Bonne Année

After the excesses of Christmas and New Year, well December in general really, what better way to start 2014 than with a long, vigorous walk? In my case, 3½ hours up hill and down dale starting in the village of Condorcet in the Baronnies hills, 15 minutes drive from Rhône Wine Tours base in Nyons.

All that's left of the old village of Condorcet, abandoned around 1870.

All that’s left of the old village of Condorcet, abandoned around 1870. The vineyards in the foreground produce Coteaux des Baronnies reds.

This is a favourite walk, starting with a steep climb from Condorcet church, up past vineyards, the old hilltop village abandoned in the late 1800s in favour of the current valley site, and then on into the woods before dropping into the hamlet of Saint-Pons. It was here that seven French resistance fighters were shot by a firing squad in 1944.

Plaque attached to the wall of a house in the hamlet of Saint-Pons commemorating the execution of seven resistance fighters.

Climbing again from Saint-Pons, on past the apricot orchards, you come to one of the best places in the region for picking sloes. The locals leave them alone as there’s very little you can do with this little wild plum other than make sloe gin, which doesn’t seem to be to the French taste. This is unusual, as almost everything else edible and free for the picking gets used in one way or another – wild herbs and walnuts, gentian root and  mushrooms, the fruit from the occasional remnants of old orchards, brambles and wild raspberries growing high on Mont Ventoux, you name it.

Sloes growing wild near St-Pons

Sloes growing wild near Saint-Pons

Tradition says that sloes should be picked after the first frost, so New Year’s Day couldn’t be better. If I take a bag or a tupperware container I can grab a couple of hundred grams, enough to make half a litre of sloe gin. If you’d like the recipe, get in touch. (If I had the distilling know-how, I could also pick juniper berries on the same walk and use them to make my own spirit, taking the whole process right back to basics. Although, given that home distilling is illegal here in France, perhaps it’s better that I stick to cheap supermarket gin as my base.)

Juniper grows abundantly in the woods around Condorcet.

Juniper grows abundantly in the woods around Condorcet, but it’s hard to get at – those spikes are sharp.

By now, I’m at the half distance mark and my legs are starting to tire. Although it’s a favourite, it’s a long time since I’ve done this walk and I feel unfit and out of practice. So it’s a good job that I’ve brought a packed lunch – sandwiches made with the remains of last night’s roast duck and apple sauce – and that the path starts to zig-zag downhill to the stream that runs along the bottom of the valley.

You're going to get your feet wet whatever you do.

You’re going to get your feet wet whatever you do.

With Saturday’s rain, the stream is swollen and the banks are muddy – enough sticks to my boots to double their weight. But I’m quickly back on gravel and the mud drops off as I climb gently towards the the first vineyards since the start of the walk, past the hunting dogs’ kennels, the fields that are full of poppies in summer and a handful of farmhouses before I’m finally back in Condorcet.

A winter vineyard waiting to be pruned.

A winter vineyard waiting to be pruned.

In the hills above Condorcet on a beautiful New Year's day. The snow-capped peak of the Angele mountain is just visible on the horizon.

In the hills above Condorcet on a beautiful New Year’s day. The snow-capped peak of the Montagne d’Angèle is just visible on the horizon, to the right.

By the end, I’m stiff and tired. But I wouldn’t want to start the year any other way.

Wishing you an excellent 2014,

Bonne année et bonne santé surtout,

Paul

This is the blog of Rhône Wine Tours. If you’d like to experience the delights of the Rhône Valley, whatever the time of year, you can contact us at info@rhonewinetours.com. You can also visit our website – www.RhoneWineTours.com – where there’s loads of information about our tours and wine tastings; things to do and places to stay while you’re here; our winemaker friends; and probably some other stuff too. Our Facebook page is home to smaller pieces too short to justify their own blog and plenty of photos. And we’re always looking for more “likes”. Hint, hint.

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