As a sommelier, I'm often asked, "What comes first - the food or the wine?" This is a topic of heated discussion among wine lovers and foodies. Chefs will usually say it's the food while sommeliers feel the wine takes precedence.
But, in truth, both components are equally important and should be chosen to complement each other.
One of the first to realise that connection was Andre Simon (1877-1970), the founder of what is now the International Wine & Food Society (IWFS).
Simon was born in France but spent his adult life in London. He arrived in Southampton as a youth to learn English, and went on to write more than 100 books, including his early works, The History of the Champagne Trade in England and The History of the Wine Trade in England from Roman Times to the End of the 17th Century. His bestselling work, published in instalments during the 1940s, was A Concise Encyclopedia of Gastronomy, which sold more than 100,000 copies - a record for that time.
One of London's top importers of Pommery champagne and French wines, in 1908, Simon co-founded the Wine Trade Club, and his technical lectures and tastings were pioneering. This was 45 years before the establishment of the Institute of Masters of Wine.
In the 30s, Simon and a friend, A.J.A. Symons, founded the Wine and Food Society. Their first lunch, at the height of the Great Depression, caused much excitement as fine food and wines were scarce. Simon attended and, with his gift for talking, stressed the idea that food and wine were natural partners and could enhance each other.
Widespread acceptance of this philosophy came after the United States repealed prohibition. In 1934, Simon, sponsored by the French government, was invited to Boston to establish the first US branch of the Wine and Food Society, and set up the San Francisco branch in 1935. It is now known as the International Wine & Food Society and there are branches all around the world, including in Hong Kong.
An evening with the members and guests of the IWFS is always a genteel experience. It starts with an aperitif of champagne. The subsequent menu is planned around a theme, and the wines are chosen not only to comple-ment the meal but, as Simon would say, to be a delight for the palate.
As each course is served with its matching wine, the host says a few words about the dish - expounding its history and preparation method - and talks about the wine pairing, providing some background on the winemaker and tasting information. Having been a member over the years of the Hong Kong chapter of the IWFS has inspired me in my work as a sommelier.
The Andre Simon Memorial Fund today sponsors the annual Food and Drink Book Awards. Many of the winning tomes are staples in my home library, including Jancis Robinson's Wine Grapes, Neal Martin's Pomerol, Jasper Morris' Inside Burgundy, Fergus Henderson's Nose to Tail Eating, Hugh Johnson's Wine: A Life Uncorked and Andrew Whitley's Bread Matters, to name a few.
Nellie Ming Lee is a food stylist and part-time sommelier studying with the Court of Master Sommeliers.