Saturday, October 01, 2005

Visiting Champagne No. 3: Lunch with the Vendangeurs

After visiting the Champagne Cave on Saturday afternoon, we went out for a meal with our friends in Reims. It was a very enjoyable evening. We ate in a tavern style restaurant of Alsacien origin, so lots of choucroute dishes on the menu. The Champagne region is in the East of France, so not all that far from Alsace. Tempting to order choucroute, but when it arrived it was an absolutely huge portion that would have fed a family of six for a week. My friend OR had a seafood platter that included lots of different types of sea-snails and shrimps that I had never seen before. He had been picking grapes all day so had a good appetite and a pinky-bronze face from the sun.

We got up quite late the next day and had breakfast in the hotel restaurant, a large room decorated with bottles of champagne and champagne 'affiches' (posters) from all around the region. Champagne is really the only subject in these parts. It brings the region wealth and a sort of associated glitziness.

Around 11 o'clock we started out across the flat fields of the valley towards the distant hills where the village of Sacy is located. As we drew near, we started to see signs beside the road warning drivers of the presence of vendangeurs and all the associated equipment, tractors etc. that they have with them. Outside Sacy, I took a picture of the village, the church where our friends got married last year and the burdgeoning vines.

In the village, we made our way up the narrow main street, packed with all the cars of vendangeurs, and refound the vignoble of our friends' parents, M. and Mme. Mobillion. ER was waiting for us there and she took us back down the road to another little house where all the vendangeurs would be having lunch. This house was originally where her parents lived when they were first married, but now it is converted into a refectory with a kitchen on the back, half out in the fresh air. We met Jacqueline and Simone, professional chefs who were preparing dinner for all the vendangeurs shortly to arrive from the fields. The tradition of providing a good lunch for the vendangeurs is becoming less common in France, but it is one that our hosts like to keep up. No doubt it keeps the pickers in good spirits during their two week campaign in the fields.

As soon as the vendangeurs arrived, travelling in a Land Rover and a minibus, they started washing. During grape picking, even if you are wearing gloves, the sticky sugar from the grapes coats your skin and eventually your hands start to become sore and the skin starts peeling off.

While the vendageurs were washing or smoking a quick cigarette in the garden, inside, our friend ER was making the finishing touches to the dining tables, pouring glasses of champagne for everyone, a traditional aperitif to the meal.

Then we all sat down and tucked in. It was a very smooth operation. No waiting around between courses. Everything just arrived in front of us as if there were a staff of half a dozen people working in the kitchen. We started with a salad, then had chicken and green beans, chocolate mousse for dessert followed by brie, a local cheese, and coffee. By the end I was feeling quite guilty that I had not got up early that morning and picked some grapes in order to earn a place at table!

The atmosphere in the room was very jovial and conversational. You can see the 'lads' in the far corner laughing and they did this more or less constantly throughout the meal. Apparently everyone has their own place at table and returns to it every day. Our arrival was a bit of a consternation for some of the vendangeurs who had to find a new seat. However, they had been warned!

After the meal, a lot of the pickers shot back outside to have another smoke in the garden, and then they were all off again to the fields in good spirits. I suppose the whole meal took less than an hour to feed thirty people. A very efficient operation.

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