Blog post

The tawny tasting menu

Last week I was lucky enough to have dinner with the always engaging George Sandeman. It was one of those ‘port with everything’ sessions, with aged tawny in the cocktails (rather lovely, it must be said) through starters and main courses to dessert.

I’m not normally a fan of these ‘one product, seven courses’ events. I’ve wasted too many potentially good evenings because a maître de chai ignores the evidence in front of him to insists that his blanc de noirs is as good with lamb as any red wine.

And there were a few failures this time, too. However good your 30-year-old tawny might be, it’s going to struggle against salmon. And the 40-year-old with prawns and scallop haramaki was a combination I might need several years of therapy to try and forget.

But with tempura squid and a duck salad, the wines were surprisingly successful. Certainly, if there had been a bit more heat in the dishes (I got the impression that the kitchen had dialled the spice down a bit, which was a mistake) the combination could have been genuinely exciting.

And the 20-year-old (significantly fruitier than the 30- and 40-year-olds) was excellent with a rich, succulent twice-cooked pork belly: a combination I’d never have considered.

The point of the dinner, according to the chaps at Stevens Garnier – Sandeman’s importers – was to get people to think about port. And even with a hit rate food-wise of about 40%, it worked. Tawny is good in cocktails, and clearly can be a useful addition to food-matching beyond its usual routine with the cheese board.

‘There’s a big shift in flavour from sweet to savoury in tawny port,’ said Sandeman. ‘And that’s why it can really work with Japanese food.’

I think they’re broadly in the right area – certainly Asian cuisine, with its spice, salt and umami combinations, ought to be a good hunting ground.

The only sticking point could be the price. The 20-year-old is around £25 (trade price), which, by the time it’s on a list, is going to be around the £90 mark. The 30- and 40-year olds are significantly more, and annoyingly, there aren’t any half-bottles available either.

But there is a solution.

The intensity of the drink means that, frankly, a whole glass is way too much and 50ml serves (perhaps as part of a tasting menu) really could be an exciting option. Serve the port in small measures and suddenly it becomes highly affordable to the diner – and highly profitable for the restaurant.

Glasses at £6 a pop would generate £90 a bottle, from a product that is a) famously tolerant to being kept open for a while and b) highly punter-friendly.

Hell, if the worst comes to the worst, you can always chuck it into a cocktail. The twist on the Savoy Daisy that we had was great!

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