Sometime in the last decade, around the time Sideways came out, drinking Merlot, like drinking Chardonnay, became a little bit uncool.
Perhaps it was the echo of Paul Giamatti as Miles Raymond spitting out: “If anyone orders Merlot, I’m leaving. I am NOT drinking any fucking Merlot!” Maybe it was market saturation, when every wine growing nation from America to Argentina became to make Merlot from vines planted in geography that would give quantity rather than quality. Either way, I never really got it.
An inherently heritage variety with the official stamp of ‘noble grape’ attached, Merlot is one of the most drinkable reds around. A good bottle almost goes out of its way to be welcoming: soft, rich, low-tannined and often, illicitly, voluptuously fruity. And when it’s good, it’s very good.
So when I was asked to pick from four wines from the Pay d’Oc IGP 2015 collection and spotted a 2013 Les Boissières, it was a bit of a no-brainer.
The challenge was to match this plummy, purple-stained red’s notes of nutty oak and sweet, sticky berry to a dish worth serving up over Christmas. Given the whisper of winter that’s winding its way around London’s bleak December, and the fact the my palette is already laced with the biting spice of mulled wine and the woody richness of late Autumn vegetables and that I’m finding myself humming snatches of half-remembered carols that spill out unbidden at odd moments of the day, I took inspiration from a festive classic: The Twelve Days of Christmas.
Specifically, the first gift on the first day: a partridge in a pear tree. Given that this song was apparently French before it was taken by the British and published in 1780, it gave me a lovely excuse to mix the wine of France with some other English-adopted ingredients – pears, parsnips and partridges.
This hearty, warming dish pulls all the sweet, spiced and nutty notes from the wine, while offering enough full-flavoured sustenance to stand up to this beautifully muscled Merlot.
Roasted partridge with braised onion barley risotto and parsnip crisps
1 ripe Comice pear
4 white onions
800ml chicken or vegetable stock
120g pearl barley
1 bunch of sage
salt & pepper
- Peel and halve four medium-sized white onions and chop half your pear into chucks and lay them both face down in hot pan coated in a slick of melted butter. Season with course sea salt and a few grinds of black pepper. Turn them after a minute or so to coat each side in butter, then pour over 500ml of chicken stock (homemade is best). Cover and leave to simmer on a medium heat for around 40 minutes until the fruit and vegetables have become soft and unctuous.
- Deglaze the bottom of the pan with a splash of boiled water and transfer the contents of the pan to a blender and whizz until you’ve created a sweet, aromatic onion paste. A generous spoonful of this paste is perfect for adding richness to risottos without cream or cheese and makes a brilliant base for winter vegetable soups.
- Rinse the pearl barley in a sieve – 120g dry should be enough for two people.
- Set aside a heaped tablespoon of the onion paste for later and put the rest in a big heavy-based pan along with the barley and 800ml of water. Bring to the boil, then turn down to a simmer and cook until the grains are swollen and tender, stirring occasionally to ensure the base doesn’t burn – this should take around 45-60 mins. Add more water if the pan gets dry.
- About half way through cooking the grains, put 20g of butter into a heavy-based frying pan along with a few sage leaves. As the butter starts to foam, drop in your two partridges and sear for about a minute on each side until they’re golden.
- Pop the partridge in a pre-heated oven at 180 degrees C for 15 minutes to roast. Remove from the oven and leave the birds to rest for 10 mins. this should give you perfectly cooked, slightly pink breast meat.
- Make parsnip crisps to garnish by shaving slivers of parsnip with a peeler and drizzling them with olive oil (or truffled olive oil if you’re feeling fancy – the earthy notes pair well with game birds) and balsamic vinegar. Bake at 180 with the partridge for around 5 mins until they turn a deep golden brown. Remove from the oven and peel away from the baking sheet, leaving them to one side while you make the sauce.
- Deglaze your partridge pan with a splash of boiled water and a good glug of Les Boissières Merlot – it may seem wildly decadent, but as Julia Child once inferred, you should never cook with wine you wouldn’t drink!
“If you do not have a good wine to use, it is far better to omit it, for a poor one can spoil a simple dish and utterly debase a noble one.”
- Add in a your leftover tablespoon of onion paste and the remaining chopped pear and reduce down until you’ve got a glossy jus to dribble over at the end.
- While it’s reducing down, carve your partridge. The principle is exactly the same as a chicken – find the ridge of the bone between the breasts and slice either side, carefully cutting the meat from the bone in short, sharp slices. You can also carve around the little legs and snap them off at the bone to serve whole – the meat on these is extra juicy and flavourful. I estimate one partridge per person. Keep the carcasses to boil into a beautifully gamey stock for later.
- Spoon a generous helping of the pearl barley onto a plate and top with the partridge breast and legs. Top with shards of parsnip crisp and crispy sage leaves and pour over the reduced jus.