When I was first in the wine business I always enjoyed the challenge of tasting wines “blind” and hazarding a guess as to their provenance. In those days it was a hundred times easier than today because all one usually had to consider was Burgundy, Bordeaux or Rhone. Sometimes an Italian wine or a Rioja would show up but it was primarily French. Even then, it was surprising how many mistakes could be made by professionals. I remember my friend, Harry Waugh, who was a director of Chateau Latour, being asked over a vinous dinner if he had ever mistaken Burgundy for Bordeaux and his response was “not since lunch-time!”
One of the most impressive blind tastings I witnessed was at a dinner party that Janie and I gave when we were first married back in 1966. We had invited the aforementioned Harry Waugh, John Salvi (who was an MW and worked for Sichel in Bordeaux), another wonderful Irish MW, Tom Whelehan and finally our friend Michael Broadbent and his wife Daphne. Michael, who was then a director of Harveys wine merchants of Bristol, was like a mentor to me. I remember him telling me that the one sure way to learn about wine was to ALWAYS write a note on every wine I tasted, regardless of whether it was good or bad, exciting or boring. How right that advice turned out to be.
I had pulled some pretty good wines for this particular dinner, including a magnum of Ch. Leoville Poyferre 1929 (which Janie had given me for a birthday present and paid only about ten English pounds for back then!). My Dad who was in the business himself had given me a bottle of Clos de Vougeot 1887 from Bouchard Pere et Fils and so I decided to throw disarray amongst these great tasters and serve it “blind.”
“Ok, anyone who can guess this wine correctly gets a bottle of Ch. Cheval Blanc 1952, “
I said smugly. This was another gift from my Dad’s cellar but I knew offering it was a sure bet that I’d outfox them all. Who would possibly guess a Clos de Vougeot of that age?
I opened the wine slowly and somehow managed to get the cork out without breaking it. The wine was terrific and still very alive but I still felt pretty secure for my Cheval Blanc! There was silence and a lot of very concentrated sniffing ad slurping which went on for about 20 minutes. I was really enjoying myself!
The first guess was a Bordeaux from the early twenties and then someone thought that maybe it was a Hermitage from the same period. Another guess was Burgundy from the 1930’s. I noticed that Michael had kept silent and just kept jotting notes down in his battered old notebook.
Finally he turned to me and said, “Gosh, I am having a really hard time with this one. I can only remember one wine that it reminds me of and so I suppose I will have to go with that. It was about seven years ago and I was at Bouchard Pere et Fils and they served me a bottle of 1887 Clos de Vougeot and so that will have to me my vote.”
Of course, we were all awed! I, myself, was in shock at having to part company with my beloved Cheval Blanc. Michael insisted I open it there and then and share it with everyone – which I thankfully did! It was wonderful!
Michael went on the become the world famous head of Christie’s Wine department at their auction house in London and still is very much one of the greats of the wine trade. I adore reading his articles every month in Decanter magazine.
Nest week is our son Charlie’s birthday. It seems that all our children have become the same age as Mel and me! We don’t feel a day over 40 although our bodies definitely tell us we are! Charlie is a great chef. He likes cheese (the smellier and richer the better), spicy food and bacon in that order of preference. He has always loved strong flavors and even his Asian dishes are spiced up with lots of fresh ginger and chilies. Our daughter Amy is the same.
They never really went overboard for bland food and if I made them a green pea soup, a tomato and cheese pizza or a poached fish they would rummage in the cupboard for Tabasco or a searingly hot chili sauce to sprinkle on the top. Charlie would often slice up a hot salami or sausage or burn a couple of rashers of bacon and throw them into the dish with a huge grin and a guilty look.
Baby squash was one such vegetable that needed the Charlie pizzazz. We call them ‘courgettes’ in France – ‘zucchini’ in Italy and ‘squash’ in America. The first two sound more sexy don’t you think? These little fingers of vivid green or yellow are always the cheapest of the summer offerings. They are the chunks that make a ratatouille bulky, the sticks that mix in with carrots for color and the thickener for a chicken stock soup. By themselves, baby squash are cheap and ever so slightly boring. When they are large and mature there is always the excuse to stuff them with spicy ground meats and cover them with a sharp cheddar cheese melt on top.
Here are a couple of ideas of “spicing up” squash.
Open yellow squash omelet (serves 4)3 – 4 baby yellow squash (or green for a green squash omelet!)
1 tsp salt
4 tbs olive oil
2 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
5 fresh eggs
1 1/2 cups grated Swiss cheese or a mixture of grated sharp white cheddar and Swiss
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Tabasco or hot chili sauce (optional)
Top and tail your squash and grate it on the largest part of your grater to form thin slivers. Place in a bowl and sprinkle with the salt tossing them with your fingers to coat evenly. Place in a large sieve or colander and leave to drain for an hour.
Meanwhile, heat half the oil in a heavy frying pan and fry the garlic over low heat to a pale golden brown. Leave to cool. Squeeze out the squash gently with both hands to release as much of their liquid as possible and add to the pan. Fry them for 10 mins over low heat stirring all the time to soften them. Drain off the oil and juice and leave to cool in a bowl.
Break your eggs into another bowl and whisk lightly and season with a little salt and black pepper (the squash are salty, too, so don’t add too much). Stir in the squash. Heat the remaining oil in a clean frying pan and when it starts to shimmer and smoke pour in the egg mixture letting it cook until the eggs start to set. Draw the edges in gently with a spatula or wooden spoon to make large soft chunks in the center and prevent the bottom burning. When the omelet is evenly chunky with a little soft egg on the top remove from the heat and quickly sprinkle with the cheese to form a thick topping and season with black pepper.
Place under a hot grill and bake until the cheese melts and turns golden brown. Do not overcook. Slide onto a platter and cut into wedges to serve.
NOTE: You can add Tabasco or chili sauce either with the beaten eggs if you want it really spicy or by sprinkling it on the top at the table.
Baby green squash soup (6 servings)6 – 8 baby green squash
4 tbs olive oil
1 tsp salt
1 leek or sweet onion, cleaned and sliced small any way
3 – 4 cloves of garlic, sliced thinly
1 or 2 jalapeno chilies, seeded and chopped finely
2 bay leaves
1/2 tsp thyme leaves
2/3 cup long-grain rice
6 cups good chicken stock or broth
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Few sprigs of fresh basil leaves, shredded to garnish
Cut the squash into thin slices lengthwise and place on a cake rack on a baking sheet. Sprinkle first layer with salt and place second layer on top and sprinkle with more salt. Leave for an hour to drain then pat dry with a paper towel. Heat the olive oil in a large heavy bottomed saucepan and add the sliced leek (or onion). Cover and cook over medium heat until soft (about 5 mins for leeks and 10 for an onion). Add the sliced garlic and cook 3 minutes more. Add the squash and the jalapenos (one for mild heat and two to three for Charlie’s kind of heat!), cover and let steam over low heat for about 5 mins until soft. Add the rice, stir it around and then add all the chicken stock. Season lightly and add the bay leaves and the thyme. Cover and simmer quietly for 35 mins.
Remove the bay leaves and cool slightly. Either whiz briefly with a soup pureeing wand or pulse in a food processor until thick and creamy. You could also make a lumpy soup by ‘smushing’ it with a hand held potato masher, if you like. Adjust seasoning.
Serve hot or cold with a drizzle of olive oil and a scattering of fresh shredded basil leaves.
NOTE: for extra, extra spice – chop up another jalapeno finely and scatter on the top, too!