FOOD FOR THOUGHT - August 2, 2006
Mark R. Vogel - [email protected] - Archive of other articles by Mark Vogel
In the James Bond movie “From Russia with Love,” 007 is on the Orient Express with Tatiana Romanova, the story’s obligatory and beautiful damsel in distress, and Red Grant, a psychopathic killer sent to eliminate Bond. Posing as an ally, Grant has dinner with Bond and Romanova. They all order the grilled sole. Bond requests a bottle of Taittinger Blanc de Blancs, (an exquisite French champagne made exclusively from white grapes). Grant, being more of a Neanderthal than a gourmand, orders Chianti. The waiter, momentarily perplexed, queries as to whether he means the white Chianti. Grant replies no, “the red kind.” Bond shoots Grant a bemused and suspicious stare.
Later in Bond’s cabin Grant reveals himself to 007 and has him at gunpoint on his knees. Bond quips “Red wine with fish. Well that should have told me something.” Grant retorts that Bond may know his wines but he’s the one on his knees. Our hero of course turns the tables on Grant, and strangles him to death. A victory for epicures as well as Bond fans.
I was reminded of this scene the other night at dinner. My wife and I were having a romantic meal at the Upper Crust, a superb European Bistro in Boonton, NJ (uppercrustnj.com). She was luxuriating in the braised short ribs while I enjoyed the New Zealand lamb chops. We shared a bottle of the 1995 Lynch Bages, a magnificent Bordeaux destined for precisely the type of hearty fare we were savoring. At the adjacent table sat two women also drinking a bottle of red; but with fish and chips! Scrod to be precise.
Now I know what you’re going to say. If they enjoy scrod with red wine then who cares? What difference does it make what foods and wines people pair as long as they like it? Shouldn’t people just eat and drink what they like? OK you’re right. I have to agree. My hedonistic orientation trumps my gastronomic propriety. Ultimately that IS the answer.
But, (you knew there was a but coming right?), most people prefer the taste of white wine with fish to red. Of course there are certain types of fish with certain sauces that could pair with a light red. But here I’m talking about the extreme: light, white fish with red wine such as the Chianti with sole or red wine with fish and chips in my introductory examples.
While individual sense of taste can vary markedly from one person to another, certain commonalities do exist. These are inevitably due to shared biological underpinnings in our species’ taste receptors. For example, humans tend to favor the taste of sweetness. Developmental research has demonstrated that infants inherently prefer sweet flavors. We also naturally lean toward victuals that are rich and fattier. Fat molecules carry flavor. It’s not till much later when the food neurosis of our culture causes us to devise all sorts of mistaken notions about sugars and fats that we “don’t like” them any more. Conversely, there are certain flavor combinations that genuinely repulse most human palates. You would be hard pressed to find someone who truly enjoys anchovies on vanilla ice cream.
So what’s the problem with red wine and fish? White fish is very delicate in flavor. Red wines are very tannic, (tannins are astringent compounds that imbibe a wine with body and a bolder taste). Tannic red wine overpowers delicate fish. Rather than balancing the flavor nuances of the fish, it obliterates them. Think of over-dressing a salad, putting too much sugar in your coffee, or over-salting any food. In each of these instances there is no longer a harmonious marriage of flavor. Rather, one flavor dimension has dominated the other. The qualities, and taste sensations of the subjugated partner are lost.
Try this experiment to realize firsthand a classic food-wine pairing. Before having anything to eat or drink, take a few sips of a dry red wine. Now eat a piece of cheese or a few swirls of your spaghetti Bolognese and then sip the wine. The wine tastes better! Cheese and meat sauce not only stand up to a stout red wine, they enhance each other. Now try this to experience the difference between a white and a red. Slurp down a raw oyster followed by Champagne or a crisp Chablis. The crispness and flavors of these whites create a delightful synchronicity with the briny oysters. Like an ideal relationship, each partner makes the other better. Now try an oyster with a Cabernet Sauvignon. If you don’t notice the difference they might as well start throwing the dirt on you now. The red annihilates the oyster and produces a rank and bitter mélange.
There are many people who don’t care that much about what they eat or drink. As long as they’re fed and didn’t have to spend an inordinate amount of time or money doing it, they’re satisfied. Poor souls. Then there are the gastronomes among us; those who relish food and drink and welcome opportunities to try different foods and wines. These are the folks who will develop their palates. By frequently tasting different foods, wines, and combinations thereof, they sharpen their degustatory senses. They possess what epicures call “a refined palate” or what the indifferent or intimidated lay public might deem as snobbery.
Being a snob involves more than having a developed palate. It embraces a superior attitude about oneself and particularly a denigrating one of others who do not possess the same level of taste. And while many gastronomes may be guilty of this, the fact remains that our sense of taste matures, broadens, and sharpens with experience. Narcissism aside, it is biologically incontrovertible that our palates are amenable to refinement. I assure you, it’s not coincidence or egocentrism that there are less grilled sole and Chianti mixers amongst those with more seasoned palates.
But, we still can not escape the inevitable truth. Regardless of where you may lie on the palate-development continuum and regardless of your level of interest in food and wine, you should still eat and drink what you like. But if you’re an assassin incognito and your adversary is a gourmet, you better brush up on your food and wine pairings. Or your revelation of gastronomic ignorance could turn into a dead giveaway.