Friday, October 26, 2007

What’s an ostréiculteur?

It’s the French name for a guy or woman who farms oysters – obvious when you know, of course. Not exactly a bird-puller, but it does roll smoothly off the tongue: “I’m an ostréiculteur actually – only in a small way of course. What do you do?”. You can ask me anything you want to know about oysters – but surprisingly no one ever does.
As you’ll remember from yesterday’s lesson, as you go north along the Médoc peninsula, on the eastern, or River Gironde, side, are vineyards. On the left or western side is the Atlantic Ocean, and the bay of Arcachon (pic), where 60% of the oysters eaten in France come from. As with Bordeaux wines, the initial consumers were the English –it was much easier to ship to England than to Paris. Parisians got their oysters from Britanny.

Oyster farming, or as we in the know call it, "ostréiculture", is labour-intensive and wet work, and it takes an average three years per oyster. (They are rumoured to improve one’s prowess in the boudoir - Louis XIV ate 150 at every meal.) Of course we had to partake of this delicacy, but for a different reason, along with the odd glass of Entre Deux Mers. The DG decided she didn't like oysters, so we did a trade. They were delicious.

What’s in a name? Plenty. What chance have I got with a name like mine when there are writers around with names like Peregrine Worsthorne, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and Simon Sebag Montefiore? Imagine them in your class at school: "Where’s Simon Sebag Montefiore?" "I saw him in the bike shed with Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, Sir." "Thank you, Jones."

Wednesday, October 24, 2007


This just in. The Book – you remember the book? – will release on November 1, and launch in Cannes on November 17, followed by other events along the coast: in Antibes, Valbonne, Nice, Monaco and maybe Fayence, in the following week or so. Details later.

Route Nationale 1215, which runs north from Bordeaux, through Médoc on the left bank of the Gironde, is the most mouth-watering road in the world.
Its road signs should be bottled – and often are. Haut-Médoc, Moulis, St. Julien, and Châteaux like Beychevelle, Lynch-Bages, (where the DG bought me a ’98 in the hope it will mature in time for a special birthday next year), St. Estèphe, Château Lafite (pic), Ch. Margaux, Ch. Latour, Ch. Mouton Rothschild...
At Lamarque there’s a ferry across the river which at high tide you can drive on (that's the boat, not the river - important) and come back up on the other bank: Côte de Blaye, Côte de Bourg, St. Emilion, Pomerol, (a bottle of whose Château Petrus can set you back $8000)...
We return full-stomached, but, apart from that single Lynch-Bages, empty-handed. And as I’m dreaming of what might have been, she says “Red or white?” – and I’m down to earth, with a plonk.

Sick Transit
My words are vines, the grapes they bear
Nurtured and harvested with care
Hence, then, my rage
When, on the page
The vintage is vin ordinaire

Friday, October 19, 2007

Two Cities

Bordeaux, the capital of the French wine industry - not the plural of bordel - reminds me of Liverpool in many ways. Unlike the cities of southern France, which face the Med, it looks onto a river that was once its life-blood, and it has a skyline.
Another link is the Celtic connection: many of the vineyards carry Irish names, like Château Lynch-Bages and the Châteaux Palmer, Phelan, Parker, Barton, Brown – mostly descendants of supporters of James II, who hoped, with the help of the Irish Catholics, to regain the English throne. Like most Scouses, I had forbears of both faiths: Irish Catholic ones in Drogheda, who used to take me to the site of the Battle of the Boyne and tell me sad stories of how James was defeated by William of Orange in 1690 - while in Liverpool my Uncle Bill would strut his Protestant stuff in bowler hat and orange sash every July 12 to celebrate his namesake’s proud victory.

Speaking in Tongues Why Bordeaux? I mentioned how we like to take French bus tours as a means of immersing ourselves in the language. The mistake we made on our previous “Total Immersion” was to take a French tour - of Sicily. As the guides were Italian, by the time the brain had unscrambled heavily Sicilian-accented French into something translatable into English, it had missed the next bit.
While it raised difficulties with the guides, the fellow-passengers, being French, presented no such problem, so it worked out well in the end. We learned a lot about the people, not much about Sicily. Still, we decided our next trip would again be a French one – but in France. Which was how we settled on Bordeaux, (starting from Marseilles: a pleasant 2½ hour train trip from Nice followed by a slurp of the local specialty – bouillabaisse). After living in Nice, the southern accent shouldn’t prove a problem, we thought.
It was. French as spoken in Marseilles is not just another accent – it’s almost another language. Those lovely people on the trip might as well have been speaking Martian as Marseillais. What’s worse was that although they could understand our French, we couldn’t understand theirs. So after struggling through meal-time chat three times a day, we finally started missing meals to spare them the embarrassment. Bad for our French, but good for the weight.
Once again it worked out OK in the end because unlike Sicily, the guides, being from Bordeaux, spoke understandable French, so we learned a lot about Bordeaux, but not much about our fellow-travellers.

In the middle of this confusion, England played France in the semi-final of the Rugby World Cup – and, to our surprise and embarrassment, won. Unlike the French press - with headlines like “England’s Vain Hope” etc., these people could not have been more gracious, and we parted with everyone wishing us bon courage for the Final on Saturday. We’ll need it.

Ah yes! Didn't mention the other kind of immersion: Wine. Next time.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Days of wine...

Won’t be posting this weekend because we’re going to Bordeaux. Which reminds me of an old joke:
Man: We’re going to Bordeaux
Friend: I’ve heard good things about Bordocks.
Man: No, Bordeaux – like Bord-oh?
Friend: Boll-oh.

(‘Er indoors hates that joke.)
It’s about the right time of the year – the wine harvest – but that’s not the main reason we’re going. It’s about French. French coach tours are the only enjoyable way we know of ensuring total immersion in French - and wine. No sensible English couple would think of doing anything so stupid, so it's more French than tour – wall-to-wall French from morn ‘till nightie. Does wonders for your French conversation and is disastrous for your self-esteem. There'll be more on Bordeaux.

I have this long-time Oz mate – we go back to January 1960 so a golden reunion isn’t far off. He’s quite normal in most ways, but, like most Aussies, has a blind spot where sport is concerned. I, on the other hand, have a perfectly normal, healthy attitude to sport: I am always happy when the better team wins – so long as it’s England.
About 25 years ago, friend and I did a tour of the Burgundy vineyards – a thoroughly enjoyable experience - in the course of which we made the acquaintance of the Châteaux Meursault, which produces one of the best white Burgundies you can buy.
In memory of that trip to Burgundy, whenever friend and I have a bet, the prize is usually a bottle of Meursault. Last Saturday’s quarter-final of the Rugby World Cup, was such an occasion. Although my brain was saying don’t be so stupid, my heart said take the bet because you owe it to your country. We now play France in the semi-final, so wherever we are at 8.50pm. on Saturday, we’ll find somewhere to watch the match to see if England are in the final of the Rugby World Cup – and, more importantly, to see if I’ve won another bottle of Châteaux Meursault.
Actually, result of all our bets when averaged out over the years, is about 50/50, so in fact the same bottle travels between Villefranche and Cannes several times a year. Burgundy not being a good traveller (which is why the English drink Bordeaux), when the CM is eventually opened it will probably be undrinkable

Friday, October 05, 2007

This is no book…

…Who touches this touches a man.
Yes, old Walt knew a thing or two. And it’s right here! A man on a motor-bike wearing a black helmet – not the bike, the man – just delivered it. It sits on the desk in front of me in its cellophane wrapper, unopened, (well, I know what’s inside) and pristine, and I can’t take my eyes off it. It’s beautiful. Excuse the self-indulgence, but the advance copies of my book just arrived. Bulk supplies won’t be in the shops until November 27 and the police are not expecting undignified midnight scrambles outside Waterstones. Neither have I (yet) been asked for an interview by John Humphrys or Jay Leno. But who cares? It’s here...

I’m trying to judge a short story competition. You can’t help but wonder at the number of people who want to write but who don’t read. I remember Gordon Ramsay saying once – he’s the TV chef who can only be seen after the 9pm kiddies-bedtime watershed because he’s so foul-mouthed. (Guess I should have wondered this before, but how do you have an evening watershed in the US with its different time-zones? It wasn’t a problem when I was raising kids there because in the US, TV obscenity is a relatively recent phenomenon.)
Oh yes, Gordon Ramsay. He said that lots of people want to be top chefs but they’re not interested in food. It’s the same with writing. Lots of people want be famous writers but they aren’t interested in books. It won’t work – it’s not what you get out of it that’s fun – it’s what you put in. It seems pretty obvious: after all, painters look at pictures all the time. Virginia said it right: “Books read us”.
But I digress – again: back to the judging. There is, as you’d expect, a wide quality range. It’s not just that some people write better: they may have been writing for longer, be better read (see above) or realised at the last minute that the deadline was almost upon them. But they all merit roughly the same amount of attention and comment, right?
You’d think this would mean that the better stories would be harder to critique, and that it would be easy to comment on a story that you didn’t like. It’s not what I’ve found. I could go on for pages about the bad ones, because I want to tell them where they went wrong, how I think things could be improved. Then I have to go over it all again to check I haven’t committed the sin that uncaring editors do dozens of times a day: discouragement.
So if you got a long critique, it probably means you didn’t win. But that’s not the point. I just hope it was, at worst, positive and encouraging, and at best inspirational. And that you’ll try again next time.

I've been coming to France a fair number of years - a fair number of decades actually - but there's one habit I can't break. This is, before I go into a DIY shop, doctor's surgery, anywhere, I do a little check to see if I've got all the vocabulary I need. Wall plug - cheville - biopsy - biopsie - OK, let's go. It's silly I know. When the phone rings you can't race through the dictionary to check you know every word they may use. You just wing it. But I still do it.
The other day I wanted a jubilee clip. It wasn't in the dictionary so I had to wing it.
Me: (in French) "I'm looking for this ring-like thing that has little ridges on the outside that you tighten up with a screwdriver." As I go into my impersonation of Marcel Marceau with screwdriver, the man interrupts.
Man: "Juibeelee cleep?"