Berry Bros food & wine
Emerging, blinking, from cavernous wine cellars into the fading late afternoon sun in London’s historic St James’s Street is a special experience.
I know this because I did it many times when I used to work at Justerini & Brooks, the venerable fine wine merchant located at 61 St James’s St, half way up on the left hand side.
But this time I found the experience disorientating and slightly troubling. This was partly because my emergence was not from the familiar cellars of J&B but from its well-known and similarly august competitor, Berry Bros & Rudd, further down the street at number 3 (opposite St James’s Palace).
But it was also, I confess, because I’d just enjoyed an eight-course, fourteen-dish lunch washed down with fifteen wines. Before which we’d spent a fully two hours experiencing a gastronomic tour of the senses which, among other things, had involved eight pretty tasty wines.
And I was late for Susie.
I had been invited on the course by Berrys’ impressively proactive marketing team – and I should state from the outset that this was a freebie (all other 15 participants had shelled out the princely sum of £225 each for the pleasure). Which of course was much appreciated, as it allowed me an insight into a course I would otherwise not have been on – but which will not colour the objectivity of the report below.
I was late arriving, the trains from Winchester having decided to take Saturday as a go-slow day (engineering works, apparently – an annoying one-off). But, Berrys’ slick efficiency being what it is, I was ushered discreetly to my seat and could pick up on missed proceedings via my PowerPoint print-out and my amiable neighbour, Tom.
Leading the course was Wine School Manager Rebecca Lamont (funnily enough a fellow Winchester resident). But of course Rebecca hadn’t been delayed: she’d stayed overnight in London and had been setting up since 8am.
With the air of a benign school-mistress, she led us through the ins and outs of wine and food matching in the atmospheric subterranean atmosphere of the Pickering Cellar, beneath Berrys’ historic shop. Each place was laid out with a quite bewildering array of bits and bobs, including four anonymous piles of white powder on a plate, a synchronised swimmer’s nose peg, a blindfold and five shot glasses. Plus three strawberries. The mind – well, mine at least – boggled.
The first exercise involved the nose peg. The idea was to show how, in fact, we don’t “taste” flavour: we smell it. In other words, our tongues can only detect four or five taste sensations: sweet, sour, salt, bitter, umami. (Or so we currently think – there are conflicting theories on this.) What we think we “taste” apart from this is via the process of retro-nasal olfaction, whereby individual aroma molecules pass up the back of the throat into the nasal passage. So it’s our noses that really do the hard work.
Rebecca proved this by getting everyone to taste a pungent Kiwi Sauvignon Blanc with their nose pegs on, or holding their nose. (And this is something you can try at home – if not with wine then a jelly bean or any other flavoured sweet.) Initially, you can sense the acidity and touch of sweetness, but not much else. But then you try again and, this time, with the wine still in your mouth, you let go of your nose or take off the peg. Suddenly, a wave of “flavour” sweeps through your palate: gooseberry, passion fruit, green beans. All of which is your nose suddenly being allowed to do its job.
Things then moved on to the white powders. These, it later turned out, were meant to convey what our tongues can detect. That is, salt, sugar, MSG (umami) and citric acid (sour). (Bitterness wasn’t easy to do…I wonder if they couldn’t get hold of some powdered tannin you find in most modern wineries..?)
I had a go. All were relatively easy to identify blind. The first three were fine (and I quite like MSG, worryingly, but it’s no surprise given my passion for parmesan, truffles etc). The citric acid was a wake-up call, though. Like a thousand lemons bursting onto your tongue. We got that message loud and clear.
Then we tinkered with these sensations, seeing how adding one could affect another. We tried a strawberry on its own, noting acidity, sweetness and flavour. Then we added acidity (lime), which accentuated the sweetness. Salt and MSG were just odd – the combination of these with acid and sweetness was strange (though it was intended to show that these also brought out the sweetness). And as for the pepper – I was just too confused by that stage. But still pretty thrilled at this magical mystery tour of the senses. You just didn’t know what was coming next.
Then we went on to see how bitterness interacts with the other main tastes. This involved the shot glasses, which were dutifully filled with coffee (to the relief of many in the room) by the ultra efficient serving team. The first glass was simply filled with instant coffee grounds, which we merrily crunched on to feel the slight bitterness in the mid- and back-palate. Then we tried the more conventional option involving water, which diluted the bitterness. Then we added sugar, and bitterness ceased to be the most significant flavour. Then we added lime, which also tempered the bitterness, but started to make things slightly surreal. Then the brave added salt, which also diluted the bitterness, but in a way I never want to experience again.
Rebecca took the latter clash of bitterness and salt as an indication of why red wine, with its bitter tannins, doesn’t go with fish. (Though this doesn’t entirely convince me, given that meat can be salty, plus I’ve also read that iron content is a factor. But more of which on another occasion.)
But what was clear by this stage was that these somewhat abstract explorations of the senses are just great fun. Weird. Sometimes gag-making. But fun.
Finally, we were served our first wines. A white and red. Then it was time for the blindfolds. With the help of our neighbour passing us the glass, we had to guess which was white and which red. (You can get a similar effect from tasting out of the opaque Riedel glasses.) It’s always good to do this sort of thing, making yourself focus on what your senses are telling you rather than your assumptions. And it’s true that humans are primarily visual beings: our sense of sight often tends to over-ride other ones. Mercifully, I got it right. As did Tom.
We then went on to try various whites and reds with different foods (smoked salmon, chicken, rare beef, game terrine). I always find juggling lots of wines with lots of dishes quite challenging, but it was intriguing. Not to mention delicious – I particularly enjoyed the Langoa-Barton 1999, the Ridge Lytton Springs Zinfandel and the sumptuous match between the 1999 Nyulaszo Tokaji 6 puttonyos and the tarte tatin. (Though as a criticism I would add that, if you are going to get stuck into this kind of thing, you need generous allocations of each wine, or they tend to run out. Well, mine do anyway.)
By this stage, attentions were clearly wandering and there was a polite buzz about the place. Which led into polite applause when Rebecca concluded the formalities and invited us down to lunch.
We needed no second invitation.
The lunch took place in another cellar, where a long table groaned under the burden of inordinate quantities of impeccable stemware and silver cutlery. (After a brief count, I realised there were 15 wines per person and about 14 courses, and braced myself accordingly.)
There here follows below very brief details on the wines (with bottle prices) and, where appropriate, the dishes they were served with. Apologies for the lack of fuller tasting notes/scores: I was trying to focus on the food matches rather than just the wines themselves. Asterisks denote the most impressive wines.
It’s also worth noting that BBR count on the services of a superb chef.
Berry’s United Kingdom Cuvée, Blanc de Blancs, Grand Cru, Le Mesnil (Champagne) (£24.95) – fresh, classic, moreish.
Louis Roederer “Rich” Champagne (£35.95) – an elegant touch of sugary richness to it but essentially still dry, quite versatile as a result.
Chablis Fourchaume 1er Cru, Domaine Séguinot-Bordet (£17.10) – served with fresh oyster with shallot dressing. The salty fishiness of the oyster worked well with the mineral flavours of the Chablis, but the shallot and vinegar dressing fairly destroyed it otherwise.
*Puligny-Montrachet 2007, Les Folatières 1er Cru, Domaine Alain Chavy (£42) – lovely wine but the poached sole with sauce mousseline is just so light and graceful that the Puligny seems a bit too direct and oaky – the more mouth-coating Corton (see below) actually worked better. And some said the spinach made the wine taste metallic.
*Corton-Charlemagne 2006 Grand Cru, Domaine des Croix (£57.70) – again, delicious wine but the zestiness of the prawn cocktail sauce did jar slightly with this subtle mouth-coating complexity.
Pinot Grigio 2007, Lis Neris, Friuli (£14.95) – I didn’t know Pinot Grigio could be this expensive, albeit a quite subtle and mineral-inflected one. It was also far too light for the mushroom and herb risotto – surely tailor made for the Corton. (Unsurprisingly, I had none left by this stage.)
*Dog Point Sauvignon Blanc 2007, Marlborough (£13.50) – all sweaty peas, honeyed, classic stuff. And the first decent marriage: absolutely sensational with the Thai salad with its fresh pepper, nuts and only very light chilli perfectly matched and offset by the pungent SB flavours and its succulent palate.
*Mountford Estate Pinot Noir 2005, Waipara (£32.50) – yeasty, spicy, smoky. Delightful with a supreme of pheasant with apple and cider sauce. Though I’d probably prefer a more elegant, Burgundian Pinot with more direct acidity and tannin. But, by this stage, it seemed churlish to complain.
Berrys’ Côtes du Rhône Rouge 2007, Domaine Chapoton (£8.95) – sweet fruit, black pepper, rounded and attractively straightforward. With a loin of venison on braised red cabbage, however, it sunk without trace. The Pinot dutifully stepped in (as Pinot tends to do).
*Viña Ardanza Reserva 2000, Rioja (£18.95) – classic cinnamon and vibrant red fruits, a fine match for lamb breast with butternut and caper dressing. (But then Rioja makes a fine match for most things – you can’t really go wrong. Especially not with the brilliant Rioja Alta winery.)
*Château Langoa-Barton 1999, 3ème Cru Classé, St Julien (£39) – it had shone in the food and wine session, and it did so again here. Lively acidity, elegant tobacco and dried fruit development, beautifully mid-weight and svelte – an excellent food wine. As it proved with the boeuf bourgignon.
Santenay Beaurepaire 1er Cru 1985, Sélection Nicolas Potel (£33) – also paired with the boeuf bourgignon but with much less successful results than the claret. It’s just too delicate, evolved and ethereal. Beautiful to drink, though.
*Tokaji 6 Puttonyos 1999, Nyulaszo, Royal Tokaji Wine Company (£68.50) – its previous exquisite pairing with the tarte tatin couldn’t be bettered. And certainly not with cheese, as it was served here.
Malmsey 10-year-old Madeira, Broadbent Selection (£26.35) – fine with the comté. But not with the Roquefort, which dominates it (surprisingly). And nothing goes with the stubborn brie.
“William Pickering” 20-year-old Tawny (£23.50) – it’s on-paper match with choclate délice with milk ice cream sounded fun (as did the coffee and chocolate), but sadly I didn’t get too try them as I was already striding, late yet beaming, up the autumnal avenues of St James’s.
For more details on Berry’s courses, including food and wine matching courses, please click here.