Food before Wine? Chicken or Egg?
It’s the classic question. What came first—the chicken or the egg? Food or wine?
Well, not really. Obviously food came first, but early references to wine can be found in the Book of Genesis in the Bible. So, let’s just say it’s been quite some time since man discovered that grapes left too long in an enclosed container fermented into wine.
As for myself, growing up in a rather abstemious military family with a professional cook for a grandmother and a mother, aunts, and a paternal grandfather who were all great cooks, it’s little wonder that I’m obsessed with food. I remember rolling lumpia with our Filipina neighbors in Angeles City, Philippines, when I was seven; learning to make refried beans from scratch as an eighth grader with the cooks at Sacred Heart Catholic School in Del Rio, Texas; and making homemade cottage cheese with my grandmother on summer vacations to Kansas.
My grandmother Grace was an inspiration to me. At a time when few women worked outside of the home, my grandmother drove thirteen miles from the family farm to the nearest town of Concordia, Kansas, to work as a restaurant cook, and that was after
she cooked for her family of eight plus the farmhands, raised her own chickens, tended her acre-large farm garden, and canned the results. Her cooking was so well respected that clients called to make sure she was in the kitchen before coming to the restaurant
and patrons sent tips back to her—unheard of in Kansas at the time. I like to think I inherited my cooking genes from her, although the thought of what her schedule must have been like exhausts me.
And then I discovered wine. Now, I’m confident I was not the first to fall in love with French wine on a college exchange trip to France, and I guarantee you that I will not be the last. I know you can picture it: young girl from Kansas travels to France, sips wine at sidewalk cafés, nibbles cheese and other delicacies, practices her French accent and her beret-wearing skills, and tumbles head over heels in love with a country and a culture—statistically, it was almost a given (I should know; I was a statistician in a former life). The wine love affair endured. Thank heavens the statistician gig did not. Since that time, wine has fascinated me. I remember smuggling a bottle of Muscadet home from my first trip to France and as a college student springing for the “expensive” Mouton Cadet that was the best wine available in Manhattan, Kansas, at the time while all of my other friends and some of my professors were drinking Gallo Hearty Burgundy. I was a horrible wine snob back then.
For years, I have had a somewhat dual personality professionally. I’m happy working on either side of the kitchen door. When I’m working in the front of the house or retail, I want to be cooking; and when I’m in the kitchen, I want to run out and pour the perfect glass of wine to compliment my dish. I finally realized that mine is not a split personality at all. I’m not either fascinated with wine or obsessed with food. Rather, I am devoted to the combination, the thought that one without the other is lacking—a concept that I like to call The Wine Table.
When I first started traveling on wine trips, I loved learning about wine—seeing the vineyards where the grapes were grown, the winery where the wine was made, talking to the winemakers—and yet the food fascinated me. I remember on my first professional wine trip to Spain, slipping away every chance I got with Tim McKee, the James Beard Award-winning Chef of La Belle Vie in Stillwater, Minnesota. While everyone else was taking a smoke break or stretching their legs, we would jump off the bus and race into the town butcher shops and grocery stores to see what they were selling. We perused the menus of every restaurant we passed and asked endless questions. It’s a habit that still defines my behavior when I travel and is the basis for this book, the quest to answer the questions: What are they serving with this? What is authentic? What is classic? What makes sense? What goes with what?
And finally, what does the winemaker’s family eat? There are many factors at play when answering that question. Some are as basic as who does the cooking in the family. Growing grapes and making wine is hard, physical labor, and feeding the family at the end of the day can be as much a chore for them as it is for any working family. In remote areas, even shopping for food can be time-consuming and require considerable planning. I remember visiting a family in Corbières, France, where the grocery truck came to town for two hours one day a week. Obviously, they grew a significant amount of their own food and purchased local meat and cheese, etc., from neighbors, but if you can only buy flour one day a week, you had better plan well.
Other factors involve the location of the vineyards and what grows around it. What is blowing in the wind, and does it affect the flavors of the grapes? Can you taste it in the wine, and is it also incorporated in the food of the region?
Perched high on a Tuscan hill near Gaiole in Chianti, the San Vincenti property is lined with rows of rosemary bushes taller than most men. The wine tastes of rosemary because the wind blows the scent from the rosemary leaves onto the grapes, and notes of rosemary are redolent in the Braised Wild Boar dish that Marilena Pucci served us when we visited.
The wines of Muscadet in the Loire-Atlantique department of France have pronounced salinity due to their proximity to the Atlantic Ocean and the strong maritime winds. So too does the bounty of regional seafood. Chablis and Sancerre often have chalky marine-like flavors owing to the sea fossils trapped in their Kimmeridgian soils. The cheeses of the both regions, particularly those of Sancerre, have chalky, salty notes that mirror the wines. I like this. Wine should taste like where it is grown, and so should the food.
For me, both wine and food need to convey authenticity and a sense of place. I am adamantly opposed to the globalization of food and wine. I have no interest in wines that taste alike, modern-style Bordeaux that evokes California Cabernet, which in turn tastes Australian. Along the same vein, it has gotten to the point where luxury restaurants almost anywhere in the world serve the same high-level ingredients—truffles, foie gras, and caviar—whether they make sense or not given the restaurant’s theme or location. Sure, it’s luxurious, but do we crave that? Do we dream about that? Or does the architecturally interesting dish with uncountable ingredients and
flashy technique fade rapidly from your memory? Does it touch your soul with its simplicity, its finesse, its natural complexity? For me, the answer is no. For me, it is the simple roast chicken, the pristine Belon oyster, the perfectly grilled prawn that haunts me.
One of the keys to The Wine Table is restraint—few ingredients in food, few ingredients in wine. Restraint in cooking, noninterventionist winemaking, they are basically the same thing applied to a different métier. It is all about the quality of the raw materials. For farmers, whether their crop is grapes or another product, the work should be done in the fields—then the harvest, the vintage, the products shine. We should shop and cook the same way.
Some of the best times in my life have been spent around a table at a winery, drinking good, honest wine and sharing food I’ve prepared with a winemaker and his or her family—Dover sole in Sancerre with Laurence Crochet, Pompe aux Grattons with Monique Barbara in Saint Pourçain, Pork Rillettes with Damien Delecheneau in Montlouis, Choucroute with the Faller ladies of Domaine Weinbach in Alsace, and a blow-out “festa” at Savignola Paolina on a balcony overlooking Ludo’s Chianti vineyards. I’ve shared a wonderful meal with Mrs. Monique Gussalli Beretta showcasing Beretta family recipes. I’ve cooked for harvest workers and winery employees during the harvest in Provence, Champagne, and Alsace. Along the way, I have amassed recipes and wonderful memories, and I have honed the concept of The Wine Table.
I invite you to pull up a chair at my table and let me share these experiences with you.