When our Mother was diagnosed with cancer many years ago, once we regained our balance, my sister and I plotted and planned how we would make that Christmas, her last, be the best Christmas of her life. That being such a bold plan where else could we spend that bittersweet holiday but in the countryside of France and where else but in the festive Champagne region? This was our present to our Mother and we wanted it to be grand. The night before we were to leave Maine we opened up a bottle of her favorite Champagne and handed her a glass with an envelope. Tears poured down her cheeks as she viewed the tickets to Paris, her favorite destination in the whole world with her two daughters. We promised her that she would drink Champagne everyday, but that is all we revealed of our surprise dream Christmas together.
The next day we headed to Boston in a thick snow storm leaving behind our hopelessness and entering into a happy, magical fantasy for the next 10 days. No doctors, no treatments, no stress or sadness gnawing at our bones – just great food, champagne, and love in copious amounts. Having made the reservations so close to our departure the four of us were forced to sit in pairs. My mother and sister were seated ten rows ahead of me and my boyfriend. The noise level on the plane grew louder with laughter in the rows ahead of us. I mentioned to the flight attendant that she sure had a wild crowd to tend to that night. She laughed briefly and rolled her eyes. After an hour I headed up the aisle to check on my mother and sister, to my delight and horror they were the source of all the loud laughter fueled by too many glasses of Champagne. The plan for her to relax and enjoy herself again was working already.
We landed in Paris in the wee hours of the morning, rented a shiny BMW and headed for Epernay. I had chosen a hotel on the internet called the Royal Champagne Hotel. The description sounded great: it was a Relais & Chateau Hotel which I love, it was located on a hill overlooking the vineyards of the Marne Valley and it was Napoleon's favorite stopping point on the way to Reims. Plus the 3-star restaurant was open on Christmas Eve with a very special menu. It would be a gastronomic retreat for our mother's last Christmas and with perfect timing, the dollar was at an all time high so we could afford to stay where the kings of France stayed at Holiday Inn rates.
As we drove into the driveway – the white stucco and chestnut-beamed main building was gorgeous – a porter came to us help with our luggage as we dragged our tired stiff bones inside to register. The place was elegant and decorated beautifully for Christmas! We were greeted with a glass of Champagne and nibbles to refresh us after our long journey. Once we were renewed they showed us to our rooms. They had surprised us with a two bedroom suite on the bottom floor at the vineyard's edge. The walls of the suite were ulpostered in salmon colored fabric and the whole wall of floral print drapes once opened revealed a panoramic view of the the river valley. The antique chestnut beds were surrounded by drapes, just like in a royal boudoir and they beckoned to us. It was very elegant in a dreamy surreal way. We had reservations for Christmas Eve dinner that evening at 8:30 so we were free to take a leisurely nap for a few hours.
We all dressed for dinner in our best clothes and headed outside for a short walk to the restaurant. To our surprise it was gently snowing just like it is supposed to on Christmas Eve. Following the tracks in the snow we arrived at the heavy wooden front door of the restaurant and pushed it open to reveal the prettiest restaurant that I have every seen! Small in size with perhaps 15 or so large round tables with two roaring fireplaces on both sides of the dining room. The tables were set with antique silk brocade floor length tablecloths finished in what looked like Italian silk fringe, the crystal glasses sparkled in the firelight, the silverware and candlesticks were Christolfe, the china was platinum banded white Limoges and the oversized napkins were crisply hand ironed linen. That was just my first impression! Half the tables were filled and we were the only table of guests that weren't from the area. We were having dinner in the same small dining room with the owners and managing directors of the Champagne houses, the who's who of the champagne world! We were giddy with delight already!
We all ordered the Christmas Eve Tasting menu and a great bottle of local Champagne. Twenty-five years later I'll tell you exactly what I remember of the endless, multi-course dinner extraordinaire! We started with an amuse bouche of a classic single jumbo diver's scallop with a classic beure blanc and large dollop of Beluga caviar. I remember the salmon prepared three ways, the ethereal foie gras torchon with the sauterne gelee sparkling like a plate of light brown diamonds, the woven salmon and monkfish dish with a champagne butter sauce and for the main entree a classic Tournedos Rossini dripping with black truffles and vintage Madeira sauce, but the highlight of the many courses was the dessert. I am a sorbet lover and the Royal Champagne restaurant's was an epiphany. When we ordered sorbet out came a round, chestnut wood-carved cart with 20 silver-washed, 1-liter size containers each filled with freshly made sorbets. Apricot, passionfruit, coconut, raspberry, chestnut, every flavor that you could imagine! That was incredible but how they served them was the exciting part, with two large silver spoons they quickly and skillfully made quenelle shapes and placed each separate sorbet on a finely piped oval of crisply dried meringue which kept the sorbet from melting too quickly. Absolutely brilliant!
By the time we had finished dinner the dining room was loud with tipsy happy people. Everyone was talking to everyone and insisting that you try a glass of their Vintage Champagne that they brought with them! We started a conversation with the managing director of Moet & Chandon who insisted that we must have a VIP tour of the cellars on the next business day. Then the director of Bollinger overheard the invitation and invited us for lunch and a VIP tour. The invitations were pouring in like the champagne!
The Moet & Chandon director sent a car to bring us to the Champagne house and greeted us at the front door. We descended into the endless cellar and boarded onto an electric cart for our tour with the director himself. We toured every step in the process of making Champagne with the exception of the grape pressing and blending. He showed us where the caves were walled off to save their Champagne from the Germans during the second world war. It was fascinating! When the several hour tour was over we were escorted into a small salon with a polished chestnut wood table 5-feet in diameter, cut horizontally to show the trees 325 rings. As we were counting the table's rings a sommelier came in with four crystal flutes and a bottle of Don Perignon, filling each glass to the rim and then leaving us alone.
We toasted to the moment and to our mother's radiant smile on her face. As we were slowly sipping from our glasses the director joined us once again and insisted that we sign their guest book on a side table. The book was 3-feet tall and probably 2-feet wide and made of leather with Moet & Chandon in gold letters on the cover. He opened the book, handed his Mont Blanc ink pen to our Mother to sign first and then we all signed after her. Princess Diana had signed the guestbook only 20 signatures back. It was a who's who of famous guests including our Mother!
Our trip went by slowly together, we lived each minute, trying to ignore the future. Our Mother had the time of her life and that was our best Christmas present!
Brenda Athanus runs a small gourmet food shop in Belgrade Lakes, Maine with her sister Tanya called the Green Spot.
The Green Spot
by Chef Mark Shoup