I do most of the cooking in our house. Mrs Ray is by far the better cook, natch, but she can’t stand me peering over her shoulder giving advice. “Are you sure you should put in so much butter?” I’ll ask. “Shouldn’t you be using oil? Is the pan hot enough? Have you seasoned everything? Gosh, don’t you use Maldon salt? Aren’t those onions chopped a bit too fine? Do you really need so much tomato purée? Haven’t you had enough to drink?”
You know the sort of thing. I’m only trying to help but for some reason it bugs the heck out of her. Also, I can never keep quiet about the fact that I deplore how many pots, pans, dishes, spoons, knives, boards, colanders, ladles and what not Mrs R uses to make even the simplest dish. All of which she expects me to wash up.
She, on the other hand, being a busy woman, has far better things to do with her time than supervise me at the stove and so, since I prefer to wash up as I go along, she pretty much leaves me to get on with it.
One culinary point that Marina and I do agree upon, however, is that fine ingredients make fine dishes and crap ones make crap ones. Put cheap supermarket beef in your stew and it’ll taste cheap; put in first-rate butcher’s cuts and it’ll taste first-rate. Ditto the wine. Put lousy plonk in your stew and it’ll taste lousy; slosh in something classy and it’ll taste classy.
And, surely, the fact that cook’s perks allow for a glass or so of booze to whoever is C-in-C at the hob is another reason to make sure you’ve opened something decent. You don’t want to be standing there sweating, drinking Château Piss-Poor. As my dear old pa always said, “There is no more virtue in not minding what you eat and drink than in not minding whom you go to bed with.”
But don’t just use good wine, use appropriate wine. Wine and food have such a strong synergy that I reckon, as far as possible, it makes sense to cook a local dish in a local wine (or beer or spirit, come to that). Added to this is the fact that the terroir of most foods means that the best accompaniment is invariably the local hooch, too.
Oysters from the Bassin de Thau with picpoul de pinet, for example; Crottin de Chavignol goat’s cheese with sancerre; Corsican saucisson de sanglier with earthy nielluccio/sciacerello blends; raclette and fondue with whistle-clean whites from Savoie; boeuf bourguignon with red burgundy, and so on.
Raymond Blanc, my favourite TV chef by far, made a rare error of judgment the other day when in Burgundy: he cooked that other quintessential Burgundian dish, coq au vin, with cabernet sauvignon, the main grape of Bordeaux. Sacré bleu!
As any fule kno, when in Burgundy, do as the Burgundians do and cook your coq au vin in the local pinot noir. Get two bottles, the best you can afford, lob one in the pot and the other in a carafe and drink it alongside the finished dish.
The same goes for cooking with beer. In rain-sodden Ireland the other week, in Dingle, I rustled up some Dublin steak, the first recipe I ever learnt at my darling mother’s knees.
I simply softened some onions and mushrooms; added diced, browned and lightly floured steak along with some brown sugar, salt, pepper, bay leaves and the best part of a bottle of Guinness. I cooked it for 90 minutes in the oven at 180° and, though I say it myself, it was beyond delicious.
And what did we drink with it? Why, Guinness, of course! The silky-smooth black gold matched the dish perfectly, far better than any other beer or, indeed, wine would have done.
A few days later in Scotland’s sun-dappled Isle of Islay, in the shadow of its fabled Bowmore distillery, I found myself digging and scuffling for cockles, winkles, shrimps, mussels, oysters, seaweed (gut weed, to be precise), sorrel and goodness knows what else in the company of the King of the Foragers, John Wright, and River Cottage head chef Gill Meller.
John and I dumped what we found in front of Meller and he set to work making it all palatable. There were many highlights, but top of my pops was Meller’s scallops in wild sorrel sauce, enlivened with several hearty slugs of Bowmore 12 Year Old Single Malt. The smoky, sweet and savoury tang of the whisky could have been made with this dish in mind and so it made complete sense to dispense with the sauvignon blanc and drink a brace of drams alongside. It was an utterly sublime match.
And, much to my astonishment, Meller’s accompanying deep-fried gut weed was something of a triumph, too. Especially after the third dram.
SIX OF THE BEST: Bottles to keep in the kitchen
Lustau Moscatel de Chipiona, 50cl
(£6, Waitrose) Gorgeous for steeping fruit in – and drinking alongside.
2011 Les Dauphins Cotes du Rhone Reserve, 75cl
(£6, Asda) Spicy, peppery and made for braising beef.
Glenfiddich 18 Year Old Single Malt, 70cl
(£40, The Whisky Exchange) Sumptuous stuff, integral to chocolate délice.
2011 Harvey Nichols Fiano, 75cl
(£11, Harvey Nichols) Wonderful with crayfish.
2010 Wakefield Estate Pinot Noir, 75cl £13, Oz Wines)
Ideal for beefing up a tomato ragout.
Bowmore 12 Year Old Single Malt, 70cl
(£33, The Whisky Shop) Islay’s finest malt, the perfect accompaniment to scallops.