• Bubbling over in Southern Champagne

    There are days, I reflect, watching Michel Jacob — a youthful Charles Aznevour look-alike — wrap an apron around his waist to cook a gourmet feast, when I quite enjoy my work. Having Michel and his vivacious wife Isabelle Mathieu blithely rustle up a fantastic meal exclusively for guests to their winery Serge Mathieu near Troyes in France’s southern Champagne, is not a bad way to spend the afternoon You’ll agree, especially when they make it all look so easy. Of course, that’s probably because Michel had pre-ordered the lunch from a chef he supports in the village, who left him with strict instructions — precisely eight minutes and 30 seconds cooking time — on its preparation.

    We stood to attention as 14 dishes arrived and seated ourselves around the pale blue lime-washed counter for lunch. And, what a magnificent repast it turned out to be, accompanied by a variety of Champagnes to bring out the full flavours.

    One of the most novel dishes for my South African palate, were the delicious cocks-combs on Jerusalem artichokes with balsamic vinegar. They tasted like gnocci on vegetable-flavoured mashed potato.

    The Sélect went with the saffron tainted Saint Jacques on a bed of rosemary and the baked mushroom dish. The Tradition NV Blanc de Noir accompanied bulgar wheat, dried oregano and cheese, the squid with lima beans and bacon went with the Millêsiemé Brut 1999 while the black pudding; pimento and red peppers on rosemary and spicy sausage with Emmental cheese provided the perfect foil for the Rosé Brut. Snails with a garlic and parsley sauce were washed down with the Cuveé Prémier Brut.

    I asked Michel to explain the difference between the two cured Palma ham-styled meats. He shrugged and raised his palms heavenward in that classic French gesture before answering, “perhaps one is cheese?” When I failed to understand his cryptic reply, he mused that perhaps one pig had enjoyed a higher education.

    Michel holds our attention captive, as his arms and fork fly around wildly, in time to his views and sense of humour. Like a conductor he is in charge and we follow the flow of his batton.

    Michel is nothing if not eccentric, but then again, it is the characters that sell products, more often than the actual quality in the bottles. Good grapes, good luck and a little savvy marketing is the key to success.

    I marvel at the relaxed attitude of the group, so unlike the formality experienced at the international Champagne Houses. We discuss Michel’s approach to organic farming and his visionary slant of analysing grasses between the vines to detect what the soil lacks. He has a separate venture with his own vineyards in the village, and has decided to continue selling these grapes, rather than incorporating them at Serge Mathieu, and risk developing the winery beyond his and Isabelle’s capacity.

    Isabelle inherited the property and her touch can be found in the wooden building perched on top of one of those classic rolling hills depicted in Champagne brochures. Only this time the area had experienced 15 cm of snow that had all but melted, leaving slushy white smudges and an airbrushed landscape. Rust-coloured smudge pots lined the route weaving up the hill to the heated tasting room, decorated with old wine utensils. Cutting shears on the dado rail, magazines on a step-ladder, a table with a plough sheer base, a glass wall sconce embossed with their logo, and copper Chardonnay leaf-shaped light fittings provided an authentic rural French handwriting.

    The rows of dishes are cleared, a confectionery box is opened and its contents popped into the oven. Steaming ant hills appear and we savour mini chocolate muffins brimming with a rich chocolate soufflé mixture. Michel advises us to eat fast, as when the chocolate cools ‘it comes down to earth and runs’. By now, I have become used to his off-beat humour and savour-faire.

    Once, he told us, he had been sipping the fermented grape with a German client when he saw a mouse run across the room. Quick as a flash he asked the German if he always travelled with small rodents. Shortly afterwards the German departed for saner grounds with Michel shouting after him: “Excusez moi, mon ami, haven’t you forgotten something?”

    Tasting the delicacy and finesse of Michel and Isabelle’s range of Champagnes with their elegant labels bearing the Serge Mathieu logo in beautiful script on the gold neck foil, was a special treat. It is easy to see how this is the Champagne House preferred by French locals who want weight on the palate and not on their wallet when celebrating.

    Michel is modest about his distinguished range, thanking “God and love” for bringing him business! Well, I, for one, second that. The opportunity of tasting this quality of Champagne is not to be sniffed at!

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