Sunday, March 28, 2010

Toques et Clochers

Well, it is pretty well impossible to describe the local wine festival, but I shall give it a try.

Firstly, some history. The Sieur d’Arques winery in Limoux has been making a lot of wine for a very, very long time; sparkling wine has been around the region since 1531. Much of it wonderful, some exceptional; they also make a rather palatable blend sold by Gallo in the US and Canada called Red Bicyclette, although this has been subject to a recent scandal regarding a Grape Deception.

Enough of the sour grapes, though, the winery is a superb corporate citizen, and among their other community works, is the annual (this was the twenty-first, so for a region steeped in history, it is a rather modern event) Toques et Clochers.

One village is picked each year from the region that the winery sources their grapes, and a festival is held to celebrate wine, food and the general joie de vivre on the day before the annual professional wine auction. And this year, the festival was held in Coiza, the village next to ours.

Ours, of course, is Esperaza; a town of about 3,000 folks in the High Aude Valley, where a couple of years ago we bought an old butcher’s shop in a moment of rose wine induced lunacy, and has become a second home. It is a marvellous place, but more of the Languedoc another time.

The festival is a masterpiece of organisation; 30 - 35,000 people are drawn into the town which is completely sealed off to traffic. One parks in large areas in nearby towns and shuttled to and fro by bus from 2.00pm until midnight. Throughout the town there are wine cellars, food stalls, bands, wandering musicians, clowns and thousands and thousands of visitors laughing, drinking and thoroughly enjoying themselves.

And here’s the thing; when you arrive, you buy a glass for €3 which you carry with you all afternoon and evening, filling it up for €2 per glass of €10 per bottle, decanted into a rather (it has to be said) medical looking jug. Imaging if you will, 35,000 folks with more than a glass or two warming their senses of humour, wandering, eating, dancing and carrying actual glass! I only heard two break all evening, each to a rousing cheer. People from eight to eighty, every shape and size, laughing chatting and carrying glass; I loved it. How could one not?

And the food! Duck sandwiches, oysters, giant shrimp, moules frites, pastries and much else for only a few euro; plentiful and delicious.

“What of the proceeds of the festival”, I hear you ask? Well, the purpose is to raise money to mend and restore the local church; community wins, people have fun, the weather was brilliant and we all decided to come again next year when the festival is to be held in Limoux itself.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The Languedoc: Of Cathars and Wine Festivals

For reasons that I am still unable to quite explain, I bought an old butcher’s shop in Esperaza, a small market-town in the upper Aude Valley a couple of years ago, and try to get back here as often as possible; it is not exactly simple, living as I do in Winnipeg, but I do manage to spend a few weeks each year here.

The view from my "office"

It is a fascinating place; stunningly beautiful, earthy, accommodating and generally absorbing. I am not quite sure why, and to be honest, I had never heard of the place until my father suggested that I seek a bolt-hole in the Languedoc; I had wanted to think about perhaps buying a place in Europe in the future. Well, one fateful and wet Sunday afternoon a couple of years ago found us here in the Haute Vallée and within an hour the proud owners of this old shop. Tough to explain, but there you are.

So after my father’s funeral last Friday in London, it seemed natural to head here to recharge the batteries.

We went driving yesterday; one of the many attractions of the region is the time-warp that an afternoon’s drive will lead one through. Not, perhaps, a warp of Dr. Who dimensions, but nevertheless there is an immediate feeling of the 1970s, then the 1930s and finally, as one turns a corner to spy an ancient village, little changed since the time of the Cathars of the 12th century, the landscape, but physical and cultural plays rather pleasant tricks with the mind.

There are a squillion gorgeous places to visit, but yesterday it was Laroque de Fa that grabbed our attention. Turning a corner, the village lay clinging to the side of the hill, almost tumbling down to the river; higgledy-piggledy, I observed, must be a Cathar term meaning town planning.

And what a little village; its DNA stretching back millennia, houses piled upon foundations of ancient houses, secrets almost visible as they contoured the tiny streets winding their way perilously through the tiny community. Although miles from any apparent economic activity, Laroque seemed peaceful and assured in a way that contemporary settlements never quite do.

The Cathars are a fascinating group, and while I would not profess to have more than a glancing knowledge of their history, I do have an unending fascination with them. In the tenth and eleventh centuries, their brand of Christianity, essentially a dualist philosophy that embraced an aesthetic approach that contrasted dramatically with Rome’s authoritarian and grasping ministry of the time, and eventually led to the only Christian on Christian crusade being called by the rather ironically named Pope Innocent III that killed, over a period of seventy years or so, over 250,000 people in this small region of France.

There are still lingering reminders of this inglorious past, with villages like Laroque and Montaillou, remnants of their castles at Montsegur, Queribus and Peyepertuse, and linguistically through the persistence of languages like Oc that still resonate through the region’s markets and cafes. Oddly, a chap died last year in a village two away from Esperaza; aged 92, he had remained unilingual in Oc throughout his life. Astonishing that it is possible to live in the twenty-first century, still only speaking the language of the troubadours, but that is the Aude Valley.

The ruins at Montaillou
I love it here. I have spent the bulk of the past fifty years wandering around, looking and thinking about life all over the globe, but still love to be here; I find it cathartic, relaxing, invigorating and its endless and remarkable beauty a salve for the eyes.

And this weekend is the Big One. Toques et Clochers is a new tradition (if one can have such a concept), that this weekend comes to Coiza, our neighbouring village.

In a nutshell, each year, the local mega-winery, Sieur d’Arques, arrange for their annual wine-auction to be held a day following a festival; the festival, drawing an eye-popping 35,000 folks into a small village, offers the proceeds from the sale of a lot of wine to restore the local village church.

Kicking off with a parade of the (now) twenty-one villages whose churches have been restored thus, the wine tents, food stalls and roaming musicians start in earnest at 4.00pm, and continue until midnight. Now, one can simply not imagine 35,000 folks drinking for hours in a village designed to accommodate 1,000 in England; there will be no “incidents”, ambulances, disturbances or other such social irritants; simply a huge festival drawing people from throughout the region to sample the 2009 crop, meet friends, laugh and dance until late.

Traffic management and parking are themselves an interesting exercise, and more of that on Sunday after the event. Suffice it to say, however, that I am looking forward immensely to the day, and even more as friends from Chicago, Winnipeg and Vancouver will be joining in the frivolities.

It is only a pity that my Dad can’t be here.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The Credit Card Paradox

I remember CHARGEX; introduced in the late1970s it revolutionised spending by masses of ordinary people. Sure, credit had existed for years, and there were cards like Diners Club that offered a very special clientele the opportunity to “charge” their dinners, but there was nothing like CHARGEX.

Oddly, given today’s proliferation of personal credit, it had a pretty slow start. There were cards usually reflecting travel aspirations or early attempts by businesses to lure their clients into their own network of allied businesses.

It is an interesting business in many ways, but there is one characteristic that defines individual credit; and this is the card providers’ ability to force the costs of transactions onto the merchants; not the “users” of credit, but the thousands of businesses, large and small, that accept the cards.

The credit card companies have successfully become a 2 - 3% partner in everyone’s company; and take its rake right off the top.

Think about that. As much as 3%, nearly one dollar (or pound or euro) from every thirty that pass through a business is siphoned off to satisfy the avaricious appetites of the credit card companies.

In the beginning, merchants paid this price as the cost of luring the “best” customers to their restaurants, hotels and resorts. It also offered merchants access to almost instant cash, eliminating the requirement to offer credit terms, and the inherent risks that this might bring. This exclusivity, however, has long gone. Mailboxes are stuffed daily with enticements to apply for more and more cards offering an eye popping selection of benefits.

Cash rebates, airline points, access to hard-to-get concert tickets, toasters and more; there is no end to the imagination of the card companies in their quest to attain more card holders, and more valuable debt. There is little limit to the punitive levels of interest charged, and slowly but surely, we are all crushed by the relentless steamroller of credit cards.

As a merchant, I am obliged to accept cards as payment at par with cash; this is written in stone, although I see more and more companies deliberately ignoring this rule. However, they are unlikely to take on Ryanair for charging surcharges to use cards; a contract, as we all know, is an agreement binding on the weaker party.

Things are changing however; I for one and fed up with the brutality of my merchant agreements, and am no longer accepting American Express. The final straw in that relationship was a letter advising that the discount rate for premium cards was to be increased “in order for us to offer our mutual premium clients the best purchasing experience”, or something like that.

The reality was that AMEX wanted to offer their premium cardholders new and exciting benefits, and as always, tossed the cost onto the merchants. When will this nonsense stop? Only when cards are actually priced to reflect the benefits offered; however, there are probably limited folks willing to pay a $500 annual fee. So the cost is shifted in its entirety to the only participant in the transaction with no additional benefit!

The paradox, of course, is that the very plastic that has become the lubricant of global commerce is rushing headlong toward a parapet of rejection.

Imagine, if you will, the costs to a major international airline to accept credit cards. Firstly in the rare firmament of airline profits, an income of 2 - 3% of revenue would be spectacular; VISA, MasterCard and AMEX take this amount from the airlines daily without even a blink. Secondly, the carriers are required to post extraordinary levels of security to “protect” the card companies from a potential default. While one may be sympathetic to this line of thinking, it still means that Air Canada (for example) has in excess of $1.2 billion (yes, billion) tied up in guarantees; working capital that could otherwise be put to work developing their airline.

This are going to change; one possible and logical route for the airlines lies in the resurrection of their own credit card, the Universal Air Travel Plan. Perhaps offering their best clients the option for a cost/revenue split to use the UATP, they will be able to switch billions of dollars of business away from the current brand cards. It would be difficult, of course, but as the primary global users of the processing functions of VISA and MasterCard any revolution would have to start with the airlines.

And how much money do the global hotel brands pay? An extraordinary amount of money is involved, but in this case, the value of the expense has fallen way away from the pipers who should start to call the tune.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Cod and Chowder

It is nigh on impossible to have a boring time in St. John’s. There is every type of entertainment that one could envision or need, and plenty of folks to meet.

Except on the night that Canada won gold.

The streets of the city were bare; pubs populated only by diehards; restaurants lay without custom. Creepy, almost science fiction; the day after Armageddon.

In the interests of comparison and entertainment, however, I was out wandering these bare streets; to tell the truth, I am not terribly interested in hockey, and only the last ten minutes or so of a game holds my attention. I have to add, however, that for an aficionado of the last ten minutes, the Olympic final was a doozy. Played, I have to add, to about ten of us in a bar and then replayed several dozen times to myself alone in a nice restaurant; the third in a series of four that I was testing.

The test was simple; sea food chowder followed by cod. How one can go wrong, I thought in St. John’s, the home of the few cod that are still legally extracted from the Atlantic Ocean. I tried three restaurants for dinner and one other for lunch where I couldn’t quite force another cod on myself - however, their spinach salad with scallops was terrific.

The first was The Cellar; then Oliver’s and finally tonight, Portobello’s. Seafood chowder in all, plus The Peppermill, my lunch haunt, and cod, one of the most luscious of all fish, which, when served simply and fresh is, in my humble opinion, simply magical.

I have to say, that the cod in The Cellar was streets ahead of the others; absolutely perfect, and fresh to the point that I thought the kitchen staff were hauling it in through their back window. Their scrunchions were idyllic, the fish sublime and their shrimp bisque simply mouth-watering. Actually, after dinner on Saturday, I wondered why I should continue the research; I should simply come back here again and know that the best had been found.

But that was Saturday; my Sunday research, coloured by the Olympic dream, led me to Oliver’s. I actually avoided the soup, and went instead for scallops. Delicious. Their cod, pretty good, but not quite a contender. The server disinterested, and the only other table to arrive, really really dull; I like eavesdropping.

Tonight, I tried Portobello’s; I am staying the in The Courtyard Marriott, a lovely hotel, friendly and well located, but served only by Smitty’s. Now I am sure that Smitty’s has its place in the culinary firmament, but not for me. A cursory glance at their menu highlighted a field of brown food, and I needed something more.

It was. However, pouring with rain; boats were really bobbing up and down in the harbour, and the wind sheeting down the street. I love weather; at home, and all too often everywhere else, weather has been dumbed-down, and we get it all rather gently and homogenised. Here, however, it rains; the wind howls and it is great to watch, and even walk out in a little.

So I popped next door and had the best chowder ever; more fish than potato, flavour and texture. Brilliant, but the cod? Sadly it couldn’t hold a candle to the first night at The Cellar. It offers a great view, reasonably friendly staff, overseen by a micro-managing boss, and a pretty good menu.

The bars however, are fabulous as a post-cod exercise. Sandwiched between Duckworth and Gower Street lies George Street; every building a bar or restaurant, and feast of music, sound, people and the home of a truly distinct society. Bands playing seven days a week, and good ones at that!

I love Newfoundland, and this three-day visit has simply made me want to come back again soon.

And did I talk about Cape Spear? No, of course not, but it is terrific, and just one more place to visit in this magical province.