It was a seven-month marathon: more than 28,000 different mouthfuls, we reckon. Tasting the same wine with a line-up of five different foods one after the other is a revelation. Food really changes the taste of wine, and vice versa. Take cheese. Many cheeses (Cheddar, Lanca-shire, Caerphilly, feta or Parmesan) make a red Burgundy such as Volnay taste bitter; Pont l'Eveque makes it too acid, Cheshire overpowers the wine, while smoked Bavarian cheese strips red Burgundy of any taste at all. But the flavour of French Munster chimes in really well.
We were able to apply a certain amount of logic to choosing which of the 250 wines to taste each session, but even now, with the book on the shelves, we couldn't explain exactly why Munster goes so well with red Burgundy. Foods and wines are complex combinations of different chemical compounds (more than 800 aromatic compounds have been identified in wine, and that's only the aromatic ones).
We could narrow down the styles of wine that were likely to suit: delicately flavoured foods would be overwhelmed by big, gutsy wines; savoury foods containing sweet ingredients, such as duck with orange, would go best with slightly sweet wines; and food containing acidity such as lemon juice called for a wine with corresponding acidity.
But logic can take you only so far. Among wines with the right "structure" (acidity, body, fruitiness, sweetness or dryness), getting the flavours to match called for mouth-on experimentation. We often found ourselves following a grape variety trail. If, for example, Sauvignon de Touraine went brilliantly with vinaigrette-dressed tomato salad, we'd try other Sauvignons. (Sauvignon du Haut Poitou with tomatoes was also excellent, Sancerre and New Zea-land Sauvignon quite good matches, but Sauvignons from Bordeaux and South Africa tended to be too soft.)
We tried wines local to our dishes, but the local tipple was often beaten by foreigners. Frenchmen may be unamused by the suggestion that Australian Cabernet Merlot goes better with boeuf Bourguignonne than red Burgundy. Top-class Italian Valpolicella goes far better than any Spanish wine we tasted with the wonderful raw Spanish ham, jamon. And Gruner Veltliner dry white from land-locked Austria was, for us, the superstar with scallops.
It soon became clear that we did not have time to do the tastings, write the book, squeeze in all our other work, and buy and cook the food. What we really needed, we decided, was an affordable chef.
The answer was Ic (so called by our two-year-old who found his name, Cedric, too difficult to say). From Nantes in the Loire valley, Ic was restaurant-trained and desperate to learn English before leaving to work in Disneyworld in Florida. Every morning for six months we discussed recipes with Ic, and he then laboriously translated them into French before sharpening his knives and finally getting to grips with the food. Never had onions been so finely chopped. Ic was a whizz with hollandaise or Bearnaise sauce, but a request for bread-and-butter pudding, toad in the hole or Irish stew caused consternation, and a lengthy poring over cookbooks.
We possess hundreds of recipe books, fortunately. For our wine pairings, we needed to produce a typical version of each dish, and we would check five or six recipes before briefing Ic. Occasionally we tasted more than one version: an ordinary gazpacho made with green peppers and a Seville- type gazpacho made with red; a classic spaghetti alla Bolognese from one of our Italian cookbooks and an anglicised spag bol from the supermarket.
Cheese followed cheese, fish followed fish for night after night, then meat, in alphabetical order, fascinating but relentless. Veg came as a positive relief, fruit was heaven. The book is arranged by food type, not by course (meat, eggs, rice and grains, sauces, herbs and spices, rather than starters and main courses). Apart from major dishes, we listed separate elements such as herbs and spices so that a bit of cross-referencing should come up with a wine partner if someone combined monkfish, turbot, smoked salmon and basil. (Chardonnay should do the trick.)
There were delicious evenings. Three different types of caviar were fun, as was a night of lobster, crab, oysters, langoustines and fresh-water crayfish, It was satisfying to find the star matches: good Beaujolais with beef, white Crozes-Hermitage with cassoulet, inexpensive Australian Semillon with scrambled egg and smoked salmon, Vouvray demi-sec with gravad lax.
The chutney, ketchup and bottled brown sauce evening was less fun, and the eight versions of vinaigrette and six of mustard, plus horseradish and two types of soy sauce, were little better. Chewing basil leaves (Californian Chardonnay), capers (Sancerre), caraway seed (Chilean Sauvignon Blanc) and cardamom pods (white Chateauneuf or oaked Chardonnay) palls after a while. Lemon grass was a revelation, transforming simple whites into something quite delicious.
By the time we reached the puddings, my husband had begun to spit out the food as well as the wine. Then it was over. We could eat normally again: one dish, one wine. The proofs of the book arrived in mid-August, for us to read through, correct and send back within a week, just the week my husband went into hospital to have an operation. The night before, I was evicted from the hospital at midnight with my computer and wedges of paper. The night after, we perfumed the hospital corridors with takeaway Thai roast duck curry and celebrated the end of the book with a bottle of New Zealand Cloudy Bay Chardonnay. Oh dear, it should have been Vin de Pays des Cotes de Gascogne...Reuse content