Self-catering guide to Reims
In the heart of the Champagne-Ardenne region, the city of Reims is bubbling over with culinary delights, as Alison Weeks discovers
Set amid one of France’s most prestigious terroirs and surrounded by sloping vineyards, the charming city of Reims provides a wealth of delights for foodie visitors.
Renowned for its 13th-century Gothic Cathédrale de Notre-Dame, where the kings of France were crowned for six centuries, the ‘Coronation City’ maintains a regal air. These days Reims owes its prominence to the major champagne houses that are based in and around the city. However, inhabitants benefit from an abundance of other local produce, as more than 60 per cent of the Champagne-Ardenne region is given over to farming.
Keen to explore this effervescent place, I headed to Reims on the TGV from Paris, which takes less than an hour. The city centre is a delightful maze of interlinking pedestrian squares and quiet back streets, and the foodie scene is centred on the Halles du Boulingrin.
Built in 1927, while the city was still recovering from the ravages of World War I, this covered market is a monument historique and was restored to its art deco glory in 2012. It is open on Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays, and houses a variety of stalls offering everything from honey to organic baguettes, as well as fresh produce.
With my shopping bag brimming with goodies, I headed out of the market and continued along Rue de Mars, which is full of independent food shops. At Aux Gourmets des Halles, a queue was forming at the meat counter for local specialities such as jambon de Reims – a thinly sliced, marbled ham made from boneless pork shoulder, which is cooked in broth and coated with breadcrumbs. The shop, which contains both a charcuterie and a pâtisserie, is owned by Bruno Herbin, a recipient of the Meilleurs Ouvriers de France award and something of a local celebrity.
Just along the street, at L’Atelier d’Eric, I learned about another Reimois favourite, pain d’épices, a type of gingerbread. More often associated with the Alsace region, this flavoursome bread dates from 16th-century Reims, when Henri IV first recognised the city’s maîtres pains d’épiciers. The delicacy became so popular that the people of Reims got the nickname of the ‘gingerbread eaters’. The pain d’épices de Reims differs from other varieties in being made with rye flour, which produces a richer, darker colour.
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One of the newest artisan shops on Rue de Mars is Fromages et Vins du Boulingrin, which offers an idyllic combination of cheese and wine under one roof. When I asked about local cheeses, the owner Philippe Cahours suggested that I try two: Chaource, a soft, creamy variety from the eponymous village in the south of the Champagne-Ardenne region, and Soumaintrain, a ripe farmhouse cheese from neighbouring Burgundy. At the back of the shop, I found a wide selection of regional wines and even a locally produced whisky called the single malt de la montagne de Reims.
Next I stopped at Maison Fossier to pick up an iconic Reimois delicacy, the biscuit rose. These oblong, pink biscuits date from the 17th century when local bakers devised a special dough that could be left in the bread oven after the initial baking and bi-cuit, literally twice baked.
The first biscuits were white, but the pink colour was introduced to disguise the vanilla specks that were added for flavour. Maison Fossier is a local institution and has been turning out these delicate treats since it was founded in 1756. Traditionally the biscuits are enjoyed with a glass of champagne (dunking is encouraged), making the biscuit rose the perfect accompaniment to post-dinner bubbly.
Speaking of bubbly, no visit to Reims would be complete without a visit to one of the great champagne houses. The tourist office (Tel: (Fr) 8 21 61 01 60, www.reims-tourism.com) runs open-top bus tours to give visitors a chance to see the terroir. The three-hour circuit includes an audio-guided tour of the city and surrounding villages, as well as a visit to a local cellar and a tasting.
Back in the city centre, I found reasonably priced champagne to take home at the Terroir des Rois, a small shop near the cathedral selling bottles by smaller producers as well as the grandes marques. It also has room for an assortment of regional products, including home-made terrines, as well as other wines.
Nearby, I enjoyed a coffee break on the terrace of the Café du Palais, one of the city’s most famous locations. Just across from the Palais de Justice, this traditional bistro has a beautiful art deco glass roof and a cheerfully eclectic interior. Though tempted by the Reimois specialities on the menu, I already had my pick of the finest and freshest ingredients that the city had to offer.