Michel Roux Jr of London’s Le Gavroche restaurant has put his inherent knowledge of wine and family tradition of cuisine to good use with a book about wine and food matching. FIONA BECKETT learns there is even a good match for a glass of Newcastle Brown.
One of the things that always surprises me about chefs is how little most of them know about wine. You think they’d be constantly tasting the bottles that come in to their restaurants but sometimes there’s only the most tenuous link between what goes on in the kitchen and what’s poured for the customer.
It comes as less of a surprise to find that Michel Roux Jr of London’s Le Gavroche is an exception. Obviously he’s French and comes from an illustrious family of restaurateurs (his father is Albert Roux, his uncle Michel Roux senior). Even so there aren’t many chefs who would have the nerve to put pen to paper on the subject of food and wine matching in such an adventurous way.
Wine has always been a part of the Roux family meal. ‘It’s inbred in Europe. The smell and taste of wine is imprinted on you as as a young child.’ That isn’t typically the case for young British chefs. ‘As a young chef starting out in the UK you’re in a beer and binge-drinking culture. You’re not going to go to a pub with your mates and order a glass of wine. We even get our chefs coming into work with a can of Red Bull.’
He is keen to stress that his book is not for wine experts, nor does he have some scientific system for approaching the subject. ‘Basically it’s all about enjoyment, based on years of tasting.’ The book is an inspiring, approachable recipe book in which wine performs the role of a seasoning. ‘If what you’ve got on your plate needs a squeeze of lemon your wine should do that job. But the last thing you want is an acidic wine to go with a Boeuf Bourguignon. Certain dishes are not complete without a glass of wine. Mackerel cooked with apples, for example, definitely needs a fruity white wine. Water just won’t do.’
He proves his point with a couple of carefully crafted matches from the book. He pairs a spectacularly rich fish dish of red mullet with ceps and red wine sauce with an intensely fruity Daniel Schuster Twin Vineyards Pinot Noir from Central Otago which cuts through the accompanying bone marrow and lifts the whole dish. Then a wickedly indulgent warm rice pudding with banana and spice benefits from the apricot fruit of an ultra-sweet Hopler Trockenbeerenauslese. He could have added the apricot flavour to the recipe but lets the wine do the job.
Roux has a healthy lack of reverence for great wines which he’s quite happy to pair with challenging dishes. His sommelier, François Bertrand, pours a glass of Léon Beyer’s stunning Cuvée des Comtes d’Eguisheim 1990 with some spicy crab cakes served with a squeeze of lime and a ginger and spring onion crème fraîche. The lime and ginger lift the wine but leave the unctuous oiliness that mirrors the richness of the crab.
All quite unorthodox for a Frenchman, I tease. ‘Well the French are chauvinistic about wine,’ he admits. ‘Understandably so. If you live in a rural part of France you obviously drink the local wine. Living in England I’m much more open to New World wines.’ And beers, it appears. I’m greatly struck by one of the more off-the-wall matches – Newcastle Brown and Munster. ‘Aah, Newky Brown,’ rhapsodises Roux. ‘It really does work. You need a really ripe, smelly Munster, not too cold. The dark, rich liquoricey flavour of the beer is perfect with the aniseedy flavour of the cumin. Not that you’d go into a pub in Newcastle and order it.’
One surprising omission in the book is the mention of much red Bordeaux among the wine recommendations. Roux looks slightly sheepish. ‘I love Bordeaux but, yes, I realised when I’d finished the book that I hadn’t made much of a feature of it. It’s a wine I often drink on its own.’
For the main course of my tasting lunch he chose instead a superb Bordeaux blend from Morgenhof in Stellenbosch, which he served with a simple dish of roast lamb with rosemary and garlic. ‘A good wine needs straightforward food. Would it have been a better experience if I’d produced an assiette of lamb with three or four elements such as braised lamb and lamb kidney? I think not. Once you get beyond four or five flavours on the plate you lose the taste of the base ingredient.’
At home he is just as likely to drink New World wine as French. ‘Let me think what we’ve opened at home the past couple of weekends… Last weekend we had the Daniel Schuster Pinot I showed you – an excellent drop of wine that could have matched a Pinot Noir from Burgundy any day. The week before it was an Argentinian Malbec which we opened three hours before the meal. It was unbelievable. Superb. We didn’t realise we’d finished the bottle!’ Other favourites are Champagne (‘especially with Asian food – it’s a wine you can drink right the way through a meal’) and dry sherry.
Good news for Roux fans is that his 14-year-old daughter Emily is already showing signs of following in her father’s and grandfather’s footsteps. ‘We were tasting an Inniskillin ice wine the other day and she was blown away. We let her finish it off in tiny sips over the next fortnight. I don’t know if she’ll be a chef but I think she’ll end up in the hospitality industry. She cooked me a piece of salmon the other day and it was perfect. I couldn’t fault it.’
Matching Food and Wine:
Classic and not so Classic Combinations by Michel Roux Jr is published by Weidenfeld and Nicolson at £20. Le Gavroche is at 43 Upper Brook Street
(+44 (0) 20 7499 1826; www.le-gavroche.co.uk)
Written by Fiona Beckett