France Insider/Paul Ben-Itzak

April 25, 2010

Cock-a-doodle done

When we last left Mr. Malraux, my neighbor the retired farmer, he was planning to set a trap for the fox that had killed one of his two roosters and absconded with two of his three chickens, probably to nourish his fox puppies, using the carcass of the late rooster as bait. He abandoned that plan because, he told me, “I might accidentally trap a cat.” As the remaining coq-au-vin loitered on his porch last evening seeking morsels — even trying to enter the house — we considered whether maybe it was better to kill this one while we could still cook ‘im up as coq-au-vin a la vin blanc (better, according to M. Malraux), because if the fox came back, it would be too late. Coq-au-vin — the remaining rooster, I mean — had avoided his usual meandering around the ‘hood all day, until, unusually late for him — after 8 p.m. — his cry alerted me that he’d strayed over to my side of the path. I menaced him lightly with the bamboo cane to keep him away, and he went down the road in the other direction.

M. Malraux had told me to yell if the fox came back; the death cry of the other rooster had woken me up at 1 the previous night, while M. Malraux had slept through it. (The cry had been followed by what seemed to me more than one chicken clucking, which is why I’d been surprised that that the next morning only one chicken and rooster remained.)

I did better; as this was Saturday night, I stayed up until 2:30 in the morning watching Law & Order Special Victims Unit (maybe they should start a new one for roosters?) and Law & Order. No rooster cry or fox prowling could be heard. I even opened the window before going to bed; nothing.

And nothing to wake me up the next morning. The remaining rooster hadn’t got going until 7:30 the previous morning, so when I hadn’t heard anything by 7:30 I wasn’t alarmed. But as time went on, it was pretty clear that the fox had returned and killed the remaining rooster and chicken. Also a bad sign was that the carcass of the dead rooster M. Malraux had left at the opening to his shed was gone. Sure enough, around 9 a.m. I spotted M. Malraux from the window — looking very pissed and evidently looking for the fox, with his rifle strapped to his shoulder.

He was actually looking for a rat (a real rat I mean), he explained to me when I hurried across the road to get the latest. As for the rooster and chicken, he pointed to the shed, where two fresh carcasses were stacked up next to one of the tractors; apparently the fox had taken the one he’d left the day before and left two new chicken cadavres. “Now I have nothing!” the farmer said, more perturbed than usual, as I made sure to stay on the good side of his rifle. (The deaths of the other rooster and two chickens, while upsetting, had not crashed the threshold of the “what can you do?” shrug.)

When the fox trapper, who we’ll call Pierre, arrived in his small blue ’60s compact station wagon, he immediately set to work figuring out the best terrain to set the trap. Putting it right before the tractor shed — where the chickens and roosters actually lived — was out of the question because of all the people that pass by with their dogs, let alone the cats. So he decided to put it in the middle of M. Malraux’s corn field, which is on my side of the path and by the Vezere river. M. Malraux found a stake, which Pierre cracked was “certainly large enough!,” then they drove down to the river, me following on foot. The dead rooster or chicken (I can no longer tell them apart) he posted there looks like those corpses that you see bound to stakes in bad Cowboy and Indian or war movies as a warning to others. (“Roosters! Show your ass ’round these parts and you’ll meet the same fate!”) Around the stake Pierre placed five rusted traps, panting heavily as he opened and braced the jaws. Then he gently placed dead corn stalk morsels on each one, then covered them with dirt. Basically, there’s no way that fox can get to that dead rooster without getting trapped. For my part, I reminded Mr. Malraux that if he wanted the fox to bite, he should probably hide the other dead chicken.

While they were finishing, Mr. Malraux’s best pote Jacques showed up for his morning visit and eau de vie session. I hailed him. This probably makes me sound more important than I was, which was just a by-stander or witness with occasional wisecracks… But around here, it’s understood that any event — my tearing and burning down the dead walnut tree with my bare hands to open up the view and stop the annual bee sejour, for instance — is open to spectators.

And maybe that’s all I am here; when we all got back to the path, Mr. Malraux, Pierre, and Jacques went into Mr. Malraux’s to boire un coupe; I did not feel like I was in the coupe; one more threshold I can’t cross.

But my role as witness wasn’t terminated. Back home, out the bathroom window I saw what looked very much like the silhouette of a chicken on the path right across from Mr. Malraux’s. I ran over. “Mr. Malraux, Mr. Malraux! Vient voir!” It turned out I was not mistaken in believing I heard more than one chicken clucking after the first night’s carnage. One of the two chickens we’d assumed the fox had carted away to feed to his/her little ones that night had apparently just been hiding for two days. “Now at least you can have eggs,” I told M. Malraux, who was clearly happy all his remaining animal stock was not lost. “One a day!” said Pierre. “That’s all you need.”

I was relieved for M. Malraux. Earlier I’d told him, “You’ll be without an animal for the first time in your life!” A farmer with no animals; how’s that for an existential crisis? Later today, France Enter radio interviewed a man (in the Dordogne, as it happened) whose farmer father had committed suicide after 40 years in the metier because he just couldn’t keep up with the bank bills. Apparently, in the Dordogne (my department) more people die every day from suicide than traffic accidents. M. Malraux is retired so supposedly has a pension or social security, but still, I was worried. Indeed, given that he like me complained about one of the roosters always trying to attack him from behind, and pointed out that they weren’t really good for anything (you don’t need them to make eggs), I think if he held on to those roosters, it was because they have always been a fundamental part of his identity, even if he doesn’t need to be woken up before dawn any more.

As for me, it makes me feel guilty to give in too much to feeling relieved that I’ll no longer have to put up with that horrible rooster cry. And I can’t help wonder if the explanation for coq-au-vin’s crossing the path last evening at such an unusually late hour to my side was that it was his way of saying goodbye.

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April 24, 2010

RIP, coq au vin

I was thinking of calling this one ‘cock-a-doodle-dead’ or even “I had a little red rooster,” but when you actually live in the country across the path from two roosters, and find yourself asking, “I fled the sound of 7 a.m. jack-hammers for the sound of 5 a.m., 6 a.m., 7 a.m., 8 a.m., 11 a.m., noon, 1, 3 p.m., 4 p.m., and 6 p.m. rooster crowing, sometimes in stereo?” the cock-a-doodle-doo of roosters is nothing to cackle about. And as my subtly referring to his roosters as coq-au-vin has not yet convinced my neighbor, a retired farmer we’ll call Mr. Malraux, to reduce his rooster roster, I have to confess that as anguishing was the cry which awoke me at 1 a.m. this morning, I found myself hoping it was the rooster, not one of the chickens, that had met his death this night.

When I opened the storm windows (I know, it’s not even winter, but I close them to try to reduce the rooster noise) this a.m. and looked across the road, I was initially disappointed, as the thing lying on its back with two claws frozen in the air in clawing position was all light brown with no red to be seen, thus, I thought, one of the three chickens as opposed to one of the two roosters. It’s head seemed to be missing. The chicken was on the incline under the grand walnut tree leading from the farmer’s shed, tractor garage, and chicken coop to the path/road. Above it next to the shed and below strewn for about 20 yards along the path was a detretious of brown and white feathers. I waited until 7:45 to gingerly knock on the farmer’s door, but he was still asleep. Finally at 9 I moseyed over and,hearing him open the storm doors, announced, “Mr. Malraux?” “Oui?” “J’ai du mauvaise nouvelles.”

When he opened the door, I said, “I think you were right about the fox, come and see.” He too remarked the trail of feathers above and on the road, and, seeing the bird, turned it over. “It’s the rooster. The mean one.” According to Mr. Malraux, this rooster was wont to attack him without provocation from behind, to the point where he carried around a baton whenever he went near him. Then he held it up to me. “Do you want to pluck it?” “No merci, but can we still make coq au vin out of it?” I kept insisting it must have been a fox, but he pointed out, “If it was a fox, it would eat it or take it with him,” and not leave it there. He also dismissed the possibility of another creature, whose name I couldn’t make out, but which is black and white and the size of a small dog. “It usually bites the head off… It must have been a dog.” Then he started looking around for the three chickens. I could have sworn that after that terrible cry, I’d heard the chickens chucking as normal, as if slightly perturbed, then silence. In the end, though, he found only one chicken and the remaining rooster. (Which, fingers crossed, must be the one that sleeps in as he didn’t get going until 7:30.)

A couple drove up, the male half of which Mr. Malraux later explained to me is a retired sgt. of the gendarmes. “Fox,” he concluded. I tried to console Mr. Malraux by reminding him he’d been planning on buying some new ones as the chickens weren’t laying anyway, but he said he could at least have eaten them. I think I finally convinced him — by the fact of the disappeared two chickens who must now by fox baby food — that it could have been a fox. Tonight he’ll be laying a trap, hanging poor dead coq-au-vin as bait.

“Well, can we at least eat the fox?” I said. “Ca se mange pas,” he answered. “There was one particularly muscular guy that caught one and tried to eat it, but it was inedible.” The remaining coq au vin is laying low…

March 24, 2010

Mache it up or, tonight I picked my dinner

I used to worry how I would ever adjust to the food downgrade if I had to move back to the United States from France, especially to New York. (California does a little bit better on healthy food that’s also affordable, especially vegetables.) The New York super-markets especially are, well, just gross. And the most reliable vegetables I found, apart from the Union Square and occasionally Tompkins Square farmer’s markets, were from a Balkan immigrant guy with a great sense of humor who sold fruits and vegetables on the corner of 14th and Fifth.

But now that I live here in the country, in the Dordogne department of SW France, and for social and work reasons am looking to move back to Paris. I’m starting to ponder how I’ll ever make the adjustment from the French country-side to the French city-side. There’s just no comparison. Sure, you can find beautiful vegetables and fancy meat in the markets, but not often at popular (or people’s) prices, particularly when it comes to ‘gourmet’ vegetables and meat. (The French Arab market at Barbes, and others, have cheap prices, but it sometimes reflects the quality.)

This reflection is all brought on by not just the pissenlit (dandelion and its crispy leaves, great in salads and cooked like spinach for omelets and pasta, yum!) being in bloom, but being joined by its more delicate and refined and easier to pick mache. This late afternoon as I headed to the path behind the horse and donkey farm to gather some pissenlit for tonight (the period in which pissenlit is good is very short, so you eat a lot of it while you can), I crossed Mr. Marty, my retired farmer neighbor, and Madeline, Bernard’s mother in law, at Mr. Marty’s vines, where Madeline was already at work picking some. I joined them and shortly she picked up something else, which she said was also delicious: mache. I’d had this in Paris but it looked nothing like this. In Paris, where it’s not always cheap unless it’s on sale, it’s usually dark green, hard, and in cellophane-enveloped little cartons. This stuff, though, is light green and feather-light and unlike pissenlit, you don’t need a knife to cut it at its fierce roots. I made my way down the vines and found several little patches, picking it with the lightest of tugs of the hand. It kind of looks like baby spinach — little bunches, dense at the middle as if about to flower. I also picked a ton of pissenlit. Yesterday I washed my pissenlit at the source (or spring) across the train tracks up the field from the house and man — what a difference in taste (from washing it in tap water). But tonight I looked at the clock and it was perilously close to train time, so instead I walked back to the other source (yes, we have two, since Bernard unearthed the old source at the tracks where he used to gather water as a kid 40-some years ago) and filled up a few bottles with the stuff to wash the pissenlit here, scattering a reunion of frogs along the way.

Speaking of which, better start washing the pissenlit now (7 p.m.) if I’m to have the mache and spinach all washed for salad and pasta in time for Plus Belle la Vie, my (and 6 million French people’s) nightly Marseille-based soap opera.

C’est plus belle le cuisine en province, n’est pas? — surtout quand c’est gratuit!

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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