Saturday, May 23, 2009

A Taste of France's Beaujolais Countryside

Friday, May 22, 2009
Beaujolais Country, Oingt and Perrouges, France

As the Bank Holiday weekend continued in France, Genevieve suggested a family trip to the Beaujolais countryside that surrounds the city of Lyon. Though it is here that the famous red wine is produced, Genevieve had not toured this area herself. Frederic, however, had some cousins who lived in the region and, it was on their advice, that we made our way after breakfast to the rather strangely named town of Oingt, in the heart of Beaujolais country.

The Golden Stones of Oingt:
All wines owe their flavor and their reputation to the soils that produce them and Beaujolais receives its unique flavor from the land on which the grapes vines flourish—a land that is composed of the yellow stone that is referred to in French as the pierres d’ores, i.e. the golden stone of Beaujolais.

Indeed, long before we arrived in the region, not too long after we left the urban environs of Lyon behind us, we were in the most beautiful, unspoiled country where the small villages seemed to exist in a previous century and where development is non-existent. The gentle slopes of these mountains are covered with vineyards, most of which were still rather young this early in the year. From time to time, our car took us past story-book villages with cobbled streets and a prominent church square, but, for the most part, we hugged the edges of gentle escarpments that slumbered in the strong sunshine. The bucolic quality of the lives of these people is indeed enviable and I was not surprised to discover that some of France’s best-known inns and hotels are to be found in the old chateaux that have been converted into five-star deluxe accommodations.

When we arrived at Oingt, we parked our car and made our way towards the village square where we passed by a farmhouse that beckoned us strongly inside. This place, apart from producing the lovely wine known well in the area, also hid a museum of sorts—one that is devoted to vintage vehicles of every kind but mainly farmyard ones. There was a bunch of old Peugots and Reynauds and Citroens, and a number of smaller kids’ cars, all of which were interesting, if dust-ridden. A few visitors had joined us in surveying the collection but, before long, we made our way out towards the honey-colored stone cottages that glowed softly in the morning light. So many of them were draped with fragrant pink roses and I could not stop taking pictures of these charming and very unique street corners that seemed to belong to a bygone era.

No, there is not much to do at all in this village which was recently voted as one of the prettiest in France, but if your travels take you through the Beaujolais region, I would strongly recommend a visit to this village. Other American tourists seemed to be in accord with me on this score as we spied a large group with a French guide who then spent the rest of the morning at leisure in the maze of narrow lanes and traipsed through the vineyards. I was grateful indeed that the Ducotes had chosen to bring me to this unspoiled hamlet and I was loathe to leave it, except that the rest of the day promised similar delights.

On to Moinnay, Frederic’s Ancestral Village:
To arrive in Perouges, the medieval French village that is not too far away, we had to drive through an area known as the Dommes—an area that was once covered with marshy lakes known as etangs. These mud swamps became so notorious as carriers of the malaria mosquito that they were soon filled up with earth. The hollows of previous lakes are today paradises for bird life and continue to attract a rich variety of species.

Frederic informed me at this point that his grandparents had once owned vast stretches of this land bordering a town called Moinnay and it was he who suggested to Genevieve that she drive us through this area to show us the land upon which his ancestors had farmed for centuries. Indeed, it was not long before we arrived in Moinnay, a very small rural settlement that boasted its own railway station. For miles on end, all the eye could see were plantations and fields, most sown with wheat today. Though Frederic still owns vast stretches of this land, the chateau that is part of this property, called the Chateau de Poilltanes, is no longer in his family’s ownership having been placed on the market and being snapped up by a buyer a few years ago. Frederic knows the current owners well and after parking our car, in what seemed to be the middle of nowhere, we set out to find the family etang, which now belongs to the current owner of the chateau.

It was peaceful indeed out there and though in the nearby fields we could see horses in pasture, no other life seemed to stir in the stillness of the afternoon air. We took a few pictures on the property, then returned to the car.

By this point, most of us were hungry, so it was welcome news to discover that we would soon be in Perouges where we decided to stop first for lunch.

Exploring Perouges--A Medieval Town:
Because Frederic had kept telling me that he disliked Perouges because it was too “commercial”, I had expected to walk into a mini Disneyworld…so I was pleasantly surprised to discover that it wasn’t like that at all. In fact, but for the occasional souvenir store and family-run restaurant, there was really no other commercial activity that anyone could dislike.

On parking our car, I discovered that we were in a medieval village that unlike the golden stone of Beaujolais, is composed entirely of a grey stone that covers the walls of its ancient structures. Much like the many Suffolk towns and villages I have seen in England with their exposed timber beams, Perouges also boasts houses with exposed timbers that give it a very distinct ambience, the result of so many years of build-up of natural dust and other organic materials. It is on a cobbled street that the modern visitor walks to arrive at the grand entrance to the Gothic inspired church which I visited briefly and found to be very dark, yet very atmospheric.

But our bellies beckoned strongly and we found sustenance at the Ostellerie Ancienne de Perouges where I settled on a totally satisfying and very delicious smoked salmon salad that was served with a delicious lemon vinaigrette. We did order a bottle of sweet cider from Bretagne that was perfectly welcome on the warm afternoon and after we had slaked our thirst and satisfied our hunger, we turned to the serious business of choosing a dessert. All of us went for the Galette de Perouges, the traditional flat tart that is baked in wood ovens in the little cottages of the local residents. Indeed, it was quite delicious and made a very fitting last course to our meal, studded as it was with large grains of sugar.

Our rambles around the village then took us to other parts where we admired the quaintness of the structures, all of which have been beautifully preserved. So many of these were the residences of the local people who are governed by strict conservation laws that dictate exactly how the exterior of their homes must look. Again, there isn’t very much to amuse youngsters in this place and it was not long before the Ducote boys showed signs of boredom. Besides, with the sun having advanced in the skies and the afternoon having turned warm, it was time to think of returning home to sink into the inviting pool and while the rest of the afternoon away.

Afternoon by the Poolside:
And that was exactly what we did. We left Perouges behind us, drove along the winding country roads past the quietly slumbering villages, all of which were empty on this holiday weekend and headed back to St. Didier.

The boys promptly got into their swimsuits and jumped into the water and spent the afternoon frolicking around at leisure. While Genevieve sat reading poolside, I sat on a swing in the Ducote garden and enjoyed the cool mountain air.

About an hour later, Genevieve took me to the local Auchan, a massive supermarket to buy some of the French gourmet goodies I wanted to take back to England such as mackerels in mustard sauce, good quality Rocqueford cheese and some really ripe chevre (goat’s cheese). The boys accompanied us on this outing and upon our return, we got ready for our last evening together. I had announced to the family that on the eve of my departure, I would like to take them all out for dinner. This announcement brought many whoops of joy from the boys who are, as Genevieve describes them, “gourmands”, and at her suggestion, we decided to drive to Lyon to the riverbanks to find a suitable place.

Last Evening in Lyon:

Since the Ducotes did not have any particular place in mind, we drove into the city hoping to find a wayside restaurant perhaps on the banks of a river. As it turned out, we arrived at the Place des Jacobins, which was beautifully lit later on in the evening, where we found a street devoted entirely to restaurants (similar to the Rue des Bouchers in Brussels in Belgium). There we found a place called Hippopotamus which did a fixed price menu for 15 euros and seated at a table on the pavement, we intended to spend our last evening in harmony together.

Genevieve, Frederic and I all chose the steak which was superbly marinated in a sauce and grilled just right. The Rocqueford sauce that accompanied it was quite the most delicious thing I ate on this trip to France and it went beautifully with the Potatoes Dauphinois (gratinated) that I chose as my accompaniment. That’s when Amaury began to weep all over his hamburger and insisted that he could not longer eat it as he was not hungry. He was desolate that I would be leaving the next morning and I did recall that more than 20 years ago, when Genevieve had visited me in Bombay, Chriselle too had begun to weep the evening before the Tougne sisters had left for France. Indeed, I was struck by the repetitiveness of this occurrence and I realized that children are the same around the world.

It was dessert that cheered the boys up somewhat—their choice, two scoops of Ben and Jerry’s ice-cream which both adore. I opted for a Chocolate Mousse which has to be the largest helping of Chocolate Mousse I have ever eaten in my life! Oh, it was quite heavenly, but just too much! I never thought I would ever say that about Chocolate Mousse, but in quantity this one was seriously over the top.

It was late, after 10 pm, when we left the restaurant to return to the Ducote home for my last evening in France. I had just spent some of the most blissful days of my European year and I am sure it had to do with the company more than anything else. After all, though Lyon is an interesting city, it did not sweep me off my feet. Yes, it definitely had to do with the people I was seeing in this city and the reiteration of my strong friendship with them over so many years.

I was going to have an early departure from their home, but both boys insisted on accompanying Genevieve in the car as she dropped me off to the airport. Though I tried to say my goodbye to them and dissuaded them, they made us promise that we would wake them up early enough to join us on the ride to the airport.

And it was on that happy note that I went off to sleep.

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