Category Archives: Travel

Tales from the road

Bloody back labels!

The label on the front of the bottle Sibella and I are halfway through tells me it’s a 2007 Merlot from Patagonia, Argentina, with a strength of 14% alcohol by volume. I’m also informed that the wine is a ‘Reserve’ – a term, I’m afraid, that’s virtually meaningless. In certain regions of Europe the term ‘reserve’, ‘reserva’ or ‘riserva’ does indicate that the wine has been subjected to mandatory treatment, with regard to oak-ageing, grape selection or to the length of time held before release. Alas in many parts of the world the ‘Reserve’ tag is utterly imprecise or indeterminate. It could be that the grapes are specially selected. It could refer to a period spent in oak casks. Or it could mean bugger-all except it’s a great marketing ploy.

Turn the bottle around and things get worse. The back label of a wine bottle is all to frequently just a licence to exude persiflage and bullshit. There are 5 sectors on this particular back label. First off, the wine ‘contains sulphites’. Fine so far, but then we move on to talk ‘Style’. Leaving aside absurdities like “almost meaty vanilla-like aroma” I read “black cherries, damsons, raisins with a bitter-sweet after-taste of plain chocolate.” Hey, what if the reader doesn’t like raisins? Or doesn’t do bitter-sweet? Worse, if he buys the wine and doesn’t find these sensations doesn’t it kill credibility? I’ve warned before about taking this gush on board; never forget, one person’s “honeysuckle on a summer’s evening” is another’s ”three-year old Nike trainers”.

Then I learn the wine is “best appreciated at room temperature”. Shame they never tell you what ‘room temperature’ means. The ambient of a centrally-heated, ecologically-insulated, shag-pile carpeted, low-ceilinged living room is not what any winemaker would call ‘room temperature’. This is so misleading. If they mean “serve at 16-18 C” why don’t they just say so?

“Guests will be surprised by its provenance” reminds me of James Thurber’s It’s a naive domestic Burgundy without any breeding, but I think you’ll be amused by its presumption. What the marketing guys are telling you in this instance is ‘Your guests are gonna say “Argentina? You’re kidding? I’d have sworn it was Cheval Blanc.”’ And, of course, I believe them. Not.

Finally, I learn that “careful oak aged (sic) gives the wine added depth of flavour”. As I’ve said before, there’s ‘oak’ and ‘oak’. Are we talking barrels? Staves? Oak chips? Sacks filled with sawdust? Liquid extract? Give us a clue.

Is there a Society for The Abolition of Back Labels? If there was, I’d join today. Divorced from all the blather, Canale Estate Reserve Merlot 2007 (€12.39, Marks & Spencer) is rather good well-made wine. Solid, impactful, rich, flavoursome and exempt from that gloopy soup mouthfeel of your average New World merlot, it came to the rescue last night after yet another bottle of very expensive Aussie Shiraz proved to be corked, third time in two weeks.* No wonder they believe in Stelvin down under.

* The three, all top dollar gear, were from vintages 1998/1999/2000 – a bad period for cork?

So it Goes…

john41This Week’s Decent Drinking

I make no apologies for making this week’s WOTW a wine you are unlikely to be unable to buy. The 2000 John Wade Cabernet Sauvigon/Merlot/Cabernet Franc I opened tonight I picked up at the vineyard on a visit to Denmark and Albany, at the bottom end of Western Australia in 2002.

In 1982, John Wade created the award winning Wynns – Coonawarra “John Riddoch” , a wine that was named Best Red Wine in Australia on two separate occasions..

John, a graduate from Wagga, if memory serves me right, began his winemaking career in the Hunter Valley. At Wynns, he quickly achieved promotion from assistant winemaker to winery manager, a position he held for six years. Afterwards, he worked in Western Australia, as consultant winemaker with leading Great Southern producers Alkoomi and Goundrey and was then appointed senior winemaker with Plantagenet Wines, a position he held for six years.

His work is not limited to Australia. John has undertaken vintage work in France – at Chateau Senejac in Margaux and Chateau Pontet-Canet in Pauillac. In 1995 he worked as winemaker at the new Tenuta di Trinoro estate in Southern Tuscany.

In 1986 John founded the Howard Park Winery and in 1992 established the Madfish Bay label, currently popular in any number of Irish restaurants thanks to importers, Nicholson’s. After leaving Howard Park he has worked as a wine industry consultant. When I met him in Denmark, WA in May 2002 he was making wine for a number of vineyards in the Great Southern region and was also tending his own vines. All the grapes in the wine we drank last night were grown on the estate.

vines at Denmark, WA
vines at Denmark, WA

I opened John’s 2000 Cabernet Sauvignon/ Merlot/ Cabernet Franc last night and pretty impressive it was too. The stellar, fragrant and uber powerful nose struck a chord with everyone at the table. Denmark’s cool climate enabled the wine to tip the scales at a mere 12.5% ABV giving the wine a definite Left Bank Bordeaux feel and allowing the herbal notes of the Cab Franc to escape from the fruit and shine. Lovely!

To return to something you CAN buy, the Whitehaven Sauvignon Blanc 2008, less minerally aggressive than many Marlborough NZ examples, is well worth the asking price, especially at the ‘on special’ €10.99. I’m always looking for decent whites around a tenner since The Dark Lady of My Sonnets gave up drinking red, and this one sure fits the bill. From O’Briens.

Bordering on Great – Ludlow

Ludlow
Ludlow

Ludlow is an historic, exceptionally pretty town in South Shropshire,  bordering the counties of Herefordshire, also in England and Powys, Wales’ largest. Latterly Ludlow has been hyped (many would say massively over-hyped) as England’s provincial gastro capital.

There for a few days, holidaying with Daughter One, I came to the conclusion that the hype was only partly justified. Granted there are two Michelin-starred restaurants (there were 3 until Shaun  Hill quit The Merchant House to take over the Franco Taruchio’s legendary The Walnut Tree in Abergavenny) but the supporting cast is mundane at best – the cafes unenticing and the pubs wearisomely formulaic.

The real glory of Ludlow is in its local produce which is exceptional with good bakers, great butchers, pie, cheese and jam makers and myriad other artisans. Also, of course, the pastoral idyll that surrounds you.

Lower Buckton
Lower Buckton

We stayed at Lower Buckton, a small country house b&b near Leintwardine, a pretty village only a few  miles from Ludlow, ensconced in glorious countryside – perfect for the walking we had planned to undertake. Lower Buckton gets forkncork‘s vote for Best Breakfast for Ages with home made meusli, yoghurt, Welsh honey, home made breads, jams and marmalades, crowning glory being the perfectly poached eggs, yolks deep golden; superb butcher’s sausage and what I think is the best dry-cured bacon I’ve ever tasted. Oh and nearly missed the tasty fat field mushroom, topped with fresh sage. Good coffee too, makes a nice change. No tomatoes though – “They aren’t in season” said Carolyn, giving the clue to what Lower Buckton is all about. Anyhow, we were stuffed, we didn’t need tomatoes. But we did need the hike afterwards.

The night before we had eaten a meal of local salami, home made mushroom paté (must get the recipe) and quail’s eggs, with a delish bread from a local baker – Carolyn says it’s called ‘Shropshire Brown’; followed by ultra-fresh wild venison liver, pearl spelt and lovely assorted greens dug up that afternoon from the garden by Henry, Carolyn’s husband, who introduced himself to us as ‘the butler’.

Henry Chesshire and Carolyn Stone are a convivial couple, with the knack of making guests feel at home. A good few years ago they decided to shun supermarkets and everything you eat now comes from the garden, the local farms, or local artisan producers and the quality shines through. Carolyn also gives cooking lessons. Thanks go to Henry for keeping us topped up with tea and coffee as we sat in the comfortable lounge, tapping laptops or resting aching feet.

One caveat, though. I’m sure H & C won’t mind me saying that they are country folk, with the habits and prejudices that a rural upbringing implants. Hunting, shooting and fishing come as natural to them as dodging traffic and following footie  to city dwellers. Hyper PC foodies should maybe leave their sensibilities at home or conclude here and now that Lower Buckton ain’t their bag.

breakfast-bucktonThough personally I think the best use for horses (untrustworthy beasts, as I know from being dumped on my arse in a Connemara bohereen) is in salami di Milano, I can’t wait to get back to Lower Buckton. Thanks, Carolyn and Henry for a memorable few days.

ps Anyone visiting the Marches should also check out The Stagg at Titley – stellar food in a very pleasant pub/restaurant.

www.lowerbuckton.co.uk

www.thestagg.co.uk

The Charms of Wexford, part 2

All this said, it’s ‘the other Wexford’ that claims my affection, to the extent where friends have taken to calling me ‘The Ambassador’. It begins with a left turn on the N11 at Ferns towards the picturesque town of Enniscorthy. One the way you pass Salville House, a weekend retreat that enables you to do an extensive sampling of your own fine wines while someone else (in this case the talented proprietor Gordon Parker) worries about the food. I have never stopped to eat in Enniscorthy but have plundered the local butchers, Staffords, for their excellent beef, lamb, chicken and ducks. Just out of the town you pass a sign for Monart, currently the spa both the beautiful people and the 51-week-a-year couch potatoes want to get to.

At the inner end of Wexford Harbour stands the Ferrycarrig Hotel, owned by local hero Liam Griffin who master-managed the Wexford hurling team to a glorious against-the-odds All-Ireland victory in 1996. A follow-up, alas, is not yet in sight. The Ferrycarrig makes a great base from which to discover the charm of both town and county and has a very decent restaurant, Reeds.

Third exit at the Duncannon Road roundabout and I’m in ‘home’ territory. Tantalizingly, in the distance, you glimpse the sea and it’s to the sea we’re headed. Not to Kilmore Quay, though the town has its charms, particularly access to the mysterious Saltee Islands where a man in the last century proclaimed himself a king and set up a parliament of fishermen. Instead we carry on down the military road, essaying a right and left through Wellington Bridge, a village named for the famous ‘Iron Duke’, conqueror of Napoleon, the Irish-born English hero proclaimed that if you are born in a stable it doesn’t make you a horse. Beyond the village, we pause to buy glistening fish from Susie and Patrick, a brace of beautiful black sole and queen scallops for garnish and some breakfast kippers. I could be persuaded to reveal the exact location – just send the Latour ’82 to…

The countryside here is not noted for rugged grandeur. Instead it beguiles, drawing you in through its subtle, understated charm. Even the cliffs lack drama, compared to, say, West Clare or Donegal; although there is much drama to be found in a walk around Hook Head in inclement weather, when the path is strewn with clouds of candyfloss sea foam, like Christmas-come-early; the waves hit the rocks, rise and knock your hat off. The Hook lighthouse is not the usual seaside trinket. It is squat and purposeful, as befits its title as the oldest in Europe.

The beaches are only amazing. From Duncannon’s long strand, largely ignored as an amenity except during mega-heat waves and bank holidays to Grange, the fisherman’s beach, there’s one for every reason and every time of day. Baginbun gets the morning sun. At Dollar Bay, which faces almost due West, bright Phoebus donates light and warmth until well into a summer’s evening.

In Duncannon village you’ll find two pubs, Roche’s and The Strand Tavern, with the locals divided in their loyalties. Roche’s is definitely ‘all pub to all people’; sports maven telly-gogglers, traditional musicians, pool players, smokers and those who are simply there ‘for the craic’ all seem to have their own defined space. Me, I’m there to drink Guinness by the pint bottle ‘off the shelf’, that is ‘unchilled’. I’d counsel you to try it; traditional, unique and subtle in flavour, once you get used to it, the frozen pint from the pump will seem lacklustre by comparison.

Like its counterpart across the road, Roche’s is family owned and at various times Bob, Eileen, James, David and assorted other members of the family are to be found serving there. An exception is Cindy, who will be running her stylish restaurant, Sqigl (pronounce it ‘squiggle’) in the adjacent barn. Eat in any Wexford restaurant and you could be forgiven for thinking that the county was the prototype for Gulliver’s Brobdignag. Sqigl is no exception – though the food is modern and cultured and the presentation pristine there are sufficient accompaniments to ensure you won’t go away hungry.

Oh, we are so lucky. Three top class restaurants almost in walking distance and another a mere five miles away. Billy Whitty is the chef and co-proprietor (with his partner Joanne) of Aldridge Lodge and his history is a heart-warming tale. Son of a local prawn and lobster fisherman, Billy, as a boy, always had a yearning to become a chef. Alas, the pen-pushers responsible for running catering course didn’t think he had what it takes and turned him down. Subsequent events proved that these guys are food’s equivalent of Decca’s Dick Rowe, the A&R man who famously scribbled ‘groups with guitars are passé’ and, thereby, donated The Beatles to rivals Parlophone. At this point enter Kevin Dundon who’s been in these pages previously. “If you want to become a chef” he said, “You’d better come and work for me”. Billy did and rose from being plongeur’s assistant to sous chef in less time than it takes to say ‘foie gras’. Billy’s own restaurant on the outskirts of the village is now a consistent award winner. Sample any course on the menu – particularly the lobster, supplied by ‘guess who’, and you’ll see why.

Meanwhile, at next door Arthurstown, Kevin and Catherine Dundon have opened a champagne bar in Dunbrody House. As well as a decent selection of bubbly and a range of smart cocktails the bar also serves great food, in the shape of starter-sized portions, three or four of which shared between two would make an informal meal. This will suit guests of the hotel as well as casual customers. Not everyone wants to eat a full dinner every night even when the uber-talented Kevin is at ‘the piano’.

Chefs and public alike keep an eye on the heights above the village where Richard Corrigan is knocking down one house and building another. “Will The Big Man open a restaurant?”, everyone wonders. Richard laughs off these suggestions, protesting he’s only here for the beer and the boating. It may be true.

Over at nearby Campile, Denise Bradley, formerly of Sqigl, Roly’s in Dublin and Colin O’Daly’s much-missed Park in Blackrock has taken over the Shelburne where the challenge has always been to make something of the mundane room. Denise has achieved this, cosying the place up with dividers, decent curtains and enough candles to light Notre Dame cathedral. The food is mainstream-modern and, like other restaurants in the area, majors on local ingredients and decent portions. The desserts (Denise is a trained, highly-skilled pastry chef) are mouthwatering as well as being total eye candy.

There’s no shortage of things to do. The gardens at Kilmokea House are wondrous, especially when the rhododendrons are out. The tea and scones are excellent at any time of year. From Rosslare to New Ross there are any amount of golf courses and par threes. There’s great sea fishing to be had. The JFK Memorial Park is well worth an hour or two’s stop. New Ross, a town in the process of transformation, now has a Thai, a Chinese and an Indian restaurant as well as the Dunbrody famine ship replica, a salutary warning against excessive hedonism. Locals, among whom I count myself, are justifiably addicted to Patsy and Phillip’s Nutshell Cafe, decent coffee and fine home cooking with a health food shop out front lest ye overindulge.

The ferry at Ballyhack puts the adjacent county, Waterford, within five minutes’ reach, alerting the visitor to the charms of The Strand, The Tannery, Faithlegg, Coast and La Boheme as well as Rockett’s the pub where they still serve crubeen. But, as Moustache, bistro keeper in Billy Wilder’s ‘Irma La Douce’ said, “That’s another story.”

Originally published in Issue 3 of ‘Intermezzo’, Ireland’s premier food, wine and travel magazine

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The Charms of Wexford

The Lighthouse, Hook Head
The Lighthouse, Hook Head

I have just celebrated my 20th anniversary of coming to Dublin to live. When I arrived on 28th August 1987 the place was closed for business. Emigration, albeit not in famine ships, seemed to be the fate of Ireland’s populace once more. The ferries leaving Dun Laoghaire sat several feet lower in the water than the one that brought me to land. Did somebody actually shout “When you get in, turn the lights back on” or was that a trick of my imagination?

Now, or so ‘they’ tell us, it’s boom time and we are accounted one of the richest nations in the world (although I still have this queasy feeling that sometime soon a small year old child will jump up a la Hans Christian Anderson and holler “Daddy, daddy! The economy has no clothes on!”) Undaunted by such pessimism, the ‘wild geese’ are returning by the planeload to find discretionary income abundant and, unlike the old days, plenty to spend it on. These days Dubliners drive non-utilitarian cars, one per adult. Many have second homes or, at least, the wherewithal to spend weekends ‘down the country’.

My wife and I discovered county Wexford about ten years ago, on a sea kayaking weekend, roughing it in a hostel at Ramsgrange. Prior to that we’d always driven westwards in search of relaxation, to the Shannon or to Connemara. Now ‘The Model County’ is our favoured destination and we get there as often as work and other pressures permit.

That county’s inhabitants will always tell you, with an enigmatic smile, that Wexford is located in ‘The Sunny South East’, one of those time-worn clichés you used to find proclaimed on adverts in railway carriages long before we discovered Mallorca and Malaga where they have real sun. Still, there’s something in it. After ten years we are still always surprised how benign the weather can be when we get the far side of Gorey.

There are really two Wexfords, east and west. Gorey at the northernmost tip of the county has been dragged unwittingly into the Dublin commuter belt, a feat accomplished with the aid of greatly improved roads. I wonder how many politicos and planners have weekend places at nearby Courtown?

Gorey itself is somewhat bereft of gastronomic delights, although this is bound to change. There is an honourable exception a few miles away at Marlfield House where the Bowe family have always maintained exemplary standards of hospitality, aided and abetted by an excellent chef. The reputation of Marlfield was built on its food, much of it grown in the hotel’s kitchen garden where fresh herbs, vegetables and fruit are gathered daily. There is an emphasis on local produce. Mention should be made, too of Papa Rhodes at Ballycanew, a village on the Gorey to Wexford road, which has a reputation among locals and holidaymakers for simple, tasty Italian food and a ‘fun’ atmosphere.

South and East of Wexford town, where the strands are long and inviting, the Lobster Pot, the Hearn family’s pristine country pub at Carne established long ago the envied reputation of being one of the best places in Ireland at which to eat fish. Rosslare, from whose port the ferry departs for and arrives from France – watch out for wayward drivers on the wrong side of the road – boasts another icon. Kelly’s Resort Hotel and Spa, in the same ownership for three generations, is justly regarded as the best place in Ireland for a family holiday. Nowhere is bringing kids so lacking in stress for the parents. And nowhere is more care taken to ensure that those adults sans brats who just want to chill, eat drink and red the papers, remain undisturbed. Bill Kelly, the caring proprietor walks the dining room on a nightly basis, making himself known to guests. Another fillip is that Bill’s father-in-law is the illustrious Rhone producer Paul Avril and his wines embellish an already spectacular list.

Talk Irish history with anyone who is interested and they’ll probably lament the failure of the (non-sectarian) rebellion of 1798 in which Wexford’s inhabitants played an important part. The event has been immortalised in songs such as ‘the Boys of Wexford’ and ‘Boolavogue’ which most Wexford people learn in primary school and maybe this has fostered the pride and spirit that has seen Wexford town pick itself up after a period in the economic doldrums to emerge as a vibrant capital for the county. I’d counsel anyone who hasn’t been to go to the Opera Festival, even if they are tone deaf, just to soak up the atmosphere. I still covet the ‘Pub Pavarotti’ title, maybe one day I’ll shed my inhibitions and croak my way through an aria! The town has several fine restaurants; among the most notable are Forde’s and the astonishing La Dolce Vita, the embodiment of Italy in Ireland, presided over by genial chef and saucier extraordinaire Roberto Pons

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Amalfi Fly Drive – driving notes, hotels, pics

Notes on driving on the Costiera d’Amalfi.

The roads are narrow but, in comparison to Irish roads, well-signposted. Many country roads have high stone kerbs, prone to scuff wheel trims if you get too close.

The Italians are brisk drivers and they have a low tolerance of bumbling tourists. That’s their problem and you should condition yourself to ignore the cacophany of horns behind you. It goes without saying that you should keep a sharp lookout through the driving mirror and both wing mirrors.

A single beep from astern is invariably a scooter rider warning that he (or she) is about to overtake.

If you have never owned an Italian car you may be surprised by the lack of flexibility in 2nd gear (2nd, 3rd and 4th are very close ratios). You will frequently find yourself having to select 1st on hills.

Finally, the world and his wife travels the hyper-crowded coast road on Sundays. Leave the car parked up and use the day to chill.

Ten things you should eat, drink or do

1.Drink local wine. It’s excellent, particularly the red, so why pay twice the price for Tuscan chianti? Reliable producers include Marisa Cuomo, Apicella, Reale and Sammarco.
2.Buy ceramics. Campania plates are a Mediterranean icon and their cheerful patterns will sustain your happy memories through next winter.
3.Sip limoncello, the local aperitivo, based on the aromatic sfusato lemons of the region. There is a small factory in Ravello where you can try before you buy.
4.Look out for Syrenum by Sorrentolio – a distinctive olive oil made from a single cultivar, very much ‘of the region’.
5.Eat pastries, granita or sweetmeats and drink the best cappuccino in town while people-gazing at Pasticerria Andrea Panzi 1830 in Amalfi.
6.Enjoy the classic simplicity of pizza Margherita in its homeland. Originally conceived for the Queen of Italy, in the colours of the Italian flag – tomatoes, mozzarella and basil.
7.The clams of the Costiera are the sweetest and most flavoursome in the world.
8.If you see huge, winkly, cracked tomatoes for sale, buy them. They are a delicacy, prized for their exuberant flavour.
9.Fjords make you think of Norway. There’s one here too, at the small, scenic village of Furore, a ‘must visit’.
10.Visit Pompeii on the way down or back.

Hotels

Hotel Poseidon, Positano Tel: +39 089 811111 E-mail: info@hotelposeidonpositano.it Web: www.hotelposeidonpositano.it

Hotel Villa Maria, Ravello Tel. +39 089 857255 E-mailvillamaria@villamaria.it Web: www.villamaria.it

Hotel Santa Caterina, Amalfi Tel: +39 089 871012 E-mail: info@hotelsantacaterina.it Web: www.hotelsantacaterina.it

Amalfi Fly Drive – part 1

Arguments start in April. The bone of contention is the same every year: on our summer jaunt to the continent do we (a) go by ferry and take the car? (b) fly in and hire a car? or (b) shun driving and, instead, use whatever public transport we find? In the event, we’ve done all three and enjoyed ourselves. The first course of action is not really an option, time-wise, if you intend holidaying in southern Europe, not to mention the problems of judgment and visibility when you’re driving a vehicle whose controls are on the kerb side of the road. Public transport can be infrequent and often downright unreliable –nothing worse than, after enjoying the meal of your life in some country auberge or trattoria, having to trudge six miles back to your hotel.
Which is why, this year, we found ourselves making the acquaintance of Hertz’s man in Napoli and taking charge of a spanking new metallic silver Fiat Punto Grande – de luxe trim, a few more bhp and impressive climate control differentiate this beauty from the base beast. The formalities were minimal and I couldn’t wait to heave the luggage into the boot and zip down the autostrade that leads to the super-scenic Costiera d’Amalfi. Which is why I was soon in breach of Rule 1 of Hiring Strange Cars in an Alien Land; this being ‘Take a few minutes to familiarise yourself with the controls before you set off’. “I wonder where the light switch is?” I ventured, as we plunged into the tunnel near Castellammare di Stabia. This earned me a withering look from my passenger, Daughter One, and an admonitory fanfare from oncoming vehicles. Once out of the gloom, I reached into the glovebox for the handbook, parked up and had a good read.
A pasta junkie, I was anxious to make a pilgrimage en route to the small town of Gragnano where the main street was, in 1820, constructed along the sun’s axis to facilitate the drying of pasta during daylight hours. Alas the Via Roma was closed to traffic so we decided to press on and lunch at a roadside trattoria. Such places rarely disappoint in Italy; we were soon tucking into huge bowls of clams and mussels, with fresh bread to mop up the delicious sauce. With some regret I limited myself to a single glass of local wine.
Even if you haven’t been there I’m sure you will have seen pictures of Positano. A long and winding road snaking down from the highway. Houses, hotels and elegant shops, in harmonious shades of wash ranging from palest pink to deepest tawny, digging their heels into the precipitous cliffs and for a centerpiece, what’s probably the world’s most photographed church after the Vatican, slap-bang in the middle of the beach.
To a newcomer, the strand comes as a shock. We are not talking Wexford or Connemara gold here; Positano’s is composed of black volcanic stones, ground into pea-sized pebbles by time and the sea. There is a bonus, though. The grit acts as a natural defoliant. A week of beach hugging and a couple of swims a day, you’ll come home with skin like silk.
We were staying at the Poseidon, built as a family home some fifty years ago. Truly elegant, in an understated kind of way, it was my daughter’s best possible introduction to the charm, civility and friendliness of Italy. The comfortable room, to our delight, had a sea view. Sipping a pre-prandial Campari and soda, we watched the yachts glide homewards in the fading light. We dined in the hotel and were glad we did so. The service was courteous and correct and the chef, clearly, something of a star. I hope they can hang onto him for my next visit. The cucina was regional Italian, the presentation, in the modern idiom, and sharply focussed. We enjoyed the wines, a Greco di Tufo and a red from acclaimed local producer Marisa Cuomo, ordered in conjunction with the sommelier, who clearly knew his business. Donna Monica, the hotel’s owner, joined us on the terrace after dinner for a coffee and a grappa. Legend has it that the bar at the Poseidon is the Amalfi coast’s best venue for celebrity spotting but on this night most were elsewhere, clearly overawed by the debut in town of Denzel Washington and his extended family, twenty of them, all clad in white, presumably so no one could accuse them of the neo-celebs’ crime of travelling incognito.
The beauty of being a petrol head on holiday is that you are able to reach those places other tourists cannot, at least not without extreme ingenuity or strong legs and lungs, reach. These include the spectacular chef’s shop at Piano di Sorrento – yes they will sell to the public; the gaggle of restaurants in the upwardly immobile (heaven next stop) village of Monterpertuso; the spectacular fjord at Furore and the Costiera’s best cake maker, Salvatori De Riso, who has a cafe in Minori that’s a mecca for even savoury-toothed tigers like me.
Ravello is a tranquil, cultural oasis in the hills above Amalfi, normally a three-quarter hour drive from Positano. Alas, we had unwisely chosen to travel on a Sunday. Ravello has musical connections – the Villa Rufolo was said to be the inspiration for the second act setting of Wagner’s ‘Parsifal’. Events follow thick and fast, at least one per day during the summer months. Many of them are free and it would be far from unusual, while dining, to be entertained by a pick-up quartet of world class string players. Don’t come expecting an Italian version of Glyndebourne or Wexford Opera Fortnight, though; a classical knees-up, it’s not. Ravello is a peaceful sanctuary and attracting those who like to walk, read and listen to other people’s arias not the kind who enjoy belting out ‘O Sole Mio’ inison after the second bottle. Not for nothing was our serene, comfortable and friendly hotel, the Villa Maria, designated a ‘hotel da silenzia’, one where tranquility is put on a pedestal. The view from the dining terrace here, over the hill to Montone, is truly to die for.
Ravello’s other charm, for me, is that it contains one of my favourite restaurants in all the world. Cumpa Cosimo, modestly entitled ‘Pizzeria and Trattoria’ was founded by Cosimo Bottone. His daughter Netta subsequently carried on the family tradition. There is a photograph of her on the wall taken some years ago. She bears a striking resemblance to Ann Bancroft in ‘Mrs.Robinson’ guise. Through anno domini and eating her own pasta Netta is now cuddly rather than seductive but her impish nature remains and she sweeps through the dining room pausing to pinch the cheek of any male she believes needs feeding up. I was soon put in possession of a boatload of marinated anchovies, followed by the pasta di casa, a selection of seven, each with a different sauce, ranging through home made improvised shapes, to spaghettini, to ravioli, gnocchi and lasagne. I followed this with coniglio cacciatore, a whole rabbit braised with wine and tomatoes. I was able to trade some for a sample of Daughter One’s scallopini without feeling any sense of loss. For dessert, I cleansed my palate with a home made lemon sorbet, served in the shell of a plangently aromatic sfusato lemon, for which the Amalfi region is renowned. Wine, grappa and espressi, by now staples of the trip, bulked out the bill to a bargain e88 for two – “Give me 80 and I’ll throw in a free grappa”, said Netta.
We ate not another thing for the rest of the day.
Evening was spent in the square, people watching. The menfolk clustered outside the bars and debated as to whether Juventus would end up in Serie B or whether strokes would be pulled and ‘the old lady’ granted a reprieve; their wives came out dressed in their finery to stand and gossip while the children amused themselves by playing tag games.
Amalfi is about as far from Ravello in temperament as it’s possible to be. In late July the beach was ‘pure umbrellas’ as my daughter put it. The town was heaving and the tourist shops were doing a roaring trade. It’s a workaday town too, so there are smart boutiques, delis hanging whole hams, bric-a-brac emporia and ironmongers selling pasta machines and espresso pots, all of which add to the fascination. We stayed half a mile out of town at the Hotel Santa Caterina, cheek-by-jowl with a Jordanian prince and his private army and, so ‘twas rumoured, Romano Prodi and family. Denzel moored his yacht out in the bay, declining to join us.
I have stayed in some fine hotels but this one took the grand prize. Not least for the refinement and utterly sybarytic comfort of our suite, where I finally proved to my own satisfaction that you really shouldn’t absent-mindedly toss bubble bath into a jacuzzi! Up on the sun-baked terrace my daughter mused “I wonder if there is anywhere to swim?” “Look down” I said, pointing out the bar, pool and swimming platform 300 feet below. “You can go, I don’t fancy the climb back up.” The discovery of an elevator overruled my objections.
That night, we legged it into Amalfi for a return visit to the Trattoria della Duca, a haunt of locals, where the clams are fresh, the pizza crisp and the chat, though we couldn’t understand a word, flowing. Antonio, the proprietor, had ordained that we were to eat char-grilled vegetables and fish and as he weighs in at around 19 stone we were not disposed to argue. In the event, we were glad we took his recommendation, especially the succulent whole sea bream .
We were on the road early next day and relished the relatively traffic-free swoop up the coast and along the Sorrento peninsula towards Naples. We had grown fond of the Fiat and handed back the keys reluctantly. I think next year we’ll take a fortnight and keep going, as far as Italy’s ‘big toe’ by which time we’ll be farther south than the northernmost tip of Africa. Something to look forward to.

A Hungary Feeling…

Budapest as such has only existed since 1873 when the towns of Buda and Óbuda, located on the hilly west bank of the Danube, and Pest, on the flat plain on the other side, merged to form the capital. The new city rapidly expanded – today it houses almost a quarter of Hungary’s total population – developing into a vibrant European capital and embracing an outward-looking cosmopolitan philosophy that not even Communist rule could stifle.

Our first-day sightseeing tour commenced in Buda, looking down on the massively dignified Houses of Parliament on the Pest bank from the lofty heights holding Hungary’s own Statue of Liberty, raised in 1947 and amazingly, never uprooted after the the regime fell, despite its associations. Sculpture and statuary form a major theme of Budapest, embracing Communist monoliths and romantic visions of Imperial glory as well as the achingly beautiful Holocaust weeping willow tree memorial in the grounds of the Byzantine synagogue, largest in Europe.

From the heights of Buda we swooped down across the river to Market Hall No.1, the “big market” as the locals call it, restored in 1994 to its former “iron cathedral” splendour. The ground floor, where light floods in from the huge windows, hosts innumerable butcher’s stalls where, in addition to cuts of meat I thought were confined to history, many superb Hungarian salamis. Vegetables too were plentiful and devotees of heat among our party found themselves in chilli and paprika valhalla. Upstairs there’s some of the finest fast food I’ve ever had the pleasure of tasting. Plate upon plate of local specialities awaited, which you could wash down with abundant wine or superb Hungarian beer, to choice at prices that wouldn’t cause your credit card to curl up and die.

The architecture of Budapest is awe-inspiring, much of it a Victorian gothic equivalent speaking of bourgeois confidence and commercial success – like the bits of Manchester, Liverpool and Birmingham still left standing amid the steel and ferro-concrete, only on a more grandiose scale. The Palace of Arts, the Museum, the Opera House and many fine churches that we whistled past on the coach at a rate of knots were of this ilk. Even so, I was unprepared for the glory of Heroes’ Square with the archangel Gabriel atop at 36-metre column or for the neo-baroque grandeur of the Széchenyi baths, one of the largest bathing complexes in Europe – imagine the decadence of lounging around in the warm water (the external temperature was 35° in mid-September), playing chess on a floating board.

That evening we went out to dine, at the Restaurant Voros és Fecher, ‘Red and Black’. The food was, alas, international in style and, though decent, a little off the current pace in Dublin or London. Some of the party, myself included, would have preferred more traditional fare and this manifested itself at the end of the evening when, while the majority were content to quaff lager at a pavement café that, though attractive, could have been set down in any city in the western hemisphere, I, with my new fellow journo chums Heinz (Swiss) and Gaspar (Catalunyan, though based in Madrid), set off in search of ethnic authenticity. Lacking map or guidance, we ended up in a student bar – not quite as spit-and-sawdust as we’d hoped but it was refreshing to meet young friendly Hungarians who spoke English and exchange views with them. Equally refreshing was the local dark beer and even more refreshing, the prices – if memory serves me right e5.65 for three large ones! Here we also encountered the formidable digestic – Unicum, or ‘Ambulance’ which I featured in So it Goes.. in October’s FOOD & WINE Magazine.

Next day we drove back over the Elisabeth Bridge, once the world’s largest suspension bridge, blown up by the beleaguered German army in WWII and subsequently rebuilt. Our destination was the Castle district in Buda, a self-contained picturesque medieval enclave which, besides the Castle itself, featured an impressive Gothic church, the Mattias, with a roof reminiscent of the Hôtel Dieu in Beaune and the sugarloaf fairy castle known as The Fishermen’s Bastion. We lunched at the friendly and quite stylish Café Pierrot where a female piano player who had clearly been weaned on Errol Garner and Oscar Petersen knocked out some rather good jazz for the delectation of diners. Afterwards it was into the Castle for the grandiosely styled International Wine Exhibition – it seemed like our group of 14 journalists, drawn from the countries of Europe, made up the International aspect for the produce on show was 99.9%Hungarian. Alas, no arrangements had been made for the wine scribes among us to taste properly (something I hope the Organisers will take on board for future events) and we had to indulge in a bunfight with the punters in order to taste at all. By and large, reds and whites were a little disappointing, leaving us frustrated because we knew there were better wines about but had no idea where! We were, however, privileged to meet Hungary’s Winemaker of The Year Janos Arvay and his charming daughter. The Arvay Tokai was sublime, all the samples we tasted were pluperfect examples of this singular style of winemaking. Tokai is graded in ‘puttanos’, old name for a basket used to gather the grapes. Hence, the more grapes that go into a barrel of Tokai the more concentrated the wine. So a 6 Puttanyos Tokai is heavier and sweeter than a 3. This has led to a misapprehension, common even among some of the wine writers on the trip, that a ‘6 putts’ wine is somehow “better”. It is not. It is merely a different style of Tokai and for many purposes and with many foods, the lower putts wines are nicer.

On the Sunday we took a boat on the Danube, a pleasant excursion involving a glass of Tokai or three though sadly, not quite of the quality of Mr. Arvay’s. On deck, children were encouraged to make ‘wine’ by crushing grapes in a hand press. Maybe one or two will develop into Hungary’s flying winemakers of the future. Downstream of Budapest, it became evident that the nation’s enthusiasm for fine architecture waned on the outskirts of town as the familiar tower flats began to dominate the skyline. We docked at the pretty village of Szentendre – what was the patron saint of Scotland doing so far from home? – and accepted a horse drawn cart ride round the Open Air Ethnographical Museum, a reconstruction of yesteryear’s rural living. Here was another festival in full flow, much lower key in concept but permitting a tasting of traditional fare alongside the wine. We ate ‘langos’, a sort of potato pizza. They had even baked biscuits with our names iced on them, mine, as ever, incorrectly spelt. At the Museum’s restaurant we encountered real Hungarian family food at last – goulash soup, into which our host encouraged us to stir a piquant chilli sauce, and strudel.

In the evening we dined in an upmarket restaurant called Nosztalgia which made a very good fist of fine dining, with decent glassware, heavy linen and, for diversion, a stringed orchestra. A winemaker dining at the next table had a word with the maître d’; the wines at our table were whisked away, others substituted and we learned that the Hungarians do make some very good wine indeed – most of this particular vinification, it seemed, would end up on well-to-do ex-pat dinner tables in the USA. No mention need be made of “rip-off Budapest” by the way. Even in this icon of formality the starters were only e4 or 5 and the most expensive main course around e16.

On the final day the pace slackened and I wandered abroad alone, visiting Miro and Picasso exhibitions before taking the Metro, Europe’s first underground system, into town. The carriages are small and clockwork-trainsetty, haling arrival at a platform with an appealing jingle, every station, Christmas. I got arrested by two Lady Jobsworths at the terminus for not validating my ticket and was handed out sternly, for penalty and repentance, a savage fine of ….e9. Would I have simply disappeared in the bad old days?

Would I go back to Budapest? Like a shot. Only next time I’d go at my own pace, soaking up the atmosphere; revelling in architecture old and new (The French Institute and The Cigar Tower are fine examples of the latter); eating and drinking like a Hungarian; taking in a concert – great music abounds in the land of Kodaly, Bartok and Liszt and playing aquatic chess not just watching it. I’d like to think I’ll be yakking to the locals but as Hungarian is one of the world’s most difficult languages, unrelated as it is to any other, I might just have to pass on that one!.

Le Camping

Someday soon – but not yet – I’ll be too old for camping holidays in France. ‘Victoria’, my venerable Land Rover 110 is permanently kitted out with Easy Loader and J-Bars and it only takes a couple of minutes to stow ‘Beeswing’, my sea kayak up aloft. I have a rooted aversion to lazing on beaches so I figured long ago that it would be good to occupy myself practising bracing and wet exits while my lady soaked up the sun and devoured the novels she doesn’t have time to read the rest of the year. Sometimes, though, the will has to be taken for the deed. What with severely inclement weather, back twinges and long alcoholic lunches the kayak hardly came off the roof on the last trip! Nevertheless, the boat’s presence was advantageous in that 1) it enabled me to bond with a fellow kayaker who just happened to own a Michelin two-star restaurant. 2) Surmounted by a 19 foot long projectile the motor is a breeze to locate, even in a vast hypermarket car park. 3) We stowed all our clothes in ‘Beeswing’s hatches on the return, leaving more room for shedloads of wine.
In case the term ‘camping’ conjures up images of a spartan activity fit only for boy scouts and Himalayan mountaineers let me hasten to enumerate our inventory of under canvas ‘don’t-leave-home-withouts’ that’s been refined over many years.
Tent
I’m no great fan of frame tents. Yes, I know they provide a family-sized floppy version of bungalow bliss but I hate their instability in even a slight degree of wind and I do not have a PhD in civil engineering – a sine qua non when it comes to assembling the damn thing. Years ago I borrowed one and embarrassed myself in stereo – first, when my Cleesian performance in erecting it brought tears of mirth and roars of “Encore!” from fellow campers and again, at the end of the week, when I inadvertently packed up the car keys inside the tent and had to reprise the whole sorry performance in reverse. After this experience I bought a small mountain dome tent, of the ilk that would stand in a tempest on the side of Everest. I used it for years, until a wild wet night in the Dordogne forced me to share my mini-castle with four other campers whose flimsy shelters had blown away. This caused me to invest in a more roomy residence.
My current tent is a Khyam Super Vis-à-vis, a grown up version of the dome concept, with sleeping compartments either side of a central ‘corridor’ that’s big enough to accommodate a table and folding chairs and doorways front and rear. With standing headroom in the middle (nice to be able to get dressed standing up) the Vis-à-vis offers palatial housing for two people on an extended holiday and reasonable comfort for four. If there are only two of you the other compartment can be used as a ‘spare room’. Soundly constructed, with a flysheet of rip stop polyester and inner tents of breathable polycotton it remains impressively leak and draught proof and can be erected in under five minutes, thanks to a patented pole joint system, outer first so the inner tent doesn’t get wet even if it rains stair rods.
Airbed
Double, but with individually tuneable sides to allow your SO to attain that perfect degree of firmness/softness that will obviate a re-run of the ‘Princess and the Pea’ fairy tale.
Sleeping bags
To choice. Down for she, hollow synthetic for me. I’ve done enough yachting to know that moisture and down don’t mix. Take decent pillows, the kind that will give you a good night’s sleep.
Portable toilet
Don’t laugh, the modern ones are leak proof, pong proof and hygienic. Anyhow, beats searching for a campsite loo in the middle of the night.
The camp kitchen
Cookers x 3. Gas barbecue – a windshield is essential. Small Camping Gaz stove with a radiant top – for the Biaglietti espresso maker (Italian two-can job), a must if civilized standards are to be kept up. Trangia windproof stove (runs off gas or meths) with steamer.
For boiling water the Kelly Kettle is your only man. Known to fishermen for many years – invariably as ‘Paddy’s chimney’ or “the Kerry man’s volcano’ – this brilliant device boils a litre and a half of water in under 4 minutes, using waste combustible material such as twigs or dried grass, or yesterday’s ‘red tops’.
One of the best things we ever bought was a small Camping Gaz fridge that works off mains, bottled gas or the car battery, to choice. Chilled Sancerre outdoors on a summer’s night – instant bliss!
Other ‘must-haves’ include decent glasses and a few good corkscrews – take one it invariably gets mislaid on Day Two.
Cherbourg isn’t the ideal destination unless you want to visit the famous but clichéd Mont Saint Michel en route. It takes a long time to get off the peninsula so if you want to strike out quickly into the heart of Brittany, St.Malo or Roscoff is preferable. St.Malo is an utterly charming town, one that will repay a stay of a day or three. There are some excellent restaurants.
Roscoff, like its easterly counterpart Le Havre, is a bit of a kip. Nevertheless the latter provides rapid access south over the Pont de Tancarville and into a picturesque and interesting enclave of Normandy.
I am not one of those who rush to the Côte d’ Azur doing lemming impressions. I do not have the vehicle for such tomfoolery. Maybe if I win the lotto and buy a Ferrari my mindset will change. Until then I’m happy poddling down through Normandy, Brittany, The Vendée and the Charente Maritime at a paraplegic snail’s pace. My habitual eventual destination is the city of La Rochelle, the former Huguenot stronghold that draws me like a magnet. Verily I am a La Rochelle junkie, hooked on its history, architecture (old and new), fine restaurants and cafés, civilised shopping and the mellow yellow walls of the bastion that double the warmth of sunlight. There are good campsites at Ronce-les bains and la Palmyre, south of La rochelle and the municipal one on the south side of town is by no means bad.Sometimes I expand my horizons by heading on to Bordeaux for the vineyards, to Arcachon with its sky-scraping dunes and fine open market, or beyond, as far as The Dordogne – but no further.
My favourite route is to travel initially South West from Le Havre. There is a campsite near Pont L’Evêque with a fine château in the grounds said to have been occupied by the Nazi propagandist Goebbels in World War II. Given the personality of the warden on a previous visit some reckon Herr G never left!
I then strike out for the saintly city of Lisieux, downing as much cider, Calvados and tripe a la mode de Caen as I can manage en route. Next I swing east of Le Mans and up into the hills, arranging a lunch stop at a lovely auberge in Mortagne aux Perches before heading westwards once more down the Loire where a host of elegant châteaux and interesting towns await. Chenin is truly lovely; unless it’s nightlife you’re after. And I adore Saumur.
Then it’s on to Nantes and my bête noir, the huge bridge where car and boat catch the wind like a sail in a gale – the penance I must endure for the hedonism I regard as my due when I reach La Rochelle.
One one occasion, I did things differently. First stop after the plod from Cherbourg was Binic, a small resort on the Côte D’Azur. We found it by accident and loved it. Quiet and civilised in June, apparently it’s chokka with French holidaymakers in August, people sleeping in their garage having let their house! There are two fine beaches, where the tide whooshes in and out like an express train and one of the nicest municipal campsites I’ve ever seen, on the cliff tops. French campsites vary in refinement – the gap between worst and best is as wide as that between an untipped Gitanes and a Cohiba cigar. Luckily the grading system is pretty accurate and the facilities available in the upper echelon far outweigh Club Med and many a three-star hotel too. For those who are only mildly adventurous, Eurocamp and Keycamp have bases on many sites where you can book the package – you arrive to find a palatial frame tent ready erected, kitted out with everything except the Ricard.
From Binic we forged inland, to Lac de Guerledan, actually a widening of the river Blavet, not unlike Loch Derg’s relationship with The Shannon. There’s a Kayak Club at Mur-de-Bretagne at the head of the ‘lake’. The town also boasts one of the few remaining horse butchers in France, or it did the last time we were there. The countryside is soft and pretty.
Next day on to the coast, at the Golfe du Morbihan, a huge ‘inland sea’, speckled with islands, many of them privately owned. Bird life is abundant as they feed off the oyster beds. Kerners and Arzon on the less civilised south side would make excellent HQs for sailors or canoeists, particularly the former, which boasts a beautifully kept campsite adjacent to the slip. We also spent a few days at Camping du Lac near La Trinité sur Mer, an upmarket small seaside resort/yachting centre on the coast. In addition to paddling the Golfe, I spent some time exploring the exceedingly pleasant River Crach (pronounced ‘craic’), usually in the hours after dawn – at last I’ve found a bonus in my insomnia! The local oyster farmer gave me a trip on his boat, plus a dozen fines des claires and some dark strong Jenlan beer to wash them down with.
The Golfe du Morbihan is an area which I know will draw me back particularly as the weather turned nasty preventing us from exploring as much as we would have liked. Seeking some sun, we pushed on South to Saint Palais-sur-Mer, fifteen years ago a delightful village; now absorbed into the huge resort of Royan. Appalled by the change, we sought the sanctuary of Les Trois Canards, an exceptional restaurant at Arvert.
Returning homeward, we couldn’t resist a return to Binic. If we’d had another week I would have made for the Ile de Brehat on the Channel coast, spoken about with reverence by every Breton I met, particularly sea kayakers. Next time then and, preferably, soon.

Beyond the lagoon

Think Veneto, think Venice? Think again. Ernie Whalley forsakes pigeons, gondoliers and Harry’s Bar

Scrabbling with almost indecent haste to arrive at their ultimate destination, the ‘city on the lagoon’, many tourists never get to explore the Veneto. This is a great pity, for the region boasts a wealth of fine cities and towns brim-full of history and art treasures. Consider grand operatic Verona, the setting for Romeo and Juliet; Vicenza, on which Andrea Palladio experimented while he was developing the style of architecture that came to bedazzle the world; fairy tale Soave, a town as well as a DOC wine, Valpolicella likewise. Chioggia – I have never been, but I’ve heard it spoken of as a mini-Venice without the crowds. To the north lies the vast expanse of Lake Garda with its pines and poplars, lemons and olive groves and beyond, the southern slopes of the Alps where, in Cortina d’Ampezzo, they have one of Europe’s swishest ski resorts. Oh, and I’ve forgotten Padua, revered for its Giotto frescoes. And Treviso, my favourite, for the eating at any rate.
The food of the region, while not enjoying the stellar reputation of, say, Emilia-Romagna, is varied and interesting. Venice itself, in its republican days, was home port for a navy of maritime traders. For years Venice, too, was the crossroads of the trading of spices between Europe and the Orient. In the trattoria and streets where the traders met to barter, cooks rapidly became expert at a variety of cuisines and, as cooks will, experimented. From this culinary alchemy came dishes such as ‘riso al cavroman’, where a Levantine method of cooking offal flavoured with cloves and cinnamon, became transformed by some Venetian genius into Italy’s most unusual risotto when combined with Vialone del Nano, the aristocratic rice grown in the southern extremity of the region. ‘Sardelle in saor’ started life as a seaman’s staple of plain fried sardines on a bed of onions. The spiced vinegar, pine nuts and raisins came later.
In April and May the town of Bassano becomes the centre of the universe. For this is the white asparagus season. It all started with a disaster. In the 1500s Bassano was hit with a hailstorm, destroying the crop, forcing the farmers to harvest the subterranean shoots if they were to get any income at all. Upon tasting the asparagus, paper white in colour thanks to sun starvation, the growers were astounded to find how tasty and tender it was and, thenceforth, adapted their cultivation methods to produce the now familiar prized white spears. The rest, as they say…
In Dublin, I lunch with some regularity at Dunne & Crescenzi, alternating, to the amusement of my friends, between the antipasto misto and the bresaola with lemon juice, rughetta and shards of freshly grated parmigiano reggiano. I’ve not yet plucked up the courage to ask Eileen if her bresaola, without doubt the best around, is made from (whisper, whisper) horse; for that’s the beast preferred by Venetians for salting, brining and seasoning with spices before pressing and drying.
Baccalà is a dish made with dried salt cod. Evidence of Venice’s decline as a maritime force is that the cod now comes filleted and pre-dried from Norway’s Loftoten Islands. Fritto di Mare is a forensically-challenging melange of fish, molluscs and crustaceans, deep fried. Polenta is another Venetian staple as are beans and pasta, often eaten combined in the popular Pasta e Fagiole, a thick soup served with a dash of olive oil.
The Veneto, as a wine region, does not share the acclaim of Tuscany or Piemonte. Yet in Valpolicella, skilled producers such as Masi and Zenato are producing ripasso wines and amarones that showcase Italy on the world stage.
One of the glories of the region is the sparkling wine, Prosecco, made primarily in the district of Valdobbiadene. Prosecco is actually the name of the grape that is used to make this sparkling wine, valued for its delicate flavours and charming aromatics, the wine itself is not made in the classic method made famous in Champagne. Instead the Charmat method of tank fermentation is used to make Prosecco so as to imbue the wine with the upfront freshness that many find appealing. I should stress that we’re not talking ‘wedding wine’ here – the best Prosecco producers consistently make classy gear. Foremost among these is Bisol, a family owned company that has consistently explored the potential of the Prosecco grape to the full.
By the 16th century the Marca Trevigiana (the area around Treviso), with its gentle slopes and mild climate, had become the verdant hinterland of Venice; a refuge to which the aristocracy retreated in summer when the stench of the lagoon became unbearable. In that area, the Cartizze district figured among the possessions of Count Pola and the Bisols ere his tenants. However, three centuries were to pass before a scion of the family, encouraged by the stability of the second half of the 19th century, gained the confidence to launch a trade in wines extending beyond the confines of the Valdobbiadene area. However, World War I and the phylloxera epidemic combined to defeat Eliseo Bisol’s attempts to expand.
Following in his father’s footsteps, Desiderio, known as Jeio, took charge of the winery in 1923. In the thirties, he planted new vineyards and drew his children into the property’s operations, assigning each a particular function. Slowly but steadily Bisol grew.
Its success has been gained by a constant emphasis on quality – by diversification through the various terroirs and by specifying lower yields than the maximum permitted by the Prosecco di Valdobbiadene directorate. Bisol was also among the first to use the ‘classic method’ in the production of some of its sparkling wines. It has shown considerable marketing acumen too, particularly in its association with Ferrari. Nowadays, bottles of the sumptuous Bisol Cartizze Spumante (which received a 90 point rating from Robert Parker) are as essential as Michael Schumaker at the victory celebrations of the men from Maranello.
The Superiore di Cartizze are the steepest hills in the Prosecco di Valdobbiadene district, a microzone within the zone; its slopes deliver the most intense and complex flavours. Bisol’s Cartizze Spumante is the colour of pale straw and, when tasted in March, was found to exude a myriad of tiny bubbles with aromas of white peaches, violets and carnations combined with a subtle biscuit yeastiness. Full-flavoured with an extended finish the fruit /acid balance was absolutely spot on, making it, in my opinion a great wine to drink with seafood and poultry as well as a celebratory tipple for the tifosi. Bisol’s Crede is higher in acidity and hence lighter in body, altogether cleaner and crisper – a Granny Smith to Cartizze’s Cox Orange Pippin wouldn’t be a bad analogy. The Vigneti del Fol is altogether rounder, perhaps more traditional in style – anyhow it makes a good base for the legendary Bellini. It would also go well with the aforementioned bresaola, the full monty Veneto style preferably. Anyone got John Magnier’s number…?