THE HOLIEST JEWISH DAY OF THE YEAR

Yom Kippur is the Day of Atonement, the holiest day of the year in Judaism, the tenth day of the seventh month of the Jewish calendar. We fast and pray, atone and repent. For many Jewish people it is the one day of the year when we actually do take part in a religious ritual.

We reaffirm being Jewish by attending synagogue, irrespective of our depth of religious adherence and regardless of our level of commitment to actual fasting or atonement. It is a day when one does think about being Jewish and about being part of a wider community with a shared cultural history.

 

As a child, it was a grim and moving day for me. When my parents had died when I was a teenager and otherwise non-observant, the prayers for the dead became something I could do for them – respect, a link.

 

Fasting is from sunset to nightfall the following day: no eating or drinking or smoking or driving unless you are ill or travelling. At least those were the rules in my family – I have since come across other, much stricter, ones.

 

Yitzkor is ‘remember’ in Hebrew and there is a special memorial service on the Day of Atonement, asking God to remember our dead parents, relatives and friends. You leave the synagogue for this and wait outside unless one of your parents is dead.

 

In the evening comes Kol Nidre, which means ‘all vows’ and dates from the Spanish Inquisition. It starts with very lovely music, sung or played, one of the most beautiful versions being by Pablo Casals in 1923.

 

A friend says that when he was young his father thought he should take him to a Yom Kippur service. He found it very boring and kept tugging at his father’s sleeve, hoping to get away and when they finally sneaked out and started walking home, much relieved to be free again, they suddenly saw their bus approaching. His father looked guilty, looked around and said,  “Hop on quickly!” So they rode home instead of walking and never gave it another thought!

 

When I came to live in Southwest France, leaving Hong Kong and the Ohel Leah Synagogue far away, I observed Yom Kippur by fasting, but no more. However, the most heart-warming, soul-stirring Day of Atonement I’ve ever spent was here when Judy Cassab and her younger son, Peter Kampfner, came from Sydney to stay. As well as being one of the greatest portrait painters of the twentieth century, a fine pianist and an important diarist.

Judy, who grew up in Beregszasz with my mother, was the most outstanding, inspirational person I have ever met, full of benevolence, generous common sense and open-mindedness, just the same person in London and Sydney as she was in Budapest and Condom.

It was a joy to drive her around the countryside with her sketchpad, stopping whenever something tugged at her imagination. And, on a more worldly level, she bought lots of sexy underwear and it’s the only time I’ve ever broken the fast with foie gras!

 

But then that is the basis of all the major Jewish holidays – they tried to kill us, we won, let’s eat!

A meal without wine is like a day without sunshine. That saying is attributed to everyone, from French chemist Louis Pasteur to gastronome Brillat-Savarin to Californian winemaker Robert Mondavi.

When I’m staying with friends outside Goulburn the conversation focuses on sheep. While in Umbria, it’s olive oil. Here in Southwest France, it tends to be wine.

I once sat between two grand Bordeaux wine producers, who ignored me completely as they discussed their vintages. I could have been invisible. Then one asked: “Do you have any vines?” I was about to say no, humbly, when I thought of my paltry 3.64 hectares; best for making vinegar. I casually said yes. “Where?” “Outside Condom.” And I became invisible again!

But, at these dinners, one does pick up the most fascinating tit-bits of information! Did you know that vines may not be irrigated in France after August 15 as it is felt this may increase the crop and reduce the quality of the grapes? And that almost all French wines are blended?

Have you observed that roses are still often planted at the end of every row of vines? Originally that was because the rose would catch any disease before the vines, which could be treated quickly. Also, the roses were often different colours so that the illiterate workers could be told to go to the third yellow rose on the right or the fourth pink on the left.

Fashions in wine consumption have frequently been dictated by wine guides or wine writers. The once invincible wine critic Robert Parker’s wine guide has now been somewhat discredited. The great guides are now considered to be Hachette Wine Guide and also Bettane & Desseauve.

Recently, British wine critic Jancis Robinson went to a tasting of 83 new-wave Australian wines and published a list of the 25 she liked best. No one I know has even heard of, let alone tasted, more than four of them! But wine critics don’t know everything. Some 35 years ago English wine personality Gerald Asher said: “I made a mental note to watch which bottle became empty soonest, sometimes a more telling evaluation system than any other.”

The other great influencer of wine consumption, is medals earned in competition. The most important and highly respected competition in France is the annual Concours Général Agricole in Paris, which is funded and organised by the Ministries of Agriculture, Food, Fisheries and Rural Affairs. The Concours is co-owned by the Centre Nationale d’Expositions; Paris’ national exhibition centre, where it is hosted.

More than 15,000 wine samples are submitted by about 4,000 of France’s winemakers. These are examined and rated by almost 3,000 experts, usually divided into juries of five from different regions, which makes it one of the largest tasting panels of any wine competition in the world. They award more than 3,500 medals.

Here in the Gers, a local jury in Eauze will taste all the Gascon wines put forward before they are allowed to compete and this process will eliminate about half of those put forward. About 10 per cent of these local wines that do reach Paris will win gold or silver medals, and those medals help tremendously, especially as far as supermarket sales are concerned.

In France, a major influence on wine buying is the classic French bottle shapes, each rooted in its own region. Winemakers like to change the shape of the bottle to appear original. However, what gains they make in originality they sometimes lose in recognition. As a consumer, one is never quite sure whether a case holds six bottles or 12.

Long before Apple paid such attention to packaging, the winemakers of France created beautiful and often collectible cases for transporting their goods. Those original wooden cases are more valued now and often broken up and sanded down into bread or cheese boards. Interestingly, the cardboard cartons still tend to be a simple off-white here, whereas in the New World they are often bright, eye-catching colours.

From wine critics, to guides, to medals, bottle shapes and packaging – all these things have been used to advantage winemakers in the competition for devotees. Today, wine marketers are developing new techniques.

Have you noticed the glamorous jet set image for Provencal rosés in recent years, cultivated by very impressive marketing strategies? The new bottles and labels and the very pale colour project the whole dazzling lifestyle of the Cote d’Azur. The colour scale is described as gooseberry, peach, grapefruit, cantaloupe, mango and mandarin.

As the 19th-century American poet, Richard Henry Stoddard wrote,

Day and night my thoughts incline

To the blandishments of wine,

Jars were made to drain, I think;

Wine, I know, was made to drink.

 

Our south-west France based writer, Clare Wadsworth, shares her thoughts on wines and winemaking.

 

In his poem Wine and Water, G.K. Chesterton wrote: “And Noah he often said to his wife when he sat down to dine, ‘I don’t care where the water goes if it doesn’t get into the wine’.”

 

I called on my white wine guru, Cedric Garzuel of Plaimont this afternoon to ask how the vines are doing and what kind of a year it would be. All he wanted to talk about was the contribution Australia has made to French wines in recent years.

 

Over the past generation the great innovators in wine, especially white wine, have been Australians and New Zealanders, using heat and cold, oak chips and yeast. For years the French remained conservative, sticking to the classic methods of winemaking. For example, in France oaking wine was once considered taboo, whereas in Australia the strong taste was appreciated.

 

Then wine growers in the Languedoc and Roussillon regions realised that their soil and weather were similar to Australia’s. They, admiring the success of winemakers in the Southern Hemisphere, decided to import Australian technicians and oenologists. They also modernised their labels and marketing and raised the quality of their wines – all the while keeping their prices low.

 

It wasn’t until after the Prohibition era that wine in the US began to be defined by brand and variety of grape. In Australia, this means of labelling was not adopted until the 1980s. Whereas, in France it has always been the name of the region, the ‘terroir’, the village or château that one looked for and relied on when buying wine.

 

Years ago, French wine experts would go to Australia to offer counsel and recommendations. However, for a long time now it has been the other way around. Today, all the young oenologists studying in Bordeaux, Dijon, Toulouse, Montpellier and Rheims try to do a stint in the New World before completing their studies.

 

One of the significant innovations started in Australia was the use of refrigeration in the early stage of winemaking. A further advance was the use of stainless steel vats. A number of French winemakers travelled to Australia to learn about Australian methods of manufacture.

 

The French wine qualification Appellation d’origine controlée – AOC for short – was a factor in the success of exports of cheaper Australian wine, particularly to the UK. The marketing of French wine placed emphasis on AOC with the accompanying inference that if a wine were not AOC, it was inferior. AOC wines were, therefore, significantly more expensive in the UK than Australian wines of similar quality. This resulted in the volume of Australian wine sold in the UK around the year 2000 actually outstripping the French. It was a bit of a wake-up call to the French, who then introduced new labelling, which also stressed quality, while retaining AOC.

 

Ten years ago the fashion was for California and Australian-style Chardonnay – oaked and strong. That was the wine everyone, everywhere wanted to make. Nowadays, tastes seem to have changed to favour a more citrusy, acid and less alcoholic, and more thirst-quenching white wine.

 

Grape varieties go in and out of vogue too – in the UK pinot grigio and riesling are the trend now. In France, more than 80 per cent of wine sold is of French origin and it is the region that becomes fashionable not the grape varieties.

 

Screw Cap Wines

The Swiss have successfully used screw caps since the 1980s. Also, in Australia and New Zealand screw caps have overtaken cork to become the most common means of sealing bottles. As long as the cap seals the bottle there is no oxidation and the bottles are easier to open.

 

However, France has a centuries-old tradition of using cork; although, it must be admitted, sometimes plastic corks are used. The French tend not to accept anything but cork in the bottles they buy – although the same wines may well be exported with screw caps.

 

It is said that there are five reasons for drinking wine: the arrival of a friend; one’s present or future thirst; the excellence of the wine; or any other reason.

 

 

Just as babies born at Christmas are called Noel, Easter babies are called Pascal. Pancakes are served here on February 2, Candlemas, not Shrove Tuesday. That is Mardi Gras, when the French eat doughnuts and waffles and there is a great carnival in Nice and parades of dressed-up children everywhere. In fact, carnival comes from the Latin ‘carnelevare’, which means ‘to take out the meat’.

a man making easter bunnies in a chocolate store

On Palm Sunday – Sunday of Branches in French – in regions where there are no palms, olive, laurel or even box branches are taken to church to be blessed and French children are given a new outfit for Easter.

 

During Lent no meat or eggs should be eaten and on Good Friday even non-believers and atheists eat only fish. Butchers used to clear their shop windows of meat, but remained open and you could go inside and buy your steak as usual.

 

Church bells, ‘flying bells’, grow a pair of wings and leave for the Vatican late on Holy Thursday carrying with them the grief of those about to mourn Christ’s crucifixion. When the Pope has blessed them they return full of chocolates and eggs early Easter Sunday morning. No church bells ring from Good Friday to Easter Sunday, when they convey a sense of new life, new hope and fresh adventures ahead.

 

Easter egg hunts are to search for the chocolate eggs which the bells have dropped, but when I organised one they all melted – and anyway the dogs had eaten most of them long before the children found any. The largest is outside Paris at Vaux-le-Vicomte, the chateau built by Fouquet, Louis XIV’s Superintendent of Finance. Louis and Colbert, who succeeded Fouquet, were so jealous that they had Fouquet arrested by D’Artagnan, the Gascon musketeer. He was imprisoned for life while Louis transformed Versailles from a small hunting chateau into a palace. At Easter the King would be served the largest egg that had been laid that week.

a photo of a girl running in her new easter cloths, hunting for eggs

Children used to make nests for the eggs brought by the Easter bunny too and leave carrots out for him. There was also a custom of rolling raw eggs down a slope, symbolising rolling away the stone from Christ’s tomb, and even throwing raw eggs up in the air and catching them.

 

Some regions make special Easter breads, but the traditional lunch on Easter Sunday is usually eggs mimosa, the first asparagus, roast leg of lamb – pink – with haricot beans, early strawberries if there are any and a mocha cake called a ‘nid de Pâques’ or Easter nest.

 

In Bessières, outside Toulouse, a huge omelette is cooked every Easter Monday to remember Napoleon, who, having eaten a delicious one for supper, ordered that all eggs be gathered and made into a giant omelette for his troops. On Easter Monday in 1973 a group of friends decided to make a 10,000-egg omelette there to commemorate Napoleon’s stay and this has become a tradition.

 

After Easter comes the Ascension and then Whitsun or Pentecost – for a secular country, France observes a remarkable number of religious holidays.

An editor’s life

An editor’s life isn’t always romantic – even when you live in south-west France, as The Copy Collective’s editor, proof reader and dog lover Clare writes.

Sunday

1700 Dry cleaner brings Issia for two weeks while they go to Benin.

 1900 Penny brings Buster and Dude for three weeks while she goes to England.

 2130 Dog fight.

 2230 Dude disappears. He is now blind and deaf, so I spend a fruitless hour searching, no point calling.

 2330 Dude reappears between the house and pigeonnier, moon-gazing.

 2335 Everyone goes to bed. Chianti is next door. Omega doesn’t like the crowd so she leaves too. Dude and Sausage curl up on eiderdowns, Enzi is on her beanbag and Buster, Issia and Cooee are on my bed.

  Editor's Life - All the dogs lined up on their beds

Monday

0500 Everyone thinks they would like to go out. Issia runs off. I spend a fruitless hour searching and whistling for her.

Editor's Life - image of Issia, a black medium dog

 0600 I pull on jeans under my nightdress, an anorak over it, find the car key and go to the dry cleaner’s to see if Issia has found her way there. Cannot turn out the car’s interior light. Windscreen fogs up. No dog. On the way back I pass a woman power-walking in the dark, stop and ask if she has seen a black dog on her walk. She says very crossly that she’s not taking exercise, she’s on her way to work. I offer to give her a lift, which makes her even more cross, but she asks what todo if she sees the dog. I say I don’t happen to have a visiting card on me and suggest she calls the vet. She strides off, another car stops and she gets into it.

 0615 I stop in the supermarket car park at the bottom of my drive and see the pretty Moroccan fishmonger-now-promoted-to-supervisor and ask if she has seen the dog. She hasn’t, but has Mohamed’s telephone number and promises to call if she finds her. I get home and Issia comes out of the bushes to meet the car.

 0620 I go back to bed and see there is an email from Yuki asking me to double the length of a paragraph and add more bulletin points. I do the paragraph and email her asking if the client could possibly let us know how many points they would like.

 0720 An email from The Copy Collective asking me to edit some CVs, which are in Dropbox. I openDropbox in Safari and can’t change to Word to edit. I try not to panic. I call their IT person who is endlessly patient with my incompetence, but she thinks it might have been sent wrongly. I query the sender who is not amused. Desperate I click everything I can find and, lo and behold, Safari turns to Word.

 0820 I start the CVs.

 0920 I think I had better get up. Enzi pukes.

Things can only get better…

Oysters and more oysters – but no Christmas carols, crackers or cards. Napoleon secularised France. There are unsophisticated decorations in the streets and shop windows and a bowl of sweets or chocolates out for customers on most counters. Before we came to Gascony our Hong Kong Christmases were tinselly, turkeyed, commercial holidays. There were Brussel sprouts and the Queen’s Speech and the family rows that come with over-indulgence. Here it was cold and dark with an unforgettable, stark, candlelit midnight mass. That has now been brought forward, either due to the shortage of priests or because the Pope wanted to go to bed earlier. Children are judged to be old enough for mass when they stop believing in Father Christmas.

Beautifully arranged seafood platter

Nativity scenes are the original French tradition with old and new clay figurines from Provence called santons, some of which are kept in families for generations. Les Baux de Provence, now known for l’Oustau de la Baumanière, one of the finest restaurants in the country, was initially famous for its living nativity scene. It dates from the 16th century, with real shepherds and lambs and even a new-born Christ in the manger. In the North, the scene is set in a rocky cave with the Virgin Mary and St Joseph and a donkey and ox, whose breath warmed the baby. Further south, they are in an open barn with straw and pine branches. In a friend’s large family everyone has their own lamb figurine and every day the best-behaved children can move their lambs closer to the Christ Child. Most churches have an annual nativity scene and many homes devote a whole room to theirs.

Lively colourful nativity scene

In Provence festivities have always begun on December 4, St Barbe’s Day, with sprouting wheat and lentils. On Christmas Eve they have seven ‘lean’ dishes followed by 13 desserts – nuts and nougat, dried and fresh fruits – that remain on the table until Epiphany. In the North, it is the 6th when St Nicholas brings gifts for good children and punishes naughty ones. Here in Gascony, it’s a joyous, overabundant family reunion, which begins late on Christmas Eve. Friends who didn’t go to mass used to go dancing, but now they all sit around opening gifts. Each member of the household puts their slippers, polished shoes or even clogs under the Christmas tree, so Father Christmas knows how many gifts to leave. Flour is sprinkled on the floor for children to see his footprints. A bowl of milk and a brioche are left out for him ­– and also a turnip and a carrot for the reindeer. The slippers may be filled with a tangerine, dried fruits and a square of chocolate for Father Christmas or, later on, by him for their owners. Santa Claus is believed to be a satanic American invention of Coca Cola’s, and Christmas trees are a relatively recent addition from the north. This year we haven’t yet decided between a Danish one whose needles don’t drop or a sweet-smelling spruce from the Vosges, but an Angel Gabriel by Ann Seddon, who was taught to make dolls by Mirka Mora in her Melbourne studio, will crown it.

We sit down late to oysters with grilled crépinettes made of sausage meat in hamburger shape, often with truffles, or boudin blanc, a fine-textured white pork sausage. Then come platters of prawns and lobster, followed by foie gras, before a turkey or capon or goose or even game. Vegetables are scorned, although there may be a few overcooked green beans with the roast and then a green salad with a small cheese board. Then comes the Christmas log. Marrons glacés and liqueur chocolates are served with the coffee, but nothing remotely resembles Christmas pudding. No one gets to bed much before 4 in the morning, and when we wake up it’s time for Christmas lunch!

Beautifully set Christmas meal table

Anglo-Saxon Christmases are often fraught with stress and heated arguments and blaring television in the background, whereas French ones tend to be calmer and more elegant, although political discussions can get tempestuous! In some homes an extra place is laid at the dining table in case a needy stranger should knock. A huge Yule log might be placed on the fire on Christmas Eve and expected to burn until New Year’s Day. I’m burning mine now though as the central heating is intermittent!

And then it’s over, there’s no public holiday on Boxing Day. Everyone goes straight back to work on the 26th and the next week is spent preparing for New Year’s Eve, when twice as much similar food will be consumed, and everyone will dance wildly and not go to bed at all. After that, there is Epiphany, when the Three Kings finally get to Bethlehem, celebrated with a galette des Rois, a puff pastry tart filled with almond cream containing a single bean or santon. It comes with a gold paper crown to be worn by whoever finds the hidden treasure. Decorations don’t come down until late in January – and then there is Candlemas to look forward to on February 2 when pancakes are served. By then it is almost spring.

At The Copy Collective, we have many dedicated, talented and hard-working copywriters and editors living and working around the globe. We love to hear from our people about their different daily circles. Editor Clare Wadsworth enjoys a very romantic life in the south-west of France.

Chestnuts, mushrooms and clementines at the greengrocer’s in Condom in South-West France – autumn has arrived and the vine leaves are turning the same colour as the local Armagnac; the grapes have all been picked and the wine will be good this year. The local cooperative is working flat out and so are all the private wineries. Vines have grown here for 2,000 years and there are about 1,200 producers. Almost all the oenologists are Australian.

Apart from the grapes and the harvest, all the men are discussing rugby or football or hunting – pigeon and wild boar, hare and deer. They fish for pike and carp. Well-waterproofed pilgrims with backpacks, long walking sticks and scallop shells still head purposefully down well-trodden leafy paths south towards Santiago de Compostella in Northern Spain, occasionally accompanied by a mule.

In the evenings the sky is slate-coloured, lit by pale sunbeams; in the early mornings I walk the seven dogs across rolling, wet, green fields glistening with thick cobwebs and can see the cathedral, still lit up, in the distance.

Work trickles in ­– this would have been impossible before Internet, but it is still challenging when wi-fi (pronounced by the French as wee-fee) and telephone are intermittent – and non-existent in a rainstorm. There may be the first chapters of an autobiography to comment on, an article to proofread, the daily – or rather nightly, due to the time difference – news digest for an Australian university: it is challenging to live 2 ¼ hours from the nearest Apple store, but computer-literate friends are very supportive.

This is a land buried in the past and we chose to come here from busy, bustling, commercial Hong Kong so that there could be no possible comparisons – here everyone seems to keep their money under their mattress and the banks would not dream of changing dollars or pounds to euros! Few people still speak Occitane, but farmers wear the wide black Gascon beret and anyone who lives more than five miles away is a stranger, and they are even more foreign and mistrusted if they come from Bordeaux or Paris.

A beautiful old building with a statue of the Three Musketeer's out front

Condom Cathedral with the Four Musketeers. Copyright Tourisme Condom

The most famous Gascon ever is d’Artagnan, Alexandre Dumas’ fourth musketeer, who is commemorated everywhere. But the best jazz festival in Europe is held in Marciac every summer, promoted by Wynton Marsalis, and there are concerts of classical music in many cathedrals and open-air operas in bullrings too.

Farmers harvesting grapes

Grapes arriving at Val de Gascogne. Copyright Val de Gascogne

Local farmers tend to be militant socialists, easily aroused, and the only crops planted are those subsidised by Brussels and the EU: sunflowers and sorghum, maize and wheat and colza, sugar beet and even woad from which comes a blue dye, often used for the shutters locally.

There’s not much for the young or the large out-of-work North African community, mostly from Algeria and Morocco, France’s ex-colonies, and the enchanting medieval walled villages, stone churches and chateaux that attract tourists hold little appeal for them.

The roads are winding and empty, tree-lined and a joy to drive along through undulating fields. If you can see the mountain-tops of the Pyrenees it is going to rain. This land has been fought over for centuries and the villages, many of them round bastides, have views out over every direction to warn against invaders. The churches date from the 11th century on, but there are few services nowadays and fewer priests. The chateaux are not expensive to purchase, but prohibitive to maintain. Builders, craftsmen and workmen are hard to come by, unreliable and very expensive.

Food is of prime importance, despite the intrusion of McDonald’s, frozen meals, supermarkets and a younger generation that refuses to cook. My hairdresser always wants a detailed description of every meal I serve guests. She listens intently and then says ‘Errgh’ disapprovingly!

This is where the best duck liver, foie gras, comes from, along with duck breasts, hearts and carcasses to grill and duck legs, wings and giblets preserved in their own fat called confit de canard. Duck tongues and feet are exported to Hong Kong though! Cassoulet is a cripplingly heavy dish of white haricot beans with duck sausage and confit. Then there are delicious Agen prunes.

A colourful farmers market stand

Condom Greengrocer. Copyright Penelope Wadsworth

There are still wonderful weekly outdoor markets – different days in different towns – with locally grown vegetables and fruit, hams from Spain, cheeses from Holland and the Pyrenees, spices from North Africa and cooked food stands with roast chickens and quails, paellas and couscous, spring rolls and snails.

Most of the local cheeses are goat or sheep and therefore not counted as ‘dairy’. Bread is usually disappointing, but the butchers have free range meat and fishmongers bring oysters and mussels, smoked fish and fresh from the Atlantic Coast.

What a miracle to be able to work from here! It’s the best game I’ve ever played – utterly unreal with time to read and write and listen to music, walk the dogs, entertain friends, explore the countryside. Less so for the overworked, overtaxed Gascons, bound by chains of bureaucracy who seldom look further than their land and their families.

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