Snow and a vicious Mistral wind chill was forecast for the south of France. Driving to the depot of a dealer just outside Pezenas early on the first day of December, radio stations were bursting with adverts for Christmas: turkeys, sapins de noel, cut price canapés and champagne en promotion. Snows had already fallen in Paris and on the Pyrenees.
Arriving in the village, along a plane tree lined road, I passed two men hefting pieces of furniture through a large archway onto a forecourt. This had to be the place. Inside was packed full and I had to wait until more items were moved out before I could get in. A nicely coloured vigneron’s table beckoned. One of the men came over – ah, yes, these round tables with flip tops had served for wine tastings in wine cellars, and were easy to move around as needed. They would be either in a “bois noble,” a hard wood, he said, or in pine which was then covered with waxed cloth. The feet of these tables often needed to be replaced as humid cellar floors took their toll. This one was in good shape, I’d have it.
I popped a creamy white ceramic sauceboat into a galvanized trug pulled out from beneath a cupboard to begin my buying. The sauceboat had two pouring lips, one marked “M” and one marked “G”. Monsieur told me that one side was for pouring Maigre (the lighter sauce) and one side for Gras (the fat) when the cooking juices had settled. A few other small items were soon gathered in the trug.
Mais bien sur, he would bring the table and my other purchases to the main shop in Pezenas where Barry, my sterling shipper, would collect them.
Natalie, one of the first calls in Pezenas, greeted me with three kisses. It is so cold today, she said, let me make you a tea to warm you up! She commented that it had snowed only once in Pezenas in the last thirty years, and lunch out on the terrace was still the norm in December. But today the bitter wind swirled dead leaves in spirals.
Sipping a glass of mint tea I looked around. A crate of 19th century pharmacy boxes with ornate labels had to be investigated. Some still contained eucalyptus, juniper berries, sage, cinnamon from Ceylon, and things I had never seen: “Bois de Panama”, from the soap bark tree, used for cleansing and purifying the scalp. A whole world in this crate.
Tucked behind a large mirror was a painted panel – peering into the cobwebby gloom I made out a road sign for Lodeve, 54 kilometres from Montpellier. It had had a second life in someone’s workshop, and was the worse for a few paint rings, but I liked the deep blue background edged in maroon. It would clock a few road miles on the way back to the UK.
Next door in Marianne’s shop stood a black painted, wooden horse drawn hearse – an open cart with a canopy. Marianne’s husband said “Ah, oui, la mort est partout,” death is everywhere, “Some people are suspicious to sell things to do with death, but, vous voyez, I will stand a big bottle of “eau de vie” on to it!” He picked up a large demi john for distilling “eau de vie” (literally, water of life), a fruit brandy, with a flourish, and we laughed at his little joke. I gathered up a few more small items and checked linen fabrics for making cushions.
Further down the avenue a large barn stood with its doors wide open. Monsieur here apologised for the disarray – we are awaiting “les grands travaux” – and pointed up to the pitched roof where a tall accro prop supported a collapsing beam very much in need of repair.
Next door, a lady bundled in coat and scarf, welcomed me in. You are my first dealer to visit today, said Madame, everyone else must still be in bed it is so cold! I am just going for lunch but I have a place next door if you want to look. We went outside, up came the graffitied metal shutter and voila, another cavernous space appeared. I bought some knives, as I can’t resist old cutlery that has had a life at many a meal. We agreed that old steel bladed knives cut so much better than stainless steel. (I keep one for sharpening pencils).
In the old town a young woman stood painting an alpine scene in chalk paint on a shop window. The window was fast disappearing beneath blue and white snow laden fir trees. In one of the main squares a red carpet had been laid at the grand entrance of a tall building, a sign outside announced “Atelier des Lutins” (Elves’ Workshop). Christmas was coming.