I’ve never been a scientist. As my mother will tell you, I managed to get through my physics GCSE through a mixture of learning the text book and sheer luck. I’m sure my A-levels of Ancient Greek, Latin and Music (which of course I use all the time in everyday life…..) have something to do with the creative side of cooking, but one thing I never expected to find so fascinating was the science behind cooking. From the moment I discovered that some vague memory about how osmosis worked could actually be usefully applied when boiling potatoes, using osmosis to infuse the potatoes with flavour before mashing, I was hooked. It’s not just the science of food that has interested me recently, but I’ve been finding out a lot about wine as well. While I’m not going to be able to spill out all the information I accumulated about wine over a qualification i did this summer in one blog post, and it is almost impossible to understand how different wines taste unless you taste a lot of similar wines one after the other, there are a few things that might surprise you. For anyone who declares I only like Chardonnay; Chardonnay tastes completely different based on the climate – citrusy, fresh in a cool climate, tropical and rich in a warm climate. Red wine can only be made with red grapes but white can be made with both (as long as the red skins are removed). The colour (tannins) are in the skin. Italian wines are almost certainly high in acidity, it’s just how the Italians like it. If a wine says Grand Cru on it, the wine is one of the best, but Special Reserve technically has no guarantee of a good wine. Generally a grape that produces high tannin wine (thick skins e.g Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah) will be better when it is aged and the tannins softened, but thinner skinned grapes (Merlot, Grenache, Pinot Noir) can be drunk earlier. And that is why I always drink Merlot in a pub. I could probably go on like this all day, proper wine geek.
In terms of wine/food pairings – there are a few rules: (If you do one of these courses you get given a handy card you can carry with you – which of course I use all the time…..)
While overkilling the wine geekery in a conversation with my friend, Madam Jojo, she insisted that I design a wine tasting for her and some friends to put my skills to the test. Here is the menu, a little bit about what they taste like and the dishes I matched them with… on that note Majestic Wine were fantastic, great value, delivered to the house for free and huge selection.
Lindauer Special Reserve Blanc de Blancs
Sparkling White New Zealand, 100% Chardonnay, Butter, Biscuit, lemon
Chablis Vieilles Vignes 2012, Vocoret
White Burgundy, 100% Chardonnay, citrus, green apple, minerality
Smoked Salmon, Crab Salad, Fennel, Apple, Avocado, Sourdough Bread
Marquis de Pennautier Chardonnay ‘Terroirs d’Altitude’, 2012 Pays D’oc
Southern France White, 100% Chardonnay, stone and tropical fruits, cloves
Château Tour du Haut Moulin, 2007, Cru Bourgeoise, Haut Medoc
Red Bordeaux, Cabernet Sauvignon dominated Merlot/Cab blend, blackberry, spice, smooth tannins
Spicy Black Beans, Bacon, Confit Potato, Creme Fraiche, Toasted Almonds
Matsu El Recio 2012, Toro
Intense Red, 100% Tempranillo, coffee beans, chocolate, overripe plums, smooth tannins
Royal Tokaji Late Harvest, 2012
Hungarian dessert wine, ripe peach, apricots, nectarine, high acidity so not cloying on palate
Orange Cream, Basil Jelly, Honey toasted oatmeal
The benefits of singing in a choir may not be immediately obvious to those who don’t. There are the weekly hours you have to put in, the pressure of daily performance, the taking care of your voice. But for those in the know, it is all about the free food and drink: in this case, a decadent 6 course meal with rather nice wine in return for providing some musical entertainment. This is a once-in-a-term occurrence, but when the opportunity comes along we grab it with both hands.
So there we are, all dolled-up to the nines, the Fellows in gowns with red ribbons (for no apparent reason) – classic Cambridge madness. Following the champagne reception, and many photos, we traipsed into Hall. Caius’ food doesn’t usually wow me, but in this case it was rather different…
We started with a smoked chicken salad, mango purée and mango pieces. Whilst not a classic combination, it is certainly a modern favourite and was executed well. The chicken was tender, and the mango was not too sweet. Full marks for presentation to a college that normally serves their Formal Hall meals with a selection of sauce sachets on the table.
Next we were treated to a delicious pan-fried white fish. I am not entirely sure which type of fish, as for some reason only known to Cauis they insist upon putting the menu in French, for those of us who aren’t multi-lingual – this means guesswork). Unfortunately the fish was served with a vanilla and orange cream. This was just too sweet for the delicate fish and resulted in the whole dish tasting rather like a Terry’s Chocolate Orange.
Surprisingly my favourite course was the palate cleanser of Mojito sorbet. While admittedly it possibly would have been better as a dessert, it was minty and sweet and refreshing. There wasn’t much of an alcohol kick to it, but I’m not sure we necessarily needed it by that point…
For the main course, what else but a nice cut of beef. Sadly this was a little over-cooked: not awful, but I’m afraid not great. However the potatoes, classic new potato roasties, were delicious.
Following this I believe we did a bit of singing, but that wasn’t really what I was there for. It was a shame that the dessert wasn’t anywhere near as good as previous feast desserts, which have mostly been some sort of variation on a Black Forest gateau. This was just a thick and overly-sweet fig jam in a pastry case with sugary cream on top. I was not the only one not to finish it. (There comes a point where even I can’t eat much more!)
You would have thought that would be the end of the meal, however it wouldn’t be a feast if there weren’t more courses than sense. Following some cheerful Wood madrigals, (Charles Wood, GCC 1889-1924), we launched into the cheese course, accompanied by claret, muscat and port. Luckily this is always my least favourite course, as I did not really want to eat much more by this point. Not only am I not a big fan of cheese – Sacre Bleu! – but also I find dessert wines just too cloying and sweet. A glass of port is alright, but any more than that is too much for me. This is why I have learnt to like whisky: my new after-dinner drink of choice.
So that was us quite literally singing for our supper. I think the overall message is that when every course has a sweet component, culminating in a sickly dessert, I would prescribe a low-sugar diet!