. It’s just not fun to eat anymore. Long overdue for a replacement, but so far the contenders are not faring well.

Porridge seemed like an obvious choice, but it is more time and effort than I feel is reasonable at that hour of the morning, especially when you count the inevitable cleaning of the microwave when the porridge has gone everywhere. Weetabix just turns into a soggy mulch. Granola is too expensive to adopt long-term. Shreddies, and most other cereals, won’t keep hunger locked up until lunch. Toast has worked pretty well as an interim solution, but “toast for breakfast every morning” somehow doesn’t feel like the solution I’ve been looking for. So, I went back to the drawing board.

What I really wanted was a cross between a cereal bar, bread, and cake- something I could just grab a slice of and enjoy with coffee. Figuring that it should have fruit as a major component, I started off with a simple recipe for banana bread, and by gradually making changes to make it more cereal bar-like, I ended up with was has been affectionately named ‘Chuck Norris Bread’. It ticks all the breakfast boxes: filling, quick, tasty, healthy(ish), and not too expensive.

Chuck Norris might eat knuckle sandwiches for lunch, but this is surely what he eats for breakfast.

‘Chuck Norris’ Breakfast Banana Bread

Packed with nuts, seeds, and fruit, this is sure to keep you going until lunch.

For the bread:
100g butter
140g dark brown sugar
225g wholemeal flour
1 egg
2 tsp baking powder
6 ripe bananas

100g walnut pieces
75g linseed
50g poppy seeds
75g pumpkin seeds
100g prunes
100g rolled porridge oats
1tsp cinnamon

1. Preheat the oven to 160° (fan) and grease a 1kg loaf tin.
2. In a large bowl, cream together butter and sugar, then mix in the egg, flour, and baking powder until you have a smooth batter.
3. Add the “extras”, and mix until they are distributed evenly in the mixture. Pour the mixture into the loaf tin.
4. Cook for approximately 50 minutes, or until a skewer comes out clean. In my experience, if kept refrigerated, the loaf will keep for about a week.

Ham Hock and Lentil Stew

You might ask why it is interesting to talk about a simple Ham and Lentil Stew. Well, it’s a nice opportunity to introduce one of my favourite “offcuts” of meat, the ham hock.

So what exactly is a ham hock? Also known as a ‘gammon hock’ or ‘gammon knuckle’, this last name is no coincidence- it’s part of the leg of the pig. You might have seen it on restaurant menus as Ham Hock Terrine, and Tesco do a Ham Hock and Cheddar sandwich, but its primary use is in stewing and stocks, given that it starts off a little tough. Don’t be put off by this though, the results in my experience have been rewarding.

A Ham Hock from Hedges Butchers in the Covered Market, Oxford

There are two good reasons to cook with ham hocks, not considering the good taste. Firstly, they are dead cheap. I usually get mine from Hedges, a butchers in the Covered Market, Oxford. You’ll get a joint of over 1kg for £2.49- great value for money, when you consider that a 200g pack of bacon will usually cost as much. Secondly, using ham hocks is a nice example of “nose to tail” eating. We are keen to make sure our food habits are environmentally friendly, supporting local producers and eating organic food, but sometimes we find it hard to eat more than the breasts of chickens, fillets or loin of beef and pork, or other well known joints. By eating all parts of the animal, we can have a more sustainable approach to farming, and minimise environmental impact. Offcuts and offal aren’t unfamiliar to us either- steak and kidney pudding is an English classic, pâtés are usually made from liver, and you’ll usually see oxtail soup on the supermarket shelves; we’ll happily eat these. So have a go cooking with offcuts- the results are usually great.

There is a disadvantage of cooking with ham hocks, however, which is that you have to be a little organised, and think about what you are making a day or so in advance. Ham hocks are naturally very salty, so you need to soak them in water, with a series of water changes, to absorb some of the salt. Also, as a slightly tougher cut, they will need a little longer to stew than ordinary cuts- in my experience sometimes around 6 hours is needed- which means you’ll need somebody in the house all afternoon. But if you can do this, the results are worth waiting for, the meat just falling off the bone.

Ham Hock and Lentil Stew

This recipe is nothing exotic, just a stew as an example of using ham hocks. So feel free to use different ingredients if you prefer.

1 Ham Hock (around 1kg)
350g green lentils
2 carrots
2 onions
2 sticks celery
4 cloves garlic
Herbs of choice (I used a bouquet garni here)
Ground pepper

1. The day before, soak the ham hock in a bowl of water. Perform a couple of water changes to try and neutralise the natural saltiness of the joint. The lentils might also need soaking as well- check the instructions on the packet.
2. Prepare and sauté the vegetables. Heat a little oil in a pan, and add the peeled carrots, diced onion, chopped garlic, and chopped celery. Allow to brown a little, and the carrots to soften.

The ingredients of the stew.

3. Meanwhile, rinse off the ham hock place in a large casserole dish. Add the vegetables, herbs, pepper, and enough water to cover the ham. Bring to the boil and simmer for around 3 hours, until the meat is falling off the bone. Keep an eye on the stew, you may need to top it up with more water from time to time.
4. Once the meat is tender, with a slotted spoon remove the ham hock and any loose meat from the casserole, and place on a chopping board. Allow to cool, then pull away the meat from the fat and skin, and peel into small bitesize strips- this should be easy if the meat is tender. Add this meat back to the casserole.
5. Add the lentils to the casserole. Then simmer for another hour and reduce to the desired consistency. Serve with whatever you feel like- I personally like to pair it with some nice fresh bread.

Wine pairing:
This stew is going to have a lot of flavour, and some salt, so you’ll want a red with some acidity. A Rioja Crianza would work well here, with the oak complementing the flavours in the stew.

The finished product, with a roll of home-made bread.

Book Review: Essential Winetasting

If you are going to write what is, essentially, an introduction to wine tasting, for me the emphasis should be accessibility. All of the details associated with wine can be quite daunting, understanding how wine is made, grape varieties, and different wine growing regions, and the technical facts can sometimes be difficult to navigate. Consequently it’s got to be a well written book, allowing a slightly nervous reader to feel at home. A little humour is nice. But also, chances are that if you have bought this kind of book, you do actually want to learn something about wine- so you’ve got to keep that focus on wine details as well. Tricky to balance these things; I almost feel the biggest attraction of Michael Schuster’s ‘Essential Winestasting‘ is just how well it is done.

Recommended to me by a friend who is very involved with wine, it didn’t disappoint. The glossy pages are packed with pictures, it’s easy to pick up and read start to end, and with the many colourful summary boxes, you can also just look up bits and pieces of information for reference. In addition to the chapters you would expect, on grape varieties and so on, there is a chapter which forms a series of guided tastings- suggesting a few wines to buy, to compare and contrast particular wine characteristics, so that you can actually put the wine tasting ideas into practice. There’s a notional price ceiling, and the top, expensive wines aren’t discussed, which seems right for this kind of text; you should be able to purchase any wines talked about. This book is not a big wine reference book- so it’s not going to come with loads of depth and detail- but if you are looking to start learning a little about wine, it is hard to envisage a much better read. 9/10

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