Learning more about wine


When in doubt, a cheeky rose.

It’s fading now. I don’t work there anymore (a lingering sadness), and I live in a place where 99% of my friends have no idea what the LCBO is.

It’s the only good thing about no longer working on the publications for Ontario’s largest (and in many parts of Ontario, only) retailer of wine and spirits – nobody’s uncomfortable drinking wine with me. No more do I have to hear the slightly neurotic, self-effacing ‘well, I don’t know much about wine, but…’ preamble to ordering a glass, a half-litre, a bottle. You guys, even in Toronto I wasn’t sitting there, judging you. Sheesh!

How could I?  Why would I?

Moving to England ripped me away from that glorious job less than a year in. Although they started me on the path of developing tasting skills and product knowledge, it was clear from day one that the buyers and writers’ depth and breadth of knowledge was honed by years of experience, study and excellent wine-tasting skills. I especially liked the story meetings, where they would sketch out the wine regions and wines chosen for the feature articles.

I did learn how to daintily spit into a spittoon, however. It will be a handy skill when I resume my formal studies with WSET.

Wine tasting takes skill and practice, but it’s much like learning a new language. And like a language, some pick it up faster than others. But at the end of the day all that matters is how YOU feel about the wine YOU’RE drinking.

In Ontario, it’s simple – go to your local LCBO and pick up a copy of VINTAGES. Or, ask the Product Consultant on duty for advice. Take advantage of the vast amount of training they’ve completed, and the bi-weekly tastings they attend, where they try every single newly arrived wine. Give them your budget, the food you’re pairing it with, and a bit of an idea of what types of wines you like. Don’t be afraid to wander into the Vintages section! There are some excellent value wines there, not just the expensive stuff.

As much as I like being able to buy wine and beer almost anywhere here in the UK, I do miss the LCBO’s huge selection and nearly boundless information. It’s a bit piecemeal here, and I always feel a bit lost when I’m in the grocery store and see bottles I don’t recognize. I do like the convenience though, when they carry exactly what I’m after and I can just plop it into my cart along with my other groceries.


OK, so it’s whisky but my point still stands

But I recently stumbled upon the joys of Majestic Wine, the closest retail experience yet to my beloved LCBO. Friendly, knowledgeable service, in-store tastings, and free delivery if you buy at least six bottles. I have a feeling we are about to become much better acquainted.

So. Allora.

You can use any or all of these resources, or, you can choose to just drink what you like, and not worry so damn much about what others might think. If you’re drinking something awesome, google it and read the tasting notes. Buy it again. Or don’t. Life’s too short.

I’ve collected a few links, but this is just the edge of the rabbit hole you could tumble down.

Wine | Life and style | The Guardian This is my UK go-to when I need to buy a specific bottle.

The New York Times – Wine School Maybe a bit advanced, but I like how this is set up.

Globe Life | Wine & Spirits Love the ‘Ask a Wine Expert’ column.

The 500 Best-Value Wines in the LCBO  I first grabbed this book off the bargain table at Book City – what a find! Updated yearly. Ontario readers: if tracking down a copy of this book is your only takeaway from this post, you’re still going to build wine confidence and save money.

Wine | Kitchn  This one might throw you off depending on when you click on the link, but their wine section includes everything from recipes that call for wine as one of the ingredients, to posts more like this: Your Happy Hour Formula: Wine + Snack Pairings for $20 or Under.

First We Feast – Drink  You’ll learn just as much about beer and spirits as you will about wine here.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to dash off to Aldi for some of that silver medallist winning rosé, The Exquisite Collection Côtes De Provence 2016, for £5.99.

In praise of an in-use kitchen

teacups with lemon

Dirty dishes next to the sink, clean dishes in the drying rack. Jars of cinnamon and toasted, chopped pecans waiting to anoint my daily bowl of oatmeal. Small, red tomatoes ready to be halved and tossed with shredded basil, extra virgin olive oil and a smidge of salt. A pudding basin filled with apples. All the half-drunk bottles of whiskies we’ve been collecting. A new type of cracker meant for my plan to recreate Starbucks’ Cheese & Fruit Bistro Box. Bottles of nutritional supplements that have at least a fighting chance of being taken daily if I can see ’em. Onions, garlic, ginger. A lemon. Salt. Pepper. A potbellied brown teapot I almost never use, despite the fact that everyone who crosses the threshold gets a cup of tea. Two-litre bottles of fizzy mineral water to quaff instead of Diet Coke. Foil, cling film and parchment paper on top of the microwave. A hand blender for smoothies that I never bother to unplug. Pillow-soft rolls just waiting to be packed with homemade chicken salad. A toaster that could be unplugged and put away now that I’ve forsworn Nutella. A row of bone-china mugs filled with steaming hot lemon water ahead of a scrubbing with baking soda to remove tannin stains.

A small table with cookbooks, wedding invitations, poll cards for the upcoming election, a basket of clothespins, and a 10% off card for my next visit to Ham & Friends. Everything shoved out of the way to make room for the laptop. A load of whites quietly swishing in the washing machine. A cat in my lap, now frightened of the jet-like noises emanating from the spin cycle but unwilling to admit it.

I’ve made my peace with the fact that my kitchen will never resemble something in a TV commercial. Oh yes, we make spasmodic attempts at getting the chaos under control, but hey – LIFE is being lived in here. And from doing silly online quizzes I’ve realized that I am visual learner, and ‘out of sight, out of mind’ is my truth.

Sticky pork belly


With one or both of us rattling around the house more often than we would have done during our harried, hectic corporate life in Toronto, I’ve been able to explore different approaches to cooking. My small fridge and ridiculously tiny freezer mean I’ve given up my old weekend standby of cooking large portions of soups, stews and Bolognese sauce for freezing, but now I have daily access to a couple of good, if very different, local grocery stores.

In my grandest version of myself, I can industriously whip up this marinade for pork belly in the morning before starting work and eat these slow-cooked, succulent slices of heaven soon after logging off for the day.

I recommend counting up the hours necessary for this recipe – if you want to eat by 6:30 pm, start no later than 11:00 am.

4 hour minimum (or overnight) marinade +
2 hours roasting (baste at 1 hour mark) +
20 minutes (approx) to reduce marinade after roasting +
20 minutes blast in a hotter oven after brushing on reduced marinade +
20 minute rest, covered with foil (this is when I steam bok choy and cook rice) = 7 hours

Adapted from BBC Good Food, I’ve halved the amounts for the marinade but feel free to double them if you are cooking for a gang. Eat with steamed bok choy and a scoop of Thai rice for a simple, peaceful supper.

500 grams pork belly
3 tbsp hoisin sauce
1.5 tbsp clear honey
1.5 tbsp rice vinegar
1.5 tbsp soy sauce
2 tbsp ketchup
1 cm piece of ginger, peeled and grated

In a large glass bowl mix together the marinade ingredients, add pork, making sure the marinade is coating it well, cover with cling film and marinate in the fridge for at least 4 hours or overnight. You can also mix your marinade together in a glass measuring jug, place the pork belly slices in a large resealable bag and pour the marinade over before squishing and massaging and placing in the fridge.

Turning your oven to 160°C or 140°C fan (325°F), line a roasting tray with foil and transfer the pork and the marinade to the tray, pouring 50 ml of water over it. Cover with more foil and roast for 2 hours, basting at the 1 hour mark. Take pork out after 2 hours and increase oven temperature by 40°C – the new temperature will be 200°C or 180°C fan (400°F).

Remove pork slices to a plate, and carefully pour the marinade into a small saucepan. Cook the marinade until it becomes thick and syrupy (about 20 minutes). Place the pork back in the foil-lined pan and brush some of the now sticky marinade over it, and roast uncovered at the new high temperature for 20 minutes. The marinade should be caramelised in some spots. Take pork out, cover with foil and let it rest for 20 minutes.

Apple and berry crumble


I needed the soothing feeling of crumbling butter into flour today. And with an average indoor temperature of 19°C, it was clear that my packets of frozen strawberries and blueberries were not going to see their way into an ice-cold smoothie anytime soon.

They, partnered with Bramley cooking apples, formed the fruity base of quite a wonderful crumble.

The crumble topping is from the consistently amazing Felicity Cloake’s How to make perfect crumble, in which she also suggests softening the apples by cooking them briefly in a bit of water and sugar.

I spread the frozen strawberries and blueberries on top of the still-hot apples to help them reach room temperature before sprinkling over a bit of granulated sugar mixed with cinnamon and nutmeg, the fridge-cold crumble topping and a handful of rolled oats.

The result is a homey and not-too-sweet panacea for all that is wrong with the world. Serve warm, pour over a little double cream, some custard, or a scoop of vanilla ice cream. C’est-ça.

Sometimes, cupcakes are the answer

No, wait. Cupcakes are ALWAYS the answer.


Especially when you get back to your desk after a few hours away from your phone and there’s a text from your husband that says, “Don’t worry, I was home for your cupcake delivery”.

Cupcake delivery? Huh? It wasn’t my birthday, nor any other sort of milestone. Cupcakes? Who? Why? Wha??

Who? Moo.com

Why? To celebrate 10 years of me being their customer.

Wha?? Because they’re just awesome, that’s why.

So, I’m not a shill unless I have a really great reason to tell people about a product. For example, right now my inbox has a few offers for ‘incentivised reviews’ that I am studiously ignoring.


But moo.com…it’s different. Their cards do it for me. Every time I hand one to somebody, I get the same reaction as they feel the heavy paper: “Ooooooooooh! Where did you get these cards?”

I tell them where, because I am super happy with how my cards turned out both times. And especially ten years ago, it was one of the few places that I could affordably create my own cards (online, no less) without a background in graphic design and being forced into a minimum order of 1000 through a corporate printing company.

This cupcake move is pretty brilliant – I was so excited about hearing that I had cupcakes waiting at home for me that I told everyone in my office what happened and who sent them. The next day I brought all nine cupcakes to work, and told even more co-workers about moo.com because the cupcakes were so pretty and so delicious that most people guessed that it was my birthday or I had just gotten engaged or pregnant or something.

And now I’m telling you.

It’s rare to feel cherished as a customer these days.

PS: A little shout-out to The Little Cupcake Company – super delicious and everyone remarked on how wonderfully homemade they tasted. They had been packed very carefully for delivery so they arrived in perfect condition.

Carrot Soup with Jalapeño and Cilantro

Carrot Soup Jalapeno Cilantro

I admit it, I can still make food choices like a 12 year old when I’m not being diligent. I do my best to eat as many vegetables as possible, but I have to trick myself a lot of the time. The only time I will eat carrots willingly is when they have been made into soup, or baby carrots on a platter of crudités with plenty of dip.

So it’s not surprising that I have more than one go-to recipe for carrot soup. This is the one that you can make without too much planning, as there are only six ingredients, and you probably already have butter, chicken broth and onions in your possession. It’s an easy recipe to vegan-ize as well, I would imagine. From there it’s just a quick hop to pick up some carrots, jalapeño and cilantro.

I made it tonight because the selection of chilis I bought for a previous recipe came bundled with a jalapeño pepper, and I didn’t want it to wither before I could get to it. A combination of Dutch heritage and soaking up some Yorkshire thriftiness is definitely working in my bank balance’s favour.

You can find the recipe here – Alice Waters’ carrot soup (one of the variations) at chinese grandma and check out the whole site; it’s gorgeous.

My Christmas

Well, we’re in the final stretch now! The shortest day (blissfully sunny, with a nice crisp wind) has now passed into the longest night and I’m almost finished my Christmas prep.

I don’t think my list of Christmas traditions is all that dissimilar from many others, but sometimes just thinking about them all is nice to do too. In truth, I’m clinging to them a little bit more this year due to everything being a bit unfamiliar. Some of them I won’t be doing this year because I’m not near most of my friends and I’m travelling by train for Christmas, but they’ll bide until next year.

It’s not Christmas until I’ve:

  • gorged myself on clementines
  • watched the Doctor Who and Downton Abbey Christmas specials
  • picked out and decorated the tree – medium, large or tiny – this year’s is the tiniest, off-kilter little thingIMG_3173
  • wrapped a few packages in brown paper and mailed them, although I use tape, not string, Maria
  • watched Love Actually and Die Hard
  • listened to my favourite Christmas carols – Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas (Ella Fitzgerald), The Christmas Song (Mel Torme), and I’m sorry, I know the song has a very bad, very un-PC ‘f’ word in it, but Fairytale of New York just completely shatters me in that final verse
  • made cranberry sauce from scratch
  • eaten gingerbread and shortbread cookies
  • poured Grand Marnier into cranberry sauce, over the trifle biscuits in my annual trifle, and down my throat from time to time
  • braved the crowds to get a few final things, no matter how well I’ve planned, there’s always something that needs picking up and it’s fun to get swept up in the bustle a tiny bit
  • had orphan Christmas dinner with friends, even though we have Christmas dinners with our families too
  • eaten Swiss Chalet’s Festive Special, at least once
  • oh wow, I almost forgot chocolate!

And this has nothing to do with Christmas, but as you can see my Christmas tends to contain a fair amount of Alan Rickman, and I just love Epic Tea Time with Alan Rickman (YouTube video).

Merry Christmas everyone, may your final run-up be relatively free of stress and full of love and fairy lights!