Jancis Robinson, the well-known wine writer, and Silverio Cineri, master chef from Italy, occupy two ends of the spectrum of food and beverage. But last week, both found themselves in New Delhi. While Robinson, on a private visit to the Capital, was co-opted by The Oberoi to hold a wine workshop for the staff, Cineri arrived with over a dozen troupe members as part of an integrated food and dance festival organised by ITC Maurya.
Of late, activity on the wine front has been hotting up, with a string of sommeliers and winery representatives visiting India, and one can only assume that the hitherto dormant Indian market is all set to metamorphose into a wine guzzling part of the world. If Jancis Robinson is to be believed, that is exactly what wine producing countries are hoping.
The wine lounge of The Oberoi was the venue for a spirited meeting with Robinson asking questions and the press answering them, in a departure from the norm. As the doyenne of wine critics in the UK, Robinson was curious to know how exactly the door to the mammoth Indian market would unlock. “In the West, it was the health angle that did it,” she informed her audience. Her unflagging optimism waned a trifle when it was pointed out to her that the pattern of social drinking in India is always pre-dinner, seldom during it, and never after.
The flurry of activity that has taken place by the international wine trade in India is usually predicated to educating the public about the pleasures of drinking wine; the fact that the social scenario in the country will have to undergo substantial change to accommodate wine has been largely ignored. According to Robinson, the key to an across-the-board change is usually some small, overlooked fact. “In Thailand, for example,” she told the press “the drinking public has made the large-scale switch to red wine, but not to white. That is because the movers and shakers of society who dine at upscale restaurants can identifiably be seen to drink red wine. To anyone walking into a restaurant and looking around, a glass of white wine on the other hand, looks like water.”
In the UK, wines are now sold at supermarkets like Tesco and Sainsbury’s. In India, they are available only in deluxe hotels. Heavily advertised brands of consistent quality from countries in the new world tend to do well in Britain. “This year, Australia is going to be the single largest supplier of wine to the UK, outpacing even France,” says Robinson. In India, such a thought is downright heretical. “If its French, it must be good,” is generalised here. Finally, things are beginning to change even in France. The younger generation, who visit England, are occasionally tempted to try new world wines. Sometimes, they even find them good. However, what is remarkable about the UK is the absence of a glass ceiling. “Female sommeliers from France blossom in England, whereas in their own country, they’d find the going that much more difficult.”
As for Chef Silverio Cineri, the recreation of the Italian Renaissance at ITC Maurya where Cineri and his team set out nightly meals at West View brought into focus our own misuse of the word Mughlai as a one-size-fits-all term for any non-vegetarian gravy dish with lashings of oil in it.
Cineri has a hobby that would be unusual in India. but which is fairly well-known in Western Europe: he is a food researcher. and presently the only chef in Italy to do so. His collection of books on the subject number over 4,000 and date from moth-eaten tomes written three centuries ago to contemporary works. “It’s nothing,” he shrugs modestly. “The largest collection of books on food research is located in Switzerland and is far more significant than my modest pile.”
Italian food occupies a unique place in its social milieu, far more than just nourishment for the body, it would seem. “The word for doctor’s prescription is the same as for recipe,” says Cineri and both the medical practitioner and the writer of recipes were called ‘doctor’. As you’re trying to figure this out, Cineri adds a rider: “The Church used to have a say in what the people could and could not eat. They forbade truffles as the food of the devil, and used to confiscate it.” Cineri’s theory is that the top brass of the Roman Catholic church used to polish it off themselves on the sly.
The musical performances, costumes and dinners at Maurya were a painstaking reproduction of the court of Lorenzo de Medici, at roughly the period of history that Akbar was the emperor of India. Coarsely hand-rolled pasta flavoured with `exotica’ of the day like walnuts and pistachios are interesting in themselves, but they are not where Cineri’s heart lies. His pet subject, within the larger ambit of food research, is what witches cooked.
If he is to be believed, medieval Italy had three types of cuisine: the simple, fuss-free fare of the peasants, the sumptuous multi-course banquets of the nobles with an accent on surprising the jaded palate, and secret ingredients of witches. “You are what you eat,” says this fascinating chef, “so it is unthinkable that witches eat run-of-the-mill food.”