Sunday, November 23, 2008
After finishing our last Mini-Gourmand course of the season on November 2, I headed north. The train system in France is the best way to travel. My first train took me from Arles to Nîmes, a short trip. I changed trains, taking the TGV, train à grande vitesse, the fastest train in the world, to Roissy-Charles de Gaulle airport, north of Paris. My friend, Ghislaine, picked me up there and I have now been at her house for a week. She and I have been friends since 1991 when we became penpals. She teaches middle school English at Collège Anne-Marie Javouhey in Senlis. We began an exchange program between AMJ and Durham Academy Middle School in 1992. The exchange hasn't taken place since 2001, but next year we will reinstate it. We firmly believe that our students need to have the chance to use their language skills and living, even for a week, with a host family is a wonderful experience. I also have a meeting with a teacher at Lycée St. Vincent, the Catholic high school in Senlis. The teacher there wants to meet me because she hopes to set up an exchange program with our upper school. How exciting! I know several students in Durham who will be thrilled because they have asked me repeatedly to find families for them to visit.
When I first arrived in Montépilloy, the village where Ghislaine lives, she was still on vacation. French students always have a 10 day vacation around November1, Le Toussaint. She made arrangements for us to go to Reims and the Champagne region, a two hour drive from her house. We headed out mid-morning, Monday, November 3. Neither of us have a great sense of direction, but we managed to easily find centre ville and the cathedral. I don't think she realized that having me as her navigator and map reader is a serious handicap. I can get lost anywhere. We found a great little hotel with a view of the cathedral, checked in and then set out to explore. First things first, though, and we were hungry. Usually the best way to find a good café or restaurant is to look for the most crowded one. That is how we found Le Gaulois, situated on the corner of a pedestrian street (there is great shopping in Reims- even a nice Galeries Lafayette). We settled in, ordered the quiche maison and a half bottle of rosé. The service was fast, the quiche hot and served with a lettuce and tomato salad on the side. We were proud of ourselves for finding such a great spot. The waiters were nice looking, too, always a bonus!
The cathedral of Reims was the scene of the baptism of Clovis, the first Christian king of France. He was quite a warrior and pretty savage according to the history books. His wife was a very devout Catholic, but could not convert him for years. However, when his child became sick, he promised his wife and the God that he had shunned all of life that if his child survived he would convert. So, on Christmas day in 496, Clovis was baptized by the man who would later be named a saint, Rémi. Joan of Arc came to Reims on July 17, 1429 for the coronation of Charles VII.
Now, to be completely truthful, we really came to Reims to taste champagne! So now it was time to visit a get down to business. We visited the tourist office near the cathedral and found out that a reservation is needed at most of the places that allow visitors. The only one where a reservation was not needed was Taittinger, so we got in the car, armed with our map and headed in what we believed was the right direction. Reims is installing a tramway and there are a lot of one-way streets, so that, plus our nonexistent sense of direction, can only mean one thing... we got lost. But, in doing so, we all of a sudden found ourselves in the very middle of the vineyards of Champagne! Everything around us was golden- the leaves of the vines, the trees in the forests surrounding the vineyards, the afternoon sunlight. It was stunning. We could see a windmill on a hilltop in the distance and headed towards that. The windmill is now owned by Mumm, but they were not giving tours. After stopping to take photos and walk alongside the vines, sampling some of the grapes left from harvest, we got back in the car, in search of an open cave, more than ready for our first lesson in the making of champagne. We found Canard-Duchaîne and were there in time for the final tour of the day. We were the only ones and the young woman was very welcoming. The soil of Champagne is very chalky, perfect for the three grapes used to make champagne, chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier. Underneath the region are kilometers and kilometers of tunnels, dating back to Roman times, now used to store the millions of bottles of champagne made by the 300 + champagne houses in the region. The temperature in the tunnels is perfect for keeping the wine cool until it is ready to consume. Under French law, sparkling wine cannot be called champagne unless it is made in this region with grapes grown there. At the end of our tour, we were offered a glass of their champagne and we chose Charles VII Grande Cuvée Blanc de Blancs. This champagne is 100% chardonnay grapes. It is recommended as an apératif or to accompany light meals. It was divine.
Night falls before 6:00 pm at this time of year in France and it was almost dark by the time we pulled out of the parking lot so we decided to head back to our hotel. We got back much quicker, finding and following signs back to the center of town and the cathedral. We wandered around, looking in shops and stopping at Monoprix for a few essentials before deciding to head back to our lunch restaurant for dinner. This time I had a salade de chèvre chaud, warm goat cheese on toast on a very generous bed of lettuce and other vegetables. Another great choice.
On Tuesday, we were determined to find Taittinger and Veuve Clicquot champage houses. We easily found Taittinger this time. The receptionist called Veuve Clicquot, practically across the street, to make an afternoon reservation there for us. Taittinger is very well known in France. I had heard of it but never tasted it. For this tour, we were joined by a young couple, but once again it was a very personalized experience. I can only imagine the crowds of tourists in the summer and am pleased we visited in November. Once again, the weather gods were with us- sunny and warm. We were led through the cellars, shown all the various sizes of bottles (there are 10), and we were able to actually watch two men working. Here's the short version-- the grapes are harvested and pressed very soon afterwards. The juice of all three grapes is clear, even if the skin is dark, what we call red and the French call black. Red and rosé wines get their color because the juice is kept in contact with the skin for a certain period of time. The grapes from each vineyard a champagne house uses is kept separate until blending time. The terroir or all elements present in a vineyard give the wine different tastes and characteristics. The juice is placed in stainless steel tanks for the first fermentation. The winemaker blends the juices to create the taste his house is known for and for the particular blends. The wine is then bottled, using a plastic cap instead of a real cork. Yeast and sugar are added at this time to cause the second fermentation (here come the bubbles!). The bottles are turned, no longer manually, though, so that at the end of the process they are standing upside down. When they are ready and the yeast and sugar have done all they can do, there is sediment in the bottle. The sediment settles into the neck of the bottle, the bottle is dipped into water so cold that it freezes the sediment, the bottle is quickly uncorked, the wine is topped off with a mixture of wine and sugar (the amount of sugar added at this time will determine if the champagne is brut, sec or demi-sec, from driest to sweetest). The bottle is recorked, this time with a real cork, and it goes back down into the cellar to age. Some rest only a few months before being consumed, some age for several years. We got to watch the uncorking, topping off and recorking process. How cool. We were then taken to the tasting room, a glass poured for us to enjoy. On the walls were invitations to various state dinners featuring Taittinger champagne. If you had been invited to the luncheon offered by Nicolas Sarkosy on Tuesday, September 9, 2008 in honor of the Ukraine, you would've been served Taittinger Comtes de Champagne 1998 vintage.
Our last visit took us to Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin. I already know this champagne thanks to my traveling buddy and friend Betty Goolsby. I will never forget the bottle she, Yolanda Litton and I shared in a little café on Rue Cler one summer night in 2006. Betty has excellent taste! Veuve is the French word for widow and the champagne is named this because the Widow Clicquot took over the business in 1805 at the age of 27 after the death of her husband. Her maiden name was Ponsardin. The family no longer owns the business. It was sold to L.V.M.H., Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton Group, in 1987. Veuve Clicquot champagne is aged for 30 months, twice the legal requirement of 15 months for non-vintage champagnes and a minimum of five years rather than the required three for vintage wines. I was impressed by the fact that the great houses of champagne work together. They are all concerned about the quality of champagne produced in their region and they work fiercely to protect it. As we drank our glass of Veuve Clicquot, I attempted to explain the American voting system to the (once again- handsome) Frenchman who led our tour. This isn't easy to explain in English and even more difficult in French, of course. I wish that I had a bottle of champagne for each time I've been asked about the election since I arrived in June. I would have a very impressive collection!
Champagne became the preferred drink of the royal court in France in the 18th century. Madame de Pompadour, mistress to King Louis XV, said that champagne is "the only one that keeps a woman beautiful after drinking."
I head to Paris for a week in just a few days. More about my adventures there next time!