Notes from the Fête du Vin
From the top of Trevor’s vineyard you can see the Black Mountains and the foothills of the Pyrenees, the Corbières, looming on the horizon. Even in summer you might wake up to snow nestled on its undulating peaks. It’s dry up here, deep into France’s Languedoc region. Old and rugged. Spindly pines and dust kicking up as men in heavy denim haul tractors as old as the hills (give or take) along its single track roads. Menacing grey clouds start to form — rain on the way.
The village of La Livinière is home to the St. JOHN vineyard, Boulevard Napoleon. If you’ve ever had the good fortune of enjoying a glass or four of Grenache Gris or Cinsault in one of its restaurants, then it came from here. Produced by Benjamin, an easygoing Frenchman and the resident master winemaker. “I believe there’s a taste of the cellar in all of them,” he says, holding court in the 17th century stone barn where he bases his operation. Trevor likes to say that this area produces more wine than Australia, New Zealand, Canada and Japan combined.
It’s also the setting for the greatest three-day lunch of the year.
The Fête du Vin is an annual celebration of great food, wine and people — an extension of Fergus Henderson and Trevor Gulliver’s jointly straightforward and revolutionary philosophy around all three. A group of friends, seemingly endless bottles of Crémant, and a communal atmosphere that sees everyone (well, mostly everyone), pitch in to help prepare an outdoor banquet that stretches from morning long into the night. A snippet of bacchanalia deep in the south of France — Trevor its apron-clad conductor, alongside Paris, the St. John Bread & Wine sous chef, whose unflappable presence makes cooking for 50 people seem like he’s doing a bit of beans on toast on a Wednesday evening.
At Narbonne market, covered from a steady drizzle by high glass ceilings, we’re welcomed with noisettes and ‘morning wine.’ There’s a family of cherry vendors that spans four generations, the matriarch telling us that the season hasn’t been the best; drought causing the fruit to be smaller than usual. Glistening deep ruby, they look pretty good to us. We pass vendors selling peaches, tomatoes, fresh oysters, snails and an enormous tuna placed like a trophy on a fishmonger’s block.
There are cartoon hunks of cheese and poulet frites eaten elbow-to-elbow on high stools while Trevor sources tripe from Adrien — the market’s resident "heart throb" according to our friend Kitty. Someone appears with a Tielle Sétoise, an octopus pie that is, we're assured, a local delicacy.
Back at Trevor’s house, at the foot of the vineyard, a lone rooster eyeballing us menacingly from a neighbour’s garden, the hard work begins. Produce is chopped, diced and washed. Parsley, shallots and a giant pile of lemons. In the garden people chat idly while a few brave volunteers (including Junyin from Drake’s) butcher up the quails — the main event at the Fête. More Crémant, some saucisson.
We drive slowly through empty roads surrounded by vineyards and not much else. The town of Olonzac, a postcard of provincial French-ness, sleepy and baked in the sun. There’s sea bass and tender goat as a summer storm harangues the roof of a restaurant in the middle of nowhere. A few long tables and the gentle clatter of familiar conversation. Things move slowly here. There’s a bar along the way called Gilbert’s, every inch of the dark wood seemingly covered with football and rugby scarves, the wizened owner slinging out pastis and cold beer to all comers.
Crouched over hot charcoal, Trevor approaches the barbecuing of the quails with a surgical concentration. “Does he need a hand?” Someone asks. “Absolutely not,” comes the response. The Fête has begun. A cloudless Saturday, new faces roll in over the afternoon, including the town’s mayor. If you’ve never eaten brain before, then let me tell you that it looks a lot like brain. Served on crusty bread with a fresh green sauce.
People switch seats and work their way through the quail, perfect and perfectly simple. Cherry’s, the one from the market, appear at some point. You’ll forgive me, I hope, that things begin to go a bit blurry. Some head for the respite of the lake, others for the town square.
The Fête, as it does every year, rolls on into the night.