I am celebrating. The bathroom is done-ish, I have some more work when the landscape was looking distinctly bare and I have just made peace with my oldest friend in the world, probably one of the few people, bar my family, who remembers me aged 11 (hmm, maybe that’s not such a good thing…). Which all calls for bubbles and things fizzy. Usually I am a Cava-drinking cheapskate so I know very little about the biscuity festive drink. However recently, along with the legend that is Ms Stella Kane, I helped organise the first of a series of wine-tasting pop-ups. SK did the drinks, I did the food and it was bloody brilliant if I say so myself. We tried an awful lot of champagne and my job was to find foods that were both perfect matches and perfect ballast, not easy when fizz goes with very little. But we managed it…
The only thing I knew about champagne was that it goes well with aged Parmesan, so I got a big lump of that. However, that wasn’t going to feed 10 people so, having been to a cheese and Alsace wine tasting with Patricia Michelson and Tim Atkin last October, which was eye-opening, my next port of call was Patricia’s excellent book called, not surprisingly, Cheese. Michelson suggested two choices. The first was Langres, which is a cow’s milk cheese from the Champagne region which I had never heard of. It has a washed-rind (like Reblochon), the type of cheese I often avoid because it’s a little, erm, washed out but this one isn’t; it is creamy but mild, not too rich, with a lovely savoury undertow which is perfect with the sweetness of the fizz. The second was an aged Charolais, a soft goat’s cheese, also from the Burgundy region, which as she puts it is ‘rich and sophisticated with a fine clean flavour’. Again, it was perfect.
My next journey was to Neal’s Yard. I asked for British cheeses that had a salty tang like Parmesan and, oh, how brilliantly they answered that request. The first was Doddington, a cow’s milk cheese from Northumberland. It is made quite close to the coast so the pastureland is permeated by the brininess of the sea; it was the cheapest of the three Brits (just you wait till we get to the third…) and, I think, easily the most accessible in terms of taste: very Parmesan-esque yet a tad smoother. Divine. Berkswell, a sheep’s milk cheese from the West Midlands was equally well-matched; again, it had that grainy texture, the required tang for offsetting the fizz. Finally, the pièce de résistance on the cheese board was Old Ford, a hard goat’s milk cheese from Somerset. Sadly this isn’t a cheese I will be buying very often, since, at £48 a kilo it is £20 more expensive than a kilo of aged beef rib from Waitrose but a sliver of it with a glass of champagne is probably one of the best things I have eaten all year.
Beyond the cheese I made smoked salmon, ricotta and dill wraps from the gorgeous-in-every-way Polpo cookbook, courgette, basil, and Parmesan ‘rolls’ inspired by this salad, a Delia Smith pecan shortbread with strawberries and cream and, my personal favourite, a heap of Paul Hollywood‘s Gruyère biscuits from his new book How to Bake. They are ridiculously simple and fast, it’s practically a store-cupboard recipe if you use any hard strong cheese that you have in the fridge, and the Champagne-imbibers lapped them up, as it were. I shall be making these again and again, to go with fizz and just for the sheer, simple pleasure of them.
PS The list of champagnes we drank is below the recipe and, although I am not qualified to compare and contrast them in the way that Ms Kane is, my personal favourites were the two Chauvets.
Gruyère biscuits (adapted from How to Bake)
(I doubled his recipe; they won’t go to waste)
For about 40 biscuits you will need:
Cupboard (or things you may already have)
plain flour, 150g
unsalted butter, 150g
sea salt and freshly ground pepper
You will also need a couple of baking trays/sheets and a 5cm cutter or small glass/cup.
Pretty much mix flour and butter together, add cheese, chill for 30 minutes, roll, shape and bake but, for the thorough ones amongst us…
1. Grate the cheese and cube the butter.
2. Put the butter, flour and a pinch of salt in a food mixer/processor and process until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs.
3. Add the cheese to the mixture, process to mix it in and create a uniform-ish dough (this shouldn’t take very long).
4. Lay a piece of cling film on a board or countertop then tip the dough onto it and wrap well.
5. Chill the dough for about 30 minutes, or longer if you want to bake them at another time.
6. When you’re ready to bake preheat the oven to 200°C/180°C/gas 6 and grease/line as many baking sheets as you can (you’ll need about four in total or two on rotation). NB lining makes it easier to transfer them to a rack at the end.
7. Lightly flour a large chopping board or countertop, put the chilled dough onto it and roll it out to a 5mm thickness (not much; these are slender little chaps).
8. Use the cutter to cut out the rounds and put them on the trays/sheets, well spaced to allow room for them to spread.
9. Bake for 7-10 minutes until they are lightly browned and spread out. This has sometimes taken 10 minutes, sometimes 7, even on the same day/in the same oven so best to keep checking on them.
10. Remove them from the oven, season immediately with salt and pepper then leave them to cool for a couple of minutes. Finally either slide the whole lot, lining and all, onto a wire rack or lift them off individually, and leave them to cool. They’ll keep for a couple of days in a lined airtight tin or container.
Comte de Lamotte NV Brut – Majestic £20 (or £15 if you buy two)
Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin NV yellow label Brut – widely available
Lanson NV Brut Black label – widely available
Marc Chauvet NV Brut – £24, The Real Wine Company
Marc Chauvet Millesime 05 – vintage, £29.50, The Real Wine Company
Pierre Legras Blanc de Blancs Extra Brut – (their Brut is available from Lea & Sandeman £27)
Pierre Legras Rosé
Waitrose Special Reserve – Vintage 2004 – £30