Every September and October, as the welcome cool weather finally returns to the Languedoc, the fields are suddenly black with industriously bent backs and clanking machinery, the roads busy with pick-up trucks with their tottering loads of heady-smelling, faintly rotting grapes on their way to the cave co-operative.
Every village has its fête to celebrate the harvest, usually with music and a barbecue, sometimes with fireworks.
We were, therefore, well accustomed to the spectacle and celebration of the vendange (the French wine harvest) but we had never actually participated, until the day that our friend and neighbour Antoine, who had a couple of tiny vineyards up in the hills, hinted that he could do with some vendangeurs (grape pickers) for a day or two’s work.
Modern workers harvest the grapes. Photo: AFP
The appointed day dawned very black, but that was because we were up and out of bed by 5:30am – an unprecedented hour for us.
At eight on the dot we were up at the mazet, the little shepherd’s hut in Antoine’s vineyards.
We were far from the last to arrive. The rest of the merry gang – we were nine in all – straggled in at intervals during the morning.
After a day of picking, I understood why they – cannier by far than us innocents – had chosen to start later.
We were assigned our tasks and sent off with secateurs, two to a row to strip each side with maximum efficiency.
Working opposite your other half, I discovered, is the best option. There’s an element of ‘I’ll reach that one for you’ and ‘Mind your fingers’ and ‘Let me carry that heavy bucket.’ Working opposite the patron is the worst option. He picks tetchily and fast, leaving you far behind as you struggle with a recalcitrant bunch.
Then it was breakfast time. Sadly, there were no rustic benches, no long, rough-hewn table spread with a checked cloth under the trees by smiling apple- cheeked old ladies. Instead it was a listing picnic table and several rather dubious folding chairs.
But there were croissants and fougasse (a local bread), cheese and saucisson and pâté, tea and coffee, chilled water and fruit juice – even beer and wine for those who could face it at 10am.
And the sun smiled down and the breeze cooled us and the view over the valley was glorious and we realised that vendange really is like every cliché you have ever read or seen in a movie.
I have to admit, though, that as the day wore on my mind was less on pastoral idyll than on screaming muscles. Bend, crouch, snip, kneel, bend, snip, lift – the person who invented the expression ‘backbreaking’ knew what he was talking about.
But of course it's all worth it for the wine
But every now and again the evocative shout of ‘Seau!’ rang out, as someone filled their bucket and needed an empty one.
Every now and again a clandestine grape found its way into your mouth (don’t tell Antoine). Every now and again you’d look up and catch a rueful grin from your opposite number. It made it all seem worth while.
At last we were done. Twenty-three rows and 2.5 tonnes of merlot grapes – not bad for a small band of largely inexperienced pickers. The patron was happy. The cave seemed to be happy. We were happy. It was over.
The traditional end to the vendange, at least chez Antoine, is the grillade. The chef from the local café appears and, over a fire lit in a circle of stones, produces brochettes and steaks and baked potatoes, with homemade pâté to start and homemade apple pie to finish.
And, of course, someone had brought along a guitar…
As the wine flowed and the stories got taller, we stretched our weary limbs and reflected fondly on the hot shower to come and a lie-in the next day.
And then it dawned on me. We hadn’t done the vendange at all. True, our backs were broken, our fingers cut to ribbons, the nails stained purple in perpetuity. True, a tolerant friend had allowed us to bumble round his vineyard for a day, and we had hopefully repaid him for the experience by picking a useful amount of grapes. But that’s not the real vendange.
The real vendange is done, increasingly these days, by machine, or if by hand then by gangs of hardy annuals who arrive for the season and pick doggedly day after day. The men and women who answer ads like the one in our local bar: ‘Grape pickers needed at Roquessels. Three weeks’ work’. Three weeks? I couldn’t manage three days.
But next year? Well maybe, just maybe…
This piece is an extract from At Home in the Pays d’Oc – a Tale of Accidental Expatriates by Patricia Feinberg Stoner. To find out more or to buy a copy, click here.