When we think about matching wine with food, we tend to focus on what we like to think of as the more substantive dimension of taste, and (congratulating ourselves on our sophistication) to be comparatively relaxed about colour. So, setting aside our normal ideas of what goes well with what, we are guided by taste and recognise, for instance, that there is no better accompaniment to cold game birds than old vintage champagne. On the same principle, we are happy to have light, chilled red wines with certain fish dishes.
But for other, more whimsical but also in one sense more severe palates, colour is the dominant consideration. The Augustan History tells us that the Emperor Elagabalus would give "summer-banquets in various colours, one day a green banquet, another day an iridescent one, and next in order a blue one, varying them continually every day of the summer." This was surely the text which gave J.K. Huysmans (1848-1907) the hint for the monochrome dinner with which his high-priest of decadence, the enervated aristocrat Des Esseintes, commemorated the loss of his virility in the Franco-Dutch writer's notorious novel A Rebours.
Nothing on this wonderful occasion was allowed to escape the dominant theme of sombre negritude. The dining room was draped in black, and opened out on to a garden where the paths had been covered in charcoal and the pond fringed with basalt and filled with ink; and where the shrubberies had been planted with cypresses and pines. In the dining room, a black cloth was spread over the table, decorated with violets and scabious. Black tapers shed an eerie green light over the room. A hidden orchestra played funeral marches, while naked negresses, wearing only slippers and stockings in cloth of silver embroidered with tears, served the guests an array of black foods on plates edged with black. The menu comprised turtle soup, black Russian rye bread, black olives, caviar, mullet botargo, black puddings, game served in the darkest of sauces, truffle jellies, chocolate creams, plum puddings, nectarines, pears in grape-juice syrup, mulberries and black cherries.
Huysmans matched the drink at this dinner scrupulously to the food, although some of his specifications — both what he included and what he omitted — are puzzling to us today. We are told that Des Esseintes's guests were supplied with dark-tinted glasses, from which they drank the wines of Limagne and Roussillon, of Tenedos, Valdepeñas and Oporto. After coffee and walnut liqueur, they concluded the evening with kvass, porter and stout.