Sunday, September 25, 2022

Once upon a time, a long time ago, the Romans marched through France. Crossing our southwestern region they found plenty of places with sparkling spring water, locals that were not resistant to being invaded, and lots of salt deposits. Feeling that Rome was overcrowded they started to colonize these new regions - the provinces. The Romans introduced a more sophisticated life style to the local Gauls. They introduced luxuries such as steam baths, cheese making, and grape vines (!).

The Romans were eventually driven out by the Saracens, but many of the good things in life that had bee introduced lingered in the fields and farms of the region.

Jump forward to the 1700’s and this region is sprinkled with the fruits of the days of the Roman occupation. There are large swaths of cultivated land with elegant homes that rival those of Bordeaux and Champagne. Even Bourdeilles has two thriving vineyards.

Here is the story of the rise and fall of these grand properties.

Roughly between 1700 and 1709 the northern regions of France were locked in a mini ice-age. A third of the population of Paris starved to death. Folks that could escape to the south did - on foot. They arrived in these southern parts hungry and desperate. On one hand they had nothing. But in a way they also had everything. They were architects, stone masons, glass blowers, ditch diggers, harness makers, lots of things that were very useful to a prospering farming community.

In the early 18th century the Dordogne was rich in farms, but lacking in sophistication. Rich farmers were still living in homes with conveniences, or lack of them, from the 16th and 17th centuries. The hungry, talented Northerners lined up at their doors and offered whatever skill they could share in exchange for food and a roof. Bartering was not uncommon as this was before the time of salaries. With the farming business booming the local barons took advantage of this talented labor to construct modern homes that would show off their stature. In these hinter lands, great mansions sprung up in styles that were better known in Paris or the Loire Valley. 

These glory days were short lived.

In 1827 the first railway line opened in France. Then a second line was completed in 1832. Both of these lines were well to the east of the vineyards around Bourdeilles and the Dordogne, who were still shipping their wine by oxen carts. Also south eastern wines were preferred for their higher alcohol content. Local wines that had been receiving gold medals quickly fell out of popularity.

And yet things could and did get worse. 

Around 1850 Victorian botanist introduced American grape vines to Europe. These vines were infected with phylloxera - a mildew carried by a tiny louse insect. No problem in the New World as their vines were resistant, but the Old World vines were almost instantly decimated. Some estimates hold that as much as 80% of all European vineyards were destroyed. Our local area was entirely wiped out. Infected plantations were pulled up and burned in an effort to keep the devastation from spreading. These efforts were futile. The large swaths of vineyards turned to barren, rolling countryside.

Eventually two major solutions emerged: grafting cuttings onto resistant rootstock and hybridization - both solutions based on using American rootstock.

The government doled out monies to replant Bordeaux, St Emillion, Bergerac, just up to about 50 kilometers from Bourdeilles. Then the monies ran out. There would be no subsidies for these eastern edges of the Bordeaux region.

Farmers were forced to completely switch their crops. The rolling fields were turned over to corn, wheat, and sunflowers.

The grand houses would quickly loose their luster, but that is the story for next week.

Sunday, September 18, 2022

Where Have You Been?

 Lately everyone I bump into asks, “ Where have you been?” 

To be honest I’ve been asking myself the same question.

There has been plenty going on: traveling to the States, gardening, biking, chauffeuring, helping out a little family. I’ve been keeping busy, but not with the same engagement that keeps me connected to life in our small village.

Re-engaging got a little push the other day when I was asked to help with making sandwiches for the village “vide de grenier” -  literally a day to empty one’s attic. This the French version of a yard sale, but here the entire village is out in the same place on the same day. It’s a very social event. Instead of selling junk from our attic, I was going to help the festival committee that provides coffee, sandwiches and drinks, including beer and, of course, wine.

At 8:30 I was still poking around in my pajamas. I wasn’t too enthusiastic about heading out. Lately a certain cloud of apathy has set in and I just wanted to stay put in my bubble. But, I had said I’d help and I know they are always short-handed. I threw on a happy shirt, laced up comfortable shoes and pointed my feet up the hill. 

The morning sky was beautiful and expansive. The sun glowed around the medieval buildings and the river sparkled under the arched bridge. I was slipping into my French village.

You would have thought nothing was going on in the village. It was so quiet. But as I rounded the churchyard onto the promenade the world was bustling. The food stand was already set up and the gang I was going to work with was already bickering about how to arrange the work tables. I said good morning and stood back to watch how things organize themselves.

Bickering being the building blocks of French volunteer work, things finally started to fall in place. I was assigned to slice open the baguette halves. Work came to a screeching halt when one of the boss ladies noticed that some halves were much longer than others. (Not my fault. I was only slicing them open!) They worried that the difference in size was going to cause trouble later on. We had to stop and sort the long from the short.  And then later sell them all at the same price anyway! I quietly listened and did as I was told. What a joy to realize that unlike years ago I now understood right away what is going on and what is being said. I could feel  the pride rising in my bones.

There were new types of sandwiches this year. Gone the traditional sausages or a tough slab of beef. But, because these new fangled sandwiches were not familiar to the committee, there was a lot of discussion about how to layer the ingredients. As a sandwich-eating American I take slathering things on a sandwich for granted - not so my very food particular French friends. It was good to laugh at ourselves as we tried to keep the lettuce and tomatoes stuffed in the sandwich. I kept forgetting that humus is pronounced oomus and had to translate the word to make any sense of what was being said. What a silly word to have trouble with. Throwing myself back into the gang was having a good effect on my spirits.

As things got rolling along I was able to add a few little comments, ask some general questions and answer some uncharacteristically personal questions ( the French feel it is impolite to ask personal questions - this makes it mighty hard to have a conversation - and remain polite)

There was talk of children starting back to school, how the school cafeteria was doing. We talked about how vegetarian meals are being or not being accepted by the students. They explained to me that no student ever brings lunch from home. Even on field trip days the cafeteria has to produce bag lunches for everyone. It’s amazing to hear some of the four course menus the children are offered. Today was the first time I heard that there is a rotation of 10 types of cheeses to cultivate the children's pallets. And on and on we went with womanly gossip about husbands and grand children and aging.

By 2:00 all the sandwiches were sold. The bar was going to stay open but I was worn out. I headed back down the hill feeling tired, but happily mindful how I love making the effort to be a part of this small village.