Posts Tagged ‘Food & Wine’

This was the second Sideways wine weekend of 2009; this time to Piedmont, Italy – home of Barolo and Barbaresco – and I used the opportunity to tag on a couple of days in Turin, a new city for me.

It’s proximity to France, but perhaps more importantly it’s history as the home of the Dukes of  Savoy, gives TURIN a hybrid Italian-French look and feel – colonnaded boulevards and huge piazzas with a combination of Romanesque, medieval and classical architecture. It’s a lovely city to explore on foot and the autumn weather was perfect for this.

The Palazzo Real is a grand affair, befitting a capital city, with a maze of opulent rooms and extensive grounds. It sits on one edge of Piazza Reale which adjoins Piazza Castello; this really is the heart of monumental Turin. The state apartments are a mixed bag with some badly in need of restoration. The armoury is a spectacular space, though it’s difficult to get excited about its content unless you’re turned on by a lot of swords! The high spot though is its long narrow Library, still in use as an archive.

The heart of working Turin is Piazza San Carlo, a vast rectangular colonnaded space with two churches at one end. The cafes around the collonade bring it to life and it’s en route to lots of places so it’s forever populated by people on the move or stopping to rest. The streets which lead to the square are populated by Turin’s finest shops; being born without the shopping gene, I gave those a miss.

Turin contains the finest collection of Egyptian antiquities outside Egypt (more impressive than Berlin or London) and they are housed in their own museum. It really is a stunning collection, particularly the statuary – two big rooms of them – but there’s also the complete contents of several tombs, lots of mummies and a spectacular Book of the Dead.

Most cities have a curiosity and here it’s a 19th century brick tower called the Mole Antonelliana (the tallest in its day) originally built as a synagogue and now housing a 21st century cinema museum. A free-standing glass elevator rises to a roof terrace from which the 360 degree view is spectacular (though on the day I went, the haze rather limited it). The museum is badly signed and curated so it’s hard to get the most out of it, but the building and the view (and a rather good antipasti buffet in the cafe!) make it a must.

Parco del Valentino, along the River Po, looked gorgeous in the autumn colours. It houses a medieval village and castle built for an 1884 exhibition; it’s a folly, but the craftsmanship of the day means it’s now a beautifully imagined antique theme park!

Add a few churches – particularly the riots of baroquery at Santuario della Consolata in Romanesque Turin and San Lorenzo in Piazza Reale – and GAM, a disappointing modern & contemporary art gallery, and you have a very enjoyable couple of days exploration.

Our PIEDMONT WINE WEEKEND started with a truffle hunt! The ease with which the dog found the truffles made us a bit suspicious, but if they were planted they were certainly well covered up! The manic way the dog behaves suggested to me she must be addicted to truffles (and she gets to eat the small ones) so I wasn’t sure what I thought about it all. It was white truffle season (the more expensive ones) and they were retailing at £5000 per kilo (ten times black truffles at a mere £500) so there’s clearly a rather good living to be made here. When we entered the shop, the smell was intense and overpowering. We tasted more than 10 truffle products – its fascinating how many uses they have – but I can’t say I entirely appreciated the taste or understood the value placed on it.

Piedmont is primarily known for three grape varieties – Dolcetto, Barbera and Nebbiolo – which make the renowned wines of Barolo and Barbaresco. Our first wine tasting was at the wonderfully named Conterno Fantino (www.conternofantino.it), a family winery on a hilltop overlooking Monforte, one of the 11 villages that comprise the Barolo DOC. The son showed us around the winery and mother led the tasting – until Dad turned up looking like he’d had a rather good and rather long lunch and proceeded to add a few more wines including a 99 Barolo Sori Ginestra and a preview of the 06 vintage! I love these family run businesses – they aren’t the most slick and you may find better wines elsewhere, but there’s a real sense of individuality, preserving tradition, innovation and living their passion.

Our hotel for two nights was Albergo Cantine Ascheri in Bra (www.ascherihotel.it), a modern 28-room 3-story hotel with en suite winery hidden in a courtyard on the outskirts of Bra. Winery owner Matteo Ascheri showed us around his sparkling modern facilities with a very compelling and lucid account of the history, tradition and modernisation of the Barolo region. After a ten wine tasting earlier at Conterno Fantino, this was a more modest four wine tasting in a lovely purpose-built tasting room in the cellars of the winery / hotel which was followed by dinner in their restaurant; this is a new breed of winemaker who sees the added value of providing dining and accommodation.

Our visit to the lovely hilltop village of Barberesco was a pilgrimage to meet the godfather of Italian wine, Angleo Gaja (www.gajawines.com). A larger-than-life character, he showed us around his impressive cellars and renovated castle and talked almost non-stop for 90 minutes. Though it was clearly an honour, he did bang on a lot in a rather pompous fashion! He left the tasting to his daughter and the five wines we tasted were spectacular, but I soon realised that they were so expensive I may never taste them again!

After a simple but delicious lunch in the village, we headed to the vineyards of Bruno Giacosa (www.brunogiacosa.it) on the hills overlooking Serralunga where the autumn colours took your breath away; a riot of reds, yellows, browns and greens. The tasting of six wines back at their premises included a sparkling white and our first white made with the local Arneis grape. It was another good selection which proved Piedmont holds its own as a region of fantastic reds; I think I’m about to enter my Barolo period…..

Here are some photos….. 

You are invited to view Gareth’s photo album: Turin & Piedmont Wine Weekend
Turin & Piedmont Wine Weekend
Nov 1, 2009
by Gareth
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At the Guildhall School of Music & Drama there was a pairing of Martinu and  Rossini one-act comic operas. I love these Guildhall opera evenings – always value and often a treat. I wasn’t mad keen on the music of the Martinu though I liked the production and performances (particularly Nicky Spence). The Rossini, an inspired setting in a lap dancing club, was a hoot, with Spanish soprano Elena Sancho-Pereg giving a sensational vocal performance. Who needs Covent Garden when you can have as much fun as this for a sixth of the price.

Roberto Devereaux at Opera Holland Park made for a nice summer evening. There’s something formulaic about Donizetti’s operas, his obsession with setting British history is intriguing, and the result – assorted queens, dukes and duchesses emoting histrionically in Italian – is somewhat incongruous. Having said that, this is the perfect opera for OHP’s backdrop and it looks both attractive & authentic, it was played and sung beautifully and a good time was had by all. OHP is a summer must and this rare outing of this opera was very welcome.

James MacMillan’s opera Parthenogenesis (fatherless conception) is based on a 2nd World War tale about a woman whose conception is triggered by a bomb blast. It’s an intriguing story but it makes for a slight 50-minute opera, which I’m not sure is worthy of the huge resources the ROH have heaped upon it. It has some lovely atmospheric music and passionate performances, but designing in restricted views for those at the side (well, certainly on the left) is unnecessary, inconsiderate and unforgivable.

I’d been so looking forward to Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Royal College of Music. As soon as I saw there was no designer credit in the programme, I groaned…..and so it was; an opera set in a forest without a tree, bush, branch or even leaf in sight. It’s not easy to enjoy Britten’s magical music in such an unmagical setting. It didn’t help that the Britten Theatre, with the most uncomfortable seats, was hot, stuffy and airless.


Another concert in Julius Drake’s English song series at the Wigmore Hall; this time with soprano, mezzo, clarinet and piano! The programme combined rarer pieces and curiosities with the usual suspects (which is probably why it was so empty) so it was different but complimented the earlier concerts in the series. I’ve really enjoyed these.

The programme for the City of London Choir’s concert of rarely performed English choral music was inspired – two works by Vaughan Williams & Holst bookending pieces by Britten, Parry & Foulds – with the symmetry of a secular first half with piano and harp accompaniment and a scared unaccompanied second half. Despite my love of British music, all bar VW’s Mass in G was new to me and it was an absolute treat.

I love work which breaks out of the theatre or concert hall, and this year Spitalfields Festival invited five extraordinary musicians and four composers from the Royal Academy of Music to create music in the old Huguenot houses of Spitalfields. We visited five houses in 100 minutes and were given solo Baroque Cello, Tuba, Flute, Clarinet and Violin (with electronic soundscape). In addition to four new pieces (all for violin) they included a whole range of composers from Bach to Turnage and I though the whole experience was enthralling, with a walk around the much gentrified Spitalfields a real bonus.

My only visit to this year’s City of London Festival was for a chamber programme by the Hebrides Ensemble at the wonderful Stationers’ Hall. The programme of this year’s festival is 60º North, linking music from Norway, Sweden, Iceland, Finland, St. Petersburg and the Scottish isles. Tonight’s programme had Sibelius, Shostakovich and Stravinsky plus three living Scots (or adopted Scots) Peter Maxwell Davies, James MacMillan and Judith Weir and a bonus from Iceland. It was inspired programming – challenging but thrilling – and the venue was terrific. I loved the way the organisers mingled with the punters over a (free) glass of wine in the interval. Bravo!


The one-room exhibition of Picasso prints at the NG complements the main exhibition, but it was a mixed bag. Next door at the NPG there was a small but brilliant exhibition of photos of Bob Dylan’s famous 1966 tour. I never saw the tour, but it still felt nostalgic. Richard Long is an eccentric Bristolian who travels the world carrying out obsessive walks, creating art from nature. The trouble is, photos and word descriptions don’t do this justice and in this huge Tate Britain exhibition the one room of stone sculptures just isn’t enough to capture your imagination. Also at Tate Britain, BP Connections is a slim contemporary art exhibition but it does deliver one coup – a room of (seemingly) ethnic sculptures collected from around the world by the Chapman family. They turn out to be modern creations with hidden references to a hamburger chain, its character for kids and hamburgers themselves! The exhibition of actor Anthony Sher’s paintings at the NT is wonderful; he’s as good an artist as he is an actor. The portraits in this exhibition include his family, but it is largely made up of fellow actors. At the same venue, the 30th anniversary of Greenwich Printmakers is celebrated by a lovely exhibition which shows just how under-rated printmaking is. The exhibition is made up of a very eclectic selection, but its more hit than miss. I ventured into another unexplored part of fast up-and-coming arty E1 / E2 for an exhibition of 60’s photos by ‘Hoppy’ Hopkins, an extraordinary man who founded International Times and set up the UFO club. The pictures, which ranged from street kids to The Beatles via demos and drugs, were terrific. Futurism at Tate Modern proved much more extensive and exciting than I was expecting; an amazing range of work that is mind-blowing today, so imagine seeing this for the first time 100 years ago. At the same venue, a major retrospective of Danish artist Per Kirkeby (who I’d never heard of) started with a yawn, but rather grew on me. The sculptures were awful but the big canvases splashed with colour were lovely – very Hodkinesque!


Two of Britain’s greatest film directors have tried lighter fare with their latest outings. Whereas Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky failed to impress me, Ken Loach’s Looking for Eric proved to be a real treat – utterly charming and ultimately hopeful. I have little interest in football, no interest in Man United and to me Eric Cantona is some idiosyncratic Frenchman who uttered quirky statements at press conferences, but even I was captivated by what is clearly a bizarre cult. Nick Moran’s Telstar was a good play with a sensational leading performance by Con O’Neil. The story of 60’s record producer Joe Meek, it makes a good film but somehow I think it could have been a great one if he’d handed it over to another director able to bring objectivity and a new perspective. Con O’Neill reprises his role (less sensationally on screen) and is accompanied by a superb collection of young actors and a surprisingly good retired army major from Kevin Spacey!


The prospect of a concert version of Kurt Weil’s first Broadway musical, after his exile from Nazi Germany, was a tempting one. It’s a First World War tale called Johnny Johnson which, for the 30’s, made very brave statements about young men as cannon fodder. In reality it’s a musical play, not a musical, and by including all of the dialogue it outstayed its welcome at over 3 hours. A curiosity, but not particularly entertaining.

I’ve got mixed views about classical ballet – I can’t stand the dancer hierarchies, the overly mannered performances, the sickly unnatural bows & curtain calls and the audience! – but when it’s good it takes your breath away as Jewels, a triple bill of Balanchine ballets to music by Faure, Stravinsky and Tchaikovsky, did at Covent Garden. The costumes and sets were gorgeous, the three ballets were complimentary and much of the dancing – particularly from Carlos Acosta, Alexandra Ansanelli and Rupert Pennefather – really did take your breath away.

Taste of London in Regent’s Park has now become an annual must. It features 36 restaurants, each presenting 3-4 signature dishes for you to sample in small portions for between £3 and £6. It has grown to include cooking master classes, lectures, wine & other drinks, cooking shops etc. We found a nice place in the VIP enclosure and took it in turns to wander around and sample 10 dishes each. It has got very popular (it is now replicated around the world) and may become overstretched, but for now it’s still a fun afternoon.

Having heard about the completion of their renovations and added galleries etc., I couldn’t resist a trip to Northampton to see one of Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s last commissions – 78 Derngate. It’s a small terraced house which is fascinating because it shows how he was evolving towards Art Deco – more geometric (triangles and straight lines) and stronger colouring (black combined with yellow, purple and turquoise). They have taken over two adjoining houses so that they can add galleries and the customary shop and restaurant. I particularly like the fact that they’ve given over galleries to modern designers for selling exhibitions.

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Handel’s Giustino, one of his 42 operas!, was given a very rare performance by Trinity College of Music in Wren’s wonderful Royal Naval College Chapel in Greenwich. The staging was a bit hit-and-miss but the singing was terrific. The venue has great acoustics and a wonderful atmosphere, but the pews proved a challenge for a bum-numbing 3 hours 10 mins. Welsh National Opera’s Queen of Spades is another feather in their cap. I found it a bit imbalanced, with a first act that dragged and the next three speeding along, but you couldn’t fault the innovative staging and fine performances and Tchaikovsky’s music is gorgeous. Peter Grimes is, in my view, the greatest opera of the 20th century and this spring at the ENO, it got the production it deserved. The orchestra and chorus under Edward Gardner were electrifying and have never sounded better. In a terrific British cast, John Daszak was a fine Peter with particularly stunning support from Felicity Palmer’s Mrs Sedley, Matthew Best’s Swallow, Gerald Finley’s Balstrode and Amanda Roocroft’s Ellen. This is one of the best things the ENO have ever done and it’s great to see this recently troubled company on such a roll.

I paid my first visit to London’s newest concert venue – Kings Place – for an OAE (Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment) concert of Handel concerti, arias and a short cantata and it was a treat. I’d never heard soprano Julia Doyle before but I can’t wait to see her again; she has a lovely voice. The OAE chamber group played beautifully and the venue really is terrific – two small halls of c.200 and c.400 seats with two galleries, restaurant and café and a canal-side setting. At St John’s Smith Square, the Lufthansa Baroque Festival opened with Handel’s oratorio Athalia. The German chorus & orchestra were exceptional as were the soloists, particularly Sarah Fox; though soprano Simone Kermes rather overdid her acting histrionics. A few days later, Handel’s opera Arianna in Creta, in concert at the Barbican, disappointed largely because in all truth the music is second rate Handel and its far too long. I was taken to a home concert in Kensington to hear South Africa’s entry to the Cardiff Singer of the World competition, baritone Dawid Kimberg, give a run through of his repertoire. He sang far too loudly for a drawing room, so that there was no light and shade and no subtlety and his choice of programme was a bit idiosyncratic – eclectic, but not the best of any of the composers chosen. Delius’ Mass of Life isn’t really a mass at all, but an oratorio based on Neitshe’s Also Sprach Zarathustra. I love Delius but I’d never heard this and it proved to be a complex and demanding piece, particularly for baritone Alan Opie who rose to the occasion magnificently. The Bach Choir and the Philharmonia were also lucky to have Susan Bullock, Susan Bickley and Nigel Robson as well as Alan Opie and it was a great performance. It has to be stopped at one point because an alarm had gone off in some lady’s bag; she bizarrely tried to sit it out until she realised the show would not go on. I’ve never seen so many dirty looks and I was amazed she had the nerve to stay.


Nick Lowe defines growing old gracefully and on his current tour he’s happy, charming and on great form. The selection was skewed to the 90’s but executed with perfection. I’ve never really taken to support Ron Sexsmith, but on this occasion I began to get the point – maybe he’s matured, or maybe I haven’t given him a fair crack of the whip until now. Anthony Hegarty is a bit of a one-off – when you hear him sing his hypnotic songs with his extraordinary voice you find it hard to believe it’s coming out of this tall, stocky, transgender, British-Canadian. I’d seen two earlier shows – one a collaboration with an artist and one with the LSO, but this was my first ‘bog standard’ Anthony & The Johnsons concert. Apart from a long ramble about climate change which continued into the song Hope Mountain thereby spoiling it, he sat at the piano in a half-light hardly engaging with the audience – but the sound that emanated from his mouth with piano / acoustic guitar / string accompaniment was heavenly. Malian singer / guitarist Rokia Traore has been a favourite since an impulsive visit to see her in Cambridge on a free evening during a short work assignment a few years ago. I think she’s moving too much away from traditional instrumentation, but when she’s rolling she’s simply terrific. She has one of the best rhythm sections I’ve ever heard and the whole Barbican audience was on its feet dancing – it was just impossible to sit still.


I love the V&A’s comprehensive reviews of periods / styles which have in the past included Art Deco, Arts & Crafts, Art Nouveau, Modernism and Gothic. Baroque is just as comprehensive and if it’s less enjoyable that’s more to do with this OTT style than the exhibition. It really made the point that the style permeated everything and travelled far. I enjoyed the National Gallery’s Picasso:Challenging the Past much more than I thought I would. It’s a clever curatorial idea – how he paid homage to artists before him – that captures your imagination. At the NPG there is a stunning ‘installation’ of c.300 paintings of St. Fabiola by Francis Alys, based on an original now lost, discovered in places like flea markets and crammed onto 8 walls in 2 rooms. All but c.5 of them face left and all but c.15 are the same colour and it takes your breath away was soon as you enter the first room. I love Diane Arbus’ quirky 60’s portraits of real people but the exhibition at the Timothy Taylor Galleries was disappointing because of the overlap with her big V&A exhibition a few years back.


The British comedy Is Anyone There? featuring Michael Caine disappointed me – it was charming but it all seemed so contrived with a stunning British cast somewhat wasted. For some reason, I could hardy stay awake in Star Trek but what I did see seemed rather good, so I left the cinema deeply frustrated. I can’t say I understood Synecdoche New York but I was captivated by the surreal weirdness of it all. It made Kauffman’s earlier films – Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind – seem positively straightforward.


I was lucky to be invites to the London International Wine Fair, the major trade event. It was a bit of a maze and as a LIWF virgin I’m not sure I got the best out of it, but it was an excellent experience all the same.

I’ve wanted to see La Clique in Edinburgh but it’s normally at 1am and I’m not convinced anything can keep me awake at that hour in a darkened room. It’s been so well received in London that I was surprised to find myself underwhelmed. I was expecting edgy but got mainly mainstream and rather tame. Maybe it’s running out of stream after a long run.

The month ended at Bale de Rua, a colourful high energy Brazilian street dance show and the last in the Barbican’s BITE season. It started a bit over-slick and conventional but soon took off; another show picked up from the Edinburgh fringe.

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This was a weekend organised by someone we met on the South American wine tour back in February 2008 – three days in Languedoc-Roussillon in South West France, staying at Vinécole near Limoux and accompanied by The Observer’s wine writer and master of wine Tim Atkin. The region’s co-operatives are in decline and new (often foreign) wine-makers have moved in to set up more modern wineries and introduce new practices aiming at higher quality wines and things are changing fast. Whites and roses predominate over reds and there’s a huge variety of grapes including grenache, syrah, cabernet franc, macabeo, mourvedre, chenin blanc, sauvignon blanc, pinot gris, pinot blanc, muscat and mauzac.

Vinécole (www.vinecole.com) is a new venture by master of wine and former Safeway wine buyer Matthew Stubbs and Emma Kershaw, who brings both a training and gastronomic background. It’s adjacent to the Domaine Gayda winery with a converted old house containing four gites sleeping up to 20 people and a brasserie, poolside BBQ and training room. We stayed 2 nights in the accommodation, which has been nicely renovated and decorated – comfortable with lots of character.

After a lovely lunch, we visited Château Rives-Blanques (www.rives-blanques.com) in nearby Cépie, which was taken over 10 years ago by a Dutch-Irish couple, Jan and Caryl Panman. At the end of a walk in their vineyard they surprised us with an open-air tasting of Blanquette de Limoux, a sparkling white wine whose history pre-dates champagne and is alleged to be the inspiration for it. They were a lovely couple, clearly living their passion, preserving traditions but improving wine quality at the same time.

Neighbouring Domaine Gayda (www.domainegayda.com) is a modern winery owned by South African and British businessmen along the lines of lots I visited in South America and northern Spain, but with an enthusiastic young French wine-maker called Vincente. We’d had a very good gastronomic dinner there on the first evening and we went back in the morning for a fascinating tasting of 5 single vineyard syrah’s direct from the same oak barrels so that the only differences were age, soil, altitude and (micro) climate. We took our two favourites, with some grenache and mourvedre from the barrel, and experimented with blending back at Vinécole. It would be too boastful to mention who was in the team that won with a blend we called Chateau Margot after our tour organiser!

Lunch was a fantastic seven courses each matched with different wines from which I learnt a lot about matching; with a lot of surprises including whites that went really well with cheeses (I’m a real red-with-cheese traditionalist!). It was a struggle to find the energy for a visit to our third winery – Domaine Begude (www.domainebegude.com) – back in Cépie in the afternoon, but I’m glad I did because the hilltop setting was simply stunning. Here James Kinglake, a former city trader, had ‘opted out’ and spent his bonuses on a winery where chardonnay predominates. His approach was much more business focused than Jan and Carol but he was interesting and enthusiastic and his wines were good.

Here we met a new driver, Alison from Tooting!, who owned the minibus company when she wasn’t being a DJ on the local community radio station or engaged in a variety of pursuits including African dancing and was highly entertaining company. The following day she and Matthew took us on a spectacular drive through deep gorges to Maury in Roussillon for our first French-owned winery, La Préceptorie (we weren’t given brochures, tasting notes or contact details, which is a revealing contrast in marketing with the invaders!). We had a lovely welcome by the owner and export manager and a tasting in the vineyard. The setting was again stunning, this time with mountains towering above the vineyards on all sides. The trip ended with lunch in and a wander around Maury.

This was a real treat – a region of France new to me, learning things about wine blending and food matching, and some great food and wine. If you’re interested, Margot is repeating the trip in June – www.sidewayswinetours.co.uk. The link below will take you to some photos.


You are invited to view Gareth’s photo album: Languedoc-Roussillon Wine Weekend – May 2009
Languedoc-Roussillon Wine Weekend – May 2009
May 11, 2009
by Gareth
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‘Why?’ I hear you ask. Before I went I would have said ‘Why Not?’ After the visit, I can report lots of good reasons for visiting this welcoming and interesting city with lovely buildings, canals and green spaces.


I landed on my feet accommodation-wise at one of the best examples of the ‘boutique’ hotel in a nice part of town with bars, restaurants and excellent public transport (www.mozaic.nl). The rooms are spotless, stylish and comfortable and the (entirely female) staff couldn’t be more helpful. Though the exchange rate makes you wants to make you say ‘how much?’ to everything, the restaurants were very good; the highlight being a family-run Italian where you get what the lady of the house thought as best when she went shopping that day (though there’s a limited choice). It was a superb 4 courses, as good as any meal I’ve had in Italy, for 38 Euros.


The Dutch are very direct but they’re also very welcoming and tolerant. When I sat in 1st Class on the train in error the guard said, in perfect English, ‘never mind, don’t move, you’ll know next time’. My pre-booked tour of the parliament was in Dutch but they gave be a transcript in English, a simultaneous translation of the video and often stopped to ask if I had any questions. There were some sort of carnival celebrations while I was there and on my last evening there was a little bottle of wine and a bowl of Pringles in my room with a note ‘just in case you missed the carnival, have a drink on the house’. How thoughtful is that?!


The Parliament visit was very interesting, but the tour of the Peace Palace (home of the arbitration and mediation courts, but not the war crimes tribunals) was spectacular with sensational stained glass, silk wall coverings, paintings, ceramics, carved & painted ceilings and marble floors from all over the world. Such a beautiful building.


Art was another highlight, with the modern art museum proving particularly good. I’m not sure I liked the way the permanent collection was curated, with film and video in each room showing 20th Century events alongside the art, but there were a couple of special exhibitions – one showcasing a German artist called Christian Schad I’ve little knowledge of and another featuring artistic couples (O’Keefe / Stieglitz, Khalo/ Riviera etc.). The collection of Dutch art at the Maurithuis had its moments – Vermeer’s ‘Girl With A Pearl Earring’ and Rubens’ ‘Old Woman & A Boy With Candles’ – but a lot of mediocrity. The artistic highlight though was the Escher Museum; the most comprehensive collection of his work anywhere, in a palace with kitsch modern chandeliers. Talking of kitsch, I mustn’t forget Madurodam which is a miniature replica of most of Holland including cities, ports, airports and forests!


I made the mistake of choosing Sunday for a side trip to Delft which meant that you couldn’t visit it’s greatest attractions – The Old and New Churches. Still, it was a pretty town of canals just like you expect in Holland!


The Hague is a perfect weekend city which I would thoroughly recommend.

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I’ve got to like avoiding the excesses of a British Christmas and this was the 8th escape in the last nine years; the third to Italy. After a very busy two months, the sleep, fresh air and walking were particularly welcome (not that the food and drink were exactly unwelcome!).

I’d only been to Florence once before, something over 30 years ago, and hadn’t really liked it. This has proved a bit puzzling over the years, as so many friends have returned raving about it, so a 2nd visit seemed to be in order. I still stick to my view of the city as a city (though it didn’t help that last time I arrived straight from Venice!), but this time I appreciated what it contained.

We started with the architecture and statuary of Piazza della Signora, most notably a wonderful Neptune, a scary Perseus and The Rape of the Sabine Women (three intertwined bodies carved from a single piece of marble). These were eventually surpassed by Michelangelo’s David at the Accademia and by the sheer number of statues in the Bargello, but they’re out there where statues are supposed to be.

The highlights in a feast of frescos were in the priory cells at San Marco (though rather too many crucifixions and Madonna’s for my taste), in the Capella Brancacci hidden away south of the Arno, and in the Cappella Gozzoli in the Palazzo Medici Riccardi. The Medici’s were an extraordinary dynasty, a huge influence on Florence, great benefactors of the arts and apparently selected as royalty by the citizens themselves. Of course, this was accompanied by larger-than-life egos which means their crest appears absolutely everywhere and they turn up as ‘guests’ in works of art – looking modest whilst making it clear it was their cash what made it!

A side trip to Sienna brought us snow; atmospheric rather than restrictive. The Duomo is simply stunning and the frescos in it’s Libreria Piccolomini and a 13th century carved marble pulpit took my breath away, but there was also much pleasure to be gained from wandering the small streets and gasping at the scale of the Piazza del Campo.

Christmas lunch was at a restaurant on a hill overlooking the city – peccorino souffle, tiny ravioli floating in a capon consommé, roasted capon and chocolate cake washed down with copious quantities of prosecco and chianti – followed by a visit to the nearby San Miniatto del Monte to cleanse the soul and a long and much needed walk back to the hotel to cleans the body.

Though I enjoyed Christmas in Palermo and Rome more, I was glad I returned to Florence and those frescos and statues are now embedded in the memory.

Here’s a link to a small selection of photos:

You are invited to view Gareth’s photo album: Florence Christmas 2008
Florence Christmas 2008
Dec 22, 2008
by Gareth
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I enjoyed the February South American wine tour so much that here I am doing the same in Spain in October! This one is accompanied by wine writer Andrew Williams who hails from Pontypridd, 3 miles over the mountain from my home village of Abertridwr, and takes in 12 wineries in 7 wine regions (DO’s) in northern Spain. The most distinctive grape of these regions is tempranillo but there’s also viura, graciano, verdejo and more. The DO’s dictate percentages of grape varieties and minimum times in barrels and bottles for the Crianza, Reserva and Gran Reserva classification, but some wineries are beginning to opt out of this in order to be free to make what they want .

Before we’d even arrived at our first hotel, we stopped off at Palacio de Bornos in the wine region of Rueda (www.palaciodebornos.com) to taste their whites, mostly made with the Verdejo grape unique to the region. These were a very pleasant surprise and those like me, bored with Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, might like to try them. Waitrose / Ocado have a verdejo/viura blend from this winery for £7. Here they were storing some wine in green jars in the open air, defying all wine-making rules.

Our first base was Zamora, the most westerly point on the trip, where we stayed at the Parador, a 15th Century nobleman’s home built around a central courtyard. Zamora is a small walled city on the River Duero with a large modern urban sprawl. The old town was very lived-in and un-touristy.

Our next visit was to the wine region of Toro, known for big reds made with tempranillo grapes. At Farina (www.bodegasfarina.com), after a tour of the winery, we tasted an ambitious 9 wines; a broader range than expected which included a white, a rose and a couple of dessert wines. The consensus was ‘mediocre’ but I rather liked them. I’m clearly less discerning and more easily pleased!

From here we headed to Dehesa la Granja (www.dehesalagranja.com) for a tasting over a very long, very tasty but very filling lunch. This is within the new DO of Zamora and is the 4th winery of someone who built an empire on the strength of one rave review from US writer Robert Parker. He’s renovated a deserted winery with an extraordinary underground ‘city’. His wines were good, but dreadfully over-priced – but who can blame him if American ‘sheep’ are prepared to pay 58 euros a bottle for what Parker described as ‘Spain’s Petrus’.

We moved on to the Ribera del Duero DO for a visit to Legaris (www.legaris.com), one of the new generation of investor-backed ventures which to my mind are a bit like wine factories – good wines, but without any distinctiveness or personality; a little like Lapostelle which I visited in Chile. It was a striking piece of modern architecture, though there didn’t seem to be anyone working there (apart from the lady who showed us around)! The tapas lunch was good though.

We managed a sight-seeing stop in Burgos en route to Rioja which was a treat. Burgos has a spectacular and enormous cathedral, within a lovely old town, which has been beautifully renovated and it was good to fit in some sightseeing between the food and wine.

Our second base was Haro on the northern edge of the Rioja region and our most northerly point on the trip. As a lover of Rioja, I began salivating as we approached! Out hotel was a 14th century monastery with a 21st century design makeover that worked wonderfully. Our first visit was virtually next-door at Muga (www.bodegasmuga.com) an old family firm with an excellent selection of wines. These got most people’s votes as the best of the trip. this was the only winery making (some of) their own barrels.

One of my personal favourite visits followed, at a gorgeous hillside estate called Remelluri (www.remelluri.com). This was the antidote to Legaris; lots of tradition, little hype and an over-excited winemaker who spoke so fast the translator could hardly keep up – and a wonderful lunch washed down with some great Reservas!

We were invited to dinner at Marques de Caseres (www.marquesdecaceres.com), a large producer with a big presence in the UK. Their Marketing Director turned out to be a lady from Glasgow and she laid on a great dinner with 8 surprising, cleverly selected accompanying wines. We even had a cheese tasting with a semi-sweet to accompany a blue cheese that knocked your socks off (the cheese, not the wine).

Before we left Rioja we visited Baron de Ley (www.barondeley.com) whose winery was built alongside a ruin of a monastery, which they used their first 10 years profits to renovate beautifully but hardly use. They were harvesting so we were able to see the full range of activities including grape selection and de-stalking. They’re aiming at the quality mass market (Mr Parker’s fan club) and as a result some of their wines didn’t seem like Rioja at all. A bit of a disappointment.

We now crossed into our 5th wine region, Navarra, and straight to another highlight at Senorio de Arizano (www.bodegaschivite.com) where architect Rafael Moneo has built a striking new winery wrapped around an old church, tower and house alongside a river surrounded buy 350 hectares of vines. They produced a great lunch with 4 accompanying wines in a lovely dining room with great views of the winery and vineyard.

Our third base was Tudela, our most easterly point and very much a working town whose run-down old quarter is slowly being renovated. The main square was colonnaded on two sides with balconies with crests suggesting it once housed bullfights. From here we visited two wineries. The first was Ochao (www.bodegasochoa.com), a family affair where the winemaking has passed from generation to generation and is currently in the hands of the charming 20-something daughter. This is the first winemaker we visited where the UK was their No.1 market, which just goes to show that we’ve got good taste and an eye for value.

The next visit was by far the most eccentric. Guelbenzu (www.guelbenzu.es) began making wines in 1851 but lapsed and re-stared some 25-30 years ago. The winery we visited was a run-down pink house in the heart of the village; you expected to bump into a Young Mr Grace anytime. They’d opted out of the DO so that they could break all the rules. Most of their wines were blends and I wasn’t too keen; when we got to the 8th it was all a bit of a blur anyway. The rest of the group raved – out-of-synch with the more discerning again! We followed this with a tapas lunch with even more wine; a siesta was the only option after that.

Our final visit was to the up-and-coming region of Calatayud where they mostly use the garnacha grape variety. We were told that the winery at Bodegas del Jalon (www.castillodemaluenda.com) was ugly so they brought 6 wines to a local restaurant for a tasting – followed by lunch, of course! These were amongst the best we’d had and it was a fitting end to the tour. Well not really the end, as we headed to Siguenza to spend our last night at the 12th century castle at the top of this lovely town that is now a parador. I visited here 2.5 years ago, but we didn’t stay, so though it was the only part of the trip where I was re-tracing my steps, it was a treat.

The wines on this trip illustrated how much Spanish wine has moved up the quality scale and how distinctive they can be. My worry is that as they try to satisfy the international market by increasing the use of international grape varieties like cabernet sauvignon and merlot, they will lose this distinctiveness. Let’s hope not – until then, lets enjoy them!

After tasting 76 wines there was just enough time for 4 hours in Madrid to catch some art; in this case the Reina Sofia Museum. The contemporary art collection may be the worst in Europe, the 20th Century modern art is rather dominated by the Spanish (like Miro), but the Picasso’s, and Guernica in particular, made the visit worthwhile (well, and the lunch in their new restaurant washed down with a rueda verdejo to take me full circle!).

There’s a link to some photos below.

You are invited to view Gareth’s photo album: SpainishWineTour2008
Oct 13, 2008
by Gareth
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This is an article from The Observer on 13th July for which I was interviewed. You’ll have to scroll down to para 28 to find my few words of wisdom, but I’ve hightlighted them for you in case you haven’t got time !
An army of arts bloggers is posting internet reviews on subjects from grand opera to soap opera – instant, global and free. US newspapers have begun to ditch their reviewers as digital alternatives flourish. Could it happen here? On the blog, Jay Rayner asks for your thoughts. Join the conversation
Jay Rayner
Sunday July 13 2008
The Observer

It was a croquette of pig’s head that finally forced me to recognise the threat posed by the blogosphere. It was served at the Westerly, a restaurant in Reigate, Surrey, in April last year. I knew nothing of the place, or its chef, but I had a copy of the menu, and it was full of things I like to eat: Jerusalem artichokes and wild garlic, snails and pigeon and Amalfi lemons. It had the potential to be everything a newspaper restaurant critic dreams of – a genuine find outside London, serving terrific food at a reasonable price.

It was all that and more. I wasn’t the only one who thought so. My companion agreed. Simon Majumdar, a one-time publishing executive, is a food blogger. We had met on internet food discussion boards, which he had left behind in favour of his blog, Dos Hermanos, so named because he writes it with his brother, Robin. It is their account of eating out across the world. A restaurant critic needs a companion, and Simon had regularly been mine. We both adored the gazpacho and the rillette, the lamb with its butter-rich mashed potato and the sorbet made with Amalfi lemons. And of course we loved the pig’s head croquette with sauce gribiche, for we are both men with a taste for the cheaper cuts. At the end I asked for a copy of the menu, paid the bill and we went home.

Within two hours of getting back to my desk, Simon’s review was online. He did not explain why he had been there. He did describe it as his best meal of the year so far. My eye strayed to his mention of the pig’s head, with mounting panic: ‘a large disc of head meat fried perfectly in crumbs to a crisp coating which when punctured gave off a steamy aroma of pork’. Spot on. Simon might not have been paid for it, but he is a good writer. And a lot of people would read him. Granted, not as many as read The Observer. Even today, with the cult of the Dos Hermanos blog fully developed, it rarely gets more than 7,000 readers a week.

The problem was that his readers would be opinion formers: not just chefs, restaurateurs and food journalists but other hardcore restaurant goers. And when my review was printed almost three weeks later they would all assume I was the one who had taken my lead from Simon rather than the other way round; that the real finds were being made by the amateurs. The blogger had beaten me into print. I had no choice. I called Simon and asked him to take down his post until my version had appeared. Ever the gentleman, he agreed. From that point on I concluded I could no longer view the blogosphere as source material or even mere displacement activity. Now it was the competition.

It could be worse. At least those of us in Britain who make our living from our opinions are still gainfully employed. Across America it’s a different story. Paid newspaper critics from a number of disciplines are being laid off or redeployed, their judgment deemed superfluous to requirements in the age of the net. Book review pages are becoming increasingly skinny. Television sections are disappearing. In April, Sean Means, the film critic of the Salt Lake Tribune in Utah, used his blog to publish a roll call of his movie-reviewing colleagues who, since the spring of 2006, were no longer in the opinion business: ‘Steve Ramos, Cincinnati CityBeat, position eliminated … Jami Bernard, New York Daily News, contract not renewed … Michael Atkinson, Village Voice, laid off …’ At that point it ran to 28 names across the US media but since then it has stretched inexorably on.

Others soon started taking notice, with both the entertainment industry journal Variety and the Los Angeles Times publishing large pieces on the death of the critic. As Patrick Goldstein put it in the LA Times: ‘Critics are being downsized all over the place, whether it’s in classical music, dance, theatre or other areas of the arts. While economics are clearly at work here – seeing their business model crumble, many newspapers simply have decided they can’t afford a full range of critics any more – it seems clear we’re in an age with a very different approach to the role of criticism.’

It appears that consumers no longer feel the need to obtain their opinions from on high: the authority of the critic, derived from their paid position on a newspaper, is diminished. Opinion has been democratised. In the movie world two sites are credited with decimating the profession. Ironically, Rotten Tomatoes, founded in August 1998, was designed to give readers access to the opinions of a bunch of critics. If 60 per cent or more of the reviews are good, the film gets a fresh rating; fewer than 60 per cent and it’s rotten. The site became so popular that in 2004 it was bought by IGN Entertainment which, in turn, was bought by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp (which, as a newspaper publisher, also pays critics). Metacritic, launched in January 2001, also combines reviews but across various media and arts, including films, video games and books. It too became so successful it was bought out, by CNET networks. Since then, blogs, written by unpaid enthusiasts, have proliferated to
 such a degree that in some areas of the arts their writers are being courted by the PR machine.

The old media have, predictably, been outraged. After all, their jobs are on the line. ‘People who make these decisions,’ says Sean Means of the host of sackings, ‘get it into their heads that people who want to read about new movies have lots of places to do so, from fan sites, through blogs to critical aggregators, but they are being short-sighted. The reason people buy newspapers is to hear that particular voice.’ So is he saying that the opinions expressed for free on blogs are not of value? Not necessarily, he says. ‘The truth is, though, that there are very few amateurs who are better than professionals. If you really are good at it you figure out some way to get paid for it. At the risk of sounding elitist, everyone has an opinion, but not everyone has an informed opinion.’

The advent of the net has been described as a revolution. If so, one of its most heated battles is being fought over the right to claim expertise. In the US the ancien régime, in this case the salaried critic, appears to be in retreat. The question is what will happen here? We need only look at television criticism, a once-noble calling pursued for this newspaper by both Julian Barnes and Clive James, for clues. In May the Daily Telegraph decided it no longer needed a daily TV review. Regular TV reviews have also gone at the Daily Mail, Mail on Sunday and London’s Evening Standard. Could the same happen to other arts?

The British critical tradition is long and rich and deep: from the pamphleteering of Joseph Addison and Richard Steele in the early 18th century, through the literary criticism of Oscar Wilde in the 19th to Graham Greene’s film reviews and Kenneth Tynan’s first-night theatre notices in the 20th, we have never been short of confident people to tell us what is good and what is not and why.

‘We have a wonderful tradition of criticism in this country,’ says Brian Sewell, art critic of the Evening Standard for nearly 25 years, ‘and it would be a tragedy if we lost it. The onlooker sees most. We are the skilled onlookers.’

But in a globalised world where something posted on the net in Chicago one minute is read in London the next, no trend is ever localised. So how web-savvy are Britain’s crew of professional opinion-peddlers? Are they ready to take on the challenge from the ones who do it for free? There’s only one way to find out: ask them. So we assembled a collection of Britain’s longest-serving and most distinguished paid critics who, between them, have more than two centuries’ experience in telling us what they think, and sought their opinions. It’s what they’re for.

Andrew and Phil have lots of opinions too, and tonight I’m hoping to hear some of them. It is a warm evening in Waterloo and we are at the Young Vic for a preview performance of Berthold Brecht’s The Good Soul of Szechuan, starring Jane Horrocks, a gritty little number full of cement dust, exploitation of the workers, prostitution and discordant, irritatingly Brechtian songs.

Of course, paid newspaper critics do not review productions on previews, but Andrew and Phil – they insist on first names only, to maintain the web-enhanced ‘mystique’ – are not paid by anybody. They write a blog called the West End Whingers, which they set up in June 2006 after sitting through what they regarded as an appalling production of Sam Shepard’s Fool For Love, starring Juliette Lewis. Both middle-aged, long-time theatregoers, they were fed up with each other’s whingeing so, as they explain on the blog, they ‘decided to whinge at the world instead’.

Their reviews, written under one voice, are sharp and irreverent in a mannered, high camp sort of way. Their destruction of Michael Frayn’s Afterlife at the National Theatre, written for the most part as a play about the imagined receipt of the script, is laugh-out-loud funny – and a damn sight more enjoyable than the hand-wringing from some of the paid critics when they held forth over what was agreed to be a sub-standard work by the revered playwright. (‘[Frayn’s] deliberately repeated bits over and over again,’ they imagine National director Nicholas Hytner howling, ‘I knew I shouldn’t have given him a word count. It’s the oldest trick in the book.’)

As we wait for The Good Soul to start I ask them if they feel they have a responsibility to anybody. (As with the no-surnames rule they also insist on being interviewed as one person, while telling you that they have never been a couple.) ‘We’re only here for our own amusement,’ they say. ‘We have no obligation to sit through it on behalf of our readers.’ Walking out of plays is a speciality of the West End Whingers. If they don’t like it, they leave. After all, their tickets aren’t free. They have paid for almost every one, bar those for Swimming With Sharks starring Christian Slater. ‘We didn’t care for it and we said as much. We haven’t been invited back to the West End since.’

Their beautifully described midway departure from an early preview of the epoch-long Gone With The Wind was, according to a number of people in the theatre world, the first sign that all was not well with the musical. So do they think the mainstream critics have a role? ‘Oh yes. Someone has to stay until the curtain to see what happens at the end.’ Would they like to be paid for what they do? ‘I think if we were paid it would mean we would have to play the game, which would be boring.’

They also have no desire to work for a newspaper. ‘Endure the theatre without alcohol? Locate things in the wider discourse? No. we have no aspirations in that direction.’

There is quite a lot of alcohol tonight: before, during and after as the whingers and their entourage – me, other bloggers, a few friends of friends – settle in to enjoy themselves. Their review, when it is posted a couple of days later, seems to reflect a good night out. ‘Horrocks was great and there were many other performances to enjoy, too,’ they wrote. ‘In fact there were oodles of things to write down: great wigs, a lot of cigarette smoking, rain, wonderful props and signage…’ So no, not exactly a first-night crit of the sort Kenneth Tynan might admire. But – whisper it – it did quietly remind me more of the night I’d had than did the professional reviews I would later read.

Which is all well and good, says Charles Spencer, a theatre reviewer for the Daily Telegraph since 1991. But that doesn’t mean we should mistake what the West End Whingers do for criticism. (Which, for the record, they never claim it to be). ‘I don’t think they’re very helpful,’ Spencer says. ‘Mildly entertaining, I suppose, but that brand of camp humour doesn’t do it for me. They’re not really critics. The last thing of theirs I read was them whingeing about squeaky seats at the Old Vic.’ Then again, Spencer admits to being a bit of a web-refusenik. ‘I look at Wikipedia now and then but until a year ago I hadn’t looked at the web at all.’

Indeed it would be easy to portray many of our leading critics as a bunch of silver-backed elders of the tribe, caught on the hop by technological change. Of course, just because it’s easy doesn’t mean it’s the wrong thing to do. Gillian Reynolds, who has been writing superbly about radio since 1967, and for the Telegraph since 1975, admits she has little time for opinions on the web. ‘I just don’t want to hang around with company I don’t value. Life’s too short.’ Clement Crisp, who has been writing about dance for the Financial Times for more than 35 years, and for whom the word ‘venerable’ might have been invented, is succinct about it: ‘I don’t really understand the beastly internet.’

This is not to suggest that Crisp dismisses what bloggers are doing. ‘The people who are writing these reviews are absolutely splendid,’ he says, letting the last word sing for slightly longer than the other nine put together. ‘They are devoted ballet fans. But it has nothing to do with criticism.’ The point, he says, is that the true critic can draw on a well of experience. ‘I started going to the ballet as a child in 1943, and for the next 20 years I saw everything there was – the creation of the great new companies, the arrival of the Russian, the Danes …’ Only then did he begin to write.

Spencer agrees. ‘You’re supplying a service, one with real authority behind it. There is always going to be a need for expert opinion.’

Don’t even mention the need for the democratisation of opinion to Brian Sewell. ‘I do not believe in the democratisation of opinion. I believe in benign authority. And if we undermine the authority of critics then we shall descend into mayhem.’

Our own Philip French, film critic for The Observer for 30 years, is a little more accepting of the challenge from the bloggers. ‘People should have the right to express their opinions. The right to free speech has been extended, but you don’t have to be elitist to say that not all opinion is of equal value. There is good criticism and there is bad criticism. The risk is that bad criticism will drive good criticism out of business by sheer volume.’

Michael Billington, the Guardian’s theatre man for more than 35 years, allows that there is a new accommodation to be made. Then again, he works for the publishers of this newspaper which, historically, has embraced the online world with more enthusiasm than others. He has been forced to join the debate on the web. His first piece for Guardian Unlimited (now guardian.co.uk) was about The Sultan’s Elephant, a public art installation involving a huge mechanical pachyderm striding through London in 2006. ‘I wrote a piece attacking it and got hundreds of comments. They clobbered me. I wasn’t used to getting such a response.’ It was a wake-up call. ‘I was suddenly aware that there was an army of people with opinions as strong as mine. Journalists of my generation have to adapt. And we have to accept that the printed word no longer has aristocratic supremacy.’

Of course, some newspaper critics are living the digital life to the full. Both Mark Shenton, drama critic of the Sunday Express, and Ian Shuttleworth, of the Financial Times, either blog or weigh in on other blogs. Norman Lebrecht, arts columnist of the Evening Standard, has long written a blog for artsjournal.com and is an avid consumer of online opinion. ‘What I see out there is quite a mixture. A lot of it is amateurish in a good sense. But I do miss incisiveness, people delivering real information and knowledge.’ He also counsels his brethren to think twice before wading in to online discussions. ‘One has to be very careful of making any comment. Bloggers are as sensitive as any diva. Criticise them and they will attack you.’

Sometimes they will attack without any encouragement. Gareth James is a freelance management consultant who has been writing reviews at whatsonstage.com for six years. There is, he argues, a shift in power towards the consumer. ‘I simply started disagreeing with the critics,’ he says. ‘They are out of step with the audience and that’s because they do it all the time. Most people go to be entertained. We go to have a good night out.’ Critics, he thinks, go for something else. It’s why he believes they write enthusiastically about the works of Pinter or Chekhov which, for the most part, he can’t abide. ‘That sort of thing is put on for the Michael Billingtons of this world, not for Gareth James.’

It was a similar sense of disconnection that got Lynne Hatwell writing her book blog, Dove Grey Reader. A community nurse with a major reading habit, who lives in the Tamar Valley on the border of Devon and Cornwall, she increasingly felt the books pages of national newspapers had nothing to offer her. ‘I had this feeling there was a literary feast going on in London but that I was not a part of it. I also didn’t feel I was being well served by the bookshops, that I had become a puppet of their three-for-two tables. I wanted to know how you find other stuff.’ Now, according to her ‘what I’m reading’ panel, she is working her way through Trauma by Patrick McGrath, Trying to Please by John Julius Norwich and, er, my latest one. Hell, the woman’s far too influential for me to let that opportunity pass me by.

She declares that she is not a literary critic or reviewer. She writes about what books mean to her. ‘There’s nothing objective about what I’m doing. I used to worry about whether what I felt about a book was the same as anybody else.’ Not any more. ‘I feel a responsibility to myself, to be transparent and honest, but also to the readers because there are some who now compile their reading lists solely from my recommendations.’ Is she posing a challenge to the books pages of national newspapers? ‘Absolutely, and one that was long overdue. For too long it was a closed shop.’

But, she says, the project was personal. In the first year she spent more than £2,000 on books. But publishers set up Google alerts, which mop up any mentions of their titles online. Soon she was receiving emails offering to supply her with details of new publications. She now gets nearly all the catalogues and free review copies of books from most publishers (except, curiously, Virago, which ignores her – but probably won’t after reading this). ‘I’ve realised that I could be used as a marketing tool, and I have to resist that. A fundamental rule is that reading still has to be a pleasure.’ Also, she doesn’t do bad reviews. If it’s on her site it’s because she likes it. ‘It’s about my emotional responses.’

Other sources of critical opinion have risen up online, their creators say, because the old media wasn’t able to handle them. Steve Bennett created chortle.co.uk, an online stand-up comedy fanzine, because there was not enough coverage in the press. ‘Even the mags that dedicated space to comedy didn’t give it much space.’ Everybody did Ricky Gervais on tour. Everybody did Bill Bailey and Lee Evans. Nobody did the smaller names. ‘To do a print version of Chortle would be very expensive whereas an internet start-up is cheap.’

Naturally, comedy publicists take notice of chortle, but it’s in film where the real PR action is. Jam, a digital marketing agency, targets bloggers. For Daniel Noy, an executive with the company, utilising their power is a no-brainer. ‘Bloggers are important because of the way the internet started. It’s a community, which means there’s a community of film fans online.’ The challenge, he argues, is to know how to use them. ‘There’s a wariness about bloggers, a sense that you can’t control them. Personally I don’t think that you should control them. Reactions can be good or bad. It’s a risk you have to take, and that’s the power of real conversation.’

Jam has begun blogger-only screenings, starting with Juno. ‘It helped that Diablo Cody, Juno’s screenwriter, was a blogger.’ But the digital marketers have to be honest. Back in 1999, the Jurassic age in web terms, Warner Brothers wanted to hold a test screening for the Will Smith movie Wild Wild West to build buzz on the net, but was so unsure of the film that it told the invited audience of online critics that they were going to watch The Matrix. The audience was furious and helped create the negativity around it that never dissipated. ‘They posted comments slagging it off and it did very badly.’

So does Noy think newspaper critics are now redundant? Not yet. ‘You can’t deny the readership of newspaper and magazines.’ Chortle’s Bennett agrees. ‘A lot of newspaper critics have got the job because they both know what they are talking about and can write,’ he says. ‘Where as a lot of bloggers may only fill one side of that equation.’

I wondered if my sometime dining companion Simon Majumdar agreed. When his last employer went bust he decided to explore the world’s eating opportunities. He came up with an idea for a book, Eat My Globe, which is out next year. He is now a paid food writer. Does he think the democratisation of opinion is a good thing? ‘You can get as many opinions as there are arseholes. Everyone’s got one. There are some good writers out on the web. Then there are some who shouldn’t be allowed to write an address on the front of an envelope.’

So the professionals still have a role? ‘I like reading you all but I don’t think any of you necessarily know more about food than I do. I read you for entertainment. If you’re not entertaining, however informative you are, there’s no reason for you existing.’ In short, he says, we can claim authority only by being good.

Finally, I alight on the killer question. Simon, would you like my job? ‘If I had the opportunity to take your job away from you,’ he says, ‘yes, I would.’ That is a reassuring vote of confidence in old media. More reassuringly, there isn’t a vacancy. At least for now.

Additional research by Maria Garbutt-Lucero and Katie Toms

Copyright Guardian News and Media Limited

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I’ve been lucky enough to have a friend trace my ancestry back to the middle of the nineteenth century (I have neither the patience or the organisational skills required) – thank you, Janice! This picked up a few surprises as I never realised that my maternal grandfather (who died before I was born) came from Mid Wales and that branch of the family were farmers, flannel weavers, railway labourers and slate miners from Mid Wales.

I didn’t want to find relatives, but I decided to take a look at the villages and towns where they were all born, married, lived or died so I spent four nights based near Newtown. I visited almost all the places of significance – Llanidloes, Trefeglwys, Newtown, Carno, Llanbrynmair, Darowen, Machynthleth, Pennant, Talyllyn, Abergonolwen, and Dolgellau – and found graveyards full of significant names like Humphreys (my mother’s maiden name), Rowlands, Bennet, and Tibbot. I took the nopportunity of meeting my friend Judith for a nice lunch at Penhellig on the coast, visiting Powis Castle (a magnificent national Trust property and gardens), and seeing a lot of this beautiful countryside.

My base was a magnificent Guest House called The Old Vicarage at Dolfor which had wonderful food and the weather was mostly lovely, so it really was a great experience. I’ve been jokingly calling in ‘getting in touch with my inner Welshness’ after watching a Rob Brydon programme where he coined the phrase. In truth, though, there was something moving about it all.

During my brief visit to Liverpool for Macca at Anfield, I managed to fit in a lot of art. The Klimt exhibition at Tate Liverpool was terrific, mixing his pictures with art and design pieces from his contemporaries. At the Walker gallery, an interesting exhibition – The Age of Steam – linking together 19th century pictures of steam trains and stations from around the world, plus modern cityscapes (including Liverpool) from Ben Johnson. By train to Crosby to see Anthony Gormley’s cast iron men along the beach, which I’d first seen on the Belgian coast a few years back and I can’t say a second visit added much to the experience. The highlight of the day-of-art was another one of Richard Wilson’s inventive ‘sculptures’ – ‘Turning the Place Over’ – where he has cut a large sphere out of the side of a disused building and mounted it on a rotor. As you look up from the pavement outside Moorfields Station, it completes a 360 turn in just over a minute. 

Back in London it was a lean month for art. Psycho Buildings at the Hayward Gallery was a fascinating collection of installations on the theme of architecture. There’s a boating lake on the roof, a room full of doll’s houses lit like a minature vilage at nightime and an inflatable sphere you can go into or bounce on top of. After a few excuses-for-exhibitions, this is the Hayward back on form. The RA’s Summer Exhibition, with the exception of the room curated by Tracy Emin!, is better than usual and worth a visit. This year it seems very bright and summery and it made me smile.

The annual pilgrimage to Taste of London, where restaurants showcase small portions of their signature dishes surrounded by food and wine related stalls, was my third and it was again fun, if a little expensive. The gang is growing and this year we numbered five.

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Well, no time or opportunity for e.postcards in our final 10 days – too much  to see, too much to do, far too much fun……….so here’s a resume of the rest of the trip.
Our final day in NO was blighted by heavy rain, so the walking tour of the garden district was replaced by the mardi gras museum, the jazz museum and the voodoo museum – a trio which just about sums up the city and a fittingly learned end to the NO leg of the trip.
In the evening we boarded the American Queen steamboat – a modern version of the ones which have been plying the Mississippi for over 150 years – for a 3-night cruise. It was big (c. 400 passengers) with ersatz 19th century design throughout – state rooms (no cabins here!), parlours, grand dining rooms, and a saloon / ballroom(!). On the ten-point ‘twee’ scale it rated an 11 and we giggled from the minute we got on.


This was the academic portion of the trip – research for my forthcoming thesis on ‘the Americans at play’ – so we shalln’t say too much…..except that it was very relaxing after the manic pace of the first 12 days, the food was excellent, much of the entertainment was very good (particularly the blues band and the gospel
group which came aboard) and we met lots of people from Texas! Lance, the ‘dining captain’ (this is a different role to a maitre’d, a bus boy or a waiter and yet another person to tip!) took to calling us Miss Libby and Mr Garrett (he couldn’t really cope with the ‘h’) which made us feel as if we should have both dressed up even more, me smoking cigars and Miss Libby feinting occasionally in the southern way.
The Mississippi is very much a working river, so you see life rather than scenery. We stepped off twice, to visit a lovely 19th century plantation home at Oak Alley and to see both the old (very old) and new (also old) state capitol buildings at Baton Rouge – both architectural gems. But above all it was an opportunity to catch our breath before we embarked on the 1200  mile road journey back to Atlanta.
The first leg to Natchez was fairly dull – until we came to a restaurant near Natchez called ‘Fat Mamas Kitchen’ which was built in the shape of…….you guessed, a fat mama – you entered through a door in the frock and the top of the building was mamas head ! Natchez was where the cotton plantation owners built their spectacular 19th century homes in Greek revival, Victorian or other period styles. Their plantations were across the river in Louisiana, but here in the Mississippi capital they socially climbed (when they weren’t expiring in the oppressive heat). Our accommodation was a B & B in a lovely 1830’s house where the hostess had a southern belle air about her – very Tennessee Williams – but produced spectacular southern breakfasts that included sausages in sweet buttermilk gravy with scones (biscuits in American) and cheese grits. There was a feeling of ‘old south’ about Natchez and an undercurrent of racial division. We were there during the local elections and could sense that loyalties followed racial lines. We  visited four of the homes and took a side trip to Frogmore LA to visit a cotton plantation where you could see both the historical and the modern – this was fascinating.
Natchez was the part of the trip which didn’t fit the musical theme, but seemed worth the stop. From here we were back on the musical road along highway 61 – but now moving from jazz, cajun and zydeco to the blues. We stayed in Clarksdale, which many consider to be the home of the blues. Here highway 61
and highway 49 intersect at the point where Robert Johnson is alleged to have sold his soul to the devil in exchange for his talent as a guitarist. We stayed at the Shack-up Inn, a handful of converted sharecroppers shacks. In all my travels I have to say this is the most original place I have ever stayed in (look up
www.shackupinn.com) and the man that runs it is clearly bonkers – but delightfully bonkers. My shack was the Cadillac shack, complete with a Cadillac parked outside, an electric piano, hi fi system with c. 50 CD’s, piped 24-hours blues music, and walls covered in notes, tat and grot which would take days to fully absorb. Libby’s was the Crossroads shack – altogether more sober but with a proper piano and a friendly ghost (who unfortunately didn’t make an appearance). The whole compound was littered with old vehicles, signs and buildings which seemed to have turned up and just placed themselves there – it was a wonderfully eccentric place to stay and we loved it.
Clarksdale was the childhood home of Tennessee Williams, so it was of double interest (though these is little evidence of TW’s presence). The
Delta Blues Museum gave us a good immersion into our new musical theme. In the evening we went to Ground Zero – a club jointly owned by local boy Morgan Freeman –
which had been recommended by some Australians we met in Cajun country. The blues band that night (with the unfortunate name Howl n Madd) were very good.
We made a side trip to Helena, Arkansas – again recommended by the Aussies – to visit a new blues museum. We discovered that the US’s long-running blues radio programme was broadcast from there live at 12.15pm each day, so we were encouraged to stay as foreign guests. Just before noon they called the
host (who hadn’t turned up) to discover that it had been gazumped by a ball game that day, but when he discovered there were visitors from the UK he drove to the studio to greet us. The show is called ‘King Biscuit Time’ (named after the sponsor) and has been running since 1941. Sonny Payne has hosted it since 1951 and is a delightful man in his late 70’s. Despite the fact we know comparatively little about the blues, it was clearly a privilege to meet him and he gave us some great club recommendations for the next stop. His last UK visitor was Elvis Costello, a premiere league Gareth James hero, so we were in good company. The museum was excellent, and it had been a great impulsive side trip.
Our first stop in Memphis was Sun Studios where Elvis, Buddy Holly, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison and many more recorded – it is still a working studio so it hasn’t really been tarted up for the tourists. Our second stop was to see 5 ducks leave their daytime home in the fountain pool of the lobby of the Peabody Hotel to take the lift to their night-time home in the penthouse – and we hadn’t even had a drink ! It started as a joke but has now become a Memphis tradition and was a suitably quirky end to our
first day there. In the evening we took the first of Sonny’s recommendations and saw a sensational performance by Ruby Wilson and the B. B. King big band – blues and soul in an irresistible combination performed by a real pro.
If it’s Friday in Memphis, it must be Graceland. We were expecting to be underwhelmed, even to laugh at it, but it has to be said it’s a fascinating insight into the man’s life and feels like a pilgrimage, even if you’re not a big fan. The house is modest though the costumes, cars and planes are not. The 7 shops rather overdid the merchandising, but it was well worth a visit.
We followed it by a visit to the Stax studios – re-created rather than original this time, due to the label’s sad demise. So much good music came out of Stax, but we hadn’t really grasped it’s multi-racial importance,
providing Memphis with an ‘incubator’ for music from the streets. Suffice to say the big boys – Atlantic, then CBS – screwed them and they now don’t even own the back catalogue and the founders are penniless. You get a real sense of music as music not as business in Memphis – few people make much money but there’s bags of creativity and everyone is having fun. Our final evening picked up Sonny’s second recommendation – a blues singer called Barbara Blue, who sang great blues / soul music with just a pianist for accompaniment. She was a real ballsy Janis Joplin character who called herself a musical prostitute and did requests for $5 ($20 to stop!).
Our accommodation in Memphis was an apartment – great location just 1.5 blocks from Beale Street, but the air-conditioning didn’t work on the first night, so we had mixed views.
The contrast couldn’t have been greater between the journey to Memphis and the journey to Nashville and the city of Memphis and the city of Nashville. The road to Memphis is flat with few trees; the road to Nashville is hilly, wooded and lushly green. Memphis is very poor and run down, Nashville is amongst the most prosperous cities in the US. It comes through in the music too – in Nashville it’s business and showbiz rather than music.
Our first stop was the wonderfully atmospheric RCA studio B – again where Elvis and many others laid down many many songs (and where the other Elvis made his Almost Blue album) – and our second stop was the Country Music Museum; here our ignorance really showed. C&W is mega in the US, but many of the big names are completely unknown elsewhere. Imagine learning about someone whose last CD sold two million copies and you’ve never heard of them! The excellent new building was in the shape of a bass clef with all sorts of musical motifs incorporated so it was an architectural treat as well as a museum proper.
Things began to go a bit pear-shaped when our B&B was double-booked. We had 90 minutes to get an alternative, find it, check in, wash & change and get to the Grand Ole Opry! We impulsively decided to sell our souls to Gaylord Enterprises and check in at the Opryland Hotel. Well, a town rather than a hotel with thousands of rooms around four giant atriums / courtyards, the largest of which has a complete town surrounded by a lake on which you could take a boat trip. This was excess with a capital X – Las Vegas Nashville style. This will be part two of my forthcoming thesis.
The Grand Ole Opry was jolly good fun – 5 x 30-minute live radio shows recorded back-to-back, each with a different host, a different sponsor and c. 3 different acts. The sponsor announcements were a hoot – Martha White biscuits, Tootsies Orchid Lounge, Odoms’ Tennessee Pride flour and our favourite – Goo Goo candy. The acts were mixed, but there was some great bluegrass and ‘new’ country (as opposed to ‘showbiz’ country).
Our last day started magnificently with the Nash Trash tour. This is 2 comediennes dressed in pink driving you around the city in a pink bus. You don’t see much of Nashville, but you laugh until you ache. They sing funny songs and have very funny routines, they dish the dirt on anyone and everyone and shout out of the bus window at passers-by, re-inventing them as country stars. It’s often gross, always funny and is a truly unique experience (look up
www.nashtrash.com ). We followed this with a walking tour so that we really could see some of Nashville, with a couple of stops in clubs / bars for live country music and a beer. We ended the trip with a visit to the Bluebird Cafe, a very small club which is a favourite of many great musicians like Steve Earle, Loudon Wainwright III, Emmylou Harris etc.
Sunday was a new writers showcase so after a very good featured band we got 9 short 3-song sets. This is where the difference between country music and blues / jazz / soul etc. was driven home to us. The ‘business’ encouraged uniformity at the expense of originality – we had 9 people each trying to do
the same as each other and all those who had already been successful – this is business not music. Even though there are great modern country singers, the genre as a whole is no better than boy bands and pop idol. Give us the jazz, cajun, zydeco, blues, soul……
So that’s it – 22 days, 16 with live music. 2000 miles by car, bus, train and steamboat. Lots of great southern food (too much). Accommodation in B&B’s, motels, apartments, steamboats, sharecroppers shacks…and Opryland ! A wonderful trip of contrasts with music still ringing in our ears (and 15 cd’s to help us remember it all).

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