Thursday, November 10, 2011

Hills-Rocks=Chateaux + Caves=Awesome Wine and Mushrooms in Saumur!

Greetings fellow “prend”-ers!  I say “prend”, or prendre, because that is the familiar verb one uses to describe eating or drinking.  The word actually means “to take, or to take in”, and works perfectly with all things “prend”-able, whether it be beverages or food.  With this in mind, I had a great time “prend”-ing all there was to “prend” in Saumur, a quaint little village close to Angers, known specifically for its wine, mushrooms, and, of course, chateaux. 
However, without the chateaux in the Loire Valley, these special vineyards and caves used for growing mushrooms and aging wine would not exist.  Pourquoi pas?  Well, it all starts with the wish for really rich people (royalty and the like) to build their second mansions in the country, oftentimes in the Loire Valley.  Personally, I think this became a “my chateau is bigger than your chateau” contest, but anyway.  So in order to build these great chateaux, people gutted the underlying hills of the Loire Valley, valuing the shale (like the mine my host family and I visited on our bike ride), limestone, and other rocks that could be used for constructing these huge buildings.  In place of all the rock gutted from the hills, caves formed, and somewhere along the line, someone thought that it would be an awesome idea to grow/ferment stuff in them.  In some cases, people even thought it would be cool to live in the caves, and those caves were given the name “troglodytes”.  It is very à la mode now to live in these troglodytes, which remind me of the houses of the Hobbits in the Shire from Tolkien’s books. 
(Chez moi)

My host parents thought it would be a cultural experience to visit some of these caves and vineyards to see the magic of winemaking in the Loire Valley.  The whole aspect of visiting/appreciating/tasting/choosing all things “prend”-able is VERY French, and was a great opportunity to see true French culture.  This was especially nice because my boyfriend came to visit me for the week, and although he has visited Paris twice (three times after this weekend, avec moi for the first time!), he has never really seen true French culture like this.
Our day started with my boyfriend Gene and me riding backseat in my host family’s Renault along the countryside for about 35 km.  We arrived in Saumur to have a look around the town, which had a good portion of the original buildings bombed during WWII, and had to be rebuilt.  We stopped for an espresso and a croissant for breakfast, treated to us by Jean and Marie-Anne, and strolled along casually through the town.  Gene and I were told that there are no “chain” stores in town because most of the stores are either operated by the very wealthy who live around Saumur who simply have an interest in selling things made of lace, pâtés, or other things, or by people who genuinely appreciate the patrimony of Saumur.  To truly be French, you have to have a great deal of pride in the patrimony of your region and of La France her-self, and honor that respect for the French customs, culture and tradition well (such as visiting the vineyards and caves where you buy your wine and mushrooms). 
Along the way, we walked up to the Chateau of Saumur, stopping at a “house for craftsmen”-when someone truly wants to learn the best of a craft, they come here, stay for a year, and work during that year as an apprentice.  Coincidentally enough, when my host father came up to a stonemason who was working there, covered in chalky dust from sanding the block he was working on, and spoke to him in French, the guy had no idea what was going on because he wasn’t French, but British!  Leave it to us to find the only non-French-speaking guy on a day trip to experience everything French!  Yet I don’t mean this in a bad way at all, actually, quite the contrary.  This means that France, along with its “Maisons de Metiers”, is so appealing that people who know ABSOLUTELY no French will come to learn other things that have to do with French culture, such as stonework in this guy’s case.  After a pleasant, English conversation, we walked up the hill to visit the Chateau of Saumur, made from the same gutted stones from the caves and troglodytes around town.  The view was incredible, and it even had a space for a moat, along with a Medieval-Times-themed spectacle advertised on the HUGE door.  It is very strange to watch movies like “A Knight’s Tale” and even “Robin Hood”, and to think of the effort that had to go into building and operating all of the chains and doors used in REAL castles.
And now I'm distracted by the thought of Heath Leger and Alan Tudyk in "A Knight's Tale"...
After making our way back through town and eating lunch at an awesome restaurant, which was truly French, not just French-themed--think of your favorite local hangout vs. a chain American restaurant like Texas Roadhouse or TGI Friday’s--we visited the countryside.  There was a tiny 15th-ish century chapelle (an old church where there is no priest who lives there, as my host mother explained), tons of vineyards, and these little chimneys that rose up from the ground.  We were told that these are chimneys used in the caves for ventilation of the underground air along with smoke from fires lit inside the caves to light them up.  They are still used during times for barbeques (which is the same word in French, by the way), and you can even rent a space within a cave for your own particular winemaking use.  Therefore, if you become rich and famous, you can live in one cave, and your wine can live in another!
As a side note, did you know that although the wine made in France is very much French, grown in French soil and tended in the French tradition, that the grapes are actually American???  I spoke with my host father about this, because I remember reading about it before coming to France.  You can read about it, too, at:

The first cave we visited was from the family of Retiveau-Retif, who makes the brand of wine called “Les Champs Fleuris”.  The man who showed us around was very polite, and described to us in French that he had been working there for his grandfather, one of the proprietors, after he moved to the area from Lyon when he was younger.  The art of winemaking is actually suffering greatly in France, because it is such a difficult job to manage, and is wayyyy out in the country, where younger generations don’t want to live for fear of boredom or hard manual labor.  
It's a lot harder than just pouring you a glass, folks!

This I can understand, because after looking at all that goes in to winemaking, one can easily tell that it is a 24/7/365 job, for there is always something that needs to be made (wine barrels), replanted (new vines), harvested, bottled, and boxed, often by hand (the wine itself), as well as sold.  ALL of these things have to be done by the winemaker, which makes it a tremendously hard job with no breaks.  However, if you LOVE the art of winemaking, and wish to make that your profession, you should seriously think about moving to France!  You’ll find a job in no time, since the demand for good wine is so big, but the number of people to create it is so small.
Marie-Anne describing to me the craft of making wine barrels by hand

After leaving the first wine cave, we visited another wine maker named Bouvet-Laudbay, which is a company that works very differently than the last one.  As I said, it is very difficult to find enough people in the Saumur area to grow and harvest wine grapes, so there are other companies, some French, some German, some from other countries, too, who buy grapes from local vineyard owners, and just make wine, cutting down on all of the tasks for both the vineyard keeper as well as the wine company.  The company gets to keep its name and make a business selling the wine that it makes from local grapes while the hassle of the latter part of wine making is taken away from the vineyard owner, who can just focus on growing the grapes.  It’s a win-win. 
This particular wine maker used to use the old caves just for the fermentation process of all of its wine back in the day, but with the awesomeness of technology, it now creates 90% of its wine in a factory, which is easier, less time-consuming, and certainly more sanitary than making the wine in musty, fungus-covered caves!  

 When my host family told me originally that there were “mushrooms” in the caves, they didn’t just mean the kind you put on your pizza, they also meant the kind that we know in English as “mold”-gross!   

We also visited an art gallery on the premises while waiting for our tour to start that sported a horse-themed installation.  That’s the other big thing about Saumur: their horses.  There are a LOT of military people who live here (“it’s like a town within a town,” as Jean described), and they take horse riding very, very seriously.  Out of the artists I saw, I liked the works of both Jacques Blezot and Jean-Jacques Grand the best: the first made a horse sculpture with the horse’s body made from an old motorcycle, and the second made graphic drawings of horses with a hand that was obviously skilled in calligraphy, if you would like to check either of them out.
However, do not fret, hypochondriac, Purell-toting Americans (myself included, so I can totally say that)!  Both the young gentleman at the old wine cave and the English-speaking tour guide at the latter wine cave (who also sells bottles of wine from the estate of the actor Gerard Depardieu, bien sûr), told us that the mold stays on the outside of the wine barrels, while the wine inside (save for a tiny bit that leaks out as vapor “for the angels” as they say) stays nice and fresh.  However, as is the tradition of the former winemaker, the hand-made barrels have to be trashed every three years, because the mélange of different tastes from different harvests of grapes affects the next batch of wine placed within them.  Apparently, this company is most well-known for its sparkling wine, which, depending on how sweet or dry it is, has different amounts of sugar added to it after all of the natural sugar has been lost during the fermentation process.  My favorite of this was actually the “Brut Zéro” variety, which means that it is dry (“brut”), and has zero added sugar.  It was very tart, but amazing.  

We made our way back to Angers with a trunk full of bottles and boxes of wine.  The “boxed wine» idea was originally such a joke for me, because we all know how “classy” boxed wine is considered in the States, but here it is truly an art, sans blague!  Our day ended with a Saumur-themed, light mushroom omelet made by Marie-Anne, who, as I continue to reiterate, is an amazing cook, as well as a new understanding and appreciation by both Gene and me of the real French lifestyle.  C’est la bonne vie, la vie qui est plein de vin et champingnons! 

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