The Champagne Region in France is a magical place to visit, full of stunning architecture, history and of course Champagne. Before we dive into this month’s book, The Widows of Champagne: An Inspirational Novel of WW2, I invite you to read a couple of my previous blog posts to learn more about the City of Reims and Harvest in Champagne, as well as a favorite Champagne house visit to Champagne Guy Méa.
How far would you go to protect your family’s legacy?
In The Widows of Champagne: An Inspirational Novel of WW2, by Renee Ryan the LeBlanc women draw on their courage and resolve as they fight against all odds to preserve their lives, their way of life, their 200-year-old vineyard and their legacy.
Set in the Champagne region of France this moving historical novel is the story of three generations of women who each in their own way is fighting to save their family vineyards from the ravages of war during the German occupation of WWII. The three widows who have lost their beloved husbands over the years must protect their livelihood, the Chateau Fouche-LeBlanc vineyard in Reims and each other. As the story unfolds it is told from their alternating points of view, giving the reader a glimpse into their brave actions and selfless motivations.
With a resilient passion, the family matriarch Josephine, refuses to just sit back and watch as her beloved vineyard faces its most difficult harvest and her daughter-in-law and granddaughters take on the German enemies. This includes the plot in which wine merchant, Helmut Von Schmidt, now turned Nazi Captain, requisitions the LeBlanc home and steals their wine for the German troops. Although her memory is failing her more and more with each passing day, Josephine uses her early stages of dementia to appear more confused, a strategy to protect Chateau Fouche-Leblanc’s most cherished belongings and her family.
Gabrielle Leblanc Dupree is fully aware that the War will eventually spill over into France so she takes her family’s future into her own hands. Her first step is to take pre-emptive measures by building a false wall in the Champagne Cellar which hides much of her family’s best vintages before the Germans invaded. Yet, when duty calls and Gabrielle joins the resistance and she quickly learns that there are other secrets besides the hidden champagne that she must conceal. Soon she is concealing more secrets, questioning who she can trust and ultimately finds an unexpected ally in her midst.
For former Parisian socialite, Gabrielle’s mother, Hélène, who lost her husband in a previous war, there is even more at stake. Hélène stops at nothing to keep her Jewish heritage a secret from the man who has requisitioned her home, even if it could forever ruin her reputation or end her life. Working to protect her daughters, Gabrielle and Paulette, Hélène soon realizes that no one is safe in Nazi occupied France.
Each woman struggles and makes difficult choices to protect their family, legacy, and secrets that the others around them do not always understand.
Historical fiction is one of my favorite genres and this incredible heartfelt story told from three different LeBlanc women’s perspectives, really gives a glimpse of how each generation was uniquely affected by the war. Filled with unwillingness to accept defeat, unforeseen betrayal as well as heartaches, this story delves into the risks and sacrifices people will take to protect what they love. An emotional and poignant story that will stay with me for a long time.
“One bad harvest would not ruin us, this enemy might.”The Widows of Champagne, Renee Ryan
For four long years, Champagne was occupied by the Germans, until the German army’s official surrender in Reims on 8 May 1945 which became known as Victory in Europe (VE) day. I really enjoyed this Article on Decanter’s Website, Champagne during WW2: From vines to victory by Julian Hitner and how it helped me better understand what really happened during World War II in France.
Renee Ryan is an award-winning author who has published over 25 books since she sold her first book in 2001 by winning the inaugural Dorchester/Romantic Times New Historical Voice Contest. When Renee joins us for the virtual book club discussion on March 5th, there will be plenty of time for participants to ask her a few questions about The Widows of Champagne. First however, I wanted to ask Renee some questions about herself and what inspired her to write this historical women’s history novel.
Can you share a little bit about yourself and your career as a writer?
“I came to writing a little later than most. I was a young mother working in a Florida high school, teaching AP Economics, AP American Government and Latin. Riveting subjects, I know. I quickly learned that students’ eyes glazed over when I lectured. However, they really listened when I gave the information in story form.”
“Bonus, they also retained important facts better that way. That’s when I realized I was a storyteller. I had to learn how to write. And that’s what I did. I took classes, attended conferences, read craft books, studied the greats and not-so-greats. Even now, thirty published novels later, I still consider myself more student than master.”
“I’m always honing my craft. I’ve written in several sub-genres, but with The Widows of Champagne, I feel as though I’ve found my niche. Historical Women’s Fiction is home.”
Photo Courtesy of Renee Ryan’s Website
Inspiration for a story can come from many different places, can you share what inspired you to write this novel?
“I was deep in the research process for another WWII book when I discovered how the Nazis had a penchant for stealing art and other treasures from the countries they conquered. Although that book was set in Germany, I had to dig a little into the French Resistance to complete a plot thread. I started wondering what was France’s greatest treasure. Wine, of course. My mother’s family is from France and they love their champagne. So, I kept digging. The more I learned about Champagne and the French Resistance, the more I knew I had to write a story set in France and centered around champagne.”
I’m sure that this book included some extensive research, can you share some of the ways that you sought out information about vineyards, winemaking and the history of this time period.
“I wrote most of WIDOWS during quarantine, so a trip to France was out of the question. I spent a lot of time on the Internet. I traveled (a lot) via Google Earth. I read books on champagne and champagne making. I contacted experts on the process. I delved deep into Nazi occupation of France. The French Resistance. The Gestapo. The…you get the idea. I also went to wine stores and picked the brains of the experts. Oh, and of course, I sampled some of the best champagne ever made. Tough job, but someone had to do it.”
What was your favorite or most unexpected discovery during this research process?
“I loved learning about the Champagne region of France and the arduous process it takes to make world class champagne, starting with the growing of the grapes all the way through the two fermentations. Yes, two. I hadn’t realized so much love and hard work is put into each bottle. There’s also been a historical misrepresentation of what the French went through during World War II, especially the people living in the occupied zone. The truth was messier than a simple right and wrong; good or bad. I relished telling a multi-layered story that highlighted what the French (especially French women) suffered during Nazi occupation.”
Prior to writing The Widows of Champagne were you interested in wine and winemaking? How did your research for this book broaden and/or change your perspective of the world of wine and the winemaking process?
“I was already a big fan of wine prior to writing WIDOWS. I mostly drank dry reds, sticking to cabernets, zinfandels, malbecs, the occasional shiraz. Sometimes, I would drink a chardonnay or a crisp pinot grigio. I didn’t know much about champagne, nor did I drink it often. Too expensive, or so I thought at the time. I knew champagne only came from France and that it was considered vastly superior to other sparkling wines, but I didn’t know why. My understanding of the process and, okay, the many taste tests I conducted, has changed my thinking. Champagne really is the best of the sparkling wines.”
Which of the Leblanc women was the easiest to write about or did each of them come to you in the same way?
“That’s such a hard question to answer. Each character was both hard and easy to write, depending on what day or scene or part of the story I was in at the time. My biggest challenge was giving the characters each a distinct voice. They all carry a piece of me, and yet they don’t. Gabrielle was the most like me and usually the easiest to write, though not always. She could be stubborn.”
“Hélène was the most distant, and also had the most to lose. I came to understand her through the process of writing her. And then there was Josephine who was suffering early dementia, which really broke my heart. Every time I switched point-of-views between these vastly different women, I had to rediscover the character all over again and set the others aside. That was mentally draining. I ended most writing days exhausted.“
Do you plan to write a sequel to The Widows of Champagne that continues the story of Gabriel and Richard?
“Oh, I would love that! They have a whole life to live together and champagne to make, children to raise. I also want to tell Paulette’s story. Not only during the war, but in the years following. Did she find peace, happiness? Did she ever marry, have children? Did she ultimately forgive Gabrielle? Were they close at the end of their lives?”
Photo Courtesy of Renee Ryan
Since I’ll be incorporating Champagne and Sparkling Wines in recipes this month in honor of your book, could you share one of your favorite wines from the Champagne region and what your favorite food pairing is with champagne?
“I’m a huge fan of Veuve Clicquot. Such a wonderful champagne, always consistent. I also have a sweet tooth and love eating pink champagne cake with Italian buttercream frosting. It’s a great complement to champagne. YUM! If I was going for a meal, I would pair a salmon cooked in red wine sauce and drink a blanc de blanc champagne.“
Photo Courtesy of Renee Ryan
I want to thank Renee for taking the time to share her answers to these questions. Renee’s next novel, The Secret Society of Salzburg, comes out later this year and is focused on the world of opera during WWII and the refugee problem during the interwar years.
“Her conviction had been as pure as the taste of a perfectly blended champagne.”The Widows of Champagne, Renee Ryan
One thing that I think everyone can agree on is, if there is really good food to bonded over a book club discussion is always more enjoyable. Afterall, food is one of the great joys of life that helps bring us together and create memorable experiences. Plus, a meal or even a snack can only help drive the tempo of a book club get together with an expansion of food discussed in the story.
Although I do like to keep it simple and uncomplicated, certain books call for something that feels a little more indulgent and luxurious than usual. This month I start with a round up some of my favorite French classics that are just as good as ever and will impress your family, friends or book club members when you combine them to make the perfect dish.
Cooking duck can be intimidating if you have never worked with it before but I encourage you to give it a try. For directions on cooking the Perfect Pan-Seared Duck Breasts you can watch one of many videos on YouTube or you can visit a cooking blog, like Alexandra’s Kitchen.
I would like to thank Maple Leaf Farms for sending me samples of their duck breasts to use for this, The Widows of Champagne, recipe. You can learn more about how to order a selection of Maple Leaf Farms duck products on their website.
When traveling in France a dish that I always look for on the menu is Potatoes Au Gratin or Dauphinoise. For me it is the ultimate comfort food and I love how the dish can change slightly depending on the restaurant yet always stay true to a classic Dauphinoise.
One of my memorable meals was at a small restaurant in Lyon at the famous Les Halles de Lyon – Paul Bocuse. It included a scrumptious dish of Dauphinoise, roasted chicken and a mushroom sauce. It was Simply Delicious.
Staying true to a classic Potatoes au Gratin (Dauphinoise), I found this recipe from food blogger Nagi on her Recipe Tin Eats blog and knew it would be a perfect one to share. Adapted from a Julia Child’s recipe, Nagi has slightly evolved the recipe over the years and come up with a more streamlined assembly process. I upped her addition of garlic to 3 cloves and the thyme to 3 tsp, I also used Gruyere cheese for this recipe. I have never cooked such perfect homemade Potatoes Au Gratin, thanks to this recipe.
This Sparkling Wine Mushroom Sauce is thick and creamy, incredibly flavorful, and absolutely divine. It really brings the whole dish of Seared Duck and Potatoes Au Gratin together.
Hank Shaw’s Champagne Mushroom Sauce recipe can be found on the Simply Recipes Website.
The Widows of Champagne and its references to classic French Cuisine allows you to draw inspiration from the book to expand your experience and discussion of the story with a memorable meal.
If duck is not available near you, substituting a slow roasted whole chicken or chicken breast would be just as enjoyable with the Potatoes Au Gratin and Sparkling Wine Mushroom Sauce.
Vol-au-vents originated in France around the start of the 19th century as a larger pie-like meal, the bite-size cocktail party version, more properly known as a bouchée became increasingly popular in the 1980’s. Vol-au-vents is typically a small pastry case that is loaded with a variety of savory fillings with shrimp, ham, chicken and mushroom in a sauce being the most common. This Shrimp and Mushroom Vol-au-vents is sure to WOW your book club friends at your next gathering.
“A recipe has no soul. You, as the cook, must bring soul to the recipe.”
– Thomas Keller
Having some puff pastry sheets in the freezer I made my own Vol-au-vents but you can also look in the freezer section of your grocery store for premade ready to bake Puff Pastry Shells.
Vol-au-vents may be made in a variety of shapes and sizes. If you don’t have the circle cutters, try making squares as I did, just make sure to leave about 1/2-inch for the top section. For the Vol-au-vents I wanted to play around with two sizes, a larger 3.5 inch case (2.5 inch top) for being the star of any book club food table and a smaller 2.5 inch case (1.5 inch top) for canapés that would pair perfectly alongside the Pan Seared Duck Breast with Potatoes Au Gratin and Sparkling Wine Mushroom Sauce dish.
For most of us, a little something sweet is always welcome, and I hope to satisfy that sweet tooth craving with a delectable cheesecake with a heart shaped nod to Valentine’s Day this month. However, before I get to that recipe and just in case you are not familiar with them, I’d like to introduce you to Le Biscuit Rose De Reims (pink cookies from Reims) that I will be using in the cheesecake recipe. These Biscuit Rose are distinguished by their medium pink color and are made only in Reims. These biscuits are similar to a ladyfinger, but are drier and harder.
My first introduction to Le Biscuit Rose De Reims was in a decadent dessert in a small tucked away restaurant on our first night in Reims. I quickly became smitten with these ‘biscuits’ and was thrilled to find them on the breakfast buffet table of our hotel.
Wanting to recreate these rose-colored biscuits to use in my cheesecake recipe, I found a recipe for Biscuit Rose de Reims, on the website The Nibble. Although my biscuits didn’t get the raise that I was hoping for, they were a perfect cookie crumb base for my Strawberry Sparkling Wine Cheesecake.
The Nibble website also has some great information below the recipe on the history of this dunking Champagne Cookie.
“The biscuits had a crisp exterior that retained their shape when dipped in the local Champagne (or coffee or other hot beverage). They then melted in your mouth: a gustatory delight.” -The Nibble Website.
Do you love bubbly and sweet treats? Wine is a flavorful addition to any recipe, both on the table and in the dish and there is really something special about Sparkling Wine or Champagne infused baked goods.
You can find a 2 Pack of the Heart 4-inch Springform Pans from EALEK on Amazon here.
I hope that you make this beautiful and decadent Biscuits Roses de Reims Strawberry Sparkling Wine Cheesecake inspired by The Widows of Champagne book and my time in Reims.
In researching how the war and occupation affected the citizens of France I came across this well written article, “How the Wars changed French Cuisine” written by Isabel on the Discover Walks Blog. It is well worth reading.
Remember, a book club meeting is more than just about the books you read and the conversations you have. It is about connecting with your fellow members and food just happens to be a wonderful way to bring everyone together.
If you are searching for a cookbook that breaks down some of the Northern Regions of France, take a look at the Family and Traditions at the French Table, Book One (Champagne, Alsace, Lorraine, and Paris regions) by Carole Bumpus.
This month I hope that you pop open a bottle of your favorite Champagne or Sparkling Wine while reading The Widows of Champagne. Writing this blog post in January of 2022, I know that finding and opening a bottle of your favorite bottle of bubbly can be harder to do than in the past, due to the ongoing pandemic, shipping shortages and inflation.
My suggestion is to search around locally first for wineries near you that are producing Sparkling Wine if Champagne is harder to come by, as well as search online for some deals that may be still available. No matter what you open, Champagne, Sparkling Wine or still wine make sure you pour yourself a glass of something delicious to enjoy while you reading this book.
In France, the WWII German occupation is often referred to as the “dark years”, and there is an impressive number of novels set in occupied France during the war that are engaging and informative reads. For reference, I wanted to highlight some wine related, non-fiction titles that will help in learning more about the stories of the French Resistance, and the brave citizens that came together to help save their own.
Champagne: How the World’s Most Glamorous Wine Triumphed Over War and Hard Times by Don Kladstrup and Petie Kladstrup
Wine & War : The French, the Nazis, and the Battle for France’s Greatest Treasure by Donald Kladstrup and Petie Kladstrup.
These books read separately supply an enormous amount of knowledge about the Champagne regions occupation. Together they are an absolutely indispensable collection of facts that share the remarkable story of France’s valiant acts and how the proficient vintners protected and rescued their country’s most valuable commodity from the German’s plunder.
Champagne [Boxed Book & Map Set]: The Essential Guide to the Wines, Producers, and Terroirs of the Iconic Region by Peter Liem.
This box set includes a pullout tray that includes a complete set of seven vintage vineyard maps by Louis Larmat, a valuable resource that documents the region’s terroirs. Within this beautiful book you get an extensive look at growers as well as vintner profiles. The book is a well written and fascinating look at Champagne’s history and lore, that explores Champagne’s legendary wine in a new and exciting way.
If you are looking for more information about this time in France’s history, I recommend you read How France’s champagne makers fooled Nazis and helped turn the tide of WWII article in the New York Post.
I hope that I have inspired you to make some of these recipes to enjoy while you read The Widows of Champagne by Renee Ryan or to perhaps recreate them when hosting a book club of your own.
In addition, you can read the very first Drink In Life Book Club title from June of 2021, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (blog post found here) which focuses on the struggles of Guernsey Island off the coast of England and how the German Occupation affected that part of the world.
I would love to hear your thoughts on these recipes and the book. Cheers everyone and I hope to see you soon at the next virtual Drink In Life Book Club discussion.
Previous Drink In Life Book Club titles and recipes can be found here.
Images, content and recipes © of Drink In Nature Photography/Drink In Life Blog
Category: Champagnes, Drink In Life Book Club, Food, France, Sparkling Wines, WineTags: Author Renee Ryan, Biscuits Rose de Reims, Book Club, Book Club Recipes, Books about Champagne, Books about Champagne History, Books and Wine, Books Food and Wine Pairings, Champagne, Champagne Cookies, Champagne Vineyard, Drink In Life, Drink In Life Blog, Drink In Life Book Club, Drink In Nature Photography, German Occupation of France, Historical Fiction, Inspirational Novel of WW2, Le Biscuit Rose De Reims, Les Halles de Lyon, Maple Leaf Farms Duck Breast, Pan Seared Duck Breast with Sparkling Wine Mushroom Sauce, Potatoes Au Gratin(Dauphinoise), Recipe Ideas for The Widows of Champagne, Recipes for book club, Reims France, Seared Duck Breast, Shrimp and Mushroom Vol-au-vent, Sparkling Wine, Sparkling Wine Cheesecake, Sparkling Wine Mushroom Sauce recipe, Strawberry Sparkling Wine Cheesecake, t Biscuits Roses de Reims Strawberry Sparkling Wine Cheesecake, The Champagne Region, The City of Reims, The Widows of Champagne, The Widows of Champagne by Renee Ryan, Underwood Canned Sparkling Wine from Oregon, virtual book club, Vol-au-vent recipe, wine and books, Wine Themed Fiction Book, Wine Themed Novel