Food and drink matching: It’s about flavour, not format

Friday, September 04, 2015

A surprisingly interesting piece on the modern wine menu (bear with me) on has spurred me into action after a long, blog-less summer hibernation.

The piece, entitled ‘Writing the Modern Wine Menu’, talks about the difficulty in selecting a rounded list of wines for a restaurant, given the breadth of choice available from around the world. The writer ponders over restaurateurs’ struggling with whether they can, or should choose wines from lesser known regions or grape varieties and also whether the wine list should challenge, excite, or please - assuming the three are mutually exclusive.

One paragraph which leapt out at me in particular, for fairly obvious reasons, was
“Food at the most fascinating restaurants has gotten bolder, with ambitious chefs more fearless in adopting flavors and techniques from around the world. That sometimes results in dishes that are less-obviously wine-friendly, but beverage directors are pushing for creative solutions, reaching deep into an arsenal of picks that go far beyond Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon to wine’s outer orbits of sherry and fortified wines, as well as beer and spirits.” (My emphasis).

The idea that there is no one-size-fits-all drink to pair with food is something I’ve been pushing for a long time. Beer is still earning its place at the high-end dinner table, but as chefs become ever more inventive in their flavour combinations they will be forced to look beyond the realms of wine, to beer, cider or even spirits - try a peaty Lagavulin with Roquefort or unpasteurised stilton (edit: Thanks to the @DasKegster for pointing out that for legal reasons unpasteurised 'stilton' is called stichelton).

But it should flow both ways, and whilst beer is my go-to for pairing with food thanks to its variety, other drinks have their place at the table too. Pairing should be fluid not restrictive.

As restaurants play with flavours we should do the same with our drink pairings and look across the full drinks spectrum . The dry, zesty French muscadet I drank last night with a seafood risotto finished with butter, lemon zest and parsley was a perfect combination which relies on two simple methods – cutting the richness of the buttery risotto with acidity and highlighting the zesty flavour of the muscadet with a flourish of lemon zest.

But beer allows us to bring in flavours not found in the wine world, such as the resinous piney bitterness of a hoppy American IPA, the malty, savoury sweetness of a rich imperial stout or the salty tartness of a Belgian Gose (though a nice Fino sherry comes pretty close). Oh, and it has to be beer with cheese – wine doesn’t even come close I’m afraid.

My point is it’s all about flavour, not format. Thinking about what a drink is really about, it’s flavour, aroma and textural  profile, and how that works with or plays with the food.

One way a restaurant mentioned in the article does this is to have a description-only wine list - so those who normally order the Pinot Grigio might be tempted into unknowingly ordering a steely dry Riesling they otherwise wouldn’t have taken a second glance at.

I wonder what would happen if a beer was slipped under the radar using the same method. Would a wine buff turn their nose up at being served a foaming glass of saison having read dry, crisp and complex on the menu and assumed a snappy white wine was on its way?

I think we’re a little way off being able to answer that with a resolute ‘no’, but it’s a nice thing to be striding towards.

Note: The photo at the top is, coincidentally, from Imbibe Live which had an excellent beer and food matching seminar lead by the Brewers Association's Head Chef.