The Moto Samaritan

After an unpromising beginning in the south-west of France, the day had been little less than idyllic; but now, short of a miracle, I was confronted with unavoidable catastrophe: hot, hungry, and longing for a glass of wine, I was faced with the prospect of a picnic with only water to drink.

I ought to have bought something in Carcassonne, but had been reluctant to buy supermarket wine when I was sure that more interesting possibilities would present themselves on the way to Caunes Minervois, a dozen or more miles to the north-east, towards the Cevennes. After breakfast at the superb Hotel Domaine d’Auriac, just outside Carcassonne, the sky had been doubtful, but an hour later, on the towpath of the wondrous Canal du Midi, there were gleams of sun and patches of blue to be glimpsed through the overhanging plane trees; blackbirds sang and doves cooed in competition with traffic on the busy road bordering the waterway. At the Écluse du Fresquel there was brilliant sunshine. Honeysuckle, yellow broom and a profusion of dog roses bloomed beside the path. Near the Pont Rouge there were marguerites, blood-red poppies and tall cypresses. I heard what I was sure were nightingales. The road was further away now and I could look across wide expanses of well-tended vineyards, but the view confirmed what a few minutes more with the 1:25,000 map before setting out would have told me: that I was not within reasonable reach of a wine domaine. Anyway, it would have taken a braver and brasher man than I to interrupt a wine maker at his family lunch in order to ask for a single bottle.  It was now long past drowsy noon and all hope was dead.

I had left the canal, heading north on a very minor road, looking for the beginning of what the map said was the Chemin des Romains, and had paused to check my bearings and to drink from my water bottle, when as if from nowhere a ‘moto’ appeared and stopped beside me, the rider wearing bleus de travail (working overalls), green rubber boots, a white helmet and heavy-duty goggles.  “Vous cherchez quelquechose, Monsieur?” he asked, switching off his engine, slowly removing helmet and goggles and hanging them on his handlebars to reveal a weathered face that I imagined to be well into its seventies and a head of roughly trimmed white hair. “Je peu vous aider”?

“Thank you”, I said. “I was just trying to make sure that I know where I am”.

 “Ici, vous êtes sur le Chemang des Romang”, said the motocyclist in the accent of the south that renders the French for bread as pang and demain as demang. “Mais vous allez où?”

“Caunes”. I said.

Caunes! Mais c’est loin (lwang), vous savez”.

“Not really”, I said. “Not more than 8 or 9 miles”.

Eh bien! Vous êtes courageux! Mais le chemang (chemin) est asssez compliqué”.

Given the map, the way appeared not to be complicated at all; but for an instant hope was reborn. Did Monsieur happen to be from these parts? I enquired. Not far off, the motocyclist said.  Why did I ask?  Nothing important, I said: I just wondered if he might know where there might be any chance of my buying some wine for a picnic.

Wine! Oh la la! Not anywhere nearer than Bagnoles or Trèbes. And not at this hour.

No, of course, I said, resignedly. I just thought it was worth asking.

Until this moment the motocyclist had remained astride his machine. Now, dismounting slowly, saying nothing, he pulled it up onto its stand and turned his attention to a capacious wooden box on the pillion secured with a broad leather strap. From it he took first a large marrow, placing it carefully on the verge, then an object generously swaddled in newspaper held in place by baling twine. Back towards me, he laid the parcel across the bike’s saddle before taking an Opinel knife from a side pocket of his bleus de travail and cutting the twine. Sheet by sheet, he removed the paper, folded it neatly and replaced it in the pillion box, then turned towards me with a black, unlabelled litre bottle in one hand and a shy, conspiratorial smile on his face. The miracle had come to pass.

It wasn’t much (“pas grande chose”) he said; but it was an honest little vin de pays that I might find better than nothing. He was on his way to visit his sister in Tribes and taking her a couple of bottles as well as something from his garden; but she wasn’t a great drinker and there was plenty more where this one came from. Was he himself a vigneron? I asked after offering payment (an offer brushed aside) and thanks that could not have been more sincere. Not any more, he said. He used to own a few vines but had sold them to a neighbour who took all his grapes to the local cooperative for vinification and let him, my benefactor, have as many bottles as he wanted. So in a way you could say it was his own wine.

Deep red and robust, it may not have been grande chose, but half an hour later, on a low mound that passed for a hill in the great plain that prefaces the Black Mountain, in the meagre but blessed shade of a lone acacia, before eating so much as a crust I poured away half a glass as a libation to Bacchus and sundry other gods, drank to the health of  my motocyclist, and thought that there, at that moment and in that place,I could have wished for nothing better.

Vive la belle France.


Adapted from Walking in Wine Country, revised edition, edited by Bridget Moser.


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