One of the first people we spoke to in our village was the wife of a beekeeper. We knocked at their door because we needed him to come and remove two nests of bees which had settled between our windows and the shutters while we had been away. The beekeeper wasn’t at home. His wife said ‘He’s in the vines. Or he’s run off with another woman. But after forty years of marriage, I doubt it.’ We had never met her before – or him for that matter. It was our introduction to a Midi way of talking – making a joke, usually with a scandalous or sexual reference, out of anything at all. For someone like me who spent more years than was really healthy growing up in Tunbridge Wells, where I can’t remember sex ever being mentioned, this habit takes some getting used to.
But for this blog entry, the point is in the first half of the statement: often, if a man is not at home, he must be ‘in the vines’. Vines demand more work than you might imagine: turning the earth between rows to remove weeds which consume precious water, ‘green pruning’ to remove leaves and to let the sun get to the ripening grapes, the vendange, and at the moment the arduous work of pruning last year’s growth which has to be done by hand and will take most viticulteurs till March to complete. Do the math: at about 5000 vines per hectare, if you have a medium vignoble of 10 hectares that’s 50,000 plants which have to be individually and carefully pruned. That’s 500 vines per day.
So what’s happening ‘in the vines’ apart from pruning, and a bit of partridge- and rabbit-shooting? Well, this plant is growing, for one thing – Diplotaxis erucoides (false rocket – Eruca is the name of the ‘real’ rocket genus).
It’s an aggressive coloniser of bare ground, so after the ground has been turned (labourée in French) and after the vendange traffic has stopped, the seeds brought by the wind or remaining in the ground germinate and grow incredibly fast and very thickly, pre-emptively stopping any other plant from gaining a foothold. In fact I always thought the name ‘rocket’ referred to the speed with which all varieties grow: in fact it comes from the Latin via Italian ruca, diminutive ruchetta, and hence French roquette.
The plants are often left between the vines at this time of year, serving as a kind of green manure when they are later ploughed in. The leaves can be used in salad, and have a strong rocket flavour, though I prefer the smaller leaves of another, related plant, which tends to grow alongside the vineyards rather than between the rows: Diplotaxis tenuifolia (wild rocket) whose yellow flowers are nodding away in most verges at the moment.
So continuing themes of innuendo and speed, how could I resist playing you Rocket 88, the smash hit recorded in 1951 by Ike Turner and his band (before Tina joined, and under the name of Jackie Brenston, the lead singer. Ike plays piano on this). It was a number one R&B hit in America, and many have called it the first rock ’n’ roll record – I don’t know about that, but it was five years before Little Richard recorded his first hit, Tutti Frutti, and before Elvis had his first number one, Heartbreak Hotel. I was born over a year post-Rocket, and it must be around 1956 that I remember my Dad playing a rough-and-tumble game which involved ‘rocking and rolling’ us children, the first time I heard the phrase. It’s difficult to use the words ‘roll’ and ‘tumble’ these days in an innocent context, but I assure you it was.
The song is ostensibly about a car, an Oldsmobile model – so a false, not a real rocket. I notice that Wikipedia coyly says it was an early example of a song in which ‘an automobile serves as a metaphor for romantic prowess’. Hmm – Robert Johnson recorded Terraplane Blues in 1936, and I’m sure someone will tell me of an earlier one. Boys and their cars, eh?
Coming up soon: In the vines, part two, of course, with perhaps my all-time favourite music video. And after that, it’s off to the seaside, including some souvenirs of a recent trip to Catalonia.