A partridge in a pairing tree: Christmas Food Pairings
Why does the food we eat at Christmas feel so magical
In a similar way that strawberries taste better with cream, Christmas turkey is just not the same without a good dollop of cranberry or bread sauce, or Christmas pudding without a generous portion of brandy butter or cream, or that evening mince pie without a tot of port or sherry. My own Dad insisted on having a good wedge of mature cheddar atop his Christmas cake, along with a couple of slices of crisp, green apple. Although I thought it weird at the time, with my experience in flavour chemistry and sensory science, I can now appreciate the appeal of these seemingly random combinations and understand the science behind why different food and drinks pair so well.
So why is it that some foods and food/drink pairings just ‘go’ together? When pairing any food with another food or drink, there are three common approaches used, called the three ‘C’s; the first is to pair complementing flavours, such as a sweet, fruity sauce with a sweet, fruity pudding. The second is to contrast flavours, pairing sweet dishes with sour or salty ones; the third aspect is the slight acidity or bitterness in foods or drink which can cut through the fattiness of meat, cheese or creamy sauces. Some food pairings use only one of these approaches, but human senses savour complexity, and combinations that can encompass several aspects are the most enjoyable and memorable.
So how do the popular pairings mentioned above fair in these approaches?
Turkey and Cranberry Sauce;
On the surface, this pairing seems to be a classic combination of the saltiness of the turkey contrasting with the sweetness of the cranberry fruit. Similar combinations of meat with fruit are common, for example, pork with apple sauce, duck with orange, and fish with lemon, but there is more depth to these pairings than at first sight. The additional effect of the natural acidity of the fruits cutting through the fattiness of the meat helps to cleanse the palate in between mouthfuls in readiness for the next forkful. Of course, not everybody likes fruit with their main course, so other ingredients that can provide a similar effect are the more savoury, vinegary-based tomato sauces and sweet pickles and chutneys, all of which have the necessary acidity. Or try Turkey with sauerkraut this year, or seitan with classic bread sauce or, for the more adventurous palates, roasted cricket with miso!
Christmas Pudding and Brandy Butter/Cream;
Christmas puddings are a complex mix of sweet, jammy plum notes with raisin, date and sultana dried fruit flavours, cinnamon, ginger spice and zesty orange with rich buttery notes, and possibly with a hint (or stronger) of brandy. The brandy butter or cream complements the brandy notes and adds an even richer sweetness, and the necessary moisture essential for spooning up that last delicious mouthful.
Of course, if you find brandy butter or cream is just too rich, then cooling refreshing ice cream or hot, steaming custard would pair just as well, and for a dairy free option, you can always try a caramel sauce or fruit compote to help moisten the pudding. Or you could try swapping it round and serve rich fruity puddings with a spicy, creamy and brandy-infused peppercorn sauce to both complement and contrast and really give your tastebuds a wakeup call!
Mince Pie and Sherry or Port;
The sweet, syrupy combinations of raisin & sultana and spicy cinnamon, ginger & citrus flavours with the buttery, crumbly pastry of a mince pie are echoed in the rich raisin and figs notes and sweet, vanilla, molasses, and spicy tones in the sherry, this is a classic complement of flavours. What makes the pairing work even better, however, is the cleansing action of the drying, astringent alcohol cutting through the fat in the pastry, stripping the palate clean and ready for more juicy mouthfuls. For alternatives, try the warming cinnamon, vanilla, and astringent notes of chai tea, or the fizzy, acidic cut of Kombucha with your mince pie.
And finally what about the classic combination my father enjoyed so much?
Christmas Cake, Cheddar and Apple;
Well, like the Christmas pudding and mince pie combos, the rich fruity and spicy notes of the Christmas cake complements the creaminess of the cheese, and the sweetness of the cake contrasts with the saltiness of the cheese. The crisp green apple brings to the table much need moisture and the sharp acidity to cut through the denseness of the cake and the fatty richness of the cheese and also provides much needed texture in that crisp crunch with each bite. By combining all the 3 C’s in one bite, my Dad was a very clever man indeed!
So, there you have it! Next time you realise that you are particularly enjoying your Christmas treats, try to remember to stop and have a think about what it is that could be making it such a pleasurable experience; it could just change all your eating experiences for the better!