Monday, September 17, 2007

Return I

As the summer of 2007 drew to a close and the daylight began to shorten, the seriously inclement weather improved. Far fewer al fresco meals were taken in the Normandy gardens this year, though. Nevertheless, at the end of August, as every year, ripe apples were on the trees, ready for picking and sorting.

Years ago Amerloque planted young Normandy heirloom apple trees. He chose the traditional varieties by not only looking at their evocative names, but also according to their harvest periods, so that apples would be ripe and ready for picking throughout the autumn season, well into November. Only apples for eating and cooking (pommes à couteau) were planted – Amerloque is not particularly interested in making cider so there no trees bearing pommes à cidre at the farm. All of these traditional apples have genuine taste and consistency, and are far removed from the insipid fruits available all year long in the supermarkets. How can one not be attracted to apples christened with exotic names such as claque-pépin, court pendu gris, calville rouge coeur de bœuf, benedictin de Jumièges or pigeonnet de Jérusalem ?

Among the first apples harvested this season, at the beginning of September, were the belle fille, the revers, the rambour d'hiver and, of course, the benedictin de Jumièges. Gathering and sorting the apples took up quite a bit of time. The bad apples had to be weeded out and the good ones carefully dried and arranged in a clean wooden crate, so that they could keep for several months. Using these Normandy apples in Sunday lunches and dinners, as well in various prepared Thanksgiving and Christmas dishes, is something that Amerloque looks forward to annually. This year the first applesauces and crumbles were excellent: the unusually wet weather added immense flavor to many of the apples !

Throughout the summer the local farmers in Amerloque's part of the world were tearing their hair out – metaphorically speaking - because of the horrible weather. It was only in the second week of September that grasses in some of the fields could be cut, since there had finally been enough sun over a period of several days to dry them out. One of Amerloque's fields still remained uncut - the neighboring farmer, after doing his own fields, finally found enough time to do Amerloque's last one, too, in early September. Usually this field is cut at the beginning of July, so the delay this year was more than a full two months ! Enfin !

On the surface, the rentrée this year seems to differ little from those of previous years. The media are filled with the usual stories: for example, how much the government's annual back to school subsidy (l'allocation de la rentée) amounts to, how much the cost for various regulated public and private services (such as electricity, gas, and transport) increased over the summer, and how many parents are upset about the closure of one or more local classes due to the failure to reach the minimum number of students. These issues all belong to what the French term la rentrée sociale and la rentrée scolaire. If one is an attentive expat with children, one pays close attention, naturally.

There is also, of course,la rentrée littéraire. The média has already begun speaking of the possible winners of literary prizes (les prix littéraires) later in the fall, the Prix Goncourt and the Prix Renudot allegedly being the most sought after, although there are others, most notably the Femina, the Médicis, the Interallié and the Académie Française. If one follows - or is tangehtially interested in - Parisian intellectual life, the nominations and subsequent jockeying for a prize is the subject of many conversations in café and salon.

Newly elected Président Sarkozy is bound to have an effect on the rentrée this year, since he now has to fulfill his campaign promises, has to fish or cut bait. At least one of his initiatives, the proposition for more independence for the universities, was seriously watered down during the summer Parliamentary sessions. It remains to be seen whether other of his promises receive the same treatment – and which ones, and by whom !

As always, the vendanges have begun, somewhat earlier in many parts of France due to the weather. Though the French wine industry is in crisis, quite a few young people still make a September pilgrimage to the vineyards to pick grapes, especially the university students whose classes don't begin until October. If one has other plans, one can also wait for the vendanges tardives, the late grapepicking season. In any event, the pay is minimum wage, the working conditions tough, and the labor backbreaking: Amerloque went down to the south of France to work in the fields, once, many, many years ago in his youth and can testify from personal experience. Actually, the best times are the mealtimes - at lunch but especially in the evenings, when the winemakers and owners generally feed their vendengeuses and vendangeurs very well. It is definitely the kind of experience to be fondly looked back on when one is older and wiser, in front of a nice roaring fire on a chilly autumn evening, as one sips a glass of a vintage wine that one could never have afforded back then !

The various alarums and excursions on the international financial markets do not seem to have thrown a damper on any French activities, at least not yet. Perhaps it is simply the calm before the storm – or perhaps the media are simply not doing their job, preferring to concentrate on the pipolisation of French society, on affairs of pedophilia and/or child abandonment, on dogs running amok, and on other issues of lesser but spectacular, paper-selling, audience-building importance. France is changing: the increasing dumbing down of the country seems more obvious at this rentrée.

Is it because of newly-elected President Sarkozy and his ministers, one of whom asserted back in July that "the French think too much" ?

Or is it, perhaps, simply that Amerloque has aged another year, and that his cynicism quotient has increased markedly ?


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