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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Shell-shock symphony: Berg’s Wozzeck – opera’s take on post-traumatic stress disorder

Begun in 1914 and premiered in 1925, Wozzeck has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects.

When I was 12 years old, I made a devastating discovery. The arias from my favourite operas – Rigoletto, Turandot, The Barber of Seville – which I played over and over again, winding and rewinding the cassettes ­until they ceased to work, did not ­necessarily have words that matched the beauty of the music. Intense study of a book I had received for Christmas called Stories from Opera taught me that although some of the soaring melodies I adored carried words about love, death, horror and tragedy, other lyrics, in translation, proved to be people agreeing where to meet later, or misremembering each other’s names.

This crushing disappointment came to mind again recently while I was listening to an edition of Radio 3’s Building a Library, a segment of its regular Saturday-morning CD review, in which new releases are compared and contrasted with archive recordings to find the best listening experience. The reviewer Gillian Moore was surveying the available recordings of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. She gave credit to several English-language recordings for the clarity they offer newcomers to this work, but eventually concluded that she must recommend a version using the original German, because there were crucial aural elements that could not be reproduced without it.

Moore, now director of music at the Southbank Centre, chose to kick off a series of semi-staged concert performances of operas with Wozzeck. Although undoubtedly an opera, it was a far cry from the fairy stories and doomed romances that filled my pre-teen ears, but it worked surprisingly well stripped of scenery, costumes and other theatrical accoutrements.

Zurich Opera’s presentation placed importance on the orchestral score above all else, allowing its jagged and insistent lines to remind us that this is music born of the dark years between the world wars. Begun in 1914, but delayed while Berg served in the Austro-Hungarian army (it premiered in 1925), it has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects. The score owes much to Berg’s fellow Viennese composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg (Mahler’s widow put up the money for the initial publication of the score). At times in this production, the orchestra was so utterly central that it felt like a symphony with singing, rather than vocal melodies with accompaniment.

The Wozzeck of the title is a poor soldier, flawed and dogged by madness and visions we would probably now see as signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. He scrapes a living for his girlfriend, Marie, and their son by humiliating himself before his military and class superiors (the Captain, the Doctor, the Drum Major) and by participating in degrading medical “experiments”. The star of the show, the German baritone Christian Gerhaher, had to withdraw at the last minute for health reasons, so the British singer Leigh Melrose stepped in to reprise his Wozzeck from the widely acclaimed 2013 ENO production. Despite performing from behind a music stand, Melrose acquitted himself well, handling the transitions between Berg’s three singing styles: “half-singing”, Sprechgesang (or “spoken singing”) and full vocalisation to great effect.

Gun-Brit Barkmin, with a severe Twenties bob and a flowing scarlet dress, was a superb Marie – alternately harsh and soft as the music demanded it, flirting destructively with the Drum Major while conveying how little choice she had in the matter. Of the ensemble, Lars Woldt’s Doctor particularly stood out, using the German libretto to drag every ounce of black comedy out of his character’s fascination with Wozzeck’s bodily functions. The high vocal standard proved Moore’s point about the necessity of the original German libretto – it is a difficult language to sing, because of all the harsh consonants and modified vowels, but when used expertly can be unendingly expressive. We hear this in the way the double “zz” of the title character’s name becomes a derisory bitten-off “tz” in the mouth of the Captain; and Wozzeck’s exclamation in Act I that “Du, der Platz ist verflucht!” sounds so much more accursed and deranged with all those consonants in such close proximity.

The German sociologist Theodor Adorno once called Berg “the foreign minister of the land of his dreams”, much to the composer’s amusement; but, hearing the score for Wozzeck laid so bare, you understand what Adorno meant. The incredible double crescendo on a single B from the orchestra after Wozzeck murders Marie – raised by the conductor Fabio Luisi in this performance to an unbearable volume before being allowed to die away – feels like music from an other-worldly nightmare. Yet, for the war-battered men who inspired Wozzeck, his tragic half-life was all too real.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis