The coast of Normandy at five o’clock on a grey afternoon. Looking west from the Royal Marine Commando memorial on the cliffs above Port-en-Bessin, I can see offshore at Arromanches the huge concrete blocks that are the remains of the Mulberry artificial harbour built for the allied invasion of 1944. Eastwards, are Omaha Beach of infamous memory and the Pointe-du-Hoc.
It is high tide. Below me, one by one, minute by minute, the trawlers — the chalutiers— which since the very early hours of the morning have been lying alongside the quays of the inner basin, are leaving the port and fanning out into the English-Channel. Some continue until they are lost from view. Others seem to be holding, or moving very slowly, only a few miles distant and I wonder if already they are dredging the ocean floor with their metal rakes and pouch-like nets. Some night very soon they will be back to unload their catches into the great shed where before daylight they will be sold à la criée: by auction. A few hours later the precious shellfish will be displayed on colourful seafood counters all over France.
Coquille Saint-Jacques; pecten maximus; the mollusc immortalised in the 9th century legend of Saint James of Compostella, its fan-shaped shell an enduring pilgrim symbol and a favourite souvenir of many a happy day on the beach, its succulent flesh said by some to be as beneficial for the libido as that of the oyster. At the offices of Normandie Fraîcheur Mer it is impressed upon me by the head of the fishermen and wholesalers cooperative, and the head of quality control, that what I am going to be learning about here in Port-en-Bessin is not just any old coquilles Saint-Jacques, but coquilles Saint-Jacques Red Label, Label Rouge. The difference? Red Label is a distinction awarded by a National Commission for standards in food products, hard to get and jealously guarded. Red Label coquilles must be freshly caught in approved fishing grounds at the most favourable time of the season, rigorously selected from the whole catch by the fishermen themselves and stored flat between catch and auction in order to keep sea water in the shells; all circumstances which decisively affect the wholesomeness and taste.
Quite new to the whole subject, innocently but truthfully, I remark that I had always supposed coquilles Saint-Jacques to be exclusive to Brittany. There is a pained silence; then, politely but firmly: “Monsieur ! Two thirds of France’s entire consumption come from Normandie ! ”. Chastened, I learn that from October to May coquilles Saint-Jacques are the staple livelihood for about 250 local trawlers, each with a crew varying in number from two to four. In summer, the closed season for the shellfish industry, tourism is very important for the likable little town with its pastoral hinterland and sandy beaches, but it would not be a wild exaggeration to say that Port-en-Bessin largely lives off the coquilles.
And the coquilles themselves: what do they live off and how sustainable is a resource which the fisheries of Normandy alone are depleting at the rate of some 10,000 tonnes a year? “Plankton”, says my expert informant, then by way of allaying my environmental concerns cites a body of laws and safeguards in support of an assertion that his industry is one of the most strictly regulated in the world. The catch is limited by season, quantity, zone of activity, regular scientific evaluation of impact on habitat, and so on and so impressively forth. Nevertheless, and as always (cod in the North Sea; tuna in the Mediterranean; whales in the wider world …….) I am left disconcertingly unconvinced as to the ability of the oceans to withstand the unceasing demands made upon them.
There appear to be no such misgivings in Port-en-Bessin. Collected by a guide from the Centre Culturel, I am taken on a tour which includes a lofty hangar where, safe from the keen north wind, a whole team of shipwrights are hammering what I take to be oakum between the planks of a beautifully constructed new trawler. It is curiously comforting to observe that the process of caulking appears to be as it probably has been since Jesus walked on Galilee and that someone or has faith enough in the future of pecten maximus to have commissioned a boat which is going to cost half a million euros.
The boatyard is the last item on my sightseeing tour at the end of a busy morning. Knowing that I am likely to be dining and wining handsomely this evening, I lunch frugally but agreeably with soupe de poisson and a beer at a brasserie facing the inner harbour, then drive to Omaha Beach where the horrific opening scenes in the film “Saving Private Ryan” (though shot in Ireland) were supposed to have taken place. I have been to Omaha twice before. No matter how many times I might come again, the knowledge of what happened here in June 1944 would always overwhelm and appal me. Formal memorials are unobtrusive. Most eloquent, as they are likely to be the most enduring, are the remains of the massive German fortifications from which came the shell and machine-gun fire that were mostly responsible for more than 2,000 American dead in the space of a few hours. Two or three miles offshore is an area where no trawler today would ever let down its dredge. Still intact there, guns pointing landwards, are the Sherman tanks which were supposed to have “swum” ashore to support the infantry, but which went to the bottom with their crews seconds after leaving their cross-Channel transports and entering the sea.
Sombre thoughts do not survive my arrival back at Port-en-Bessin and the delightful 4-star hotel-restaurant La Chenevière on the outskirts of town. Briefed on my current preoccupation, the chef, takes me into his kitchens for a crash course on the preparation and cooking of coquilles Saint-Jacques. Opening them (they are alive, of course) is easier than opening an oyster. Once demonstrated, separating the mollusc from its shell and discarding what small part of it is inedible is simple. Cooking embraces a number of classic methods and recipes, all governed by the ineluctable rule that the coquille is a delicate animal, almost impossible to undercook. To illustrate the point a thin slice is cut from a noix (the white, main part of the coquille) for me to taste raw. It is delectable. So are the Tripoux de Saint-Jacques à la mode de Port-en-Bessin (one of the chef’s specialities) which he makes for the first course of our dinner.
No praise is too high for the sauce beurre blanc which we have with the sea bass. Under instruction, I made that myself.
FOOTPATHS OF FRANCE: The loves of a lifetime.
The wine label is one of my most treasured mementoes of half a century of travels in France. Souvenir of a 14-kilometre walk from Séguret to Beaume-de-Venise in the Southern Rhône, it came from a bottle which I drank with terrine de canard and an old Cantal cheese sitting with my back against an evergreen oak, high in the Dentelles de Montmirail looking south-eastwards to the pre-Alps of Haut Provence and the Alpes-Maritimes. At the time, that Gigondas seemed one of the best wines I had ever drunk in my life.
I have walked more in France than anywhere else in the world. First, were the paths along the coasts of Brittany; in winter wildly elemental (but oh, the pleasure of taking refuge from an Atlantic storm in the Moulin de Rosmadec at Pont Aven); in summer resplendent with the yellow of the gorse and the blue of the sea and the radiance that has captivated generations of painters. Next, were pilgrimages to the haunted battlefields of Flanders and Picardy and the Marne and the forests of the Vosges. Later came five joyful years and countless kilometres that gave birth to Walking In Wine Country, a vinously literary progress that took me from the chalk of Champagne to the volcanic rock of the low Pyrenees; from the banks of the Loire to the foothills of the Alps through the vineyards of what remains the greatest viticultural nation in the world.
What a land for the walker! While the past half century has seen not only massive, but often catastrophic changes in urban France, the country’s essential rurality endures. That is does so is due partly to the tenacity with which the French peasant has traditionally kept possession of his land and partly to the fact that with a population still roughly the same as that of the United Kingdom France is geographically twice as large. Ever since Robert Louis Stevenson and his donkey in the Cévennes the British have had a reputation for being keen walkers. Very rare in France is the municipality, large or small, which does not freely provide information, including printed directions, about walking in the area. Seldom is a country hotel or guest house unable to offer detailed information and advice on the subject. Large are the assemblies of walking sticks in the local shops.
Everyone knows that the best way to see a country is to walk in it. With France, it is also eminently the best way to savour it. Of all the simple pleasures of life, I know of few greater than those that have been provided in my experience of France by a juxtaposition of walking, food and wine. I think of an occasion in Périgord when, tired, hungry and very thirsty after an uphill slog in late October, I arrived at an isolated, unpromising looking ferme auberge to be told by the weather-beaten individual who appeared to be the sole resident that he was closed, but could provide me with bed if I had my own sleeping bag and with supper if I could “make do” with a rabbit en daube. The delectable dish had been slowly cooking in the oven attached to a wood-burning range which scented the kitchen together with the herbs with which the rabbit had been marinaded. The wine, unstintingly poured from an earthenware jug, was a dark, robust Cahors. The bread with which we both mopped our plates was a rough wholemeal made by my host himself.
I think of the Abbaye de Sainte Croix in Provence, a Relais & Châteaux hotel with a a star for its table in the Michelin Red guide, where I celebrated a 30-kilometre progress that had begun before work had started in the vineyards and ended at dusk. There was the bliss of a long bath. There was champagne on the terrace. It was summer, and since dress for the elegant restaurant was no more demanding than respectable-casual my walker’s wardrobe managed to cope. “Bed in the bush with stars to see, bread I dip in the river—”, declared Stevenson’s vagabond; but after the twenty-odd kilometres that I had walked since breakfast the lamb aux herbes de Provence and a bottle of Domaine Ott’s red Château Romassanseemed incontestably the better, if less poetic option. Inappropriately, my bed was in what once had been a 12th century monk’s cell.
France on foot has been a treasury of a thousand delights. I think of walking among the vast vineyards of Languedoc and discovering years before Michelin did the exquisite little restaurant Mimosa at St. Guiraud, where the Welsh proprietor is a sometime leader of a symphony orchestra and his former ballerina wife is so good and original a cook that I suspect her of sorcery. I remember the great open hearth of the old bergerie near the GR 36, south of Carcassonne, and after a hard, hot climb to the heights of Péyrepertuse the sound of water flowing from the mountainside into the old mill race as an accompaniment to supper at the Vieux Moulin at nearby Duilhac With painful nostalgia (Will one ever go back? Could it ever be the same?) I recall a descent in flaming June from those same wild hills of the Corbières to the cold, clear, oleander-fringed pools of the River Agly in the Gorge de Galamus. Nothing in my experience of the Rockies has ever surpassed it. Nothing in the Himalayas would offer fair exchange.
What a way to discover not only la France profonde, but La France authenthique. Today, the clay of southern England nourishes an oak grown from an acorn I gathered in the great Forest of Tronçais in the Berry country on my way to the famous rose garden of the Château of Ainay-le-Veil. In my small cellar are wines from vineyards where I have eaten my picnic bread and cheese. In the cupboard where I keep my walking gear are seasoned staffs of hazel and ash cut from coppices in Burgundy and Bordeaux and from woods high above the Rhône. La Belle France. Gloriously, incomparably beautiful France. Counting the weeks until I set off from Dunkirk, chastened at times by the temerity of my ambitions, I recall a testing march that one evening found me kneeling, grateful, awed and reverent, in the magnificent Cathedral of Laon and I remind myself of the Chinese proverb which says that a journey of a thousand miles must begin with a single step.
Or as the sardonic Marquise du Deffand is said to have remarked concerning the legend that the martyred St. Denis walked six miles, carrying his head in his hands, “La distance n’y fait rien; il n’y a que le premier pas qui côute.”
We ended our last post in Alès, which is barely 20 miles north-west of Uzès. It was a temptation I could not resist.
I had first come across Uzès in the course of making an all too tardy discovery of southern France east of the Rhône at about the time the judge’s car had been in its infancy. There, some 30 miles north-west of Arles, I had found myself moving from mediaeval to Renaissance to 18th-century elegance within a few hundred steps of my hotel, a former coaching inn where a stone trough in the courtyard once used to water the horses of coaches travelling to Nîmes was reputed to be a Roman sarcophagus. So great was the charm of the place known to the Romans as Ucetia, that I fantasised about forsaking lodgings in London for residence there. I would walk where Racine had walked; muse where the great poet had mused three centuries before me; publish my own “Lettres d’Uzès”. At the time, I could have had a modest house in the town that likes to call itself “the first duchy in France” for the price of the London bedsit.
Thirty years on, much had changed, but the charm had survived not only intact but enhanced by two decades of intelligent preservation and restoration. With further exploration came inspiration. I had learned that below Uzès was to be found the source of the river Eure, and that it was from here that the Romans constructed their great aqueduct to Nîmes, of which the Pont-du-Gard survives as one of the greatest monuments of the Roman world. Inspiration came by way of coincidence.
Among the many treasures of Uzès is the former “hôtel” — town house— of the Counts of Flaux, a village hardly five miles away on the edge of the sort of the sort of arid, stony, unpopulated uplands covered in dense thicket of chêne vert and other evergreen vegetation which here is called garrigue, and in Corsica maquis, a name irrevocably associated with the Resistance of the Second World War. Considering my options, studying my maps, I had already noticed that clearly defined tracks led for some five miles down to the valley of the Gardon and to Castillon du Gard, a place unknown to me but significant enough to be on what was obviously a purposeful routing of the GR 63, coming from the Rhône to join the GR 6 at the Pont du Gard. According to my Hachette guidebook, not only was Castillon “one of the most beautiful villages of the department of the Gard, built on a hill overlooking the vineyards”, but in the very heart of the village was “a distinguished inn with patio and swimming pool”. Interest aroused, I consulted the Michelin red guide. A charming, quiet hotel at the heart of a mediaeval hilltop village, together with of one rosette for its table appeared to be among the attractions of le Vieux Castillon hotel. And all at the end of a three hour walk on typical, heart-of-the country paths starting at a point easily accessible from Uzès! Again, the appeal was irresistible.
Two days later, on the sort of morning that makes one wish one might live forever, a mile south of Flaux, I idled in the sun and the hint of a breeze to chat with men who — guns slung casually from their shoulders— stood widely spaced at the side of the track, patiently waiting for wild boar to appear from the undergrowth and add themselves to the score (“I, personally, only eight so far”) of the new season’s kills. “ Sangliers! Last year in the department Gard alone the total bag was seventeen thousand. Pity it wasn’t more. They come into people’s gardens and eat everything they can find.”
Apart from the sound of an occasional shot, it was very quiet up there in the garrigue and good, easy walking. During the last hour I had glimpses of the valley, then a clear view of lofty Castillon, isolated among the vines, then a warm, thirst-making climb up below the massive walls of what must have been a formidable fortress to the discovery that Hachette’s “heart of the village” and “distinguished inn” descriptions had been exactly right. Take half a dozen neighbouring or contiguous houses in the centre of a decayed hilltop stronghold. Take an architect of talent, taste, and imagination supported by craftsmen using the best of materials entirely suited to the local environment. Put a great deal of money into the whole undertaking. Add management and staff who know and like what they are doing and you have the makings of one of the most remarkable hotels in France. To find it requires, first, the knowledge that it exists in what appears to be only a maze of mediaeval alleyways, then the faith that an unusually shy Relais & Châteaux sign is to be taken at face value. Lying by the pool with a long drink; dining very well; much enjoying a local wine that to both nose and palate was reminiscent of the garrigue I had walked through, I wished —not for the first time since April and Calais— that I had come at least three times the distance to deserve such pleasure and had more attractive company than my own.
POSTSCRIPT TO STEVENSON
As I ought to have explained as an introduction to the piece, ‘On the Stevenson Trail’ , (part of my first post on 13th October ) was a consequence of the journey that I made in 2005 from Calais to the Pyrenees, much of it on foot. Three or four days south from Le Cheylard, at St-Jean-du-Gard, I was faced with a major decision.
From Saint-Jean-du-Gard, fold after fold of forested hills reached north, east and west as far as the eye could see. To the south, hidden in the haze of the early autumn day, was Bas Languedoc, the narrow plain which with hardly any elevation worth speaking of stretches from Avignon and the Rhône delta to the eastern Pyrenees. Significantly, none of the GR—the designated long-distance footpaths of France, runs from east to west across what is effectively the largest vineyard in the world. Even if walking for walking’s sake had been the sole and sufficient reason for my journey, which it was not, to persist in the grandiose intention of continuing to the Catalonian frontier on foot through country which the Michelin Green Guide describes as “monotonous” would be an undeniable folly. On the other hand, would the alternative be any better? Now, looking west across the magnificent vista of the forested foothills of the Massif Central, I had the answer. As my 1:25,000 maps had suggested, besides much singularly hard going on rocky trails, keeping to GR paths from the valley of the Gardon almost all the way to Carcassonne in the valley of the Aude would be to walk for too many miles among the trees.
Coming up to Colognac was partly a verification of deductions and thus a means of comforting myself, should such comfort become necessary, with the thought that at least I had not taken the easier option without giving the harder a try, and partly a consequence of my having been told that Colognac was as captivating a village as any in the Cevennes. It needed no more than the first three hours on the GR 61 out of Saint-Jean-du-Gard to demonstrate that my reading of the map had in no way been misleading: the very ancient, sinuous mule tracks were narrow, steep, stony and for the most part enclosed by chêne vert —the ubiquitous evergreen oak of Mediterranean France— relieved here and there only by sweet chestnut, the legendary châtaignier of the Cevennes. Even the once well maintained military roads used by the troops of Louis X1V in his excursions against the Protestant Camisards between 1702 and 1704 were closely overgrown. Later, alien pines allowed hardly a fleeting glimpse of the valleys below. Laudable though it might be to rise to the challenge, if the high road to Carcassonne meant a hundred miles or more of this, then, monotonous or not, Lower Languedoc would be bound to have my vote.
It was all of a 10-mile, 7-hour day up to the Col de Briontet and down to Lasalle and up to over 1,800 feet again before Madame Chartreux at the Bar-Tabac in Colognac was opening the shutters of a top floor room on the sort of view that I had seldom seen since morning. The sun had not yet gone, and in the chestnuts across the valley were the first faint colours of autumn. Sheep bells advertised a flock only recently arrived for the winter from the high pastures. There was a delicious scent of wood smoke in the mountain air.
Showered and changed, I slept for almost an hour, then was served the sort of dinner that is required by romantic conceptions of the typical French “inn” but which is as great a rarity as it is a joy. If Anne Chartreux’s home made tarte aux oignons was not the best onion tart that I have ever eaten memory has failed me. If there were ever better vegetables than those which had come fresh from her kitchen garden and were served with the local roast lamb I have never encountered them. Though the goat cheese was made on a nearby farm, I declined it. The crème caramel seemed faultless. The wine of Saint-Hippolyte-du-Fort was as acceptable as it was unpretentious. Where was the deliciously crusty bread from? I asked. “Oh; from the baker next door”.
In Saint-Jean-du-Gard I had spent an hour in the musée des Vallées Cévenoles, which deserves far more of anyone’s time. Here was not merely a collection of interesting objects appropriately displayed, but a simple yet moving evocation of an entire culture, illustrated by the authentic artifacts of a unique and almost vanished way of life. In Colognac I found vestiges of it. Half hidden by briars and nettles was one of the stone-built kilns resembling miniature cottages in which the chestnut harvest was dried. Nearby, another stone shelter in picturesque dilapidation was where silk worms were fed on their staple diet of mulberry leaves. Typically, women and young girls from the villages used to earn a pittance in the silk factories of the valleys, their 12-hour or longer working days starting at four or five o’clock in the morning. Bed and lights out were strictly at 9 pm.
With more time and stamina a man might have followed the GR 6 all the way down the Gorges du Gardon to the Pont du Gard, at the eastern extremity of Lower Lanquedoc. Instead, I took the ever-popular steam train to Anduze, then begged a lift to Alès (where Robert Louis Stevenson had ended his immortal journey with a donkey ) in a 30-year-old Peugeot belonging to a kindly English judge.
A man working in a vegetable patch still flourishing with fat leeks, huge cabbages and late tomatoes pointed to a path which he said would take me up through the woods and out of the valley. It did, but was so closely crowded with blackthorn that at moments I was strongly tempted to turn back.
Persistence was justified. Emerging at last from the thicket, I climbed on up to the brow of the slope, sat comfortably on a low bank, and in spite of being told by the map that I was on les Monts Damnés was glad to be alive on such a day. The autumn sun was warm, the sky blue and almost cloudless. Reaching to right and left below me were the downland,valleys,woods and villages of the heart of the Sancerrois; and beyond Sancerre itself on its isolated peak, beyond the channels and backwaters and islands and meanders of the river, were the vineyards of Pouilly. The mists had dispersed. Further away still were the forested uplands of the Nivernais, and far in the distance the blue-veiled heights of the Monts du Morvan.
And now I drew the cork from a bottle of Pouilly-Fumé. Next to champagne, a very acceptable apéritif is a good white wine from the upper Loire.
One evening, dining with friends in London, I was invited by my host (who shares my view that such guessing games, if not taken too seriously, can be both instructive and fun) to identify the red wine that we were drinking. I pretended to give the matter careful thought: holding the glass up to the light, swirling and inhaling and ‘chewing’ as advised by the experts, making thoughtful noises, and so on and so (as I hoped) intelligently and impressively forth. In fact, I had known the answer quite quickly; not through skill or cleverness, but largely because I had bought a few bottles of the same wine some months before at the domaine in Languedoc where it had been made.
I had arrived at the domaine in the course of a walk in spring in one of the most attractive parts of the Minervois. The owner and his wife – he the winemaker, she the business manager – had been surprised and pleased that a visitor should have arrived on foot at their somewhat remote property and had received me very kindly. We had tasted in the cellars and talked a lot, and after a while I had gone on my way a good deal more knowledgeable about the wines of the Minervois than I had been before, and with my rucksack heavier by a bottle of cold rosé that I was looking forward to drinking with a picnic. Next day I returned by car and bought some of the domaine’s red to take home.
Now, with the wine from that same domaine in my glass at my friends’ dinner table in London, recollections of France crowded in on me: the sun on my face in the early morning, the scents of wild thyme and sage and acacia, the cistus and honeysuckle in thegarrigue, the cuckoo calling. I recalled the sun-crisped bread (the baguette had been travelling on top of my pack) and the pâté and the cheese for lunch in the foothills of the Montagne Noire.
The wine was nowhere near being ‘great’, but it was a good, honest one of individual character; drinking it again, I thought of the winemaker and his wife, both of whom had been individuals of marked and agreeable personality. I saw their centuries-old château and the yellow broom on the borders of the vineyard and remembered how beautifully cold had been the water which had come from a spring on their property and with which I had replenished my flask.
That wine had meant something else to me, too: the walk that day in the Minervois, through by no means the first of its kind, had been the first that I had undertaken with the purpose of what was to become Walking in Wine Country specifically in mind. Alone up there in the garrigue I had unstintingly celebrated the fact with the cold rosé, looking out across the vines and thinking that, for a writer by trade, the road to a purposeful use of something I liked so much had been a curiously long one.
The walking had come before the wine. A romantic idea of walking almost certainly began with my mother’s stories of her solitary adventures as a small girl in the Welsh hills, and with imagery such as that of Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Vagabond:
Give the jolly heaven above, and the byway nigh me. Bed in the bush
with stars to see, bread I dip in the river – There’s the life for a man like me….
For a country child who liked to be out in all weathers it was powerful stuff.
In my schooldays the infant romantic fancy was nurtured by superior tales of high adventure: James Fenimore Cooper, whose characters went fleet of foot through the forests or trekked across the great prairies of America; Walter Scott and John Buchan, both of whom brought the drove roads and heather-covered moors of the Scottish borders and highlands into a south-of-England bedroom. Later there came Bunyan, Borrow, Wordsworth, Keats and Coleridge, Rousseau, Balzac and Ruskin: romantics and walkers all.
What contribution, if any, this unscholarly mishmash of influences made to the predilections of adult life it is hard to say, but walking became something like a passion. Year after year, season in and season out, I walked the South Downs of my native Sussex. I walked on the Great Ridgeway and in the Scottish borders and highlands and Welsh Marshes. I walked in the foothills of the Drakensberg in South Africa and through the Kalinkandaki valley in Nepal. Then on spring came the coincidence of circumstances that led straight to the wine country of France.
I was going walking again on the Sussex Downs. The post came as I was leaving the house and I put several letters in my pocket to open on the train. One of them was an invitation to spend a weekend at a château belonging to one of the big champagne houses not far from Épernay. That day, too, and not for the first time by any means, I had a paperback edition of Hilaire Belloc’s classic The Path to Rome in my pack and was reading it as I lunched in a little sheltered hollow overlooking the Weald. Early in his walk, passing through Belfort at the foot of the Vosges, Belloc comes across a ramshackle house offering ‘open’ wine for sale:
“‘Choosing the middle price, at four pence a quart”, I said, “Pray give me a hap’orth in a mug.” This the woman at once did, and when I came to drink it, it was delicious … lifting the heart, satisfying, and full of all those things wine merchants talk of, bouquet, and body, and flavour … So I bought a quart of it, corked it up very tight, put it in my sack, and held it in store against the wineless places.”’
France, wine and walking! There on the Sussex chalk with a breeze off the Channel and the sun and the sound of larks and the scent of the turf, how I fancied myself suddenly on the long byways of France with all that I needed in a pack on my back, sleeping out as the occasion warranted, buying my wine when opportunity offered, as Belloc had done. Instead of being met by car at the airport in Paris (the big champagne firms tend to do things in style), why not take the train from Paris to Épernay, and by a circuitous route walk to a weekend of good food, good wine and good company that would be even more enjoyable for the exercise? I had already acquired a considerable taste for the wines of Champagne; now I improved it hugely be a down-to-earth acquaintance with the chalk hills, woods, valleys and villages of the Marne. It was the first step in what was to be a whole new experience of walking and wine and France, the beginning of a relationship from which Walking in Wine Country was to be born.
Other walks in other winemaking regions of France soon followed; not at this time with any notions of a systematic association of subjects in mind, but because more and more I derived great personal satisfaction – physical, emotional, intellectual – from them. Most of the vineyards of France are in some of the most obviously beautiful parts of the whole incomparably beautiful land: Alsace, Savoy and the Jura, the Loire, Burgundy, the Rhône valley, Provence, Languedoc, Gascony and Aquitaine. Wine country means the foothills of the mountains: the Vosges, the Alps, the Massif Central, the Pyrenees. It means great rivers and their scores of tributaries. It is thousands of square miles of accessible, topographically varied terrain, with roads if one needs them, but also with an infinity of traffic-free byways and paths if one does not. It means a wealth of still-beguiling, very ancient towns and villages and some of the most impressive cities in Europe. Moved by a love of walking and wine and all the other civilized things of life, a person could live as long as Methuselah and still not exhaust the pleasures of France.
‘The more I have learned about wine in the course of a quarter of a century of enjoyment, the more I have realized that it weaves in with human history from its very beginnings as few, if any, other products do,” says Hugh Johnson in his masterly and enthralling The Story of Wine. If there is romance in walking, there is even more in wine. It is older than European civilisation itself. It is history. It is art. It is literature from the Bible to Belloc. In France it is abbeys and monasteries and churches and castles. It is great châteaux and fine mansions and sturdy farmhouses and not a few even humbler dwellings that look as if they have changed little since the time of Charlemagne.
Romance? Wine – good wine – may involve mechanical harvesters and computers and stainless steel and factory-like cuveries; but good wine – individual wine worth tasting with interest and talking about – in France is more likely still to mean pickers in colourful variety hard at work by hand and eagerly sitting down to hearty harvest luncheons and dinners. In countless domains from the Vosges to Mont Ventoux, from Bordeaux to Bandol, it still means very old timber presses (and even grapes being trodden barefoot) as well as state-of-the-art hydraulic contrivances. There is stainless steel in plenty, of course, but there is still oak enough in the form of vats and casks, often in medieval cellars, to satisfy the most starry-eyed romantic.
No less, and perhaps above all, wine is people: people and their good husbandry; people and their labour and skill and love and traditions and respect and ambition and imagination and pride. More and more I seriously doubt if dull or fundamentally disagreeable people are capable of making interesting, thoroughly enjoyable wine. So from one appellation to another; from Ammerschwihr to Aguilar, from the Médoc to Mont-Ste Victoire; I walked my way to new experiences and pleasures of wine. The more I walked in wine country, the more I saw that although I had supposed myself to be fairly knowledgeable on the subject, almost all wines, even very famous ones, had until recently been little more to me than beverages in bottles, distinguishable – the best-known – by reputation, but very largely only by their intrinsic qualities, and by price. Rarely was I able to put a landscape, let alone any other detail of origin, to a label, no matter how illustrious the name on it. In this, like most people, I had been ignoring an enormous potential of pleasure.
Now things were different. Now Fleurie, for example, once merely one of the better wines of the Beaujolais as far as I was concerned, was a village I had looked down over from a long, lazy hillside picnic. Gigondas was no longer just a name among what were said to be good value wines from the Rhône (whatever that really signified), but another village, this time at the feet of the pre-Alps, where on a hot September day I drank gratefully from a communal fountain before visiting a winemaker who sent me on my way with a bottle of his ‘85 to drink with lunch high among the Dentelles de Montmirail. Good wine is good wine, but it is even better when the name on the bottle becomes also hawthorn in bloom on the hills of Sancerre, or the blessing of shade at high summer in the vineyards of Bandol, or the wild beauty of the high Corbières.
Famous names are few and far between in the wine racks of my one-time coal cellar, but to such as there are I am now able to put pictures far more informative and evocative than the labels; and no matter how the wines themselves may age, they constitute a treasury of souvenirs that will become more valuable as times goes by.
Morgon by Moonlight
At the Château de Pizay, in the Beaujolais, I had a rendezvous with Lucien, a representative from the regional tourist organization, whose intention it had been to take me to dinner at a restaurant in nearby Bellville where the food, he had said, was good and authentically regional and the atmosphere ‘tres sympathique’. Now, over an aperitif before leaving the Château, he wondered if I might care to try something altogether different. A good friend of his was the daughter of a vigneron in Morgon. She and her sister were coming up from Lyon for the weekend and he had promised to meet them off the train at Belleville at five o’clock and take them to their parents’ place just a few kilometres along the road. The harvest was in full swing on the family property and we could have supper with the vendangeurs. It might be fun.
The family property was typical of the Beaujolais: a farmhouse of terracotta-coloured stone and indeterminate age and a farmyard no tidier or more elegant than working farmyards normally are, with assorted outbuildings and a litter of farm equipment, including two tractors with metal trailers hooked up. Madame Durance was a good-looking, cheerful woman in her fifties who apologised for not shaking hands, since they were covered in flour. Monsieur Durance was not yet back from calling on the wine-maker in Villié-Morgon to whom he sold his grapes. Her husband was a grower only. Her notably attractive daughters, Gabrielle and Véronique, (it crossed my mind that Lucien’s proposed change of plan might not have been wholly altruistic) who had made it clear on the way from the station that they had not come for a lazy weekend, but to help their mother feed the grape-pickers, put on aprons and started laying a long trestle table at one side of the very large kitchen. Lucien and I helped. When Monsieur Durance at last appeared he looked as though he had just had a good scrub. He had slightly greying hair and was wearing a bottle-green corduroy shirt with blue denim trousers. (‘Très gai!’ remarked Gabrielle). Though welcoming enough, he was sparing with words. It had been a very good harvest so far, he said: quantity good, quality excellent. ‘Pas mal du tout.’
Grape-harvest suppers are generally jolly, joyful occasions: the work is hard, the hours necessarily long, the pleasure of stopping work particularly great and the camaraderie usually self-sustaining. Grape-growers have a tradition of feeding their workers well, if only out of self-interest, and wine flows freely at table, even if it is not always literally du pays. It is an opportunity for everyone to let their hair down and have a happy time. At first, Gabrielle and Véronique were kept busy putting food on the table for the dozen or so hungry and thirsty young men and women pickers, all of whom were French and from Clermont-Ferrand.
When everyone had finished the charcuterie and was busy with the main course – a hearty beef ragoût – the sisters joined their father, Lucien and me at one end of the table and started on their own supper. Glasses were filled with a wine which Monsieur Durance described as ‘un bon petit Gamay de la commune’ and then filled again. I encouraged my host to talk about wine and he was scathing not only about Beaujolais Nouveau, but also about what he called fashions in crus*: one year Fleurie was all the rage, the next year Brouilly, the year after that, something else. The négociants did it just so as to manipulate prices. He was glad he was only a grower, not a wine-maker. His father and grandfather had been growers too. A cobbler ought to stick to his last.
‘Not a wine-maker!’ exclaimed Véronique. ‘What a story!’ (‘Quelle histoire!’).
With mock solemnity Monsieur Durance informed her that his ‘quelques bouteilles’ were just his little hobby: he was no Georges Dubœuf! *
At the end of dinner, Monsieur Durance announced that since the picking was going so well he would like to propose a little celebration: we would go and drink a bottle of ‘the ’83’. Now, the significance of Véronique’s ironic remark about her father’s not being a wine maker became apparent. In an open barn at one side of the farmyard was a neat, high stack of old, dry vine roots. Behind the stack, a door in the stone wall and some steps led down into a cellar lit by a single bare electric bulb. A wooden vat, an old-fashioned vertical, slatted press, several far-from-new casks and a row of large stainless-steel jugs constituted the image of a traditional wine-making cave. Through a low arch another short flight of stone steps gave access to a storage cellar.
While Monsieur Durance left us briefly for the lower level, his daughters lit the six half-burned candles in a pyramid-shaped wrought-iron holder —‘Il est très ritualiste,’explained Véronique— before switching off the electric bulb.
Her father returned with a basket containing several unlabelled bottles from which he proceeded to draw the corks. First, we tasted a two-year-old wine, which was tannic and without any Beaujolais charm. ‘You see: not drinkable!’ exclaimed Monsieur Durance. ‘But if I lived by selling wine instead of just growing grapes I would have sold it and someone would be paying to drink it.’ Next, we sampled ‘the ‘83’, which I thought very drinkable indeed. ‘Promising! ’, said Monsiur Durance. At five years old it was the one of oldest Beaujolais I had ever tasted, a revelation in flavours and appearance. Held up to the candle-flames, it was still a lovely garnet colour. Though it was as cool as the lower cellar, its ‘nose’ was seductive and the taste so complex as to challenge the imagination and descriptive powers of the taster. ‘No chaptalization*, no filtering: only racking,’ said Monsieur Durance.
It was not very sensible at that hour, but there was no spitting: we drank the bottle; then another. It was even less prudent to start on a fifteen-year-old marc, which Monsieur Durance said came from a friend of his. When the subject of going to bed was raised at last it was unanimously agreed that no responsible person could possibly take the wheel of a car, so I would have to stay more or less where I was.
My host went off to his own bed. The rest of us took our glasses and went outside to decide whether the moon was full.
The piece which follows is part of a larger one that appeared in France Magazine, October 2005, and was a consequence of the few days that I spent following in the steps of Robert Louis Stevenson, whose immortal Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes was first published in 1879. The walk was one of the most pleasurable experiences of my life.
On the Stevenson Trail
I awoke that morning not at cockcrow but donkey bray. “All the way up the long hill from Langogne it rained and hailed alternately”, complained Stevenson of the start of his next stage to the hamlet of Le Cheylard-l’Évêque in Le Gévaudan. Luckier by far, I hugged the shade where I could find it, twice at clear-running streams overhung with eglantine laved face and feet in the sublimely cool current, drank Evian and hoped there would be plenty of very cold rosé to come before the sun went down. Had I kept to the route as given in the latest edition of Topoguide number 700 of the Fédération Française de la Randonnée Pédestre, it would have been no more than a ten mile stage to Cheylard; but my copy was an old one, and I failed to reconcile its directions with waymark signs. Finally, in Saint-Flour-de-Mercoire I was inexcusably careless with my map reading and so condemned myself to what seemed at the time an interminable uphill slog in the heat of the afternoon.
To pretend that walking for pleasure is always and by definition an unqualified delight is rubbish: there are times when to stop putting one foot in front of the other is the essence of bliss. So it was with the last few miles of that day’s march. Why anyone would want to visit Cheylard, wrote Stevenson, “is more than my much-inventing spirit can suppose. For my part, I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel’s sake. The great affair is to move …”.
For me on that summer evening the good and entirely sufficient reason for being there was the bottle of rosé, which for a very short while, beaded with condensation, stood on the bare wooden table outside the very comfortable Refuge du Moure. Prudently, I had quenched my urgent thirst on arrival with half a litre of Badoit. Now, the happiness with which I drank was partly the child of error and frustration left behind —the wrong turnings; the maddening diversions; the unnecessary exertions —and partly that particular elation which is not least of the rewards of a long and active day in the open air. There was as well the very considerable satisfaction of being in the very place that had inspired one of the most quoted passages in English literature. Stevenson’s “great affair” may have been to move. Mine, at that moment, with the sun down below the hill but still illuminating the woods on the far bank of the Cheylard stream, with the fraîcheur of the evening just beginning, was to make no effort but what would secure me another bottle of the wine.
It was a precious moment of intense wellbeing. My German acquaintances of the previous night’s dinner in Langogne had arrived an hour or two earlier. Some were drinking tea, some mineral water, others beer. The leader of their donkey party; the sort of admirably fit, competent, authoritative man, I wryly reflected, who had made so formidable an enemy in Normandy sixty summers ago, not only joined me in appreciation of the rosé but with the aid of his own maps explained in detail my navigational errors. A sun-tanned middle-aged lady from Bavaria and another from Düsseldorf helped us empty a second bottle. (The day had been very warm indeed). A third carried us through the first course of an outstandingly good and once again convivial dinner, by the end of which I had not only received three invitations to Germany and a suggestion that I might henceforth become one of the donkey walkers, but the French had invited me to join them in un petit digestif and raised their glasses to “Stevenson’s fellow countryman”.
I hadn’t the heart to remind them that the author of the great classic had been a Scot.