Posts filed under ‘About France’

Report from Essoyes: Les Vendanges 2018

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Pinot Noir grapes ready to be crushed and begin the long, complicated process of being turned into champagne.

“It’s been a good year!!” my friend Béthsabée announced, when I stopped by to say hello and ask how the vendange was going this year. “It’s been a very good year,” she added. “It’s the kind of year we’ve been waiting for for 10 years.”

This is a huge relief. The last few years have been difficult ones for the vignerons in this area, due to a combination of late frosts following warm weather in the spring, and some violent hailstorms in the summer. Like all farmers, vignerons are at the mercy of the elements: it is a risky business. One more reason to admire, and be grateful to, those willing to take those risks and to produce the food we eat, and the wine we drink.

During the harvest, which usually lasts about 10 days, everything changes in this little town. Early in the morning the enjambeurs–tractors made specifically for working in vineyards, with “legs” that straddle the vines–start their engines and head into the hills. Usually by 7 am the pickers are in the fields, and they pick until at least 4 or 5 p.m. But that is just how long the pickers work: depending on the weather, sometimes the enjambeurs don’t make it back to their storage spots until nearly dark, around 8:30 pm at this time of year. Then, after that, the sounds of banging, crashing, and clanking as baskets of grapes are unloaded into the machines at the pressoir goes on well into the night, often til around 11 pm. I can hear this activity from across the field, and can see the bright lights blazing as the work continues. And this work goes on seven days a week until the crop is all in.

In addition to the very complicated process of harvesting and crushing the grapes, which I won’t go into here and now, there are many tangential complications to the harvest season as well, actually for everyone in the small towns where champagne is made. Last year when I saw that one of our bakeries was going to be closed for a few days prior to the vendange and I saw the baker walking his dog in the village square, I asked him if he was taking a few days of vacation. He laughed! (No, he was getting ready for the vendange.) Also last year, an organ concert scheduled to take place in the church was cancelled “due to the vendange” meaning, presumably, that since in the days prior to the vendange,  pretty much everyone is busy preparing for the vendange; therefore, no one would be able to come to a concert. I also remember empty shelves in the stores at the end of the vendange, and that the butcher had run out of beef to grind when I asked for some to make my first chili of the season.

There are logistical complications, too, when the population of a small rural village suddenly expands for a period of 10 days. Thiis year the following sign was posted around town for everyone to see:

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“Because of the vendange, there will be a supplementary garbage collection this Friday, 31 August 2018. Thank you for putting your containers out on Thursday evening.”

This year the vendange began for most of the vignerons around here on or about August 27: quite early, but it has been quite early for the past few years. (When I participated in the vendange in 1978 it started in early October.) By September 7 it was over for everyone around here as far as I can tell. One of the signs of this was the huge trucks carrying baskets full of grapes that came barreling down the road that goes by our house fairly early on Friday afternoon. They were coming back from the vineyards, honking their horns in the manner of a wedding party, or perhaps a better analogy in this case would be to say in the manner of cowboys shouting “Yee-haw!” and “Yip-yip-yippee!!!”

Another sign that the harvest was over was that there were lots of grape pickers hanging out in the cafe and the kebab place on Friday afternoon when I went into town to mail a letter, at a time they would normally be up in the vines, still working hard.

A final clue was in the fact that a number of the  vendengeurs who have been camped in the field between our house and the town during the  vendange passed me, walking toward the pressoir, as I was walking home in the opposite direction.  I assumed they were going to collect their pay. There was a festive feeling in the air and a spring in their step that made me feel enough esprit de corps that I overcame my habitual reserve and asked “C’est fini?” “C’est fini!” was the cheerful answer, as the person who responded to me nearly skipped on his way.

The first time I came to Essoyes, I came here as a vendengeur, along with two other American friends I had met in Paris. During that vendange, which was 40 years ago, the son of one of the two brothers we were working for was just a little boy. I don’t know if I really remember seeing him peeking out from behind his mother’s back as she prepared our meals in the kitchen, or whether I just like to imagine that I did. In any case, that little boy grew up to marry the daughter of another vigneron in the area, and I like to take the participants in my writing workshops to déguster le champagne at their establishment in nearby Fontette. This week they posted some lovely photographs of this year’s vendange, which you can see here. They’re wonderful photos, and they do a great job of showing the aspect of the harvest that is convivial, joyful, and conducted in a landscape of surpassing natural beauty. What doesn’t show through in these photos is what hard work it is: and that’s okay! But ever since I worked in the vines myself I have known that the people who do this work are working very hard indeed. And that there are many moments that require patience and fortitude, especially when the weather is challenging, whether it’s cold and rainy, or blazingly hot. I think of them with empathy every time the weather (always very changeable in Champagne, even within a single day) shifts toward one of those two extremes during the vendange.

And so for another year, this part of the process draws to a close, though the work goes on all year. In this part of Champagne there is a tradition called le chien de vendange which is a celebration of the end of the harvest. (There are two vague theories as to the meaning behind the term faire le chien: one has to do with the position of the star Sirius (known as “the dog star”) at the end of summer. The other, as best I have been able to gather, is more or less akin to our phrase “working like a dog,” certainly an apt analogy for the effort involved in the grape harvest.) I have been pleased and honored to be invited to join my friends Béthsabée and Léa at their “chien” for the past few years, where they graciously serve champagne–and of course, as always in France, also good food–to their colleagues, employees, clients, and friends. This year Léa’s 12-year-old sons were busy helping to welcome guests, making the rounds to faire la bise, and serving champagne and aperitifs.

One more interesting “detail” to share with you in closing this post. Everyone I’ve talked to so far has been very happy with this year’s harvest because it has not only made up for the several not very good years preceding it, but because the harvest was top quality, and plentiful enough to allow the vignerons to replace most of the low quality harvest of 2017, and to store away reserves that will be helpful if next year is not as good.

And get this: in l’Aube, when there is a very good year, the “wealth” is shared. Which means that the vignerons who suffered damage this year in a very destructive hailstorm in late May were given grapes by their neighbors who had escaped damage. Did you hear that? I said they were given grapes by their neighbors.

Ponder that concept for a while, and know that the world is full of better ways to do things…

Janet Hulstrand is a writer, editor, writing coach, and teacher of writing and of literature who divides her time between the U.S. and France. She leads writing workshops in Essoyes, a village in the Champagne region, and teaches “Paris: A Literary Adventure” for the City University of New York each summer. She is currently working on two books: A Long Way from Iowa, a literary memoir; and Demystifying the French, a cultural guide to living and traveling in France. 

September 9, 2018 at 3:04 pm 2 comments

Interview with Our Forestière (Bilingual post)

The latest in a series of interviews I am doing with the people of Essoyes, asking them questions about their lives, their work, and their relationship with the past, present, and future of this place….

Continue Reading February 21, 2018 at 5:53 pm Leave a comment

A Wonderful Day in Troyes-in-Champagne

Like many people, my favorite city in France is Paris. But my second-favorite city in France is not so well known. So please allow me to introduce you to a beautiful, medium-sized city in eastern France, about two and a half hours southeast of Paris, that you really should think about visiting if you haven’t already…

Continue Reading October 19, 2017 at 3:09 pm Leave a comment

Early Autumn in Essoyes

…I am enjoying the pleasure of being once again on the edge of the forest. Listening to the birds, seeing them hop around on the railing outside my window, or peek inside. Enjoying the sound of wings flapping–is it an owl, is it a hawk? I have no idea, but whoever it is that goes scuttering out of the tops of the trees when I walk down the path in the mornings to get wood for the fire has very big, strong wings….

Continue Reading September 22, 2017 at 7:44 am 4 comments

One more vendange come and gone…

The vendange has already come and gone…it was exceptionally early this year….

Continue Reading September 12, 2017 at 3:51 pm 4 comments

Interview with Bernard Pharisien, Local Historian (in English and in French)

An interview with the man who probably knows more about the history of Essoyes, and the Renoir family in Essoyes, than anyone else…

Continue Reading August 18, 2017 at 3:30 pm Leave a comment

Et voila! La Maison #Renoir is open to the public!

…yesterday, the Renoir family home, which has been under an intense process of renovation for the past year, was at last ready for visitors–and right on schedule!…

Continue Reading June 3, 2017 at 2:02 pm Leave a comment

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