Click to follow
The Independent Culture
TRY AN experiment. Apparatus: one grilled rump steak, one pot of Dijon mustard, one pot of horseradish, one bottle of nice but fairly tannic red wine, such as the Chilean 1993 Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve, Maipo (£4.99 Marks & Spencer), 1990 Sainsbu ry's Bairrada Terrafranca (£3.49) from Portugal, or the Rosso di Montalcino or Brunello di Montalcino from Banfi in Italy (£5.99 and £14.39, Majestic).

What we are about to test here is the ability of some food flavours to tame tannin - the tough, bitter, mouth-furring substance in red wines also familiar from stewed tea or pomegranate pith. The taste of tannin is often uncomfortably apparent in young red wines, but it softens with age.

First, try a mouthful of plain steak with the wine; then steak and mustard with wine; then steak and horseradish. With steak alone, the wine probably tastes too strong and toughly tannic, overpowering the flavour of the meat. The effect of mustard is magic. You'd expect anything as powerful as mustard to be a wine-killer. But no - it has a remarkable power to tame tannin. It removes the astringent bitterness, makes the wine taste smoother and magically finer, and lets the flavour of the meat shine through. The mustard effect works on firm, young, fine wines as well as tough, basic reds. Beware mustard, however, with very soft young reds - ones deliberately made very low in tannin for early glugging, or very mature reds whose tannin has softened. They may taste flat and feeble when stripped of what little tannin they have.

Horseradish, on the other hand, is a wine-killer. It strips the fruitiness out of wine, wreaking more havoc with some wines than others. But even wines that cope (such as Cabernet Sauvignons) lose an edge off their quality. Motto: avoid horseradish when serving wine with beef.

You can work similar tricks with lamb. Like horseradish, mint jelly or mint sauce strip wines of fruitiness and quality. But herbs work magic. Zin or Gran Reserva Rioja with plain roast lamb taste nice, but they taste brilliant if you roast the lamb withrosemary and garlic, and are good with thyme. With plain roast lamb, Australian Coonawarra Cabernet tastes too blackcurranty and claret too grassy , but both are stunning with lamb spiked with thyme.