It was like a chemistry experiment in my mouth. One of the ones where you mix two things that look entirely harmless and everything suddenly starts going mental. If you don’t know what I mean, mix some bicarbonate of soda with laundry detergent and a bit of water to make a thick solution. Stand back and admire how dull and entirely bereft of action it appears. Now chuck in some vinegar and hide behind the sofa before the resulting explosion takes your head off see how it bubbles a bit. It was a sensation more surprising for being completely unexpected, like biting into an apparently standard chocolate cake and finding that it’s full of popping candy. Bad popping candy. Evil, mouth-assaulting, nasty popping candy.
Just like those chemistry experiments there were two principal ingredients. The first was a daal, an Indian preparation of pulses. On its own it seemed entirely benign, with little discernible chilli heat and instead delivering waves of mellow, gentle fruitfulness. It really was a tremendously good daal. The second was a German pinot noir, or spatburgunder as they have it there, from Bernhard Huber. Again, on its own it was bright, fruity, full of cherry-zapped freshness and low in tannins. But eat some daal and then, when it’s just gone down, sip the wine, and your mouth turns into a fiery cauldron, like you’d accidentally ingested a mouthful of tiny but very wild tannic chilli assault-gnomes.
As I’ve previously said once or twice I’m not one for getting bogged down in the minutiae of wine and food matching, but I do think it’s worth avoiding absolute howlers. The unusual thing about this particular howler, however, is that the food and the wine were served together not, as you might assume, by a total idiot at a backstreet curry house but at a posh dinner at a top restaurant, a dinner designed to illustrate how well German wines match with Indian food (you may recall that not too long ago I wrote about a dinner designed to illustrate how well German wines match with Scandinavian food. You may deduce from this that the German wine people want the world to know how well their wine goes with a variety of cuisines, and you would be right). The location was the Cinnamon Club, round the corner from the Houses of Parliament, and the host was Jeannie Cho Lee, the Hong Kong-based Master (Mistress?) of Wine, who insisted that she would be happy to serve tannic wine with spicy food – so long as the person doing the eating and drinking was used to handling the spice. “It extends the sensation of heat,” she said, “but it’s fine if that’s your kind of thing.” What amazed me, as someone who isn’t used to handling the spice, was that it didn’t just extend the sensation of heat, it created it when none existed previously. This was a serious beverage fail.
The traditional British accompaniment to Indian food is lager, which quenches the thirst well enough but does little to douse the fiery flames caused by the ambitiously-ordered vindaloo. The correct accompaniment to Indian food, at least if you’ve got a slightly shy western palate like my own, is white wine that isn’t dry. Even if you’re having a venison curry, and everything you’ve ever read in the wine-and-food-matching rulebook about drinking wine with venison is screaming RED at you in a shrill voice, white wine goes best. Believe me – I’ve tried it. German labels are all sorts of complicated, but look for a spätlese Riesling, or go French with a demi-sec or a moelleux chenin blanc from Vouvray in the Loire Valley, or a rosé fruité of the sort you get by the pichet-full in unfussy provencal bistrots (but, unhelpfully, not many other places) for a couple of euros.
And if you want to know Jeannie Cho Lee’s basic rules for matching wine with Asian food (and I’ve filtered out absolutely all of the nuance in her detailed and well-thought-through presentation, because if you’re that interested you should just buy her book, or at least check out her website), they are these: 1) Because many Asian meals are composed of loads of different little mini-dishes all consumed at the same time, versatility is key – you can’t hit a nail on the head if you’re aiming at lots of nails and only have one hammer. I’m paraphrasing here, obviously. 2) So pick something cold, white and refreshing and everyone will be happy.