Champagne Recommendations for New Years Eve

My first NYE in the US, everyone kept talking about “the ball dropping” and it seemed like a really big deal. I caught snippets from the news that it was some kind of Swarovski crystal ball and in my head I was like “Woah, they’re going to launch this massive Swarovski crystal ball into a NY skyscraper! Boom!!!” and then I watched old Ryan S do the countdown and the large glass ornament slowly inch down the top of a building. #underwhelmed

But let’s not stress about my weirdly destructive imagination, as the clock counts down to midnight and the ball begins to crawl drop, it seems only appropriate to have a glass of something sparkling in hand. I thought I’d share my favorite Champagne and sparkling wine recommendations. But first – what’s the difference between the two?

Strictly speaking, Champagne is a protected designation of origin and should only be used to refer to sparkling wine that originates in the Champagne AOC of France. European countries comply with this law, so Italian, Spanish and German sparkling wines are known as Prosecco, Cava and Sekt accordingly. A weird legal loophole means the USA is entitled to break the rules. In 1919 when the Treaty of Versailles was signed to end WWI, terms were included to limit the use of the word “Champagne. The US never actually ratified the Treaty of Versailles plus, the US had the whole prohibition thing happening so rules governing the labeling of sparkling wine seemed somewhat irrelevant at the time.

Generally speaking, the better US vineyards (many of which are owned by French Champagne houses) voluntarily comply with this regulation, labeling their wines “Méthode Champenoise” or more recently “Méthode Traditionelle” meaning that the wine is made in the same way as French Champagne but made outside of the Champagne region.

So now we’ve got the terminology out of the way let’s get to the good stuff:

My favorite French Champagnes: 
Billecart-Salmon Brut Reserve NV – fine bubbles, clean yet full flavor.
Veuve Clicqout – a consistently elegant Champagne, the bright yellow label is instantly recognisable
Duvay-Leroy Blanc de Blancs – a lesser known Champagne with a crisp and bright yet rich flavor
Perrier Jouët Grand Brut – lively small bubbles pair well with delicate appetizers
Nicholas Feuillatte Brut Reserve- a smooth and balanced Champagne, subtle in taste.
Tattinger Brut – rich and complex, this is a full tasting Champagne

Note that I’m referring to the NV (non-vintage) options for each Champagne house, you can shell out additional dollars to get a vintage bottle (the year will be clearly marked on the label). Champagne houses only release vintages that are superior so a vintage offering can be a nice touch – especially if the vintage coincides with an anniversary year or other special occasion.

There are also the big boys of the champagne world that’ll cost you $100+ a bottle but being completely honest I can’t taste the difference, but maybe my champagne palate just isn’t that well developed. If you want to feel like Jay-Z or Puffy then check out Krug, Cristal or Dom Perignon.

Crossing the Atlantic to the US, most of the sparkling wines can be grouped into 3 different categories:
Cheap and cheerful – USA
Something like Korbel or J. Roget. As a general rule, if a US wine uses the word “Champagne” on the label they’re about as far away from Champagne as you can imagine. This kind of wine usually has carbonated bubbles added after the fact (vs. fermenting in the bottle), and is best enjoyed in a cocktail where the other ingredients will disguise the underwhelming flavors.

Affordable US bubbles
Lots of good options here. Look out for “Methode Traditionelle or Champenois” on the label. My go-tos are from the Napa/Sonoma region of California which has somewhat similar terroir to the Champagne region:
Gloria Ferrer
Chandon (yes – related to Moët et Chandon)
Mumm Napa
J Cuvee

For the sheer cuteness factor you can also check out Sofia Blanc de Blancs, 4 x 187ml tiny cans with expandable pink straws, They feel like juice boxes for grown-ups.

Pretty darn close to Champagne
Domaine Carneros Vintage 2010 – this Champagne-style wine hails from the Tattinger family and is toasty, complex and delicious. The Brut Rosé is also particularly enjoyable.
Schramsberg Blanc de Blancs 2012 – if my memory serves me correctly. I believe this is the only non-French sparkling wine served in the White House, at least that’s what they told us on our tour of the Napa vineyard. If you come across the Schramsberg Mirabelle label that’s also a winner.

And heading back across the Atlantic to Italy or Spain, a Prosecco or Cava can be a great choice, especially if your menu incorporates Italian or Spanish influences. They don’t have the same complex and almost-yeasty flavors of Champagne but they’re affordable and pretty tasty!

I like to enjoy a good Champagne in it’s unadulterated format – cold from the refrigerator or an ice bucket. If you want to play around with Champagne cocktails then it doesn’t hurt to switch to a more affordable Prosecco or Cava.

Easy Champagne Cocktail Ideas

  • English Garden: Add a few drops of St Germain Elderflower liquor for a floral taste, top with a sprig of rosemary
  • Pom Fizz: Add a spoonful of Pomegranate arils
  • Classic Champagne Cocktail: Sugar cube in chilled champagne flute, a few drops of Angostura bitters, fill with sparkling wine and add a twist of lemon zest
  • Mimosa: Freshly squeezed orange juice and sparkling wine – the quantities are up to you. In the morning a 2/3 amount of OJ is a smart move, as the day goes on your can move to a splash of orange and still feel virtuous 😉
  • Bellini: Fresh peach juice or nectar topped up with sparkling wine
  • French 75 (call it a soixante quinze if you want to feel more French): In a cocktail shaker, mix 3tbsps gin, 1tbsp lemon juice, 1tbsp simple sugar, 1/4 cup sparkling wine and some ice. Strain into a well-chilled Champagne flute and top with sparkling wine as needed. Add a long twist of lemon peel.

It’s always thoughtful to have a non-alcoholic version of drinks for any teetotal or non-drinking or driving friends. Most of these cocktails can be made with a flavored sparkling spring water in place of the Champagne – Perrier with lime or San Pellegrino are both great options.

Happy New Year & Cheers!

A Full English Breakfast

Merry Christmas if it’s a day you celebrate! It’s a balmy day of 60 degrees here in Maine, no ice on the lake, the sun peeking through the pine trees, it feels more like September!

“The full English” as it’s affectionately known is not the most healthy of breakfasts but it’s pretty darn tasty. You also have to be somewhat nifty with your timings of everything to get it all served up hot on the plate. It’s the perfect breakfast when you have a long and busy day of gift giving, meat roasting and tv watching ahead of you!

When I was at school I briefly worked in a greasy-spoon all-day-breakfast kind of place and it put me off black pudding (or blood sausage) for life so you won’t see it here! You might also want to cut tomatoes in half, add salt, pepper and some dried herbs (oregano or thyme come to mind) and grill. They look pretty but no one eats them in our house so I’m skipping them 😉001 Mainely Eating - breakfast full english17– Cook sausages (we like the country sage breakfast sausages from Whole Foods)
– Cook bacon until it’s your desired level of crispy. Ordering “back bacon” from a old school butcher like RJ Balson & Son will add to the authenticity.
– Warm Heinz baked beans
– Keep sausages, bacon, beans warm in the oven
– Cook eggs. We like poached but scrambled or fried are probably easier.
– Make toast (the English muffin loaf from Big Sky Bakery in Maine is so good and rivals a loaf of Warburton’s toasty!)
– Serve with HP brown sauce (or ketchup if you must) and a mug of hot tea

The above English breakfast essentials take you to affiliate links on Amazon 🙂

Potato Leek Soup. Or Leek and Potato Soup.

Bowl of leek and potato soup with napkin and breadWhen I was planning my move from the UK to the UK, one of the things I barely gave any thought to was the language, after all we all speak English, right? It was only after I moved here I came to appreciate some of the small but significant differences in pronunciation and even names for things.

It’s particularly obvious in food. I quickly adapted to oREGano vs oreGANO, dropping the “h” in herbs to say urbs still feels kind of weird and I learned to ask for cilantro rather than coriander in the supermarket. Don’t get me started on the different classifications of sugar – powdered vs. icing, superfine vs. caster…maybe that’s why I don’t bake.

Only recently did I start to wonder about why leek and potato soup (as it’s commonly known in the UK) is usually named Potato Leek soup in the US. I suspect it’s because potatoes are more popular than the humble leek and usually recipes call for almost equal quantities of the two key ingredients.

Whether you know it as potato leek or leek and potato, heck, chill it down and call it Vichyssoise, it’s the perfect lunch on a cold winter day. It’s also super easy:

In a large pan, cook chopped, washed leeks and potato with a little butter for about 10 minutes, stirring frequently. Add a good pinch of salt. Add liquid (water or broth) to just cover leeks and potato. Simmer for ~30 minutes until leeks are tender and potato is cooked through. Blend. Stir in cream. Season.

Maybe it’s due to the years I spent in Wales where the leek is a national symbol but I like to have the leeks as the star ingredient with the potato in more of a supporting role. It’s tough to specify quantities unless you plan to weigh out your vegetables. Depending on the time of year and where you’re getting your leeks from they could be little spindly baby leeks or whopping great tree-trunk leeks. I like to aim for 70-80% leek and 20% potato in the pot.

The most recent batch I made used FIVE of this rather massive leeks and four small/medium potatoes for six steaming hot bowls of leek and potato deliciousness.

Leeks are dirty little things, as you’d expect when they spend much of their life in the soil. To thoroughly wash them and remove all dirt you can slice them in half lengthwise (discard the very tough green tops) and then slice. That gives you half moon slices instead of rounds so you can clean better in between the layers.

Cooking the leeks and potato with a little knob of butter, salt and pepper brings out the flavor. Then add your choice of liquid, water works fine or you might choose chicken stock or vegetable broth for the extra flavor. You want to just cover the leeks and potato as they’ll cook down quite a bit, you can always add a little more liquid once you’ve blended if you think your soup is too thick. Pop a lid on and cook on a low/medium heat until the leeks are tender and the potato is easily pierced with the tip of a knife.

If you plan to liquidize the soup in a blender you’ll have to wait for it to cool to avoid any hot soup explosions so I prefer my handheld blender. Give the soup a good blitz until there are no chunks left. Next comes the good stuff – stir in a cup of heavy cream. Season to taste, my preference is for heavy pepper and just enough salt to bring out the flavor of the leeks.

We enjoyed our soup with a crusty Fougasse bread roll from the amazing Standard Baking Company on the side. You can also drizzle in a little extra cream over the back of a teaspoon to dress up your soup if you feel the urge!
A hot bowl of creamy potato leek soup - perfect for a winter day