We called it ‘Blackberry Way’ and we honestly believed it was the countryside. But Cool Oak Lane, an incongruous turning off the Edgware Road is just five miles from Marble Arch. It really is a proper country lane, flanked by fields and blackberry bushes. When I pedalled up there as a child with my sisters, it was like entering an Enid Blyton story. You know the one: Five Go Stealing Blackberries.
We’d wobble home, bags bursting with blackberries hanging from our handlebars, and my mum would be waiting. She’d seize the plunder, like some latter-day Fagin, and tip it into a plastic dustbin to make ‘blackberry wine’. Yeast, sugar and water were tipped in too and the mixture was left to ferment, growling away like a caged animal. After a couple of weeks, my sister Susan became a one-child bottling plant, so my mum could then stash those bottles all over the house. However, since their contents were usually still fermenting, they’d often self-detonate. After one such explosion, blood-red liquid came seeping under the kitchen door and I was convinced that my dad had been shot.
Another month later, it was time to open the bottles. Well, it wasn’t, but patience was never my mum’s greatest virtue. She came from one of those big old London families that don’t exist anymore. Most of her eight siblings lived locally and they’d all pile round when it was ‘wine time’. This stuff was lethal – more like Appalachian moonshine – so the laughter got louder and more raucous, especially if they’d taken a couple of bottles into the front room to watch On the Buses. After a couple more bottles, and both sides of Singalongamax, my Uncle Dick would go out to his van to fetch his piano accordion.
It was years before I realised that red wine, far from being the home-made hooch of my childhood, was the most sacred of drinks. The one that elicits more reverential ritual and pretentious twaddle than any other. Connoisseurs describe it as though it’s a living being: ‘A prudent wine. Diffident and evasive’, or ‘Good-humoured, benevolent and cheerful’. Apparently, it can ‘breathe’ and some clarets even have ‘noses’ and ‘legs’.
To make sense of all this, I needed expert advice. My friend Nigel Stockton has a bon vivant’s passion for red wine. He has a cellar, for heaven’s sake, and an account at Berry Brothers. I arrived at his house to find a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon at room temperature, awaiting the ignorance of my palate. Nigel showed me how to swirl the wine around the glass and inhale its aromas before slowly sipping and swallowing. He asked me what I thought but my enthusiasm was, at best, room temperature. ‘Quite nice,’ I replied, knowing that ‘quite nice’ won’t have me opening my own account at Berry Brothers any time soon. I took another sip.
‘What are you getting now?’ he enquired, ‘Notes of blackberry?’
I smiled, leaned back in my chair and said, ‘Let me tell you about blackberries.’