Wine tasting in the Loire

The Loire is a big river in a big valley, and so the wine region of the Loire is – you’ve guessed it – big. We didn’t quite appreciate this and probably set out to explore too much of it in one long weekend. So that’s my first piece of advice: if you’re here for three days, don’t try and cover the whole Loire! Or even half of it. It’s a beautiful region, though, dotted with astonishing chateaux to give your eyes something to drink in between sips of wine.

The best thing about the Loire is the sheer variety of wines. There are whites; dry, off-dry and sweet, quaffable and serious reds, roses that are more than just barbecue plonk, quality sparkling wines and some world-class stickies. On top of that, you can find plenty of good stuff for around six quid just as easily as you can seek out more refined juice heading up past £20. For me, half the joy of any wine trip is bringing back a few boxes so that for the next little while I can drink wine that actually comes from a place I’ve visited and enjoyed, rather than a bottle from a shelf in a shop that means nothing beyond whatever imagery they’ve cleverly conjured up with the label.

Yes, you’ll need a car. Big region, lots of winemakers in lots of villages. It may be possible to explore the Loire by public transport, but you aren’t going to be taking much wine home then!

I can thoroughly recommend the town of Saumur as a base. It has a beautiful setting on the bank of the Loire, topped with its chateau, and is big enough to have plenty of eating and drinking options while being small enough to get in-and-out easily and to explore on foot.

Wine aside, you can’t visit the Loire and not stop at a chateau. Azay-le-Rideau is a lovely one, and not insanely busy like the blockbuster pair of Chenonceau and Chambord.

My big tip for enjoying any wine-tasting trip is: find at least a couple of recommendations. It’s great fun wandering around the villages and stopping at random winemakers, but unless you are very lucky you’ll taste a lot of kinda-maybe-okay-sorta-good-mebee-not wine. In my (very) humble experience the best wine makers are seldom on the main roads, seldom right in the middle of the most picturesque villages and very seldom the ones with viticulture museums and guided tours attached! The best winemakers are the ones down a quiet lane just outside the village with nothing to advertise their presence beyond the little brown “vignoble” sign on the main road.

So how do you get recommendations? Three ways. Firstly, when you have a brilliant wine at a restaurant (either in the UK or perhaps actually on your wine trip) make a note of the maker; it’s a real delight to actually knock on the door of the place your favourite plonk came from. Secondly, be brave and talk to people. We fell to talking with a great winemaker in Alsace and explained our intended tour around France; they recommended a winemaker they knew in the Rhone Valley and sure enough their reds were brilliant. They were also down a small lane outside the village and were probably the last place we’d have stopped at random! Thirdly, invest in a little wine guide like Oz Clarke’s useful pocket book. They’ll usually mention some recommended makers, and while these are quite often in the top end of the price range they’ll definitely be good. I reckon a balance of 50/50 random discoveries and recommendations is a good trip.

Oh, and wherever you go wine tasting in Europe remember that most of these small family businesses offer tastings and sales from their cellar as a sideline; don’t expect a smart shop and properly observed opening hours. You may well need to knock on the door and ask whether they’re available. The French especially seem to revel in giving no indication whatever that there might actually be anyone at home willing to show you their wine. In France, if you’re looking for a big “OUVERT” sign and a propped-open cellar door before stopping, you’re likely to miss out on an awful lot of pleasant discoveries.

Here’s a link to our other wine-tasting trips if you’d like more ideas.

Wines of the Loire

Where you go is going to depend on what you’re most interested in. So for the wine buff here’s a little more information on the wines of the Loire.

The Loire is mainly Chenin Blanc for white wines, Cabernet Franc for reds, although Sauvignon Blanc comes into the picture further east and further west is Muscadet.

There are four principle areas, each with a different expression of the grapes. Closest to the coast is the Pays Nantais, where the typical wine is Muscadet; sharp, fresh, uncomplicated plonk to swig with seafood if you can’t find anything better. Alright, perhaps that’s unkind, but I have to admit to liking wine with a bit of body.

Moving east and you’re into the Anjou/Saumur area, where the wines are much more interesting. Yes, there’s the well known Anjou rose, but some of this is much better than the summer barbecue fuel you may be used to. There are good, dry, minerally whites made with Chenin Blanc, at their very best in Savennieres. Reds are made with Cabernet Franc, very quaffable young but more robust and interesting if aged and oaked. The Chinon appellation is probably the best. Chenin Blanc is good for sticky dessert wines, and the Coteaux de Layon appellation is world-class; light and honeyed but with botrytis complexity. Finally there are genuinely classy bubbles on offer, especially around Saumur.

It’s a similar tale in the Touraine area further east, and to be honest it seems like a fairly arbitrary dividing line. Touraine includes the most famous Loire wines of Vouvray, interesting because they are made bone dry, off-dry and also quite sweet; these latter can be cellared for decades. The Touraine also has all the best of the grand chateaux to visit!

Finally, stuck out furthest east is the Centre region which includes the great appelations of Sancerre and Pouilly Fume, where the Sauvignon Blanc grape is used to make wines utterly different to the elderflower and gooseberry pub plonk we’re used to in the UK. I assumed that I hated all Sauvignon Blanc until I had a good Pouilly Fume.

Look carefully at this photo… : )


If you happen upon a cup of coffee perched, pretty much anywhere, unloved and slowly cooling there’s a reasonable chance it’s one of mine. I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve bought a cappuccino from a coffee shop – chain or otherwise – and walked on about my business only to find that the first sip is so scorching and vile that I want nothing more than to go back and dump it on the head of the idiot that made it. Instead I leave it on a convenient flat surface. Sorry.

The last was at a motorway services on the M40 where I paid the princely sum of £2.70 for a lovingly made cappuccino. They had clearly taken the trouble of drawing the water fresh from a puddle in the car park, using coffee that had been weed on by cats and then drowning it in milk carefully heated to 250 degrees centigrade in a special pressure-sealed unit to guarantee the most scorched and rank taste imaginable.

And before you say “well, it was a motorway services, what do you expect?” can you please just go for a drive on the motorway in Europe. Anywhere in Europe. Any-bloody-where. And stop at a motorway services for a coffee. It will NOT taste like a tramp tried to drink it first and then spat it back in the cup. I guarantee.

And before you call me a coffee snob, I’m not. I know scarcely anything about coffee, I wouldn’t know a “god shot” if it danced before me in a neon tutu. I’m happy at home with my cafetiere and my bag of Cafe Direct. Heck, I’m perfectly happy with the cappuccino made down the road by the lad at Costa.

Of course, when I happen to be in London and stop for a blissful coffee at Fernandez & Wells my eyes do go a funny colour and I get a smile on my face that doesn’t go away for an hour. But my point is: I don’t need that every day. If I need a coffee on my way to a meeting, I just want it to taste okay, thanks. Primarily I want to be able to taste some f*cking coffee in it and not have to worry about second-degree burns to my tongue.

Is that really too much to ask? Apparently so.

Why is it that wherever I go in Europe I can be served decent coffee by spotty kids, wobbly grannies and cheeful immigrants from strange corners of the globe? Do they have special coffee academies across Europe and a rigorous licensing scheme to ensure that nobody can sell you a cup without proper qualifications? Or do the majority of Brits actually like the taste of boiled milk with a hint of old dishwater and I’m in a quirky minority who prefer the stuff that the rest of Europe (and Australasia) gets?

Or is it, more likely, that the very British phrase of “well, at least it’s warm and wet” is being used all over the country, thousands of times every day by people who really ought to go back to the coffee vendor in question and say “this coffee is horrible, give me my money back”? Acceptance of the unacceptable disguised as British stoicism. Bah.

I must get in the habit of taking a few minutes out of my day to tell people when their coffee is unacceptable. Heck, if I sat down in a restaurant and was served the culinary equivalent of these crappuccinos – perhaps a sirloin steak that has been boiled for twenty minutes before being served with yesterday’s carrots and uncooked potatoes – it would be back to the kitchen before you could blink. If they want to (a) take another stab at making it, (b) give me my money back or (c) just say “sorry” and watch me go on my way, that’s entirely up to them. But if we all start doing the same, who knows, we might just end up with a cafe culture in this country, as opposed to a handful of great cafes floating in an ocean of scorched milk stained off-white by a mouse’s piss of dirty dishwater.

Review: Ko Gu Ryo, Staines

I have to confess, this is my first time eating Korean Food. But at least I’m confident that it is about as authentic as I’ll find outside of a visit to Korea. The only other customers at Ko Gu Ryo in Staines were Korean, and while we considered our menus a steady stream of twenty or more businessmen came in and disappeared into the back of the restaurant, where they must clearly keep a Tardis as we scarcely heard a peep from them all evening.

The restaurant is small and simply furnished. Service could not be friendlier; it’s a family affair, and the owners emanate all the warm hospitality I remember from travels in Asia. The lady of the house helped us put together a menu, the master of the house plied my brother with ginseng wine in celebration of his birthday.

So, we began with a few starters. Kimchi is a national staple of Korea, and I really must start making my own: fermented cabbage with a chilli paste, delicious. Caramelised soy beans were good nibbles. There was a very handsome plate of delicious gyoza-style dumplings, a plate of enormous tempura prawns in lightly crisp batter, and a dish of glass noodles with beef that was good but seemed an odd starter. Customary, perhaps? The best starter was a “seafood pancake”, in fact more like a deliciously crunchy seafood rosti chopped into bite-sized pieces.

The table barbecue seems to be another staple of Korean dining, at least in the UK. The mixed lamb was very good, while the thinly sliced beef was tasty enough but such relentless cooking was bound to leave it a bit leathery. Two heavy, sizzling stoneware bowls came with a mixture of seafood, rice and vegetables. All good. The finale was deep-fried pieces of chicken in a crunch batter with a deliciously caramely sweet/sharp sauce pepped up with pepper, garlic and chilli. Wicked pleasure.

We drank Korean rice wine with our meal, an unexpected white concoction almost the consistency of smooth gazpacho, served in bowls and very delicious. Far too easy to drink, in fact. Good tea was also to be had, along with more typical wines and beers.

Next time I’m in Staines I can’t imagine picking anywhere else to eat. I’ll probably skip the barbecue and look at the more classic Korean dishes, as that’s surely where all the flavour is. I can’t help recommending a trip to Ko Gu Ryo if you happen to be in Staines too. There may be even more authentic Korean food in the streets of London, but there’s surely no more authentically friendly Korean welcome than here. The meal, drinks all in, was less than £30 per head and we left happily stuffed.

Pan-fried coley with egg mayo

It’s easy to drift away from fresh fish as a supper item if you’re feeling a bit budget-constrained. You can get an awful lot of bacon for the price of a sea bass fillet! But if you poke around your fishmonger’s counter a bit (not literally, your fishmonger will become grumpy if you touch his pollocks) you might spot some cheaper options. Cod cheeks and cod flaps are good, but even better is a much overlooked fish: coley.

My mum used to give our dogs coley in their dinner as a treat once a week. Not kidding, no more than a couple of decades ago coley was only sold as pet food. Reason? It has a very genuine fishy smell. Now, I know Jamie, Hugh, Rick and co will have taught you that pongy fish is gone-off fish, and in many cases they’re right. But there are a few fish out there who have what you might call natural body odour. Coley is one. Don’t be put off.

What it wants is some robust companions, then it is simply a lovely, moist, flaky, cheap (don’t forget cheap) piece of pan-fried fish. Red peppers, chillies and fresh mayo punched up with the makings of tartare sauce, for instance.

Pan-fried coley and mayo (serves two)

2 pieces coley fillet (200g each)
1 red pepper
1 fresh red chilli
2 eggs*
150 ml light olive oil*
1/2 tsp salt*
black pepper
1 tsp mustard powder*
2 tsp cider vinegar*
1 garlic clove, minced fine
1 tsp lemon juice
1 tsp capers
2 cornichons
1 handful parsley leaves
* – or 200ml mayonnaise from a jar!
  1. First we make mayonnaise. Or to save 15 minutes, scoop some out of a jar into a bowl and skip to step 4 (but add the minced garlic too)!
  2. Put the egg yolks in a clean bowl. Fry the whites in a drop of olive oil and reserve them. Add the mustard, garlic, salt and black pepper to the bowl. Now begin whisking the yolks and add the oil a drop at a time. Really, one drop at a time. I’ve curdled mayonnaise twice by rushing it, you will too. I usually find a way to sit with the bowl trapped between my legs so I can whisk with one hand and drip with the other.
  3. After a time, could be many drips, the mixture will thicken quite distinctly. Go with drips a little longer, but then you can add the rest of the oil in a steady dribble. Once the mayo has thickened, it won’t curdle. See? Wasn’t so bad. Add the cider vinegar too, which will loosen it up a bit.
  4. Now fry the egg whites, let them cool, then chop up the egg whites, capers, cornichons, parsley and mix them all into the mayonnaise with the lemon juice. Add a bit more lemon juice if necessary to get a consistency you like, and check seasoning.
  5. Slice the pepper and fry in a bit of olive oil, getting some nice blackening on the skin. Optionally: add a splash of red wine and sizzle it down to nothing, this will just improve the the peppers.
  6. Boil a couple of old potatoes and then roughly crush them with some butter, salt and black pepper – roughly crushed is much better with mayonnaise than a smooth mash. Alternatively, splash out on some Jersey Royals and just boil them.
  7. Get a pan really hot, then add a knob of butter and splash of olive oil. Put the coley in skin up for a couple of minutes, then turn it over and cook skin down until just done. Coley is usually a thick fillet, so you should be able to look at the side of the fillet to see that it has all gone opaque (white instead of pale grey)
  8. Put the fish on the potatoes, scatter pepper slices, scatter the very finely sliced chilli, then add a huge dollop of mayonnaise and enjoy!

Muchos gracias to Delia for the basic mayonnaise technique, and for her superb tip: if you are a hasty idiot and curdle your mayo by adding the oil too quick, don’t despair. Put a fresh egg yolk in a clean bowl and start dripping your curdled mixture into it, one drop at a time – if you are more patient this time, it will work out fine and you can carry on with the rest of the oil.

Avoid disappointment

Restaurants do need to take care of the detail on their menus. You might shrug your shoulders and say “so what if we used the wrong term for a dish, or missed out a comma, that doesn’t actually affect the meal.” I would say, and this is a philosophy I apply to everything in life, that disappointed expectations are much worse than no expectations at all.

When I see that your sticky toffee pudding is offered with “custard ice cream or cream” I get a little excited at the thought of custard ice cream. When you point out that it is really “custard, ice cream or cream” then a tiny hope dies inside me. The sticky toffee pudding might be half-decent, but it’s no longer special (as an aside: banana ice cream, best ever partner to sticky toffee pudding).

When I see “duck liver parfait and onion parfait” on the menu my metaphorical ears prick up. A duo of parfaits indeed! And I wonder how they’ve made an onion parfait? When I get a piece of duck liver parfait and a dollop of sticky onion chutney, my grump is definitely on no matter how tasty the onions. I’ve had (better) duck liver parfait and sticky onion chutney a score of times, I wanted something different.

If my dessert is described “with black pepper tuile” and you don’t have any, it’s worth telling me “we don’t have any black pepper tuile, is it okay with plain tuile?” before I order, rather than serving me the dish with the same plain tuile as my partner’s pud. Because now my heart has been crushed, and I’m left wishing I’d picked something else.

People choose from menus in different ways. Some decide that they want venison and that’s it. Others reject all the stuff they don’t like and finally pick the one safe-ish option. And some of us eye up the list for unexpected combinations or interesting accompaniments. The tuile may very well seem like a support act for the strawberry pannacotta, but it just so happens that the black pepper tuile was the most intriguing element on your whole dessert menu.

Hey, I know this is small beer. But it also doesn’t take much effort to get right.

Of course, these little crushing disappointments are far more likely when eating abroad, with all the tangles of translation. Pork chops with porcini mushrooms sounded pretty good to me, so I rejected the nice looking seafood and went for it. When I got a thin pork escalope wrapped around measly slices of button mushroom I just gave a resigned sigh and started chewing doggedly through. It certainly wasn’t worth an attempt at complaining. This was the Balkans after all, where our friends had found a cheese dish on a multi-lingual menu that was described as “cheddar” in the English section, “brie” in the French translation and “gorgonzola” on the Italian part. If I had asked where the “porcini” were they would no doubt have pointed out the mushrooms and smiled patiently at the crazy foreigner.

But anyway, language barriers aside, please read over your menu twice, and let people know beforehand if an element of their dish isn’t available. Ta.

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