Thursday, September 10, 2009

'c' is for champagne

I drink champagne when I'm happy and when I'm sad. Sometimes I drink it when I'm alone. When I have company I consider it obligatory. I trifle with it if I'm not hungry and drink it when I am. Otherwise I never touch it - unless I'm thirsty. ~ Madame Lily Bollinger

Hooray for Champagne! My love for the bubbly substance began early and runs deep. You should know that my mother's parents were my favorite people in the universe. My grandfather was a former opera singer and larger than life. Always dressed up (ascots, cuff links, starch), he made grand entrances and meaningful friendships with everyone, especially waitresses and cab drivers. My grandmother had a wicked sense of humor and was very smart and glamorous (leopard skin, red lipstick, big sparkling rings). My grandparents used crystal and sterling silver every day and had large oriental rugs and decorative porcelain things. Vats of champagne flowed freely and fancy cheeses were served on fancy little plates made specifically for such purposes. They had interesting, smart, lively conversations until the wee hours and were perpetually joyful and elegant. I later discovered this whole display of extravagance took place in a tiny little apartment in Los Angeles after my grandfather had lost his fortune (not that substantial really, nevertheless lost). But to me at the time, it was the most vast, wonderful, magical place in the world.

It's hard not to love the fizzy stuff of engagements, mergers, marriages, bon vivants, bon voyages, and new beginnings - everything all hopeful, romantic and full of promise. But the beverage that so often accompanies joy arose from a history of sadness and strife. Champagne vines grow in France near the city of Reims, which was plagued by invaders and clashes over the centuries from Attila the Hun to the Napoleonic wars to World War II. By the 17th century, the city had been destroyed at least 7 times. While champagne as we know it originated with Benedictine monks, it flourished at the hands of grieving widows. Veuve (or 'widow') Cliquot, Madame Lily Bollinger and Madame Louis Pommery were widows who, upon the death of their husbands, stepped in and took over their champagne houses. They proved to be hard-working and extremely savvy business women, and their brands flourished under their guidance and leadership. Viva les Veuves!

Guess what? The bottle opening technique called 'sabering', is thought to have originated during Napoleon's time. Soldiers on horseback were sometimes given congratulatory bottles of champagne and, in lieu of fiddling with the cork and so on, they would simply lop the top of the bottle off in one fell swoop with their swords. I know! Could there be anything more swashbuckly or romantic? For surprisingly dead-pan, matter-of-fact, flourish-free instructions on how to do this at home (although I'm officially advising you against this) see here.

Maybe it is the combination of grief and joy, hardship and hope, that gives champagne its revered place in my heart. All I know is when I think of champagne (and all of its sweet promises) I think of this. :)


  1. Doh! I just replied to your message without reading your blog first, so I guess I wasn't much help. Sorry.

    Still, an awesome post. :)

  2. Vive les veuves, indeed! Where would I be in this world if it were not for le Veuve Levy?

    And I've always held onto my empty bottle of Perrier-Jou√ęt Fleur de Champagne '83 with the matching hand painted flutes.

    With that I give you my favorite cocktail recipe involving champagne.

    The London - from Gordon Ramsay's London Bar in Manhattan

    1.25 oz. English Gin (Boodles or Plymouth)
    .75 oz Lillet
    2 oz. Grapefruit Juice

    Combine Gin, Lillet and Grapefruit Juice over ice in a cocktail shaker. Shake until chilled and strain into a martini glass or champagne flute. Finish with champagne.

  3. This post makes me so happy. There will never be 900 square feet more glamorous than that of G&P's apartment. And remember in the 80's when the party moved on to Uncle Jeffery's bachelor pad... complete with the fish tank fireplace and mirrored black bathroom? There were always cases and cases of champagne. We would stay up late into the night listening to the stories, eating shrimp cocktail and pretending to be fabulous. Sigh.