Thursday, 12 November 2009

Foie gras and wine

Foie gras is like Marmite: you either love it or hate it. I love it. There's nothing quite like it. Eating a well cooked piece of foie gras is a semi-religious experience. The creaminess of the texture, the rich, delicate flavour and the way it melts on the tongue is indescribably divine. It's the nearest you can get to sex in food form.

Head chef Olivier Ripert of Le Bouchon Breton brasserie in Old Spitalfields Market is clearly in the 'love it' camp. For the month of November he has devised a menu of five seasonal starters showcasing the versatility of foie gras. Each of the dishes has been paired with a different wine, from Champagne to the more traditional Sauternes.

Never being one to turn down a challenge, I headed to the BB on Wednesday night to take on the whole menu and see which wine pairings worked best, bringing along a chef friend for an expert opinion. We were greeted in true Gallic style by a tall red-headed waiter, who appeared to glide across the tiled floor like a swan. Guiding us to our table, he thrust two glasses of Henriot Champagne - supposedly the Brut 1998, into our hands. After a whirl and a sniff we couldn't work out how this 11-year-old was still so ebullient and youthful. It also seemed to lack the complexity one would expect from vintage Champagne.

The swan soon returned with a further two glasses under his wing. 'This is the 1998' he said triumphantly, placing the flutes on the table in a graceful swoop and gliding off in the direction of the kitchen. The nose showed wonderful maturity and elegance, with an attractive honeyed bouquet and a crisp, rounded palate. It proved an excellent match for the foie gras brioche pairing - the toasty notes in the Champagne complimented the toastiness of the brioche, while the crispness of the Champagne lifted the dish, which could have easily come across too rich. We were off to a promising start.

Still only halfway through course one, we were presented with wine two: Clos Lapeyre Jurancon Sec Vitage Vielh 2005 , which had a zingy nose of freshly squeezed lemons and limes tempered with honeyed notes. Fresh and zippy on the palate it showed both the complexity of age and vigour of youth. Dish one was quickly cleared to make way for course two - Mille Feuille of foie gras with caramelised apple in a Calvados sauce. It was another great match - the apple in the rosti enhancing the citrus in the Jurancon, which had a lovely lip-smacking limey freshness. The foie gras was cooked to perfection - rich and creamy, it paired deliciously with the sweet apple in the dish, while the acidity in the wine cut through the fat brilliantly.

Without noticing, our Champagne had been swept away and replaced with two glasses of liquid gold - Castelnau de Suduiraut Sauternes 2004. Sauternes has always been considered the ultimate pairing for foie gras, its waxy sweet mouthfeel complimenting the rich creaminess of foie gras. On the night it proved the most disappointing match, paired with foie gras and ox tail terrine in a Sauternes jelly. The Sauternes was not necessarily at fault; the ox tail dominated the dish and the foie gras got completely lost. On its own the Sauternes was charming - with marmalade, apricot and orange peel on the nose and a smooth palate of white flowers and honey, but the match fell flat - the sweetness of the Sauternes jarring with the savoury ox tail.

Slightly deflated by the mismatch, we looked forward to dish four - Cassoulet of foie gras with cepes, butternut squash and spinach presented in a tiny black Le Creuset dish. The sommelier had chosen to pair it with Qupe Bien Nacido Cuvée Chardonnay Viognier 2007. Fresh, young, lively and acidic, it cut through the fat of the foie gras and lifted the dish wonderfully. We were both in raptures over this sublime combination - the mushrooms worked so well playing second fiddle to the foie gras in this symphony of flavour.

Four courses and five glasses of wine down, I had to try and find some room for the finale - Tagliatelle of girole mushrooms and foie gras, paired with Vincent Dureiul-Janthial Rully 1er Cru Les Mazieres 2005. The wine was delicious, with a crisp, fresh, apply nose and a rich creamy mouthfeel. Before I'd got my fork into the pasta, the swan had returned with a black truffle the size of walnut. He began shaving slithers onto my plate with vim, treating the truffle with the nonchalance you would a hunk of Tesco Value Cheddar. Of course I didn't want him to stop, so I refrained from lifting my hand until I could no longer see the pasta from beneath the sea of black. Diving in, it proved the epitome of what a good foie gras experience should be - an intense flavour sensation that makes you tilt your head back and close your eyes in the pure pleasure of it all.

Perhaps the beauty of foie gras lies in its exclusivity. The fact that it is saved for special occasions adds to the allure - a taste remembered that you long to experience again. How many days is it until Christmas?

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