Friday, 16 December 2011

Destination Paris


Paris is the city of style. I love the sense of history, the stunning buildings and the wide boulevards. I took the Eurostar, which is “greener” than flying, and comes without the hassle of a lengthy check-in procedure you usually have with airlines nowadays. After a comfortable couple of hours I stepped out into another world. I crammed so much into a day that when I returned to London I felt that my trip had the same benefits as if I have been away for a weekend.

Paris is totally absorbing. All the neighbourhoods have their own distinct personality. It is easy to get round the city using the Metro combined with some leisurely walking. The more aimlessly I wander the more I discover, including great boutiques. After all, the Parisian shops are an important part of the city's identity.

 Le Marais

I started my day in Le Marais, one of the city’s oldest districts which is now rather trendy. It’s where tradition meets modernity. It is easy to while away a couple of hours here roaming the narrow medieval streets, which are peppered with beautiful boutiques crammed with cool fashion and which sit comfortably alongside art galleries and lovely cafés all surrounded by amazing architecture.

Over a cup of coffee I sat chatting to a couple of locals and got a real feel for the place. I never find the Parisians aloof. A word of advice, if you can speak a little French, or at least you show you are trying, people seem to warm more easily to you.

Next on the agenda was rue Faubourg St Honoré, littered with designer labels. There are plenty of shops around this area where you can lighten your wallet. However, don't expect bargains, prices are about the same, and in some cases, dearer than at home.

A shopping trip to Paris wouldn't be complete without a visit to Galleries Lafayette (bd Haussmann). This department store is home to a vast array of brands so it's well worth a visit.

After a rummage round the store, I decided it was time for lunch and headed to visit Lafayette Gourmet. It’s a foodies’ heaven stocked with all the delicacies you could possibly imagine. It also has some superb delis, tasting bars and restaurants.

Les Tuilleries

To burn off the calories, I walked from the Louvre to Place de la Concorde through Les Tuilleries – these gardens truly are magnificent – to take a quick stroll beside the Seine before returning home.

I always leave Paris wanting more. As Eurostar is such a civilised way to travel and there are always good deals for a day, I know it won't be long until I go back.

By Daralyn Danns

Getting there

Eurostar operates up to 18 daily services from London St Pancras International to Paris (fastest London-Paris journey time 2hrs 15mins). Connecting fares available from over 200 stations in the UK. Return fares from £69. Book through or call 08432 186 186.

Worth checking out Eurostar plus, (available with your ticket) for special offers such as 2-for-1 entry into museums and galleries and discounts at shops including Galeries Lafayette as well as restaurants.

Friday, 9 December 2011

Tips on buying wine

Choosing a wine when you are in the supermarket or in a restaurant or bar can be daunting. Where do you start? Should you stick to what you know or be brave and experiment?

I asked Alan Holmes, chef sommelier at Chewton Glen, the renowned country house hotel in Hampshire, for some guidelines.

“Don’t buy the cheapest wine,” says Alan. “Trading up a couple of pounds to around £8 per bottle means you will buy a much better quality of wine.” He also suggests checking out wines on offer in places such as Waitrose and Tesco where wines have been on sale at higher prices. “These can offer some of the best value for money,” he adds. “Ask the wine manager for advice. They are usually very knowledgeable and can point you in the right direction.”

When choosing wine in a restaurant, Alan says: “Don’t pick the cheapest one on the menu as it can often have the highest mark-up. Discuss with the wine waiter what wines you like and what you don’t like.”

Wine is personal. If you found a French sauvignon blanc too dry tell them, or a Australian merlot too heavy, say so. If you are not sure about grape types say what flavours you like. For example, strawberry flavours are often associated with pinot noir grapes, while blackcurrants and tannins are usually the characteristics of a cabernet sauvignon. If you like zesty whites you may want to try a riesling or sauvignon blanc from the New World.

“The same wine may taste different dependent on where the grapes are grown,” says Alan. “Sauvignon blanc from cooler climates such as the Loire Valley will be lighter than a sauvignon blanc from New Zealand as grapes grown in warmer climates have more sugar and the wines tend to be fruitier and have more alcohol.” 

What wines to watch out for?  Alan says wines from places such as Romania and Bulgaria can be good value. Chenin blancs from South Africa, sauvignon blancs and cabernet sauvignon from Chile and Grüner Veltliner from Austria are some of the most popular ones right now.

By Daralyn Danns

Thursday, 1 December 2011

Tips for choosing champagne

“Do you think you can tell the difference between a good sparkling English wine and French champagne?" That was the question that Alan Holmes, chef sommelier at the luxurious Chewton Glen, in Hampshire, put to me during a recent visit. I felt confident that I would recognise the different styles, so I accepted the challenge.

Only bubbly that comes from the Champagne region, in France can actually be called champagne. It is made from only three grape types: chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier, often blended. Blanc de Blanc is made only from chardonnay grapes and Blanc de Noir, also white champagne, is made from pinot noir and pinot meunier.

“Although English sparkling wine is made in the same way as champagne and uses the same grapes, which are grown in almost identical deep chalks soils, it can never be called champagne,” Alan explained.

Trying a non-vintage champagne gives you a good indicator to a house’s style as the winemaker produces the same each year. Brut champagnes are very dry. The actual sugar content is 12 grams per litre. Extra Dry, on the label, indicates there are between 12 and 17 grams per litre. 

Alan gave me Nyetimber 2006 Classic Cuvée and Taittinger Brut Réserve NV (both £13.95 a glass), to try.

Nyetimber, Alan told me comprises chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier. It was a lovely pale gold and had tiny bubbles. It had a fresh green apple flavour, which lingered on my palate.

Still run by the Taittinger family, it is one of the older great champagne houses. I immediately recognised its elegant style as it’s a champagne that I am rather partial to. This delicate golden wine has a high proportion of chardonnay making it lovely and fruity. I also tasted subtle hints of honey and brioche.

I guessed which one was which. If you fancy doing the test at home, a bottle of Nyetimber Classic Cuvée Vintage 2006 will set you back £29.99 and Taittinger Brut Réserve NV Champagne, £35.99, both from Waitrose.

Alan also gave me some pointers on how to pick a good champagne. “Go for champagnes produced by smaller houses such as Bollinger, Gosset, Ruinart and Taittinger. Some of the bigger brands can dilute quality by producing quantity.”

One of my all-time favourites is Bollinger Special Cuvée (£41.99, Waitrose). This family-owned house produces one of the best classic non-vintage champagnes. It is rich and powerful with a wonderful toasty finish.

Here are some others which I have tasted (all in the name of research, of course) which I think are well worth the money.

Bollinger La Grande Année 2002, £79, Waitrose
For a really special occasion, you will find it hard to beat this gem from Bollinger. This pinky-gold champagne is bursting with character and flavour.   

Champagne Pierre Peters, Cuvée de Réserve, Grand Cru, £28.95, Berry Bros. & Rudd
This zesty champagne from this small producer has just the right amount of acidity and offers excellent value for money.

Ayala Brut Nature “Zéro Dosage”, £24, Selfridges
Dry and crisp, it’s the “perfect diet” champagne as no sugar is added. Also worth trying is the Ayala Brut Majeur (£24), the house champagne at The Goring Hotel, where Kate Middleton spent her last night as a commoner. It’s lively and fresh but well-rounded.

By Daralyn Danns