Their Name Liveth For Evermore: The Somme Part 4

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Every cemetery has a stone that states, simply, “Their name liveth for evermore.”

I’ve focused on the Allied side of the Battle of the Somme. The British led the attack, and young men from all parts of the globe were wounded, went missing or died in this pastoral landscape. 44 of the 45 memorials and cemeteries are dedicated to the Allied dead and missing.

The cemetery at Fricourt is the final resting place for 17, 026 Germans who died in the battle of the Somme. It is quiet and moving, and, I suspect, not often visited by the British or French.

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The German cemetery at Fricourt

But these crosses have their own stories to tell, stories of young men doing what they were told, following their leaders into battle just as the British and French men did.

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A Jewish headstone in the German cemetery

I was brought up short by the Jewish gravestones in the German cemetery. Pebbles have been placed on many, telling us of someone’s visit. These seemed to me the saddest markers of all. During the Great War, Jewish soldiers were accepted into the ranks without hesitation. They would see a different fate twenty years later.

The only story that Dave can give us here is that the infamous Baron von Richthofen, the Red Baron, used to be buried here until his family came to collect his remains in 1925 to inter them in Germany. Thousands of names, lettered in classic German typography of the early 20th century. Thousands of stories.

Too many to tell. We visit Mamet Wood, Death Valley, Contalmaison, Delville Wood, Caterpillar Cemetery, Poziers. I lose track of specifics and drown in the weight of the numbers and the stories.

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The Welsh memorial at Mametz. 4000 men were killed or wounded.

We move on for one final Canadian story in the Adanac Cemetery (yes, that is Canada spelled backwards. Not sure whose “cute” idea that was). 1075 Canadians are buried in Adanac.

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Adanac Cemetary

One more story. An uplifting one. A Canadian story. A story from the fall of 1916, when the battle of Somme was still raging. The battle that was supposed to have ended on one sunny morning in July continued on for five months.

James Richardson was a Scot who emigrated to Canada with his family in 1913. When war broke out, he enlisted with the 16th Canadian Scottish Battalion. James was a Piper, and as such, his job was to inspire the troops. He wasn’t supposed to go into battle. But on the morning of October 8, 1916, he found himself in a company in disarray, with no senior officers, a line of wire that had not been cut, and troops with no direction. So he picked up his pipes and strode up and down playing, inspiring about 100 men to force their way through the wire into the next trench (the Regina Trench), which the company took successfully.

James then turned his attention to escorting German prisoners out of the trench into the rear of the action, until he realized that he’d left his beloved pipes behind on the front line. He went back to get his pipes and never returned. His body was found by a farmer in 1920.

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Piper James Richardson

But his story doesn’t end there.

In 2002, a school in Scotland posted information about a set of mud stained bagpipes that they had had on display for 90 years. The pipes had been brought home from the war by a British Army Chaplain who taught at the Ardvreck School in Crieff, Perthshire, Scotland. They had a distinctive Lennox tartan pattern on them, the pattern of the 16th Canadian Scottish Battalion.

Through an investigative search by The Canadian Club and several army sleuths, the pipes were positively identified, in 2007, as James Richardson’s bagpipes. They are now on display in the B.C. Legislature.

The Battle of the Somme represents one small corner of the Great War. Each of these stories and memorials connects us to a single person, to a young man who had the misfortune of living at a time when it was expected that he would go into battle. Over the course of four years, 38.2 million men were killed, wounded or went missing in action.

All we can do now is to sit together, and tell their stories. Dave’s done a phenomenal job of bringing some of these young men back to life, and giving us an insight into a moment in time when Western Civilization was irreparably altered. (If you are ever interested in a tour, he said to feel free to contact him. You can leave a comment on my site and I can connect you up.)

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A lunch stop

But I think the last word should go to Private Harry Patch. Harry was born in 1898 and died in 2009, living to be 111 years old. It wasn’t until he was 100 that he started to speak openly about the war. His perspective sums it up.

“It wasn’t worth it. No war is worth it. No war is worth the loss of a couple of lives, let alone thousands. T’isn’t worth it … the First World War, if you boil it down, what was it? Nothing but a family row. That’s what caused it. T’isn’t worth it.”

Private Harry Patch

 

 

 

 

O Love, your eyes lose lure: The Somme, Part 3

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Dave shows us Leipzig Salient and a good view of the middle battleground

On the morning of July 1, 57,470 men on the Allies side were killed, wounded, went missing or were taken prisoner. Figures for the German side are harder to come by, but estimates say that there were between 10,000 – 12,000 German casualties that day.

Until my visit to the Somme, I could look at these as large numbers, but not feel them as individuals. I could grapple with trying to feel the enormity, but I couldn’t relate to these numbers as humans.

But Dave has at least one story from each cemetery. Some stories are of remarkable bravery, like Billy McFadzean from the Ulster Division. Prior to the Ulsterman’s attack on Thiepval Wood, a box of grenades fell on the trench floor, and pins fell out of two of the grenades. They had a 4 second fuse. Billy threw himself onto them to save his comrades. After the war, no one could be sure where the parts of his body ended up so he is named on the huge moment to the missing, the Thiepval Monument.

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Theipval Monument.

But each name holds a story. There are over 70,000 names on the Thiepval Monument, all names of British and South African men who died in the Somme between July 1, 1916 and March 20, 1918, men whose remains were never found.

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Looking out from Theipval Monument. The names of 70,000 missing men are carved in the white marble surrounding the base,

The monument is an impressive and imposing sight, like a statement that seems to shout on the landscape: Never Again. Construction began in 1928, overtop of a warren of German trenches and tunnels. The monument was unveiled in 1932. In seven years, the world would be at war again.

I’m moved by the memorials to the tunnellers.

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A memorial to the men who tunnelled. Lochnagor Crater.

Strategic mining was used by both sides, with many kilometers of tunnels ranging in depth from 30 feet (9 meters) to 120 feet (36 meters). At the “Glory Hole,” eight kilometers of German, British and French tunnels skirted each other by mere meters. As they got closer to their objective, the men needed to tunnel slowly, in complete silence. They worked barefoot and fitted handles onto their bayonets, jabbing the point into a crack in the rock and twisting. Another man caught the rock piece before it fell. Backbreaking work, where they feared discovery at any moment.

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Lochnagor Crater

We visit the Lochnagor Crater, one of the 5 craters left from the mine explosions set underneath the German encampments. As with the blast site at Hawthorn Ridge, photos can’t do the size of this hole justice. But 2nd Lieutenant Cecil Lewis (no relation, but I’d like to adopt him) of the Royal Flying Corps was sent in his plane to observe the blast at Lochnagor as it happened:

“The whole earth heaved and flashed, a tremendous and magnificent column rose up into the air. There was an ear-splitting roar, drowning all the guns, flinging the machine sideways in the repercussing air like a scrap of paper in a gale. The earth column rose higher and higher to almost 4,000 feet. There it hung, or seemed to hang, for a moment in the air, like the silhouette of some great cypress tree, then fell away in a widening cone of dust and debris…”  2nd Lieutenant Cecil Lewis

We finish our day in a museum in the town of Albert. The museum is in a tunnel.

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Going down into the Somme museum in Albert

Ten meters underground, 250 meters long, the tunnel was originally built in the 13th century. It was used as an air raid shelter in the Second World War, housing 1500 people. Today, it houses artifacts, dioramas and exhibits.

I’m struck by an exhibit on facial reconstruction. Gueules cassées, or “Broken Faces,” became a term that referred to the more than 15,000 men who returned from the war missing eyes, noses, jaws, cheeks. In trench warfare, the heads of the soldiers are particularly vulnerable. The introduction of metal helmets in 1915 saved many lives, but ironically this meant that many men who would have previously died from head wounds now lived with terrible disfiguration. The new field of plastic surgery helped, but for many the reentry into society was far harder than for those missing limbs.

There are so many ways in which war destroys a life. We return to Chavasse Farm and breathe in the peace.

Red lips are not so red

As the stained stones kissed by the English dead.

Kindness of wooed and wooer

Seems shame to their love pure.

O Love, your eyes lose lure

When I behold eyes blinded in my stead!

            Wilfred Owen 1918

 

 

 

 

We Stand at the Edge of a Crater: The Somme Part 2

 

Dave Griffiths

“…I remember the lads laid in rows, just as if they’d gone to sleep there, and the sun flashing on them bits of tin on their backs all down the lines. The machine guns just laid them out. Some were hanging on the wire, hanging like rags. Machine guns bullets were knocking them round as if it was washing on the line.” Private Frank Lindsay, 16 years old, Pals Battalion, Barnsley

There are some pertinent facts to keep in mind for this cursory view of the first day of The Battle of the Somme. I’m not going to go into the intricacies of the battle. I can only speak from a personal perspective about what I saw, 101 years later, on a landscape that still shows the scars of the war. But a bit of background information might help.

  • The battle began at 7:30 a.m on July 1, 1916.
  • 13 divisions were deployed under British command. They came from Britain, Ireland, Newfoundland, Bermuda and the colonies of Canada, New Zealand, South Africa, India and Australia. For the most part the men were new recruits, young men who joined up together and took basic training for six months.
  • The French had asked for British assistance to pull German troops from Verdun. There were 11 divisions under French command, but they, too, operated under British command in the Somme.
  • There were 6 German divisions, a professional army of young men who had trained for a minimum of two years.
  • The front was 45 kilometers long
  • The chain of command was like a game of ‘broken telephone’ going horribly awry. A hierarchical structure of twelve layers of information connected the toffs in the War Command office to the working class Privates in the trenches. Each layer had its own vested interest. The Privates had no choice but to the information they were given.
  • In 2 hours approximately 72,000 men (from both sides) were killed, wounded or went missing.

 

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Dave shows us a battlefield near the hamlet of Serre

France is a vast country of rolling farmland. Europe’s garden. It is still farmed by local farmers and families in much the same way it has always been farmed. Cattle graze, tractors harrow, and in the gentle rolls of land it is easy to let the 21st century drift away.

Nowhere is this more true than in the Somme. The area of the Somme is a thriving farming community, but it is also a community that guards the memories of hundreds of thousands of people. The farms are planted around well-tended cemeteries and memorials, sites that are in the middle of the farmed fields.

The cemeteries and memorials are tended by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, who hire local people to maintain them. There are, every day, hundreds of people who come from all over the world to visit and to find graves of family members who they’ve only heard about in stories.

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Up the path, past farms and fields to Luke Copse. Light Railway and Queens  Cemeteries,

It was in the Luke Copse Cemetery that I began to feel the enormity of our pilgrimage.

 

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We walked up a tractor path, past fields of sunflowers to a small “battlefield” graveyard, where bodies were placed in pairs a trench, the trench that they had just left minutes before. Dave showed us where two brothers, Lance Corporal Frank Gunstone (25 years old) and Private William Gunstone (24 years old), were buried side by side.

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Luke Copse Cemetery

Further along the path we came to the Light Railway Cemetery. Part of battle planning involved building a railway so that wounded men could be carried back to hospitals in Rouen. Trenches and craters from bombardment still mark the site of the battle.

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Light Railway Cemetery

We visited the grave of Private Alfred Goodlad who wrote in his last letter home, “The French are a good nation worth fighting for.” I think about today’s troops, dying in foreign countries far from home. I think about the generosity of Private Goodlad’s family, who decided to put this statement on his tombstone.

Across the tractor path, cornfields frame the Queens Cemetery in former no man’s land.

 

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Queens Cemetery

Many of the Accrington Pals are buried here. Pals battalions came from all over Britain, young men who went to school together, or maybe were volunteer firefighters, or on the same football team. Friends who signed up together to fight together, and for the most part, die together. The 700 Accrington Pals were a battalion from the town of Accrington in East Lancashire. They were tasked with taking the town of Serre. Within half an hour, 585 of them were casualties (385 dead, 200 wounded). Serre was left in German hands.

“… it was slaughter. Men fell like ninepins. There was rifle fire, machine-gun fire, it was terrible.” Stanley Brewsher, Accrington Pals

A few kilometers down the road, British sappers had spent months digging carefully under German encampments to lay mines set to explode at the appointed hour and initiate the battle.

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Hawthorn Ridge Redoubt

Remarkably, there is footage of the explosion at the Hawthorn Ridge Redoubt, just west of the town of Beaumont-Hamel, the first of five land mines were exploded (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g8YfJmwY5Uo) It is remarkable to see the size of the explosion, the earth shooting high into the sky.

There is also footage by the official cinematographer, Geoffrey Malins of the young soldiers of the first battalion of the Lancashire Fusiliers waiting in the “Sunken Lane” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3Sb7urnjEaE) across from the mine site, ready to attack and liberate Beaumont as soon as the mine was exploded.

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Sunken Lane, where the 1st Lancashire Fusiliers waited for the explosion at Hawthorn Ridge

For reasons beyond my ability to grasp, let alone explain, the mine at Hawthorn Ridge was exploded 10 minutes early on July, at 7:20 a.m., not at 7:30 as scheduled. The explosion effectively warned the Germans that the attack was about to begin. The German troops moved quickly forward into their trenches before the attack officially started at 7:30. They were therefore very ready when the 1st Lancashire Fusiliers from the Sunken Lane came out into the open. The young men whose faces you see in the film clip were easily picked off.

We walk from the Sunken Lane to the top of the Hawthorn Redoubt to look into the crater left by the mine.

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From the bottom of the Hawthorn Ridge crater

Overgrown, it is no more than a hideout for teenagers now. I go down to the bottom and stare up, remembering the young German men who lost their lives suddenly, unexpectedly, as the bomb went off underneath them.

We drive a short distance down the road to Newfoundland Park. Although Newfoundland was not a part of Canada in 1916, it is hard not to feel compassionately patriotic at the sight of a Canadian flag and a huge caribou memorial.

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Newfoundland Park

This site has been maintained so that the original trenches are still in evidence, markers to another horror of this war. 801 young men from Newfoundland were pushed forward as part of a second wave of attack after the Hawthorn Ridge explosion. They couldn’t go through the trenches, because they were blocked with the dead and wounded. They had to move across open fields, with little artillery support. They tried to push through the barbed wire of No Man’s Land, wire they had thought destroyed.

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Trenches in Newfoundland Park

In 30 minutes it was over. Only 68 men of the Newfoundland Regiment survived uninjured. Newfoundland lost a generation of young men. To this day, they are mourned and remembered in Newfoundland on July 1st.

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Cemetery for the men of the Newfoundland Regiment

And on and on. Each cemetery tells the story of a regiment, each gravestone tells the story of a man.

Day one of our tour of the Somme is over. We head back to Chavasse Farm and wine that reminds us to enjoy life. Over dinner we sing snatches of songs about peace.

 

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Wild Poppies

Grappling with the Great War

Tromping through the mud of northern France, peering through the cold rain at 100-year old gravestones and arguing late into the night about the subtleties of the Battle of the Somme was not exactly on my “bucket list.”

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Family and friends, we gather at Chavasse Farm in Hardecourt-aux-Bois

 

“Before the world grew mad, the Somme was a placid stream of Picardy, flowing gently through a broad and winding valley northwards to the English Channel.” A.D. Gistwood, The Somme

It’s important to say from the outset that I have no personal connection to war. The Great War and the Second World War didn’t touch my immediate family. Growing up, I had no interest in these horrors, and, truth be told, little interest in history, period.

But aging has brought with it a fervent need to grapple with history. I’ve written two books that are set within the context of the Second World War. I’ve become fascinated at how people’s lives are altered irreparably by conflict.

However, until this summer, The Great War was still relegated into the mists of the distant past. Tromping through the mud of northern France, peering through the cold rain at 100-year old gravestones and arguing late into the night about the subtleties of the Battle of the Somme was not exactly on my “bucket list.”

Dave Griffths is a retired history teacher who has just finished an MA in history. He has a deep passion for the Great War as it played out in farmer’s fields in France. Dave is a close friend of our cousins Peta and Bryan and six years ago, he took Tim and I on a “Magical Mystery Tour,” giving us a view into some lesser-known aspects of Burgundian history. (See: https://a-lewis.net/2011/08/19/daves-magical-mystery-tour/)

To this day, no one can remember how his offer to take a group of family and friends on a tour of The Somme came about. I think we might have all agreed because we knew that it would mean several days of living together and drinking good wine. A bit of a lark, as the Brits say.

Dave takes his work seriously. And it must be stated off the top that any errors in my reportage are my own. Dave’s facts and figures are thoroughly researched. He assigned us homework and books to read before we arrived. He booked accommodations. He arranged meals. He planned a tour that focused, primarily, on the first day of the Battle of The Somme, July 1, 1916.

And so, as hot summer days plunged into a frigid autumn, we converged on Chavasse Farm, http://www.chavasseferme.com/in the French hamlet of Hardecourt-aux-Bois. Chavasse Farm specializes in catering to people who come to explore the battlefields of the Somme, sometimes to trace family history, to walk paths they’ve read about or heard in family lore. The walls are filled with artifacts, memorabilia and informative articles.

Ever the good student, I had read the assigned texts, and more. But looking around the walls of Chevasse Farm, I could see I was definitely out of my depth. That’s ok, I thought, there will be good company and good wine. The war is just a backdrop.

Our first night at the farm was a joyful coming together of family and friends. Large pots of Boeuf Bourguignon, fluffy potatoes, and bottles of Cremant. Only Dave was anxious, knowing as he did the impact that the next fours days were to have on us all.

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Our first night at Chavasse Farm

 

Beaune, La Joie et La Vineuse

Beaune has been at the heart of Burgundian culture since the days of the druids. During the Middle Ages, Beaune was a city of drapers, and cloth merchants made their fortunes there. Over the centuries, generations of Dukes waged wars, created courts of fame and beauty, and commissioned some of the most exquisite illuminated manuscripts ever produced. English Kings married into the Burgundian courts and helped to secure Beaune’s fame as a place of refinement and culture.

Today, the commoners come for the wine. Grape culture is tantamount to a religion, and I’m an adherent.

We travelled to Beaune (population 22,000) with our cousins Peta and Bryan and friends Annie, Suzanne and Christian. Suzanne and Christian had introduced us to many flavours of the local terroir on our previous visit to France, and so when Christian proposed a day of wine tasting in Beaune, we jumped at the opportunity.

The vineyards of Cote D'Or
The vineyards of Cote D’Or

We drove along the Route des Grands Crus and into the Côte d’Or, fields of placidly graving Charolaise cattle giving way to thousands of acres of densely planted vines. We skirted the edges of Mercurey, Saint-Aubin, Meursault, Pommard – names of the towns are synonymous with varietals. We entered Beaune through the welcoming gate of Saint Nicholas and headed to Cave Patriarache Père et Fils.

The St. Nicholas Gate into Beaune
The St. Nicholas Gate into Beaune

Cave Patriarache was started by Jean-Baptiste Patriarche in the eighteenth century. In 1796, he purchased the Ancient Convent of the Sisters of the Visitation, which had been confiscated during the French Revolution. Jean-Baptiste had outgrown his original building in Savigny-les-Beaune and saw that the convent’s extensive cellars would give him the room he needed for his growing business. Cave Patriarche now has the largest cellars in Burgundy.

Upon entry, we were each given a small, flat silver cup, a “coupelles tastevin” to use for our tasting. The bumpy surface of the tastevin is designed to catch and refract the light to best show off the wine colour.

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coupelles tastevin

We descended deep under the streets of the town, through 5 kilometers of dark paths created by rows and rows of dusty bottles. Sections of the cellars date back to the fourteenth century, when they were used by the Monks of Chatreux to age their wines. There are literally millions of bottles in the cave and the walkways stretched out to dark corners far beyond our vision.

Wines for tasting were set up along our route, designated by candles and open bottles placed on barrels. Three whites, twelve reds. Our enthusiasm grew as we wended our way deeper into the cave.

Tim tasting in the cellars at Cave Petriarche
Tim tasting in the cellars at Cave Petriarche

In 1995, 350 bottles of an exclusive and promising vintage were put aside to be donated to an annual auction to raise funds for L’Hôtel Dieu de Beaune. The bottles are under lock and key, quietly waiting for future discerning oenophiles, to open them as specified – in 2020, 2050, and 2094. We stopped to pay due homage.

The special cellar in Cave Patriarche
The special cellar in Cave Patriarche

Unfortunately, most of the Patriarche wines were out of our price range. We fell in love with a 2000 Pommard, 1st Cru but resisted purchasing a bottle. Instead, we topped up our tastevin just a bit and savoured every drop, before reemerging into the daylight and wended our way to lunch.

Christian had selected L’Air du Temps, for our repas of Burgundian flavours. Our prix fixe was a 3-course meal of local gastronome. I chose the Véritable Persillé de Bourgogne (a wonderful pork and ham pate, marbled with parsley), avec compotée d’éschalotes aux cassis; Bourguignon de Joue de Boeuf et Roseval (a Beef Bourguignon as I have never tasted, with tender morsels of beef slow-baked on thinly sliced potatoes); and Financier aux baies de cassis, sorbet cassis (a soft cake with blackberries and fresh blackberry sorbet). Every mouthful was a masterpiece. I felt like a spoiled Burgundian duchess.

Lunch at L'Air du Temps
Lunch at L’Air du Temps

Our last stop in Beaune was to visit L’Hôtel Dieu de Beaune, the shining star of the city.

In 1443, Nicholas Rolin, chancellor to the Duke of Burgundy, and his wife Guigone de Salins established the Hôtel Dieu as a “palace for the poor”. Nicholas gave a vast amount of his fortune to create and maintain the hospice. It is a stunningly beautiful building, famed for its remarkable roofs of coloured slate.

 

L'Hôtel Dieu de Beaune
L’Hôtel Dieu de Beaune

Nicholas also commissioned artwork and tapestries to give comfort to the patients, including a huge triptych of the last judgment that was kept closed, only to be revealed to dying patients as part of their last rites.

Inside the hospice, thirty beds lined the walls of the “Great Hall of the Poors”. It was a respectful environment – the beds were designed to be private, yet accessible to the nuns who cared for the sick. Along with the nursing sisters, Hôtel Dieu housed doctors and scientists who worked in the laboratory. In the pharmacy, a resident apothecary created medicines from herbs, spices and tinctures. The busy kitchen cooked for everyone and baked 100 loaves a day to give away to the poor in the town.

Hôtel Dieu was like a city all unto itself and since the fifteenth century, it has been the pride of Beaune. Apparently King Louis XIV said, “This hospital is the glory of my kingdom.”

The hospice is still going strong. In 1971 it moved to new facilities, leaving the original building as a museum. Funds raised from the annual 450,000 visitors, and from the exclusive wine auction to which Cave Patriarache contributes, go to the hospital’s charitable works.

We’ve only touched the surface of Beaune when it’s time to leave. “Beaune la Jolie and Beaune la Vineuse conspire to take you up in their adorned and perfumed arms,” wrote Pierre Poupon, a great Burgundian man of letters. As we got into the car I wondered if he might be related to Poupon of the mustard fame? I looked longingly at a flyer for a mustard tasting in Beaune. I definitely need more time in those adorned and perfumed arms…

The gate at Cave Patriarche
The gate at Cave Patriarche

Encore Une Fois, part deux

After a morning exploring the treasures at the Marche des Puces in Restigne, Bryan, Peta, Tim and I drove to Bel-Air. Our task for the week was to wash all of the inside beams, and to put everything away for the winter. Although we arrived to a cold house, we got the wood stove burning and it was soon it toasty and warm.

Of course the best part of being in France is market day. Mondays are market days in Marcigny, a little village of about 2,000 people, about 20 minutes away. The town has beautiful architecture that is well looked after.

The market in Marcigny

The Marcigny market is my favourite thus far. It was small, yet filled with stalls of delicious foods. Huge lettuces, about the size of the largest platter in my kitchen. Every vegetable imaginable – incredibly fresh and healthy-looking. A cheese vendor who sold the most remarkable Cantal Entre Deux (my new favourite – it’s a semi-hard cheese that is savory and earthy), a chèvre, aged, dry and nutty, and a runny, creamy something covered in ash that we didn’t get the name of but which we fought over with a passion. We bought some saucissons (dried sausage), selecting one with wild boar and one with Myrtille berries, and some delicious, dense whole wheat baguettes. Clothes, CDs, handbags mixed with food stalls wafting the delicious smells of paella, roast pork and cooked potatoes. Bryan decided to splurge on a treat that he has always wanted to try – Calamari Farci, calamari stuffed with vermicelli, mushrooms and spices. (Good, but not great. An unusual choice for a French market, but reflecting a Vietnamese influence perhaps). We walked by rabbits, pigeons, chickens and budgies in cages. Peta and I found cute winter hats, 2 for 10€ (about $12), perfect for the cool fall air.

It was about 11:00 in the morning when we finished, and we popped into a café for coffee to warm us up. Most of the people at the other tables were drinking small tumblers of white wine. By the time we left at mid-day, the market stalls had been packed up, and people had vanished from the streets.

Marcigny and Peta. Everyone has gone home to have lunch.

Our days at Bel-Air were spent scrubbing and cleaning, except for the day we were invited to lunch at Suzanne and Christian’s. Their friends Monique and Jean Michel were also visiting, and the meal certainly stretched our meager French to the limit. Both Tim and I feel constantly embarrassed by our lack of French, and are very shy in social settings. However, along about the third bottle of wine, both we began to understand far more of what was being said, and were able to contribute with more enthusiasm (but with just as many faults!).

Suzanne served us appetizers (salted cashews, spicy crackers, slices of a bread, like a brioche, with ham and cheese) while Christian served Crémant. First course was a delicious seafood tarte, with a dollop of mayonnaise, olive and an Auxerrois wine (Vin des Fossils, 2010) from the Loire. Everyone we have visited in France is proud to share local produce with us, and  it is one of the great pleasures of the trip to be able to try so many new foods and tastes. Suzanne and Christian had just returned from the town of Charlieu with a specialty from the Loire – Andouille. Andouille is an aged sausage, made from, as far as I can tell, the neck and lungs of pork, and possibly beef as well. It is a very old recipe, carefully guarded. “Une recette tirée des grandes traditions gastronomiques Charliendines qui date de la nuit des temps, des hommes fidèles et rigoureux de cette douce alliance vous garantit ce résultat exceptionnel.” (which translates roughly as: “A recipe drawn from the Charliendines culinary traditions, which date from the dawn of time. Add to this men faithful and rigorous, and the combination guarantees this exceptional result.” The translation is rough, but so is the original!) Suzanne served the Andouille with the traditional boiled potatoes, and sauerkraut cabbage casserole. The Andouille had a dark, extraordinary flavor. Deep, slightly smokey and aged. Like nothing I have ever tasted. Served with a special Macon-Cruzille, 2008.

The entre was followed by the cheese platter (another new favourite – Délice de Bourgueil –  an amazing creamy cheese, somewhat similar to the St. Andre that we get at home). The meal was topped off with chocolates and coffee. There were other wines, other tastes. Too much for my already struggling brain to remember. Local foods, local wines, new friends who are very much of the terroir. A lunch from which we rolled home around 5:00 p.m.

Understandably, we needed a good walk the next day. The weather was lovely, and Christian offered to take us mushrooming in the nearby woods. Finding mushrooms is akin to the proverbial needle in a haystack – at this time of year they are buried beneath mounds of fallen leaves, often camouflaged the same colour. The day started promisingly, with a large Chanterelle – a mushroom that Christian knows well.

Christian shows Tim a Chantarelle

But although we found many mushrooms after this first, they were mostly inedible and potentially poisonous. However, they were very beautiful and unusual (I never knew that there were mauve mushrooms!) and after a while we developed a “catch and release” attitude. The joy of being out and tramping directionless in a fresh wood made the adventure rich in every detail.

The next day, the last of our week’s visit, the weather went from nice to spectacular. Unbelievably for late November, we took the big kitchen table out into the sunshine and had a lunch of Frisée salad and white wine, basking in the hot sunshine and overlooking the fields of Burgundy. The grey skies of London seemed a very long way away.

A November lunch in France

Encore une fois

Peta and Bryan invited us back to France, to help close up the house for the winter. The trip coincided with a visit to friends in the Loire area, in a small village called Restigne. We were thrilled to be invited to see another part of France with new culinary, and vinicultural, treasures.

Françoise and Pierre live in a house that they have marvelously restored, complete with courtyard, gardens and guesthouse.

Tim in Françoise & Pierre's courtyard

Restigne is only several streets long and surrounded by vineyards.

The main corner of Restigne, with sign posts to local vitners

The nearest city is Tours, and Françoise offered to take us there so that we could go to a craft show to see the work of local artisans.

I have participated in a number of craft shows myself, and I was really intrigued to see the similarities, and the differences, at L’Art au Quotidiens in Tours.

Amongst the many wonderful potters, jewelers and clothing designers were fine furniture makers and restorers able to appropriately re-paint or re-plaster your 16thcentury home. The show was housed in the Vinci Centre International de Congrès, a contemporary building in the centre of town. In the middle of the building there is a large, ultra modern theatre, which was converted to a restaurant for the duration of the craft show. Large tables were set up on the stage where we had a lunch of an extensive salad buffet, hot entrees and seemingly endless glasses of white and red wine. A pianist played American jazz standards on a keyboard set up in the theatre seats. The French really do up a craft show in style.

Our lunch on the stage of the theatre

I have always wanted to visit Tours because of a beautiful manuscript that I studied many years ago, done by Alcuin of York in the 9th century at the monastery of St. Martin of Tours. It is one of the most graceful of the Carolingian manuscripts and is one of the reasons why humanist lettering styles are as appealing as they are.

The cathedral in Tours

Tours did not disappoint. It has a lovely old centre and on this warm November bank holiday (Armistice Day) there were hundreds of people out walking. Françoise told us that people are always out strolling in Tours.

Tim and Bryan in Tours

It’s a very friendly atmosphere. We stopped for coffee in the square, so that we could watch the world pass by.

Back in Restigne, the village is only large enough to support a single Boulangerie, a Charcuterie and a small chapel. But once a year the village is home to a mammoth Marche des Puces, and we have come to help Françoise organize her stall. But before we got started with collecting treasures from the attic and guest house, Françoise took us to see the caves outside the village.

Seven hundred years ago, when people started building in this area, they found large deposits of limestone from which they could easily cut blocks for their houses and Chateaux. They soon realized that when they took the blocks out, they were creating useful spaces. These spaces became caves used for storage, and in times of war, entire villages hid in the caves with their livestock. Today, the caves are still in use by the local vitners. Thousands of bottles can be stored at perfect temperatures. Aside from wine storage, caves are also used for a huge wine industry, as well as large (and rather legendary) parties and often for extra living spaces.

Françoise took us out of the village.

The vineyards outside Restigne

There are vineyards everywhere. As far as the eye can see in all directions. There are a few bunches of grapes left on the vines. They are sweet and warmed in the autumn sunshine.

Peta sampling the grapes in the sunshine

Along the sides of the fields, invisible unless you know where to look, are the caves. They are completely hidden away in the landscape.

The invisible Caves, in the fields outside Restigne
The Entrances
An archway leading to the caves

Back at Françoise and Pierre’s, we got a tour of their cave, tucked right under their house.

Dinners chez Françoise and Pierre are marvelous affairs, where we sit at table for many hours. We drank various vintages of the delicious Cabernet Franc that is made in the fields just beyond the village and stored below. There were numerous courses, concluding, always, with cheese platters followed by a dessert. As ridiculous as it may seem to bring cake to the French, I had made my favourite chocolate torte, Bonnie Stern’s California Chocolate Pecan Torte, (thanks to my wonderful friend Hinda who emailed me the recipe just in time) to give to Françoise and Pierre. Thankfully, the recipe is astonishing and the cake came up to their culinary standards. It helped that it was made with good French chocolate.

In response to my cake, the next day Pierre purchased a Galette Bourgueilloise – a specialty of the region. Where the chocolate torte was heavy and rich, this was such a light confection that you could almost believe you were eating flavoured clouds. Extraordinary. It, like the wine of the area, has an appellation controlee. Unique to the region, it is a very good reason to visit again.

Aperitifs with Peta, Pierre, Bryan, Françoise and Tim in the courtyard in Restigne