What is a degustation meal?

  • Breaking
  • 15/02/2013

I like nice food as much as the next self-proclaimed “foodie”– but I have long struggled to understand what the point of doing a degustation is.

The prospect of a three hour-plus meal spanning five, seven, or even nine courses and just as many wines has always been far too daunting for me – not to mention the hefty price tag.

Is all the pomp and ceremony worth it, or would a simple three-course meal ordered from a standard menu be just as satisfying?

Degustation menus are a mark of fine dining restaurants the world over, but they have been around for a while. It’s believed the concept originated in France in the early 1900s as a way to showcase a chef’s signature dishes.

In recent times, some have taken extraordinary liberties with their menus. Chef Ferran Adrià was known to subject his diners to 50 courses in one night at his now-defunct Spanish restaurant El Bulli – stretching one meal over five hours.

Why degustation?

Herbert Sabapathy, food and beverage manager at Auckland’s Sofitel Hotel, says a degustation creates an “overall dining experience”.

“It’s not just going to a restaurant and buying a bottle of wine to go with your meal,” he says.

“It’s more about buying the wine that matches every single dish and enjoying the dining experience from it.”

Most degustation menus are tailor-made by chefs before complementary wines are selected to go with each course. But in some cases a restaurant may choose to showcase several wines made by one winemaker, which presents an entirely different challenge for a chef.

This was the case at the Sofitel last week, where chef Scott Brown was given the challenge of designing a menu to match five wines by award-winning Otago winemaker Grant Taylor.

After extensive tastings of three Pinot Noirs and two Rieslings from Mr Taylor’s Valli Wines range, Mr Brown came up with five courses inspired by almost as many continents.

A Pacific-influenced paua salad was paired with the 2011 Old Vine Riesling and followed by an Asian-syle crunchy duck roll with the 2011 Waitaki Vineyard Pinot Noir.

By this point, the food and wine were what the amateur food critic in me could only describe as delicious and well-executed.

It wasn’t until we reached the final course, dessert, that I began to appreciate the purpose of this protracted dining experience.

Even to my untrained senses, the 2011 Dolce Vita Late Harvest Riesling smelled and tasted unmistakeably like manuka honey – quite unlike anything I had ever had before, and the perfect accompaniment to a crème caramel with stewed Otago apricot.

A well-thought out degustation can tell a story, and on this one I realised I had just been taken on a comprehensive tour of the Otago region, with the unique climatic and geographic features of the individual vineyards directly influencing each wine.

An experience not suited to everyone

A recent article in Vanity Fair magazine created a stir when writer Corby Krummer lambasted degustation menus as tyranny for taking away the customer’s ability to choose what they eat.

“How did the diner get demoted from honoured guest whose wish was the waiter’s command to quivering hostage in thrall to the chef’s iron whim?” he thundered.

His criticisms were primarily aimed at the increasing number of Michelin-starred restaurants overseas that are becoming degustation-only.

Most New Zealand restaurants offering a degustation menu also have a la carte options, but some, such as Auckland institution Meredith’s, do not.

Herbert Sabapathy has some sympathy with Mr Krummer’s view, but maintains the customer’s will is always paramount.

He says fussy eaters and those with allergies can be “a chef’s nightmare”, but believes good service means always accommodating individual requests – even when it comes to set menus.

“If you’re going to be a chef who cooks for people, you have to cater for the market as well.”

But that market also has to be willing to let the chef and the winemaker be the storytellers.

Kim Choe attended Grant Taylor’s Valli Wines Degustation as a guest of the Sofitel Hotel.

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