'Votre état d'esprit est change en mieux.' ('Your mindset is changing for the better.')
Considering champagne is often thought of as the epitomy of French éclat it came as a surprise to learn from Graham Harding's lecture last night at Maison Francaise that the British have had a significant influence on the bubbly we so joyously quaff today.
History and Mr Harding's PhD studies apparently show it all started when William Gladstone, as Chancellor of the Exchequer, lowered duty on champagne in 1860 resulting in a price per bottle to dream of: 6s 12d. This, and some canny wheeler dealing by French wine merchants, resulted in a massive increase in the consumption of champagne by the British. Furthermore our wine-swilling elite (notably the Bullingdon Club and its leading light, the then Prince of Wales) were consuming such quantities of the then brown, sweet champagne that they were able to influence the Grands Maisons in France to change the style of their wine, meaning the remove the majority of the sugar, resulting in the dry, refreshing taste of modern, white/clear champagne.
As the nature of champagne changed to accommodate British tastes consumption spread amongst the population so much so that by 1911 an article on p9 of The Times commented that 'champagne c'est indispensable'. In fact, champagne became so popular it was widely faked which led to the Grands Maisons moving to define and protect their marques.
Much of Mr Harding's detailed knowledge may have passed my schoolgirl French by but this was a pleasant and informative evening and Mr Harding's slightly less than perfect French gave us less fluent time to catch up and even enjoy the jokes. The atmosphere was intimate and convivial and the amicability of the Q&A was champagne fuelled. Most interestingly the question of English sparkling wine came up and the issues surrounding terroir and the protection of marques by the French Grands Maisons – by way of an answer Mr Harding revealed that Taittinger have recently purchased 700 hectares of Kent.
Moreover, the tangled web of the champagne trade between Britain and France resulted in the British preferring to drink from their own design of glass, the coupe Marie Antoinette. And during the amicable Q&A at the end of the lecture Mr Harding demonstrated another common fallacy surrounding champagne, the sabrage (opening a bottle with a saber) – you do not cut the top off the bottle but rather slide the saber up the neck tapping the top off. So perhaps the complex interplay between British taste and French champagne marques is long set to continue. Such an affable and informative lecture has led me to wishing I had been at St Giles Fair in 1890 when champagne was quaffable at 1p a glass! Perhaps I can fill the void with macarons made at Alliance française d'Oxford's next spring event – pâtissier with Hervé Gatineau.