With New Year’s Eve approaching, you’ll most likely be breaking open some champagne, but instead of pouring a simple glass of the bubbly, why not have a Kir Royale, a festive drink made with champagne and crème de cassis, a sweet, dark liqueur made from black currants. I never drank a Kir Royale until my trip to Paris this fall, when I made up for all those decades of neglect. I even went one step further, taking a side trip to Reims, the heart of the Champagne region. It’s only a one-hour train ride east from Paris.
It’s also the site of one of the great cathedrals of the world, where French kings were once crowned.
Construction of the cathedral began in the 1200s and continued for nearly three centuries. It remains one of the finest examples of Gothic architecture in Europe. It was heavily damaged during World War I, and work continues to this day on the cathedral.
The artist Marc Chagall designed these stained glass windows, installed in 1974.
While the cathedral is a big draw for tourists, so too, are the many champagne houses located in the region. I couldn’t pass up the chance to tour the cellars of one such producer — G.H. Mumm.
The “caves” or cellars are exactly that, 75 kilometers of tunnels and passageways dug by hand out of the chalky soil, a process that took 70 years to complete.
The cellars contain 25 million bottles (yes, million, that’s right), some of which are behind lock and key.
Those are the historic vintages, some of which date back to the 19th century. They may be worth a lot of money, but that doesn’t mean they taste very good. The length of time for optimum aging is anywhere from a year and a half to five years.
Just as in the past, champagne for today’s market goes through a “riddling” process – where each bottle is held on a tilt on a wooden rack and rotated by hand in order to consolidate any sediment prior to removal. After the sediment collects in the neck of the bottle, it’s frozen to make disgorging easier.
Mumm also has a museum in its cellars, containing many old implements and machines of the trade.
Of course, tasting the champagne is the best part of the visit. In the interest of research, I had to taste three of Mumm’s champagnes, including one of its best – the Grand Cru blanc de blancs, made from 100 percent chardonnay grapes.
A bottle of this will set you back a pretty penny, so you may want to choose a less expensive bubbly, like an Italian prosecco or Spanish cava, to make your Kir Royale. You probably already know that while sparkling wines are produced all around the world, only those made in this geographic region of France have the legal right to be called champagne.
By the way, you can make yourself a plain Kir, rather than a Kir Royale, by substituting dry white wine for the sparkling wine.
Here’s a little bit of trivia for all you nerdy types out there. Bottle sizes still bear the names given them by champagne houses at the start of the 20th century. With the smallest first :
• Quarter or demi bottle = 18.7 or 20cl, depending on the country • Bottle = 75cl • Magnum = 1.5 litres • Jeroboam = 3 litres (named after the founder and first king of Israel) • Methuselah = 6 litres (named after Noah’s grandfather) • Salmanazar = 9 litres (named after the king of Assyria) • Balthazar = 12 litres (named after the regent of Babylon) • Nebuchadnezzar = 15 litres (named after the king of Babylon)
Whatever you’re toasting with this New Year’s Eve and whatever the size, I’m lifting my glass to all you readers who follow Ciao Chow Linda, and I wish you all a happy, healthy 2013.
1/2 ounce crème de cassis
6 oz. champagne
Pour the crème de cassis in a champagne glass and slowly fill with champagne. Serve.
She vowed to eat lighter and exercise more as the new year began, but she just had to finish up those leftover Christmas cookies, chocolates and torrone, didn’t she? I mean, why waste perfectly good food? But then came January and there was that luncheon, that week out of town, that dinner party, that invitation to an opening reception, and all those good intentions to lose weight somehow never got realized. Moreover, Valentine’s Day was looming and shops were laden with more indulgent desserts than magazines have weight-loss ads. What’s a gal to do if she wants a little sweetness in her life?
Take a cue from a Russian ballerina and make a pavlova, that’s what. If you omit the cream filling and serve only with berries, it’s truly low-cal. But even with this filling, made with non-fat yogurt and creme fraiche, a little goes a long way. Or you could use it even more sparingly, plopping a dollop on top of the berries, rather than nestling the fruit on top of the creamy mixture. If calories don’t matter, take a different tack and use lemon curd or a custard cream for the filling.
First you’ve got to make the pavlovas. Whip the egg whites and sugar until they form stiff peaks, then put the mixture into either a pastry bag or a baggie with one end snipped off.
Form eight small “nests” about 3 1/2 inches wide. Use a spoon to shape a hollow in the center.
After baking, they’ll turn a little bit beige, but that’s ok. They need to be fully cooked and dry on the inside; otherwise, they’ll be gummy and sticky to eat. You want to be able to break into them easily with a fork or spoon, and not have to saw your way through with a serrated knife.
OK, now if this is dieting, I’m all for deprivation.
The dessert is named after Anna Pavlova, a famous Russian ballerina from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. There seems to be some disagreement whether it was created by a chef in New Zealand or in Australia, with each country claiming ownership. She must have been an exceptional dancer to have an exquisite dessert created in her name.
I’ve certainly not seen Pavlova dance, but I did see a beautiful ballet in Paris during my visit a couple of months ago – La Source. With costumes by Cristian LaCroix, it ranked as one of the most spectacularly costumed ballets I’ve ever seen. This photo is only a small sampling of his lavish creations.
The ballet was performed in the Palais Garnier, the place where operas were always heard until the construction of a new opera house in 1989 called Opera Bastille. Sadly, the Opera Bastille is a drab monolith has nothing of the grace and elegance of the Palais Garnier, the opulent beaux-arts gem that was built in the late 19th century.
If you’ve ever seen or read “Phantom of the Opera” — the movie, the musical or the book — you know it’s set at the Paris Opera House – the Palais Garnier. In one scene the grand chandelier falls from the ceiling, wreaking havoc on the audience. The story has its roots in a real event that happened in 1896, after a counterweight from the chandelier fell, killing a member of the audience. Here are a couple of photos of the interior of the Palais Garnier, including a ceiling painted by Marc Chagall above the infamous chandelier. Nowadays, the building is used mainly for ballet performances, but you can also go at different hours just to tour the architectural masterpiece.
4 large egg whites
1/4 t. cream of tartar
3/4 cup sugar
Preheat oven to 200 degrees. If it goes down to 180 degrees, so much the better.
Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Beat egg whites with cream of tartar on high speed until soft peaks form. Add sugar, a tablespoon at a time, beating until stiff peaks form. Using a pastry bag, or a spoon, make circles about 3 1/2 inches in diameter on the parchment paper. Use a spoon to create a small depression in the center.
Bake for two hours then turn the oven off and leave them alone inside the oven – at least two hours. If you have time to leave them in the oven longer, so much the better. They must be completely dry on the interior, or else you could be biting into a chewy, gummy meringue. Carelly remove them from the parchment paper.
16 ounces Greek-style yogurt, drained (I put the yogurt in a coffee filter and let it sit overnight)
8 ounces creme fraiche
1 cup sugar
1/2 of a vanilla bean
(I preserve vanilla beans in a covered jar filled with sugar. I have found that eventually the vanilla bean will dry out, in which case I chop it up and put it in the blender along with the sugar. The result is a sugar speckled with vanilla bean – great for desserts or for a special cup of coffee.)
Drain the yogurt overnight, then with a wooden spoon, combine with the creme fraiche, sugar and vanilla bean.
Spoon into the meringue shell and top with berries that have been mixed with a little sugar, freshly squeezed lemon and orange juice.