Ratafia de la champagne, an unusual liqueur, and Epoisses de Bourgogne – the king of all French cheeses
Reims, France – On a recent trip to Reims in the Champagne district of France, I tasted the local Vin de liqueur for the first time. It was a sweet, but not cloyingly sweet, a mouthful of the essence of a sunny afternoon in the French countryside. As I swallowed, I imagined the liqueur served with the strong local cheese, epoisses, and a good crusty Parisian baguette. In other words, it made me think of perfection.
Even fans of soft-ripened cheese may not know of the legendary Epoisses de Bourgogne, named after the village where it is made and for the brandy used in its aging. Protected with its own Appellation d’origine since 1991, this rare cheese from the Cote-d’Or region of France has charmed epicures since the sixteenth century when Cistercian Monks first began production.
Epoisses is made from unpasteurized cow’s milk and aged for several months. During that process, it is frequently bathed with marc de Bourgogne, a local brandy made by distilling the pomace that is leftover when making burgundy wine. This, combined with the yeast and other fermenting agents, creates its distinctive orange-red colored rind and incredible flavor.
After nearly being lost to culinary history during World War II, the Berthaut family of farmers gathered the few remaining people with a memory of making it and reintroduced Epoisses to the world. Today, descendants of that family still manufacture nearly all the cheese that can legally be called Epoisses.
Described as pungent or downright stinky depending upon how much favor the cheese holds with its describer, Epoisses is strong to the nose and delicate on the palate. It has a creamy, buttery smoothness and sublime flavor that only increases as the cheese comes to room temperature. There are anecdotal accounts of Epoisses being the only cheese forbidden by French law from being on any public transport. It is a very strong smelling and exquisite tasting cheese, rumored to be the favorite of Napoleon.
This was not my first visit to the region, nor even my second. I had to wonder, where had this cheese and delicious elixir been all this time?
In one account, Ratafia de la champagne is made by combining champagne with the juice of champagne grapes and a few select herbs. The mixture is aged, then strained and bottled. At least that’s what the purveyor told me. I think, given the language difficulties created by his functional English and my non-existent French (in general, Europeans are so much better at languages than Americans), that distillation is involved, too. How else could it acquire that silken-smooth mouth feel?
Alternately, another description of how it is made involves Champagne grapes that are allowed to ripen to full maturity and left to dry out for several months over winter. Then they are rehydrated and fermented and aged for at least 4 years before being bottled. This description is essentially a raisin liquor in everything but taste. However, it is really made, you simply have to taste it for yourself!
Ratafia is a rare drink because the ingredients are too valuable to use in a mix; they are worth much more bottled as Champagne. In fact, so little is produced that one rarely encounters Ratafia de la champagne outside the region.
It was explained to me that ratafia began as a ceremonial drink, a cordial served when ancient treaties or contracts were ratified (hence the name); meant to bind hearts and minds, as a celebration of their new endeavors. Whatever occasion you find worthy of memorializing, consider serving it at your next function. You can expect to hear your guests ask, “What is that delightful taste?”
Ratafia de la champagne is almost impossible to find in the US. I bought mine at a distinctive shop specializing in Reims products near the Reims Cathedral, France, and brought it home in my luggage. It took my local liquor store more than six months to locate a replacement bottle when it was gone. If you don’t have the luxury of buying it in France or waiting to find it in your country, there is an alternative.
To make a simplified version of ratafia, start with a good bottle of red or white wine. Add 1/4 cup vodka as a fermentation preventative; 1 cup washed and chopped seasonal fruits, vegetables, or herbs; 1/4 cup sugar. (For example, I’d start with champagne, then use some lemon peel, with pitted cherries, peaches, and plums, and add a little vanilla, cinnamon, nutmeg, and ginger. Those are the tastes I identified.) Combine all ingredients in a large jar and refrigerate 3 to 4 weeks—strain (reserving fruits) into a clean wine bottle and cork or cap tightly. Keep refrigerated. Serve with epoisses cheese and rustic bread for the consummate French culinary experience.
As an added benefit, the strained fruit can be reserved to serve on ice cream for an extra flavorful kick!