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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March 20, 2009

All the non-Strike news that’s fit to print

Well, technically, journalists are back to work today, but most of their news is about the general strike in which they participated yesterday so I’m happy to provide an alternate source of news and commentary.

A rosé is a rosé is a rosé or, yet another reason I hate Brussels

The European Commission is reportedly considering allowing countries to mix white and red wine and call it rosé. Besides that this will probably be about as successful as mixing Flanders and Wallonie and calling them Belgium, French rosé producers are justifiably angry because it totally ignores that a rosé is a specific grape, or rather a grape fermented in a specific fashion, basically a red which is bottled after just a day of maceration. When France 3 public television reported on this the other night, before it went on strike, it interviewed a rosé producer in South*east* France, but those rosés are too pinko for me. I prefer the lush red roses — when I say red, I don’t mean red like red wine, I mean really red like the color — here in South*west* France. The best I’ve had came from further south in Gascony (which also makes my favorite white, Tariquet, a sprightly tart wine — goes great with raclette, tartiflette, and fondue — made from the same grape that constitutes armagnac, just not fermented so long), but the ones around these parts — the Bergerac — are also excellent, and those from the Lot are not half bad, and cheap, as is that from the Tarn, around mid-way between East and West. (Rosé in France is generally cheap — anwhere from 2 Euros on up for a good one. And it now out-ranks white in popularity here in France, Le Monde reports) The difference, besides the color, is that the pinko Eastern rosés just taste more watery and sugary, whereas the redder Western rosés have more body and a taste that is at the same time fruity but not too sweet. The best was the 2003, which matured during the canicule or heat wave, making it nice and dry.

If the rosé of the West is redder than the rosé of the East, it’s not because the vintners around here put more red wine than white in their rosé. I’m not an expert, but it probably has to do with different conditions of landscape and climate; maybe it’s that a rosé grown near the banks of the Mediterranean is going to be more pink than a rosé cultivated in the Valley of the Dordogne. Maybe because it’s generally hotter there, maybe because of the proximity of the Sun; I don’t know. But the point is it’s because of regional particularities. Exactly what Brussels, time and time and again, ignores — even seems sometimes to want to wipe out. The European Union could have been about everyone benefiting from everyone else’s culture, including the various cuisines — about me being able to go into a supermarket in southwest France and get good Belgian beer for the same price, minus transport, as they pay in Antwerp, and a Flemmish guy being able to do the same buying REAL rosé or great French chevre cheese from the Charente in his neck of the woods. Instead it’s too often about making everything generic. A guy in Hamburg cannot produce a rosé just by mixing red and white; besides that bottling that and calling it rosé would be an insult to the French vintners who have taken generations to learn to make the real thing, that’s not a wine for people who appreciate rosé, it’s a wine for people who can’t decide between red and white — and for bureaucrats who don’t understand that a rosé is a rosé is a rosé, not a mushy melange of red and white.

Smelling like roses. Not.

Of course, man does not live by rose alone, and around these parts, we like to wash down our wine with a good chunk of beef. The blonde beef (the French usually call cows simply beef) of Aquitaine, my region, is reputed to be one of the best; I think it even won a prize at the recent Salon d’Agriculture in Paris.  To make beef, it takes corn, and to make corn, it apparently takes beef-dung, like the kind the farmer next door has been spreading around his cornfield the past week with a tractor attachment designed for the task, and that’s been wafting into the stone house here, helped by a Southeastern style mistral, and leaving the house, notwithstanding the bar of rose-scented savon de Marseille in my bathroom, smelling like anything but a rose.

Dandelions with wine

For about a year Bernard, my neighbor and best friend around these parts, has been trying to convince me that the long-leafy green plant growing in the ground everywhere is edible. Pissenlit, he says (I’ve not been able to figure out why another neighbor, a recent retiree from the North, calls it ‘pissing lait (milk)’ — is great in a salad. “You add salt and pepper, oil and vinegar, maybe a little mustard and garlic and” (here he pinches fingers together and kisses them with lips in the universal gesture that says ‘Magnifique!’). This year I finally decided to investigate and — magnifique! I like the bittersweet taste. The leaves can be a little tough; the best is to pick them before the flower has fully flowered. The flower! Ca alors! Its yellow-ness reminded me of something and I finally realized that — voila — it’s a dandelion. And indeed, I already knew about eating dandelion greens from the States, so was not surprised when, following Bernard’s and Monsieur Marty’s instructions, I also ate them in an omelette: First you immerse the leaves in boiling water for about ten minutes, then you cut them up, then you drop them into your cooking eggs, adding perhaps some lardons (fresh bacon bits) and even a slice of toast. Magnifique encore! I now have an extra incentive — besides the dog — to walk out to the path past the horse and donkey ranch, where the pissenlit is plentiful and where it’s not all yet flowered, although pausing occasionally to pick the pissenlit on the side of the path just now and watching the dog walking ahead of me pause occasionally to lay his piss, it occurred to me that maybe next time I should leave Boobah behind.

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