Warming, soothing, winter drinking

Posted on Analysis Mar 2012 - by Tandoori Magazine
Warming, soothing, winter drinking

The year’s worst hangover is always the morning of January 1st. This is not necessarily an alcohol-induced hangover – though the previous evening’s drinks certainly will contribute their part… Instead it is caused by the certainty that two or three absolutely depressing months ahead filled with minimal sunlight and wet, icy and frigid weather.

It is well-documented that our happiness levels go down in winter – therefore it behooves each of us to fill ourselves with optimism and surround ourselves with the items that make us smile. 
 
My wife and I – for instance – will give ourselves a winter boost by breaking out our fondue set. Fondue is the sort of thing that makes you wish that winter would stick around longer, even if just for a week, so you can have just one more cozy and delicious evening…
 
Similarly Indian cuisine makes for a particularly warming, soothing and above all refined winter meal. Dishes like braised lamb shank, butter chicken or a fiery pork vindaloo that are almost uneatable during summer’s hottest moments are food heaven when it is gross, sleety and freezing outside. Indeed, the less attractive and colder the weather, the almost more delicious such dishes will taste!
 
Anyone in the Indian food industry will know that winter is the season of plenty for your business, as curry’s depth of flavour and spice – particularly chilli – is what we all crave when it is cold. Therefore now is the time to show off to your customers how good your menu really is by producing a fantastic winter menu that wows their palates and puts a bounce back into their step. 
 
Aside from producing mouth-watering food, there is no better way to convince customers that your restaurant is worthy of their time and – more importantly – money than through a quality and innovative drink selection. 
 
But producing a winter drinks menu, perhaps, is not as intuitive as a summer one filled with drinks like mango mojitos and passion fruit daiquiris. 
 
Mint Leaf – Raising the Bar
Having met Gerard McCann – General Manager at Mint Leaf Restaurants in London – on a handful of occasions, I have come to learn that his mantra goes something like this: making the classics according to India’s longstanding culinary traditions, but pushing the cuisine’s boundaries in all other instances. The Mint Leaf does exactly this through its food, which is exquisite. But the way in which I personally view McCann’s restaurant leading the way in London is through its drinks.
 
I have not personally witnessed an Indian restaurant pay as much attention to its wine list – particularly in terms of wine-food pairings – the Mint Leaf. Speaking to their Bar Manager, Lara Zanzarin, I learned that they approach their cocktail menus just as seriously and see their drinks as a way to innovate and inspire fine Indian dining.
 
“At Mint Leaf Lounge we are trying to fight the frigid weather with warm drinks such as Blazers and hot buttered cocktails,” says Zanzarin.
 
“These particular beverages are mostly rum/whisky based and they involve flambéing seasonal fruit with salted or unsalted butter. Hot buttered brandy/rum cocktails are very popular. The fact that they are warm in temperature makes them so appealing, especially as the first drink of the night when a customer has just come in!”
Zanzarin also looks to key ingredients that are commonly associated with winter to concoct Mint Leaf’s winter cocktail menu, such as pear, apples, figs and walnuts. The use of seasonal winter fruit is also key, says Zanzarin, like Clementine and chestnuts, for example. She sees the spices of Indian cuisine as ideal components to winter warming cocktails:
 
 “Indian cuisine is very rich in spices such as cardamoms, star anise and lemongrass that work nicely with clear spirits vodka or gin, which could be the ideal match for certain starters and some of the spiciest mains,” she says. Zanzarin adds that drink and food matching should always be very important to a fine-dining restaurant, particular for those who want to offer a unique experience to customers. 
 
She says, “Mini cocktails and shots could be very useful to take the dining experience to the next level.
“At Mint Leaf Lounge we are trying to recommend them in between dishes. A saffron, lemon grass or elderflower Martini – in shots – is ideal to clean the palate from the richness of the main course and prepare it for a sweet dessert. They could be used a bit like fresh ginger in Japanese cuisine.”
 
What always goes down smoothly in winter – particularly with curry – says Zanzarin, is whisky. “I am a whisky lover and I think this category works very well with Indian cuisine. Lightly peaty whisky is particularly appropriate, even as aperitifs, especially if drunk with water or ice in a sort of Mizunara style; i.e. two parts whisky, one part water and ice. I would recommend heavily peaty whisky such as Laphroaig, Cao Ila 12yo, Lagavulin 16yo as after dinner drinks,” says Zanzarin.
 
Her final advice for restaurants wanting to follow the Mint Leaf’s lead – “Conducting tastings and knowledge [of your ingredients are] key for food-drink matching. It is extremely important to recognize which combination of flavors will exalt the à la carte menu.”
 
Viña Carmen – Wine Made for Spice
Carmen is one of Chile’s better known vineyards and is famous for pioneering organic wines in South America. Their range of wines is among the best coming from Chile – particularly their Maipo Chardonnay, Petite Sirah and Cabernet and their Rapel Merlot. Carmen’s winemaker Cristobal Fernandez’s favourite is his Carmenere, which he has personally helped to develop since this varietal was rediscovered in Chile in 1994.
 
Fernandez believes when pairing food and wine the food must bend to the wine, and not the other way around as most others suggest. 
 
“The wine has to match the dish. No need to adjust the chilli [to accommodate the wine]. In fact the hotter the dish, it doesn’t necessarily mean you need a richer/powerful wine; you can balance the food-chilli character with a fruiter wine.”
 
Fernandez says his wines are really in their element during winter and pair fantastically with the comfort food that we love eating this time of year.
 
“The softer tannins, spiciness but good structure of the Gran Reserva Carmenere, it is the ideal match to a roast turkey or pork, and also, due to the spiciness that characterizes this varietal, it also a great accompaniment to spicy dishes, as curries or chilli-based dishes.” He particularly recommends this wine with mutton-based curries.
 
“Our Gran Reserves Cabernet Sauvignon match perfectly with lamb, either with mint sauce, rosemary or just roasted with vegetables, because there is a unique characteristic from our Maipo terroir which gives the wine some balsamic, eucalyptus and some menthol hints, which will merge with those lamb flavors in complete harmony,” continues Fernandez.
 
For white wines, he adds, “Our Reserva Gewürztraminer and its floral but fresh style make it the perfect match for some sweet and sour dishes containing ginger, lemongrass or very light spiciness.” One of his personal favourites is this wine paired with the dessert of kheer.
 
For Indian restaurants aiming to make their own food/wine pairings this winter, Fernandez suggests “It is just a matter of taking the time to understand what the food needs from the wine and then try alternatives until you find the one that helps the food to show it best!”
 
Whatever you decide to serve this winter, just remember that if you create drinks that manage to make your guests focus on what is on their palate instead of the dark and dreary weather outside, chances are they will leave satisfied and become repeat customers.
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