The last few weeks have been busy, although we have not spent a great deal of time cruising. Last time I submitted a blog, I was interested in writing about the process of how Champagne is made and the various houses in the area that make the 320 million bottles of this lovely bubbly that the world consumes in one year. But buying Champagne in the Department of Champagne-Ardenne is not cheap (ranging from €10 to €200 per bottle), because the process can take 3 -10 years, but the variety is quite amazing.
We have visited a few Champagne houses in Epernay, Reims and the countryside in between – so far I would say my favourite is Pol Roger (made by appointment to HRH Queen Elizabeth of the UK) and a local brand called M. Gobillard & fils.
There are of course lots of choices around here and lots of stories from the Champagne houses of which there are three types – the ‘corporates’ that buy the grapes from local growers as well as grow their own grapes, the cooperatives that both buy and grow grapes and the family businesses that grow grapes and make the champagne. Apparently the label will tell you which type of Champagne house you are drinking from. We were in a village on the side of the canal called Mareuil-sur-Ay, enjoying a family champagne from Marc Hebrart champagne house, here the proprietor explained the system and that land is now very pricey around here; €1.5 million per hectare for parcels of grape growing ground.
We went to Mercier – very interesting tale about this massive barrel which is the centre piece of the entrance to the Champagne house. Mercier was founded by a young man of 20 years old in 1858.
Eugene Mercier was an entrepreneur and PR man who knew that publicity was the way to sell champagne. By all accounts he was also a model employer. He had the giant vat constructed – it holds the equivalent of 200,000 bottles of wine – over a period of 11 years. In 1889 he decided to take his amazing barrel overland to Paris for the World’s Fair of 1889 (celebrating 100 years since the French Revolution). It took 8 days to take the barrel from Epernay to Paris where it was a huge hit, overshadowed only by the new exhibit at this World’s Fair – the Eiffel Tower. Our visit to Mercier included a scenic elevator ride down to the cellars – and electric train ride through some of the 18 kms of underground chalk tunnel storage for their champagne. Here the bubbles are developed at a constant temperature. They even have a wine-library down there with bottles dating back over 100 years.
We visited a few other champagne houses including Mumms (which I now think is a bit overrated), Castellaine, where the champagne is made in a building that looks like a train station, Collard-Picard on Avenue de Champagne in Epernay, and some others in the small villages. Champagne is as distinctive as other wines, with nuances of smell, flavour and fizz that even an amateur like me can take an interest in.
Martin’s 22 year old granddaughter Ayja has a keen interest in wines, as her ambition is to become a sommelier and she has started doing courses etc. She had a three-day course in Paris, so, of course, being so close she came to visit for a few days either side of the program. Martin also had some visitors from Victoria for a couple of days while I was in the UK. So they, Ayja and Martin had a super time cramming in as many Champagne houses as possible.
They were quite successful but Ayja was disappointed as she did not make it to the Verve Cliquot Champagne. Ayja had read the story of Madame Cliquot and the innovations she bought to making champagne. The widow Cliquot was credited with taking over the family business in 1805 and inventing the special stand and turning process known as riddling – this made Champagne what it is today.
While Martin and Ayja were sipping wine (she sampled 40 different wines on her 3 day course) and cooking, I took the train (TGV, Eurostar and Hull Trains) back to Hull to pack up my mothers house ready for her move. The TGV got to 304 kms per hour – now that is fast!
Although my mother is very prudent, and had downsized a couple of times in the last 10 years there was still a fair bit of stuff to deal with. We ended up with 35 boxes (in part because there is a weigh restriction on the contents of each box). In the meantime Martin saw Ayja off back to Canada, and then he and Kerry headed for England and short visit with his sister near London. Lucky Martin went to see ‘Alls well that ends Well’ at the Globe Theatre.
By the time Martin arrived in Hull most of the packing had been done but there was work with screw-drivers. So Martin did that and the van came to start loading on the Friday before the move. By late afternoon we were ready for a bit of time-out from the packing and the stress of it all. We had booked a couple of nights in a hotel in a seaside town called Scarborough about 35 miles from Hull. There was almost nothing left in the house so we would have been camping. We decided we were all too old for camping and stayed in the Esplanade Hotel – situated on the top of a cliff in this Victorian seaside resort. The weather wasn’t bad for the time of year, so were able to get out a bit, but the hills were a bit too much for my mum.
Scarborough has been a settlement along the North Yorkshire coast since Roman times – indeed Roman remains have been found. The Vikings visited, raided then settled in the area, as the promontory headland that divides the city, was a strategically advantageous place to defend the hinterland from the invaders from the sea. In the eleventh century castle was built when Scarborough received the rights of trading that made it a market town. The castle was built around 1138 – but it was attacked many times over the next 800 years – even as late as World War I when German gunboats shelled the headland.
Scarborough Fair – made famous in the folk song was the meeting and trading place for local merchants starting with its charter in 1253 it continued for 500 years. It lasted six weeks in the summer and started a tradition of visiting Scarborough during the warm months. This was continued by the development of a railway line from York to Scarborough in 1848 and building of the Grand Hotel. Scarborough was the place to spend a seaside holiday for rich Victorians, and the city grew in grandeur and fashion.
There are lots of remains from this era, including the Grand Hotel, which has become quite run-down and a bit dilapidated. However the long sandy beaches, the harbour, housing mews, guest houses, parks, open air theatres and attractions are still very much a part of this Victorian resort, which has survived to this day as a major holiday destination people in the north of England. A couple of days by the seaside was our way of preparing for the big move.
On the way back to Hull we stopped off in York for lunch with my father’s family – his brother (Uncle Pal) is the only one left from that generation. At 85 he is in fairly good shape and quite alert and has known my mother for 70 years. My cousins wanted to say goodbye to my mum because they may not see very much of her now she is living in Wisbech (120 miles away). We all had a great lunch at a super restaurant call the Churchill, time to check in, and enjoy a great meal. My cousin Vince made us laugh by ordering a very odd dessert called ‘liquorices cream with fennel and carrots’. It was the blackest thing I have ever seen, but tasted quite nice (everyone had to have a teaspoon just to try), – reminded me of liquorices allsorts with sugared carrots – interesting culinary invention.
The move to Wisbech was all set for Monday morning – everything seemed to cooperate except the weather – which turned cold and very wet. The truck left about 10:00 with the final part of the load, Martin and Kerry left with all our stuff (quite a few winter clothes etc that had been stored at my mums), and Mum and I left in her car after a final cleaning. Neither of us are people who look back much, so we when we headed out we talked about the future rather than the past. The next two and a half days were a flurry of unpacking and setting up. My cousins were great – feeding us and helping with the storage. By the time we were ready to leave on Thursday afternoon my mum was mostly settled in – still a few jobs but 90% complete. I felt comfortable leaving her settled for the winter and monitored by Veronica and her family, and accessible to all the help she might now. Now she tells me the she and young Joan (83) are going to explore the region by city bus (as they have free passes) and visit new places. They are both quite irrepressible – what at wonderful way to be in your mid-80’s.
Martin and I still had a few jobs to do on our way back to Skookum. We had to stop into a place in Essex (near to the Harwich – Rotterdam Ferry) to pick up our new (and quite expensive) windshield for the boat. We ordered it a number of months ago and transporting it was a bit of problem, so we decided to pick it on our way back to Europe. Driving around the Essex countryside at 7:00pm in the dark was not fun, but we found the place, picked up our windshield and headed for the night ferry to Holland. We had more business in Holland. A good nights sleep on the Ferry was just the ticket to prepare us for the bureaucratic trials that began in the Netherlands.
Europe because it has a single currency and everyone is part of the jolly old EU, it is often perceived as a single unit – a united states of Europe if you like. Nothing could be further from the truth. Yes, there is one currency (and I really appreciate the Euro) and there is free movement of goods and people across borders, there is still lots of paperwork and differences to deal with when moving something like a car from one country to the next. We had to export Starlet from the Netherlands and import her into France. Starting in Holland we began this long journey. We had to wait for an ownership card to be sent before we could start the process. Of course, we had to give in our Dutch number plates before leaving the Netherlands and we had 14 days to become registered in France. So we had paper number plates on our car as we took the long journey from Dordrecht to Reims. Once in Reims Martin started to do battle with the French bureaucracy to import Starlet into the France and get French auto-insurance. He was eventually successful but not before he was sent to a number of different government departments requiring all kinds of documentation including attestation of domicile for us and the car’s ‘birth certificate’ (translation is such fun).
Arriving back on the boat, which was at its winter moorage in Sillery – about 10kms out of Reims, we prepared to welcome our friends from Victoria and take them out on our last voyage of the year, and decommission the boat ready for its winter sleep. Not quite ready to think about returning here yet – just looking forward to getting home and staying put. The last run for 2014 will be part of the final blog – next time.