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Food Glorious Food

Not so long ago, in an era of fondues, trifles and soufflés, our approach to pairing food and wine was simply that red meat went with red wine, while everything else went with white. They were conservative times. There were hard and fast rules – rules that weren’t there to be broken. But times changed …

… we discovered food, and quickly food led us to wine. We ate, drank and travelled more easily than our parents, while we simultaneously fell in love, observed and learned. Then, not so long ago, we got Mastercheffed, and slowly but surely the influence of all these things lead us to become more adventurous with food, and ultimately more confident. We continue to want to know more about what we are eating, and we want to know about wine too. It was only a matter of time before we put the two together.

In the world of food and wine matching there are conservatives and there are anarchists. There are those who follow the rulebook to the letter, and there are those who would just as happily watch the rulebook go up in flames. Wherever you sit, remember that the key to good food and wine matching is about the balance of flavours and textures of both the food and wine when combined. Get your head around that, and you’re well and truly on your way.

I believe that the right wine can make average food taste better, and vice versa. I also believe that food and wine matching isn’t just something to wheel out on special occasions. Practice makes perfect. Creating great matches doesn’t have to be difficult or expensive – in fact, most of my favourite matches are also some of the easiest to reproduce: Champagne with fish and chips, Sangiovese with pizza, sparkling Shiraz with Peking duck, good vanilla ice cream drenched in Pedro Ximenez Sherry. Have fun playing around with different combinations, but never let them get in the way of simply sharing and enjoying a good meal.

Do try this at home. This is where the fun starts. Dig out the corkscrew, roll up your sleeves, and prepare to get your hands dirty. Below is a handful of my all-time favourite food and wine combinations that you simply have to try, if you haven’t already. Tried, tested and tweaked, these are the combinations that work for me. Some are popular classics, while others will no doubt raise eyebrows. But that’s ok – like I say, they work for me and that’s what matters. These aren’t difficult combinations to create. They draw on ingredients that are widely available, and together have the ability to take and ordinary bottle of wine, or plate of food, to another level altogether. Put simply, these are the combinations that I love. If you haven’t already discovered them, I hope you love them too. Bon appétit!

Fino Sherry and Green Olives

As uncool as you think they may be, Fino and Manzanilla Sherry are two of the greatest food-friendly wines produced anywhere in the world. The best examples are bone dry, nutty and with a lovely salty tang that’s perfect for sparking appetites. As a result, these wines really rise to the occasion when paired with foods such as big salty green olives, fresh or jarred anchovies, caper berries, cured meats and nuts. As a point of interest, both Fino and Manzanilla are best drunk fresh off the boat and should be served chilled. Buying half bottles will further maximise freshness.

Champagne and Oysters

OK, I know it’s a bit posh, but it really is such a lovely combo, and the ultimate way to kick off any special occasion. I’m talking about plump, freshly shucked oysters that taste of nothing but the sea with a nice glass of fizz – in this case, Champagne. With a decent match in mind, resist the temptation of adding things like shallots, red wine vinegar, pickled ginger or fancy sorbets, and instead stick to serving your oysters with just a little squeeze of lemon, or better still, au naturel. If the budget doesn’t quite make it to France, no problem, there are plenty of cheaper well-made sparkling wines from around the world that will work just as well (try examples from Italy, Spain, Australia, New Zealand and England).

Champagne and Fish and Chips

Surely not! I’m afraid so, and it happens to be one of my all-time favourites. There’s something very liberating about fish and chips on the beach, toes in the sand, sun on its way down, decent company, and a good bottle of bubbles within arm’s reach. Wines with plenty of acidity and bubbles really come into their own here, working to cut through oil and batter, while simultaneously leaving your palate clean and refreshed. A little bit of salt and lemon doesn’t hurt things either, although its advisable to take it easy on the vinegar, or better still avoid it completely. Again, it doesn’t have to be French bubbles to be a perfect match, but it helps. Just don’t forget the paper cups!

Sauvignon Blanc and Goat’s Cheese

The smell of spring in the air should have you automatically reaching for Sauvignon Blanc. The season’s ingredients are literally made for this variety, and pure gooseberry and blackcurrant fruit coupled with racy acidity lay the foundation for many mouth-watering matches. And while all number of variations on broad beans, peas, mint, basil, lemon, sea salt and really good peppery olive oil are perfectly suited to Sauvignon Blanc, it’s good old goat’s cheese that creates the best match. It’s an incredible marriage. Two ingredients, one crisp and angular, the other pasty and chalk-like, yet together they seem to disarm one another, smoothing out the hard edges as they go. Avoid goat’s cheese rolled in ash, or worse, pepper, and generally keep a look out for the young, fresh examples.

Riesling and Thai

Like many of you I suspect, day to day I eat a lot of Asian food: Vietnamese, Thai, Chinese and Japanese. Where most European cooking proves pretty straightforward for wine matching, Southeast Asian and Chinese cookery definitely does not. With palm sugar, lime juice, fish sauce and those numbingly hot little bird’s eye chillies (that’s sweet, sour, salty and hot all in one go) forming the basis for many Thai salads, you can probably appreciate that few wine styles are up to the job. Riesling is the exception. Look for examples with some degree of sweetness. This will help you account for most of the hurdles. Germany is home to the best of these. And as a word of warning to chilli fanatics like me, be wary of how much chilli you use in your cooking – even the most suitable wines have their limits.

Chardonnay and Roast Chicken

Chardonnay may have taken some stick over the years, but it remains one of the most food-friendly wines going around. Gone is the heavy handed use of oak, the super-sized tropical fruit, and the ‘everything but the kitchen sink’ approach to winemaking that put so many of you off to begin with. The new face of Chardonnay is leaner and more focused than ever and as a result the wines are far better balanced, and better suited to food. Which leads me to straight on to an old Sunday lunch favourite. Piping hot oven aside, a whole chicken stuffed with lemon, butter, garlic, salt, pepper and fresh thyme is all you need to create Chardonnay heaven. You’ll need rich sweet fruit and spicy oak to match the flavour of the bird, you’ll need weight and length to carry flavour, and you’ll need focused acidity to cut through fat and clean your palate. You’ll need Chardonnay.

Rosé and Mozzarella

As food-friendly wine styles go, rosé ranks right up there with the best of them. With the added advantage of being anything from light, heavy, sweet, dry or somewhere in between, rosé can handle pretty much everything from a straightforward tomato salad right the way through to all the charred and sticky things the barbeque can manage. That said, the freshest mozzarella you can lay your hands on, a couple of small sweet tomatoes and a drizzle of good olive oil is one of the best, and easiest, matches for light dry rosé you can produce. But because rosé comes in so many forms – and rarely does it state on the label whether it’s sweet or dry – it’s best to have a good recommendation before you buy.

Pinot Noir and Duck

Raw tuna, char-gilled salmon, trout, pan-roasted sea bass with lentils, mushrooms, truffles, roast chicken with morels, coq au vin, sweet and succulent spring lamb, pot-roasted rabbit with rosemary, black olives and orange zest, quail, squab, teal, grouse, pheasant, pigeon, partridge and all those other pretty little birds that my daughter likes to point out as we walk through the park are all perfectly suited to Pinot Noir, although none quite so well as duck. Pinot Noir and duck share an almost spiritual relationship. At best, both are rich, decadent and have terrific intensity of flavour that ranges from sweet to savoury. One is naturally high in fat, while the other loves nothing more than cutting through it. Together, at best, they are the ultimate combination. A word of advice, though, as Pinot Noir is a low yielding grape variety that only grows in certain parts of the world, you’ll most likely have to spend a little bit extra in order to be dazzled. I’m sure it’ll be worth it.

Sangiovese and Pizza

Friday night is pizza night in the Skinner house. If we’re feeling motivated we’ll make them from scratch, covering the house in flour as we go, otherwise we’ll just ring them in. Whichever we choose, the topping combinations seem to stay pretty consistent: tomato, mozzarella, capers and anchovy, salami and fresh chilli, potato and rosemary, or the family favourite, prosciutto and rocket. Sangiovese is the perfect pizza partner. If you’re lucky enough to find yourself eating pizza in Milan, Florence, Rome or Naples, and you’re drinking from the large communal bottle of red on the table, then chances are you’re drinking Sangiovese. Incredibly versatile and naturally high in both tannin and acidity, Sangiovese has the structure to navigate all but the trickiest textures and still support a range of flavours, sweet and savoury. Bellissimo!

Cabernet Sauvignon and Lamb

Together, Cabernet Sauvignon and lamb share an amazing relationship. Slow-roasted shoulder of lamb (rather than the more expensive leg) surrounded by veg is another favourite in our family, and the perfect Cabernet partner. This is a tried and tested classic, yet irrespective of whether you choose to pan-fry, char-grill or roast your meat, Cabernet’s core of dark fruit will naturally knit with the sweet, earthy flavour of lamb, while trademark dry grainy tannin from Cabernet’s thick skins will work wonders at breaking down protein and cutting through fat. To avoid overpowering your food, take a wide berth around examples with excessive alcohol and/or oak, and, as always, if you’re unsure, ask. And as Cabernet is a great international traveller, good examples will be easy to find.

Moscato and Gelato

Lemon, strawberry, pistachio, blood orange, fennel, mint – no matter what your favourite flavour of gelato may be, if you’re after a foolproof dessert and wine combination, this is it. Whenever I’m lucky enough to be in Italy’s northwest, this is one of the combinations I crave. Light, sweet and a little bit fizzy, the weight and sweetness of Moscato mirrors the weight and sweetness of gelato beautifully, while the bubbles in the wine work to clean and refresh your palate. For the best match, stick with non-cream based gelato and sorbet, and, as it involves little more than scooping gelato into a bowl and pulling the cork from a bottle, you have zero excuses for not having a go.

Pedro Ximenez and Ice Cream

From Jerez in Spain’s south, Pedro Ximenez has an intense nose of molasses, raisins, spice and spirit, while in your mouth it’s syrupy, rich and long. Serve it alongside fruitcake or sticky toffee pudding, and that’s almost as good as it gets. I say almost, because there is an easier alternative. This is an absolute no-brainer and your guests/better half are going to love you for it! Grab a tub of rum and raisin ice cream (vanilla is just as good), place two scoops in a bowl and liberally pour PX over the top as though it were chocolate sauce. And there you have it – an instant classic dessert.

Liqueur Muscat & Nana’s Plum Pudding

You don’t actually need a Nana to make this combination work, but as Nanas seem to make the best plum puddings, it may help. Dense, moist and rich with spiced currants/citrus peel, brandy and vanilla, there’s actually very little you can do to a plum pudding to make it better. That said, a glass of Liqueur Muscat – a unique sweet wine from Australia – placed next to your bowl is a very good start. Sporting raisin, rancio, spice, spirit and wave after wave of intensity, the aromatics of great Liqueur Muscat are little short of pure magic – not to mention a match made in heaven with plum pudding, Nana or not.