On Thursday, 23rd January, we had a small party at Millwood Farm. Though as it happened all our guests had our recovered good health to celebrate, that was not the reason for the gathering. Our excuse to dine on foie gras, tomato salad and burrata, and long-cooked shoulder of salt marsh lamb with borlotti beans from the garden, was to drink a special bottle, one that had been in my cellar for a very long time. It was in its own, individual wooden box, and I had long overlooked it. It was addressed to me, and the sender was Bernard Loiseau.
Bernard Daniel Jacques Loiseau (13 January 1951 – 24 February 2003) had become a chum of mine, when I was Food & Wine editor of The Observer and later restaurant critic of Travel +Leisure. He had three Michelin stars for his glorious Burgundy restaurant, La Côte d’Or, at Saulieu. It was an historic address, as it had been the grand restaurant of the chef Alexandre Dumaine (1895-1964), and was a place of gastronomic pilgrimage. I can work out why I was sent this bottle from the shipping label: it was a fee for serving as a judge for the Trophée Dumaine – which I think I remember was a competition for the best food title published in France that year. (Though I can’t recall what year that was, I sat at lunch next to a lovely woman introduced to me as “Chantal de France.” Her young American male attendant hissed at me early on in the proceedings, and said I obviously didn’t know who the lady on my right was. Indeed I did not, as to my ears, “Chantal” was the French equivalent of one of the Little Britain characters. Of course she was Princesse Chantal de France, but as “Madame” was in any case the correct way to address her, I do not think she was distressed.)
It was a great honour (and flattery) to have been asked to sit on this French-speaking jury, and I was certainly cognisant of that. I was a lot younger, and in France often enough for work, that I was able to fake a semblance of fluency.
Bernard Loiseau was a lovable young chap, and it gave him a buzz to show me around his recently completed hotel rooms, which made him truly a destination restaurant. He was successful, and he loved the trappings of celebrity chef-dom. But then, some years later, aged only 46, on 24 February 2003, two days before my own 62nd birthday, he took a shotgun into his bedroom and killed himself. The Guide Gault Millau had reduced his ranking from 19/20 to 17/20, and there were loads of rumours that Michelin was about to remove one of his three stars. Our family often stayed with friends who owned a château about half an hour’s drive from Saulieu, and more than once we met there and commiserated with the very genial Mme Loiseau. The verdict of history was that Loiseau was suffering from clinical depression; and the negative gossip in the press could not have helped.
More cheerfully, having stumbled on the bottle of Faiveley Clos-de-Vougeot 1987 almost exactly 17 years later, I decided we’d have to have a memorial dinner and drink the bottle from “Bernie Bird,” as we affectionately called him behind his back. My chief co-memorialist was my dear old friend and neighbour, Mark Walford, a member of the wine trade all his life, even before he sold his business Richards Walford to Berry Bros & Rudd. The other celebrants were Mark’s wife, Sue, my wife, Penelope, and another neighbour, Helen Ellis Binyon. To enlarge the occasion, Mark brought a bottle of Domaines Lafarge Volnay Clos-des-Ducs 2009, which we drank to mark the death on 16th January, aged 91, of Michael Lafarge.
With the foie gras we had yet another surprise. I found in the cellar a bottle of Margaret River, Leeuwin Estate Art Series Riesling from the same vintage, 1987. It was only just mature, gold in colour, but so youthful that it quivered in the glass, smelling of crushed lime leaves with almost no petrolly tang, and with evanescent sweetness and the perfect acidity for room temperature foie gras.
The Lafarge Volnay was powerful red burgundy, still young and vibrant, nerveux, with loads of fruit, black cherry, bramble, lovely round tannins and a good lengthy finish. The salt marsh lamb, though braised for hours, still had a tinge of pink (only an Aga can achieve this, I think) and was perfection the Volnay. And the Clos-de-Vougeot? It was a delicate old lady, darker at the meniscus, with a not too generous nose, and not much fruit. But left in the glass for a time, it opened, and reminded me of the subtle fragrance of old bourbon roses, until it suddenly developed cooked stone fruit aromas and flavours. It was a happy mouthful.
I have no idea how I acquired the Aussie delight, though the bottle was so clean and free of dust that I can only think I had intended to drink it not too many years ago. Nearly my entire cellar was sold a few years ago at Christies, on the grounds that the most valuable bottles were too expensive for me to enjoy drinking them – and I believe most of my collection is now in mainland China. What’s left are the vinous waifs and strays; and I have to say they are allowing me more fun than anyone could have expected.I have no idea how I acquired the Aussie delight, though the bottle was so clean and free of dust that I can only think I had intended to drink it not too many years ago. Nearly my entire cellar was sold a few years ago at Christies, on the grounds that the most valuable bottles were too expensive for me to enjoy drinking them – and I believe most of my collection is now in mainland China. What’s left are the vinous waifs and strays; and I have to say they are allowing me more fun than anyone could have expected.