Life is rosé – Pondering Pondicherry whilst drinking fine wine

Ashish Bhatia Pondicherry fruit de mer curry

I may have pondered this post whilst relishing a range of Rosé d’Anjou wines atop a Shoreditch rooftop, but as my brain became hazy, the pink drink called to mind an altogether more exotic neighbourhood. The ground in question is found half a world away, yet is heavily influenced by the self-same country that bottled the beverage fast disappearing from my glass.

The former French colony of Pondicherry is surrounded by the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu. Almost three centuries of occupation is evidenced in architecture, language, and the bakeries still in full flour-dusted flourish. Much like the food of Mauritius, a delicious fusion arose from adopted and adapted French ingredients, traditions and techniques.

Pondicherry officially became Puducherry in 2006, but despite the name change the same influences remain when it comes to the khana. The French formally and completely ceded control to India in 1962 when the town was declared capital of the Union Territory of Puducherry. Had the Europeans attempted to ban the baguette as they retreated, one suspects a ferocious fight may have ensued.

Over in Europe, as the French departed the sunny climes of Pondicherry, rose was enjoying its very own moment in the sun – especially those from Anjou in the Loire Valley. By the Eighties’ end, over half of all the wine produced in the district was blushing pink in response to rosé’s roaring popularity.

La Grille Rosé d'Anjou 2013 Gwenaël Guihard

In India, the popularity of wine was on the wax even in the wake of the French departure. Thus far, the emergent industry had briefly flourished under British rule, and local wine had received a fine reception at an 1883 Calcutta expo. But a bout of phylloxera largely wiped Indian wine off the map and menu, and religious, moral and political opposition to alcohol did little for the tipple.

The tipping point in India came as Anjou’s rose production reached its peak in France, and the subcontinent’s wine production increased in response to middle classes finding the juice of the vine evermore moreish. Thankfully, the Millenium revealed not another bug like the louse of the last century’s end, but a year-on-year increase in demand for Indian wine.

Tamil Nadu’s only local winery is Cumbum Valley, which long-fought for its license to manufacture the ‘Misty Grapes’ and ‘Red Sea’ ranges. In 2013, the Government allowed IMFL (Indian Made Foreign Liquor)-licensed venues to vend imported alcohol, meaning Pondicherry suppers can now be savoured with something made by the same nation who influenced the food on the state’s plate.

But the French wines you’ll find in Pondicherry are widely regarded as, to put it plainly, ‘rank’; although its French-influenced fare is an interesting affair indeed. If you wish to be made merry by your drink as you eat, then, a visit to London’s La Portes des Indes is perhaps the preferred way to discover the Pondicherry cuisine so rarely purveyed in the UK.

It’s often said that treading Pondi’s seaside streets is like taking a step back in time. You’ll find La Porte des Indes’ interior bears more than a fleeting resemblance to the Indian town known as the ‘French Riviera of the East’; from the curvy, colourful furnishings, to the colonial Jungle Bar, to the crashing, splashing 40ft waterfall.

You’ll find, too, that you’ll fall fast for the food, rushing to gush about the menu chef Mehernosh Mody has built up around dishes discovered amongst Pondicherry’s French-Creole communities.  Fois gras with fig and ginger chutney, saffron-sauced scallops and vindai-spiced cassoulet de fruit de mer show the cuisine’s classic refined, defined French influences to splendid effect.

Effective, too, is the inclusion of a handful of heritage recipes that namecheck the cook. Magret de Carnard Pulivaar dresses duck with Madame Lourde Swamy’s tangy tamarind sauce. Mrs David Annuswamy’s family recipe for coconut-laced Kari de Mouton makes a great case for getting one’s goat on. Spicy veg sides like Rougail d’ Aubergine are scooped up with the Pondi pancakes called ‘Le Pain Créole’.

You’ll like Pondicherry cuisine fine if you like fine French fare but find you need bigger flavours to savour. To a spice-savvy Pondi palate, French food was a bit bland. But dishes soon developed that je ne sais quoi following seasoning from a canny hand – although the food is still amongst the least fiery in South India. Gravies dress dishes in the manner of Western sauces, and local vinegar lends tang.

La Porte des Indes

At La Porte des Indes, the extensive wine list wanders the world; with subcontinental sips from Sula, Grover Vineyards, and Mandala. When it comes to the thorny issue of pink drinks that flatter Indo-French food, there’s a single rosé amongst the Indian inclusions, with a further few from Sicily, California and San Tropez. But look for anything from Anjou and you will be sorely disappointed.

I return from my reverie to the rooftop where I’m residing on one of the Queen of Hoxton’s thrones,  and ask tonight’s reigning monarch about the issue – would Anjou’s rosés appeal with a Pondi meal? Oracle on matters oenophilic, Douglas Blyde, opines that the sweeter, lower-alcohol tipples we sip work well with Indian flavours; able to support spice and complex flavours without overwhelming.

At first glance, it may seem that there’s both an overwhelming amount of spice in Chef Ashish Bhatia‘s recipe for a Pondi-style fruits de mer stew, but the end result is a thoroughly harmonious hotchpot. When you stick a glass of La Grille Rosé d’Anjou 2013 Gwenaël Guihard on the side, you’ll find that harmony becomes simply symphonic. Apt, perhaps, that a refined French wine should define a dish from an area in which its country’s culinary culture left a lasting legacy.

Chef Ashish Bhatia’s Fruits de mer Pondichéry curry

Ashish Bhatia Pondicherry fruit de mer curry 5

Serves 4

Ingredients:

For the seafood:

  • 1 kg cod fillet, cut into 8 pieces
  • 12 raw king prawns, shelled with tail on
  • 12 mussels in shells, cleaned and sorted (discard any open ones)
  • 250g squid or calamari rings

 For the sauce:

  • 4 tbsp vegetable oil
  • ½ tbsp cumin seeds
  • ½ tbsp coriander seeds
  • 4 dried red chillies
  • 2 tbsp chopped ginger
  • 8 cloves garlic cloves, roughly chopped
  • 4 medium onions, finely sliced
  • ½ cup of fresh grated coconut
  • 1 tsp ground turmeric
  • ½ tsp ground black pepper
  • 2 cups coconut milk
  • ½ tsp ground aniseed
  • salt, to taste

For the garnish:

  • 1 lemon, juice only
  • 12-15 curry leaves, fried in oil until crisp

Method:

  • Heat the oil in a deep cooking pot, then add the cumin and coriander seeds and the chillies.
  • When the seeds crackle, add the chopped ginger and garlic and sauté on medium heat for 2-3 mins.
  • Add the sliced onions and cook unit soft and translucent.
  • Add the grated coconut and cook for further 5 minutes.
  • Add the turmeric and black pepper and cook for another couple of minutes.
  • Remove from heat and let the mixture cool before transferring it to a blender.
  • Blend to a thick smooth paste with ½ cup of water (more if needed).
  • Transfer the paste back to a clean cooking pot with ½ cup of warm water and bring to a boil.
  • Cook for a further 7 minutes. Add salt to taste and cook for 2 more minutes, then add the coconut milk and bring the sauce back to boil.
  • Stir in the aniseed powder and add the cod pieces.
  • Cook for 5-7 minutes on medium heat, being careful not to break it as you stir.
  • Add the prawns, mussels and squid rings, carefully folding the seafood into the sauce.
  • Cover the cooking pot with a lid and simmer on medium heat for another 5-7 minutes until the seafood is just cooked.
  • Add the lemon juice and garnish with fried curry leaves. Eat with steamed rice.
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