the old days, when people went to Les Corbieres, they said they were going
to the garrigue," Florent says, referring to the dusky-green scrub
that blankets the Corbieres' rocky hills. "Because the garrigue
is nothing, and the Corbieres was nowhere."
At this very moment, we are heading nowhere- west on the autoroute from the Montpellier into a chunk of southwestern France tucked between the Mediterranean and the Pyrenees that Florent insists is the next Provence.
Back in the Middle Ages, the Corbieres rugged remoteness lured heretics and monastic orders. In recent decades, nonconformists and disgruntled urbanites have been drawn here by the Corbieres' almost-narcotic beauty and still-affordable land. And though the Corbieres proves to be an easy drive from the airports in Montpellier, Toulouse, and Carcassone (even Barcelona is only a few hours away) my guidebooks contain at most a page or two on the region, and my well-traveled friends all scratched their heads when I mentioned our destination.
A quarter of a century ago, Florent's brother Christophe and his wife-to-be Dominique, bought a ramshackle old bergerie here to live out their 'back to the land' fantasies. They had no electricity or plumbing, they bathed in a stream, and for income, raised goats and made cheese, which they sold at market. "The first time I visited them, they were so 'ecological' they wouldn't even let me use toothpaste," laughs Florent as we leave the autoroute at Narbonne, and plunge into a pastoral landscape of vineyards and, yes, garrigue.
His ebullience barely dimmed by jet lag, Florent can't stop exclaiming over the fields of red poppies, the bright yellow genet that dots the roadside, the cypress trees - "almost black in this light" - and everywhere, grape vines green with spring promise.
There have always been grapes here, but until the 1980s, the Corbieres produced only cheap bulk wines. Then the wine makers got serious. Today, grenache, syrah, carignan, and cinsault grapes blanket the countryside, and the Corbieres is gaining recognition for its robust reds ("Better than Cote du Rhone" Florent declares). It is now the Langedouc's largest wine appellation. Ambitious young wine makers continue to arrive, raising the quality bar.
On the heels of the winemakers, have come the restaurateurs and innkeepers - among them Florent's brother and sister-in-law, who sold their goats and recently opened an inn just outside of Lagrasse, the Corbieres' prettiest town.
And tourists have been trickling in slowly to taste the regions wines and to explore its beautiful medieval abbeys and hilltop castles. In a week of driving the Corbieres windy roads, we hardly ever pass another car. And it seems something of a miracle - having a region of such charm all to ourselves.
It is dusk when we arrive at Christophe and Dominiques inn. La Fargo was the ruin of a centuries-old forge when they bought it. But it was cradled in the lush LOrbieu River valley, with a bubbling canal running through the property. Four years ago, they opened the doors to their restaurant, and in 1999, the six guestrooms were ready.
Now a sturdy, sandy-stoned structure, La Fargo sits on a gentle slope, surrounded by well-tended gardens. My high-ceilinged room opens onto a small orchard of fig, cherry, apple, and grapefruit trees, and there are plump kumquats just outside my door. I throw open the windows that frame a romantic view of the hills. The evening air is fragrant with rosemary and thyme, and the frogs are making a racket. Christophe and Dominique bought La Fargos furnishings in Bali, and my firm, comfy bed sits in a teakwood frame, and is covered with a lovely ikat spread. The last thing I remember is Dominique calling from the hallway: "Breakfast at nine." Still in my travel clothes, I sink back and fall into a deep sleep.
When I wake the next morning, the sun is shining and a white apron flaps on a clothesline in the cool wind. I pluck a handful of cherries on my way to breakfast. Seagulls sail by, reminding me that we are close to the Mediterranean. Christophe, tall, with a thick mop of graying hair and an open face, is mowing the border of a grove of young oak trees. He planted them a few years back with truffle spores on their roots. Turning off the mower, he shows me how to spot the trees where the spores are growing: there is almost no ground vegetation around their trunks. "But it will be years before we can harvest the truffles," he says. I tell him to e-mail me when they're ready and I'll fly over for a visit.
Dominique, reserved and slender, with long, dark hair, is setting a table on the terrace, putting out honey from their own hives. Bowls of her homemade fig, lemon, apricot, and strawberry jams keep the napkins from blowing away. Christophe fetches the toast and coffee. Florent appears with an armful of maps, and we all sit down to breakfast and to plan our day.
In New York, Florent had described the Corbieres to me as a pioneer area. Most of the people we meet here have left more conventional lives and jobs behind to start anew here. There is something of the romantic about them all - especially the winemaking couple who live down the road from La Fargo.
"In the six years we've been here, we've had one earthquake, two fires, two floods, and a bad frost," laughs Alain Quenehen, his blue eyes sparkling in his tanned face. "When you're a wine maker, your wealth is outside, so anything can happen. You have to be Zen, be cool."
Alain is the essence of cool, as is beautiful, dark-haired Natacha. The dining room walls of their centuries-old chateau, where they welcome visitors, are covered with photographs of jazz legends, and of themselves sitting in jazz clubs, always cheek-to-cheek. The lamps all sport eccentric shades designed by Natacha.
Twenty-one years ago in Paris, Natacha, calling a friend, dialed a wrong number and got Alain. They talked until four in the morning and then everyday for a week. They've been together ever since. And for twenty-one years now, on the anniversary of that fateful wrong number, Alain proposes marriage. Natacha always turns him down. "If I marry him, he'll stop proposing," she says.
In 1994, they gave up their jobs, and came to the Corbieres to open a winery. A year later, Chateau Prieure Borde-Rouge produced nine thousand bottles. This year: ninety thousand. Their reds, which are luscious and lusty (no surprise, considering the makers) are a mix of Grenache and Shiraz grapes.
"Come and see our babies." Alain, who is disabled, zips out the door in his wheelchair. We follow. Close to the house, young Shiraz vines are just peeking out of a field of dark soil. Natacha comes up behind Alain and puts her arms around him. "Aren't they beautiful? They're only three months old," she says proudly.
Alain and Natacha have two guestrooms, and I briefly toy with the idea of booking one for a month in the fall, and pitching in for the grape harvest. Who wouldn't want to be part of this household, even if only temporarily?
If there is still a surfeit of culture and conveniences in the Corbieres, the people here more than make up for that lack. Whether in the markets or in their shops, everyone seems to have time to talk, and our visits to winemakers and cheese makers all have the relaxed feeling of dropping in on friendly neighbors.
When Florent and I drive over to visit Chantal Donnet, we find her elbow-deep in a stainless steel vat of sheep's milk, stirring with her bare hands. Pretty and trim, her blonde hair tucked back into a net, she takes her hands out of the vat to welcome us (beauty experts take note: the skin is soft and smooth).
Fifteen years ago, Chantal and her husband grew disenchanted with their advertising jobs in Montpellier, and quit to move down to this verdant valley outside the village of Villetritouls. She studied cheese making, while he took a shepherding course (only in France!).
Now they're the first and only sheep-cheese makers in the Corbieres. "Contrary to what people think, sheep are temperamental, much more difficult than goats," she says, pulling open a door in the floor, and inviting us down into her cellar.
"Our cheese is organic, but we don't call it that because my husband doesn't want to belong to the 'organic church,'" she laughs. We follow her down into near darkness. The air is cool and moist and the smell is heady. Rows of round cheese sit aging on shelves. "See how the wooden shelves breathe," she says. "When it's too humid, they absorb the water from the air. When it's too dry, they release it. It's magic."
Chantal is clearly a woman happy in her work. But there are clouds gathering on the horizon. "The E.U. is making things difficult with their pasteurization regulations. They don't understand that unpasteurized cheese is actually safer. It's alive. It reacts, changing constantly," she says. "The day the E.U. tells me that I have to use plastic shelves instead of wood, I'll quit making cheese."
Before we leave, she invites us into her small shop to sample her cheeses. "And you must try our yogurt, it's real, not like American yogurt," she says, dribbling a neighbor's honey on top. "Food for the gods." Florent and I taste it and sigh in unison.
AND MADEMOISELLE HONEY
Everywhere we go people offer us Corbieres honey, extolling its virtues as 'the best in France. It is even whispered, more than once, that the honey one buys in Provence actually comes from the Corbieres. And no one makes better honey, everyone agrees, than Genvieve and John Henry Poudou, an elderly brother and sister who are, Florent tells me as we drive to their house outside of Lagrasse, "like characters out of a fairy tale, those people who live in a shoe."
"Monsieur and Mademoiselle Honey" as they are known locally, do not in fact live in a shoe. But for more than sixty years they have lived together and made honey in the house where they were born, which is hidden in a dark, overgrown hollow. A stream runs right under the house, turning the ancient water mill that provides the houses electricity. The whole scene is very Brothers Grimm.
"I started working with bees when I was six months old," says Genvieve, a stout, white-haired woman, as she sits us down and feeds us samples of their ten varieties of honey. Each has strong, seductive, almost smoky taste. The 'garrigue,' is like a viscous stew of herbal flavors.
"Our honey is a living product, good for your health, not like America's pasteurized honey," she assures me, repeating a refrain that runs through all our encounters here. I am beginning to feel like George W. Bush on his first trip to Europe.
A customer comes in, a dapper gentleman, and he bows to Genvieve, addressing her as "mademoiselle.' She grins like a young girl, showing off an impressive mouthful of straight white teeth. "Dentures," Florent whispers, but I'm not so sure. Rumor has it that she and her brother live on only honey and milk. Rumor also has it that she was once engaged, but she jilted her fiancée because she couldn't bring herself to leave her hives.
"In France, you know, women were traditionally not allowed to work with bees. Bees were thought to be angels, and women were impure," she tells us, as if shes been reading my mind and wants to set the record straight. "Only in the Corbieres, where women were considered descendants of the Virgin Mary, were we allowed." Her smile is positively beatific as she hands me a spoonful of rosemary honey. I smile back at Saint Genvieve. No wonder she didn't marry. What man could possibly compete with such a heavenly calling?
Wine and honey and cheese are not the Corbieres only notable culinary offerings. The region offers simple but good, fresh food. And during our visit, we have two truly memorable meals. La Fargos elegant but informal restaurant takes its cue from the surrounding landscape. In warm weather, tables are put out under a vast arbor of kiwi vines, and Christophe grills local lamb with rosemary on the wood grill. One evening, he serves the lamb with fava beans and sauteed onions, and asparagus and proscuitto topped with shaved Parmesan. Dominique and Christophes son, Duncan, home for the summer from hotel school in Monpellier, makes what must be the best (and richest) gratin potatoes Ive ever tasted. And for dessert, Dominique bakes an orange cake that, on its own, would explain why their restaurant attracts customers from all over the Corbieres and beyond.
While La Fargo exudes a comfy rusticity in both its food and decor, LAuberge du Vieux Puits Giles Goules, which was awarded a second Michelin star in 2001, goes in for more pomp and formality but Corbieres-style. The night we dine there the service is so genuinely warm and friendly, we couldnt be happier. Chef Gilles Goules earned his toque in three-star restaurants in Cannes and Marseilles before coming to the Corbieres. His cold fava bean soup, and his smoked trout-filled gallette topped with sparkling salmon eggs and surrounded by a moat of frothy green grape juice are both sublime. And both are included in the bargain prix fix menu that the maitre d practically insists we choose over the pricey a la carte menu. Its that kind of place. Our wine steward, Benjamin, a Belgian who is but twenty years old, not only picks superb local wines for us, but brings me a wine map of the Corbieres, marking his favorite vineyards. Later, when I ask him what his favorite is, he opens a bottle and pours me a generous glass to taste on the house. Florent and I end up closing the place, and even then we leave reluctantly.
Most of the tourists who do come to the Corbieres wander down here from the famed walled city of Carcassone, just outside the Corbieres northwest border. Once a stronghold of the heretical Cathar sect, it has been meticulously restored into something of a medieval confection, jammed with souvenir shops and busloads of tourists.
Hunted down and persecuted by the Church, the Cathars took refuge in the Corbieres dramatic hilltop fortresses known now as Cathar castles (erroneously, for they were build before the Cathar era.) The regions roads are dotted with "Le Pays Cathare" signs, and there seem to be castle ruins around every bend. Those at Termes, Queribus, and Peyrepertuse are three of the best known. Florent and I spend an afternoon hiking up to the last, which has spectacular views stretching from the Pyrenees to the Mediterranean. How anyone managed the build anything up on these towering and perilous peaks is beyond me. They are wedges of cold, forbidding rock jutting up into the sky.
It is these rock peaks that perhaps gave the Corbieres its name from "corb," the Celtic word for stone, explains Jean-Pierre Mazard, a blue-eyed, genial vineyard owner with a wine-barrel chest, whom Florent and Christophe call "Monsieur Corbieres."
In the village of Talairan, where his family has lived for twelve generations, Jean-Pierre has done up Domaine Seerres-Mazards tasting room up as an eccentric history museum where, as Florent wryly puts it, 'he channels the Corbieres.' When we enter, he actually picks up a waiting pointer and taps the snout of a mounted boar's head. "There are more wild boar in the Corbieres than people," he says, beginning his lecture.
The lecture is fascinating, as is his collection of memorabilia and photographs, but when he sits us down to watch his slide presentation on wild orchids, Florent thankfully invents a fib about a pressing appointment (hard to imagine in the Corbieres), and suggests we move on to the wine-tasting. "But behind the wines, there are people and nature. It is important to know these things to really appreciate the wines," Monsieur Corbieres protests. He moves on, amicably, and opens one of his reds. Holding a glass up to his nose, he inhales deeply. "Smell this one, it has the aroma of the garrigue."
Wine, not blood, apparently runs through his veins. Even on the subject of his beloved daughter, Marie-Pierre, he expresses himself with grapes. "A painter has his brushes. I painted a portrait of my daughter in wine," he says, handing us glasses of the honey-hued dessert wine he has created in honor of her upcoming wedding. "Marie-Pierre often wears more than one perfume (Florent winces here), so I mixed six different grapes. Like her, the wine is warm and convivial and has character."
Driving back to La Fargo, the trunk of our car filled with bottles of wine, I cast an appraising eye on every roadside house. Though Americans have yet to discover the Corbieres, the British and Dutch have started to snatch up old houses at bargain prices. Now I too am tempted. On our last day, when Dominique and Christophe invite us to their own house for a farewell lunch, Im sure Ive found what Im looking for.
When Florent and I drive up the unpaved road, high jazz notes gurgle in the hot dry air. Duncan is playing the saxophone in his open-air bedroom. And I think that their house, the once-crumbling bergerie ("There was only one room with a roof, and we all slept there," Florent recalls) is like a jazz improvisation, with whimsical nooks and crannies spinning off a main theme. Though it is only a short drive from La Fargo, the meandering stone house and the isolated valley it overlooks seem a more primitive world of Jurassic-sized weird succulents and gnarly trees, the air heavy with herbs. A windmill (along with solar panels, their only power supply) towering over the property, creaks like a giant cicada.
Christophe and Dominique's daughter, Rachel, an art restoration student in Avignon, is setting the table out in the garden. There is a huge salad, cheeses and meats, cherries from their trees. It is a long, lazy lunch, with endless glasses of chilled Corbieres rose, and a languid, amusing conversation about the different meanings of the words 'shade' and 'shadow' in French and English. For dessert, Dominique has baked a chocolate cake, and Jerome, a Parisian friend who has arrived for a visit, has brought an orielette, a Corbieres specialty. An airy crepe deep-fried in sunflower oil and sprinkled with sugar, it is addictive.
Sated, I move to a hammock under the trees. Florent, a dedicated sun worshiper who maintains a tan year-round, takes off his shirt and stretches out on the garden stone wall. Duncan asks his sister to give him a haircut, which, we all agree, he desperately needs. He drags his chair out into the sun and ties a towel around his neck, and she starts snipping away.
I close my eyes and drift off. When I open them again, I am alone. I hear distant splashing and laughter. Following a narrow goat path down the hill, I come to a place where the stream tumbles over the rocks into a wide swimming hole. Jerome sits in the shade, smoking and reading. Florent is working on a full body tan. Rachel is building a miniature raft, lashing twigs together with grass. Constructing a sail of rosemary branches, she launches it over the waterfall, only to have it catch in some rocks. She hikes her summer dress up to her sun-browned thighs and wades in, huffing and puffing on the rosemary sail until the raft breaks free and is carried away by the current. I lie back on a flat, sun-warmed rock and nap again. And I dream of the garrigue.
ALAN BROWN is the recipient of many writing awards, including National Endowment for the Arts, Fulbright, and New York Foundation for the Arts fellowships. He wrote the screenplay adaptation for his award-winning novel, Audrey Hepburns Neck, which was translated into seven languages, and is now in development with Samuel Goldwyn Co. O beautiful, a short narrative film which he both wrote and directed, won the Future Filmmaker Award at the 2002 Palm Springs International Short Film Festival, and will screen at the Sundance Film Festival in January. In the summer of 2003, he will direct his first feature film, Nights in Phnom Penh, which he also wrote.