June 2010


I’m currently based out in Surrey for work, so any trip into central London is very welcome. Today I had my annual appraisal meeting with the senior consultant responsible for overseeing my training.

Fortuitously, she works near Marylebone High Street, so I took the opportunity to pop into La Fromagerie on Moxon Street before our meeting. With hindsight, this was probably a bad idea on one of the hottest days of the year, but thankfully said Consultant turned out to be a fan of the shop, and didn’t seem to mind the aroma emanating from the bag in the corner!

La Fromagerie, Moxon Street

I’ve been wanting to visit La Fromagerie for a while, having received owner Patricia Michelson’s excellent encyclopedia – simply entitled ‘Cheese‘ – as a birthday present.

The Marylebone store has a simply awesome walk-in cheese ‘cave’, which mostly focusses on French cheeses. I was completely spoilt for choice, but came away with half an Ami du Chambertin, a cow’s milk cheese from Burgundy, similar to Epoisses; a couple of Cabécou de Rocamadour, a small ripe goat’s cheese; and a slab of Beaufort d’Alpage – always a favourite.

Alongside the cheese, La Fromagerie stocks a range of other fresh produce, but there’s no denying that some of the prices are eye watering – £8 for a bundle of asparagus? That said, I was very tempted by the homemade rillettes, the fresh duck confit, the cornichons from the deli counter… Thankfully for my wallet, our store cupboard is still full from our recent trip to France.

We’re very lucky to have an excellent cheese shop very close to home (charging similar prices for cheese) but the cheese room at La Fromagerie was something else – and not just because it was cool on a warm day!

Hopefully the smell of the Ami du Chambertin didn’t affect my appraisal too badly…

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We’re lucky enough to live close enough to the Channel Tunnel, that it’s possible to do a quick dash to France over a weekend to stock up. Although the strength of the Euro against the pound doesn’t make it quite as attractive from a cost perspective as it was a couple of years ago, there are still numerous things we can’t easily (or cheaply) get here that make the trip worthwhile: Bonne Maman baba au rhum, big jars of cornichons, tins of cassoulet, slabs of comté cheese etc. And where in the UK can you buy globe artichokes for the equivalent of £1? Last time I looked, it was closer to £3. Our friends, K+L, have recently returned from a couple of years living abroad so we were more than happy to accompany them to northern France last weekend to help stock their cellar. We spent a very pleasant couple of days in Montreuil-sur-mer, enjoying great food and sipping Kir Royals in the sunshine. Our usual port of call for food in France is the Auchan chain – historically much better and less touristy than Carrefour, at least in Calais. However, the wine selection this time was strangely poor. Okay, the strong Euro didn’t help but, although most French regions were represented, choice seemed to be seriously limited. Last year, we bought wine at Auchan in Blois and were disappointed with almost every bottle. At the time we thought it was a one off, but perhaps it wasn’t. Having all had limited success, K+L suggested trying the branch of Majestic just down the road from Auchan. To me it initially seemed a bit of an anathema, going all the way to France only to buy wine from Majestic, but I have to concede that the offers were incredible. Yes, there was a limited choice, compared with our local branch, but as a source of ‘Monday night wine’ it was brilliant. We picked up half a case of The Ned Sauvignon Blanc 2009, which normally retails for around £9 in Waitrose, for the equivalent of about £4. Although not quite so good, their champagne offers were also great value: Pol Roger NV Brut for around £22. Not so long ago, the word was that Majestic’s French business was struggling. At the time a spokesman described how ”The romance has gone out of travelling to the continent for a day trip’ partly because of the strong Euro, but also because ‘so many French products were now as easily available in UK supermarkets as in France.’ (Not sure I agree with the latter, certainly from a food perspective). It’s difficult to see how Majestic can be making a profit in France, given those offers: the Ned Sauvignon, is almost certainly being sold at or very close to cost, for example. But are the days of the ‘booze cruise’ really dead? Is that why Auchan’s selection seems to have declined? And more importantly, to me at any rate, where do the French buy their wine, if not at the supermarket?

The self-styled first families of Australian wine have come together with the aim of promoting the country’s ‘truly outstanding wines’. Together, the twelve families have over 1200 years of winemaking experience and represent sixteen regions across four states.

As their promotional literature states, although many people around the globe enjoy Australian wines, less is known about the premium wines, and this is partly why we attended one of their tastings in London the other week. Although we got some sense of change in Australian wines during our travels in the country last year, too many years of cheap, big brands, have made me cautious about buying anything Australian here in the UK.

Australia's First Families

On the night, 72 wines were on offer – 12 from each of the families. Although we didn’t sample the full range, we tried enough to have some of our reservations reinforced but, more importantly, make some great discoveries. I include notes on a handful of wines I will particularly be searching out.

Despite my love of whites, overall I preferred the reds I tried, which was something of a surprise as I’ve traditionally shied away from what I’d perceived as big headachey Aussie reds. Frankly, I suspect a lot of the whites were served just too cold on the night, which left many strangely devoid of much flavour. One exception was a vertical of Tahbilk’s Marsanne. Of the 2007, 2002 and 1992, the 2002 drank best with a lovely, rich floral nose, but a surprising freshness.

Throughout the evening, the winemakers we spoke to repeatedly emphasised the shift from a focus on work in the cellar, for example indiscriminate use of new oak, to more focus on processes in the vineyard, such as hand picking grapes, which can only be a good thing.

The wines I’ll be seeking out include:

d’Arenberg The Laughing Magpie Shiraz Viognier 2007
The addition of 10% Viognier really lifted this wine, adding a delicate perfume to the hefty dark fruit of the Shiraz.

De Bortoli Gulf Station Pinot Noir 2008
A lovely, elegant pinot. Plenty of red fruit with savoury notes and just about the right amount of tannic grip.

Tahbilk Cabernet Sauvignon 2006
Dark, intense wine. Lots of black fruit, particularly blackberry, on the palate, with a touch of mint and leather. Rich, mouthfilling tannins. Prefered this to the ‘Reserve’ Cabernet.

Tyrell’s Vat 47 Hunter Chardonnay 2006
The real surprise of the night. A lovely fresh Chardonnay, with a crisp acidity and notes of stone fruit. The wine is not allowed to undergo a malolactic fermentation and spends just six months in oak, only one third of which is new. Lovely.