Our party of wine enthusiasts started the first cold day of the season (14th October) in the noisy sobriety of the barrel-making factory, Tonnellerie Sylvain. It might sound boring, but in fact, for some at least it was the highlight of the day, using mainly manual labour to work centuries-old oak from France’s public forests into some 33,000 barrels a year, 70% for export. Of course, given that all had been arranged by Marion and Pip, we did not lack for an inventive and appetising lunch at Catusseau or miss a well-organised tasting of fine Merlot (plus a little Cab. Sav.) at Château Clinet with its new vats and energetic marketing.
Nearly forty members and friends took to the locks of Toulouse on board the Occitania. As cruises go, this was not overwhelmingly sybaritic for either scenery (a lot of 60s HLMs/tower blocks, the Police Station and Haute Garonne Conseil Général’s Valhalla) or weather (how could Toulouse only muster 20 degrees on July 30th?).
But, and it’s a big but, we had a jolly good meal (with cruise booze of course) and most of all great company of our own making (typical of OUS SW France as a member noted), spiced up with good humoured local information from Pierre, our Captain for the day.
There were too many factoids for your webmaster to remember, except perhaps the enormous growth of Toulouse over the last ten years and the century plus that passed between the construction of the two canals linking the Atlantic and the Med.
We turned round in the basin where the Midi meets the Canal de Garonne and the Canal de la Brienne, and so our lock count for the day was six. All in fact a great success and our thanks to Pip for all the labours involved in getting it together with a not wholly responsive cruise company – evidently the only one offering serious catering on the whole canal.
On 5th May, a large alumni group visited the substantial Roman villa at Séviac, near Montréal du Gers. After Anthony’s Comfort’s lucid introduction to what is known of the site’s history, the evident luxury of which somewhat belies the supposition that the late Roman era was one of decay, we were able to admire the extensive mosaics, baths and splendid plumbing. Thanks to fine timing by organiser Marion, there was also a gorgeous display of irises.
Lunch in the circular square of the lovely village of Fourcès followed. We were then led to the Château of M and Mme. Alban de Saint-Exupéry, who very kindly showed us round its treasures. Its walls are adorned by Aubusson tapestries, family portraits dating back to the 17th century and a huge original by the school of David, showing Marie-Therèse, the lone surviving daughter of Louis XVI, fleeing into exile. All this was within a classic château layout comparable to that in Henri IV’s Nérac nearby, but extended to avoid the rigours of the gersois winter.
Wine tasting is a regular category of event for OUS SW France. It provides the opportunity to investigate and indeed savour the wide variety of wines that exist in this, one of the great wine-producing regions of the world.
Our visit to Lou Gaillot at Casseneuil (thanks to Jeremy James) enabled us to investigate and enjoy the results of ‘bio’ practices. This vineyard is outside the main appellations, on flat sandy land and a gentle slope by the Lot. Its owner, Gilles Pons, gave an exceptionally lucid presentation of the production processes and enabled us to understand the specific challenges that the commitment to ‘bio’ involves. We were intrigued by the post-WW2 concrete vats in the chai (no longer is use).
A convivial degustation and lunch followed and from the writer’s limited sample of members, we were keen buyers of the ‘Reserve’ wine.
This year’s Boat Race victory by the Dark Blues was particularly appreciated by those of us who met the crews last January at their training session on the waters of the Lot.
The 2015 edition of this event took place on 4th January. It had the added bonus of actually having more time to talk to crew members and their coaches over a protein-packed lunch, preceded by an apéritif.
Thanks to Brian and Liz Berks for their organisation, we were able once again to make the AGM an event worth attending.
At the Priory of Mesnil St. Martin at Montaut de Villeréal (47), members and guests were able to enjoy a fine catered lunch and then hear a Chopin concert by the owner of the Priory and concert pianist and teacher, Emmanuel Laloë-Ferrer.
This was followed by the lighter touch of Stanley Hanks with songs about London and from his native Costa Rica.
It’s a long time since I (or any of us) were addressed as “élèves”; it brought me a smile and fleeting feeling of youth when our host M. Lafargue at his Ferme Auberge welcomed the “élèves d’Oxford” to his unpretentious salle à manger for a high quality lunch created from his own produce.
Before this long and sociable repast, 20 OUS members, partners and guests assembled in the bijou village of Lagraulet du Gers, admired the rather bizarre water-tower-cum work-of-art (now a gîte) and shivered in the unseasonal cold, before the main event.
Mme. Martine welcomed us to the chai of Domaine le Grand Chemin and explained patiently the processes involved in creating vintages of Vieil Armagnac (no blended versions here) before warming us up with a tasting session. Apéros made from eau de vie and Schweppes, a 2002 and a 1985 Armagnac, and canapés of rilletes, were all plentiful and well received.
The restoration of a ruined chateau in the heart of the village is nearing completion and is soon to open as a four-star hotel “Castel Pierre”; we were invited inside to admire the quality of materials and workmanship by the enthusiastic (if naïve?) young couple who had put two years labour and a princely sum into the project.
Our thanks are offered to Kathy Jarman, who has had her holiday home nearby for 25 years, for organising the visit and making it a success.
Our group of 30 visited Josephine Baker’s Chateau des Milandes on 26th June, courtesy of Tony Tucker. A fascinating tour of this 15th century Chateau, restored in the 20th century after centuries of disuse, and home of the American-born entertainer Josephine Baker from 1937 to 1968 was followed by lunch and a well-presented display of predatory birds. Josephine Baker’s story is well documented, but still remarkable as a major stage star in revues of the 20s and 30s, who then used her wealth extravagantly and immensely generously at Milandes, modernising the village and adopting eleven children. Then as a member of the French Secret Service in World War II she earned the Legion d’Honneur, and became a major participant in Civil Rights demonstrations in the 1960s. The I-Spy prize goes to Richard O’Neill for spotting the pocket-free ‘Irish’ billiard table’ and the raptor photography prize goes to Pip Kirby.