France Insider/Paul Ben-Itzak

October 31, 2009

Journalist has heart attack while turning turn-of-the-century wine press

When we last left our hero, he’d just finished the vendange, filling four of Mr. Marty’s colorful plastic barrels with grapes, most red, with a few exceptionally sweet green grapes he’d found high up in Mr. Marty’s vines thrown in, plus a few drunk bees and scattered weeds. That was Thursday, October 22. The next steps, Mr. Marty said, were to turn the grapes in the press and then leave them to ferment in the big square blue bath-tub in the barn.

I started to get worried when Bernard told me, a week later, that the grapes would rot if Mr. Marty left them in the barrels too long, so I’ve been bugging him since then to get them into the press, always adding that I’d do the heavy lifting. I felt a little guilty about practically harassing him, but didn’t want the sweat I’d put into the vendange to go to waste. (Plus, okay, I was looking forward to tasting the cru.)

So finally today, when I knocked on his door around one after returning from the village, he said to come by in an hour. I had a quick lunch of the butcher’s house-made pate mixed with some of my apples cooked up and walnuts toasted up, plus a little mustard, all blended with my ’60s-era ‘mixer-baby’ and served over country tourte bread from the Boulangerie Margot.

“I’m not sure if I have the cork,” Mr. Marty said doubtfully, looking at the broken cork that was stopping up the sky blue fermenting vat, when I came by after lunch. “I have some wine bottle corks,” I suggested, helpfully I thought, but he explained that for this he required a special, pointed cork. He went to look for it and emerged from his home a few minutes later.

“Une petite gout, pour remontre le morale?” he asked with a petite twinkle in his eye. Far be it from me to say no to a ‘petite gout’ of Mr. Marty’s eau de vie and it did indeed re-mount my morale. It also helped that he’d found a pointed cork.

Fortified by the eau de vie, I helped Mr. Marty wheel out the wooden press — which looked like it might date from the turn of the last century, at the latest — and put it on top of one of the barrels. It looks like a wheel-barrel, except that what would be the levers protrude from the bottom of the barrel. Inside it are two cylinders through which the grapes pass, and on the side is the wheel with lever which turns the cylinders. First we emptied one barrel into the press and, with Mr. Marty pressing its grapes down and me turning the wheel, squeezed the grapes. We repeated this three times. Some of the juice had already naturally come out of the raisins and that fell easily through the two cylinders. For the rest, the pressing was tough — a real workout. I had to take a pause after two, and couldn’t help seeing the headline, “Journalist has heart attack making wine in southwest France.”

After each barrel-full was passed through the press into another barrel, we lifted it and emptied it into the blue vat. When we finished, Mr. Marty urged me, “Get a glass and taste it!” I ran home across the path and got a couple of my ’50s-vintage Pastis 51 glasses, lifting them to show Mr. Marty, but he said, “No, just for you!” We waited for the grapes to settle in the last barrel before I dipped my glass in, scooping up some raisins with the juice. Here goes! It was dense and sour — reminding me of fermented plums I’d once tasted on a Mandarin class field-trip to a Chinese movie theater in junior high which surprised me with there salty sour taste.

“Kind of lemony,” I said, my lips puckered, to Mr. Marty. I had to ask if it would taste like that once it was done, but he said the taste would go away once the wine fermented. “Usually you leave it for 15 days, but because it’s so little, eight will do.” Afterwards, as we sat on the stone border of the garden in front of his house talking about the day when the neighborhood was full of vines and everyone made their own eau de vie before the government decided to tax it, I started feeling nauseous. N’impeche que I didn’t say no when he offered me to come in for another ‘petite gout.’ I also asked for some of the lemon soda he poured for himself, and that helped the stomach, but at the first trés petit gout I felt the wine coming up again. “Would it derange you if I saved this for later?” “Pas du tout!”

Tch-tch-tchin!

Post-script:

It was hard for me to write about this at the time because I was too busy sobbing in the wine I’d never have, but here’s the sequel: When Mr. Marty checked the wine a little later, he swiggled it in his mouth, then shook his head and said, “It’s no good.” Apparently Bernard was right; he’d let the grapes sit in the barrels too long before running them through the press, and they had soured. At the time I was disappointed and deflated; all that work for nothing! But in fact it yielded a lot more. Born and bred in Northern California, and having spent the past nine years in France, I have always considered myself something of a wine expert. At this point I can just about tell you what wine — or digestif or aperitif — goes with anything. But now thanks to Mr. Marty I had finally had the experience of making wine from scratch. I had learned how to make it. I had done so in a veritable crucible of wine-making; Mr Marty’s vineyards were not well-maintained, so I had had to sit on my knees among thistles and sometimes wade through weeds to get to the vines. I had pulled the grapes with my own hands. And I had turned a 100-year-old mill to make the wine. How many wine connoisseurs — even in France — can make that claim?

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October 22, 2009

Sour Grapes: Time to stop my whining and start making wine

Much as I’m hankering to be back in a city and resume my search (I almost wrote ‘cherche’; thinking in French, translating into English) for la femme de ma vie, I’m at least conscience that for many Americans (and even some French city denizens) the idea of a guy living in a medieval stone house in the south of France surrounded by green pastures, 100 yards from a river, and looking up at magnificent limestone cliffs dotted with pre-historic caves trying to get out of there might seem a bit *fou.* And I hate not living in the present. So, where I can, I try to take advantage of what’s unique and and typique in my experience, be it that of living in the country, living in the country in France, living among (to a degree) paysans, living in duck country, or other unique aspects of this milieu. (Never been much on pre-history, so that I’m writing you 300 yards from the first cro-mag discoveries, made back in 1860 when they were building the railroad bridge that crosses the river, is wasted on me.)

Saturday night, it was the hunting. Not me hunting — I cringe even hearing the rifle fire resound off the cliffs, or, worse, seeing a hunter toting a rifle over his shoulders in my backyard — but the booty of my pal Stephan’s hunting. The crisp autumnal day was already heading towards perfect. I’d been bugging Bernard to bring his electric saw over and cut up the long branch I’d extracted from the petit woods in the ‘yard.’ (More than a yard, really a field, and which used to house a roof tile factory, ergo the terra cotta fragments that encrust the soil, and the name of my ‘hood, le Tuilerie, not to be confused with one of my favorite endroits in Paris, le jardin des Tuileries.) Of course, being Bernard, after he’d swiftly disposed of the branch on the terrace, he insisted we tramp down to the woods and cut up some more wood. After Bernard had reduced about a dozen branches into logs, he commanded me, “Now clear them out!” In the process, I spotted what looked like a sort of lever peering out of the ground. Removing some of the dirt around it, I found a small semi-oval steering wheel. When I yanked at the lever, they separated. Feeling around the ground, I discerned what seemed like the rusted carcass of some sort of metal apparatus — perhaps a mill for grinding up corn? It turned out to be what looked like a child’s car, complete with pedals and engine.

“Vient voir!” I urged Mr. Marty, the retired farmer who lives across the path. “I think I found Bernard’s first car!” He was impressed. “C’est un vraie antiquité! Tu peut le vendre!” I couldn’t wait to show Bernard, who’d said he’d return in the evening to see how I’d progressed on the wood. I was lying around listening to “Our Miss Brooks” when he drove up at around 7 with Stephan. “I have a surprise for you!” I announced. “I found your first car.” “Mais oui, c’est ca,” he confirmed, but all it provoked was a smile, no marvel, and he was not interested in taking it with him; he only laughed when I proposed he show it to his daughter Mathilde. Bernard and Stephan had other business; they’d brought over deer liver and heart from a deer Stephan had shot that morning.

I hadn’t had venison since we lived in the country in Northern California in the late ’60s, and the taste lingered still; I was salivating already. Mr. Marty rushed over to see Stephan, whose matrimonial future he continues to worry over. (“Mais, quand est-ce que il vas se marrier?!”)

“Got garlic?!” asked Bernard.

“Mais oui!”

“Chop it up and let it cook first before you add the meat.”

“I have even better!,” I said, pulling out the grater.

“Pepper?!”

“Bien sur!”

If you’ve seen the kitchen/dining room, most of which is taken up by a mahogany picnic table and benches, the rest by a large armoire set on cinder blocks (to protect its contents from the annual flood), a long counter, an over-stuffed easy chair, a range, a bicycle, and half of a huge two-piece late ’50s era rose and off-white formica cabinet-armoire (40 Euros at the Emaus ((or Salvation Army)) in Perigueux, later spotted in the identical model for 400 Euros at a Menilmontant brocante), you’d know that adding four people to this space, running excitedly around, two cooking, two commenting on the cooking, makes for a bit of an obstacle course, but to me it felt festive).

After the liver had started already started cooking, Bernard, taking in the dozens of apples strewn over the picnic table (more local booty, along with the walnuts strewn in even more quantity) and the 1/2 of the ’50s cabinet suddenly said, “Ah, I should have said, add apples!”

“I’ll add them now!”

“And if you have panaché…” Bernard said hopefully, referring to the beer lemonade which is the only liquor he can drink… Unfortunately I’d drunk up my last bottles. “Mais…offer Stephan something!” I offered wine all around but none of the (French) men were into it.

Usually, the French undercook (by my standards) meat. In the case of the liver, though, whenever I’d ask Stephan if it was time to take it out, he answered, “Pas encore. Laisse!”

Finally, when the meat — and, as important, the garlic and the apples — was nice and crispy and dark brown, it was ready, and Bernard, Stephan, and Mr. Marty stood around watching me eat. (None wanted to join me.) It was succulent — perfect. And it was as much the apples taking in the juice of the liver that made it as opposed to the other way around. (Of course, I had to ask if they’d mind if I added ketchup, and Bernard grimaced.) A perfect cap to a perfect day.

Before Mr. Marty left, I’d wrassled him into accepting that I’d do the vendange Monday. I’ve been pestering him about this for weeks, always with the proviso that I’d do the work, he’d just need to direct me. Mr. Marty — as is his right; he is, after all, retired — has sort of let the vines in back of and next to his house go. While he did clear out the sarmantine — dead branches — from last year, he only half cleared the weeds. But as this is a once in a lifetime opportunity for me — yes I know, there’s supposedly a vineyard in the Belleville neighborhood of somewhere, but I’ve never found it, nor that in Montmartre — I’ve permitted myself to insist. (I also think it will make me feel less guilty when I ask for a third bottle of his famous eau de vie, made from previous harvests, this winter.)

The moment finally arrived Tuesday afternoon. Mr. Marty found four barrels, and his sharp clipper, and I set to working my way through the seven rows, clipping the grapes and tossing them into a red plastic basket. It was harder going that I’d anticipated. Because the branches were lower than me, with many bunches of the fruit close to the ground, I did a lot of bending and, then, sitting, and I wasn’t starting out with a back in full form. I’d also assumed — remembering a previous experience with sour new wine — that I should pick only the sweet grapes, so I did a lot of taste-testing. After four hours without pause (and without getting stung; my desire to make wine in the Bordeaux region tromped even my phobia of bees) (contrary to what you may have heard, the bees are not disappearing, they’ve all become grape tasters in the southwest of France), I’d amassed close to three (medium) barrels full, in each of which swarmed about half a dozen bees. Physically tired as I was, I was ready to continue to get it all done in one coupe (I had three rows left), but Mr. Marty appeared at the base of the fields and said, “Time to stop for today Paul.” As tired as my dogs were, the physical work had also left me exhilarated, so, rather than turn in chez moi, and taking courage from Boo-bah, the Belgium shepherd — collie followiing me, I decided to walk to the railroad bridge, stopping to collect walnuts from Bernard’s trees. The stark grey autumn evening sky and the magnificent setting of the valley surrounding me, the crisp air made for another perfect ending to another perfect day. Until the night anxiety of the solitaire set in, anyway.

I resumed the vendange yesterday. This time what threatened to do me in was the taste-testing. I must have tasted from at least one bunch of every little grape tree, and as about half seemed to be sour, I was starting to get nauseous. After close to three hours, I’d pushed it to three barrels and was, I thought, finished. But when I checked in with Mr. Marty an hour later, he indicated the heights of the rows and said, “There are still grapes to pick.” I explained that all those that were left were sour. “Mais, c’est rien! C’est l’eau!” (It had been raining more or less constantly since the previous night.) Just to be sure, I picked a bunch with some sour grapes, and asked him to taste one to verify. “Mais c’est bon!” In effect, I could pick all. Now that I also know that I don’t need to taste them, I’m all right with this.

On Tuesday, Mr. Marty had offered me some of his eggs after I finished working. These are farm eggs, of course, and are the yellowist eggs you’ve ever seen and fluffiest I’ve ever tasted. Yesterday, and for the first time in the two years we’ve been neighbors, after he’d straightened me out on the grapes he proposed, with a glint in his eyes, “Un petit Ricard?” “Avec plaisir!” said I. Later, when I noted that one of the things I liked about pastis was that, “It’s natural,” he reposted, without missing a beat, and indicating the bottle of cold water, “Except for the water!”

October 17, 2009

The lights are on but nobody’s home, or, le lumiere est la mais tous les etages ne sont pas illuminé or reason #1,677 why I hate Brussels

What if you woke up one morning and none of your light-bulbs fit? And on top of that, they were all fluorescent. You would either a) be having a nightmare or b)be living in Europe in 2010.

Indeed, when I looked for light-bulbs at the supermarket in the village today to replace a couple that had gone out, both in small snug fixtures, I looked and looked where the manager had told me to and saw nothing. Then he came over and explained that those ugly oblong white things — they look kind of like miniature sky-scrapers — were light-bulbs, and I remembered that a handful of bureaucrats in Brussels had decided that what was good enough for Edison and has been good enough for the rest of us the last hundred plus years was no longer good enough for the 450 million citizens they supposedly represented, and decreed that as of October 1, the luminescent round bulbs would be replaced by ugly, white, rectangular fluorescent bulbs. And when I say replaced, I don’t mean that we would be able to choose them, I mean that all the old bulbs would be removed from the shelves and we would have no choice. The supposed reason is that they are more efficient. In energy, maybe, but in cost, no; first, where the old lighbulbs cost 1.20 Euros for two, this new thing costs 2.02 for one. Second, because they are so big — long — with a new base added on top of the screw base to boot, they won’t fit into the narrow lighting chambers of just about any spot — and spots are big here in Europe — nor under any lighting globe. So hundreds of millions of Europeans will have to spend money to replace their lighting fixtures, and more money on their light-bulbs, in a time when, thanks partly to lack of foresight by Brussels, most of us have less of it, but Brussels doesn’t care because someone had a cool idea. The rest of us, as unusual, pay the consequences. And for those of us that get headaches from fluorescent lighting? No one asked us, we don’t count. And if we complain, they call us ‘anti-European.’ No, I’m not anti-European. I just say that what the EU about is not what was promised — making it easier for its citizens — but strictly about making it easier for the big capitalists. No matter if Brussels’s decisions create complications for the rest of us — the EU bureaucrats couldn’t care less. And if we vote down a constitution they’re trying to shove down or throats that does nothing to rectify this and whose soul goal is to make it even easier for big business, no problem; they’ll re-name it a treaty and say they don’t need to have a vote. Or, if we insist on a vote on the treaty and vote it down — as Ireland did — they’ll just make us vote again after scaring us a little.

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