A Loaf of Bread, A Jug of Wine
Copyright 2005 by Robin Garr. All rights reserved. Originally printed March 4, 2005. For more information go to wineloverspage.com
A Book of Verses underneath the Bough,
A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread, - and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness -
Oh, Wilderness were Paradise enow!
- Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam Edward FitzGerald translation, 1858
So familiar is this well-known verse that it only recently occurred to me (while baking the baguettes featured in yesterday's Wine Advisor FoodLetter, in fact) that it incorporates rather dubious food-and-wine matching advice.
What food, what drink can lay claim to be more basic to civilization than bread and wine? Naturally they go together in metaphor and in spirit. But at the dinner table? If we think about bread in connection with wine at all, it's most likely as a side dish, something to push a bite of your main course onto the fork or sop up the gravy. Or served during wine judging to "cleanse the palate" between tastes, chosen specifically because it presumably does not alter one's impression of the wine.
But bread and wine together, playing off each other as a direct food-and-wine pairing? It's not a concept that would occur to the average wine lover. Naturally, once I thought about this, I had to try it. I started my dough rising at lunch time, and by dinner had a pair of pretty reddish-brown baguettes ready to go. Uncorked a good, earthy red Rhone wine, and let the tasting begin!
This wasn't quite as crazy as it sounded. Fresh-baked French bread, made with care and given plenty of time for a slow, cool rise to develop its subtle, sweet-nutty wheaten flavor, is a treat good enough to enjoy contemplatively - not unlike a fine wine - and that's even before you slather on the butter. The wine was on the simple side, but it, too, showed enough subtlety and balance to justify at least a moment's intellectual scrutiny.
Put them together and give them a little attention, and the results were... interesting. The flavors certainly didn't war against each other, nor did either overwhelm the other. One spoke of grain, the other of the grape, but there was no hint of a jelly sandwich in the pairing. The bread certainly didn't wake up or amplify the wine's flavors the way a bit of meat or cheese might have done; if anything, it seemed to provide a neutral backdrop that allowed the wine to show itself exactly as it is. Which may, after all, help explain why bread makes a good palate-cleanser in wine judging.
From the standpoint of sheer hedonistic enjoyment, though, the combination was almost too austere. So I brought out a little Italian mortadella (the original Bologna sausage) and some provolone cheese to go with the bread. Now we were talking! The meat and cheese quickly reminded me what food-and-wine pairing is really all about: The pursuit of culinary combinations that exceed the sum of their parts.
The wine I chose, by the way, is a bit of a stereotype-breaker: A dry, red Beaumes-de-Venise from Domaine de Durban, it's from a village and producer better known for sweet white wine made from Muscat grapes. Despite a name that seems oddly evocative of canals and gondoliers, Beaumes-de-Venise is actually one of the score of communities in the Cotes du Rhone that's permitted to append the village name on the label (as discussed in the Jan. 19, 2005 Wine Advisor). We visited Beaumes-de-Venise during my last tour of the Rhone with French Wine Explorers in 2002, an itinerary that we'll be traveling again in June. For details see Rhone Valley Wine Tour
Like all of its Cotes du Rhone neighbors, Beaumes-de-Venise is permitted to make dry red wines from any of the 13 grape varieties permitted in Chateauneuf-du-Pape, although this one - like most of the genre - seems to be largely Grenache, perhaps with a touch of oak added as the label's subtitle "Cuvee Prestige" suggests.
It went well enough with fresh, warm French bread, but Omar Khayyam to the contrary notwithstanding, I still suggest the meat and cheese option.