Paws for thought


Out shopping in the picturesque Derbyshire town of Ashbourne last week, we walked past a lovely old dog sunbathing on the pavement while inside we could see his owner busily painting his ceiling. It was pure chance that I happened to look back.

If you’d told me three months ago when I started this, ahem, serious wine blog I’d be writing about comedy dogs, I’d have laughed long and loud. However,  just as you don’t look a gift horse in the mouth, you certainly don’t ignore a chocolate Labrador that has just put his head into a tin of paint.

Is it just me or could you imagine him wearing a little hat, drinking some awful plonk English Pinot noir and boring everyone within earshot about English wine beating the French in some competition or other? Or maybe I’m barking up the wrong tree; perhaps he prefers a bone-dry Bacchus. One thing’s for sure, this blog has certainly gone to the dogs.


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Oxford blues

Just a quick one; I’m back from a flying visit to Oxford where I was hosting a tutored wine tasting at the lovely Old Bank Hotel on the High Street. A good crowd and great fun but it was pretty full on, especially as I had to open and pour 60 wines for 44 paying guests while at the same time talking animatedly about wine, food and vines for more than five hours… phew.

I definitely needed a walk afterwards to decompress, even though I had, of course, spat every wine we tasted (I’m usually the only one doing this!). As always, my trusty Ricoh was in my pocket and I snapped these three photos as I strolled through the city of dreaming spires. Hope you like them.




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Take a stroll down memory lane


A Harebell attracting insects in a unique Staffordshire meadow; more than 95 per cent of similar fields have disappeared in the past 50 years

Following that depressing last post regarding George Monbiot’s in-depth look at the overuse of insecticides and the incalculable damage they seem to be doing [click here if you can face reading George’s article], it was time to cheer myself up  – and you – with a good, long walk.

Taking heed of the only Latin tag I can ever remember – solvitur ambulando – meaning “it is solved by walking” or, as I prefer,”walk your worries away”, we took advantage of the good weather to head down the hill from my parents’ house to Dimmingsdale.

A favourite family walk since childhood, this beautiful fragment of North Staffordshire once belonged to the Earl of Shrewsbury but is now Forestry Commission-owned and open to all. We strode through the ancient woodland and, as always, I kept a weather eye open for wildlife and insects but saw virtually nothing.

This was perhaps partially due to the success of Himalayan basalm, an invasive weed smothering everything in its path. Or maybe the Glyphosate and 2,4-D amine herbicides recommended for its control by the, ahem, Environment Agency. To be fair, on their website they also add there is “encouraging evidence” that grazing has potential for biological control (who’d have thought?). But, whatever the reason, something was putting the insects off their food.

Indeed, in the three months since we returned to the UK, despite some glorious weather and lots of suitable-looking flowers in gardens and hedgerows, I’ve not seen many insects of note. Plenty of bumblebees thankfully [click here for a brilliant ID guide] and wasps, the odd hoverfly, beetle and moth but I can count the honey bees I’ve seen this summer on two hands. And part of one foot.

It was the same in France, incidentally. Indeed, my friend’s 80-year-old grandfather, who’s lived his whole life in the same house in Burgundy, said in the past five years he’d only got a handful of cherries from each of his normally dependable, blossom-covered trees because there were no longer  any bees to pollinate them. The reason? Chemicals, “sans doute”, spat the grizzled old man of the land, whose garden is now surrounded by intensively-sprayed vineyards.

As for butterflies, it’s still early and last year’s summer was a washout but other than a veritable plague of Cabbage Whites, so far I’ve seen just a few Red Admirals, a couple of Peacocks  and a handful of  Ringlets and Meadow Browns and that’s across three counties.  Trust me, I’ve been looking hard.


Ranger Field in Staffordshire; nature the way it used to be

Then we reached Ranger Field, one of my favourite places in the world, and everything changed for the better. Although I’ve visited this tiny heathland meadow countless times since I was a child, it’s years since I’d last been. It hadn’t lost its magic; as always, it was literally buzzing and humming with insects and other wildlife.

Within minutes of entering it, we’d all noticed the difference. I had my fairly rubbish quality (but waterproof and, crucially, dustproof) Ricoh camera in my pocket and snapped the following photographs – plus several other, even more, blurred ones – over the next hour:


A Bumblebee coming back for more Willowherb; I saw several different species, including honey bees


There were Gatekeeper butterflies (note the two white spots on black) galore, as well as their more common cousin, the Meadow Brown


A handsome Speckled Wood; the first I’ve identified in more than thirty years as an avid amateur entomologist


A nest of native baby Common (or Viviparous – meaning ‘live-bearing’)  lizards


Colour co-ordinated: a Peacock, one of Britain’s prettiest butterflies and until recently a common sight in every garden, not just the lucky few

I couldn’t quite believe what I was seeing; I’d always known this place was special and apart from the occasional small herd of grazing cows it certainly wasn’t intensively farmed. But I genuinely couldn’t understand why there were so many more insects here than elsewhere – it was like a different land.

It wasn’t until we were leaving that a new sign fastened onto the gatepost spelled it out in black and white and all became clear, to me at least. And presumably to the Forestry Commission experts who’d written it.


All there in black and white: controlled grazing + no agricultural chemicals = biodiversity and insects galore

The reason we were seeing so many insects here was that we were almost literally walking in the (pre-intensive farming) past. I’d not realised how rare and unique my favourite field was; according to the sign, more than 95 per cent of similar, insect-friendly fields which don’t get routinely sprayed or sown with agrichemicals have sadly “disappeared”. That’s nearly all of them.

Almost as soon as we had walked through the gate into the real world, the insects seemed to sense they weren’t welcome any more and one by one they too quietly disappeared. Perhaps it was something we said? Or, more likely, something they ate.

So how can we explain the profusion of insects in Ranger Field? I suspect George Monbiot would have a theory or two but I can already hear Monsanto and Syngenta shooting them down with their multi-purpose “that’s not scientific” bullet. Well-funded, misleading PR does seem to work wonders, with apathy and a general belief that “they” wouldn’t allow anything to irrevocably damage the environment doing the rest. In the end, it’s almost impossible for the little guy to prove a negative, even when all the evidence you need is flying around your face. Or not, as the case may be.

Whatever the reason, there is still hope. Forewarned is forearmed and all that. There’s even a big piece in today’s Guardian about how to attract pollinators to your garden [see here]. And if you manage to buy a bag of wildflower seeds, ditch the garden chemicals and maybe even support those organic farmers already doing all of that, then all power to your arm.

A better future for our insects is there for everyone to see by taking a stroll down memory lane to Ranger Field or somewhere similarly untouched and seeing native butterflies and bees thriving in a natural, pre-insecticide habitat.

I’m pretty certain I know the reason why they prefer fields liks this to the vast green deserts created by intensive farming but I have no “scientific” proof. Happily for me – and for all of us really – the insects don’t seem to mind.

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Silent Spring 2, coming to a field near you (whether you want it or not)

Monbiot on Neonicotinoids : Farmer spraying insecticide in agricultural field of  Bedfordshire

You know those tyre marks you see in the green, natural-looking fields near your home? They’re not from a tractor – they’re from the farmer’s big, red, chemical death machine.  Photograph: David Wootton/Alamy [courtesy of The Guardian: see link below]









It’s late and I’m feeling angry after reading a piece by George Monbiot about the extent of the invisible chemical death being sowed or sprayed in pretty much every field under cultivation (and many parks) in the UK, unless they are being farmed organically.

Unusually for me, I don’t have much to add to what Monbiot has already written. It’s all there in eloquent black and white. So, while I wouldn’t normally do this (all right, maybe I would), I strongly believe this article needs to be circulated more widely.

This is because it shows the non-farming majority – many of whom appear to think all produce grown in a field is organic by default – that all is not well in this once green and pleasant land. It’s many times worse for the flora and fauna that live on it, under it and, most of all, above it. And that includes us too.

I know your time is precious and you’ve got lots of better things you could be doing. But if you do care about the land you walk on, the rivers you swim in and the food you eat, click on the link below to read Monbiot’s article and see how intensive farming is destroying our wildlife and our future: Neonicotinoids. And what we can do to change that.

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Not so grim up North


With a rare hour-and-a-half of total freedom to savour after dropping off my eldest daughter at some ball-filled fun warehouse for a birthday party, I did what any responsible father would do – stayed and helped out hightailed it off to the nearest pub.

Having lived overseas for the best part of the last decade, the dream of home that always called me back was of a decent pint of cellar-cool (11C/52F) real ale and a bag of salt and vinegar crisps. And, er, family of course.

The only fly in the ointment this particular Sunday afternoon was that I was alone in Workington, a blue collar West Cumbrian town that can put the ‘rrrrrr’ into rough if you stray down the wrong streets. I quickly did so and in between searching for an open pub and dodging colourfully-tattooed youths and their panting pitbulls, I’d soon worked up quite a thirst.

This was unfortunate as not only was it extremely hot, I couldn’t find any pub that was open or didn’t look like Begbie would be inside propping up the bar and muttering darkly to himself. The clock was definitely ticking.

After another 20 minutes spent hiding in doorways or pounding the hot gritty streets, I was close to giving up and reluctantly returning to the ‘good’ parents. Faced with this awful prospect, I ploughed blindly on. Then suddenly, through the shimmering heat haze, I saw it, that magical beacon for the discerning day-time drinker; a JDWetherspoon pub.


Not only was it open, clean, cool and full of like-minded people enjoying a Sunday afternoon pint, nobody laughed at me when I pulled out The Guardian Review section (I’ll admit I’d been planning this particular treat all weekend). Or smacked me over the head with a pool cue, Begbie-style, when I started noisily munching on my salt and vinegar crisps.

Perhaps best of all, as supporters of the real ale movement, they also served well-kept Yates Golden Ale, made by the Lake District’s first ever micro-brewery. Full, round and perfectly hopped (not overly so as with far too many horribly bitter, ‘trendy’ beers right now), it’s a respectable 3.9 per cent and has twice been nominated for Champion Beer of Britain in recent years.

The absolute cherry on the top was that this cellar-cool pint of perfection only set me back £1.99. That’s right my southern friends, a decent pint of real ale for under £2. I very much doubt that would buy you half a pint in the Big Smoke, or even the bag of crisps.

So while it may still be grim up North in patches (and wild, open and beautiful in many more), at the very least we can still drink proper beer at proper prices. Even if I did get a few hard stares from the frazzled parents who’d stayed behind at the party when I slipped in five minutes before it all ended. Result.

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The perfect 10

A very good year... two empty bottles of 2010 Bourgogne

A very good year… only two bottles of 2010 Bourgogne were harmed in the making of this blog post

Everybody knows that good Burgundy (I’m talking reds here, although the whites are also divine) is one of the most ethereal wines on the planet. But you don’t have to have lived and worked over there to know that it’s not always good, and sometimes it’s downright horrid.

Perhaps more than any other great wine region – largely because Burgundy is marginal in terms of weather and grows only one variety (Pinot noir for reds, Chardonnay for whites) from only one year – you need to know a bit about your vintages if you want to buy a good ‘un. As more and more Burgundy producers are adopting New World winemaking practices, this variation is becoming less and less pronounced as is, sadly, the mercurial magic of the good years. But the fact remains that without the Bordeaux option of blending different grape varieties – which may have fared better than the mainstay variety – or even different years, your average Burgundy is still very, very vintage dependent.

The first piece of good news then is that all of the recent vintages have been relatively good – especially the much-lauded 2009 – although depressingly small and thus increasingly expensive in the last three years due, of course, to the weather. The even better news is that as someone who was actually making wine out there in 2010 (with the very savvy Benjamin Leroux), I can confidently say that 2010 Pinot Noir is better than 2009 (the whites, not bad but less so). And as it got written off by some wine writers before (yes, let me repeat that – before) the grapes were even picked due to the shocking weather prior to harvest, it means you can still – just about – pick up a decent bargain. Provided you get to the shops before the other 2 followers of this blog, of course; please try not to get caught in the stampede Mum.

There is no doubting that the 2009 Burgundys are good; ripe, lush and almost Syrah-like in their fruit sweetness and body. I was lucky enough to drink a beautifully balanced 2009 Domaine Gachot-Monot over a lovely lunch made by that eccentric, Pinot noir-loving wine merchant Tom Innes of Fingal-Rock a few weeks ago. But the 09s are so obviously good that everyone already knows it, or at least the people selling and marketing them anyway. The trick with vintages is to try and sniff out the good ones that no-one is raving about.

So if you’d prefer a tauter, leaner Burgundy, underpinned with a precise acid backbone, (or brassiere: a Dolly Partonesque American wine writer once breathily described acidity to me thus: “Honey, acidity is like a really good bra… it gives you a lift and makes everything look really sharp and perky!”)  then 2010 is the year for you, and me too. It drinks pretty well now but, by Jiminy, with all that acid to preserve the freshness and body it will it be drinking even better by 2020 and beyond.

While we’re on the subject, the 2011s are good but slightly more hit-and-miss and 2012, what little was made after the biblical hail storms and downy mildew epidemics, promises to be very good. As for the 2013s, it’s of course too early to tell although golf ball-sized hail has already destroyed many of Burgundy’s most prestigious southern villages, including Pommard and Volnay, and more crazily unseasonal weather is forecast so watch this space.

Just in case, if you ever do get the chance to buy 1985, 1999 or 2002 Burgundys at reasonable prices, go for it. Just make sure you remember to give me a call first. Or preferably a case.

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How’s about cookin’ something up with me?


The joy of food: a restaurant sign somewhere in Tuscany. It was closed but the sign seemed to indicate they understood simplicity and purity are key to all good food

I’m enjoying the luxury of tucking into a smorgasbord of Sunday papers at my parents’ house. Or trying to… they’re away so I’m also acting as a human stair-gate in a largely futile bid to prevent my fearless youngest daughter getting more adventure than she bargained for; a role, I fear, that may be mine for life.

From this slightly uncomfortable perch, I have just read a thought-provoking piece in The Sunday Telegraph magazine by William Leith. Titled ‘Can we cook ourselves thin?’, it’s a riveting romp through the dietary benefits of cooking from scratch as opposed to buying processed food, with a brief diversion into the gut-wrenching evil of industrial breadmaking.

As well as really making me want to buy Michael Pollan’s book Cooked, from which much of this article seems to be derived, it also throws an unnervingly bright light on the fact that the less we cook, the more we watch cooking programmes. Or food porn as it’s otherwise known… maybe Cameron should be installing filters on our televisions as well?

Incidentally, it’s similar to another trend I’ve noticed since being back in the UK; the less people appear to be reading (if you believe what you read), the more they seem to be getting words, lyrics and scripts tattooed onto their bodies. I’m not sure what all this means but it’s certainly handy if you happen to go out without remembering to bring a book with you.

I first stumbled upon Pollan, an American professor of journalism, while reading reviews of Cooked which quoted some of his wonderfully sensible food aphorisms:  “You are what you eat eats”, “Don’t eat anything incapable of rotting” and, my personal favourite, “Don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognise as food”. Genius.

If all this sounds like your sort of thing for a bit of light Sunday reading, you might actually have to buy the newspaper as I can’t find a link to it anywhere online – the swines – although perhaps it’ll pop up later. Failing that, Pollan’s book sounds completely fascinating if you enjoy your grub.

At the very least, reading either of them would almost certainly beat lying across the bottom of the stairs while a giggling, snot-ribboned toddler tries to use your face as a starting block. Bless.

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