WHOEVER SAID THAT WINE IS NOT VEGETARIAN?
TERESA E. BACCINI
This is not a manifesto against vegetarians, if anything, it’s against teetotallers
The ranks of vegetarians of various stripes are swelling visibly, and they are not always willing to be flexible, because new converts are often more militant than students. At the moment there is something of an epidemic, and if you invite someone to dinner you had better be prepared. I have seen friends blanch when faced with the flat-out rejection of a dish brought proudly to the table, while making a mental inventory of the paucity of vegetarian alternatives in the refrigerator.
Therefore, it is always better to ask before inviting someone. Anyway, a plate of fresh colourful vegetables brightens up the table as much as a vase of flowers. Which in turn could be edible, if chosen specially. The compromise would be a nice salad, with flowers and leaves together, to keep everyone happy. Okay, but what about the wine? It is useless asking around, most argue that wine and vegetables don’t go together, defending their argument with vegetables such as artichokes and fennel. When raw, the one exacerbates any wine, the other flattens it. It would be true, except that in Rome they happily drink Frascati with artichokes “alla giudìa”, albeit cooked rather than raw.
Vegetarians? We all used to be
Actually, a mainly vegetarian diet, like the one we lived on when we were impoverished peasants, has never posed a problem for the consumption of wine. Not for the Piedmontese farmers, who invented the sui generis dip of raw and cooked vegetables in an anchovy and garlic sauce that is the bagna cauda, traditionally paired with a young and spirited Barbera. Nor for those Sicilians, who, like Inspector Montalbano, enjoyed a breakfast of bread, dried black olives and a simple light red wine.
Wine is not only part of our diet, but of our culture. Indeed, it has been part of our gastronomic life since time immemorial; it was a foodstuff before it was an alcoholic drink, and had a complementary role in the construction of our nutritional universe when that was closely linked to the land on which we lived: the right wine for every dish was made from the same land that produced our food. Rather than pairing, we should talk about an alliance of food and wine that has been consolidated over time. In short, it is one thing to simply talk about vegetables and another thing to talk about traditional dishes made only with vegetarian ingredients. Seasoned and cooked, vegetables take on a different state, and their relationship with wine becomes more intriguing; thus, in Emilia, they freely alternate Lambrusco and Bianco di Scandiano to go with erbazzone reggiano (a type of quiche). In Liguria, ravioli di magro and trofie al pesto are served with a Vermentino or a Pigato. And no one would deny a Vespaiolo di Breganze or a light Prosecco to accompany white asparagus from Bassano, with or without eggs.
And what about a nice glass of Calabrian Cirò rosé with fragrant and freshly fried aubergine rissoles? It’s perfect, just like a nice glass of Chianti with...well, with bean soup. Indeed, pulses, much loved by vegetarians, with their powdery consistency and the slightly tannic skins, cry out for a medium-bodied red with good acidity, like a Chianti or Valpolicella.
The Best Pairing
After all, the best pairing is always whatever drives us to seek out the next bite, the next sip, while in our mouths we continue to feel the harmony of our taste sensations. Obviously there are food-wine pairings which have been consolidated by experience and tradition, but the fact remains that the constant evolution of our cuisine continuously feeds this search for pleasure.
I recently made a great impression with a salad of apples, corn salad and goji berries (goji berries are all the rage these days), although I should have opened the meal with a chilled Moscato d'Asti, instead of finishing it, to balance the sweet notes of fruits and vegetables mixed with the slightly bitter aftertaste of berries. Nobody complained, even though the next pairing of the same wine with anchovies “al verde”, a typical Piedmont dish, combined with voluptuous curls of butter, enjoyed the same success, despite the threatening prevalence of salt and cholesterol.
The most important thing is not to be discouraged. Because one thing is certain: there is no reason to banish the pleasure of wine from our table, unless we have a serious health problem. A menu built only on fruit and vegetables can certainly poses some problems for pairing, but it’s also true that not all vegetarians have an absolute prejudice against wine, provided it does not have a high alcohol content. And fortunately, not all of them are subject to vegan orthodoxy, so the presence of eggs or cheese provides some freedom. So it is possible to respond. Personally, I have no prejudices or fundamentalist arguments regarding food and wine pairings.
But we need to recognise that many of the strict rules that arose in the past were based on references to encoded dishes with specific ingredients, prepared in a way that was more or less fixed. In the meantime, recipes have been deconstructed, ingredients have arrived from all over the world, and the sacred cows of cuisine have transformed kitchens into laboratories. It’s no surprise that in the face of the confusion that reigns all around us, some should decide to go back to salad. With help from the nectar of Bacchus.
It should be said that with vegetables, generally, pairing works best through the principle of similarity rather than contrast, at least for vegetables with a tendency towards sweetness. This is basically a time of “uncooked” cuisine. Raw and tender is the motto used in cooking classes. As if to say: avoid cooking in order to save the nutrients in the food and especially avoid cooked fat, source of the much-feared oxidants. This is a trump card both with the health-conscious and the less so. So, unless it is a dish of pasta and beans, or rice and cabbage soup, the most suitable wine is always the one that accompanies the light vegetable-based flavours of these recipes without overwhelming them: more often a white wine than a red, medium-bodied rather than structured, but above all aromatic and even a touch spicy when the recipes in question also are. A Riesling, a Gewürztraminer or a white Collio will not disappoint.
And then the way is clear for spring vegetables, wild herb omelettes, asparagus with various sauces, but avoid matching the wine to the more bitter vegetables. But let’s face it, doesn’t a nice Sicilian fennel and orange salad, enriched perhaps with black olives and, for the less observant, of course, with some strips of salt cod, deserve a big, soft classic Sicilian white made from the Inzolia, Catarratto or Grecanico grapes that enhance all the flavours of the island?