Discovering the beauty of Champagne

IMG_8874The first time we went to the Champagne region in France we had read about a very small producer in the South-East area of champagne in the Aube region known as the Côte des Bar. This is far away from the glitzy Champagne capital of Reims and Epernay. The Aube region produces a quarter of France’s champagne, and much of what the small producers make is sold on to the big houses that line the Avenue de Champagne in Epernay.

We were relatively new to visits to wineries in France and given that this was just before the summer period, we assumed that going to wineries for tastings would be pretty easy.

Finding the winery in Ville sur Arce did not prove a problem but given we arrived at lunch time there was a problem. The village just had a few houses and since it was lunch time we were by now pretty hungry. We headed to the winery to see whether we could get the tasting over and buy a few cases of champagne but found a note saying that the winemaker would only be back in three hours.

Given the fact that there was nothing to eat anywhere in the village, we headed to a village closeby. But to our dismay, everywhere was closed. This was again a wake-up call for us. I had read that holidays are taken seriously in France and Italy in summer but this seemed to defy logic.

Two village restaurants were closed for the holidays, we tried the bakery but it was also closed for the afternoon and would only reopen at 4pm. By now, panic was setting in. I am normally calm but there are a few things which can bring a temper. These are normally thirst and hunger. Only two shops were open at this point, the village supermarket and a bar. We asked at the bar whether there was any place we could eat and they told us the kitchen was closed but they would be happy to make a steak with fries.

Beggars cannot be choosers so we ventured in and had what at the time was probably the worst ever meal that we could eat in France. Nothing bad about it but just the fries were from a packet and the meat overcooked. It became all the more disappointing when some locals walked in half an hour later and were served with what looked like very appetising food.

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Not yet ripe for picking

We finally made it to champagne Remy Massin et fils and ended up spending a good hour with Madame Massin who gave us a thorough explanation of the soil conditions of the terroir and then led us through a tasting. This was our first experience with champagne and was indeed a great eye-opener particularly since we then headed to Epernay and Reims for some champagne tasting at the major champagne houses. It was also the first time I managed to have a full conversation in French, albeit with a pronunciation which must have been close to incomprehensible.

We headed to Moet et Chandon a few days later and toured the beautiful champagne house and cellars. While the wine house, grounds and cellars in the city of Epernay are majestic, the minute you taste the wines, you realise that these are commercial champagnes and have nothing to do with champagnes produced by smaller producers or the top cuvees.

It seems like adventures are always within reach when we are in Champagne. When our stocks finished, two years later we headed back to the region, given it is within 2 and a half hours drive from Brussels. We were having a great time when on a Sunday morning towards the end of July panic struck again.

I was taking a scenic route amid the beautiful scenery of the Montagne de Reims and was hoping to fill my fuel tank since it was now on reserve. I still had a 70 kilometre range so there was no reason to panic. Little did I know that finding a petrol station open on a Sunday would be a far greater challenge. I tried two in different villages but both were closed and did not have an automatic pump. Given I was on reserve, I looked for the nearest petrol stations on the GPS and headed to the next village to again find the petrol station closed. I therefore went to the next one. This was on a national road so I was confident that this time we would be able to fill up the tank. But as we arrived, there was a sign saying the petrol station was closed for the holidays. It was 1 August and the sign said the petrol station will be closed till the end of August.  By now, we were reaching a state of desperation. I walked into a hotel next door to the petrol station and asked the receptionist to guide us to the nearest petrol station explaining that we only had an 11 kilometre range left. She sent us to a supermarket a few kilometres away and told us that she was sure that there were automatic pumps. We ventured there knowing that if we got it wrong this time we would run out of fuel in the countryside on a hot August day. We were relieved to make it with just 7 kilometre range to spare and find that we could finally fill our fuel tank.

But amid these adventures (and this happens in many wine regions in Europe in the quiet months), this is a region worth visiting and not only for tasting champagne though there is a certain allure to walking in a bar, restaurant or cafe and being able to order a glass of champagne and enjoy the world go by.

One word of warning though, you will never look at champagne in the same way after a visit. You might become a bit more discerning and snob some champagnes which you might have been accustomed to before but which become too glitzy and commercial. That is not a bad thing though.

There are various ways to approach Champagne as a region. You can either base yourself in one of the main cities and then go for a day trip outside the cities or else you can try to stay in an idyllic village though risk not having amenities closeby.

There are three main areas to discover. There is Reims and its surroundings also known as Montaigne des Reims, there is Epernay and the Marne Valley with the famous Cote des Blancs which specialises in champagne made solely from the Chardonnay grape. Then there is the Aube, further south.

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Great scenery wherever you go

The scenery in Champagne is always pleasing. Hautvillers, the home of Dom Perignon (who discovered the famous champagne method to make sparkling wine) is a very scenic village with picturesque houses and amazing views. The small champagne house Champagne G. Tribaut is not only worth visiting for its wines but also for the splendid views from its terrace. On a nice summer day, you might be able to taste their champagnes on a terrace overlooking vineyards. It is worth keeping in mind when you are visiting the region that most small champagne houses are closed on Sunday.

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View from the terrace of Champagne G. Tribaut

In Hautvillers you can also sit and laze in the main cafe in the centre, the Cafe d’Hautvillers or else head to a splendid wine bar and shop Au 36 where you can either buy a great range of champagnes, taste wines and eat.

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Another favourite village of ours is Oger in the Cote des Blancs. Getting to the Cote des Blancs is firstly very scenic. Oger is home to one of my favourite small champagne houses Jean Milan.

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The picturesque village of Oger

Apart from the small villages, you would do well to visit the main cities of Champagne. These are Reims, Epernay, Chalon en Champagne and Troyes.

Reims is easily reachable from Paris and Brussels. The architecture in these cities is stunning, the cathedrals, as you can expect in this part of Europe beautiful. If you have time to visit only one champagne house, make it Pommery. Its chalk cellars are stunning as is the estate.

There is a big difference between Reims and Epernay. In order to visit a few of the major champagne houses in Reims you will need a car because the avenue which houses these wineries is huge. On the other hand, most of the champagne houses in Epernay can be found on probably the most spectacular street in the whole of Champagne. This is the Avenue de Champagne which houses some of the most impressive estates in the regions. All the top champagne houses of Epernay are within an area of less than a kilometre and the estates such as the one below are stunning.

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In future blogposts I will give you tips on what to do and see in Champagne and its surroundings as well as a review of some of my favourite small Champagne producers.

 

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O Liban – a great Lebanese restaurant in Bascule

There was a sense of disappointment in our family when Giovanni on Chaussee de Vleurgat closed a few years ago. When we arrived in Brussels nearly nine years ago, it was not only close to home but it also served one of the best Italian espressos or cappuccinos you could find in Brussels. Moreover, the cannoli (which we are so accustomed too in Malta) were to die for.

Now either my palate has become accustomed to ‘worse’ coffee or else the Belgian coffee scene has clearly made remarkable improvements. I tend to believe that it is more the latter than the former.

Italian food is clearly comfort food but Lebanese food can be exceptional particularly when using fresh ingredients. I can today say that his replacement has proved himself on many occasions over the past years.

O Liban is a great place to stop for a quick lunch or dinner. It is also perfect to grab a take-away or to try one of their delicious typical Lebanese ‘sandwiches’ or pittas. They are all excellent using fresh ingredients, excellent sauces like the garlic sauce or hummus. They are so good that you might develop a craving for them. Whenever I am in the area of Bascule at lunch time, I nearly always end up going to grab a sandwich from there. My favourites are the lamb kefta, chicken and the falafel.

Hummus (better known as a chickpea dip) can easily be made at home or bought from a supermarket or speciality shop. Nevertheless, the test for a Lebanese restaurant is to make hummus taste special. O Liban passes this test with flying colours.

This is also an excellent place if you are vegetarian. Among the lunch or dinner options, you can put together a plate of your choice with some of the dishes that are ready prepared and which you can either eat at the restaurant or else take home. The meat option includes a choice of meat as well as six vegetable dishes or salads while the vegetarian option (also excellent for non vegetarians) gives you an option for eight different choices. You can of course include the excellent hummus as well as the Moutabal which is an incredibly tasty aubergine dip.

O Liban is great for a quick lunch or dinner. It is always busy which is a guarantee for fresh ingredients and salads. Service is extremely good though at times when it gets extremely busy might be a bit slow at the start.

If you are craving Mediterranean food and looking for something quick, comforting and good, O Liban on Chaussee de Vleurgat is a great choice.

If you have never tried Lebanese wine, this is also your chance to try it. We have always tried the ground floor snack and ‘traiteur’ though there is a restaurant on the first floor which also serves interesting set menus.

Verdict: If you develop a craving for their ‘sandwiches’ using the typical Lebanese flat bread do not blame me. They are that good. Among their vegetable choices, you need to try the hummus, moutabal and the ‘moussaka’. This Lebanese version is a stew of aubergine, chickpeas and tomatoes and is incredibly tasty. Go there for a quick takeaway or else for a casual lunch or dinner. You will not be disappointed.

O Liban is open everyday (closed in the evenings on Sunday and Monday). He can be found at Chaussée de Vleurgat 324, close to La Bascule.

Recipe 2 – Charred Aubergine Salad

20140720-231424-83664975.jpgBarbecues should not be boring. There is nothing like sausages or burgers on the barbecue but grilling outdoors can also be sophisticated. It all depends on your level of ambition.

Before grilling meat or fish, I always like to prepare vegetables on the barbecue. Chargrilling peppers, onions, courgettes, aubergine, leeks, potato you name it. With the right condiments (herbs, olive oil and balsamic vinegar they are second to none) they can make for an excellent antipasto or perfect accompaniment to meat or fish.

Among foodies or those who regularly view the BBC, Raymond Blanc needs no introduction. He is a French chef who settled in the UK many years ago. He is the chef of a Michelin starred restaurant Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons. He is passionate about cooking and his charisma whenever he is presenting a television programme is always visible.

This winter, BBC had a superb series by Raymond Blanc on How to Cook and one of the programmes was about grilling. The following, which I have tried twice to great acclaim is an adaptation of his recipe. It is easy but impressive. The flavours are strong but harmonious. This is an exceptional vegetarian starter. I love my meat, I love my fish but if all vegetarian dishes were like this I could be eating many more vegetarian dishes.

Whenever I have tried recipes from Raymond Blanc or else adapted his ideas I have never been disappointed. So I really recommend you try the following dish.

Ingredients (serves 4)

  • 3 Aubergines
  • 1 Garlic Clove
  • Juice of half a lemon (or to taste)
  • 1 fresh chilli
  • 6 dates
  • 1 tin of good quality chickpeas
  • Ricotta salata (if you do not have this, you can also use fresh ricotta)
  • Toasted Almond flakes
  • Fresh coriander
  • Mint
  • Extra virgin olive oil
  • Balsamic vinegar

Method

1. Once the barbecue is hot, place the aubergines on and ensure that the skin is ‘burnt’. Turn frequently. Once you see that the aubergines have softened, remove from the barbecue and wait for them to cool down slightly. The aubergine will have a very smoky flavour because of the charred skin.

2. Half the aubergine and scoop out the flesh. Place into a bowl, season with salt and pepper and stir in some extra virgin olive oil. Add the garlic and half the chili with the lemon juice and stir. Then add the chopped dates, a handful of chickpeas, chopped mint and coriander to taste (a handful of each should suffice). You can now put the mixture into the refrigerator until you plate the dish.

3. Spoon the mixture into the plates, add some chickpeas to garnish on the side of the mixture, then top with some toasted almond flakes to add texture, a handful of the remaining chopped chili  and then crumble the ricotta salata. Drizzle the best quality olive oil you can find and then add a few drops of balsamic vinegar.

Raymond Blanc had suggested using feta cheese in his recipe but I have tried it both with ricotta salata and with fresh ricotta and it works extremely well. Enjoy.

 

 

 

 

Recipe 1 – A taste of the sea

20140720-172158-62518499.jpgThe weather has been extremely hot in Belgium over the past three days. On Friday evening, the temperature hovered around 30C and therefore I felt a great urge to eat some seafood as a reminder of summer holidays.

To me, shellfish and fish are always a reminder of summer and holidays. If there is one dish which I crave for but which alas is so difficult to find away from the Mediterranean is a pasta with sea urchins which is pure heaven when sea urchins is available. It is normally the first thing I try to eat whenever I go back home to Malta. It is also something I look out for when I am in the South of Italy or Sicily.

I headed to the fish shop close to our home to see what inspired me. Many times this is how I get inspiration for cooking. Nothing beats the joy of having no plan for lunch or supper and improvising on the basis of what you find on the market.

I found the famous Moules de Bouchot (small mussels from France which are incredibly tasty) and therefore mussels it would be for dinner, together with a mix of shellfish including calamari and scallops.

Few things reminds me of the sea and the taste of the sea more than fresh mussels. And while Belgium, France and the Netherlands are renowned for their mussels, they are cooked slightly differently in the Mediterranean. The main difference is that extra virgin olive oil is used instead of butter and no celery is used.

Belgium is known for many things. Its beer, chocolates, french fries and also mussels. There are many restaurants specialising in mussels and the methods of cooking them vary considerably. I prefer mine the Mediterranean way. In this case the simpler the recipe the better the result.

Many tell me that they find cooking shellfish or fish intimidating. I tend to disagree. I started cooking in my 20s and it was with fish and shellfish that I actually started. Once you get past the basics (which basically means finding a fishmonger you trust and asking how to cook things which you would not normally consider), you can be sure to go ahead for more complicated fare.

So the first recipe I share on this blog is a simple one. The only complicated thing is to clean the mussels which trust me is part of the fun.

Ingredients

(Serves two as a starter or else four as part of an antipasto)

  • 1 Kilo of Mussels,
  • 3 cloves of garlic finely chopped.
  • Extra virgin olive oil
  • White wine
  • Freshly ground black pepper

Method

1. Clean the mussels. On many occasions, the mussels can be bought already cleaned compared to the past where you would need to remove not only the beard but sometimes also dirt which stuck to the shells. To remove the ‘beard’ is easy. Pull towards you with a knife and force the beard out. Once you clean the mussels, place them in a bowl of clean water. Go through each one and discard any which are open or which float in the water. You can keep them in the fridge until you cook them (the day you buy them).

2. Crush the garlic and chop roughly, then sweat in the extra virgin olive oil (around three tablespoons). Then add a splash of wine (a cup of wine should be enough) and bring to boil.

3. Once the mixture is boiling add the mussels and parsley and put a lid on the saucepan. Give the pan a shake from time to time but try not to open the lid too often. The mussels should be ready within minutes when you see that they are all open.

4. Mussels are salty so you do not need to add any salt but they are extremely good with freshly ground black pepper. Serve immediately ideally with fresh bread to dip into the ‘soup’ at the bottom of the pan.

Wine suggestion: It is the common norm to drink white wine with shellfish or fish. In this case, nothing goes better than a white wine. I had this with a Vermentino from Sardegna which worked extremely well. You could also try it with a Sicilian fruity white such as a blend of Insolia and Chardonnay or a French Muscadet.

 

 

 

 

 

Winehouse Osteria – a taste of Italy in the heart of Brussels

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The cosy Winehouse Osteria close to Place St Gery in central Brussels

It is with a certain amount of trepidation that I recommend and then test a place with friends particularly if it is relatively new and has very little reviews. But like the best secrets in life, word of mouth is normally a sure bet even if there is always that expectation that something might go wrong.

I came across Winehouse Osteria thanks to recommendations from some friends after I wrote about Caffe al Dente in Uccle. This place just off the Place St Gery area is quite a find. Part wine shop, part coffee shop, part Osteria, the restaurant is extremely small and cosy but worth a visit.

If you are nostalgic about Italy or craving for an Italian experience, then this will not disappoint you. Forget for a while that you are in central Brussels and this osteria/enoteca could easily be in a small beautiful village somewhere in Italy.

The wine list is interesting and reasonably priced. You will find many bottles below 20 Euros which is not common in Brussels with a great selection of wines in the 20 Euros to 35 Euros range (a common price for entry level wines in most restaurants in Brussels). If you decide to just take home some wines, then the price is also listed on the wine list and considerably cheaper. Italy is well covered. Just to give you an example, I even found a wine from Liguria which is not a common sight on wine lists outside this region.

They had a number of wines from the wine list missing when we went, but their recommendations as a replacement were spot-on.

Winehouse Osteria also has a great selection of wines by the glass. The prosecco to start with was creamy and excellent. They also serve Aperol Spritz for those nostalgic about the ‘aperitivo’ in Italy.

The beauty about this place is that you can visit at any time between 7.45am and late in the evening. You can just go for a coffee in the morning, lunch or dinner in the evening or even a glass of wine at any time.

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The aubergine parmigiana and the zucchini parmigiana. Both perfectly done.

This is not your normal Italian restaurant. You will not find pizza or pasta dishes (except for their lasagna). But the food menu is interesting. Apart from cheese and salumi platters there is a small range of interesting dishes. When we went we tried a carpaccio of beef (excellent), a cheese and salumi platter (very good) and grilled peppers. The parmigiana of aubergine was exceptional as was the one made with zucchini. I had the involtini of chicken with guanciale and scamorza seres with a grilled scamorza and tomato sauce and peas. The polenta dish with a cheese, confit onion and lemon was also an excellent combination of flavours.

It was obvious when we were there that the people running Winehouse Osteria are passionate about what they are doing even if they seem to be working miracles form their tiny kitchen which serves this small osteria.

If there was point to criticise it was their desserts. The tiramisu was good but not exceptional and the ice-cream seemed like it was a supermarket ice-cream.

Price for central Brussels is also very reasonable. We paid around 35 Euros per person for an aperitivo, starter, main course and dessert. This is a place to visit if you like wine and want something different in central Brussels.

Verdict: Amid many tourist traps in central Brussels this is worthy of a visit, even for those like us who rarely venture to this side of town to dine. The target audience is clearly locals given most tourists may be tempted to try something more traditionally Belgian in the centre. Nevertheless, if you are craving for comfort food, want to share a glass of wine with friends over a nice cheese or salumi platter or fancy some comfort food, I am sure you will not be disappointed.

Winehouse Osteria: Rue de la Grand Ile, 42, Brussels. Open everyday from 7.45am to 11pm.

 

 

Le Fruit Defendu

Booking a restaurant for a night out in Brussels can be quite a challenge especially for the really sought-out places. First you need to make sure that the restaurant is open on the day you want to go. Believe it or not this is a non-trivial issue. On one Saturday evening a few months ago, out of a list of seven restaurants we wanted to visit, six were closed, the seventh was fully booked. Therefore planning ahead is of utmost importance.

The same thing happened last Monday evening. Our first preference was closed, our second preference was fully booked, the third option was also closed so we opted for the tried and tested Le Fruit Defendu on Rue Tenbosch in Ixelles.

We were not disappointed. This was our second visit to this cosy restaurant in the area between Lepoutre and Chatelain. The food remained consistent and so has the service. Chef Pascal Frénot retained the same formula of six starters and six main courses which practically change on a daily basis depending on what is available at the market and what tickles the chef’s fancy.

This is clearly a French classic but there are also some inventive elements to his creations.

The menu is balanced between fish and meat. On the two occasions we were there, there were three fish starters and three fish main courses and three meat starters with three meat main courses.

There are many things I like about this restaurant. First, Pascal works in an open kitchen and therefore you can observe what is happening in the kitchen. You need to be extremely confident to operate a restaurant kitchen with such transparency. Second, the service is also excellent. The menu is written on a blackboard and hence changes regularly but it was perfectly explained when you are about to place your order. The wine list is interesting with a good selection of wines at different prices though it could have been more detailed and have a bit more depth in terms of choice.

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The signature dish – a Nougat of Fois Gras
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Tartare of herring

We tried the foie gras which we were told is Pascal’s signature dish and it turned out to be excellent. Our friends choose a tartare of herring and the last portion of lobster ravioli served with a lobster bisque. I ordered a pasta dish with octupus, prawns and calamari topped with espelette pepper which was probably the best ever pasta dish I have eaten at a non-Italian restaurant.

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The John Dory – not too fond of creamy sauces with fish but this worked very well
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The herb crusted cod

For the main course two of us choose a John Dory served with a beurre blanc with crevettes. We also opted for a sea bass served with a herb sauce and cherry tomatoes and cod crusted with herbs.

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The excellent and nicely presented blueberry tart

the choice was interesting. We chose for four different desserts, all not only looked great but were also extremely good. We had a creme brulee with peaches, a tiramisu with strawberries, a blueberry tart and an iced coffee cream.

Verdict: The atmosphere is cosy and warm, the food is excellent, the service great. This place is well worth a visit. In this area I would put it on a par with En Face de Parachute and La Canne en Ville both of which we find excellent. Expect to pay around Eur 60 to Eur 70 per person. It is dimly lit, which makes for a great atmosphere but alas the photos are slightly blurred so apologies.

Le fruit défendu: Tenbosstraat 108Ixelles, Brussels. Closed on Saturday and Sunday.

 

Lac du Genval

IMG_3927I am always surprised at how few people know about or have been to Lac du Genval, just 20 minutes away from Brussels. In a way this is better since this scenic lake is not too crowded. The lake is part of the Rixensart and Overijse villages in Wallon Brabant and Flemish Brabant and is surrounded by beautiful turn-of-the century homes.

There is also a hotel by the lake, the Chateau du Lac. For those looking for a day trip out of Brussels, then you could also visit the Chateau de la Hulpe which is not too far away.

This small lake also has a number of restaurants and cafes and is therefore a perfect place to chill out either on a summer evening or during the weekend.

The walk around the lake takes around 30 minutes and you will pass by a small yacht club, beautiful houses, fishermen enjoying the silence away from the hustle and bustle of central Brussels. You can just stroll and enjoy the scenery but many people also come here to jog or bike in this scenic environment.

MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERABut the reason I like Lac du Genval so much apart from all of the above is an Italian restaurant aptly named La Laguna. If someone puts me on the spot and asks me to name a favourite restaurant then this will surely be one of the first ones I would mention.

Let’s start with the basics. There is no sophistication in the cuisine. However, both the food and service have always been consistently good whenever we have gone (countless times). The obvious selling point of this restaurant is clearly its outdoor terrace just by the lake as well as its indoor window which has a splendid vista of the lake. For someone so used to water and the sea, this is probably as good as it gets 20 minutes from Brussels.

Here you will dine a stone’s throw away from the lake. The menu is varied with some specialities from Sardegna. Pasta and pizza are extremely good. I particularly like their Spaghetti alla Bottarga.

You also need to look out for their specials. I can only recommend the homemade ravioli with artichokes (only served when the latter are in season) and a bottarga sauce (mullet roe). This is a match made in heaven and something I have found only at this restaurant. Their tiramisu is also very well made.

La Laguna is also a child-friendly restaurant and the staff always make the children feel welcome interacting with them throughout the service.

The same owners also have La Fontanell which is also highly recommended but which, unfortunately we have never been to because we cannot resist the allure of La Laguna. La Fontanell has a very good play area for children at the back of the restaurant so this is really a good place to take children.

There are other restaurants around the lake but here we stick to the tried and tested. Great Italian food, excellent service and a beautiful view. What else could you ask for?