“On went my hat of pretension as I cleaned my palate with water, alas no bread or crackers to ensure I started fresh with neutral flavours,” writes wine columnist RICHARD CALVER
I RECENTLY cooked salmon with a vibrant Schwarz rosé 2017 from the Barossa Valley. The balance was served to the guests with the meal.
The wine was dry and spicy, finishing long for rosé, with a white pepper ending. It was a good complement to a strong fish that could even have taken a lighter red.
In conversation, I recalled to my guests (nothing beats a captive audience) that when I had a week without wine early in the year how I cooked salmon but without that splash of dash that wine provides, it tasted fishier, less palatable.
After that period without drinking, just to prove I could, I had an enlightening conversation with a friend. In that conversation I said that during this alcohol-free period, albeit it was short, I had lost weight and found it easier to maintain my fitness.
This caused him to ask: “Well, why did you start drinking again; why didn’t you just give it up?”
And, after some reflection, the truthful answer was that, principally, a meal without wine is so much less: food with a good matching wine is lifted out of the ordinary and, goodness knows, we all need to step out of the daily quagmire of our lives whenever we can. The other reason is that wine tells so many stories, just like the way we match it with food.
As Greg Duncan Powell says in his book “Rump and a Rough Red”: “Without wine, food is soulless. There’s nothing to lift off the plate apart from the mechanics of fork and spoon. Eating food without wine is refuelling, it’s not feasting.”
This wisdom took me back to the days of working as a waiter in the ’70s. I recall finishing outside catering jobs in the early hours of the morning, returning to the Domain Receptions kitchen, located in the heart of the Auckland Domain, unloading the van, the bain maries and the other paraphernalia of the itinerant caterer to be greeted by the owner/chef with either a smile or a frown, and sometimes a ranting tirade.
But if there was that rare but memorable smile, generally because the job had made a good profit, Ron would make us omelettes or scrambled eggs with spring onions and serve them with a glass of “proper” champagne, the real fizz from France. This late-night supper/early morning breakfast was exquisite. It was one of the practices that kept us loyal, that helped with creating a team and transformed the otherwise simple meal into a feast.
The challenge of cooking with wine is to know what to do with the stuff you don’t drink. Should you put it in the food? The received wisdom is to only use quality wine in cooking. Yet I must recall that a cheap and cheerful ($16.99) wine gave a beef casserole a complete lift. Somehow, I ended up with a non-vintage Leconfield Syn Rouge sparkling shiraz in my collection. Normally sparkling shiraz is a drink that I find quite acceptable.
Perhaps the bottle I was gifted was not well stored but the finish on the wine was like old cardboard rather than the balanced, creamy wine promised on the winery’s website.
My son said: “Well, that’s horrible.”
Yet when I added it to the chuck steak, cooked slowly for three hours with onion, a hint of chilli, some cumin and some fresh oregano, the result, again according to my son, was “really, really good”.
I told a friend and he said: “Another myth busted”, but I don’t think so, as if a wine is flawed the potential is that the flaws will translate to the food. I’ll just have to keep experimenting.
“I cook with wine. Sometimes I even add it to the food.”
– WC Fields