The first Cambridge Food and Wine Society matching event was a few years ago now - for that event, I took a few "classic" food and wine combinations (Sancerre and goat's cheese, roast beef and Bordeaux) and asked people to see if they thought they were a match - that is to say, both the food and the wine were enhanced by being consumed together.
Wine writers frequently seem to claim that food matching is more an art than a science - what I think they mean by this is that you cannot always predict whether a food and wine will match well together ahead of actually pairing them off. I agree with this to some extent but, whilst serendipity has its part to play in producing unexpected matches, with a bit of practice it's not that difficult to hazard a guess at whether a particular wine is going to match with a food.
I sourced the wines for this event from Cambridge Wine Merchants after Hal Wilson, the owner, kindly offered to help out and spent a very pleasant half hour with his Mill Road branch manager on the morning of the event discussing each course and the type of wine I wanted to match it with.
There are a number of ingredients that are inimical to matching with wine - greasy food in particular does not match well with wine, which is why you have Coke with a Big Mac or beer with a Wiener schnitzel. Spicy foods are something of a challenge too, but not impossible if the spice is used more as a seasoning rather than being allowed to overpower the meal.
The first pairing was relatively straightforward and a staple of wine bars everywhere - a pepper salami with a fruity southern French red and was generally agreed to be a reasonable match, although it turned out a later wine proved to be an even better one.
Next came arabbiata - an Italian pasta sauce made with tomatoes, bacon, garlic and chili. Chianti is the classic Italian food wine, but with a budget of around £10 per bottle, we were looking only at something entry level, and decided to opt for a better-value Barbera from the unfashionable (and therefore cheaper) region of Oltrepo Pavese. Both the wine and the arabbiata were excellent, but the sauce needed just a little more kick to go really well with the full, rich wine.
I can't imagine ever having anything but beer with an Indian curry, but Thai curries are a different matter altogether - with coconut, gingery galangal and lemongrass, they are much more wine friendly and match well with a ripe, oaky New World Chardonnay.
Paprika salmon is a traditional Hungarian dish (typically, freshwater catfish is used as Hungary is landlocked) with a sauce made from sour cream, paprika and tomatoes - it is a hearty, calorie-laden stew for peasant labourers with spice but no heat. Sadly, there were no Hungarian reds available, but we matched it with another southern French red, with plenty of fruit and acidity to cut through the heavy cream sauce. The wine, a Carignan from old vines, was ripe, spicy and full and would actually have made a better match for the salami (with the first wine probably more suited to this dish).
This was followed by two Iberian dishes with local wines - a Spanish chicken and chorizo stew with a Rioja (both delicious, but some felt the wine overpowered the stew) and piri piri chicken with a Portuguese red blend containing a fair amount of the food-friendly but non-traditional Cabernet Sauvignon which stood up well to the robust flavours of chili and vinegar.
We finished with two desserts - baklavas (chopped walnuts and pistachios between sheets of filo pastry flavoured with cinnamon) and an apple cake flavoured with vanilla.
Matching these were an award-winning Pedro Ximenez sherry that was full of fig, raisin and dried mixed fruit flavours and was almost a complete dessert in its own right and a very smooth single malt whisky from Speyside, with the lightness and refreshing acidity to cut through both the cake and the baklavas.
Dom. de Cassan Beaumes de Venise 2007, France £10.99
Nostros Chardonnay Gran Reserva 2007, Casablanca Valley, Chile £7.95
Barbera 2008, Cantina di Casteggio, Oltrepo Pavese, Italy £6.99
Mont Rocher Old Vine Carignan 2009 VdP d' Herault, France £7.49
Paternina Reserva Rioja 2004 Banda Roja, Spain £10.99
Esporao Reserva Tinto 2007, Alentejo, Portugal £14.99
Hidalgo Pedro Ximenez Triana, Spain £13.30
Glen Rothes 8yo MacPhails Collection Single Speyside Malt, £25.50
Cambridge Food and Wine Society - http://www.cambridgefoodandwinesociety.org.uk/
Cambridge Wine Merchants - http://www.cambridgewine.com/index.asp