October 19, 2011

The Art of Champagne: Our Visit to Reims

Our trip to Reims to learn about champagne (and taste it!) was kind of last-minute, so we didn’t have a lot of options available for tours and although I kind of balked at spending 75€ for a “private tour” at Veuve Clicquot, I can tell you it was absolutely worth it. There were only 4 of us on this private tour which lasted almost 3 hours.

I learned that champagne is actually comprised of three grapes: pinot noir, chardonnay and pinot meunier. 

The history of the champagne region, its producers and the bureaucracy of the rating system was pretty fascinating. Founded in 1772, Philippe Clicquot-Muiron established the original enterprise which in time became the house of Veuve Clicquot. His son, François Clicquot, married Barbe-Nicole Ponsardin in 1798 and died in 1805, leaving his widow (veuve in French) in control of the company.

Madame Clicquot

During the Napoleonic Wars, Madame Clicquot made strides in establishing her wine in royal courts throughout Europe, notably that of Imperial Russia. By the time she died in 1866, Veuve Clicquot had become both a substantial Champagne house and a respected brand. Easily recognized by its distinctive bright yellow labels, the wine holds a royal warrant of Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom.

A Step for Every Vintage Year

Madame Clicquot was quite the business woman (she had brains, but not beauty?) and was credited with a great breakthrough in champagne handling that made mass production of the wine possible. In the early 19th century, with the assistance of her cellar master, Antoine de Müller, Clicquot invented the riddling rack that made the crucial process of dégorgement both more efficient and economic. Clicquot's advance involved systematically collecting the spent yeast and sediments left from the wine's secondary fermentation in the bottle's neck by using a specialized rack.

Composed much like a wooden desk with circular holes, the rack allowed a bottle of wine to be stuck sur point or upside down. Every day a cellar assistant would gently shake and twist (remuage) the bottle to encourage wine solids to settle to the bottom. When this was completed. the cork was carefully removed, the sediments ejected, and a small replacement dose of sweetened wine added. 

During the bombardment of German artillery of World War I, many Champenois took refuge in the underground limestone caves (crayères) used for Champagne storage. We loved how cool it was down in the caves -- given the unusual heat during the month of September, this was probably the first time during our trip that we were "cool."


I thought it was kind of neat that the company honors long-term employees by "naming" crayères after these employees.

This employee worked here for 67 years!

The tour was focused on their vintage champagnes and included 5 glasses of champagne (this was before noon!). We tasted two vintage whites and two vintage rosé champagnes and then the fifth glass of champagne was our choice based on our favorite. I adore champagne (especially the expensive kind) and the champagne we tasted was no exception.

It was perhaps the five glasses of champagne that I indulged in that led me to acquire two very expensive bottles of their vintage 1990 champagne to enjoy for my "milestone" birthday next year. As our French saying goes, "it is what it is." Seriously, this champagne was delicious!

After our drunken tour ended, we wandered around the city of Reims for a few hours and visited the Cathedral of Reims.


The Cathedral of Reims (heavily damaged by the Germans during the First World War but restored since) played the same role in France as Westminster Abbey has in the United Kingdom as the traditional site of crowning of the Kings of France.


It still amazes me that these buildings were constructed before the advent of power tools. How did they do that?


Probably one of the most useful pieces of information that I took away from our tour was that champagne is mostly comprised of a blend of steel-drum wines from multiple harvest years (the term used for the wines fermented during the first stage of production and often number more than 500+ wines per harvest). If a particular steel-drum wine is deemed worthy of a "vintage" year, then the champagne produced from that year's harvest is NOT blended with other harvest years.

So if you ever see a bottle of champagne with a date on it, it's a vintage year and will be superior to the blended champagne. We were also told that France is pretty stingy with their vintage bottles and don't export very large quantities making them much harder to find in the United States. So if you're not sure what to get me for a gift . . . champagne is a good call!

October 1, 2011

The Perfect Croissant - it's the butter!

After the success of our morning Macaron class, it was now time to tackle Croissants and Pain au Chocolat at Lenôtre Culinary School.  April hadn't signed up for this course, so it was just me as the lone American in this class. I might also add that this class was entirely "en Français" but thankfully, I was still able to keep up given my very poor French language skills. It did help that I had some French tutoring via Skype using a tutor at Verbal Planet that helped me with my culinary vocabulary. Did you know that there are at least 8 verbs that mean "to whisk?"

Naturally, we started off the class with a delicious espresso. The secret to a great croissant? Time and butter! The techniques that I learned in class had some differences from techniques that I commonly use when making yeast breads. As an example, the process of "proofing" the yeast is somewhat different; flour is sprinkled on top of the yeast and water mixture and put aside to sit for up to an hour until it starts to bubble over the flour mixture.

Croissant pastry is so flaky because of the many layers of butter (and it's a lot of butter!) that are created by a succession of rolling and folding the pastry, followed by a period of rest in the refrigerator. This is where the time factor comes in. It takes at least 8 full hours to create the actual pastry, followed by additional hours to allow the shaped pastry (croissants or pain au chocolat) to rise to its desired fullness. In order to complete the process in just 4 hours, we had available pastry in various stages already completed so we could replicate the steps in a shorter amount of time.

We had 7 students in this class, most of them French, except myself and one woman from Italy (who was living in Paris and fluent in French). Now that April was gone, I was now the top student and teacher's pet in this class. I guess I just know my way around the kitchen better than the other students, but Chef Philippe seemed to give me more tasks to do and used me as the "example" for how to properly roll out and fold the pastry (I had the best technique, although who doesn't know how to use a rolling pin?). Another factor could be that I am "larger" than the other students in class meaning that I had much more weight to put behind my technique, making "quick work" out of the process. You have to be quick so that the butter layered between the pastry dough don't soften up and start to melt into the dough. This was where many of the other students had trouble.

As was the case in our earlier class on Macarons, it was the tips and tricks I learned from Chef Philippe that you don't really read about in a cookbook that I think will help me replicate the beautiful pastries I was able to make in Paris.

We do have some ingredient challenges, as in the types of flour used in France (we used two different types of flour for the pastry) differ slightly from our American equivalents, but I think the proper balance of gluten content can be achieved by combining bread flour (higher gluten content) with either "all-purpose" or even a combination between bread flour and cake flour. I think I will need to do a lot of experimenting! Here's my pain au chocolat (these are my favorite) and croissants just about ready for baking.

And here are my beautiful finished croissants.

I think my entire family is waiting for me to get home just so I can bake them some croissants and pain au chocolat!

À bientôt!

Our Macaron Adventure at Lenôtre Culinary School

(Bun - pay NO attention to the following sentence): I think I'm in love with a French man. His name is Philippe, which of course if the PERFECT French name! Chef Philippe Gobet was our instructor at Lenôtre for our French Macaron class. He's a very accomplished chef of cuisine (worked at Joël Robuchon for 13 years) and has earned the title of Meilleur Ouvrier de France "MOF", which is a unique award in France according to a category of trades in a contest between professionals. In doing some research on Google, I discovered that he's also the President of the Jury for the International Cuisine Competition and appears in the documentary "King of Pastry" that my friend Laura Templeton suggested we watch.

April and I decided to register for this class after we were already in Paris and after we had finally fallen in love with French Macarons. Although we have eaten them before on previous travels to France, for some reason, they were just "meh" for me. Perhaps they were just too sweet? Maybe I didn't try the right flavors?

Our first day in Paris (while we were waiting to get into our apartment), we sought refuge in a delicious cup of strong espresso avec crème (une noisette) paired with the most delicious macarons I had ever tasted from Pierre Hermé, which in my opinion are better than other famous macaron makers such as Ladurée. But I suppose it's a matter of taste. I prefer a less-sweet, less-chewy macaron and Pierre Hermé's deliver just that; plus the flavors are unusual and delicious. Some favorites include matcha green tea with sesame filling, coffee with salted caramel, violet with a passion fruit filling and pistachio. Très yum!

The class was limited to only 6 students, however, we only had 5 students in our class (perhaps someone forgot to set their alarm clock?). Since this class was offered in English (which is an exception, rather than the rule at Lenôtre) all but one of our fellow students were from the United States. Coincidentally, one of our fellow students was from Bellevue, Washington!

Upon arrival, we were greeted by Chef Philippe, an awesome espresso machine and a plate of delicious croissants. This was going to be a great day . . .

It took only a few minutes for April and I to establish ourselves as not only proficient bakers, but as the teacher pets. I suppose I take it for granted that baking is simple, but it's just second nature for me (and April as well). I don't mean to be negative about our fellow students, but perhaps they may want to leave the baking to their local pastry shops (or order some delicious macarons soon at Le Petit Biscuit). Even weighing out ingredients using a scale proved problematic for them. Our fellow student from Bellevue has taken this exact course twice before and still cannot seem to bake a proper macaron. But perhaps that's because she had a difficult time understanding "add 500 g of ingredient A" and "250 g of ingredient B" when reading the recipe (that's in English). She was seriously scribbling on her recipe doing math. We're not sure exactly what she was calculating since there was nothing to calculate. Call me confused. April was the star pupil in the class for her piping skills, although I finally got it right on my second attempt.

Chef Philippe is a nut. He had us laughing all morning and he's very playful in the kitchen. One of the funniest moments that happened (and I wish I had captured via video or camera) was after we had made the egg white meringue. He had just colored the meringue red using powdered color so that the chocolate macarons would become a deeper cocoa color. He removed the whisk from the mixer that was covered in red meringue and asked April to taste it. She moves towards the whisk he was holding out to her and as she went to grab it, Philippe shoved the whisk into her nose! April's face was half-covered with red meringue -- OMG, it was hilarious! April had this look of surprise on her face and the rest of us were doubled over in laughter. I know you "had to be there" but just picture April's face covered in red-colored meringue and you get the idea! That silly Chef Philippe!

We made three kinds of marcarons: chocolate with a chocolate ganache filling; vanilla with a vanilla buttercream filling and coffee with a coffee buttercream filling. The buttercream recipe was different (and easier) than the French buttercream recipe April and I use at home, so we were excited to have learned a different recipe. Chef Philippe was great about sharing tips and secrets for success that you don't really read about in a recipe. He also gave us some great ideas on how to flavor macarons by infusing ingredients with flavors such as flavored teas (love Early Grey!) or using liqueurs. During our last week in Paris, April and I will be running around to find some of the specialty ingredients we used using the list of culinary supply shops he provided. Not sure how I'm going to get all my accumulated stuff home yet given that I was already 10 lbs. overweight just getting to Paris! I think we may have to ship some stuff home.

April and I are excited to experiment at home with our new skills, particularly with different flavor combinations. I had so much fun during this class and was really thrilled to learn that Chef Philippe was also my instructor that afternoon for my croissant and pain au chocolat class. Now I'm inspired to learn more pastry techniques and will definitely be looking into other classes for my next visit to Paris.

À bientôt!

September 27, 2011

Our visit to Versailles (along with the entire population of Western Europe)

I'm not sure what April and I were thinking when we thought we'd take advantage of a warm and sunny Saturday to visit Versailles. Somebody should have stopped us! Although we suspected it would be crowded, we reasoned that because we were not going to be viewing the palace (been there, done that), and just visiting the Grand Trianon, Petit Trianon and the Hamlet, it shouldn't be so bad. We couldn't have been more wrong.

Having done some research on the Versailles website in advance of our trip, we knew that we could purchase a ticket to visit our desired locations (sans the Palace) for 10 Euros, instead of buying the full ticket that includes the Palace (25 Euros). Once we were in the outer courtyard, we could find no signs to indicate if we could purchase our ticket anywhere else but from the ticket office where there were already about 300 people in line. Merde.

After standing in this line for almost an hour with many people who had questionable hygiene habits, we finally get up to the ticket window only to be told that we could not purchase our ticket there. We must purchase our tickets at the Grand Trianon or Petit Trianon palaces. And here's the other kicker: in order to get to the transportation options for those palaces, we have to enter the garden and there's a separate entrance fee for that! So we had to pay a ticket that cost 8 Euros to "enter the garden" to go stand in yet another line to get to the palaces. Merde merde, merde!

What a racket! None of the hundreds of fountains in the gardens are actually on, except for during two times that afternoon when there's a "musical extravaganza" -- kind of like the fountains you see in Vegas at the Bellagio where the sprays of water are in time with music. So even if you wanted to just wander around the gardens and NOT stay for the "musical extravaganza" you're still going to pay 8 Euros to enter the garden. Unless of course you've purchased the full-fare Versailles "passport" ticket for 26 Euros. I might also add that's it about 80 degrees out and we're getting kind of cranky.

So our choices to get to the Grand Trianon palace are either to walk (1 hour walk over cobblestones and rocks), take the "petit train" where there's already about 100 people in line (the train maybe accommodates 30 people) and will take about 30 minutes to get there, plus we're probably going to have to wait through 3 or 4 trains before it's our turn, or stand in yet another line (although shorter) to wait for a golf cart to be returned to rent by the hour. Guess which option we chose? If you wonder what lovely gifts from Paris I'm going to bring you when I return, I will tell you that instead of buying you a gift, we enjoyed the use of a golf cart at Versailles for 4 hours . . . I won't even tell you how much per hour we paid because you will undoubtedly feel your heart stop. As the saying goes, "it is what it is."

Luckily for us, once we had come to this decision, we hurried over to yet another line and like a sign from the Roman Gods, 4 golf cart chariots had just been returned and we were the lucky recipient of the last available one. Don't judge us.

So off to the Grand Trianon we went. We thought about zipping into the town of Versailles to acquire some chilled rosé, but we were told that the cart must stay on the "marked paths" or it will stop. How do they do that? GPS technology? And they were right -- we took one wrong turn (April still can't read a map) and sure enough, our chariot stopped. It will, however, let you put it into reverse and correct your direction of travel. So much for our rosé.

During our visit, there was a special fashion exhibition at the Grand Trianon on the influence of the 18th century on modern fashion. There were fifty models by modern designers like Vivienne Westwood, Karl Lagerfeld pour Chanel, Dior, Jean Paul Gaultier, Christian Lacroix, Thierry Mugler and others that showcased haute couture designs, with reference costumes and accessories from the 18th century. The pieces came from the archives of the couture houses and from the Musée Galliera’s collections.

This special exhibit was pretty popular and we stood in yet another line for over an hour to see it and I almost got into an altercation with a women at the entrance to the palace. It was our turn next to be "let in" (they were modulating the number of people allowed inside at one time) and some woman who acted like she was more special than the rest of us that stood in line tried to push her way in front of April and I. As you can imagine, I was not having it. I caused enough of a commotion about it that two employees had to come over and see what the problem was. And I was happy to tell them. There was NO way I was going to wait patiently for my turn to see the exhibit and have some woman push her way to the front of the line. It was not fair. This woman really thought that she was going to get her way and after some Franglish (I think she might have been Italian) was told that she had to go stand in line like everyone else.

Although it was interesting, it was very, very, very, crowded and the rooms were just too small to hold that many people. I have never encountered so many rude people before -- people just pushing and shoving you out of the way so THEY can get a better look. I'm pretty sure that April got more enjoyment out of it than I did. No photography was allowed, but I was able to create some images from the brochure:

The Grand Trianon was commissioned by Louis the 15th and built in 1672 as a retreat for him and his mistress(es) where they could take light meals and entertain guests away from the strict etiquette of the court. Here's a picture of the backside of the Grand Trianon and the gardens:

Our next stop with our luxury mobile was the Petit Trianon. The Petit Trianon was commissioned by Louis the 15th for his long-term mistress, Madame de Pompadour, and was constructed between 1762 and 1768. But Madame de Pompadour died four years before its completion, and it was subsequently occupied by her successor, Madame du Barry. Upon his accession to the throne in 1774, the 20-year-old Louis the 16th gave the château and its surrounding park to his 19-year-old Queen Marie Antoinette for her exclusive use and enjoyment. Marie longed to escape Louis and his court, and he gave her just the place.

Marie Antoinette would come to the Petit Trianon not only to escape the formality of court life, but also to shake off the burden of her royal responsibilities. At Versailles, she was under considerable pressure and judgement from both her family and the court, and the Petit Trianon was her place of ease and leisure where she could rest from those trials. Since all was "de par la Reine" (by order of the Queen), none were permitted to enter the property without the Queen's express permission (not even, it was said, Louis XVI). The interior of the Petit Trianon is somewhat understated compared to other royal residences.

My favorite part of this visit was the surrounding park known as the "Hamlet". In spite of its idyllic appearance, the hamlet was a real farm, fully managed by a farmer appointed by the Queen, with its vineyards, fields, orchards and vegetable gardens producing fruit and vegetables consumed by the royal table. April and I probably spent two hours just wandering around this park. It was lovely.

Visiting the Hamlet made all of the day's pain go away. It was such a beautiful day and I enjoyed wandering around this little French village. Bravo Marie Antionette!

You can view more of my pictures from our visit to Versailles here.

September 26, 2011

Château de Fontainebleau

The last time we were in France, we attempted to visit this château, but some last-minute shuffling of our schedule resulted in me "re-scheduling" our visit for a day that the château was closed. Imagine our surprise having arrived and commenting "wow, it doesn't look crowded at all" only to get close enough to the ticket window and see the dreaded "fermé le mardi" (closed on Tuesdays). This time, we triple-checked their open days/hours just to make sure! It's a quick train ride from Paris, taking only about 35 minutes from Gare de Lyon.

The first recorded reference to the Château de Fontainebleau in a royal charter dates back to 1137, the year of the accession of Louis VII, known as Louis the Younger. The huge keep (or central tower) dates from this period. In 1259, Saint Louis, who was very fond of his fortified castle in Fontainebleau, established a monastery hospital there, presided over by the Trinitarian or Mathurin monks. The foundations of their chapel and other monastery buildings are all that remain from this original configuration, now located near to the current Chapel of the Trinity.

It was the Renaissance which saw the first major changes to the Château de Fontainebleau. In addition to the major building extension works, followed by extensive decoration works by Italian artists, there were court visits. Francis I (1494-1547) often came to stay at Fontainebleau, where he liked it so much that when he spoke of going there, he referred to it as “going home”. From 1528 onwards, the date of his first commissioned works there, the king particularly liked to spend the winter at Fontainebleau, to hunt boar and other quarry in the forests. In December 1536, his future son-in-law James V, King of Scotland, came to visit him there. This King had this passage built for his personal use, which only he had a key to. The passage led from his sleeping quarters to the main part of the château.

The Château de Fontainebleau was also where Catherine de Medici gave birth to six of their children. Francis II was born on 19 January 1544; Elizabeth (the future queen of Spain) on 2 April 1546; Claude (the future Duchess of Lorraine) on 12 November 1547; Edouard-Alexandre (the future Henry III of France) on 19 September 1551; Hercule (the future Duke of Anjou) on 18 March 1555; and Jeanne and Victoire, Princesses of France, on 24 June 1556. Apparently women of the court were required to give birth in public to "legitimize" the future heirs. Not sure how giving birth in public was proof that those children were actually fathered by who they were supposed to be fathered by . . . just sayin'.

The last major building expansion works at the château were carried out during the reign of Henry IV of France (17th century), whose favourite residence it was after the Louvre. In the 18th century, hunting parties continued to be held at Fontainebleau during the autumn. The French kings made the most of the fact that etiquette here was a little more relaxed than at Versailles, coming here to receive visiting diplomats from foreign rulers or even, before marriage, taking advantage of a trip to Fontainebleau to meet visiting princesses.

Someone had an obvious obsession with breasts (photo above).

By the late 18th century, the château had fallen into disrepair; during the French Revolution many of the original furnishings were sold, in the long Revolutionary sales of the contents of all the royal châteaux, intended as a way of raising money for the nation and ensuring that the Bourbons could not return to their comforts. Nevertheless, within a decade Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte began to transform the Château de Fontainebleau into a symbol of his grandeur, as an alternative to the empty Palace of Versailles.

The throne room (pictured above) is the only only such suite in France still in its original state.

The library (image above) holds more than 16,000 volumes.

Today part of the château is home to the Écoles d'Art Américaines, a school of art, architecture, and music for students from the United States. The school was founded by General Pershing when his men were stationed there during the First World War.

It's hard to capture in photos just how beautiful the furnishings and decor are. Most of the rooms were very dark as to not cause further damage to tapestries and paintings from the sunlight, and one could envision just how lovely some of the rooms would be when bathed in sunlight. I wish part of the tour would have included the kitchens. I'd love to see what a working kitchen looked like in the 15th century (and beyond).

You can view more pictures of Fontainebleau here.