All the stuff you never knew you needed to know about life in rural France.....and all the stuff the books and magazines won't tell you.

Tuesday, 15 September 2009

Fruit of the vine


Old Wine PressImage by ...-Wink-... via Flickr

I have been picking grapes with friends or neighbours ever since I came to France, with only a couple of gaps due to illness. I have no experience whatsoever of picking on the industrial scale, so cannot comment, but the small scale job gives me a lot of pleasure. For one thing, it is usually only one day, or one and a half and then perhaps another couple of days later, so it is hardly demanding in terms of time, the weather is usually good and the company is always worth having.

Papy's middle son Jean asked me if I would help the first year....Mamie usually helped, but she was getting past it and needed to rest and another pair of hands would be welcome. Now, this was the unscientific age of winemaking, wild yeast on the grapes, no idea of temperature control and the desired result a pink wine a bit on the sweet side to keep the family going through the year. Accordingly, it was not necessary to stumble out in the dark before the dawn to take advantage of the coolest part of the day...we ventured forth in the afternoon, when the housework and the farmwork had been dealt with and the sun was approaching its' zenith. It promised to be warm work, and it was.
Jean organised us. Each person had a wide bucket and a pair of secateurs - so small that I found them difficult to handle and in future brought my own big gardening ones which were more suited to my paws. I was put with Jean's wife, to see that I knew what to do, we were assigned our rows of vines, and off we went. The object was to pick the triangular bunches of ripe grapes and, at all costs, not to include the round balls of immature ones, the secondary growths that an all too casual pruning had allowed to develop. If they went in, the wine would be too acidic. Most people squatted or crouched, but I found my best method was to shuffle along on my knees hoping not to encounter too many thistles or must be a height question, or a lack of attendance at yoga classes on my part. Supple I have never been. The technique was to place the bucket under the bunches you were picking so that they dropped neatly within, and the challenge was to miss no bunch, while being aware that another pair of secateurs was at work on the other side of the plant and your fingers were in imminent peril.
We moved along and I was pleased that I could keep up with the others and not miss anything...Papy inspected each row, with crows of triumph if he found a bunch still hanging on the vine. Conversation was brisk, the gosssip was hair raising and I was quite surprised to find how quickly the buckets were filled and taken to the trailer sitting behind Papy's tractor at the edge of the field. The women were grumbling that there should be someone in charge of the buckets to save them from having to get up and down and then stretch up to the trailer, so Papy was given additional duties which put a swift end to his inspection and crowings....he was too busy coming and going, keeping his pickers busy.
The first third of the vines had been cleared when Jean called a break. Papy, the man of the moment, was prepared. He had the mustard glasses ready....the ones that you buy which contain mustard and then can use for drinking ever afterwards...and the bottles were brought from the bucket which had been hanging in the well....that cool, soft pink wine went down very well the first time - and the second! Papy went off with the tractor and trailor down to the press but for us it was back to work on the rest of the vines and the afternoon began to turn into evening by the time we had taken our second break and were on the last stretch. Papy had taken another load, and this was the last, so we all trailed after him, down to the house to wash our buckets and secateurs under the tap in the yard, stacking them to dry, and then washing our sticky and stained hands. The modern - well, reasonably so - press was full and in action, a long cylinder which acted a bit like a syringe...the plate at the end pushing inexorably forward, but gently enough not to start breaking the pips, which would add a bitterness which was not desired, squeezing the juice out through the pipe at the far end into an underground concrete tank where fermentation would take place. The last of the harvest had to go in the old press, a round wooden structure with a central screw as pictured above where the levels were adjusted with wooden blocks, a long metal pole turned the screw and the juice poured between the slats onto the platform of the press, thence to buckets placed underneath.
The friends and neighbours were heading for home, and so was I when Mamie appeared from the doorway of the house.
'Don't forget....we're all eating down at Jean's tonight.....I always used to do it, but I'm just getting too old.'
It appeared that I was invited to supper, and, checking with Jean's wife, who seemed remarkably cool for someone about to entertain the multitudes, that was indeed the case.
'Should I bring anything?'
'Oh....well, one of your salads would be nice. Jean likes that.'
I hared home, scrubbed my hands with bleach and tried to wash and change while racking my brains to remember what it was I had served when Papy's family had come to supper, and, worse, wondering if I had the ingredients in the house. It occurred to me that it would probably have been my standby.....tinned chickpeas, red beans and flageolet beans, combined with diced onion, black olives and parsley with a good slosh of green and tasty olive oil. Store cupboard stuff. I put it together and included the batch of pork pies I had made the day before for good measure, and was ready when Papy honked to take me down to the village in his old Renault van. He and Mamy sat in the front and the rest of us crouched in the back with our various offerings, swaying in unison on the corners and combining to keep Papy's dog from pushing his nose into the dishes.

The tables had been set in the courtyard of Jean's house, lit by those bamboo outside lights that flare and cast shadows at their own sweet will, and the women were already setting out the dishes they had provided. The whole thing was a glorious buffet, home made pate, rillettes, rillons, ham and charcuterie, salads, bread and cheese, and, of course, wine.
We ate, we talked, we drank, and, eventually, we sang.
My best memory of that long day is the quiet courtyard with the tenor voice of Pierre soaring into the shadows, and the warm full response of the chorus as we sang

'A la claire fontaine.'

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  1. My apologies for the clumsy link at the top...I'll try to get the friend with the brain to tidy it up, but it is a link to the song
    'La Claire Fontaine'.

  2. Sounds wonderful - there is not quite the equivalent in Britain. When I was young the men in my village would be beaters for the hunt and we would all have a party afterwards.

  3. Mark, I suppose we were all too young - or in the wrong place - to have known old fashioned harvest suppers...not the things they organise in village halls these days.

  4. EEK! I'm so glad you mentioned the communal meal!!! It reminds me I should probably feed and quench thirsts of the people who help me harvest the grapes!!

    I'm taking another bunch in today to have the sugar tested. I really hope they're not ready, because I'M not ready yet!

    Mostly I guess, I thought we were going to squish them (by foot) in the big blue tubs. After which I will stir them faithfully three times a day, for a week or two, while they ferment. (no winemaking co-op- wish we did)

    The little press I was lent, I thought, was maybe for after they'd fermented a bit (but maybe not???) It would be much easier on the feet (wasps!) If we just put the grapes all into the little press and let it dribble into the big blue tubs! (???)

    Must check with wine making friend...

    Great descriptions of the wonderful community process tho, I really enjoyed the post!

  5. What a lovely post. I could feel the atmosphere. I've also learned now how to pick grapes properly. Although I only have one small vine, I realise now I was doing it all wrong.

    And I love the store-cupboard salad...ingredients which I usually have in my cupboard...very useful stand-by for unexpected guests.

  6. Sounds like a lovely time. How did you end up living in France anyway?

  7. truestarr, I've never had enough grapes of my own..just the vine round the balcony...but I think that the time the grapes spend in the trailor might start the squishing process a bit. The one time I tried putting grapes in the juicer was a disaster...tough skins resisted well and cleaning it was a nightmare.Check with someone local for what happens in Corfu.

    Ayak, yes, that salad is really handy! It's still good, picking grapes with friends, but the plot we pick now is much smaller than Papy's - thankfully, I suppose - so it's a smaller group, but it's still fun.

    Zuleme, it was a great introduction to rural life....I learned a lot! I could go to France because it was possible to carry on my work in the U.K. by fax with occasional visits...before the days of the internet for numpties like me...and I leapt at the chance to change everything I could about the way in which I had been living.

  8. I've tagged you...if you have time please pop over to my blog and take a look xx

  9. Ayak, I have looked and asked for guidance...I think I put the reply on that it?

    Numpties again...

  10. Just in case you didn't know...les rillettes were invented/made in la Sarthe (chez moi) & in fact 3 of the best commercial ones are w/in 10mins of us. The hubby is making his way through all the pots from the local bouchers to determine 'his best'...and we have also had the pleasure of tasting the home-made ones of our friends (the dairy farmers) down the road (actually her mother, who raises the pigs & then makes all her own meat goods)...add some Amora cornichons, warm them up a bit and absolutely fantabulous!

  11. L.R. M-J, driving up to Brussels..not on the autoroutes...we used to pass a place proclaiming itself to to be the home of the rillette. but the name escapes me because just before or after was a factory proclaiming itself to be Christ!

    Helene makes rabbit and pork ones, Madielene used to make goose and pork ones....and it is a bit like the search for a good black pudding....always on the look out for a queue out of the door at a butcher's shop.