Last year around this time we had just completed our second move in Europe, from Montpellier in the south of France to Toulouse, a city still in the south but more inland and a short drive from the Pyrenees.While it is undeniable that these moves have been exciting, they have also been some of the most stressful and anxiety-filled times of our lives. So many people have told me that they look at the lives of adventure we are leading, and, while to deny we are anything but lucky would be ludicrous, the coordination of a life of constant moving while done in a foreign language, a foreign system of bureaucracy, and a foreign place, all whilst dragging our ever increasingly heavy suitcases behind is still difficult.
Our move to Toulouse was extra anxiety-inducing as we were on the cusp of being homeless, living in a professor’s house while he was at a conference and praying that we found an apartment before he returned. Though we had spent a solid month contacting rentals in Toulouse rarely did we hear back from the landlord or agent, and, as the day for our move from the professor’s house came ever closer, panic was setting in.
It was during this period of stress that we had the most welcome and distracting guests in the form of the Frenchman’s father and step-mother who took a holiday to France during October. They brought us chocolates and much-needed backpacks and explored the area with us. One of these adventures was to the Limoux wine region just south of Carcassonne. It was here, at the Benediction monastery of Saint-Hilaire, in 1531 that the first sparkling wine was produced in the abbey’s cellars.
Truth be told, I quite dislike Champagne. Perhaps it was that game of Champagne pong in which I once unfortunately participated or the memories of the night when my Atlanta girlfriends and I decided to drink a bottle of warm Champagne for someone’s birthday in a parking lot outside of a Mexican restaurant while waiting for our table. Either way, it hurts my tummy and, frankly, does not taste very good. The monks’ sparkling discovery, the Blanquette de Limoux, however, was surprisingly delicious, subtly sweet and not overwhelmingly bubbly.
The abbey itself has a sad history of mismanagement and downfall. Founded in 6th century, the church and, later, abbey, survived for more than ten centuries before closing. It was around the time that the monks began creating their sparkling wine in the 16th century that the abbey came under the control of a commendatory abbot and, as a result, began to be ruled by a succession of wealthy aristocratic abbots who ignored their duties – perhaps focusing a bit too much on the bubbly – and brought the abbey into decline and closure within 200 years. The most beautiful part of the abbey is the 16th century painted ceiling of the apartment of these aristocratic abbots, whom it appears used the funds of their wine-making business to paint coats of arms and symbols above their beds.