Food and Wine Pairings V: Thoughts from an expert

Recently, the Oxford Blind Tasting Society was very privileged to host Jan Konetzki, Head Sommelier at three-Michelin-starred Restaurant Gordon Ramsay and winner of the Moët UK Sommelier of the Year 2012. As a sommelier, you not only have to put together a restaurant’s wine list, price the wine sensibly, and be able to sell wine to customers, but you need to understand which wine to recommend to people to go with their food. Gone are the days when you can just go with the “classics”, people want new and exciting wines nowadays, and wines which are interesting. Given my interest in food and wine pairing, I was excited to see which wines he brought, and to pick his brain on food-wine matching.

The Whites

The wines he bought did not disappoint. I think it’s fair to say that they were a bit off-the-beaten-track, with the most mainstream probably being an Austrian Blaufrankish. Other wines included a Riesling from Sicily, built on the volcanic soils of Mount Etna, a Sangiovese from Australia (a grape variety that is almost exclusively grown in Italy), and a beautiful sweet wine from Jurançon in France. Needless to say we weren’t guessing many of the wines correctly, but it was really fun to try and figure these out.

What was particularly interesting were some of the common themes of these wines. All of them were reasonably “complex”, in that they had many different things going on, but a few qualities stood out. Firstly, all of the wines had relatively high acidity. Acidity helps a wine cut through the fat in food, and at a top restaurant, for rich sauces and high-quality cuts, acidity will be key. Secondly, most of the wines had seen a small amount of oak, even wines typically not oaked- like the Riesling. Perhaps this makes the wine more robust, and gives it an extra dimension with the food. Lastly, was that all the wines had a herbal quality, or some “greenness”. This might provide a different seasoning to the food. Unfortunately we didn’t get to try any food with the wines, but I will look for some of these qualities in the future.

The Reds

Jan also shared some thoughts on serving wine, something I had not given large amount of though to before. Particularly, he was focused on the temperature of the wine. On the night of our tasting, he was moved wines around the fridge and asked for some warm water just to warm the wines up a couple of degrees before serving. He noted that there is around 4 degrees difference between a fridge door and the back of the fridge, which makes a big difference in changing the wine characteristics. Aromatic wines like Riesling want to be cooler than average, and oakier wines slightly warmer than average. By changing the temperature of the wine, you change how it expresses itself. Jan thought temperature was more important than wine glass shape, and considering he had over 20 different wine glass shapes available at the resaurant, that says a lot.

After the tasting, we had some discussion on food-wine pairing. When asked what part of the dish he looked at first, Jan (perhaps unsurprisingly) was focused on the dish as a whole, but then spent a lot of time discussing seasoning. How prominent each flavour is, and how it develops in the dish, largely factor into the wine choice. Similarly, how cooked the meat would be (even in a good restaurant, people would like the meat well-done), would change slightly how fatty the meat was, with a less-cooked cut having more fat. All little things which changed the character of the dish.

Lastly, the discussion turned to cheese. “Cheese kills everything”, a popular opinion, was confirmed by Jan. However, you are not totally lost. He supported the idea of regionality, so if you are stuck with a pairing, picking a wine from the same region as the cheese is often not a bad call. He wasn’t so keen on red wines with cheese though. Interestingly, fortified wines played a big part here, suggesting a sherry with mimolette, and indeed that a nice glass of Madeira will keep most people happy with cheese. But, as was the underlying theme throughout the evening, the food-wine pairing was about what the customer liked- if the customer wants a wine a certain way, that’s fine. Experiment with what you like, and find out what works for you.

The Wines

If you are interested in food-wine pairings, check out my other posts on food-wine pairings, The Blind Tasting Black Tie Dinner, Wines for a Wedding, Creating a meal around sweet wines, and Regionality. Also, The Wine Society has a great section on food-wine pairings, and a good food-wine matcher.

Oxford Foodie Festival

The Foodies Festival has been at South Parks this bank holiday weekend. A mixture of artisan producers, food vans, drinks tents, food and drink masterclasses, and local Michelin-starred chefs giving demonstrations, there is plenty to keep you and your taste buds occupied for the day.  It’s easy to spend a few hours sampling different varieties of cheese, oil and vinegar, confectionery, bread, jam and spreads, hot drinks, olives, cured meats, and many more delicious things I am sure I’ve forgotten. Not to forget the drinks (perhaps we were fighting a losing battle sampling these) wines from Bordeaux, Burgundy and Portugal, flavoured vodkas, home-made liqueurs, and top quality rum.

The masterclasses are additionally noteworthy. Included in the entry ticket, although first-come first-serve, we had an opportunity to attend a ‘champagne masterclass’, where we tasted five glasses of fizz from different champagne houses, to highlight the difference between different styles and grape proportions used. Having attended a good number of wine tastings, this one was very informative, and I learnt a good deal. There were many masterclasses on offer, such as wine tastings from Casillero Del Diablo, ‘traditional Jamaican street food’ with The Backyard Company, and ‘indulgent cakes’ with Outsider Tart, so whatever your food interests are, there’s a lot to take away.

With respect to the stalls, we found a few particularly interesting producers. The Well Hung Meat Company are a home-delivery meat company, selling meat from organic farms, and, as the name suggests, hanging it properly to let it mature. They vacuum bag the meat so it keeps longer, and deliver more sporadically, like once a month, with a customised box of different cuts and types of meat. We tasted some of their beef, and it really was good, so there’s a box with our name on it coming soon. Another producer was Demijohn, who source liqueurs from small producers, such as chocolate orange cream liqueur, or rhubarb vodka. But it was their bottles that got us excited, with many strange shapes and sizes, and they would write whatever you want on the glass as well- a great Christmas present, for sure. Lastly was a shop that had just moved to Little Clarendon Street in Oxford just a few days ago, The Oxford Pantry. They stock a lot of stylish cookware and homeware, so similarly, some great gift ideas there; we’ll be sure to check out their new location.

There’s still one day left to check it out (tickets £10, or £8 concessions)- if you are looking to find something something fun to do for the bank holiday, or just a day off from studies, it’s a great place to spend an afternoon. If you’ve missed it, though, they’ll probably be back this time next year. Or, you can check out some other food festivals- the BBC Good Food Show is coming to London and Birmingham in a couple of months, or Jamie Oliver is hosting a joint music and food festival near Kingham, Oxfordshire at the end of this week. And if those don’t suit, there are probably many food events like Farmers’ Markets going on in your local area as well.

Oxford Farmers Market

Leela: This is what I’m talkin’ about! See all the dirt and earwigs? That’s the sign of healthy food.
Hydroponic farmer: You think that’s healthy? Try this. I found it growin’ at the bottom of my hamper.
Leela: Mmm! So fresh and musty!

Leela: You’re a lucky man. But are [these eggs] way more expensive than regular eggs?
Brown-haired Man: Way more.
Leela: Ooh! I’ll take a dozen.

This exchange is taken from Futurama, when the characters visit a farmers market. They eat tree roots which are still alive, have maple syrup squeezed directly from the tree into their mouths, and finally discuss with a man who claims to be married to a mongoose. Clearly this exchange is just a bit of fun, but we can sometimes stereotype farmers markets through these eyes, and forget to see the many benefits they bring.

Did you know that in the UK there is legislation governing the straightness of bananas, and only since recently have misshapen carrots and cucumbers been allowed to be sold? It’s easy to bang the drum about eating organic, environmentally friendly, and local produce, but if we simply buy the organic food from the local superstore, then we’ve only seen half of the point. Farmers markets, of course, used to be the only way people would buy food, with the local butchers, baker and everybody else coming out to show their wares. Now, although they are often less frequent than they used to be, the markets still allow an opportunity to support the local producers and local sustainability. And if you’re not convinced by this alone, consider that the food you will get here will likely taste a lot better than the equivalent at Tesco or Sainsbury, which, for me, is what keeps me coming back.

The Oxford Farmers Market happens in Gloucester Green, near the bus station, on the first and third Thursdays of every month, from 9am – 3pm. There’s also the Gloucester Green market, every Wednesday from 9am – 5pm, also at Gloucester Green, and organised by the city council. If you don’t live in the city centre, you’re not left out, there are a whole range of markets around Oxford. And if you’re not from Oxford, there are a lot of easily available resources to find your local farmers market.

Before I went to a farmers market, I assumed that all you could get there was fruit and veg, and perhaps some eggs. But many local producers come and bring their products: on Thursday I saw people selling meat, doughnuts, pastries, goat’s cheese, Brazilian waffles, preserves, and varietal apple juices, among many more. It’s not just food people are coming to sell either, with half of the market dedicated to things like second-hand books, cds and dvds, and antiques of sorts. Fun to look around, and you almost could do your weekly shop here.

The price isn’t what you might think it is as well. I’ve been to some food markets with silly prices: £12 for a bottle of locally produced wine, which tasted horrible, for example. But a look at the picture below will reassure you. Three packs of sausages for £6, or a huge chicken pie for £4 make very attractive buys, especially when you consider the quality of the product, compared to what you might get at a local superstore. The rest of the stalls were similarly good value, particularly with the fruit and vegetables, and my ability to carry things home ended up being the limiting factor.

So, get out there and support local producers at the market. With great food, great prices, and better attitude towards sustainable food, it’s hard to see why not to go.

Raymond Blanc in Oxford Playhouse

Raymond Blanc, founder of Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons, today gave a public lecture in the Oxford Playhouse. Blanc is one of my favourite chefs- not least because he produces cookbooks which are great to cook from, but because I share a lot of his thoughts about gastronomy and attitude to food.

It’s easy nowadays to feel good about buying organic, local, seasonal produce – and this is certainly very important – but to me they are very much only a means to creating a great meal. A salad is a lot more than the leaves you put in it, and you can still ruin a free-range corn-fed chicken by cooking it or preparing it poorly. When a chef pushes this kind of food, it is often hard to separate their efforts in putting forward sustainable food, and the cooking of it, as with Jamie Oliver and his efforts for school dinners. I really feel Raymond Blanc gets this balance right- food made in the best environment makes for the best eating- and that best environment is often the organic, local and seasonal one. The focus of food and gastronomy is, to me, about sharing great food with others, and having the right ingredients is going to further that in part.

As a speaker, he was fantastically enigmatic; I don’t think I have ever seen a speaker move around on the stage as much, or spend as much time gesticulating. Although he didn’t speak on many things which weren’t in his autobiography, it was easy to see his energy and convivial personality. The desire and passion he had to share food, his love of food, and how it brought his family and community together really came through in the talk, and it would be hard to go away from it without wanting to do the same. His knowledge of the sourcing of his food was impressive, just showing his commitment to the whole process, and his value of the local farmers and community. It was great to see him giving back to Oxford in this way, and his donation of all the proceeds to the theatre itself was a nice touch. Thanks to Raymond for putting on a great event.