Of Barbera and Basil

I may right now be eating the best meal I’ve enjoyed on my own since arriving in Pullman (the qualifier “on my own” serves to exclude the several lovely dinners I’ve made for and/or shared with friends here.) A great big bowl of brothy Swiss chard, soup-steamed (my term for steaming greens until the liquid evaporates and they begin to brown, then adding extra liquid, turning the heat down, and cooking briefly until the greens are very tender and a small amount of richly-flavored broth has formed), seasoned with crushed white peppercorns and crushed nutmeg, with a big double-handful of chopped fresh large-leaf basil added just before turning the heat off. After removing the skillet from the hot burner, I broke a very farm-fresh egg on top, disturbed the yolk with my cooking chopsticks, and covered the pan while lighting my candles, putting on the dinner music, and laying out my tea tray. The egg was just barely set, cooked by the heat of the greens, by the time I was ready to carefully slide the whole thing into an oversized soup plate (carefully, so that the egg remains on top.) With a bowl of tiny farmers’ market apricots (Goldstrike and Rivals and something with a “Prince” in the name, if I recollect aright) and a glass of Barbera, The whole thing is made especially special by virtue of its origin: the chard, basil, and egg all came from a nearby homestead/farm where I spent all Saturday afternoon chopping veggies and harvesting basil and whatnot. I feel perfectly decadent.

What makes this worth mentioning is the Barbera. This glass is the end of a bottle of Columbia Winery’s 2008 Small Lot Series that a winemaker friend opened up with me this past week. Neither of us was tremendously impressed with the wine that evening. It showed solid Barbera varietal character – black pepper and white cardamom on the nose, bright red cherry fruit overlaid with more pepper and piney spice notes – but suffered from announcing its alcohol content to the nose and pharynx. The overall impression was young, hot, and simple. Nothing wrong with it, but nothing spectacularly right, either.

We tasted the wine without food and perhaps at a slightly higher temperature than would have ideally flattered it. Now next to my basil-laden egg in a green nest, my impressions have changed. The basil, in its herbaceous spicy glory, has worked surprising magic to draw black pepper spiciness out of the wine. The cherry fruit has simultaneously become just a bit richer and darker such that the pepper doesn’t dominate so much as accentuate. Even though it hasn’t suddenly developed great complexity, this Barbera has become much, much more pleasant to drink. Hmmm…Barbera and basil? Or even just Barbera and food? I may be showing my unfamiliarity with Italian cuisine by not having thought of this before accidentally discovering it.

No; not just Barbera and food. Next to the sweet-tart apricots, the Barbera becomes bitingly thin and acidic, with metallic graphite minerals emerging that were before barely apparent. I wonder if apricots baked in basil cream, or apricots stuffed with an herbed ricotta would be a better combination?

This, then, is the great joy of tasting wine with food. Every combination won’t be wonderful, but the whole experience will be enjoyably interesting.

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