I love cookbooks. Reading them, cooking from them, collecting them. The neat Cookbook Corner in my kitchen has descended rapidly to various towering piles reminiscent of a university professor. To my mind, the best cookbooks are ones that tell a narrative. I want to understand the reason someone’s devoted their time to constructing the book, its recipes, and why – I want to be invested in it. Understanding a cook’s connection to the food they’re making, seeing the admiration and love they have for their vocation, hobby, or history brings what would otherwise be an instruction manual to life. You don’t buy a Haynes book for the design history of the Ford Cortina.
In this post I wanted to share a couple of wine-related books that I’ve enjoyed in the past few months. In my quest to become more knowledgeable about wine, I sought out a few writers on the subject. Not wanting to jump straight into Jancis Robinson (1,200 pages of Wine Grapes is too much of a personal hurdle at the moment), I decided to start simply with something fairly familiar. My main focus for improving my knowledge about wine is because I eat and cook a lot, and have been relatively safe in “pairing” (the inverted commas because it’s more a question of what I have open / in the wine rack / feel like) without much more thought behind it.
Until recently attending food and wine tastings for special occasions, I honestly thought that wine didn’t really add much to a meal apart form being an enjoyable beverage in either red, pink or white, and some are stronger or fruitier than others. I can remember realising that wine could bring out new flavours in food when eating a special holiday meal at the Gramercy Tavern, New York. As a firm believer in visiting nice restaurants at lunch times, my partner and I enjoyed the tasting menu on a rainy last afternoon in NYC. Before the pasta course (spinach tortellini with maitake mushrooms and pickled ramps), the sommelier brought out a red wine, Ar Pe Pe Nebbiolo “Stella Retica” 2006. Shouldn’t it be a white for vegetable dishes..? Just roll with it.
I can actually remember the mineral freshness of that red wine, something I’d never really expected from a lifetime of swilling Malbec because I knew it was nice and didn’t want to risk parting ways with a lot of cash for anything else. I can also very distinctly recall the difference between eating the dish alone, and after a sip of that Nebbiolo. The heightened earthiness of the spinach and mushroom, the pickles sang, and still a hint of distinct red fruit flavour. Eyes opened, it was time to return home and immediately research what else I’d been missing out on.
As a first foray, Marissa A. Ross’s “Wine. All The Time” is a fantastic introduction to the world of wine for those who, like me, felt completely at sea. Marissa, a wine columnist for Bon Appetit magazine, has written an incredibly approachable, unpretentious, and still massively informative book packed with knowledge. It’s so reassuring to the new reader that she has only relatively recently come to the world of wine, and takes you through her libatious history in a funny and extremely relatable fashion. It’s not a definitive encyclopaedia of all the different types of wine that you’ll encounter (nor is it intended to be), this book has been written with the enthusiast in mind – something that just shines through each page. It’s packed with spot on cultural references, diagrams, and activities (mainly circulating around drinking wine, in the interests of academia). I devoured it within two days and was actually disappointed when I got to the end. So I read it again.
Marissa brings so much humour and yet, it’s all underpinned by solid knowledge and experience. Reading her feed on Twitter and Instagram, there are of course utter snores who think wine should be taken seriously and that her “Ross Test” (seeing how the wine tastes by swigging straight from the bottle) is ridiculous and she shouldn’t be successful. That’s a load of crap. She’s having a great time, which is surely what any hobby or interest should be about – particularly if you’re then lucky enough to build that into a career. This is a book written by someone who discovered how magical wine can be, even just by having the confidence to branch out of your normal Cab Sauv habit or spending a little bit more as a treat, and is just incredibly excited to encourage others to have that experience. You don’t have to be able to pick up the finer notes in a Chateau Lafite to be able to appreciate a good wine, and talk about it. After reading it (in July) I’d already earmarked it as a Christmas present for a friend, and if you know anyone who’s ever uttered the words “I wish I knew a bit more about this wine thing”, add to cart immediately.
Already feeling armed with confidence, I heard positive soundings about The Wine Dine Dictionary (Victoria Moore). This is written in a reference style – not quite the Larousse Gastronomique but set in a similar fashion. It’s best as a “dipping” book rather than one to read cover to cover – after getting the hang of the layout and how things work, reading a few sections of interest, I tend to use it when planning a meal or before going out to eat to see what wine might go best. It’s brilliantly done, first matching foods to wine (noting which ingredients are considered “Game Changers” – i.e., like lemons or chillies, flavours that would dominate the dish more than the main protein or ingredient), and then wines to food. It’s interspersed with a few recipes too, and Victoria (the wine critic for The Telegraph) again has an approachable, relaxed style. The Wine Dine Dictionary has quickly become one of my most used books in the kitchen, but also if I hear about a certain wine or food, I might pick it up to flick through and read that entry. A brilliant idea, and so far it’s been bang on the money every time. I actually bought a second copy for a fellow wine enthusiast at work who I’d picked in the office Secret Santa. Rather than buying her wine (which, by a colleague’s admission, everyone did), I gifted this. Tried, tested, and different from the norm – new friend made.
So, any other recommendations?