Ay-Champagne – My hometown

Let me introduce Ay-Champagne, my hometown and source of much background for my tales, mostly true but often enhanced by the ever fermenting action of time passing.  I discovered on my first trip back that all things in my imagination had grown by a factor of three.  In other words the physical world of my youth was greatly enhanced by a fanciful imagination.  As for the emotional content of my life, well, the good blossomed in felicity and tragedy was thankfully  veiled in the mist of a fading memory.

Classed a national historic monument, I point to Saint Brice, the 15th Century Gothic church where I dutifully served the weekday 6 a.m. mass as a half-asleep altar boy.  I do believe the hard knot on my knees is a direct result of kneeling on cold, hard granite steps in front of the altar.

(NOTE: To improve your viewing experience click on the photos below to enlarge – once for medium, twice to zoom in.)

Beyond the Marne Valley on the opposite ‘versant‘ is the famed Cote des Blancs.  As Ay is famed for its fine Pinot Noir, Chardonnay dominates the vineyards seen in the hazy distance.  Rising from the alluvial soil of the valley haze is almost inevitable and makes for difficult long-distance photography.

A view of Ay from the hill directly above.  Beyond is the historic Marne Valley a natural access route to Paris taken by many an invading army.

Fine statuary that wasn’t destroyed by the frenzied mobs of the Révolution and the bombings during World War 1 and World War II – art somehow endures through the centuries no thanks to man’s savagery.

Interior of the church where I spent many an hour kneeling in front of the altar as a pious altar boy – if only I’d remained that way!

When I was serving there were three priests in permanence in Ay, a Doyen, a second priest and often a postulant or newly ordained padre sent to learn ‘the ropes’ from the rather formidable Monsignor.  Now the priest lives in another town and only manages to make the rounds on a weekly basis.  No more daily masses at six, vespers in the early evening or any other time.  It’s a crying shame that the calling to serve God has fallen so dramatically; one wonders what the future has in store for those still clinging on to the faith of their ancestors.

Ay is justly proud of its splendid pipe organ.  The pure sounds it generates vibrates throughout the vaulted ceiling and in the hands of a fine organist sure to elicit shivers.  The instrument first was installed in 1750, then was ‘modernized’ in 1898 to finally be thoroughly refurbished in 1990-91.

The hillsides above Ay are the almost exclusive domain of the finest Pinot Noir grapes and to a lesser acreage of Chardonnay vineyards.  Ay vineyards are classified as Grand Cru, in other words at the top of the ratings system for the production of Champagne.

If perchance you read ‘Apricot Fever’ this dirt lane was the road to perdition I had to face up to.  Just beyond view, at the bottom of the rise was the ‘orchard of temptation’ and then the return journey in fear and shame.

Below the lateral canal where I spent hours hiding in the reeds with a fishing pole in my hands. eluding my mother’s organized search parties.  God how I hated hearing my name called over and over; she went so far as dragooning my pals to help in the search.  Oh, the humiliation!  Jean H., my best pal usually found me first and then he’d just cough a warning.  I’ve since retained a pronounced liking for long hours spent in solitary peace, a rod in my hand , (an obligatory bottle of wine cooling in the reeds,) along Canada’s isolated rivers, lakes and sea shores.

This fellow fisherman was absolutely fixated on his trembling bobber.  I stood by very quietly watching  hoping he’d get a hit – sure enough, nothing after fifteen minutes and I moved on.  No sooner my back turned, I heard a triumphant, “AH!” Almost immediately followed by a heartfelt, “MERDE!”  Needless to say he blew the catch: fish one – fisherman zero!

Along the same waterway each Saturday local farmers offer their fresh vegetables and assorted meats.  The surrounding area folks come to meet and chat with those from other villages and at the same time plan Sunday’s fare.

Ay’s prize winning ‘Roi du Boudin’ – surely the best blood pudding I’ve had in years and years.  With french fries and a green salad you have a delicious brunch, anytime.  Oh, of course a good red wine to wash it down nicely.

The train station I remember so well but with a fresh coat of paint.  Anytime I went there it was a thrill; imagine, I was going to ‘travel’ at the very least 3 kliks to Epernay or journey to Reims all of 29 kilometres away.  Guaranteed I spent every minute with my nose firmly glued to the window pane spotting the names that sounded so exotic somehow; Rilly la Montagne, Chigny-les-Roses, Maison Blanche.  The latter was the source of great frustration as I never did spot the ‘white house’.

The avenue where I lived except not one of the ancient buildings remain and that’s not a bad thing at all.  The ever growing popularity of Champagne world-wide has brought prosperity to the town and it shows in it’s modern structures and newly widened cross-town thoroughfare.

Do I dare say the absolute, uncontested creators of scrumptious, mouth-watering  patisserie can be found anywhere in the most remote corner of France and my home-town didn’t take a back seat to anyone or any place.  Every day I’m spending in Ay means another visit and to be candid I’d go back every day for a year if I were that fortunate.  Oh, yes, the baguettes were fresh and crispy but that goes without saying, n’est ce pas?

The main business thoroughfare – I remember the establishment at the forefront was a ‘bistro’ that had a couple of billiards table.  My pal and I would sneak in and start playing, quietly, surreptitiously.  The owner would close his eyes for a while and then shoo us away.  I’m pleased to announce Jean kept at it and eventually was crowned co-champion of all of France.  Not bad, Jean, too bad though I wasn’t around to give you a good challenge; instead I hustled a bit of pool in Toronto when I skipped classes.  Oy!

The chestnut trees under which my pals and I played games of tag and soccer except these are a new generation.  The old, magnificent chestnuts of my youth were all chopped down to allow for the widening of the avenue.

The main gate to the former ‘Moulin Bleu’ kindergarten, my true ‘alma mater’.  An exceptional couple intent on preserving this vestige of local lore from the wrecking ball decided to remodel the old house and turn it into a Bed and Breakfast venture.   They also attended the pre-school facility but a few years later than I did.  No doubt there’s a heavy price to pay for immigrating anywhere as one can never recreate the same atmosphere, the indefinite but very real unique aura  of a birthplace.

This photo was taken in a downpour but somehow it captured perfectly  a very blue memory of the long ago past.   I could hear the echoes of childish sing-songs, game playing, giggles and the occasional scraped knee eliciting tears and sobs.  Sweet, dark-maned, Mademoiselle Françoise, soon took care of the pain with a hug and a kiss.  Merçi Mademoiselle!

Would you believe it – the same playroom and same little benches and same best pal!

Yes, I did hear the echoes of our childish laughter chiming sweetly in my ears; or was it the fervent desire to latch on to a better world and time?

The breakfast room where a copious and tasty breakfast was self-served.  No need to watch how much you ate for fear of appearing greedy – no one was looking!

P1010947It seems every town in France can boast of a centuries old structure and Ay is no different.  This well-preserved still lived-in home is claimed to have belonged to a favourite French king, Henri IV.  He apparently enjoyed the local wines and why not be close to the source?

A few kilometres up a few vineyard hills from Ay, Hautvillers, nestled below the Forest de Reims, is a neat village  immensely more important that it’s small size – it was here, at the Abbey d’Hautvillers that 3 centuries ago an ingenious monk invented Champagne.  The méthode champenoise that has directly contributed to the well-being of several thousand vineyard owners and of course the large Champagne houses.  The abbey is seen from below it’s spire looking on the famed Pineau Noir vineyards.
Sadly vocations to the cloth are so lacking the monastery is no longer a place of worship, yet strolling around the grounds there’s an aura of peaceful timelessness and  songbirds seemingly sing better here, really, I’m not dreaming this up.  Just as Dom Perignon was inspired to capture the blissful bubbles that have gladdened countless hearts the world over, so do the birds thrill and whistle better than elsewhere.  When you  make that journey (as you surely must in the happy future), lean under that oak tree, hold your breath and listen, you’ll agree with me, no doubt about it.
I’m pointing to the simple flat marble stone that marks the great man’s resting place. I’d have built a mausoleum fit for a king but on the other hand he was a monk, and such  ostentatiousness, especially in death would have been unwanted by a man who after all gave up the outside world for one of quiet contemplation and prayer.
Seen from Hautvillers my hometown in the mid-foreground and Epernay (where I was born and baptized)  in the left distance, along with a part of the famed Cote des Blancs, so-called as the vineyards are producing almost nothing other than Chardonnay grapes.
By chance came across a procession of locals  celebrating the re-opening of the local school after major renovations.  Any excuse for a parade, right?
How lucky am I? Let me merely inform that Jean, my very dearest childhood friend, is the owner of his own Pinot Noir vineyards and the past Directeur of the Co-operative of the local vineyard owners, those with holdings too small to market their own label pool their first-rate grapes (Ay is top-rated Premier Cru) under the label ‘Champagne de La Brèche‘.  It’s a very fine bubbly indeed and I get to sample, and sample and … yes, sample some more.   All the Champagnes are fine but for my money the Rosé is really splendid – it’s not pushed as they bottle just a small percentage of the overall production, something near one hundred thousand bottles per year.

I couldn’t help but offer you a close look at the famed Ange au Sourire (it adorns a nook above the main entrance to the splendid Reims cathedral, 30 minutes away or twenty if Jean is driving); it is seriously claimed that very   unique, engaging smile is due to having sampled the local bubbly.  Do you see any resemblance to the sparkle in my own eyes?

Magnificent Reims cathedral is the third largest in all of Christendom.   It’s superlative Gothic design and statuary perched on every imaginable nook and cranny give it a lace-like appearance.  Reims is the ‘big city’ of my youth.  A trip there was akin to going to Timbuktu – nah, no comparison, Reims was infinitely better and still retains all of its charm for me.  In time I’ll devote an entire ‘post’ to display its history, culture and especially the several great churches (Jeanne d’Arc crowned the king in the cathedral) and of course the Champagne culture.

Inside a view of the famed Marc Chagal stained glassed windows.

The height and perfect symmetry of the central nave is awe-inspiring. Muted echoes of shuffling feet and whispered prayers is conducive to reflection.

Jean’s lovely wife, Evelyne.  As good as Jean is as a bubbly maker so is she a gourmet cook – imagine the feasting and joyful atmosphere.  Yes, check out my eyes and you can guess I was not suffering from thirst.  You may think,  hmmm… what is he admitting to? Nothing other than I was happy as could be and incidentally, I’ve never been inebriated due to imbibing Champagne.  I guess it’s in my blood.  How lucky am I?  I think I asked that before, didn’t I?

This handsome fellow is son Christof and in keeping with family tradition, after years of study and rigorous apprenticeship, he is now a bona fide ‘oenophile’.  He is an integral cog for a world renowned Champagne house; his is the ultimate responsibility to yearly create a wine that will attest to that house’s long tradition of great Champagnes.

My father worked in the Pommery wine press and I spent countless hours visiting him on the job.  That was one of the great privileges of living in a small town, you were never far from parents and no one thought it inappropriate for a youngster to visit the work place.  I did on occasion cause my father more grief than he deserved, for example the day I almost chopped off a finger or the time a buddy and I (Pierrot who is talked about in An Owling Tale) got drunk at lunch.  Imagine we downed a full bottle of wine and me not even 8 years old.  However, no one made a federal case out of it, rather it was found amusing by his co-workers.  Yeah, but what about my hang-over?

One of the many Champagne House of Ay, discreetly tucked away beyond high walls. Deutz and Ayala are known world wide by Champagne connoisseurs.   I ran around and about these vineyards without suspecting the existence of this particular grand house.

The great Bollinger name needs no introduction to Champagne fanciers the world wide.

Mutigny is a hamlet overlooking Ay a couple kilometres distance.  It is backed by a deep forest and below it boast a magnificent panoramic view of the Marne Valley and the opposite Cote des Blancs.  We had a potato field where now vineyards have taken over as the land is much too valuable for growing mere spuds.  On a hot day I was often set off to bring back water from a well just below the church.  The water was so cool and delicious.  I was happy to see it was still functioning years later.  When I mentioned to a woman who was also filling a large jug she claimed, “This well has been here since for ever and it has never gone dry!  We have running water at home,” she hastened to add, “but we like to use this water for our coffee.”   “That makes sense,” I was just a tad cheeky, “it’s  holy water, after all its right in the shadows of your church.”  “I hadn’t thought of it that way,” she smiled sweetly, “mais après tout pourquoi pas.”  Indeed, why not.  It’s such a French thing to care for such details as getting better quality water for brewing coffee.  I must have picked up some vibes from my long ago days as a water-bearer as I generally only use spring water for my brew.   We parted with a cheerful aurevoir and a wave.

Seen from the vantage of Mutigny is Ay’s ‘suburb’ of Mareuil-sur-Ay, although they’d drown me in a vat of Champagne if they heard me describe their fine village in such an haughty manner.  Well, it really is less than one short kilometre away and after all it is called partially Ay, right? The truth is their part of the canal and nearby Marne River offers better fishing and that’s not negligible by any means.

Flowing peacefully now, the historic Marne River has seen more invading armies than the French populace cares to remember.  The Marne Valley is a natural route for armies marching in from across the Rhine River.

Jean H. the finest friend a man can hope to have waves goodbye – he was my constant companion from kindergarden until I left for shores unknown.  Adieu mon cher ami.

4 responses to “Ay-Champagne – My hometown

  1. A drunk 8-year-old!

  2. Yes, James, indeed I ‘danced with Bacchus’, at that tender age. Of course there’s a totally reasonable explanation and if you believe it then I’m a better ‘fabulist’ than I give myself credit for. I’ll fill you in with all the unsavory details when I post ‘Drunk as a Moufette’ soon as I’ve found the courage to divulge all the sordid details. Nah, it won’t make you nauseous only green with envy.

  3. Hola! I’ve been reading your website for some time now
    and finally got the courage to go ahead and give you a shout
    out from Lubbock Tx! Just wanted to tell you keep
    up the fantastic job!

    • Dear friend, you have no idea how much pleasure I got out of your comment. The writer who doesn’t appreciate words of praise is not yet born. Interesting to note I’ve had some others suggest they are ‘shy’ or as you write requiring ‘courage’ about commenting and thus they don’t. I really don’t see why that should be but I urge anyone who has such feelings to shed them and give us the poor writers the pleasure of your insights and comments. In my case I can also assure that I take any remarks seriously, even those that may be less than complimentary. My desire is to entertain and in some measures to inform as well, so any help towards achieving that goal is welcome. Ciao and keep on commenting, Jean-Michel

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