Duck Confit

Confit is one of the oldest methods of food preservation. In a large earthenware dish, meat is salted, flavoured with herbs and spices, cooked in its own fat, and then covered up for the winter- the salt and covering of fat preserving the meat. A speciality of south-west France, confit tends now to be eaten as a dish in its own right, rather than as a preserved meat, and can be found on traditional French restaurant menus. Don’t be put off by the frequent mention of “fat”, though, you actually eat very little of it- the fat simply creates an incredible melt-in-your-mouth texture for the meat, as well as some incredible crispy skin.

Duck confit is surprisingly easy to make. You have to be a little organised, rubbing the duck with salt a while beforehand, but the cooking part is very straightforward- essentially all you are doing is braising the meat in the fat. As such, I think this would be a great thing to serve if you are having friends over, it’s a main dish which is quite exciting, tastes great, and doesn’t require you to be in the kitchen all evening, allowing you to enjoy your guests’ company. You can even cook the duck beforehand and just heat it up in the oven on the day- making confit was a method of preserving meat after all.

I’ve made duck confit a few times now. If you’re looking for some exciting sides with it, Daupinoise potatoes, roasted red onions, spiced red cabbage, and a red wine sauce would be my choice. However, the dish works well with a variety of sides, traditionally being paired with mushrooms, ham, sorrel, or white beans, to name a few. The dish is quite a pure expression of duck flavour, so it will likely pair well with whatever you’ve got in mind. Here’s a recipe for the most recent dish I did, with creamy curried lentils.

Duck Confit and Creamy Curried Lentils

A word on the fat. The amount of fat you will need is quite tricky to judge beforehand, as it is important to completely cover the duck legs. In this sense the choice of dish you cook the duck in is important- I use a loaf tin, as this allows for a smaller amount of fat to be used. If you decide to cook more than two duck legs, as the quantities here are easy to double, you won’t need that much more fat either, as you can simply lay the duck legs around or on top of each other. Whilst you can get the animal fat from places like Tesco, I’d recommend going to a butchers for this, as you’ll get a lot better value for money. I’ve used both duck fat and goose fat before, and both have worked well.

Ingredients (serves 2):
2 duck legs
1 handful sea salt
1 tsp juniper berries
~400g animal (traditionally duck, but goose works well) fat
250g lentils (pre-soaked)
450ml vegetable stock
1 tsp garam masala
150ml double cream

Recipe:
1.
 Crush the juniper berries with a mortar and pestle. Rub the salt and juniper into the skin of the duck legs. Leave for ~6hrs. This will help to dry out the skin.
2. When you are ready to cook the duck, rinse off the salt and juniper from the duck legs. Place the duck legs into your roasting dish and spoon the fat on top. Heat the oven to 170°C, and cook the duck legs for 2hrs30.
3. Meanwhile, make the lentils. Heat up the stock and place the lentils and garam masala in, and simmer for approximately 45 minutes until most of the stock is used up. Add the double cream at the end to produce the creaminess. If the lentils haven’t reduced to the texture you want, you can safely reduce further.

Wine Pairing: Given the dish’s origins, a south-west French wine will pair well, like the Negrette from Fronton in the top picture, but this might not be so easy to find. A bottle from the Languedoc or Rhone would work well too.

An Introduction to French Red Wines

When I started to get more interested in wines, I found it hard to know where to start. French wines are particularly tough to understand. Not only there a huge number of wine growing regions and grape varieties, producing many different types of wine, but the wine bottle labelling conventions don’t tell you much about the wine- unless, of course, you already know what to expect. The variation from year to year can be big, and the winemaker you’ve got can be important too. All of this can mean buying or drinking French wine is sometimes a risky prospect.

This term, the wine tastings I have been to at the Oxford Blind Tasting Society have focused almost exclusively on French wines. Consequently I’ve been trying to learn a little bit more about French wines, but have found it difficult to find anything useful as an introduction on the web- particularly lacking were any general tasting notes from a given region. So, I thought I would collate the information I have gotten from various bits of the web, books, and discussions into two general introductions on French reds and French whites. [The post for French Whites is here.]

Probably the best start to learning about French wines is to look at a French wine map. As a very general rule, wines that come from a more Northern, cooler climate will be lighter bodied, less alcoholic, and more acidic (think of lemon flavoured things for an idea of acidity), whereas wines that come from a more Southern, hotter climate will be fuller bodied, more alcoholic, and with more fruity flavours. So knowing your geography can give you a lot of clues as to what you are going to get.

A few notes about the format of this general introduction. I’m going to simply go through some of the more general winegrowing regions: Alsace, Beaujolais, Bordeaux, Burgundy, Languedoc-Roussillon, the Loire, and the Rhône. If you know a little bit about each region, you’ll have quite a good idea of French wine, as due to French laws, varieties of grapes which go into wines from certain regions are tightly regulared. So, if you know that Bordeaux will be mostly Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, you know a lot more of what to expect from what the bottle.

For each region, I’ve given a little information about the wines produced, some buying advice, and a few basic tasting notes- but given the regional variation, so don’t forget that not all wine from the region will taste like that. Prices are roughly estimated: £ might indicate £5-£10 a bottle, ££ might be £11-£25, and £££(+) are more expensive, so £26+. If you want to get a bit more information about any region, grape variety, or type of wine, Wikipedia is surprisingly good (although heavy on history of regions), and I highly recommend Michael Schuster’s book Essential Winestasting.

Alsace

Alsace, a region close to Germany, produces mainly white wines. There is some Pinot Noir grown here, however. This can be very good value, if you like Pinot Noir, as it is typically less expensive than in Burgundy.

Wine Map

Prominent grapes: Pinot Noir
Alcohol: Low
Acidity: High
Body: Low
Flavours: Cherry, blackberry, plum, blueberries.
Good recent vintages: 2010, 2009, 2007, 2005
Price: ££
Buying Advice: Good value at £9-£15 a bottle, but you likely won’t find it in the supermarket. I particularly like the Hugel 2009 from The Wine Society.

Beaujolais

Beaujolais is the region just south of Burgundy which produces wines exclusively from the Gamay grape. The wines are fruity with a juicy youthful character, and are usually drunk young. Sometimes the bottles are released earlier, as Beaujolais Nouveau, which in the past has had a poor reputation as cheap plonk, but is recently getting better. The best wine growing regions are labelled “crus” in Beaujolais, and are usually available for just over £10, and representing good value. Below the “crus”, wine are classified (generally a mark of quality) in descending order as Beaujolais-Villages and Beaujolais.

Wine Map

Prominent grapes: Gamay
Alcohol: Low
Acidity: Medium
Body: Low/Medium
Flavours: Strawberry and Raspberry Jam.
Good recent vintages: 2010, 2009
Price: £-££
Buying Advice: Some of the crus, particularly Morgon and Moulin-a-Vent, are good buys at £10-£15 and can develop some Burgundy-like character as they get older. Beaujolais is also around for £5 a bottle, but you can get some very fruity plonk still at that price as well.

Bordeaux

Bordeaux produces some of the world’s top wines, but also some really bad stuff as well- I’ve heard it said that 80% of Bordeaux wine isn’t worth buying, presumably given how overpriced it is. The region is split up into “left bank” wines, where the more expensive wines tend to come from, usually with more Cabernet Sauvignon, and “right bank” wines, which tend to have more Merlot.

In 1855, there was a famous classification of Bordeaux Chateaux, which still has a lot of influence today, despite many attempts to update it. The chateaux were classed into “growths”, with the best being “first growths”, and so on. This is still quite a good indication of quality, so if you are drinking a “Grand Cru Classé en 1855”, it’s likely to be pretty good.

Wine Map

Prominent grapes: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot
Alcohol: Medium
Acidity: Medium
Body: Medium
Flavours: A lot of dark fruit like blackcurrants, and Cabernet Sauvignon dominated wines can often smell of green pepper. Older wines develop leathery, tobacco-y, truffle-y, and cedarwood notes.
Good recent vintages: 2010, 2009, 2005, 2000
Price: ££-£££+
Buying Advice: China has recently skewed the Bordeaux market, buying a lot of it simply for the fact is says Bordeaux on the label. If you want to spend a lot on a bottle, you can get some excellent wine, but I don’t think there is a lot of value here. “Cru Bourgeois” wines are usually wines that missed out on classed growth status, but produce quality wine, so probably represent the best buys.

Burgundy

Red wine from Burgundy is probably the most variable in terms of quality. How good the wine is depends a lot on climate in a given year, geography, and the grower. Bordeaux wines are listed by chateau, a recognisable brand, but in Burgundy, wines are sold by location and grower, so unless you know these in detail, you don’t know what you are getting.

That being said, when Burgundy is done well, it’s great, and the top wines are among the best in the world. Red Burgundy is exclusively Pinot Noir, a grape which can make wines with a lot of complexity. The main region of Burgundy is the Côte d’Or, which is split up into the more northern Côte de Nuits (more closed, austere wines) and more southern Côte de Beaune, (riper fruit flavours).

Wine Map

Prominent grapes: Pinot Noir
Alcohol: Low
Acidity: High
Body: Low
Flavours: Cherry, blackberry, plum. Older wines develop “sud-bois” (under wood, i.e. those you might find in a forest), animally, farmyard-y notes. Despite how this might sound, these are actually very pleasant.
Good recent vintages: 2010, 2009, 2005, 2002
Price: ££-£££+
Buying Advice: As mentioned, Burgundy is unreliable, so unless you know what you are getting, or buying from a reliable source, you might not get good value for money. I wouldn’t spend less than £15 on a bottle, as the quality will likely be unexciting. Good value in the £20-£30 range, if you want to spend that much.

Languedoc-Roussillon

A rather recent region for producing quality wine, Languedoc-Roussillon made lesser reputable wine until around 20 years ago. A much warmer region in the south of France around Marseille, Languedoc-Roussillon produces bigger bodied, more alcoholic wines.

Wine Map

Prominent grapes: Grenache, Syrah, Mouvedre, Carignan
Alcohol: High
Acidity: Low
Body: High
Flavours: Liquorice, Spice, Dark Fruit
Good recent vintages: 2010, 2009, 2007, 2005
Price: £-££
Buying Advice: Represent good value at £5 a bottle, there are some good Rhône-style wines. With winemaking improving in the region, this will only become better.

Loire

A more northerly wine region, the Loire valley has been producing wines for a long time, Anjou wines were notably the favourite wines of the three musketeers. The Loire is probably better known for its white wines, but still produces quality reds retaining some of the herbaciousness and acidity that the whites do.

Wine Map

Prominent grapes: Cabernet France, Pinot Noir
Alcohol: Low
Acidity: High
Body: Low
Flavours: Cabernet Franc can be quite herbaceous and green, but with some darker fruit like Cabernet Sauvignon. Pinot Noir will have the cherry, blackberry, plum notes that you see from Burgundy, but I often find the Loire version has some leafiness too.
Good recent vintages: 2010, 2005, 2002
Price: £-££
Buying Advice: Similarly represent good value at £5 a bottle for lighter bodied wines. Harder to get in the UK though, but good food wines when you find them. Waitrose Wines has quite a nice selection.

Rhône

The Rhône winegrowing region is in the south of France, and given its hot climate, grows alcoholic, full bodies wines with a lot of fruit flavours. The northern Rhône generally produces red wines from just the Syrah grape, and southern Rhône reds tend to be Syrah-Grenache blends. These wines pair well with food, particularly meaty stews and darker game.

Wine Map

Prominent grapes: Syrah, Grenache
Alcohol: High (potentially very high)
Acidity: Low
Body: High
Flavours: Syrah tends to be known for black pepper and spice, whereas Grenache is much more fruity, ranging from strawberry to raspberry to cherry depending on the style.
Good recent vintages: 2010, 2009, 2007, 2005
Price: £-£££
Buying Advice: There are some good bulky, fruity reds from areas like Gigondas and Vacqueyras at around £10-£15 a bottle, and good everyday drinking wine from Cotes-du-Rhône. Chateauneuf-du-Pape will be more expensive (starting at around £17 a bottle), but if you get the right one it can be a real treat. I’ve seen a lot of people go for Chateauneuf-du-Pape for Christmas lunch.

Foraging for Elderflowers and Elderflower Syrup

“Foraging”- when I hear it I can’t help but think of people from stone age civilisations picking berries in bushes, or cutting roots from trees and stewing them; the last resort for food before people starved. Perhaps in Lord of The Rings, Frodo and Sam couldn’t find anything for dinner, so they foraged for a while. That’s the kind of association I have for foraging- not something found in the modern era of supermarkets and year-round availability of produce. But although times have changed, a lot of the wild plants haven’t. Elderflowers, Nettles, Damsons, Rose, Violets, Lavender and many more can be found wild in the UK, and all provide a unique taste to food. It might be that the knowledge of what’s good to find wild hasn’t been passed on to the current generation, or maybe we don’t spend so much time out in the countryside anymore.

In any case, June-July is the season for elderflowers in England. Elderflower cordial is one of my favourite drinks, I’ve had some very agreeable elderflower “shampagne”, and recently an elderflower sorbet was terrific in the middle of a meal. They’re meant to be really common in England at this time of year, so were a very appealing target for my first attempt at foraging.  They’re very easy to make into a flavoured syrup, which can be dilulted with sparkling water to make a fizzy drink, added to sparkling wine to make a tasty aperitif, or used in cooking in things like jelly. A bottle of elderflower syrup would also make a great gift.

One of the things I was worried about when looking for elderflowers is that I would mistake something else for them- cow parsley, for example. Cow parsley is edible, but tastes quite unpleasant, so if I ended up with some of that in with any elderflower, I’d end up with bad result. Fortunately there are a couple of key identifiers for elderflowers though. Firstly, elderflowers definitely do smell like you would expect, a wonderful smell of summer. Secondly, the leafs are a big giveaway, usually in groups of five, and with slightly serrated edges (see above photo).

Armed with this only this information and a carrier bag, one beautiful summer’s day I left the house on my bike, not knowing what I would find. Of course, I struck gold almost immediately, finding two large elder trees on the road just outside my housing area. Trees which I had cycled past every day, and completely ignored. I picked all of the nice flowers the trees had, which took a little effort with some of the flowers that were higher off the ground (if you aren’t particularly tall, using a stick of some sort to help bend the branches down is a useful trick). Once I had plenty for my purposes, I reluctantly left the sun and blue skies, and headed back to make the syrup.

They syrup is very straightforward to make. You simply de-stem the elderflowers (which can take a while), add water, sugar, and lemon juice, heat it up for a short while, and then leave to infuse. I’ve taken the following recipe from Mark Hix’s British Seasonal Food. This recipe will make quite a lot of syrup, so you might want some sterilised bottles or kilner jars to preserve it in. You can make less syrup, or more concentrated syrup, if you aren’t able to store so much of it.

Elderflower Syrup

Ingredients:
1 carrier bag of elderflowers, about 800g or around 20 heads.
1kg caster sugar
2 lemons
4 litres water

Instructions:
1.  
De-stem the elderflowers and put in a large pan. Add the water and sugar. Juice the lemons, add the juice and the used lemon halves.
2. Bring to the boil, simmer for 1 minute, then remove from the heat and cover with cling film. Allow to infuse for 24 hours.
3. Strain through a muslin and bottle with sterlised bottles or jars. If you just use the syrup as is, it will last a few days- bottled will obviously last a lot longer.

Chinese Five Spice Sandwich Ham

Sandwich meat is expensive. If you buy Tesco’s Wiltshire Sliced Ham (2 for £4, 4 slices, 120g), or the slightly better value Tesco’s No Added Water Sliced Ham (2 for £3, 6 slices, 132g), and have four slices of bread for lunch as I do, it’s going to run up the bill pretty fast- one pound a day with the first product. For a student lifestyle, making your own sandwiches is much less expensive than buying them every day, and if you can further cut down the cost of the ingredients for making the sandwiches, there is more money for the fun things in life (like wine).

So why not make your own sandwich meat? Starting off with a Tesco’s large gammon joint (2 for £6, 800g, 550g after cooking) and applying a simple glaze and shoving it in the oven, you get over twice as much meat for your money (183g/£ versus 60g/£ or 88g/£ for the Tesco products), and likely a better tasting sandwich as well. Here I’ve included a recipe for my favourite way of doing sandwich ham, but the principle extends to however you’d like to flavour your ham- or beef, chicken or turkey for that matter. So have a go, it’s really very little effort for the reward.

Chinese Five Spice Sandwich Ham

Ingredients:
800g gammon joint
1 tbsp honey
1/2 tsp soy sauce
1 tbsp sesame seed oil
1 tsp chinese five spice

Instructions:
1. Mix honey, soy sauce, sesame seed oil and chinese five spice together and brush onto the gammon joint.
2. Cook gammon joint for 1hr35mins, or as the package instructions indicate.

Making Pistachio Nougat

I like giving gifts that I’ve made in the kitchen. They show you’ve put thought, time and effort into something, and if you’ve done it well, what you’ve produced can often be better than something store bought. There are loads of gifts you can make; previously I’ve done mead, limoncello, Bailey’s and white chocolate fudge, biscotti, flavoured oils and vinegars, and chocolates, for a sample of ideas. The latest gift idea I wanted to try out was nougat- I think a box of home-made nougat is a great present- and making nougat would be a chance to develop some confectionery skills too.

As I found out when making it, nougat is essentially a super dense meringue. You make nougat in the same way you might make an Italian meringue (the kind of meringue you might use for icing cakes or baked Alaska), by heating up some sugary syrup and whisking into some whipped egg whites. There are two key differences though.

Firstly, with Italian meringue, the sugar syrup is heated up to the “soft ball stage”, around 115°C, where as in making nougat, a sugar syrup-honey combination is heated up to the “soft crack stage”, around 143°C. This extra heating changes the sugar concentration of the sugar syrup from 85% to 95%, and so the syrup is denser with sugar crystals, creating a denser end product.

The second key difference is the ratio of egg white to sugar syrup. In an Italian meringue, you use 4 egg whites to 250g sugar, but with nougat, it’s 2 egg whites to around 550g of sugar. Again, this ratio means you have a much higher sugar concentration, and hence a much denser end product. Using honey in the sugar syrup in nougat is really just for flavouring: honey has a similar composition to sugar syrup (17% water, 83% sugar by weight).

While we are talking about the science of nougat, it is worth mentioning the addition of liquid glucose. When the sugar syrup cools, sugar crystals begin to form. If left to their own devices, they will form larger crystals which will result in a coarse texture of nougat. The liquid glucose prevents these larger crystal from forming “by bonding temporarily to the crystal surface and blocking the way of sucrose molecules” (Harold McGee, ‘McGee on Food and Cooking’). This means smaller crystals form making for a smoother, finer, more desirable nougat. Liquid glucose is also frequently used in ice-cream and sorbet making for the same reason. On to making the nougat.

It’s tough to make nougat without the use of an electric mixer. The reason is that one of the main stages of the recipe is pouring the 143°C sugar syrup into the whisked egg white. If you aren’t whisking very quickly while you do this, the sugar just forms lumps of cooled sugar, which then don’t mix with the egg white at all. I’ve tried using other electric whisks to incorporate the syrup previously as well, but these also tend to end up in failure as the sugar syrup solidifies on the blades of the whisk, and so the blades jam, and then you don’t have time to un-jam the blades before the sugar syrup cools again. Don’t let this problem put you off attempting to make some nougat yourself, but if you do, be very careful at this stage to incorporate the sugar syrup into the egg white properly.

The recipe I’ve used here is from The Home-Made Sweet Shop. Once you’ve made the basic nougat, the pistachios and almonds which are added at the end are easily interchangeable with other nuts, dried or candied fruits, or anything else that takes your fancy. The recipe also states that the nougat takes 4 hours to set; mine took a lot longer (2 days). I’m still trying to figure out quite why, as it did set properly eventually, but if you are going to give it as a gift, make sure you’ve made it a little in advance.

Pistachio Nougat

Ingredients:
375g caster sugar
25g liquid glucose
100ml water
175g honey
2 egg whites
200g shelled pistachios
200g whole almonds
5ml orange blossom water
Rice paper (I used greaseproof paper)

Instructions:
1. Whisk the egg whites with 25g of the caster sugar in an electric mixer until you get firm peaks.
2. Line a baking tray with rice paper.
3. Put the honey in one saucepan, and the mixed liquid glucose, water, and sugar in another. Heat the sugar and water to the soft crack stage at 143°C. Bring the honey to the boil, and once it has reached this point, add to the sugar syrup and bring the mixture back to 143°C.
4. With the whisk on full speed, slowly pour the sugar syrup into the egg whites, incorporating it as well as possible. At the end, you should end up with a stiff, glossy, homogeneous mixture.
5. Fold in pistachios, almonds, and orange blossom water.
6. With a spatula, spread the mixture onto the baking tray, cover with another piece of rice paper, and leave to set. This will take sometime between 4 hours and 2 days. Don’t leave the nougat somewhere where there are strong aromas, as the nougat with absorb these and taste off.
7. Once the nougat has set, cut into pieces. The nougat should last about a week, possibly more in an airtight container.

Restaurant Review: The Royal Oak

I’m not a fan of the concept “gastropub”. Stuck in limbo between “pub” and “restaurant”, it doesn’t have the relaxed cosy feel of a pub, nor the sophistication of a restaurant. The food can be more about style than substance, and rarely is there a real ale in sight. There are many exceptions, of course, but if I hear a place I like has turned into a gastropub, it’s usually a place I won’t like for long.

What I am a fan of, though, is pubs with great food, which is where I would put The Royal Oak. Situated neat the split of Woodstock and Banbury roads in the city centre of Oxford, it used to just be another ordinary pub. Recently, though, it’s come under new management and they’ve gone to town on the food menu, and the results have really shown. This new menu, the chilled out atmosphere, and the fact it is open until midnight, mean it has become an attractive place to spend the evening, as many now do.

Food 9/10: I’ve now been here enough to try a few different things on the menu. My favourite has been an ox cheek pie, but since the menu changes frequently, I imagine to make use of food that is in season, the ox cheek pie wasn’t available when we visited recently. Instead we ordered from the set menu- two courses for £8.50 or three for £11.50- and between us settled on chicken and chorizo skewers, pea and watercress risotto, hake fishfingers and chips, and chocolate brownie with vanilla ice cream. The results were very good, the risotto being creamy and fresh and the skewers crispy and flavoursome. Superb value for money, particularly.

Drinks 8/10: A great selection of real ales, including a particular favourite of mine, Doombar. They’ve also got a couple of proper ciders on tap, Aspall’s and Addlestone’s, with the latter being a cloudy cider, a nice touch for cider fans. The whisky shelf is well stocked as well, with many regulars and a few irregulars.

A look at the wine side of things suggests The Royal Oak is more “pub” than “gastropub” though. Hard to find a wine list around the place, most are usual pub fare for wines. This isn’t necessarily a problem, given the great selection of other drinks here and the atmosphere, but don’t expect anything great.

Atmosphere and Service 7/10: The Royal Oak is a little in the mould of a country pub, with wooden pillars and old comfy chairs abound. With many smaller rooms and lower ceilings, there is a cosy feel to wherever you are. The few picnic tables make for nice sitting outside, if the sun ever returns to Oxford.

The staff there are friendly as well. Checking that everything was fine with our food was a nice touch. Not serving our meals with our request, though, was not. We wanted the starter to come out with one main, and the other main to come out with the pudding, as we were in a little bit of a rush, and when they came out as you might expect- starters, mains, puddings- we became pushed for time. Otherwise though, not a problem with the service. It is still a pub, after all.

Here, restaurants are reviewed based on some idea of restaurant expectation, not objective quality. If the latter was used, anywhere moderately affordable would look like an undesirable place to eat, given it would have much lower numbers than hugely more expensive restaurants. So if a hamburger restaurant was being looked at, 10/10 would represent a top hamburger restaurant, and 5/10 might represent a poor one. So a top class French restaurant could have lower numbers than a hamburger restaurant, but be more desirable to eat at, as it is held to higher standards. It makes sense, trust me.

Food and Wine Pairings: The Blind Tasting Black Tie Dinner

For a lot of people, wine only gets drunk with food. Even if you’ve done a lot of wine tastings, and bought an nice wine, you can still end up having a bad glass of wine if you put it with the wrong dish. Wine labels aren’t much help either. You get the hugely generic “goes well with red meat, fish, chicken, pasta or cheese” where you can’t go wrong, or the oddly specific “goes well with langoustines and goat’s cheese” which leaves you feeling very sophisticated when you buy the bottle. So how do you pair wine with food?

One of the main rules of thumb, apart from the obvious “red wine with steak” style rules, is to do with acidity and fat: if you have a fatty meal, pair it with an acidic wine, if an non-fatty meal, don’t pair it with an acidic wine. The acidity cuts through the fat, neutralising it. If you allow the wine to be too acidic for the food, you’ll end up with what I call “pinot-grigio face”, as if you’ve just drunk lemon juice. But if you don’t make the wine acidic enough for the food, you lose all the flavours it brings to the table, being overwhelmed by the food. A more acidic pairing might be something like a young chardonnay with moules-frites (the sauce is usually the fatty part in most fish or seafood dishes). A non-acidic pairing might be something like a syrah (shiraz) with steak and ale stew. The Wine Society’s Food and Wine Matcher is a great resource to check out.

Yes, those 8 glasses at the front were mine. And another came out later in the meal.

Recently I attended the Oxford Blind Tasting Society’s black tie dinner, which was held at Christchurch College. I don’t normally report on fancy dinners like this, but this one was unique. Multiple wines would be served with each course, giving an opportunity to really look at the food-wine combination in detail, and to really decide how I liked different flavours together.

Course 1: Tiger Prawn, Mango and Avocado Salad with Sweet Chilli Dressing and Parmesan.

The wines with this course were a Riesling Auslese, a sweeter, lower alcohol, German wine with honey, peachy like flavours, a St. Veran, a chardonnay from Burgundy in France with citrus and buttery flavours, and a Marsanne from Australia, a reasonably acidic wine with some quite ripe fruit.

A great dish to try out a few different wines. I thought the riesling, while it was a lovely wine, was too sweet. Particularly with the mango and sweet chilli dressing, there weren’t enough flavours to balance it, but others disagreed. The chardonnay worked very well, having aged a bit the acidity had tempered a little. This provided the scaffolding for the flavours in the salad to develop.  The marsanne also worked well, but the flavours were slightly too overwhelming for the salad, but a very nice wine also. Winner: St. Veran.

Course 2: Chargrilled Rib Eye Steak with Béarnaise Sauce, Chunky Chips, Slow Roast Tomatoes and French Beans.

This course brought a rustic, medium-bodied Saint-Estèphe from the left bank of Bordeaux, a medium-bodied Italian blend, a high-alcohol big-bodied Vacqueyras from the Rhône in France, and a very fruity Portuguese blend.

Excellently cooked, the béarnaise sauce not as overwhelming (being a very fatty sauce) as I thought. Even still, with the sauce, the beef, the chips, and the bacon wrapping the beans, there was plenty of fat to go around. This dulled the Rhône and Italian wines a little, not allowing them to develop on the palate. The Portuguese wine was far too fruity for the dish. The Saint-Estèphe worked really well, with some acidity to cut through the fat, and the rustic flavours and oak complementing the beef well, which is what I might have expected. Winner: Saint-Estèphe.

Course 3: Tiramisu.

We only had one dessert wine (gasp!), a Muscat from France, but I had saved some of the sweet riesling from the starter for comparison.

Pudding, I find, is really tricky to get right. Dessert wines can be very sweet and cloying, and so with the sweetness and creaminess of a lot of puddings, you just end up with a mouthful of sugar. That’s fine if you just want a mouthful of sugar, and usually the flavours work very well with each other, but texturally it can fall short. The muscat was no exception, bringing great orange and ripe fruit flavours, but just not enough acidity to deal with the huge amount of cream in the tiramisu. The riesling worked better though, with honey and floral notes, but also with the acidity to leave a cleaner mouthfeel. Winner: Riesling.

A magnificent dinner, and a lot of fun to try out some different food wine pairings. Overall, the wines I would have expected to pair best did, but trying to figure out the best wine for the course without knowing what the wine was allowed me to explore my preconceptions. If you’re planning a special dinner, or having a meal at a restaurant, have a think about what you are drinking before just ordering the house wine or buying whatever is on offer. The right pairing will make both the food and wine better, and so a better gastronomic experience.

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