Master Chef: Home Edition

I've been paying too much attention lately to liquid matters (read: wine!) and not that much to solid ones (food & Hedonist's Gazette!), so I thought that before getting up to my eyebrows in Argentina and Chile, I should finalize a couple of pieces I had started some time ago. This is the first. I don't really watch much television. In fact, I didn't really own a proper TV until about five years ago when my family made me buy a 42-" flat screen with the money I won in a wine tasting competition (yes, that can happen in Spain!). Until then, they just tried to watch a tiny screen that we borrowed from a relative living abroad from the distant sofa. Anyway, even though I haven't seen a single episode myself, I know that the TV show Master Chef has taken Spain by storm, (almost) everybody is watching it, the juries have turned into TV personalities—their restaurants suddenly full—and people are talking about food and cooking. Hooray! It all started with the local version of Hell's Kitchen—I watched the first episode and was ashamed—then Master Chef and now all stations seem very interested in cooking. How original! I hope one of these days we get wine on TV and people get interested...

To me, wine and food go hand in hand—even though I don't think this happens on these television shows—and all my wine friends share a passion for eating well. Some of them even cook! And you know, with all these cooking competitions and food-talk, people start bragging about their perfect dishes. "I'll beat your cooking any day!," I hear someone say. "You don't stand a chance," was the response. "Oh, yeah? Name the place and the jury." The usual suspects get named and that's it, the first Master Chef: Home Edition is ready to rock!

Serious wine aficionados are awfully generous when it comes to sharing their best bottles. After all, not many people really appreciate a rare bottle of Jacky Truchot, a 40-year-old white from Alella or an unheard-of producer from Friuli. So we get together and share our gems. In fact, we are always looking for excuses, visitors in town, birthdays and whatever astral coincidences might happen. And there's nothing better than washing down the delicious dishes that someone is cooking for us with the greatest wines. If someone is willing to do his best at cooking, we should do the same with the wines. Said and done... This is what happened at Ignacio's house one Saturday last November. I hope the second round at the opponent's, whenever that happens, is also worth a write up. We'll see... Some might think it's heresy, but there's nothing wrong with a good beer as an aperitif, and it deals well with olives, pickles and other hard-to-pair foods that are often found as tapas in Spain. Anyway, I was not interested in beer until a few years ago when I had one of the first Spanish craft beers from the Valencia region. Yep, the craft beer movement is also catching up in Spain, only 20 odd years after microbreweries appeared in the States. Since then I've learned a little and I now (more or less) understand the different styles. I favor fresh, blond beers—I can have a heavy Stout from time to time, the same as I might enjoy a powerful concentrated wine with some red meat or a heavy stew—and I've come to the conclusion that one of the best styles for an aperitif is a Saison. To me, the number one in the style is without a doubt the Saison Dupont, which I buy in 75cl. bottles with cage and cork like a sparkling wine, but at around €5 per bottle! It has aromas of yeast and cereals, a sour touch of lemon curd, white pepper, balsamic herbs, it's refreshing with a creamy texture because of the abundant, tiny bubbles, and it worked perfectly while people sat down and things got started.

Apparently some of the guests had shared a very poor sea bass ceviche in a restaurant a mere couple of days before, so the first dish was a kind of internal joke between them, a sea bass ceviche! The secret to a great ceviche is the freshness of the fish. The sea bass here was ultra-fresh, with great texture and a little spiciness. It was perfect for the first wine, the 1977 Coulée de Serrant, produced by Nicolas Joly's mother, as it clearly says on the label (well, it says Madame Joly, it doesn't really mention Nicolas). It was ready and open for business. Clean and pure, with no reduction whatsoever, it showed a beautiful golden color and notes of honey, lanolin, crushed rocks and a superb, delineated palate with clean, piercing acidity. I remember some great bottles of Coulée de Serrant from the 1980s, but I don't ever remember drinking any this old. This 1977 for sure confirms Curnorsky's idea that the Coulée de Serrant is one of the greatest white wine vineyards from France. The next dish made me think that the 1970s film about Pearl Harbor was called Toro! Toro! Toro! as it was a superb carpaccio of tuna belly (toro), disguised as if it was Ibérico ham, and spiced up with some kefir lime, cilantro, coarse sea salt, sesame oil, soya and green Tabasco. Well the dish was first class, the film was in reality called Tora! Tora! Tora!, and we opened the next bottle as glasses were suddenly empty. With the raw fish we could have had a Riesling, but it was a white Burgundy, the 2002 Meursault 1er Cru Les Genevrières from François Jobard, one of my favorite white Burgundy producers who used to craft crisp and delineated wines like this one, super mineral, fresh, pure and transparent, with some iodine, sea salt and rain water notes that matched the red tuna perfectly. Unfortunately François has retired and I feel his son Antoine has somehow changed the profile of the wines to something less austere. To start with, he has a fully modern label now, instead of the ultra-traditional one from his father... Anyway, the bottle was downed in a wink.

The umami-driven Thai soup was really a traditional Spanish fish soup with a reddish, thick fish broth with all the flavor from the heads of the carabineros, those huge purple prawns (sorry, I couldn't find an English name for them, so I'll give you the scientific, Latin one, in case you want to look it up, aristaeopsis edwardsiana). Besides the Thai noodles and the carabinero tails, a hot, spicy touch and some spearmint called for something fresh but powerful, able to handle the deep, pungent marine flavors. I am convinced the wines aged under yeasts, the biological Sherries or the jaunes from Jura are full of umami. And they work very well with food.

For sure the 1985 Vin Jaune from Tissot that we had with the soup screamed umami with its broth-y character and its aromas of morels, curry and (rancid?) nuts. It was super intense with high acidity and pungent flavors that developed in a roasted, toffee way. The bottle had been opened the day before as often vin jaune needs lots of air. The only problem with these wines is that they come in a 62 cl. bottle, way too small!

Small red piquillo peppers stuffed with codfish are a Spanish specialty, but these came with a tomato confit and some squid-ink that gave them a different twist, the tomato providing freshness and acidity, the ink more body and flavor. The bottle of 1999 Gevrey-Chambertin Combe-dus-Dessus from Denis Mortet, a village wine carrying the name of the vineyards that produced it, a lieu dit, has Mortet's signature imprinted on it even more so than the Gevrey character. It was a bit cloudy, slightly animal, with aromas of red fruit, roasted sesame seeds, earthy notes with a smoky personality with a fresh note of blood oranges towards the end. It was good, and others liked it more than me. I'm going to try to explain the next dish, a totally new creation from our friend, who mixed sea flavors with earthy ones, as he came up with the most unusual combination where ingredients were really matching in texture. The name? Let's call it Kokotxas and boletus. Yeah, both words are in italics, so I'll have to explain them to you, as even a Spanish speaker might have problems with the Basque spelling of cococha, and even then they might not really know what this is. It's a small, fleshy part of the jaw of some fish that is considered a delicacy. They are traditionally from hake, but you can also find them in cod and other fish. They are really gelatinous, and cooked in a pil-pil sauce (oh, my God! Another one that needs explanation!), they release the gelatin that is emulsified with the oil and create a gooey texture that perfectly matches the consistency of the boletus mushrooms and he made it all one dish. Boletus are black mushrooms, known in Spain with the first bit of their Latin name (sorry guys!), boletus edulis, called funghi porcini in Italian. Cocochas need to be ultra fresh, clean, and there's only one in each fish, so you need a lot of fish to be able to cook them for a large party. And they are expensive. Really expensive!

This sudden combination of surf and turf needed something powerful, so the Valdespino Amontillado S.S.S. was popped. I cannot tell you how old this Sherry was, and I asked Valdespino's winemaker and he didn't know the wine at all. The label and bottle—and of course the wine—are clearly very old. It showed an amber color with a greenish rim, pure essence of hazelnuts with a whiff of varnish, slightly off-sweet. Intense, very intense.

Equally intense was the next dish. The host had even bought tiny Le Creuset pans to serve the soup. Someone whispered to Jorge (the other contender): "well, you still have truffles and caviar..." It all went to hell for him as the lids from the small pans where removed to reveal a yummy looking chicken soup, on top of which generous portions of white truffle were instantly shaved with a mandolin. "Well... you still have live baby eels (angulas)," I said looking at the poor guy's face. The thick soup, I'd call it a cassoulet instead (perhaps not the most orthodox of names, but what the hell), might have had some morels in it, parsnip purée, capers and for sure black truffles, with their burnt seeds, earthy, volatile and white chocolate aromas. The Sherry was perfect with the dish but it soon ran out and so the next bottle was needed. It happened to be a 2008 Corton-Bressandes Grand Cru from Lucien Le Moine which was very smoky (it somehow reminded me of the Mortet), with aromas of roasted sesame seeds, but quite fresh in the palate with flavors of pomegranate and blood orange really in need of more time to absorb the oak. It was very spicy, with aromas of curry, somehow elegant, with spiced cherries, cola nuts, nutmeg and cinnamon. Had it been a little bit older and had it developed its tertiary aromas, it would have been a better match for the partridge with chocolate.

But that was handled with style by the 1985 Château Belair, a Saint-Émilion Grand Cru Classée B. I must say that like Pascal Delbec's wines, they give me pleasure, they are often elegant and refined, and this one had the telltale notes of a properly-aged Bordeaux, cherries, tea leafs, mint, aniseed, paprika, hints of leather and fully-resolved tannins. It was light and fresh, fluid, so easy to drink, a really elegant wine, not a blockbuster, but it had the acidity to stand up to the dish. The partridge? It was marked by the notes of bitter chocolate and had a gamey flavor that was very intense and... satisfying!

We were, of course, getting quite full by then, and I must confess I don't quite understand what I scribbled in my notebook about the superb, yummy chocolate and banana tart, but banana and chocolate go down like a lead zeppelin, and this one (I suspect the chocolate might have been from Valrhona, my favorite shop in the village of Tain l'Hermitage in the Rhône) was so rich and intense that it almost killed the 1850 Madeira Verdelho from the Companhia Vinicola da Madeira, which was good but had probably seen better days and was kind of fading a bit.

It was a long time ago that I learnt from wise friends that the perfect way to end a copious meal like this and refresh your palate was with a good bottle of Riesling. We were very unlucky with that, as we got two corked bottles, a 1976 and a 1983 Auslese from Prüm (was it 83 or 85? Well, it doesn't really matter, it was sadly painful to see it going down the drain...), until we got a sound 1993, the easy to remember Eitelsbacher Karthäuserhoff Riesling Auslese, one of my favorite producers in the Ruwer valley, the small tributary to the Mosel in Germany, which showed beautiful aromas of dried herbs, lime and mint, refreshing with integrated sugar, slightly tannic (!) with balanced acidity developing some notes of peach and a more minty character during the brief time that it stayed in our glasses.

It was close to 7:00 p.m., a very civilized time to finish lunch (on the weekend, of course), and out came a bottle of a truly rare malt whisky, a cask strength 1978 Port Ellen, from a distillery that does not exist anymore on the island of Islay. Smoky and peaty, warm but not hot ("time takes the flame away but leaves the warmth," or something like that, I remember reading many years ago while visiting Scotland and learning a bit about malts), with notes of flowers, very subtle but at the same time intense. One of those perfect meditation nightcaps.

When it comes to the actual objective of the whole thing, I think that in the end he had cheated a bit, as his mother had cooked the partridges and baked the banana cake, but we had a hell of a lunch, with superb wines and even better camaraderie. So, can he cook? Oh, yes, he can! Second round to be scheduled soon...

The Saison Dupont and the Port Ellen were so good that I was tempted to rate them both in the high 90s, but then I thought that would seem a bit funny, so I removed them from the list. But if you're after a refreshing beer and a smoky, powerful malt, those are your names...

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