Day Four: More Champagne, Can my Liver Survive this Onslaught?
“If you don’t have passion, you won’t make very good Champagne.”
We arrived back in Epernay with a sense of foreboding a soldier must feel when returning to the scene of a particularly horrendous battle fought only the day before. I had imagined Epernay’s streets haunted by the ghosts of empty bottles from yesterday’s excesses. The bright, relentless sunlight bore a hole through my aching brain.
We visited one of the best grower/producers in the region, Jean-Baptiste Geoffroy of Rene Geoffroy, a small house with 14 hectares in the Vallée de la Marne. Jean-Baptiste comes from a grape growing family with roots going back to the seventeenth century. Only in the 1970’s, after farming the same ancestral lands for 400 years, did father Rene decide to keep all their grapes and produce Champagne full time. Son Jean-Baptiste is a bit of a renegade who sustainably farms the hillside vineyard in Cumières, eschewing chemical pesticides and herbicides. He is one of the few producers who does no malolactic fermentation and actually makes rosé Champagne the way rosé champagne ought to be made. Saignée is one of two primary methods and means macerating the wine with the grape skins for a short period. Only two percent of rosés are made saignée, the other 98% are made by adding red wine to give color.
Jean-Baptiste started making Champagne in a facility closer to his vineyards, with part of production happening at both his father’s and grandmother’s houses. Life was chaotic, confusing and spread out. Eventually he found an old building in Epernay, modified it with an ingenious gravity fed winemaking system and moved his full production there.
The enormous size of the building spread out over several floors allowed grapes to be trucked to a higher street where his two huge wine presses sit. The grapes are pressed and the juices snake through a series of pipes that gently wind down one level. Gravity is gentler than pumping and therefore preferred.
We enjoyed a small tasting with Jean-Baptiste before heading back to the Chateau d’Etoges with high hopes of napping. Eating and drinking on a Bacchanalian level takes a heavy toll on one’s energy levels. Please, no tears for our excesses as they were self-inflicted. Unfortunately Beaumont had other plans. He decided to torture us by forcing us to cart him around the property for a survey of the royal fountains and moat. Beau is going through a phase that renders any water feature to be the center of his curiosities. Even the smallest fountain must be explored and recorded for posterity. I cannot remember the name of the author who wrote “I remember the games of my childhood – the dark and golden park we peopled with gods; the limitless Kingdom we made of this square mile never thoroughly explored, never thoroughly charted. We created a secret civilization where footfalls had meaning and things a savor known in no other world.” The quote popped into my head as I watched Beau explore his kingdom. Even in my dehydrated state, it filled my heart with childlike wonder as I watched through an adult portal the mind of a small child at work.
The Chateau was originally built in the 12th and 13th century and received many notable members of the French royalty, including both Louis the XIII and Louis the XVI. Parts of the castle crumbled with time and some, such as the original bridge, crumbled under the weight of royal carriages.
Dinner brought us back to the heart of Epernay and onto what seems to be the only street we eat and drink on. We arrived promptly at 7:30 for our reservation at Caves du Champagne to dine on a bit of local cuisine and drink more Champagne. The tiny storefront restaurant was packed with the guests looking decidedly unhappy to see a 15 month old boy enter. Thank god Beau did not let the crowd down. He gave a rare performance that hurled this tiny gourmand into the annals of French dining terror.
Times like this make me want to crawl under the table and curl up in fetal position sobbing incoherently. As a parent you quickly realize who has children and who hasn’t. Other parents will look at you with sympathy, kindness and understanding. Non parents shoot visual death daggers at you. We ate three delicious courses and drank a bottle of Champagne quicker than you can say “ah”. Lisa started with a terrine of foie gras accompanied by ratafina gelee, a jelly made from a local sweet aperitif. I inhaled six oysters gratinee so quickly I didn’t notice they scorched my mouth and throat till later that night. For our main courses, Lisa had a wonderful magret of duckling with green grapes and I had sautéed sweetbreads with girolle mushrooms.
Beaumont stopped screaming while spinning his head around Exorcist style long enough to eat most of my sweetbreads before continuing. As a parent, you learn to give whatever petit Satan wants just to quiet him long enough to attempt to recoup. Both courses were very, very good and complimented the champagne well. The small amount of sweetbreads Beau let me eat really brought out the crisp green apple flavors of our R. Pouillon Cuvee de Reserve.
We enjoyed a slight intermission before Beaumont’s second act began. Somewhere during dessert, Lisa tossed Beau at me and fled under the table seeking shelter from the storm. Everything was fine till he grabbed a small water glass, said a small prayer then doused me with holy water exorcising the demons from both of us. This actually brought the Chef owner out of the kitchen who clearly was not a parent. Lisa feverishly tried to speak French and integrate herself with the table nearest to us, pretending neither Beau nor myself was related. I fled the dining room with petit Satan amid howls of discontent and escaped to the relative safety of our parked Peugeot. Lisa came out a few minutes later with the worried look of a royal fleeing Versailles amidst the revolution.
For those keeping score, I believe it is Christians 0, Lions 1…
Day Six: Endurance of the Stomach
‘A Montrachet should be drunk kneeling with one’s hat off’. ~ Alexandre Dumas
There comes a time on every gastronomical whirlwind when stomach fatigue sets in and you just cannot wield a fork in the name of gluttony any longer. Champion eaters and drinkers alike will certainly understand this dilemma. Years ago, my good friend Peter and I traveled to France on a Michelin starred eating binge. The challenge was ten Michelin restaurants in five days. By the ninth we had eaten countless variations of foie gras and downed more wine than some small countries consume in a year. I will never forget the sad look of defeat in Peter’s eyes after lunch at La Pyramide. We were standing outside of Guigal’s famous vineyards unable to go any further. Not even one more amuse bouche or sliver of truffles would march past our lips. The flag of gourmandize was buried there, somewhere among the grapes.
The French always complain it’s their livers. I simply refer to it as Bacchusitis. When I woke up this morning I felt like I was back there with Peter. Sure, it could have been triggered by the second helping of that perfectly stinky unpasteurized Epoisses or maybe the extra-large helping of steak tartar served with quite possibly the best frites known to man. I hit the culinary wall and was thinking I couldn’t go further. I found it humorous that my wife woke up raring to eat. I clearly needed gentle coaxing.
For the first time we decided to eat our petites dejeuner at the hotel. I love French breakfasts in their simplicity; café au lait, buttered toast, flaky croissants, some jam, maybe a yogurt. Apparently here in Burgundy one adds a plethora of salumi, hams and cheeses. Given my oversaturation of cheese you’d think that the three cheeses on the breakfast buffet would be like kryptonite to superman. But no, somehow I mustered the strength to persevere and march onward to the alter of Bacchus. Hair of the dog, in the most edible form.
The first stop of the day was wine tasting at Cave du Covent des Cordeliers. Alexandre Dumas once wrote ‘A Montrachet should be drunk kneeling with one’s hat off’. I think that should be expanded to include any Burgundy at all. The tasting started on shaky ground as Beau decided a convent was a good place to test his screaming abilities. At first I thought the gentleman conducting our tasting was going to banish us not only from the winery but all of Beaune.
Somewhere between dropping 288 euros on three magnums on liquid gold and both of us mentioning we worked for wineries ourselves the guy warmed up. He offered that he came from a large family of 12 and had a million grand kids. Our petit Satan was no trouble at all. He poured an amazing Volnay Premier Cru and invited us for a private tour of the lower caves where the ancient century old Burgundies lived. With that one golden sip, we crossed from annoying customers to family.
After several more pours we stole out of the darkness and came into the full light of afternoon. We passed through an outdoor market on our way to a tourist brasserie for Boeuf Bourguignonne, quite possibly the most cliché Burgundian dish.
After a short rest at our hotel we returned to the city center for dinner at La Ciboulette. La Ciboulette rivals Ma Cuisine for King of the Regional restaurants and in many ways surpassed it. The menu was more interesting, the owners more engaging and the food at least as good. Ma Cuisine has history and magic. But why say one is better than the other, both are great and should be visited. We stopped at a brasserie for a kir royale, champagne mixed with local cassis where Beaumont gave his best shot at being annoying before falling fast asleep, I mean DEEP SLEEP.
The entire walk through Beaune’s bustling streets involved us running a pattern of stopping any threat that might provoke the slumbering petit Satan, by all means necessary. This involved muffling dogs, knocking loud children over and pantomiming BE QUIET to several Frenchmen along the rue.
We were the first customers when La Ciboulette opened. I did my best Marcel Marceau imitation to convey to the wait staff that if he wakes it is their fault, not mine. The wait staff quickly got the point and made the whole dining experience almost too quiet. Arriving guests were silently warned as they entered. Maybe even some of them had witnessed or at the very least read about in La Monde, the story of the infamous America family who’s child melted down in a Champagne restaurant quicker than a Japanese nuclear plant after a tsunami. Word spread as they quieted themselves and ate in almost Monastery like tranquility. Marcel Marceau pantomimes broke out in other parts of the dining room. I felt as though I was living through an old episode of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, well, without the spam.
After every course Lisa and I looked at each other with a ‘I know exactly what you are thinking, please god do not say it out loud and jinx us’ look. Every time someone would make a peep everyone’s attention focused on sleeping cutie to see whether or not he had awoken. When he hadn’t, glasses went up for silent toasts. I honestly believe the guillotine would have made a comeback this night if someone disturbed his sleep.
We ate like gods on regional cuisine. Not Parisian cream and butter overindulgences, but good old fashioned solid Burgundian fare. Oeufs a la Meurette (eggs poached in red wine with bacon and mushrooms), Pied de Veau sauce Vinaigrette tiede (veal feet served in a room temperature vinaigrette), Joue de Porc sauce Bourguignonne (Pork cheeks simmered in red wine), Parmentier de Confit de Canard (Shepherd’s pie made with duck confit) and sweetbreads with morels.
We drank the best wine of the trip so far – a 2007 Volnay 1er cru from Boillot’s ‘Les Caillerets’ vineyard. The wine sang, well quietly sang, the virtues of Heaven and Earth and God’s love for mankind. Truly a liquid orgasm I never wanted to end.
The cheeses arrived and were served at the perfect temperature. It is not enough to have great cheese. You also need to understand how to present and at what temperature. The basket was a great way to bring a large selection of cheeses thru a tight dining space. After cheese came dessert and then café… truly a pleasant night.
Beaumont did wake up after everything to applause, pantomimed of course, and at least one drunken patrons’ poor interpretation of Marceau’s wall routine. The maître d’ suggested a nomination for the French Medal of Honor for Beau’s performance tonight or at least lack of. If I understood the hostess correctly, we have been invited to the Presidential Palace for a full pardon. No longer, well at least not till the next meal, will wait staff’s shutter windows and lock doors as we near the entrance of their restaurants. Viva la Beaumont! My adorable petit gourmand!
Bon Soir from Beaune… tomorrow Chateauneuf du Pape.
Stomach update: My liver has gone on strike and is refusing any more rich food. Where is my zantac? God help me!