Champagne and Mussels > Recipes

The night they invented champagne lasted a long time, about four years. The French would like to take full credit for the creation of sparkling wine, but in fact, they had help from Spain and England.

According to some historians, climate played a role, too, in the creation of champagne. In the 1490s a climate shift brought colder weather into France. The northern Champagne region had competed well with the southern Burgundy area, until cold winters began to affect their vineyards. The late harvested wine stopped fermenting in the casks in the cold weather. Fermentation began again in the warming spring. This double fermentation produced carbon dioxide or bubbles. Thin sparkling wine was not appealing to wine merchants supplying the bustling markets of Paris. Some of the wine was exported to England.

At the same time vineyards in Champagne began to convert from red wine to white wine. The Champagne growers planted vin gris, a red wine grape that produced a pale wine with a grayish tinge. In the late 1660s Dom Pierre Perignon, a Benedictine monk was sent to the Champagne region to be the new cellar master at the Abbey of Hautvillers, near Rheims. His superiors directed him to eliminate the bubbles from the wine, and to find ways to increase revenue.

As Dom Perignon struggled with his task of subduing effervescence, the English added sugar to white wine and regarded the bubbles as festive. Sparkling wine became a hit at the decadent court of Charles II. Seizing upon this fashionable trend, Dom Perignon reversed himself and began to experiment with making more bubbles. He had problems controlling fermentation. Perignon bottled the wine, allowing it to ferment a second time in the bottle, instead of the cask. Much later the French patented the technique, calling it methode champenoise.

Advanced knowledge of science allowed succeeding wine makers to exert control over the fermentation. Don Perignon’s champagne batches were hit and miss. Some years he lost up to 90 percent of his production due to exploding casks and bottles. This added to the rarity and expense of the wine.
While he could not completely control the process, Perignon realized that changing the bottles in use at the time might help reduce breakage. The thin-walled, apple shaped bottles with long narrow necks could not withstand the pressure of the fizzing champagne at ninety pounds per square inch. Don Pernignon convinced the growing glass-manufacturing business in the area to make thicker bottles in the classic pear shape we recognize today. The old stoppers made of chestnut wood, dipped in tallow, could not stand up to the pressure either, so Don Perignon turned to Spain to provide him with corks.

Don Perignon is also credited with being one of the first wine makers to blend wines. A fellow Benedictine cellar master at a nearby abbey adopted his blends emphasizing clarity and complexity, along with his methods of fermentation. He continued Perignon’s custom of adding a liqueur de tirage just before bottling to insure a second fermentation. Today wine makers’ liqueur de tirage includes sugar, wine and yeast.

In a book published in 1718, Canon Jean Godinot claimed he’d obtained Dom Perignon’s liqueur de tirage recipe, a bottle of wine, a pound of sugar, 5-6 pitted peaches, powdered nutmeg and cinnamon and a half bottle of good brandy. The mixture was boiled, strained and boiled again.

Many recipes using champagne were published around the same time. Francois Massialot suggested a fish dish, browning fillets in butter and mushrooms, adding a half bottle of champagne and then thickening with a crayfish coulis. Sounds delicious.

The champagne craze drove prices up wildly. In Paris a bottle might sell for nearly $400. King Louis XIV’s court insisted on champagne for their elaborate parties and the English court also continued their infatuation with the bubbly beverage. Champagne became known as the wine of kings. Even today champagne continues to be the drink in demand for festive occasions. Almost half of all champagne sold is purchased between Thanksgiving and New Years’ according to wine maven Lisa Shea.

I found some of the details on the invention of champagne in a book by Joan De Jane, “The Essence of Style: How the French Invented High Fashion, Fine food, Chic Cafes, Style, Sophistication and Glamour.” It was the best history book I read in 2005, full of fun facts, serious scholarship and beautifully written. A must for fashionistas and Francophiles.

I also recommend Lisa Shea’s website, Lisa has compiled an amazing collection of champagne recipes. I liked Carol Channing’s champagne cocktail and the Chambord raspberry-flavored champagne, a twist on the Bellini with a fresh raspberry in the bottom of the glass.

King Louis XIV served his champagne in flutes. About 20 years ago, the old-fashioned flute finally eclipsed the wide, low coupe glasses that came into fashion in the 1800s. If you stay in on New Year’s Eve, rent “Gigi”, sip from your flute, and let Maurice Chevalier remind you “the night they invented champagne… no man or woman has ever been as happy as we are tonight.” Happy New Year!

In “Everyday Dining With Wine”, master sommelier Andrea Immer suggests a one-plate meal or a festive first course of mussels and champagne. She writes, “The crispness of the wine brings out the briny-sweet taste of the shellfish” Andrea Immer’s complete wine course on DVD is available on her web site at

Champagne-steamed Mussels

Ingredients >
2 pounds mussels
2 tablespoons unsalted mussels
1/2 cup sourdough pretzel crumbs, crushed in a blender or food processor
1 medium shallot, finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
2 plum tomatoes, cored and chopped
1 cup champagne
1/2 cup fish stock or bottled clam juice
1 tablespoon chopped fresh chervil or tarragon

Method >
* Clean the mussels by scrubbing their shells with a brush while rinsing under cold running water. If necessary, use a paring knife to tug and cut out the weedy beards coming out of the bottom of the shells. Pick through the mussels and discard any with broken or open shells that won’t close when you tap them.
* Heat l tablespoon of butter in a small skillet over medium-high heat. When the foam subsides and the butter just begins to brown add the crushed pretzels and toss to coat. Reduce the heat to medium and cook, stirring until the crumbs are crisped, about 2 minutes. Remove from the heat and set aside.
* Heat a large dry skillet over medium-high heat. Add the mussels, shallot, garlic, and tomatoes and stir to combine. Cook for 2 minutes and then add the champagne and the fish stock. Continue cooking until the shells open, about another 4 minutes. Transfer the mussels to serving bowls with a slotted spoon and continue to simmer the liquid to reduce it slightly, scraping up any bits stuck to the bottom of the pan with a wooden spoon.
* Remove the pan from the heat and swirl in the remaining 1 tablespoon of butter. Stir in the chervil. Pour the broth over the mussels, sprinkle pretzel crumbs over each portion and serve immediately. Serves six as a first course.

Recommended champagne to pair with steamed mussels: Friexenet Carta Nevada or Paul Cheaneau Brut

Important note on storage: Do not store mussels in airtight containers or in water. They must breathe. Cover lightly with wet towel, stored in mesh type bag. Purchase mussels the same day you plan to cook them or store overnight in refrigerator.