le 28 mars 2002
Just another excuse to eat chocolate?
encore le chocolat, et pourquoi pas?
We have an early Easter this year on the last day of March, driven by
the perpetually roaming church calendar, but also linked inextricably to
the phases of the moon. France, with its deep roots in Catholicism,
celebrates Easter with vigor. First and foremost, a three-day weekend all
around. In addition, the second spring vacation for schools (two weeks
each of them) is generally centered around Pâques. Third, Pâques marks
the beginning of the “high” season, when tourists come out of the
woodwork and hotel prices rise accordingly. A series of holidays (starting
with the three-day Easter weekend) continues into May, with a trio of
three-day weekends that month.
Here in France, the tradition of Easter eggs (les oeufs de Pâques)
is as popular as elsewhere in the western world. Chocolate abounds, dark,
milk or white, sculpted into eggs, bunnies and chickens, with surprises
hidden within. The shop windows are bathed in bright and pastel colors, a
true treat for the eyes as well as the stomach. Besides the sweet treats,
traditional Easter fare is spring lamb or baby goat served with a harvest
of new spring vegetables including fèves, asparagus, peas,
artichokes, and such. Families gather together for the five or six hour
Sunday dinner, with an Easter egg hunt thrown in to keep the children
amused and the parents happy. We couldn’t resist taking a few photos of
the visual glory, and have added them to the Goodies
Un coq au chocolat
Cock-a-doodle-doo! A chocolate rooster
Trail: Tips on Wine Tasting, Wine Buying in France
Pour mieux déguster et acheter le vin en France
If you're spending time in the south of France you will
almost certainly find yourself surrounded by vineyards. France is the
world's biggest wine producer and most of the wine comes from the south.
Vineyards are wonderful to look at, of course, but we're more inclined to
be curious about the wine the vineyards produce. It's not hard to make a
start in the tasting rooms of the literally thousands of domains and caves
cooperatives dotting the landscape. But there are some difficulties
inherent in tasting and buying wine at the source, so we have a few tips
based on our own experience.
of a domaine is one of life's most wonderful destinations. It's
cool, if not downright cold. It's probably old. It's probably of old
stone. It's full of casks and bottles of a delicious beverage. It smells
like wine. You're in France! Nothing could be finer, including Carolin-er.
But there are limits to perfection, even the perfection of the ancient
cave of a fine French wine domaine.
of the highest quality vintners produce bottled red wine intended to be
drunk now. Most wine needs from a few years to many years in the bottle.
In addition, it is difficult to find the older, more drinkable vintages at
the domaine. French tax laws concerning inventories combine with
the understandably conservative business practices of the winemakers (who
are, after all, essentially farmers) to assure that wines are sold, moved,
gotten out of there. So the chances that the winery in Châteauneuf-du-Pape
will have that luscious 1995 that you've read about are slim. They'll have
the current vintages, and, maybe, the 1999 and 1998 for you to taste. But
the ones you really want to drink are gone. While you may adore the 1998
you tasted, and while it is available, it still needs three to eight more
years to reach its peak. Unless you live in France or have an importer's
license, you can only bring a few bottles home with you to tuck away in
your cellar until they're drinkable.
also an uncountable number of producers of lesser-known wines with their
own domains and tasting rooms or caves, as well as hundreds and hundreds,
maybe thousands of caves cooperatives. The cave cooperative
is the backbone of the local wine industry in France. There growers in the
area deliver their grapes at harvest time and a local winemaker blends
them all together to produce the wine, much of it vin du pays,
the regional table wine. Most all of these will offer tasting opportunities
to the traveler.
red wine offers the peculiar challenge inherent in the natural
requirements of red wine storage. Red wine needs to be kept cool and dark.
The cave is cool and dark. And so is the wine offered for tasting. Since
most of us cannot discern the taste qualities of a red wine served cold,
the taster is at a disadvantage. Sure, Robert Parker, Kermit Lynch and
other gurus make their living tasting wines in cold cellars. But that's
them, we're us. So: do your best. Cup the bottom of the globe of the wine
glass in your hand. Try to get as much contact as possible between the
flesh of your hand and the globe of the glass. Swirl it around and keep
swirling it. This should help warm the wine a bit while simultaneously
mixing in a little oxygen, "opening up" the young wine. When
you've gotten the temperature above refrigerator level, start tasting.
the wine really ready to drink? Unfortunately, for the most part, bottled
wines ready to drink tend to be sold out at the tasting rooms of the
finest domains. But ask the person offering you the taste. When is this
wine meant to be drunk? Or, look at the label. Labels on the back of the
bottle sometimes contain consumer information, information pour le
consommateur. It's probably in French. Look for a statement like
"Gardez 2 à 7 ans." This means: keep for two to seven
years, substantiating that the wine won't begin to be at its best for at
least two years while it should remain excellent for up to seven.
two places you can buy wine sufficiently aged to drink at its best: at a
wine shop and from a wine list, carte de vins. All decent sized
towns in France have wine shops, and there you can buy a few bottles of
wine properly aged. (Supermarket chains like Carrefour or Intermarché
often have great prices!) You'll pay more than at the cave, but
this wine will be older, properly aged, and therefore generate inventory
taxes, storage costs and so on. So don't flinch. And good restaurants
often have very good wine lists. Again you'll be able to search out wines
properly aged for drinking, and, again, you'll pay much more than at the
source, for obvious reasons.
alternative is to drink what the locals drink. When you drink wine every
day, every lunch, every dinner, as so many French do, you don't focus on
fine vintages of fine wines unless you're un milliardaire. You
drink the local wines, vin du pays. Most of these wines are made
with the expectation that they will be drunk now, not in two to seven
years. They're delicious. In fact, they probably came from the Frenchman's
own "cubie". When you were at that little domaine or,
more certainly, at that cave cooperative, you may have noticed
something curious: all those French folks trundling in all those big
plastic jugs and dragging them over to a strange set of hoses coming out
of the wall or out of a large barrel. What's this all about? Next
installment: the pleasures of the cubie!
castles and a canal
Les cathares, des châteaux, et un canal
With the threat of Easter and tourist hordes on the horizon, we decided to
get on the road before the rush, and so headed south hoping for warmer
weather and a further advance of spring. Destination: the Minervois and
the Corbières, land of ruined castles, a sea of good wine, and a
beautiful canal to boot!
On our way
south we stopped in Narbonne for a look at the impressive cathedral of
Saint-Juste, an edifice that's not quite finished (has been “not quite finished” for centuries, probably won’t ever be…). A beautiful mix
of romanesque and gothic styles, this marvel stands out on the horizon
from miles away dominating the Narbonnais skyline. Inside, a choir with
magnificent organ, tapestries, a treasury (which was unfortunately closed
while we were there), and a beautiful courtyard. Worth a stop on your way
to anywhere in the area.
we drove westward from Narbonne, we wandered into the less well known
region called the Minervois. Vineyards and orchards spreading out in all
directions amidst the rolling hills, this is a treasure trove of
picturesque villages, medieval churches, wine domaines, and
crumbling castles. And winding its way through the region is the Canal du
Midi, a 240-km long stretch of waterway linking Toulouse with the
Mediterranean sea. Conceived and constructed in the 17th
century by Pierre Paul Riquet, under the auspices of Louis XIV, much of
the canal is lined with venerable old plane trees that provide shade,
beauty, and support for the banks. Navigable by barge or smaller boat,
this canal serves thousands of tourists each year as well as farmers, the
former for boating pleasure, the latter for irrigating vineyards and
orchards. If you're interested in the area, take a look
at the Canal through the eyes of someone who has lived there for many
years and whose passion and love for the region is evident.
Narbonne's Cathedral St.
The town of
in the heart of the Minervois
The Canal du
Midi winds lazily
through the south of France
Lagrasse, medieval village in the
Chateau Aguilar sits in ruins
on a mountaintop
sailing through the Minervois (with a stop at Homps to have lunch and
dinner with our friend, Greta), we turned south past Carcassonne into much
wilder territory, the Corbières. Abutting the Pyrénées to the south,
this region produces a good percentage of France’s everyday table wine.
The vineyards of Fitou
(a very fine AOC Minervois wine which we'd had for lunch the day before) crawl up the steep slopes of the
mountains. Towns in the region are scarce; it’s always best to have a
full tank of gas when you’re driving here. Lagrasse, on the northern
edge of the Corbières, is a beautiful village and home to a distinguished
abbey and a very
important literary festival in the summer months. Limoux, further south
and west, is known for a fine sparkling wine, Blanquette de Limoux, first
discovered and produced in the mid-1500s, years before Champagne's
champagne became popular. Limoux also boasts an internationally known six-week-long carnavale celebration, with dancing, singing
and general all-around fêting on the town square.
more impressive than the vineyards and towns are the ghostly silhouettes
of some dozen or more 10-12-13th century fortified castles,
many of which were focal points of the Cathars, the Albigensian crusade,
and the wars of religion during those centuries. And ghostly they are,
most of them in ruins, high atop rocky cliffs, nearly inaccessible even by
foot. It takes strong legs and lungs to explore them, but the effort is
well worth it. These vestiges are significant pieces of European history,
and offer views of a turbulent era (not to mention panoramic views for
miles around.) We won’t mention the specific castles here, but suggest a
look at the region
of Aude’s website for more information and some great photos. An
interesting piece on the Cathars, a story filled with intrigue and
mysticism, can be found at the Travel
Intelligence website. The pays cathares is well worth a visit, and we hope
to get back for further exploration.
France Goes for a
You'd have to better at the French language than we are
to figure out how "Grand Slam" gets translated into "Grand
Chelem", but, linguistics aside, France now has the opportunity to
finish the Six Nations Tournament undefeated. Were they to do so, the
French would achieve something very precious (pick
your version of "Grand…"): a sweep of all games against England, Scotland,
Italy, Wales, and … Ireland. Oh, yes, the unfinished business with Ireland. That will take place on the afternoon of Saturday, April 6, at the
Stade de France outside Paris.
Saturday, March 23rd, Scotland, playing at home, took a brief early lead
and then succumbed to the superior French team. The French didn't play
particularly well, but they played well enough to win. This seems to be a successful formula for them: they rarely look great, they just win.
kid, Thibault Privat, played as a French substitute for the last fifteen
minutes or so of the match. We claim him as "local" because he
played his high school rugby here in Uzès and a couple of kids we know
played on the same team with him. Privat is a twenty-one year old newcomer
to the French team and he's a big, blonde giant: 6'7'' and 255
pounds. He's one of about eight youngsters who France's entraîneur,
Bernard Laporte, has blended in with the veterans who lost in the final
match of the last World Cup. Laporte, a curiously scholarly-looking man
for a rugby coach, has done a marvelous job over the last several years.
During a match he's alternately stoic and agitated. With the press he's
given to statements stereotypically associated with members of the academie
française. In the locker room subsequent to the Scotland match, he
commented on France's (sometimes dubious) passing ability: “Rugby is
essentially a game of combat. After the combat comes the passing. But
first one has combat." Neatly put, neatly French.
out how this all ends up on April 6. Meanwhile, we're saying no more.
Don't want to jinx our boys.
beat their neighbors in a “derby”
Uzès 14, Alès
On a mistral-swept Sunday afternoon at Uzès' Stade de
Refuge, our local boys, down in Federal Division 3, barely got the job
done, but they got the job done. In front of the largest crowd in many,
many years, Uzès beat neighboring Alès, 14-11. The result was to be
expected, since Uzès is used to this division level while Alès, despite
being a much larger town, has just moved up to Federal 3 this year and, at
season's end, is likely to be demoted right back down to where they came
from, the Division of Honor. (Isn't it curious that, in France, the
Leagues are described in such a way that, the lower you go, the better it
dearly love you. But it's time for a new regime, some new players,
or…something! This team is going nowhere fast. Mired in the middle of
their division, they have gotten progressively worse since we first saw
them, back in the Fall of 2000. We have it reliably from one of their
former players that, at the big practice on Wednesday before the game,
only ten players showed up. If you know that there are fifteen players on
each side, that's all you need to know. Yes, they have to play against
teams from much larger cities. Marseilles, Nice, Bastia, Ajaccio, Alès,
and Orange. But surely they can do better than this. Finishing in the
middle of the pack year after year carries with it the threat of a sudden
failure and instant demotion to a lower league. (Following Alès down?)
Here's hoping they'll make liars of us yet. But, three games left to play,
it looks as though they're no playoff threat at all. Of course, the same
writer said the same thing about this year's edition of the New England
Patriots who, last we heard, were Super Bowl champions…
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