Champagne. The epitome of all that is refined in the world. A word that triggers feelings of joy, jubilance and victory. A drink that has become so synonymous with better living that it’s almost impossible for others to vie for a brush of its limelight.
If wine is the pilgrimage then the region of Champagne-Ardenne is its high altar. This department located in northeastern France is the modest home of the most renowned sparkling wine. The town of Les Riceys, in Aube Champagne, is the only town with three AOC-certified wines. There are certainly fine Champagne Houses in the region which may more than fairly be described as artisanal producers. Champagne Gremillet, Rémy Massin & Fils are family-owned vineyards unquestionably worth visiting. Rémy Massin & Fils, a fifth generation producer since 1865, with 20 hectares of vineyard harvests grapes without the use of herbicides to benefit from the region’s characteristics. Champagne Gremillet produces just 500,000 bottles in its cellars per year from 42 hectares. The House adheres to the purest traditions and blends exclusively from first pressings.
So what of other produce in the region? If the terroir is capable of delivering the most prestigious wine of the world then surely it should follow that it is just as contributory towards other foods. Well, I found out that it happens to be just so. The region produces ham, cheese and truffles.
The town of Troyes also produces a gourmet drink that barely leaves its boundaries. This is mainly as much of the small batches produced are bought by the town’s residents and whatever is left might be sold to visitors.
Prunelle de Troyes is the name of the drink and it has been distilled in Troyes since 1840. The liqueur is developed from the stones of blackthorn fruit which grows in the region. Records show that in 1900 the recipe was awarded the gold medal at the Paris Universal Exhibition. At the time the drink was named Champagne Prunelle but renamed Prunelle de Troyes, in 1995, at the request of the Champagne Winemakers’ Committee. Cellier Saint-Pierre which produces the drink is located at 1 place Saint-Pierre – 10000 Troyes and it would be foolish to visit Troyes and not visit the cellar.
Philippe Formont runs the house which was purchased by his father in 1933. Alexandre Krumenacher is in charge of the distillery where he’s been employed for 15 years where the entire process happens by hand. “Our process is from the 19th century and it is the story of the birth of La Prunelle de Troyes. If we change the process, it won’t be the same story. Today the distillery is at its maximum production with only 13,000 bottles per year,” Alexandre tells me.
The small distillery occupies a historic building in Troyes which sits opposite the regal Troyes Cathedral. “Our cellar is the oldest building in the city. It was used to store a tenth of the harvest which was always given to the church. Then the Canons lived in the house which occupied the space where our shop now is. Afterwards, wine merchants occupied the cellar to store their wines and also built the distillery,” explains Alexandre.
The next stop on this artisanal journey was the charming village of Chaource renowned for its floral crust cheese. Fromagerie de Mussy at 30 Route De Maisons-Les-Chaource – 10210 Chaource is the unassuming dairy belonging to Stéphanie and Christophe who together produce the only cheese in the region permitted to carry the artisan label. “I bought the fromargerie in 1995 when I was 23 years old and single. It has always been owned by women. Then I met my husband and he is now the main cheesemaker,” Stéphanie adds as she walks me outside the cold room where milk becomes Chaource cheese in just five days. Once that happens it’s wrapped, labelled and delivered to Paris and other major cities.
All of the milk required for the cheese-making comes from within 15 kilometres and in 2018 Fromagerie de Mussy produced 62 tonnes of cheese between just six people. As well as the signature Chaource Stéphanie also produces cottage cheese, cream and 13 other regional specialities. Locals and passers-by bring empty pots and leave with exactly the amount they might need. It would not do to waste artisanal produce.
As I concluded my journey it had me thinking. With the festive season approaching it may bode well to skip the conventional Christmas markets and delve a little deeper in favour of an artisanal food road trip through Aube Champagne. Champagne, liqueur and cheese all hand-made by people you’d meet face to face. If nothing else think of the stories you could tell around the dinner table.
Getting around: The best way to get around Aube Champagne is by car. Information on car hire can be sought at the Tourist Information Centre in Troyes located at 16, rue Aristide Briand – 10000 TROYES. You may also telephone them on: 03.25.82.62.70