Cooking for wine #3: Lamb Tagine

The best tagine I’ve had was in Marrakesh, in a little local worker’s café/restaurant down a side street of Jamaa el Fna square. This was far from a touristy spot, all battered formica tables, flimsy plastic chairs and buzzing flourescent strip lights, but its bustle and popularity with hungry locals drew us in. They had about 20 tagines lined up on the front counter (in plain, cracked terracotta pots), steaming away on charcoal stands. The accumulated smell was incredible. Choosing was easy, there was no menu.

Under the lid were a pair of stringy chicken legs, some potato, carrot, onion, lemon, sour olives and something like turnip. All of these had been doused with a spice mix. At the bottom was a small amount of cooking liquor, which the moist couscous accompaniment soaked up perfectly. A humble, unspectacular dish, certainly, but a damn good one. The chicken was falling-about-soft, but not dried out at all, the vegetables were enriched by the chicken’s juices and the whole thing was infused by that intangible complexity of north African spices. Unfussy slow cooking at its finest.

I’ve had tagines since, posher examples in much ‘nicer’ establishments (both in London and Marrakesh), but I’ve never had one that came close to that humble chicken delight. Nor have I had much joy in making them, until now. Recipes have always led me down that overly fruited and nutted variety of tagine you find on British menus. All ‘premium’ ingredients, but no actual character. So I went on instinct, and here’s where it took me…

Lamb Tagine
lamb shoulder (as much as you need!) cut into medium sized pieces and mixed with five cloves of garlic and the same amount of ginger, pounded with some oil, s&p, turmeric, paprika and dried rosemary. Marinade for as long as you can afford.

Soak some saffron in off-boiling water (you only want about quarter of a cup full), and cut up a couple of shallots, carrots and celery stalks into largish pieces of similar size. Slice a medium green chilli lengthways. Arrange the meat and vegetables in a tagine pot or smallish casserole, pour over the saffron and sprinkle with plenty more salt, pepper and ras el hanout spice mix.

Cook at around 115 degrees for two hours. Then add three of four medium potatoes, cut lengthways into wedges and seasoned with more spices, and cook for another hour, or until the potatoes and lamb are cooked. Try and arrange the potatoes so that they sit on top of the meat and veg and steam/bake instead of soaking up the cooking juices.

You can serve this with couscous if you like, but we just had it with the potatoes. Sprinkle lots of chopped parsley or coriander over to finish.

To Drink
While cooking this dish, one wine kept coming to mind as the perfect match: a warm and spicy Minervois from South West France. We tried one from Le Rouge de Azerolle, a deep, complex red packed with sun-baked fruit and Chrismas spice flavours, all aided by decent tannins. It worked well with the lamb tagine, but not nearly as well as I’d hoped. The wine is just too flavourful to pair with an equally complex dish, and as both demand your palate’s full attention, this leads to all sorts of confusion.

Instead, what really stole the show was this cracking Beaujolais-Villages from Domaine de la Plaigne, an absolutely gorgeous example of what can be done with the Gamay grape in the right Beaujolais vigneron’s hands. The wine’s vibrant cherry and blackberry fruit, coupled with its lovely floral notes and earthy acidity, did everything the tagine needed: cutting through the fat, highlighting the spices and complementing the complex flavours really well, but in a humble, ‘supporting actor’ role. Wonderful stuff!


Cooking for wine #2: Chilli Con Carne


Slow cooked chilli con carne made with skirt and shin of beef

Good old chilli con carne, that much loved suppertime favourite… But doesn’t it deserve more from our affections than its present incarnation as a humdrum ‘spicy Bolognese’? Well, I thought so too, so I set out to make a more authentic version, and find out what wine would work with it best.

Inspired by a Jamie Oliver recipe I once saw on TV that used beef brisket, and having read through the Guardian’s ‘Perfect Chilli’ article, I set about creating a chilli that would not only respect the dish’s origins, but would taste amazing and be super easy to make.

First off, for a dish that is in essence ‘chilli with meat’, it’s imperative to get some decent meat in there. I used two good sized cuts of beef skirt, and two thick slices of off-the-bone beef shin, bought from Penleigh Farm butchers in Frome. These are cuts that require a good slow cooking to get them tender, but they’re also packed with flavour, and I think a chilli should be big on flavour.. To help the meat on its way, I liberally doused them with smoked paprika, minced garlic, thyme, oregano and cumin seeds. Then left them in the fridge overnight (but anything over an hour would do).


Beef shin (top and bottom) and skirt, liberally covered in smoky spices, garlic and herbs

When you’re satisfied the meat is suitably riddled with flavour, fry it off in plenty of oil in a good sized pan. When coloured, put it into a casserole dish and add two diced onions, one whole head of celery and a bulb of garlic to the same herb and spice-flecked pan (I just whizzed these in a food processor briefly – which I know is controversial, but I was in a hurry, and this isn’t an Escoffier recipe!) and sweat down. Add a couple of bay leaves and (ideally Mexican) dried chillies, and when sufficiently wilted, add one tin of chopped tomatoes*, the same volume of beef stock and the same of red wine*.


Not much to look at, granted, but this flavour packed sludge, along with the cuts of meats, is the key to a good chilli

Reduce this fabulously aromatic ‘sludge’ down by a third to get rid of some of the water and pour it over the beef in the pot, with plenty of salt and pepper and any further herbs that you have around (I went for thyme and sage). Jiggle it around so that everything’s mixed, and cook in the oven at 125° for around 4 hours (I cooked mine for about an hour and half in the evening, then switched off the oven and went out, letting it do its thing for another five hours). The longer the better.


The browned seasoned meat, waiting for its sauce and a long stint in a warm oven

When cooked, the meat should fall apart easily. Grab two forks and shred it into as fine pieces as you want (a few chunks, especially of the shin, are always nice though). Then add three chopped bell peppers (I went for red, orange and yellow) and one tin each of kidney beans and black beans (but use any you like really, chickpeas work well). Give it another 30 mins in the oven to cook the peppers, then check the seasoning, add a bit more chopped fresh chilli if you want more hot spice, squeeze in a lime and chuck in loads of chopped coriander. Lovely!

*Authenticity police: yes, I know that ‘traditionally’ chilli con carne wasn’t made with tomatoes, or red wine, but it seemed right to me, and with this quantity of meat, neither dominated the flavour, but just helped to give depth and body to the dish as a whole.


So, what to drink with this seriously flavour-packed, meaty and nicely spicy (but not crazy hot) dish? Well, I experimented with three wines to find the right one and, while they all worked well to lesser or greater degrees (hey, I’m getting pretty good at this!), one was clear winner for me.

First up, I figured we’d better go to south America, so I opted for this weighty Carménère ‘El Grano’ from Domaine Duveau. Made in Chile’s Rapel Valley by a French winemaker based over there, this a pretty unique wine: big, but subtle and quite vegetal. While its ripe berry fruit flavours are pronounced, on the palate there’s a Cabernet Franc-esque ‘greenness’ that makes this is a really interesting wine. It worked well with the chilli, giving plenty of bite to cut through the meat, with enough richness to wrap around the spices and then that intriguing green edge balancing the savouriness.

Next up I plumped for an unoaked Spanish red, the lovely Rioja Tempranillo from Hacienda Grimon. While offering plenty of fruit in its full-bodied richness, it’s a well made and nicely balanced wine that shows sweet cherry and tangy wild berry flavours, underpinned with a dusty, smoky Spanish earthiness. It worked a treat with the chilli, proving the perfect foil to the rich depths of the dish, without dominating or working against it in anyway.

Lastly I tried the bold Madiran ‘Charles de Batz’ from Domaine Berthoumieu, a weighty and distinctive wine from South West France made from the Tannat grape. This is a voluptuous beast of a wine, very concentrated and rustic, with powerful stewed fruit, wild herb and smoky warm oak nuances. While it stood up well to the complexity of flavours in the chilli, they didn’t get on so well as both seems to fight for the palate’s attention, and the firm tannins got into a bit of a tussle with the chilli’s spice.

Top of the bill was the Rioja then, a good value, unoaked red that shows Spain’s Tempranillo grape in all its splendour. But the Carménère was a smasher too. I think the Madiran would be best with more simply flavoured meats Maybe a simple casserole of beef shin cooked with wine and garden herbs. Hmmm, maybe that’ll be my next post… Enjoy!

Matching food & wine: restaurant starters

I seem to be thinking about food and wine matching all the time these days, which led me to try and put together a guide for when eating out. Starters are where a good food and wine match can be most rewarding, due to the lightness of the food, the delicate combinations of ingredients, and the freshness of one’s palate.

One problem that I struck upon almost immediately, however, is just the sheer diversity of food in the UK these days, and the impossibility of tackling all the different permutations, combinations and configurations of ingredients. So instead, I tried to take a more classic view, figuring that a basic breakdown of the most popular ingredients/dishes would help as a handy guide, and present some go-to rules that would hopefully help when presented with a menu.

Salads & Vegetables

When it comes to salads, you only really need to be wary of strong vinegar-based dressing, which can react harshly with most wines. Citrus-based dressings are far more wine-friendly.

For a rocket salad dressed with olive oil and parmesan (or variations thereof), try a dry sauvignon blanc, such as a Côtes de Duras, or a dry chenin blanc like a Vouvray Sec.

With tomato salads (and variations), go for bright and acidic whites, such as an Italian Verdicchio or one of the more characterful Pinot Grigio wines.

A bounty of tomatoes at Borough market, London. Pic:

When it comes to buttered asparagus, go for richer sauvignon blancs (such as this Chilean Organic Sauvignon Blanc or a Côtes de Duras from South France). For asparagus with hollandaise, opt for a sauvignon with a touch more acidity, such as a classic Loire like the Petit Bourgeois or a Saint-Bris.

The creaminess of avocado is well matched by good high-acid whites such as a Loire valley chenin blanc – like this Vouvray Sec – or German riesling. Rieslings also work well if you’re going for a salad of avocado and prawns. Opt for a well balanced Alsace riesling, such as this Riesling Tradition.

The creamy dressing of a caesar salad is well suited to a richer style of chardonnay, such as a Vin de Pays d’Oc, or something weighty-but-balanced from the new world, like a Chenin-Torrontés blend from South Africa. Richer chardonnays, such as a classic Pouilly-Fuissé, also work, and make a great match for garlic / breaded mushrooms as well.

A classic Caesar salad: crunchy, creamy and bittersweet – great with richer chardonnays

A plate of antipasti featuring grilled vegetables, olives and artichokes can prove tricky, and it’s perhaps best to stick to Italian wines. For whites, try a good quality Gavi or a Trebbiano d’Abruzzo, but a lighter red would work well too, such as a Morellino di Scansano Bellamarsilia, again from Abruzzo.

Fish, Shellfish & Seafood

Fish and seafood often feature heavily on starter menus, and while it’s impossible to cover all the different varieties and dishes, the following should help as a guide.

For a salad involving cold lobster, perhaps with fresh mayonnaise, you can’t get a much better pairing than a classic Burgundian chardonnay, such as a Premier Cru Chablis or Pouilly-Fuissé.

While there are many whites that make ‘acceptable’ partners for oysters, you get really magic flavour combinations with a well made Picpoul de Pinet. Alternatively, if you want something Burgundian, try a richer, warmer style of chardonnay, such as a good Saint-Véran served ice-cold.

Raw oysters, with their unique brine and iodine flavours, are complemented perfectly with a good Picpoup de Pinet

Scallops are a starter staple these days, and are generally very accommodating when it comes to wine. When seared or grilled, go for a white with some weight, such as a Côtes de Gascogne or an Italian Gavi di Tassarolo. Dressed scallops, or those served ceviche, tend to need a little more bite, so try a richer sauvignon blanc such as a Saint-Bris or a good quality example from Chile, such as De Martino’s Organic Sauvignon Blanc. Scallops served in a more traditional creamy sauce favour rich, slightly oaky whites, such as a good Entre-Deux-Mers Bordeaux or a buttery white Burgundy like this Rully.

Smoked salmon can be notoriously tricky to match with wine. While champagne is a popular choice, in reality, only the richest styles will stand up to the richness of the fish. Try our lovely rich grower champagne Grand Reserve Benedicte Jonchere, or else a rounded white Condrieu.

For more rustic fish starters such as Mediterranean brandade or taramasalata, go for an oily-textured white with good aromatics and acids, such as a Costières de Nîmes Blanc, dry Vouvray or a cracking Sicilian Inzolia. Taramasalata also works really well with a characterful Provençal rosé.

For mussels, a classic Muscadet is always a winner, but it can be bettered. As with oysters, try a Picpoul de Pinet or one of Italy’s fish-loving whites, such as a delightful Falanghina Rami. However, top of the list for mussel-matching has to be a Spanish Albariño. Perfection in a glass.

Plump, fresh mussels, washed down with a glass of Spanish Albariño


With so many types of cured meats, pâtés, salamis and terrines available, matching charcuterie starters can be a little daunting. In reality, however, it needn’t be difficult, as long as you follow your nose and understand a little about classic regional pairings.

For most pork charcuterie, you can try to match the meat’s region to the wine’s, (e.g. Bayonne ham with a Gascogne red like Madiran, or Spanish jamón Ibérico with a Rioja Crianza). Alternatively, choose young reds with good acids, which match well with most charcuterie. A fruit-forward Loire Chinon will work well, as will a young Bordeaux and a richer Beaujolais cru, such as a Régnié.

When it comes to Italy’s famous Parma ham, mortadella or salame Milanese, again choose a lighter red, but something Italian, juicy and vivacious, such as a fresh-tasting Morellino di Scansano or a Dolcetto d’Alba.

Italian salame, perfect with a lighter Italian red

With black pudding or boudin noir, go for something that can handle fatty meat and spice. A firm Beaujolais – either a good village wine or a fragrant cru such as a Chiroubles works well, as will a young unoaked Rioja/Tempranillo.

Carpaccio – thin slices of raw beef dressed with oil, Parmesan and rocket – is a dish that requires a little delicacy. Whites work particularly well: try a rich unoaked chardonnay, such as a good Vin de Pays d’Oc or a regional Italian white, such as a good Verdicchio. If a red is preferred, you’ll find a young chianti, such as Cantine Vittorio Innocenti’s, or other light red, an excellent match, even lightly chilled.

Lastly, we turn our attention to foie gras, that unmistakable and often controversial goose liver delicacy. While there are many ways to serve it, simple is best, and when so, there is no finer match than a classic Sauternes. Truly a match made in heaven.

Cheese & Eggs

While this may seem a fairly arbitrary grouping, in truth, similar wines pair well with many egg-based and cheese-based starters.

The wine to drink with deep-fried cheese will be determined by the cheese itself (although it’s most often Brie or Camembert), but don’t underestimate the sweet/tangy relish usually served with it. As such, choose a fruity red with bright acids. A good Beaujolais-Villages would be perfect, as would a richer Loire red, such as a fruity Chinon.

Omelettes – typically made in the French style, with herbs, cheese and/or tomato – can work with richer chardonnay or sémillon whites, but for the ultimate pairing, try a lighter, fresher Bourgogne Rouge or an ever dependable Beaujolais cru, such as a Régnié, lightly chilled.

A classic French omelette, light as soufflé and crying out for a good glass of Beaujolais

On the other hand, Spanish tortillas and Italian fritattas have different requirements, as decreed by their more varied ingredients and flavours. With tortillas, especially where chorizo has been used, go for a modern, unoaked Spanish red, such as a straight Rioja Tempranillo or the Iniza Tinto from Bodega el Cotijo de la Vieja. Similarly, fritatta will be well served by a youthful Italian red, such as a Montepulciano d’Abruzzo Classica.

While goat’s cheese comes in myriad different styles, one wine always seems to pair beautifully with it: sauvignon blanc. Whether raw or baked, in general, if there are stronger ingredients alongside the cheese, go for a richer style such as a Chilean expression or even a white Bordeaux, where the sauvignon is blended with the rounder sémillon grape. However, where the cheese is the star of the plate, and indeed, is one of the excellent matured British or French types, nothing beats a classic Loire sauvignon, such as a Sancerre or a Touraine.

Cooking for wine #1: Loire cab franc

Following on from my previous post about matching rioja with Roman pot lamb (here), and inspired by a recent food matching faux-pas, I’ve been thinking about what dish would best complement a classic Loire cabernet franc.

A good cabernet franc, such a Domaine des Roches Neuves’ 2010 Saumur-Champignyis a smoky, savoury, sumptuous delight. Balancing bright berry fruit and floral nuances with a green pepper sapidity, a well-made cabernet franc makes a very food friendly wine. From experience though, I can tell you that it doesn’t go at all with roasted pork and apple sauce, which not only conflicts over the acidity of apples, but also jar withs the fatty sweetness of the meat. What was I thinking? Oh well, we live and learn.

My ideal cab franc match would need to be meaty, but with a good capsicum/green pepper element to harmonise with the wine’s savouriness. A fiery chilli-con-carne came to mind, but then the chilli/tannin spectre raised its head, and a decent cab franc should have fairly firm tannins, so I shelved that idea and instead opted for a classic Hungarian pörkölt, a slow-cooked, meaty, paprika-rich stew scented with caraway and pepper.

At least that’s my version of a pörkölt, I don’t want to get into a fight with any Hungarian purists out there. Pörkölt, like borscht, seems to be one of those European dishes that doesn’t have a definitive recipe, but which people will get quite irate about (usually because your version isn’t the same as the version their mum makes). Now, I might not be a native, but I have been to Hungary plenty of times, had/made many a pörkölt and read a few Gundel books, so I’ve got a fair idea about my Hungarian food.

So here’s my recipe for lamb pörkölt:

Dry-fry a tblsp of caraway seeds until fragrant, set aside, then fry off a couple of medium-sliced onions until soft and yellow. Add quarter of a lamb shoulder, cut into decent sized chunks. Brown the meat, turn off the heat and stir in two good tablespoons of paprika (ideally Hungarian and ideally really good quality – like my mother-in-law makes). Back on the heat, season with salt, pepper and the ground caraway seeds, then stir in enough water to make a consistency like blood. Cover and cook very gently for an hour and a half, stirring occasionally to make sure nothing’s sticking and the consistency is still good. You don’t want it too dry, or too wet.

Once the lamb is starting to ‘collapse’, add two/three sliced white (ideally) or green peppers and one large chopped fresh tomato. Leave the lid off and cook for another 30 mins until everything’s cooked, keeping an eye on the consistency. Check seasoning, add some chopped marjoram/oregano/parsley and serve with boiled or baked potatoes and whatever greens you have. Get happy.

Hungarian lamb pörkölt, baked potato, steamed beetroot greens/purple sprouting broccoli. Deep, colourful, lovely.

My hunch proved a pretty good one. The pörkölt – all sweet fatty lamb, savoury green pepperiness and fragrant, earthy, every-so-slightly-spicy depths – married really well with the bright berry fruit flavours, smoky floral nuances and grippy ‘green’ acidity of the Saumur-Champigny. A good wine match is when both the food and the wine are elevated and, if you like, ‘completed’ by the other, and I think we had that going on here. A very satisfying meal.

So, if you don’t know the Cabernet Franc grape, or if you’ve had a bad experience with it (roast pork, perhaps?) I’d urge you to give it another shot and, ideally, get it going with some good home-cooked Hungarian food. Trust me, you’ll be in hog’s heaven.

With so many wines leaning towards a sweet, easy-going, food-not-required style these days, it’s lovely to experiment with those that still come into their own with food. The Loire valley is the key place to look for the best cab francs, but keep an eye on ABVs, you find some upwards of 14% these days which are fruit bombs. At around 12.5%, you tend to get a far more ‘classic’ character.

Freshly picked Cabernet Franc grapes

PS. Pörkölt can also be made with beef, veal and pork. In fact, traditionally it would be mutton, not lamb, but either way, it’s good. Enjoy!

Roman pot lamb meets Rioja

Assessing a wine en masse at a tasting is all well and good, but to really get to know a bottle, you’ve got to take it home and show it a good time. So this weekend, in preparation for The Perfect Cellar’s new wine list, I’ve been ‘road testing’ some lovely Riojas that are arriving imminently. And what better way to put a bottle of Rioja at ease than with a slow cooked leg of lamb.

The wines

The Perfect Cellar have got three wines coming from Hacienda Grimón, a small family-run bodega located in the north of La Rioja, 15 kilometres from Logroño. Based in Ventas Blancas, a sleepy village nestled in the Valle de Jubera at the foot of Monte Grimón, the bodega is run by the Oliváns family and is fairly unique. Not only do the Oliváns own and tend all their own vines (quite a rarity in Rioja), but they are proper ‘old-school’ organic viticulturists (i.e. they’ve been doing it for years because they actually believe in it, and not just because it’s a marketing angle). Hand harvesting, no herbicides or pesticides, good-old tried-and-tested sheep manure to keep the top soil active …they are one of those wineries you wish all the others could be like.

The three Grimón wines are the Rioja Tempranillo 2010, an unoaked, un-aged modern tempranillo with bags of up-front fruit characteristics; the Rioja Crianza 2008, a more rounded number ripe with sun-baked fruit and vanillary warmth; and the Rioja Reserva 2005, a lovely classic reserva with a sumptuous, elegant softness and well-judged oak. Across all three wines, the quality of the winemaking and the dedication of the winemakers to express their particular parcels of land is evident. These are not identikit Riojas, there is a finesse and an effortless Spanish authenticity that really sets them apart from the pack.

The food

Since I first tasted these wines, I’ve had in mind pairing them with lamb so soft, it would make a good kleftiko blush. They are just that kind of Rioja. And it just so happened that my getting hold of these bottles coincided with a trip to Stourhead farm shop, purveyors of some of the finest meat in all Wiltshire/Somerset. One look at this leg of lamb, and I knew exactly what to do…

A textbook half-leg of lamb from Stourhead farmshop in Wiltshire. I'll never buy meat from a supermarket again.

To help it on its way… a whole head of garlic, mashed with rosemary and massaged all over the meat. Onion, carrot and celery to line the Roman pot; rosemary, thyme and bay to keep the lamb company, plus a splash of leftover Côtes-du-Rhône for good measure.

3 hours later… The beauty of a Roman pot is that it browns the meat nicely, and yet no moisture escapes. This lamb fell apart as soon as the fork touched it, and the texture was beautifully, meltingly soft. I thought about passing the 'sauce', but it didn't feel very in keeping with the spirit of Spanish rusticity (besides, the aromas were driving me crazy by this point), so I didn't ponce about. We just got stuck in.

The results

Ok, I hate to be too annoying here, but the lamb was SUBLIME. The garlic had seeped through and the rosemary and thyme had permeated well. It was a very lean leg of lamb, but the natural flavour of the meat was really sweet and full, a marked contrast to some über-bland supermarket lamb you get these days. We accompanied the lamb with the wines, obviously, starting with the pure Tempranillo. In reality, however, I knew exactly which one would best match, and I wasn’t wrong. Slow cooked lamb like this, steeped in garlic and herbs, is a natural partner for the smooth, oaky sumptuousness of Reserva Rioja, and the old-fashoned smoky elegance of Hacienda Grimón’s Rioja Reserva 2005 was the undefeated champion.

The pure Tempranillo paired well, with its well-defined fruit and good acids cutting through the meat, but the lack of oak was all too evident against the lamb. It would probably fair better with some thinly sliced ibérico de bellota ham or other good charcuterie. The Crianza, on the other hand, was fantastic, but in relation to the Reserva, felt a little too ‘punchy’. It could easily handle some more robust flavours, perhaps if I’d incorporated anchovies and peppers into the Roman pot it might have been better suited. I’d imagine a ratatouille-style lamb dish, with smoky aubergine flavours and earthy paprika would be a fantastic match, and I’m already planning that event in the back of my mind.

All in all though, this was a very pleasant experiment, one that drew the best out of three thoroughly excellent wines, and proved a very indulgent and satisfying way to spend a Sunday. All in the name of research, you understand…

Is it the wood that makes it good?

There’s nothing more depressing than being presented with a winemaker’s ‘top cuvée’, usually their biggest investment from their vineyards’ best grapes, only to find yourself breathing in a glassful of oak-saturated unpleasantness. While you can just about detect some decent, well extracted fruit in the background, it’s all but been drowned out in a wave of tarry new oak.

The use of wood in wine maturation can be a wonderful thing, but it can also be a disaster. It seems in recent years as though the influence of wood in some wineries has gotten a little out of hand, so instead of it adding a warm edge to soften and harmonise a wine, it turns it into a tarry, pungent stew that makes you think more of French polishing than fermented grape juice. And this is no good for anyone.

Oak wine barrels at the Robert Mondavi vineyard in Califoria, quietly working their magic (or mayhem) on their vinous contents. Pic: Sanjay Acharya

Certainly, the influence of oak barrels in wine is nothing new. Being watertight and relatively malleable, oak has been used for centuries to store wine. Over the years, as winemaking (and wine drinking) became more sophisticated, people realised that keeping wine for longish periods in oak actually changed it – often for the better. The flavour of oak has a natural affinity with wine, bestowing on it complex compounds which enhance and unify the wine’s character. Oak’s natural properties even have a purifying effect, helping to gently clarify and stabilise a wine, while deepening its colour and softening its texture.

The problem with using oak to influence wine is that it’s quite a complex process, and an increasingly expensive one. In their Natural Wine Manifesto, le Cave de Pyrene state that ‘oak is the servant of wine, not its master’. A worthy philosophy of course, but the problem lies in mastering the oak itself so that it doesn’t dominate the wine.

There are many variables for the winemaker to consider, all of which affect the character of the finished wine. Size and age of the oak barrels is of paramount importance (the older the barrels, the less influence they have); how long the wine is kept in the barrel is vital; how heavily the barrel is ‘toasted’ (barrels are charred with fire to brown the inside and lessen or increase the flavour the oak imparts); and how long the wood has been seasoned (left to dry) before it was made into barrels, all determine what influence the wood will have on the wine, and all need to be rigorously controlled.

A new oak barrel being toasted before finishing

A new oak barrel being toasted

While there are many different types of oak available, the most popular today are those from France and America. Oak from central Europe is increasingly popular –particularly in Italy – due to its quality and price. American oak (Quercus alba) is a fast growing and wide grained white oak that tends to impart appealingly sweet vanilla and coconut flavours into a wine due to its intensity of aromatic compounds (as much from the oak itself as the difference in preparation of the wood for barrel making in America). Tight-grained and slow-growing French oak (Quercus petrae), on the other hand, tends to impart less of a pronounced ‘flavour’ than American oak, but also far more natural tannins and other complex compounds like methyl-octalactone, phenols and volatile aldehydes, all of which effect the wine’s character as it comes into contact with the barrel.

Perhaps the easiest way to understand the influence of the two types of wood is a simple taste/aroma test. Open a bottle of youngish Bordeaux and a Rioja crianza and compare the wines. Obviously they are two very different wines made of different terroirs, grapes and winemaking practices, but in general terms, Bordeaux wines are aged in French oak, and Rioja in American (or a mixture of the two). While it’s not the most scientific test, chances are you will detect a far more ‘classic’ oak influence in the Bordeaux, with notes reminiscent of cigar boxes and pencil shavings. With a very modern Rioja, the American oak is often fairly dominant and you’ll find those sweet vanilla and toasted coconut notes in abundance.

I guess the thing with oak, ultimately, is that a little goes a long way. However, if winemakers are to master the subtleties of oak’s influence, they need to experiment. Just as long as we consumers aren’t their guinea pigs. Complaints about heavy-handed oak treatment are something I hear a lot. So how do you feel about it? Do you enjoy the waft of raw toasty oak when you put your nose into a glass of wine, or do you prefer any oaky component to be just another element to the wine’s profile, something your nose and taste buds needs to seek out rather than be bombarded with? I know where I stand, I just hope I’m not in the minority. Altogether now: ‘wine before wood!’

What a crock, part 2

Success! After my recent post about baking bread in a Le Creuset crock pot (here) I tried again and had much better results.

Bursting at the seams… Fresh out of the oven.

So why did it work this time? Well I changed my whole approach based on what happened the first time round. For a start, my dough was dryer than before, a wholesome blend of spelt, wholemeal, rye and plain flour (35/35/20/10, percentage geeks). I also baked the whole loaf as one (usually I turn a kilo of dough into two loaves, but given the size and capacity of the Le Creuset (a 27cm oval) the size of the fermented dough seemed to fit better (and therefore, I assumed, would benefit more from the proximity of the scorching hot cast iron enamel ‘walls’ surrounding it). Here’s the dough in all its glory, ready for baking:

It's alive! A well risen, bubbly dough, ready for baking.

The only tricky bit I’m discovering about baking like this is getting the dough into the pot. When a dough has risen properly, the last thing you want to do is over handle it and risk knocking any of that precious air out, but getting it into the Le Creuset isn’t as simple as turning it out onto a baking stone. What’s more, once it’s in the pot (which is fiendishly hot anyway, so trying to carefully place it in there is impossible) it’s difficult to get in there and make slashes on the dough. So what I did was flour my hands, turn the loaf out gently into one hand, quickly slash the top of the dough and then sort of slide it into the pot. Lid on, back in the oven…

Fresh dough meet hot pot. Words cannot describe the joy of cold fermented dough coming into contact with 250°C cast iron. The sizzle, the wafts of steam, the immediate reaction of the dough… Love it.

So, temperatures: The crock-pot had gone into the oven cold and was brought up to the maximum oven temp (it’s a fan oven, so maybe it gets hotter than the 250°C on the dial). With the dough inside the pot, the lid on and the pot back in the oven, I reduced the temp to 220°C (fan) and left it for 30 mins. Then I removed the lid and gave it another 10 mins, before letting it cool completely on a rack.

And the results? Well, I’m very happy with this new way of baking. The spring of the dough seemed really pronounced, but also quite wild and irregular (you can see how it split beyond the slashes, always a good sign of ferocious expansion). I loved how dark and crackly the crust became, it seems much more ‘scorched’ than usual oven-baking. The texture is great too, it’s a strong, crunchy crust, but it’s also quite thin and chewy (to get the same crunchiness in the oven, I would have had to bake it for longer and risk drying out the loaf). And on the moisture scale, the crumb is lovely and soft here, and it has stayed that way for three days now. It’s not the most well-formed crumb in the world, but then again, I didn’t use much strong flour (only the spelt I guess, the wholemeal, rye and plain white are all quite ‘soft’ in gluten terms). Next up I’m going to try a strong white/spelt blend and see if I can get the bread to lift the lid off the Le Creuset!

Are you thinking what I'm thinking? Hunk of pâté, chunk of gooey cheese, bottle of red and the rest of the day off? It's gotta be done.