Sunday, 3 December 2017

Great grapes of Essex vineyards

Just completed a great tour of Essex vineyards. My first stop was New Hall Vineyards founded in 1969 and set in the farmland of Purleigh. It’s an ancient wine growing area. Purleigh wine was drunk by King John and during te signing of the Magna Carta, says enthusiastic manager Lucy Winward. 

We tasted a number of wines and the New Hall Bacchus and Signature were really excellent. It’s a good area for white wine thanks to the mild climate around the River Crouch. So the Crouch Valley might soon rival the Loire Valley. It’s also worth checking out New Hall’s giant barn turned into a Christmas grotto.

Then it was on to West Street Vineyard in Coggeshall. Jane Mohan went to France aged 17 to learn the language but came back with a love of good wine. Her first attempt at making wine ended in disaster, “it was foul and we had to turn it into brandy!” But Mohan, who sold her house to fund the vineyard in 2009, persevered and now makes fantastic wines including West Street’s crisp white wine, rose and sparking wine. It’s a full-time business being a wine grower and Jane told us about one cold spell in April when she was out all night lighting fires to try to save her vines.

Jane’s used her Australian ancestry to bring a bit of Aussie style to Essex, where visiting the vineyard is a relaxed informal experience in a modern building with large windows. You can have an award-winning meal overlooking the vine fields. We enjoyed a fine veggie lunch of fried Camembert and risotto (with battered egg on top), followed by an array of puddings.

Our final stop on the wine tour was Dedham Vale Vineyard in Boxted, close to Constable country where he painted The Haywain. Again it’s an ancient wine hotspot, with the Romans having grown vines there. The restaurant overlooks a lake and manager Simon Ward had just seen a kingfisher when we arrived. Top wines here included the Colchester Oyster. It also hosts a walnut festival and is a tranquil setting for marriages. Dedham Vale produces 32,000 bottles a year and until three years ago, when it expanded, it was entirely self-sufficient in energy.


Lovers of the film Sideways, where two old friends tour California wineries, can now be reassured that a similar Bacchanalian pilgrimage can be made in Essex. Check out the Visit Essex website for more details of Essex food and wine.

Tuesday, 14 November 2017

Brentwood's brewing

Brentwood is now synonymous with beer rather than Towie. The Brentwood Brewing Company was the result of, "a drunken evening in the pub in 2006 when we decided we could brew better beer than what we were drinking," according to co-founder Roland Kannor. He set up the company with Dave Holmes, who has now retired to Spain. The brewery has made remarkable progress, with Brentwood Best being declared Camra's champion bitter of East Anglia in 2007. Britain's Beer Alliance has also judged it to be the best companion beer for pickled eggs.

Roland Kannor is a man who clearly believes that the pun is mightier than the sword, as exemplified by the Beer Grylls snack bar outside. Beer names are sometimes dreamt up while sampling the product. "You don't think up a good name in the office. Carol our accounts lady came up with Good Elf." Other great names for beers include Chockwork Orange, Frosty Baubles and Elephant School Mellowphant stout, so-named because there was once an elephant training school at the site of the Ford offices in Warley. Hope and Glory is named after Roland's daughter, who is apparently called Hope Ann Gloria.

We also meet Ethan, who is possibly the youngest head brewer in the country at 26. He likes to brew in shorts and talked us through the process of brewing with complex tanks that are basically, "giant saucepans and kettles." His beers have won prizes from as far afield as Northern Ireland.

Brentwood Brewing has also boosted international relations, with three German brewers arriving with German beers for Brentwood's celebration of Oktoberfest. Roland says that, memorably, his German guests were refused admission to Sugar Hut for wearing lederhosen, presumably on the grounds that such gear would make the punters, "well jel."

If you want to sample the friendly charms of the Brentwood Brewing Company then there's a Christmas Beer Festival on December 9 at the brewery at Calcott Hall Farm off the Ongar Road, from 10.30am-5pm. Check out the Brentwood Brewing website or Visit Essex for details of Essex's burgeoning range of food and drink.

Sunday, 12 November 2017

Barking bard Billy Bragg woos Islington

The revolution is just a tea-towel away…
Great to see Billy Bragg at the Islington Assembly Rooms, along with my daughter and a contingent of Brentwood Bragg fans enjoying the beers in the Highbury Brewhouse and Kitchen. Thirty years on he still ends his set with "My name's Billy Bragg, I'm from Barking, Essex. Good night!" So I think Mr Bragg has sided against the pedants who insist that Barking is now part of a London borough — spiritually it's Essex. There were several requests for A13 Trunk Road To The Sea, but sadly Billy said he only plays it in Essex. He did play much of the soundtrack of my youth, a brilliant body of work including Greetings To The New Brunette, Must I Paint You A Picture, Waiting For The Great Leap Forwards, Sexuality, St Swithin's Day, The Man In The Iron Mask and of course New England. Bragg managed to mention everything from Victor Hugo to climate change and bring West Ham's departed gaffer Slaven Bilic into the intro to Accidents Will Happen. A great gig and do check out Billy's new mini-LP Bridges Not Walls

Thursday, 9 November 2017

Jam gin at Tiptree

Just enjoyed a great gin tasting session at the Wilkin & Sons factory in Tiptree. The purveyors of legendary Essex jams and marmalades have now expanded into fruit gins. The gin liqueurs are a combination of Witham-based Hayman's Gin and fruits gown by Wilkins & Son. The tasting session was in the factory's museum where we were surrounded by old jam-making equipment, vintage jam jars and pictures of the Wilkin founders and the current "Mr Peter" Wilkin, who still runs the old family firm.  

First we tried Little Scarlet Strawberry gin made from the unique strawberries grown at Tiptree. This really was excellent, like drinking sweet alcoholic jam. Next it was English Raspberry and then English Damson. Credit to the member of our party who tried Damson gin with Prosecco (aka Fruit Gin Royale). Finally we sampled the Rhubarb gin, which unmistakably merged hints of rhubarb crumble with a string gin kick. All would be fine bases for cocktails. As the great Dr Feelgood might have sung, "you've got me on the jam and alcohol…" After the tasting we went to the tearoom's shop to buy Blood Orange marmalade, Little Scarlet jam (buy while stocks last after a poor summer for fruit) and some Tiptree Lemon Curd. 


Wilkin & Son offer some hope of how we'll survive Brexit as they already have 11 tearooms in Essex and export all around the world. Another plus is that when Mr Peter retires it will become a worker's co-operative. Lovers of Wilkin & Son should also check out the chapter on Tiptree jam in my book The Joy of Essex. Thanks to Visit Essex for organising the tasting. Gin and jam — it doesn't get better than this.

Thursday, 26 October 2017

Essex and drugs and rock'n'roll



Enjoyed seeing the Ian Dury musical Reasons to be Cheerful at the Theatre Royal in Stratford. Based on the songs of Mr Dury, who was from Essex in case you couldn’t tell, the musical is based on the story of a group of fans in Southend trying to get tickets for Dury’s gig at the Hammersmith Odeon. Paul Sirrett’s script has Essex mentions aplenty, with a neon Billericay sign on stage, a memorable performance of Billericay Dickie and scenes on the A13 and Thorpe Bay beach. Dury contracted polio after swimming at Southend swimming baths and performed with a withered left arm; he would have been proud of the way the show gives roles to actors who are one-amed, deaf and in a wheelchair. Hence their emotive performance of Dury’s empowering anti-charity ode to disability, Spasticus Autisticus. Having the lyrics dislayed above the stage also allows us to remember just what a great wordsmith Dury was. It’s a riotously entertaining romp back to the punk era. As Ian himself might have said: “Oi! Oi!”

Tuesday, 17 October 2017

Homage to Canvey Island

The Essex Liberation Front has finally happened. Never mind Catalonia. There's a big piece in the Guardian about the Canvey Island Independence Party. Angered by plans for more housing, Canvey Island is seeking to escape the yoke of Benfleet, Thundersley and Hadleigh and establish a council that is separate from the mainland borough of Castle Point. At this rate of Essex separatism there could soon be one almighty struggle over the jam fields of Tiptree. Click on the link to read.

Thursday, 28 September 2017

The only drink is Essex

Seems like Essex is the place to drink. Beer-wise there's Billericay Brewing, purveyors of the excellently-named Billericay Dickie and Rhythm Stick beers. The micro-brewery and beer shop produces craft ales made from natural ingredients. Every second and last Sunday at 2pm they have brewery tours and tastings, explaining the brewing process and ingredients used. You can also be a ‘Brewer for the Day’ and return 2-3 weeks later to collect your pints.

Wine-wise, New Hall Vineyard in Purleigh is one of the oldest and first vineyards in the UK to grow the Bacchus grape, which is now one of their most popular wines and very drinkable. Essex’s newest vineyard, West Street in Coggeshall, won the gold award in the International Wine Challenge 2017. It's got a restaurant serving local produce, and of course lots of wine-tasting. 

While close to the Essex Way in Constable country is Dedham Vale Vineyard, where you can grab a bicycle and tour the great Essex countryside, before returning to try some of their wines and cider. It has guided tours and tastings and you can have a glass of wine overlooking the lake, or hold parties and weddings there. 

If ever they remake the great wine-tasting road move Sideways it will have to be in Essex.