There are worse ways to spend the Easter holiday than hopping onto the 10.45pm ferry from Portsmouth and then rolling off into the French countryside early the next morning.
We were heading for the in-laws in the flat calm sea of vineyards around St. Nicolas de Bourgueil in the Loire valley. This is the most northerly point in France where quality red wine can be grown. The strict appellation contrôlée rules insist that only grapes from the cabernet franc variety can be used to make a St. Nicolas be Bourgueil wine.
The wine which these vines produce on this sandy soil, layered over clay deposits of a vast former river bed, is light and fruity, but with a slight astringency. Best drunk relatively young, this red wine is served cellar-chilled.
In 2013, these 2,600 acres under vines (visualise a patchwork of 2,600 full-size football pitches) produced around 8 million bottles of wine. Honey-coloured tufa limestone, clean-cut and Flintstone-smart in new-built walls, is testimony to the prosperity of this nook of rural France. But I digress.
It is a truism that success comes at a price. And as we gently gardened in the sunshine, we saw bumblebees and butterflies aplenty. So, I hear you ask, what’s all this got to do with honeybees ? Well, nothing. That’s the point. I didn’t see a single honeybee over 6 days in the spring-flowering gardens. Not one.
My theory is that the man-made monoculture of vines and the attrition of varroa on wild bees share the responsibility for the abeyance of the honeybee from this rural idyll. With a huge communal forest, the mighty Loire and the somnolent suburbs of Bourgueil village, all under 2 miles away, I was astonished by the absence of bees.
There is an old French adage: “long comme un jour sans pain” – or, “as long as a day without bread” – to conjure up the torment to the gallic soul of a day deprived of that vital commodity, bread.
Here in St. Nicolas de Bourgueil, I’m tempted to translate that quaint expression into a beekeeper’s lament: “long comme un jour sans abeilles” – or, “as long as a day without bees“.