It’s a stunning day as October days so often are on the Mediterranean. There’s a clarity to the light on fine autumn days that you don’t get with the heat haze of summer. The sky is a slightly paler version of Matisse blue, the leaves on the trees stand out almost as if they are painted on layers of glass, stuck together to make one of those glass paintings I remember seeing in my grandmother’s house as a child.
I spend my life in jeans, so I don a floaty number, throw a pink scarf around my neck, shut the dogs in the house and drive up to the village. I want to get there early, as it’s always hard to find somewhere to park the car on Fête days. I’m later than I planned and join a steady stream of cars climbing the Route de Gorbio to the village. The car park is full, people are parking anywhere. I cheat. My friend Sheila is away – I know that because I’m caring for her dog, Taco – so I drive up her hidden lane, park my car on the empty patch of land opposite her house and walk down the steep cobbled street toward the main square.
Band at the entrance to the old villageA man is selling beds - four or five large mattresses are laid out on frames on the side of the road. I wonder who on earth buys a mattress at a village fete - someone must because he’s always here. I see the veggie lady from Sospel, a beautiful village 20 kilometres above Menton. Her table displays mounds of Cœur de Bœuf tomatoes, a pile of perfectly round pumpkins and a single enormous courgette. On the ground are cages - one is jammed with live chickens, another has half a dozen quail and a few capons. Yet another has guinea pigs and near the wall she has a cage filled with big fluffy white rabbits. I hope these are for sale as pets and not for dinner. We chat for a bit. I’d bought around 30 kilos of tomatoes from her during this past summer which I made into sauce - chopped up, cooked in olive oil with a little onion and lots of basil. Several dozen little pots now sit in my freezer ready to be poured over ricotta and spinach tortellini on dark winter nights.
The upper square is home to a Vide Grenier - literally ‘empty the attic.’ There must be sixty or seventy tables spread out under the plane trees, all covered with the leftovers of people’s lives. Indeed, one has some of the detritus of my life – it’s for a dog charity. I walk past rails of old clothes, tables filled with books, mis-matched wine glasses, antique jewellery, a wonky chair. I notice a beautiful hand-beaten copper bowl. I’m tempted but walk on. I’ve got too much ‘stuff’ as it is - one of those de-clutter experts you see on the television would have a field day in my house.
socca. Socca is a speciality of the south of France and particularly of Nice. It's a sort of large flat pancake made of chickpea flour and olive oil and is cooked in a pizza oven. You season it with black pepper and it's a very cheap and nutritious way of grabbing a quick bite.
I can’t wait to buy some of the produce but first I walk to the far end of the square, past the fountain, where, just in front of the archway leading up to the medieval village, stand the two alambics – beautiful copper stills. That’s what we are all here for – the Branda. Branda is the Provençal word for marc, the marc de Provence, which actually has two meanings: either the fermented grape pulp, seeds, and stems that remain after the grapes are pressed for their juice, or the actual potent distilled alcohol. The word comes from the Old French marchier, to trample. Many countries have their version of this, for instance in Italy it’s called Grappa.
François and his brother
The right to practice the ancient art of distilling the Branda passes through the same family and I watch François, who is the last bouilleur de cru of the village. He and his brother, who looks a bit like Popeye, pipe and all, work all day distilling the fiery liquid that is available to everyone. I tried this a few years ago and it’s pretty lethal stuff. I desist. I watch as they empty one of the stills and refill it with the fermented grape mush, layered with straw. The stills are heated by wood fires, vapour fills the air and wafts away above the Restaurant Beau Sejour into the hills. And from a small tap, drip by drip, the clear liquid, the Branda, falls into a blue plastic bucket.
The micro calls for the Mayor: ‘Michel, s’il te plaît. Come and meet our friends from TF1.’ TF1 is the main television channel in France and they are filming the making of the Branda. I see the Mayor, dressed in his usual jeans, amble across the Place greeting people as he goes. He’s a short, stocky man, with an attractive energy and twinkle in his eye. He’s an artist of repute and since he’s been Maire, the village now has many cultural activities. He sees me, grins, kisses me on each cheek and asks if I’ve seen the ‘banc.’ He refers to Milou’s bench and I’ll write about this in my next posting.
Someone calls my name and it’s Laurence, who owns Nina, a little Jack Russell cross I look after from time to time. She is sitting at a table outside the Bar Les Terrasses with another lady, who also had a dog, an old bichon she carries around in her knapsack. Laurence, beautiful, slim and elegant invites me to join them. I order a noisette (a small espresso with a little milk added) and share the bag of muffins. Laurence tells me her son is dating the other lady’s daughter. I ask if their children plan to marry. ‘Mais non, they are only 18,’ Laurence says. But it’s obvious they are hopeful. Mothers-in-law to be perhaps? I wonder if their children know.
I wander amongst the stalls and buy bread stuffed with figs, bread with apples and walnuts. I buy muffins, a pain d’epice, a goat cheese. Then I see the olive oil man standing in a corner under the silk tree. I normally buy half a dozen bottles but with my still fragile back, can’t carry them to the car. I buy two litres but don’t explain. I should have done so – he looks disappointed. No matter, I’ll call at his house when I need more. I meet his attractive wife – these two are such gentle people. She makes the confitures they sell. Last year I bought apricot jam and a marmelade but both were full of what appeared to be sheets of clear plastic until I realised it was gelatine that hadn’t dissolved. I wonder if I should mention it but don't.
I look at my watch. I must go, get back to the dogs. It takes me half an hour to get out of the village, the cars are still nose to tail trying to get in. I read a few days later in Nice-Matin that 'Les Gendarmes distribuent des prunes.' A prune, apart from being a plum is also argot (slang) for an amende or fine. The police handed out 30 parking fines to visitors. How mean! Everyone knows it’s impossible to park in a medieval hill village. I have no doubt our Maire will have something to say to the Menton gendarmes before next year.