Matt's Food Blog

Damson Wine & Sloe Gin

With some trepidation I decided on a whim yesterday to see what had become of the damson wine I’d started during autumn 2009. My fine friend Jonny had a slew of them and we had spent a lovely afternoon collecting them .

Jonny had fond memories of his parents and their friends using them to make jam and such like – my reminiscences were of the gentle pops of the airlocks coming from the row of demijohns near the fire from the collection of wines my dad used to have on the go. So full of enthusiasm and armed with a second hand copy of “The Boots Book of Home Wine and Beermaking” I set about stocking up on the kit and ingredients and got started. And then ignored the demijohns for months often considering that I should really do something about them.

Anyhow – back to the present. Poured a glass from the demijohn, had a sniff – followed by a tentative sip. I’d been expecting the worse – in fact had only tried it from a sense of duty to Jonny’s damson trees. The most I had hoped for was ‘not entirely repugnant’. So it is with considerable delight that I can report that it really is quite nice. A little sweet (too much sugar added prob) and a bit one dimensional, but tasting very much like damsons – almost like a liquor. I expect it’ll make a nice aperitif or perhaps be a great addition to a gamey sauce. Going to try and fiddle around with a specific gravity measuring thingummy to work out how alcoholic it is.

Other boozy projects at the minute include the sloe gin and vodka which are infusing in a dark place at the mo. I vaguely used the recipe from the front of the site – which is full of tips and alternative recipes in the forums section. We’d harvested ours during a weekend in October whilst staying at a friend’s place in Fermanagh. Niallasaurus gathered some too and used much less sugar for his concoctions – so we’ll compare notes when it’s ready in the summer. Delish. Here’s some pics of how the sloes are progressing:

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A rare treat…

A recent visit to the fabulous Bay Wines in Helen’s Bay was no less enjoyable than ever, and ended up with a real treat.

Increasingly I call upon Robert there to help with choices for dinner parties – he supplied the drinks for our big Christmas feast (8 courses for 28 people); in collaboration with our own wine man (Steve Jones) they came up with some wonderful matches for the food.

Vintage Madeira

A last minute trip to pick up wines for our first wine club was proving to be as enjoyable as ever, when Robert enigmatically disappeared into the back of the shop to fill a glass with some mystery liquid, and asked me what I thought of it.

At this point I was painfully aware of my lack of knowledge, and had as my basic goal not appearing to be a complete ass. In the glass there was a rich brown liquid which smelt butterscotch-y, lovely – and a taste revealed a fabulous richness and sweetness as well as the butterscotch flavour, and a slightly acidic sharpness.

So, opinion time; it was definitely a fortified wine, which was confirmed by Robert; sure whatever, I’ll have a stab… It wasn’t port or sherry, somewhere in between colour wise – and it reminded me of one of those island fortified wine, Marsala or Madeira – maybe Madeira. My tentative suggestion was met with an ‘exactly right!': delighted.

The mystery continued and the bar was raised: what age did I think it was? Well I’ve no idea, I was lucky to get the type – though it did taste really sophisticated in a way that some older ports do – so my guess was: probably over 15 years. And technically I was right, because 110 years is over 15 years. The 1900 was clearly visible on the dark bottle with the tattered label. I was really grateful for Robert for letting me have a taste – and amazed that something so old could taste so good. Certainly the oldest wine I’ve tasted by a long long way. A bit of searching revealed that Madeira wine is known for its longevity: in 1950 Winston Churchill was treated to a 1792 vintage Madeira an reminded guests that it was vintaged when Marie Antoinette was still around (clever fella).

I’m guessing it’ll be a while before another 1900 vintage comes my way…


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Deanes Restaurant Belfast

Deanes Restaurant Belfast

Following somewhat of a hiatus as regards eating out, my fine friend Tom and I decided  on a whim last week to try the pre-theatre option at Michael Deane’s flagship restaurant in Belfast, Deanes.

We hadn’t booked and arrived with moments to spare before the pre-theatre menu was no longer available (7:00pm) – pas de problème. Service from that moment was as efficient and courteous as you’d expect of a restaurant of this calibre, and at that time on a (Thursday) evening there were still several tables to spare, so it didn’t feel too crowded.

Tom and I decided to have the same starter and main from a nice selection (about five or six options for each), which made choosing our wine easier. To begin with we ordered the foie gras parfait, which came with an apple chutney and some toasted sough dough bread, for the main we chose the ribeye steak (‘Kettyle’s ribeye of Lough Erne beef’) which was accompanied by ‘fat chips’, bearnaise sauce and green beens. To drink we chose the (second wine of) Chateau Larose de Gruaud, 2001.

The wine smelt great – a familiar ‘clarety’ nose; we had it decanted, but on first sip it was clear it was still a little tight and would have benefitted from breathing for an hour or so before we started – and it certainly got better as the evening went on. I think its imported by James Nicholson, and I’ll probably pick up a couple of bottles next time I’m there. Both of us really enjoyed the wine but felt it would be even better in a couple of years.

The foie gras arrived simply plated (rectangular plate) in a ‘sliced from a terrine’ type shape on the left with a quenelle of the apple chutney in the middle and the toast on the right. For christmas last year I made endless variations on a chicken liver parfait just to get the right texture, and this one (for me) was perfect – light and creamy. There was a lovely foie gras flavour, however I was distracted by another flavour that I think was mace, which took away from my enjoyment of the food – I think there was just too much of it. The bread was fine, and the chutney good – but not massively appley.

I’ve rarely cooked or ordered ribeye – so went with my standard ‘rare’ for all things meat – as a result we had some debate as to which was best. The idea being that as ribeye has a higher fat content that fillet or sirloin it will be chewier and so benefits from being cooked further. Our waiting staff assured us rare would be great, although I think we were all overruled by the chef as it came out medium rare. I think he was right. The steak was superb, the taste and texture of the meat was wonderful. The meat was charred nicely (a wee bit too much on one side, that’s maybe a matter of taste though). The rest of the plate was fine – and I’m happy that the steak was the star performer – but I did feel a little disappointed by the rest. The  bearnaise sauce was nice and light and had a good flavour. The chips (in a mini deep fat frying pan type thing) weren’t great  – both of us had a couple that weren’t fully cooked, and they lacked the crispy outside, melty inside that I would expect (in the triple cooked way – I think when I ate at Deanes a few years ago the chips were advertised as such). The beans were, well, beans and, well they were just beans that’s all.

I realise that I’ve been a bit critical of our experience in Deanes, but we did really enjoy the time, and the food. I had a good view of Michael Deane as he stood at the pass checking (some of) the dishes as they went out and generally keeping an eye of things. The service was great, attentive but unobtrusive, and it did feel like this was a fine dining experience – of the sort which Belfast still hasn’t to much to offer of. Was it scrumulous – yes, mostly; would I go back – definately.


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