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Learn a Napoleonic party trick
by Shyamantha Asokan, Financial Times, July 25th 2009

Gerard Basset, a wry Frenchman who bears a strong resemblance to Hercule Poirot, is struggling to carry a glinting sabre and a chilled bottle of champagne.

“Can you hold this for a second?” he asks me. I reach for the bubbly; he passes me the blade.

I’m at Basset’s Hotel TerraVina to learn sabrage, the art of opening a bottle of champagne with a sabre – a signature skill of Napoleon’s officers. TerraVina is one the few places in the UK where you can learn this dramatic French party trick.

Basset, a trained sabreur and sommelier, who also co-founded the Hotel du Vin chain, shows me how to find the bottle’s vertical seam. The thick, green glass is less even along this line, so there is a weak point where the seam meets the lip. If I hit this point with enough force, the glass will break cleanly and the pressure inside the bottle will make the top shoot off.

I hold the bottle in one hand and the sabre in the other. Basset tells me to place the blade on the seam at a 45° angle. I have to stroke the sabre along the seam a few times in preparation and then sweep it all the way to the lip, keeping the angle constant.

Initially, the cork won’t budge. Basset tells me to be more confident. This time, after a couple of warm-up strokes, I go for it. Crack! The top of the bottle flies out of the window. Basset applauds and fetches the glasses. “Tu es sabreur!”

I then relax into the rest of the sabrage break, which includes my beheaded bottle of champagne, a delicious three-course dinner, overnight stay and breakfast. I’m delighted with my new trick, which you can perform with any large knife, once you know how. I’ll dine out on this for the rest of the year.


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