Expensive Champagne – is it worth it?

One question I am repeatedly asked about expensive wine and Champagne is – is it worth it? Can you taste the difference? It’s a tricky one. Not only because, like with all things, there’s expensive and then there’s expensive. When we’re talking expensive, in general I would say no. In my humble opinion I don’t care how good a £900 bottle of wine might be, it is not worth the money you pay. Mind you, I might change my tune if I had a spare £900 sitting around with nothing better to spend it on, but I’m presuming most of you out there aren’t in that position. It is also important to remember that we’re talking about a product that can only ever be described as a personal opinion. If you don’t like caviar, you don’t like it – it doesn’t matter how expensive it is, or how much I tell you how delicious I think it is – so it is with expensive wine. I think it is always harder to give an honest opinion when it is something you are supposed to like and God knows I feel the pressure sometimes. When you’re in a room of 30 winos and tasting some ‘outstanding’ vintage of God knows what and everyone’s falling over each other to say how fantastic it is it takes a ballsy woman to stick her hand up and go ‘I don’t like it’.

I was lucky enough to be invited to a Champagne tasting a couple of weeks ago to try a range of LVMH Champagnes – the lineup was Veuve Clicquot NV, Veuve Clicquot Vintage 2004, Veuve Clicquot La Grande Dame 2004, Dom Perignon 2003 and Krug Grande Cuvee. Lucky me!! We’re probably looking at a price range starting at about £30 up to around £130. But does it get better as the prices go up??

In general I would say yes – the Krug is delicious! It is what they call a ‘multi-vintage’ Champagne and is a blend of up to 50 different wines from 6-10 different years which gives it the complexity and elegance for which it is renowned. It is full but not too full; buttery, nutty and beautifully balanced. Is it worth £130?? Hmmmmm, if I had it I would definitely spend it, put it like that.

The big surprise for me was the Grande Dame which I hadn’t tried before. Not so full as the Krug but it was elegant, complex with a fantastic length. A really really well made Champagne.

My awkward moment came with the Dom Perignon. I always used to think of DP as the height of decadence and sophistication. I think this mainly came from many teenage years spent reading Jilly Cooper novels; Rupert Campbell-Black was shagging his way around the Rutshire countryside with someone else’s wife on his lap and a bottle of ‘Dom’ in his hand – ah the glamour!! So you can imagine my disappointment while all my colleagues are mid-swoon (over the Champagne not Rupert Campbell-Black) and I’m thinking “Shit. I really don’t think this is very good”. And when I say  not good I mean it wasn’t bad but was just a bit boring. I would much rather drink the Veuve Vintage, which is incidentally about 70 quid cheaper, and this is what I rather tentatively told my table. Happily it didn’t go down quite as badly as I’d anticipated and (thank God) I wasn’t the only one in the room who thought that.

There can be a huge pressure to say something’s good because it’s expensive and it’s very easy to lose touch with what something’s worth. It’s rather like that poor blogger who got pulled to pieces on Twitter for daring to say that he hadn’t particularly enjoyed the starter at Hibiscus. With food and wine it’s just an opinion. And anyone who ever has found wine an intimidating subject would do well to remember that no one can ever tell you what you do and don’t like.

But all that aside – give me Krug any day of the week. It is totally and utterly delish!


Three Course Dinner for One

There is something rather liberating about cooking for yourself. It’s a bit like going to the cinema or out to lunch on your own. It means no one is there to see the mistakes you make; you have the confidence to experiment more knowing that the only feedback you’ll get at the end of the night is your own. I have been known to stay in on a Saturday night and cook a three course meal for myself, drinking a bottle of wine – and I rather love it. Tonight is one of those nights (although it’s a Friday). Mr F is out and I have to work tomorrow. Having survived for the last two days off cereal, beetroot soup (actually delicious) and reheated pizza (no jokes) I am craving a proper dinner.

The starter is a triumph, the main a disaster and the pud is in the oven so I’ll let you know later.

Before I tell you about the starter I must tell you about the wine I’m drinking. It is called Mitius La di Motte and was given to me as a present by a totally charming wine producer in Italy earlier this year. I think it is produced on the Botter estate in the Veneto region of Italy (just in case you’re interested) but I doubt very much if it is available to buy in the UK. Almost opaque ruby red, the nose is pretty closed not giving anything away. This makes the palate all the more surprising; chalky tannins but lush, sweet, port-like red fruit to go with it. Although a bit clumsily put together it has a rusticity and softness which makes it totally delicious.

My starter was a bit of an experiment and something I’ve been meaning to try for years. The inspiration comes from a restaurant I went to a couple of times when I was living in Seville. The recipe below uses quails eggs but I couldn’t find the bloody things this evening so ended up frying a chicken egg and cutting out the yolk (jolly rich but works brilliantly). This would be great as a fancy starter or an even fancier canapé…

  • sourdough bread
  • quails eggs
  • 1 very ripe tomato
  • pancetta (or jamón ibérico if you can find it)
  • half a clove of garlic

Blanch the tomato in boiling water for 1minute; then drain immediately and soak in cold water for a further minute. Peel the skin off the tomato and chop in half. Remove the seeds and core. Blend thoroughly in a food processor with the garlic until it is a smooth paste.

Fry a couple of rashers of pancetta in a frying pan until crispy; if you are using jamón ibérico it is fine as it is. Toast a slice of sourdough and allow to cool. You can now begin to assemble everything – drizzle a little olive oil on top of the toast, then spread a spoonful of tomato paste and finally lay the pancetta (or ham) on top. Fry a quails egg in the frying pan (be careful not to break the yolk). And this goes on top of everything else. Season with a little salt and pepper.

It is very decadent but very very good.

As I said my main course was disappointing (my Béarnaise sauce curdled – I don’t want to talk about it).

Having just had my pud it was good but is not going to set the world on fire. Ready rolled puff pastry cut into individual circles and topped with thin slices of Cox’s apples and sprinkled with a little soft brown sugar and cinnamon. Then baked in the oven at 180 for 25 mins. I was going for individual apple tarts and they are fine, if not a little dry, definitely need tweaking.

Now if you’ll excuse me I’m going to finish my bottle of wine on the soft in front of a movie. Hurray for Friday nights in!!


The Pheasant! Normandy style.


There was a massacre in my kitchen on Tuesday night. The recipe told me to joint the pheasant (“by first removing the legs, then cut away the two breast sections down and along the backbone” – sounds so simple doesn’t it?) and I was ill equipped for such a task. Lesson 1: always get the butcher to joint the pheasant for you (although in my defence I did not buy this particular pheasant from a butcher). Lesson 2: must buy a knife sharpener – this job would have been a hell of a lot easy with a sharp knife.

I’ve never really known what to do with pheasant. There always seem to be an abundance of them around at this time of year. Not least at my father’s house but somehow I think, since jointing the thing was such a heinous experience, I’m probably not up to the task of plucking and gutting. The trouble is you so often eat pheasant and it tastes pretty old, tough and dry. But I remember my cousin Flora cooking this recipe a few years ago and it was absolutely delicious. I photocopied it at the time, and although I have no idea where it came from, having done a bit of research (thank you The Field’s Top 10 Pheasant recipes) it is a traditional recipe from Normandy. Rather glamorously my photocopy calls it ‘FAISAN AU VERGER’

Enough for 2 (if for 4 there is no need to double all the ingredients, just add an extra pheasant and a bit more stock)

  • 1 pheasant
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1 sprig parsley
  • salt and black pepper
  • 1 onion
  • 2 sticks of celery
  • 5 cox’s apples
  • 2-3 level tablespoons plain flour
  • 1 and a half oz butter
  • quarter pint cider
  • 2 tablespoons Calvados (optional)
  • 2 and a half fluid oz double cream

Joint the pheasant as above or ask your butcher to do it for you (recommended). Leave the flesh on the bone, so that it will not shrink during cooking.

Put the pheasant carcass, the neck and the cleaned giblets into a pan, together with the bay leaf, parsley, and a seasoning of salt and freshly ground pepper. Cover with cold water, put the lid on the pan and simmer this stock over low heat for about 20 mins.

Peel and thinly slice the onion. Chop the celery sticks finely. Peel, core and roughly chop the apples.

Coat the pheasant joints lightly with a little flour, and heat the butter in a flameproof casserole or heavy-based pan. Fry the pheasant over a high heat until golden brown all over, then remove from the casserole. Lower the heat and fry the onion and celery for 5 mins. Add the apples and fry for a further 5 mins. Draw the casserole from the heat and stir in sufficient of the remaining flour to absorb all the fat. Gradually blend in the cider (and Calvados if used) and half pint of strained pheasant stock. Bring this sauce to simmering point over low heat.

Put the pheasant back into the casserole, and if necessary add more stock to the sauce until it cover the joints.

Season to taste with salt and freshly ground pepper, and cover the casserole with a lid.

Cook the casserole in the centre of a pre-heated oven at 170 degrees C, for 45 mins or until tender. Remove the pheasant and keep warm in the oven. Boil the sauce briskly on top of the stove – it will thicken slightly. Remove from the heat, stir in the cream and adjust seasoning. Return the pheasant joints to the sauce and serve with mashed potatoes.

This really was delicious and felt very seasonal and rustic. We ate it with that delicious Riesling I was banging on about earlier in the week (Parcel Series from Majestic) which was a really fab match. The weight of the Riesling stood up really well to the creamy sauce. The apples bring sweetness yet also acidity to the dish which is why it pairs so well with this wine which has elements of both in it. A Viognier would also have worked well here.

The thing I like most about this recipe is that you use the whole bird with absolutely no wastage. I felt very frugal as it really was cheap as chips (pheasant should only cost £3 a bird or less at this time of year). And even after all that fuss I reckon I did a pretty good job of playing the butcher.

Why does Riesling have such a bad rep?

I have just tried a totally fantastic wine – a beautifully developed 2006 stunner and yours for the bargain price of £6.99.

The only trouble is that it’s a Riesling.

Why has this wine become such a difficult thing for us to get our heads around? The first response I tend to get when I start waxing lyrical about Riesling is “Oh, I don’t like sweet wine”. Fair enough (although you probably can like sweet wine in the right circumstances). The thing is though, Rieslings don’t have to be sweet. Many, like the Parcel Series Riesling 2006 that I’m drinking right now, can be dry and therefore much more attractive to the modern palate.

I think part of the problem is Germany. Poor old Germany. Until the late 1980s German wines were quite the thing. The exports to Great Britain were huge because we couldn’t get enough of their easy-drinking, sweet wines. At this time New World wines (those from Australia, New Zealand, Chile etc) hardly existed on the British market and so Rieslings came from Germany. You can see how the two were lumped into one. And Riesling, because it’s such a brilliant, clever grape, can produce wines in a range of styles, from the very dry to the very sweet. And because all we used to drink was the sweet ones we forgot about the dry ones altogether.

STOP!! Enough with the wine history lesson. The important thing to take away from this is that Riesling is good. It goes with an abundance of food (cue next post on pheasant and refer back to last one on Thai Green Curry) and comes in a range of styles. It ages well and can develop into something completely extraordinary. Ever heard anyone describe a wine as having a petrol character to it? Chances are they will be talking about Riesling. Please don’t let that put you off.

The one I’m drinking tonight is from the Eden Valley in Australia. It is golden yellow in colour, has a rich minerality to it, relatively full body and fantastic complexity and length; citrus notes are proceeded by marmalade (yes really) and a hint of honeyed maturity. As a 2006 it is already 6 years old and although still fresh is going to have a lot more going on than just ‘young, fresh wine’. At £6.99 on offer at the moment in Majestic this wine is a total BARGAIN!!

A couple of tips on buying Riesling: if you are buying a New World one (Australia, New Zealand and even Chile have some corkers) the majority are going to be dry – look at the back of the label for confirmation as it will almost certainly tell you there. There’s nothing wrong with sweeter styles but I’m trying to convert the masses here so let’s take it one step at a time. If you are buying German it becomes a lot more complicated (one thing the Germans do not make easy for the consumer is their wine labelling) – if you can, remember that Trocken means dry. You can also find some great Alsatian Rieslings (please see previous post).

This week seems to be Riesling revival week in my house. Join me won’t you…?

A few options for a Thai Green Curry

There was a time when I felt like every time I went to someone’s house for dinner we would have Thai Green Curry. As a result I have completely stopped cooking it – you know what they say about too much of a good thing. But it is one of my favourites and yesterday I had the craving. I’d like to think that my culinary skills have improved a bit from university and as such I decided to make the paste from scratch. It turns out this really isn’t much extra work – the bugger is sourcing the ingredients. Although I managed to find everything I needed in Waitrose I suspect the Chinese supermarket would have saved me about 20 quid – note to self for next time.

This is definitely one of those dishes where it is worth giving your wine choice a bit of extra thought as it really does make such a difference. Spice is a tricky thing to match wine with. A Thai curry does not have the same bulky, heavy spiciness that an Indian curry might; the flavours are much more delicate and aromatic and as such it needs a wine that will allow these flavours to shine through while standing up to the any spice. I picked up a Gewürztraminer (Ghe-vertz-tram-in-er) and a dry Riesling and tried both with everyone alongside the curry.  Continue reading…