Thursday 7 August 2014

A Month In France: Not Much Champagne

So we are on our grand tour of France, cutting a swathe from South Brittany to the Ventoux, calling on French friends and English friends, and annoying them equally in turn with our demands for food and shelter and entertaining banter. The French friends (and indeed French relative strangers, some of them) are morbidly depressed by the state of France, at the same time as they acknowledge the French Paradox: France may be in a condition of historic decline, but the French, by and large, still live well. Hours go by during which they mournfully drink delicious and affordable wines and pessimistically slurp up outrageous cheeses while the evening crickets buzz away in the scented gloaming and the country goes to the dogs. 'Where is our Meesis Thatcheur?' they ask. 'Well, ours is dead', we answer, sometimes in French, 'and interred just off the King's Road.'

And the wines? I was getting into a flap, shortly before going away, about how to get my (I assumed) inevitable haul of drink back to England without cooking it in the back of the car or otherwise ruining it on the trip through rough handling or inattention. The result? We are now two days from the end, and I still haven't bought a thing.

As it happens, we are staying in a Chambre d'Hôte deep in the Aube, not far from Troyes. Two things. First, the Chambre d'Hôte is determinedly eccentric, every room crammed with violently French bric-à-brac, including, in the sitting-room, a life-sized model of a horse made of driftwood, a 1950's radiogram in the kitchen, and a broken foot spa in the bedroom. 'There are two dogs and nine cats living in this house,' our host tells us, 'three of the cats live only on the top floor. They never go out.'

Secondly, we are on the southern flank of champagne country; not in the famous bit, around Reims and Épernay, but in a serious producing region nonetheless. Our host proves this by pouring us some terrific cold fizzy stuff whose name absolutely escapes me, as well as offering a plate of home-made macaroons. This is our apéro for the day. He reveals that Moët & Chandon have bought up a chunk of the neighbourhood, for millions of Euros. 'Three-quarters of the pinot noir we grow here ends up with the big houses. The rest we make into champagne ourselves.' His extremely short wife comes in, her head only just visible above the furniture. 'The macaroons are delicious,' we say, our mouths so full that no-one can understand us.

The next day we drive through hectares and hectares of vineyards. Unlike the woollier, more intimate vignobles we've come to know around Ventoux and Beaumes de Venise, these are industrial: ruthlessly organised, pinstripe-regular, marching across the undulating terrain far into the distance.

'We should really get some champagne,' my wife says, as we idle through an oversized village, passing one small producer after another.
'This is all pink,' I say. 'Do we want pink?'
'It's not all pink,' she says. 'We should get a case. Let's just get some.'

But where? Which? There are so many makers, all offering dégustation et vente, many with boxes of geraniums around their windows, and rusty metal silhouettes of bunches of grapes, and tidy gravel drives, and other bourgeois inducements, that I can't think where to start. Apart from which, we are running out of time to visit Troyes, the whole point of getting in the car in the first place. It is like being in an American supermarket, trying to choose a pack of breakfast cereal from the scores on offer and not miss your flight at the same time: the nightmare of endless possibility.

'Just buy some fucking champagne,' my wife reiterates, seeing the end of the village approaching.
'I will not,' I say, suddenly deciding that I have always hated champagne and wouldn't buy it if someone paid me, and anyway, there isn't enough room in the car.
'This is ridiculous,' she says. 'We're practically drowning in it. Just stop and get some.'

That evening, having not bought any wine, still or sparkling, we drink another fantastic apéro, different champagne, no macaroons. We then eat dinner in the kitchen, seated between the radiogram and an enormous bowl full of abandoned glass stoppers, while our host refuses to join us in the meal, but sits instead on a high chair - a kind of Dickensian clerk's stool - a few feet away, and watches us, intently.

It is the end of the French trip, and we have acquired en route a fancy red handbag, a humorous tin tea tray, some second-hand paperbacks, a lot of flyers from the Avignon Festival, and a bottle of cheap Scotch whisky (Baird's Original) made for the French market. I don't think of myself as wilfully perverse, but it takes some doing to drive from one end of the world's greatest wine-producing country to the other, and back again, without purchasing a single bottle of wine. If this trip has proven at least two things, they are: a) that I don't know myself as well as I think I do; b) that, given sufficient headroom, it is possible to fit a horse into a lounge.


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