La Vendange

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After a wet morning of picking coffee in a natty outer garment formed from two black bin bags I came back to the house and caught up on the blogs I follow…then fell on a post from Janice about the vendange in her area of France.
In an instant the red cherries of coffee high on their wands were replaced in my mind for the dusty purple grapes along the low wires in the vineyards I’d known so well.

I picked grapes with friends and neighbours all the years I was in 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 gave me a lot of pleasure.
For one thing, it was usually only one day, or one and a half and then perhaps another couple of days later, so it was hardly demanding in terms of time, the weather was usually good and the company excellent.

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 nettles…it 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, his pickers keeping him 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 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.

We were all heading for home 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 liked 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 last 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 at the gate when Papy hoooted to take me down to the village in his old Renault van.
He and Mamie 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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32 thoughts on “La Vendange”

    1. Paulette, don’t start me!
      We had the run of a cherry orchard….everything from yellow napoleons to something black, small and wondrous tasting!
      It belonged to a friend who gave picking days to all those friends who would go up on high ladders into the branches and we would share the fruit bertween the pickers, the owner and people she knew without fruit trees.

      Those black cherries made the best clafouti ever

  1. “Papy was given additional duties which put a swift end to his inspection and crowings”

    So wonderful a description! I will be back, having caught up on your recent posts but…a bit too much Malbec tonight so I’ll defer the comments until tomorrow!

    1. That was the nice bit…..pruning in January wasn’t so hot…people in layers of jerseys like the Michelin man, mittens and balaclavas….
      But there was still an old boy working his vines with horse and plough, covering the roots for winter, uncovering them in the spring….

  2. We have few grape vines around us so this is an experience we sadly miss out on. We seem to have everything else though from cherry time, right through until our next and final fruit of summer the medlars. They are just starting to drop now and make even better jelly than the quinces 😉 Keep well Diane

    1. I don’t know if I could cope with commercial picking…but the family and friends style of thing suited me very well.

      Medlars indeed! My grandmother’s neighbour – a lady with a salty tongue at the best of times – used to call them ‘open arse’ though whether that was from the look of them or the effects I have no idea!

      You’ll need another holiday after all your preserving work this autumn!

    1. I couldn’t manage the small ones they were using….my paws are too big…so I used to take my own comfortable pair.
      Pierre used a sort of hand sickle…so I was glad I wasn’t working the other side of the vine from him!

  3. This is so vividly described and so evocative, Helen. You really must publish a book of these short essays, if nothing else. Coffee picking in the rain just doesn’t compare, though the end-product is equally acceptable.

    Your black-bag outer garments were anticipated many years ago by DH when we were first married and he would come back from college at the weekend on his 50cc moped with bin-bags instead of leathers to keep the rain out.

    1. Your husband would be in the height of fashion here ….the bin bag ‘leathers’ are well in evidence at this time of year.

      It’s the slithering about with the coffee picking which gets me.
      One moment you’re standing…the next you’re slipping down to the next terrace trying not to spill what you’ve picked and grabbing at bushes to arrest the slide…

      All good fun if you don’t weaken….

  4. I can’t tell you how much I have enjoyed this Helen. It does however make me realise that my grape harvest experience was really at a distance. I have watched it taking place, and apart from dealing with my own 20 odd vines, I have not had that close up and personal time that you have enjoyed and described so perfectly. I’m glad my thoughts got you recalling those lovely times, it really is one of the delights of this blogging stuff.
    I have also really enjoyed going through the various versions of the song…..Rufus Wainwright is surely a god ! Jx

    1. I would have used the Rufus Wainwright….but his introductory tribute to his mother seemed to go on for ever and I don’t know how to ‘cut’ a Youtube video.

      Some time later I picked up the Brassens song…. l’eau de la claire fontaine…which is just a bit naughtier than this nursery classic.

      I think it is the fact that I was part of a group that made it so enjoyable…I can describe the physical process, but the pleasure of inclusion is what underlies the happy memories of the experience.
      I was very lucky to have landed where I did when first in France.

  5. What a wonderful post. What a beautiful folk song.
    I don’t really know you as a blogger who finds occasion to praise, so I am doubly pleased not to have missed this post.

  6. Oh Helen, I’ve loved this post and all the comments that follow it. I wouldn’t have said it quite like Friko, but this sunny, happy, inclusive and beautiful memory of your time in France has me smiling with a deep pleasure as you share a different take on your writing skills.. Axxx

    1. I had some wonderful times in France – or I wouldn’t have been there so long!
      But what soured it for me was the corruption – patronage reaching right down to commune level – and the increasing rigidity. The place was like a stagnant pool. I saw kids with talent having it snuffed out in the name education – a real tragedy…..waste on the grand scale in administration…and the growing xenophobia.
      The final straw was a hospital using Leo as a guiinea pig….and trying to extract the most possible money for doing so…

      We had and have so many friends there…are still in touch thanks to Skype and e mails….but I’m glad to be out of there.

  7. That sounds delightful!
    We overlook a small vineyard. Most years he has the extended family arrive for a weekend of picking. This year he picked a few bunches on his own – the weather has been terrible and there weren’t many grapes worth having.

    1. Friends tell me that the vendange was much later this year…poor weather in the summer…then a freak hailstorm.. and now rain again…
      But no doubt the big Bordeaux chateaux wil be telling us that it is the vintage of the century…as they do every year…

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