WELL MET IN MUSCADET

THERE WERE FIVE OF US ON THE WALK: Philippe, the young president of the regional association des randonneurs; thirty-five-year-old Jean-Daniel and his wife Marie-Odile from Nantes (he a doctor, she a radiologist), their friend and neighbour Françoise, an engaging physiotherapist of about the same age, and I. Philippe and I had arranged to meet in Tiffauges, but half an hour after the appointed time he had telephoned in great embarrassment. The local tourist office, he said, offered the public a variety of organized walks as part of a weekend package; one of them was from Tiffauges to Clisson, which he and I had arranged to do. The local man who ought to have conducted it had suddenly become unwell, so that three people from Nantes, who had paid for a package and were already in Tiffauges, now found themselves without a guide. Would I mind very much if they came with us?  We would have an interesting route along the valley of the Sèvre Nantaise, where I would be able to visit Bluebeard’s castle. ‘Bluebeard’ (aka Gils de Rais, he reminded me) had been a companion in arms of Joan of Arc during her reconquest of the kingdom of France from the English. ‘Mais pas du tout sympathique,’ remarked Françoise sotto voce.

At first, there was little talking as we walked. Speaking no English, the weekenders were to begin with extremely reserved and almost painfully apologetic for their ‘intrusion’ (as they put it) upon my plans. It took some time for me to discover that they had been intimidated by a briefing that had presented me not only as a vastly important person, but also eccentrically solitary by inclination. ‘We thought you looked very severe,” they said later on. All three were smartly dressed in well-cut shorts, tennis shirts and trainers, but to my concern, given that we planned to walk 12 miles or more, I saw that Françoise was wearing no socks.

All francophiles, I suppose, have their own images of quintessential France. Mine has always been of a supreme rurality, and in the valley of the Sèvre Nantaise were all the elements of my ideal. The river flowed slowly, bordered here by high, leafy banks, there by water-meadows; here by narrow woods where our path ran through welcome shade, there by steep slopes with very old farmhouses at the top and cattle swishing their tails in the summer heat. By ancient mills willows drooped, ducks paddled, and a line raised and recast by an angler constituted an exercise of such moment as to mark the very air.

At about one o’clock we lunched in the shade near an old mill. A common supply of bread had been bought in Tiffauges before setting out; otherwise, we offered one another whatever each of us happened to have brought by way of provisions, including wine. I had kept a bottle of good Muscadet cold by my customary means of wrapping it up in a goosedown ‘body warmer’, a refinement much admired by the others. ‘Ah, the English!’ remarked Françoise mockingly. ‘How fussy they are about their wine.’

After we had eaten, the sound of water over a distant weir and of the leaves rustling in the lightest of breezes stilled all chatter and we lay on our backs, gazing up at a blue sky where a solitary, very high-flying jet ejected four perfect vapour trails. I wondered where it had come from and where it was going to and thought that there was nowhere in the world that I would rather be than where I already was.

When we started walking again I was glad to leave the map-reading to Philippe and to have no cares for time and distance. I was also glad in the heat of the summer afternoon to enjoy more pauses than I might have taken on my own; pauses when Marie-Odile and Françoise flopped down with a ‘phew!’ and a ‘mon dieu, qu’il fait chaud!’ and drank deeply from their water-bottles. Occasionally forced to abandon the riverside, our path would climb steeply enough for me to envy the three from Nantes their skimpy shorts and shirts and their super-lightweight footwear. While I plodded, they seemed to step lightly as fawns. Françoise, it is true, was obliged at one point to confess that a sore place had developed where a shoe had chafed a heel, whereupon I had the undeniable satisfaction of supplying first aid.

We reached Clisson at half past five in the afternoon and a more agreeable end to a 12-mile walk it would be hard to devise. At the approaches to the town our path took us close beside the river through a tiny park shaped roughly like an amphitheatre with a steep tree-covered slope that long ago must have been the river bank and an open green sward; all shaded; all cool; all verdant. Ahead, high above the banks of the Sèvre Nantaise and its confluence with the Moine, rose a castle which, though at heart a ruin, looked as a medieval castle ought to: mighty, proud and forbidding;  with the addition of a turret or two it could have been an illustration to a fairytale. ‘C’est très plaisant,’ remarked the undemonstrative Françoise.‘C’est fabuleux,’ said Marie-Odile. Hardly less pleasing in all our eyes, sitting under a parasol on a table outside the Café des Sports in the town square, were five tankards of cold draught beer. “It’s best to drink slowly when you’re hot,” advised Philippe sagely. “You’re right,” said the rest of us as we sank the glorious golden stuff in almost the same breath and looked eagerly round again for the waiter.

Clisson was enchanting. It had been arranged that a local doctor who is also a passionate historian should take me on a tour of the town, but we walkers had arrived later than we ought to have done and had sat too long at the Café des Sports, so that when at last I presented myself at his house he suggested that rather than attempt a hurried tour at the end of a tiring day I might like to relax for a while with a drink. Built on the edge of a cliff close to the Sèvre Nantaise, the house seemed almost to be lodged among the tops of tall trees growing in the riverside park below. The doctor’s wife was truly beautiful and impeccably dressed, so that in my far from elegant walking gear, and with my face grimy from the exertions of the very warm day, I was hardly at my ease to begin with. It was a mood that was soon dispelled.

“Here,” said my host, filling my glass with a deliciously cool Muscadet for the third time, “It’s only eleven and a half degrees.”  While I had been drinking, he had been telling me something of the history of Clisson from its time as a colony in the Roman province of Aquitaine Secunda down to 1794 and the end of the Revolution, when the savagery of the republican Turreau and his infamous ‘colonnes infernales’ had left it a fire-blackened ruin, ‘abandoned to wolves and dogs’.

The doctor and I joined Jean-Claude, Marie-Odile, Françoise and Philippe for dinner at the Auberge de la Cascade. We ate little oysters cooked with herbs, followed by sea bass with a beurre blanc, duck, cheese and tarte aux pommes. With the oysters and the fish we drank a Muscadet de Sèvre-et-Maine, a Chiroubles with the duck. Philippe left for Nantes, the doctor went home, and the rest of us walked up to the Café des Sports for un petit digestif  before bed. The night air was warm and soft and scented with hay, or with lawn grass cut but left lying all day in the hot sun.

Next morning my companions of the day before were obliged to stick to plans that had been laid before we had all met in Tiffauges.The sun had gone, the sky was a uniform grey, the breeze was cold. Setting out alone on another 12-mile walk, I felt strangely bereft. After a while the rhythm of the exercise worked its usual therapy and the weather improved, so that my spirits rose. It was getting on for seven o’clock in the evening when I presented myself at the Abbaye de Villeneuve, on the outskirts of Nantes.‘Is that all the luggage you have?”, queried the receptionist, waringly eyeing my small and venerable day-pack.

“But hasn’t the rest of my luggage arrived?” I asked anxiously.

“Ah non!’.What were you expecting?”

“A much bigger rucksack, and a black holdall”.

In other words, everything except the essential walking gear that I was either wearing or had in my small day-pack: all the means of my making a more or less respectable showing in the dining room.”It will be waiting for you when you get there”,the patronne of Auberge de la Cascade at Clisson had assured me that morning. “Never fear.”

At about eight o’clock I sat swathed in a hotel bathrobe while the maître d’hôtel gave me his suggestions from the menu. Though I had been looking forward to eating in the hotel’s well-reputed restaurant, and dislike room service except for breakfast or a snack, in the absence of my luggage room service for dinner it would have to be. Earlier, as a little something to raise my morale, the head waiter had suggested a bottle of Muscadet Château de Cléray: “a superb wine”. He had not exaggerated, and I was on my second glass when the telephone rang and the now jubilant receptionist announced that my big rucksack and the holdall were on the way up. A lady had brought them and was waiting to see me. A lady! The patronne of the Auberge de la Cascade had been particularly helpful, and now, to my embarrassment, she had obviously felt obliged to bring my luggage in person. What a fuss I had unwittingly caused!

But it was Françoise, not the patronne of the Hotel Cascade, who sat opposite me in the dining room ten minutes later. “I’m really very sorry”, she said. “I was thinking about you in Clisson this morning. Then, when we were leaving, I saw your luggage by the reception desk at the Cascade. They said a taxi was going to collect it later on and bring it over here, so I volunteered to do it after getting back to Nantes and picking up my own car. I would have been earlier, but had to look in at the hospital.”

I was in that light-headed, feet-not-quite-on-the-ground state that can be one of the rewards of a day’s walk and a bath and a glass or two of wine, and for a few moments just looked at her happily.  “Still”, she went on, filling the silence. “I did save you the cost of a taxi . And I hope you’re glad you weren’t obliged to have dinner  on your own.”  I said I was rather and asked for two glasses of champagne.

_________

Adapted from  Walking in Wine Country


THE REWARDS OF THE DAY

Dusk had come by the time I had climbed the last hill and left the last wood and saw the village of Avize lying immediately below me. Suddenly, the 12 miles back to Épernay seemed impossibly long and to walk even one more seemed a task beyond the strength of body or will. Pausing, I felt the chill of damp clothes. As I was signing in at the Hotel St. Nicolas  the rubicund patronne appeared in a blue woollen dressing gown and said: ‘You look as if you need a bath.’

Great, now, were the rewards of the day’s exertions. Safe from the rain, shoulders free of the pack, sitting upon the edge of the bed taking boots from aching feet, I savoured a delicious awareness of comfort and well-being. Part was mere animal pleasure at shelter from the elements. Part was satisfaction at having achieved what had been intended. From the pack came a complete change of clothes. I was half stripped when the ample patronne came in after no more than a perfunctory knock at the door. She had brought towels and a large tablet of soap and led the way down a spiral iron staircase that seemed to have been built as an afterthought. At the bottom was a courtyard where rain danced on the cobbles as I followed the blue dressing gown through what proved to be the kitchen door.

‘Now,’ the patronne, said, lighting all the burners of the two gas ranges and turning the flames as high as they would go. ‘A little heat so that you do not catch cold. And now, voilà le système.’ Over the sink was a gas heater. An adjustable cold water supply had been plumbed into the outlet pipe to which she fitted a hand shower on a length of rubber tube. ‘Nous sommes à la campagne, mais nous ne sommes pas primitifs.’

‘Don’t worry about the waste water,’ she added. The floor slopes. It finds its own way out’. Standing by the sink, I let hot water run luxuriously over me until I feared that the kitchen was in danger of flooding and the bunches of herbs hanging from the ceiling might suffer from the steam.

Before dinner came bed. I had been awake since 5 a.m. The room was warm. The bed itself was large and very comfortable. Outside were the dark and the rain and the wind. Inside, I listened to them, drew the quilt higher over my shoulders, stretched my limbs in the warm sheets, heard a murmur of voices from the bar below, and slept.

There was no restaurant at the Hotel St.Nicolas: cosily, a table was laid in a sort of alcove at one corner of the bar. Dinner began with soup, then charcuterie and a pâté that was served with a certain suggestion of conspiracy. The  patronne came over when it had gone and asked if I had enjoyed it. Delicious. And did I know what it was?  No idea. ‘Cod’s liver!’ she said triumphantly. ‘If I’d told you before, you would never have eaten it’. Rabbit cooked in a mushroom sauce with the slightest touch of curry came next, then pigeon. It is easy for a pigeon to become dry when it is roasted but this one was succulent, served on thin rounds of fried bread.

I had finished  a half bottle of the local champagne ( a blanc de blanc) with the soup and the second course. With the rabbit and the pigeon I had a Beaujolais Villages. As a meal it had already all been more than enough, but now the patronne’s daughter brought in an apple flan whose pastry, she said, had been made with fresh cream. I declined the cheese.

Coffee followed, and with it, Armagnac. At the bar I sat on a high stool and was introduced to Victor and Paul and Jean Claud; like most of those there, men who lived by the vines. Midnight sounded from the clocks in the village and we were still talking. ‘Patronne; another glass for Monsieur. Ah, but I insist; you must fortify yourself for tomorrow. It keeps out the rain.’

My going to bed an hour later was defended by Madame: so many kilometres walked yesterday, so many to be walked today. What would Monsieur like for breakfast? Monique, see that Monsieur gets his coffee at 8 a.m. Monsieur is certain he wants no bacon and eggs?

In my room walking clothes were drying on an old-fashioned radiator, the rain-soaked map hung over the back of a chair. I lay in bed and heard bursts of laughter from below. The wind was making a shutter bang somewhere down the street. Again I slept.

_______

Adapted from my book,Walking in Wine Country. Sadly, there is no longer a Hotel St.Nicolas in Avize, and almost certainly few  like it  still to be found in France. But I like to think that much that was essentially French and  part of its charm lives on.


A little of what I fancied

Winter in Champagne. The intention was this: starting from Vertus, I would follow the Côte des Blancs from one end to the other by way of  le Mesnil-sur-Oger, Avize, and Cramant, cross to the southern slopes of the Montagne de Reims by the bridge over the Marne down at Mareuil-sur-Ay, and so on up to Champillon, north of Épernay. It was an itinerary amounting to perhaps 17 or 18 miles; not a formidable distance, but the sky was threatening and the wind unfriendly. I therefore made a precautionary contract with myself and attached a penalty clause: I would complete the course on my own two feet or else would be obliged renounce wine for a month. You may be sure that socks and boots were checked with special care.

Every season in the vineyards has its pros and cons. In winter and early spring Champagne seems to me more beautiful than at any other time of the year. Later, the essential shape of the land will be half lost in a monochrome of green luxuriance; now, it is revealed in stylish austerity. The vines, generally trained low and almost parallel to the earth, have been rigorously pruned. In their disciplined rows, plot by plot, running now in one direction, now in another, they present a great undulating patchwork of browns and sepias and dark greys.

The church clock struck noon as I left Cramant on the way towards Chouilly and a heavy lorry sprayed me liberally with water that was streaming down beside the raised verge. The view out over the vines was far and wide and I thought how good it would be to sit up there on the hillside with a picnic on a fine day. As it was, I envied four men who were taking off muddy wellies before installing themselves for lunch in a camionette. Shelter from the rain was my concern as well. First, I needed to delve into my pack for waterproof over-trousers. More, I wanted the little flask of Courvoisier VSOP which was wrapped inside them.

But where to find refuge? To my right and ahead were only the vines, sloping down to the plain. To my left was the côte that forms the eastern edge of the Butte de Saran; very steep, but with woods at the top. In the edge of the trees I found a hollow made long ago by the uprooting of a tree in a gale, perhaps, but just as likely by a vigneron excavating for earth to replace eroded topsoil. Here, sheltered from the hostile little breeze, above a thick carpet of fallen leaves, I contrived a roof by means of the ground sheet that is never absent from my winter walking gear, for greater warmth pulled on the windproof trousers, zipped my Gore-tex overjacket up to the neck and unscrewed the flask.

My satisfaction with that modest cognac in the winter woods above the Côte des Blancs was as great as I have  had from any brandy in the world, though in my time I have tasted some of the finest that ever came out of Acquitaine. First, I had a good dram slowly and neat. Next, I drank cognac and ice-cold water, half and half. Then, with the recent example of the men in the camionette in mind, and considering that there were still 10 miles to go to dinner in Champillon, I thought that  un petit casse-crôute might be sensible. The Courvoisier-à-l’eau went very well with that too.


A night in the woods

It was barely 7 miles as the crow flies from Henri Pellés cellars in Morogues to Henrichemont, where there would be hotels, but by the time the tasting was over it was later than I had bargained for and I knew that  if I hoped to be in time for dinner I would need to set myself a brisk pace.

Shunning the obvious but hardtop road, I took tracks to the east of it, but only an hour after setting out, with a leaden sky and my pack seeming especially burdensome, it became obvious that before I could reach the macadam on the far side of the forest that I had so boldly chosen to traverse, I should be benighted.

In retrospect, I suspect that I may unconsciously have welcomed the excuse to experiment with a piece of equipment that I often carried in case of emergency, but had never yet used — a Gore-Tex bivvy bag.  Substituting for a tent, and significantly lighter;  needing neither poles nor guy ropes and pegs, a bivvy bag is a sort of sack which can accommodate the user in a normal sleeping bag. Here, in the swiftly darkening Bois d’Henrichemont, its moment had arrived.

In a thicket of saplings that gave an illusion of security (I have always been afraid of the dark) I found a level space just large enough for my needs; and for extra shelter, and to enhance the illusion, rigged my lightweight groundsheet  as a sort of porch. I was not badly provided for. I had water. Odds and ends remained from my lunchtime picnic. Not least, I carried a small flask of whisky. By 8 pm I was snugly cocooned.

Few people can honestly claim unbroken sleep in a bivouac. I slept and woke, slept and woke again. Within arm’s reach outside the bivvy bag, the water in its plastic bottle was almost ice-cold and I laced it with whisky. While I hid there, winter tightened its grip. It was not simply a matter of temperature, but of impalpable, primordial mood. The silence of the woods was not merely that of repose, but of all nature cowering from the dread tyrant, not daring to stir, hoping to be overlooked.

But in the morning there was a heavy frost and a million leaves had fallen.


The Trouble with Cynthia


IT BEGAN AT A COCKTAIL PARTY IN KENSINGTON.  I was standing in a corner, minding my own business and thinking I was about ready to leave, when my hostess fought her way towards me, dragging a rather pretty girl by the hand.  ‘This is Cynthia’, she said.  ‘She wants a lift with you to Biarritz.’  Two days later, the pretty girl , who was 27 and came from Ohio, and I were driving away from the airfield at Le Touquet with high hopes and enough luggage in the back to keep a top model in working trim for six months.

The first awareness I had of our fundamental incompatibility came to me somewhere between Abbeville and Rouen, when it suddenly dawned on me that Cynthia had not stopped talking all day.  She took not only a keen but a comparative interest in everything she saw, and everything she saw fell a good deal short of its counterpart way back home. The treatment of dumb friends, hygiene, and the shortcomings of Continental food were the main themes of her complaints. ‘Oh, just look at that!’ she exclaimed each time we saw a cart horse with a blue-denimed peasant on its back. ‘Don’t they treat their animals simply terribly’ ?  The question, like all of Cynthia’s questions, was rhetorical: when she said: ‘Aren’t you just disgusted with that’? (the sight of caged rabbits and chickens in a food market) she meant that she was and that I ought to be.

We had trouble in Dreux when I suggested that tomatoes from a stall would be perfectly all right if we gave them a rinse at a village pump (‘terribly crude’).  We had trouble in Chartres looking for a baker who sold white bread sliced and wrapped. We left a trail of shattered restaurateurs behind us. Having entered one two-star Michelin establishment, we departed as soon as Cynthia discovered that the trout swimming in the glass tank were not there for decorative purposes or as pets. In Poitiers, we walked out of another place  because the sight of my escargots made her start to feel sick. I realised then that my idea of an agreeable five-day dawdle would have to be abandoned and that the object of the exercise must now be to reach Biarritz with the least possible delay.

What followed was certainly my fault, but it came after an all-night drive when the only hotel available had been unable to offer private bathrooms and my judgement was correspondingly impaired. It was about noon.  We had left the N.10 for a secondary road and had been going along slowly, looking for a suitable place for a picnic lunch.  Cynthia had just turned down my seventeenth suggestion when I saw an open gate leading into a meadow and without so much as by her leave eased the car over the verge and drove gently down to the edge of the clover and young grass.

Once Cynthia’s squeals had subsided, the picnic went quite well: she was too busy cutting the crust off the bread and the Camembert to be able to talk and I even managed a brief sleep. Then came disaster. In my eagerness to get off the highway I had not appreciated that the slope into the meadow was really quite steep.  Now, as I tried to mount it, my wheels spun on the crushed grass and we slithered back into the field. Again we tried. Again we failed.  Even when Cynthia sat in the driving seat and I pushed from behind we did no better. At last, upon a litter of dead sticks, a motoring rug, and gravel transported from the roadside in one of Cynthia’s straw hats, the car surged up the incline and shot over the verge. As it did so there came a vicious clang of metal striking  stone. Caught upon a concealed boulder, the octagonal bung in the bottom of the petrol tank was ripped from its seating and several precious gallons of  Super gurgled swiftly away.

Consider our predicament.  We had left the N 10 specifically in order to enjoy being in la France profonde. According to the map we were 11 miles from anywhere.  I put on the overalls that I always carried on motoring journeys and wormed my way beneath the rear of the car.

‘What are you doing? ‘ Cynthia asked querulously when I had been lying there in silence for five minutes or so.

‘Thinking’, I said.

After a while I decided that the best and least expensive thing to do would be to remove the petrol tank, beg a lift to whatever might be the nearest town, get the tank repaired and take a taxi back. With luck, in two or three hours we could be mobile again.

Then I remembered that when getting my boiler suit from the boot I had seen the  five-foot length of rubber tube that I kept for siphoning purposes. What would happen if I disconnected the main petrol supply line from the tank, connected it to the rubber tube and put the other end of the tube in the spare petrol can? Archimedes in his bath could not have  known a greater  excitement and I lost no time in effecting the contrivance.

Cynthia had not approved of my efforts from the start; a walk to a telephone (a telephone, in rural France!), a breakdown crew for the car and a taxi for us to the nearest three-star hotel being her recommendation for dealing with the crisis. While I had been working she had been sitting on one of her suitcases at what she judged to be a safe distance. Now,  she reacted with horror. It was crazy. It was suicidal. With all that gas all over the road and the heat of the sun and everything there was just certain to be an explosion and we should be incinerated.

As patiently as possible I tried to convince her that  there was no practicable alternative. I knew my France infinitely  better than she did and there could not be either a telephone or garage within miles. Pushing the car clear of the petrol-soaked patch of macadam,  I turned the starter switch. The engine responded immediately. Leaving it running, I removed my overalls, nonchalantly wiped my hands on some paper napkins and called to Cynthia that we were ready to go. Nothing, she said, would induce her to ride in what amounted to a self-service hearse. I argued.  She refused again. I pleaded. With the engine continuing to run sweetly, I said once more that the map clearly showed us to be a long way from anywhere and that we had already lost precious time. She could please herself, but I was about to be on my way. Daylight wouldn’t last for ever and it wasn’t really advisable for a girl to hitchhike alone, especially in the dark.

It must have required a considerable amount of courage for her to make the decision, but after a few moments Cynthia left me to look after her suitcase and without a word got into the passenger seat. A few hundred yards farther on we rounded a sharp bend and she gave a scream of utmost triumph or of utmost rage that I can hear to this day. A little way back from the road was a line of spanking new petrol pumps.  A state-of-the-art recovery vehicle was nearby.  Freshly painted on the side of a barn-like construction in brand new corrugated iron, letters a foot or more high proclaimed  ‘TOUTES RÉPARATIONS POUR VOITURES’.


I cannot put a date to this story, but an educated guess suggests that 1961 would be close to the mark. For one thing, 1961 was the year in which The Sunday Telegraph was launched with myself as travel edior and columnist. Earlier, I could not have afforded to make the trip described out of my own resources. A short while later, the Bristol Superfreighter service operated by Silver City Airways, which in 20 minutes carried cars from Lyd airport in Kent to Le Touquet on the French Channel coast, came to an end . 

Next, the term ‘cocktail party’, now redolent of mothballs, was evidently in general use. Then there is the poignant  mention of  ‘a carthorse with a blue-denimed peasant on its back’. Such sights, at that time commonplace, were soon to become very rare in France. Finally, there is also the use of shillings and pence  to convey the cost of petrol. The decimal currency in Britain was introduced 40 years ago.





After the Paulée

So that’s that for another year. With the superb professionalism of the French traiteurs matched by that of the Circle of Wine Writers’ own Jancis Robinson as she Tweeted her way from the sea bass truffé to the petits fours, (how on earth does anyone manipulate a Blackberry or an Ipad while the Magnums of Meursault and Methuselahs of Montrachet are jostling around the table?) the Paulée de Meursault 2011 passes into Burgundian history.

What time did the world’s best-known lady of wine get to bed last night, or this morning? We may never know. But blog life must go on, and even as the cutlery and crockery in Meursault are carted to the dish washers, and the similes in Sussex are checked for wear and tear, we are indefatigably concerned with future blog postings. Faithful to our declared editorial policy, the majority are most likely to be about France, but there are other riches in store, so that not infrequently there will be more than one item on the menu. There will, be no shortage of wine. Rarely great wine, but always good, honest French wine: wine of ‘character’ encountered on our travels in that greatest of all wine countries.

There will be no wine in our posting on Thursday, 24th November, however. On that day we shall be driving. Accompanied by an American lady, we shall be on our way from Le Touquet in the Pas-de-Calais to Biarritz in the Pyrénées-Atlantiques. The experience will feature in a moving story entitled ‘The Trouble with Cynthia.’

Au revoir.

Lunch of a lifetime

On Saturday evening, after all, I kept the Meursault  2002 for another occasion. Instead, I had half a bottle of Drappier Carte d’Or.

For viticltural Burgundy the weekend of the third Sunday in November is by far the most important of the year. The vendanges are long over. The wine is in the vats. On the Sunday, the auction of the new vintage is held at the famous Hospices de Beaune. The evening before, the occasion is celebrated by a dinner under the auspices of the Chevaliers du Tastevin at the equally famous Clos de Vougeot. The day after sees the third of the events known collectively as Les Trois Glorieuses, the luncheon known far and wide in the world of wine as La Paulée de Meursault. Paulée derives from poêle, or frying pan, and by extension is a Burgundian colloquialism for a midday snack.

The Paulée de Meursault is some snack! It begins very formally: all Monsieur and Madame and polite enquiries as to whether it is one’s first time at the Trois Glorieuses and what one thought of the prices at the auction. An hour later, people who had never met before taking their places at table are securing their neighbour’s attention, or emphasizing a point, with a hand resting intimately, albeit fleetingly, on a forearm. Heads are not seldom brought ever so slightly closer than is really justified even by the rising tide of conversation. Soon, glasses are clinking in bonhomie and the attributes of what is in them are being discussed not only with illuminating expertise, but passion.

The food is very good. As for the wines! It is a long and fondly preserved tradition that all wine-makers and merchants attending the luncheon are accompanied by examples of what they regard as the best burgundies their cellars can offer. Largesse rules. Bottles pass up and down the long tables. Names far beyond many a guest’s pocket or any but academic acquaintance appear on labels half-hidden now and then by slim, bejewelled fingers that a few weeks ago may have grasped the pruning shears or been stained by fermenting must.It begins with champagne and introductions about noon. It ends with cognac and other after-dinner drinks long after night has fallen and courtesy is the only surviving consituent of earlier formality. For many a visitor it has been the luncheon of a lifetime.

Vive la Paulée de Meursault!

PS

This evening I’ll have the other half of the Carte d’Or.