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July 05, 2016
THE merits and flaws of Europe have been bitterly contested in recent weeks, but if there’s one thing we can surely all agree on, it’s that the Europeans effortlessly rout us when it comes to food and drink culture.
Venture to the Mediterranean-kissed parts of the continent and you enter a parallel universe where life revolves around socialising, scoffing and sipping.
Spain’s economy may be approaching a decade of stagnancy, but at least they know how to indulge in the good things.
The Gourmand would gladly swap England’s dreary protestant work ethic for an fantasy Latin life of destitution as long as it involved regular top-ups of fino sherry and plates of wafer thin Serrano ham.
Oafish Brits of the kind recently seen topless and bellowing in the port of Marseilles could learn a thing or two about all-day drinking from the European example of regular snacking. According to legend King Felipe III introduced mandatory tapas after realising his subjects would get more work done if they had a bit of food with all the wine they were swigging.
In the mould of the type of place that seems to be dotted on the corners of many a European town is Fourth & Church.
With the greatest of compliments, its a wine merchant, bar and delicatessen which feels like a place to drink wine, with food as a secondary though excellent accompaniment.
A homage to the great tapas bars of Seville and the delis of New York, co-owners Paul Morgan and Sam Pryor have some serious hospitality pedigree, having years of experience in Brighton and beyond, from Terre à Terre to The Fat Duck. But despite this elite fine-dining experience, it is the unpretentious, relaxed style they have gone for – and emphatically succeed at.
A wall of bottles big enough to warrant a Knight's Watch patrol dominates one side of the deep room, which is both impressive and slightly daunting. But though you can peruse the selection to take out or sit-down, the curated menu is more manageable.
Ridgeview’s Cavendish is a great place to start, hailed as the benchmark for English sparkling wine by big personality wine merchant and Fourth and Church supplier Henry Butler, for its rich, biscuit, ripe fruit flavours.
And while not restricted to Spain, there’s a strong Iberian current running through, and we have the Basque country’s answer to tapas – pintxos. Bit-sized appetisers on sticks, these are better than many you’d get on the Barcelona strip, where the speciality has been whole-heartedly adopted, and we have a blue cheese, pear and hazelnut which is lushed up with honey, as well as a razor sharp roll-mop style herring.
An interesting drop to follow with fish is the young Portuguese quinta de raza, clear and fresh and almost half-way to sparkling with a gentle effervescence. We had it with a small basket of huss, an often ignored specimen possibly because it is dogfish (sometimes euphemised into rock salmon). Very lightly battered with just lemon and parsley it’s an example of restraint which lets the mature huss stand firm, slipping down beautifully with our vinho verde.
Great-looking was the house-cured gravadlax, flashed with dramatic shades of beetroot purple, with dill crème fraiche and cucumber. With harmonious sides, it’s about as good as cured salmon gets – sweet, salty, firm and flavourful.
Seamlessly hopping from Sweden to Sicily, the caponata is served cold and with a jammy sweetness from the golden sultanas and abundant pine-nuts. The Gourmand has a bit of textural problem with aubergine which isn’t blackened or pureed Middle Eastern style, but there is no such mind block here.
There was as much other great-sounding stuff that we didn’t try – heritage tomatoes with sheep’s cheese, Parmigianino meatballs, salmon kibbe with preserved lemon – which all come small for a great value £5-6.
But with a cheese glaring and tempting us from our window-side stools, we order the Neal’s Yard Diary sourced four-cheese selection, which is mutually agreed to be up there with the best either of us have had the pleasure of picking over. The Lincolnshire poacher is somewhere between a cheddar and a Swiss mountain cheese; the Colston Basset a sweet creamy Stilton; Neal’s own white-as-snow Ragstone goats cheese; and cheesemaker’s cheese, the raw cow’s mile St Jude.
It’s a wonderfully curated and elegantly presented, with sumptuous pickled and chutney’d bits which don’t so much accompany - the cheese doesn’t need it - but recentre the palette’s sense of order with the world. All the cheeses are English too - a reassuring reminder we are capable of doing something as well as our great European neighbours over the channel.
Out of some great wines, one of the best was the bodegas y vinedos maurodos prima, a toro-dominant red which was full-bodied and lingered long after we left. To finish, there was a sweet dark vermouth, which has made an unlikely comeback in trendy parts of London and across the continent. Though usually taken as an aperitif, Cochhi’s Terrino is a logical stand-in for a digestiv, its orange, nutty, bitter-sweet ending a near faultless experience.
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