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le Mas Blanc writer’s retreat and wine bar

Another paradise. I’m on the edge of the Cevennes in south-central France, in a bed-sitting room in what was formerly a centuries-old barn, a stone’s throw from Isabel’s farmhouse. This attic space has been set up specifically for writers – besides bed, fridge, microwave and all the food one could need for breakfast, there’s a comfortable reading chair, a big desk with printer, internet, pencils and pens, and shelves full of reference books and reading material. Best of all, there’s a Juliet balcony with a huge window through which the morning sun shines, lots of other windows, and a terrace below with chairs and tables, under a magnificent tree and beside – yes – a babbling brook. Is all this real? Mais oui. And it’s now available for writers to rent.

On Saturday afternoon, Isabel and a friend, Cliff, came to pick me up at Lynn’s. Here’s the backstory: in 1976, when I was an actress in Vancouver, I was hired to read one of Isabel Huggan’s wonderful “Elizabeth Stories” on CBC radio. We met later at some writerly event, she said she liked my reading, and we became friends, but she moved out of the country. When I’d moved to Toronto and Lynn and Denis came from France to stay with us, Lynn invited over her dear friend Ken, who became one of my dearest friends too. And Ken, it turned out, is Isabel’s first cousin. So after many years, Isabel and I reconnected through Ken, and also her daughter Abby who works at my local farmer’s market. Are you following this convoluted trail? This is how I ended up here, and how much fun it was that Lynn and Isabel, who’d been hearing about each other for decades from me and Ken, finally met on a gorgeous Saturday afternoon in Montpellier.
We did a quick grocery shop – how hard it is to move quickly through a French supermarket, a world of delectable wonders – and drove away, stopping at a vineyard a few kilometres from Isabel’s for a wine-tasting. Gosh, she had to twist my arm to agree to that. We pulled into the yard of an ancient farm with giant shiny tanks all around; the family, it transpired, has been making wine for five generations. Five generations. The son has studied wine-making in Chile and other places and has brought new ideas back to his father; both men were on tap, so to speak, to introduce us to their wines. Isabel has been buying from them for years. Domaine du Grand Chemin – check them out at Watch for this vintner, my friends – their products are superb.
We started with whites, tasting the difference between sauvignon blanc, chardonnay (the most popular white grape in the world) and viognier – one taste more expansive, one tighter, one sharper. And then – be still my beating heart – the rosés and the reds, the vintner spitting out what he drank, but the rest of us … not. He poured us a rosé called Incroyable, which was. His delicious reds are a mix of grapes – pinot noir, shiraz, grenache. We had a cabernet sauvignon which was not aged in oak, others that had that smokey oakey taste. He told us wine consumption is going down, which was a surprise to me. Thirty years ago, the French used to consume 110 litres per year per person, he said; now it’s 50 litres. Canadians – less than 10 litres! All that beer. I was ashamed. I’m doing my best to up that number by myself, I said. He told us about trying to get the attention of the LCBO, without much success. I do hope he succeeds one day.
He explained that a glass of good wine has three noses. You pour and swirl once, then sniff, then swirl again and sniff, and then again, swirl and sniff. If – I hope I get this right – the wine’s smell explodes after the third swirl, that means it should be stored. If it smells the same, it’s ready to drink. The swirling aerates the wine and … well, he explained it well, but I was too busy drinking to take notes. His father was pouring for some French twenty-somethings, who were saying all the correct things about what they were tasting. The Canadians were saying, “Wow.” “That’s really good.” “Really really good.”
Which is nice too.
Staggering only slightly from the effect of all those little sips, not to mention our clinking purchases, we drove on to the Mas Blanc, Isabel’s farm nestled in the countryside, amidst – what else? – mile upon mile of vineyards. Her house is stunning, with low beams, a big fireplace, modern kitchen, scattered piles of books and magazines. And then she showed me my home for the next few days, this little aerie. I fell in love.
So far, however, I have to report that getting any work done has been a struggle. I have been forced to have aperitif and then dinner with Isabel and her friend. Had to sit on her patio overlooking the river, drinking, eating cheese and talking – much of the time, about writing – listening to the frogs croak, and then sit inside to dine and talk some more. Harsh. This morning, awakened by birdsong and sunshine, I did not settle down for a hard day at the computer – we went off to one of my favourite events, a marché aux puces, a flea market, in nearby Anduze. I actually did get bitten by a flea. Cliff bought some old tools – very old tools – of which there were many. Much much junk. And then we went into the village to sit at one of the cafés under the knobby plane trees on the village square, and to meet up with some of Isabel’s neighbours and friends. As we walked there along the narrow road, I heard a man say, “Ca y’est, c’est l’ete!” And indeed, today was suddenly summer, really hot, blazing sun.
Back to the Mas Blanc, ready to fall asleep, but did sit on the terrace and do some work, and went for a long walk along the country roads through the vineyards. Back to Skype with Chris in Vancouver – surreal, really, his head, from the other side of the world, chatting on my desk in the Cevennes. And then another meal, more fascinating talk, drinking the Cuvee JMF 2008 that I’d bought for us at the vineyard. One of the best wines I’ve ever drunk, cost 9 euros 40 – about $12. Expensive. The rosé I’ll take back to Lynn and Denis cost $6.
I know, I can hear you weeping out there. As I will be, when I have to go back to the LCBO. Ah, this inimitable country and its delicious magic.



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I began keeping a journal at the age of nine. Nearly fifty years later, I started this online journal, sharing reflections, reviews, updates, and the occasional secret.

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