Stimulating the mind by stimulating the palate
A couple of years ago I presented an evening of food and wine pairing. Before going any further I should point out that this is not the kind of thing I do on a regular basis; in fact, this is the only time I’ve done such a thing. And, I’ll admit without any shame that I did swallow.
I generally find the world of wine and food pairing more than a little pretentious and very definitely prescriptive. There are just too many people in the field who get very antsy about what wine to drink with which food. It also doesn’t help that few restaurateurs know the difference between ‘complimentary’ and ‘complementary’ (most establishments seem to use the ‘i’ version when they don’t mean free, but matching). While formalised wine and food pairing may not be my cup of tea, so to say, I am a firm believer in the concept of wine-friendly food. There are certain dishes that make wine taste awful (more on that later).
So, there I was, with eight different red wines from around the world – a Bordeaux, a Burgundy, a couple of Aussies, a Pinotage, a South African Merlot, something Tuscan, and a Syrah from the Languedoc – a pretty diverse mix if ever there was one. The plan was to give each taster four differently flavoured sauces to taste against/with each wine. These were:
Classic European – Rich, red wine and beef
Asian – Soy sauce, Chinese Five Spice and beef
Middle-Eastern/North African – Spicy (no chilli) and lamb
European autumn – Pungent mushrooms and truffles in cream
It was no surprise to me that the top-scoring combo was the Classic European with the Bordeaux (it worked well with just about all of the reds, but this was deemed to be the most heavenly match). Again, there were no surprises that the farm-yardy Burgundy had an affinity for the mushroomy sauce.
The spicy lamb (cumin, coriander, cinnamon, tumeric and paprika) was disastrous with ALL of the red wines – so much for red meat and red wine rule! The sauce had been made tagine-style with some orange juice and dried apricots, which probably made it a better candidate for a rich, mature chardonnay.
To the delight of all concerned (this was a South African audience, after all), we discovered a perfect match for Kanonkop Pinotage, in the form of the soy sauce and Chinese five spice sauce. It was so good I may even ask Heston Blumenthal to do one of his mass spectrometer analyses on it.
On a purely practical level, matching every course to a different wine involves opening a substantial number of bottles. Of course, this is no problem if there are eight or ten sitting down to dinner, but somewhat more complicated when there are only two. Hence my preference for starting from a position of wine-friendly food (and yes, there is room for red wine and fish).
I approach this kind of matching more from the perspective of understanding each flavour in terms of its potential impact on a wine. This admittedly simple approach would caution, for instance, against subjecting red wine to sweet Thai chilli sauce. In other words, treating with care – or occasionally avoiding – dishes that will undermine the experience of a wine. The opposing viewpoint was made famous by the wonderfully irreverent wine description: “This is a cheeky little wine that doesn’t f#&k up the flavour of my cheese burger.” It comes down to whether one wants the wine or the food to shine.
It is my observation that few chefs have any understanding of the effect their food will have on the accompanying wine. One is either confronted with a cacophony of conflicting flavours, or main courses that are sweet, which brings me to the first rule: the food should never be sweeter than the wine (and this goes for dessert, too). The impact of this is to make the wine taste sour.
It is perhaps inevitable – despite our best intentions – that our personal experiences with combining food and wine ultimately end up as rules. Or guidelines that by virtue of their degree of prescriptiveness come across that way (like those mentioned below).
Chilli is as difficult for wine as sugar is. Some wines (red or white) can cope with mild doses of chilli, but as soon as the burn becomes too severe it’s time to switch to beer.
Mediterranean foods with olive oil, fresh garlic and other potent flavours are better with a crisp white than a huge, oak-aged red. Lemony sauces fight with red wine, but complement chardonnay.
Any wine that follows vinegar (most often encountered in salad dressings) is going to taste awful. Red wine and oysters leave a metallic taste in the mouth.
What’s interesting about tasting food and wine together is the way in which the matching and evaluation process stimulates the brain. It’s not an exercise that’s only about the nutrition or immediate hedonism.
It’s good to know that we can eat and drink in the pursuit of intellectual advancement!