Have a pop at champagne’s poor Spanish relation

Search out good cava.

“Take what you want,” says the Arab proverb, “and pay for it.” This seems obvious to the point of cliché, except for the hallowed tradition of trying to ignore the payment bit. Tax cheats want smooth roads and rubbish collection organised by celestial beings who scorn remuneration; not a few women hunt for ways to pack half a century of experience inside the springy epidermis of a 25-year-old.

There is something wrong with our ability to calculate cause and consequence, although there is, to be fair, also a profound flaw in a universe where it’s easier to fiddle your taxes than keep your youthful complexion. Still, the most important outcome of this defect in our species, if you don’t count war, is crap, cheap wine.

There is a lesson here, if we could but see it. If you buy something at half price, or you buy one and get one free, and the one in question is horrible, you have not got a bargain. You are not taking what you want – but you are paying for what you get. This is a terrible deal. So why do we persist?

Partly, through ignorance. It is one of my biggest gripes with this country (and, trust me, I have plenty) that we don’t know how to drink. It is perfectly acceptable among most twentysomething Brits to down six pints of rotgut in the pub with no dinner but if I had a pound for every time someone interpreted my interest in wine as snobbery or alcoholism or both, I’d be able to buy up all those substandard pubs and close them down. Well, I’m sorry but I win this one. The only kind of bargain I like is something that’s worth paying for – which is not at all to say I want to spend a fortune on my evening beverage.

Which brings me to cava. No – put down that £6 supermarket bottle and listen. Cava has sold itself as cheap bubbles for the celebrating classes with great success: nearly 36 million bottles arrived on our doorstep last year and I’ve yet to meet anyone who has never heard of the stuff. I’ve also met very few people who think it tastes nice but that’s because they’re drinking the wrong cava.

Most cava comes from Penedès, near the little town Sant Sadurní d’Anoia, just outside Barcelona, and contains some combination of Xarel-lo, Parellada and Macabeu grapes, although Chardonnay and PinotNoir, two of the varieties allowed in champagne, also show up, and there is Monastrell and Trepat in the rosés. But definitions are loose, production standards low and the priority seems to be keeping it cheap rather than making it good. Several of the best producers are so irritated by this image problem that they’ve stopped labelling their wines as cava at all. Pepe Raventós, who makes the superb Raventós i Blanc fizz, has come up with an alternative name and a strict set of rules for his little patch. He wants the designation Conca del Riu Anoia; I wish him luck getting the English to ask for that.

The man more likely to get this country clamouring for cava is Richard Bigg, owner of London’s four Camino restaurants and Pepito, a sherry utopia whose only flaw is its extreme titchiness. He has now opened Copa de Cava, a bar dedicated to Spanish fizz, beneath Camino San Pablo, near St Paul’s. In a vaulted cellar, delightfully decorated with pig haunches, sit cavas ranging from £4.75 a glass to £95 a bottle.

Here, you can try the toasty complexity of Gramona’s superb 2007 brut; a 100 per cent Pinot Noir by Juvé y Camps that pings sour cherries at you; or a delicately drinkable Raventós i Blanc rosat, made from the three traditional cava grapes, plus Monastrell. House fizz is Vilarnau brut, a decent, lemony starter cava. These producers vinify carefully, age judiciously and sell at a price that can keep them in jamón. The results are splendid and, like champagne (which is made using the same process), include differing styles as well as prices. If you want to stick to your tongue-scorcher, fine: you’re paying for it, after all. But drinking bad booze is too high a price for me.

Bubbling under: forget the supermarkets and search out good suppliers of cava. Photograph: Getty Images.

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 22 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, How to make a saint

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"By now, there was no way back for me": the strange story of Bogdan Stashinsky

Serhii Plokhy’s The Man with the Poison Gun is a gripping, remarkable Cold War spy story.

On the morning of 12 August 1961, a few hours before the supreme leader of East Germany, Walter Ulbricht, announced the sealing of the border between East and West Berlin, a funeral took place for a four-month-old boy at the Rohrbeck Evangelical Cemetery in Dallgow. Numerous KGB agents and officers of the East German ministry of security were in attendance, but the boy’s parents were missing. Instead, Bogdan Stashinsky and Inge Pohl were preparing their imminent escape from Soviet-occupied territory and into the West. They had intended to flee the following day, but the funeral provided a moment of opportunity when their surveillance was relaxed. If they wanted to go, they had to go now.

“The KGB operatives present at the child’s funeral were puzzled by the parents’ absence,” a Soviet intelligence officer later wrote. “By the end of the day on 13 August 1961, it was clear that the Stashinskys had gone to the West. Everyone who knew what tasks the agent had carried out in Munich in 1957 and 1959, and what could happen if Stashinsky were to talk, was in shock.”

Those “tasks” were the state-sponsored assassinations of Lev Rebet and Stepan Bandera, two exiled leaders of the Ukrainian anti-communist movement who had been living in Munich. Stashinsky, one of the KGB’s top hitmen, and the focus of Serhii Plokhy’s gripping book, had been given the task of tracking and killing them with a custom-built gun that sprayed a lethal, yet undetectable poison. It was only after Stashinsky’s defection to the Central Intelligence Agency, and then to the West German security services, that the cause of Rebet and Bandera’s deaths was finally known.

For decades, the KGB denied any involvement in the assassinations, and the CIA has never been entirely sure about Stashinsky’s motives. Was he telling the truth when he confessed to being the assassin, or was he, as some still claim, a loyal agent, sent to spread disinformation and protect the true killer? Plokhy has now put to rest the many theories and speculations. With great clarity and compassion, and drawing from a trove of recently declassified files from CIA, KGB and Polish security archives, as well as interviews conducted with former heads of the South African police force, he chronicles one of the most curious espionage stories of the Cold War.

Stashinsky’s tale is worthy of John le Carré or Ian Fleming. Plokhy even reminds us that The Man With the Golden Gun, in which James Bond tries to assassinate his boss with a cyanide pistol after being brainwashed by the Soviets, was inspired by the Stashinsky story. But if spy novels zero in on a secret world – tradecraft, double agents, defections, and the moral fallout that comes from working in the shadows – Plokhy places this tale in the wider context of the Cold War and the relentless ideological battle between East and West.

The story of Stashinsky’s career as a triggerman for the KGB plays out against the backdrop of the fight for Ukrainian independence after the Second World War. He was a member of the underground resistance against the Soviet occupation, but was forced to become an informer for the secret police after his family was threatened. After he betrayed a resistance cell led by Ivan Laba, which had assassinated the communist author Yaroslav Halan, Stashinsky was ostracised by his family and was offered the choice of continuing his higher education, which he could no longer afford, or joining the secret police.

“It was [only] a proposal,” he said later, “but I had no alternative to accepting it and continuing to work for the NKVD. By now, there was no way back for me.” He received advanced training in Kyiv and Moscow for clandestine work in the West and became one of Moscow’s most prized assets. In 1957, after assassinating Rebet, he was awarded the
Order of the Red Banner, one of the oldest military decorations in the Soviet Union.

Plokhy’s book is about more than the dramas of undercover work; it is also an imaginative approach to the history of Cold War international relations. It is above all an affective tale about the relationship between individual autonomy and state power, and the crushing impact the police state had on populations living behind the Iron Curtain. Stashinsky isn’t someone of whom we should necessarily approve: he betrayed his comrades in the Ukrainian resistance, lied to his family about who he was and killed for a living. Yet we sympathise with him the more he, like so many others, turns into a defenceless pawn of the Communist Party high command, especially after he falls in love with his future wife, Inge.

One of the most insightful sections of Plokhy’s book converges on Stashinsky’s trial in West Germany in 1962 over the killings of Rebet and Bandera, and how he was given a reduced sentence because it was deemed that he had been an instrument of the Soviet state. The decision was influenced by German memories of collective brainwashing under the Third Reich. As one of the judges put it: “The accused was at the time in question a poor devil who acted automatically under pressure of commands and was misled and confused ideologically.”

What makes Plokhy’s book so alarmingly resonant today is how Russia still uses extrajudicial murder as a tool of foreign policy. In 2004 Viktor Yushchenko, the pro-Western future president of Ukraine, was poisoned with dioxin; two years later Aleksandr Litvinenko, the Russian secret service defector, unknowingly drank radioactive polonium at a hotel in London. The Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya survived a poisoning in 2004 after drinking tea given to her by an Aeroflot flight attendant (she was murdered two years later). The collapse of the Soviet Union did not bring the end of the Russian threat (Putin, remember, is ex-KGB). As le Carré noted in a speech in the summer of 1990, “The Russian Bear is sick, the Bear is bankrupt, the Bear is frightened of his past, his present and his future. But the Bear is still armed to the teeth and very, very proud.”

The Man with the Poison Gun: a Cold War Spy Story by Serhii Plokhy is published by Oneworld (365pp, £18.99)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge