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History and legends from the Haute Marne Champagne

The Haute Marne region is a wonderfully rich region. Rolling green hills, fields of wheat and lazy cows, and orchards of cherry. Oh, and Champagne. It’s the stuff poetry is made of with 40% of the Haute Marne either river or forest, and just 9 inhabitants per square km.

With this luxurious landscape comes wild boar, deer, diverse wildlife and of course, an abundance of cottage industries to explore and enjoy.  If you love local flavours and folklore, this is the place to visit.

A working landscape in Baissey

In the Rue du Paradis, in the tiny Hamlet of Baissey, not far from Langres, you’ll find an original and working watermill. People have been working the water here since the Romans and this was once one of the pivotal businesses of the community.

During the revolution, the mill was considered so important that the miller was charged an extra pig by way of taxation and tales abound of tunnels up to the castle to smuggle in contraband.

It’s strange to think that not long ago, wolves were considered a danger here and the last one was killed as recently as 1946.  Grand celebrations for the whole village were held if a wolf was captured and in fact, wolves are an inherent part of the mill’s heritage. So much so, that the tale of one JoJo and his wolf have become a bit of a Baissey legend.

The legend of Baissey

Apparently, not long after World War I, all the villagers of Baissey gathered at the mill for one of their main celebrations. JoJo the violinist was there and he entertained the revellers late into the night with his music and dance. But as the party finally broke up, JoJo, rather the worse for wine, decided to make his way home to the neighbouring village by taking a path through a snowy forest.

Stumbling along through the darkness, the unfortunate JoJo fell into one of the hunter’s traps and found himself face to face with a wolf no less. With nothing else to defend himself, JoJo took up his bow and played. And he carried on playing until dawn broke and the hunter finally arrived to check his traps. And the wolf? All the time that JoJo played, the wolf never laid a paw on old JoJo.

It may have been exaggerated in the telling but for me, who lives in an old watermill on the other side of France in a little woodland area known as Paradis and with a neighbour called …JoJo (yes really) who’s not impartial to wine (I don’t know if he plays the violin but I will find out), it certainly hit a nerve!

The last miller

Nowadays, photos of the last miller and his family hang on the wall as a rather sad testament. Henri Noirot (son and grandson of millers before) was born and died at the mill at Baissey. After more than 60 years at the helm, when he died in 1931, the mill died with him and quickly fell into disrepair.

Enjoy the last crumbs

Now, with a tired old dog keeping watch in the shade of a cluster of Holly Hocks, you can climb up the old stone steps and into the workings of a traditional mill which has been lovingly brought back to life.

As the wheels creak and the stones grind, original orders from the locals, written on little postcards scatter the desk in front of the sales office. A gun and a set of scales complete the office equipment!

The mill has a rhythm and a musicality to it. It must have been hot, dusty and noisy back in the day. It must have been a wonder in technology but still back breaking work. And today, you can enjoy a freshly baked, local biscuit made from mill ground flour and a little glimpse of what made the heart of this community tick!

A sticky choice

If there’s one thing that goes with bread, it has to be jam. And in the tiny hamlet of Anrosey, about 40 minutes from Baissey, you’ll find the formidable Madame Collin and her impressive selection of jams and jellies.

Started back in the 1980s as a farming diversification, Madame Collin brings new meaning to the concept of jam. With flavours ranging from red current and dandelion, marigold, courgette, rose and potato (yes indeed), nasturtiums and even milk jam, it seems that if it grows in these parts, Madame Collin can make jam from it.

You can dip into and sample some of her finest jams, spread them on her home-made pancakes and take home a beautifully potted and decorated selection. All surrounded by her collection of over 500 colourful coffee pots.

She’s open for business on Wednesdays between 10 am and 5pm or you can arrange a tasting by appointment and even visit the farm.

You can visit the mill by arrangements or at set times. Contact paulhoudart@orange.fr

You can contact Madame Collin via the tourist office.

For more information about the region visit www.tourisme-hautemarne.com

Lucy Pitts is a freelance writer and deputy editor of The Good Life France

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