The Right Food and Wine for Passover
By Peter T. Koff, MW
This time of the year is the celebration of the Jewish Holiday of Passover. Passover is really about the Exodus of the Jews from Egypt. Moses had asked Pharaoh to allow the Jewish people to leave Egypt. He refused. After each refusal, God visited a series of increasingly serious plagues on the Egyptian people, culminating in the slaying of the first born. Pharaoh finally relented and allowed the Jews to leave. The Jews knew that Pharaoh was fickle and realized that they should make an immediate departure in case he changed his mind. In their hurry, the Jews did not have time to let the dough for their bread rise, so they baked the dough into somewhat hard, flat cakes known as matzo. To commemorate this event, observant Jews eat only matzo, unleavened bread, over the eight days of Passover. Eating symbolic foods such as matzo is very much what Passover is all about. Jews also eat haroset, a mortar colored pate made from apples, nuts, honey and cinnamon which symbolizes the mortar that the Jews worked with daily while enslaved by Pharaoh. There are many more examples.
Modern Passover is a must cherished time of getting together with friends and family and feasting. Typically the fare is traditional fare, prepared from preserved, precious, handed down recipes. Most Passover recipes had names such as Aunt Sadie’s smoked brisket, my Grandmother’s Matzo Ball Soup. On the first two nights of Passover Jews are obligated to drink numerous cups of wine. Typically that wine was red, sweet and often homemade. Of course, for observant Jews, both the food and wine must conform to Jewish dietary law – they must be Kosher.
Today, observant Jews are feasting on modern haute cuisine variations of traditional fare and of course, there is essentially the same range of wines; white, red, sparkling, dry, off dry, sweet, fortified, modestly to expensively priced, as there is for wines that are not kosher. Kosher wines are found in two forms, mevushal and non-mevushal. Mevushal is Hebrew for boiled, although if the wines were ever boiled in the past, they are not today as boiling the wines would negatively affect quality. The process of making wine mevushal today consists of flash pasteurizing the must, the grape juice, before fermentation. Correctly done, it is not negative for quality. In fact there are some commercial wineries, not making kosher wine, that flash pasteurize the must of white wines in the interest of quality. The main difference between mevushal and non-mevushal kosher wines is a religious one – a mevushal wine, after being uncorked, remains kosher irrespective of who handles the wine. Non-mevushal wine, once uncorked, will be rendered unkosher if the bottle is handled by a non-Jew and in some very strict communities, even a Jew who is not sufficiently observant will render a wine unkosher, simply by touching the open bottle.
We are going to present here, a few reworked variations of traditional Passover fare and suggest pairings with kosher wines.
First Course: Smoked Whitefish Gefilte Fish with Lemon Horseradish Sauce & Gewurztraminer
An absolute must for any self-respecting Passover menu is Gefilte Fish, traditionally made with ground freshwater fish such as carp, boiled in fish stock and served usually cold, garnished with a slice of carrot and accompanied by horseradish stained red with beets, and the aspic from the chilled fish stock.
A Smoked Whitefish Gefilte Fish with Lemon Horseradish Sauce dish is a great First Course. Pair with a Yarden Gewurztraminer from Israel. The spicy floral, rose petal, lychee character of the wine pairs well the fish. The overt fruitiness and slight sweetness are a good foil for the horseradish. The wine costs about $15 and is non-mevushal.
Second Course: Saffron Chicken Soup with Spinach Matzo Balls & Chardonnay
No Passover feast is complete with the almost obligatory Chicken Soup. Delicious in any form when lovingly made, try a Saffron Chicken Broth with Spinach and minced chicken stuffed matzo balls. This formulation should be served in all restaurants, all year round! Pair with a minerally, medium bodied Chardonnay from Backsberg in South Africa. The wine exhibits faint peach and pear nuances overlain with filberts. It is mevushal and retails around $15.
Third Course: Stuffed Potatoes and Stuffed Beets & Sauvignon Blanc
Traditional Jewish cooking has often included beets, and potato is of course a staple as well. For kosher cooking over Passover, rice is generally considered unkosher by some Ashkenazi communities and so it is not often seen. Pay homage to Jewish tradition by stuffing a lamb mixture inside beets and potatoes and adding a tamarind sauce. Choose white and red, or both, for this course. For the white, Goose Bay Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand works well. The wine has a gravelly character, with a hint of freshly mowed grass, forceful fruit but dry. For the red, a fun wine, harkening back slightly to the sweet red Passover wines of yesteryear. Jeunesse from Baron Herzog is off dry to semi-sweet. Made from young cabernet sauvignon vines, it creates a really interesting counterpoint to a Tamarind Sauce.
Fourth Course: Roasted Poussins with Pomegranate Sauce and Potato Rosti & a Bordeaux Blend
Baby chickens can be substituted for the roasted poussins. This is a more middle eastern treatment with the use of pomegranate, cumin and turmeric. Try one or both of these wines: This first is a Domain Castel Grand Vin from Israel. This is a Bordeaux blend, using all 5 Bordeaux varieties. This is one of Israel’s iconic wines and one of the oldest of Israel’s fine wines. The wine is more medium bodied, in the Bordeaux mold. It has a slightly cedary character, with savory black currants and long, refined finish. The wine is non-mevushal and costs around $70. The second wine, also fine, is a contrast. Covenant Cabernet Sauvignon from California’s Napa Valley is forward, powerful with well integrated oak and dark red berries with a hint of cocoa powder. The slightly savory, green and black olive character of cabernet pairs well with the poussins and the cumin and turmeric. The wine is non-mevushal and costs about $75.
Fifth Course: Wine-Braised Brisket with Tart Cherries & Syrah
Perhaps of all Passover dishes, the most anticipated is the Brisket, done many ways but typically slow cooked with dried fruits. The recipe also calls for shallots, beets, carrots and star anise. It is a rich dish with sweet and sour elements, just begging to be paired with a bold, fruity wine. Try Flam Reserve Syrah from Israel. This is a powerful wine, the brooding fruit, just tamed in a taut frame of acid, tannin and oak. The wine is non-mevushal and costs around $90.
Sixth Course: Maple Walnut Espresso Torte & Muscat
No feast of this seriousness can end without a delicious dessert. It is challenging to make kosher for Passover desserts as no flour is permitted. Try a Maple Walnut Espresso Torte with hints cardamom. Leave your diet for after Passover! Try this with Balma Venitia Muscat de Beaumes de Venise from France’s Rhone region. This is a white VDN, vin doux naturel. The natural sweetness of the muscat grapes is preserved by a light fortification, adding grape spirit to inhibit further fermentation. The wine has the raisiny, grapey character of muscat with just a hint of savory mintyness that embraces cardamom and cocoa in the dessert. The wine is mevushal and costs about $18. What a way to finish! And remember, there are two consecutive feast nights on Passover, which this year fall on Friday and Saturday, 3rd and 4th of April. Use the very apt Jewish toast – Le Chaim – to life!
Peter Koff, MW is a native of South Africa, who arrived in the USA in 1988. He has a Bachelor of Science in Civil Engineering and an MBA. Peter developed a passion for wine early on, leading to his qualifying as a Cape Wine Master in 1983 and a Master of Wine in 1993. He is the president and owner of Fairest Cape Beverage Company, Inc., which imports and distributes wine through a network of wholesalers across the USA, including a wholly owned distributing company in California. Peter is married to Valerie and they have two sons, Josh and Ben. They live in Irvine, California.