Good Mood Restored

Camel Valley Wines Image via: English Wines

Camel Valley Wines
Image via: English Wines

I am generally a happy driver, by which I mean, I like driving a car. Especially through beautiful countryside. I grew up on the coast of northern California, which has some pretty nice roads for driving, and I guess I just got into the habit of being happy behind the wheel, most of the time.

So the way from Bristol to the Eden Project, a drive which runs through the SouthWest of England, should have been a great experience. And parts of it were: The long stretch on the A30 roadway that leads from Exeter (where we had stopped off for a couple of days) to St. Austell is stunning, rangy open country. And on the divided roadway, I could almost forget that I’m driving on the ‘wrong’ side of the road. But then the signage to the Eden Project, where we were headed, turned out to be intermittent and a bit misleading, the roads got narrow and then narrower, and after a couple of hours of my passenger (my intrepid father) white-knuckling every close encounter with a stone wall, hedgerow or side mirror of a parked car, I was ready to throw in the towel.

We had planned to drive down to the westernmost tip of Cornwall after visiting the large biomes of the Eden Project, but that would have meant another couple of hours on the road, and neither of us could face that.

Lucky us.

Because what we ended up finding, purely by chance, was a lovely cliff-side hotel. Besides having fantastic sea views from our rooms, and being served local mussels in local cider and cream, if we hadn’t stopped just outside St. Austell I doubt I would have gotten the chance to try a genuine surprise, the locally produced Camel Valley sparkling wine. Tracy, our friendly waitress at the Carlyon Bay Hotel, recommended the Cornish wine when I told her about my rattled nerves and my hankering for some champagne. She brought me two kinds to try, the brut and the rosé.

Well. My good mood was instantly restored. Because as it turns out, Camel Valley is turning out some excellent bubbly. In fact, the winery has been awarded a number of international prizes, winning out more than once against major champagne producers. The brut was light, chalky, dry and delicate, finely pearled – a delight. The rosé had a lovely tawny blush, and a slight berry taste I haven’t often experienced. image

The funny thing is, while we were making the decision to stay in St. Austell, I had been noodling around on the rental car GPS system and had seen ‘wineries’ listed. When I clicked on those listings, I was given helpful driving instructions on how to get to the champagne wineries – on the other side of the Channel. After all, they are only around 100 miles away, if you have an amphibious vehicle. Couldn’t be much more difficult than the country lanes we’d been on already.

But Camel Valley itself was only twenty minutes away, in Bodmin. Sparkling wine in England actually predates champagne, partly due to British glassmaking techniques. While Cornwall has been producing wine since the 1600s, Camel Valley is a family-run winery that’s only been in business since 1989. But if they keep turning out the kind of wine I tasted, maybe the French GPS systems will start listing them as a destination from the French coastline, as well.

Need I mention that I managed to return the car, a brand-new white VW, without a single scratch or mark, in spite of all the near misses? Now that, indeed, makes for a happy driver.


Camel Valley Wines website

Good English Wine article on Camel Valley Wines

Telegraph article on Camel Valley Wines

The Independent article on Camel Valley and other good British wines

Also, the music that helped calm our nerves:

Sunday Indulgence

The trumpet vine in summer

The trumpet vine in summer

We spent the weekend at one of our largest spring chores, trimming back the trumpet vine that surrounds part of our house. It requires a very high ladder, various shears, and patience. Planted just after the end of WWII, the vine provides an entire ecosystem on our south-facing wall. Birds’ nests, lizards, ants, various other insects I don’t care to think about but which leave me alone, even a beehive at the very top which we can never bring ourselves to remove because, well, the bees don’t bother us and they seem so happy there. The trumpet vine, left untrimmed (as it was when we bought the house many years ago), will climb right up and lift the tiles off the roof. Pruned, it provides shade to the front entryway and a waterfall of flowers. The dried vines make for some of the best fire kindling I’ve ever used.

Today, in celebration of the beginning of spring and the completion of the annual vine tending, I decided we needed to have an Indulgent Brunch. Two of the main components will be one of my top ten favorite cheeses, Brillat Savarin, and paired with that, some champagne. A half-round of triple-creme Brillat Savarin instantly classifies any meal or snack as indulgent, and not just because it has a fat content of 75%. It has a delicate mushroom flavor mixed with buttercream, and a snowy edible rind. Invented in the 1930s and produced year-round in Normandy and Burgundy, it was named for famed 18th century gastronome, Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin – who just happened to be born in Belley, a little over an hour from our house (by car, of course). He wrote The Physiology of Taste (1825), and led a life of various ups and downs, fortune and loss, that saw him exalted in France, exiled in Switzerland and living from violin lessons in America (although not necessarily in that order).

We have friends visiting from out of the country, and I asked them what they would like to have. Cheese, they said, lots of cheese. So, an indulgent brunch of cheese it is, starting with the luscious Brillat Savarin.

As Brillat Savarin said, “The senses are the organs by which man places himself in connexion with exterior objects.” We will be doing just that – placing ourselves in connection with cheese, champagne, fresh spring strawberries and best of all, friends.

Game of tag

Screen Shot 2013-02-24 at 9.47.38 AMShopping for something else entirely in the food section of Geneva’s swanky Globus department store, this girly box of champagne truffles caught my eye. The pink box is a delight, and is sealed with two clear stickers embellished with golden crowns. The six fat truffles inside have a scent of light champagne, with a breath of vanilla. Heavenly. The chocolate covering seems to be a pink-tinted white chocolate, the filling is milk chocoalte and sweet. And yes, they taste of champagne, sans the bubbles, of course. Are they the best truffles I’ve ever had? Hm, maybe not quite. But lovely for a post-breakfast, pre-lunch Sunday treat. And they go nicely with a glass of the real bubbly.

I was thinking about this kicky song here when I woke up this morning – a French/Japanese acid jazz tune from about 20 years ago, a bit of dance, a bit of jazz, a bit of social activism. Very ‘Early 1990s’.

My friend Daniela Norris asked me to participate in a writer’s game of tag, The Next Big Thing. A promise is a promise – but I will be posting my answers to TNBT questions over on Twitter (@paula_read)  if you care to take a look. Thanks to Daniela for tagging me, and I encourage a visit to her blog.

Champagne Cocktail

Throughout most of the 19th century Champagne was made sweet. My predecessors in champagne preference didn’t mind a bit of the sugar added by winemakers, even if the sugar was being added to cover up poor grape quality.

As the overall quality of champagne wine improved, rendering sugar less necessary, some enthusiasts developed a taste for less sweet varieties – half dry, or demi-sec.

I suppose it was inevitable that someone would come along with an incongruously titled ‘dry’ drink, and indeed in 1846 Champagne house Perrier-Jouët introduced a champagne with no added sugar. At first it was deemed a brute of a drink, but over time, this extra dry brut style grew in popularity. It remains the most popular to this day.

Now, I don’t usually think that Champagne needs any enhancement whatsoever. But when a good Champagne cocktail crosses my path, I am certainly not one to turn up my nose. I’m no purist. So my obvious drink of choice when I went to the reliably delightful bar at the Geneva Intercontinental this weekend was the house Champagne cocktail.

It’s made with Champagne, a cube of brown sugar nestled in the bottom of the glass, a shot of cognac and a graceful spiral of orange peel. The charming young man who brought us our cocktails explained that a sparkling cocktail is always gently stirred, not shaken.

For me, the subtle addition of cognac to Champagne is truly an enhancement. As the drink sits (admittedly, not for very long), the sugar cube is slowly crumbled by the gentle force of the Champagne bubbles. By the time I get to the bottom of the glass, there is a delicious sugary cognac sludge with a tang of dry Champagne and orange.

Is there some deeper message to be taken away from the irony of adding sugar to dry Champagne that has been intentionally made without sugar? I have decided the question deserves no further examination other than its mention.

Impermanence & Pleasure

Image: Jim Denevan @

Image: Jim Denevan @

I have a deep admiration for artists who create works that are intentionally impermanent. The images to be washed away by the next tide or the scuffle of feet, the sculptures that won’t withstand the next gust of wind or pelting of rain. I used to make boats of driftwood and dune grass and send them down the eddies of tidal streams, hoping they would safely navigate the Pacific surf that awaited them and knowing that they wouldn’t. The satisfaction is in the making, the thrill is in the release.

There are the photographs that lend some sense of human history to a passing creation, a memory of something we didn’t see for ourselves and which was gone the same day the image was captured. I can tell you about the moment I tasted that initial sip of Veuve Clicquot champagne the past weekend, the oceanic fizz, the slight spray of gas released by the bubbles as they gasped out at the surface and against my nose, the dry walnut flavor mixed with a heady tang, the falling snow outside the window and the blue moonlight on the mountaintop – but that instant was over almost as quickly as it began. The sea washed over Denevan’s sand spheres above – when? Does it matter? Wouldn’t we just glut ourselves and move on in bored surfeit if we could go back to the same moment again and again?

This is my long-winded way of saying thank you to the magazine Stealing Time for publishing a piece of mine.

I am enjoying the bubbles before the return of the tide.

Andy Goldsworthy: "Slate arch made over two days, fourth attempt" via uclblueash.eduMy favorite part about this? The 'fourth attempt' in the title.

Andy Goldsworthy: “Slate arch made over two days, fourth attempt” via
My favorite part about this? The ‘fourth attempt’ in the title.

End Of Year Happy #2

Image credit: jelenayo / 123RF Banque d'imagesI get asked now and again why champagne is one of my very favorite beverages. If I don’t suspect a trick question, I’ll answer truthfully, either with my short list or my long list as to why. Near the top of both lists is the superficial similarity in sound and foam between champagne being poured into a glass and the sound and foam of the ocean. As it turns out, this comparison isn’t just aesthetic. In research carried out in Reims, France, a 2009 study found that the flavor and aroma of a given champagne are carried and formed by the bubbles themselves. The beautifully written study states that,

“As champagne or sparkling wine is poured into a glass, the myriad of ascending bubbles collapse and radiate in a multitude of tiny droplets above the free surface into the form of very characteristic and refreshing aerosols. (…) By drawing a parallel between the fizz of the ocean and the fizz in Champagne wines, our results closely link bursting bubbles and flavor release; thus, supporting the idea that rising and collapsing bubbles act as a continuous paternoster lift for aromas in every glass of champagne.”

Aside from the stunning use of paternoster imagery to describe bubbles carrying aroma in a glass, this lovely report goes on to describe hundreds of chemical compounds that are only made discreet by virtue of being carried in aerosol form through the liquid bulk of the champagne and released at the surface. Within the liquid itself, the compounds remain a messy mass until a bubble comes along to lift them to greater heights.

Far from demystifying the wonder of champagne, I find this line of inquiry a fascinating intersection of scientific investigation, interesting methodology, tradition, culture, aesthetics and economics. Also, it provides third-party validation of my own oft-repeated simile between the ocean and champagne, and I like that.

And thus it qualifies as an End Of Year Happy for 2012.



Advent at the End



Bodleian Advent Calendar

Bodleian Advent Calendar


Well, the twenty-four doors of the Bodleian advent calendar have all been opened. Not only is it Christmas Eve, but the optimistic calendar makers must not have been adherents of the most recent non-Apocalypse, because there were 24 days on the calendar, and not 21 to coincide with the now-defunct End of Days on Dec. 21st. As it is, the candles are on the tree, the gifts are wrapped and we are ready for our ragtag expat X-mas traditions taken from our various families, countries of residence, and personal preferences.

The Advent whisky calendar is still a work in progress – my partner in tasting was out of town again for a few days, so while all the little bottles have been successfully extracted from their calendar cubbyholes (all but one, that’s for this evening!), we are rather tardy on our whisky trials and log. Certainly by the end of the year, we will have completed the tasty drams.

The turkey is in the oven, the pie has been made, and in keeping with my theme of champagne and whisky, I used up a bottle of sparkling wine to moisten the dressing and stuffing. I mistakenly opened it one night thinking it was Champagne and it turned out to be a Crémant we usually use for party punch. Not quite up to sipping snuff, and no party this week in need of a bubbly aperitif, but a pity to let it go to waste. So we will find out what oyster mushroom, sausage and sparkling wine stuffing tastes like later today. It fizzed nicely when I poured it into the bowl for mixing, and if having fun whilst cooking adds to the flavor, then I expect some very good stuffing indeed!



The Bottle Around the Bubbly


A little small talk tidbit for all those soirées in this month of holiday parties:

A bottle of champagne contains around 50 million bubbles, at three times the pressure of a car tire.

As an interesting prerequisite to the ‘invention’ of champagne, it was necessary to invent a bottle that could contain the pressure generated by all that pressure and thus avoid exploding bottles – a health hazard, not to mention a terrible waste. From what I have read, it was an Englishman from a region known for its hard cider who first came up with a technique for producing a robust glass that could withstand increased internal pressure. His name was Christopher Merret. One of those multi-faceted, inquisitive types that seem to pop up regularly in the 17th and 18th centuries, he was a physician and naturalist with a special affinity for the effects of minerals on glass-making and smelting. In 1662, he translated an Italian book, The Art of Glass (1611), and added a long series of notes based on his own observations.

Merret described how to add iron, manganese or carbon to molten glass in order to produce a bottle that could withstand the entropic powers of secondary wine fermentation, thus making possible the ‘verre anglais‘ used by Benedictine monk Dom Pérignon to make champagne. Perhaps not coincidentally, Merret also discussed how adding sugar and molasses could lead to secondary fermentation, leading to the first recorded description of sparkling wine.

At any rate, the first ‘official’ production of champagne – in 1692, thanks to Dom Pérignon – owes at least a little of its success to the existence of non-exploding bottles.

In more recent times, the weight of the heavy champagne bottle, which was standardized in the early 1970s at 900 grams, or about two pounds, is being retooled in an effort to reduce the product’s carbon footprint. The new bottles will use 65 fewer grams and have more slender shoulders while still retaining the robust strength necessary to contain those 50 million tiny bubbles.

Cider, hot off the presses!

Cider, hot off the presses!

I came home from a run to find this jug of fresh cider perched on my doorstep, courtesy of my cider-pressing neighbor. My favorite part, besides the delicious nectar I know is inside, is the friendly packaging for family and friends only – the ancient Spanish wine jug, rinsed, sterilized, reused. The organic, orchard home grown, hand pressed stuff inside is the same stuff he sells in fancy glass bottles, but this is the real deal. So lucky to live here!