Monthly Archives: January 2014

France etc. Sept — Dec. 2013 Part 2

On our first visit to Uzes after arriving at the house we went for a coffee to our favourite cafe “la Cantine ” , owned by our hardworking friend Thierry, who has all the local contacts.  And makes pretty good coffee if you drink it black. For some reason, everywhere in France they use UHT milk in coffee and it tastes awful. Thierry also does good, simple food and has a selection of very good local wines by the glass or bottle Speaking of which, we visited a bottle shop in Uzes called “Le Ballon Rouge”. We drive past it every time we go to Uzes, but had never called in because parking is a bit tricky. It is a real discovery. The “patron”, Jean, has a terrific knowledge of the wines of southern France and Bergundy and good stocks. In addition he does a great tapas style simple lunch with local charcuterie and of course fresh, crusty baguettes, accompanied by good, interesting wines by the glass and good coffee (black!). And his English is pretty damned good. A visit is essential if you are in Uzes.

50 metres from the Ballon Rouge is the Antique market. We love it. They have some interesting stuff. If you see something irresistable offer about half the asking price and don’t be surprised if you walk out owning the object.

Before our Italian wine adventure I did a veteran car rally with my friend Nick in his 1913 Hispano Suiza Alfonso. It was based in Cavaillon in Provence, about one and a half hours from our house.  It is in the same area as beautiful St Remy de Provence and L’Isle de la Sorgue, which I have blogged about previously.

The rally was described as a “farandole”, which Nick described as a group of old cars motoring slowly from one meal to the next with intervening stops for “degustation” (drinks). Most stops are accompanied by a long, unintelligible speech from the mayor, but on this rally speeches were quite rare. On a farandole the crews of the cars often dress up in period costume. We were pretty much spared this, so didn’t have to bring out our false moustaches and nightshirts!

There is no doubt that the French take their personal pleasures seriously. We had our first degustation stop each day at about 930 am.

I should mention that the rally was headquartered at the Cavaillon Ibis Hotel, part of the Accor Group I believe. It was truly ghastly. The access gate was closed and remote controlled. Once locked in the hotel you were required to pre pay day by day. The glasses in the rooms were disposable plastic. No soap, only body gel, whatever that is. The breakfast coffee came out of a huge and complex machine and was truly awful but the baguettes and croissants were good.  We snuck out to local restaurants rather than subject ourselves to what would no doubt have been pre prepared and portion controlled catering pack specials at dinner time.

After the rally we drove back to Sanilhac in convoy where Nick parked the Hisso in our garage and we had a memorable BBQ on our wood fired fireplace. We planned more old car motoring in a few weeks.

Next morning we set sail (metaphorically) for Italy, dropping Nick off at his home near Nice. At Nick’s suggestion we drove along the Autostrada (A12) through Genoa and past Rapallo to Sestri Levante on the Mediterranean coast, where we were to spend the night. This is one of those places you have to be told about or you would miss it.

It’s a grown up fishing village with two harbours split by a promontary on the top of which sits the beautiful old Grand hotel dei Castelli. It is an absolute knockout. The rooms are huge and beautifully appointed as are the public spaces. The gardens are extensive and well kept. There is a restaurant which overlooks the harbour with it’s fishing boats and the Mediterranean. It’s pretty idyllic. There is a private lift to take you down to the harbour, beside which there are lots of inviting restaurants and bars. It would be easy to spend a few days in Sestri Levante.

Depending on the season you will pay somewhere in the euro 200s for a double. Definitely worth it for a mini splurge.arone

Grand Hotel Dei Castelli.  Via Penisola 26.

From Sestri Levante we were heading up to the area of Valpolicella, near Verona. We decided to do this by staying off the main roads, so went cross country on minor roads to Parma, where we had a terrific simple lunch in a busy roadside cafe. At lunchtime we generally look for cafes or restaurants with lots of parked cars— the locals know what’s good. It seems to work pretty well.

The drive was a delight– little traffic, hilly, lovely villages, but slow. My rule of thumb is that you can’t average more than about 60 kph. if you are off the European toll road system.

Our stop for the next four nights was to be a place called “Massimego” — an Agriturismo near a village called Mezzane di Sotto, quite close to Verona. This is a beautiful part of Italy, between the lakes (Garda, Como and Maggiore) and Venice. Wine has been made here for over a thousand years. What we were looking for was some small producers of Amarone.  Amarone is not a grape variety, it’s a style of wine made by laying freshly picked bunches of grapes on beds of straw and allowing them to dry out over about 3 months. What happens is that they lose water, which evaporates, but not flavour. They generally lose around half their weight. The bunches are then crushed and made into table wine in the normal way and stored in large oak barrels for at least 3 years. The result is a wine which has wonderfully complex flavours and which changes amazingly in the glass, if you give it a chance! They are necessarily high in alcohol, around 16% and are not cheap to buy, mainly because of the small yield of finished wine from a given weight of grapes. But if you are a red wine lover and haven’t yet had an Amarone please try one. Amarone is our absolutely favourite wine full stop! The main grape used is called Corvina. I don’t know of any planted in Australia, but there may be some.

There are three kinds of red wine made in the Valpolicella region. The basic (and least expensive) are labelled “Valpolicella” or “Valpolicella Superiore”.  These wines are made in a conventional way.

Midway between Valpolicella and Amarone is a wine called “Ripasso”. What happens here is that Valpolicella wine is aged for a time on the lees from Amarone.  Ripasso is much less expensive than full on Amarone, but has some of its wonderful complexity. You can find all these wines in good bottle shops in Australia. Brands to look for include Masi, Speri, Allegrini .There are many others.

In Italy, as in France and for that matter Australia, we are seeing a revolution led by young winemakers who feel the need to throw off the yoke of tradition where they think it to be necessary in the interests of producing a superior product from their vines. They tend to be well read and well travelled and to be on a mission to make the best wine they can, by following philosophies which they have developed. So our aim in this trip to Valpolicella was to see what some of the younger winemakers were doing.

Now , back to Massimego.

To our delight, Massimego is just what we were looking for– a working vineyard producing Valpolicella and Amarone wines, run on organic principles and owned by the delightful and very dedicated Camilla Rossi Chauvenet.

Where do I start about Massimego?

It is situated high on a hill overlooking a beautiful vista of vineyards and farmlands. The main buildings are stone and very old. They are set in lovely gardens surrounded by the Massimego vineyards and olive groves.

Downstairs in the main building is a lounge/ reception room with open fire and dog adjacent to which is the office where Camilla and her helpers run the business.  There is also a tasting room and a kitchen.

Upstairs are six or so bedrooms which are simple and lovely. There are also a number of delightful apartments.

On arrival, Camilla greeted us and offered us a glass of wine, which was most welcome after our drive from Sestri Levante. She told us that the property has come down from her grandfather. Camilla has trained as a winemaker and has travelled and studied extensively. She has developed a philosophy about winemaking and Amarone and is putting that into practice. What she is attempting to do with Amarone is to produce a wine of great flavour , structure and elegance.  In our view she is succeeding.  We thought her Amarone easily the best that we tried on this trip. And the price was very competitive. While we were staying at Massimego Camilla was judged to be one of the 200 best Winemakers in Italy!

Massimego comes with another huge plus–Camilla lives in nearby Verona and if you want to visit that exqisite city (and who wouldn’t), she affords you free access to the carpark under her apartment building in the very centre of the city.  We went to a number of local restaurants suggested by the girls at Massimego . All were terrific.

We also went to two other Amarone producers worth mentioning Corte Sant Alda is an all- girl operation owned and run by the larger than life Marinella Camerani.  When she arrived for our tasting , roaring up in her Jeep ,an assistant said to us half humourously” here comes the hurricane!” Again, the wines are “bio” and very good, perhaps bigger and less seamless than the Massimegos. They have a great website. If you are in the area a visit is compulsory.

An unexpected highlight for us was a visit to meet Zeno Zignoli who owns Monte del Ragni. Although our visit was arranged we obviously woke him up, but he insisted on giving us a full tasting of his range (again bio) and a lengthy exposition of his viticultural and winemaking philosophy. “I believe that the vines talk to me, but I don’t yet understand what they are saying to me” Quirky.

I thought all the wines he showed us were terrific. At the conclusion of it all It seemed the polite thing to do was offer to buy some of the wine, so I popped the question. “you can’t buy any”he said. “it won’t be ready to sell till next easter” “but if you are going to the village of Mulino there is a bottle shop there and he will sell you one bottle” What a man!  A true eccentric.

If you Google Monte dei Ragni there is an interesting blog on the operation from English wine merchant Berry Brothers and Rudd .

After four unforgettable days we headed back to France with a boot full of wine, tossing over the question of whether to try importing some Massimego Amarone. We would have to sell it at about $80 a bottle. Any starters? Trust me, it’s worth every cent.

We straight lined it on the Autostrada past Milan and Turin and through the Mont Blanc tunnel to Valence, Orange and home—-seven hours.

Altogether a really great trip and just what our having the house in France was designed for — our Mothership

To be continued —-



France etc. Sept — Dec. 2013

Part one

Writer’s block is real !

We went to France in September and I had plans of writing a weekly blog. It just didn’t happen— I made notes and kept resolving to do it the following day and then always came up with an excuse not to do it. So I thought that I would do it when I got back home to Bunyip. That was over a month ago.

Anyway, here goes at last. I am determined to sit here for as long as it takes to get some stuff about matters French (and Italian and Spanish) onto the page or what would once have been a page. Mine’s a tablet.

We were very excited at the prospect of this trip because it would give us the chance to enjoy the house and do the bumming around in France thing that we enjoy so much.

Some people have asked why we bought a house as opposed to renting where and when we wanted to. I guess the answer is that we like to have somewhere which has our fingerprints on it— decorated as we want it, with our art, books and music (and even our kitchen stuff) and wine. In short it’s a home and not a place just set up for renters. It’s a base from which we can travel and explore as and when we want to. It all makes perfect sense to us!

So. This trip we again took the Cathay Pacific Premium Economy option making sure we got seats opposite the bulkhead, which gives unlimited leg room .Tres important!

The flight (from Melbourne) involves a two hour stopover in Hong Kong after an 8 hour flight. Then a 13 hour flight to Paris Charles de Gaulle, landing at Terminal 2. The TGV trains go from a station at Terminal 2, so it is all very efficient. On the platform there is even a diagram of the train showing where your carriage is, so you know where to stand. We get the TGV to Avignon and pick up a lease car at the station. Melbourne to our French house is 30 hours. Not too bad In previous blogs I’ve talked about the wonderful TGV and the Renault/Peugeot/Citroen leasing deal.

The trip to Paris was painless, except that our checked in suitcase didn’t arrive.  But it got delivered to us at the house two days later and we know through previous bitter experience not to put anything essential in it. And because we have a house in France we had a change of clothes waiting for us!

Previously, on my trips on the TGV, I have observed that the coffee machine in the Dining Car tends to be “hors de combat”. This time, the machine may well have been working but the servery (in which the coffee machine is installed) was firmly shuttered with a note stuck on it saying that the staff had not turned up for their shift! Ah, France .

Again the weather was pretty wet and misty until we got beyond Lyon, when it fined up between Paris and Lyon the fields were an intense green, a colour we don’t see here So we arrived in Avignon. The car was waiting for us–a new Peugeot 208— and we headed for Sanilhac.  It was wonderful to get to the house where Loesje was waiting to welcome us.  She had opened it up, put flowers in the vases and survival rations in the fridge. Everything just great! Our house was warm and welcoming, everything familiar. We slotted straight in and of course I headed for our “cave” for a celebratory bottle of wine. Loesje filled us in on the local gossip and we discussed some little jobs that needed doing during our stay. The main problem is that the plumber repaired yet another leak in a bathroom caused by Raymond’s shoddy workmanship. He did this about six weeks previously but did not make good the damage he had done to the wall in accessing the leak.  He told Loesje that he was too busy to return and rectify it, then said he was going on holidays.  It was after all August in France!  He has not been paid and doesn’t seem to care, so I’ll fix the wall myself.

It’s really weird—- we have never had a bill from the electrician for the work he did over a year ago, despite a number of requests for one. Locals tell us that this is quite normal.

Loesje left, we showered and unpacked our carryons.  Then we put French SIM cards in our Ipads.  Funny how the world has changed—- 100 years ago we would have been seeing to the horses, not the computers!

Next we headed for wonderful Carrefour to stock up.

BBQ duck breast and a Fontavin Gigondas for dinner outside on the terrace in the crisp evening. What it’s all about!

Next day we played B+B hosts to two American couples who had booked the house at the last minute for two nights.  We stayed elsewhere and turned up to do dinner for them.

When we travel we like to have special little adventures planned.  Our house was booked for two weeks in October so we planned to spend one week in Italy, near Verona, looking at wine. There is a style of wine made there called “amerone” which is our absolute favourite and we wanted to see if we could source some. The second adventure we planned was to visit Aussie friends in the Dordogne (which we had never visited) and then drive across to Bilbao to see the Frank Gehry designed Guggenheim Museum.  And of course We had found a restaurant near Bilbao which sounded irresistable (and unpronouncable). It’s called Asador Etxebarre and they do all their cooking over wood. We also planned of course to visit some new French wineries and to do a couple of old car related things.

So our first real holiday in our second home promised to be quite busy (but with plenty of quiet time so I could write my blog—ha!) It was autumn in France and in the local vineyards the vintage (“vendage “) was on— huge picking machines in the vineyards and lots of tractors on the narrow roads towing bins of grapes. The tractor drivers are typically oblivious to modern traffic; they just do their thing at their pace—- I love it! The villages smell of crushed grapes as you travel through them.

And being autumn the “Chasseurs” (hunters) are everywhere. In France “la chasse” is a really big deal. The back roads and villages are full of Toyota type utes with cages of vicious hunting dogs in the back ,the drivers and their mates wearing camo (with a touch of flouro pink to be legal) and bearing shotguns. They are basically hunting pigs “le sanglier”, but nothing living is safe.

Janelle and I had planned to do regular walks this trip. There are great walks around the area. But we were soon talked out of it by locals. “you’ll be shot!”  We were told that la chasse is banned on two days a week, which apparently varies from area to area.

We were never able to find out definitively which the local lay days were and in any event, being France, the citizens probably ignored the restrictions at whim.

So the regular long walks in les Garrigues remained but a dream.

The pace of Sanilhac, our village, suits us very well. It is quite small, but stil a “living” village, with its boulangerie and bars, where so many now have no commerce. As in many countries the young people are moving to the big population centres and many villages are dying. It is sad to see. When I first visited France about Forty years ago my recollection is that even the small villages had a tabac, a charcuterie, a boulangerie and a cafe. Sanilhac is fortunate to have a thriving boulangerie/cafe/bar . Consequently the village has an active and social community.

Being a small village not particularly on the road to anywhere there is little traffic, so it is almost eerily quiet at night, which encourages good, long sleeps. After we have got up and attended to matters of “toilette” I wander the couple of hundred metres through the village to the boulangerie for our morning baguette. At the boulangerie there is usually a small group of local men — no women– having a coffee and cigarette while loudly discussing matters of moment. I usually buy Janelle a naughty pastry along with our breakfast baguette, then wander back to our house “bonjouring” everyone I encounter from kids to oldies. It’s very nice.

We tend to have a leisurely breakfast on the terrace in the courtyard and plan the day. Is there a market on? Do we need to visit Carrefour? Will we eat in or out tonight? Is there a movie on in Uzes? Is there stuff to do on the house?

You slow down.

After our delightful American guests continued on their holiday we had a week before the next guests were due.  Being autumn the vineyards were looking gorgeous with the leaves changing colour.  We headed for the winery in Fournes to catch up with our friend Annelie, the export manager and to stock up our cellar. Annelie very kindly invited us to a “Primeur” party at a nearby winery where we would sample the first of the 2013 wines well before bottling. The party was great — after we found it! In France, directions can be un pfetit peu vague, as these were. The party was at the winery. There were about 300 people at the party .The bar dispensed glasses of the new wine and there was a food area doing freshly shucked oysters, paella, charcuterie, sausages and chips. We lined up, dividing ourselves so we were in various queues. The concept of a queue is pretty alien to the average Frenchman, so it takes a while to get to the head of one because of all the people who just go straight to the counter and order loudly.

The disorganisation at the various food stations was magnificent!  The paella ran out early. The oysters were shucked to order by the only person managing the oyster station who just loved a chat while he shucked. The chip cooker, also on his own, would take an order, go away and cook the chips, come back and serve them to the patiently waiting customer, then take the next order, go away and cook it. Etc etc. at least the charcuterie was cold and sliced.  We sat at long tables and started chatting to our neighbours at the table who were holidaying from Norway, spoke perfect English and had a house in the village where the winery was. We had a very predictable conversation — “Australia is so far away” ,”spiders”, “sharks”.


To be continued—–  We visit Italy and Spain