Posted: 1st May 2019
Back in the nineties I seemed to spend half my life padding around the Champagne region. I did pieces for the magazines, and occasionally I’d write about the wine in the FT. Latterly I used to put together the annual champagne supplements both for Decanter and (I think) the now defunct WINE. Sometimes my brief extended to gastronomy: what went well with champagne, or simply rounding up the best restaurants in the region. Even when I was not in Reims or Epernay specifically to look at food, I went to the top restaurants with my hosts from the various champagne houses, men and women with suitably robust expense accounts.
“In those days the top of the pyramid was Les Crayères, formerly the residence of the Pommery family who married into the princely Polignacs and where the chef Gérard Boyer had three stars for his predictably luxurious cooking. I must have eaten there at least once with Prince Alain de Polignac, who was born there and rose to become an exemplary chef des caves at Pommery. More to my taste was the rather more earthy style of the Grand Cerf at Montchenot on the Montagne de Reims. I had memorable meals at the Assiette Champenoise too. Now I see Les Crayères has lost Boyer and dropped down to two Michelin rosettes, Le Grand Cerf to one, while L’Assiette champenoise has rocketed up to three!”
On a more everyday level I also used to enjoy the buzz of art deco Brasserie du Boulingrin near the market, although various people have told me that the place has lost its spark of late. Epernay was never so good for restaurants, but La Briqueterie was more than a cut above the rest. It was the only one of my old haunts I visited when I returned to the region last week.
La Briqueterie’s Michelin star has migrated to Les Berceaux in Epernay now, but you still eat well. We had a rather autumnal dish of chicken medallions stuffed with chestnuts, wild mushrooms and an allegedly ‘perfect (poached) egg’, and then a pretty plate of gurnard (Bernard the gurnard) with chicory and oranges served with a rosé des Riceys from René Bauser. The best course was probably the chocolate tart with a cranberry and tarragon sorbet flanked by one of those ubiquitous pink biscuits that are a culinary speciality of Reims.
La Briqueterie is in Vinay, south of Epernay. In the centre of the one-track town is La Banque in (wait for it) a converted branch of the Banque de France where we had a good meal of a marinated salmon tataki, some beef fillet with morels followed by strawberries with balsamic vinegar. With the salmon there was a wonderful oeil de perdrix (rosé) champagne from Jean Vesselle in Bouzy while a still, red Bouzy from Bernard Tornay came with the beef.
In Reims I visited several places that were new to me: L’Excelsior (formerly Flo), a converted mansion near the railway station that was once an officers’ mess retaining some original murals. There was a little cake of local chaource and parmesan cheese and some cod with a cockle sauce and broad beans. At Le Crypto near the Cathedral one night, I limited myself to a rather French prawn risotto (with lots of foam and decorative vegetables) and a very good plate of regional cheeses obtained from the Julie Verzeaux’s excellent shop next door – the best being the chaource and Langres but I felt they might have included a brie de Meaux or a Coulommiers (both from the peripheries of Champagne). A good, sappy Pouilly fuissé from the Domaine Lasserat proved a fine counterpoint.
On another evening we went to Le Petit Comptoir near the market where I had some excellent veal sweetbreads en cocotte. Here we made a wise decision to abjure local wines: the sweetbreads were much better with a 2017 Crozes Hermitage from the Cave de Tain. Since my last visit to Reims most of the food shops in the city have disappeared. There is a small clutch around the Place du Forum, but otherwise you need to go to the area around the market to find butchers, charcutiers, or fish and cheesemongers, the staples of French life.
“The most memorable meal I had this time round was in the art deco pavilion at Charles Heidsieck, an enchanting spot overlooking a private park. We had crab and lobster salad with an emulsion of peas; a crown roast of lamb with a crust of herbs and pain d’épices; chaource and comté and a series of little desserts – all moistened with some of the very best of champagnes. The meal was prepared by the caterer Tony Blasco. There is nothing unusual about bringing in caterers in Champagne. In old days I remember a fabulous celebratory lunch in Bruno Paillard’s home. When I turned round to see what was going on in the kitchen I realised that the meal was being prepared by the late Joel Robuchon.”
It was naturally champagne wine that took me to Champagne. We visited a couple of the most famous houses. At Moët I remembered my first visit in 1983 or 1984. I had met an English girl in Paris was working at their private hotel, the Château de Saran, and she suggested I get myself invited to lunch. I arrived at Epernay at eight or nine in the morning and a smartly dressed, middle-aged woman took me off into one of the many elegant salons in their HQ to cross-examine me. She needed to determine whether I was important enough to go through to stage two: the tour and tasting, and stage three: lunch. I remember she poured us both a glass of champagne, but didn’t touch her own. I must have passed, for I lunched at Saran.
“The gradations of welcome at Moët are quite byzantine in their complexity. I reflected that in my time I had been to the very top, and dined with the company chairman in the little Trianon on truffes sous la cendre – truffles cooked in ashes – a dish so expensive that few have ever tasted it. The boss had been airlifted in from one of the LVMH group’s several parfumiers – Dior or Guerlain – and seemed rather taken aback when I capped his quotation from the comte de Buffon.”
That champenois grandezza can be oppressive at times. The polar opposite I experienced this time when we went to the friendly, workaday cooperative in Mailly, or when we toured the more modest house of Charles Fourny in Vertus; and then there were the tastings in which the party got to sample a host of good things they had possibly never experienced before. It has been a while, but I was happy to be back, and I hope to be able take the boat out again next year.