Without doubt one of the most agreeable plates of food that I have ever consumed - it was some truly memorable oxtail - was at Chez Max, in Kew. This was the Renzland brothers restaurant, still the nicest one of the trio they have done, even if only for that art nouveau window. But the food was marvellous and so was the wine list. However, I suspect on this particular occasion, the list was raided for the cooking of that oxtail. When I commented on the excellence of the dish, it was pointed out that this might not have been surprising, as four - yes four - bottles of Cornas had been used in the braise.
Cornas is a beefy wine to say the least. It is from the Rhone valley, a region well known for producing red wines that are robust, powerful and vigorous. This was not any old Cotes du Rhone, and in this instance it had been well worth using some good wine. Not perhaps quite this good, but certainly fine enough to enjoy a glass or two while that oxtail was simmering on the range.
Some of the more agreeable dishes I have prepared, using wine, have been in the kitchen belonging to a wine merchant friend near Bristol. There are always pucker dregs on that particular windowsill, together with excellent quality vinegars. So try and take a step up from that wine box.
It is deeply satisfying cooking with wine. Some of the most well known, and loved, French dishes are wine based: coq au vin, boeuf a la Bourguignonne, oeufs en meurette (see recipe), sole bonne femme, poulet saute chasseur, and so on. It is natural that most of these great dishes should come from a land rich in viviculture (why use water when wine is plentiful?) I cannot think of a British dish that uses wine, apart perhaps, from syllabub. Wine lifts a dish. That is not to say that splashing it all overthe place is going to produce a gourmet experience. Far from it. As with all flavourings, restraint and control is called for. Someone in the restaurant recently complained that there was too much saffron in a lobster and saffron tart. I have often beenguilty of using too much saffron, just because the flavour is so extraordinary, and because people are often mean with it. I do like to be emphatic with seasonings, but as with many flavours, including wine, just because it is strong, or scented, or rare, an excess of it will spoil a balanced dish. I don't, however, believe this to be true of fresh black truffles when combined with a warm potato salad ... Back to wine. It is very important to remove the alcoholic power of the wine as it cooks. This is why, for certain recipes, (particularly when using red wine) the alcohol needs to be burnt off beforehand. This can be done on it's own in a saucepan, but remember to always use stainless-steel or other non-reactive metal. Just pour in the wine, heat to boiling point, light with a match, and continue boiling until the flames have died down. Now allow the wine to reduce by about half, with some other flavours introduced if you wish. I usually throw in some bay and thyme, onion or shallot, and a crushed clove of garlic. A spoonful of redcurrant jelly works wonders, as it sweetens the wine and softens it's harder edges. If you wish to make a coq au vin for instance, then reducing and boiling the wine a little, before adding to the chicken will improve the dish no end, and also give it an altogether more harmonious and deeper flavour. The colour will also be improved. I remember making my first coq an vin and being alarmed as to how purple it was.
The acidity in wine (mostly white wines) also needs to be dealt with. A spoonful or two of white wine cooked with a few fillets of fish is not a worry, but half a bottle or so just poured neat into a sauce or stock, will still retain it's harshness and original winey taste. It needs to lose the astringency that is necessary for it to be a drink and become almost a nuance when part of a fine sauce. Take sauce Bercy for instance. It is one of the simplest and most charming accompaniments to lightly cookedfillets of sole, but is also happy to annoint a small piece of grilled and sliced sirloin steak. It is a French classic and sadly not seen around much any more.
The very simplicity of sauce Bercy demands care and consideration in the making, so the wine chosen should certainly be decent, particularly as the ingredients are minimal. All you need do is reduce a couple of glasses of a wine that is fruity and full bodied. Put the wine in a small stainless-steel (important) or enamel pan, along with some finely chopped shallots, bay leaf and a thyme sprig. Cook until syrupy, but still a little fluid. Remove the herbs, squeeze in a little lemon juice and whisk in a few small lumps of unsalted butter until the sauce takes on a creamy look. Stir in some finely chopped parsley, and that's about it. Some cooks add a spoonful of strong and jellied fish or meat stock, to add substance, but I am not sure this is necessary.
The following recipe for oeufs en meurette comes from my book, Roast Chicken and other Stories. It is a Burgundian classic and very much traditional fare. I have eaten far too many slapdash versions, where the eggs have been overcooked (the great joy of the dish is the combination of runny yolk and red wine sauce) and the wine sauce is thin and insipid. This recipe is rich and famously good.
Oeufs en meurette Serves four One bottle red burgundy (Beaujolais is quite good for this)
300ml/1/2 pint strong beef stock or tinned consomme 1 thyme sprig, 1 bay leaf 1 small onion, peeled and chopped 1tsp soft butter mixed with 1tsp plain flour, for thickening salt and pepper 4 thick, rindless, streaky bacon rashers 25g/1oz butter 12 buttononions, peeled 12 button mushrooms 1 garlic clove, peeled 8 croutons, cut from a baguette and fried in olive oil 1 tbs red wine vinegar 8 very fresh eggs 1 tbs chopped parsley Preparation: Reserve a quarter of the wine and put the rest in a saucepan with the beef stock or consomme, the thyme, bay leaf and chopped onion. Cook over a high heat until reduced by three-quarters. Strain, then return to the pan and thicken slightly by whisking in some of the butter/flour mixture. Season and allow to simmer gently. Meanwhile, cut up and cook the bacon and in the buttery bacon fat, put the button onions and mushrooms. Season and cook over a gentle heat, turning from time to time until nicely coloured, and cooked through. Keep warm with the lardons.
Rub the garlic over both sides of the croutons and put two each into four deepish plates. Heat together the vinegar and reserved Beaujolais and poach the eggs. When cooked, lift them out with a slotted spoon and place two eggs on the croutons. Divide thebacon, onions and mushrooms between the four plates, spoon over the sauce generously, and sprinkle with the parsley.