“I cook with wine. Sometimes I even add it to the food”. WC Fields

I’m keen to get a few things cleared up. There are many myths linked to wine drinking that continue to drift aimlessly on the trade winds. They are, more often than not, linked directly to what and how we eat. They are principally subjective and almost always inherited rather than experienced. Many are so embedded they make me uneasy in the kitchen. Red for meat, white for fish, you know the kind of thing.

As we tend to drink wine with our meal, and frequently use it as one of the ingredients in our cooking, I am perplexed as to why reference to it in otherwise exemplary cookbooks is so often a trite afterthought, and in some I’ve read – no names, no pack drill it borders on the wildly fallacious.

Wine added directly to food during the cooking process can balance and improve like no other ingredient. It has a propensity to amalgamate and modify hard edges, softening wild and unmanageable flavours, it selflessly warms and caresses the closing tastes.

But all too often it can aggravate rather than augment. If you’re tempted to use dessert wine, reduction will inevitably amplify the sugars. Young red wines, when still brimming with natural tannins, are all set to provide you with an unpleasant metallic kick, whilst familiar branded reds, with no hope of ageing due to the exclusion of their tannins, might contribute a fruity aftertaste. Most alcohol burns off at a fairly low temperature, so there’s barely a buzz to look forward too. On the other hand dry white wines with natural acidity may well supply unwelcome bitter notes during robust cooking, and if you are temporarily overcome by the irrational and disgorge a glass of Champagne early into the pot, it will likely repay you with an unpleasantly tart finish. So seek a balance in the wine and commonsense in the cook…or vice versa of course.

Some cookbooks recommend that a wine added to the cooking of a particular regional dish should be of that region. OK, but up to a point. My heart yearns for this to be, my head tells me otherwise. The overarching theory quickly comes adrift if your meal of choice happens to be Welsh Lamb, Lancashire Hotpot, London Particular soup, Irish stew or Scandinavian Gravlax for example, and as we import the bulk of our wine the cookbook’s regional schtick tends to fall at the first hurdle. So when feverishly wandering the wine aisles at your local supermarket and the realisation dawns that you’re trying to unravel the flavour profile of wines from maybe 15 – 20 different countries with which to bestow supper’s foil – and you have my every sympathy here – I’m afraid you’ll have to put head to work rather than heart.

On a pertinent note for our beef recipe, the wine is from Piedmont in north-west Italy. The grape variety is Nebbiolo, and the wine, named after a local village in the region; is the renowned Barolo. Now Barolo, a dark, dense, powerful and elegant red, can take many years in barrel, and even longer in bottle to reach its zenith. Known as “The wine of Kings and the King of wines”, it is treated with nothing less than messianic zeal in Italy. Subsequently, a vintage ten-year old will doubtless require you to be on the receiving end of a modest lottery win.

I have in my library, several cookbooks with wine recommendations that run as vacuously as “always cook using the self-same wine you will be drinking along with your meal” so although I unsparingly recommend that you choose a Barolo I do so exclusively as the accompaniment to your meal, as 24 hours of marination with assorted vegetables followed by 3 hours simmering the bejesus out of it, the employment of a bottle of Barolo in the cooking pot might be classed as certifiably insane. Furthermore if you do tip most of a bottle of this robust, heavenly perfumed wine into the dish – there will be far less for you to actually drink and enjoy. Tu sei pazzo.

I used an inexpensive Barbera – same region, same grape variety, totally different price point, in the immortal words of Emmylou Harris “Never breaking, only bending“. Additionally I contest that any robust, low tannin red with a little bottle age will suffice for the marinade here. But if you do select a wine from Italy, you’ll probably feel better about it. I did.

Beef braised in Barolo wine [Brasato al Barolo] from Classic Italian Recipes (2011) by Anna del Conte

Serves 6

1-5 kg braising steak or brisket in a single piece

1 bottle of Barolo (save your money, buy Barbera)

4 tbsp olive oil

25g unsalted butter

1 onion, chopped

3 garlic cloves, chopped

2 anchovy fillets, chopped

2 tbsp chopped flat leaf parsley

2 tbsp chopped celery leaves

6 sage leaves

1 sprig rosemary

2 tbsp light brown sugar

Sea salt and pepper


2 onions, chopped

2 carrots, chopped

2 celery sticks, chopped

3 cloves

10 juniper berries

6 black peppercorns

Sprig of sage

Sprig of thyme

Make the marinade, mix all the ingredients in a non-metallic bowl

Place the meat on top and pour over half the wine

Leave to marinate in a cool place for 24 hours, turning the meat over as often as you can remember

Remove the meat from the marinade and dry thoroughly with kitchen paper

Season to taste with salt and pepper

Heat a tablespoon of olive oil in a frying pan, add the meat and brown all over, transfer to a plate

Strain the marinade into the frying pan and deglaze for 2 minutes, scraping up the bits at the bottom of the pan

Discard the marinade vegetables

Heat the remaining oil and half the butter in a casserole, add the onion, garlic, anchovies, parsley, sage and celery and cook, stirring frequently for about 7 minutes

Put the meat on the vegetables, add the strained marinade liquid and the remaining wine, cover the casserole and cook in a pre-heated oven 160°C/325°FGas mark 3 for 1½ hours, turning the meat 2- 3 times during the cooking

Sprinkle with the sugar and continue cooking for another 1½ hours until the meat is tender

Transfer the meat to a board and cover loosely with foil

Spoon all the vegetables and cooking juices into a food processor or blender and process to make a purée

Return the purée to the casserole

Cook over a low heat adding the remaining butter, little by little, while stirring well

Check the seasoning

Carve the meat into slices about 1 cm thick, spoon some of the sauce around the slices and serve immediately

Wine thoughts – as above…