Wednesday, 14 September 2011

WWOOF: Wine's Best Kept Secret

I was honoured to be invited by Orlando to a pop up lunch last Sunday in Black's members' club called Pop-Up Potentino. I knew very little about what I was getting myself in for but the emailed menu looked exquisite, decent value and hosted in a venue I'd never visited before. The event turned out to be my initiation into the society of WWOOF-ers, wine's best kept secret.

WWOOF stands for 'World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms'. This membership charity connects you with organic farms that provide food and shelter in exchange for manual work on their land. Orlando had worked twice at the Tuscan organic winery of Castello Di Potentino, the host of today's pop up restaurant.

 Castello Di Potentino is 10 acres of vineyard overlooked by the restored castle (found in an old guide book). As Orlando described it: 'Gruelling' work in the Tuscan sun, with an afternoon banquet accompanied by delicious pasta and wines, in the shade of a medieval, restored castle? Sounds like a holiday, doesn't it?

The WWOOF movement was born in 1971 when Sue Coppard organised a trial weekend for herself and three other Londoners on an organic farm in East Sussex originally stood for Working Weekends on Organic Farms. "Sue arranged a deal with the farmer: they would help out with work that needed doing on the land in exchange for food and accommodation. The weekend was so successful that it became a regular trip, every third weekend." From there it snowballed...

Orlando's experiences as a WWOOF-er, hoeing the estate with ancient equipement, were related to me over a delicious, crisp class of the castle's Lyncurio. A white wine tinted with what Charlotte describes as, 'the pale cold pink of a winter sunset'. You could even detect notes of his hard work. His two stints at the vineyard had obviously been a success for he was treated like a family member and it turned out had even been serving dinner at the Saturday evening sitting of the pop up event.

I had entered Black's that day through the basement door. Pausing to admire the chocolate pots being lovingly filled with rich, molten goo by the restaurant team, I was warmly welcomed by the small room of lunch guests including our hosts, Charlotte Horton and Alexander Greene, who live on, own and run the wine estate - the only organic winery in the region.

Menu"Wild Fennel Days"

Caserecce with Ricotta and Wild Fennel Tops

Guinea Fowl with Potentino Olives and Juniper, Sauteed Fennel
Salad with Potentino Special Sauce

Alexander's Potty Chocolate Pot with Bitter Chocolate, Lavender and Maldon Salt


You can turn down these opportunities because it's a Sunday and you should be forgoing wine for a fresh Monday but, the way I look at it, when you can, you have to put yourself in these situations. Good things are more likely to happen when you do. Mondays are always going to be tough but at least you have a story. As my friend Lina once told me, Simon, sometimes you have to take one for the anecdote. Though I'm sure I'm stories were about things much worse.

As it turned out, I was incredibly happy I said yes. But I soon began to realise my promise of one glass of wine with lunch was going out the window.

Millie arrived and soon we were ushered upstairs to the dining room. I love that at pop up events you are put at tables with people you haven't met before. Generally the people will be interesting and you know there's a shared love of food to bind you together if the going gets tough. It turned out that Orlando, Millie and I were seated at a long, sturdy wood table with the vineyard owner's daughter and cousin next to us. It really was a family affair. They had all worked at the vineyard at one time or another. On presentation of the olive oil and bread, we were even told that she might have pressed this batch herself. The oil was amazing, so smooth and light you could have drunk it.

The Black's club dining room was a wooden floored and walled, narrow set of connected rooms with character provided by old paintings and hogarth-like sketches hanging on the walls from ceiling length black wrought iron chains and hooks. The lights were slowly dimmed through the meal accentuating the light cast from the large clam shell-fronted candles lining the walls.

The primo pasta course was typically Italian - massive. The caserecce pasta served with ricotta and the strong taste of fennel was excellent. We could not tell if the pasta was a tube or not. It required licking the sauce off to reveal that the pasta was a delicate, 'S' shape running along the width with no hole. Alexander, ever-present chatting to guests, informed us that this was his favourite pasta. It is certainly a smash hit new entry in my pasta appreciation chart. I'm always fascinated by how pasta is chosen to match a sauce - like a thick papardelle that allows a meaty wild boar ragu to hug it.

As with the pasta, so evaporated the Lyncurio. Next up a bottle of the Sacromonte 2006. This accompanied the guinea fowl nicely. Such delicious hearty country fare was complimented by the mediterranean olives and a further hit of fennel. With no room for the salad and special sauce I was beat. Well, until the desert. There's always room for desert. Cheerily realising that organic wines should give no hangover if drunk liberally with water, I toasted the dark Sacromonte wine.

The desert was sublime. Thick, smooth, dark chocolate in small pots: in a state lost between molten and solid, happy to be scooped up by spoon but energetic enough to try to get back in the pot if you weren't quick. Each mouthful was to be savoured as it released the lavender flavour and a salty bite. This was a trully impressive flavour combo.

Coffees closed the lunch which was by now somewhere close to dinner. Drinking the wines in London with the producers, their family, wwooters and friends was a fantastic experience. Hearing about the days working in the fields in the shadow of the castle made me dream of Tuscan holidays and harvests. I know where I'll be one hot Summer's day.

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Click here to read a Guardian article giving a good introduction to how and where to WWOOF.

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1 comment:

  1. I'm afraid I can't agree with this article. The pop-up Potentino is a real money-spinning operation on the food front, combining a Hampstead view of peasant-authenticity with high prices. There is a reason why this peasant grub went out of fashion and it's a good one, as people's palate's became more (not less) sophisticated. If you are going to serve it, it should not cost as much as Potentino charges. The wine is good, but expensive for what it is.