May 17, 2013

Hockey Hunger - or - Do whisky and food work together?

I'm writing this in the home office about an hour before Game 2, Round 2, Ottawa Senators v. Pittsburgh Penguins. I won't finish it before the game starts, but I'm cautiously optimistic that the Sens will tie the series tonight and the tense fun will continue. It's Friday night of the May long weekend and the neighbourhood is filled with the smells and smoke of early evening BBQ. These folks want to get dinner out of the way before the big game starts. What are they drinking with those sausages, steaks and chicken? That's what I want to know. I'm intrigued by food and drinks and the endless, elusive quest to unearth perfect pairings.
I had a late lunch, so this is my pre-game drink, matched with completely random appetizers which actually don't match at all. Supper could be popcorn - depends on the excitement level of the game.
In Pittsburgh tonight, the sports bars and restaurants with big screens are likely stuffed to overflowing. Game 3 back in Ottawa will entice capacity crowds into dining and drinking establishments all over the area, nowhere more so than Elgin Street. I'm keen on the Sens winning and continuing the journey to the Stanley Cup finals - not just because I live in Ottawa and support the Sens, but because it's great for the local economy. Humans like to celebrate or anticipate or commiserate with food and drink. It's just what we do.

On Sunday I was watching Game 6 of the Toronto Boston series in Montreal with one of my sons and his girlfriend. I counted about 26 big screens in Station des Sports, which might just have outnumbered the patrons. I asked our waiter whether they'd been busy during the Montreal Ottawa series, and you can guess the answer! The excitement of playoff games gets the local hockey fans  eating and drinking - whether it's before the game in the backyard or in a sports bar during a game. Go Sens Go!
So, do we care whether the food and drink matches? Of course we do, whether consciously or not. The beer we were drinking on Sunday gravitated us towards a big plate of chicken wings - this despite the fact that we had eaten a yummy meal a few hours previously.
Mussels for Mother's Day

Cookies and milk, pretzels and beer, scones and tea, Stilton and port.................  It's a well discussed truism that when the beverage and food are in harmony, each is enhanced by the other - just like a great relationship. There's a  perfectly reasonable school of thought that says you should drink what you like, but the process of consciously playing with different foods and drinks leads to a greater awareness of what works and what doesn't work - for you.  
selecting a dessert wine for my tarte aux pommes

As an example, I like certain Sauvignon Blanc, but I'm not going to drink it with slow cooked lamb shanks. By consciously tasting the Sauv Blanc, then tasting the lamb shanks, I know that the wine, although delicious, is too acidic for the sweet, rich, meaty lamb shanks.
In my opinion, the main purpose of an accompanying drink is to refresh. Whether the beverage is cold, hot, alcoholic, fizzy, bitter, sweet, dry or any number of options, it should keep the process of consumption moving forward in an enjoyable fashion.
If you like food and enjoy wine, there's nothing more delightful than finding a perfect match, the kind that enhances both the food and the beverage. Individually they might be great, but together they're fantastic.

Surprisingly, this seldom happens on the bell curve of pairings. Results can range from downright horrid, through OK, really nice, and on and up to "beyond belief". Many are quite fine. The awesome pairings are the ones you remember for years, their perfection levels growing with each reminiscence.
One that springs to mind for me happened in the Burgundian village of Rully in 2006, at a little restaurant named Le Petit Blanc. Here, on a warm summer's evening,  in perfect company, I had the best Boeuf  Bourguignon in the world (it seemed), washed down with a Domaine Joblot Premier Cru Givry.

Burgundian vineyards

Note, however,  the elements of success in that tale - nice location, warm evening, good company, great and local Burgundian food and wine - hard to go wrong!
There are some basic principles about food and wine matching that are worth getting to know. For example, a tart wine can often refresh the palate when eating fatty, rich or salty foods; an off dry wine can take the heat out of spicy foods; if you're eating salty food with a high alcohol wine, the wine will seem more alcoholic. There are many principles, generally addressing aspects of wine like acidity, tannins, oak, flavours, weight and alcohol. Others address the food, and aspects like saltiness, weight, flavours, spiciness, ingredients and cooking methods. A good book that I can recommend is Perfect Pairings by Evan Goldstein.
For a really fun hands on course, I recommend the food and wine pairing course at Algonquin College Sommelier School. I particularly like being invited to judge the pairing exam, on occasion, where I've tasted some stunning successes.

But what of whisky? Does it have a place on the food matching spectrum?
I've never, ever led a wine or whisky tasting without food being on the agenda. Apart from the fact that it makes sense to eat something when sipping alcoholic beverages, the food is part of the educational celebration.
If you accept the basic premise that the accompanying beverage of choice should be primarily refreshing, then it's a bit of a stretch to say that whisky fits the bill. For that reason, I'm never about to start glugging whisky with dinner, unless it's a special occasion like a Burns Supper, and, even then, I'd have a healthy dose of water by its side.

But it's enormous fun experimenting with whisky and small tasting plates, bites of this and slices of that - a conscious journey of culinary trial and error.
I lead whisky tastings in all kinds of different environments. "At home" tastings might be hosted by a culinary genius, just waiting for some hints and ideas to get creative in the kitchen. More often than not, the harried host is relieved to know that foods that work can be easily assembled from grocery store appetizers, cheese counters and bakeries. If the tasting's in a restaurant or club, chefs love to work with initial ideas and suggestions and create fabulous plates with multiple elements.
It all starts with the whisky profile. As with wines, some whiskies are light, while others are full-bodied. Some are or seem sweeter, often from unconverted sugars or extractions from the casks during maturation.

The various aromas and flavours suggest different foods - everything from citrus fruits to rich dried fruits, nuts and spices, grains and toffee, smoky and salty characteristics, candies. Alcohol levels vary from 40% to cask strengths above 60%.
All of these variables suggest possible foods from smoked fish, pates, sausage rolls and soups, through big meaty dishes, various cheeses and relishes that match the whisky profiles, and onto desserts - lemon based, big fudgey affairs, cheesecakes, butter tarts, nutty things and chocolate decadence.
Over the years there have been some notable successes. Smoky/peaty whiskies often work well with smoked fish, but not exclusively. Big smoky whiskies work well with big blue cheeses. Some sweeter, richer whiskies are great with slow cooked meat dishes. Many match up beautifully with desserts. Cheese, as with wine, is very variable. Some combinations work, some don't. Chocolate often works but is very milk and dark specific, depending on the whisky.
In April, I led a whisky tasting in Arnprior to raise some funds for the Optimist Club - an organization to benefit children. The event raised enough to re-equip a kids playground - Go, Arnprior, Go!
The food was all prepared by local volunteers, and some of the pairings were brilliant.

Springbank 10, a whisky with a gentle smoky character, was perfect with a smoked salmon dish. An aged blend, with some salty peat, honey sweetness, and a bit of spice was excellent with a smoked meat concoction. Some wicked chicken wings and a great bourbon spiced each other up to be the favourite pairing for many. The Arran Malt, finished in a Sauternes cask, worked wonders with particular cheeses; and the Lagavulin Distillers Edition, finished in sweet sherry casks was amazing with the best hot sticky toffee pudding concoction I've ever tasted.
At tastings, I remind people that whisky and food is fun, but experimental. We try to do most of the experimentation before guests get involved, so that there are some delightful surprises.
Game 2 is all over. It's hard to win when Sidney Crosby decides to score a hat trick! I'll bet those bars will be filled on Sunday. I'm hoping that the Sens get into some experimentation before game 3, so that we fans can enjoy some delightful surprises.
Go Sens Go!