Food & Wine Pros | Matching wine and fusion food

Food & Wine Pros

Matching wine and fusion food

It has been both the handicap and the saving grace of the English-speaking countries not to have a recognised centuries-long gastronomic tradition behind them. Settlers and colonists brought their own food customs with them to what became the British dominions.

In the postmodern era, this has meant that a gastronomic scene – particularly in the southern hemisphere – has been evolved more or less ex nihilo, drawing to a little extent on developments on the western seaboard of the United States, but mobilising whatever ingredients and raw materials nature has bequeathed to these territories, as well as those that have found themselves creatively implanted there.

New Zealand started with a particularly blank slate. Another thousand miles or so further from southeast Asia than is Australia, so that the lemongrass and galangal of the spice-scented Sydney harbourfront has largely blown away on the oceanic winds by the time it hits the North Island, there is nonetheless an emergent and thriving fusion movement. The country’s wine industry is also in its comparative infancy when set against its neighbour’s, and yet its ascent to world class is nowhere in dispute. A taste of what’s going on came to Brighton in late September, in the form of a dinner cooked by the king of the Kiwi culinary arts, Ross Burden, accompanied by wines supplied by New Zealand’s most consistently bemedalled producer, Villa Maria. The venue was the local branch of the boutique hotel chain, myhotel, where the main restaurant, Zilli Brasserie (above) boasts a menu devised by Italian fishmeister Aldo Zilli.

Here was a chance for reflex sceptics such as me to find out whether the fruit-fuelled style of these varietals is quite as sympathetic to food as is claimed.

We began with a dish that paired two shellfish – scallops coated in five-spice seasoning alongside lightly battered fritters of paua, a New Zealand mollusc that is a close cousin of the rock-dwelling abalone, and comes in a gorgeous iridescent shell. The plate was further garnished with a sweet pure of nectarine and mango, and some micro-leaves in a saffron-tinged dressing.

A pair of wines was offered here, Villa Maria Reserve Clifford Bay Sauvignon Blanc 2007 and the Single Vineyard Fletcher Chardonnay 2005. The Sauvignon, extravagantly endowed with the kind of dizzying fruit levels (blackcurrant, lime, red pepper, grated carrot) that can exhaust the palate after a glass or two, was a little more sympathetic to the inherent sweetness of scallops, and of course lapped up the fruit pure, but went supermodel-thin and sulky with the paua fritters.

On the other hand, the Chardonnay, a Burgundian effort that had benefited from 12 months in oak and a couple of years’ bottle-age, was a superb match. Its gentle acidity just cut the batter of the fritters, but was sublime with the five-spice seasoning on the scallops, which brought out all the nutmeggy, cinnamony spice in the wine’s oak.

Our main course was lamb (but of course), a large, thick slice of the rare-cooked saddle stuffed with spinach, served with a hefty croquette of kumara, an indigenous, white-fleshed sweet potato, and a tamarillo poached like a dessert pear in red wine and cinnamon. The plate was strewn with slivers of eloquently flavoured wild mushrooms and broad beans.

The wine alternatives here were the Villa Maria Cellar Selection Pinot Noir 2007 and the Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon-Merlot 2005, which also contains a 15% dose of Malbec. The Pinot, not perhaps a natural choice with lamb, was classically big, alcoholic and full of the crunchy cherry acidity of a relatively unevolved wine. It made a good foil for the garlicky spinach stuffing and was wonderful with the mushrooms (as indeed an earthy burgundy often is), and it stood up reasonably well with the meat. An earlier vintage might have shown its paces more confidently than this relative youngster did.

With the Bordeaux blend, the match gestured in the right direction, the lamb bringing some of the claretty austerity out of the wine, but there was one fundamental flaw here. Burden’s delicate slow cooking of the lamb had left the meat very pink and soft but sinewy, the fat disappointingly hardly rendered, which seemed to mandate (again) an older, gentler wine than we had. Had the meat been further on, or the wine more supple with bottle-age, the match was an obvious one. As it was, it felt as though they were at opposite ends of the spectrum, pulling in different directions. The point seemed proved when, following its period of air contact in the glass, the wine began to soften and offered the food a belated reconciliation.

The best was saved till last. A simple dessert of frozen passion-fruit mousse (effectively a parfait) on a sponge base, sat in a fruit soup composed of lime and feijoa, the South American native that has become an improbable New Zealand cash-crop, appearing in everything from smoothies to flavoured vodka. With this, we drank Villa Maria's Reserve Noble Riesling 2004, an immaculately balanced wine dripping with marmaladey botrytis.

At first, the match seemed a miss by some way. The egginess of the mousse, not to mention its temperature, brutally neutralised the gorgeous dessert wine. With the sauce, it regained its pride. Each julienne strand of blanched lime zest created a harmonious explosion on the tastebuds with the wine, detonating all the natural-born lime in the Riesling grape in dazzling comet-trails of tingling flavour – possibly the most thrilling food and wine match I’ve come across in the past few years.

Do Try This At Home
You may well find paua in distinctly short supply at your local fishmonger, but the tenderised texture Ross Burden had achieved with it in the first course could well be replicated with thin slices of tuna. Chinese five-spice is easily come by, and its generous dusting on the briefly seared scallops is an idea well worth doing at home.

The breadcrumbed croquette of pured kumara would work just as well with regular sweet potato, for all that you’ll have to put up with its livid orange flesh. Tamarillo, once known as tree tomato, turns up regularly in the exotic fruit sections of supermarkets, and can be treated exactly like a poached pear.

Feijoa may be thinner on the ground. It is sometimes known as the pineapple guava, a composite coinage that references its flavour and appearance respectively. Throw a little of both in the juicer, along with that all-important lime juice, for a passable imitation of Burden’s fine dessert.

Zilli Brasserie is at myhotel, 17 Jubilee Street, Brighton BN1 1GE, tel: 01273 900383.

Stuart Walton is a long-serving food and wine writer, a contributor to the Good Food Guide, and author of The Right Food with the Right Wine.

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