So, here we were in Champagne. What to do first? First order of business was to have a look around the manoir where we were staying, to see how it looked in the daylight.
Okay, so that’s pretty nice then. That established, we set out. We had it on good authority that the nearby town of Hautvillers was nice, so we aimed for that. And nice it was. The town was very pretty, and very well kept-up. We strolled around, checked out some antiques, visited the little eglise which contained Dom Perignon’s tomb, took pictures of the surrounding countryside and sampled champagne at JM Gobillard & Fils. We ended up buying a bottle there as well.
We left there and drove toward Epernay, the central town in the area. We drove down the Avenue de Champagne where all the big champagne houses were headquartered, then drove half an hour or so to Chalons-en-Champagne. We had a middling lunch at a brasserie on Place de la Revolution, then drove back to Epernay. We booked in to a tour at the largest of the champagne houses, Moet & Chandon.
I wasn’t expecting much from the tour: a few token bits of info and a glass of bubbly and we’d be on our way. But I was pleasantly surprised. Except for a cheesy video, the tour was quite good. They took us down into the caves, explained some the terminology (I now know the difference between grand cru, premier cru and classic cru), showed us the vast expanses of bottles (there are over 100 million down there right now, some of which had been aging for decades), and so on. Very interesting and impressive. And they gave us a good glass at the end. Apart from the Dutch flying douchebag squadron which accompanied us on the tour, I was quite happy with it.
Tour finished, we returned to the manoir for a bit of rest (except my brother, who ran nine miles, silly boy) before going to the nearby Auberge des Moissons for dinner. It was an odd place…it seemed a bit of a tourist trap, and yet the food was pretty good. It was a bit more gastronomique than we’d been on the trip to that point, and I wasn’t sure what I was ordering 100% of the time, but my starter wasn’t bad and my red snapper was quite good. The cheese course was more than I needed, and my chocolate soup was just okay.
Highlights of the evening were around the table: my brother’s starter was bacon, foie gras, walnuts and tomatoes floating in a ‘broth’ of melted cheese diluted with cream. Nellie, on the other hand, got the truffles-and-champagne menu. All 11 elements of her 4 courses included truffles in some way, with varying success. Steak, potatoes and ice cream worked well; mousse and creme brulee most certainly did not. Still, for Nellie to *not* get a truffle-and-champagne menu would be like a koala turning down eucalyptus. We closed the place down, more or less, and drove home half-asleep.
Well-rested, we downed our breakfasts and set out to see more of Champagne. We took another branch of the champagne route, got some more great shots of the surrounding hills from the town of Champillon, and heard a rabbit get shot just near us. 😦
We ended up returning to Hautvillers and visiting the previous day’s producers so we could buy more of a particular bottle. We also did a tasting at another producer nearby. The champagne was so-so but the views…magnifique!
We set out to see more producers along the route, but about the time we hit the road they all closed up for the mid-day break. We drove around looking for another tasting venue without much success, though we did accidentally drive up to a spectacularly posh estate. We considered knocking on the door and asking to taste their demi-sec, but then thought better of it. We drove back down across the Marne to Damery and stopped for lunch at…well, at just about the only place we could find that was open. It was busy (good sign), open (a great sign!) and looked half decent, so we stopped. We thought we’d be turned away for lack of reservation, but with some wheedling they fit us in.
We had a beer and ordered some champagne, but after a while suddenly realized we’d been sitting there a long time without any food. Turns out they’d lost our order. There was a biker convention (61 people on motorcycles) which seemed to throw the kitchen into some disarray. They apologized and brought our courses quickly after that. Still, time was getting tight for my brother to get to Calais on time for his ferry crossing back to England.
Too bad we felt rushed toward the end, as the food was quite good. A big piece of ham from Reims in a puff pastry for our starters, wolf fish or beef or duck stew for mains, delicious chocolate dessert for most (or pineapple carpaccio for my brother) and, as I said, champagne from the very town we were sitting in. All excellent, and in a lovely setting (looking out at the little town straddling the Marne), but time was tight so we downed our coffees and took off.
We were dropped off at the manoir and said our goodbyes. As my brother prepares to move to Australia it’ll likely be some time before we see him again. But what a send-off it was; two great days of laughing and chatting and drinking great champagne in a part of the world that really does beggar the imagination.
Realizing that we didn’t feel at all like going out for dinner again tonight, we dashed back into town to find a store that was still open. We managed to locate a boulangerie just outside of Epernay and picked up enough to snack on in the evening when we got peckish. All that was left to do in Champagne was pack up, relax and get ready to start part two of the vacation: Paris.