Henry's World of Booze | For the impecunious amateur
I'm Henry Jeffreys. My aim in this blog is to have something interesting to say about booze once a week. I am going to write 500 words or so on a wine-related topic. There will be guest reviewers to keep things lively but mainly it will be me talking about wine or occasionally other drinks.
“We’ve spent £70, I’m hungry and, worst of all, I’m sober” I complained. My wife was similarly disgruntled. We were at the Model Market in Lewisham. This was a derelict covered market that has been taken over by Street Feast and sells fast food during the summer months. We left vowing never to go back but decided to return last month with friends and children to see if we had judged too harshly. It was a beautiful August evening, a DJ was spinning soul music records and the trendy things of south east London seemed to be lapping it up despite the prices: £9 for fried chicken and chips, £7 for a small plate of fried squid, not as good as Royal China according to my daughter, and most galling of all, £6, £6!, for a 355ml can of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. Another bar on site was selling a pint of the same beer for £5 but I definitely felt trendier holding a can.
The appearance of posh fast food is one of the stranger trends to have swept Britain in the last few years. The food of poor America tarted up and priced up to be eaten by middle class British people. There’s a chain called Bubble Dogs that will charge you £15 for a hot dog and a glass of fizz. Hot dogs should cost $2.50 and be eaten on the street.
We’ve even taken to that weird distinctly American hybrid of savoury fried chicken and sweet waffles with maple syrup. Duck & Waffle in London offer the ultimate posh take on this swapping the fried chicken for a confit duck leg. What’s interesting about these gourmet versions is how we get it so wrong. The food is beautifully presented but there’s just not enough of it. With American food you’re not meant to be able to walk afterwards.
That said some fast foods do benefit from a little poncification. I like George Osborne’s favourite, Byron Burger. I am willing to pay for good quality steak, chopped up and served rare especially if I’m eating it in a booth. In fact I’ll pay almost anything if I’m seated in a booth. But I am baffled by places such as Shake Shack or 5 Guys which offer burgers no better than McDonald’s and chips that are significantly worse (McDonald’s french fries are superb). At Shake Shack a burger, fries and shake will cost about £17. The equivalent at Maccy D’s will cost you about £6. The middle classes look down their noses at McDonald’s and yet are happy to eat essentially the same food as long as it is expensive enough.
So why do these places charge so much? Well first of all because they can. There are plenty of people for whom spending £10 on a hamburger isn’t a lot of money. But also in the case of Street Feast you are not just paying for the food and the overheads. All vendors are smartly branded. We bought our chicken from the amusingly-named Mother Clucker. The dream is to do a Meatliquor which started as a food truck and now has branches throughout London. Your average chicken shack in Louisiana doesn’t have a PR firm or a marketing strategy.
Street Feast are owned by a company called London Union. They don’t just sell overpriced burgers but are also, according to their slogan, “Transforming Lives And Communities Through The Awesome Power Of Street Food”. It’s the brainchild of restaurateurs Jonathan Downey and Henry Dimbleby. Street Feast run similar markets around the country and put on events with celebrity chefs such as Thomasina Miers.
One thing you will notice about the names above is that they’re not exactly salt-of-the-earth types. Alexei Sayle in his recent stand-up routine joked about how the poshing up of jobs such as journalism (I admit I am part of this trend) and comedy has spread to fast food: “burger vans! burger vans! all the burger vans down my local market are run by the class of Charterhouse of 2005.” Sayle also mocks the sort of gap year cookery where rich English kids discover the authentic street food of somewhere poor and decide to bring it back home at a price, “there’s a Vietnamese Phô stall in Peckham run by the Queen and Prince Philip.”
At Oak Fisheries in Headingley which I used to visit when I was a student, you were served by a woman with enormous arms who looked like she was born to work in a fish and chip shop whilst an unsmiling man with a comb over fried the fish in dripping. It’s still the best fish and chips I’ve ever had. There was no branding, no mission statement, and no plans to roll it out into a chain.
The day after Model Market, I went to a barbeque put on by some of the parents on our street. They all agreed that Street Feast was a rip off, and yet at the same time they would go back. One mother told me that what she loved about it was that it’s like not being in Lewisham, you could pretend that you live in a nice bit of London for the evening.
It occurred to me that Street Feast is the opposite of street food. You are not in the street. You are in a carefully curated middle class fantasy land, like being at a music festival but without bands. If the high prices don’t deter the wrong sort of people from wandering in, the entry fee after 7pm will. Whilst the stalls are run by the middle class, the people collecting rubbish were immigrants. It was London in a microcosm.
Meanwhile at Lewisham’s actual street market you can buy a proper bratwurst hot dog for £3, jerk chicken made by real Jamaicans for £4 and a pint at the nearby Wetherspoons for £1.80. They even sell Sierra Nevada Pale Ale though you do have to mix with some ghastly people.
A much shorter version of this article appeared in the Oldie magazine
Glen David Gold is probably best known for his debut novel, Carter Beats the Devil, and its follow up Sunnyside. When I was in publishing I worked on the publicity for the latter and we spent a very pleasant, at least for me, few days together when he came over to England for publication. I didn’t know him well but he always came across as about the nicest most relaxed author one could wish for. Note for readers here, not all authors are nice and they are very rarely relaxed. There’s a very good line in his memoir, I Will be Complete, which comes out this month:
“When I describe what happened, people tend to ask ‘but how did you end up so – ‘ they dance around the world ‘ normal’. then realise it doesn’t apply, and instead they say, ‘so nice’?”
I’m not nice. I’m polite. Nice is a quality and polite is a strategy. But I have ended up happy.”
Glen David Gold looking happy. Credit: Sara Shay
Glen was brought up in affluence in southern California but when his parents broke up he moved with his mother to San Francisco. By the age of 12 he was living much of the time by himself whilst his mother was in New York. His relationship with his unstable and increasingly erratic mother provides the engine of the book. As a memoir it bears comparison with This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolff, and in a neat link, Glen was taught by Wolff’s brother Geoffrey at the University of California who himself wrote a memoir about his bizarre childhood called the Duke of Deception. Glen’s book has the fluency of the former and the honesty and hard-won wisdom of the latter but with a strangeness and, at the end, a darkness, that is all it’s own. It deserves to sell by the container load as well as win every prize going.
In my correspondence with Glen I discovered that he is a fairly recent but already hopeless wine bore so here he is talking about one of his passions:
Hello Glen, what are you working on at the moment?
My memoir I WILL BE COMPLETE comes out June 26th and although there’s very little (no) wine in it you may very well want to pour yourself a glass while reading it. I’m writing a few brief essays to support it, I’m starting research on the next historical novel, and I’m looking to sit in a writers room for a good TV show and play in someone else’s kingdom for a while.
You mention your father has got into wine at 80, was that your work?
A little bit. My brother Seth started a rum company, SELVA REY, and spent five years coming over to every single family gathering with samples to test on us. My dad is a collector at heart and he loves the stories behind things, so he was a perfect sucker for the small batch bourbon thing. Like myself, he loves stories of growers and stories that begin, “This wine is now $100 but when I bought it en primeur it was $40,” but as you know those stories are very rare. His favorite wine is now Myriad Cabernet Sauvignon. (Update: I think the Sarah Francis Beckstoffer GIII now wins.)
Would you say wine has brought you closer together?
Yes but so has age. He’s a good dad for an adult.
What are you drinking at the moment?
2016 Henri Boillot Bourgogne. That interview with Mike D in Noble Rot tipped me off to how to surf Burgundy by getting the $20/30 Bourgognes and Bourgogne Blancs of high-end producers, and as a result I am beginning to understand why that region is so terrifying. Dujac’s Bourgogne Blanc is hypnotic, delicious, has massive bottle variation and is utterly unavailable. Is there anything else to know about Burgundy?
Was there a eureka moment with wine or was it a gradual process?
Very gradual. About eight years ago, my friend David came to a party with three William Selyam pinots from different vineyards. He had a complicated experiment he wanted to conduct involving decanting and the terroir of single vineyard designates. Unfortunately another friend saw what he interpreted as giant glasses of wine, and he literally upended an entire, to the brim glass, said “wow, that’s great,” then took down the next one, and the next. I wish you could have seen the solid O of horror on my friend David’s face.
Maybe a year later, I was at a restaurant called Prospect in San Francisco. They’re friendly to me there and someone had left without finishing his bottle of 2007 Radio Coteau Savoy Pinot Noir, so they poured the rest of the bottle for me and my date, and I was intrigued.
About a year after that I had a 2009 Clos St Julien, which is a fairly weird St Emilion, and I realized I was in love with how I was tasting something I was unable to describe — just experience. My writing powers were nullified. Huzzah!
Who do you think writes well about wine/ drink?
I like how detailed Chris Kissack gets in his reports on producers, though he and I don’t have aligning palates. I also like Kermit Lynch’s book — he was my local wine shop long long before I understood anything about what I was drinking.
Do you have a favourite drink scene in literature?
Wilton Barnhardt has a novel called LOOK AWAY LOOK AWAY about the contemporary American South, and there’s a lovely scene in which a rich relative works dark magic on a family meal, gleefully giving glasses of 1989 Lynch Bages to people who don’t know what they’re drinking. Quite the indictment of social mores.
What’s your favorite everyday wine?
I try to not have an every day wine. When I don’t crave a spectacular experience, but a familiar one, I’m drawn toward gamay in the summer months and older cru bourgeois bordeaux at other times — the 2010 Senejac, which was $17 a bottle, is a stupid value right now.
Do you have a favourite restaurant for wine?
In St Helena there’s an unassuming place called COOK on the main drag; we’d been told to go in for a bite and a glass. The wines were written on a dry erase board because they changed daily, and sometimes hourly. I recognized some of the names but not all of them. I asked the waiter what we should have and he brought out…something. A cabernet with a little age on it. It was outstanding. What was it? He said not to worry about it. His old landlord owed him some money and had paid him in wine instead. What wine? Oh, something he’d taken in trade for a job done. There was a label on the bottle but it didn’t explain much. It wasn’t a label I ever saw again. And it was perfect.
Do you have a dream wine?
That’s interesting — because of their prices and everyone else singing their praises I’m curious about 1961 first growths and good vintages of Jayer and DRC and all that, but the wine I’m hoping someone will open for me one day would be a 1990 Henri Bonneau Celestins. I’ve had his basic Chateauneuf, and his Marie Beurrier, and even the vin de pays, but I haven’t yet managed to get near his grand achievement, which the ecstatic tasting notes suggest will put you through puberty all over again.
You live in San Francisco? Do you often visit nearby vineyards if so which ones?
It’s odd — only an hour trip, but I always felt like I needed to mentally prepare for a day before going. It was like visiting Comicon. My two guaranteed stops were at Acme Fine Wines, which is the Sun Records of St Helena, and the To Kalon vineyard. There is a lovely man, Tom Garrett, who runs DETERT, a very small winery, on something 17 acres of Cab Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon. His wines are extraordinary and close to unknown, which is bizarre to me, given his location. We also visited CARTER (the name is a coincidence), as their wine maker, Mike Smith, does some of my other favorite California Cabernets via MYRIAD, SCARLETT and BECKLYN. That varietal can be loud, obnoxious, clever yet facile, designed for mass appeal and have a finish that’s far too long (I have just described every Marvel movie, haven’t I?) Mike’s work is intriguing — it flirts with all that stuff before veering into a better place. But if you want to try something that is far more St Julien like, the final wine maker on my list is Massimo Di Costanzo of DI COSTANZO wines, whose work is exceptionally elegant.
Thank you Glen! Some greats tips there. Now everyone, buy the book.