Writing Portfolio


Cocktail hour (part one)

I don’t go in for cocktails very often, and when I do I usually opt for a whisky-based one like a rusty nail, but my current preferences are gin-based.

We have recently come into ownership of a bottle of Cointreau, which in turn prompted us to wonder what cocktails we could make to use it up. This, by the way, has happened before in our flat, where we sometimes end up owning fairly random liqueurs which we then have to use up by figuring out what cocktails they go in. Shortly after moving into our flat we had to Google crème de cacao in order to find something to put it in, which we then served to guests at a house-party. It’s a hard life.

As for Cointreau, I found an answer by way of the works of one of my favourite writers, the late Patrick Leigh Fermor. By happy coincidence, Tom Sawford, the man whose website is a great online source of all things related to the great man who everyone (even those of us who never had the pleasure of meeting him) simply calls Paddy, was thinking recently of what fans could have to drink while reading Artemis Cooper’s biography. Paddy could drink most men under the table even after his ninetieth birthday and his natural curiosity about so many things extended to alcohol, so there would be much to choose from based on references to drinks in his books.

Tom’s choice presented itself when he travelled to Cluj in Transylvania to meet with Nick Hunt while the latter was quite literally following in Paddy’s footsteps by walking across Europe from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople (as Paddy, ever the philhellene, always called it). Obviously they had to toast Paddy’s memory, but where should Tom and Nick go for that drink? And, more crucially, what should they drink? They decided to consult Between the Woods and the Water to see what Paddy had done when he was in Cluj. Here’s what he had experienced in 1934:

“An hotel at the end of the main square, called the New York – a great meeting place in the winter season – drew my companions like a magnet. István said the barman had invented an amazing cocktail – only surpassed by the one called ‘Flying’ in the Vier Jahreszeiten bar in Munich – which would be criminal to miss. He stalked in, waved the all-clear from the top of some steps, and we settled in a strategic corner while the demon-barman went mad with his shaker.”

The cocktail that Paddy and his friends enjoyed in Cluj remains unknown as he did not actually mention what it was (and the New York Hotel, now the InterContinental, was closed when Tom and Nick visited so they couldn’t go inside to find out). However, Tom was able to contact the Vier Jahreszeiten, which still exists, and obtain the recipe for the flying – two parts gin, one part Cointreau and one part lemon juice (in fact, a white lady) topped with champagne – which he duly posted on his blog.

The happy result of this here in East Finchley over the past couple of weeks has been several very satisfied dinner-guests who were greeted with a flying cocktail on entry.

Further research has shown that one of what David A. Embury defined as the six basic cocktail recipes – the sidecar, to be precise – contains Cointreau too, this time mixed with Cognac or Armagnac. So we’re not short of ideas.


Bond ... James Bond

I have never made much of a secret of the fact that my favourite film series is, by some considerable distance, the James Bond films. Naturally, then, I was excited by the release of the new film, Skyfall, which I went to see in the cinema this week.

Pre-Skyfall preparation – reading the reviews in the papers aside – involved re-watching Daniel Craig’s first appearance as 007 in Casino Royale (inexplicably, the only Bond film I own on DVD – I still haven’t got round to replacing the VHS tapes), a repeat of You Only Live Twice (screenplay by Roald Dahl, I kid you not) and the generally excellent Top Gear special on Bond cars. Top Gear has in my opinion gone off the boil in recent years, becoming (as the Bond films did at some point) very much a parody of itself, but this particular special was definitely worth tuning in for. The very good interviews aside, the story of how an Aston Martin DB5 came to be used in Goldfinger was definitely worth retelling (in an attitude similar to that taken by British Leyland over The Italian Job, Aston Martin initially didn’t want anything to do with it, and the makers only insisted on an Aston because Bond had driven one – a DB Mark III – in the novel). Plus, there was a real treat in store in the form of converting a Lotus Excel for use as an actual submarine, in homage to The Spy Who Loved Me. Only the people at Top Gear could have come up with that.

And so to the movie itself. Well, almost. The film was billed as starting at 7pm, although this was of course the time that the half-hour of adverts and trailers was due to start, some of the former being obvious Bond tie-ins which included, rather annoyingly, quite a bit of the pre-credits sequence from the film I was about to see.

The film was certainly more dialogue-heavy and character-driven than previous Bond films, and I don’t see that as being a bad thing, especially with a cast like this. Ever since Casino Royale, there’s been a move towards redefining what a Bond film is (as well as being a direct sequel, Quantum of Solace was, to all intents and purposes, a revenge-flick – the Bond franchise had never done the former before, while as far as the latter is concerned the only previous one had been Licence to Kill), and as far as this fan is concerned that’s no bad thing. Skyfall breaks new ground for the Bond films in that it’s the first to explicitly emphasise 007’s back-story – and what’s wrong with revealing a bit more about the main character? In the books, Ian Fleming didn’t really get round to this until rather late in the day, with the story of Bond’s parents being killed when he was a boy not being told until You Only Live Twice, the last Bond novel to be published while Fleming was still alive.

In the book, this was told in the form of an obituary written by M, which duly features in Skyfall after Bond is presumed to have been killed in action in the pre-credits sequence. That he is in fact alive and living on a beach somewhere is also taken from You Only Live Twice (the novel, not the film).

Craig is, I think, an excellent Bond – tough and determined but, unlike most of the others, showing a vulnerable side and literally being seen to bleed (in flat contradiction of Q’s final piece of advice to Bond in The World Is Not Enough). He brings something to the role the others didn’t; he certainly looks like more of a killer than Roger Moore in his prime, and yet the vulnerability (an area previously explored only by the seriously under-rated George Lazenby) adds something to the character, making James Bond appear as something more than a wise-cracking government hit-man. Of the old Bonds, he’s closets to Timothy Dalton, who was himself perhaps too serious coming in after Roger Moore (Pierce Brosnan certainly sent things back the other way by restoring a lot of the gags). It helps, I think, that such a portrayal of Bond came at the same time as a welcome reboot of the franchise, which has helped those responsible for the films in that they no longer feel obliged to stick to a prescribed Bond formula. If you want to know why they had to reboot Bond, simply note that Die Another Day – the most self-parodying of the Bond films as well as one of the most extravagant in terms of special effects – was released in the same year as The Bourne Identity. Suddenly, overblown special effects didn’t look too clever, and as well as establishing a new timeline for Bond, Casino Royale was rather stripped-down compared to what had gone before.

Of the other characters, Judi Dench was on top form as M, and Javier Bardem brought in a performance as the villain that hasn’t been seen in many a year – I would not be surprised to find Raoul Silva spoken of in the same breath as Auric Goldfinger and Francisco Scaramanga in years to come. A renegade MI6 agent as the baddie has been done before, but not like this (and a cyber-terrorist to boot; very modern!). Throw in the likes of Ralph Fiennes and Albert Finney, and it’s obvious that Sam Mendes established a heavyweight cast for this, so much so that I’m struggling to think of a Bond film that was as well-acted as this one.

The relative lack of gadgets aside (these were dismissed by the new Q in a throwaway remark about MI6 not going in for exploding pens any more) was more than compensated for by the appearance of the legendary DB5, complete with the optional extras it had in Goldfinger. Even though we all knew what was coming thanks to the publicity, there was still an audible gasp in the cinema when Bond opened the lock-up to reveal the Aston.

Aside from a couple of times where Bond looks at his watch (yes, it’s an Omega, we get it) and an obvious close-up of his mobile phone, I don’t think that the product placement distracted from my enjoyment of the film. Having read the books, I’ve argued on many occasions that product placement with James Bond is not a recent phenomenon but something that goes back to Ian Fleming himself, who with his journalist’s eye for detail used brand-names as a means of making sure that Bond appeared sophisticated and worldly-wise – the Bond of the books wears certain brands or styles of clothes and smokes a particular (specially-made) brand of cigarette, for example, and when reciting the famous cocktail recipe in Casino Royale he really does specify Gordon’s rather than just gin. I guess the difference is that Fleming wasn’t getting paid to do it (although by all accounts he did receive the odd freebie after publication), whereas (for example) Heineken paid a lot of money to ensure that it’s their beer that Bond is seen to be drinking. Sticking with drinks, I note that Bollinger is now the official Bond champagne, although I seem to recall that in the books Bond liked Pol Roger. Or was it Taittinger?

All in all, I really liked it. After the relative disappointment of Quantum of Solace, Skyfall brings the Bond franchise, and Craig’s Bond for that matter, back to the superlative heights of Casino Royale. Daniel Craig is no longer standing in the shadows of any of his predecessors. He’s a great Bond but he’s not the best there’s ever been – yet. However, give him a couple more, and the original may no longer be the best.



When we first thought of going to Turin for a few days, the first thing I thought of was that classic 1969 heist film The Italian Job, starring Michael Caine and a trio of Mini-Coopers that are driven around said Italian city with their boots stuffed full of gold bars.

To Allison, meanwhile, Turin is synonymous with Salone del Gusto, the biannual foodie festival that she attended several years ago when she was travelling through Europe. Italy is the home of the Slow Food movement and with Salone due to be held in late October we were both looking forward to sampling some artisanal Italian food (which, by the way, was the second thing I thought of).

Our journey to Turin was via the Eurostar and an express from Paris – a pleasant and relaxing contrast to flying out to Italy with Ryanair. As was the case when we went to Paris earlier this year, we were staying not in a hotel but in someone’s flat, found via Airbnb. Our host even met us at the station – a nice touch, especially as we’d never have found the flat otherwise!

When we asked her if there were any local bars that she could recommend, I naturally assumed – this being Italy – that we would be having a couple of glasses of Peroni or Birra Moretti before calling it a night. When we reached the bar and found that its name included what I assumed to be the name ‘birrifico’ – well, I assumed that to be a cute-sounding hybrid of birra and magnifico. What it actually was was birrificio, which is Italian for ‘brewery’. Yes, we had been directed to a brewpub. As if that wasn’t disorientating enough, there was a band playing Irish folk-songs to a cosmopolitan crowd, many of whom were like us in town for Salone.

The beers on offer included a wheat beer, an American pale ale, a stout (which I didn’t opt for) and a bitter – all brewed on the premises. Not what I had expected of Italy – and it was really, really good. Frankly, had it not been for the fact that I had been on the go since 5:30am, I could’ve happily stayed for a few more. By the way, should beer-loving readers of this blog find themselves in Turin, the bar is called Birrificio la Piazza and is located on Via Durandi.

I did not dwell on this too much the following morning as our pre-Salone Turin sight-seeing took in the Duomo where, like many a pilgrim, we didn’t actually get to see the Shroud (our guidebook made it clear that the one on display is a replica, and even that is covered by a special altar-cloth), and the Lingotto. The old FIAT factory is still standing despite the fact that not a car has rolled out of the place since the 1980s – it’s now a large shopping centre among other things. That said, the legendary rooftop test-track, used for part of the chase sequence in The Italian Job, is still there, accessible via the Pinacoteca art gallery, which houses a small collection of Canalettos, Matisses and a Picasso that were owned by the FIAT-founding Agnelli family. I am sure that we were not the first people who took in some high culture purely as a means of being able to walk out onto the test-track.

FIAT, by the way, stands for Fabbrica Italiana di Automobili di Torino – not, as is sometimes assumed, ‘Fix It Again, Tony’.

And so to Salone. We tried some great food, including samples of artisanal cheeses from all over Italy, cooked meats and a delicious Mac ‘d Bra. Should you ever get the chance to have one of these, I would recommend that you do. It’s a bread roll containing Bra cheese, lettuce and a special veal salsice, all of which are produced in and around the Piedmontese town of Bra, some thirty-odd miles south of Turin and the home of the Slow Food movement. In the wine section, we sampled fine Italian wines including a ’99 Brunello di Montalcino, which sells for over £60 a bottle.

As we were making our way towards the exit, we chanced across a beer stand and opted to see what they had to offer. What we found shouldn’t have come as a surprise following the brewpub experience the night before, but surprised we were. The very helpful man explained that as well as importing more quality beers than ever before from countries like Britain and Belgium (Chimay had a stand nearby) than ever before, Italy is now home to many an artisanal birrificio.

Beer, it seems, is the new ‘in’ drink among discerning Italians – and when it comes to food and drink, is there any other kind of Italian? The really surprising thing here, though, is not that they like the decent Belgian and British brands (I’d say that would be a given for any beer-loving country) but that some of them have established their own craft breweries. Plenty of this was on offer at Salone – we tried a craft Belgian-style beer called Birra Roma, the more English-style Re Ale and a few samples from the Birrificio L’Olmaia. I consider myself to be something of a beer aficionado and I was seriously impressed by the range and the quality.

Our friend on the stall wasn’t convinced that the Italian beer boom would last, but what was clear is that this is no flash in the pan. Good quality Italian beers are here to stay.

An interesting parallel can perhaps be drawn with the rise of the English wine industry; a nation famous for producing one kind of alcoholic beverage is now trying its hand at another.

A short while later, as we browsed around the nearby quality food-market that is Eataly, I noted that a wide range of quality imported beers were on offer in addition to the many decent Italian wines and the two-litre bottles that can be filled with table wine straight from the barrel (for four euros). As far as the Italian-brewed beers were concerned, though, what surprised me was that Birra Moretti now does its own grand-cru Belgian-style beer. So it’s not just newly-established breweries that are catering to a growing market.

The Italians have not only discovered good beer, they’ve figured out how to brew very good beer.