Bees, Bisous and La Montagne de Modestine

Monday 22 August 2005, Champagne-sur-Loue

Emboldened by our previous cycling exploits, on Friday we struggled across the ridge of hills to Quingey, a large village of about 1,000 inhabitants in a picturesque setting some 12 Km further up the River Loue. We had heard that there was to be a fete of local folk music with a meal that evening at the inn named La Truite de la Loue. On arriving however, we were told “En principe, oui, mais c’est annulé. Nous sommes desolés”. So our efforts were in vain and we contented ourselves with exploring Quingey, which has little to offer except the fact that Pope Calixtus II was born here in about 1150. The actual tower he was born in is proudly labelled, next to the lavoir or washhouse in a little square now serving as a car park. Other houses in the town also boast medieval towers, indicating that it was once a more important settlement than today. Now it sits quietly at one end of a bridge over the river with an impressive weir, complete with trout ladder.

Tower of Pope Calixtus II, Quingey

The weir at Quingey

Yesterday we drove to the nearby town of Arbois, a pretty little town of limestone houses which nestles among vineyards about 15 Km south of Champagne. We found the streets decked with bunting and the main square crowded with local people, including many in the traditional red and yellow robes of the wine producers guild of Franche Comté, offering free glasses of the local wine and samples of Comtois cheese. Banners were hoisted aloft and there was a group of about sixteen horn players dressed in hunting costume, modestly facing the wall with their backs to the onlookers. We soon found out why. Once they were in full blow, we were almost knocked off our feet by the blast from their horns which faced backwards directly into the crowds. Soon they adjourned to the town hall and law courts and, as we walked around the town later, muffled fanfares could be heard drifting up through gratings in the pavement outside.

Chevaliers du vin d’Arbois

Ian enjoying Comte cheese with local white wine

Arbois celebrating the fete des vins

Arbois was the childhood home of Louis Pasteur and a monument to him commemorates his importance to the town. Even in later life Arbois meant much to Pateur and he loved to return each summer to be with his family and friends and to help his local countrymen with their problems. Much of his early research was carried out here, perhaps the most vital for his fellow countrymen being his research into the fermentation process and the eradication of phylloxera, a micro-organism that destroyed most of the vines across France in the 1870s. His house shows childhood items, such as his schoolbooks, but also the laboratory he set up there to be able to continue his researches in microbiology and medicine.

Louis Pasteur at Arbois

The evening saw us some 10km from Champagne at the Grotte d’Osselle on the banks of the river Doubs. This area is Jurassic limestone and there are many underground caves and water courses. A retired mining engineer was giving a commentary on his private collection of crystals. The collection was superb with over 800 specimens from around the world on display and thousands more elsewhere. Unfortunately nothing had been labelled – because it spoilt the appearance of the collection. Nor had it been catalogued. As a collector the owner had no interest in recording the provenance of the specimens. As librarians (retired) we found this very distressing. It is one of the most comprehensive collections in the world but nothing has been recorded for the future! On a more practical level, labels would have identified so many of the specimens. Without them, to the non-specialist they were just beautiful crystals of different shapes and colours. We do not necessarily recognise the difference between tourmaline and quartz or olivine and fluorite.

On Sunday (21st) we woke to rain and a temperature of 12 degrees. That’s a drop of 20 degrees since Friday! Our friends Suzanne and Roland have left us in charge for a couple of weeks and headed off to Brittany to enjoy the seaside before they return for their grape harvest in September.

There is a small but locally important cheese factory at Nans-sous-Ste Anne, some 25 km from here. Nans is a typical, very beautiful rural village set in the mist shrouded mountains, reached only by narrow, twisting, largely deserted roads up through the thickly forested hills of the Jura. The factory is little more than a cottage industry, employing only 10 people and taking the milk from selected farms within a strictly controlled 25km radius. This gives the cheeses the appellation d’origine controllée AOC so preciously guarded by specialist producers throughout France. Today there was an open day when locals and visitors could visit the cellars to see the shelves of huge, round, maturing cheeses and join in the process of producing either a Comté or a Morbier cheese which, together with Rebluchon, are the three main local cheeses produced. It is really an opportunity for a social occasion amongst the locals. Today we joined in with the production of a Morbier cheese. We’d often wondered how the dark stripe came to be through the middle. Today we discovered that the whey is drained off and the curd split horizontally as soon as it is sufficiently solid, and charcoal is sprinkled between the two halves before putting them back together! The whole process of cheese production is slow and there is lots of waiting for the milk to reach the right temperature for the rennet to be introduced, for the curds to set, for it to be raked, before it is finally skimmed from the vat and pressed into a huge mould.
Time does not hang heavy however! There were very generous free samples of everything to be consumed in an unending supply! The French people really do seem to know how to enjoy themselves and make any visitors feel really welcome. Glasses of high quality local wines and beers were being handed around along with toasted Morbier on slices of French baguettes, cubes of Comté, samples of local jams, honeys, gingerbread and biscuits.

Outside the rain fell steadily and the mist hung heavy around the hilltops towering above the village. Cattle here wear bells to keep the herd together as they wander the hillsides. These could be heard gently ringing as those nearest the village busied themselves in producing the milk for tomorrow’s batch of rebluchon.

Preparing to make a Morbier cheese at Nans-sous-Ste. Anne

Draining the curds from the whey

Sprinkling charcoal to make the distinctive stripe in Morbier cheese

Ripening cheeses in the cellers at Nans

View of Nans-sous-Ste Anne from the fromagerie

Tuesday 23rd August 2005
Today we decided to visit Salin-les-Bains in the vain hope of finding an internet café. Salins is at the heart of the salt industry, known here as white gold. Although no longer actively extracted, except for use in the thermal baths, the former wealth of the town is entirely due to the value placed on salt and the punitive tax – la gabelle - levied by the French government. The salt was dissolved below ground and the saline solution pumped to the surface. From Salins it was carried in a wooden conduit some 20km to Arc et Senans, near Champagne, where it was evaporated and processed in the extravagant salt works which were the architectural creation of Claude Nicholas le Doux in the eighteenth century. (Arc et Senans is located near the massive Forêt de Chaux with a ready supply of wood for fuelling the furnaces.)

Salins lies deep in a narrow valley between two hilltop forts. It seems in permanent shadow, hemmed in on all sides. It is a mournful, rather oppressive town, particularly on a day like today when the mists hung in heavy white vapour over the town, the dark ramparts of the forts high above only occasionally visible. The thermal baths are famed for their treatment of rheumatic diseases, but the town is always so damp and dank that visitors are likely to leave in a worse state than on their arrival!

The only internet café had only one computer, running windows 98 and no USB connection! Eventually the lady in the tourist information centre let us use her computer to upload to our blogsite. She was the first person we have met here who had any real IT awareness.

We took advantage of a free guided tour of the thermal baths to discover just how masochistic the French can be. Saline water is used for a variety of cures, paid for by the French health system and private insurance. They do not come cheap! Six treatments of mudbaths, jacuzzis, massages, and lymph drainage, together with salt water physio in the piscine, will cost you 378,00€. You do have use of white towels and peignoirs included though! Everywhere is clinically clean with staff in white overalls and wellies hosing down the tiles cubicles and corridors. We had to put on specially disinfected overshoes before we were allowed through the doors.

We are becoming known already. We were asked by a lady at the thermal baths whether we were the English couple staying in Champagne-sur-Loue!

It was teaming with rain when we left the baths and far too wet for our planned climb up to the Fort de St. André. So we returned to Champagne, donned hiking boots and cagoules and clambered up through the woodland behind the village onto the Clos, from where we had excellent views down onto the countryside and the surrounding villages. The cattle roam the hillside and we were startled when several of them suddenly appeared from the undergrowth onto the narrow path just ahead of us. There are also wild pigs, as shown by the collection of trotters nailed to the farm door opposite our kitchen window, but the only one we have seen so far was dead by the roadside. There are very many colourful wild flowers and several species of orchids growing in these high meadows.

Barn door with trotters of wild sangiers hunted at Champagne-sur-Loue

The Chateau, formerly a Dominican convent and school at Champagne where Jill taught English in the 1960s

Cows with bells roam free in the woods and fields around Champagne

We descended the far side of the Clos, through beautifully tended vineyards, fruit trees and maize plantations, following a track back through fields and woodland that brought us out onto the banks of the river Loue a km below the village. Here we met a truly delightful fisherman who told us he was 84 years old and had cycled from Arc-et-Senans to fish the river here. The trouble was, his wife had already cooked his supper and he’d got these six fish he’d just caught. Would we like them as a present? They were still wriggling in the plastic bag he handed to Ian! We were even given detailed instructions as to how to clean and prepare them and how to cook them! (They tasted very good by the way and fortunately had ceased to wriggle by the time we got them home!) Our new friend told us he’d been in charge of the post office in the neighbouring village of Liesle until he retired 27 years ago. When Jill told him she used to cycle there to post her letters home when she worked at the school here 40 years ago, he said it would have been him dealing with them! As Jill vividly recalls having been told off severely by the postmaster on several occasions for using insufficient stamps, we decided not to pursue that line of conversation further!

Wednesday 24th August 2005
Yesterday we cycled beside the Loue, beyond Port Lesney to the honey factory, France Miel sited alongside the Route Nationale 83. Not having any wish to compete with the heavy lorries we followed a track through the vineyards and struggled down through a maize plantation to arrive covered in mud at the factory entrance in time for for a guided tour. There were already lots of local people gathering for this treat and the lengthy processes of greeting – kisses or bissous on each cheek – meant the tour started a good ten minutes late. As usual we found everyone very friendly. One man told Jill she’d have to remove earings, watch and necklace before being allowed in. Jill expressed the opinion that he was having her on and ended up being bet a Pernod that he wasn’t! (He won but we never found out why jewellery was not permitted!)

The factory was spotless and, presumably to keep it that way, we were all asked to wrap ourselves in white plastic coats and hats. This just added to the delight of the locals enjoying a free treat to see their relatives at work. Even around the factory kisses and handshakes continued.

Ian on the shop floor of France Miel

The factory warehouse was vast, with jars of honey towering aloft awaiting distribution. We wondered what proportion of France’s requirement was satisfied by this factory in the heart of the Jura countryside. The guide explained to the ghostly crowd of white-clad visitors that the enterprise had been set up as a cooperative of local farmers in the 1950s to meet the competition of large manufacturers. Local apiculturists large and small provided the honey. In the 1970s they found that legislation which limited the cooperative to trading only honey produced by its members was increasingly restrictive, so a partly owned company was floated, which meant that honey from all parts of the world was processed. It arrived in barrels which looked like oil drums and there was even a consignment from Argentina which was being moved along the conveyor belt, opened and tipped into massive stainless steel vats for processing. A wonderful Heath-Robinson contraption lined up rows of plastic pots, decanted the right amount of honey into them, six at a time and sent them off on conveyor belts for lids, seals and labels to be applied. We were also shown around the laboratories, shown magnified pollen grains and how sampling tests and analysis are conducted.

The educational bit completed we all convened to the director’s office to sampling the honey. The local press was there taking photos and we chatted briefly with the reporter interested to know what English visitors made of it all. Everyone clustered around the various containers like bees around a honey pot – so to speak! There were about 15 different pots, all very different in taste, texture and appearance. They ranged from the pale, viscous tilleul (lime) which was Jill’s favourite, to the dark golden sapin honey from the local pine trees, favoured by Ian. There was also heather, lavender, sunflower, rape, orange and sarrazan (?we really must get ourselves a dictionary!)

Disaster! The director had forgotten a knife to cut the pile of baguettes! Rummaging beneath their plastic overcoats the visiting viticulterers and farmers promptly produced an armoury of pruning knives to save the day. With the little plastic spoons we were each given, everyone descended onto the spread. Sauve qui peut! Soon the director’s desk was smeared thick with honey and crumbs covered his carpet but everyone was having a wonderful time! Maybe this was why we’d all been wrapped up in protective plastic? The bread ran out, hygiene went to the wall and everyone was busy with their spoon, dunking, sucking and re-dunking!

The jars empty we were slowly ushered from the premises. Not much work seemed to have been done in the factory all morning. It would take some time to clean up the director’s office and get production flowing properly again, but everyone had had a splendid morning!

We cycled on to nearby Mouchard, just a tiny town of a couple of shops, a bar and a post office, it’s main importance being that the TGV between Paris and Pontarlier stops there. We think it may also be important for the manufacture of clothes pegs - but this is only from circumstantial evidence.

Jill suspects the town of Mouchard produces clothes pegs somewhere

We returned to Champagne via Cramens, a long, pretty village of large stone farmhouses with huge round arched barn doors surrounded by roses and filled with logs, tractors and obsolete farming implements. Our route took us through the forest where we had to wait for a hedgehog to trundle across the road and snuffle its way into the bushes. We also called off at the snail farm for a closer look at the élevage d’escargots, where the fat snails of Bourgogne waved their antennae and slithered happy over each other in the dark plastic troughs covering the entire field. A sign on the farm door informed us that we could buy them every afternoon except Wednesdays in a variety of formats ranging from crawling to marinaded in garlic butter! By the banks of the Loue as we reached Champagne we watched the cattle just longing to be milked. Jill quite ached in sympathy!

Edible snails – miam miam glou glou!

Oh for a bra!

After lunch we returned to Salins where we have finally set up an internet account with a cybershop and posted up our first blog. We then explored some of the many attractive fountains that adorn this spa town and treated ourselves to a local speciality, a temeraire, which is a kind of very spicy apple tart much praised by Charles Temeraire, one of the Ducs of Franche Comte in the 15 century. We also discovered the word boulanger derives from the word “boule” or round ball, which was the normal shape of the French loaf until the 19th century. (When, we believe, it became baguette-shaped so that it would be easier for the French army to carry tucked down their trouser legs during their campaigns. But someone here may be testing the credulity of the English!)

Finally we visited the library, open for a mere 6 hours a week and housed in a nineteenth century theatre complete with original wall paintings, stage and balconies. Here we searched in vain amongst the local history resources on the Resistance in Franche Comte for a name we have found on the war memorial in Champagne that has aroused our curiosity. (More of that another time.)

We returned home at seven. Jill had been feeling withdrawal symptoms from the Archers and a test with Modestine’s radio only producing a crackle. With Ian grasping the car aerial in one hand and raising his other arm aloft as a mast we managed to get the sounds of Ambridge booming loud and clear around the village! In that incongruous position he was accosted by a cheery Frenchman who introduced himself as Eugene, the husband of Jill’s friend Françoise who had been another teacher at the convent school at the same time as Jill. Knowing we were staying here they had driven down from Amancy, higher in the hills, to seek us out.

It was many years since we’d last met. Fortunately we’d stocked up well with wine and a very pleasant evening was spent with our first visitors, sitting around our big kitchen table catching up on news. Incidentally, the French take no prisoners when it comes to conversation, everyone speaks at once and at great speed! Small wonder we are so tired every night with the constant French practice we are getting.

Thursday 25th August 2005
At breakfast yesterday Ian discovered in a local leaflet the existence of “La Montagne de Modestine” some fifty km from Champagne in the higher plateau of the Jura. A guided walk was organised for the afternoon, specialising on the flora of the high Jura and the history of the traditional “transhumance”, where the cattle of the commune are grazed over the summer in the high mountain pastures, being milked in the fields. They stay there until the weather necessitates bringing them down to the villages to overwinter. Once again, the course of our day was decided for us!

The Jura region consists of a series of three limestone plateaux rising in steps towards Switzerland. Champagne and Arbois are on the lower level. Just beyond Arbois the road twists steeply upwards until it levels out on the second plateau. Within each level the land undulates in a series of folds but frequently remains fairly flat. At the edge though, there will be a sheer drop down to the valley floor below. Above Arbois our route followed this edge along the “Circuit de Fer à Cheval” from where we could look down to the little town far below us on the wide valley floor nestling amongst its vineyards, sheltered by the grey limestone crags towering vertically up to the richly forested plateau on which we stood.

Arbois from the Circuit de Fer à Cheval

Our route continued along largely deserted roads until we reached the town of Champagnole, not a particularly special town but with a wide and beautiful mountain river, the Ain, tumbling along a rock strewn bed below the town. We continued up steep twisting little roads until we levelled out along the unfenced side of the Gorge des Planches with the rock-face dropping away to the river we could hear but not see, surging through the gorge below.

Eventually we reached Foncine le Bas and Foncine le Haut, both standing on the river Saine, which has its source here. Both were formerly small mountain towns - now little more than villages. Originally there would have been several cheese making enterprises but now only one exists, processing the milk produced by the famous Montbéliard cattle. “On ne parle pas de vache ici, on parle de Montbéliard”. The milk industry here is now almost completely mechanised with only one or two farmers still going up to the pastures to milk their cattle in the fields.

The main industry now of these two little towns, and so many like them, is based on winter sports with the summer meadows and pastures used over winter as pistes de ski, the towns provided accommodation. The houses are usually huge wooden chalets with overhanging roofs as protection from the snow and shelter for winter fuel.

Our guide for our afternoon visit around the high pastures of La Bayard above Foncine le Haut was Veronique Socié. There were about ten of us in the group and Veronique explained that a cooperative of local farmers was working to re-establish the upland pastures. Intensification of agriculture under the direction of European norms and pressure from supermarket chains meant that the Montbéliard cattle were being increasingly confined to the lusher grasslands in the valley. The growth of scrubland in the old pastures with hazel bushes and other trees had led to an impoverishment of the flora with the decline, for example, of orchids. Veronique then showed us many of the plants that survived and extolled their medicinal properties and their use in traditional recipes or tisanes. Many were plants which could be met with in Devon meadows too, but others, such as the massive variety of gentian, standing shoulder-high were new to us.

Towards the end of our walk we discovered why Veronique has named her pastures “La Montagne de Modestine”. Beneath the shady trees we met Modestine, a beautiful donkey, with her young foal busy suckling. We explained about our Modestine and there was much curiosity and amusement expressed by the group. Like us, Veronique had named her donkey after Stephenson’s. This donkey is special to her. As she said, “J’ai plusiers ânes mais seulement une Modestine.” Of course, our Modestine could not compete with the long soft ears and warm smell of mother and foal, but at the end of the walk everyone wanted to see inside our Modestine and we parted company with many good wishes for our future travels.

Before returning to Champagne we drove down to the village and walked up across the fields and through the woodland to the source of La Saine. Like all the rivers around here, it rises at some height above the surrounding fields, gushing, fully formed in a torrent from the cliff face. This is known as a “resurgence” and results from erosion beneath the limestone plateaux leading to huge underground caverns and river courses. A river will suddenly disappear below ground where it may join with the waters of another river to emerge elsewhere as a completely different river. Where the waters come from or go to beneath the ground is frequently unknown. Each resurgence is different. In this instance the waters burst out from the base of the sheer grey rock face as a fully formed torrent of white water tumbling along its rocky bed through the woodland. It is reputed to have curative properties for the eyes.

Modestine on the Montagne de Modestine

Foncine le Haut from Le Bayard

Meeting Modestine and her foal in the woods

La Source de la Saine

Dusk would be falling in an hour and we had no wish to get caught on the narrow mountain roads in the dark so we headed directly back to Champagne where we arrived quite exhausted after a day so crammed with different experiences.