Thursday 9 May 2013

Austerity, wine and toad-in-the-hole

Here we are then, an austerity supper for these challenging times. A good old, bog-standard toad-in-the-hole. And a wine to match.

You might argue that in times of austerity, it is perfectly possible to give up wine altogether, and drink water with your meals. In which case I can only ask – have you been talking to my wife?

In our e-book, Wining & DiningI quote the American writer Adam Gopnik, who said “Dinner with water is dinner for prisoners.” Despite all of this cost-cutting palaver, there must, as CJ says, be wine, and it mustn’t be so foul that it makes your armpits prickle.

So if we are going to adjust our wining and dining to the economic climate, then perhaps we should look first at the assumptions of the wine merchants. Because frankly, it’s no good going on pretending that we are all scarfing down game, lobster, truffles and foie gras. We need to be eating things like sausages, stews and toad-in-the-hole. And we need the wines to match.

When we were told that a glass of wine was our ticket to a sophisticated lifestyle, you can see why the wine trade wanted to associate their product with high living and lavish dishes. But if they want us to treat wine as an everyday drink, then it needs to be matched with everyday food. There is no point in telling us that it goes with Downton-style banquets, or Masterchef “fayne dayning”.

Berry Bros & Rudd are arguably England’s poshest wine merchants. They not only sell wines to match with foie gras, they sell the foie gras itself. Yet they are surprisingly egalitarian in their food and wine matching proposals. You can find cottage pie, meatballs, Irish stew and fishcakes on their pairing listalong with the more predictable wild boar, partridge and lobster.

But others inadvertently reveal their true colours. Waitrose, for example, prickle when they are described as a “middle-class” supermarket, and proudly proclaim their brand price matching against Tesco. Yet they undo it all, by jauntily suggesting of an £8.99 carmenere that you “Try it with roast goose”.

And Majestic Wine still offers more pairings for game (22 wines) than for sausages (12), surely an inaccurate reflection of their hard-strapped customers’ eating habits. 

(Out of sheer mischief, I therefore put “horse” into Majestic’s search box. It actually came back with Sassaiolo Rosso Piceno SuperioreBizarrely, it’s because this wine was supposedly used by Hannibal to rub down his cavalry horses, to give them new vigour. That is presumably some kind of recommendation. Next week in the wine tasting, Vick’s Vapour Rub.)

Tesco themselves match their wines to a game-free diet, probably more representative of their clientele – beef, chicken, lamb, pork, fish and, er… curry. They do have the grace to admit that “Generally wines do not go well with hot, spicy dishes as the heat affects your taste buds” – before proceeding to recommend a couple. 

But we are heading down a rocky road; it’s but a short step from curries to takeaway doner kebabs and layby burgers. Are we really to recommend wines to accompany dishes from the low-rent category? “A nice spicy red which could mask the flavour of a dubious processed meat lasagne”? 

“A crisp rosé which will bring out the best in any Pot Noodle”?

No, far better to stick with traditional British austerity dishes. Like toad-in-the-hole, that combination of meat and Yorkshire pudding, described in an 1861 recipe as employing “bits and pieces of any kind of meat, which are to be had cheapest at night when the day's sale is over." 

Nowadays, you don’t have to wait for the night, you just visit the supermarket, where you get your “bits and pieces of any kind of meat” like it or not. Sausages are typical; an anatomy lesson in a skin.

The last time I cooked this, I bemoaned the fact that  such “bog-standard” dishes rarely featured in merchants’ tasting notes. Then some nice people got in touch from Tanner’s, an independent merchant, to say that they recommended their house Merlot, Pays d’Oc  specifically for toad-in-the-hole, and that despite my misgivings about merlot, they would like me to try a bottle. It is surprisingly easy to persuade us to try wines – merchants, PRs and winemakers please note – and a bottle of the 2011 duly arrived the next day, conveniently not when I was in the toilet. 

And jolly good it was, too. Silky and succulent, with a bit of a finish raising it above run-of-the-mill merlot. And yes, its smooth juiciness does indeed balance the spiciness of a Cumberland sausage. I would say it’s a nicely upholstered sofa of a wine – soft and comfortable if unremarkable. Tanner’s themselves are honest enough to describe it as “a nursery-slope vino”. It certainly won’t frighten any horse. 

This is what we need – wine which is recommended for dishes we actually eat. It cost £7.40 a bottle, but drinks like a couple of quid more. And think how much the toad-in-the-hole has saved over a Waitrose roast goose.



  1. Well, with a name like Tanner, you can't go wrong!

    1. We look forward to hearing from Simon Tesco...


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