29 Dec 2011

I quite like Marmite

Some may say that I go from the sublime to the ridiculous in successively treating subjects such as the drawing of Rodin and Marmite, a very humble English foodstuff. But life is full of changes of scale and contradictions, so here goes...

Marmite is the name given to a food spread made in Britain, although New Zealand also produces its own version (unfortunately with added sugar; yuck!), and Australia as well (under the name "Vegemite" in the case of Australia, which is a country that prides itself on its individuality). The name derives from the French word for a specific kind of cooking vessel (either made of metal or earthenware) in which one prepares soups or stews, and the connection is that Marmite (the foodstuff) was originally supplied in an earthenware pot. I suppose another connection is that this stuff is seriously reduced and also very salty. The earthenware jars were replaced by glass jars in the 1920's. Although it looks like treacle, Marmite is salty and not at all sweet, but it is just as thick in its consistency. There is also a thinner version in plastic (re-yuck) jars, but that is definitely not the real thing: in fact it's rather like one-day cricket compared to proper five-day test cricket.

Unlike me, Marmite is vegetarian. It even says, emphatically, 100% vegetarian on the label. I am unsure as to whether one can be 99% or 75% vegetarian. Why not in a sense? The problem is that these poeple do tend to be a little extremist, so you probably wouldn't be considered as kosher. Marmite is made with yeast extract which started off, I believe, as a by-product from beweries. So we have Marmite thanks to British beer. Since it makes you pretty thirsty, I guess we should have a couple of beers on hand when eating the stuff. It also contains, apart from salt (about which I have already banged on a bit) the following stuff, according to the back label: vegetable extract (including celery, although they curiously mention celery in the bit on spices!), Niacin, Thiamin, Spice Extracts, Roboflavin, Folic Acid, Vitamin B12. Not sure than all this makes it more desirable to me, but such are the traps of modern health and foodstuff regulations.

I have yet to find a Frenchman who likes Marmite, but I am sure that such a person exists. I like it quite a lot, but in periods. As you might guess, I am in a "like-it-a-lot" period right now. The official web site for Marmite tries to divide you into two polarised categories : "love it", or "hate it". Bit extreme for me!

What does it look like? Essentially an apparently unappetizing sticky dark brown paste that oozes slightly when placed in a sloping surface (a bit less so than honey).

What does it taste like? Hard one this. If you made a kind of soup base from vegetable stock cubes and then reduced it until what was left was almost sticking to the saucepan, I suppose that you would be quite close. The strength of the flavours gives Marmite a lot of "bite", so I prefer putting butter on bread or biscuits before spreading the stuff on them. And I rarely eat butter.

And please don't ask me what wine to drink with the stuff...

I have recently heard of an interesting variation on Marmite, using yeast from another favourite dark-coloured substance: Guinness

If anyone cares to send me a pot of this (limited) edition, I would be eternally grateful

28 Dec 2011

Rodin, drawing and the body

The human body has been an inspiration for so many artists that it would be pointless to try to name them. Few men have represented the female body as well, nor in such an openly sexual manner, as Rodin. One could think of Picasso or Schiele, of course, but Rodin was in this respect a forerunner. If Rodin is best known as a sculptor, he clearly considered his drawing work as a "finished" part of his art, to the extent that he organised several exhibitions of his drawings, organised according to themes, during his lifetime: for example in Berlin in 1903.

There was, recently, a totally fascinating exhibition of about 300 of Rodin's drawings of the human body (mostly, but not exclusively, female) on show at Paris' Musée Rodin, to which here is a link.

Although accomplished draughstmanship was a necessary part of Rodin's skills as a sculptor, he apparently only started drawing more freely, and on a daily basis, towards the end of the 19th century when he was over 50. Rodin lived between 1840 and 1917, and so was a contemporary of the impressionists, yet his scupture, although often relatively free in its execution, was very much part of "official" art of his time, unlike that of impressionist painters or their immediate successors like the fauvistes. His drawing work (which includes pencil drawings, washes, watercolours and cut-outs) is another story. This was clearly a personal journey on Rodin's behalf. The subject matter and the treatment are there to prove it. 

The eroticism of many of these drawings is evident and essential, and is been a large part of their attraction to many. But there is more to his looking at and representing the bodies of his models than this (one could perhaps ask, if one was of the Freudian persuasion : "is there ever more than this?").

For example, take a look at Rodin's treatment of the line as a major, but not unique, component of the draughtman's options. In the drawing above, Rodin has worked fast, gradually determined what is a defining line for a shape or succession of shapes. His reworking of the lines adds not only a sense of movement to the figure, but, as alternatives, depth  and ambiguity to the forms. And the strengthened lines not only show his decisions, but add intensity to the subject. Forms are also enhanced by etchings and then rubbings of the pencil on the paper. The drawing technique is both fundamentally sure and occasionally hesitant, showing intensity of observation and sexual emotion.

This line drawing is a little different, and throws out echoing ripples to two other glorious draughtsmen : Matisse and Schiele. The line is synthetic, almost continuous, and, I supect, is derived from a series of previous drawings. Only the head and hairline have caused Rodin to hesitate and that may have to do with the very substance of hair. Below is a drawing by Schiele, who also took the erotic theme quite far. But Schiele seems more calculating, somehow less spontaneous in his excecution then does Rodin. This seems to be the case at any rate from the strength and sureness of his outlines

Comparisons with Matisse seemed evident to me at various points in this exhibition. Here is a Matisse drawing:

And here is one by Rodin, which happens to also use a technique involving cutting out around a watercoloured drawing, a technique that was also extensively used in various ways later by Matisse (usually with gouache I think).

This progressive refinement of line and shape also came to involve colour as well, and the freedom of Rodin's use of colour again sets him ahead of his time, at the same time throwing one back to certains aspects of wall paintings from Ancient Rome for instance.

What is very clear from this show is how much other 20th century artists owe to Rodin. And the fact that Ridin was a complete visual artist, not just the sculptot that has rightly earned him his fame. What is so impressive in the drawings is his constant and persistent searching for the right line, the line that can summarise the impossible: in other words an outline of a moving (in both senses of the word) human body. And the variations in his approaches to this one subject show that perseverance that amounts to an obsession.

For example the purity and refinement of this, which also seems very graphic for a sculptor...

Or the graphic invention shown here (not to mention the acrobatic skills of his model!)...

Then the more sculptural intensity of this:

Or the synthetic mastery of movement here...

Rodin's mastery of complex shapes produced by several bodies together is well-known through his sculptures. But it all begins here, quite simply and with a pencil....

and continues here, with a large chunk of marble and a kiss...

24 Dec 2011

How to get rid of undrinkable wines over Christmas and the New Year

Usually wine writers use the festive period to try to persuade you to part with plenty of hard-earned cash by suggesting some wildly expensive wines, most of which are so rare that you can't find them anyway. I am going to adopt another approach and show you how this is in fact the ideal moment in the year to clear your cellar (or cupboard, or kitchen shelf) of some of those bottles of wine that have been hanging around and which you haven't yet resigned yourself to pouring down the drain.

Since many of you will be stuck with sizeable chunks of your respective families for a few days, and since the majority of these either do not care that much about wine, or else will be too pissed most of the time to pay great attention to the finer points of the vino that you are serving them, this is the time to get shot of those wines that you have kept too long, or are slightly ashamed of, or indeed those sorts of wine that you love in theory, but can never find anybody else who likes them enough to get around to pulling the cork.

Serve from the decanter and, if anyone asks you what it is, say that the label fell off but it was given to you by your grandfather, uncle, a cousin in the wine trade or whatever comes to mind.
Let's start with the case of a red wine that you have had for ages and which is well over the top. In other words its colour has faded to something close to an autumn leaf, its smell reminds you of old horse manure (or perhaps vinegar), and its taste is both watery and acidic. You need to find a decanter (or an empty bottle with a smart label on it) and grab a bottle of ruby port or other red fortified wine. Don't waste your vintage port on this job, but LBV or Ruby Reserve will do fine. You pour about 3 or 4 centilitres of port (this will amount to around 5% of the final volume) into the decanter and then add the red wine in question. Taste the result and, if it hasn't yet become palatable, add a bit more port.
Another situation could be that you have a bottle or two of wines that nobody ever drinks because they think they are too weird, too sweet, too acidic, or whatever. In this instance it is best to have two bottles, each one of a different category. For example a bottle of Vin Jaune (dry Sherry will do also), and a bottle of Sauternes (any sweet white wine will do here). These are two types of wines whose consumption is on the decline, presumable because fewer and fewer people like them, but you can substitute anything else you have lying around and whose taste does not suit your guests. Liebfraumilch is usually a good bet ! Anyway, find a large decanter or jug and pour both wines into it. Stir well and taste. If the result is awful then you can pour in down the sink and that settles the problem. If it is decent, then you have invented a new wine and your guests/family will either think you are a genius, or will just drink it without paying any attention (more likely).

Yet another situation, which calls for diplomatic skills beyond most of us, is the bottle that was given to you a year ago by mother/father-in-law (or out of law, as the case may be), or by some other significant and elder member of the family. You are not sure about the merits of the wine the bottle contains but you fear the worst. If the person who has given you this bottle is present, this is the moment you have been waiting for!  Open the bottle with some ceremony, pour a little into your glass, and ostensibly sniff it. Smile (yes, you can), but say nothing at this point. Pour it for the guests (those that drink at least) and then carefully watch the person who gave it to you as they taste it. The scenario can go different ways at this point:
1). If the wine is awful, the chances are that they won't say anything. This is the worst option as you will be forced to taste it. If they then ask you what you think of it, you can kick for touch by saying that you "find it very interesting/complex/unusual" or "this wine takes me on a journey" (this will probably confirm their opinion of you as a pretentious twat). In any event avoid taking more than that first sip, since you can always drink some water and wait for better times.
2). If they are honest and say it is awful, then the problem is solved and you can pour it down the sink and find something drinkable.
3). If the wine turns out to be good, then the problem is also solved and everyone is happy. You then have the added option of going sycophantic and saying something like "I have been waiting since .... to share this wonderful present with you". This will win you brownie points.

There are many other situations that one can think of, but I am sure that you get the general idea. Be creative, and Happy Christmas to you all!

23 Dec 2011

Get Closer to the Edge, fast

A good friend recently gave me a DVD version of the recent documentary film, TT/ Closer to The Edge, also visible in some countries on the big screen and in 3D (now that could be scary!). Here is the official trailer, which, as usual, only gives you the shadow of the real thing... 

All I can say, if you love motorcycles and motorcycle racing, is get your hands on this as soon as possible. It has to be the best-made film about bike racing that I have ever seen. And not just any race: Closer to the Edge is about the mythical and totally crazy Isle of Man TT. It focuses on the preparation for and the full racing week of the 2010 edition, which saw the likeable and highly individual Guy Martin, who has yet to win one of these but is a regular favourite, survive a memorable crash at about 170 mph that saw his bike literally explode. He says in the film, on his hospital bed: "I'll be back: he's just making me work for it." And indeed he raced there again in 2011, making a second and 3 third places in four races. I have mentioned Martin and the TT before, in this article which includes a film sequence of one of Guy's practice laps around the legendary mountain course.

The film is not just about one rider though. It's about the whole thing, including the drama, the people and all the rest. There is some very moving footage of the widow and children of Paul Dobbs, a Kiwi rider who was killed in one of the 2010 races. She says some strong things, such as "you can't change what you've got, but you can at least decide to enjoy it or not". Don't look back, but just remember, in other words

You may find it hard to follow Guy Martin when he is talking. This is partly because he talks even faster than he rides a bike! Someone said to me that he sounds like Donald Duck with a speeded up voice effect. But the man is funny, quietly determined, and does not run with any pack. I hope that he wins one of these soon, probably after listening to Otis Redding:

What is so good about this film?

The emotions
The contrasts
The speed
The madness
The drama
The work
The history
The people
The machines
The filming
The sound track
The editing

Go for it!

22 Dec 2011

What's in a name?

The short answer to this question is going to be "well, quite a lot actually", but let's not get ahead of the game.

On February 26th, 2011, I posted a rather snide, ironical article (you can see it here) on this blog about a French wine appellation in the Rhône valley that had recently changed its name from Côteaux de Tricastin to Grignan-les-Adhémar. Although I stand by my position as to over-long and hard-to-pronounce names for wine regions, I have recently visited this region in the central part of the Rhône valley, near the town of Montelimar, and I now understand much better why it was in fact necessary to change the appellation's name. So, mea culpa.

Sometimes images can be more efficient than words to explain a problem. They are certainly faster and easier to understand. Which of the two images below would you choose to symbolise your wine region?

I think the answer is evident. And it so happens that these images encapsulate the issue here. Tricastin is the name of a region just south of Montelimar. Its name, which goes back to an ancient tribe that lived around there, was duly bequeathed on the nearby vineyards. Then along came a nuclear power station which not only took on the same name, but also started having a few problems. The result on the image and sales of the local wines was dramatic. So the producers put in a request to the French wine gods (Institut National des Appellations) for a change in name. These vineyards actually lie on a rocky geological structure that has nothong whatever to do with the low silt land upon which the power station is built down by the river Rhône, so there is no possible risk of any "leaks" into the vineyard land. But French customers were clearly turned off by the mere association and few of these wines are exported to countries unaware of the situation and the associations.

The vineyards lie on hilly and plateau ground around the village of Grignan and its very imposing château (see above) where Madame de Sévigné dwelt, at the end of her life, back in the 17th century. The original idea was to simply name the wines "Grignan", but infortunately this name had already been taken by a tiny number of producers (one cooperative winery in fact) that turn out some fairly indifferent stuff in the lower vin du pays category. Despite the fact that Coteaux de Tricastin was a fully-fledged appellation contrôlée, and producing greater quantities of better wines, they were refused the right to call themselves Grignan and had to add on the rather ungainly "les Adhémar". French wine law can be anything but rational!

Grignan is a medieval village built on a rocky outcrop around its chateau, which was a fortress before being transformed in the 17th century

This southern part of the Drôme département lies on the left bank of the Rhône and forms the northern outpost of the huge southern Rhône wine region that stretches down to and beyond Avignon, on both sides of the river. The other main agricultural activities here are lavender and truffles. The red wines use a blend of the classic Rhône grape varieties : syrah, grenache, cinsault, carignan, mourvèdre, plus a newcomer, the metisse marselan (a cross between cabernet sauvignon and grenache). Syrah has to account for at least 30% of the plantings, but apparently the producers are free with their blends (thankfully). The white wines, on the increase, use viognier, marsanne, rousanne, grenache blanc, clairette and bourboulenc. Again, the viognier has to make up 30% of plantings. 

Lavoir, or wash house, in Grignan

Because of the viognier ingredient, the white wines are quite aromatic. In some cases they can also be a bit too soft for my taste, but the best ones retain freshness and make a very good match for truffle-flavoured dishes, or probably asparagus, although I have not tried that. Being tender and perfumed, they are also very enjoyable on their own. The best producers are Domaine de Montine and Domaine de Grangeneuve.

The syrah component, and the climate, which is a bit cooler than in more southerly parts of the Rhône, provides structure and some degree of freshness to many of the red wines. Some producers even produce 100% syrah cuvées, but the majority use grenache as well and sometimes a bit of the other varieties. The best ones (at least according to the 40 odd wines I tasted blind) are Domaine de Grangeneuve, Domaine de Montine, Château de la Croix Chabrières, Domaine Ferrotin, Domaine Almoric, Domaine Saint Luc, and Baron d'Escalin (Château Destin). There is also some rosé produced.

Château de Grignan

So I wish this young appellation every success in its venture to refound itself, especially as this movement has been abetted by a more stringent set of rules applied to production in order to raise the level of quality across the board. I also hope that they will, in the end, be able to shorten their name to Grignan. The wines certainly offer excellent value for money since they retail for between 5 and 15 euros a bottle in France. I even bought some myself.

all photos by David Cobbold

21 Dec 2011

1000 years of annoying the French

Stephen Clarke is, like myself, an Englishman who lives in France. I have not read any of his other books, but I couldn't resist this one and read its 650 pages with considerable enjoyment.

The premice of the book is an exploration of the often complex relationships between our two countries (France and England) over the past 1000 years or so, as codified in the myths that surround key periods, events or symbolically weighted people or objects. For example and pêle-mêle, the invasion of England by the Normans, various battles, Mary Queen of Scots, the invention of sparkling Champagne, the guillotine, Napoleon, de Gaulle and WWII, the Channel tunnel, and so on.

Stephen Clarke

Clarke has clearly gone to some trouble to seek out source material and so the facts are clearly laid out, often side-by-side with the legends that have grown to shroud these facts, particularly in French history books or common lore. His angle is mostly ironic and often with an English bias, as indeed the title suggests, but the core of the book is actually quite serious and mostly solidly researched. Yet this book makes no pretence at any form of historical analysis. It tells stories, or snippets of stories, in a series of cameos to illustrate events, things or people which have acquired legendary status in history books on either side of the (English) channel. He has stated in an interview that he finds that the French do tend to distort or conceal facts of their history to a greater extent than the English, especially in school history books. 

To illustrate how reality is often misconstrued or even hidden by some versions of historial events, the example of Joan of Arc is quite eloquent. In fact she was captured by French soldiers under Burgundian command, then abandoned by the French king Charles VII who refused to pay her ransom, then tried for heresy by French priests. When she avoided being caught out by trick questions during a very long trial, these priests condemend her to be burnt as a relapsed heretic, for wearing trousers and armour! They then handed her over to the English for execution. So the English got the blame for her death!

There are many other examples, including the little-known facts that sparkling Champagne was invented in England (I could have supplied Clarke with more evidence in this case) as was the guillotine. The book is often very funny, and Clarke tells a good story. He is at his best when he delves into the complexities of relationships and major events, such as the Hundred Years war, the Stuarts, or Napoleon. The book has its weak points and parts, as Clarke occasionally lapses into facility, as if he was getting a bit tired of his angle, but it is generally excellent. The ironical chapter on de Gaulle (who, by the way, was known as "Joan of Arc" by his British hosts) and his containment by the Brits (and Americans) during the war is most enlightening. I would liked to have seen a chapter on sports, and particulary on rugby, a game which seems to epitomise the feeling of rivalry, occasional admiration and frequent lack of fair play that are still so much a part of our slightly schizoïde relationship. "When fictions become facts" could have been its subtitle, so clearly does Clarke strip away the spin that has been put by some official French historians on events that have brought our two countries together, whilst keeping them firmly apart, over the centuries. It might be interesting to see a Frenchman living in England do the same thing the other way around, but would he find the same gap between the "official" versions and the facts?

Read on....

19 Dec 2011

In praise of German rieslings

I know that it is silly, and fairly nonsensical, to generalise as I have done in my title. But one has to start somewhere in a vague attempt to resume one thoughts and catch the eye. How many people would have opened this page had I said, instead: "I really like the Maximin Grünhauser Herrenberg Spätlese 2007, from the Mosel-Saar-Ruwer region of Germany"?

Few wine styles can be so clearly identifiable as rieslings from the Mosel. As if to serve as counterpoint to the delicacy of its wines, this often spectacular viticultural zone, which used to simply be called Mosel, has been clumsily renamed Mosel-Saar-Ruwer to enclose, with full political correction, two small tributaries (and their vineyards) which run into the southern section of the German Mosel river, which, further north, is in turn an affluent of the Rhine. This vineyard, just across the border from Luxemburg and southern Belgium, is one of Europe's northernmost and only the best exposed sites, on often very steep slopes, can fully ripen the finest grapes. On such sites, riesling is king. 

This particular wine, to give it its full name, is called Maximin Grünhaüser Herrenberg, Riesling Spätlese 2007er. German wine names can be just as complicated as French ones, and sometimes even more so. At least the grape variety is mentioned, since the Germans are far less snooty than the French tend to be about such matters! But a few explanations might come in hand all the same. The "er" suffix in German merely signifies appartenance, or being made from something or somewhere: like a place or a vintage. Herrenberg means the hill of the Lord (Herr). This is therefore, in theory, one of the best vineyard plots on the estate. As in Burgundy, monasteries and the church played a key role in in preserving and developing the vineyards left behind by the Romans here. Maximin Grünhaüs is the name of this estate, which was inhabited during Roman times as the ancient city of Trier, the old Roman capital of the north, is close by. Later, during the 9th century, this land was given by Charlemagne's successor, Otto 1st, to Benedictan monks who founded the Abbey of Saint Maximin.

The German system of describing quality wines by the natural sugar content of the grape must is actually quite logical, once one has understood it. But its major drawback for the consumer is that it does not necessarily tell us whether the wine is going to be sweet or dry, nor to what extent, since it measures the sugar before fermentation. Most wines exported from Germany will be of Qualitätswein mit Prädikat (QmP) quality, which has recently been shortened to Prädikatswein, and this is the top classification level. This wine belongs to that category. But within the Prädikatswein category, wine types are then classified more finely according the natural sugar content of the grapes. By "natural", I mean that no chaptalisation (the adding of sugar to grape must) is allowed. Here we have a "spätlese" wine. The word literally means "late harvest". Legislation for this category imposes a minimum sugar density at harvest of 76 on the Oeschlé scale of measurement. This translates to a potential alcool level (if all the grape sugar was fermented out) of about 11%. But many German wines deliberately keep some unfermentend sugar (sometimes known as "residual" sugar) in the finished wine, as a stylistic choice. Since this particular wine has a total alcohol content of a mere 8%, we can deduct that its sugar content stands at a minumum of 50 grams per litre.

This label is so rich and so extensive that I am quite unable to represent it in its entirety with one image. One may or may not like this kind of very traditional imagery and graphics. Personally I love it (but I also love some very modern labels too). The quality of the engraving is amazing. I expect it represents a case of a label being so well-known amongst its regular clients that you would change it at your peril if you owned this estate. The owner, by the way, is Carl von Schubert, whose family have owned this estate since 1882. Being historically very well known, its name is allowed to appear alone on the label without being linked to that of a nearby town or village, which is a rare case in German wine legislation.

So what does it taste like?

The colour is a very intense shade of yellow-gold, quite deep and yet very bright with a greenish tinge. This is quite typical of late-harvested rieslings. The dominant smell, behind an overall impression of "sharpness" of the lemony kind, is one that reminds me of something close to paraffin. This does not sound very pleasant, and in fact I'm not sure that I like the idea much myself, but I find it hard to describe otherwise. This kind of smell tends to be characteristic of many rieslings at some stage in their lives. One can imagine other smells, such as white truffles or garlic, also. Perhaps the thing I love the most about the finest rieslings from the Mosel is the incredibly delicate feel that they give on the palate. This wine is both firm (by its pronounced acidity) and gentle in its application. It appears round and smooth like a steel ball-bearing, yet virtually indestructible. The acidity is wrapped in a light cladding of sweetness. It makes your mouth water and yet is free form any harshness.    

I tried it with two different types of food, and it worked really well with both: a gently spiced terrine of foie-gras, then a fresh fruit salad made of white and yellow fruit (pineapple, peach, tangerine, apple and pear), with no added sugar. 

And what does it cost?

Between 12 and 15 euros per bottle in Europe from specialist dealers. Quality does not necessarily mean very high prices!

16 Dec 2011

Wine labels can be fun and even plain silly

Wine is basically just a drink. It can often be a very good one too, and even, from time to time, produce, in some of those who drink it, the kind of esthetic experience that brings it close to others of fairly high sensual intensity. But a lot of wine geeks take this substance far too seriously, and I am not just talking about the snobs who want to buy only those rare and expensive labels. I find that this over-serious conformism shows clearly in the majority of wine labels, which are usually boringly conventional.

From time to time wine producers or retailers branch out a bit and try something different. This doesn't often happen in France, except to some extent within the so-called (and mis-named) "natural" wine category. Perhaps this is because so many of these wines seem, to me and to many of my professional colleagues, to be so totally unpalatable that they need to compensate by being creative with their labels?

But as soon as you travel, and especially to Italy, to the USA or to Australia, you can find all kinds of creativity, some of it quite off-the-wall, showing itself on wine labels. France tends to be far more staid, or else it sombers into vulgarity. Let's take a look...

Fattoria Le Terraze is a very good producer from the Conero appellation of the I Marchi region on Italy's Adriatic coast, to the east of Tuscany. The owner happens to be a great fan of Bob Dylan and called one of his wines Planet Waves, which is the name of a Dylan album (see left). I don't think that this was a huge commercial success and I believe he has abandoned this theme, but his current wine called Chaos has a very bright label that changes for every vintage. It also happens to be a very good wine (see below).

Other producers often take the route of making fun, using greater or lesser levels of sophistication. The most consistently creative and funny of these has to be the one and only Randall Grahm, whose Bonny Doon outfit, based in Santa Cruz, California, has consistently turned out excellent labels over many years now. This was probably one of the first, and it needs a bit of wine-knowledge to decode it, as it both pokes fun at and pays hommage to a couple of French wine regions.

Grahm has been responsible for many otherwise creative labels, such as this Steadman one for a Zinfandel:

Or this one, for his basic red wine, which is a little graphic and verbal masterpiece:

Getting even more powerfully graphic, he has also, more recently, produced this set, for a syrah:

Pure provocation is often a theme of some wine labels in the US or Australia. This is not often to be found in latin countries, with the exception of some French labels from the category I mentioned in my introduction:

or indeed this:

or this:

In the case of labels produced for specific markets, such as the English one, local sayings or quaint expressions tend to play a part in labels that use these to skew their message. The famous Fat Bastard Chardonnay is a well-known example, but there are also ones like this:

This one uses irony and the second degree to attempt to obviate the growing resistance to French wines in some segments of the UK market:

Occasionally somenone goes out on a direct line of provocation. This is usually sexual, and probably restricted to limited series wines:

And, just to ensure that nobody feels left out here:

As we are entering the festive period, it is worth remembering that the seasonal theme is also used at times : 

As are all kinds of other strange themes with nothing immediately to do with wine, such as murder movies or novels:

Or strip cartoons:

And, occasionally, things even weirder and, perhaps, more poetical:

10 Dec 2011

Do you really want a tattoo?

I am not a great fan of tattoos. I know that making indelible marks on people's skin is an ancient practice and well respected in some cultures, particularly in Polynesia.

Tattoos found on Egyptian and Nubian mummies date from about 2000 B.C., and classical authors mention the use of tattoos in connection with ancient Greeks, ancient Germans, Gauls, Thracians and ancient Britons. Taking the above list, it should be said that all these people were renowned for their ferociously barbaric behaviour, with the possible (and highly debatable) exception of the Ancient Greeks who used tattooing simply as a means of identifying spies!

Tattooing was later rediscovered by Europeans when exploration brought them into contact with Polynesians and American Indians. The word tattoo comes from the Tahitian word tattau, which means "to mark," and was first mentioned in explorer James Cook’s records from his 1769 expedition to the South Pacific. Because tattoos were considered so exotic in European and U.S. societies, tattooed Indians and Polynesians drew crowds at circuses and fairs during the 18th and 19th centuries. English sailors adopted the practice and re-introduced it to Europe where even English kings and nobility apparently adopted it, probably to prove that they were as fierce as those against whom they fought.

In other words, there seems to me to be something very much linked to pretence and boasting about tattoos, and what I see today around me confirms me in this. Just go down to the local gym and look around! Or watch modern rugby.

Now, if you are still unsure about whether you want to take the plunge or not, take a look at this chart. Like a couple of other images that I have used on this blog in the past, I found it on the excellent Spanish collective blog called 8negro (see link in the list of blogs I enjoy in the margin). I don't know who designed it, but it is pretty smart. You will see that there are many more reasons not to get tattood than the opposite.

9 Dec 2011

Stade Français is back!

The good news on the rugby front, at least as far as I am concerned, and whilst English national rugby continues to flounder in the quagmire of unresolved contradictions, is the return to form of the local team that I support here in Paris: Stade Français Paris.

Stade Français is one of France's oldest rugby clubs, but not the oldest. That title goes to Le Havre Athletic club, founded (by Englishmen) in 1872, at a time when the game was played with 20 players per team, and not 15 as it is today.

The Stade Français was founded in 1883 by students from the Lycée Buffon in Paris, just a year later than its local rival, Le Racing Club de France, and 16 years before the Stade Toulousain, for exemple.

Between 1892 and 1898, these two Paris teams dominated French rugby, alternatively winning all the championships until rugby began to migrate to the southwest of the country, providing more competition. Nevertheless, Stade Français won a total of 8 national titles up to 1908, and was the first French club to play against an English one.

Brian Liebenberg, a key player in recent years, chaired by Paris team members on his retirement

With the occasional return to the top level of club rugby (a final lost in 1927, then a couple of years in the 1960's) Stade Français only climbed back from a more modest level of play and classification in 1994, almost 100 years after its initial days of glory. It gained acces to the elite division in 1997 and became French champion once again in 1998. Since then it has won the French championship another 4 times (2000, 2003, 2004 and 2007), a recent record that beats that of another great club, Toulouse, which has been champion 3 times since the turn of this century.

The two Paris centres (Burruchaga and Williams) attack during the game against Racing

Since 2007 and the departure of several key players and the trainer of that year, Fabien Galthié, the Stade Français has lost the brillance and the consistency of its play, and has even failed to qualify for the top European cup for the last 2 seasons. This difficult period was accompanied by growing financial difficulites. Things came to a head last summer with a change of presidency and a restructuring of the club's organisation. It is perhaps too soon to speak of durable and positive results, but, after a very mixed start to the current season, Stade Français is currently playing with all the spark and determination of its best days of a few years ago. They almost beat Toulouse in the away game in October....(18-15), and, since then, have won every game played, including comprehensive victories at home over Clermont and Racing Metro (the 19th century rival club, more recently revived but yet to win a major title) and away over Perpignan. During the same period they have also won their two games in the secondary European Cup, the Amlin Challenge. They are currently in 6th position in the championship.

Jérome Filliol scores a classic scrum-half try againt Racing after slipping through the defense on the blind side

We shall of course have to wait and see if this winning streak continues, but what is so good for a supporter is to see the Stade Français play once again with such fire and determination, as well as with skill and intelligence, varying their game according to the opposition and circumstances. The arrival of the new President, and a couple of key plays like the excellent Argentinean, Felipe Contepomi (at fly-half) has surely helped. The quality of players like Julien Dupuy (scrum-half) Sergio Parisse (8), Dmitri Szarzevski (hooker), Pascal Papé (lock forward) and Pierre Rabadan (flanker) is part of the story as well, but it seems unfair to pick out individuals in a case like this, so much the team spririt appears to be doing its thing.

Sergio Parisse takes the ball in a line-out

Stade Français Paris are renowned not only for their play, but also for being a highly original team, with creative kit (not all of which is in very good taste, it has to be said) the famous (or infamous) calendar that involves near-naked players, mainly from the team but also from other rugby teams and sometimes other sports, and the great shows put on at major games that have attracted hitherto unknown crowds and a new public to rugby. All this was the work of a man of vision, Max Guazzini, the former club President who took it from nowhere to the top. He has now, and with great elegance, passed his hand to the new President Thomas Savare, and can be seen in the aisles at matches as an ordinary supporter. What is really touching is to see the playersj when they recongise him at the end of a game, bow and take off their metaphorical hats to the man. This club has soul!  

A forward and captain congratulates his scrum-half: Parisse and Filliol

I like this new team. I have never stopped being a supporter of Stade Français and have lived some great and also some sad moments with them. This weekend they play against Parma, in Italy, for a game in the European Challenge. I think I will eat some ham and drink some Prosecco to encourage them, although a trip to Italy would have been nice!

Allez le Stade!

6 Dec 2011

Hey Joe, again

I must say that I have been inspired to make this entry by a French colleague called Jacques Berthomeau, who made my day last Sunday by posting a series of versions of this song which  was of course made famous by the one and only Jimi Hendrix when Polydor (I think it was) brought it out as a single back in 1966.

If a certain Billy Roberts is often credited with writing it, nothing is less sure. He was probably the first to record it though, in 1962. Then Tim Rose made a version in 1965 that inspired Hendrix when he came to England to start his meteoric career which had never really taken off in the USA until then.

I remember the time well, as I was a worker/student in London in those years. I heard Hendrix play this, his only hit at the time, amidst a mind-blowing and ear-splitting set (the room was small and Hendrix just didn't play quietly) at the Manor House club above the eponymous pub in Tottenham. I can still feel the blast in my solar-plexus!

Many other singers and bands have since made versions of Hey Joe: the Byrds, The Yardbirds, Deep Purple, Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention (a parody version, naturally), Patti Smith (her first single), and so on. But I think my favourite, after the Hendrix version, is this Latino one by the great Willy Deville.

Willy Deville - Hey Joe par cladstrife

5 Dec 2011

Paris bike show

Managed to get to this year's Paris bike show (Salon de la Moto for the French speakers out there) last Friday for a couple of hours. Despite the crowds which made it virtually impossible to get near some of the stands (MV Agusta, for example), here are a few shots of some of the machines that I found interesting. Too many bikes these days look cluttered to me. Even with some of the ones I show here, and which are probably amongst the least cluttered of the show, I often feel I would like to simplify their look and, probably, their gadgets. The other question I ask myself when looking at some of the extremely powerful sports bikes is when could you ever use all of that power on today's roads? Bikes are often paradoxical things. Impractical, dangerous and yet so desirable...

Here is a good example : the latest sports bike offering from Ducati, the Panigale 1199. This is one of the versions with all the bells and whistles on it and would set you back a cool 25,000 euros (at least, I haven't really counted properly). Beautiful, innit? Yet this machine, having ruined you, could almost never be used to anything near its capacity on roads, even with the peculiar French power limitation of 106 cv that is imposed on all bikes. Unlimited, the beast delivers close on 200 geegees! So it is made for production racing and the hands of some pretty good riders at that. Never mind, let's take another look at this piece of sculpture...

This left-hand view is a Ducati catalogue shot that shows the machine better than anything I could ever manage in the cramped conditions of a bike show. It also shows the standard all-red version which I think I prefer. Looks bloody fast even standing still! You will note that Ducati have abandoned the under-the-seat exhaust system that was a hallmark since the classic 916 on all their super-sports models. There are a few other technical things they have abandoned too on this model, like the tubular grid frame, but I won't bore you with that stuff here. Here is a close-up of the new exhaust system that reminds me of what the very creative Eric Buell did to his Harley make-overs (and to think those H-D idiots stopped production of his bikes...)

This looks pretty neat. It is also further proof that these bikes are not meant for waiting at traffic lights: just think of what you would be breathing sitting immediately above the orifices (one on each side to make sure you get the gas).

Now for something simpler and more accessible, in every sense of the term. I have been tempted by KTMs for some time, but have been put off by their (to me) ugly and boxy styling. The garish colours could be dealt with by a paint job, but the origami look is harder, and far more expensive, to get rid of. It looks as if they have calmed down a bit in this department and I found myself (almost) drooling over KTM's new big single, the 690 Duke. It appears smoother to the eye, with less clutter. I am sure it would be great fun to ride and you could certainly use most of its capacities on the road, provided you were able to keep the front wheel on the ground, as it is light enough and must have monster torque.

Another tempter in the increasingly rare road-going big singles category is this new offering from Husqvarna. Their recent take-over by BMW should make the bikes easier to find and have maintained, and I like the relative simplicity of the lines of this machine. Like the KTM, I expect this tool is useable about town and lots of fun on small roads.

Husqvarna have been making more media noise about this bike though. The 900 Nuda (yes, for nude, or naked if you prefer) doesn't look quite stripped-off enough for me and its bulky silencer is pretty ugly too. It uses the BMW 800 vertical twin engine that has had its capacity increased to 900 cc. Apart from the odd niggle about apperance, it could be an interesting proposition and they were also showing a version equiped with bags and all, so they may mean business in the sport-touring area as well.

Bitzas, or should I be using the more chic term "custom bikes", are now making appearances in regular bike shows. A sign of the vigour of this niche market I imagine, aided and abetted by the growing numbers of magazines devoted to them. This Italian one, from a producer called Borile, took my eye on the Paradise Motorcycles stand. With a Triumph engine in an special (and presumably light) frame, it looks fun, apart from the seat which looks just the opposite! Can you imagine sitting on that piece of board for more than 5 minutes? They say in their blurb that you can buy the frame and stick any motor into it. Not sure that that would work, but still, I might just get along to the people from Paradise and check this out. Paradise are also the French importers for Norton (the new ones), MV Agusta and Bimota. Mostly exclusive and expensive gear, and you couldn't even get onto to their stand as it was roped off and crowded round the edges. This may also have had something to do with the particularly beautiful model who was sitting on one of the bikes, crossing and uncrossing her short-clad legs. Quite fascinating (the bikes of course)!

While we are on the subject of "look but don't touch", and "specials", here is what Boxer bikes, an outfit based in Toulouse, were showing. It is apparently turbo-charged and could be a bit if a handful, if it ever gets on the road. Nice piece of work though.

To finish on a more optimistic note, in the sense that I at least have some hope of actually getting my leg over one of these beauties one day (the bikes, what else?), this is the new R version of the very successful Triumph Speed Triple. I still think that the new headlights give it a squinty look, and I still prefer by far the look of the old round-eyed version that it replaced (see below). But never mind, I have been promised a ride on this baby by the excellent Jean-Luc Mars, the boss of Triumph in France, and I will tell you all about it here, when the weather starts to improve perhaps.

Have fun and ride safely