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
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.
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.
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!
This evening I’ll have the other half of the Carte d’Or.
By Tradition, the 3rd Thursday in November sees the release of Beaujolais nouveau. The following is adapted from ‘Morgon by Moonlight’, posted here on 13th October
It was the last day of the vendages. 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. Madame D was a good-looking, cheerful woman in her fifties who apologised for not shaking hands, since they were covered in flour. Monsieur D, she said, was not yet back from calling on the wine-maker to whom he sold his grapes. Her husband, Madame said, was a grower only.
Madame’s notably attractive daughters, Gabrielle and Véronique, had not come for a lazy weekend, but to help their mother feed the grape-pickers. Now, they put on aprons and started laying a long trestle table at one side of the large kitchen. Lucien, a friend of the sisters, and I helped. When Monsieur D 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 and wine flows freely.
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. When everyone had finished the charcuterie and was busy with a hearty beef ragoût , the sisters joined their father and me at one end of the table and started on their own supper. Glasses were filled with what Monsieur D 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 about what he called fashions in Beaujolais: one year Fleurie was all the rage, the next year Brouilly, the year after that, something else. 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 D said that his ‘quelques bouteilles’ were just his little hobby: he was no Georges Dubœuf! At the end of dinner he announced that since the picking was going so well he would like to propose a little celebration: the four of us would go and drink a bottle of ‘the 83’.
Now, the significance of Véronique’s ironic remark about her father 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 a 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 grape 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 D 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. Next, we sampled ‘the 83’, which was very drinkable indeed.
‘Promising! ’, said Monsiur D
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.
It was not very sensible at that hour, but we drank that bottle, then another. 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 remaining four of us took our glasses and went outside to decide whether the moon was full.
In Uzès, near Nîmes, a friend had told us of a hotel which we might find ‘interesting’ on our way north. Arriving unannounced in the hills near Alès, when the sun was almost gone and and a fresh little wind was blowing, we found a courtyard where a man was engrossed with the entrails of a dismembered car. His hands, arms and much of his face were black with grease. A half-full bottle of red wine stood on a cylinder block.
Yes, he said; there was a room free, Indeed, it being late in the season, and the establishment not being in any of the guidebooks, every room was free. One with a bath? Well, no; he was desolate; none of the rooms had a bath, but there was a shower.
We wanted dinner? Very well: he would just clean himself up a little and start work in the kitchen. We would leave the menu to him? Very good! At about 8 p.m. then; but at our convenience. A glass of wine meanwhile? Certainly. See if there’s anything that takes your fancy in the stone rack at the foot of the stairs. We would find a corkscrew hanging on the nail. Room number 7 was on the first floor; the key was in the door.
It was a large room, furnished only with a huge armoire, a small table with a white, lace-trimmed cloth, two plain wooden chairs and a low-slung double bed, the linen of which was coarse but clean. The wall were whitewashed and undecorated, the stone floor bare save for heavy cotton runners beside the bed,. The wash basin had no soap, but towels hung over the backs of the chairs, coarse to the touch but smelling of fresh air and sun.
The sun went, and for a suggestion of warmth we lit the gas light served by a pipe from a cylinder in the adjacent shower room. There was a low, comforting roar when the shower itself was turned on. The wine was a vin de pays from the Ardèche. Sitting on a bolster shifted to the edge of the bed, with the light lowered as far as it would go, we drank it to the accompaniment of Act 3 from Tristan and Isolde, played on a Walkman with miniature loud speakers attached. By the time that Libestod, the final aria, was over it was just after 8 o’clock and we went downstairs.
Dinner was served in a cavernous room where the light from candles set in empty wine bottles created an illusion of intimacy at one end of a huge refectory table facing a log fire set in a hearth where a large ox might easily have been turned on a spit. Now, our motor mechanic who had become chef had become also the waiter, a white table cloth tied round his waist. Eagerly, we ate what he served and what he served —lapin en daube—was very good. “But I don’t really follow any recipe, you know. Just my own way. Just traditional”. The wine we drank was dark and red —“Nothing special. Just another little vin de pays”— which went wondrously well with the daube and the goat cheese.
To all these, and perhaps to the “petit digestif ” offered by our host, and to a wool-stuffed mattress of the kind that la France profonde used to excel in, and to a deep contentment, we attributed the sleep that embraced us until long after the cock had crowed and the sun on the slats of the wooden shutters was clamouring for entry. When we looked out, our host was busy in the courtyard below, just as we had found him the evening before.