A Wine Lover, A Chef, and their Kitchen

My partner (my chef) and I met in a basement kitchen in 2015; since that day we have been on a continuous adventure filled with excitement, discovery, affection and of course plenty of food and wine!

In this love letter to our kitchen, I want to talk about one of our favourite dishes to cook and eat together. We have both spent many an hour fantasising about slow cooked, crispy pork belly, the satisfying pop of biting into a new season, perfectly cooked Jersey Royal and the instant satisfaction as that sweet earthy flavour combines with the rich, salty umami of the pork.

And, of course, we need the perfect wine to complement this most lovely of dishes. The hardest decision I often find myself faced with is not what wine? but which wine? There are many, many wines that would pair beautifully with such a humble and wholesome plate of food, but the real question is what do you like to drink and what are you in the mood for drinking right now.

One of the best pieces of advice I was ever given was from a friend and manager I worked for in a basement beer bar in Toronto many years ago. He said to me “when someone asks you ‘what shall I have’ that really means ‘can you help me make a decision’. Our job is not to recommend our favourite beer but discover what this person really enjoys. Ask them leading questions ‘what do you usually drink/order? What was the last beer you really enjoyed? Do you like something vibrant and zesty or something dark and nutty?” …and so on. This is the ultimate challenge as a wine merchant, sommelier, restaurant owner, waitress, shop attendant, or party host: to pour or recommend something that will awaken the senses in our guest, trigger their memories and perhaps (if we are lucky) spark nostalgia. At home you have the power to choose any wine and food combination. At home you are free to create your own menu and wine pairing – you are chef AND sommelier!

My chef and I decided a few years ago that if we could not afford to purchase quality, high welfare meat then we would simply go without and actually this has proved a great source of inspiration. This philosophy is also reflected in the wines we drink choosing to pour ourselves – and our guests – wines from smaller estates or growers who have a focus on sustainability and are working (certified or not) with an organic and/or biodynamic approach.

For The Pork Belly:

A year after moving out of London – where we had an exceptional butcher friend – we plucked up the courage to explore, a little more thoroughly, our local butcher. Plastered with discount posters and shelves filled with polystyrene trays of chicken thighs we had been sceptical of the quality and welfare standards. However, more shame on us for judging a book by its cover, we discovered to our great joy, that this long-standing family butchers was receiving daily deliveries of whole animals (a rarity now) and many of these were from small local farms of high welfare and some organic.

Now we are regulars and ever since my chef sent me in asking for 2kg of tripe the team of butchers (always the same staff all dressed like they have just stepped out of a Birmingham city 1920s butchers – complete with flat caps and facial hair!) smile and ask ‘and what does the lady want this week?’.

You can buy pork belly strips and in some instances, these can be beneficial but today we have time on our hands and are pining for that succulent satisfying silky fat to rich juicy sweet meat ratio which in our opinion is only achieved when you are working with a large belly piece. You are looking for a roughly 1-2kg pork belly piece, if not on display all proper butchers will be able to produce something from ‘out the back’. We suggest keeping the bones in as this helps with the even cooking of the meat, but it is up to you – removing the bones before purchase will bring the cost down. I should mention now that you will need to purchase your pork belly the day before you wish to eat it for supper.

Once you have your pork at home you will need to brine it. Find a vessel large enough that you will be able to fill it with the brine and fully submerge the pork – we often put another tray on top to stop the belly from floating.

The Brine:

We use a version of the Fergus Henderson recipe because I mean is there a more apt man to turn to regarding all things pig?!

  • 400g golden cane sugar
  • 600g sea salt
  • 12 black peppercorns
  • 3 bay leaves (although I’m normally heavy handed here, 4-5 depending on the size)
  • 4 litres water

Combine all your ingredients in a pot and heat gently, whisking until the sugar has dissolved. Leave to cool.

Once your brine is cool, pour into your selected large brining dish and add the pork belly. Cover and leave to brine, refrigerated, for a minimum of 12 hours.

The Cooking of The Belly:

We like to braise the belly in a stock – you can buy bones/trotters from your local butcher – but you can also roast it.

-to braise: heat your oven to 150’C, pour your stock into a deep dish and submerge the belly, pop the lid on, and cook for approximately 3 hours. Be careful not to over season your stock as your pork will already be beautifully seasoned throughout.

-to roast: heat your oven to 180’C, place onions and carrots in the bottom of a roasting dish, score the skin of the belly, place it on top of the vegetables, rub the skin with a good pinch of coarse sea salt and delicately drizzle with olive or rapeseed oil. Cook for 1.5-2 hours keeping an eye on the skin so that it does not burn.

Once your belly is cooked allow it to cool slightly and then flip it over. You should be able to just pull the bones out – the cooked meat tenderly releasing them. Cut your belly into portions and place under the grill skin side up, to crisp. Make sure your grill pan is sitting roughly in the middle of your oven – if it is too close to the grill it will burn your precious skin. With the braised belly this will take around 20 minutes and with the roasted (if necessary, at all) probably more like 5-10 minutes.

So, with all this cooking in a hot kitchen it is usually at about this time that my chef and I turn to look at each other and one of us smiles suggestively… “wine?”.

One of my most memorable wine discoveries was working in a narrow, continuously busy, full of life, slightly grungy wine bar in Soho. Through the door, behind the heavy curtains and suddenly into a packed room humming with the rhythm of conversation, supported by the guitar riffs from a 1970s rock vinyl, I discovered the true pleasures of Lambrusco.

At The Oxford Wine Company, perched in the Sparkling wines section amongst the Prosecco, you will find Vittorio Graziano’s Fontana dei Boschi Lambrusco. This wine – made using the traditional method – is just bursting with bramble fruit, the foam is soft and creamy and there is a satisfying bounce of acidity which makes it dangerously drinkable. It is the perfect wine to start an evening: dry, fruity, fun and totally full of all the healthy things that exist in wine! Vittorio works organically and biodynamically on his small parcels of vines in Emilia Romagna but is not certified due to the costs involved. He simply wants to show the world how good true Lambrusco can be.

How to serve? Serve it chilled like all sparkling wine, but I would recommend that for this particular Lambrusco you want to be closer to 10°C rather than 5°C. If the wine is too cold it can dull the wonderful fruit flavours and aromas and that would be sacrilege.

Glassware? I am a fan of a stemmed glass! At home I have a selection from tulip flute, coup, Riesling Riedel, French goblet… If I could I would pour this into a classic Zalto Riesling glass BUT alas, I am not yet the mother of a Zalto collection and so I must settle for my knock-off version. The important thing to note here is I have chosen a ‘wine’ glass and not a flute. The aromatics of this Lambrusco are abundant and heavenly, so we need space in our glass for them to spread and surface; choosing a glass with a wider bowl (but not so wide as to lose the fruit) allows us to enjoy this wine in its full glory.

Why does this wine work? Firstly, because I love to drink it but also because the wine is dry with high acidity which awakens the palate and provides a vibrant and refreshing, thirst quenching drink. By this point of dinner prep, we will all most likely have been ‘sampling’ as we go or perhaps popped open something to nibble (it’s usually crisps, cheese or cured meats in our household) and the Lambrusco works because it matches the concentration of these intense, umami flavours. The high acidity and low tannin are food friendly characteristics – meaning it pairs well with a variety of foods. I have often encountered a fear from guests and customers about starting with a red sparkling – they think it will dull their palate for drinks to come. Due to the juicy, bright fruit and low tannin this wine allows us to continue our meal with a great range of options. A glass now just to get our taste buds going…

The Perfect Jersey Royals:

So, now we have our glass of wine in hand it’s time for the potatoes. Every time we cook potatoes in our kitchen my chef exclaims “remember! A boiled potato is a spoiled potato!” This was a revelation for me; it makes a remarkable difference to the end product. Of course, domestic stovetops are not the most reliable for continuous heat (unless you are lucky enough to have induction at home), so it takes a little patience, trial and error and continuous monitoring.

Start by giving your Jersey Royals a gentle bath. The do not need to be scrubbed ferociously and in fact may not need to be scrubbed at all. The purpose of washing is to discard any earth from your potatoes – you want to keep the skin intact because this is what delivers that beautiful texture and nutritious, earthy flavour. Drop your potatoes into cold water and bring up to a gentle simmer. Cooking time will depend on your water temperature and amount of potatoes in your pan, so we recommend using your eye and initiative. Check the potatoes with a metal skewer or sharp knife, when the sharp end slips in then your potatoes are cooked. Trust your instincts and remember that the potato is best when just cooked. Strain off the water, decant the potatoes into a warm bowl and crown with a decent knob of salted butter!

We usually throw a little salad together to accompany, something fresh and easy. Just the other day we had a delightfully simple salad of thinly sliced celery and parsley dressed with salt, pepper, rapeseed oil and lemon zest.

So, you are almost set to retire to your table and feast on your hard labour BUT how much wine is left? My chef and I are usually by this point checking the fridge and wine rack for our next indulgence. Today I would recommend Domaine Richard Rottiers Moulin-a-Vent! This is not your average Beaujolais! Moulin-a-Vent is one of the most well-known of the Beaujolais Crus (of which there are 10) and it is famed for producing deep wines with medium tannin, high acidity and a savoury character to balance its abundance of purple and black fruit. Not the jammy, bright and juicy Beaujolais we are all so accustomed to (and I also have an honest affection for) but something with a more serious side and excellent potential for aging.

How to serve? Serve at room temperature 15°C – 18°C (remember most of our homes run at between 20°C – 24°C so it might be an idea to pop this in the fridge for 20 minutes). Some would recommend a Burgundy glass for such a wine but because I do not own one myself, I have chosen my Riesling Riedels. Space between the wine and the top of the glass helps for capturing the aromas and so if you have a smaller, stockier glass at home I recommend simply pouring yourself a smaller measurement of wine. The space in the glass captures the delicate floral aromas and you are able to enjoy those perfect violet characteristics, those delicate granite-like mineral noes and the layers of blackberry, black cherry, dried raspberry, plum and charcoal… it’s a wine to surrender your senses too.

Why does it work? Beaujolais and Beaujolais-Village is known for its low tannin but here with our Moulin-a-Vent from Rottiers we have more structure and more medium tannin. These tannins are balanced with high acidity and high fruit concentration so in the wine drunk solo the tannin is at harmony. When paired with food tannin can create a bitter, overly umami and unpleasant texture on the palate and this is why high tannin wines can be a challenge in food pairings. The pork has a high fat and high salt content, these characteristics reduce the potential bitter flavours from the tannin in our Beaujolais Cru. The relative high acidity in the wine also compliments our highly seasoned pork belly and so the food and wine become harmonious.

Like I said earlier, food and wine pairings are a VERY personal experience and so always be led by your own desires and knowledge of what you enjoy and take note that we all have a different make up of taste receptors; so a wine pairing for one personal could create emotional fireworks whilst for another it simply works fine. That my friends is the beauty, the adventure, the wonderous world of food and wine!

From my chef and I – Bon appetite! X

For further guidance on the recipes and techniques mentioned please reference:

  • Fergus Henderson’s The Complete Nose to Tail
  • Philip Howard’s The Square The Cookbook: Volume 1, Savoury