Saturday, May 5th/Sunday, May 6th – Days 1 and 2, Home, Hull, Rotterdam, Epernay, Etoges
After what felt like weeks and weeks of cold, wet, miserable weather we finally started to see some sunshine as we left home on Saturday afternoon to drive to Hull and get the overnight ferry to Rotterdam, from where we would drive down to the Champagne region of France with a two night stay in the tiny commune of Etoges (population less than 270 people), at the very splendid Chateau d’Etoges, a place I originally discovered back in 2004. I’ve been threatening to go back ever since and so we finally had a room booked (in fact a whole package, including a couple of dinners and a bottle of Champagne) and would have a nose around the area and buy some wine before heading further south.
We would sail on the recently refurbished Pride of Rotterdam, operated by P&O ferries, and in the spirit of being on holiday we’d booked one of the spacious state rooms, the Rotterdam Suite, so we could really enjoy the journey. What we got were two rooms, a separate shower room with two shower heads, one at each end, and a small toilet room. The bedroom was large, well lit, and comfortable, with a decent size wardrobe and a TV, while the lounge was equipped with another TV, a fridge, comfy armchairs, and tea and coffee making facilities. We settled in, had dinner in the Brasserie on board, and retired to bed relatively early, happy in the knowledge that we wouldn’t need to get up too early, since the weekend schedule sees the boat dock half an hour later at 09:00 local time.
Dinner was reasonably good, though the antipasto was a little on the dull side.
The grilled Portobello mushroom was much better, with plenty of cheese and bacon (everything is improved by bacon).
I opted for a main of grilled sea bream fillets, reasoning that once we were in the far south west of France there’d be red meat in large quantities. It was very pleasant, nicely cooked, and the crushed new potatoes went well with it.
Lynne ordered the squash, brie, beetroot and truffle-infused tart, which was well-executed, with nicely crisp pastry and a tasty filling.
While we were getting ready for breakfast we put the TV on and came upon a programme showing a concert somewhere on the canals of Amsterdam. A suspicion that it was something to do with commemorating the end of WWI or WWII had me reaching for the tablet to quiz Google on the subject. The answer came that May 5th is Liberation Day which marks the end of Nazi occupation of the Netherlands, and is consequently a public holiday there.
#A portion of eggs Norvegienne got the day off to a good start and we were soon off the boat and nosing our way out of Rotterdam, en route for Belgium, bypassing Antwerp relatively easily for a change (I have a marked fear of the Antwerp motorway ring having spent far too much of my life stuck on that bloody road to want to repeat the experience).
It was a lovely day, the roads were pretty quiet with it being a Sunday, and we made excellent progress, stopping only for a coffee at a service station somewhere just over the French border somewhere near Cambrai. The biscuits provided on the boat proved a useful stop gap, and we spent some time eating them, and then becoming fascinated by the very fluffy trees in the car park.
No idea what they were, but research later suggests they may be European aspens, or Populus tremula. They certainly do dramatic fluff. It looked like a snowstorm had hit.
Because we knew that check-in at the hotel would not be before 16:00 we had a plan to stop off in Epernay, which was around 20 minutes driving time away, and thus meant we only had a very small part of the drive left to tackle. This turned out to be an excellent plan, and after a certain amount of driving around in circles we managed to find an underground car park, which would be both secure and – possibly more important – cool, given that the air conditioning compressor in my car has failed and we therefore had minimal cooling available to us. Car parked up, we set off to find the Tourist Information office, which is very conveniently well sign posted and sits at the town centre end of the splendid Avenue de Champagne, though not before we’d stumbled across this, a Renaissance portal to a now-defunct church. There was a tiny park just behind it, and it seemed rather delightful.
We followed the signs for the Avenue de Champagne, and found ourselves outside the Hotel de Ville where the Tourist Information office can be found. Unusually for France at lunchtime, it was actually open! And there was a tourist train just about to set off round the town. We bought two tickets and hopped on board, keen to get an overview of the town.
The Hotel de Ville is a stunning building and proves just how much money has been washing around these parts since the development of the Champagne markets across the world, and in addition to a glorious war memorial, which seemed apt given the date, it has an English-style garden round the back that was clearly popular with the locals.
The train commentary was actually pretty informative as these things go, so we came away knowing quite a lot more than when we’d gone in, and we’d had the chance to admire the spectacular Hôtels on the avenue, starting with Moët et Chandon’s massive offering at one end and moving through a number of houses we didn’t know well – or at all – and ending up with the more than a little demented gothic/roccoco railway station style of De Castellane, complete with absurd tower.
Turned loose from the train we decided we’d walk back along the avenue to get a better look at some of the mad buildings. Especially as some of them were open for tastings. Cellar visits are also a thing, but mostly not on a Sunday, so we would have to forego the pleasure of nosing about down under the town in some of the 200+ kilometres of tunnels that are use to store the precious bubbles.
It was a gloriously hot afternoon, clear blue skies all round, and eventually we lighted on a house where the garden looked welcoming (some of the places gave off the distinct impression that you really needn’t bother unless you are seriously well-heeled) so we wandered in to try some of their Champagnes. Now the way this works is you basically pay for a small glass of any of the wines you want to try. It was rather too much for a simple tasting, and I would have happily had rather less, and would still have happily paid a sum for it. I can see why they don’t just hand wine out to all comers because I’m pretty sure they’d go out of business very fast. I would just prefer they made a charge for tasting and then took you through smaller measures of a handful of cuvees, and you could then make an informed choice if you wanted to buy more.
Anyway having tasted three of Andre Bergere’s offerings we arranged to buy a case of their rose and another of their Brut Nature, made with 100% chardonnay and no sugar at all. It’s very dry indeed and I’m looking forward to drinking it with fish or shellfish. We finished our samples, collected the car (once we found the car park again), collected our first two cases of wine (12 bottles in total) and then headed to the hotel. On the way we passed a number of these milestones (or more accurately kilometre stones I suppose), marking the voie de la Liberte, which is the route taken by the Allied forces starting in June 1944. It starts at Utah Beach and goes northwards to Bastogne for 1,146 kilometres, each one indicated by a stone marker. The first one we’d noticed was in Epernay itself and the commentary on the train had clarified what they were.
We left them behind when we turned off the main road and drove up to the hotel. It was looking very lovely in the Spring sunshine.
We had a room in the orangery, which I’d chosen partly because I wanted to make sure we got a room with air conditioning in case we needed it, and partly because it was the more sensibly priced option at this stage of the trip. We might need the spare money to buy wine after all!
Unpacked, cleaned up, and rested we wandered down to the orangery to see what we were being offered for dinner. We would be having the Menu Gourmande that was included in our package the following night when our friends W and E would hopefully manage to escape from the UK and all the things that are currently causing them not to have had a holiday for 18 months and would join us at the hotel, and then later in Pau and Bordeaux. Various nibbles appeared while we shared a half bottle of Champagne.
The menu decoverte offered two choices per course, so for the starters we opted to order one each, and then swap so we could try both. First there was bread and an amuse bouches, and the wine list to negotiate.The bread good, as you would expect in France, and the amuse bouches were delicious. a tartare of salmon with basil oil.
The wine list was spectacular too, but Jerome, the maitre d’, did not approved of my choices and insisted that no matter how much I wanted to try a local wine, it would NOT WORK with the food. I held my hands up and let him order. He may or may not have been right about my choices, but he was spot on with his. Anyway, wine ordered, we duly settled in for the long-ish haul
The poached egg on spinach royale, with creamy crayfish sauce was the more spectacular looking of the two starters, and it tasted fabulous, with a very rich sauce that was redolent of seafood of all types.
The rabbit pie with rosemary and hazelnut, with a salad of mesclun, was pretty rather than architecturally impressive, with a golden crust that invited you to bit into it. It was every bit as good as it looked.
For mains there was only one option, and that was the seared cod fillet, with a creamy risotto with green asparagus, and a Parmesan sauce. The other option was pork and as neither of us like pork, that was not going to happen. The cod was excellent, skin crispy and flesh meltingly tender.
We moved on to the cheese – we’d seen the cheese trolley as it was wheeled past us more than once already so there was no way it was not going to happen – and the cheeses were pretty well perfect, well kept, at the right temperature, just as you always hope they will be, and they so often are not.
For dessert, we were back to two choices again, but not before we’d been given a pre-dessert of white chocolate and raspberry, with a lovely crunch to it, and some sharo sweetness from the fruit.
And then it was pear and elderberry, almond surprise and Williams pear granita with a dessert wine chosen by Jerome, because again he didn’t approve of my choices!
The other dessert was a Madagascar chocolate delight, with coriander and lime, which again looked much plainer but tasted fabulous.
The final touch came in the form of petit fours, small, delicious, delightful, but probably more than we needed! It didn’t stop us though…
And thereafter we went off to bed to sleep off a long day.