Wednesday, May 13, 2009

À la recherche du temps perdu

I've been planning a trip to France for a of Marcel Proust. Something about a madeleine... Just kidding. But as I was organizing this client's chateau-based accommodations for a side trip away from Paris down to the Loire Valley, I discovered some sad news that made me relive some of the favorite moments from our last trip to France.

That winter, we made an almost-complete route along the Loire, beginning at St-Benoît and Sancerre at the eastern end, going as far as the suburbs of Nantes, on the western end. We began and ended the trip in Paris, but the focus was assuredly vins et chateaux. We did justice to both.

The first lodging we chose to stay was a farmhouse in St. Benoît. Its owner was most hospitable but her English was limited. That just meant I had a great opportunity to dust off my French. Bill undertook his morning runs around her fields, and one evening we shared the family table and enjoyed a delicious dinner of fresh trout from the local river. While we were in that area we visited one of the smaller chateaux, complete with moat if I remember correctly, and discovered some excellent Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé wines made from the sauvignon blanc grape that dominates vineyards at that end of the river.

My memory is foggy on the exact delineation of the days that followed...apologies to Marcel. But let's just say for the sake of moving the story along that we then traveled to the other end of the Loire. Along the way, as we were driving through a village between there and here, we happened upon an interesting-looking small family winery. We pulled in; before I could achieve the mental calculation that the sign said "closed for winter", the owner appeared right there in the driveway inviting us in. We stayed there for at least an hour, learning about his family history (again, a chance to dust off the French), and he opened a bottle of literally every wine he had bottled there, including many that were still aging, not labeled or released just yet. To top it off, we had the pleasure of using a fresh glass for every wine (photo of us on my website footer). We bought several're shocked, I know.

Other end of the river? Crazy logistics? Not in the least. I had discovered a few weeks before our departure that my favorite French musical artist, Sanseverino, was performing near Nantes. Since it was only an extra 110km out of our way, we rearranged our itinerary to accommodate his concert. It was a blast! Just the kind of thing that makes a trip more memorable. We spent that night in the middle of a muscat vineyard.

After that we traveled to Poitou, a bit south of the major chateau zone, because I had ancestors who lived in the region. Our room there was in the turret of an incredibly old and fortified chateau (it's the one on my website's home page), whose proprietress was a chef. Naturally, we consumed a fabulous dinner with fine--and affordable--local wine.

We went to visit some distant LeBlanc cousins who lived near Poitiers, and they took us to see one of the remaining Acadian homes there. My own ancestors, who had gone to Nova Scotia in the early 1600's from a nearby Poitou village (Martaizé), were later deported by the English from Nova Scotia in the Grand Dérangement of 1755, and sent on a boat to Virginia, which refused the Acadians. At that point the English turned the ship around and sent more than 1100 Acadians to England as prisoners of war, and my ancestors, both father and son, were held in Liverpool for almost eight years. France secured their release with a treaty in 1763, and the surviving 800 or so were repatriated to France. Some of them returned to Poitou and it was one of their homes that we were able to check out. My own people, instead, took advantage of the king's offer of free land to farm on the lovely--but very rocky--Belle-Île-en-Mer. Needless to say, planting crops in the rocks did not yield any, uh, bountiful harvests, so after that struggle and a few more years in France, they finally decided to go back to the New World on one of the seven famous Acadian Voyages that took place in 1785 or so. That's how they finally ended up in Louisiana.

So back to France...after Poitou, we headed back to the heart of the chateau country, just across the river from Villandry and its rightfully famous gardens (not quite as impressive in the dead of winter, alas). This time we were at a beautiful French country home, complete with horses, chickens, cats and a dog. The family who welcomed us into its home (B & B) could not have been warmer or more charming, just entirely down to earth. When we took two evening meals with them en famille, it was in the centuries old huge kitchen with a massive fireplace that was clearly used for cooking in its former life. When I say "with them" that would include Anne and Eric, their four kids, one daughter's boyfriend, another guest couple with their baby, and us--all arranged at an endlessly long wooden table in front of that amazing fireplace. Many courses, real home-cooking, great local wine, intelligent conversation (and more French practice)!

There were so many wonderful aspects to the trip, but Bill and I both have especially fond memories of staying with this family and sharing two evening meals with them. Eric was an oenophile and turned us on to a gifted winemaker by the name of Jacky Blot. His labels are Domaine de la Taille aux Loups (whites, Montlouis-sur-Loire and Vouvray) and Domaine de la Butte (reds, Bourgueil). Everything we tasted was excellent, and of course we went home loaded up with wine. One of my clients also went to visit M. Blot and very kindly transported to me another bottle of his wonderful late-harvest Montlouis (chenin blanc) Cuvée des Loups 2003, which I am hoarding for a special occasion. It should keep nicely.

I do believe that it snowed every single day we were in the Valley and Poitou, which is highly unusual in their moderate climate. Here's a picture of the magnificent, river-straddling Chateau de Chenonceau, which I rechristened as ChenonSnow.

And that brings me back to the sad news I have just discovered. I wrote to Anne and Eric this week to inquire about a guest room for my client. Eric wrote me back and said that Anne had died two years ago of cancer, at only 50 years old. She was such a lively, warm person who clearly gave as much pleasure to her guests as they got from her. I am sure she had brought light to the many lives she touched, both in her own family and community as well as through her B & B business. Eric said he has recently started taking guests again (but not having dinners for them), and believes that is what Anne would have wanted.

I know he is right.

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