This is the time of the year when everyone asks the eternal holiday question: what wine goes with turkey? Since this subject has already been covered exhaustively and excellently here, here and here, let's instead have some fun pairing wine with some traditional delicacies from Britain. If you're reading this in US you may want to give thanks tomorrow that some of these dishes aren't on your holiday table: jellied eels, pork pies, Scotch eggs, Welsh Rarebit, fish and chips, Stilton and Spotted Dick. Spotted what?
Actually I think the British unfairly get a bad rap for their food. There's a great culinary tradition that exists cheek by jowl with a fairly bad restaurant tradition. But let's face it: the popular conception of grey meats and khaki-coloured vegetables drenched in an unnameable industrial gravy had to have started somewhere. Sure, there are some great restaurants like The Fat Duck that duels with Spain's El Bulli for top honors as the best restaurant in the world, but your average London pub still isn't a great ambassador of cuisine. Great traditional British cooking is mainly found in homes (like my in-laws!) or in better gastropubs or restaurants like St. John.
One of the difficulties of pairing many traditional British dishes with wine is that they were originally served - and seem to go hand-in-hand - with beer, ale or cider. Oddly enough, my bible of food and wine pairing has always been the great British wine writer Hugh Johnson's recommendations at the beginning of his annual Pocket Guide to Wine. It's served me well but now there's a new kid in town: WHAT to DRINK with WHAT you EAT by Andrew Dornenburg and Karen Page. Where Johnson's guide is minimalist, this one is MAXIMALIST, 356 pages of pairings and pairing strategies compiled through interviews with America's top chefs and sommeliers. Understandably there aren't any references to many British foods other than fish and chips and Stilton, but it's still handy as a guideline using similar dishes and ingredients. Armed with both Johnson's and Dornenburg/Page's books, let's see if we can make 1+1=3 with some of the UK's most traditional dishes.
For a rating system of our pairings we'll use Max McCalman's scale from the Dornenburg/Page book:
The name sends shivers down the spines of even some of the most hardcore British. This is most likely because of the vivid mental picture they conjure up. Usually served as a side dish in traditional Cockney pie shops, they're also sold in eel stands in the East End of London. After a short search, we found an eel stand teeming with the delicacy. “Can't stand 'em” “Don't touch 'em meself” the eel man reassured us. Wow, Reggie, you're quite a salesman! Smashing! Maybe it was the American accent. Anyway, they're simply cooked and sliced eels in a lightly salted (but not quivering) aspic. Delicate and delicious, they're somewhat like raw oysters but much firmer and slightly fishier.
Pairing: Hugh Johnson pairs his jellieds with NV Champagne or Ceylon tea, but they really seemed to be screaming out for a Muscadet. The subtle flavors and acidity of the 2004 Gadais Pére et Fils Mucscadet Sèvre et Maine paired nicely, and with a little squeeze of lemon on the eels, it was perfect. +1.
Melton Mowbray Pork Pie
The shape and not the color of the pork pie was the inspiration for a hat of the same name. There's been a major legal battle among food producers as to who can legally use the term Melton Mowbray for their pork pies. The smaller producers in the town of Melton Mowbray are battling against the larger industrial producers outside the town for their appellation naming rights. I would like everyone to know that I had a right proper Melton Mowbray Pork Pie made in the town by Dickinson & Morris, a famous producer there. It's coarsely chopped pork mixed with spices and held together by a pastry shell that's eaten cold as a tasty snack. An authentic Melton Mowbray is instantly recognizable by its slumping sides and grey-coloured meat (pink meat indicates artificial colouring).
Pairing: Pinot Noir is a classic pair with pork dishes, so we're going with the 2004 Daniel Schuster Twin Vineyards Canterbury New Zealand Pinot Noir. Sadly the wine is a bit underwhelming and simple, especially since my guy at the shop raised expectations into the stratosphere. I guess it goes well with the equally simple flavours of the pork pie but everything seems dumbed down. Nobody's thinking. My mind ceases to function. 0 (neutral)
No one really knows the origin of the Scotch Egg but I wouldn't go as far as calling it “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma” as Winston Churchill once said about the Soviet Union. It's an egg wrapped in a sausage, covered with orange-colored bread crumbs. Just a I was preparing a stiff upper lip and tossing back a glass of wine for dutch courage, my three-year old son took a bite and made quite a bit of headway. Well done chap! Actually they're not too bad.
Pairing: Since no one actually comes out and says what goes with a Scotch Egg, I took advice on the main component: sausage. Beaujolais is most recommended but I decided to go out on a limb and use a young Chinon. The thought here was that the aromatic green-pepper qualities of the 2004 Domaine Bouchardiere Chinon would give us sausage and peppers. It actually worked very well until I got to the egg yolk. +1 (sans egg) -1 (with egg yolk)
Also called Welsh Rabbit, it's an exotic name for a mustard, ale and cheddar cheese sauce over toast. It's not something you'll find in very many places so we had to make it ourselves using a recipe from Great British Cooking, a Well-Kept Secret by Jane Garmey. It's a very tasty and easy to prepare snack or side dish with a flavour that reminds me of the crab melts my mother used to make.
Pairing: Again, no direct advice but by combining pairing possibilities for cheddar, mustard and fondue I came up with full-bodied unoaked Chardonnay and went with a 2005 La Fleur Jaune Pouilly-Fuissé. The ripe apple flavors in the wine married well with the savory cheesiness of the Welsh Rarebit. Funny enough, the London Pride Ale that was used in the sauce seemed harsh and overpowering when compared to the wine. +1
Fish and Chips
No introduction required. Fish and chips could easily be described as the national dish. Last night Heston Blumenthal the proprietor and chef of the famous Fat Duck mentioned above showed how to make the perfect fish and chips using some fairly elaborate and time consuming methods. I can guarantee that our local chippy doesn't go to the same lengths but does a pretty reasonable job.
Pairing: Champagne is a safe bet paired with pretty much anything but goes particularly well with fried food. A NV Drappier Brut Champagne was no exception. There's something about the toasty flavors in the Champagne that are perfect with the crispy batter. You can't really go wrong here. +1
Again, no introduction required. OK, Port and Stilton may be a little pedestrian but I can't pass up on one of the greatest pairings of all time.
Pairing: Port and Stilton appeared at roughly the same time in early 18th Century London and have been inseparable ever since. The salty savouriness of a fine Stilton is simply the perfect combination with the sweet fruitcake and cigar box flavours of a 10 yr. old Churchill's Tawny Port; a delicious study of contrasts. The Churchill's is surprisingly less brown and more red than most Tawnys and seems almost to be in a category all its own, somewhere between a Tawny and a Vintage Port. +2
I beg your pardon? Five years ago the UK's largest grocer Tesco announced it was changing the name from Spotted Dick to Spotted Richard to fierce protests by the Pudding Club (pudding is synonymous with dessert in the UK). The Pudding Club seem to have won a Pyrrhic victory as Spotted Dick no longer appears to be stocked anywhere. In fact, most clerks appeared to take offense to my request as if I were a garden variety pervert. Where was the Pudding Club when I needed them?
In order to try a real Spotted Dick then we had to make one from scratch, again using one of Jane Garmey's recipes. It's simply a steamed moist spongy cake made with flour, suet (yes suet), raisins and currants. The raisins and currants are its spots but where the Dick came from is, again, a mystery.
Pairing: A stodgy pudding deserves a stodgy wine and Cream Sherry is probably as stodgy as it gets. Although custard or treacle is usually poured over this pudding, I refrained since it's better to have the wine sweeter than the dessert. When the wine is less sweet than the dessert, it tends to taste sour. Lustau East India Solera Sherry is technically a Cream Sherry aged in American Oak for one year and is very sweet. Unlike the contrast of Stilton and Port, the Sherry is practically a flavour extension of the pudding along with a few oaky notes for good measure. Very good. +1
Conclusion and note to Mother-in-Law
What could have turned out to be a vinous disaster in a veritable rogue's gallery of cuisine was actually quite pleasant.