Tuesday, 25 February 2014

Booze Tourism Tuscany Part 2: Don't Worry, Be Grappa

Feed us!!

Do excuse my lateness this week. I had stag dos to attend at the weekend and I've barely recovered. I'm back now though, and I'm delighted to bring you part two of the Tuscan adventure. Enjoy.

Siena and Chianti

On our second full day we had planned to brave the roads once more and head to Siena. We’d thought of getting the train, but Simone our host, had said the road route was beautiful and there would be farmers by the side of the road selling wine; we could just stop, try it, and buy it if we liked it.

So off we went, the satnav was programmed and we headed down into the valley. If you’ve got a satnav, you’ll know they’re very good. You don’t need a map and if you take a wrong turn it just recalculates and figures out a new route for you. Occasionally though, that’s not what you want.

Fairly early on we missed a left turn and watched as the satnav recalculated and displayed another left turn up ahead. We figured that would be fine, but started to wonder 20 minutes later why we were driving through industrial estates and alongside motorways, before joining a motorway for a sizeable portion of the journey. It was clear by this point that we had missed the beautiful scenery and were probably driving around a mountain instead of over it. And we didn’t see a single farmer selling wine the whole way. We determined to be more careful about the route on the way back.

Yeah, Siena’s very beautiful and everything, but when you’ve seen one medieval Italian city, you’ve got a pretty good idea of what the next one’s going to be like. We walked around and even went into the Duomo and some of its subsidiaries, but our hearts weren’t really in it. It was just nice to be there. Chapels, domes, cathedrals, sculptures, frescoes… how interesting are they really? I mean, really?

Oh, excuse me, were you trying to get… aw.

On queuing to buy a ticket for the various attractions I noticed a middle-aged lady trying to sneak ahead of me, on my left. She was pushing right up to the lady in front who, while annoyed, wasn’t doing anything to help me stave off this intruder. Obviously I couldn’t really muscle her out of the way, but I did see that maybe Mrs Cake could swoop in from the right and get to the kiosk first. It all depended on which way the couple in front chose to exit after making their purchases.

The tension was building and Mrs Cake got ready… as we had hoped, the couple went to the left, thus causing a slight delay to the middle aged lady’s advance and enabling Mrs Cake to step up. I nearly laughed out loud as we made our way past. You see, I could tell the lady knew that I couldn’t take any action myself, and was using that to her advantage. Ah, but she hadn’t figured that I have crafty techniques of my own and a willing and able accomplice.

We stayed in Siena until early afternoon and decided to head through the Chianti region, saving San Gimignano for another day. The route was a lot more appealing this time, but as the driver I wasn’t seeing anything I haven’t seen in the Peak District. The weather was a lot nicer, mind.

As we drove, listening to Radio Subasio on which we heard the Italian Pink, the Italian System of a Down and the British Robbie Williams, we kept an eye out for agriturismos. Mrs Cake had been told that these are B&Bs that also provide food. You just look out for a sign, follow it and (in theory), provided it’s lunch or dinner time, you can get a nice, rustic, home-cooked meal. They are supposed to be everywhere, but as we were driving through Gaiole in Chianti, Radda in Chianti and all the various other in Chiantis, we weren’t seeing any. It didn’t help any that we’d been told it needed to be a meal time and that had we found any, we would have felt uncomfortable rocking up and asking if we could join them…

Politico-litico-litico, physico-physico-physico, solido-solido-solido…” went the Italian rap song as we wound our way up and down, round and round various mountains, passing vines, and generally being passed on blind mountain bends by crazy locals. It was fun, but when you start to get hungry and you’re not sure when you’re going to get to eat, things can get a little strained.

…dementico tutto, dementico tutti…”, sang the Italian Pink for all she was worth, and we continued our quest, stopping along the way to stroll around villages, looking for places to have dinner, sample wine, peruse stocks of grappa and the like. It soon became apparent that, while wine is the golden child here (to grappa’s wayward cousin), it wasn’t going to be difficult finding grappa to buy. There was loads of it, and it was very reasonably priced. Over the week I saw so many varieties in special bottles I started to become grappa blind – how was I supposed to pick one (or two) over any others?

In contrast, Mrs Cake’s quest to buy wine directly from a farmer was going nowhere but finally, as the satnav guided us up a white gravel road on the side of a mountain – the kind of road that makes you skid if you get above 10mph and makes the car go PING and POP every couple of seconds as a boulder bounces off it – we saw a sign that said ‘direct sales’ and a car park.

Fuck it, let’s go in here.

Castello San Donato in Perano

It didn’t exactly look welcoming from the outside, looking as it did like a small factory in the middle of nowhere, but we walked in and were greeted by a guy who was delighted to let us sample a few wines. We made it clear from the outset that we weren’t there to buy cases or anything, and he didn’t mind that, but we knew we’d feel compelled to make some purchases. This is Castello San Donato in Perano

We were led into a back room that was decorated with bottles of wine (and grappa) and various certificates proclaiming that this particular vineyard had won prizes – quite a lot of prizes.

We were given a large wine glass each and some information about the wines they produced. Three samples of red wine followed, along with an aged dessert wine, and then three of four varieties of grappa. Our guide couldn’t comment on the quality of the grappa as it wasn’t really his thing. This was a recurring theme throughout the week – they produce a lot of grappa, but they’re more into their wine.

There were four varieties; a standard one, one with some merlot in it, an aged one and then one that I don’t recall anything about and that I didn’t get to try. They were all 15 euros (for 50cl) and I opted for the merlot variety.

Mrs Cake was a fan of the wine – it was nice enough, to be fair, but red wine is all much of a muchness  for me. She bought a couple of bottles, one of which was the last of a certain production run, and wasn’t ‘typical of the vineyard’s style’, though ‘the americans like it [slight sneer]’. We didn’t try that one, but at a bargain price of 4 euros, we figured we may as well stick it in the bag for drinks later. We drank that one back at the apartment, and it was perfectly fine.

I thought the dessert wine was excellent – far more interesting than ordinary wine - so we went for one of those too, as well as one of their more expensive red wines – though not the most expensive.

With our direct sales cherry well and truly popped, we headed back out onto the roads of the Chianti region for some more exploration and later, dinner in Rada in Chianti, overlooking a typical Tuscan vista, where the soundtrack led us to discussing the dangers of dancing in the dark – such as falling down some steps, or tripping over a sleeping dog. Later, back at the apartment, in the dark… Mrs Cake banged her thigh on the bed frame, as if to illustrate the discussion.

Oh, I also picked up a couple of grappa steam glasses, so that I can enjoy my grappa properly. The only problem with them is that they hold only one measure instead of my preferred two.

Once dark had well and truly settled, it was time to drive home – a slightly daunting prospect, but you know, I like a challenge. Martha the Satnav told us it would be a 45 minute journey (that was assuming, of course that we would be able to make it the whole way at those Italian speed limits), so I wasn’t looking forward to that. The first night’s drive back from dinner had been only 18 minutes, but it seemed like an hour and a half. There were sections where I swear the ‘time to destination’ didn’t move for 15 minutes at a time. Fer serious.

Nevertheless, I was more relaxed about this one, even though we soon found it required us to drive down a mountain in the dark. It was all hairpin bends and steep gradients, but I don’t think we met another vehicle coming the other way – during the maddest part at least. And now that it was too late we started seeing signs for vineyards and agriturismos. Where were they when we were looking for them?

Achievement unlocked: drive home in the dark.

Back to the Agriturismo Search

Having failed so miserably on the previous day, we decided that on Tuesday we would not fail in finding one of these agriturismo gubbinses. Mrs Cake had become determined that eating at one of these places was an absolute must, and having been informed by a colleague who had been in the region just a week previously that they were everywhere and easy to find, had come to regard failure as unacceptable and something that would reflect very badly upon us indeed.

 So before leaving the apartment this time we did a bit of planning. Simone had left us an A4 sheet with some details, and I looked them up to see which were nearby. It looked like there were a few we could aim for.

What followed was a nice drive but once again we were denied fulfilment. It started out ok; we programmed the satnav as far as we could and followed it to a sign that pointed to the particular agriturismo we were looking for. We celebrated that something had finally gone as planned, as we turned onto the track. We followed the white gravel path, past a house that didn’t have a sign outside it, to a gate that did. We followed further, alongside some fields where the grapes were bulging on the vines. We passed another house that didn’t look like it was what we were looking for.

Finally we came to a car park, though the track carried on to the right. I parked up and had a look… the track was starting to get very thin at that point.

I tried communicating in very poor Italian with an old fella who didn’t even have very poor English – beyond a shrug. Eventually he pointed down the track, so I got back in and drove round… into a farmyard… still no signs, this ain’t working.

So it was back up to the first house we’d come to where Mrs Cake tried her luck and found a lovely lady who didn’t speak any English but was very helpful and confirmed that what we were looking for was where we’d just been. She was very confused that we hadn’t found it. It’s amazing what you can communicate in two completely different languages.

We gave up, and headed back to the main road. We had passed a few signs for other agriturismos on our way, so we thought we’d just try those.

One led to a “private road”, which we followed for a bit… to some massive gates. And turned back.

A little further on we came to another and went driving through fields where men were working. None of them looked up as we came along, and we even met a guy coming the opposite way in a tractor at one point. It was a steep incline for us, and the track was only one vehicle wide. He stopped and waved us on, so I took that as a sign that they welcome visitors.

At the end of the track was a house, with a couple of cars parked at the back. I pulled in and Mrs Cake got out to investigate. In a building to the side she found a leaflet about wine tastings, but there was no one around.

After a couple of minutes a grey haired man could be seen approaching from a barn to the other side. Mrs Cake went over to say hello, and found that he was very welcoming and friendly. This was his vineyard. He told us that the grapes were all ready for harvesting, so everyone is very busy at the moment – that’s why we weren’t finding any agriturismos open for meals or vineyards open for tours.

Nevertheless, he invited us down to his barn where we would be able to buy some wine. Once again we made it clear early on that we couldn’t buy much as we didn’t have the capacity to take it back with us. He didn’t mind at all, and we had a nice chat and bought a couple of bottles, totalling about 20 euros… so not really the kind of bargain you’d be looking for, but presumably this wine would be a lot more expensive if you bought it from a retailer. One of the wines, the farmer said, he had bottled just a couple of days ago and hadn’t even got a label on yet (or, indeed any sealant over the cork). Since it was so recently bottled he said we would have to leave it for at least three months before opening. It was red wine again. He said he produced some white, but eh, it was not so good.

Achievement unlocked: buy wine directly from a farmer.

We headed back to the nearest town to find some lunch, but had to recalculate when the road in was blocked off for some kind of international cycling championship (it turns out it was the 2013 UCI Road World Championships). Instead we went back to Loro Ciuffena.

We crossed paths with the bike race again on the way back to the apartment when an official looking guy on a moped signalled that we should stop by the side of the road, and back up a little. I reversed into the mouth of a driveway by a sharp bend and waited.

Nothing happened for a while, then a couple of cars with bikes on the top went past. Then a few more mopeds. Then a guy on a moped stopped in front of us and signalled that we should continue waiting.

How long are we going to be stuck here for?

At this point an elderly couple wanted to come out of their driveway, but of course we couldn’t let them. We could only wait.

“I presume”, I said, “that when this guy rides off, we can go…”

A group of cyclists suddenly emerged from nowhere, bookended by support cars, and passed on up the road. The moped man rode off without providing any kind of signal as to whether we needed to stay or whether we could go.

“What do you think would happen if we went?” asked Mrs Cake, not more than a few moments before a larger group of cyclists appeared and whizzed past.

I laughed. “It would be absolute carnage,” I said, imagining famous world class cyclists bouncing off our bonnet and potentially tumbling down a mountainside. “We’d be on the news.”

After a few more stragglers a car passed that looked like it might be signalling the end of the race procession. We couldn’t be sure, so I looked at the old couple in their car, who must have seen this before. They signalled that I should go, so I gave them a thumbs up, and away we went.

Rounding the first bend we almost collided with three more cyclists who can’t have been part of the race, but were probably trying to take advantage of the race’s organisation. Luckily for them they had chance to get out of the way before I ploughed into them. And that was that. I wonder if we were on the telly…

Don’t Worry, Be Grappa

I continued my search through the city of Florence and the walled town of San Gimignano, with its famous towers. Gift shops are everywhere of course and, wine being such a famous export, booze shops are ten a penny. Mrs Cake had her handbag to seek out, and I had scores of grappa varieties to somehow select one more purchase from.

 It was frankly getting far too difficult. I had no idea which ones were supposed to be particularly good, but in the end I did make a choice. There had been a direct sales shop in one of the Chianti towns that had two varieties. I just decided it would be more appropriate to buy something through direct sale from the producer than some random brand from any of the scores of wine shops, so I went back for the more expensive of the two. It was still only 25 euros, and it was the more aged variety. When I got it back to the apartment I found that they only produce 2000 bottles a year, and each one is numbered. Mine is 394. I suppose I could have found one with a lower number if I’d looked, but it doesn’t matter because I’m going to drink it anyway (achievement unlocked: accidental numbered bottle purchase).

The man had asked if I wanted to try it, but it had taken me so long to decide on my purchase that I didn’t want to be put off. I also thought that trying it might diminish the moment of fulfilment, whenever I came to open it.

Bringing it all Back Home

Too many grappas, not enough CCs (of luggage space)

When our last day came around we still had about 6 beers, a bottle of wine, a quarter of a bottle of grappa, and some complimentary fizz (that turned out to be the Italian equivalent of Lambrini, and only 6% ABV) to drink. We had decided the last day would be spent lounging at the apartment, drinking and smoking cigars. I’m pleased to inform you that we made it – all except for one beer, and most of the fizz.

I had been concerned about bringing all our purchases back home, since we only had one bag between us, but needed to safely get 5 bottles in there – 2 wine, 1 dessert wine and 2 grappa. We planned carefully and Mrs Cake packed. I came in and expressed concerns about her methods, which annoyed her, then she packed in a way I was more comfortable with. Everything got home in one piece (achievement unlocked).


My last day was soured a little by the fact that I started to get worried about speeding tickets for some reason. You see, as my confidence in driving grew, my speed crept up a little (more in line with the locals), and though the satnav kept warning us of speed cameras, I never saw any. On top of that, the speed limit given by the satnav was often in direct opposition to the signs I was seeing from time to time. So gradually I just came to ignore the warnings and drive at a safe speed – which was fine, except that sometimes the speed limit signs seemed too high, and sometimes ridiculously low.

Anyway, on our penultimate day I finally saw a speed camera… and then I started seeing them everywhere, and I started thinking, there’s no way I haven’t been caught on one of those. And then I thought, if I’ve been caught once, I could have been caught 2, 3, 4 times… what happens then?

I had visions of being banned from driving because I’d amassed more points than you’re allowed, all in one week (I’ve never had any points on my licence before). I didn’t know how it works in foreign countries. Presumably notification goes to where the car is registered – the car hire company – where they have a record of your licence details, then presumably there is some liaison with the DVLA in Swansea…

I’ve just done some research actually, and it turns out that there is no standardised system for points, so you won’t get any on your UK licence, though any fines will be forwarded to your UK address. It’s been several months now, and nothing has come through, so once again all that worry was for nothing (achievement unlocked: no speeding fine).


One of my procurement targets for this holiday was Italian brandy. I’d done a bit of research before departure so, while grappa was very much the focal point, brandy was still on the radar. As things transpired, I pretty much forgot about brandy once we got started – knowing of course that luggage space was limited. Nor did I see much (any) in the various shops we visited (on the occasions when I remembered to stop looking at the grappa for a second).

I finally found two cheap brands in Pisa airport’s duty free (10 euros for a litre), and I couldn’t make up my mind there and then. I figured I could decide later, when we’d gotten through to the other departure lounge, but it turned out that I’d missed my last chance. Let’s be honest; I wasn’t that bothered.

The John Grisham Game

One final, but non-booze related thing I’d like to mention is the John Grisham Game. This is built around the fact that many apartments, villas, hotels or whatever have a stock of books that presumably previous occupants have left behind. They’re never very intellectual in all fairness – for some reason, people who go on holiday like to read shit. Anyway, if you find a John Grisham book there, you can guess the title with your partner. Nearly every John Grisham book is called The something. And the something is a word you would associate with legal things.

Mrs Cake was checking out the books and I instigated the game.
“Is it The Juror?”
“The Trial?”
“The Witness?”
“The Murder?”
“The Kidnapping?”
“No, but that was quite close.”
“The Abduction?”

…and back home

One day, it was all over. Another excellent holiday, another fascinating booze tourism adventure, some more booze for the cabinet. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading about it. I highly recommend you go and find out what it’s all about for yourself. I could actually see myself doing this holiday again sometime, and I don’t say that very often.

Don’t forget to keep checking back to the blog every week. I’ll have something else for you next week no doubt, and eventually there will be more about the various purchases we made on this trip.

Sunday, 16 February 2014

Booze Tourism Tuscany: Grappas Delight

Another holiday, another booze tourism adventure. That’s what happens when you don’t have any kids – making 3 in 2013 (holidays, not kids – maybe we’ll make 3 kids next year… but preferably one to begin with), with [at the time of writing] one still on the horizon - Christmas in Canada, with the chance to pick up some obscure bourbon and Canadian whiskies…I’ve even heard Canadians make pomace brandy, you know.

 Mrs Cake’s equivalent of my Distilgrimage

This time it was Tuscany, in the heart of Italy, and you know what that means, don’t you? Grappa, Italian beer and to a lesser extent (for me at least) wine. Yes, they make a lot of wine in Tuscany (you might have heard of the Chianti region which is right in the middle of it there), so the general idea behind the holiday was much relaxation, much tootling around in a rental car (which may not necessarily go hand in hand with the relaxation thing) and much consumption of sumptuous foods and rich alcohols.

I would be doing the driving, so in theory that would make this Mrs Cake’s equivalent of my Distilgrimage. That was so awesome that I was delighted to be able to return the favour that Mrs Cake did by driving me round most of the distilleries of Islay while I drank enough samples for both of us – and not just because my pre-trip research didn’t turn up any grappa distilleries in the region. I’ll just chauffeur the missus around then so that she can consume as much wine as possible. But would there be any grappa to be had? That was my concern (outside of generally having a great time and relaxing with Mrs Cake). Well… we’ll see.

It’s going to be too late to get to the duck fest…

No duty free purchases to take with me this time; I knew interesting alcohol would likely be available in abundance, so I set my sights on an early supermarket purchase of some grappa that I could dip into throughout the week, and hopefully finish before returning home – ideally leaving space for two special grappas to come home with me.

We collected the hire car from Pisa airport – a tiny and clunky Nissan Micra with far more scratches on it than were marked on the damage sheet (we’d been warned of the notoriety of Pisa Airport’s car hire merchants, so we had the guy mark on all the extra scratches), and a fuel tank that was two notches below full… though I didn’t notice that until we had to fill up the first time; oh, so those bars do go all the way to the top… ROBBING BASTARDS!

We plugged in the satnav, and away we went, straight down the highway towards Florence, before turning off towards Arezzo and arriving at our apartment, halfway up a mountain an hour and a half later.

Though our host couldn’t be with us for another couple of hours, we elected to hang out by the pool, eating the Aldi crisps we’d brought from home.

A couple of hours and a brief orientation later, we were on our way back down the winding mountain road, looking to head to the Coop supermarket in the nearby town of San Giovani Valdarno. The plan was to collect a few essentials before heading to the slightly further town of Arezzo for what was being billed as a Duckfest - so lots of duck to eat. We were starving by this point and prone to irrational bursts of panic or stress as our stomachs digested themselves, so the possibility of a duck fest went right up my flagpole.

San Giovani Valdarno is only a small town so surely, we thought, it couldn’t be difficult to locate a medium sized supermarket. WRONG. We drove up and down, round and round, trying to get used to the traffic system and the fact that you’re not expected to stop for pedestrians at crossings in Italy, all the while watching the light fade and thinking, ‘it’s going to be too late to get to that duck fest… it might be too late to pick up groceries at this rate…’

We made it in the end, finding what turned out to be a medium sized supermarket that would have been a food blogger’s delight… fantastic deli counter, but you don’t want to hear about that.

No, what about the booze? Well, Mrs Cake went in search of the cheapest wine she could find while I went to check out the beers. Most of the beer was gone but I got a couple of reasonably priced three packs – Moretti and Poretti…

When I found Mrs Cake again she’d found wines for a euro fifty and three euros. I’d struggled to find the spirits aisle, but much to my relief (and after being briefly overwhelmed by the choice of bottled water) there it was, and while it was small, there was a plethora of different varieties of grappa.

The problem now was how to make my choice. I quickly engaged the logic circuits and decided to choose something that was 50cl, rather than 70 (to better facilitate finishing it during the holiday), and that was also at least 40% ABV (because it’s just better, and I can tell the difference).

...and in the glass... at night
Deta Ars Essentiae in the bottle...

It still wasn’t easy with all that affordable spirit (prices ranged from 7-35 euros), but in the end, this is what I went for; Deta Ars Essentiae Riserva di Chianti Classico. Clearly it has been aged (probably from around 18 months to 2 years) and it comes in a fancy bottle with a Grolsch style cap. No doubt these factors played a subconscious part in my decision.

 Sixty euros later, we returned to the car to programme the satnav, and found that the duck fest was around an hour and a half away. As that wasn’t what we’d been led to believe by our host we wondered whether the satnav was mistaken and decided to head back to the apartment, drop off our goodies and check the map we’d left there. The sun was sinking fast, and when we found out the satnav was correct, the experience of the roads we’d driven so far convinced us an hour and a half more without food might be a bit much for us to handle on our first day. It was a shame because food festivals were the kind of thing we would have liked this holiday to be all about. Nevertheless, our host had said there were these kind of festivals all the time, so we decided we’d see about trying another one later in the week.

We headed to the much nearer town of Loro Ciuffena to search for a restaurant. The one we found was fairly good, but there was to be no booze for me just yet – navigating dark mountainous roads (on the wrong side), in a left hand drive car, struggling to flick between the full beam and dipped headlights and having to be ready to shift down to second or even first at a moment’s notice was proving far too taxing to risk driving back with even a single beer in me. The only help was that the satnav gave me a basic idea of where the road was going, and if the severity of a turn or gradient wasn’t entirely accurately represented, it at least gave some advance warning. Making it back to the apartment would be cause for celebration… and something to look forward to.

Achievement unlocked: Clutch control.


We did make it - it would be hard for me to be typing this if we hadn’t – and I dipped straight into those beers that I’d popped in the fridge a couple of hours before. They were nice and cold because I’d thought to check the thermostat earlier, and knocked it down (or up) a notch (whichever makes it colder). It’s worth bearing this in mind for future holidays – properties will often adjust their fridges while unoccupied, presumably to economise on electricity bills, so get on it early and you too could have proper cold beers when you return from that first excursion.

 I was able to procure four types of bottled beer over the week, all of which were strong and most of which were terrific. I’m a fan of Italian beer, but sadly I can't remember any specific details for you, so you'll have to make do with pictures. Soz.

Days In

On the first day we briefly discussed what we would do on each day of the holiday, and it was quickly decided that there would be two days reserved for sitting around the pool and in the apartment’s designated garden. The first, we decided, would be Sunday, our first full day.

The weather, of course was beautiful, but what would be a sensible time to open that first beer? 12.30.

Stop. Grappa Time.

Later also, I was able to open the grappa and sample its delights for the first time. I struggled a little getting the cellophane off the cap, and  I think in the end Mrs Cake may have finished that particular job off for me, but all that just served to make the pomace spirit all the sweeter.

Information on this brand hasn’t been too easy to find, but I can confirm the Deta Ars Essentiae Grappa Riserva di Chianti Classico is from the Chianti region, which was just over the next mountain from where we stayed. Also, it is made from the Sangiovese variety of grape, from which the vast majority of Chianti wines are made – as we were to learn later.

At 11 euros it wasn’t the cheapest, but in comparison to the first bottle of grappa I ever bought – Domenis Storica (50% ABV, 32 euros), it was positively budget. Because of that, I kept my expectations low. Deta was merely conceived of as something to drink with gay abandon during the holiday, so it didn’t have to be amazing. It was the stuff I’d be selecting for taking home that was intended to be special.

Nevertheless, those late evenings relaxing after a long day’s driving and the two days I was able to dedicate a little more time to it convinced me that this was actually a grappa of quality. I’m clearly no expert as yet, but I have decided to move this straight into 2nd place (behind the unaged Storica) on the grappa hierarchy, and that is actually ahead of the aged Domenis Blanc e Neri, which you may remember me parting with 48 hard-earned pounds for. That had a slightly bitter finish, despite a complexity on the palate. There was no bitterness with the Deta, so it turns out to be quite a bargain.

Boozy Chess Update

If you’ll allow me to digress for just a moment, let’s just get into the game of chess that we had on our last full day at the apartment. We didn’t follow any specific drinking rules, but we were drinking. Mrs Cake was on the red wine and I was trying to polish off a number of strong beers and just over a quarter of a bottle of the grappa.

It was a good game that had two turning points. First, I lost concentration enough to plan ahead and then act on my future plan before the situation was in place. Mrs Cake threatened one of my important pieces, and instead of moving it I decided to back it up – which should be fine, except I backed up a move that hadn’t happened yet, allowing Mrs Cake to take the piece I was trying to protect.

That seriously affected my chances of winning, but I went on, hoping I could forge out a clever victory. What won it in the end though was when Mrs Cake inexplicably moved the one piece that was preventing me launching an attack on her king.

Unbelieving, I looked at it and said, “why would you do that?” suspecting I might be about to fall into a trap, as I so often do but no, Mrs Cake had just gifted the match to me. I moved my castle up next to her king and that was it. A lucky victory.

I’ll leave it there for part one. Join me next week for part 2, when we’ll be visiting Siena and the Chianti region and having all kinds of exciting adventures. See you then.

Sunday, 9 February 2014

A bit o' blue fo' t'dads: Stolichnaya 100 Proof

Exciting times: I finally got around to ordering that extra strong Stolichnaya vodka that I had been coveting for some time, like God’s neighbour’s very fine arse – 50% ABV, it is. It was delivered quickly… but sadly to a neighbour’s house. I read the card as no 3, and went there twice (thankfully no one was in) before realising the card said no 13. I didn’t even know there were 13 houses on our road. There are, and it’s the one occupied by the Australian guy who, when we met him, told us he was about to play cricket for the first time ever. That’s like meeting an adult Indian who’s never had a curry. What next; a Manc who doesn’t think he’s funny?

He’s been doing the house up for however many months it’s been since he and his partner moved in there, and that’s what he was doing the three times I went and knocked on – receiving no answer. As I found out the next day when I returned from an incredibly early round of golf to find the bottle had been delivered to Mrs Cake in my absence, he had been working in the loft and unable to get to the door in time. No matter, the prize was now in my possession, and ready to begin its obligatory anticipation-building period, or ABP* as I’m calling it until I can think of something better.

It isn’t absolutely necessary, but it is a universal truth that it is best to open a new bottle when you have company – not too much company, mind. You want to make sure there’s plenty left for you to enjoy on your own afterwards.
And so it was that I decided the 100 Proof Stoli was ripe for opening one Friday evening when my friend Phil came round. It had been a while, and there was booze to be shown off so out came the blue.

A-a-a-a-a-nd… it’s fricking delicious – way better than I ever even imagined it could be. I thought the Stoli red was good (it is), but this is just another level of greatness. The increased strength adds layer upon layer to that flavour – which still tastes like Stoli red but… more. It’s full bodied, oily, mouth coating… all those good things, and it just got better and better with every sip. This was at room temperature too – no need to freeze.

This is quite simply the best vodka I’ve ever known, and at around £25 a bottle, well worth it. No, don’t waste your time if you want to mix it with something but, if mixing is all you use vodka for, this could expand your consciousness and give you something you didn’t think was possible: vodka you want to drink straight (if Stoli red hadn’t already done that).

Phil agreed that it was tasty, and I was enjoying it so much that my next thought was, Paul needs to try this. I made sure to pour some in a sample jar and take it out to the next day’s pub crawl.
“You know what I think of vodka, don’t you?” Paul said as I handed it over.

He took a sip, and even he was impressed. I told him to keep the sample, and keep dipping into it.

In conclusion then, I have a new favourite vodka. It’s the same as the old favourite, but stronger and better. I’ve been pretty much tearing this bottle up on Friday nights before settling in with the mellower stuff.

I doubt I’m ever going to improve on it but… I have learned there is also a Stolichnaya Gold vodka at around the same price, that no doubt will be on my shopping list now – despite being only 40% ABV. After that I suppose I’ll have to try some different brands. I better find some good ones quick though, or I’m just going to order the 100 proof Stoli in bulk and let everyone else take care of the others.

*the practice of leaving a new bottle unopened for an unspecified period to further build the anticipation/excitement, making the actual opening (or, moment of fulfilment) a special occasion. You don’t need a special occasion to open special booze –opening the booze is special occasion enough.

Sunday, 2 February 2014

Concentration Camping

Camping. It’s a rite of passage apparently. Something that, in American society (or so certain kinds of movies would have you believe) fathers do with their sons to help them develop into men – because Americans still need to be able to survive in the wilderness, catching fish with their teeth, wrestling bears and the like.

It’s different here in the UK of course. I never went camping with my dad. I never went camping at all until I reached the grand old age of 24, and if I had gone with my dad I would have found the whole experience to be quite different from that portrayed in the American films I’d grown up with – we don’t have any bears for a start, and as for camping in the wilderness… it can be more like camping on a council estate (which is the British equivalent of a wild, untamed wilderness), since in most cases campsites seem to be simply fields where people go for a cheap holiday and to drink lots of lager, eat lots of barbequed food and sit about being lairy, all side by side. Am I saying it’s a microcosm of British society? Well, I wasn’t, but now I think about it, I suppose I could be.

Don’t get me wrong though; camping is fun, I just haven’t really figured out what’s fun about it yet. Is it the sounds of people snoring from across the field? No… is it waking up at three in the morning with a screaming bladder and having to weigh up the benefits of emptying it against the inconvenience of getting dressed lying down and then traipsing to the toilet block in the cold and or dark and or wet? No, it’s not that either. Is it the way you can never be sure of the weather, but how much fun you have depends on it? Is it the kids that wake you up with their screaming and squealing at 7 in the morning? Or the way it takes ages to do anything? How it’s difficult to get clean, stay clean, feel clean?

rocking it with the Stoli
No, it’s none of those things, but in spite of those things, it’s good. It’s just something that people do in order to get a change of scenery, and that in itself does them a world of good. There’s always something new to see (and laugh at)… and it’s a great excuse for drinking with your friends.

A couple of weekends past, Mrs Cake and I decided to go camping on Anglesey, North Wales. I was dispatched to Aldi to pick up some bottled beers for the missus, and while I did so I started thinking about which of my spirits would be going with us. The winner: Stolichnaya. There’s no point in taking your single malts when you’ll be drinking from plastic beakers. I also picked up some Holsten Pils for me.

Ok, rules. First, find the flattest pitch possible, as far away as possible from other campers, always have your first beer while erecting the tent, reward yourself with a 2nd beer as soon as the tent is up and carry an open can of beer around with you at all times. Those seem pretty universal.
an empty shoe makes a handy drinks holder

We stayed this time at a site near the town of Moelfre, overlooking an enormous beach. It was a peaceful site – in fact it would turn out to be too peaceful…

After a couple of beers and dinner, I rolled a joint and we took it and a couple of cups of vodka down to the beach for an early evening stroll, returning a little while later with a happy buzz and a propensity for hysterics.

As the light faded and we sat outside the tent that night, watching not very much in particular happen, chatting and drinking a little more, I wondered – what’s it all about? Not life no, but why were we there? We were just sitting in a field, not doing anything. And so was everyone else. We were having a nice time, but couldn’t we have been having a nice time at home?

We could be having a nice time at home, but while there would be more to entertain us, it wouldn’t be the same – we wouldn’t be having quite such a nice time. It’s the same reason you go on holiday.

As the evening wore on, we moved our chairs into the shelter of the tent and continued the fun.

“This is great, isn’t it?” I said. “It’s dead peaceful and relaxing, there’s no lairy people about, it’s just really nice.”

Right at that moment a man popped his head round and said, “just to let you know, it’s a very still night and your voices carry a long way – you can be heard up to a quarter of a mile away, so you know – just to let you know…”

So we were being reprimanded for being noisy. It seems that for once we were the lairy ones. We looked around us and realised everyone else on the entire campsite had gone to bed, and it was only 10.45! What the… it’s Friday night! Why’s everyone gone to bed?

Over the next hour or so Mrs Cake and I went through a series of emotions and thought processes:
-          Yeah, perhaps we were being a bit loud…
-          It is after 10.30 (though we didn’t realise it at the time), and the campsite rules did state ‘no noise after 10.30’…
-          We weren’t being that loud!
-          It’s not like we were shouting and swearing!
-          We might have been jokingly singing that Taylor Swift Trouble song… you know, with the screaming goats.
-          How dare they!
-          Oh christ, was everyone able to hear what we were saying?
-          You couldn’t have heard us a quarter of a mile away! The edge of the campsite isn’t that far!
-          Ah, it’s all right, he was kind of nice about it…
-          What a dick.
Yeah, a bit neurotic as someone whose had a few drinks and a joint might be… We kept ourselves a little quieter on the Saturday night, though an incredibly Manc couple came over to tell us we weren’t being that loud after all, which was nice. They had been reprimanded for having a fire in a barbeque, which someone else had earlier told them was ok. They compared the way the site was run to a concentration camp with its military discipline and iron fist. You could see the family home at the top end, and the Manc guy came over later to point out that the owner was standing in his conservatory, surveying the site with a pair of binoculars, like Ralph Fiennes in Schindler’s List.

It wasn’t the first time we’d heard the comparison – at the end of a walk to a nearby pub on the Saturday we’d met an older couple who had asked where we were staying and described the campsite as militaristic.

shower beer
Ah well, we still had a nice time and a good laugh, and that’s what it’s all about, eh? Yeah. And I was able to get a shower-beer in – because the showers were warm and impeccably clean, so military discipline is good for something.

A couple of weeks later we camped with our friends Paul and Victoria in a field, behind a pub in Derbyshire. This was a very different affair – more space, no noise restrictions… and a pub, of course.

We’d been booze shopping beforehand again, and this time we’d decided to try Asda just for a change, and because they tend to have better deals on spirits than Tesco. I had £30 burning a hole in my pocket and an intention to buy some gold rum.

My idea had been to not buy two bottles, but I forgot this when I was having trouble making a decision and Mrs Cake said, “you could buy two bottles”, so I did and here’s what I ended up drinking that weekend in Derbyshire.

Mount Gay Eclipse
Class: Gold
Origin: Barbados
ABV: 40%
Price: £13

Presentation: I like the bottle shape –rectangular with rounded shoulders – and it has a distinctive label depicting a map of Barbados. It’s very recognisable.

Thoughts: I’ve read quite a few nice things about this (user reviews on retail sites, blog reviews and the like) but I can’t for the life of me understand why. To my palate this is rough, grainy, thin and not particularly complex. It may have a 2.5% advantage, but it also lacks the sweetness of Bacardi Gold, which I would normally tend to look down on. I would actually prefer to like the Mount Gay Eclipse to that, but I don’t. I’m not saying it’s a bad rum, but it’s only good for mixing or for your hip flask.

Liberty Ship
Class: dark
Origin: unspecified
ABV: 37.5%
Price: £10
Presentation: There’s nothing fancy here. It’s a very basic bottle with a very basic label depicting a compass.

Thoughts: I have to say I’m more impressed with this one than with the Mount Gay. Maybe it’s the lower expectations and I know that for £10 it can’t be up to much, but for my taste, there’s more going on here. Perhaps there should be, given that it is of the dark variety…

On the nose I’m getting balsamic vinegar, and in terms of palate it is dry and spicy. It’s still not special, and it won’t get much use beyond cocktails and the hip flask but it is marginally the better of my two camping purchases. In direct comparisons with dark rums of a similar price point though, Lambs (thought slightly more expensive in general) is preferable.

I did take both bottles camping, and opened both, though I’m not sure why. One would surely have sufficed. Perhaps I wanted to make sure there was some left for when we got home, and there would be more likelihood of this if I dipped into two bottles instead of relying on one. That must be it.

I know, it being the middle of winter that this maybe isn’t the right time to be posting on this topic, but such is arbitrary way in which I work. I mean, it doesn’t matter; once it’s posted it’s there forever, so it will be relevant when spring rolls around again.

And uh... yes, that’s it for now. Have a good week!