It was the third week in September and things were chugging along nicely as usual, that is until our peace and tranquility were rudely interrupted by the dogs. Aby and Max had presumably heard footfalls in the next village and were keen to alert us to the dangers they might present. My husband, Jack, wasn’t at all helpful in restoring peace.
“Would you shut those bloody dogs of yours up,” he howled.
Misinterpreting this as a war cry, the dogs instantly redoubled their efforts by hurling themselves at the front door.
“There’s no need to shout darling, it only encourages them.”
“Huh, and they’re supposed to be intelligent dogs. Dim as bloody ditch water if you ask me,” he grumbled above the continued din.
Now wasn’t the time to discuss which of my loved ones might be displaying signs of dimness. Instead I quietly sent the dogs outside to let off steam. As it happens that wasn’t such a good idea either. Little did we know that some friends of ours had arrived and were bravely fighting their way through the hyperactive furry bodies towards our front door.
Impromptu visits by our neighbours are quite common here. Many of the locals hate using the telephone which, in many ways, is a blessing for us. This is because a French person speaking at high speed on a scratchy telephone connection isn’t always easy to understand. Their preferred form of communication is always face-to-face and preferably over a cup of coffee. They will often drive out to us with a message, suggestion, or invitation, and never without gifts.
“Oh là là. Ils sont tres active aujourd'hui,” panted the plucky Nicole as she fought her way to the door step. Nicole, who probably weighs-in at around 45 kilos dripping wet, is a small lady with a big personality, but does have practical difficulties with dogs like ours.
“Ah yes, so sorry about that Nicole,” I replied, peeling Max off her chest, “you know what they’re like.”
“Pas de problème, ils sont adorables,” chimed in Yves, her much larger and very jolly husband. He was gamely removing Aby, who had firmly slotted herself between his legs, and reached over to thrust a large jar of homemade foie gras paté into my hand.
“Ooh lovely thanks so much that looks delicious.”
They finally gained entry and we sat down for our ritual cup of Nespresso. Nicole explained the reason for their visit – which I will relate to you in English to spare you the agony of my appalling translation.
“We want you to come to the vendange.” This was a new word to us which sounded like ‘vandage’.
“The vendange.” Jack and I looked at one another, completely nonplussed.
“Oh – er, right, lovely,” I replied, “but what’s that?”
Nicole, who speaks very rapidly, zipped through the process. By the end of it I think we both realised that it had something to do with picking grapes – others would be involved too. However much of the detail had got lost in the muddy waters of her extremely thick south-west French accent. She looked at us attentively in the way one does a small child, and sensed a hint of indecision. “Vous devez venir!” she insisted.
Ah – now this was a clear instruction. There was no doubt, we were required to go. (Our French friends are a bit like that when they think it’s something ‘les Anglais’ should experience.) Yves, who has quite the perkiest face in the world, reinforced her demand by nodding vigorously at her side. In the end, despite Jack’s sceptical expression, we agreed to join the family for this grape event the following Sunday afternoon.
Our friends only stayed for a short time. It was just long enough to issue their instruction, and enquire about the all-important estimated number of mushrooms we thought might be popping up in the forest. (Mushrooming is a passion of theirs, but that’s a story for another day.) Once that was dealt with it was time to attend to their next errand. As we waved them off Yves popped his chubby head out of the window and yelled, “N’oubliez pas d'apporter vos secateurs!” Jack, who hates anything to do with gardening, looked particularly deflated by this parting comment.
“Secateurs? I’m happy to say I don’t have any secateurs so obviously I can’t go.”
“Darling, we have several pairs of secateurs, so don’t start making excuses. Just pretend they’re pliers with sharp teeth and that you’re working on your car electrics. You have to come. It’s very thoughtful and typically neighbourly of them to have driven over here to invite us. I’m sure it’ll be great fun.”
“I’m sure it won’t. Perhaps they’re short of labour and need an extra pair of snippers.”
With that he stalked off to play with one of his chainsaws.
I was still intrigued by the strict definition of this word ‘vandage’, but my normally trusty Harrap’s French-English Dictionary had nothing to offer. After attempting several permutations of the word I gave up and resorted to Google, which instantly put me right. The search box politely suggested that I should be spelling the word vendange, and once I’d arrived at the correct source it offered some useful advice.
As we'd assumed, the vendange is indeed the grape harvest. It normally takes place between September and October depending on the variety of grape and when it ripens. The time of day for harvesting is important too. In some warmer regions such as Provence the grapes are often picked either early, or late in the day. This is because average autumn temperatures of 30º-32º C (86º-89º F) are common, and if picked during the heat of the day, the crushed fruit reacts badly when it is stored in cellars stabilised at the much lower temperatures around 14º C (57ºF).
The vendange is a period of intense activity that attracts international interest. Some vineyards employ pickers on temporary contracts, others market the period as a working holiday. There are those who invite all-comers to participate. The key criteria here are that the participants should be fit and healthy, and dead keen to experience this revered event. Then there is the strictly family and close friends affair – that’s the category we fell into.
This all sounded very exciting to me, but suspecting that Jack might not share my natural enthusiasm, I chose not to bother him with my new-found knowledge about French country customs.
Sunday afternoon came, but there was to be no lounging around. We armed ourselves with secateurs and drove to our friend’s farmhouse on the outskirts of a beautiful village. Their home has been part of the family for several generations, and is quite wonderful. Tumbledown and covered in rambling plants of various varieties, it oozes character – as does the strangely shaped rose bed outside the front door. Apparently Yves has a deep love for the plants and decided to embark on a spot of landscape gardening. The border might have left something to be desired, but he certainly has green fingers. The air was heavy with fragrances from the enormous blooms that were wilting gracefully in the late afternoon heat.
The family homestead also includes an ancient séchoir barn which has big wooden shutters. These would have been opened up and used for air-drying tobacco plants. It's a fascinating building which now houses Yves’ little grey tractor which is probably older than any of us. Then there are houses either side owned by each of their two sons. Views to the rear are over Yves’ potager and endless fields of maize and crops beyond. It’s an idyllic setting for them, and perfect for their ever-increasing brood of grandchildren to grow up in.
As we drove in I felt a touch of anxiety about the process. Were there any special skills involved? Did I need guidance on what to harvest and where to snip? We knew their property fairly well, but the other worry was that I couldn’t ever recall seeing a grapevine. And, to make matters even more bothersome, there didn’t seem to be a soul about. Had something got lost in translation? It wouldn’t be the first time that had happened. However, Nicole then appeared. Bright and sunny-faced as usual, she teetered on the edge of the rose bed looking extremely eager.
“Venez vite qu'elle a déjà commence!” she said trotting towards the rear of the house. Happily it sounded as though we did have the right day, but it was now 5.45pm and apparently we were a little bit late. Still slightly mystified as to what we might find, we followed her across the road and along a short track and there it was – a small vineyard tucked neatly behind a long hedge. No wonder we hadn’t seen it, and it was a hive of activity too.
There were small children, adults, and elderly people of all shapes and sizes busy harvesting the healthiest bunches of red grapes I have ever seen. The children were all wearing shorts and tee-shirts, the ladies in dresses or skirts, and the men mostly in their hunting kit.
A tractor was being driven slowly between rows of vines by a terribly old gentleman who looked far too frail to walk, so perhaps driver-duty was a safer option. The machine was towing a long flatbed trailer upon which sat a rickety machine. It had a big wheel and handle and looked just like an old-fashioned clothes wringer. Bucket-loads of grapes and stalks were being poured into this machine and then shredded through its inner workings to be collected in plastic dustbins below. The kids were clambering on and off the trailer with the buckets full of grapes and passing them to the machine operator. This was an intriguing set up.
We exchanged embraces and kisses with those that we knew, and shook hands with those we didn’t. Nicole then led us to the trailer where David, one of her sons, handed us an empty bucket each and pointed to a line of vines. “Allez!” he shouted above the din of the tractor before returning to his job as grape mangler.
Poor Jack looked horrified. It was one of those extremely rare moments when he looks completely out of his depth. He stared at the bucket and secateurs in his hand, and then the plants – helpless. The cherub-faced Yves spotted this and chuckled indulgently at my petrol-head husband. He grabbed his arm and gave him a swift demonstration, lopping about 15 huge bunches of grapes and plunging them in the bucket in double-quick time. That was all the instruction Jack needed. He was off. Slightly slower than everyone else because, being a perfectionist, he wanted to snip each bunch at precisely the right point and in the correct manner to avoid wastage.
The next two hours passed in a flash. The air was heavy with warmth and filled with the sounds of the old tractor engine and raucous noise from us. Regardless of age, the chat was animated and gossip rife about most things including the latest village goings-on. Who was seen doing what and when, and more to the point, why? Several of the older ladies then started trying to teach us a wine-harvesting song but this ended up in gales of laughter as they gave us up as a bad job, so we sang La Marseillaise instead.
All of the children were learning English at school, but I had the distinct impression that their interest level was pretty half-hearted to say the least. That is except for ten-year-old Dominic. He knew just one word and was determined to use it at every available opportunity. His special word was 'YES!' Conversation became slightly tricky with him because one had to arrive at an appropriate final point which required a 'Yes!' but we battled on regardless.
Every now and again a lady would appear with a new variety of green grapes. Small bunches were thrust into our hands. “Goûtez, goûtez!” Taste, taste! she would demand. Each flavour was slightly different, and absolutely delicious. I have no idea where they had been picked from – we seemed to be surrounded by a meadow of burgundy-red beauties. But we all munched away ravenously, and listened to her stories of their origin and uses.
Suddenly Jack stopped his detailed snippings. He’d noticed some green grapes being hurled into the shredding machine. This appeared to be a matter of real concern for him. He then began an animated conversation with David, following which he started trudging back down his side of the vines. I asked him what was going on.
“Well, I’ve been setting aside the few green ones so that the final wine mixture isn’t a mish-mash of different varieties. I’m no wine-making expert but this all seems to me to be most irregular.”
“Darling,” I said, “I don’t think Yves is shooting for an appellation d’origine contrôlée, just pick the grapes and get them into the wringer please.”
At which point the little monosyllabic Dominic, who had been standing by my side, cried , “Yes!”
The hot afternoon temperatures had not abated, but we were still going strong when suddenly there was a shout of “Merde!” from ancient-of-days on the tractor. The engine started spluttering and coughing and then petered out with a sonorous backfire – the tractor had died. This was terrible! We had to get the harvest in before nightfall and there was still at least one more line of vines to go. The assembled company were appalled – that is aside from one person, and he was grinning from ear to ear.
“Don’t worry,” exclaimed Jack, completely forgetting that there were only 2.01 of us who understood English, “I’ll get it fixed for you. Stand aside please.”
Jack triumphantly handed me his bucket and secateurs and strode, with some drama, up to the tractor. Now, happily equipped by Yves with the sort of tools that Jack considered as friends, he set to work on the engine. The team looked on apprehensively. Buckets were bursting at the seams with grapes and would have to be hauled an awfully long way if the engine problem was terminal. Then there were the dustbins on the trailer. They were full to the brim with grape crushings, and no one could possibly carry that precious cargo. A groundswell of anxious murmurings began – this could be a catastrophe in the making.
After about fifteen minutes of tinkering, Jack shouted instructions to our aged driver. He pulled a couple of levers, pumped the clutch, and the tractor rattled back into life. The team hollered their delight at the ‘mécanicien Anglais’, who was now covered in his beloved engine oil. Jack was a hero, and doubly happy because his newly-soiled hands meant he could excuse himself from touching any more grapes.
The harvest continued uninterrupted by any further crises, and when the final bucket was slung into the grape mangle we were all infused with a party spirit. Everyone was extremely sticky and most covered in purple grape stains, the exception being Jack who was just oily. But nobody cared, we’d done it. We had completed the vendange!
The tractor towed our prized cargo plus kid-pickers back to the house, where David showed me the vats they would use to make their own wine. They had been snuck at the back of the séchoir in a pleasantly cool spot. Perfect! He explained the fermenting, straining and bottling process and the time period up to the moment when the liquid fruits of the harvest would be ready for tasting. This was an important event and one which he then asked if we might like to attend. Could these people get any kinder? I asked myself.
Meanwhile the diminutive Nicole was back in charge and called the team to her massively long garden bench. This was now heavy with drinks of all varieties, and by the looks of things, the fruits of her labours in the kitchen that afternoon. She had produced multiple platefuls of differently shaped and sized canapés. They tasted exquisite and melted in the mouth, just large enough to tease the stomach, and blended perfectly with Yves’ wines.
As our evening wore on the kids played in the garden. Knowing of my love for animals, every now and again one of them would appear with a family pet. Each long-suffering animal would be presented with bash formality by the child in question who wore a hopeful expression. Of course I was delighted to respond and duly stroked or cuddled the furry treasure until it was removed and replaced by another. This enchanting process went on for some time until one of the children discovered a set of metal balls used for pétanque. Animal petting was summarily abandoned and replaced by a fiendish game of this form of bowls, which is played on rough ground. Watching the teams prepare themselves for battle, the company of family pets sensed potential danger and promptly scarpered to distant parts of the garden.
Meanwhile the adults were becoming merrier by the moment, increasingly affected by the generous helpings of Yves' superb wines. We exchanged more tales and discussed our afternoon’s work, which unfortunately inspired Jack to begin telling his dreadful jokes. It mattered not that few of the assembled company had the first clue about what he was saying, they all guffawed at the right places, and encouraged him to tell more. But finally it was dark and we really had to go. With our grape harvest safely tucked-up in bed, we said our goodbyes and kissed everyone, including those pets that had been plucky enough to reappear. We drove away to sounds of “À bientôt” and clunk of the metal balls used for pétanque – yes, we would see them soon.
We had definitely done the right thing when we decided to live in our little corner of France.