Gatherings & Celebrations: Bordeaux's Harvest Festival - #103

The Bordeaux region of France is in the southwest part of the country, bordering on the Atlantic Ocean.  The Gironde Estuary cuts in from the Atlantic and is wide and deep enough to make the city of Bordeaux a port... even though it’s fifty miles from the coast.  During the Third Century, the ancient Romans came into the area, and by the Fourth Century it was a major commercial center. 

Brigitte Benjamin is an official guide to the city, and she’s taking me on a tour of the public gardens of Bordeaux, which were created in the Eighteenth Century.

BRIGITTE BENJAMIN:  It was replanted in the Nineteenth Century in the way we can see now, in a natural way, like English-style of the Nineteenth Century.

BURT WOLF:   That’s always a big difference between the English and the French --


BURT WOLF:   -- the English liked it very natural, and the French liked it very structured.

BRIGITTE BENJAMIN:  -- straight.  Exactly.  And in English style, you have the rivers and bridges and little boats... very like nature.  Every tree has a label, with the common name, scientific name, date of plantation, the country it comes from, et cetera.  So it’s a scientific process of Bordeaux; arboretum, we call it. ... So this monument here is Girondin’s Monument.  It’s linked to these deputies killed during The Terror.  This monument is also linked to the Third Republic --

BURT WOLF:   -- which was in the late 1800s --

BRIGITTE BENJAMIN:  Yes.  So now we can see the fountains with the Republic, the woman here with the world in her hands.  And she is with three people in front of her -- the man is the symbol of  Work, the woman is Security, with cask [?] and sword, and the lion, the Force.  And they are going to kill the three men in water -- one is Hypocrisy; the middle, you can see the ears maybe, it’s Vice; the other one hiding himself is Ignorance.

BURT WOLF:   Ignorance, Vice and Hypocrisy -- killed by the Third Republic.

BRIGITTE BENJAMIN:  It’s a large program.  And these [?] disappeared from the last war; they were restored only in 1983, because the German people wanted to make cannons from them.  And it was restored back only a few years ago.  So you see a very large symbol of the Third Republic.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):   During the middle of the 1100s,  King Henry II of England married Eleanor of Aquitaine.  In her dowry were the lands of Bordeaux.  And so they became part of England and remained there for over three hundred years.  It was during those three centuries that the English discovered the great wines of Bordeaux, and began making them famous all over the world.  Each year, at the end of September or early October, the grapes of the vineyards of Bordeaux are harvested -- and it is that

gathering that we have come to take a look at.

And one of the ideal places to take a look at a traditional vineyard harvest is the Mouton Rothschild Chateau. In 1853 Baron Nathaniel de Rothschild purchased a wine- making property in the Bordeaux region of France and called it Chateau Mouton Rothschild.  In spite of the fact that it was an excellent vineyard, no one in the family showed any professional interest in it until 1922, when Baron Philippe de Rothschild decided to make it his life’s work.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  In 1924 the Baron introduced a new and rather revolutionary practice.  He took all of the wine that he had made that year and placed it  into bottles at the Chateau.  Before then, he had sold his wine in barrels.  The individual  wholesale purchaser had put the wine into bottles.  Some of them did a good job, and some of them were less talented.  It was kind of like having a great chef make a wonderful  meal. Some of the meal came to the table in the hands of skilled waiters,  and the rest

in the hands of The Three Stooges.  By putting the wine into the bottles at the chateau, the Baron took complete control of the process. 

The system eventually became an important aspect of production for all the top winemakers in Bordeaux.  Every bottle of wine from this area that is bottled at a chateau, whether it’s Rothschild or someone else, now displays a line on the label that says mise en bouteilles au chateau... “put in the bottle at the chateau.”   The grower suddenly became responsible for the quality of the wine, all the way down the line. 

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  The Baron realized that this new association between the winemaker and the final bottle made the label a kind of birth certificate, a producer’s guarantee. And so he tried to make his labels as interesting and distinctive as possible. 

The method was very direct.  Each year he commissioned a leading international artist to produce an original work of art for the label.  Famous artists like Miro... Chagall... Braque... Picasso... and Warhol have made labels for Chateau Mouton.  The Baron also decided that he could use the distinctive grapes of Bordeaux to produce a wine with a more accessible price, which he called Mouton Cadet.  In this case he kept the major art in the bottle.

PHILLIPINE DE ROTHSCHILD:   The harvest is going on, we’re extraordinarily happy this year because the weather’s fabulous, and we think we’re going to make a great. great vintage, and this we’re very happy about...

Philippine De Rothschild is the daughter of Baron Philippe.  She grew up loving the French theater and eventually became a member of the Comedie Francaise, which is one of the most famous classical theater companies in the world.  At one point, however, she decided that though she loved delivering her lines she felt a greater responsibility to her vines.  So she came home to direct the company and devote herself to the art of making wine.

PHILLIPINE DE ROTHSCHILD:  Ahhh, Mouton Cadet, my darling Mouton Cadet.  Mouton Cadet, of course, is a fabulous wine.  I mean, it’s a wine we sell all over the world; my father invented Mouton Cadet, and really, it’s the first branded wine sold around the world.  But one has to be clear about Mouton Cadet.  You know, there’s been a lot of confusion; people were saying “it’s the second wine of Mouton Rothschild...”  Of course, this is nonsense!  Mouton Cadet is a wine that can stand on its own and for its own.  And this year I’m particularly happy because the vintage is so fabulous for all of us in the Bordeaux region.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  Most celebrations take place on a specific day.  It can be very precise like Christmas, which is always on December 25th.  Or it can be a date that shifts around in relationship to some other date, like Easter does.  Harvest celebrations, however, are different.  A harvest feast can only take place after the crop has been brought in.  As a result, harvest feasts shift from crop to crop, place to place, and year to year. 

The full moon that comes up at the beginning of the fall season stays up longer than any other full moon. It also seems to give more light. And since that light is used by farmers who are busy bringing in the harvest, it’s known as The Harvest Moon.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  In general the fall harvest was a happy time.  The farmers had set a plan to produce a crop, and feed their family during the long winter.  And they had stuck to the plan.  So they had some sense of control over their environment. On the other hand, some farmers felt that they had taken the life of a living plant.  And taking life in any form is scary.  So they were happy... and they were sad.  What can I tell you... life is never perfect.

Many of the farmers believed when their crops, whatever they were, were cut down, the spirit inside the plants suffered.  They were worried that if the spirit wasn’t honored properly and thanked, it wouldn’t come back next year with a new crop.  The farmers suspected that as the harvest went on, the spirit jumped from plant to plant to avoid them... until it ended up in the last plant to be cut down.  Now, at the end of the season, the soul of the plant was hiding, in some concentrated way, inside this last stand.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  A farmer would try not to be the one who did the final cutting. Very often a group of them would stand around the last plants and actually throw their tools at it.  That way no one could tell who caused the final end.

Harvesting a vineyard, however, was different.  The vines that gave the grapes stayed alive.  The grapes were a gift.  If you cared for the vine and honored the gift, everything would be okay.  And let me tell you, there is no plant in the world that is more cared for than the plant that produces top quality wine grapes.  As far as “honoring the gift” is concerned, take a look at what goes on in a fine restaurant when wine is being ordered or served.  It gets its own list that is separate from the menu.  It has its own waiter who just deals with the wine.  Nothing at the table gets more attention.  With the possible exception of a grandchild.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  In order to get the real story, a reporter has to be able to fit in with the locals -- to dress like them and be accepted by them.

XAVIER DE EIZAGUIRRE:   Okay, Burt -- time to go to work!

BURT & XAVIER:  [speaking French; probably “let’s go”]          

XAVIER DE EIZAGUIRRE:   Well, here we have mainly Cabernet Sauvignon; this is the plateau of Mouton Rothschild, which is considered as the best piece of Mouton.  And it’s essentially Cabernet Sauvingon.  We also have around here some Cabernet [?] and Merlot, which we use for the final blend of Mouton Rothschild.  And the vines that we have here are an average of fifty years, which is obviously excellent, because the older the vine, the better the wine.

BURT WOLF:   It’s like men and women, too.

XAVIER DE EIZAGUIRRE:   Men and women, definitely.

BURT WOLF:   All right, how do I cut these guys?

XAVIER DE EIZAGUIRRE:   Well, Burt, all you have to do is cut it from the top, right on the stem.

BURT WOLF:   Okay... careful not to get -- is that right?

XAVIER DE EIZAGUIRRE:   Yeah, not to get any leaves.  That’s very important.  This is wonderful Cabernet Sauvignon.  Very good.

BURT WOLF:   It’s not gonna be a big harvest if you’re depending on me, you know.

XAVIER DE EIZAGUIRRE:   Well, but you know, you have to do it very gently and very nicely, because these grapes are very delicate.  Thank you.  I think we have about one bottle of Mouton Rothschild already.

BURT WOLF:   (laughing) How many weeks does it go on?         

XAVIER DE EIZAGUIRRE:   Well, depending on the year, between ten days and three weeks.  It really depends on the weather.  This year we had superb weather for the past three months, so we hope to complete the harvest in just about ten days.

BURT WOLF:   And can you harvest when it’s raining, or do you stop during -- 

XAVIER DE EIZAGUIRRE:   No, we stop, always, you know, because it’s not very good to harvest under the water, and even in the morning, when there’s morning moist, we like to wait until the grapes are perfectly dry before starting picking.    

BURT WOLF:   How many years should the wine be in the bottle?

XAVIER DE EIZAGUIRRE:   Definitely a minimum of twenty years to be ready.

BURT WOLF:   Oooh.

XAVIER DE EIZAGUIRRE:   That doesn’t mean -- at its peak.

BURT WOLF:   Okay.  So what we’re picking today will be ideal in my glass twenty years from now.

XAVIER DE EIZAGUIRRE:   About twenty years, yeah.

BURT WOLF:   We’d better stay in good shape if we’re gonna enjoy this.



Good-tasting and nourishing food is usually an essential part of the harvest, too.

Here at the Rothschild harvest, the lunch break runs from noon to 1:30 and there is always a hot home-style meal for five hundred.

For hundreds of years, Bordeaux had two things going for it: great wine and great wealth.  Together they made the area one of France’s most important centers for eating.  Bordeaux is the home of the black truffle and the livers of fattened geese known as foie gras.  From late summer until the end of fall, the forests of Bordeaux are filled with wild mushrooms.  Oil is the cooking medium and shallots are the starting ingredient for many recipes.  Steaks are cooked over burning twigs that have been pruned from the vines.

One of the leading restaurants in Bordeaux is Le Chapon Fin, which can be very loosely translated as “the fine chicken.” The restaurant was originally opened at the turn of the century and the main dining room still has the same decorative style as it did at the beginning. Geraldine Garcia is in charge of the front of the restaurant, and her husband Francis is the chef.

He’s starting out his menu with a potato, leek and codfish soup.  A potato is peeled and sliced into thin strips... then cut into small cubes.  An onion is diced.  Then two leeks that have been carefully washed are cut into small pieces... every part of the leek, except the very end.  The potatoes go into two cups of water that are simmering in a saucepan.  The onions are added.  After a minute the foam that comes up from the onions is skimmed off.  Then the leeks go in.  A little stirring.  About ten minutes of cooking and the potatoes are tested.  When Francis can press the potato into a paste between his fingers, it’s time to add the fish.  A cup of dried salt cod that has been broken into flakes goes in.  An ounce of butter cut into thin slices.  And finally, about two tablespoons of chopped chives.  Another three minutes of cooking and the soup is ready to serve.  It’s garnished with sprigs of parsley and chervil.

The main course is beef with a sauce Bordelaise... which is only fitting for a restaurant in Bordeaux.  Two tablespoons’ worth of chopped shallots go into a saucepan with a bay leaf, a few sprigs of thyme, some black peppercorns, and a cup of red wine.  The sauce is boiled for five minutes and flamed to reduce it.  The top of a mushroom called a cepe is peeled and cut into cubes.  A little oil is heated in a frying pan.  The tops of two more mushrooms are set into the pan.  The chopped mushrooms are added.  A little salt and a little cooking.  After a minute or so, the whole mushroom tops are turned.  Salt and pepper goes on.   A shallot is minced.  Some parsley is minced.  The shallots go in with the mushrooms; the parsley goes onto the mushrooms.  Next, the fat is trimmed off a tenderloin of beef.  A piece about two inches thick is sliced off... flattened, salted and peppered... then placed into a non-stick sauté pan that already contains a little heated oil.  By this point the sauce has reduced to about a half-cup’s worth of liquid... to which is added a thickened stock called a demi-glaze.  A minute more cooking... a pinch of sugar... and the sauce is passed through a strainer.  The result is Sauce Bordelaise. 

And now for something completely optional.  The chef prepares a slice of marrow. Marrow is found in the center of bones.  This piece comes from a beef bone.  It’s sliced into rounds that are about a half inch thick... lightly floured and sautéed for a moment next to the beef.  The mushrooms go onto the serving plate... then the beef, the sauce and finally the marrow.  

Dessert is an apple tart.  Pastry dough is floured and rolled out to a thickness of about an eighth of an inch.  A plate is used as a guide to cut out a circle of the dough, which is then transferred to a baking sheet.  The tines of a fork are used to make holes in the dough.  The holes help prevent the dough from puffing up during the cooking.  An apple is peeled, cored, cut into thin slices and arranged on top of the dough in concentric circles.  A few pats of butter go on.  Sugar is slowly sprinkled in circles onto the apples.  Then into a 375 degree Fahrenheit oven for six minutes.  When it comes out, it is presented as a single serving.  Francis points out that he only used one apple and a very thin slice of dough so it looks big but it’s not an overly large portion.  A scoop of vanilla ice cream is placed in the center, and a sprig of mint.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  Along with all the good eating and drinking at harvest time, there is a ritual called first-fruits.  Now, first-fruits are not necessarily fruits. The word “fruit” is being used here to describe the fruit of one’s labor during the growing season.  The ritual consisted of taking a portion of whatever it was that was harvested and offering it to the gods.  It was a way of saying “thank you for your help in this harvest.” Now, I hate to bring this up because I know it’s painful for many of us, but... this business of first-fruits?  It’s where taxation began.  Originally we gave a small portion of whatever  it is we harvested to the gods.  Then the ancient priesthoods decided that they were entitled to a bigger portion.  And finally our modern governments decided that they were entitled to a huge portion of whatever it was we produced.  You have to be careful with new rituals...  you never know where they’re going to end up.

The harvest was also the time of the Hiring Fairs, where people who were looking for work would stand around holding an emblem of their trade.

One of the traditional foods at the harvest was a goose.  As the harvest came to an end, geese were let loose on the fields to fatten on the corn that was left by the harvesters.  These were geese that had hatched in the spring and were being eaten in the fall.  Symbolically, they joined up different seasons of the year. 

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  The harvest goose was also used to foretell the future.  Our modern custom of breaking a wishbone in half in order to see if our wish is going to come true actually originated with reading the harvest goose-bone.  They were particularly important in terms of forecasting the weather.  If you had a light goose-bone, you were in for a mild winter.  If you had a dark goose-bone, you were in for a tough winter.  If you didn’t have a goose-bone, you were already in trouble.  I have a goose-bone.  Let’s see what it says:  “Strong winds out of the north, gusts to fifteen miles per hour... heavy rain with up to two inches of accumulation in low-lying areas... considerable thunder and lightning from low clouds.”  Well, I’ll tell ya... these goose-bones are a lot  more detailed than I thought, but not a lot more accurate than some of the guys working on the evening news.  Whatever the weather is, I hope you will join us next time as we travel around the world looking at the gatherings and celebrations that mark the passages of our lives.  I’m Burt Wolf.


BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  Uhhh... think I’d better have another look at this goosebone...