Aside from the price and the cachet, Champagne is one of life’s simplest pleasures -- just lifting a glass is a mood-altering experience. But it brings out the Gaudi in hosts. Who doesn’t want to take a great thing and make it more decadent by serving it with foie gras and caviar and other blessed excess?
And there’s one little problem with that. As anyone who has ever tried to juggle a full flute and a warm blini with beluga knows, something has to give, and it’s usually the glass. You have to set it down to tackle a terrine or slurp an oyster. And when you do, you lose the immediate connection and contrast between the sparkle in the wine and the richness of the food.
Champagne goes much better with hors d’oeuvres you can just pick up and carry. It’s no wonder gougeres are the classic accompaniment in France. The warm cheese melds with the effervescence of the chilled wine in one perfect mouthful.
Actually, Champagne is the most food-friendly wine you can buy. The bubbles catch just about any flavor and ferry it across your palate in surprising harmony. You don’t have to spring for ounces of caviar or pounds of shrimp for a party. You can get creative with much less.
Even Champagne’s less-exalted cousins, Prosecco and cava, are proof of the partnering potential of wine when it sparkles. I’ve had everything from little tea sandwiches to potato chips with Prosecco in sidewalk cafes in Italy and everything from salty almonds to spicy chorizo with cava in Spain. Always, the wine doubles the pleasure of the food.
Those memories and some recent “research” -- a bottle of Veuve Clicquot and a bagful of meats, cheese and condiments -- made it easy to come up with an array of hors d’oeuvres for Champagne, a little movable feast to be eaten with one hand while the other clutches a glass. It’s simple food with complex flavors.
Nuts are obviously a natural, since Champagne plays well with both salty and crunchy. Any nuts will do, whether roasted pecans with a little cayenne or just salted pistachios straight out of the shell, but almonds seem the most elegant. I like Elizabeth David’s technique for them, described in her book “Spices, Salt and Aromatics in the English Kitchen.”
The almonds are tossed in a little sweet almond oil (or butter) with seasonings, then slowly roasted until each one is crisp to the core, which is a pretty classic treatment for any nut. But her secret is to immediately transfer the almonds from the oven to a brown paper bag, then let them sit for an hour or two. The sealed bag soaks up any excess oil while the nuts are subtly infused with the flavorings. She used only cayenne as a spice, but I add crushed rosemary and also salt the nuts before and after toasting to intensify the taste.
Smoked salmon is another can’t-miss companion for Champagne. Like caviar, it combines the saline essence of the sea with an unctuous quality that the bubbles amplify and then cut through. You can buy little smoked salmon roulades with cream cheese that are perfectly presentable, but I prefer the Italian treatment called tramezzini. These are the tiny sandwiches served with Prosecco in sidewalk cafes everywhere in a country that believes wine was meant to be drunk with food. Sometimes they’re filled with cured meats, but most often I’ve had them with smoked salmon.
Tramezzini are like old-fashioned canapes but much classier, cut into fingers or triangles so you get just a bite between sips. The usual Italian combination layers thinly sliced cucumbers and mayonnaise between the skinny slices of soft bread, but watercress and creme fraiche have a sprightlier look and taste.
Because the sandwich is literally white bread, you need the best salmon you can buy, sliced not too thin. Wild salmon from Alaska is sensational smoked. All it needs is a squeeze of lemon and a couple of grinds of white pepper.
Two flavors are better than one
Two other Italian classics -- prosciutto and Parmigiano-Reggiano -- go especially well with Champagne, but not all on their lonesome. Prosciutto is hard to eat, even wrapped around out-of-season asparagus as you see it so often at holiday parties. And the cheese may taste great with Champagne if you serve it in little chunks the way they do in Italy, but it seems a bit inelegant.
Blend the two together with a little soft butter to bind them, though, and you get a great topping for crostini, to be garnished with toasted pine nuts and chopped fresh basil for color and crunch.
Duck rillettes are another classic partner for Champagne, but they’re a pain to make well from scratch, and the store-bought kind always seem as if they’re missing something. Duck confit, however, is one of the great convenience foods, and when you blend it into a spread with a little butter it’s almost better than rillettes. Topping each toast with mango chutney and creme fraiche takes the duck to another level: You get bursts of creaminess and tanginess in every bite.
Spanish chorizo, simply cut into thin slices as it often is, doesn’t quite seem dressed well enough for a party. Instead I combine it with corn and Cheddar cheese to make little cocktail madeleines, baked in the traditional tins used for the sweet kind. The outside turns crunchy while the center stays rich and soft.
Once you get started with Champagne, you can see how food loves the stuff as much as humans do. Wild mushrooms go well with it. So do smoked scallops or trout, raw oysters and crab cakes. High-fat creamy cheeses do, and so do some sharper ones, like mimolette. A Texas friend even swears you can serve Champagne with bits of barbecued pork loin with a heavy-on-the-chiles sauce.
As for the Champagne, brut is my preference because I have low tolerance for fruity wines. But even the sweeter sparklers team up well with most foods. Chiles and chutneys, in fact, go better with slightly sweet Champagne, just the way Gewurztraminers take to curry and enchiladas. The important thing is just to drink it easy.