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Flavor Savers

February 20, 1992|MADELEINE KAMMAN | Kamman is director of Beringer Vineyard's School for American Chefs

I grew up surrounded by hunters, cooks and vintners who pooled their efforts to produce some of the most memorable meals of my life.

When I was a child in the Loire Valley, working in my aunt's restaurant, great attention was paid to what certain game birds may have been feasting upon and what flavor it would lend to their flesh. I remember long discussions about where this or that deer came from and which herbs and berries it may have fed upon--the hoped-for result being a choice of wine that would accent the character of the meat and not be overwhelmed by it.

In much the same way, I feel, some wines have flavors that can be traced to fruit or herbs grown at the outskirts of a vineyard. The tiny vineyard of one of my great-uncles supported one huge age-old cherry tree growing smack in the middle of the plot. Year after year the cherries eaten in June were reminiscent of the Cabernet Franc wines made in October.

Despite this, for a long time I was a little hesitant to add cherries, plums, raspberries or fresh figs to a red wine sauce until I realized that often the fruit used in the sauce became the link, or bridge, between the wine and the meat, especially for small game birds such as quail or squab, or even for chicken.

There are several other types of bridges between wine and food; I call them taste modifiers. A solid basic understanding of these links can help anyone bring their food and wine into closer companionship.

* Salt: This is the first and most important of these bridges because it can be used to balance the acidity of the wine. If a dish contains a lower concentration of salt than our body, we perceive it as undersalted, and the acidity of the wine, and the tannin too, come almost savagely to the surface.

If, on the other hand, a dish contains a higher concentration of salt than our body, we perceive it as oversalted, and the acidity of the wine is so neutralized that the wine appears slightly flat or even possibly flabby.

Those who want to cook to complement their wines should salt cooked meats before saucing them, and not only the outside of the piece of meat but also the cooked cut slices.

Table salt is not the only salt used in seasoning sauces and meats. Anchovies and anchovy paste, soy sauce, meat glaze and meat extract are other ingredients in which salt is locked into proteins, providing a much more opulent taste than table salt alone.

* Sugar: Beginners in the kitchen often think immediately of adding plain sugar in order to lower the acidity of a wine sauce. This is a mistake that results only in a sweet-sour sauce that may do even more damage to the taste of the wine. If sweetness is needed in a sauce, it should come from the small amounts of fructose included in the sap of shallots, onions and/or possibly carrots, finely chopped and cooked with the wine in the sauce as it reduces.

* Acids: As one uses salt to lower the acidity of wine, one may use acids such as plain lemon juice or vinegar reduced in the base of the sauce in order to bring the acidity of a sauce or dish closer to that of a wine. I often use this method to complement young Beaujolais and Gamays and Chardonnays that are slightly tart. Emphasizing the acidity in the food makes the wine feel rounder on the tongue and palate.

* Fat: Added to a sauce, this is yet another bridge between food and wine because it coats the mouth, masking the feeling of a wine's acidity on the tongue and palate. The fat may be simply butter added to a sauce or a compound butter on top of a lightly grilled piece of meat. Other possibilities are fattened goose or duck liver homogenized into the sauce with a blender, or a tablespoon or so of duck or goose fat--even tiny amounts of peanut butter.

* Cream: Sour cream is a perfect salt corrector. Should you find a sauce or piece of meat wildly oversalted, sour cream, with its relatively high acidity, will help you pull the dish back into a range where the wine will not appear too flat. In classic cuisines, reduced sweet cream is used to neutralize the acidity in sauces prepared with a base of Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc, as well as Rieslings, Sylvaners or Pinot Gris.

* Bitter flavorings: Either commercial bitters straight out of the bottle or the bitter peels of citrus fruits can be useful. I like them when a tannic wine grabs the sides and back of the mouth with a slightly bitter aftertaste. The bitters can help neutralize the tannin or bitterness in the wine.

But bitter flavorings are used not only for correction but also for their own good flavor with wines that have a strong aroma of citrus fruit--the orange scent in red Italian wines or the lemony smells in whites such as lighter Sauvignon Blancs.

It is important to give special thought to older wines of great quality, and much should be done to pamper them with food.

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