by Janet Wynne Evans
An update of an article that first appeared in the NEWS in 2007.
Straight to Recipes
A lot of wine has lapped our shores since we last looked at this subject in the NEWS. Try the combinations below for six of the best island experiences, starting with the ultimate "staycation" aperitif.
All recipes serve four.
The British Isles
Once upon a time, patriotism really was not enough to endear us to home-produced wine, but that's ancient history. We now produce bottles of real class here, and our big story is fizz. Why shouldn't it be, when the similarities between Champagne and our chalky English Downs - once part of the same land mass - are giving champenois expansionists pause for thought? The grape mix is, as in Champagne, chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier and the perfect partner, also as in Champagne, is a delicate cheesy nibble. Use a mild, creamy, nutty cheese that won't overpower the wine. Berkswell, from Warwickshire, is perfect. This is a fiddly, but not difficult pastry recipe, but well worth the effort for the combination of ethereal lightness and zingy flavour.
Wine: Ridgeview Bloomsbury
Food: Berkswell Choux Puffs
Preheat the oven to 220C/Gas 7. Prepare 75g Berkswell cheese, by grating enough for a couple of tablespoons and finely dicing the rest. You'll also need four eggs, three beaten in one bowl and one kept in reserve. Make a choux pastry by heating 185ml water, a pinch of salt and 75g butter in a saucepan. When it starts to boil, remove from the heat and beat in 100g flour until the mixture starts to form a ball in the middle of the pan. Put the pan back on the hob for just minute, stirring all the while. Now add the three beaten eggs, a third at a time, beating vigorously after each one. If the mixture is still too stiff, beat the fourth egg and gradually add enough to make a mixture soft enough to pipe but not too wet to hold its shape. Lastly, stir in the diced cheese with a pinch of black pepper. Give it a final mix and pile into a forcing bag with a large nozzle. Butter a couple of large oven trays and pipe the dough into profiterole-sized puffs, leaving room for each to expand. You should get 12-15. Brush each puff with the remaining beaten egg, and sprinkle with the grated cheese. Bake for about 25 minutes until golden brown. They should be crisp on the outside, meltingly soft in the middle. Serve straight from the oven. If you want to make these in advance, it's better to refrigerate the buns before cooking than to reheat them once cooked. They are still delicious, but may look a bit flat.
Not much has changed in this agreeably balmy Atlantic oasis, where the art of terracing and irrigation by means of cunning trenches called levadas make sense of the island's steep slopes. Madeira wine, ranging from off-dry to lusciously rich owes its uniqueness to a process of slow oxidation by heat, replicating the conditions in which the island's exports were originally stored, often for months, in the holds of merchant vessels. Fortified with grape brandy, each style takes its name from a traditional island variety. The drier wines - verdelho and sercial - are delicious lightly chilled with savoury snacks, while bual and malmsey (an anglicised form of malvasia) are the stuff of meditation and quite brilliant with blue cheeses and dense puddings. Between them, they can start and finish a meal in fine style.
Wine: Blandy's Verdelho 10-Year Old 50cl
Food: Assemble a starter platter of air-dried ham, smoked duck breast or venison, good plump olives, some shavings of cheese and a handful of fresh walnuts. Serve with raisin bread and remember to chill the wine.
Wine: Henriques & Henriques Malmsey, 15 years old 50cl
Food: A Great British cheeseboard, comprising a mature Cheddar or Teifi, a seasonal blue (Oxford, Beenleigh or Stilton) and a creamy Cooleeny. Add oatcakes, a compote of dried figs and dates and some fresh walnuts. Serve Malmsey at room temperature.
Mount Etna, Sicily
Faced with declining sales of Marsala, the island's most ancient and famous brew, Sicily's winegrowers embraced the 21st century with impressive commitment. The momentum has been maintained, ancient grapes given a new lease of life and heat tamed by smart winemaking. In his novel The Leopard, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa wrote that whoever happens to be governing Sicily at any time, its island's real ruler is the sun and you can taste it in everything, from those ropes of peperoncini, intensified by months of ultra-heat treatment, to lusciously sweet tomatoes, incomparable lemons and plump, violet aubergines. Trápani, on the west coast, is tuna central: there are countless recipes, and plenty of aromatic white choices to match, from indigenous varieties like cattarato, grillo and carricante as well as happily-settled incomers like the fiano of Campania. Feisty sauces like puttanesca and sweet-and-sour caponata, the national dish of aubergines, peppers and raisins, express the bold flavours of those sun-ripened vegetables and for these, the island has two excellent red varieties to call its own - dark, dense nero d'avola and frappato, with its notes of wild strawberries.
Food: Pasta alla Norma
Venetian cocktails notwithstanding, the composer Bellini was a Catania boy. His natal spot, on the island's east coast, continues to honour him and his most famous opera with this dish of pasta with aubergines, tomatoes, basil and ricotta salata, a lightly smoked and salted ricotta cheese hung up to dry until hard enough to grate. In the absence of a really serious Italian deli, feta comes closest. Recipes and rivalries abound, some sneaking in pinches of chilli, others swearing by a hint of mint, yet others favouring olives, all authentic island stalwarts, but be careful your casta diva doesn't turn into a puttanesca. The following recipe is a good starting point.
By all means lovingly slice, salt, drain, dry and fry two large aubergines from scratch, but a large jar of grilled Italian aubergines in oil saves a good hour or so, and guarantees optimum ripeness and flavour. Drain them well, saving the oil, and cut any unfeasibly large slices into bite-sized pieces. Peel 500g ripe tomatoes by nicking the base of each with the point of a knife and plunging into boiling water for a few seconds. Scoop out the seeds, drain off any juices and chop roughly. To assemble the dish, cook 400g short pasta such as penne, fusilli or the very Sicilian casarecce, in plenty of boiling water. As soon as it's al dente heat 3 tablespoons of the oil from the aubergine jar in the frying-pan, and throw in the tomatoes with a couple of cloves of sliced garlic. A pinch of brown sugar, wholly unnecessary in Catania, is a wise move here. Cook for five minutes or so until you have a rough and ready sauce. Add the aubergines and heat through. Drain the pasta (save some of the water to help the sauce amalgamate) and put in a large, warmed bowl. Stir in the sauce and a tablespoon or so of the water if it needs it. Now add 75g grated ricotta salata or crumbled feta cheese and mix well. Finish with a small bunch of basil leaves, roughly torn, and a bit of extra cheese if you like.
It takes a fairly heroic variety to remain upstanding in the fierce heat and prevailing winds of the most southerly, and photogenic, of the Cyclades. Assyrtiko is just such a grape, fresh, minerally and we have another local hero, Haridimos Hatzidakis to thank for taking it seriously, along with other local varieties like aidani and athiri, with which it's blended. Fish is the obvious match, and its fine acidity is also well equipped to give even sharp British tomatoes a run for their money.
Food: Grilled Sea Bream with White Bean and Garlic Mash and Charred Tomatoes
Get your fishmonger to scale and fillet two large bream or four small ones, leaving the skin on. Check them for pin-bones by running the palm of your hand over the flesh and removing any stragglers with tweezers. Slice off the top of a head of garlic. Drizzle the exposed cloves with olive oil, replace the "lid" and wrap tightly in foil. Bake in a fairly hot oven until very tender (about 35-45 minutes). Drain two cans of cannellini beans. Crush with a fork and add enough fruity olive oil to make a chunky mash. Squeeze the roasted garlic out of the head and stir as much as is wise into the bean mash. Season to taste and scatter with finely-chopped thyme leaves. Divide between four plates and keep warm - a hot tray is perfect. Fire up the grill, and in the pan, minus the grid, arrange the fish, skin-side up, along with four vines of baby plum or cherry tomatoes. Brush everything with oil and season well. Grill for 7-8 minutes until the skin is blistered and the tomatoes charred. Lift the fillets from the pan onto the waiting mash and garnish with the tomatoes.
Nothing evokes the Isle de Beauté like the herb-and-heather perfume of the maquis and the tang of wild myrtle which pervades everything, from coppa, a cured ham from free-range, acorn-fed pigs, to brocciù, a pat of herb-encrusted sheep's milk cheese. Corsica's main red grapes are sciaccarellu, an indigenous variety with a spicy, herbal red-fruit bouquet and niellucciu, a local variant of sangiovese, while vermentinu produces fragrant, full, floral whites. But the island's most seductive wines are its world-class pinks, elegantly pale but mouthfilling enough to partner the island's free-range pork, lamb and kid.
Wine: Corse Calvi Clos Columbu Rosé
Food: Rosé-braised Lamb
Locals might use abbacchio, or suckling lamb, but our best cut for this job is inexpensive neck fillet, which is well marbled, tastier and less likely to dry out than leaner leg or loin. It's also conveniently sold in packs of two half-fillets, taken from the generous rather than scraggy ends of the neck. Three half-fillets is about right for four healthy appetites: cook the fourth at the same time and you'll have the basis of a fine lunchtime pitta or tasty pasta sauce, unless it disappears, as has been known, as seconds and, shame on us, thirds!
The trick is to issue it with a Corsican passport by infusing it overnight with those pungent maquis flavours and that's best done with a dessertspoon per fillet of dried herbes de provence rather than the fresh variety - they come later. If you happen to have a sachet of dried myrtle (myrte) about the place, now is the time to deploy a generous spoonful, to add a sharp, resiny authentic kick to the other herbs. Use the leaves in the same way as dried bay, either whole or ground, and crush the dried berries in a mortar as you would juniper or allspice. Mix your herb rhythm section with lemon juice and a little olive oil and rub over the surface of each fillet the day before you cook.
Come the hour, lift the fillets from their herby bower and season with salt and black pepper. Heat 3 tbs olive oil in a large, shallow pan. When it's sizzling, add the lamb and brown at a high heat for 10 minutes, turning once or twice. Remove and drain on kitchen paper. Peel two red onions and a fennel bulb, and cut each through the root into four wedges. Cut each wedge in half, again through the root. Brown them gently in the fat left in the pan and drain them too. Deglaze the pan with 250ml inexpensive dry rosé, scraping up any cooked-on bits. As it comes to the boil lower the vegetables back into the pan, tucking in a bouquet garni of fresh rosemary, thyme, bay and sage, tied together with string. Put the lamb fillets on top, lower the heat to medium, and simmer, uncovered, for 15-25 minutes, depending on whether you like your lamb pink or well done. Lift out the meat and rest in a warm place for 10 minutes to let the juices settle. Let the vegetables continue cooking until the wine has evaporated. Carve the fillets into three or four pieces and arrange on a serving dish with the vegetables. Garnish with fresh bayleaves and serve with penne dressed with butter and finely-chopped fresh mint or little potatoes roasted in their skins with a handful of black olives.
Closer to Turkey than Greece, the birthplace of Pythagoras has the sunniest climate in the Aegean. Its main assets are olives and tourism, but for wine-lovers, the square on the Samian hypotenuse is the island's glorious muscat. Grown in steeply-terraced vineyards at around 800m above sea level, the moschato aspro (the muscat blanc à petits grains of Beaumes de Venise) takes on a honeyed, orangey lusciousness. Fortified with grape brandy partway through the fermentation process, it produces a full-throttle vin doux naturel to relish with iced nougat, baklava or any other pudding involving honey. It also works remarkably (if not quite authentically) well with Stilton and other creamy blue cheeses.
Wine: Samos Anthemis
Food: Muscat-poached figs with honey and almonds
Wash and dry eight fresh figs and make an x-shaped incision at the blossom end. Pull the "petals" apart slightly. In a large saucepan on a gentle heat, combine a tablespoon of honey, a generous pinch of ground cinnamon and 150ml dessert muscat, along with an optional drop or two of orange flower water. Stir until the honey has dissolved in the wine and let it simmer gently. Lift the figs carefully into the pan, cover and poach gently for 8-10 minutes, basting with the juices, until the figs are tender and the cooking juices syrupy. Serve with a dollop of Greek yoghurt and a sprinkling of flaked almonds, lightly toasted in a dry frying pan.