Wednesday, 20 October 2021

LOCAL BOOZER RAISES £470 FOR MIND IN SOMERSET

 

Choughs MIND fundraiser

In addition to being a local councillor, I am fortunate in being able to become involved in a number of local organisations, mainly charities, and often with a focus on mental health. 

In addition to being a volunteer and fundraiser for Samaritans, this last year I also became a listening volunteer for MIND in Somerset.  

I have always been a keen pub goer, and it was whilst attending a fundraising event for Chard Museum at The Choughs on Chard’s High Street, that I came across Steve Morgan. Since his arrival in the area almost two years ago and taking over at the helm of the pub, Steve has applied the discipline of his army experience to turning around the pub’s fortunes. At a time, when due to the pandemic, many hospitality businesses suffered terribly Steve now has a regular customer base, and knows the names of all of them, who describe him as a ‘top man’. 

‘I wanted to make the pub a place where women feel safe to come in on their own,’ said Steve, and speaking from experience, added, ‘In the last year I have become very aware of the increase in mental health problems suffered by young men in particular and I wanted to do something to help raise the profile of this, and the local organisations that support people with mental health issues.’ 

With the help of local Tesco manager, Raechel Shepherd, who is herself a force to be reckoned with, and popular local band Sea Trees, the event was a roaring success, and I was delighted to have been invited to witness the generosity and exuberant enjoyment of our local pub goers. 

The Choughs really is just a boozer (until Steve starts doing his famous Sunday lunches again), and not my normal spot for liquid refreshment, but mindful of the proverb, ‘different strokes for different folks’, I intend to become a regular. With local people demonstrating this level of passion for others I see a brighter future for us all.  

Friday, 8 October 2021

MRS. GRUMPY DINES OUT

I really don’t mean to be grumpy but, as a customer, I do get cross when I am not getting what I think I deserve for the money I am paying, and the environment I am in.  

I have always loved eating out and staying hotels, looking for any excuse to sleep in a bed that someone else has made (the sheer bliss of crisp, freshly laundered sheets) and a meal that someone else has cooked (no washing up!). I eat out around five times a week. I don’t need five-star luxury, and I am just as happy eating street food as sampling the delights of some of the world’s top establishments. For me, it is all about the experience. 

Working my socks off recently, on a visit to Calne, and keen to avoid a 150-mile round trip journey, I checked myself into a modest hotel; clean and decent enough, but with plenty to grumble about if I put my mind to it; the traffic noise, the absence of desk space, and somewhere to plug in a hairdryer within close proximity to a mirror.  

Putting a positive spin on my stay, I was looking forward to my dinner in the hotel’s 2 rosette restaurant. So far, so good. The menu looked interesting, was reasonably priced, and being on site, it meant that I could happily imbibe and just stagger upstairs.  

Sadly, from there on in it would seem that my high expectations were to be shattered. It was not so much the food, which was perfectly acceptable, but lacking the panache to deserve its award. It was the environment and the service. The soulless dining room, in which loud music rock music was blaring (clearly the choice of the kitchen staff), had just one other occupant, a woman, who I could hear across the room as she spent much of the time face-timing her French chef boyfriend. As for the service, the young staff were pleasant and helpful but lacking in professionalism. I was not offered any water with my meal (yes, I could have asked for some), both of the starters I ordered were delivered together (without having been asked), no additional cutlery was provided, and there was no enjoyment check during the meal, where I had been plonked in the centre of an empty dining room.  

I felt that I had become just the faceless, plump, old woman that in fact I am. 

What destroyed any serenity I might have been experiencing though was the ‘heritage tomatoes, goat’s curd, toasted hazelnuts, basil, sherry syrup’ at £6.50. Time and effort had clearly been spent on making the dish look attractive, but the hazelnuts had never seen the inside of a toaster (doesn’t one ‘roast’ them anyway?) and the tomatoes, amounting to less than one whole tomato in total, were fridge cold. Instead of enjoying my meal, which took just 45 minutes from start to finish, I beat a grouchy, hasty retreat to my room. Thank goodness I had brought the brandy with me with which to drown my sorrows. Thankfully, tomorrow is another day.  

Tuesday, 5 October 2021

LOOKING FORWARD, LEARNING LESSONS FROM THE PAST


There are few who would disagree that the past 18 months have been challenging for all of us, not least our local authorities. I think that in Somerset, apart from a few blips, we can hold our heads high for the way in which have handled the situation. 

Adjusting to the ‘new reality’ post-Covid, and post-Brexit, has been difficult at times and in addition to the difficulties posed by the pandemic, we have all been heavily involved in discussions and debate relating to the future of local government in Somerset.  

Resident concerns over the provision of social services, health, education, highways and planning continue to occupy much of my time; not always achieving the outcomes I would desire. Moving forward, I am optimistic that many of the reasons for high levels of dissatisfaction will be resolved. 

The decision for all five local councils to become a single unitary authority was not met with universal approval, but in my capacity as a long-standing district and county councillor within South Somerset, it is a decision I welcome wholeheartedly, if for no other reason than that in future there will be a single point of contact for all services.  

In terms of future service provision, I am optimistic that, with the leaders of all councils working well together thus far, we will see much needed improvement across the board.  

Adjusting to new ways of working have played a key a part in the way services have been delivered, and in how residents are able to communicate with their local council. Overall, this has garnered a good deal of criticism. It is elected members who have taken up the slack, playing a vital part in keeping channels of communication open at a time when levels of anxiety have been high. My monthly reports, which are distributed widely across the division, have been the cornerstone to maintaining regular contact and keeping residents informed. 

The move to a unitary authority is a once in a generation opportunity for all of us to embrace change. In order to do so, we must all be willing to engage with the process to ensure that we influence future service provision positively.   

I continue to have reservations about the relentless push towards digitalisation, and the potential impact this can have on the essential relationship between local councils and taxpayers, who after all foot the bill.  

In the coming weeks and months, I will be continuing to do my utmost to ensure that the views of ALL residents, especially those who are vulnerable or isolated, are heard, and that they have equal access to the services they need, where they need them, and when they need them. 

Whilst it is easy to criticise, it is much more productive for us all to aim to work together to seek solutions to the challenges that lay ahead, to ensure that Somerset is considered a desirable place; one that people aspire to live, work and play in. 

Monday, 20 September 2021

Hidden in plain sight

 

As there have recently been calls for more action, and resources, in relation to curbing violence and aggression, particularly against women, it is interesting to observe that when it comes to court cases that attract public attention, character witnesses on behalf of the defendant often focus on their church attendance and choir membership as indicative of their good standing within the community. As a regular church goer myself I could hardly be described as holier than though. Far from it, and I am not about to cast the first stone. However, we must not forget that historically some of the worst abuse has been perpetrated against youngsters by those who on the outside at least seem to be pillars of the community. Often it is their ranking in society that allows them to get away with such behaviour relatively unscathed, as their victims are too afraid to put themselves up against the establishment.   

Tuesday, 14 September 2021

DOMAINE DE LA SOLITUDE OLD VINES

 


I cannot remember a time when I was not interested in food and wine. This love for the good things in life was instilled in me by my single parent mother as she struggled to bring up three children in a series of rented rooms, then a council flat, in what was then a shabby part of London. Acton is not so shabby now though! A particular fan of Robert Carrier, my mother was a keen cook, and used to hoard the luncheon vouchers from one of her several jobs until she had saved enough to take us to ‘posh’ restaurants, usually ‘up town’ in Knightsbridge or Kensington. Our meals were always accompanied by wine. This was the late 1960s remember, and the national minimum drinking age limit was yet to be introduced, so we satisfied ourselves with a bottle of Chianti in a straw-wrapped flask, Mateus Rosé, or Blue Nun. Oh, how times change! 

More than fifty years on, little did I realise the extent to which my life would be dominated by food and wine.

Fast forward to my early thirties, and finding myself half-way across the world, homeless and with no income, I decided to cook for a living; with no experience or qualifications. Despite later reaching the exalted heights of Chef to the British Ambassador to the UN in New York, at first I found myself living in a bedsit in Chicago and, in order to satisfy my expensive tastes, volunteered to work for free at The Chicago Wine School, run by wine author Patrick Fegan, in exchange for attending his wine tastings, which I could ill afford.

Thus began my professional wine journey.

So many wines, and so many tastings, at so many vineyards, in so many places.

There are however memorable moments that I can recall so readily; the time, the place, the company, the food, the wine. Sensory experiences can do that to you.

One such moment occurred in 2008 when, as a WSET tutor, on a vineyard tour of the Southern Rhône, I visited Domaine de la Solitude in Châteauneuf-du-Pape.

At the time of jotting down my notes for the trip I obviously had a giddy moment as I wrote ‘Florent Lançon, our winemaker and host, is young and handsome, with Italianate looks, and despite the grubby effort at a beard – he could be the man of my dreams. As passionate about food as wine, you should hear him speak. I am embarrassed to admit it makes my heart sing – how pathetic is that?!’

Thirteen years on, of all of those vineyards that I visited on that trip, it is this one that sticks in my mind; and not just because of its winemaker.

The property has one of the longest histories in the Rhône Valley and has been in the same family’s hands for 400 years, since Florent’s ancestors came over with the Pope from their native Italy. They are direct descendants of the Barbarini family, whose motto is ‘All that the Barbarians haven’t done, the Barbarini's will do’. This is not a family to be messed with, which is evidenced by the many antiques that were plundered locally.

It was one of Florent’s descendants in the 18th century, Paul Martin, who was the first to sell

his wine in bottles and began exporting to England under the name “Vin de La Solitude”, at a time when the concept of wine from Châteauneuf-du-Pape did not yet exist.

Florent is the eighth generation of his family to continue the work begun three centuries earlier and since taking over the helm in 2008, he has created “Maison Famille Lançon” under which “Domaine de la Solitude”, and a selection of other Rhône Valley wines, are produced, following organic farming principles.

It is the passion with which he continues to pursue his dream of producing great wines, with respect for tradition, that is so inspiring; preserving and improving what nature has to offer and acknowledging that every living thing has a role to play: the wildlife and natural vegetation, the vines, and the people.

Domaine de la Solitude owns 37 ha. of vines in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, all located in the La Solitude lieu-dit (where the estate gets its name from), next to La Crau. Of the total, 30 ha. are devoted to the production of red wine, the remainder used for growing grapes for their white Châteauneuf-du-Pape. The estate produces 5 red Châteauneuf-du-Pape wines and 2 white. Production of each wine is limited, often to 250 cases, hence it is much in demand.

The ‘soil’ in Châteauneuf-du-Pape is comprised of galets roulés (pebbles), one of which I confess to having stolen, carrying it back on the plane in my luggage. I still have it.

The grape varieties grown are the thirteen permitted varieties traditionally associated with the Châteauneuf-du-Pape appellation, of which the principal varietals grown here for the red wines are Grenache, Syrah, and Mourvèdre, and for the white wines they are Clairette, la Roussanne, and Grenache blanc.

During our visit Florent entertained us in style. He was clearly very excited by their new label for the 100% Grenache ‘Cornelia Constanza’, his very first wine since graduating from college, aged in oak barrels from the Caucasus mountains.

For me though, the highlight of the visit was the enduring image of the pre-phylloxera Grenache vines, well over 100 years old, and being given the opportunity to taste the wines produced from them. The family own just 1ha. of these precious vines, which were discovered when Florent was digging up old vines planted in a sandy area close to the house.

What makes this tiny parcel of vines so special is that in Europe there are very few vineyards that escaped infestation by this malevolent plant louse. Putting nostalgia to one side, it is generally accepted that, all else being equal, old vines seem to give more concentration and fruity complexity to wines when compared with vines still in their infancy. Older vines, by virtue of the mere fact that they have survived, means that they are fighters, tough old bruisers. The gnarled woody mass evident in their structure gives the vine additional reserves of energy, and their deeper root structure enables them to cope better in dry conditions.

On the downside, yields are of course lower, but as consumers we have the joy of knowing that when volume is not the key focus for a winemaker our taste buds will profit from the commitment to quality that shines through.

Whilst Domaine de la Solitude does offer other wines from ‘old vines’ (those more than 25 years old), my focus has been on those made exclusively from grapes hand-harvested from these venerable pre-phylloxera vines, the wines from which are highly rated, with prices to match.

Remember, you get what you pay for, and you only live once!

Look out for their current vintages of Domaine de la Solitude Cuvée Cornelia Constanza, A.O.C. Châteauneuf-du-Pape, 2017 and 2018. A large proportion of the wine is aged in vats and the rest in 600-litre oak barrels. Unfined and unfiltered, expect to find rounded, complex wines that will benefit from some ageing to fully integrate the characteristics bestowed by their oak ageing. Hints of cocoa are joined by a smoky Sichuan pepperiness and aromatic cardamom, which on the palate explodes with concentrated ripe, juicy, red currant and berry fruit flavours.

Of course, as a wine lover, self-confessed foodie and self-taught chef, for me the two are inseparable. After my visit to Domaine de la Solitude we lunched at a nearby restaurant, Le Verger des Papes, a hidden jewel, next to the castle walls, with stunning views, and still recommended by Michelin. The simple menu is limited, and rightly so, to enable the quality of the food on offer, a perfect match for the local wines, to really shine through. 

Domaine de la Solitude’s website states ‘From generation to generation, the estate has been handed down in a spirit of love and sharing’.  I’ll certainly drink to that!

Florent Lançon,

Domaine de la Solitude,

Route de Bédarrides,

84230 Châteauneuf-du-Pape, France

+33 4 90 83 71 45

www.domaine-solitude.com


Wednesday, 8 September 2021

THE BLIND LEADING THE BLIND?

 



As one member of the Somerset Visually Impaired Cricket Club said to me during their match against the Rotary Club of Ilminster this weekend ‘It was a bit like the blind leading the blind!’ 

The Visually Impaired Cricket Club was officially formed in 2011 and has since gone on to achieve a number of successes in the past eight seasons. They play their home games at Wombats CC (Bishops Lydeard) and matches are played with a larger ball (size of a handball) that makes a sound, and the wickets are larger. Each player much be registered blind or partially sighted. Each player is placed into one of four sight categories and the team is then made up of different sight categories, with no more than two players from the high partial category. 

The Rotary Club of Ilminster first became involved with the club several years ago when they certainly met their match and this year, as part of the club’s focus on community engagement, with Rotarian Tony Walker at the helm, his committee colleague Brenda Lake organised a return match. 

Hosted by Ilminster Cricket Club, and with the weather being kind to us, a healthy crowd of onlookers and supporters was there to cheer on team Captain, Rotary President Kirsty Hughes, as she and her fellow players donned the special glasses that ensured that they did not have a visual advantage over their competitors. This was shown to be very effective, as the Visually Impaired team trounced their Rotarian opponents by 80 runs, during a game of 20 overs for each side. 

After a proper cricket tea, of course, President Kirsty said, ‘It really does make you think how lucky we are to have our sight, but also really heartening to see everyone enjoying the game. I hope we can continue this as an annual event.’ 

Tuesday, 7 September 2021

BLOOMING LOCAL GARDENERS

 

Although we cannot deny the negative impact of the pandemic over the past 18 months, it seems that our resident gardeners have really benefitted from the enforced time at home to cultivate their gardens, resulting in an abundance of splendid blooms, fruits and vegetables. 

With many events remaining on hold for the time being, it is heartening to see that a number of our local communities have decided to go ahead with ‘mini’ flower and produce shows. 

In the last couple of weeks alone I have attended ones at Winsham, Whitelackington and Dowlish Wake, and even entered the ‘virtual’ show put on by Donyatt, delighted to win second prize for my chocolate pecan cake! 

As the night’s begin to draw in, and we look ahead to celebrating the harvest season, I am really looking forward to seeing, and sampling, the bounty of nature’s harvest, not forgetting the scrumptious cream teas on offer! 

When times are tough it is amazing to see how small communities pull up their socks, shoulders back and best foot forward, to demonstrate that no matter what hardships are faced, life must go on, and as long as we support each other we can get through anything.  

I would just like the time to smell the roses!