The fact that I love Champagne has already been pretty well established in previous blog posts, but it bears repeating. If given a choice of only one wine for the rest of my life, I would choose Champagne. While celebrating my sister Lori’s birthday in New York, I happened across the 100% Pinot Blanc Cuvée Originale Champagne from Pierre Gerbais. The wines from this winery in the Aube region in Southern Champagne have quickly become favorites of mine so I was ecstatic when Aurélien Gerbais started following me on Instagram after I posted a photo of two bottles of Champagne—Pierre Gerbais L’Originale and Roses de Jeanne Côte de Béchalin—chilling in the snow on my patio table. I was preparing for last winter’s big snowstorm. Don’t judge me. Some people get ready by stocking up on tons of toilet paper and milk (milk, really?). I make sure I have an ample supply of properly chilled Champagne.
While planning a trip to the Aube this summer to visit my friends Cédric and Emilie Bouchard of Roses de Jeanne fame, I contacted Aurélien hoping that he would have time to see me while I was there. What a great visit! We toured vineyards and discussed the family winery where he is the fourth generation to work the vineyards and make wine.
Located approximately 100 miles south of Reims and Epernay with their well-known Champagne vineyards, the Aubes’s Côte des Bar is the warmest region in Champagne and historically has supplied grapes to the large Champagne houses in the north. Over the last 15-20 years a group of Grower Winemakers a.k.a. Récoltant-Manipulants in the Aube have emerged from their limited roles as grape growers for their neighbors to the north by bottling their own estate-grown wines, with a number of them becoming some of the most sought-after winemakers in all of Champagne.
Although most of the producers in the Côte des Bar specialize in wines made from Pinot Noir, there are significant plantings of Chardonnay in Montgueux and a small number of producers have some old Pinot Blanc vineyards. While most Champagnes are made from three grapes (singly or in combination): Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier, four other grapes are permitted: Pinot Gris, Petit Meslier, Arbanne and Pinot Blanc. Despite currently being allowed in the production of Champagne, new plantings of the latter four are forbidden. Consequently, Pinot Blanc vineyards are very rare and quite old. According to Aurélien, his family’s ten acres of Pinot Blanc—some of which were planted over 110 years ago—are the largest planting of that varietal in Champagne.
I have friends in the wine industry who espouse the view that Champagne is big business and the Champenois people are not friendly. While I agree it is big business, I have never found the Champenois to be unfriendly—having been welcomed into the homes of many Champagne producers. My experiences each time I have visited the Aube allow me to attest to the fact that they are extremely hospitable. After Aurélien and I visited the vineyards (with me driving my trusty Fiat Panda up the steep, dirt roads to see the oldest Pinot Blanc vines—yikes!) and the cellar and tasted the wines, he invited me to join him for lunch in the tasting room.
During a simple yet delicious lunch of Jamón Ibérico and melon, summer-ripened tomatoes with mozzarella and a mâche lettuce salad with julienned red beets (and Pierre Gerbais Champagne, of course) I discovered that Aurélien and his parents are avid foodies who don’t let the relative lack of grocery stores in their neck of the woods hamper their dining habits. Celles-sur-Ource, population 450, has no stores, no café and no hotel. The closest shops (and they are very small) are in Bar-sur-Seine five miles away. While the Gerbais do some shopping in Bar-sur-Seine, they routinely travel 20 miles to the Halles market in Troyes for the lion’s share of their marketing, sometimes venturing even further afield to ensure a good supply of their favorite foods. For instance, the Ibérico ham we were enjoying with our melon was sliced from one of the legs of Jamón the family brought back from one of their regular trips to the Basque country.
While we were eating lunch, I brought the conversation around to the question of how and what the workers at the winery eat during harvest (not a shock to anyone who knows me since it is one of my favorite topics). Amazingly, the Gerbais family not only feeds all 100 of their harvesters and winery employees during the harvest period, they house the majority of them as well. (Frankly, given how small Celles-sur-Ource is, I cannot fathom where they are lodging them although they said they have dormitories and some folks sleep in local homes.)
With Aurélien, his father Pascal and the winery employees involved in the harvest, it falls to his mother Véronique, her mother and several of their friends to cook the meals for that massive crowd. I was floored. Véronique is a petite attractive blonde woman—well dressed and quite elegant—and feeding a crowd of that size is a huge amount of work. Véronique joined Aurélien and me to describe the process over cheese and a dessert of local pastries.
At harvest, they provide:
Breakfast and a mid-morning snack called casse-croute comprised of salami, local cheeses and coffee.
Lunch is straightforward with a main course, cheese and a simple dessert of yoghurt or Fromage Blanc cheese (a fresh cheese with a yoghurt-like texture). Sometimes they hire a local caterer for this.
Dinner is always cooked by the Gerbais ladies and their friends. It is a substantial meal beginning with a potage (vegetable soup) followed by a main course of roasted meat, fish or pasta, and finishing with tarts and cakes for dessert. She shared her recipe for Tomatoes Farcies (Stuffed Tomatoes incorporating leftover beef from the evening before’s pot roast) with me. The recipe, given to her by her grandmother, is a huge favorite with the harvest crowd.
I was fascinated to learn that it is actually the logistics prior to harvest that are the most daunting for Véronique. Finding harvest staff and then arranging their lodging, planning the menus and acquiring supplies takes an enormous amount of detailed preparation. By the time harvest rolls around, she said meal preparation itself is pretty much routine. (I understand why she feels that way, but still—that’s a lot to do!) Véronique confessed that the saving grace is that since there are so many different types of workers who finish at different times, i.e. harvesters in different vineyards, cellar workers, etc., the crowd comes in waves rather than all at once making mealtimes somewhat more manageable.
Traditionally, because there is work still to be done later in the day, no wine is served at lunchtime, but at dinnertime the wine flows—with unlimited Champagne, white and red wine and Marc de Champagne (a brandy made from the skins and seeds of Champagne).
Feeding and lodging the harvest workers used to be common practice in wineries throughout France, and although it still exists, it is becoming more rare. Maybe it is because the Côte des Bars is so remote, or maybe it is just a tradition that the Gerbais family does not want to give up, but it is something to which they are very committed. Aurélien feels that the camaraderie it engenders makes for a cohesive team that enables him to be more demanding of the workers since they too feel a commitment to the work and the wines.
Once all the grapes have been picked, there is a big party called Le Chien (which means the dog—don’t ask me why) where the family, winery workers, harvesters, friends and customers congregate to celebrate harvest’s end.
The warmth and spirit of generosity that the family shows to its harvesters, the lovely lunch we shared and Véronique’s willingness to take time in the middle of her workday to come chat with me and share her recipe all solidified my already established impression of the cordiality of the people of Aube.
A couple of days ago, I received an email from Aurélien with news about this years’ harvest—good-quality grapes albeit in very small quantities. As I stood in the kitchen of my home in Virginia, hollowing out some bright red, fall tomatoes and stuffing them according to Véronique’s grandmother’s recipe, I could not help but wish that I had been there to help cook for them and to drink a glass Champagne at Le Chien to celebrate the end of harvest and such a warm-hearted tradition.
Yield: Eight medium, 4 large tomatoes
Wine Pairing: Light young red Burgundy
Ease of Preparation: Medium
8 medium or 4 large tomatoes
4 oz. cooked beef roast, (either left over from a previous meal or purchased)
2 oz. cooked ham
1 small clove garlic, peeled and chopped + 1 peeled whole clove garlic
2 Tbsp. chopped parsley
1-1/2 oz. mini toast
½ cup milk
4 oz. basic pork sausage, loose or taken out of its casing
2/3 cup tomato sauce, preferably homemade
2 oz. butter
What you’ll need:
Medium size kitchen bowl
Small deep kitchen bowl
Medium-sized fine strainer
Potato masher (or a fork)
Oven safe baking dish just large enough to hold tomatoes
Prep Time: 20 minutes
Cooking Time: 1 hour
Preheat oven to 400° F.
Place the tomato sauce in the small saucepan.
Cut a very thin slice off the bottom of the tomatoes so that they sit flat without wobbling. Remove the top from the tomatoes and set aside. Hollow out the tomatoes and add the portion you remove to the saucepan containing the tomato sauce along with the peeled whole clove of garlic. Cook over low heat until the tomato and garlic are tender, adding a bit of water if necessary.
Rough chop the roast beef and the ham.
Place the mini toast and the milk into the small deep kitchen bowl and allow the toast to soften.
Place the chopped clove of garlic and the parsley in the food processor and process until finely minced.
Add the roast beef and the ham to the food processor and process until the mixture is finely shredded. Do not overprocess. You do not want this to turn into a paste.
Place the beef mixture, the pork sausage and the eggs in the medium sized bowl. Squeeze the excess milk out of the toast and add the toast to the bowl. Add salt and pepper. With your hands (don’t be squeamish!) mix everything together until it forms a sticky mass. The toast should be completely incorporated into the mixture with no chunks remaining.
Mash the tomato sauce mixture to break up the chunks of tomato and garlic. Pass it through the fine strainer (pressing down with the spatula until only skin and seeds remain) into the bottom of the baking dish. Don’t make this layer of tomato sauce too deep. You don’t want the tomatoes swimming in it. Discard the tomato skins and seeds and eserve the excess tomato sauce to serve with the finished dish.
Add a pinch of salt to the inside of each hollowed-out tomato and fill it with the meat mixture. You should press down hard enough to make sure each tomato cavity is full without breaking the tomato open. Place each tomato in the baking dish. Retrieve the reserved tomato tops and salt the cut side. Place the tomato tops on each stuffed tomato. Sprinkle a little extra salt over the tomatoes.
Add pats of butter to the tomato sauce.
Place the baking dish in the preheated oven and bake 50-60 minutes until the tops are browned. Do not undercook this. The tomatoes need to be sagging somewhat. This ensures that the meat mixture is fully cooked and the flavors of the tomatoes and meat have mingled together.
Serve with a spoonful of warmed Tomato Sauce and a Green Salad, Rice or Noodles
#1: Although everyone thinks that tomatoes are a summer vegetable, their growing season lasts into the early to mid-fall. I have a lot of friends who are farmers. Believe me if they are still harvesting tomatoes, they want you to buy them! So don’t stop cooking them just because school is back in session. There’s enough time for winter vegetables once the tomatoes disappear—no need to hasten them on their way prematurely!
#2: Mini toasts are small crunchy toast. They are sold in most grocery stores in the gourmet aisle. If you cannot find them, use dried white sandwich bread.
#3: I’m not going to bust on you if you don’t use homemade tomato sauce. You can always substitute store-bought low-sodium tomato sauce. I usually have a bit of homemade sauce stashed in the freezer because if I slice tomatoes for a meal and we don’t finish them (a rarity in and of itself) I don’t like to throw them away. And yet, once I refrigerate tomatoes, I don’t like to eat them raw because they lose their flavor when chilled. Generally, I freeze them and when I accumulate about a quart of them, I throw them in a saucepan with a garlic clove and a little olive oil and cook them until they are soft. Pass them through a fine strainer and you’ve got homemade sauce that can be frozen for later use.