One Word: Tarragona

I’m currently in my most favorite country on the entire planet. And there isn’t much to say about Spain because I’m too busy basking in the sunlight and taking naps. And after the photos above there’s not really much to add, is there? Padrons, sardinas, patatas bravas….enough said. Really.

More Spain coming shortly.

Harvest in Reims with Veuve Clicquot

I was back home for only 3 days when I had to repack and head back to France. While the thought of jumping back and forth between Los Angeles and Paris might normally make me frown just a tiny bit, legs cramped and eyes bloodshot, I willingly jumped at this chance. Why? Because I wasn’t just heading back to Paris to see the sights or eat more butter (though I did plenty of both) but to join Veuve Clicquot for the harvest in Reims, the Champagne capital of the world.

While I’ve raised my glass many times for a toast, my knowledge of Clicquot was only half-full. Like many others it only takes a glimpse of that tell-tale swatch of yellow and anchor logo to recognize the brand, but how much did I really know about Clicquot itself? Not much. I was destined to change all that.

I’m not a wine writer so I’ll give you the very special Mattbites summary of Veuve Clicquot. Founded in 1772 by Philippe Clicquot-Muiron, the business was passed on to his son François Clicquot who married a woman named Barbe-Nicole Ponsardin. François died in 1805, leaving the company to his wife. It was Madame Clicquot who made great strides with the business, in fact standardizing many processes when making champagne. It’s a fascinating bit of history and quite impressive setting foot where all this happened.

Every year in September, weather permitting, the grapes are picked, crushed, and stored, beginning a process that changes depending on whether the house is creating their Brut Regular Label or some of their other varieties like Rosé, the Vintages, or La Grande Dame.

Since the champagne grapes are harvested only once a year in a very short window of time I was warned I’d need every bit of energy for Reims. I figured an excellent way to fortify myself was by joining the marketing team of Veuve Clicquot for dinner at Hotel Le Meurice in Paris the night before. The ample slab of foie gras and a glass of the 1995 Veuve Clicquot Vintage Reserve was just the thing I needed, although after a long flight from Los Angeles I did find myself wanting to lay on the couch and fall asleep for a bit. Sorry! Clearly the presence of Jacques Chirac and his wife across the room wasn’t enough to keep the jet lag at bay.

The next morning we hopped on the highspeed TGV train to Reims. I wasn’t thrilled about the 7:15am roundup in the lobby but the promise of hearing the TGV train announcement jingle all but made up for it. Look, don’t laugh but I’m rather addicted to it, much to the disappointment of my travel companions of last week. But don’t take my word for it, you can listen to it here.

And to think there’s even a dance remix of it.

We arrived to the chateau, joining a group of journalists, photographers and food bloggers for coffee and pastry before receiving an introduction from the winemakers themselves. We also got a crash course on picking grapes, what to look for, what to reject and what not to do. I felt a little bit nervous at this point. Are they really going to make us pick grapes? Won’t I just be donning a hat, clippers in hand, posing for a photo opp before being whisked away to a 4-hour lunch? Nope. We were there to work.

How to pick champagne grapes for Veuve Clicquot: Grab a basket and snips. Lift grape leaves to reveal beautiful clusters of perfectly round green grapes, cut at the top and gently remove the rejects if they are present in the cluster. Sneak a taste. Heaven. Repeat, making sure to stagger your position with the person across from you as to not snip their fingers. Those vines can be dense.

Repeat, moving down the row until your basket has been filled. Empty your basket into a wheelbarrow and return to the row. Sneak more grapes when needed and soak up the bright French sun while admiring the view. Acknowledge the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity of picking champagne grapes for an esteemed champagne house and that those grapes will eventually make their way into a bottle. Heck, they might even make their way into a Reserve, only to be aged and enjoyed years after you’ve gone back to the real world.

Done!

Of course I’m simplifying the entire process and there’s a whole world beyond just plucking grapes off a vine. The magic happens after the pressing and the real science and art happens during blending. More on that in a bit.

We all worked up quite an appetite so we headed into the garden for aperitifs and champagne, of course. This was quite possibly the best post-work break I think I’ve ever experienced. Scratch that, this was the best post-work break I think I’ve ever experienced. After the sips we went inside for lunch where we were joined by winemaker Cyril Brun and given an opportunity to ask anything and everything we’ve ever wanted to know about champagne and Veuve Clicquot.  This is France so lunch was followed by cheese, naturally, something that excites me to the point of tears. I would move to a country that eats wedges of cheese with nothing. Ok, maybe a few pieces of bread but that’s it. I no longer feel so alone in my naked cheese consumption.

Ok, so all those grapes we worked so hard to pick? They were loaded onto trucks and taken to the presses located very close to the vineyards. This is important because the fragile grapes must be pressed as quickly as possible, with minimal transportation as to not bruise or jostle the grapes. And because the champagne is made from both black and white grapes, getting the harvest to press quickly is imperative for color reasons as well.

The grapes are dumped into a giant vat and the press is lowered, a very efficient and non-technical process that squeezes the juice into reservoirs down below. It takes a few minutes and tons of pressure to press, with random grape escapees lost during the process. Samples are taken, readings are made, the overwhelming heady aroma of grapes and juice fills the air.

From here the grape juice is taken and allowed to do its thing. I’ll fast forward over the entire champagne process but just know there is a level of control and quality at every stage. You can’t get anything past these guys.

Because champagne is a wine there is an art of blending involved. This was a fascinating step to see when we headed to the Veuve Clicquot tasting lab and met with Francois Hautekeur, one of Veuve Clicquot’s winemakers. After a crash course in geography and blending, we tasted the various single components that go into a bottle of Veuve Clicquot Brut, noticing the individual characteristics of each grape along the way. I loved this part. Fleshy flavors meet fruit meet chalky notes, all which will age together and become a beautifully nuanced champagne.

Once blended the champagne must go through its second fermentation process. This happens in Clicquot’s caves, located deep underneath the earth in Reims. Hundreds of thousands of bottles are stored here, a cool constant temperature maintained throughout the vast expanses of tunnels and small rooms. It was a beautiful space and not like any cave I’ve ever seen.

As I was flying back home to Los Angeles I kept thinking about the biggest revelation I had during my time in Reims: champagne is wine. It’s not just some special, esoteric drink (although it certainly can be) meant only for weddings and toasts, but something that can be enjoyed in the same manner as wine. Granted, it can sometimes be a bit expensive and certainly nothing I could afford to drink every day of the week but I might just be celebrating a bit more often with champagne from now on.

Thanks to the entire team at Veuve Clicquot and a special thanks to Nima Abbasi. As per the FTC Blogging Regulations this trip was hosted by Veuve Clicquot and no payment was received.




Top Ten: Côte d’Azur

Last week I spent a few days in Cote d’Azur in the south of France with Adam and David. Our days were filled with food, cooking, rosé, markets, a fragrance factory in Grasse, winding mountain roads and a few practical jokes thrown in for good measure. It was a splendid time that I enjoyed immensely. Tomorrow I head back to Paris and Champagne for a few days, more on that later.

That part of the world is exactly how everyone describes it – drenched in sunlight, verdant, rough around the edges the way only a Mediterranean town can be, with the faint hint of herbs and aromatics floating through the air wherever you go. It’s unlike any place I’ve visited. And the food–sardines, fish, cheese, bread, butter, with plenty of Italian touches thrown in for good measure–is perhaps my favorite way of eating. The regional specialties like socca, a chickpea crepe, and panisses, chickpea flour fritters, help me understand why travelers and food lovers from all over the world come here, some never leaving.

I’ve put together my top ten moments in Côte d’Azur for you but please don’t think I’m a drunk though, deal?

10. A very long lunch at Mirazur

Mirazur is located in Menton, where France meets Italy. We spent about 5 hours there, first touring the organic garden before sitting down to a very lovely lunch. Organic fruits and vegetables from their own terraced garden were featured throughout the 10-course lunch, with views of the Mediterranean below us.  It was quite a delicious meal from award-winning chef Mauro Colagreco although to me it felt a bit precious and forced at times. But what do I know, I don’t write about restaurants. You can read a very thorough review from David here.

9.  Saint Jeannet

Picture this: a medieval village perched in the mountains. Then picture this: me out of breath, cursing and sweating up a storm and pausing long enough to admire the view as we lugged ourselves up an almost vertical incline.  And here I thought this was supposed to be a relaxing break from Paris, not a workout. Still,  sore legs included, it was a beautiful visit and extremely relaxing. Sort of. See #8.

8. Driving

If I put something so white-knuckle inducing in my top 10 moments then I’m sure to forget how absolutely nutty it was in the beginning and only remember the wonderful moments, right? Go with it. But in the end I actually did enjoy driving throughout France and neighboring Italy. About the only thing that made foreign signs and symbols comforting were the French drivers who take a very relaxed attitude to my driving mishaps, moments that included driving down the wrong side of the road, stalling 921 times on steep inclines, my efforts on the roundabouts that clamored for a Benny Hill sidetrack, and practically running over cyclists and scooter drivers.  To the people of France, merci for going easy on me.

Don't worry, I ate that random potato chip trying to escape

7. Rosé, rosé, rosé.

Do you really need me to elaborate on this one?

6. The Markets

It’s easy to claim shopaholic status when you are buying for your business. In our case it means props for photography and France certainly showed no shortage in that department. Bowls, whisks, linens, bakeware and ceramics were everywhere, not to mention things too large to every carry home.  In fact, I cried myself to sleep two nights in a row over a gorgeously dilapidated antique wooden cheese cabinet for 7 euros. Yea, I said seven. I’m hyperventilating now, let’s not mention this again.

(As a sidenote, while taking a break from shopping at a fantastic flea market in Paris we did manage to sit next to this pop superstar which caused me to freak out just a tiny bit because I love her and we all know how I feel about Australians!)

5. Socca

I’ll admit that I had never tried this regional dish that caused me to marvel in its simplicity. Chickpea flour plus water makes a batter, the batter is then poured into a cast iron skillet, baked for a few minutes then the top is raked halfway through. Once cooked, the socca is cut into strips, liberally sprinkled with salt and pepper, and eaten faster than you can say “perfect snack.” It’s the chickpea cousin to the tortilla of my dreams, and if I had my way I would have eaten twelve times as much and also tried it scooped into fresh guacamole. Screw hyperbole when I say it was quite possibly the best thing I had the entire trip.  Or maybe that was #4.

4. Panisses

I should just cut and paste the entry above: I’ll admit that I had never….you catch my drift. Again, water, oil, and chickpea flour is mixed into a thick batter over heat like polenta, allowed to set in saucers or molds until it becomes a solid disk with a vague hue the color of orthopedic contraptions. The disks are cut into strips (think steak fries) and then fried in olive oil. Salt liberally and eat immediately.  Crunchy, salty, with a soft interior texture like the perfect French fry.

3. Aioli

With the help of an experienced instructor I whisked 2 eggs yolks, garlic, olive oil and a dash of warm water into an emulsion worthy of the gods. We then dipped roasted potatoes, radishes, carrots and baby artichokes into the aioli and made quite a wonderful meal out of it. Simple and delicious, with nothing more than a few ingredients. I could eat like that every day, I’m sure the view certainly had something to do with it as well.

2. Rosé, rosé, rosé. Again.

Cheap, abundant, and in every corner market. Was I drinking the best rosé in the world? Probably not. Was it good enough? Absolutely.

1. My Travel Buddies

I’d reference the Three Stooges here but I know we’re not that clever nor entertaining. But there was something magical and entirely comical about the three of us getting lost on a daily basis. But being with Adam and David made me wake up everyday and thank my lucky stars that I am alive and so fortunate to have such a good friend as well as the most loving partner on the planet. Life is good, folks. It really is.