As I’ve written before, I love the simple format of the Parisian wine bars that are slowly gaining popularity over here: good wines, available by the glass, served with a simple plate of cheese and charcuterie. When done well, it doesn’t get much better

I was therefore very happy to meet family at the DesVins Café & Wine Bar within St Pancras station in London. The format is simple: a café bar with a fairly extensive list of wines available by the glass, serving a ‘continental menu.’ I also love the way the station has been restored, and DesVins is set within the brick arches on the main concourse.

DesVins Cafe & Wine Bar

Great in theory, but our experience was far from great, right from the start. By the time I arrived, delayed by problems on the tube, my family had been waiting 15 minutes for sparkling water they hadn’t even ordered, but the waiter had insisted he would bring.

The bar prides itself on its ‘state of the art’ Enomatic system and, in fairness the wine list was broad, even if I do have a personal dislike of lists that are divided up – usually arbitrarily – into categories such as ‘Light & Fruity’ or ‘Smooth and Subtle.’ However, I did appreciate the opportunity to sample three or four wines, in 175ml measures, with an average price of about £7 a glass. The list was reasonably ‘safe’ (and strangely didn’t include any vintage information) but I particularly enjoyed the Chapel Down Bacchus (2007 – I think) from Kent, which I’d been meaning to try for a while – a lovely crisp refreshing white with hints of peach on the finish. Perfect for a summer’s evening.

The food, however, was a let down. We should perhaps have noticed that most people seemed to come in for a quick drink and then leave. To start we ordered the ‘Big desVins platter’ (£15.50) to share, which included both cheese and charcuterie. Our mains included lasagne, duck confit (of which they only had one portion left) and lamb shank.

After yet another wait, the waitress appeared with our mains, but no platter. When questioned, she said she was going to bring it with the third main course. I’m fairly certain we’d made it clear we wanted it as a starter, but what wine bar serves its cheese and charcuterie with the main courses?!

When it finally arrived, as a dessert, again the experience was mixed. We all agreed the onion marmalade was a hit, and some of the charcuterie was pretty tasty, but the cheese consisted of three small chunks of (I’m guessing) brie, cheddar and stilton. The addition of pork luncheon meat also seemed a bit unnecessary, and I’m sure would have horrified any passing Frenchman.

Returning to the mains, my duck confit was pleasant, served with a rich, fruity sauce, but it came with only a small spoonful of the ‘signature mashed potato’ and a few lettuce leaves that were dripping in oil, such that they were really quite unpleasant.

So… all in all, DesVins has a long, long way to go if it is to compete with the likes of Terroirs, near Charing Cross station. Perhaps that’s not their aim though. In future, I would definitely skip the food, and maybe consider a quick glass of wine, but only if the Champagne Bar upstairs at St Pancras was unavailable. I have to say we decided to abandon DesVins in favour of there, after dinner, and finished off a very pleasant evening with a couple of glass of Laurent Perrier.

(Pictures taken from DesVins website)

I’m currently based out in Surrey for work, so any trip into central London is very welcome. Today I had my annual appraisal meeting with the senior consultant responsible for overseeing my training.

Fortuitously, she works near Marylebone High Street, so I took the opportunity to pop into La Fromagerie on Moxon Street before our meeting. With hindsight, this was probably a bad idea on one of the hottest days of the year, but thankfully said Consultant turned out to be a fan of the shop, and didn’t seem to mind the aroma emanating from the bag in the corner!

La Fromagerie, Moxon Street

I’ve been wanting to visit La Fromagerie for a while, having received owner Patricia Michelson’s excellent encyclopedia – simply entitled ‘Cheese‘ – as a birthday present.

The Marylebone store has a simply awesome walk-in cheese ‘cave’, which mostly focusses on French cheeses. I was completely spoilt for choice, but came away with half an Ami du Chambertin, a cow’s milk cheese from Burgundy, similar to Epoisses; a couple of Cabécou de Rocamadour, a small ripe goat’s cheese; and a slab of Beaufort d’Alpage – always a favourite.

Alongside the cheese, La Fromagerie stocks a range of other fresh produce, but there’s no denying that some of the prices are eye watering – £8 for a bundle of asparagus? That said, I was very tempted by the homemade rillettes, the fresh duck confit, the cornichons from the deli counter… Thankfully for my wallet, our store cupboard is still full from our recent trip to France.

We’re very lucky to have an excellent cheese shop very close to home (charging similar prices for cheese) but the cheese room at La Fromagerie was something else – and not just because it was cool on a warm day!

Hopefully the smell of the Ami du Chambertin didn’t affect my appraisal too badly…

We’re lucky enough to live close enough to the Channel Tunnel, that it’s possible to do a quick dash to France over a weekend to stock up. Although the strength of the Euro against the pound doesn’t make it quite as attractive from a cost perspective as it was a couple of years ago, there are still numerous things we can’t easily (or cheaply) get here that make the trip worthwhile: Bonne Maman baba au rhum, big jars of cornichons, tins of cassoulet, slabs of comté cheese etc. And where in the UK can you buy globe artichokes for the equivalent of £1? Last time I looked, it was closer to £3. Our friends, K+L, have recently returned from a couple of years living abroad so we were more than happy to accompany them to northern France last weekend to help stock their cellar. We spent a very pleasant couple of days in Montreuil-sur-mer, enjoying great food and sipping Kir Royals in the sunshine. Our usual port of call for food in France is the Auchan chain – historically much better and less touristy than Carrefour, at least in Calais. However, the wine selection this time was strangely poor. Okay, the strong Euro didn’t help but, although most French regions were represented, choice seemed to be seriously limited. Last year, we bought wine at Auchan in Blois and were disappointed with almost every bottle. At the time we thought it was a one off, but perhaps it wasn’t. Having all had limited success, K+L suggested trying the branch of Majestic just down the road from Auchan. To me it initially seemed a bit of an anathema, going all the way to France only to buy wine from Majestic, but I have to concede that the offers were incredible. Yes, there was a limited choice, compared with our local branch, but as a source of ‘Monday night wine’ it was brilliant. We picked up half a case of The Ned Sauvignon Blanc 2009, which normally retails for around £9 in Waitrose, for the equivalent of about £4. Although not quite so good, their champagne offers were also great value: Pol Roger NV Brut for around £22. Not so long ago, the word was that Majestic’s French business was struggling. At the time a spokesman described how ”The romance has gone out of travelling to the continent for a day trip’ partly because of the strong Euro, but also because ‘so many French products were now as easily available in UK supermarkets as in France.’ (Not sure I agree with the latter, certainly from a food perspective). It’s difficult to see how Majestic can be making a profit in France, given those offers: the Ned Sauvignon, is almost certainly being sold at or very close to cost, for example. But are the days of the ‘booze cruise’ really dead? Is that why Auchan’s selection seems to have declined? And more importantly, to me at any rate, where do the French buy their wine, if not at the supermarket?

The self-styled first families of Australian wine have come together with the aim of promoting the country’s ‘truly outstanding wines’. Together, the twelve families have over 1200 years of winemaking experience and represent sixteen regions across four states.

As their promotional literature states, although many people around the globe enjoy Australian wines, less is known about the premium wines, and this is partly why we attended one of their tastings in London the other week. Although we got some sense of change in Australian wines during our travels in the country last year, too many years of cheap, big brands, have made me cautious about buying anything Australian here in the UK.

Australia's First Families

On the night, 72 wines were on offer – 12 from each of the families. Although we didn’t sample the full range, we tried enough to have some of our reservations reinforced but, more importantly, make some great discoveries. I include notes on a handful of wines I will particularly be searching out.

Despite my love of whites, overall I preferred the reds I tried, which was something of a surprise as I’ve traditionally shied away from what I’d perceived as big headachey Aussie reds. Frankly, I suspect a lot of the whites were served just too cold on the night, which left many strangely devoid of much flavour. One exception was a vertical of Tahbilk’s Marsanne. Of the 2007, 2002 and 1992, the 2002 drank best with a lovely, rich floral nose, but a surprising freshness.

Throughout the evening, the winemakers we spoke to repeatedly emphasised the shift from a focus on work in the cellar, for example indiscriminate use of new oak, to more focus on processes in the vineyard, such as hand picking grapes, which can only be a good thing.

The wines I’ll be seeking out include:

d’Arenberg The Laughing Magpie Shiraz Viognier 2007
The addition of 10% Viognier really lifted this wine, adding a delicate perfume to the hefty dark fruit of the Shiraz.

De Bortoli Gulf Station Pinot Noir 2008
A lovely, elegant pinot. Plenty of red fruit with savoury notes and just about the right amount of tannic grip.

Tahbilk Cabernet Sauvignon 2006
Dark, intense wine. Lots of black fruit, particularly blackberry, on the palate, with a touch of mint and leather. Rich, mouthfilling tannins. Prefered this to the ‘Reserve’ Cabernet.

Tyrell’s Vat 47 Hunter Chardonnay 2006
The real surprise of the night. A lovely fresh Chardonnay, with a crisp acidity and notes of stone fruit. The wine is not allowed to undergo a malolactic fermentation and spends just six months in oak, only one third of which is new. Lovely.

We’ve recently returned from a week at Soneva Gili, our second trip to the Maldives resort owned by the Six Senses group. It’s testament to how much we loved the place, that we went back a second time, but this time our holiday exceeded all our expectations.

Six Senses aim for ‘intelligent luxury’ in all their resorts. A great deal of thought has been given to the villas (all of which are over water) and they are consequently well-equipped and very comfortable. Unlike most resorts you could quite happily spend the week in the villa and never leave, as many visitors seem to do.

Anyhow, aside from the snorkelling, the diving, and general lazing about, we found ourselves there – completely by chance – in a week when there were not only two visiting wine producers, showcasing their wines, but also a visiting chef. Perhaps not suprisingly, we were in seventh heaven, and I’ll be posting my notes from these events over the next couple of weeks.

Overwater Bar at Soneva Gili

Even without special events, the food and beverage experience at Soneva Gili is excellent, especially given the location of the island. The brand strives to minimise the environmental impact of its resorts, as far as possible, and much of the fresh produce is grown in house. We had a wonderful lunch one day in the vegetable garden, selecting the leaves for our salad ourselves.

The selection of wines on offer is broad, and eclectic, with many bottles under $100, but a suitable number of classed growths at the other end of the spectrum. The sommelier, Jasper, was extremely helpful during the week, providing an interesting lesson in pairing wines with Asian flavours. The 2007 Toru from Te Whare Ra – a lovely crisp blend of Gewürztraminer, Riesling and Pinot Gris – from Marlborough, was a particularly good example.

The wine cellar itself is underground, and also houses a cheese cave. It has been fitted out with a table (fashioned from a tree trunk washed up by the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami) in order to cater for wine dinners.

Underground Cellar at Soneva Gili

As repeat visitors, the staff laid on a wine dinner in the cellar for the two of us. The menu and pairings are outlined below, but particular highlights were:

Section 94, Dog Point 2007, Marlborough, NZ
I’ve written elsewhere about Dog Point’s main Sauvignon Blanc, but this is a fascinating example of a wine produced from grapes grown in a small section of the vineyard. The wine has extended lees contact in old oak barrels, which gives it a real complexity. Very fruit driven with strong notes of apricot.

Pomerol, Château de Clèmence 1997, Bordeaux
A wonderful accompaniment to beef. Predominantly Merlot, but dominated by black fruits with soft, silky tannins.

Pinot Noir, Pegasus Bay 2006, Waipara NZ
I confess I’ve not yet caught the Pinot bug, except in Blanc de Noirs champagne. However, this really opened my eyes to the possibilities. Vibrant red fruits, particularly cherries and raspberries, with a hint of caramelised toffee. My favourite of the night.

The menu was as follows:

Amuse:
Olive yoghurt ball, black forest ham, melon chutney
NV Champagne, Ruinart Brut, Reims, France

Soup:
Essence of tomato with scallop and lobster
2007 Section 94, Dog Point, Marlborough, NZ

Appetizer:
Chilli caramel Maldivian yellow fin tuna
2005 Savennières, Les Vieux Clos, Nicolas Joly, Loire, France

Refresher:
Champagne sorbet with pomegranate granita

Main:
Cumin scented Black Angus beef with almond rouille and sauteed rocket
1997 Pomerol, Château La Clèmence, Bordeaux, France

Selection of cheese
2006 Pinot Noir, Pegasus Bay, Waipara, NZ

Desert:
Tropical fruit ‘carpaccio’
2006 Lilly Pilly Noble Blend, Riverina, Australia

The threatened train strikes just before Easter encouraged us to take to the skies to visit relatives over the bank holiday. I wouldn’t choose to fly too often but, not only was it significantly cheaper than travelling cattle class on the train, the whole experience was much more pleasant.

Husband booked a table at Gordon Ramsey’s Plane Food in Terminal 5 at Heathrow. The restaurant has had mixed reviews, but on the whole our experience was very good and we both agreed that it was a nice start to our long weekend. Although the spectre of the teething troubles at Terminal 5 refuses to go away, on the few times I’ve travelled through there, I’ve found it considerably lighter, brighter and lot less stressful than the other terminals at Heathrow.

The restaurant is at the rear of the terminal, facing a glass wall that fronts onto several flight gates, so the view is perfect if you’re a plane spotter, or – like me – partial to dreaming of jetting off to exotic locations. Consequently, the restaurant space is pleasantly light and airy too. We were seated at the back by the windows because we’d booked, I think, which is worth knowing for the future, as the other tables in the main part of the restaurant were packed in close together. That said, even at 18:30 on Maundy Thursday, it certainly wasn’t busy and we could easily have got a table without booking.

We travelled to the airport separately after work, so I ordered a G&T which I have to say was one of the best I’ve had recently. The service was pleasant, but not particularly speedy – we had to ask several times to order and pay, which was frustrating, especially as they weren’t particularly busy. I was also a bit surprised that we weren’t asked to confirm our flight time, but this wasn’t a huge problem as we had left plenty of time.

Husband and I both ordered off the a la carte, which includes 7-8 main courses. Unlike the rest of Ramsey’s empire, there’s nothing fancy on offer here: just good honest pub classics with a twist. Roasted cod, polenta chips, peas and spicy ketchup (£12.95) or Suffolk pork cutlet, black pudding and an apple compote (£12.50), for example, both of which seem fairly priced, especially given the location.

Dedham Vale Steak

I ordered the Dedham Vale rib-eye steak (£21.50) which was served with red wine shallot butter and onion rings. Sadly the steak wasn’t really warm enough to melt the butter, which I had to smear on the meat, but the onion rings and the accompanying tub of excellent chips (crispy outside, fluffy middle, perfectly seasoned) more than made up for this.

All deserts are priced at £5.50, and we both ordered the Champagne Yorkshire rhubarb fool with short bread. As you can see from the picture, it looked too good to delay eating and tasted just as good. Sometimes the simple things are the best: this was probably the highlight of the meal.

Champagne Rhubarb Fool

The wine list includes a good number of bins available by the glass (175ml), seven whites and seven reds ranging from £4.50 to £8, which is always encouraging to see. Although there are no 250ml glasses on offer, all these wines were also available in a 375ml carafe, an excellent option if – like us – you’re just grabbing a quick meal before a flight and don’t want a whole bottle.

As it happened, we both fancied different things. The Tinpot Hut 2009, Sauvignon Blanc, from Marlborough accompanied Husband’s salmon perfectly. It had a lovely minerality and herbaceous notes, balanced really well with ripe tropical fruits which I wouldn’t necessarily expect to see at this price point. The “Crozes Hermitage 2006, Jaboulet, France” (no more details given) was rich, silky and dominated by black fruit.

If you’re passing through T5, give it a go.

One of my earliest memories is of sitting on the garage floor, helping my dad to make wine. If I was really good, I got to do the bottling. I’m pleased to say that he’s moved on from crab apple to Claret, but my subsequent interest in wine, including the production process, is probably no surprise.

I first came across the Urban Wine Company in a Radio 4 programme on the River Wandle, which flows through South West London, where we live. The company acts as a collective for local growers all over London and the South East: in the autumn, grapes are collected from growers across the wine, and processed to produce a wine, which is affectionately known as Chateau Tooting. The 2009 vintage was recently launched with favourable reviews in Decanter! They will also provide vines for new members.

Although we don’t have much space, I fancied giving vine growing a go, and my baby vine arrived last week. We opted for a white variety, Solaris, which I gather is fairly hardy and suitable for ‘marginal climates’. It will be a couple of years before we get any fruit to contribute to the harvest but I understand it gives wines which have ‘fruity and perfumed aromas with hints of banana and hazelnuts, with medium acidity’. The UWC allows members to put their own labels on the wine, so we look forward to sampling Chateau Hewitt in due course.

As you can see though, this is quite a long way off at the moment…

Bare-rooted Solaris Vine

Baby Solaris Vine

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