Wine with Food: California Brut Champagne
By Paul Kalemkiarian Sr. | April 1983
Let’s assume that you were given a fine bottle of California champagne as a gift and you had set aside for the right occasion. Then one day, that special celebration presented itself. An anniversary, a promotion, a raise, good news; all these deserve popping that cork, and clinking the glasses.
What food would you serve with it? This question is best answered by determining the time of day the celebration is scheduled for.
Start with the morning. If you were going to celebrate at breakfast, for one reason or another, a fresh fruit salad would be a perfect accompaniment. If you want to do something special, how about baked apples as your fruit course, and the champagne for the toast? That’s about where you stop with the champagne. The other standard breakfast courses will overpower the bubbles.
If the occasion presents itself at other than mealtime, like mid-morning, mid-afternoon, or late evening, a small something to nibble will always add to the enjoyment. Starting with the simplest, a champagne wafer is available that seems to harmonize well, and add elegance to the service. It is crisp, flaky, light, and not too sweet. Some bakeries feature it. My favorite is made by Bahlsen of Switzerland. It can be found in the gourmet section of markets that feature their products.
For something more substantial, a light pate, the baked variety preferably, with thin sliced French bread (baguette) toast, seems to be invented for champagne. Rosemarie, my food experimenter, recently prepared a marvelous pate from a recipe found in an Irish cookbook. It has a custard type base, and is baked in a water bath. It was so light and fluffy, and was outstanding with champagne. (see The Art of Irish Cooking by Monica Sheridan. Gramercy Publishing Company. 1965. pg. 2 Liver Pate 1)
For the ultimate treat with champagne you can serve caviar. And if you want to do it right, serve it the traditional way with blinis (small silver dollar sized buckwheat pancakes), shredded boiled egg, sour cream, and chopped onion embellishments. No better match exists for dry champagne.
If it’s the mid-day meal you wish to serve the champagne with, then plan it to precede the meal with the previously mentioned items as appetizers, or serve it with a luncheon course of a seafood salad or chicken salad.
Mayonnaise based dressing: You can also celebrate with dessert, and serve the champagne at that time. A good dessert companion would be a flake pastry with fresh fruit and glaze filling, that is not too sweet.
At the evening meal, the opportunity to serve champagne as the appetizer beverage should be encouraged. It is festive, it is appropriate, and it is fun. The stage can be set well for a celebration and a relaxing dinner by starting with the champagne. Pick your choice of hors d’oeuvres from the above and do it. It’s the best time. But do not carry it into the other courses. It is not suitable for dinner fare. If there is a surprise element. and you wish to do it after the meal, then use it with the same approach to dessert as described earlier.
Now here is a touching story that I was privileged to be part of (and a lesson about champagne): About a year ago, a fellow Rotarian called me aside after lunch and asked me if I would like to taste a fine old bottle of champagne. With yes for an answer, he said that he would bring it to the next meeting. The following Friday, there was an ice bucket, with a bottle of 1930 Korbel Brut nestled in the ice, and a towel draped over it. “Paul”, he said, “please tell the members a little about this wine and open it for us. My wife and I have kept it in the refrigerator all these years for our anniversary. It was given to us when we were married. This month is our 50th but she is not well, so I decided to share it with the club.” I proceeded to announce this to the club, and related a little about the old line house of Korbel. I cautioned about the possibility of the wine being over the hill, and did my duty as sommelier for the day. The bottle showed some ullage, and I expected it to be flat, and surely turned. The wires holding the cork were rusty from the refrigerator. The cork was soft and came apart, and as I expected, there was no pop. I poured the first glass. It was golden with a hint of browning. The aroma was that of Madeira, and the taste not too far off. Not a bubble was to be seen. It was palatable, but not champagne any more. So we all clapped, passed the bottle around for education, and went back to the jug wine our club serves us at the birthday and anniversary table each month.
Lesson: Drink up your champagne in good time. (But if you insist on keeping it that long, have some recent vintage close at hand!)