La Bonnotte of L'Isle de Noirmoutier, The World's Most Expensive Potato
by Paige Donner
Every year in France, when a certain season sets in, namely the Fall, a whole cadre of culinary enthusiasts await with bated breath their chance to devour cèpes and truffles and other richly aromatic tubers and funghi.
And while I enjoy these produits de terroir immensely, it is in May when this same sort of culinary fever washes over me in anticipation of the first tastes of the little yellow diamond, harvested by hand only, called La Bonnotte.
La Bonnotte, for those of you not familiar with it, is a little yellow gem that grows on the small, sheltered Isle of Noirmoutier in France’s northwest region of the Vendée. And while myself and other culinary gourmands can easily mistake this little tuber for the Royal Star of Paris diamond, it is, in fact, entirely edible. Yes, this little tuber is a potato.
But this little tuber isn’t like other little potatoes. Its taste, its consistency, its peak ripeness which lasts but a week, 10 days maximum, is highly prized and when brought to market is sold at Paris’ high-end art auction house, Drouot, in a partnership with luxury fine foods company, Petrossian, known primarily for their caviar.
And this brings us to the absolute perfect pairing for La Bonnotte, the little yellow hand-harvested potato grown exclusively on L’Ile de Noirmoutier: caviar.
La Bonnotte and Caviar
It is said that the only diet Jaccqueline Kennedy Onassis ever put herself on was a caviar-and-potato- once-a-day diet. I have not yet found a specific reference to the potato she used to frame her caviar, but I imagine it could very well have been La Bonnotte.
The first time I had the gastronomic privilege of tasting one of these treasures was at a reception held by LVMH. It was years ago and had something to do with fashion. Therefore, in a gesture of feeding a room full of beautiful people who don’t eat, it struck me as genius that they would serve a tiny little potato garnished with a dollop of fine black caviar, complemented with a touch of fresh Normandy clotted cream on top. Trust me. You have never had a mouthful of finger food so good.
Certainly, a company like LVMH can afford to serve guests the world’s most expensive potato. Coming in at around €500 per kilo, it often outranks even truffles in terms of price category. But for the unitiated eye, all attention was paid to the caviar. An irony, when, in fact, it was La Bonnotte which reigned supreme in the culinary hierarchy there with that caviar pairing.
What is the magic of La Bonnotte and what makes it so expensive?
Firstly, the Bonnotte is a Garden Potato. It demands as much attention from the grower as does a flower from a gardener. I’ve already mentioned two of its other hot-house qualities, namely that it must be hand-harvested and that it grows in a very particular soil, richly fertilized with wrack, whose mineral richness is found exclusively in this particular composition on the micro-climate, sunny northern part of the picturesque Ile de Noirmoutier. It is planted on February 2nd (France’s Candlemas Day) and precisily 90 days later it is in peak condition, taste-wise, and ready for harvesting.
A Brief History of La Bonnotte
The Bonnotte enjoyed an early success and is even credited with helping to build the reputation of The Isle of Noirmoutier. While its exact origins remains a debate between credit going to the Conquistadors who brought this little potato back from the Incas, to a Norman planter endowed with particular potato cultivating savoir-faire, it is generally accepted that in the 20’s or 30’s of the last century, a grower brought back to his island a particular potato from the Barfleur region on the English Channel. The growing conditions, with its briny sea-salt air and rich soils fertilized with wrack, proved exceptional for La Bonnotte and the little potato was crowned supreme by the French agricultural classification, DIEHL in 1938.
This is their description of La Bonnotte:
DIEHL – Its tubers have smooth, yellow skin and dark yellow flesh, finely grained. They are round, and the eyes are semi-sunken. The plant is sizeable and upright with a pigmented stalk and fairly short leaves, marked with a very glossy dark green. The leaflets have an embossed aspect. The flowers are small and white, and the fruits are reddish. It is resistant to potato wart and also, it seems, to degeneration disease. Its period of dormancy is quite long and it is also fairly slow to sprout – a delay it catches up on later.
Mechanization Meant No More
But when mechanization came to the island in the 60’s, La Bonnotte suffered. Its low yield of 100g to 200g per foot meant that farmers could not make a decent return and with their conversion from handpicking to mechanization, other tuber varieties won out. This is why it disappeared altogether from the market by around 1965.
However, because Ile de Noirmoutier had become so famous from its Early Potato variety of La Bonnotte, a group of farmers were determined to resuscitate it. In the ’90s, the Agricultural Co-Operative of the Isle of Noirmoutier went to the INRA (French National Institute of Agricultural Research) in Brest and asked them to regenerate exact copies of La Bonnotte. This replication was highly successful and yielded this little potato that is true in taste as well as form.
“Now part of the agricultural heritage, La Bonnotte is an undeniable element of the island’s identity.”
The farmers of The Isle of Noirmoutier harvest 11,000 tons of potatoes a year from an agricultural area of 380 hectares. But only a very small fraction of these are La Bonnotte. Other popular varieties are the Sirtéma, the Lady Christ’l, Charlotte and Jazzy varieties.
But it is La Bonnotte harvested only between May 1st and May 10th that is the best known product of these farmers here on Ile de Noirmoutier, along with the island’s farmed sea salt. The other Early Potatoes, a category to which La Bonnotte belongs, are harvested between late April and early August and are defined as a potato that is fluffy because of the fineness of its skin and because it’s harvested before it reaches maturity.
Where To Stay:Autre Mer, a 2-star Hotel just past the town center. It has that Nantucket feel with reasonable rates and a friendly owner-operator.
32 Avenue Joseph Pineau, Noirmoutier en L’Ile
Notable: The Bicyle Rental Shop, Cycles Charier, is just across the street. Bicycling is a must while visiting the island. It’s the primary method of transport.
As the temperature outside barely topped 10 degrees Celsius, and I found myself with a rare day-off, I happily spent the majority of the day at my grandma’s sitting inside with cat Sammie curled up on my knee. This was a moment that I had longingly craved whilst abroad, and in such a moment I found myself wondering if I could bear going away again.
I spent four months working and traveling across France during the northern hemisphere summer. When I returned back home to Australia in July, I was not only season-confused and flipped upside down, but also left wondering how to keep my restless feet fixed upon the ground. As I sat cuddling my cat, I thought to myself – surely this is enough. This is what I missed while I was away. Why can’t this be the reason to stay?
A similar feeling encompasses me when I take my beloved dog for a walk, or admire my horse and feed him carrots simply for being adorable. I grew up on property with sheep and chickens and ducks, being the weird horse girl at school with my best friend, and my life has always revolved around my pets. My animals are all the trusted care of someone who I know will give them the love and support they need. My sister, an avid animal lover, effortlessly looks after all the animals on our small property. And I will be eternally grateful to my grandma for taking in my cat, a decision I had to make when I moved back home before heading abroad. Giving up Sammie was tough, but I knew she needed someone more stable and settled than myself.
The wanderlust can certainly be difficult to carry. As it weighs pressingly on my mind, it always finds a way to insert itself into conversations, and encourages me to search regularly for airfare sales. This wanderlust brings with it so many sacrifices and so much guilt. Yet, it brings so many adventures at the same time. My young and restless gypsy soul can’t resist that.
Perhaps the guilt is just enhanced when I concentrate on how comfortable my life is in Australia. I know I have a good life here, a life that many desire. I have two university degrees and stable job prospects, yet I am too unsettled to know how to use it. My life isn’t perfect here, there are memories I long to move away from. But I feel guilty because I have so much to stay for but all I want to do is leave.
Aside from the pets that break my heart every time I leave them, my friendships suffer as well. I see my life moving in such a vastly different direction to my friends who have a stable life in our hometown. They see it too. They hear it in our conversations where I find a way to either talk about past travel experiences or discuss plans for new adventures. Meanwhile, they tell me about choosing tiles for their new home or progress on their weddings plans. This is a life so foreign to me. I love hearing about their exciting futures and the happiness it will bring them. But they see that I will not be settled for some time. I see it in myself as well which both frightens and entices me.
Sometimes it isn’t even me who brings up the travel discussions; sometimes I am encouraged to talk about my plans because they ask me. But I feel guilty for always reminding people that I am leaving, one day or another. I can’t deny the selfishness in my decision to chase a life abroad. And I know that eventually I may not have these friendships to return to, because their lives will move on without me. Because I will be elsewhere.
It surprises me then, when the wanderlust teaches me about the friendships that are true and valuable. Through flittering about in other parts of the world, I’ve found the friends that are prepared to stand by me, and mean it when they say no matter what.
My anxiety about leaving my pets and my friendships are not separate entities. As my friends ask me about my travel plans, they also ask me about my pets. They know how much these animals mean to me and how much I will miss them. ‘If you ever need anyone to take care of your cat, just let me know,’ many friends have offered. My grandma is a champion for taking on the responsibility of my darling cat. But she often goes away herself on little holidays. My best friend was more than happy to stay at my grandma’s house with my cat while she was away for a week and I was in Europe. She was first in line of a number of friends who offered to do the same. At this, my heart was filled with happiness to realise it is possible to have it all.
Essentially I feel guilty for this traveling lifestyle I desire makes me a selfish person. For this reason I am unbelievably lucky and grateful to have people in my life still standing by me, supporting me in these crazy plans I have to wander endlessly.
And when I reflect upon it too much, the guilt awakens and heightens the post-travel depression. That state of mind which is only present when I find myself with moments of rare free time. My mind finds it impossible to relax so it searches through these thoughts and analyses everything it can. Here the guilt takes place and I find the only way to ease it is to plan my next runaway scheme.
And I begin to wonder: how does one achieve happiness when one is always torn between two desires. When I am here, I want to be there. And when I am there, I long to return.
Vendangeur is what a grape picker in France is called. And if you enjoy drinking your champagne and your Beaujolais, these people are your heros.
by Paige Donner
Vendangeur is what a grape picker in France is called. And if you enjoy drinking your champagne and your Beaujolais, these people are your heros.
Many of us in the United States still harbor romantic notions of experiencing a wine harvest, preferably in the vineyards, joyfully picking grapes from morning ‘til dusk with a friendly group of brethren. Those dreams are completely unrealistic, especially in Champagne.
In Champagne harvest is industrialized, even if the picking is still done by hand. At least 100,000 pairs of hands are needed to harvest the grapes quickly during the one to two weeks when the annual harvest takes place. Time is very much of the essence as there really are only a few days when the grapes are optimal for picking. Busloads of grape pickers, mostly from Eastern Europe as well as large groups of Senegalese and other French-speaking Africans from Parisian suburbs, are brought in to the region just before harvest begins and are then quickly bussed out of the region after harvest ends.
Épernay, whose temporary harvest employment office operates as one of the main regional hubs doling out harvesting jobs, administered roughly 3,500 jobs and job-seekers during the first few days of harvest in Champagne in 2014. Pickers earn an average of about €9 per hour.
Oswald and Lina, two young Lithuanian students, who declined to have their photos taken, came for the romance of the experience. Oswald did the harvest last season (2013) in Champagne’s Aube region near Troyes, and this year brought his girlfriend Lina, a young architecural student, along with him to experience “the beautiful French countryside, the small charming towns and the quaint old churches.”
The morning I spoke with them, Lina and Oswald had spent two nights sleeping in the park along with hordes of other hopeful harvesters who had also just arrived. Harvest had started only the day before. Lina was eager for a hot shower. Another couple, also Lithuanians, were taking her to the Red Cross which had set up hot showers and sanitary facilities for the few days of harvest period. I mentioned to them the modern public pool with hot showers at the far end of town. It was the first they’d heard about it.
According to Jean-Marc Biehler, a local resident of Mardeuil, a small village just near Hautvillers, where the famous Dom Perignon Abbey perches, explained that when he and his professor-wife were still students at university, they worked several harvests to earn extra money just before going back to « uni ». But now, in the past 10 or 15 years, university starts earlier and earlier in France, before harvest. This is why, he said, you don’t see many French people doing the picking in the Champagne vineyards these days.
Carole Grenier, who ran the the temporary harvest employment offices in Epernay for 2014, and her assistant, Charlene Tonnellier, explained that more and more in recent years the employment contracts go to large enterprises who loan out their workforce during harvest time. So rather than finding or filling jobs for individuals, she, for the most part, fills job contracts for 50 to several hundred people at a time. And this is all done through middlemen and labor brokers.
When I asked if harvest in Champagne is any more difficult than anywhere else, she replied, “Yes, it is. Champagne grapes grow low to the ground, so it’s hard on the pickers’ backs. It’s days of backbreaking work spent stooped over.” She also explained that food and lodging is provided less and less because of the social costs involved. “If you find a harvest job that provides you with lodging, you have done very well and been very lucky,” said Grenier.
The best advice for anyone who still wants to experience picking grapes during harvest time in France ? Go to Burgundy. It is much less industrialized and you are more likely to find small operations that are still run more like a family. One operator that offers his services to travelers wanting this harvest experience is Netherlands-based Appellation Controlée.
Hand Harvesting vs. Mechanized Harvesting
There are really only two regions left in France where picking grapes by hand is the law : Champagne and Beaujolais. All the other AOC’s and regions allow for mechanized picking.
In Champagne, just Northeast of Paris where AOC champagne grapes grow, you will see no machines harvesting grapes in the vineyards. Nary a one.
Why ? Because, it is against AOC regulations. Still. Which means that if you own a champagne vineyard and don’t abide by the strict, and strictly enforced, regulations, you can’t sell your wine with the golden little label of “champagne” on it.
Since last year, however, there has been much discussion about whether Champagne, as a viticultural region, will allow for mechanized picking. The community is divided. The die-hards say that it will be the last region to keep its harvest-by-hand customs. This is because they can afford hand-harvesting, what with the prices they get for their grapes. And because champagne grapes are so delicate, with most of them being pressed for their juice right in the vineyards, just after picking. This yields the best quality juice, it’s said. Which makes for the best champagne, goes the local wisdom. In fact, there are 3,100 pressoirs or grape presses, spread throughout the vineyards of the 319 grape growing Champagne villages. This is for the roughly 403 million kilos of grapes harvested per year.
But the more modern-oriented grower-champagne producers and even some of the big négociants seem to be leaning towards mechanization. Why ? For one it will limit the influx of the 100,000 itinerant workers-grape pickers who “invade” the region every year. It will also cut down on the ” extravagant ” social costs that the champagne houses and vineyard owners pay to employ the pickers (legally) each year.
The Business of Champagne
Just a few facts and figures to set the stage for grape-picking at harvest time in Champagne, France :
First of all, Champagne is one of the few wine regions in the world where the people who grow the grapes used for the winemaking make a good living. Not only do they make a good living, with little or no government subsidy required as is the case for much of the world’s wine regions, they make an average of about four times as much as other profitable winemaking regions, like Napa. “Here in Champagne we are just simple farmers. Rich farmers, though, to be sure,” commented Cyril Janisson, fifth generation champagne producer, vineyard owner and native Champenois who heads the champagne house Janisson Baradon & Fils.
In 2013 there were 304.9 million bottles of champagne sold worldwide. That represents $5.4 billion global sales worth of champagne. Champagne is big business.
This year, 2014, champagne producers are aiming to reach a total sales output of 307 million bottles worldwide.
And none of this, not one drop of this golden elixir, would exist if it weren’t for the grapepickers, the « vendangeurs » as they are called in French.
Champagne grapes are the most expensive grapes in the world. The 2014 price per kilo was set at between €5.17 and €6.06 depending on the village the grapes are grown in. In Champagne there is a hierarchical classification of the villages with the top-shelf grapes coming from the Grand Cru villages such as Aÿ, Le Mesnil-sur-Oger and Ambonnay. The next tier are the Premier Cru villages and then there’s all the rest.
Champagne by the Numbers
There are 319 villages that are authorized as champagne grape growing villages in Champagne. This authorization comes from the CIVC (Comité Interprofessionnel du vin de Champagne), the Champagne Bureau who makes all the rules and enforces them. In fact, in Champagne, you don’t even have the right to harvest your grapes until the CIVC decrees that you can. The dates each year are set village by village by this God-like trade organization. They go back quite a ways, too. Champagne was one of the first wine regions – on Earth – to lobby for and get AOC status. So these guys are the big boys and they regulate the big business of champagne.
A few more numbers :
33,571 hectares (82,956 acres) of vines in production in Champagne
15807 parcels of vines
13,648 vineyard owners, of which more than half cultivate less than one hectare of vineyards
13104 vineyard owners sell their grapes
4629 vineyard owners commercialize their own champagne (that accounts for 65.7 million bottles)
135 co-operatives for champagne grape growers
43 co-operatives commercialize their own champagne (28.3 million bottles)
392 négociants (the licensed agents authorized to buy grapes and sell bottles of champagne on the market, these include the big houses such as Roederer, Bollinger, Lanson, Moët, etc.) which account for 210.9 million bottles of champagne
Of the 304.9 million bottles of champagne sold globally in 2013,
167.3 million sold in France
74.7 million sold in the EU
62.9 million sold in the rest of the world
If You Go
I recommend staying in the lovely little Grand Cru village of Aÿ, France. It is situated between Reims and Epernay in the Montagne de Reims. Chamapagnes Bollinger, Deutz and Collet call the village home among dozens of other fine champagne producing houses.
The easiest way to get there is to fly into Paris. From Paris take the fast train, the TGV, to Reims, which is about 45 minutes or the slower train, the TER, to Epernay which is an hour and 15 minutes. Both leave from the Gare de l’Est in northern, central Paris.
Round-trip tickets Paris-Epernay cost €48.20 for adult, second-class fare ; Roundtrip Paris-Reims on the TGV varies in price from about €60 to €85 for adult second-class. Aÿ is a short 5 minute taxi ride from Epernay, another €10. From Reims a taxi to Aÿ will cost at least €30. There is a charming commuter train that connects Reims and Epernay which stops in Aÿ: €7.50 Reims to Aÿ. But the train departs only a couple of times a day so check schedules.
Where To Stay
There are at least three very good accommodations to choose from in Aÿ. The hotel Castel-Jeanson is owned by the Goutorbe champagne family and the renovations they’ve done to this property are extensive and even include an indoor swimming pool. From €127 – €225
Hotel Castel Jeanson 24 bis rue Jeanson casteljeanson.fr +33 326 542 175
For a homey, B&B experience, the Clos St. Georges is a gated estate. It has a separate little honeymooner’s cottage on the property in addition to its six rooms. Eric and Sylvie Aubert also offer one of the best tables for lunch and dinner in the region. €98-€150
Le Clos St. Georges 7, rue Jules Lobet Aÿ, France levieuxpuits.com +33 326 569 653
Just opened in time for 2014’s harvest is the Champagne Sacret Chambres d’hôtes. In addition to the B&B’s stylish décor and the smell of fresh paint, you have the added thrill of staying on a working champagne estate where the wine is vinifying in vats underneath you. €150-€200
Champagne Sacret chambres d’hôtes 3, rue Billecart Aÿ, France Champagne-sacret.com + 33 326 569 920
Where to Eat
In addition to Le Vieux Puits at Le Clos St. Georges, mentioned above, there is also La Maison du Vigneron and L’Assiette Champenoise. The latter (€200 pp with wine) got its third Michelin star last year and the former is a solid and simple country kitchen restaurant (appetizers €15, mains €30, deserts €12).
La Maison du Vigneron RD 951 Saint-Imoges lamaisonduvigneron.com +33 326 528 800
L’Assiette Champenoise 40, Avenue Paul Vaillant-Couturier Tinqueux assiettechampenoise.com +33 326 846 464 (Closed M, T , W)
To Learn More
There are several local tour guides based in the region. All are good, but Cris has been doing it the longest.
Cristourschampagne-ardenne.com +33 326 882 637
Brand new in Champagne is the Cité du Champagne. This historical and cultural center’s exhibit offers museum-worthy artifacts and photos and a cellar tour. Not to miss.
Cité du Champagne 14 Boulevard Pasteur Aÿ, France champagne-collet.com
Paige Donner is certified champagne expert (by the CIVC) and writes regularly for USA Today and 10BEST.com as their Paris and France Travel Expert writer/photographer/editor. Contact her at About.me/paigedonner.
When my best friend and I were 10 years old, we used to plan out our futures. We wanted to be married by a certain age; I think it was 24 we chose. We wanted to have a house, a career, and start popping out babies before we were 30. It all seemed easy. We drew up designs of our dream houses, chose our favourite baby names, and imagined our lives with a perfectly handsome husband. The only problem for me was; I never actually wanted this. I just thought it was what my life was meant to be like.
When we were 17, my best friend started dating a guy. A few months later, I ended up dating a guy as well. Four years later, I went through the awful process of ending a long term relationship. Seven years later, my best friend is engaged and building a house with her high school sweetheart, the guy she started dating at 17. She’s 24 years old. She’s worked hard to be where she is and she is extremely happy. And literally living her dream.
I am single. I am free, independent, and the happiest I have ever been in my life. I will be 24 this year. I’m a primary school teacher and freelance writer. I am living abroad by working and traveling through Europe, literally living my dream.
That 10 year old girl who had assumed life had a script written for based on social convention had always wanted something else. I had been dreaming of otherness for a long time. As I went through school, I became fixated on learning about different cultures, the history of the world, and study cities on maps to gain a perspective of how small my hometown really was.
At high school, I started learning French. From age 15 I was dreaming of a way to get myself to France. Money, my family life, then my boyfriend, and university meant that this dream kept being put on hold. While I was in the long term relationship with my ex, I eventually convinced myself that I didn’t really want to go to France. I chose to put my money in savings so that we could move in together and we would travel later in life, together. We both wanted this. But I didn’t want it wholeheartedly. I became that naïve 10 year old girl again, wanting something else but believing there was someone I was supposed to be.
When you want something in life, you generally have to sacrifice something else. This is true. The key is to make sure that you don’t sacrifice the thing that will make you truly happy. This is what I did, while I was in a relationship.
When things ended between us, I was 21. My first reaction was to book a trip to India at the end of my university studies. I had graduated with two degree by this point, a Bachelor of Arts and a Graduate Diploma of Teaching. But I wasn’t ready to settle down and stay in one place. I was ready to see the world, at last.
At age 22, seven years after my dreaming of France had begun; I booked a ticket to Paris. While my friends were getting engaged, building houses together or getting fulltime jobs after university, I was packing my life into a backpack and boarding a plane.
There is no right or wrong direction in life. I respect and admire my friends who are settled down and living out life the way they want. Many people tell me that they are jealous of what I’m doing and would love to have these adventures abroad as well. The reality is, however, that this lifestyle isn’t for everyone. My world is a chaos of cramming clothes into space bags and hoping my backpack will zip up. My next destination is planned on airfare sales and catching an overnight bus to save money. My life is made up of uncertainty, filled in with contract jobs and wondering where my next pay check will come from, barely ever staying in once place for more than three months. People forget these aspects of a life abroad, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.
There are so many pathways of social convention. Rather than being faced with one assumed outcome, Generation Y is faced with too many options. What do we choose? Which way do we go? How do we have it all and make sure we live without regrets?
The one thing we all learn as we grow up is that there isn’t a solid answer to these questions. At the end of the day, you’ve just got to go in the direction your heart takes you. Just make sure you listen attentively to it.
When I walked by the Pantheon in Paris the first time, I had no idea of the impact it would have on my memory. Like most memories, it was one that I had no intention of holding on to, but ended up having it seared into my brain. One’s mind has a way of surprising itself that way.
So many things about Paris are memorable. Paris is one of those cities that has seen such variances of people and cultures. If you could talk to the city of Paris, it could say some like, “Yeah – been there, done that. I’ve seen it all”. Almost like an old cop training a rookie who just joined the police force. And as a tourist, I was prepared for that awe of seeing places like Versailles or the Louvre. As a tourist, I looked forward to seeing places with so much history. But these are not the things that leave a mark on a person’s memory, or conjure up the feeling that a person gets when thinking of a specific place.
To explain, I should inform the reader that I was traveling with my aunt, who has traveled all over Europe, and is a great lover of Paris. She does not believe in fancy tours. We set our own schedule, and plan out what we want to see and when. It involves a lot of public transportation and walking.
Our hotel was located a little ways up the street from the Pantheon, near the Rue Mouffetard. Every morning we would walk out the door, grab some breakfast at the nearby Patisserie, walk past the Pantheon, where the same boy was practicing with his soccer ball every day, make our way down the Boulevard Saint Michel by walking past Luxembourg Gardens, and head toward the nearest metro station to begin our quest for the day . Every day was a new adventure. And every day we came “home” exhilarated and exhausted. I was incredibly happy to be given this opportunity to see such a famous city, and experience all the awe-inducing sights. I have many pictures of places I saw, but none that remind me of my Paris. And yes, I know how that sounds.
We were not in Paris for more than a couple days when my aunt got sick. Once we were done for the day she would be too tired to do anything else. This was unlike her. I was so used to trying to keep up with her brisk pace that I didn’t know what to do with myself in the evenings. So I started to venture out on my own. By now I knew the general direction that Notre Dame was from our neighborhood; I decided to walk there by taking the Rue Saint Jacque, which was new territory for me.
It should be noted that although this trip was an incredible opportunity for me, my life in general was looking quite bleak. I was in my very early twenties and a couple years into college. I was paying my way through community college by working at a video store. The hours were rough, I was tired all the time, and more importantly I was at what I knew to be a critical juncture in my life – and I had no idea what to do about it. The rest of my life was this huge, black vortex of emptiness that I just couldn’t picture, and I wasn’t feeling good. Emotionally or physically. It took its toll on my grades. I was spiraling.
So as I passed the Pantheon on my way to Notre Dame, I came to love the feeling of something solid, friendly, and oddly enough – homey. I loved walking down that street. I loved looking at those buildings because they became so familiar. And more than anything I loved to sit on the statue in front of Notre Dame and just look at everything around me. At that moment in my life there was nothing more beautiful than Paris at night. Especially sitting on that statue. It made me feel unbreakable. I did this every night until we left.
When I think of Paris, I think of the Pantheon; I think of walking past it every day on the way to just about everything, the boy always playing soccer, and I think of walking past it at night on the way to my favorite spot in Paris. Well, really one of my favorite spots in the world. The mind works in odd ways, but it knows what it’s doing. It gave me a memory that isn’t just a nice keepsake, but a memory that I needed. And one that gave me strength.
Many bridges in Paris have made it into the annals of worldwide fame: Pont D’Alexander, Pont Neuf, and the modern Pont Solferino, to name a few. One favorite is the Pont Des Arts, loved for many reasons by Parisians and visitors alike. The pedestrian-only bridge, which leads directly from the left bank into the Place de Louvre, draws visitors for many reasons during all times of the year. Here are a few reasons why the Pont Des Arts is the liveliest bridge in Paris.
The central location of the Pont Des Arts makes it happily unavoidable during a visit to Paris. When crossing the Pont Des Arts from the left bank to right, behind you will be the Académie française. This impending, domed building is home to les immortels, forty academy members who hold the keys to the french language. These members, who are a part of the Academie for life (unless removed for bad behavior), plublish the official French language dictionary. Intimidating, especially for visitors who are still struggling to grasp basic words in the language!
Across the bridge sits the Musée du Louvre, one of the largest museums in the world. Formerly a fortress and palace, the Louvre and the attached Tulleries Garden are a source of French national pride and worth a visit. On the first Sunday of each month from October to March, admission to the Louvre—and select other museums in Paris—is free of charge.
On warm nights, especially in the summer, the Pont Des Arts becomes a gathering place for Paris’ young adults. You will find university students, au pairs, and artists sitting along the edge of the bridge with a bottle of wine, enjoying a picnic dinner. As the night moves on, music fills the air and the dinner groups began to blend and mingle together. It is the place to see and be seen, and the favorite place to kick off a night of Parisian fun- and maybe make a new friend or two!
During the day, the Pont Des Arts lives up to its name as artists and sellers line the bridge with their canvas works and sculpture. Though not as annoying as the peddlers in the city’s parks, it is important to have your wits about you when dealing with them. However, there are a number of talented painters and sculptors who sell their works from the Pont or on either side of its steps, and their work is worth a second look if you have the time.
Romantics particularly love the Pont Des Arts because of the famous “love-lock” tradition. Lovers and friends visit the bridge, armed with a padlock, some paint, and a key. The pair writes their names or a message on the lock, then secure it to the fencing of the bridge and throw the key into the Seine. In 2010, the Paris City Hall banned the use of love-locks on the Pont Des Arts, but recently they have begun to reappear. After a railing collapsed in early 2014, glass or wooden panels have replaced some of the traditional railings and wire fencing on part of Pont des Arts to prevent amorous couples from attaching padlocks inscribed with their names, initials or messages of affection.
Whether you’re on your way to the Louvre to ponder La Joconde or simply on a stroll towards the Jardin Luxembourg, try to cross over on the Pont Des Arts- you never know what you might find on the wooden planks of this bridge.
I am alone in the farmhouse. I know I am alone. The farmer left an hour ago. I saw his car disappear along the drive, past the linden trees, over the stream and round the corner into the forest. When I walk down to the kitchen the dog is fast asleep on the mat in front of the fire. The cats are still out hunting. It is 7am.
I brew coffee and sit at the long wooden table. The dog stirs and moves over to lean his great bulk against my leg. Maybe he, too, is feeling the isolation. The clock ticks denting the silence.
I open the door onto the terrace and walk outside. There is a promising crimson glow behind the mountains. A silhouette of trees decorates the horizon. In the valley a grey mist hangs like a shadow. Everything is dripping as if someone is trying to fold tissue paper quietly.
This is the Cevennes, a remote area of southern France. It is a place where tourists patter rather than tramp; where you can think and walk and find a different rhythm of life. Head two hours west of Avignon, climb the winding roads into the mountains and you can walk all day without seeing another soul. No sound of traffic, just the crack of a twig breaking beneath your boot and the trickling of water in the streams.
The Cevennes National Park is the country’s largest wooded national park where golden eagles soar, rock roses and orchids bloom and the most handsome stags in France are found.
Flocks of sheep roam the limestone plateau of the Great Causses in the west with its Atlantic climate, while in the forested eastern Cevennes, the climate becomes Mediterranean as the altitude decreases. Cattle graze on the slopes and sheep are still taken up to high summer pastures. Then to complete the unspoilt landscape, there are river valleys, gorges, grottos and caves.
I am here for two weeks to improve my French and help with the garden.
It turns out that it’s just me and the farmer, Bernard. Bernard’s wife left for a retreat the day before I arrived and will return after I have left. But she is here in spirit. Her messages are all around – on the front door knocker, on the fridge, on the kitchen cupboards. “Who am I today and what grand and glorious adventure will I have.” Another says: “How does it get better than this?” So why did she go I wonder.
I spend the morning cutting lavender. It is like cutting hair, snipping and shaping with scissors. The aroma is intense and hovers over me. Bernard returns late morning and cooks lunch, a soufflé of spinach and cheese and an endive salad.
The promise of good weather does not materialise. Squalls of rain chase in from the south. Great black clouds shroud the hills. Later in the afternoon it clears a little and I take the dog for a walk. We meander through woods along terraced pathways which drop away steeply down ravines to clear streams. It is autumn. The leaves are curled and crisp like burnt toast.
The pathways are covered with spiky shells, like tiny curled hedgehogs, mouths open, spilling out the shiny brown nuts. Sweet chestnut groves cling onto steep slopes.
This sparsely populated areas of France with remote farmhouses and crumbling stone ruins hidden in greenery, has a history of isolation and poverty which has driven the people of these mountains to self sufficiency. Every house has its vegetable garden, often on a shelf of land cut from the hillside.
Man has shaped the landscape over centuries building tiers and terraces and planting trees. Monks played their part too with self sufficiency based on the sweet chestnut, orchards, kitchen gardens, goats, sheep, hens and bees. The sweet chestnut or bread tree as it is known in the Cevennes, has dominated the landscape and sustained generations of people.
It is a land steeped in tradition with a way of life shaped by the environment. It is a special area where old customs and skills have survived over the centuries.
It has a permanence about it which feeds the soul and makes me strong. I know it will draw me back to discover more of its past and enjoy its peaceful present. And maybe next time I will meet the farmer’s wife.
In the heart of France’s Midi-Pyrenees lies a secret gem, a tiny town, a fairy tale. Ambialet. Here, on a September evening, the sunlight’s rays are Midas’ fingers, transforming the mountainside into a tiara that puts the Crown Jewels to shame. Leaves of emerald, topaz, and ruby adorn gilded branches; at the mountain’s summit, an eleventh-century stone church and ancient monastery, glowing with golden-hour light, complete the diadem. Below, the Tarn River encircles the presqu’île, a peninsula by virtue of a strip of ground narrower than the river itself. And on a cliff above, held captive by the sunshine’s spell, sits a speck of a human being. Me.
I doubt you will find mention of Ambialet in Frommer’s or the Michelin Guides, and I’d be more than a little surprised to see it featured on the Travel Channel. The community boasts only a few dozen residents. Its restaurants can be numbered on one hand; its recreational facilities on the other. Yet the unique setting of this place and its natural and historical richness have made it a destination for French tourists and even a handful of international visitors, who climb or drive their way to the top of the mountain for views of the rugged terrain and a glimpse of the ancient architecture. No monks live here now; rather, the monastery’s courtyard echoes with the laughter of American students. They hail from Saint Francis University in the equally obscure town of Loretto, Pennsylvania—and for them, this mountaintop perch has become an unforgettable second home.
I arrive here for my semester in France with very little in the way of expectations. I studied abroad in Italy the year before, making beautiful memories and forging bonds that shattered the barriers of language and culture. Nothing, absolutely nothing, could top the power of that experience. Ambialet might be good, but it won’t be Parma.
Yet, as the bus winds around the mountain and I catch my first glimpse of the majestic edifice that is to be my dorm, it takes my breath away. Soon, one thing becomes overwhelmingly clear. I was right. Ambialet isn’t t train rides and bikes and cobblestones. It isn’t dinnertime with my Italian host family or street musicians or gelato, or any of the things I loved about life in Italy.
Instead, Ambialet is tripping over three big slobbery dogs as I try to get in the gate. Ambialet is a winding medieval road of pink-tinted granite and blue-gray slate snaking down the mountainside, connecting our isolated roost to the village below. Ambialet is a community so aesthetically aware that its denizens built a chateau to house their hydroelectric plant. Ambialet is dancing and karaoke with the locals on a Friday night. It is the echoing of a single guitar in the simple chapel, a handful of French voices raised in praise on Sunday morning. It’s kayaking down the rushing river, then jumping in with all of my clothes on. It’s running with crazy confidence over the rocky crags because I know every crack and crevice. It’s roaming the wilderness with my easel and paints, full of wonder and strength and freedom. It’s late nights in the art studio, hovering over a space heater to keep warm. It’s the sweet breath of lavender and rosemary on the morning breeze. Pink, wispy clouds rising from the riverbed at dawn. A starlit sky clearer and more brilliant than any I’ve ever seen. Waves of wild heather. A garden swingset. Cats pouncing my rake as I dig up potatoes. Analyzing medieval churches and French pedagogical methods. Making my “r’s’ come from my throat and my “e’s” from my nose. It’s Nadine and Marie, Sophie and Tim, Eric, Bernard, Peter and Margaret. It’s two-hour-long dinners where a dozen former strangers make each other laugh so much that eating is hazardous. It’s slicing baguettes and flipping crepes and tasting fresh sheep cheese; it’s chasing mice and hiking hills and exploring long-abandoned castle ruins. It’s life unlike anything I’ve ever known—and for this, I am grateful.
In Ambialet, I have learned that the experiences of travel are as incomparable as proverbial apples and oranges; that each place, each unique moment, is a priceless gift. And of all the discoveries I’ve made here, the most beautiful has been the elasticity of the human soul, the incredible ability of the spirit to hold, to love, beyond ration. When people ask me if I like Ambialet or Parma better, I can only laugh. I love them both. And I will love wherever life takes me next.
I dangle my feet over the cliff. The sun slips behind the mountain, the golden color fades, the air cools. But my heart remains warm and aglow with gratitude, keenly conscious of the unfading treasures it holds within.
Windows were rolled down to breathe in the healing mountain air, as we commented to each other, as we always did, on how fresh and alive the mountain seemed. After the 10-hour drive, sitting in a line of cars waiting to go through the Mont-Blanc tunnel seemed easier this time. The twins waited patiently for our turn to pay and receive the information card, and my daughter reminded me to turn the radio to the emergency station.
This time was different. We’d done the drive from Rome to Chamonix multiple times, with friends and family for our annual summer vacation. This year, my husband was not going to run the unimaginable distance around Mont-Blanc as a participant in one of the Ultra Trail of Mont Blanc annual train running races. We were not meeting friends to cheer him along and help me drag our kids from spot-to-spot to give hugs and support. His mom wasn’t flying into Geneva to join the support party.
It all started with a cough and ended in a diagnosis of stage 4 non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and a year of treatment in a language not our own in a health care system that seemed as foreign to us as an outer-planet landscape. After spending years in Rome, Italy, my husband, the main bread-winner and reason we were away from family in the US and England, was dying. Ten months later, after intense chemo and a long period of radiation treatment, doctors told us he would live. If we were lucky, he wouldn’t need a stem-cell transplant.
We sat in traffic, waiting to celebrate that the doctors were right and to hope they would keep being right. The traffic moved slowly, and eventually we entered the tunnel. Right before entering, we glanced up, saw the sparkling snow atop the mountain, and watched a glacial stream crash down through a pristine pine forest.
The kids started getting antsy, knowing that through the tunnel was their “home away from home”, their “happy forest”. My husband and I glanced at each other and smiled….we were celebrating life, family, and survival in a place with grandiose splendor worthy of this moment.
Exiting the tunnel the kids’ energy increased as excitement for Richard’s Patisserie baguettes and French pastries ran through the car. The winding road from the mouth of the tunnel to the quaint ski town of Chamonix allowed glimpses of the glaciers, pine forests and eventually the town center. Our son dictated directions excitedly to our staple lodging….Bibendum Chalet on the outskirts of town. Nestled in the “happy forest”, our chalet provided the healing comfort of a known entity, where kids could play and parents could rest and our life could begin to be normal again.
That night, after arriving, eating, and getting the kids to finally sleep, my husband and I sat on the balcony toasting his survival. Finally, I could breathe again.
Paris is a world capital. It’s also one of the world’s top travel destinations. Last year France logged over 83 million foreign tourists, placing it at the #1 spot for world tourism destinations, according to France Diplomatie.
Not only are those numbers staggering but equally impressive is the revenue this tourism sector generates for France: €13 billion in 2012, up from €7.5 billion in 2011.
And the visitors are certainly international with the greatest increases coming from Russia and Brazil but also from China who registered a total of 1.5 million visitors to France in 2013.
So, the question we here at Paris GOODfood+wine asked was: Where and what are all of these people going to eat?
Paris Goodfood+wine, the very first long format radio show in English about food broadcast from Paris, is produced for World Radio Paris. World Radio Paris, launched September 2013, just celebrated its first year anniversary milestone. Milestone because this is the very first English-language radio station – ever! – to be licensed by the state for broadcast from Paris. It took the WRP team, led by station manager David Blanc, ten years of lobbying to secure the necessary licenses and permits from the French government that allow us to broadcast from our antenna on the Montmartre Hill, in central Paris.
And as it is a community radio station, not-for-profit, we are staffed by all volunteers. I am one of those volunteers.
To mark an evolution at our one year anniversary, the team decided to embrace growth and initialize several long form radio programs. I pitched Paris GOODfood+wine, an outgrowth of my weekly World of Wine program I have hosted and produced this past year for WRP. Paris GOODfood+wine is the first of these to take shape.
Which takes us back to our initial question: Where are 83 million visitors to France, most of whom spend their principal vacation in Paris, going to eat while they’re here?
And what are they going to eat?!
Paris GOODfood+wine is the answer to that question, radio style. Yes there are lots of good guidebooks available, several of which I’ve written for myself, including Fodor’s, and currently write for, like USA Today’s10BEST.com. But with an ever-increasing smartphone equipped population, our DAB (digital audio broadcast) is available easily with the just-launched WRP Android APP for download onto your mobile device.
So, if it’s your first (or even second or 10th!) time visiting Paris and you want to know, and you want to know NOW, where a few good dining choices are in the city where you are sure to get a good meal, look no further than our restaurant review segments on Paris GOODfood+wine, with guest restaurant critic, Alec Lobrano. Or, perhaps you would like to visit a few fresh markets while in town, pick up some lovely cheeses, fresh baguettes, maybe a few sausages and some fruit? Our Paris Market Report journalist, Emily Dilling, introduces you to some of the best Parisian fresh markets and talks with some of their superstar fresh produce providers. To round out the program, Gabrielle Mondesire offers insights into some of the more unique aspects of Parisian culinary culture and I, well, I will tell you all about French wines and lead you to some of the city’s best wine bars, wine cellars and wine events and also provide you with in-person interviews of some of Paris’s culinary personalities and people of note.
With Paris GOODfood+wine we hope to share with you our passion for French food and wine as we find it existing uniquely here in the City of Lights, aka the World’s Top Tourism Destination for Food And Wine.