Walks in the beautiful Burgundy countryside have lengthened along with the days, writes Nina Caplan
In France, there is no emergency serious enough to close the local bakery, so it was a measure of the pandemic’s gravity when ours reduced its opening hours. For now, if we want bread in the afternoons, our preferred option is a 25-minute drive to Sombernon’s even better bakery – a journey that has, happily, been permitted since May 11.
Before that, even a walk around my neighbourhood – the small town of Vitteaux, in the part of Burgundy with very few vines, although even Covid-19 cannot affect the wine supply – required a signed form with the reason for my “displacement”, the date and time. For exercise, only an hour, within a radius of 1km (0.62 miles), was permitted.
With the good café offering giant pots of takeaway couscous but otherwise closed, the bakery became the hub of local life, a croissant or gougère (the Burgundian cheese puff) the only other gastronomic treat that wasn’t home-cooked. The morning bonjour to Madame la Boulangère was the extent of conversation outside the family – unless I got stopped by gendarmes checking my form was in order.
Now that restrictions have loosened, we occasionally venture further – to Dijon, the wineries of the Yonne or the vastly more famous vineyards south of medieval Beaune – but mainly, we continue exploring Vitteaux. Our walks have lengthened along with the days and encroaching summer has intensified the deep greens of the surrounding hills and the creamy stone of old town houses.
The pretty little river dips away from the still-quiet main road, bypassing a field of friendly goats; the two lavoirs – roofed wash-houses where women once gathered to do laundry – turn out to be at least four. There are stone crosses dotted around town, as brazen as the little Virgin Marys burrowed into house walls are discreet, and with a little imagination I can transport myself back to an era when the church at the top of my road had the power that the town hall has now, and basic cleanliness required more effort than even a lockdown demands of me.
Wherever I walk, I quickly reach countryside. Beyond that church and the junior school that each of my four stepchildren has attended in turn, the fields stretch towards tiny Posanges, with its improbably gargantuan turreted castle. Past the defunct 17th-century convent, where a mysterious hollow beside the great front door may once have received illegitimate babies (or so my imagination tells me, although I have actually seen such a thing, at a convent in Quebec City), the road lifts beside a meadow, and lambs totter up to nuzzle my hand. Hills reach towards a sky inhabited by kestrels, and the houses become swathes of wheat that have greened then goldened as we wait for this strange episode to end. I’m a city girl: I’ve never watched plants grow before. I’m surprised to find I enjoy it.
In the town square, the giant public oven awaits August’s Fête de la Brioche, a daylong festival where hundreds of airy yolk-yellow loaves are baked and sold, stalls offer cheap champagne or burgundy and the town band plays, surprisingly well. Will it happen this year? We hope. And so, no doubt, does Madame la Boulangère, since a day when the whole town makes bread is surely her idea of a holiday.