Vignerons & Picnics in Donzy

This morning’s breakfast at the Grand Monarque in Donzy was delicious apart from the blasted coffee machine at breakfast – WHY DO THEY DO THIS? In days gone by, one knew that as soon as one reached France the coffee became superb, something to savour. Now, most of the time the coffee in French hotels is RUBBISH. You can still get a decent cup of coffee in many cafés, but why don’t hotels give you proper coffee any more? Sometimes they pretend it is proper coffee and present it in a thermos jug, but often they do what the otherwise perfect Hotel le Grand Monarque does – they put a push button machine in the breakfast room. Ladies and gentlemen, owners of hotels, please READ AND TAKE NOTE – I don’t care if there are coffee beans in a transparent pod above the machine, they may or may not genuinely go into the coffee, but either way the coffee does not taste good. How hard is it to produce a decent cup of coffee? The usual cost of breakfast in the kind of hotels we go to is €8 to €9, frankly a difficult cost to justify for a table of price-controlled bread, supermarket butter, cheese and ham, and jams; surely they could afford to give everyone a proper cup of coffee for that money?

OK, rant over…. It was just so disappointing for a hotel that in EVERY other way was delightful, excellent value for money and definitely a place to return to.  The old kitchen, where we had breakfast, was just gorgeous, with a huge old-fashioned range cooker and a set of copper pans hanging from the ceiling.

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So, after breakfast and paying for our rooms, we strolled along the road to the riverside walnut oil mill, now open, and went in to buy some oil. It was a fantastic sight, you walk straight in to where there is a powerful smell of walnuts, the thrum of a large stone wheel grinding nuts, and a bank of ancient cast iron receptacles in which the oil is filtered through what looks like sacking. Past that is the room where the oil is sold in metal flasks, labelled for you as you watch. And every part of this old building is just, well, old….

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It looks as if no part of it has been changed for a couple of hundred years.  As well as the mill workings themselves, there is a house on this tiny island where the foreman of the original mill used to live.  With the blue sky reflected in the still water around it, with the other part of town just visible over the parapet of the bridge across the pool of water, with the ducks paddling around doing their best to look photogenic (and succeeding), it was almost too pretty to be true (see Julia’s fantastic picture just below).

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Reading the history of this little complex we discovered that it had been built in the middle of the 17th century by Cardinal Mazarin as a hydraulically-powered forge to make iron thread and cord.  The family who still owns it bought it in 1882 and turned it into a nut mill, and it is run today as it has been since the beginning, using the river Nohain to power it, pressing their own walnuts and hazlenuts using the great wheel of Donzy stone .  There is a story that in the Second World War a second smaller hydraulic turbine was put in to power a generator that allowed local people to listen to the BBC.part of it has served several different purposes over the years, including a bicycle repair shop. Fascinating.

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Having read about the history of Donzy the next thing we did was to look for the older settlement called Donzy le Pré, half a kilometre away, where there was a Priory that had suffered badly from various wars and sackings and burnings and other occupational hazards of being a Priory in a country that kept having religious uprisings. All that remained was part of a tower, and a magnificent doorway which had been the entrance to the priory. Indeed, it is so magnificent that a cast of it is held in the Museum of National Monuments; the carving of the Madonna and child with Gabriel on one side and Isiah on the other has been astonishingly well preserved, considering the tribulations of the building as a whole.

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Apparently the eyes of the characters had been decorated with precious stones, and the whole effect must have been heartstopping at the time it was created. Since the Revolution the parts of the Priory that had fallen into disrepair were used as a graveyard, which is now also mostly uncared for.  However it is possible to push open the creaking metal gate and wander around the collapsing graves, all resolutely facing east across the little Nohain river, ready for the Day of Judgement.

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After that we set off to look for the producer of the wine we had enjoyed at supper, a place called Domaine du Villargeau, whose appellation is Côté Giennois. We found it, and met a charming vigneron who gave us several wines to taste.  He also told us that one of his wines was called Chicago because it came from vines that had been brought over from America during the Phylloxera epidemic (see later) and which had been packed in a box with “Chicago” printed on it so great grandfather had named the “parcelle” where those vines were planted “Chicago”.  We tasted some Chicago, although we decided not to buy it, but some wine was bought, including that which we had sampled last night. I wouldn’t say there was exactly a sense of panic in the knowledge that after we left this region there would probably be no more wine tasting, but it certainly was an almost tangible thought hanging in the air.

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We had seen one of the brown signs advertising ‘interesting local features’ that mentioned “la marine de la Loire”, the boats that presumably went up and down the great river carrying goods, so we set off to find that. As so often, the signs started of enthusiastically then suddenly you are left in the middle of nowhere, with no clue as to further direction, so we decided to head towards where we knew the river was and drive along it for a while – this was more successful. We never found anything about the boats on the Loire, but we DID find the perfect picnic spot just off a tiny D road in a sunny, grassy spot right next to the river as it poured brownly by. Delightful, and with the cold wind almost disappeared we dozed briefly in the warm sunshine listening to the birds and the odd splash from the river.

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I don’t think I have yet mentioned the other advantage of this picnic spot. It was about 20 metres from a large sign pointing to a “Village des Vignerons”. Oh yes. After our lunch, we wandered in and discovered 10-15 producers of local wine, the local wine being largely Pouilly Fumé, with some Sancerre (we could see Sancerre on a hill as we ate our picnic) and a small appellation that we hadn’t heard of before, Pouilly sur Loire. We visited two of the producers, both vignerons indépendants, and eventually managed to squeeze a few more bottles of both red and white into my lovely Skoda.

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Again, it’s the stories you hear that make these adventures such fun. The first producer we visited there told us how he was the fifth generation of his family to make wine here; his great grandparents would have had to abandon their vineyards at the time of the Phylloxera epidemic at the end of the 19th century that pretty much wiped out all French vines, had they not taken work building and then maintaining the little railway line that to this day still runs beside the Loire, and which indeed took the business away from the boats that had carried goods previously. He also took us down a tiny spiral staircase to his cave and showed us the barrels, some of oak (“fûts de chêne”) and some of acacia; having just tasted wine from both kinds of barrel, this was fascinating to see.

The second producer had a photo on the wall of the cave of a brazier burning beside a vine, and in the distance you could see braziers burning all over the surrounding hillsides – he told us that they do this to protect the vines against the frost about this time of year. When they think there is likely to be frost, they get up at 4am and go out to all their different areas of vines lighting these braziers, as do all the other vignerons in the area, until all the hillsides are alive with little points of fire. He said it was an exhausting but exhilarating time as all the vignerons are out there either lighting or putting out these braziers every night over a period of about a month.

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Anyway, that really was the end of the wine buying, but we had had a wonderful time, and we set off for our final night’s stay at Senonches, up and a bit to the left of Chartres. The roads round Chartres were horribly full of traffic, as they always are, and we should have done our usual trick of avoiding the bypass with its HUNDREDS of roundabouts and just going straight through the middle; this trick has always served us well before, but we initially decided that since we would only be going round part of the bypass it wasn’t worth it. Wrong.

Two roundabouts in and the traffic was stationery, so Miss Google guided us back in and through every industrial and commercial “Zone d’activités” that Chartres has to offer until we came out the other side and then it was a straight line to Senonches. We found our hotel, the Hotel de la Forêt, with an interesting almost Norman beamed outside (the beams notably absent from the old photo of the hotel – so what, had they stuck them on?? It seems so. Why?? ), and took a short stroll round town to find a bar for a quick drink before supper, but failed because EVERYTHING was closed except our hotel.

Tim’s theory is that the large table of women sharing the dining room with us were workers from everywhere else in town all on a night out, therefore their establishments were all closed.

Food was interesting, though we had mixed opinions of how nice it was – it was very, very creative, and the young chef obviously has great technical skill. We started with “oeuf mollet”, poached egg, on a tiny round of squid-ink brioche, with a spinach soufflé base, and the whole thing covered in spinach and nutmeg sauce. I thought it was delicious, but we had mixed feelings about it – Julia and Tim thought it lacked flavour.

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Next we all had guinea fowl with cauliflower velouté (very, very smooth purée) with mushroom crumble next to it, with a tiny, halved, blow-torched brussels sprout, with a gravy which was some kind of wine reduction which some of us thought had too much salt. Finally, my pudding was “framboise et lavande”, raspberry and lavender in different ways – I can’t describe how it looks, you’ll just have to judge by the photo. It was superb, and showed a high level of technical skill.

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The others had a sort of deconstructed black forest gateau which didn’t really work.  This is the second time on this trip that a brownie / chocolate cake has been judged lacking.  Perhaps I should sell them ‘my’ (not really!) brownie recipe.

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So, last night in France for a while – tomorrow we head back to Caen and have decided to raid the giant Carrefour in Herouville just north of town for our final supplies. Sigh, back to work on Monday!

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