The whole of France is sweltering in an unprecedentedly early and violent heatwave and though we have not hit 45C (113F) like the poor city of Nîmes, it has been a steady 37C (99F) for the past week and the garden is gasping. We live indoors with the shutters closed from early morning until sundown, when we venture out to water the plants. The blackcurrants are cooking on their bushes and the swiss chard leaves are crisply toasting in the sun, only the tomatoes and courgettes seem to appreciate the heat and have shot up and out in all directions.
So we were lucky that ten days ago it was ten degrees cooler as we set out to mark the paths of the annual hike for the Ardéchoise.
For the fourth year running, Damien at the Tourist Office of St Félicien, where the cycling event is based, has organised three one day hikes for people who are visiting but not partaking in the event, or who are having a day off from cycling. The aim is to show off the diversity and beauty of the surrounding area, to involve the four neighbouring villages, St Victor, Pailharès, Bozas and Arlebosc and to feature the delicious food of our numerous artisan producers.
Each day the group sets out from St Fé by bus to start their hike in one of the villages, with the opportunity to cheer on the cyclists as they pass through. They then hike to a farm for lunch and continue back to St Fé, over an average distance of about 14 km. Damien has cleverly managed to vary the routes every year, since quite a few people return, and on this occasion, instead of lunching at a farm, we were privileged to be invited by M le Comte and Madame to the Château de Chazotte in Arlebosc.
On the two days preceding the event we marked out the hiking route, some of the time in the company of our friend Jacques from St Félicien, who was able to introduce us to a way back to his village which we had not previously known about. It has been fun over the years to discover new paths linking us to St Fé. There is a considerable hill to negotiate, but Damien is a dab hand at planning out routes and, taking advantage of the numerous paths and tracks linking remote farms, putting together short cuts and wonderful itineraries.
In all the years we have been here we have never had occasion to step into the precincts of the château in Arlebosc, which has been home to the same family for hundreds of years, and although we occasionally run into Madame at the boulangerie we have never, as it were, been formally introduced. We rolled up at 10 am and presented ourselves in the courtyard. The de Chazottes turned out to be a charming couple and they showed us into their magnificent barn where the hikers’ lunch was to be held.
We were soon busy with the other volunteers, setting up tables and preparing the lunch. Everything came from local farms: caillettes (a local speciality made with minced meat, swiss chard and herbs) and jacket potatoes with tomme en salade (a soft cheese, mixed with grilled rape seed oil and garlic, which sounds alarming but is actually delicious). There was country bread from the baker at Colombier le Vieux, who also provided an excellent bilberry tart for dessert (bilberries grow abundantly in the woods between us and St Fé). And for those who wished there was artisan beer from St Victor and coffee to accompany the tart – altogether a pretty good lunch, which was greatly appreciated by the fifty hungry hikers.
But what made this occasion really special was the warm and unaffected presence of the chatelains, who sat themselves down with the walkers and chatted away throughout the meal about their house and family. There had just been a grand celebration for the Count’s 90th birthday. The entire tribe had been present, (indeed we had seen them all trooping into church for a special mass on a very wet Sunday the previous week) and, together with balloons and other decorations the impressive family tree was stilled pinned to the walls, documenting the generations from the 18th Century all the way to the current 46 great grand children.
At the end of the meal M de Chazotte made a short speech and then sang a traditional Ardéchois folksong, with his wife encouraging us all to join in the chorus. Then we all trooped out into the forecourt to hear a brief history of the château, during which he told us that he, his father and grandfather had all been born in the house and had run the winegrower’s estate. It was time for a group photo, thanks and farewells.
The walkers still had many kilometres, mostly uphill, before them, but Monsieur was not going to leave it at that! No one could resist the invitation to visit the cellars, which he refers to as the fifth floor of his home and which are reputed to be magnificent.
We skipped the cellars and headed back to the barn to clear up. Our friend Elizabeth, who was born in the village and is very active in all things cultural, has promised to organise a private visit for us, during which we are hoping to learn much more about the history of the Château de Chazotte. Monsieur is known to be an unstoppable fount of information and we can’t wait to hear everything he has to tell.