Life had once again become idyllic in the rolling hills of Burgundy, where we took up residence outside a village called Trivy for six weeks from mid-July to 31 August. Liberally sprinkled with villages, markets and sights, we liberally sprinkled great wine into our mouths in the company of wonderful food and friends.
Trivy numbers 20 stone houses, a church and a hall. Ours is not included in the 20; we are 600 metres in a short shamble outside of this ancient village. Our L-shaped house is La Champ du Four, another of Bruce and Judy’s, and it is divine. Built in the 17th century, it has been modernised onto three levels including two bedrooms and a bathroom under the eaves, the main bedroom and bathroom on the first level, and a lounge room I call “the North Pole” (it is blessedly cool) underneath those. I use that as my study.
Our living quarters are in the converted barn, half below ground level, with its cool tiled floors, a major kitchen, refectory table seating 12 and sitting room with telly and library, connected by a sensibly-sized staircase to the bedrooms upstairs. Under the old house is the laundry, from which I enjoy shooing small lizards, and another loo, woodshed (not needed) and a cellar. Outside is an antique well that still works.
The whole is half covered with a grapevine which attracts thousands of disinterested (in us) bees on hot days, on a large plot of land including a horse chestnut tree, a fir/pine/conifer type tree, outdoor seating and garden beds. Surrounded by a corn field on one side, harvested wheat bags (Minties) to the rear emitting a sweet, sugary, fermented smell and a cow farm in front, we delight in this country experience. Situated on a rise into Trivy, we have distance vistas of wheat fields, forests and vines. It is heavenly. You can feel your soul relaxing and escaping into creativity.
Every Saturday the farmer tows a trailer of wheat to “our cows”, and their moos and jostling to get to the byre for the next two days until it has been devoured are a delight. The cows provide hours of interest and entertainment as we drink, eat, read and write out of doors under the trees. The cows here are Charolais, named after “Charolles” up the road a bit, and are coloured sandy white to warm-brown. Bred for beef, we know “our” 16 calves across the road will be made into Boeuf Bourgignon one day. We don’t mind that. We haven’t named them.
Aside from regular visits to Cluny, there is one more digression on shopping. Three kilometres away is the village of Dompierre-les-Ormes. From our bedroom window we see it beckoning from the distance and firstly drove over there to find a nearer café than Cluny. Dompierre also has a village church with a lovely warm orange interior, a grocery shop, a boulangerie for our bread and La Poste for our bank. To reach Dompierre one must descend one kilometre to the Lac at Chandon which supports two rival restaurants, then ascend a winding, steep two kilometres.
I know this road intimately, every curve and farm and vista, as I have walked it most days to buy our bread. It’s the perfect length and doesn’t stress out my poor broken feet or hips too much. ‘Keet’ then drives over to join me for coffee and a chat with the delightful “Heve”, the coffee-shop owner, a scratch of his black Lab “Princesse”, and drives me home, where I write my play, book and blogs. THIS is the life I want to live. It misses only my own dog, and all the people I love, to make it perfect.
In our six weeks in Burgundy we saw many of the local sights. These included the small but famous village of Charolles and the “Cow Centre”, while further along is the significant town of Paray Le Monial. It is significant because it contains a major pilgrimage centre based on the 12th century Sacre-Coeur church which is a mini-Cluny Abbey, except it’s still standing.
One day in Paray, a Christian convention was in full swing. People were parading around the town, to and from the showgrounds, with id badges swinging from their necks and beatific smiles beaming from their faces. We should have guessed, but made the trek to the showgrounds anyway to find all the types of ecclesiastical marquees you could wish for. They were all there. We could go shopping for Judaism, Buddhism, Islam, Anglicism and the big one, Catholicism. At their marquees we could look at sophisticated videos interpreting the relevant scriptures, meet counsellors or buy charms. These were the break-out marquees. There was one giant tent that could seat two thousand people in religious unity. One wonders what they had in common and hoped they could teach the world how to live together with different beliefs.
At Charolles, seeing as how we were living in the world centre of breeding, production and distribution of Charolais beef, we visited the Cow Centre, aka La Maison du Charolais. We spent three hours there and it was totally educational, ending with a beef tasting and glass of wine. This is France after all.
We learned every Charolais calf is given a numbered identity card at birth. About 450,000 are born each year. That number follows it through all subsequent sales, via the abbatoir, to the butcher, to one’s plate. The best restaurateurs buy the best cows (we went through a simulator where we had to pick the best cow from studying and prodding its rump), so it’s important they get the Red Label cow they identified under the AOC – Charolais de Bourgogne– and not some half-breed only good for cassoulet.
We learned about the diet of these tall and magnificent beasts. They graze from March-November, on the 4,500 specialist Charolais beef farms, then are brought into barns to fatten up on hay, cereals and silage. About 280,000 of them are sold to Italy to fatten up, where their identity number goes with them. Doesn’t everyone fatten up in Italy?
Most farmers in this region grow their own fodder and are responsible for managing their own hedgerows too under ancient protocols. The 33 cuts of meat were explained, and I learned why a fillet steak is so special. We studied foods, grains, seasonal variations, climate change, export markets, carbon markets, hedgerow management, cooperatives and abattoirs. There were 20 minutes of best beef recipes on video, and they played it for me in English. We followed one calf through its life-cycle and finally tasted it when it was 18 months old and was slaughtered along with 160,000 others this season. It was very tender.
There is a livestock market in Charolles every Wednesday, and when I was later in another country, Keet went to this market alone to enhance his rump-prodding skills. He said it was overwhelming.
The Charollais farmers also grow Charollais sheep for mutton. To distinguish, when it’s lamb it’s spelled with two Ls, beef with one, ie: “Charolais”. Anyway, France has about 4.5 million head of Charolais, its most common beef cow, and I find Australia too is crossing over to the breed as it grows fast, adapts easily and has a good carcass. Perhaps back home we may work as Rump-Prodders.
From beef production I segue to beef-eating. Our friend Penny dropped by with her delightful parents Robert and Gaye Herbert on their odyssey through France, Italy and Croatia. They were our first Australian visitors and it was wonderful to catch up on home news and hear the accent again. It was one of France’s really hot days. Planning to eat at the Auberge du Lac at the bottom of our hill, we found it was closed on Tuesdays so ate at its rival, Le Restaurant du Midi. We were lucky to get a seat in the relatively cooler interior, but being late arrivals most meat meals had “finished”. I think we ate tuna salad, but this lovely family enjoyed seeing our beautiful house later for coffee and cake before they continued to Lyon.
On another occasion Keet and I ate at the Auberge du Lac and found we could not finish the five generous courses they provided in their “menu du jour”. On this occasion I ordered melt-in-your-mouth Boeuf Bourguignon. At another time, we went to the Moulin de Brandon at Brandon and enjoyed a gorgeous dinner, home-cooked, where I ordered very rare Charolais beef and thought it was the best steak ever.
When I say “home-cooked”, it seems most restaurants are run out of someone’s living room, cooked by a Maman or Papa out the back and served by their family working front-of-house. The Australian concept of a “restaurant” with regulations, licences, hired staff, themed meals and modern structures is quite lost in France. Instead, you have to ask the locals – “where is the best restaurant”? It’s generally not the High Street one that the tourists go to.
Instead it’s in an ancient stone building in a rural setting, seats a maximum of about 20 people under dark timbered beams on flagstone floors, the cuisine is only ever French, there are only two choices of each course, food is cooked in a concealed kitchen that probably never saw a Restaurant Inspector and the owner is the waiter is the chef is the cleaner, or related to her. The food is reasonably priced, ingredients are grown in the garden or bought at the market that day, and it is gorgeous. One feels like an invited guest at such an establishment, not a customer. The family is always keen to know your name and where you are from, and by the end of the meal, and lashings of champagne, wine and their mysterious home-grown, not-for-sale dessert liquor, you are best friends and promise to return next week. We invariably pay about 45 euros per head with wine, and try and do this once a week.
At Moulin de Brandon above, his wife was away the day we’d booked, so he only took 10 people as that was all he felt he could manage, and he greeted, waited and cooked for the 10 of us. It’s that level of trust and hospitality I am commending. I yearn for such informality, friendliness, warmth, absence of regulation, (if you get sick you will tell people, so no one actually feeds you things that will kill you in this context), and vastly generous hospitality to invade our country, and be extended to strangers as unstintingly as the French local restaurant offers it.
It was not only the French who offered unstinting generosity and warmth in this period. We’d learned that Graeme Simsion, (The Rosie Project/Effect/Result, Two Steps Forward), and Anne Buist, with whom we have a small acquaintance, and who are great Camino wanderers and authors, had a house in nearby Tramayes. I contacted him to suggest a coffee in Cluny and he immediately offered dinner at his house. Curious to learn how other Australians live and manage a home in France six months every year, we drove over one evening.
Graeme had cooked us a banquet and we settled out of doors to eat it, at a house eerily like ours – ancient stone walls, rambling levels, wandering vines, modern interiors, beautiful setting. Our fig and cheese entrée was grilled on the Weber and Graeme opened our Monbazillac offering at the start of the meal, because it is a great dessert wine to eat with figs. He was correct. Our Master Chef then produced a lavish seafood platter with about six or seven varieties of crustacean including a lobster killed that day. (If you’ve read “Rosie”, you will laugh at this reference as we did.) By now he’d opened some Chablis, our Grand Cru for the meat (pork) course, and so it progressed into a delightful evening, with much more found in common including the Camino, writing, acting, study, IBM, IT industry, people, music and books. Much, much later that night, after more wine, dessert, coffee, chocolate, a house tour and a sampling of home-brewed liqueurs, we drove home on the circuitous country roads narrowly missing six cats, 11 rabbits and one limping deer.
Graeme and Anne were setting off in the following days to walk the Camino to Rome for 86 days, gathering material for their next book. I was flying to Romania on 15 August for six days of judging the Canopy Formation World Cup, Keet was planning to join me in Lyon for two days to celebrate my birthday, before I flew out again on 23 August to Italy to be a Jury member at the World Cup of Wingsuit Flying. This was a Red Letter night, a celebration of Trivy, Burgundy, France and all it offers. We look forward to reuniting with joy next year when we are all home again.
PS: You may be wondering, with all this food and wine talk, about blood alcohol limits in France? Yes, they have rules and limits; it is 0.05, the same as Australia, and wine and alcohol are everywhere, all the time, and expected as part of the culture. But we have never had a conscious thought about it or wondered if we were over; we are not, of course, because we are sensible Seniors living abroad. Instead, the French have a healthy attitude that if you want to kill yourself, you are welcome to go ahead and do it, as long as you don’t kill anyone else. With narrower roads, a much slower speed of travel, rural communities looking after each other, multiple home-based restaurants accessible on foot, plenty of great public transport, and a culture focussed on food and wine, it is less common in France than in Australia that alcohol impairment causes road deaths. And there is not the perception of heavy-handed control we feel at home. Maybe French folk self-regulate better than we do, because when people don’t see a barrier, there’s nothing to push on?
Our time in Trivy was too short but I have more to say. We were blessed with another heat wave, a cool house, great people to hang with, beautiful local villages to enjoy, country air, food, wine and Charolais in all directions including on our plates. Next time, I shall discourse on the Route des Grands Crus in Burgundy and our visit to Dijon. I do not want my readers to leave this beautiful region yet either.