A journey through France: Beaujolais

xJoin Hamish Marett-Crosby on a wine and food lovers’ journey around some of the great, and lesser known, wine areas of Europe. Winner of the Prix du Lanson award for his evocative descriptions of the Loire Valley wine scene in 2003, Hamish will take you through Burgundy, the Rhône, the Loire and beyond. For each of the regions Hamish will evoke the best of wine, food, culture and scenery. In this installment, he continues his journey south from the Mâcon, to the neighbouring rural idyll that is the Beaujolais, for tales of coq-au-vin, chilled red wine and the politics of the pissoir.click on any destination from the map

The villages of the Beaujolais

photographs © Cephas.com

A vigneron could be described as a soft fruit grower with attitude; a little unfair perhaps, but it does no harm to remember that simple truth when faced with the extraordinary pomposity of some who make their living by growing grapes and then squashing them. Grape production is fruit farming and if you are suffering from an overdose of pretentiousness, then the best prescription is a trip to the Beaujolais region.

Beaujolais is, seen by the French, especially the smarter ones who live in the cosmopolitan atmosphere of Beaune or Bordeaux, as unbelievably rustic – a gallic zummerzet, and a saucy ooh-la-la zummerzet at that. Take the postcards which proliferate in the nearby towns; all seem to feature well-endowed young girls framed by farmers leering from behind barrels – in effect taking the naughty seaside postcard a stage beyond the suggestive, and well into Benny Hill terroir. To that, add the dimly-remembered fictional Beaujolais village of Clochemerle, and furious arguments over where to put a pissoir. One’s perceptions of the Beaujolais are fixed.

The reality is different – Oh yes I am sure that enormous arguments in the little villages that straddle the landscape still exist – but the joy of the Beaujolais region is that it remains very rural. There are relatively few vineyard regions in Europe – the Mosel valley is another – that seem to state so obviously: “this is wine growing country”.

Rushing south from Beaune to the sea down the Autoroute du Soleil, you are in the company of tens of thousands of others. Moins vite la mer ne va pas s’evapourer, the signs rather cleverly, but ineffectually say, but you have the choice of leaving the other lemmings and heading for the country. Just after Mâcon, turn right and head into the west where the hills beckon and the huge rock of Solutré signals the change from the white wines of the Mâcon to the reds of the Beaujolais. Cross that other death trap the N6, and you leave the modern world behind as you arrive in the Beaujolais Villages region. This is the northern sector of the Beaujolais appellation, a cluster of villages such as Fleurie, Chenas, Julienas, Brouilly and the others that are allowed to sell wines by their own name.

julienasThis is the time and the place to try the wine and reflect on the hype which effectively killed off Beaujolais sales. Of course fashions change, and nothing is more passé than yesterday’s craze, so Beaujolais became a derided term. But stroll into the church converted into a tasting room in Julienas, try a well made local wine, and reflect on the fact that with one or two exceptions, this is the only region that has made a real success out of growing the Gamay grape. You will not find a New World equivalent, and nowhere can match this red wine for its immediate fruity appeal.A visit to the Beaujolais Villages region is like re-kindling an old emotion. Suddenly you remember why it was that these wines were so popular. And the food is equally impressive in a straightforward way.

I recall a huge pan arriving at the table in a small restaurant in Julienas when the two of us ordered coq-au-vin. In that pan of wine sauce was a whole Coq. It had been simmering gently for hours it appeared, and the sauce had reduced to a thick richness. The bird was easily dismembered with a spoon and fork. It was a summer evening, the air was still warm and so the wine was served fresh. It was one of those culinary moments – nothing great, no attentive waiters hurling themselves at you with napkins at every opportunity, no sommelier sneering at you for not choosing the wine he wants to sell, no legions of aspiring young chefs pushing your food around the plate to satisfy their compulsion for gastronomic decoration – just food; well cooked, presented to you with a good bottle before you are left in peace.

cassouletThe same philosophy seems to pervade home cooking. In one vineyard owner’s house, we sat round the table at the end of a very hot day drinking the local version of Kir; crème de cassis and chilled Beaujolais, called a “cardinal” after the rich purple colour of the drink. Having wrapped ourselves round some local charcuterie served with tomato salad, it was time for a cassoulet in which an andouillette had been simmering for a day or two. That and an old Fleurie was a great combination with bags of taste, bags of character and not an ounce of attitude.

Each of the famous villages offers tasting facilities, each has its own charm and yes, Clochemerle does exist. It is in a little village called Vaux. It was in 1956 that Gabriel Chevallier admitted that his classic work of rustic humour had been inspired by Vaux en Beaujolais, thus ending many years of argument as to the site of the true Clochemerle. Needless to say, Vaux has capitalised on this, and you can discover – or rediscover – the little streets and the famous urinal that caused all the problems. But does it matter where it was set? The charm of the novel lies in its universal applicability to any small community where passions run high over what outsiders might well consider to be trivial.

julienasBut, before we laugh too loudly, perhaps we should consider some home grown causes celèbres as reported in our local media.This is region in which to relax and mooch around with little thought to where you might end up. Head for the hills and look back across that ocean of vines. Sit under the windmill at Moulin-a-Vent, or in the old church at Julienas and try the red wines, served at cellar temperature, cool and refreshing in the summer heat. This is French countryside for the French. Charming villages without the 4×4 menace of the stock-broker belt.

It is the France many of us imagine, but somehow manage to miss, as we follow the well-beaten tracks from one crowded resort to another. Leave the herd, take the unmarked way, and lose yourself in the hills of the Beaujolais.