21 Feb 2014

What is problem drinking and how do we tackle it?

Alcohol misuse has been in the news again this week after the latest set of official figures were released - I did a news story on it here and a lot of the main news outlets covered it, including an opinion piece by Owen Jones in the Independent headlined The drug we ignore that kills thousands.

This is such a complex area - beer writer Pete Brown makes the case against the stats and a general clampdown on booze here - that it's notoriously difficult to either a) work out how much of a problem alcohol is in society; and b) if it is a big problem, what to do about it.

People who do drink too much do it in different ways and for different reasons. A well-off pensioner who drinks excessive amounts of fine claret from breakfast onwards every day will have different motivations to a student who gets trashed in clubs every night, who is different again to an unemployed young bloke who drinks heavily at home on a night, and who is different again to a pub regular who downs six or seven pints a night without noticing.

They might all be causing various amounts of harm as well as pleasure, either to themselves or others, so how do you come up with one policy to help them all? Perhaps we need to segment problem drinkers: What are they drinking? Where are they drinking? Why are they drinking?

Do higher prices work? What about the fact that penalises safe drinkers too? Or is education the main thing - if so, how? Do we need a clearer message on units? What is or isn't safe drinking for that matter?

It's such a tricky area, how to reduce alcohol misuse without penalising safe drinkers. And moderate drinking can, of course, be such a positive thing for individuals and society. Studies have suggested it's good for health but, perhaps more importantly, it enriches life - something that's so difficult to quantify. Even drinking at home, you can enhance your wonder of the world through your wine glass. There's the sensual enjoyment, the learning, the conversation, the stress release of just a single glass. How can you ever quantify those benefits for society to offset the harm elsewhere? And then there's the positive benefits of decent pubs to working class communities, as acknowledged by Professor David Nutt:

Drinking habits don't exist in a vacuum: perhaps all the talk of pricing, licensing hours and units is a bit of a red herring. Maybe the best way to curb the most severe problem drinking might well be to deal with wider social issues fuelling it. If people have jobs, and jobs that pay, if people live in warm housing, if they have hope and reason to get up on a morning, if they have more to lose, if they don't feel lonely or bored, won't it be less likely they'll turn to problem drinking? As long as you drink to add flavour to life and not to dull it, you're more likely to keep it under control. That's not to say your drinking can't go from there to becoming a serious problem on an individual level - it can, as it's a powerful drug - but maybe it's less likely.

One last note - I sometimes wonder about the effect of wine costing so much more in restaurants and pubs than in shops. People are trying £20 bottles of wine when eating out and wondering why it tastes no better than a £5 bottle at home. Wine in this country is so, so much cheaper when bought and drunk on its own than with food.

18 Feb 2014

Novelty versus classic wine: the Eastern Med range from M&S

It was funny timing, buying these interesting looking wines on Valentine's Day with some M&S vouchers.

Not really funny as in hilarious.

We all fell ill with a nasty sickness bug the same day. This wasn't much more than the "24-hour thing" all sickness bugs are required to be by popular demand - but it was fairly extreme and a sickness bug does not go nicely with an M&S chicken jalfrezi and a Turkish red. When you're in and out of the bathroom with the shivers, followed by a fever and thumping headache, the mere idea of a chicken jalfrezi seems comically wrong.

Classic wine versus unusual wine

Our selection included a wine from Greece called Red on Black; Chateau Ksara from Lebanon; and Sevilen Okuzogu from Turkey, along with Italian red Lacrima di Morro d'Alba and a couple of bottles of Argentinian malbec, the reliable Vinalta on offer at two for £12.

As well as the sickness, it was also funny timing because almost as soon as we'd got the bottles home, wine writers were debating the merits of classic wines versus lesser known varieties. Just as we were looking to try some wines off the beaten track, Robert Parker and Jancis Robinson were saying "ignore the classics at your peril" (they mean regions like Bordeaux and Burgundy; grapes like cabernet, merlot and pinot noir, as opposed to wines from other areas that may have existed for even longer but earned less repute). Parker in particular was arguing that hipster sommeliers are going for novelty over quality. Others like Jamie Goode, on the other hand, disagreed saying variety is the spice of life and unusual wines offer better value in restaurants.

To those of us outside the south-eastern England wine bubble, they might as well have been arguing over an old Rolls-Royce and a new Ferrari. Don't bother with the overpriced old prestige car, they're old hat! You want to get yourself a flash new sports car instead - it's more interesting and cheaper! You know - don't bother with the £100 a bottle Bordeaux, get some of this delicious natural Serbian stuff for a mere £75!

In other words, all properly good wine whether it's new or old is so bloody expensive, in restaurants especially, that for most of us it's usually of interest only - excruciatingly - in an academic sense. This debate is a reminder of why, sadly, proper wine and wine analysis remains stuck in an echo chamber, the critics' slurps bouncing back in off the glass walls like a big spittoon. In short, really good wine tends to be so bloody expensive!

What does better wine mean?

I'm exaggerating, a bit. I actually think the unusual-wine-versus-classic-wine debate was of some interest, the protection of "unknown" and indigenous wine regions and styles being both exciting and really important. Also, to counter the 100-pointers and their classic wines, surely the better wine is only ever the one you personally find most compelling. The music of a given band or composer might be the product of a great talent, it might be objectively adept, but if you don't like it, you don't like it. Because let's not forget scoring wines out of 100 is just as daft as it would be to rate a film or a book or a cheese out of 100. Stuff tends to be amazing, good, decent and not good - as a combination of quality and your personal preference at that given time - and that about covers it.

Faulty wines and a nightmare bed

The wines from M&S's eastern Mediterranean range were not eyewateringly expensive but not bargain basement either at around the £10 mark. But at least with wine you do have the reassuring thing that the retailer should swap it for another if it's faulty; often they even pledge to do so if you simply don't like it.

This is reassuring, as we recently had a nightmare bed buying experience ('scuse the pun) with, yes, M&S. To cut a long and boring story short, the bed isn't level, it is uncomfortable and it is objectively not the same as the one we tried in the shop. We have bad backs. M&S sent out an "independent" inspector from FIRA to take a look. FIRA is an organisation funded by bed retailers to keep their returns to an absolute minimum efficiently deal with their customer returns, and their inspector acknowledged our mattress was not level. But this, it turned out, did not qualify us for a refund.

I'm not sure what the moral of this convoluted tale is. Apart from to spend your money on wine and not on beds. Classic or adventurous, cheap or expensive, either way you should at least be guaranteed a good night's sleep.

3 Feb 2014

A brewery-turned-gallery: The Tetley in Leeds

The Tetley, Leeds

Called into The Tetley for the first time this weekend and was impressed. This is the old headquarters of the Tetley brewery, a building dating back to 1931, and it's great to be able to wander around and take a look inside. The grandness of it all is a real reminder of how successful a big family brewery like Tetley's must've been at the time, and also of how much things change. Tetley's has now all but left Leeds but loads of small breweries have popped up around the city at the same time. It's funny how industries change, social and drinking habits change and buildings, like people, evolve. It reminds me of a job I once had with the civil service in another part of Leeds in a big old mill that had been converted into offices: where once there had been the noisy and dirty click-click-click of industrial machinery years earlier, there was now a quieter flow of immigration casework passing through the building, a conveyor belt of sorts.

The location of The Tetley feels like a historic little patch of Leeds, with the Salem Chapel nearby and a blue plaque marking the formation of Leeds United; the great Adelphi pub is also a stone's throw away.

As a gallery and events space The Tetley has loads of potential, so fingers crossed it's a success. Leeds needs more stuff like this, both from a culture and family-friendly point of view. As a city it seems to have a less obvious culture than places like Manchester and Liverpool. It's debatable why that's the case: Manchester and Liverpool have proximity to ports and they also have a bigger Irish influence; Leeds and Yorkshire on the other hand have a more "look after the pennies" tradition that isn't necessarily conducive to a cultural hotbed. Maybe that's something to do with it. Either way, kudos to those behind The Tetley to get this up and running, as it'd be excellent if this could become something like a Leeds Salt's Mill. Also not forgetting this is primarily a drink and food blog, the cafe (set up with consultation from Anthony Flinn's company) looked and smelled good too.

Our kids really enjoyed the Springboard Saturdays session - basically a relaxed crafty area for them to draw, stick and create stuff to their hearts' content to a theme that changes each week, with friendly volunteer artists on hand.

And we enjoyed having a look in the grand boardroom, wondering about the people and conversations that have lived in there over the years.

I hope The Tetley is a success.

1 Feb 2014

A good book for foodies: Edible Stories by Mark Kurlansky

"It smelled of so many things, different fruits and woods, that it seemed almost unnecessary to drink it. Whole five-course meals did not have as many flavors as a tiny sip of this wine, and a single sip kept tasting for minutes..."

Edible Stories by Mark Kurlansky (Gibson Square)
This novel starts with a chapter called Red Sea Salt - each chapter takes the name of a food or drink - in which a man is stuck down a hole in a pavement and has no clue whatsoever of how he came to be there or even who he is. Having lost his memory, and it turns out his sense of taste, he ends up becoming one of the top food critics and TV chefs in America.

Each chapter is really a short story in its own right and they all just about tie loosely together in a kind of tapas way, with the same characters popping up every now and then but the food theme never going away.

I loved how this novel spoke of a time and a place for specific foods. A girl's on a date at a New York Yankees baseball match and her new boyfriend has gone to the trouble of preparing a fancy picnic with Italian white wine - but secretly all she really, really wants is a hot dog to watch the match with, the meaty aromas tantalising her as they waft across their seats.

The book touches on snobbery, of daft social conventions but also important ones in food, of how it helps oil the wheels of family life and communities. In one amusing chapter (Osetra), a young gang member in the Bronx gets an insatiable taste for caviar and he can't stop shoplifting it; in another (Orangina), the arrival of Orangina in a town in south-west France is seen as a threat to the town itself, older locals fretting "this is a vin rouge town!" and calling for a ban.

Edible Stories is a witty and fun book and a clever reminder of how food and drink are at the heart of human relationships.