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Cognac for Breakfast
ANN MASTERS was one of the youngest women executives in banking when she left this field to start a career
in writing. She edited a publication for school children in New York and later
moved to Connecticut, where she became a feature writer for the Bridgeport
*Sunday Post*. At present she is associate editor on an industrial newspaper in
Bridgeport. The article that follows results from two years which Miss Masters
spent gathering material in Europe, mostly in France, with Rose C. Feld, author
by Ann Masters
Rose and I went by bus from Tours to Vernou, to take part in the Marquenets'
winemaking. We arrived on a starlit Sunday evening. Etienne, the young farm
hand who lived with the Marquenets, met us at the bus stop with wheelbarrow and
flashlight. Hefting our suitcases into the barrow, he told us supper was
waiting for us.
We had tried to get some idea from the Marquenets of what it would cost us to
come as paying guests. But that question had been left hanging. "It all
depends," Monsieur Marquenet had said, smiling quizzically.
"On what?" we asked.
"On whether you will be workers or observers. Let us wait and see."
"I think they will be observers," our friend Colette, who had introduced us to
the Marquenets, had declared. "Picking grapes is not child's play after the
first half hour. It gets you in the back."
Patou, a large, shaggy dog of dubious ancestry, barked loudly as we entered the
gate, announcing our arrival. We crossed the dark courtyard and went into the
kitchen, one of a series of four caves that lined one side of the courtyard.
The hanging, unshaded electric light and a radio were the only modern things in
the room. There was a fire of grape fagots burning in the fireplace. From the
crane hung a marmite, a three-legged, round-bellied iron pot from which the
savory odors of a soup were escaping. At one side of the fireplace was a
cookstove, fed with wood. A round oilcloth covered table, a few chairs, a bench
along one wall, a wall cupboard, completed the furnishings.
Greetings over, we were invited to sit down at the table. We had an aperitif of
Vouvray to start with, and then Madame Marquenet rose to fetch the soup.
Watching her as she bent over the marmite, her face, wreathed in smiles, lit up
by the burning fagots, I was warmed by a feeling that not only had we stepped
into a different way of life but we had also traveled back a century or two in
Besides us, the Marquenets had another guest, Claude, a stocky, sturdy,
well-built boy of twelve who was to work in the vendange. He lived and went to
school at nearby Tours but, as was the custom of the country, he had been
excused from classes for the period of the grape harvest. The other
vendangeurs, friends and neighbors, would arrive in the morning for
"During a vendange," Monsieur Marquenet explained, "the workers eat all their
meals at the home of the vintner. That constitutes food wages. The money wages,
standard throughout the country, are 195 francs a day this year. Every
vendangeur knows beforehand what they are to be, for they are announced over
the radio." In American money this amounted to about 65 cents.
The soup, fortified by bits of bread broken into it, was followed by a meat
dish, a vegetable, a salad, and cheese. We were on the last when our hosts
began gently probing into our intentions for the next day.
"Perhaps," said Madame Marquenet, "you would like to sleep late tomorrow
morning. You can go to the vineyards in the afternoon."
"But, no," we declared, "We'll begin at the same time as the others do. What
time shall we be down?"
"Breakfast is at seven."
We climbed up the hill to the home of our friend Colette, where we had a room
for the period of the vendange. We had barely fallen asleep, or so it seemed,
when Etienne called us. My instinct was to turn over, but Rose, made of more
heroic fiber, called out cheerfully, "Merci, Etienne."
"I am leaving the flashlight at the door," he answered.
We dressed quickly in slacks, jackets, coats, and heavy shoes. The moon was
still in the sky and the stars were shimmering through the mists as we made our
way down the hill. The crowing of the rooster, the cackling of hens, the
amiable barking of Patou, greeted us as we entered the courtyard. Madame
Marquenet, wiping her hands on her apron, welcomed us at the kitchen door.
A fragrant smell of coffee and burning grape fagots filled the room. Overnight,
the place had been transformed. The round table on which we had eaten the
evening before had been pushed into a recess, and in its place was a long,
planked, oilcloth-covered table ranged against the wall bench. It was set for
breakfast. In the middle were four large platters of food, an enormous loaf of
bread about a yard long and a foot wide, and several bottles of red wine. One
platter held herring garnished with chopped celery and onion; another, sausage;
a third, rillette--a paste made of pork for which Touraine is famous; a fourth,
goat cheese. At the far end of the table were two bowls, two coffee spoons, two
knives, two napkins, and two wineglasses. The eight other places held nothing
Etienne and Claude were already seated on the bench, eager and alert. Within a
few minutes, we heard voices, and feet stamping in the courtyard; and the
others, with Monsieur Marquenet in their midst, came in. There were four of
them--two girls in their late teens and two young men, one in his early
twenties, the other several years younger. The girls slipped out of their
wooden sabots and put on espadrilles before they entered the room.
Gravely, Monsieur Marquenet introduced them to us--Josette, Laure, Rene, and
Henri. We were Mademoiselle Rose and Mademoiselle Ann. The following day, he
told us, there would be two other vendangeurs, a man and his wife, coming from
Tours. The wife would help with the cooking, the man with the wine-making.
After shaking hands all around, we sat down to breakfast. The places with the
bowls were ours.
Before taking her place at the table, Madame Marquenet filled our pint-size
bowls with steaming coffee and hot milk.. Nobody else got coffee. Then,
standing before her chair, she held the giant loaf against her bosom and began
cutting thick slices of bread. A slice cut, she jabbed it with the point of her
knife and held it out to each in turn. This, we discovered, was the plate on
which each one placed his food as the platters were passed.
The technique was a simple one. You served yourself with the herring mixture or
sausage by putting it on a portion of the bread, making a sort of open
sandwich. Then you used your knife to cut off a mouthful. The men pulled
jackknives out of their pockets; the girls, apologizing for their
forgetfulness, went to the cupboard for table knives like ours. While Madame
Marquenet was cutting bread, the wine bottles were passed around and the
glasses filled, our own among them. It was a marvelous breakfast, the best we
had ever eaten in France. Talk during that first meal was somewhat constrained.
We were strangers, Americans, and they didn't quite know how to take us.
When the food was consumed, Madame Marquenet went to the fireplace and came
back with the coffeepot. Each one drained his wine, and the strong, hot coffee
was poured into the emptied glasses. I had not quite finished my coffee when
Rose nudged me to call my attention to Monsieur Marquenet, next to whom I was
sitting. He was offering me a bottle of something.
"What is it?" I asked, aware that all eyes were on me.
"Cognac, Mademoiselle," he replied. "Will you help yourself?"
"Cognac for breakfast!" I looked at him and then at the others, who were
watching me. I wasn't going to be caught out that way. "You're joking," I
"Not at all," he answered, and to prove it he placed a lump of sugar in the
small amount of coffee he had left in his glass, poured a little cognac over
it, and, as I still hesitated, passed the bottle to the others. I realized then
that he had offered the bottle to me first out of courtesy. Twelve-year-old
Claude nonchalantly served himself in turn, remarking with a look of precocious
wisdom, "It is cold in the vineyards in the morning." The others agreed and I
decided to protect myself against the elements. "We can't fall by the wayside,"
I said to Rose, serving both of us. " We will, after this," she answered, but
there was a look of pleasure on her face as she drained the glass.
Breakfast was over. The eight-pound loaf of bread was practically finished.
What remained Madame Marquenet cut up in chunks and threw to the dog and the
two cats. Four bottles of wine had been emptied. Before rising from the table,
each one with a morsel of soft bread wiped his knife clean. Rene put his knife
into his pocket; Henri, Etienne, and Claude, with a dexterous turn of the hand,
stuck theirs into the underside of the table at their places.
Madame Marquenet produced two enormous aprons for Rose and me and tied them
securely over our coats. "You'll need them," she declared. "The juice will run
down your clothes." As we walked out the door, Rose, with an admiring look
backwards, remarked, "Ten people for breakfast and nothing to wash but a few
platters and wineglasses!"
Our first stop was at the wine cave of Monsieur Marquenet. There Rene, who had
preceded us, was waiting with the charrette, a high, two-wheeled wagon hitched
to a horse. Loaded on the vehicle were three enormous casks, the insides of
which were stained a beautiful purple; a large, conical basket, equally lovely
in color; and a number of pails. The stain, Etienne explained, came from the
black grapes used in making red wine. The red wine vendange, always earlier,
had been finished about a month ago. Over one of the casks, a huge hopper that
looked like a giant coffee grinder was mounted.
Shyly, Rene asked us if we wished to ride to the vineyards, about a kilometer
away. Looking at the laden cart, we said we'd walk. Josette and Laure decided
otherwise. Placing a saboted foot on the hub of the tall wheel, they clambered
into the cart and squeezed in between the barrels. With Monsieur Marquenet and
the others, we followed the slow moving wagon on foot. The morning air was
sharp and cold and we were grateful for the bracer we had taken.
The vineyards stretched for acres and acres before us. At first we thought they
all belonged to Monsieur Marquenet, but he told us that he owned only a small
parcel of this land. Following a deeply rutted wagon road, Rene stopped at the
Marquenet property. He handed a pail and a secateur, the small, sharp
grape-cutting scissors, to each of us.
Two workers were assigned to a row of vines, one to cut on each side. Rose and
I, watching the others, took our places at our row and began snipping the
clusters of grapes and dropping them into our pails. It looked like simple work
and it is, but it is backbreaking. The vines grow to a height of about thirty
inches, and some of the clusters on the lower branches hang down to the
Rose, having a weak back, found bending over difficult and, to save herself,
developed a method of her own. Instead of stooping in orthodox fashion as the
rest of us did, she squatted on her haunches and moved sideways along the row
in crab fashion.
With careful precision, we snipped the healthy, golden clusters, leaving the
dry, mildewed, or rotten grapes on the vine. It was Etienne who, watching us
protectively out of the corner of his eye, came to tell us of the error of our
ways. Quickly he snipped the grapes that we had left behind. Everything was
used, he explained, the dry, the rotten, the mildewed. They gave flavor to the
wine, he said.
When the pails were full, Rene, with the widemouthed conical basket or hotte
slung over his shoulders and strapped to his back, walked between the long rows
and each vendangeur emptied his grapes into the hotte, crushing them down with
the bottom of his pail to tighten the load. The full hotte weighed about sixty
pounds. Rene returned it to the charrette, emptied the basket into the mounted
hopper, and, turning a hand crank, crushed the grapes into the cask beneath.
There was a simple and efficient system to his movements. By the time he
returned to our post, after crushing his load of grapes, our pail had to be
full again. It was a sort of assembly-line timing, our speed guided and
controlled by the methodical rhythm of Rene's coming and going.
At first we were slow and felt embarrassed when, our pails but partly full, we
saw Rene descending upon us. Again Etienne, with sensitive courtesy, helped us
out. His own pail full, he laughingly came over to us and, with several deft
movements, added to our store. After a time, our fingers became more nimble and
when Rene arrived we were ready for him.
Occasionally we had a few moments, as the others did, to stop and eat a
particularly fine bunch of grapes. With hands and wrists dripping juice, we
held the golden clusters up to our lips and bit into them, not stopping to pick
off each individual grape. We were grateful for the protection offered our
clothes by the aprons.
From the moment he had assigned us our first row, Monsieur Marquenet left us
severely alone. But we knew that, from where he was working, he was observing
us and making note of our progress. Hiss keen eyes, as he moved about, swept
our finished rows and heaping pailfuls, missing nothing. At midmorning he
casually strolled over to us. Our pails were magnificently full to
"I am going back to the cave, Mesdemoiselles," he said. "Would you like to stop
now and come with me?"
"But, no," we answered. "The work isn't finished."
His face crinkled in a pleased smile. "workers, not observers," he said.
"Good." He grinned impishly at Rene, who had stopped to collect our hoard. "Not
bad," Rene commented as we hefted the pails into the basket with a now
practiced hand. His smile showed approval. We had a feeling that Rene had been
skeptical about our skill and endurance and that we had scored a victory for
Monsieur Marquenet. We had not felt consciously uncomfortable before, but
suddenly we sensed that the atmosphere was different. It was warm and intimate
and friendly; invisible barriers had dissolved.
At the end of three hours, the last cask was full. Wearily we stood up straight
and stretched our aching limbs. Our hands were gummy with juice and mildew and,
ineffectively, we tried to clean them with clumps of wayside grass. Henri,
holding a large cluster of grapes, showed us a more efficient way. Squeezing
the cluster between his palms, he washed his hands with the flowing juice.
Then, kneeling, he rubbed them dry over the grass. We followed his example and
walked behind the wagon with him on the road back to the cave.
He and Rene, he told us, were brothers. Their father had died the year before
and Rene, who was twenty-four, was now the head of the family. Like others in
the community, they owned vineyards and a wine cave. With the help of Monsieur
Marquenet, who was neighbor, friend, and adviser, they had finished making
their own wine the week before. It had been a plentiful year, he said; the cave
was full of good new wine. "The horse and charrette," he added with a certain
possessive pride, "belong to us. We have a friendly arrangement with Monsieur
Marquenet, just as my father did. He helps us during our vendange and we help
him with his."
He went forward to lend a hand as Rene, with gentle words of encouragement,
backed the reluctant horse into the dim recesses of the cave. The wagon was
stopped before the wine press, and the three casks of crushed grapes were
emptied into it. The press, mounted on a cement platform, consisted of an
enormous circular container made of slats of wood with interstices between and
belted with iron bands. Above it, suspended from the ceiling, was a huge wooden
contraption, a giant wheel with heavy spokes, which could be lowered and raised
by a hand crank. The pressing, we were told, would be done at the end of the
day, after the haul of the afternoon was added to the morning's.
From the half-filled press came a gentle burbling as the juice from the crushed
grapes began running down a trough into a cement receiving vat.
"Taste it," Monsieur Marquenet invited us, offering us glasses. With him, we
dipped into the cloudy mout, as this first juice is called, and drank. It was
sweet and mellow.
We were ready to return to the house but Monsieur Marquenet, with a twinkle in
his eye, asked us to wait. He disappeared into one of the grottoes at the rear
of the cave and emerged with a dusty bottle in his hand. Placing the rinsed
glasses on the top of a wine cask, he filled one for each.
"An aperitif before dejeuner," he declared and, lifting his glass, added, "A
votre sante." Gravely we responded, "A votre sante."
It was the prized Vouvray '47, golden, clear, and fragrant, a delight to eyes
and tongue and nostrils. The blissful look on Rose's face, I was sure, matched
"A drink for the gods," she said to our host.
"A drink for men," he corrected her, smiling. He held the glass up against the
light of the open door of the cave. "Here in Touraine," he said, "wine like
this is called the sun in the bottle."
Warmed by the wine, by his courtesy, by a feeling of shared friendliness and
comradeship, we went to the house for dejeuner. Like the others, we washed our
hands at the outdoor pump and dried them on a towel that hung at the kitchen
door. The girls slipped their feet out of their sabots and put on their
espadrilles, the men wiped their shoes with a cloth and so did we. At the table
sat a young man and woman, the two other vendangeurs who had arrived during the
morning. We were introduced to them, Monsieur and Madame Leroux--George and
Marie, as they later became for us.
On the hearth, in the marmite hanging from the crane, a soup was simmering; on
the wood stove, a savory lamb stew was bubbling in an iron pot. We sniffed it
with deep appreciation as we passed to our places.
After we had eaten heartily, Monsieur Marquenet rose from the table, a squat,
gnomelike little figure, and settled his cap, which he had worn throughout the
meal, more firmly on his head. "Eh bien," he said, "to work." He turned to us.
"You will remain here for the afternoon, Mesdemoiselles?"
"Mais non," we declared. "We are going."
George, the newcomer, came with us; his wife stayed behind to help in the
kitchen. As we snipped the grapes, we listened with pleasure to the chatter,
drinking in the atmosphere, smelling the vines, the earth, the clear air. It
took a little more effort now to keep up with Rene's clockwork, for the
unaccustomed labor began telling on us. The others, habituated to the work,
usually had their pails full when he arrived with his basket, slung like a
papoose across his broad back, but we kept our noses to the grapevines up to
the last moment. The respite of standing up and dumping the pail held comfort
and relief. My back ached; I was sure that Rose, moving along her haunches like
a slow-motion Russian dancer, was equally weary. But to cry quits before the
work was done would have shamed us.
The sun was setting when we again returned to the cave. This time, we accepted
the invitation to ride in the charrette, crowding in with some of the others
between the barrels. Other charrettes, equally laden with grapes and
vendangeurs, passed us on the road and friendly greetings were exchanged.
Etienne and Claude, now more at ease with us, indulged in a bit of horseplay
with the girls, crushing a cluster of grapes in their faces or pushing their
noses into the barrels of mash.
The casks were emptied into the press, and Monsieur Marquenet, Rene, and Henri,
standing on the cement platform, assembled the crushing equipment. First went a
number of planks, cut to make a circular cover over the grapes. On top of this,
wooden weights, oak blocks a foot and a half thick, were placed, the wooden
wheel was then lowered, and the men, standing in front and at the sides of the
platform and grasping the spokes, began turning it. Synchronizing their
strength and motions, they pushed and jolted the heavy wheel, screwing it
tighter and tighter against the lid of the press. In a steady, gushing stream,
the mout poured into the vat. When, with all their straining efforts, the men
could no longer budge the wheel, they stopped.
The first pressing was over. There would be another that evening after supper.
The wheel, weights, and lid would be lifted, the crushed mash would be dug up
and loosened, and after the second pressing the juice would be pumped into the
casks. Monsieur Marquenet explained the processes of wine-making to us while he
busied himself with his tasks. Something that looked like a thermometer he
lowered into a glassful of juice and, together with Rene, read its markings. It
was an instrument for measuring sugar content. The higher the sugar, the
greater the alcoholic strength of the wine. He seemed satisfied with the
reading. "Not as good as '47," he commented. "But it will make good average
Rose and I left the cave before the others because we were eager to rest a
little before supper. Before we went, Monsieur Marquenet set up the glasses for
an evening aperitif of his Vouvray.
It was eight before Patou's barking announced the return of the men. We heard
them washing up at the pump and then they came in and we sat down to supper. It
consisted of a soup thickened with tapioca, a delicious veal stew flavored with
thyme, bay leaf, garlic, and parsley, after which came potatoes, salad, cheese.
And of course there was plenty of red and white wine and quantities of bread.
We were happily full of good food, good wine, and good cheer. In spite of the
work still to be done at the cave, there was no hurry in eating and drinking. A
meal was a ritual to be performed with respect and leisure. Only Claude did not
share in the talk. He had fallen asleep, his head resting on his outstretched
arm on the table.
We were tired too, but we had vowed that we would stay up to watch the second
process of winemaking. It was late when we started to the cave, flashing our
way along the black winding road. The smell of wine hung in the night air; dim
lights gleamed from the mouths of other wine caves that we passed; there was
the sound of barrels being moved, the hum of voices of men engaged in labor.
Quickly the men set to work. While Monsieur Marquenet, Rene, and Henri took the
press apart, lifting wheel and weights, George and Etienne began pumping into
casks the juice that had accumulated in the vat. The mechanical aids were few
and primitive. A hand crank lifted the large wheel; a hand pump filled the
The weights were lifted from the press, and Rene and Henri, armed with
pitchforks, stepped into the press and began loosening the tightly packed pulp.
Startled as we were, we made no comment as we watched Rene and Henri standing
in the pulp in their heavy, muddy sabots. Nor did we say anything when, the
pulp loosened, Henri swept up the door in front of the press where some of the
crushed grapes had fallen and threw the contents back into the press. Again the
weights were lowered, again the wheel was laboriously turned, and again the
juice poured into the vat.
"What happens to the residue after the second pressings we asked Monsieur
Marquenet. "Do you throw it away?"
"Mais non," he said. " It is out of that we make our cognac. You will see."
When the weights were lifted, Rene and Henri again stepped into the press, this
time with shovels as well as pitchforks. The pulp, almost dry to the touch,
made up of grape skins, seeds, and stems, was loosened with the pitchforks and
then shoveled into a wheelbarrow. From there it was packed into cement vats
lining one wall of the cave. Again, what had fallen on the dirt floor was swept
up and thrown in with the rest. To pack the pulp down tightly, the men pounded
it with a heavy root of a tree, trimmed and rounded to make a giant mallet.
The full vats were sealed with a thick layer of mixed cement. This rich residue
would ferment throughout the winter and in the spring would be distilled into
the colorless cognac.
With a quiet word, a quiet gesture, Monsieur Marquenet directed the labors and
participated in them, heaving the wooden wheel, testing the mout, pumping the
juice into casks, tapping the barrels with practiced fingers to see how full
they were. Making white wine, he told us, was a more difficult process than
making red. With the latter, once the juice is pumped into the barrels, the
work is practically finished. In the spring, the wine is ready for bottling.
White wine, on the other hand, must be cleansed periodically. Every month for
five months, the wine in each cask is siphoned off into a clean, freshly
hosed-out cask. By the time it reaches the fifth change, it is free of sediment
and discoloration and holds the golden clarity of sunlight.
By Saturday night, when a week's work was finished, there would be five
thousand liters of new Vouvray in the barrels. Sunday would be a day of rest,
then two more days of labor and the vendange would be over.
The last day of the vendange was gay. Mounted on the charrette, we returned
from the vineyards singing. At the cave, Josette and Laure solemnly presented
Monsieur Marquenet with a bouquet of flowers they had picked for the occasion,
a gift of appreciation for the patron that is part of the ritual of closing a
vendange. Gravely, he thanked them and then opened several bottles of fine
In the kitchen, the berlot was waiting us, the traditional feast that marks the
end of a vendange. Never shall we forget the food and the spirit of the berlot.
It was a Thanksgiving and Christmas feast rolled into one, with a variety of
fine wines that gave it its French essence and character. Hors d'oeuvres served
with red wine, a thick cream soup, fricassee of chicken, a leg of lamb, roast
chicken, potatoes, creamed cauliflower, green beans that had been fished out of
preserving bottles, and Vouvray '33, '37, '42, '47. A dessert of applesauce and
petits fours was followed by coffee and cognac.
Our contribution, very modest but highly appreciated, was a treasured package
of American cigarettes which we had saved for a special occasion. Through a
haze of American tobacco smoke, Monsieur Marquenet rose and offered a toast to
the Etats-Unis. And in return, we offered one to la belle France.
We remained at the table, drinking, talking, toasting each other until late in
the afternoon. Finally, the dishes and glasses were cleared away and a hush of
expectancy which we did not understand filled the room. Solemnly, Monsieur
Marquenet pulled out his wallet. The time for paying wages had arrived. Eight
days at 195 francs a day for the grape pickers, more for the men who worked in
the cave. Together with the others, we received our money, 1560 francs.
That evening there were only five of us at the table, the Marquenets, Etienne,
and we. It was over, the wonderful time of working, wine-tasting, making
friends. Our hearts were heavy at the thought of our departure; never,
throughout our stay in France, had we been so happy. We looked at the two
elderly people and had no words for our gratitude and affection and respect.
Instinctive and native to them were their courtesy, their dignity, their
generosity of spirit. In a hundred subtle ways they had made us feel at home
with them, helped us bridge the gap between different lands, different
backgrounds, different manners.
They had parting gifts for us when we left the next morning--a package of
goats' cheese and butter from Madame Marquenet, two bottles of Vouvray '47 from
Monsieur Marquenet. With our eyes misting, we kissed each of them on both
cheeks in farewell. Then Etienne trundled our luggage in the wheelbarrow to the
bus stop, and we were off.
Copyright © 1953 by Ann Masters. All rights
The Atlantic Monthly; January, 1953; "Cognac for Breakfast"; Volume 191, No. 1;