Monday 29 November 2021

The Côte de Nuits

*** Boring post alert. If you couldn't give a stuff about wine I suggest you stop here! ***

The wine-growing area known as the Côte de Nuits is a string of communes south of Dijon, running from the village of Marsannay in the north to the small town of Nuits-Saint-Georges in the south. If you go further south from here you will arrive in Ladoix-Serrigny which is the start of the Côte de Beaune, which runs through the town of Beaune itself all the way to the village of Santenay. Together they make up the Côte d'Or. 

Whereas the Côte de Beaune is best known for its white wines, the Côte de Nuits is famed for its reds. If you are a wine lover mere mentions of places like Chambolle-Musigny or Gevrey-Chambertin, or of vineyards like Echézeaux and La Tâche, are enough to have you salivating. And likely weeping that most of these are forever destined to be beyond the reach of a mere mortal like yourself. Or that is how I feel about it anyway. Once upon a time Burgundy was affordable but in the last ten to 15 years market forces have rather taken over, and the minute quantities of wine that this region produces are subscribed many times over with the inevitable result. Much of it heads east as trophies, and the rest of us squabble over what is left. If you are a member of a wine club like I am you occasionally get a small allocation, sometimes just a single bottle. You can squirrel this away for a few years by which time it may be so frighteningly expensive that you cannot possibly bear to open it, or you can throw pecuniary caution to the wind and experience the pure unadulterated joy that is top quality pinot noir or chardonnay in the flush of youth. I confess to a little of both.

Snuffi achieves a long-held ambition

It was a beautiful cold and crisp morning, blue skies and frigid digits. I left Beaune early, grabbing breakfast on the way out of town, and after a short drive through Aloxe-Corton and Nuits-Saint-Georges arrived in the seminal village of Vosne-Romanée, home to one of the most celebrated wine-makers in the whole world, La Domaine de la Romanée-Conti. All I wanted to do was to look at the vineyard, to try and understand what it is about this tiny enclave surrounded by low stone walls that makes so many people go weak at the knees. Needless to say I've never tasted a single drop, but for some people it is a lifelong ambition to own just a single bottle. I remember when I started working in Canary Wharf in the late nineties that Waitrose Cellar used to have a few bottles but those days are long gone and I never took the opportunity. Likely I would have drunk it eons ago before I really knew what it meant. The alternative view is that it is just a bottle of wine and anyone who pays thousands of pounds for one is a bit of a dope - a fool and his money are easily parted. I came away none the wiser really. Standing on such hallowed ground there is inevitably a bit of a sense of mysticism that creeps in, particularly if you know, but in the world we live in even spending £100 on a bottle of wine seems crassly insensitive when you actually stop and think about it. 

I was not the first pilgrim

I took a slow and contemplative wander south to La Grande Rue monopole (fifteen years ago I had a case but it fell into the first category and I was forced to offload it) and then north to Richebourg before visiting the local cemetery. You can learn a lot in places like this, particularly so in Burgundy which is a huge spider's web of intermarriage, family strife and the fragmentation of inheritance. Everyone is someone's son, daughter or cousin, domaines change hands with each generation or sometimes not at all, and to chart the history of any one family is to ride a rollercoaster of boom and bust, from total decimation to the triumphant rebirth and return to the golden era of times past, row by row, hectare by hectare. 

The monopole of La Grande Rue, owned by Domaine Francois Lamarche, and farmed now by his daughter Nicole. A narrow lane about three metres wine separates this plot from the Romanée-Conti. One costs twenty times as much as the other. Both are obscenely unaffordable.

Domaine Jean Grivot, Vosne-Romanée. I could afford this until 2018 after which an unjustified 37% price hike caused me to look elsewhere. A real shame as the wines are divine. I am slowly drinking my remaining stocks.

The Chateau de Vosne-Romanée, seat of the Comte de Ligier-Belair. Fortunes have been mixed, but I reckon he's doing OK.

I continued on to the Clos de Vougeot, an immense 50 hectare walled vineyard with grand cru status. A grand cru is at the top of the local classification scale, the best of the best. Within Burgundy there are four levels of hierarchy. Regional is the lowest, and which covers wines  grown anywhere within the overall Côtes. They could be labelled simply as Bourgogne Rouge, or perhaps Côtes de Nuits. Next up are village wines, those made within a particular commune and which can take its name, so for example Fixin, or Marsannay. These vineyards are usually on the flatter ground where the soil is richer due to erosion, and where they don't get quite the same amount of sun. The next level are the premier cru - these will have names that also appear on the bottle as well as the village, so for example Vosne-Romanée "Les Suchots", or Chambolle-Musigny "Les Amoureuses". These vineyards are generally on the slopes where the soil is poorer, the drainage is better, where the yields are less, and where they have an advantageous orientation. And finally there are the grands crus, where all the factors come together in apparent perfection - the soil, the minerals, the exact angle of the slope and the direction it faces. These go by their name alone, the village is superflous. Some have even given their name to the village, or rather than village has decided to add the name of the grand cru to its own in order to elevate itself by association. Hence Chambolle-Musigny, Puligy-Montrachet, Gevrey-Chambertin - the bits in italics are the grand cru vineyards. What is odd is that you can stand at a crossroads of small lanes at certain points on the Côte d'Or and be next to all of them. If you face west the field in front of you is a premier cru. If you turn 90 degrees to your left you will now be looking south at a grand cru, and if you turn around and look east behind you you will see a mere village vineyard. If the vines are very young in the village vineyard they may be declassified to a regional wine - all sorts of rules and regulations exist. If you lay face-up in the middle of the road with your legs pointing south you could likely touch all four, but a bottle from the vines by your feet will set you back hundred and hundreds of pounds, whereas a wine made ten feet away just next to your right hand can be had for perhaps about 70, and those next to your left hand maybe 20 or 30. This is what is known as terroir. It is illogical that there can be so much perceived difference, but then again when a bottle of wine trades for 500 quid and there are still many more people that want one than there are to sell then maybe logic has already taken a back seat and is just enjoying the spectacle.

Clos de Vougeot is a gigantic grand cru and is split amongst countless growers, over 80 at the last reckoning. Within these walls are people making incredible wine. Also within these walls are people trading on the name and making absolute garbage. Whether this is because they couldn't care less or whether their hectare is in a particularly muddy corner of the clos I have no idea, but this is definitely a place where the maxim of following the producer rather than the vineyard is absolutely key. In the northern part of the vineyard lies the Chateau du Clos de Vougeot, no longer making wine but instead a historical monument to wine making. It was  founded by Cistercian monks who once cultivated the entire area, and is now preserved as a museum, as well as being the headquarters of the local wine syndicate and where the noble Chevaliers du Tastevin have their annual piss-up. I had a wander around but in truth museums are not frequently my thing - in this case huge dusty wine presses from centuries past and various silver goblets - and I continued my northbound journey to Chambolle-Musigny.

As I mentioned in my crossroads example, individual neighbouring plots can be very different, and so it should come as no surprise that each wine-growing village has different soils to its immediate neighbours as well as different expositions, and hence each one ends up making different types of wines. In Nuits-Saint-Georges for example you get quite austere wines, very tannic and structured wines made for the long haul and which can take many years to come around. The same can be true of Pernand-Vergelesses slightly further south. Patience is needed but once you finally get there you are drinking the true expression of the place, the terroir. I really like Gevrey, I adore what they make in Vosne, but it is in Chambolle where in my view the closest vision of perfection is found. In Chambolle-Musigny the default style is of elegant and voluptuous fruit that caresses and delights, feminine wines of beauty and finesse whose aromas are divine and where each sip can go on forever.... Errr, I'll stop there, the pretentious button has been well and truly pressed and I don't wish to embarrass myself any more. All I can say is that wine is something I am very interested in and as regular readers will probably know I tend not to merely dip in to my hobbies. Of course some producers will make wines of great structure in Chambolle that will take an age to come good, just as there are growers in Nuits such as Chevillon who make silken wines that bely their origin. There is no single factor as important as who made the wine, but the style of the village is nonetheless a very good starting point.

And then there are places like Morey-St-Denis, my next stop, where an individual identity perhaps does not exist quite as definitively as elsewhere, with wines that come from vineyards to the south resembling those of Chambolle, whereas those from the north have more in common with Gevrey, the next village up. I had hoped to be able to sample wines from both ends at the local Caveau des Vignerons who conveniently stock the produce of everyone in the village, but this being France they had closed for a two hour lunch break. Brilliant. There are things I love about France and there are things I loathe; this is one of them. No doubt if I lived here then this would be something sacrosanct that I would love, but today as a visitor with limited time it was a great irritation. Instead I managed to scoop a quick visit chez Magnien, a bit of a surprise as they were not really open, but I winged it and managed to taste both a Morey and a Chambolle - only a tiny soupçon of each as I was driving. I found the Morey more engaging funnily enough, perhaps as the Chambolle came from a mix of different plots.

This is pure supposition on my part as to why this wine might have been less harmonious than its sibling, and there are a whole host of other things it could have been, but it brings me to another thing about Burgundy, the difference between a domaine and a négotiant. There are vines that people own and make wine from and these are known as domaine wines. Many of the myriad of smaller producers operate like this, small scale farmers who do everything from start to finish, sometimes making their wine in little more than a garage or an outhouse. Then there are vines that people rent and make wine from - they might do all the work or none, or they might just perform the actual harvest, deciding on the optimum picking time and bringing in their own team to do it themselves, rather than any of the viticulture that preceded it. All variations of this are unlikely to be called domaine wines, but neither are they really négotiant wines, they fall somewhere in between. And then there are producers who simply buy either grapes or must (freshly pressed grape juice), and the wine that comes from these sources are definitely négotiant wines. But quite often the wine-makers do a mixture of all of these things, and it is very hard to know exactly what level of involvement they may have had in the final evolution of the bottle that is in front of you. Bottles are labeled in different ways, or perhaps not at all, and often the only way to find out is to ask. So the Morey came from a family-owned plot where every step was carried out in-house, whereas the Chambolle came from a variety of plots across one premier cru vineyard called "Les Borniques", all owned by different people thanks to Napoleonic inheritance laws, but in this case all farmed by the Domaine. Or at least that is what I think they said, I may be getting mixed up with Domaine Chanson in Beaune that I visited later on. You may have seen some of the big négotiant houses on local supermarket shelves or places like Majestic - Jadot, Louis Latour, Bouchard. They dominate the wine trade in Burgundy and are massive operations.

I made a brief foray up into Gevrey, passing the various flavours of Chambertin vineyards as well as Bonnes Mares and Clos de B
èze, but my time was up and I missed out on the villages of Fixin and Marsannay. I had an appointment in Beaune at 3pm and a number of shops to visit now that they were all sufficiently restored after their two hour lunch breaks - I'll cover part of this in a shorter and likely equally dull piece on the Côte de Beaune. A lot of what I've said here about sites, classifications, elevation and so on also hold true there, so I won't need to repeat that. In summary a fun morning, and far less posh than I have made it sound, I basically went on a series of small walks alongside some expensive fields. I also submitted a series of joyful eBird lists from individual vineyards as I went along. All of them contained Chaffinches.

A missed opportunity at Latricieres-Chambertin

Sunday 28 November 2021

Sur la Côte

I've just come back from a rather indulgent and highly educational trip to Burgundy, home to the some of the finest vineyards on the planet, at least until climate change makes it impossible to grow grapes there. I'm currently going through millions of photographs, mostly of Snuffi perched on the various village road signs. The highlight was a bike ride starting in Beaune, and winding through the vineyards to Pommard, Volnay, Meursault and finally to Puligny-Montrachet, where I had lunch accompanied by wines labelled with the names I had just cycled through. If you know or like wine, some or all of these places may be familiar to you, and if you don't I did find a Brambling in Meursault just south of the main square.

I love good wine. I especially like drinking it of course, but I also enjoy learning about it, and there is no better way to learn about particular wines than by going to where they are made. Certainly that slow pedal through the vines taught me more than any book could about the soil, the slopes and where individual plots lie, and by talking to vignerons as I passed by I got a far better idea of what was happening. Some of the vines I cycled past I will never in a million years be able to afford, it is likely my whole life will pass without so much as a sip of Le Montrachet. North of Beaune, just outside the village of Vosne-Romanée I took a side road to the west and suddenly found myself next to possibly the most exalted patch of earth in France being ploughed by a horse, and from where a single bottle can cost £20k. Who buys it and nonchalantly pops the cork I cannot say. Not I.

There are a few wines from the area still just about within reach however, and I took great pleasure in tasting as many of them as I could at the domaines, shops, bars and restaurants from Gevrey in the north to Chassagne in the south. Post Brexit the duty free allowance is only 24 bottles, but from a place like Burgundy that is probably for the best and I didn't manage to reach it. I'll do a photo essay in due course. Between squandering my children's inhertance and chowing down on calorific goodness I also managed a morning of birding in Picardie, and an afternoon around the lakes in the Forêt d'Orient - in a single scan at the Lac d'Amance I counted over 200 Great White Egrets. It was mindblowing.

France is and remains excellent. Despite another large wad of paperwork required to get there and get back, nobody asked me for anything at any point, and my fears of the french authorities taking excessive pleasure in ensuring that UK visitors have everything "en ordre" with their cars (and frankly given our Government's shameful rhetoric I don't blame them) were unfounded. The cooking was fabulous and many of the wines were wonderful, but above all it was a pleasure to speak French from morning until night without really skipping a beat. I learned when I was eight years old, and whilst it does become rusty without use it has never left me and comes back relatively quickly. And in France it helps to open doors that might otherwise be closed, which can at times be very helpful indeed.

Sunday 21 November 2021

Masking the issue

Isn't it odd how wearing masks has become the defining political issue of the day? All over the news, a constant discussion topic on social media - I find myself getting drawn in too. If you wear a mask when out and about you are a noble citizen doing your bit. If you don't you are a clown, a cretin, a selfish sonofa... It's funny, I remember back when all this started that masks were essentially laughed at, sneered at even, for doing no good whatsoever, virus particles being far smaller than the strands of fabric - they would simply pass through. 

Of course face masks have been a feature of travel in the Far East for ages. Walk around Hong Kong or Singapore and you cannot have failed to notice that many of the residents are wearing masks as they go about their daily lives. At global hub airports like Helsinki or Doha it was the same, with predominantly Asian passengers all wearing masks. I remember being amazed at seeing people in downtown Helsinki all masked up with the temperature substantially below zero, my thinking back then being that airborne viruses couldn't possibly survive or be transmitted in that kind of weather. How little I knew probably.

Here is my favourite one.

Fast forward to 2021 and masks are here in Europe, and here to stay. Last weekend I was in Madrid where mask wearing was at 100%. In the airport, on public transport, in the supermarket, everyone had a mask on, including young people and kids. In these environments there were no dissenters. None. Outside, walking along the pavement, in parks, waiting for buses, stopping for a chat, a good 80% of people still had masks on, and of those that didn't many had them on their chins or hanging from one ear. It is a fact of life now supported by science. You're not wearing a mask to protect yourself from inhaling COVID, you're wearing a mask to limit the amount and distance of what you exhale. You're protecting others, and when they are also wearing a mask so much the better. Spain was one of the first European countries to really suffer in the pandemic, and so in Spain the benefit of wearing masks is understood and people comply.

Which brings me to this country. This ridiculous country. My intention here was not to preach, but honestly how hard is wearing a mask? When I landed back at Heathrow and got on the tube mask-wearing was basically at 100%. As the Piccadilly rattled eastwards this gradually declined and by the time we reached central London I'd estimate it was at less than 50%. Switching to the Central Line the proportion fell yet further, and on my home turf of Leytonstone I reckon it was down to a quarter, perhaps less. One morning a couple of weeks ago I was almost the sole person in my carriage wearing one. I simply don't understand it. There are signs everywhere. When you enter the station, on the platform, plastered all over the carriages. Walking along concourses tannoy announcements regularly state that the wearing of masks on London's transport network is mandatory. And yet this ignored. Not by a few people, not by a small cadre of the particularly militant, but by almost everyone. There are so many people not bothering that challenging this is pointless, and so it goes entirely unenforced. I have never seen anyone ask anyone to put one on, or ask why they're not wearing one. I've never seen an official stop anyone, nobody says anythingI don't know why this annoys me quite as much as it does. I don't like wearing a mask either, it hurts my ears and it makes it harder to breathe heavily, for instance after going up steps, particularly as I continue to recover. Remembering to take one everywhere I go is also a pain, and many is the time I have had to turn around and go home to fetch one. But I do it. And I just don't understand the attitude of those that don't. Surely there cannot be this many conspiracy theorists living amongst us? Is it two fingers up to the authorities, an act of defiance? If so it is a pretty stupid one. Or is it that wearing masks is a sign of weakness in some way, and in order to show how tough you are you don't wear one? Hah, I am not scared of this puny virus, it is just another little flu! I am so virile I will resist it! Perhaps it might be cosmetic? My perception is that there is definitely a correlation between pouty instagram types and a lack of masks. Messes with their makeup perhaps? I think there are also demographic correlations but to try and explain that with the delicacy that 2021 requires is more than I am prepared to do for a blog post that very few people will ever read. There are many reasons no doubt, all of them irrational. Suffice it to say that I am disappointed each and every time that I get on public transport at the behaviour of many of my fellow citizens, and until I actually caught COVID it limited the number of times per week I was prepared to risk it. I am considerably less nervous at the moment of course, and I'm participating in an NHS antibody study whereby I send off small vials of blood from time to time and they then tell me if I have any or not. So far so good, and so for now the Central Line holds less fear for me.

I've not been to Germany, Holland, Austria or Russia, countries currently in the grip of a massive new wave of COVID cases, and so have no idea what their wearing of masks is like and if it is comparable to Spain or not? Ie does it actually make a difference in the real world?  Everything points to a low uptake of vaccines, but presumably those that refuse vaccines are not big mask-wearers either? I know I said I wouldn't preach but I keep coming back to one salient fact. This virus kills people. It destroys families and doesn't discriminate based on what you think about it, what you read on Facebook, or what you think about the Government. The people dying are mothers and fathers, husbands and wives, grandmas and grandpas, and even some children. The person sitting opposite you on the tube is unlikely to be all alone in this world, they will have family and a social network. If something as incredibly simple as wearing a mask for a short while means that person stands a lower chance of getting it and of passing it on, I cannot think of a single reason why you would not. 

Saturday 20 November 2021

I will never reach this number again and I don't want to either

This morning was dead on Wanstead Flats. Continuing mild weather means nothing much is moving. The weather must be different in Wanstead Park though, perhaps a very localised cold spell, as Rob picked up a pair of Mandarin on Heronry. They were a full fat patch tick for him, but more importantly they were patch year tick #130 for me. A bit of a grip back as well, having missed a male on Jubilee by mere seconds earlier in the year. 

130 - I can scarcely believe it. Everything has fallen into place for me this year, albeit of course at the cost of not leaving Wanstead very much. It's a nice place, but it's not good for me to be bound to it quite so tightly as has been the case these last 18 months. 

The full list is here in case anyone is bored enough to want to peruse it. As I think I have mentioned before it actually represents a huge amount of birding effort from lots of local birders, all of whom share their news selflessly, this morning being yet another example. Tony and I were wandering slightly aimlessly around Long Wood when Rob's message came through. I'd been musing on whether in fact it was the time of year to start spending more time in Wanstead Park, given the potential for more year ticks in the waterfowl category, so the timing was spot on. We turned around and made straight for it, Gregg's happily being on the most direct route. Loaded up with coffees and bacon rolls we met up again with James who was slightly ahead of us. Rob was off checking other ponds, but the pair of Mandarin were happily on view. Unless my record keeping is inaccurate, this is only the third time I've seen Mandarin on the patch, they're very infrequent indeed, so to see the species in this record year is a real bonus.

I doubt I'll ever get close to 130 again, a unique combination of circumstance and coverage from so many, all like me stuck close to home. As such it's a patch year list record that may stand for quite some time. Alternatively if the pandemic continues to rage, for instance new variants emerging that send us back to square one, then maybe it could happen? Frankly I'd rather not come close again if it meant something like that, so fingers crossed I never even get to 120.

Thursday 18 November 2021

When in Spain

So now that I was in Spain what did I get up to? In a word, or rather two words, not much. I went shopping. Shopping for the kind of nice European food that is extremely hard to find on this impoverished island, so now we have all sorts of goodies available for the festive season - if they last that long..... 

Spanish supermarkets are wonderful. I am kicking myself that I did not take any photos of the fish counter, the incredible range of fruit and veg, or the special jamon section. Suffice it to say that every time I go to Europe I realise how impoverished we are here, and how much delicious food we miss out on with our narrow view of what constitutes nourishment. Not in this house, that is all I can say, and certainly not for a while after my little raid on Carrefour in Hortaleza.

I think it is the seafood, so easily obtainable there, so hard and expensive here. Unfortunately I couldn't bring much of that back, but my next trip to Europe is in the car and I hope to do a somewhat better job. I've studied all the new regulations post Brexit regarding what you can and can't bring back, and actually there are almost no restrictions provided that it is all for personal use. What is restricted is wine, which is a huge shame, but I hope that I can use my 24 bottle allowance wisely. Anyway, back to Madrid.

I filled a large rucksack with goodness, and then headed to my nearby hotel. I hadn't landed until 7pm, so the plan on paper had been to quickly buzz round the shops before they closed and then head into the centre of Madrid for some tapas etc. Unfortunately I think I am still recovering from the virus, so what actually happened is that I had a shower and then fell asleep. By the time I woke up it was too late to bother heading in, so I just had a bite to eat locally and went to bed again. Rock and roll.

The next morning, refreshed, I was up before dawn. I was going birding! I had identified a number of large local parks that were between where I was staying and the airport, researched their potential on eBird, and worked out my route. What I hadn't really taken into consideration was that I would be carrying a large rucksack of food - it was exhausting - ie exactly how I remember most of my holidays being. I cracked on.

I spent most of my time in the Parque Juan Carlos I in the north east of the city. It was fantastic - loads of Iberian Green Woodpeckers, flocks of Monk Parakeet feeding on the ground in the olive groves, and Tree Sparrows everywhere. A pair of Egyptian Geese were a Spanish tick, as were the numerous Siskins. Black Redstarts and migrant Song Thrushes flitted about, and generally everything was extremely pleasant other than the massive weight on my back. There is not much to say really, I just went birding and I really enjoyed myself. Nothing spectacular, no huge rarities, just run of the mill birding with no great expectations in a place unfamiliar to me and therefore fun. This is the kind of thing I used to do pre-pandemic, and have not done for months and months. I have missed it more than I knew, and to be able to get back to it no matter how briefly just felt really good. Furthermore I have proved to myself that travel is possible, painful but possible, and that moping at home need not be the default. I can't sit in Wanstead forever. I suppose that for much of 2020 and 2021 there was a lot less certainty and planning trips was far more fraught, and that along with being unvaccinated is why I didn't even attempt to travel for nearly a year and a half. But things are a bit easier now, I've had both jabs, I've sensibly topped them up recently with the real thing, and a booster is now on the horizon too. This is not over, not by a long shot, but I can see some light.

Sunday 14 November 2021

Travel is not a breeze

At the end of last week I tried some experimental travel - my first trip abroad since March 2020. I have tons of holiday I need to use, over 20 days by the end of the year and I had to do something. The alternative was simply to lose the holiday. No thanks, I work too hard for that, and the number of days I have not worked this year have been pitifully few. I was supposed to have used some of it last month on a family trip to America but COVID put paid to that. Undeterred I tried again, and I am pleased to say that I have now successfully visited another country.

Madrid was the destination, not a long trip, but rather a test to get back in the swing of things, to see how it all worked in what I am calling the endemic era - to be clear not the pandemic era. There is undoubtedly a pandemic still, but in my opinion all of the restrictions and extra hurdles that have been thrown up are here to stay, and passengers like me have to navigate through all of it on their own. This is the era of tests, forms and QR codes. Every country has different requirements, which vary depending on where you are coming from, whether you are vaccinated or not, and sometimes even which vaccine you were given. Some countries require that you take a PCR test, something I can't do for another 80 days. Some countries require a specific insurance policy in the event that if you catch it you are not a burden on their state. Finding a combination which works for your particular circumstances seems a rare alignment, but reading the rules on Spain suggested it was possible for a vaccinated Brit. And that they would even accept the NHS digital certificates. Easy!

Let me walk you the process in case you have not tried this yourself. Remember that Spain is one of the easier countries - you don't even need a pre-flight COVID test if you are double jabbed. Before you can check in to your flight you have to upload various documents specific to who you are and where you are coming from, and it turns out Spain does not simply accept the NHS pass. Rather, you have to download a specific Spain health app that will generate its own QR code. Without that QR code you cannot do a thing, so you have to register for an account, which means a bit of back and forth with verification codes sent to emails and so on. Then you fill in a load of information to create your account. Once you are 'in' , and bear in mind this has probably taken you a good 20 minutes so far, you have to "create a trip". Here you have to list your exact flight number and seat number. Then you have to put the street address of where you are staying. Then you have to upload you health status. This is the first thing that broke. In theory this should just accept the NHS digital certificate, but in my case my NHS app has now granted me an additional QR code. Previously I had two, one for each vaccination, but now I have a third called "Proof of Recovery from COVID". The Spanish App was looking for a very specific number of QR codes. Two. Not three. I thought I might get it to work with just a screenshot of the two vaccination codes, but alas no. Faffing about with this took another half an hour, and in the end I hand to do a "no proof of vaccination" version of the form testifying as to which vaccines I had had and when. To my surprise this allowed me to complete the process and a short while later I got sent a QR code which I was able to upload to British Airways. This then had to be verified at their end... By the way don't think that you can simply do this a fortnight in advance in a nice relaxed manner. You can't do the final steps until 48 hours before the flight leaves. 

Then there is the small matter of the return trip and being admitted to the UK. You would think that as a UK citizen this might be a little bit easier, and in truth it probably is but that isn't saying much. First I had to register for a account. This is different to whatever I use for HMRC, different to how you apply for passports and driving licences, and different to the NHS. Once you have an account then you are in a situation similar to the Spanish app. As with Spain you can't do this a nice long way in advance, the 48 hour rule applies. My trip was short enough that I could do this from home before I left, but anything longer and you will have to do this from wherever you are, and it will be a lot more fiddly on a phone. It is called a "Passenger Locator Form" or PLF, and it requires different things depending on your vaccination status. It did happily accept my NHS QR codes, but then it wanted a code for a "Day 2" test. This at least is an antigen test that I can probably take OK, but it required looking at an immense list of suppliers and trying to work out which was a bona-fide healthcase organisation rather than a mate of Matt Hancock's pub landlord. To be fair they are all probably beholden to the Tories in some way, but I chose one which was cheap and didn't have too many spelling mistakes on their website. £17 later I was in possession of a code that the form needed to progress, and this allowed me to generate yet another QR code. For this one trip this meant I had 5 QR codes....but it looked like I had what I needed to travel.

Like I said, easy. I just needed a credit card, an email address, a smart phone, three apps, four logins, and an hour and a half of free time. In theory I also needed access to a printer as there were various suggestions that I needed to print quite a lot of these things. I didn't bother, and at no point was I ever asked for paper versions. And then whilst sat on the plane to Madrid I was given a double sided A4 form to fill in, so you also need to remember a pen. As it happens I did have a pen, and whilst it appeared to be an almost exact dupe of the information I had filled in on the Spanish App I completed it anyway. One of the questions was whether I had received a negative PCR test 72 hours before travel. Brilliant, how consistent. I answered "no" and left it that, suspecting that nobody would want the form anyway. Which they didn't, but take a pen regardless. My entry into Spain was seamless. The usual passport control - post Brexit a longer walk and entirely manual - and then funneled out via a series of tensa barriers to a bunch of people wanting to scan your Spanish health QR code. Predictably I gave them the wrong one and a big red flight flashed. Soon rectified though, and I was free to wander the streets of Madrid. The whole of Spain in fact should I have wanted to.

I'll cover what I actually did in Spain later, this post is all about the fun process of travel at the moment. So, the return journey....Despite having entered my PLF I was unable to check-in on the airline app and had to present myself at actual check-in, something I rarely do as I am nearly always without a suitcase. The entire flight was in the same situation by the looks of the queue facing me at Barajas. As you can imagine from all I have recounted so far, many of them were woefully unprepared, particularly transit passengers to the USA it seemed, most of whom had not realised they still needed a PLF nor indeed some app called VeriFly. After 45 minutes or so I eventually got to the front (and this was the fast-track line!) where my PLF and NHS digital certificate were checked I was given a boarding card. 

The saga does not end there btw, it continued at Heathrow. My passport won't work in the eGates as the chip is broken, and I always have to go and see a Border Force Officer. Some of them don't care that my passport is totally knackered after nine years of living in my pockets, others go to town with torches and loupes. This was the "other" experience, and after ten minutes of scrutiny at the booth a superior was summoned. He had a slightly larger magnifier but was still unable to satisfactorily verify that my passport was kosher. I gave him my driving license as well but he still wasn't happy, and after another ten minutes took it off to an office where presumably they had an electron microscope. Ten minutes later he came back, pronouncing that the passport was "just a bit tired". So was I. I suspect that has I been able to use the eGates it may have linked up my PLF, but the personalised version also wanted to see my NHS App to prove my vaccinations. 

So there you have it, this is travel in 2021 and probably the forseeable future. Are you put off? I confess that I am. I know how to get to Spain now, but each and every country has different requirements, and these can change at any moment depending on what each country thinks of the other's COVID situation. Gradually I suppose that it may become less clunky, and of course we will all learn what to do through experience. After all, remember when we all had physical airline tickets, with multiple carbon copies that were ripped out of a little booklet as you progressed through the trip? When online check-in and apps came along I suspect that people were equally flummoxed. But we soon got used to it, and in time we will probably get used to this. But for now it is not straightforward at all, and what I used to find a painless experience is now a right pain in the backside. Will I ever travel as I used to? On this showing, almost certainly not.

Friday 5 November 2021

A wonderful morning of Vizmig

For the first time this week I managed to drag my feeble arse out of bed and get out on the patch. Boy am I glad I did. I wasn't super early, perhaps 7.15am, and it was already perfectly light with the sun low in the sky. A beautifully crisp autumnal morning, a thin layer of frost on the broom and short grass, and a perfect blue sky. I don't know why I didn't take a photo, too busy scanning the sky I expect, but here is one from a similar morning about a month ago.

There was action from the get-go. Woodpigeons. They might be a common bird that we all routinely ignore, but there is something very special about large flocks migrating south-west at this time of year. I was out for an hour and three-quarters, and counted in excess of 700. That is small fry compared to many counts I've been seeing, some lucky birders have been getting 20,000, but I was pleased enough with ours.

Woodpigeons might have been the most numerous, but the action was constant. Over 500 Starling flew west, the biggest flock was a line of 95. Having not seen a Fieldfare for months, I was treated to 219 - mostly they flew silently west in single flocks, however one group co-mingled with Starling were quite noisy, and the most impressive movement was a mixed flock with Redwing which contained perhaps 60-70 of each species. In between these larger flocks of birds were the occasional smaller treat - a handful of Siskin and Redpoll, and a single Brambling that defied the masses and wheezed east, perhaps it is hanging around?

Bird of the morning went to a Ring Ouzel,  a male bird that flew west, alone, at about double tree height and in a straight line. My normal experience of this species is of a chacking bird annoyed at having been discovered, flying in huge circles around the patch before dropping back into cover. As far as I can remember this is my first knowingly vizmig bird, it carried on in a straight line until I lost it over the SSSI. It is also extremely late in a local context, the second latest ever and only our second November bird. I have seen late October birds before, indeed there was one at Rainham last week (where I've also seen a bird in late December) but this is definitely unusual as a more normal date is mid-October.

Completing the party were a surprise 25 Lapwing flopping west. They always fly west, the surprise was that they were there at all. Somewhere east of us there must be some colder weather, and a few other London sites also saw a few go through. Like the Ouzel, they were my first November records on the patch ever.

There has clearly been a change in the weather. You would have to say that up until the middle of this week it has been unseasonably mild, and as a result the birding has been pretty quiet - during my enforced hibernation I didn't really miss a thing. A couple of nights ago there was a shift though, and it became distinctly colder. I know this as the falling mercury finally spurred me to do the final plant moves from the terrace to the greenhouses, and our central heating came on for the first time since last winter. It has also had an effect on the birds, the minute the change happened it was if someone has flicked a switch. It is so predictable but I just love it. Hopefully the upcoming weekend is just as good!

Thursday 4 November 2021

Knocking on 130

Last weekend on my first outing to the patch since recovering from the infamous lurgy I managed to get yet another patch year tick to take me to 129 for the year. Given that prior to the pandemic my best ever patch year list was 118, which increased to 121 in 2020, this is if I don't say so myself, phenomenal. The bird in question was a Jack Snipe, found by James lurking on the edge of Angel Pond. As ever refinding it was not entirely straightforward, and it was up and down again so quickly that nobody managed a photo. Good views were obtained in flight though, and that along with the behaviour - silent and flushed only from your feet - satisfied James, Tony, Bob and myself as to its identity. Whilst picking carefully along the margins I stumbled across this wee beasty, a Wasp Spider guarding an egg sac. They're harmless of course, but I wouldn't have liked to have found it climbing up my leg if I'd walked into it...

Returning to birds a number of possibilities remain for the year - a contextually rare duck perhaps, like a Goldeneye, Smew or a Mandarin, a wandering Bullfinch or a Crossbill, or perhaps something crazy like a fly-over Cattle Egret? There are certainly enough of those nearby. It would be nice to get to 130, nice round numbers are always more satisfying somehow, and of course every species I add makes it more likely that this record will endure for longer. The prior record was 127. I'm not entirely sure when that was set, but other than the record-holder himself (Nick), nobody else ever came close - indeed my 121 last year was the next highest from anyone else. Unfortunately there isn't a trophy along the lines of the Golden Wheatear Chalice, but there is definitely more than a hint of quiet satisfaction which I expect comes through in this post!

Tuesday 2 November 2021

In which we become bakers

Just before COVID struck we went to visit some friends in Reading. We got stuck in traffic, and in one of these jams my youngest complained of feeling unwell. No doubt it was this time in a confined space that did for me. We did eventually arrive, and thankfully (as we now can be sure) we did not pass on the virus to our friends, probably as most of our visit was taken up by a long walk along the river. When we got back from the walk, we were treated to some wonderful home made soup and a fresh loaf of sourdough bread.

Now many readers may think that sourdough bread is just the latest in a long line of middle class fads, with artisanal bakeries springing up all over the place in order to flog £4 loaves of bread to well-heeled locals who know no better. Alongside these appear eateries that add crushed avocado for a nice round tenner. I'll admit there is more than a whiff of that, but oh my goodness sourdough bread is wonderful. 

Disenchanted with supermarket offerings and loathe to pay the £4 for Gail's or similar, we've been baking our own bread for a while with the aid of a Panasonic bread machine - I wrote about it here. It's pretty clever but it can't make sourdough. Nonetheless, you just pour in all the ingredients before you go to bed and when you wake up there is a loaf of warm fresh bread waiting for you. You can tinker with the type of flour, add seeds etc which get tipped in at an opportune moment, but fundamentally you get a rectangular loaf bread each time and amazing though this is it is very hard to get a satisfyingly crunchy crust. And its not sourdough. Despite this it has been a brilliant investment, especially post-Brexit and during the pandemic when food, including bread, has become noticeably less fresh. Vegetables have been the worst affected, tired limp rubbish turns up with increasing frequency, and what little meat we eat sometimes arrives on the turn, including our Christmas duck last year which was a real blow. Likewise the few loaves of bread we have ordered have been more or less dead on arrival, so the bread machine has turned out to have been an inspired purchase. We started buying really nice flour in 16kg sacks direct from a mill when supermarket flour shortages briefly became a thing, and have not looked back. 

But it cannot make sourdough, and so this fresh and beautiful loaf that arrived on our friends' dining table was greeted with awe. It was spectacular! We had always thought sourdough was simply impossible to make at home, hence why if you wanted some you had to pay through the nose for it. Not so. Well.... it's clearly not as easy as dumping some ingredients in a tin and pressing start, but neither is it completely impossible. Somewhat of a faff perhaps, but versus what you get at the end, faff we now find ourselves happy to undertake - our friends wrote out two pages of instructions and timings, and pressed into our hands a small dollop of their sourdough starter in a jar. We were on our way.

Once back home we began to care for our new starter - you have to feed it regularly. The kids have always wanted a pet, and now they have a living breathing creature to nurture. Making a loaf is a 24-36 hour process which sounds off-putting but isn't actually that bad. On the first morning you have to take a small amount of your starter and add a similar amount of flour and water to it, a ratio of 1:1:1, and then leave it somewhere warm for four hours in an enclosed container. This is also how you feed it and keep it alive, but if you are not making bread with it it stays in the fridge. From these small beginnings you gradually end up with a jar of thick white liquid that is alive in some way, I don't confess to understand it. You then add this to a much larger bowl of flour and water that you have previously mixed up and also left for four hours. Make sure to stir it in really well. This is by far the hardest part, the stuff is a hugely dense and unrelenting sticky morass that requires genuine elbow grease to mix in properly -  I've now done this step once and can testify to how tiring it is. For the next four hours, each hour on the hour you stretch out the dough and refold it back onto itself a few times. This too is reasonably physically challenging, especially in my feeble state. After the final stretch cover it and put it in the fridge overnight. Go to sleep dreaming of bread. The next morning or afternoon, or in any event at some point between 12 and 24 hours later, take the bowl of dough out of the fridge and leave it to warm to room temperature. Meanwhile heat the oven to 270 degrees, hotter if not a fan oven. Form the dough into a round ball, and place this into a large iron oven dish with a lid, first sprinkling semolina on the base so that it does not stick. Those big Le Creuset things would seem to be ideal and luckily we already had one. Just before you put it in the oven, score the skin of the dough lightly with a razor to make some kind of pattern, a simple cross will do or you can really go to town with something far more complex. This scoring is critical as without it the loaf might explode. Sprinkle some white flour all over the top and bake it for 40 minutes with the lid on followed by ten minutes with the lid off. 

Hey presto

My God it is delicious, and the crust is to die for. Depending on what kind of flour you use and what temperature the various bits of it were left at seems to influence how fluffy or dense the resulting bread is. Our lightest one so far was with plain flour, and was left for the longest amount of time once coming out of the fridge, but I have no idea how much this really influences what you get. Maybe super stretching also plays a part? 

The cost of a loaf is about 65p for the flour, and about 15p to fire up the oven (though by the end of this year this is likely to be 30p....). What a bargain, literally a fifth the cost of the high street. And it lasts for ages as well, the best part of a week if you can resist it. Given the effort we have already started making a double recipe and cooking the loaves one after the other. We then eat one and freeze the second. Life will never be the same again.

Monday 1 November 2021

October listing

One of the joys of eBird is that it tots up how many birds you have seen in any given month, in any given single patch or geographical area. This could all get a bit silly of course, but its useful to track how many birds have been seen on the patch, and it can also tell me what my UK month list is. I've been quite captivated by this particular stat this year, as let's face it there isn't that much else going on in my life is there?

I spent a bit of time looking back through all my historical data to see how many times I had seen over 100 species in a month in the UK. A lot is the answer, my inputted records go back to about 2007, and in over a third of the months since then I've reached this milestone, which probably means it isn't a milestone at all. Upping the bar a bit, what about 125? About 18% of the time. Right, what about 150 - surely that is a lot harder to do? It is, much harder. In fact in only 11 of the 180 or so months for which I have data have I reached 150.

My record until recently was 175, set in May 2009. I think I was year-listing at the time, or perhaps quite into twitching, and thus went to quite a lot of places, different habitats and so on. I had a few solid months in 2010, but after that I never really came close again, and in fact from 2015 to 2019 I broke the 100 mark just twice as I did a lot more birding abroad instead. And then along came the global pandemic and UK birding suddenly snapped back into focus. The spring and autumn months in 2020 and this year were pretty good, but I never quite got near that 175 high water mark until this October just passed.

I smashed it. I had a morning in Fife and an afternoon in Aberdeenshire on the 1st October, so even before getting on the ferry to Shetland the list was on 83. The week on Shetland was of course monumental, as recounted in recent blog posts, and took me to 147, and of course up there they don't have a pile of common stuff like Canada GooseLittle Grebe or Kingfisher so the quick stop in at Swillington Ings on the way back added another 11 for 158. The next day I was out on my local patch seeing Parakeets, Green Woodpecker and the like for 167, and Rainham the following weekend added Avocets and so on for 175. I broke my record on the 18th October, fittingly with a Coal Tit in my own garden. And then came COVID!

My isolation period took me to very nearly the end of the month, ten days of prime birding cruelly ripped from under my feet. I saw a Peregrine from my bed thanks to great directions from some of the guys on the patch the first weekend, but it was not until this weekend just gone that I could get out birding again properly. After a damp morning visit to Wanstead Flats (Jack Snipe, #129 for the year!) I went to Rainham again on Saturday afternoon, as this promised a number of things I needed. It took three hours, but I got them all! Dartford Warbler and Ring Ouzel on the sea wall and Bearded Tit and Water Pipit on the reserve took me to 181. Yesterday, the 31st, I could have taken a walk locally to try and add Treecreeper, Nuthatch and Fieldfare, but after walking six miles around the patch and Rainham I felt a bit drained and could not summon the energy - I might be over COVID but it may take a while to get back to 100%. If I had, and then toddled up to Epping Forest for Mandarin Duck, so often the emergency tick, I could have managed 185! As it is I think 181 is a fine effort and one I am really pleased with. 

Digiscoping can produce tolerable results in a pinch

I expect November and December to be a lot more pedestrian. It is a busy period at work and reduced daylight hours make it a lot harder to get out in the morning for any meaningful length of time. Plus I am trying to get to America at some point as my trip got cancelled due to catching the virus - I still have nearly a month of holiday to use this year and we are in a "use it or lose it" situation now. And also having got over the line and crushed my record the excitement just isn't there any more, which in all honesty is probably a good thing!