On board the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express with Veuve Clicquot

In 1772, Philippe Clicquot, a textile merchant in Reims, France, inherited four hectares of vines and founded the champagne house that would later become Veuve Clicquot. That same year, the company sent its first international expedition to a princess in Venice. It was therefore fitting that the house celebrates its 250th anniversary with a very special return to Venice, on the legendary Venice Simplon-Orient-Express (VSOE).

“It was a way to close the loop, to live a unique and shared experience,” says Jean-Marc Gallot, CEO of Veuve Clicquot.

CEO of Veuve Clicquot, Jean-Marc Gallot

Although the company was originally started by a man, it was transformed into a powerhouse by a wonderful woman. Barbe-Nicole Ponsardin married Philippe Clicquot’s son François, then found herself a 27-year-old widow and single mother when her husband died suddenly in 1805. Her stepfather wanted to shut down the struggling small wine business. Instead, Barbe-Nicole decided to run it herself – an extraordinary gamble at a time when women weren’t working.

She proved herself to be an exceptional pioneer and businesswoman, buying more vineyards and implementing major innovations that revolutionized the industry. She produced the first vintage in 1810, created the first blended rosé champagne by adding red wine to white, and invented riddling to eliminate yeast and clarify champagne.

Exterior of the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express

Veuve Clicquot was acquired by LVMH in 1986 and continues to be a successful business today. It is the number one champagne in the United States, a fact that has been reflected in the anniversary travel demographics.

Guests at lunch at Veuve Clicquot chalk pits

The party started in Reims, in the house chalk pitsa 24 km maze of white-walled caves dug by hand between the 2nd and 18th centuries, when chalk was used to make cement, and now offers the ideal conditions for aging wine.

Here, some 20 meters underground, more than 100 guests sat at a single long table and feasted on a theatrical lunch, complete with spinning plates and masked waiters. Horse-drawn carriages then ferried them through the city to the station, where the midnight blue Venice Simplon-Orient-Express awaited them, a jazz quartet playing on the platform.

Entertainment in the chalk pits

Nearly 24 hours of festivities followed and idleness, well lubricated by champagne from start to finish. Guests were shown to their individual cabins, each filled with a chilled bottle of La Grande Dame 2012.

This is the new vintage of a prestigious cuvée launched 50 years ago to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the house (and presented in a limited edition bottle by Yayoi Kusama). Veuve Clicquot only produces La Grande Dame in certain years, depending on whether the harvest can provide the complex and elegant blend it requires.

On board the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express

The train consisted of 12 sleeping cars, three dining cars, a bar car and two staff cars, all vintage, the oldest created in 1926. They had been scattered across the Europe in various states of abandonment, each with its own story. One was stuck in a snowdrift for ten days in 1929, inspiring Agatha Christie’s novel. Another was used as a wartime brothel, while another had been leased to the Germans between 1942 and 1946. Picked up from different owners or at auction, all have been lovingly restored with brass fittings, LED fixtures identical to the original design, and an impressive range of marquetry.

Beautiful and luxurious, the sleeping cabins were nonetheless an exercise in space management – ​​couples in the smaller ones found they had to take turns dressing for dinner. (Mr. Gallot, who is extremely tall, found he had to sleep “zigzag”.) Passengers had been told to travel with small bags, but all managed to pack their finery for dinner, including including long dresses and tuxedos. Many guests were surprised to learn that apart from the six deluxe cabins, the accommodations did not include showers. Each cabin had its own porcelain sink enclosed in a marquetry cabinet.

Bingo on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express

Walking through the narrow hallways brought back memories of the movie Murder on the Orient Express; whenever two people met, they had to turn sideways to pass each other. As in the film, there was even an elegant American widow on the train, who said that one of the reasons she had offered herself this trip was because of the parallel with Madame Clicquot. Fortunately, the trip involved no foul play – the atmosphere was friendly and strangers quickly became friends. When a woman won the top bingo prize, a personalized Veuve Clicquot bicycle, she spontaneously gave it to the widow, who was keen to win it. (Hearing this, the Champagne house offered one to each.)

The train rumbled through France, Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Austria and Italy, passing vineyards, mountains, lakes and chalets, each view made perfect by the large mahogany-framed windows . Even the VSOE’s executive chef, the irresistible Jean Imbert, couldn’t help but exclaim at the beauty of the countryside every few minutes, once he left his tiny kitchen and sat down for a maintenance. Imbert wrote a long, very personal application letter when he learned that this position was available. “Since I was little, I have always been fascinated by history, authenticity, places that tell a story,” he explains. “As soon as you get on that train, it’s like stepping back in time.”

Jean Imbert, executive chef of the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express

The job was his dream – but once he got it, he faced the reality of preparing haute cuisine in an unpredictably moving vehicle. Both kitchens are well equipped, but smaller than some cupboards; when the chiefs are in place, they cannot change position. The train may swerve or move unexpectedly. “When you’re standing chopping something or boiling a pot, any sudden movement can be a surprise,” says Imbert. The kitchens are restocked in Paris, then ‘when the train leaves, it leaves. You’re not going to stop to buy a tomato. And forget the fries; for safety reasons, no question of frying anything.

Beyond the food, Imbert worked on the aesthetics of 1920s restaurant cars: the art deco-inspired furniture, menu, rugs, lighting and presentation plates. Each car has its own color scheme and theme. A gold carriage is in Chinese-style lacquered wood, a green carriage features “Etoile du Nord” flower marquetry, and a blue carriage has a series of René Lalique glass panels depicting bacchanalian maidens, copied from three surviving originals .

Parisian lobster (lobster with small diced vegetables) served with a Cuvée La Grande Dame 2008 Rosé Magnum

Imbert’s menus for the VSOE reinvent French classics from a bygone era. “If you want to cook something that relates to marquetry, to Lalique, to lighting, to woodwork, you have to do something historical,” he says. “The challenge is to make sure that nothing changes and everything changes.” For this trip, he designed the dishes to pair with particular Veuve Clicquot champagnes. Parisian lobster (lobster with small diced vegetables) was served with a Cuvée La Grande Dame 2008 Rosé Magnum. The succulent poached chicken in Albufera sauce, a 19th century recipe made with cognac and duck liver, was accompanied by a Cuvée La Grande Dame 1990 Magnum, which had a slightly smoky depth to its freshness.

Fresh too: the strolling musicians and the burlesque dancers, who animated the whole dinner, then in the busy bar car (a second bar car is in preparation). The staff, many of whom were Italian, were remarkably good at carrying trays of cocktails through a crowded and swaying bar without spilling a drop.

Burlesque dancer on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express

Guests were invited to an optional breakfast at 5:30 a.m., when the train would cross the Tyrolean mountains. Despite the extreme comfort of the bedding (the staff transforms the sofas into bunk beds during dinner) and the party which lasted until early morning, a good number of passengers mobilized and showed up, either fully dressed or in their kimonos available in the rooms.

Time passes differently on a train. Throughout the morning, some languish in their beds, others indulge in more bubbly and chatter, still others rediscover the pleasure of writing postcards (provided on board and affixed with a stamp VSOE). And then suddenly it’s lunch time, when Imbert has proven that champagne can go perfectly with street food, nodding to Italy with a Vitello Venice Burger accompanied by a Veuve Clicquot Extra Brut Extra Old 2 Magnum.

Hotel Cipriani, Venice

Outside, the verdant landscape turned to water and the VSOE stopped in Venice, where guests were taken to the legendary Cipriani Hotel, with its Olympic-sized saltwater swimming pool.

In the evening, bellinis were served overlooking the lagoon, followed by dinner in impressive old granaries under two massive Murano chandeliers. Prepared by chef Riccardo Canella (who worked as sous-chef at Noma for seven years), the meal included a sublime seafood and seaweed risotto accompanied by the mineral notes of a Cuvée La Grande Dame 2008 Jeroboam.

The real grande dame, Barbe-Nicole Clicquot, has never really traveled beyond the borders of France. But she built a global empire in her lifetime, and her influence still brings sparkle to parties around the world. §

Hotel Cipriani, Venice

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