Archive for the ‘Europe’ Category

A Certain Sparkle


2013
01.08

A Certain Sparkle
AFAR Magazine

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A Food Lover Journeys to Lyon


2012
04.15

A Food Lover Journeys to Lyon
AFAR Magazine

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Pirates of the Mediterranean


2011
10.15

Welcome to our nation-state. It is 43 feet long and 23 wide — a bareboat catamaran, if you prefer. We are plying the Mediterranean coast of southern Turkey, wandering at will among bays and coves, tying up where we like, doing whooping cannonballs off the bow. Our chartered craft flies the French flag, but we aren’t French. It makes us feel like pirates.

There are eight of us — friends and friends-of-friends. We are bad sailors with good attitudes. Our skipper is Captain Marco, a Californian (like most of us) who last roamed these waters 15 years ago as a charter captain. He will maneuver the boat with more ease than I could pilot a bathtub toy, transform us into a crack crew and regale us with tales of his past exploits — whether we like it or not. These waters are known as the Turquoise Coast. They could well be the source of the word “turquoise,” which is simply French for “Turkish.” If not, they deserve to be. Looking out to sea, we summon up all the words we know for “blue” and still leave shades unnamed. The water is so clear that, in shallows, it glows incandescent from rays of sun bouncing off the sea floor.

Over the next seven days we will sail from Marmaris to below Fethiye and meander back up to Gocek. We’ll snorkel among shards of ancient amphorae, cavort in mud and play amateur archaeologist. Two Dutch yachties will stand on their stern, serenading us with harmonica chanteys as we dance an impromptu jig. One morning, I’ll come up from my cabin and spy Winston Churchill, reincarnated as a bulldog, strutting along the deck of a sailboat docked next to us. Another, I’ll be awakened by Pavarotti, the opera-singing donkey. We’ll fix cucumber salads and fry up lamb chops onboard. We’ll wash down smuggled French chocolates with duty-free grappa.

Our shoes — banished to the hold by Captain Marco — will ferment, forgotten, sloshing in a splash of seawater.

Food, Mud, History

As Mamaris dims to a murmur in the distance, we test ourselves at sea, taking the cat up to eight knots under sail. Stealing speed from the air makes us giddy. We think we could go anywhere.

We turn east and overnight in Ekincik, at a restaurant-with-a-dock that serves up food and hot showers to boaters. “I’m Captain Marco!” our skipper shouts to the kid who comes to catch our stern line. “Captain Marco! Remember me?” At most, the boy has seen 15 summers. Marco is sweetly oblivious to math and time.

At night, we rock below deck, in four tiny cabins wedged into the boat’s double hulls, lulled by the slap of waves and the groan of mooring ropes.

In the morning, a battered wooden motor launch fetches us up the Dalyan River, past a powdery crescent of beach where sinuous flipper tracks from breeding loggerhead turtles disappear into the sea. We weave through tall reeds to the harbor town of Kaunos, which lies marooned by silt — as well as by history. It dates from the 9th century B.C., though the remains are mostly Greek and Roman. Outside an amphitheater sited to catch sea breezes and dispense panoramic views, a goat climbs halfway up a tree to snatch tender leaves.

Past the shell of a Byzantine church and ruined baths, down a stone road, warehouse foundations and mysterious monuments are all that’s left of the harbor’s bustle. One in our party helps a French woman descend from a crumbling wall. “This is not the first time America has come to the aid of France,” her husband says with a touch of irony.

Upriver, Lycian tombs dominate the cliffs. Their carvings mimic Greek temple facades, with pediments and columns, hovering halfway up the rock face. The Lycians ruled this slice of coast long before the Greeks arrived. They had their own language and alphabet, created the first known democratic union and were fiercely independent. Lycia was the last holdout on the entire Mediterranean coast before finally being absorbed into the Roman Empire in the 1st century A.D. These tombs are remnants of their ancestor worship.

Further upriver, we wallow like pigs in a mud bath, coating ourselves in sulfurous gray ooze, then letting it dry and crack in the sun. We look like bush tribesmen but feel like fools — until we stand rinsing off in communal showers and discover how soft our skin has become.

At Dalyan town, we forage beyond the tourist shops rimming the dock and find a greengrocer who sells us strange, leafless branching vegetables that look to have been bred on an alien planet. She breaks off a piece for us to taste, and it’s salty. (Later, back home, I find out they are “sea beans” grown in marshlands.) Through pantomime and a bit of English, she tells us the freaky greens should be boiled then tossed with olive oil and lemon. Her proud friend elbows into the cooking lesson to show us photos of her son living in North Carolina. She points to each person in the snapshots and explains all about them in Turkish.

In the Gulf of Fethiye, we anchor off of tiny Karacaoren Island, a deserted, jagged mass of black volcanic rock pocked with ruins. We plunge into the deliciously chilly waters. From the nearby mainland, hopeful hawkers head our way in battered wooden boats.

Two men in a dinghy beckon, holding out ridiculously expensive tomatoes. Then a woman pulls up, seducing us with gozleme, Turkish “pancakes,” made fresh on her brazier and folded around salty, crumbled cheese and sprigs of fresh dill. They are so good that we put in dessert orders for more warm envelopes filled with chocolate, bananas and honey.

“Sorry,” we say to the hustler in a slick speedboat waving Magnum ice cream bars. He seems to have raced over from another century.

Tombs in the Stone

Karacaoren is guarded by treacherous stones that jab up from the sea, yet we want to explore its meager ruins. Captain Marco agrees to maneuver our rubber raft to a landing point where we can jump ashore as the waves heave our little craft toward the rocks. We leap onto parched terrain carpeted with goat dung. Remnants of terra cotta roof tiles crunch under our feet. Climbing to the summit, we find remains of a modest church and small, vaulted tombs with traces of frescoes. We suspect they’re Byzantine. We discover cisterns and ponder the hard life on this sun-blasted knoll, with no fresh water source, in cramped buildings built from dark stone. Were these people religious hermits? Traders? Lookouts? Not a soul shares the island with us; maybe the goats are ghosts, too.

Nearby Gemiler Island looks more welcoming, with pine trees and a bounty of ruins. Byzantine-era docks and stone warehouses lie partially submerged along the shore, and paths lead to remnants of five churches built between the 5th and 6th centuries. It’s possible to catch glimpses of mosaics and inlaid marble floors in the remains of a basilica on the island’s highest point, a good hundred yards above the water. But what saves our souls is the view.

Some say St. Nicholas, the original Santa Claus, once lived here, making Gemiler a popular pilgrimage site back in the Byzantine era. The island’s mysterious masterpiece is a long, enclosed walkway that snakes down its center. It has spawned many tales, but my favorite says this vaulted, fresco-decorated corridor was built for an albino queen so she could promenade through the city without exposing her delicate skin to the sun.

That night, we encounter the only siren’s song of our trip. It’s belted out by Pavarotti, the opera-singing donkey of Cold Water Bay. We succumbed to a little ad in our boat manual to anchor in this harbor-with-a-restaurant because, really, who could pass up an asinine aria? Pavarotti’s owner, Ali, plies us with grilled fish and boar stew, cooked by one of his “boys” who squats by a fire built on the ground. It’s the best food we’ve encountered on the voyage. Ali fires up a fat cigar, commands an extra bottle of wine and joins us at our table under the trees.

“Shut up!” Captain Marco suddenly shouts, and our group falls silent, exchanging nervous, guilty looks. “Shut up!” he cries again, laughing. “That’s how you order more wine in Turkish!” Ali doles out the wine, the glow of his cigar punctuating his moves as darkness pushes in from the sea.

Ali tells us his village lies on the other side of this mountainous territory guarding the water, and he offers to take us there. The lure is Lycian tombs and the deserted Greek town of Kayakoy.

The next morning, Ali makes good on his promise. Because Cold Water Bay is cut off from inland roads by the coastal mountains, it’s a roundabout tour. We pile into Ali’s speedboat and rocket along until we reach a beach where a road runs inland, then all squeeze into his van and careen over the mountains.

Ali shows us two types of Lycian tombs — modest versions of the temple-facade-style burial chambers, carved into the base of a cliff, and free-standing house-type sarcophagi cut from massive hunks of stone and topped with thick, peaked slabs. There’s something of the South Seas about these house tombs, a sensibility far different from the Greek-influenced temple tombs.

We swing by Ali’s big stone house topped with a satellite dish and help him load cases of wine into the van. Ali’s wisp of a mom comes out to show us her flower garden and hand out hugs.

Nearby Kayakoy was abandoned in the 1920s by more than 2,000 Greek families, who were “exchanged” by the government for Turks living in Greece. Their forsaken, roofless, whitewashed houses march up the mountain like rows of rotting teeth. In the small rooms, corner fireplaces and bits of bright, painted decoration hint at what the occupants left behind when the deportation occurred. A church with beach-pebble mosaics waits forlornly for worshipers to return.

Ali spirits us back to Cold Water Bay, covering the sea distance in a blink, compared with sailboat speed. As we lift our anchor and sedately set out for open water, Ali waggles his cigar in farewell while Pavarotti sings us off from shore.

Backpackers, Beware

We sail for Butterfly Valley, reachable only by sea — or by a deadly, precipice-hugging path known to devour foolish backpackers. The 1,150-foot cliffs embrace a canyon that slices back from a beach of rounded stones, luring hikers with a forest of oleanders that rain candy-pink petals, while 35 species of butterflies flutter and flirt. The path slowly constricts, grows more sinister, clotted with boulders and tangled roots, but the prize at its end is a 200-foot-tall waterfall.

Returning to the beach, I shake oleander petals from my hair and swim out to our boat. We circle back to the Gulf of Fethiye, scouting the island of Tesane. Though there are remnants of ancient shipyards, the place looks desolate and desiccated, baked brown as an overdone sugar cookie, with scraps of buildings poking up.

We sail on to Tomb Bay, beautiful despite a name filled with doom. Scraggly tiers of old olive groves mount steep hills, with Lycian tombs etched into high rock faces. We leap into the cool water and climb out on stone steps, once part of docks where goods were hauled to the agora above. As I scramble uphill, lost steps emerge from the brambles. Who passed this way hundreds of years ago, stopping to gaze out at the gulf — fearing pirates, not the package tour boats that we shun?

At Ruin Bay, we set anchor and tie up for the night, roped to a pine tree. A shore party paddles over to see ruins of the baths where Cleopatra soaked herself in asses’ milk, so it’s said. Was this the beauty secret that conquered Caesar and Mark Antony? The baths’ crumbled foundations lie mostly submerged, begging for someone with a grand imagination to conjure the exotic queen.

The vision isn’t helped by the rusting hulk of a ship that hunkers at the rickety dock, serving as restaurant and bar. We toss down a beer and row back, holding plates of meatballs and chicken to serve with the spaghetti simmering in our compact galley.

After dinner, we lie on deck, trying to pick constellations out of the glittering, crowded sky. There’s talk of skinny-dipping. It seems perfectly natural. The salt crusted in my hair seems perfectly natural. No one wants to surrender our boat the next day. We wonder how far we could sail before they’d find us.

© 2007 Gayle Keck
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The Dream Cream


2011
10.15

It was London, the early 1990s. We had our first encounter at the Hyde Park Hotel. Then a rendezvous at Brown’s Hotel. Which led to a brief, unplanned interlude at Fortnum & Mason. The affair was outrageous, indulgent, decadent. I had fallen madly in love. With clotted cream.

Yes, I swooned over something that sounds like you should put a Band-Aid on it rather than eat it. But, oh, the stuff was glorious: unctuous, buttery, rich. Every afternoon of my trip, I slathered it on scones snatched from tiered silver trays in hushed hotel tearooms.

And, like most of those smitten with a new love, I didn’t bother to ask for details. I vaguely assumed it was heavy cream, whipped almost into butter but stopped just short of that transformation.

Returning home to the United States, I pined for clotted cream. It wasn’t to be found at even the swankiest hotel tea services, where whipped cream was foisted on me instead. That started the questions: What, actually, is this rich, golden goo? How is it made? And why are the Brits keeping it all for themselves?

On a recent trip to England, I set out to find the answers — and the best clotted cream the country has to offer. At first, my research pointed me toward Jersey, one of the Channel Islands near France and origin of the Jersey cow breed. Jersey cows typically give milk with a higher percentage of cream, rumored to be the best for making clotted cream.

But wait, it’s not just the cows; it’s what they eat. Turns out, the lushest English grass grows in Cornwall, along the far reaches of England’s southwest coast, where there’s a microclimate so different from the rest of the country that palm trees thrive.

And, despite a bit of bluster from the neighboring shire of Devon, which touts its version as “Devon cream,” I discovered that the country’s largest clotted cream producer is based in Cornwall.

So my husband, Paul, and I point our rental car toward Land’s End and set out on a meandering expedition to the Cornish coast. Besides clotted cream, the region is famous for fishing villages, artists, gardens, smugglers and the hand pies known as pasties (pronounced “PAST-eeze”). On our tour we will encounter everything on that list that is legal.

The first thing I learn, strolling the constricted streets of Polperro, a tiny village of whitewashed stone cottages arrayed on ocean-side cliffs, is that Cornish tea isn’t a grand affair reserved for the afternoon. The town is clogged with modest tearooms and cafes offering “cream tea.” And though the fishing fleet still bobs in a little cove, I suspect Polperro serves far more scones than mackerel to the tourists who ramble the maze of pathways between the ancient abodes.

Here, “cream tea,” means two scones, a pot of tea and a hefty dollop of clotted cream, and it’s served nearly all day long. Passing up a boat tour (“nice dogs and happy babies go free”), we settle at an outdoor table and order the “Scones From Our Own Special Recipe,” not an uncommon claim here.

“Where’re you from, then?” the proprietor asks as a pink-cheeked waitress delivers our tea. His bushy eyebrows shoot up when we reply, “San Francisco”; they shoot up again when I ask for seconds on the clotted cream. In the name of research, I know no shame.

The cream is cool, smooth and sweet (though not sweetened). It clings to the knife as I spread it in artistic swirls, then melts just slightly into the warm, round scone (containing no currants, blueberries, chocolate chips, nuts or other distractions). It’s delicious, and I confirm the source is Rodda’s, the country’s largest clotted cream producer.

One requirement for Cornwall’s lush pastures is rain, and with storm clouds massing, we decide to head indoors . . . to a garden. We motor down narrow two-lane roads lined with solid walls of green hedges and trees arching to meet overhead, past little towns with odd, Harry Potter-ish names (Crumplehorn, St. Blazey Gate), until we reach the Eden Project.

Imagine botanical gardens on the vast scale of an eco-amusement park, and you’ll have an idea of the size. At the base of a 200-foot-deep, 37-acre quarry, two “biomes” covered with a series of huge hexagonal-bubbled domes (cousins to Beijing’s Olympic Water Cube) are the largest conservatories in the world, housing more than a million plants, in addition to a large waterfall. They showcase tropical and Mediterranean species, as well as the Cornish zeal for gardening and the founders’ passion for sustainable practices.

The next morning, at our tidy farmhouse B&B, we get an alternative review of the Eden Project. “That’s boring!” a fellow tourist pronounces at the breakfast table as we tuck into eggs, bacon and baked beans.

After he classifies several other famous Cornish gardens as “boring,” I finally discover he and his traveling companion are landscape designers visiting from Germany, and they don’t even have plans to see the Eden Project. Clearly, their quest (to find “acceptable” gardens) is less satisfying (but certainly less fattening) than my search for the perfect clotted cream.

I’ve been trying to contact an artisanal producer, Gwavas Jersey Farm, but my e-mails and phone messages have gone unanswered. So instead, we decide to do some sightseeing, since any self-respecting Cornish tourist destination also serves cream tea.

St. Michael’s Mount will look startlingly familiar to anybody who’s visited Mont St. Michel in France. In fact, the two island churches were under the purview of the same Norman abbot in the 11th century. Several hundred years of sackings and stormings later, Cornwall’s was taken over by the St. Aubyn family, whose descendants still live there after 12 generations.

Unlike at Mont St. Michel, there’s no raised causeway to convey visitors above the waters. Fortunately, we arrive at low tide and tread the same stone pathway, inlaid with seaweed, that medieval pilgrims followed. After a steep climb, we tour the family castle and take in sweeping views back to the coast and straight down to the island’s gardens, laid out like verdant skirts around the Mount.

There’s just enough time for cream tea at the cafe before scurrying back to the mainland ahead of the tide. Alas, though the scones are tasty, I’m given another little cup of Rodda’s clotted cream. Yes, it’s good, but I’m beginning to wonder if I’ll ever find any other kind. Rodda’s seems to have a lock on the market.

I chat up a chap in the Mount’s gift shop, who suggests we take our search to a “farm shop” and recommends one near Hayle. We head up the Cornish peninsula and discover two farm shops, emporia of local produce, jams and dairy products.

At the first, Richards of Cornwall, we find (at last!) tubs of clotted cream made by a smaller producer, Trewithen Dairy. I happily part with some cash for a tub of my own. Then, at Trevaskis Farms, I buy a box of fresh-picked strawberries, tiny and sweet. There’s also a cafe, where a refrigerated case is packed with desserts. I stand in awe as servers dish up pies, crumbles and sponge cakes, all served with a whopping dollop of Rodda’s clotted cream on top.

We forgo this dessert wonderland and opt for dipping strawberries into the Trewithen clotted cream. The texture is less uniform, the flavor sweeter, a bit more intense. Rodda’s and I have had a lovely relationship, but now I switch my fickle affections to Trewithen.

The seaside town of St. Ives is a feast of a different sort, a banquet of Cornish light. The ocean seems bluer, the beach more sparkling and the stone houses more boldly limned against the sky. That blessing of light has made the once-humble fishing village an artists’ haven for more than two centuries. Many of the views Turner and Whistler painted here can still be found, either by strolling the town or by visiting the Tate St. Ives, a branch of the major British art museum.

We walk off our clotted cream and strawberry orgy on St. Ives’s cobbled streets, stopping by galleries that display paintings, ceramics and handmade clothing.

The summer light lingers late in England and, after surviving a particularly hair-raising wisp of a road, we spend the evening’s last rays seated in a cliff-top amphitheater looking out to sea. We are near Land’s End, the most westerly bit of this entire country, watching a play at the Minack Theatre. The performance is entertaining, but my eyes keep drifting out to the cobalt waters and rocky headlands burnished by the final shafts of sun that shine on England.

The next morning, we’re in luck. Will Bowman of Gwavas Jersey Farm rings up and tells us to come on over. His farm is only six miles away, down toward England’s most southerly point, on the Lizard Peninsula.

Gwavas is a father-and-son operation: 90 Jersey cows, a handful of employees and Wiggles, the world’s cutest Jack Russell terrier, housed on a farmstead that was recorded in the Domesday Book of 1086.

Will, who runs the dairy while his father watches the cows, takes us on a tour of the fields and the dairy buildings. “I’m not what most people around here would call a conventional farmer,” he confides, and I have to agree: He’s sporting shorts, sneakers and a soccer jersey.

“It’s a bit more interesting than just farming,” he says, explaining why he started making clotted cream and yogurt 12 years ago, “because it’s a different challenge every day. If you enjoy yourself, you can make it a little bit more unusual; if you’ve got the passion, you can make it that much better.”

Will confirms my research about Jersey cows — that their milk has more cream (5 percent vs. 4 percent or less for other breeds) — but that’s not all. “It also has more lactose, more protein, more solids in general,” he says.

Despite the mysterious nature of clotted cream (do a Google search and you come up with all sorts of conflicting recipes, including some calling for sour cream), it turns out to be fairly straightforward. “It’s a simple way of doing something with milk, but it has to be precise,” Will explains.

Cream is separated from pasteurized milk by a centrifuge system, then placed in large shallow pans that are heated to 194 degrees, not quite boiling, for an hour. “Scalding it the traditional way gives it more color and more flavor,” Will says. Water evaporates, the cream thickens and a thin crust forms on the top. Then it cools, rests and thickens more.

We watch as a white-coated worker scoops the finished product into tubs. It’s a deep golden color, denser in some places, a bit runnier in others. “It’s a moving product,” Will says. “As it gets older, it will thicken.”

He picks up a tub and invites us to have a taste. We sit on a picnic table outside his weathered stone house, while Wiggles and a resident cat snooze nearby in the sun.

Digging a spoon into the clotted cream, I realize I’m going to be mainlining the stuff: no scones, no berries. But one bite and I know I’ve found clotted cream nirvana. The textures roll across my tongue, buttery, rich and intense. It seems as if I’m devouring the distilled essence of the Cornish landscape, the green that overgrows stone fences and nearly chokes the roads.

“Good milk,” Will says by way of explanation, “has just got a fresh taste to it, and the sweeter the grass, the sweeter the milk.” I ask if we can visit the cows that produced this wonder, and Will leads us to pastures bordered on one side by the ocean.

“Thank you, ladies!” I shout, holding up my tub of clotted cream, as the nosy bovines come over to investigate us. They are fawn-colored, with little topknots between their ears. “Each one has a different hairdo,” Will points out, grinning.

Surveying the fields rimmed by wild foxgloves and bright-pink thistles, he says: “We don’t need any more than what we’ve got around us. There are lots of people who don’t have it so good.” That includes clotted cream lovers who don’t live in Cornwall; preferring a personal relationship with customers, Will refuses to sell his product outside its borders.

After our visit, we drive a few miles to Kynance Cove, considered one of Cornwall’s most beautiful spots. I hike across the cliffs clutching my tub of Gwavas clotted cream. There is a little cafe at the end of the trail, and I’m sure it will have scones.

As we sit outside, looking down at the turquoise ocean bashing and frothing around craggy black rocks, I slather the cream over a warm scone. The heck with posh hotel tearooms. This is the best clotted cream I’ve ever tasted, and this spot, right here, is the best possible place to eat it.

Wine, Women and…


2010
06.15

Wine, Women and…
Four Seasons

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Stockholm Syndrome


2010
06.05

Stockholm Syndrome
Executive Traveler

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Pop Stars


2010
06.05

Visiting Champagne feels as if you’re getting away with something. It’s like New Year’s Eve without silly hats. A wedding minus the hideous bridesmaids’ dresses. A raise without having to endure an excruciating performance evaluation. You are imbibing champagne for no justifiable reason whatsoever. Cheers!

But beware: A trip to this French region two hours east of Paris might spoil you. It’s a rolling celebration that makes plain old wine tasting seem flat. At least that’s what my husband, Paul, and I decide after downing millions of tiny bubbles with our pals Vittorio and Ann, who drove up from Switzerland to join us.

As the ringleader of this adventure, I suppose I should have done more planning. I had booked us into a chic little B&B that I’d carefully calculated to be an easy drive from most of the area’s highlights, but I hadn’t made the least effort to sort out which of the 100 major champagne houses or thousands of smaller producers we might want to visit.

Fortunately, our innkeepers are happy to help. In addition to hosting lodgers, Bruno and Isabelle Mailliard are champagne makers themselves. For now, they suggest a lunch spot (so we can “lay down a base,” as Paul calls it). And they refer us to Doyard-Mahé, another, larger family operation nearby with a tasting room and “très sympathique” (nice, welcoming) owners. Among the big houses, they recommend Pommery, in Reims, and phone to make reservations for an English-language tour the following day. Perfect. I’m off the hook. Cheers!

We plot over lunch, which includes pizza topped with foie gras and, of course, a bottle of champagne. Grand cru? Why not! Our waiter pries the little branded metal button that sits atop the cork from its cage and places it on the table. “Collect ‘em all!” his gesture implies. Next to us, four grannies out for Saturday lunch have just polished off a bottle of their own. “This is how I want to grow old,” I think.

Down the road at Doyard-Mahé, we’re introduced to another grandmother: lovely, blond, svelte Martine Doyard-Mahé. In the stylish tasting room, filled with wooden tables (no crowding around a tasting bar here), Madame Doyard-Mahé plies us with tastes of four house champagnes, ranging from delicate blanc de blancs (literally, “white from whites”) made from chardonnay grapes, to a blanc de noirs (“white from blacks”) made from pinot noir and pinot meunier grapes crushed so delicately that their skin color doesn’t bleed into the juice.

As she demonstrates proper uncorking procedure (twist the bottle — not the cork — then ease the cork sideways for a gentle “psssshht,” rather than an undignified “pop”), Doyard-Mahé explains that the family has been making champagne for four generations — and her granddaughter will be the fifth. When we express disbelief that she’s a grandmother, Madame smiles and says, “It’s the champagne.” Ann and I drain our glasses, trusting we will soon become thinner and blonder.

“We’re going back to Switzerland across an unguarded border!” Vittorio jokes, pondering how much champagne he can stash in his car. Paul and I buy a single bottle, sitting across from Doyard-Mahé at her elegant desk. As she tallies our purchase, their shaggy little dog, Spirou, scampers over to the table where we’d been tasting, leaps on a chair and makes off with a champagne cork. Yes, even the dogs here are connoisseurs.

Back at our B&B, we gather around the big stone fireplace with other guests as the Mailliards share some of their bubbly. We’ve arranged for the table d’hote, a family-style meal cooked by Isabelle. Would we like champagne with that? Mais oui! Bruno keeps our flutes full.

By all rights, we should have rotten hangovers the next morning. But, sipping coffee for a change, we feel quite perky. That’s a good thing, because after motoring up to Reims we discover there are 116 steps down to the Pommery cellars. Our tour takes us nearly 100 feet below ground to visit some of the 120 ancient Gallo-Roman chalk pits — now linked by 11 miles of tunnels — that house 20 million bottles of aging champagne.

The brand achieved renown thanks to Louise Pommery, who took over in 1858 after her husband’s death. This “Champagne widow” was responsible for Pommery’s formidable Victorian-style above-ground architecture and masterminded the cellar system as well. She even had signs tacked up in the caves naming sections after various international cities as a sales ploy when Pommery entered a new market. It’s as if we’ve died and gone to a dim, dusty underworld of narrow tunnels opening onto looming, beehive-shaped rooms. It’s hell, but with champagne. Cheers!

“You must climb the stairs to get your reward!” the guide tells us, so up we trudge to receive our choice of two glasses from among four champagnes, including a 1998 grand cru. While we sip, we ogle a humongous blending barrel — 100,000 bottles’ worth — which was designed with elaborate art nouveau carvings by Emile Gallé for the 1904 World’s Fair.

We could simply careen from one marquee champagne house to another — Taittinger, Veuve Clicquot, Mumm and more are right in Reims — but instead decide to atone for our imbibing and head for Reims cathedral. The towering Gothic edifice is where the kings of France were crowned and, despite a World War I bomb, has stunning rose windows as well as some modern ones designed by Marc Chagall.

But wait. What are the guys in that stained-glass window doing? They’re making champagne. Even in the cathedral, we can’t escape the stuff. I suppose the sacramental wine has bubbles, too.

Vittorio wanders over to the tourist office and comes back with a list of three organic champagne producers. Not being fans of fertilizers or pesticides, we’re curious to taste bubbly biologique (French for “organic”). We head for the nearest, in Hautvillers, which just happens to be the home and final resting spot of Dom Perignon. We’re soon winding our way though vineyards and up to a tiny, ancient home squeezed into a narrow village lane.

“I have never used ‘chemical artillery!’ ” 68-year-old Monsieur Bliard tells us as we’re arrayed around a little wooden table in his foyer. A fire thaws out the chills we’ve developed after going an hour or so sans champagne. Vittorio, the human Rosetta Stone (Italian, English, French, German), is translating.

“There’s a big difference between my champagne and others that aren’t organic,” Bliard claims. “One hour later, you won’t have a stomachache with mine!” He tells us his 12 acres of vineyards have been certified organic for 35 years and, until the 1970s, they were farmed with a horse — “the last in town.”

Madame Bliard arrives from Sunday shopping and takes our visit in stride, admonishing her husband for not giving us any wine as she doles out glasses of 1997 demi-brut. It’s sublime, a mesmerizing fount of minuscule bubbles in my flute.

Bliard walks us across the street to his cellars, where 62,000 bottles “sleep tranquilly,” as he puts it. He grabs a bottle to show us how champagne makers used to disgorge sediment before the current method of freezing the bottleneck was developed. “Blam!” He has expertly tipped the bottle so a bubble gathered below the sediment, then opened it, blowing the sediment and cap into a barrel.

Turns out, he has popped a 1990 bottle. “At my age, there’s no point in conserving the old wines,” he says. “It’s necessary to drink them!” He pours us flutes, adding, “It’s my preferred medication. I have never been sick — I don’t even have a doctor!”

“To your health!” we reply, dutifully downing Monsieur’s prescription. “Cheers!”

The Palest Rosés


2008
06.20

The Palest Rosés
Four Seasons Magazine

Wine Cocktails


2008
06.20

Wine Cocktails
Four Seasons Magazine

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