Tuesday, 6 July 2010

A surprise or two on the South Bank...

I really enjoy food fairs and end up spending hours like an observer at an art gallery, just staring and taking it all in; sights, smells and bustle, hence my interest in attending The Real Food Festival last weekend at the Southbank Centre. Even so, I have to admit to being a shade disappointed. Not that it is not a good idea (it is a great idea). Nor that I was expecting an Earls Court sized event or anything like it, rather that it was not that remarkable; a bit samey and a bit formulaic. Should I have expected a WOW factor?

Having said that, two stalls more than the others did grab my attention. Small treats sticking out like a treasure chest in the sand: Merry Widows wines and Tea Together.

What do I know about Austrian wines? Well very little honestly, apart from the obvious Grüner veltliner variety, and it has been a long time since I did my exams. However, Linn Rothstein, owner of Merry Widows Wines persuaded me to give her selection of wines a try and revive my much battered memory.

As her website suggests, she specialises in Austrian wines (one particular size, the 250ml bottles is cannily aimed at accompanying the Delia Smith ‘one is fun’ or light bite type meals and comes with crown caps. Why open a full bottle when you only need a glass or two?) As I was travelling what better way to sample than with the twin pack of rosé and white 250mls at £7? Sadly for Linn, my tasting ability on a hot crowded train with plastic cups couldn’t give the wines justice. But here goes:

The first wine I tried was the Neusiedlersee Qualitätswein Cuvee 11, Austria (12.5%). The colour was pale golden yellow. This being poured into an off grey-blue plastic cup in my confined space as the train waited for its signal. No obvious greenness, just an initial impression of fresh light colour.

Swilling it around (not that I needed to much since the jostling of the commuters and the jolting of the train beginning to move - Oh stop complaining Lou!), the rich honeyed citrus fruits aromas are evident. Hints of liquorice woodiness, mustiness and the lightest of rubber also give the fruitiness a mellow more fuzzy edge.

This is a combination of Grüner veltliner, sauvignon blanc, welschriesling (neither Welsh nor Riesling) and chardonnay; sharper citrus and floral elements melded with honey and butteryness. Given the nature of the soils in the area: loess, black earth, sediment and sand, this is wine really reflects its surroundings.

On the palate, there is an off-dry rich vanilla and honey on citrus. Imagine candied lemon with honey drizzled on it and you are not far off. Honeydew melon (and melon rind or papaya giving it that slightly muted edge) and prickly petillance give this white a really summer drink quality. Flint and mineral finishes take any potential for cloyingness away. A long acid finish brings the tasting of this one to a mouth watering close.

The next wine was the Neusiedlersee Spätlese Pinot Noir Rosé, Austria (12%), rich and ruby red in colour and dark as a stained glass window. Pouring it into the previously described cup, shaking everywhere as the train rocked south from Waterloo, my initial comment was ‘liquid strawberry jam’.

Swirling it around to get a sense of what to expect on the palate, I carefully sniffed. Scents of damsons and strawberries with notes of honey and vanilla give it a rich, jammy quality, as well as a slightly woody bottom note. This wine is so ‘thick’ in scent that I imagine if this were not wine, I would look like a kid from a children’s party before a parent had wiped my jam covered mouth.

Tasting it; the initial hit on the tongue is a naturally rich off-dry sensation. As with the aroma, there is a jam quality. Strawberries and cream, honey infusions and a slight element of plum. There is more jam than cream and my wine did need to be cooler to balance that. Hints of wood and pip and a flintiness balance and round off this wine. A long satisfying finish. The concentration of flavour is not reflected in the strength of the wine at 12% which is a bonus.

On a personal level, this wine lends itself to Autumn more than high summer being fuller and richer; images of warm days and cooler nights, fires starting to be lit and jumpers on standby, an excellent stepping stone to the full hearty winter reds to come. Then again, the hundred or so commuters listening to me and Aunt J discussing this in the carriage may have disagreed!

A jam is just a jam isn’t it? Not quite. (Until I tried Raspberry and Ouzo jam by Nikos Papayiannides of Lesbos, when in Greece, jams were just a function of breakfast). The flavour combinations of Tea Together show that this really isn’t the case, and after the rather shaky evening on the train, the tranquillity of the countryside, the brilliant morning sunshine and the wafts of bread turning to toast made it the perfect moment to try my presentation box of jams from Tea Together (£6).

What made Tea Together stand out at the Real Food Festival was not only their sheer variety of 40 or more jams, marmalades and pickles, but also their attention to detail in the presentation of them; the turning of something simple into something desirable. Neat cardboard gift boxes in Provençal blue with burgundy stripes (the headquarters of this boutique business is in the Côte Opale, near Le Touquet, so I should really say opal blue) in which sit four small jars, numbered to denote the recipes and flavours: two marmalades and two jams, all seasonal and from organic produce.

Toast popping out, the first jar I selected was, No.15, a summer pudding jam infused with a vanilla pod: the colour was a vibrant purple-red rich cassis jelly, tasting as good as it looked. Rich berry with a slightly mellow velvet vanilla finish coming from the vanilla mostly blackberry and blackcurrant in flavour.

Next I chose No.33. This does sound more like the blending lab at Chanel but given their already stellar clientele list (Dorchester, Claridges, The Berkeley, to name a few) it is slightly forgivable. Tinged with garnet and slightly more runny than the previous jam due to not using pectin, so I was told, this was plain strawberry. Really? Actually, no. This was full rich strawberry compote flavour with a creamy almost cream cheese aftertaste; so wonderfully smooth.

Of the next jars, both marmalades, No.10, was less satisfying, however that was my fault. Toast out, I put a teaspoon on the yeasty warm bread (organic white if you need to know), a small dollop of No.10 and in I dived. A pale orange pink jelly made me anticipate a sweet and sour sensation. Not at all. Whooshes of sharp lemons and an almost similar quality to those of Moroccan preserved lemons, the sweetness of the sugar contrasts with the sourness of the lemon and hints of blackcurrants and there is an almost gingery zing to this (they do a lemon and ginger variety No.31). My mistake was not introducing some butter which would have brought out more sweetness and tempered the lemon zing. However, it really brought my taste buds to life and woke me up!

Finally, their classic marmalade, the No.1; classic in every way and one of the best I have tasted. Golden orangey yellow and set to perfection. Wonderfully gentle orange flavour with thin cut slices of peel. A soft pithy element gave it the mellow aftertaste, light and cleansing, so very cleansing on the palate. (Honestly, I could burst into a rendition of ‘Morning has broken’. Best not though)

Such pleasant surprises such as Merry Widows Wines and Tea Together make the experience of the Real Food Festival worth attending and I really look forward to seeing them again as well as discovering similar producers at the next fair.


(For further information about the festival, and for those curious about Greek jams and sauces, go to: http://www.realfoodfestival.co.uk/ and http://www.papayiannides.gr/ ).

1 comment:

  1. Ahahahaha, that "Ie de yaroo" (Let's do it at home) sign from Japanese trains is hilarious - there was a whole series when I lived there last year and this brings them all back - there was one about music and sitting on the floor too. I'm afraid I'm a wine dunce (even though I now live in Austria, gah!) but you sure sound like you know what you're talking about.
    Not sure why this comment form won't let me post as name and URL but oh well, will use Google I guess.