My Life in Wine – Part 3 – The Cassins

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Monsieur and Madame Cassin, picture courtesy of Yves Gellie

After a week scratching dust in the sun, but eating well with the Cassins, I confessed that I wasn’t really an archaeologist, and could I have a job with them … maybe in the cool, co-operative winery which he ran, please? He rang his Maitre de Chai; Monsieur Lafaye and I entered the wine trade a week later. Washing bottles. Monsieur drove me to work in the morning in his bouncy old 2CV, all corrugations and canvas, home and back for Dejeuner/La Soupe, and home in the evening … talking all the way … arms waving. Luckily there were few other cars around.

I was incredibly lucky to get Monsieur as my mentor, supporter, and guru. Of all the thousands of people running wineries in France – and I’ve met a lot of them – I don’t think anyone could have helped me more into the business. He drummed wine lore and business wisdom into me. It took a lot of drumming. He adopted this habit of telling me everything twice … or three times, to make sure it went in. He spoke excellent English but only used it when all else failed. He insisted I speak French … or at least try to. I tried … I had to if no-one would speak English. My brain hurt, but, after a month I found I myself thinking in French and by the end of the summer I could speak it quite well. Not that I necessarily knew what I was saying, and to this day, I still have trouble reading French.

Back then most wine farmers around the Castillon/Saint-Emilion area were just that; farmers who grew grapes and fermented them into wine, nothing more complicated than that, more or less. They then waited for a ‘courtier’ (broker) to call, taste and take samples away and get a merchant to make an offer. When a deal was closed the merchant sent a lorry or a tanker and the wine bit of the farmer’s job was over; the merchant looked after things from then on.

Monsieur, on the other hand, ran the first large cooperative (200 member) winery in Bordeaux ever to do the whole process; grow grapes, make wine, age it, bottle it and market it around the world. As a result he became not at all popular with the Great Wine Houses of Bordeaux, the Calvets, Cordiers, Cruses etc. These intermediary merchants, sitting between simple wine farmers and small wine retailers had dominated the wine trade for centuries. In fact, it was they who created the whole Bordeaux trade, not the châteaux who rule today. But those merchants could be ruthless bastards.

Monsieur told me how they had “sent me to Birmingham”, meaning Coventry, of course, because of his cooperative daring to cut them out and go direct to a shop chain. In certain countries this battle with entrenched middlemen continues to be fought. But in Bordeaux the merchants are mostly gone these days, or have become shadows of their former selves. The wine producers; the Grand Châteaux and co-operative groups, now dominate. Over the years I’ve watched it all happen; vineyard owners and co-operative cellars installing their own bottling lines and good kit, and going out to find markets. But Monsieur Cassin, ex-African trader (the merchants called him the Marchand de Cacahouettes; peanut vendor) showed everyone the way. He was full of ideas and eventually came up with one for me; that I should become a UK wine importer. Because he needed one.

Jean Cassin was born in Castillon the local town, previously called Castillon sur Dorgogne until they remembered the Hundred Years War had ended in a battle just outside their gates and re-named themselves Castillon-la-Bataille.

After the First World War, in which his big, handsome, elder brother was killed, small, slight, bespectacled Jean was, at just fourteen, dispatched to Africa to make his fortune. He did all right, and ended up in British Northern Nigeria at Kano running a trading company called SCOA. He became French Consul and a thorn in the side of the double-barrelled, British administration chappies. Their “damned uppity little froggie”. He would show me slides of the colourfully robed chieftains on their horses and camels, and tell me about motorcycling back to France across the Sahara.

The Second World War went badly for him; captured in the first weeks, he spent five years as a POW eating nothing but turnips.  He also finished learning most of Shakespeare off by heart. Later in life he kept a ‘Complete Works’ by his bed, the left page in French and the right in English, and he read and studied one page each night. His pride and love for French literature never prevented him from declaring Shakespeare to be the world’s greatest author. It was astonishing, years later, when I took him to see Hamlet at Stratford to see him, a Frenchman, mouthing the lines along with the actors

But the war and his imprisonment also brought Madame into the old bachelor’s life. French girls were encouraged to write to any POW’s they might know. Madame knew Jean from the tennis club, and so a correspondence began which resulted in a wedding in 1945. Little Madame returned with her new husband to Kano, where she ran his home and learned that peculiar form of English patois the British colonials employed with the locals. When exasperated with my French she would come out with things like ‘you done get plenty chop’.

Madame was proud to be considered ‘Vielle France’. Old France. Chic, Parisian French would not consider that as a compliment but she very much did.

Monsieur was also small, a stooped man with the tummy of one who clearly loved his food. ‘Mole’, I used to think; Wind in the Willows’ Moley was always a favourite character of mine. He wore thick glasses behind which you could just see weak but piercing eyes. He was always reading, with a magnifying glass. Or giving me little lectures, with that wagging finger.

The Cassins had returned from Nigeria in 1958, after Monsieur’s heart attack.  He had come home intending to retire, but the President of a local Co-operative cellar came and asked him please to come and save them. The 200 winegrower co-op members were bankrupt. Times were hard, and they’d made the mistake of selling almost all their wine to an American merchant who had, like so many, gone bust on them. Over the years I saw lots of people come to Monsieur, the wise Monsieur, to solve their problems. The Co-op was a very big challenge, though. But he accepted and took over.

He had grown up on a vineyard, but thought that experience far from enough. He enrolled himself as a day-release student of the legendary Professor Emile Peynaud at Bordeaux University Wine Faculty (the Michel Rolland of his day, he consulted for all the top châteaux) – a course he later insisted that I take. He arranged to have the accounts computerised … in the Fifties! Yet at the same time he insisted that Madame Coste and Janine re-use every envelope arriving at the office. They were all to be split open into sheets and tied together with string to make scribble pads. He would never actually buy any scribble pads. Many other innovations and scrooge-like measures gradually got the place back in the black. He sent sales agents around the world and started to build. That winery boomed, and is now huge and prosperous.

After Africa, Madame was delighted to get back to the home where her family had lived for centuries. The Cassins had no children, but Madame taught all Sainte Colombe’s children their catechism at Sunday school. And she fought fiercely for her old church against the depredations of that half of the village who were, so they said, Communist. At her funeral, many years later, our hard-nosed, socialist mayor was in floods of tears. She was not nobility, although the nobility certainly thrive in this part of France. You wonder how they survived all that revolutionary egalité, fraternité stuff. … and the guillotine, but survive they certainly did. The country around abounds with old châteaux; this little district of Castillon has more medieval fortified castles, more turrets, towers, castellations per square mile than anywhere else I’ve ever been. Barons, baronesses and people with surnames prefaced with a ‘de’ are all over the place. Tall, frighteningly elegant, they incline politely over their non-noble ‘equals’. When Castillon church empties out after Sunday Mass it’s like there are two separate races here; elves and hobbits.

Madame was from a relatively posh family, unlike Monsieur who was a typical small, round petit-bourgeois … as she would sometimes remind him. Actually, Madame was even smaller … but bird-like … and fizzing with energy, never still. She ran everywhere and talked nonstop. She argued and haggled with everyone. She drove furiously, but would slam on the brakes for any small wild bird in the road and stop to pick up injured ones, to nurse at home. Her family had been the top family in Sainte Colombe for centuries. Though that’s not saying a lot; it is a very obscure village. She’d been educated at Le Cours St Seurin (affiliated to Cheltenham Ladies apparently) where all the posh girls went, and so she knew Madame la Baronne de Marcillac and the others, and took tea with them (it’s so English, this part of France … they have, for centuries, been known as the Anglo-Gascons). But she was never really happier than wearing her apron, in her kitchen.

Madame conserved everything that was conservable. Not just lots of jams. Lots of pâtés too; rough pâtés done in bocals – kilner jars – and matured for years like fine wine. Rillettes also. And lampreys. Oh, the lampreys! Bought at the market in season, cooked in their own blood with leeks and spices, wine and a little chocolate. Served as the first course, with croutons, on all special occasions.

I came to learn that you could easily have ten courses or more at a proper traditional feast round here. Meals where you started off behind a great pile of maybe ten plates set before you. First course … top plate, the next one down, for second course … and so on. You worked your way down, plate removed after each course. These were Grandes Bouffes … blowouts that lasted till well after dark. And this was the ordinary farm folk, not the aristos.

These bashes didn’t happen often. But on the other hand, every single day was built around La Soupe midday meal … when proper respect was paid to what they all spent their lives cultivating, raising and maturing. How I loved that daily worship of what came from their land. I wasn’t totally ignorant about food. My mother was a Domestic Science teacher and she certainly could cook! But in the UK meals had come to be regarded as refuelling stops in the working day. And why stop? We invented the sandwich!

In Ste Colombe, I saw it was the other way round … all work was done with the basic aim of having a very good meal every day. The day revolved around that meal. In fact everything seemed to have a set pattern. The week had set days for market and church, the month had its lunar cycles; when to plant and when to harvest. And the whole year revolved around wine … and food. Everything had its season. Winter out pruning vines; a long slow, cold job, though burning the cuttings gives a little warmth. Evenings were in the winery racking and topping up. Spring is protecting the new vine shoots, summer is keep rampant vines in check and healthy. Autumn of course is the vintage, fermenting and all. Also to be fitted in hunting game and mushrooms – cêpes – in the woods, and making foie gras. That’s not a bad way to live. It’s still my ambition, but I guess now I won’t manage it. However my job gives me visiting rights into this world … which has changed some, but certainly isn’t about to die out.

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About Tony Laithwaite

Tony Laithwaite, founder of Laithwaite's, whose passion for wine is still going strong!