I have a confession. I don’t normally do this sort of thing, at least not any more. In the adolescence of my career, it was a habit I found it quite hard to break, until my doctor told me that if I went on like this, I’d wreck my health. All I can really say, like Norman Bates in Psycho, is that we all need to go a little mad sometimes.
In short, I’ve … just been on a press trip.
The trip was to Champagne, specifically to the Chouilly-based cooperative house of Nicolas Feuillatte, and the theme – not for the first time, I should say – was matching champagnes with food. This is a question that has been exercising minds mightily in the region since at least the mid-nineties, when I did my first champagne-and-food press trip.
All you are expected to do is drink champagne and eat, which might sound like a doozy, except that for a bear of very little digestion like me, it represents something of a tribulation.
What seems to make the Champenois so anxious is that every other viticultural patch of France enjoys what one might call a gastronomic symbiosis – that is, its food and wine coexist in perfect harmony. So you have Pauillac claret with Pauillac lamb, Corbières with cassoulet, Meursault for the garlic snails and Gevrey-Chambertin for the coq au vin, but with champagne being such an artificially constructed wine, a sort of mid-Manche crossover product invented half by the British with their insatiable taste for spoiled wine and half by the merry monks of Hautvillers, that intertwined tradition with food has never really obtained.
This has created something of a publicity opportunity for the industry, the more so since hardened hacks (the British ones at least – there was also a babble of Italians and a pair of splendidly stylish New Yorkers out on the jolly with us) largely remain to be convinced of the merits of drinking a delicate little rosé with roast pigeon, when you could just open a bottle of Burgundy. Or even Bouzy rouge. That way, the trip can be repeatedly run in an ever-renewed effort to convince us.I suppose it may be helpful to tell you my findings.
One of the very best wines that Feuillatte’s chef de cave, Jean-Pierre Vincent, has made in recent years is his vintage Blanc de Blancs 1996. It is a wine already showing that lightly developed note of toasted brioche that mature Chardonnay champagnes acquire. I won’t say, ‘Kill for it’, but – oh, all right then, I will.
It went beautifully with a lobster ‘caprice’ we ate on a boat trip down the Seine, where, despite the delighted screams of an Italian PR officer on her first ever night in Parigi, I managed to note down that it took lobster, smoked cod’s roe and rocket effortlessly in its stride. Having negotiated that, it then made short work of a fillet of sea bass on truffled polenta with Champagne cream sauce. Then, at a lunch just outside Epernay the following day, it rubbed along happily with an oyster, another fillet of sea bass, and even a lobe of seared duck foie gras.
Indeed, I was just beginning to think that you didn’t need to buy any other wine again ever, when that spit-roast pigeon arrived, on a mound of delicately spiced couscous, with its offals skewered on a teensy brochette.And here, one reflected ruefully that a soft Rhône red would have been les genoux de l’abeille with it, whereas the proposed Cuvée Spéciale 1995 (60% black grapes) just hopelessly lacked the weight. When we then got to the prestige cuvée, Palmes d’Or Rosé 1996, with a chocolate-crusted crème brûlée, somebody had certainly taken leave of their senses – besides me, I mean.
In short, if you really must drink Champagne as a table wine, because serving it as one of the very best aperitifs in the world suddenly seems like a no-brainer, I can counsel it with lightly dressed salads, creamy-sauced starters, fish dishes, some sharply flavoured cheeses such as chèvre and Maroilles, with perhaps a tot of demi-sec with an eggy dessert. But please, PR people, not with red meat. And only a brute serves Brut with anything sweet.
Just in case you imagine press trips are a breeze, I made it back to Paris after that five-course lunch feeling something like the Michelin man. A soak in the bath with a beer did nothing to revive my appetite, but driven from the hotel room by nine, I ended up in a dingy brasserie on the Boulevard St-Michel, embarked on a raggy old bavette smothered with hacked-up onion (‘aux échalotes’, my arse) and enough of a mound of McDonald’s-type fries as would have satisfied an eager threesome.
It is somehow deeply reassuring to recall, especially at the end of a day that has included a Michelin-starred grande bouffe, that it is still possible – if you try – to eat really, really badly in France.