Alsace's Sparkling Wines for This New Year's Eve

Champagne and Alsace — the two northern-most wine-growing regions of France. Both produce lovely sparkling wines.

I enjoy Prosecco and Cava — those Champagne look-alikes from Italy and Spain respectively. In fact, for years, I wrote article after article about how these admirably priced bottles make sparkling wine an everyday possibility. I was (and still am!) all about popping open a bottle on any given day, just because.

But … the very everyday nature of inexpensive versions of cava and Prosecco make them less-than-thrilling for, say, a New Year’s Eve celebration. I just can’t see bringing out these bottles for guests on the dressiest occasion of the year.

And yet, Champagne — true Champagnes from the chalky soils of Northern France —  can get a bit pricey when you’re hosting a houseful. Roughly speaking, I’ve found that you pretty much have to pay at least $50 to get a bottle worthy of the occasion.

That’s why I find Crémant d’Alsace just right. Like Champagne, these wines come from a cool climate in the North of France.

While Alsace is known for its dry, minerally wines made from Riesling, it’s the Pinot Gris grape that gets crafted into the most respected Alsatian sparkling wines; however, other grapes, including Pinot Blanc, Pinot, Noir, and—yes— Riesling, may make their way into some balanced blends. Alsace’s rosé sparkling wines, made from Pinot Noir, are among the most renown outside of Champagne.

My all-time favorite Crémant d’Alsace is Lucien Albrecht Brut. And I’m not its only fan. In 2018 Wine Spectator named it in its top 100 wines of 2018. Decanter, Wine Enthusiast, and Wine and Spirits magazines all give it a rating of 90 points or more.

What do you get for the price ($20 to $25 depending on your region)? Delicate creamy bubbles. Crisp fruit (think apples rimmed with citrus) and a touch of the yeasty appeal we like in French sparkling wines. Elegance. Uplift. Finesse.

If you can’t find that bottle, look for these, which I’ve also enjoyed in the past:

• Pierre Spar Brut Crémant d’Alsace Réserve ($17): A little less expensive; a wee less finesse. Great for the price.
• Gustave Lorentz Crémant d’Alsace Rosé ($27-ish): A great example of a Pinot Noir-anchored Alsatian sparkler, with fresh strawberry notes in a gentle creamy package.

Because many crémants d’Alsace are imported to the US in smaller quantities, you might not find these exact bottles. If they are not available in your area, talk to your wine merchant and see what they do have. Take a bottle home, give it a try. Chances are, you’ll enjoy it. I haven’t found a Crémant d’Alsace that I wouldn’t happily drink.

Disclosure: Teuwen Communications, a P.R. agency, sent me three complimentary bottles of Crémant d’Alsace to sample this season. They needn’t have done so — I’ve been a fan of Crémant d’Alsace for years. But I thought I should let you know.

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10 Great Gifts for Cooks and Travelers

Great gifts for cooks and travelers.

Do you have a cook or avid traveler on your gift-giving list? I’m here to help. Below are my top 10 gift ideas for cooks and people who love to travel.

1. Jacquard Tea Towels from Garnier Thiebaut

These richly colored jacquard tea towels from Garnier Thiebaut now come in many splendid designs — from herbs (basil, thyme, mint) to fruits and vegetables (blueberries, squash, blood oranges), as well as seasonal variations (Christmas, a 2020 calendar, and more). They’re beautiful to display, very absorbent, and also incredibly useful. As of today, they range in price from $21 to $28 on Amazon.

By the way: Did you know that “Jacquard” means the design is woven in, rather than printed? It’s just that much lovelier (and lasting).

P.S.: In love with Jacquard? For just the right person, these Garnier Thiebaut French napkins would also be a divine gift.

2. France Inspiration du Jour (Book)

This lovely collection of words, watercolors, and sketches might inspire someone to write their own French story.

If you know someone who loves travelogues and memoirs, here’s something just for them that’s a little off that beaten path: It’s a sketchbook/journal of photographs, watercolors, and words that artist Rae Dunn has collected during annual sojourns to Paris, Provence, and the Cote d’Azur. I just adore the way the joy of living comes on alive on the pages. The photographs and sketches point out things that you might not have noticed — or things that you’ve forgotten about. It didn’t make me homesick for travel; rather, it made me happy to recall touchstones I love so much.

This evocative book may also inspire others to keep similarly compelling journals — whether visually or in words — of their own travels, no matter where they wander.

As of today, this book is $18.95 on Amazon. While you’re at it, why not throw in a little travel journal/sketchbook so that the recipient can write/sketch their own travel story?

3. Le Cadeaux Appetizer Plates

Looking for gifts for the young host/hostess? These pretty appetizer/tapas plates are as cute as can be, and are perfect for those who are just beginning to feather their nest.

They’re made of high-quality melamine, so they’re almost unbreakable. That means they’ll be durable for the recipients next five moves before they settle down for a while. Why not combine this gift with a gift certificate from a local cheese/charcuterie/gourmet shop? They’ll love it.

Currently, they’re $31 on Amazon. By the way, ignore the 1-star review: It seems the person did not understand that they were appetizer plates. If you understand (like I did, and the rest of the reviewers did!) that these are appetizer plates, they’re exactly as advertised.

4. Great Hostess Gift Alert: Un Air d’Antin Hand Cream Set

These opulent creams are made from shea butter, aloe vera, and almond oil, and they’re great for hydrating hands that have done a lot of dishes over the holidays! Your hosts, perhaps? The charming gift box is sweet, the tubes are durable (you can carry them around in your purse forever), and the fragrances are sheer delight: Two are floral (one tube is a combo of rose, peach, and patchouli, and the other a mix of orange blossom, lily of the valley, and rose). The other two are more bright and botanic (one tube is almond, fig, and vetiver, while the other is verbena, bergamot, and lemon). The scents are not overpowering, either.

Right now, the set is available on Amazon for $29.95. I can’t imagine anyone who would not love these high-quality creams.

5. Le Creuset Trivet

If you follow me on this blog at all, you know that I’m a nut about enamel cast-iron braising pans! I love them, and I use them probably about five times a week in fall and winter. What I haven’t told you is how important it is to have a really durable trivet to place your big cast-iron braiser on top of. You see, I once placed a hot braiser on my pretty little Villeroy and Boch trivet and … you guessed it: The delicate thing cracked.

Lesson learned: The cast iron Le Creuset Trivet is the only thing that’s durable enough for your braiser. As with anything made in cast iron from Le Creuset, it will wear like iron — because it is iron! And you know that if it’s Le Creuset, it’s going to come in a variety of amazing colors. I’m kind of partial to Marseille. Currently the trivet sells for $74.95 on Amazon.

6. 365 Days Wall Calendars

I love love love the “365 days” calendars, and while you can get them on a variety of topics (365 days of kittens, 365 days of puppies, 365 days of golf, etc.) I especially love those that focus on a country: Ireland, France, Italy, Places to See Before You Die, etc.

I have given the France or Ireland one to my husband, Mr. Sportcoat, every single year since we discovered those countries. Each month features a region (e.g., Savoie) or a city (e.g. Marseilles), with representative photos of the month’s highlighted region for every single day.

The really cool thing about these calendars is that because there are 365 photos, the subject go wide and deep: Travelers who love a particular country will recognize not only great landmarks, but also the beautiful minutiae of places they’ve been, from little shops and cafes to little-known churches. There’s something really exciting about spotting, for instance, a seascape you’ve seen and recognizing it before you even read the caption.

As of this posting, the calendar is currently $10.99 on Amazon.

7. The Splurge Gift for a Lifetime of Great French Meals: The Le Creuset Braiser

Clockwise from top: The 5-quart, the 3 1/2-quart, and the 1 1/2-quart Le Creuset Braiser. I get the most everyday use out of the 3 1/2-quart size, but I love the 5-quart size for entertaining.

I don’t know how I ever lived without my enamel cast-iron braising pans from Le Creuset. Braising is a “low and slow” cooking method for transforming less-expensive cuts of meat into rich, succulent meals. Coq au Vin, Boeuf Bourguigon, Blanquette of Pork, Osso Bucco are all braises, as are a slew of great everyday recipes, like pot roast and beef stew. With its tight-fitting lid, wide base, and shallower-than-a-Dutch-oven sides, the braising pan is simply the best choice for this cooking method.

As I write this, they’re currently priced around $265 for the 3 3/4-quart braiser, or $339 for the 5-quart braiser. Which one should you buy? If you usually cook for four to six people, get the 3 3/4-quart braiser. If you generally cook for six to eight, go for the 5-quart braiser. That little yellow 1 1/2-quart braiser ($199.95) comes in handy, especially for braising small cuts of meat for two or cooking leftovers, but it’s not as essential to me as the other two.

8. The Less-Expensive Alternative to the Le Creuset Braiser: The Lodge Braiser

It might not be called a braiser, but the Lodge Color Enameled Cast Iron 3.6-Quart Covered Casserole works just like a braiser—I’ve tested one and give it a hearty thumbs up.

Yes, I prefer (and own) three Le Creuset Braisers, but if you don’t want to splurge for French pedigree, I can recommend this braiser. It’s made of enamel cast-iron, just like the high-end French pans. It’s designed by an well-respected American company and made in China. PS: While there aren’t as many colors as there are for Le Creuset, both the blue braiser the red braiser are lovely. Both cost $59.90 as of this writing.

9. Serrated French Dining Knives

Serrated table knives. I won't call these "steak knives," because you'll use them for everything from chicken to pot roast to pizza. It's the French way.

Serrated table knives. If you’ve ever dined in France, you know: The French use serrated knives at the table for just about everything except fish.

For heaven’s sake, if you don’t already own some elegant dining knives, get yourself a set. And, while you’re at it, give someone on your list a set, too. Everything from chicken breasts to pot roasts to pizza cuts better with a serrated knife, and that’s why Europeans use serrated knives at the table for just about everything except fish. So while these might be classified as “steak knives,” once you start using them for everything else, you’ll wonder why you’ve been using flat-edged table-knives for so long. As of right now, they’re $49.73 on Amazon.

Oh–and make no mistake. These knifes are truly from France. There are some imitations out there, but these are the real deal.

10. The Wustof Gourmet 3-Piece Cheese Knife Set

If you have an artisanal cheese-lover on your list, the Wusthof Gourmet 3-Piece Cheese Knife Set  ($114.95) is a great gift. I especially adore the soft-cheese knife—it’s the one with the holes in in the blade. Use it for washed-rind and bloomy rind cheeses (like Camembert, Epoisse, et al.); the cheese won’t stick to the knife. The offset knife is stellar for cutting firm and semi-firm cheeses, while the cheese plane lets you cut those ultra-thin slices from favorites like Comté and Gruyère.

PS: If you want, you can just purchase the Soft Cheese Knife (currently priced at $94.95), my favorite of the three. But frankly, for $20 more, I’d go for the set.

Always remember that any purchase you make through one of the links on my site will help support the work I do on this blog and in my restaurant and travel reporting. So, if I’ve ever given you a good restaurant lead, a great recipe, a favorite wine, or led you to a lovely place in the world, please consider making a purchase through one of my links. Doing so won’t add to your costs in any way!

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Great Christmas Gifts from European Market

The kind of high-quality vintage Christmas ornaments you always look for but rarely find are a click away at European Market.

A week or so ago, I gave you some great gift ideas for France-lovers on your gift-giving list. Now, I’m thrilled to share the “mother lode” of beautifully curated European gifts …

These gifts hail from a small mom-and-pop company called European Market. The owners are Chris and Sue Ellibee, a couple I met over 20 years ago while working on projects for Meredith Corporation (the publishers of Better Homes and Gardens and other lifestyle magazines). A few years ago, this duo started traveling to markets all over Europe, bringing home beautiful antiques and contemporary wares from artisans and small manufacturers from all over the Old World.

I love armchair traveling through their website. I also enjoy getting their occasional newsletter, which highlights new finds and also offers insights on the artisans who make these beautiful products.

If you’re looking for great gifts not just from France, but also Austria, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Denmark, England, Finland, Germany, Holland, Italy, Latvia, Spain, Sweden, and Switzerland, take a look at their beautiful holiday decorations, candles and soaps, fine housewares, beautiful scraves, bags, and more! What’s really nice is that you can shop by country, so if you have a fan of Finland on your list, you can narrow the options. How cool is that?

Here are some more personal favorites on their site:

Bet you know someone who would love these moisturizing soaps from Tuscany. They’re free of artificial colors, fragrances, and never animal tested.

I’ve told readers again and again that the French never serve aperitifs without a little nibble alongside. But they never overdo it — “little” is the operative word! So, is it any surprise that I adore these little French snack cups? They’re kinda perfect.

Is someone you know having a baby? I can almost guarantee that if you bring this darling children’s dinner set to the shower, no one will have brought the same thing!

If you know an Anglophile, you know they’d enjoy this London Tube Stop Kitchen Towel. This fun little gift offers a wee wink to the London insider.

I love the way my friends Chris and Sue have made it so easy to find gifts that are truly one-of-a-kind. Head to their website to find out more.

P.S.: To be clear, I’m not earning a commission on anything you buy through European Market. I just love these things, and I adore the Ellibees, and simply wish to share the gift ideas with you.

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