You need a beefy red when you have a cow, man!

What should one drink with a steak? The answer isn't always obvious.

Restaurants in Britain came about when, shortly after 1789, a bunch of French chefs found themselves unemployed, without notice or pay-off, and crossed the Channel. The egalitarian impulse that did for their aristocratic employers took a while to gain traction but, 200-odd years later, almost everyone eats out, although there are certainly social divisions in what they eat and where – and their beverage options are rarely up to my undemocratic standards.

So, dinner is complicated. My wine collection is composed of everything I like to drink and is free at the point of access. Balanced against this are an adventurous gastronomic spirit and a suspicion that guillotining is preferable to washing up.

The solution is to bring my own, but good-quality BYOs are rarer than cows’ fangs in this great country of ours. I therefore deem it considerate of the Hawksmoor restaurants to transform themselves into BYOs every Monday, offering corkage at a fiver a bottle.

Hawksmoor steak is superb and I am part Aussie, which means my idea of a vegetarian meal is one where you get side dishes with your barely cooked cow. I have nothing against its wine list, either, though it has never had the benefit of my palate at its best on account of its marmalade Martini – an elixir that deserves a column to itself and will probably get one.

The joy of a Monday BYO policy is that it transforms a depressing day – one so far from the next weekend’s indulgence that foolish folk feel the need to compound its miseries with temporary teetotalism – into one where I get to drink whatever I want with great steak, someone else deals with the dishes and the meal even meets my definition of vegetarian dining because of the fabulous triple-cooked chips.

There’s still one problem, however: what do I want to drink with it? To some extent it depends on the cut – tannic wines slice deftly through fattier meat – but only to some extent, as steak is a forgiving dinner companion. Most reds with a bit of heft will partner decently with a hunk of good rare beef. (If you don’t think good beef should be eaten rare, we probably won’t agree on much.)

This, however, is a hypothesis begging to be tested, and so four hungry women convene at Hawksmoor Guildhall with seven bottles, which seems about right to me. “Everybody’s going to judge us,” mutters Helen, and so they do: judge us and find their own dinners wanting. Our waiter informs us that people keep asking if they can have what we’re having. It’s like that scene in When Harry Met Sally, but with better beverages.

We don’t try Bordeaux or Burgundy – both fine steak matches but there wouldn’t be room on the table. Two Argentinian Malbecs work nicely: Susana Balbo Malbec 2010 is fine and spicy, full of cinnamon and blackberries; its little sister, the Anubis (also by Balbo) is a cheapish peoplepleaser, soft and plush as purple velvet. It used to be in Tesco and I cried when they delisted it.

Argentina’s steaks are legendary and Malbec is the locals’ choice, but Hawksmoor’s beef is British and, call me a purist (go on, please), but I find these wines, delicious as they are, slightly too soft and rounded for cool-climate meat.

When first opened, without food, Jean-Luc Colombo Crozes Hermitages Les Gravières 2010 feels a bit thin and acidic – a stingy wine. But show it a steak and that thinness becomes a fine, peppery flavour, and the acid melts as the tannins take hold, sharpening their knives and getting to work. Chimney Rock Cabernet Sauvignon 2008, from Napa Valley, was another wine in need of a decanter: given a bit of air and a lot of cow, it was delightful.

Our conclusion, as we waddled into the night, is that steak is as accommodating as the animal it comes from. So pick your cut and choose your region – and if you’re eating at Hawksmoor, I’ll wish you bon appétit. You’ll surely need it.

Next week: Nature

Perfect pair: good steaks can transform slightly acidic wines. Photograph: Marcus Nilsson/Gallery Stock.

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 02 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Syria: The west humiliated

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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