• Gin Joint, a gin tour of London

    A gin-lover’s tour of London

    I’ve written a little about the history of gin here, but I know that’s not what you’re really interested in. Judging by the number of “could you recommend a bar…” texts I receive, what you really want to know is where to drink it. Lord knows there are enough of these round-ups, but here’s my spin: the best cocktails, bar-by-bar. 

    SOHO

    Tasting menu, London Gin Club at the Star at Night
    Four gins, plus Fever Tree mixers and garnishes to match each one. Mix, sniff, sample and share to your heart’s delight. What’s not to like? The Star at Night might look like a grotty boozer from the outside, but inside the deal is table service and reservations.

    Stiff upper lip, Mark’s Bar
    Expensive, yes, but this louche lounge beneath Hix is worth the cover charge for the atmosphere alone. It’s also the only place where you can try green-pea-infused gin with ginseng, cider vinegar and mint. Their claim on the menu is right: it is time to give peas a chance.

    Paint-tin punch, Graphic
    Graphic, er, really does deliver what it says on the tin. Aside from a collection of nearly two hundred different gins, there’s a short range of easy-drinking paint-pot cocktails that suit the laidback atmosphere. Try the green one: a mix of Hendrick’s, cucumber and lemon sherbet. Whether the glittery film on top is designed to be ingested remains up for debate.

    St Germain des Prés, ECC
    I’m loath to include ECC. Their rude staff, bemusing walk-in policy and ridiculous prices are well documented – and I’ve experienced them all – yet, well, sometimes it’s fun to disappear through an unmarked door in Chinatown and ensconce yourself in a velvet armchair for an hour or two. The price of a basic two-course meal will buy you a champagne saucer of St Germain des Prés: Hendrik’s, egg-white, cucumber and a mysterious spiced tincture.

    Savoy American Bar

    COVENT GARDEN

    A custom job, The Savoy’s American Bar
    You might as well put bartenders of this pedigree through their paces. Sit at the bar and request a bespoke creation from their arsenal of Tanqueray No. 10, Sipsmith and more. This slice of old London needs no introduction.

    Gin and tonica, Port House
    Gin and tonic might be firmly enmeshed in the history of our capital, but more recently it’s made inroads in Spain. At the Port House, alongside generous plates of tapas, you can try the daily “gin and tonica” special, served in a balloon-shaped copa glass. Impressive for a Spanish restaurant that hails from Ireland.

    FITZROVIA

    Gardeners’s tea break, Bourne & Hollingsworth
    Bourne & Hollingsworth were doing prohibition-style drinking well before Shoreditch covered itself in flocked wallpaper. The gardeners’s tea break is another Hendrick’s and cucumber job, with added green tea and mint. Best of all, it comes with a tiny cucumber sandwich on the side.

    Bourne and Hollingsworth

    Clerkenwell

    Dry martini with a twist, Gin Joint
    Everyone knows how they like their martini, and this is how I have mine. Gin Joint is a bit corporate – it’s a Searcy’s brasserie after all – but they can mix a damn fine drink. Brutalism sceptics need not apply: you’ll probably spend an hour lost in the Barbican centre before you get here.

    Negroni, Café Kick
    Sure, this might not be the best-made negroni in town, but there’s no beating this gin, Campari and vermouth combo on a summer evening on Exmouth Market. I’ll always remember a American friend’s incredulity that drinking on the street is allowed here. The only downside is that gin and table football skills do not go hand-in-hand.

    THE CITY

    Black cat martini, Worship Street Whistling Stop
    I don’t have a clue how they make this. The secret ingredient is “removed cream”, which turns Tanqueray and vermouth into something special – and very strong. The Worship Street Whistling Stop is the sister bar of Purl. It’s a sort of speakeasy crossed with a Victorian apothecary.

    Winter negroni, Duck & Waffle
    I really hope Duck & Waffle bring this cocktail back. It came in a tiny bottle sealed with a beer cap, along with a glass of ice, twist of orange and a bottle opener. Fiendishly bitter, this was one for the hardened negroni fan. One two many and the forty-floor descent became even more nerve jangling.

    Sushi Samba

    Shoreditch and Hoxton

    Negroni, White Lyan
    Yes, there are too many negronis on this list. (I’m a big fan.) But this one is different. White Lyan use no ice and no citrus, so what you’re left with is a centimetre or so of intense, lightly chilled booze. The real surprise? It tastes almost exactly like the original.

    Hendricks and tonic, Boundary Rooftop
    If you’re going to wrap yourself in a rug and watch the sun set over the City, you might as well stick with a classic drink. It feels like a members’ club up here, yet the only barriers to entry are the queue and slightly pricy menu.

    Ramos gin fizz, NOLA
    There’s nowhere better in London to try this “decadent New Orleans classic”, gin shaken with lemon, sugar, orange-flower water, cream and egg white. Spot-on decor and regular live jazz go a long way to evoke of the spirit of the French Quarter. Those prone to sudden bouts of wanderlust beware.

    NOLA

    SOUTHEAST LONDON

    Bombay bomfire, Bar Story
    A neon-green, gin-kiwi-elderflower-lime martini somehow feels much less twee when drunk at a picnic table in a cloud of cigarette smoke. Bar Story‘s excellent bar staff also go some way to make up for the most terrifying toilets in London. In summer, Peckham’s infamous rooftop Campari bar is just a stumble away.

    Jensen’s gin and tonic, 214 Bermondsey
    When on Bermondsey Street, you have to try Bermondsey’s own gin: Jensen’s. It’s super-dry, designed in the style of gins from the 1800s. The bar itself is tucked beneath the Italian restaurant, Antico, and they are serious about their spirits: they even mix their own tonic.

    Have I missed your favourite? Let me know below. 

  • IMG_3204b

    Crema catalana

    According to Jose Pizarro, owner of my favourite Spanish restaurant in London, “traditionally, crema catalana was made only on St Joseph’s Day (the Spanish equivalent of Father’s Day), on 19 March, by grannies and maiden aunts”. Luckily that’s no longer the case, and it makes a lovely alternative to crème brûlée, flavoured with lemon and cinnamon rather than vanilla. This is my kind of dessert: simple, rich and easy to make in advance.

    The recipe below comes courtesy of Cook & Taste, who I took a class with in Barcelona. They come highly recommended for a fun, lighthearted and reasonably boozy introduction to Catalan cookery.

    IMG_3099 IMG_3130

    Ingredients

    (Serves four)

    500ml milk
    peel of half a lemon
    half a cinnamon stick
    3 egg yolks
    100g sugar
    20g cornflour
    4 tbs sugar (demerara works well)
    3 figs

    Method

    1. Bring the milk to the boil with the lemon peel and cinnamon to infuse the flavours
    2. Beat the egg yolks and sugar until fluffy and white
    3. Dissolve the cornflour in a splash of water.
    4. Pour the milk into the egg mixture, add the cornflour and return to the heat
    5. Stir constantly until thickened, then remove from the heat
    6. Strain into terracotta dishes
    7. Whack the dishes on the counter (not too hard!) to level the mixture
    8. Chill for at least three hours; you can leave them overnight
    9. Sprinkle each one with demerera sugar and caramelize with a blowtorch or under the grill
    10. Quarter the fresh figs and place on top

    IMG_3089 IMG_3095

    IMG_3205

  • IMG_2916

    Cava: it’s all in the name

    In the low, arid hills to the west of Barcelona, a storm is brewing amid the bodegas and palm trees of the Penedès. These days, Cava is contentious.

    Cava is Spain’s most famous sparkling wine. Like Champagne, it’s made by the méthode traditionnelle, a labour-intensive process of vinification and aging. Catalunya’s Penedès region is home to ninety five percent of production; the white grapes Macabeo, Xarel-lo and Parellada traditionally dominate the blend.

    Today’s disquiet is really all the fault of the French. The Penedès’ slopes were planted with traditional red varietals until phyloxera decimated the vineyards of Champagne in the 1800s, sending panicked winemakers in search of new sites where they could make sparkling wine. The red vines were ripped up and white ones went in. White grapes now make up 95% of the planting and Cava is the region’s best-known export.

    Cava is currently recognized with a DO, or Denominación de Origen, a mark of quality and origin applied to most respected wine regions, such as Margaux or Chianti, which carries a strict set of rules. Unusually, however, the Cava DO is not geographically limited to one part of Spain; the majority might come from the Penedès, but Cava can be made as far away as Valencia or Rioja. The regulations governing the production of Cava are also reasonably lax, especially when compared to Champagne. Cavas can be aged on their lees for just nine months (Champagne requires twelve), and a high volume of juice can be extracted from the grapes, leading to less intense flavours.

    The resulting variation in style and quality is vast. Even in the Penedès, Cavas range from the ubiquitous black bottles of Friexent to premium wines from boutique enterprises. The higher-end producers are struggling. How can they distinguish their quality product, and justify the higher price, when it’s sold under the same name as €2 plonk?

    This lack of regulation has finally pushed some producers too far. Fed up with being tarnished by a poor reputation, they are leaving the Cava DO and no longer able to use the word “Cava” to describe their sparkling wines. I visited the pioneering winery Albet i Noya who are now joining this growing trend. It’s been a hard decision, but ultimately they feel it will benefit their brand, making it clear that their refined sparklers – some aged for up to thirty months – have little in common with the lower end of the market.

    Do you agree? Do you think producers are making the right decision by leaving? What assumptions do you make about the quality of Cava on sale in the UK?

     (Interestingly, Albet i Noya are also undertaking a project to DNA test old vines they’ve discovered. So far, they’re commercially producing two brand new varietals: the red Belat is wonderful if you can get your hands on a bottle.)

  • Negroni cover

    Four twists on the Negroni

    The Negroni fad has continued apace in London this year. In no small part thanks to the likes of Polpo, Forza Win and Frank’s, Aperol and Campari are being consumed with an enthusiasm not seen for years. But while a light, sweet Aperol spritz is always going to taste best on a sun-baked rooftop in August, a classic Negroni is just as appealing once the autumn gloom has set in. Exact recipes vary, but the ingredients remain the same: Campari, sweet vermouth and gin, usually in nearly equal measures.

    The cocktail was supposedly invented in Florence in 1919, where a Count by the name of Camillo Negroni is said to have asked for the soda in his Americano – a drink invented by Campari founder, Gaspare Campari, in 1860 – to be replaced with gin. At the same time, across the pond, Campari was classified as medicinal and one of the few drinks to escape prohibition.

    Fast-forward to today, and we’re all getting a little bored. The Negroni’s become ubiquitous, with sickly, sticky attempts churned out to catch the tail end of the trend. Even Jay Rayner has taken to the pages of the Guardian to express his dismay at the prevalence of a drink he feels is “like punishment for a crime not yet committed”.

    I still love the bitterness of this crimson cocktail, but it’s time to shake things up a bit. Here are four variants on the classic:

    Negroni 2 Negroni 1

    The sloe gin Negroni

    This recipe comes courtesy of Sipsmith, who included it in a booklet handed out at a pop-up back in July. It’s sweeter, but still sufficiently strong.

    1 part sloe gin
    1 part gin
    1 (small) part Campari
    A dash of Angostura bitters
    Ice
    Twist of lemon peel

    The Negroni sbagliato

    The “wrong” Negroni is made with almost equal parts of Campari, sweet vermouth and prosecco. Also served over ice, it tastes close to the original but has less of a kick.

    1 part Campari
    1 part sweet vermouth
    1.5 parts prosecco
    Ice
    Orange slice

    The Aperol Negroni

    Using Campari’s daughter brand, Aperol, creates an easy-drinking and (unsurprisingly) rather orangey alternative.

    1 part Aperol
    1 part sweet vermouth
    1 part gin
    Ice
    Orange slice

    The Americano

    The Negroni’s forerunner is still an excellent drink in it’s own right, especially for those who like their booze, well, a little less boozy.

    1 part Campari
    1 part sweet vermouth
    1.5 parts soda
    Ice
    Twist of orange peel

    Negroni 2

    Negroni 4

    negroni 9

  • Bombay Gin header

    The ultimate G&T

    It’s fitting that mother’s ruin has seen such a surge of popularity in London. No other spirit has played such a part in our city’s history.

    The only small blip (drat!) is that popular opinion credits the invention of gin to a doctor in The Netherlands in the 1400s. From here, it is believed to have found its way to Britain via soldiers fighting in the Thirty Years’ War. According to Sipsmith, this is where the phrase “Dutch courage” originated.

    The arrival of gin perfectly filled a gap in the market. Beer production was leaving large quantities of unwanted grain, the perfect material from which to create a base sprit. Supplies were sold cheap and fast, and by the 1720s London was in the throes of a period known as the “Gin Craze”. Various statistics suggest that people were drinking anywhere from two pints a week to half a pint a day (children included).

    After many attempts, the “Gin Act” of 1751 finally curtailed the boozing, with Hogarth espousing the horrors in his etching of “Gin Lane”. It was not until the 1800s that gin became a more civilized drink, and the fabulous gin palaces sprung up around London.

    Tonic has a separate and fascinating history. It was originally a true “tonic”: a brown liquid high in quinine (the primary anti-malarial used in the colonies) which was mixed with gin to mask the taste.

    – – –

    Today, the recipe for gin has been somewhat refined, and typically comprises two distillations. The first stage is to create a neutral base spirit with a minimum of 96% alcohol. This is usually made from wheat in a modern column still. The second distillation is where the botanicals, which give gin its distinct taste and aroma, come into play. The base spirit will be steeped in the botanicals before a copper still is used to vaporise it. The vapours  pass through a “swan neck” pipe and a basket of more botanicals, before condensing into a second tank. Finally, water is added to reduce the strength, usually along with a very small amount of sugar.

    To be legally called “gin”, the spirit must be dominated by the flavour of juniper. Due to EU regulation, gins are also neatly split into three styles:

    London dry gin is made solely by the process above, with no further additions or flavourings. Traditionally, it has always been seen as the higher end product.

    Distilled gin is also made by the process above, but additional flavours may be added after the second distillation. This method is increasingly popular and used by Hendrick’s, among others.

    Compound gin is not really worth mentioning; this is the cheat’s way out. The base spirit is simply flavoured with artificial flavourings, eliminating the second distillation all together.

    – – –

    So, what makes the best gin and tonic? I headed off to Bombay Sapphire’s “ultimate G&T workshop” at the Hoxton Hotel to find out. I went to the Urban Junkies preview, thanks to a friend of mine who has an unrivalled knack of winning competitions (and teddy bear claw machines).

    Bombay Sapphire, I must admit straight off, is not usually my gin of choice, but I was impressed by the event. After being swiftly welcomed with a large G&T in their signature bowl glass (to enhance the aromas), we were free to potter around the  “Apartment Kitchen” for a few minutes. The masterclass kicked off with a cheesy demonstration of how to pour the perfect drink (drain water from the ice, tip in gin, add double the amount of tonic, in case you weren’t quite sure).

    Bombay Gin 1

    Bombay Gin 2

    Bombay Gin 3

    Bombay Gin 4

    The real focus of the evening began as we gathered around the large communal table, where it emerged the decorative pots filling the shelves each held one of Bombay’s ten botanicals: juniper, lemon peel, grains of paradise, coriander, cubeb berries, orris root, almonds, cassia bark, liquorice and angelica. You can read about them in detail on their website, here. These were passed around to smell, taste and nibble – and there were certainly some surprises.

    The aim of the recipe is to create a balanced gin, with citrus, spice and earth tones complimenting one other.

    Bombay Gin 6

    Bombay Gin 7

    Bombay Gin 8

    The tasting concluded with the obvious highlight, a make-your-own G&T session. We first picked from one of their myriad infusions (orange and clove), before being recommended a garnish (fresh orange and rosemary) and one of Fever Tree’s mixers (bitter lemon). While I struggle to see these as a true gin and tonics, mine was certainly a fine cocktail.

    Bombay Gin 16

    Bombay Gin 17

    Bombay Gin 18

    Recipes for the infusions (including freeze dried raspberries, rhubarb, lavender and ginger) were just one part of the goodie bag, which also contained a bottle of Bombay, a Fever Tree tonic and one of their balloon glasses. At £25 a pop for a ticket, you most certainly get your money’s worth. If you’re interested in going along, which I’d highly recommend, there are classes on the 11th, 18th and 25th of June – details here.

    I’m afraid, though, that Bombay Sapphire haven’t quite converted me to their product. While the infusion was fantastic, it masked the flavours of the gin itself. For now, I’ll still plump for Hendrick’s given the choice. While it might be less traditional, I love the cucumber scent and almost sweet note from the rose petals, both of which are added after the second distillation.

    – – –

    So, gin drinkers out there, what’s your favourite? And how do you drink it?

  • 8

    Tapas at the Cookery School

    The few roads north of Oxford Circus are some of the most discordant in London, stuck in-between the chain-store tat of Londoners’ most hated mile and Marylebone’s bijou boutiques. But with the Wallace Collection, Zoilo and the Riding House Café all hidden away here, I find myself fighting through the melee increasingly often.

    I had been aware for a while that this patch is also home to the Cookery School. I’d perused their website on several occasions, but never quite made a booking. Blame it on cramming for the terrifying WSET exam, which satisfied my thirst for culinary knowledge at least temporarily. With several kitchen disasters under my belt since then (including a spectacular exploding earl grey and chocolate torte), it became clear my cooking skills needed a bit of work to catch up with my boozing abilities. So, I jumped at the chance to attend the Cookery School’s tapas class two weeks ago. 

    The “classroom” is a little smaller than you might expect, just a ground-level shop space off Little Portland Street. Inside, three spotless, stainless steel high tables are set out in front of a small professional kitchen, with a slanted mirror above to make sure everyone can see the stove.

    Cookery School stove

    Cookery School setting

    We were welcomed with a glass of Xarel-lo (a zingy Spanish white; one of the three varietals traditionally used in Cava production), which aided the necessary awkward introductions. This is a great place to come alone: all but two of our group were solo.

    From the ingredients  lined up at the side and our personally named aprons, it became pretty clear that this was going to be a hands-on session. And no sooner than glasses were drained, the bread-making began. Pre-proofed dough was divvied out between us so we could try to master the baker’s technique of whirling it around whilst tucking the edges to create a neat roll.

    Fingers limbered-up and first jokes cracked, we split into groups to each work on one of the tapas dishes. The word tapas, as I have now learnt, derives from the saucers traditionally placed atop drinks to protect them. Proprietors would place a little amuse bouche on each saucer, and from this humble beginning, tapas gradually became fancier and fancier.

    On the menu were:

    • “rustic” bread rolls
    • chorizo and chicory salad (courtesy of Moro)
    • potato tortilla
    • patatas bravas
    • pimientos de padron
    • orange and almond cake

    5

    6

    10

    While we worked in three groups, everyone crowded around to watch and taste when anything was taken to the stove. The dishes were perhaps a little conventional (I would have loved to have seen croquetas or some killer garlic and chilli prawns), but it was the technical advice that stuck in my mind at the end of the day: how to crush garlic with the flat blade of a knife, working through the clove and adding salt for traction; how to tuck in your fingers when chopping, so the knife grazes your knuckle rather then removing a fingertip; and how much salt we should really have each day (a lot, if you ask me).

    11

    After an hour and a half of cooking, while we were busily blackening pimientos de pardon (a Galician classic), the work tables were whipped out of the way and a communal table was laid for dinner. Wine was poured, plates were loaded and I was taken by surprise by the the food. Even the tortilla, which will never be my first choice, was rich and moist. It’s the orange and almond cakes though, that I’ll be rushing to recreate.

    Maybe it was the second glass of Xarel-lo, but I left the class enthused. I was impressed by the standard of teaching, the quality of the ingredients and the structure of the afternoon. The group meal was particularly effective at bringing the class to a leisurely conclusion.

    13

    14

    You can find details of all the Cookery School’s classes and courses online here. I found the level, aimed at the serious home cook, spot-on.



    Disclosure: I was kindly invited to attend this class. 

  • Champagne 6

    On Champagne in Reims

    “We want to gain official recognition of the historic significance of Champagne production in Reims and Epernay”, our guide at Tattinger tells me. “So some of the houses came together to start a candidature for UNESCO status for the vineyards, the Champagne maisons and the caves”.

    So, what makes Champagne so special?

    Champagne 7

    PRODUCTION


    Almost every bottle of Champagne you find on supermarket shelves will have been at least three years in the making.

    Viticulture
    As for all French wines, strict rules govern Champagne production. The vineyards around Reims and Epernay divide into three principal zones, within which each village is categorised into a cru according to its quality. Each of these zones is best suited to growing one of the grapes that may be used in Champagne production: Chardonnay (Côte des Blancs), Pinot Noir (Montagne de Reims) and Pinot Meunier (Vallée de la Marne). Put rather simply, Chardonnay adds lightness to the blend, Pinot Meunier gives the fruitiness and Pinot Noir adds structure.

    And yes, the latter two are red grapes. Think about eating a grape: the juice is always clear. The colour of a red wine comes from contact with the grape skins, which is avoided here by very gentle pressing and running off the juice straight away.

    First fermentation
    Once picked and pressed the grape juice, or “must”, from each village is kept separate and the first fermentation (turning the juice into wine) will occur in modern stainless steel vats to preserve the natural fruit flavours. Yeast is added to start the process, converting the natural sugars to alcohol and carbon dioxide, which is allowed to escape.

    Most houses also opt for a process called malolactic fermentation, where the conversion of malic acid to lactic acid softens the acidity and rounds the wine.

    Blending
    At the end of the first fermentation, the cellar master will have numerous vats of different still white wines, each showing different characteristics according to their site and grape variety. Now comes the fun part: tasting each one and deciding on how to blend them. For most Champagnes, the aim of blending is to maintain the house style year-on-year. Using still base wines from previous years is also permitted, which is why you won’t find a year on most Champagne bottles as you would other wines.

    The very best wines from the grand cru villages may be used for the houses’ prestige blends, while in the odd excellent year a vintage Champagne may also be created using grapes only from that year’s harvest.

    Second fermentation
    The wine is now bottled, and a liquer de tirage is added to each one. This contains yeast and sugar to restart the fermentation process. Although unlike in the first fermentation, the bottles are sealed with a metal cap (just like a beer bottle cap) so the carbon dioxide cannot escape and has to dissolve into the wine creating the bubbles.

    Ageing
    Once the yeast has converted all of the sugar in the wine, it dies and sinks to the bottom of the bottle as a deposit known as lees. It is the lees that give Champagne its finesse and complex, sometimes biscuity flavours. Prosecco, for example, undergoes its second fermentation in a tank without any lees contact.

    A basic Champagne is required by law to rest on lees for 15 months, but most houses will leave it for 3 years. Champagnes, therefore, should not be aged at home; this has already been done by the house and further ageing may lead to oxidation and diminished quality.

    Remuage or “riddling”
    Once the Champagne has aged, the dead yeast must be removed by a process known as remuage. Traditionally, bottles are stored in wooden racks and this is done by a remueur, who twists each bottle a quarter turn and raises it upwards a little more each day. A skilled remueur can turn up to 38,000 bottles a day. Eventually, the bottle will be nearly perpendicular with the cap at the bottom and a plug of yeast above it. This takes a remueur – a few of which are still employed by Champagne houses to turn a small portion of their bottles – up to eight weeks but machines can now complete the task in under two.

    Disgorgement
    The neck of the Champagne bottle is plunged into a freezing chemical solution before the cap is removed, allowing the pressure to expel the plug of yeast. A little Champagne is lost, but this is compensated by the liquer d’expédition, a solution of sugar and wine. This dosage determines the sweetness of the final wine, most often “Brut” (7–10g of sugar), but sometimes a little sweeter. Over time tastes have changed greatly; two-hundred years ago Champagnes may have had up to 300g of sugar added, but today there’s a growing trend for bone dry or zero dosage wines.

    THE CELLARS


    I made it to two houses during my time in Reims: Tattinger and G.H. Mumm. There’s nothing like drinking a glass of wine on the same spot where it’s been produced for centuries.

    I can only apologise for the shocking photos. Most are from my iPhone, and the rest taken on the move, without flash, in low lighting.

    Tattinger
    • Production was begun on this site by monks of the now destroyed Abbaye Saint Nicaise. Part of the abbey’s crypts and vaults make up the caves used today. The rest lie in Roman chalk pits; just two houses in Reims have caves within these. At their deepest, the cellars are 20m underground where the temperature remains a steady 8oC.
    • Tattinger hire 800 workers to pick 4,000kg of grapes at harvest time.
    • Their standard Brut Reserve is unusually a Chardonnay dominated Champagne, with 40% white grapes used. It accounts for 80% of their production.

    Champagne 14

    One of the original abbey doors

    Champagne 10

    The stairs which originally led up to the abbey

    Champagne 12

    Bottles ageing on lees

    Champagne 9

    The way out today: steady footing needed

    Champagne 8

    The finished product

    The only disappointment? The tasting. After an insightful and atmospheric tour, we were handed a glass of bubbly with no explanation or tasting advice, then rushed out (via the “boutique” desk) as quickly as they could manage.

    The cellars, however, are just fantastic. Imagine strolling through past thousands upon thousands of bottles down dimly-lit, cool and echoey caverns, while above you can see the small surface entry points used by Roman miners. Elsewhere, you can spot the old steps that once led to the abbey, while salvaged doors have been incorporated into the modern layout.

    G.H. Mumm
    • Mumm have 218 hectares of vineyards, 98% of which is grand and premier cru, but this only makes up a third of their needs; the rest of the grapes are bought in from private growers.
    • The Mumm signature is “intensity and freshness” and their standard cuvee, the Cordon Rouge, is Pinot Noir dominated (40%).
    • Mumm is the brand you’ll see on the Formula 1 podium.

    Champagne 4

    Just a glimpse of the 24km of tunnels

    Champagne 3

    The small “museum”

    Champagne 1

    Le Cordon Rouge

    There’s no getting away from the fact that Mumm’s cellars can’t compete for atmosphere, but their tour is much more informative and gives greater insight into the winemaking process. They’ve preserved parts of their history throughout: the tour begins with the a walk past the huge barrels and concrete vats once used for the first fermentation and ends in a small “museum” of more prosaic items like early machines used in disgorgement.

    When it comes to the tasting at Mumm, you also have a greater choice, ranging in price from a glass of Cordon Rouge to a well-orchestrated tasting flight through some of their finest Champagnes.

    THE CHAMPAGNE


    So, while I still love British fizz, and feel very strongly about supporting our brilliant vineyards, I suppose I now understand a little better why the Champagne producers feel their product has a superior history, if not quality.

    By law, Champagne already may only be made in this region. A wine made from the same grapes and by the same process elsewhere may only be described as being made by the méthode champenoise or méthode traditionnelle.

    When it comes to Champagne, imitation is perhaps not the sincerest form of flattery.


    * Disclosure: as the primary purpose of my visit was to update the coverage of the Champagne houses for the Rough Guide to Europe on a Budget, both very kindly offered me a press ticket.

  • Nyhavn 1

    32 hours in Copenhagen

    You can do a lot with one night abroad.

    When your holiday allowance is precious and funds limited, mini weekends are the perfect way to get a taster of a new place. Booked in advance, a return flight from Gatwick to Copenhagen costs £47, and a private room in a hostel just £25, leaving plenty of pennies for the odd luxury. I reckon the best travel philosophy is to only go abroad as long as you can afford to really enjoy yourself.

    So, here’s how I made the most of 32 hours in Copenhagen. No, I didn’t make it to Noma, but there’s always next time…

    Saturday morning: the postcard shots

    Backed by colourful seventeenth- and eighteenth-century townhouses, the little harbour of Nyhavn might be touristy in high summer, but on a lip-numbingly cold morning out of season it was beautifully serene. According to Visit Copenhagen, Hans Christian Andersen lived at numbers 18, 20 and 67 during his life. I love a bit of trivia.

    The harbour sits on the eastern shore of Indre By, the central district, beyond which is Christianshavn. I didn’t really get a feel for this area, but enjoyed pootling along its quiet backstreets and yacht-lined canals. Cafe Luna, a teeny diner full-to-bursting with twenty-somethings shovelling down shakes, burgers and enormous breakfasts, is a good shout for lunch.

    Nyhavn 2

    Copenhagen 2

    Saturday afternoon: in search of a different side to the city

    I’d heard a lot about the hippie “Freetown” of Christiania, founded in an old military barracks in Christianshavn in 1971, but left rather unimpressed. Perhaps once a utopian dream, today it feels run-down and seedy. The overgrown and graffiti-covered buildings are semi-derelict in places, and there’s a sense of uneasiness rather than community. You’ll find plenty of open drug dealing, gaggles of tentative-teens looking to get stoned and a market selling tatty bracelets and drug paraphernalia. (No photos, as unsurprisingly they’re banned.) Did I miss something?

    Somewhat disappointed, we headed back to Indre By for a whirl around the free Leigh Ledare exhibition at Kunsthal Charlottenborg. This contemporary gallery sits in a Baroque palace arranged around a shady courtyard. The exhibition space is on a very manageable scale, and there’s a good coffee shop in the atrium. Ledare’s explicit but strangely fascinating photography makes for slightly uncomfortable viewing though, especially once you realise the main subject is his mother. I’ll leave you to Google some of his work.

    Photos are forbidden in Christiana; this is as close as I could get

    Saturday evening: the meat-packing district

    Much-hyped Kødbyen, Copenhagen’s “meat city” if you translate directly, is a collection of low-rise industrial buildings now home to a plethora of cool restaurants and bars. The 1930s plastic-clad warehouses in the main section, the “white meat city”, are rather different to the red-brick conversions we’re used to in London. As you can see from the second pic below, it’s a little eerie at night.

    After several recommendations, we chose Mother for Prosecco cocktails and excellent sourdough pizza loaded with mozarella di buffala. Their rough wooden tables were filled with friendly, international hipsters sporting the requisite uniform of denim with beards or great lipstick. The night finished up at at Karriere, a laidback, neon-lit bar with too-cool-for-school menus. I’ll never cease to be impressed that while Scandinavians put away just as much booze as us Brits, you never see people behaving like idiots and falling over on the street.

    Mother Pizza, Copenhagen

    Copenhagen 5

    Sunday morning: a slow start

    Lazily wandering east, we heard the beat of drums and stumbled across blue trouser-clad guards marching out of Rosenborg Castle, home to the royal family until the 1700s, towards the full changing of the guard ceremony at Amalienborg. It’s not really worth seeking out, but a fun diversion nonetheless.

    Our main destination for the morning was Torvehallerne. Opened in 2011, this swish market consists of two permanent glass halls with outdoor stands in-between. You’ll find everything from fresh produce to bars where you can stop for a glass of wine. I’d really recommend adding this to your itinerary; you could easily while away an afternoon here.

    Copenhagen 6 Copenhagen 7

    Market, Copehhagen

    Sunday afternoon: Nørrebro

    A short stroll over the river from Torvehallerne takes you to chilled out Nørrebro. It’s marketed as an up-and-coming part of town, but thanks to the abundance of families and coffee shops it feels quite well-established, if not entirely polished. Choosing to seek out smaller sights on this trip, we took a wander around the Politi Museet in the city’s old police station. The cells are interesting, but the exhibits themselves range from the niche to the slightly grotesque. Be careful which cupboards you open.

    Cafe Plenum, a stripped-back cafe with famous quotes daubed on the walls, thankfully provided restorative brew. I loved Copenhagen’s cafe culture, but the tradition of leaving babies asleep in the street in their pram made me nervous! (The BBC wrote an article about this recently, which you can read here.)

    Copenhagen, river view

    Copenhagen 8

    Sunday evening: restaurant hopping

    A long walk (and a bit of getting lost) brought us back to Kødbyen for a glass of wine and tapenade at another stalwart of the area, Bio Mio. Inhabiting an old Bosch warehouse, this rambling organic restaurant gets rave reviews, but it wasn’t really for me. I liked the canteen style service and Vapiano-esque card system, just found the super-healthy menu a bit much.

    Intrigued by the very mixed reviews the Wimbledon export has been getting, we also squeezed in a visit to Sticks ‘n’ Sushi for a taste of the original. Thanks to the low communal tables, it feels rather like an up-market, Japanese version of Busaba Eathai. Everything we ate was perfectly nice, and I can see a niche for the concept in London, but I’m not sure I’ll be hot-footing it to SW19 anytime soon.

    Sticks'n'sushi

    We spent the night at Generator Copenhagen, which is by far one of the best hostels I’ve stayed in. It’s vast, but the social area, complete with a cheap-ish bar, TV screens and pool tables, would be a great place to meet people. Our private twin was immaculate and had a modern en-suite wet-room.

    So, do you think one night is too short to see a new city? Or have you been on a great mini-break recently?

    Many thanks to Diana, Lucy and Ed for the tips. Also thanks to Graeme for being an excellent travel companion – you can read his musings on all things science here.

  • Lemon, gin prosecco 1

    Lemon, gin and Prosecco

    Ever since my flatmate ordered a version of this in the Hoxton Grill a few months ago, this cocktail has become something of an obsession in our house. It’s really too simple to post a recipe for, but I’m going to anyway. It’s nice to do more than open a bottle of wine sometimes. Plus these are very handy for getting your friends drunk when you’ve left half the ingredients for dinner by the till in Tesco…

    • 1 small-ish shot of gin
    • 1 small-ish shot of fresh lemon juice – about half a lemon
    • 1 twist of lemon peel
    • Prosecco* to top up

    *That’s a demi-sec Blanc des Blancs in the pics, which I think is too sweet, but it needed drinking up!

    Lemon, gin prosecco 2Lemon, gin Prosecco 3Lemon, gin Prosecco 4

  • New Orleans

    Four tips for New Orleans

    New Orleans is a city I’d longed to go to for years.

    I had so many images of what I would find: the madness of Bourbon Street; jazz musicians on every corner; po-boys, gumbo and beignets galore; and, of course, scars from the devastation of Katrina.

    I’ve spent a good bit of time in the US, home to most of my immediate family, and while New Orleans certainly lived up to my expectations, it took me by surprise how different the city is to other parts of the country. It lends itself to every travel cliche in the book (vibrant! a city of contrasts! historic! unique! lively! charming! diverse!). In five days, I barely touched the surface, but I’m certain that the Big Easy firmly warrants it’s place on so many travel wishlists.

    Below are four tips from my four days in the city.

    1. Wander the backstreets of the French Quarter.

    The French Quarter is the oldest part of New Orleans, although most of the buildings you see today are Spanish in origin, re-built after fires in the late 1700s. Lying between North Rampart Street and the Mississippi, its dusky-hued homes are adorned with a seductive combination of flower-filled, wrought-iron balconies and wooden shutters.

    Walking as the crow flies, “the Quarter” would probably take just half-an-hour to meander across, but spare at least a day to drift around. Start in the more tumble-down eastern end, before wandering towards the part-gloriously restored and part-Disneyfied area towards the CBD. Drinking on the streets is legal here, but you’d do much better to stop off for a cocktail in a quiet, cool bar; my favourite was the unassuming Harry’s Corner, mostly frequented by locals and reviewed by Esquire here.

    New Orleans 3

    2. Spend an evening on Frenchmen Street.

    Esplanade Avenue provides a natural end to the French Quarter, beyond which lie the quiet, residential streets of Faubourg Marigny. Once a plantation, the land was first sold off at the start of the 1800s. Pastel-coloured Creole cottages from this time still remain, and you’ll barely find a building over two stories high: something local residents are campaigning to preserve.

    Frenchmen Street runs north–south just beyond Esplanade and is rather more lively than the rest of the district. The main “strip”, a somewhat tourist-orientated but quirky mix of bars, restaurants, shops and tattoo parlours, takes up the southern quarter mile. Head to the intimate Spotted Cat for drinks and live music then squeeze up the stairs above the titchy Apple Barrel bar to Adolfo’s (no website) for dinner. With its slanting floors, charmingly bolshy waiters and excellent Creole-Italian cooking, Adolfo’s was one of my favourite places.

    New Orleans 2

    3. Eat like a tourist.

    New Orleans’ food is famous for good reason and there’s a slew of historic restaurants in which to try the specialities. Ease in with a po-boy and some live music at the cheesy Gazebo Cafe before the quintessential New Orleans trip to Cafe du Monde‘s sticky tables for beignets. Be prepared to get powdered (icing) sugar absolutely everywhere.

    Come evening, keep it traditional: drop by the 200-year-old Napoleon House for a glass of wine in their sleepy courtyard or sip a cocktail at the dark, friendly bar in Tujague’s. Alternatively, try to get a table outside at Sylvain for modern cooking with a European-cum-Southern twist.

    New Orleans

    4. Avoid Bourbon Street!

    OK, don’t avoid it completely. Go once. Walk the length of it taking in the gaudy lights, raucous bars and scantily-clad, frequently overweight tourists. Picture Magaluf or San Antonio and you’re going in the right direction.

    Oh, and whatever you do, don’t drink the deathly-sweet green grenade drinks, advertised on banners towed by light planes overhead.

    Bourbon Street, New Orleans

    Thanks again to Ed, Emma and especially Sam for all of the advice. On reflection, I wish I’d spent more time outside the French Quarter – all the more reason to return.