Biographies & Memoirs

Chapter Six

We returned from Conques in time for the second day of les vendanges the picking of the grapes. When we first bought Bel-Air Raymond made his own red and white wine. At that time we would drive back to England with a large wicker covered glass bidon containing what he called mon petit vin and bottle it as soon as we arrived. Now, all his grapes for le vin rouge go to the Coopérative and it is they who specify the days for the receiving of the different grapes, this day for the Merlot, another for the Sauvignon.

Les Fostaires joined us for this, the last day of their holiday and we picked the grapes in the vineyard on the other side of the hill, which had once belonged to Bel-Air. The view is glorious and from the top of the long, south-facing slope the Château of Biron can be seen on the horizon. We were among about twenty pickers: neighbours, friends and family and, as always, Mme Barrou was there, wielding the heavy baskets as easily as the men and talking non-stop. Mike had woken that morning with a stiff neck, or torticolis, as we learned it was called. As usual Mme Barrou had a remedy.

‘Il faut une tisane de cassis,’ she yelled down the row of vines. ‘Et de la graisse de marmotte.’

A tisane of blackcurrant sounded harmless enough but marmot grease? The taste was unimaginable. ‘Graisse de marmotte?’ I enquired.

‘Oui. J’en ai toujours chez moi. Pour le torticolis – c’est impeccable!’ She did a quick mime of massaging her neck.

‘I see. But…where do you get it?’ I asked. Mme Barrou looks capable of both trapping and rendering down a marmot or two but I wasn’t sure that I was – even if I could find any.

‘A la pharmacie,’ she said as though it was a silly question and she moved on with her basket. ‘Mind you,’ she called over her shoulder. ‘You have to keep it on for eight days and it smells a bit.’

Everyone laughed and I began to wonder if marmot grease was like striped paint or sky hooks.

A few days later I was at market and, to get back to the car, I had to pass the pharmacy. The stiff neck was gone but I was curious. Chemist’s shops in France are rather like operating theatres with shelves, the assistants usually formal in their immaculately white coats. The one who greeted me looked more than capable of advanced neuro surgery.

‘Bonjour Madame, vous désirez?’

I bought some toothpaste then swallowed. ‘Et…de la graisse de marmotte s’il vous plâit. C’est pour ma voisine,’ I lied. Implying, I hoped, that it was not I who was mad. The blue eyes behind the rimless glasses did not even flicker.

‘En pot ou en emplâitre?’ she enquired briskly, turning towards the row of small white drawers behind her.

‘Er…en emplâitre?’ I said not having the faintest idea what it was.

She pulled from a drawer a plastic envelope about a foot wide with a plaster inside and a picture of a furry animal on the front. I paid and left the shop. I am still waiting for someone to get a stiff neck in order to try it out.

Our last guests had gone. We too would soon begin packing up the house but there was one more vendange to be completed. Raymond and Claudette still make their own sweet white dessert wine. It is rather like a Monbazillac, and they serve it with a biscuit on those evenings when we go down to watch something special on television, or just to sit and chat. They use an ancient pressoir which Grandpa tells me he bought in 1921 to trundle round the neighbouring farms to make a little extra money. The old barrel that they had used in previous years having finally fallen to pieces, Raymond had bought a ‘new’ second-hand barrel the week before. It had been filled with water and left to swell to forestall any possible leaks.

That morning the grapes we picked were semillon, sauvignon blanc, and a few chasselas – really a grape for eating – to make up the bulk. Some of the semillon looked mouldy to me but Raymond raised his eyebrows at my ignorance. He assured me that this was the highly prized noble rot – la pourriture noble – which makes the grapes dry and concentrates the sugar. He explained that the most famous Sauternes, Château d’Yquem, is made from grapes affected in this way. In this case, however, the pickers must only take each day those grapes which have begun to rot and leave the others. Costs are correspondingly very high and most small producteurs pick, as we did, on one day and hope for as much noble rot as possible.

It was not a large crop and we went back to the farm with the trailer only about three quarters full. The ancient pressoir stood in the courtyard. Like a very large straight-sided barrel, the narrower than usual wooden staves were encircled with three iron hoops with metal struts angled between them. There was a large screw in the centre which would press down the heavy wooden block. The whole thing was mounted on a crude, rusty iron chassis and propped up on a pile of bricks. A lopsided ancient half-barrel stood beneath the spout to catch the juice. It was clear that many litres had passed through this system.

Grandpa came slowly across the courtyard and gazed at it with a far away expression but he said nothing until Mike, looking inside, said ‘There’s a lot of old wood in it.’ Then he laughed. He explained that these were in fact carefully cut pieces to fit under the pressing weight when there were not enough grapes. Grandma had come silently to join him. ‘Ah yes,’ she said ‘sometimes…when the harvest was bad.’

Before he began the pressing Raymond remembered that he had not yet emptied the new barrel. ‘I’d better do that first,’ he muttered, tipping it up. It was then that he discovered that there was no bung at either end on which to fit a tap for the eventual bottling. ‘Je n’ai pas remarqué ça – merde, merde, merde!’ he cursed, rolling the barrel back and forth before running off to return with a very bent brace and an old bit. With Mike’s help a hole was carefully drilled and corked before everything was hosed down, the pressoir, the barrel and a large copper pan.

‘That pan’s old enough for a museum,’ he shouted. To me it all looked old enough for a museum.

With a grin Raymond slipped off his espadrilles and climbed up into the trailer.

‘What about hosing your feet?’ I called.

‘Non,’ he laughed. ‘Ça donne du goût!’ That adds to the taste!

The grapes roughly trampled down, he climbed out and backed the tractor up over a block of wood, the better to tip the trailer of grapes into the pressoir. As a thin stream of juice began to run from the bottom we turned the screw, first with a short handle, then a longer one to get greater leverage, until the two nodding donkey ratchets dropped into a slot with a loud clack. Everyone had a try and it was hard work. We tasted the juice which frothed into the half barrel. It was sweet. ‘We shan’t need to add any sugar this year’ said Raymond. The juice was put into the barrel in the cave where it would be allowed to ferment for about six weeks. When the sugar level reached 3-4% the fermentation process would be stopped by the addition of a little liquid sulphur. After two years in the barrel the wine would be bottled in clear glass bottles. Occasionally they find a bottle at the back of the cave which has been forgotten. Often it must be tipped down the sink, leaving a brown sticky residue, but sometimes it is a clear, deep golden colour and tastes more like fortified wine than merely the product of simple grapes from our hillside.

Before leaving that summer we made a decision about the pool. There didn’t seem a great deal of point in leaving our savings for old age, which seemed all too close. The fact that a pool would cost about the same as an average family car but, unlike the car, would increase in value, finally clinched it. We both love to swim, even in London, Mike every day in our local leisure centre and I twice a week. Our own pool in France to use throughout the summer was to become, at last, not just a distant fantasy but a reality.

M. Bourrière who runs Piscine 47 at Villeneuve sur Lot, (47 being the number of the départment of Lot-et-Garonne) had come up to examine our sloping meadow. A rotund, curly haired figure in cowboy boots he strode about through the rough grass and commented on our point de vue as he took a few measurements and discussed the position of the pool and where he would put the pump.

‘Over here in this far corner I think,’ he said marching off again, trailing us behind him. ‘I’ll set it into the ground. All you will see is the green plastic cover and you can soon grow something to hide it.’ He took a few more notes then shook hands. ‘Pas de problème,’ he smiled, climbing into his van which sagged heavily to one side. He promised to send us all the details, and if we finally agreed, to be ready to begin when we arrived in the following spring and to have it all finished by July.

He seemed extremely casual about what was to us a major undertaking but Raymond assured us that all would be well for M. Bourrière’s family was known locally; indeed long ago his father had once been the mayor.

‘That was in the days when being mayor meant something,’ he added darkly. We’d finally done it! Raymond shared our excitement. He swam occasionally in our friends’ pools but this would be often, as it were, on his way from work.

‘I shall be able to practise every day,’ he cried. ‘I shall become a champion swimmer.’

Claudette laughed. ‘When will you find the time?’ she said. ‘And anyway, it takes you twenty minutes to get in.’

It was true. Even on the hottest day Raymond lowered himself into a pool inch by inch gasping all the while. In vain we all pleaded with him to at least try another system, but once in, his delight with his new experience was boundless.

At the end of October we received le devis from France and were plunged into the technical world of the construction and furnishing of a swimming pool. There was a great deal of searching the dictionary.

M. Bourrière sent us samples of le liner in various shades of blue, and we chose the palest, having noted on our researches of every pool we could get a look at that previous summer, that it gave the most reflection of the sunlight and, as a consequence, the ‘Hockney’ effect we wanted.

The pool was to be ten metres by five and we drew endless diagrams to decide exactly how far down the field to put it and how wide the surround should be. I was anxious that it would, eventually, blend in with the garden but the south-facing edge would have to be at least three metres wide to accommodate chairs and tables, and as the sun went round, the west facing edge also would have to be wider than the remaining two.

M. Bourrière’s estimate was in four parts; the earthworks, the construction of the pool, the pool finishing and the finishing of the surround. On the first page there was a price for the actual digging of the hole and another for the landscaping of the excavated earth but there was an ominous blank space for figures by an item described as brise roche en supplément s’il y a lieu. After consulting the dictionary yet again we fervently hoped that there wouldn’t be too many rocks to be smashed up, making it necessary to pay a supplement! As for the surround we decided to have just the basic cement until we could decide exactly on the finished surface. We didn’t want to make 70 square metres of mistakes. We sent off our ten per cent deposit and were now committed.

I took the photographs I had taken of Bel-Air to my publisher only to learn that as a cost-cutting exercise they would not, after all be included in the book. Within weeks Allison and Busby had been taken over yet again, this time by Virgin, most of the staff had been sacked and my manuscript was put on hold. ‘Trust me,’ said my editor Peter Day. ‘It will be published.’ And, thanks to him it was – but not for another eighteen months, appearing two weeks after Peter Mayle’s second book about Provence: not the most fortuitous timing. But any disappointments about the book were completely forgotten in the plans for the pool. Letters went back and forth and we arranged to be at Bel-Air at the beginning of April when the work would start…

When we arrived that spring, it was bitterly cold. I sewed loops on a blanket and we hung it inside the front door to keep out the north wind which tore round the house. We gave thanks for the new bedroom ceiling and the ever diminishing pile of old oak boards on the west terrace which kept the fire going continuously. Down on the farm everyone was wrapped in layer upon layer and, although the fields were bright with daffodils, Raymond was gloomy about the chances of the wheat germinating; there had been no rain. Huddled round the open fire, it seemed extremely odd to be thinking about swimming pools, but after a few days the icy wind suddenly dropped and soon we were peeling off the layers.

Each day we started gardening in a track suit, sweater, socks and boots; by midday it was espadrilles, shorts and a sun top. Later, as the light began to fade, we would gradually reclaim the discarded clothes and stoke up the fire. All my aches and pains of the previous summer had gone and being able to walk and dig, bend, stretch, push, lift and stride about the garden was a joy. It was also fun to have a telephone: even Claudette found it useful. She would often ring to ask me to shout to Raymond across the field that someone had arrived to see him.

We cooked Sunday lunch for the family; minestrone, followed by smoked trout brought from our favourite fishmonger in the Wandsworth Road in London, and steak and kidney pie with a great variety of vegetables. As usual Claudette tucked into everything and Raymond tasted and considered and asked questions before making up his mind. Grandpa loved the trout. He is very fond of all fish.

At last came the call that we were waiting for. La pelle, the digger, would arrive the next day. We now knew what to expect unlike all those years ago when we had thought that la pelle meant a shovel attached to a man, and had been absolutely amazed to see the great mechanical digger struggling up our track to dig out the pathway round the house.

M. Bourrière arrived first with an assistant and a great deal of measuring and sighting went on, as the meadow sloped southwards. Wooden pegs were hammered in at each corner with the levels marked in red. The long side of the pool would face south and as he was explaining how the earth would be banked up along the lower edge, the approaching noise of the digger could be heard. We all went to meet it and to be introduced to M. Gibelou, a sweet-faced young man who turned out, as so often happens, to be a distant cousin, this time of Claudette. I took a last look at the meadow, rough, wild and patched with yellow coltsfoot – as Anaïs would have known it. It would never be the same again.

Any momentary sadness was soon forgotten in the excitement of the digging. A great rectangle of grass was hurled aside and a metre of good rich topsoil was revealed, most of it, I imagine, washed down from the top of the hillside over long years. Carefully conserved in a great pile at the bottom of the meadow, it soon dwarfed our low, sloping-rooved house. Underneath the soil was chalk and more chalk, some of it in huge blocks. We watched anxiously for signs of anything more solid but although the digger whined and grumbled it dealt swiftly with larger and larger blocks. M. Gibelou, clearly an expert, made a rough ramp with the chalky rocks on which to bump down into the excavated area.

Gradually the hole grew deeper and his last manoeuvre with the great machine was to make it clamber up out of the pool and dig out the ramp itself. The chalky undersoil was piled by the fence at the top edge of the field and, after an aperitif all round – except for M. Bourrière who, in spite of every appearance of enjoying all earthly pleasures, turned out not to drink alcohol – they all went home, leaving us to contemplate the large hole in our meadow. Raymond, who within ten minutes came up to inspect it, nodded approvingly at the separated pile of topsoil.

‘You’ll be able to get some good plants going in that later on,’ he said.

Before coming in for a pastis he went down the track to the lower field to look at the wheat. ‘Il faut de la pluie,’ he sighed shaking his head. That night, as if to order, brilliant sheet lightning flashed across the sky for hours and at last towards dawn the rain came, gently at first and then a steady downpour which continued all next day. There was no work done outside and as I dusted and polished all the furniture with beeswax I once again gave thanks for France Musique, the French equivalent of Radio Three. The programmes are much longer and for two hours I listened with great pleasure to several Oratorio by Handel with, among others, Robert Tear in glorious voice.

As we cooked supper that night, the Calor gas cylinder needed changing, and we discussed dispensing with gas altogether. The gas water heater which M. Albert the plumber had unaesthetically installed twelve years before to one side of a hand cut stone arch – and which we had ever since planned to move – needed constant attention because of the chalky water. I would also, I realised, be quite glad to see the back of my cooker, although I had learned to cope with the idiosyncrasies of French cookers which heat up the floor of the oven almost as hot as the top shelf. I had never cooked with electricity and I was willing to try, but we would, I knew, have to upgrade our electricity supply to the house. Unlike in England where one simply assumes that no matter how many appliances one switches on there will be sufficient power, in rural France it is a very different matter.

When we first bought Bel-Air in 1976, although it was on mains electricity, there were two lights only in the house. One had hung above the table, but was now a bare piece of flex, where previous viewers of the then derelict house had stolen the old lamp; the other, a soot-blackened bulb was fixed to the wall of the chimney making it possible for Anaïs to do much of her cooking over the fire. We made our first trip to an office of Electricité de France and the assistant looked with some amazement at our bill. The lowest installation on his hand written chart was 3kW and was described as TARIF SIMPLE. It seemed Bel-Air had only a 1kW supply. He shrugged, smiled and said that it appeared that for us he must invent a special category. He suggested ‘TARIF PRIMITIF.’

As the more kW one had the higher became the standing charge, we settled at that time for the TARIF SIMPLE and it became a running joke to turn off all the lights before boiling the kettle or using the washing machine. In any case if you did blow the fuse it was a simple matter to reset le disjoncteur, the circuit breaker, by pushing up a switch in the cupboard. This would at once reconnect the supply. It was clearly a necessary device in a country where blowing fuses must surely be a common occurrence.

The next day, although warm, it was still raining and we called in to see M. Albert the plumber who showed us photographs of his latest grandchild.

‘How many have you got now?’ we asked.

‘Six,’ he said proudly. ‘And what a pleasure they are.’

We discussed the proposed electric water heater. He was enthusiastic. ‘I’m getting tired of servicing that old geyser you’ve got,’ he grinned. We talked about the pool and about changing to an electric cooker.

‘No problem,’ he said. ‘But if you want my advice you should go onto the special tariff. It’s called EJP.’

He wasn’t too sure what the letters stood for but it seemed that it was a system for cheaper electricity. Off we went to investigate this EJP which we found stood for Effacement Jour de Pointe. The French export a great deal of electricity. In order to ensure an adequate supply in peak times, they have invented this scheme to persuade the home consumer to switch off when they deem it necessary. By taking part in this system, electricity is considerably cheaper all year round except for the possibility that on any one of twenty-two days in the year, ‘Les Jours de Pointe’ between November 1 and March 31, when the demand may exceed the supply, they have the right to change the tariff. A red light indicator on the meter will show that now the charge will be almost ten times as much per kW – a real inducement to switch off!

I am constantly entertained by the language used in sales literature in France. The leaflet we were given was no exception…

‘Et bien, c’est pratiquement le tarif de nuit toute l’année, de jour comme de nuit sauf…sauf une toute petite période pendant laquelle le prix de l’électricité sera plus cher. Voilà! Vous savez tout! A vous de choisir!’ (‘You see, it’s almost the cheap night rate all year round, and all day long except…except a very tiny period when the price of electricity will be dearer. There it is. Now you know everything. It is for you to choose!’)

As we were very unlikely to be at Bel-Air between November and the end of March it seemed the perfect choice for us but we were surprised to learn that Raymond and Claudette were also on EJP. Was it economical? Claudette maintained that it had been so far. The jours de pointes were not allowed to run consecutively and so far had been very rare during the winter and had only lasted for a few hours. ‘I leave the freezer shut and don’t do any washing or ironing,’ she said. ‘C’est pas trop dur.’

The last days of the Calor gas bottles and the installation of an all electric kitchen became something else for us to plan, as well as the everlasting debate about what to do with our large outhouse, or chai. With the certainty of having umbrellas and all the poolside paraphernalia to store would we be able to hive off a part of it for another bedroom as we hoped? And if we could, which way round should we do it? We started drawing yet more plans, wandering about with rulers and standing in the middle of the space and staring.

The weather improved and in a few days the next stage of the pool began. M. Gibelou and his digger had left and there were two different workmen in the crater, smoothing the rough surface and taking out the odd loose boulder. They fixed a central drain and dug a channel for the strong hose which would make the underground connection to the pump. The next day, wearing heavy gloves, they manhandled sheets of steel mesh with which they lined the bottom and sides of the crater and that afternoon the cement lorry arrived. Now it was a race between the two of them and the steady flow which poured from the long hydraulic arm. They were extremely skilful and gradually a rough chalky, stony hole was transformed into the shape of a swimming pool with the smoothness of an iced cake.

M. Bourrière arrived with his partner, Claudine – a name easy to remember being so near to ‘chlorine’, the essential chemical of pool maintenance – and they pronounced themselves satisfied. We wished that we could see the whole of the process but M. Bourrière explained that they would not begin the next stage for many weeks. We discussed the landscaping of the rest of the meadow. Claudine smiled.

‘It will look terrible to begin with,’ she said. ‘But after one season – you will see – it will be beautiful.’

I looked at all the great muddy tracks across the field, the piles of boulders and the towering heaps of earth and hoped she was right.

As the next day was my birthday we went off to buy champagne and to order a large tart at the boulangerie. Raymond and Claudette and the two old people came up about nine o’clock. They brought me a callistemon or bottle brush plant and I planted it the next day in the south-facing bed. They sang ‘Bon anniversaire’ and Grandpa pronounced the champagne good.

‘Le champagne, bravo!’ he roared. ‘Mais…vous savez…aujourd’hui il y a plus de buveurs que de connaisseurs!’ We toasted the new swimming pool and the pleasure we hoped to have from it in the coming years.

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