Thursday, 1 December 2011

Merlot & Masala: A Match Made In Bank

By Alistair Martin

Indian food is an oddity amongst world cuisines. Dine in a restaurant specialising in the fare of any other country and a bottle of wine is an almost obligatory accompaniment. Opt for a beer or soft-drink instead, and we feel somewhat uncouth and unrefined, as if we’ve only just graduated from eating Big Macs and drinking White Lightening cider in the park.

Yet even those who conform to Britain’s wine-drinking customs with near religious obedience – people who wouldn’t dream of taking a white with beef or red with chicken – seem to forget these conventions the second they step through the beaded curtains of their local curry house. Then, apart from the occasional cooling glass of house white for the ladies, it is beer and soft drinks all the way.

One can appreciate the reasons behind this. In countries like Italy and France, viticulture is considered an art form; food and wine have evolved reciprocally over centuries to complement each other, like pieces of the same gastronomic jigsaw.

As relatively affluent societies, Italy and France can afford to spend well on expensively refined vintages, and children start drinking wine with their meals as soon as they are old enough to take the spouts off their beakers.

In India however, changes in cultural and religious opinion over the last couple of centuries have seen wine production and consumption almost disappear. The global inflation of wine prices over the same period, prompted by the growing wealth of Europe’s wine-consuming classes, priced much of the Indian population out of the market anyway.

Instead, as the introduction and spread of chilli and other such flavours saw Indian cuisine evolve irrespective of viticultural trends, sweet milky teas and lassis emerged as ideal bibitory accompaniments to its robust, spicy complexity. This disparity grew even further as a result of the continued evolution of Indian food in post-war Britain, then a nation of tea and beer-drinkers often-mocked by European counterparts for its vineal ignorance.

Thankfully, culinary evolution is an ongoing process, and some innovators have refused to accept that a pint of Kingfisher is the only appropriate beverage for a biryani.

Foremost amongst these innovators is Dhayalan Paul, recently head-hunted from Westminster’s Cinnamon Club to take up residence at the wonderful Bank branch of Mint Leaf. Together with Philippe Germain of the Chateau de la Roulerie estate, Paul put together a simply dazzling menu for Mint Leaf’s Degustation Tasting Dinner recently, showcasing how the right wine, carefully selected, can not only accompany but actively enhance modern Indian cuisine.

Even without the wine, Paul’s menu was striking. Traditional curry house staples – onion bhajis, garlic naan, blow-your-head-off vindaloo – were naturally nowhere to be seen. In their place lay dishes that innovatively warped classic Indian flavours into exciting new forms: pan-seared scallops in chilli lemon drizzle; tandoori pheasant breast with kadhai mushrooms and crispy okra; and charred red deer loin with blackberry reduction and candied tamarind. The result looked modern European, smelled unmistakably Indian, and tasted out of this world.

And arriving with each dish, Kasturba to the food’s Mohandas, came a perfectly-matched wine from Chateau La Roulerie’s Loire Valley vineyards. Complete with insightful introductions from Germain (a sixth generation wine-maker), they didn’t compete with the food for spice or power, but enhanced the existing flavours whilst bringing others to life, like a secret ingredient you didn’t know was missing.

The wild sea bass cerviche with cucumber jelly starter in particular was utterly transformed when followed by the fresh citrus tones of the Chenin Blanc Grandes Brosses. The extent to which new dimensions could be brought to an already remarkable menu by simple addition of fermented grape juice was genuinely astonishing.

I’m not sure whether it was the display of artistry from both Paul and Germain, or just the fact that I had drunken over a bottle of the good stuff, but by the end of the evening I was fully subscribed to Germain’s typically Gallic proclamation that “wine without food, food without wine, is nothing”.

So, does the success of the Mint Leaf’s Degustation Dinner mean that the evolutions of wine and Indian food have converged to the extent that the two can – indeed should – now be enjoyed together again as standard?

Well not quite. After all, in Mint Leaf and Chateau La Roulerie, the evening had brought together food and wine purveyors of the highest order; in Philippe Germain and Dhayalan Paul, it had combine talents of rare taste. You ‘re simply not going to get the same experience with a glass of house plonk and a lamb jalfrezi down The Spice is Right on the High Street on a Friday night.

Yet in the right restaurant, with the right research, knowledge or sommelier advice, refined Indian food can certainly be enhanced by a good wine as much as the cuisine of any other nation; a fact certainly worth considering before your next Indian meal and next customary request for a pint.

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