Sunday, 29 July 2012

La cité en forme de bouchon de champagne

The City in the shape of a champagne cork!

It seems there is a competition between the cities and towns in the Champagne area as which is the most authentic champagne town.  In the middle-ages Troyes was the capital of Champagne.  Not sure if that is the reason the outline of the town is in the shape of a champagne cork.  (In my opinion you must have consumed at least a bottle to identify the cork from an aerial photo!)  However, the town is also called the “town of ten churches” but for most people in the neighbourhood the town is best known for its factory outlets of famous brands.  In other words: Shopping!

Walking between the half-timbered houses on the picturesque cobbled street you constantly have to stop gawping at all the history.  So much of the town has been preserved, and it is jaw dropping to think of the hundreds of years that have passed since some of the houses were built until today.  If those walls could talk…

Some of the buildings are listing precariously, and the building techniques of the time allowed for buildings to lean “backwards”.  I think some of current day builders in South Africa are reverting to old techniques with walls that are supposed to be straight following strange curves – especially in our house. 
See how the building is leaning backwards
The buildings following an odd curve

Garden at Sainte-Madeleine
We did not have time to visit any of the churches, which are renowned for their stained glass buildings.  We visited the Jardin des Innocents, the former cemetery located next to Sainte-Madeleine, claimed to be perhaps the oldest and one of the most beautiful churches in Troyes.  The construction of this church dates from 1120 (!) but was rebuilt around 1200 in a Gothic style.  Apparently all still-borne children were buried here until the 1800's.

The food market in Troyes

Foret de la Montagne de Reims and Champagne tasting

This morning we went out for a walk in the magnificent forest that has been inviting us from our room window since our arrival. The natural forest covers the crowns of the hills before making way for vineyards on the lower slopes.  

Inside the national park you can also find the very strange, weird, mysterious Faux de Verzy.  It is a variety of beech and is also called “tortuosa” because of the deformities of the trunk and branches.   The story is that the trees grow very slowly but get very old.  Not sure how to confirm this, as strangely enough there is very little information about it.   Apparently scientist have been trying to figure this growth pattern out for years, and not having success.   It grows in the form of an igloo with new roots forming where the branches touch the ground.  The trees are protected by barriers with nice signposting and some even being honoured with names.  On is called le faux de la Demoiselle, in honour of Joan of Arc, said to have slept in the forest.

The walk in the forest was like food for the soul. We also walked up to the lookout at Mt Sinai, the highest point in the park (at only about 280m above sea level) for a most beautiful view over the area. Here you could see the remnants of a bunker I assume dating from WW11.

After a quick sip of bubbly to revive the spirits at Louis de Sacy Champagne House in Verzy, we trekked through the vineyards back towards Verzenay. Louis de Sacy is a well-established brand of champagne in France, though this was my first introduction to the champagne. The “original” Louis de Sacy was born in Paris in the 17th century, and the business is currently in the 12thgeneration of the family. 

The trek may sound impressive, but the villages are a mere 3km apart. It was amazing to see people working in the vineyards, totally different to the South African approach. (Much less people doing the work). En route our path crossed that of the famous Phare of Verzenay.

In 1909 a forward thinking wine merchant got this brilliant idea to build a light house in the middle of nowhere, as an advertising gimmick.  It had a restaurant and dance hall for parties year round.  Sadly the shells of the First World War brought an end to all the fun and the building became a derelict structure.  Then in 1987 the Municipality of Verzenay acquired the lighthouse and converted it into a museum for champagne, which opened in 1999.  Once again the beauty of the lighthouse is displayed at night through colourful lighting.  The Musée de la Vigne is well worth a visit, if not for the views of the surrounding vineyards, then to learn more about the history of champagne and how it is manufactured.

After managing to find Joretha’s house in the labyrinth of streets in Verzenay, we had a quick lunch before walking to Maison Jacques Rosseaux for a champagne tasting.  We we greated by Celine, probably the fourth generation of the family in the business, who showed us around the cellar and explained the champagne-making business.  They currently also press grapes for Mumm.  Celine’s passion for the business is contagious and we spent a lovely hour with her, sometimes struggling to understand her “Frenglish”.  In the end she lent us a book of pictures of Verzenay and gave us a gift of a wine-stopper for a champagne bottle and bottle cages.  The champagnes we tasted were all blends of pinot noir and chardonnay, without the pinot meunier, which I am not that used to. 

Thereafter we took another short walk up the road to the champagne house of Jean-Yves de Carlini.  This again is a family business, started in 1955, that produces about 70 000 bottles a year.  They make quite a variety of champagnes, and I very much liked the Extra Brut.  She also allowed us to taste the Millésime 2000, which is a ten-year old champagne. 

Back home at the Despres we were treated to a lovely salmon dinner and chocolate moelleux for dessert.  The after-dinner cheeses on offer were St Nectaire, Comte and Pont l’Eveque.

Saturday, 14 July 2012

 Our Arrival and Hautvillers

 We were quite tired after a sleepless night on the plane, next to the toilets, when we arrived in Paris.  We took the RER to Gare du Nord, and quickly walked the small distance to Gare de L’Est station to catch the TGV to Reims.  As we travelled at great speed eastwards from Paris the fantastic green scenery flashed past.  We heaved a sigh of relieve that everything went according to plan when Joretha was there to pick us up at the train station in Reims.  After a quick stop at a local Boulanger to pick up baguettes, (and drooling over all the nice cakes!) we headed to their home in Verzenay.  At home hubby Jean-Luc and her mother Maxie was busy in the kitchen preparing Cocq-au-Vin, the first of a string of gastronomic delights that awaited us at Maison DesPres.
Lookout over the Marne river

Markers indicating whose vineyard it is.

Abby with Dom Pérignon's grave in Hautvillers

Hennie rubbing the Dom's belly and hoping for good luck and lots of champagne!

 The afternoon we took a drive through a part of the Montagne de Reims Regional National Park, a wooded range of hills in the Champagne area, in the direction of Épernay, to a small village called Hautvillers.  Situated on sunny vine planted hillsides, the town is made famous due to a certain Benedictine monk named Dom Pérignon.

Cafe in Hautvillers
Hautvillers’s streets and alleys are lined with naïve style, colourful wrought iron signs, revealing the activities undertaken behind the closed doors of the village houses and buildings.

In many a legend Dom Pérignon is credited being the inventor of champagne.  It would seem reality is not that good a story though.  But I like this semi-bald man with his pot belly to be involved.  We visited the abbey church of Saint Sindulphe, built in 1518 by Don Roger where Dom Pérignon served as cellerar of the Abbey until his death in 1715.  Inside the Abbey the grave of Dom Pérignon lies alongside that of Dom Riunart, whose nephew in founded in 1729 what would become the oldest champagne house in the World, Ruinart.

We went to an independent small champagne producer, G Tribaut, where we tasted about 6 different types of champagne.  And those tasting glasses are not small!  The tastings are for free.  Whilst there various Belgiums came across the border and bought cases of champagne, making our small haul of 6 bottles look totally insignificant.
The first of many champagne tasting sessions!