It's amazing what a surprise heat wave can do for London's morale, and as I minced down Piccadilly a couple of weeks ago, jaunty grins and twinkly eyes were everywhere. None of this crowd seemed fussed about rioters or the economy or the Dale Farm travellers, they just looked happy to be out and about, on their way to a post-work G & T in the blazing sunshine.
August should take a long hard look at this September/October crux and promise to do better next year. I was especially thrilled though, for I was on my way to an amazing event at The Ritz and there are few things in London that make me feel more glitzy and glamorous than swishing through those revolving doors. Emerging into that stunning Louis XVI style interior in a cocktail dress and fancy heels to be greeted by a liveried doorman murmuring the words 'Welcome to The Ritz' with a slight bow of his handsome head never fails to make me feel like a princess, or P-Middy at the very least. I love sauntering down that garlanded, gilded, art, flower and music-filled long gallery with all those exquisitely old-fashioned people hanging around the chaise longues by the piano as if they're in a living tableau of the eighteenth century with lavish court costumes and jewellery to match. I'm on my way to the Marie Antoinette suite - swoon - a private dining room that was used for summit meetings by Churchill, de Gaulle and Eisenhower - triple swoon - during the Second World War and where the House of Champagne Perrier-Jouet has chosen to hold a dinner in honour of its bicentenary. Swooning is off the chart.
Champagne and The Ritz go hand in hand of course, so this was always going to be a proper extravaganza of an evening. I've never been to a dinner where the food is matched with champagne the whole way through before so it's brilliant that Mr Herve Deschamps, Chef de Cave and guardian of the legendarily consistent Perrier-Jouet house style - only the seventh such cellar master since the House launched in 1811, is on hand to explain how each champagne is shaped by the exceptional quality of its Grand Cru Chardonnay grapes and how best to appreciate the different styles. 'It is such a delight to host these events,' says the charming, smiley Hotel Manager Guillaume Marly, 'as they really epitomise the conviviality created by Champagne wines - great company, amazing food and beautifully elaborated wines. It is also a great platform for the Chef de Cave himself to demonstrate his passion and craftsmanship to an audience that really appreciates the finer things in life.'
Ladies in full length evening dresses and long gloves with lots of big diamonds sip, nibble and chat alongside men in white dinner jackets, wine buffs of all stripes and a lovely crowd of French epicureans; charming, attentive waiters with white gloves move seamlessly amongst them. The canapé is my favourite food group and since I've been to eight weddings already this year, not to mention tonnes of press events, I feel qualified to declare them off the chart. Little lobster spring rolls with a sour chilli dipping sauce and cones of smoked salmon mousse wrapped in flaky pastry like miniature Cornettos but with caviar on top instead of chocolate sprinkles washed down with lashings of Perrier-Jouet Grand Brut set the tone of extreme perfection in all areas and were just right for soaking up the atmosphere before we moved into The Music Room with its high vaulted ceilings and glorious paintings for a dinner especially created by Executive Chef John Williams to match the champagnes. With the Belle Epoque 2004 we have a dense and meaty ballotine of ham hock and langoustine with a deliciously delicate quail egg beignet and fennel pollen; we salivate over the outstanding seared scallops, smoked eel, bacon and watercress foam that accompany the Grand Brut Millesime 1998 - I learn from Mr Deschamps that this is a blend of the three major Champagne grapes, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier and is pretty rather than showy, balanced rather than bold.
'It's not often you see so many hardcore champagne lovers in one room,' says Mark Hedley, the lovely editor of Square Mile magazine sitting next to me, 'but it's amazing how persuasive a four-course fine-dining experience in a private room at the Ritz swilled down with various vintages of Perrier-Jouët can be! Although PJ's Grand Brut is a top-ten easy drinking champagne the Belle Epoque '96 really stole the show for me. Of course, it helped that it was served up in a jeroboam - when it comes to Perrier-Jouet size clearly does matter.' He's not wrong - no one in their right mind would turn this down this sort of invitation and I can vouch for the fact that the '96 was as moreish as hell. Whether that was down to the jeroboam or not however, I have no idea. I've got to admit that much as I adore knocking back the champers I don't know much about it apart from that (as far I'm concerned) it should be bubbly, dry and delicious. Maybe it's thanks to all those Marlboro Lights but my palate is nowhere near good enough to tell whether the different varieties have nuances of raspberries or hay or summer flowers or crack cocaine - it's certainly addictive though, I'll tell you that. My favourite description of the '96 was Thomas Sorcinelli's, the charming Head Sommelier at The Ritz, who said it was 'sublime, bubbling nectar.' One thing I was in no doubt about was the food, and this nectar certainly did seem to give the truly ravishing roast loin of veal on creamy mash with morels and Jura wine that accompanied it a huge sprinkling of pizzazz.
Hugues Le Marie, Perrier-Jouet's Regional Director of the Americas and Western Europe, a dashing French character full of Gallic charm in possession of possibly the best job in the world, is also thrilled to be here. Much as he loves travelling the world with his brand, 'I meet all sorts of different people with different backgrounds from Brazil to the Caribbean, all over South, Central and North America, Italy, France and all the rest of it,' he tells me he's happiest in London. 'I love it, I really do,' he insists. 'London loves to party and has the best night scene in the world. It's really booming here at the moment, much more so than in New York and Paris. The creative concepts are outstanding and the night spots are crowded with interesting people, more so than in any other city.' Le Marie, like most people in the room, also saves his greatest enthusiasm of the night for the '96. 'It is always a pleasure for me to taste,' he explains. '1996 was an incredible year both in terms of acidity in the soil and in terms of the high temperatures achieved and the jeroboam provides the perfect format to taste this beautiful wine.'
When I told my old friend Helen McGinn, a former wine buyer for Tesco who now has a huge following as a brilliant blogger about wine and life on her site www.knackeredmotherswineclub.com, about all this she said, 'I am SO jealous, you have no idea. Champagne is the drink of the gods, but when you drink it in properly sybarite surroundings it tastes even better.' As a travel journalist it's good to be reminded that despite all the far-flung adventures, exotic beaches and super lux hot spots there's always something fabulous to be found on your doorstop. This felt like just as great and different an experience as, say, horse riding in Andalucia, camping in Zambia or wine tasting in Stellenbosch. I never thought my love of champagne could be improved upon, but am thrilled that it has been. Thank you Mr Deschamps for your superior knowledge, for sharing it with us and for keeping those bubbles in tip top condition. You really are doing the world a favour.
The next Champagne Dinner takes place on Thursday, 24th November 2011 with the House of Dom Perignon and to enquire about booking readers should email firstname.lastname@example.org