Oeno-File, the Wine & Gastronomy Column

by Frank Ward

More Writers on Wine : Tolstoy, Strindberg, Hemingway

August 2013. Hugh Johnson, our foremost wine writer (and, indeed, one of the English language’s finest stylists), suggests that wine may have originated in the Caucasus – southern Russia – some 6000 years B.C. Close to 8000 years later the world’s greatest novelist,

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Leo Tolstoy, describes harvest time in a Cossack community in the region of the Terek River, in that part of the Caucasus close to Chechnya. Picking had started as early as August in that year (probably in the 1840s), and Tolstoy describes how the entire village population swarms around the vineyards, which were intermingled with melon fields (just as, in recent times, the vineyards of the northern Rhône were interspersed with fruit orchards):

 

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“Heavy clusters of ripe purple grapes hung behind the large translucent leaves. Creaking ox-carts laden with big black bunches of grapes moved slowly along the dusty road, strewn with grapes fallen and crushed by the wheels. Boys and girls in smocks stained with juice, grapes clutched in their hands and mouths crammed, tagged behind their mothers. Everywhere along the road one met Nogay labourers in tattered clothes carrying baskets of grapes on their splendid shoulders. Cossack girls, their kerchiefs pulled down to their eyes, drove bullocks harnessed to carts laden high with the fruit. Soldiers who passed on the road would ask for grapes, and the girls, clambering on to the carts without stopping them, would toss armfuls to the soldiers, who held out the skirts of their coats to receive them.


“Already, in some of the yards the wine-pressing had begun, and the smell of the juice filled the air. Blood-red troughs stood under every penthouse, and Nogay workmen with their trousers rolled up and their legs stained with juice were busy in every yard. Grunting pigs gorged themselves with the empty skins and wallowed in them…

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“The fruits of the year’s labours were being gaily gathered in, and this year [Tolstoy doesn’t give the vintage] the harvest was unusually fine and plentiful…”

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In that hot vintage – which apparently gave some bunches weighing around one-and-a-third kilo – one of the Cossack families ate lunch in their own vineyard. The meal, as described by Tolstoy, consisted of fresh grapes, dried fish, clotted cream, and bread. To drink? A pitcher of chikhir (home-made wine) covered with a vine leaf and passed from hand to hand.

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Outsiders – such as the Russian soldiers billeted on the village – who thirsted for the local wine paid a few kopeks for a litre or two. They would be led to a dark, cool store room filled with barrels and the Cossack owner, Tolstoy writes, would murmur a customary prayer before plunging a dipper into the barrel and then filling a bottle with the cool liquid. Tolstoy doesn’t describe how the wine – presumably from the previous vintage – tasted but it must have been extremely potable, as both locals and visitors quaffed it in enormous quantities and with great relish. The traditional cure for a hangover was a large helping of caviar!

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These vivid passages are taken from Tolstoy’s early novel, “The Cossacks” (translator: Rosemary Edmonds), which he wrote between the year 1852, when he was only 24 years old, and 1862. Turgenev called the work “the finest and most perfect production of Russian literature” – and this was years before the appearance of his masterpieces “War & Peace” and “Anna Karenina”!

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August Strindberg is Sweden’s greatest playwright, mostly known for a series of historical and mystical plays chiefly set in his native Sweden. “The Father”, “Spook Sonata”, and “Miss Julie” are among his most famous works for the theatre, and he also wrote a fascinating fictional study of life in the Stockholm archipelago, “The People of Hamsö”. Less well known is the fact that he wrote a 244-page work entitled “Among French Peasants”, included in the Complete Works of Strindberg published posthumously in 1919. The first part is a monograph on the lives of the inhabitants Grez Sur Loing, not far from the Forest of Fontainbleau. (Lovers of music will be fascinated to learn that this was the very place in which the great composer Frederick Delius spent the second half of his life, 1897-1934).

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In Strindberg’s home country, alcoholism was endemic and the whole business of alcohol consumption was a vexed question, to put it mildly. On visiting France he was struck by that country’s totally different attitude concerning such matters. He was astonished to find that, despite the widespread consumption of wine, alcoholic excesses were exceedingly rare in France, save in such regions as Normandy where no wine was produced and where locals generally drank spirits (as was the case in Sweden). Yet restaurants, inns, and cafes played a role of the utmost social and political significance. Had he read Jefferson’s pronouncement (see below), made after he had spent some years in France in the 18th century, he would have surely expressed his wholehearted agreement. “No nation is drunken where wine is cheap,” the American president declared, adding that “none was sober” when high prices on wine encouraged people to drink spirits instead.

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After his sojourn in Grez, Strindberg travelled to several French wine regions. He describes a visit to the cellars of the champagne house of Pommery in Reims as follows: “we light our wax torches and descend into the rock, whose grey-white walls reflect feeble beams of light which fade away in the struggle with the gloom…” With his vivid imagination, and ultra- sensitivity not unlike that of his contemporary Edvard Munch, he produced a striking image of the unimaginable energy imprisoned within the million of bottles lying within the deep cellars of Champagne. “As sober as when we arrived, we leave this dynamite-loaded mountain, which would probably blow to smithereens if all the joy of living preserved there under cork and wire were to break loose at once.”

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A train journey through Burgundy also made a great impression. “Châteaux, villas, and villages pass by. Fine sounding names, memories of glorious wines, stand inscribed at the railway stations: Volnay, Pommard, Nuits, Clos Vougeot; but for me the dearest of all is Beaune. When I see these slopes on the Jurassic formations of the Côte d’Or I visualise the groaning Christmas table, family dinners, coming-out balls…with a guard of honour of black bottles decorated with black diagonal bands. And on these bands is inscribed the single word ‘Beaune’…just as on Goethe’s tombstone is written “Goethe” and nothing more.”

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Strindberg’s thoughts on the sheer normality of good eating and drinking in France are echoed some decades later by American Ernest Hemingway, who spent quite a few of his early years as a writer living in Paris. In “A Moveable Feast” he writes: “In Europe then we thought of wine as healthy and normal as food and as a great giver of happiness and well-being and delight. Drinking wine was not a snobbism nor sophistication nor a cult; it as as natural as eating and to me as necessary…”

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And who has described the simple pleasure of enjoying oysters with wine with such relish as he did in that same work: “As I ate the oysters with their strong taste of the sea and their faint metallic taste that the cold white wine washed away, leaving only the sea taste and the succulent texture, and as I drank their cold liquid from each shell and washed it down with the crisp taste of the wine, I lost the empty feeling and began to be happy and make plans.”


He returns to oysters later in the same book, when he is being entertained to lunch by the evasive, self-serving Ernest Walsh, a poet who was “dark, intense, faultlessly Irish, poetic and clearly marked for death in a motion picture.” On this occasion, in the best and most expensive restaurant in the Boulevard St Michel quarter, Hemingway noted satirically that “he did not bother to look marked for death with me and this was a relief.” What is equally clear is that Hemingway did not bother to disguise his deep attachment to oysters, gleefully accepting his host’s offer of a second dozen, which he enjoyed with a bottle of Pouilly-Fuissé. “I began my second dozen of the flat oysters, picking them from their bed of crushed ice on the silver plate, watching their unbelievably delicate brown edges react and cringe as I squeezed lemon juice on them and separated the holding muscle from the shell and lifted them to chew them carefully.”

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Surely only someone with a heart of stone could read these excerpts without wanting to rush out and order oysters with dry white wine!

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On the subject of oysters, I’d like to pass on a tip given to me by Charles Rousseau, the near-legendary wine producer of Chambertin fame. When the subject of oysters came up on one occasion, he asked me: “have you ever tried oysters with Beaujolais Villages Nouveau?” I goggled at him, thinking the pairing a bizarre one. “It really works,” he assured me, “but it must be Beaujolais Villages Nouveau, not ordinary Nouveau.” I vowed to follow his suggestion as soon as possible. An opportunity arose a few weeks later, in some tiny community to the north of the Médoc. By pure good luck, the simple little restaurant where we stopped for lunch not only had excellent oysters but also listed a Beaujolais Villages Nouveau. There could be no doubt about what to order! The wine’s vivid fruit, and its juicy flavour braced with youthful tannins, made a perfect partner to the luscious, mineral-tasting oysters.

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No sincere oyster lover should fail to try this inspired combination.

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© Frank Ward 2013

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One Response to “More Writers on Wine : Tolstoy, Strindberg, Hemingway”

  1. […] August 2013. Hugh Johnson, our foremost wine writer (and, indeed, one of the English language’s fi… […]

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