Wednesday, 21 October 2009

Truffle & Ozzie Wine Fest at The Harrow in Little Bedwyn

I made the journey down the flooded, leaf-strewn narrow lanes of this beautiful and seemingly isolated (albeit M4-friendly) part of Wiltshire looking forward to a multi-course truffle dinner organised at The Harrow at Little Bedwyn.

I did wonder though if, yet again, I'd be underwhelmed by black truffles. I'd had them from the markets in Beaune and Carpentras before, I'd been on a forage in St. Bris le Vineux, I'd unearthed them in the Lubéron where I'd packed them into a box of fresh eggs and a tin of Arborio rice hoping that their supposedly magic olfactory properties would symbiotically transform any subsequent omelette or risotto I made from them. But it seemed to me that truffles were more about smell and less about taste.

Well, the dish on the bar of glistening black truffles that greeted us on arrival was certainly promisingly aromatic and I just hoped that the wafts of gamey, musky, fruity earthiness reaching our nostrils would not dissipate before chef-patron Roger Jones had managed to trap at least a little taste for our palates in the menu. The other challenge for the evening was to convince me that Australian wine goes with subtle, refined Michelin-star food without smothering it with over-extracted, rich ripe fruit, unsubtle vanillary new oak and too much alcohol. Sandro Mosele the winemaker at Kooyong Estate on the Mornington Peninsula south of Melbourne, Victoria was on hand to do the convincing with his wines by matching them to Roger's dishes.

Before attacking the first course we had some Taittinger Brut enlivened by deliciously fresh crab & cucumber bites (well, licks, as these were served on small spoons passed around on trays) and lightly smoked tiny chunks of salmon. We listened to the local farmer who has chanced upon what might be the most fecund patch of truffle-laden forest in Europe, if not the world. The past 4 years have yielded over a ton of commercially viable, worm-free, intact truffles. The whereabouts of this 10 acre chalky patch of mainly beech and hazel forest are necessarily kept secret but I have been invited to go and have a look as long as I am escorted there blindfolded.

The first course consisted of a large dim sum like dumpling of lobster in a light chicken broth scented, and slightly crunchy with nutty truffle.

This was an elegant and subtle foil for the very Burgundian Kooyong Estate Chardonnay 2004 though perhaps a richer and creamier lobster dish (bisque-style maybe) would have better matched the oakiness of this Chassagne Montrachet lookalike.

But then, we might not have been hungry for the next course of a stunningly ambrosial, rich, wild mushroom and truffle risotto where the slices of truffle were soft rather than crunchy and seemed to flavour the dish more convincingly than in the broth (perhaps with the helping hand of a drop of truffle oil added just before serving?). The even more Burgundian Kooyong Faultline Chardonnay 2004 was more than a match for this dish with its honeyed, creamy palate redolent of hazelnuts. Both chardonnays had great acidity like proper Burgundy from a classic vintage and price tags approaching Burgundy prices too (at £18.95 and £27 retail respectively) but, unlike Burgundy of a similar age, these wines are mature and perfectly formed right now. So, representing great value if carefully oaked, nutty, crisp Chardonnay with great length is your thing (if not, it should be!).

Next dish was a chunky pork & truffle terrine containing nuggets of moist pork, nutmeggy black pudding, foie gras, thinly sliced truffle and incredibly soft pork fat almost like lard; the whole was wrapped in hammy, English 'prosciutto'. The Kooyong Estate Pinot Noir 2006 (retail £19.95) was lean and mean like a young red Burgundy and French oak still dominated the nose. However, the wine opened up in the glass over time and the fruit started coming through. There was a puddle of beetroot purée under the terrine which echoed the wine's fruit but the two whites were at least as good with this dish with their pronounced, citrussy acidity going with the saltiness of the meat and cutting through the richness. I thought the pork in the terrine had been confit (salted then gently poached in fat) but apparently had been poached overnight in veal stock at 75°C. It was really succulent and I wonder why more terrines are not made like this.

The second Pinot Noir was Kooyong Ferrous 2004 (retail £27) which, with the advantage of 2 extra years ageing had a more open, evolved, almost gamey nose, with great fruit concentration on the palate, lowish tannin and a fair amount of acidity. A great, balanced Pinot Noir which blind could be taken for a well made Côte d'Or Burgundy. The grilled turbot it accompanied was crying out for the Faultline Chardonnay. I know that low tannin, high acid reds do go with fish; I just prefer white. Perhaps it's the lemony finish on the Chardonnays so good with fish that is missing from the Pinot Noirs. The fish had a wonderfully gelatinous consistency in the skin (even though it had been grilled) and firm flesh. It was in a truffley broth with a few tiny morels, some runny mash and peas. A great dish,the fish just lacking a little salt.

The 2 chardonnays left in my glass 1 hour later were still full of vitality and very long. Next wine was Kooyong Clonale Chardonnay 2007 (retail £13.95) which was a noticeable step down in concentration though very attractive; more Mâcon than Côte d'Or.

It could not match however the intensely anchovy Welsh Rarebit which really needed a glass of Fino Sherry (or Alvear Montilla, which The Harrow has on its comprehensive list).

Next wine was Kooyong Massale Pinot Noir 2008 (retail £14.95) which had lovely cherryish fruit, fine tannins, fresh acidity and a slightly bitter finish.

A delight on its own (or with a plate of charcuterie perhaps) but floored by the challenging pudding of blackberry crumble, blackberry jelly, and creamed cheese ice cream. To be fair, most whites, sweet included, would have clashed.

The outstanding ice cream was reminiscent of those served in the Basque country of Northern Spain; a cheesy, slightly sour and salty cream, great with the darkly acid fruit.

The service orchestrated by Sue Jones with her able manager Heather was smooth and smiley. The farmers, who call themselves the Trufflehounds, spoke eloquently about their truffle treasure find. Their truffles are available at Borough Market through The Wild Mushroom Company and at Truffle UK Ltd. Sandro the wine maker was tired after a marathon tour doing tastings all over the country but did explain that his aim was to make food-friendly wines from hand picked grapes from his own land and that the Mornington Peninsula with its relatively cool, atypically Australian maritime climate is perfect for making balanced, fresh wines from Chardonnay and Pinot Noir which have a sense of place. All quite novel in an Australian context.

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