Read Toujours Provence Online

Authors: Peter Mayle

Toujours Provence (7 page)

BOOK: Toujours Provence
8.39Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

The time that elapses in Provence between planning a rendezvous and keeping it can often stretch into months, and sometimes years, and so I wasn’t expecting an immediate invitation. Winter turned to spring, spring turned to summer, and summer melted into August, the most lethal month of the year to be toying with a fifteen-degree wine, and then Michel called.

“Tomorrow morning at eleven,” he said. “In the
caves
at Châteauneuf. Eat plenty of bread at breakfast.”

I had done what he suggested and, as an extra precaution, taken a soupspoonful of neat olive oil, which one of the local gourmets had told me was an excellent way to coat the stomach and cushion the system against repeated assaults by younger powerful wines. In any case, I thought as I drove down the twisting, baked country roads, I wouldn’t be swallowing much. I would do as the experts do, rinse and spit.

Châteauneuf came into view, trembling in the heat haze, just before eleven o’clock. It is a place entirely dedicated to wine. Seductive invitations are everywhere, on sun-bleached, peeling boards, on freshly painted posters, hand-lettered on monster bottles, fixed to the wall, propped at the side of vineyards, stuck on pillars at the end of driveways.
Dégustez! Dégustez!

I drove through the gateway in the high stone wall that protects the
Caves Bessac
from the outside world, parked in the shade, and unstuck myself from the car. I felt the sun come down on the top of my head like a close-fitting hat of hot air. In front of me was a long building, crenellated along the top, its façade blind except for huge double doors. A group of people, outlined against the black interior, were standing in the doorway, holding large bowls that glinted in the sun.

The
cave
felt almost cold, and the glass that Michel gave
me was pleasantly cool in my hand. It was one of the biggest glasses I had ever seen, a crystal bucket on a stem, with a bulbous belly narrowing at the top to the circumference of a goldfish bowl. Michel said it could hold three-quarters of a bottle of wine.

My eyes adjusted to the gloom after the glare outside, and I began to realize that this was not a modest
cave
. Twenty-five thousand bottles would have been lost in the murk of one of the distant corners. In fact, there were no bottles to be seen, just boulevards of barrels—enormous barrels lying on their sides supported by waist-high platforms, their upper curves twelve or fifteen feet above the ground. Scrawled in chalk on the flat face of each barrel were descriptions of the contents, and for the first time in my life I was able to walk through a wine list: Côtes-du-Rhône-Villages, Lirac, Vacqueyras, Saint-Joseph, Crozes-Hermitage, Tavel, Gigondas—thousands of liters of each, arranged in vintages and dozing silently toward maturity.

“Alors,”
said Michel, “you can’t walk around with an empty glass. What are you going to have?”

There was too much choice. I didn’t know where to start. Would Michel guide me through the barrels? I could see that the others had something in their goldfish bowls; I’d have the same.

Michel nodded. That would be best, he said, because we only had two hours, and he didn’t want to waste our time on the very young wines when there were so many treasures that were ready to drink. I was glad I’d had the olive oil. Anything that qualified as a treasure was hardly spitting material. But two hours of swallowing would have me as supine as one of the barrels, and I asked if one was permitted to spit.

Michel waved his glass at a small drain that marked the entrance of the
Boulevard Côtes-du-Rhône
.
“Crachez si vous voulez, mais …”
It was clear that he thought it would be tragic to deny oneself the pleasure of the swallow, the bursting forth of flavors, the well-rounded finish, and the profound satisfaction that comes from drinking a work of art.

The
maître de chai, a
wiry old man in a cotton jacket the color of faded blue sky, appeared with a device that reminded me of a giant eye-dropper—three feet of glass tubing with a fist-sized rubber globe at one end. He aimed the nozzle and squeezed a generous measure of white wine into my glass, muttering a prayer as he squeezed:
“Hermitage ’86, bouquet aux aromes de fleurs d’accacia. Sec, mais sans trop d’acidité.”

I swirled and sniffed and rinsed and swallowed. Delicious. Michel was quite right. It would be a sin to consign this to the drain. With some relief, I saw that the others were tipping what they didn’t drink into a large jug that stood on a nearby trestle table. Later, this would be transferred into a jar containing a
mère vinaigre
, and the result would be four-star vinegar.

Slowly, we worked our way down the boulevards. At each stop, the
maître de chai
climbed up his portable ladder to the top of the barrel, knocked out the bung, and inserted his thirsty nozzle, returning down the ladder as carefully as if he were carrying a loaded weapon—which, as the tasting progressed, it began to resemble.

The first few shots had been confined to the whites, the
rosés
, and the lighter reds. But as we moved into the deeper gloom at the back of the
cave
, the wines too became darker. And heavier. And noticeably stronger. Each of them was served to the accompaniment of its own short but reverent litany. The red Hermitage, with its nose of violets, raspberries,
and mulberries, was a
vin viril
. The Côtes-du-Rhöne
“Grande Cuvée”
was an elegant thoroughbred, fine and
étoffé
. I was impressed almost as much by the inventive vocabulary as by the wines themselves—fleshy, animal, muscular, well-built, voluptuous, sinewy—and the
maître
never repeated himself. I wondered whether he had been born with lyrical descriptive powers or whether he took a thesaurus to bed with him every night.

We finally arrived at Michel’s
merveille
, the 1981 Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Although it would keep for several years to come, it was already a masterpiece, with its
robe profonde
, its hints of spice and truffle, its warmth, its balance—not to mention its alcoholic content, which was nudging fifteen percent. I thought Michel was going to take a header into his glass. It’s nice to see a man who loves his work.

With some reluctance, he put down his glass and looked at his watch. “We must go,” he said. “I’ll get something to drink with lunch.” He went to an office at the front of the
cave
, and came out carrying a crate of a dozen bottles. He was followed by a colleague, carrying another dozen. Eight of us were going to lunch. How many would survive?

We left the
cave
and winced under the force of the sun. I had restrained myself to sips rather than mouthfuls; nevertheless, my head gave one sharp throb in warning as I walked to the car. Water. I must have water before even sniffing any more wine.

Michel thumped me on the back. “There’s nothing like a
dégustation
to give you a thirst,” he said. “Don’t worry. We have a sufficiency.” Good grief.

The restaurant Michel had chosen was half an hour away, in the country outside Cavaillon. It was a
ferme auberge
, serving what he described as correct Provençal food in rustic
surroundings. It was tucked away and hard to find, so I should stick closely to his car.

Easier said than done. So far as I know, there are no statistics to support my theory, but observation and heart-stopping personal experience have convinced me that a Frenchman with an empty stomach drives twice as fast as a Frenchman with a full stomach (which is already too fast for sanity and speed limits). And so it was with Michel. One minute he was there; the next he was a dust-smudged blur on the shimmering horizon, clipping the dry grass verges on the bends, booming through the narrow streets of villages in their midday coma, his gastronomic juices in overdrive. By the time we reached the restaurant, all pious thoughts of water were gone. I needed a drink.

The dining room of the farm was cool and noisy. A large television set in the corner, ignored by the clientele, jabbered to itself. The other customers, mostly men, were darkened by the sun and dressed for outdoor work in old shirts and sleeveless vests, with the flattened hair and white foreheads that come from wearing a cap. A nondescript dog whiffled in the corner, nose twitching sleepily at the spicy smell of cooking meat coming from the kitchen. I realized that I was ravenous.

We were introduced to André, the
patron
, whose appearance, dark and full-bodied, fitted the description of some of the wines we’d been tasting. There were undertones of garlic, Gauloises, and
pastis
present in his bouquet. He wore a loose shirt, short shorts, rubber sandals, and an emphatic black moustache. He had a voice that transcended the hubbub of the room.

“Eh, Michel! Qu’est-ce que c’est? Orangina? Coca-Cola?”
He started to unpack the crates of wine and reached in the back
pocket of his shorts for a corkscrew.
“M’amour! Un seau, des glaçons, s’il te plaît.”

His wife, sturdy and smiling, came out of the kitchen carrying a tray and unloaded it on the table: two ice buckets, plates of pink
saucisson
dotted with tiny peppercorns, a dish of vivid radishes, and a deep bowl of thick
tapenade
, the olive and anchovy paste that is sometimes called the black butter of Provence. André was uncorking bottles like a machine, sniffing each cork as he drew it and arranging the bottles in a double line down the center of the table. Michel explained that these were some of the wines we hadn’t had time to try in the
cave
, young Côtes-du-Rhône for the most part, with half a dozen older and more serious reinforcements from Gigondas to help when the cheese arrived.

There is something about lunch in France that never fails to overcome any small reserves of willpower that I possess. I can sit down, resolved to be moderate, determined to eat and drink lightly, and be there three hours later, nursing my wine and still open to temptation. I don’t think it’s greed. I think it’s the atmosphere generated by a roomful of people who are totally intent on eating and drinking. And while they do it, they talk about it; not about politics or sport or business, but about what is on the plate and in the glass. Sauces are compared, recipes argued over, past meals remembered, and future meals planned. The world and its problems can be dealt with later on, but for the moment,
la bouffe
takes priority and contentment hangs in the air. I find it irresistible.

We eased into lunch like athletes limbering up. A radish, its top split open to hold a sliver of almost white butter and flecked with a pinch of coarse salt; a slice of
saucisson
, prickly with pepper on the tongue; rounds of toast made from yesterday’s
bread, shining with
tapenade
. Cool pink and white wines. Michel leaned across the table. “No spitting.”

The
patron
, who was nipping away at a glass of red in between his duties, presented the first course with as much ceremony as a man in shorts and rubber sandals can muster, placing a deep
terrine
, its sides burnt almost black, on the table. He stuck an old kitchen knife into the
pâté
, then came back with a tall glass pot of
cornichons
and a dish of onion jam.
“Voilà, mes enfants. Bon appétit.”

The wine changed color as Michel dealt out his young reds, and the
terrine
was passed around the table for second slices. André came over from his card game to refill his glass.
“Ça va? Ça vous plaît?”
I told him how much I liked his onion jam. He told me to save some room for the next course, which was—he kissed his fingertips loudly—a triumph,
alouettes sans tête
, prepared specially for us by the hands of his adorable Monique.

Despite the rather grisly name (literally, larks without heads), it is a dish made from thin slices of beef rolled around slivers of salt pork, seasoned with chopped garlic and parsley, bathed in olive oil, dry white wine, stock, and tomato
coulis
and served neatly trussed with kitchen twine. It looks nothing like a lark—more like an opulent sausage—but some creative Provençal cook must have thought that larks sounded more appetizing than rolled beef, and the name has survived.

Monique brought in the
alouettes
, which André said he had shot that morning. He was a man who found it difficult to make a joke without delivering the punch line physically, and the nudge he delivered with his forearm almost knocked me into a vast tub of
ratatouille
.

The headless larks were hot and humming with garlic, and
Michel decided that they deserved a more solid wine. The Gigondas was promoted from the cheese course, and the collection of dead bottles at the end of the table was by now well into double figures. I asked Michel if he had any plans to work in the afternoon. He looked surprised. “I
am
working,” he said. “This is how I like to sell wine. Have another glass.”

Salad came, and then a basketwork tray of cheeses—fat white discs of fresh goat cheese, some mild Cantal, and a wheel of creamy St. Nectaire from the Auvergne. This inspired André, now installed at the head of the table, to produce another joke. There was this little boy in the Auvergne who was asked which he liked best, his mother or his father. The little boy thought for a moment. “I like bacon best,” he said. André heaved with laughter. I was relieved to be out of nudging distance.

Scoops of sorbet were offered, and an apple tart, sleek with glaze, but I was defeated. When André saw me shake my head, he bellowed down the table, “You must eat. You need your strength. We’re going to have a game of
boules
.”

After coffee, he led us outside to show us the goats that he kept in a pen at the side of the restaurant. They were huddled in the shade of an outbuilding, and I envied them; they weren’t being asked to play
boules
under a sun that was drilling lasers into the top of my head. It was no good. My eyes were aching from the glare and my stomach wanted desperately to lie down and digest in peace. I made my excuses, found a patch of grass under a plane tree, and lowered my lunch to the ground.

BOOK: Toujours Provence
8.39Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

Other books

Slow Heat in Heaven by Sandra Brown
The Matchmaker's Match by Jessica Nelson
Intrusion by Kay, Arlene
August Gale by Walsh, Barbara
Byrd by Kim Church
Second Paradigm by Peter J. Wacks
A Little Harmless Fling by Melissa Schroeder