Monday, November 18, 2013

On French Terroir - Or Something Close To It

 My own impressionist version of life along the Seine 
(I promised my nephew I'd try Lightroom for my photos)

I’m an old vine. And that’s not a bad thing. At least that’s what I heard last week when I was rolling down the Seine River, drinking wine beginning at 9:30 in the morning.

Brad and I have been on a wine cruise down the Seine from Paris to Honfleur and back. At least some of the week was cruising. You see, the rain they’ve been having in northern France raised the level of the Seine so much that no boats could fit under the famous Paris bridges. We were lucky that our ship got stuck outside of Paris. The first part of our cruise consisted of getting on a tour bus and driving for a long time in rush-hour traffic to meet up with the ship in Conflans-Ste.-Honorine. Thank heavens the the bridges from here on out were new and tall enough to handle ocean-going vessels. At the end of the cruise it was back to Conflans where all kinds of river boats were tied up four across at the dock, waiting out the water.

  The high Seine in Paris

But back to my viney old self. Or rather, wines and old vines.

Vigneron Jean-Marc Espinasse (here and here), who came up from his warm Provencal vineyard to cold and rainy Normandy to teach us, was asked “When is a vine considered an old vine?” He said many might say 40 years, but he felt it was closer to 60. And with the older vines the roots are sunk deeper, so they can endure more. After hearing that, I didn’t feel so bad about this old body getting creakier by the month. Because I fell -- again -- and am feeling as ancient as the vines that produce the wines we’re drinking.

Jean-Marc Espinasse

I keep trying to tell myself that being an old vine is the best thing, that I’ve still got some grand cru life left in me. Jean-Marc told a story about how when he ran over one of his old vines, his babies, with his tractor he cried. Nobody cried when this old vine went down on the bus steps, though the bus driver was very solicitous the rest of the day like I was an old grandma who wears orthopedic shoes and reindeer sweatshirts.

Whatever Jean-Marc talks about, he always gets back to the French concept of terroir, or the influence soil, geography, climate, and other natural elements have on the wine or food from a certain place. Since he’s an organic winemaker, terroir defines everything he does. On a previous trip to France, another winemaker did an experiment and showed us how different wines that came from grapes grown just on opposite sides of a road could taste so different. Perhaps this plot had a little more sun, or that plot was a little closer to some lavender. “Without good terroir,” Jean-Marc told us, “you can’t have a good wine.”
While sometimes in France I just want to go the the Picard store and buy a week’s worth of frozen dinners (salmon on a bed of puréed broccoli - yum!), I love shopping at the weekly market and see where my food is from. Every merchant has labels on everything telling you if the dates come from Tunisia or Algeria. I prefer the clementines from Spain over the ones from Provence. Most of my vegetables come from within an hour of Dijon, my chickens come from Bresse-en-Bourg and my beef is Burgundy Charolais cows.

During this time when we can’t even get the U.S. government regulations to label if our food has been genetically modified, I like to come to a country where the origin of food is so essential (although not universal, I admit). On the bus tour to Honfleur the tour guide pointed out some stunted corn in the field. She said that the corn plants don’t produce ears of corn because it’s too cold and wet; however after the buds fade they mow it down and save it to feed the Normandy cows in winter, along with the peas, beans, and other crops they grow for the cattle. France escaped the mad cow problem, she said, because they don’t feed them much commercial food.

Even the houses in Normandy are about "terroir" with thatch roofs and irises growing on top

France can be maddening sometimes, like when you want to go to eat dinner before 7:30 p.m., or  if you have to deal with paperwork. But I do love the idea that nourishing our body begins with all the centuries of plants and minerals that have inhabited a small plot of land. The circle of life and all that.

Unfortunately, I also like French fries, French ice cream, and French chocolate. Sigh.

More stories from Normandy will be coming. Have any of you been to Normandy? What is your favorite part? Wherever you live how much do you know about the origin of your food? If you buy organic or local, what particular food do you try to always buy organic or local? Share your Normandy and food thoughts in the comments box.

We sailed on the Amallegro with Amawaterways and all of our arrangements were made by the über efficient Susan Boehnstedt of Critics Choice Vacations. Thanks to everyone who made our first cruise so relaxing and interesting. More stories to come.


Patricia said...

I'm so sorry to hear you suffered another fall and hope the effects are not lingering. The cruise sounds like just the venue to sip wine in the morning and I look forward to hearing more. Normandy is yet another unique part of la belle France and my strongest souvenir, apart from living the history of the World Wars, is the butter … ah, the terroir on which those cows graze. You are so right about the pleasure of food shopping in your adopted country.

Muriel said...

We often go to Normandy and I am a huge fan of Giverny.It is so nice! As for food, you are right. The freshness and the quality of food are what I miss over here. I took them for granted in France. well, I was wrong!

Annette Gendler said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Annette Gendler said...

I've been to Normandy a few times, most recently with my family to visit the D-Day beaches and sites, and I have to say those sites have stuck in my mind more than anything else that is picturesque and charming.
Also heard from a neighbor whose on sabbatical in Paris that it's been raining there more than it ever rains here in Chicago!
Be well!

Nadine_Feldman said...

I haven't made it to Normandy yet, though hubby visited there before he met me. The wine cruise sounds like great fun, even with the flooding. I had the privilege of meeting Jean-Marc when he was in Houston a while back, and we saw lovely photos of his grapes.

Sorry to hear about your fall. We recently flew back to Seattle from New York, and the long flight made my back gimpy for a week...we are indeed old vines, my friend. I work hard on my health, but there's no escaping that fact.

I'm fortunate to live where there is abundance of local, organic, non-GMO foods (including my own garden), and the local restaurants support the nearby farmers. The farms that produce a lot of our food are close enough to us that we can (and do) go visit. It's getting harder to travel, because we eat so well at home!

Julie Farrar said...

I will get to posts about Normandy in the near future. Definitely a moving experience. As for the Normandy butter, one of our guides admitted that you might find them putting butter on cheese. Didn't get to Giverny because it was too late in the season, but I will get there one day. Had to satisfy myself with Monet paintings at Musee d'Orsay.

Rossandra White said...

Oh, did you ever transport me. Thank you thank you! I truly needed that, except for the longing it evoked in me.

Kristin said...

Wonderful post about the cruise, Julie. Wish I could describe as beautifully as you do!

Susan Boehnstedt said...

Great post Julie and you captured some amazing shots along the way. Thanks for the mention of CCV as well.

Ellen Gregory said...

Sounds like a lovely thing to do -- wine from 9:30am? Huzzah!

I haven't been to Normandy... yet. I went to Burgundy a few years ago, though. ;-)

Julie Farrar said...

Thanks for the comments, friends. I'm back online and recovering from jet lag now.

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