September 30, 2014

Grave grève

A big day in France for the national pastime of striking. It is a surprise to find anyone working today as debt collectors, notaries, court clerks, justice administrators, lawyers, doctors, dentists, veterinarians, nurses, opticians, massage therapists, accountants, realtors, driving school directors, insurance agents, and -- wait for it -- retirees are all on strike. (These latter are protesting a lack of increase in their pensions. Still, one does wonder, how does a retiree make their displeasure felt while on strike? By going back to work?)

Pharmacy Number 1: ON STRIKE
The group drawing the most attention, however, is the pharmacists. There has been considerable chatter about allowing some products that are currently only available in pharmacies -- a fixture of French towns small and large, the glowing green cross lighting a beacon for the sick -- to be sold in supermarkets. Pharmacists are making a case that their relationship with their patients is too important to allow such purchases to be made without their wise counsel and advice. Additionally, they are concerned that small town pharmacies will close as a result, which will contribute to the “desertification” of rural France. Lastly, they are worried that such moves will launch a fleet of chain pharmacies, which will, by necessity, be located in places where the rent is cheapest and not where the need for a pharmacy is greatest.

The Parisian pharmacist interviewed on the radio this morning spoke of the “dehumanization” of our world, claiming that the local pharmacy had replaced the post office as the only place left where people could still rely on genuine human contact in their daily lives. His utopian spirit aside, the radio host had a difficult time masking her incredulity when she pressed him on what harm would come if consumers could go to the supermarket and buy ibuprofen or aspirin. His voice rose up with indignation, explaining that soon consumers would be getting medicine that made the store a profit but didn’t help heal the consumers’ ailments. The conversation ended brusquely, surely because the man thought it was well nigh time to take to the streets.

Pharmacy Number 2: ON STRIKE
Happily for a couple of ex-pats in Burgundy, the pizza man was at the stove, and we had a wonderful lunch.

Front page news

September 29, 2014

Post Harvest

The first splash of white wine cascaded into my glass at 11:21am. Clearly, I was back with the Cluzeauds, witnessing the next step in the winemaking process.

I had been invited to come and see the pressoir in action. From my very basic understanding, this is how it has gone to date: Along with my Polish and French and Swiss friends, I cut grapes. These grapes are immediately put into the fouloir, which extracts the initial juice from the fruit. All -- juice, seeds, stems, skins -- goes into a stainless steel cylindrical tank about 12 feet high. And there it sat, fermenting over the last 10 days or so since the harvest ended. Today, it was time to press all the solids and end up with just juice.

Assembling the pressoir and the finished product
Upon arrival, Jean-Baptiste showed me a tank full of white Pernand-Verglesses, which was fermenting. The juice and grapes were making a pronounced bubbling and hissing noise. There was some major chemistry going on inside the tank. 

Really good white wine fermenting
The winemakers would be pressing reds today, however, and he indicated a Monthelie premier cru and a Monthelie villages in their tanks. Together with his father and Laurent, another worker, they hooked up hoses to the tank, a pump, and a receiving tank that was half a floor down in another part of the cuverie. On went the pump and out came the juice, flowing from one giant stainless steel tank into another.

Soon, a bucket was placed under the spout at the bottom of the primary tank and they drained the last bits of juice. They then opened the door of the tank, about thigh-high, and started to rake the solids into a caisse (the same plastic tubs we had used during harvest). 

Into the caisse
Once it was full, the solids were dumped into the giant pressoir, a contraption that is like a giant barrel made of oak, but with space in between the slats to allow the juice to escape, with a vise on the top that one screws down to press the fruit. I asked Jean-Claude, the patriarch, how old it was. He said his grandfather had ordered it in 1960 and it was the very last pressoir ever made by the manufacturer. He explained that the first juice was vin de goutte, the first juice, and, once pressed, we would have vin de presse. These will be mixed to form the final wine, which will stay in the steel tanks this fall before being transferred to wooden barrels, where it will rest for two years.

Laurent did the dirty work, raking and scraping the last bits of fruit into the caisse. For several moments, his torso disappeared into the tank as he searched and fought for every last bit of grape. This is a culture where one doesn't waste anything, certainly not a grape that could become part of a bottle of wine that could become either, in simplest terms, a euro in the pocket or, perhaps more important, a smile on a stranger's face. It is that kind of family business, where the money counts, but the pleasure their work brings to others is right there, too.

Whither Laurent?
Naturally, before anyone got too dirty, we had a little white wine. Then we went back to the house for lunch. I felt a bit awkward, as I had been invited to watch the work, not to have lunch. Though I have been called Freddie the Freeloader in my day, it is not a reputation that I seek. Nonetheless, when the matriarch tapped me on the shoulder around 11:30 and said, "Well, nobody told me you were coming, we'll just have to share what we've got for lunch," I figured I was as good as invited.

"Just sharing" at the French table proved to be more than adequate. For our first course, there were plates of sausage, cornichons, and pickled onions paired with a tomato salad laid out for each of us. After several anxious inquiries as to whether or not I ate wild hare, inquiries to which I responded "I eat everything, including andouille," I was served a plate containing a couple boiled potatoes and the game in a generous pool of rich red wine sauce, made with lardons (the French bacon bit), butter, bay leaf, some other herbs, salt, pepper, and oh-what-the-hell-I-married-a-winemaker some more red wine. She had prepared it Saturday for the family's Sunday lunch, and I was eating the leftovers. 

It tasted somewhere in between bliss and euphoria. 

The others were grazing on veal in an olive sauce, accompanied by steamed carrots and green beans. When I asked if I could have some of these, my hostess was quite clear that only if I promised not to let them comingle with the red wine sauce; they were really not meant to go together. A mother advising me, in a way, not to eat my vegetables

Throughout, Jean-Claude was pouring white then red, finishing with a 2007 Volnay premier cru, made from the same grapes that I had cut only a couple weeks ago. The wine tasted a little bit more like work than I expected, a good thing.

Adding the wooden weights to the pressoir
After cheese and coffee, a bottle of marc de Bourgogne emerged from the family cabinet. Jean-Calude explained that the bottle contained liquor from before my birth...and his. It was from 1947, made by his grandfather. 

As the lunch wound down, I realized we had covered considerable ground for a Monday lunch in Burgundy: French politics, the amount of time it takes a gypsy to rob your house, immigration in Europe and the US, the lifespan of cars today versus yesterday, the defects of the cook they had hired for the harvest, drunk driving laws in France, why unemployed people here don't even look for work, whether or not Dominique Strauss-Khan was set up, concurrent strikes by dentists and pharmacists, people who get the state to give them special checks for gasoline, the minimum wage in Poland, why smoking makes your teeth hurt after dental work, whether or not a butcher's glove prevents cuts in the vineyard, and, mostly, life and death in the family.  

Once back to serious business, Laurent started to turn the vise to press the juice out of the fruit. A flood of bright red and pink juice flowed out, filling a 300 liter (80 gallon) green plastic tub. As Laurent sweated, he explained to me that at his normal place of employ, a wine operation 15 times the size of the Cluzeauds, “you could eat of the floor.” Everything was modern and computerized. Here, however, there is a marriage of modernity and tradition: the stainless steel tanks say “21st century” but the fruit flies buzzing around in a cloud of wine vapors say “Voltaire.” 

Turning the vise
As the juice flowed, a controller stopped by and took a sample of the two wines we were pressing. In his truck, in less than five minutes, he analyzed it and presented Jean-Calude with a printout that indicated the percentage of alcohol (about 11.5%), the amount of glucose, and a bunch of other statistics that escaped my comprehension. 

This... wine
The patriarch explained that he had the right to augment the alcohol by 1.5% more, which will bring the wine to about 13%. I asked if he had a price per bottle in mind for the wines we were dealing with today. He said that he would wait for November, during the big wine auction in Beaune, which would give a good indication for what this year's harvest would eventually fetch.

It's on the calendar.

Pink heaven

September 26, 2014

Quick Question

France, I know you are the pinnacle of sophistication. You ooze culture and history and refinement. But when I saw your brown toilet paper in Beaune today, I had to ask myself a simple but very important question: 

How do you know when you're done?

September 25, 2014

"A considerable wave of emotion"

The title of this post is how one journalist described the reaction to today's news that a Frenchman had been decapitated in Algeria. He was 55, married with two kids. He was a mountaineering guide, a specialist in rock climbing. In his hometown, a picture of him was placed in front of the town hall when it was learned that he was captured. Someone had written a single word: "Reviens." Come back. He was held because France is participating in airstrikes against the Islamic State, members of which made good on their threat to kill French people if France didn't stop its participation within 24 hours.

France, it seems, does not negotiate with terrorists any more than America does. 

I know people who love the mountains; as far as I can tell, they are never the root of international conflict. Aside from the natural human grief that I felt (perhaps amplified now that I, too, am a married father of two children), I was surprised to feel the blood of vengeance rise up in me. While I feel outrage and a distinct desire to make the people who did this pay when the victim is American, it startled me to recognize the same emotions and ugly thoughts when the victim was French. It seemed, in simplest terms, close to home.

It was the latest evidence that, with each day, I become a little bit more a part of this community, this culture, this country. I read the politicians' statements, and nodded in agreement when they said that France would never bow to these sorts of tactics. And I will admit a guilty sensation of excitement, namely that I was experiencing this atrocity in a foreign language, reading and absorbing and grasping the facts in a tongue not my own. 

There is a strange feeling when, during a difficult time for a population, you, as a foreigner, learn something new in a sea of misery. Today, I learned how to say, "flags were at half-staff in his hometown" in French. (Previously, on the Governor's behalf, I ordered flags at state buildings across Massachusetts to half-staff when a son or daughter of the Commonwealth died in foreign conflicts.) Despite my best efforts to prevent it, parts of my brain celebrated this new information. Sometimes, living in another world, thinking in another language, navigating a different set of values and customs, you rejoice at inopportune times. It is part of the package, an aspect of the awkwardness that will always be with the ex-pat, no matter how long he stays, no matter how much she does to integrate into local life.

September 23, 2014

In the Brotherhood

A friend asked me if I would be willing to help out at a food festival in Saulieu last weekend. It was the second annual event of its type, gathering all the different food brotherhoods of the region to serve their specialties to a hungry public. They expected about 250 guests and, due to an avalanche of prior obligations, only two members of the Confrérie de la Poule au Pot would be available to help serve. Might I be a third set of hands?

The public was au rendez-vous
As I was already planning on attending the event for "research" purposes, I was happy to help. I would be wearing the official garb of the brotherhood, inlcuding velvet robe, medal, and feathered hat, and serving from noon to four-ish.

The event was in an exposition hall steps away from the center of town. Each brotherhood had a modest stand. For 20 euros, attendees bought a booklet of tickets good for one specialty from each brotherhood. The products offered were as follows, in order: 

--one free commemorative (and practical) wine glass;
--3cl of crème de cassis de Dijon;
--12cl of crémant de Bourgougne, the local sparkling wine;
--one plate of local charcuterie, including rosette sausage and jambon persillé;
--12 escargots de Bourgogne, the snails piping hot and dressed in their traditional garlic-parsley-butter bath;
--12cl of Chardonnay;
--a piece of local Charolais beef, cooked to your liking;
--one portion of poule au pot, a chicken cooked in a pot with aromatic vegetables including cabbage, leeks, and turnips;
--a scoop of Dijon mustard;
--one large slice of Brie de Melun (not to be confused with Brie de Meaux);
--pain d'épices, the regional gingerbread;
--and a macaron cookie from Nancy

When I arrived, I was quickly shuffled into my uniform. It was like wearing a set of drapes over my shoulders. I pledged that I would not allow myself to feel like a dork. Lord knows how I was able to keep the pledge, but I did. Once people started greeting me as a member of the brotherhood (we cheated a little bit; I won't be inducted officially until November), it was easy to go with the flow.

Soon, guests were drinking their kir royal and munching through the charcuterie. Our stand was quiet as everyone had many stops to make before arriving in our neighborhood. The calm before the storm gave me a chance to a) get myself a drink and b) mingle and reconnect with a lot of the people I have encountered over my months of outreach to the brotherhoods. 

I learned that a member of the cassis club wasn't able to attend for medical reasons; that the former president of the mustard brotherhood had not yet moved to Lyon, so we really should get together for a wine tasting at the her house with her husband; that I could call the Snail Pope by his first name and drop the "Monsieur" routine; and that everyone agreed this was a helluva good deal. The rapport qualité-prix was clearly correct. Attendees were happy and, as they made the turn around the beef, quite full. As I made my way through the feast, I shared their pain, especially considering that I had perhaps an extra glass of wine, 18 instead of 12 snails, and a "staff only" double-portion of poule au pot. (French people love to feed and water Americans with outsized generosity; it's hard to say "stop!" until your head is spinning and your pants zipper bursts.)


The general fullness led to the first curveball of the afternoon: many people were no logner hungry after the steak, and began asking for poule au pot to go. We were ill-equipped for this turn of events, but my friend quickly showed off her industrious French spirit, and began collecting scraps of Saran wrap, miscellaneous plastic bags, and even started to cut the bank-sponsored tablecloth into impromptu covers for the delicious soup/stew we were serving. 

Keep that man away from my chicken
People gave us a ticket, we called out "une poule!" to the chefs, who ladled hot broth into foil tubs that held the meat and veggies, and we put it on a paper plate with a plastic fork and knife. It was never really a "rush" like a restaurant gets, and the three of us, in tandem with the two chefs who were working with us, managed to get each guest their portion in under 30 seconds. The reviews were spectacular, with many folks coming behind the table to personally express their satsifaction to the chefs and team. The head chef demurred, saying, "Il n'y pas plus simple." While he may be right (put chicken in a pot, add herbs, veggies, and water, cook at a small bubble for a couple of hours), the guests were correct, too. It was delicious, and I managed to snag two additional portions to bring home (along with three portions of Brie and several desserts), where my family quickly devoured it.

Poule au pot
At 4:00, the hall was emptying out, and the various teams packed up their goods, sated, happy, and eager for next year. In costume or not, I will certainly be a repeat visitor to this uniquely French celebration of the gastronomic bounty and tradition of a region.

The P Team

September 17, 2014

Harvest: Days 4 and 5

The team is about 30 strong. It is an international situation: we have a woman with a German father and a French mother (I asked her how much her mother's parents liked that idea, given the war history here...answer: not much), a Swiss, a bunch of Polish girls, and, well, an American.

The day goes as follows: Meet at the domaine, get into the trucks, pick up a bucket once arrived in the vineyards, cut grapes, pause for casse croûte at 9:30ish, pick up a bucket, cut grapes, lunch, get in the trucks, pick up a bucket, cut grapes, go home.

Take a break
Kneeling is painful. Crouching like a baseball cathcer is terrible, unless you played catcher, bending at the waist is a bad idea. At the end of the day, there is no comfortable position.

Switzerland: She is neutral

Tomorrow, we will finish the harvest.

I love to cut grapes!
Gonna make good wine, and a lot of it, according to the bosses

September 16, 2014

Harvest: Day 3

So this is how it works. I showed up on the first day and Jean-Baptiste (whom I now call John the Baptist) called over all the first-time grape cutters. He gave us sécateurs, which I just realized (thank you, Internets) is a British term for pruning shears, and a black plastic bucket (seau in French). 
Take these shears. Cut grapes. Put grapes in bucket. Repeat forever.
He said, "Here is what you do: pull the leaves of the vines off because they hide the grapes. Cut the grapes at the stem. Cutting the vine itself or the metal wire that runs the length of the row is strictly forbidden. When your bucket is full, you yell 'SEAU!' and a porteur will come with a wheelbarrow and empty your bucket." He cut two bunches of grapes and sent us of into the rows to get to work. My "training" was complete in under two minutes.
A full bucket
I crouched down and cut my first bunch. Am I doing it right? Can it really be this simple?

Yes and yes.

The vines are spaced about six feet apart and are about stomach high. The leaves are big and tend to hide many bunches of grapes, so it is in fact necessary to follow the advice of the winemaker/boss and rip off a bunch of leaves so that you can see the grapes. When they are hanging cleanly, gravity does a lot of work for you: you just snip the stem and place the bunch in the bucket. A lot of the time, alack, it is not that easy. The grapes climb up in between the wires and the branches of the vine, making it very difficult to find where the grapes are attached to the plant. Snip, snip...the grapes are still there and you have a handful of leaves. Damn. But at least you didn't snip the wire...which is strictly forbidden.
The caisses, where the grapes go
My first bucket, I was conscious of the other workers around me, wondering, "Am I going fast enough?" Someone yelled "SEAU!" before my bucket was half full. Experienced harvester? Professional wine geek? Who are these people I am working with? Is it a competition? A race? Snip, snip. Should I be crouching? On my knees? Bent over from the waist? "SEAU!" Jesus! Let's go! Snip, snip...and then a porteur showed up and said, "What's your first name?" He was in his late 20s, early 30s, burly, bald. I told him, and he said, "Give me your bucket, Mark." He emptied it into a big plastic box on his wheelbarrow and returned the empty bucket to me.
Endless row
And that, in short, is the deal. Snip, snip, "SEAU!", give me your bucket, dump, wheelbarrow, big plastic box filled, snip, snip. On Sunday, the team filled 280 caisses and each cutter snipped 350kg of grapes, or almost 800 pounds each. One of my coworkers scoffed at this number, claiming he had a job with a different outfit where they did 500kg per person per day. That sounded pretty horrible.

Lots more to come on the details of the team, which position works best, what happens to your hands, and the camraderie or lack thereof in the vines. 

But for now, know that lunch was a green salad, beef bourguignon, cheese, and flan.

September 14, 2014

Harvest: Day 2

There were a lot of questions today about the state of one's back. After a first day in the vineyards, hunched over cutting grapes, it seemed normal that some residual pain might be present. Toughness generally prevailed, and everyone claimed to be in good form.

A cemetery? Among the vines? How much do I hurt?
My own back, legs, and neck begged to diifer, but my mouth said, "Ça va très bien." What a liar!

Upon arriving at the Domaine, we got a rundown of the previous evening/night from the folks who were sleeping in the dorms. The Polish girls retired first (11:30), and the pregnant girl hit the sack at midnight. The father, Jean-Claude, said, "I went to bed early. It was 12:15."

We harvested grapes in the morning, had a casse-croûte at 9:30, and arrived back at the Domaine for lunch at noonish. The meal was ham and cheese pizza to start (after, of course, a little glass of sumpin' sumpin'), followed by roast chicken with green beans, cheese, and a delicious apricot tart for dessert.

The discussion at the table revolved around one singular, but very vulgar, topic. Some of the Polish girls are vegetarians, which is, in France, grounds for endless confusion. But some are also VEGAN (végétalienne in French), which drives French people -- who eat shredded pork for breakfast, who put butter on top of their steaks, who love duck, veal, cream, rabbit, honey, and cheese like children -- positively mad. 

So, one young man wondered aloud, if a végétalienne performs a certain act for her male lover, does it betray her veganism if she, well...does that count as animal protein? 

The patriarch stayed above the fray, offering only this observation: "They sure like to drink wine, which is at least one positive point in their favor."

Of course all of this senseless chit-chat was just a distraction from the work at hand. It is a beautiful place to be outside and at work, with views that make any human sigh with contentedness and a connection to the land that is impossible to ignore.

Moon and wine

Tomorrow, a discussion of the work.

Best T-Shirt of the Day: The Puma logo, only it said "Coma" with the cat lying on its back, passed out, over the M and the A. The wearer drank wine while he worked.

Day 2 Injury List:
Balky right knee
Hamstrings feel ready to pop
Neck ache

September 13, 2014

Grape Harvest in Burgundy Vineyards Day 1

The blood gushing from the very tip of my left ring finger immediately made me wonder if my harvesting experience was over after three hours. I had just snipped a vertical slash in my finger, the point of my clippers catching flesh right after cutting through the stem of a bunch of pinot noir grapes. I have a bad history with my own blood, and quickly went through my mental checklist of potential trouble: the wound didn't look deep, it didn't hurt, I wasn't turning green, and I didn't feel like I was about to pass out. It seemed that I was going to be able to soldier on.
Penis finger
I had signed up for six days of harvesting grapes with the Domaine Cluzeaud, a wine making family located in Volnay, a small village in southern Côte d'Or, Burgundy, France. My wages were to be an impressive nationally mandated minimum of 9.53 euros an hour for 8 hours a day. 

As the days pass, I will update on different aspects of the experience. Tonight, let's look at a couple of rules about harvesting grapes that will be turned into wine in France.

Rule #1: Drinking on the job will most definitely NOT get you fired. It will more likely be used as evidence of your dedication to the cause.

After our first couple of hours cutting grapes, we took a pause for the casse-croûte, or mid-morning fortification snack. There was bread, salami, camembert, chocolate, water...and the 20-something boss of the operation pouring healthy doses of 13 year-old white wine into plastic cups for the 35 assembled team members. Red quickly followed, leading one small young woman to comment, "That's a little strong for this time of the day. I should have stayed with white." It was 9:15am. Throughout the day, various laborers could be seen swigging from wine bottles in the rows of vines. 

Pinot noir
Rule #2: Drinking during lunch will be widely sanctioned throughout the harvest.

At 11:33, we left the vineyeards to return to the home office, the Cluzeaud's house in Volnay, where they were lodging about 25 of the laborers and feeding them breakfast, lunch and dinner every day. As a day laborer, I was part of the lunch crowd. Appéritifs flowed (kir, the ubiquitous cocktail of Burgundy: white wine and crème de Cassis) as men unloaded full crates of grapes and women smoked. We were soon at the table, where glasses were filled with white wine. Red (from a box! Merlot! Not even Burgundy!) followed, and the patriarch of the domaine tried (without luck) to get me to have a digestif.

Rule #3: It is definitely not a problem to take a two hour lunch break. 

First, we had a salad of hard boiled eggs, tomatoes, and onions. This was followed by grilled pork chops with a delicious brown sauce and pasta. Cheese -- of course -- came next, four varieties from which to choose, and finally a cherry clafoutis before our coffee. Start to finish? 120 minutes, on the dot.

First course

Lunch in the caveau


Rule #4: Speaking French or English is not a requirement.

This year's crop of laborers is dominated by young Polish girls, who wear t-shirts that say "Live by the gun, die by the bullet," and weird sweat pants to complement their cheap sneakers. They spoke mainly mime and Polish, but seemed nice enough and didn't complain. I guess you have a good work ethic when you leave the dreamy comforts of Poland to come to Burgundy and cut grapes for minimum wage.

In the vines
Day One Injury List:
Cut finger
Sore knee joints
Lower back in excrutiating pain
Right thigh raw from placing right forearm on it all day
Knees skinned from wearing shorts and kneeling (jeans tomorrow)
Thighs sore from too much cathcer's crouch

September 12, 2014

Politesse Primer

In preparation for your next trip to France, here are a few things you can do Stateside to get yourself ready. Following this prescription may get you some funny looks at home, but you will be infinitely more at ease once you arrive in the Hexagon.

A week or so before you leave, begin with the simple step of saying a greeting every time you walk into a store, the post office, a café, or the bank. When you enter the establishment, you need to do a lightning quick assessment of who is currently in the place and make the appropriate verbal adjustments. Here are your potential scenarios:

Situation 1: The only person in the place is a man. You say (invariably) "Hello, Sir."*
Situation 2: The only person in the place is a woman. You say (invariably) "Hello, my lady."
Situation 3: There are two or more men in the place, but no women. You say (invariably) "Hello, gentlemen."
Situation 4: There are two or more women in the place, but no men. You say (invariably) "Hello, my ladies."
Situation 5: There is one man and one woman in the place. You say (invariably) "Hello, my lady, Sir."
Situation 6: There are two or more of each gender in the place. You say (invariably) "Hello, ladies and gentlemen."
Situation 7: There are 643 women and one man (or the opposite). You say (invariably) "Hello, ladies, Sir." or "Hello, my lady, gentlemen."

It is extremely important not to get creative or cute in any of the above. The only acceptable variation is to omit the "hello" and simply say "My lady, gentlemen" upon entering. Flaunting your diverse vocabulary is an absolute no-no, so don't even think about saying, "Hi there!" or "Hey" or "What's happening?" or, God forbid, "Oh, I just saw your window display and had to come inside to check it out!" In France, you will find that all of these are grounds for immediate deportation for Deviation From The Script.

As you prepare to depart the establishment, take a renewed census of the place (if the man has left, you will need to adjust accordingly) and say (invariably) "Goodbye, my lady/Sir/ladies and gentlemen, etc." Again, this is neither the time nor place to show off your lexicon. "See ya, Toodle-oo, Later Alligator, Take care, Have a good one" are all off limits.

It is exceedingly important that you do this upon entering and exiting every establishment, whether it is the dentist's office, the funeral parlor, the supermarket, or the mechanic's. Note that even if you don't think anyone can hear (or cares about) your greeting or your goodbye (as can be the case when entering Wal-Mart or its French equivalent), it is still essential to say them out loud. While mumbling or swallowing half your words is perfectly acceptable, remaining silent is the hallmark of the cretin.

As you get comfortable with these easy beginner steps, you are ready for Phase Two. At a restaurant, after you have offered the customary greeting, you can, as you are being shown to your table, wish the diners you pass a bon appétit. It is strongly encouraged that you time this so you only need to say it once. As such, you should begin your "bon" as you are already passing the first table, concluding the "appétit" as you pass a second or third table, loud enough that the first table will hear you and the last table will catch the end of your good wishes, but NOT loud enough for someone 14 inches away to hear. It is tricky, but you'll get there. 

If, as you leave a restaurant, other diners are just beginning, you are more than welcome to wish them the same bon appétit. Naturally, because you are "properly brought up," you will note that, if said diners are enjoying cheese, dessert, or coffee, they have already concluded the bulk of their meal, so "bon appétit" will be not only misplaced, but also a display of your cultural poverty that is as subtle as a siren.

If you think you may have some time in France away from strictly tourist locations, where you may be invited to social gatherings hosted by French people say, at the opening of an art show, a restaurant, or someone's house, you can begin getting ready right now. 

Let's imagine you have been invited to your American friend's house for a party where 30 guests are expected. You arrive when approximately half the guests are already assembled. In preparation for your trip, make it a point to greet each and every guest personally before doing anything else.^ No getting a drink, no nibbling from the bowl of chips, no conversations of substance or length until you have greeted every guest in attendance. It is entirely appropriate to interrupt whatever discussions these guests are having to exchange these simple pleasantries (without which, we are really just cavemen, aren't we?). Once you have completed your rounds, get yourself a drink and engage in normal conversation with the other guests. Make a point of judging the guests who arrive after you, whose woeful lack of upbringing has resulted in their shameful and selfish behavior (snagging a drink before greeting you, telling stories about their kids before greeting you, eating before greeting you, etc.). It is OK to say, in a theater whisper, that these people are barbarians. It is good practice for France.

Naturally, the time will come to leave the gathering at some point. It is essential, as part of your training, that you budget approximately 30 minutes for your departure, or one minute per guest. Under no circumstances should you thank the host/ess and give a general wave to the crowd before heading out the door. Doing so is surely the sign of an uncivilized person. No, the situation of course requires you to say a personal goodbye to each guest assembled. Here, conversations can linger (everyone having had some wine by now), and exhibiting any sort of urgency will be frowned upon during your trip in France, so practice taking your time and doing the rounds. Once you have said your goodbyes to everyone, make a last stop at the host/ess for a final formal expression of gratitude.

While you may hesitate to practice these techniques with your friends and family for fear of mockery, remember that it is infinitely preferable to be teased by those who know and love you than to be publicly shamed and humiliated by the French, the most cultured, refined, and sophisticated people to ever walk planet Earth. (Just ask them; they'll swear it is true.)

So get to work!

*When in France, you will of course have to say these in French: Bonjour/Au revoir, Madame/Monsieur/Mesdames/Messieurs.

^You may be wondering about les bises, those little kisses French people give each other. Please be reminded that this is an introductory lesson, not graduate school. You're not ready.

September 11, 2014

Snail Farm

The snailmaster in touring mode
Frederic is a former technology worker who gave up the glorious glow of a computer screen two years ago to raise...snails in Burgundy. He is one of many young entrepreneurs in the region who are diving into the world of gastronomy with both feet, bringing the old school tastes and techniques in line with the 21st century. It is an unusual career move, but not stupid. The French gorge on the gastropods with some regularity (they eat 30 snails per person per year), but get really serious around the holidays, when seemingly every table bulges with snails and foie gras, the two specialties that seem to know no boundaries, as at home in Provence as in Perigord.The most famous snail, l'escargot de Bourgogne, belongs to the species Helix Pomatia. It is illegal in France to raise or collect this species for commercial purposes and, as a result, all the snails that are labelled "escargots de Bourgogne" are in fact harvested in Eastern Europe (Greece, Poland, Hungary) and most likely processed there before being frozen and sent for sale and consumption in France. So, Frederic, barred by law from using escargots de Bourgogne, launched L'Escargot Bourguignon, a slight turn of phrase (Burgundy snails instead of Snails of Burgundy, loosely translated) and began raising a quarter million gros gris, or big grey snails, that have a similar taste and size to the traditional Burgundy snail.

At his farm in Vernot, a miniscule village about 25 minutes north of Dijon, he conducts tours for small groups and school children. Rabbits hop around in freedom, chickens and ducks cluck and squabble, there are signs of dogs and looks and feels more like a farm than a snail farm. On a recent summer Friday afternoon, the group was seven for a tour and tasting. Frederic gives a quick overview of the history of snails in the region and then guides visitors to one of the pens in a greenhouse, a 50 square meter rectangular space enclosed by a wooden border about two feet high. 

The snail park
An electric fence runs around the top of the border, the most effective escape-prevention tactic he employs. Inside the pen are a lot of snails, almost all of which are inside their shells, riding out the heat of summer until nightfall, when they feed more regularly. There are two long columns of wooden planks leaning against a central board that runs the length of the greenhouse. The planks serve as a primary hang out space for the snails. They cling to the outside a little bit, but mostly they congregate in the shaded area on the backside of the planks, sheltered from the wind and sun. In between the rows of planks are the remnants of what was a forest of vegetation, snail food. The creatures eat clover, mustard, rapeseed, sunflower, alfalfa, and radish, as well as dried wheat, corn, and barley. To help their shells, they also get a calcium supplement.
Frederic explains that inside this pen are 15,000 snails. The previous evening, he had guests for dinner and, he explained, when he took them out to the pens for a quick glance, they realized what 15,000 snails looks like. Out of their shells, hungry, and moving with some determination in every direction, a real snail circus. In all, he has 250,000 snails across more than 600 square meters of pens.

He explains the vital role each animal plays in the cultivation of snails: rabbits, not heavy enough to crush the snails, eat the leftover vegetation in the pens; chickens come in after the harvest to scrape up the ground, turning over all the snail slime and feces and annihilating the insect population; there are even sheep around the outdoor pens, used to keep the grass tightly clipped and thereby give snail predators less shelter for their lecherous attempts. 

Uncle Wiggly doing his part
Despite the best protections he can conjure, he still loses more than a third of his crop every year. Sickness, of course, plays a role, though he confesses that the snail would never tell him it was sick and, if one were, he certainly wouldn't be able to tell. Despite his best efforts to tread lightly, he does step on and kill some of the poor creatures. One day he turned off the electric fence during a visit from a school group and forgot to turn it back on. When he returned in the morning, 15,000 snails had departed every which way, moving at 7 meters an hour...he spent the better part of a day chasing down as many as he could, but clearly some slipped away into the fields. When the snails climb the vegetation in important numbers, they can cause the tops of the plants to bend over the electric fence, giving the escargots not only a full belly but also new liberty. And birds, bugs, and animals love to eat them: crows, porcupines, hedgehogs, and, worst of all, wild boars who blithely penetrate the pens and find themselves in the midst of a (barely) moveable feast. The signs of a boar visit are among the most disheartening for the snail farmer; not only is the devastation serious, they are also known to be return visitors. 

An outdoor pen in sunlight shows no signs of snails
While we all had a good look around, Frederic described the cycle for the snails, from birth in captivity to growth and, eventually, harvest, all of which is done by hand. He then coaxes the snails into hibernation by placing them in refrigerated spaces, mimicking nature's winter, and there they can stay until he is ready to prepare them. Until this year, he went about an hour away to Besancon to kill, clean, and cook his snails; now, he has a laboratory on site. (When he said that the government considers live snails as a "fish" product and the cooked snail as an "agricultural" product, it was clear that the French have plenty of headaches dealing with their own government.) 

He took us into his "showroom," where he offered white wine to accompany snails three ways: one in a buttery spread that he put on toast and fired under the broiler; one cake, dense and sticky like a carrot cake, that had a little sweet-and-salty thing going on; and then snails dressed in their traditional robe of butter, parsley, and garlic. Instead of serving them in their shells, however, he placed them in edible shells, which resembled cake cones from the ice cream parlor. These last were sensational, the crunch of the shell marrying the buttery flavors of the tender snail. 

Of course, this is France. He had only the spread for sale that day, as he was out of everything else until at least six weeks from now. And if you want something for Christmas, plan ahead: last winter, in just his second year, his clients, 1/3 of whom come from within 10km of his house, another third from Greater Dijon, and the last third (ahem) tourists passing through, had purchased all his stock by December 15. 

But they're there, snail partying, on the shady side of the planks
Frederic, who works alone, does no advertising, is new to the field, and yet has tapped into France's insatiable appetite for quality, local food, grown, cared for, and prepared by someone known. It is a wonderful relationship to witness and share.