Travels With My Backpack

Left Beaune on the 16th and went to Lyon.  Good choice.  It was the heart of the silk weaving industry for centuries, so there was a marvellous textile museum to keep me amused on a very rainy Friday.  Nothing wine related to report – shame on me, I never did drink any Rhone or Beaujolais, the only proper meal I had was at an Italian restaurant less than two blocks from the hotel, that was about as far as I could stagger, I was so tired and hungry.  Good choice – half dozen lovely tiny pan fried escallopes of veal and some wonderful artichoke stuffed ravioli, washed down with an anonymous italian earthy red, which was bliss.  Well, the dessert was pretty blissful too – a layer of red and black currants concealed beneath a good dollop of zabaglione, all of which had been run under the grill.  No the zabaglione did not liquify, it got slightly browned and crisped a bit, which is hard to imagine I know, but it worked, trust me.

Lyon is lovely, I recommend it – mini Paris but much more charming, I think.  Parts of the town are near vertical – streets turn into long stairways – but it is worth it, both for the views and the exercise and sheer charm and fascination.

Then on to Bordeaux, which disappointed me, I have to say.  So much so about three hours after my arrival Monday I tried to change my ticket to leave the next night, and couldn’t, all trains were booked, so I guess everyone else had the same idea.  Again, nothing wine related to report, except a sighting from the train of a mind bogglingly prairie-like expanse of vines in Pomerol or Lalande.  I made the best of it for two more days, and escaped Wednesday.

Had an interesting journey to Oporto via train.  Departing Bordeaux about 19:00, arriving Irun (just over the line into Spain) around 22:00, where we had to go through a security checkpoint (heaving the backpack off and then back on again, ugh, have some fabulous bruises to remember Irun by), and then on to a truly antiquated train to go rattling across Spain and Portugal overnight, the kind with a corridor alongside enclosed compartments with two banquettes of seats.   I was wandering the corridor trying to find my seat when an elderly Portuguese man leaned out of one compartment and took my ticket, then took my hand and dragged me in to show me my seat number, 25.  Fascinatingly, my seat number 25 was in a room with 12, 14 (which was numbered directly above an armrest, ouch!) and 16, then 25, 27 (armrest again) and 31.  Yup, 31.

My companion turned out to be a bit of a character, and bless him he really did his best to converse with me, in Portuguese.  I whipped out my phrase book and did my best in return, and you know, we did ok.  When he realised I was English he grabbed me for a kiss on each cheek and crowed Ronaldo!  Manchester United!  Well, yes, but isn’t he with Real Madrid now?  Didn’t matter.  It seems he (my companion, not Ronaldo) was just returning from Liverpool via Geneva, Frankfurt and possibly the Czech Republic as well, not sure if I got that Czech bit straight.  Not bad for a man on the cusp of 74.  His luggage consisted of two supermarket carrier bags and a bottle of red wine.

We finally dropped off to sleep only to be blown off our banquettes by the arrival of the ticket checkers around midnight, ringing a hand bell and turning the lights on, in case the bell didn’t suffice to wake us.  Got almost no sleep – just as I would drowse off, either the train would come to a literally screeching halt at some station, or it would hit a rough patch and start juddering so violently, my poor face would start bouncing against the seat like a jack hammer – also an effective means of waking someone up.  One good thing – so old a train had proper windows that could be opened, which was lovely, thoroughly enjoyed the cool night air after such a hideously hot few days in Bordeaux.  Till the rain started pouring in, and we had to close it.  Luckily that didn’t last long, and by the time I woke again slightly suffocating we’d cleared the rain and could open the window again.

Somewhere around 5:00 AM and Salamanca I gave up any effort to sleep, and it was light enough to see the landscape a bit, on through Cuidad Rodrigo and finally across the border into Vilar Formosa – I knew I was in Portugal from the gorgeous tiled panels on the train station.  My companion was also awake by then, and he resumed his efforts to get me speaking Portuguese, made me repeat the names of all the stations as we stopped, and telling me a bit about them – I remember Santa Comba Dão, which is where Salazar is buried, in a big mausoleum.  He would point out crops and tell me what they were in Portuguese, then ask me the English word.

The landscape was fascinating – from Salamanca and well into Portugal it was pretty desolate, uninhabited rather craggy rolling hills and scruffy undergrowth, which implies some growth over too, but there wasn’t.  So many ruins of buildings and walls, I was trying to remember my history (some of it via Georgette Heyer!) of the Peninsular War, and wondering if the ruins dated from that time.  At some point it changed and we were in a countryside of really rich land and deep combes, there was a beautiful river and lake, possibly dammed, not sure.  There were thick forests – some of them were eucalyptus, which we could smell – and then agricultural land.  That’s when I saw my first vinhas – vineyards.  Most were back yard affairs, vines going mad untrimmed, often with olive trees interspersed, or with maize grown alongside.  I did see one stretch of very well ordered and trained and pruned vines on a hillside.  We were passing through Guarda and Coimbra districts, so well south of the Douro, I don’t know if this is a region known for its wine… must start learning.

At Coimbra my companion saw me off, wished me Adeus.  He was staying on the train all the way down to Lisbon, which was his home.  I told him I was hoping to work the harvest in the Ribatejo, near Santarém (about 40 miles northeast of Lisbon), and he approved of that – thought Santarém was a nice city – unlike Oporto!  He didn’t seem to think much of Oporto, but then if he was a native of Lisbon he wouldn’t, I suppose.

From Coimbra to Oporto on another train, staggered off the train into the metro, found my hotel, and shed the pack to go for a walk round.  Found the Dom Luis I bridge over the Douro and got my first sight of the famous port lodges in Vila Nova de Gaia across the river.

My first and most outstanding taste of Port was on the occasion of getting my permanent visa to remain in England, in March 2001.

One of my friends had been a professional chef, so I asked if he would be willing to lend his talents to creating a wine tasting dinner by way of celebration and thank you to all my gourmand friends who had helped me get through those first four years in England, and sparked my interest in wine.  He agreed – he was thrilled to have the opportunity to make something besides tunafish casseroles for two small boys – and I stumbled into Berry Brothers and Rudd one Saturday morning with a rough menu plan and ideas of what taste sensations I wanted to accompany each course, but no clue what wines would deliver those sensations.  The man who helped me for two very patient hours that morning has remained one of my (only two) favourite wine merchants, even after leaving BBR for Genesis Wines, and became a dear friend.

The dinner was marvellous, I found the menus and placecards when I was clearing the house in May – and kept them.  Menu from memory, wine details from a list I have on my computer, luckily:

Killed time before dinner with champagne, as you do.  Louis Roederer Brut, 1990.

Starter of roasted fennel and red pepper, with a dry Alsatian Riesling, Cuvée Frédéric Emile, Trimbach 1995.  Had the last bottle left over of this in November 2008, with a Thanksgiving turkey and all the trimmings, and it was stunning, still.

Fish course, I think it was sea bass, accompanied by a Chassagne-Montrachet, Ruchottes, Domaine Ramonet 1997.  My first taste of white burgundy, and it stopped all of us in our tracks – there was a moment’s appreciative silence when we all took our first sip of that one.

Main course was a pan roasted fillet of beef, and boy was it perfect – nicely charred on the outside (never wash your cast iron fry pan) and au point inside.  To wash it down, Côte Rôtie, La Mordorée, M. Chapoutier, 1995.  Another really successful pairing.

The dessert was my one culinary contribution – an intense chocolate mousse.  The wine remit was for a “really in yer face ozzie shiraz red fruit bomb.”  Elderton Cabernet Sauvignon – Shiraz – Merlot 1994 delivered that with a vengeance – pure red and black raspberry juice, dry with a kick of acidity and tannins to cut through and wash down that thick dense black chocolate mousse, better than a typical sweet dessert wine would have done.  Very successful.   Subsequently I tried the 1995 with another intense chocolate dessert, and it didn’t work so well – the 1995 was a more complex wine with more flavours going on than just the raspberries, and it didn’t cut the chocolate as cleanly as the 1994 had done.  Fascinating.

Finally… on to the cheese course.  I had laid in a half dozen different bottles of things, which personally I never drank.  Reason?  One of my guests brought a gift – a bottle of 1963 Warre Port, which he had had the prescience to buy on release back in the sixties for tuppence.

I had never had port before.  This was a revelation.  I had not drunk very much at all during the meal – a modest glass with each course – so I had capacity, well, thought I had anyway – by the time this was opened.  I was enchanted.  I imbibed freely.  Two memories stand out – well, one memory and a telling photo.  The memory is of waking up the following morning with the taste of that port still clear and clean and gorgeous in my mouth – talk about a finish!

The photo is of me, leaning longingly across the arm of a friend who is monopolizing the cheese plate, and you can read his lips, clearly something like “get a grip, woman!”  I’m sure I was begging for more stilton to wash down more port.  Sadly, I do not have an electronic copy to share with you, but it’s one I keep in the photo album I carry with me on all my travels – including this adventure, it’s in my backpack even now.

To the friend who brought that bottle along:  thank you from the bottom of my heart.  Over the years I have often remembered that drink, that meal, and that friend very kindly.  What a gift!  Not just the bottle that night, but the love of port for ever after.

So, in homage to that evening and bottle, just a very few hours after arrival in Oporto, I found my way out the bridge Dom Luis I across the Douro and took this photo.  Hopefully you can see, dead centre, just about two lodges below that high rise on the horizon …