Tales from

the Loir

A Weekly Column

April 11, 2001 - Le P'tit Jules

He is not the mayor of Saint Rimay but he is the true lord of this manor in this little town. Le P'tit Jules, also known as, André Desneux lives in his grandfather's house across the street from the old barn that he was born in seventy-five years ago. He barely stretches above five feet and is round as a beach ball, but he possesses that mysterious phenomenon sometimes called presence. He literally reigns over his domain with calm and grace. He daily dons his blue worker's uniform and casket like a bishop's chasuble and mitre. His presence is so palpable that we have renamed his cave the Prieuré d'Epine and Monsieur Jean now calls him the Curé. A Prieuré is a French word for a church and épine refers to a plant used to flavor pousse d'épine, an aperitif made locally. Of course Monsieur Jean prays/drinks daily at Andrea's cave and I myself make frequent stops.

Andre still makes wine every year and owns several rows of vines on the plain above the village. Aprille and I helped with the vendange (grape harvest) last September and although it was hard work, it didn't seem like labor. It was more like a party. People walking by that morning would stop by and volunteer to go with us. We drank a bottle of wine at the end of each row and at the end of the morning; we celebrated freely at the Prieuré.

It is not possible to pass André's cave without stopping. In fact, I discovered that it is a sin not to stop. I was passing by his cave everyday on my way to and from the library in Vendôme. After a week of committing this heinous crime, Monsieur Jean came by to tell me that André was very upset that I was not stopping on my way to and from the library. He wondered if I was somehow angry. I explained that going to the library was like going to a job for me and that I couldn't stop and get drunk on my way to work everyday. Jean just hunched his shoulders as if to say, "I don't make the rules, I just warn of their infringement." I now snake my way to Vendôme by back roads traversed only by a few sheep and cows. On the way back, I stop and take Andre's special brand of communion.

André's cave is unusual in part because it is dug into the ground and reinforced with concrete blocks so it is squared off and lacks the round uneven look of other caves of this area. But everything else is both traditional and yet still unique. At first I could not understand why all these the old caves are covered with soot and charcoal. The ceiling and walls of Andre's cave looks like a fire burned here once. Many caves in this area have this sooty look. After burning candles in our cave, I began to understand. These caves are hundreds of years old so candles, kerosene lamps and torches lit these dark holes for many years before electricity. Also, the huge oak barrels that stretch the hundred-foot length of his cave have to be sterilized once a year with burning sulfur that added to the char.

There is a look of organized chaos here. There are barrels, bottles, baskets, corks, hottes, pipes, pipettes and odd looking tools everywhere. Everything is old and coated with dust and mold. Even the sole bare light bulb above the makeshift bar looks like it was made in the1920's.

The darkness, the dust and the smell of fermentation could be depressing but it is not. There is a sense of conviviality that helps but the real contrast to all this moldy darkness strikes like a halleluiah chorus though a sunny window, when André uncorks a bottle of Vouvray. There is a second chorus for a glass of pousse d'épine and the sky literally opens when he breaks out his newest concoction. In a large clay vessel called a saloir, he removes the lid and shows us a dark rosé liquid that he calls écorce de clementine. It is much like pousse d'épine but made with the skin of tangerines. The flavor is sweet, spicy and bitter at the same time. Aprille likes this aperitif so much that she designed and made André some labels to put on his bottles. Here is the formula.

In a large container add the following:
5 liters of a good rosé wine of 12% alcohol
1 liter of goût (eau-de-vie) at 40% alcohol
2 lbs. of sugar
The zest and juice of 10 tangerines
Leave covered for 40 days stirring regularly.
Strain and serve cold.

Let there be light.

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April 4, 2001 - Men and Their Caves 
March 28, 2001 - Pissenlit
March 21, 2001 - The Egg
March 14, 2001 - Reliquary
March 7, 2001 - The Source of the Loir
February 28, 2001 - La Marseillaise
February 21, 2001 - Still on Wheels
February 14, 2001 - Marcel Proust
February 7, 2001 - La Chandeleur
January 31, 2001 - Winter Comfort Food
January 24, 2001 - Festival of Saint Vincent
January 17, 2001 - Guest Columnist Aprille Glover
January 10, 2001 - Muscadet
January 3, 2001 - Ode to Protein
Archive of Weekly Columns from 2000
 

       

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