What Grows Together Goes Together
It is an expression used by chefs and wine lovers alike. “What grows together, goes together.” The phrase can be interpreted in three ways.
First consider seasonality. Foods that appear at the market at the same time give rise to many classic dishes. In the spring we have the confluence of strawberries and rhubarb. It does not take culinary genius to combine them in a pie or compote. Peas and asparagus are part of the spring time bounty so it’s not surprising to find them harmoniously paired in risotto. Corn and shell beans are at their flavor peak in August so it is logical to pair them in succotash. The late summer and early fall gives rise to an abundance of peppers, tomatoes and eggplant, all at their best. Thus many Mediterranean countries combine this vegetable trio in a signature dish, ratatouille in France, escalibada in Spain, briam in Greece, turlu in Turkey and mishwiya in North Africa. Winter pumpkin and greens are paired in Moroccan tagines, in gratins in Provence and in tortas and pastas in Italy. These foods that grow together seasonally go together beautifully. Nature is the chef to help the harmony happen
The second interpretation of the phrase leads us to terroir: the way foods and wines express the soil, climate and topography of a region. Not only wine but even food makes claims to terroir. Does Vermont maple syrup taste different than the syrups from Canada? The folks in Vermont think so. To those that grow them, a Vidalia onion does not taste like a Maui onion. And a New Jersey tomato does not taste like one from California.
But to continue the analogy let’s consider foods and wines with a sense of place, the same place. What Matt Kramer calls “somewhereness.” One can safely assume that in Piedmont, dishes such as agnolotti del plin or tajarin al sugo were designed to be served with Barolo and Barbaresco, the wines of the region. Chianti is the natural choice for bistecca alla fiorentina. If you were in Marseilles in the summer, eating a rich seafood stew with tomatoes and saffron, you would be served a glass of Provencal rose. And if you were in Spain in Aragon or Navarre and eating a lamb stew al chilindron prepared with local peppers, a glass of Rioja would most likely be on the table. It’s not surprising that Oregon pinot Noir goes well with its local salmon or Cattail Creek lamb. .
Finally there is the matter of culinary tradition. Certain wines are always paired with certain dishes because they come from the same “paese” or region, and therefore have traditionally been served together. You see the food on the plate and your mind goes to the wine that you have tasted with that food for as long as you can remember.
In my previous wine and salumi column, you may have noticed that Spanish wine lovers automatically pair fino sherry with serrano ham, a symphony of sweetness and nuttiness. The French wine lovers serve their rich pates with wines from the Beaujolais region and have foie gras with Sauternes. Folks in Friuli serve Tocai to accompany slices of the local Prosciutto San Daniele while those in Emilia Romagna drink the local Lambrusco with their salumi. These are pairings based on tradition and regionality, firmly imprinted on the countries’ collective taste memory.
So what does this mean for those of us here in this land of abbondanza and whose chef’s mantra is creativity and freedom of culinary expression.? What if we live in a part of the country that has no great local wines, nor a strong food and wine pairing tradition and where the notion of terroir is but a pipe dream? What if the chef does not cook any traditional food, only original creations? Or if he feels the need to combine many different cultures on one plate? ( Maybe that is why the martini is so popular.)
But if we live in a wine crazy community like California, should we drink only California wine? Even the Slow Food mother ship Chez Panisse has, along with it California wine selections, many French and some Italian wines on its list to pair with its California fresh, local and seasonal food. Gruner Veltliner is not grown in Vietnam but that does not stop it from going well with Charles Phan’s food at the Vietnamese restaurant Slanted Door.
The analogy of “what grows together, goes together” holds true in those wine growing regions of the old world, where chefs and families still cook classic cuisine. Even though an International Modern style is making inroads, European countries like France, Spain, Italy and Germany still have strong local wine and food traditions. I like to think that “what grows together, goes together” can be a fall-back position for a sommelier working in a restaurant with traditional dishes on the menu. For most other countries and cuisines all bets are off and the sommelier must take over and make the pairings with the chef’s cuisine without the anchor of collective taste memory or strong culinary tradition to lean on. If you are a sommelier in a contemporary restaurant, one with a menu that may combine the foods of many cultures, you will have to do your homework and taste the dishes along with a variety of wines on the list to create the restaurant’s own terroir.