Dunking Biscuits in Champagne

By | Category: Travel destinations

Reims, as well as an historical city, is the capital of the area of Champagne. Champagne gave Reims its main source of wealth for more than two centuries. In many ways it is still true nowadays, but there are many other activities that make this city a young and lively place. But here are the most important Champagne Houses. There are others in Epernay, 30 km away from Reims. You might think that champagne is produced by large, established, big producers but all around in the very precise geography of Champagne area, a lot of little producers work in their own vineyards, giving customers a huge choice of various champagnes. Try and taste these little producers’ champagnes and you’ll soon be able to spot and talk about the small nuances between champagnes.

The Champagne Houses, in Reims, stand over their famous cellars, all of which are on the slopes of the city’s little chalky hills. More than 250km of galleries wind under these buildings. Most often these galleries known as “crayères” go back to Roman times. Originally they were pyramidal shaped chalk pits from which stones were extracted and these were then used to build the ancient city. Now they have a different role. The galleries are used like a giant refrigerator to keep millions of bottles of champagne in a cool, humid atmosphere.

Each of these Champagne Houses is proud to invite you to visit their cellars and their impressive crayères. Prices to visit them vary from €12 to €26 for tour which last about an hour and which also includes a flute of their own champagne. As with vineyards, the choice is difficult. Which houses do you visit?

crayère of a Champagne House

crayère of a Champagne House

Champagne Taittinger:
Champagne Taittinger has visits to its superb cellars which were not only ancient Roman crayères but were also old crypts of the St Nicaise Abbey which was razed to the ground during the French Revolution. Thirty metres underground lies a treasure; 4 million bottles a large number of them being jeroboam bottles (3 litres capacity, equivalent to 4 standard bottles). Another stock of 19 million bottles is hidden in the next cellars but these aren’t open to the public. Visiting the Taittinger crayères gives you a peaceful sensation. Life will go on regardless of what you do. The bottles will still be here. These are not to be rushed. The bottles will wait in their constant fresh atmosphere until their time comes to be opened and savoured. And as you continue the visit look at the walls and see where unknown miners or workers carved small bas-reliefs. It isn’t that easy to spot them all. And watch out for some steps under a very low vault which was used by the monks of the old abbey to go down to their cellars. They are so steep that you wonder how the monks could go up them carrying bottles. Now visitors cannot use these steps.

Why choose Taittinger? Champagne Taittinger is a very old House of Champagne and has been managed by the same Taittinger family since 1932. The family pride in what they have achieved; a spirit of perfection and elegance, is carried through by the knowledge of their guides. They are comfortable in their story and never come across as pushy salespeople. After a tasting the shop is there to tempt you. And if you’re feeling mellow buy a bottle of Comte de Champagne blanc de blancs or rosé, the most exclusive Taittinger’ champagne, an unique vintage for very special occasions. It will cost you €110 per bottle but it’s one to impress your friends with. Personally, I think it too good for friends so I’ll enjoy mine with just my wife.

Vranken-Pommery Champagne:
Not far away is Domaine Pommery, another old Champagne House, now part of the Vranken-Pommery group. To go to the cellars, you have to go down an impressive set up stairs. These days the champagne shares its glory with contemporary art exhibitions that make great use of video and lights. After the visit (€12 for half an hour, €17 for the whole hour) you have to queue to get your flute of champagne in a huge area which is as welcoming as an airport hall.

If you are short of time, you can skip the visit of the Pommery cellars and instead, if you are found of Art Nouveau, head for the Villa Demoiselle. This residence, an Art Nouveau masterpiece was laying abandoned at the foot of Domaine Pommery was only saved from destruction by Paul-François Vranken who fell in love with it at first sight. He and his wife, Nathalie, spent years searching for the exact details of the original works. They found and chose the most skilful craftsmen. Finally and painstakingly refurbished, there is a new life in this building which, as its name suggests, is like a young lady, but now she wears all her jewels. It’s open for visitors from Wednesday to Sunday.

Many others Champagne Houses are nearby, Mumm, Ruinart, Veuve Cliquot. To help decide which ones to visit, think in advance which champagne you want to taste.

How many champagnes are there? At the foot of the Cathedral, right on the forecourt is La Cave des Sacres, a small wineshop. It doesn’t look chic but it has a selection of 700 different champagnes. All the famous Champagne Houses are displayed as well as many independent producers. Many of these will surprise you with their high quality and their lower prices. The owner, or his son Alexandre, will advise you on ones to buy but be prepared for an interrogation about your tastes first. Looking for a special champagne? Ask to see their Old Vintages collection which go back to 1899. Like most places if your car boot is full they will ship them for you.

Fifty metres away, facing the northern great door of the Cathedral, (the one of the Last Judgment) is a nice dark red classy shop, Terroir des Rois, which stocks a large selection of fine goods from Champagne country. Local foie gras and duck confits, collections of Reims mustards called Clovis Mustards, traditional jams, famous Reims Rose Biscuits, and many others items of luxury food are all available for you to take home. Amongst them try the pots of Gelée de Champagne, a lightly sweetened translucent jelly made with champagne. It’s perfect when served with foie gras, or on hot toast at tea time.

You will also find there a product that you might not have expected to find let-alone in the heart of the Champagne area. I’m talking about true French Single Malts that obviously can’t be called whisky. Champagne is not yet part of Scotland even if old, strong links have existed for centuries. Thierry Guillon, the owner of Guillon Distillery, dreamed of producing single malts, using the pure water spring he has there, and local barley malt. Not only is the Champagne-Ardenne the first exporter in the world for barley used in the whisky industry but the Guillon distillery has now 8 different Single Malts, called “Single Malt de Louvois.” Louvois is the small village where the distillery is to be found. The Guillon method is to make the malt in the traditional way and then the malts rest for five to eight years in oak barrels. For the last part of the process the malt takes on its distinctive flavour by being stored in famous French wine barrels that had contained Sauternes, Meursault or Loupiac. An unusual and rare souvenir from France!

Fossier Rose Biscuit Factory:
Another speciality is the Reims Rose Biscuit, the only one it is suggested that you can dunk in your champagne. The biscuit stays strong enough to be eaten even after dunking. How un-French it would be to have soggy biscuit crumbs contaminating your champagne! The biscuit is also used as ingredient in many recipes. The Reims Rose Biscuit is still produced by the same biscuit factory, Biscuits Fossier just as it was 250 years ago. It is now the oldest biscuit factory in the world. It is open to the visitor and you can watch the whole process. Everything is hand-made and delicately hand packed. Located in the suburbs it’s not easy to find but there is a Biscuits Fossier shop just five minutes walk from the cathedral. There are Macaroons, Croquignoles, and Salé de Reims but don’t miss the lightly peppery gingerbread. Try it. Served with foie gras, it’s perfection. Trust me!

Café du Palais:
In the Place Drouet d’Erlon is a concentration of bars, like the Café de la Paix, the Ernest Hemingway Bar, the English Pub (French version), the Grand Café and many others. If you want something a little more chic, head towards to the end and the last building on the right is the Brasserie Flo and on the left is Au Conti, the restaurant of the Grand Hotel Continental. Brasserie Flo offers you a choice between a huge garden terrace or a semi-circular dining room. Au Conti has a smaller, elegant dining room and is a good option for the more sophisticated dinner.

If you ask the locals for something away from the tourist area they may well suggest the Brasserie du Boulingrin or Le Petit Comptoir (these two are both found in the rue de Mars, n° 48 and 17). But if you have to choose only one restaurant in Reims, they will send you to Café du Palais. This is in Place Myron Herrick, right in front the courthouse, one minute walk from the Cathedral. It’s an incredible place. It’s worth visiting just for the decor. Under an art deco, stain-glassed roof, the red walls are covered with dozens of very special and eclectic sculptures and paintings such as a full size statue of a nude but with big bull horns and seated on a chair. You’ll soon forget the sculptures and the surroundings when the food comes. This famous restaurant has been in the same family for many years. After his father Jean-Louis, retired, his son Jean-François Vogt, and his wife Delphine, look after you. Annick, his mother is still in charge of the fabulous home-made foie gras. It is a really family affair as Isabelle, his sister, watches over the pastries. The food is best summed up as real creative French food. Foie gras, tagliatelles with morels, big gourmet salad plates with duck or fresh seafood are unforgettable. Try to leave a little room for a dessert. If you can’t, just order a café gourmand, a coffee served with an assortment of small portion desserts. Champagne of course is available by the flute in all restaurants in Reims (not just bottles and halves), but Jean-François always takes time to explain his choices of champagne producers. Dinner is served only once a week on Saturday nights so that all the employees can enjoy a family life. How unusual is that? That is the spirit of this cafe. (reservation 03 26 47 52 54).

Where to stay in Reims:
There is a large choice from low budget hotels to a single five star one. In the middle of Reims, just one minutes walk to the Place Drouet d’Erlon, but away from the noise, is the Hotel de la Paix This 3 stars hotel has more than hundred large, en-suite modern rooms. It has an inside swiming pool, a gym and then there is something else few if any hotels offer. A garden terrace facing an old chapel! The other outstanding feature is the champagne bar which is famous for its cocktails. Importantly, the hotel has its own underground parking (€11 a day), which is useful given that the whole centre of Reims is a pedestrian zone. Finding a parking place in the streets around is quite impossible.
Close-by is the Grand Hotel Continental set in an nice old building that survived the war. It has 63 small comfortable rooms, each one different from the others and its elegant restaurant, Au Conti, is welcome for those who prefer not to go out after a long day. There is no hotel parking as such but public parking is availabe at a reduced rate in a nearby car park.

The Perching Bar
If you want to go outside the city to discover the vineyards you can rent cars by the hour. A fifteen minute drive will get you to Verzenay, a little village just on the edge of the Montagne de Reims. It is a small village of winegrowers surrounded by a sea of vineyards. Go into the village, turn right and five hundred metres outside the village you will see a windmill in the middle of vines. From there, the view of vines stretches to Reims. Back in Verzenay, go to the left end of the village, and there is a lighthouse. Yes a lighthouse despite the fact that you are miles from the sea. Le Phare de Verzenay which was built as a sort of advertising monument by a local producer around 1900, now holds a modern wine museum. And the view over the vineyards from the top of the light house is amazing. The museum and lighthouse will cost you €7.

But what makes Verzenay special is to be found only about two kms from the lighthouse and on the way to Verzy. The Perching Bar is a champagne wooden bar built in the trees. Follow the signs to Arboxygene or Perching Bar.This is a leisure park with three acrobatic courses high in the air from trunk to trunk. Well equipped with helmets and security ropes, the bold ones will fly in the air. Shivers guaranteed! (1 course €15, unlimited courses €25)

You are not obliged to take any walk through the trees. To access the Perching Bar, just walk along the gangway. This a fine place to have a flute of champagne in a romantic setting whilst looking at the landscape just before he sun finally goes down for the evening.

Although Reims has so much on offer for the visitor, Reims, is no frenetic city. It seems to be a city devoid of stress. Just walk, look, stop, sit down, sip a little champagne, order a leisurely meal and life could seem almost perfect. Is the champagne responsible? I don’t know but I’ll be very happy visiting Reims regularly to find out.

For more information contact the Reims Tourism Office

Story and images © Frederic Mouren de Poligny

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