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A Vineyard in the Dordogne
How an English Family Made their Dream of Wine and Sunshine Come True
By Jeremy Josephs
John Blake Publishing LtdCopyright © 2002 Jeremy Josephs
All rights reserved.
SHE WAS HOPING for a girl. Though when she thought about it more rationally Agnès Bacco knew very well that she really ought not to be expressing any particular preference. For by the early spring of 1963 she had been hospitalized for a little over a month in Bergerac, a picturesque Dordogne town and a centre of French gastronomy. There, just a stone's throw from the river that gives the region its name, she had been left with little choice other than to comply with her doctor's orders not to stray from bed so long as her bleeding showed no signs of abating. She might not have been able to read and write, but the rather squat, dark-haired nineteen-year-old hardly needed reminding that the chances of her pregnancy ever proceeding to term were slender indeed. Yet the fact that the odds seemed to be relentlessly stacking up against her did not deter Agnès Bacco in the least. For as long as she could recall she had dreamed of one day giving birth to a daughter. She therefore summoned up all her spirit, the only resource available to her, it seemed, and positively willed the baby within her womb to be well. A devout Catholic, she would while away the hours in hospital by repeatedly urging the good Lord to intervene on her behalf and bless her with the gift of a girl.
The following week Agnès's husband, Joseph, five years her senior, came to an informal accord with the temporal powers entrusted with his wife's care. Since no miscarriage appeared to have taken place Agnès would be allowed to return home provided she remained confined to bed for the duration of the pregnancy. That meant another seven months with her feet up – plus one injection per day for each of those thirty-odd weeks. A little sorrowfully, they returned to their village of St Germain-et-Mons, ten kilometres away, where Joseph earned his keep as a manual worker in the vineyards of Philippe Van der Molen, a Frenchman of Dutch ancestry.
Joseph wasted no time in adjusting his daily routine to meet the new challenges ahead. Before long he was as adept with a needle as any of the physicians or nurses who would call upon his wife, and soon learned to dispense with their services altogether. Each day, at approximately 6 p.m., after a hard day's labour in the vineyards but before the evening meal, Agnès would reveal her rear end for her husband's ministrations. With increasing confidence and expertise he would select a buttock and inject Agnès with the progesterone prescribed by the family doctor to help ward off the possibility of a miscarriage. For the time being this twin strategy of inaction and injection seemed to be successful, for Agnès's belly appeared to be growing bigger with every week that passed.
Wherever he went and whatever he did, Joseph preferred to proceed at a sprightly pace. He was often to be glimpsed at work, hurrying between one row of vines and the next as if he had an urgent appointment to keep. There could be no doubt that he did the work of at least two men, a fact which not unnaturally endeared him to his employer. Yet Joseph seldom paused to assess himself in such a way; he was simply doing what he enjoyed most of all – hard work out in the open. Short and stocky like his wife, he was endowed with an enormously powerful frame, while his face already bore deep lines carved out by years of physical labour in all weathers, giving him a much older appearance than that of a man only in his mid-twenties. A legacy of formative years spent in a hot climate, the sunshine still shone out from his dark-brown eyes.
Joseph's parents were among the 150,000 Italians who had chosen to settle in Libya after Italy's invasion shortly before the First World War. Forty years later, however, as the era of empire began to draw to a close, the Bacco family beat a hasty retreat to Italy, sensing that the days of their privileged lifestyle were likely to be limited. In that assessment they would in due course be vindicated. Returning to Italy, the country where their roots lay, they were startled to find an impoverished nation in decline, still reeling from the impact of defeat in war and, most worrying of all, with little to offer in the way of employment. They wasted no time in moving on again, this time to France. And it was in Bergerac, some years later, that Joseph Bacco had been introduced to Agnès by his brother, all of them part of the same close-knit Italian community who had come to France in search of a better life.
Working in the vineyards at St Germain-et-Mons was better than no work at all. Joseph Bacco was under no illusions about that. Nor did he harbour any grievance against Philippe Van der Molen, who proved to be a most charming man. Unlike other employers in the Bergerac area, he offered not only lodging but both free bread and wheat to his workers. Joseph's sole complaint was simple enough: a monthly salary of 220 francs was barely enough on which to survive. With his wife unable to add any income at all, he struggled to raise the money to buy the medication required during her troubled pregnancy. The regular purchase of progesterone meant that other items – essentials, not luxuries – had to be sacrificed. Only when reimbursed by the cumbersome machinery of the social security system could Joseph head off to the nearest store to buy food, the rice and pasta which had been beyond the young couple's means during the preceding weeks.
So France had indeed been able to offer employment, as well as the great natural beauty of the Dordogne valley, but the land of liberty, equality and fraternity had also become, for the Baccos at least, synonymous with an all-embracing poverty which time and time again threatened to overwhelm them. Joseph often wondered how he might be able to break out of this cycle of despair. Now, with the prospect of parenthood becoming ever more likely, he began to spend much time staring ahead into the uncertain tunnel of the future. But there was seldom any light to be seen.
On Christmas morning in 1963 Agnès went into labour, simultaneously sparking off sensations of excitement and fear. She was taken into Bergerac's main maternity hospital, not far from where she had spent a month at the beginning of her pregnancy, when the possibility of miscarrying had seemed perilously close. Twelve hours later, at precisely 9.30 p.m., a perfectly formed little boy, François Bacco, made his way into the world.
'I know that I had been hoping to have a girl,' Agnès recalls, 'but when he was born I was so relieved. It had been such a stressful pregnancy. Doing nothing had given me all the time in the world to worry. I had been very concerned that all of the medicines and injections might have affected my child in some way. It was so wonderful to hold him in my arms and see that he was perfect. So in the event I was happy to have had a boy. I just took one look at him and loved him right away.'
Joseph Bacco, too, was delighted to have a son. Unlike his wife he had never boxed himself into a corner about the preferred sex of his child. But he had another reason to be feeling particularly pleased with himself when he visited Agnès the following day. He had heard that a much more attractive job might become available in the next few months and that he had as good a chance as any of securing it for himself. His hard work had evidently not gone unnoticed. The employment was as a manual worker in the vineyards of Château de la Jaubertie, situated in the commune of Colombier, nine kilometres to the south of Bergerac. The owner, Joseph explained, was a Monsieur Sauvat, who apparently enjoyed a reputation for strictness and had a habit of strutting around his estate kitted out in riding gear, including jodhpurs and leather boots. Clutching his tiny son firmly in his arms, Joseph manoeuvred himself so that he would be able to savour his wife's reaction as he prepared to play his trump card.
'And what's more,' he announced in a rather matter-of-fact tone, 'I've heard that the wages there are 450 francs a month.'
Mathematics might not have been Agnès's forte. And the experience of having given birth for the first time certainly meant that her mind was not as alert as might otherwise have been the case. But she realized straight away that what appeared to be on offer was over double her husband's salary.
'Nothing can be guaranteed,' Joseph continued, hastily sounding a note of caution.
But if things went according to plan and he secured the job at Château de la Jaubertie, then 1964 promised to be a most attractive new year indeed.
'François is our very special Christmas gift,' Agnès Bacco would explain to most of her visitors at the time. And as she did so she could not prevent herself from imagining that the job at Colombier was already Joseph's. Because she had made up her mind that little François Bacco would never want for anything in his life.CHAPTER 2
PUTTING PAPER-CLIPS FIRST
THE SCENE MUST have been similar in countless English households that cold Christmas morning. Each and every seasonal tradition appeared to have been faithfully adhered to. Darting around from one room to the next carefully putting the finishing decorative touches to her stylish suburban home overlooking the eighteenth green of Hertfordshire's Moor Park Golf Club and a lake designed by Capability Brown, Anne Ryman had gone out of her way to ensure the smooth running of the forthcoming festivities, with tree, tinsel, turkey and trimmings all attended to with impressive efficiency. It seemed that the only thing the attractive twenty-seven-year-old mother of two had been unable to organize in advance was for a thick blanket of snow to have fallen and settled during the night. For, despite the presence of a sharp chill in the air and an overnight frost, the Meteorological Office had correctly forecast that Christmas Day, 1966, was unlikely to witness even a single flake of snow.
But Anne had other reasons to be feeling particularly pleased with herself that morning: she was poised to produce a Christmas lunch which would make her the envy of family and friends alike. When she had popped an apple inside her huge 20lb turkey to both flavour and keep its meat moist, everything was ready. Then, sensing the enormous wave of excitement as her five-year-old son Hugh scrambled to unwrap his presents, while Corinne, fourteen months his junior, made short work of the paper covering hers, she paused to reflect on the silent miracle developing within her but over which she had not the slightest degree of control. Although delighted to have discovered that she had fallen pregnant for the third time, she was unaware that the sumptuous feast which she would shortly serve would also be providing nutrients and nourishment for a second little girl.
Anne Ryman had long been accustomed to the good life. Her parents, having excelled in the fiercely competitive world of heavy engineering in Scotland by specializing in the manufacture of cranes, had determined that their only child would have nothing but the best. They had headed south and settled in Gerrards Cross, Buckinghamshire, so that Anne's childhood and teenage years were as remote in character from the grease and grime of Glasgow's industrial heartland as anything could possibly be. Always cosseted and often indulged, she had enjoyed an endless round of classes in classical dance, horse riding and lacrosse. Although they possessed ample funds with which to finance their various projects, academic excellence had never been Isobel and Bennie Butters's overriding goal when it came to their daughter's upbringing. The priority was rather to ensure that she should emerge as an elegant and refined young lady. Everything revolved around that. And how better to achieve such an objective than to send Anne off at the age of seventeen to the select Swiss finishing school of Mont Fertile, on the banks of Lake Geneva, just outside Lausanne?
Not that being dispatched overseas so summarily had given Anne any qualms at all. Indeed before long the Butters's daughter, freed from the constraints of their sometimes stifling control, was having the time of her life.
Anne had had a passion for cooking for as long as she could remember, so after Switzerland it seemed an entirely natural progression to study at the Cordon Bleu Cookery School in London's West End. The pretty débutante was one of sixteen students to enrol at the select school in Marylebone Lane that year, and one of just eight to graduate the following year. The school's aims were clear-cut: it set out to teach its students how to cook first-class French food. With the English economy expanding rapidly in the late 1950s, Anne soon found herself recruited by the Glyn Mills Bank, situated in the heart of the City of London, where she was in turn issued with an equally unambiguous remit: to prepare and present stylish meals for the bank's directors, either when lunching alone or keen to impress guests during more formal corporate entertaining. Responsible for the running of the bank's large and fully equipped kitchen, and with one butler and two washers-up to assist her, Anne was in her element. Barely twenty, she was apparently able to organize and cope with anything. Asked by one of the directors to prepare dinner for sixty guests, she was not intimidated in the slightest. Having decided to serve lobster Newburg as the main course that evening, with its traditional wine and tomato sauce, she calmly ordered thirty lobsters and dealt with them herself when they arrived with their claws bound tightly in several large wooden crates which were stacked next to the kitchen's sparkling white-tiled walls.
It was in October 1959, while working in the City, that Anne received an unexpected invitation to a dinner-dance at Wentworth Golf Club, in Surrey. Her cousin, Mike Dawson, a golfer who enjoyed a considerable reputation as a Scottish international, asked her if she might like to attend. Since he was engaged to be married, Anne knew very well that she had not been invited to accompany him that evening. What she did not know, however, was that her cousin happened to be a close friend of another golfing enthusiast, a highly eligible twenty-eight-year-old bachelor by the name of Henry Nicholas Ryman – Nick to all his friends.
'I had imagined that there would be lots of people, that it was going to be a big party,' she recalls. 'But when we got there there was my cousin and his fiancée, together with another couple who were also engaged. The only one without a partner was Nick – and I soon realized that I was the partner for Nick. It was a blind date. I had no idea. It was all set up. I soon got over the shock of seeing us as a sixsome. Of course I had heard of the Ryman chain of shops. Nick and I chatted away and we got on very well. I was very naïve in those days though – much more interested in my horses than anything else.'
There were certainly no signs of any such reticence on the part of Nick Ryman. Quite the contrary. Here was a man who knew his mind.
'When I saw Anne for the first time she nearly knocked me out. I thought to myself, what an absolutely beautiful girl. She was tall, blonde and blue-eyed – and with a sparkling personality to match. For me it was undoubtedly love at first sight.'
Unlike Anne, who continued to live with her parents in Gerrards Cross, obliging her to commute to the City, Nick had had his own flat for some six years in Dean's Mews, a stone's throw from Oxford Circus, in the heart of the West End. From there he had led the life of a wealthy young man about town, always nicely turned out in a smart suit and impeccable white shirt, and with not much more on his mind than business and golf. Like the woman he was happy to have been seated next to at the dinner-dance, he had enjoyed a rather privileged upbringing. For his twenty-first birthday present in 1952 his parents had bought him a two-seater Jaguar XK 120 in which, with hood down, wire wheels spinning and twin exhaust roaring, he would regularly roar through the Hertfordshire countryside en route to work with his elder brother Desmond, both young City gents tenaciously hanging on to their bowlers, determined not to lose them in the wind. All in all it was not a bad life. And yet Nick had come to tire of it. Even golf appeared momentarily to have lost its allure. With his thirtieth birthday beckoning, he had for some time taken the view that the moment had come to think of settling down. Having returned Anne to her parents' home after their evening together, he harboured not the slightest doubt that she was the person he wanted to settle with. Three weeks later they were engaged.
Excerpted from A Vineyard in the Dordogne by Jeremy Josephs. Copyright © 2002 Jeremy Josephs. Excerpted by permission of John Blake Publishing Ltd.
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Table of Contents
CHAPTER ONE THINKING PINK,
CHAPTER TWO PUTTING PAPER-CLIPS FIRST,
CHAPTER THREE RED WINE IN HIS VEINS,
CHAPTER FOUR AN ENGLISHMAN'S HOME,
CHAPTER FIVE GOD SAVE JAUBERTIE!,
CHAPTER SIX MADAME BROUETTE,
CHAPTER SEVEN BONDHOLDERS IN THE BATH,
CHAPTER EIGHT MONSIEUR LE MAIRE,
CHAPTER NINE FATHER AND SON,
CHAPTER TEN IN SEARCH OF THAT SWEET TASTE,
CHAPTER ELEVEN HEALTH AND WEALTH,
CHAPTER TWELVE 'SEE THE MAN WHO HAS FAITH',