Tue 31 Mar 2015

Once is Just Enough: Food Suggestions For New Swiss & Cretan Wines


Swiss mountain restaurantApart from making their appearance in the April List, Switzerland and Crete haven’t much in common on the face of it. Coincidentally, though, both are places that I have visited just once in my life. I mean no disrespect to either – so many places, so little time, is my mantra nowadays, and of all the holiday spots I have most enjoyably ticked off, there are just two to which I return again and again, dosh permitting: the Caribbean, for the rapid decompression it delivers and Corsica, for its beauty, individuality, tasty food and transformed wines.

My only proper Swiss foray (I don’t count a quick dash through the St Gothard pass, en route to Italy) was a very upscale works trip in the 1970s, and my life Before Wine. It being January, our hosts kicked off with a soirée de raclette, which was new to me, but an enormous wheel of the eponymous cheese melting before a roaring wood fire, platters of little baked tatties, bowls of crisp salad and bottles of chilled white wine looked  quite promising.

Having been shown the simple etiquette by a smiling, dirndl-clad waitress – (a) spear your spud (b) run it along the surface of the cheese to gather up the melted strings (c) transfer to mouth and (d) wash down with the searingly dry wine – the salad, as ever, was optional and quite possibly for decorative purposes only – I was hooked. Not so much by what might have been described as a bit of an outlandish take on Welsh rabbit, but the combination of mountain cheese and a bracing white wine. Box ticked.

My experience of Crete was a late-summer break in a small, beachside apartment complex. For the first few days, we had the place almost to ourselves, with nothing to distract us but the smell of jasmine and the undivided attention of a bewhiskered barman with a penchant for the Pet Shop Boys, played at deafening volume. We were joined for the last few days by an enormous family party who, every morning, snubbed the yoghurt and honey on offer and took itself off in a fleet of taxis to Chania for the full English breakfast. For all I know they did this every evening too, as dinner was not an option at the ranch, beyond a Greek salad that was emphatically NOT purely for decoration. In fact, it outclassed every one I had ever sampled and I spent some years trying to pinpoint what made it so good. Countless varieties of tomato, different brands of feta cheese, litres of designer oils and a whole colony of Little Gems were sacrificed in the attempt, but the solution was blissfully cheap and easy in the end. See below.

Our preferred dining-spot was a restaurant along the beach that quickly got the royal warrant  for  lamb or swordfish kebabs that managed to stay unfeasibly moist despite the ferocity of the barbecue. The cubes were separated by sweet, ripe tomatoes that managed not to explode, olives and dark, musky bay-leaves.  It came, naturally, with chips.

Which, as everybody knows, can’t be had just the once.


Cheese & wine party

You can buy raclette from specialist cheesemongers, and even a raclette kit – an electrical element to melt it on – but I have long since recognised the difficulty of replicating at home that cosy night in an Alpine tavern. Many members may, like me, be itching to get out old fondue set instead, along with the equally dusty bottle of kirsch traditionally used as a final flourish.

Fondue simply means ‘melted’ and it looks simple enough, but it isn’t really. A mountain of grated cheese doesn’t automatically sink effortlessly into a bottle of tart white wine and many of my efforts have turned out to be a bit lumpisch to be honest so I won’t pass on any whizz-bang tips to enhance the recipe book that came with the set.  Just make sure you buy the right kind of cheese (it doesn’t work with Cheddar) and a wine of high natural acidity, and be prepared for a lot of stirring – traditionally, in a figure of eight – to ensure a good liaison between the two.

baked camembertTo those for whom fondue sets are just that bit too retro, I say not ‘hard cheese’  but a whole bloomy or washed-rind one, enlivened by a splash of white wine and a scattering of fresh thyme and baked in its box for 20 minutes in a hot oven, until bubbling volcanically. Camembert or, if you’re feeding a crowd, Brie work well, but my all-time favourite for this is Golden Cenarth, from my home county of Carmarthenshire and increasingly available in good cheese shops on this side of the Severn Bridge. Hand around sourdough or walnut-bread soldiers or even some little boiled potatoes to dunk into the molten cheese and relish the way in which the wine, like a piercing yodel, calls your palate to order.

Serve with one of our new whites from Domaine des Muses  in the heart of Swiss Valais, either the light, dry refreshing Fendant Classique 2013 (£16.50 instead of £19.50 for one bottle until Sunday 3rd May 2015), or the more exotic Petite Arvine Tradition 2013 (£30) with aromas of peach and apricot to the fore.


Recipe: Marinated char-grilled swordfish with secret-ingredient Greek salad

I find it easier to keep swordfish moist by char-grilling it in one piece, and a thinnish one at that, rather than cubing it. As with tuna, the point about a thinnish piece of meaty fish is that it cooks very quickly without losing its juiciness.

By all means use powdered bay, but I recommend home-drying fresh leaves (a minute or so in a microwave will do it), storing them in a jar and crushing them to order for maximum punch.

Get marinating the night before, or at least 12 hours in advance.

For the swordfish

4 swordfish steaks, about 150g each
1 lemon
1 tablespoon of fruity olive oil plus a little more for brushing
A shallot,  peeled and thinly sliced
2 dried bay leaves crumbled and pounded (use a spice/coffee mill or a pestle and mortar)
Whole sea-salt crystals

Zest and juice the lemon into a shallow container. Add the oil, powdered bay and shallot. Put in the fish and spoon the marinade over it. Leave for 12 hours, preferably overnight in the fridge.

When ready to cook, heat up a ridged char-pan until very hot – very faintly smoking. Lift the fish from its marinade and brush with a little extra oil.

Place the steaks carefully on the pan (you may need to do this in two pans or two batches) and press down with a fish slice. Resist the temptation to shuffle them about.  After a minute or so gently see if they can be easily lifted. If not, be patient. Once they come quietly, turn the steaks 180C for half a minute if you want to achieve a trendy diamond scorch mark.

Flip over and cook on the other side for no more than two minutes. Season generously with the whole salt and keep warm between two plates in a low oven while you cook the other two and finish the salad, which is the perfect accompaniment.

For the salad 

 I like to make this in individual bowls, but a large platter is appealing too.

2-3 Little Gem lettuces or a large Cos (wrong island, but at least Greek!), rinsed
A vine of the ripest tomatoes you can get, halved or quartered
A cucumber
200g feta cheese, cut into small cubes
A small jar of preferably Greek olives in oil (very  important)
A small bunch of mint, leaves only, washed and dried
A large, juicy lemon
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Greek salad

Firstly, peel the cucumber, halve lengthwise and  scoop out the watery seeds with a spoon. Chop each half into chunky pieces and put in a colander. Give them a good sprinkling of salt and leave for about 20 minutes. Rinse thoroughly and pat dry with kitchen paper. This manoeuvre boosts crunch and flavour in a vegetable famous for neither attribute, but skip it if you’re short of time.

If using Little Gems, trim off the root and peel away the individual leaves. If using Cos, trim off the root , chop or roughly tear the rest and arrange on your plate (s).

Scatter the cucumber, tomatoes and feta on top and give everything a good grinding of black pepper. The olives should provide plenty of salt.

Drain as many olives as you fancy of their oil, but don’t discard the oil. Add them to the salad.

Finally, dress with a good squeeze of lemon juice and – here’s the top tip – some of the oil from the olive jar.

This can now sit patiently while you make a bonfire of Euros or smash a few plates. Chop and add the mint just before serving.  I like to give everyone a slice of lemon and serve of the olive oil in a little jug to that guests can adjust the dressing to suit their palate.

Try with our new Cretan white Vidiano Karavitakis 2014 (£9.95) – Karavitakis is the name of the winery based near Chania, vidiano an indigenous variety which has an aroma of lime and apricot and spicy fresh fruit on the palate.


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Categories : Other Europe

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