From la Touraine I drove southwest into the Poitou-Charente region. The Charente is annother important river in France, flowing west to the Atlantic. The region is the home of Cognac vineyards.
Cognac is a huge deal here. Almost as important is an apéritif called Pineau, made by mixing new-harvest Cognac grape “must” with the residue from making Cognac itself (I believe that a harvest must be at least three years old before it can be fermented and bottled as Cognac). I looked up “must”: it means the unfermented or fermenting juice of grapes, usually, or of other fruit. Pineau is aged for at least 8 months in oak.
Pineau is a popular apéritif in France, especially in this region; it is also exported, including to the US, but is not well known in the US. Pineau is fairly sweet, but the sweetness is somewhat counter-balanced by the acid and the alcohol content, which is usually 17.5 %. It is served chilled – never over ice. Most Pineau is white (there is also a rouge or rosé Pineau).
The Charente area has a lot in common with the Loire Valley – the river, the predominance of agriculture and of the vine in particular, the fact that white and grey stone is the dominant building material; and Romanesque churches. As in the Loire Valley, I see roses, roses everywhere – and irises. Here are two pictures taken from the window in my room – it’s a second-floor room with the blossoms of an espaliered yellow rose bush at the level of the sill; below is a large garden with other rose bushes and irises.
I am staying in a good hotel, with an excellent restaurant, in a small village called Bassac on the right (north) bank of the Charente. It is beautiful, and I’ve had days filled with one un-anticipated discovery after another.
One discovery was that there is a long history of freight transportation on the Charente, from medieval times to the late 19th century when the railroad took over. Under François I, locks were built to improve the river’s navigability. Flat-bottomed boats capable of transporting some 120 tons of freight plied the river, carrying cognac barrels and cannons to ports on the Atlantic. The boats were called gabares and there is quite a history of a whole gabarrier culture…the men, and women, who built and piloted the boats. The boats had sails but could not rely solely on wind power, and so they were pulled along by ropes when necessary. For a long time the pullers were women; later, animals were used. In any event, the village next to where I am staying – St Simon – was a center of the gabare-building trades. The last gabare was retired in the 1930s. Today a reproduction gabare offers excursions on the Charente, starting at St Simon, and I took one of the 90-minute trips.
Here are some photos of the 12th-c. church in St. Simon (one taken inside), followed by pictures taken during the boat ride. One of the latter shows how beautiful the skies here have been.