A memory of an idyllic French lunch, with a recipe, first published in the US magazine Barbecue and Beverage.
The drink arrived in a gigantic stemmed glass shaped like a cross between a bell and an old-fashioned hurricane lamp. As pale gold as straw, yet with a slight greenish tinge, it was garnished with pink flowered stems and smelled of summer – Mediterranean summer.
The scene was a long time ago, but the memory is still fresh and green. In honour of my friend’s birthday we had travelled, in early summer, to a famous restaurant overlooking a hazy valley in Provence, in the south of France.
We were seated at a table in the shade with just the right, artful amount of sunlight filtering down through the fingered leaves of a massive fig tree. A small wedding party, chattering and laughing at a table for ten or twelve were the only other patrons. At an open grill in the corner, a chef turned a roast on a spit using a brush of rosemary branches to baste it with olive oil. The same breeze that ruffled the turquoise waters of the swimming pool carried the scent across to us.
In the spirit of celebration, we ordered the somewhat expensive aperitif de la maison – the house cocktail – which was served to us in huge glasses.
“What’s in it?” I asked the waiter.
“It’s made of white wine, Madame,” he said. But that didn’t begin to describe the taste which brought to mind honey bees and wild flowers and the spikey scent of the garrigue – the sun baked scrub country on the western edge of the region.
After the first sip, I tried to discover the mystery of its taste yet again. “What is it flavoured with? What makes it taste so vibrantly green?”
“Ah, Madame,” the waiter replied, with great seriousness, “That is the secret of Monsieur le Patron.”
When he left, a member of the wedding party leaned over. “You like?” she smiled. “It is, here, a most famous and traditional aperitif. The secret is the serpolet.“
“What is that…in English?”
The woman’s brow creased as she struggled to find the perfect word. “So…you know it is like…lawn…yes, lawn.”
She had mistranslated the French word herbe (which can in fact mean grass) and for years I thought this wonderful drink was made from grass. Much later, I discovered that serpolet is, in fact, wild mountain thyme.
Thyme, native to the western Mediterranean, grows in its wild (serpolet) and cultivated (thyme) forms throughout Provence. Walking across a field you will crush it underfoot, releasing its evocative scent, a key element in the famous herbes de Provence. In addition to this refreshing and unusually perfumed drink, local cooks use fresh thyme as a robust and versatile herb for the barbecue. Scattered on hot coals, the woody branches produce a smoke-scented flavour that is wonderful for grilled meat, fish or chicken. A generous handful of branches stuffed into a bottle of quality olive oil makes an excellent base for a marinade or homemade mayonnaise. New potatoes take on a continental dimension when roasted with thyme.
French thyme (thymus vulgaris), cultivated from wild Provencal thyme, is reputed to be the best of the approximately 100 varieties of the plant. It has larger leaves, more essential oils and a stronger, sweeter flavour than English thyme. In Provence, cooks pick a few sprigs from the garden as needed to preserve the strong, fresh taste until just before use.
Fortunately, it is relatively easy to grow in most temperate gardens. Seeds for French thyme can be ordered online from a wide range of suppliers.
We first tasted a version of this drink at the then Michelin 3-star L’Oustau de Baumanière under the ramparts of Les Baux-de-Provence. The late, legendary chef, Raymond Thuilier, who founded the restaurant and the hotel Le Baumanière still presided over the kitchen. This recipe, similar to the one we sampled, was given to me by a French traiteur who made it for her own catering shop.
1 liter of dry white wine
6-10 branches of fresh, pink-flowering thyme (preferably in bloom), washed but left on the branch.
3 tablespoons of honey (more or less to taste)
1 1/2 to 2 quart covered glass or ceramic container (don’t use metal)
Spread the thyme branches in the base of a one-and-a-half to two-quart non-reactive container. Pour in all the white wine. Cover and soak for 15 days in a cool (but not refrigerated) spot.
Line a sieve with one layer of clean, dampened cheesecloth or muslin, Strain the wine through it and into a glass bowl, squeezing as much juice as possible out of the thyme branches. Discard the branches.
Wash and dry the container, making sure any soap residue is gone.
Warm honey until it reaches a thin consistency. Add the honey to the wine infusion; mix well and return to the container. Cover and allow to age for one month in a cool (but not refrigerated) place.
Serve straight or over ice in a roomy, bowl-shaped glass, garnished with a sprig of flowering thyme.
When I headed for the Derbyshire market town of Bakewell, I was sure I would taste the original Bakewell tart. I was even sure I knew what it looked like. I was wrong on both counts.
What’s a Bakewell – or a storm in a pudding basin
You see, you can’t get a Bakewell “Tart” of the sort we uninitiated expect in Bakewell – unless you visit the supermarket to buy Mr. Kipling’s Cherry Bakewells, a brand almost as ubiquitous in Britain as Oreos are in the USA.
The mass-marketed cross between a cake and a tart, pictured above, consists of a spongy layer of frangipane baked in a tartlet case over a layer of raspberry jam, the whole lot smothered in thick white icing – sometimes striped with chocolate – and topped with a candied cherry.
A nicer version, made by home cooks and bake shops all over the UK, skips the sugary icing and tops the cake-like almond frangipane with sliced almonds.
Nope, that’s not a Bakewell in Bakewell either
In Bakewell, near Chatsworth House, where they claim to have invented this dessert, they call it a Bakewell Pudding. It has neither a cake-like sponge of frangipane nor a thick layer of white icing. And hold the candied cherries. too.
Will the real Bakewell please stand up
The Bakewell I was served at the Old Original Bakewell Pudding Shop was a bit of an ugly ducking to begin with. The glass counter was full of lopsided pastries looking pretty unappealing for such a famous treat.
“Is that a Bakewell tart?”, I asked hesitantly.
“It’s a Bakewell pudding,” the woman behind the counter snapped, “That’s what we have.”
Chastened, I found a seat in the suntrap terrace behind the bakery and waited, somewhat dubiously, for my pudding to arrive.
What was finally served bore as little resemblance to the dry, cold and soggy looking pastries I’d seen in the shop as the iced, mass produced version bore to the real thing. Having been heated, the pastry had undergone a transformation from an ugly duckling to a lovely, tempting swan. The raspberry jam had somehow risen to the top. flooding the entire surface. And the egg and ground almond layer, that looked so claggy and unappealing had become a translucent part of the whole dessert, tender and virtually invisible. What came to the table was a clear, shimmering and wobbly pool of raspberry and almond flavored filling, floating on a delicate, crisp base of multi-layered puff pastry. Maybe it was the sunlight sparkling in the molten jam that added to its appeal. Delicious. So, then, this must be the real deal, right? Well…Continue reading →
The Great Exhibition of the North is set to celebrate the powerhouse cities of the North of England this summer with 80 days of celebration, exhibits, performances and events centered around the NewcastleGateshead waterfront.
If you haven’t made it up to Newcastle-upon-Tyne yet, this is the summer to do it. From June 22 to September 9, the waterfront, and venues all over the city, will come alive with a festival of northern innovation, culture, art, design, music and creativity of all kinds. Continue reading →
We dog lovers are really not that hard to please. For the ideal dog-friendly break, we only require a few things:
A comfortable, grown-up hotel where dogs and their traveling companions are not made to feel like pariahs, relegated to the smelly room next to the laundry.
Lots of outdoors to run around in; fields, forests, or sandy beaches will do – we’re not fussy.
A good choice of attractions, at least some of which welcome dogs as well as people
A few dog-friendly coffee shops or pubs don’t hurt either.
Last month Lulu the Westie and I, along with her Westie pal Darcy and his human chums, discovered Tewkesbury, a medieval market town at the confluence of the Rivers Severn and Avon. Just two and a half hours northwest of London, the Gloucestershire town beneath the Malvern Hills sits on the Northern edge of the Cotswolds. It has, we discovered, everything needed for a dog-friendly break and then some.
Christmas festivities at Waddesdon Manor in Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire, are always extravagant fun.
This year, they’ll have a hard time topping the wonderful installations and events of 2016, when the grounds of the former Rothschild estate positively glowed with the Field of Light. But, in 2017, they’ve had a good go and they’ve given the video design students of the Guildhall School of Music & Drama a real chance to shine.
In creating Waddesdon Imaginarium, seven Guildhall students experimented with 3D scanning and video projection technology to cover the entire front of Baron Ferdinand Rothschild’s faux French chateau with an animated parade of dancing clocks, 18th century portraits, fluttering butterflies and moths, flowers and porcelain animals – all scanned from objects in the Waddesdon Collection.
The performance, accompanied by an original score and synchronized lighting effects, used 14 large format projectors to cover the1,700 square metre facade with a dazzling 12-minute display. The score was created by 111 Guildhall students in the BMus (Hons) programs in Electronic Music and Jazz.
My jittery videos should give you a taste of the spectacle.
Inside Waddesdon, artists and designers were invited to design decorations around the theme of an Enchanted Menagerie, drawing on the artworks and objects in the rooms for inspiration.
Meanwhile, The Electric Menagerie – neon animals, created by American multi-media artist Lauren Booth, lit up unexpected corners of the estate.
And because it wouldn’t be Christmas without an opportunity to stock up on holiday gifts, this year’s Waddesdon Christmas Fair is arrayed along the front promenade leading to the house. The fair features food, drink, produce and crafts from local artisan producers and national independent traders. Lots of it is very tempting. We left with shopping bags full.
Waddesdon Christmas Essentials
Christmas festivities at Waddesdon are on from now to January 2 (except December 24-26), 11am to 6pm
Waddesdon Imaginarium, the sound and light show, begins at dusk every evening during the holiday opening hours.
The Christmas Market, with 80 decorated wooden chalets is open until December 10.
Did you know that all bees hum in the key of C? Or that bees, which are vegetarian, evolved from carnivorous wasps during the same era that dinosaurs walked the earth?
These are among the fascinating facts you can pick up in London when you visit The Hive. It’s a marvelous combination of 17-metre-high sculpture (designed by Wolfgang Buttress), engineering and science project. And it will be the anchor of Kew Gardens’ focus on bees until November 2017. Inspired by research into the life of bees, it’s surrounded by a wildflower meadow still active with bees in early September.
Discover the Secret Life of Bees
Bee activity, inside a real beehive located elsewhere at Kew, triggers the lights and sounds you experience inside. They call it an “immersive sound and visual experience”.
The promise is “Step inside and discover the secret life of bees”. I don’t know about that, but you can certainly hear The Hive humming away in the key of C long before you see it.
And you can listen in on bee conversations. Clever devices, embedded in columns allow you to hear all the different calls bees make to each other. Insert a thin wooden stick into a slot on the column and put the other end between your teeth to hear the bees through your bones. Apparently that is how bees communicate with each other. And I thought it was all about the wiggle dance they do in the air. They bark and croon and howl too. Who knew?
If you haven’t been to Kew in a while, right now is a great time to go. After our warm/cold/wet/dry summer, the flowers are looking wonderful. There’s a good assortment of live plants in peak condition to buy and several new pretty places to settle in for a cup of tea.
Spend a morning or an afternoon discovering the London Blue Plaques of Chelsea. For more than 150 years, London’s blue plaques, on buildings scattered around the city, mark the homes and achievements of the famous and infamous of the past.
It’s a kind of massive “George Washington slept here” scheme, except you won’t find George Washington anywhere; though you might find Benjamin Franklin. Hundreds of others – writers, artists, performers, musicians, composers, teachers, politicians, inventors, explorers, philosophers, engineers, heroes and heroines are commemorated all over the city.
The Oldest Blue Plaques in Britain
London has the oldest blue plaque scheme in Britain. The plaques surprise and educate passersby who come upon the discreet reminders of people from all over the world who lived and worked in London. I was inspired to find out more about the blue plaques by the plaque to an unknown (to me anyway) poet on a house across the street from my flat.
Today there are about 900 blue plaques in the London scheme administered by English Heritage. The first was put up in 1866 honoring Lord Byron. The oldest still existing commemorates a short stay by an exiled French king, Charles X.
Up to 20 plaques a year can be added. In 2017, six will go up to honor Francis Bacon, Charlie Chaplin, Sir John Gielgud, Rudolph Nureyev, early 20th century working women’s champion Mary Macarthur and volunteering pioneer Stella Lady Reading.
About This London Blue Plaque Chelsea Walk
This walk will take you through Chelsea, north and south of the King’s Road. About two miles long, beginning and ending near King’s Road bus stops, the walk is flat and should take you less than two hours walking at a snail’s pace.
To start, take the 11, 19 or 22 bus from Sloane Square Underground Station, up the King’s Road to Carlyle Square. It’s then a five minute stroll to Mallord Street where the walk begins.
From Winnie the Pooh to Count Dracula
1.13 Mallord Street in Chelsea is the house where both Christopher Robin and Winnie the Pooh were born. A.A. Milne moved there with his wife in 1919. His son, named Christopher Robin though called “Billy”, was born here and while living in the house, Milne wrote When We Were Very Young, Winnie the Pooh, Now We Are Six, and The House at Pooh Corner. Christopher Robin’s toys became Pooh, Piglet, Eeyore, Kanga, Roo, and Tigger. Few people realize that Winnie the Pooh himself was inspired by a real bear named Winnie after the city of Winnipeg in Canada. Canadian Army vet, Harry Colebourn brought the bear to London. Eventually, when he could no longer keep it on military expeditions, it ended up in the London Zoo. There, he was a favorite of the real Christopher Robin who changed the name of his toy bear from Edward to Winnie. Colebourn’s great-granddaughter, Lindsay Mattick has written a children’s book about it, Finding Winnie.
To see the houses featured in this blog, click on the matching numbers on the map below.
2. Cross Mallord Street and turn left. At number 28 you’ll find the home and studio built for Welsh Painter Augustus John, brother of artist Gwen John. The house was finished in 1914 and he lived there with his second (common law) wife and their children. John painted some of the most recognizable portraits of literary and artistic celebrities between the wars – notably Lawrence of Arabia, Dylan Thomas and several portraits of W.B. Yeats. He was also a notorious libertine with parties at the house said to end in orgies. He had at least 10 children by five different women. Eventually John tired of this house, calling it a “damned Dutch shanty”, and sold it to British entertainer Gracie Fields. Continue left down Mallord Street, turning left onto The Vale and left again onto The King’s Road. Across the street, you’ll find Paulton’s Square. Turn right into the square.
3. Irish playwright Samuel Beckett, usually associated with Dublin or Paris, underwent several months of psychoanalysis in London in 1934. A friend found him lodgings with a married couple at 48 Paulton’s Square. He was a regular at two local pubs, the Six Bells and The World’s End. While here, he published a collection of short stories, More Pricks than Kicks.
Just in case you think you might like to drink where Beckett drank, you are probably about 40 years too late. The Six Bells, at 197 Kings Road, went through several incarnations before becoming The Ivy Chelsea Garden – which bears no resemblance to any pub Beckett might frequented – though you might pick up his vibe in the beer garden if you can get in to this very popular, Made in Chelsea kind of place. The World’s End Pub, which was a real traditional boozer from the days of Charles II to about 10 years ago, is now an upmarket restaurant with a pretend 1930s ambiance. It’s now called the World’s End Market.
Continue to the end of Paultons Square, walking toward the Thames. At the bottom of the square, turn right, then left into Danvers Street.
4.Sir Alexander Fleming was living at 20a Danvers Street, a modest basement flat in a large house, when he made his breakthrough and changed the whole direction of modern medicine with the discovery of penicillin. From his first discovery in 1922, through refinements and clinical trials to his Nobel Prize in 1945 and until his death in 1955, he lived in this flat. In later years, he also had a country house in Suffolk.
Now, continue to the end of Danvers Street to Cheyne Walk, beside the Thames. Turn right and continue in that direction. Cross at the set of lights at Beaufort Street – Battersea Bridge is on your left. Just past this intersection, you’ll see large cast iron gates, with a garden and a big yellow house beyond.
5 and 6.You’ll need X-ray vision to see the plaque that is alleged to be at 98 Cheyne Walk. It’s behind a high brick wall. But just so you know, this was the home of Sir Marc Isambard Brunelwho built the first tunnel under the Thames, the world’s first underwater tunnel through soft ground. He started it in 1825 and it wasn’t finished until 1843. While living here, he also worked on the education of his young son, who became the much more illustrious 19th century engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel– designer of the Great Western Railway, the Clifton Suspension Bridge over the Avon Gorge at Bristol and the giant screw propeller, sail-assisted steamship, the SS Great Britain which you can still visit in Bristol. The lovely yellow house next door at 96 Cheyne Walk belonged toJames Abbott McNeill Whistler and his mother – you’ve no doubt seen her in his painting, Arrangement in Grey and Black No.1, usually known as Whistler’s Mother.
Bring along a pair of binoculars if you really want to see this plaque. It’s not blue and it’s at least 50 feet from the street, set back behind gates. Judging from the yellow house, you might think Whistler was probably pretty affluent when he lived there. But actually the house is just one quarter of a larger house built in 1674 by the Earl of Lindsey on land that was once Sir Thomas More’s garden. It was divided into four units about 100 years later and among the other rental tenants of this large villa were the Brunels mentioned above.
Now turn and retrace your steps past Danvers Street. Continue along Cheyne Walk, looking out for the statue of Sir Thomas More, at the site of his house, in a small park beside Chelsea Old Church on your left. At Oakley Street, opposite the Albert Bridge, turn left.
7.87 Oakley Street was the home of Jane Francesca Agnes Lady Wilde, Oscar Wilde’s mother. A larger than life character in her own right, she came to London from Dublin after the death of her husband, Sir William Wilde. As a poet and essayist in Dublin, she wrote under the pseudonym “Speranza” and supported the cause of an armed Irish rebellion against Britain – which got her in no end of trouble. In London, she continued writing for fashionable magazines and eked out a slim livelihood. But she died penniless in 1896 while her son Oscar was imprisoned in Reading Gaol. Oscar paid for her funeral but there was no money for a headstone until the Oscar Wilde Society erected one more than 100 years later.
Cross the street and head back toward the river to number 56.
8. Doomed antarctic explorer, Robert Falcon Scott left for his last polar expedition from 56 Oakley Street and never returned. Scott identified the polar plateau, on which the South Pole is located, on a previous expedition, the Discovery expedition. But it was the second expedition, The Terra Nova Expedition, between 1910 and 1913, when all were lost. He moved to this house in 1905, on the return from his first expedition, and he wrote his famous account of that journey, The Voyage of the Discovery, while living here. In the late 20th century, his reputation took something of a blow with some historians saying his incompetence and lack of preparation led to his death and that of his entire team. But recent discoveries about the weather have restored his reputation as a doomed hero. Continue down to the river and turn left on Cheyne Walk.
9. 16 Cheyne Walk was the home of Dante Gabriel Rosetti, painter, poet and one of the founders of the Pre-Raphaelite Movement. He moved here after the death of his young wife and model in 1862. Some of his finest paintings, including
Beata Beatrix, were done here and he published his collected works of poetry while living in this house. The decadent poet and sometime hysteric Algernon Charles Swinburne rented a room from him for about a year.
10.The entire facade, including the blue plaque at 4 Cheyne Walk was covered with scaffolding for refurbishments when we visited. But we’ve been reliably told that this with the brief, last home of Mary Ann Evans, known to most of us as the 19th century novelist George Eliot.She moved in with her new husband (20 years her junior – good for her) on December 3, 1880. Shortly after, she caught a sore throat and by December 22, she was dead.
Now, bear slightly left into Royal Hospital Road, turning right at the corner of Tite Street.
Next, continue right, past Mark Twain’s house, to Ralston Street. Turn left on Ralston Street, then right on St Leonard’s Terrace.
13.How fitting that number 13 on this Chelsea Blue Plaque walk was the birthplace of one of the most terrifying creatures in literature. Dublin writer Bram Stoker was living in a pretty Chelsea cottage at 18 St Leonard’s Terrace when he wrote his classic gothic horror novel Dracula. Stoker had come to London to manage the Lyceum Theater for actor manager Henry Irving.
Now that you’ve completed the walk, it’s time for some refreshment and what would be more fitting than to have lunch or a snack at another listed building with a blue plaque. Just beyond Stoker’s house, turn left on Royal Avenue and continue to the King’s Road. Then cross the King’s Road and turn left again. Look for an arched entryway, protected by two bronze birds of prey.
14.152 Kings Road, The Pheasantry, was the studio of ballet dancer and teacher Princess Seraphine Astafieva. The Russian princess, daughter of Prince Alexander Astafiev, came to England as a dancer with Diaghilev’s Ballet Russe in 1910. She retired from the stage to teach and in 1916 established her school, the Anglo-Russian Ballet, here. Most of the leading lights of early 20th century ballet visited her or took classes here, among them Margot Fonteyne; Alicia Markova, one of the founders of the Festival Ballet which became the English National Ballet; Anna Pavlova and Marie Rambert, founder of the Ballet Rambert. And in case you are wondering about the lunch or snack I mentioned earlier, these days The Pheasantry is also a Pizza Express.
English Heritage who now administer the scheme, publish the Guide to London’s Blue Plaques. It lists 800 blue plaque locations, all over the city that can form the basis of many an enjoyable London walk. It’s availableonline from English Heritageor from Amazon.
I had enjoyed a small personal victory and wanted to treat myself to a very nice lunch. The Marylebone area – particularly between Marylebone High Street and Baker Street is full of nice little places.
But somehow as I walked through the side streets towards Baker Street Tube, my ultimate destination, nothing really struck my fancy.
Then I arrived at what appeared to be a garden terrace. An attendent manned the entrance. He was wearing a suit and tie and he was beautiful. There was no sign as far as I could see.
“Is this a restaurant?” I asked him.
“What kind of food do you serve?”
“Where is the entrance?” I still didn’t see any sign, any obvious way in or any menu posted discretely on an outside wall,as required by law in London
“Right this way,” he said, and ushered me into the garden. I still didn’t know where I was.
Eventually, a hostess offered to find me a seat inside (the garden was nearly full except for the bits of it that would soon be rained on). She was tall, slim and dressed in a fabulous two piece number in a dark leafy green. She was beautiful.
Inside, the restaurant was packed and buzzing. Another hostess, in a similarly designerish outfit, all in blue (also beautiful) offered me a seat at the bar. I hate sitting on bar stools but eventually she found me a seat at a sort of banquette with high single tables, facing the bar. The bartender and wine steward were beautifully dressed and beautiful (as you can see in the picture above).
It was only when someone finally handed me a menu, that I realized I had randomly stumbled into the Chiltern Firehouse, once one of London’s hottest celebrity haunts. The restaurant, with its kitchen “curated” by Michelin-starred chef Nuno Mendes, has cooled down some since the virtual hysteria of its opening months in 2014. But, people still wait weeks to book this place, and there I was settling in, by accident, after a Wednesday afternoon stroll.
All around me, beautiful people were tucking into gorgeous looking food. Nips, tucks and tans as far as the eye could see. And when my food finally arrived, it was absolutely beautiful to look at too.
Did I mention that everyone – and everything – is beautiful at the Chiltern Firehouse.
I ate a salad of heritage tomatoes with strawberries, a slice of sourdough bread, an omelet of crabmeat and lobster (pictured here) that was the strangest looking omelet with the oddest texture that I’ve ever eaten. It was delicious and I am very curious to know how it was made but I hope I’m not offending the chef when I say it did not satisfy my desire for a nice, tender, eggy omelet. It was something else entirely.
Oh, and I did treat myself to a glass of Ruinart NV champagne – well I did say I was celebrating.
And with a black coffee to finish, and the 15% tip, the price of my special lunch of omelet, salad and champagne came to an eye-watering £79.93.
Was it worth it? Well, it was a very nice lunch but I think if you have to ask about value for money, this probably isn’t your kind of place. I’m not actually sure when it will next be mine.
The Nitty Gritty
The restaurant and attached boutique hotel are owned by André Balasz who also owns the legendary Chateau Marmont in Hollywood, The Mercer in New York’s Soho, the Sunset Beach on Shelter Island and Standard hotels around America.
My friend, my dog and I had spent a few days in France in May. We stayed in several luxury hotels that were, on the whole, long on charm but (with one exception) very short on space.
The last day of our trip was a long one with a lot of driving and a late ferry crossing. My friend had suggested we book a room at the halfway mark to break the journey. It’s only 80 miles from the Dover Ferry Port to West London (a two hour drive, the AA rather optimistically suggests) so that didn’t seem necessary.
But roadworks on the M20 heading out of Dover turned our first hour on the road into a 20-mile, single-lane nightmare of orange cones looming out of total darkness, punctuated by the glare of oncoming lorries. By the time we pulled into the Junction 8 service area on the M20 in Maidstone, my eyes were burning and my jaw was clenched. I was thankful I’d taken her advice.
It was a Days Inn.
I’d never stayed in one before and if you’d asked me, before this trip, what I thought of the brand, I probably would have said, not a lot. Their no-frills websites with tiny pictures and lurid colours set in an electric blue background were not very tempting. But it was where we needed to stop and it was cheap (£68 for both of us plus the dog)so I booked it.
We arrived, bedraggled, at around midnight. Because you pay for these rooms online, in advance check-in is totally painless. I just handed over a printout of my reservation in exchange for a digital card “key” and directions to our room. That was it. No formalities, nothing to sign, nothing to pay.
The room, after several days on the Continent, seemed huge – a separate king-sized bed for each of us plus a pair of upholstered arm-chairs. There were plenty of outlets for our chargers, extra pillows in the cupboard, tea and coffee-making things, flat-screen television and a large, spotless shower room.
Bags of style? No, just your basic, early 21st century motel room. And maybe the towels were a little on the stiff side. But it was clean, comfortable, quiet and there. As I stretched out on the first bed I’d been offered in five days that was actually big enough to stretch out on, I thought, “Thank God for Days Inn. Who knew?”
I’m just back from a tour of Champagne country. Together with a small group of professional travel writers, I walked the cobbles, mounted the stairs, descended into the cellars and climbed the hills of a handful of towns and villages in the multi-departmental region now known as La Champagne (to differentiate it from the drink which is le champagne).
During the course of a week in the region we wandered through several astonishingly beautiful churches and cathedrals, admired local architecture, visited vineyards and cellars, learned all about how champagne is made and what the method champenoise really means, ate lots of regional specialities and, naturally, drank gallons of delicious bubbly.
I’m not a wine writer so I won’t foist my tasting notes on you because they would be meaningless. And surprisingly, you don’t really visit La Champagne for le champagne anyway. You can save yourself the cost of the trip and spend the money on really expensive bottles at home instead.
But of course, there are dozens of wonderful and compelling reasons to visit this region. Starting with today’s post and continuing with several more, I’ll be sharing some of them – the highlights of a truly memorable trip.
In the interests of full disclosure: I traveled with more than 100 members of the British Guild of Travel Writers who spread out, in small groups, all over the region. Our travel was sponsored by the official tourism authorities of Champagne-Ardenne , Aube and Haute-Marne and enhanced by the generosity of several dozen champagne producers.
First Stop Reims
Notre-Dame de Reims
Reims Cathedral, perched on the site where Clovis, first king of the Franks was baptized by Saint Remi, is a battle-scarred survivor. Risen, in 1211, from the ashes of an earlier church destroyed by fire, Notre-Dame de Reims has repeatedly suffered damage from wind, fire and war throughout its 806 year history.
Its towers had barely been completed when they were damaged by a roof fire. In the 18th century an angel atop the bell tower was sent flying in a tempest. And in World War I, the cathedral took 300 direct hits from German artillery. Restoration took 40 years and buckets of Rockefeller money.
Yet through it all, the cathedral’s 806-year-old gothic bones remain virtually intact, its façade a medieval masterpiece.
An army of statues large and small – saints, biblical figures, angels, more than any cathedral except Chartres – parades across the east front. Look out, especially, for the smiling angel, beheaded by a shell in 1914, restored in 1926 and an icon of the city.
The Cathedral sits in the center of the city, beside the Palais du Tau, the ancient Bishop’s Palace, now a museum. Try to see it after dark when the wildly exuberant creativity of centuries of stone carvers dazzles in the spotlights like giddy champagne bubbles frozen in stone.
Beneath the city of Reims a network of Gallo Roman chalk quarries provide the perfect atmosphere for making champagne. Thats why at least 20 major champagne houses, some of the most famous labels in the world, are headquartered here. Taittinger, Mumms, Pommery, Heidsieck, Krug, and Veuve Clicquot – known affectionately in the UK where it is a favorite, as the Widow – have turned Reims into the modern capital of La Champagne.
Les Crayères, as they are known, are part of a listed UNESCO World Heritage site. In their cool, dark, interconnected passages, millions of bottles of champagne quietly come of age.
We’ve been invited to tour the subterranean depths of Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin, 482 chambers spread out across almost 24 kilometers.
Our guide in the cellars explains the méthode champenoise. The wine, made from a secret blend of chardonnay, pinot noir and meunier grapes, undergoes a second fermentation in the bottles. That’s what produces the bubbles.
She’s surrounded by bottles, slotted at a fixed angle in “riddling tables” that encourage the yeast and grape sediment to move toward the neck.
Over a period of time, the bottles are gently turned – riddled – to help the process along, a method used throughout the industry but apparently invented by the Widow herself in the early 19th century. What happens next – called disgorgement – can best be described as a sort of yeasty burp. The bottles are uncapped and the pressure of the carbon dioxide they contain pushes the plug of sediment out of the bottle. These days the necks of the bottles are also chilled to -26° C keeping the plug of frozen sediment intact as it bursts from the bottle.
Eight in the morning on the Rue Buirette. On the wide, pink and grey tesselated pavement, a stall holder unrolls his awnings, opens his cabinets and counters, turns on strings of festive lights and sets out his wares.
In Paris, these might be magazines and newpapers, sweets and mints and cigarettes. But this is the capital of la Champagne. And though we are more than 250 miles from the sea, his offering is the natural accompaniment for le champagne, huîtres et coquillages – oysters and shellfish, of course.