Thursday 1 September 2016

Port wine, Ottolenghi and kitchen pedantry

200ml of Port, said the recipe. So who am I to argue?

Yotam Ottolenghi is a chef known for the lengthy lists of ingredients in his recipes, often requiring miniscule quantities like an eighth of a teaspoon of relatively obscure herbs and spices. This assumes you either have a store cupboard from which you can pluck these pinches and pecks, or that you are going to invest in a whole jar of the ingredient, and hope that you use it again in the future.

But his recipe for Five-spice Pork Belly seemed perfectly feasible. We actually had some Chinese five-spice, along with the requisite garlic, maple syrup, sea salt and sunflower oil. Yes, of course I had 200ml of red wine. “And,” said Mrs K, “You’ve got some port in the cellar, haven’t you?”

Now, just hold on a second. Yes, there is some port in the cellar. There are five remaining bottles of my 33-year-old Vintage Port. They have travelled with me over a half of my life. They will be carefully removed, opened, strained, filtered and decanted on particularly special occasions. And I am not going to open a bottle just so that a little under a quarter of it can be tipped into a sauce.

Would it be stepping outside my jurisdiction to suggest that perhaps, with maple syrup providing a sweet stickiness, and red wine providing fermented grapes, the port is not strictly necessary?

Probably. If a recipe says it needs 200ml of port, then 200ml of port it obviously needs to have. 

There are those who say that recipes are just a guide, that cooking is all about improvisation. I am not of their number. I have seen quite enough incompetent improvisation at the Edinburgh Fringe, and I don’t want it anywhere near my kitchen.

I have also found that when people tell me I can use “alternatives”, my mind goes blank. The idea that you could "use your imagination" surely runs counter to the whole concept of a recipe.

(When Mrs K bought a blender, she said that you can put “anything” into smoothies – and then baulked when I imaginatively suggested sardines.)

But are there people who just happen to have a quarter of a bottle of port hanging around? Who keep port in their store cupboard? And are they the sort of modern, Guardian-reading people who cook Ottolenghi recipes?

There was naught else to do but suggest that we buy an entire bottle, just in order to add the requisite 200ml to the recipe.

It is hard for me to buy a bottle of wine, of any kind, without an eagerness to drink it. Even if it’s a gift, I use my own desire to consume it as a measure of whether it is worth buying. But there is no way I am going to drink a bottle of port in midsummer. This is for cooking.
It can therefore, I assume, be a pretty basic bottle of port.

(Unlike Mr Ottolenghi's nit-picking approach to herbs and spices, there is no indication of the type of port he recommends. Tawny? Aged Tawny? Colheita? LBV? Vintage? Funny, isn't it, how many chefs who would specify a type of potato or a nationality of olive ignore the specifics of wine…) 

The most basic bottle of port I could find is a Ruby Port. Not LBV, not even Fine Ruby. It’s what my father-in-law calls “Grocer’s Port”. And it cost £7, which to me is a ridiculously low price for a port, but a ridiculously high price for an ingredient.

Now, it needs to be said that the recipe was a massive success. Fabulous. That's thanks to Mr Ottolenghi’s recipe, Mrs K’s culinary skills, and my own legendarily helpful kitchen pedantry. (“That is not a slotted spoon; those are circular holes, not slots.”)

Soft, sticky, rich and sweet. That was the pork – but not the port.

Because I thought, in traditional manner, I would have some port with cheese afterwards. I was not sure this port merited a decanter. I was horrified to find that it barely merited a glass.

Far from the anticipated raisiny richness, it is shallow, bitter and nasty. It’s a red wine with 20% alcohol, whose closest resemblance to port is that it leaves your lips sticky. It is so far from the experience of what I consider proper port that it is like drinking champagne without bubbles.

So it is not something I’m going to return to as a drink; it will not even be dignified with a place in my cellar; it will have to join the herbs and spices in the kitchen store cupboard. And there it will remain, awaiting the second time in my life that I find a recipe requires port.



  1. It's a shame that the port was no good to drink. Especially in British supermarkets, you often find something rather good in the lower ranges.

    Traditionalists may not agree with me but I find port - that is, chilled port - to be a fine summer drink...!

    1. Sadly I think you would have to chill this one to the point of numbness…


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