You could say that the engine rooms of the French wine harvest are the kitchens. These are usually at the heart of the old houses, often next to the vat-houses, which provide the pickers with dormitories and refectories. Here, holding together the teams working in the vines and the vat-house, creating the ambiance, are the cooks. Very few of them are professionals; usually they are the mothers, wives, girlfriends or sisters of the growers, helped by friends and employees who normally work in the vines. They are truly the unsung heroes of the harvest.
These resourceful people stick to a budget, using whatever is plentiful in their own garden, local shops and markets to make favourite old dishes much appreciated by pickers who return year after year to the same domaines. Most of them keep notes of menus, recipes, quantities and cost, from harvest to harvest, then hand them on to the next generation as it takes over. These dog-eared notebooks are filled with details of who was there and what the weather was like. There are photographs stuck in, mentions of birthdays – they will bake a cake for a celebrating picker - and little reminders, “use the big black casserole for this” or “use salsify if not enough mushrooms” which all bring past vintages richly to life.
The cook’s day starts at 6.am, and does not finish until late. No sooner have they roused the team from their beds, given them their café-au-lait, breads and, often, home made jams, than they are packing vans for the second breakfast taken in the fields. Then it is time to prepare a hearty three-course lunch. This is where the traditional repertoire of sustaining French regional dishes comes into its own. Slow cooked daubes, boeuf bourguignon, veal blanquettes, lamb navarins, rabbit in mustard sauce, grilled meat - all must be served promptly to pickers who have to be refueled and back in the vines for the afternoon.
Their work is frequently interrupted – perhaps an inexperienced picker gashing a finger with secateurs needs plasters. They are called on to minister to those suffering from sunstroke, or gastric problems, to sort out language difficulties for foreign students, not to mention acting as agony-aunts for the lovesick. Quite a few romances have started during picking.
They will have hardly sat down after clearing the kitchen, when the trucks bring muddied and exhausted pickers back for cold drinks and biscuits, and a wash before the dinner the cooks now start work on. And it is they who keep up the morale of the wine-makers busy in the vat-house, often encouraging the cellar workers with cakes as late-night snacks. When finally they fall into bed they are likely to be kept awake by the sounds of exuberant partying.
Despite all this, harvest cooks often declare that it is their favourite time of the year. I met several restaurateurs who regularly took their annual break to cook in harvest kitchens of local chateaux or estates.
After the harvest is over, while the growers and their permanent staff work in the cellars, most harvest cooks are back in their own domestic kitchens. Now they have to adapt to making meals for a small family after all that mass catering.