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Having fun, writing about the stuff I like

A Black South-Easter

Oscar Foulkes December 3, 2004 Uncategorized No comments

I have no doubt that on a sunny, windless day Oudekraal beach, on Cape Town’s Atlantic seaboard, is one of the most beautiful places on the planet. Huge, wave-rounded granite rocks rise out of the almost perfectly blue sea. The view is back towards Camps Bay, with the Twelve Apostles looming to the right of the picturesque scene. The sun sets over the horizon to the left. It’s a great venue for events. If you get the weather right.

Cape Town has a few pockets that are sheltered from the south-easter, and Oudekraal is not one of them. When it’s blowing – a regular occurrence throughout the Cape summer – this has to be the closest thing to hell on earth. It’s certainly not a place where you’d want to be cooking. The wind comes racing down the mountainside, directly at the beach. There is no temporary structure immune to the force of this gale, and certainly not the free-form, open-sided Bedouin-style tents that event planners like to use here.

After the first time, when we struggled in the dark to get hot, grit-free food onto guests’ plates, after which all our equipment had to be carried back up the hundred-and-plenty steps at 1.00am, I swore that I would never – ever – again set foot on Oudekraal if the wind was blowing.

Just enough time had passed when Andrea was asked by a client to cater for his weekend-long birthday extravaganza. Guests had been flown in from the UK, and were being accommodated at various swish hotels. Friday night was to take place on Oudekraal, with a succession of gorgeous nibbles coming off the fire. After several days of unceasing wind I was in the process of slowly going mad. As Friday approached there was no chance of the wind letting up. Even after a site meeting at lunch time on Friday, where the tent-man said that putting up the tent would physically endanger his staff, the client insisted on going ahead. I was getting more and more grumpy, not aided by the failure of said client to pay the necessary 50% deposit.

“If we’re going to end up paying for an expensive party, let’s at least do it in nice weather”, I moaned to Andrea.

I wandered around the venue, trying to find a relatively sheltered spot. Eventually I gave up, and picked a spot on the sand (the last thing I needed was to start a fire that would rage across Table Mountain for days). I amused myself with visions of the guests trying to snort cocaine in a howling south-easter. It helped. What helped even more was that the host had assembled a whole crowd of very beautiful people. As long-legged babes with short dresses wandered by I found myself praying for that strategic gust of wind that would console me for being consigned to misery by my wife.

No matter where I stood, I had smoke in my eyes. I seemed to have sand in every orifice. I couldn’t see what I was doing. And then Andrea had the cheek to arrive from the dinner she’d been doing (indoors) elsewhere, and be cheerful! How dare she? All this when the host, in Gatsby-esque white suit (who hadn’t come up with any dosh yet) was drifting around in a narcotic haze.

Mood-enhanced guests crowded around the fires to keep warm. They grabbed food straight off the grill before it was ready to be sent out. They dropped forks into the sand, never to be found again. They dropped their cigarette butts onto the coals I was using for cooking. The host was starting to get hyperactive; not only, I suspected because the transport was arriving soon and dessert still needed to go out.

Oh yes, the dessert – pistachio baklava phyllo springrolls cooked over coals. In broad daylight, for a dozen people, I happily take on this highly skilled and technical bit of barbecuing. Doing it in pitch darkness, with sand flying everywhere, for 70 people, has a substantial difficulty level.

Feeling very sorry for myself I thought that my just reward would be to get sent home with one of the faux models I’d been admiring. But no, what goes down has to come back up. Headachy with fatigue I then joined the rest of the crew in carrying equipment back up to the car park. My entire body was aching, and still the wind was blowing. All I could think of was getting into the shower.

My face was black – I truly could barely recognise the frizzy-haired apparition that looked blearily back at me from the mirror. I was too tired for thought; I cursed the circumstances that had put me out on Oudekraal on a night like this.

The difference between Andrea and I is that she was at it again the following night. Client Gatsby hadn’t yet decided what he wanted to be serving his guests for dinner. Somewhere around midday on Saturday he finally made up his mind, leaving Andrea to dash around Cape Town finding crayfish tails, duck and assorted other delicacies, for which she had to shell out her own money (no deposit yet). She also had to shop for crockery and cutlery on his behalf. I truly do not know where she finds the patience.

Dinner itself was relatively straightforward, except for Andrea’s usual angst about having enough food. First she thought she’d be OK, because the guests all seemed to be powdering their noses upstairs (up the stairway “to heaven”, as she puts it). Then she smelt someone smoking a joint and feared them all getting the munchies. Taking a break outside the kitchen she then discovered two women having very noisy sex. I really do pick my moments to take the night off! (I was on my way to Hong Kong on a night they catered for an up-market swingers’ party.)

Calls and emails to client in the weeks that followed were dodged or ignored. All the suppliers on the job were chasing Andrea for payment. Finally she managed to get a morning appointment with him. He was making himself an espresso when she arrived at his house. He sloshed some J&B into the cup and lit up a joint, “May as well put all that leftover booze to good use.” (One of the queries on his account was that the bar service had left him with more than a case of unwanted whisky).

Without ever resorting to confrontation or threat, the way that most of us would have, she did finally get paid in full.

Oak in wine – a blessing or curse?

Oscar Foulkes August 22, 2002 Uncategorized No comments

In the world of wine, oak is an international currency. Consumers, collectors and show judges alike are seduced by the flavours and aromas imparted by new oak. Every year tens of thousands of mature trees are cut down for the barrel industry. In the absence of empirical measurement of flavour and quality we are cast adrift in a swamp of subjective opinion. Much of what follows is undeniably the product of my – subjective – tastes and preferences. For that I cannot make any apology. Wine would be a boring industry indeed if we all had the same tastes.

Where oak is concerned I have two major recollections from my early years of tasting. Firstly, how easy it is to be turned on by the sexy aroma of a wine that’s been in new oak, regardless of how it performs on the palate (actually, if you have tasted enough wines, that part becomes partially numbed, anyway). Secondly, the difficulty I had distinguishing between fruit and oak tannins. I think I’ve learned that oak tannins dry out the mouth much more – almost like blotting paper.

I’ve developed the opinion that you can tell more about a wine from how it feels in the mouth, than where it fits on the flavour wheel. This is a critical part of understanding the role of oak in wine. For me, real fruit extraction expresses itself in the feeling of that flavour coating in the mouth, after the wine has been swallowed. The feeling could variously be described as silky, velvety, chunky, syrupy or viscous. A wine novice gave me the best metaphor for describing this. Imagine mixing a glass of Oros concentrate with half a litre of water. Now compare that with a table spoon of oros mixed in the same amount of water. Intensely fruity wines are like the former example, and are preferable under all circumstances.

In my view, oak performs at least two important functions in a wine. The first, and most obvious, are the contributions to flavour and structure. The second is a process of controlled oxidation, which helps to ‘polish’ or finish off a wine. The proviso is that the amount of oak deployed is in balance with the degree of fruit intensity in the wine (see the Oros metaphor above). There is no question that some vineyards have a higher quality potential, and hence deliver better concentrations of fruit. Consequently, not only are these wines better equipped to cope with the oak regimen employed, but are also enhanced by judicious barrel maturation. These cuvées (e.g. grand cru Burgundies, single vineyard wines, classed growth chateaux) happen often to have a high percentage of new oak, but it’s the intrinsic fruit quality that makes these wines exceptional, not the oak per se. They may not be quite as profound without the oak, but it’s the fruit that drives the wine, whether it’s a classical Old World superstar or a New World hype wine.

I have come to develop a rather jaundiced view of ‘Reserve’ wines, particularly from the New World. Occasionally there is a difference in the fruit quality between this and the standard release, but the major difference is generally that the reserve has had a whack of new oak. Yes, it has more flavour; yes, it may win awards, but is this what winemaking is really about? Does it come down to a battle of the barrel budgets?

I am regularly presented with samples of new releases across the price spectrum, but seldom find red wines that deliver on the palate. In many cases these are wannabe premium wines, that fall into that category by virtue of new oak and price tag alone. It must be said that winemakers, like consumers, have their own tastes, and there are many of them that like strong, oaky flavours. It is their prerogative to produce for their own tastes, as it is our prerogative to not drink what they make.

Some of my wine drinking experience is based on wines from the Rhône and Southern France, where oak appears not to be an important tool.

It would appear that the barrel-filled chais of Bordeaux have had a major impact on world winemaking. It was here, after all, that Max Schubert was inspired to make Grange Hermitage. But a very tiny percentage of the wines produced in the world are ‘premier cru’, and only these wines realistically deserve – or need – the full oak treatment. I cannot decide whether so many wines are barrel-driven because of the desire to win awards, or because marketing departments have decreed that oaky wines are easier to sell. What I do believe is that many lesser wines would be a lot easier to drink if they hadn’t gone into barrel.

It intrigues me that the same consumers who won’t drink wooded chardonnay will lap up a sexily oaked, fruity shiraz.

The world is about to experience a glut of wine as a result of huge plantings in the New World (25% of Australia’s vineyards haven’t yet produced a harvest). Now that’s a challenge for marketing departments! No doubt some of that could end up as “90-pointer” wine, but what to do with all the rest? My view is that the dwindling (or stagnant) wine market could be stimulated if the some of this increased production of red were sold as fruity, soft, round, unwooded wine, with a commensurate drop in price. This style of red wine can be marketed within months of the harvest, with much-reduced production and holding costs.

Clearly, all of this is subjective, and perhaps my taste in oak is more conservative than most, but I can’t help feeling that the use of oak is like kicking in rugby. It’s a useful tool, once you have the fundamentals in place.