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Authors: Ruth Silvestre

A House in the Sunflowers

BOOK: A House in the Sunflowers
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‘Gentle, wry, sometimes sad, it has all the pleasures of an authentic love affair’
The Times


‘Both romantic and funny…the book lovingly portrays the peoplehistory, food and traditions of this beautiful French region’
Summer Break Magazine


‘Exubertantly detailed…the author’s great merit is that she makes us accept it on such enchanting terms’
The Observer


‘Fine attention to detail and a full sense of the Frenchness of life. Readers…should enjoy this book with its real taste of Aquitaine’
Oxford Times


An English family’s search for their dream house in France


Illustrated by Michael Grater

Summer is over. It is late October and once again we are packing up the house. We are making our preparations to return to London, to spend the winter in ‘the smoke’ and, as always, wondering why. We are reluctant to acknowledge that as the days shorten and the temperature drops, and life must be lived indoors, we will need those other stimuli which only the city can provide. Yet, looking up at the wide blue sweep of sky where a pair of finches trill ecstatically on the wire, we dread the change, wonder how long it will take us to adjust this time
and what it would be like simply to stay on.

We have spent the last twelve summers in our second home in this wonderfully unspoiled region of south west France where history seems to stalk the narrow village streets. I feel it when I am shopping in Monflanquin as I walk under the shadowed archway of the Black Prince’s house, or in the sudden view of the great castle of Bonaguil, built high on a rock in a lush, wooded valley by one Berenger de Roquefeuil, last impassioned defender of an already outdated feudal system; or, yet again, when I see the eloquent line of upstretched arms on the memorial in the village of La Capelle Biron from where, one Sunday in May 1944, all the men were deported.

This year it will be even harder to return to England for we have been here now for three months, our longest stay so far. Our neighbouring farmer friends, who over the years have become like family, have complained each year. ‘You always leave too early. Why don’t you stay for
? It’s the best harvest of them all.’

With them we have shared the gathering in of almost everything that grows in this region of
. We’ve helped with the hay, the straw, tobacco, potatoes, the massive plum crop and the maize. We have watched the sunflowers turn from golden splendour to a desiccated umber before they fall beneath the combine and leave the fields silver
with tough dry quills like a porcupine.

There are so many machines now. Many more than there were twelve years ago. Machines to cut and separate and spit out what is valuable into containers, leaving the residue for yet another machine to chop and chew and return to the soil. Raymond, our farmer, is proud of them. Some he owns, others he shares with a small group of neighbouring farms.

‘So – what’s so special about
la vendange
?’ we ask again. ‘Another new machine?’

‘No, no.’ He and his wife Claudette shrug and laugh, almost embarrassed. They cannot explain. And so we stayed to find the answer.

Last week, my arms covered in copper sulphate, I harvested grapes from early morning until I watched the last load tumble from the trailer into the screw of the giant mincer at the local
Cave Coopérative des Sept Monts
. The red sun slithered down behind the hill-top town of Monflanquin and darkness crept like a moth’s wing across the fields. Monflanquin, Montagnac, Monsegur, Monreal, Monsempron, Montayral, Monbaillou – the litany of names of
les Sept Monts
after which the
Cave Coopérative
is named; each a small ancient town, built on a gentle undulation rather than a steep hill, in this lovely corner of France between the rivers Lot and Garonne.

The vineyard, which had once been part of our property, is in a magnificent situation high on a south-facing
slope. On a clear day you can see the Chateau of Biron on the horizon. The air was sweet and clean and, walking down to join the others, secateurs in pocket and basket in hand on a calm October morning, the sun dispersing the last traces of mist, I wondered why I ever wanted to be anywhere else.

For the
we were a group of about twenty, most of whom I recognised; Raymond and Claudette, the patron and his wife, and Lucienne his
frail and bent in her Wellingtons and battered straw hat with its jaunty band of flowered cotton. There was small but stalwart Fernande from the next village with her wide, leathery face and wrinkled stockings and, dwarfing her completely, Mme Barrou who farms just outside our village and is famous for her conversation and her carrots. Huge, broad-shouldered and affectionate, she wrapped me in her strong arms and kissed me warmly.

Ça va? Et alors vous allez vendanger?

Ça va. Oui. C’est la première
. It’s the first time I’ve done this. You’ll have to show me how.’

She laughed her great laugh. ‘It’s easy,’ she roared. ‘You’re lucky today. Look at the weather. This is not
le midi, mon brave
. In the
sud ouest
it can be cold and wet and then it’s no fun I can tell you.’

Next to her was M. Flor who had been the Mayor of our village when we first bought the house. As he shook my hand I noticed with a sense of shock how he
had aged and realised that lately I could only have seen him from a distance giving me a wave as he passed on his tractor. And the tall young man at his side must be his son Guillaume. I remembered him as a
, a year younger than Matthew was when we first came here. I remembered him particularly because, like our younger son, he was asthmatic. He looked bronzed and fit now as he joked with a group of young men, most of whom had the local face, dark-eyed, broad and flat with a short nose and wide, upturned mouth.

My husband Mike and I watched for a few moments before joining the lines of the pickers, one on each side of the row of vines. We saw that each
worked slightly ahead of the person opposite, the reason becoming quickly apparent when we started. It was necessary to thrust one’s hands through the thick leaves while feeling for the stems, which were often so convoluted and strong that they were difficult to cut even with sharp secateurs. Once severed the bunches were unexpectedly heavy and pleasing to handle.

The dark-haired woman working opposite me smiled through the leaves. ‘I don’t think you know me,’ she said, ‘but my brother is the tiler. He did your kitchen floor about ten years ago. Do you remember him?’

‘Of course. And I remember too that he was so pleased to do the job because, he told me, he had a sister who was a wonderful cook living nearby and he would be able to eat with her at midday.’

She laughed. ‘You know where I live?’

‘Yes. The house in the dip. Just past the little bridge.’

‘That’s the one. Why don’t you call in one day when you come back from the market?’

Our baskets soon filled. The only machine in use was the oldest tractor, bought in 1947, which pulled the container into which the grapes were tipped. Those, like me, who were not strong enough to swing the heavy baskets up and over the edge had to shout ‘
Panier plein
!’ and wait for a pair of strong brown arms to stretch through the leaves, lift the basket and return it empty. Apart from the chugging of the old tractor and the fact that our baskets were plastic,
la vendange
it seemed was much as it had been in the old days.
– the nostalgic expression we hear so often here. Could this be why it was so special?

At an unhurried pace we moved steadily down the rows and the banter was continuous between the smiling mouths glimpsed through the leaves. There was much teasing and telling of bawdy jokes, many of them in Occitan or patois which made them unintelligible to me, but the laughter was infectious. Tall Mme Barrou seemed to be a constant butt and I did partly understand her description of a long ago moment of pleasure on the top of a hay cart. She laughed uproariously. ‘
Mon Dieu!
We were in such a hurry,’ she said wiping her eyes; and, needing no help, she swung her basket
up, jostling the men with her wide shoulders as she emptied it into the red container.

When it was full Raymond,
le patron
, would drive slowly up the hill to empty the load into the waiting trailer which had been scrubbed, hosed and lined with a tarpaulin kept especially for the grapes. That was our only moment of respite. Once each basket was full there was nothing to do but wait for his return. For these few moments of welcome idleness some, sighing, lowered themselves to the ground others stood and stretched, hand in the small of the back, while the young ones teased each other and chased the dogs. With a shout of ‘
’ Raymond trundled back, those in his path flattening themselves against the vines as he passed. We emptied the basket and began again.

Véronique, Raymond’s daughter, twenty-two and unmarried, had discarded her smart office clothes and the sophisticated boredom that went with them and, in rumpled shorts and T-shirt, giggled happily, eyeing Guillaume between the dense, blue-sprayed leaves. What romantic opportunities
la vendange
must always have provided. In the very proper act of gathering in this harvest, which of itself promised revelry and intoxication, what possibilities for eyes and hands to meet over baskets heavy with scented fruit. What chances for touching and kissing and what risks of being seen by other watchful eyes in the warm and
leafy privacy between the rows. I was beginning to understand the special memories which were a part of
la vendange

As the sun rose higher the vines were festooned with discarded clothes and the dogs lay panting in the shadiest places. By eleven-thirty Mme Barrou began to complain that she was hungry. A great shout went up. They had clearly been expecting this.

‘What’s to be done?’ shouted Raymond, as he inched the tractor forward. ‘You should eat more breakfast.’ When she had finished reciting what she had eaten that morning before joining us, that was clearly not the reason. She added darkly that a certain farmer she had heard of – she did not say precisely who – was in the habit of serving his workers a drink and cakes at eleven. There was more laughter. ‘He must be English,’ teased Raymond, ‘They’re always stopping to drink coffee.’

‘I don’t know anything about the English,’ retorted Mme Barrou. ‘All I know is that I’ve got a hole in my stomach like this.’ She demonstrated with her big, stained fists. ‘And I need a little something to put in it.’

One of the young men brought her a bunch of sweet white grapes from the far side of the vineyard and she seized them with joy, cramming them into her wide mouth. Holding them with the flat of her hand she screwed up her eyes with pleasure as the
juice ran off her chin and down her apron.

Claudette, laughing, announced that she was going back to the farm to prepare the meal. She had been cooking all the previous day, the traditional dishes for the
. Her mother who is in her seventies, and was looking very tired, went with her to help. Mme Barrou gazed with longing at the disappearing chef, sighed, and set to work again. Whether her hunger caused her to lose her concentration, or whether it was entirely Fernande’s fault, we did not know but, shouting ‘
Panier plein!
’ and heaving her basket over the vine Fernande lowered it with a thud onto Mme Barrou’s head. Even the ox-like Mme Barrou was momentarily stunned. Everyone left their work to commiserate with her, although they, and eventually she, had to laugh.

‘You should wear your crash helmet, like when you ride your Solex,’ shouted someone.

Not for Mme Barrou a trendy coloured mobylette. She persists with one of the very first forms of motorised bicycle, an old black Solex with a front wheel drive. She looked up in astonishment and indignation. ‘
’ she yelled, ‘
Je ne porte jamais de casquette, moi. Mon Solex, c’est un Solex de plein air
.’ Poor Fernande apologised for the third time. Mme Barrou chose a position as far away from her as possible and we began work again, but as soon as the church bell for midday sounded across the fields she put down her basket and announced that she at least was going back to eat. We
finished the last two rows to the sound of her Solex growing fainter as it carried her back to the farm.

When we drove into the courtyard there were enamel bowls of hot water and bars of crude yellow soap set out on chairs, on which Véronique was carefully arranging large linen towels as though performing some ancient ceremony. As we queued to wash our stained hands and arms wonderful smells drifted out from the long dining-room on the veranda.

The soup tureens were already on the table and beside each place was poured an aperitif of
vin de noix

Fabrication maison
,’ said Claudette and we toasted each other: ‘
À la vôtre
,’ with the traditional response ‘
À la tienne Etienne

It was like a party, but of relaxed revellers with sweaty faces and dirty clothes. The
vin de noix
was two years old. Claudette had marinated a hundred walnut leaves and three sliced nuts in a litre of
for two months. She had then discarded the leaves and nuts and diluted each wine glass of
with a litre of good red wine, sweetened with 150 grammes of sugar. It was delicious.

Mme Barrou drained hers in one gulp and reached for a slice of bread from the piles on the table. The soup was ladled out and the meal began. The young men were ravenous and the beautifully arranged plates of hors d’oeuvre which followed – hard boiled eggs
with dark golden yolks, crimson tomatoes from the field, huge sweet onions and sliced cucumbers – were quickly demolished as the first wine, the local
vin de table
, was poured.

BOOK: A House in the Sunflowers
13.55Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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