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Yesterday was the Fete de Vendanges in Saumur. You all probably know that the Saumur region is famous for many of its wines. What you possibly haven’t witnessed is the annual harvest of the grapes up by the chateau? Neither had we until yesterday! It was spectacular! Along with all the pomp & circumstance surrounding the harvest itself, there’s plenty of other stuff going on too. There’s a medieval village, jousting, archery, horsemanship, static displays of ancient crafts, music, song & dance. It’s very, very photogenic and especially so when the temperatures in the late 20’s on a late September day, the sun shines and the sky is blue!

The grapes looked fantastic, hanging from vines that were mostly still green, just a few beginning to don their autumn colours.

Autumn vines

Autumn vines

Up by the chateau there are the normal two grape varieties, red (cabernet franc) and white (sauvignon blanc). The vendange yesterday concentrated on the cabernet franc.

From the bowels of the chateau, the Confrérie des Joyeux Festivaliers emerged in cortège, followed by crowds of onlookers to wind their way over the narrow bridge above the moat, and into the vineyard.

Conférie des Joyeux Festivaliers

Conférie des Joyeux Festivaliers

At the ends of each line of vines, heavy with the succulent cabernet franc grapes, a bucket awaited being filled by members of the public. Large and small, young and old. Each had beought scissors, secateurs or a knife specifically for the purpose of gathering the fruit. Once the band had finished their marching tune, and the opening speech had been made, the crowd was invited to harvest the vines!

Empty for now....

Empty for now....

Saumur chateau & vines

Saumur chateau & vines

Harvesting the vines

Harvesting the vines

A helping hand!

A helping hand!

After the grapes are picked and placed in the smaller buckets, they’re then transferred into the larger wooden ones, ready to be seperated from their stalks. Here, a worker would use two pieces of wood, scraping the grapes from side to side over a large griddle, throwing the stalks to the ground, leaving just the fruit to pass through.

Seperating the fruit from the stalks.

Seperating the fruit from the stalks.

Young and old emptying their harvest.

Young and old emptying their harvest.

The chevaliers watch on, keeping a careful eye on the harvesting.

A watchful eye.

A watchful eye.

While the band plays tunes, walking around the vineyard, to the delight of onlookers as well as those involved in the harvest itself.

Music to harvest by!

Music to harvest by!

Once the grapes are all sorted from the stalks, it’s time for the cortége to make its way down to the press, situated in the dry moat of the chateau. The head of the Confrérie, tells us all so, waving his ‘sceptre’ of a vine branch.

'Sceptre' in hand, The Boss tells us it's time to press on...

'Sceptre' in hand, The Boss tells us it's time to press on...

So then, following the troupe of vendangers, we head for the moat, the wine press and the first juice…

En cortége.

En cortége.

Hand in hand they go!

Hand in hand they go!

Salut!

Salut!

At the bottom of the hill, crowds part for the princesse, for it is she who carries the first grapes for the press!

La Princesse!

La Princesse!

Crowds gather there to wait for the arrival of the grapes. The band plays, the crowd laughs, cheers, claps and dances along…

Clap your hands!

Clap your hands!

Even the equipment is 'pressed' into service as a drum!

Even the equipment is 'pressed' into service as a drum!

Finally, the harvest arrives and is loaded grape, by grape into the press.

Labour of love.

Labour of love.

Once all the grapes are loaded, or the press is full, then the packing is placed over the fruit, ready to wind down the weight, and squeeze until the very last drop…

The blocks are placed.

The blocks are placed.

Members of the public are invited to help turn the press, and there’s no shortage of willing volunteers to lend a hand!

All hands to the press!

All hands to the press!

The first juices flow from the press, and are handed out to the crowds in plastic cups. This is pure magic. It’s surprisingly cold, the juice – despite the heat of the afternoon! It’s so refreshing too. nature at its best, unspoilt, fresh and tasty!

It's good for your soul, as well as your health!

It's good for your soul, as well as your health!

Nectar, pure nectar!

Nectar, pure nectar!

After the ceremony of the harvest, the pressing and then the tasting, it’s time for a trip around the moat to see what else is going on. There was a medieval encampment set up, with lots to see. Jousting, games, songs and dancing, and later the ceremony to crown the princesse. We couldn’t stay though, as we’d promised friends we’d see them in a local village for the vide grenier there in the afternoon. But, we meandered for a while among the crowds, enjoying the atmosphere on a lovely sunny day. The smell of woodsmoke from the fires lit around the place remind us that it really is autumn, despite what the temperature gauge might say!

Here’s a selection of images from the day. Hope you’ve enjoyed your virtual harvest. It happens at the close of September each year, so for those of you lucky enough to be able to escape at this time of year, why not include it in your itinerary for next years France trip?

Chevaliers, au chateau!

Chevaliers, au chateau!

Just enjoying the day.

Just enjoying the day.

Fantastic horsemanship!

Fantastic horsemanship!

Ambulance - medieval style!

Ambulance - medieval style!

Music all around....

Music all around....

No Monty Python jokes, please...

No Monty Python jokes, please...

A hard day's hunting...

A hard day's hunting...

...but at least there's something to show for it!

...but at least there's something to show for it!

A floral welcome!

A floral welcome!

And finally. One of my favourite views of our local town. Hope you like it.

Saumur. Le chateau, et La Loire.

Saumur. Le chateau, et La Loire.

Until the next time, au revoir!

TBC

All content © Le Chant d’Oiseau, 2006-2009

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We love this time of year. The light’s softer after the harshness of the midsummer sun, everything seems to come to life again after the ravages of the holidays. Our grass is greener already even though we haven’t had any real rain since I can’t remember when. It’s like each blade’s popping it’s head above the parapet, breathing a sigh of relief that it’s not going to be scrubbed out of existence by a tyre, or child’s foot as it chases a ball…The trees are losing their leaves though, and there’s a definite threat of autumn chills in the early morning. Because of the early morning chills we thought we’d better go and order our wood for the coming winter today. It seemed a bit incongruous, standing in the sunlight chatting to Franck about how many cords of wood we wanted delivering the weekend after next. His small daughter played with their two dogs in the dusty yard while we chatted about chainsaws! It’s still not cold enough to light fires indoors though, and each day dawns with the promise of some late summer sunshine. Great for the guests that we still have with us, great for us as it means we’re able to get ahead with the gardening chores and picking the blackberries! Syb picked a load of them this afternoon, and made the most delicious crumble with some apples given us by a friend! Everything’s being harvested lately, the apple picking season’s in full swing and the grapes won’t be so far behind if the samples on our own vines are anything to go by. I was sure that earlier in the year we had loads of bunches showing, and looked forward to perhaps having enough to crush underfoot to make a gallon of our own vintage. It wasn’t until the day before yesterday, stood chatting in the courtyard to guests that I noticed one of our hens, Dee Dee falling out of the ivy that covers the wall right by our vines. Our guest then told me that he’d seen her a few times pecking at something in there. So, upon closer inspection, and after examining Dee Dee a bit more up close & personal, I found that the bloody bird’s been merrily chomping her way through my grapes! She seems to be the only one that’s taken a liking to the fruit, the others seem more content to chase after the cats, scaring them away from the remains of bacon sarnies being offered them by campers!

The cats are thriving. I’m sat typing at the ‘mo with Wisp, our grey and white tom sat on my lap. He’s a scaredy cat in the truest fashion with anyone else but family, while Splodge has no fear, no scruples and an unerring instinct for the warmest places in newly arrived guest’s caravans. I’ve installed a gate at the rear of Le Chant this afternoon. It’s main purpose is two-fold. A) it’s there so that we can take the dog for a run out the back without disturbing anyone by opening our gates, and B) it allows the cats to come for a walk with us without having to brave the dangers of the road outside. They often follow us down to the river, and they’re more obedient than Bracken half the time.

Last week, Syb and I took the opportunity to have a few days break away from Le Chant to try and revitalise ourselves. It’s the first real break we’ve had since we’ve been here, and boy did we need it! But, as is usually the case with us and any plans that we make, things didn’t go at all as planned! I was in the shower, and Syb had gone to do some last minute shopping. The car was packed, and we were to set off immediately she returned. Imagine my dismay when Niall shouted up to me that Bernard was here! Not dismay that I didn’t want to spend time with him, but dismay that I knew that any chance we had of getting away at a reasonable time was now well and truly scuppered! The plan, you see, was to travel down to see a dear friend of ours who was celebrating her birthday with a bash for friends and family in her local salle des fetes. It’s quite a journey down to the Lot where she and her husband live, so I knew we’d have to allow a good 5 or 6 hours if we were to get there at around 8pm. Bernard had, as I discovered when I came downstairs, been busy harvesting mushrooms! Great big lovely, earthy aromatic champignons de paris. He had with him two large washing up bowls that were for us. Now, there’s no use in just saying ‘cheers, leave them with us and we’ll take care of them.’ Not with Bernard, as he takes great pride in the detail. How to chop, peel, prepare, cook and store. Not just mushrooms, but everything. Like most french men, he’s an expert on food. He’s also very patient with those of us that know nothing about how to cook, or at least – how to cook as a french man cooks.

So, our set-off time for our mini-vacance came and went. We were still washing, chopping and preparing mushrooms an hour later. Then they had to be boiled in water for 10 minutes, then left to cool before draining and then packaging for the freezer. Two huge bowls boiled down to just three hand sized freezer bags. The whole process took close on two hours. Two hours of chat, laughter and imparted wisdom. We were sorry not to be able to make the party, but we wouldn’t (nor couldn’t) have missed yet another example of our neighbour’s random acts of kindness.

We’d decided, well – I’d decided after reading Labyrinth, by Kate Mosse, that we needed to visit Carcassonne. This jewel of the Pays d’Oc has been awarded the accolade of being a World Heritage site after the renovations during the late 19th century. It’s difficult to believe that close on 3’000 years of history narrowly escaped total demolition, save for the efforts of a small group of men. These men brought Carcassonne, a medieval walled citadel back to life, like a phoenix from the ashes. It stands on an escarpment overlooking the Sabarthes Mountains to one side, the Aude Valley to another, the plains of Narbonne to the south and the Spanish Pyrenees to the south west. It’s an incredible place without a doubt, and fully deserves its place as a ‘must see’. So why did I feel ever so slightly disappointed? I’ve explained it since as there being a lack of ‘respect’ for the history, and the heritage. Broken beer bottles were strewn around some of the cobbled pavements. The battlements had graffiti scrawled here and there, and the amount of ‘tat’ shops seemed at odds with the sense of what Carcassonne had survived. The masses of the French army, the persecutions of the Inquisition, the ravages of these ‘crusades’. The occupation by the German army during the second world war. As I said, so many thousand years of history, only to be invaded, and conquered by tee-shirt and tablecloth vendors. There are certainly aspects of it that still inspire, and hopefully, those are the things that continue to attract the dreamers, and the shameless romantics like me to its 52 towers. It was an experience, and one I’ll repeat again I’m sure, for to have visited this magical place was to witness a glimpse of history very rarely seen anywhere else in the world.

You’re all more than aware that we own a campsite here in France, and that we’re hardened campers ourselves? Well, this trip of ours involved the world’s smallest bloody tent. A scrap of nylon, sewn around a couple of carbon poles and laughingly called a ‘2-second tent’! They’re all the rage just now. Basically, you just take this disc out of its bag, undo the straps and throw it in the air. It floats softly down to earth in the shape of a ready-erected and ready to use tent! Just the job, eh? In a word – no! It bloody well isn’t. Oh, it went up in the designated timespan, but putting the thing away again is like an out take from the Krypton Factor. The instructions are sewn into the bag, and are in pictorial form only. It took me a half-hour of grunting, twisting almost to breaking point the carbon poles, head scratching and swearing to read the bit where it says there’s a video demo online. So, off to the office I marched to view the demo. This smug looking bird is stood atop a mountain somewhere with my very tent in her beautifully manicured hands. With a few deft flicks of her delicate wrists, she’s wrestled it to the ground, forced a half-nelson on it and it’s back in the bag! Four times I watched the stupid video. Four times I failed to understand it! The fifth time though, I got it, and went out to practice on the real thing. 2 minutes later and I was zipping up the bag with the same smug smile as displayed by the immaculately manicured video lady. Simple!

So, now we were off…Cognac was the first stop, and an overnight camping halt was found in St. Jean d’Angely. Now, when I’d laid in the tent, there was no problem. It looked small, sure, but I could lay out in it. However, once there was a full double airbed, a memory foam mattress topper (ok, we’re not so hardened campers anymore…) and a double quilt in there, the roof got an awful lot closer to my face! Still, this was just for the night, so after our ablutions, off to bed it was. My feet stuck out of the bottom of the tent and my head was twisted in a road accident kind of way at the opposite end! Uncomfortable is not descriptive enough to describe the night I had. Syb’s a dwarf by comparison, and slept the sleep of the just.
The next day being a Sunday, the Decathlon camping section was closed, so unfortunately, another night in the claustrophobic blue nylon hell was on the cards. But, on the Monday morning, we were up at the crack of the farting sparrow to form an orderly queue to replace this pathetic thing with a much bigger, palatial big sister! Oh, and we bought a new airbed too, as the one we brought had a leak and slowly brought you down to earth during the allotted 8 hours, leaving just the memory foam mattress topper between me and mother earth. A very hard-baked and lumpy mother earth!

Still, we survived the weekend and enjoyed our first camping trip in years, despite the altercations with the equipment. We’ll maybe do it again sometime. Maybe.

Until the next time, au revoir.

TBC

All content © Le Chant d’Oiseau, 2006-2008

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