On a recent trip to France, I visited Reims, the capital of the champagne region. A city with history, art and culture, champagne (of course) and pink biscuits. all making for a delectable story that has just been published in Bidvest’s Premier magazine.
“It all started 2 months ago at the kitchen counter while I was indulging in my favourite, morning ritual, dunking a rusk into my mug of coffee. For me this is the perfect start to the day, eating a coffee-soaked, soggy, rusk!
Lost in my own perfect world, Helene Marie, my partner, who never understood this culinary act just looked at me pityingly, shaking her head.
“What?” I asked. “There is nothing better than to dunk a rusk, never disappointing.”
“I bet you there is something better to dunk,” she responded, “but what are the stakes?”
We both love these little bets which we continuously place with each other and have been ongoing since we first met.
“If you can show me something better to dunk, I’ll hand-wash your car, every weekend for a month.”
“Just wait until France, then I’ll show you,” she added.
Shortly after that wager, we find ourselves in France, visiting Helene-Marie’s parents.
The four of us are on a road trip visiting Reims, (pronounced Raans,) the unofficial capital city of the champagne – the wine-growing region in the northeast of France. It is home to many of the famous champagne houses including, Pommery, Taittinger, Veuve Clicquot, Mumm, Ruinart, Krug, Jacquart, and GH Martel, to name just a few.
This could be heaven for some; however, champagne is the furthest thing on my mind as we are nearing the end of our trip and to date, I’ve seen or experienced nothing that compares to a coffee, dunked rusk.
At a café in between the Notre Dame Cathedral, the cathedral where the coronation of many of France’s Kings took place, and the Palace Tau, the palace where the banquet after the coronation was held – both of which have been listed by UNESCO as heritage sites, I did notice a couple dunking their croissants and baguettes into their coffees. Eager to try, I dunked a portion of my pastry into my coffee, then snatched a piece of Helene Marie’s baguette, dipped that in and slurped them into my mouth.
“Not even close,” I smile to myself, and triumphantly glance at Helene-Marie, who just shakes her head sympathetically as she slips a packet of local, pink biscuits into her bag.
At one point Reims was an especially important town to the Roman Empire and this is evident by the remaining Roman ruins. It is while marvelling at the sizeable Porte de Mars gate, the only remaining gate of four- built in the early 3rd century, and which gave access to the ancient, Gallo-Roman town known as Durocortorum, now called Reims, that Helene -Marie reminds me of our next stop which is a visit to one of the prestigious champagne houses.
As this is the last stop of our visit before heading back to her parent’s place, to pack and leave for home, I’m feeling super confident about not having to perform any car washing duties. Feeling like Julius Caesar himself, I enthusiastically look forward to tasting some champagne in a place where I can call it champagne.
Because of its collection of art museums, extensive range of paintings, sculptures, antique furniture and drawings, Reims has been dubbed, “the city of art and history,” so it’s not unusual that the storage caves and tunnels below the champagne houses are also used as exhibition galleries where one can walk around, viewing art and stored champagne, in a unique, dimly lit, cool environment – 20 – 40 metres below the city, before ascending to the tasting rooms to sample the Champagne.
Just as I’m taking my first sip of the sparkling drink I notice Helene- Marie reach into her bag and take out the packet of pink biscuits which I noticed earlier.
“What are those?’ I enquire.
“Oh these, they’re just a packet of, Biscuits Rose de Reims or otherwise known as Champagne biscuits,” she casually responds while handing me one.
They are pink, firm, and dusted with icing sugar. As I bite into one the texture is crispy yet light, not too dissimilar to a Finger biscuit.
“A bit sweet for my liking, but not bad,” I respond.
“But you’re not eating it correctly, they’re not called Champagne biscuits for nothing,” she smiles while gently slipping the end of her biscuit into the flute of clear, effervescing liquid.
The biscuit was created around 1690 in Reims making it one of the oldest biscuits in culinary history. It was initially white and became pink through the baker’s mistake. To add flavour to it, a pod of vanilla was introduced into the recipe. The vanilla left brown streaks on the biscuit. To conceal it, the baker added a natural scarlet dye, birthing the Biscuit Rose de Reims.
Fearfully I bite into the champagne-sodden, pink, biscuit.
“So, what do you think?” enquires Helene Marie knowingly.
And here I find myself, sponge and bucket in hand, on day one of a four-part car cleaning operation.
The consolation is the visit to Reims.