The Blue Beast Seven

Sunday, 5 May 2002


Standing in the Chief’s office on the ninth floor of Qatar Airways Tower in February, staring blankly at a sheet of paper telling me my services were no longer required, my only thoughts then were: ‘What am I going to do now?’

When I had set out on this trip, the purpose was to get me and the Beast (or La Grande Bleue as someone has christened her) to Spain asap and find a place to live in Rioja. Then find a job. 

I had intended sailing to Bilbao from Portsmouth and it was only the £360 fare that put me off. Crossing over from Dover and driving would be tiring but look at the money I’d save. Huh! Yeah right! It’s Day Six and I’m still in the Loire valley. 

But I’m doing what I really want to do. How many people can say that, hand on heart?

My breakfast tray arrived at nine o’clock on the dot on a sunny Sunday morning. 

For years on the North Atlantic, I used to wake passengers at 4 am by thrusting a nasty little plastic tray which was laughingly called a continental breakfast containing a bilious fruit yoghurt, violently coloured orange juice and a cold, desiccated croissant under their noses. This was always a signal to the pilots to find some turbulence so that the luke warm coffee would spill over the tray ensuring it remained untouched. On top of descent, whilst everyone queued for the loos, the whole lot would be cleared in untouched. 

My continental breakfast tray this morning had freshly squeezed juice of such sweetness, home made jams and preserves, dark and mysterious, croissants held down with bricks for fear they may float off the plate, natural yoghurt with a thimble of spiced stewed apple on the side. What a way to start the day!

Michelin Breakfast

Arrangements were made to meet the red wine maker, M Girault of Ch Gaillard about 25 kms away. He was going out but was prepared to wait for me. My reason for wanting to talk to him was Bio-Dynamisme or bio-dynamics. Cultivation of grapes, harvesting and wine making entirely without chemicals and in accordance with lunar cycles and the seasons. Hand picked grapes. No filtration. Free-range egg whites for fining the sediment. Bottling when the moon was full. The wine equivalent of Tesco’s leaving the dirt on your carrots and charging you more for them. He was fascinating, a real enthusiast who practised what he preached by wearing unbleached cotton clothing and driving a 7 series BMW. His wines were good too. My short tasting lasted half an hour and I left clutching a selection of wines costing a small fortune as is the done thing. 

Ch Gaillard

Having driven deep into the Touraine countryside to find Ch Gaillard, I meandered across the rolling hills above the Loire heading for Saumur and Angers. I got as far as Vouvray, famous for its sparkling and sweet wines and popped in to the local wine co-operative for a tasting. That went so well, I crossed over to a hotel restaurant that was heaving with stout, red faced, shiny-eyed wine-lovers and their husbands for a spot of lunch. The back room had a party of school kids, teenagers, at a long table. They were noisy as most kids are but not particularly unpleasant. What set them apart was the opened wine bottles that dotted the table in front of them. They were all drinking wine with their lunch. No horseplay, no loutish behaviour, just excitable kids having a good time.

After my siesta (no Moroccan couscous this time) I drifted along the valley, pausing only to admire a huge bunch of grapes suspended over a roundabout in St Nicholas de Bourgeuil. 

St Nicholas de Bourgeuil

I saw a sign advertising Musée de Cadillac and turned off the main road thinking, ‘This is just sooooo right!’ It turned out to be the little museum in the village of Cadillac. It was closed too.

I phoned my carefully-chosen, hand-picked B&B only to find she was full and ended up in another plastic hotel on the industrial estate alongside the motorway. 

Saumur was deserted late on Sunday night except for a pub called Le Bureau or The Office which served 30 different varieties of beer and a very good goat’s cheese salad. It was packed with modern French youth who dress so artfully, jeans and sweats, yes, but such jeans and sweats! 

A notice advertising the upcoming Miss Saumur competition advised she must be celibate, without children, natural coloured hair and no tattoos or piercing. That would eliminate any English contestant for a start, never mind the French citizen bit.

I am going to make a serious attempt to head south today. 

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