May 31, 2007

The region of France with the oldest claim to civilization is Provence, whose Mediterranean coast was honeycombed with Greek colonies as early as 600 B.C., of which the most important was Massalia (later Marseilles). The Hellenes brought with them the written alphabet, diverse and (ahem!) innovative sexual practices, philosophical discourse, and the art of making wine. Since these are precisely the cultural attributes about which Frenchmen still boast today, it behooves us as residents of the Hellenic colony of Astoria, NewYork, to remind the Frogs where they learned it all”€”from the Greeks. It was Grecian colonists who introduced the rude, blue-painted Celts to techniques of cultivating vineyards, planting the grapes which would thrive there for the next 2,600 years.

One of the oldest varieties in Europe, the Ugni grape dates back to the first Greek settlements”€”and still forms the backbone (if not quite the taste bud) of wine making. The most widely planted white grape in France, it also accounts on its own for a third of Italian white wine”€”filling carafes of $8 Trebbiano for impecunious college students on first dates even today. As you may have gathered, Ugni is not the finest or most interesting grape. It’s beloved by winemakers for its hardiness in bad weather and tendency to grow abundantly even in bad conditions. When one’s most delicate grapes wither and die, he can count on the Ugni to keep springing up and keeping the barrels full. Its plain, almost neutral flavor makes it useful as the base to which other, more flavorful varieties can be added, and also lends itself to distillation. Juice from Ugni grapes forms the backbone of many cognacs and brandies, and at least one brand of vodka”€”Ciroc, whose producers boast they still employ the techniques introduced by tenth-century Benedictines of the Abbey of St. Michel.

The Greeks did more than teach the Gauls how to plant the grape. They inducted the Gauls into the vast, pan-Mediterranean economy of trade, which linked in a web of growing prosperity the forests of Scotland with the granaries of Egypt, the purple factories of Tyre, and the spice merchants who carried their wares along the great Silk Road from Asia. This benevolent globalism is the single factor which, according to historian Henri Pirenne, allowed the Mediterranean region to become the most prosperous and advanced culture in the world. The wealth that resulted from this web of complementary trade is what lifted all of Europe and the Middle East from the Iron Age, and made possible the empires of Persia and later of Rome. If a metaphor helps, imagine the Mediterranean as a vast octopus of prosperity, with its head somewhere near Crete, tentacles reaching to Portugal, Scotland, Morocco, and India, exuding instead of ink the many varieties of worldly goods which traversed the wine-dark sea. 

So how did this vast, mutually beneficial system of trade give way to the chaos and near-starvation which marked the Dark Ages? Traditionally, historians have pointed to the fall of Rome, the collapse of central authority and the incursion of vast numbers of untutored tribes of barbarians into Gaul and even Italy. Indeed, the sniffy Whig historian Edward Gibbon faulted the Christian Church for the empire’s collapse, and hence the next 700 years of relative darkness. But Pirenne offers another explanation, and one I like much better: He blames the Moslems.

Okay, he doesn”€™t really blame them. When an army of theologically motivated conquerors try to bring down the “€œinfidel”€ civilization of their enemies, who can really blame them? Our own Puritan founders did the same favor for the Indians, and the Spaniards for the Aztecs. It seems to arise from a basic human urge to obliterate otherness, and far be it from me to moralize about this sort of thing. Nevertheless, as partisans of European civilization and peoples (I like to root for the underdog), I can”€™t resist pointing to Pirenne. In his ground-breaking history Mohammed and Charlemagne, Pirenne argues from archaeological and documentary evidence that the fall of the Roman empire was not in fact a catastrophe, that the disruptions of order which accompanied the fall of Rome were not sufficient to wreck the ancient economy. He shows the continued use of currency, the widespread trade and relative prosperity which continued under “€œbarbarian”€ rulers who claimed continuity with Rome, learned to read and write in Latin, and quickly adopted Catholicism. To most residents of the old Roman empire, Pirenne argues, between the fifth and seventh centuries, the switchover from rule by Roman generals commanding barbarian armies to barbarians commanding themselves was not all that traumatic. In fact, life went on much as before.

So what happened to turn wealthy sixth-century Gaul into the howling wasteland it would become just a hundred years later? According to Pirenne, it was the Islamic conquest of the Middle East and North Africa, which cut Europe off from the ancient centers of grain production in Egypt, and Asiatic trade in Syria and Persia. Returning for a moment to my metaphorical cephalopod, it’s as if the tentacles of the Mediterranean octopus reaching into Europe had been hacked off. One of the first measures the new Islamic occupiers of these still mostly Christian regions took upon conquering the countries was to cut off all trade with France, Italy, and any other region inhabited by infidels. This draconian economic boycott had devastating effects, Pirenne reports”€”helping within a century or two to virtually destroy urban civilization in Europe, whose towns could no longer sustain their populations. He documents how cities such as Rome and Marseilles dwindled in size and wealth, ceasing to be cosmopolitan centers of trade, and shrinking into feudal forts surrounded by struggling farms. Instead of exporting wine to Africa and importing grain from Egypt, the Christians of regions such as Provence were reduced to a simple, subsistence economy. Those in Spain were simply conquered by Moslem invaders, and subjugated for 700 years. While this meant religious persecution, it at least entitled them to take part in the vast Islamic economy”€”which helps explain the so-called “€œgolden age”€ of medieval Spain.

As for the winemakers, Islamic invasion frequently meant the end of their industry. As Desmond Seward notes in Monks and Wine:

In the tenth century, much of southern France was ravaged by Moors, whose unwelcome presence is still commemorated by the Montagnes des Maures. True to their prophet, they uprooted the heinous vine wherever they met it; according to the Koran, “€œthere is a devil in every berry of the grape.”€ (p. 47) 

These vines, which had flourished for over 1,200 years, were painstakingly replanted in most cases by Benedictine monks, the only men educated and organized enough to undertake this delicate task. In the Bandol wine region near Marseilles, the monks of the Abbey of St. Victor in the eleventh century restored the vineyards which produced Clairette, Sauvignon, and of course the Ugni grape.

The Abbey of St. Victor was an ancient center of Christian preaching in Provence. It was founded by the important theologian St. John Cassian in the 400s in an abandoned quarry that had been turned into a secret Christian cemetery. From the Church’s earliest years, Christians had made a practice of conducting the liturgy on the tombs of holy people and venerating the relics of the dead. This gave rise to the custom, current today, of placing in every Catholic altar a saint’s relic. Indeed, priests who are traveling in hostile regions without access to such altars carry an “€œaltar cloth”€ with the bones, hair, or other relics of a saint sewn into the fabric, so they can make an altar out of any flat surface at need.

This abbey contained, most famously, the body of St. Victor (hence its name), a Roman officer executed in the second century for refusing to worship the emperor. It also boasted, tradition tells, fragments of the cross on which St. Andrew was killed, the clothes of the Virgin Mary and St. Mary Magdalene, and even the coffins which held the Holy Innocents slain by King Herod. Okay, so sometimes “€œtradition”€ likes to fib. (In reality, this was the site where Jesus and Mary Magdalene honeymooned, before taking off to found a goddess religion and sire a race of bumbling Merovingian monarchs. I know this for a fact: I read it on the beach.)

This abbey was destroyed several times by invaders during the chaos and poverty that descended on the region in the wake of its artificially induced economic collapse. The Benedictines built a new abbey on the site in the tenth century, which quickly became a center for evangelizing the region. The monks prudently built around their chapel an enormous fortress, with an eye to the still-rampaging Saracens, Vikings, and even Magyars. (Perhaps you haven”€™t dealt with many Hungarians, but if you have, you know they do still sometimes revert to type”€”unlike the poor Scandinavians, who seem to have entirely lost their “€œedge.”€ As for the Saracens… check today’s newspaper.)

The abbey became famous for its faithfulness to the Benedictine Rule, and its monks helped reform dozens of other monasteries throughout Europe. Two former abbots of St. Victor rose to become popes”€”albeit Avignon popes.

The abbey was destroyed, like nearly everything else of value in France, during the Revolution (See Drinking Song #7)”€”whose partisans tore down hundreds of historic churches, including the enormous Abbey of Cluny, one of the greatest cultural centers of European history, an exquisite building almost the size of St. Peter’s in Rome. It was blown up, and a highway built through its ruins.

As the post-Christian French”€”to the horror of the faithful remnant among them”€”complete the deconstruction of their Christian heritage, the heirs of the Moors and Saracens who once again populate Provence and other regions in prodigious, fertile numbers, meekly wait their turn to inherit the earth. If and when they do, I expect that the vast, green fields of Ugni grapes will once again be torn up and burned. So drink the stuff while you can.

Excerpted from The Bad Catholic’s Guide to Wine, Whiskey and Song

CELEBRATE: There is something of a mild baby boom occurring among the Christian French, and a stirring of Christian practice. Besides the admirable bands of Traditionalists who have kept alive the ancient liturgy of the Church and the cultural heritage of France, lay movements such as the Emmanuel and the Bethlehem communities are reviving an interest among the young in the faith of their grandfathers (or more likely, grandmothers). Toast their efforts with a bottle of Bandol blanc, over a steaming plate of the delicious dish from southwestern France, cassoulet. It’s a complex, exquisite concoction of duck fat, white beans, and pork skin”€”a batch takes two days to properly make and a solid week to finish eating. It’s perhaps my favorite dish in this book.

WARNING: This dish is not halal.

Recipe by Denise Matychowiak—with a doff of the hat to Paula Wolfert.

Day 1
2 pounds dried white beans
¾ pound fresh pork skin
Salt and freshly ground pepper
4 pounds bone-in pork shoulder, cut for stew
5 tablespoons goose fat
2 onions, chopped
3 carrots, cut in rounds
8-ounce piece of pancetta
1 head garlic, whole
1 tablespoon tomato paste
2 quarts chicken stock
Sprig parsley, thyme, bay leaf, and celery tied together

Rinse and pick through beans for any foreign rocks or debris.

Soak for 2 hours.

Tie pork skin in a roll and simmer 20 minutes in enough water to cover. Drain.

In large heavy stew pot heat duck fat. Season pork shoulder and brown on all sides. Add onions and carrots. Cook 5 minutes. Add pancetta. Cook another 3 minutes. Add garlic and tomato paste; stir 1 minute. Add stock, pork skin, and herb bundle. Simmer 1 ½ hours.

Drain beans and add to pork ragout. Simmer 1 “€“ 1 ½ hours until beans are done, depending on the freshness of beans. Cool. Skim off fat that has risen to surface and reserve.

Refrigerate overnight.

Day 2

6 duck confit legs
1 pound fresh garlic pork sausage
½ cup fresh bread crumbs

Heat ragout gently on stove to just warm. Remove pork skin and set aside. Remove any bones that are free of meat as well as large pieces of fat. Remove herb bundle and discard. Remove garlic and squeeze back into ragout.

Steam duck legs in a colander over boiling water. Remove meat from bones and set aside.

Preheat oven to 325 degrees.

Unroll the pork skin and cut into strips. Line 2 3-quart ovenproof bowls with the skin”€” fat side down.

Add ½ ragout to bowls. Scatter duck meat over and cover with remaining ragout. Swirl in reserved fat from Day 1.

Taste and adjust seasoning.

Bake 2 hours.

Brown sausage in skillet and cut into 4-inch pieces.

Reduce oven to 300 degrees.

Place sausage on top and gently press into beans, stirring top level of beans. Cover with bread crumbs.

Cook 1 ½ hours until bread crumbs are browned.

Remove from oven and rest for 20 minutes.

If desired, sprinkle with a tablespoon of melted duck fat.

Serve with a green salad and crusty bread.

Serves 10-12


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