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Photo: AFP
Photo: AFP

How to combine food and drink

A guide on what elements of a food work with what elements of a drink and how to mix them to create a complex yet balanced flavour

Food is essential in our lives. As are drinks, but not the alcoholic kind. We can’t function if we don’t get good, healthy food and lots of clean drinking water—both are the very foundations of life itself. But what the simple equation of food + water = life leaves out is pleasure.

Pleasure, enjoyment, experience, flavour, taste... These are all additions to the equation that squares up the sum. It is the different between simply surviving, and living. Really living. It is the richness of the experience that makes you feel alive; the strength of the flavour, which allows your senses to be stimulated.

The biggest enemy in the world of flavour is blandness, a lack of flavour. Only occasionally is this a positive: for example, an ice-cold beer on a very hot day. The last thing you want is to chew your way through a highly flavoured ale. All you really want is to quench your thirst, and a cold, mellow, fairly flavourless beer will do the trick. Aside from this one situation, avoid anything bland. You wouldn’t sit through a two-hour film with no storyline, so why subject your taste buds to the same experience?

The second biggest issue with modern-day consumable products is their one-dimensional flavour. This is where a product delivers on one flavour, usually some elements of sweetness, and that’s it. Dull and boring, right? What you really want from anything that you consume is complexity. But what is complexity and what makes it good?

Complexity is when there are layers of flavours in a food or drink. Take a look at a perfume: very few aftershaves or colognes are simply one scent. Most are a tapestry of different aromas woven together, specifically designed to take you on a journey and, as I said earlier, give you an experience.

Food and drink should be the same. But the key to making complexity work is balance. Balance is the skill of the creator, the blender, the chef and the reason why we celebrate these artists so highly. Anyone can put out a blended whisky together, for example. But it takes a real master to do both— continue the work of his or her predecessor and to create their own unique, signature expressions.

Take Jim Beveridge, the master blender of Johnnie Walker. A large part of his job is to ensure that the consistency of the range, which was first developed by Alexander Walker in the 1800s, is maintained. To be the custodian of such big brands as Johnnie Walker Red Label and Johnnie Walker Black Label, two of the world’s biggest selling whiskies (in all categories), isn’t something just anyone can do. What is also not common is the ability to re-engineer expressions (see: the new JW Gold Label) or launch new variants such as the JW XR and the annual Private Collection releases.

This special feature will look at how to enhance your gastronomic experience by combining food and drink. This isn’t as simple as saying “red wine goes with red meat", although there is an element of this in the guide. Such ideals are a starting point, but we are going to dig a little deeper with a focus on a style of drink and why that works well with a certain type of food. From there, we will zoom in on a specific style of that drink, why the elements that make the drink complex and well balanced are a good match for the food and, finally, how best to serve the drink while also keeping an eye on the food and how this might relate in differing styles.

With each of the pairings, there will be a different style of drink matched with a different element of the food. The biggest challenge that anyone doing food-and-drink pairing faces is whether to compliment the flavours in the glass and in the dish, or to contrast them. For example, we are all aware of the truism that I wheeled out earlier: red wine should go with red meat. But what about a sweet white wine with something like venison, which carries sweet tones (and that’s why it is often cooked with fruit). The sweetness of the white wine can highlight the meatiness of the venison, while underscoring the delicate tones hidden within the meat. But enough about venison here...we’ll be looking at that meat in more detail later on.

Along the way, I have been helped by award-winning wine writer Jane Parkinson who was crowned the “2014 Communicator of the Year" by the International Wine and Spirit Competition (IWSC): a huge honour. Jane also has a new book out about wine and food matching called Wine and Food, so who better to guide us through a couple of the wine options!

Joel Harrison is a drinks writer and consultant and co-founder of the website Caskstrength.net. He is on Twitter at @WeHeartWhisky.

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