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Epernay: Champagne gourming

Moet & Chandon
18 Avenue de Champagne , Epernay
00 33 26 51 20 20
Cuisine: French
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Gourming is a French style update on late afternoon grazing akin to Spain’s tradition of tapas. Sudi Pigott explores.
It’s the kind of gastronomic challenge I thrive on, an invitation to be a gourming pioneer. Translated into Moet-speak: the opportunity to spend a decadent hour or so of hands-on, freestyle, creative experimenting with my choice of ingredient combinations – from an enticing selection of vegetables, fruit, herbs, seafood and magret of duck. My "recipe" will then be cooked to my order by Pascal Tinguad, illustrious chef of Moet’s Château Saran, appropriately a former hunting lodge, where a select few are allowed to sample life among the vineyards.
This is a quest to expand the definition of what makes an appropriate food match to Moet’s just released 2002 Grand Vintage Blanc and Rosé.  The new release reflects Chef de cave Benoit Gouez’s belief in using riper grapes, lower dosage and exceptionally long ageing in old oak barrels for a silky, well-structured wine.
Purring along the autoroute from the Paris Eurostar towards Epernay, through tiny villages where seemingly every corner shop sold an astonishing choice of grower’s and prestige label champagnes, it seemed every vine appears to be elegantly coutured rather than trimmed.  I ruminated perhaps it was rude to mention that according to the modern dictionary definition “gourming” actually means “satiating one’s dietary needs by attending events that provide free food!”  Whereas, Moet’s more genteel turn of phrase is to cast “gourming” as a French style update on late afternoon grazing more akin to aperitvo or tapas.
Moet HQ, an imposing building behind tall wrought iron railings on the Avenue de Champagne within Epernay dwarfs the neighbouring Champagne Maisons   jostling for position (in Monopoly terms Moet has to be the Mayfair of France), Chef de cave Benoit Gouez (responsible  for everything from instructing the vintners when to commence their vendage to the all-important fine-tuning or assemblage of blending) introduced us to the Moet Vintage 2002.  Armed with his guidelines on some of the flavour components of the wines from apricot and pear to brioche and mocha, the brief was to “get gourming” working backwards towards the food.
I learnt quickly, through experimentation, that although it was good to acknowledge the fruit notes of the champagne, appreciation of the champagnes was heightened by more tart, cleaner flourishes in the dishes and plenty of contrast of textures. This is the real art of food and wine pairing, not just matching similar tastes in wine and ingredient; it’s finding disperate and adventurous new nuances.
I started with a simple scallop tartare, acidulated with lime and scattered with green herbs – chervil and coriander and the subtle smoky, heat of espelette pepper – pronounced a match “classique” approvingly by M. Gouez.Quickly gaining confidence, I decided to create something more edgy, inspired by a recent thrillingly inventive meal at Massimo Bottura’s Osteria Francescana in Modena.  Still choosing scallops as my core ingredient (their fresh yet rich creaminess is an unimpeachable winner balancing the lower earthier notes of the wine) I instructed that they should be seared momentarily just to the point of caramelising and releasing an unmistakable yet subdued umami hit.  Improvising and warming to my theme, I suggested the dish should be finished with slices of pear raw and similarly fleetingly sautéed cooked pear, along with some finely grated ginger and a liberal pinch of espelette to accentuate the more spicy notes of the wine.  I added a few caperberries to heighten the finely balanced acidity of the wine and finished with the crunch of chopped hazelnuts in appreciation of the brioche, yeasty richness of the champagne and an insouciant sprinkling of herb shoots to emphasis the greener, fresher evanescent qualities.   “Bravo” exclaimed M. Gouez.  I felt top of the class as he praised the “exceptional interplay of flavour and texture” and Pascal gave silent approval by cooking up a further plate of my assemblage.  I couldn’t help wondering if my dish might find its way onto his repertoire.
With little time to reflect, next up was a descent 25 metre below ground into the spectacular labyrinth of chalk cellars, and, for a fee E28  including a glass of each of blanc and rosé Moet vintage 2002 champagne, open to all visitors (booking in advance recommended for English speaking tours).    
Most visitors to champagne, stay and dine at The Royal Champagne Relais & Chateaux hotel with its stunning Marne Valley vineyard vista, but as a “friend” of Moet I stayed at the, by invitation only, Chateau Saran, a former hunting lodge.  Views from the floor to ceiling windows of my sumptuous bedroom decorated in impeccably French muted greys and whites with antique beds and outrageously grand bathrooms, are of undulating vineyards of the Côte des Blancs, the Chardonnay grapes that, together with Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier make up Champagne.  Only a week earlier Scarlet Johanssen, Moet’s new Hollywood brand ambassador had taken over entire estate and apparently spent plenty of time in the kitchen.  Château de Saran itself was built in 1846, when the Moëts began entertaining in the country, and even today it feels like something decadently out of a Balzac novel.
L’Assiette Champenoise, a family-run two Michelin star restaurant with contemporary luxurious rooms at Tinqueux close to Reims.  Rooms from 210E
Royal Champagne is a stylish, luxe hotel right among the Marne Valley vineyards and its one Michelin star restaurant offers exciting dishes to match vintage champagnes adventurously.
Rooms from E240, half-board from E370  
Le Clos Raymi is a charming, modest, family run hotel in Epernay with more traditional rooms from E160.  
Travel to Champagne with Eurostar via Paris to Reims from £89
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10 November 2010
By: Sudi Pigott
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