Carignan & Eggplant (aka Aubergine)
Aubergine and Carignan both get a rough ride. Perhaps that’s why they’re best friends.
Wednesday 13 October 2021
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Poor, poor Carignan. Ay, pobrecito, Carineña. All Carignan wants is to be fruity and fun and drinkable and food friendly. So why the bad reputation? Why all the hate from inside the wine bubble? Lowly, is what wine people call Carignan. Inexpensive plonk. Even Jancis Robinson herself calls it — diplomatically — “a curious red wine grape that provokes strong reactions in those who know about it.” Ouch!
Let’s start by saying this: It’s not the grape’s fault that much of southern France chose in the 20th century to rip out existing vines and replant with Carignan. Its high yield helped the region recover from phylloxera, however late 20th century Languedoc soon became a sea of mediocre Carignan. In fact, until EU grants at the turn of the 21st century incentivised growers to rip it all out, it was France’s most planted grape. There is now just half of the Carignan in France compared to that which existed in the 1990s.
I write this from a summer holiday in Rioja, where Carignan is called Mazuelo and is often blended with Tempranillo. There is also a Spanish D.O., near Zaragoza, called Carineña, which is where the grape originated. Although oddly the grape is now, in Carineña, called Mazuelo. Best not to go too far down the grape synonym rabbit hole.
Much of the lovely Carignan I’ve been drinking this summer, however, has come from Languedoc- Roussillon, from Corbières or Côtes Catalanes or elsewhere. There’s not a lot of Carignan to be found, but what’s good is almost always from really old vines. Two wine shop standards that I’ve really liked have been Domaine Lafage Tessellae 2018 and Château D’Oupia “Les Heretiques” 2019 (which is 80% Carignan and 20% Grenache). Both eschew oak, both come from vines that are 40 to 100 years old, and you can find both for under £12 each. That’s one big reason I like Carignan — its tremendous value.
The other thing I like about Carignan is its affability. Carignan has no main character energy. Carignan is your mellow, easy-going friend who’s down for anything or nothing at all, with no drama or need for the spotlight.
Carignan is your mellow, easy-going friend who’s down for anything or nothing at all
Everything about Carignan is…medium: Medium body, medium tannins. There’s always red fruity notes of raspberry or cranberry. But what really makes good Carignan is low-key spice notes (think anise or cardamom) and its backbone of unami. That’s what makes Carignan a great partner with all sorts of difficult dishes. In the US, for instance, some people swear it’s the best compliment to the notoriously hard-to-pair Thanksgiving dinner, with all those sweet side dishes and roasted meats. It’s also good with spicy foods full of cumin or five-spice — honestly better than the cliched suggestion of an off-dry Riesling.
This summer, I’ve been thinking about Carignan and aubergines (or eggplants, as we call them in the States). When you think about it, eggplants face the same type of skepticism that Carignan does. For hundreds of years, people have thrown shade at the eggplant. Which, to be fair — since an eggplant is a nightshade — people historically, and fairly logically, believed it to be poisonous. Most people still don’t even know if it’s a fruit or a vegetable (it’s a fruit). I know plenty of people, in 2021, who still want nothing to do with it.
I happen to love aubergines. In my part of the world (New Jersey), it appears in the iconic and delicious Italian-Ameican dish, eggplant parm. But since I’ve been drinking Carignan and thinking about the south of France, my first big dumb, American thought was: I’ll make eggplant tapenade. So, I told my editor I would pair Carignan with eggplant tapenade.
Now, I love Provençal tapenade, and on a conscious level I know it is made with olives, capers, and anchovies. I don’t know if I had conflated tapenade with caponata in my brain or what happened. But suffice to say, after giving it a go, eggplant tapenade is definitely not a real thing. Don’t try it.
Yet I had already uncorked my Château D’Oupia “Les Heretiques” (an apt name for my heretical eggplant tapenade also). And I’d already bought all these lovely aubergines from the market. And already opened a bag of pita chips. And it was a sunny Sunday afternoon and all I really wanted was a dip for those pita chips.
So, I decided to make baba ghanoush instead. But to do it the right way, channeling my inner Ottolenghi. I fired up the grill, deeply charring those aubergines until they collapsed at the slightest touch. Then, I took the time to scoop and drain the flesh until they were creamy and concentrated in flavour. I used the best sesame tahini I could find (fortunately I live near a nice Israeli market). I poured my second glass of Carignan by the time I stirred in the garlic, lemon juice, and oil. Finally, oh my god, I had the richest baba ghanoush imaginable. I ate almost the whole bowl by myself, as I finished the bottle.
Is there such a thing as a perfect wine and food pairing? No. Life is mostly imperfect. But we try our best. The racy, fruity, earthy notes of the inexpensive Carignan blend mingled close to perfectly with the smoky, garlicky, creamy tastes of my humble homemade baba ghanoush.
Both Carignan and aubergine may provoke strong reactions. But in this case, the reaction is: Pretty fucking delicious.
Baba Ghanoush Recipe
The trick to this recipe is how you handle the eggplants. Grilling them over fire until charred and soft is best. It’s also important to let them rest after cooking and then drain as much moisture as possible. Pair with a glass of Carignan, of course.
• 1 kg aubergine (about 3-4 Italian eggplants)
• 45 ml fresh-squeezed lemon juice
• 3 cloves garlic, grated
• 60 ml sesame tahini
• 80 ml olive oil, plus more for drizzling
• Kosher salt
• Pinch of Aleppo pepper, smoked paprika, cayenne pepper, or other dried pepper.
• Chopped fresh parsley
If using a grill. Fire up the grill to medium heat. Prick the aubergine all over with a fork, then place directly over heat source. Cook eggplants for at least 30-40 minutes, turning occasionally. You want the eggplants super charred and soft, collapsing and offering no resistance to a knife or fork. When done, wrap in foil and let rest for 10-15 minutes.
If using the oven, there are two methods for cooking aubergine.
1) Preheat broiler to high. Prick the aubergine all over with a fork, then place on a foil-lined baking sheet and broil, turning occasionally, for at least 30 minutes, until eggplants are super charred and soft. When done, wrap the eggplants in the foil and let rest for 10-15 minutes.
OR 2) Preheat oven to 220°C (200 fan) and light a burner atop the stove. Prick the aubergine all over with a fork, then place each aubergine directly on the burner, turning occasionally, until it is fully charred, about 5-10 minutes. Then place each on a foil-lined baking sheet and roast, turning occasionally, for about 30 minutes, until eggplants are super charred and soft. When done, wrap the eggplants in the foil and let rest for 10-15 minutes.
After you’ve grilled, broiled or roasted the aubergine and let them rest in foil, remove the aubergine when cool enough to handle. Draining the excess moisture from the aubergine is essential. Slice open and scoop out the flesh, making sure to remove any of the burnt pieces of skin. Transfer flesh to a salad spinner or fine-mesh strainer. If using salad spinner, simply give the flesh a whirl to drain the moisture. If using a fine-mesh strainer, let sit for at least a half hour to drain.
In a large bowl, add the aubergine flesh, lemon juice, and garlic. Mash and stir into a rough paste. Add the tahini and whisk vigorously, then add the olive oil in a steady stream, emulsifying as you whisk. Add more lemon juice if it gets too thick. Stir in salt and pepper.
Serve in bowl, topped with chopped parsley and drizzled oil, along with fresh pita or pita chips.
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