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Extremely Pale Rosé
A Very French Adventure
By Jamie Ivey
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2006 Jamie Ivey
All rights reserved.
Extremely Pale Rosie
It was a lunch that changed our lives. Just six months later my wife and I and our good friend Peter Tate would set out on a remarkable journey, but at the time our thoughts were culinary not revolutionary – was the foie gras too heavy and rich for lunch? Could we really manage yet another deliciously intense daube? And, more worryingly, would we get served at all?
We arrived one hour late for our booking at the Hôtel Sénanque, a squat, faded building set in the flat plains beneath the Provençal village of Gordes. Behind the hotel, amid great bushes of thyme, rosemary and tarragon, was a small restaurant. Five tables, laid in crisp pink linen, nestled under a white awning that flapped gently in the breeze.
We waited at the entrance to the herb garden in the limited shade offered by an old olive tree. A menu rested on an ornate iron stand. Côte de veau aux morilles, gigot d'agneau aux herbes, gambas au feu de bois – I mentally devoured each option, attempting to sate my stomach with the mere thought of food, but the likelihood was that we were too late. In France, lunch is taken between midday and 2 p.m. – the optimal hours for digestion. It is not to be rushed or undertaken as a mid-afternoon afterthought.
An elderly waiter served the whole restaurant. He was formally dressed in black trousers and a white shirt left open at the neck. In the breast pocket of his shirt sat the tools of his trade – a pen, notebook and corkscrew. He moved slowly among the tables, clearing plates, filling glasses and exchanging pleasantries.
Minutes passed. I felt the despair of the foreigner unsure of local custom. Should we just sit ourselves down? Would the waiter treat his fellow countrymen like this? I fidgeted from foot to foot. By now my mind had reached the petits fours and my stomach was threatening open revolt.
Finally, with a dramatic glance at his watch, the waiter acknowledged us. Once appropriately chided for arriving at 2 p.m., we were shown to our table. The other diners were just finishing dessert. As we sat down, reverential conversations about the sweetness of the tarte aux pommes ceased. Spoons and forks were dropped heavily on to china plates. We felt like food pagans arriving at a feast of the righteous.
When the waiter returned to take our order he nodded approvingly as we all chose foie gras and then the regional speciality – daube, a slow-cooked beef stew flavoured with anchovies and tapenade. But then came the wine.
For us, there was only one wine to choose. We were sitting beneath a wonderful white awning in the middle of a delightful Provençal garden. Leaning back on my chair, I could pick sprigs of rosemary. A resplendent purple carpet of lavender encircled the restaurant, and, above, the sky was a clear blue. In the distance we could see the town of Gordes perched on its rocky promontory. It was high summer in France and the cicadas were beating their afternoon lament before the heat gradually faded from the sun.
As I announced our choice the waiter's pen ceased its frantic scribble. He turned and looked sheepishly away. Thinking I had been misunderstood, I pointed to the wine on the list. He affected to study a small fly that had landed on his shoulder. I pointed to the wine again. He flicked the insect away and suddenly developed an intense interest in a speck of dust on his black shoes. Nobody spoke. What had we done? How long could he ignore us for? Then, with pursed lips and hunched shoulders, the waiter snatched the menus away. He tucked them under his arm and disappeared without a word.
We had asked for rosé. It was the perfect accompaniment to the landscape. Beyond the herb garden stretched fields of vines. Peeping through the green foliage hung an abundance of grapes, already heavy with juice. As each day passed they would swell and slowly change colour. At the end of each row roses bloomed a deep luscious scarlet.
A glass of chilled rosé was our salute to the blissful view that lay before us. We would raise our glasses, wish for a bumper crop and bid our farewells to another wonderful week in Provence. By nightfall we would be on a plane back to London, already dreaming of next summer, of air heady with herbs and the perfumed pale rosé that for us epitomised the whole experience.
Of course, our elderly waiter could not possibly understand this – to him, we had just committed a sacrilege. Never mind that we knew we should have asked for a glass of sweet wine to accompany our foie gras. The best value on the wine list appeared to be a Muscat from a vineyard just outside the Roman town of Béziers. And then a full-bodied red to bring out the intense meaty flavours of the daube. By ignoring the pricier Bordeaux and Burgundies, we would doubtless have pleased our host by opting for a '98 from Bandol, a small fishing village to the west of Toulon.
If ignorance was not our excuse, then ordering rosé in the full knowledge of our sins against gastronomy, and hence the French nation, was quite possibly enough to have us evicted from the restaurant. Rosé was fit for peasants, certainly not this restaurant's &8364;40 menu.
But eventually it turned up, pale, crisp and delightfully cold, wearing a white napkin round its neck like a dinner shirt and dipped in a stainless-steel bucket piled high with ice.
'Marvellous,' said Peter.
* * *
Peter is sixty years old, wears a pacemaker and lives for the three 'f's – friends, family and France. Late at night it became the four 'f's.
He is a perfect holiday companion. When in France, he believes everything is marvellous. Sometimes wonderful, but more often than not, marvellous. Being woken by the incessant reports of shotguns as the local peasantry tries to annihilate anything with wings or a snout – come to think of it anything that moves – is to most people annoying, but to Peter, it's marvellous.
As is his first glass of rosé at 10.30 in the morning. 'It's twelve o'clock somewhere in the world,' he declares, in a deep gravelly baritone. Later he strolls into a nearby village, buys ham, bread, cheese and of course some rosé. Shopping complete, he sits, a picture of contentment with a cigar, coffee and pastis in the village square.
Typically, he wears sandals, shorts and an unbuttoned shirt. Tufts of hair mushroom from his chest and plumes rise from his eyebrows. A pair of glasses usually rests on the bridge of his rounded nose. Laughter lines play around the corners of his eyes. Take away the hire car and throw in a Deux Chevaux and he would pass as a local artist.
Back at the villa he'll play boules all afternoon, have a game of tennis before supper and still find time to push a few people in the pool. At dusk a transformation takes place – linen trousers, a pressed cotton shirt and hair swept back to reveal a sun-burnished face. He even wears socks with his boat shoes. A notorious rake in his younger days, my wife, Tanya, assures me he could still charm the tail off a sanglier.
Joining Peter, Tanya and me for lunch at the Hôtel Sénanque were my sister-in-law, Claire, and her baby, Rosie. They had recently emigrated to France and lived in Montpellier. Rosie was twelve months old and taking her first few tottering steps. Blessed with kiss-curls and a wide, ever-present grin, she was a magnet to the child-loving French. Unfortunately – or fortunately as it turned out – that day she was not particularly well. It was Rosie's pale face that started this story.
On the adjoining table a French lady was dining alone. We later learnt her name was Madame Etienne. Later still Miriam. We never learnt her age. She dressed like a thirty-year-old – wearing her straight blonde hair at shoulder length and an off-the-shoulder dress cut just above the knee to highlight long brown legs – but her hands were those of an older lady. Her skin bunched over her knuckles and creased around her wrists. She wore two opulent gold rings set with rubies and diamonds. Jackie O sunglasses masked any tell-tale wrinkles around her eyes.
Dining next to Madame Etienne was an experience. Eavesdropping and food were treated with equal seriousness. She operated rather than ate – holding her spoon and fork precisely between thumb and forefinger like surgical tools and dissecting her dessert into tiny morsels. Each mouthful was accompanied by a sip of sweet white wine. As she chewed, her head swivelled to pick up snippets of conversation. Periodically, she paused to wipe the corner of her mouth and to smooth the folds in her black dress.
By the time our starters arrived we were on to our second bottle of rosé and the restaurant had nearly emptied. Madame Etienne remained, stirring the dregs of her coffee and pretending not to notice us. Then a teddy bear landed on her lap.
What followed was the type of chaos that new mothers seem so anaesthetised to. Rosie flung away the book she had been quietly flicking through, knocked over a glass and demonstrated the full power of her year-old tonsils. The waiter gave Rosie a small flower in a fruitless attempt to mollify her and then began sweeping up the shards of glass. The flower was immediately ripped to shreds, and another glass was deposited into the colourful mélange under the table. I recoiled in shock at the explosive force of a teddy-bear-less baby. Claire smiled benignly. Rosie forgot her lost cuddly toy and began eating a flower petal.
'Excusez-moi. I am sorree. Parlez-vous français?' Madame Etienne stood rigid-backed, thin-lipped, overly made-up, apparently intent on garrotting Rosie's teddy.
Claire nodded an affirmative.
'I think this belongs to your baby,' she said, still holding the teddy in a stranglehold as she looked with evident disdain at Peter.
I assumed that she was used to men standing up for her when she arrived at a table, or at the very least acknowledging her. To be fair, Peter usually would, but he was apparently oblivious to the baby- induced bomb-site around him and was staring with rapt satisfaction at the colour of his wine. He was probably still recovering from a traumatic experience earlier in the week when he'd asked for the rosé to be passed to him. Instead of the wine, a relieved Claire had plonked Rosie on his lap and he'd been left wine-less and holding the baby for over an hour. Ever since, as revenge, he'd taken great delight in referring to his rosé as 'Rosie'.
It was harmless fun until, still ignoring Madame Etienne, he held his glass up to the sun and gazed with admiration at the resulting reflection of the pink-tinged landscape. 'I think it's the palest, most beautiful Rosie in France,' he declared.
Something about this upset Madame. She pointed directly at Rosie, who was sitting on Claire's lap apparently intent on adopting our bottle of wine as a surrogate teddy. As Rosie clasped the wine, Madame Etienne released a torrent of words that washed through my wine- addled brain.
Claire speaks fluent French, Tanya passable, and Peter and I struggle to order a loaf of bread in a bakery, even if we can manage a beer in a bar. Guesswork has, however, got me through many a situation and, as Claire – our supposedly fluent French-speaker – was looking more than a little bemused, I interpreted for the rest of the table. Never again. My only excuse was that I am sure Madame Etienne mimicked Peter and used the word 'Rosie' instead of 'rosé'. In any event, lulled by our long lunch, I momentarily confused wine and baby in my head, and so began an unlikely challenge.
Madame Etienne's French went something like this: 'De plus, vous faites une erreur si vous croyez que ce petit Rosie est le plus pâle de toute la France. Si vous voulez nous rendre visite l'année prochaine, on vous le montrera.'
Tipsily translated by me this became: 'Madame thinks she knows a child paler than Rosie. She's invited us to visit her this time next year and she'll prove it.' At the time I remember thinking that perhaps the French had some strange cultural attachment to pale-skinned babies. But before I could reconsider and before Tanya or Claire could intervene, Peter had plucked Rosie – still seemingly surgically attached to the bottle of rosé – from her seat and, with a big smile, raised her above his head.
'Excusez-moi, Madame, but I think you will find that this is the palest Rosie in the whole of France. We will see you next August.' Setting Rosie down, Peter took another sip of rosé and declared it to be 'marvellous'.
Madame Etienne took a step backwards and toyed with a stray lock of hair. Now she was looking confused. 'Bon,' she said, suddenly making a decision. 'Amenez-nous le rosé de votre choix. Celui de mon mari, Bernard, sera sans aucun doute le plus pâle.'
She handed Rosie her teddy and removed a business card from her purse, which she placed on the table. Using an old fountain pen, she wrote a short message in big florid letters. As she did so, a smile spread across her face, as if she were treasuring some private joke. Handing the business card to Peter, she gave us all a curt nod and left. I could still hear her heels clicking slowly across the stone as Peter flicked over the card. The message simply read, 'Bon courage.'
Tanya and Claire began to laugh uncontrollably. They wiped away tears with their napkins. They took deep breaths to try to stop, but each time their eyes met, a fresh round of mirth would begin. Eventually, Tanya choked out the words in between giggles. 'Do you realise what you have just done?' More laughter. 'You have just bet that by next August we'll deliver to her the palest rosé in France.'
'And so we shall,' chorused Peter and I, confident that Claire's little cherub would be comfortably cuter than any French baby.
The laughter started again. Tears ran down the girls' cheeks.
'No, not Rosie, you bet her that you could find a paler rosé than the one her husband makes.'
'Ah,' I said.
'Marvellous,' said Peter, pouring himself another glass of rosé. 'When do we start?'
Soon we were all captivated by the wonderful implausibility of the idea. There were hundreds of sensible reasons to forget the misunderstanding had ever taken place, but instead we were intoxicated by our surroundings.
For the next hour we sat relaxing in the sun, dreaming of a summer spent touring vineyards, tasting wine and exploring France. Peter excitedly planned a lopsided itinerary, according to which we would spend nearly all our time in Provence, and by the time the waiter presented us with the bill, we'd all convinced ourselves that the quest for France's palest rosé was the most natural thing in the world.
We were still chattering animatedly about next summer as we passed the old olive tree that stood at the entrance to the restaurant. It was only when we got into our airless cars and began to drive to the airport that the challenge began to appear an indulgent fantasy. The conversation slowly stopped, and the idea began to slip away.CHAPTER 2
A week later, in London, Tanya was making her usual journey to work. A clogged Northern Line train took her from Balham to Charing Cross. Spewed out with the other commuters, she headed past Saint Martin-in-the-Fields Church towards Shaftesbury Avenue. Stopping at her usual café, she bought a coffee for herself and a pastry for the tramp waiting outside.
She turned into a small side street by the Gielgud Theatre. The detritus from another night in Soho surrounded her. A young lad with peroxide hair, ripped jeans and a tight leather biker jacket lay face down in his own vomit. A prostitute stood and stared, slack-mouthed from chewing too much gum. Tanya rolled the boy over to check he was breathing, and then stepped over him and put her key in the door to her office.
When she was interviewed for a job at Townends TV, her boss-to-be Stephen Eltham, promised a champagne lifestyle. 'We work with some of the biggest names in television, but, above all, this job is about teamwork and having fun. And every Friday we have a glass of champagne to celebrate working together.'
The champagne never materialised, however. Stephen Eltham's definition of fun appeared to consist of allowing his employees to be touched up by lecherous celebrities, and teamwork involved passing the buck rather than the ball.
'Tanya, get that boy off the doorstep and wash the puke away. We can't have it seen by clients.' Stephen was waiting by my wife's desk as she entered the office.
'I'll call an ambulance for the boy, but I'm not your cleaner.'
'Well, do some f***ing work, then.' Stephen's face flushed red. He swept his hand through his grey, slightly greasy hair and returned to his office. It was the first time that Tanya had spoken to him since she had returned from holiday.
Midway through the morning Tanya looked up from her work.
Stephen had planted both his hands on her desk. His face was still an ugly blotchy red. 'GMTV have asked for the press pack. Where is it?'
'You asked me to have it ready for the middle of next week,' Tanya replied as calmly as she could.
Excerpted from Extremely Pale Rosé by Jamie Ivey. Copyright © 2006 Jamie Ivey. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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