Thursday, June 28, 2007

The wanderlust returns

If all goes according to plan, J and I expect to be on that balcony tomorrow afternoon or evening. It's at a hotel/restaurant about halfway along the world famous corniche sublime that runs along the southern lip of the Gorges du Verdon. For those not au fait with Provençal geography, I'm referring to Europe's very own Grand Canyon. It's not on the scale of Arizona's, of course, but is still hugely impressive, we're told.
We've been living in this part of the world for some 5 years now, and been visiting rather longer, but have somehow never got round to visiting this natural marvel. Tomorrow we set off in a small hired car, which is probably better for negotiating those switchback roads, given there's likely to be a succession of tourist coaches coming in the opposite direction.
The last few days have been spent surrounded by stacks of camping car magazines. We were 90% decided to splash out on a Ford Transit based profile, and were mentally imagining trips to the south of Spain, Norway's north Cape, Croatia, Sicily etc. But there's a formidable problem to overcome - garaging. There are virtually no garages available to rent in Antibes. Buying one would probably double the cost, it would have to be high (close on 3 metres), and most of the garages I see around Antibes have their access blocked by parked cars, which I suspect in most cases do not belong to the garage owner. Who needs all the hassle ?
Provisionally, we've decided to hire a camping car for a week or two, probably in the autumn, and go and explore somewhere new for us - probably Tuscany. That will give us an opportunity to experience the motorhome in practice - warts and all- and decide whether the benefits of occasional gypsy-like freedom outweigh the costs.
Expect a welter of holiday pix in the next post, with limestone scenery very much in evidence.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Beware Sancerre wine bottled "sans care"

Updated Saturday 24 June (please scroll to end)

Updated Saturday 23 June (please scroll to end)

Up until two days ago, I had always regarded Sancerre a safe wine for entertaining. Everyone knows the name, and this occasional tippler considers the rosé to be well balanced (usually) between sweetness and acidity, without the harsh resinous edge one associates with a lot of much cheaper offerings.

We've had a Sancerre rosé sitting in the rack since last November (about which more later) and decided on Tuesday that we would have it between ourselves.

I'm glad we made that decision, rather than offer it to guests. It was dreadful. After a glass each we gave up in disgust. Thirty minutes later, we both had a metallic burning taste on the palate. It stayed for several hours: had we been entertaining guests, it would have ruined the evening.

One sniff at the neck of the bottle confirmed my suspicions - sulphur dioxide ! The wine had been heavily overtreated with sodium metabisulphite.

(For the chemically uninitiated, metabisulphite comes as a crystalline white solid. It slowly releases its sulphur dioxide in contact with water: anyone who has made their own wine will be familiar with it as Campden tablets).

So where did we get our duff Sancerre, you may be wondering. At some dodgy back street supplier, or from the pile-em-high, sell-'em cheap basket at the supermarket ?

Far from it. It was a trophy we brought back from the Salon du Palais Gourmand at the Cagnes race course, the subject of an earlier post.

The lady had offered a sample at one of the stalls as we passed, and we had liked it. She wanted us to buy a crate, but I politely declined, offering instead to buy the opened bottle at the full price, so we could polish it off at home that evening.

But no, the lady would not hear of that, and produced an unopened bottle of 2004 Sancerre for about €15 as I recall.

So how come it had so much sulphur dioxide, and was there any way we could have known ?

Well, this retired biochemist/food scientist is no innocent abroad when it comes to food additives. Yes, I had noticed the warning in small print on the side of the bottle "contains sulphites". You can see it (just) in the pictutre above, written vertically on the right of the label.
The principle of adding a little sulphite to wine is not in question. Without it, the wine would go off very quickly. Enough oxygen can penetrate even the best cork and cause premature oxidation and spoilage of the wine, turning it to vinegar.

The problem is a quantitative one. Under EU regulations, the label "contains sulphites" is required for levels of sulphur dioxide in excess of 10 mg/litre.
That's just below the level at which most people can detect its presence. Wine becomes unpleasant when the level is about 20-30 mg sulphur dioxide per litre.
Now here's the sting in the tail, which frankly I find unbelievable: the EU allows a level of sulphur dioxide in white wine or rosé of up to 210 mg/litre. Yes, you read that correctly: it's perfectly legal to sell wine that has 7 to 10 times the level that gives wine an unpleasant smell or taste!

So when you buy a bottle of wine with that warning "contains sulphites" you have no way of knowing whether it has 11mg per litre or 210 mg per litre. What kind of idiocy is this ?

In fact, it's not just flavour that is an issue - there are health implications too.

The World Health Organisation recommends a maximum daily intake of 0.7 mg of sulphur dioxide per kilogram of bodyweight.

For a man of average weight this is less than a third of a bottle of a white wine with a concentration of 200 mg per litre.

Regular consumption of conventional wines means regularly exceeding the RDA of sulphur dioxide by a large margin.

More specifically, sulphur dioxide can cause allergic reactions in some people. It is dangerous for asthmatics even at very low levels.
The warning on wine "contains sulphites" is well nigh useless. It puts one in mind of those words "this product may contain traces of nuts", which are inserted purely to protect against lawsuits from people deemed to have rare allergies. Irrespective, it reflects poorly on the EU's consumer protection that French and other EU wine producers can legitimately sell wine that is either undrinkable, a health hazard, or both.
For this and because of some other bad experiences, I have adopted a simple solution. I no longer spend more than 5 (or at most 10) euros on a bottle of wine. If it doesn't taste right, it goes down the drain, and I try another bottle !

PS: I've used the British spelling for sulphur and sulphites. There is now, I read somehere, agreement in the scientific community to standardise on the American spelling (sulfur/sulfites) but for some of us, at any rate, old habits die hard.
Update Saturday 23rd June
I am presently doing internet searches on preservatives in white, rosé and red wines. There's an awful lot of dross, some quite poetic, but dross all the same. Just once in a while, one chances on something that is illumintaed with a little hard science.
Here's a link I would recommend:

It's an article written by one Jamie Goode PhD, who has his own site ( which I yet to visit!)

What caught my eye was the following statement:
Sulphur dioxide's main role is binding up the aldehyde formed, so that we don’t smell the oxidation product’.
Well, well. After trawling through page after page about sulphur dioxide acting as an antiseptic in the early stages of winemaking, and as an antioxidant in the cask or bottle, here we get a totally different view of it acting to mask an alleged off-flavour.
Alcohol is converted by bacteria first to acetaldehyde (aka ethanal), and then to acetic acid (aka ethanoic acid, "vinegar")
According to Goode, the real purpose of sulphur dioxide is to react with acetaldehyde, present from prior oxidation, converting it to a (presumably) tasteless compound.
(The reaction between aldehydes and sulphur dioxide is in fact standard A-Level chemistry).
If that is so, I find it appalling that a smelly, toxic chemically-reactive substance, sulphur dioxide, one that is a recognized hazard to asthmatics, and perhaps other susceptible individuals, is being used simply to mask another flavour. What is particularly absurd is that makers of certain sherries and madeira wines encourage the production of some acetaldehyde in order to impart what has been described as the flavour of freshly-cut apple.
It sometimes takes days or weeks of of patient reading to get to the real truth behind the use of certain traditional processes that would probably never have been approved if discovered yesterday. Thus speaks the retired Head of Nutrition and Food Safety for a major industry research association. I shall continue to scour the literature to see what else might be lurking there that needs to be brought to public attention.
Update: Sunday 24 June
Have just this minute posted the following to Sally Peck's Telly current blog post entitled "Who makes the best wine?"
An excess of sulphur can ruin any wine

Colin Berry 24 Jun 2007 14:12

A French wine-producing chateau, or its equivalents elsewhere, may produce the finest wine of its type in the world. But all that is irrelevant if the wine is sent out with an overdose of chemical preservative.
Many red wines are preserved naturally to some extent by their own grape tannins, but in white and rosé wines, where tannins are absent or lacking, there's the age-old tradition of adding sulphur, in the form of potassium metabisulphite.
It's usually claimed to protect wine against bacteria/wild-yeasts prior to fermentation, or against chemical oxidation afterwards (although some industry insiders say it's real purpose is to mop up aldehydes, preventing a certain flavour, but that's perhaps controversial) .
Irrespective, neither the principle nor practice of adding a little sulphur is being challenged here, provided it's not overdone. Most folk can't detect the sulphur dioxide at levels below about 20 to 30 mg/litre.
The problem is that many wine producers appear to be adding add extra sulphur dioxide just for luck, and can get away with this, thanks to lax labelling regulations. I've just had to throw away half a bottle of 2004 Sancerre, bought at a French food exhibition, on account of excess sulphur dioxide.
If you look carefully at most bottles of wine, you will find in tiny letters the words "contains sulphites". All that indicates is that the wine contains 10mg/litre of more of sulphur dioxide, which in practice includes virtually all wine. But the wine can legally contain up to 210mg/litre of added sulphur dioxide quite legally, in the EU, making it undrinkable, and a health hazard, at least to asthmatics.
Until this labelling nonsense is sorted, and wine is labelled so that consumers know what they are buying, then comparisons between French and other wines are futile.
A wine that is over-dosed with sulphur dioxide can leave a metallic or burning sensation on the palate that can totally ruin a meal. Why do we, or the French for that matter, tolerate this state of affairs ?
I for one will stick to vin ordinaire until this is sorted. Then, if it does not taste right, it will go straight down the drain, and I'm not too much out of pocket if I have to open a second bottle."

Monday, June 18, 2007

Goodbye President Blair

It's been a while since I last posted to the Telegraph's original blogs, now called "Staff Blogs". That's because of a huge diversion called My Telegraph from which I decided to withdraw some two weeks ago (see previous post). I've since begun to recognise myself again in the shaving mirror.

Daniel Hannan MEP, who blogs under the Telegraph's "Politics" category has always impressed me, as someone with that rare combination of an analytical mind who can also write in a light upbeat style.

His most recent blog was entitled "Labour's Constitutional Contortionists", to which I sent the following comment, which finally appeared after a 6 hour hiatus under my wife's "My Tel " log-in (don't ask, it would take too long to explain).

As it happens, I read off my draft to her, before submitting, as is my wont, so when I announced that it had gone up under her name she was unfazed, saying it represented her own viewpoint entirely. Which is just as well, since the techies at the Telegraph would have got a smoking email by now if she had been asssociated with views that were not her own .....

Title: Playing with fire

Once the immediate threat of being Blair-bounced into the Mark 2 constitution, sorry, Treaty, has passed, the next item on the agenda ought to be that notorious unwritten UK Constitution.

I refer to the one that allowed the Granita deal to land us with a French style cohabitation, between right-wing President Blair, largely responsible for foreign affairs, and leftish "Premier" Brown, largely in charge of home affairs.It gave the President, aka de facto Head of State, the power to sign us up for the toppling of Saddam Hussein, with ne'er a thought to the aftermath.

It allowed the President to swan off to Singapore to sign us up for the 2012 Olympics - a menu without prices, whose current £9 billion estimated cost represents some three quarters of a million pounds for each of the 11,000 or so competing athletes.

It now allows the President to pitchfork us into a revived EU Constitution which he knows full well would be thrown out if put to a referendum in the UK, not because we are anti-Europe per se, but because we see it for what it is - yet another power grab by anti-democratic apparachniks in Brussels.

How come President Blair, with 10 years experience as de facto Head of State, cannot see that he is playing with fire?

It's not just his legacy he stands to lose in the next few days. It's the entire plot. He won't be able to show his face in the street if he tries stitching up the entire UK in his feverish eleventh-hour dealings with Merckel and Sarkozy.

Far be it from me to divine what the real UK Head of State is saying to him right now in those Wednesday meetings at the Palace. I just hope Her Majesty is not being tight-lipped.

How oddly appropriate that it takes the EU Constitution to bring home the glaring inadequacies of our own. We scrutinise, quite rightly, every word in the new draft. Yet for the last 10 years, our unwritten Constitution has been the plaything of a silver-tongued chancer, still in thrall to his own reflection.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Quick look at Aix-en-Provence

Heart of old Aix (Place Hôtel de Ville)

We made a day trip last year to Avignon by train – a wedding anniversary present from the children - and had been greatly impressed by that veritable time-warp of a destination. There were just two niggles . First, they still haven’t got round to repairing that Pont d’Avignon. Surely the nation that built the Millau Bridge can cope with a footbridge over the Rhone. (Just joking, of course: the Rhone in spate would probably deal with any new bridge the same way it’s dealt with all its predecessors. )

The other complaint is its size. Avignon, or at any rate the historic heart thereof, is not that big, and the square next to the Papal Palace is a magnet for every single tourist around lunchtime.

It’s just one stop on the TGV to the neighbouring Aix-en-Provence. Not having had time to see it on the Avignon trip, I assumed it would be quite some time before we felt ready to face another lengthy day excursion. But as mentioned in the previous post, we used Marseille airport to get to Madrid, so hit on the idea of bed-and-breakfasting in Aix on the return journey.

Nothing could be simpler from a logistic standpoint. You come out of the airport terminal, and there’s a regular express bus service into Aix. First stop, in fact, is Aix’s TGV station, way out in the wilds as TGV stations tend to be, so it was handy to get a glimpse of where we would be boarding our train back to Antibes the next day.

As soon as one sees Aix’s first edge-of-town filling station, one is almost at the putting -down place for buses, and it’s then just a 10 minute walk, if that, up to the Place General de Gaulle, Aix’s busy main square, with its vast Rotunda fountain, topped by what seems like the Three Graces. Our hotel for the night, Le Christophe, which we can recommend for olde-worlde French décor and atmosphere, is right on the square.

After unpacking, we plonked down with a degree of trepidation at a nearby restaurant. It was 10pm, and there were other diners tucking into their desserts. We need not have feared; in fact folk were still arriving some 30 or 45 minutes later. Such a change from Antibes, where curiously, despite its year round flood of visitors, things tend to close up early, too early one feels.

Typical Aix thoroughfare (from Petit Train)

The next morning we made enquiries and were relieved to hear that Aix had that essential facility for the flying visitor, namely Le Petit Train.

Petit Train negotiating a tight bend

In fact, to its credit, it did not look like a train at all, as befits a mellow town that attracts couples rather than families with younger children. It took the best part of an hour to do the main sights, and Aix impressed with its sheer size and seamless authenticity: there seemed to be one busy thoroughfare, or square after another, usually boasting some noteworthy relic from the past. We were also taken out of town up a hill, near the top of which is Cezanne’s house, which is open to the public (though we didn’t stop). The guide explained that the great man had chosen that spot deliberately, being fixated by the sight of Mont St. Victoire, which appears in scores of his paintings.

The main street of Aix is the Cours Mirabeau. I've just discovered from my guide book (which I rarely look at in detail until after a visit !) that it's been dubbed "the most satisfying street in France." It's lined with lofty plane trees that, unusually for France, have seen little pollarding. It was originally created for the horse and carriage, needless to say, and still has a feel of a more gracious age.

I was greatly impressed by the two huge sculptures of the bearded gents, supporting a balcony over a doorway.

I've since learned (more retrospective reading of the guide book) it is (was?) the Hôtel Maurel de Pontevès, built in 1647. It is in an excellent state of preservation ( a tribute, one assumes to clean air, being some distance from the Marseilles refineries.
We quickly located one of the main touristy squares we had seen from the train. There was what for me an unfamiliar beer on the menu, which I ordered on spec', feeling that anything new was likely to be an improvment on standard French beer. How can one put this charitably ? Are the French brewing beer using a wine-making recipe ? How do they get it SO consistently wrong? One would have hoped that the takeover of Kronenbourg by the Newcastle Brown brewery would have injected some Anglo-Saxon know-how, but K is still the same fizzy pee it’s always been. Imagine my surprise to find that the “Dorelei” was half decent beer.
I’ve since looked up "Dorelei" on the internet: it’s brewed in Strasbourg, which is almost Germany, needless to say, and is apparently, and oddly, a conscious attempt to mimic a Belgian beer. So, its quasi Germano-Belgic, or quasi Belgo-Germanic. Either way, there’s some mellowness, flavour and subtlety, and I might try asking some local tourist bars in Antibes if they can’t get some in. I’d willingly pay 6 euros a pint than have to stick with the present mares' urine/gut-rot offerings that masquerade under the name of beer.

And finally, to round off six nights away from home, we chose a long-established restaurant on the Cours Mirabeau for our last main meal. It's called Les Deux Garçons, and apparently world-famous, established, it says in 1792. The date's on the plate as well, just in case it slips your mind- assuming that number's not the calorie count.

I ordered the salade gourmande. Although not the greatest fan of paté foie gras, that pale slice sitting on top was something else - butter-like in its creamy smoothness. Note also the cured duck.

Overall verdict: I wish that Aix was closer. We only had time to see its main streets and squares, but there's clearly a lot more to see, tucked away in side-streets. Nothing beats people-watching under the Provencal sun, in a square with tables, chairs and shaded with plane trees.

If we use Marseilles again for a flight, we may well decide to repeat the exercise, and add an extra night or two, as a way of getting to know the place better.

Negatives: too many tourists. And, as always, those French prices for wining and dining - especially noticeable after Madrid.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Visit to Madrid

Retiro Park with Alfonso XII mausoleum in background

Madrid is one of those places I had always intended to visit one day, but I kept putting it off. There always seemed to be other, more enticing places that had to be seen first.

Last week we did finally get round to checking it out, taking the TGV to Marseilles, and then a Ryanair flight to the Spanish capital. Having spent 5 nights there, I would concur wholeheartedly with an article in the Sunday Telegraph travel section that appeared while we were there: Barcelona had better watch out. Madrid has quietly been getting its act together. It offers as good, if not better an intoxicating mix of things to do, places to visit as its Catalan rival. Indeed, I had a greater, more immediate sense of "being there" in Madrid than in Barcelona
which we visited some four years ago.

The first thing that hits you is the colour and variety of the architecture, and the way that modern additions blend easily with the old – enhancing rather than detracting. Then there is the sheer abundance of bars, cafes , shops and restaurants. But it's the people that create an impression too: there are fewer foreign tourists than Barcelona, most of the voices one hears are Spanish, and indeed the amount of English spoken is minimal – even in hotels and restaurants. So the overwhelming sensation is one of cultural and linguistic harmony.

There's something else about Madrid that appeals, especially after a recent visit to London. It's the near seamless spread of prosperity one sees, not just in the centre, but extending way out into the suburban residential areas. But it's not look-at-me yuppified prosperity: I think I saw just two Porsches in Madrid. In parts of London, every other car now seems to be a Porsche, Aston Martin or Ferrari, making one feel the poor relation. And Metro tickets are priced for ordinary folk, in contrast to Mayor Livingstone's cynical policy of ripping off locals and visitors alike.
Apartment-land is not something I would normally enthuse about, but that is where we found ourselves in Madrid, thanks to a misleading entry on the website. But at street level there was an abundance of friendly restaurants and cafés and little shops, with a great sense of community spirit. I found myself wishing I had taken a job in Madrid, and been privy to that easy-going unaffected al fresco scene.
But beware of rose-tinted holiday perspectives: the guide books warns of the Madrid climate: it is Continental, rather than Mediterranean. So expect nippy winters and a short furnace like summer. Well, that's the theory, anyway. For some reason I had imagined central Spain to have dust-laden skies, with a photochemical smog over the towns and cities. While we were there it was almost perfect weather, reminiscent of Provence, with clear blue skies, seemingly pollution free, and an amazing quality of light.
The Metro was a joy to use: modern, sparkling, clean, colourful, with frequent trains. My one complaint: illuminated displays on some lines, that helpfully tell you the number of minutes since the last train departed ! The locals presumably know the frequency of trains on that line !

I didn't take many pictures in Madrid. It's one of those places where there are few things that are hugely photogenic – at least in a small camera viewfinder – so that any attempts to photograph fail to do justice to the enveloping Surroundoscope feel of the place.

One notable exception was the Retiro park – a vast rectangle of green on the eastern side. The many-pillared monument to a past king, Alfonso XII, up there on his high horse, is striking in a purely monumental sense, if you care for that sort of thing. But again, the camera fails to do justice, given that the feature forms a backdrop to a huge boating lake. Another consideration is that the entire eye-catching ensemble can be viewed at leisure through a slight alcoholic haze, if one is so inclined, by sitting oneself down at the open-air cafeteria , with its comfortable seats, sunshades and tasty nibbles – even if the crab in the salad was fake.
We made a side trip to see the famous Palace and Monastery at San Lorenzo de Escorial, about an hour by road to the north west of Madrid. To be honest, I was more interested in the scenery en route , with curious outcrops of rounded boulders in the orchards and pastures. The countryside was a lot more verdant than I had imagined for central Spain. But there's the expected sense of vast emptiness, starting just a few miles from the city centre. The impression of an underpopulated country is reinforced on the flight back, it being more than 300 miles of rolling plain from Madrid to Barcelona, punctuated by some curious eroded rock formations and the occasional meandering river with O-level geography textbook oxbow lakes.
We had planned a trip to Toledo, but there were multiple long queues at the windows, in the ticket office with little or no air-conditioning, and Toledo trains were shown on the boards as "completo". A momentary whiff of the Third World, I thought, one of the few blemishes on an otherwise modern, well-ordered capital.
Biggest disappointment ? Picasso's "Guernica" (Centro de Arte Reina Sofia). It is shown in our Lonely Planet guide book as multicoloured, a blend of golds, ochres, chestnut. In fact it's almost monochrome. Great imagery and draughtsmanship certainly, but I don't think I would have described it as the 20th century's greatest painting if I had chanced upon it without fanfare.
We called in at Aix-en-Provence on the way back - a most impressive if overcrowded historical centre. Fortunately there was a "petit train" that allowed us to take in the main sights quickly. I'll look through the pix and decide if there's enough for a second blog post.
Ryanair may get a mention too. Great prices, but why do they treat their passengers like cattle ?
Ornamental gardens in Retiro Park, looking west

Thursday, June 07, 2007

See you soon

Just a quick update, since there's packing to do. We're off to Madrid for a few days. It's somewhere I've always wanted to visit.

I decided yesterday to retire from My Tel. It's a bit of a vortex, sucking you in, taking over your life. Some of the threads get tedious and fractious, and it's especially galling to make what one thinks is a telling point and have the agenda-pushers carry on regardless. Oh yes, agenda pushers - they could be the subject of several posts in the way they operate, arriving on the scene like gentle little mice which then mutate into bug-eyed monsters.

Sorry if I'm getting carried away. My Tel is brilliant in principle, but deeply flawed and dysfunctional in the way it operates. There are threads at the moment with some navel-gazing on the subject, and one or two good ideas, but all it takes is for someone to cry "no censorship here" and everyone scurries for cover.

When I get back from Madrid, I'll give a brief report on main impressions, and then unveil a mischievous take on a certain type of individual one encounters a lot on holidays, but who lurks in workplaces and blogs as well. It's one I provisionally call "Caravan Man" (or Caravan Woman). They don't have a caravan, but seem to tow a lot of their parochial mindset with them wherever they ago. But the main problem is the way they appropriate and defend territory, indifferent to others with an equal claim. More about that later.

God, is that what a month of My Tel has done to me ?