It’s a tingle, a wondrous alchemy that kicks in when those two lusty lovers – food and wine – join each other in a close embrace, a joyful clinch. The love they have for each other is pure and unconditional, they feel lonely when they are apart. A sip of wine, forkful of food, and the frisson begins. Sometimes in the toes first, other times in the fingertips – synapses pinging.
Why is eating so much more enjoyable alongside a glass of wine? Is it inebriation? Is it distraction? Is it the interplay of flavours jiving alongside each other, our tastebuds having a party as every one of their five boxes is ticked, from sweet to sour, via salty and bitter, even to tricksy umami? It cannot just be intoxication, the fuzzy, light-headed glow of alcohol doing its job of coaxing the brain into releasing dopamine. It cannot be just down to brain chemistry, can it? I take my cue from the 19th-century French epicure and author of “The Physiology of Taste,” Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin who said: “A meal without wine is like a day without sunshine.” In other words: it is possible but joyless. Couldn’t have put it better myself, monsieur.
I thought about this a lot recently, triggered by a month of abstemiousness in January, where I managed ‘dry’ lunches and dinners at home, each time feeling the pang of disappointment that I will not have the fun of deciding what to open, stroking bottles as I wonder about which one will get the corkscrew treatment: deciding like a latter-day Nero which of the arrayed bottles will gain my favour. That is also part of it, isn’t it? The choosing, the thinking about what will be opened: a pleasure that can begin hours before the act, anticipatory glee, knowing that something will be enjoyed – delayed gratification if you will. Start thinking about it in the morning, and you’ve got a whole pleasure dome of a day lined up.
“Drinking good wine with good food in good company is one of life’s most civilised pleasures.” Michael Broadbent
Rituals: at the Table and in the Kitchen
I also reckon the simple raising of the glass, the motion and moments between bites, play some kind of role. It is a good ‘something else’ to be doing, part of the dance in the unwritten playbook: the swirl of the glass, the raise to the nose, the pause in conversation, then back to the plate and on we go. Here’s where stemware matters, where balance and poise and feel of the glass in the hand adds its own joy to the party, a subtle carrier to drive home pleasure.
Then there is the whole ritual of cooking at home which lifts the food and wine combo onto an altogether different plane. The first chilled glass of something before the chopping board comes out, the thrilling prelude, the signal to ourselves that ‘we’re off’, and things are going to get a lot more fun. A few nibbles, some salty nuts, a sliver of salmon, our appetite sharpened by a few more sips. The segue into the next bottle, the wine main course, the one we had been eyeing up hours earlier. By now the tingle is cranking up into something of a rumble…sip, bite, swirl, sip, pour. We know this dance so well, it feels good, it makes sense and we know it can go on and on and on.
Without the sluicing of wine into glasses, how would any of this come close, even within a whisker of this combination of pleasures? It could not, really, it just is not possible. For a myriad reasons – all of which add colour and texture to the simple act of eating – a meal without wine is a monochrome facsimile of its potential. Wine adds the frisson, the edge, the wow. There’s no getting away from it – it’s not as much fun without it.