Is the old saying "what grows together goes together" true even when it comes to fine wine and foraging? Gusbourne writer Emily Miles steps behind the scenes at a very special Fifty One Degrees North lunch to find out.
It’s the first cool morning of the season. As I bundle outside, wellies and jacket in hand, the radio newsreader is reporting that frosts have arrived in Scotland.
But here in Kent, the mists are lying low – a hazy contrast to the late blast of summer heat which swept in with the start of September. Today, the cool and damp is exactly what we want. We’re off in search of autumn’s bounty – chanterelle mushrooms.
I’m in illustrious company – some of the country’s finest sommeliers and wine buyers are joining Chef Patron Dan Smith, of The Fordwich Arms, and his storied octogenarian forager, Mike. One an expert in his field; the other an expert in the field.
What grows together, goes together
As we gather on the edge of a woodland pathway, a quick glance at the assembled company’s footwear hints that this is the debut foray into foraging for most. Happily, Laura Rhys, Master Sommelier and our Global Ambassador is carrying a large Gusbourne bag that clinks reassuringly. A glass of Blanc de Blancs 2019 should prove ample compensation if the fungi prove illusive.
Mike sets off, leading the way – slow, steady, careful. “If you go too fast, you’ll just walk over any mushrooms,” he councils. The ground is carpeted with bright yellow and red leaves. Every now and then, when he sees a promising spot, Mike turns the leaf litter using a well-worn walking staff.
It’s not long before Mike makes his first find – a small but perfect chanterelle. Initially, trying to focus on it is like looking at a magic eye picture: the pale-yellow mushroom is perfectly disguised amongst gold-coloured leaves. But, once seen, the woodland becomes alive with possibility: we find we’re surrounded by chanterelle. Each discovery is met with delighted cries.
The next hour is a strange contradiction – both incredibly relaxing and serene but also thrilling. We’re giddily adrenaline-fuelled.
Before long, Mike’s basket holds a respectable haul of freshly gathered mushrooms. Dan eyes them appreciatively – thinking, no doubt, about how he’ll weave them into today’s luxurious menu. Laura suggests a toast to our harvest, and we enthuse about our hunter-gathering prowess over a chilled glass of Blanc de Blancs.
Having raised a glass to the season, it’s time to return to Fordwich.
No ordinary lunch
As the number of wine pros in attendance signifies, this is to be no ordinary lunch. It is, in fact, one of the first-ever tastings of our prestige bottling, Fifty One Degrees North 2016.
Soon, we’re snugly ensconced in the Fordwich Arms’ wood-panelled dining room, sat under a beautiful bough of dried floristry. A huge vasque cossets six freshly uncorked bottles of Fifty One Degrees North, allowing the wine to taste air for the first time in years.
Laura is in her element as she sets the scene for Fifty One by introducing four single-vineyard wines: from Kent Blanc de Blancs Boot Hill 2018 and Blanc de Noirs Heartbreak 2018; from Sussex Blanc de Blancs Selhurst Park 2018 and Blanc de Meuniers Down Field 2018. Here, she can demonstrate the impact of terroir and the range of blending components we have to create our prestigious blend.
The wines are dazzling – each delicious and intellectual, dividing the room as to whether the opulent fruit from Kent or the bright, mineral elegant Blancs and Meunier from Sussex has the edge.
Fifty One Degrees North 2016
And then, we change pace. Laura pours Fifty One Degrees North 2016. The wine has us in thrall. With total concentration and virtual silence, we begin to experience this wonderful prestige bottling. Weight, richness, roundness, fine acidity, tiny bubbles – this is something very special indeed.
Senses heightened, it’s time to put Fifty One through its paces. Alongside Dan’s incredible menu, we’ll taste Fifty One as a gourmand wine – both a foil and also a partner to dish after exquisite dish.
I ask the assembled sommeliers whether they’d choose to serve a sparkling throughout a meal? The answer – well, of course. But only if the guests ordering the wine were open-minded enough. “There’s no question that it’s an excellent match with food,” says one somm. “But not everyone would be brave enough to order bubbles throughout the meal. A wine with this level of complexity – served in this way – can work alongside a huge array of flavours.”
And this is precisely what we discover. An assortment of mouth-watering, palate-piquing “snacks” are the prelude to the feast. Then comes oven-warm homemade breads which are so devastatingly delicious that the meal could end there, and we would all be perfectly content.
Thankfully it doesn’t have to. Hay smoked trout with girolles and Kentish truffles bring out Fifty One’s richness and tertiary complexity; sweet Scottish langoustines become even more finely tuned alongside Fifty One’s racy acidity; south coast turbot with clams and our foraged chanterelle is the crescendo to the meal: each element – the delicate fish, the earthy mushrooms, the rich butter – is elevated and intensified by this complex, cerebral wine.
Laura has chosen to let each bottle breathe before serving. The wine is cool, but not cold, and – with more than one glass in front of us – we are all invited to think about how it opens and unfurls as we move through the meal.
The overall impact – the wine, the ingredients and the cooking – combine to make the experience something truly sensational. Culinary alchemy.
It’s a rare treat to enjoy the many facets of Fifty One Degrees North 2016. But for those who have a deep love of food and wine, these are the experiences worth seeking out.