When you hear the word ‘wine’, what images fill your imagination? Undulating hills, perhaps? Charming French campagne ? Rolling swathes of gnarled, creeping vines, festooned with plump and plentiful grapes? A plate of buttery escargots, or a giant, bloody steak frites? Perhaps a charming French market, oozing with ripe cheeses and pungent saucisson, sturdy twines of garlic, the scent of baking bread and some fragile, sugary patisserie?
You’re probably unlikely to think of tropical rain showers, shirt-sticking humidity, the fragrant perfume of bulging mangoes, sickly, pungent durian and glossy persimmons. Glowing paper lanterns, and the ever-present aroma of wispy incense fumes. The urgent cries of hawkers and the blaring of motorbike horns. The sizzling of hot woks and the grind of blenders crushing ripe tropical fruit and coconut cream to a chilled and ambrosial pulp. Searing tropical sun, so hot it melts the nail varnish on your toes. Sugar cane peppering the vistas of the lush and lime-coloured countryside. Palm trees. Chopsticks. Rice.
When I was asked by Vins de Loire recently to suggest recipe pairings for a couple of wines from the Loire, I was particularly excited by the brief: to demonstrate that dishes from all over the world can be matched successfully with the wonderful and character-filled wines of this famously fertile French region. The wines in question were Muscadet Sèvre et Maine sur Lie, a wine produced from the Melon de Bourgogne grape with delicious citrus and peach notes, crisp and refreshing, and Rosé d’Anjou, produced from a variety of grapes including Grolleau, Cabernet Franc and Cabernet-Sauvignon, with a pleasant sweetness and red berry flavours. The Muscadet is grown in a vineyard measuring over 9,000 hectares, divided into four appellations according to their differing soil types: Muscadet; Muscadet Sèvre et Maine, Muscadet Coteaux de la Loire; and Muscadet Côtes de Grandlieu. The wine is aged on the lees, giving it a rich complexity with a smooth, creamy finish. It's ideal for pairing with seafood due to its soft character, but is also good with pork and cheeses such as goat's cheese. The Rosé is produced throughout the Anjou estate (over 2,200 hectares), and is best served young, where its slight sweetness is a good match for cooked meats and salads. For more information about these and other wines from the Loire, visit the Vins de Loire site, here, or visit Waitrose for the Rosé (£7.99) or Majestic for the Muscadet (£8.99).
I’ve always been a fan of a challenge, particularly in the kitchen. When I heard ‘from all over the world’, my mind raced, fleetingly, urgently and with sharp, visceral pangs of longing, to south east Asia. It was here that I had some of the best travel experiences of my life (and hope to have some more when I embark on another trip in August), and it is here that now provides the inspiration for most of my cooking. Gone are the various cheeses lining the fridge shelves; gone are the multiple varieties of pasta bagged in the larder; gone is the bacon and risotto rice, the couscous and chickpeas, the saffron and orange flower. In their place are chamomile-yellow lemongrass stalks, chillies in the colours of Christmas, gnarled lumps of fresh turmeric, brown on the outside but a startling marigold within, alien-looking pieces of fresh galangal, enough tins of coconut milk to open a shop, and bottles of rice vinegar, fish sauce and oyster sauce with labels in unreadable Asian languages.
The pasta has been replaced by rice noodles in numerous shapes and sizes, the dried oregano and thyme with white peppercorns from Vietnam, the cheese by coconut milk and coconut powder (bought from a market in Cambodia), the orange flower by lime juice and fish sauce, and the couscous by Thai sticky rice. My cooking, once dominated by Italian and Middle Eastern flavours and ingredients, is now centred around the unmistakable taste of south east Asia.
And yet, it is food from this region that frequently perplexes and befuddles even the most seasoned wine pairing experts. So much about the food of this dazzling part of the world is troubling for our favourite fermented grape product. Its dishes are an explosive medley of hot, sweet, sharp and sour flavours: the juicy snap of ripe chillies; the caramel notes of brown or palm sugar; the sharp rasp of green papaya and mango; the addictive tang of lime juice, fish sauce and tamarind. They have fresh, vibrant crunch; zesty and awakening. Unlike rich cheese or meat dishes, which often need the acidity of a good wine pairing to balance them out, south east Asian food has enough of that acidity all on its own. It can be difficult, or even impossible, to match with wine.
Here, I’ve set out to prove that this needn’t be the case. I’ve created a four-course menu of dishes to match with these two wines from the Loire. For this, I’ve taken my inspiration from Vietnam, for two reasons: firstly, because it is my favourite cuisine in the world, one that is sadly underrated and I want to see people cooking more of. Demonstrating how this cuisine can be happily accompanied by a bottle of wine is surely a way to encourage people to embrace it in their kitchens. Secondly, because there is still, depending on where you go, a strong French culinary influence in Vietnam. In Saigon, I watched vendors parading colossal woven baskets of fresh baguettes around the streets. In Hoi An, I escaped from the humidity into an air-conditioned café to feast on blessedly cold vanilla ice cream and banana pastry cream tarts. In Hanoi, breakfast was a plate of buttery crêpes, stuffed with slices of caramelized pineapple. In order to show the world how to branch out with their French wine pairings, it just had to be Vietnamese cuisine.
This menu is based around the concept of French and Vietnamese fusion. I’ve taken inspiration from classic Vietnamese dishes, and in places have given them a slight French twist, using ingredients that would be at home in Loire regional cooking, giving them a chance to go somewhere a little more exotic. The Loire is famous for its produce, particularly pork, mushrooms, various cheeses, and prunes. These all appear at various points throughout the menu, although I’ve included suggestions as to how to keep it (as far as I am qualified to suggest!) authentically Vietnamese, should you desire.
The menu ends, though, with a completely French classic, a typical dish from the Loire region, to showcase the versatility of these wines: as comfortable with bright and zesty Asian food as with rich, indulgent French desserts. After all that healthy Asian food, you sometimes need a little butter and sugar.
We begin with a classic Vietnamese snack: summer rolls. These are fresh spring rolls, made with rice paper encasing a soft tangle of rice noodles, fresh herbs, and various meats, fish or vegetables. They are a world away from the ubiquitous deep-fried spring rolls you’re probably more accustomed to, which are fine for moreish fried crunch but always have a filling that often tastes the same, no matter what it purports to be. These are soft, squidgy, and fresh. The most common variation I tried on my travels held prawns and pork (see photo near the top of this post), but I’ve put a slight French twist on them here by using duck. Duck isn’t that common in Vietnamese cooking, compared to other forms of protein. Apart from Chinese crispy duck, I most associate this bird with France: think duck cassoulet, or duck confit, or duck à l’orange or avec cerises. In fact, canard au Muscadet is actually a typical Loire dish. I’ve combined the freshness of the Vietnamese summer roll with the richness of tender duck meat.
Duck legs are rubbed with a little five spice and roasted until the fat is dark and crisp, the meat tender and succulent, ready to be shredded into the rice paper. Alongside the duck, the standard muddle of slippery rice noodles, fresh mint leaves, crunchy cucumber. However, here’s where a little bit of France comes in: I’ve put slices of fresh cherry in alongside the duck, reminiscent of the classic French partnership of duck with cerises. The slight sweetness and tart bite is perfect alongside the rich meat. To finish it off, a Vietnamese nuoc cham: dipping sauce made with lime juice, fish sauce, garlic, sugar and chilli. This addictively sweet-sour mixture brings everything together, perfect against the lovely pleasant squidgyness of the rice rolls and savoury duck meat. Should you want to keep these more Vietnamese, though, simply replace the duck and cherries with prawns and slices of cooked pork (belly is ideal).
This dish works wonderfully with the Muscadet, which I suppose makes sense given that canard au Muscadet is a famous Loire dish. The crisp acidity of this refreshing white is perfect for cutting through the rich duck meat and soft, bland rice noodles, as well as somehow tempering the acidity of the spicy dipping sauce. It is a combination I wouldn’t have thought would work – white wine with such a medley of assertive Asian flavours – but in fact it works beautifully, the wine nicely balancing everything out.
Vietnamese-style duck and cherry summer rolls with nuoc mam (serves 4):
2 duck legs
2 tsp Chinese five spice
100g thin rice noodles
Half a cucumber, seeds removed and finely sliced lengthways into batons
A handful of fresh mint leaves
12 cherries, stoned and quartered
10-12 round rice paper wrappers
30ml fish sauce
30ml lime juice
1 tbsp rice vinegar
2 tsp caster sugar
1 small garlic clove, crushed
1 red chilli, deseeded and finely chopped
Dry the skin of the duck legs well with kitchen paper, and prick all over with a sharp knife. Pre-heat the oven to 200C. Rub the five spice and some salt over the skin of the duck legs, then roast for 1 hour. Remove and leave to cool, then shred the meat and crispy skin with your fingers.
Soak the rice noodles in boiling water for 5 minutes, then rinse under cold water, and drain. Put in a bowl. Fill a large bowl with hot (but not boiling) water. Have everything ready to assemble the spring rolls: the shredded meat, sliced cucumber, mint leaves and cherries.
When ready, take a rice paper wrapper and soak in the hot water for a few seconds until pliable, then shake off any excess water onto a tea towel. Lay on a flat surface or chopping board, then arrange a few rice noodles, mint leaves, cucumber strips, cherries and bits of duck meat in a line down the centre of the rice paper. Fold the ends in, then roll up as tightly as possible – this takes some practice! Arrange the completed rolls on a platter.
For the nuoc cham, simply mix everything together in a small bowl. Dip the spring rolls into this, and devour (this may be a bit messy!)
The fish course
Certain Loire wines are renowned for their ability to pair with oysters and fish dishes involving beurre blanc. However, you don’t get much beurre blanc in Vietnam. Instead, I’ve taken the fish theme and used the more-French-than-Vietnamese salmon, but given it a south east Asian twist in a salad full of crunchy green vegetables with a tangy, zesty dressing.
This isn’t a classic Vietnamese dish as such, unlike summer rolls, but a salad inspired by traditional Vietnamese salads, such as the famous pomelo or green papaya variety. The salmon is marinated in fish sauce and sugar, which means it caramelises deliciously in the heat of a frying pan. It is accompanied by crunchy greens and a simple dressing of lime juice, fish sauce and sugar.
The real surprise, though, comes in the form of a little fruit sneaked in alongside the fish. These are longans, which I first discovered in my travels through Vietnam. They look a little like fresh dates – yellow-brown round shells clustered together on a branch – but when you peel off their crisp, papery skins, you have a fruit within that is a little like a lychee, but rounder, firmer, and more crunchy, with less of the fragrant perfume of a lychee and more of a sweet, subtle, fresh flavour.
This might sound like a bizarre combination of ingredients, but it really works – the salmon is rich, sticky and salty, and the longans cut through its oiliness wonderfully, while the zesty dressing and crunchy vegetables are the perfect match to the rich fish.
The salmon is excellent with the Rosé d’Anjou. Because this is a sharp, salty, hot and sour salad, it needs something quite sweet to take the edge off it. This role is accomplished by the longans, of course, but the wine takes it to another level. It nicely mellows out the tang of lime and fish sauce, and is also perfect for cutting through the very rich, soft salmon, which just melts beautifully in the mouth, having been briefly seared on the outside so it stays gorgeously pink in the middle.
Pink wine, pink salmon – perfect.
Based on this pairing, I'd also suggest the Rosé would be excellent alongside this lemongrass prawn and pomelo noodle salad, an absolute favourite recipe of mine, or this salmon sushi bowl with avocado and edamame.
Seared salmon and longan Vietnamese-style salad (serves 4):
3 tbsp fish sauce
2 tbsp brown sugar
4 salmon fillets
Half a cucumber, seeds removed and sliced lengthways into batons
A small bag of baby spinach
A small bunch of fresh coriander
A small bunch of fresh basil
Half a red onion, very finely sliced
1 red chilli, deseeded and finely sliced
30 longans, peeled and halved (if you can’t find these, you can use 20 fresh lychees, or 2 x 400g cans tinned lychees, drained)
2 tbsp rapeseed or flavourless oil
2 tbsp lime juice
2 tbsp fish sauce
Mix together the fish sauce and brown sugar, then marinate the salmon fillets in this mixture for 15 minutes. Steam or boil the mangetout for a minute until only just tender and still crunchy. Put in a large bowl with the cucumber and spinach. Finely shred the basil and coriander, and add to the bowl along with the onion, chilli and longans. Toss well. Divide this between four salad bowls.
Heat the oil in a large non-stick frying pan over a medium heat. Sear the salmon for one minute on each of its four sides, then remove to a plate and leave to rest. Mix together the lime juice and fish sauce. After a couple of minutes of resting, flake the salmon into large chunks with your hands then divide between the salad bowls. Pour the lime juice and fish sauce dressing over the bowls, then toss gently before serving.
The main course
The main course is worthy of this blog post all on its own. In fact, it is entirely a meal in itself and could happily stand alone. This is fusion on many levels: inspired by a Vietnamese staple that was itself influenced by France, this dish is then given a French twist. Are you following me still?
The banh mi (see below) has frequently been lauded as one of the world’s best sandwiches (other examples include the New York smoked salmon and cream cheese bagel, or the Middle Eastern shwarma), quite the accolade and one that is undeniably true. There are variations on the basic formula depending on where you go, but it usually features a baguette, filled with slices of cooked pork meat, pork pâté, chilli sauce, coriander, and a tangle of crunchy pickled or shredded vegetables, like carrot and cucumber. Sometimes you have boiled eggs in there too, or mayonnaise. It’s a wonderful harmony, feeling rich and indulgent from the meat yet fresh and healthy at the same time, from the vegetables and the spicy sauce. All this is encased in a delicious Vietnamese baguette, quite different from the French variety – they are a lot airier and more fluffy inside, with a more crackly crust, as well as being shorter and squatter.
On our motorbike trip from Hué to Hoi An, we visited a factory (read: a small stone hut - see above) and watched a man making them. He offered us a mini one straight from the oven; fresh bread at its best. In Saigon and Hoi An, banh mi provided frequent lunch fuel, or sustenance for an overnight bus journey. It has everything you could possibly want, in a handily portable bread package.
Here, I’ve made a burger inspired by the concept of the banh mi, its flavours and textures, but using ingredients from the Loire. You could, of course, serve this in a baguette too. There’s a fat grilled mushroom in there, cooked until dark and juicy. There’s a thick slice of Chabichou du Poitou cheese, a speciality of the Loire and probably the best goat’s cheese I’ve ever eaten. It melts lusciously over a thick, juicy burger, made with pork meat, generously seasoned with salt, pepper, sage and – in the spirit of fusion – a little chilli. Furthermore, I’ve folded sticky chopped prunes – a famous product of the Loire – into the burger. If this sounds odd, you really need to try it. Pork works well with most fruits, their sweetness cutting through the fattiness of the meat, and here the prunes lend an incredibly moist succulence to the burger, as well as tasting delicious. It is possibly the juiciest burger I’ve ever eaten. The burger bun is spread with sweet caramelized onion chutney, too, which works fabulously with both the cheese and the meat.
But where, you ask, is that delicious vegetable mixture that makes a banh mi a banh mi? I’ve used finely shredded fennel and apple in a salad that is crunchy, fresh and zesty in the extreme, but lent it a Vietnamese note by adding fresh mint (very common in Vietnamese cooking – they have several varieties including the intriguing ‘Vietnamese fish mint’, which has, as you may have guessed, a slight fishy flavour), and a dressing of tangy lime juice, brown sugar and fish sauce. European meets Asian in a zingy riot of flavours, which are the perfect accompaniment to what is a very rich, meaty burger.
The Muscadet works superbly alongside, its crisp cleanness and subtle acidity partnering with the rich flavours of the burger, while its light, gentle character is not overpowered by the zesty salad – there’s enough richness in the meal to balance out that strong lime and fish sauce. In fact, it somehow manages to make this riot of meat, cheese and bread seem like a healthy dinner, lifting all the flavours and balancing them beautifully.
You could, of course, serve this burger with any salad, but I think the Vietnamese influence works perfectly alongside. You could also make it more of a banh mi by removing the cheese and chutney and adding sweet chilli sauce instead, and serving the lot in a fresh baguette. But I think this recipe is about as perfect an indulgent meal as you can get. For me, it really is the ultimate burger, its richness coming from the delights of the Loire, its freshness inspired by my favourite Vietnamese street food.
Based on this pairing, I'd also recommend the Muscadet with these Asian sticky braised pigs' cheeks.
The ultimate Loire burger (serves 4):
4 large flat mushrooms, like Portobello
450g pork mince
10 prunes, finely chopped
Salt and pepper
1 tsp dried sage
1 medium-hot red chilli, deseeded and finely chopped
4 ciabatta rolls
Caramelised onion chutney
1 Chabichou du Poitou cheese (or another soft goat’s cheese)
First, heat a little olive oil in a large, non-stick frying pan, and fry the mushrooms for a few minutes on each side over a high heat, until most of the juices have evaporated and they become dark and soft. Set aside.
In a bowl, mix together the pork mince, prunes, some salt and pepper, egg, sage and chilli – knead it well with your hands to combine it all together. It will feel quite wet – don’t worry. Shape into four burgers and put on a plate. Cover with clingfilm and chill for 30 minutes, to firm them up.
When ready to cook, heat a little more oil in the frying pan you used for the mushrooms, then cook the burgers for around 5 minutes on each side, over a medium heat, until they are no longer pink in the centre and the juices run clear.
While the burgers cook, slice the ciabatta rolls in half and grill lightly to warm them through. Spread the bottom half of each roll with caramelized onion chutney, then top with a mushroom. Slice the cheese into four thick slices, then spread over the top half of the roll. When the burgers are cooked, put a burger on top of each mushroom, then sandwich together. Serve alongside the fennel and apple salad, below.
Vietnamese-style fennel and apple salad (serves 4):
1 large bulb fennel
2 sharp eating apples, like Granny Smith or Cox
1 tbsp fish sauce
1.5 tsp brown sugar
1 tsp rice vinegar
1 tsp grated fresh ginger
A small clove garlic, crushed
A medium-hot red chilli, deseeded and finely chopped
Juice of half a lime
A small bunch fresh mint
Finely slice the fennel using a mandolin or very sharp knife and put in a large salad bowl. Quarter and finely slice the apple and add to the fennel. In a small jug, whisk together the fish sauce, brown sugar, vinegar, ginger, garlic, chilli and lime juice. Taste and check the seasoning – you may want a little more sugar or fish sauce. Toss together with the apple and fennel, then add the mint and toss together again. Leave for 10 minutes or so before serving, to allow the fennel to soften slightly.
Having taken your tastebuds on an explosive tour of Vietnamese flavours, it’s time to return to something that is absolutely and completely from the Loire, an indulgent and quite literally sticky end to the menu. It has to be a
The mingling of salt-spiked caramel, tender, burnished apples and buttery, flaky pastry is kitchen alchemy at its most potent. Whenever I first sink the edge of my spoon into a slice of warm tarte tatin, the butter-soft, golden apples yielding to the slightest pressure, I wonder why I ever bother making other desserts.
This classic French dessert has an added magic to it in the form of suspense. There is no way of telling how a tarte tatin will look or taste until the moment of truth when you, often precariously, flip it out of its pan onto a plate. Should you get it right, however, few feelings can rival the joy of unveiling a gorgeously bronze, caramel-soaked disc, resplendent with tender apples, glistening stickily and sending the sweet waft of fruit and caramel throughout the kitchen. A far cry is the finished product from the pan of raw, slightly anaemic-looking apples that you put into the oven thirty-five minutes ago.
The origins of the tarte tatin, as with many much-loved classic dishes, are legendary. Carolina and Stephanie Tatin, sisters from Lamotte-Beuvron, a small town in the Loire Valley, owned and ran the Hotel Tatin in 1888. Apparently, one day, in a fit of absent-mindedness, Stephanie put her apple tart in the oven the wrong way round. The tarte des demoiselles Tatin was thus born from humble origins in the Loire. Apparently it soared to popular heights when the chef of the celebrated Maxim’s Restaurant in Paris sent a spy to Lamotte-Beuvron to discover the secret recipe once word of the Tatins’ creation started to spread.
Whether you believe this or not, you can’t argue with the gastronomic appeal of the tarte tatin. It combines caramel, fruit, and puff pastry, and demands to be served with crème fraiche, cream or ice cream: an exquisite and heady combination. There was no other option for the dessert course of a menu to match wines from the Loire.
In order to make my dessert even more Loire-esque, though, I added sweet, plump prunes to the apples. The Loire is known for its pruneaux de Tours, produced from dried damson plums from around the city of Tours. Good prunes have a deliciously rich, caramel stickiness to them that marries perfectly with the caramel in the famous tatin, and they add a deeper layer of intense fruit flavour to the apples. They also become deliciously plump in the oven as they soak up all the caramel. Speaking of caramel, I always add a little salt to the caramel base for a tarte tatin: it cuts beautifully through the sweetness of the fruit, and makes it – if possible – even more moreish.
I was surprised with quite how well this dessert matched the Rosé d’Anjou. It’s often very tricky to pair desserts with non-dessert wines, because their sweetness makes the wine taste unpleasantly tannic and bitter. However, because the rosé is a very sweet wine anyway, it actually complemented the tart incredibly well. The nip of salt in the caramel and the savoury butteryness of the pastry make for a dessert that isn’t too sweet, which means it can sit comfortably alongside a sweet, fruity wine like the rosé, whose fruity notes enhance the complexity of the apple and deep plum flavours of the tart. I would venture to suggest that this rosé will work well with all manner of desserts, particularly those rich in butter and nuts, like frangipane tarts, crumble, or anything involving pastry – no need, necessarily, to splash out on a fancy dessert wine, as this is a pleasantly successful substitute.
Salted caramel apple and prune tarte tatin (serves 6):
160g caster sugar
1 tsp sea salt
7 apples – Braeburn or Golden Delicious are best
8 large stoneless prunes
250g puff pastry
Flour, for rolling
Put the sugar and water in an oven-safe frying pan with a 20cm diameter (measured on the bottom of the pan). Heat gently, stirring, until the sugar dissolves, then turn the heat up and cook for 5-10 minutes, swirling the sugar occasionally, until you have a dark brown caramel about the colour of a penny – keep an eye on it, though, as it will burn quickly. Remove from the heat when it is dark enough and add the butter, swirling the pan again until it melts – the caramel will foam up and bubble. When the butter has melted, sprinkle the salt evenly over the caramel.
Peel and halve the apples, then scoop out the cores with a sharp knife. Put on top of the caramel, cut side up, trying to ensure they all fit together snugly. Cut the last apple into smaller chunks to fill up any gaps. Turn the heat back on and cook over a medium heat for 5 minutes, then leave to cool. Tuck the prunes into any remaining gaps, both in the centre and around the edge of the apples.
Pre-heat the oven to 200C. Roll out the pastry on a floured board to about 5mm thick, and a circle slightly wider than the base of the pan, then drape over the apples. Tuck in around the edges of the apples. Put the pan in the oven and cook for 35 minutes, then remove and leave to cool for 5 minutes. Put a large plate over the pan, then quickly flip it over so the tart is the right way up on the plate. Serve immediately with cold vanilla ice cream.
So there you have it. A whistle-stop tour that takes you, tantalizingly, to the riotous heady flavours of Vietnam, and then back to the buttery bliss of the Loire and its classic dessert, and all the while working perfectly with these two excellent wines. I hope I’ve proved that pairing south east Asian flavours with French wines can be both possible and exciting, and have maybe encouraged you to try a few of these exotic recipes for yourself.
It’s very easy to become quite narrow-minded and even xenophobic about food and the relation of ingredients to each other, but if cherries can work in a spring roll and fish sauce can dress a salad to accompany a cheeseburger, who knows what other working possibilities there are out there? Get yourself a couple of bottles of Loire wine, bring out the noodles, limes and chilli, and enjoy the productive and delicious fusion of France and Asia.