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Published in Cooking, Food & Wine/Entertaining & Holidays
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1 + 1 = 3: Food and Beverage Pairing to Create a Peak Experience
It is impossible to live a pleasant life without living wisely and honorably and justly, and it is impossible to live wisely and honorably and justly without living pleasantly. - EPICURUS, the fourth century B.C. philosopher whose ideas gave birth to Epicureanism, the enjoyment of (and highly refined taste in) fine food and drink
Enjoying good food and drink goes hand in hand with living a pleasant life. Your choices of what to eat and drink present you with an opportunity for pleasure, because the right beverage can bring greater enjoyment to whatever you're eating at breakfast, lunch, or dinner. Conversely, the wrong choice has the power to ruin the experience of a meal-three times a day! You can ensure greater pleasure in your life by making more informed choices.
Drink is inseparable from food. You've probably realized the glory of food and beverage pairing yourself countless times over the past few decades, whether through enjoying milk and cookies, beer and pretzels, or wine and cheese. If you're anything like us, just the idea of a freshly baked chocolate cupcake served with a tall glass of cold milk is enough to get your taste buds going-or maybe a dark chocolate dessert with a glass of tawny port is more your style. Either way, you're in for a lot of fun learning about other just-as-delicious combinations that have won our hearts.
What you drink can be seen as the final "seasoning" of any dish you're eating. Just as ill-matched flavorings (or flavor enemies, as we termed them in our book Culinary Artistry) can ruin a plate of food, drinking a beverage that's ill-suited to a dish can leave a bad taste in your mouth. Thus, beverages should be thought of as "condiments" that add the finishing touch to any dish. (You'd never put Tabasco sauce on ice cream. Why drink a tannic Cabernet Sauvignon with something sweet?) You can easily enhance your pleasure by avoiding common mistakes with your food and beverage pairings.
The POTENTIAL of FOOD and BEVERAGE PAIRING
As with anything you put in your body, you should think about what you consume. They should be things of quality and interest-because the dining experience is a moment when you've stopped all other activities, and it's a time to collect your thoughts, to be with yourself and your friends, and to share ideas. You should put interesting things on the table, both literally and figuratively-including interesting things to drink. - DANIEL JOHNNES, beverage director, Daniel (NYC)
One of the greatest pleasures of gastronomy (which has been defined as "the science of gourmet food and drink") is the coming together of all aspects of the dining experience: great ambiance, service, food, and beverages-especially wine, which is the primary focus of this book. When what you're drinking melds with what you're eating, something magical takes place in your mouth, in terms of sheer sensory experience. The top restaurants in America celebrate food and beverage pairing as an indispensable aspect of creating dining experiences their guests will never forget. Chefs work with wine stewards - more commonly known as sommeliers - to come up with the perfect pairings, or "marriages," that will bring out the best of both the food and the beverage. Together, they seek to make the experience of both enjoyed together better than either would be on its own.
Daniel Boulud has been cited in our research for more than a decade as the virtual "gold standard" of American chefs; his four-star restaurant, Daniel, is considered by fellow chefs to be a New York City must-visit. When we asked him how he thought diners could best enjoy dining there, we assumed he would start by discussing the signature dishes he has worked on for years. However, he didn't once mention his celebrated bass wrapped in potato crust. Instead, he put the focus on wine as much as food, telling us how his tasting menu is built around matching the food and the wine:
We might start with a Late Harvest Riesling or a sweet wine from the Loire Valley-and pair that with a terrine of foie gras and figs. This combination of food and wine creates a certain richness and privilege for the beginning of the meal. You want to start with it and be teased with it, then go on to drier and more serious wine. We might follow this with a lighter wine, like a Sauvignon Blanc, paired with vichyssoise, then build to larger flavors, like seafood paired with Chardonnay. Then we'd follow with a fish course paired with a white or a red wine, and then into the meat courses starting with a Rhone Valley wine, and then into Cabernet or Syrah, depending on the season ...
Daniel Boulud's enthusiasm helped us to understand that pairing foods and beverages is truly at the heart of gastronomy, and that the world's most discriminating palates see food and drink as inseparable. Anyone who's ever experienced a chef's tasting menu with paired beverages that was a true symphony of flavors understands that the best matches can create a peak experience. Great pairings are a natural high. In the 1960s and 1970s, a generation of Americans got their thrills from "sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll." In the current era of celebrity chefs, it is great restaurants that now provide this generation with its(legal) peak experiences.
The classic pairings that often provide such peak experiences are gifts to us from the epicures of history who had the challenging task of first sampling countless combinations until realizing, "Hey-tomatoes taste great with basil!" and likewise, "Grilled steak is fabulous with red wine!" Time-honored pairings provide a benchmark to aim for with every meal.
Sampling great, classic food and beverage combinations can take you instantly on an exciting journey to another country (e.g., Italy, via hazelnut biscotti with Vin Santo) or even to another era (e.g., nineteenth-century France, via foie gras with a very old Sauternes). Serious food lovers will want to experience such classics for themselves-so why not start around the dinner table tonight?
WHY FOOD and BEVERAGE PAIRING is MORE CHALLENGING TODAY
The Sauternes-swigging Frenchmen of the 1800s drank Sauternes with just about everything, since only sweet wines could be made in the pre-refrigeration days of winemaking. They would be shocked and overwhelmed by the wine and other beverage choices we have today-much as just about everybody is these days. The problem today is that there are so many interesting beverages from which to choose that it can become overwhelming, not to mention confusing, and occasionally intimidating.
Food and beverages are increasingly diverse and complex. In North America, there's a wider array of choices than ever before of both foods (using ingredients and techniques from around the globe)and beverages (including wines, beers, sakes, waters, and more).
The old rules (e.g., "Drink white wine with white meat and fish, and red wine with red meat") and myths (e.g., "Red wine is better, more sophisticated, etc., than white wine and certainly more so than rose") are no longer applicable-if they ever were-and have led some people to simply throw up their hands in frustration and settle for less than optimal pairings.
French food and wine came of age together and were designed to go together, resulting in classic combinations. However, with chefs today using global flavors and techniques only as starting points for their own creations, how is it possible to find the best beverage to accompany these dishes if they've only existed for an hour? The dawn of New American cuisine has changed the culinary landscape. In a typical week, the average American might eat dishes or flavors originating in seven different countries, from pizza to sushi to quesadillas. There are an increasing number of global flavors and techniques on the American table, as well as an increasing number of innovative dishes featuring new flavor combinations-all calling for new beverage choices.
Wine is now more accessible than ever-finally making its way into the mainstream of American culture via mega-retailers like Costco and Wal-Mart. However, as master sommelier Joseph Spellman points out, "Unfortunately, [mass retailers] are places with the least connectivity to food and wine-so most Americans are stuck without specialists to help them. We've put mom-and-pop wine stores out of business, and that is where the expertise really is, or was: in the specialist wine stores." Our hope is that this book can help to provide some sorely needed guidance.
MORE BEVERAGE CHOICES THAN EVER
Pairing food and drink is not as simple as it was twenty or thirty years ago, when it was primarily a matter of choosing between red and white wine, or between a wine from France or one from California. Sommeliers in fancy restaurants were the few concerned with food and beverage pairing and showcasing classic combinations. But today, you can enjoy that same pleasure in your own home every single night.
The era of FedEx can literally bring a world of beverages to your door, via online wine retailers and beer-of-the-month clubs-and even more possibilities for pleasure. Today on any given restaurant wine list, you might see wines from across the United States, from an Arizona Zinfandel to a Virginia Viognier. (As of 2002, there were wineries in all fifty states.) In addition to Old World wines from Europe, now you can find a huge array of wines from around the globe. The old popular varietals such as Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon are changing, too, with oak levels rising and falling as often as hemlines-so you can't always assume that they'll taste exactly like the styles you've enjoyed in the past.
There are also more nonwine as well as nonalcoholic beverage options available. Alcohol is not as appropriate at certain times of day (e.g., morning), but why should you turn your palate off and settle for a less than optimal pairing just because it's breakfast time? Also, many people don't drink alcohol for health or other reasons, yet they also desire-and deserve-an optimal gastronomic experience. Therefore, instead of merely focusing on food and wine pairing, we decided to also include information about enjoying food with beer, sake, cocktails, coffee, tea, and even water.
While food and beverage pairing is an increasingly complicated topic, you don't have to be a wine (or beverage) geek to be able to enjoy it. You honestly don't need to know anything about where and how a wine was made to figure out if it pleases your palate or not. And you shouldn't be thrown off by terms like residual sugar or terroir, or bewilderingly specific point ratings of 95 or 76 for a particular wine. Those 100-point scale ratings that rate wines in a vacuum have next to nothing to do with how well those wines go with the foods you enjoy-or, for that matter, how well you enjoy those wines. After all, you already have a lifetime of food and beverage pairing under your belt, so don't make the mistake of thinking this involves too much effort. Have you ever enjoyed steak and red wine? Pizza and a Coke? A root-beer float with vanilla ice cream? Then you're already further along than you thought.
WHY FOOD and BEVERAGE PAIRING is MORE FUN TODAY
"Never before has the consumer had such an opportunity to buy such great wines from all over the world, especially at the great prices you see today," attests Daniel beverage director Daniel Johnnes. Increased global competition has driven prices down, while both the quantity and the quality of wines and other beverages distributed in North America have increased in recent years-all of which is good news for "us epicures."
Of course it's possible to spend a lot of money on wine-thousands or even tens of thousands of dollars or more for a single bottle, if you wanted. However, there are fabulous wines and other beverages to be had for ten to fifteen dollars a bottle, if you know where to look for them (you'll find tips in Chapter 4).
"All the new wines on the market make food and beverage pairing more fun and more interesting," observes Jean-Luc Le Du of Le Du's Wines in New York. "This variety broadens our palates for even more wines to try with the increasing array of foods. Ten years ago, we were just starting to talk about newly available wines like Gruner Veltliner and New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. However, the market has exploded since then, with more and more wines from Austria, such as Riesling, as well as red wines from Portugal."
Experts also mentioned Spain among the countries whose wine quality has improved, through everything from new production techniques to barrel aging. It has been considered a world-class producer for the past decade, and its wines offer some of the best values for the price. Italy was also cited for its growing reputation for quality.
"The quality of wine is getting better all over the world, even in the classic regions of France," says Le Du. "It is a kick in the butt when wines have to compete on an international level, because they all have to be great."
There is magic in that distance between the food and the wine. The ideal match fills in that space. - DEREK TODD, sommelier, Blue Hill at Stone Barns (New York)
We've tapped the knowledge of some of America's leading palates, and synthesized their opinions so that you can be guided by consensus as well as well-informed opinion. The experts we interviewed are themselves guided by everything from history ("classic combinations"), to their first-hand professional experience at top restaurants, to their first-hand tasting experience on their nights off. We talked to, for example, Indian-born professionals about traditional beverages to enjoy with their native dishes and other ethnic food aficionados about their favorite accompaniments to dishes from other global cuisines.
Which magical combinations of food and wine will result in the greatest pleasure for you? Life is too short to try every combination for ourselves-especially the ones that have already been determined not to work. We can benefit from the wisdom of the ages, not to mention of the dozens of experts we interviewed, by taking advantage of their knowledge and experience, which are compiled and summarized in the pages that follow.
We hope that this book will help you live a more pleasurable life by bringing more enjoyment to every meal-whether you're cooking at home, ordering in, or dining out. You'll find just the perfect thing to drink with your roasted chicken, Thai curry, and Thanksgiving turkey in these pages. And you just might learn how to experience an old favorite combination in a new and better way-or discover the perfect midnight snack to go with your favorite Chardonnay.
Patrick O'Connell on "Overcoming Overwhelm" with Regard to Wine
Patrick O'Connell of the Inn at Little Washington in Virginia recognized twenty-five years ago that the subject of wine could be a little overwhelming-for guests and staff members alike. To counteract this, he took a simple approach with his employees and ended up creating a team of experts that made wine more accessible and enjoyable to guests as well.
In the early days, we had to deal with a lot of staff who had never been outside of this region [a rural area of Virginia, seventy-five minutes outside Washington] or county. Even though in our humble beginnings the wine list was not what it is today, it was still intimidating to them: It immediately set up all sorts of barriers. It was like a big wall that they couldn't go near because it was so confusing.
With regard to mastering cooking, I often recommend that people choose one dish and to make that dish over and over again until it becomes part of them. We used the same parallel with wine: Part of each staff member's "homework" was to choose one wine that they liked or felt they had an affinity toward. They had to buy a case of that wine, and then they had to learn everything they possibly could about that wine and become the world's foremost expert on it.
At first they thought, "Yeah, right. I'm going to become the world's foremost expert ..."
So they'd get their case of wine, and they'd be ever so proud. At first, it was just something to drink, and they'd start drinking it with everything. Then, they began to be a little more discriminating. They found they didn't like it at all when they drank it with X, Y, or Z. I remember one woman was drinking some kind of rose with ice cream. She decided she did not like it.
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