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A new paradigm for pairing food and wine – Taste Buds and Molecules

I’m a bit of a contrarian. My scientist father instilled in me a passion for questioning, especially when it comes to so-called experts. In university I was (in)famous for always challenging statements from professors. In my career I’ve always liked questioning norms and saying “Can we make a better process?” In my opinion, even if the exercise doesn’t succeed at making a better, faster, or more efficient process, it’s still worth challenging yourself to see if you can do better.

The same falls in the world of wine for me. Part of the reason I’ve moved to Europe is to see if I can bring any of this mentality to the traditional, we’ve-always-done-it-this-way, stuck-with-inertia way the wine world can be over here.

One of the areas of wine that I feel hasn’t had any innovative thought is the aspect of pairing food and wine. So it was with great excitement to read what has to be the most challenging break-the-norm book on wine and food pairing I have ever read.

I’ve always thought that every single book I’ve read on food and wine pairing is full of BS and not based in any sort of justifiable logic or science. Lots of stuff that’s barely past the red-with-meat, white-with-fish level. Nothing has been satisfactory. It’s all so bad that my one pairing rule is “What grows with it, goes with it”. Meaning if you’re eating some braised veal made in a Piedmontese style, then you are best served drinking a Barolo or Barbaresco. (Actually, I have another pairing rule: Drink whatever you want with your meal. If sauvignon blanc is what you like with your steak then go for it. Nobody should tell you what to do. Listen to advice, but drink what you want!)

But my pessimism about pairing is now over. I’ve just finished the most remarkable book on wine and food pairing – one with a fresh look on the topic, one that breaks all the norms, that is based on science, and that challenges us to think differently about the topic. “Taste Buds and Molecules. The Art and Science of Food with Wine.

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François Chartier is Québécois, now living in Barcelona, who has worked extensively with wine his whole career. But a number of years ago, he took a sabbatical to study wine and food pairing in a more scientific in-depth way. The result of this work was not just books on pairing but now a career advising the top restaurants of the world (um, like El Bulli) on how pairing actually works. I suspect that chefs look at his methodology not just for food and wine pairing, but also as a tool for guiding food and food pairings! It’s that good.

It’s hard to get into the specific details of how François describes food and wine pairing (read the book!), but I’ll give it a shot. He gets down to the molecular level of the primary aromatic compounds in a wine, and then says the best pairing for that wine is a food that has the same, or at least same family, of aromatic compounds. For example, sauvignon blanc has as it’s primary aromatic molecule anise-based compounds. These include volatile compounds and aromas of menthol (mint and fresh coriander), eugenol (in cloves and green basil),  anethole (in fresh fennel and tarragon),  and others. He says that the best pairings for sauvignon blanc have anise flavored ingredients in them, for example a cold vietnamese spring roll with mint in it. Just thinking of having those two together makes total sense to me!

François had a presentation of his book and a signing last week, and part of it was a demonstration of his methodology. He had 7 different wines, and for each one he had samples of different foods that were the correct pairing for the wines. Foods with aromatic compounds belonging to the same family of aromatic compounds that were primary in the wine. It was amazing to taste the fruits of his labors!

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I’ve never had a night of such superb pairing. I kept exclaiming “Wow, these go so well together!”

I had a chance to ask François a few questions. Where does fat play into this? How about salt? You talk about complementary aromatic compounds – what about contrasting – couldn’t that also work towards harmonious pairings? He told me that he is now focused on complementary aromatics because the area of research is so nascent, and there is so much work to do. He feels he’s only now is he able to fully describe how matching ingredients based on complementary aromatic compounds works. I hope he continues in his research and gets further into fat and salt and heat and other aspects that I suspect are important at understanding harmonious pairings.

I highly, I mean *highly*, recommend this book to anyone in the wine or food industries, or really just anyone who loves food or wine. (He just published the Spanish translation, but it’s also available in English and French.) It will help in your understanding of what is going on with flavours and aromas when you’re drinking and eating. And most importantly it will enhance your pleasure when you’re eating and drinking – and who doesn’t want that!  Go get the book – you can’t borrow mine – François signed mine!

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