Christmas in Franche Comte

Thursday 24th December 2009, Champagne-sur-Loue, Jura
Christmas Eve so we decided at last it was time for us to visit Besançon in search of seasonal festivities. It's an easy, pleasant drive some twenty kilometres away. We began by following the Loue and ended by following the Doubs. Despite passing within duck quacking distance of each other at one point, the two rivers do not actually meet until just south of Dôle some thirty kilometres further west.

Our earlier account of Besançon can be seen on 5th September 2005

We parked outside the city on the banks of the Doubs which flowed fast and furious, swollen with the floodwaters from the melted snow.

Besançon is caught in a loop of the river, strategically placed with Vauban fortifications protecting the citadel on the rocks high above the town. They completely dominate the landscape and from river level it's an awesome sight to gaze up the vertical cliff face to the defensive walls and watch towers following the curve of the river to completely enclose the citadel. Vauban has now made it onto the UNESCO World Heritage list with a collection of twenty-one of his major defensive forts, including Besançon – though he is responsible for many more, both within France and elsewhere.

Looking up at the walls of the citadel from the river, Besançon

Beneath the citadel there is a tunnel cut right through the rock from one side to the other. It forms part of the Rhine-Rhone canal and is used by river craft as a short-cut to avoid following the river right the way around the loop. Finding ourselves at the entrance we walked through along the tow path in the dimly lit tunnel with water dripping heavily through the weight of rock above us. Thus we entered the town from the opposite side using a different gateway than usual and discovered a district with some very elaborate seventeenth century buildings.

One of the town gates, Besançon

Town gate seen from within the walls, Besançon

In England the streets would be heaving on Christmas Eve but here it has been remarkably quiet. Many shops and restaurants were already closed for Christmas and our favourite restaurant – Au Petit Polonais – was closed until 6th January, something of a disappointment. The Christmas market was okay but rather drab with stallholders selling local produce – wines, patés, cheeses and sausages. There were stalls selling mulled wine but few takers. The liveliest place was the covered market, piled high with chickens and cuts of meats. There we watched intrigued as somebody purchased eight quails for Christmas lunch. The butcher went over their tiny bodies individually with a blowtorch. Why? Other stalls were selling oysters, crustacea, fish, crabs and other sea food. This is particularly popular on Christmas Eve but given the number of purchasers there will be a lot left over tonight. The lobsters were still waving their tentacles - impressive considering their long journey from the coast.

The wines and cheeses looked really impressive and all of it was produced in Franche Comté. Here Champagne is around eight Euros a bottle and the delicious Crémant du Jura slightly less. The rest of the morning was spent enjoying the shopping streets and the many wonderful buildings around the town, finding somewhere for lunch and reading Christmas messages in an internet place across the main bridge from the centre of the city.

A new find this time was the Musée du Temps, specialising in clocks, for which Besançon is renowned. It is housed in the Palais Granvelle dating from 1534-1542 with a porticoed rectangular courtyard and a high roof and cupola both covered in the charming decorated glazed tiles so typical of the region.

Courtyard of the Palais Granvelle, Besançon

During the afternoon we revisited the area leading up to the citadel and called in at the Cathedral of St. Jean. The organist was preparing for tonight's Christmas service as we wandered around the poorly lit interior with its many oil paintings, tombs and stained glass windows. We thought we were alone until a tramp, sitting almost hidden behind a tomb, popped out to tell us how wonderful one of the paintings was and to praise its heavy gilt frame. Later he got very excited about the organ music, "conducting" it enthusiastically from beside the altar. He was happy to be somewhere warm for a while but seemed astonished to discover it was Christmas Eve.

Cupola of the Cathedral of St. Jean, Besançon

As we climbed the many steps up to the Citadel it began to team with rain. Not having umbrellas and dusk already starting to fall we made our way down to the main streets of the city to search for our route back to Modestine. By the time we found her we were soaked and very grateful for her heater as we drove back to Champagne.

Back home we discovered Susanne has changed our doormat for one with Christmas trees on. How festive can you get? Upstairs Ian presented her with three paper elephants for her crèche which she has now finished. It looks rather sweet covered with cotton wool and bits of holy with a gigantic baby Jesus, wise men in assorted colours and sizes, a camel and three tiny paper elephants, while around it coloured lights flash on and off.

Susanne's crèche

We sat around the Christmas tree with glasses of warming walnut aperitif, produced from Roland's eau-de-vie mixed with red wine in which young, green walnuts have been marinated with sugar for months before being cleared and filtered. No sign of Roland and gradually we started to feel chilly. Susanne discovered him so deeply asleep in front of the television the fire had burned out and the central heating was no longer working! More logs were piled on and we all drank another glass of walnut juice to warm ourselves up. Winter in the countryside can certainly be very cosy; particularly when there are friends around to share it with, but we get the impression it can be a rather lonely place for much of the time.

A curious tale we've heard is of a silent order of monks in the area around St. Claude here in Franche Comté. Susanne says that people opting for a monastic life in France today seem to prefer to enter an enclosed, silent order rather than one that works actively within the community. One can only pray silently for so many hours a day though and the monks need to earn a living somehow, so this particular order of Trappist monks produces motor car components for Peugeot with its headquarters in St. Claude! Imagine working on a car production line and not speaking let alone swearing! And does it make for safer vehicles having the Almighty's ambassadors on the team?

Friday 25th December 2009, Champagne-sur-Loue, Jura
Ouf! We've just staggered back to our flat after a day of gormandising à la française with our hosts upstairs. We feel just as full, uncomfortable and wobbly as we hope most of our friends are feeling after turkey, trimmings, crackers and pudding. Below is our menu, translated as best we can into English ...

Smoked salmon canapés garnished with fresh parsley and locally produced cheese apericubes accompanied by aperitifs of peach brandy and macvin.

Duck foie gras and gingerbread with a green salad garnish served with a chilled white wine commercially produced from Roland's cousin's vineyard in Buffard.

A platter of locally produced Burgundy snails baked in garlic and parsley butter.

Roast wild boar served in a rich red wine sauce seasoned with herbs and onions, accompanied by hot chestnuts and baked endives, served with a red wine from Roland's cellar.

A dish of local cheeses including Mont d'Or, Comté, Morbier, Bleu de Gex and a creamy round goat's cheese, all served with a red wine from Arbois.

Christmas Yule log with praline icing accompanied by dates and walnuts stuffed with marzipan, chocolate truffles and sugared beignets served with crémant du Jura - a delicious, chilled, "champagne" produced from Roland's own grapes.

Coffee followed by a digestive of cherries in eau de vie.

The decorated table was prettily laid in the lounge with its timber beams, huge stone fireplace and blazing log fire. The English touch was pulling the crackers we'd recently made. Our hosts had never seen such things but obligingly donned the red paper hats inside.

View of the village from the lounge window

French Christmas with paper hats

Everything was delicious and with all afternoon at table we coped with it all though it was rather a challenge! The wine flowed like water and the water just didn't bother to compete! It was the first time we'd eaten foie gras or snails. Closing our minds to the ethics of eating duck liver we found it very agreeable but so rich we struggled to finish it. The snails arrived, six each hot from the oven. There were special snail holders to grip them and snail forks to twist them from their shells. They were just like pieces of meat and the flavour came from the sauce. So much parsley and melted butter remains in the shell you need to pour it directly into your mouth. I'd happily eat them again. They were produced at the snail farm just down the road towards Cramans.

Escargots de Bourgogne

Ian drains the sauce from his snail shell

The wild boar was a gift from Jacqui and Colette. It came from the woods just up behind the convent here. It's the second time we've tasted sanglier and have to admit it is sublime. It is a dark meat, quite unlike pork, that melts on the fork while the accompanying wine sauce has a sweetness that is unlike anything we've tasted with commercially produced meats. Quite obviously it has been necessary to ignore the ethics of hunting wild animals, accept the generous hospitality of our hosts and recognise that what we are eating tastes fantastic! Our consciences are eased by the knowledge that this dark wild pig certainly had a happier and less stressed life than its white counterpart reared in a pen.

Sanglier, chestnuts and baked endives

The cheeses were all from the Jura region and I was particularly taken with the bleu de Gex produced in the high Jura very near the Swiss border. Ian of course preferred Comté which is pretty much the only cheese he really enjoys. It is all produced right around here.

The Yule log or bûche de Noël is the traditional Christmas cake in France and consists of a light sponge roll (presumably the origin of what we know as a Swiss roll but I'd never thought of that 'till now) spread inside with praline icing which is also spread all over the outside and decorated to resemble a log. Add to it a sprig of holly, a tiny plastic axe, a robin and a sprinkling of sugar snow. The sweetmeats and truffles were all made by Susanne as were the bottled cherries in Roland's eau-de-vie.

Just desserts!!

The wines were all excellent but we are not used to quite such full glasses or quite so much in the way of spirits and by the end of the meal we were feeling rather sleepy. Still, considering the circumstances, we coped remarkably well with our French and conversation never flagged.

Champagne de Champagne

Leaving Roland to load the dishwasher before falling asleep in front of the television (which is still dire even on Christmas Day) we went off for a round walk to Buffard with Susanne. Passing near her brother's house we met him and the family returning from the same walk in the opposite direction. They'd been up until 2am feasting last night and had also consumed a similar Christmas lunch to us today! They are incredibly hardy these French folk!

Buffard church with its clocher of glazed tiles

Village crèche made by the school children, Buffard

Typical Jurassian farmhouse with the stalls for horses or cattle to the left, the barn for the tractor or carts in the centre and living accommodation on the right. Windows are round the side, Buffard

The ragondin we saw disappearing into his burrow on the banks of the Loue recently must have ended up either on somebody's dinner plate, or he evacuated his burrow, or else he drowned. The river was rocketing under the bridge, a swirling brown current carrying logs and even trees down from its higher reaches. It had overflowed its banks and spread out across the surrounding fields. Now we could appreciate why there is a dyke built around the village campsite and several neighbouring houses. At least most of the village is above the reach of the water.

The Loue flooding its banks, Champagne-sur-Loue

Sunset on Christmas day, Champagne-sur-Loue (in spate)

Refreshed from our walk we returned upstairs and busied ourselves washing the assorted wine glasses and best cutlery until Roland woke up and appeared with a bottle of ratafia in one hand and another of cassis in the other, proclaiming it was time for an aperitif before supper! .....

Merci beaucoup à Susanne et Rolande pour un Noël inoubliable

Sunday 27th December 2009, Champagne-sur-Loue, Jura
Yesterday we began the serious business of preparing to move on. This is always a saddening and incredibly difficult process as our lives here become an oasis of peace almost untouched by the frustrations of the outside world. We are hopelessly spoilt and Susanne seems to hate us leaving as much as we hate to go. Fortunately for us the flat is required on New Year's Eve to house the band that is coming to play in the village's communal hall above the mairie. Susanne has suggested we could stay and sleep on the floor upstairs until they've gone but we must leave eventually and there are new delights for us in store down in the Languedoc where our friends Ivor and Lesley have indulgently again lent us the keys to their home in Ambre-les-Espagnolettes.

Even in Champagne though, we suffer the occasional frustration, and yesterday morning, once we'd finally scraped the ice from Modestine's windows, was spent in the post and sorting offices of both Mouchard and Arbois vainly attempting to track down the new camping guide and card giving us discounts to campsites across Europe. The publishers insist they posted it to us here at the start of December. In rural villages like Champagne and Ambre-les-Espagnolettes houses do not have numbers. The post ladies just know where everybody lives. Unfortunately when our package was sent, the names of our hosts were omitted so the French postal service says they sent it back to England! Now we are told we need to purchase a new one as it hasn't yet been returned! Grhh! We provided the full address details so it's hardly our fault if the online ordering system cannot cope with the extra address line required. Even if we order another one, the automated system will surely omit the extra line of essential information again. Still, we did get some interesting French practice at the sorting office and felt we acquitted ourselves rather well.

Although it was Boxing Day in England it was an ordinary Saturday here so all the shops, which are invariably closed when we want them, were paradoxically open. We spent a couple of hours in Salins at the bar offering us free wifi, consuming coffees, sending blogs and downloading messages from friends and family – always a really enjoyable experience.

Once the sun had gone from the day it was bitingly cold so we returned home where I spent the time reading the "Da Vinci Code" and cooking up whatever was left in our fridge while Ian worked on his French printers. Susanne had spent the afternoon helping her son Hugues in the woods where he'd been sawing down trees and turning them into logs for the fire. Susanne is amazing. Her job had been to stack the logs into neat piles up in the woods so the air could dry them out for a couple of years before it is brought down to the house and used. She has limited vision and is in her seventies but she stays very fit and active. We'd willingly have helped if we'd known what they were doing.

Having cooked a huge chicken Korma we carried it upstairs where we spent the evening together with Roland, Susanne and Hugues introducing them to curry and rice, followed by Christmas pudding and custard - not something that ardent Jurassians are accustomed to. Roland's bubbling crémant du Jura was the perfect accompaniment to the flaming pudding doused in eau-de-vie.

Around this central meal we enjoyed the usual assortment of home produced wines, aperitifs and digestifs as well as a Mont d'Or cheese with white wine, baked and melted in its box, the rest of the local cheeses from Christmas day, half a Yule log, the remains of the stuffed dates and the jar of cherries in eau-de-vie. Hugues disappeared to the cellar and returned with a ten litre bottle with a basket woven around it (known as a bombonne). It contained the remains of last year's eau-de-vie which we had to sample with coffee and caramelised sugar. Perhaps it's as well we will be moving on soon. It's all getting to be rather more than we are used to!