* This article first appeared in Telegraph Travel in time for Father’s Day. More on this theme from my book [pictured above], Inside Fatherhood.
We went to stay with Spanish friends during the last school holiday.
It worked well for a family trip with two other kids for my two girls to play with, the freedom of an unstructured routine and an insider sense of the local culture.
But, most of all, as a man who has travelled alone with his kids since they were young, there was another man there who both understood the challenges of modern fatherhood and shared my passion for showing his children the world.
I often struggle to find this kind of camaraderie on a family holiday.
The sense of isolation I have felt at times as a divorced father, who shares custody jointly with the girls’ mother, has made for some uncomfortable travel experiences.
It’s not the just practical aspects, such as who keeps an eye on the children while I go to the bathroom.
More frustratingly, a man alone with two little girls can be viewed with curiosity, sometimes suspicion.
Immigration officials at a major European airport once stopped us, asking to see birth certificates to prove the girls were actually my children.
More commonly, I’m subjected to other holidaymakers quizzing me about why I’m alone.
“Can I ask,” one relative stranger once enquired as I was nonchalantly loading my plate at the evening buffet, “is your wife dead?”
But I really spat the dummy when a restaurant manager rather publicly warned me not to take my youngest daughter, and then aged just five, into the gents.
“If she needs to go, then I’ll just have to take her to the ladies,” she bristled.
I politely suggested through gritted teeth that she should go and get a copy of her DBS certificate first.
So, as thoughts turn to celebrating our devoted dads for Father’s Day this weekend, isn’t time we gave single dads a break?
The second has hints of honey and balsamic vinegar. The third packs a punch of spiced gingerbread.
We tuck in as Marc Desarmenien, General Manager of Fallot, explains the favourable combination of terroir, natural resources and climate.
We’re in Burgundy, the Pinot Noir and Chardonnay-producing heart of France’s wine trade, but we’re not talking vin with Monsieur Desarmenien. This tasting is dedicated to Burgundy’s other world-beater: mustard.
“As a moutardier, I’m looking for a rich-yellow hue and a strong, not spicy, taste.”
“A winemaker seeks subtlety but I’m more concerned with the combination of flavours,” explains Marc, offering more canapés to dip into the coloured pools of mustard daubed artistically on the plate like Picasso’s palette.
Marc’s grandfather founded the Fallot mustard mill in 1928 and it now produces some 85,000 tones of mustard per year. It is the only one left of 30 mills from Burgundy’s mustard-producing salad days.
But Marc is sanguine. The honey and balsamic vinegar blend recently won them a contract with Waitrose.
“Mustard has a 3,000-year history from China to Burgundy,” explains Marc, taking us on a guided tour, first an interactive romp through the history of mustard in France, then a high-tech factory visit with graphics explaining the science of preparing the wild mustard seed.
“Mustard is mystical and medicinal. It was even used in Britain in Victorian times as a tonic.”
Mustard, wine and curative properties are to feature heavily on the agenda for the weekend.
I’m here with my 71-year-old father to celebrate both his birthday and 100 years of Father’s Day in the UK this June.
France caught up with the event in 1952. It’s over 15 years since dad last time dad took a holiday and it was 1947 when he was last in Burgundy, still wearing short trousers.
But why Burgundy for a dad-doting weekend? Simple.
Dukes, vineyards, museums, gingerbread, churches and lashings of mustard, plus five hours from St Pancras by Eurostar and TGV with a short metro hop across Paris in between.
No queues, no hassle and definitely no volcanic ash-inspired delays. It’s perfect for father-son bonding trip.
Room with a view
We start our visit in the wine town of Beaune, indulging dad’s interest in heritage with a guided tour in English of the 15th-century Hotel-Dieu.
Built by Nicolas Rolin, one of the Dukes of Burgundy, as a perceived way to fast track a place in Heaven, the lavishly designed hospice has been a place of healing since the Middle Ages.
Part of the complex is still a working retirement home today. Dad is already eyeing up one of the rooms with shuttered windows set among the flower-strewn garden.
Less appealing, however, is collection of ceramic jars of traditional cures in the old pharmacy. That’s a paste of herbs, snake skin and opium, a dose of which was traditionally given to every new arrival.
After a simple but satisfying lunch of ham terrine, beef tongue and crème caramel at a homely local bistro, plus the obligatory glass of something fruity and fragrant, we make our way through the historic, cobbled streets of Beaune to Sensation Vin, a wine cellar-cum-classroom.
The owners left the wine trade some four years ago to set up a cellar where anyone with an interest in Burgundy wine, but a low threshold of knowledge, can call in for a one-hour crash course in wine appreciation. It includes a blind tasting of six local wines. Co-owner Celine Dandelot explains:
“People are afraid of stuffy tastings at local wine cellars. It can be intimidating, so we try to demystify the process.”
Dad and I take our seats at a lightbox-style tasting table and watch the introductory briefing on the wall-mounted TV as Celine uncorks the bottles.
The five wine-producing regions of Burgundy, we learn, produce 200m bottles of wine per year, one third red, two thirds white. These are split into four categories: grand cru, premier cru, village and region.
“We simply look at colour, smell and taste, repeating the same three tests for each of the six wines,” explains Celine. “You can tell the age of a wine form its colour and its aroma. By tasting, we identify its characteristics.”
Sure enough, after just a few minutes, we are plotting the wines on a Venn diagram, ranging from young wines with a floral nose and high acidity to mature wines with cooked-fruit aromas and higher levels of tannins.
Best of all, the relaxed, speak-your-mind ambiance takes the stiltedness out of the tasting.
A summer breeze is gently ruffling the sun-basking landscape as we head north to Dijon later that day, following the Route des Grands Crus that cuts a grape-growing swathe through the heart of the Cotes de Nuits slopes.
As we trundle along country lanes, regimented battalions of vines stand to attention. Isolated, stone worksheds spring out from the hillsides against a thousand-acre sky.
Plots of land, demarcated by weather-aged walls, are interspersed by proud stone crosses, keeping sentry duty by the roadside.
After a hearty dinner and a good night’s sleep in the newly restyled fifth-floor rooms at Dijon’s Hotel La Cloche, we set out the next morning to explore the city, catching the free, city-circling shuttle bus to the stately main square, Place de la Liberation, with its pavement cafés and dancing fountains.
The morning is spent leisurely, weaving through historic passageways, marveling at the produce for sale at the traditional covered market and stopping for an espresso boost and some people watching.
There’s time for souvenir hunting too: traditional Burgundy gingerbread biscuits from the Rose de Vergy patisserie and a dainty, ceramic mustard pot from Boutique Maille, Dijon’s celebrated shrine to mustard.
Dad has loved the good food and wine, the sense of heritage and gentle mooching around one of France’s most attractive regions, not to mention sampling his own body weight in mustard.
And I’ve enjoyed sharing it with him. We don’t need to wait until the next father’s day for another generation-spanning weekend away.
Besides, dads do a hard job us and they deserve their moments in the sun too.
* This article was first published in the Daily Mail in 2010.
Aged seven-years old, sat with my grandfather in his front room, he would sip his tea and recite the poems he learnt at school to me.
Rudyard Kipling’s If was Granddad Harry’s particular favourite:
“If you can fill the unforgiving minute, with sixty seconds’ worth of distance run …”
I may have preferred Tiswas to Tennyson’s The Charge of the Light Brigade at the time, but it clearly had an impact.
I was lucky. Harry had a love of words and shared his passion with me from an early age – a tradition I now try to maintain with my own two daughters, aged four and eight respectively.
The fourth annual Fathers’ Story Week, starting today and running until Father’s Day this weekend, highlights the importance of male role models in getting kids to read.
So are dads (or granddads) better at story time than mums?
Dr Emyr Williams, Senior Lecturer in Psychology at Glyndwr University in North Wales, believes that fathers can have more impact on a child’s fledgling grasp of literacy.
In a preschool world dominated by female figures, dads are different – hence they exert more potential to influence social learning. He explains:
“One of the ways in which children learn and develop is through mimicking and copying their role models.”
The role of father figures is, he says, particularly important to encourage boys to read independently, a group that traditionally looses interest in reading faster than girls.
“Fathers, grandfathers and other male relatives have the opportunity to change the path of literacy for young boys by encouraging a deep appreciation of literature established within a well-developed internal working model of seeing their hero read,” adds Dr Williams.
The importance of reading to young children has been well documented in recent years. Less well established, however, is how crucial the role of dads can be.
Recently, on Telegraph Men, Harry de Quetteville described story time as, “a humdrum yet powerful moment of communion between father and child, a moment when a bond of learning and trust is built.”
Michael Rosen, the former Children’s Laureate and campaigner for children’s literacy, used a recent appearance at the Hay Festival to slam Government education policy for a fixation with the mechanics of reading, rather than fostering the enjoyment of reading for pleasure.
He said: “We constantly live with governments who concentrate on all these narrow aspects of reading, and not of interpretation and understanding.”
It’s a subject on which The Fatherhood Institute, a fatherhood think-tank focused on policy, research and practice, goes further.
“Evidence suggests that when dads do bedtime stories well, they can have more impact,” says Joint CEO Adrienne Burgess.
“Mums tend to stick to the script but dads talks round the story, respond to the child and ask more questions.”
“Mums could reflect and learn from that,” she adds.
Recent research compiled by the Fatherhood Institute highlights the importance of fathers to their children’s learning and development. It found, for example, that preschoolers whose dads read to them a lot behave and concentrate better at nursery, and do better in maths.
At age five, these children know and use more words, can pick out letters more accurately, and are better at problem solving. By age ten, their vocabulary is wider and their numeracy skills are better, too.
“Dads tend to have higher aspirations for their children. If they can harness that forward aspiration for reading, by demonstrating a passion for words, or being a more theatrical story teller, they set a very strong example,” says Burgess.
As a single dad, bedtime stories have always been a special bonding time for my children and myself.
At bedtime this week we’ll be turning pages as usual. We’ve polished off a couple of Roald Dahl books in the last month. Charlotte’s Web was a big hit. And, while The Secret Garden is slow going, an iPad poetry app featuring Kipling and Edward Lear is proving a grower.
I may not be necessarily better at story time, but I’d like to think I’m more passionate about it.
And that, Granddad Harry would be proud of that.
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