31 Jul 2013

WINE: Waves of Taste Along The Loire

The Loire Valley is grossly underestimated. The prices are fair, and the wines are real. 
[Gary Vaynerchuk]
THE minds behind Sopexa, promoters extraordinaire of French food, wine and lifestyle, asked me to craft culinary pairings for two 2011 icons from the West of the Loire, the country’s longest, most diverse and evocative river. Their criteria: dishes should “really surprise.” Determinedly attempting to rise to the challenge, I donned laundered apron and set about raiding the nether regions of my kitchen cabinets. The results spoke of India and the Orient.
Run Rabbit 
With Rosé d’Anjou from fifth generation producer, Bougrier (£6.95, Wine Society), I held an international, indoor barbecue, taking Chinese chopper to hardy British rabbit. Legs and thighs (its) were bathed in a swift marinade of fresh oregano, galangal, olive oil, salt and pepper, ripe lemon juice and coconut sugar. With an almighty sizzle, they hit the smoking-hot griddle pan just long enough to gain pretty stripes but remain tender within. The building’s smoke alarm acted as my timer. Meanwhile, I roasted small, turned, oval Jersey potatoes in turmeric and pumpkin oil. Sharing the same shelf, the rack, split at the top, then brushed with olive oil and a shake of salt and almost porky white pepper, became rabbit crackling, ready to have the crisped flesh sucked free with the vim of a Neanderthal. These almost architectural looking morsels were presented over thrillingly bitter griddled chicory and al-dente baby carrots – a cheeky allusion to the rabbit’s diet - with alert garnish of crisp toasted pine nuts and flaky scallions.
Far from wasted, the remainder of the small beast was simmered into a joyously silken coconut curry, with smoky chorizo bites and smoked garlic adding a sense of umami, and exploded yellow mustard seeds, carefully-judged chillies, pestle and mortar-crushed coriander seeds, and micro-diced brightening lemongrass bringing kick. Squared yellow peppers, oyster mushrooms and, at the last moment, courgettes brought wholesome texture and colour. Resourcefully, all was bound from stock gleaned from the rabbit’s bones.
The intense but complimentary waves of flavour were off-set by intermittent chopstick clasps of white rice cooked in jasmine tea, and set-off by soothing gulps of the cascade of bright flavours that was the rosé (poured into a frozen glass). At 11%, this never enraged the spice nor chilli of the dish, thank goodness. Finally, a wedge of lime bitten after mouthfuls of food then pink proved an explosive way to heighten every scintilla of flavour – one could say, yin and yang became as one. 
Shucked Oysters 
On account of its accuracy, I didn’t care to shun the cliché of matching shucked oysters with arguably the most seafood-friendly wine of the Atlantic: Muscadet. Instead, with grown-up, assertive example, Côtes de Grandlieu sur Lie, Fief Guérin (£7.49, Waitrose), I created a kind of Oriental chowder. Melted white onion, drained and washed tinned artichoke hearts met garlic, curry powder, lemongrass and powdered galangal. Coconut milk and boiling water flavoured by Pierre White’s chicken stockpot was slightly thickened with a little cutely-packaged rice flour. Cumin brought further intrigue seamlessly into play, while a dash or three of fish sauce and soy served as seasoning.
A dozen freshly-shucked, plump oysters were the last main ingredients, simmered to tenderness. All was puréed into utter smoothness. The avocado-flesh coloured result, which, although exceedingly delicious, could be described as having a face for radio, was dotted with white truffle oil soaked croutons, which added much-needed crunch, and decorative beads of scattered chive. 
The boutique, old-vines, single-vineyard Muscadet, complete with lees richness and a delicate spritz, cut scalpel-like, through the soup's luxuriously creamy texture, combating buttery artichokes (often uneasy a wine match) while exaggerating the minerality and salinity of the dish by the virtue of its’ own trove of sea fresh-flavours.
While these matches sung, my earlier experiments fared less well. While bracing – and, on paper, healthy – homemade ice cream of Yakult shots, maple syrup and brilliant Speculoos caramelised biscuits proved too sweet and sticky a match for the Anjou (conceived, albeit as an idea after almost a bottle of it). And two credit cards thin, home-baked pizza base spread with sweated shallots and rosemary strands felt too surgical alongside the ultimately dry Muscadet. 
While tinkering in the kitchen, I began to worry about what music matched both wines and dishes. Giorgio by Moroder (Daft Punk) was simply too compelling to allow further stimuli, making me feel energetic but rushed, meaning I would eat and drink far too fast. At the other extreme, 10CC’s I’m Not In Love cured me of any appetite on account of it making me feel utterly morose. Dave Bruebeck’s Koto Song felt almost top-bar grade French, however, making Muscadet and delicate soup seem more... colourful and even kinky-of-flavour. And, with the landscape that was the rabbit dish, obviously slightly surreal in presentation, The Beatles worked best; in particular, Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds.
"The discovery of a new dish confers more happiness on humanity than the discovery of a new star” wrote gastronome, Brillat-Savarin in his early 19th century opus, The Physiology of Taste. Apron now thrown to the wash, I had found it an exciting, pleasantly tipsy, and oddly musical challenge trying to deconstruct wines while trying to avoid pared-down clichés in resulting dishes.
The Loire offers 629 miles of exploration, both in food, wines, and those who make them, as well as picturesque and landmark landscapes and buildings. I shall definitely be winding into a wine shop before too long to again plunder its bottled expressions, particularly when they clearly, like this brace of bottles, deliver so much more than the humble retail cost might suggest. Perhaps I'll make my next match Sancerre with salmagundi, or mature Vouvray with veal and morels? The possibilities are, it seems, endless...

Travel Further
Green Man & French Horn, St. Martin's Lane is a ‘drinkery’ focussing on the span of the River Loire
Keep track of matches at Fiona Beckett's Matching Food & Wine e-zine