MA NUIT CHEZ MAUD!*
Admittedly I never visited Maud Fierobe’s home but she did entertain myself and my wife in true Gallic fashion at Champagne et Fromage, her excellent shop-cum-bistro in London’s Covent Garden.
Open for around a year now, and with plans to expand south of the river, Maud and her two business partners have created a truly rustic corner of France in the midst of one of the capital’s busiest quarters.
We were treated to an evening of Champagne and cheese tasting there courtesy of our lovely daughter-in-law who discovered this atmospheric place via Buyagift.
Knowing our love of Champagne and my love of cheese, it turned out to be the perfect choice as the two can and should be combined much more often than they are.
Maud, a French native and a whirl of energy and enthusiasm, led us to the cellar area of the shop where we met our fellow guests. She then proceeded to guide us through tastings of four different Champagnes matched to four different cheeses or dishes. But what makes Champagne et Fromage even more special is the fact that its Champagnes are sourced from five families of independent Champagne producers, with the grapes in some cases coming from vineyards of just a few hectares, but nevertheless of very good quality. This is because the grape varieties are never blended with those of other vineyards as the big Champagne houses might do in order to achieve a desired taste. Indeed, the big houses mostly depend on the thousands of small independents, or vignerons, to provide them with their grapes, owning very few hectares themselves. These vigneron-produced Champagnes – many of them award-winning – are the real thing, direct from individual terroirs, which for a French native means more than just the land but denotes an almost-mystical sense of being a part of the soil itself.
Back on earth, our evening began with a glass of Waris-Larmandier blanc de blancs, non-vintage, but a grand cru nevertheless. Made entirely from chardonnay grapes, this was accompanied by a truly delicious baked cheese, a Mont’d’or with side potatoes. What a sublime mix: Champagne, a rich creamy cheese fondant and potatoes. I was truly in my element.
The next Champagne was the Lacroix La Réserve, also non-vintage, but our favourite of the night. Made from 50 per cent pinot noir, 30 per cent pinot meunier with the remainder chardonnay, this was smooth yet with a full taste that simply went on to the back of the tongue and beyond. It was twinned with an unusual cheese, a blue-veined goat or Bleu de Chèvre, strong as you would expect yet softened subtly by the fizz.
The third Champagne was a Pertois-Moriset Grand Cru Rosé brut NV, 85 per cent chardonnay and 15 pinot noir. The food accompaniment, which being non-meat eaters we could not try, was a charcuterie skewer with salami and Corsican cured ham which those others present devoured tout de suite.
Finally, we drank a Colin vintage dating from 2005. Again the grape variety was chardonnay and this was combined with a Basque chebris cheese, a mixture of goat and ewe’s milk. The result was interesting but, as I said, our favourite Champagne of the night was the Lacroix and the Mont d’or cheese won out just ahead of the others. As we did not try this particular pairing, we bought both in the shop afterwards and are planning a rich, tasty treat by seeing how the two combine.
Champagne et Fromage caters to the connoisseur as well as the causal shopper as the staff are expert in their knowledge of the 50 cheeses on sale and the whole Champagne range on offer. The cheeses are sourced from Une Normande à Londres, actually two Normandy brothers who have been serving Londoners from their stalls in the city’s street markets for nearly 15 years now.
The shop has a small upstairs eating area furnished with mismatched seating and ‘found’ objects from Parisian bistros. It really is, or certainly was the night we were there, like a convivial French café bar where small groups can socialise and discover new Champagne and food combinations in a lively atmosphere. It’s completely unpretentious and all the better for it. And as the Champagne is sourced from smaller independents, the prices are not as eye-watering as you might expect with bargains to be had.
If it’s just food you want, then there’s fine French rustic fare, to eat in or take away. The star of the show is the tartine — a single slice of homemade bread draped in slivers of cheese and charcuterie or fruit, drizzled with rich olive oil. Other foodie favourites include Auvergne – figs with melted Fourme d’Ambert; La Nordique – salmon gravlax with Langres cheese mousse and a special Champagne dressing; Champagne – sautéed pear with melted Langres cheese; and Montbélliarde sausage with Morbier and shallot confit. As you would also expect, as Champagne et Fromage provides such an authentic slice of la vraie France, frogs’ legs also make an appearance with ‘cuisses de grenouilles’ – served in tempura with a Roquefort sauce.
Champagne et Fromage is an original and very much like a small chip of the old Hexagone – as the French affectionately call their country – in London. It deserves to succeed and, with the unflagging joie de vivre and enthusiasm of Maud Fierobe and her team, it undoubtedly will.
* With apologies to the late Eric Rohmer, the master film director.