Christine Austin looks east for the next big celebration on the wine lover’s calendar. Just don’t forget the fortune cookies
It is Burns’ night tonight, so perhaps you have the tartan all laid out, someone tuning up their bagpipes and you are planning to spend the evening drinking whisky and toasting the “Great chieftain o’ the puddin’-race”. There is no better way to recover from the self-imposed rigours of January than with several tots of quality whisky, an oatmeal-filled sheep’s stomach and a long dismal poem.
However, just look at the calendar and you will see that next week you can celebrate Chinese New Year, which is a much brighter prospect for a good night in or out. We will move from the year of the Water Snake to the year of the Horse with a quickening of tempo, the prospect of travel, success and adventure.
So now is the time to get the positive energy flowing through your house, clear the clutter, put some harmony back in your life and then celebrate the start of a New Year with a billion and a half Chinese people around the world.
You could consult recipe books, write yourself a shopping list and trudge round the shops for all the ingredients of a grand Chinese banquet, but that means you will be marinating chicken wings and spare ribs all day, not to mention endlessly chopping vegetables and making dim sum.
Instead take the easy option and head out to a supermarket and clear their shelves of crispy duck and pancakes and whatever else you feel like, from spring rolls to Szechuan beef. The other easy option is to get a takeaway. We have several excellent Chinese restaurants in Yorkshire and they will put together a collection of dishes that will impress your guests and with a selection of wines to hand you can enjoy the evening, without the bother of steaming dumplings and stir-frying your veg.
Despite the fact that China now produces more wine than Chile, South Africa and Australia put together, very little reaches our shores. The new middle class of China is learning to drink wine and there is little incentive to export when it can be sold at home. But Chinese beer is available. Look for the light, citrusy, malty taste of Tsingtao beer in supermarkets (£2.29 for 640ml at Tesco). Then select your wines to match the foods you are serving.
I was in Hong Kong just a few weeks ago and was surprised at the range of wines available in restaurants and bars. French wines seem very popular, particularly top-end Burgundy but there are wines from all around the world, from Australia, Chile, South Africa and all across Europe.
Starters such as chicken and shitake mushroom soup need a delicate, food-friendly white wine such as Godello Monterrei 2012 from Pazos del Rey (£9.99 Marks & Spencer). This has subtle floral notes with apricots and citrus notes and it combines well with the lighter, delicate elements of Chinese cuisine.
As the spice levels increase there needs to be more flavour in the wine. Try McGuigan’s Classic Semillon (down from £7.99 to £5.32 at Tesco until February 4) for its clean, fresh tropical fruit combined with bright, fresh acidity that cleans the palate as the dinner progresses. At the 3 Michelin star Lung King Heen Restaurant in Hong Kong a long list of Alsace Riesling, Pinot Gris and Gewürztraminer shows that these wines definitely have the right flavours to match the food. Tesco Finest Gewürztraminer 2012 (£7.99) has lifted rose petal notes and a soft spicy finish. Alternatively head for a drier style of Gewürz from New Zealand such as Spy Valley 2011 (down to £11.99 on multibuy) which has more ginger and pepper on the palate, bolstered by rounded tropical fruit. Both of these wines will go well with roasted pork belly or spiced chicken wings.
If you decide to cook just one course for your Chinese banquet yourself, to act as a centrepiece, then a single roast fish is often served at celebration meals in Beijing. Try sea bass or red snapper or buy a large piece of halibut and cook it with ginger and herbs, with slivers of lemon peel adding zest for authentic flavours. Stay with Gewürztraminer to accompany this or move on to the zesty citrus fruit of “Les Princes Abbes” Riesling, Domaine Schlumberger 2011 (£13.99 down to £11.99 at Majestic on multibuy).
Crispy duck, rolled into pancakes with plum sauce is one of my favourite dishes at a Chinese meal and the sweetness of the sauce will be fine with a Pinot Noir such as The Ned 2012, New Zealand (£12.49 down to £9.99 at Majestic on multibuy) but if you are planning to move on to a deeper flavoured Szechuan dish such as hot spiced beef then you will need to have a wine with more body and flavour. Head to the Rhône and the spiced fruit of Réserve des Hospitaliers 2011, Cairanne, (£9.99 Waitrose).
Most meals end with a plate of fresh fruit such as mango, lychee and mandarins, sometimes served with honey but in Hong Kong I was served a mango and sago cream with petits fours of almond cake and mint-infused jelly. With this came a local sparkling rosé wine, unobtainable in the UK but to get the same experience, try Bellante Sparkling Italian wine, (£9.99 Marks & Spencer). Alternatively, make a bigger, sweeter dessert and head for the real thing, a Chinese dessert wine, newly imported by Berry Bros in London. At £19 a half bottle, Changyu Golden Valley Ice Wine 2009 from Liaonin Province has honeyed sweetness and a crisp finish.
At the end of the meal serve jasmine in small cups instead of coffee and if you manage to find some fortune cookies then they will add to the fun of the evening.
Don’t forget to put red envelopes at each place setting with a small amount of money inside. These are known as “lai sze” and should be made of fairly stiff card, with gold writing on them. They are difficult to find outside Chinatown so any bright red envelopes will do to give atmosphere, and the money is a traditional symbol of good luck and prosperity. Gung Hei Fat Choy!