The first sounds in the middle of the night are grunts, husky guttural warthog noises that impossibly float out of that precious newborn mouth. Eyes open and looking into the darkness that gradates from dark to darker and darker as the seconds pass, waiting for further evidence that she is in fact awake and not just dreaming. If she wakes, then I awake, arrange my pillows, and pick her up. There is plenty of time to think in the middle of the night, plenty to fret about, plenty to blow out of proportion with drowsy panic (a specialty of mine). My time in those dark and darker hours is far better spent absentmindedly collecting ideas for the looming holiday, a little online research I hope will filter its way into my subconscious so I’ll perhaps remember it in the morning. Cookies? Decorations? Food? Wine? Yes.
My goals this year are simpler than the last few, as my Bundle of Joy will most likely keep me from walks outside in the cold, late and leisurely dinner parties, and extensive baking adventures. But we will still have our tree trimming party, I think. That was the highlight of the season and offered the best excuse to participate in all of my favorite holiday things: good people, good food, good wine.
Last year, the tree trimming party was a handful of friends and many treats. A platter of fresh oysters hoisted from the Bay that morning found their way to our table, a delicacy I’d never participated in previously and were pretty remarkable. Briny, salty, minerally, and paired with a sharp citrus and shallot vinaigrette, they begged for a glass of something with equal precision and intensity, and there is nothing better for an oyster than a glass of Champagne.
If you’ve never had a glass of true Champagne, that is, the world famous sparkling wine from the northernmost growing region in France of the same name, you are cheating yourself. To think that you can substitute any sparkling wine in place of a glass of Champagne is simply untrue, not because I’m a snob, but because the terroir (read: soil, climate, human input) of Champagne is entirely unique and unmatched in the world. The primary mineral content in the region’s soil is chalk and is translated into the fruit as a clean, laser-like minerality that echoes that of oyster shells or other shellfish. The production method is labor-intensive, time-consuming, and ancient. Only three grapes are invited to the party: Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, and Chardonnay. It’s beautiful. Some are perfect. And the best ones can be opposite delicate and ethereal or earthy and powerful and both are equally amazing.
Granted, I’d never make a mimosa or bellini out of true Champagne (travesty!) and there are so many amazing Cavas from Spain, Proseccos from Italy, and Champagne-style sparklers from the US and other places, but in the words of Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell, ain’t nothing like the real thing, baby.
Champagne is invited to my holidays…nay, the holidays will not happen without Champagne. In my midnight musings, I deem it so.
The freshest oysters ever were followed by my husband’s black truffle risotto. Once again, if you’ve never had a dish with black truffle, there is an empty place in your heart and you won’t know it till you’ve had a piece of pasta or a gnocchi or a bite of risotto enrobed in the thinnest wafer of the most expensive and gorgeous fungus on the planet. An aroma almost too intense to stand, its musk can perfume a whole plate with just the faintest shaving, change olive oil into a delicacy, and elevate the simplest dish to white tablecloth fancy. It’ll cost you a little bit, but it’s worth it. Just…it’s worth it.
Accompanying the risotto, in stunning breadth and elegance, was Barolo. Joining the truffles in their popularity and fame in Piedmont, located in the northwestern corner of Italy, the earth and power of both are perfect accompaniments for one another. Barolo, made entirely from the grape Nebbiolo, isn’t deep in color and can fool you with its aroma, but don’t disregard its power: tons of tannin make this age-worthy and begging for a rich, dense dish to accompany. Barolo is also invited to my holidays. Not exclusively Christmas…any holiday, really. Or any day.
After the risotto came the cookies, and if it’s not already clear, I love cookies. I will eat cookies all the days they are available. I will bake them even more frequently and hope for guests. Last year, I got the guests. One of my favorites I made was a dark chocolate cookie stuffed with bittersweet chocolate ganache made with—get this—100-year old Madeira. How did I stumble upon 100-year old Madeira, you ask? Well, when you’re married to one of the city’s most notable wine geeks, all sorts of crazy things end up open on your bar, and this one I think was opened more for curiosity some months before. With only a few tablespoons left, I thought, “why not toss this in chocolate?” And so it goes.
Madeira, if you’re unfamiliar, is one of my favorite sweet wines, especially the old stuff. It doesn’t have to be a century old in order to be worth it (but the years don’t hurt, trust me), and you can find some stellar values $40 and under (down to $15! Seriously!). This wine hails from an island (Madeira, go figure) off of Portugal, is comprised of white grapes, and always has a startling amount of acidity to balance out the sweetness caused by its fortification. In short, a very acidic wine is made, fermentation is halted by the addition of brandy, then it’s literally cooked till the abrasive, abusive parts of the wine mellow out. As it ages, its color becomes a deep chocolate brown, but its vibrancy never fully dissipates. It’s gorgeous. And if you happen to fall asleep with a minute amount left in a glass perched on your nightstand, your whole bedroom will smell like chocolate covered raisins and cooking fruit. I mean, I assume so. Not that it’s ever happened…
This year is definitely different than last, but the pleasure of a simple gathering and a few treats to celebrate the most wonderful time of the year remains. Maybe there will be fewer truffles, definitely fewer glasses of Champagne, but I won’t give up the cookies. I’ll wait till tonight’s inevitable midnight contemplation to make my list, and the next to check it twice.
Katie Callahan is a wine educator and former manager of Bin 201 Wine Sellers in Annapolis. She gave birth last month to her first child, a girl!
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