We are sheltering from the afternoon heat in our chilly kitchen which even today will soon have us shivering! The garden is so hot it's only fit for lizards and grass hoppers.
After the Friday market in Arbois we invited Suzanne and Roland to join us for lunch at our favourite restaurant, La Cuisance, overlooking the river where ducks waded in the shallow water and trout somehow found sufficient depth in the travertine pools to swim. Lunch took a couple of very pleasant hours as we worked our way through rice salad with anchovies followed by coq-au-vin with haricot beans. There was a selection of cheeses from the Franche-Comté region with chocolate mousse and coffee to finish.
During the afternoon we went our separate ways, ours being to the internet shop in Salins for a two hour stint with emails and blogs. On our return to Champagne we discovered the Convent building is now up for sale again, having been sold by the nuns a few years ago when it stopped being rented by the Centre for Research into the Future based at the Salines at Arc-et-Senans. We have since been imagining all the different uses we could put it to if we were able to buy it! It's a nice dream but even if we could we are too old now to undertake such an enormous project.
Yesterday was the day of the second grape harvest. Roland declared them sweet enough to gather and everyone bustled around preparing for the event. On the hillside above the village other wine producers were already out amongst their vines during the morning and the road through the village was noisy with voices and tractors as the grapes were brought down and loaded into vats.
As we were only gathering what was left after the first harvest Roland decided a few hours during the afternoon would suffice. During the morning therefore we drove across to the village of Villers-Robert, the Jura home of our late friend Danielle and her parents to pay our respects to their memory and remember how Danielle, ill in Brittany, had asked us to visit the village for her during our previous sojourn here.
Suzanne had prepared a very nice lunch for all the grape pickers when we returned and her kitchen was crowded as everyone enjoyed her rôti de porc with vegetables and glasses of last year's wine.
Then the nine of us made our way up onto the hillside above the village to the vines, overlooking the Loue. The sun was hot so we all wore baseball caps. Hugues had brought his sons Thibault and Valentin to help. While we worked systematically along the rows armed with secateurs and buckets, Hugues directed operations and collected our grapes into a huge metal container on his back. He'd then walk down to the bottom of the vineyard and discharge it into a container on Roland's truck. Here nine year old Valentin was busy rubbing and pressing the grapes through holes in a large, flat, wooden sieve. This separated them from their stalks which were discarded into a corner of the vineyard.
Even stopping for cold drinks didn't delay us long and by the end of the afternoon we'd stripped the vines bare. Hot and sticky we trundled our way back along the uneven tracks to the village where we tested the sugar content of the grape juice and found it satisfactory. Thibault climbed up into the truck and started filling buckets with the juice and squashed grapes while the rest of us formed a human chain down into Roland's cellar where he had the new vat ready and waiting. Nothing is added to the grapes and almost immediately, being already warm from the sun, a natural fermentation began. By today it is well under way and Roland is having to go down night and morning for the next couple of weeks to keep the mixture well stirred so that the grapes do not rise to the surface and float on the top of the juice.
Next we all had fun splashing huge quantities of water around as we cleaned the equipment, washing out all the buckets and the containers we'd used up on the hillside. Young Valentin particularly enjoyed this bit though he had worked amazingly hard all afternoon and heaved with the rest of us in the bucket chain.
Having tested the various vats which had been set fermenting a couple of weeks ago, we all adjourned to the balcony of the house to enjoy home-produced aperitifs in the setting sun. Having provided lunch and worked with the rest of us in the vineyard all afternoon Suzanne then produced a raclette supper for everyone with various kinds of cooked meats and jacket potatoes. The raclette is toasted comté cheese that is melted in tiny trays at the table and poured over the potatoes. As the weather was so warm we ate in the dusk on the balcony as the owls began to hoot in the grounds of the old convent and bats swooped around our heads. One misjudged things and dived straight through the open door into the kitchen where it fluttered around the ceiling, stopping to hang upside down from the cupboard doors, while we all wondered how to persuade it to leave. Eventually it found its way out and we settled to a desert of caramelised apples from the orchard accompanied by Roland's vin mousseux – or as we call it, Champagne de Champagne.
As the evening drew to a close Roland presented each of the adult pickers with a bottle of his champagne for helping. We felt guilty taking ours as we'd had such a brilliant time and felt so privileged to have had such an experience. However, we have promised to save it until our grandchild arrives in early November. It seems a lovely way to welcome it into the world.
Since we arrived here I have been reading the last volume of Harry Potter each night before going to sleep. Somehow time slips by and it is frequently gone 1am before Ian forces me to stop reading. Coupled with the dark shutters at the windows we find it difficult to wake in the mornings and somehow never seen to hear the loud clanging of the church bell, right next to the house, as it rings each morning at 7am. It was gone 9.30 therefore before we woke this morning. As we needed bread, and the bakers in Arc-et-Senans closes at noon, we cycled down after breakfast along beside the river. The little town was packed when we arrived. We had forgotten that this is the weekend of the Journées Européennes du Patrimoine in France. This means that many of the national monuments, museums and public buildings are open free of charge and there are frequently guided walks or tours around the countryside or even building sites. The Salines Royales of Arc-et-Senans were free for the day and, being such a spectacular architectural undertaking in such a lovely setting, it was guaranteed to be a popular place for family outings. The grounds are also used as a launching place for hot air balloons and a two day event had been arranged to coincide with the journées du patrimoine. There was a great air of festivity with dozens of Montgolfier balloons waiting to go up later in the day. There were gliders and microlite aircraft or powered hang gliders. There were model, radio-controlled aircraft and model boats. There were parachutists jumping out of aircraft and helicopters flying around. There were beer tents and candy floss stalls as well as stalls selling hot dogs and pancakes. Families were arriving with their picnic baskets and settling anywhere they could find a patch of shade.
We spent a couple of hours around the Salines before cycling home across the fields for a late lunch.
It is now evening and we have now just returned from a climb up onto the hillside behind the château in the evening sunshine. From the open meadowland on the top there is an uninterrupted view across the plain of the Loue towards Arc-et-Senans. We were able to watch as the Montgolfier balloons were prepared for flight, looking like huge, multicoloured mushrooms as they inflated. There were 28 in all and they made an impressive sight as they all took off together into the still blue sky and drifted silently down the valley against the light of the setting sun. Suzanne says the most she has ever counted launched together were 84! She and Roland have been up in one themselves in the past and their friends from Paris keep a Montgolfier in one of Roland's outbuildings here.
Monday 17th September 2007, Champagne-sur-Loue
At last the final page of Harry Potter has been read and we can start getting to sleep at a reasonable hour. We have both felt really weary all day. It is probable though that the change in the weather is more to blame than Harry and Hermione's hunt for horcruxes and hallows at Hogwarts. For the first time since we arrived there has been rain, making the day hot and humid. This evening there is lightning flashing around the sky beyond the woods by the river and according to the TV we should have awful weather with storms, high winds and low temperatures for our onward journey down towards the Languedoc on Wednesday.
We didn't really get going until after lunch when we drove to Poligny, a very pleasant old town overlooked by the sheer grey limestone cliffs so typical of Franche Comté. You can read a full account of Poligny on our earlier blog.
It was raining as we reached the town so after a preliminary splash around the streets to refresh our memories we headed for the Comté cheese museum. Poligny is at the centre of the region famed for the production of this delicious cheese. We joined a couple of French visitors and another couple from Germany for a bilingual guided tour. As we heard everything twice, if we missed anything in French we picked it up later in German.
We have eulogised so much over the mountain pastures of this area where the meadows are filled with a huge variety of sweet smelling flowers. We just never see such rich grassland in Britain so it is not surprising that cattle feeding all summer out in the beautiful meadowlands of Franche-Comté are going to produce a milk far sweeter than anything we can hope for in Britain. Of course, over the winter months the cattle have to be kept under cover in this inhospitable climate, so during the late summer the long meadow grass is mown, dried and rolled to be used as winter fodder. There are strict controls limiting the production of Comté cheese concerning geographical limits and the minimum hectarage per head of cattle. Only Montbéliard cows are grazed. It takes 450 litres of milk to produce one Comté cheese weighing 50 kilos which is matured for a minimum of four months before use, but is frequently aged for much longer. After our visit we were given tastings of differently aged Comté, of 12 and 27 months. Both were delicious but had quite different flavours, the older one being far stronger in taste. We have previously written and illustrated local cheese production at Nans-sous-Sainte-Anne
As we drove back to Champagne we were obliged to stop on the edge of the village as one of the farmers lead his troop down from the fields for evening milking. Now knowing just how important their work is we were only too willing to give them precedence and waited patiently as they surrounded Modestine, pausing to lick her wing-mirrors or scratch their flanks on her sides as the passed!
Tuesday 18th September 2007, Champagne-sur-Loue
All last night the storm continued with thunder and lightening. This morning it had moved on leaving a wet, grey, chilly countryside. We spent the morning clearing up and starting to pack for our onward journey tomorrow before driving in to Salins to buy some flowers for our hosts as a leaving gift.
During the afternoon the sun put in an appearance and it became much warmer. We decided to make the most of our last few hours by donning walking boots against the mud and climbing up onto the hillside above the village to take a walk through the vineyards, now almost all devoid of their grapes and the leaves starting to turn yellow and crimson. Beside the vines roses were frequently in bloom and the tracks between the plantations were lined with fruit and nut trees – apples, pears, apricots plums and quinces as well as walnut trees. The fallen fruit lay scattered along the paths, too abundant to gather. Beyond the bend of the Loue the wooded hills rose in blue folds towards Mont Poupet, its summit frequently disappearing into the misty clouds heavy with rain yet to come.
We passed Roland's wooden cabin on the edge of the woods. He was up there with the tractor working yesterday, tidying it up and cutting back the grass ready for an extended family picnic at the weekend. We will be sorry to miss it. Eventually the track lead out onto the tarmac road that runs between Port Lesney and Cramans. With at least three vehicles and hour using it we decided it was too busy so turned off to follow a track through the woods trusting our luck that we would not run into either hunters or sangliers. We saw neither but after the rain we had to step carefully to avoid the hundreds of long, slimey, bright orange slugs that scattered our path sometimes paired in a passionate embrace and emitting large quantities of oozing bubbles as the excitement increased! We found it such a repulsive sight we couldn't even bring ourselves to photograph it for the blog! Further along the track we discovered a lone snail. This was one of the true snails of Bourgogne and was the size of a pingpong ball! Just a few of these with some garlic butter would make a meal! With its four inquisitive eyes on their long stalks it looked far more attractive than the horrid slugs!
Today it struck us for the first time that autumn is not far off. In the woodland there was the perpetual sound of acorns falling around us and the track was covered in falling leaves. The trees are now starting to wear a hazy tweed of green and tan, touched with yellow.
We were back in the village before Suzanne and Roland returned from their visit to relatives up in the mountains where they said it was really chilly with a frost expected tonight.
Wednesday 19th September 2007, Champagne-sur-Loue
We woke to a chilly world with condensation on the inside of the windows and wreaths of mist shrouding the surrounding hills. However, by the time we had packed Modestine and cleaned through the flat the sun was up and the mist fast dispersing. Upstairs we drank coffee with Suzanne while Roland busied himself stirring the barrels and cauldrons down in his cellar, which he assures us, stays at the same temperature throughout the year. By the time we left at 10.30 the day was threatening to be really hot and the hedgerows were steaming in the sunshine.
Of course saying goodbye to friends is always tinged with sadness and Champagne has such a special place in our affections that when the moment for departure arrives the one thing we really want is to stay there for ever! At last Suzanne eased us away with promises that we must return next year to sample the results of the recent vendange.
As we drove away along beside the Loue the beautiful Comtois horses raised their heads to watch us leave before tossing their golden manes and returning to the business of cropping the flowers in their meadow.