To someone who thinks of Champagne as only a celebratory sip, pairing a main dish with the famous bubbly can seem like a unique challenge. The truth of the matter is that these sparklers have a natural affinity with food.
To create a successful pairing, you must rid yourself of any preconceived notions about what Champagne is and is not suited for. Many people feel that the only successful pairing is one with lighter, sweeter foods. I recommend they visit the Champagne region as I did recently. No question, the local dishes are quite hearty and yet pair perfecty with the sparkling wines.
Amazingly, Champagne lends itself to seemingly opposite food pairings—it’s unusual to have a wine that pairs so seamlessly with empanadas, sushi, sweet and deep-fried dishes alike. The key is to understand how the characteristics of this famous bubbly make it so well-suited to star at the dinner table.
First, think about the texture of the wine itself. All those bubbles fizzing in your glass create a contrast with heavier textures and saltier or spicer flavors. You don’t want to go too extreme in terms of spice or flavor, however, as you will lose the subtlety in the glass. The effervescence also does well with textural challenges—think crunchy panko bread crumbs, flaky pastry dough or grainy polenta.
Next is the natural tartness, or the wine’s acidity, which will cut through salt and fat in a dish. When creating your pairings, think about dishes you would add acidity to in the form of citrus, such as fish or shellfish dishes, and consider replacing the highlighting streak of acid with a glass of Champagne. Conversely, you can also pair Champagne with foods that match its acidity level, such as vinaigrettes or tomato sauce.
Champagne’s moderately low alcohol also lends itself beautifully to lighter fare. A subtle dish is a good match for a wine of equal nuance. Additionally, the toasty and nutty aromas of the wine pair well with similar elements, such as corn, nuts and grains.
Charcuterie and cheese
The serious matter of eating in this region comes down to pork and cheese; every village in Champagne has its own charcuterie. Little sausages, sometimes flavored with red wine, and bacon—a regular feature of the region’s salads—are standard fare. Another favorite is pâté en croute, chopped pork wrapped in the lightest pastry, flavored with local mustard from Meaux (like a Dijon mustard) and served with a glass or two of young brut Champagne. The effervescence contrasts well with the heavier textures while the acidity cuts through the fat and grease of the meat. In fact, fried food or buttery pastry generally serve as an excellent foil for the bubbles in sparkling wine.
More delicious Champagne pairings came to light when I visited Les Délices de la Ferme (delices-de-la-ferme.fr), the wood-paneled cheese shop in the center of Épernay. For any visitor to Champagne, Épernay is a smaller, more accessible town than Reims, more closely linked with the wine culture. It has one of the grandest wine roads in the world, the Avenue de Champagne, with a cluster of major producers—Moët et Chandon, Perrier-Jouët, Mercier, Boizel, Pol Roger, de Castellane, de Venoge—that line the street while their cellars stretch out for dozens of miles below the surface.
Inside Les Délices is an enticing display—every imaginable cheese from all over France. The local varieties have an affinity to Champagne. In pairing these cheeses, think of Champagne as dry white wine, which always goes so much better with soft French cheeses than red. These include the cendré, a small soft cow’s milk cheese, ripened and preserved with a covering of ash from vine prunings. From the nearby Brie region comes the famed Brie de Meaux, probably the finest version of one of France’s most celebrated cheeses. In the Haute-Marne, the local cheese is Langres, a soft yellow cheese with a depression in its center, traditionally filled with Marc de Champagne, the local brandy. From the Aube, the southern part of Champagne, comes the delicious, milk-white Chaource, a strong tasting, very soft cheese dating back to the 14th century. To the north, there is salt-washed Maroilles. If you are pairing blue cheeses, opt for sweeter Champagnes or rosé.
The lighter side of rich
Local restaurants are serving light dishes as current fashion dictates; however, though no longer gravitating toward the peasant food of the region, the ingredients themselves have not changed. Chefs are incorporating local wines into this lighter cuisine, such as rabbit roulade accompanied by a light rosé or snails in a puff pastry case with leeks and Champagne beurre blanc.
Today’s local chefs have taken these regional ingredients and adapted them to an era when eating is no longer just providing ballast against cold winters. The food and the wine of Champagne have become more intertwined as chefs seek to adapt dishes while remaining loyal to home-grown ingredients. Jean-Claude Rambach, of Le Caveau restaurant in Cumières on the banks of the Marne river, delights diners with Rambach’s Menu Surprise—you have no idea what you will be eating until the dish is placed in front of you. The seven courses owe more to the qualities associated with the eponymous bubbly than to the region’s native culture, yet use many local ingredients. One such dish is Poached Trout in Champagne Sauce, a simple, classic dish, both rich and light, composed of regional ingredients that lend themselves perfectly to a crisp Blanc de Blancs.
Claude Jaillant of Restaurant Le Mesnil-sur-Oger, in the heart of the vineyards, explains the hierarchy in which Champagnes should be drunk at a meal, progressing from light to heavy Champagnes. Start with nonvintage (best with fish, believes Jaillant), move on to vintage with the meat course, rosé with the cheese, and to finish, he suggests a local brandy with coffee.
Potée Champenoise (Champenois Stew)
Firmly part of Champagne’s culinary heritage, Potée Champenoise is a type of stew traditionally eaten by grape pickers at harvest time. It is served in many Champagne restaurants. Meats are used depending upon availability, although pork is always included. All the meats in the recipe must be cooked in one piece, not sliced. The local practice is to serve the stock formed during cooking separately, like a soup, and to serve the meat and vegetables afterwards. Though this dish takes more than a half day to prepare, most of the prep time is unattended.
1 pound salted pork breast*
1½ pounds salted pork shoulder*
4½ ounces dried haricot beans
1 pound beef shin or shank
1 pound silverside beef or top round
Half of a chicken, jointed
1 pound carrots, cut in half lengthways
2 pounds cabbage, thinly sliced
1 pound turnips or parsnips, peeled and cubed
2 pounds leeks, cubed
1 pound spicy sausage
1 pound boiling potatoes, halved or quartered depending on size
Salt and pepper, to taste
*Though various cuts of pork are generally used in this stew, if you cannot find salted pork you can substitute other meats: ham hocks, pigs feet and tails, bacon, beef or lamb. These other cuts should not be soaked.
Soak the pork and beans separately in water overnight (about 12 hours). Drain the pork and beans. Put all the pork and beef in a large pan. Cover with water and bring to the boil over a moderate heat. Cover and simmer for 1 hour. Skim the fat which rises to the top while simmering (this must be done thoroughly to prevent the dish from tasting too fatty).
Add the beans, chicken, carrots, cabbage, turnips or parsnips and leeks. At first stirring may be difficult, but as the cabbage gradually shrinks, it becomes easier. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Simmer for another hour, then add the sausage and potato and simmer for at least another hour, until everything seems thoroughly cooked through.
To serve: Strain off the stock and serve as soup, topped with croutons. Carve the meat, which should be very tender, into slices, slice the sausages and serve with vegetables on a large platter as the main course. Serves 8.
Wine recommendations: A rosé Champagne is a smart choice here, such as Veuve Cliquot Ponsardin NV Brut Rosé. Champagne locals will also drink a still Pinot Noir-based wine, either from the region or from Burgundy. Try also pairing with a more robust Syrah or Grenache.
Poached Trout in Champagne Sauce
This simple, classic dish is both rich and light. Serve it as a first course, and if you don’t want to use good Champagne in the poaching liquid, use an inexpensive Crémant, but serve the real thing at the table. Salmon is also delicious poached in Champagne, but its thicker fillets will require a longer cooking time.
2 tablespoons butter
1 shallot, finely chopped
2 cups Champagne
4 6-ounce rainbow trout filets
Salt and pepper
½ cup heavy cream
2 egg yolks
2 tablespoons chopped fresh tarragon
To prepare the trout: Melt butter over medium heat in a large straight-sided frying pan with a tight-fitting lid. Add shallot and sauté a couple of minutes until softened. Pour in the Champagne and bring to a bare simmer. Season trout fillets with salt and pepper and slide into the pan skin side down. Reduce heat to low and cover tightly. Poach the fish 2–3 minutes or until just done.
Remove the fish from the pan and place on a serving dish. Cover loosely with foil and set in the oven on the lowest temperature to keep warm. Turn the heat up and bring the poaching liquid to a boil. Reduce to 1⁄2 cup or less and remove from heat. Whisk together the cream and egg yolks, then slowly whisk into the reduced Champagne. Add half the tarragon; heat on low for 2–3 minutes or until sauce thickens. Season with salt and pepper.
To serve: Spoon sauce over fish, sprinkle with remaining tarragon, and serve. Serves 4.
Wine recommendations: You don’t want to overpower the delicate, clean flavors of this dish. A zippy, citrus-driven Blanc de Blancs, like the Louis Roderer 2004 Blanc de Blancs Brut, should lift the simple but rich and oily tastes and textures of the fish.
Salad au Lardons
In France, lardons are pieces of fried bacon. This homey salad is similar to the Lyon classic, which has poached eggs instead of potatoes. In Champagne, fresh dandelion greens are often used, but you can substitute another bitter green like frisée.
1 pound new potatoes
1 tablespoon olive oil
Salt and pepper
6 slices of thick-cut bacon, cut into 1-inch pieces
1 shallot, minced
¼ cup Champagne vinegar or white wine vinegar
1 large head of frisée, chopped
To prepare the potatoes: In a medium roasting pan, toss potatoes in olive oil. Season with salt and pepper. Roast in a 400°F oven about 30–40 minutes or until tender. Let cool while you prepare the salad.
To prepare the salad: In a large frying pan, cook the bacon until crisp and brown. Remove bacon to a paper towel-lined plate. Add shallots to the reserved bacon fat in the pan and sauté for a minute or two or until softened. Remove from heat. Add vinegar and bacon pieces and stir well. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
Layer greens on individual plates or in a serving bowl. Slice the potatoes and place on the greens. Pour bacon dressing mixture over all and toss to coat. Serve immediately with slices of rustic bread. Serves 4.
Wine recommendations: Most still wines don’t pair well with vinaigrettes, but the matching acidity and vibrant flavors of a nonvintage Brut will complement the assertive flavors of this salad. With notes of pure citrus, fresh apricots and soft toast, the Bollinger NV Special Cuvée Brut is an excellent choice.
Sabayon with Strawberries and Mint
While not strictly originating from Champagne, this dish perfectly sums up the essential lightheartedness of its sparkling wine. Sabayon is a version of Italy’s zabaglione, a light, egg-based custard. If using quantities of expensive Champagne in cooking is difficult to accept, substitute a Cava, a French Crémant or any dry sparkling wine. However, at the Château de Saran, where this recipe originates, they naturally use the house Champagne: Moët & Chandon.
6 large egg yolks
7 ounces superfine or extra-fine granulated sugar
Quarter bottle Brut Champagne (or substitute)
Fresh strawberries, halved
Whisk the egg yolks and sugar together in a bowl until they have the consistency of thick cream. Place the bowl over a pan of simmering water and whisk vigorously while adding the Champagne. Continue to mix until the mixture has doubled in volume and is very thick and fluffy.
To serve: Remove from the heat and serve in tall glasses. If serving chilled, remove from the heat and continue to beat the mixture until it is cool to preserve the light consistency. Garnish with mint and strawberries. Serves 6.
Wine recommendations: This would pair well with several different styles, from a light and fruity nonvintage Champagne, such as Nicolas Feuillate NV Blue Label Brut, to a Chardonnay-based blanc de blanc, or even a sweeter doux style.
Delectable bites to munch on while sipping the bubbly can range far beyond the typical oysters and caviar. Here are some tasty options that will sparkle:
One dosen’t often think of lamb chops as hors d’oeuvres, but properly frenched rib chops do come with their own handles. (Ask your butcher to do this for you.) The combination of slightly sweet and slightly sour flavors in this recipe suits it perfectly to dry yet slightly fruity Champagnes.
24 small baby lamb rib chops
1 tablespoon lemon juice
½ cup balsamic vinegar
1/3 cup olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste
2 cloves garlic, crushed
Rosemary for garnish
Prepare marinade of lemon juice, balsamic vinegar, olive oil, garlic, salt and pepper. Marinate lamb chops and refrigerate for at least two hours. Discard the marinade. Pan-sear the lamb chops in a medium-hot skillet until nicely browned and pink inside. Arrange on platter. Garnish with rosemary and serve with mango chutney.
Green Chili and Cilantro Pesto with Shrimp and Mango in Blue corn Cups
This recipe shows how traditional caveats can be thrown out the window when it comes to Champagne-enhancing hors d’oeuvres. For this colorfully flavored dish, it’s best to opt for a medium-weight, yeasty-toasty Champagne.
For the filling:
4 ounces freshly grated Parmesan cheese
3 garlic cloves
5 mild green chilies, stems and seeds removed
½ cup pine nuts (pignoli)
½ cup parsley leaves
½ cup fresh cilantro, plus additional sprigs for garnish
3 tablespoons olive oil
½ pounds shrimp, peeled and deveined
1 ripe mango, peeled and diced
For the cups:
4 ounces cream cheese
5½ ounces unsalted butter
4½ ounces blue cornmeal
12 ounces all-purpose flour (sifted)
Salt and pepper to taste
To make filling: In a food processor, mix Parmesan cheese and garlic until blended. Add chilies, pine nuts, parsley, cilantro and okive oil. Process to a smooth paste, then roughly chop the shrimp and toss them with the pesto. Cover and refrigerate for at least an hour.
Preheat oven to 350°F. Spread shrimp mixture evenly on a sheet pan and bake uncovered about 10 minutes. Remove and let cool. When it reaches room temperature, mix in diced mango.
To make cups: In a standing mixer or by hand, beat cream cheese and butter until soft. Beat in dry ingredients, but be careful not to overwork. Coat three mini muffin tins (36 cups) with nonstick cooking spray. Place 1 level tablespoon of the blue corn mixture into each prepared cup, press to coat the bottom and sides with dough. Bake in a preheated 350°F oven for 20 minutes. Remove and let cool.
To assemble: Roll shrimp mixture into small balls and place into cups (or simply spoon the mixture into the cups). Garnish with fresh cilantro sprigs. Makes 36.
These rich sables—a cross between cookies and crackers (what the British would call savory biscuits)—allow you to bring together Parmesan and Champagne, a match made in heaven. The Parmesan sables enhance virtually any sparkler, so have your pick.
1¾ cups all-purpose flour
1½ cups cold butter, diced
¼ pound Gruyère cheese, grated
¼ pound Parmesan cheese, grated
1 egg yolk beaten with 1 tablespoon water
Place flour, butter and cheeses (reserving 2 tablespoons of Parmesan) in a food processor; pulse until mixture forms a dough. Add a little cold water (1 teaspoon at a time), if necessary, to form a ball. Roll out on a floured surface to a ¼-inch thickness. Cut out into decorative shapes with pastry cutters (try stars, hearts or diamonds). Place shapes about ¾ of an inch apart on two parchment-lined baking sheets. Refrigerate until firm, about 30 minutes.
Preheat oven to 350°F. Brush sables with egg mixture and sprinkle with remaining Parmesan. Bake til golden brown, approximately 10 minutes. Cool on a wire rack. Serve warm or at room temperature. Makes 40.