Reading for Food and Drink

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Written by Hayley Anderton

Wine is a wonderful thing, a living, breathing, liquid that ages, changes, develops in bottle and glass. It has the capacity to be hugely disappointing (if you’ve ever spent a decade patiently waiting for a precious bottle to reach perfection only to find its corked, and a replacement is so far out of your price range as to be ridiculous, you’ll know just what I mean) which is part of what makes it so exciting. It’s a drink full of romance, poetry, hard work, experimentation, history, experience, and a world of flavours. The more you know the more rewarding it is.

It’s my deeply held conviction that wine is better when it accompanies something: primarily that would be like minded company, but it’s also food, good books, and music. Of all of those it’s the art of food and wine matching that involves some actual science, as well as calling for proper research and a good deal of practicing, but it’s worth making the effort.

The obvious place to start is with a book, or books, that unravel the mystery of food and wine matching. The two I swear by are old now, but they’re also classics. Wine With Food by Joanna Simon covers the basic principles of matching, problem ingredients, the effects different types of cooking should have on your final wine choice, planning how to serve wine including how to approach special bottles, the major grape varietals, classic combinations from around the world, and lists of wines to go with foods, and foods to go with wines. It’s everything you need to know presented in an admirably clear way.

Eating and Drinking: An A-Z of Great Food and Drink combinations by Fiona Beckett is more concise and puts more emphasis on the lists of food and wine matches. Both books will teach you that you have to decide what’s going to be more important in each instance – the food or the wine. Arguably making that choice is the most important rule to follow. If the occasion is all about the special bottle of wine that’s going to be opened you really want the food to compliment it. If it’s all about the cooking then the wine should harmonise rather than dominate. Somewhere in between there are some classic matches which are far more than the sum of their parts – explore them!

An up to date edition of Jancis Robinson’s The Oxford Companion to Wine  is the one book that really should be on the shelf of anyone with any interest in wine whatsoever. Up to date because there are continuous developments in the field, indispensable because it’s never yet failed me. It’s not just that I’ve found the answer to every wine related question I’ve ever asked in there, it’s indisputably authoritative too, and technical as it can be the writing is always approachable. There is no better tool for demystifying what can at first seem like an overwhelming subject.

Hugh Johnson’s Story of Wine appears to be out of print at the moment; it shouldn’t be, but as there seem to be plenty of cheap second hand copies available all is not lost. In many ways we’re lucky here in the UK that our climate makes wine production a fairly marginal activity. It means we have a world of wines to choose from on even the most unpretentious of supermarket shelves instead of being limited to the domestic product. Reading Hugh Johnson’s Story of Wine was pretty much the point where interest and liking turned into love and a full blown romance with wine. This is the book which made me see it as liquid history, literally in the case of Madeira where it is possible to find very old vintages indeed. Exploring history through the lens of a wine glass (or maybe the bottom of a bottle) turns wine into more than just a drink, and helps brings the history to life. That Johnson’s book is extremely readable as well as comprehensive is a tremendous bonus.

The food we eat and the way we cook it is governed by any number of factors. The cuisine of any wine producing region will have grown alongside whatever is produced locally which makes the business of putting the two together fairly simple. For me it was an interest in food that made me want to learn something about wine in the first place, but since then it’s been my interest in wine that’s led my interest in food. It’s why I love writers like Jane Grigson and books like Good Things. Grigson was the first writer I found who really put an emphasis on ingredients, her Fruit and Vegetable books are a great way to learn how to cook for the way they encourage you to make the most of whatever fresh and lovely thing you’ve found. Good Things works along the same lines, and it’s a book full of wines and spirits too. It’s also a book to read as much as one to cook from, and as such encourages a thoughtfulness about eating and drinking that’s really important.

Claudia Roden is another writer who encourages that thoughtfulness by putting food in context. Her The Food of Italy may not be the most exhaustive book on the subject but she approaches the country region by region and she discusses the best known of the local wines along the way. Terroir may be a particularly French concept – this idea that the particular combination of soil, micro climate, and other specific environmental factors are what give a wine it’s unique qualities is the basis of the AOC system, which specify which grapes can go into a wine as well as where it can be grown, but it’s spread across the world. It surprises me that more books don’t explore the wine of a region along with its cuisine, especially as we become more interested in the provenance of our food. There’s nothing prescriptive about Roden’s approach, it just makes it a little bit easier to explore the relationship between everyday kind of wines and the food it’s grown up with.

I got very excited when I first saw Niki Segnit’s The Flavour Thesaurus, it’s another book that puts ingredients front and centre. In this case it’s primarily about how to pair flavours – it’s one of those ideas that seems blindingly obvious when you’re presented with it, yet somehow wasn’t already common currency. Because Segnit concentrates on two dominant flavours at a time it’s an approach to cooking that makes finding a wine match (if required) a much simpler affair than it might otherwise be. It’s also a book that puts you in the right frame of mind to match things, as well as building the skills you need (it’s a further understanding of how fat and acid works together, how proteins are broken down, and so on). It’s also a book that’s endlessly inspiring.

Ruth Van Waerebeek and Maria Robbins’ The Taste of Belgium is published by Grub Street who have a whole library’s worth of cookbooks that concentrate on specific countries or regions. There’s something particularly satisfying about sifting through a book like this and slowly getting the feel for the specific combinations of flavours that characterise a cuisine. I particularly like this one because amongst other things there are plenty of recipes that involve beer. There’s a little bit more discussion around beer and food matching these days, but not enough. Truthfully if you’re looking at traditional British food, a lot of Scandinavian food, and of course Belgian food, the chances are that beer is going to offer a better match than wine will. It’s also a book full of delicious things.

Patience Gray’s Honey from a Weed is indisputably a classic, but maybe more of the cult sort. Once you get your hands on a copy the fact that it’s not ubiquitous seems inexplicable. It’s tag line ‘Fasting and Feasting in Tuscany, Catalonia, the Cyclades and Apulia’ hints at Gray’s philosophy – there’s more than food here; there’s friendship, decades of experience of making the best of what came to hand, celebration, and a deep conviction about the importance of staying in touch with season and harvest. I could sum it up as a book about the pleasures of sharing of all sorts, and of understanding the balance between frugality and liberality in good cooking. It’s also immensely readable.

Gill Meller’s Gather seems a fitting book to end with, partly because it’s brand spanking new, mostly because it celebrates so many things I see as fundamental to good food and drink. In many ways it comes back to the idea of terroir again; this is food that is rooted in the landscape and the seasons, it has a real sense of time and place. Good wine doesn’t have to be expensive, but it should have personality and reflect something of the people who made it, the place it comes from, the character of the grapes that go into it – otherwise it’s just another alcoholic beverage. Food that reflects the same things is a joy to eat and I can’t think of another book that so beautifully encapsulates that idea as this one.

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Hayley blogs at Desperate Reader and has reviewed many food and drink books for Shiny in our Non-fiction pages.