Tuesday, 29 December 2009

Repas de Vendanges

The meal could almost be the raison d’être of the grape harvest. I have been privileged to be invited to the vendanges for the past four years and in that time the meal has gone from riotous to fairly staid. There used to be a lot of horseplay in the vineyard and at table and there’s still a lot of hilarity, teasing, pushing and shoving, as well as serious eating and drinking. The menu is still gargantuan and doesn’t vary all that much from year to year. This year we were 20 at table in the lean-to garage, some of whom had neither picked grapes nor helped in the kitchen. I arrived (deliberately) late when a lot of imbibing had already taken place – mostly whisky for the men and home made pineau for the women, accompanied by the worst kind of supermarket aperitif snacks you can get – ersatz smoky bacon flavoured crispy things – all additives and colourings. Yum!

Paulette has at least three helpers in the kitchen on the day and a couple for a day or two before. Everything is cooked on a large gas ring in the stable or on the solid fuel stove in the kitchen, using the flimsiest of aluminium pans and the only work surface in the kitchen table. She has an enormous stock of bowls, dishes and platters – all the women take turns to help serve; the men only move to pour wine, light their cigarettes and throw water at one another. There are a lot of smokers in the group, so if you want to be able to taste the food it’s wise to sit at the open end.

Any country meal begins with soup and a meal as culturally important as this one absolutely must include soup. When Serge (the father) was alive the soup was always a potage with tomato and angel hair pasta/vermicelli. Serge believed that every meal, except breakfast which he didn’t eat anyway (a hand-rolled cigarette and a cup of black coffee), began with soup, no matter how hot the weather, lunch and dinner, otherwise he didn’t feel as though he had eaten a proper meal. Soup is very important in French peasant food – it rehydrates and provides minerals for labourers and contains perhaps the only vegetables they will eat that day. This year we ate a squash soup with grated cheese in it, which was delicious and the cheese very stringy and sticky – cause for some hilarity as it got everywhere. In this region, once the men are down to the broth, they add a slug of red wine to the plate, swirl it around and drink it straight from the soup plate. Traditionally only one plate was used throughout the  meal, so this was a good way of cleaning it. Also, bread doesn't usually appear on the table until after the soup. Some of the men at the table take three servings of soup.

Second course – crudités – grated carrot, sliced tomato with raw red onion, hard boiled eggs and cucumber – vinaigrette in a Tupperware container because the French love Tupperware. One of my cousins is a Tupperware Queen – I think she has everything they ever made.  Her fridge is a model of order and cleanliness but I don’t think that owning Tupperware would help me or my fridge…

Third course – charcuterieRosette de Lyon, two kinds of Saucisse de Morteaux with and without garlic, home made pâté de campagne – the gherkins are obligatory with pâté. And lots of bread. Once, all the charcuterie would have been home produced but it's a lot to expect now that Paulette is getting on a bit. She does still make all her duck conserves and pâtés. There was also a curious and surprisingly good raw cabbage salad with vinaigrette and croutons – the croutons make all the difference. Agnès spent three hours slicing the crinkly savoy cabbage as fine as lace with an enormous and rather blunt knife.

Fourth course – beans. We eat a lots of these white beans or mongettes  in this region – here they are cooked with ham or pork skin, onion, celery and parsley. Further south they would add  tomato and probably carrot.  Traditionally, vegetables and meat were always served as separate courses but this is less common these days. This allowed manly men to have a cigarette instead of greens.

Fifth course – roast chicken. I am salivating just thinking about it. These are no ordinary chickens – Paulette raises them and cooks them in a covered pot in her solid fuel cooker. The smell is outrageous and the flavour indescribable. These are real chickens – I would pick any amount of grapes just to eat her roast chicken. Of course, by  this time in the meal I am not hungry any more but I eat two pieces anyway – the fat is yellow and the skin crispy. The flavour fills your mouth and all you want to do is sit and eat chicken until it comes out of your ears. It is such luxury and so few people today know what a real chicken can taste like. I’m still dribbling. If you’ve never eaten a chicken bred on scraps and maize and lettuce, which has scratched and eaten grubs and then roasted slowly in its own juices with only salt and pepper as seasoning, then you need to come and visit! 

Sixth course – salad. A green salad with vinaigrette and chopped raw shallot - sliced in by hand at the last minute. This is the way they do it in the the Charente - the département just across the river - i.e. 500 m. away and which is a foreign country. In the Charente they often eat wilted salad too - called "cooked" or "tired" and they always eat their salad with cheese. Paulette is from the Charente, thus a foreigner, where they speak a completely different patois and she imported her foreign ways such as eating tired salad with cheese and making pineau. She has lived in this frontier village for nearly 60 years and isn't about to go home across the river. In the Perigord nobody really cares about cheese  unless it’s goat’s cheese, so we are offered an industrial Camembert, followed by cookies, coffee and something very strong out of an anonymous bottle, which this year turns out to be cherry eau de vie. Coffee is brewed in this fantastic enamelled pot and served in the glasses we’ve been using for wine and water. Altogether a modest meal for the 2009 vendange! And it only took three hours to eat it. 

Saturday, 26 September 2009


Vendanges - the grape harvest

Always in the plural - les vendanges. This year, we picked on 26th September for our neighbours over the road. The white grapes for pineau were picked on Friday - one year we did this in a thunderstorm, actually surprisingly unpleasant. The day starts with a casse-croute or breakfast of salamis, pâté and cheese, coffee and bread and wine - red, of course. Then at about 8.30 we convene at the vineyard opposite the cemetery and pick grapes for a while, until there is a break for more wine and coffee if you can't drink red wine at 9.30 in the morning. It is last year's wine, thin and acidic. The coffee, in a grudgingly small thermos flask has chicory in it but sugar cubes are provided.
This year there were three hod carriers - it's quite hard work as the hod is made of metal and when it's full of grapes is rather heavy.To get the grapes in the wagon you have to climb a ladder with the hod on your back and then tip it sideways so that the fruit slides out, preferably into the trailer. Both KK and his sister AK have carried the hod with honour.

These photo's are AK's from 2007 when she was guest of honour and as a vendange virgin had her baptism of grapes in the face - KK was left alone - too big and unpredictable. AK got her revenge but later... that's another story. I'll post more photographs from this year later on.

To pick the grapes, we work crouched down in pairs, one either side of a row of vines and then we help one another to catch up, so that the pickers stay in a relatively small area, which makes it easier for the hod carriers. Usually the brother is a carrier but this year he was off doing a basket making course with Maman.

You have to be very careful when picking the grapes not to skewer your partner through the leaves - we use special secateurs which are not only sharp but have very sharp points - this year there was only one casualty and it wasn't fatal. On Saturday, the weather was perfect - slightly chilly in the morning, but clear and sunny. It was a good year for grapes, as we had a lot of sun and dry days during the summer and a few days of rain at the end of August - just enough to swell the grapes appropriately.

The black grapes are beautiful. Some of the full bunches are perfect, with the bloom still dusky on the fruit and they taste musky and sweet. They explode in your mouth, pulpy and slightly slithery, with the merest hint of muscadine. I ate a lot this year. How could it be better? You squat in the sun, your view of others obscured by the vines, pick a perfect bunch of grapes and stick them one by one in your mouth. It's difficult to stop. Eventually, after just over two hours the vineyard is picked clean and we stop for more wine, before taking the wagon full of berries back to the barn to put in the fermenting vat. 
An octogenarian farmer from a neighbouring village brings his special  grape crushing wagon which has an Archimedes screw at the bottom. This screw is powered by the tractor engine and the resulting squishy pulp of grapes is fed in the the fermenting vat, via a tube that looks a lot like dryer hose. This means a lot of manly standing about and scratching heads and looking for primitive tools. The grape pulp is sucked into the huge fermenting vat, leaving a brilliant red liquid behind and the heady smell of rubber boots, diesel fumes and grape juice.

The fruit is left in the vat for a week - people go and look at it every day and the crust that forms on the top is poked down. The smell is amazing. It's a good idea for two people to be there, as one has to climb up to the top of the vat and stir - the second person is there for safety. This is especially important when it comes to emptying the vat - tragic accidents are not uncommon. Noxious fumes congregate at the bottom of the vat and the one baling can be overcome and die very quickly. At this stage the wine is put into barrels and left for a year or so. The wine form round here is rarely more than 10% alcohol - so not very strong. In a couple of weeks (and assuming no one is left at the bottom of the vat), two old plastic water bottles filled with a sinister, dark liquid will appear on the doorstep. This is bourru or new wine-  it tastes pleasant enough and slightly fizzy. Last year at this time, it was cold enough that I had lit the wood stove and we left the bottles of bourru next to the fire - this encouraged fermentation and they erupted making a terrible Bordeaux-coloured mess. It's quite good for adding to the vinegar. Although the wine itself isn't great, it is part of the rhythm of village life. Every farm used to have a small vineyard, in the same way as they had a pig or two and a fowl yard. Now only three vineyards remain in the commune (no pigs and only a few fowl). MD - the previous owner of the brother's house went into a decline when his vines were destroyed. Permission to grub them up had to be obtained from Bergerac - I had no idea that you couldn't just get rid of your own vineyard. It takes work and people to help to keep the vines but it is important. The continuation of the ritual, even though we are far too many picking a ridiculously small quantity of grapes, is important in a rural community where work is no longer done in common, where there is no longer a valid excuse to get together and where the farmers are dissociated from the rest of us by their huge machines. And the most important part of the ritual is the vendange meal...

Tuesday, 15 September 2009


Figs, glorious figs

My brother, the blacksmith has a fig tree laden with luscious figs. He only likes them dried and our solar dryer will have to wait till next year, especially since it is now pissing with rain for the first time in months. The tree has so many fruits on it and I can't eat them all! We have given some away but they don't keep and attract fruit flies like nothing else. Hornets also love them and the blacksmith has been killing dozens in his house every evening.
The only one who really likes fig jam is KK, so I may make a couple of jars for him, tho' as he rightly said, the cave is already full of jam that we don't eat. I pointed out that he would almost always prefer to eat cherry jam, of which we made quite a lot this year, while KK was here and we scrumped the trees around about. It's hard to let the fruit go to waste. He re
minds me that fig and walnut jam is good and since we have a shed load (almost literally) of walnuts still to process from 2007 & 2008, I think this is a good idea. And fig jam does go well with foie gras.

I have put a few figs in jars with sugar syrup and a fig wine apéritif that I made in the summer, which wasn't much appreciated as a drink. I think it was too strong (as in alcoholic) but since I invented the recipe after having tasted it at the red village of Collonge, I'm ready to try making it again.

Other ways to enjoy figs - again sadly only enjoyed by me at present, apart from splitting them open fresh from the tree and stuffing them in my mouth - split them gently and put in some goat's cheese, either fresh or more pungent according to your particular palette, and put them under the grill/broiler. Delicious with a green salad. Round here, they make a fig bread with about 50% wholemeal flour and this is really good with any cheese, but particularly goat's cheese. Also, of course, good with honey. The daughter puts goat's cheese and honey on her fig bread. Not bad!

Last year, I remember making an apéritif snack with dried figs and I think it would work with fresh ones. I made it so that an overweight friend would have something other than nuts and crackers on which to snack, to sop up the whisky. You soak the figs in fortified wine (fig wine again!) I think I used pineau - spoon a little honey over the figs and then put them in the oven for a while till slightly caramelised. Good eaten as a snack or as dessert with crème fraîche or vanilla ice cream. And actually delicious with chestnut ice cream.

Yesterday, my mother made a dessert for a dinner I was preparing and to which she wasn't invited, which I think is very nice of her. She split the figs and filled them with a mixture of sugar, butter and ground almonds, then baked them for 10 minutes. 2 out of 3 of us liked the result, tho' I felt it was a little sweet. She had suggested flambéeing the whole dessert but I had got fed up by then. We ate 2 kinds of chorizo brought back by me & KK from Spain, blanquette de veau with locally produced veal, and everything else produced within a 10km radius, except the salt (100 kms), white wine (30 kms) and basmati rice & pepper (India!). The other two eaters refused salad on the grounds that they had eaten too much blanquette, so I ate it for lunch today in a piece of fresh baguette with some delicious tinned tuna also bought in Spain in tiny, one person-serving tins. Tuna is so very important on the Basque coast - in the town we saw shops basically devoted to tinned tuna, sardines and anchovies - the windows glowing from the beautiful label art.