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January 1953

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 and journalist.

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 time.

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 breakfast.

"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 but wineglasses.

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 said.

"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!"

2.

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 earth.

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 overflowing.

"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.

3.

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 my own.

"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."

"Bon."

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.

4.

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 wine."

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 barrels.

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 Vouvray.

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 reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; January, 1953; "Cognac for Breakfast"; Volume 191, No. 1; pages 59-64.

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