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Reims, north of Paris, is home to the only wine that can legally be called Champagne. Dom Pérignon, the Benedictine monk some believe "invented" Champagne, worshipped and made wine here. Some centuries later, the local widow Cliquot developed a rack for riddling, the process of turning Champagne bottles during the aging process to collect sediment for removal during disgorgement.
During a press trip to the area, I enjoyed a meal at Restaurant L'Epicerie au Bon Manger in Reims. This was a classic of Gallic simplicity and deliciousness, superbly crafted ingredients, unpretentiously presented, enjoyed in an atmosphere of wine-fueled bonhomie.
What amazed most though, and what most convinced me that the French are, at least when it comes to food, awesome beyond belief, were the vintage sardines offered on a shelf by the door. Marked 2010 and 2011, these canned sardines are intended to be held, like a good wine, for years. According to Bon Manger co-owner Fabrice Parisot, they too should be riddled, or flipped regularly, to "confit" the fish in the oil in which they're traditionally packed.
"You can hold these fish for maybe six to twelve years, turning them over every six months or so," Parisot told us, "I usually eat them after six years."
After our lunch at L'Epicerie au Bon Manger, I started looking more closely at sardine cans. In Dijon, at L'Epicerie et Cie Restaurant, I spotted cans of sardines with labels indicating that they'd gone through affinage of three months. "Affinage" is a term I'd previously heard applied only to the process of holding and bringing cheese to maturity after it's been made and before it goes to market.
That the French should apply two classic processes of riddling and affinage to tinned sardines, making the mass-produced fishies more of a crafted product through loving attention to detail is so…French.
We ate some excellent canned sardines in France and brought home two tins that we intend to riddle throughout a six-year period. It will be interesting to see what differences can be detected between 2010 and 2011 vintages. Sacre bleu, we're becoming French! C'est redoutable!