Fortify your cooking with Marsala

From time to time I work a day in our shop in Cork's English Market, and for a long time the number one question from the shoppers was "Do you stock Marsala?" At the time the answer was no, we didn't, but we were working on it, and that gave rise to some very interesting conversations - ice cream supremo Kieran Murphy was one of the people I met on the Marsala trail. Next time you're in Dingle, ask for a slurp of the Marsala ice cream! What is Marsala? Well, it's one of those magic ingredients that celebrity cooks torment you with in their recipe books, exotic-sounding, essential to the dish, and, crucially, unavailable to mere mortals. Enter Bubble Brothers - there is now great Marsala in Ireland, and it's very good value.

bottle of Marsala wine

But what is it? You haven't answered the question. Marsala is a fortified wine from Sicily, 'discovered' and made popular by the English merchant John Woodhouse in the late eighteenth century, when fortified styles were much more widely appreciated than they are today. Woodhouse prepared his initial consignment of Marsala's local wine for sea travel by adding brandy to it. Once in England, the cargo proved a huge commercial success. There is a variety of styles and classifications, but the gist of it is this:

There are three categories according to how the wine is made: tawny - ambra; golden - oro; and ruby - rubino

The sweetness of the wine varies from dry - secco through medium - semisecco to sweet - dolce

and the wines are distinguished by age, too, in increasing order: fine - superiore - superiore riserva - vergine/soleras - vergine stravecchio o riserva

What does it taste like? Very roughly speaking, its range of styles is comparable to sherry. That's the sort of taste you should have in mind: a strong wine with powerful, complex aromas and rich, dried-fruit flavours. For sipping and contemplation, or as an appetizer, or as a very versatile ingredient in cookery. In cookery? That's how most people have heard of Marsala: as a spoonful here or there in a recipe book. The sweet styles are perfect for zabaglione and tiramisu, or for 'feeding' Christmas cakes and puddings. The dry version is a real wonder ingredient. Fry some chicken, pork chops or slices of pork fillet, then deglaze the pan with a glass of dry Marsala and reduce it a little: and you have a meal. Add a glass to a beef stew to deepen its savoury richness - or give any gravy a real moreish lift (this can be especially useful if what you're gravying didn't quite turn out as planned). There's no reason not to use the dry wine in desserts, either, because you can always adjust for sweetness with sugar. There's a bottle of the dry fine in my kitchen most of the time.