When the whole ghastly COVID business is done and dusted, as it surely will be sooner or later, we’ll come out the other end with a deeper appreciation of so many things we have, until recently, taken for granted. Meeting family for a coffee or lunch, hugging them or giving them a peck on the cheek. Going to restaurants with a large group of friends and not a mask in sight. Flying on holiday or to see loved ones without worrying when the person next to you coughs or sneezes. When you think about it, the virus is making us so much more appreciative of what’s really valuable in our lives, exactly what Christmas is supposed to do.
Like so many, my Christmas day will be quite different. For the first time we won’t be with our family in person, but thanks to Facetime and Zoom, we will almost be there. We are already planning to coordinate and drink the same wines over the course of the day and surely that’s going to be a whole lot better than nothing.
One of the wonderful things about Christmas Day is how nobody bats an eyelid when they see you with a glass of Champagne at eleven in the morning! It doesn’t need to be Champagne of course. Whatever sparkling wine takes your fancy. It’s the bubbles, I am told, that give you that warm fuzzy feeling. I for one will be having a breakfast of smoked salmon and scrambled eggs to go with mine. The acidity of the wine cutting seamlessly through the fatty salmon. The eggs and buttered toast taking up supporting but crucial roles. If your budget permits, go for vintage Champagne. Look out for 2012 which was a stellar year in Champagne. Cava, the Spanish equivalent, is made in exactly the same way and can be had for a fraction of the price. I prefer pink Cava to the regular white. Prosecco is made in large steel tanks and tends to be fruitier than either Cava or Champagne.
There’s nothing like a dry sherry before lunch. So many wine writers claim sherry to be one of the most underrated, great wines of the world. It’s difficult not to agree when for a few pounds, wonderful wines can be had. I particularly like La Gitana, La Ina or even Tio Pepe. Frankly, it’s difficult to find a poor fino or manzanilla sherry. We always seem to have an open bottle in the fridge. However humble sherry may appear, I always feel it the height of luxury to be handed a glass of well-chilled fino and a few olives. Easily as good as the most expensive Champagne.
I have always wondered why mackerel is so underrated in Gib or Spain, yet in UK and northern Europe it remains one of the most valuable catches for their fishing fleets – and for good reason. It’s simply one of the tastiest and most sustainable fish around. It also makes an extremely elegant paté – ideal as a starter for Christmas lunch:
1. Poach some bone-free mackerel filets in fish stock for 4 minutes. Leave to cool and discard the fish stock.
2. Place the filets in a bowl together with butter, crème fraiche, and pinch of paprika. Mix to your desired consistency.
3. Serve in quenelles with thinly sliced cucumber, toast and a quarter of lemon.
4. Pair it with a good white wine and it’s a starter as good as any you’ll find in any Parisienne bistro! White Burgundy will work wonderfully well. Sauvignon Blanc or white Rioja will work just as well.
If you prefer non-fishy, cheddar and leak tarts will also go well with these white wines. The warmth of the tarts and the cold wine provide wonderful contrasts.
Easily as good as the most expensive Champagne.
If I was ever to be limited to three wine regions of the world for red wine, I would not hesitate for one moment choosing which three I would go with. They would be Burgundy, Bordeaux and Rioja. I would of course be extremely sorry I would never again taste wonderful Barolos, Chiantis or German Pinot Noirs. The latter surprised me recently with their sheer lip-smacking, juicy Pinot fruit, which in Germany is known as Spâtburgunder. Perhaps it’s global warming, or better wine making techniques, but we are seeing some good red wines come out of Germany. Martin Wassmer from Baden makes a wonderful Pinot. A bargain at around £12 a bottle.
This year, travelling being questionable as I write this, and being only two in our house, we are keeping things simple for our Christmas main course. Perhaps a roast, free-range chicken or pheasant with roast potatoes. Either will be go well with the above German Pinot or an aged Rioja. Personally, I wouldn’t get to hang up on food and wine pairing. Rarely will a wine be spoilt by food or vice versa. Common sense is truly underrated!
Talking of keeping things simple. I always find immediately after Christmas day I start to yearn for simpler foods. Ones that can be prepared in minutes but still give lots of pleasure when served with a good wine. My current favourite is spaghetti with sardines. The canned variety:
Spaghetti with Sardines
1. Place a generous amount of oil in a pan and fry some unpeeled garlic cloves until they start to colour.
2. Empty the oil and garlic into a cup until only a film of oil is left in the pan.
3. Toast some Panko breadcrumbs until they brown. Make more than you need. They will keep nicely in an airtight container.
4. Place some of the oil back in the pan. Fry some sliced shallots. When soft, add some passata and two or three slices of lemon rind.
5. After a few minutes, add a can of sardines including the spring water they come with (the ones in spring water work better than the Spanish ones in oil which can be too strong).
6. Season to taste and mix in the pasta.
7. Sprinkle with the breadcrumbs and plenty of parsley.
8. Serve with red or dry white wine. (The red shouldn’t work, according to many. But it does.)
I recently had an online dinner with some non-wine-enthusiast friends. I prepared the food, packaged the whole thing in the usual disposable aluminium containers and decanted several bottles of wine into smaller bottles. We met, like spies, in a car park, where I handed them the packages together with reheating instructions. We used Facetime which worked well. When it came to the cheese, I had paired this with a sweet German Riesling. I thought it went wonderfully with the salty cheeses, but alas I got the impression there was general disappointment when it wasn’t the usual dry red wine I had paired with the cheese. After the initial surprise I think it went well, or perhaps they were simply being polite. If you are going to serve cheese it might be a good talking point to try both a sweet and a red!
There can be no Punch without Judy and it would be a sad Christmas day if no port was available. After all what other day in the calendar is it socially acceptable to have several glasses of port at 3pm whilst watching the Queen’s speech? Like sherry, it’s difficult to get a poor port. Vintage Port – ideal but expensive, Late Vintage Port – excellent, Crusted Port – admirable, Tawny Port – wonderful.