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.

February 26, 2009

Chanson pour l’Auvergnot

Is France about to take yet another step towards losing its identity?

When I first heard that the Balladur commission, appointed by President Sarkozy to re-think how France is governed, will propose next week reducing the number of administrative regions from 26 or 22 to 15, with larger regions swallowing up the smaller, I thought, here’s yet one more cultural distinction and morsel of its heritage France is preparing to sacrifice. (In theory, the justification for reducing the regions is to reduce the number of elected officials; departmental councils often duplicate the functions of regional councils, for instance. The Socialist opposition view is that this is an attempt by the Right to diminish the power of the Socialists, who control 20 of the 22 regions in France proper. One of the regions eliminated would be Poitou-Charentes, controlled by Segolene Royal, Sarkozy’s opponent in the last presidential election.)

And yet it’s not so clear as that…. For if the French often identify themselves — with rightful pride — by their regions of origin, as often it’s the smaller departments which make up the regions which are more determinative. For example, where I live now, those born here are more likely to call themselves, and be called, “Perigordians,” a reference to the area which encompasses the Dordogne department and, depending on who you talk to, parts of the neighboring Lot. I’ve never heard anyone be called “Aquitanean,’ after the larger Aquitaine region, which is bordered on the north by Poitou-Charentes and Limousin, the East by the Midi-Pyrenees, the West by the Atlantic Ocean and the south by Spain, notwithstanding Eleanor d’Aquitaine…. (To help you situate it, the capital is Bordeaux, which lies in the department next to mine, the Gironde.) If I think it’s cool to be in the same region as the Basque country, the tall pines of the Landes (a third of which were decimated by the recent storm), the Ocean, Pau and the Pyrenees, and the border with Spain, it’s not like I can take a day trip to Spain.

By contrast, those from the Auvergne do call themselves, and are called, Auvergnats. They have their own hat and even their own hit song, “Chanson pour l’Auvergnat,” by one of France’s most famous troubadors, Georges Brassens. There are restaurants that specialize in the cuisine of the Auvergne, known for its salami, raclettes, five cheese appellations including blue d’auvergne, the poor man’s roquefort, and cantal, at 2000 years estimated to be the world’s first cheese. There’s even an excellent if under-appreciated wine, Saint-Pourcain. But my favorite regional specialty is gentiane, a bittersweet aperitif fabricated from a flower that grows in the region’s volcanic park. (The best-known mark is Suze, but I prefer Aveze, which has a less medicinal taste.) (As I’ve previously written, Simenon, in more than one Maigret tale, has called Gentiane the aperitif of last resort because it has a low alcohol content, for an aperitif anyway, thus is perfect for those with low alcohol tolerances and traveling salesman who have to imbibe a lot.)

In other words, notwithstanding that even some ex-pat Auvergnats think it’s a bleak terrain — including mountains which may owe their black color to the volcanoes — this region would seem to have more claim to continued political existence than mine, the Aquitaine. (Indeed, as the mighty Dordogne river which gives its name to my department and is its most distinctive feature originates in the Auvergne, an argument could be made for the Auvergne swallowing us — washed down by a nice St.-Pourcain of course. And preceded by a glass of gentiane, famous for helping the digestion.) And yet it’s the Auvergne which, under the Balladur plan, would be swallowed up by another, the Rhone-Alpes (capital Lyon), while the Aquitaine would grow, consuming Poitou-Charentes (and, presumably, Segolene with). Also being considered for absorption are Franche-Compté (by Burgundy), the distinctions of “Lower” and “Higher” in Normandy, which would be just that; Picardie (I have no idea where that is) and the Lorraine, which would be attached to Alsace.

Mais moi, it’s the loss of the Auvergne which I’d mourn most, echoing Brassens:

“Elle est à toi cette chanson
Toi l’Auvergnat qui sans façon
M’as donné quatre bouts de bois
Quand dans ma vie il faisait froid
Toi qui m’as donné du feu quand
Les croquantes et les croquants
Tous les gens bien intentionnés
M’avaient fermé la porte au nez….

Elle est à toi cette chanson
Toi l’hôtesse qui sans façon
M’as donné quatre bouts de pain
Quand dans ma vie il faisait faim.”

November 22, 2008

Sour Grapes: Wine & Whining, Fear & Loathing on the Campaign and Campagne trail in France

It might well be all the free coffee I drank at the round-table, bring your culture and dish lunch, and thematic improvisation at the local event for the Month of Economie Social and Solidaire, but to quote Stevie Wonder terribly out of context, I’m in a real Mr. Know-it-all mood this early Saturday evening, ready to give my French hosts advice on wine and politics. Here goes:

I don’t know if this is good or bad, but I’m beginning to know more about local wine than even some locals. I’ve now met at least a couple in the region who’ve never heard of what I think is the perfect departmental specialty when it comes to wine, that being bourou, basically a first pressing of white Perigordian wine that comes out fizzy, with a particular taste (grape juice with something more, sweet but not too) and the best part, is both hardly alcoholized (2 – 7 percent) and yet at the same time can give you a pleasant buzz. (As Bernard says, “You get bourou’d with bourou!”) (I miss Bernard already.) This fall there was such a prolongued delay in its release — probably because the cold weather made the grapes take longer to sweeten — that I actually tried to make some myself. Toujours at the suggestion of Bernard, I asked Monsieur Marty, the theoretically retired farmer across the path from me in Les Eyzies, if I could harvest some of his grapes. He said yes but this was not as easy as it sounds.It was not so simple as just picking all the white grapes that looked ready. Going branch to branch, vine to vine, I tested first to make sure they were actually sweet. Only about a third, at most, were; the rest were sour. (That’s not a complaint — hey, these were a gift — just a report.) Eventually I picked enough sweeties to make about an ice bowl-full (which I did in the Lillet ice bowl I got for my Lillet-loving brother Aaron years ago for a Euro at a vide grenier on the Canal St. Martin… unfortunately, even if the prices on Lillet ice bowls were down, the Euro was up in comparison to the dollar, so Aaron has not been back since, boo-hoo.) Following what I thought was Bernard’s advice, I pressed the juice out of the grapes — vendange a la main! — but left the grape skins in the bowl to ferment over-night.

Considering this was my first try, my bourou was pretty close to the real thing. The taste was right, but it was not so gazeuze and I did not get bourou’d.

So today I had a chance to taste what’s bascially the red grape version, a bio variety of just pressed wine. I had a couple glasses just because the experience was so unique but , at the risk of seeming ungracious — I couldn’t drink much more as a)I remembered Martin (my landlord in Les Eyzies) telling me about the time he got sick to the stomach tasting Monsieur Marty’s variety one year just after it had been wined, and b)it was too sour. I thought this was just how it’s supposed to taste, but then I remembered my experience hand-picking grapes from M. Marty’s vineyard — and *not* picking the sours — and I think it’s probably that with this red, there were just too many sour grapes in the mix.

Unless you’ve been reading me for a while, you probably thought that Segolene Royal was going to be the target of this clever segue, for refusing to accept Martine Aubry’s victory this morning by just 42 votes in the Socialist premiere secretary election. But in fact it’s the reverse. Listening to Aubry’s rabid refusal to accept Royal’s call for a re-vote — wich Royal wants not just because the count was close, but because there may have been voting irregularities — you’d think that she won by 42,000 votes. (I use the word ‘rabid’ express; Aubry’s behavior (not her, her behavior) right now reminds me of a dog trying to hold on to a bone; unfortunately, if she succeeds in hanging on to this particular bone — the Socialist Party — she may actually bury it, fulfilling Comrade Kruschev’s warning in reverse, without Nicolas Sarkozy having to lift a ring-whited out* finger.) Instead, she’s acting like she has a mandate! (We’re talking like, 50.02 percent to 49.98 percent.) Tonight Aubry — the retrenching Socialist compared to Royal’s modernizer — used the word ‘barrage’ to say that this is what the Left has to put up to actions from Nicolas Sarkozy’s ruling conservative government. Oh-lah-lah. THiS IS EXACTLY WHAT ALLOWED SARKOZY TO BEAT ROYAL IN THE FIRST PLACE. Besides fear of immigrants, the big reason the Socialists lost and Sarkozy won is that the former failed to recognize the real concerns of normal, middle-class people, particularly merchants. (My local news vendor in Paris told me, not long before he closed up shop, that he resented paying 60 percent of his income to support an over-abundance of functionaries or civil servants.) Now, you might say that, well, it was Segolene who carried the party banner and platform last time, so what makes you think she’d be different? Segolene *also* reached out to my hero the Mouvement Democratic’s François Bayrou (see also the link within that link if you don’t know who Bayrou is) — even saying she might make him her prime minister if elected. And Bayrou is someone who both recognizes the concerns of small businesspeople but is not going to give the farm away to big corporations, and who also is able to look at just about every important issue with fresh eyes, unshackled by ideological dictums. (Or is that ‘dictates’?)

So whether she is concsious of this or not, the barrage that Aubry will erect will actually be the one between the Socialists and ordinary French people outside of their calcifying movement. Might win her the Socailist primary in 2012; will lose the Socialists the seonc and final round of that year’s presidential election — if they get that far.

My solution? Here’s where I get cheeky: I think Segolene should leave the Socialist party, take her 50 percent of it with her, and add them to Bayrou’s 13 percent or so of the total electorate. To Aubry’s exclusionary barrage, she — and Bayrou — can then answer with an opening.

PS: Which, unfortunately, is all this year’s beaujolais nouveau merits. A good indice — although actually, this is the first year this has happened — is when even the grand surface super-market issue is under-par. There was no price on the bin of such at the Netto ‘hard discount’ shop down the street by the canal (er, not St. Martin; I’m now in Perigueux here in Southwest France, in case you just arrived at the party), causing one wag of a lady customer to ask the check-out lady, “Does that mean it’s free today, because this is beaujolais nouveau day?” It was actually 1.66 Euro, and I guess that unlucky number at the tail should have been the tip-off: It tasted like most of your 1.66 wines taste. (You really have to cross the 2 Euro threshold to find some bargains that are actually drinkable bargains.) (I see you scoffing Mark; I challenge you to a blind tasting next time you’re in France, mano-a-mano, VDPs to burgundies or maybe even Languedocs. Rhones are ringers so we’ll leave those out.) Sure enough, as I moved up the scale (yes I know, Smarty, the whole beaujolais nouveau thing is just a marketing thing, but it’s exactly the mediocrity of the grape that makes it a challenge to find one good one; what’s the fun in trying to find a good Loire?) — as I was saying, as I moved up the scale, the standard moved down from previous years. Great boudin accompaniements and even an accordian band playing old-timey hits at the ‘house of a thousand beers’ across the rue President Wilson, but all three selections were about as good as last year’s 2 Euro supermarket edition, notwithstanding the Toulouse-Latrec-y labels (Jane Avril seemed to be trying to hide). Only at Julian of Savignac’s tasting up a ways towards the Cathedral St. Front (my bourou source — Julian, that is, not the cathedral) did I finally score: No music, no party, just one plate of dry (though quite good and gamey) salami, but a corse Beaujolais Villages for 6 Euros and change that had some complexity and — this year’s surprise, if not glorious find — a Nouveau from the same vintner — Chateau du Chatelard — which, almost in defiance of Julian’s presenting it as ‘light’ had something else going on.

*To save myself from being *too* France Insider: This is a reference to the incident last week in which the right-wing leaning daily Le Figaro actually erased a 13,000 Euro ring on the finger of Justice Minister Rachida Dati before publishing her photo, the theory for this breach of journalistic ethics being that standing in for President Sarkozy, they didn’t want one of his ministers to seem so out-of-touch with ordinary French people in these austere times that she walks around boasting a 13,000 Euro piece of jewelry.

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