Hidden Treasure

Wild blackberries, the kind that stain my fingers for days after a long picking session, that leave me with scratches on my legs and arms from wading through large hidden patches, the ones that allow for long, lazy conversations with fellow seekers and which reward effort with the nirvana of a fresh blackberry pie and later, much later when summer is gone and tans are faded, fill my mouth with the sweet purple ink memories written on those days  in the form of blackberry jam – wild blackberries rank among my favorite of all fruits.

A hidden blackberry patch. Photo: PK Read

A hidden blackberry patch
Photo: PK Read

This hasn’t been a year for stone fruits, but I have hope for the blackberries. I went and checked on a couple of patches yesterday. I was relieved to find that this one, which hasn’t really brought forth much of interest over the past couple of seasons, is in bloom and is doing well. It’s nestled between two fields – one a cow pasture, the other a neglected orchard – a triangular bit of forgotten hedgerow that’s invisible from the small country road that passes it, and uninviting to those who do notice it. Perfect for picking. Fingers crossed, this place will be a treasure trove in about 4-5 weeks.

Hedgerow flowers Photo: PK Read

Hedgerow flowers
Photo: PK Read

Two of my best hedgerow patches – long, rangy stands of trees, brambles and bushes that stood between fallow fields – have been lost to housing developments over the past two years, and I fear that will be the fate of most of them. The fields and the hedgerows are all under tidy suburban lawns and charmingly names streets now.

Blackberry blossoms Photo: PK Read

Blackberry blossoms
Photo: PK Read

Another patch, one that looks inviting and proffers all its goods openly, as if it’s some free market stand, is actually a place I never use. I run by it every day, watch the berries ripen, watch them get fat, then watch as the bushes get picked clean by passers-by and birds. It’s a nice hedgerow, right out there in the open, but I wouldn’t pick from it. Why?

Golf course hedgerow. Buckets of berries here, but the trees along the golf course don't look very healthy. Photo: PK Read

Golf course hedgerow. Buckets of berries here, but the trees along the golf course don’t look very healthy.
Photo: PK Read

It’s in the rough of a golf course, and I also see how they regularly spray pesticides all along the perimeter.

Photo: PK Read

Photo: PK Read

Still, the bench on the other side of this hedgerow offers a good place to stretch, and sometimes to sit, to look out over Lake Geneva, and to dream of pies and jams to come.

Blackberry jam fixings from a couple of years ago Photo: PK Read

Blackberry jam fixings from a couple of years ago
Photo: PK Read

Another favorite is a Blackberry Bellini – fresh wild blackberry sludge with champagne or sparkling wine. Not bad, not bad at all.

Blackberry Bellini
4 cups fresh blackberries
sprig of mint
1 tablespoon lemon juice
½ tablespoon sugar (optional)
1 bottle champagne, prosecco, or a bubbly, non-sweet cider for the non-alcoholic version
Mash the blackberries, mint, lemon juice, and sugar until the mixture is sludgy and juicy. Strain the pulp through a sieve (I like a bit of actual pulp in my drink, so I don’t use a fine sieve – just enough to keep out the seeds). Divide blackberry mixture evenly among serving glasses. Add the bubbly and stir just a bit – the juice will color the sparkling wine, the pulp will sink down to the bottom to be enjoyed at the very end. Spear or float a blackberry for garnish.

Kitschy hedgerow pinwheels Photo: PK Read

Kitschy hedgerow pinwheels
Photo: PK Read

Different Bubbles

Camel Valley Vineyard Bodmin, Cornwall Photo: PK Read

Camel Valley Vineyard
Bodmin, Cornwall
Photo: PK Read

I took the family to visit Camel Valley Vineyard in Cornwall last week, where we tried out every type of sparkling wine they had on offer. I stand by my first assessment – my favorites are the CV Rosè and the CV Cornwall Brut. The others – including an oddly satisfying pinot noir sparkling wine – were all good, just not quite my coupe de champagne. I like them as well as some of my regular champagnes, which is saying something, and it’s nice to know I can buy tasty sparkling wine in the UK while supporting local producers.

Also, the drive down ever-narrowing roads and through the Cornish countryside, over the Camel River and up to the vineyards, is a small adventure in discovery. After we left the winery, we headed out to our hotel for the evening, the lovely Lewinnick Lodge. A friend (a very good friend!) had made sure that a bottle of chilled Champagne (a Deutz brut) was waiting for us in our room, so we were able to do our own direct comparison – the Deutz had that unique chalky dryness of French Champagne, while the CV brut had a mellow roundess that was very enjoyable.

Twenty minutes from Camel Valley - the sea Photo: PK Read

Thirty minutes from Camel Valley – the sea
Photo: PK Read

Overall, sparkling wines are doing very well globally – for many, they have the pop of Champagne from France without the price. Italian prosecco is expanding in sales, and other countries (notably the United States, Australia and New Zealand) have produced solid sparkling wines for years. The name Champagne is only protected if the product comes from Europe – many other regions outside Europe use the word champagne as synonymous with sparkling wine.

Since English-produced bubbly currently only accounts for around 1% of sparkling wine sales in the UK, I guess you could say it’s a sector with a lot of growth potential. Variety being the spice of life, I know that when I am visiting the UK, I will be trying out some of the other local sparkling products, as well.

Champagne, Temporality & Spatiality

Infinite Bubbles Photo: Kath Fries

Infinite Bubbles
Photo: Kath Fries

It’s not that I can’t find my way around a given situation or place without champagne, because that is most certainly not the case. But I know for a fact that after a glass of champagne, I usually feel a bit more sparkle. It’s always gratifying to have my subjective feelings substantiated by science. In news that was gleefully reported, champagne – like red wine and blueberries – seems to be beneficial to various cognitive functions as well as maintaining a healthy heart.

From a MedicalExpress.com article:

“New research shows that drinking one to three glasses of champagne a week may counteract the memory loss associated with ageing, and could help delay the onset of degenerative brain disorders, such as dementia.
Scientists at the University of Reading have shown that the phenolic compounds found in champagne can improve spatial memory, which is responsible for recording information about one’s environment, and storing the information for future navigation.
Champagne has relatively high levels of phenolics compared to white wine, deriving predominantly from the two red grapes, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, which are used in its production along with the white grape Chardonnay. It is these phenolic compounds which are believed to be responsible for the beneficial effects of champagne on the brain.
Previous research from the University of Reading revealed that two glasses of champagne a day may be good for your heart and circulation and could reduce the risks of suffering from cardiovascular disease and stroke.”
There’s not much I can add to these few lines that would be better news for champagne drinkers (or, for that matter, the champagne industry, even if they probably already knew this intuitively). I hope champagne will help me navigate the world for many years to come.
Image: The Levity Institute

Image: The Levity Institute

MedicalExpress article – Scientists reveal drinking champagne could improve memory
Study published in Antioxidants and Redox Signalling – Phenolic Acid Intake, Delivered Via Moderate Champagne Wine Consumption, Improves Spatial Working Memory Via the Modulation of Hippocampal and Cortical Protein Expression/Activation by G. Corona, D. Vauzour, J. Hercelin, C.M. Williams, and J.P.E. Spencer.
Study published in Antioxidants and Redox Signalling – Dietary (Poly)phenolics in Human Health: Structures, Bioavailability, and Evidence of Protective Effects Against Chronic Diseases by D. Del Rio, A. Rodriguez-Mateos, J.P.E. Spencer, M. Tognolini, G. Borges, and A. Crozier

The Champagne Mirror

12390037_sAccording to Spiros Malandrakis, Senior Alcoholic Drinks Analyst at Euromonitor International, “Champagne has historically not only provided a rather accurate mirror image of the prevailing macroeconomic environment, the category actually appeared to precede the boom and bust cycles – a fact making it the proverbial canary in the coalmine, raising the alarm before an upcoming downturn.”

So with 2012 Champagne sales down in France as well as in all the largest export markets – the United Kingdom, the United States – it comes as a bit of surprise to find out that the second largest projected growth market in terms of actual Champagne volume, coming in right after France, isn’t China or Brazil, or the United States. map_nigeria

It’s Nigeria.

Euromonitor predicts exports to Nigeria of up to 1.3 million bottles by 2017. While this remains a fraction of the 19.4 million bottles exported to the United States in the first three quarters of 2012, but nonetheless, Nigerian consumption in 2011 was valued at almost 8bn naira (US$ 47m) and is predicted to more than double by 2017.

It seems odd that in a country where over 60% of the population (160 million) live on less than US$1 per day and 40% don’t have ready access to fresh water, Champagne would be such an expanding market, but this has one simple explanation: Nigeria’s oil economy. There are vast oil reserves, and the wealth generated by oil sales accounts for the majority of the country’s government budgetary revenues, and almost all of its export earnings. The current government has undertaken a path of reform, aiming for a more mixed economy. After all, Nigeria used to be an agricultural exporter, but with the reliance on oil it has become a net importer of food. According to the World Bank, 80% of oil revenues benefit 1% of the population.

If Champagne sales are a reliable indicator, as they have been in the past, then Nigerians are in for a future of strong oil sales and popping corks. Or at least, some of them are.

Several articles stated that Nigerian hip-hop videos feature conspicuous consumption of Champagne, and I invite you to view this music ranking chart to check for yourself. Yes, many of the videos show Champagne, but that might be a factor of the hip-hop rather than the artists’ Nigerian origins. The video below isn’t particularly new and doesn’t have any Champagne bottles, but I thought it was catchy.


Euromonitor blog post – Champagne: Nigerian Chic and European Doldrums

The Guardian article – Nigeria’s love of champagne takes sales growth to second highest in world by Afua Hirsch

The Nigerian Voice essay – Champagne Nigerian by Prince Charles Dickson



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 @ jimdenevan.com

Image: Jim Denevan @ jimdenevan.com

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 uclblueash.edu
My favorite part about this? The ‘fourth attempt’ in the title.