Provence: Life at snail pace

By Natalie Evans-Freke

The colourful people of Provence offer a glimpse into the idyllic nature of country living, but that's not to say they're without their modern wiles, Natalie Evans-Freke writes.

Escargot farmer Cyril Santos photographed at his snail farm just outside the town of Uzes in the south of France. Photo / Babiche Martens
Escargot farmer Cyril Santos photographed at his snail farm just outside the town of Uzes in the south of France. Photo / Babiche Martens

In the decades he's been raising snails in Provence, Cyril Santos has obviously grown very close to his prized escargots.

Like them, he's relaxed, slow-moving and doesn't say a lot (though unlike them he chain-smokes). And his passion for the snails was obvious as he showed us round his farm a half-hour drive away from the town of Uzes.

The industry he has given his life to is an ancient one in this part of France and, as he proudly displayed the worn-out planks that give his snails the shade they thrive in, it was easy to see that not much has changed over the centuries.

During our exploration of the countryside around Uzes we came across many French stereotypes, like the amiable Cyril, characterisations I previously believed to be exaggerated but which unfolded as all too accurate.

But that doesn't mean the people of the area merely reflect the quaint scenery.

The characters we met down the narrow, winding back roads of this region of Provence Gard were also rugged individualists, in tune with the land but also highly adaptable to the requirements of the modern world.

As we drove through the green tunnels of trees, originally planted to give shade to Napoleon's soldiers, we got an intriguing look at provincial French culture in a landscape of sprawling fields, vineyards and the odd stone maison.

From time to time there were sleepy little villages, ancient places where only a post office and bakery seemed alive, with few people to be seen ... but they were there ... and they were sharp-edged.

Take the nuns. After they surprised us at the Uzes market with a little selection of organic wines they had for sale, we couldn't resist making a trip to the nearby convent to see the holy vintners in action.

However, on arrival at Monastere de Solan, the sisters were reluctant to show us their vineyard or have their pictures taken. But they weren't shy of showing us their gift shop and sweet-talked us into buying a divine selection of wines, the best being the bubbles.

Then there was Rutger Grijseels, a Dutch winemaker, who happily showed us round his Chateau de Panery vineyard while arguing vehemently that using corks and handpicking grapes were methods only used by the romantic.

Despite his enthusiasm, it seems he is still the only winemaker in the area screw-topping his bottles. But he does have some traditional skills: his wife told us that he had the most powerful spit in the area from countless taste-tests through the years.

Another highly successful vineyard we visited, Domaine Chabrier Fils, was a family affair. Within minutes of our arrival brothers Christophe and Patrick Chabrier and their father Louis had us drinking wines in the first stages of fermentation and climbing endless ladders in order to peer deep into the giant steel vats of juice from the grapes of what they regard as the finest terroir in the world. But later, when they gave us a tour of their massive property, they embraced far off New Zealand and expressed their love for the All Blacks.

It's hard to imagine anything more traditional than spending an hour trying to catch a cock for a tasty dish of coq au vin. But the kitchen of the chic Table de Julien, where young restaurateurs Julien and Jennifer took us through the steps to cook up this traditional French peasant meal, had all the latest equipment. And the result of their blend of ancient and modern was sublime.

Well, actually eccentric goat farmer Monsieur Gueit probably was the most traditional of all those we met. Certainly the smell of the goats he smilingly introduced us to, and the odour that permeated his small cheese factory felt as though it would last for 1000 years.

But all that was quickly forgotten when we later melted the cheese on to fresh baguettes. A true taste of Provence ... very traditional and absolutely right for the modern palate.

CHECKLIST

Getting there:

Cathay Pacific flies daily from Auckland to Paris, via Hong Kong. Special Business and Economy Class fares are available to Paris. For full details visit www.cathaypacific.co.nz.

Further information: See www.visit-southern-france.com/en/location/gard.

Babiche Martens flew to France with Cathay Pacific.

- NZ Herald

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