Procrastination and its dowdy cousin sloth make for a lethal weapon, capable of pulverizing projects and men on mission. Guess that’s why this blog went on a self-imposed decadence. But what revives remains and what remains rises!
My cuisiner life has not been bereft of experiences. Last year was peppered with an eventful wrap up in the form of a cuisine rich sabbatical to Johannesburg and Philippines. Many promising projects stay poised for a take off this year already. Culled stories of those interesting bits will follow.
But first the latest bit. I chanced upon an opportunity to visit the UB vineyards in Baramati last week. Abhay Kewadkar, a man of much importance in the Indian wine corridor & the Chief Wine maker of ‘Four seasons’ was kind enough to solicit an invitation to visit Baramati when I mentioned I was in Mumbai on work. I took to the invitation like a turtle takes to water. Having worked in Michelin restaurants where wine is as much a part of a good meal as good food, it enjoys a special place in my culinary soul. Fine dining with wine is an epicurean indulgence of conviviality and celebratory living. Starting from the technique and ritual of uncorking a wine bottle, swirling and nosing its early contents in an elegant wine glass to getting the right grip on the stem, drinking wine is an Experience. Even though I believe I’ve found my poison in single malt, I find myself in a juggle over what to have on a fine evening – wine or malt, both a connoisseurs’ drink.
Wine to me, with its interesting array of elements and complexity is like a mysterious spaceship from an alien planet, never ceasing to amaze with discoveries and learning’s. Starting with the science of why it’s served in different shaped glasses with varying stem lengths and rim sizes, to the rational over pairing wine with food – wine is one alluring chapter. So I was delighted at the invitation, despite its business angle, as a wine lover.
While we are on the subject of wine pairings with food – as a chef I would like to think my instincts take over on which wine would go best with a particular taste assembly. The normal rule of thumb is to pair white meat with whites and red meats with reds, so that there is a balance of weight on the tongue. However it’s not that simple, wine pairing is a subject that’s far more scientific. Sommeliers’ have invested much time and research to understand why certain foods taste better with certain wines. It is attributed to the molecular composition of food along with how our taste buds react to the amalgam.
This was going to be my first visit to an Indian vineyard that too in a personal set up. It all started with the generous and gracious pick up that I was extended with from Mumbai. Kamruddin, a friendly company driver from the UB group, told me we’d be about 5 hours from Belapur (which is where I was stationed) in Mumbai to Roti (a small village where the vineyard is located, close to Baramati). His prohibitive late night speeding on the Mumbai-Pune expressway kept me from closing my eyes, even though he assuredly suggested I succumb to sleep. I succumbed to his confident driving. We had reached well within Kamru’s projected 5 hours. In my half awoken state, in the wee hours, I remember being startled by the huge ornamental gates of what looked like a chateau, around which the vineyard was sprawled. Guess to be the king of good times, one has to live in king size grandeur (and this was no castle built in the ‘air’!) I later learnt that the chateau was built over a flattened valley, with its vantage positioning offering a panoramic view of the vineyard.
The vineyard was playing host to a brand promotional event and there were guests from the media onboard. Guessing it must have been a long night and being in the know of Abhay’s brand of hospitality I didn’t expect to see the guests up and about early next day. I set out for a discovery walk of the property and bumped into Abhay who had just finished his morning walk, much to my surprise. I was escorted to discover the chateau.
The view from each floor is phenomenal. The walls on the patio are full of pictorial montages of the brand’s many milestones. It included the picture of a Bouvet Ladubay, a French sparkling wine bought over by the UB Group, popped during Indian cricket team’s recent world cup victory. On the patio of the first floor is an inviting swimming pool around a synthetic lawn, overlooking acres and acres of forest land.
A traditional breakfast awaited us. All the guests along with our host Abhay, sat in the dining area of the palatial bungalow that opened itself to a vista of vineyards and beyond. The experience came a full circle with the realization that we were about to eat authentic local food, whipped up by a Marathi chef in the heart of Maharashtra, served with bubbles made in Maharashtra by a Maharashtrian winemaker! Yes we were offered sparkling wine over breakfast! When aboard a vineyard you think, breathe and live wine. Though I stuck to my Lavazza espresso due to self-imposed disciplinary reasons, I could tell from the satiated looks of the other guests, mostly food bloggers from Delhi and other food journalists from the print, that they were enjoying their early morning winerism!
We were served Usal Pav – which is a healthy variant of the popular Pav Bhaji – it is a sprouted moong dal stew garnished with finely chopped onions and farzan (a savory Indian mixture) eaten with the typical Maharashtrian pav or bread. Also on menu was the Sabudana Kichdi, which is a dish I grew up eating, thanks to my mother. Perhaps the standard of taste and the emotional relish of her cooking is so high that it’s hard to be beaten.
Here’s my mother’s variant of the Sabudana Kichidi – let’s call it ‘The tempered Sago pearls’, to give it an instant cosmopolitan appeal! – that will go perfectly with a glass of Viognier.
This measure serves 4-5 people
Sabudana (Sago Pearls) – 250 grams
Peanuts – 50 grams
Boiled Potato – 1 Medium size
Mustard Seed – 1 Tea Spoon
Cumin Seeds – 1 Tea Spoon
Green Chilly – 4 Numbers
Coriander -5 – sprigs
Curry Leaf – 3 sprigs
Refined Oil – 3 to 4 table spoons
Lime Juice – 2 table spoons
Turmeric – ½ tea spoon
Sugar – a pinch
Salt – To taste
Freshly Grated Coconut – 50 Grams
Soak the Sabudana till it softens. It should take about an hour, drain and keep aside.Chop potatoes and boil and set aside.
Roast the peanuts and dust off the brown layer & hand pound the peanuts coarsely. Mix the softened Sabudana, Peanut powder and turmeric and keep aside to rest for half hour. For Tadka (tempering), heat oil in a pan. Add mustard seeds, cumin seeds, curry leaves and green chilly. Once the chilly sweats add the boiled potato cubes and continue to sauté till the potatoes caramelize. Now add the Sabudana mixture which was prepared and toss it with the tempered potatoes. Add a pinch of sugar and salt to taste. Take the preparation off the flame before adding in a dash of lime and mix well. Garnish with chopped coriander and freshly grated coconut. Serve it warm with a glass of bubbles (Sparkling Wine).
Breakfast was followed by a walk in the vineyard chaperoned by viticulturist Dr Deokote, a very knowledgeable man with atleast 3 decades of experience behind him. A viticulturist is the equivalent of a horticulturist specializing in vine growing. He showed us the various categories of Vitis vinifera (grapes grown with the specific purpose of making wine) cultivated on campus. The first few crops (spanning over atleast 5 years!) are grown and dumped, because grapes grow in different shapes and sizes in the early crop. A mature crop, accomplished only with time, yields fruit that is consistent in structure, size and sweetness – ideal for wine making.
Later I was packed off with the wine trainer for a tour of the wine making. I have trailed wine tours in Sonoma & Napa valley in the US, Cape town in SA and Champagne in France. They are all wineries that are mature and have been making wines for decades. Plus back in the west it’s a far more established commercial exercise sans exotic value.
For example in Champagne MUMM each tourist is given a headset that’s connected to the mike of the guide. He talks and we listen as we walk along the set-up free to wheel in our version of the modus-operandi. Four seasons is a new set up and since I was Abhay’s guest I was privy to a personalized treatment and tour.
Very simply the basics of wine making is something like this –
Once the grapes arrive at the winery they are cleaned through a rigorous process of sanitation. They are then subjected to sulfating (treated with sulphurdioxide) that rids the grapes of unwanted micro organisms and yeast.
Grapes are separated from stems and crushed into pulp. The pulp is called the must. The must is then transferred to fermenting tanks where it is fermented at controlled temperatures, in order that it gains color, flavor and retain essential characteristics of wine. The fermentation is further intensified until the wine matures enough for tannins to offer the juice a degree of astringency. Duration of fermentation varies depending on the vine quality and the winemaker.
It may take a few days to a few months. After fermentation the wine along with the skin is pressed down so that the sediments settle down. The wine is then put into barrels for aging. It’s a misconception that all wines are aged, while red wine is aged more than the whites (some up to half a century!), others are better consumed within a few months or days of aging.
The initial process is slightly different for white wine – the skin is separated from the vine in order that the juice remains neutral in color.
I tasted Sauvignon Blanc and Shiraz, straight from the cask. The Viognier with an alluring apricot taste and Barrique (reserved wine), resonant of the taste of dry spices, all played the exotic dance on my tongue. Guess what really made the taste special was having it straight from the cask, from the hands of the winemaker.
I would have been happy to keep my taste buds unwashed to retain the teasing effect of the tingling wines I’d just sipped. But lunch was beckoning on a large table at the other end of the vineyard. It was again a Maharashtrian largesse waiting to invade our guts. There were no formal pairings, leaving us free in the choice of our flavor of intoxication. I enjoyed sipping the Four seasons Viognier and then moved on to the Barrique. At Lunch, Chef’s Thecha – raw garlic mashed with coriander, chilly & peanuts was particularly appetizing, even though the chilly was overpowering the wine. It was a unique blend of a Desi spicy dish with homegrown wine!
Just as we were exiting the chateau I felt a mild tremor under my feet. I looked around dubiously for some evidence of an earthquake. I was quick to conceal a grin that was soon turning into a good natured laugh when I realized that the effect was created by
the two puny security guards forcefully thumping their feet in their enthusiasm to whip up a farewell salute to their boss Abhay!
In vino veritas (In wine there is truth!), I thought to myself!