How not to become a great opera star – with wine and cheese
18th October 2010
I love opera. It's just wonderful. It's so dramatic and full of the most brilliant music and personalities. And some pretty remarkable stories, too, connected with the great singers.
I remember hearing somewhere (was it a BBC documentary?) that the great tenor, the late Luciano Pavarotti, attributed his early success to his mother encouraging him to sing while he was working in the kitchen, especially while charged with the job of grating the cheese.
If he was singing, he would not be nibbling at the cheese, and if he was not nibbling at the cheese then there was a good chance that his other salient feature, his waist measurement, would not become so great a problem as she perhaps feared. That part of the story did not go entirely according to plan, however, as opera buffs well know. Though his famous physique was probably as much due to self-indulgence later in life rather than any lack of vocal practice in the kitchen area.
Pavarotti was born in Modena, considered to be the ‘gastronomic heart’ of Italy and which includes the city of Parma, best known for its cheese and proscuitto. The regional style of cooking is rich and heavy on the cheese and cream sauces. Wine is also generally consumed at meal-times. So there were a lot of temptations for young Lucianno while he was at work in the kitchen of the family home. He kept singing, however, and became one of the greatest tenors of the 20th century
This little story does serve to emphasise the fact that cheese is a great temptation, however. And nowhere is it more of a temptation than as an accompaniment to a glass of wine.
A great combination
But why? Why do cheese and wine go together just like ham and eggs or strawberries and cream? Just why do so-called experts spend hours agonising over exactly which cheese goes best with which wine? Why, in fact, are cheese and wine just so darned good together? Great minds have pondered these impotant questions ever since the dawn of civilisation. The general consensus seems to be that it all lies with our taste buds and the different ways we perceive the four tastes – namely sweet, sour, bitter and salty. (The Chinese and Japanese have pungent, too.)
Wine contains what are called tannins – bitter in taste. Red wine contains far larger quantities of tannins than white, by the way, This is due in part to the ageing of red wine in oak barrels which can take years. Oddly, tannins are, according to your tolerance levels, mildly unpleasant. Think of strong black tea – that is usually full of tannins. Us Brits put milk in our tea in order to remove the bitterness. And that is precisely why cheese (made of milk, of course) goes so well with wine. It moderates any bitterness – particularly with red wine. Meanwhile, sweet white wines, that can sometimes overwhelm our sweet-taste receptors, can be complemented perfectly by the creamy contrast of cheese. It allows more of the inherent fruity flavours to come through.
Really serious connoisseurs apparently never allow a piece of cheese within a mile of their delicate nostrils, let alone their precious taste buds while endeavouring to fathom the mysteries of a really top class vintage. It would simply mask so many of the subtleties and complexities of the taste. Soft and creamy cheeses in particular can leave a layer of fat on the palate that interferes with these subtleties. But for the rest of us, who just like to get on with it and enjoy our wine (especially while we are preparing the pizza in the kitchen), a little piece of cheese with a good glass of Chianti is like a little bit of heaven on earth.
If you are not yet familiar with this delicious combination, do try it sometime. May I recommend a little Italian parmesan or mature English cheddar with a glass of oak-aged Spanish Rioja. Enjoy in the company of someone special. You won’t be able to sing at the same time, and you might not therefore become a great opera star like Pavarotti. But, there again, nobody’s perfect!