Turn a corner past Caribbean hair dressers and Ethiopian grocery shops in Brixton Village and you find yourself stumbling across a scattering of rustic outdoor tables and gingham cushioned-chairs. Wicker picnic baskets in the window behind are stuffed with artisan Normandy cheeses. A laugh (as it turns out, belonging to the shop’s owner, Stefano) rings out from the entrance. “Welcome to Champagne + Fromage,” he smiles.
He shows me inside and starts bringing out sleek green bottles. “It might seem out of place to have a champagne shop in Brixton,” he says wryly. “At first people were a bit wary. But we aren’t interested in being pretentious and pricing people out.” Every year Stefano and his wife Maude travel to the Champagne region of France to source speciality sparkling wines from small-scale producers and bring them back to Brixton. Their shop Champagne + Fromage is the only place in the UK where you can buy most of these champagnes.
We sit down and Stefano greets a table of regulars with a friendly “Bonjour”. He explains, “In the UK people think of champagne as an expensive luxury. People assume you have to pay lots and buy the famous brands to get the best quality. Why? We don’t think that way about any other type of wine.”
He pours me a glass of golden bubbles. “In France we have a proud tradition of supporting small vineyards. Champagne isn’t just for special occasions. It’s a wine like any other: it can be made in different styles and by different methods. The small producers tend to create much more interesting wines. And it makes sense economically – they’re much cheaper than the famous names, even though the quality is often far better! You pay extra for a brand’s marketing.”
He tells me about the training Champagne + Fromage organise for their employees. “We do blind tastings with one well-known label and ten of our own producers. No one has ever chosen the famous champagne as their favourite.” The result is that, rather than alienating the locals, Stefano and Maude have managed to introduce many new people into the secrets of great sparkling wine. “People have realised that we’re just a family business trying to do something different. The Brixton community is vibrant and very accepting – we love being a part of it.”
I take a glance at the menu and am surprised to find just one other wine, a red, on the list. I can’t help but ask: why champagne and cheese? Stefano grins: “I know…it’s not what you expect when you think of wine and cheese. But we really believe it’s the best pairing. The acidity of the champagne cuts through the fat of the cheese and the bubbles complement the creaminess. Champagne can be made of three different types of grape in different quantities. That means that the wines are incredibly varied and can be paired with hundreds of different cheeses.” He points to the flute I’m sipping: “That one is 100% Pinot noir grapes. It has the characteristics of a red wine so goes best with a full-bodied, strong cheese like a Roquefort. A majority Chardonnay champagne is more elegant and dry and would suit a delicate Comté better.”
With around 50 different champagnes and 50 types of cheese, you’ll have no trouble finding a pairing to suit your taste at Champagne + Fromage. You can select your own cheese board, consult their in-house experts, or tuck in to one of their famous Champagne afternoon teas. Stefano begins to slice a crusty baguette and offers me a platter of charcuterie. “This is a Corsican sausage. The peppery flavours also work incredibly well with the Pinot noir champagne.” He’s not wrong. I head inside to marvel at the rows on rows of lovingly wrapped cheeses. “We work with a fantastic cheese supplier, Une Normande à Londres. They deliver the cheeses fresh from small farms in France each week.”
The focus at Champagne + Fromage is very much on spotlighting the talent of these independent producers. “We know all our growers personally. Our children are friends with their children,” Stefano explains. “We love bringing the champagne makers over to London so that everyone who works with us can know the person behind the bottle. It means our employees are really invested in what they’re selling. They love the product and they love the people who make it. In big businesses you lose that.”
As tempting as it was to stay sipping champagne and listening to Stefano’s fascinating stories forever, it was time to leave. But not before one last question. So, where next for Champagne + Fromage? He tells me proudly: “We want to carry on proving to people that champagne isn’t for showing off. It’s something to be shared with friends and family, something delicious that deserves to be enjoyed with other fantastic products. Our next venture will be in Bath. Maude and I are creating a concept store and bistro. Downstairs you’ll have the champagne and cheese counter that we’ve done for years, and upstairs will be a restaurant where people can enjoy French tapas among beautiful handmade French furniture. Even better, if you like the decor, you’ll be able to buy it to take home with you!”.