Trying to arrange a dinner party with my friends is never the easiest task. Busy schedules and lack of commitment has meant that my idea of throwing a champagne tasting dinner party has taken months to come into fruition. I rabbit on to anyone silly enough to get me started about champagne’s great ability to partner a huge number of different dishes, but it’s far more fun attempting to create great pairings in practice and even more fun if they are slightly outside the established rules. Initially, I didn’t know where to start when it came to deciding what dishes to serve but by chance I stumbled across a short article in the Wall Street Journal which mentioned the synergy between Japanese cuisine and Champagne. It got me thinking about the huge array of beautiful dishes there are in Japanese cooking, from the hundreds of different sushi dishes to light, fragrant noodle dishes. These are the perfect kind of dishes to be trying out with champagne.
My aim was to come up with different courses to go with each of the main champagne styles, a brut NV, a blanc de blancs, a vintage champagne and rose champagne. So, first to choose the champagnes.... I went for Besserat de Bellefon Cuvee de Moines range. Besserat de Bellefon is owned by Lanson International and the Cuvee de Moines was conceived specifically with food in mind so it seemed a good choice. The Cuvee de Moines range was originally called ‘Crémant des Moines’ when it was launched in the 1930's, owing to its delicate mousse*. It is this delicate mousse that allows the champagne to lightly cleanse the palate without overwhelming it with too much fizz, making it a lovely food companion.
Aperitif - Besserat de Bellefon Cuvee des Moines Brut NV (£24.95 at ChampagneDirect.co.uk)
Amuse Bouche - Wasabi Bloody Mary
Though this has nothing to do with champagne I would heartily recommend trying a wasabi Bloody Mary. I used Bloodshot Vodka which has most of the Bloody Mary spices infused in it already. The wasabi can be used as a direct replacement for Tabasco but be careful it really makes your nose tingle.
Starter - A selection of sushi paired with Besserat de Bellefon Cuvee des Moines Blanc de Blancs NV (£29.95 at ChampagneDirect.co.uk)
The emphasis for the starter was on simple, clean flavours. We bought some beautiful Tuna and Salmon sashimi from the Japan Centre which is just off Trafalgar square and made some nigiri and maki with it. We also fried up some mixed tempura vegetables and had the obligatory edamame as well. With this course we paired the Besserat de Bellefon Cuvee des Moines Blanc de Blancs NV, a 100% chardonnay which, like the Brut NV, is aged for three years before disgorgement without undergoing malolactic fermentation. Now, I confess that I am not really into the business of analysing what a champagne looks like in the glass, I gain far more pleasure from the aroma and taste, but it is very pretty. It almost radiates golden light from the glass so you can’t help but notice. The aromas are the next thing to grab you, there are floral notes of honeysuckle which compliment the bracing lemony style of the wine. A couple of my guests commented that this champagne was ‘a bit sharp’ for them and I couldn't argue with them. I, however, very much see this as a positive aspect, especially when you are pairing it with fish. It had a focused acidity which cut through the fattiness of the salmon and tuna nigiri. Almost unanimously we thought it tasted better with the food and the food most certainly tasted better when washed down with the champagne so this was definitely a pairing which made the total add up to more than the sum of its parts. Success!
Main - Chicken Katsu Curry with a Mooli Salad paired with Besserat de Bellefon Cuvee des Moines Vintage 2002 (£32.95 at ChampagneDirect.co.uk)
Now to my most eagerly anticipated dish, the main course. I found a lovely recipe for a katsu curry in Gizzi Erskine’s book ‘Gizzi’s Kitchen Magic’. A curry and champagne pairing was a bit more daring than my first course but I really wanted to highlight to my guests how versatile champagne can be. Being my heaviest dish I needed a champagne with a bit of character and body so a vintage or blanc de noir where my preferred options. I went for the vintage option, the Besserat de Bellefon Cuvee des Moines Vintage 2002 to be precise. On paper I think this champagne really delivers beyond its price point. It's aged for 5 years on it lees before release which is a full two years more than required for a vintage champagne. This long aging gave it some aromatic, spicy notes of cinnamon and star anise which picked up on the spice mixture in the garam masala in the curry. It’s worth mentioning that I made the curry very mild so the heat would not clash with the high acidity of the champagne. Despite my initial apprehensions this pairing was very pleasant indeed. Though not an obvious match, the champagne was not at all overwhelmed by the bold flavours of the curry. It cut through the creaminess of the dish and left our palates refreshed and ready for our next bite. This just goes to show that even if you think outside the box with your food pairing you can create some great flavour combinations that go way beyond the established norms.
Dessert - Green tea cheese cake with Besserat de Bellefon Cuvee des Moines Rosé NV (£38 at Oddbins)
Pairing desserts with champagne is very tricky so this was the course I was most wary about. Classically a demi-sec would be the best option but, to be honest, I didn't have a demi sec so why not try something different? We finished with the Cuvee des Moines Rosé NV to go with the cheesecake. Unfortunately, this didn't work at all (perhaps not surprisingly). The cheese cake was very nice but the sweetness just brought out a bitterness in the champagne which was not particularly palatable. When we tasted the rose by itself it also happened to be the least impressive of all the champagnes. It lacked the focus of the blanc de blancs and the simple charm of the brut NV. Perhaps by this stage in the evening our palates were a touch fatigued and our bellies were a bit full.
Overall a fantastic time was had by all. Everyone came away from the evening having been seduced by the champagnes and surprised by it's incredible versatility. I came away with a lot of washing up and a slightly sore head the next morning but a sense of a good job well done.
*The crémant style was originally a low pressure style (typically 4 atmospheres instead of 6 atmospheres) of champagne with a light mousse but this term was banned for use in champagne in 1994 in a bid to save confusion with the sparkling wines from other areas for France such as ‘Crémant de Loire’ and ‘Crémant de Bourgogne’.