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Touring France with a French Wine Passport

by Bernard O'Shea

July 14: A mob is marching towards the citadel, looking purposeful and determined. Dark clouds hover, and there’s an ominous rrr-rumble of thunder. Non, sorry, not thunder – it’s their tummies rrr-rumbling. An army marches on its stomach and these foot-soldiers are hungry, rrreally hungrrrrry. And on French territory, as you probably know, you have to rrrroll your Rs. Stomachs growl with a lot of guttural grrrrr.

The French brigade has set up camp on the low ground before the sandstone fortress. Tricolour flags adorn their tents; red, white and blue banners flutter from poles.

The camp has been barricaded off. But there are a few narrow entry points, manned by guards who don’t look French at all: they must be mercenaries from the Foreign Legion. Undeterred, the mob advances; they can smell food. Competitive instincts take over: it’ll be first come, first served. They start to stampede. Hopelessly outnumbered, the guards meekly stand aside. In no time the camp is overrun. To the victors the spoils! The 2022 Bastille Festival in Sydney is in full swing.

Lining up for French Kisses and crepes and other delights.

Food glorious food

The crowd’s been lured by the program’s promise of “a culinary journey through France’s most loved regional food specialties such as The Raclette and Fondue from the Alps, The Choucroute and The flammkuchen from the East of France, Crepes and some tasty cheeses from Normandy or Brittany”.

“Good evening, Sydney, welcome to the French festival, come and get your French escargots, your French onion soup, your crème brûlée and your profiteroles!” yells a French restaurateur who has come all the way from Brisbane to set up a stall here. He’s doing a roaring trade.

Mussels in steaming creamy sauce, with ‘French fusion’ breads.

The fusion confusion

Not all the food is French though: tribes from other countries have invaded the camp under the guise of French fusion food: there’s fried chicken and corn on the cob with Cajun garlic butter seasoning from New Orleans, big pans of paella from Spain, French Colombiano hot buns, hearty German sausages, stroopwafels from the Netherlands and – much to my delight – pasteis de nata, Portugal’s delicious custard tarts.

The queues for the most appealing food on a chilly winter night – molten cheese in crusty cob bread bowls, pans of sizzling creamy mussel soup, baked camembert cheese with honey, rosemary, garlic confit and a bread roll – are long, so I opt for a quick and easy Savoyard hot dog. Tonight I’m keen to do the French wine trail, and for that it’s best to get the festival’s French Wine Passport.

Documentation for drinkers.

Figures of eight

This year eight different regions are featured at the Bastille Festival: Bordeaux, Languedoc, Provence, the Rhône Valley, Burgundy and Beaujolais, Normandy (which was showcasing cider), ‘Sparkling Wine’ and ‘Beer’, which would be Alsace-Lorraine up north. The wines on offer on average cost between $10 and $13 per glass, but at the passport office you can get papers entitling you to four wine tastings for $33, or eight for $55, with a branded wine ‘glass’ (plastic actually, but better to use one that you can keep than use four instant disposables) included. Une bonne affaire, or a good bargain, as the French would say.

I head straight away for the south of France, Languedoc and Provence. In part, it’s a nostalgia trip. In my university days, I spent two weeks in each region hosted by families in Montpellier and Toulon. In those days, though, my go-to drink was a pastis (aniseed-flavoured liquors such as Pernod, Ricard or Ouzo). Now I wanted to sample the wines from the region, to see what I had missed back in the early 1980s.

Pleasing to the palate

The pinot noir from the Languedoc region went very well with the lingering taste of my exotic hot dog, and I like the cute piglet on the label. The house of the family I stayed with on the outskirts of Montpellier was surrounded by vines, and I raised my glass to them. They had treated me kindly, taking me and a fellow visiting student from Germany on trips inland to the bustling city of Toulouse – passing the famous castle walls of Carcassonne in the middle of the night, but alas did not have the time to stop, and on a separate trip down the coast to Sète (a lovely port city) and Agde.

Carcassonne’s mighty fortress.

Red alert

Over two nights (yes, I came back for more – there are 70-plus food stalls so you’ve got to grab the baguettes by the horns and try as much as you can. Entry is free, by the way) I sample the passport-linked reds from Bordeaux, the Rhône Valley, and Burgundy and Beaujolais, plus another non-passport red from Languedoc.

I might be biased, but Languedoc wines got the top score from me.

Sweet life at the Bastille Festival

Now it’s time for dessert. Oh my god, mon dieu! There are so many sugary temptations in the tents. Nougat, macaroons of all flavours, doughnut balls doused in chocolate or Nutella sauce, Biscoff-loaded and Reese-loaded cheesecakes, the stroopwafels (middle picture, below) chocolate eclairs, strawberry eclairs, meringue eclairs…

Alas, the Portuguese custard tarts have sold out for the second night in a row before I can get to them, but I’m keen to try Brisbane guy’s crème brûlée – and it turns out to be a great choice.

On to Provence…

What to wash down dessert with? The Charmes 2020 Château Les Mesclances rosé from Provence. This was to take me back to Toulon, where I had stayed with another French family in 1981. Often overlooked by tourists who converge on Nice, Marseilles or Cannes instead, it’s a striking city nevertheless.

Perhaps one reason Toulon is a bit off the tourist trail is that it’s impressive harbour is the principal base of the French navy. Pleasure craft have to pay second fiddle.

Toulon has the only cable car on the Mediterranean coast.

A mountainous region makes a stunning backdrop to the city – there are five peaks collectively nicknamed ‘The Mounts of Toulon‘. The most popular and famous is Mount Faron – take the cable car and marvel at the views.

Cheers to the Bastille Festival. See you again next year. TTW

Photos by Bernard O’Shea except for: top aerial photo and right-hand dessert pic courtesy of the Bastille Festival. Montpellier photo by Ennelise Napoleoni-Bianco/Pixabay. Toulon photo by Schubidu/Pixabay. Carcassonne photo by Hans Braxmeier/Pixabay

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