My Second Vendange

Wednesday was the second day of the grape harvest at Domaine de Cébène. Sunday, the first day, I mostly stood around and took pictures of other people working. The vendange was supposed to begin Saturday, but the weather didn’t cooperate. Rain poured down and removed a bit more of my bathroom ceiling which had partially collapsed during the previous storm. (Help is on the way!) Sunday dawned dry with partial sunshine. By noon about half of the Syrah had been picked and was in the vats on its way to becoming wine. My contribution to the first day of harvest was a pasta salad which I went home to make while everyone else was picking grapes.

After the grapes are picked, the crates are taken by tractor, if there’s one available, or truck to the cellar. The grapes are then emptied into the egrappoir, a machine that removes the stems and sends the grapes down a chute and into a fermentation vat in the cellar below.

After watching Brigitte work at the egrappoir, I decided to have a go myself. It felt a bit like a Lucille Ball skit. The grapes, sans stems, roll down the chute like pinballs and if you don’t move them along fast enough they pile up and spill over.Soon I was elbow deep in Grenache, pushing grapes in one direction as more spilled down the chute towards me. Brigitte mentioned at one point that it would be very dangerous to fall into the vat below as the gasses given off once the fermentation starts are lethal. I tried to keep that in mind.
A more immediate problem was my back which after 30 minutes began to protest.

A good experience though; interesting to think that at some future point I may drink a glass of wine that I’ve had a hand (literally) in producing!

By La vie en France

A Bit Of Theatre

After living in France for two and a half years, days can seem quite ordinary and routine; I shop for groceries, work, meet friends, all in all not much different than life back in the States. Yesterday though was one of those days in which I had the sense of how different it is to live here and how incredibly lucky I am to be having this experience and, even more so, to have met Brigitte and have the opportunity to get a first hand look at the life of a vigneron.

I drove to the cellar in absolutely torrential rain which went on all afternoon. The cellar is on a hilltop and low clouds and mist hung over the vines; I couldn’t even see the mazet further down the hill.

Inside, Brigitte and Pierre were doing some fine tuning on the blends before the bottling of the 2014 vintage on September 3 & 4. I was going to say last minute fine tuning, but Brigitte said they would probably still be making adjustments right up until the wine was in the bottles. They were also draining the lees, the residue that sinks to the bottom of the vats–vats that in just a few weeks will be filled with the fruits of this year’s vendage.

All around the cellar were the boxes and crates of Domaine de Cébène wine which will be shipped all over Europe, Canada, China and, soon, the US. As rain beat on the roof and thunder rumbled, I watched Pierre scramble up ladders, watched Brigitte making notes about a blend they had just tasted. More thunder and the lights briefly flickered, Brigitte looked at me, shrugged and went on working. It was noon and they still had hours of work to do. It’s not just how the wine tastes at this moment, Pierre had explained, it is how it will taste when the sommelier opens it, maybe five years from now. I imagined this, a bottle of their wine being uncorked in a fancy restaurant somewhere, five or ten years from now, perhaps on another continent and I watched the work going on around me. I had the sense of being backstage in a theatre. On opening night, it’s hard to imagine all the hard work that went on behind the scenes to create the polished production. I felt very privileged to be a witness to this one.

When I left, Pierre gave me a plastic water bottle filled with some of the lees. Very good for making coq au vin, he said. I will definitely have to try it. Life in France is very good and sometimes thrillingly different.

By La vie en France

Almost a year . . .

IMG_3476 The end of this month marks my first year in Laurens; I came here after spending four months back in the States. It’s been another terrific year in France, hard to believe how at home I feel–the apartment, the friends I’ve made, the work. Soon after I arrived in Laurens, I mapped out a walk, about three miles, which I do most days. Because it’s the same walk (through one road that winds through the vineyards, around the chateau and back to the village) it makes me very aware of the different seasons.

Above a chilly January walk, winter red nose, bundled up in scarf and hat. I’d return to the apartment shivering and wet. In February it even snowed for all of one hour and lasted about that time too. IMG_2751
March, April and May brought wild flowers in all different colours. I’m not an artist, but springtime is the season when I truly wish I could paint.

Summer this year was brutally hot. For weeks during June and July there were days of 90 plus weather and some days it didn’t cool much below 80 at night. Too hot for me. I’d been walking in the late afternoon, but I had to change things around and walk in the mornings and if I didn’t start out by 7, the sun was too intense. I had fans going in the apartment, the shutters closed to keep out the heat, but some days it was too hot to even think. One day, I packed up the laptop and drove to a McDonald’s in Pezenas and worked while trying to resist the lure of French fries. Except for the French spoken all around me, I could have been in any McDonald’s back in the States.

But while I wilt, the grapevines thrive in the summer heat. As I walked through the vineyards in early summer, the vines were all long sprawling branches like gangly teenagers. Just a few months earlier, I’d been looking for the first baby leaf buds. The grapes, small and green at first seemed to grow bigger by the day and by July were beginning to change colour.

Back in the States, I always thought of August as the dog days of summer, but here in France–or at least on my walk this morning–I felt a bit of autumn in the air. Last night it rained and this morning the sky was a clear pale blue. Some clouds still lingered over the hills and at 7:30 there was almost a chill in the air. The grapes are hanging in purple clusters, blackberries are ripening, figs and olives not quite there yet; I definitely have my eye on the figs. After all the heat of June and July, I’m loving August! In a few weeks, the grapes will be ripe and ready to pick and head off to the vats for what Brigitte calls their education. Once the grapes are gone, the leaves wither and fall from the vine and it’s all quiet in the vineyard again until next year.

By La vie en France

Can it really be two months . . .

DSCF0983 . . . since my last blog?  Yes, Janice, it can.  More than two months actually.  Kind of like stepping on the scales and staring with disbelief at the numbers.   Time is supposed to speed up as you get older, but this is ridiculous.  So since April when I last wrote summer has arrived with temperatures in the 90’s and even 100 on a couple of days.  In April the first leaves were still making their tentative appearance, now the vines are long and gangly with bunches of pale green fruit.

Like the vines, French villages go fairly dormant in the winter then come alive in the summer months. Posters for fetes, music festivals, wine tastings are strewn about like confetti, almost every village seems to have something going on and it’s difficult sometimes to choose. I missed the transhumance–the sheep being moved from one place to another–in my old village of Montpeyroux a few weeks ago, but will return there next week for a big meal that will be served on long tables set down the middle of the street. Pictures below are from the transhumance and repas my first year in France. Here in Laurens, there are Sunday barbecues at one of the wineries, evenings of jazz and, tomorrow, a vide grenier (rummage sale) where I I’ll buy all sorts of things I don’t really need.

There are so many great things about living in France, but one of them is the opportunity to leave it once in a while for quick and inexpensive visits to countries. Spain is of course just a few hours away and I’ve driven back and forth many times. Last Xmas, Joe and I flew to Krakow and in May I spent ten days in Budapest with my friend Sandra. Quite a thrill to lean out of our apartment window and see the Danube down at the bottom of the road. The day we left for Hungary, I ate breakfast in my apartment here in France, we had lunch in Rome where we changed planes and ate dinner at a sidewalk cafe in Budapest. The language was impossible, but apparently English is just as difficult for Hungarians. The apartment manager looked at my first name on the receipt and said, “I have not been introduced to this word before. I guess that it is said Yaneecha.” I rather liked it.

On the work front, I’m continuing to compile notes on my Year In The Vineyard project with Brigitte at Domaine de Cébène –hard to believe that we’re only three months away from harvest — writing some articles and looking, sort of, for an agent for the book that I was writing when I first came to France. I go through stages in which I think it is quite good, wonder why it hasn’t been picked up, then decide that nothing works and I tear it apart again. I’m writing articles here and there and recently took on a new freelance assignment so life is very good, busy and, occasionally, productive. Perhaps the length of time between blogs is an indication!
À toute à l’heure!

By La vie en France

Springtime and visitors. . .

Facebook has a new feature, or maybe it’s been around for a while and I haven’t noticed. A few days ago when I logged on, I was shown an entry for two years ago on the same date. Newly arrived in France, I was living in the Dordogne where, even though it was supposed to be spring, the weather was rainy and cool. Two years on, living in the Languedoc where spring has not only arrived but seems ready to pass on the mantle to summer. Just a few weeks ago, I was still looking for the first leaf burst, now it’s a sea of pale green all around the village. Temperatures climbed into the 80’s on a couple of days and the fields and garrigue are a riot of colours– pink, lavender and yellow, splashes of scarlet poppies, and great clumps of purple irises.

Also just about two years ago, I’d had my first visitor from the States. Kit, who had been visiting Ireland, took a train from Paris to Bordeaux where I met her. We roamed around for a couple of days then took the train to Perigeaux and rented a car to drive back to my village. After driving in California for years, I have no idea why getting behind the wheel in France completely freaked me out, but it did–to the point that Kit drove the rental car and turned it back in Perigeaux at the end of her visit. I was sans car until I moved to Montpeyroux in the Languedoc and found dependence on buses and trains a bit constricting. A friend let me drive her truck and, after tooling around the vineyards, a few times I was ready for a car of my own.
This time, I thought nothing of driving to Barcelona to meet Kit and her husband Jerry– my first US visitors in 2015 and the first to Laurens where I now live. Kit scores big in the department of firsts.
Having visited Bordeaux and Barcelona together, we thought it might be interesting to visit all the B cities of Europe. We’ll see. Anyway, it was a good visit. From Barcelona, we drove to Cadaqués, which never fails to thrill then back to Laurens. We ate grilled steak at a vineyard lunch, plates of mussels at a street fare and seldom passed a cheese stall without making a purchase. Ditto the boulangerie which Kit visited every morning. For the most part, she’d point at whatever took her fancy, essentially almost everything, then stagger back with the spoils. Pictures tell the story.

As Kit said, 12 euros and ten minutes later. If it looks as though I had nothing to do with this carnage, my hips give lie.

It’s always difficult to know exactly what will appeal to visitors, there is so much to see it’s difficult to whittle down the choices, but the 1.6 mile Millau Viaduct, above town of Millau (me-you–thanks Kit for the nmenomic) was definitely a hit. Spanning the valley of the River Tarn, the 984 feet bridge is the tallest in the world–the central pillar is higher than the Eiffel Tower. The Tarn River Gorge with its wild rock formations and limestone plateaus is considered the Grand Canyon of France. From the coasts to the mountains, the variety of the French landscape never fails to impress me.

By La vie en France

In the vineyard, the deceptive quiet of winter

The end of March will be mark second year in France. I can hardly believe I’ve been here that long, or that the time has flown so fast. New friends, new experiences, continuing struggles with the language, but best of all a great sense of contentment. I seem always to be busy–finishing this, starting that, dreaming of new projects. Below is my most recent article written for the Languedoc Sun, part of an on-going series called A Year In The Vineyard which profiles the work of vingeron Brigitte Chevalier at Domaine de Cébéne,

Life in the vineyard
The deceptive quiet of the winter months

Sometimes the many years that I lived in the United States come back to me as alarms of sorts, usually delivered during my walks along the narrow and very quiet roads through the vineyards. The smoke off in the distance, for example. Surely a wildfire, the kind that consumed houses and vast tracts of land in California. And those solitary vans parked on the side of the vineyard, what are they doing? Who are they waiting for? One winter evening, with the light rapidly fading and still some distance to go, I saw one of these vans parked up ahead and actually detoured, convinced the occupant was just biding his time until a lone female walker happened by.
So much for the paranoia of the city dweller. I now know that the ubiquitous white vans and small cars are part of the winter landscape in the vineyards. On subsequent walks, I’ve looked out and seen the pruners— bent down over the vines, slowly and methodically moving along the rows as they clip the long vine tendrils. The smoke, I later discovered, is from small bonfires of clippings set at the edges of the vineyards; the scent of woodsmoke drifting over the villages, is another signature of winter in the Languedoc.
But while winter around the vineyards might seem quiet to an outsider like myself, all languid pace and drifting smoke, it is in fact a busy season for the vintner. As the vines slumber the soil must be prepared for the coming season. At Domaine de Cébène, Brigitte and Stéphane began pruning the Mourvèdre and Carignan back in January, and continued with Mourvèdre, Syrah and Grenache over the following weeks. The vines are pruned using a ‘gobelet’ technique which requires no wires to attach the plants. “The same as the ancients have done before,” Brigitte explains.
In March, one sunny and blustery morning, I walk with Brigitte through the rows of Carignan—the old ladies as she calls them, some of them planted around the time of the First World War. As befitting their age, they are gnarled and fragile, barely clinging to life it would seem. Brigitte stoops to snap off a branch, it is as dry and dessicated as charcoal. Hard to imagine that in a few months these ancient vines will produce the fruit that is basis for the Domaine’s award winning Felgaria.
But while the old ladies are taking their long winter’s nap, the weeds and wildflowers all around them are energetic with new growth. Since they compete with the vines for needed nutrients, they must be removed. “This is a job we do for one or two hours a day, we don’t have time to do more.” Brigitte explains, as she yanks out a clump of yellow flowers. “But if you don’t remove them, they will eventually invade the vines.
A German buyer I met at Brigitte’s a few months ago, told me that most of his conversations with Brigitte had taken place in the Domaine de Cébène vineyard while she simultaneously pulled weeds from around the vines. “I barely saw her face,” he recalls. His comment is a perfect illustration of the year round work involved in the vineyard. If it isn’t the sanglier who like to eat the grapes — and they’ve been a problem especially in areas where the vineyard borders on oak groves — it is the competing weeds and vegetation. To help with the weeding, Brigitte sometimes brings in fortification. Just as she’s telling me that for once there she has enough people on hand, her mobile phone rings. Stéphane, who would oversee the work has injured his knee and will be out of action for a while. She shakes her head. “Just when you think things are under control . . .”

Behind us though, work is finally underway on the mazet, the ancient stone hut that by spring will serve as Domaine de Cébène’s tasting room. A small parcel under the mazet will be planted with additional Carignan vines. At the entrance to the estate, tractors have been preparing the ground for construction of a decorative stone wall to welcome visitors. Work on the mazet and stone wall were supposed to have been completed last winter in time for the summer season, but there were numerous delays. “Now it is finally happening,” she says. “I am so happy.
With only one regular employee, Brigitte must take on most of the work of running a business —both physical and administrative — herself. Regardless of the season, this creates a varied, if exhausting, quality to her days. A recent morning, for instance, spent removing trees to make way for more Mourvèdre vines. “Lots of noise, lots of wind,” she says describing the work, “And the taste of schiste in my mouth and between my teeth.” The same afternoon, a meeting with a group of tourism officials to discuss plans for a vintage car ralley planned for June, the first such event in Faugères with participants arriving from all over France.
Compared to the various projects and work in and around the vineyard, winter in the cellar is comparatively quiet. Still there are things that must be done. “Wine ‘disappears’ quite quickly when in barrels,” Brigitte says. “ We call it “la part des anges”—the angel’s portion. To compensate for the work of the angels, and to avoid too much exposure to air, the wine levels in the barrels must be regularly topped up. The 500 liter barrels, placed one upon the other to a height of around three meters, are a dizzying challenge. “It’s rather acrobatic, climbing up to fill up them,” she says, “ So I only do that when I am not alone, in case I fall down.”
All the work involved in making wine of course requires work to market the product. Trade shows—in the past few months Brigitte attended events in Scotland, Germany and Brussells—offer the opportunity to gain exposure for her wines through contact with old and new customers. Of all the events, the Montpellier based Millésime Bio attended by organic, or bio, growers from around the world is the most important and prestigious. Although attendance at such events take time from an already.packed schedule, Brigitte says it is part of the work and definitely worthwhile.
A visit to Domaine de Cébène by wine journalists back in January presented an opportunity for Brigitte to show off her product and also a challenge calling for some quick thinking. “To celebrate their first visit to the new cellar I wanted to organise one of my first ever full vertical tasting (different vintages of the same wine type) to emphasize differences between various vintages.“ Comments would offer valuable feedback on her wines since the beginning of Domaine de Cébène, she explains.
Since all the bottles from the older vintages had been sold, she had to contact customers with supplies still on hand. “We were able to provide almost all the older bottles, except one,” Brigitte says. “Which is probably lying in a cellar waiting to be opened in a few years. Perhaps if they read these lines!”
Never a quiet moment, even in the dark of winter.

By La vie en France

A Boaring Story . . .

I had my second encounter with a sanglier, or wild boar, last night. My first was just before Christmas when I caught one in the headlights of my car. He, or she, was moving through a stand of trees and by the time I’d braked for a closer look (from the car, of course) had disappeared into the woods. I’ve been fascinated with sanglier since I first arrived in France. I was in the Dordogne and there was a discussion about hunting and eating sanglier. Someone had mentioned seeing one in the woods–the woods where I took my daily walk. They don’t usually bother people, I was assured, unless they are provoked. Still, I stopped walking in the woods; who knows what a sanglier might find provocative?

In the fall, by then I’d moved to Montpeyroux, I saw chasseurs, hunters, in orange vests along the sides of the roads, rifles at the ready. I tried to engage one of them in conversation, but my French was limited and he was more interested in spotting a boar . . . or perhaps he found me a bore. Sorry, couldn’t resist. On some days, my walks through the vineyards were punctuated by the sounds of rifle shots–scarier even than a provoked bore. I learned not to walk on Wednesdays or the weekends, the times when hunting is allowed.
I really, really wanted to taste sanglier. Hypocritically, I didn’t want to see one shot, I didn’t want to hear the gory details, I just wanted a chunk of roasted boar. Everyone it seemed had just finished a meal of sanglier, or knew someone with a freezer full, promises were made but the closest I came to an actual taste was the sanglier saucisson at the Saturday market in Gignac. I bought some, but, blindfolded, I wouldn’t have known whether it was sanglier or canard–also sold at the market.
I told a friend, whose French husband is a hunter, about my quest. She’d eaten so much sanglier recently, she was bored (ok, pun intended) with it, she’d see what she could do about finding some for me. A week or so later she called, no sanglier but she could give me a duck. Well, ok, I guess. A quick question though. I hesitated. Would it still have feathers? And a head? She laughed. Bien sur. Then she confided a little secret that helped to keep the marriage harmonious. When her husband brought home the limp and feathered ducks, she’d take them to her neighbour next door, then pop off to the supermarket and buy the plastic wrapped variety. Her husband always complimented her on the meal, she said. Nothing like freshly killed duck.
But back to the sanglier. Here in the winemaking village of Laurens, I’ve learned that sanglier love ripe grapes and this can take quite a toll on crops. Hunters are needed to keep the population down, reputedly about to take over France although you couldn’t prove it by me, but timing is everything. A few weeks ago, this led to an interesting encounter between the chasseurs and a busload of tasters who had come to visit Brigitte’s cellar at Domaine de Cébène. I wasn’t there, but Brigitte described the scene in an e-mail. As she waited to greet her visitors, she could see dozens of hunters in their orange vests milling around. A bit nervous, she waved a brightly coloured scarf above her head. The bus arrived, the tourists piled off. A delegate from the hunting group also arrived. The tourist bus must leave, he told Brigitte, a hunt was going on–in her vineyard! A stand-off ensued. You have been informed, the hunter said, if anyone gets shot, it will not be our responsibility.
The wine tasting went on. No-one was shot. Perhaps not even a sanglier, I don’t know.
And now about my second encounter with a sanglier. Finally. There it was on my plate last night, marinated and served in bite-sized pieces at my friend Bassie’s birthday party. Bassie is in the foreground in a pink sweater, I’m at the other end of the table, the back of my head to the camera, fork at the ready. There was also mashed potatoes and gravy and some vegetables. I only had eyes for the sanglier. It was delicious.

(Oh . . . yeah, while Joe was here, he went out for a walk and came back very excited. He’d seen half a dozen men haul a dead sanglier from a truck. Half the village was hanging around watching, he said. Of course, by the time I went to have a look, there was nothing to see which is why I didn’t include it in this story. I was jealous, I wanted the encounter. All’s well now though.)

Aftermath . . .

Perhaps the third time will be the charm. I first started this post 26 December. I was going to do a riff on Boxing Day and how as a kid that meant pantomimes in London but these days seems all about sales. As predicted, I waited too long and then it was ten days into January and just as I was finishing it, I came down with a horrible bout of stomach flu which rendered me incapable of doing anything more ambitious than reading on the couch. So, now let’s give it another go.

Here’s where I left off– 10 January, a couple of days after the horrible events in Paris. This isn’t a political blog, so I’m not going to offer my opinion –honestly, I’m not quite sure what mine is, other than that the killings were appalling and there can be no justification. Still, not to at least acknowledge the events of the past few days doesn’t seem quite right either. I’m writing this on a beautiful warm and sunny day, the sky is blue the roses are blooming on my balcony. If I walk out into the vineyards, I look all around at countryside that probably hasn’t changed much in a century or more. The roads that wind through the vineyards twist and turn and eventually lead to other small villages. The roads are so narrow, hardly more than a trail in some places, that when the occasional car comes from the other direction, one of us must pull to the side. It’s lovely and peaceful and difficult to imagine the violent world I read about in the papers, or watch on the news.

Yesterday, I had lunch with a French friend in Sete. We sat at one of the restaurants on the canals, the reflection from the boats–turquoise, yellow, red–rippled like an impressionist painting. Sete is a big working fishing port. In July and August the city is choked with tourists, but on this summery day in January the streets were quiet. We ate oysters and moules farcie and shared a bottle of wine. We talked for a bit about the attack on Charlie Hebdo, then moved onto other things. When we went inside to pay, customers and waiters were grouped around the television. The Charlie Hebdo killers had been cornered and another standoff was taking place. After a while, we left and walked along the water front, past the sign for the Algiers Ferry. I was for a while fascinated by the idea of taking the ferry over to Algiers, it sounded so exotic. Now I’m not so sure. Last night, a French politician said France is at war, that people must understand that it is no longer peacetime. I hope he’s wrong.

I’m not sure if this happens to other blog writers, I suspect it does. Enthusiasm to start with, no detail too insignificant to record, then a bit of tapering off followed by a sort of compilation of major events instead of the small things then, and this is where I’m at now, a dull nagging that it’s time to write another blog. I suppose if you’re a blogger with a lot of followers and they’re bombarding you with demands for updates it might be motivation. I’m not one of those bloggers though, if I get a couple of comments I’m happy. (Hint, hint.)

So where to start? It hardly seems possible, but Joe’s six week visit is now history, he’s already back in California. Our six day trip to Krakow, Poland was definitely the highlight. Krakow is a beautiful and, all decked out for Christmas, it was quite magical.

Food is one of my favourite–ok, my favourite thing–about traveling and the markets were feasts for the senses: pyramids of elaborates breads and cheese, pastry confections like miniature pieces of art and the smell of sausages grilling in the open air, hot wine for sale everywhere. Away from the tourist center, we found an older market where stout elderly women (no not me) were buying sauerkraut from huge vats and there were stalls of dried apples, pears,apricots. I’d like to have followed one of the women home to see what she cooked up, but we had to make do with food from the stalls. I’m not complaining.

While my blog posts are growing fewer and far between, I regularly toss off gems (some would have other names for them) on Facebook. Here are a few from Joe’s visit.

•14 December: Krakow history–Part of the fascination of Krakow, is the the beauty of the city set against its tragic past. Spent a lot of time today in the old Jewish quarters, the Jewish ghetto, Schindler’s factory which today houses a museum. Today a mild and sunny Sunday, streets thronged with people, difficult to comprehend the horrors of the past.

• 16 December: Last Day In Poland –Used up the last of the Polish bread–solid, dark, damp and a bit salty–but surprisingly better than it sounds. A couple of slices with a soft, feta like cheese served as breakfast every day. Found the apartment on airbnb, very utilitarian but on the tram line and inexpensive–100 euros for the week. Also offered a glimpse of ordinary life in Poland. Only souvenir I’m taking back to France is a horrible cold which I would cheerfully have left behind. It’s been a great trip though. My plan now: look for more cheap EasyJet fares, airbnb accommodations and see more of Europe. I’m thinking of Budapest next . . .

•22 December: Narbonne Yesterday, a little sightseeing close to home. Narbonne, a city that dates back to Roman times, is only 45 minutes away, but this was my first visit. Windy and chilly enough that the Xmas trees in the square might have been flocked with real frost, the city was all festive cheer. Drank a vin chaud in Les Halles, the wrought iron and glass marvel of a food market–all the cheeses, meat, fish and vegetables you could possibly imagine–well, with the exception of kale. For some reason France is resistant its dark green charms.
From Narbonne on to Gruissan beach–acres of cabins, mostly empty just a few days before Xmas, but packed in the warmer months. Gruissan was the setting for the film Betty Blue, our reason for checking it out. Down at the end of the spit, La Perle Gruissanaise was doing a brisk business in oysters and mussels–traditional holiday fare in France and sold in small boxes. Back to Laurens via Colombieres where we had a late lunch overlooking the Canal du Midi.

Oh yeah, and Joe fell in lust with a Citroen 2CV–or whatever the thing is called.

•27 December: Truffle Fair— We drove through some heavy rain today, got lost a couple of times but managed to find the foir de la truffe in the pretty village of Villeneuve-Minervois. I could smell the truffles several feet away from the stands, but wasn’t quite sure how to negotiate a purchase –I’d read about astronomical prices and only had a few euros. Picked up the smallest piece I could find, sniffed it, had it weighed and now I’m the proud possessor of something that looks like a small, smelly lump of coal. The place was fun though–oysters, baked potatoes, slices of baguette for sale all slathered with truffle butter. Local wines and produce–including a black turnip (the name escapes me) grown only in the Languedoc. Now off to consult some recipes, truffle shaved into an omelette, perhaps.

•2 January: New Year Hike –Beautiful New Year’s Day yesterday, an almost three hour hike in the garrigues above Pezenas. Amazing views, Pyrenees off in the distance. Sun was setting as we reached the end of the trail. Joe, unfortunately, fell and may have discolated/broken his shoulder, we’re not sure yet. Could make for a difficult flight back to the States for him on Tuesday. An odd echo of a trip to Portugal several years ago when I fell and broke my elbow two days before our return flight.

•7 January: Major achievement. Yesterday, after dropping Joe off at the airport, drove back from Barcelona to Laurens,a three hour drive, without a single wrong turn–even coming through Beziers, my personal bugaboo. Strange to think that when I arrived in France nearly two years ago, I was terrified even to drive in the villages–as Kit Niemeyer can testify! Roundabouts were especially awful, now I’m a fan. Great when you’re not sure of a direction–just circle around again. Actually there have been times, although not on this trip, that I’ve circled around until my head was spinning.

OK, c’est fini. Until the next one. . . with hopes for peace and happiness to all.
. . . but he’s been told not to perform this elbow raising action for a month or so.

As Time Goes By . . .

IMG_2470Finally drying out from the huge storms of the past week. Flooded roads and a couple of days without electricity were nothing compared to the loss of life and devastation elsewhere in the area. These pictures taken in Laurens.

Writing this post, it occurs to me that the title of the blog, A Year In France,is probably overdue for a change. With the approach of my second year here, perhaps My Life In France might be more appropriate. Since that probably means creating an entirely new blog, it’s one of those things I’ll put off and put off, probably until the third year rolls around. And, on the topic of procrastination–more and more time seems to elapse between these posts. When I first arrived, everything was potential material–radishes from the Super U, laundry, baguettes, I wrote about it all. These days while I often post pictures and observations on Facebook, the act of sitting down to write a longer post seems to require more of an effort. I don’t think it’s because I’ve stopped seeing France with a newcomer’s eyes–almost every day, I’m struck by something that I think would make a good post, rather it’s that I’ve settled into a life here with the sort of day to day routine that requires time spent away from the computer. Still, I hate to let things slip by without recording them, so here are a few snap shots from the past couple of months.

A few weeks ago, on the way to Domaine de Cébène, I stopped to take a closer look at the old railway station in Faugeres–I guess it was more than a few weeks ago because the figs were ripe on a tree that seemed to belong to no-one and I couldn’t resist. So after I’d gorged, I poked around the station. Weeds, wind blowing, a haunted feel. I’d like to write that it was Halloween, because that would have been fitting. I peered through the windows, imagining passengers from days gone by. I was so inspired in fact that I came home and started researching the railways of France. Lots of history and story potential there. And so the hours go by–much food for thought, not so much productivity. An interesting website with a section on disused trailways tracks.

While big box stores, fast fast restaurants and shopping malls around the perimeters of French cities leave no doubt that this is the 21st century, life in the villages can sometimes feel like a walk back in time. In Faugéres recently, I saw a traveling hair salon–a bit of the old and new, I suppose. The very dapper barber explained that at one time he had clients in all the surrounding villages and people would line up waiting for a hair cut. Now older clients have died, younger people have cars and the need for his services is dwindling. Soon, he said, he’ll have to look for something else to do.

Sitting at my desk a few weeks ago when from the street below my window, the tinny sound of Clementine playing (which, fortunately, served to drown out the voice of my karaoke singing neighbour) and an amplified voice calling “allo, allo . . . ” There was more, but that’s all I understood. I knew though that it was announcing the Thursday market in the village. A small market, sometimes just one stand, but I decided to take a walk anyway. On the fruit stall, what looked like giant apples. I asked. Quince, the man said. I wasn’t quite sure what to do with quince, but I bought one anyway. Then a little stroll through the village and a stop at the butcher’s. I’d only eaten rabbit once before, but I’d been feeling ready for a culinary adventure (a recipe for rabbit with prunes sounded interesting) so I asked if lapin was available. The butcher smiled, disappeared, then returned holding a skinned rabbit by its hind legs. He put it on the scale. “Est-il-possible . . .” I started. “Coupe?” He waved a knife over the rabbit, removed an internal organ and looked at me. I was trying not to look at the rabbit’s head. “Est-il-possible . . .” I started again, then reached into my mental grab bag of French words. “Je voudrais a petit morceau pour deux personnes.” I’d learned to say this in Montpeyroux when confronted with the question of how much I wanted–just enough for two people. He shook his head. It wasn’t possible. The whole rabbit, or nothing. I apologised profusely and wished him a bonne journée. I hope I didn’t ruin his day. The quince, I discovered, was quite delicious baked.

A Facebook post from October.
It’s a bit of a cliché to say that the little things in life are what happiness is all about, but I’ve just walked back from the village, grinning like an idiot and feeling incredibly happy. Sunday morning and I’m supposed to bring cheese to a gathering tonight. Some supermarkets are open Sunday morning, but not the one closest to my apartment. I’m not sure what will be open in the village, but I go and check things out. In the boulangerie, a enormous pile of gaudy, but festive looking meringues on the counter and a jewel case of tarts and cakes. I buy a small baguette–fig–still warm from the oven. Outside the épicerie, a few men at sitting at white plastic tables drinking coffee. We exchange bonjours. I go inside. The woman behind the counter sees me looking at the vegetables and apologises, they’re all “mal,” she tells me and shrugs. No problem, I’m there for the cheeses and there’s an impressive display. I buy several pieces–Cantal, one with a blue vein running through the middle, another the colour of caramel. She wraps each piece in white paper, they’re all produced in this area she tells me. I should have had her mark the names on the packages, but that’s ok. There’s a drift of mist over the foothills, the air is warm for mid October, a cloud of small birds rise up from the field, chirping and chattering. I love living here.

So now it’s December, Joe arrived for a visit last week. I picked him up in Barcelona and we took a meandering drive back, stopping en route in Ceret. In a couple of weeks, we’re off to Poland where the weather might be even less hospitable!

By La vie en France

Tripping the light fantastic & bringing in the grapes . . .

I referred to my first apartment in France as the cave. It had once been a grocery, or perhaps a baker’s shop–I’d heard different stories, but it had stone walls and was very dark. Not so bad on winter nights, quite cozy in fact with the wooden shutters closed. But sunny days, even with the shutters and windows flung wide, it felt claustrophobic. To check the weather, I’d have to open the front door, step outside into the narrow street, also quite dark, and look up over the rooftops to see if the sun was shining. Emerging from the apartment, I sometimes felt a bit like a mole.
I’m now living in a third floor apartment that I like to think of, romantically, as a garret. It has skylights in the living room and kitchen and French doors opening onto a very tiny balcony. After being somewhat light deprived in my previous place, I’m now a bit obsessive about what streams in during daylight hours. I use the room with the best light for my study and over the past few weeks, I’ve developed a routine. I set the alarm for six, while it’s still dark, make coffee, and sit at my desk as the sky gradually turns light outside.

The skylight in the living room is directly above the couch where I like to stretch out and look up at the sky — stars lately after a period of cold gusty winds. Rain, huge quantities of it, during much of September. One night I went to bed with the kitchen skylight open — there had been a break in the weather –and found the kitchen flooded the next morning. But, minor mishaps aside, while I love the sound and sight of heavy rain hitting the skylights, the storms over roughly a two-week period were catastrophic: several deaths, enormous property damage and disruption of services. For a winemaking area the storms, which arrived just as the grape harvest was getting underway, made for a couple of anxious weeks. Heavy rains cause the grapes to take on more water, this dilutes the flavour and sugar/acid balance. Too much rain can lead to swollen and split grapes which leads to mould and mildew. I’d learned this a few weeks earlier walking through the vines with Brigitte as she tested the ripening grapes to determine when to start her vendange. While the purple blue grapes looked and tasted perfectly ripe to me, Brigitte split one open, held it out in her hand for me to see. The pips she pointed out were still too green. A few more days of sunshine and, perhaps they would be ready to pick by the weekend. If the rain stayed away long enough.


While Brigitte was deciding when to start her vendange, most of the cooperatives and bigger growers were already harvesting. In Laurens, ancient tractors and agricultural machinery the size of double-decker buses lumbered through the narrow streets. On my walks through the vineyards, I’d hear the massive blue pickers with their monster-like jaws then smell the drifts of wine scented air as they disgorged picked grapes into huge vats. A traffic jam in these parts during the vendange was two or three cars stuck behind a brimming tractor. Locals know to pull around even from the last car position. It’s taken me a while to judge exactly the right moment to zip around a ponderous vehicle and into the lane of on-coming traffic then back again in time to avoid a head-on collision. I was less apprehensive driving California freeways. On the other hand, I’m now a huge fan of the ubiquitous roundabouts which intimidated me when I first arrived in France, but which are a boon as I drive around the countryside getting lost — my way of familiarising myself with the area. If in doubt, just circle the roundabout until dizziness forces a decision.

One Friday evening in mid September, I was still at my desk when Brigitte e-mailed to say that the vendange would start early the following morning. The harvesters were lined up — a team of young Poles who had picked for her before — and the forecast was for sunshine. For this first harvest, they’d pick the Grenache which grows on a plot in the village of Corneilhan about 30 minutes from the Domaine de Cébène vineyards and cellar in Faugères.

Brigitte has been making wine at Domaine de Cébène since 2008, but this would be the first harvest vinified in the brand new Faugéres cellar — so new that last minute details were still being completed on this the eve of the vendange. “Everyone is working frantically to get the cellar ready,” she wrote. “Rémi, the electrican, Tony, the ébéniste (cabinet maker) and Vladimir the plumber.” An early night, she said and no coffee. She and her partner,Pierre, and her employee Stéphane would finish installing the égrappoir, the machine used to destem the grapes and the groupe de froid, a cooling machine. Despite all the activity, some things such as the “handy elevated metal path,” that would allow her to walk from vat to vat (there are nine of them, each about 12 foot high) without climbing ladders. “I am wondering whether this shall be installed at all,” she wrote. It was, several weeks later.

I set my alarm for 6 a.m. although I didn’t sleep much anyway mostly because I was worried that I’d oversleep. It was still dark when I drove through Laurens to the Caveau des Schistes, a big wine cooperative, on the highway. Compulsive about not being late, I arrived fifteen minutes early and sat in the darkened parking lot with the car idling waiting for Brigitte so that I could follow behind her to the Corneilhan vineyard. In her e-mail, Brigitte had talked in terms of a military operation; waiting in the dark and empty parking lot I felt more as though I’d arrived for an assignation –or was truly desperate for the place to open so I could buy wine. And then a car pulled up. It wasn’t Brigitte. It was a man. He motioned for me to roll down my windows. He spoke to me in French. I heard, or rather understood, the word vendange–actually the only word I understood. A picker, I guessed. Brigitte arrived and talked to the guy then he drove off. He’d wanted work, she said, but she had all the pickers she needed.

By the time we reached the vineyard, the sun was rising and the Polish team was off to an early start. Soon it was warm and sweaters and shirts were discarded, draped on the vines like exotic fruit. By noon, the first load of Grenache grapes had been driven off to Domaine de Cébène– the first pressing in the new cellar.

One vendange down, several more to go, but with most of the grapes still on the vines, the bad weather began in earnest. Rain came down in historic proportions — in some areas, three months worth in less than 24 hours. Days of heavy grays skies, nights of more rain and percussive thunder. During a lull, I took a walk around the village. What I’d thought was a dry stream bed — something equivalent to the Los Angeles River — flowed with muddy yellow water. I woke in the middle of the night to the sound of my front door slamming. The wind had blown it open, then closed. France Météo placed the region on orange, then red alert. Red, the highest means that all public functions are cancelled. Many areas were without power. I sat at my desk, distracted by the rain outside. As though I needed further verification, I obsessively checked the weather on my Iphone. I sent anxious e-mails to Brigitte who thanked me for my concern, but didn’t seem unduly alarmed. A local newspaper ran a picture of a vintner leaving his cave in a canoe.

Then a brief reprieve forecast for the coming weekend and a window of opportunity for growers to bring in the rest of the crop before the next deluge. Brigitte too had decided to harvest, again after a lot of consideration. Another Friday evening, another e-mail. On vendange demain ou on ne vandange pas? We harvest tomorrow, or we don’t harvest? The Syrah was ready but, understandably given the race with the weather, pickers were in short supply. The Poles were working elsewhere and Stepháne wouldn’t be available with his tractor — he was needed by his father-in-law who also had grapes to bring in. Brigitte was short of cagettes, the heavy plastic crates used to hold the picked grapes, fifty of them would have to be picked up the next day from a fellow grower.

Saturday morning I again left Laurens just before dark, this time for the short drive to the vineyard in Faugéres. I was not alone. The dim morning sky glowed with orange lights from a procession of harvesters and tractors en route to the vineyards. Although she’d rounded up a small team of pickers, Brigitte was anxious. It wasn’t raining, but the air was warm and heavy with moisture; mushrooms had sprouted between the vines, and a few grapes spotted pale furry overcoats of mould. What was needed, she said, was a cold, drying wind, but Mother Nature wasn’t listening. Weather wasn’t the only problem. The area to be harvested was on a steep hillside and the logistics involved in transporting picked grapes to the cellar were tricky. In Corneilhan a week before, the cartons of picked grapes had been loaded onto a van that moved slowly between the vines but the hilly Faugéres terrain made that impossible. Instead the filled crates had to be carried to the waiting van.

I walked up to the top of the hill, in the vineyards all around either mechanical pickers or humans stooped low over the vines. Clouds hovered over the hills, rain seemed imminent. I wondered if the weather would hold until the end of the day. It did. By Sunday evening, the grapes were safely inside the cellar. It could have been much worse, Brigitte said.

More rain again and a little adventure. All the water washing down the hillside at Domaine de Cébène had completely uncovered a trench in which electrical lines were laid exposing, as Brigitte pointed out, a nice layer of Faugères schist. I went to take a look, parked my car too close to the edge of a muddy bank, tried to back up, got stuck even further and had to call for a tow truck. Or rather Brigitte called for me, no words in my limited French vocabulary to cover the situation. On the bright side, I now know how to say in French that my car fell into a ditch. Hopefully, I won’t have another opportunity to use it.

Finally, September rolled to a close, the grapes all picked and on their way to becoming wine. As though every weekend until then had been a dress rehearsal, the last vendange was a perfect performance. The sun shone, a light breeze kept the temperatures comfortable, the Polish pickers were back, Stepháne was there with his tractor and the area to be picked was the closest to the cellar–good for the grapes, easier for the harvesters. On the slopes an interesting blend of the old and new– near the bottom, the ancient mazet used to provide shelter from the hot sun and at the top the newly completed cellar of Domaine de Cébène with a brand new sign still waiting to be installed. It’s like the last lap of a race, Brigitte’s partner Pierre said as the final tractor of grapes was unloaded. We beat the weather, he said. “Nothing can stop us now.” And despite everything–a smaller than normal yield due to a cool damp spring and the September rains– the grapes are wonderful, Brigitte said. “Maybe the best harvest to date.”

That last weekend, we all sat around a table in the sun, eating lunch and tasting some of the freshly pressed juice from the Syrah. Vlad the plumber wore a black t-shirt that read I❤️ Doritos Locos Tacos. I wanted to ask if he really did, but I didn’t trust my French. His wife told me, in French, that they have a son in San Diego, so perhaps that’s where the shirt originated. Neither Vlad nor his wife speak English. Nearby, the young Poles, at the end of their working holiday in the French vineyards, were eating Chinese food. I asked if it was good. “Not bad,” one of them said. He spoke English, but not French. Vlad, whose parents were both from Poland, speaks not a word of Polish. A week or so later, Brigitte had a lunch to celebrate the end of the vendange. I sat next to a Swedish couple and we all spoke English. She had used grape leaves from Brigitte’s vines to make the Greek appetiser, dolmathes. Brigitte liked the symmetry of it all –drinking the wine, eating the leaves of the grapes, later, perhaps, burning some of the wood trimmed from the vines. I like the way that it does sometimes seem like a very small world.