On the Champagne Trail

Liz Gill goes in search of the drink which is still synonymous with celebrations and celebrities

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I’m very glad I didn’t Google up andouillette de Troyes beforehand. Otherwise I would probably never have tried the speciality of this charming little city in North Eastern France. But a ‘coarse grained sausage with the five As seal of approval from the Association Amicale des Amateurs d’Andouillette Authentique’ – what’s not to like?

The answer is just about everything: the rubbery texture, the pungent taste, the downright disgusting smell. After two mouthfuls I pushed my plate aside and apologised to my hosts. They were warmly sympathetic. They’d seen visitors defeated before.

Back in my hotel room a quick search revealed that andouillette is in fact intestine sausage. Strips of the small stuffed inside a casing made from the large. Enough said. What had made the meal so curious was that we were accompanying the dish with that most elegant and complex of drinks, champagne, the area’s other speciality.

Today in Britain we guzzle 32.5 million bottles of it a year, making us the biggest export market – we’re almost double the Americans – but we tend only to be familiar with the big name international brands. That’s why it’s such an eye opener to take the Champagne trail from Troyes and realise that a great deal of it could be described as a cottage industry. For although there are 34,000 hectares of vineyards, most of the 15,000 growers will own only a couple with a third of them making and selling their own champagne either as part of a cooperative or individually.

What this means is that dear little villages with not much more than a church and a boulangerie might have half a dozen champagne producers. They can range from family run ones like Morel Pere et Fils who have ‘lived above the shop’ in Ricey-Haut for five generations to ones in a fabulous setting like the 18th century Devaux manor house Bar-sur-Seine where even the dovecote is a listed monument. Some are traditionally rustic in style, others pride themselves on modern design. At Barfontarc in Baroville, for instance, even the crachoirs (the spittoons for those who do not want tasting to lead to intoxication) have stylish black curves.

The trail involves not just tasting but being educated too. At one house we’re given coloured champagne: one glass a violent red, another a vivid yellow, the third a brilliant blue. They look horrid, of course, but that’s the point. The food colourings have been added to see whether we can still recognise, through taste alone, the one which we have been served a few minutes earlier.

My palate is not discerning enough to be able to do this but at least I am learning a lot about our favourite celebratory drink. Not just how to savour scent and colour and flavour but also how it is made and its history.

Basically champagne was a mistake. When the wine of the region was kept in ‘breathable’ wooden barrels it was still. The arrival of glass bottles which did not allow carbon dioxide gas to escape meant a build up of bubbles, sometimes with disastrous results. Exploding bottles caused it to be dubbed ‘devil’s wine’. It was refinements by cellar masters such as the Benedictine monk Dom Perignon which turned disaster into triumph and the decision by the kings of France to drink it at the festivities following their coronations at Reims, the city at the centre of the province, which made it special.

The trail extends 300 miles so we can only do part of it on a three day visit where we want to explore some of the area’s other attractions as well. At about 100 miles south east of Paris or an hour and half on the train from Gare de l’Est, Troyes is an ideal short break destination.

Once the capital of the Counts of Champagne, it flourished in the 12th and 13th centuries when twice a year its great trading fairs drew merchants from across Europe to sell wool, fur, leather, silk, spices and gold and silver. The standard measurement for precious metals is still known as the troy weight.

Much of mediaeval Troyes was destroyed in a fire in 1524 but rebuilt soon afterwards in the same style with the result that the old quarter still has a fine collection of half timbered houses as well as a Gothic cathedral with beautiful stained glass. The Aube department, in fact, has the highest concentration of stained glass in France: a museum dedicated to it opened in Troyes last year showcasing sacred and secular works from the 12th to the 21st centuries and there is a route de vitrail taking in more than 200 churches. For those who want to indulge in the rather more frivolous, Troyes also has one of the biggest factory outlets in Europe.

On our last day we take a stroll around a vineyard with its typical 200 year-old stone cadoles which provided shelter against heat or cold – there are miles of such pathways giving visitors the chance to walk off some of those tastings – and then drive to the hilltop Blu panorama point which offers wonderful views across the countryside.

In the distance is the pretty village of Essoyes where we have just visited the Renoir centre, the artist’s studio (his home is being restored and should open in a couple of years) and his grave. Renoir used to spend his summers there – it was where both his wife Aline and children’s nanny and favourite model Gabrielle had been brought up – before buying a house there in 1896.

Unlike many artists Renoir seems to be have been both good and happy, delighting in his children and their friends, loving animals, the countryside and the village community, valiantly painting on though crippled with arthritis in later years to capture this joie de vivre. One sweet detail in the centre’s short film says that he even tried to avoid crushing dandelion flowers as he walked.

And did he like champagne, I ask centre directrice Karine Remy? Oh yes, she says, but he liked the local wine even more “But that may have been because the winemaker was very generous to him.”

Fact Box
Eurostar London to Paris Gare du Nord from £69 return. Paris Gare de l’Est to Troyes from €40 returnHôtel de la Poste – Troyes from €134 per night
www.hotel-de-la-poste.comHôtel-Restaurant Le Marius – Les Riceys from €63 per night

Taxi tours of champagne trail with expert driver from €400 for four people. Some houses offer free tastings, others only charge if you don’t then buy.

Further information:

Champagne-Ardenne Tourist board

Aube en Champagne Tourist board

Comité Champagne www.champagne.com