Wednesday 23rd December 2009, Champagne-sur-Loue, Jura
Yesterday we drove to Polingy. It claims to be the capital of Comté cheese production. It lies beyond Arbois about thirty kilometres from Champagne. We spent a very enjoyable day there on 26th August 2005 where a fuller description of the town can be seen.
The snow had all but disappeared from the streets when we arrived, which was just as well as we were at least able to see the extraordinary number of dog offerings scattered throughout the town and thus managed to complete our visit with our feet still clean. The town dignitaries do their best, offering free "canicrot" bags on many street corners but the residents have allowed their dogs to foul since the Middle Ages and they obviously have no intention of changing now!
In February 2010 Poligny has been chosen to host the "percée du vin jaune". Each year a different town in the region is selected for this prestigious event where there are several days of festivities as the producers bring their new wines for sampling and everyone from miles around arrives for tastings and to purchase. They even lay on special trains from Paris for the event! Susanne and Roland go each year and it's a great chance to meet friends from other villages that they haven't seen since last year's event. In preparation the main square in Poligny is already festooned with huge bunches of plastic grapes dangling between the Christmas fairy lights.
As we always do in Poligny, we marvelled at the wonderfully ornate huge doorways and carved wooden doors on the main street. We wandered some of the back streets we'd never visited, discovering several ancient fountains, elaborate facades, an enclosed lavoir and alleys that looked as if they had remained unchanged since mediaeval times – except for the inflatable Santas dangling from the houses. We also found a couple of the original circular towers that formed part of the town ramparts and discovered the local cinema housed in the 17th century former "Chapelle de la Confrérie de la Croix"!
We stopped for coffees in the bar of the PMU opposite the mairie. The atmosphere was very friendly with free papers to browse to check the races. Several small groups of men were enjoying lunch as they filled in their betting slips and watched the racing results on the overhead screens. On a nearby table a customer was finding it difficult to choose his pudding so the waitress solved his dilemma by bringing him all three on the same plate!
With a couple of hours of daylight left by the time we'd exhausted the winter delights of Poligny – and it was a deal more lively than most of the towns around here – we decided to seek out the nearby château of the English lady we'd met in Dôle. When we discovered it, it looked rather run-down, the grounds badly overgrown and the pond covered in ice where geese slithered on its surface. The house must be a nightmare to keep warm! The most amusing thing though, was the seven English vehicles parked outside. They were all rather dilapidated. Nobody answered our ring at the entrance but we didn't really want to stop anyway, we'd simply been curious. We suspect the place is developing as an English commune of arty folk. It might be okay in summer but on a cold, wet December afternoon as we slithered in the sticky mud on the driveway, we felt no tinge of envy and would never dream of exchanging our home in Exeter for such a gigantic nightmare!
We returned home across country, passing through pleasant, rambling, untidy little villages set amidst green fields and vineyards. The communal forest of Mouchard was somewhere we'd never visited before and we were amazed at its size. Such forests belong to the commune and members have the right to cut certain areas each year for domestic firewood. Of course there is a charge and the woodlands are carefully managed. It is from a similar forest that Roland cuts and gathers the wood used to keep this house warm and snug over the winter months.
Back home in the evening we joined Susanne and Roland for our supper invitation with neighbours Colette and Jacqui. It was an experience! To begin with it is difficult to follow a conversation when everyone is talking at once on a topic we know very little about. We were cheerfully welcomed though into their large warm kitchen with its roaring wood stove, central table, comfortable armchairs, assorted guns and a windowsill littered with rifle cartridges.
The walls of the dining room were decorated with the delicate heads of a deer and a wild chevreuil. In place of honour though was the huge and hairy head of a wild boar or sanglier with its razor sharp tusks! I had no idea they were that huge and dangerous but I still think we are safer sharing the local woodland with them than we are sharing it with the hunters! Jacqui proudly told us he'd shot all three heads presiding over us as we ate. For good measure there were several sets of antlers as well. His conversation was almost exclusively about hunting. He told us he's seen five sangliers this season, indicating this on his upheld hand. However I could only count four fingers! One was definitely missing, probably a casualty of one of his hunting forays.
We were served an amazing array of different wines starting with ratafia, then a white wine from Arbois, followed by a local red. Then came a vin jaune and assorted eaux-de-vie – peach, mirabelle and pear.
We were served meat fondue – a speciality of Bourgogne. Instead of beef though we were given plates of raw chevreuil and sanglier, neatly cubed for us to spear onto our special forks and cook in the hot oil at the table. Whatever our feelings about hunting we must accept that many Frenchmen consider it is a normal way of life. We have to say too that the meat was so tender it melted on the fork as it cooked. It was totally delicious.
As we ate we were entertained with hunter's tales. Catching frogs is now illegal in France. That doesn't stop a fanatic like Jacqui though. At three in the morning Colette was so worried that he's not returned home she drove to the area where he was hunting frogs, fearing he'd drowned when she couldn't find him. When he eventually returned home he said he's seen the car but had hidden fearing it was the police! Ian pointed out the police were also hunters simply out trying to catch frog poachers. We were told Jacqui had a better haul than the police that night. With specially adapted pockets he managed to return with 53 live frogs down his trouser legs! We now know exactly how to kill an illegally caught frog and how to remove its back legs. Being a true Frenchman of course, Jacqui also explained the best way to cook them and which local wine to serve them with. Vin jaune and parsley butter are both essential.
There is normally a very short season for legally catching the giant Burgundy snails that can be found in the woods of the region. Quite unaccountably that season seems to be considerably longer in the immediate vicinity of Champagne. It wasn't explained whether special snail catching pockets are required.
The meal finished with delicious home-made chocolate mousse. By this time we'd been concentrating on understanding four different people talking at once for several hours while we were plied with glass after glass of local wines and spirits. Our heads were swimming and it was becoming increasingly difficult to get our tongues round the French language. As we finally left, shortly after midnight, a parcel of gibier was taken from the fridge and given to Susanne. Perhaps that's our Christmas dinner!
It took only two minutes to walk home. Another five and we were already in bed and asleep!
This morning a knock at our door coincided with us stopping the domestic chores of cooking and laundering to have coffee. It was Colette bringing us seven jars of her home-made jams - one each, peach pear plum as well as apricot, blackberry, raspberry and mirabelle! I thought Modestine's load would get lighter as we travelled but it doesn't look like it! She stayed for coffee and mince pies and to tell us Jacqui was up and off before she was even awake this morning, out with his gun and his dog. Of course he'd not stopped to help with the pile of dishes still waiting from last night! She says she's off to stay with her daughter in Paris for a few days after Christmas to stop her going mad left on her own all day. Susanne will be lonely with her gone, particularly because we too will have moved on by next week and with her limited vision there is little Susanne can do during the day while Roland is off doing busy things with his camionette and his woodpile. Even she doesn't seem to know what he does all day but he certainly keeps himself busy.
Later, upstairs, I found Susanne still puzzling about her nativity crèche and unable to join us for a walk until she'd worked out what to do for this year. Apparently it's her personal challenge to do something different each year. (Ian's now made her some paper elephants to go with her cherubs, sheep, saints and mistletoe. They are quite out of scale but we bet she's never had elephants in her crib before!)
We decided we needed a brisk walk along the river to Port Lesney, one of the few places with a bar that we'd seen open as we passed. We could stop for a drink, cross the bridge and walk back along the far bank. It's a long walk but with a break half way we could do it and still get back by nightfall.
Only one vehicle passed us on the six kilometre route between Champagne and Port Lesney. We walked really briskly taking just about an hour to arrive. The clock struck three as we reached the bridge. The lights on the Christmas tree of the riverside bistro looked inviting and we were both longing for a beer. However, today they'd decided not to open until 6pm! We collapsed on the chilly terrace chairs and groaned! The only other bar was closed even longer – until the 6th January! Even the baker was closed until 4pm.
There is a luxurious and pricey hotel/restaurant in a beautifully restored château at the top end of the village – Château de Germigney. We've always wondered what it's like inside but double rooms cost around 200 euros a night and the cheapest set menu is 68 euros per person without drink, so we never expected to find out. Today however we were desperate so strode through the door into an atmosphere of comfort that reminded us both of an English country house hotel, rather like Lew Trenchard where, when we are home we keep a benevolent eye on the library. Without even blanching at the sight of our hiking boots a uniformed young man showed us to comfortable armchairs in the St. Hubert lounge and disappeared to get us a couple of Kronenburg 1664s which came on a salver with a complementary plate of "cake" – a pretentious French word for gâteau. It was home-made Madeira with chopped cherries. Not our first choice with beer but a very nice thought.
The walls of the lounge were hung with antlers with a boar's head over the fireplace where a warm and comforting blaze added to the charm. There was a crib set out on the table, the shelves were lined with books and the walls were covered in framed sporting prints and racing scenes, all of which were English. Through the window were formal gardens and parkland. The ceiling was timber beamed and the floor clad in cedarwood parquet. There were rugs, sofas, lamps, coffee tables, flowers and tasteful Christmas decorations. Never has chilled beer been so welcome. The experience cost us nine euros. We'd expected it to be a lot more. Ian lied to me, saying the toilet was a hole in the ground as we've found in so many places. It was anything but, being the cleanest and smartest facility you could ever wish for with hot water from shiny taps and fluffy fresh individual towels for drying your hands. We've found that it's often possible to enjoy the atmosphere of a luxurious environment without necessarily needing an overdraft to do so.
Greatly cheered and refreshed we continued our walk, crossing the ugliest bridge in the Jura, passing the remains of the lovely stone one they chose to destroy, and continued our walk for seven kilometres, returning via Buffard along the other side of the Loue. It was dark some time before we got home.