Having begun the ’vendanges’ over a week ago it has proceeded to physically brutalize me ever since. A typical day is 7:30 to 12:00 in the vines followed again by 1:30 to 6:00 and I am already reminiscing about the days when I naively believed that “enlever les agrafes” was hard work... The 9 hours pass in one of two positions: either bent double or in a full squat on the balls of your feet. I have never really given consideration to the definition of ‘skill’; more accurately, I would perhaps not have considered cutting grapes from a vine worthy of the title. I was of course horrifically wrong and the speed that the veterans work at is simply ridiculous. Thankfully after a few days of harvesting with what I refer to as ‘the elite team’, comprising of the 10 people who work here all year round, we received fresh meat in from Paris and Lyon. These pickers made me feel less inadequate as they were just as inefficient as me, but swelled our total numbers to around 35.
I had already accepted, when first handed the pruners, that cutting myself was inevitable and it is a regular part of lunchtime comparing hands to see who has been the most impressively clumsy. After the first day I spent 15 minutes before dinner scouring my hands to no avail and when I arrived at the table apologizing for my filthy hands they all laughed and said that it was expected in the ‘vendanges’ – and if I arrived at Virgile Lignier’s place with clean hands they would ‘shoot me’!
Due to my lack of speed some of the veteran pickers have nicknamed me ‘the florist’! After a particularly slow parcel I decided to ask if I could have a run at ‘portering’, the replacement of buckets to the cutters and lugging of grapes piled high in wheelbarrows back and forth to the truck. I was warned that this would be much more tiring. The current porter team consisted of ‘les deux Belges’, a pair of gargantuan humans, and another strapping Parisian lad. This went very well but made for thirsty work; I found the day passed much faster as the small breaks in the day were spent in the customary fashion for les ‘deux Belges’, downing wine ‘pour la force’, which seems to be an attempt to legitimise drinking a bottle of wine before noon - undoubtedly I did feel much stronger after each of these intermissions! Between this and eating the grapes ‘to make sure they aren’t corked yet’ (as I excused myself to Vincent) I have had a healthy intake of antioxidants over the last two weeks.
I have always been a good sleeper but I never quite believed my father’s stories about his ability, during his days in the South African army, to sleep anywhere for 5 minutes even standing up; however I don’t think I’m far off it and have successfully mastered being able to sleep in the back of one of the cars for 10 minutes whenever the opportunity presents itself. I think the constant flow of wine throughout the day is an aid and it seems recently we have been ending with the finest wines every day - a 2008 Corton Clos des Fietres Grand Cru last night and an elegant 2007 Volnay Champs 1er Cru tonight.
‘Showing the French how it’s done’
The debate as to which nation has better food is almost a daily occurrence with the eldest Bouzereau son Antoine, and while the dinners and lunches are fantastic, in my view the British win hands down for breakfast. I decided to put an end to the debate by introducing the family to the Full English. Sunday is the only day where I could get the whole family together so it was decided this was the time to strike. I was genuinely devastated to find out that back-bacon, something I will never take for granted again, is an English thing and cannot be bought here; the same goes for baked beans and proper sausages! The 13 year old Louis Bouzereau, my designated sous-chef, and I set out on a mission to buy the necessary produce for breakfast for 9 which culminated in my persistent attempt to teach to the local butcher how to cut back bacon (in English) which was pretty exasperating and ended frustratingly in failure. Of course on the morning of the Big Breakfast, 3 of the youngest there decided to opt out and have the usual hot chocolate with bread – which left plenty spare. Whilst eating Vincent asked me if I was missing English culture: I looked sheepishly up from my Fortnum and Mason’s old silver tea pot blend, down at my breakfast then back to Vincent before attempting an unconvincing ‘No…’