There are many kinds of immigrant. Some arrive with guns, others with mops and most with a repertoire of recipes – and their long-term influence is hard to measure. The 18th-century merchants of the Honourable East India Company were traders who woke to find themselves rulers of a vast country that they had only intended to plunder for profit (and incompetent rulers at that). Without them, there would have been no Raj and no pervasive myth of glamour, privilege and effortless white superiority that ignores so many unpalatable realities of empire. Karam Sethi of Trishna in Marylebone wouldn’t have filled his second restaurant, Mayfair’s Gymkhana, with memorabilia from the sporting clubs of 19th-century British overlords. Many of the dishes for which he has won a Michelin star would not exist in the form they do.
These thoughts were brought on by a superb suckling pig vindaloo, paired with a 2011 Argentinian Cabernet Franc from Pulenta Estate in Mendoza. Vindaloo, from vinha d’alhos (“wine and garlic”), is a meat dish imported to Goa by the occupying Portuguese, who added chillies when their enthusiasm for transatlantic profiteering took them to Latin America. Cinnamon and cardamom were local additions but the dish was tactless, featuring pork in a country full of Muslims and vegetarian Hindus, and it did not become less so when imported here to pulverise the tongues of inebriated members of the master race. There is a perverse beauty to the notion that India, where English is still a lingua franca, bequeathed verbal incapacity on the conquerors.
Gymkhana’s richly flavoured version is as distant from England’s overheated gloop as the restaurant’s benevolently decadent decor is from the realities of the Raj. The wine went beautifully, which piqued my interest in another kind of immigrant. Cabernet Franc is native to southern France. A parent of Cabernet Sauvignon (according to Wine Grapes by Jancis Robinson, Julia Harding and José Vouillamoz), it is best known for richly restrained Loire reds and its participation in the classic Bordeaux blend. If it is now attempting to encroach on Malbec, the bigger, more bombastic grape that Argentina has made its own, we are seeing layers of immigration akin to those in a vindaloo, since Malbec is a French emigrant, though one that is so firmly ensconced in its adoptive home that many don’t realise that. It’s amazing how short memories can become when fresh waves of incomers appear, undermining the status quo and competing for jobs – or for drinkers.
All these foreigners started a row: in this case, over the dinner table, between this Jewish-Australian first-generation Englishwoman and an Anglo-Canadian Francophile. Should curry be eaten only with beer? What’s the ideal dish to match with an Argentinian Cabernet Franc? It was perhaps appropriate that of the Cab Francs we tried, one favourite was called Gran Enemigo (“Great Enemy”). It was juicy and full of dark fruit and did, I admit, go charmingly with pork and prunes, even if all that fierce, savoury richness did feel like the gastronomic equivalent of inviting two panthers to dinner.
Several from 2012 were simply too young: drinking Verum’s Alto Valle del Rio Negro felt like infanticide. My favourites – both beautiful matches for my gentle pork belly vindaloo – were Catena’s Appellation San Carlos 2012, pillow-soft with redcurrant and a touch of clove, and the woodsmokey nose and glorious blackcurrant of Lagarde Single Vineyard 2010. Under these benign multicultural influences, we settled, even celebrated, our differences. No dish is racially pure and even single varietals have parents. Why should people be any different?
Next week: John Burnside on nature