Trapped with the rioting farmers in Narbonne, and not sure if they’d take kindly to an English wine merchant, every road was barricaded – which is easy to do there on account of every road is an avenue of huge trees, so they’d chop a few down – except on the tiny, winding treeless road to the hills … which I knew, and took and fled back to Bordeaux … and quiet little Sainte Colombe.
There, life continued on gently as always, and we decided it was where we should stay even if we bought more wine from other regions. So we set up an office there. Monsieur got us this small house at La Clarière, which as things turned out, ensured we stayed based in the village permanently. He set up an office run by a nice, young village girl called Claudy Gomme to coordinate ordering and shipping wines from all our French suppliers. Monsieur liked spending time with Claudy – his ‘danseuse‘ Madame would say – jokingly, of course – Claudy had, after all, been to ballet school. She did a great job and stuck at it for 35 years! She even became Madame Le Maire of her village. Having someone who can bridge that gap between the English order office and French wine farmer is essential. It’s not so much the language difference as the different interpretations of words. For example, the word ‘Today’ has a fairly precise meaning for a shipping office, but for a small winegrower in France, it is a much vaguer concept altogether. Claudy had ways of sorting that out.
So although I was now journeying far and wide, I found myself back in Sainte Colombe very regularly. To see Claudy, and get more long lectures from Monsieur. Usually over a meal.
The scene is etched in memory; the three of us, Madame on my left, closest to the kitchen and the large fireplace, in charge of food. He to my right in charge of the wine. The round, polished oak table. Everything gleaming. Old cutlery with the blades of the knives resting on tiny trestles. Ordinary cheap water glasses, but ancient wine glasses, thick glass, straight sides. Except for special occasions when the fine glassware came out. Which meant about six glasses each, and as many wines.
But you’d be amazed at the frugality of the servings. I was at first. I was British and Brits like me mostly gulp our wine. Properly brought up Bordeaux people do not gulp. They only sip. They sip, look thoughtful for a while, then, eventually, swallow. Furthermore, Monsieur would only ever pour wine AFTER we’d started eating, NEVER before, Because, he said, his wine was only red, and this red wine is only ever drunk with food because it is a dry, tannic wine. On its own, its tannins can pebble-dash your mouth … which is not agréable. But when you’ve already had some meat or cheese the wine seems to sweeten, and the drying tannins just vanish (something to do with a reaction between tannins and the amino acids in meat and cheese, apparently) and the wine will then slip down parfaitement, as Monsieur taught me.
When he poured a glass, he poured no more than an eighth of a glass! First time, I thought he was flattering me; asking me to check it to see if it was corked. I’d seen them do that in restaurants. So I downed it in one swig, and started nodding that it was perfectly fine … and looking expectant. Nothing doing; that small serving was IT! The bottle remained untouched for ages before Monsieur poured again.
We drank plenty of water though. Spring water from the pump. At this table it was water for your thirst, wine for your pleasure and of course your health. But toujours in moderation. I had to learn this. The lesson was a hard one but I suspect the moderation training might have helped me stay alive, while working in the wine game for 50 years.
There were a lot of theatrics whenever a really old bottle was pulled out. It was put on the mantelpiece for a couple of days for the sediment to settle to the bottom. Then, the candle was lit and placed to shine through the neck of the bottle.
The pouring was very, very slow, and into a decanter, stopping when the copious sediment was seen to reach the bottle’s neck. ‘Rustic’ would be the description most critics would give this wine. It was certainly made in a rustic sort of way. The bottle glass was totally encrusted with sediment and there was a deep sludge at the bottom. But I loved it. Wine with nothing taken out! Filtration? Pah! For Softies. On any building site the guys like tea you can stand a spoon up in. Well, this is similar. And you could taste all those years spent in its damp earthy cellar … and the mud from the clogs of the man who stomped on the grapes to squeeze more into the wooden duys (buckets) at harvest. They call it ‘Terroir‘. It certainly was then! But it was magnificent, rugged stuff, wine that would never die, liquid history, the wines often older than Monsieur himself.
Everyone else in the village, mind you, as true paysans, drank more … much more. Well, the men did. The working men, the artisans of Sainte Colombe and well … most of France, were all alcoholics according to some, and two litres of wine a meal was not uncommon. National average consumption was then over 200 litres p.a. … exclude the babes and teetotallers and it’s plain many went well over that. It showed in their bright red faces and big warty, purple noses. But their wives were not drinkers. Most Ste Colombe wives, in fact, did not drink wine at all. I never really understood that … except they lived long lives, whilst their husbands didn’t.
While parsimonious, moderate Monsieur kept the wine bottle out of my reach and pushed the water jug towards me, little Madame, a ball of energy, would be bobbing up and down attending to the food.
Le Dejeuner – La Soupe – was the big meal of the day. Le diner in the evening was relatively modest. Dejeuner was at least five courses followed by coffee. Soup, hors d’oeuvres, main, salad, cheese, dessert. On her stove Madame kept a big stockpot. It was always there … ten litres at least, filled with vegetables ,bones, herbs and all sorts . Constantly replenished. Her domestique, Yvette, (an enthusiastic exception to the non-drinking wives club) would put it on low heat all morning and Madame would then take ladlefuls to combine with tomatoes, potatoes, vermicelli, or whatever she planned to make her soup of that day. Different every day. The recipes were many and varied but always finished off with a great lump of butter. I have never since had soups that tasted so good anywhere.
There was a special black soup you got in winter when they killed the pig. Guimbora (pron. jim bora). Amazingly rich, it was, apparently, mostly blood. Guimbora time was when you met the village and you saw how important it was then for villages to be a real community. Because every household raised a pig that would live in a sty by the house and eat all the scraps and such. Quite sensible really as there were no green bins back then. No bins at all. Anyway, when you kill a pig you get masses of meat all at once. There were no freezers so you would salt-cure the hams and other meaty bits, and hang them from the rafters in linen bags. That left the guts and blood that could not be conserved but were much too nourishing to waste. So what you would do is co-operate and swap. When Madame Trepout killed her pig word went round the village (probably everyone heard the poor thing being despatched anyway) and that evening after Madame had slaved all day over the carcass, someone from every family, a child or youth, would turn up at her door with a jug. This was then filled with the blood soup; full of beans and vegetables, and very peppery and – once you get your head adjusted to the blood bit – utterly delicious. The child also took home a pack of black puddings or boudins noirs. More blood. The whole village feasted on that pig’s innards. But people who work out in the winter vineyards all day maybe steering a horse plough constantly in and out between vines (far, far harder than straight-line ploughing) need very solid nourishment. The following week it might be Madame Parinet who killed. So we’d all share her pig’s innards. And so it would go on round the village; every household, every pig. I got sent out with the jug only once. Back then, I had long, curly hair. Entering the steaming kitchen full of yakking wives in misted glasses, I got greeted with a ‘Bonjour Mademoiselle’ by the harassed cook. Shrieks of mirth all round. Then weeks of village kids bawling “Ooh La La! Mademoiselle Tonee”.
After soup there were the hors d’oeuvres of course; could be a salad, endive or nicoise, or tomato and shallot or perhaps beetroot and shallot salad. Or paté – foie gras for special occasions only – or soused herring or … an endless variety.
The main course would often be a chicken from the yard, head and feet still on. Duck was, of course, also common … as confit or magret or aiguillettes. Steak was a bit special. The dining room fireplace was important, less for its warmth, more for the grillades. Mostly Entrecote Bordelaise to which the people of this region are devoted. This involved not a fire as such but a ‘sarment‘, and there was a ritual – Madame’s ritual. She loved putting on her show. Monsieur and I loved to watch it … and not just us, people came from far and wide for this performance.
(The sarment is a bundle of vine cuttings; last year’s thin shoots, tied with willow. Willow was, and for some still is, what growing vines are tethered with. You still see rows of willow stumps dotted around the vineyards sprouting bright yellow shoots. These shoots are harvested every summer and put into streams to soak so they become pliable enough to knot.)
The Show; the sarment just fits in the big fireplace, and is lit by Madame with a crumpled sheet of newspaper. She spreads the rest of the paper in front of the fire to catch dripping fat. The sarment blazes fiercely only a minute or two then dies to a thin covering of glowing red embers giving off a sweet dried herbs sort of aroma. A large iron grill with a long handle and four short legs is plonked on to clean and sterilise. Madame wipes the red hot grill to remove the last of the old grease and rust with more of the newspaper and lies the grill before the fire on the paper.
One very large, very thick steak with plenty veins of fat is slapped on the hot grill. It just about covers it. Tiny, whippet-fit little Madame then arranges the embers and lifts the grill over them. Oh the aroma! I can smell it now. It doesn’t grill for long; they like their meat rare here. When she turns the meat she spoons on a generous layer of raw, chopped shallots, that ooze into the crevices of the meat … then she seasons with sea salt and fresh ground pepper. The timing is immaculate; though Madame doesn’t worry about overcooking because the embers quickly lose their heat and the steak then sits relaxing and soaking up more shallot juice while we do likewise with a little wine. The steak is cut up and served. Frites are the only accompaniment. Oh my! Oh my! I would drive 500 miles – then, of course, 500 more … back – just for that steak. And I did for forty years. For Madame’s steak and Monsieur’s wisdom. There you have the real reasons I – we – never really left Ste. Colombe. Wouldn’t get very far on Dragons Den with that as a business plan, would I?