Contrary to what some of you might believe from this blog I do have quite a few interests beyond food... promise! Strangely though, wherever I turn my head food seems to pop up.
Take science: it is my job and definitely one of my favourite subjects. Apart the many very specialised journals I have to read on the job, I'm an avid reader of NewScientist magazine, simply the coolest "generic" science magazine out there. Strangely it is stuffed with food news, like last week's interview with Harold McGee, that seem to catch my attention more than the pure science stuff. While browsing their news pages of their web-site, for example, I ran into an interesting column on wine-cheese pairing : essentially the juice of the story is that wine-cheese pairing just don't work. But is it true?
The reported experiment comes from a paper describing a study by Bernice Madrigal-Galan and Hildegarde Heymann of the University of California, Davis that will be published in the March issue of the American Journal of Enology and Viticulture. Madrigal-Galan and Heymann offered cheap and expensive versions of four different varietal wine to a panel of expert wine tasters and carried out a tasting session both on the wine alone and together with eight different cheeses. Cheese supressed pretty much all the sensory stimuli wine can give (sourness, astringency, berry flavours, etc) except buttery aroma, probably because cheese contains the molecule responsible for that. One possible explanation proposed for this effect is that cheese protein binds the aroma molecule in wine or that the fat in the cheese may coat the taste buds decreasing the sensibility to wine flavours.
In itself the results are not surprising: repeat the experiment with foods like shellfish, steamed vegetables, or a simple creme brulée and I'd expect similar, though clearly different, results. As every good wine taster knows fats, sugars, acids and strong aromas dramatically impair the ability to distinguish the fine nuances a wine can offer. Professional tasters sample wine on an empty stomach and eat at most a little white bread to cleanse their palate. The more disturbing element you have, the more impaired your ability will be. That's what makes the likes of tomato sauce-based dishes (acid), curries (spice), egg-dishes (fat and protein) and sugary sweets a challenging pair to sommeliers. But does that justify sentences like these?
Next time you are organising a cheese and wine party, don't waste your money on quality wine. Cheese masks the subtle flavours that mark out a good wine, so your guests won't be able to tell that you are serving them cheap stuff.
I doubt it. To anyone who has even a little wine-food pairing experience the statement above (from the newscientist article) is simply balderdash. Cheese might mask the fine flavours of wine but compare the effect of pairing a good Bordeaux Cru Bourgeois and a cheap everyday Cabernet Sauvignon with a good Saint Nectaire cheese and the difference will be evident. The fine aromas might be lost but the pairing with the Cru Bourgeois will be rich, rounded and seductive, while that with the everyday wine will give more of an edgy and rough feeling.
To me a wine-food pairing works not when the food leaves the aromas of the wine perceptible and clear, but rather when the union of the two forms a new pleasing flavour. The realm problem is that the concept of "pleasing flavour" is a deeply personal one. There definitely are some pairing that do not work at all (dry whites with bitter chocolate, heavy reds with shrimps, etc), but those are extreme cases. What might work for me, say Mozzarella di Bufala cheese with Fiano d'Avellino wine, might be unpleasant to the next person.
What really irks me about the article is the underlying different value which is given to cheese and wine: wine is the noble drink, cheese a mere accompanying partner. It would have been interesting to do a reverse experiment, with cheese tasters instead of wine ones: what would have happened? It is not surprising maybe, given where the paper will get published. Still, while both products have a gourmet status, wine is certainly the one most commonly seen as the noble one. Apart Wine's longer shelf-life, is it really so? Both are products of a centenary tradition that relies on skill, knowledge and great starting ingredients to obtain the best of the best. If wine is grape's elixir, then cheese is milk's. And while I do love wine, I could not live without cheese, and so I've decided to keep up cheese's honour: in the next few days this blog will have a series of "Cheesy" posts... stay tuned!