Bohemian wino

Czech wines are good enough to make Roger Scruton rethink some deep-rooted opinions

Czech wine is not obtainable outside the country that produces it. In encouraging you to drink it, therefore, I am going against my deeply held convictions. For years I have insisted that travel narrows the mind, spoils the planet and undermines the local identities without which travel is pointless anyway. And here I am saying that the Czech lands are worth a visit. My excuse is that the country still has a proper railway system, which takes you rattling from village to village in a state of suitable discomfort, doing no more damage than if you had stayed at home.

A day-long journey, chopping and changing, might cost no more than £10. And while the train shakes and squeals past forests and gorges, by the banks of rivers and the backs of allotments, you can sip one of the local products, secure in the knowledge that, by supporting the wine trade, you are helping to break up the collective farms - the most ecologically disastrous of communism's many disastrous legacies. Small producers are springing up everywhere, planting vines, trees and hedges, restoring rock-hewn cellars and abandoned cottages, and generally reclaiming the sod from the sods.

Understanding the labels is the first difficulty. Familiar varietals have acquired unfamiliar names in Czech. The Cabernet Franc, which produces a clean and aromatic wine, is named Svaté Vavrinecké after St Lawrence (Svatý Vavrinec); the Pinot Noir, following German usage, is "blue Burgundian" (Burgundské modré); Pinot Grigio comes out as Rulandské sedé.

In any case, grapes taste different in this slow-growing climate, and the excitement of private ownership has led to the kind of variation from vineyard to vineyard which is the beginning of history: I recall a sweet Pinot Grigio from Znojmo in Moravia, a luscious wine, with an acidity unaltered by the sugar, and a flavour of apricots.

The second difficulty is knowing when to drink. The main meal of the day - obìd - occurs some time after 2pm; it is full of grease from slowly melted animals, sopped up by dumplings and cabbage in a pile of work-forbidding and sleep-engendering stodge. There is no way round it, so if you find yourself on the wrong side of one of these heaps, reach for the bottle and flush it down. A strong Moravian Riesling usually does the trick. And when waking some time in the early evening, you may find it necessary to take another dose.

My favourite, however, remains the Tramín, the Gewürztraminer of Alsace, which here produces a full, flowery white wine that should be drunk on its own. A bottle accompanied the Scrutons from Prague to Týniste nad Orlicí, and when the train finally jerked to a halt and we fell on to the tracks in futile expectation of a platform, it hardly mattered that Sophie sprained her ankle, I bruised my elbow and one child was calling from the already moving train.

Roger Scruton is a philosopher and countryside campaigner as well as an author and broadcaster. Widely regarded as one of Britain’s leading right wing thinkers, his publications include the Meaning of Conservatism. He has also written on fox hunting.

This article first appeared in the 11 August 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Spies for hire

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For the last time, please, bring back the plate

The slight lip around the edge is no mere bourgeois affectation; it keeps the food contained in its proper place.

The much-vaunted tech revolution is not without its casualties, as I discovered first hand last weekend. The album format, creative boredom and now my favourite skirt: all collateral damage in the vicious battle for our waning attention span.

The last met its end in a pub, when it found itself on the wrong side of a slate slab full of Sunday roast. Once gravy got involved, things turned pretty ugly; and when reinforcements arrived in the form of a red-hot jar of plum crumble, I abandoned all hope of making it out with my dignity intact and began pondering the best way of getting a dry-cleaning bill to Tim Berners-Lee.

I lay the blame for such crimes against food entirely at the feet of the internet. Serving calamari in a wooden clog, or floury baps in a flat cap, is guaranteed to make people whip out their cameraphones to give the restaurant a free plug online.

Sadly for the establishments involved, these diners are increasingly likely to be sending their artistic endeavours to We Want Plates, a campaign group dedicated to giving offenders the kind of publicity they’re probably not seeking. (Highlights from the wall of shame on the campaign’s website include a dog’s bowl of sausage, beans and chips, pork medallions in a miniature urinal, and an amuse-bouche perched on top of an animal skull – “Good luck putting those in the dishwasher”.) Such madness is enough to make you nostalgic for an era when western tableware was so uniform that it moved an astonished Japanese visitor to compose the haiku: “A European meal/Every blessed plate and dish/Is round.”

The ordinary plate has its limitations, naturally: as every Briton knows, fish and chips tastes better when eaten from greasy paper, while a bit of novelty can tickle even the jaded palate at the end of a meal. Watching Jesse Dunford Wood create dessert on the tabletop at his restaurant Parlour is definitely the most fun I’ve ever had with an arctic roll (there’s a great video on YouTube, complete with Pulp Fiction soundtrack).

Yet the humble plate endures by simple dint of sheer practicality. The slight lip around the edge is no mere bourgeois affectation; it keeps the food contained in its proper place, rather than slipping on to the tablecloth, while the flat centre is an ideal surface for cutting – as anyone who has ever tackled sausages and mash in an old army mess tin (“perfect for authentic food presentation”, according to one manufacturer) will attest.

Given these facts, I hope Tom Aikens has invested in good napkins for his latest venture, Pots Pans and Boards in Dubai. According to a local newspaper, “Aikens’s Dubai concept is all in the name”: in other words, everything on the menu will be presented on a pot, pan or board. So the youngest British chef ever to be awarded two Michelin stars is now serving up salade niçoise in an enamel pie dish rightly intended for steak and kidney.

Truly, these are the last days of Rome – except that those civilised Romans would never have dreamed of eating oysters from a rock, or putting peas in an old flowerpot. Indeed, the ancient concept of the stale bread trencher – to be given to the poor, or thrown to the dogs after use – seems positively sophisticated in comparison, although I can’t help seeing the widespread adoption of the modern plate in the 17th century as a great leap forward for mankind, on a par with the internal combustion engine and space travel.

Which is why I have every faith that all those tiny trollies of chips and rough-hewn planks of charcuterie will eventually seem as absurd as surrealist gazelle-skin crockery, or futurist musical boxes full of salad.

In the meantime, may I recommend the adult bib?

Felicity Cloake write the food column for the New Statesman. She also writes for the Guardian and is the author of  Perfect: 68 Essential Recipes for Every Cook's Repertoire (Fig Tree, 2011) and Perfect Host: 162 easy recipes for feeding people & having fun (Fig Tree, 2013). She is on Twitter as @FelicityCloake.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide