Week - 88 - Buying in France - Sort of.


The joy of the vide grenier is the serendipity of who and what you may encounter. As the locals display their wares along the street you never know whether you will find outgrown children's clothes, works of art, outmoded gardening tools or fresh fruit and vegetable. At Brion-sur-Ource at the weekend I met a man who sold it all. His open-backed estate car poured forth an astonishing display of delights. In the generosity and variety of what he offered he reminded me of thequack doctors selling moonshine or hair tonic in the American West of legend. But he did not look like those quick and smooth-talking salesmen in their top hats and striped trousers. He was of medium stature with short grey hair - cut at number 3, I guess - and clear grey eyes which sparkled and twinkled with amusement and intelligence. Below his bench he had cartons of myrtilles and potatoes, in the midst of which were a couple of discreet small plastic bottles. After a short chat and the purchase of some surprising violet-coloured potatoes he waved the bottle under my nose,'What is this?' he asked. I rocked back - whatever it was it was hugely alcoholic. Many wild guesses later he revealed that it was his home-made cherry spirit, Kirsch. We chatted away and I went on to buy a nearly empty gas cylinder and a broken double gas burner -  why I do not know. I had my reasons at the time. He then asked, sotto voce, if I was interested in buying his probably lethal Kirsch. 'Yes!' I replied eagerly, as much for the cultural experience as for the opportunity of going prematurely blind. I was convinced that my 12 euros were going to make me the proud owner of a recycled half litre Evian water bottle three-quarters full. But no - from the car he pulled a roll of old newspaper and swiftly bundled the contents into my scruffy plastic bag. Pressing a warning finger to his lips,  'Tell no one!' He adjured - if the authorities found out about his still he could face the full weight of the law and he was keen to avoid such eventuality. I gave him my word that not a soul - not even my mother - would know the source of the mysterious home brewed nectar. When I looked carefully at the bottle hours later having got it safely home, I found that the newspaper wrapping was from 2002 and the bottle itself was wax sealed in 1992. I feel certain it will absolutely delicious, but I hardly dare break the seal, it feels very precious.

Next my eye fell on a small wooden crate. It was crammed with little bottles full of sands of different colours and textures. There were some simple small jars of the sort you might keep spices or herbs in, and then there were larger bottles which were once supermarket fruit juice bottles. Each container had a handwritten label with the name of a beach, island or country. Some were domestic and some were exotic. Around twenty holidays were hereby recorded, a synopsis of his life over the last quarter century. What had started as a methodical hobby with special bottles and carefully written labels had descended into hasty scooping of sand into a fruit juice bottle and a cursory scribble. I asked him why he was selling them; his reply was that he just did not have room for them. I did not press him but my guess was that, feeling he felt guilty and self-reproachful about his lazy later plastic bottles he had hidden the whole lot away and now was purging himself of the entire shooting match. I bought them, thinking I would brutally jettison the contents and use the nice jars for their original purpose. But now I own them, I feel oddly protective of this neglected obsession - it tells such a fascinating story.    

Having spent an hour or so immersing myself in the itinerant life of this small-town Renaissance man I walked back to the car with my treasures and spotted a charming naïf painting of a fallow deer leaping over a hedge. It cost considerably more than the 12 euros which still clung on in my pocket so the trader kindly agreed to hold it with a deposit so I could collect later from his house, having replenished my coffers. We drove up to his mill which was beyond ramshackle and for sale. His mother greeted us warmly - too warmly it turned out. She never took a breath for the next hour, the entire length of our stay. Half fascinated, half overwhelmed, we heard about her husband - dearly departed; her daughter - sadly overweight, unlike herself, who had managed to keep her figure. We heard about her childhood as the daughter of a high-ranking officer, and her youth pampered and cared for by a troop of staff. We heard about her adult life in Brussels where she had kept two shops - both very successful. We heard about her genius devoted son whose talent for design was sans pareil and how he had made her a room that was fit for a princess. Accompanied by this stream of autobiography we toured the house which was very much a work in progress but full of touches of real imagination and originality. Each finished room was fashioned out of recycled pieces and cunningly re-employed broken things. It turns out this represents the philosophy of the dealer. He finds the greatest beauty in pieces that are shadows or ghosts of themselves in their pomp. He managed to endow these elements used out of context with a certain magic, akin to the Dadaist perception that a work art could be defined as such by the artists choice to call it so. In the end it was a wrench to leave this place so full of metaphysical objects and the mother who was a Happening in her own right.  

On the way home we stopped at a little market to buy some cheese and saw a little van doing tastings of Crémant (the Burgundian variant on Champagne). The crowd round M. Noirot was jovial as the day was in full swing and many a 'taste' had been imbibed by one and all. We elbowed our way to the counter and the maestro swung into action. Tasting his 'a manuel' and his 'a machine' rosé traditionelle, and blanc de blancs. We were already in a festive mood and the smooth talk and smoother Crémant inspired us to believe that we had never tasted anything better. A purchase was made and 12 bottles added to our motley assortment in the car. Finally, shopping completed, we were tempted away from a kitchen lunch to the local cafe-restaurant of Marie-Lou. For 37 years she has been serving a 'menu'. Her husband has passed on and a local helps her do the lunchtime shift, but she still cooks and serves. Bent over with work and age she beetles around the tables at high speed providing us with smooth, duck liver pâté enrobed in yellow fat and a basket of discs of delicious fresh baguette. Then comes a perfect steak-frites, a grill-lined surface with succulent pink meat within, and a lovely trail of blood to help usher the chips down our throats. A carafe ofchilled rosé de Provence is completed with the last mouthful of île flottante and the day is about done. Until tomorrow that is.