It’s not every day you’re invited to an exclusive dinner, hosted by a famous TV personality in one of your hometown’s most glamorous venues. But that’s exactly what Frederick Latty experienced when he attended a full-bodied food and wine pairing evening at Hotel du Vin in Tunbridge Wells…
In this reviewer’s humble opinion, one of the best things about autumn and winter is that food and drink generally tends to get infinitely better. Don’t get me wrong, I love a good barbie and beer at the height of summer as much as the next guy, but there’s something extra special about the deep, rich flavours and warming comfort of seasonal dishes that come our way from September to February.
Which is why I was thrilled to receive an invitation to Spicy Wines for Autumn’s Golden Glow at Hotel du Vin in Tunbridge Wells. Hosted by celebrity wine expert, Olly Smith, the food and wine pairing evening is a real treat for seasoned connoisseurs and less experienced drinkers alike.
Since I fall largely into the latter category, I’m delighted to discover that, not only do I not need to know anything about wine to enjoy myself, but, as Olly insists, you can pretty much match anything with anything, and some of the best tipples money can buy are often the bargain bottles you stumble across just before closing at your local Aldi. So far so good, then.
If you don’t recognise the name, you’ll no doubt know Olly from popular TV programmes like Saturday Kitchen and This Morning, where he wows audiences and viewers with a seemingly limitless knowledge of, and passion for, all things vino.
Describing himself as ‘Matt Lucas and Boris Johnson’s lovechild’, he’s funny, charming and charismatic in equal measure during our meet and greet canapé reception.
Once our taste buds have been suitably tantalised with a glass of bubbly – the Nyetimber Classic Cuvée Brut 2010, to be precise – we’re ushered into the hotel’s Havana room. Here, a grand dining table has been laid out for all 20+ diners in attendance, giving us the chance to mingle and get to know our fellow guests. I must admit, such a communal seating arrangement isn’t quite what I was expecting, but makes for a fun, immersive and sociable setup that only enhances the experience.
Olly is all wit, smiles and boundless enthusiasm as he introduces our second bottle, the 2010 Chardonnay from Neudorf Vineyards in New Zealand, accompanied by seared scallops with cauliflower, pancetta and capers. Now, I’m not usually a white wine drinker – more of a red man, myself – but this is unlike anything I’ve ever tasted, the chalky mineral flavours and citrus characters making for a flattering combination, perfectly complementing the soft, tender texture of the meat.
As if my guest and I didn’t feel utterly fabulous and sophisticated enough already, a delightfully refreshing lemon sorbet is served as a palate cleanser before the arrival of the main – and it’s certainly needed to offset the richness of what comes next.
Indeed, the venison fillet with roasted beets, glazed chicory tart, fondant potato with juniper and anise jus is right up my street. The venison itself (albeit a touch too rare for my taste), is succulent, juicy and goes perfectly with the evening’s third wine, the rich, fruity Château Siaurac Lalande de Pomerol; with its red plums, spices and hint of vegetables, it’s just the thing to wash down such a decedent second course.
While the plates are being cleared, my guest and I get talking to our dining companions. Naturally, the evening has drawn on and the glasses have been refilled countless times, so it’s safe to say our enjoyment has become somewhat amplified by now, to put it mildly. As selfie sticks appear and overly enthusiastic cheers follow many of Olly’s more memorable quips, it becomes increasingly apparent that we’re all getting – in the words of Michael McIntyre – completely and utterly ‘car parked’.
Ever the esteemed host, Olly does the rounds, effortlessly making each and every one of us feel entirely at home. And as he resumes his position master of ceremonies, it occurs to me that this man actually gets paid to drink great wine, eat great food and generally party the night away on a daily basis. Clearly I’m in the wrong business – may well be time to take out that long overdue Wine Society membership and dust off the collected works of Oz Clarke, methinks.
Last but not least is the 2005 Vin de Constance from South Africa, which is every bit as sweet as you’d expect any of the finest dessert wines to be. It’s matched with a pear belle Helene and, despite being a wine I would normally consider far too sickly, actually goes down far easier than I would have anticipated. Granted, my guest insists she could drink it all night; each to their own, I suppose.
To round things off, Olly regales us with anecdotes about some of his favourite celebrity chefs, naturally leaving us all in stitches. It’s now that his encyclopaedic knowledge of James Bond is also revealed, as he remembers a time when his reputation as ‘the world’s biggest James Bond fan’ once saved his bacon in a blind wine tasting competition.
The TV personality has undoubtedly been the star of the evening, but it’s the wines themselves that have well and truly captivated our hearts and minds. Coffee and truffles really put the boot in, so we say we finish our glasses, say our goodbyes and bid goodnight to what has been a thoroughly enjoyable and educational evening.
As we head to the taxi rank, we’re happy in the knowledge that we’ve not only had a wonderful time tonight, but have also learned something new in the process. Whether or not it sticks when it comes to writing this review tomorrow is another matter; for now, though, we’re sleepier, fuller, drunker, but altogether wiser than when we arrived.
Hotel du Vin
Crescent Road, Tunbridge Wells, Kent TN1 2LY
0844 748 9266