Inside the Champagne Harvest

Chardonnay Grapes in Champagne, France

I’m very proud to announce that my story. “A Certain Sparkle” (AFAR magazine, Nov/Dec, 2012), has just won an award from the American Society of Journalists and Authors! To celebrate, I thought I’d take you inside the harvest, with some additional photos from my experience as a vendangeur, picking grapes for a Champagne-producing family in Hautvillers, France. Champagne is a vast patchwork of vineyards, but they’ve been divided over the years until some plots are just a few rows. Three types of grapes go into a classic Champagne: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. I picked all three of them when researching my story.

The Champagne Vineyards of Hautvillers

Harvesting grapes is hard work. We started before sunrise, after a breakfast of bread and homemade jam. By 9:30 or so, it’s time to eat again. Out in the fields, we noshed on cheese, meats, bread and chocolate – washed down with wine, of course!

Morning Break at the Champagne Harvest - With Wine, of Course!

But the vendanges isn’t all work. Below, some harvesters are having some fun with Vincent Bliard, the winemaker whose grapes I helped harvest. These pickers, who all have other jobs, gather every year to harvest the Bliard family’s grapes. Some have been returning for more than 30 years.

Good Times at the Champagne Harvest

  The Bliard family maintains the old harvest tradition of housing and feeding their 20 grape-pickers. Meals are homemade, hearty and lots of fun. The pickers – who take vacation time to come work the harvest – bring treats from around France and Belgium to share with everyone. Read more about what we ate in my AFAR story.

Dinner with the Harvest Crew in Champagne

Nearly every home in the village of Hautvillers has a handmade iron sign that reflects the occupant’s profession – and nearly every profession is something related to making Champagne. It’s wonderful to stroll around this town where Dom Perignon lived and look at all the signs – not to mention sampling some local bubbly!

The cute, quirky signs of Hautvillers in Champagne

When you visit Hautvillers, Champagne G. Tribaut is the perfect spot for a tasting. The friendly, English-speaking family provides a warm welcome, and you don’t need an appointment to sip and enjoy their wines along with the glorious view.

A beautiful spot for Champagne tasting

  Now, let us pray. This tongue-in-cheek prayer is posted on a house in the village of Hautvillers:

We should all be saying this prayer!

Here’s the translation: MORNING PRAYER Give me health for a long time, Work, not too often, Love, from time to time, But Champagne all the time. Want to learn more about Champagne and the harvest? Go inside the vendanges in my story for AFAR. And, keep up with all my adventures by following me on Twitter.          
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Lyon, France: Lyon Bouchons … continued

AFAR magazine recently ran a cover story where I eat my way through the bouchons of Lyon, France. Bouchons are quirky little restaurants serving traditional, home-style Lyonnais cooking. They typically offer portions equally as large as the personalities of their owners. One wonderful bouchon got cut from the story, so I’m including a bit about it here…

Joseph Viola of the bouchon Daniel et Denise (Photos by R. Paul Herman)

Joseph Viola has made what some might consider a strange career move. In addition to cooking in Michelin-rated kitchens, he is a Meilleur Ouvrier de France (“Best Worker of France”). An elite few chefs attain this honor by undergoing rigorous testing and competition. Yet, seven years back, just after attaining MOF status, Viola chose to purchase a little bouchon named Daniel et Denise. And, though the namesakes are long-gone, Viola kept the name. “Lyon’s people like history that lasts. If I changed the name, I’d be cutting history in half,” he explains.

Bouchon Daniel et Denise is packed and bustling at lunch – reservations are a must

I talk with Viola after sampling his traditional three-course Lyonnais lunch of pâté en croute (paté in a pastry crust) made with foie gras and sweetbreads…

The award-winning paté en croute at Daniel et Denise

Quenelle de brochet (Lyon’s famous blimp-shaped pikefish dumpling) with sauce Nantua (a vibrant-orange crayfish sauce)…

Quenelle de brochet, a Lyon specialty, at Daniel et Denise

On the side, thoroughly decadent potatoes gratin, rich with cream, and – as if that wasn’t enough – perfect, crispy coins of fried potatoes, too…

Potato side-dishes at bouchon Daniel et Denise (fortunately I could compensate by climbing the seven flights of stairs at the apartment where I stayed!)

And for dessert, ile flottante, fluffy poached meringue floating on a pool of crème anglaise…

Ile Flottante, with Lyon’s famous pink pralines in the center

It’s easy to taste why the restaurant’s pâté en croute won a worldwide competition last year, and the quenelle is the best version I’ve ever eaten. “Taste is supreme,” Viola tells me. He wears a crisp, white chef’s jacket with the red, white and blue collar that marks him as a Meilleur Ouvrier. ”I use only the best products, and I shop every morning. There is no cold room here – ingredients are only in the restaurant at most 24 hours.” But accolades aside, like all bouchon fare, Viola’s plates are simple and presented without pretense. “I don’t use a lot of garnish,” he tells me. “If the main dish and sauce aren’t good, there’s nothing to hide behind.” The same goes for ambiance. “People come to me for what’s on the plate,” Viola says, “not the décor. They want a good meal, not good tableware.” Viola’s sense of balance in life gives me something to ponder. “We only have one service at lunch and one at dinner,” he explains. “I want to give the clients time to eat. It’s better to satisfy 65 people than to serve 150 and not do it well.” That philosophy extends to his personal life, too. Daniel et Denise is closed on weekends, he says, because, “I don’t want to succeed in my career and not in my family life.”

“Pots lyonnais,” thick-bottomed bottles of house wine on the bar at Daniel et Denise

Like all the best bouchon proprietors, Viola works the room. “I like to look at clients while they’re eating and after they’ve finished,” he admits. “People eat and then keep talking about food. It’s like a good religion! When you have a good meal, the world stops. “This is hard work,” he says as he sees me out the door, “but it gives me great satisfaction.” Daniel et Denise is located at 156 rue de Créqui in the 3rd arrondissement; telephone 04 78 60 66 53. It’s open for lunch and dinner Monday-Friday; be sure to reserve well in advance. Viola also recently took over a bouchon in Old Lyon, the UNESCO World Heritage area of the city. La Machonnerie is at 36 rue Tramassac, 5th arrondissement; telephone 04 78 42 24 62. It’s open for lunch and dinner Tuesday-Saturday; reservations also recommended.

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Valentine’s Day – Sweet Memories

Candy from the heart - by Crown Candy Kitchen in St. Louis

When I was a kid growing up in the Midwest, Russell Stover was the “swanky” candy. I remember my dad buying big, red, heart-shaped, boxes of it for my mom every Valentine’s Day. We kids would each get a little box of something – usually the less-prestigious Whitman’s Sampler. Well, chocolate (and I!) have come a long way since then. Give me a wicked-dark bar from Poco Dolce or Dandelion, and I’ll see hearts. No need for a froofy box. And yet, I was delighted when a pal visiting from St. Louis brought a heart full of old-school chocolates from Crown Candy Kitchen – my hometown’s oldest soda fountain (celebrating its 100th birthday this year). Look, nonpareils with colored sprinkles! Sometimes memories taste good, too.
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