lead photograph by bruce plotkin • styling by venera alexandrova • stemware by crate & barrel westport • cheese provided by fairfield cheese company
Wine and cheese, champagne and chocolate, Bacchus and Cupid—these go together as harmoniously as the Fairfield couples we talked to. But just as a happy marriage is a delicate dance between personalities, blending our favorite romantic food and drink is an art.
Even when it comes to classic romance, advice from an expert can’t hurt. It might even help melt someone’s heart. That’s why we went to the pros at Fairfield’s finest purveyors of cheese, wine and chocolate to explain how it’s done—on Valentine’s Day or any day.
Wine & Cheese
“The relationship between wine and cheese is symbiotic,” says Patrick Monteleone, general manager at Harry’s Wine. The same can be said of adjoining wine and cheese shops. “Saul Pollack, whose family has owned Harry’s since 1941, always had in his head a cheese store next door.” Fairfield Cheese Shop made that vision a reality, and now conversation on wine and cheese pairings is a given between the two shops and their customers.
Laura Downey, co-owner of Fairfield Cheese Shop, advises, “In general, pair lighter cheeses with lighter wines and heavier cheeses with heavier wines, but you should always drink what you like.”
She considers cheese, bread and wine to be “one of the finest meals anyone can have.” For her dream Valentine’s dinner, Laura would choose three cheeses: “Definitely a triple cream, like Mt. Tam from Cowgirl Creamery, which goes really well with Champagne; Pleasant Ridge Reserve, also nice with Champagne or sparkling wine; and a Pecorino with truffles, like Pecorino Tartufo, paired with a heavier red wine from Italy.”
That menu, with bubbly, busts a popular myth. “People think cheese should always go with red wine,” says Monteleone, “but champagne and cheese are a match made in heaven.”
Trish Swain, general manager of Greenfield Liquor Shop, concurs, “Champagne goes well with a sharp blue cheese, softening the flavor, and with the polar opposite: a nice soft Brie.”
Monteleone will share a $75 bottle of Billecart Salmon Brut Rose with his wife on February 14. “It’s a great celebration wine and a great love of mine,” he says. For a lower budget, “American sparkling wine—the U.S. version of a French Champagne (which can’t be called Champagne as it’s not from the French region of that name)—is typically half the price. Prosecco, Italian sparkling wine, is light, fruity and delicious. Cava, Spanish sparkling wine, is a great value.”
Monteleone would open one of these to kick off any fete. “When you pop the cork of a sparkling wine, that’s when the party begins. Don’t let a bottle of Champagne or wine sit in your fridge for months. Wine likes three things: a steady temperature, a vibration-free environment and a dark place. And it’s not a trophy; enjoy it!”
The staff at Greenfield Liquor Shop vote for a $500 Krug Rosé for the money-is-no-object occasion. They also suggest, “A really good Cabernet, like Joseph Phelps Insignia (about $200); the tannins make you crave the fat in a nice cheese.” More economical: “A Honig Cabernet (under $40) or a wine from the Pacific Northwest—that region has really special wines for under $50.” While a Cabernet or Rioja pairs well with strong Cheddars, according to Swain, white wine has its place too. “A lighter white, like Gewurztraminer, has the opposite effect of creating contrast with the cheese. For fondue, both to make it and to drink with it, you want a light, crisp Swiss Chardonnay. A tawny Port is nice with Roquefort.”
Mike Fino, owner of Twisted Vine, offers an irresistible description of his Valentine libation of choice: “A bold, spicy, sensual red—something with big fruit flavors but finishes smooth and silky. For California Cabernets, 2007 is a great vintage. Shafer Hillside Select is one of my favorites ($250). South Africa has some phenomenal wines, and it’s easy to find great Spanish wines for under $15.” He notes, “Cheese enhances every wine; it makes it taste better. The biggest mistake people make is trying to match food and wine too much, instead of buying what they like.”
Champagne & Chocolate
When it comes to romance—and food—the French are the experts. Lucky for us, Isabelle and Vincent Koenig have brought seven generations of chocolate-making secrets here to Fairfield. Isabelle et Vincent is a re-creation of their patisserie in Strasbourg, France, which they sold to come here for the “challenge” of starting a new life. (They are featured in a new coffee table book, Green Card Stories.) “We are very strong together,” notes Isabelle. Who wouldn’t be, in a pairing with a master chocolatier?
All chocolates at Isabelle et Vincent are handmade. Valentines’ Day treats include boxes of chocolates (six to forty-eight pieces), heart-shaped chocolates (milk, dark, white), chocolate lovebirds, and strawberry and vanilla heart pastries. “Last Valentine’s Day, we sold out of everything. It was wonderful!” says Isabelle. She notes one difference between Valentine’s Day here and in France. “There, it’s always for lovers; it’s never for good friends. Our first Valentine’s Day here, my kids came home from school with a lot of hearts and cards, and I think, ‘Ooh, la, la. It’s very early!’ She was relieved to learn that her eight- and ten-year-old weren’t on the verge of romantic dates.
For those who are, sharing chocolates and bubbly is a sure thing. Sweet Rexie’s Champagne or raspberry truffles, made from Vermont cream, are great picks. “Our Ultimate Truffle Gift Box is tied with a satin ribbon and opens like a jewelry box,” says owner Nanci Lewis.
Champagne isn’t the only answer, though. “Dark soft wines like Malbec, from Argentina, are good with chocolate,” says Monteleone. “Ruby or vintage Ports are also, and there are nutty, caramel types that go with baked goods. Alcyone ($30), a Port-like wine made from grapes, herbs and roots in Uruguay, pairs very well with chocolate, and it’s one most people have never heard of. Once you’ve tried it, you will be back for it!” For a ménage-a-trois of tastes, Monteleone suggests, “Port wine with chocolate and Stilton cheese, drizzled with honey—that’s a spectacular dessert.”
If you have any guilt about Bacchanalian indulgences, assuage it by doing your health and community a favor and buy local products, like artisanal cheese. “Our cheese is all small-batch, handmade—it has a lot of seasonality, unlike a factory product, which always tastes the same,” comments Laura at Fairfield Cheese. “Cheese should have three ingredients: milk, rennet and salt. Grocery store cheese either has ingredients added in or taken out to make it low fat. We also know the story behind our cheeses. We’ve been to the farms and see that the animals live a nice life.”
Local wine from Black Rock Vintners is available in most area liquor stores and online. Owner Anthony Izzo, who comes from a family of wine makers, uses California grapes to make wine in Bridgeport. “Our 2009 Chardonnay is a good one with cheese,” says Izzo’s executive assistant, Jessica Beal. “The 2008 Petite Sirah pairs nicely with a chocolate lava cake.” Prices range from $12 to $26.
At Isabelle et Vincent, not only sweets are made on the premises, but also French bread bakes all day long, from 6 a.m. A baguette, artisanal cheese plate, wine, and chocolate, all made right here in Fairfield, are wonderful ingredients for an intimate evening. Add a cheese and wine class at Fairfield Cheese for you and your sweetheart and become a connoisseur!
A Final Note
Occasionally Cupid wreaks havoc. Swain recounts how a woman requested a bottle of Champagne be sent to her lover. “Her husband came in later and someone asked if he got the champagne. It wasn’t for him. This is too small a town. Don’t do that!”
This day is about true love. “People who come in to make a purchase on Valentine’s Day have a twinkle in their eye and a smile on their face,” Monteleone says. “I’ll hear a wife married fifty years say, ‘I love him as much as the day I married him.’ ”
Black Rock Vintner, 203-319-3265; blackrockvintners.com
Fairfield Cheese Shop, 2090 Post Road, 203-292-8194; fairfieldcheese.com
Greenfield Liquor Shop, 75 Hillside Road, 203-259-8786
Harry’s Wine, 2094 Post Road, 203-259-4692; harryswine.com
Isabelle et Vincent, 1903 Post Road, 203-292-8022; isabelleetvincent.com
Sweet Rexie’s, 1552 Post Road, 203-254-3254; sweetrexies.com
Twisted Vine, 1490 Post Road, 203-319-9463; twistedvinefairfield.com