The Thatcher’s Arms in Mount Bures hosted the Cider vs Wine evening, pitting five superb ciders against five great wines to accompany an equally impressive menu. Here Henry shares his account of a very eventful evening.
As many people know, I have long advocated the rich scope of cider, and how when made from the finest ingredients with love, care and passion, it has as much right to its place both on the dinner table and drinks menu as any other drink.
So when Susanna Forbes of Drink Britain suggested I put my money where my mouth and take on wine over a 5 course meal, I didn’t need much persuading. The wine team was made up of Emily O’Hare – sommelier at River Café and newly crowned wine writer’s sommelier of 2012, and Dan Probert – wine blogger and manager of the Adnams Cellar & Kitchen in Holt. In the cider corner, I joined up with Pete Brown – blogger, writer and whilst more often associated with beer, he himself has become a cider advocate as he puts the finishing touches to a book on the definitive world story of cider.
Mitch Adams, our host for the evening at The Thatchers Arms in Mount Bures had forwarded both teams the menu for the evening. Not only did we match 5 great ciders to the food, we tried to second guess what the wine team would line up against us. As it turned out – we got every wine match wrong. But more of that later.
The running order was fairly simple; 60 odd diners would be served 5 courses, with an accompanying cider and wine; each would be individually introduced by each team with a rationale as to just why the respective offering was such a good match. Eat, taste, sup, swirl and choose which was the better pairing. After each course Mitch would call upon the diners to vote; red card for wine, green card for cider. Game on.
Course 1 – Broccoli and parmesan soup with chilli focaccia. Wine went Spanish with a Vallobera Rioja Blanco; soup is often described as the graveyard for sommeliers, so I thought we stood a good chance. We went Spanish too, choosing an Asturian cider called El Gaitero. There is a rich heritage of cider making in Northern Spain; as with France they operate to a strict appellation controlee, and in Spain’s case, this can often lead to a slight volatility that gives the cider a pepperiness that we thought would complement the chilli focaccia well. But crucially, it has residual sweetness which helps the cider marry with the saltiness of the parmesan. The wine was very decent but I was convinced from first taste that El Gaitero would win through. And so it proved – about 2/3rds of the diners agreed. An early lead – very welcome.
Course 2 – Fresh Mackerel Fillet with a Fennel, Mint & Parsley Salsa & a Pont Neuf Potato. Emily and Dan came up with an absolute stonker of a wine – a Gougenheim Torrentes from Argentina which was both light, fruity with an unexpected sharpness that would stand up beautifully with the mackerel. For our part, I went native and chose Aspall Premier Cru; a little more full bodied which meant it married well with the salsa and potatoes, though despite its racy acidity I wasn’t sure it would win out with the mackerel vs the Torrentes. All round, I still maintain it was the better match, but sadly the rest of the room largely disagreed and we suffered a complete reverse of Round 1. All square.
The main course – Slow Roast Blythburgh Pork Belly with a Homemade Duck, Pork & Sage Sausage & a Tomato & Mixed Bean Cassoulet. A dish full of contrasting flavours for which we chose Henney’s Vintage 2011; a magnificent still cider that reflects the tradition of cider making in Herefordshire in a very accomplished way; a rich yet mellow astringency and soft acidity complimented the tomato sauce of the cassoulet, didn’t do battle with the sage and duck sausage, and sat comfortably as all cider does with the pork belly. Emily and Dan chose Quinto do Crasto Tinto, a Portugese red from the Duro valley – we expected a Cotes du Rhone Village, or even an unoaked Chardonnay. Their choice was very full bodied, and packed with massive tannins. Too tannic in my view; it’s a beautiful wine in its own right, but this big red from Portugal ended up wrestling with both the sausage and the cassoulet. Not the clear win I expected, a close match but we still edged through with a smidgen over half the votes.
Course 4 was a sour cherry cheesecake there’s a very general rule in food matching that goes the sweeter the dish the sweeter the drink to accompany. Expecting quite a rich pud, we opted for Aspall Imperial, defined very much by the use of muscovado sugar in its making we thought it would be perfect with the richness of the cheesecake. On reflection, I would have chosen Aspall Perronelle’s Blush as the cheesecake was a lot lighter in texture than we anticipated; wine took this gamble and at the same time wheeled out a seriously big gun – Billecart Salmon’s Brut Rosé Champagne; could the humble English apple square up to the mighty French grape and come out on top? I certainly had my doubts. I thought the mix of the Champagne and delicate cheesecake was unexpected but hugely intriguing. The Imperial brought a little too much to the party in my view, and its rich fruitcake tones threatened to overpower dessert. Credit where it’s due, Champagne got my vote. The response from our fellow diners was mixed; some believed neither was a good match and so abstained from the voting. However, the basic premise of sweet for sweet proved to be right in practice as well as theory. Cider surged in to a 3-1 lead.
For the cheese course we were matching against Suffolk Gold & Binham Blue Cheeses with Chutney & Biscuits. Lots of saltiness in there, and we also needed some big apple flavours to complement the Suffolk Gold. Our choice was an Ice Cider from Herefordshire. Apples are left to over ripen on the trees and so the juice naturally concentrates in the fruit before pressing. This is followed by a long, low temperature fermentation which results in a rich, naturally sweet and luxuriously full bodied cider. Ice Cider is a relatively new concept in England and we chose Dragon Tree Blenheim Superb from Once Upon a Tree. For their part, the wine camp made a very unusual decision. They chose a sherry. I love sherry – I feel camaraderie with sherry as we have both lived for many years under the heading of overlooked and forgotten drinks – they tainted by Harveys Bristol Cream, we by a tramp juice association of days gone by. But sherry with cheese when they could have had a Port, a sweet Montbazillac or any number of other fantastic wines? And here is where I think wine got it wrong on the night. Rather than going for the ‘safe’ and ‘obvious’ choices, Emily and Dan treated us to a broader array of lesser known grape varieties. Underestimating what cider has in its locker, they took the risk and were much more adventurous on the night – for which we all thank them as I for example am now a Gougenheim Terrentos fan. But the risk was to be too great. This round was a virtual whitewash of votes for the Blenheim Superb. 4 – 1 to cider; who would have thought?
And as for the celebrations; well, whilst it’s always good to win, we were never in truth going to lose. Did I think we could take the night? Well, of course, but the result for cider is that I suspect every person in that room will now consider a cider when they’re dining, when previously they wouldn’t have. Do I think we would win another match with wine? Maybe, maybe not, but that’s not really the point. There is talk of a re-match though. Bring it on!