we were shoved off enthusiastically by our smiling hosts, Thierry and Julie, who I am thinking had not done a thorough inventory of their mini-bars. So bedraggled and exhausted we must have looked the night before, they most probably thought we would have no pressing desire for night-caps.
We had agreed to avoid any major towns, so there would be no major disappointments like ghastly Avignon. Motoring steadily through pleasant grey countryside, slipping discretely through nondescript villages we made steady progress, but seldom did we pass unnoticed, Renault Fours and cyclomoteurs are a rare but clearly welcomed sight on the byways of La France profonde. We left a dumbstruck and bemused populace in our wake, but I was sure that somehow, in some way we had cheered them a little, maybe even made someones day, which was nice.
Shortly after midday, the traffic began to thicken noticeably, the pleasure renewed of a Renault Clio up my bum again for the first time in ages and a steady stream of assorted white vans in the opposite direction. I decided on the spot to play a quick game of silly-buggers. In the days when my wife was still of this world, Tazzy was cute and the word rehab had not been properly minted, our little family spent the summer holidays as ever in our Saint-Tropez weed haven. To waylay the tedium of the long journeys here and back, I had devised quite a number of little games and distractions. later I even wrote a small booklet just for Taz, entitled 101 fun things to do for the bored in France, of which sadly their are no remaining copies. Taz’s favourite car trip game was not I-Spy, Counting Cows or Slug Bug, it was obeying the speed limit, with stopping at pedestrian crossings coming in a close second.
We were in a 50 kph suburban zone on the outskirts of Pernes-les-Fontaines. Fifty is of course about the limit even for my soupy mopeds, so we already had quite a build up of hungry drivers behind. The French have always had a tendency to go home for lunch, honestly, there is nothing new about it. The trick though is to start flashing your headlights at the on comers, creating the illusion that there is trouble in a blue uniform up ahead. The effect is immediate as they in turn slow down to that stupid and in fifth, unsustainable speed of fifty. If you are really lucky and hit some traffic lights, poorly designed and confusing junctions, or best of all roadworks, you’ve hit the jackpot. Which I’m happy to say was precisely what happened today; by half past twelve the traffic flow around this sprawling little town flowed no more. Eric and Steve were having the time of their lives, mopeding in traffic jams is a little known and greatly underestimated pastime. It was nearly an hour before I caught up with them.
My little prank had cost us our lunch too, but we all agreed on three things, one that it was worth it, a little taste of mayhem is worth a thousand sandwiches, two; to press on towards Chateauneuf, try to get there before dark. Three; that I would not repeat the performance at the two o’ clock return rush.
We rolled up Matt’s lengthy and finely gravelled driveway shortly before five, in just enough light to make out the three storey, square stone built farmhouse. Very nice and very spacious too by the look of things, I could see us hanging around here for a day or two. The place was surrounded by an army of vines, twisted, gnarled yet uniform, lined up elegant one metre apart, two more between each row and pruned to perfection. Four branches per head each with a pair of last years shoots cut back to two fat buds ready for action. Beautiful.
Matt himself was a little older than I had imagined; grey-haired mister business man, retired, well fed and well pleased with himself was my first impression. He and Eric shook hands rather formally but with obvious warmth and exchanged a few words which I pretended to distinguish otherwise. Eric turned and said he would let Steve and myself introduce ourselves. Now thats what I call a turn up for the books.
Steve went first with the handshake thing:
“Milbona, Stephen, pleased to meet you sir, but Im afraid you will find my travelling companions to be just ghosts and empty sockets.”
“Rodney” I said simply. Steve was always a hard act to follow.
“Matthew Gloag, enchante. You look like three chaps badly in need of a drink. Am I right?”
His name was familiar, yet Scottish, his accent American yet Irish and his charm was both British and engaging. “Quatre verres Ginette et biguns Sil vous plait.”
We were sitting comfortably behind very huge glasses of extremely passable ruby red with a touch I believe of Cabernet Sauvignon, beautifully served by Ginette, who seemed not to speak a word of English, come to think of it she spoke not a word at all, an altogether pleasing trait in a French woman.
“Why didn’t you tell us Matt was a winemaker?” I asked Eric because, well? I wanted to know.
“Everybody is a winemaker in Chateauneuf-du Pape Rodney, but hes not just a vigneron, hes an alchemist and a bloody genius, if you dont mind me telling them Matt. Tell them what you do, theyll love it!”
“Well Im no winemaker, or vigneron, all the hard graft is done by Ginette and her husband Estoban; she nurses the vines throughout the growing season right through until winter pruning. Estoban is my tractor driver and caviste, who handles the pressing, filtering and fermentation and so on, we also have an oenologue who drops by from time to time for a fee…. So you see Im no winemaker, I am an assembleur. There are no less than twenty seven different grape varieties on the few tiny acres out there, so we make the wine in the smallest of vats and mix and match until I find exactly the right combination to go with any particular dish.”
Steve seemed to have noticed that his bottles bore the funniest of little labels and asked the wino man, picking up a bottle in front of me, “ Pretty minimalist your labelling Matt, this one just says General purpose red,pre-dinner guests (peanut butter, white chocolate, and or Jaffa cake): Carignan, grenache with a hint of Cabernet I always thought wine labelling had to be more precise, you know, with bar codes, appellations and health warnings, full-bellied ladies with a diagonal line right through them, Lidl GmbH in upper case large and what about “Contains Sulphites” for Pete’s sake?”
“Well if I wanted to sell the stuff, yes of course, but this is home made for home consumption, so they can all fuck off, pardon my French, but yes, fuck off with their absurd regulations. It might surprise you to know that I am actually forbidden to water my vines, even in the driest of summers. I’m supposed to sit there and watch them wither and die, and as for those bloody sulphite warnings: Ill let you into a little secret, those appellation controlled branded château mon arse guys just chuck bagfuls of sulphurous chemicals indiscriminately onto the freshly pressed juice for no other reason than to kill the natural yeasts found on the skins of the grape, so they can ferment with the recommended commercial strain, all in the name of uniformity and product integrity.
All my wines are fermented naturally, if the process just stops at seven degrees I dont care, if it races on to sixteen, seventeen or more, if a six turned out to be a nine I dont mind, and I dont add any sugar,beetroot or wood shavings or for that matter fish. My wines taste good do they not ? well even if they dont, you cant fault me on their lingering afterburn, and I promise you, drink as much as you like and you wont be troubled with a hangover.”
”Is that a real promise or an idle boast Matt?” I challenged, ”Because I for one like to drink muchly.”
”Be my guest Rodney, but better still, just wait till you associate them with a tasty morsel.”
Matthew Gloag was an inspiration to us all and with the ropes of hope he hauled us high. “If wine is the final frontier then you simply must have a wee bite to eat.”
“Look. I have to be honest with you guys, Matt looked at us all with alarming intent and naivety, “Ive been in this country for, how long has it been now Eric? Five Years? I love the place; the people, their culture traditions and values. I truly love their wine but…”
The man was to be a deception after all then? Everybody else comes here for the vast expanses of bread and fromage. not the cheesy attitude. “No I love the place, but I cant stomach their food, I have most of my groceries dropped in by expattwat dot com, Vegemite, baked beans, pickles and cheese cake mixes, Curry pastes, Budweiser and chunky chicken. Just once I tried a French turkey on Thanksgiving; really tried, basted the beast to death, but to no avail, never again!
“So these wine mixes of yours are prescribed to go with Twinkies, biscuitsn gravy meatloaf thousand island dressing and blueberry cobblers,? ….
”Yes, what else? Ive just sent Estoban out to the ‘King MacTractor for a selection of goodies, at least they have one of those in town, open 24/7 too,he should be back in a minute, prepare to be amazed.”
“If we are being honest Matt” I said as we were waiting for Estoban, “I dont really believe in these food and wine associations; whats wrong with red wine with fish and white with red meat or strong cheese?”
“Absolutely nothing my friend as long as they are the right wines; a fluffy gamay or pansy pinot noir will do wonders for sea bass or turbot, a sweet pink with Stilton is a delight to the middle portion of the tongue and a petit Sauvignon blanc with a bloody T-bone is quite disgusting, but if you have both, well who would would give a fifty Euro fuck anyway? … By the way all my cheese comes direct from Wisconsin.”
“What about your rose and sausage rolls escapade in Saint tropez Rod?”
Eric asked grinning stupidly, ignoring the enormity of Matts twenty-two pounder red cheddar ring slumped heavily on a coffee table, next a Monterey Jack with ghost peppers. “You went on all fours about nuptials, wedding marches and cupids chokehold.”
I just wanted some decent rose on a sunny spring morning and I don’t recall actually eating anything at all on that day.”
Matt began arranging and sorting bottles……..bottles labelled Rollo MacBacon and Swiss, Southern Style king Biscuit Boy, Chocolate Chip Chowder and Slow Baked MacEnteritis. He had obviously done this many times before; when the food arrived Estoban proceeded to place the appropriate cartons of junk beside the similarly labelled bottles, and we were invited to tuck in…..
“Oi! got any rose Matt?”
Eric, yobbo of the south. Lister at The Ritz, asking for Tetleys bitter, With a lemonade top.
“Ive got a spicy MacPebble-dash here and nothing to go with it!”
“ Well spotted Eric, a proper rose will cut through any Madras or vindalooo, even that crap you have before you, but unfortunately in these parts we are not allowed to make rose wines. Verboten, my young friend.”
“That doesn’ t usually stop you Matt!”
“Well I do happen to have a few bottles of Couillon, but it is strictly speaking illegal, its an old and now forbidden variety, but I had Estoban take some cuttings from one of his cousins in the Var and graft them onto some of our plain vanilla rootstock. I only make about 24 bottles a year, just for the curry. The Couillon-rose is neither a white or a red grape, its pink and eats chicken kormas for breakfast.”
All those years of beery hell, snorting whiskey and those horrible mind-bending alterations with Nucky balls with nothing but a hasty snack or a Cavendish to keep a body sound. More often than not,the fancy restaurants, and there have been a few, drink as much as you like so long as its red. Tut tut to your dry whites or gay rosay. Rods wasted years.
Finally I had seen the light, felt the gentle explosion in my very mouth, together in a totally unexpected and gracious harmony: MacBastard burgers with a seventeen variety unofficial Chateuneuf du Pape. Heaven in an engraved bottle, and all this courtesy of my new best friend Matthew Gloag.
I was in heaven, or as close as I would ever get. Heaven, a place where nothing ever happens? We’ll see about that.
“So what ya gonna do with your Harvard certificate then Eric”
“What!!! I Told you never to tell him Steve!”
“I never done say no word. Honest”
“It’s been pretty obvious Eric, and Matt I take it was your favourite professor? Actually your dad told me all about you. Hes really proud of you, you do know that dont you?”
Eric blushed distinctly, suppressed a tear and winked at Steve, arrogant to the very end.
“So what are you proposing to do with your luscious law degree, and how old are you any way twenty-eight? Thirty?
”Dont worry about me old man, I have a degree in International law and Im going to sue the bastards, have no fear.”
”The bastards? Which particular strain of bastard may you be thinking about? Many more than several would be understating the thing.”
”The French government of course, Ill be good for millions.”
“And what exactly will you be suing them for?
“ Crimes against humanity, thats what!”
“Hows that?” I said surprised, leg before wicket, what kind of crimes?”
“Well numero uno, imposing the French language on the unsuspecting and innocent; impossible grammar and irrational plurals. X should just mark the spot and the past historic tense should not exist, let alone used in children’s stories like:
Il se leva de bon matin, et alla au bord d’un ruisseau, où il emplit ses poches de petits cailloux blancs, et ensuite revint à la maison.
Just like Tom Thumb’s blues! Would you believe that my dear mother used to read those stories to me when I was a kid of about three or four ? By the time I got to primary school I was actually speaking in the passe anterieur ,talk about having the piss ripped out of me by the other kids…Im going to fucking well sue them.”
“Is that really true?” Matt asked genuinely concerned.
“Yes it is.“
“Well, son, count me in, lets do this.“
”I Couldnt agree with you more Eric, but where do you draw the line between humanity and French people?” I pointed out nicely. “Theyll rip you apart with that one in court.“
”I have thought long and hard about that Rod, but I was thinking less French people, more the poor bastard immigrants that come to France looking for Nirvana only to find Daft Punk, or what about our ex-colonies,vast expanses of Africa, mud hut schoolrooms with make believe blackboards and little hopeless nobbies chanting a monotonous sing-song chorus of “jeusse cru, teusses cru il, elle eût cru, nous eussions cru, vous eussiez cru, ils; elles eussent cru?”
No I will never be able to Adam and Eve that bastard language! What sort of start in life is that for a shiny faced coon? Who wants to be a Millionaire?”
“You wouldnt happen to have any more gory tales about schooling would you Eric?” Matt was already counting his share of the millions.
“Well now you come to mention it…When I was about ten or eleven my father, of whom you have no doubt heard Matthew, but not had the misfortune to meet like my two friends here, decided, quite out of the blue to allow me to go on a school trip, a “Classe de decouverte” Would you believe?
“Is that it?”
“Sod off Matt and listen,this is a good one.We were all shepherded and shouted onto buses and then went off somewhere on a motorway. A place I am not likely to forget, Gounfaroun, which to me sounded more like it should be middle earth Tolkien, but was in fact a drab, not worth the detour small town with a fixation for donkeys.
There were donkeys everywhere that day, as it just happened to be the annual donkey festival. After an hour or so of looking at these beasts of all shapes and sizes, watching them shit noisily, hearing them squeak,fart, wheeze and bray and then sampling some delicious“saucisson dane”, purveyed from a donkey butchers caravan came the big moment. For our delectation, they were going to make a donkey fly. Seriously. Some rough looking types dragged an old ass into the public square, so old and emaciated that it was clearly good for nothing. Thinking that if the beast did soar up to heaven and never come down again, it would be no great loss. They set to work inflating the animal with their breath,These good people inserted a strong tube of reed into the donkeys butthole and everybody present was invited in turn to blow. Holding the tube in one hand, and ready to clap the palm of the other instantly over the pipe to stop the air escaping. Then last, but not least, came yours truly
“Your turn now Eric”, said my kindly professeur
“What! I vainly cried, me? Use the same reed all these horrid people have put to their lips ?No,I will not ! Too many foul mouths have been there before ! But everybody began to cry fie upon me!. They were very angry, and declared I was going to ruin the result of all their labour. So I found myself obliged to do my share in blowing in the tube. But fastidious a boy as you so well know, I saved the day. I pulled out the reed, rapidly reversed it, and stuck it in again by the other end, and so I thought I had played my part in a way that seemed to me more hygienic. But the ass did not fly,by removing the reed, I had let out all that wind and of course it was all my fault! They turned on me, everybody,the villagers, my classmates and even the avuncular Benedetto. Talk about humiliation Matt, ostracised I was, sent to Coventry, made to write a lengthy dissertation on the declaration of human rights Article 27 (1):”Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.
There that’s why I’m going to sue the bastards!”
Steve and I really enjoyed that one, but Matt was jumping for joy, as if Quinn the eskimo had finally made it, “This is the most fun I’ve had in ages, but if you will take my advice Eric, you really cannot take up a humanitarian cause, expect to amass a huge personal fortune and call your defendants nobbies and shiny faced coons all in one breath. But then again? As tall stories go though Eric, that really was a spooner! Anybody else got one? Rodney?
“Yes in fact I do I but I think mine deserves a new chapter. Matthew,could you pass the Grey Poupon?