On a Snowy Day, a Feast in a Cave near Chinon
January 1, 1970This meal took place in 1991. I'd been planning to write about much more recent meals but came across the notes on this one while looking for something else. I couldn't resist posting the story.
Charles Joguet, for those of you who don't know him, is a former winemaker, a painter, a sculptor, who lived, as he liked to say, on the left bank of the Seine, in the 13th arrondissement of Paris, and on the left bank of the Vienne, in the winemaking village of Sazilly, outside of Chinon. At the time of this meal Charles, 60-something, with an honorable pot belly, was regarded, and appreciated as being sui generis, one of a kind. Simultaneously the urban bohemian (bobo in today’s parlance) – with his well-groomed white hair (which he would surreptitiously pat with the frequency of a nervous tic), his neat beard, and a scarf tied bandana-like around his neck no matter the weather – and a man of the earth, a homeboy, a prodigious story teller, always ready to uncork a bottle, to bend an elbow at the bar, to while away afternoons and evenings in wine cellars. In other words, a true Rabelaisian, here in the land of Rabelais. One of Chinon’s best winemakers, with a cult-like following in Paris, London and the United States, he had also become -- and still is – one of my best friends.
“Does it ever snow in Chinon?” I’d once asked Charles.
“Boff. Just enough to knock the flies off the wall,” he’d answered. So it was as surprising to him, a Chinonais from birth, as it was to me when several days of snow were followed by a freak blizzard on an otherwise unexceptionable day in February.
Cars refused to start. Snow blocked the road between Chinon and Tours. It blanketed the vines on the slopes of the Clos des Olives as it did the low-lying vines on the banks of the river Vienne in Cravant. It covered the cobblestones on the rue Voltaire in Chinon’s medieval quarter, making that picturesque street with its ankle-murdering outcroppings of unevenly laid stones – the street has since been repaved – even more treacherous to navigate than usual. And, overlooking the town and the quais and the river, the chateau of Chinon, its color drained, seemed to merge with the blanched, soft, winter sky.
Local life came to a dead halt. Except that the menfolk met, as usual – perhaps more than usual, with the inconveniences caused by the snow as an excuse as well as a surefire topic of conversation and occasion for opinionating – in the Café de la Gare across from the train station, the Café de Panurge near the town hall, and the Café de la Paix on the quai, facing the statue of Rabelais. One small glass of sparkling Vouvray or light, red Chinon would follow another, and then one more, and everyone would try to recall when last it was that such a thing had come to pass, here, in the heart of Touraine, where the weather is invariably and famously mild.
My day would not be much changed, however. Charles had arranged for me to sample the Ur-tete de veau. But for the fact that he he had to come fetch me as my car was among the many that would not start, our meal would take place pretty much as planned.
Tete de veau is firmly ensconced in the Hall of Fame of France’s most beloved dishes but it’s not for the faint of heart. An entire calf’s head is simmered in seasoned water, then cut up and served with a tangy vinaigrette or sauceGribiche. And this particular tete de veau – which Charles had described as a “pure masterpiece” – was one of the specialties of Gaston Beduit, a drinking buddy of Joguet’s.
A very gentle man in his late 60s, Beduit was simultaneously self-effacing and confident. He seemed to work more since his retirement than he did when he was a full-time boucher-charcutier. His friends see to it that he is permanently employed. When they throw big fetes for important birthdays, say, Gaston is the one who roasts entire lambs or goats on spits. And, on an irregularly regular basis, he prepares meals – for card games, for the end of the hunting season, or when someone’s landed a particularly large fish or has gotten hold of a wild salmon – in his cave outside Chinon, on the road to Marcay, where there is a Relais& Chateaux in a 15th century castle.
Everyone in Touraine has a cave. I now have a cave. Caves, troglodyte caves, are an integral part of the landscape of that part of the Loire Valley that stretches from Vouvray in the east to Gennes, north of Saumur, in the west. The soils here are tuffeau, a soft limestone. When the stone was quarried to build the region’s castles, churches, bridges, and homes, caves of all sizes and shapes were left behind. Originally used as dwellings, and, during the revolution, as churches and escape routes, they are now, for the most part, used to cultivate mushrooms or store wine. They are also used for entertaining, particularly if they have a fireplace or a bread oven.
Gaston Beduit’s cave was like a million others in the region. Enter a dirt courtyard and a door, seemingly built into the cliff-face, leads into a small front room with a huge hearth at the base of which lie a clutter of pots, pans and casseroles. A large wood table, surrounded by stools made of tree trunks, takes up most of the room. A small broken fridge stands against one wall, next to it, a sink, a tiny work table and two electric burners. The stone walls are covered with 50s era cheesecake girlie calendar photos. And behind a curtain is Gaston’s larger cave, where he stores his wine.
When Charles and I arrived at noon the table was set and the sole window was steamed up from the heat generated by the fire in the hearth where the tete de veau was simmering in a big cast iron pot. Gaston shuttled back and forth, between work table and fire, and then disappeared into his wine cave, emerging with a white from Turquant, a troglodyte-rich wine village near Saumur. It was sharp and metallic and cold as the snow. As we drank, the others becan to arrive, a stone mason, an electrician and a garage owner who had origianlly declined the invitation to lunch because he had a Renault meeting in Tours. The meeting cancelled because of the snow, he showed up for lunch.
Then there was Guy Piella and his brother, Francois. Piella, a 30-ish orb of a man, drove a truck when he was not distilling. One of the few remaining bouilleurs de cru, he would travel from village to village, distilling into strong, clear eau de vie and marc the mashed and fermented ‘wine’ that local residents had made from the last season’s plums and pears or the left-overs of the winemaking process.
Charles once observed, “Guy is like a mole. You don’t see him but he’s everywhere.” He knows who was having an affair with whom, who was secretly a homosexual, who was bankrupt,not to mention more practical things like where to buy the best andouillettes and saucisson a l’ail (a charcuterie in Sache) and boudin (an artisan in Loudun) and where to scavenge for coulemelles, the king of wild mushrooms. Piella has since died in a car accident but on that day he was in typically awesome form, having arrived with a half dozen bottles of different eaux de vie as well as game he had bagged – a hare, seven woodcocks and as many pigeons as we could eat after the tete de veau.
As the men stamped the snow off their shoes and stood with their banks to the fire, rubbing their hands, Gaston placed on the table enormous platters of tete de veau, the chunks of meat nicely interspersed with cooked carrots and fresh parsley. We dug into the succulent meat, the chewy cartilege, the marrowy brains and dipped the pieces into Gaston’s pungent sauce which practically stung the palate with flavors of capers, vinegar and shallots.
Meanwhile, Gaston had skewered the hare and the birds on a large cast iron spit. As it rotated Gaston basted them using a capucin, a long cast iron rod with a triangular cone at one end. He placed the cone in the embers until it was red hot, then loaded it with lard which melted on contact, anointing the hare and the birds as Gaston methodically drew the capucin across the spit.
They were beyond delicious. Nothing could have been more lipsmackingly good or more elemental. This was Food. Not Robuchon. Not Gagnaire. Not Ducasse. The world of toques and stars and silver plated globes seemed superfluous when faced with the simple act of sitting around a rough-hewn table in front of a fire on a snowy day and eating woodcock seasoned with pepper, garlic and herbs, its delicate brains the texture of sea urchin, and the fine meat of the pigeon and the strong visceral flavor of the hare that Gaston had stuffed with foie gras.
We were drinking Chinon that Charles had brought – seven consecutive vintages from his vineyard Le Chene Vert, a sunny, five acre slope facing the Chateau of Chinon. We started with an ’86 (plush and vigorous, tasting of black cherries and sweet spices) and ended with an ’80 (light, very dry, with fleeting aromas of sandalwood, dried fruit and flowers).
Charles had chosen those wines because Gaston loves Chene Vert. As a boy he’d apprenticed for its former owner and it was the first vineyard he ever knew.
“Did I ever tell you how I came to own Chene Vert?” Charles asked the assembled group. Astonishingly – for this was an oft-told tale – there was someone who hadn’t heard it.
Charles folded the pocket knife he always carries, dabbed his lips with his handkerchief, and said, “Vous permettez?”
Nods all around.
“Well then, one day my friend Bernard Vasseur from Chinon saw me in the Bar du Theatre where, by the way, I was drinking a ’76 from old man Taffoneau, a minor masterpiece, and he said, ‘Listen Charles, I’m going to show you something really special. Come with me.’
“It was sunset and he brought me to Chene Vert. Hoh!” Charles paused, shaking his head in memory of how he felt that day, at the moment when he first saw this hillside, with its southwest exposition, and realized that here he could produce truly great Chinon.
“Evidently the vines were very old,more or less well planted, and Bernard told me that he was obliged to sell it. The only potential buyer wanted to graze sheep on it. Well, to see it all at once, at sunset like that – the stone cave, the oak tree smack in the middle – an oak, mind you, that had been planted at the same time as the vineyards, by the monks of Bourgueil. It’s certainly one of the two or three vineyards first planted by the monks, 900 years ago.
And they planted an oak and an entire clos – one hectare on each side of a central path. To the right of the path, the soils are chalk mixed with silex; to the left, it’s pure tuffeau but with big stones.
“Very strange. I thought what a beautiful vineyard you could have here. In three weeks the sale was to take place. I told Bernard that I would like to buy it but I had no money. I went to the sale anyway, however. It was a vente a labougie (auction by candle), the kind of sale conducted to determine rights of succession for minors. Sometimes this kind of sale is necessary. I’d heard talk of it. I’d seen it at Druout and knew what it was about. You light a candle that burns quickly and the last bid in before the candle expires gets it.
“The sale was in a notary’s office – which is always a little dark, a little sad. I went and stood in the back of the room. The man who wanted to graze sheep was there too, up front. In the beginning they burned almost two candles in little bids of 50 francs, 100 francs, on a property whose offering price was 4000 francs. So during this time, the candles burned and I watched the flame of the last one going down and, Cluck! Shlock!” Charles clicked his tongue, sliced the air with his hand, “Poff! Sold! That’s it. I had it for 4800 francs.Less than 5000 francs, all expenses included for the 2 hectares. I was as shocked as the guy with the sheep. Ok I had to replant it. And I’ve only just finished paying of those expenses. But I’ve very happy that I bought it because I truly love that vineyard.”
Story over, Charles took a swig of the ’80. Gaston was beaming and I could see tears in his eyes.
By this time there was a tray of local chevre on the table, night was falling and four thirsty railroad workers appeared, included Eusebe, whose arrival caused Charles to double over in laughter.
“You know what he does?” Charles said to me. “He’s supposed to blow a trumpet when a train approaches. But there’s maybe only one train a day on this particular route so he never has anything to do.”
Eusebe nodded, glass in hand. “All the same, “ he said, “I’ve rigged up the trumpet to a gadget so it blows on its own when a train’s coming. I don’t even have to be there.” Instead he goes in search of litres of red for his co-workers.
The electrician and the garage owner left and others arrived. Guy’s bottles of eau de vie were put on the table – Pear William, Ste Catherine plum, hawthorn, marc. Searing and strong they were, but any finer points were lost on my: my critical faculties were finished for the day.