Cochelet Is the Coziest Dinner from the Fanciest Wine Country
Just as we pulled into the courtyard of Château de la Marquetterie, the monumental Taittinger estate in the Champagne region, the sun came out, painting the autumn vineyard foliage gold.
I was there for the Cochelet. While Burgundy boasts La Paulée and Beaujolais the R’voule, the area around Reims and Épernay has heralded, since the Middle Ages, the end of the Champagne harvest with a feast called the Cochelet. Though its origins aren’t certain, the name may come from the word coq (meaning “rooster”), since traditionally the workers would pour wine down a rooster’s throat before placing the drunken bird to wobble on the tables—at least, that’s how the story goes.
By the time we arrived, the kitchen crew had already been working for days preparing the historic dishes of the local terroir: sausages and lentils; stewed calf’s head; and the famous potée champenoise, a meat, bean, and vegetable orgy.
“We always brought steaming pots to the dozen tables set in the courtyard. One time, the team leader pulled out an accordion, a woman started singing Édith Piaf, and everybody got up to dance,” reminisced Jacqueline Maltot, the cook and caretaker who ruled the château’s kitchen for decades. In the past, every village celebrated with its own version of the Cochelet. The tractors were decorated with flowers, and people played tricks on one another.
“The harvest workers wore their best clothes,” said Maltot, who took over the job from her mother-in-law and later trained her daughter, Géraldine Doulet, who has since taken over.
“We used to house all the seasonal workers,” said Vitalie Taittinger, the house’s 41-year old president, who, earlier this year, took over the reins of the company. “Men and women—often the same families year after year. They came from France’s poorer northern regions.”
Most of these laborers would save up their vacation time to work the harvest. In two weeks, they often made what they usually earned in three months. Today, few workers stay at the vineyards, and the Cochelet tradition has dwindled. But Vitalie Taittinger loves this feast and will continue to invite staff, clients, family, and friends to a vast Champagne banquet.
On that early October day, I joined an eclectic crowd in the wine cellar. We savored Taittinger’s fruity, golden Brut Réserve, accompanied by cubes of earthy pâté en croûte and foie gras to the sounds of a jazz band. Under an intricate pattern of exposed beams, two long wooden tables were set over carpets. The Taittinger family ambled around, ensuring everyone was comfortable, introducing guests to one another.
Taittinger’s tête de cuvée, or top wine, Comtes, comes from five different chalky terroirs and matures for years in the Gallo-Roman quarries under the former Saint-Nicaise abbey in Reims. As I savored my glass of 2007 Comtes de Champagne Blanc de Blancs, I loved its combination of toasty and lemony flavors; the refined bubbles; its sunny, clear hue; and the way it partnered with the intensely flavorful poularde de Bresse served with lobster coulis and a multicolored bounty of local vegetables—the combination was sublime. The more we ate, the more we drank; the more we drank, the more we laughed. Even though this was just an echo of the Cochelets of yesteryear, the setting, the old vines surrounding the château, and my vibrant hosts created the kind of harvest feast that’s impossible to forget.