The Independent Traveler's Newsletter                            PAGE SIX
Not the Andes of Peru  ~ but Llamas in Poitou-Charentes 
                                                                                                                                  by Brian and Margaret Venables

Despite being renowned worldwide as an after dinner drink, the location of Cognac is less well known.  Situated on the River Charente in the west of the département of the same name, even some French only associate the name with this golden elixir, felt slipper and small snails.  The Charente (16), equally an hour from Bordeaux and La Rochelle, has many other attractions ~ and now a new one with llama trekking at Brossac in the south of the département.
Les Lamas de Brossac and friends
At the millennium we took the well-trodden decision to leave Britain, the M25 and stressful living behind and move to the Charente.  The solar panel business, started to keep wolf from the door until the pensions kicked in, was five years before its time, so after a year it had to be closed.  BBC's 'Countryfile' spawned the idea of llama trekking and started six months of research with visits to ten different llama operations in France and the UK. 

The land being too valuable for Cognac feedstock, selling up and finding a suitable property and land was the only route to starting the project.  Brossac, with its sandy beaches around the lake, a village de vacance and many interesting footpaths, including the GR36, all against the backdrop of a wooded vallonné landscape, offered an ideal location and land with potential.  Both the Conseil General and Maire were already striving to share their gentle 'Villages Verts' with the outside world by encouraging other tourist attractions.  Eight llamas were purchased and training began.  The one snag was that a new house had to be built over the winter before 'Les Lamas de Brossac' enterprise could start. 

A face to love!
Les Lamas de Brossac today provides a range of llama-related activities/treks, depending on the clients' requirements, ability and the weather.  The most popular formula comprises a three-hour trek in the morning followed by a Charentais buffet lunch on the terrace looking out over the llama companions of the morning.  Children under nine years old, and some adults, may find a full trek excessive; however,  they can equally enjoy a llama encounter within the llamas' corral where they can feed or stroke the llamas or take them for a walk around the property within the fences.  It's a great photographic opportunity!

Catering on site, associated solely as part of an organized llama activity, ranges from a 'gouter' snack for the children after an encounter to a full specialist Charentais gourmet meal. Versatility and flexibility are our keywords, so we are open to suggestions for anniversaries, hen parties, birthdays and even offer gift vouchers for presents for the person that has everything!  The llamas travel well and can easily be transferred to other locations to trek.  Encounters (one hour) cost from €6 and a three-hour trek with buffet lunch is priced from €35.

PachaAlthough very inquisitive, llamas generate an air of calmness and are non judgmental.  These characteristics make them valuable for animal-assisted activities and therapy.  Working with therapists and care-workers, the llamas are bringing comfort and aid to those less fortunate both at the specialists' residences and in the llamas' corral. 

If you are interested in participating in any llama activities, please note that all visits are by appointment only.  Please phone or e-mail to discuss options. 

Contact Brian and Margaret 
Les Lamas de Brossac  16480 Brossac, France
Phone: from outside France from inside France
web site:

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FRENCH WINE REPORT  ~  Does Technology Pay?

                                                                                                                                            by Rayson Knowles

The praying mantises have returned.  The blue and yellow machines straddling the neat lines of verdant foliage are sucking and flailing the fruit off the reluctant vines. The vendange is here again ~ the raison d'être for all that pruning, training, dusting, trimming and care, has now come to maturity.  The vines are now giving up their precious crop of grapes, a significant step on their journey to be fermented into wine, or even further to be distilled into a nectar, that could be entombed in oak barrels for up to 80 years.

Here in the Charente the primary purpose of wine production is to produce the raw ingredient of Cognac brandy; however, the vinification process is the same regardless if the end product will be a Premier Grand Cru red wine of a fine château or a £650 bottle of Louis Treize Cognac. 

Technology has brought great changes to the processes that the less informed more romantic drinker might imagine.  Hand picking is still carried out in vineyards with steep slopes, where even technology is just impractical or too expensive even on some exclusive estates.  But, the vast majority of the grape harvest is collected by machine (as the locals call them).  In half an hour a machine can clear what would have taken dozens of itinerant pickers half a day.  Whether the cost or reducing availability of the vast army of pickers encouraged the development of these complex machines is another ‘chicken and egg’ issue; nevertheless, the cost, over £100,000, must be considered worth it.  Small producers, with less than 10 hectares, combine forces to form mini cooperatives thus sharing the cost of the equipment. 

Even the most romantic imbiber no longer expects their wine to be produced from grapes pressed by the semi-naked men and women treading the grapes with their feet.  But, if they were to enter one of the typically 300 year-old, slightly-delapidated outbuildings of a producteur, the last thing they would expect to find is a gleaming stainless steel monster of a pressoir, computer controlled, gently but irresistibly squeezing the last drop of liquid from the crop and automatically spitting out the skins, pips, leaves and stalks.  Interestingly, even these are not wasted, because they are collected and given to the state to produce alcohol as part of the producer's tax contribution. The cooperatives take mobile pressoirs to the small vineyard owner.

In October, a countryside that is so quiet and calm for 49 weeks of the year erupts into unaccustomed noise, traffic and a sense of urgency.  All shapes, sizes and ages of tractors take priority on the narrow roads, as they haul their soggy loads towards the ever-waiting pressoirs. With daylight shortening daily the urgency is even greater. The level of activity can be gauged at dusk by the new firmament of orange flashing lights (legally required to be used by agricultural equipment on public roads) that track the tractors progress across the landscape.

Winter Falls on Charente VinesThe inheritance laws of France, which have changed little since Napoleonic times, have made the harvest even more difficult. How come? Over the centuries the land and vines have been divided and subdivided over and over again as estates are forcibly shared out within the family by law rather than by consent and bequest.  The net effect maybe a quaint patchwork quilt of ownership, but in reality it is a grossly inefficient farming system.  It is not uncommon for a 30-hectare farm to be split up into over 20 different pieces as far as 8 kilometers away from the winery. This is merely inconvenient during the rest of the year, but during the vendange it is completely mad. Having invested in a serious piece of equipment for high-output picking, it spends more time driving between 3 rows of vines here and 20 rows over there than actually harvesting! The picking and carrying equipment takes on the behavior of a demented bee supping nectar not only from different flower beds, but also from different gardens.  Although the French government as been told by the EU to "harmonize", it will be many years before the laws are in place and probably centuries before the land ownership is rationalized.  So, in the meantime, all the machines and trailer-pulling tractors will continue their bizarre dance.

The vendange is well under way; the equipment is all working well  ~  so why the long faces?  To start with the sugar content and yield per hectare is down, and even the government can't be blamed for the weather.  Some say it will be a good vintage, but not a great one.  But, all is not well in the French wine industry in general.  Its number one position and almost gilt-edged markets are severely under attack.  Those traditional markets are buying more and more from the New World; there is alleged profiteering in Bordeaux;  Beaujolais has admitted a glut of over production;  and there is a marked decline in Cognac consumption worldwide.  So, the prices are tumbling.  The grand Cognac houses produce only a small volume themselves; most of the wine is produced by the producteurs and a large proportion of the double-distilled liquid is produced by the small farms.  The big names store and blend the cognac.  As demand falls it is the small producer who suffers with reduced demand and lower prices. 

Despite all the new technology embraced by the traditional producers, it is comforting to see some things do not change.  I recently helped a producer by driving some very old tractors collecting grapes from very steep and slippery vineyards.  The harvest was orchestrated in such a way that we all returned to the farm around midday for a collective lunch.  Madame, who had been following the machine all morning, up and down the rows, cutting off the odd bunch of grapes technology missed, was transformed into a chef, producing a five-course meal.  No convenience food bought from the supermarket and cooked in the microwave  ~  it was all fresh and wholesome.  I was made very welcome and treated like one of the family and, despite all the technological aids to the harvest, the traditions continue with the retention of that sacrosanct institution of a proper lunch at midday.  In a few days the vine leaves will turn brown and fall, their purpose complete for another year and the cycle will start again.

Rayson Knowles wrote this article from his experience in the Charente in 2002. 
We are grateful for this contribution and to be able to offer it to our readers.

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