I think the whole of Europe will remember this winter. Didn’t it go on……and on. Still, spring has now well and truly arrived and we had a stunning April, dry and hot with temperatures up to 28 degrees. Everything is now green and verdant, the lawnmowers are out in full force and the locals are attending to their vegetable plots. The vines are two weeks behind this time last year and the ‘vignerons’ (wine growers) have only just started planting the new vines to replace those that died off during the winter. It’s strange now to think that one of those dreams for a new life was to buy a vineyard and sit on the terrace watching the grapes grow – a quiet quality lifestyle. Having now watched throughout the year what is involved in producing a bottle of wine I’ll stick with letting someone else do it!!
Winter and spring are probably the busiest and most physical time. Once the harvest is finished and the leaves have fallen it’s time for pruning. Firstly they cut off the previous year’s ‘baguette’ or cane. The next job is to cut off all the other old canes leaving the strongest to produce this year’s grapes. This cane is then bent over the middle wire and tied to the bottom one. Not so hard? Just consider that there are 2,500 vines per acre and the smallest producer will have twelve acres, that’s 30,000 vines. The big independents (Talmard and Sallet) have around a 100 acres which equates to somewhere in the region of 200,000 vines and they have three full-time employees each. At this time there are also posts which have to be replaced, wires to be restrung and the old dead vines to be pulled out and replaced once the risk of frost has passed. They reckon on replacing around 5% every year (125 per acre) – all will probably be finished by the middle of May, when they will start treating for disease and weeds. As the vines start growing it’s time to get a hoe and knock off all the shoots that start growing from the foot of the vine and will take nourishment from the main growth, the grapes. Then June arrives and the vines have flowered it’s time to start cutting back all the excess growth. Again this has to be done by hand as they will only leave three bunches of grapes per branch.
Finally it’s time to secure each vine in place. This is done by lifting a wire either side of each row that runs the full length of each row to contain all the growth so it goes up rather than out. On each side of each vine the two wires are clamped together with an ‘agraffe’ or staple. Once this is done the excess leaves can be trimmed by machine, a pretty frightening piece of equipment that has eight ‘flymo’ blades which is attached to the front of the ‘enjambeur’ or straddle tractor to us (there isn’t a word for it in English) which is basically a tractor on stilts that can drive over the vines.
Going back to the subject of replacing posts, these can now be bought in galvanised steel which last well but the tradition is to use acacia which grows abundantly around here. We have a retired chap in the village who makes his own for various people and has done for years. This involves taking seasoned acacia and sawing it to size using a large circular saw. Being 82 and deaf with nothing else in life to interest him he can’t wait to get going and the ’zzzzzzzzziiiiiiinngggggggggg’ starts at about 6.30 am. The noise resonates throughout the village. During the working week it can be tolerated but the first time this year was a Bank Holiday Saturday, we had all our rooms occupied and by law he should not start before 10 am. (This applies to all noisy activities like grass cutting, etc). People have complained to the mayor in previous years to little effect but this year he certainly got the message being confronted by Rebecca at 7 am fuming after being rudely awoken. In her best French and with lots of arm waving and finger wagging he was ordered to ‘Arrete!!’ immediately, ‘my customers are not happy’, and ‘never again before 8 am’. Writing this a fortnight later I have to say it’s been uncommonly quiet in the village!!!!
Mind you, life isn’t quiet ‘chez nous’. We kicked off January with our now famous Burn’s Night’ and this time the haggis did arrive (courtesy of DHL) all the way from Edinburgh in 48 hours. Numbers were a bit down on last year owing to the weather and our bagpipe trio have disbanded as Henri Pornon’s two daughters have gone off to university. We did however have a real Scot to address the haggis. Marie-Eve has a couple of trainee teachers under her wing and Susie hails from north of the border. Max and David were delighted that there were fewer people as it enabled them to have seconds……..and then thirds. Everyone enjoyed themselves although Max’s diet for the rest of the weekend was Alka-Seltzer and Perrier water!!
Sophie’s half-term was early this year and so we departed for Thailand on
6th February for two weeks, staying at Tony and Shirley’s place in Phuket again. (A big thank you, Mr and Mrs P for the use of your house and your company). It goes without saying that we had a great time eating and drinking too much, swimming, sunbathing, golf and massages and sampling the delights of the nightlife in Patong – never seen so many poles!! Like all good things the time passed too quickly and we now hold onto our memories and look forward to the next time.
March saw our third England-France rugby match which was third time lucky for the French. It was an excellent game and full marks to the French who fully deserved their win and Grand Slam. We served steak and chips for 26 people and had about a dozen others drinking.
We also went out on a limb for our monthly ‘soirée’ in April and advertised a Curry Night. We knew we would get a good uptake from our fellow countrymen and women who reside in the area but we are very wary of becoming known as an ‘ex-pat joint’ that the locals won’t use. We decided to do a running buffet so that people could take a little bit of everything that was on offer and come back for more of what they liked. That meant investing in warming dishes so we invested three hundred quid on the aforesaid dishes and an enormous rice-cooker. The next problem was the menu. Not having cooked a great deal of Indian food that didn’t involve a jar of Patak’s Tikka Marsala/Balti/Rogan Josh/Tandoori sauce (which is unobtainable out here) it was back to the drawing board. A big thank you to Madhur Jaffrey!! I will never buy a jar of paste again. It takes maybe ten minutes longer to mix and grind the spices but the result is far superior. (A little note – the reason tandoori is orange is that you mix two teaspoons of red food colouring with one of yellow with the spices. If you leave out the food colouring it tastes the same but looks more natural!!!) The evening went superbly with most asking when we would be doing the next one and (from the English!!) to make it a bit spicier next time!!
Staying on the subject of food, I have to mention French eating habits. They consider that France is the gastronomic centre of the world and that Burgundy is the gastronomic capital of France and that the English can’t cook – I’ve had many a comment (in jest) that our cooking ‘n’était pas mal pour un anglais’ (nod bad for a Englishman) but I have to say when it comes to eating the French take some beating. If it doesn’t come from their region it’s foreign, i.e.. in Burgundy they cook with cream and butter, in Provence it’s olive oil. And they are very funny about skin and vegetables. Serve a crispy roasted leg of chicken or guinea fowl to a table of ten and nine plates will come back with the skin left on the side of the plate (it’s the best bit!!!!). Take green haricot beans – I trim off the tops but leave the tails and invariably our French diners will cut them off and leave them on the side!
Then we had the Belgian registered van that turned up the car park one morning at 11.30 am. A couple came into the bar. “Can you do something quick to eat?” he asked. “Of course, here’s the menu”. He perused and said, “Ham and cheese omelette, chips and salad would be perfect”. “OK”, I said, “I’ll get cooking”…………. “No”, he said, “Not now. I mean in fifteen to twenty minutes, we have a team of 22 cyclists on their way from Brussels to the Mediterranean on a charity run, it’s for them.” Fortunately we had 44 eggs, plenty of ham and cheese, chips and salad but it was all hands on deck. Becca was doing the salads while Sophie made up the omelette mixture and Nick juggled three omelette pans and the fryer. One hour and 22 coca colas later they left for Lyon where they were staying the night. The chap said he was going to drive on ahead to find a café for them to stop at about 4pm for hot chocolates – I’m glad it wasn’t us!!!! Their bill of 320€ was far more interesting and what’s more we don’t have enough cups to do 22 hot chocolates!!
Which brings me finally to this month’s recipe………….with summer arriving, what better than a chilled soup that is very different and which went down a storm when I served it today. And the big plus is that it is so easy to do, can be done in advance and is a perfect entrée for a barbecue or outdoor summer dinner.