Champagne on Ice

Friday 18th December 2009, Champagne-sur-Loue, Jura
For the last few days the weather has been really vicious and we've begun to develop an instinct to hibernate, sleeping really deeply for up to ten hours at night!

On Wednesday we found that we were nearly out of wine. We also needed a walk having spent most of the morning blogging in the kitchen so, piling on so many warm scarves, hats and gloves that we looked like Michelin men, we set off for the village of Liesle about four kilometres across the open fields.

Crossing the Loue, frozen in the shallows near the banks, we paused on the bridge to watch a ragondin pottering beside the river before it slid down into the icy water and swam to its home beneath the bank. What a funny life! The coldness of the river didn't bother it in the least. Further up the river a swan floated gracefully along and a heron stood silently with its legs in the swirling green river, also unaffected by the cold.

It took best part of an hour to walk to Liesle which has a small supermarket where we felt confident of finding wine and bread. We arrived at 2pm to discover it was closed until 3pm. At minus 5 degrees this was a blow. There is nothing at all in Liesle in the way of a bar to keep warm, or even a toilet, and the cold weather sends coffee through Ian at an alarming rate! We spent the next hour exploring the village. Normally this would take ten minutes maximum. Even the church, our usual standby to keep warm, was locked. We therefore had plenty of time to admire the impressive farmhouses, many with corn cobs hanging from their eaves.

Village lavoir, Liesle

Typical street in Liesle

Returning to the shop at 3pm we discovered a notice we'd missed earlier. "Fermeture exceptionelle le mercredi après-midi à cause de la fête du troisième âge." The elderly of the village were having a Christmas lunch at the mairie. Presumably the shop staff were all over 60 or else they were helping with the catering. Throughout France every year there are special Christmas lunches for the elderly paid for by the commune. They start around midday and continue for the rest of the afternoon.

There was nothing for it. These two elderly pensioners would just have to make do without wine for a night and walk the four kilometres back across the frozen countryside. In fact we tried to work out a short-cut without a map and got lost so it was considerably longer returning than it had been coming. We arrived home in the dark, perishing cold and really, really tired from the freezing temperatures. The news that night was all about the blizzards sweeping the country.

Yesterday morning we were awake early enough to drive to Dôle. Champagne was under a light blanket of snow but down on the flat plain the roads were clear. Parking beside the river Doubs we climbed up into the narrow cobbled streets of the mediaeval city dominated by the imposing church of Notre Dame. It was here that the infant Louis Pasteur was christened. He was born in Dôle and his house, once a tannery, is now a museum. Of course it was closed when we turned up to look round despite our guide book indicating otherwise. The municipal library, where we urgently needed to get something printed and Ian wished to buy a special catalogue, was also closed on Thursday morning as were many of the shops. At this time of year companies frequently don't bother to open until 2pm. How does this country exist? In winter everywhere is completely deserted. Dôle after all, was once the capital of Franche-Comté and has a population of some 30,000 yet the streets were empty. A free bus service carries it citizens around the town but even that stops between midday and 2pm!

Amazingly we found the Musée des Beaux Arts open until noon. Furthermore, it was rather good and we spent a pleasant hour in the warm browsing the paintings, most of which were by local artists little known outside the region. There were though works by Gustave Courbet from Ornans – his works were also in the Petit Palais in Paris. There were several 17th century paintings depicting the deciding battles fought against the French at Dôle, Besançon and Gray.

From the 16th century until the 1670s Franche Comté, which includes Bourgogne, was ruled by the Spanish and Austrian Habsburgs with Dôle as its capital. Coveted by Louis XIV Dôle resisted several sieges and attacks by the French army until it was finally captured in 1674. Angered by its resistance Louis stripped the town of its status as capital of the region and transferred the university and senate to Besançon which is still the region's capital today. Later in the church of Notre Dame we noticed a stained glass window placed there in 1674, immediately after the fall of Dôle, depicting Louis XIV receiving the host at mass. It was an obvious statement made to the people of Dôle, reminding them of his power and that they were now part of his kingdom.

Window in the church of Notre Dame depicting Louis XIV at mass, Dôle

Around the streets we chanced upon a plaque commemorating the heroic resistance in 1479 of some of the citizens to the forces of Louis XI. They sought refuge in a cellar where they were ultimately burned alive. The cellar has since been known as the Cave d'Enfer.

Commemorating the bravery of Dôle's resistance fighters in 1479

At midday we found ourselves back on the icy streets. Poor Ian's fingers went white with the cold so the only thing to do was find a restaurant and warm up over lunch. The one we found was very pleasant and comfortably warm. An office Christmas lunch for around twenty people was taking place at the far end but we had a window table where we were served the menu of the day. Starting with a hors d'oeuvre forestière (mushrooms on toast) the main course was boeuf bourguignon (what else in Bourgogne?) with fruit tart and coffee to finish.

We felt warm and full as we found ourselves back on the streets where we discovered the shops were gradually opening for the day, the buses had started running again and there were actually people around. Behind the church we found an ice rink crowded with slithering youngsters on a visit from school and nearby a few of the wooden huts constituting the Christmas market had opened. A lady called to us as we passed one of these to tell us she was English and to ask if we lived locally. She explained she'd been here seven years and earned her living writing educational software for a British publisher. She'd also set up a business producing craft kits on CD-ROM (produce your own cards, decorations, crackers etc.) She'd made 800 euros in two days at the craft market selling craft kits produced using her CD software! We bought a Christmas cracker kit and she gave us several other Christmassy things as well. She even invited us to her house to meet her family and use her internet!! She said she'd sold her semi-detached house in Kent and bought a château near Arbois for the same money. She travelled once a month to England to see her publishers and collect commissions and she also wrote educational books about different religions. It's very interesting discovering the diverse ways the English have found to make a living abroad.

Inside the nearby market hall we found a stall selling purely English goods – Christmas puddings, Birds custard, Rose's lime marmalade, cream crackers, polo mints, digestive biscuits and Typhoo tea bags! The owner was an Englishman married to a French lady he'd met twenty years ago in Halifax. He's lived here ever since and has four bilingual sons. He told us the English are gradually discovering this region and they are his main customers though he is making inroads into the French community. They all love the marmalade but are very wary of other English food. He doesn't even bother to display his marmite but produced it when we commented on its absence. He recently invited the press to a presentation of English Christmas food at his home, aimed at the French. Apparently everyone who tasted the Christmas pudding and brandy butter promptly ordered both and the newspaper ran a feature about him. The result was that last week he had to do an emergency run to Calais, cross to England and buy up hundreds of Christmas puddings and mince pies before catching the next ferry back!

By this time we reckoned the médiatheque would be open. There we finally got internet access to collect messages and print off a letter to our insurance company about the damaged windscreen. Ian also bought a copy of the catalogue of the incunables and rare books displayed in Salins. How silly to send the exhibition there, but keep all the catalogues in Dôle! The French have never been that hot on joined-up thinking.

We also wrote about Dôle on 1st September 2005

We'd spent a fairly full day around the town and it was numbingly cold so we headed for home via the Forêt de Chaux, one of the largest forests in France, covering most of the area between Arc-et-Senans and Dôle. It was snug in Modestine with the heater on, and a real effort to climb out into the bitter darkness of the exposed supermarket car park to collect some shopping. Even worse though, was the thought of a second evening without a glass of wine! Furthermore heavy snow was expected overnight and we might be snowed in next day!

Well, we were wise to have done our shopping last night. This morning we woke to a very white world. It looked stunning with the huge barn roof and the village church facing our kitchen window coated in a blanket of snow while the white flakes have tumbled gently all day. It has been snug in the kitchen and we have kept ourselves occupied with blogs, photos, cooking and making Christmas crackers. Unfortunately the jokes in the kit are in English and we cannot think of any suitable French ones to substitute. Wonder how Susanne and Roland will take to paper hats on Christmas day! They have invited us for Christmas lunch and Susanne says we will be having snails! Okay, we said, provided we also have our Christmas pudding which we have brought with us for the occasion.

View From our kitchen window, Champagne-sur-Loue

This afternoon we distracted Susanne from her task of erecting and decorating the Christmas tree Hugues brought over during the week. We found her in her kitchen surrounded by fairy lights and tinsel. We spent the rest of the afternoon amongst it all drinking coffee and experimenting with French canards. These are not ducks but sugar cubes soaked in eau-de-vie. Roland was off somewhere with his camionette so Susanne raided his drinks cupboard. There she discovered some home distilled plum brandy with a date label 1971. Deciding it might be ready by now we poured it into our empty coffee cups, soaking it up with the sugar. It did seem rather good but we might need to try it again on Christmas day, just to make sure.

Colette called round and the rest of the afternoon became very lively indeed. She lives in the village and originally comes from Paris. While on holiday here she met Jacqui, married him and never went back to Paris. It's a second marriage for each or them. Her husband is as crazy about hunting as is Eugène and Colette's reaction to it is much the same as Françoise's. Colette though refuses to clean or pluck the wild game and small birds he brings back. Her freezer too is apparently filled with thrushes, pigeons, ducks and assorted wildlife. She says on a recent holiday to Ireland with a group of friends all the husbands got together to make up a shooting party. Jacqui bagged a hare and so delighted was he that he packed it into his luggage with his laundry and brought it back with him! It was lucky the airline didn't discover it, though something of a shock for Colette when she sorted out the suitcase back home! She said he was off all alone this afternoon hunting ducks on the Loue. It's been six below zero all day but he stands there with his gun for hours wearing his wading boots so he can retrieve any birds he shoots if they fall into the river. She casually mentioned that he cannot swim! Still, even if he could the water would be too cold to survive if he slipped in. French hunters are completely mad!

We know Colette from earlier visits. She and Susanne are company for each other when both their husbands are off being busy at very different things. We were surprised and delighted when she said the reason for her visit was to say hello to us and invite us, along with Susanne and Roland, for a pre-Christmas supper at her home next Tuesday evening. She apologised for not making it mid-day but she knew there was no hope of keeping Jacqui from la chasse.

We wonder what will be on the menu. It could literally be anything from snails or frogs to venison or ragondin! Such an interesting way to spend our retirement!

Sunday 20th December 2009, Champagne-sur-Loue, Jura
Yesterday it snowed for most of the day. We tried to clear it off from Modestine but it had frozen hard to her new windscreen and anyway, with the driving wind it was piling up as fast as we cleared it off. When we eventually managed to get inside her the diesel was so cold we couldn't start the engine anyway. This was just as well really as Champagne was pretty well cut off with all the roads out from the village blocked. Roland did eventually manage to get out with his 4x4 camionette but even that refused the hill above the village. Fortunately he was able to bring back bread for all of us.

Modestine stays tucked beneath her blanket of snow, Champagne-sur-Loue

We took a walk up the hill to look out over the white fields. Nothing moved except the driving snow and the entire world seemed silenced. Our hands were frozen and our fingers ached, so we did the only sensible thing. We returned to our warm kitchen, made a couple of hot drinks and settled to watch a DVD – what else but "Life in the Freezer"? Those Antarctic penguins lead the life of Riley compared to here! For the rest of the day we hibernated. During the night, temperatures apparently dropped as low as minus 24 in some places and it is said to be the lowest ever recorded at this time of year in Franche Comte!

The former convent looking much as it did the winter I once spent here, Champagne-sur-Loue

This morning the snow and wind had both stopped and it felt significantly milder. Modestine was hiding again under a fresh coating of snow and we have made no attempt to get her moving. Hugues though managed to reach the village from Dôle, thirty-three kilometres away. He says the main roads have been cleared and it's just around Champagne that it's almost impassable. Hopefully it will be better tomorrow as we've run out of bread and have been living on porridge and Thai curry today!

Colette called at our kitchen window as she slithered in the snow taking her husband's hunting dog for a walk through the village. Apparently the other one has been killed - gored by one of the wild sangliers. Around the area this year, fourteen hunting dogs have been killed or injured. Can't blame the sangliers for getting angry when they are attacked but some of the injuries were caused by the hunters' guns.

Hugues spent this morning heaving up barrels of fermented grapes from Roland's cellar and loading them on to the camionette. Eleven year old Valentin was assisting him and explained to us that tomorrow they would be making eau-de-vie. As we understand it, the wine harvest in September was fermented and the wine siphoned off into barrels and left to mature. The remaining grapes and yeast is known as marc and has been stored in five plastic barrels which all smelled pretty alcoholic. Roland has a special licence to produce his own eau-de-vie which must be between 50 and 55 percent proof. It is no longer allowed to be done on his own premises and has to be checked by customs officials. The community still, called an alembic, is in one of the neighbouring villages and each licensed producer is allocated a day to use it. To get it all done within the day Roland, Hugues and Valentin got everything ready today and will be setting off at 6am in the morning to get the fire going under the alembic ready to start heating the marc and distilling off the alcohol at 7am once the customs official has arrived to check exactly how much they intend doing. Hugues suggested we join them. It's a bit early for us in the snow and we'd need to use our own transport to get there. The temperature this afternoon was just above freezing. If it improves there is an outside chance we could get Modestine moving later tomorrow and drive over to see how it's going. It would certainly be interesting to see and apparently you can get rather high on the fumes!

We spent the morning walking up the track onto the clos. The world was ours alone and it was completely white, the sky, fields and hillsides merging together as one. The woodland branches and hedgerows were heavy with snow and when a gust of wind caught an area of woodland the snow was blown up as a smoky cloud and carried away on the breeze.

View from the top of the village, Champagne-sur-Loue

Roland's cabin was looking very smart in its wooded field covered in virgin snow and all the vines on the clos stood in serried ranks, black against the white hillside. From the top of the clos we looked down onto Arc-et-Senans which, with the softening effect of its white winter overcoat, looked just like one of Breugel's paintings as it lay isolated on the surrounding white plain.

Roland's cabin on the clos, near his vineyard, Champagne-sur-Loue

Arc-et-Senans seen from the clos above Champagne-sur-Loue

A walk in the woods, Champagne-sur-Loue

Coming down to the road on the far side of the clos we returned to the village along beside the Loue. The only footprints we saw on our walk were those of animals. Down at the village bridge we discovered ice had formed all along the edges of the river stretching several feet from the bank. It has a way to go before it is likely to freeze over but this can happen later in the winter. I've seen it myself when I was here in 1962. The snow on the balustrade of the bridge, several inches thick, was just too inviting. Taking a side each we crenelated it all the way across the river. We were just admiring our handiwork when Hugues and Valentin stopped to pass cheeky comments as they crossed the bridge driving back to Dôle for lunch. Somehow we felt rather silly.

The Loue below the village with Buffard beyond, Champagne-sur-Loue

Entrance to the village, Champagne-sur-Loue

The Loue starts freezing over, Champagne-sur-Loue

During the afternoon we joined Susanne upstairs to admire her decorated Christmas tree and offer helpful advice concerning the crib she is constructing in the corner of the kitchen from a couple of boxes, some moss and assorted sized shepherds, farm animals and holy statuettes known as santons.

Incidentally, we recently read an English brochure for a rather exclusive hotel at Ornans, higher up the river. It proudly stated "The Loue is on the doorstep". A dubious bit of PR! Even Formula1 hotels have it just down the corridor!

Monday 21st December 2009, Champagne-sur-Loue, Jura
There was a considerable thaw overnight and it has continued throughout the day. Tonight it is 4 degrees outside. The menfolk were all off before daylight to the still in Cramens, returning later for a quick breakfast. Modestine still had a huge comb of snow on her roof but her engine started immediately today and once we'd slithered out of the yard and up past the old school building where I once lived the roads were clearer.

Artistic snow sculpture on the wall opposite the former school, Champagne-sur-Loue

In Cramens we followed the smell of alcohol until we found Roland and family working in a shed that was actually hot from the woodfire used to heat the large alembic. We were delighted to find Thibault there assisting his dad and grandfather. We started helping Thibault with his English when he was twelve years old. Now at twenty one he uses it regularly at university in Besancon where he is studying sports science. He always fills us with delight. It is quite rare to find anyone these days who has such a delight in life that he exudes happiness to everyone around him. Today he explained to us in English exactly what they were doing and how the alembic worked while Hugues, Roland and Valentin busied themselves with collecting the flow of liquid condensing into a container and measuring its alcohol content.

In principal, the alembic is mounted over a wood burning stove. The marc or used grapes are placed in the copper alembic which has a water seal to prevent the alcohol escaping. As the marc is heated the alcohol evaporates off earlier than the water. It passes through a pipe that runs through a vat of icy cold water causing the alcohol to condense, turning back into a liquid. The first alcohol to arrive is very strong but as water begins to evaporate too it dilutes it down to around 50 to 55 percent. After that, the weaker distillation is again passed through the alembic and the stronger stuff distilled off. The work took them best part of the day and they got something like 15 to 20 litres of eau-de-vie. It looked just like water. Ian tasted it but said that at this stage it did not taste much even though it had a kick. It needs to mature and much of it is also blended with plums, cherries, walnuts and peaches etc to make aperitifs. That blended with wine produces the famous Macvin, or as Rolande calls it, rataffia.

Hugues checks the alcohol level of the condensing eau-de-vie

Loading wood into the fire to heat the marc

Everyone keeps warm around the alembic

Leaving the workers busy in the warmest place in the Jura we continued into Salins where we spent a couple of hours in the Theatre bar, a scruffy place with tiny round tables serving nothing but coffee or alcohol. We were told to buy a sandwich elsewhere and bring it back to eat with our coffee while we used the free wifi! How can they make a living? We'd willingly have bought our baguettes there but instead all he wanted was a couple of euros for coffees. We did have a couple each but he won't retire early on the takings he got from us! It was so good though to reply to a massive backlog of messages and to get a couple of blogs loaded up. It was excellent being able to use our own computer and after two hours we still had five hours battery life left! Our tiny netbook really is earning its keep!