Pink isn’t the colour one would normally associate with a city but Reims, as Anna Hyman discovered, is the home town of pink biscuits, and also a fair amount of pink champagne.
It was so quick, so easy; the 08.30 Eurostar from London Saint Pancras to Paris Nord, a short walk to Paris Est to catch the 12.58 fast and comfortable SNCF service to Reims. An hour later we were checking into the centrally located Best Western Plus-Hotel de la Paix. London to Reims in just five hours and without an airport queue in sight.
Reims is a lovely, elegant city, renowned for its historic past and many Art Deco style buildings – the latter the result of extensive rebuilding following World War I damage - and of course its many champagne houses.
It’s known as the Coronation City
An historic past indeed, it was a major city even in the days of the Romans; traces of which are still clearly visible.
It is frequently referred to as the Coronation City as 33 French Kings were crowned here, the first in 816; 25 of them in the magnificent Gothic cathedral which dominates the city today. One of the most famous coronations involved Joan of Arc, when in 1429 she led the Dauphin Charles VII into Reims. Amongst the many statues adorning the façade of the cathedral look out for the statue of a smiling angel.
Reims is a seriously foody city
Close by the cathedral in the historic heart of the city we found a bright, almost cerise pink shop front and inside gastronomic goodies of all kinds. Reims is a seriously foody city. The Terroir des Rois was this foody’s idea of heaven.
Shelves stocked with beautifully arranged treats ranging from sachets of fruit purees to champagne. We succumbed to sampling, and buying, bags of chocolate champagne corks, each one containing a powerful hit of alcohol – the best-ever liquor chocolates.
Pink Fossier biscuits
Pink is an evocative colour for Reims – think pink champagne, and think pink Fossier biscuits.
Maison Fossier has been baking pink biscuits in Reims since 1756. But the pink biscuits date back nearly 50 years earlier.
The word ‘biscuit’ actually means twice baked. It’s a word taken from old French ‘bescuit’, which in turn was derived from the Latin bis (twice) and coctus (cooked).
The original method of making biscuits was to dry them out slowly at a low temperature after the initial baking.
Whether it was because of the vanilla flavouring that turned the biscuits brown, or whether they picked up dark specks from the floor of the oven is not clear, but they looked unappetising.
In 1691 an enterprising Reims baker took some cochineal and added it to the mixture – the result a pretty pink biscuit, one which is both soft and crunchy at the same time.
It's perfect for dunking, and especially good, we were told, dunked into champagne.
A fascinating factory tour
Visitors to Reims can watch the Fossier biscuits being made on a fascinating factory tour. First comes a biscuit sampling, followed by an hour-long tour watching the various production lines, and then a visit to the shop. However, if there’s not enough time to take the tour, foody shops like Terroir des Rois stock Fossier, and indeed the company has its own city shop.
It was at Fossier that we met the charming Eric Geoffroy at a pop-up cookery classes demonstrating some dishes that could be made involving the pretty biscuits.
Cookery classes at Au Piano des Chefs
When not teaching us cookery skills Eric told us about his soon to be opened new, permanent venture.
The ‘Au Piano des Chefs’ will open opposite Reims cathedral at the beginning of May.
There will be three kitchens holding up to 12 people, plus an area for seminars where the dishes produced during the classes can also be sampled.
Look out for the 'Ateliers de cuisine gastronomique et oenologique en Champagne-Ardenne' (the creative cuisine and wine experience in Champagne-Ardenne).
Eric speaks excellent English and is a brilliant teacher; our lesson was fun and informative.
Whilst it would be better to book in advance to be sure of a place for the 45-minute classes, people can pop in on the day to see if there are vacancies for the midday or evening sessions.
On site will also be a shop selling regional produce, gifts and cooking equipment.
Trams with a champagne glass styled cab
Reims is rightly proud of its rich cultural heritage, and also of its smart and efficient modern tram system.
The brightly coloured trams are clearly visible and we were intrigued by the unusual shape of the driver’s cab.
Then we got it – the front of the cab is shaped to resemble a champagne flute.
We took the hint and headed for one of the city’s many famous champagne houses, G.H. Mumm.
G.H. Mumm: ‘Only the Best’
In the early 19th century, three brothers, whose father had been a wine producer in Germany, moved to Reims.
Their aim was to launch, in 1827, the champagne house that bears the family name to this day.
‘Only the best’ was Georges Hermann Mumm’s motto and it still applies at G.H. Mumm. They have several vineyards of their own but still need to import grapes from other quality growers to keep pace with the demand for their bubbles.
25km of cellars and galleries
It took 70 years to excavate the 25km of cellars and galleries which hold some 25 million bottles. There is an excellent guided tour through the labyrinth of dark tunnels learning about the lengthy stages of production taking the wine to the champagne which bears the famous red ribbon label. The tour lasts approximately an hour and a half, possibly longer with a tasting session.
Dinner that night was at the excellent Brasserie au Conti on Place Drouet d’Erlon conveniently close to our hotel in Rue Buirette. There was no question as to which type of wine we would have with the meal: champagne, of course.
Eurostar returns to Paris from £69 and from £14 Paris – Reims: www.voyages-sncf.com
G.H. Mumm: www.ghmumm.com Best Western Plus-Hotel de la Paix: www.hotel-lapaix.fr
Biscuits Fossier: www.fossier.fr
Eric Geoffrey/ Au Piano des chefs classes: www.aupianodeschefs.com
Brasserie au Conti : www.grandhotelcontinental.com
May we Recommend
For early morning departures or late night arrivals for trains to or from St Pancras an overnight stop at the Travelodge, Euston.
It is, as it describes itself, a straightforward budget hotel. However, for travellers like us who live way out of London its location is ideal – literally across the road from Euston station and approximately eight minutes’ walk to either St Pancras or Kings Cross.
We have always found the rooms with their king size beds spotlessly clean and the staff, especially in the reception and bar, supremely helpful and friendly. If you want anything – ask. Breakfast and evening meals are served in the basement restaurant / bar. www.travelodge.co.uk