A warm dinner on a stormy night

The restaurateur to whom I was delivering paperwork and moonshine brandy on the French coast turned out to be a key player in the Chagny brothers' bootleg business.

The Chagnys figured the odds were slim to none that anyone would care about a 19-year-old American kid riding up the coast on a motorcycle in 1968, the year I worked as a winery intern for them in France.

One of the brothers explained to me that their barter payments were past due, and the samples that they should've distributed to key accounts a week earlier had been delayed by other "business."

I was making these deliveries on my way to Brest, where I was to meet a new acquaintance, a Scotsman named Ian, and his friends.

It was late in the afternoon when, looking like a drowned rat, I limped off the coastal asphalt highway into the parking lot. I had been fighting wind and rain for hours. Both me and my gas tanks were spent.

The restaurateur, Mr. Duval, a huge, bearlike man, popped out to greet me. Inside, the restaurant glowed with the warmth of a fire. I was offered a glass of brandy, and it hit my stomach like a hot coal, sending instant waves of heat from my toes to the top of my head. I could hear the sleet-drenched wind trying to make its way down the chimney and the return protest and flash from the burning logs.

Mrs. Duval flipped the sign on the door from "open" to "closed," then scurried into the kitchen. Mr. Duval gave me a hug and called me a "brave boy," whatever that meant. Stupid, yes; brave, I doubt it. He quickly leafed through the documents I had safe in the oiled saddlebags and grunted in satisfaction.

He then happily yelled into the kitchen about needing more apples and other fruits, which I assume meant that the moonshine production was not keeping pace with consumption. Rubbing his hands together, he then poured me another large shot of brandy. Between the brandy and the fire, things were warming up just fine.

The wind and the sleet-hail were tapping a cadence against the windows and front door, which sounded variously like groaning, wailing and the scratching of witch nails. At one point, we found ourselves almost shouting from the otherworldly choir which demanded to sit at the dinner table with us. The Duvals told me it was the worst storm in their memory.

I cannot remember eating such a lovely dinner with two of the most gracious hosts. We began with grilled seafood antipasto and dry white wine. The wine, just as in the Chagny home, was bartered and had no label. It was divine: clean, fresh and wonderful.

The next course was a fresh, very cold sea bass-flaked salad dripping with Balsamic vinegar and delicate French oil. The third course was leg of lamb augured with garlic cloves, rubbed with rosemary and black pepper and baked with sweet potatoes. It was also served with a fresh mint jelly. All of the herbs were home grown, including the mint.

The lamb was a "trade" for pear brandy. The wine was a red Bordeaux, again without a label. I was experiencing a unique lifestyle on the French coast and was beginning to understand the intricacies and balance required to pull this kind of barter system together.

I fell asleep in a deep mattress, in a guest room, while the harmonics continued to play outside — sometimes a jig, sometimes a waltz, just to keep me guessing. The next day awaited Ian and the gathering, and I prayed quietly for more soothing weather.

Lorn Razzano is a former owner of the Wine Cellar in Ashland and still works there part-time. Reach him at razz49@aol.com. To see past columns on his adventures as a young wine intern in France, go to www.dailytidings.com/razzano.

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