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Mostly Food & Travel Journal

Absinthe – The Green Fairy

Bayeux – A stitch in time

Bound by history, carved in stone - Normandy and England

Champagne – a brief encounter

Fontenay Abbey

La Belle Epoque – 5-star floating through Burgundy

La Ferme

Le Panier Festival

Les Moustoussades

The Other Side of the Bar

Reims - Tasteful Souvenirs


Rennes – living with history

The Sparkle of Vilmart & Cie

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Travel Reviews
- France

On this page:

Absinthe – The Green Fairy

Bayeux – A stitch in time

Bound by history, carved in stone - Normandy and England

Champagne – a brief encounter

Fontenay Abbey

La Belle Epoque – 5-star floating through Burgundy

La Ferme

Le Panier Festival

Les Moustoussades

The Other Side of the Bar

Reims - Tasteful Souvenirs


Rennes – living with history

The Sparkle of Vilmart & Cie

Reims - Tasteful Souvenirs

Reims Reims is a beautiful and historic city in the Champagne-Ardenne region of France. It is only 130 km from Paris with easy access by train. Excursions to nearby Chalons are a must and there will be not only the delightfully ubiquitous champagne to taste but also the champagne truffles which are so celebrated here.

The city was founded by the Gauls and became a significant town during Roman times, but it’s also important to the story of French royalty as it is the town traditionally associated with the crowning of French kings. The cathedral, Notre-Dame de Reims, became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1991 and contains some stunning stained-glass windows and beautifully grand architecture as befits its status, although German hostilities during the First World War and a subsequent fire caused extensive damage to the cathedral.

Much of Reims has been rebuilt but I found it to be a feast for lovers of building design. One can find houses, shops and public buildings which show architectural styles from almost every era. There are still vestiges of the Roman occupation, as well as a palace, an opera house and the town hall which are all striking, and conveniently in the centre of the town.

Reims - Tasteful Souvenirs Even the name of the region, Champagne-Ardenne, hints at its high-end eponymous produce and it can all be found in and around Reims. There are numerous speciality shops offering cheeses and wines, others offer tempting baked goods and chocolates; but you might notice a shop selling a curious pink biscuit. Biscuit Rose de Reims is a unique confection which is made by Maison Fossier, which was founded in 1756, although the biscuit is thought to have been invented in 1691.

Biscuits Rose de Reims are one of my top three gastronomic souvenirs of this area. They are associated with celebrations and convivial gatherings where they are dunked into glasses of champagne. Their crisp and dry texture allows for a dip without the fear of unsightly flopping. A delicious tradition. There are lots of recipes that incorporate the famous pink biscuit so it’s a souvenir that travels well.

One can visit the factory that makes Biscuits Rose de Reims and other fine regional cookies and cakes. There are guided tours by appointment and a shop in which to linger.

Magasin Fossier Reims Cathédrale
25 cours Jean-Baptiste Langlet,
51100 Reims

Visit the Maison Fossier factory here

Reims - Tasteful Souvenirs That much-mentioned champagne is my next souvenir of Reims. There are numerous creditable champagne houses here but one of the most accessible is G.H. Mumm. Its champagnes are available worldwide but it’s a treat to be able to taste and buy at its place of birth.  Mumm has a long history, being founded in 1827, but is in modern times recognised as the champagne shaken and showered at the end of Grand Prix racing events – although I personally consider that wasteful exuberance to be almost sacrilegious. One can take an informative hour-long Mumm Champagne cellar tour (by appointment) to learn about the unique Champagne-making process and to hear the history of the House. The old and atmospheric cellars hold some 25 million bottles in constantly cool conditions.

Choose the ‘Cordon Rouge Experience’ tour with a tasting of the Champagne house’s signature Cordon Rouge Champagne, or the ‘G.H. Mumm Experience’ with the cellar tour and tasting of a brace of cuvées. For a truly outstanding experience there is the ‘En Noirs and Blancs’ tour where one samples the produce of two very different grapes, chardonnay and pinot noir.

Visit G.H. Mumm here

Reims - Tasteful Souvenirs Truffles! That’s my third gastronomic souvenir of the region. The most famous and most eagerly sought are the Champagne truffles. They don’t taste of champagne but the name refers to the colour which has more of an amber hue than that of the less interesting white truffles which are also found here.

Auberge des Moissons is an ideal spot to stay and enjoy this fungus. It’s a comfortable hotel with a truffle centre attached. One can buy truffles but also learn about them. There is even a chance to actually go truffle-hunting with Honey the truffle dog and her dad, the owner of the establishment.

Not only does the truffle centre present the story of truffles but there is also a cooking school where guests can learn how to prepare truffles. You will go away with some delicious recipes to make back home and bragging rights about how you actually witnessed the discovery of this Black Gold.

So you have hunted, and now it’s time to try truffles in every imaginable guise and prepared by a professional chef. Auberge des Moissons has its own restaurant in a converted barn. The menu offers nibbles, starters, soups, savouries, mains and even desserts that incorporate the noble truffle. Lots of fine champagnes available to complete your truffle feast.

Auberge des Moissons
Hôtel-Restaurant ***
RD3 - 8, Route Nationale
51510 Matougues

Phone: +33 (0) 3 26 70 99 17
Fax: +33 (0) 3 26 66 56 94

Visit Auberge des Moissons here

Rail fares from London to Reims or Chalons en Champagne start at £86 standard class return per person.

For bookings and more information, visit here or call 0844 848 5 848.

For other travel possibilities visit European Waterways here

Learn more about Reims and the region here

food and travel reviews

The Sparkle of Vilmart & Cie

vilmart The Champagne house Vilmart & Cie was founded in 1890 by Désiré Vilmart and is considered by many an authority to be perhaps the leading producer of quality Champagne in the region of Northern France which bears the same name as this celebratory beverage. It’s an area of many fine bottles but some consider Vilmart to be the best and I am not arguing.

Time has passed since the Champagne house was founded. There has been a succession of family members who have taken care of this great Champagne company. The responsibility has passed to sons, and sons of sons, and to sons-in-law, with each generation adding something to the story. Laurent Champs is the present owner and Champagne Master. He received his Viticulture Professional Certificate, Oenology and Viticulture Technical Certificate, and Superior Certificate of Oenology and Viticulture at the University of Champagne in Avize. This man has impeccable pedigree and credentials.

Vilmart owns 11 hectares or so of vineyards in and near the village of Rilly-la-Montagne. The vineyards are planted with around 60% Chardonnay and 40% Pinot Noir. They do not call themselves organic but they have a commendable ethos and don’t use any chemical fertilizers, herbicides or insecticides. All vineyards that Vilmart sources from are of either Grand Cru or 1er Cru status.

The harvest takes place one hundred days after flowering, around the middle of September, and every bunch is picked by hand in order to ensure that only the best quality grapes are used and that damage is kept to a minimum. Pickers have roughly a three-week period in which to harvest the fruit as beyond that point the grapes will start to deteriorate on the vines. Sometimes as much as 40% of the crop is deemed unsuitable and sold on to other producers, such are the rigorous standards at Vilmart.

vilmart The next step is pressing the precious grapes and Vilmart continues its duty of care by using a cool and gentle process in a fairly old machine which extracts the juice in two steps. During this stage the must (the fresh grape juice) drips into small tanks. The juice is left to settle for a day to allow the solids and liquid to separate. The juices are then pumped into large oak barrels. Most of the barrels are already aged, but in some cases new barrels are used. The ranks of large and small barrels hint at the artisanal quality of the wine to come. With casks that look like mellow furniture the wine is bound to be good. It’s a testament to the attention paid to winemaking at every step. No corners are cut at Vilmart and it’s that dedication that has grown their enviable reputation.

Second alcoholic fermentation is what gives champagne its fizz. Natural yeasts transform sugar into alcohol and carbon dioxide (the bubbles in the glass) and this happens inside the bottle. Carbon dioxide is trapped, converting still wine into sparkling wine. After a week of resting, the sediment from the used yeast settles in the bottles. They are stacked in the riddling racks and turned twice a day by highly skilled men with strong wrists. This process slowly moves the sediment to the bottle neck.

Dégorgement is the dramatic art of getting the sediment out of the bottle while leaving as much wine as possible inside. The bottle necks are dunked in freezing brine. Turning the bottle upright and releasing the cork expels the sediment, and then a mixture of sugar and wine called "liqueur de dosage" is added to give each wine its "brut" (dry) or "demi-sec" (semi-dry) style. The bottles are then sealed with their traditional corks and metal cages. The bottles are then allowed to mature in the Vilmart cellars which are in themselves a thing of beauty: racks of bottles at different stages of maturation along with riddling racks full of wine and sediment still resting. Bottles wait here from 3 to 4 years for non-vintage wines and from to 5 to 7 years for vintage wines.vilmart

I don’t consider myself an expert in wine and definitely not an authority on Champagne but it will likely be evident to any visitor to Vilmart that the Champagnes produced here are of superior quality. Grapes are treated with respect and the end result speaks for itself.

Champagne Vilmart & Cie
BP4 - 5 rue des Gravières
51500 Rilly la Montagne

Phone: 33 3 26 03 40 01
Fax: 33 3 26 03 46 57

Opening hours
From Monday to Friday, 9am to 12am and 2pm to 5.30pm

Fares from London to Reims or Chalons en Champagne start at £86 standard class return per person.

For bookings and more information, visit here or call 0844 848 5 848.

For other travel possibilities visit European Waterways here

Learn more about Reims and the region here

food and travel reviews

Rennes – living with history

Rennes history History is everywhere in Rennes but it’s actually considered by thoroughly modern folks to be one of the most liveable cities in France. That’s a hard juggling act.

Rennes had been in existence for centuries before the Romans and in 57 BC the local inhabitants joined the Gaulish coalition against Rome. That didn’t work and there followed Roman occupation. In 275, the threat of invasion by barbarians led to the erection of a brick wall around the town. In the 9th century Rennes became fully Breton and was to remain that way for many hundreds of years.

In 1491 the French army of Charles VIII unsuccessfully attacked Rennes. Brittany having already surrendered everywhere else, Rennes stood alone. Duchess Anne of Brittany chose to negotiate with the king, and the resulting Treaty of Rennes, including her marriage to Charles VIII, brought Brittany into the French kingdom. Tour Duchesne is an old tower dating from around that time, and is located near the Mordelaises gates. The tower is part of the original city walls, which date back to the 3rd century, although rebuilt in the mid-1400s.

Timber-framed houses were a popular form of construction as there were forests to supply the raw material. In 1720 a major fire destroyed all the wooden buildings in the northern part of the city. The inhabitants took the precaution of rebuilding in stone, on a grid plan with wider roads. This modernisation has given Rennes two distinctive architectural faces. There are those sweeping avenues, but the medieval-looking streets still remain. Carrefour de la Cathédrale has a maze of winding streets surrounding it and that’s where one finds most of the city’s remaining half-timbered houses, dating from the 16th century.

Lift your eyes and find exquisite carved wooden details on medieval buildings. Rennes historyThere are iron-studded doors, ancient shutters, cobbled streets and granite. This isn’t a city that’s known for its stonework as there are no local quarries. This problem has been solved by the use of whatever stone was available, along with brick, creating in some buildings something of a masonry patchwork.

Rennes Cathedral is solid and unmissable. It has a heavy, granite façade that lacks the refinement of other French cathedrals that have been built from softer honey-coloured stone which was more easily sculpted. This is, externally, a rather sombre church. But step inside and you will find one of the most impressive religious buildings in France. There is a remarkable 15th-century Gothic gilded wooden altarpiece flanked by some imposing candlesticks. The arched ceilings are richly decorated and low lights pick out gold embellishments. Don’t miss a few quiet moments here.

Rennes history Rennes is a beautiful and compact city with a wealth of restaurants, cafés and bars. It boasts a large and celebrated food market and thriving gastronomic culture. Place des Lices reminds one of the jousting lists for sporting knights once found here, although it’s now alive with shoppers every Saturday. There are many street names that give a nod to medieval times. One might notice a clock tower on the Place and even that has history. It marks the spot where prisoners were executed. There is even a medieval prison that is now a nightclub and restaurant. Rennes is home to two universities and more than 50,000 students. It’s not surprising that the city has a vibrant night life.

It also has open spaces aplenty and these are well-used by locals and tourists alike. One can find deckchairs from which one can enjoy jazz or classical music. Parc du Thabor is a public garden which was built in the 19th century on the site of the orchard of the Saint-Melaine abbey. It’s the largest park in Rennes and in the centre of the town. There is a museum of fine art and one covering Breton history, so something for all the family. If one wants to cover more ground then hire a bike for the day.

Rennes is just the sort of town which one hopes to find in France. Very French ambiance, French food, beautiful old buildings, cobbled streets, a market square and a glass or two of something reviving. Yes, we seek, but seldom find, a gem that ticks all those boxes. But here it is and just an easy hop across the Channel from Southend Airport.

Visit Southend Airport here

Learn more about Rennes here

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Rennes – second capital of food (or is it third?)

Rennes food Rennes Market, in the Place des Lices, is there every Saturday, and is considered to be the second- or third-largest in France, depending on whom you are speaking to. It starts in the morning around 7.30 although there is not the full complement of nearly 300 stalls and vendors till an hour or so later. It’s usually the time-strapped locals who frequent the market so early. They are looking for the week’s fruit and veg and don’t want to be tripping over enthusiastic, iPhone-clicking tourists. 

This isn’t one of the new breed of Farmers’ Markets that have sprung up in the UK. This one has been doing it since 1622. The site has always been an open space since the time of knights and the courtly sport of jousting. The Place des Lices takes its name from the jousting ‘lists’ which was the arena where the tournaments took place.

Rennes food The covered markets contain honey, cider, baked goods, charcuterie and ready-prepared food, while outside there are avenues of fresh fruit and vegetable stalls.  In 1965 the halls were modernised to that which we see today. There are now two market halls although there were originally three: the missing one was used for the sale of fish but that was deemed to be too malodourous and was demolished. The fresh-fish vendors now occupy the same space, but in the open air. There is also a small flower market which is up the hill a few yards. Here you will find posies, exotic blooms, potted plants and a beautiful perfume.

The market attracts about 10,000 visitors every week. They come for the produce and to meet friends. This is part of the French lifestyle of which so many of us dream, and it’s here in Rennes. It’s a pleasure to browse the stalls, gathering ingredients for dinner. One might buy a loaf of warm bread and some local butter, perhaps a ready-grilled chicken and a scoop of potatoes cooked in the aforementioned bird’s juices. A bottle of cidre might be heading home with the soon-to-be-diner …and that cheese looks good!

One can build up an appetite long before a regular mealtime, but Breton galette stuffed with a sausage is on hand to take away those hunger pangs. This Rennes speciality seems to be eaten by everyone these days. It’s a savoury buckwheat-flour pancake which once served as bread in this region. There are several food carts at the market and regulars will have their favourite. If in doubt, join the longest line.

If you are one of those poor unfortunates who had a mum who told you it was unacceptable to eat on the street then you have my sympathy and a suggestion of a proper sit-down restaurant. Rennes foodCrêperie Saint-Georges will allow you to taste galettes filled with all manner of savoury ingredients, and there are light crepes for dessert, too. This is a striking restaurant with unique design and delicious food. I ordered Georges Bataille (strangely all the menu items are called George) – a galette filled with black pudding and apple, which was a sweet and savoury dish with all the flavours of the area.

Crêperie Saint-Georges
11 rue du Chapitre
35000 Rennes

Phone: 02 99 38 87 04

Visit Crêperie Saint-Georges here

Established early in 2013, TEA & TY is a specialist in, unsurprisingly, tea. It has a convenient central location and is just the place to sit down and enjoy a light bite and a reviving cuppa.

Rennes food This is a rather trendy tea room with not a hint of chintz. The walls are lined with huge tea canisters from which to choose one’s preferred brew and small gift-quality tea caddies for practical souvenirs. The tea is served from traditional Japanese iron pots and poured into contemporary bowls. One can enjoy a pastry or a cookie or a savoury tart of some sort, but it’s the tea that’s special here.

TEA & TY has a great selection of leaf teas from around the world. They carry both black and green teas and also the less-often available rooibos tea from South Africa, which isn’t a tea at all but has been used as an infusion for generations. I enjoyed a bowl of Japanese sencha tea and, keeping with the theme, a matcha cookie. No, not very French, but there is a polished and eclectic side to Rennes and I was doing just what the locals do, after all.

16, rue Victor Hugo
35000 Rennes

Phone: 02 23 20 75 96

Visit TEA & TY here 

Rennes food Located in the heart of the city centre of Rennes, opposite the Place de Bretagne, l’Amiral restaurant welcomes its guests with a nautical sweep of its terrace roof. It’s a large, contemporary and tastefully appointed restaurant which specialises in fish and seafood.

That terrace is the spot to grab on hot and sunny days. A lunch here is pleasure writ large. The menu offers every genre of seafood from lobster at the luxury end to the very reasonable Assiette de Fruits de Mer. The portions are substantial and beautifully presented. I was tempted by a bargain bowl of mussels which came with fries – a meal over which to linger with convivial company and a glass of local beer.

But meat-eaters, who will likely be here under protest, have nothing to fear. They will probably soon be heard to mutter ‘Well, I didn’t expect that’, ‘Shall we book a table for Wednesday?’ and even ‘I think that might be the best steak I have ever had’. Not bad for a piscatorial emporium!

1 rue de la Motte Picquet
35000 Rennes

Phone: 02 99 35 03 91

Visit l'Amiral here

Rennes was made for lovers of good food. One can dine at home on the best of local produce. There is authentic street food to enjoy. Healthful and smart tea shops beckon, and the most stylish of restaurants are all within walking distance of the centre of town.

Rennes is accessible these days with direct flights from Southend Airport. Do remember to book a piece of luggage for the hold as there will be plenty of bottles to bring back. The local version of Calvados is well worth seeking out. One doesn’t need a car for a short break as it’s a city to enjoy on foot. If the legs get weary then sit and people-watch for a while. Order a coffee or a traditional cup of cidre and wonder why you didn’t come here before.

Visit Southend Airport here

Learn more about Rennes here

food and travel reviews

Bayeux – A stitch in time

Bayeux It’s inevitable that the first thing people think of when you mention Bayeux is the tapestry. Though it’s not actually a tapestry but a very fine embroidery. The Bayeux Tapestry is now on permanent display in a bespoke museum in the city of Bayeux in Normandy, France. It’s unique and huge and merits a home of its own.

The ‘tapestry’ tells the story of the life of William the Conqueror and the Battle of Hastings, and here comes another factual correction and we are only at paragraph two! The Battle of Hastings was actually fought at a place called Battle, although I suspect it was named only after the Battle. It would have been too much of a coincidence otherwise.

The tapestry tells of William and his passage from being just the illegitimate son of the Duke of Normandy (with ‘Bastard’ as the only appendage to his name) to rising to having ‘King’ as his title. One can see the preparations for invasion; the felling of trees and the launching of boats, and then the battle. Many men are shown as conclusively dead and the English King Harold can be seen being the well-documented recipient of the arrow in the eye.

Bayeux The bloody event was to have a huge impact on Medieval England and it’s still exciting interest today. The tapestry is made out of eight narrow widths of linen sewn together.  It’s 270 feet long and about 20 inches wide. The majority of stitches used are ‘stem’ and ‘laid-and-couched’, which will only mean anything to devoted embroiderers.

There are eight colours of thread and the five main colours are blue-green, terracotta, light-green, buff and grey-blue. Nothing too vivid and all obviously made with natural dyes. There are also areas where very dark blue, yellow and a dark green are still visible – this hanging is in amazing condition considering its age.

It is assumed that the man who commissioned the tapestry was Bishop Odo of Bayeux. He was William’s half-brother. It is probable that the tapestry was made to celebrate both William’s victory at Hastings and the completion of Odo’s cathedral in the city.

The tapestry was likely made by women in Canterbury, Kent, where there was a celebrated embroidery school.  They used stitches very similar to those found on the tapestry. Another indication that this was sewn on the English side of the Channel is that some of the names on the tapestry are spelt in the English way and not in the French style.

Bayeux The tapestry shows 50 different scenes and there are 632 people, 202 horses, 55 dogs, 505 other characters, 37 buildings, around 40 ships and trees, and lots of Latin. Adults will be charmed by the handiwork and younger members of the group will be thrilled by the brutality and carnage!

But there is more to this beautiful town than the tapestry. The large Norman-Romanesque and Gothic Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Bayeux was consecrated in 1077 by the aforementioned Bishop Odo. The lower part of the building is Romanesque, and is probably original. The upper part is in Gothic style making this an architect’s dream structure to study. But look inside to really appreciate the magnificence of the cathedral.

Bayeux is only a short distance from the Normandy Beaches, which have been attracting more visitors than ever over the last several years. There are various associated museums and exhibitions in the area, as well as war cemeteries, commemorating very much more recent battles than that shown in the Tapestry.

Bayeux Bayeux has a wealth of restaurants and specialist food shops. Many of these are housed in historic half-timbered buildings, so take your eyes off the cheese for a moment and you might find some characterful wood carving. And along with the cidre and dairy products there is a little shop that actually sells bits of the Bayeux Tapestry. Well, newly embroidered authentic replicas of the historic hanging anyway. You can buy finished cushions, you can buy kits as souvenirs and you can even have lessons on the stitches used by those Kentish damsels who made the original.

Bayeux is an accessible and walkable town. Photo opportunities abound, eating opportunities are ever present and one can just people-watch with a coffee and an apple pastry. It’s easy to get there from Caen by train, which itself has fast shuttle links to and from its airport. There are flights from the gem of an airport at Southend.
Learn more about making your own tapestry here

Visit Southend Airport here

Learn more about Bayeux here

Visit the Bayeux Tapestry Museum here

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Fontenay Abbey

Fontenay Abbey Late spring in Burgundy. The banks of the canal were festooned with the colours of wild flowers: the blue of cornflowers, the blood red of poppies and the yellow of other blooms which were unknown to this horticulturally-challenged city girl.

That’s the beauty of barge travel - it relaxes the mind and makes space for civilized exercises such as the pursuit of good food and wine and culture. The Abbey at Fontenay was just a little way away from the canal run and the excursion was well worth the effort of dislodging myself from floating luxury.

Bernard of Clairvaux, an abbot and the primary instigator of the reformed Cistercian order, founded the Abbey of Fontenay in a Burgundy valley in 1118 with strictly implemented austerity, which he felt had become so lax in other monasteries. The monks moved to Fontenay Abbey in 1130. Nine years later the Bishop of Norwich fled to Fontenay to escape persecution, and he helped finance the construction of the church which was consecrated in 1147 by Pope Eugene III.

By 1200 the monastic site was finished and housed as many as 300 monks, and in 1259 the pious King Louis exempted the Abbey of Fontenay from all taxes. In 1359 the Abbey was sacked by the armies of King Edward III of England, and was damaged anew in the late 1500s. In 1745 the refectory was destroyed, and by 1789 all of the monks had left the abbey due to the terrors of the French Revolution.

Fontenay Abbey was sold by the revolutionary government in 1820 as a national asset, and turned into a paper mill by the paper maker Elie de Montgolfier, nephew of the balloon inventors. I dare say that he took advantage of the abundant running water on the site for his paper-making process. Fontenay Abbey(Paper was one of the key components in those celebrated balloons.) Marc Seguin, the inventor of suspension bridges and French railways, was the owner of Fontenay from 1838.  The paper factory closed in 1905.

Edouard Aynard, a patron of the arts, married a Montgolfier and he started the restoration. His descendants still live in part of the abbey and work on the buildings continues. In 1981 the abbey became a UNESCO World Heritage Site: it is the oldest preserved Cistercian abbey in the world. The grounds have a classic and manicured garden which was listed in 2004 as a "Remarkable Garden" by the National Council of Parks and Gardens. The grounds cover over 1,200 hectares.

The Abbey welcomes 100,000 visitors each year so one needs to pick one’s day and time to avoid following a bus-load of tourists. It’s enjoyed at its best when the buses leave and tranquillity reigns. One gets a sense of the spirituality of this spot that was used for worship for so long.

The Entrance Lodge is the first building that you will visit.  It once marked the limits of the Abbey complex. There was a porter who greeted visitors to the monastery - pilgrims and the poor for the most part, one imagines.Fontenay Abbey Notice the round hole in the wall? That’s where you would get a less-than-warm welcome from a guard dog: his accommodations were on the other side of the wall.

Pass through that lodge and you will see a huge tree. It’s several hundreds of years old and dominates the garden. It’s likely that these lawns were vegetable plots when the monks were in residence. There is a corner that once housed hunting dogs, too.

The cloister here is magnificent and has remained intact since the 12th century. This must have once been a promenade of contemplation. One can almost imagine one hears the soft padding of white-clad monks walking in silence. Simple yet impressive architecture offers sheltered passage to all the main monastery rooms.

Younger members of your party might not be interested in the finer points of Romanesque architecture but they will be interested in the hydraulic hammer which was reconstituted in 2008 as part of a European project involving 7 technical schools. This hammer is a working replica of hammers that would have actually been used by the monks in their forge. There is a turning water-wheel which powers the hydraulic hammer, causing it to be raised and then to fall under its own considerable weight. This was used for refining metal coming from the furnace.

Fontenay Abbey The monk’s dormitory is stunning. Raise your eyes and find what looks like the skeleton of an upturned wooden boat with its ribs as joists. The room is bare now, just as it would have been when the dormitory was first built. After some time the monks were given small partitions to afford at least some privacy. They slept on straw mattresses and in the cold. There were prayers in the adjoining church every few hours, and sanitation was primitive. Those must have been exhausting and unhealthy days, but probably no worse here than out in the broader world at that time.

Fontenay Abbey is one of the most impressive and most sympathetically restored building complexes I have seen anywhere. It’s well worth a visit. Walk the cloisters, admire the stonework but take time to sit and enjoy the quiet.

Phone +33 (0)380 92 15 00
Visit the Abbey here

Learn more about luxury barging holidays in the region here

Read more about this trip here

For more images of La Belle Epoque visit Mostly Travel here

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Bound by history, carved in stone - Normandy and England

Caen We share so much. Those Norsemen who pillaged the coast of Britain and settled inland also did the same in France, and indeed in such numbers that a region took their name – Normandy, populated by Normans, a corruption of Norsemen!

Caen is the principal city in Normandy and is just 15 km from the English Channel, or La Manche as it’s called in French. This beautiful town is now linked to the south of England by the new route from the increasingly popular Southend Airport. It takes less than an hour, making this hop shorter than many people’s daily commute.

Caen is known as the city of William the Conqueror, and for its historic stone buildings constructed during his reign. He rose from obscurity to become a force on both sides of that aforementioned body of water.

The man who was to become William I of England was born in the late 1020s and was the illegitimate son of the Duke of Normandy. In 1035 William inherited the title of Duke of Normandy, a far more genteel one than William the Bastard which was his other moniker.

In the 1050s and early 1060s William became a contender for the throne of England, then held by Edward the Confessor, who had no children. English earl Harold Godwinson was another candidate and it was he who was named the next king by Edward as he lay on his deathbed in January 1066.

Caen William was having none of that and mounted an invasion of England from Normandy in September 1066. He defeated and killed Harold, probably not personally, in the Battle of Hastings - which was not actually fought in Hastings but a few miles away in a place called, unimaginatively, Battle.  In the wink of an eye we had a new king. William was crowned King of England on Christmas Day 1066.

Many castles in England were constructed during William’s reign, making the statement ‘we are here to stay’. One of the most famous is The White Tower which is the central keep of the Tower of London. This is one of the city’s most iconic buildings and it’s made of stone from Caen.

The very best examples of Caen stone buildings are, unsurprisingly, in Caen! This is a charming city and walkable. In fact a trip here from the UK is easy without a car. There is a speedy and frequent link from London Liverpool Street, and the train station is actually at Southend Airport, and therefore convenient for foot passengers. There is a regular shuttle bus from Caen Airport into the centre of town.

Caen Once you are in central Caen you’ll find everything within a small area. There are pedestrianised shopping streets to tempt skilled retail enthusiasts, but don’t just look at goods in shop windows, look at the shop itself. There are some striking half-timbered buildings still standing even after the bombardment that Caen suffered during the Second World War.

The Abbaye-aux-Hommes was founded by William the Conqueror in 1067 as penance for marrying his cousin Matilda (who founded the Abbaye aux Dames for the same reason). William was buried in his Abbey – a marble slab in the choir marks the site of his tomb.

The Early Gothic choir replaced the original Romanesque sanctuary in 1202. This is the earliest example of Norman Gothic and became the model for many future choirs both in France and England.  The Abbey is made from local Caen stone which was also used for Canterbury Cathedral and Westminster Abbey, and is a fine example of Norman Romanesque. There are twin Romanesque towers topped with Gothic spires that are 84m high, giving Caen the nickname "city of spires."

Caen doesn’t disappoint. It’s simple to get there, and decent hotels can be found for under 100 Euro. One can indulge in café culture, and enjoy the local cuisine. Buy a bottle of cidre, a baguette and some fine local cheese, and relax with a picnic in a park. Go for a unique calvados cocktail, and watch the sun set on ancient stones.

Learn more about Caen here

Visit Southend Airport here

For more images of Normandy visit the Mostly Travel Facebook Album here

food and travel reviews

La Belle Epoque – 5-star floating through Burgundy

What a grand title for a barge! Luckily the lady lived up to her name and our expectations, which she did actually exceed in every way.

La belle Epoque A barge, even a big one, presents the very real prospect of tight accommodations, iffy facilities and, still worse, the likelihood of mediocre food cooked by a well-meaning hobbyist chef on a gas burner at the back end of the boat. La Belle Epoque was surprising, charming, delicious, luxurious and relaxing, and those dreads soon evaporated.

We were met at our appointed hotel in Paris - the receptionist was expecting us, and took charge of our luggage so we were able to have a few hours in warm, sunny Paris. Just time enough for a meal of steak-frites and a glass of something red and reviving, surrounded by locals. The holiday had started and we hadn’t even seen our vessel.

Our minibus arrived, and not one of those U-Drive efforts hired for the day, either. A smart blue 9-seater in the European Waterways livery with the company emblem on the door. (In fact this bus was to follow us along the route, and ferry us to various places of interest.) A smiling couple introduced themselves to us and the other passengers, and loaded the luggage. We were off.

A couple of hours of dozing found us alongside a beautifully painted and substantial Dutch barge. This particular boat was built in the 1930s to carry cargo around the European rivers and canals in an era when they still offered the fastest and most reliable travel options. La Belle Epoque had been sympathetically converted to a floating hotel but it still retains some features which made Dutch craftsmanship so valued.

The trip started with a warm welcome from the assembled crew and a glass of chilled champagne. Canapés were nibbled before we were escorted to our cabins. The Belle Epoque has 6 guest cabins boasting modern en-suite facilities, single or huge double bed, crisp linens, brass portholes, dark wood, mineral water aplenty, turn-down service every night, and even a chocolate on the pillow. In short – bijou floating comfort.

There is ample space in the saloon which acted as both lounge and dining room.La belle Epoque Two long sweeps of banquette tempted voyagers to linger over apero and savouries in the evenings before dinner or to unwind with a best-seller before a stroll along the towpath: one can walk through idyllic French countryside between locks. La Belle Epoque moves at a good walking pace so not much chance that you’ll miss the boat. For anyone needing more speedy travel than Shanks’s pony, there are bikes which allow for a mini Tour de France into nearby historic villages before meeting the boat a few locks further on.

But it’s not all about taking naps in dappled sunshine, hiking by the canal or cycling through Burgundy. There are also guided excursions every day. There might be a walk to a nearby chateau, a visit to a village market, perhaps a wine tasting break ...well, this is Burgundy and a famed wine-producing region after all!

Our first meal set the scene for the whole trip. This was, surprisingly, not advertised as a culinary-themed adventure although we had hoped for some interesting dishes. Chef Selby presented French food to the highest standard. On our first evening we enjoyed crayfish timbales wrapped in cucumber, duck with orange sauce, pears poached in red wine and all expertly paired with both red and white wines.La belle Epoque He progressively ticked off all the classics – beef from the pale Charolais cattle, coq au vin, frogs legs …and then there were the cheeses! There were several of these after every meal. Chef Selby chose regional cheeses, soft cheeses, blue cheeses and hard cheeses. All from France and showing their diversity.

Our daily guided excursions took us to such beautiful villages as Flavigny-sur-Ozerain, where the film ‘Chocolat’ was set; Alesia, where the last battle between the Gauls and Romans took place in 52 B.C. (and a visit to the museum); the exquisite World Heritage UNESCO site of Abbaye de Fontenay founded by St Bernard in 1118, which is unmissable; the 16th century Château d’Ancy-le-Franc with the biggest collection of Renaissance murals; and the vineyards and town of Chablis, dating back to Roman times.

France is popular for barge cruises, but all cruises are not created equal. Whilst it’s true that this was my first experience of such a holiday, I would have to say that European Waterways, on La Belle Epoque, have thought of everything. It’s a floating hotel with almost-individual attention from the staff. There might not be room for an Olympic pool on deck but there is a hot tub.La belle Epoque No, there isn’t a bespoke library but there is a selection of books on the food and drink of the region, and one might notice a copy of Rick Stein’s French Odyssey. That’s no surprise as that book is associated with the eponymous TV series that was partly shot on a European Waterways boat.

La Belle Epoque is polished, both metaphorically and actually. If this is an example of the whole fleet then European Waterways deserve to be proud. I wholeheartedly recommend this trip to any food, wine and history lover …or lovers of doing nothing while the scenery drifts serenely by.

Visit European Waterways here

Read about an excursion during this trip here

For more images of La Belle Epoque visit Mostly Travel here

food and travel reviews

Champagne – a brief encounter

Champagne - a brief encounter One is spoilt for restaurants in London. High-end Michelin-starred, white-tableclothed establishments abound. The weather becomes warmer. We dream of those balmy days and longer evenings with friends. The picture might include floral frocks, a bowl of salad, a platter of salmon and, of course, a bottle of champagne. It is, for those gatherings, the dot above the i, the finishing stroke of a pastel watercolour. It must be champagne.

Wine experts, one of which I am not, will offer many worthy explanations of why Champagne is so popular and so festive. Consider this very banal observation: perhaps our openness to Champagne as a special beverage stems from childhood fascination with bubbles. Carbonated drinks, at least when I was a kid, were less common than now. A fizzy drink was a treat although they were artificially coloured, artificially carbonated, and unacceptably sweetened by today’s standard. But take away the bubbles from that cola and even the most enthusiastic child would turn up a chubby nose. It was about the bubbles. Champagne doesn’t use the excitement of fizz to obscure dull wine but rather uses sparkle to polish already fine wine.

So we grow up and there they are again, those bubbles, and now they are creating magic in delicious wine. There is that same anticipation we had when presented with a bottle of pop but now our more-discerning taste buds appreciate the light-amber (or sometimes pink) vehicle for that effervescence. We can recognise character, complexity and freshness of Champagne. We might not be sure exactly what it is but it makes a delightful impression.

Champagne is a sparkling wine and can only truly be called Champagne if it is made from grapes grown in the Champagne region of France and produced by secondary fermentation actually in the bottle. It’s this fermentation that creates the characteristic carbonation.

Wines from the Champagne region have been enjoyed since the Roman era. It was they who planted the first vineyards. Christianity became the religion of choice and churches became major land owners. The monks produced wine for use in services. It’s thought by many that Dom Pérignon invented sparkling wine but, in fact, the oldest recorded sparkling wine is Blanquette de Limoux. This is a much-overlooked wine which is favoured by those living in south-west France, although hardly known at all outside that country. It’s said to have been invented by Benedictine monks in the Abbey of Saint-Hilaire, near Carcassonne, in 1531. Wine was bottled before the initial fermentation was completed.

In the 1600s the English scientist and physician Christopher Merret noted that the addition of sugar to a finished wine created a second fermentation. Merret spoke at the Royal Society in London, and presented what is now called méthode champenoise, in 1662. English glass-makers developed a technique to produce bottles that could withstand great internal pressures during that secondary fermentation. In 1844 Adolphe Jaquesson invented the muselet. When opening a bottle of champagne one removes the iconic foil that encases the top of the bottle. The wired structure revealed is called the ‘muselet’. One loosens this by unwinding the wire, then turns the cork while maintaining pressure to restrain the cork from a too-energetic popping.

The 19th century saw an explosive growth in Champagne production, going from a regional production of 300,000Champagne - a brief encounter bottles a year in 1800 to 20 million bottles in 1850. Those bottles were poured into distinctive glasses. The classic coupe has become a thing of the past but it had a rather racy start, or so legend would have us believe. It’s rumoured to have been designed in the form of Marie Antoinette's left breast. She must have been a woman of slight figure. These days Champagne is usually served in a long-stemmed tall narrow glass known as a flute. Champagne is always served cold, and ideally between 7 and 9 °C (45 to 48 °F). Bottles can be chilled in a Champagne bucket filled with ice and water. These buckets are larger than those commonly used for regular wine to allow for the larger bottles and more ice and water. This cooling reduces the Champagne’s gas and ensures that it can be opened without spraying. For more theatre a Champagne bottle is sometimes opened with a sabre. This technique is called sabrage, a term used for breaking the head of the bottle …by accident or on purpose.

Champagne is special, it looks special, it tastes special and it even feels special. That tingle on the tongue tempts the palate into believing that something remarkable is in store. Another sip and the expectant drinker will be assured that this is going to be memorable. A bottle of Champagne isn’t cheap but it is an indispensable part of any classy gathering and it’s included on every wine list of distinction. Champagne has a reputation which she proudly guards.

Visit here for some exceptional Champagne

For travel possibilities in Champagne visit European Waterways here

food and travel reviews

The Other Side of the Bar

...or One Bar, Two Buses, Six Coffees and a Funeral

PMU Don’t we all just love it? The thought of a nice little bar in France, open from early morning, evoking visions of rustic charm, the smoke of half-a-dozen Gaulloises (not any more!) and some animated exchanges over the morning’s St Tropez Daily Worker? At first glance it’s a dream but the reality is somewhat different. Those bars that open early are serving coffee and often all kinds of strong spirits, by staff who have been on their feet since 6am.

All of you who have travelled to or through France might have noticed those PMU signs over little bars. That means it’s a bookies as well as a bar. That is for some an irresistable combination! You can drown your sorrows after losing your shirt, without moving from your vinyl-covered banquette!

If you want to see a real French bar then seek out a PMU. Don’t go to the smart touristy cafes (you can always spot the English, they are the only ones drinking large milky coffee in the afternoon), but try the local bar of choice, stand at the 'zinc' and order a café or a noisette, which is a small espresso with a dash of milk.

The distinguishing feature of a PMU is the TV broadcasting non-stop horse racing and other bettable sports. The addition of the gambling side of the business contributes a lot to the bar’s finances. The men can keep an eye on 'le foot' and the ladies can buy a Lotto ticket. Most linger for a coffee or a small glass of something, and that gives the bar the air of a private social club.

I can’t understand the interest in betting so I’m there to people-watch. There’s often a little old man in a shabby black suit sitting in the corner showing no interest in the proceedings. He doesn’t watch the TV. He doesn’t join the general conversation but the patron will serve an unending supply of coffee that seems to arrive unordered and to go unpaid for. He must be a relation... or the Mayor!

My friend Stephanie had a bar in a small village in the north of France. The doors opened very early in the morning to provide small strong coffees to the mine workers who were waiting for the bus to take them to the pit. The miners would consume a line of waiting coffees in just a couple of gulps. No words were exchanged and the bill would be paid every other week.

Stephanie’s bar was conveniently the terminus for two bus routes so there would be a guaranteed clientele of at least the bus drivers. Passengers would congregate in the bar for a coffee or a glass of red before taking the bus to the nearby town. The hospital was in that same town and treated the ex-miners who had contracted pneumoconiosis (black lung disease) or emphysema. The terrible legacy of mining is the breathing problems from working in that dark dusty environment. Men would spend years suffering ill-health before passing away, like generations of miners before them.

The days when there was a funeral were incredibly difficult for my friend. She would have known the dearly departed very well. She would have served him his morning coffee when he was still able to work. She would have made sure he had a nice glass of something warming while he waited for the bus to take him to the hospital, and now she had to juggle the duties of both bar-keeper and mourner at the time of the poor man’s funeral. If the circumstances had not been so tragic, the sight of my friend sprinting in full black regalia from graveside to bar would have been comical. But it was her last duty to the mourned to provide refreshments for the funeral guests. The proceedings could last many hours, miners being shift-workers, with each of the deceased’s colleagues wanting to pay his last respects.

We suppose that life in a French bar would be romantic and convivial. Most bars rely on a few regular clients but even in tourist areas trade can be unpredictable. The early morning coffee is still popular, and warm summer evenings encourage people to stay late. It’s long hours of work and there isn’t much time to be convivial.

I am glad that someone looks after the bar, but me, I don’t envy them. I am right behind the people behind the bar!

food and travel reviews

Les Moustoussades – Bands Together

Bandas Every year our village hosts a marching band competition. These are not crisply uniformed semi-military, baton-swirling groups, these are “bandas”!

The eight bandas performing this year came from all parts of France and also Belgium, and are made up of players of all ages. They play everything from 1960s pop to Spanish love songs to 1940s swing. All this accompanied by a bit of jumping about and a lot of good humour.

Villemoustaussou is an ancient village just outside Carcassonne with some of the best views of the medieval Cité. It has a road that runs around the oldest part, which offers an ideal setting for watching the bands pass. They march (well, stroll) for a while and then stop, and usually near a bodega selling wine or beer!

paella Les Moustoussades is a three-day event which starts on Friday night with a Franco-Belge evening where the musicians play and the guests tuck into steaming piles of mussels and chips. This is a popular evening, with some of the participants not reaching the comfort of home till 3.30am.

Saturday’s festivities start quite late (I wonder why!) with the kids fishing for ducks in the Lavoir. This is a communal laundry area that’s hundreds of years old. Once a year it’s filled with water and is actually used to wash clothes – everybody has a washing machine, but it’s a nice tradition to maintain.
ox roast
The bodegas (food and drink stands) open at 7pm and there isn’t a hot dog or burger in sight! The most spectacular counter offers paella from one of the world’s largest pans. Carnivores are well catered for at the barbecue pit. They offer grilled lamb, beef and pork as well as sausages all served in a nice chunk of baguette. Cassoulet is available at the restaurant (book in advance) as well as oysters from a chilled mobile vino veritas Cuttlefish (a bit like squid or octopus) is cooked with potatoes and smells wonderful.

There is another culinary tradition at Les Moustoussades and that is the ox roast. The logs are lit about 8pm on Saturday evening and the cooking goes on all night. Don’t try this at home, dear reader, but I can tell you that it’s quite simple. First take a cow (already dead), split it down the middle and flatten a little. Roast in front of several trees-worth of burning logs till just done (should take between 17 and 17 ¼ hours depending on night-time temperature).

Cool drinks are available in the form of our lovely local wines bought from stands manned by members of local organisations. The money raised goes to things like the primary school PTA, so it’s really your duty to buy a glass (plastic in this case) or two.

Sunday continues in the same convivial manner with a car-boot sale. At 11am there is an open air mass in the park, at 12.30 there are aperitifs and at 1pm the beef is served while the bands play. The wine is once again flowing from the bodegas and the shop selling the hats and T-shirts to commemorate your bandas weekend is now open. We’ll all do it again next year.

To sample some of the music visit

food and travel reviews

Le Panier Festival in the Back Streets of Marseilles

Le panierLe Panier had always been a rough part of the city. It’s the oldest part of town with a dense lattice of narrow streets with tall narrow houses. If the streets were not full of people making merry then it would feel dark and threatening.

Its squalor was legendary but Napoleon, Casanova, the painter Puget all spent some time there. The “filles de joie” (‘ladies of the night’ to be delicate) were known to sailors everywhere as some of the most obliging in the world.

The Germans had a horror of Marseilles. In 1943, when under German occupation, Le Panier became an unofficial ghetto for the underclasses including Resistance fighters, Communists and Jews. The Nazis gave the 20,000 inhabitants one day's notice to leave, before dynamite was laid and everything from the waterside to rue Caisserie was demolished. Just three old buildings remained: the seventeenth-century Hôtel de Ville on the quay, the Hôtel de Cabre at the corner of rue Bonneterie and Grande-Rue, and the Maison Diamantée on rue de la Prison.

This is where we spent a hot summer night. It was the Panier festival and a true celebration of the colour, history and passion of the area.

Le Panier is enjoying a bit of revitalisation. It isn’t being gentrified but just done up a bit. The festival brings together all elements of the community in a vibrant street party that is both rustic and warm. There are bands of every kind, North African lute players, African drummers, Jazz bands, Rappers (are they still called that?).

JP, JL and Carolina Each building entrance sports a small barbecue, a table piled with baguettes and merguez (spicy North African lamb sausages) or sardines. A shop doorway might have huge bottles of homemade rum punch. There is an elderly lady in Moroccan dress selling sweet pastries.

We have a invitation to join our friends in a newly renovated square. The houses around are still the original but the freshly rendered and painted facades work wonders. We enjoy a glass or two of chilled rosé, some grilled sausages and watermelon. We are joined on our bench by a North African grandmother, we kiss South American toddlers, we watch the French kids play football and we tickle an African baby. This is the “melting pot” at its best.

We head home about 11pm through crowded streets of both young and old, all enjoying the warmth of the summer night. An area populated by poor working people, but a place that knows how to have a good time and is happy to share. Its young people are not over-indulging in strong beverages, they are not roaming around in gangs. Perhaps we can learn a lesson from the back streets of Marseilles!

Enjoy Marseilles events here

food and travel reviews

La Ferme

If you only have time to visit one shop on a quick trip to Carcassonne, then this must be the one.

Gilles This little up-market deli/wine/coffee/tea/sweet/fine food shop looks like it’s been there for a hundred years. It’s only been twenty. Before that La Ferme was located just around the corner but away from the main street (if you can call such a narrow street “main”). Now it’s just one block from Place Carnot, the picturesque town square.

The owner and manager, Gilles Fiorotto, admires the quality of Fortnum and Masons and this has inspired him to create a unique atmosphere in a small space. Small it might be but he carries 6000, yes, you heard me correctly, 6000 lines of high-end food products and food-related gifts. I am sure that a packet of salt and vinegar crisps has never crossed the threshold.

La Ferme has a corner plot with large windows that are always full of gift ideas. Wooden boxes of wine with decanters, tins of tea with china cups and saucers, Absinthe spoons, caviar, picnic sets. The window-dresser must have been a tight-rope walker in a previous life as the boxes, bottles and assorted silverware are balanced in a seemingly impossible fashion.

The counters and shelves are all dark wood, giving a feel of a Victorian grocers shop. A lovely selection of gift boxes (‘Popular corporate gifts,’ says Gilles) are arranged on the old staircase. A hand-painted mural graces the wall behind the cheese counter, which adds to the charm of what is in reality quite a tight space.

La Ferme However quaint this shop might be, it’s not a theme park. It is a haven for the gastronomically enthusiastic. Tourists are in the minority, with the most part of his clients being Carcassonne locals and buying from the deli counter. And what a counter! Jacqueline, Gilles’ wife, has chosen the best cheeses, smoked salmon, dried sausages available. The couple spend time looking for the best and they certainly find it.

La Ferme, Gilles tells us, is the only shop in the old town that sells Choucroute (sauerkraut – pickled cabbage) which is surprisingly popular with people from the south. He sells not only French products but a wide range of quality foods from all over Europe. Gilles is proud of his wide selection of whisky, and has a huge display of tins of loose-leaf teas for the more sober minded! There is a particularly delicious one called Easter Tea but it’s available all year round.

If you are lucky enough to pass a couple of days in Carcassonne then walk the few yards south from the square and visit La Ferme. Buy a little jar of tapenade, a cassoulet dish or some cheese, and pretend you live here.

La Ferme, 55 rue Verdun, Carcassonne.

food and travel reviews

Absinthe – The Green Fairy

Originally produced in the Val-de-Travers region in Switzerland and in Pontarlier, France, Absinthe is a distilled anise-flavoured spirit made from herbs including the flowers and leaves of the plant Artemisia Absinthium, also called Wormwood. Although it is sometimes termed a liqueur, absinthe has no added sugar and is therefore considered as a spirit.

Absinthe was marketed as a tonic and was reputed to stave off malaria so was given in quantity to French soldiers fighting in Algeria in the 1840s. They seem to have developed the taste for it!

Almost from its invention, absinthe has been known as “La Fée Verte” or “The Green Fairy”, as it is said to have “seductive and intoxicating powers”. Hang about – it’s my mother-in-law’s favourite drink!
Absinthe painting
In 1876 Degas paints L'Absinthe, one of his most celebrated works, being exhibited in London in 1893. George Moore wrote in the Speaker on 25 February of that year: "The woman that sits beside the artist was at the Elysée Montmartre until two in the morning, then she went to the Ratmort and had a soupe aux choux; she lives in the Rue Fontaine, or perhaps the Rue Breda; she did not get up until half-past eleven; then she tied a few soiled petticoats round her, slipped on that peignoir, thrust her feet into those loose morning shoes, and came down to the café to have an absinthe before breakfast. Heavens! - what a slut! A life of idleness and low vice is upon her face; we read there her whole life. The tale is not a pleasant one, but it is a lesson." So think on!

Absinthe hit its peak during the years 1880-1910 with its dramatic fall in price, becoming affordable to all levels of society and soon rivalled wine as the drink of choice in France. It was the “Belle Époque” and society ladies, gentlemen, politicians, artists, musicians, dancers, the ordinary working classes drank absinthe. In 1874 the French alone consumed 700,000 litres, but by 1910, the number was nearer 36,000,000 litres per year. This rise has been blamed on the wine shortage in France due to poor harvests brought about by diseased vines. Or was it that the population was just hooked on cheap booze!

Its critics said that "Absinthe makes you crazy and criminal, provokes epilepsy and tuberculosis, and has killed thousands of French people. It makes a ferocious beast of man, a martyr of woman, and a degenerate of the infant, it disorganizes and ruins the family and menaces the future of the country."

The last straw was the bloody “Absinthe Murder” that took place in Switzerland in 1905 when Monsieur Lanfray shot his whole family after drinking absinthe. He had in fact also consumed several bottles of wine and a good (or bad) amount of brandy but this was overlooked by the campaigners, and two years later absinthe was banned in Switzerland. By 1915 absinthe is officially banned by the French who didn't repeal this law until 2001, but it was modified in 1988 to allow for some types of absinthe to be sold, although under another name. These days the Swiss are, once again, one of the major producers.

AbsintheIt’s probably the whole ritual surrounding the serving of absinthe that has helped its popularity. It isn’t a drink to be hurried and perhaps it’s the hypnotic power of water slowly dripping that helps the waiting consumer to relax.

The classic absinthe ritual involves placing a cube of sugar on an ornate, flat, perforated spoon which rests on the rim of the glass containing a “dose” of absinthe. Special glasses were produced with a “balloon” to indicate a measure. Iced water (for best effect from a tap on a special water fountain) is then very slowly dripped on to the sugar cube, gradually dissolving into the absinthe which causes the green colour  to change into an opaque white as the essential oils leach out of the alcohol. Usually three to five parts of water are added to one part of absinthe. The sugar not only softens the bitterness, but is said to subtly improve the herbal flavour of the drink.

These days the Green Fairy is enjoying her return and that is as it should be but she doesn’t hold a wand, it’s a double-edged sword! She takes equal pride in bestowing pleasure ....and pain!

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