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No wine thanks – I'm vegetarian

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Is it just me, or does Masterchef have an awful lot to answer for? Those of us who used to put dinner on the table are now ‘Plating Up' (and then suffering a nervous wait while the recipients discuss the relative merits of continental versus curly parsley for garnish).

Frankly, food is coming under far too much scrutiny for my liking. Suddenly eight year olds can cook, 10 year olds are going to hatted restaurants, and everyone is a critic! It makes me nervous.

And has anyone else noticed the concomitant increase in food fussiness? I've never been a fussy eater (sadly, it shows) so I find the current trend a bit bemusing. As the partner of a vegetarian, I am accustomed to working with some culinary boundaries, but sometimes I find it a bit hard to keep up.

Now even vegetarians are challenging the old norms. Some will tolerate seafood, some won't; some (apparently) find white meat acceptable, and so chicken is OK. Some even confess to an occasional naughty bite of bacon. It's a free world. I am not concerned about definitions, but guidelines are important.

The rule of thumb in our half-vegetarian household is never to serve ‘anything with a face'. The face rule is a fairly practical guide, although it has opened the way for some compelling discourse regarding prawns, and what actually constitutes a face.

For many years my signature dish – whole baby snapper with lemongrass, ginger and coriander – was relegated. But happily, we have reached a point of compromise where this delicious dish may be served at dinner parties, with a strategically placed napkin draped across the fish's face: Snapper in Hijab. I sincerely hope that's not an offensive quip, but the fact is that vegan/vegetarianism is a political and ethical minefield. Even your favourite glass of wine isn't exempt.

I was approached by a Member who had read about ‘vegetarian wine'. She was amused and intrigued, and asked for some recommendations. Unfortunately, I couldn't confidently give her any, because although some animal products are routinely used in winemaking, Australian laws do not require disclosure of this on the labels. Don't get me wrong: our wine labelling laws are known to be among the strictest in the world. The Australian Food Standards Code governs the ‘permitted additives and processing aids for wine', and it is illegal in Australia to use any items not listed in this Standard.

It's worth noting that it's no longer mandatory to list preservatives, antioxidants, flavourings and colourings on a wine label; however any substance caught under allergens declaration labelling requirements must be declared. Herein lies the dilemma for our vegetarian friends.

The delicious simplicity of your favourite glass of wine belies the complex processes it has been exposed to on its way into your eager hand. Grapes have been harvested, crushed and pressed; the juice has been fermented, matured, blended, and fined, before being bottled and labelled.

The initial crush produces free run juice which contains very low levels of phenolic substances. (Phenolics are found in the skins and seeds, and impart a bitter aftertaste.)

Free run juice makes for high quality wines, but in most cases, commercial reality necessitates greater extraction, and so the skins are pressed to supplement volumes. Pressed juice has much greater contact with skin, stalks and seed, and is typically higher in phenolics.

Fining uses protein agents to remove those ‘hard’ phenolics from the wine. It’s not unlike the process of clarifying a consommé (which apparently any six year old can now do, thanks to Masterchef). Fining agents typically include gelatine; isinglass; egg white and milk products.

Most people would be aware that the innocuous-seeming gelatine is in fact derived from the boiled bones, skins and tendons of animals, which makes it fairly repugnant to vegetarians (even on-the-cusp, bacon nibbling ones). Isinglass is less well known, but is prepared from the dried swim bladders of fish (making it only marginally less revolting than gelatine).

Egg whites and milk products are allergens, and so must be declared on a wine label. But gelatine (a commonly used fining agent in white wine) and isinglass are not. So there is no requirement to disclose them.

It was with some trepidation that I broke this news to my Chardonnay-drinking vegetarian partner. There was a brief hiatus while the news registered, and then the face rule was immediately invoked. So happily, Chardonnay is still on the menu at our place.

Other vegetarians may not receive the news so well, and I apologise for being the bearer of bad tidings. The last thing I want to do is put you off your favourite tipple. But I do think it’s important to make one’s choices from an informed position – particularly when you’re talking about crucial things like wine. Everybody knows that nothing goes better with a chunk of roasted beast than a big glass of red. But who knew that Chardy was such a great foil for tofu?

Me? I like everything. Particularly stretch pants.


Gillian Hyde

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