It’s been a long time since we graced Greenwich with a visit – I think the last time was when the Cutty Sark had been whisked away to be restored after its iron and wooden hull was ravaged by fire. When we returned last week, said hull was enclosed in a huge glass plinth forcing visitors to push the boundaries of their imagination to summon up images of the 19th-century clipper in its maritime glory days – when it traversed rough seas to bring tea (that great British drink) back from China no less than eight times.
I’m all about making history accessible, but it’s a sanitised encounter at best. Which is kind of how I felt as we entered Champagne + Fromage, a pocket-sized café-bar that serves two of France’s favourite food and drink items in abundance, but doesn’t resemble anything I have actually encountered in France itself.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing mind you – instead of someone sneeringly serving us saucisson while we desperately try to remember anything from those two enforced years of GCSE study, we are met by a delightful young woman who happily talks us through the fizz and fromage on offer. It doesn’t seem to matter to her that we don’t know our Blancs de Blanc from our Brut, and minutes later we are sitting down, flute of fizz in hand, contemplating our surrounds.
Starting with the holey tables… and no, they are not a nod to cheese made by those northern neighbours the Dutch. There are in fact champagne riddling racks. You know, where champagne bottles are stored at an angle and rotated regularly during the fermentation process. Pretty quirky, but a spillage waiting to happen me thinks.
Blue-and-white floor tiles, charcuterie hanging from the ceiling speckled with (good) white powdery mould, a stack of cheeses piled up behind the counter that would be sweaty and smelly if we were indeed in rural Roquefort. However, this is Greenwich – and a busy Sunday afternoon in Greenwich too. Lots of foot traffic, but much of it headed for the ‘street food’ offerings of the market. Our advice? Pull up a stool here instead, at £9.90 for three items of cheese and charcuterie it’s not the kind of stuff that’s going to break the bank – plus you get to sit in tranquil surrounds away from the tourist hoards.
But while the Greenwich outlet is calm and civilised, our waitress assures us that the other two branches are equally receptive to their surrounds – an edgier offering at Brixton and a chicer ambiance in Covent Garden.
And while a real French cheese and plonk shop wouldn’t entertain anything so pedestrian as a menu, the brown paper offering does at least guide punters through the various permutations of meat and cheese on offer – via helpful maps and animal symbols. Even the most uneducated eye can see at a glance that the triple-cream Brillat Savarin is made from cow’s milk cheese in the north-east of France – Burgundy to be precise – while the dry-cured pork loin sausage that is Lonzo comes from Miss Piggy’s back and is traditionally made on the island of Corsica.
But as the range is ever-changing – artisanal, seasonal all those things – it’s best to get a selection, like the Gastro Board. Three cheeses, three meats, a coarse and hearty terrine, olive tapenade, vibrant goji berry tapenade and seriously drinkable basil and garlic cream is served on a rustic wooden board with heaps of bread, pickles and fruit.
It’s France, but not quite as we know it – and we like it.
Greenwich: 34 Church Street, SE10 9BL (Tel: 0208 853 3106)
Covent Garden: 22 Wellington Street WC2E 7DD (Tel: 0207 240 1604)
Brixton: Unit 10-11 Brixton Village SW9 8PR (Tel: 0207 095 8504)