“Merde!” muttered Mel (that’s British for “Suffering succotash!”) as we drove at dawn down the A-6 from Paris toward Burgundy, “Why is it always raining in December?” Of course, Murphy’s (or Sod’s) lament that ‘if anything can go wrong, it will’ is always present when one is an optimist like my husband. In fact, sunny days in the north of France at that time of year are rare. We had spent two days in the City of Light sploshing around in the rain to get over our jetlag before heading south to Provence and the Languedoc to do the new blends for the 2011 vintage for our Tortoise Creek French wines. We had visited the Louvre for the thousandth time marveling at the exquisite perfection of Caravaggio’s magical use of lighting in his 16th century paintings, were stupefied by impossibly real marble statues and gob-smacked by Learnado da Vinci, Rembrandt et al. We had a mediocre meal at Chez Michel near the Gare du Nord (01 44 53 06 20) which we used to love and vowed never to go back, and had a brilliant light lunch of oysters and crevettes grises (tiny grey shrimps) at the Brasserie called La Vaudeville near the Bourse (01 40 20 04 62) and a surprisingly wonderful dinner at Le Timbre near St. Germain (01 45 49 10 40) where Cristopher, an English chef, created magical dishes at reasonable prices. We drank the most delicious Beaujolais from Domaine du Vissou 2010 and were reminded how fabulous Beaujolais CAN be when it’s not that cherry aid stuff called Nouveau!!
We arrived at dusk in the hamlet of L’Etang Vergy just outside Nuits St. Georges and drove up the gravel driveway to the picturesque old Chateau de Charmont where Mel had lived in a cold turret during his Burgundy apprenticeship in 1963! Laurent Delauney and his winemaker wife Catherine had transformed his grandfather’s home into something beautiful and considerably warmer and more comfortable than what Mel remembered! It’s such a romantic story that he began his love of wine with the Delaunay family and then, many years later, started our brand Les Jamelles (Janie & Mel!) in the 90s with them. Now they sell more than half a million cases worldwide! We had a wonderful dinner and Laurent opened up a fabulous bottle of Chateauneuf du Pape, Domaine de Nalys 1971, which was still vibrant and lively. Mel and I remembered having dinner with the great Docteur Dufays who owned Nalys back in the late 60’s and who was the major pioneer of white Chateauneuf.
Next day, we sped south to the southern Rhone and basked in sunshine as we arrived at a little inn high above Gigondas called Les Florets, situated under the Dentelles mountain range. Mel and I had spent an idyllic few days there with my parents, in 1965, the year after we married. The dinner there was a catastrophe as the new owners had changed their food from local simplicity to over-the-top weirdo stuff – beef carpaccio with sickly sweet parmesan ice-cream and rubbery duck with vanilla mousse! Seriously! We also dined at a fantastic little restaurant in Uchaux called Le Temps de Vivre. Incredibly delicious dinner and it cost us $100 for both of us including vino and tip. The owner suggested a gorgeous Cotes du Rhone from the village called Cros de la Mure 2006 which was a blend of Grenache (60% and Syrah 40%) and made the ears go red which a fine red always does to me!
The highlight of our stay was a walk we took one morning down to the mediaeval town of Gigondas. We passed a large chateau and a big wooly dog came down the drive wagging his tail. We shooed him away saying firmly “Va couche!” (lay down) – but he followed us anyway. We went all around the town with him and then he veered off up a small lane and waited for us to follow HIM! We did as he wanted and ended up on a track going into a wood. We crossed a tiny iron bridge over a gorge and followed a vineyard back up the hill and he galloped along the old wall of his chateau and waited for us patiently by an ancient wooden gate. Mel opened the gate and he trotted away wagging his tail and we closed the gate and rejoined the road back home – priceless!
The next day we went a few kilometers toward Vaison-la-Romaine to the tiny hamlet of Sablet. We have rented a little house there for the month of April and wanted to see what it looked like. Unwisely, as it turned out, we crept up the VERY narrow mediaeval cobbled streets and parked right at the top by a tiny church that was just chiming two o’clock in deep melodious tones. We were the only car. We walked down the crooked streets and found the house which had French blue shutters and a lovely terrace. We walked further down and discovered a great-looking butcher, 2 bakeries and a post office and Tabac where to our delight, we found the Herald Tribune which we both love reading when in Europe We sat in the Café de Sport in the warm sun and ate an omlette that had been cooked ‘cowboy’ style and had the texture of the bottom of a shoe. The salad, crusty levain bread and iced Rose wine made up for that horror. We returned to the car marveling at our luck to be staying in such a divine village in the Spring but petite probleme, Mel couldn’t turn the car around!
I got out of the car and tried vainly to help him go back and forth like a mouse caught in a shoebox. An ancient – and I mean really ancient, old woman appeared carrying a basket filled with leeks and potatoes. She stopped and watched us for a few minutes and then proclaimed, unnecessarily, that we had to reverse down. We agreed wholeheartedly and she put down her basket and instructed me to walk one side of the car and she would walk the other side to guide Mel back out of the village without scratching the car on the old stone houses just a few inches on either side. This took much argument and swearing on Mel’s behalf and some 20 minutes later he slid under the final stone archway to freedom. She told us that we couldn’t park the car in that house’s garage as the owner had filled it with all of his personal belongings and then waved at us and started back up to retrieve her basket that had been left on the edge of a tiny fountain spouting Alpine water into a trough. Obviously she knew that no-one would steal it in her little commune – priceless. We called the owner that night and he laughed uproariously and told us to park down by the post-office when we arrived in April and added that the church bells ceased ringing every half hour at 10 p.m. each night until 7 in the morning – phew!
We filled up our rent-a-car with diesel fuel at a supermarket and bought a baguette and a slice of baked ham and a couple of apples and returned to the hotel to pack up. The ancient waitress looked at our picnic with distain and told us to wait a minute. She bustled off and returned with a huge can of hot Dijon mustard and a slab of butter. She cut the baguette in two and slathered both on the bread and popped in the ham. “Beaucoup meilleur!” she beamed.
We spent that night in old inn called the Bastide Cabezac belonging to an 18th-century chateau near Bise-Minervois in the Languedoc. But it was on a main road and, not only were we unable to sleep well, but we were nearly run over on our morning walk a couple of times by huge trucks carrying wine and olive oil and were chased by two bull mastiffs who were guarding the chateau. They bared their slobbery teeth and leapt at us behind a crumbling wall and we had to run back in fear of our lives.
We spent a couple of days tasting and blending and meeting with our growers and winemakers and fighting with them to keep their prices reasonable which, of course, is an annual tug of war! In the last ten years the there have been over 250,000 acres that have been pulled up in the Languedoc because the new generation just can’t make any money unless they are very dedicated and invest in new equipment and so on to really make stellar wines. The wine world no longer wants or will buy mediocre thin wines from the South of France – or anywhere else, come to that. The government pays vignerons to abandon their old vines and grow apricots and olive trees in stead. The wines from the 2011 are really very good and quantities are up a bit too, which helps. We must have tasted through well over 150 wines and made some great new discoveries as well as excellent new blends. Our sales of all our Tortoise Creek wines including California have almost doubled since we introduced the new label which is pretty terrific in these recessionary times – quality-to-price always wins – yeah!
We returned to Paris by air from Toulouse and were happy to see that Sod’s law had been thrown out and the sun was shining once more up north. We ambled down from our hotel beside the Luxembourg gardens and took our seats in a bar opposite the Odeon metro station on the Rue St. Germain. We sat with silly smiles drinking our Suze (the lemon yellow French equivalent of Campari that tastes to most people like bitter cough medicine!) We were fascinated by the fact that there appeared to be so few overweight people anywhere! Lithe young demoiselles were wearing woolen stockings above high heeled boots and they had either shorts or tiny mini-skirts above them –very sexy! The men all sported long colored scarves twisted artistically around their throats. All were engaged in non-stop animated discourse. Smoking has been banned in all restaurants and cafes in France so the sidewalk tables were filled with the weak-willed and the obstinate who avoided their doctor’s pleas. One could go to Paris just for the pleasure of people watching!
Busses roared past the narrow pavement avoiding pedestrians and dogs by millimeters. One bus tried to maneuver around our corner but ground abruptly to a shuddering halt when a tiny motor-scooter drove up beside it. The young man stopped and started to text on his mobile phone and the bus driver, incensed that he couldn’t turn without crushing him, leant out of his window and shouted, “Eh, oh, idiote!” but the young man ignored him and went on texting. The driver descended from his cab into the street and yelled, “I have passengers who want their dinner, you moron!” at which point the young man waved an apology, drove up onto the pavement and got out of the way and put-putted off. The red-faced driver flung his arms into the air to much cheering from the café’s clients and continued round the corner with his hungry fares.
We met our old friend Tim Johnston (he worked for Mel in Masterwines in the ‘70s and now runs a super little wine bar near the Palais Royale called Juveniles) and his lovely wife Stephanie for a drink where half the bar was filled with impossibly good-looking young English studs who were part of the Juvenile’s cricket team (really!) and were quite obviously enjoying their meal very raucously. We dined that night at Verjus right opposite which had been open only a week. An American chef from Boston and his wife run it helped by Tim and Stephanie’s daughter Margaux. It was an odd place! There were two fixed price menus – one with wine accompaniments and one without. We chose the latter and were presented by micro food on vast plates – 2 agnioletti served with onion ash (go figure) and raw marinated salmon with caper foam and a miniscule cube of pork belly with mango jam and a sort of pale chocolate cookie thing that tasted like Pollyfiller. Tim brought a magnificent bottle of Cornas 1991 from August Clape which made the evening but even allowing for that, the bill came to $350 and we were still starving!
We did the Orsay museum (for about the tenth time!) on our last morning and were mesmerized by Monets, Manets, Degas, Sisleys, Pizarros and Van Goghs until we were Impressionist drunk. For our final dinner in Paris this trip we returned once more to one of our favorite restaurants, Chez Georges (01 42 60 07 11) in the Rue de Mail near the Bourse. We walked through the St. Germain market down ancient streets lined with art studios and crossed the Seine over the pedestrian bridge with a view of Notre Dame on one side and away to the Eiffel tower on the other. We continued through Louis IV’s townhouse, the Louvre forecourt, and into the gardens of the Palais Royale to the Rue de Mail. We sat in the bar area away from the tourists and met the new owner Dominique, a young man with movie-star good looks whose family own the Chateau Real Martin in Provence. I tucked into smoked herring with warm potatoes and shallots while Mel had his head down over a huge dish of ‘frisse aux lardons’ (the French frizzy endive salad with hot bacon and a soft-boiled egg). We both then followed with two whole Dover soles meuniere in brown butter which we sopped up with the best crusty bread I have ever tasted. We drank the wonders rose which went down a lot to easily!!
After stopping for a couple of expressos in the same café by the Odeon metro watching the French kaleidoscope of fashionistas around us, we returned to our hotel and slept the sleep of those without conscience. We returned to Boston on an Air France direct flight that served us a fabulous meal with champagne as if our cheapest coach seats had been any domestic airline’s business class! “Suffering succotash,” we murmured, “Here’s to government-subsidized airlines!”