29 Nov 2012

Go to Lubljana!

I recently spent a couple of days in the capital of Slovenia, Lubljana, whilst attending a wine fair there (about which I will have more to say in another article). First visits to a country or city are often, but not always, the most impressive, as one is, literally, at one's most impressionable, acting like a sponge to all that is new, strange and beautiful around one. All that it ugly too, for that matter. As I said, a sponge...

This article will take the form of a commented snapshot album of small (or larger) things seen. I did not systematically take photographs of everything I enjoyed here, as there was so much and I really prefer just soaking it it, at least the first time around. Suffice it to say that I loved this old city, at least the central part, blissfully car-free and which I visited extensively by foot. I would highly recommend a stay in Lubljana to anyone. The people are very friendly and helpful, the hotels good and reasonably priced, the food and the wines too....what more could you want? I even found an Irish bar that shows rugby games and has 83 beers on offer! A slice of paradise, I tell you!

The dragon is the emblem of Lubljana. This is one of the many turn-of-the-20th century sculptures to be found in Lubljana, and it is one of four of these beasties that guard one of the bridges that span the Ljubljanica River. The bridge is called, not too surprisingly, the Dragon Bridge, and it leads to the splendid market were you can see scenes like the two below, buy great fresh goods, or eat and drink in surrounding cafés. It was designed by the Croatian architect Jurij Zainovich (the bridge I mean).

Lubljana, at least the old town, seemed to me to be happily low profile and discreet, and most of the streets are gloriously free of those dreadfully ubiquitous "big brand" shops (mostly cloths) that totally pollute almost all of the world's cities these days, making you wonder just where you are at times. On the contrary, the streets I walked were full of shops selling odd antiques, books, locally made stuff of all kinds, good food, and cafés and restaurants of all descriptions (and I didn't see a single Chinese restaurant!). Add to this the fact that it's architecture is quite fascinating, occasionally off-key with great colours on some of the facades, and full of sometimes quirky details and a true sense of craftsmanship. I found some similarities in feel to Prague, with perhaps a more "southern" touch.

The lamp post above, like several others and the famous triple bridge (see first photo below), was designed by the local architect Joz Plecnik. As you can see, Lubljana also looks great at night, with some very subtle lighting making the buildings look sharp and intricate, yet very different one from another. 

Presumably some of the strange objects that I saw in the street were due to the pre-Christmas decorations, like this giant teepee-like construction (above) that went the height of a two-story house and stood on the fork between three streets near my hotel. And decorations of various descriptions seem to be into hanging objects, like this collection of shoes supended between two buildings.

Or this one...

There are many more padlocks on either side of this bridge, left apparently by lovers who have sealed a pact, presumably throwing away the key to their hearts into the river below (youth is so rash...but then are they all youths?).

There is also evidence in the streets of contemporary art and contemprary philosophy colluding. What is the world coming to?

And if you want a reasonably priced hotel recommendation for Lubljana, here it is. 


My room was very comfortable, practically designed, simple, light, impeccably clean and inexpensive. And the staff were particularly helpful and friendly. What more could you want?

Get going!

22 Nov 2012

Some reflections on old wines

An experience that I had yesterday, during a tasting of wines from Chinon (Loire Valley) has lead me to reflect a bit on the question of the ageing of wine, its role and implications, but also its limits.

For those of you not especially totally tuned in to the wonderful world of wine, I should explain that Chinon is a French wine appellation (ie a designated wine-producing area with its specific territory and production rules) that lies on the south side of the river Loire, along the banks of one of this river's affluents, the Vienne. This is about 40 kilometers south and west of the city of Tours. But these thoughts, although triggered off by yesterday's experience when tasting some older (and younger) wines from Chinon, is not really about Chinon as an appellation, as I think that I could have had a very similar experience with wines from many other places.

It is also worth noting that the red wines of Chinon (there is also a little white, made with chenin blanc) are virtually 100% cabernet franc in terms of their grape variety, even if cabernet sauvignon (which is an offspring of cabernet franc anyway) is authorised in the appellation to the tune of 10% maximum. Cabernet franc, which originated in the basque region of south-west France before migrating up along the Atlantic coastline, first to Bordeaux and then up the Loire via the port of Nantes, is reputed for the longevity of its wines. And indeed I tasted, earlier this year some excellent examples of very old cabernet franc wines, going back to the 19th century, from the neighbouring appellation of Bourgueil on the north bank of the Loire. So yes, these wines can age very well.

The oldest vintage of Chinon tasted was a 1959 Clos de l'Echo from Couly-Dutheil : quite a disappointment, like most of the other older vintages from various producers.

The "old" vintages of Chinon that I tasted yesterday were not as old as many of those I tasted, back in May in Bourgueil. They ranged between 1959 and 2004. You may note that I use the word "old" between inverted commas here. This is simply because the word is nearly impossible to define. What is "old"? And one could ask the question of a wine as of a human being. I suppose it means "older than the average". In that case it's definition would depend upon where the line of "average" is situated. In the case of wine, and particularly wines from Chinon, these are usually drunk nowadays before they have reached the age of five years. Hence any Chinon over, say, seven years old, could be qualified as being "old" for our purposes here. This tasting indeed showed a majority of wines from vintages between 2005 and 2011.

One of the signs of a great wine is its capacity to age gracefully. One could say the same of a human being, and this is not the only direct comparaison that I will make between these two entities. Wine is unstable, chemically and physically ; by which I mean that it evolves in time in terms of its colours, aromas and flavours. Somebody used to drinking young red wines, for example, may be quite disconcerted when faced for the first time with the contents of a bottle that has been resting in a cellar for 20 or more years. The colour has moved from purple to brick-red or maybe even brown. The aromas are no longer reminiscent of fresh fruit, but are much harder to define and possibly closer to jam, cigars, pencil shavings, leaves on the ground in the autumn and all kinds of stuff. And the flavours will seem softer, more mellow, maybe a tad sharp at the edges as the acidity shows through, but rarely aggressive, and with a texture that is smoother, like an old piece of furniture that has, ingrained, the patina given by time and polishing.

So what happened in this tasting of older bottles of Chinon? Well, in a nutshell, I was very disappointed by them all. They appeared weak and thin, with acidity well on top of all the others flavours that I was expecting. Some seem oxydized in an excessive manner, or with vaguely unpleasant metallic whiffs on the nose. Several were also still quite hard and austere. What they all lacked was depth, volume, fruit (even sublimated by time) and the mellowness one expects from senior citizens. Tasting from older to younger, I had to wait until I got to a couple of wines from the very fine 1990 vintage to taste something that I really liked (both were from the excellent producer Charles Joguet). And even after then, coming closer to our present moment, there were another series of very weak and uninteresting wines until I got to the 2005 vintage. In all, I tasted 11 wines from different producers of Chinon dating from between 1959 and 2004, and I only felt that I would enjoy drinking two of them! And these wines had been selected by various sommeliers and other wine retailers as having represented, for each of them, the most memorable bottle of Chinon they had experienced. What could explain this let-down?

You do not have to leave your bottles of Chinon to age in their orignal (and often trogloditic) caves, like those in this photo, but it will probably prolong their active life.

Firstly, of course, individual tastes vary enormously : one person's meat is another's poison and so on. Then we do not know at what age these bottles had been tasted by the person who selected them : past joys may not always last that well. But the main reason, I suspect, is that these bottles had been transported recently from their producers' cellars to Paris and not been given sufficient time to rest before being offered for tasting. When I tasted many older, much older, vintages of wines from Bourgueil from a single producer in that appellation (which is very close to Chinon and uses the same grape), I did so, with some friends, in his cellars from which the bottles had never been moved. I think that therein lies the difference : you do not shake up old wine with impunity, any more than you would inflict such treatment on old people. They (old wines and old people) can be marvellous, profound, graceful, wise, whatever; but they are physically fragile. And if you do inflict such treatment on them, it is essentiam that they have sufficient time to recuperate before testing (I mean the wines). Of all the many great tasting experiences that I have had with old wine, nearly all have been with bottles that have either never moved from their place of birth, or else have been resting in a cool cellar for many years and were tasted without having been carried further than from cellar to table in the same house, and with some care. For example, I recently drank the last bottle remaining in my cellar of a 1985 from the Chinon producer that I mentioned earlier, Charles Joguet, and it was utterly beautiful : incredibly youthful in the purity of its fruit flavours, yet softened by the years until it just melted in the mouth. It was sublime. Yet I can say that about none of the older wines tasted yesterday in a Paris restaurant, and I can only put this down to recent transport and insufficient rest. 

Francois Rabelais, a native of Chinon, is probably laughing in his grave and saying: "shut up and drink up".

By the way, the younger wines of Chinon I tasted afterwards were fine, and I will be writing about them shortly. This could well signify that you can shake up youth a bit more than you can age.

10 Nov 2012

Jackdaws, rooks and crows: on behaviour and habit

I should say at the outset that I am not an ornithologist: just an occasional and curious observer of things that go on around him. I was struck, just this morning, by the apparently strange behaviour of one of those medium-sized black birds (I think it was a jackdaw, but it could have been a rook), that hangs out in the park area below the building in which I live in Paris. One can find ways of determining whether these birds are crows, rooks or jackdaws. Apparently jackdaws have blue surrounds to their eyes, but I didn't get close enough.

I should also apologize for the poor quality of the photos in this article. They were taken with my telephone and a zoom effect to get close enough without causing the bird to fly away, despite the boldness these animals often show. And I was on my way back from the gym and a good session, so my arm was not that steady.

Anyway, what you see in the first three pictures are this jackdaw (let's call it that as I am not too clear about the distinctions) pecking at the wrapping placed around an electric cable due to feed a lamp-post that has not yet been fitted. Why was the bird doing that?

The only explanation I can come up with is that force of habit has engrained the idea that plastic, and particularly the white plastic bag variety, often contains food, and so it is worth pecking at to get inside to the goodies. These birds hang out all the time in the park, perching on the surrounding buildings, cackling and crowing, squabbling and chasing away the former winged inhabitants which were pigeons. Their cry is pretty unpleasant, but they have clearly adapeted well to human presence and untidiness, and will swoop down on any object seen on the ground. I am pretty sure that this one thought he might find some bread or a sausage or something inside the plastic wrapping. I guess it proves that you can fool some of the people, at least some of the time.

On a recent visit to Vienna, I saw another jackdaw who had perhaps become an art lover, perching on one of the sphinx sculptures in the gardens of the Belvedere palace. This was just after seeing a young lady, a Japanese tourist, cupping one of the breasts of another sphinx with her hand whilst her boyfriend photographed the scene. I do not know if they then reversed roles, but I missed the picture in any case!

6 Nov 2012

Klimt/Schiele: the borderline between eroticism and perversity

I see that Vienna is holding a celebratory exhibition for the 150 years of the birth of the Austrian symbolist painter and decorator Gustav Klimt. I have looked at some of his paintings, particularly those in the Belvedere Palce in Vienna, on a couple of occasions, and was surprised by the power and the beauty of many of them. Surprised? This may seem to be a curious choice of words, given that Klimt must be one of the world’s most highly rated artists (if the sums paid for his works are to be taken as a sign) and he is certainly one of the most widely reproduced of painters (there must be about 50 million postcards of The Kiss pinned to the bedroom walls of adolescent girls around the world). I suppose that it is this painting, or rather its over-abundant reproduction, that had previously lead me to belittle the work of Klimt, considering it to be purely decorative. I believe that I changed my mind since taking a closer look in ideal circumstances.  

The Kiss, by Gustav Klimt, just HAS to be the most widely reproduced painting in the world

Born in 1862 and dying in 1918, Klimt just about saw the end of the great Austro-Hungarian Empire. In that sense, as well as in others, he was well suited to this time of what some consider to be a period of decadence. Apart from co-founding the Vienna Secession movement, Klimt was widely criticised during his lifetime, and even afterwards, for what was described as the “pornographic” nature of some of his work. He apparently fathered about 14 children with several women and would walk around his studio in a robe and without underwear. A sort of proto-hippy, and at least a free-thinker. The strongly erotic content of some of Klimt’s work, particularly the drawings, is evident, as with Rodin, about whom I wrote not so long ago here . These examples will make this aspect of his work beautifully clear...

But there are many other aspects to Klimt's work than those of someone understandably enamoured with female beauty. The beginnings of his career as a painter were highly academic (it helps to know how to draw decently when you want to be free with your pencil!). Some of his early portraits and drawings show his ability to render skin, fabric, form and line with all the skill of the great painters from before his time.

Of course Klimt is much better known for his more directly decorative and symbolist period, during which gold leaf was heavily used, making his paintings shine to the point of appearing dazzling. The Kiss (above) is just one exemple. I prefer the painting below: Judith and Holopherne, where the almost malefic power and beauty of Judith, who appears to be in a trance, comes over so strongly that you know that Holopherne stood no chance whatsoever.

The painting below, entitled Danae, is another story. Here the modernity of Klimt's eye and approach, which has clearly used photographic composition and the kind of distortions that can provide, is very apparent: much more so than in the pseudo-archaic visions that his symbolistic leanings produced at times. The Ancient Greek gods had it all their own way, and were in no way encumbered with our "moral" visions. Danae seesm quite happy too with her golden rain of a Zeus!

But again, one cannot limit Klimt's scope to mythology and sex (to simplify somewhat what has gone before here). His vision of ageing, like in the painting below (the 3 ages), is poignant and admirably composed, even if the decorative elements dominate a bit too much for my personal taste.

And he also painted a wonderful series of large, square-shaped landscapes, some of which are visible in the Belvedere of Vienna. These are just as interesting as those of Monet in many ways, or....

...and particularly in the case of the lower one of these three called Beech Grove, of David Hockney's recent series of tree landscapes done in Yorkshire, about which I wrote a bit here

So what about Schiele and my semi-provocative title? Well, firstly, Egon Schiele was a younger protégé of Klimt in Vienna, although, curiously, he died the same year as his master. Secondly, he chose women and men, often naked, as his main subject matter. Also his style was distinctly manierist, although in a different vein, and far less decorative, than Klimt's. But I find the ressemblance ends right there, because Schiele, for me, rapidly slips from the erotic to the obsessional and somewhat sick vision of what appears to me as a twisted mind. Not everyone will agree with this, as I discovered in a recent conversation with a good friend who admires Schiele's work. But I am not alone in my impression either. There is something in Schiele's way of looking at people, and women in particular, that make me veer away from his work.

Schiele's skill as a draughtman and printmaker is undoubted. There is just something about his way of looking and showing that I find, on occasions, rather off-putting. This has nothing to do with the suject matter, but everything to do with the manner in which mind, eye and hand come together. Actually the three works I have shown here are almost ok, but some of his stuff is quite horrific to me. Klimt makes me happy to be alive. Schiele makes me wonder about where I am, and whether this is such a good place after all. Some would argue that this is part of the role of an artist. In which case, that would qualify Schiele for the part. Did you say I was ambiguous?

4 Nov 2012

Simple pleasures in food

I enjoy food, and by that I mean good quality food, made with decent ingredients which are well-prepared. And not too much of it at one time. But, despite the fact that my work is concerned with the workings of taste and particularly its applications to wine, I am definitely not what is known as a "foodie", that is to say someone totally obsessed with whatever goes into his mouth. I don't care a lot for fancy restaurants, for example. I prefer to eat in places that make me feel at ease. They must serve decent food for sure, but the atmosphere of these places, and the friendliness of the service is at least as important than what is in my plate. I happen to know a few famous chefs and appreciate very much, on occasion, eating their cuisine. But I would never make a thing of going to such places regularly, even if I had the means to do so. For instance, I simply cannot imagine booking ahead seats in a fashionable restaurant. If they can't take me when I show up or call that same morning (rare event) then I will just go someplace else or stay at home. So you can be sure that you will never find me standing in a queue (real or virtual) for any restaurant, unless of course I am truly starving. The rest is pure snobbery.

oeuf à la coque on the floor of my kitchen in Gascony

When one feels the need to get back to basics, like when strong feelings flow around you, during seasonal changes, when life is hard, intense, stressful, beautiful or otherwise powerful, the simplest foods are often the best. This morning, for me, it was a boiled egg.

Living in France and spending more than half my time speaking the French language, I am often struck by differences in the senses behind expressions or words that describe the same object, event or process between English and French. I have occasionally, on this blog, underlined the impoverishement of sense that prevails in the translations of film or book titles from English to French. But, in this instance, the impoverishement would seem to run in the other linguistic direction. The French term for "boiled egg" is "oeuf à la coque". This means "egg in its shell", and I like this far better than "boiled egg". Not sure why, but I do. The very definition provided in the inevitably useful Wikipedia is quite enough to put one off the English version, far too basic and flavourless in its expression.

"Boiled eggs are eggs (typically chicken eggs) cooked by immersion in boiling water with their shells unbroken. 
(Eggs cooked in water without their shells are known as poached eggs, while eggs cooked below the boiling temperature, either with or without the shell, are known as coddled eggs.) Hard-boiled eggs are either boiled long enough for the egg white and then theegg yolk to solidify, or they are left in hot water to cool down, which will gradually solidify them, while a soft-boiled egg yolk, and sometimes even the white, remains at least partially liquid."

 the same egg on the table, to show that we can be sophisticated down in the country!

There is something quintessential, amost primitive, about the egg in its shell. It doesn't matter whether it comes from the chicken or another bird. Just the size (and the flavour, to some extent) varies. The shape is strong yet refined with its variable taper on each end. I have heard that the strength of an egg-shell lies way beyond it thickness, signifying perfect design and strength/weight ratio.

A friend once told me that French table protocole stipulated that there were 7 forbidden practices to be avoided at all costs in refined society, when confronted with an "oeuf à la coque".

1). Do not place the egg sharp side down in the egg cup.
2). Never cut off the top of an oeuf à la coque with a knife. One can bash it with a spoon or cut it off with a spoon.
3). Never use a silver spoon to eat one (for the very good reason of undesirable chemical reactions affecting flavour).
4). Do not dip slices of bread or toast into the egg once opened.

This is the point at which I part company with these rules of good behaviour, so I will spare you the others, especially as I cannot remember them anyway! As you will notice from my photographs, I was not about to not obey rule 4 anyway. On the contrary, dipping a slice of fresh and firm bread (or toast) with its crunchy crust into a soft-boiled egg is one of the morning's great pleasures. Eminently sensual, of course. Rules 1, 2 and 3 are just plain common sense.