A Winelover’s Tour de France ( 4 )

The morning dawned splendidly. Bede was on the road early, cycling
through the broad rolling countryside headed for Nantes. For a time it
was a very pleasant ride, but the further he went the worse the
weather became. Soon much of the countryside was obscured by
sweeping drifts of rain. He found himself battling against the wind,
and at times heavy rain, before giving in to the elements and making a
stop for the night at the small town of Vallet. Bede was dead tired and
hungry, having had little to eat since the start of the day. He took a
room at the Hôtel de la Gare, where he ended up having an enjoyable
stay.
There are two great luxuries after 100 kilometres of cycling. One is a
hot bath or shower, and the other is a glass or two of beer. After a
long, hot bath he adjourned to the bar for a beer and a chat with the
owner, a cheerful, good-humoured man who greeted Bede warmly.
“Bonjour monsieur. Je m’appelle Daniel. Je suis le patron. Et vous ?”
Bede replied, “Je m’appelle Bede Jamieson. Je suis en vacances. Une
bière, s’il vous plaît.”
Daniel promptly pulled down the porcelain-handled pump behind the
bar and produced a large glass of bière pression ( beer on tap ), which
Bede was able to sit back and enjoy. After a while other people started
to drift in and in no time the bar was filled with raucous voices and
pungent cigarette smoke. Bede was soon caught up in conversation
with a number of vignerons ( wine growers ), who were keen to talk
about their respective vineyards, where the vines were at, and looking
ahead to later in the season. It had been a good spring to that point,
with not-too-cold mornings, followed by warm, sunny days. They
were in an optimistic mood, knowing, too, that the vineyards around
Vallet produce some of the best Muscadet wine in the region.
By early evening he was sharing a table with a young student, Louis,
in a crowded and noisy restaurant attached to the hotel. Bede enjoyed
a delicious meal, which started with a seafood soup, of which he had
two platefuls; a main of poached fish with beurre blanc à la Nantaise
– a frothy sauce made with shallots, butter and Muscadet; a sorbet for
dessert; and two cups of café noir. To accompany the meal he chose a
bottle of 1988 Muscadet de Sèvre-et-Maine, served lightly chilled and
which Louis was eager to share with him as part of their repas. It was
a highly enjoyable dry white wine, slightly spritzy on the palate. He
went to bed that night well sated and a contented man. The day had
brought home to him that, given a little French, the lone traveller in
France need never be lonely for long.
Bede left Vallet the next morning under a leaden sky, taking the D.763
to Clisson. This was intended as a diversion before heading on to
Nantes. The approach to Clisson is over an impressive viaduct
spanning the river Maine. It is a very picturesque village, with narrow
streets lined with old houses. He spent a quiet hour exploring the
village before following the N.149 to Nantes. For the second day
running he had to battle strong winds and rain along the way. He had
found the Loire Atlantique to be colder and wilder than Touraine, with
its gentler climate and closely cultivated fields.
Bede experienced considerable satisfaction in setting himself the task
of cycling from Blois through to Nantes and then completing it., a
journey of some 750 kilometres He considered himself a traveller
rather than a tourist. He arrived feeling strong and fit, although
somewhat leg weary after such a journey. All things considered, this
first leg of his journey through the Loire Valley had gone more or less
according to plan. Nantes was the ideal place for him to spend a few
days resting up after eight days on the road. Nantes is a large,
attractive city of artistic interest. It is a spacious, rather regularly
designed city. The stately cathedral of St Pierre and the majestic
Renaissance châteaux dominate the old medieval quarter of the city.
The whole place has a rather grand, or at least eminently wellestablished,
air. Bede checked in to the Hôtel Ibis, a modern and
comfortable establishment situated close to the railway station. This
was to be his home for the next two days.
The highlight of his stay in Nantes was an evening at the Restaurant
Pescadou, which was intended as a reward to himself for completing
his journey through the Loire. The meal started with a pastis, then
salmon grillé as an entrée, a main of moules marinière ( mussels
steamed in white wine, served in a sauce of juices from the mussels ),
a selection of cheeses, and finally café. It was a menu gastronomique,
beautifully presented and backed up with first-rate table service. In
France the restaurant business is not a job; it is a profession. Before
leaving he was able to meet the chef, Vincent, who turned out to be a
wine connoisseur and collector. They talked wine as two enthusiasts
sharing a common interest before Vincent invited him to view his
personal cellar under the floor of the restaurant. It was a superb
collection of mainly red wines from Bordeaux and Burgundy. His
pride and joy was a 1949 bottle of 1er cru classe Graves appellation
Domaine de Chevalier tucked away at the rear of the cellar, covered in
dust and cobwebs. It was a special occasion for both of them as wine
lovers from opposite ends of the world.
Before leaving the Loire valley, Bede recorded in his diary his
impressions of what to many travellers is the purest expression of
what France has to offer. He observed that it is a gentle countryside
devoted to agriculture. Everywhere there is cultivated order and the
land is rich and fertile. The light is filtered through the trees that line
the Loire, the waters of the river reflecting its rays and tingeing the air
with softness. The Loire gives a great style to an otherwise relatively
featureless landscape. He also came to appreciate the comforting
permanence of the old towns and villages of the Loire, with their
stylish, well-constructed buildings and narrow streets, best suited to
pedestrians. The many spectacular chateaux, too, speak of a place
which has been home to generations of French kings, each of which
has its own fascinating history.
The gentle climate and pure luminosity of the region are reflected in
the appealing liveliness of the wines it produces. Most of these – the
dry white wines from the Sauvignon Blanc, Muscadet, and Vouvray ,
the fruity reds and rosés from the Gamay and Cabernet Franc grapes –
are uncomplicated, refreshing wines for early drinking. Although
there is great variety in the wines of the Loire, there is also a common
thread. These are northern vineyards. The growing season is long and
comparatively cool. This gives the Loire wines their general character
of intense fruit flavours and often strong acidity. These are coolclimate
wines in style and taste. Bede was fortunate enough to be able
to taste a number of these particularly drinkable wines as he pedalled
his way through the Val de Loire.

Cheers!

BARRY JOHNS   ( aka Le Vigneron )

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