A Champagne Rendez-Vous

Recently I was fortunate enough to attend an elegant French soiree, a celebration of French culture and cuisine centred on the Champagne & Ardenne region. I’d heard much about the ability of the French Tourist Office (Atout France) to stage glitzy, glamorous events melding French food and culture. I was eager to sample… as were the other expectant people who were sipping Champagne and chatting at the Sofitel Sydney Wentworth.

With ceremonious fanfare the formal commencement of the evening is ‘trumpeted’ by two brightly uniformed French Horn performers. We’re ushered into the spectacularly decorated ballroom. The are several performance stages, the tables are vividly decorated.. and there are plenty of glasses.. we’ll be taking a French Champagne tasting tour courtesy of G.H.MUMM.

I’m joined on my table by various travel industry representatives and journalists, including Pierre Stephane Austi, the CEO of Rail Europe. ( www.raileurope.com.au ) Excellent. Having commenced preliminary planning for a European family trip, I’m curious to find out more about train travel through the region (my last train experience being years ago as a wide-eyed teenager travelling from Northern Germany down to Frankfurt).

But before we can chat too much, the music pipes up and we’re greeted on stage by a colourful group of French Cancan dancers. Wearing their traditional red, white and black garb of skirts, petticoats and lace they perform their energetic, high kicking, risqué dance. All good fun.

With the room still abuzz, Jean-Paul Bachy, President of the Regional Council of Champagne -Adrenne, ascends the stage and talks proudly, excitedly of his home region. A tourism video features the rolling vineyards, the miles of subterranean limestone tunnels where the famous Champagne is carefully tended. Architecturally, historically, there are cathedrals, baroque churches and medieval castles. There are Michelin-star restaurants, markets, food festivals and barges to take you on idyllic voyages down the river. It all looks beautiful and is only 45mins away from Paris on the French High Speed Rail Service (TGV).

We’re introduced to the culinary highlight of the evening, the privilege of tasting the food of Philippe Mille, two Michelin star chef of Les Crayères in Reims (located in the Champagne region). Philippe has flown in for the event, his cooking style demonstrating classical French, but contemporised, adapted for the tastes of today. He is known for his love of the local produce of the region.

Philippe’s opening dish, Chaud / Froid de Haddock condimente d’une Reduction de Soupe de Poissons, Pommes de Terre Cuites au Safran de la Marne, Creme Fouettee aux Sucs de Fenouil, is an elegant soup with fish, saffron baked potatoes and other textural complements. There’s a nice bit of theatre as each bowl is placed on the table before a diner and wait staff individually pour the warm creamy fish soup over the precisely presented ingredients.

My favourite dish of the evening follows. Truffe Noire et Celeris cuisines comme un Risotto, Noix de Saint-Jacques caramelisees au Jus, Copeaux de Parmesan is a sublime Black Truffle Risotto with delicate, melt in your mouth Seared Scallops and Shaved Parmesan. Everyone savours the rich, robust truffle flavour and there are a few sighs of disappointment when people realise they’ve spooned the last morsel from their plate.

During a slight lull in proceedings, I’m able to chat with Pierre Stephane Austi and am surprised to learn that Rail Europe is able to access 11,00 routes and 25,000 destinations across Europe. High speed trains travelling at over 300 km/h are now common and travel between the major European cities.. I think Pierre mentioned there was over 4000 kms of high speed track across Europe. I speculate that the avoidance of airport connections and traffic, spacious carriages, the relative proximity of cities, and of course, the scenery, must make trains a popular alternative. Well yes, people are after comfort and convenience (they can easily book their tickets online, across multiple jurisdictions).. I’m guessing there’s a touch of nostalgia and romanticism wrapped up in there as well.

Time for dessert. Philippe presents Tarte au Chocolat Amer, Coeurs de Cerises Amarena Creme Glacee a la Vanille, a classical bitter chocolate tart, vanilla ice cream with Amarena cherries. Yumm !

Now I’ve been remiss in not mentioning the wonderful G.H.MUMM Champagnes that have been expertly matched with the respective dinner courses. This, my first Champagne and food matched dinner, has opened my eyes to the versatility of Champagne beyond the traditional celebratory tipple.

There’s enthusiastic applause as we’re presented with the Michelin-starred chef who delivered our ‘gastronomic journey’. Philippe Mille, ably supported by Sofitel’s own French Executive Chef Boris Cuzon, have done a stellar job.

Whilst the culinary side of the evening is complete, there’s still a few more French ‘cultural experiences’ on the menu. Our red uniformed trumpeters return to draw our attention again.

First up it’s the art of sabering Champagne (or Sabrage). We’re given an on-stage demonstration of how to use a sabre to open a chilled Champagne bottle. The saber is slid along the body of the bottle and hits the collar. The force of the blade causes the cork and glass ring to fly away. The intense pressure within the Champagne bottle ensures that no glass falls back into the bottle enabling safe consumption. One pointer, the entire bottle must be chilled. Unchilled bottles tend to have more pressure with explosive results.

Some melodious crooning by French Cabaret singer Caroline Nin maintains the Gallic atmosphere.

… and as this French cultural and culinary night draws to a close we’re given one final entertainment treat. Renowned diabolo juggler, Pierre Marchand from the Lido (Champs-Elysees, Paris) comes on stage and performs a breath-taking, frenetic juggling routine.

Atout France and the Regional Council of Champagne -Adrenne.. thank you for a wonderful night and transporting me, if just for a few hours, to the Champagne & Ardenne region of France. Magnifique !!!


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