When I was a timid newcomer to the French rural scene, the cry of
'We're out of wine!'
would mean a trip to the supermarket. That was where I was accustomed to buying wine when I was a tourist, so that was where I went. It also meant that I could just grab the bottles and pay without having to stretch my French beyond "Bonjour' - and why is it never 'Bonjour, Madame" when you greet the cashier and always 'Bonjour, Madame" when she greets you? It's not just me, it's French too, just listen next time you shop.
In the matter of choice, the local supermarkets could not beat the wine stores of the U.K. where the world's wine was displayed for my delectation...in France, at that point, only French wine was available. What else would the French consumer buy? Well, Algerian and Tunisian, but they counted as French thanks to colonial history and all the old boys who did their national service in North Africa wanted pink North African wine to go with their spit roasted lamb - the 'mechoui', while they gathered together to recall the horrors of the colonial wars....
'Do you remember, Georges, courgettes every day for lunch....."
M. Untel changed my wine buying habits. He was an ex gendarme who was ex because he had managed to go too far even for a gendarme in breathalysing the local doctor when he, M. Untel, having drink taken, was having to hold on to the gendarmerie van for support while proffering the balloon. The doctor was not amused...he was out on an emergency. Consequently M. Untel had the choice of a posting to Devil's Island or retirement on full pension. He was the rep for a co operative selling vegetable seeds when I met him...a bit like
but preceded by a strong smell of drink and accompanied by the clanking of the bottles he had brought with him to while away the time it took to take my seed order. Thinking about it, his technique could revolutionise door to door cosmetic sales or Tupperware parties. I see it now...... M. Untel, brick red in colour from exposure to the sun and the long term effects of alcohol, surrounded by palpitating ladies, producing the company's latest plastic must-have item........a long plastic spike with a round base upon which to impale empty bottles to make sure of gathering the last reluctant drops of wine. They would be so overcome by the fumes that they would buy anything.
On this occasion, while I was dithering between the Triomphe de Farcy and the latest amazing stringless -ready -for -the- freezer green bean, he asked me what I intended to do with the heap of empty bottles at the side of the house. They had been there when I bought it, they were not in my way, so I had left them alone...there were higher priorities than shifting hundreds of old bottles. The snort told me that I had got my priorities wrong. Those bottles were for filling. With wine. With local wine. From local vignerons. He took me to look at the contents of the boot of his car. It was packed to the gills with bottles of wine, all corked, but not one of them with a tax capsule. This was what the heap was intended for. He closed the boot. I asked him if he wasn't worried about being stopped by his former colleagues. He was not.
'It's for them.'
He would introduce me to a suitable vigneron and then, once I knew what the form was, I was on my own. First, however, I had to wash all the bottles and buy plastic containers. He would lend me a hedgehog. This was becoming surreal. Thoughts of Alice in Wonderland and the flamingos were going through my mind.
I started on the bottles, soaking them in the granite trough by the barn, brushing them out, holding them to the light and then repeating the process until what could be cleaned was clean as a whistle. It was a horrible job...those bottles had been there a damn long time and had become home to sundry living creatures, or creatures that had once lived. M. Untel arrived with his hedgehog, which turned out to be a contrivance about three foot high with circular rows of spikes upon which the washed bottles could be upturned and dried.
The next day he turned up with plastic containers...like the ones I used to use for water when camping, with little taps at the bottom, except that these held 20 litres apiece. I could use these,which he called 'cubis'. He also produced a bottling machine...a thing with a hole into which one fed a cork, put the full bottle on the stand underneath and swung down with all one's might on a lever, thus forcing the cork into the bottle. He gave me sage advice.
'Soak the corks in warm water first or you'll do yourself a mischief'.
We were off to see his neighbour to buy wine. He would show me how it was done.
We arrived at a farm, and a small man in cap and overalls greeted M. Untel with pleasure and regarded me dubiously.
Was I a security risk? Goodness only knows how these foreigners gossip giving rise to problems with taxmen. He was reassured by M. Untel that I didn't have enough French to get anyone into trouble, and the ceremony commenced.
We were led into his barn, where huge concrete vats covered the walls, and, in honour of the presence of a lady, the tasting glasses...well, tumblers...were wiped out with a cloth. We started with the dry white chenin , we proceeded to a dry pink then a sweeter pink , we returned to a sweeter white, then switched to a red merlot, then a red cabernet franc and finished on a dessert wine. At no point was a spittoon provided.
What would I like to buy? I had two cubis, so I could have two choices. I took the dessert wine and the dry white, and they were duly filled from the vats. I paid, in cash, of course, and the cubis went into the boot.
At home, I filled the bottles with a funnel, soaked the corks, and M. Untel helped me with the bottling process...I was grateful as I was not at all sure that I had the strength or the technique required for that part of the operation. Satisfied with his day's work of cultural integration he gathered up his cubis, his bottling machine and his hedgehog and headed for home with a final injunction.
'Mind now, no more buying in supermarkets!'