Notes from a tour across France


A piece of 99% cocoa chocolate is melting on my tongue as I write - "It gets better as it goes," proclaims James, also trying out this taste game brought back from France for the first time.

Maybe it does get better. Boy it's intense. I get to see why this stuiff is regarded as sacramental by Native Americans. It's not sweet AT ALL.

Which brings to mind the trip just completed, up the eastern side of France. Remembering the 'creative' aspect of This Writing Life, I'll tell you first about Troyes. At the southern edge of the champagne distict (so just about due east of Paris) it was a wonderful feast of a town. Some of the most extant wooden medieval quarters that I've met, a very fine modern art museum that woke me to the artist Alain Derain (I'd previously only known him, and that barely, as a Fauvist but his range goes way beyond that, including a magnificent still life on black achieved by radically few strokes of what appears to be his finger daubed in paint); and a cathedral with the most luminous stained glass I had ever seen, a real 'wow' effect on meeting it for the first time.

The cathedrals in this region seem devoted to light. The one crowning a small hill in Laon sacrficed height for light, building a lantern tower at its centre, with another supreme display of 12th century stained glass. Most appealing were the goats, vast creatures immortalized in statues on high towers whose sides are open to the winds, the creatures honoured for their roles in carrying stone up to the heights. This clebration of light and of animals seems a more open form of religion than has been passed on down to us.

Which brings me to Epernay, home of champagne. Our main concern when starting, declares the propaganda video of Moet and Chandon, was in "turning Nature into Art". For all the fine show of their tour (and it is a good tour, down through the chalk cellars, ending with a convincing sample of their produce) the whole effect of Epernay was of a place that had specialized for centuries in turning nature into money. Buildings may be the maisons of the individual wine merchants, maybe private houses, but they are all built to resemble banks. The individual is squeezed for whatever drops of money may come out. Not an appealing place. And the story of champagne glossed over one small element - the fact that all champagne is rendered palatable by the last minute addition of some fine strong wine plus a dose of sugar. I love the stuff - but after a couple of trips (talking in Taittinger in Rheims as well) I can't help seeing champagne as one of the world's supreme marketing successes, an ancient and upmarket Coca-Cola.

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