Goodness knows where he was off to, but a few weeks ago that lovely Stevie Parle tweeted, slightly bashfully, to ask what one should drink with caviar. Bear with me on this.
“Vodka,” I replied. Within five minutes a friend who had been eyeballing the Twitter conversation rang me up.
“Have you told him it needs to be wheat vodka?” he wanted to know. He sounded a bit beside himself. “You can’t drink rye vodka with caviar: it’s so sharp, it would just hack into it, I mean it would be like eating caviar with knives in your mouth – it would destroy the smooth texture.”
Leave aside the caviar for the moment – it may conceivably not be one of your staples – there is a point to be made here.
For years we have been hoodwinked into thinking that the better a vodka is the less we will notice it even exists. Just think of all those marketing campaigns promising lunatic levels of filtration, purity… and invisibility. Actually, though, the real pleasure in a premium vodka – one that’s expensive enough to sip as a shot or martini rather than slosh into a glass of cranberry juice or tonic – lies in its individual definition: its texture, the way it glides or carves or pinpricks through your mouth. And that is determined not just by the production process but also the specific grain, root or other plant from which the vodka has been made.
Yes, folks: vodka has its cultural side. “The reality is that vodka from central and Eastern Europe shouldn’t be defined as a neutral, odourless spirit,” says Claire Smith of Belvedere, a relatively new (it was first produced in 1993) vodka, and a particular favourite of mine, made in Zyrardow in Poland, in a factory sited between a McDonald’s drive-through and a railway station straight out of a Cold War film set.
“Some distillers do use the process to try and remove the characteristics of the raw ingredient. When we make Belvedere we want it to be refined but we’re also trying to reflect a sense of the Dankowski rye behind it.” It does, too. Much Polish vodka – Wyborowa and Zubrowka, as well as Belvedere – is made from rye, which grows well in Poland’s cold climate. Rye vodka tends to be precise. It may have a vestigial caraway flavour and prickle slightly, like white pepper, or it may feel soft and serene; but it is always sleek too, cleaving to your tongue. It has reach and edge.
Some rye vodkas are more insistent than others. I tasted a couple in the U Kucharzy restaurant on a freezing night in Warsaw with a bowl of fermented rye soup (more appetising than it sounds) steaming beside me, and was surprised by how much I could taste the reflection of the rye in the soup in the vodka. And of course the two went beautifully well together.