PETITE CONFITURE / GRAND CRU
"Modest Jam / Great Growth"
After a weekend in Dijon & the countryside just to the north, we drove down to the great land of Burgundy wine: Cote di Nuits & Cote de Beaune. In the hazy sunlight, the vines looked golden but we were surprised to see them dotted with dark clusters that were, we soon discovered, unpicked red grapes. It didn't take long for the idea to dawn that we could eat some, but we didn't want to end up in jail. But when we came to a place where some farmers were working near the road, our friend Wendy, who was doing the driving & lives in Burgundy, inquired & was told that those were the grapes not harvested, left for the birds, so we were welcome.
There we were with the leftovers of the most famous & expensive wines in the world for the taking, if we didn't mind a little mud. At first I tried picking grapes one by one, but they are so tiny & grow in such tight bunches that that method produced only sticky fingers & seeds. So I tried taking a whole bunch (they were tiny, in any event, maybe ten to thirty grapes, or forty at the most) & merely stuffing it in my mouth to squish around & extract the juice, then spit out the seeds & skins & stems. What a rich juice & sweet!
Then Wendy pointed out that we could take grapes home to make jam, which is the "confiture" in French. At that we began filling a plastic bag, mostly with grapes of Gevery, but then Wendy drove us up the slope until we came to an unassuming wall of warm yellow limestone (rather like our native limestone in Illinois). A plaque at the corner of the field announced "Romanee Conti," which is the most famous & prestigious & expensive of the Burgundy wines. Here there were fewer bunches left on the vines than in the Gevery vineyards down on the flat, but still enough to add to our collection. A rose bush with large orange hips was also growing there, so I collected one to bring back to try to propagate among our "Stone Sets" in East Hampton.
A kind of exhilaration caught us: here we were on a beautiful fall day among these carefully planted vineyards & reading the names seen before only on bottles in stores, always out of reach, too expensive, but now at least we were free to pick, to much, savor the juice, & spit! Inevitably red streaks ran down our faces & napkins were needed.
Then we drove on to Beaune to see its famous hospital, which was founded in the late middle ages & still operates today, thanks to rich endowments & careful administration. You don't visit the modern hospital, of course, but the old buildings are fascinating: a high ceilinged room lined with cubicles, each with its curtains, very much a hospital ward, with displays of surgical instruments, bed pans, all the medical equipment: one can only imagine the din & stench when the place was being used, yet not to complain, because it was a wonderful & humane attempt to alleviate suffering: indeed the nuns who ran it disseminated their institutions throughout France & the French world (even to Guadaloupe). In the kitchen were great copper kettles that the whole convent would get together to polish.
From Beaune we drove on to Autun to see the Romaneque cathedral with its great bas-relief of the Last Judgment: terrible devils tormenting the damned, just like in the famous alterpiece by Van der Weyden at the hospital, commissioned by Chancellor Rolin: this is the whole area of art that Gail studied in college before she became a Hopper specialist. Autun was "Augustodunum," founded by the emperor Augustus & a powerful Roman outpost. We ate lunch on the central square: hare steeped in Burgundy wine, very dark meat & tasty. We stopped at the railroad station to change our reservations, then Wendy drove us back to Dijon in time for the 4:18 fast train to Paris. These "Trains de Grande Velocite" are the best train-ride I've ever had: so smooth you can't tell if you are moving or standing still: only an hour & a half for the 300 plus kilometers (180 miles) between Dijon & Paris.
Parenthetically, Dijon still has the feel of a medieval city, especially in the part where we stayed. The old plaster & wood upper stories of the houses, which bend in & out, no straight lines please, but also the Renaissance style (Italianate touches) in later buildings. Cobbled streets. In the great central market, the most colorful pates & attractive breads & pastries! Our friends found an apartment in part of a 17th century palace, with a heavy double door on the street, then a cobbed courtyard, then inside a monumental staircase, then their rooms with twenty foot ceilings & elongaged windowes, gilded mouldings on the walls. To the back, another courtyard, planted with sycamore & linden, leaves yellowing in this season.
But then we drove Saturday to their place in the country: an old farming village down in a valley by a rushing river, which is fed by springs & creeks coming down from the bluffs on either side. Limestone brows peep out at their tops, just like in Tennessee. On many of the bluffs, the Gauls built forts to dominate the valley. In fact, down at the valley's end, at the major fortification called Alessia, the Gaulish commander Vercingetorix chose to make his last stand against Julius Caesar.
The white cattle on the green fields are most steers & bulls. Dairy farming doesn't produce enough income any more. Only one family in town still milk cows, so we walked over there in the evening to get fresh milk, which is so sweet that it serves as both milk & sugar in coffee & baking! What a trip back in time, to come into that warm stable, with straw & muck on the floor, cows munching, & the farmer milking cows by hand, cats waiting around for the new milk.
We took several walks up the country roads. Red berries of eglantine, a wild rose, & hawthorn (with long sharp spikes, good for shrikes to impale sparrows) -- red berries bejeweled the hedgerows, which are so much more dense here in France than ever in America. Hawks took flight from oak trees: a buteo & a big falcon.
Far up a hillside, little white dots were sheep. At one point, I saw an isolated farm, a rectangled fenced in with yellow limestone, the cottage of the farmers in one corner, the stable at the other, a gate in the wall: the plan was so familiar, this small fortress in the field, then I realized where I had seen it before: last year in Peru, on the altipiano, ringed by the Andes, not the rounded hills of Burgundy, & built not in limestone but mud brick, but to the same design dictated by the same practical concerns: pastoral & agricultural.
High rubber boots are essential for walking around in Jailly: manure carts are the main traffic & the rain & running water impose mud. Indeed our friends have an old mill as a study, right next to a race, so the sound of the rushing water is always at hand. Ferns sprout from stone fences & walls: lots of maidenhairs, a different variety from ours at home, & little rock ferns (polypodium), very like ours. Moss grows dense, velvety, intense green. This, too, is where we got the seeds for our pink Balfour Impatiens, which I remembered from previous visits & have growing in East Hampton. But the pink flowers no longer flourish in Jailly. Instead, at least in this season, nettles seem to be the main border in town.
Back in Paris, we spent the evening boiling down our grapes to make jelly. We got a liter of juice, put in a kilo of sugar, but the result, I fear, is closer to grape juice than jam: still a grand flavor, better than any Welch's at home!