I think my first introduction to champagne must have been as a teenager in France. For several summers I stayed with a family in Bordeaux who had a daughter of the same age, which was an eye-opener on the way the French enjoy and appreciate food. The grand-mère of the family lived in a house next door and I remember how, perfectly groomed and dressed in Yves St Laurent, she would invite the family as a special treat to an elegant hotel for an aperitif of a glass of champagne. One summer we drove all the way to the coast at Arcachon for lunch sur terrasse, where I was taught how to break into an enormous plate of fruits de mer, with an accompanying thimble of champagne, of course.
The first sip of champagne is the best
Since then I’m always happy to sip a glass of champagne when it’s on offer in any elegant watering hole, from Kettner’s in Soho when I was first married in London, to Goldbrick House in Bristol where I live now, to the Champagne bar of the Waterside Brasserie in Stratford upon Avon before an evening of Shakespeare. A glass of bubbly has become one of my favourite ways to start the evening and I love that first sip before dinner on an empty stomach, preferably with some smoked salmon canapes to nibble.
For the seasonal festivities, we’ll probably be opening a bottle late on Christmas morning, while the turkey is in the oven. There might be some too at New Year on the stroke of midnight although I’m not one to save it. I prefer to appreciate a fine champagne, like the iconic, yellow-labelled Veuve Clicquot at the beginning of the evening rather than later on, when you’ve probably drunk too much to enjoy the finer points of flavour. I remember my adopted French mother in Bordeaux telling me that the smaller the bubbles, the better quality the champagne, and that you should hold the glass by the stem to avoid the heat of your hand warming the champagne.
Tequila tasting and a refreshing Margarita
If you’re celebrating the festive season in a warmer climate, you may like to go down the cocktail route which seems more appropriate if you’re eating Christmas dinner from the barbie with a view of the beach. Before my visit to Texas I thought of Tequila as something with a worm in the bottle, drunk by teenagers trying to be cool. Then I visited the Cibolo Moon Tequila bar at JW Marriott San Antonio Hill Country Resort and learned that a good Tequila is shown as much appreciation in Southern Texas and Mexico as a glass of champagne would be in France. Just as champagne cannot be sold under that name unless it comes from a very specific region of France, so Tequila must be from a designated area around the town of Tequila in Mexico.
Tequila has been drunk in Mexico for centuries, probably starting out as the local alcohol that was brewed at home by fermenting the spiny leaves of the Agave plant. Somewhere along the line it was discovered that the piña or agave heart produced a much more potent liquor and the drink of Tequila was born. In Texas, I tasted my way through the fresh young Blanco, the Reposado or ‘Rested’ Tequila which is aged in oak whisky barrels with a mellow flavour and colour, and finally the Añejo or ‘Aged’ Tequila, which is aged in white oak casks for a minimum of 12 months.
If you’re a whiskey lover, then you’ll also enjoy the complex flavours and smoky oak overtones of the Añejo with a slice of orange to be sipped in front of the fire. Apparently, at the Jose Cuervo Tequila distillery they hold their Reserva La Familia Añejo Tequila in such high regard that they stand as a sign of respect when they drink it, as if it were a senior member of the family. My favourite, however, is a well made Margarita cocktail mixing fresh lime, agave nectar, a tripple sec and of course the good quality blanco tequila, which is deliciously refreshing and guaranteed to get you in the party mood.
Knock back the Snaps in Scandinavia
This time last year I was enjoying a pre-Christmas break in Gothenburg, West Sweden where I learned the Scandinavian way of knocking back the Snaps. This clear aquavit is the perfect drink to cut through the rich, oily herring which is traditionally prepared in a hundred different ways at Christmas in West Sweden. The herring was not only fished in abundance off the West Swedish Coast as a food staple, but also provided employment in the cannery factories that operated in coastal towns. The snaps might be flavoured with herbs or fruit at home and I was told that the top brand to try is OP Anderson.
Never sip your glass of Snaps but knock it back manfully with a cheery toast, “Skål!. Be sure to look each of your drinking companions boldly in the eye as you make the toast, which literally means “Skull”. You have to imagine that you’re a Viking warrior, drinking blood from your enemy’s skull and remember that when drinking with your enemy you’d want to be sure to look them in the eye, in case they burned your village down while your back was turned. Or so I was told in Scandinavia!
For those that have to drive in Scandinavia, there’s a seasonal soft drink called Julmust which is known as the ‘Taste of Christmas” and only sold in Sweden and Norway at this time of year. We tried our Julmust as one of the ingredients in a Christmas flavour iced popsicle at one of the several Michelin star restaurants in Gothenburg.
So tell me, will your seasonal toast this year be knocking back the snaps (remembering your Viking heritage), sipping a refreshing Marguerita (a trip down Mexico way) or toasting the New Year in with a chilled glass of champagne? (the first sip is the finest)
This article was brought to you by Tesco wine, who offer a wide selection of champagnes and other drinks for your seasonal toasts
Where can I go to enjoy all these good things?
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