Here in 21st century France, there are strong views on activities appropriate for a Sunday. Approved activities: spending time with family and friends, relaxing, movies, drives in the country, eating big lunches and taking long walks afterwards. Unapproved: Shopping. Of any kind. Even groceries. Woe be to you if you forgot to buy butter on Saturday. (Okay, I exaggerate — there are a handful of corner stores open, as well as the bd Raspail organic market, but you will pay 25€ a kilo for the privilege.)
Take the Sunday a few weeks ago, which we were lucky enough to spend with our friend Didier, on a long drive outside of Paris. We explored the underground passageways of the medieval town of Provins, ate a leisurely lunch, toured a few World War I battle sites and cemeteries — all Sunday-appropriate activities.
When the highway edged slightly into the region of Champagne, Didier suggested we stop at a local Champagne producer and have a small dégustation, or tasting. Drinking Champagne in Champagne? How meta! (Plus, when have I EVER said no to a glass of bubbly?) A couple of villages and one winding road later, we found ourselves at the gates of a small champagne winery.
Outside the door that said, accueil, or welcome, we hesitated. Did a curtain twitch in the window? I rang the bell. We waited. Finally, the door creaked open.
Was it the owner? His son? Whoever he was, he was partially blind, and his rumpled clothes and air of disgruntlement clearly indicated that we had woken him from a nap. We dutifully trooped into the tasting room.
“What do you want?” asked Monsieur. (He phrased it more politely, but only just.)
“On a soif…!” cried Didier softly, but too softly for Monsieur to hear. We’re thirsty!
I spied clean champagne flutes and a fridge (stocked, I’m sure, with chilled bottles), but the stony face of Monsieur indicated all too clearly that not a drop was forthcoming.”We’d like to buy a few bottles of Champagne,” we said weakly.
Five minutes later, and 52€ lighter, we hot-footed it back to the car, clutching four bottles of the establishment’s finest. Hmmm… it appears that, at least in the region of Champagne, Sunday commerce is either, A) legal, or B) under the table (well, we did pay in cash).
When we finally popped the cork a few days later, I was surprised. The Champagne — R. Gerbaux, grande réserve — wasn’t good. It was GREAT. Of course, it’s possible our interaction with grumpy Monsieur made it all the more delicious.
You can pair Champagne with a lot of foods, but in a locavore-conscious kind of way, it’s kind of fun to match it with cheese from the area. The region of Brie is right next door to Champagne — in fact, until the 18th century, there was even a Count of Champagne and Brie, who ruled over the lush area.
I’d seen the words “brie de meaux” so many times at, say, Whole Foods, but never knew there was a town called Meaux. Duh. It’s 50km east of Paris and, according to the book, French Cheeses, “One reason for the rise in importance of the cheese was the proximity of the region to Paris, which was a great centre of consumption.” Brie de Meaux is a “refined and relaxed” cheese; it’s also more widely distributed than its sibling brie…
Brie de Melun. Yin to brie de Meaux’s yang, this cheese hails from… Melun! Another town in the region of Brie. With a flavor that is “strong, robust and salty,” most brie de Melun is eaten in the region. Though similar in shape, size and texture, the distinct flavors of the two cheeses come from slightly different methods in production; also, Melun ages (or affinages) for a longer period of time — 7-10 weeks as opposed to four. Both bries are made from raw cow’s milk, and produced all year long, making them good winter cheese choices. And they’re exactly what I bought at the Raspail market last week.