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Having fun, writing about the stuff I like

How to deal with wine snobs

Oscar Foulkes December 1, 2006 Uncategorized No comments

cellarblend2004Last week I hosted a UK-based customer, who told me how Cloof Cellar Blend had helped him out of a difficult situation with a wine snob.

One of the guests he’d invited to a dinner party was known to always arrive with a bottle of Chateauneuf-du-Pape (CNDP). In fact, she also very loudly orders CNDP at restaurants, including – wait for this – when eating Thai food! Drinking CNDP doesn’t immediately categorise someone as a wine snob. I’ve drunk substantial quantities of it myself (all in the name of research, of course!), and would list southern Rhône wines as one of my favoured points of reference.

It’s how she goes about drinking the CNDP that defines her as a wine snob. On this basis, it is clear that it’s also theoretically possible for her to be wine snob when drinking Cloof wines. In that case I’ll of course leave it to someone else to call her a wine snob!

So, having greeted his guests and relieved them of their coats, bottles of wine (including CNDP!) etc, the host offered them a drink. He proudly brought out a bottle of Cloof Cellar Blend, to which Ms Wine Snob loadedly commented “interesting”. Fortunately she was open-minded enough to judge the wine on its merits, and loved it.

Commenting that if she’d known that the host was going to be serving a South African wine she’d have brought TWO bottles of CNDP, she said how pleased she was to be drinking Cloof Cellar Blend. There are no reports (yet) of her carrying Cellar Blend wherever she goes.

Kitchen Disasters

Oscar Foulkes November 14, 2006 Uncategorized No comments

Don’t Try This At Home is a book of top chefs’ kitchen disasters. Heston Blumenthal, Ferran Adria, Jamie Oliver, Anthony Worrall-Thompson – they’re all there. The key point was the way in which they managed to recover. It’s good to know that we are not alone.

Take the wedding I worked at on Saturday night. First, the lemon juice that had been squeezed (from our only lemons, it has to be said), was ditched by mistake. No problem for Jon, who dashed off to the Spar. Then the guests took an extra 30 minutes to take their seats, with the result that the lemon beurre monte I’d made was less liquid than it was supposed to be. So all the little dishes were returned to the kitchen for re-heating, but being made up largely of emulsified butter, the sauce promptly split. Fortunately we had some eggs, and so I was able to convert the sauce to an impromptu hollandaise.

But that wasn’t the end of it. The gas canister for the blow torch had been fitted incorrectly, with the result that it was leaking its gas. Thanks to another caterer based nearby, we were able to get a replacement, and get the crème brulees out on schedule.

All in a night’s work!

18 Hours in Dublin

Oscar Foulkes October 24, 2006 Uncategorized No comments

On a recent Phineas Fogg-type itinerary (6 cities in 10 days) I had occasion to visit Ireland for the first time. My flight from Bradford-Leeds on Ryanair was uneventful, except for the fact that the announcements by the Eastern European hostesses were absolutely incomprehensible. It was at the Immigration desk that I first discovered I was in another kind of country. Unlike the very serious-looking uniformed officials I usually encounter in other countries, these non-uniformed men looked as if they could be pulling pints in the local pub, or even providing the musical entertainment at a similar establishment. Passengers in the EU-queue vaguely flashed passports at the official. Many didn’t bother to do even that.

In the non-EU queue I was preceded by a middle-aged businessman, who dutifully handed over his passport. After studying it for a little bit, the official looked up, pan-faced, and said: “What’s happened to yer head?”

The businessmen looked confused. This wasn’t the usual line of questioning (e.g. Where are you staying? How long are you staying for?).

Still pan-faced, the official held up the passport, opened to the picture (clearly not a recent one) in which the businessman had a full head of hair.

My turn. How long are you staying? I’m leaving after my meeting tomorrow. Standard stuff. But then he caught me – since losing part of my vocal chords earlier this year my voice is not nearly as strident as it used to be.

“So, will ye’ be usin’ sign language?”

Immigration officials do an important job in screening undesirables. But they can also be valuable in getting visitors into the right mood. I thought these guys were great, and encountered nothing but genuinely warm and friendly Irish people in service positions for the rest of my stay.

Harrassed in the Aisles

Oscar Foulkes September 3, 2006 Uncategorized No comments

Wine shopping has become a hazardous experience, especially when undertaken at peak times. On Saturday morning I went browsing for an interesting selection at a large ‘discount’ outlet. I had barely gained my bearings inside the store than a promoter was offering me a taste of wine she assured me was delicious. I managed to shrug off her further offer to assist me in choosing my purchases, and then had to brace myself for the next promoter. With a jinx and a step off the left foot I got past the third promoter, only to find the first promoter positioned between myself and the shelf, once again offering assistance.

Quietly, but slightly less politely, I once again asserted myself, which bought me a minute, or so, of peaceful browsing, before offers of assistance started flowing in again. Don’t get me wrong, I’m very happy to accept recommendations from trained professionals (i.e. the people who actually run the store), but having part-timers getting in my space, pushing their dubious wares, was more than irritating.

It doesn’t help that as a wine producer myself I can see what’s happening – difficult market conditions means that we all have to work very much harder to keep wine moving out of the cellar doors.

(Note to self: cancel all Saturday morning promotions)

Is the New World killing Bordeaux?

Oscar Foulkes August 19, 2006 Uncategorized No comments

During Vinexpo 2003 I was invited to a wine tasting at a cru bourgeois chateau in Haut-Medoc. I very much enjoyed the elegance of their wines. Then they proudly pulled out a wine they had purposely made ‘in a New World style’, presumably with Robert Parker in mind. It even had a brand name that had little to do with its Bordelais origins.

It was a wine without any charm or enjoyment. New oak completely dominated the palate. How sad, I thought, that in responding to perceived changes in consumer preferences, they had turned their backs on what they do really well. The kind of elegance, balance and finesse that it’s possible to achieve in Bordeaux (and other parts of France) are a wonderful counterpoint to the powerful, concentrated wines the New World is able to churn out with ease.

OK, so the labelling is more complicated, and French wine producers appear to be utterly mired in bureaucracy, but it would be a terrible shame if the crisis facing their industry were to lead to dramatic changes in the character of French wines.

At the beginning of August we (Cloof) hosted a group of UK wine writers in Bordeaux for the launch of our 2005 Bordeaux-style blend (Lynchpin). To make the programme a little more interesting we hosted a mini-conference, entitled Is the New World killing Bordeaux?, and invited four Bordelais producers to speak on the subject.

I was interested to taste how they were ‘sexing up’ their wines, if at all, and to see what kind of debate ensued. I hoped that they would also give us examples of how they think a Bordeaux of the 21st century should taste.

Representing the more traditional non-cru classé – a constituency that can’t be finding it easy at the moment – we had Jean-Michel Lapalu (Chateaux Lacombe-Noaillac, Liversan & Patache D’Aux). Harking from Canada, and now a confirmed French traditionalist, we had Philip Holzberg, the owner-winemaker of the 10 hectare Chateau Franc-Cardinal.

Bordeaux Oxygéne, an affiliation of 18 young chateau representatives, sent along the vivacious Florence Lafragette (Domaines Lafragette), as well as its President, Benoit Trocard. It has to be said that they largely represent the elite of Bordeaux – this is the next generation of its aristocracy – who are having a jolly good time of things these days, thanks to the sensational 2005 en primeur campaign during which prices went up by in excess of 200% for some chateaux.

Florence and Benoit opened in tandem with a rehearsed presentation that dealt mainly with the way that Oxygéne is trying to show a more approachable, youthful face to Bordeaux. Florence particularly liked the Britney Spears analogy I’d used in the invitation, and brought along a bottle of Pink de Loudenne to show how they’ve modernised their labels. Benoit brought a bottle of his critically acclaimed Clos de la Vieille Eglise. I very much appreciated them taking the trouble to join us, but was a little disappointed that they didn’t bring more wines to illustrate the wine styles part of the debate.

Benoit correctly made the point that they seldom have bad vintages anymore, which is partly a product of employing the kind of modern winemaking techniques practised in the New World, and partly a result of global warming. Bordeaux is undeniably complex, but within this is wonderful diversity (as represented by the membership of Oxygéne).

Florence said that, as Oxygéne, they prefer to present a positive face. So, for them, there is no such thing as a crisis. It is a commendable attitude, but probably a lot easier to maintain when you’re on the right side of the sales curve, as most of their members are!

Philip and Jean-Michel did more to get to grips with the nitty-gritty of issues facing the more run-of-the-mill Bordelais. Philip explained some of the problems inherent in the system of co-operative cellars, the biggest of which is the lack of confusion around “mis en bouteille”, which leads consumers to believe that a wine was chateau-bottled, when in fact it was made at a co-op. He also showed how it’s possible to employ modern winemaking techniques, and yet produce wines that remain true to their origins.

His masterstroke was in producing a mystery bottle of Bordeaux that was the perfect illustration of a pseudo-New World wine.

Jean-Michel showed how they’ve modified the packaging of the Patache d’Aux second label, with the addition of the grape variety.

It was, admittedly, more than a little presumptuous for a New World producer to convene this kind of discussion (especially in Bordeaux!). Part of my motivation was to encourage embattled Bordelais to stick to their guns in doing what they do best.

At the end of the day, though, it was more about what I could take away from the time spent in Bordeaux.

No matter where one makes wine in the world, one’s first responsibility is to make wines that represent their region of origin with integrity. In so doing, one is also presumably making wines that are unique. It may take time for the wine buyers, ‘anoraks’ and consumers to understand your wines, but they won’t take you seriously if you aren’t doing something different.

It is diversity that makes wine a fabulous beverage, and it is our duty as wine producers to uphold this tradition. If it is true that an artist is only as good as his reference, then we all need to know each others’ wines very well.

While it is true to say that inexpensive New World wines, in general, are more approachable (i.e. wine being easy to drink and packaging easy to understand) than inexpensive French wines, there is a tendency in the New World for us to over-make our wines. It is the norm for reserve wines to have in excess of 70% new oak. Combine that with high alcohol and oodles of ripe, sweet fruit and you have something akin to shouting.

The New World may have reminded the Old World of the need to operate hygienic cellars, to be more picky about where they grow vineyards and to crop them within acceptable bounds. The Old World has learnt to appreciate and listen to its customers more. But in terms of elegance, balance and understated classiness the best French wines still have something that for most of the New World remains an aspiration.

A week later I was party to the consumption of Chateau Pavie 2003, the wine that split the world’s wine writers into fiercely conflicting camps. Despite giving the wine a thorough airing in decanter, we were not able to drink it. For our palates it was just too over-extracted and over-worked. It would have been very interesting to have had this wine available for tasting during the mini-conference.

Launch of The Very Sexy Shiraz

Oscar Foulkes August 14, 2006 Uncategorized No comments

One of the most enjoyable aspects of my involvement at Cloof is that I experience the finished wines at every stage from fruit in the vineyard onwards. This enjoyment is substantially amplified by the quality of the Shiraz emanating from these vineyards. I just love sticking my nose into a glass and finding the aromas that I associate with Shiraz.

Every year we make several tanks of Shiraz, each from different vineyards on Cloof and Burghers Post. Unfortunately the volumes have been limited, so we’ve generally blended the Shiraz with either Cabernet, or Cabernet and Pinotage. The only single-varietal bottling of Shiraz has been Crucible, which for all its quality has been very restricted in quantity (in four vintages we’ve only made 1100 cases).

This week we finally unveil a Shiraz that has quietly been making its way through the system since its vinification in 2004. The grapes came from Burghers Post, and had produced gorgeously hedonistic Shiraz flavours. It was a prime candidate for barrel maturation, which is where it spent a little more than 12 months.

The combination of concentrated juicy fruit and French oak resulted in an irresistible package. In fact, the attractiveness of the wine was such that it could only be called ‘sexy’, hence The Very Sexy Shiraz (with apologies to Eric Carle, the author/illustrator of The Very Hungry Caterpillar, The Very Busy Spider etc). “Darling of origin, darling by nature” is how we describe it on the back label.

So, finally, we have a Shiraz to partner the Crucible.

Premium, barrel-aged shiraz often goes on the market priced in excess of R100, but given the name, the only price that made sense was soixante-neuf (or, R69).

Last week Wine magazine announced the results of its 2006 Shiraz Challenge, which has led to a great deal of excitement at Cloof.

The judges tasted 215 wines, from which they selected 28 wines to go into round two of the tasting process. The eventual winner was awarded four-and-a-half stars, with seven wines on four stars, one of which was The Very Sexy Shiraz.

So, one could safely say that our own (presumptuous) judgement of the wine was vindicated.

Laws of Sports Neutrality

Oscar Foulkes July 14, 2006 Uncategorized No comments

With all the international sport on at the moment it’s worth re-visiting the old issue of which team to support. As a starting point, I share with you Blackshaw’s Law of Sports Neutrality. Always support South Africa. When South Africa is not playing, support the side that makes better wine (for example, this would see one supporting France against Australia).

I suspect, also, that on the losing-with-good-grace scale, France is not a bad team for us to lose to. Twice in one weekend? Difficult, but defensible when one can stand back and admire the phenomenal talent of a young flyhalf, like Bauxis. Ireland and Wales are good teams to support, especially when giving England or Australia a bloody nose.

The latter teams are a no-no under most circumstances, but as with all scientific issues, there are always exceptions. So, I happily supported Australia in the Ashes series against England last year.
The soccer World Cup raises a variety of issues around which team(s) to support. These have been addressed by a friend living in London, who produces a blog at I still don’t quite follow the logic, but he somehow made a case for supporting England. And he’s a Transvaler!

Golf confounds the whole matter even further, especially when it’s a major, being played in the US. American parochiality reaches new heights when commentators pick up microphones. I suspect they regard it as a curiosity that non-Americans swing golf clubs, and even produce an International Leader Board to reinforce this view. So, it is no hardship at all to support even Australians and English golfers under these circumstances.

As you all know, in the Land of the (non-)Free they play sports which ensure that Americans will always be the world champions. They even play the World Series (baseball) against themselves (some people would argue that there’s a case for changing the ‘against’ to ‘with’). So I’m seldom pressed to make a call on which team I’m going to support when Americans are involved. The exception, of course, was Lance Armstrong in the Tour de France, who – to the best of my recollection – is the only American sportsperson I have supported. The way he powered up mountains is an image that will remain with me for a long time. Which all goes to show, that – at the end of the day – it’s sporting prowess that really counts, not solely national fervour.

Especially in the Cape winter, I prefer to watch with a glass of red wine in hand, but as we all know, there are exceptions – even I prefer to drink beer occasionally. I’m told that beer sales in Europe are massive this summer, to the detriment of wine.

Les Cols

Oscar Foulkes June 15, 2006 Restaurants No comments

(de La Canya, Olot. Tel: +34 972 26 92 09. Email:

Les Cols is the most extraordinary space. Occupying the ground floor of a large old house, it was renovated a few years ago. Walls and floor are clad in matt-finished dark steel sheeting. The same sheets, cut into 15cm strips, are used in an arrangement to separate tables along wall. The way the strips are attached to floor and ceiling makes them look like slightly twirled pieces of fabric. All tables and chairs are also metal – with a gold epoxy coating. The amazing thing about all this is that there is no sense of the space being hard and unfriendly, although soft lighting probably has something to do with it.

After the usual pre-prandial glass of Cava, the meal opened with artisanal bread accompanied by a selection of local olive oils. One would usually have associated the devotion to olive oil with Tuscany, but driving around Catalonia we saw several areas where ancient olive trees had been collected in preparation for sale and transplant to smart buildings in Europe’s capital cities. The gnarled trunks are – doubtless – a fabulous design feature in juxtaposition with minimalist modern interiors, but it does seem a shame to move trees from earth they have lived in for several hundred years.

We again selected the tasting menu, and found several of the courses enjoyable (lamb, roasted for 11 hours at 70 ºC was particularly good). However, we agreed that we would probably have been better off ordering from the a la carte menu on this occasion.


Oscar Foulkes June 13, 2006 Restaurants No comments

(Sant Andreu de Llavaneres, Tel +34 93 792 7767,

Neurologist Miguel Sanchez Romera opened L’Esguard in a 17th century farmhouse about ten years ago, after teaching himself to cook – at age 45! With his medical training (he still practises on Mondays and Tuesdays) he approached cooking from a scientific perspective, understanding firstly the chemical and physical properties of various food ingredients. Using this knowledge, and working from a fundamental point of the raw materials’ flavours and textures, he creates his novel dishes. The end result is as much installation art as it is nourishment, stimulation and entertainment.

Apart from this restaurant, Sanchez Romera’s contribution to the world of cuisine is his invention of Micri, “a neutral, colourless, odourless, tasteless base made of vegetable matter (cassava) that is a stable emulsion capable of emulsifying vinaigrettes, stabilizing sorbets, creating sauces with ease and maintaining all of the natural flavours of the products”. Having eaten numerous dishes involving Micri (by other Spanish chefs, too), I can report that it truly does have the most amazing way of preserving the shape of sauces (more like gels, actually), at the same time as holding other components in suspension. Its translucence, and ability to ‘hold’ – whether warm or cold – are attributes that make it extremely useful in assembling beautiful plates. It’s to cuisine what silicone and collagen are to plastic surgery.

One arrives at L’Esguard through a tranquil garden and is taken on a guided tour of the downstairs area which comprises wine, cheese and ham cellars, as well as an extensive library of cookbooks.

The white-painted walls and ceilings of the upstairs dining area are broken only by black gilded cornices, suspended from the ceiling in non-matching sections, rather than being attached to the wall as an unbroken line. Light fittings (reminiscent of the large ones used in operating theatres) carry spot lights that are trained on each diner’s plate.

Noting from my email signature my involvement in wine production, the sommelier, Xavier (Catalan for Javier), had already selected which wine we would be drinking. In view of the menu this would be a white wine from Rioja, the 2003 Remelluri, a barrel-fermented blend of Viognier, Grenache Blanc, Moscatel and Sauvignon Blanc. Not for one second need I have harboured doubts that I would be presented with a stereotypically oxidised monstrosity. Remelluri delivers rich waves of flavour, and did actually do a pretty good job throughout most of the tasting menu. He had envisaged us having a glass of red towards the end of the meal, but that quickly turned into a bottle!

Xavier’s wine selection was getting the scoreboard ticking quite rapidly. There’s nothing like a little forethought on the part of the restaurant to make one feel very special (even if you’ve caught the train to save on a 40 euro taxi fare). The amuse bouche consisted of a few tablespoons of fabulous olive oil, with pistachio purée, olive purée, tiny fried squares of potato and flower petals (could have been pansy). The presentation, as with several other dishes throughout lunch, was dramatic. The dish was served on slightly wavy large square plates, in the centre of which were small bowl-like indentations. So the kitchen was also now making its own contribution to the scoreboard.

The first course, a similarly impressive looking dish with two flowers – one pink, the other purple – stuffed with anchovies and olives, was set on a Kumbu sauce, the first of the Micri gels we would encounter. The visual excitement continued, with a translucent (micri?) disk covering shavings of fabulous jambon on top of a cheese mousse.

There are many reasons why our visit to L’Esguard was memorable. None, though, exceeds what to my mind is the most sensational vegetarian dish that has ever been put in front of me. It was served in three stages, the first of which was the hot dish (much like a large, flat-edged pasta bowl) in which a colourful mosaic had been arranged. The different coloured squares (each about 1cm in size, about 3mm apart from each other) consisted of various dried, ground vegetables and spices. The heat of the plate set loose the aroma of the various squares, the sum of which was spectacular. Onto this canvas was then put a spoonful of home grown baby vegetables tossed in Micri butter (hollandaise is possibly the only other way of getting a butter sauce to coat vegetables, but would have been too ‘heavy’), after which we were invited to pour a little vegetable stock over the entire arrangement. This stock was, without question, the most flavourful vegetable stock I have ever tasted. As we started eating the vegetables the squares dissolved into the stock, taking the flavours to yet another level.

About an hour later an adjacent table was served the same course. Once again we experienced the potent aromas emanating from the mosaic plates. This is a dish not only worthy of a detour, but probably an overnight flight as well.

When the time came for red wine, Xavier racked up yet more points with the 2003 Dominio de Atauta from Ribera del Duero. Made from tempranillo vines that somehow escaped the scourge of phylloxera in the 19th century, this wine embodies every reason why I love modern Spanish wines (especially when made from tempranillo). Along with its gorgeous fruit intensity is a fine vein of acidity that keeps the palate interesting. There’s no shortage of oaky flavours, but it’s all French and it doesn’t dominate the wine.

With the red wine came a piece of amazingly tender duck breast. Our happiness soared even as the alcohol was having its inevitable effect upon us.

To cope with the amazing cheese offering we ordered two plates, each with different selections. Heaven beckoned. The intended glass of red each had turned into a whole bottle.

Two desserts followed, but not being a ‘dessert person’ myself, any comment would not be entirely fair. I do, however, recall the use of Micri, which was also used in making the petit fours served to us with coffee. I would regard myself as being generally enthusiastic about the use of Micri in certain applications, but with coffee I prefer my chocolate to have richer flavour, with a more chewy texture. Chocolate jelly with espresso is just not the same!

The wine list at L’Esguard is extensive, with more than a passing reference to France, and did not seem expensive. Whatever is listed, though, I would give Xavier an indication of my preferences, and leave the selection to him.

A large part of the value derived from this kind of experience is the constant element of surprise, with the odd challenge tossed into the equation. For us, L’Esguard was an unforgettable dining experience in every respect.

El Celler de Can Roca

Oscar Foulkes June 13, 2006 Restaurants No comments

(Taiala 40, Girona. Tel: +34 972 22 21 57. Email:

It was with much anticipation that we departed from Castell d’Emporda for the 30 minute drive to Girona. El Celler de Can Roca was one of three Michelin-starred restaurants (it has two stars) we were visiting on a short trip to Catalonia, and had recently been listed at number 21 on a list of the world’s top 50 restaurants (headed by El Bulli, another Catalonian superstar).

The address given to us by the hotel wasn’t recognised by our navigation system, but we assumed we’d see signage of some sort to assist us once we reached Girona. Assumptions, they say, can be dangerous. We ended up lost, with Sally Garmin (as we named the voice giving us directions) driving us mad with her constant “recalculating” of our route. After phoning the restaurant we established the correct name of the road, Taiala (the hotel had told us Talaia). No wonder we couldn’t find it on the navigation system! The correct address was recognised, and we set off again.

Shortly thereafter, Sally’s monotone was telling us that we were “reaching destination on right hand side”. We could see nothing that looked like the world’s 21st best restaurant. After driving past the same address twice more we thought we could at least stop and get directions. Bear in mind that we were in a fairly downmarket-looking mixed residential and commercial area. We saw a local-looking restaurant, called Can Roca. Close examination of the adjoining building revealed a very small sign indicating the location of Celler de Can Roca. At last!

Celler de Can Roca is run by three Roca brothers – Joan, Jordi and Josep – while their parents operate the traditional Can Roca next door.

The front of house experience was tentative to say the least, with staff apparently giving our table a wide berth, but we’ll give them the benefit of the doubt because of our lack of Spanish. Eventually we did manage to get glasses of Cava (specially made for them). The wine list was wheeled to us on a purpose-built trolley. With separate books for red, white and sparkling wines, the selection was huge. All we wanted was two glasses of white wine, and the recommendation of an interesting red to take us through the meal, but whether for reasons of language or general slackness we were having some difficulty. We did manage to get the white, and in the absence of a confident recommendation from the sommelier, eventually resorted to ordering a bottle of 1996 Gran Clos, a wine from Priorat that we knew.

Fortunately, what came out of Joan Roca’s kitchen was sensational. One of the early highlights was a little glass of fresh peas poached in lamb stock, topped with a mint jelly disk. Soon after came a slightly old-fashioned champagne glass with fizzing contents. This dish consisted of a cold, poached apple slice, its lightly-jellied cooking juices, and a fresh oyster, dressed with Cava poured in at the last minute. The combination of flavours was sensational.
For theatre, though, nothing beats the smoked calamari, served on a punctured sheet of cling film stretched over the top of a slipper-shaped glass bowl. Inside the bowl was a pile of paprika heated to the point of smoking, and this smoke was pouring out of the hole in the cling film. As far as we could establish this had been the means of smoking the calamari.

Quite delicious was a slice of slow-roasted suckling pig, which could have been from the belly.

Pastry and desserts in the restaurant are done by Joan’s brother, Jorge. One of our desserts, “after Gucci’s Envy”, comprised a variety of fruits (macedonia is the local word for fruit salad), with pieces of jelly. Intended to taste like the perfume smells (they brought testers to the table for us to compare), the dish was wonderfully refreshing. While its flavour was perfumed – in a most appetising way – I wouldn’t say it necessarily mimicked the perfume exactly. Its flavours carried all of the surprise that one expects from a restaurant of this stature. It was the perfect way to end the meal.