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Winter wonders in Champagne

Mention Champagne and we all think about bubbles. Not that that isn’t reason enough to make the detour, just 45 minutes via train from Paris to Champagne, but there is so much more! Undulating hills covered in vines, the River Marne, magnificent verdant forests, and the renowned Notre-Dame Cathedral with its circular stained glass window, called a rose window. In Reims, at it's heart is the oldest champagne house, founded in 1729, Ruinart has a spectacular network of cellars, more than 30 meters below ground filled with all these wonderful bottles of fine effervescent wines. Or Taittinger Champagne, established five years later in 1734, now all family owned again, bought back by the Taittinger family who has one of the most fascinating story in the region. The oldest parts of these cellars are located on the site of Gallo-Roman chalk mines dug in the 4th century.

Sitting in the comfortable modern lounge of the Hotel de la Paix, we drank our bubbly and reminisced about our trips to the markets and all the other wonderful sights we had seen in the region. We are enjoying a special winter treat - the perfect taste of Pommery’s Wintertime Champagne, a special Blanc de Noir NV. The palate has a full-bodied fruit flavor with a finish of considerable length and elegance. Pommery’s Cellar Master, Thierry Gasco, has created four sparkling odes to the seasons, and this homage is to winter. And it's only available during the cold months. Gasco went to the ‘montagnes’ of Reims and brought back Pinot Noir that he blended with 25-percent Pinot Meunier from the ‘valles’ to create a rich, fruity, grand cru dominated Champagne. You really should be on the look out for this wintertime treat!

Directly south, as a crow flies from Reims, you come to the ancient capital of Champagne. In the Middle Ages, Troyes, the historic capital of Champagne, was a thriving center of commerce at the crossroads of the main trade routes between the northern Low Countries and Italy, as well as between Paris and cities in Germany. Today Troyes is the administrative capital of the champagne cork-shaped town of Aube. Over the past few decades, much of the medieval and Renaissance architecture in the center of town has been beautifully restored.

I would never have discovered Troyes’ beautiful medieval town of timber-framed buildings, were it not for a pale, lumpy sausage made from pigs intestines that smells ah, -- a little rank. To historians, Troyes may be the ancient capital, but to a food lover, it is the spiritual home of the andouillette. And has been linked with the malodorous sausage since the year 877, when Louis II was crowned King of France in Troyes cathedral and the whole town feasted on andouillettes in celebration. That had to be a most fragrant event! By 1475, the town’s charcutiers had formed guilds devoted to preserving their craft, and the fame of the andouillette grew. Everyone, who passed through Troyes, from Louis XIV in 1650 to Emperor Napoleon I in 1805, stopped for a tasting.

Foodies make pilgrimages to Troyes. To eat it, your eyes, hands and mouth must override your brain, which sends out frantic signals and alarm bells. But if you can triumph over your nose, then your palate will be amazed at the milky, nutty, sweet and savory complexity of this king of sausages. I learn that the true andouillette de Troyes is pure pork, with only white wine, onions, salt and pepper added. The finished sausages are slowly poached for up to six hours in an aromatic stock.

When it’s time to eat, I am going to suggest the pretty little Au Jardin Gourmand restaurant, owned by Jacques Lebois who serves Monsieur Thierry’s especially crafted andouillettes in a dozen different ways; poached in Champagne, served with foie gras, or with a rich sauce made from the soft, creamy local cheese, Chaource. Similar to Camembert, it is made from unpasteurised cows' milk and when aged, it becomes very creamy, almost liquid. Chaource is made in miniature wheels that gives it an elegant appearance for serving with Champagne.

Four other favorite wintertime dishes from the regions:

Cassoulet A dish of white beans, pork, sausages, vegetables and duck or goose confit, sealed with breadcrumbs and baked.

Onion soup gratin. Traditionally used as a restorative after a night’s drinking. Sweet onions are cooked until soft in a meaty broth and topped with bread and melting cheese.

Coq au vin. A darkly serious chicken fricasse cooked in the red wine of Burgundy, with onions, mushrooms and lardons of bacon, thickened with rooster blood. If available.

Choucroute garni. Sauerkraut piled high with knackwurst sausages, potatoes and pork.

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