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!”

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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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