Down memory lane

Posted on October 8th, 2016

Last month I returned to Porto for the first time in forty years, having worked in the port wine trade in the 1970s. The journey from the airport revealed a city much changed, unrecognisable. But as I entered the port lodges of Vila Nova de Gaia all the memories came flooding back. The musty smell of wine ageing in old barrels; the taste of white, ruby, tawny and vintage ports; the haunting sound of portuguese guitars and fado.
“We’re so caught up in our everyday lives that events of the past, like ancient stars that have burned out, are no longer in orbit around our minds. There are just too many things we have to think about every day, too many new things we have to learn. New styles, new information, new technology, new terminology … But still, no matter how much time passes, no matter what takes place in the interim, there are some things we can never assign to oblivion, memories we can never rub away. They remain with us forever, like a touchstone.” ― Haruki Murakami

A "barco rabelo" used to bring wine barrels down the Douro river

A “barco rabelo” used to bring wine barrels down the Douro river

Calem port lodge

Calem port lodge

Calem port lodge

Calem port lodge

Croft Port lodges, Vila Nova de Gaia

Croft Port lodges, Vila Nova de Gaia

Fado concert, Calem port lodge

Fado concert, Calem port lodge

A late vintage

Posted on October 8th, 2016

The vendange, or wine vintage has been very late in some parts of the Luberon this year. This morning an automatic grape-picker was working in the valley below our house, at the vineyards of Chateau Edem. The machine only takes a couple of minutes to vacuum grapes from two hundred metres of vines, leaving only the stalks. At the end of each row the grapes are tipped into a waiting hopper to be towed to the nearby winery by tractor.
In most of the Southern Rhone the vintage for white grapes began around 10th September, with red grapes grenache and syrah following a few days later. The growing season has been very dry, producing small grapes, so winemakers were expecting volume to fall by around 20%. Fortunately this shortfall has been offset by greater numbers of bunches, so the 2016 vintage is hoped to be much the same as last year, but it still depends on final juice yields. Because the grapes are smaller their flavour is more concentrated and the wines are expected to be aromatic and tannic with strong colour. Some cuvées will be superb with fine balance. The drought has also been good news for organic wine producers because pest levels were low and black rot absent. The first 2016 wines will be released later next year.

Harvesting in the Luberon Valley, near the village of Goult

Some table grapes are left to wither on the vine

Wild boar

Posted on September 3rd, 2016

This morning we were startled by two shots. Less than 150 metres from the house hunters had killed a sanglier, or wild boar, which had been hiding in the undergrowth. The hunters stood around the dead animal, talking excitedly, before loading the carcass into a van. They told me proudly they had shot two today. I have no appetite for this – my conscience prefers a camera.

Soapbox Derby, Ménerbes

Posted on August 22nd, 2016

Caisse à Savon

Every year for three years the local village of Ménerbes has hosted the Caisses à Savon, a series of soapbox races down from the mairie, past the pharmacy and on through the centre of the village to the lavoir. It’s a crazy afternoon of fun, where winning doesn’t really matter.
After first assembling below the lavoir, the soap boxes are towed up to the top of the village by quad bikes before racing down the hill. The whole process is then repeated twice more. Having careered down the first steep hill, the carts had to pass through a wall of soapy foam, then drivers braved a narrow street where buckets of water were tipped from house windows high above. One entry was a blue and white boat with a loudspeaker playing the sounds of seagulls and waves. Another had his dog racing with him. The village pharmacists raced in white coats. Other carts included a full drinks bar, a sanglier, a double bed, a bathtub, a pizza and a pompiers fire truck. Wonderfully disorganised, the crowd milled around, set off smoke flares and threw water bombs while children sat on hay bales intended as safety barriers.
Simple pleasures. Wonderful memories.     More pictures: HERE

The pharmacy entry

The pharmacy entry

The tow uphill

The tow uphill

Hitting the foam machine

Hitting the foam machine

The water hazard

The water hazard

Water bombing

Water bombing

Pizza Bella!

Pizza Bella!

A day at the seaside

Posted on August 16th, 2016

Cassis harbour

Cassis harbour

Cassis is a gorgeous small coastal town about twenty kilometres east of Marseille. It can be reached from the Luberon in less than two hours. The town has around eight thousand inhabitants and is a delight in the off-season, but in high summer the tourist crush makes visiting uncomfortable. Friends took us there before the rush, where we enjoyed a great day wandering the streets, the market, the harbour and enjoying lunch at a little restaurant on the beach of Bestouan. Later we drove the Route des Crêtes, a winding scenic road with spectacular views of the coastline.
Once the town was known for Cassis Stone, used to build the quays of Alexandria, Marseille, Port Said, Algiers and Piraeus. Today Cassis is famous for its proximity to many calanques, steep-walled ocean inlets accessible mainly by boat. Local white and rosé wines are also well-regarded and not to be confused with the similarly-named blackcurrant liqueur from burgundy.
A great day at the seaside – we’ll be back after the tourists depart.

Bestouan Beach, Cassis

Bestouan Beach, Cassis

Lunch restaurant, Bestouan Beach, Cassis

Lunch restaurant, Bestouan Beach, Cassis

Cassis harbour

Cassis harbour

Cassis harbour

Cassis harbour

Cassis from Route des Cretes

Cassis from Route des Crêtes

Route des Cretes, Cassis

Route des Crêtes, Cassis

Chateau La Coste

Posted on August 16th, 2016

Crouching Spider - 2003 - Louise Bourgeois

Crouching Spider – 2003 – Louise Bourgeois

The other side of the Luberon mountain, beyond the Durance river, lies the winery of Chateau La Coste, near the village of Le Puy-Sainte-Réparade. Owned by an Irish billionaire, the domaine grows no less than fifteen grape varieties, producing some respectable if slightly expensive wines.
The Chateau is best known for a remarkable assortment of modern art spread around the vineyards and adjoining hills. Artists represented include Tadao Ando, Tracey Emin, Alexander Calder, Louise Bourgeois and Frank Gehry. A two-hour walking trail allows full viewing of this magnificent collection. Most pieces are fascinating and while the Financial Times described Frank Gehry’s Music Pavilion as “exuberant”, I found it strangely adolescent. Equally I was left wondering why “Foxes” was even considered for inclusion. But don’t let that discourage you – it’s all worth seeing. Further details on the artists and winery can be found: HERE

Hiroshi Sugimoto - 2010

Hiroshi Sugimoto – 2010

Music Pavilion - 2008 - Frank Gehry

Music Pavilion – 2008 – Frank Gehry

Tadao Ando - 2011

Tadao Ando – 2011

Foxes - 2008 - Michael Stipe

Foxes – 2008 – Michael Stipe

Wall of Light Cubed - 2007 - Sean Scully

Wall of Light Cubed – 2007 – Sean Scully

Small Crinkly - 1976 - Alexander Calder

Small Crinkly – 1976 – Alexander Calder

Tsicopompos - 2011 - Tunga

Tsicopompos – 2011 – Tunga

Cherries

Posted on July 23rd, 2016

Fete de la Cérise, Caseneuve

Fete de la Cérise, Caseneuve

Cherries are serious business in the Luberon. Available in the markets between May and July, there are numerous varieties. The first to mature is the Burlat, followed by Folfer, Van, Summit, Stark, Belgian and Sweetheart. Annual cherry festivals are held in several villages, including Venasque and Malemort-du-Comtat. We went to the festival in Caseneuve, a small hill village above Apt, dominated by its 11th century castle.
From 2017, the cherries of Ventoux will be protected by the European quality mark PGI (Protected Geographical Identification). This IGP will apply to cherries produced in 86 communes of the Vaucluse, around Mont Ventoux to the Luberon with approved varieties, a minimum size of 24 mm and a guaranteed maturity.

The Confrerie des Cérise, Fete de la Cérise, Caseneuve

The Cherry Association, Fete de la Cérise, Caseneuve

Fete de la Cérise, Caseneuve

Fete de la Cérise, Caseneuve

Fete de la Cérise, Caseneuve

Fete de la Cérise, Caseneuve

Fete de la Cérise, Caseneuve

Fete de la Cérise, Caseneuve

Fete de la Cérise, Caseneuve

Fete de la Cérise, Caseneuve

Le Chateau, Caseneuve

Le Chateau, Caseneuve

The past increases, the future recedes

Posted on June 26th, 2016

I am surprised at how upset I am over the Brexit vote. Angry yet very sad. Which is strange because I have not lived in England for nearly forty years. But I still care.
I’m angry at the betrayal of voters by self-serving politicians evading culpability for decades of British government inertia, mismanagement and neglect. The Tory party must shoulder most blame for this catastrophe. In seeking to obscure the real impact of conservative-imposed austerity, the political right has allowed and often encouraged the idea that Europe and migrants are to blame for Britain’s ills. And aggrieved voters bought this fabrication. Britain’s future gambled away by a powerful few.
I’m angry too because this failure to tackle anti-immigrant and anti-European prejudice has cultivated a meaner England. A country now more right-wing, suspicious, xenophobic, racist, inward-looking and isolationist. I’m worried about the aggression that comes with such nationalism.
And I’m sad and disappointed that the hopes and aspirations of Britain’s next generations have been crushed. Did older voters ever stop and think what this might mean for their children and their grandchildren? Did they even bother to ask? It is worth noting that university students, Britain’s best and brightest, voted 82% to remain. So what do younger voters think now?
“We feel we have to live with these choices we haven’t made. They are being made by people who have already lived their lives.”
“I feel quite bitter that the older generation can celebrate victory, while young people have suffered such defeat and will have to live longest with this decision.”
“The issue is that they’ve listened to hate-fuelled propaganda, rather than facts, and directed their anger at the wrong target. I feel ashamed to call myself British.”
 “I’m not giving up my seat to the elderly anymore. Eye for an eye.”
“As a generation that is digitally connected to other young people across the world, we’re possibly the generation which understands what the European Union is about more than any other, because we’ve grown up as European citizens. That’s why so many people are so angry and disappointed about last night’s result.”
“We will never know the full extent of the lost opportunities, friendships, marriages and experiences we will be denied.”
I was not entitled to vote, but I want to apologise for the folly of my generation.

The old ladies of Clacton have spoken

Posted on June 24th, 2016

Sadly, the Brexit campaign soon became less about the future and all about the past. Older people in rural England have felt increasingly marginalised and neglected for decades, dumped on during every financial crisis, always hit hardest by austerity. Cleverly exploited by the Leave campaign, this became payback time. Here was a chance to stick it to the elites in London and Brussels. And so they did.
Never mind that the future belongs mostly to 18-29 year-olds, 70% of whom supported Remain. This was a mutiny by older, white, poorly educated, English manual workers who read the Daily Mail and vote Conservative or UKIP.
You might expect such malcontents to realise it is they who suffer most from Cameron’s valiant efforts to entrench privilege and widen income inequality, but they blame it all on Europe. Nary a thought for the real arguments or how Britain will be weakened by Brexit. Within this Daily Mail reader bubble they are also unconcerned at a significant lurch to the political right. For that is what has happened. Power in Britain has shifted to Gove, Johnson and Farage, together with a repugnant bunch of sixty right-wing Tory backbenchers.
Here in France Marine Le Pen, leader of the right-wing Front National, was quick to demand a similar referendum. I sense that Continental Europeans have been so thoroughly exasperated by British ambivalence (the euro, migration and so much more) they will be quite happy to see her go.

Why, why, why was I born an Englishman! – my cursed, rotten-boned, pappy-hearted countrymen, why was I sent to them? – D. H. Lawrence

Roussillon cemetery

Posted on May 11th, 2016

Every village and town has a cemetery – many have two or more. Seldom tedious, cemeteries in Provence provide a valuable insight into local culture along with a glimpse into the past. What makes them interesting is the range of plaques from family members, friends and associations adorning the tombs. Apart from the usual exclamations of love and regret, the plaques frequently illustrate the hobby or trade of the departed friend, such as farming, hunting, pétanque or playing cards and many include photographs. Roussillon cemetery is a fine example, situated on a hill overlooking the red ochre houses of the village.

More photographs of Roussillon cemetery are: HERE