CLAIRE BERLINSKI, PARIS
“A dispatch from a languid apple orchard in Southwestern France.”?
If you’re reading this, it’s because I found a spot on the lawn from which I can use my phone as a WiFi hotspot long enough to send this newsletter. At first, I thought it was a big problem that we had no Internet access. But after a day or two, I realized it wasn’t a problem at all. I’m so glad to know absolutely nothing about what’s happening in the world. I wish it could continue forever.
We’ve made ourselves at home in our lush apple orchard at the confluence of the Lot and Garonne rivers. Once again our vacation planning technique—put on a blindfold, put a pin on the map of France, hope for the best—has served us perfectly. The Berlinskis have found themselves in an ancient stone manor amid acres and acres of fruit trees, a home as calm and stately as it is comfortable and careworn. The beds, in particular, are almost narcotic: The sheets are the first I’ve slept in for years without cat fur, and the luxury and pleasure of their cool, clean softness has had me sleeping more deeply than I can remember.
The nearest village, about three kilometers away, is Cahuzac, population 309, overlooking the Dropt Valley. The castle of Cahuzac was built in the 13th century by the Caumont family and transmitted by marriage to the Estissac family at the beginning of the 16th century. The Duc de La Rochefoucauld family came into possession of the castle through a complicated inheritance after the last male descendant of the Estissac family was killed in a duel. He wrote his memoirs there, in exile.
We’re all in a good mood. We’ve structured our days, in the local manner, around lunch and its accompanying wines, visiting all the local markets—there is an open market every day, each in a different village.
My only complaint is my Achilles tendon, which I injured on one of our walks. (That’s why I’m staying at home this morning, icing my ankle, and sending this newsletter.)
The rest of my family is out exploring the countryside, looking for the perfect vineyard to find the perfect wine to go with desert. We have become connoisseurs of the local Monbazillac—a wine made only in this region of southwestern France. It’s a cousin of the Sauterne, but it tastes of apricot and honey—it has something to do with the way, in the fall, the morning mists are followed by full sun, or something like that; the explanation made sense when I heard it, but I’ve forgotten the details. I know that if you drink it with a fresh Gariguette strawberry tart, drizzled with caramelized sugar and accompanied by a crispy meringue, whipped cream with vanilla bean, and edible flowers—then follow it with a Partagas Series E no. 2—you will be persuaded that God loves you and wants you to be happy.
Julius Caesar’s legions brought vines to the region, but it was at the very beginning of the Middles Ages that winegrowing began to prevail here and the Monbazillac came into existence. According to legend, in the tenth century, the monks of Saint Martin, busy with other chores, neglected their vineyards, allowing Botrytis Cinerea to develop on their grapes. The grape is known as a noble vine: it owes its sweetness to the fungus. Monbazillac became renowned.
There is also the Pécharmant, the Saussignac, the charpenté reds, fruity rosés, sweet whites … but podcasting? Impossible, I’m afraid. I managed briefly to skim the headlines this morning before the connection flickered out. It seems my native country is in paroxysms over something or other.
Here there is nothing but peace and eaux-de-vie.
Lot-et-Garonne is in the region of Nouvelle Aquitaine, a fertile agricultural territory of of meadows and rivers carved into gentle limestone hills dotted with ancient villages and castles. There are fields of hay and clover, fruit orchards, grape vines. It is known for its Marmande tomatoes, its melons and strawberries, its Agen prunes, and its wines—Buzet, Côtes-de-Duras, Côtes-du-Marmandais, Brulhois. The strawberries come in three varieties: Ciflorette, juicy and sweet; Charlotte, fragrant and tender; and Gariguette, sweet and sharp. White truffles (less prestigious than black ones, but just as delicious, in my view) are grown here, as is the blue-purple plum of Ente, which arrived from China by the Silk Road and acquired its Agenese character when the Benedictine monks of Clairac Abbey returned from the crusades with the idea of grafting it to a variety of Damascus. When harvested and dried, it becomes the celebrated Agen prune.
The locals are also exceedingly proud of their organic cannabis:
The climate is mild, influenced by the Atlantic to the west, and the countryside is verdant and lush, even mid-summer, illuminated by southwestern light. On some days, the mornings are misty. This is just as beautiful as the sun.
The temperature is perfect for walking and biking from one medieval village—old stone, ancient timber, narrow streets— to the next, on the hundreds of walking and hiking trails through the Pays du Dropt, the Lot Valley, and the Albret. You’re walking in the footsteps of pilgrims. If you’ve forgotten to pick up a bottle of wine for lunch, the footpaths all wind up, somehow, in a vineyard. If you can find the owner, they’ll offer you a tasting. If you tell them what you plan to eat for lunch, they’ll choose the perfect bottle for you. if you tire of walking, you can also drift down the rivers—the Lot and the Garonne—on a boat or a barge, gliding past castles and vineyards, Romanesque churches, and Cluniac priories.
It’s almost impossible to imagine, so drowsy and peaceful does it seem, but this was once a region of terrible violence, deeply marked by the Hundred Years War, the Wars of Religion and la Fronde.
The Lot-et-Garonnais terroir has been occupied by man since prehistory, as the discovery of many megaliths attests. In the fourth century, the Celtic tribe of the Nitiobriges settled here, founding their capital, Aginnum. They delivered the passage of the Garonne to the Romans in 56 BC when Crassus, Caesar’s lieutenant, attacked Aquitaine, and the Nitiobriges accepted the title of allies of the Roman Republic. Many of the villages date from the Roman era: What is now Le Mas-d’Agenais was called Pompejacum; the village of Eysses was once Excisum.
The Romans, masters of Gaul, divided this region into seventeen provinces. Renowned for the fertility of its soil, Salvian called it the “heart of Gaul, the udders of fertility, the image of paradise.”
It remains so.
The Romans were captivated by the graceful valleys of the Garonne, Lot, and Baïse rivers, and rich Romans built sumptuous villas here. It is possible, I understand, to turn over the dirt and find fragments of mosaics, statues, amphorae, medals, imperial coins. We haven’t, so far. But we’ve seen deer, rabbits, frogs, all manner of birds, and a creature we think might have been a badger.
Anyone who travelled to Bordeaux from the center of the Roman empire crossed this region, which is still crisscrossed by Roman roads. In 250, Saint Vincent, martyred in Vellanum, brought Christianity to the region. Honorius ceded Aquitaine to the Visigoths, to whom the region belonged until the Francs, under Clovis, drove them out of the Garonne basin in 507, following “countless battles,” according to a guide book I found in the kitchen. For the next three hundred years, Frankish kings and Saracens fought for the territory until Charlemagne, at the end of the eighth century, established control and granted it to Ermiladius.
After the fall of the Carolingians, the region passed under a feudal regime, blighted by Norman pirates who used its rivers as open roads, traveling up the Garonne to Toulouse and bringing with them fire and death.
The region passed between the kings of France and England for centuries. In 1196, Richard the Lionheart bequeathed it to his sister Jeanne as a dowry when she married Raymond VI, Count of Toulouse. in 1279, Philip the Bold returned the territory to the King of England.
Following the reign of the Dukes of Aquitaine, the region returned to Guillaume X’s daughter, who in turn brought it as a dowry to Henri Plantagenet during his remarriage. Eleanor became Queen of England. English villages remain: Eymet, in the Périgord, was the subject of the documentary, Little England. When we visited, the city was bedecked in streamers for the Queen’s jubilee.
The next three centuries, under the English flag, were the golden age of Aquitaine. Trade was at its peak. Its wines were coveted by the British. But with Toulouse ascendent, the Albigensian heresy spread—and the region was particularly prepared to receive it since, from the end of the 10th century and the beginning of the 11th, it was riddled with Manichaeans. The heresy was extirpated in rivers of blood.
October 16, 1323, was a terrible date. The French sought to erect a bastide in the village of Saint-Sardos, against the will of the English in Montpezat. King Edward II of England refused to pay tribute to the French sovereign, Charles IV the Fair. The seigneur of Montpezat ransacked the shipyard and hanged the representative of the Capetians. The King of France, refusing to forgive him, confiscated the fiefdom and sent his uncle, Charles de Valois, to occupy the countryside. Clashes ensued. They could have had no idea that the conflict they touched off would come to be known as the Hundred Years’ War.
Finally, on July 17, 1453, the French crushed the English at Castillon. Aquitaine became French again and Duras and Seyches, bled white, were repopulated. Normal life and commerce resumed, and the region grew wealthy. In 1597, Henry IV promulgated the edict of Nantes. Peace reigned, temporarily, between Catholics and Protestants.
From then until the Revolution, the region was divided between the Languedoc and Gescon dialects, between the influence of Bordeaux and Toulouse. Bastides, castles, and abbeys sprung up throughout.
But during the reign of Louis XIII the Wars of Religion reignited, and despite a fragile peace made in the 18th century, the peasantry remained poor. Famine would trigger the Revolution.
The region was relatively far from the main events. There were scattered uprisings and popular riots, but only seven people would be guillotined. Refractory priests, who represented 60 percent of the clergy, were expelled, but none were put to death. The notables, mostly Girondins, were displaced by the Montagnards and would only regain their stature after the Thermidor. They would not abandon it until the end of the July Monarchy, and save for the villages of Marmande and Villeneuve, remained faithful to Napoleon III.
But all of that is in the past. It couldn’t be more placid and bucolic now. It feels immensely civilized. Every acre has been under cultivation for generations. When I asked a local how people here voted in the last election, he looked at me as if this was a question he’d never been asked before and one he had never thought about. “I have no idea,” he finally said.
Life here is so much slower and so much less expensive than in Paris. I’ve been looking at notices in the windows of local realtors. I’m surprised to see how low the prices are. Why doesn’t everyone want to live here? Now that so many people have learned, during the pandemic, that they can work remotely, what keeps them from it? It’s certainly not the cost. What I pay in rent for my small apartment in Paris would allow me to live in a handsome chateau in the Lot et Garonne. Perhaps one with an orchard. Look for yourself: You can rent a house for less than half the price of a Parisian parking space.
I’ve been fantasizing about it: renting a house, or perhaps one day even buying one, and filling it to the rafters with rescued cats and dogs. (It is absolute heaven for dogs here, Max has been in raptures over the country smells, although I’ve been forbidden to feed him any more cheese or sausage from the table, however cute he is when he asks for it, because it makes him fart intolerably.) Perhaps I’d get a few chickens, goats, maybe even a gentle old horse for trail rides. I’d tend my garden of roses and sunflowers and lavender, walk through the fields with my faithful dogs, come home to my passel of kittens and cats, and never think about the rest of the world again.
My sister-in-law, Cristina, grew up in a small village in Abruzzo. Her father is a farmer. Her family makes their own olive oil. She and my brother tell me I’d be bored senseless—that in reality, rural life is endless boredom punctuated by onerous home repairs and marauding wild boars. Perhaps she’s right. This is the annual schedule of amusements, according to the Cahuzac village administration:
So perhaps it’s just an idle fantasy.
But right now, I sure wish this vacation could go on forever.
Claire Berlinski is the editor of the Cosmopolitan Globalist.