Making sense of Piedmont wine

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The hills and vineyards of the Piedmont wine region.
Piedmont’s wines are favoured by foodies, and perfect alongside autumnal flavours. Barbara Drew MW talks us through the famous Italian wine region’s incredible depth and breadth

Piedmont is one of my favourite Italian wine regions, with its rolling hills, autumn fogs and hearty cuisine. As with every region of this diverse country, the breadth of wines produced is astonishing, and the quality of the best easily matches some of the finest wines in the world. It is a region you can get lost in, both literally and metaphorically. But if you’re still finding your way when it comes to Piedmont’s wine, fear not – here, I’ve signposted some of the key wine styles to look out for.

Piedmont wine styles

Like every region in Italy, Piedmont has plenty of unique, indigenous grape varieties to intrigue and delight. Alongside these little-known varieties, you’ll always find some familiar, grapes of French origin, too. This means that for the white wines, there are three key styles to look out for.

First there are the everyday drinking white wines. These tend towards moderate alcohol levels (12-12.5%), often citrusy, with crisp acidity and no oak. A tangy Gavi di Gavi is the finest example of such a wine, though the lesser-known Favorita, often peachy and floral, also falls into this group.

Then we have the sparsely planted, off-the-beaten track discoveries. With nearly 1,000 local grape varieties (or autochthonous, to use the technical term – try saying that after a glass of Dolcetto), there are always new vinous discoveries to unearth in Italy. My favourite amongst these is Arneis – the name itself meaning “little rascal”, due to its capricious nature in the vineyard and winery. Richer than Gavi or Favorita, with a tropical and mineral flavour, Arneis has bright acidity and is incredibly food-friendly. Only a handful of producers are working with this grape, but they are gradually coaxing it back from the brink of extinction and making exquisite wines in the process.

Finally, like many regions in this country of wine, more “international” grapes are starting to appear – French grapes that have travelled the globe and ended up settling in foreign lands. Chief among these is Chardonnay, which is treated here with as much reverence as in Burgundy. Some of the greatest examples, such as Roagna’s Solea, can easily compete with the best Chardonnays from around the world.

Barbera and Dolcetto: Piedmont’s everyday grapes

In terms of the red wines, Piedmont’s reputation has been built on Nebbiolo – the tannic, age-worthy grape that constitutes the wines of Barolo and Barbaresco (among others). However, this grape only accounts for around 5% of plantings in the region. The red wines which are most often consumed locally are Barbera and Dolcetto.

Barbera, in particular, is the everyday grape of Piedmont – and in most trattorias will be the house wine, served by the carafe, often slightly chilled. A juicy, mouthwatering wine (like so many of Italy’s drinks), Barbera can taste of everything from fresh raspberry and blueberry fruit, to more vegetal and smoky flavours.

While it is not the most tannic of wines, it is still best served with some food – even if only a small nibble of local cheese.

Its partner in crime is Dolcetto. Meaning “little sweet one” – referring, allegedly, to the relatively lower acidity of Dolcetto – this is something of a misnomer. Dolcetto can provide plenty of rich red and black fruit flavours with a chocolatey finish, but it can also have shockingly high tannins and, in lesser examples, a bitterness to it. Paired with rich cheeses or robust meat dishes, however, it can be tamed and turned into a far more approachable wine, where the blackberry fruit flavour shines through.

Under the skin of Barolo and Barbaresco

When it comes to tannins, Nebbiolo is the region’s king. An incredibly late-ripening grape, it is often picked as late as the end of October – when most other vines will have been plucked bare by mid-September. In fact, some argue that the name Nebbiolo comes from the local word for fog, nebbia, referring either to the lateness of the harvest (by which time autumn fogs are blanketing the hills of the Langhe where this grape thrives) or, more likely, referring to the soft grey/purple bloom often found on the skin of the grape.

Regardless of discussions over its name (and it has many, Spanna and Chiavennasca being just two), all are agreed that, in its finest expressions, Nebbiolo makes tannic, acidic and alcoholic wines with incredible depth and complexity of flavour. The most famous villages for these wines are Barolo and Barbaresco – themselves incorporating multiple communes and hamlets. These wines can age often for decades, and usually have a price tag to match.

For more approachable Piedmont wines – both in terms of when they can be drunk and also their price tag – Langhe Nebbiolo, from the hills surrounding these villages, is well worth exploring. For the more adventurous, the higher altitude regions of Gattinara and Ghemme can provide beautifully elegant, and slightly lighter examples of this noble grape.

You can browse delicious examples of wines from Piedmont here.

Category: Italian Wine

English truffles: the hunt for black gold

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English truffles may lack the status of their Italian counterparts, but these little-known delicacies have been found in our native woodlands for hundreds of years. Intrigued, Emily Miles goes hunting.

As summer gradually gives way to autumn, professional truffle hunters start to practice their craft. Hoping for a glimpse into this secretive world, I got in touch with The English Truffle Company. A few days later, a message pinged onto my phone – could I meet James, and his dog Jack, in a particular layby: we were off hunting.

On the hunt for English truffles

The location wasn’t what I’d been expecting – this was on the edge of a built-up area in the south of England – nor was the time (mid-afternoon). But, putting my preconceived notions of morning mists and ancient woodlands aside, I quickly agreed.  

Jack was the first of the pair to greet me. Ink black, glossy, tail wagging and extremely excited, he was clearly keen to get to work. Then James – tall, rangy, softly spoken and strikingly calm – explained where we were going. I promised to keep the details vague. Truffle hunters are, of course, very protective of their patch – it’s their livelihood after all. But I suspect that James is discreet by nature; another characteristic that makes him well-suited to his profession.  

The three of us duck across a duel-carriageway, and scramble down a steep bank into a small stretch of privately owned beech woodland. It is, to be frank, a bit of a dump. There’s enough hubcaps, bottles, bits of plastic and rubbish to fill a small skip. But we’re not here for the aesthetics. For James and Jack, this is serious business.

Unearthing black gold

While I’m still trying to find my footing, Jack starts scuffling at the ground. More than that – he’s digging. James breaks off from talking to me and turns to his dog: “Good boy, thank you, leave it,” he quietly commands. Jack lies down.

James pulls a lime-green pointed truffle trowel from his backpack and scrapes away the top inch of leaves. I gasp in excitement at a dark, textured ridge in the soil – it is, James explains, easy to get caught out by beech nuts. It’s then that James unearths a conker-sized, slightly knobbly, deep brown truffle; he eases it out of the ground, sweeps the soil back into place and holds it out for me to inspect. Jack waits for his treat. My heart is racing; I suspect James’s pulse remains resolutely steady. 

When they’re collecting truffles for trade or customer orders James and Jack are a tight team, systematically and slowly sweeping across the copse. James directs Jack with an outstretched hand, and a soft “Go find! Finding!”. Jack needs little encouragement. His body-language tells all; nose down, tail up. Every now and then he starts to circle, or stops altogether, and begins to dig. At the first scuffle of leaves, James calls him off to begin his excavations, with all the patience and care of an archaeologist uncovering ancient remains.  

Search, find, reward, repeat

We’re in a rhythm – search, find, reward, repeat – and every couple of minutes yields another treasure. James noses each truffle, holding them out to me to see, before stowing them in a well-worn soft cotton bag. Occasionally, when the gentle scrape of his trowel is fruitless, James crouches down, nose pressed to the ground, to sniff out the precise spot where the truffle is located. How he can distinguish the hidden aromas from those of the forest floor is utterly beyond me, but it works. 

The bag is filling nicely – we just need a couple more. James sends Jack off once again, and almost immediately he’s on the scent. As Jack lies down, panting now, James scrapes away at the leaf litter. I hunker down next to him, quizzing him about the guided truffle days he runs. They sound a lot more glamorous, involve a rather lovely sounding lunch, and seem to take place in rather more scenic country estates. They don’t, however, usually result in quite the quantity of truffles we’ve collected today. James is still working away; this is going to be a sizeable find.

While he’s carefully unearthing the truffle’s edges, a small dark mound catches my eye. It’s got a slight shimmer to it, like coal, and the type of ridged surface I’m becoming familiar with. Cautiously, I dust away soil. “Is this?” I ask. “Might this be…?”  

“Oh yes,” comes James’s soft reply. “That’s a truffle alright.” He lets me borrow his trowel, circling around the outline, gradually exposing a smallish (but to my eyes utterly perfect) specimen. “You should take that one home,” James adds. He need not ask twice. Moments later it’s in my bag. He, meanwhile, has found a truffle the size of my fist. Quite the prize. 

A (truffle-hunting) dog’s life

While we’re looking for the last truffle of the day, James tells me about some of the other work he does. He runs days training aspirational truffle hounds, usually just for fun, but occasionally for more serious owner-hound partnerships.

“It’s not always the dogs you’d expect who make the best truffle hounds,” he says. “They’ve really got to want to please you.” Jack, it must be said, could not want to please his master more. He’s boisterous by nature, but totally in control while he’s hunting. And he’s exceptionally trained. “I picked him out for the job,” James explains. “He’s been trained for truffles since he was a puppy.”  

The future for English truffles

Will the rise of truffle orchards – essentially cultivated truffles – spell the end of James’s business, I wonder? “No, quite the reverse,” he says. “People don’t yet really think of England as somewhere truffles grow, so if they become better known it’s so much the better. It’s only really Italy, Piedmont, where the truffle market is crazy.” 

Are the truffles better there? “No, they’re different – but Périgord truffles can now be grown in the UK; perhaps its climate change but there’s definitely a change in what’s growing where,” he explains.  

Périgord truffles on the doorstep. Well there’s a thought. These are truffles which command prices of thousands of pounds; which bring with them glamour, money and risk. There have been at least two truffle-related murders, James tells me. It is, then, little wonder that the truffle hunters guard their secrets closely. 

We head out over the fields, Jack plays fetch. My head is spinning. We’ve just unearthed truffles worth hundreds of pounds – 770g, he later tells me. How, I ask, does today’s haul make him feel? Excited? “No, not anymore,” he says ruefully. “It’s just a job.” Secretive, exciting, adventurous, wild. Yes, I suppose it is just a job. But it’s a very, very good one.

Our Head Chef, Stewart Turner, knows a thing or two about cooking with truffles. For real indulgence, try his truffle and lobster macaroni cheese recipe.

Category: Food & Wine

The Grocer of St James’s Street | Part 2

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This article is the second part of The Grocer of St James’s Street, originally published in Number Three magazine in Spring 1958. Delving into the St James’s of the 17th century, this article continues the story of William Pickering – the man who laid the foundations for Berry Bros. & Rudd as it is today.

From Painter Stainer to Wine Merchant

It is likely that William had long been attracted to the Grocery and Wine Trade. One of his more distant ancestors Jon Pickering, who died in 1448, had been a Merchant Venturer, and in Tudor days the upper classes were closely associated with commerce and trade – the younger sons of gentlemen often being bound apprentice in London. During the early 18th century, the Grocer’s wares of coffee, tea, tobacco and spices still possessed that aura of romance and swashbuckling adventure on the high seas that their barter had entailed in an earlier age.  

Whatever the nostalgic reasons might have been for William’s readiness to take up grocering, the practical incentive is obvious. Possessed of a lively mind and a keen business sense, he must have realised that, commercially, the profession of Painter Stainer was on the decline. It had enjoyed a brief vogue during the pageantry that attended the Restoration of Charles II, but the colour of the Stuart regime had faded to the sober orange of the Dutch succession, and the Heraldic Artist depended mainly on the whim of the aristocrat for his dwindling custom. 

St James’s Street was rapidly becoming a fashionable quarter; its nearness to the Palace and the Court of Queen Anne made it a convenient haunt for the aristocracy, and when William set up his new studio at No.3, his position was ideal not only for pursuing his old calling of Painter Stainer, but also for his new one of Grocer and Wine Merchant.  

Eager to learn and to make his way in the world, it did not take long for William to become familiar with the business of Italian Warehousing; in this he was undoubtedly helped by his wife, whose ability and acumen he always respected. The Coffee Mill grew and flourished under its new management. On 7th May 1707, William Pickering became a Freeman Painter Stainer; on 2nd November 1715, his son William was bound to him as an apprentice Painter Stainer, and a younger son, John, on 5th November 1718 – both as mere boys.  

William and Elizabeth had two other children, Thomas Bourne and Elizabeth. Thomas went to Cambridge University and later took Holy Orders while her father advanced Elizabeth £500 on her marriage to Mr Hames Horne. It was because of William and John, however, and his determination that they should go into partnership together after his death, that William Pickering Senior conceived his Grand Plan – a plan that was to affect the structure of No.3 St James’s Street as it stands today.  

St James’s Street in development

This plan was to gain control of the whole of Stroud’s Court, including the houses on St James’s Street and those off the street behind. For this purpose, he entered into a Building Agreement with the ground landlord Sir Thomas Hanmer.  

Sir Thomas was Speaker in the House of Commons from 1713 to 1715 – providing yet another of the many links between No.3 and Parliament. By this agreement, concluded on 26th April, 1731, Pickering undertook to build “four messuages, tenements or dwelling-houses… on the piece or parcel of ground aforesaid which forms part of a certain field or close of land formerly called Pall Mall field alias St James’s Field… now known by the name of Stroud Court”. 

Pickering agreed to pull down all the buildings standing on the site and to “build and completely finish in good workmanlike style two uniform messuages to contain the whole front or breadth of the said piece of ground” facing on St James’s Street, “leaving a convenient passage on the ground floor to pass and repass to and from the Backhouses.” The “two messuages” compose the No.3 of today.  

It was further agreed that William should build and “completely finish upon the east end or back part of the said piece of ground two or more houses, messuages or tenements.” In fact, he built four such houses, which are known today as No.s 2 to 4 Pickering Place. Sir Thomas Hanmer, for his part, was to grant a lease of the whole piece of ground and any building standing on it for a term of 61 years from Midsummer Day, 1733, at a yearly rent of £60. Pickering’s tenants were forbidden to carry on such trades as “pipe maker or burner, farrier, wash stiller, melting tallow chandler, slaughterer, sugar baker or refiner, or soap boiler.” We must be grateful for this provision, for such trades would certainly be uncomfortable neighbours today.  

The Rate Book for 1731 is missing, but the Rate Book for the following year indicates that William Pickering, in his usual go-ahead way, had lost no time after the Agreement was signed in carrying out his plan. By 1732, the houses in Stroud’s Court were being pulled down, and demolitions in the street had started with the Coffee Mill. It can be imagined that William kept a keen eye on the building operations and made sure that neither shoddy workmanship nor materials went into the erection of his new kingdom. It is all the more tragic, therefore, that he did not live to see it completed, although the major part of the operations must have been finished when he died on 16th September 1734, at the age of 59.  

The Pickering Legacy

It was not until 1741 that the Rate Book officially described his monument – the Court that stands behind No.3 – as Pickering’s Court. The passage leading to it now ran between the site of No.3 and No.4, showing that the two houses straddling the old alleyway had been joined to extend the ground floor area of the Coffee Mill, while William and John, the partners, presumably occupied the upper section, divided into two dwelling houses. This is borne out by the fact that the younger Pickerings paid separate rates in 1738.  

A historical illustration of Berry Bros. & Rudd at No.3 St James's Street

Over the years, William Pickering had accumulated a fortune and died a rich and successful man. His Obituary in The Gentleman’s Magazine described him as “The Grocer of St James’s Street” and credited him with a fortune of £15,000 and £800 a year. It is not altogether surprising that this man – who came up to London with “his pockets to let” – should prosper so well and become one of the richest and most respected residents of St James’s Street, because he was born of a resourceful and adventurous family.  

His father’s second cousin was William Pickering, Knight, “a brave, wise comely English gentleman”, whose wild spirits led him into trouble in his youth, but who was later regarded as a possible consort for Queen Elizabeth. Another prominent figure to come from the same branch of the family was Sir Gilbert Pickering, who had a brilliant political career and was highly thought of by the Lord Protector, Cromwell.  

Sir Gilbert’s mother, Lady Mary, is the first Pickering who is known to have lived in St James’s Street. According to the Rate Book, she was paying six shillings in rates in 1651. Lady Mary was the aunt of “Glorious John” – the Poet Laureate, John Dryden, who was a great habitué of the Coffee Houses, the rendezvous of writers, actors, painters, musicians and high society that William Pickering was later to supply with his excellent wares.  

Long after William Pickering’s death many of these wares were to lose their individuality and become the most standardised of merchandise. So, if the shade of the firm’s true founder should still haunt St James’s, we feel he would be well pleased to find us continuing to deal in a commodity that is associated with tradition, personal service and a breath of adventure. 

Category: History

The Grocer of St James’s Street | Part 1

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Our home at No.3 St James's Street

Some 300 years ago, William Pickering laid the foundations for our business. This article is the first of two parts, originally published in Spring 1958. It dives into 17th-century St James’s Street, opening the doors on the Heraldic Painters and Coffee Mill which paved the way for the wine and spirits shop to come.

Amongst the legion of ghosts that must surely drift over the gnarled floor of No.3, or linger dimly in the cellars, it is pleasant to think that the approving spirit of William Pickering, “The Grocer of St James’s Street”, returns at times to witness the continued prestige and prosperity of the business he did so much to further over two centuries ago.  

When William Pickering came to No.3, he came not merely to buy but to enter the business as the virtual founder of our firm in its present form. A key figure in our history, his life draws together the threads of the 16th and 17th centuries and those of a later age to give us a glimpse of both our business and its environment in the making: the St James’s Fields of his ancestors’ day developing into the St James’s Street known to his descendants; Stroud’s Court reassembling as Pickering Place; and Bourne’s Italian Warehouse taking shape as Berry Bros. and Rudd wine merchants.  

He was born in 1675 in Edenham, Lincolnshire, where his father Thomas Pickering was a tailor. Thomas died when his son was 17, leaving £5 each to William and his daughter Avis “when they shall attaine to the age of 21 years”. Two years later, the scene shifts to London, where we find that on 5th September 1694, William Pickering was bound apprentice for seven years to Zachary Hutchins, Painter Stainer or Heraldic Artist.  

St James’s Street in Tudor times

Several Pickerings before him had belonged to this fraternity, which flourished in the colourful days of the Middle Ages, when its main source of income was the armorial painting of saddle-bows for tournaments. The Painter-Stainers also boomed during the time of Henry VIII, when the Field of the Cloth of Gold typified the vainglorious extravagance of the age.

Typical, too, was Henry VIII’s demolition of St James’s Hospital, originally endowed by the citizens of Norman London for the benefit of 14 leprous maidens. This had grown to a considerable establishment when Anne Boleyn, riding gaily through the green fields of St James’s with a hawk at her wrist, cast calculating eyes at the hospital, and suggested to her lover that it would be the ideal place for her to dwell, “where the eyes of Whitehall could not gaze on her”, and yet within easy reach.  

Henry bundled off the leprous virgins to Chattisham in Suffolk, and built a “goodly manor house” in 1532 on the hospital site, which later became St James’s Palace. After Cranmer had declared Henry lawfully married to Anne, she did not live very long to enjoy her new royal residence; but the “ferme house” that stood opposite the Palace against the North Gate, and which had probably supplied the hospital with milk, butter and eggs, was no doubt a beneficiary of royal custom.  

The transformation of St James’s Street

When young Will Pickering came riding up to London to try his fortune, however, the “ferme house” had vanished, and in its place was a block of buildings that had been built during the intervening years, as the district of St James’s gradually emerged from a lonely hamlet into a village, and finally, a new suburb. There is every reason to believe that the foundations of the farm house, and perhaps even some of the original timbers, were contained in those buildings, two houses of which occupied the site of No.3.  

St James's Street during the reign of Queen Anne

James I, that canny hypochondriac, issued proclamations in 1607 and 1609 forbidding the erection of buildings on new foundations in the City, or within two miles of it. This was partly because he foresaw the danger of overcrowded areas, and partly to keep the plague-ridden popular breath well clear of his shambling Majesty at Whitehall. There was therefore every incentive for building speculators to use old foundations such as those for the farm house. 

According to the Rate Books of 1695, Thomas Stroud occupied one of the houses at No.3, and is the first known resident there; he also gave his name to the four houses of Stroud’s Court that he built, which was approached at that time by a narrow passage running between the two houses at No.3. By 1696, Thomas Stroud had left St James’s, and the new tenants at Stroud’s Court are listed in the Rate Books as “Lowls Burdoffo” and “Cuarios Caproolo” — obviously the rate collector’s stab at spelling Italian names. It is possible that “Burdoffo” was the founder of the Italian Warehouse or Grocery known as the Coffee Mill that was certainly in existence a few years later when the Widow Bourne began, or possibly took over, a business there in 1698.  

By this time, Will Pickering was two years short of completing his apprenticeship. The Widow Bourne and her Coffee Mill must have become well known to him as he went about his business in St James’s Street – as must have been the bright gaze of the widow’s pretty daughter, Elizabeth. We have no means of guessing how long William’s courtship of Elizabeth was, especially as the Rate Books for 1703 and 1704 have been lost. But in 1705, the Rate Book lists “Will Piccaring” as paying £16s 8d in place of the Widow Bourne. William Pickering had arrived at No.3 at last. He had captured the widow’s daughter, her house and her business. 

To be continued…

Category: History