Monday, April 17, 2006


Easter Monday in France is a national holiday.

Nominally a secular country, France still celebrates some public holidays which are based on days of religious significance. Way back when, when the vast majority of the French were practicing Catholics, the lundi de Pâques holiday was necessary so that people could recover from eating and digesting the tremendous meals served on Easter Sunday. According to church doctrine, Easter is the culmination of Lent, a 40-day season which, many years ago, included rigorous fasting. So after the privations of Lent – and the serious celebrations during Holy Week, especially on Good Friday – believers pulled out all the stops on Easter Sunday to break the fast. Monday was – and is - the day to recover.

France has many conventions linked to food: lamb is habitually on the menu at Easter, although beef has been gaining ground in recent times, since there are fewer practicing Catholics. Amerloque follows the French tradition and every year a gigot d'agneau graces the family table, served with flageolets (white beans), onions and potatoes. The lamb is preceded by crudités, while cheese and fresh fruit in season round out the meal. Not too much, not too heavy – just enough for a holiday Sunday, while not enough to require rest and digestion on the Monday following.

Wine is an important part of any French celebratory meal, of course. Amerloque is wondering, though, just how long it will be before moderately-expensive traditional French wine will become more difficult to obtain. "Whatever are you talking about ?" the attentive reader might ask. "France is justly renowned for its wines ! C'est une spécificité française !"

For several years now, the wine industry in France, which accounts for over 75,000 full time jobs, has been in crisis. There are basically two reasons for this.

The first and major reason is simply the fact that less wine is being consumed by French people. Dining habits are changing: in 1975 a meal in France lasted 1h38m, but nowadays (2005) a repas only takes 0h31m. The public authorities have cracked down on drunk driving: what was a acceptable alcohol intake several years ago is no longer allowed on the road: the police have been issuing tickets like there's no tomorrow. Wine has been replaced by other beverages, such as water and juices. To cut a long story short wine consumption in France dropped by 57% between 1961 and 2003.

The second explanation is that French wines at export have run into serious competition from wines of the "New World": South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and Chile, for example. These "innovative" wines have made serious inroads into markets that the French winemakers, who ensure approximately one-fifth of the world's production, once considered their own. The French vignerons and chateaux are hurting, badly.

Devised and refined over decades and decades, the French concept of the terroir is the basis for classifying and ranking wines. Terroir refers to the combination of natural factors associated with a particular vineyard: soil, underlying rock, altitude, terrain, orientation toward the sun, microclimate … there are many parameters. Each French vineyard is unique and the system is complex, with its numerous and somewhat arcane appellations. The consumer must be educated, which takes time, effort and money: it is not a trivial task.

Winemakers in the "New World" countries usually label their wines by the grapes used to make them -- such as Cabernet Sauvignon or Pinot Noir -- and often add a description of the wines' qualities. Terroir counts for nothing.

Manufacturing processes are quite different, too. French wines ("Great wines are made in the vineyard", the saying goes) are aged in expensive oaken barrels, while the simple addition of wood chips to enhance taste is fully permitted in New World wines. Needless to say, it costs far less to drop a few bags or bundles of oak chips into a stainless steel vat than it does to make wine carefully in the traditional barrel. As a matter of fact, with the former method, the taste can be programmed. Little education of the consumer is required.

Last autumn an accord was reached between the USA and the European Union. One part of the agreement was that the Bush administration would put a bill before Congress to restrict the use of European wine place names: for example, Burgundy, Claret, Haut-Sauterne, Hock, Madeira, Malaga, Marsala, Moselle, Port, Rhine, Sauterne, Sherry and Tokay. A second portion of the agreement dealt with wine-making techniques and certification issues. The European Union said it would accepts some U.S. wine-making practices, such as special filtration methods and adding wood chips during the aging process to produce an oak flavor, practices that are totally or partially banned in the EU. Once again, France was stabbed in the back by the European Union when it signed on for wood chips.

Several years ago, because they didn't consider the international competition a threat, the French winemakers' associations and the French government were loath to spend the money required to educate consumers outside of France about French wines. When they did allot a bit of cash, it was too little, and usually in the wrong places They finally awoke to the enormity of the challenge … far, far too late, alas.

The incidents concerning the First Job Contract (CPA) have monopolized the news in France for almost two months, but a couple of weeks ago, a report ordered by the Ministry of Agriculture and signed by one Bernard Pomel was revealed. The title is "Making A Successful Future For French Winemaking" (Réussir l'avenir de la viticulture française). The report speaks of "making wine for consumers" and "going against French taste", according to commentaries in Le Figaro.

The crux of the report ? The author states that wood chips must be added to wine, so as to "seduce foreign palates" (séduire les palais étrangers). He continues "We have to adapt to globalization. We must produce wines for consumers, and not the wines that winemakers dream of". (Il faut s'adapter à la mondialisation. Il faut faire le vin du consommateur et non pas le vin dont le producteur rêve.)

For the moment, there has been relatively little public discussion about this. Amerloque has seen several articles in the press in which some winemakers say "wood chips are a good idea" and others say "never, over my dead body", but there seems to be far too much silence. Amerloque hopes that consumers will wake up to this threat to tradition and quality. Certainly if someone like José Bové takes up the torch, there will inevitably be more discussion.

Wood chips in French wines ? Instead of fighting the competition from a recognized position of strength and pouring money into educating the consumer and selling France, those is charge at the Ministry of Agriculture prefer to play catch-up ball and go with the bottomfeeding flow. Why give up yet another characteristic that contributes to the French way of life ? The decisionmakers have decided to join those who are unraveling and destroying France, little by little, in order to "save" it. They don't even see that in fifteen or twenty years, the "New World" wines, in order to differentiate among themselves and gain a competitive advantage over one another, will be putting emphasis on their individual "terroir", on their climate, lands and vineyards. The wheel will have come full circle; it always does.

* * * * *

How will the consumers know that a wine was manufactured traditionally rather than artificially flavored with oak chips ?

French consumers out in Normandy around Eastertide every year need ask no questions about the quality of the beef on their tables. Here's a typical ad in a regional newspaper this week.

"On the occasion of the Easter holidays, your master butcher has selected a hybrid Maine-Anjou Charolaise heifer, (awarded the Grand Prix d'Honneur at agricultural fairs in Mortrée, in Mortagne-au-Perche, and in Mamers), from Monsieur Portmann, (breeder) in Neaufles-Avergny."

Sic transit gloria mundi.


Text © Copyright 2006 by L'Amerloque

Monday, April 03, 2006


Living in France, one is constantly confronted with history.

Not a day goes by without History - yes, with that capital H - coming up and smacking one in the face. Goethe reportedly said about Paris: "Every step upon a bridge or a square recalls a great past where a fragment of history is unrolled at every corner of every street." He was right, Amerloque feels. Whether strolling every day in Paris, or taking an exceptional promenade in the provinces, an American will observe that the Past is always Present.

The other day, after purchasing a box of brochures and papers, Amerloque was reminded of History's propinquity, in a rather striking manner.

One of Amerloque's favorite pastimes is la chine, that is, wending his way through street sales and weekend flea markets, sorting through the items offered for sale, and purchasing those which catch his interest – frequently for a couple of euros. Amerloque is not necessarily interested in the valuable, but more in the unusual, the rare, the collectible and the arcane.

As the tourist guides never fail to point out, there are two major flea markets in Paris. The most famous one, the "first" one, the "must see", is out at the Porte de Clignancourt, on the northern edge of the city. This is the enormous, "touristy" one, filled with everything - including kitchen sinks of various styles. Dedicated, fanatical collectors can probably find the object they've been dreaming of for ages: at a price, naturally, as stiff as the euro-based market will bear. Amerloque feels that this is undoubtedly the final season to visit this marché aux puces in its current incarnation. Two of the upscale Clignancourt markets were purchased outright several months ago by the His Grace the Duke of Westminster – and the Paris City Hall has announced plans to "rationalize" and "improve" Clignancourt. The inevitable changes are scheduled for late this year or early next year. Given this City Hall's abysmal track record on "improvements", one should expect anything and everything, usually tending toward the pedestrian, the insipid and the humorless.

The second flea market is at the Porte de Vanves, at the opposite edge of town. For many, many years it was the booksellers' corner, where one could purchase armloads of books for centimes. Amerloque used to have loads of fun there. When the slaughterhouses in the 15th arrondissement were razed some time ago, the booksellers moved to a refurbished open-sided building there (the old horse pavilion) that had been reserved for them. The venue is now called the Parc Georges-Brassens: the book market takes place on Saturdays and Sundays. Out at Vanves on weekends, the formerly calm booksellers' bailiwick is now filled with raucous dealers selling mainly furniture and decorative items. Last time Amerloque looked, he saw far too many "remanufactured" items, bitzas, and worthless bangles (la drouille) being sold at outrageous prices to a gullible public. Caveat emptor ! at Vanves.

By the way, the adventurous chineur could do worse than to visit the flea market in Montreuil, a suburb on the east side of the city. Among Paris cognoscenti, it's also called la cour des miracles in memory of another age. Jammed up against the Boulevard Péripherique at the Porte de Montreuil, it offers anything and everything, at all prices: there are supposedly over 1000 dealers every weekend. As a general rule, the deeper one goes into the market, the more interesting the items are. The market in the Place d'Aligre ? In Amerloque's view, it is understocked, overpriced and not very intriguing at all, unless one has never, ever, seen an outdoor used goods market in one's life.

Amerloque no longer frequents these flea markets on a regular basis. They have become, like so many things in modern life, simple and banal products to be consumed - sanitized and standardized so as not to offend. Over the past decade, however, there has been an explosion in the number of one-day - or weekend - flea markets, generally called vides-greniers, brocantes or foires à tout. Non-professional sellers can legally participate in two per year with no formalities. Many small and medium sized towns - and even neighborhoods of the larger cities - put on a yearly event, hoping to increase solidarity among the inhabitants while bringing in a bit of badly needed municipal revenue.

Along with millions of French men and women, Amerloque is a fan of these bric-a-brac markets, which rival American "swap meets" and British "car boot sales" for folklore, festivities and fun. With the advent of Spring, each weekend offers an excellent opportunity to locate that cup, saucer, napkin, or brooch that one has been searching for. Amerloque, for his part, particularly appreciates magazines, books and chinoiseries. Too, he collects anything to do with Americans in Paris.

Back in the 1950s and 1960s, far more Americans than today lived in and around Paris, for US troops were stationed here because, until 1966 or so, France was an active military participant in NATO. Several Western suburbs of Paris had more than their fair share of American families, and it is to these towns that Amerloque invariably treks when they stage their annual vide-greniers or brocantes. Sometimes the most surprising "American" items can magically appear in the dross on a rough wooden plank perched on sawhorses, of an early Saturday or Sunday morning: objects that have lain forgotten in garages or attics since the American families moved away in the 1960s and 1970s.

Two weeks ago, for the modest sum of two euros, Amerloque purchased a small box of pamphlets and papers that had clearly once belonged to an American family that had counted at least one traveler among its members. The items in the carton, all in excellent condition, included brochures and guides to France and Germany, as well as postcards, used museum tickets and photographs. Everything, including an official American travel document, dated from 1927. There were several scruffy visiting cards, two of them German, in one of the travel guides.

One of them had the words "aboard Rhine boat" pencilled on it. Another visiting card had "Berlin, Germany" written on it, in the same hand. It was clear to Amerloque – who in his lifetime has seen many such batches of documents - that these were papers relating to an American's sojourn to Paris in the fall of 1927 and his subsequent tour, to see the sights. Paris, Versailles, Verdun, the Rhine, perhaps Berlin - nothing special, Amerloque thought, simply more docs, some in excellent shape, to add to his own collection. Thousands upon thousands of Americans, with their strong dollars, had come to Europe that year, and Amerloque already has quite a few collectibles ...

However, Amerloque hesitated a bit before summarily filing away the visiting cards. Not too many German ones come his way: he doesn't collect them, nor is he interested in them, unless there is in some fashion an American connection. Amerloque thought about it a moment ... yes, there was an American connection here, and hence more information was needed.

Briefly, he tried to visualize the scene: two men in "tourist" attire, each representing his country (one on the victorious side in "The War To End All Wars", the other on the losing side) - on the deck of a Rhine cruise ship, politely and formally exchanging visiting cards in the Autumn of 1927. The front of the German's card says "M. Schnabrich - Reichstag Member", in German. The back contains writing; some of it is presumably in Schnabrich's hand ... Amerloque continued to visualize ... Was the Rhine boat within hailing distance of the Rock of the Lorelei ? What language did they communicate in ? Were they laughing and smiling, or were they slightly stiff and serious ? Were their spouses with them ? Did they ever see each other again, perhaps in Berlin ?

Amerloque began his search ... at the time he met the unnamed American traveler, this Herr Michael Schnabrich, born on August 6, 1880, was a member of the Reichstag, from Bad Hersfeld. Amerloque was able to find a picture of him on the internet.

After a long political career, he died on October 9th, 1939, at the age of 59 ... in the Sachsenhausen concentration camp, near Berlin, where he was sent by the Nazis at the outbreak of World War 2.

Could he - and the American with whom he exchanged visiting cards - ever have imagined such an end, in those halcyon days of 1927 ?

Michael Schnabrich, reaching down through the years, has strikingly and unexpectedly reminded Amerloque once again that History always has the last word. Always.

* * * * *

The French, by and large, feel that History is important. They feel that a people that doesn't know where it has been cannot know where it is going. Indeed, some observers - especially foreign ones - feel that the French people are "living in the past". They accuse the French of "conservatism" and being "reluctant to change". This might, or might not, be true: it depends on the circumstances.

The people currently in charge at the Paris City Hall, at any rate, apparently have no qualms when it comes to change.

Legions of Parisians and tourists have appreciated the beauty of the colonnes Morris since they first appeared 155 years ago, in 1850. Invented by one Gabriel Morris, a printer in the rue Amerlot in Paris, they are as much a part of Paris as the Eiffel Tower or Sacre Cœur. Each column usually contain several colorful posters advertising spectacles: theatre, concerts and the like. Americans might be interested to know that Gabriel was apparently a somewhat distant relative of the American historical figures Robert Morris and Gouverneur Morris.

The ayatollahs in the City Hall have decided to remove all the Morris Columns so as to "reduce advertising in the capital". The past ten days or so have seen the removal of 223 colonnes Morris. Between July and October of this year, the remaining 500 will be unbolted, unseated and thrown into the dustbin of history. Some of these columns might be replaced with "modern" ones, but these new ones, from what Amerloque has seen, are quite "blah" and do absolutely nothing for the charm of Paris.

Marguerite Duras, the French journalist, once wrote:

Paradoxically, the freedom of Paris is associated with a persistent belief that nothing ever changes. Paris, they say, is the city that changes least. After an absence of twenty or thirty years, one still recognizes it.

Duras died before the current Mayor took power. The Paris she knew and loved is dying, day by day and step by step. By the time they have finished their odious "improvement" schemes, the Mayor and his clique will have damaged Paris more than any administration since the Commune. They are turning Paris into just another city, removing its soul and replacing it with the shoddy, the mundane and the vacuous.

Paris belongs to the world, not to the doctrinaire incompetents at the Paris City Hall.


Text © Copyright 2006 by L'Amerloque