Why should people dole out sustenance? Simply to try to recruit customers. A lifetime convert to a particular cheese or champagne represents considerable future cash flow. I reckoned the new duty-free allowances would add more weight to this economic argument and that the French would be falling over themselves to ply me with drink. Starting this year, visitors can take home 100 bottles of wine without Customs raising an eyebrow. It seemed reasonable to surmise that every French wine merchant is keen to entertain people who may be in the market for an entire car-bootful of vin de pays.
I was warned that eating would be trickier. 'The French respect food far too much to just give it away,' according to an English expatriate resident in Burgundy. I put aside a plan to pig out on truffles, and set my sights on regional specialities: oysters from Poitou-Charentes, nougat from Montelimar, cheese from almost anywhere. The nougat was a complete failure. Montelimar has hundreds of nougat vendors, but none offered tastings, on the reasonable grounds, presumably, that everyone knows what nougat tastes like. In France there is no such thing as a free lunch.
Alcoholics face no shortage of temptation. Some of the classier places now demand money upfront before you sip (or guzzle), but even on the last Sunday of Lent you could stay permanently intoxicated courtesy of the liquor industry. And though you may end up hungry, woozy and out-of-pocket, the quest for a free morsel - and something to wash it down - turns up some glorious parts of France.
The Avenue du Champagne sounded like the perfect start. At number 20 is Moet et Chandon, while the house of Mercier is along the road at number 70. Yet the setting does not match the product. The avenue turns out to be a dreary street in the dowdy town of Epernay, plonked on the river Marne about 70 miles east of Paris.
All the action takes place underground. In cellars which stretch for miles, a slick tour tells the story of champagne. Slide shows and human beings combine to show the creation of the product and to justify its claim to uniqueness. The chalky soil and cool climate, you are assured, mate perfectly only in this region of France. The offspring of this affaire, black grapes, are crushed with tender loving care, so that the dark skin does not taint the white juice.
The double fermentation which creates the sparkle has traditionally been the labour-intensive part of the operation. The bottles are racked and twisted by a quarter-turn everyday to ease the sediment to the neck, whence it is frozen and ejected. These days, instead of wizened old cellarmen with arthritic wrists, shiny new machines are used. The resulting fizz has launched a million ships and sealed a billion marriages, and visitors are invited to sample a glass or two. This, the crucial part of the operation as far as I and most other visitors were concerned, was monitored with a strict eye to portion control.
The story is much the same at both Mercier and Moet, though Mercier has the added bonus of a little electric train which trundles around the cellars. Visit both for the chance to make a comparative tasting of two grandes marques champagnes. There is, however, a catch: each guided tour costs Fr20 ( pounds 2.50), so the companies are not giving much away. Neither do the 'factory shops' offer particular bargains. A check at my local Tesco revealed prices only a pound or two higher, even after the bottle has been transported and taxed. And though the drink may not be mass-produced, the tourists feel that they are.
A more pleasing encounter with sparkling wine can be found on the Loire, 150 miles south-west of Paris in the town of Saumur. The town itself, and the surrounding countryside, are winsomely pretty. Better still, the caves are real holes-in-the-side-of-hills variety. They were created when the limestone, known as tufa, was quarried and carted off to build structures such as Westminster Abbey.
Saumur is produced using the same meticulous method as champagne. Its proponents maintain that the vineyards of the Loire impart it with a character and quality equal to that of Champagne. The house of Bouvet Ladubay sprouts out of the rockface to welcome visitors. A tour costs only 62p, and the tasting lasts as long as you care to linger. I gladly parted with pounds 10 for a bottle of Tresor, a golden, oak-aged sparkler superior to anything I tasted in Champagne. Along the same road, in the next-cave-but- one, is the Mushroom Museum. No free food, but you do receive an education in fungiculture.
Freebie rating: Champagne***
Education value: both**
The search for a snail
Dijon looked like the freeloading taster's heaven. The largest town in Burgundy, it sits gracefully at the head of the Cote d'Or - the 'golden slope' - which produces arguably the best wines in the world. I was there mainly for the prospect of food: snails, cheese and a dollop of mustard.
Le moutard was first on my list. The spiritual home of Dijon mustard is an ancient shop called Maille on the main street. It is like an apothecary's den, shrouded in rich, dark wood and full of strange concoctions. A faded certificate shows Napoleonic approval for the product. Mustard is sold in many shades and sizes, from white wine to green pepper, but only for cash. Non, I was told firmly, il n'y a pas une degustation. The same rule applied at the snail shop at 12 rue Bannelier, opposite the wrought-iron central market. Next door, thankfully, was the Palais du Fromage, a shoebox of a shop with a sweetheart of a shopkeeper. She patiently talked me through a tasting of three of the region's cheeses, culminating in the exquisitely creamy Abbaye Citeaux. I bought half a pound.
More free cheese came my way in the local hypermarket. The notion of surviving solely on hand-outs having by now evaporated, I was buying some bread and fruit to accompany my purchase. A gruyere promotion was taking place in the store, but I could manage only three cubes without causing a stir. In terms of sustenance-per-centime, the best gastronomic bargain in Dijon turns out to be at McDonald's, where a Big Mac, large fries and an industrial-size soft drink costs Fr30 ( pounds 3.75).
I hoped for more success with wine. A guidebook suggested free tastings were available at Bourgogne Tour, but this turned out to be a travel agency and offered only free sweets to people booking packages to Morocco. So I dived into a 14th-century cellar in search of oenological education. La Cave du Clos runs tutored tastings of the region's wines, and I was guided through three vintages. The hierarchy of appellations and crus was explained with large-scale maps. A pounds 3 lesson brought winemaking to life.
Freebie rating: Cheese ***
wine *** mustard and snails nil.
Education value: ****
Red, red wine
To visit Beaune is to join a conspiracy of inebriation. In the centre of this prosperous town you cannot move for invitations to sample the wines of Burgundy. Every enterprise on rue de l'Hotel-Dieu seems devoted to handing out glasses of Cote de Nuits and Cotes de Beaune. They can tell an amateur from the moment he picks up the glass. To retain any plausibility, you have to examine the colour of the wine against a white background, sniff it, swirl it round the glass, sniff again and finally taste it, sloshing it around the mouth and trying hard to spit it out afterwards (a wine expert will explain the purpose of this ritual). Anyone who treats fine chardonnays as if they were lukewarm liebfraumilch will be run out of town.
I wondered if a less-favoured location would be less harsh on beginners, so I headed 20 miles south to Chalon- sur-Saone. The local producers run a co-operative Maison des Vins de la Cote Chalonnaise. Last Saturday they all seemed to have turned up to check the operation. I grabbed a glass of something red, wished I had not just brushed my teeth, made a tasting note which read 'Roast beef and gravy', and left them drinking the profits as I explored the town.
Chalon may be behind its neighbour in the wine stakes, but it led the world in photography. A local man, Nicephore Niepce, invented the camera. His first creation can be seen in a modest museum on the riverbank, along with one of the cameras used by an Apollo crew on the moon.
Freebie rating: Beaune ***
Education value: *
The food of love?
The rolling hills of Poitou-Charentes flatten as you head towards the Atlantic. The landscape straggles bravely onwards, merging with the sea in a windswept blur. It provides an excellent definition of the word 'bleak', yet amid this desolation resides much of the French oyster industry.
These putative aphrodisiacs are nurtured with great care in the unromantic surroundings of the village of Marennes. The knack of cultivating oysters from larvae to bite-size chunks involves moving them at the right moment between waters of different salinity. The salt marshes, protected bays and inland pools of the region provide a natural farm.
Small kiosks on the road which threads between the sea and the salt flats advertise degustation, although pedants would argue there is hardly a chance actually to taste an oyster as it slips down the throat. Sample one only if you are prepared to buy half a dozen. The oyster market is depressed after a scare involving a parasite which attacked the oysters and rendered them poisonous. The threat has been eradicated, but there is still some consumer resistance. In an effort to overcome it, oysters have been handed out free at railway stations in Paris. Even if you can get free oysters much nearer home, it is worth venturing to this curious corner of France to see a magnificent walled port from which the sea, and most of the people, have long since retreated. The town of Brouage, a triumph of 17th-century military engineering, is now eerily empty, a magnificent folly.
Freebie rating: *
Education value: *
You smell the town before you see it. As the train approaches Cognac, it plunges into a haze of brandy fumes; 3 per cent of the stock of liquor evaporates through the pores of the oak casks every year. This is known as the 'angel's share'. Not only can you smell it, you can see evidence of alcohol everywhere. The grey medieval stonework has been stained black by a microscopic breed of fungus, torula coniacensis. It thrives on alcoholic vapour, darkening any surface on which it settles. Buildings storing brandy are especially vulnerable.
The locals proclaim their town as la Ville au Coeur du Monde, but to reach 'the heart of the world' requires a solid grasp of the intricacies of French railways' branch-line timetables.
Almost any chais - cognac house - allows visitors to look around and sample the product, but Hennessy tells the best story. Richard Hennessy, a well-to-do-Irishman, settled in the town in the 18th century. He enjoyed the local eau-de-vie, made by distilling white wine, and began to export it to pals back in Ireland. The drink travelled so well that it actually improved by the mile, since the oak barrels he used imparted the spirit with colour and flavour. He began a business which is still run by his family. Ageing eau-de-vie in Limousin oak, and blending it with care, became Cognac's raison d'etre.
The tour includes two films, a stroll around the premises and a boat trip on the Charentes to one of the warehouses. Barrels of spirits produced 50 years ago or more are blended with younger distillations to maintain a smooth and consistent style. I now understand why I have been unable to finish my bottle of Albanian brandy; even though it boasts the same number of stars as Hennessy VS, I doubt if it is produced with the same panache.
Not only is the tour free - you also get an excellent going-home package including two arty postcards and a 3cl bottle of brandy. Cheers.
Freebie rating: ****
Education value: ***
The best free tasting
to be found anywhere
. . . is about 2,000 miles from France. In the transit lounge at Iceland's Keflavik airport, you can sample unlimited quantities of delicious smoked salmon and gravadlax. It almost makes it worth changing planes there.
Freebie rating: *****
No stars for education or location.
WHEN dialling from the UK, precede each eight-digit telephone number with 010 33.
Bouvet Ladubay, Saumur; 41 50 11 12. Open 9am-12 noon and 2-6pm daily, admission 5F.
La Cave du Clos, 3 rue Jeannin, Dijon; 80 67 64 62. Book in advance, as it is sometimes closed for private functions. Tutored tasting 25F.
Hennessy, 1 rue de la Richonne, Cognac; 45 82 52 22. Open 8-11am and 2-5pm from Monday to Friday, admission free.
Maison des Vins de la Cote Chalonais, Promenade Sainte-Marie, Chalon-sur-Saone; 85 41 64 00.
Mercier, 70 Avenue de Champagne, Epernay; 26 54 75 26. Open 9.30-11am and 2-4.30pm from Monday to Friday; 9.30-11am and 2-4pm on Saturdays; 2-5pm on Sundays. Admission 20F.
Moet et Chandon, 20 Avenue de Champagne, Epernay; 26 54 84 23. Open 9.30-11 or 11.30am and 2-4.30pm from Monday to Saturday; 2-3.30pm on Sundays. Admission 20F.
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