Articles I would like to have written

I don’t agree with everything Elliott Morss says in these articles, and some of the perspectives are US-centric, but you might notice that he writes on many of the themes that engage me too.

Not light reading – take them one at a time, and with a mug of coffee to hand.  Must admit I have not read them in detail myself yet, but the mug-of-coffee approach is what I am planning.

China/HK: The New Wine “Vanity” Market for Bordeaux

The Economics of Marketing Wines – Does Region Matter?

The Global Economics of Fashion and Clothing: Part 2 – Fashion

The Taste of Wine – Does It Matter?

The US Wine Market – A Global Economist’s Perspective (Part 1)

How Restaurants Select and Price Wine

Selecting Wines

I discovered the website when seeking out entries for my new blog roll, but decided the articles probably probably fit better here in a post of their own.  If you want to check for new articles, I am sure you can work out how for yourself.

A Spring in Majorca – but only one week

Once again I decided there are more beautiful things in life than wine bottles to show pictures of, so here is the Gran Hotel in Palma, designed by Domènech i Montaner who was also responsible for Modernista buildings in Barcelona.

Palma is a fine city, but we were staying in Sóller, at the other end of the scenic railway, and just over the mountains on the North West side of the island. So most of the restaurants mentioned below are in Sóller, though there are a couple we visited for lunch on day trips.

Generally speaking I was a little surprised at how similar the restaurants we tried were in terms of price, menu choice and quality of food.  It seemed to be pretty standard to offer a number of local Mallorcan dishes, along with some with a somewhat more international flavour which normally came with shredded lettuce and other inappropriate bits of salad.  Generally speaking the quality was pretty good, but never much better than that.  Here are the restaurants, together with the wines taken at each place.  The prices are estimated Spanish retail prices for 75cl bottles, converted at current rates.  Don’t take them too seriously, but it will give you some idea the relative prices.

La Vila, Sóller
We had our first evening meal in our hotel restaurant.  Good atmosphere and service. The food was OK, but on the relatively pricey side and unnecessarily complicated.  Scallops were a bit chewy, and the selection of cheeses boring.  Nicely cooked magret of duck in a good orange sauce, but lots of additional faffy bits, and apples with so much cinnamon flavour they overpowered the rest of the dish.

Jean Leon, Petit Chardonnay, Penedés DO, 2009, £9.50
Intense and ripe tropical fruit.  Pineapple, and something with a bitter edge – maybe Seville oranges ***

Ses Nines, La Vila Hotel Sóller Edició Limitada, Binissalem Mallorca DO, Tianna Negre, 2009, £13.50
This was a supposedly a special cuvée for the restaurant.  Intense and brambly, with quite a bit of tannin and a bitter finish.  Good now, but I’d expect it to improve in the next 5 years or so.  A good ***

Es Canyis, Port de Sóller
Had a late lunch here, sharing a starter of grilled sardines and a main of arròs negre.  Simple but very good – probably the best meal of the holiday.  Nice relaxed restaurant and good service too.

Blanc de Blancs, Maciá Batle, Binissalem Mallorca DO, 2010, £5.30
Intense tropical fruit again.  This time pineapple and melon I thought.  Bitter and cloying finish ***

El Guia, Sóller
The most remarkable thing about this place was the service.  Slow and ponderous silver service, with wine top ups every few minutes until they got a bit busier, and a waiter who keeps repeating the order to himself as he returns to the kitchen.  The fish soup  was full of mushy fibres of fish.  Maybe that is how it is done locally, but it wasn’t to my taste.  But I enjoyed very much the local dish llom amb col – pork wrapped in cabbage leaves and slow cooked.

José L Ferrer, Crianza, Binissalem Mallorca DO (Mantonegro), Spain, 2008, £9.00
Sweet sickly dark fruit on the nose – rather unpleasant I thought.  Slightly sweet, slightly oxidised, and quite tannic *

Son Tomas, Banyalbufar
Just had a main course for lunch here – a disappointingly tough grilled monkfish.  My wife’s Mallorcan fish was better cooked, so maybe I was just unlucky. A nice terrace location though.

Alba Flor, Blanco, Prensal Muscat, Binissalem Mallorca DO, Vins Nadal, 2009, £7.50
Another oxidised one.  Lemon, sherry and apples.  Maybe I should have been sending these back, but I quite liked this one.  More interesting than tropical fruit! ***

Cipriani, Sóller
This was not the Don Cipriani you may have read about elsewhere.  It seems that has now folded.  This was a restaurant on the main square.  The food was very good.  I had the sopes mallorquines, which was actually a meal in itself (I had forgotten that sopes was not soup), and the equally local slow cooked shoulder of lamb.  Decent service, and a good outside location.

Ses Nines, Manto Negre Cab Sauv Callet Sirah, Binissalem Mallorca DO, Tianna Negre, 2010, £9.00
Blackberry.   Jammy, and with a certain edge.  Quite tannic, bitter finish.  Not unpleasant.  Despite the same star rating, it did not appeal as much as La Vila’s version of Ses Nines ***

Sa Cova, Sóller
Had a couple of meals here.  Service is a bit rough around the edges but acceptable, and outside tables small with little space around them.  Had battered squid rings as a starter twice.  The first time was fantastic – light and crispy coating with melt-in-the-mouth squid.  Next time was sadly more greasy and chewy.  Had the magret of duck here too to compare.  This time it was in PX sauce.  Bigger portion, also well cooked and tasty, but cheaper and less faff.  This one also came with cinnamon apples, which were more subtly spiced.

ÁN/2, VdT Mallorca, Falanis, Ánima Negre, 2008, £11.60
This is the cheapest of the Ánima Negre red range.  Nicely delineated aromas, vanilla oak, and blackcurrant fruit. Intense and quite tannic.  Spicy, especially on the finish.  Excellent length.  At last we had stopped messing about with wines on this holiday.  Would be even better after another 5 years ****

Victoria, Alcúdia
This has an excellent location on the peninsula beyond Alcúdia – a terrace with fine views.  I had a tuna salad to start with, which turned out to be tinned tuna on a salad you might well get in the UK.  Pleasant enough, but I expected something more exciting.  This was followed by frit mallorquí, a local offal fry-up, which was good.

Bach, Extrísmo, Seco, Penedes DO (Xarel.lo, Macabeo, Chardonnay), Spain, 2009,  £5.00
Citrusy, orange I think, and pineapple.  Good value ***

Café Sóller, Sóller
As suggested by the name, this was less of a restaurant and more of a café that serves food. A rare fillet steak here, correctly cooked.  The place seems to specialise in inappropriate garnishes, so my steak had a huge piece of white asparagus lying across the plate.  My wife’s mozzarella and tomato salad came with a strawberry, and I saw pasta being served with slices of orange and kiwi.

Án, Felanis, Ánima negra, VdT de los Illes Balears, 2001, £50.00
This is the middling priced wine of the Ánima negra range.  Intense mature spicy red fruit. Cinnamon, I think.  Sweet ripe fruit. Dusty tannins. Fantastic length with a bitter finish.  Drink now or keep up to another 10 years.  Easily the best wine of the holiday *****

Bizarrely, in our experience of Sóller, the less fancy the restaurant and the poorer the quality of the wine glasses, the better the wines that were available.  Sa Cova and Café Sóller were the only places to serve anything of the level of ÁN/2, and Café Sóller was the only place to have Án on their list.  Café Sóller also deserves special mention for the reasonable markups on the Án.  They charged €41 for the 2001 and €58 for the 2000 – less than the retail prices I saw for similar vintages.

A week of Tenerife wine and food

Recently back from my hols on Tenerife. The focus of the holiday was by no means wine, but of course I was keen to try the local wines, and as there seems to be so little written about them I thought you might be interested in my experiences there. I am not going to give a factual summary here of the DOs and grape varieties, but if you are interested in such things you could do worse than looking here.

Casa del Vino

First stop, almost literally, was Casa del Vino de Baranda. Here is a wine museum, a tasting room, bar and restaurant. The museum was full of information about Tenerife wines, actually too much information for me, and the obligatory old bits and bobs of wine making in days gone by. The casa was an old farm house that produced wine, and as such came with a huge lever wine press that now forms part of the museum. You almost got a picture of that at the top of this page, but then I decided Mount Teide was prettier.

The most interesting thing I learned was about the local traditional method of training vines. It is a variant on the cordon system, with several branches braided together and laid out horizontally to grow up to around 3m long. The braided branches are allowed to rest on the ground during winter, but propped up by 50cm or so in the spring. These days a variety of training systems are used, but I did spot one or two vineyards that still used the traditional method.

We hit the ground running in the tasting room, which turned out to be more of a wine bar for locals, than a venue for (ahem) serious wine enthusiasts like us. There was a changing menu of something like 10 wines, which were served with bread and cheese, in proper wine glass sized portions, for 1-2 euros each. We did manage to negotiate half pours, but they were still large for tasting samples, and not a spittoon in sight. If I went again, I would avoid pre-Sunday-lunch drinking time with the locals, make sure no one was driving, and schedule plenty of time and liver capacity to enjoy the wine. Anyway, we finished up sharing 4 half-glass tasters, and then a bottle over lunch from the restaurant.

The wines

For some reason, in restaurants the most commonly recommended wine was Rueda. OK, it is not a bad choice but there are other white wines in the world, including quite a few from Tenerife. We succumbed once and had a couple of glasses, but otherwise stuck to wines from the island. Dry wines only. I understand Tenerife produces very good sweet Malvasias, but we did not seek these out, and none presented themselves in a very obvious way.

Maybe it was the just me, or the wines we tried, but I found the whites all a bit samey. Sweet tropical fruit aromas, mainly pineapple I think, almost pungent, fair acidity, maybe a tad astringent, and with a slightly cloying finish that seemed to be due to the aromatic profile rather than residual sugar. I hope it does not sound condescending – I don’t mean it to be – but I’d say they were characterful and rustic rather then smooth and sophisticated. All pretty solid *** wines, but I was tiring of them by the end of the week. Here are the white wines we tried, with actual or estimated retail prices converted to pounds at current exchange rates:
Marba, Blanco Barrica, Tenerife Tacoronte Acentejo DO, 2009, 12.5%, £7.60
Viñátigo, Gual, Tenerife, Ycoden Daute Isora DO, 2008, 13.0%, £7.40
Viñátigo, Verdello, Tenerife Ycoden Daute Isora DO, 2007, 13.0%, £10.30
Viñátigo, Blanco, Tenerife Ycoden Daute Isora DO, Spain, 2009, half bottle, £3.00
Viñátigo, Marmajuelo, Tenerife Ycoden Daute Isora DO, 2009, 13.0%, £8.70
Viña Zanata, Tenerife Daute Isora DO, Viña La Guancha, 2009, 12.5%, £9.00
So that’s one tasting note for 6 wines – no messing about on winenous! Three of these are of the varieties Gual, Verdello and Marmajuelo, as mentioned in the list above. I don’t know about the Viña Zanata, but the remaining two are mainly Listán Blanco – another name for the Palomino Fino of Sherry fame. There is also a Listrão Branco on Madeira, which I assume is the same variety.

I found more variation in the reds – both in style and quality.
Tajinaste, Tenerife Valle de la Ortava DO, 2008, 13.0%, £7.80
Tintilla, Tenerife Ycoden Daute Isora DO, Tágara, 2006, 13.5%, £10.30
Tanganillo, Tinto, Tenerife Valle de la Orotava DO, 2008, 13.5%, £6.50
Arautava, Tinto, Tenerife Valle dela Orotava DO, 2009, 13.0%, £8.40
Monje, Tradicional, Tinto, Tenerife Tacoronte-Acentejo DO, 2008, 13.0%, £9.50
Crater, Tenerife Tacoronte-Acentejo DO, Bodegas Buten, 2006, 13.5%, £14.00
In these names, it is only Tintilla that is the grape variety. All the others are dominated by Listán Negro. In addition to Listán Negro, the Crater has Negramoll and la Hollera blended in, and the Monje has Negramoll. Negramoll is the same as Tinta Negra Mole of Maderia, so together with Verdello and Listán Blanco, we are now up to three varieties in common with that island. All the reds were low on tannin. According to Jancis Robinson in her “Guide to Wine Grapes”, Listán Negro is usually vinified using carbonic maceration, so that could explain the low tannins, and also some of the flavour profiles.

I found the Tanaganillo to be rather dumb and short, tasting mainly of boiled blackcurrant sweets **. The Tintilla was oxidised, but have no idea if it was the wine itself, or if the bottle had just been left open too long. The oxidative notes were of the type I have noticed others liking, but they give me no pleasure, so *. The Tajinaste and Arautava were simple but good fruity blackcurrant wines, with some licorice noted on the finish of the Arautava, ***. The Monje and the Crater were a step up in quality I thought. Maybe it was the DO, which I understand was the first one on the island, or the other grapes blended in with the Listán. The Monje was also blackcurrant fruit dominated, but was more elegant, with a slight green edge, and aromatics that reminded me a bit of Syrah – but still only *** I think. The Crater, was maybe a tad bretty, and in that phase of development where it was starting to develop mature notes whilst still retaining some youthful dark fruitiness – all good things in my book. I may have been partly swayed by the environment where we drank the wine, but I think this scraped ****.

Restaurants – bad, ugly and good

Let’s start by getting some of the bad and ugly out of the way. If you are at the Teide Portillo Visitors’ Centre, don’t be tempted to eat at the nearby restaurant. There we had a soggy spag with packet bol, and a tough Spanish omelette, presumably warmed up out of a packet, and was the worst restaurant meal I can remember. We had lunch another day just up the road, which was better – but to be honest we may just have got lucky by choosing better from the menu – we went for soup at that place.

Also avoid Pomadoro in Puerto de la Cruz – there we had rather unsavoury squid (cooked in bad oil perhaps), tough rabbit, and a tough and overcooked fillet steak. The views overlooking the sea are great, but you can get the same experience next door at Rustica, where the fish dishes were a lot more acceptable, if not particularly great. Also be prepared to be serenaded by a dodgy guitar player, who will then come round asking for money.

The best place we found in Puerto de la Cruz was Régulo – we went there twice. It is what I would call a proper restaurant. Their customers were mainly foreigners like us, but providing tourist troughing did not seem to be its raison d’etre, unlike Pomadoro, Rustica and many other places we saw in Puerto. I had the excellent value fish soup on both occasions, and everything else we tried was tasty and nicely cooked. Huge portions though! I think there is something about Tenerife “entrées” that does not translate properly – they seem to be main course size. And my shoulder of lamb was a whole shoulder (maybe I exaggerate) that even I could not finish. Good wine recommendations there – the Arautava, and the Monje.

We had only dinners in Puerto de la Cruz, and lunches elsewhere on those days. An honourable mention for lunch must go to Casa del Vino, where we had a good but not very exciting meal. To be fair though, we did go for the el-cheapo lunch option for something like EUR12 per head for 3 courses, so we cannot complain too much. And another honourable mention to El Burgado at Playa las Arenas, near Buenavista del Norte in the North-West corner of the island. There we shared a paella, which was OK, but the best thing about the restaurant was the friendly service and the quiet and beautiful location by the sea.

All other meals were dinners, and taken in Santa Cruz. The first night we went to a place close to our hotel that we had a personal recommendation for – Meson El Portón, Calle Dr Guigou 18. I give the address because I saw it in no guide books or similar places you look for recommendations. I noted it was very full at lunchtime, which I took to be a good sign, and we returned for dinner. The place was nearly empty but we were welcomed warmly. No menu was presented, but we were lead to a display of raw fish and meat and, with pidgin English, pidgin Spanish and much finger pointing, we made our choice, – a whole pampona (a local fish) for 2, and we accepted the offer of a salad “para picar”. Wine negotiations followed a similar pattern. The salad – various things including tuna – was good, and the pampona was even better – huge, cooked perfectly and seasoned with not a little garlic. On leaving, we discovered there was an English menu outside, with one intriguing item: “ham broke black woman”. But don’t worry, the Spanish version was “jamon pata negra”. All in all, an excellent and reasonably priced evening!

On the third evening in Santa Cruz we ate at Clavijo 38. We both went for the “local fish”, which turned out to be hake. We had huge portions, a half fish each effectively, and it was nicely cooked. But expensive. Too expensive I think.

But it was the second evening that was the gastronomic highlight of the holiday. We went to Solana. I discovered it recommended on a Spanish wine website, where it seemed to stand out in Santa Cruz in terms of the large number of people willing to rate it highly. No mention in guide books or on trip advisor though. It is a small restaurant with 34 covers, run by Nacho Solana, chef, and his wife Erika Sanz, sommelier and all things front-of-house. There was no evidence of any other staff at all, and the personal touch added a lot to the dining experience. Nacho took it upon himself to explain the whole menu to us in detail, and was clearly truly passionate about his food. Everything sounded great and it was difficult to decide, but it helped that we were allowed to split dishes to allow us to taste more of them. The food was good, but to me not all dishes were equally successful – a personal thing no doubt, as my wife did not always agree with my likes and dislikes. We started with a fois gras mille-feuilles – no pastry, but very thin layers of fois gras and apple. I chose that, but was a little disappointed. The other half-starter though was perhaps my favourite dish – scallops with artichokes on a bed of mushrooms. It sounded like an unlikely combination, and still does, but it worked fantastically. We then moved on to two half-dishes of pork – one from a fully grown pata negra pig, and one with meat from a suckling pig cooked over two or three days. The suckling pig literally melted in the mouth, but I preferred the firmer texture and fuller flavour of the grown-up pig. And for dessert, two half portions of chocolate soufflé and tarte tartin. We asked for wine recommendations.  Erika thought artichoke was too difficult to match, but suggested glasses of Rueda with the fois gras. It didn’t work at all. Maybe it was one of the few white wines they had by the glass?  The local red wine sugestion though was a hit – that was the Crater.  Total bill for all of the above plus a coffee was under EUR130 for two. Another excellent and reasonably priced evening. If you are in Santa Cruz, go there!

(Update: see here for my vinous report on a 2013 trip to Tenerife.)

On return from English vineyards

Just got back from a few days in the South East.  Enjoyed Canterbury a lot, both for its cathedral and the three excellent and very different meals we had there: the world’s thickest and meatiest beefburger at The Dolphin, huge pots of sweet mussels at Café Belge, and a Michael Caines good value “amazing grazing” lunch.  What better way to recharge flagging tourist batteries than a good quality leisurely light lunch in a restaurant that manages to be formal and relaxed at the same time?

But I did not intend this to be a restaurant review.  We visited a couple of vineyards, Chapel Down and Wickham, also the English Wine Centre, and I wanted to share some thoughts about them and their wines.  I approached these places as an ordinary punter – a tourist if you like.  I did not phone in advance saying I would like to taste some wines to write up on my blog.  Apart from anything else, that would be lying as I am not exactly going to “write up the wines”.

Chapel Down

There were 13 wines for sale at Chapel Down and we expressed interest in tasting as many as we could.  We were soon disabused of that notion.  You can only taste 3 wines free!   We explained we were perfectly happy to pay for our tasting samples, but no they couldn’t do that – something to do with taxation.  Hmmm.  But if we wanted to taste more, then we could go on one of the thrice-daily guided tours at £9.00 a pop, after which we would get a tasting of 8 wines.  So using that ruse we could taste 11 of their 13 wines – in fact we later realised that as there were two of us, by sharing samples we could actually taste everything.  As a tour was soon due anyway we signed up.

In the meantime we wandered around the vineyards at Tenterden a bit ourselves.  The map we picked up was obviously a bit out of date but enabled us to find our way around.  The oldest vines were Bacchus and Auxerrois from 1987, and the most recent additions according to the map were Bacchus from 2007.  About half the area had been planted with Pinot Noir, Pinot Blanc and Chardonnay in 2004, and there was also a block of Pinot Noir that dated back to 1999.  A vine of that venerable Kentish Pinot Noir features at the top of this article. All vines were Guyot trained, but to a greater height than I am used to seeing in other places.  I was surprised that several row end posts and nearby vines were on the floor.  I wonder how that could have happened – and how long it will take the vineyard to get around to repairing the damage.

The guided tour was fine, and bullshit free.  We got to see a bit of everything, including a sparkling wine bottling line in action. Only the second one I have seen – they are a lot more fun than still wine bottling lines.  Then, hurrah, we got our tasting.  In fact we only got 7 wines, but after our additional 3 free ones I felt I had tasted enough anyway.  Here are some brief impressions:

  • Vintage Reserve Brut, Sparkling, Reichensteiner, Rivaner, Pinot Noir, £17: Too expensive. ***
  • Pinot Reserve, Sparkling, 2004, Pinot Noir, Pinot Blanc, £25: This is more like it.  Could well be a decent Champagne.  Has depth and interest.  Worth the money, and we bought some. ****
  • Bacchus, 2006, £10: Good acidity and intense fruit.  Closest point of reference for me would be a pungent Sauvignon Blanc.  We bought some of this too. Things were looking up, but unfortunately the best was behind us. ***
  • Flint Dry, 2009, Chardonnay, Huxelrebe, Bacchus, £8: Fresh, but undistinguished and lacking intensity, particularly after the Bacchus. **
  • English Rose, Rosé, Rondo, Schonburger and others, 2009, £10: **
  • Rondo, Regent, Pinot Noir, £12:  Shudder. Why do they bother? *
  • Nectar, 2009, Sieggerebe, Ortega, Bacchus, £13:  Medium Sweet. Shudder. Why do they bother? *
  • Brut Rosé, Sparkling, Pinot Noir, £25: Not impressed, but then I am not a rosé person. ***
  • Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Sparkling, 2006, £25: Not bad, but I was expecting more.  Might acquire more interest with time? ***
  • Pinot Blanc, 2006, £11:  Tastes like proper wine. But so it should for the price. ***

Finally, before leaving the site we popped upstairs for lunch at Richard Phillips.  I was surprised to find the restaurant was full considering it was mid-week and the shop downstairs did not seem very busy.  Anyway, we ate in the bar, which was not a problem for us.  The pea and ham starter was excellent – good texture and intense and fresh flavours – but both of us found our main courses disappointing.  A rather bland tasting fish dish, and two parts of my trio of lamb were in various stages of dessication.

That does all sounds rather negative, doesn’t it?  But I actually came away pleasantly surprised.  My only other encounter with an English vineyard – Chilford hall many years ago – had been dire.  By contrast this was a smooth and professional operation that offered some serious wines.  If only they did not put up so many barriers to tasting them!

English Wine Centre, and Wickham

Two entirely separate enterprises, but I’ll deal with them together.  We spent a lot less time at these places than Chapel Down, and the wines I remember from them were all Wickham wines.

The English Wine Centre is not a vineyard.  Most importantly from my point of view it is a shop – though it also has a restaurant, and markets itself as a wedding venue.  We were asked for, and were given, a tasting.  At this point we were feeling a little fussier than at Chapel Down and asked for dry whites and sparkling wines only.  That narrowed the field quite a lot as sparkling wines were not on tasting mid-week, and it turned out that one of the dry whites available was the Chapel Down Flint Dry we had already dismissed.  So we finished up with four wines, 2 of which we didn’t like, and two we did.  The ones we liked were both from Wickham – more on those later.  They had an excellent selection of English wines for sale, and we bought quite a few bottles there.  The main downside was the prices – a good 30% or so over cellar door and other retail outlets. However, if you are intent on buying English wines the convenience of having then under one roof is an advantage.

Next stop was Wickham.  First we had a quick look at the vines by the restaurant.  Not sure exactly what we were looking at, but they were cordon trained and had obviously been tarted up with roses and lights to enhance the view from the restaurant.  They also seem to have been equipped with heaters – a bit like smudge pots, but these were positioned under the vines.  Inside the shop we were offered a no-fuss tasting of all their wines, so top marks for that!  The ones we liked and bought are described below.  I am afraid I can remember little about the ones we did not like.

  • Wickham Vintage Selection Dry, 2009, Faber, £8 (£11 at EWC): Light and herby. ***
  • Wickham Special Reserve Fumé Dry, 2009, mainly Bacchus and Reichensteiner, £9 (£13 at EWC):  Delicately oaked, giving real interest. ***
  • Wickham Vintage Selection Special Reserve, 2009, Rondo and a little Pinot Noir £12.20: Sour cherries. ***

In conclusion

Generally speaking, I had my pre-existing feelings about English wines confirmed by the experience.  The better dry white wines were light and herbaceous – tending towards Sauvignon Blanc aromatics.  On the right occasion I could enjoy these wines.  It is not my favourite style, but I would say that about Sauvignon Blanc too.  At their worst they were acidic and watery.  English sweet wines and red wines I would generally simply avoid.  The sparkling wines made from German crossings were quite pleasant, but horribly overpriced in my opinion – a comparable experience to Prosecco, but at twice the price.  The sparklers made from proper French grapes I thought were comparable in both quality and price to Champagne.  To be honest I think Champagne is overpriced in the UK too, but at least that means the English equivalents can compete.

Perhaps more on English wines later, when I open some of my booty…

Cachumba, West Didsbury

Note that Cachumba no longer exists. I am keeping this merely for historical interest.

220 Burton Road, West Didsbury, Manchester, M20 2LW. Tel 0161 4452479

Cachumba is self-styled on its website as a “Cafe & Take Away”. It certainly does a fair amount of take-away business, but apart from that I’d describe it more as an informal restaurant.  Food is brought to you at your table, though the menus are slipped under the practical glass that covers all the tables at each place setting.   Service, like the restaurant, is informal and friendly.  Be prepared to wait a while for your food if they are busy.

It may look closed, but don’t be fooled – if it’s earlyish evening, then it is probably open despite appearances.  But in marked contrast to most surrounding restaurants and bars, which parade themselves with open doors and outside tables, Cachumba keeps itself to itself.  Behind the screens in the window is a lush red haven, with soft music that is as eclectic as the food. It is a world apart from the currently trendy minimalistic style – a world that is more gentle, and inhabited by a rare, quiet sub-species of West Didsburyite.

It is difficult to describe the style of food, as it comes from around the world.  The focus, if focus is the word for such a vast area, is South and South-East Asia, but there is at least one African dish on the menu too.  Take a look at the menu on their website.  I have my favourites, but I know others that prefer other dishes so I won’t bother recommending anything in particular.  Vegetarians are well catered for. You may wonder, as I did, if it is possible to do justice to such a broad range of cuisines in one small restaurant.  Maybe it is not, and I wouldn’t like to vouch for the food’s authenticity, but it tastes great.  In particular, I am always struck by the vivacity of the flavours, presumably the result of everything being freshly cooked with fresh spices, and I always leave with a pleasant tingling sensation in my mouth.  And I never leave feeling overwhelmed by the heavy greasy sauces that are all too common in Indian restaurants in the UK.

All your dishes will by default be brought to your table more or less simultaneously, so if that does not suit be prepared to ask specifically for staggered servings. The portions are not huge, so you should probably think in terms of a couple of dishes each.  Though having said that, the portion sizes seemed generally larger than normal when I was there last a week ago, and the Vietnamese prawn fried rice dish was huge.

With spicy food, I would naturally tend towards aromatic white wine – well non-Chardonnay whites at least.  It is obvious that the wines were all obtained from Vin Vino, and very modestly marked up.  For example I see that you can buy the Solare Falanghina for £6.30 retail, and you can get it at Cachumba for only £8.95.   Recently I have usually been going for the Kirabo South African Chenin Blanc.  You won’t see it on the wine list on their website, but it is £9.95 (£6.90 retail).  I didn’t take a tasting note, but I remember it being crisp and apply. At various points in the past year or so I have also liked the Falanghina and the Gewurz, but did not get on with the Pinot Grigio – I think they are the ones they currently sell but cannot be 100% sure.  Anyway, Cachumba gets top marks for reasonably priced wines, and top marks for displaying their wine list in the window.  It used to be BYO, but sadly no more.

All in all I would highly recommend Cachumba.  Great food, friendly and relaxed, and a reasonably priced wine list.  I find it strange that it is always as quiet as it is, and think it deserves more recognition than it gets.  If you don’t believe me, here are reviews on sugarvine and onionring.

Why wine is so expensive in restaurants

I think it is generally accepted that British restaurants make most of their profit on sales of alcohol.  As a wine lover I dislike that practice, but I am going to resist the temptation to rant about it; I am going to examine why it happens to be the case.

I have seen speculation that it may have started as a result of wartime austerity measures. Restaurants were not allowed to charge above a certain amount for food, but there was no limit on wine prices. So restaurants kept their income stream going by selling any available wine at very high prices.  Then, after restrictions were lifted, we were so used to relatively cheap restaurant food and expensive wine that the pattern persisted. Now that might be complete nonsense, but it is a nice theory.  Let me know if you know better.

Regardless of its origins, it is clear to me why this pricing pattern continues today.  Restaurants compete only on the price of food.  Special offers are almost exclusively on food, with deals on multiple courses, or for food ordered when the restaurant is not so busy.  Only rarely do offers apply to wine.  Indeed, restaurants go out of their way to hide the value of the wine they serve.  They prefer to stock wines that rarely appear in shops, and their suppliers feed that preference by selling specially created brands that are not sold through retail channels.  Anyone would think that restaurants were trying to hide their markups on wine.

Also, they are not so keen on advertising wines prices.  Practically every restaurant displays a menu by their door, but how many display a wine list, or even a selection from their list?  I did a quick survey of restaurants close to where I live. Out of the ten in my sample area, only two displayed a wine list.

There was a large range of quality and style in the restaurants I checked, but one things they have in common is that they do not belong to large chains.  Chain restaurants usually do display a wine list, and I’m guessing the reason is that they employ legal advisers – because actually all restaurants are required by law to display their wine list.  According to a guidance note explaining the legal requirements: “For an eating area, prices must be shown at or near the entrance so that the prospective consumer can see them before he enters; a restaurant with direct access to the street will therefore be required to show prices so that they are visible from the street.”  It goes on to say: “When wine is sold for consumption with food (but not when merely sold among other drinks), the price of at least five wines – if this number is available – must be displayed.”  So, many restaurants are not merely keeping us in the dark about their wine prices; they are breaking the law in doing this.

As restaurants in general are now so clearly intent on competing on the price of food, while hiding the price of wine on which they make more profit, there is clearly no incentive for any restaurant to break rank and distribute markups more evenly.  A good first step towards encouraging competition on wine pricing would be effective enforcement of existing consumer legislation.

I don’t particularly want to shop my offending local restaurants to Trading Standards, but I am tempted.  Not because I feel particularly vindictive to those restaurants, but because the couple of places that do display their wine lists have very reasonable markups – and I’d like to see them get more trade.

Aladdin, Withington

529 Wilmslow Road, Withington, Manchester, M20 4BA. Tel 0161 4348558
www.aladdin.org.uk

Let’s face it – a lot of money is not spent on the decor – outside or inside.  Most people who just happen to be walking past seem to think it is just another kebab takeaway. But go inside and you will probably find a busy and bustling restaurant.  It certainly will be weekend evenings, and often midweek too. On average I have been here something like a couple of times a month for the last few years, so any negative comments here should be seen in that light – I wouldn’t go so often if I didn’t really like the place. Here’s why I like it…

Very high up on my list of reasons is BYO with only £1 corkage.  For me, that means I can take one or two decent bottles of wine and not have to pay through the nose for the pleasure.  Unless you feel you can get by with the Paris goblets they provide, you will need to bring your own glasses.  Don’t be shy – they don’t bat an eyelid.

And I like the informal and friendly atmosphere.  Unlike many of the trendier restaurants a bit further South, which seem always to be packed with the Didsbury Set, you get many different types of people here.   It seems so much more inclusive and inviting like that.  Sometimes you even get a bunch of wine nuts making the most of the BYO policy and enjoying interesting wines with the food.

Ah yes – the food.  The restaurant describes the cuisine as “authentic Arabic and Middle Eastern”, and I have heard it described variously as Syrian and Lebanese by those who claim to know.   Maybe I am not as enthusiastic about the food as many people, but I like it well enough.  And I know the menu so well now I can easily navigate it to find the meal I want.  Most people seem to agree that the starters are the best part of the menu, and the best value for money.  For mains I like the shaworma, maklobeh, and the kebabs best – particularly the chicken kebab.  I find the sauce in many of the casserole style mains not to be wine-friendly, and the one time I ordered fish it came back so over-cooked I wouldn’t dream of ordering it again.  The two of us would typically order 4 starters to share, and then share one main with rice and a salad.   Normally I do without dessert, but their pastries are good.  See the menu on their website for details and prices.  Officially they have a £15 minimum charge, but it is quite likely your bill will be less than that and it has never been a problem for me.  I really like the feeling of being pleasantly surprised by the size of the bill, and wanting to tip well rather than feeling under an obligation.

If I were asked for wine recommendations for Aladdin food, in broad brush terms I would suggest a Riesling of almost any style, or a spicy medium-bodied red.  Chateau Musar, red or white, would also be an excellent choice.  The food is subtly spiced, and not at all hot, so wine matching is usually not too difficult if you avoid the more acidic dishes.

Here are a few more sources for more reviews on Aladdin: Restaurant-Guide, sugarvine and tripadvisor.  Most of them seem to ring true.  A couple of the comments on tripadvisor are interesting though.  I too have experienced a horrendous and totally unacceptable delay getting into the restaurant, despite the fact we had booked.  But it has only happened once to me – it was a Saturday and I do not usually go that day.  Maybe it will happen less often now they have expanded the upstairs part of the restaurant?

Update 01/02/20: Not need to worry about queues now. Although the food is as good as ever, there are sadly a lot fewer customers, and only the old part of the restaurant is regularly used. I guess it has fallen out of fashion.