You can't be in Lapland, Finland, and not have reindeer. I know you must be convinced by now that I am some sort of heartless carnivore to savour the idea of having Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer for dinner, and actually, if you get to meet them in person, the last thing you'd want to do is eat them. But you've got to have a heart of stone when you are in the business of writing on food and drink.
My first experience of reindeer meat—in Levi, a frozen town in Finnish Lapland, just 200 km away from the Arctic Cirle—was on a wild night (it was minus 15 degrees Celsius and we were chilled to the bone) before a bartending competition. As mixologists from 31 countries, from Guatemala to Taiwan, entertained us with acts of jugglery (flair bartending) to the music of Black Eyed Peas, I dug into the California rolls with reindeer meat.
It's a wild, gamy meat with a distinct grassy flavour, even after it's smoked, so it had been tempered with a salad dressing (I suspect it was Thousand Island), which should've been a wine lover's nightmare. What kind of wine goes well with reindeer sushi? The Sami people of Eastern Lapland don't have their food with any wine, red or white—in that unrelentingly harsh weather, only vodka shots work— so we have no template to follow.
And unlike other California rolls, this one had a distinctive flavour, so no wine book would help. The challenge made me fall back on the rule I follow with food from north of the Vindhyas. Whenever you're in a quandary over the wine to order with kebabs and curries, just go for decently chilled (10-12 degrees C) Sauvignon Blanc, especially one from the New World. At our party, fortunately, the wine selection included a Sauvignon Blanc from Chile. It wasn't a celebrated label, but it was representative of the New World style.
Now, if you remember what I'd written in the past about matching wine with sushi, you'd recall I was pitching for Pinot Noir, especially one from Burgundy, France, the original home of this grape, which is difficult both to understand and to grow. But reindeer meat belongs to an entirely different flavour category than, say, the gentler raw bluefin tuna or yellowtail or salmon—the latter are closer to the Arctic Char, a well-endowed cousin of salmon, not reindeer.
As one bartender balanced a Boston shaker on his elbow and another made a mess of the floor by trying desperately to juggle three empty vodka bottles, I helped myself to generous helpings of sashimi of Arctic Char. It needed soy sauce spiked with wasabi, not wine, but I can't help but have wine with the food I eat. The Sauvignon Blanc did not work with it; I'd still insist on a Pinot Noir, which wasn't there—instead, there was Merlot, which I would recommend with reindeer steak.
With the California rolls, though, only the Sauvignon Blanc worked. The wine also rocked with the smoked reindeer and beetroot carpaccio served the following night at a formal sit-down dinner.
I tried to reason why.
I figured that the salad dressing in the California rolls needed the crispiness of the wine to balance its oiliness; the wine's herbaceous taste, meanwhile, was an effective foil to the gamy grassiness of reindeer meat—this factor also worked for the carpaccio, where the gaminess of reindeer meat wasn't disguised with salad dressings. When you're pairing wine with food, follow your taste buds and rationalise later
— Sourish Bhattacharyya is Executive Editor, Mail Today
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