Enjoying Fine French Traditions
A recent vacation to France took us to Paris for Bastille Day, and then on to the Champagne Region, Normandy and parts of Brittany. We experienced the sophistication and architectural beauty of Paris, gained intriguing knowledge of how true Champagne has been lovingly developed and is being produced in this unique region of France, were reminded of the historic significance to the United States and Europe of the Normandy region and became immersed in the pleasingly delightful French countryside as we drove from one small village in northern France to another.
I would love to share with you an adventure from our perspective of two French iconic traditions – Champagne and Crêpes, so here goes…
When you take a sip of ‘champagne’ at a special occasion such as a wedding, New Year’s Eve or romantic dinner are you really drinking Champagne or is it sparkling wine? Chances are you are not enjoying the ‘real thing’! Did you know that for a sparkling wine to be labeled “Champagne” it must be produced from within the regions’ border? Champagne is a legally controlled and restricted name. The region we speak of is France’s most northerly wine region, due east of Paris. In this kind of cool climate, the growing season is rarely warm enough to ripen grapes to the level required for standard wine making.
The all-important fine and delicate bubbles which make it stand out from less ‘exciting’ wines and the high prices that Champagne commands make the consumer feel special, pampered and exclusive. Compare for yourself – try real Champagne in a taste test against a domestic sparkling wine – and you will notice the difference in one sip.
On our visit to the Champagne region with FestivalPros.com we learned that one of the area’s greatest assets is its chalk soils, which provide incredible drainage, forcing the vine to “stress” as it searches for a supply of water making the root system stronger. The stress from this movement helps preserve acidity in the grapes. The chalky soils have also proven a beneficial natural element for another reason and it is fascinating!
Roman soldiers created elaborate systems of caves that now lie beneath many Champagne houses (wineries) in the Reims, France area. These caves maintain a cool temperature year round, approximately 12 degrees Celsius, which is ideal for Champagne production and storage. As the city of Reims was being bombed during World War I, the Champenois lived in these same caves as their bottles of Champagne while transforming some of this hidden space as hospitals and schools. During a private dinner in the Cellars St. Petersburg at the massive Veuve Cliquot limestone cellars, we learned that over 90 million bottles of Champagne are stored there in the seemingly endless cave system. A massive and very impressive presentation of history, pride, and a stunning atmosphere left us in awe about what was and what is.
We learned of Madame Cliquot the fascinating woman behind the iconic yellow label: Barbe-Nicole Clicquot Ponsardin. One of the world’s richest women at the time, she arranged perilous champagne deliveries to Russia one day and entertained Napoleon and Josephine Bonaparte on another. She was a daring and determined entrepreneur and remains an important port of the history of Champagne and its’ development.
We also learned about Dom Pérignon while visiting a small village of 800 residents, Hautvillers, which is also his final resting place. Although considered an extraordinary champagne, Dom Pierre Pérignon did not invent champagne. He worked in Hautvillers as a monk and perfected the process that created champagne as we know it. Hautvillers is still home to many small Maisons de Champagne. An astounding fact we learned about the Champagne region of France: there are over 35,000 champagne producers in this fairly small region and over 2 million wineries in the country of France. 83,000 acres of vineyards produce an average of a million bottles of Champagne a day!
Leaving the Champagne region behind us, we now discover French crêpes. France’s Brittany region is where the techniques and tools were created and perfecting the crepe to the art it is known for. Crêpes were originally called galettes, meaning flat cakes. Crêpe making has evolved from being cooked on large cast-iron plates heated over a wood fire in a fireplace to today’s hot plates that are now gas or electric. The batter is spread with a tool known as a rozel and flipped with a spatula. Crêpe lovers use their imagination what to add to their dessert treat – drizzles of chocolate, fresh fruit, powdered sugar, or delicious flambé sauces.
In Brittany, crêpes are traditionally served with cider. On February 2, crêpes are offered in France on the holiday known as Fete de la Chandeleur, Fete de la Lumiere, or “jour des crêpes”. Crêpes are popular not only throughout France but elsewhere in Europe where the usually thin and delicate pancakes are known by other names and adaptations, including the Italian crespelle, Hungarian palacsintas, Jewish blintzes, Scandinavian plattars, Russian blini, and Greek kreps. We ran across a few ‘less quality’ crêpes that were very large, doughy and thick – perhaps a fast food version!
By and large, France offers an impressive array of dining temptations, fine wines and Champagne. We experienced many outstanding meals but even when the food was not quite as expected, the bread never fell short and was always amazing. Add a bite of Brie, a chilled glass of Champagne and that may be all you need!
With this statement and this photo, we say
Bon appétit and bon voyage!