September 7, 2006


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Got milk?

What are Malpeques, Alex?
Jeopardy at an oyster, champagne tasting
By Tim Protzman

Ever watch Jeopardy and the phone rings during Final Jeopardy and you’re stuck with knowing the answer but not the question, which really is the answer?

That’s what happened last week when Joan threw her annual summer party.

Joan and Liz are sisters. I went to high school with them. Joan became a high-powered business executive. Liz is an editor and a mother. We skied together. Went to homecoming together and saw each other through the bad-haircut ’80s together. Now Joan lives in a fashionable cottage. One year she had a potato salad cook-off. I almost won with my hot German potato salad. But the judges thought it was too severe, too Germanic. And not hot enough, since I made it the night before and they microwaved it.

I always say microwaved, not nuked, just to be on the safe side. One never knows who’s listening.

This year Joan must have gotten a big bonus because she went all out and threw a Champagne and oyster tasting. And nobody was required to bring anything.

The Champagne and oyster thing reminded me of Ken Burns’ documentary on the Civil War. Apparently that was what President Lincoln thought of General McClellan’s invasion of Northern Virginia, “Champagne and oysters on the Potomac.” It’s rare in today’s society with salmon mousse lollipops and sea urchin foam to see a party based on a 150-year-old menu. But there it was.

The premise was we’d blind taste four champagnes and four types of oysters. The oysters and champagnes would be numbered one-through-four and we’d place the number next to the description Joan provided.

I like oysters. Some people don’t. They’re salty and gritty and they always have a little bit of chipped shell in them, unless you have a really experienced shucker. Shucker. There’s a one line job description — oyster shucker. Duties include: shucking crustaceans.

Joan had Blue Points, Chesapeakes, Cotuits and Malpeques. The Blue Points come from Long Island and supposedly have a briny fresh taste. Chesapeakes come from Maryland and have a meaty flavorful bite that requires a little bit of chewing. Cotuits, also known as Barnstables, come from the Cape. They’re small but pungent. And Malpeques are flown in from Prince Edward Island in Canada. Personally I couldn’t tell the difference between the different kinds, but they sure were tasty. They were served in a big plastic trough filled with ice. Each shellfish had a little dollop of cocktail sauce on top. I didn’t even try to identify them by name, I just slurped them down. On the Champagne I did a little better.

Joan used the same one-through-four numbering system and corresponding title page with the names of the champagnes. I knew the Veuve Clicquot Brut Yellow Label on first taste. It’s $45.99 and has a slightly bitter finish that’s not all that pleasing. I pegged the Moet & Chandon White Star too. It costs $32.99 and has a light one-dimensional taste and a fly-away finish. It disperses quickly, without any lingering goodbye or even a quick kiss. The Laurent Perrier Brut was the nicest bubbly of the evening. It’s reasonably priced at $34.99 and has that sweetish finish that’s thirst-quenching and reminds you of soda on a hot day. It’s fun, easy to drink and has a malty, toasty backbone. It’s also the official champagne of the Emmy Awards and is served on several airlines in business and first class.

Although I couldn’t be sure I suspect it was served to that wingnut John Mark Karr on his Thai Air flight from Bangkok to Los Angeles because it pairs so well with spicy food like Tom Yam Kung, which is hot and sour soup with prawns. It’s amazing how suddenly prawns have become so notorious. Perhaps next year Joan will throw a prawn tasting? Then maybe she’ll take a page from Thai Air’s Royal First Class Service and serve Cuvee Dom Perignon 1996 and Veuve Clicquot “La Grande Dame” 1995, which are known as vintage champagnes and are blended from grapes grown only in that year.

The final champagne was Roederer Brut Premier, which used to be my favorite champagne and still is delicious but comes in a close second to Pol Roger Winston Churchill Vintage 1990. The Roederer costs $46.99 and has zesty lemon cur flavors with a hint of malt and a slightly sweet metallic finish that satisfies and delights. It was the perfect drink for a warm summer evening. I remember one January night at Le Francais in Chicago, drinking Roederer and learning about a tiny little Alsatian bistro where the German chef fought tooth and nail with the French Maitre’D, but somehow the served the most extraordinary food. Sometimes kitchens are a little like oysters; a tiny grain of irritation makes a beautiful pearl.

• Wine Hit of the Week: Cline Ancient Vines Zinfandel — $16.99. Smooth with low tannins. This wine had Justin’s attention and he named it “the best red we’ve tried in a while.” Fruity with a supple understated finish, one-dimensional, but rustic and true to its roots. Made from vines that are 60 to 100 years old, that once supplied the thriving pre-Prohibition domestic wine market.

Tell Tim your wine stories. You can reach him at

Comments? Thoughts? Discuss this article and more at

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