Monday, December 03, 2007


THE SHILLELAH RAP

Ever been whacked with a shillelah? No, me neither.

But I've been bludegeoned by a polished vine root. And made to drink copious amounts of chilled white wine from a giant glass. And encouraged to swear an oath of loyalty to an alcoholic beverage.

And all in the space of about fifteen minutes!

For the uninitiated, this was called an intronisation. Yes, I was intronised. And if you think that sounds painful, read on.

It all took place in the presence of a little-known brotherhood whose twenty-five members wear red and black robes and triangular hats. And it all unravelled this weekend in a tiny village on the south bank of the River Tarn, just a bridge span away from the town of Gaillac in south-west France. Oh, and there were a couple of hundred other people looking on (including La Patronne, and Le Beau Frere who had travelled from the States for the occasion).

In the packed lecture theatre of an agricultural training centre in the Midi-Pyrenean village of Brens, twenty-one chosen ones - myself included - were called down to the stage one by one by the be-robed members of the Order of the Divine Bottle, to be made Chevaliers of the Order. In nearly sixty years, only three thousand people worldwide have been selected for this honour.

Why me? Because my latest book, THE CRITIC, is set in the vineyards of Gaillac, and when I take the book on tour around the US next February, I will be offering Gaillac wines to my readers to taste.

And the purpose of the Ordre de la Dive Bouteille? To foster and promote the wines of Gaillac - a little-known wine producing area which has been making wonderful vintages since the days of the Romans.

So what happened? Well, we were called down to the stage in groups of seven, and made to stand there while our individual sponsors - all members of the Order - delivered two-minute eulogies. And how did they time the speeches?

I watched in awe as an elderly man is flowing red robes knelt at a triangular symbol etched into the floor of the the stage and set a small pot of water boiling over a candle. Some bizarre ritual owing its evolution to centuries of tradition? Well, no. He was boiling an egg. And when it was cooked, time was up.

The wonders of technology!!

My sponsor, or "parrain", was a lovely lady called Francoise Proust - no relation to Marcel, I was assured. After making me blush for two minutes, myself and my fellow chevaliers to be, had to sing a song and recite an oath of allegiance, before being presented with ENORMOUS engraved wine glasses which were filled with copious amounts of chilled white Gaillac wine which we had to drain before the song was finished.

You'll be surprised to hear that I managed to drain mine. Without dropping the glass or dribbling down my chin. Well, not much, anyway.

We had maroon aprons wrapped around us . And since I had my kilt on, bare legs poking out from below the apron made iit look like I might have been naked beneath it. Brass amphoras dangling from red, blue, and white ribbons were then draped around our necks, and the Grand Chancelier of the Order, the distinguished winemaker, Jacques Auques, whacked us on each shoulder with his shillelah - sorry, his polished vine root.

And that was it. We were now Chevaliers of the Order. Members of an elite and unique group of wine lovers whose particular predilection is for the vintages of Gaillac. All that remained was for us to sign the Golden Book - the Livre d'Or - and receive our certificates.

And thence to the gala dinner.

Now, dinners are dinners. And I only mention it because there were two very unusual aspects to this particular repas.

But, before I tell you what they were, just let me run through the menu - and, more importantly, the wine list!!!

Following an aperitif, we were served foie gras cooked in a terrine and served with fig confiture and salad.

Then came the fish course. Perch, caught locally, and poached in a wonderful cream and garlic sauce.

Naturally, our palates were then cleansed by a "trou normande", comprising an iced grape marc.

The meat course consisted of venison steaks served with a blueberry sauce, artichoke hearts and an exquisite vegetable gratin.

Then to the cheese - brought to the gathering by a "confrerie" of cheesemakers come to witness our graduation to the order. It was a ve-ery mature brie from Melun served with a wine confiture.

And finally a lighter than light cake - described as "le d'Artagnan" - presented in a display of fireworks.

But it was the wine.... what can I say? We were served a Gaillac primeur, followed by a sweet white with the foie gras. A dry white Gaillac with the fish, then two different reds with the meat and the cheese. Then finally a Gaillac effervescent - a champagne-type wine (actually they were making wine like this in Gaillac a hundred years before Dom Perignon stole the idea).

What made it all really unique was the presentation of the menu. It was engraved on the reverse side of individual 37cl bottles of Gaillac red provided as part of each place setting. A wonderful memento of the evening - even if the bottles are now all empty!!

But, really, the piece de resistance was the bread.

I have to say, I have never seen anything quite like it. A miniature round loaf at each place, engraved with the legend, 2007.

Was this a sell-by date, I wondered? Or maybe they were just letting us know that these weren't last year's left-overs. Of course, it may just have been notification that this was a very good year - for bread. A fine vintage.

I don't know - not being a connoisseur of bread. But it tasted good. So I ate it. And now, in the famous words of an old friend, "S'gone."

1 comment:

Carol and Chris said...

Blimey - and you say all I do is eat and drink!!

(Oh and it came as no surprise at all that you managed to drink your wine before the end of the song!!)

Congrats at your intronisation

C x