FOOD & WINE
by Kermit Lynch
How could it be that a struggling, frustrated musician found himself in Paris in 1974, setting off on a wine-buying trip with an importer and two well-off doctor/connoisseurs? He sat down to eat in a bistro and for the first time in his life confronted a platter of raw oysters. Yes, totally raw and rather large oysters. Yikes! He picked up knife and fork and began slicing off bites from the half-shells—a clumsy affair. When the waiter arrived to take the platter, he stared and stared at it: “Massacre!” he said.
In 1976, on his first visit to Châteauneuf-du-Pape, this same wine buyer had widened his command of French from ten to about thirty words, so menus might as well have been in Chinese. But, at dinner, he spotted the word agneau. Aha, that means lamb, he thought with some relief, so he ordered it. The waiter arrived with a small plate containing a thin slice of something pale and crinkly, obviously a slice of brain. It was an important moment of decision for a guy raised on creamed tuna and peas on toast and what let’s call Spam Variations. “Do I dare to eat brain?” he wondered. Yes, and he liked it. From then on he was ready to take on whatever the French threw at him. Kidneys, snails, tête de veau, ris de veau, lamb testicles . . . bring it on.
A few months later, I traveled to France with Richard Olney, who was received like royalty in the grand châteaux and three-star restaurants. I never picked up my knife or fork before he did. I watched and learned. Then I had the good fortune to befriend Alice Waters, M.F.K. Fisher, Elizabeth David, Lulu Peyraud, Gérard Chave, Maguey Brunier, Patricia Wells—all fabulous home cooks.
However, I have never been one to worry too much about food and wine pairings. I give it some thought, for about a minute or less. First, I tend to think regionally. I’ve always believed that the wine and food of a given region grew up together and go together. Then I ask, what am I in the mood to drink? It’s that simple, and it works for me. Maybe I’m missing a lot, but I find that I am not creative about imagining how a wine and food will complement each other. I’m just not wired that way. At the same time, certain American sommeliers have dazzled me with their inspired, unexpected pairings.
On my buying trips to France and Italy I began to notice that my favorite wine and food marriages were happening at the wineries; that the wine families know very well which dishes bring out the best in their wines.
Artichokes can kill the pleasure of almost any wine, especially reds, but Maguey Brunier at Vieux Télégraphe loves to serve them with the domaine’s white Châteauneuf-du-Pape. She combines little choked artichokes with garlic and a bundle of fresh thyme and cooks that in a mixture of olive oil and whatever vintage of the same white Vieux Télégraphe is being served.
Bouillabaisse has become a popular dish, although in restaurants it has come to mean little more than fish stew. I can’t find a good one in Provence anymore now that Lulu Peyraud at age 94 has retired from complicated recipes. Hers was as fabulous as anything I’ve ever eaten. The family used to drink rosé with it, but one day Richard Olney suggested drawing off a carafe of the cool, fresh, new vintage of their red Bandol from cask! It was so good the whole family converted—red wine with fish, and better young than old.
Aldo Conterno’s wonderful wife, Gemma, was one of my favorite cooks. We’d start with a platter of salami and a glass of Barbera, then some pasta or fonduta with white truffles grated on top. A bowl of fruit on the table? No, Aldo had a bowl of white truffles, during the season. And finally an old Barolo would appear alongside beef stewed in young Barolo.
Is there a better duet than Chablis and oysters? Well, Denis Jamain’s Reuilly “Les Pierres Plates” might rival Chablis. It is Sauvignon blanc from a soil of decomposed oyster shells, much like the soil at Chablis.
When Richard Olney was writing Yquem, he found old menus from ocean liners and top restaurants that presented raw oysters with Yquem. Imagine that. Well, I laughed when he told me, and I’m glad I did, because he invited me up to his hillside abode to give it a try. It works. If you want to boggle some minds, serve your friends raw oysters on a bed of crushed ice alongside a glass of our Domaine de l’Alliance or Château Roûmieu-Lacoste. Surprisingly, the Sauternes have enough acidity to make it work. It is a delicious, unlikely combination.
And during my trips, I learned why Burgundians invented Aligoté. Their starters like snails in butter, parsley, and garlic or their delicious parsleyed ham actually taste better with Aligoté than they do with Montrachet. They massacre a Montrachet, so what a waste of good wine. An Aligoté? Just right.
Now back to Olney. He had a way with lamb shoulder that I have never been able to re-create. While it cooked on top the stove, he’d send me down into his spidery wine cellar to select an old bottle of red Burgundy.
And a final easy little touch that I picked up in Bordeaux. They have good beef there. They grill a nice cut of it and after they flip it over to finish the grilling, they wait for the juice to rise and puddle on top, then they throw on some minced raw shallot. One needn’t serve Bordeaux with it. A bottle of Pallières works, too.