• Cathryn Bell

Fireworks and symphonies - a lesson in pairing food and wine.


Food first, then the wine, that's the way it usually goes when it comes to pairing food and wine.

Usually, a chef will dream of a dish, deconstruct its component parts right down to its protons and electrons, tweak it, recalibrate it, then reconstruct it and present it to me in its perfect form; at which point my job is to go away and find a wine that can in the very least, have a smart answer for it but at best, show it something it didn't know and create a whole new colour. Reader, I love doing this, this is my idea of fun.

Creating pairings like this over long tasting menus has taught me a lot about food and a lot about wine. It's taught me to pay attention to all the notes in the chords, the progressions and the harmonies and to feel for when something unexpected is going to happen - like fireworks over Dublin 8 - startling but beautiful.


Over the years, I realise that I've come to develop an almost synaesthetic approach of evaluating wine for food pairings. I see the different elements and textures of the wine as shapes and colours but hone in on the different aroma and taste interactions as if they were notes on a chord, and focus in on which ones I want to harmonise with or enhance - usually with lots of hand gestures, like I'm presenting a weather forecast on a map that only I can see.

Of course, not all of my wine paring skills are based on the symphony in my own head, my starting point is always rooted in the basic scientific rules of the 5 tastes (and fat, fattiness is always an important factor to consider when pairing wine with food) and an understanding of how certain food elements can have an effect on the harder and softer elements of wine. I would say that my approach overall is a mix of gut intuition and micro attention to detail.


You can only imagine therefore, my delight at getting the opportunity to create a pairing menu with Damien Grey and his team at Liath - the minuscule restaurant that packs Michelin star food and service into the back of a market in Blackrock, Dublin.

I had never tasted Grey's food, but I had been watching it for a while - he is renown for taking his diners through an explicit and and augmented experience of the five senses through the medium of the best Irish produce and friends, so I knew this would be an opportunity to learn how to tether my light shows to the science.

Imagine then, my stunned glee when Chef said "we're going to turn it around - you're going to chose the wines and tell us what you want them to do, and we're going to build the menu around that".


So I went away and thought about the wines that have inspired the most symphonic response in my head this year, the ones that excited me the most with the breadth of their food pairing potential, the different interactions they might invoke, the harmonies they might create.

I chose three wines, a sparkling, a white and a red and mapped them out as coherently as I could for Chef and his team, trying very hard hard to anchor what I was saying around the five senses, deconstructing the projections of my intuition and finding the roots in the science.

We met at as a team and dispersed ourselves in the far corners of the restaurant whilst I presented the wines with my ideas and aspirations for them - along with the invisible weather forecast of course!

Jack, Niall, Louise, and I brainstormed responses to my hand gestures, whilst Chef oversaw proceedings, taking the ideas, refining and augmenting them, effortlessly guiding us along the construction of a 12 course tasting menu that practically wished itself to life!


It was like giving a composer a handful of random notes, and watching them spontaneously, create a full blown musical drama, complete with starring acts for all three players, surprising yet captivating storylines, a sinister underlying theme to bind the protagonists unknowingly in their fate (in this case, cheese) and finished with a quick little montage of all the catchiest tunes.


It was without doubt, one the most memorable pairing experiences of my career so far.

Can I speak more science? Perhaps not, not yet anyway. Can Damien Grey understand an invisible weather forecast? Absolutely.