As I have said many times before, one of the very best things about this blogging lark is the fact that you meet such amazing people. And when you have a food or wine query you no longer have to rely solely on the internet – you have a whole network of well-informed friends who are more than happy to help. And having been on the receiving end of such help a few times I was happy to be able to return the compliment a few weeks ago when Jenni of Pertelote called on some fellow-bloggers for advice. You see, Jenni is getting married soon and she was having trouble deciding on the wines for the reception, so she invited Xochitl, me and our partners over for lunch. The idea was to serve an approximation of the dishes that were to be served at the wedding reception and to taste three each of the white and red wines available at the reception venue (St John) – Jenni reckoned that if there was a significant correlation between our six opinions, she had a sure-fire winner.
So on the appointed Saturday we descended on Jenni’s house and sat down to a lovely relaxed meal. First up was a starter of roasted shallots with soft goat’s cheese and a flat-leaf parsley salad, served with Poilane bread. This was just the most simple and delicious dish – I was in love. The flesh of the shallots had roasted to a soft, sweet paste; the goats cheese was rich, creamy and tangy; and the parsley salad provided just enough freshness and crunch so that the whole dish wasn’t too overwhelming. And of course, the dense and chewy nuttiness of the Poilane bread worked really well with this.
The main course was one of those beautifully simple dishes that really don’t need much adornment, only excellent ingredients: a rack of lamb. This particular specimen was the most delicate shade of pink and absolutely delicious, served with steamed greens, parsley sauce and boiled potatoes. Although I’m usually a lamb-with-mint kinda girl, I must say that I loved the bright green parsley sauce and the lamb was some of the nicest I have tasted.
With these wonderful dishes, we tried three whites and three reds respectively. We tasted them all blind and the results were really interesting – for one, it is so seldom that you formally taste wine with food. Usually it’s strictly no perfume, no toothpaste, and certainly no eating of food that will interfere with your ability to tell the ’66 Lafite Rothschild from the ’65 But as the whole point of this afternoon was to match the food with wine, the usual rules went out of the window. We tried to taste each of the wines before we’d eaten, made notes, then re-tasted them with the food and noted how our opinion had changed. Some of the wines were definitely “tasting wines” they were lovely when tasted on their own, but with food, they were overwhelmed. Other wines were definitely “food wines” - when tasted on their own they had strident rough edges, but with the food they became like docile lambs, edges all smoothed and playing beautifully with the flavours of the food. And in the end, give or take a couple of dissenting opinions, we all agreed that the best matches were the St John house wines – the house white being a French Riesling/Viognier blend and the red a French Syrah/Merlot blend (a steal at £15 each!).
Xochitl and I had volunteered to bring desserts, and Xochitl brought her grandma’s cheese torte – like a cheesecake but, well cheesier. Having had advance warning that this was what she was going to bring, I decided something light and fruity might be in order. And seeing as about the only fruit even remotely in season at that time were pears, I opted for poached pears. My mom had often made poached pears in red wine (wonderful when served lukewarm with thick cream), but I decided on something a little subtler, a little spicier. The recipe was dead easy and absolutely delicious.
SPICY POACHED PEARS (serves 6)
1 cup sugar
3 cups water
1 cup white wine
Juice of 1 lemon
2 pieces of lemon zest, about 5cm long
1 cinnamon stick
1 piece of ginger root about 5cm long, sliced
4 cardamom pods, seeds removed and lightly crushd, pods discarded
6 firm pears – preferably Anjou or Comice (I used Comice)
Place sugar, water, wine, lemon juice, lemon zest, cinnamon stick, ginger and cardamom seeds in a saucepan just large enough to hold all the pears in a single layer.
Bring liquid to the boil, stirring occasionally to dissolve the sugar. Cook for about 5 minutes to allow the spices to flavour the liquid.
Peel the pears. You can core them, but I find them easier to handle if you leave them intact with a stem to pick them up by. Carefully place the pears in the boiling liquid. If necessary, add more water to cover them.
Return the liquid to a boil. Cover the pan and reduce the heat to low. Simmer the pears gently until they are just tender which should take 10-20 minutes depending on how ripe the pears are.
Using a slotted spoon remove the pears from the liquid and set them aside. Increase the heat to high and boil to reduce the liquid to about 2 cups. Strain the sauce, discarding the solids (although I kept the slices of ginger – they were far too delicious to discard!). Place the pears in individual serving dishes and spoon some sauce over each. Finish with a generous dollop of mascarpone in each bowl. You can also serve the pears cold – place the pears in a bowl, pour the sauce over them and cover them before storing in the fridge. The pears will keep 2-3 days and will absorb more flavour from the syrup.