It’s been a weird time. We all know this, so I’m going to keep this site free of any C-word (careful…) business, because let’s be honest you didn’t click on a food blog to be reminded of the 21st century version of the plague. So we’ll leave all that stuff there and I’ll just say that Matt and I went to France in the car for a few days as a mini-moon, after we postponed our US/Mexico trip. All the establishments mentioned in this series adhered to all safety protocols and distancing was fine; we did choose to sit outside though, as the weather was great. I highly recommend The Fork app for anyone wanting to explore places to eat in Europe (mostly). It’s like Open Table, so it lets you book on the app instead of struggling to do so in your GCSE-at-best French, but you also earn points and can get discounts on it too. I really liked it as they also listed the safety protocols the restaurants had implemented, so you could be led by that if you were struggling to make a decision. Disclaimer: I am in no way sponsored by The Fork, or anyone for that matter…it’s ok you can feel sorry for me later.
Epernay- The Home of Champagne
For those of you unfamiliar with Epernay, it is in the North-East (don’t @ me because of my poor geography please I’m just trying to set the scene) of France, a short distance from the perhaps more famous city of Reims. Both are surrounded by miles of lush vineyards, producing the bubbly beauty that is Champagne. Champagne houses, where you can taste multiple glasses (3-5 of around 70ml) for about £15-20, line the main avenue. There are of course famous names to spot on the gilded gates, such as Moet and Chandon, but I recommend you also try the smaller places which may not have the cellars onsite, but still do tastings. For example, we had a 3-glass tasting at LeClerc Briant Champagne house, which is opposite the beautiful Boizel cellars which are also worth a look. We sat on the terrace, shaded by pear and olive trees, and tried two Champagnes and one Rose Champagne from the area. What I loved about Epernay is the care the servers took over explaining the sugar dosage in each champagne which determines whether it is Brut, Extra Brut (i.e. the ‘dry-ness’ you get when you taste it), but also the knowledge they have about the area the vines are grown. You can see why Champagne can only be produced within a set area, and that those who do produce is are incredibly proud of that. Anyway, the tasting was 12 euros each and you can read more about the LeClerc Briant group here: https://maisons-champagne.com/en/
We then went to the Moet and Chandon (Moet et Chandon if we’re being authentic here) museum, shop and cellars and took part in a cellar tour. What I loved most, except the fact I got to try more Champagne obviously, is that the tour allowed us to carry Phoebe, our dog, with us. This meant no deciding who did the tour first, which would obviously have been me, for research… Anyway, Moet offer a selection of tours at different price points. We both went for the hour tour, and I selected the ticket with one glass of Moet (what was I thinking?!) and Matt selected the ticket with 2 glasses (that’s why I married him). My ticket was 25 euros, his was 37.50, so quite an up-tick in price for one glass, but you are also paying for the experience of one of the most famous Champagne producers. I had read reviews of the tour which said it seemed very one-dimensional and rushed, but I can honestly say we did not find that to be the case at all. Our guide explained the appellation of the region (the topography and geography of the set ‘Champagne’ vineyards), the fermentation process, how they turn the bottles one quarter one way and then an eighth back the other until the sediment collects to be removed and shereally seemed to enjoy leading us through the 28km of tunnel-cellars that there are (although, to be fair, we didn’t walk all of them- can you imagine?!). So, all in all, I would really recommend the tour; a lot of the other houses were closed on the Tuesday we went, so be aware of that, but Moet was a really great one and the shop is just too much temptation…(https://www.moet.com/en-int). Incidentally, if you don’t fancy doing a tour, or even visiting the Champagne houses (I’m judging you), then there’s a really nice bar in the centre of Epernay called C. Comme Sarl that do very reasonable tastings and excellent local charcuterie.
I realise, as a food blogger primarily, I haven’t mentioned any food yet, but I did this for two reasons: I really enjoy Champagne and we actually skipped lunch (this never happens) that day because we bounced (staggered?) from one tasting to the next. However, the food of Epernay must not and will not be overlooked and so I will take you first to one of the most beautiful patisseries I have encountered (and, not to brag, but I love cake so…). Maison Dallet was recommended to me by a friend of my sister-in-law and I will be forever grateful.
This little patisserie on the corner of one of the main streets in Epernay centre produced, to my mind, one of the best puff pastry items I have ever eaten. It was breakfast time, so we went there primarily for croissants, as you do. Matt got an all-butter croissant, the lamination so shiny you could see your face in it (attractive). The flakes of pastry melted in the mouth and, this is something I like about high-quality French patisserie, the flavour was almost of salted butter, not sweet like the cake-y (technical term) ones you can get from the supermarket.
I had an pastry filled with a slightly-spiced (cinnamon) apple compote and it was extremely moreish. Once again there was that slight savoury note to the pastry, which balanced the jam nicely, and left you wanting to catch the drips oozing out on the other side. 10/10 would recommend.
Another reason I love my husband, as well as his thirst for Champagne, is his ability to have zero self-control when it comes to sweet treats in the morning (this makes Disney trips particularly fun). So, not only did we get our pastries, he chose a dense, rich and cocoa-laden chocolate souffle from the patisseries section. My body is obviously a temple though, so I chose just 6 macarons from the rainbow-coloured counter. 6 for 6.50 euros, but man were they worth it. The flavours I chose were: Champagne (surprisingly detectable), Rose Champagne (less so), Raspberry (yum), Pistachio (so overwhelmingly nutty, in a good way), Coffee (woke me up!) and Butter Salted Caramel (indulgent to the extreme). Hands-down my favourite was the Pistachio; I have never before had a macaron that had so much flavour in such a small bite.
L’Oeil De Boeuf
Now onto savoury offerings. For dinner on our second night we went to another recommended restaurant. I always love taking recommendations, especially in other countries, so be sure to message me any you think are particularly yum! We went to a small restaurant, tucked round the back of our hotel, called L’Oeil de Boeuf (‘Bullseye’ or ‘Eye of the Cow’, which is how un-romantically I translated it). The restaurant is minimalist and Modern European in style. The inside is charming enough, if a bit basic. We sat out on the terrace, which is framed by a really interesting Japanese-style garden; a good use of such a small space. The service was friendly and relaxed, if not a bit too relaxed at some points (but hey, we were on holiday so we didn’t mind). The food was a mixture of inventive dishes, sharing plates and French classics.
For starters, I had the house salad. When I think of French salads of holidays past, this is what I think of; thick, dense and deliciously warm rounds of goat’s cheese on crunchy toast, bacon lardons in a mustard vinaigrette dispersed through a mixture of leaves, tomatoes (fresh and sun-dried), roast potatoes and a surprising crunch from pine nuts. Probably the least healthy, but definitely the most delicious, salad I have had in a long time. The portion was large too, for a starter, so could be shared (but why would you even think like that?). Matt had scallop carpaccio, almost the antithesis of my dish; delicate, clean with crisp notes of citrus from grapefruit and orange that was served with it. He made up for his lighter choice on the main though…
It was one of our first nights in France; I was craving steak, of course I was. I chose the Chateaubriand 400g (I’m a beast and finished it all), with Roquefort sauce, fries and salad. The steak was cooked medium-rare, as I like it, and the texture was succulent and melting. However, due to the nature of the cut, the flavour was not that prominent; not as much as it would be in a ribeye or something with more marbling. That being said, the earthy, salty Roquefort sauce made up for this and brought depth and much enjoyment when dipping in the crunchy fries. Matt had the butcher’s block; a 200g ribeye, a smoked duck salad, a bruschetta with local brie-type cheese melted onto it and fries. He was unfortunately beaten by the surprise cheese on toast (who wouldn’t be? Me.) but he said each individual component was well-cooked and incredibly rich.
All in all, L’Oeil de Boeuf was a relaxed, intimate restaurant in the heart of such a pleasant town that I would recommend to anyone. It wasn’t overly expensive; we shared a demi bottle of red (after all that Champagne we do have some sense) and it came to around 80 euros each. Unfortunately the website doesn’t have the menu up at the moment, but I’ll link it here for you to have a browse should you wish: https://www.oeil-de-boeuf.com/
Epernay may not be as famous as its neighbour Reims, but I would go as far as to say that, if you are anything like me, who loves a small provincial French town (with loads of Champagne), you should check it out.