If you believe the folklore, we have the Napoleonic soldiers to thank for the Art of Sabrage.
During the Napoleonic wars in the early 1800s, legend has it that as the troops moved through France on their way to Russia, the Veuve (widow) Clicquot opened up her house for the soldiers to rest. She is said to have given each soldier a bottle of champagne in the morning when they left. Apparently the Veuve Clicquot was a great beauty. And the soldiers, being French men, would try to impress her by unsheathing their sabres, knocking the top off the bottle, and taking a swig of the wonderful nectar as they rode off on horseback into battle. As their great leader, Napoleon, said “Champagne! In victory one deserves it; in defeat one needs it.”
I first heard about the art of sabrage from a TV documentary I saw in the late 1980s. There was a small report about a society that had been established to teach people the art of sabrage, thereby enhancing the enjoyment of the drink. I was entranced. Imagine my surprise, when some 15 years later, I found myself in a restaurant in a village called Apremont in the outskirts of Chantilly, with walls covered in sabres and a picture of the group looking surprisingly like the one I had seen on TV all those years before. Apremont is the polo playing capital of France, and as such the restaurant I was invited to was used to hosting ‘La Belle Monde’. The chef was a good friend of the people who had invited me to dinner. When he came out to say hello, I asked him about the photo and said I had seen something on the television in Australia many years before that looked very similar. “Mais oui, Madame”. It was him and his merry society of champagne saberers! He was most impressed that I remembered the show, and immediately initiated me into the Art of Sabrage. Right there. At the table in the restaurant. Into the open fireplace!
The chef was Jean-Claude Jalloux, who is the Grand Master of the Confrerie du Sabre d’Or (the Brotherhood of the Golden Sabre). He established the confrerie in 1986, and ever since has been sharing his passion with thousands of people.
The Confrerie du Sabre d’Or has a very strict structure. There is a network of ‘sabrage’ restaurants all over France. Once a person has been initiated into the fine art of sabrage at a participating restaurant, their details are recorded (if they so wish) and they are invited to the next ‘Chapter’ of the society, in order to become a fully fledged sabering knight. The “Grande’ chapters are held once a year and involve a huge gala dinner with about 400 guests. Many champagne houses support the event and as such, there is not one champagne house that is associated with sabrage, and all producers can benefit from the publicity it brings. Each participant is called onto the stage to be inducted in front of the crowd. They then sabre a bottle with a replica of a Napoleonic sword under the tutelage of one of the members of ‘Le Grand Conseil’ (a sort of executive committee), and the wachful eyes of the 400 strong audience. The committee member, dressed in full regalia, then knights the person with the sabre and they become a fully fledged Chevalier-Sabreur du Sabre d’Or.
It was with great excitement and some trepidation that I participated in the 15th annual international chapter of the Confrerie du Sabre d’Or. Amongst all the pomp and ceremony, I accomplished my mission, and am proud to say that since that night in November 2001, I am an official Chevalier-Sabreur du Sabre d’Or. As such I am allowed to initiate the uninitated into the art of sabrage, and have done so for hundreds of friends in France, Japan and Australia ever since. Once you try, it is addictive, but it is always better to know how to do it properly before sending sharp projectiles flying through the air!
You can read more about how to safely sabre a bottle of champage here.