Drake's and St. JOHN: A Postcard From the Fete du Vin
Soaking up the sun and sancerre during St. JOHN's annual visit to its own vineyard in the beautiful region of the Languedoc, deep in the south of France, Tim Hayward - food writer and friend of Drake's - details an unmissable few days eating, drinking, and eating some more in what feels like the "oldest and weirdest" part of France."
It’s hard to convey quite how important St John Restaurant is to modern British cuisine… somewhere between the Dome of the Rock and maybe Altamont. It’s holy ground and the place where a generation of food lovers suddenly felt they had found home. At the heart of it is the oddball partnership of Fergus Henderson and Trevor Gulliver. If, like me, you care about food more than anything else, Fergus and Trevor are your Gilbert and George, your Derek and Clive and your Pet Shop Boys. When they invite you to the St John de Vin, you don’t ask questions. You sling your gear in a bag, check your kidneys, say goodbye to your loved ones and get down to Olonzac any way you can.
Olonzac is in the Languedoc, way down South in the what feels like the oldest and weirdest part of France. Wherever you are, you can see the Pyrenees on a clear day, to remind you how close you really are to Spain. They have their own language. They are descended from Celts, but every strategic high point is guarded by a Cathar castle. The Cathars were a great bunch -ascetic Christians who believed firmly in the existence of Satan and that forests and mountains were God’s church. The established Catholic Church couldn’t stand them and persecuted them mercilessly.
It’s hard land. Hard to govern, hard to farm. It’s about as far away as you can get from Paris, so the establishment always quietly ignored the place. For generations they’ve grown grapes here, on cheap land with cheap labour, way outside the control of the Appellations. There’s a canal that used to take oysters from the coast for Parisians to suck down, and undistinguished wines for undiscriminating drinkers and cunning blenders.
The vineyards are verdant but etched onto a kind of empty desert. You know that grapes are all about fecundity out of parched hardscrabble, but this place reminds you everywhere you look. Long straight Roman roads, every building baked to the same light, sandy tan… the vineyards are big. They need planting and watering, both of which can be mechanised, so between the times when vast crews of pickers descend to bring in the harvest, the place is empty. For some reason, I couldn’t shift the idea of Jack Nicholson in The Passenger.
You can drive for ages, through tiny villages, shuttered and empty, but for the occasional brittle old English dame who came down here sometime in ’68 to spend the Summer with Jagger and has been waiting for him to come back ever since. There are old, rich men in loud shirts, here to buy wine or talk about it; trim smart, vaguely aristocratic Frenchmen who know how to make it. You can drive for days and not see a tourist, you can find Front National graffiti on a wall or off-duty French Special Forces officers watching football in a bar. There’s some mad existential shit going on out there in the flatland.
We start the first day at the market in the nearby town of Narbonne. It’s an undistinguished place. A working town, but it’s got an incredible market. Guests for the fete are turning up for coffee or calvados standing at the central bar. Fergus and Trevor lead a kind of pack around the stalls. Fergus works alongside Jonathan Woolway, his head chef, picking out tomatoes, green beans and onions. The stall holders look bewildered by the scrummage, then delighted at the huge order, then terrified as Trevor swings into action, negotiating with awesome speed and ferocity in fluent French. Trevor’s a compact guy, still packed like the elite rugby player he was but with the bewildering energy of three men half his age. The relationship between them is really something to see in action. Fergus, who was diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 1998, is slow, gentle and full of necessarily considered wit and aphorism. Trevor is a blur, networking, charming, sorting shit out, driving things forward, delighting people and pissing them off. God, they must have been invincible in their early years.
Someone comes over from the butcher’s with a box of calves’ brains. Individually packed in special pods like clear plastic egg-boxes. “There are no quails, someone says… bird flu”. I’m kind of at a loss here. There must be quails. It’s set in stone. The menu at the Fete always involves quails grilled over vine clippings and poached calves brains on toast. It is written.
Trevor leads a group of us off to a stall for a light elevenses of horse tartare, chips and local rose. A legendary Australian wine writer arrives and they greet him like a returning Viking conqueror, a baker appears from Tel Aviv, then a couple of Drake’s team, and we gossip hard while Trevor quietly pounds his phone.
A while later he quietly disappears but, by the time we get back to his house and kitchen, the quails are arriving.
“Don’t ask, he whispers. Particularly, don’t ask how much”
I join the line along the kitchen table, snipping the heads off the birds and taking out their spines with heavy scissors. This is not something you can ever forget as a lover of food. Standing amongst people whose herbs I am unfit to pick, bloodied to the elbow, swilling rose and prepping. I have prepped with the St John Family. I don’t understand sport but, what would it mean to go out with the best team in the world for a kickabout in their local park? I’m guessing something like this.
The winery is in La Livinièreon the Boulevard Napoleon, the name they’ve purloined for their wine label. It’s a remarkable building, looking from the street, like a medieval barn set into a hillside. Inside it’s weirdly ecclesiastical. There’s a short nave where they’ve laid a long table leading out through the big front door. The North transept has a row of big fermentation tanks in cream-coloured enamel like 1930s fridges but the size of an SUV, and a row of barrels, where wine is ageing. There’s another table laid out along the middle. The South Transept is closed since tiles fell through the roof. Above your head, stairs and lofts have been removed to create a huge airy space and the back wall must retain hundreds of tons of wet rock and soil because the surface looks like a thousand years of damp and radiates a glorious coolness, a benison in 36C heat.
More guests are arriving, a journalist from Copenhagen, a world famous retired ad-man, wine makers, restaurateurs, local friends, a magazine editor, more Drake’s crew, and Trevor, now tending the quails on the grill, stands to make the worlds shortest speech. There is really nothing to say. Everything is self-evidently glorious. There are about 40 words, but mostly the important ones “Welcome”, “eat” and “drink”. Today, he and Fergus are men entirely in their element.
A grilled piece of local sourdough topped with a cold slice of lamb brain, poached in a court bouillon, is something you’ll probably eat nowhere else. There’s a herb, garlic and oil sauce that runs off the side of the bread and down your arm as you eat. It’s not ‘crunching ortolans, your head covered with a napkin’, but it’s as thrillingly transgressive, as unifying of the group and as near holy.
The quails are unadorned. We marinaded them in herbs and oil overnight, but the perfectly crisped skin and a little crystal salt are all they wear now… all they need. And of course, what makes quails so unbelievably bloody sexy to eat is the way they don’t need knives and forks. There’s something about their size that means you can tear them apart with your fingers and offer them to your lips on a handle of bone.
There was fruit… I remember some sort of fruit… and then a long blur. They told me I held an hour long conversation with somebody about yoga - of which I know nothing - but mercifully I have no recollection. Apparently an expedition left at some point in the evening to a Thrash Folk festival in the next village, where they stomped all night to fiddle and squeezebox, but I was gone… out of it ‘til about ten the next morning. Sitting at a pavement cafe on the main drag in Olonzac, watching Fergus sip his morning Fernet Branca, apparently none the worse for the evening, and prepared to go again. Thank God, the man’s stamina is still ludicrous.