We are at Soubes encore une fois. It’s actually been very relaxed, mainly lazing around by the pool. I have been reading Confessions of a Wine Lover by Jancis Robinson, which fits the bill perfectly, she is full of good stories of extravagant tastings and trips to far flung locations trying out as many as 60-100 wines in one day. The most extravagant was hosted by a German called Hardy Rodenstock, a man of mystery and means, who splurges Chateau Yquem and wines from as far back as the 1800s (1853 apparently being one of the better years) on an indecent scale – I would guess £250,000 worth of wine in one day, and so many wines that I can’t believe the dozen or so invited guests made the most of them.
Anyway, we have been drinking Montpeyroux and Faugeres on a more modest scale, and to suit our more limited budget, but I feel that Jancis would approve of our approach to wine. We glug down quite a bit of it, but with a real interest in the terroir and a feeling of being in touch with something sacred but also very local. Montpeyroux is just down the road from the pottery village of St Jean de Fos, and Faugeres is southwest of us, located next to St Chinian. Both offer good value but felty red wine that is full of pepper and spicy mineral flavours.
Apparently sensing mortality, Jancis Robinson sold her wine website https://jancisrobinson.com while we were on holiday. She has a place in a village somewhere in the Languedoc region, although sensibly seems guarded about the exact location. I followed her on Twitter and was astonished, when I mentioned her book in a post, to receive a reply from her explaining its provenance and appreciating the fact that I had enjoyed it.
From Newhaven to Cantal
The journey down was oddly familiar. Familiar because we have done it so many times. But oddly, because Covid has turned the world upside down, and everything still seems a bit strange after more than a year of lockdowns and travel restrictions.
Tired from the overnight ferry from Newhaven to Dieppe, we drove down to our friends Christophe and Geraldine who live in the tiny Cantal village of Banilles. The ferry itself was virtually empty, with more lorry drivers than foot passengers, and they close the restaurant and shop soon after boarding the passengers. With lack of sleep on the ferry I had to stop off for a cat nap more often than usual, and it took us nearly half a day to get to Banilles. The journey has become familiar, about an hour to reach Rouen, then the journey around Paris and onto the wonderful A11 motorway journey across to outside Clermont-Ferrand, and then cutting down through the boondocks into the Cantal.
With the Taliban having taken control of Afghanistan shortly before we left the UK, we ended up spending the evenings in Banilles watching Kabul Kitchen on the TV. It’s a brilliant video series about Afghanistan that has become topical again with the Taliban takeover. We went mushrooming, still too early in the season but we ate the two battered cepes that we found with porc roti and the usual feeling of trepidation after our hosts assured us that it was “probably not” poisonous. Having survived the ravages of Covid, it would have been galling to perish from food that we had foraged ourselves. The next day we woke up to the sound of loud vomiting, although this turned out to be caused by some other bug and was nothing to do with the mushrooms.
Among various outings in Cantal, we drove over to a reservoir behind a dam, a perfect swimming spot. I had one of the best ice-creams I’ve had anywhere, one scoop of vanilla and pistachio and one scoop of macadamia nuts. Delicious. The water was a perfect temperature, and the snack bar that sold the ice-cream also did wine, beer and cocktails, including a vividly coloured Mojito.
On the final day went to the market at St Martin, and then on to Salers, before driving on down to Soubes.
The market at St Martin, just down the road from Banilles, mainly consists of small food stalls, fresh vegetables all neatly labelled as if in a French vocab lesson, oignons, echalottes, artichaux…, also two competing butchers, a cheese stall for the local delicious cantal also honey, and there was also a very good olive stall when we went. Very slow service, however; Christophe was still queueing for the evening meal by the time we had gone round the whole market. We bought sausages and the delicious local aligot, but the butcher we went to was deemed to be the “bad” butcher, and hence the quick service.
Salers is a pretty town with pottery, a bookshop, and lots of shops selling local produce, including the farm cheese named after the town, which is made from raw cow’s milk (Salers is also the name of a rustic cattle breed from the Auvergne region, and also of a liqueur made from gentian roots from the same area. The latter is consumed throughout the Massif Central).
At Salers, we found the horn-shop where we had bought some salad tongs a few years ago; this time we settled for a rice scoop made of horn. The shop is run by one of the few craftsmen in France still working with horn. There used to be 3,000 ateliers, now the one above the shop is one of only three in France.
The drive to Soubes was lovely. We set off an hour later than planned, and took a wrong turn at Aurillac, which we have done before. But a lovely winding trip along the Gorges du Lot, then across the hills and the long motorway drive down from the Massif Central through the Cevennes and then off the edge of the Massif Central and onto the Herault plain. The valley of the Lot is a beautiful area with perfect swimming places.
We crossed the river at Estaing. Estaing is reckoned to be one of the most picturesque villages in France, and one of only 10 villages in the Aveyron that are part of the association of Les Plus Beaux Villages de France. The bridge over the river Lot in Estaing is a Unesco World Heritage Site and is part of the network of pilgrimage routes to the shrine at Santiago de Compostela. The village was known throughout France because the D’Estaing family, first mentioned in writings in 1028, was one of the most powerful families of the Rouergue from the 13th to the 18th century. French president Giscard d’Estaing had a remote connection with the famous family. According to Wikipedia, his ancestress was Lucie Madeleine d’Estaing, Dame de Réquistat (1769–1844), who in turn was a descendant of Joachim I d’Estaing, sieur de Réquistat (1610–1685), illegitimate son of Charles d’Estaing (1585–1661), sieur de Cheylade, Knight of Saint John of Jerusalem, son of Jean III d’Estaing, seigneur de Val (1540–1621) and his wife, Gilberte de La Rochefoucauld (1560–1623).
After Estaing, we drove down through the Cevennes, skirting round Rodez after taking a wrong turn out to Figeac, and finally meeting the A75 motorway. This always feels like the home straight, but the steep descent after Le Caylar and passing Pegairolles de l’Escalette is always unexpectedly nerve-wracking, and this time the car was reeking of burnt brake fluid from the long descent.
We arrived late on Friday. It felt exciting to be at Les Oliviers again, and to feel that it will always be here, no matter how many nit-wit bureaucrats try to make life difficult!
It’s been nice to unwind after all the tension over vaccinations and all the documentation required now that we are no longer part of the EU. Multiple printouts of test results, passport copies, visa documentation, car insurance and green card, and the like. It really reminded me of travelling to off-limit places like Saudi Arabia or Russia, rather than the usual easeful hop across the channel with no need to carry anything but a passport or ID card. So much for the sunny uplands. It’s been said many times, but Brexit really has been the biggest act of insanity and self-harm ever, and we continue to see no benefits at all, and endless disadvantages. No wonder the government is desperate to keep us all at home; as soon as you cross the channel you realize what a fiasco it has been.
Well, there are not so many Brits around this year, not surprising with Covid and Brexit. But people seem even more friendly than usual, presumably recognising those with an enduring commitment to the region. We went to Lodeve market the Saturday after we arrived and there was a very friendly atmosphere. To be honest, the place seemed even more busy than usual despite the relatively few Brits around. I got a warm welcome at the local art materials shop, and bought a circular canvas and a small palette, perfect for travelling, and the proprietor is hopefully going to look into finding me some kintsugi materials (which she doesn’t yet cater for). After that, we did the first exciting trip round Super U where we bought all the usual stationery items, then got back for a late lunch and another afternoon down the poolside. Not far behind was a trip to Point Vert, which has become a favourite stop on the retail pilgrimage route, although sadly they did not have the hoped-for apple press in stock.
Our outings this time included the market at Clermont l’Herault, where we found an excellent wine stall run by a charming woman from Pezenas.
Clermont is located about 40 km west of Montpellier, and is the main town of the canton in which it is located. The town is crossed by four waterways: the river Lergue, its tributary Le Rhonel, Le Salagou and the Ruisseau (“stream”) des Servières.
The town existed dates back to the 6th century BC when it was one of the main Oppidum of the Iron Age Mediterranean Celtic. The remains of a thermal establishment have been uncovered in the town, which covered 5-6 hectares. The town was fought over and changed hands repeatedly in the religious wars of the 16th century.
The town is built on the slope of a hill known as Pioch Castel which is crowned by an ancient castle, the Château des Guilhem. This has has an interesting chapel built in the southern Gothic style. Known as Les Pénitents, it has been and is now a cultural centre. Saint Paul’s church, La Collégiale Saint-Paul de Clermont-l’Hérault, was begun in the 12th century, and finished in the 14th century.
Like the town of Lodeve further north, the town was associated with the textile industry, and it was formerly known as Clermont-Lodève. Nearby, the manufacture of sheets Villeneuvette was created, or rather relaunched in 1667 by Colbert to develop the cloth industry in France, taking advantage of the waters of the Dourbie.
Close by to Clermont l’Herault is the large man-made Lac du Salagou. This looks like a moonscape that has been painted with terracotta. There is a market at Octon, which is at its eastern end, and the abandoned village of Celles is on its northern side.
St Jean de Fos
We visited St Jean de Fos to buy some earthenware clay from Argileum although this time we were a bit disappointed with the pottery. The town used to be full of potteries making the traditional yellow earthenware pots decorated with motifs of vines and olives, but now the emphasis is on studio pottery with shiny drippy glazes and anything but traditional motifs. I wondered if the influence of the Argileum (Maison de la Poterie) had been beneficial for the village or otherwise.
Apparently, the Argileum was originally the pottery workshop of one Elie Sabadel, which has been preserved from the 19th century and turned into a museum about the life of the potters, known as “les orjouliers”. The village was known for the production of jars, vases, as well as tiles and drain pipes which were varnished in brown, orange or green.
Although there are the odd pottery demonstrations, they have never been on while we have been visiting, and its not quite clear what is the point of the swanky new building, which has the same look and feel of the new shop at Pont du Diable.
Other traditional activities at Saint Jean de Fos include the production and conservation of olives as well as quality wines.
In the XII century, the “Fort de Saint Jean” (Castle of Saint Jean) overlooked the “Pont du Diable” and valley. Ever since, “Saint Jean du Fort” has become phonetically pronounced, “Saint Jean de Fos”. At the village square, you will find a fountain topped by a marrow, known as a “cougoule”! Associated with which exists the legend of the “orjoulier” (the Potters) and the “cougouliers” (Marrow Farmers) : At the time when the Saracens besieged Saint Jean du Fort. The entire village population joined together at the top of the wooden ramparts to empty onto the enemy all their reserves of boiling olive oil, potteries and marrows !
St Guilhem le Desert
There are many footpaths from St Jean de Fos which lead to St Guilhem le Desert, one of the main stops on the Chemin de Saint-Jacques de Compostelle. We have visited the town several times in the past, although this time we by-passed it and drove on up the Gorges of the Herault River.
Another highlight just up from here was a trip to a wild swimming place recommended by Jenny’s brother. It’s several miles beyond St Guilhem le Desert on the way out to Conques, and the only indication of it is a gap in the roadside barrier. There is just room to park a car opposite, and then you clamber down the steep slope, overlooked by a metal pylon and a huge rock that looks as if it has been there since ancient times. The swimming there is absolutely stunning, you can plunge into the river Herault and someone has tied a rope to the riverbank so it’s easy to pull yourself out.
Pont du Diable
In early September, we also went to Pont du Diable, which was by then almost deserted after the crowds in late August.
The Pont du Diable on the Hérault River is one of many bridges in France with this name (it means Devil’s bridge). There are two other bridges in the Hérault region known as “Pont du Diable”, at Olargues and at Villemagne-l’Argentière.
The Pont du Diable was built in the first half of the 11 th century by Benedictine monks from the nearby monasteries of Gellone and Aniane. The bridge spans the Hérault River at the exit from the steep-sided Gorges, a place known as the “Gouffre Noir” (Black hole). When we first visited, there was a bumpy old patch of ground for a car park, and you had to scramble down the sides of the valley on a rough track to get to the lake. Nowadays, this has all been replaced by a swanky car park and a modern building with a restaurant, where you can also buy some of the local wines.
The Pont is located about 4 km north-west of Aniane, and it is overlooked by the pottery town of St Jean de Fos. The bridge provided a link between the abbey at Aniane and the Abbey de Gellone at Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert. A new bridge for traffic has been built alongside the original bridge, which was itself expanded in 1770, and the aqueduct that takes water to the vineyards of Saint-Jean-de-Fos.
We went to Marseillan to meet our friends Dan and Freya. It’s a lovely little port town on the Etang de Thau, and it has a very 1920s vibe, somehow. The distillery at Noilly Prat is at the cnetre of town and very Art Nouveau, and the yacht harbour opposite is lined by restaurants, still buzzing with clients despite Covid. Masks are mandatory still, and two policemen walking by reminded us of this politely when we were chatting with masks lowered around our chins. The town seems very popular with British tourists. Jenny follows a food writer on Instagram who has bought a place downtown near the port.
Most of the places I’ve described are to the south of Soubes, but we also went up to Treves which is just at the southern end of the Cevennes, to meet our friends from the UK, spending the day beside the river pool and taking the usual photos of the beautiful weir and the mountain behind. The village has just 136 inhabitants, according to the village website.
We never quite seem to visit Montpellier, as we always seem to be on a mission that takes us round it rather than into it. So we have a fairly good idea of the route across and around the city out to the airport, although we always still seem to go wrong at points, and now we also know the way to the University in the north of the city which is crossed at various points by the tram. The bus network is also extensive, and from Mosson to Lodeve costs just a few euros.
University: The Year Abroad
Many UK languages students are required to do a year abroad to complete their studies. Europe has always been the most popular destimation, and it has always been plain-sailing… until this year, of course, as we know from all the reports of young people left stranded and abandoned by HMG. For those who may be interested in the year abroad, here are some brief notes.
Towards the end of our holiday, we dropped off our son at Montpellier University where he will be studying Philosophy and related subjects, all in French.
(This has required endless forms to be completed, including getting a visa to study which of course was never required while we were part of the EU. He has settled in well and quickly met people through the excellent work of the Erasmus program, but sadly this looks likely to be another casualty of this government’s myopic xenophobia).
The first surprise was his room. It was a tiny room, more like a monastic cell if it weren’t for the bright yellow colour. There were no facilities apart from the large fridge and cockpit bathroom, so our shopping trip to Super U nearby was on an epic scale. We had to acquire all the basics, including kettle, fan, bedding, pots and pans, as well as the food and drink to fill the fridge. This apparently is par for the course. Our French friend said that these tiny rooms are called Les Cages, and that they were only used for sleeping as most of the social events occurred at the University or in town.
Unlike in UK universities where “digs” are centre-stage for socializing, the French accommodation is cheap and basic. There was absolutely no welcoming committee or formal induction process, again something that would be unthinkable in a UK set-up. The grounds have sports facilities including badminton and basketball, and there are tables under the trees for drinking together with friends, but when we asked about the location of the Students Union, they looked at us as if we had just arrived from Pluto. Even the kitchen, which was equipped adequately with units of two hobs for cooking and a sink each, did not have a seating area so that you could chat with friends while making a meal.
That said, and this was the next surprise, French people have been incredibly helpful and friendly. Whilst we were in the Super U, for example, with two fully-laden trolleys brimming with food and utensils, a lady called Sylvie seemed to recognize that we were in the middle of a Uni shopping experience and struck up a conversation. She was a teacher of Greek and Latin at Grenoble, and spontaneously offered her mobile number in case we faced any difficulties. Such a spontaneous offer from a complete stranger was unexpected and heartening but we have had similar offers of help from various friends, and it does feel like ordinary people remain friendly towards Les Brits despite the governmental shenanigans and Brexit tensions.
Wine-tasting and wine-buying
We were desperate not to leave money on the table post-Brexit, so the last few days of the holiday were taken up with a frenetic series of purchases to fill our entire duty-free quota of 18 liters of wine each. Shortly before we left, we went to Montpeyroux and I got talking with the woman serving the wines there. She had done done her WSET Level II exam several years earlier. I am looking forward to doing the exam and classes when I get back, and touch wood also getting on the Level III program if I manage to pass.
After Jancis Robinson’s Confessions of a Wine Lover, I’ve also dipped into Roger Scruton’s book, The Philosophy of Wine. I am not too keen on his prose style, which seems self-consciously 18th century, and even Gove-ish. But despite that, I am riveted but his descriptions of the vineyards and the wines, though the latter sometimes seem to strain for another level of superlative.
Also read Lawrence Sterne’s Sentimental Journey, and Rutger Bregman’s Humankind, finishing the latter on the ferry home, a wonderful book, perhaps a little naïve but also inspiring.
I also got a wonderful book on the wine regions of France from the shop at Pont du Diable, a bargain at € 5.50 and hopefully it will help me pass the WSET exam.This holiday has definitely fuelled my interest in wine. My fantasy now is to become a wine writer, travel the world knocking out the odd article, maybe a book or two and maybe doing bits and pieces of TV, interviewing notables from the wine trade, and then drinking loads in the evening before heading off to another destination. If I could, I would squeeze in fairly regular coaching and mentoring sessions for a select group, as well as keeping my hand in with painting, pottery and poetry.
Back in Blighty, the words of the Beatles song echoed in my mind: Back in the USSR. Getting back home was predictably a fiasco with all the tests required, and I posted the UK gem from a company called Eurofins in the Priority posting box yesterday. The test was one of the most absurd bits of bureaucracy I could imagine, and the instructions almost impossible to fathom. Trying to follow the matchstick man diagrams of people stuffing sticks up their nose could only result in severe injury, the barcode scanning procedure did not work, and the whole thing took about an hour, not least because I thought the plastic envelope was the thing to post, not the cardboard box in which the tests are delivered. So we did the best we could.
In contrast, the French testing regime worked really well. We booked an Antigen test a week ahead at a pharmacy near St Jean de Fos, and they were efficient, friendly and polite. Checking us in was like a hotel experience, everything worked, and within a minute or two of them handing us the papers that confirmed the negative test result, we received a phone notification with a button that sent it straight into our AntiCovid App. It was so simple and user friendly, and I marvelled at how absurdly our own government has cobbled together labyrinthine systems of bureaucracy that are poorly worded and pointless.
The Passenger Locator Form was probably the low point of all the form-filling experiences I have been subjected to in life, questions that were so poorly worded and unclear that it took me three or four guesses to make a reply that ticked the right buttons. It left me with a grim feeling that we have a system that is run either by psychopaths or half-wits.
That said, the journey back was the best we have done, or at least the smoothest. We set off at 5 am, right on time, which always makes me happy. Arrived in Dieppe at around 3 pm and had a snack by the sea, feeling relaxed that the boat was just around the corner, and the drive itself was really smooth and no major jams. Chicken Basquaise on the ferry was an unexpeted bonus, it was quite delicious. But I have arrived in Blighty with restless feet.