OF BLOGS AND BIRDS

WHAT GOES IN A BLOG?  Judging by the practices of an established host incomparably more knowledgeable than myself, the answer is anything.

Jostling for attention on  the World-Wide Web, unsleeping, unstinting in their largesse, long-serving veterans with multitudes of faithful followers  make us party not merely to their most intimate cerebral ruminations, but even to confidences concerning their most private colonic functions. Compulsive communicators all, advertising  their views upon every topic from the Eurozone debt crisis to ectoplasmic conception, fluent in the ingenious illiteracies of  Twitterspeak, they are the aboriginals of an exciting new world  of publishing in which no challenge to established custom, decorum or grammatical discipline exists to cramp one’s style

To the aspiring byliner it is a liberty more promising than the Arab Spring, an opportunity of  boundless possibility.  Eight months ago, for example, I yearned for a column such as that belonging to the great W.F.(‘Bill’) Deedes of the Daily Telegraph in which to write about anything I pleased, including polished gems from the infinitely rich diggings of country life. Had I been so equipped I would have been able to share with my readers the drama of the rooks which for the third year running were in solitary possession of the very top of the tall maple tree that overlooked my garden. Then, I was painfully frustrated  in my instinctive desire not to squander the stuff of potentially great journalism on my solitary self. Now, there is the blog, and I propose to give ‘Tales from the Downs’ (Or something like that. I live in Sussex)) a whirl.

The rooks had been a source of infinite pleasure. To say that I saw the placing of every twig and other piece of material that went to the building of their nest would be untrue; but day by day, almost hour by daylight hour, I observed the process of the original construction and the subsequent annual repairs. Twice, I witnessed through my field glasses the progress of their offspring from clamorous beaks raised above the parapet of the nest to scrawny young, teetering on the brink of first flight. This year, disaster most foul threatened. One day in  late spring, when Arctic winds and equinoctial gales had been survived and the weeks of selfless parental devotion must have been almost at a successful end, the vicious din of a mechanical saw ripped through the early morning air. Starting from my desk, I was appalled by the sight of men in hard yellow hats and slung about with climbing gear, swinging with simian agility from limb to limb, engaged in a hard and comprehensive pruning of the very tree in which my valiant friends were installed.

By lunch time they had half completed the task. By four o’clock, when the sedate neighbourhood’s usual quiet was restored, it looked as if another hour or two would see them finish the job. All evening I grieved. Next day, the discomforts of a dental session were dwarfed by the dread of what was certain to confront me on my return home. Imagine, then, my near incredulity at finding not a well-shaped, albeit severely (and for my rooks catastrophically) lopped maple, but one in which, grotesquely, Daliesque, the bare but unbeheaded trunk rose clear above the neatly barbered canopy like a mainmast still bravely standing after a devastating naval broadside. And almost at the summit, secure still in its fork, for all the world resembling the maintop of a ship of the line , the nest that I had given up as cruelly lost, and one of the owners at work

What solicitude!  What humane consideration! What compassion upon the part of the proprietors of  the maple! Contrary to my residual fears, dauntlessly, the birds stayed to raise their customary brood of two. Some time at the end of May, unobserved by me, they left. A week or so later the men returned with their saws and arboreal symmetry was finally achieved.

Where are they now, my rooks? How will they fare next year? Whatever the answers, I like to think that they may have acquired at least a fleeting affection for the human race.

PS

So there is likely to be a good deal more in this vein. Nature is indefatigable and the countryside is very large.


The Trouble with Cynthia


IT BEGAN AT A COCKTAIL PARTY IN KENSINGTON.  I was standing in a corner, minding my own business and thinking I was about ready to leave, when my hostess fought her way towards me, dragging a rather pretty girl by the hand.  ‘This is Cynthia’, she said.  ‘She wants a lift with you to Biarritz.’  Two days later, the pretty girl , who was 27 and came from Ohio, and I were driving away from the airfield at Le Touquet with high hopes and enough luggage in the back to keep a top model in working trim for six months.

The first awareness I had of our fundamental incompatibility came to me somewhere between Abbeville and Rouen, when it suddenly dawned on me that Cynthia had not stopped talking all day.  She took not only a keen but a comparative interest in everything she saw, and everything she saw fell a good deal short of its counterpart way back home. The treatment of dumb friends, hygiene, and the shortcomings of Continental food were the main themes of her complaints. ‘Oh, just look at that!’ she exclaimed each time we saw a cart horse with a blue-denimed peasant on its back. ‘Don’t they treat their animals simply terribly’ ?  The question, like all of Cynthia’s questions, was rhetorical: when she said: ‘Aren’t you just disgusted with that’? (the sight of caged rabbits and chickens in a food market) she meant that she was and that I ought to be.

We had trouble in Dreux when I suggested that tomatoes from a stall would be perfectly all right if we gave them a rinse at a village pump (‘terribly crude’).  We had trouble in Chartres looking for a baker who sold white bread sliced and wrapped. We left a trail of shattered restaurateurs behind us. Having entered one two-star Michelin establishment, we departed as soon as Cynthia discovered that the trout swimming in the glass tank were not there for decorative purposes or as pets. In Poitiers, we walked out of another place  because the sight of my escargots made her start to feel sick. I realised then that my idea of an agreeable five-day dawdle would have to be abandoned and that the object of the exercise must now be to reach Biarritz with the least possible delay.

What followed was certainly my fault, but it came after an all-night drive when the only hotel available had been unable to offer private bathrooms and my judgement was correspondingly impaired. It was about noon.  We had left the N.10 for a secondary road and had been going along slowly, looking for a suitable place for a picnic lunch.  Cynthia had just turned down my seventeenth suggestion when I saw an open gate leading into a meadow and without so much as by her leave eased the car over the verge and drove gently down to the edge of the clover and young grass.

Once Cynthia’s squeals had subsided, the picnic went quite well: she was too busy cutting the crust off the bread and the Camembert to be able to talk and I even managed a brief sleep. Then came disaster. In my eagerness to get off the highway I had not appreciated that the slope into the meadow was really quite steep.  Now, as I tried to mount it, my wheels spun on the crushed grass and we slithered back into the field. Again we tried. Again we failed.  Even when Cynthia sat in the driving seat and I pushed from behind we did no better. At last, upon a litter of dead sticks, a motoring rug, and gravel transported from the roadside in one of Cynthia’s straw hats, the car surged up the incline and shot over the verge. As it did so there came a vicious clang of metal striking  stone. Caught upon a concealed boulder, the octagonal bung in the bottom of the petrol tank was ripped from its seating and several precious gallons of  Super gurgled swiftly away.

Consider our predicament.  We had left the N 10 specifically in order to enjoy being in la France profonde. According to the map we were 11 miles from anywhere.  I put on the overalls that I always carried on motoring journeys and wormed my way beneath the rear of the car.

‘What are you doing? ‘ Cynthia asked querulously when I had been lying there in silence for five minutes or so.

‘Thinking’, I said.

After a while I decided that the best and least expensive thing to do would be to remove the petrol tank, beg a lift to whatever might be the nearest town, get the tank repaired and take a taxi back. With luck, in two or three hours we could be mobile again.

Then I remembered that when getting my boiler suit from the boot I had seen the  five-foot length of rubber tube that I kept for siphoning purposes. What would happen if I disconnected the main petrol supply line from the tank, connected it to the rubber tube and put the other end of the tube in the spare petrol can? Archimedes in his bath could not have  known a greater  excitement and I lost no time in effecting the contrivance.

Cynthia had not approved of my efforts from the start; a walk to a telephone (a telephone, in rural France!), a breakdown crew for the car and a taxi for us to the nearest three-star hotel being her recommendation for dealing with the crisis. While I had been working she had been sitting on one of her suitcases at what she judged to be a safe distance. Now,  she reacted with horror. It was crazy. It was suicidal. With all that gas all over the road and the heat of the sun and everything there was just certain to be an explosion and we should be incinerated.

As patiently as possible I tried to convince her that  there was no practicable alternative. I knew my France infinitely  better than she did and there could not be either a telephone or garage within miles. Pushing the car clear of the petrol-soaked patch of macadam,  I turned the starter switch. The engine responded immediately. Leaving it running, I removed my overalls, nonchalantly wiped my hands on some paper napkins and called to Cynthia that we were ready to go. Nothing, she said, would induce her to ride in what amounted to a self-service hearse. I argued.  She refused again. I pleaded. With the engine continuing to run sweetly, I said once more that the map clearly showed us to be a long way from anywhere and that we had already lost precious time. She could please herself, but I was about to be on my way. Daylight wouldn’t last for ever and it wasn’t really advisable for a girl to hitchhike alone, especially in the dark.

It must have required a considerable amount of courage for her to make the decision, but after a few moments Cynthia left me to look after her suitcase and without a word got into the passenger seat. A few hundred yards farther on we rounded a sharp bend and she gave a scream of utmost triumph or of utmost rage that I can hear to this day. A little way back from the road was a line of spanking new petrol pumps.  A state-of-the-art recovery vehicle was nearby.  Freshly painted on the side of a barn-like construction in brand new corrugated iron, letters a foot or more high proclaimed  ‘TOUTES RÉPARATIONS POUR VOITURES’.


I cannot put a date to this story, but an educated guess suggests that 1961 would be close to the mark. For one thing, 1961 was the year in which The Sunday Telegraph was launched with myself as travel edior and columnist. Earlier, I could not have afforded to make the trip described out of my own resources. A short while later, the Bristol Superfreighter service operated by Silver City Airways, which in 20 minutes carried cars from Lyd airport in Kent to Le Touquet on the French Channel coast, came to an end . 

Next, the term ‘cocktail party’, now redolent of mothballs, was evidently in general use. Then there is the poignant  mention of  ‘a carthorse with a blue-denimed peasant on its back’. Such sights, at that time commonplace, were soon to become very rare in France. Finally, there is also the use of shillings and pence  to convey the cost of petrol. The decimal currency in Britain was introduced 40 years ago.





After the Paulée

So that’s that for another year. With the superb professionalism of the French traiteurs matched by that of the Circle of Wine Writers’ own Jancis Robinson as she Tweeted her way from the sea bass truffé to the petits fours, (how on earth does anyone manipulate a Blackberry or an Ipad while the Magnums of Meursault and Methuselahs of Montrachet are jostling around the table?) the Paulée de Meursault 2011 passes into Burgundian history.

What time did the world’s best-known lady of wine get to bed last night, or this morning? We may never know. But blog life must go on, and even as the cutlery and crockery in Meursault are carted to the dish washers, and the similes in Sussex are checked for wear and tear, we are indefatigably concerned with future blog postings. Faithful to our declared editorial policy, the majority are most likely to be about France, but there are other riches in store, so that not infrequently there will be more than one item on the menu. There will, be no shortage of wine. Rarely great wine, but always good, honest French wine: wine of ‘character’ encountered on our travels in that greatest of all wine countries.

There will be no wine in our posting on Thursday, 24th November, however. On that day we shall be driving. Accompanied by an American lady, we shall be on our way from Le Touquet in the Pas-de-Calais to Biarritz in the Pyrénées-Atlantiques. The experience will feature in a moving story entitled ‘The Trouble with Cynthia.’

Au revoir.

Lunch of a lifetime

On Saturday evening, after all, I kept the Meursault  2002 for another occasion. Instead, I had half a bottle of Drappier Carte d’Or.

For viticltural Burgundy the weekend of the third Sunday in November is by far the most important of the year. The vendanges are long over. The wine is in the vats. On the Sunday, the auction of the new vintage is held at the famous Hospices de Beaune. The evening before, the occasion is celebrated by a dinner under the auspices of the Chevaliers du Tastevin at the equally famous Clos de Vougeot. The day after sees the third of the events known collectively as Les Trois Glorieuses, the luncheon known far and wide in the world of wine as La Paulée de Meursault. Paulée derives from poêle, or frying pan, and by extension is a Burgundian colloquialism for a midday snack.

The Paulée de Meursault is some snack! It begins very formally: all Monsieur and Madame and polite enquiries as to whether it is one’s first time at the Trois Glorieuses and what one thought of the prices at the auction. An hour later, people who had never met before taking their places at table are securing their neighbour’s attention, or emphasizing a point, with a hand resting intimately, albeit fleetingly, on a forearm. Heads are not seldom brought ever so slightly closer than is really justified even by the rising tide of conversation. Soon, glasses are clinking in bonhomie and the attributes of what is in them are being discussed not only with illuminating expertise, but passion.

The food is very good. As for the wines! It is a long and fondly preserved tradition that all wine-makers and merchants attending the luncheon are accompanied by examples of what they regard as the best burgundies their cellars can offer. Largesse rules. Bottles pass up and down the long tables. Names far beyond many a guest’s pocket or any but academic acquaintance appear on labels half-hidden now and then by slim, bejewelled fingers that a few weeks ago may have grasped the pruning shears or been stained by fermenting must.It begins with champagne and introductions about noon. It ends with cognac and other after-dinner drinks long after night has fallen and courtesy is the only surviving consituent of earlier formality. For many a visitor it has been the luncheon of a lifetime.

Vive la Paulée de Meursault!

PS

This evening I’ll have the other half of the Carte d’Or.


Tall story in Beaujolais

By Tradition, the 3rd Thursday in November sees the release of  Beaujolais nouveau. The following is adapted from ‘Morgon by Moonlight’, posted here on 13th October

It was the last day of the vendages. The family property was typical of the Beaujolais: a farmhouse of terracotta-coloured stone and indeterminate age and a farmyard no tidier or more elegant than working farmyards normally are. Madame D was a good-looking, cheerful woman in her fifties who apologised for not shaking hands, since they were covered in flour. Monsieur D, she said, was not yet back from calling on the wine-maker to whom he sold his grapes. Her husband, Madame said, was a grower only.

Madame’s notably attractive daughters, Gabrielle and Véronique,  had not come for a lazy weekend, but to help their mother feed the grape-pickers. Now, they put on aprons and started laying a long trestle table at one side of the  large kitchen.  Lucien,  a friend of the sisters, and I helped. When Monsieur D at last appeared he looked as though he had just had a good scrub. He had slightly greying hair and was wearing a bottle-green corduroy shirt with blue denim trousers. (Très gai!’ remarked Gabrielle). Though welcoming enough, he was sparing with words. It had been a very good harvest so far, he said: quantity good, quality excellent. Pas mal du tout.’

Grape-harvest suppers are generally jolly, joyful occasions: the work is hard, the hours necessarily long, the pleasure of stopping work particularly great and the camaraderie usually self-sustaining. Grape-growers have a tradition of feeding their workers well and wine flows freely.

At first, Gabrielle and Véronique were kept busy putting food on the table for the dozen or so hungry and thirsty young men and women pickers, all of whom were French. When everyone had finished the charcuterie and was busy with a hearty beef ragoût , the sisters joined their father and me at one end of the table and started on their own supper. Glasses were filled with what  Monsieur D described as un bon petit Gamay de la commune’, and then filled again.

I encouraged my host to talk about wine and he was scathing about what he called fashions in Beaujolais: one year Fleurie was all the rage, the next year Brouilly, the year after that, something else. He was glad he was only a grower, not a wine-maker. His father and grandfather had been growers too. A cobbler ought to stick to his last.

‘Not a wine-maker!’ exclaimed Véronique. ‘What a story!’ (Quelle histoire!’).

With mock solemnity Monsieur D  said that his ‘quelques bouteilles’ were just his little hobby: he was no Georges Dubœuf!   At the end of dinner he announced that since the picking was going so well he would like to propose a little celebration: the four of us would go and drink a bottle of  ‘the  83’.

Now, the significance of Véronique’s ironic remark about her father not being a wine maker became apparent. In an open barn at one side of the farmyard was a neat, high stack of old, dry vine roots. Behind the stack, a door in a stone wall and some steps led down into a cellar lit by a single bare electric bulb. A wooden vat, an old-fashioned vertical, slatted grape press, several far-from-new casks and a row of large stainless-steel jugs constituted the image of a traditional wine-making cave. Through a low arch another short flight of stone steps gave access to a storage cellar.

While Monsieur D left us briefly for the lower level, his daughters lit the six half-burned candles in a pyramid-shaped wrought-iron holder —‘Il est très ritualiste,explained Véronique— before switching off the electric bulb.

Her father returned with a basket containing several unlabelled bottles from which he proceeded to draw the corks. First, we tasted a two-year-old wine, which was tannic and without any Beaujolais charm. Next, we sampled ‘the 83’, which was very drinkable indeed.

‘Promising! ’, said Monsiur D

At five years old it was the one of oldest Beaujolais I had ever tasted, a revelation in flavours and appearance. Held up to the candle-flames, it was still a lovely garnet colour. Though it was as cool as the lower cellar, its ‘nose’ was seductive and the taste so complex as to challenge the imagination and descriptive powers of the taster.

It was not very sensible at that hour, but we drank that bottle, then another.  When the subject of going to bed was raised at last it was unanimously agreed that no responsible person could possibly take the wheel of a car, so I would have to stay more or less where I was.

My host went off to his own bed. The remaining four of us took our glasses and went outside to decide whether the moon was full.


L’HOMME À TOUT FAIRE

In Uzès, near Nîmes, a friend had told us of a hotel which we might find ‘interesting’ on our way north. Arriving unannounced in the hills near Alès, when the sun was almost gone and and a fresh little wind was blowing, we found a courtyard where a man was engrossed with the entrails of a dismembered car. His hands, arms and much of his face were black with grease. A half-full bottle of red wine stood on a cylinder block.

Yes, he said; there was a room free, Indeed, it being late in the season, and the establishment not being in any of the guidebooks, every room was free. One with a bath?  Well, no; he was desolate; none of the rooms had a bath, but there was a shower.

We wanted dinner?  Very well: he would just clean himself up a little and start work in the kitchen.  We would leave the menu to him?  Very good! At about 8 p.m. then; but at our convenience.  A glass of wine meanwhile?  Certainly. See if there’s anything that takes your fancy in the stone rack at the foot of the stairs. We would find a corkscrew hanging on the nail. Room number 7 was on the first floor; the key was in the door.

It was a large room, furnished only with a huge armoire, a small table with a white, lace-trimmed cloth, two plain wooden chairs and a low-slung double bed, the linen of which was coarse but clean. The wall were whitewashed and undecorated, the stone floor bare save for heavy cotton runners beside the bed,. The wash basin had no soap, but towels hung over the backs of the chairs, coarse to the touch but smelling of fresh air and sun.

The sun went, and for a suggestion of warmth we lit the gas light served by a pipe from a cylinder in the adjacent shower room. There was a low, comforting roar when the shower itself was turned on. The wine was a vin de pays from the Ardèche. Sitting on a bolster shifted to the edge of the bed, with the light lowered as far as it would go, we drank it to the accompaniment of Act 3 from Tristan and Isolde, played on a Walkman with miniature loud speakers attached. By the time that Libestod, the final aria, was over it was just after 8 o’clock and we went downstairs.

Dinner was served in a cavernous room where the light from candles set in empty wine bottles created an illusion of intimacy at one end of a huge refectory table facing a log fire set in a hearth where a large ox might easily have been turned on a spit. Now, our motor mechanic who had become chef had become also the waiter, a white table cloth tied round his waist. Eagerly, we ate what he served and what he served —lapin en daube—was very good. “But I don’t really follow any recipe, you know. Just my own way. Just traditional”. The wine we drank was dark and red —“Nothing special. Just another little vin de pays”— which went wondrously well with the daube and the goat cheese.

To all these, and perhaps to the “petit digestif ” offered by our host, and to a wool-stuffed mattress of the kind that la France profonde used to excel in, and to a deep contentment, we attributed the sleep that embraced us until long after the cock had crowed and the sun on the slats of the wooden shutters was clamouring for entry. When we looked out, our host was busy in the courtyard below, just as we had found him the evening before.


Going by appearances

In 1962, just to show the readers of the Sunday Telegraph that the spirit of adventure was not dead in Fleet Street, I rode a Lambretta from London to Barcelona.

Somewhere south of Bergerac, at about  5 p.m, I was brought to a halt by a flat front tyre. With practice and a proper knowledge of the appropriate book of words, fixing the spare  would no doubt have been very simple, but I had neither.  By the time I had found a way of propping up the scooter so that I could work on it without fuel spilling from the tank, and removed the wheel (and four vital nuts that ought not to have been removed), and  retrieved three small washers from the long grass and got the spare in place, an hour and a half had gone by and I was a much hotter, dirtier and only marginally wiser man.

About two hours later I saw a sign pointing through park gates and along a tree-shaded private road proclaiming an hotel ‘de premier ordre’.  So far, I had practised the sort of economy that seemed to me becoming for a scooterist, but felt now that a touch or two of premier ordre was precisely what the situation required. At the end of the avenue was an expanse of gravel and the sort of house that in France is often called a château and in England a country mansion.  Half a dozen cars, all obviously out of the scooter class of income, were drawn up beside well-tended turf. I put the Lambretta up on its stand, removed my helmet, smoothed my hair back and went inside.

The hall had been modernised and adapted to its function as a hotel lobby and behind the reception desk was a receptionist-cum-concierge wearing striped trousers and a black coat, looking like the butler who had stayed on when the place had changed hands. Like all good butlers, he was impeccably polite, but at the same time his manner was a touch short of that of mine genial host.  He regretted, he said  after a perfunctory glance at his booking sheet, but the hotel was tout à fait complet.

Tout à fait?

Oui monsieur. Tout à fait.

I thanked him and withdrew.  The noise of the scooter echoed reproachfully from the grey stone walls as I revved up and drove away.

In a village café a mile or two farther south I allowed half an hour to pass while I drank a small carafe of wine,  then telephoned again to the same hotel. I had spoken French before, now I spoke English.

Certainly  they had rooms. Where was I calling from and would I be wanting dinner? Last orders were taken at 9 pm.

Arriving for the second time, I felt sorry for the embarrassment of the man in the black coat as he explained that a cancellation had been received not ten minutes after I had left. Deeply ashamed, I said that I had hoped as much, and had so liked the look of the place that I had thought it worthwhile trying again. In my room a few minutes later I saw myself in the looking-glass, dishevelled, my nose red from the sun, a smear of black grease across my face, more grease on my wind cheater.

Had I been the butler, I think I might have called out the dogs!