We enjoyed our last weekend at Saling Hall just before Christmas. Hugh and Judy's great Elizabethan house in Great Saling, Essex, was then about to be sold. It is now. No more country-house weekends for us in the most beautiful bit of Essex.
HJ had taken me down to his rather depleted cellar and Barbara and I had done our bit to reduce the number of bottles that will soon be up for auction. We'd had a last wander around the field that over the years, Hugh had transformed into a great arboretum. Memorable meals in front of the great fireplace. End of an era.
They bought this house for the price of a London semi back in the Sixties when Hugh's first book became an instant best seller. They raised their family there, but now it’s a bit big for two and remote from the grandchildren.
This past weekend we were reminded of that visit as we ate another memorable fireside meal; soup and sandwiches CAN be memorable. Once again, Hugh's fire was huge. But this time it was in his 'other' dwelling: a two room 'bothy' near Barmouth, North Wales.
No, Hugh is not downsizing quite this much. They are moving back to London. But this ruined bothy came with a small forest which the Johnsons 'adopted' about 30 years ago on the beautiful Barmouth estuary. Several times every year they do the long drive from Essex to tend their trees. Hugh has three great passions: Wine, Gardening and Trees. Has written sumptuous books on all. He has this incredible energy. Hard to keep up with.
The bothy has no water or electricity and even the fourth wall is quite recent. An old table and camping chairs. But there is that huge fireplace. Logs are of course not a problem. The day was sunny, the fire bright too, and the cauliflower soup and ham sandwiches did in fact make a truly memorable meal.
But I suppose it was HJ's genius choice of accompanying wine that clinched it: Sercial Madiera! You have to be the world's greatest wine author to feel you can serve a Sercial throughout a meal. Open-air eating in February is too big a challenge for normal table wine. After a morning in the forest something seriously substantial is good. I had thought I was the only person who much prefers the driest of Madieras – Sercial – to the sweetest – Malmsey – which is usually the popular choice.
And I do now understand how come we Brits drank so much more of this type of wine a hundred or so years ago. It is a form of central heating. Strong and sweet but with a stinging bite. Perfect for draughty stone houses after a day in the forest. Just glad I wasn't driving home.
We had a great weekend in Snowdonia where I hadn't been for 50 years. Back then I climbed all 14 peaks in a day! This time, fat old man, I just looked at them, glass in hand and wondered how on earth...