Food & Wine – Asparagus galore

We are nearing the end of the growing season of one of my favorite vegetables: white asparagus. I grew up in a town that has in recent years styled itself as Belgium’s hub, and rightly so. Kinrooi is one of the biggest producer of white asparagus, and unlike the big, fat stems that are more about volume, here they are properly treated as a foodie’s treasure. Even though I have lived in Brussels for the past couple of years, I would never dream of buying my asparagus anywhere else, and it is always a great way to welcome Spring. What better way to now end the season than with two Belgian classics?

Winewise, the literature is not a fan. Too herbaceous is an often-heard argument, but more importantly is the impact that it has on your palate, as the asparagusic acid it contains can make a wine taste lean and metallic. Overly fruity wines or sweet wines are therefore considered a no-go, but there are of course loads of wines that do prove to be up to the challenge. My go-to country would be Germany, where asparagus is also a true classic on the menu, but today we broaden our horizons.

Let’s start with a dish that my mom used to make to inaugurate the new season: asparagus à la flamande. Deceptively simple but simply delicious with only a couple of extra ingredients: parsley, eggs, a bit of nutmeg and high-quality butter. How did the following wines fare?

IMG_5263First up, the German selection may be familiar with those who have been following my writing since the beginning: Am Stein’s Innere Leiste Silvaner 2012. It just goes to show that I don’t just write about the wines I like, I actually tuck them away in my cellar as well! Silvaner seems to be a good match with asparagus as it also has an herby, spicier side. It is more pungent on the nose than I remember, but on the palate, it has a nice, mineral intensity to it. It has clearly benefited from a bit of bottle time, and I think that it can still develop wonderfully for the next couple of years. The combination shines in its completeness; preserving an herbaceous balance against the parsley and asparagus, yet retaining a sense of gras to match the butter. A great wine in its own right, lifted to a higher level when paired with the right dish.

Staying within the minerality theme, a South African chenin blanc: Mullineux’s Kloof Street chenin blanc 2015. I had not tasted the bottle before and bought it solely based on the producer’s reputation. It comes across a bit austere with a flinty, reduced nose on the first day. There is a bit more fruit afterwards but overall it is rather muted. Soft on the palate, and nothing that really stands out. Unfortunately, it did not stand a chance against the eggs and butter; the slight astringency that was already present as an afterthought was suddenly much more noticeable, so let’s just chalk it up as a learning experience!

Finally, the most surprising match: Giovanni Almondo’s Roero Arneis ‘Bricco delle Ciliegi’ 2013. The bottle was chosen completely at random from the cellar, as I remember it being quite tight and mineral in flavor, so I was hoping it would work. It wasn’t until basically just now that I found out that the terroir of Roero is also ideally suited for asparagus! Perhaps the most subtle wine when it comes to the aroma, but very nice. Mostly on spring flowers, a bit leafy and a freshness that also dominates the palate. The tightness is still there, but there is a lovely tension that actually goes really well with the dish, a great discovery.

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While asparagus a la flamande is in essence an easy dish that can uplift an average weekday, the next meal is something that requires a bit more work: Slip soles with fresh North Sea shrimps and asparagus with a white beer mousseline sauce. Granted, shrimps are hideously expensive these days, but combined with a couple of perfect slip soles as well as a velvety mousseline, they are just irresistible. It is a richer dish, so we would need a wine that can handle a bit of pressure.

I looked for something that could match the mousseline first, so something with a bit of structure, perhaps a hint of butter, yet something mineral as well, as the delicate flavours of the shrimps could easily be overwhelmed otherwise. Finally, there are the asparagus, which would only pick a fight if a wine had the audacity to show fruit. So round yet minerality and a more muted yet intense character led me to the Jura, to what it perhaps my best Chardonnay discovery of the year: Domaine Pignier’s A La Percenette 2014.

I haphazardly discovered this estate when I was served a deceptively basic Cremant de Jura in a restaurant a couple of years ago. I was stunned by what I found in my glass, a wine with a complexity that surpasses like half the offer of Champagne at this price point. I jotted down the estate’s name, but of course I lost the note and forgot about it. When I encountered the winemaker at la Renaissance two years ago, I had the opportunity to taste a couple of other wines, which were so convincing that I bought a selection of their wines to taste at home.

Pignier is one of the oldest estates in the Jura, with the seventh generation currently at the helm. The wines are the epitome of slowness; taking the time to allow the wines to find their own natural balance, giving them the opportunity to literally prepare for the ages, as the estate confidently states that their wines can easily go for 10 to 20 years. A la Percenette is a wine of crystalline precision; not something that you notice at first but that sneaks up to you and captivates your attention. It is a lively, yet calm wine, with a depth that goes fantastic with the mousseline sauce, and a freshness that really complements the herbiness of the asparagus and the salinity of the shrimp. A match made in heaven.

 

Food & Wine – Easter lamb and ratatouille

IMG_5259Given that I wrote about pairing a non-French dish with French wines last week, why not turn it around and pair a French classic with something a bit more international?

Food-wise, Easter is perhaps the most traditional holiday. I can’t recall ever having eaten anything else but lamb, in various preparations of course, but the gist of it remains the same. So for the family, what else to make but a nice, slow-roasted lamb shoulder glazed with mustard seeds and honey, accompanied by a truly French classic dish: ratatouille?

What would the French prefer to drink with it? Wen researching different suggestions or argumentations, I discovered an interesting split: lamb is associated with Médoc, and not the cheapest ones (Jancis Robinson simply notes: red Bordeaux – as grand as possible); whereas ratatouille is almost an afterthought, maybe because of its comparably humble origins in the Provence, and therefore cornered in an unfortunate association with the ubiquitous rosé that the region produces.

Let’s start with the lamb. The choice for Médoc stems from the relatively strong character of the lamb so aromatically speaking we have a match. More important is structural complementarity, as the tannins will make the meat taste juicier and more tender. The longer you roast the lamb, the more robust it will be in flavor. In this case, young and overly fruity wines will not be the best of matches, which is why a wine with a bit of age would do nicely.

As for ratatouille and rosé, this simply does not work, as the almost inherent neutrality of Provençal rosé will be obliterated by the intense flavors of the ratatouille. Bandol Rosé or something like Chateau Simone may be a match, but for most people these wines are not all that representative of the archetypical pale type of rosé, or in the price class associated with it. Depending on the herbs you used (rosemary is basically all you need), you would be much better off with the red wines of the Provence, all too often ignored and with much less visibility outside of France.

Ratatouille is a delight to eat and to prepare. It takes a lot of time to cut up all the vegetables, especially if you want to avoid big chunks, but it is a lot of fun and your kitchen will simply smell amazing. Most people tend to chuck everything into one pot, but I prefer to prepare my tomatoes separately, with vast amounts of onion, and a generous sprinkle of sherry vinegar to give it a fresh drive.

Now we get to the wine. On the one hand I am looking for something medium-bodied, not to overbearing in tannins to match the lamb. On the other hand, I have a very fresh yet savoury ratatouille, so my wine also needs the acidity to match. Going through the cellar, I came across two wines that would do well: Mas d’En Gil’s Coma Vella 2007, and Mount Abora’s Abyssinian 2012.

In the spirit of something tannic yet fresh with powerful but evolved aromas, the Coma Vella seemed like a good choice. I drink far too little Priorat to be honest, yet whenever I think back to the best Spanish wines I have drunk, it always ranks at the top. There is a brilliant intensity, a shiftiness in aromas and layers that is very difficult to replicate elsewhere in the world, making irresistible wines. Mas d’En Gil is always a go to wine when I taste at the Belgian importer. They are not cheap, but as this wine proves, worth cellaring and savoring. Almost pungent in the nose, garrigue, Mediterranean herbs, dried fruit and a bit of roasted coffee beans keep fighting for attention. Deep on the palate, broad in structure but with an acidity, a drive that gives it energy. 15% in alcohol which is present (duh) but balanced. The best match for the lamb, especially with the glaze, not so good with the ratatouille as it is too overwhelming in intensity. Saddening that this is my final bottle!

Johan Meyer is by far my favorite South African winemaker. I have not come across one wine that I did not like or love, be it what he does with his own estate, Mount Abora, or Mother Rock, the cooperation with Indigo Wines’ Ben Henshaw which I briefly addressed when talking about RAW last year. His wines are driven, elegant and bright, pop-and-pour as well as able to improve over a couple of days. The Abyssinian 2012 is a blend of Mourvèdre, Cinsault and Syrah. On itself it is just fantastic; give it a bit of time to open up and you will have a joyful bottle of wine, juicy, crunchy fruitiness immediately put in place by a spicy, punchy edge delivered by the Mourvèdre. Very bright, made in a lighter, more playful style than you would expect based on the blend, but great with the lamb and especially the ratatouille, a perfect counterweight to the savouriness in both dishes. As an added bonus in comparison to the Priorat, lower in alcohol!

Food & wine – butternut squash risotto

Something new! As mentioned in my previous post, there are a couple of changes upcoming, one of them being more attention being paid to matching food with wine. Those sommelier studies have to count for something, right? First up, risotto vs. Chardonnay!

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Spring is upon us, which means that it is time to say goodbye to my favorite squash, the butternut pumpkin. Nutty in flavor with a dash of sweetness and a smooth, wintery structure, I find it irresistible when looking for comfort food. It is the perfect base for a fantastic risotto; hearty, heavy enough to make you regret the last bite yet not so heavy as to make you feel too guilty about it.

In all honesty, I only discovered the joy of a good pumpkin risotto a couple of years ago thanks to one of the pioneers on Belgium’s wine blog scene, Chateau Sans Pretention. The amount of articles written by Erik is astonishing and even though he no longer writes, I still check back from time to time for tips and pointers on what there is to discover in the world of wine. The blog however, pales in comparison to the Vinopedia, which is a simply monumental database that could give the likes of Larousse a run for their money. Anyway, it was this article on matching pumpkin risotto with wine that inspired me to try it myself. I made just a few changes: no mascarpone and crunchy speck to add a bit of textural fun. The core of the dish, spicy, oven-roasted squash, stays the same.

The classic, conservative match is (young) oaked chardonnay. The aromas derived from the barrel ageing blend in nicely with the spices used, but more importantly, the creamy texture of oaked chardonnay is perfectly complementary with the richness of a risotto. You do not want to go turbo-oaked, nothing that has been vinified in 100% new oak or that has been in the hands of a batonnage-addict (the process of stirring the lees, the dead yeasts that have settled on the bottom of the barrel, to give the wine more structure). As always, freshness and elegance will prove to be key for a good match.

IMG_4791To spice things up, I looked for two similar but different wines. First up, Maison Verget’s Terroir de Vergisson de la Roche 2012. I am a big fan of what Jean-Marie Guffens can do with the great terroirs of the Maconnais, balancing an energetic minerality without losing the depth and structure that Burgundy can do so well. Fermentation in oak, 15% new, and regular batonnage over the course of six months. Wine two is Calera’s Central Coast Chardonnay 2013. Interesting American wines are still a rare find in Belgium sadly enough, so the best option is to fall back on the classics. What Josh Jensen produces is fantastic, decidedly New World climate in exuberance, yet so completely in balance thanks to a crazy attention to details. Fermentation in oak as well, 10% new, very little batonnage over the course of ten months.

So, same variety, similar in vinification but completely different wines of course. Calera proved to be the best match. Juicy fruit and a quite distinctive toastiness. This was definitely no cool climate wine, yet the palate had freshness, the barrel ageing playing more on aromas rather than texture. Verget was maybe more complex on its own, more nuanced in the nose and focus, linearity on the palate. It was a bit too muted to counter the richness of the risotto, and I think it would have been more suited for a lighter dish.

Of course, this is a pairing that I thought about throughout the day, juggling different options for the risotto and the wine pairing (it keeps you hungry throughout work, but the day goes by just a little faster). If I had used different herbs, sage for instance, I wouldn’t have matched it with the chardonnay as the herbalness would have clashed with what was in the glass. Surprisingly, I have been able to match the sage-version quite well with a randomly picked bottle of Julien Sunier’s Fleurie in the past, as you get a pungency that does go well with the intensity of the dish. It just goes to show that there is always a fair deal of luck involved in a wine match!

London Food (III) – Taberna do Mercado

Finding a restaurant in London on a Sunday evening proved quite the challenge. I had a (short) wishlist, but almost none of them were open bar for a Sunday roast. Luckily Taberna do Mercado is open 7/7, and just a stone’s throw away from the Truman Brewery where RAW 2016 took place. I was led here via Jamie Goode’s wine blog, and ever since the tasting of Portuguese wines that I organized last year, I was curious to discover more about Portugal’s wining and dining.

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London Food (II) – Ottolenghi Spitalfields

Do I still need to introduce Yotam Ottolenghi? The man’s books can be found everywhere, but in all fairness, rightly so. I think that I have made almost everything that can be found in Plenty, bar a couple of desserts, and while Nopi proves to be a bit more challenging, it has done its part in many successful dinner parties. Procrastination meant that only the deli in Spitalfields still had a table for two on a Saturday evening and the place was packed. Service ran smooth though, and we were given ample time to go through the menu and wine list.

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London Food (I) – Noble Rot

Visiting RAW a month ago was a perfect opportunity to check out a couple of restaurants that had been on my watch list for some time. In all honesty, it was quite the decadent weekend and I’m afraid that I am still packing a couple of pounds extra as a semi-permanent souvenir, but it was worth it. Three restaurants plus a copious English breakfast (twice!) could not be gotten rid of with a week of fasting I’m afraid! Continue reading

Dinner at De Jong in Rotterdam

Note: A love for wine is inextricably linked with a love for food but in the vast majority of restaurant reviews it is woefully ignored. I suspect that this is either because the writer erroneously thinks that there is insufficient interest with a mainstream public, or that the writer himself does not care or does not know enough about wine to form an opinion on it.

For a winelover this can really be a source of frustration. I recall a 400-word review of a hyped wine bar in Antwerp that mentioned the word wine four times, and even then basically said nothing (1 – she loves wine so she starts a restaurant, 2 – there are 200 wines on the list, 3 – there are 15 wines by the glass, 4 – the wine is good). I am not a chef nor do I have anything resembling a culinary training so this is definitely not the place for intricate opinions on the kind of wood use to smoke a salmon or the best phase of the moon to dig up potatoes, but an honest reflection on memorable dining experiences where everything clicked; food, wine and and atmosphere. Past and future posts can now be found under Wine & Dine, added in the menu bar. 

jongbinnenThe culinary reputation the Netherlands has with its southern neighbours is sketchy at best. A first day in Rotterdam sadly confirmed this view when we were served what was supposedly Basque cuisine in a restaurant on which the less is said the better (the only two Basque wines on the menu where even sold out!). Being friends with wine merchants on Facebook does have its benefits, and so on a sunny Sunday evening we ended up in Restaurant De Jong.

The concept is simple. Two menus to choose from, a meat/fish set and a vegetable set. The website will leave you clueless as everything is decided in the morning when the kitchen staff takes stock of what the supplier has available and what they can build a menu around. Simplicity in construction but not in execution is the result. The same refreshing lack of fumbling complexity can be found in the wine list, which was a concise but inspired selection of natural wines. You cannot get around incrowd names like Ganevat, Julien Guillot or Craig Hawkins, but I was pleasantly surprised by several other names offered at reasonable prices.

Aymeric Beaufort hails from a reputed winemaking family in Ambonnay but set up shop near Nimes with Domaine l’Ocre Rouge. La Perle Noire, 100% Pinot Noir true to his roots, is the perfect accompaniment for the starters on both menus, Cod with radish and mushroom ravioli on the one side and a delicious combination of green asparagus, candied lemon and sunflower seed puree on the other.

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The second course, which was the same for both menus, was the first highlight of the evening; lightly grilled asparagus with foam of Comté cheese. Asparagus is one of those things that needs to be sourced locally and not grown in a greenhouse if you want that unique earthy flavour. Just a week earlier we had our first taste in a hyped Brussels restaurant and it just was not right, weak and lacking in taste. This time it was different though, as the crunchy asparagus flavour was a great match to the texture of the Comté foam.

We had moved on to red at this point with Philippe Bornard’s Poulsard Point Barre 2013. Bornard may have become famous thanks to “L’amour est dans le Pré”, which is basically dating for farmers on national television, but he is first and foremost an excellent winemaker. I met him at the last two editions of Dive Bouteille but had until now only been able to try his white wines (which you should definitely seek out!), so I was curious to see what he did in red. Red berries in the nose, a bit reductive at first but showing nicely with a bit of time. Very direct in the mouth with good acidity but more towards juiciness instead of astringency. Earthy and mineral in the finish.

IMG_3471 (1)The main courses were terrific on their own, but whereas one was intensified by my wine choice, the other one was more enjoyable on its own (the slight disadvantage of not knowing what you will get beforehand). The match was spot on with the Baamburgs Big, which Google tells me is a unique species of pig cultivated near Utrecht, and different preparations of beetroot. The earthiness of the wine and the juiciness of the meat worked terrific together. The other main course, potato gnocchi with smoked peas served with crunchy potato skins was a bit more difficult. On itself the dish was delicious, but the peas did not work well with the wine.

What really blew our minds was the dessert, which was an unconventional but immensely interesting and tasteful combo of rhubarb, buckwheat ice cream, hangop (Dutch goat yogurt) and flakes of beer yeast. This is without a doubt the strangest combination I have encountered up until now but to my surprise it worked. The sourness of the hangop, the tartness of the rhubarb together with the texture of the beer yeast flakes and the freshness of the ice cream just seemed to click. A daring bet but definitely one that stayed with me!

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We had a great evening. Service ran smooth and the atmosphere was nice given that we could still have an enjoyable conversation in a fully booked restaurant. What really stayed with me (aside from the terrific dessert which I could not shut up about) was the creativity and drive in the kitchen. Constructing a different menu every day is challenging. Keeping up the originality and coming up with new and surprising creations is definitely an accomplishment which convinces me to visit again on a next trip to Rotterdam!

Dinner at Souvenir in Ieper

One of the most agonizing tasks for a winelover, aside from racking your brain for all kinds of exotic aromas that you can supposedly find in a wine, is coming up with a food pairing that elevates both wine and food. All too often people are enjoying a meal in a restaurant, absentmindedly sipping from their glasses whilst only discussing the food. A good food-wine match is however a conversation driver and almost demands to be noticed, to be placed in the spotlight. Continue reading