Food and cocktail pairing

Prof Charles Spence delves into the mysterious world of food and drink matching.

Flavour pairing is a hot topic these days. While traditionally the only attempt to pair food and drink one would come across were the sometimes esoteric wine pairings chosen by the sommelier to accompany the tasting menu at a fancy restaurant, nowadays it seems everyone wants to get in on the act.

Look in the sensory science journals and you will find other researchers starting to analyse which wines, beers and teas work well with cheese, chocolate, etc. Highlighting what is possible in this space, Quilon, the innovative Michelin- starred restaurant in London, has been offering a varied and successful beer pairing menu for the south west Indian coastal dishes that it serves for a number of years now.

Of course, get the combination wrong and you may find that the food offering interferes with your guests’ ability to enjoy the drinks they have chosen. A traditional no-no in this regard was red wine and seafood, because the combination would sometimes give rise to a metallic off-note that could interfere with the guest’s enjoyment of either the food or wine. (Though note that a change in the materials used for wine storage and production means this problem is far less common nowadays.)

Similarly, serving your guests artichoke can result in the drinks, such as water and wine, tasting especially sweet afterwards. Who knows, therefore, whether serving an artichoke-based snack would similarly mess with the balance of your carefully crafted cocktail creations?

Given all the excitement, it certainly makes sense for a bar that is starting to offer food to consider carefully if/how the flavours in the glass connect with those of the snacks/food they are providing. Obviously, you can go far beyond the traditional suggestion of serving salty snacks to make customers thirsty. Sometimes, of course, one element, say the drink, can help cleanse the palate, as when the acidity, carbonation and/or astringency in a drink help to cut through the fat of a creamy sauce.

But be aware that there is some pretty stiff competition in this space already, what with bars like Chicago’s Aviary, from Grant Achatz, already combining Michelin-starred snack design with an innovative approach to the cocktails served with the snacks – or should that be the other way around?

Differing strategies

Analysis of what professionals in the food and beverage industry already do suggests a few strategies. Sometimes the flavour experts try to match the flavours in the items they pair based on their perceived similarity, other times they work with the contrast between the flavours that may be present in the food and in the drink.

Harmonising is another approach, where the flavours of the food and drink can sometimes combine to deliver something altogether new out of the combination of elements (this is known as a synergistic approach).

Along with these sensory, flavour-based matching strategies, interviews with beer and wine experts suggest they sometimes also select pairings that are somehow meaningful to them personally (what might be considered an autobiographical matching strategy), or else pair food and drink because they share some other conceptual similarity (eg, perhaps originating from the same region).

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For a while, many people who previously should have known better got excited by the idea of food pairing. This was the notion that aromatic flavour compounds found in different ingredients would mean they would pair well together.

Early successes included white chocolate and caviar (which both contain amines), and pork liver and jasmine (which both share the volatile compound indole). 

Other popular combinations that work well together, and which share volatile compounds, include oysters and passion fruit, bananas and parsley, salmon and liquorice, and garlic, coffee and chocolate, which all share the volatile compound 2-methylfuran-3-thiol. The latter constellation of ingredients predicts that a Mediterranean snack ought to pair well with a Caffè Shakerato cocktail, say.

Though if you do choose to do something with garlic, you’d better hope your guest doesn’t share the view of the eponymous author of historic bestseller Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management – that the ingredient was offensive.

However, it turns out the experience of flavour is much more complex than any such simple approach to matching dominant volatile molecules acknowledges. After all, only certain of the many volatiles present in natural flavours are perceptible and, what is more, volatiles combine in ways that are still entirely mysterious to science and hence unpredictable to the flavourist.

Heston Blumenthal had the following to say concerning the flavour-pairing approach in an article that appeared in The Times back in 2010: “Looking back at my younger self I’m almost embarrassed at my bumptious enthusiasm, not least because I now know that a molecule database is neither a shortcut to successful flavour combining nor a failsafe way of doing it. Any foodstuff is made up of thousands of different molecules, that two ingredients have a compound in common is a slender justification for compatibility.

If I’d known then what I know now, I would probably never have tried this method of flavour pairing: there are simply too many reasons for it not to work. As it was, in my naivety I just got stuck in.”

The flavour-pairing approach, then, should be considered not a hard and fast rule for what will work well together on the plate and in the glass, but rather as an idea for inspiration/innovation: suggesting novel pairings that probably had not been thought of before, and that the creative in the bar or kitchen might just be tempted to try to see whether or not they really do work together.