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.