Friday, 7 March 2008

Dolcetto

Here is the situation. One loves Indian food. One also enjoys wine. One has invited a few friends for a degage Sunday lunch. The menu is Indian: Kashmiri Raan—if one feels very strongly, and one doesn’t, about the politics associated with this region and takes an exception, and one doesn’t (because one doesn’t really care), to the affiliation of Kashmir to the Indian Republic, although one is aware that India controls part of the region, one can rationalise that the word ‘Indian’ is used in its subcontinental rather than res republican context—, a seasoned leg of lamb, marinated overnight in yoghurt, spices, nuts and honey, and slow cooked in an oven over several hours till the meat is tender and juicy, served with what the Westerners call Pilaf rice and the Indians, so one understands, Pulao rice. Sounds delicious, doesn’t it? One can assure that it tastes every bit as delicious as it sounds. Now comes the dilemma: what wine can go with this rich, creamy, succulent and mildly spicy—mildly because neither one nor one’s guests are brave enough to degust very hot, as in spicy, food—Indian dish?

One has a few options. One may not serve any wine with the Raan, and drink beer instead. India, to the best of one’s knowledge, does not have a great wine tradition. One has sampled a few Indian wines—and it is possible that one had the misfortune of tasting particularly vile varieties and missing out on gems—not all French wines, for example, are drinkable; indeed one can be certain that all the discount Pinot Noirs in Tesco are downright poor—which tasted like iodine. One does not have to have wine in order to enjoy Indian food, which, traditionally, was not made, so one guesses, with a corresponding catalogue of wines in mind. However, as one pointed out earlier, one enjoys wine, and one asks oneself: why not combine a wine with the Raan? One of one’s guests also enjoys wine; the other two are not fussy—one because he has a bowel condition that gives him the shits the day after a wine-drinking session, and the other because he does not understand, and therefore appreciate, palatal pleasures viticulture can offer. Also one does not much care for the yeasty Indian beer which gives one a sense of fullness that can only be relieved by repeated farting, and one knows it is not considered sophisticated to break wind in polite company even one comprising close friends.

So one has made up one’s mind to have wine with the Raan, and is faced with the dilemma mentioned earlier. One ‘googles’ ‘Indian Food and Wine’. One then learns that Indian food is considered the most difficult to pair with wine, primarily, it seems, because it is ‘searingly hot’ and ‘spicy’. Most wine experts regretfully inform that one’s choice is limited. Since the menu for the lunch is, at the most, medium on the spiciness scale, one wonders whether things will get easier. They do and they don’t. One learns that the ‘safest bet’ to go with Indian food is to avoid red and stick to white. Several reasons are proffered: the Indian dishes are apparently aromatic and therefore better suited to the flavour profiles of white grapes. Red wines either override the spices completely, or—shock! horror!—clash with them. Also, red wines, especially the full-bodied ones, contain tannins, which does not augur well for one’s lower intestines if the food is hot. If, while partaking, say, a chicken Madras, or—if one is feeling brave (or foolhardy)—a Chicken Vindaloo, one accidentally crunches down on a chilly, a mouthful of dry red wine is not very likely to bring one much relief. One may attempt to untie the Gordian Knot by opting for the mature, silky beauties in which the tannins have become more benevolent, but that will still leave one with the problem of clashes of spices and texture. What would one like to coat the inside of one’s mouth with: the rich creamy sauce of the dish or the texture of the wine? The experts also hypothesize that the high acidity or tartness of certain white wines—the ones with these qualities are especially recommended—can freshen one’s palate and counteract any heat in the dish.

So one learns that most wine experts think it is de regale—or is it de rigueur?—to have white wine with Indian dishes whether it is meat or poultry. Gew├╝rztraminer, Pinot Gris, Riseling, and Sauvignon Blanc are the names that crop up repeatedly in the discourses of many an expert. The common rule of thumb appears to be: complex wines go well with simple food and simple wines with complex food. Not many would risk red wines—one oenophile site asks the rhetorical question: why do Indian restaurants bother to keep red wines on the menus—and, those who would, would match them with less spicy, lightly seasoned dishes such as Tandori. Most give thumbs down to big reds such as Cabernet Sauvignon—‘big tannins and heavy spices’—which—one can bet one’s mortgage on it—will clash with the spices of the dish.

What is one to do? While one prefers red wines with meals rather than white, one likes to think that one is not fanatical about these matters. One, therefore, is prepared to open a bottle of white wine with the Raan, though one is perplexed that a whole subcontinent’s cuisine is deemed by the experts as fit to be paired with only a few varietals, and one is not convinced that acidic whites are necessarily ideally placed to complement the hot and spicy Indian dishes. Why, one wonders, can’t one enjoy a Shahi Korma with, say, a decent white Burgandy—one has learnt from bitter experience that if a Burgandy is cheap, it is because it is cheap—or a sweet Vouvray (not all Chenin Blanc need be acidic)? A good white wine, by which one has always meant an Old World wine, one has always maintained, is nothing to sneeze at. All of this discussion, however, one admits to oneself, ruefully, is deus otiosus, as the wine drinking guest has an overwhelming preference for red wines. She is a cultured woman who reads T.S. Eliot whom one has always found, if one is honest, which one, truth be told, often isn’t, somewhat difficult to access, and one feels one lacks the imperium to override the wishes of such a refined, polished, cultivated, and genteel woman. One is afraid it has got to be a red wine.

Having trawled the ‘food and wine’ sites on the net one has come to the conclusion that one has to take some bold decisions. One has to show the gumption and veer away from the tried and trodden path. One accepts that mistakes will be made, but then one reminds oneself that nothing ventured nothing gained. Either one chooses the path of discovery or of approval. With the former mistakes are unavoidable, nay, essential; with the latter mistakes are anathemas. One decides to try an Italian red with the Raan. A coup’doeil of one’s cellar—if that is not a hyperbole to describe a cupboard, albeit a cool and airy one—reveals a Chianti Classico (obligatory), a couple of Barolo (none, alas!, more than six years old), and—one’s eyes light up—a bottle each of Barbara d’Alba and Dolcetto d’Alba. One has always had a soft spot for Dolcetto and Barbera, the two grapes that live unfairly, although understandably, in the shadow of the king, Nebbilo. One has always held the view that both provide highly food-friendly wines, which rarely disappoint. The bright purple, medium bodied exuberantly fruity wines crammed with fresh berry—or is it red cherry?; it could even be strawberry—flavour—or is it aroma?—never fails to fill one with zip. And their ever-so-slightly-sour twist at the end, one conjectures, will help the wines to cut through fatty food without leaving the excessively acidic aftertaste. Which one to choose between the two? One settles for Dolcetto d’Alba, primarily because it is almost four years old—this is one of those red wines which is best enjoyed when young—and one is worried the flavours might fade away if kept unopened any longer. One hopes ‘the little sweet one’ will be a star turn with the meat dish.

One takes out one’s crystal decanter, having always been of the view that if one can’t do things in style one should not do them at all. Although the wine is (relatively) young and not tannic, one still thinks a little bit of air contact will round it out nicely. Also, if one is honest—and one has already alluded to one’s inability to attain such a level of moral excellence most of the time—one wants the guests to notice and admire the crystal decanter. Have you met a man (or a woman, let’s not be gender-specific in these matters) without foibles? As one removes the capsule around the neck of the wine bottle one notices a slightly sticky residue on the surface of its neck, and wonders, with a sinking heart, if the wine is not cooked. How long was it languishing in the loading bay on a hot summer day; how many days did it spend sweltering in the cargo bay of the ship after it left the loving care of its producer and found a sanctuary in one’s wine cellar (well, OK, a cupboard, but a cool and roomy one)? When the capsule is completely removed one’s spirits are restored a bit upon seeing the cork sitting flush with the mouth of the bottle. Perhaps all is not lost. One takes out one’s fish corkscrew, which is very chic—even if one says so oneself—and removes the cork with practiced, gentle swing motion. Now comes, one feels it in one’s bones, the moment of truth. One lifts the mouth of the bottle to one’s nose and—it can’t be avoided any longer—takes a lungful of its aroma, praying it won’t be of stale prunes. Hallelujah! One smells blackcurrant –or is it plums?—summer fruits in any case. One also detects a seductive hint of chocolate, truffles, herbs, tea-leaves, fresh tobacco, and a savoury hint of creamy coffee, soy, earth, pepper, and vanilla. This will do.

The guests arrive. The IBS-sufferer, one can’t help noticing, is looking a bit grumpy. The lunch is served. One brings the decanter, hiding the disappointment that no one amongst the guests has given the slightest hint that they (or should it be he or she or he or she) have noticed it even though it is kept on the worktop in a very prominent position. One pours the wine out for the wine-drinking guest.

‘What wine is it?’ she asks.

‘Guess,’ one replies.

She takes a tentative sip of the wine. ‘Is it Beaujolais?’ she asks.

One smiles one of one’s subtle smiles and the IBS-sufferer asks one what one is grinning about. One does not respond to the jibe. One has always prided oneself on being a good host, putting one’s visitors at ease with debonair smiles and courteous wisecracks. Besides one has to be kind to the invalids. May be he is irascible because his IBS is playing up. Nevertheless one would be lying if one does not admit that one entertains the wicked thought, albeit only briefly, that the spicy Raan will aggravate the bowel condition of the gouchy valetudinarian.

One doesn’t want to appear to be too dismissive of what the Bluestocking has said. After all it is an understandable error; it can happen to anyone. One remembers how, once, while walking down a street of a ‘turd world’ city, dodging the beggars and taking care not to fall into craters big enough to swallow a lorry, one had spotted a structure that appeared to be a single-occupancy toilet, but which, upon closer inspection, turned out to be some sort of shrine of a local deity revered by the natives. One chooses one’s words carefully.

‘No, it isn’t. But you are fairly close, and the mistake is understandable. After all the wine is described by many as the gamy of Northern Italy. However I find that it is far better and more attractive than that, and makes interestingly fruity wine. Don’t you?’

‘Oh, shut up, will you? Can you be more pompous?’ The IBS-Sufferer’s ill-temper shows no signs of abating.

‘How are your bowels bearing up these days?' One asks, laughing mildly to indicate one meant no offence in case he looks like taking one at the insult.

‘My bowels are in fine mid-season; and don’t laugh like a hyena that has a bone stuck in its throat.’

‘Can you guess what wine is it?’ One asks the Bluestocking.

‘Not really, no.’ One is sure her indifference is put on; inwardly she is annoyed at getting it wrong.

‘I shall give a clue. It is from Northern Italy, Pidemont, to be specific.’

‘I guessed as much.’

‘Can you guess the wine?’

‘Please tell us, I can’t bear the suspense any longer,’ the IBS-sufferer interjects.

‘How do you like the wine?’ One asks the third guest who hasn’t uttered a word till now, and is sitting soporosely.

‘It’s all right,’ he gives his opinion.

‘ I don’t really know,’ the Bluestocking says.

‘It is either Dolcetto or Barbera. Come on, have a guess.’

The woman sighs. ‘Is it Dolcetto?’

‘Spot on. How do you like it?’

‘It is good. Nice choice for lunch. I prefer not to drink anything heavy with lunch.’

‘Please tell him,’ the valetudinarian says, ‘it’s excellent. Tell him you haven’t drunk such a wine in years. He has probably not slept last night agitating about it.’

The lunch continues at a leisurely pace. The valetudinarian drinks copious quantities of coke while the third guest drinks his glass of wine as if it were Chinese tea. The Bluestocking sips her wine glass slowly. Everyone seems to enjoy the dish and helps themselves to second helpings. The portions on the valetudinarian’s plate confirm his assertion that his bowels are in fine fettle (there must be some other reason why he is so crabby). One offers to replenish the Bluestocking’s glass, who declines by saying that she is enjoying the flavour and the taste of the dish so much she would rather have the wine at the end. However, as the lunch finishes, she declines the offer, again, and requests a mug of strong coffee instead, claiming to be feeling sleepy after a sumptuous meal. One helps oneself to a generous glass of heavenly Dolcetto and settles down to post-prandial chitchat. The Cordon Bleu starts a discourse on Wasteland, and, absorbing as it is, one’s eyelids begin to droop rather worryingly after five minutes . . .

One would put, with all humility, that the idea that only certain wines pair well with Indian food is tosh. When it comes to pairing wines with food, one would suggest that only one rule be followed: pair the wine you like with the food you like. And forget everything else.

Book of the Month: And Where Were You, Adam? (Heinrich Boll)


‘Byelyogorshe!’ This is the nonsensical word repeated by Captain Bauer, admitted to a make-shift army hospital near the rapidly shrinking German front in Eastern Europe, after he is hit on the head by a stray shrapnel. Captain Bauer’s neologism vividly symbolizes the utter sense of despair, absurdity and futility experienced by the ordinary Germans while their country, under Hitler, marched inexorably towards doom as the Second World War progressed, in this superlative early novel of Nobel Laureate Heinrich Boll. Along with Train Was on Time, this is one of the first works of fiction that depicts the Second World War from a German view point. It is also a powerful indictment of war.

Born into a liberal, Catholic family, Boll grew up in an environment of tolerance and broadmindedness. As a teenager he refused to join the Nazi party, which, as can be imagined, caused not inconsiderable obstacles in him enrolling into a university. He reluctantly served six years in the German army during the Second World War—he later claimed he secretly desired German defeat—always trying to get out of the service. After the war ended Boll’s anti-war and anti-fascist passions found expressions in a number of novels beginning with The Train Was On Time—he decided to pursue a literary career; his wife’s earnings (she was an English teacher) supported the family—, which earned him the epithet ‘the Nation’s Conscience’ besides the 1974 Nobel prize for literature.

And Where Were You, Adam, first published in 1951, bears all the Bollian hallmarks including his celebrated minimalistic style, subtle, yet effective, use of irony, and profound pacifism.

The year of the novel is either 1944 or 1945; the location Hungary. Hitler’s Wehrmacht is shattered and the ‘Thousand-year’ Reich is soon to be consigned to History after a mere thirteen violent years. Still, soldiers are rounded up and sent to meet certain deaths to the fronts, which, all save the deluded Nazi higher echelons know, are impossible to defend against the Russian juggernaut; the Jews are still exterminated with clinical precision; the talk is still to defend the Fatherland till the last man is standing; and shells are still exploding even though they are serving little purpose.

The novel is a series of snapshots instantiating the idiocies and illogicities of the war, which would be humorous but for the reasonless loss of young lives—German as well as non-German. Each chapter of the book is a complete short story by itself, but the chapters are also linked: at the most obvious level by the characters which appear in some or more of them; contextually, with the backdrop of the Second World War; and geographically—in Hungary, where the most of the action takes place. Boll has an astonishing ability of sharp and penetrating characterization. Amidst the degringolade of the once mighty German army, a number of characters stand out not least because of their sense of noblesse oblige, little knowing that history would judge them very harshly, and the reign of Hitler that resulted in the disastrous war would be declared as a blot on history of twentieth century humanity. Thus we meet Quartermaster Finck who dies while carrying out the absurd demand of his superiors to bring back genuine Tokay wine from the interiors of Hungary; S.S. captain Filskeit, the rabidly racist former choirmaster, who, like his leader, bears no phenotypical resemblance to the master race he so admires, and who is grimly intent on sending the Jews to their deaths in the small concentration camp he is in charge of as the Nazi war-machine is disgregating; and sergeants Schneider and Schmitz who choose staying with the injured soldiers under their care over retreat and face certain death.

Time and again throughout the novel, Boll juxtaposes contrasting perspectives and emotions. Lieutenant Greck, for example, suffers from excruciating stomach cramps and diarrhoea, a source of greater torment than the shells exploding around him, and, in a grotesque tragedy, gets killed while defecating. The intrepid and disillusioned colonel Brassen, while lying on a dirty trolley in the makeshift hospital after suffering from horrific injuries in yet another futile battle, repeatedly asks for chilled champagne from beneath his heavy bandage, and an anonymous soldier, who has fought alongside the colonel in that battle, and who is now lying next to him, asks him to drink his own piss instead. Corporal Feinhals is the shadowy presence throughout the story. A flotsam of the deadly war over which he exerts no control, corporal Feinhals marches to the front, gets wounded, falls in love with a Jewish school teacher but stands aside as she is taken, with her kin, to the concentration camp, is hauled to the front again, helps build a bridge and almost immediately destroy it, and slowly makes his way home. Feinhals almost survives the war, only to perish in a blast as he nears his home. Illona, the lovely Jewish schoolteacher with whom Feinhals falls in love, gets deported to the concentration camp S.S. captain Filskeit is in charge of. The former choirmaster, who is obsessed with maintaining a choir of prisoners—an instance of bizarrerie grotesquely overshadowing the tragedy—, commands her to sing, and, driven to insane hatred when he hears the blonde Jewess render the All Saint litany to near perfection, empties his pistol into her chest.

This is a work born out of the revulsion Boll always felt towards the senseless destruction and wanton loss of lives in the war, which blighted ordinary lives. The strength of the novel lies in its masterful depiction of the effects of war on ordinary people: their strained weariness, their phlegmatism, their brief loves and aspirations even as their entire lives are being eclipsed by the monstrosity, and the surprising persistence of human decency and gem├╝tlichkeit amidst barbarity. When this dense and intense novel comes to an end the reader is left with an indefinable sense of pain, anger and sorrow at the senselessness and inutility of war.