In search of truffles and champagne, Anna Hyman headed for historic Châlons in beautiful Champagne-Ardenne.
Honey was happy. Even though it was a chilly evening she had no qualms about a walk in the woods. Not that these were any ordinary woods, and Honey was not just any chocolate-coloured Labrador heading off for a constitutional. Honey was off to work, and work, she knew, involved treats.
And the woods? Well, more of a planation actually. One planted up by her owner Benoît Jacquinet with a mixture of trees which provide suitable growing conditions for the very special Tuber Uncinatum, better known as a truffle.
Restaurant speciality a truffle menu
The Jacquinet family have been farming at Matougues in Champagne -Ardenne for decades and recently started converting outhouses into the comfortable three-star Auberge des Moissons with its 27 rooms and a restaurant. The restaurant’s speciality in the autumn month is a truffle menu. Dinner that evening was a sumptuous feast of all things truffley.
To keep up with the kitchen’s demand for this gourmet ingredient and for that from local restaurants and visitors alike the truffle plantation was created.
A museum, shop and cookery lesson
Also on site is a small beautifully displayed museum dedicated to the truffle, plus a shop and a cookery workshop where lessons are held (in English if necessary) demonstrating how to prepare and cook the delicacy. We made a delicious truffle risotto.
Benoît is happy to take guests with him on truffle hunting forays and Honey only too happy to demonstrate her skill at unearthing them.
Not very far from Matougues is the delightful and historic city of Châlons-en-Champagne, Sometimes called Little Venice, for good reason: at one stage in its history, thanks in part to viticulture and the manufacture of woollen cloth, it was considered far and wide to be one of the greatest towns in the then-kingdom.
In the 18th century tree-lined boulevards were created along with splendid buildings; later more parks were added and some of the water ways (Châlons is crisscrossed by the River Marne’s tributaries the Mau and Nau) covered over.
Châlons from the water
In the summer months boat trips run on the rivers offering another entertaining glimpse of the city. During the 40 minute ride the rivers slip beneath the streets in long, dark tunnels illuminated by clever light displays before emerging further along the stream between romantic leafy banks and under old stone bridges.
Great for shopping
Châlons is an architectural gem with buildings ranging from half-timbered, or with elegant facades of chalk and brick or curiously patterned gritstone designs, through to Art Nouveau and Art Deco.
It’s a good shopping destination too, with lively markets, and boutiques selling classy clothes and also food – like the stunning Boutique Pascal Caffet where exquisite chocolates, vie for attention with macarons, tartes and other goodies.
And should you be in need of refreshments, there are lots of excellent cafes like La Maison de Marie Caroline – a restaurant and salon de thé, which also offers rather charming chambres d’hotes
The Vineyards of Champagne-Ardenne
And beyond Châlons, within easy reach by car or organised tours, are the vineyards of Champagne-Ardenne.
Vines have been growing here since Roman times but it was the monks of the Middle Ages that put the region on the map and one Benedictine monk in particular Dom Pérignon who developed the techniques of improving the sparkling wines.
Within the Champagne Appellation are some 300 villages, 15,000 growers and over 300 champagne houses, including a personal favourite of ours Vilmart & Cie in Rilly-la-Montagne, a district renowned for the quality of its wines.
Vilmart & Cie
Vilmart was found in 1890 and since 1989 has been run by the founder’s great, great, grandson Laurent Champs. Laurent is a perfectionist and it shows in the delicious quality of Vilmart champagne. Indeed its Coeur de Cuvee is considered to be one of the region’s finest champagnes.
Creamy, with complex flavours
Laurent believes in paying meticulous attention to the production of the wine. The hand-harvested grapes are grown on their own estate and since 1989 no herbicides or chemical fertilisers have been used. It is a labour intensive method, but that, combined with the wines being fermented and aged in oak (10 months in large oak casks for non-vintage and 10 months in oak barrels for vintage), has resulted in outstanding elegant champagnes with delicious creaminess and complexity of flavours.
A cellar tour and tasting at this small, family-run winery housed in an elegant half-timbered building in an immaculate courtyard, is a treat not to be missed.
Luckily Vilmart is more easily available in the UK than it used to be. Cheaper champagnes are on the market but for the sake of a few pounds more we would rather pop a cork of Vilmart any day.
Auberge des Moissons: www.auberge-des-moissons.com
Vilmart & Cie: www.champagnevilmart.fr
Pascal Caffet www.pascal-caffet.com
Châlons en Champagne: www.chalons-tourisme.com
La maison de Marie Caroline www.lamaisondemariecaroline.com
Champagne Ardenne: www.tourisme-champagne-ardenne.com