All of us enjoy food and wine. I am of course assuming that if you don’t like wine it’s unlikely that you would be reading this column, or perhaps as a keen cook you are simply curious on our take on cooking with wine. Almost certainly you will already know how wine enhances a myriad of dishes long before they leave the kitchen.

The list of wine available to the cook is long including dry white wines, red wines, Sherry, Marsala, Madeira, Port or even Sauterne the king of sweet wines.

Even slaves should have a weekly ration of 5 litres.

Nobody really knows when wine was first used in cooking. The Romans would have had a hand in it – after all they have were the most influential force in the spread of viticulture in European history. Wine in Rome was increasingly viewed as a necessity of everyday life and not just a luxury for the wealthy. Many Romans believed that even slaves should have a weekly ration of 5 litres as wine was considered beneficial to longevity and strength so giving wine to slaves would have ultimately benefited their masters. It’s inconceivable that Romans would not have used wine in cooking. We know they went to great lengths to enhance food flavours and not far from here, near Tarifa, the ruins of Bolonia is known to have been a centre for the production of Garum, the fermented, fishy equivalent of HP sauce shipped to Rome in regular consignments! Garum was regularly mixed with wine for very good reason. We know wine enhances food, or to be more specific, alcohol enhances food!

Science tells us that the alcohol molecule can equally bond with fat or water. When ingested, the alcohol in the food will carry flavours straight to your smell receptors in your nose making the food seem tastier than would otherwise be. But doesn’t the alcohol evaporate during the cooking process? I hear you ask. It appears not, even though the boiling point of alcohol is lower than that of water. Science again tells us that the way alcohol molecules bond with water will ensure that even after a prolonged cooking period some alcohol will remain in the finished dish. Even so, many recipes advocate a further splash of wine after the dish is completed. Other components of the wine: tannins, sugar, acidity, glycerol etc. will also add nuances to the dish, though whether these be good, bad or indifferent remains in the hands of the cook!

Compromising the finished dish by using cheap wine seems folly.

DRY RED WINE

Dry red wine has been traditionally used when cooking meats. In our house it’s mostly chicken or fish that we eat, but cooking for my wine group (ten wine-guzzling, food-loving gourmands!) I embark on cooking red meat once or twice a year. I have always been wary of using cheap wine for cooking. Buying a decent cut of beef for ten people is usually not inexpensive and it seems to me that compromising the finished dish by using cheap wine seems folly. You should not of course use premium wine that would be unnecessary. Red Italian wine such as a good Chianti has always worked well for me. Perhaps it’s the high acidity of the wine and the concentrated sugars which seem to go well with stronger beef dishes. The classic Italian beef dish Peposo has been around for centuries and I have tasted few, if any, beef casseroles that can match the taste and complexity of this ancient and simple dish. I first tasted it in Tuscany where I dragged the poor chef out of his kitchen so he could explain in the recipe in detail!

BEEF PEPOSO

(Feeds 10. Can be prepared a day or two in advance – it will taste better!)

    • Sear cubes of beef in olive oil. (My chef pointed to his thigh when I asked him    what type of beef!)
    • Toss in smashed garlic cloves in their skin.
    • Deglaze with a cup of Chianti.
    • Add beef stock, diced tomatoes, tomato paste, bay leaf, and thyme.
    • Add several tablespoons of ground pepper if cooking for ten. (You need to be brave to add this amount of pepper, but believe me, it works!)
      1. Add a full bottle of Chianti.
      2. Simmer until beef is tender (2-3 hours).
      3. Salt to taste.
      4. Set aside for 24 hours.
      5. Serve with a good Bordeaux, Rioja or Chianti.

DRY WHITE WINE

Dry white wine and smoked salmon is a well-known classic, but did you know that dry white wine together with mussels can make a seriously good umami-rich dish? Mussel Brie, a dish which neither tastes of mussels nor contains cheese! If I had to fight for my life against a professional chef this would be my weapon of choice. Be prepared for your guest to be impressed and insist you give them the recipe!

MUSSEL BRIE

(Feeds 4)

    1. Heat a large pan. When very hot toss in 1.5kg mussels and 175ml good dry white wine. Close the lid and wait for three to four min.
    2. Discard the mussels (or use elsewhere,) sieve the liquor and reserve.
    3. Melt butter and cook until soft: shallots, celery, carrot, garlic (don’t allow them to brown).
    4. When soft, add the mussel liquor and bring to the boil.
    5. Add 200ml double cream, cayenne pepper, lemon juice and 50g cooked basmati rice.
    6. Purée in a blender and sieve.
    7. Serve warm with a drizzle of olive oil.

MADEIRA

Perhaps the longest-lived wines in the world. Comes from Madeira, unsurprisingly. Even uncorked the wine will last a long time! Like Sherry, Madeira will actively flavour your dish. It’s a wine with very high acidity and a flavour profile not unlike white port. Fine Madeira is expensive, but for cooking inexpensive Madeira will do as generally quality is uniformly high.

Try a splash of Madeira and white wine after caramelising your onions for the classic French Onion soup.

PORT

Almost always sweet. Use as a reduction for meats or in desserts. Add a dash of port to strawberries, meringue and cream for an Eton mess.

SWEET WHITE WINE

Try poaching pears in sweet white wine with lemon peel, a cinnamon stick, and a vanilla pod. One of the classic dishes from Harry’s Bar in Venice. Serve cold with ice cream and a glass of Vin Santo.

In an article about cooking with wine it would be unpardonable not to mention that most famous of wine/food combinations – Coq-au-vin. So I will close with an excerpt of the British comedy Cissie and Ada:

CISSIE:

Well I was wondering if I could use your cooker to finish off this dish I’m making for Leonard’s tea. Coq au vin.

   ADA:

What?

  CISSIE:

Have you ever tried coq au vin?

  ADA:

No but I once let an Italian put his hand up my jumper on the back seat of his Fiat 4.