29th September is the traditional feast of St Michael the Archangel – Michaelmas. Pious legend has it that when Satan was cast down from heaven by St Michael, he landed a bramble thicket. Each year on Michaelmas day, he pisses on all the brambles he can find, leaving their fruit shriveled, sour and unpalatable. (Nothing to do with reduced daylight hours, honest!)
Wise foragers will have harvested plenty blackberries well before the end of September, of course. Some of them will get macerated in spirit - the berries, not the foragers! - then sweetened, bottled and put away for the rest of the year. For the less organised among us, the better liquor shops sell crème de mûres sauvages (wild blackberry liqueur). One of my favourites is made by the Cistercian monks who make Chartreuse liqueur, so it pleases me to remember the Michaelmas legend while I’m drinking it.
Why am I telling you all this? Surely, liqueurs belong at the end of dinner, to help you relax and see your guests off with something sweet and strong for the stagger home? Well, liqueurs also mix wonderfully with sparkling wines. Kir Royale, made with crème de cassis blackcurrant liqueur, is well-known. Personally, I find the flavour of cassis a little overpowering, but I love the taste of Champagne mixed with crème de mûres. More subtle than its curranty cousin, it makes a rather classy introduction to an autumn dinner.
You’ll need to experiment a little to get the proportions right for your palate. The traditional mix in France would be 1 part liqueur to 4 parts Champagne. You can have the liqueur already out in the bottom of the flutes before your guests arrive. (Try just over an inch deep in a standard flute to begin with.) Then you simply pop the cork on your fizz and top up. Nothing like a little touch of theatre to get them interested! Incidentally, to reduce the risk of overflowing, you can half fill each glass to begin with and return to top up as the mousse dies down.
There is no point in spending good money on a top-notch Champagne or small-scale English sparkling, by the way, only to mix it with a liqueur. Aldi sells Champagne for £10.95 that will make a more comfortable mix, or you could track down one of the regional French crémant wines or use Cava. I’m not one for mixing Prosecco with liqueurs in this way. The wine has lower acidity and finer bubbles than the French model and it seems to get swamped by the liqueur. Best save it for spritz or drink it on its own.
Find out more about aperitif foods next time.