Bensoir! It's me, Benjamin. I like to eat and drink. And cook. And write.

You may have read stuff I've written elsewhere, but here on my own blog as Ben Viveur I'm liberated from the editorial shackles of others, so pretty much anything goes.

BV is about enjoying real food and drink in the real world. I showcase recipes that taste awesome, but which can be created by mere mortals without the need for tons of specialist equipment and a doctorate in food science. And as a critic I tend to review relaxed establishments that you might visit on a whim without having to sell your first-born, rather than hugely expensive restaurants and style bars in the middle of nowhere with a velvet rope barrier, a stringent dress code and a six-month waiting list!

There's plenty of robust opinion, commentary on the world of food and drink, and lots of swearing, so look away now if you're easily offended. Otherwise, tuck your bib in, fill your glass and turbo-charge your tastebuds. We're going for a ride... Ben Appetit!

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Wine Whine

We take it for granted that it’s pretty easy to buy decent wine these days – certainly compared to the experiences of previous generations.

Armed with a little knowledge and a little money, we can walk into a supermarket or off-license, make relatively well informed decisions and take advantage of the considerable choice available.

Fruity, new-world Merlot in the £6-8 range? You got it. Crisp, dry Chablis to go with that smoked salmon you’re serving as a starter tomorrow? On the bottom shelf – take your pick from these.

What’s probably harder for us these days than it would have been 30 or 40 years ago is buying bad wine. Cheap wine. Wine that your might, perhaps, not want to drink.

‘B-but you are a chap of exceptional taste and discernment’, I can hear the voices saying, ‘Why ever would you want to buy bad wine?’

Fairly obviously, for cooking with. I'll explain why. And buying good bad wine, or rather, buying the right bad wine is trickier than you might think.

Of course, you can use good wine to cook, and there’s nothing necessarily wrong with doing so. If you’ve got a big Claret or Burgundy to drink with a joint of beef, I’d fully expect you to add a generous splash to the meat juices to make your gravy.

But if you’re cooking beef for eight hungry people and the quantity of wine required to make the gravy starts to exceed half a bottle or so, you have to question whether you want to waste expensive wine in the kitchen when you could be drinking it at the table.

I use wine in cooking a lot. Pasta sauces, risotto, casseroles, pot roasts. And after a few years of experimenting I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s just foolhardy to use anything other than the cheapest suitable plonk you can get your hands on. Suitable being the operative word, mind.

In France, they get this. In the Hypermarkets there are little sections for wines that have the right characteristics for cooking but which you wouldn't really want to drink. They often come in square, ribbed plastic bottles. But in England it's a challenge, almost as if people don't want to admit that cheap wine has a use other than as sustenance for tramps.

It's all good

Taste the difference?
I’m the first person to defend wine ‘snobs’ from lazy philistine criticism, but outside the glass, the rules are different and the quality of wine becomes singularly unimportant.

Hell, I’m the kind of person that fusses about the quality of butter or olive oil I use, but the cooking pot is a mighty Dionysian leveller and will barely respect a Ch√Ęteau Lafite Rothschild better than a Tesco’s own-brand Rioja.

There are some who say you shouldn't cook with a wine you wouldn't be happy to drink. And they can fuck right off.  Do they really think they can tell the difference when it's mingling on the stove with garlic, onions and Worcestershire sauce?
I challenge the wine buffs to prove me wrong on this one: Once the wine is absorbed into a sauce, you’ll probably be able to tell if it’s red or white and possibly, just possibly, guess at a grape variety, depending on sweetness, fruitiness, peppery-ness and so on.

But that’s it.

I don’t believe even the most knowledgeable expert would be reliably capable of identifying the region or vintage once the wine is in my pancetta risotto or chicken chasseur – and even I'm wrong, theirs are not the palettes for which I’m cooking on a regular basis.

So, having established that it’s not really worth wasting your drinking wine or paying over the odds for something to cook with, we face the conundrum in the supermarket – that dirt-cheap cooking wine to serve your purpose is actually pretty hard to find, at least at a price significantly lower than wine which is better. (Fairly obviously if a bad wine is the same price as a reasonable wine, you buy the reasonable wine because it gives you additional options viz what to with it!)

The problem is that it’s not just as simple ‘buy any cheap wine’ because most of the cheap ‘wines’ you’ll find on the shelves are aimed not at savvy chefs but at cheap drinkers, and are sweet, weak and sparkling, which makes them unsuitable for most culinary purposes, except possibly some kind of syllabub.

And yet, there are demonstrably acceptable cooking wines available at very low prices (e.g. £2.99 or less) – they just don’t seem to be widely promoted. ‘Acceptable’ will usually mean either a cheap Chardonnay, which is fine for your cheesy and fishy dishes where the acidity will temper the oils, and rough Spanish red which will do for almost everything else.
Be prepared to search high and low for them though. And unless you’re doing the chicken chasseur thing - which can easily require a whole bottle - you’ll probably want to make sure any cooking wine you buy is screw-top rather than corked, which limits the choices further.

(Oh, and if you ever plan to explore the world of wine enemas, you'll want the dry white. Don't ask me how I know, just trust me on this one!)

If you’ve been using drinking-quality wines for cooking, just try my advice for yourself, and if you don’t like it, you can go back to using champagne for blanching cauliflower, or whatever it is you do.

With the money you save, you’ll be able to buy better wine for actually drinking, or invest in other better quality for cooking in areas where you will notice the difference (like buying those long, pointy red peppers rather than the stubby ones),

Or you could even buy me a little present. Like a cheap Spanish red...

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