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Armchair Uzès

la Vie Quotidienne

le 28 mars 2002
Uzès, France

Easter: Just another excuse to eat chocolate?
Pâques: 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 gallery!

 


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Cocorico!  Un coq au chocolat
Cock-a-doodle-doo!  A chocolate rooster

 

Wine 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.TavelTerroir1.jpg (68789 bytes)
     The cave 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.
     Very few 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.
     There are 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.
     Tasting 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.
     When is 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.
     There are 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.
     An 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!

 

 

Cathars, 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.
       As 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.

 

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Narbonne's Cathedral St. Juste

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The town of Minerve,
in the heart of the Minervois

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The Canal du Midi winds lazily
 through the south of France

 

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Lagrasse, medieval village in the Corbières


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Chateau Aguilar sits in ruins on a mountaintop

     After 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.
     But even 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.

 

SIX NATIONS TOURNAMENT
France Goes for a "Grand Chelem"
France 22, Scotland 10
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.
     On 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.
     Our local 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.
     We'll find out how this all ends up on April 6. Meanwhile, we're saying no more. Don't want to jinx our boys.

 

LOCAL RUGBY
Les ducaux beat their neighbors in a “derby”
Uzès 14, Alès 11
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 sounds…??)
     Uzès, we 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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