The temperature has dropped and Terry Kirby has made his first casserole of the new season. But what did he pair it with?
The rain is lashing down outside and the wind is picking up. Last weekend, in the countryside, the trees and shrubs turned into a glorious array of gold and amber and crimson, and I made the first fish pie of the year. Smoked haddock, monkfish and prawns were topped with crushed potatoes and served with a youthful but full-bodied, chardonnay.
I also made the first casserole of the season, a braise of chicken, mushrooms and pancetta, with chunks of spiced, roasted squash, the perfect match for the robust, rich southern French red I opened.
Yes, folks, proper autumn is finally here and it is time to unpack the taste buds. Despite those warmer days earlier this month – I wrote a couple of weeks ago about the pleasures of eating out at night in September – there is now a nip and a fair amount of rain in the air that forces me indoors and whets appetites for roasts, tray bakes, risottos, baked pasta and, eventually, those big casserole dishes.
We have autumn’s bounty to choose from: all kinds of lean and healthy game, mussels, wild mushrooms, pumpkins and squashes, cabbages and brassicas.
And we also start reaching again for the store cupboard ingredients – lentils, split peas and other pulses. And for pudding, apples, pears, plums and the last blackberries are in abundance.
The choice of wines needs to reflect the move as well: we seek out slightly weightier whites, with a touch of oak perhaps, as well as chunky reds that can match more substantial foods.
I always think a chardonnay goes well with smoked haddock – there’s no particular seasonality to it, but smoked fish always seems to me to be an autumnal thing. And so for the fish pie, the Warwick Estate First Lady Chardonnay 2018 (£8.80 winebuyers.com; £9.99 ministryofdrinks.co.uk; minimum order six bottles) worked perfectly, from Stellenbosch in South Africa, named in honour of the estate’s founder and one of the pioneers of South African wine, Norma Ratcliffe. Mouth-filling, but unoaked and fresh, with lively flavours of fennel, pineapple and citrus
This season’s other key seafood is mussels, which are plump and juicy and can be eaten in many ways. If you are adding wine to the pot, with, say, parsley, cream and garlic, then another New World chardonnay, this time with a touch of oak to give heft, will work. The Robert Oatley Signature Series Chardonnay 2017 (£12.00 Co-op stores; £15.15 ocado.com) made by the excellent Larry Cherubino in the Margaret River area of Western Australia, is medium-bodied with appealing citrus flavours and an underlying freshness.
If the mussels are in a spicy tomato sauce, with, as I like to cook them, baby potatoes, sweet peppers and chorizo, a medium-bodied, rustic, relatively youthful Spanish red is needed – this is a not a dish for your finest claret. One is the Ramón Bilbao Viñedos de Altura 2016 (£15.50 greatwesternwine.co.uk £15.46 winebuyers.com; minimum order six bottles), which is some way from traditional rioja – a blend of tempranillo and garnacha, grown at altitude, which gives great freshness and vitality to the wine.
Mushrooms, one of the signature foods of autumn, whether cultivated or foraged, can be tricky to match with wine. Cooked on their own, with butter, parsley and garlic, perhaps with cream and pasta or in a mushroom-only risotto, they are enlivened by a splash or two of white wine into the pan and a full glass to eat them with. But avoid zesty whites like sauvignon blanc or pinot grigio and, while either of the chardonnay’s above would suffice, a slightly richer white burgundy, such as the creamy, nutty, citrus-tinged Jeroboams White Burgundy 2017 (£17.95 jeroboams.co.uk ) might be a better match.
In a more complex dish, such as a red wine based casserole, with red meat, bacon, onions etc, look for the earthy, truffly notes of pinot noir. The elegant and dinner party priced Nautilus Southern Valleys Pinot Noir Marlborough 2014 (£22.95 yorkwines.co.uk; £25.00 thenewzealandcellar.co.uk), which has lightly spicy blackberry and plum flavours so appropriate for autumn, is ideal. A good wine also for seasonal game like grouse or pheasant.
For my chicken and mushroom casserole, which was made with white wine to give a lighter touch, I still chose a new red. A typical blend of syrah grenache and mourvedre from the wonderful Terrasses Du Larzac on the slopes of the Cévennes in the Languedoc in southern France, the Les Neuf Pierres Roulées 2017 (£11.00 until October 8, normally £13.00, Sainsbury’s) is rich, powerful and velvety – it is also ideal for venison and vegetable casserole dishes made with pulses and squashes.
To complete any autumnal meal, a fruit crumble – apples, pears, plums, damsons etc, or, perhaps, pears poached in red or white wine – is essential. I’d be happy to finish off any of the three reds above with pudding, but also the lighter, vibrant cherry flavoured Kloster Eberbach Pinot Noir 2016 (£17.99 allaboutwine.co.uk) would work well with fruitier desserts (as it would with lighter game or grilled chicken).
But if the evening is chilly and the fire lit, it’s probably time to also crack some cobnuts with the cheese and to open the first bottle of port of the season. The Fonseca Terra Prima Organic Port (£14.69, normally £18.39, until October 8 waitrose.com) is from an old established company and claims to be the first port made entirely from organic grapes. It gives rich, resonant, baked fruit flavours on the palate and is dry on the finish. And just the perfect glass after a day sweeping up those autumn leaves….