Yay for my first post from France! (Also, just an FYI – this post is not about Poitiers; I’m getting to that).
This weekend was my first real weekend in France and the five of us on the Middlebury program here in Poitiers spent it with our “parrain” Arnaud at his family’s home in the super tiny village of Le Maine Aux Bretagnes (between Cognac and Angoulême). Arnaud is like our big brother here in Poitiers. He’s a master’s student who works in the Office of International Relations and is basically in charge of introducing us to Poitiers. He’s incredibly nice and has helped all of us so much this first week. He lives here in Poitiers but was going home for the weekend and invited us all along.
When I say that Le Maine Aux Bretagnes is a tiny village, I mean very tiny. I think there are about five houses, which all belong to Arnaud’s various family members. Around the village are acres and acres of vineyards, which his family owns and uses for the production of cognac and wine. Cognac is both a drink and town about 30 minutes away from Le Maine Aux Bretagnes. It’s liquor made from fermented then distilled grapes and although it gets its name from the town of Cognac, it is produced in the surrounding region. In the past, the town of Cognac was the main commercial center for the liquor, as it is located on the Charentes River, which flows directly to the Atlantic Sea. The top brands of cognac, still have there headquarters in the town of Cognac. Arnaud’s family harvests the grapes from their vineyards and then produces the “eaux de vie” that is then sold to such brands as Hennessy and Rémy-Martin to be distilled in barrels for years before it becomes the cognac we drink today. The fall is the harvest season for the grapes that will go on to become cognac, lasting about 3 weeks in total. This year the harvest was the earliest it has ever been due to France’s record-hot summer, so the harvest started last week and will go to around the end of the month. Arnaud wanted us to visit this weekend in order to see the whole operation.
We headed to Chez Boujut (Arnaud’s family’s house) Friday afternoon and got in right around sunset. With rolling hills and rows and rows of vineyards, it was so beautiful. And I kid you not when I say that as soon as I stepped out of the car, it smelled like wine. This is mainly due to the fact that Arnaud’s uncle was finishing up working for the day in the building right next to his house. It takes about 3 hours total to clean all of the equipment used during their workday, as they have to take precautions to the bacteria that can build up from the grapes. We then ate a very late but delicious meal (when I say late, I mean that I don’t think we sat down to eat until 11:30) and called it a day.
Saturday we drove about 30 minutes to see the town of Cognac. We went on a nice little river cruise on a boat that is a reconstruction of the original merchant boats that used to carry cognac. After a nice lunch we went on a tour of the Hennessy property. Our guide explained where Hennessy gets its grapes from and then the whole process of how it becomes cognac. We then had a cognac tasting and got to see all of the different types of cognac they sell (the most expensive bottle being 6,000 euros…they didn’t let us taste that one). Cognac can have a very different taste and smell depending on how old it is. And I found it was really good served on the rocks with some ginger ale. We then went back to Arnaud’s house and went for a swim. The weather was beautiful this weekend and it was nice to cool off for a bit. We taught Arnaud how to play Marco Polo, which apparently they don’t play in France. I suggested possibly a more French name for the game such as “Charles…de Gaulle”, but it didn’t really catch on. We then drank some more cognac as an aperitif before dinner. Actually, we had Pineau which is a white wine made with cognac. When the cognac is added to the wine it stops the fermentation process, which makes for a very sweet, sugary wine. Apparently, Pineau is hard to find outside of the Poitou-Charentes region and practically impossible to find abroad. So I’ll have to enjoy it while I’m here. Then another delicious dinner followed by some time in the Boujut’s new hot tub. The family’s house was first built in 1770 and is currently being renovated. It’s a huge house and is going to be awesome when it’s finished.
We spent Sunday morning watching Arnaud’s family at work harvesting the grapes from the vineyard. They use a tractor that rides over each row of the vineyard and shakes the grapes from their stems. We got to take turns riding it and Arnaud’s uncle explained to us how he operates the gigantic machine. Then we went on a tour of their facilities and really got to see each part of the production in action. We tasted some eaux de vie (unaged cognac that is like 140 proof) which is what the family sells to the major producers of cognac. The family does barrel and keep some of their own cognac though, and we saw those storage spaces as well. The rest of the day was just spent relaxing and playing with Arnaud’s brother’s kitten (which even though I don’t like cats was one the cutest things I’ve ever seen). Then after a short dinner we headed back to Poitiers.
Wow, that’s a lot. You can check out more pictures from the weekend by clicking on my Flickr feed on the right. I promise to get back in the habit of blogging once I’m more settled in here in Poitiers. Classes start this week (and next for some) and we’re in Bordeaux this weekend for the TCF (test de connaissance de Français). But after that there will be a post on Poitiers with pictures, bien sûr!
From Poitiers with love,