Saturday, September 22, 2012

Some reflections on natural wines (part 3): you can’t reflect on natural wines? WRONG

I’ll try to keep it concise this time, as life is so short. One of the most common misconceptions when it comes to natural wine, is that their sole function is to obey one's thirst. We all know that a good bottle of great natural wine is emptied before you can think of, let’s say ... 20 states in the US, including the likes of Maryland, Arkansas and Alabama and remembering that there is a North 'and' South Carolina. The reason for this misconception is the encredible 'drinkability' that these pure and juicy wines posses. There are no elements that cause any hindrance upon sniffing or swallowing the wonderful content of the glas.

Personally, I can’t drink wines with oak flavours, but more importantly, there are very often unnatural molecules that can potentially cause physical problems when drinking one or more glasses, depending on your sensibility. You don’t believe me or don’t know what I am talking about, then I'd suggest you stop reading any further, as this piece is a waste of your time.

On one hand, for reasons unbeknownst to me,  some people like to create this image of natural wine drinkers as a bunch of drunks, who only drink it as a substitute for beer. ‘There is no way those extremists can have civilised wine tastings or reflect on the wines, winemakers or estates’. We are all considered as 'wild men', and come to think of it, we're okay with this description. Yes, we are wild men, but there is more…

Ten years ago a bunch of unknown, very 'normal' people came together in a little country in West Europe with Brussels as a capital, to taste natural wines. For US and Asian readers: Brussels is not a country, but a city and West Europe is not a state. There were no real rules, but we decided to drink all the wines blindly, meaning that we didn’t know what we were drinking and that everyone could say their honest opinion. There was no right or wrong! Most of the time we tasted 12 bottles and we tried to have a kind of a 'theme' for the evening. We came together every 2 months or so and after the tasting we shared a good meal together, as we had 1 or 2 excellent professional cooks amount us. Always make sure that in whatever group you create, you have a good cook in the mix. Most of the time, those Monday evenings ended up very late (or should I say early?) and were great fun.  During those days we had 2 wine importers of natural wines in the group and strangely enough the majority of it is selling wine now and they are each other’s competitor in professional life. I am one of the exceptions, but remain friends with all of them. It is not surprising that people sharing a passion for pure wine and good products start liking each other’s company, especially when seating them around the same table. I learned a lot about wine during those sessions, but definitely don't consider myself as the greatest taster of them all. The fact is that I know now how to recognise a pure wine. I can smell if the wine was made from indigenous yeast or not, I'm knowledgeable on the stability of a wine, and I know how an equilibrated wine should taste and that for instance, I know the importance of the quality of the aftertaste. I discovered some ‘real’ wine makers and during the last 10 years I have visited most of the French ones.

Since (and because of) those late Monday night sessions, I only drink natural wine. Very occasionally, for professional reasons such as during business meal  meetings, I receive a glass of conventional wine. Out of courtesy, I will put my lips to that glass, knowing that I can’t drink it and will  then switch over to water, sparkling water. Some people will not understand this, but I really hate the smell and taste of unnatural wine, as I also don’t like Martini or pudding. When invited by family or friends to their home, I always take some bottles with me, likewise when going out to dine, always with a bottle in each hand, whatever restaurant. 

That being sais, on the other hand my taste for natural wines is not dogmatic or ideological. The ‘sect’ side of some natural wine lovers is ridiculous. In their own way, they merely imitate the snobs of the ‘prestigious label’ drinkers, which they supposedly hate so much. There are even ‘fundamentalists’ ready to excommunicate the ones who are not ‘pure’ enough in their eyes and self-proclaimed ‘specialists’ ensuring that nobody encroach what they consider their exclusive domain. Like any ‘society’, the natural wine scene has it share of heartburn and jealousy. Whatever! For my part, I drink these wines because I like them so much, because they surprise me all the time and they have an ever-changing character like human beings. They are also naked, freed from all makeup. Sometimes I can honestly feel the winemaker’s personality as well as his environment in the wines. And last but not least those wines don’t cause any headache at all to me the day after. After a night of boozing I am ready to go to work, without any problem. OK, the evening after I will be more tired than usually, but if this is it what it takes, go for it. Suggest me any juice beyond labels that satisfy all those conditions and I am a happy man. 99 times out of 100, at least, it is an unfiltered wine without any artificial yeast or other additives. That’s what I also learned during the many blind tastings. But the most important thing I learned about wine is that it is there to share. I love sharing wines with people and see their reactions when exploring the wine. I am curious about their feelings, about what they have to say, even though if it is difficult to express...

Thanks to Manu, Rob, Stefaan, Tom, Ilse, Gerd, Peter, Wouter, Hans and of course Jacques for those long Monday night sessions 

Inspired by Vinejo and C. Authiere


Friday, September 7, 2012

The worst restaurant in the world is located in Belgium

The world’s worst restaurant is Belgian, or at least located in Belgium, but maybe there is one even worse in Bosnia-Hercegovina (this needs to be investigated urgently, but I doubt it). I hate bad restaurants!
St Etienne eats really well. I have here and there my favourite eating places and if you stick long enough with my blog, you will find out where. But of course I am still looking around for new addresses, where the product is everything and where the wine is pure. Last winter I was invited by company Z for a lunch at restaurant X from cook  and owner Y, a very well-known place in Flanders, the Northern part of Belgium, where people if they don’t complain about the weather like to wave with ugly yellow flags with a black lion on it. Arriving at the location I was surprised to see such an ugly building, typical for the seventies, a period where architects forgot that there are some aesthetics rules to take into account. To accentuate this ugliness the owner built a huge pebbled parking space around it. I hate parkings, but do understand that they are functional for car drivers. The welcome at the reception was very cool and since the many culinary television programs I know that a warm welcome is key. The interior was a mix of modern ugly objects and tasteless classic and this caused an unpleasant feeling, due to the impression that someone couldn’t make a choice. And it was this strive for indecisive that came back during the entire meal. Also the modern tight chairs sat so uncomfortable that even the most athletic person would have myalgia and a sour ass by the time the starter was served. Is it that difficult to choose seats that provide comfort for the entire duration of a meal?
When invited the host makes the choices of the lunch meeting, and for once I decided to stay passive. The aperitif was not an aperitif, but a non-fresh sweetened fruit juice, supplemented with a shot of alcohol and a mint leave. Painful! It made me very thirsty and luckily there was a bottle of sparkling water on the table. The decision was to go for the 7-course degustation menu, with matching wines, something I didn’t do for years. Shall I start with the dishes, the wines or the combinations? What was the worst or do we have to start with the best? I frankly don’t know, but in fact it doesn’t matter, as everything was bad. I never take notes during a meal, as people might think I am one of those inspectors. This mean I need to dig into my organoleptic memory for this awful experience and believe me this is not fun.


The meal started with appetisers served in some ‘artistic’ table service (see picture). There was a lot of deep fried stuff, as this restaurant wanted to proof that Trans-fat is healthy whatever science says. I also remember clammy cheese, again accentuating the point that the kitchen didn’t know the concept of freshness. And as so often the appetisers are a good indication for what will follow. The first plate was a pumpkin soup, characterised by an intense dominating nut smell and accompanied with a floating long hair from a black haired employee. I received a new plate, but this time someone decided to add some cream, as if the cook realised that the taste of walnuts should be masked. Do you serve wine with a vegetable soup? In restaurant X they do and why not a sweet Austrian Riesling, only loved by fat old ladies who survive on cake and pie. The next dish that I remember was a creation of coloured foam, the kind you can find in your bath after you have been spilling wildly with some liquid soap product. The taste of it was mainly basil and according to the menu there should also be tomatoes in it. This made my stomach turned upside down and this for three reasons: the taste was without a doubt awful; my stomach is not made to digest a foamy material and serving summer product, even in an unrecognisable form deserve a knee kick in the nuts. Foam and wine? Yep! To accentuate the air bubbles on the plate, we now received a sparkling wine, one of those so badly made that it can only be served at cheap receptions for old war warriors. The very effeminate sommelier looked astonished that I didn’t touch my wine glass. I needed water, a lot of sparkling water.
The saying that ‘prawns are for queers’, once pontificated by a wannabe cook on television, is something which I will always remember, especially also because for years I have influenced a growing grandnephew by saying at every family meeting that ‘cake is for queers’, as I don’t like it. This Pavlov experiment wonderfully succeeded, as my grandnephew doesn’t like cake or at least he never tried it. Prawns are very often tasteless and that’s why you need to add something to it. Cook Y of restaurant X thought that curry in a fatty cream would match perfectly with the prawns, which made me think that an amateur cook took over the entire kitchen.  Was this candid camera? Where were the hidden cameras?
Suddenly a few stumps were put on the table. When looking closer we could detect glasses of broth with Mediterranean herbs. This was clearly a gimmick, but one with profound consequences. After drinking the extremely salty liquid our entire taste palate was insensitive. Afterwards this was not too bad, knowing what plates was still to come. 
Getting a tasteful and well-prepared fish in a restaurant seems to be a challenge, and so also in this restaurant. I don’t get a hard-on from an over-cooked piece of cod on a fucking spread of leek and mashed potatoes, ‘pollinated’ with a sweetened sauce on the basis of a ‘vadouvin’ mix. The art of seasoning was another thing that Chef Y didn’t master, as all dishes were over-salted. I hate it when too much salt is used. Somewhere in between we also received a sorbet of parsley. Now, you can make sorbet from all kind of ingredients, but really parsley is not recommended based on this experience. The meat was wild hare and sucked big time. The only thing I can say for sure is that the animal most have had 4 legs and a tail, but I am not sure if it was hare, and for sure it didn’t taste wild. Cheese croquettes, yes cheese croquettes were served with it, accompanied by caramelised chicory and a sauce of red fruit. This plate was unworthy any restaurant and I felt the need to rush into the kitchen to check if today’s cooks were replaced by the dishwashers. We skipped the cheese plates, although I was curious about the ‘exquisite’ selection. But I didn’t have any illusions; choosing good products were by no means a hobby of Mister Y. For dessert there was a choice between something completely with chocolate or some kind of modern panna cotta. I went for the chocolate, which is often a ‘safe bet’, but not here. How is it possible to serve tasteless chocolate in Belgium? I don’t know, but cook Y of restaurant X can. And this made me sad.
The toilets were clean, just proofing the point that when it is good we say so, but like so often in this part of the world they were too cold. Not that I am so sensitive to it, but this was ever reported to me by a foreign lady. First I laughed it off, but now not anymore…, as it is so true.
Oh yeah, I forgot the wine. The wines were industrial wines from regions that don’t give me goosebumps: Bordeaux, Chili and Australia for example. Probably they have good wines in those regions, but bland woody expensive wines are not for me. With the so so espresso they served again this tasteless chocolate and also some unpleasant sticky sweets, just to accentuate that the entire meal has being going downwards (yes, down the drain). When leaving the place we received a little bag of candy in memory of a splendid experience, what made me smile spontaneous. This was Belgian – this was surrealism! Paul Delvaux was not far away. I love Delvaux.
I guess you are now wondering when I will reveal the name of this place, but actually the answer is already given, even twice, but well-hidden. Should you not find it, please send me a mail, so I can prevent you from an unpleasant meal.
Your humble servant,
St Etienne