France Insider/Paul Ben-Itzak

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!”

1 Comment »

  1. […] vendange, viticulture, wine mills, Wine-making, wine-making in Southwest France When we last left our hero, he’d just finished the vendange, filling four of Mr. Marty’s colorful plastic […]

    Pingback by Journalist has heart attack while turning turn-of-the-century wine mill « France Insider by Paul Ben-Itzak — October 31, 2009 @ 4:07 pm | Reply


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