Dining and Wining
Fancy a pint of lager with your cornflakes? No? How about a nice steaming cup of cocoa with your steak and chips? You don’t want that either. Well, can I tempt you with a lovely pink and bubbly glass of raspberry-flavoured Creamola Foam to complement your Christmas turkey and trimmings?
Quite sensible: I don’t fancy any of those combinations either. It’s obvious, really, isn’t it: they just don’t “go.” The gassy acidity of lager with sweet, crunchy cornflakes? Terrible. (Even if it wasn’t breakfast time.) And the idea of cloying, tongue-coating cocoa, rich with sugar and chocolate, is a nightmare with good Orkney beef: it would kill the flavours stone dead. Raspberry gunk with turkey and sprouts? Well I loved Creamola Foam when I was a kid, but even then I would have preferred it by itself, or with a Wagon Wheel or something similarly natural and nutritious.
I’m sure we’d all agree that these food and drink combinations are matches made in hell. But how do we know? It’s highly unlikely we’ve ever tried out those combos (please tell me you haven’t!). And we haven’t read books or watched celebrity TV programmes about which meat dishes go with which bedtime drinks. (Answer: none! Horlicks and pork chops is just as bad an idea as cocoa and steak!)
It’s simple: the human brain is a great library of flavour and aroma memories. Consciously or unconsciously, we summon to mind every day dozens of taste sensations. We anticipate the refreshing zing of the orange juice even before the carton’s out of the fridge. We compare the taste of today’s mince roll with our memory of yesterdays, deciding maybe that today’s is a bit bland in comparison, with too much floury gravy and not enough meat. Even writing the words “Christmas turkey and trimmings” immediately summons the delicious memories of sage and onion stuffing, nutmeggy bread sauce, and crunchy, golden roast tatties.
Deciding which wine goes best with which food is no more complicated that deciding whether to have lager or orange juice with your cornflakes. Some wines are more sharp and zesty than others (from the natural acids in the grapes, allowed or encouraged to persist right through to the bottle) and so work well as palate-awakening aperitifs. Some are fuller flavoured and more powerful than others (often because they come from super-ripe grapes grown in warm areas) and so stand up to powerfully flavoured dishes like beef and lamb. Some are sweet and luscious (perhaps because the grapes have been late-harvested, hanging on the vine till a lot of their water content has evaporated and the fruit sugars have concentrated) and work well with, or instead of, dessert.
All the more complex, arcane wine and food matching “rules” are not really rules at all, they’re just elaborations on the very simple principles of the above paragraph. Lamb chops and Cabernet Sauvignon do go very well together, but not for any esoteric reasons you need a degree in biochemistry to understand. It’s just because they follow the basic principle above: a full-flavoured wine with a strongly flavoured (red meat/garlic/rosemary) food.
So why all the fuss and worry? I have another simple answer: it’s because we don’t live in a country where wine is produced in any quantities. We don’t grow up with the stuff, absorbing knowledge about tastes and flavours and aromas without thinking. In Burgundy, for instance, they know that a Chardonnay from Montagny is the best choice for roast chicken, though they also know that a light red like Monthelie would work too. A more powerful wine like a Nuits-St-Georges, even though it’s made from the same grape (Pinot Noir) would better be saved for the Boeuf Bourguignon. To them it’s second nature, just as it is for us to know that Highland Park tastes better without Coke.
We have to try just a little bit harder to remember the basic principles, but it’s not really that hard: they are simple ideas after all, and should be a support to us non-Burgundians, rather than a cause for anxiety. There are more than a few books on the subject: Joanna Simon’s Wine with Food is the best all-rounder I know, while The Perfect Marriage: The Art of Matching Food & Sherry is specialised but stimulating. There are also millions of web pages devoted to the subject – far too many! It can be a starting point to type “wine match for salmon” into your search engine, but the problem is you are likely to get 606,000 answers, leaving you baffled by a surplus of suggestions.
The best answer is to talk to your friendly local wine merchant. If he or she is any good, they will have tasted every wine on their shelves several times, with different foods on the side. They have had the luxury of time to acquire some of the wine knowledge that comes as second nature to your average Burgundian. Let them steer you towards some matches made in heaven. And if they recommend Creamola Foam as a match for Christmas dinner, take your business elsewhere.