by Josh Spero
I won’t claim the evening was a blur – I can remember what happened very clearly, only some of it is sped up and some slowed down. Thus most evenings where you taste (but don’t spit) eight champagnes, I suppose. Krug and Dom Perignon, that bubbly, bibulous monk, were to blame, under the expert sommerliership of Yohann Jousselin, fresh from his victory as Sommelier of the Year, at the Vineyard at Stockcross, near Newbury, one of Sir Peter Michael’s hotels.
The last time I ate under the eye of Peter was at an Italian restaurant in Chelsea, where I had been summoned by my boss for a pow-wow over tagliolini. This time, Peter’s eye watched over from the threads of a massive tapestry hung on the wall, into which he had had himself woven (below). It was an 18th-century French style for a very modern British scene: Peter leading the revels in a rural setting as country folk swigged and swaggered. I know how they feel.
He also had to ‘execute the perfect Champagne pour’, a useful skill for our evening
The evening started with a Californian sparkling rosé from Peter’s own estate, and as good as it was, it was but an aperitif before we sat down to six courses from executive head chef Daniel Galmiche, formerly of Le Gavroche, and the Krug and Dom Perignon.
The Music Room with tapestry
The manifold sweet notes of the food – the first three courses were warm poached lobster, confit tomato with citrus, orange and virgin olive oil emulsion; caramelised Scottish scallops scented with vanilla, pineapple and cardamom puree, balsamic reduction; and pan fried foie gras with almond and pistachio, Champagne and cinnamon poached peach – all balanced the dry champagnes. Yohann said people tend to be Krug people or Dom Perignon people (I’m sure everyone knows which side they’re on), and indeed I found myself rooting for Dom Perignon. The DP ’99 neatly counteracted the very sweet foie gras course.
By this point, my companion and I were debating the virtues and vices of slutwalking (probably too loud for the other tables’ comfort), historical novels and pollsters. They say it is the bubbles, but whatever property it is, champagne only produces effervescence in the imbiber, and the shrieks from all around proved this.
Drinking without enlightenment is fun, but not as much as when you have to hand an award-winning sommelier (ridiculously aged 27). His grand final tasks included ‘a demanding restaurant role-play situation in which they were asked to recommend wines to match the customers’ food choice, invent a fish-based menu with accompanying wines and identify the vintages of four glasses of Armagnac’. He also had to ‘execute the perfect Champagne pour in which a magnum of champagne had to be poured equally into 16 flutes without returning to any of them’, a useful skill for our evening.
Yohann talked us through each stage of the meal, with wines he had paired. Given extra authority by his native pronunciation of ‘champagne’, he explained that the feminine qualities of the DP ’99 made it suitable for the foie gras, and the masculine of the Krug ’95 for the slow-cooked breast of corn fed chicken, glazed salsify, Champagne and morel sauce. Some of the champagnes were ‘like mushrooms’, and others needed to be decanted to take the edge of sweetness off.
The hotel itself is comfortable and ignores its utilitarian exterior with a poppy-motif interior (Peter Michael’s personal insignia) and well-planted, fragrant grounds – complete with minuscule specks on a vine, one day to be grapes. Chateau Newbury, anyone?