What goes with what
THE marrying of wine and food is such an inexhaustibly fascinating game that it seems a pity that it should be reduced in so many people's minds to a rigid and limited set of rules, comparable to those which govern diplomatic etiquette. Indeed, I am not sure whether matching food with wine is a game at all, in the sense of having preordained rules: it is more like science, where all rules are provisional, than for example tennis, where a line is always drawn in the same place, and, now that McEnroe has departed, the umpire's deci- sion is final. Perhaps all this is an excuse for not being systematic in the more or less random reflections which follow. THE marrying of wine and food is such an inexhaustibly fascinating game that it seems a pity that it should be reduced in so many people's minds to a rigid and limited set of rules, comparable to those which govern diplomatic etiquette. Indeed, I am not sure whether matching food with wine is a game at all, in the sense of having preordained rules: it is more like science, where all rules are provisional, than for example tennis, where a line is always drawn in the same place, and, now that McEnroe has departed, the umpire's deci- sion is final. Perhaps all this is an excuse for not being systematic in the more or less random reflections which follow.
A test case: asparagus. Asparagus is a unique vegetable, with an entirely distinc- tive, subtle flavour which combines rich- ness with a hint of bitterness. Is there a `correct' wine to drink with it? Most, I suspect, would say white burgundy (assum- ing the asparagus is served with a simple melted butter sauce). A little boring, I feel, because the wine, in the case of a Meur- sault, is too similar in character to the food. The Germans are very decided about this: in the Rhine it is traditional to drink dry Sylvaner with asparagus. They have a point: the relatively neutral, but not bland, slightly earthy Sylvaner is a modest accom- paniment, which does not saturate the palate with an excess of richness. But it is not the only possibility. Tavel rose, mod- erately characterful, with fresh but not excessive acidity, is equally good. And how about mature claret or rioja? Before you scoff, an old recipe book recommends the former, and I tried the latter last Sunday. It worked, because the 22-year-old wine had become sufficiently soft, mellow and rari- fled not to overpower the asparagus. Its ethereal scents mingled beautifully with the subtle rootiness of the vegetable. Golden rule number one: white wine with fish. The choice of wine to accompany a dish should relate to a total intensity of flavour of the dish, not to one component. (I seem to have produced a rule after all.) Thus it is true that the delicate flavour of sole, if cooked meuniere, would be swamped by a strong red wine. However, fish in a rich sauce (for instance the Basque dish of salt cod with ratatouille) can go better with a red wine. So can fish that is intrinsically strongly flavoured and/or dark in colour, like salmon or tuna. Sometimes,
it is true, there does seem to be a clash between the fishiness of fish, its salt slitheriness, and some element of red wine, the extract from the black grape skin, or tannin. Not necessarily, though. It is not a golden rule.
An erroneous tradition: fine red wine with white-rinded cheese. It is commonly assumed that all sorts of fine cheeses, including brie and camembert, are an excellent accompaniment to fine red wines. In fact, white-rinded cheeses affect red wines in a peculiar way, making them taste sweet and masking their individual charac- ter. I consider it idiotic to serve brie or camembert with good claret or burgundy. I suspect that only fortified wines can cope with these cheeses. Hard cheeses like cheddar (though even that can be too strong), pecorino, parmigiano-reggiano or the exellent manchego cheese from Spain are the answer.
The neglect of fortified wines. Fortified wines are usually drunk on their own these days, with one or two exceptions, such as port and stilton and the semi-mythical madeira and seed-cake. Fortified wines like 'marsala and malaga, both quite versa- tile, have become exceedingly unfashion- able. The most versatile fortified wine, however, is sherry, and how many people think of it as anything other than an aperitif? I personally find most sherry, at least in this country, other than the finest of Tinos, rather liverish on its own. Taken with food, however, it offers a rich variety of combinations. Dry oloroso, surely the most interesting kind of sherry, is the best thing to drink with rich and heavy soups, then, descending in richness of soup and accompanying sherry, palo cortado, amon- tillado, fino, and perhaps with fish soup, which its salty tanginess would comple- ment, manzanilla. Sherry does not only go with soup, of course. I can think of nothing better to accompany hot ham (a notorious conundrum for wine-with-food-matchers) than a really good fino sherry, like Palma from Diez Hermanos.
A final tip for millionaires. Are you bored with the combination of Chateau d'Yquem and foie gras? Try Eiswein in- stead: it has even more acidity, with which to cut through all that crammed richness. Bon appetit.