Ode to autumn, a season of mists, mellow fruitfulness and – truffles! Never mind harvesting the last of the summer wine, this is the times of year when the elusive, almost mythical truffle can be rescued from the forest floor. This year I was lucky enough to join a pack of privileged writers on a Champagne and truffle mini break – a quest to find out more about the famous fungi and quaff some fabulous fizz along the way.
As decadent as this short trip sounds, it`s really rather easy to re-create. Simply get the ferry with Seafrance over to Calais then drive down a couple of hours into the Champagne heartland; quick, easy and wonderfully relaxed! We managed to reach our first pit stop by late afternoon – the unique `Auberge des moissons`. A neat little hotel with it`s very own truffle farm run by the charming Benoit and his family, they specialise in educating visitors into the quirks and qualities of truffles. During our visit we learnt how to grow them, where to find them and more importantly – how to eat them.
Benoit turned out to be the prefect host, passionate about his craft and devoid of pretension. We discovered that the life of a truffle farmer is a perilous one, it takes many years to nurture a successful crop and even then there are no guarantees. Climate change, disease and Mother Nature all conspire against the delicate microclimate needed for a successful crop. Fortunately for Benoit, he`s either a lucky man or an excellent farmer because after nearly a decade his plots of Acorn trees have been producing the Champagne truffle year in and year out.
We joined him and his sparky Labrador Angry on a guided tour of the farm and watched as she raced around pawing at the frozen ground then unearthing the unassuming looking treasure. Small, dirty (and in truth pretty ugly) these rare gems could only ever be spotted by a trained eye, its no wonder they fetch such a high price on the market.
That evening we feasted on a lavish truffle-tasting menu and understood what all the fuss is about. At once bitter sweet with nutty undertones it has a unique flavour best suited to rich hearty cuisine. We sampled it sandwiched between chunks of salty bread, shaved onto buttery mash, whipped into a creamy soufflé and sprinkled over the sweetest macaroons- utterly delicious and incredibly luxurious.
The next day, armed with our truffle knowledge, we journeyed deeper into Champagne, passing fields of gold, the autumn vineyards now awash with pale yellows, deep red and burnt orange. – absolutely stunning. Driving further still we came into a dense forest up on the higher ground and stopped to check out a recently opened eco park. Powered entirely by solar energy le parc Arboxygene is a place for both adventure and a bit of time out. Visitors can climb trees and take their bikes through the protected woodland – or you can choose to follow in our lazy footsteps and take the timber bridge up to the `Perching Bar` where we sat and enjoyed a glass of champagne overlooking the countryside below. Founded by a former Parisian sports teacher this grown up tree house is yet another example of the entrepreneurial spirit alive in this part of France. Perhaps it`s something to do with those restless bubbles.
After the most relaxing lunch I have ever (and probably will ever) experience in a sky-high chalet we left for the final part of our Champagne education, an induction into the liquid itself.
Our lesson began in a cold concrete distillery adjoined to the house and home of master winemaker David Pehu. The business of creating champagne has been in his family for 4 generations and David really knew his stuff. Guiding us from room to room we saw where the grapes are pressed and then stored in enormous steel tanks, he then took us into his basement where floor to ceiling racks keep the fermented juice safe in thick glass bottles. It was here I learnt that a second fermentation is required to give champagne its bubbles and where real skill is required. There is also the art of blending- keeping just enough wine aside from good years to secure the flavours and strengths are consistent in all his signature champagne. Of course no education would be complete without a tasting, and this was conducted in David` own living room. Great fun and actually very educational. Understanding the practical methods and lengthy processes involved in the craft of champagne did not dispel any romantic notions, instead it increased them and imbued me with a respect for the craftsmen behind the glitz and glamour.
After another night in a delightful little hotel and yet another five star French dinner we added one more visit to our itinerary before mounting the ferry home. And here is where I let you into a little inside secret. Ardres. Only 20 mins from Calais it`s a charming quaint French village with a big old church, all the traditional patisseries and charcuteries you could possibly want and one of the best restaurants I have ever dined in, au Chant des Gallipes. Watch and let your taste buds get to work as your amuse bouche is followed by a beautiful hors de oeuvre, marvel at a main meal in itself a work of art and just when you think you can`t fit in anything following your Marie Antoinette style desert give in to the trays of tiny petite fours and delicate patisserie. This place would be serving the rich and famous in London, here our neighbours were two very smartly turned out silver haired ladies and rightly so. It doesn`t get more French than this.
And if you`re concerned about how to carry home boxes of wine without speaking any of the lingo Ardres also has the solution. Simply cross the road from the restaurant into Guy Boursot`s wine shop. Born in the UK to a French family, Guy has been in the wine business all this life and what he doesn`t understand about Beaujolais or a pinot noire isn`t worth knowing!
Guy selected a limited number of mid priced red and white wines then took us through each one, explaining their characteristics, where they come from, what the year and labels implied. Educational and the perfect full stop to our adventure it washed down the lunch and sorted out my xmas presents just tin time for the journey home.
The weekend seems to whiz by in a blur of bubbles, spectacular scenery and incredible gourmet cuisine. My advice? Go forth, seek out your truffles and toast to the passionate people of Champagne. A fantastic way to inject some sparkle into life!
Many Thanks to:Sea France and Champagne-ArdenneTourisme
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