Archive for March 2009

Fin, Bref

March 7, 2009

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The French have so many poetic ways to say “she died.”  Like “elle a trouvé la mort,” which means that she found death, as if it were something for which she had been searching.  And in this case it might have been, since she took her own life.  “Elle s’est donné la mort.”  She gave herself death, the darkest gift.

Or there’s “elle n’est plus”  She is no more, where there was someone, now there’s no one.  The last time we saw her she stood far away from us, too far away for comfort, as if she were already leaving.  She was, in fact, à l’article de la mort, standing at death’s door, but we didn’t see it.  We saw her market stand, her chickens, and her eggs, but we didn’t know that what would come first was her death.

And then we have “elle est disparue.”   She’s disappeared, which is how it must seem to her two children.  One day you have a mother, the next day you don’t.  What you have is an empty mother space, a photo, a lifetime of questions and anguish.

Elle s’est éteinte. She went out, like a light.  In retrospect, she had looked dimmer and dimmer lately, but we thought it was winter, or fatigue, or just one of those passing things.

Elle nous a quitté.  She’s left us.  Did she think of that, how we’d still be here afterwards?  Did she wonder who’d be left making the quenelles at her restaurant? She left her family and her restaurant and her poultry farm and her market customers and the summer sun and the winter wind.  Fin, bref, Marjorie Besson is gone.

Fin, bref is usually used to say “to make a long story short.”  But literally, it means end, short.  Her life was short and now it’s reached its end.  Fin, bref, it’s a crying shame.

A Vineyard After Winter

March 5, 2009

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On the second warm and sunny day of spring my wine class set out to learn how to trim the vines.  There’s a lot to learn, and it’s actually fairly daunting, since every cut affects the summer’s production.  First up, trim away any remaining dried grapes that have somehow managed to hang on through the winter’s storms.

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In this vineyard, as in most of the vineyards in the south, the initial pruning is done by machines, which lumber down the aisles between the rows of vines, whacking and lopping them all to a set height.  It’s a crude cut, but it saves a lot of hand labor.  People with giant pruning shears follow, performing the annual spring ritual of taille des vignes,  which in this case translates to pruning done by students with more equipment than skill, making the final decisions about the shape of the vine to come.

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All vines here are grown by grafting the French varietal vines onto native American rootstock, since it’s the American vines that are resistant to the phyloxera bugs that almost wiped out the winemaking industry in the 1870’s.  You can see the graft at the bottom of the vine. 

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These vines are 25 years old and have been through a lot, but their American roots have kept them healthy.  I like that.  This guy, showing the scars of many seasons of pruning, will produce gamay grapes, fewer and fewer each year as the vine ages.  Fewer is better in wine grapes, as the vine concentrates all of its efforts on the flavor and color of the chosen few.

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And when I say chosen, well, that’s because the vine needs a human touch.  Here a classmate learns how to select the number and location of what will become this summer’s fruit-bearing branches.

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These vines are being converted from an old-style pruning, in a goblet shape that resisted even the fiercest mistral winds without outside supports but had to be entirely hand trimmed, to a shape that lies flat along the support wires and can be trimmed mechanically.  It takes years to change the plant’s habits, just as over the years the wine drinking habits of the French have been changing.  The French drink less wine now than in the past, and the government is encouraging them to drink even less, to the general outrage and disgust of the growers and winemakers

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The amount of wine produced from a vineyard is also affected by the amount of water the vines get during the summer.  So while it’s esthetically pleasing to plant grasses and flowers between the vines, they’re more than just pretty faces.  When there’s too much rain, the grasses thrive and suck up the excess moisture, providing the vines with the necessary amount of water deprivation.  Vines like to suffer for their art.  But in years of severe drought, the grasses and flowers are removed so that the vines get every drop of  rainfall.  And those red rose bushes that you see so often at the ends of vine rows in Provence?  They’re there to indicate the presence of the oidium mildew.  Flowers at work, I like that too.

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It’s a long road from last year’s dried grapes to this year’s new wine.

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And an even longer road to reach something you actually want to drink.  But no matter how modern, no matter how mechanized and sanitized and standardized many parts of the wine business have become, it all starts, each and every year, with a pair of hands and a set of clippers.  And I like that a lot.

Fine French Wine

March 2, 2009

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Here’s some wine that I think is really fine.  As you know, fine is a funny word.  It can mean exquisite, as in ” the museum is full of fine art,” or just ok, as in “I broke my leg yesterday but I’m fine now,” or even pretty terrible, as in a “fine kettle of fish.”  What we often refer to as fine wine is shockingly expensive, you have to cellar it for years, you need crystal glasses to drink it, and it’s wasted on all but the most discerning of your friends.  It would be wasted on me, even, because I’d be worrying about whether my palate was up to the quality/price ratio.  There’s something fine about it, if you’ve got a fine palate and a fine bank balance, but it comes with a lot of baggage. 

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And here’s Gérard, who made the wines above, and is one of my favorite winemakers.  Pretty fine too, right?  Ok, I’m reading your mind here, and you’re thinking: “sure, there are cute guys making fine wine all over France, what’s so special here?”

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One thing that makes this wine special is where it’s made, in a cave cooperative.  No fancy sign, no chateau, nothing on the outside to make you think there’s a reason to visit.  Because all too often the wine from the co-ops is what Shel calls “chateau routier,” or truckdriver’s special.  The kind of wine you can get from a milk-type stainless steel dispenser at a highway rest area.  I know, wine at a highway rest area…but never mind that for now.

But sometimes the wine made in these co-ops is very good, as it is here.  The growers bring their grapes to Gérard and he makes the wine, with a variety of labels, in a variety of styles, at a variety of prices.  All of them very low.  The Domaine des Lucioles, which won a Medaille D’Or, or gold medal, in Paris last year, sells from the cave for 5 Euros.  That’s $6.34 at today’s rate.  And I’d proudly serve it to anyone.  Now that’s a fine wine in my book.  Any family in France can afford to serve it, perhaps some of them only on a special occasion, but it’s a wine that will make any occasion brighter.

Wine’s in the news every day here, as the worldwide financial crisis hits home and the winemakers are hanging on for dear life.  So let’s stick with that theme for a bit, and next I’ll tell you about my recent class in pruning the vines, a fun day in the sun that ended up with, naturally, a wine tasting.  In the meantime, here’s your homework.  Go out a buy a bottle of French wine.  The industry needs your support, and you can drink a glass while reading my next post.  And you can tell us what you paid for it.

French Letters Forever

March 1, 2009

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You were right, you were absolutely half-right!  Those of you who commented here or emailed me to say “no way, you’re not really giving up on France, pas possible” were, in fact, onto something.

Ever since I wrote here that we were leaving France we’ve been suffering the most terrible fits of existential anxiety.  Every day we’ve looked at each other and said “we’re WHAT?”  Then for five minutes we’d decide to stay, then half an hour later we’d be leaving once again.  And in between times we’d be calling ourselves names, with “pack of weasels” being the most frequently uttered, for being so indecisive and wishy-washy and generally succumbing to cluelessness about our one and only lives.

Jean Claude told us to “do what you really want to do.”  Thanks, JC, but knowing what we want to do is actually our problem.  We love France.  We love America.  Since we’re unlikely to be successful in annexing America to France, we’re out of luck on having it all in one place.  But really, I do love writing French Letters.  And what would French Letters be without France?

Jacqueline said to “live in the moment.”  But which moment, when we change our minds every 43.7 seconds?  But then we started to ask ourselves, which moments are the happiest?  And lately, those moments are here in France, where we blossom and flourish like nobody’s business.

Gérard said “don’t you want to help wineries develop recipes to use with their advertising?”  Actually, yes, yes I do, I really, really do, because wineries are in terrible trouble these days, and it’s in all of our best interests that they do well and produce great wine, because what is life without wine?

Maryse said “you’ve invested so much of yourselves into learning the language and culture, why would you leave now, just when you’re really getting comfortable?”  Bingo.  Did you know that you also say Bingo in French?  Well, you do.

And at the end of all our gnashing of teeth (and desire to visit an American dentist) and pulling of hair (plus desire to replenish our supply of Aveda products) and the longings for Thai food cooked by Tum and no one else, and Mexican food cooked by anyone at all who really knows how its done, we realized that yes, we need to go to America.  And then, yes, we need to come back.

So, we’ll spend the summer giving bisous on both cheeks, three of them, southern style, to those of you that cross our path.  We’ll hang out with our dear sons and their ladies.  We’ll stuff ourselves with Tum’s great noodles and everything Mexican, we’ll get our teeth cleaned and our house rented and stock up on clothes that fit, and will fit in, in France. 

And then, we’ll come back in the autumn, in time for the start of school.  I’m already looking forward to new pens and notebooks and new language challenges to master, to raising a glass with those who share our table, and to giving our new-old friends three kisses each, coming and going, because what is life without bisous?   And to writing the first French Letters post that says “nous sommes de retour.”  We’re back!