By ELIZABETH DAVID As Sunday lunches go in the village hotels of the Vaucluse department of Provence, the meal we had in the Hostellerie du 0 Chateau at Beaumes de
It was the early summer of 1956. The calami- tous frosts of the previous winter and spring had wrought havoc with the countryside which was fearful to see. The slopes and valleys of the Vaucluse and of all that country east and north- east of Avignon to Cavaillon, Apt, Pernes-les- Fontaines, Le Thor and Carpentras, which was once the papal county of Venaissin, should have been silver and freshly grey-green in the early June sun. The whole landscape was gashed with ugly black wounds. .Hundreds of olive trees, withered and blighted by the frosts and the all- blasting mistral winds which followed them, had been cut down or were standing like ancient skeletons in that fertile and beflowered landscape which is the heart and core of Provence. The tall rows of dark cypress trees, Windbreaks against the destroying mistral, were unnecessary re- minders that life in Provence is not always quite so idyllic as it may look to two English visitors driving one Sunday morning in early June from Malaucene near the foot of the Mont Ventoux toward a village so irresistibly named Beaumes de Venise. For the odd thing was that after we had lost our way three times in the identical piece of country, it dawned upon us that this piece of country was idyllic, almost too good to be true. In this pocket of land apparently untouched by the ravaging winter were no scars, no dead or doomed trees. The olives were bright with life and thick with young leaves. The crippled land- scape was here restored and complete.
It was perhaps the sense of relief that some- where at least in Provence that year there would be an olive crop and peasant farmers whose livelihoods had not been utterly destroyed that made Beaumes de Venise, when eventually we reached it, rather less interesting than the little piece of country we had passed through on our way. Subsequent inquiries revealed that the olives and the olive oil of Beaumes de Venise have a substantial local reputation; and we did, I remember, remark upon the excellence of the salad and upon an unusual anchovy-flavoured, oil-based sauce offered with the routine Sunday roast chicken that day at lunch. Nothing extra- ordinary about that. In this region, salads with good olive oil dressings, and mayonnaise sauces tasting perceptibly of fruity oil are, or were in the days before the frost destruction, the rule rather than the exception as they are in Northern France. As for the wine, I do not remember what we drank. Probably it was that reliable wine of Provence restaurants, red Gigondas from the vineyards north of Beaumes on the far side of the Dentelles de Montmirail. The wine we did not drink was, as it turned out, the remarkable one. We did not drink it because we had never heard of it, and if it was on the wine list of the
hotel—which according to Michelin it now is— we did not notice it.
The wine of Beaumes de Venise is a natural sweet golden wine made from muscat grapes with their own appellation of Muscat de Beaumes and unmixed with the Hamburg muscat which coarsens many of the sweet wines of Provence. Nobody, it seems, quite knows when the muscat grapes of Beaumes de Venise were first planted nor how the sweet wine from the vineyards of this tiny area protected by a fold in the hills from the savage north winds acquired its reputation. Certainly that reputation has always been a local one only. There are no more than three or four hectares under vine cultivation, a production of two hundred hectolitres a year and only two growers. From one of these growers, M. Combres, Mr. Gerald Asher of the firm of Asher, Storey and Co., 127 Lower Thames Street, EC1, to whose admirable sense of enterprise we already owe the import of so many interesting French regional wines hitherto unknown or unobtain- able in this country, has bought the muscat wine of Beaumes de Venise. It is, I believe, the first time this wine has ever been exported. As far as I am concerned its journey was worthwhile.
The custom of drinking a little glass of rich wine with a sweet dish or fruit seems to me a civilised one, and especially welcome to those who do not or cannot swig brandy or port after a meal. The great dessert wines of Bordeaux and the Rhine are rather beyond the reach of ordinary mortals and are in any case wines which demand a certain ceremony. Your meal has to work up to them. The wine of Beaumes, although so rare, seems somehow more within the scope of the simplest or even of an improvised meal. It retails at about 22s. a bottle, which seems reasonable enough since an opened bottle, securely re- corked, appears to remain in good condition for some while. A few days ago I shared with a friend the final from a bottle opened before Christmas. With it we ate a fresh apricot tart. The musky golden wine of Beaumes—according to Mr. Asher, and I see no reason to quarrel with his judgment, 'its bouquet is penetrating and flower- like, its flavour both honey-sweet and tangy'— and the sweet apricots vanilla sugar-coated on crumbly pastry, made an original and entrancing combination of food and wine.
Why Venise? What balm or balsam in con- junction with what lakes, lagoons, canals? Neither and none. The name Venise, they say, has the same origin as Venaissin and Vdnasque, that ancient and rather forlorn little village perched on an escarpment overlooking the twist- ing road between Carpentras and the Forest of Murs. All, it is supposed, stem from aveniensis or avignonnais. Beaumes is no balm or balsam. In the Provençal language baunio is a grotto. The Vaucluse country is honeycombed with caves and grottoes, many of them used for the cultiva- tion of mushrooms. As a spectacle one set of holes in a rock is, I find, much the same as another. So that day we took it on trust from the Guide Bleu that the cliffs at the back of the village of Beaumes are `percees de grottes.' Still, it is not unpleasing to learn that the meaning of baumardere, as in the super-glossy three-star Hostellerie de Baumaniere below Les Baux, is really baume a niero, in French grotte a prices, the grotto of the fleas.