Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Local Wine with Local Food - A Downright Lie

The supposed symbiotic relationship between wine and food from a given local is a myth. The eloquent ramblings supporting the proposition are at best half-truths but mostly downright lies. Not necessarily by anyone’s overt intention to deceive but as a result of the inevitable distortions and embellishment of wine and food fairy tales over time.

It is important to start this by pointing out I come from a very traditional and classical position on wine and food. I was a complete Francophile, my culinary apprenticeship was in pasties because Escoffier wrote that was the requisite foundation for all great chefs, and Larousse Gastronomique (the 1961 Crown edition, not the newer version) was my bible and even had a Vizsla (dog) named Prosper in honor of the author. I had the patter, the rationale and all of the bad sciences down pat. I became recognized as a ‘wine and food guru’ internationally. And I was feeling more and more like something was very wrong. As my wine world began to expand I began to note the many inconsistencies and uncertainties in my own stories, and lectures. I was more aware of the vast differences in how people experienced the same combinations. In 1990 it all came to a head at a communications seminar I attended in preparing for the MW examination and I started down a different path.

Over the past 20 years I have conducted a ‘critical rethinking’ of what I had held as sacred premises for the correct matching of wine and food. Critical thinking is a discipline applied when there are two or more conflicting opinions or points of view and allows the deconstruction and reconstruction of concepts to try to find a resolution. I started enrolling other chefs, wine experts and sensory specialists in this new quest for the Truth About Wine and Food. Here is a sampling of the things we found.

Macro-level Mythbuster
The wines that were consumed not very long ago in France, Spain, Germany and Italy were wines we could not even imagine as drinkable today. Alcohols were rarely above 10-11 percent. ‘Red’ wines were more what we would consider dark rose today. Acetic acid and brettanomyces were the rule, not the exception. Prior to WWII wines were rarely put in bottles and mostly sold ‘en vrac’ – picture a huge tank with a gas pump. Any wine approaching what we drink today as most often EXPORTED AND NOT CONSUMED IN THE AREA!! In 1970 (correct me if someone has better figures) only 5% of the wines of France were AOC wines. Wine was part of the culture and not vice-versa, not event the OWNERS of great chateaux new what varieties were planted on their own estate let alone the consumers of the wine. The wines that we associate with the regions of production in France today not only were not consumed there, cheaper Italian, North African and Spanish wines we brought in huge quantities to supply the daily need of the locals. People drank the same wines day in and day out. With whatever was on their table.

And don’t even get me started on the concept of why TERROIR has become such a volatile subject . Suffice to say here it is a gross misinterpretation of different words that has led to innumerable arguments. I will do a piece on that down the road.

Red Wine and Red Meat – Truth or Fertilizer?
The insights I learned on critically rethinking this myth smacked me in the head like a 2X4. 1992, 30 sensory scientists from 11 countries assembled to listen to my wine and food lecture at Beringer’s then-new Hudson House Culinary Center. They were invited there to listen to my wine and food stuff and rip it apart. Seriously.

Me, “try the steak with the Cabernet and note how the tannins are softened. Astringency is a result of the negatively charged polyphenols in the wine denaturing the positively charged proteins in our mouth tissues and saliva resulting the corresponding lack of lubricity we experience. Having rare meat provides new bonding points for the colloids reducing the denaturing effect and fat provides lubrication and the effect of smoothing out and reducing the astringency.”

Fertilizer was the unanimous agreement. “Have you tried this with rare meat that has no salt?” was the question from a gentleman who did his Ph.D. dissertation on lubricity (seriously). “Salt is a bitterness blocker and would account for this illusion.”

Crap. We cooked more USDA Choice NY Strip and tried it again. The wine becomes MORE astringent with red wine and red meat. I have demonstrated this hundreds of times to thousands of people.

What about the fat and the softening of red wine? Nope. Try it. Olive oil, lard, butter WITH NO SALT, cooked beef fat, lamb fat – you name it. THEY MAKE WINE MORE BITTER AND ASTRINGENT! We tend to put more salt on fatty foods. Duh.

Coming up we will look at the Foie Gras and sweet wine myth, red wine and fish (with a special sojourn to oysters) and all sorts of stuff. If anyone is out there let me know what YOU would like next!