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Exploring the Senses of Burgundy 2005


100+ Posts
Four weeks holiday in Burgundy from 15th October to 21st November. After 30+ years without the ability to smell, Gavin embarked on a course of Prednisone to restore this sense and explore his response to an added dimension to a holiday .... the smells of Burgundy and the language to describe it.

This trip report was originally posted on SlowTrav.

Driving from Frankfurt to Chablis Saturday 22nd October

What a mixed bag. It was a drizzly morning and I was probably hung over, although I just felt tired. We were quite late in packing, picking up the rental car, returning to the apartment to load and finally depart around 10.30. For probably the last time, we tried to follow the instructions from the AA Route Planner. What with everyone else saying we should just take the A5 south almost to Berne and then take the A6 across from Mulhouse to Dijon and up toward Auxerre, and the AA laying a route across country on minor roads, we managed to get lost just 10km from the centre of Frankfurt. That fixed it, the girl at the service station said go back 10 minutes then follow the signs to the A5. The A5 wins ... straight south for four hours then head toward Dijon. The last three hours heading across France were spent driving in and out of torrential rain which miraculously cleared as we approached Chablis.

The only notable point about the trip was that much of it was at high speed (140 kmph) but being passed by almost everything else on the road.

We arrived in Chichee and followed the instructions provided by “cottages 4 you.” We followed them four times, including squeezing through the last section of the lane by swinging the side rear view mirrors in. So where was the small wooden chalet and the white iron gate facing us? As we emerged onto a main street for the fourth time, Ches asked the neighbouring vigneron (with the worst toupee ever seen) and he directed us back to the narrow lane and a small wooden garage. The cottage faced the garage from the other side of the lane with a metal gate in the wall.

Oh! Bloody hell, my mobile phone battery died just as we tried to phone the women who had the key. Off again into the main street to see if the keeper of the key was a neighbour. No she wasn’t, but a neighbour knew where the key was hidden under a rock. All with no English and us just a smidgin of French (well Ches anyway).

The keeper of the key turned up ten minutes later. As it turned out, we had slowed and waved to her and her two kids on the road into Chichee. Don’t know why we had bothered, she was totally disinterested and as a housekeeper/cleaner, we saw no evidence of the latter. The place was pretty shabby; dust and dirt everywhere. Maybe she just sweeps the place out.

We unpacked and went straight into Chablis. Nothing quite like driving around a town at night with no idea of what’s where. By a pure fluke, we stumbled on what we later discovered was the centre of town where they hold the Sunday markets.


Chablis Market Day and Chichee Sunday 23rd October

We spent the morning at the Chablis markets and orienting ourselves to the town. Surprise, surprise. We discovered that the restaurant where we had dined last night was in the small square on the main street of the town and where the markets are located every Sunday. These would be close to the best "food" markets we have ever attended in France or Italy. At the very least, judging by how much we purchased they were.

We made several trips up and down the main street, assessing the stalls and deciding what to buy where. The sausage at one stand appealed more than those at others, the tomatoes from that vegie stall better than those at the others, the goats cheese from this stand better than those at that stand, but their epoisses is better. We had to make several trips back to the car as our purchases escalated. The most important, several bottles of Chablis and a bottle of Cassis. Kir's tonight.

Mid afternoon, Ches decided to join me in stroll around the village. We first walked out of our lane, turned left and one hundred meters down the street walked onto the bridge over the Serein. If you continue along the road, it climbs along the vineyard covered slopes on the other side of the valley. While photographing on the bridge, we were joined by a dog. He attached himself to us and gave all the signs of being lost. He stayed with us all around the village and when we returned home, sat outside our gate. Out I went again and took him around the village trying to find an owner. As there was a gathering of people in a community hall on the banks of the river (a genealogy meeting), I assumed that a visitor to town had lost him. Eventually I gave up and began to consider how we could adopt him for four weeks. Ches said that he and Jenn both couldn’t fit in the back seat, so it wasn’t really on. Finally a local appeared (our neighbour who is a local vigneron and directed us to the cottage on Saturday evening). I mimed “lost dog”. He said “non” and pointed four houses down ... he lives there. Bloody dog!

We read some more and then prepared for a pleasant evening in. First a “Kir”. Cassis and chilled Chablis Premier Cru, Montmains. Out on the back patio in the sun …wonderful.

I then prepared my first meal in Burgundy; and a special thanks to Sarah Leah Chase for her “Pedaling Through Burgundy Cookbook”.

“Candied Shallot and Walnut Croutes”

Ches toasted baguette over the gas burner as the toaster looked as though it had a life of its own. Meanwhile I finely diced five shallots and sautéed in walnut oil for 20 minutes, added a tablespoon of crème de cassis and caramelised, tossed in a 1/4 cup of toasted walnuts and added salt and pepper. Ches spread some blu cheese on the toast and we spooned the shallot mixture on top. It had been worth waiting the two weeks since I first read this recipe.

We followed this a little later with onion and garlic sautéed with finely diced speck then the roast potatoes that had come with the chicken sliced into the mixture and seasoned. All washed down with a glass of the Chablis, that we had let come back to a tad above room temperature so that the flavour could come out.

All this prepared in an Englishman’s kitchen. That means all leftover utensils brought from England, knives that would struggle with butter and no shortage of can and bottle openers but nothing practical for actually cooking. A two burner gas and two burner electric cook top, no oven but a microwave and a toaster that had things growing in it. Oh! And no tea towels, so it looks like we drip dry for the week. The whole place was jerry built.

We finally settled down on the couch for a video and off to bed around 10.00. We are almost back to “normal.”


Garlic or Onions
Chablis and Auxerre Monday 24th October

“Bonjour Monsieur Vocoret, did you hear about the man in the purple shorts on the Chichee-Chablis road this morning, walking toward Chablis in the dark at 7.45 am?

Oui Madame Geoffrey, Monsieur Robin told me he saw him on the outskirts of Chablis and 8.30 and then Messieurs Regnard and Fils said they saw him on the pont de Serein taking photographs at 8.45. Apparently he was quite a sight.

Oui, most of the people who live in Chichee and Chablis drove the Chichee-Chablis road that morning and when the word went around the rest of them drove the road to watch his progress back to Chichee. Madame Pinson said they had coffee and croissant at her bar at 9.15, so they would have been walking the road from 9.45 to 11.00. What a sight, purple shorts in October! Mon Dieu!!!!!!!”

I’ll post the photo for the rest of the world to see. Who would have thought I would cause such a stir. Even the sheep, horses, geese and cattle watched our progress to Chablis and back. With daylight savings still in operation, it is still dark till 8.00 am and it was reasonably warm when we left Chichee. Only when the breeze came up after sunrise was it a little cool, but not so cool as to rug up like the locals were. The forecast for today was for around 19c. Looking good.

We wandered the streets of Chablis and I photographed everything. Eventually we found a bar open for a coffee and croissant, which had been the original purpose of the exercise in walking to Chablis. We were the only non-smokers other than two girls around 8-10 years old, and they will probably take it up in the next couple of years. Everywhere we go the air is thick with smoke.

We returned home for breakfast (left over sautéed potatoes from last night - frittata) and around 1.00pm set off from Auxerre. It is only a half hour from Chichee on the other side of the A6. It’s a lovely drive through the vineyards, all golden as the leaves are about to drop.

We found a parking spot quite easily on the banks of the river in the middle of town and walked up Rue Sous Murs (Under the Walls) which at the top end is lined with magnificent half timbered buildings. A local kid took the “Mickey” out of us in adamantly claiming that it was illegal to photograph inside the town and that the police would handcuff us and arrest us.

While there are many streets of half timbered medieval houses and three huge churches/cathedrals, this is a town that appears rather depressed. Too many juveniles just killing time hanging out and men and their dogs begging in the streets near the parking ticket dispensers.

Back at the river, I walked out on the pedestrian bridge in the middle of town for the best photograph opportunities ... I thought. They were still pretty good, but the guidebooks knew best; the best vantage point for photographs was the bridge at the southern end. The town is set high on the hill above the river and the churches are spread out along the top. I had always wanted to visit after I looked down on the town from the A6 three years ago.

We returned home via the major supermarket we had been searching for (for two days) where we stocked up on all the remaining ingredients I will need for cooking Pork with Lentils and Rabbit with Prunes later in the week. Next stop the patisserie for bread and some hand made chocolates and finally a farm half way from Chablis to Chichee for free range eggs and rabbit. No rabbit.

“Bonjour Monsieur Picq, did you hear about the foreigner in purple shorts walking the Chichee-Chabis road this morning?"

"Non, but I wonder if it was the strange foreigner in a lime green top who walked into my cave this afternoon at 5.00 pm. He was clutching a 10e and a 20e note and could only say “Chablis”. I sold him a bottle of my Premier Cru for 10e and he shook my hand and vanished down the lane. Who walks in off the street in Chichee and buys a single bottle of wine? Very strange man”

C’mon, I just wanted to sample a bottle from a local producer; I mean a real local as in Chichee not Chablis. It had been a long day and I wanted to ensure we had supplies in for the evening Kir and a glass with dinner.

We sat down to lunch at 5.00pm ... I think that will rule dinner out tonight. Just some goose pate, rabbit & hazelnut terrine on two grain bread and tomato and avocado with mayonnaise and mustard, cup of tea and pain d’epices (ginger and spice cake). Life is getting tougher.

And the smell for today was Fennel. Growing among various plants in a garden in the footpath down near the river Serein in Chablis was the remnants of a fennel plant. With only a few “feathers” left, we only had to brush our hand over it to release the strong aniseed smell. I think wild fennel might have the strongest most overwhelming perfume of almost any plant, certainly any edible plant.

It was also the smell of the Picq et Fils winery in Chichee. The smell of fermenting grapes and the wire bins of bottles last years vintage that have a distinct smell.

We just caught the T.V. weather, well Ches did. The weather lady summed up the next three days of sunshine culminating in 22c on Thursday with “incroyable”. Let’s hope their weather forecasters are more accurate than ours. Tomorrow north to Troyes.


Troyes and the country to the North of Chablis, Tuesday 24th October.

Their weather forecaster is no better than ours. Today turned into a very windy, overcast, cool day.

We cut north from Chichee to Tonnerre, which appears to be a depressed, run down sort of town (surprising being as close as it is to Chablis (15km) and then drove across country to Isle Aumont just south of Troyes where there is 13th to 15th century church (300 years is a hell of a long time for what isn’t more than a medium size church; they must have laid a stone a day) The cemetery has encroached to within metres of the church and we were surprised at the number of plots that contained plaques that included not only generations of the same family but cousins and other relatives. Perhaps quite a prosperous little village because most of the plots are still in excellent repair and plenty of fresh flowers and pot plants of flowers. Similarly, the local primary school (most are built to the same set of plans … “egalite”) is in pristine condition. Later I noticed that there was a demountable in the back playground, so maybe it is pristine because the kids are now kept out of the original old building.

We arrived at Troyes by 11.45 and found a parking spot beside the Bassin de la Prefecture, which is to say, the centre of the old town and opposite the tourist information office and just a couple of blocks from the Hotel de Ville (main square and town hall) where there was a magnificent vintage carousel.

Has anyone noticed that we have negotiated our way to the heart of two largish towns on consecutive days with no mention of “hissy fits.” Amazing map reading skills and patience that must have come with either age or experience.

We stopped for a coffee at a café/bar in the main square and tried to orient our tourist office map of the “two town walks.” It defied orientation. We think we managed to coincide with it’s instructions around half way. Not to matter, we spent two hours wandering the streets and lanes (including Ruelle des Chats – the cat’s lane). Most of the medieval half timbered buildings lean at crazy angles or step out across the lanes so that Ruelle des Chats actually starts out very narrow and by around five metres high has leant over to connect with the building on the other side of the lane to form a tunnel.

Most of the buildings have stained timbers in different colours and the plaster in contrasting colours. For example one has the timbers painted yellow and the plaster a salmon orange/pink, while another has pale blue timber and white plaster. Much of this medieval heart of the city is being restored, so there was scaffolding over a large number of buildings and many of the lanes were dug up to replace pipes etc. In another couple of years, this could be quite a special town to visit. Not that it isn’t a photographers smorgasbord as it is, but it was a challenge to photograph without including holes, scaffolding, metal barriers and trucks etc.

It was around 2.30 before we left Troyes to complete our visit to five towns featured in the “Most Beautiful Towns of Burgundy.” We suspect that many of these were selected to fill out the book.

Villeneuve-I’Archeveque was worth visiting only because I accidentally took a couple of wrong streets and ended up crossing the bridge over the river Vanne. Here the old mill has been converted into a hotel and the original timber wheels (rotting away) are still in place in the middle of the building. Ches befriended a family of donkeys (mum, dad and baby) and we sat on the bridge and ate a very late lunch. We had packed a lunch of baguette filled with the typical French ingredients (mayonnaise, hard boiled egg, chicken/rabbit terrine, tomato, avocado).

Cerisiers is interesting because it is a small town in the bottom of a narrow valley and was originally completely enclosed behind walls. They have planted an avenue of trees on top of the walls so that now you can walk around the town, similar to Lucca in Italy.

Villeneuve-sur-Yonne, as it’s name suggests, is on the Yonne river. While the river front is rather attractive, the highlight, is the two remaining town gates. Built in the 13thC, they are magnificent, almost miniature turreted castles.

Rather than risk being drummed out of Slow Travel, we abandoned plans to visit the other two towns. I had brought photocopies of all the entries for all of the “Most Beautiful Towns of Burgundy”, and erroneously thought it would be easy to just drive a route to take five of them in on the way to and from Troyes. The problem is that the “beauty” of many of these towns isn’t obvious and you actually have to stop and walk around and look in every corner of the town to find the one feature that justifies the claim to being among the “most beautiful.”

As this holiday progressed, we were finally coming to realise that we would be better just experiencing one significant “site” per day. Not only spending a little more time at just that one site, but avoiding burying it in a day of too many experiences. It just meant we would have to live into our hundreds and return year after year.

As we drove back toward Chablis from the north, the most significant vineyards were on the slopes of the hills to the left, facing the west. These were the vineyards that produce the “Chablis Grand Cru”. Just two kilometres along the main road and just 700 metres up the slopes. Such a small area with such a massive reputation. As we drove past, the sun lipped the horizon to the west and the golden light was concentrated on the bronze autumn leaves of the vineyards on the eastern slopes. What a magic moment. Unfortunately, the vines came to the edge of the road and there was no where to stop to photograph, so we had to imprint the image on our minds eye.

I didn’t even get to start dinner till 7.00pm so it was 8.45 before we sat down to:

Pork Shoulder with Green Lentils/Palette à la Paysanne
  • 500gm pork shoulder
  • 1 shallot
  • 3 medium carrots
  • 100gm green lentils
  • 1 bouquet garni (thyme, laurel, parsley)
  • 200gm. Mushrooms (wild mushrooms from the Morvan forest)
  • Salt, pepper
In a large pot, cover pork shoulder with cold water. Bring to a boil, skim and simmer 30 mn. Meanwhile, peel onion and carrots. Add them, the lentils and the bouquet garni to the pot. Cook another hour. Wash the mushrooms and add them to the meat. Cook 15 mn more. Salt and pepper to taste. Serve slices of pork over the vegetables and accompany with an assortment of mustards.

This turned out to be a very “grey” sort of dish, kind of in keeping with most of the towns we visited today. The flavours however were quite subtle and we thoroughly enjoyed it.

And the smell for today is wood smoke. It’s autumn, so many households have fires and I have noticed that there are three or so different wood smoke smells. I can’t identify the particular trees, but I am very much aware of the different smells.


Ruelle des Chats
Chateau Tanlay and Ancy-le-Franc, Wednesday 25th October

And the smells for today are:

Smoke – the early morning smell of wood smoke coming from the village chimneys that smell of the particular timber being burnt (a comforting smell by association), then the smell of burning off in the fields (a mixture of leaves and branches, quite pleasant), the strong French tobacco in Bar Chablis and the pungent smell of burning leaves and damp grass.

Cut grass, weeds and hedges – on the walk in to Chablis they are cutting the grass and hedges along the side of the road. First there was just the smell of cut grass, then the sour smell of grass and weeds and finally the cut hedges; a green, sappy, sharp smell, like when you scratch the bark of a green branch.

Eschallots, brown onions and garlic – related but all so different. As we prepare breakfast at midday, we have the sweet smell of the eschalots, the slightly broader sharper smell of the garlic and finally the pungent smell of onion that penetrates to the back of the throat. Finally all three come together in a melded mouth watering smell as they sauté together. And here I sit with my nostril pressed to my thumb, which I had used to hold the garlic while chopping and the juices have impregnated my skin. What a heady aroma that penetrates to the temples.

Wild Fennel Seeds – Oh! My stars. We have a garden bed full of dead wild fennel, and the seeds are dry. Just squeeze and the distinct aniseed/fennel smell explodes into the sinuses.

Prunes having macerated in Cassis for the last 15 hours – sweet, rich, creamy smell. Can’t wait to cook them with the rabbit tonight.

We must be over our jetlag because for the first time in living memory, I slept in till 8.00. The sky doesn’t even lighten till around then, so it is still fairly dark even with the shutters left open.

After another long walk into Chablis, a visit to Bar Chablis, the post office and a public telephone to phone Flo, and the return walk home it was 12.00 noon before we had breakfast – the above sautéed onion, eschalot and garlic with the last of the baby roast potatoes sliced and sautéed with them.

We finally got away at 1.00pm for Chateau Tanlay. Our guidebooks claim that it is one of the best in Burgundy. It’s our first, so who are we to know better. It certainly is in a beautiful location with the canal wrapped around one side and the village on the other, with magnificent vast green lawns and an imposing gatehouse (petit chateau) and extensive stables and carriage houses. It is still in the same family, although it has passed to the last daughter's son and grandchildren, who still live there. It being school holidays, they were playing in the vast courtyard. Here are the descendents of a family that survived the French Revolution (it was quiet in this part of Burgundy), service in the military and as an ambassador in the east.

We took the guided tour. We were provided with an English translation of the guide sheet, and the guide went out of her way to explain a few things in English. Unlike the lavish chateau of the pre-revolutionary royalty that we saw along the Loire Valley last year, this is a lived in family home. While the bedrooms were last remodelled in the 18th century, they are still furnished with the original 15th and 16th century furniture.

Obviously a noticeable feature for me was the library; only a 3x5 metre room, it had bookcases to the ceiling with the ladder on wheels to roll around the room and climb to the top shelves (four metre high ceilings). All along the top shelves were bundles of paper with dates (mainly around the mid-eighteen hundreds). When we enquired, she explained that they were cuttings from newspapers. Items that caught the attention of the Count at the time. I assumed that they were just the cuttings and not any commentary from him as well.

For many years I have felt that I should keep cuttings and write my own response/interpretation to them. I feel a need to record responses, to kind of hold to account those who record our history first hand. In centuries to come, historians will treat many newspaper reports as first hand records, and as a historian I cant help but believe that the media of the day is as capable of distorting their interpretation as anyone else. We hardly live in an era of a questioning, challenging media.

A word of warning, I am writing under the influence of a glass (a very strong glass) of Kir. As was the case with many a poet of the 18th century and beat/rock poets/composers of the 20th century, it leads one to believe that one has greater insights into the deep and meaningfulls of life.

Sorry, must pause here to consume:

Rabbit with Prunes/Lapin aux Pruneaux
  • 20 large pitted prunes
  • 1 1/4 cup Cassis
  • 1 young rabbit, about 1.5kg
  • 1 Tbsp oil
  • 1/4 cup butter
  • 1 slice of cooked ham (150gm)
  • Salt and pepper
Macerate the prunes in Cassis for 1 hour. Cut the rabbit into pieces. Heat the oil and 2 Tbsp butter in a flameproof casserole. As soon as the butter bubbles, add the pieces of rabbit and brown lightly over a moderate heat. Cut the ham into strips, add to the casserole and fry for 5 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Add the Cassis and the prunes. Cover and cook over a very low heat for 45 minutes to 1 hour, until tender. Put the pieces of rabbit in a warmed serving dish with the prunes and ham. Bring the sauce back to a boil, then remove from heat and whisk in the remaining butter, a little at a time. Adjust the seasoning and pour the sauce over the rabbit. Serves 4.

The original recipe called for Madeira but when in Burgundy cassis seemed like a good idea.

Well, that soaked up the Kir. Modesty prevents me from any comment regarding above dinner. “Ches, you have any thoughts on the matter?” “The succulent rabbit flesh contrasted beautifully with the sweetness of the cassis soaked prunes, the smokiness of the speck and the richness provided by the kidneys. Fan-bloody-tastic. I was surprised that whisking the butter with the pan juices actually produced a rich thickened gravy.” Belatedly Ches actually rated me two Michelin stars. Leftovers will fill a crisp baguette for tomorrow's lunch as we venture south again for Abbe de Fontenay.

Now, where was I? Yes, I had meant to keep cuttings and make my notes on them, and recently heard that Paul Keating has been doing this for some years. While I have a few cuttings (without comment), the most telling cuttings I have kept don’t require any commentary. Over twenty years ago, I clipped front page photographs on consecutive days. In one, Neil Davis lies dead in a street in Bangkok, his arms spread out wide as he lies on his back with a newspaper opened over his face. Killed by a bullet that ricochet off a post box; the only victim of twenty or so bloodless attempted coups in Thailand. The wrong place at the wrong time.

The next day, the same newspaper ran the same sized photograph of Martina Navratilova in the same pose lying on the court after winning a Grand Slam tennis title. Try to convince me it was just a coincidence. The media as a record of our times? Not bloody likely!

So, Chateau Tanlay is well worth the visit.

We drove a little further south to Ancy-le-Franc via the narrow roads that criss-cross one of the canals and the Armancon river, rather than the main road. It’s a much prettier drive by all accounts and we can vouch for the wonderful countryside and pretty little villages. The country side is a patchwork of brown ploughed fiends, fields with a brilliant green tinge as new shoots are sprouting and deeper green fields of peas (we think). Whatever, the overall impression is of a deep green like nothing we know from home. Gently rolling hills of magnificent green contrasting with a cloudless deep blue sky.

The weather bureau finally got it right and this afternoon has turned into something magic. Here we are in sleeveless tops and slacks and yet the locals know it’s autumn so refuse to shed their padded jackets.

At Ancy-le-Franc, we again parked outside the gates to the chateau. This is much larger than Tanlay, but basically a massive square, white building, noted for being a Renaissance chateau surrounded by extensive lawns. Rather than take another tour (and the guide book suggested it’s a little shabby inside) we just walked the lawns and photographed from various angles. Back in the village we sat outside a bar and had a beer and several pastries; a citron tart and tart framboise. Shared that is.

Next stop. Noyers. We stayed overnight in this dying village three years ago and absolutely loved it. We still regard it as the prettiest village in France (it is officially listed in the top ten), and just had to return. Three years ago it only had a hundred or so people living inside the walls and half the buildings were crumbling. Entirely built from the stones from the razed castle, after Champagne defeated Burgundy, it is backed against a hill and surrounded by a major loop of the Surein river. The village had all its major half timbered buildings restored and its two adjoining squares set up with the main shops for the village, but the back streets were filled with crumbling buildings with their rooves caved in.

What a difference three years makes. We couldn’t believe our eyes. I commented three years ago that the village was so poor (population wise) that it couldn’t support a boulangerie. Now it has one, several restaurants and all of the crumbling buildings have been restored. Even the massive building on the road in to town had been resorted. I remember being told three years ago that it was for sale for around 200,000 euros but that the catch was that it would cost close to 500,000 euros just to re-roof. Someone has.

We walked the walls again, then down the main street, stopped for a cider at the most unfriendly bar in Burgundy, and eventually had to head home as it was after 6.00 and the light was fading. We might return tomorrow when driving to Abbe de Fontenay.


Poor Rabbit
Abbe de Fontenay and Alise-ste-Reine, Thursday 27th October

What a day. The weather bureau were right on the mark; 22c or warmer with a clear blue sky and it even stayed reasonably warm when the stiff breeze came up mid-afternoon.

This was the sort of day that sticks in your memory forever. In perfect autumn weather we visited Abe de Fontenay which could be the most picture perfect site in Burgundy (or even France). I have seventy or so photographs to prove it.

On the way, we had a few places to visit. We stopped by Chateau Ancy-le-Franc again (because there was a different view I hadn’t photographed yesterday), then the Chateau de Nuits Sur Armancon, which is a very small chateau, but right on the main road. Next was an unsuccessful attempt upon Chateau de Rocheford. We now know that it is a ruins on the top of a hill in the middle of a forest with just a few roof lines peaking above the trees. There is no road or track up to it, and rather than bash through the “bush” , I took a couple of photos and we headed on to our main destination; Abe de Fontenay.

Nestled into the end of a little valley, it really must have been isolated when the Cistertians founded it in 1118. They had just newly reformed and were committed to poverty and solitude. Here was a very swampy bit of land (Fontenay …. Fountains!! ... “the place that swims upon springs”) that they had to drain. They drained enough land to build the abbey and grow crops, but retained the running water which they channelled into ponds where they bred trout and into a "race" that provided the hydraulic power for the mill and later for the first hydraulic powered hammer and bellows. They mined iron ore and manufactured tools and implements that were sold throughout the region. It’s amazing to consider that for seven hundred years (or more than three times as long as Australia has been settled by Europeans), up to 300 monks lived here. Eventually it declined, was sold and converted into a paper mill by a descendent of Montgolfier (of hot air balloon fame) in 1820 and then sold to the owners son-in-law in 1906. He stripped away all of the paper mill and industrial additions and restored it to the original. It’s still in the family and now heritage listed by Unesco.

It really is one of the most stunning places on earth. Wonderful lush green lawns, gardens and ancient trees inclosed behind walls and buildings, surrounded by the wooded slopes of the hills that rise quite sharply to form a bowl in which the complex nestles.

The church is large and stunning for the fact that there are no decorations. It is the plainest church interior you are ever likely to see and apart from the magnificent 850 year old enamel tiles in the choir, the floor is bare earth.

To the right of the choir, a staircase leads up to the dormitory where up to 300 monks slept on straw beds, under a roof build from hand-hewn beams of chestnut like the bottom of an inverted ship. We have seen a number of these over the years in Europe, but this has to be one of the best preserved and most beautiful. Even the wooden pins used to fix the beams together are visible and the tile roof is in immaculate condition.

Below the dormitory are the “Chapter Room” and “Common Room”, basically (and it probably was basic) they were rooms where the abbot would give the daily reading and lecture and conduct the daily business briefings and where the monks would work as copyists and illuminating manuscripts.

Between these rooms and the church, and also enclosed by the other church buildings is the “Cloister”, a wonderful courtyard with green lawns and shrubs surrounded by the arcades all built of a beautiful golden stone.

Ches suggested that this was such a magnificent experience that we really shouldn’t try to visit anywhere else today as it would pale into insignificance alongside Abe de Fontenay. I suspect that could be the case for the next month.

But ... We decided that we should at least press on to Alise-Ste-Reine for lunch at Le Chevral Blanc. It is suggested in the “Pedaling Through Burgundy Cookbook” as an excellent “rustic” restaurant. Well, that was then years ago. We think “rustic” has decided to go for a Michelin hat.

We were very late in arriving for lunch at 1.50pm. Ches seemed to think that it would be like Italy where people drop in as late as 2.00 and are still welcomed for lunch. I’d suggest that given the Italian style of cooking is for simplicity, they can whip up a meal in no time. The French are serious. They take pride in complexity. Here we had a restaurant with a team of hatted chefs in the kitchen and three waitresses in a brown uniform (like a business suit). Here we had very serious food with very serious prices.

Being late, we skipped aperitifs and entrees and ordered water for Ches and a glass of wine for moi, and the meal. Not good enough. A waitress brought us an “amuse-bouche”. I hadn’t been amused since pointing out to Ches that it was far too late to be arriving at a country village restaurant. Che was amused by the small glass of seafood (prawn) mousse garnished with tiny prawns. Wonderful intense flavour that exploded in the mouth.

Ches had a Cassoulet of Scallops and Mushrooms while I had the Veal Head. O.K., so Ches’s doesn’t need any explanation but mine does. Five years ago in Rome, I had “Calves Head Cheese”. This is the French version only they use “Veal” calves. The head is cooked to remove all the meat and tendons and whatever. No, not brains etc., just the skull with the meat. This is then pressed and set. Basically, it is a little meat held together by a very rich gelatine. This is then crumbed and pan fried, and served with small pieces of carrot and potato and a rich sauce of deglazed pan juices.

For desert, I finally came out one up over Ches (who always has the absolute best Creme Brule or similar). Her Crème Brule was unusual in that it was flavoured with pain e’pices. Very rich. I however took a stab in the dark. I recognised figs and pears in the title and therefore found myself with baked fig & pear slices wrapped into a filo pastry parcel and served with fresh figs a pistachio ice cream in a toffee basket, a very thin slice of dried pear and drizzled with a very thin line of caramel sauce. Here’s what I mean about French cooking. The slice of pear was almost purely decorative. It was cut from the centre of a pear that could only have been 5cm. It still had the core and was wafer thin. Maybe they could cut three from each pear, then would need to put in a very slow oven to dry out and intensify the flavour, all to decorate the plate and give you one intense flavoured nibble.

As we were eating our desert, a two tiered plate was served containing petit fours. Tiny profiteroles, raisin friends, chewy meringue, rich dark chocolate squares and ?? At around $50 each, this was expensive. When you consider that William Page will serve us another nine courses next week, for not a lot more, this restaurant could not compare.

Now, here’s the thing about Alise-ste-Reine; the town it is half way up Mount Auxois, but at the top it flattens out into a fairly level crown around 500 meters in diameter and here are the remains of the Gallo Roman town, Alesia. It is also the site of Julius Caesar’s final victory over the Gauls.

For centuries, historians disputed the site of the final battle/siege. Napoleon III finally decided to end the dispute by funding an archaeological dig between 1861 and 1865. They not only uncovered the town, but also the double line of trenches and walls and the numerous camps around the base of the hill which Caesar built to encircle Vercingetorix. Despite the fact that the Gauls tried to send a relief army of 250,000 men, Vercingetorix was eventually starved out after six weeks and surrendered his army. He was paraded through Rome, imprisoned for six years and eventually strangled.

Napoleon had a five metre statue of Vercingetorix erected on the mountain, but there are still archaeologists who dispute the site of the final battle. What they can’t dispute is that the Romans built a substantial town here. There are the remains of a theatre big enough to hold 6,000 people and excellent remains of the workshops and houses. In many respects, this is a better site that most in Europe. The settlements we have seen near Hadrian’s wall and elsewhere are fine as far as they go with, the foundations exposed and explanations of what was located where. Here however, there are cellars dug out that reveal the staircases, alcoves and niches cut to store amphorae. I noticed that in one of the latter, the base consisted of a circle with a hollowed out centre. It dawned on me that amphorae didn’t have flat bottoms to stand up but were pointy or rounded on the bottom. They therefore must have had to stand them in a stand or into a niche with a hole in the bottom to stand and rest back against the wall. There were also many more wells, sewage drainage trenches and cellar workshops with complete arched doorways.

I had been reluctant to visit this site because I had assumed that it was just like many others we have seen, but we ended up spending several hours here. It had to be good because despite the fact that it was sunny, a strong wind had blown up and it was really blustery.

Eventually we did leave in a belated attempt to see Chateau Bussy-Rabutin, which is only another 11km up the road. It was closed by the time we arrived around 5.30 and being tucked into the top of a valley, dark. Photographing a chateau without sunlight just doesn’t work for me. We managed to peer over the fence but I resisted the temptation to photograph. Maybe we can visit when we stay near Dijon in three weeks time.

It was 7.00 pm by the time we arrived home, and as we had no Chablis left, it was looking like we would have to forego our Kir aperitif. As we crossed the bridge back into Chichee, I noticed that our neighbours “cave” was open and a few people were standing around the bar. I parked and walked back to find that two guys were just leaving (but shook hands) .. no English. Jean-Pierre and his wife poured me a glass of their Premier Cru and then we stood around uncomfortably while I sniffed and sipped wine, babbled in English and they shrugged. Eventually they gave up. Jean-Pierre went off to get his son (early 20’s) who did speak English and they left the two of us in the cave. He explained that he preferred their Vaucoupin over their Vosgros as it is more “minerally”. I agreed. I bought a bottle of both plus a bottle of Petit Chablis for our Kir.

We reheated the rabbit and had with fresh baguette. How good is this rabbit? I have a feeling that it is going to be a weekly dish.

And the smell for today is:

Bouchard Aine & Fils white wine. Such a flinty, minerally smell. You can smell the soil the grapes are grown in.

Then there was Jean-Pierre Ellevin’s (our neighbour three doors down) Chablis Premier Cru “Vaucoupin”. He poured me a glass when I went to buy a few bottles. Minerally but fruity.

And then there was his Petit Chablis with a couple of splashes of Cassis, rich blackcurrant fragrance.

Epoisse. This cheese is forbidden from public transport. What a smell. Sour, and it just cuts a deep line up the middle of the forehead. No mucking around, just straight from the nose to the brain.


Gauvain at Fontenay
Chablis and Noyers-sur-Surein, Friday 28th October

“Sacr Bleu!, mon dieu! … what, the crazy Australian was in the phone box in the village square at 6.15 in the morning, wearing those same purple shorts but with an orange wind cheater? What style!”

When I walked down our lane and into the main street, the village was totally black. Not dark. Black. Occasionally I could see a crack of light along the edge of a shutter (they better tighten that before winter!). Even though the sky was clear and a mass of stars, the moon was in the early stages and just a small crescent, so not enough light to see the road in front of me. I trusted that all dogs were still locked away for the night and made my way to the village square. The only light here was the phone box out front of the town hall and the light around the shuttered window of the Boulangerie. As I struggled with the public phone it approached 6.30 and the street lights came on (Yellow light in old fashioned black boxes fixed to the walls), the church lit up and the bell struck once. Several people waited patiently for the boulangerie to open, despite the fact he was three minutes late. Several roosters had been crowing for the last 30 minutes or so, and the light stirred on the rest. A lady in her nightgown opened her shutters and was startled to see me in the phone box just metres from her window. She considered me for some minutes before closing her window and curtains and probably phoning around the village to alert them to the fact that I was already out and about. They will have nothing to talk about when we leave tomorrow.

When Ches eventually surfaced (around 8.30) we walked into Chablis again for our morning coffee/tea and croissant. On the outskirts of Chablis I was stopped in my tracks. You wouldn’t believe it. Here were two guys erecting a massive gate in the middle of a block of land. No fences either side, just a building site, all rubble with a gate in the middle. I’ll post the photographs. I could see Clyde standing to the side supervising.

We did some window shopping but returned home by 11.30 to have breakfast, change and return to Chablis for lunch at La Feuillette 132. This restaurant had been recommended by Sarah Chase in her “Pedaling Through Burgundy Cookbook”, which from now on I will refer to as “BTBC”. She had also recommended Hostellerie des Clos for the “Oeufs en Meurette” but this looked like a particularly expensive restaurant. We had checked out the menu at La Feuillette and discovered they served “Oeufs en Meurette” for 9.95e compared with another restaurant that had them priced at around 18e.

Again, arriving at 1.30 makes for an uncomfortable dining experience. By the time our mains arrived, everyone else had left and I didn’t feel that we could linger over cheese of desert (not that we needed it). Nevertheless, the wait staff can only reset tables for so long and sweep out the kitchen and clean the kitchen and ...”

We both had the “Oeufs en Meurette” for entrée. Oh wow! I’ll include the recipe from “BTBC”, although it’s wasn’t exactly prepared the same way. Instead of pearl onions they were fried onions, and I’m sure there wasn’t any bacon. Never the less, these were wonderful. When the yokes broke into the broth, they were rich and creamy and had more flavour than I remember tasting in an egg yolk in thirty years (apart from the half dozen or so I’ve eaten in Europe in the last two weeks. I won’t bore you with any more details, just read the recipe and see if your mouth doesn’t water. I’m pretty determined to cook this myself next week.

For mains I had the Beef, rare with a red wine sauce and potatoes dauphinoise (layered potatoes and cream). Unfortunately, while reasonably well flavoured it was quite tough. Ches had another entrée; the snails in garlic butter (coloured green with pureed parsley). She savoured every mouthful. Apart from observing that some were more earthy than others, she mastered the use of the tongs and fork and found that it took her as long to extract 12 snails as it took me to consume a reasonable sized steak.

Rather than tackle a whole bottle, I opted for the two glass carafe of Chablis and Ches the four glass carafe of red. Both were better than average wines and at 7e and 10e, quite reasonable.

It was around 3.00 before we left and we finally toured the gift shops and bought some glasses. We also finally went in search of the liqueur and jam shop. We had passed this house all week. A bright sign out front advertised a range of liqueurs and jams, but it was just a house with a sign saying, “ring the bell”. We did, and a cheerful round faced woman welcomed us with great excitement. She produced tasting glasses and explained that everything was made with natural produce, no flavourings, colouring, preservative etc. I noticed that hers is 18-20% alcohol while most are only 12-15%, so quite understand that there is no need for preservatives. Having selected Quince, Blackberry and Cassis (Blackcurrant), we then found we had no money and she didn’t take cards. She put them aside and we returned four hours late to collect. I selected the Quince because I figured that the Cassis having worked so well with rabbit and prunes, it will work with Duck. She suggested deglazing the pan with the quince liqueur and pouring over the duck, but I figure to cook it in some quince liqueur and white wine and serve with white beans. Or, duck and oranges with some quince liqueur. Or……?

At a very late 3.30 we headed south for our last visit to Noyers. Well out in the countryside, Ches announced that she hadn’t brought the maps. Interesting! Guess what, not all roads lead to Noyers. Only 14 kilometres from Chichee but after 20 minutes, when we reached a main road with a sign saying Noyers 17, we figured we were on the wrong road.

We eventually arrived in Noyers out front of our favourite gift shop. We bought quite a bit here back in 2002 and even more this time. The owner has a gite for rent above the shop and this time I have taken his card so that we can post it on the internet. As far as we know, this is the only self contained accommodation inside the village. Other accommodation is at the hotel. He said that Julienne had sold the B&B outside the walls where we stayed three years ago. Very sad because she had spent years restoring the old “hospital” (as in cheap accommodation for pilgrims in medieval times) and her marriage had been destroyed by it. At the time she told us that had she known what was involved, she never would have attempted it. We hope she at least made a financial gain on the sale and given that the entire village has been restored over the last three years, we think she might have. Despite it being an even prettier village than it was three years ago, he told us that it had been a poor tourist summer and suspected that a downturn in European economies might be the factor.

We tried the new Bistro for a coffee and Ches went to the traiteur for some apricot and macerated sultana tarts. We sat at the only table in the street with two French sisters who were having an afternoon off from a conference at Vezelay. They insisted that we must visit St Pier sous Vezelay , the village at the base of the hill on which Vezelay stands, when we visit in three weeks time.

And so, back home to collect the liqueurs and have light dinner; fritatta because everyone needs to eat around four eggs a day. The Kir’s are getting stronger and one just about stands us on our ears.

And the smell for today is:

The exhaust from the ancient two stroke motor cycle as we walked into Chablis. Stinking, acrid, sinus clenching. The aroma of garlic butter coming from the kitchen all the way downstairs at La Fevillette 132. The aroma was stronger coming up the staircase when cooking than it was when poured over Cheryl’s snails at the table.


Orta loves snails

Oeufs en Meurette
  • 8 fresh eggs (preferably free range and very fresh)
  • 1 bottle (750 ml) red wine (a light pinot noir or beaujolais)
  • 2 cups (500 ml) veal or chicken stock
  • 1 onion, thinly sliced
  • 1 carrot, thinly sliced
  • 1 celery stalk, thinly sliced
  • 1 garlic clove, crushed
  • a bouquet garni of thyme sprigs, parsley stems, and a bay leaf
  • 1/2 teaspoon black peppercorns
  • salt and pepper
For the garnish:
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 125 g mushrooms, sliced
  • 125 g piece of bacon (smoked speck), diced
  • 16 eschalots or baby onions , peeled
For the croûtes:
  • 8 slices of white bread, 6 mm thick
  • oil for frying
For thickening the sauce:
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 2 tablespoons flour
1. To poach the eggs, bring the wine and stock to a vigorous boil in a large shallow pan. Break four eggs, one by one, into the places where the liquid is bubbling so the bubbles spin the eggs. Lower the heat and poach the eggs for 3 to 4 minutes until the yolks are fairly firm but still soft to the touch. Lift out the eggs with a slotted spoon and drain them on paper towels. Poach the remaining eggs in the same way. Trim off the stringy edges with scissors and set the eggs aside. Add the onion, carrot, celery, garlic, bouquet garni, and peppercorns to the poaching liquid and simmer until it is concentrated and reduced by half, 20 to 25 minutes.

2. Meanwhile, cook the garnish, melt half the butter in a medium saucepan, add the mushrooms, and sauté until tender, 2 to 3 minutes. Remove mushrooms, add bacon with the remaining butter, and fry until brown. Lift out the bacon and drain it on paper towels. Add the baby onions and sauté them gently until brown and tender, shaking the pan often so they color evenly, 10 to 15 minutes. Drain off all the fat, replace the mushrooms and bacon, and set the pan aside.

3. Make the croûtes, using a round or oval cutter, and cut the bread into 8 shapes just larger than a poached egg. Heat 1/4 inch (6 mm) of oil in a frying pan, over medium heat. Working in batches, fry the croûtes until browned on both sides, 1 to 2 minutes per side. Drain on paper towels. Set the croûtes aside.

4. To thicken the sauce, crush the butter on a plate with a fork and work in the flour to form a soft paste. Whisk this kneaded butter, a piece at a time, into the simmering wine mixture until the mixture becomes thick enough to lightly coat a spoon. Strain the sauce over the garnish of mushrooms, baby onions, and bacon, pressing on the carrot, onion, and celery to extract all the liquid and flavor. Bring the sauce to a boil, taste, and adjust the seasoning.

5. To prepare ahead, poach the eggs up to a day in advance, keeping them in a bowl of cold water in the refrigerator. Store the sauce and garnish also in the refrigerator. The croûtes will be fine if kept tightly wrapped, then warmed in a low oven.

6. To serve, reheat the eggs by immersing them in hot water for 1 minute. If necessary, reheat the garnish and sauce on top of the stove, and warm croûtes in the oven. Set the croûtes on warm serving plates. Drain the eggs on paper towels, set one on each croûte, and spoon over the sauce and garnish.

  • 8 russet potatoes, peeled and quartered
  • 4 shallots, peeled
  • 1 1⁄2 cups Gruyere cheese, grated
  • 1 cup crème fraîche or sour cream
  • 1 cup whole milk (or more if needed)
  • 2 Tbs. butter
  • Salt and fresh-ground black pepper
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

Butter a 9x12 inch shallow baking pan or gratin dish.

Using the slicing blade of a food processor, a mandoline, or the slicing side of a four-sided grater, slice the potatoes and the shallots.

Starting with the potatoes, layer the potatoes, shallots, cheese, crème fraîche, salt and pepper making about three layers, ending with the cheese. Pour the milk into the pan so that it comes halfway up the side, adding more if necessary. Dot the top with the remaining butter. Cover with aluminum foil and bake for 45 minutes. Remove the foil and bake another 45 minutes or until brown and crisp on top. Serves 4-6

Jambon à La Chablisienne
  • 20 slices of good quality ham (« jambon blanc)
  • 1 bottle of Chablis wine
  • 200g shallots
  • 500g fresh tomatoes
  • 5dl crème fraîche
  • 100g butter
Serves 10 people

Put a knob of butter in a frying pan and sweat the chopped up shallots. Add the quartered tomatoes and a bouquet garni. Add the bottle of Chablis wine. Reduce by 50% and then add cream. Reduce until there is a sauce. Season & blend.

In an oven dish roll up the ham and top with the sauce. Put in the oven (200°) for 10 minutes and serve.

  • 1/4 water
  • 100g butter
  • 1 pinch of salt
  • 125 g flour
  • 4 eggs
  • 80g grated cheese (Comté) or Cheddar cheese
Serves 6 people

Pre-heat the oven 200°

Boil water, butter and salt

When the butter is melted take the pan off the heat and add the flour – all in one go. Mix thoroughly. Put back on a gentle heat for a few seconds to dry off the pastry – it should not stick to the wooden spoon.

Take off the heat and add immediately 4 eggs one after the other.

The mixture should be smooth but not liquid. Add the grated cheese. Check the salt seasoning – do not add pepper.

Butter and flour an oven tray. Put teaspoon size balls of the mixture.

Cook for 30-40 minutes.

N.B. You must not open the oven before the thirty minutes are up otherwise the pastry will deflate.


Oeufs en Meurette
Chablis to Sancerre via Mezilles and St Fargeau, Saturday 29th October

We were up and packed early, but then sat around and while Ches read, I worked on this journal till close to 11.00 when the housekeeper came with our deposit refund. She was running late because the kids had been down with “gastro” and she had had a touch herself.

I’m probably being uncharitable, but when she said that she wouldn’t stay to clean because there were no new tenants coming and she could do it later, I figured that it would only take her 15 minutes anyway. When we arrived, the best you could say was that it had been swept out and the sink and benches and bathroom cleaned. Beyond that, there was dust and bits and pieces in among the posts and pans stored on the floor under the kitchen benches. In many respects, we leave our caravan at Toowoon Bay in a better state than this was.

There was no tee towel, so we drip dried for the week. The lighting system was still a mystery after a week. There were switches everywhere that seemed to control multiple groups of lights and sometimes two switches in different parts of the house controlled the same group of lights. On two nights we gave up and had to leave the little group in the corner of the kitchen on all night, and even when I got them off I had no idea what had achieved it.

There was the ugliest of tiles around the kitchen bench and also on the floor downstairs. Simple terracotta tiles was all that was needed but I think they went with the cheapest end of line from a tile shop. Such a shame for a place that has such rustic potential but ends up being a mishmash and basically unfinished with an oversize shower screen that in the end is left to overlap the door to the shower, double glazed windows with the glue visible and other glass with a mess of silicon oozing around the edges, broken tiles on the edges of steps. I can’t go on.

Yes I can. This place was/is the most expensive of our accommodation in France (ever). At L333.00 for the week ($AUD835) compared with where we are now at Sancerre for L325, it just doesn’t rate. At Sancerre we had a two bedroom house in the centre of the town with immaculate furnishings. I’ve raved about it more later in the week.

Annnnnnyyyyyyywaaaaaay, we did leave around 11.00 and dropped in to an Alimentation in Chablis to buy some Colin Marc AAAAA andouillette (award winning sausage). More later when we sample.

On to Auxerre, negotiated three or four routes out of Auxerre and across the countryside to Mizelles and the restaurant La Mare des Fees (Pond of the Fairies), recommended to us by Fiona who owns Chateau de Creancey where we stayed in three weeks time. As she suggested, the setting was wonderful.

In a building beside the creek, which is forded by the street in front and crossed by a twin arched stone pedestrian bridge, there are walled gardens opposite with ponds and canals cutting through it.

The restaurant was fully booked, but they made us up a table just inside the front door. We decided on the 17e menu. Ches had all but given up on ever tasting gougers and here we were served five as an amuse-bouche. She is now inspired to make them herself, now that the mystery has been removed. Ches had the terrine de maison which was studded with hazelnuts (delicious) while I had the oeufs en muerette. Here it was prepared with a broth thickened with flour. It meant that it amalgamated all the flavours into one, rather than yesterdays version that had half a dozen distinct flavours. This time it did include diced bacon, but it’s flavour was lost among the others.

For mains, Ches had the jambon chablisienne (ham with a mustard cream sauce and creamed spinach and a baked tomato half topped with breadcrumbs and herbs) while I had a rare steak swimming in a sea of three mustard sauce (three mustards and maaaaaybe some cream) with fabulous potatoes baked in layers with maaaaaybe some more cream and a tomato half. Watch out arteries.

We shared a half bottle of Cote Saint Jacque, which was just right. Actually, I have noticed that most French only seem to have one or two glasses of wine with their meal and often leave a third of a bottle at the end. Of course we all have a bottle of water as well.

Despite the fact that we were already stuffed to the gills, the waitress next offered the cheese platter and we each selected three different cheeses. With some 600 types of cheese in France, it is becoming impossible to keep track of what we are having. Despite the best interests of my arteries, I had two types of goats cheese (one firm the other soft) and an unknown, that resembled epoisse while Ches had chaource and bries. In all cases, the cheeses have strong flavours while seldom overpowering. In “The Last Chance to Taste” Gina Mallet devotes a chapter to cheeses and laments the fact that outside France (and Italy I suspect), most cheeses are made with pasteurised milk and it is only whole milk cheese that has the strong flavours produced by the bacteria. So many wonderful cheese flavours in just a week, I’ll just have to add an extra 30 minutes to the daily exercise routine. We only had very small slices of each cheese, and ate with a knife and fork which adds an element of slow savouring of each mouthful.

Desert? We had to be kidding. Ches always has Creme Caramel if it’s available, and always has the best desert. I should have known better when she ordered the chocolate fondant with crème anglaise. Mine was a good crème caramel in a strong thin caramel sauce while Cheryl’s was a sensational biscuit based chocolate fondant floating in a sea of chocolate bit flecked crème anglaise. I noticed in her diary that she has recorded “I won again.”

We wandered the creek looking for fairies to photograph for Malia. Didn’t see any, but Ches took my photograph so will see if that satisfies her.

It was just 20 minutes further on to Chateau de Saint Fargeau. It appeared that this chateau closes for winter in the next few days, so we decided to take the time to see it now. Aren’t we glad we did? Initially I was reluctant to pay to enter another chateau. Inside most are much the same, while I find the exteriors more dramatic to photograph. In this case, there is no way you can get any sort of view without entering the grounds, so we paid to enter. I immediately went into photo frenzy. I photographed in every direction from within the huge central courtyard and then walked out through the gate that enters the park with its lake, lawns and forests. From down beside the lake I again took photographs of all elements and angles. At this point I was quite happy to have seen another example of a massive fortified house in all it’s architectural uniqueness.

As it started to rain, we took refuge inside the Chateau. There the truly memorable experience began. Twenty five years ago, Michel and Jacques Guyot bought what was a derelict estate. The roofs were damaged, the floors rotted, no grand staircase. The photo display shows just what a mess it was. They have restored most of the roof, and only one last tower is still being restored. They replaced the rotting floors and restored most of the downstairs rooms and great hall. The rooms are still very dirty, and the furnishings on their final legs, but through it all you can see the amazing architecture of the building. Stone pillars that curve for both decorative and practical purposes, wonderful timber panelling and best of all, a staircase that I don’t think many people take up into the roof.

Here they have built a walkway the entire way around the building, all inside the roof. Why? Because it allows you to see the actual framework. Massive chestnut beams and timbers, all fixed together by timber pins (nails) driven through holes drilled through the beams. The domes above each of the six towers are amazing. Here the timber beams step up to form the domes and are all encased in strips of timber bent around each dome and to which are fixed slate tiles. The slate tiles vary in width and length as it is these that give the uniformity to the curves. The more of a curve required, the shorter and narrower the slate tile. All very hard to explain and it needs to be seen to appreciated. I can’t believe I took dozens of photographs of the inside of the roof and the domes as I was in awe of the complexity of such building. This was worth the price of the admission alone, and as a sign indicated that each admission fee pays for four tiles, I’m glad we payed for eight more.

Originally Heribert (bishop of Auxerre) built a fortified hunting lodge in 980, and then in 1453, Antoine de Chabannes " ... having helped Jeanne d’Arc throw the english out of France ... " built the current building on the foundations of the fortress. That’s actually how it appears in the brief English language brochure they provide. That’s “throw” them out, and english with no capital letter, but France with one. You like that Joan?

From 1715 to 1968, the Lepeletier family owned the chateau. They owned it for longer than Australia has been settled by Europeans. Amazing. In fact, Louis Michel Lepeletier was assassinated here in 1793 (by a royalist) because he had voted for the execution of the king and is regarded as “the first martyr of liberty.”

Now the Guyot’s produce medieval spectacles on Friday and Saturday nights throughout summer to raise the money to continue the restoration. Six hundred actors and 50 horsemen must provide quite a show.

I should also mention that the 15thC Tour St-Nicolas is also quite spectacular. A slate covered tower with bright red timber frame, it is the last of the town gates and stands out above the roofs.

Rather late in the day we press on to Sancerre, taking the cross country route which will again test Ches. Easy. We made it to our apartment at around 6.00. What a surprise. A stunning two bedroom house built side on to the street and tacked on to Mne. Davide’s house. They share the front garden, but then the cottage has its own garage and side garden with apple tree and lawn. Magnificently appointed and fitted out, we were delighted.

We quickly unpacked and by 7.00 were out to do a promenade of the main square (Nouvelle Place) where most of the restaurants and many of the wine merchants have their caves.

A light dinner of cheeses (we needed more cheese didn’t we?) and baguette and to bed at either 8.00 or 9.00 pm depending on whether or not you apply daylight savings on this final day. Just to confuse matters, Australia goes to daylight savings tonight as well, so from tomorrow there is a ten hour time difference instead of eight.

And the smell for today is:

The early morning smell of the wild fennel seeds in the garden. Not the same as the smell of the summer green fronds or the pollen, but never the less the distinctive fennel smell released by the overnight dew but earthier.

The smell of the cheeses at lunch and dinner.

The smell of cooking meat as we came down out of the ceiling at the Chateau. Where was the hidden kitchen?


Sancerre, Sunday 30th October

What to report for today? Not a lot. Ches and I walked a complete circuit of the town at sunrise and sunset and I another one to walk off the cheeses mid-morning. Before breakfast we walked up to the main square (which is only 200 metres from our cottage) and had a coffee and watched the town wake up. We still can’t handle the fact that you get your coffee at a “Bar” but your croissant or pastry at a boulangerie. Short of going to the boulangerie first and then taking it into the bar, I don’t know what options there are. Yes we do, we worked it out. We now buy the baguette and any pastries while returning from our morning walk and then return home and make our own coffee.

After breakfast it was down to the corner (20 metres) to make the acquaintance of Fi Fi, the owner of the Boucher recommended by Patricia. A jovial chap, when he heard us speaking English he ducked into the back room and returned wearing a bowler hat. We set him straight on our nationality and bought all of his home made/cured smoked ham, rillettes, pates etc.

We set up the garden furniture in the garden (where else), and had a lunch of cheeses and rillettes and petit campagne blanc (white country bread). Ches read and I caught up on this journal and then cooked a couple of pasta sauces (Courgette and walnut and goat meat sausage, tomato, onion and garlic) for dinner.

On our evening walk around the town, the place was swarming with day trippers and we can’t wait for Monday when the place returns to normal without the bloody tourists.

And the smell for today is:

The roses blooming in our garden. Sweet

Jean-Pierre Ellevin’s Chablis Premier Cru. The “Vosgros” honey perfume while the “Vaucoupin” more minerally, sharp. They tasted that way as well, one just a hint of floral sweetness (only just a hint) and the other a little flinty.

The diesel exhaust when walking the village. Stinking.

The sewage on the far side of the village. Sour. No breasts or buttocks.


Sancerre, Monday 31st October

This was a true “slow travellers” day.

We began with our daily dawn circuit of the town, and then found the local tourism office for directions to various restaurants, banks and the map guided walk of the town. Next the most important stop of the day, Fi Fi’s. We bought more of his smoked ham and amazing smoked speck and then took out a bank loan to buy a slab of beef. He threw in some of his homemade sausage (very garlicky and great with Dijon mustard). While still first thing in the morning, three kids all dressed up in costumes for Halloween came into the shop and while we frantically looked around for sweets in the shop to buy, Fi Fi suggested that “money” would be acceptable. Ah! The international language.

That’s when I went off to do battle with the world of I.T. Despite all the claims by the idiots at Orange in Sydney, wireless is not “everywhere” in France. In fact the woman who operates the internet café says that there is very little wireless let alone broadband in the countryside. She had wireless, but I had to pay her for access time, then log on to the “wireless” provider and buy two hours access within a 24 hour time period for 10 euros. So that works out at 18 euros ($AUD30.00) for two hours.

Eventually I managed to post 30 or so pages to my “blog” and send a few e-mails. I decided at these rates I would save an hour or so for tomorrow morning and prepare a whole lot of e-mails etc. that I could then just log on and send rather than waste valuable time composing at the café.

Meanwhile Ches had met Mme Davide (Colette to me) who is our neighbour and she explained that we could park the car (a VW Polo) in the garage, that it would fit, that Patricia parks her jaguar in it. I’m here to tell you, that given the angle of the garage to the front gates and the distance between them and the side walls of the garage, the car can sit half in the garage and return unscratched to Europcar.

We had lunch in the garden and then abandoned the rest of the day when rain set in and our “Indian Summer” came to an end.

And the smells for today are:

The smell of bread and pastries penetrating hundreds of metres up into the top end of the town from the boulongerie.

I’ve prepared hard boiled eggs several times before and enjoyed the smell but when peeled but today, boy are they strong.

Sausage and Speck (Smoked Pancetta) Pate de Campagne maison. Ham.

Lunch baguettes

Sable Framboise (raspberry shortbread tart)

Now that it was significantly cooler, it was time for some hearty fare for dinner. I prepared:

Beef Fillets with Flageolets Beans-Tournedos aux Flageolets
  • 250 gm dry flageolets
  • 1 bouquet garni
  • 2 shallots, peeled
  • 2 cloves
  • 1 cube butter
  • 2 large mushrooms, sliced
  • 2 filets mignons of beef
  • 4 Tbsp chopped parsley
  • Salt, pepper
Soak flageolets for 2 hours. Drain and place in large saucepan; add 3 times volume of cold water, bouquet garni, onion and cloves. Simmer 45 min. Chop second onion. In frying pan, sauté onion in 2 Tbsp of butter. Add sliced mushrooms. Cook 15 min over medium heat. Meanwhile, salt and pepper the fillets mignons and broil them. Drain beans and reserve cooking juices. Remove onion, cloves and bouquet garni. Purée the flageolets, salt and pepper to taste. If necessary, thin down purée by adding some cooking juice. Incorporate butter. Serve tournedos over the flageolet purée, garnish with mushroom slices and chopped parsley.

The bean puree and the mushrooms were sensational, but the steak somewhat disappointing. As Ches realised later, while we had selected a 4cm thick piece of meat and cooked it perfectly (rare), it had virtually no marbling or any fat anywhere, so was lacking in flavour and wasn’t even as tender as we had expected. That’s three steaks in France now, that haven’t been at all tender or flavoursome, so we will abandon them in favour of more rabbits and ducks, and wait till we return home for an A.C. Butchery “wagyu”.

For desert, Flan au Fuits (custard flan with fruits) from our local boulangerie. Ches is determined to work her way through the entire range of pastries in the next two weeks.


The Loire from Sancerre
Sancerre, Tuesday 1st November

I was up at 5.30 to phone the office. The 10 hour time difference meant I would either be up at 5.30 to phone or stay up till 10.30 or 11.00, and long days and dinner wines made that difficult.

At sunrise we set off on our first circuit of the town for the day. Big mistake. I didn’t take my camera and should know better by now. When we arrived at the eastern lookout, the sunrise over the Loire was spectacular. While Ches waited and tried to keep the sun down for ten minutes, I tore back over through the top of town and retrieved my camera and returned in time for some great photos.

Around 10.00, I returned to the internet café to send off all the emails I had prepared overnight. She wasn’t open and eventually I sat the computer on my thigh with my foot up on her windowsill and angled to maximise the strength of the wireless signal coming from inside her shop. There I tried to send off around ten or so emails. One small problem, a number were responses to e-mails sent to my university email address. The university server was down so they couldn’t be sent and had to be transferred to my apple server; and with all the photograph attachments, they were transferring backward and forward between my “Draft” folder and “out” folder. In the end, I had no idea what went and what didn’t.

Just as my mail box emptied, she opened the front door. She hadn’t realised till the night before that today is one of only two annual national holidays … a saints day???. Everything was to be closed for the day. That meant that there wasn’t much point in driving across country to visit chateau, so we called the day off.

Well, kind of. We had the English version of the town walk, so decided to do that before lunch. We only made it half way, and discovered that the wine museum was actually open. This has to be one of the best “industry” museums we have ever seen. Some ten years ago, the Sancerre wine producers collectively bought this old building at the top of the town and just around the corner from the church. Formerly a residence, but with a tower with the battlements like a castle, it was derelict. They fully remodelled it and turned it into one of the best educational exhibits we have seen.

Apparently in the late 1800’s, when the Prussians were making a nuisance of themselves (possibly my Great Great Grandfather), the owner feared that the tower would be mistaken for a castle, so he removed the battlements. They are now back.

Anyway, the exhibit! We spent well over an hour going from room to room and alcove to alcove as a combination of display walls and video presentations (on apple macs what else) explained the history of wine production around Sancerre, it’s restructuring after the last war, the nature of the soil and it’s influence on the flavour of the wine, the dramatic changes in society and work practices over the last fifty years and the current position of Sancerre wines.

At the very least, Ches determined that she would only be happy if she could find wines produced on “caillottes” vineyards. Ches isn’t particularly excited by white wine at the best of times and on this trip so far we have largey been in white wine producing areas and in particular, white wines that are very minerally rather than soft fresh fruit. Sancerres from “caillottes” vineyards tend to be a little more “fruity” or at least softer. In the same way in which the Chablis are either “Vaucoupin” - minerally or “Vosgros” – softer with slight fruit, perhaps the explanation is the same. The “caillottes” are soils that have a much higher content of limestone rubble in them, and therefore the wine produced is slightly more fruity.

Now, you won’t be surprised to hear that this is completely off the top of my head and purely speculation, but I read somewhere else that some of the canals in this region (Cher) were build to transport stone? (in 6, 80 metre long barges) to fertilise the Sologne region. Perhaps it was the same stone? It must have been a special “stone” because they say it was the only thing that saved the Sologne from becoming a wasteland.

Good lord, what is the world coming to? We had an afternoon nap and then it was Kir o’clock.


Châteaus de Baucard & de Blancafort and Aubigny-sur-Nere, Wednesday 2nd November

It’s only when I look back on this day from three days later that I appreciate what a full day it was. It’s also good to reflect on our dinner at Le Lievre Gourmand in the cool, calm light of day. But first the day:

We had planned on driving around the near north of Sancerre, taking in a number of chateau and small villages. Château de Baucard was the closest and is described as the Sleeping Beauty castle. Closed and only seen across overgrown fields behind rivers and canals, it was difficult to photograph. It is a pretty little chateau and hopefully will be fully restored one day.

Chateau de Blancafort is privately owned and not open to the public. Unfortunately it is largely hidden behind trees and there is no vantage point to photograph. We tried up along the canal and climbing through the scrub only to find another river between us and the chateau and another line of trees. The church in this town does have an unusual spire encased in slate. As Ches remarked, the base of the spire is reminiscent of Darth Vader.

Thankfully, our next destination was open. This was Aubigny-sur-Nere a very Scottish town.

When we stayed nearby last year, Marylene had explained that the Stuarts had a strong connection with the Cher. The street next to ours here in Sancerre is Rue Mac Donald and has a crest at the beginning of the street portraying a piper. Aubigny-sur-Nere was given to Sir John Sturt by Charles VII after he assisted in the defeat of the English at Bauge in 1421. His son built Chateau de la Verrerie which we have still to visit, and his nephew Robert fought for Francois on his Italian campaigns and then rebuilt the town of Aubigny after it was destroyed by fire in 1512. This town is filled with wonderful timbered houses from this rebuilding and what looks like a unique wide main street that leads up to the Stuarts Chateau and gardens. It is even noted that refugees from the Jacobite terror settled in the area.

By the time we arrived at midday, the town was shutting down for several hours so we wandered the streets and then settled on the Cutty Sark Hotel for lunch. Just a “pub”, it is carpeted in Stuart Tartan and there is a large tile painting on the wall depicting kilt clad Scots fishing in a river and posters for Beamish and Crawford Double Stout. Note, that’s “double” stout. Us Crawfords don’t do anything by halves.

Typically, the place reeks of tobacco smoke. I had a simple veal scallops covered in a mustard cream sauce and “french fries” washed down with a Leffe while Ches had Croque Monsieur (a toasted sandwich with gruyere cheese and ham inside and grilled tasty cheese on top) and a small flagon of rose. There was a poster on the door advertising a local rugby game from the Saturday before, so Ches enquired of the barman and he advised that they would have the Australia v France rugby on the T.V. on Saturday night, so we planned on returning.

We decided to head home and rest up for our dinner at Le Lievre Gourmand.

This restaurant was something special. William Page was born in P.N.G., moved to Adelaide where he worked in catering and some ten years ago, opened his restaurant here in Vailly-sur-Sauldre. Early last year, he was awarded his first Michelin “hat”. I am at a loss to describe William’s cooking. Perhaps “food theatre’ or “food art”. I even feel guilty referring to his restaurant and what he does as “his work” or “his business”. I don’t know him well enough to even determine what his attitude is. At the end of the evening, as we stood talking at the front door, the best I could do was ask him “Are you still enjoying what you are doing, as much as you always have?” I figured that while he is obviously dependent on the restaurant for his livelihood, it must be more than that. He must get enormous satisfaction from creating new dishes and from the reaction from his customers to some of the culinary surprises.

I guess fine food is a lot like art. It is one thing for the artist or the chef to create their piece of art, but it is in the eye and palate and/or palette of the beholder that it takes on a different life or meaning. So, this is our interpretation of William’s “piece” served up on this evening:

At the door, the same maitre d’ as last year greeted us with “Bon Soir Monsieur er Madame Crawford”. She is extremely polite and always speaks slowly for Ches to follow what she is saying. She lead us into the lounge room and seated us in the same chairs as last year. Very large, low and soft leather armchairs with a very low coffee table. Ches wondered if she would ever be able to lever herself out again. She also noted that at 7.30 we were the only ones there and that because she had addressed us by name, were we the only ones booked for dinner?

She brought us our “amuse bouche” and took our orders for aperitif. Ches had Kir Royale (Cassis with Champagne) while I had peach liqueur with champagne. The amuse bouche consisted of a shot glass with mouse and absolutely tiny cauliflower florets on top and then a repeat performance from last year. Even though we had this last year, it still has the ability to surprise. In the same way that scientists have discovered that by giving a smell a pleasant name, it can effect the brains response, it would seem that by providing you with what appears to the eye as a small chocolate encased in white chocolate, the brain is expecting the sweet rich flavour. What a surprise to the palate and the brain when the first bite released the strong rich flavour of foie gras and chilled goose fat. We both exclaimed in delight that we had been deceived again.

See what I mean, this is ‘food theatre” or “food art” or at the very least a game of fun. We remembered that last year, a table of six next to us had all exclaimed with surprise and big grins when they had eaten this as one of the courses.

William came out to welcome us, and by 8.15 the maitre d’ took us in to the dining room. This could be embarrassing! Are we the only ones dining tonight? No, there is a table of four booked beside us and a table of two on the other side of the room. William later explained that at least they aren’t Spanish and likely to want to dine around 11.00, but can be erratic in dining times. He also explained that the main T.V. news of the day is at 8.00 pm, so often people will not come out to eat till after the news. The table of two arrived for only a few courses around 8.45 and the table of four at 9.15. Let it also be noted that the French could learn something from us when it comes to dressing for dinner. We have set the standards for the last two weeks, and my tailor and shoe supplier in Paris would be proud. These French country people just don’t have a sense of style.

Now, for tonight’s performance, we have ten acts. I’m not counting the overture or epilogues in the lounge room.

Act 1 Accompanied by Domaine Lafage 2003 (Grenache blanc, chardonnay and muscat)

Scene 1: Le rouleau de saumon fume et cresson
(finger food of smoked salmon rolled around spring onions and watercress)

Scene 2: Le sushi de lotte
(burbot sushi with tiny inoki mushrooms - really tiny) gazpacho aux huitres (oyster gazpacho)

Scene 3: La noix de coquilles St Jacques grillee
(This could be the most perfect grilled scallop I have ever eaten. Seared top and bottom to the point of caramelising, so sweet and juicy, I took eight small bites to eat. I never wanted this scene to end.)

Act 2 Accompanied by Domaine des Saffices 2004 (Viognier)

This was a special “guest appearance” as William had selected an Australian Chardonnay to accompany these courses but he decided that just for us, we should experience something different. It was magnificent.

Scene 1: Les huitres tiedes, gelee de citron confit et mousseline au gingembre
(a warmed oyster with citrus confit and ginger mousse) The citrus was so subtle that you couldn’t determine if lemon or orange and just a hint of ginger as well. This was a very subtle performance with just hints of flavours so as not to overwhelm the oyster.

Scene 2: La tasse de foie gras “café crème”
Amazing. Absolutely amazing. A virtuoso performance. Foir gras frothed up as light as air with the essence of the flavour and then coffee been finely grated on top. Was he serious, coffee on foie gras? Just the lightest dusting of the coffee and it created a flavour surprise that still amazes me five days later. I’m salivating as I write.

Scene 3: Le cornet de glace aux cepes, poudre de cepes.
(mushroom icecream in a cornet with powdered mushroom dusted over the top) The cornet was similar to a wanton wrapper in thickness and had been formed and then brushed with olive oil and baked. It was therefore crisp. The mushroom icecream was amazing. At least we weren’t taken by surprise and the brain had time to process what was about to be tasted.

Act 3 Accompanied by Domaine Lafage 2003 (Syrah, Grenache Noir and cabernet).

This was the best of four wonderful wines.

Scene 1: Le magret de canard laque aux cinq epices
(Breast of duck in five spices – poached and then finished under a grill – moist and crisp on top.)

Scene 2: Le jarret de veau en croustillant, crème de raifort (veal hock in pastry with horseradish cream)

Act 4 Accompanied by Domaine Cabliac 2004 (Syrah)

Scene 1: Les plateaux de fromages ou les fromages blancs fermiers de Michel Desriaux a Vailly (vache ou chevre) I haven’t got a clue. I primarily had goats cheeses while Ches the softer brie type cheeses. We had to choose three or four slices from a trolley of thirty or so cheeses.

Scene 2: Les desserts
A shot glass of liqueur that reminded us of tokay but the name we have forgotten (again it was from the Languedoc region like all the other wines tonight)

A shot glass of Fig mousse.

A shot glass of Fennel ice cream with tiny diced pieces of stewed fennel. Amazing. Kent would have loved it.

And. We retired to the lounge room for coffee/tea and petit fours. The best coffee in Europe in weeks, some of Williams Papua and New Guinea coffee. The petit fours; mini meringues and chocolate truffles and Cheryl’s tea was infused fresh mint leaves.

Cheryl records in her diary “Silly as a wheel by the end of the night”.

And on that note, I set out to drive the 45 minutes across a dark countryside and home to Sancerre.

I know they are two entirely different types of restaurants, but I just can’t imagine our dinner at L’Esperance in two weeks time being more memorable. Then again, maybe two magnificent experiences in one holiday!


Chateau de Baucard
la Charite-sur-Loire, Thursday 3rd November

What a day to forget. We decided to make a quiet day of it anyway, but not as uneventful but time consuming as it turned out. The plan was to head south along the Loire. We stoped at Chateau de la Grange for photographs. This is a very run down chateau, privately owned and not open to the public. Next stop la Charite-sur-Loire. As it was noon everything closed, and while we had an enjoyable half hour wandering the streets of half timbered buildings, the Priory and the castle overlooking the town, we decided to head out into the countryside in search of the restaurant with the best Crème Brule in France.

All the instructions I had was that it was at or near Jouet-sur-I’Aubois. The abridged version is that we spent till around 1.30 wandering the canals and countryside here in the south before finally finding this restaurant closed for the season. What a shame because the setting was stunning beside the river with trees all around and fishing traps and gear hanging on the walls.

Back to Charite, which wasn’t particularly. Auberge de Seyre, which had also been recommended, wouldn’t admit us at 1.40 (so unlike Italy) so we wandered up the hill and found all other restaurants closed, and settled on a foot long hotdog in baguette with catsup and mustard at a fast food café.

We even found the countryside here in the south largely flat and uninteresting so will be challenged to venture south again.


la Charite-sur-Loire
Friday afternoon at the flicks and rustic dinner, Friday 4th November

Early morning walks are now at around 8.30. I think we might have slowed down. After breakfast, we decided to try the Veaugues market and stop in to Bue for some red wine. Sancerre doesn’t have its own market and the quality of supermarket fruit and vegetables was so bad, we needed to find a village market where we could stock up on them. The Veaugues market was very small. Barely eight stands; but excellent fruit and veg and that’s all we wanted (but did buy some mushrooms from a stand that only sold cepes) and some lamb cutlets that better be sensational at eight euros for six cutlets.

That took all of ten minutes, so we headed back to Bue which is just a couple of kilometres from Sancerre. Our landlady Patricia had left a note saying that the Bue reds were worth trying and such small quantities produced that none were ever exported. At 11.00 am we were sampling Sancerre whites and reds at the cave of Domaine Franck Millet. We bought two bottles of the rouge and one blanc for me. Ches has worn out her patience with drinking white wine.

As usual, several great “views” presented themselves and I spent an hour or so setting up the tripod in the fields to capture images that never quite live up to what I see through the lens. At one point, there I am in purple shorts, a t-shirt and light track suit top with the temperature plummeting, and in the vineyard a couple are all rugged up and individually tending to vines. Everything I had read and seen in the wine museum on Tuesday came to life. Here you have people that all year round tend to each individual vine that is their life.

How appropriate that midway through a holiday in which I am both “Lost in France” and exploring the concept of “smell”, that we should go to the movies to see “Le Parfum de la Dame en Noir”.

When we took our usual early morning walk, we noticed that a section of the Rue Basse Des Remparts had been fenced off to traffic and speculated that perhaps Sancerre does have a market day that we didn’t know about. The grass on the slopes had been freshly cut and raked yesterday so the area was quite clean.

When we returned from our trip to the Veaugues markets that morning, I decided I needed to walk off some more cheese, so set out for another circuit of the town. When I came to this fenced off area, what a surprise. Here was a large gleaming, polished, burgundy semitrailer. Both sides had been extended out to triple the width and supported on legs. Steps at the front and back led up to doors and the signage on the truck was Mobile Cinematique with the programme on a side display panel.

When I finished my exercise and returned to tell Ches, she decided to change the days plans. We would now go to the movies and out for dinner rather than spend the afternoon and evening at Bourges.

We lunched on three types of goats cheese (the last of the Chabichou/Chablis which is rolled in powdered charcoal) and two ages of Crottin de Chavignol (two week old and four week old) . The Crottin de Chavignol starts out soft and crumbly and over time grows a blue mould and becomes firmer and the flavour deepens (when you bite into it, there is an initial sourness, then very light salty and finally sweet taste). With a baguette and these cheeses, we also had, Fi Fi’s jambon blanc, pate de campagne, pate de fois, sausage and the award winning andouiettes we had brought from Chablis (pork offal sausage???), tomatoes and several other cheeses we had left from Chablis (Brie/Washed Rind??). What a lunch! Oh! We also shared small glasses of the three Pinot Noir, just to compare them:

Domaine Franck Millet “Sancerre (Bue)” Pinot Noir 2004 - just a hint of perfume like strawberries.

Joseph Mellot “Sancerre” Pinot Noir 2004 Vaucher pere et Fils (father and son) “Bourgogne Rouge,

Pinot Noir, A Nuits-Saint-Georges (Cote-D’Or) 2002

…and then off to the movie. Seating in comfortable plush theatre seats for 100 but only six locals and us.

I’m not sure what the movie was about. Well I know what I saw, but without a word of French, I’m not sure of all the subtleties or relationships.

A magician dies in a water tank on stage in the 30’s, his son sets out to investigate (accident, murder or suicide?). Shortly after his father's death, he attends the wedding of his mother and then revisits his old boarding school and has a flash back to meeting his mother in the office (where she is dressed in black with the big black hat and veil) and he remembers her perfume. I think she had come to tell him that she was leaving his father. Whatever, he and his best friend follow her to an island in the Mediterranean where she is living with her husband and a community of artists. On arriving, there is a woman ripping the guts out of a massive fish in her lap and later a scene where she is stuffing it. There are stuffed fish and turkey heads on the walls. There is an old guy who has a submarine shaped like a giant barrel and in one scene the friend goes down in it and it springs leaks everywhere and he catches the water in a tin cup and pours it into a chamber pot. Then there are scenes in which a playboy who uses a wooden flute to charm all the women, comes running up to the castle and you can hear the sound of the flute whistling, and a woman mimics him as he bends backward and forward as he runs waving his arms back over his head. It turns out he has been stabbed in the back with the flute (actually fired from a bow) and it has penetrated his lung so as he runs and breaths, the whistle is playing. At this point I glance at the French people in the audience and while one or two smile occasionally, there is no laughter. Not even in a scene when the best friend is snooping around in the dark and accidentally knock the prop out from under a shelf of fire wood. He is standing holding the shelf up when the prop that has fallen out topples onto a bench and sets off a chain of things swinging and hitting and falling and the domino effect takes a minute to travel around the room until a ladder falls over and hits a piece of wood that cartwheels across the room for him to catch and place under the shelf. Slapstick at it’s most clever and barely a smile. Annnnnyway, it turns out that dad is alive, he has kidnapped the ex-wife’s husband at the altar and taken his place. The new husband escapes and comes after him, gets shot but not killed, dumped in a sack in the sea, survives and swims to shore where his discovery on the beach leads to the discovery of the ex. Whatever, whatever, whatever. The movie was 1 hour 50 min. One hour of the mystery, 30 minutes of replaying scenes to unravel the mystery (all gathered together in the room in the best Agatha Christie tradition) and then 10 minutes of epilogue. I’ll have to get it on DVD with subtitles, and see how close I got to deciphering.

Back before lunch when we decided to go out for dinner, Ches had phoned "Cheu l'Zib" at Menetou-Salon to make a booking. The woman spoke no English but Ches managed to confirm that they were open for dinner and that we were making a booking for two people for 8.00pm. We set out a little early given my history for getting lost in the countryside at night (when very dark and raining). We were obviously going in the wrong direction because every other car on the road was coming toward us. There must have been 100 cars that passed us heading toward Sancerre, while no one tried to overtake, nor did we come up behind any other vehicle. I swear we were the only ones driving west toward Bourges.

Off the main road we, we bashed across country to Menetou-Salon, drove the main streets without finding the restaurant so eventually stopped at the pharmacy for Ches to ask for directions (and buy some pain killers for her increasingly sore tooth). Back up the main street and turn right. Still no restaurant. Around the block again. Still no restaurant. What’s that in total darkness on the corner? Park. Peer in through black windows into closed restaurant. Try door knobs. Locked. Peer in more windows.

All of a sudden lights went on and the owner opened up to reveal a large dining room decorated with hundreds of artefacts from the 1800’s, and one long communal dining table with a two place setting at the end closest to the kitchen. She was only opening for us. No other bookings.

Marylene, who we stayed with last year, had recommended this restaurant. We were seated and our order taken (just a couple of choices for the first two courses). A wonderful bottle of local red produced and the owners small black poodle placed his head on my thigh for a pat and we were settled for the next couple of hours. As I said to Ches, had we known, we would have come at 7.00 rather than 8.00 but the owner was insistent we arrive whenever we wanted to eat. Actually another chap who saw the lights on did also come in for the same meal. And she sat him behind a pillar at another trestle table.

We started with her pate. It looked as though she rolled it in a log and then rolled another layer of terrine around it, so that when sliced it was the wonderful pink pate in the middle with a centre metre thick ring of terrine around it. Served with a giant bottle of pickled onions and cornicions with a massive wooden spoon for us to help ourselves.

Next came a platter of duck sitting in a pool of rich juices and side dishes of mushrooms in garlic and finely chopped parsley (Ches says almost as good as mine), roasted potatoes and roasted eschalots (too bitter). Massive serves.

Fromage? Why not? Why not indeed. A massive glass platter of cheeses and another tray with the runniest Brie and I initially tried the Maroilles (Marolles). Produced over a two to four month period, it is regularly turned and brushed and washed so that its rind changes from yellow to orange and eventually red (mine was deep orange). The washings discourage the white mould and encourage bacteria (red ferments). A sweet taste and soft but not like a brie. I also tried some of the Crottin de Chavignol (the oldest of around 12 on the platter). Perhaps they were all different but not knowing enough about cheeses, I couldn’t identify the differences. Then there was another very soft fresh goats cheese rolled in finely chopped parsley. Ches had used a big spoon to serve herself the Mont d’Or (Vacherin du Haut Doubs). So runny it is kept in it’s wooden box made of Spruce which gives it it’s flavour and served with a spoon, it comes from the Swiss border region. Finally there was Brie de Meaux. Made just to the east of Paris, this is the famous brie. It was running all over the platter, about as ripe as it is likely to get. Sweet, smoky and rich. We still remember Stephanie Alexander writing in her Dordogne cookbook about showing restraint when left with a massive platter of cheese, so we just had thin slices – a mouthful of each. Nevertheless it took us to being stuffed to the gills …… again.

But, there was desert. Her equivalent of a platter of fromage. A massive Chocolate Charlotte and three even more massive cut glass bowls of stewed pears, prunes and oranges. One spoon of Chocolate Charlotte and I was transported back to my childhood ….. “chocolate blacmange”. This was a fairly common desert in our home in the 50’s and as Ches said it wasn’t in hers, I can only assume that it wasn’t due to the Australian Women’s Weekly recipe section but perhaps handed down from Mum’s grandmother and our northern European relatives.

No coffee offered and non requested, we rolled out around 10.00 and were back home in 35 minutes (half the time it took to drive over – we always find the going is slower than the returning).

And the smells for today


Domaine Franck Millet “Sancerre (Bue)” Pinot Noir 2004 - like strawberries.

Joseph Mellot “Sancerre” Pinot Noir 2004 Vaucher pere et Fils (father and son) “Bourgogne Rouge,

Pinot Noir, A Nuits-Saint-Georges (Cote-D’Or) 2002 The sausages, cheeses, pate, ham, terrine.


Sancerre Vinyard on way to Bue
Sancerre, 5th November

Our sunrise walk was sensational. The temperature was extremely cold and it was so foggy in the surrounding countryside I almost didn’t take my camera. First rule, always take your camera; you never know what will present itself. The eastern side lookout presented an amazing phot opportunity. The Loire and countryside was shrouded with fog with only the highest trees (stripped of leaves) protruding though, and all was bathed in golden light. I took dozens of photos.

Another quiet day in Sancerre. Ches had a toothache that had been troubling her more and more, so we set off to a dentist in St. Satur our neighbouring town. Infected, so he gave us prescriptions for a “sack” of tablets and mouth washes. The funniest thing about this experience was that the dentist had no English, Ches had a little French and I had no French but the dentist insisted I come in to the surgery at the end of the consultation so he could explain to me what Ches had to do, including drink no alcohol. So here he is explaining to me what Ches has to do, and she is translating for me. Why????

Nothing like a holiday where you get to experience everything, including small town dentists in shabby back streets. Looked like a dentist surgery anywhere.

For dinner, once again the Rabbit with Prunes and with side dishes of:

Green Lentils à l'Auvergnate Lentilles à l'Auvergnate
  • 1/4 lb piece of slab bacon, diced in lardons
  • 1 onion, finely chopped
  • 1 carrot, finely chopped
  • 1 leek, sliced
  • 1 1/3 cup tiny green lentils You Can Order This Item: #2110
  • 2 1/4 cup veal stock (or water)
  • 1 bouquet garni (1 sprig of thyme, 1 bay leaf, 3 sprigs of parsley)
  • Salt and pepper
Heat the lardons in a Dutch oven, stirring occasionally, until the fat runs. Add the vegetables and cook, stirring occasionally, about 3 minutes. Do not allow the vegetables to color. Stir in the lentils. After a few seconds, add the stock and the bouquet garni. Bring to a boil, then simmer gently about 20 minutes or until lentils are render. Discard the bouquet garni and season with salt and pepper to taste.

Carrot and Fennel Puree
  • 1 small fennel
  • 1 large carrot
Both cut into pieces.
Cook in a steamer the fennel and carrot pieces for 1 hour. puree in mixer with butter, salt and pepper.

This was absolutely amazing!!!!

And to finish off Saturday, we watched the Wallabies play France. I had waited expectantly for weeks for this game, and what a waste of time. If ever there was a team that was over drilled and played predictable and uninspiring rugby this was it. France ... “check mate”.

And the smell for today is:

“As Meat Loves Salt” McCann

“When I later courted Caro I did it mostly in the stillroom amid the perfume of herbs and wines, or – in fine weather – in the rosemary maze. The room where Walshe lay had a smell of mould and greasy linen, and as a rule I avoided it ...”


Dawn over Loire
Chateau de Brisson and Gian, 6th November

What a contrast, a brilliant sunny day. Very cold in the morning for our walk but a clear sky. In fact, it remained cold all day but with a clear sky warm when behind glass (as in driving the car and sitting in a restaurant beside the window).

Ches’s tooth still very sore but we decided to go out for the day anyway with a bag of antibiotics and pain killers. We drove into Cosne-sur-loire in search of a petrol station that was open. At $AUS2.00 per litre, it kind of put our prices into perspective.

Finally by 10.30 we headed off for Chateau de Brisson. The drive north is in marked contrast to the south. Here we largely drove between the Loire and the canal. Pretty villages, boats on the canal, men fishing in the canal and the clouds of steam pouring out of the atomic power station. Then more pretty towns and Chateau de Brisson. Set behind it’s now dry moat on the village side and perched on a ridge looking out across the plain to the Loire, it is still something of a mystery to us. Ches mistakenly thought it housed a hunting museum, so we didn’t go inside. She was actually mistaking this Chateau for the one at Gien. Nevertheless, there were strange children’s paintings covering the windows of one wing and it all looked rather dilapidates. In the dry moat were recreations of war machines (slings and catapults etc.). We drove on around toward Gien to take more photographs, but the sun was whiting out the sky and they weren’t very satisfactory.

As usual, we arrived in a major town just as it is closing down for lunch. We decided to have lunch ourselves and after a circuit of the streets artound the chateau, settled on a river front restaurant that specialised in “moules et frites”. It has been over a year since we gorged ourselves on mussels in Scotland and Belgium. I still can’t believe that I haven’t tried to replicate at home and after this experience have vowed to do so this summer.

This restaurant seemed to be well patronised by locals. L’Escale, 24 quai Lenoir, GIEN. We were the second, in and followed by four other groups, but managed to get the window table. The sun was glittering off the Loire and warming through the glass.

Ches decided on the moules with seafood and tomato based sauce and I had them with lardon fumee, champignon and cream. We figured that they cook the mussels in the same basic way. That is, the mussels are cooked in white wine and diced onion. They are then placed in bowls which are set into the bottom of the metal “moules” pot with a lid. Over the moules, they pour the individual sauces. In Cheryl’s case, small prawns, octopus and calamari in a rich tomato wine sauce with finely chopped parsley. Mine would have been sautéed diced smoked speck, sliced mushrooms and cream with the wine, onions and mussel juices. Unbelievably sweet small mussels. Like true Europeans, we used a mussel shell to pick the mussels out of the other shells.

I noticed a local ate half his mussels and then dumped most of his chips into the bowl and ate them with a fork after they soaked up the juices. I just used a basket of bread to soak up mine.

We shouldn’t have bothered with the deserts. Ches had the profiteroles which were commercially produced and stuffed with ice cream and covered in whipped cream and chocolate sauce. I had Creme Brule, which hadn’t had the top caramelised quickly enough. Half the top was still crystallised sugar and yet half the custard had melted and was warm. Very disappointing. Especially when the locals ordered the apple crumble, which looked to be home made.

We walked up around the chateau, took more photographs and then headed home. A beautiful autumn afternoons drive back between the canal and the Loire. I missed a great photo opportunity when we saw the church with it’s spire in Bonnie-sur-Loire outlined against one of the giant nuclear power stacks. What a contrast. We speculated on what opposition there would have been before they were built there. With famous and valuable vineyards all around, they plonk a nuclear power station in the middle. I guess the Hunter Valley has had the same issues with the plans to extend the coal fired power stations nearby.

The countryside was a magnificent patchwork of vine yards all golden yellow as the leaves are about to fall, copses of trees a mass of yellow and red as the leaves are also about to fall, houses clad with the bright red leafed ornamental grape vines (also about to shed their leaves) and then on the flats and tops of hills, fields of brilliant green grass coming through the red soil and also fields of what we think are peas or beans. Again brilliant greens. After three years of drought at home, the green was dazzling.

Home to do another couple of circuits of Sancerre, where my purple shorts again attracted undue attention. In fact, the town was again swarming with day trippers and lost count of the number of women who looked down and then grinned at me. I finally figured it’s not my shorts that are attracting the attention, it’s my fine legs. Here they are all rugged up with coats and scarves and gloves and I’m power walking around town with my muscled legs bare to the elements.

For dinner, we cheated and opened a can of “Cassoulet”. I know I wouldn’t do it at home, but it was a quality brand we bought from Fi Fi, so we assumed it had to be of significant quality. Anyway, it was past 8.00 and beyond either of us to cook anything and we didn’t have any baguette.


Sancerre, 7th November

Miserable drizzly day so we decided to spend it at home and that I should catch up on the journal and post it at the blog site in the late afternoon. With the 24 hour wireless connection, that would allow time to post in the afternoon and then check back the following morning.

The weather never looked like lifting, so it was good to spend it in a warm cottage. Apart from going out to the internet café, we also went to the post office to post back all my paperwork from the Frankfurt Book Fair. Again, as was the case in the Dordogne last year, we were staggered at how friendly and helpful the post office staff were in France. I can’t help but reflect that if it was any foreigner in an Australian Post Office, they would be treated with nearly as much friendliness. Another Koala found a home in Sancerre.

For dinner, Ches cooked the Lamb cutlets and the mushrooms and baby beans we bought in Veaugue and some sliced and pan fried potatoes. The lamb wasn’t particularly memorable, but the tiny beans and mushrooms just wonderful. As previously mentioned, the beans still had soil on them so we assume locally grown and maybe even explains the fields of a low growing broad leaf crop. They aren’t the sort of leaves I remember from growing beans at Redcliffe in the 70’s., but we can’t figure out what they are.


Dawn Sancerre
Chateau Verrerie and three others, 8th November

The “day of the chateau” has dawned. Actually, it dawned very foggy again and as usual, I had to take my camera on our sunrise circuit of the town. The amazing misty pastel coloured photographs up the Loire are sensational. Similarly, when we set out I had to stop and take more photographs of the town itself, perched on its hill and surrounded by vineyards.

By the time we reached Chateau Verrerie, just a half hour drive from home, the mist had lifted on a glorious sunny but cool day. As it turned out, every chateau was closed today, so we had to content ourselves with photographing the outsides. Chateau Verrerie was built by one of the Stuarts in the 16thC. He cleared the land and built an artificial lake and then planted lawns and gardens around the chateau, all surrounded by an ancient oak forest in every direction. Such a tranquil setting. Apparently they offer half a dozen B&B rooms and there is a cottage restaurant adjoining the chateau.

Just another 15 minutes or so is Chateau De Bethune, more commonly called Chateau Chapelle D’ Angillon. This building started out as a tower fortress or “dungeon” in the 11thC and then had wings added in the shape of a trapezoid during the renaissance. If my memory of geometry from the 60’s is correct, that means unequal sides but parallel on two sides. Initially, Ches wasn’t particularly taken with it as the entrance brought us to the tower and dry moat and it is all rather forbidding. It’s also rather a potted dirt drive and all overgrown with weeds. We discovered however that you can walk or drive along in front of the walls that overlook a man made lake. From the far side of the lake, with the mirror image of the chateau reflected in the water, it is so quiet and peaceful, we could have just spent the afternoon siting in the sun and gazing across at the chateau, but it was lunch time.

But, before we recount this little adventure, it’s possibly worth a comment on the claims of governments and book publishers who label towns as “one of the most beautiful in ……” To be fair, the books “The Most Beautiful Towns of the Loire” and “The Most Beautiful Towns of Burgundy” do at least define the “appellation” (note the use of an appropriate wine term) as being that the town must have some features that distinguish it from most others and that there be at least one particularly attractive – photogenic perhaps- thing about it. Apart from the lake and the view of a not particularly beautiful chateau, this town is the pits physically. It may have been the home of Alain Fournier, who romanticised his youth growing up in rural France in a novel that is still regarded as a classic, and was then killed in his early thirties during WW1, but hopefully he isn’t weeping in heaven now.

O.K., so we decided it was time for lunch. More to the point, Ches has finally got the message that in France, they eat at mid-day and won’t even admit you after around 1.15 – 1.30. Chapelle D’Angillon has a bar where you can get a drink and cut and eat the smoke it is so thick and strong, but nothing to eat. The barmaid shrugged and pointed up the road and Ches identified the words “nine, kilometers and left” but that was about it. When I checked the map, I figured she meant, go up the road and then take the road to the left and follow it for nine km. to Ennnordres.

What do you know, two auberge on diagonally opposite corners, both with restaurants. Heads it’s to the left and tails to the right. We went right, to Auburge Saint Hubert The menu out front looked encouraging with a 17euro menu. It was pretty full and most were already well into mains when we arrived at 12.30. Told you so! The waitress enquired “menu dejoure or a la carte?”. “menu dejour s’il vous plait”.

Ches had potato salad with smoked fish (probably smoked herring?) and I the rosette - plate of salami/saucisson with cornichon (gherkins). For mains, Ches had the quenelle (pureed fish and herbs rolled into a tube and cooked) and I the veal escalope. In both cases they were served with the same wine and cream sauce and with creamed spinach and rice. For desert, Ches a plate of three cheeses (brie, blue brie and a firmer cows milk cheese with grey and white rind). I decided to test the unknown; “fromage blanc”. I’m still not sure what I had. Initially I thought perhaps a style of yoghurt but now I suspect perhaps goats cheese pureed with cream or milk. Whatever, it was a slightly sour “yoghurt textured” liquid in a glass with an accompanying plate containing small bowls of salt, pepper, chives, shallots and sugar. I had a little chives and pepper. Again Ches won the desert competition with her tarte aux pommes while I had the café crème and an espresso.

To sum up, this was a wonderful, hearty, country lunch. The fact that the restaurant was full on a Tuesday, with groups of business people as well as couples and one lone diner indicates that in this part of France at least, this probably passes for the average daily fare. Nothing to write home about (but I do), but filling and hearty. Home style cooking.

Now here comes the surprise. We thought we had ordered the 17euro menu, so Ches presents the waitress with a 50euro note. She returned with 30euro change. We had had the 10euro “menu dejoure”. They must be kidding. $AUS16.70 ($USD12.00) for a four course meal, all watched over by a wall mounted snarling Martin. This has been the value for money meal of the entire trip.

Back to Chapelle D’Angillon where we resume our visit to chateau. It still wasn’t open, so we drove half way around the lake and then walked the rest of the way to look back at the chateau across the lake. There was a sandy beach at the end of the lake and vast lawns picnic tables amid shade trees, which must be popular in summer. The beach sand was full of shells, so we were uncertain if imported from the coast or remnants from a time when this land was under sea. Probably shipped in from the coast.

The road out of Chapelle D’Angillon was rather scary. It was as straight as a die for some 40km. (and also for 40km in the north as well). There was always the suggestion that at some time in the past, troops needed to be moved as quickly as possible around France, so they built some very long straight roads. Looking at the map, I just noticed that they radiate out of Bourges to the north, south, east and west. Here my knowledge of French history was going to get me in to trouble. I wonder what part the fact that Jaques Coer built his chateau here and that his king, Charles VII confiscated it and either he or a later king entertained Jeanne d’Arc here had to do with it.

Anyway, we stopped just out of Chapelle D’Angillon, in search of what was marked on the maps as “Ancienne Abbaye”. What we glimpsed through tangled scrub and trees and enclosed behind a high wire fence was a ruin in better condition than the adjoining group of farm houses. Clothing in rags hung on a makeshift line and their was a dilapidated caravan, so we assumed a caretaker or tenant farmer. All really disappointing.

On to Menetou-Salon and its chateau. Also closed, but easily photographed through the front gate and by holding my camera in the air and angling over the wall. I can’t see that this chateau ever had a military function, as it was just a massive country house with wonderful sculptured hedges and gardens. Given that it was extensively remodelled in the late 1800’s, and is still the home of the Prince d’Arenberg family, I’d guess that the romantics won out over the pragmatists. The guidebook says “sumptuous interiors”.

Similarly, Chateau de Maupas was closed but could be photographed through a wire mesh fence along the side road (which actually allows you to see and photograph the front of the chateau across its extensive lawns). Here there is a central stone tower, but again, the rest of the chateau says “comfortable country estate”. As it was surrounded by the Menetou-Salon vineyards, probably very comfortable country estate.

Today highlighted the fact that in some respects we were probably just two weeks too late in visiting this area. Most of the chateau closed from the end of October, and those that are open till mid November are affected by numerous public holidays. Having said that, you can probably handle only so many tours inside chateau and churches, and so we have had more time to take in wonderful country scenery and the exteriors of most chateau are so unique architecturally and in their settings that Cheryl couldn’t have handled me photographing the interiors as well as exteriors. I seemed to be constantly in and out of the car with camera on tripod, tramping into fields to get a better vantage point or angle.

Home and a quick trip to Fi Fi’s where we selected, no, he selected a slab of giant sausage roll for us. I have just sinned in so many ways. Then again, I just read Cheryl’s diary entry and she was even worse. She described it as “..some meat pie type thing that looks like a giant sausage roll.” O.K. let’s try again. He made these 40cm long l10cm diameter logs of minced and herbed meat fully encased in a flaky pastry. Fi Fi insisted he cut the middle section for us. Much more moist and less of the end pastry. He also cut us some garlic roasted pork (and tossed in another slab after he had weighed it – he is spoiling us rotten) and another piece of rillettes.

Fortunately, we also needed more bread for dinner, so we walked around the corner to the prettiest street in Sancerre where our boulangerie is located. Almost opposite is a pottery shop. I had been in search of the perfect French breakfast coffee cup. You know, the large bowl for dunking your croissant in a milky breakfast coffee. I already have three at home but have become fixated on buying a “French” one. Just half an hour earlier, Ches has talked me out of a cheapie 4euro one at the supermarket. I was getting desperate. Three weeks in France and I hadn’t seen one anywhere until now. There I found a very fine limoges cup and square saucer. The owner buys plain white porcelaine de limoges which she then hand paints. I am now the proud owner of a set decorated in a pastel burgundy pattern featuring “S” for Sancerre. Perfect.

Home to heat up the sausage roll for dinner. Forgive me Fi Fi.


Chateau de Verriere
Bourges, 9th November

What a difference a day makes. This is the “Melbourne” of Europe. Yesterday glorious sunshine, today freezing cold drizzle. Actually, it started out just cold. By the time we arrived in Bourges, an hours drive to the west, it was freezing. I put on my Scottish Fishermans jacket and Ches suggested it might be too hot to wear around town. Two hundred meters up the street and I was shivering and wishing I had also brought my scarf and gloves and how about my beanie.

It was bitterly cold as we visited the magnificent St Etienne Cathedral. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, it has vast vaulted ceilings over very plain columns. I’m always at a loss to describe these cathedrals. There is no artwork to speak of, no elaborate decorations (apart from very narrow but tall stained glass windows featuring rich blues and reds, so that violet/purple is predominant colour). It’s the unadorned vast space in the central aisle and the narrow side aisles lined by closely spaced columns and stained glass windows soaring hundreds of feet into the air that impress. The first of the Gothic cathedrals??? Just magnificent inside and out.

Between the cathedral and the tourist office, a small sunken garden. Around a central paved area, are small lawns enclosing elaborate flower arrangements. Largely chrysanthemums (in all of the towns in the area), they are contained in pots and suspended in metal frames and in the ground to provide the most magnificent displays.(yellow, red, orange, pink, lilac and white). Given that most towns are extremely colourless; just grey or yellow/cream stone with slate or tile roofs and largely unpainted shutters, these flower beds and decorations on the front of public buildings provide a splash of colour. The contrast is dramatic. Here in Bourges on a bleak day, it was even more marked.

We made our way down the main street in search of somewhere for a coffee or hot chocolate. For the first time in France, we stumbled on a shop that was the equivalent of a fast food or takeaway, but with French sensibility. Here was a full range of bread and pastries, filled baguettes and a number of hot food options AND coffee. Three levels of tables for taking your tray of food. I couldn’t believe it, Ches returned to our tabled with coffee and hot chocolate and ….. donuts. What was she thinking?

O.K., that filled in the ten minutes we had to spare before the 2.15pm tour of Jacques Coeur’s palace. In a very narrow street, in the town in which he was born and raised, Jacques Coeur built his palace.

I drove everyone absolutely nuts as I photographed everything that wasn’t moving. The tour was in French (the guide spoke English but didn’t feel any need to utter a single word as part of the tour). Fortunately we had reasonably extensive notes, and if she was going to go on endlessly in French in every room, then I was going to photograph every wall, fireplace, piece of decoration on every fireplace, cornice, ...everything. That’s 78 photographs. I now have the definitive photographic record. Lucky Ches.

Mid way through, when beside the motto “to valiant (hearts) nothing impossible” Ches registered the repeated use of “shells” and “hearts” as a decorative motif. She enquired of the guide. “Shells” as in “Jacques” as in “coquilles st jacques” (her all time favourite seafood) as in his first name Jacques ... and “hearts” as in French “coeur” as in his surname Coeur. Of course, how obvious!

In the final room, there were two fireplaces with elaborate decorations all around the mantle and above them. I took 16 photographs which bemused everyone. No one seemed to care that the decorations captured some elements of life in the 1500’s better than any other record. Here above one fireplace was a relief of castle battlements. In each opening there was a male or female figure dressed and posed to depict who they are. Men throwing down rocks and boiling oil, firing crossbows, women looking on and officials observing the siege/attack. Vines scrolled around the edges contained dragons, snails and snarling mastiffs.

All were white with just a hint of bronze showing through. I suddenly had a suspicion that in the same way that the old Roman and Greek marble statues used to be painted rather than just the white we see today, these fireplaces also might have been painted. Proof positive that our guide could speak English, I asked and she confirmed, “Yes, they used to be painted and would have been very colourful works of art.”

On leaving, Ches noted that the main carriage gates still had the original paving with deep ruts that the carriages would have worn in the paving. The exterior was an even better illustration of the sense of “fun” involved in this and similar “gothic” buildings in France. Marble sculptures in the form of open windows with women looking down into the street, monkeys screeching, heads at the tops and bottoms of columns, decoration everywhere inside and out. Of course, the shells and hearts everywhere.

By the time we came out around 2.30, it was actually warmer than when we went in. Cold but not freezing and the breeze had dropped. We therefore decided to take the town walk. Almost every tourist office in every town has a map in English with the features highlighted and a recommended route. We picked up the tour from the palace and worked our way through the streets of half timbered buildings. Again, I made a major blunder. In the heart of the oldest section of town I came across a fruit and vegetable shop. The most stunning window display with topiaries made of chestnuts and clementines (a cross mandarin?), and inside, the produce displayed in wicker baskets and everything bright and shiny and clean and just a magnificent showcase. I took Ches back there and insisted we just had to buy some. They had these amazing apples; silvery, grey/green and squat like a tomato. The next day I had one for lunch. Floury, tasteless pulp. When am I going to learn that fruit has been reduced to appearance, and taste means nothing any more.

In “Last Chance to Taste” there is an entire chapter devoted to apples. She laments that the supermarket multinationals have destroyed apples. They have basically forced 95% of all growers in the western world to only produce a couple of varieties and even then produce them for cold storage and long shelf life. They produce more profit for supermarkets than does the sale of coke and pepsi and yet it is highly likely in my estimate that 80% are bought and either not eaten or thrown away after one bite. So, the question is, “why do we continue to buy apples?” Is it a case of the triumph of hope over reality?

Last May we visited Bori’s apple orchard at Orange in the New South Wales central west. There he had planted more than 150 varieties of apples. We tasted four that were in season, freshly picked from the tree. Absolutely sensational. There were real apples; all the old crisp, tasty, juicy, wipe your chin varieties. He operates a mail order business and for some varieties, he pre-sells the entire crop. I figure that even if you paid four or five times the price as you would for supermarket apples, you would end up eating more $ value of apples than we currently throw away. I started to toss around the idea with Bori of organising a regular “Inner West meets Central West” market, to encourage people to consume quality produce direct from the growers. Something different than a growers market. I’ve got to get back to working on it.

Hell, I can still taste and feel that revolting flowery apple from Bourges. To be fair, the avocado Ches bought was excellent and the clementines and tomatoes also good, but I still suspect that the selling of fruit and vegetables in cities is all about “appearance.” Compared with the growers stands in small village markets, where the produce still has the soil on them, and the produce has a depth of flavour that we haven’t tasted in forty or more years, city produce is a waste of money.

Oh! We also found a shoe shop. Alert, Alert, Alert, Gavin’s found a shoe shop. Half an hour later we left a shop assistant bemused and the other staff standing back to watch as we bought three pairs and adopted out another Koala. I selected two pairs of shoes for Ches (she is still staggered that (a) I selected them, and (b) that they are both so incredibly comfortable. As an afterthought I found a pair for myself. Funny about that. Italian shoes in France, who would have thought it?

The sun was setting as we made our way up the last narrow street, lined with half timbered buildings, now housing violin restorers and artisans. Not dark enough for the lights on the cathedral to be switched on, but too cold for us to wait. We miraculously found our way out of town and headed back across country to Sancerre. Like most country cities in France, the original medieval heart is surrounded by several kilometres of sprawling factories, warehouses etc. and can be difficult to navigate. With a navigator like Ches, they hold no fear anymore.

At home, we gave Cheryl’s “Rivers” walking shoes an official burial.



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