Vintage memories & recipes from the Loire: PRE-WAR LIFE IN THE VINES
It is hard to imagine a time when wine, now so big a part of the economy of the Loire, was less important than linen. In the Muscadet, where real poverty was experienced by smallholders until well after the last war, it was flax, not vines that kept families afloat.
This was, and a large extent still is, an area of mixed farming. It is one of the pleasures of travelling in the Loire. One may round a corner in the high plâteau of the Anjou to find a brightly-coloured strip of flowers being harvested for market. One passes through vineyards, then maize, asparagus, or arable land. Here fermes-auberges (farms serving meals and sometimes providing simple accommodation) which are often booked by wine-growers for their end of harvest celebrations, are still serving excellent local food in basic but friendly surroundings.
About 20 years ago I met the rumbustious, splendidly moustachioed Jean-Yves Secher. Listening to him discussing the harvest dishes of his childhood with his wife and mother was like being buffeted by a strong but warm wind. There were fierce arguments about details - amicably resolved - and strongly held views about social change, and much laughter too.
This family, who were making Muscadet de Sèvre et Maine Clos des Bourguignons (so-called because it was one of the original vineyards planted with Melon de Bourgogne vines in the eighteenth century), used to lodge and feed forty pickers, but since 1984 they have used a picking machine. For Jean-Yves it was the laws raising the basic agricultural wage, introduced in 1968, which proved a turning point. Until then little had changed in this rural community.
The picture of the past that emerged was of a hard life, with few luxuries or entertainments. Here vines and flax, liking the same kind of soil, were both cultivated. Most vignerons kept a pig, one or two cows and some hens. There were few shops, just the grocer for essentials: little was eaten that was not grown or raised on the farm.
Mme Secher senior remembered harvest food before the war: café-au-lait, bread and butter first thing, then a mid-day meal, which was carried up to the vines in baskets on the back and consisted of a dish of beans, or a salad, a home-reared chicken,duck or rabbit and possibly a piece of Camembert, although cheese was generally considered to be a luxury at that time.
In the evening there would be a bowl of soup - probably soupe aux choux (cabbage soup), or soupe au pain (bread soup, see below) followed by fruit, pêches des vignes, the little peaches from the trees often planted in the vineyards, or apples or pears from the orchard.
This is their recipe for la pannade, a bread soup also known locally as la mittonée:
Water, bread, butter, salt, sometimes milk, are the ingredients of this homely soup. The bread and water are gently simmered until the bread is broken down (‘until it is like glue,’ said one member of the Secher family), then a lump of butter, salt and a little milk is added. This is a thick concoction - Jean-Yves said ‘the spoon stands up in it,’ but that was hotly disputed by other members of the family. The kind of bread used came from the big loaves of country bread which could weigh three kilos (six pounds) - they were made with unrefined flour and had a lot more goodness and fibre in them than most modern French bread. The soup was also eaten in the mornings at breakfast by Mme Secher’s grandparents before they went into the vines.
Les trempinettes (although sweet, this was eaten as a first course - it seems closely related to the kind of possets and caudles popular in eighteenth-century Britain) as told by the Secher family:
‘You put sugar in a tureen and pour in some hot water. Then you add toast, cut up small, and then some wine, red or white as you please and stir gently. You put in as much sugar as is to your taste, and as many litres of wine as you like - and a glass of eau de vie if you like. If you like a lot of sugar then you need lots of wine! You eat it with a spoon, like a soup. It must be freshly made.’
Here in the Loire, the pig supplies the ingredients for many of the best dishes and it was usual to kill one before the harvest. Hams were cured; sausages made, some to be smoked in the chimney; bacon joints were salted in charniers (large earthenware salting pots), later to be soaked in fresh water, boiled with herbs for 1 & 1⁄2 hours and eaten cold in slices; rillons, richauds, rillauds and rillots are all alternative names for the same dish which is rather confusing, made from the unsalted belly of pork; rillettes (recipe posted previously) made similarly but without the extra chunks of pork; and boulettes, another economical dish, were made, sometimes with pork or with a mixture of pork and rabbit.