An Alpine Experience
In the centre of Aix-en-Provence, just off the main shopping street, is a quiet cobbled square. A few tables and chairs shelter under faded green umbrellas, and an old building horseshoes round them. Two circular basins, one mounted on top of the other, overflow with water, and next to this fountain, our good friend Peter Tate stood talking to an artist. They made an unusual couple, different in build but united by their similar age – I guessed the artist was in his sixties – and slightly unkempt look. Peter’s panama hat was crumpled from the road and he wore an old sun-bleached shirt, which lay open at the neck, revealing a nut-brown chest. His large-rimmed sunglasses had recently broken and so he held them to his eyes like a pair of oversized theatre glasses. The artist wore a beige suit, which hung in drapes from his slight frame. Like Peter, he was unshaven and had tufts of hair exploding from his ears and above his eyes.
They were examining a series of canvases that showed the square at different times of day. In one painting, the artist had depicted a crowd of café customers peering inwards, perhaps curious how the dilapidated building that enclosed the square could be so arresting. And in another, nothing but the sun crossed the courtyard and he’d concentrated on how the light dallied on the crumbling red brick and projected through the slats of the shutters.
My wife, Tanya, and I took a seat in the nearby café. We knew from experience how long the conversation could last. Ever the enthusiast, Peter was twirling his damaged sunglasses in the air, discussing the mixture of colours used – the burnished ochre, brittle green and lush azure blue – and so we ordered drinks and began to reminisce about our summer.
Tanya, Peter and I had been challenged by a vigneron to find France’s palest rose and our quest had begun nearly seven months ago. Things had started badly when the Parisian wine collector François Gilbert had declared that pink wine was ‘fit only to be drunk with a curry’. Undeterred, we’d visited hundreds of vignerons, discovered a rose laboratory, played in a boules tournament and nearly lost our lives in an encounter with a herd of Corsican cows. In the process, we’d discovered that rose was beginning to be taken seriously by the French wine establishment.
Vignerons were making better and better pink wines, and the market for them was growing rapidly. Competitions such as the annual Concours Mondial de Rose in Cannes were helping to raise winemaking standards and promote the image of pink wine, and old prejudices about drinking rose with food were gradually being broken down by the emergence of gastronomic roses such as Domaine Ott, which was nearly always present on the carte des vins at top restaurants. A decade ago sommeliers would have looked away with disdain if a customer ordered rose; now they were more likely to eulogise about pink wine.
It also helped that rose had become trendy. Once derided by chauvinists as a woman’s drink, it was now unashamedly sipped from straws at nightclubs by young Lotharios. It was drunk by both sexes with almost any meal in the sun, and the French even seemed to think it had mystical powers, maintaining that despite an alcohol percentage equivalent to other wines, you could drink as much rose as you liked and still drive. And after travelling for six months, somehow, almost inconceivably, we’d managed to win our bet and arrive at the mid-September harvest party with a paler rose than Château Etienne.
Then came the hardest part – going home. Instead of returning immediately to England, we’d lingered in the south for two further weeks, unwilling to admit our summer was at an end. On our journey we’d met a psychoanalyst who’d cryptically advised, ‘People on a quest only think they know what they are looking for.’ At the time I’d dismissed it as the type of psychobabble lapped up by patients on couches, but the more we’d travelled, the more I’d realised how trapped I felt by my life in London. Tanya had always wanted to live in France, but I’d dismissed it as a romantic but impractical notion. Now, at the end of our trip, as the leaves of the vines had turned golden red, I’d started to hope it might be possible.
But the mistral was no respecter of dreams. It gusted ever harder, sweeping the chill air from the Alps down the Rhône Valley and battering the windowless houses of the gardiens in the Camargue. Although we’d defiantly remained dressed in shorts and T-shirts, the locals had changed to their winter wardrobe – fleeces zipped up to the neck and, among the elderly, even the odd fur coat.
On the terraces of restaurants, the fans were wheeled away and replaced by heaters shaped like tall mushrooms with glowing orange underbellies. The roads gradually emptied and the rain began to fall. In the countryside, which had been a tinderbox all summer, the villagers were relieved to be able to light fires in their gardens to burn the drenched autumnal leaves. And it was this smell of wet smoke carried on cold early-morning air that finally broke our resolve. It reminded us of England, of fireworks and the encroaching darkness of winter. And so, with no reason to stay in the south and an ever-emptying bank balance, we finally had to head home. After, that is, one final, fateful day in Provence.
It was 2 October and we’d chosen to stay in Aix, the ancient capital of the region, birthplace of Cézanne and a city that had lured figures as diverse as Zola, Picasso and Churchill to share the shade of its leafy central street – the Cours Mirabeau. All we’d asked of Aix was one final echo of the summer, an opportunity to sit in a square in the sun and in Peter’s case to enjoy one last luxurious meal. We knew exactly what he wanted – foie gras with a fig confit, and a médaillon de veau aux morilles — because he’d been talking about it all day.
So far the city had obliged. For much of the morning low cloud had sped across the sky, but as we’d wandered amid the narrow streets of Aix, fingers of sunlight had begun to reach down the old walls, stretching towards the fountains and reclaiming the squares. For the first time in a week the sun had burnt off the remaining cloud, and now, as we sipped rosé in the cobbled courtyard, watching as Peter and the artist haggled, Tanya’s unwavering nose for the smells of the Mediterranean discerned the sticky scent of pines.
Eventually a deal was concluded and Peter returned with a small canvas for his wife. ‘It’s for Jenny,’ he said, as he showed us the brightly coloured picture, a mirror of the view we’d enjoyed as we sat down an hour ago.
Although it was late afternoon, it was still hot enough for us to seek the shade as we began to look for somewhere to eat. All around us restaurateurs were closing up, stacking chairs on top of each other and chaining them together. Iron shutters were drawn over the shopfronts, revealing florid graffiti — cartoon characters on skateboards leaping between the roofs of houses, and surfers cruising the universe as stars exploded around them. Peter kept stopping and peering into the dimly lit interiors of potential restaurants. In hope rather than expectation he tried the door of each new candidate. ‘Another that’s closed on Monday night,’ he said before leading us onwards.
Eventually Tanya accosted a café owner who was closing up for the day and asked for directions to the nearest open restaurant. The man simply shrugged. A cigarette hung from his mouth and the end was bent like a paperclip around his lower lip. ‘Quand il n’y a pas de pêche, il n’y a pas de pêcheurs.’ Extinguishing the stub of his Gaulois, he turned off the lights, locked the door and walked off down the street, trailing smoke from a newly lit cigarette.
And so, on our last night in the south, in one of the most cosmopolitan cities in France, with the sun still warming the cobbled streets, and the residents casting open their shutters for one final time before winter closed in, we sat down to eat in a fondue restaurant. We’d passed through several idyllic locations for a meal – pretty squares lit by lazy evening light – but it was a Monday, it was October, and all the tourists – or the ‘fish’, as the café owner had called them – had gone home. So, it seemed, had the restaurateurs of Aix, except that it is for the owner of the Matterhorn, who, thankfully for us, was Swiss and apparently unaware of the French habit of closing on Mondays.
From the outside the Matterhorn looked like a ski chalet. It had a cambered, sloping roof of the type ideal for preventing a heavy build-up of snow. There were rows of geraniums in window boxes and a small speaker which piped yodelling voices into the street. Inside, thick varnished beams ran the length of the ceiling, the walls and floors were constructed from planks, and the kitchen – located of course behind a wooden partition – poured steam into the room. With beads of perspiration running down our foreheads, we chose a long wooden table underneath a large clock.
‘We’re a burning brazier short of a sauna,’ said Peter, as he studied the menu.
But instead of finding red-hot coals in the corner, one of the walls had been hollowed out and made into an aviary. Behind a sheet of glass, there were about fifteen small finches, ranging in colour from brilliant yellow to sea blue. They had little flashes of red or orange under their wings, and tiny inquisitive beaks that pecked at the seed scattered across the floor. The back of the aviary consisted of a painted Alpine scene: cows with heavy bells dangling from their necks, cable cars heading up to glacier-capped mountains, and what appeared to be a real waterfall tumbling through the lower meadows.
‘Well, isn’t this wonderful,’ said Peter, wiping sweat from his forehead and pretending not to notice a yellow finch cannoning into the glass partition as he ordered rose from the lederhosenclad waiter.
A plate of dried and finely sliced mountain ham arrived, followed by a whole saucisson together with a serrated knife and chopping board. There were gherkins and small pickled onions and slabs of thick white bread, all washed down by a bottle of Dole Blanche mountain rose. The main course was a cheese fondue, an enormous pot of bubbling Gruyère served with hunks of bread, potatoes and mushrooms. Steam poured from the pot into our faces, and soon a maze of cheese trailed and looped across the table.
As we neared the bottom of the fondue, the waiter arrived with more bread, an egg and a shot of schnapps. He cracked the egg into the pot, gave a quick stir and then doused the contents with the schnapps. The cheese and egg combined into a deliciously rich omelette, which we scooped on to pieces of bread as we discussed our route home. Tanya wanted to make a detour and spend a night by the shores of Lake Annecy, enjoying the clear Alpine air before returning to London, and Peter had prepared a list of Burgundy producers to visit as we headed through the Côte d’Or, via Gevrey-Chambertin and Marsannay to Calais.
As the cheese fondue was cleared away I loosened my belt by one notch. I assumed it was time for bed, unless of course we could find anywhere open for a nightcap. I was wrong. A complicit smile spread across Peter’s face as the waiter arrived with another bottle of rose and swapped one bubbling pot for another. Trays of fruit arrived on the table – segmented oranges and apples and slices of banana and even melon.
I was given a fresh fondue fork and peered into the pot. Thick, viscous chocolate erupted in small bubbles. It was probably nearly 70 degrees inside the Matterhorn and our T-shirts were wet with sweat, but next to us in the aviary small finches swooped in front of a snowy landscape and perched on toy cable cars. The clock above our table struck ten and two small figurines emerged from the interior and performed a twirling dance.
Peter topped us all up with rose and then leant conspiratorially over the table. ‘I’ve got a little idea,’ he began.
These were ominous words. Tanya and I were both aware that Peter had been involved in some crazy business projects in his time, like shipping three-dimensional chessboards from Thailand. The boards had more levels than a wedding cake, and the pieces had a varying ability to leap horizontally and vertically between squares. At the time the nation was entranced with the Rubik’s Cube and Peter had backed this new form of Thai chess as the next craze to sweep the country. Unfortunately, a week after the import contract was agreed, a grand master demonstrated that it was impossible to achieve a three-dimensional checkmate. Over the following years hexagonal pool tables, rubber-duck bath radios and night-sight driving goggles joined the chessboards in the loft of his house.
Given this chequered track record as an entrepreneur, we should have known better than to listen to his latest idea, but in our defence, there can be few people in the world as persuasive and enthusiastic as Peter after a few bottles of rose, so Tanya and I huddled closer.
‘We’ve met some wonderful vignerons, tasted more French roses than any snooty sommelier, and rose is booming in France – people love it.’ Peter beamed at us both, relishing the suspense he was creating.
‘Well, we can return to London for good or …’ We were seated so close to the table that Peter was able to put his arms round both of us. Giving each of our shoulders a squeeze, he somehow seemed to fix us both in the eye at the same time. ‘ … we could come back next year and sell rose.’ He rocked back on his chair in glee, but seconds later as he swung towards the table he was suddenly earnest. ‘Think about it. We’ll give local people the chance to drink rose from all over France – clairet and Marsannay, Corsican gris and vin de sable, Bellet and Tavel. Wines they’ve never had a chance to taste before.’
‘How?’ I asked.
‘Well, there’s the genius of it,’ said Peter, still enjoying the suspense and making us wait as he swallowed a chocolate-covered slice of banana. ‘We’ll create our own rose bar. All we need is some outside space, five or six sets of tables and chairs, a blackboard with our wine list and some ice buckets.’
‘But we would need an alcohol licence,’ I resisted, ‘and since this is France, probably a hundred other licences as well.’
‘Not,’ continued Peter, as he triumphantly twirled a piece of apple on his fondue fork, ‘if we partner with a bar that already has a licence. Then we can learn the tricks of the trade and later, when the time’s right, we can establish our own bar.’
‘We’ll call it La Vie en Rosé,’ burst out a delighted Tanya, ‘the world’s first rosé bar.’
‘Marvellous,’ said Peter, banging the table excitedly.
For the next hour we fought the heat and our full stomachs, dipping fruit into the fondue, sipping rosé and plotting the future. Each time I placed a practical hurdle in our path it only seemed to encourage Tanya and Peter.
They visualised their perfect French bar – the glasses hanging from racks above the head of the barman, the raisin-faced old man with a baseball cap pulled low over his eyes sipping beer and watching his own reflection in the mirror. The trophies for boules and rugby arranged above the cigarette stall, and a small television mounted high on the wall showing the Tour de France. There would be a large set of double doors opening out on to a terrace with tables and chairs that bathed in the cool air underneath a row of plane trees. And as they described how each day we would chalk up a daily selection of our wines on a blackboard, I gradually became hooked. It should have been an unrealisable dream, but in the sweaty deliria of the fondue restaurant-cum-sauna, it was all too plausible.
The next morning, however, our heat-baked brains had recovered and reality had begun to intrude. How would we, three foreigners, two of whom spoke little or no French, persuade anyone to let us take over half of their bar? It was like Peter agreeing to share his foie gras with a fellow diner. The idea was ludicrous. But before I could properly voice my doubts, Peter was off: ‘Come on, what do we have to lose?’
The sun once again warmed the walls of the old town, and the streets were vibrant and busy. Aix seemed perfect for La Vie en Rose. The tiny alleys were boutique-lined and prosperous. Ateliers sold canvases swathed in colour, and tiny delis offered rows of tapenades and oils. In a nearby shop, a butcher slowly laid out silver trays of his specialities – pâté de canard, pâté aux olives, timbale de légumes, gratin de courgettes, gratin d’aubergines and tomato confit.
Mixed in with the window-shopping French, there were plenty of American and English voices. We knew there was a twice-weekly market to lure the tourists to the old town and an annual opera and dance festival. And all around we could see our trump card, the world’s biggest drinkers – students. They sat idly smoking on the steps of churches or stirring the dregs of an espresso. Aix had an estimated 40,000 of them. Surely rather than downing pints in the pub, French undergraduates could be persuaded to take a more aesthetic approach – to read Molière and sip rosé in the sunshine.
The logical place to start was the Cours Mirabeau. A row of cafés ran from the statue of good King René at the top of the tree-lined avenue down to the playful fountain at the end. Magnificent terraces spilled out on to the street, so that the tables and chairs appeared to mingle with the pedestrians and the stallholders. For an hour we slowly worked our way from bar to bar, trying to find an open-minded owner prepared to host us. But all we found were rebuttals: ‘The manager has left to go on holiday’; ‘Customers don’t drink wine from outside Provence’; and ‘We’d upset the local vignerons if we sold your wine.’ In the process we learnt a new French expression – ‘Allez’. Translated literally, it meant ‘Go away you’ve taken up enough of my time’ but somehow it was delivered politely, almost as a compliment. By lunchtime we’d tried ten bars without success. People had listened to us, considered our proposition and then explained why it would never work. Finally they’d asked us to ‘aller’ and so we had.
As we headed away from the Cours Mirabeau, the road opened on to a large square full of plane trees. Underneath these trees, a couple of traders had set up stalls. One table was loaded with mushrooms: trays of girolles, morilles and cèpes, all laid out in front of some cast-iron scales. The other was heaped with vegetables, French beans, courgettes and potatoes, still coated in dark, muddy earth. And in the corner of the square was a bar that late the previous evening we’d discussed approaching. It was set away from the main drag and almost hidden from pedestrians by the thick trunks and heavy foliage.
Long rows of chairs stretched from the bar towards the market traders. The chairs were arranged in twos in front of small circular tables, and a set of steps led up to the interior of the bar, handily splitting the outside terrace in half. It was dangerously easy to visualise spreading pink cloths across some of the tables and selling glistening glasses of rosé in the leaf-dappled sunshine.
As we entered and my eyes adjusted to the dark, I could make out a long, narrow room. Along one wall ran a bench scattered with cushions, and against the opposite wall was the bar itself. There was a coffee machine, four taps for beer, an extensive selection of spirits including several Scottish malt whiskies, an old ice-cream freezer that now held bottles of wine, and three or four stools in a row in front of the counter. On one of these stools sat an old Frenchman, not dissimilar from the raisin-faced individual we’d dreamt up last night. And just like our imaginary individual, this customer’s baseball cap was pulled so low over his face that each time he took a sip of beer he had to bend the peak of his cap away from the lip of the glass.
The barman was a tall man with a heavy belly and a lazy manner. He slowly dried some glasses and pretended not to notice when we asked to see the owner. Finally we managed to elicit a response. ‘Il n’est pas ici,’ he barked as if it was self-evident that the wet glasses in front of him merited more attention than us.
‘Quand il sera ici?’ Tanya persevered, explaining that we had an important business idea.
‘Lundi prochain.’ The barman shook the dirty wet cloth in our faces and turned on the radio.
But the word ‘business’ had awoken someone’s interest. From a raised dais in the far corner of the room, a man shouted over to the barman. It was too dark to see his face, but we could make out a tightly cropped head of silver-grey hair and a pair of sunken eyes. A lethally quick French conversation ensued. Peter and I didn’t have a chance of understanding it, and Tanya only managed to snatch the odd intelligible word from the air. But after a couple of minutes the man with the cropped grey hair raised his hand in the air and beckoned to us with two quick, jerky gestures.
Despite sitting down within a few feet of him, his features were still shrouded in shadow. I could make out a narrow face and eyes that twitched quickly between us. In front of him was a half-full bottle of white wine and a silver tray piled high with oysters and crushed ice. His napkin was tucked into his shirt, and as he introduced himself as Hervé, the owner of the bar, he continuously slurped oysters, squeezing great slices of lemon over each mouthful until the taste was so tart that it made him grimace.
It was time to explain our idea. We talked about the growing popularity of rosé, and how we thought we’d identified a gap in the market. Hervé said nothing. He filled the plentiful silences by slurping yet more oysters and staring at us with a look of bewilderment. Finally having established our credentials, or lack of them, Tanya asked whether he’d consider letting us convert half of his terrace into a rosé bar, hurriedly adding that we would of course share the profits. The proposition was almost embarrassing.
Hervé, it appeared, was having similar thoughts, either that or he’d put too much lemon on his last oyster. In any event, as the full details of our proposal spilled hurriedly from our mouths, he suffered an almighty coughing fit. His eyes began to bulge and water. In the gaps between coughs he took huge swigs of white wine, but his face still turned an ugly blotchy red.
We’d finally blown it. We’d spent the whole summer trying to charm people with our wide-eyed innocence, and despite asking complete strangers where they thought we could find France’s palest rosé, we’d so far escaped ridicule. But the concept of the English selling wine to the French was clearly too much. Hervé was not going to content himself with a gentle ‘Allez’ — we were about to be laughed out of the bar.
When he calmed down, Hervé was still too dumbstruck to speak, but he did pour us all a glass of white wine. Tanya nudged me and a smile spread across her face.
Finally he spoke: ‘It’s a crazy idea.’ The three of us nodded in agreement. I noticed that the barman was staring at us. He was drying the same glass over and over while his cigarette, resting in an ashtray right in front of him, smouldered unnoticed to a stub.
‘My uncle makes rosé,’ Hervé inexplicably continued, as I judged the distance to the exit. We would only have to endure ten seconds of laughter before we made it outside. ‘As long as you sell my uncle’s rosé, you can do it, but it will have to be next summer. You can start next May.’ Hervé smiled a slightly uneasy smile.
‘Next May is marvellous,’ said Peter, ‘absolutely marvellous.’
LA VIE EN ROSÉ. Copyright © 2007 by Jamie Ivey. Illustrations copyright © 2007 by Neil Ashworth. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin’s Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y 10010.