Unless someone else is doing it for me there is almost never a day in my life when you don't find me in the kitchen throwing around pans, pots and knives. I like to cook, I love to eat well, and whenever there is time I work my way through recipes or London restaurants. That I also love wine with my food cannot have been lost on you as you are reading this on the Wine Rambler. So you may think nothing when I tell you that last week I was invited to a food and wine pairing dinner. But how about it was matching wine with supermarket ready meals?
First of all I should say that Charlie Bigham, who lured me and a group of food and wine bloggers to a secret location near London Bridge, is not too happy having his food called "ready meals". I will do so nonetheless, because it takes me back to one of the darker secrets in my food life.
Once upon a time in my life I was really excited by ready meals. One of my first memories of coming to England is the impressive range of chilled meals available at supermarkets. Back then I spent way too many way too long days at libraries over mouldy books from the 16th century, so I was excited to try some new category of food that was quick, easy and modern. As I love cooking I never really fell for the dark side, but I tried a range of things until the novelty wore off. After a few utter failures since I have given up on ready meals completely. Even the simplest fresh stir fry beats them all, I thought.
So imagine me at a table, being served six courses made, err, freshly, well, from packages that you can get from Waitrose and Occado. What made this appear interesting was the promise that the food would be paired with wines that the Winesleuth had chosen from the cellars of respected wine merchants Berry Bros & Rudd.
So that explains how I got there. But we still need to explain how Charlie Bigham did. And that is an almost clichéd story of a man looking for a new career, involving all the good bits such as a soul-searching journey to India, working hard and a lucky call to the switchboard of a large company. You can read it all over at the Sunday Times.
And now to food and wine. We tried two wines with each course and as always it was an interesting experience. For instance, we found that neither the Alsace Gewürztraminer nor the 2008 Rioja Blanc went as well with the Green Thai Chicken Curry as the Wild Boy Chardonnay that was originally intended for the Indonesian Chicken Satay. On the other hand Berry's Dry Oloroso Sherry went very well with the Fish Pie - although if I were to serve the Fish Pie to friends who are not adventurous with their wine I'd stick to the other match, the less dominating Vin de Pays des Pyrenees (2007 La Deveze Blanc VV).
As often happens, the jury could not agree on the ideal match for every dish. The Steak and Mushroom Pie pictured at the top of this post, for instance, was served with the 2008 Berry's Paulliac (Jean-Michel Cazes) and the 2009 Berry's Cote Du Rhone (Domaine Chapoton). A minority group, including me, felt that while the Paulliac may still be a little too young it brought more substance to the table than the more approachable, fruit driven Cote du Rhone. With the pie probably my least favourite dish I was quite happy that a good wine took the lead at this pairing.
The wine I found most approachable was an Italian white that competed with Berry's 2008 New Zealand Pinot Noir for our attention as match to the last dish, the Chicken and Mushroom Pie with its delicate tarragon flavour: the 2009 Cornarea Arneis from the Piemont immediately caught my attention with its white flower and pear bouquet - I have smelled pears that smelt less like pear than this wine.
In terms of food the first two dishes were my highlights, Fish Pie and the Indonesian Chicken Satay. The fish pie with its large chunks of salmon and haddock I would have happily accepted in a pub that promises fresh, homemade food. And just smelling the Satay and its peanut aromas convinced me that it had to be better that there was something tasty waiting for us.
More could be said about the dishes and the wine pairing, but I did not want my story to be as straightforward as this. So I used the opportunity to quiz both Charlie Bigham and one of his colleagues about the food. What does it mean when they speak about creating "really delicious, top quality dishes, putting in all the love and attention that you would if you were to cook them yourself"?
As you cannot produce "really delicious, top quality dishes" without good ingredients I started my questions here. The Charlie Bigham promise is that they would not buy any ingredients Charlie would not be happy to cook and eat in his own kitchen. That kind of promise may mean a lot to you when you know and trust the man, but how it is translated into sourcing food on a larger scale? I expected to be given a generic talk about high quality ingredients and perhaps buying organically. Instead I was told: "flavour is king". Using this policy can for instance mean that when they find a non free-range chicken to be tastier (as apparently they did) the Bigham people will source that instead of the free-range alternative.
We discussed this in a little more detail with regards to the fish. Sourcing fish is a complicated business and after the launch of the UK Fish Fight campaign people who buy farmed salmon may get more than a few funny looks. How do Charlie Bigham's source their salmon? According to Charlie he wanted farmed salmon from an area where 1) there is no large wild salmon population (to avoid lice and infections being spread to the wild population); 2) there is a strong current (so that the fish work their muscles); 3) there is deep water (so there is no problem with excrement). Eventually they went for a supplier from the Shetland area who could satisfy their demands, and Charlie argued that the difference to organic farming in the same area was not huge.
Looking at the packaging of Charlie Bigham's food you will find that each dish comes with a very detailed list of ingredients, a list that is free of preservatives or lovely E numbers. Compared to the average ready meal this is a big step ahead. What also sets the brand aside is that there are no instructions for microwaving food. It all goes into the oven or needs a few minutes of pan-frying. Obviously this means a little work for you - more even if you are also cooking your own sides -, but the brand is aimed at those who want a little of the home cooked feeling to their food.
It is probably because of this reason that Charlie Bigham always spoke about the "kitchen" where the food is prepared. When I mentioned this to his colleague George he acknowledged that the operation is now run on a scale that makes it in many ways like a factory - just with the key difference that it involves preparing, chopping and cooking of food by actual people.
It was the resulting home cooked feeling that made the food work for a wine and food pairing dinner.