MIDDLE EASTERN MAGIC

The magic of food is like fashion; ever changing, ever evolving, exploring new territories, and rediscovering old classics. Food goes hand in hand with wine, a symbiotic relationship. It’s no different from how spices, herbs, flavours combine, enhance, fuse, attract, and partner.

There’s a lot of debate about wine and food pairing – whether it works, whether it’s important, whether we wine people get a bit over - obsessed with the whole subject. But it’s all about playing with flavours, styles, and enhancing the whole experience of enjoying food and drink, in a far more relaxed manner than simply wine tasting.

I’ve always loved the challenge of matching just the right wine, with the right dish, and it’s only when you try it, that you find out how tastes and flavours can blend or clash so dramatically. Having matched up recipes from pretty much everywhere around the globe, the latest one has been a new one for me, since we are working with Iranian cookery school teacher Simi Rezzai - Ghassemi.

Unlike the more heated, feisty flavours of Tunisia, Morocco, India and the Far East, there is a wondrous delicacy, subtlety, and sweet gentleness about Iranian food, and Simi’s cooking. Showcasing some classic dishes from her homeland, we’ve already had a little practice session to pair up the wines. I’ve given up protesting that my job is tough, since no one ever believes me, but this was genuinely a fun learning curve for me.

To tantalise and tempt, here’s a teaser, and some suggestions for those of you who want to explore ideas at home.  The main rule is to keep the wines fragrant, aromatic, juicy, pretty, and evocative, just like the style of the food. Avoid the heaviness of oak in both whites and reds, and as I learnt, gentle, fruity dry roses are also great.

Having said that Simi put me straight to the challenge, with a traditional broth called ‘Osh’, bursting with the heady fragrances of coriander, chives and parsley. I’ve always struggled with drinking wine with soup, it just doesn’t seem to work. But a punchy, lip-smacking, tangy small glass of Fino or Manzanilla sherry does the trick. The popularity of sherry is running high again, so join the revolution. Try La Guita Manzanilla, from the seaside town of Sanlucar de Barrameda, with its blazingly white houses, cobbled streets and seafront tapas bars, where the seafood is about as fresh as it gets. My idea of heaven. Crisp, tangy, with a nutty, salty bite, and searingly dry, it sends a tingle down the spine with its intensity.

Another dish that Simi has created is ‘Kookoo’ a type of Iranian frittata, using more herbs, but also turmeric and walnuts, with the addition of punchy, crunchy barbaries, which bring both sweetness and lemony freshness. Wherever I can, I like to bring in wines from the region, and as Lebanon isn’t a million miles away, I’ve paired this with the zesty fresh, yet alluringly exotic Ixsir Altitudes White, a crisp, citrusy, white, from the Sauvignon and Semillon, enhanced by a dollop of perfumed Viognier and Muscat. Similarly any aromatic, fragrant white, with an off-dry edge would work.

The beauty of Iranian food, like so much in Mediterranean and also Asian cultures, is the aspect of sharing; it’s all about families and friends. Beautifully fragrant rice, delicate saffron and lemon-infused chicken, the most gorgeously pretty of seasonal salads, packed with herbs and embellished with edible flowers, and a little accompaniment of yoghurt with thyme and rose petals. I’ve always loved dry rose wines with Middle Eastern food, in fact with most gently, and more intensely spiced foods. Most dry fruity pinks will work, you need bolder, fleshier New World style for hot dishes, but with the exquisitely tender style of Persian food, lighter, crisp European wines work to.  For this colourful, elegant feast, I’ve picked Chivite Las Fincas 2016, in its stylishly curvy bottle, gossamer pale, and exuding scents and flavours of ripe strawberries and cranberries, fruity, yet characterful, with a lingering citrus finish.

Red wines also work, but they need to be soft, juicy, and velvety, with a lightness of touch. The softness of Pinot Noir works, as does the juicy style of Garnacha, but again, with the opportunity to staying close to Iranian roots, I’ve gone for a smooth, lighter style of  red from neighbouring Turkey, K of Kapadokia 2012, full of gentle, velvety plum and spice character, with a softness of touch. Turkish wines are getting a lot of attention in the wine world these days, and there are some real gems to be discovered, from one of the countries with the oldest heritage of wine production.

By Angela Mount