IN concert with the theme of iDEAL this week I thought I’d examine the synergistic relationship baked goods, especially breads and cakes, have historically enjoyed with wine and what continues to make them such delicious partners today. Join me on this tasty tale of the oven and vine.
The art of baking is ancient and the most ancient and popular baked item is bread. Precious few mainstay foodstuffs or beverages still prevalent in the modern world predate wine, but bread is one of them. Evidence of winemaking dates back approximately 10,000 years, while archeological digs have found proof of flour and primitive breads that date back to the Upper Paleolithic Period in Europe over 30,000 years ago. Many food historians hypothesize that bread making most likely predates this period and may have originated in the Near East.
In any case, it’s a lot older than wine.
Hunter and gatherer tribes made the earliest breads by putting crude grain and vegetation pastes on heated flat stones. These primitive breads were the first flat breads and forerunners of the modern Middle Eastern pita, Hebrew matzo, Indian naan and Egyptian injera breads. The world’s oldest specialized oven for baking bread that dates back over 6,500 years ago was discovered in modern day Croatia. By this time, the culture of bread and wine had already been established in the Middle East and in the West.
The simple combination of wine and bread may be satisfying but the addition of another food type can make the experience sublime. The simplest addition is butter or olive oil. And all of us fortunate to have visited the dairy producing regions of northern Europe or olive oil regions of Mediterranean are well experienced with the simple pleasures of a leisurely snack of freshly baked bread with locally made fresh butter or olive oil paired with a regional red or white wine.
When cheeses, cold meats, sausages, pates or goose liver are added to the bread and wine partnership, then new levels of culinary pleasure may be experienced. To optimize the success of these wines and food pairings it’s best to pick wines and cheeses or meats from the same region. For instance, an Italian salami and slice of bread with a nice regional Sangiovese red or Soave white. Equally satisfying is Iberico ham with freshly baked Spanish bread and a Rioja or Ribera del Duero Tempranillo-based red from northern Spain or crisp dry Albarino white from the northeast.
One long time personal favorite of mine is Melba toast, a dry thin toast created by famed 18th and 19th century French chef Auguste Escoffier for the opera star Dame Nellie Melba, with a touch of butter from Brittany and a healthy slab of goose liver paired with an Alsatian Selection de Grains Nobles Riesling sweet white wine. Enjoyed as an afternoon treat or even as a midnight snack, gourmet life doesn’t get much better.
The earliest cakes were little more than bread sweetened with honey and other ingredients of ancient times. The Egyptians were the first master bakers making a variety of cakes flavored with honey, nuts, dried fruits and seasoned meats. Indigenous to Southeast Asia, sugar didn’t arrive to the Middle East and Europe until the late 5th or early 6th century. Soon thereafter this new sweetener also became a staple ingredient in many cakes. The Greeks made the first cheesecake and wedding cakes became popular in Roman times. In the Middle Ages cakes of varying sizes and flavors were favorites of the elite but cakes didn’t reach the masses until the industrial revolution in the late 19th century. Today, cakes are a mainstay of every gourmet culture and a favorite treat for children and adults alike.
When pairing wines with cakes the general rule is the wine should be slightly sweeter than the cake. Therefore classic noble rot sweet wines like Tokay from Hungary and Sauternes from Bordeaux, as well as ice wines from the cool climates of Germany, Austria and Canada, partner very nicely with cakes. Late harvest and sweet fortified Sherry and Port wines are also fine companions. A personal favorite is a sweet or off-sweet sparkling wine with cakes as the bubbles and acidity in these wines help define the flavors of the cake while offsetting the sweetness and facilitating digestion.
Recommended styles of sparklers that go well with cakes are Moscato d’Asti from Piedmont in Italy, demi-sec French Champagnes or Italian Franciacortas. Sweeter styles of Prosecco like dry, which in fact is an off-sweet wine, or demi sec that is the sweetest style, are also quite nice with cakes.
If sweet wines aren’t really your thing, you can also pair abundantly fruity red wines like Amarone or a California Zinfandel with certain cakes. The ripe fruity and slight sweetness of these robust reds work quite nicely with cakes that are not too sweet, including dark chocolate cakes. A few months ago in northern Italy I enjoyed an unusual but surprisingly successful combination of a sponge cake topped with fresh regional fruit along with a dry Pinot Grigio from Fruili. As long as you know the rules, there’s no harm in sometimes breaking them.
Tasty breads, cakes and other baked goods paired with wine can be a delightful experience, but when the term baked is used to describe a wine the experience is decidedly negative.
In wine speak; a baked wine is a wine usually from a hot climate whose grapes have suffered from exposure to the sun and heat after harvest. Baked wines may also result from excessive heat during the winemaking process. These wines lack balance and are overly ripe, unpleasantly jammy and usually have aggressive alcohol sensations. So go ahead and enjoy your tasty breads and cakes, but avoid baked wines.