Do you know that mastering the art of olfaction can help you achieve the most delightful food and drink pairing?
We all too often put food and drinks together around tastes (sweet, sour, acidic, bitter...) on the one hand and textures (soft, crunchy…) on the other, forgetting that aromas can also be the connecting thread between the wine, coffee or whisky we drink and the dishes we serve. Ideally, it is better to start with the drink when putting together a menu than the other way around.
Try and pair dishes and wine, coffee or whisky that share an aromatic note, a «fragrant gateway» that creates harmony between the glass (or cup) and the plate. It need not be the dominant aromatic element that takes the lead, but a clearly distinct note.
Here are a few examples in three courses:
Food and wine pairing
First course: shrimp, avocado and grapefruit salad
Grapefruit owes its characteristic aroma to nootkatone, a molecule found in both the essential oil extracted from the yellow skin (flavedo) and in the juice. However, the scent of grapefruit always contains a slight trace of sulphur, easy to detect by scratching the pith (albedo). This nuance is probably due to 3-mercaptohexanol and its acetate, which are in effect sulphur compounds evidenced by the Faculty of Oenology of the University of Bordeaux, and which develop in the best Sauvignons.
This note is rarely mentioned by tasters and yet it is easily detected in some excellent fresh, nervy whites. It is found mainly in France’s great sweet wines and quite often in Riesling. It is typical of the Sauvignon grape in Sancerre and Pouilly Fumé and in Sauvignon from California and New Zealand.
Main course: chicken with prunes
Prune is a classic aroma in older red wines and in “muté” (fortified) wines. The aroma of prune is more persistent and smokier than that of plum and it often gives the wine a decidedly attractive robustness.
Very ripe grapes, especially from hot vintages, give this venerable bouquet to heady wines that remind us of summer sunshine. This is why we find this sunny touch in Californian wines and in Australian Syrahs. Wines made from Grenache and from Carignan are particularly inclined to feature prune, as are those made from Auxerrois (or Cot), Cahors’ foremost grape.
Cahors wines offer a kaleidoscope range of flavours of sugar plums, cooked plums and plum jam. Corbières and the most thoroughbred Châteauneuf-du-Papes sometimes carry prune notes.
Dessert: apricot tart
Gamma and delta-decalactone, identified in apricot, can also be found in white wines where they express true scents of apricot. Grapes affected by Botrytis cinerea or wines matured in barrels are likely to reveal these aromas.
An apricot tart will be a perfect match for dry white wines, especially made from the Viognier grape variety, and sweet wines from Bordeaux (Sauternes, Barsac, Loupiac, etc.) and Anjou (in particular Quarts-de-Chaume).
You will get many more ideas of food and wine pairing, browsing through the chapter in the book of Le Nez du Vin that provides dozens of references for all of the 54 aromatic notes of the collection (pp. 66-90).
Food and coffee pairing
Pairing coffee with a savory dish may not be easy, but it is not impossible.
Try for example to serve a blue cheese appetizer biscuit with bitter coffee with walnut aromas, and you may be amazed!
This aroma comes mainly from sotolon, sometimes from acetaldehyde; both have been identified in coffee. It is not found in coffee very often, but it is important to learn to sniff it out in different Brazilian coffees, where it gives a degree of pungency to the nose and palate, appreciated by those who drink it.
Unsurprisingly coffee and chocolate are a good match: many of the same compounds found in both coffee and cocoa, such as thiazoles and pyrazines, contribute to their aroma.
But you will discover in the book of Le Nez du Café that this voluptuous scent only tends to appear in certain areas of production. Eric Verdier, a co-author of the book and a great taster, noted that it was particularly elegant in Hawaiian Konas. It is found in African coffees from the Congo, Uganda and Zimbabwe. In Central and South America, it is unmistakable in Mexican Maragogypes but rare in Colombian coffees.
Whisky and food pairing
Martine Nouet, a writer and journalist specialized in cooking and spirits, now living on the isle of Islay, is highly skilled at the art of delicately harmonizing the essence of dishes with the essence of malt whisky.
She who in April of 2012 became the first French woman Master of the Quaich shares her know-how and experience with Le Nez du Whisky readers. She for instance suggests flavoring a dish with a spice (e.g. cardamom or clove), an herb (aniseed, basil), or a dried fruit or nut (prune, dried apricot, hazelnut) so that their taste resonates like an echo when drinking the whisky. From appetizer to cheese and dessert, she offers several « perfect matches ». Here are a few examples:
First course with a touch of hazelnuts
Fennel and cockle crumble – cockles cooked in a bit of butter and parsley, braised fennel, topped with a crumble of flour, butter, oats and toasted hazelnuts.
With a single malt whisky aged in bourbon casks, with hazelnut notes, or a marine, slightly peaty single malt whisky.
When hazelnuts are toasted, numerous aromatic compounds, largely heterocycles, blend into the hazelnut oil, and produce a very delicate aromatic note, both buttery and caramelized.
In the course of the whisky-making process, mainly during aging in barrels, ketones such as diacetyl, which smells like butter, pyrazines and furane-derived compounds, which account for caramel notes, are formed and are captured by ethyl alcohol.
These compounds remind us of toasted hazelnut and praline.
Main dish with dark chocolate
Medallions of venison in cocoa sauce, with parsnips “au gratin” (oven-grilled) – pan-sautéed medallions of venison, cocoa powder sauce with red wine or port.
With a single malt whisky aged in sherry or port casks.
Cocoa beans are quite bitter and not very fragrant. Before they develop a chocolate aroma, they need to be heated to a temperature close to 140°C for about 45 minutes. During roasting, the Maillard reaction leads to the synthesis of a great many aromatic molecules captured by the fat in the cocoa bean, cocoa butter.
The final cocoa aroma varies according to the origin of the cocoa beans and the roasting process. There are multiple variations of this unrivalled aroma, besides dark and milk chocolate.
The origin of the chocolate note in whisky stems from barrel making and aging.
Dessert with peat aroma
Citrus fruit salad (orange, pomelo, lemon, lime, mandarin, kumquat) enhanced by a whisky granita (made from peaty single malt).
With a peaty or iodized single malt.
Peat is formed by the fossilization of plants caused by microorganisms, at a rate of four to five centimeters per century. It is an intermediary step in the conversion of vegetation into coal. Peat is used in the kilning of green malt, and its combustion smoke gives malt a whole array of aromatic molecules, mostly phenolic compounds. These compounds are taken in by the alcohol that is generated in the fermentation stage, and the whisky takes on a distinctive aroma of peat. Most distilleries of Islay are famous for their traditionally peaty whisky, and many distilleries throughout Scotland now produce both peated and unpeated versions of their single malt whiskies.
Cf the book of Le Nez du Whisky, pp. 139-141.