TRAVEL / The itch to go grape-picking: Christopher Roberts joins harvesters - and harvest mites - on the hills above Bergerac

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WE WERE a hundred years old between us, my wife and I, before we finally did what most people get up to in their teens. And for our few hours' pleasure, we suffered an ailment common in the 18th and 19th centuries, but which has almost vanished in the West. The treatment was standing stark naked, laughing hysterically and smearing each other with what appeared to be axle grease.

Before the nudge-wink goes any further, let me make it clear that our satisfied ambition was to become grape-pickers. The price we paid was 10 days' close encounter with trombicula autumnalis - the harvest mite.

In Hardy's England, the mite's sanguinary habits were familiar to farmers and field labourers, and to the retail food trade where 'grocer's itch' was commonplace. In France the creature is called the rouget or aoutier ('the August one'), though September is the month when the larva-to-nymph stage becomes parasitic on mammals such as rabbits - and grape-pickers.

First, the pleasure. As visitors to France for many years, we had a soft-focus view of the grape harvest - in spite of the industrial nature of the business, brought home to any driver stuck behind tractors towing picking machines or giant wine lorries queueing at the town co-operative. (Drive on minor roads from, say, St Emilion to Arcachon and pass viniculture's equivalent of factory farming: hundreds of featureless hectares, denying the romance of the village nameposts such as Sauternes and Barsac).

Nevertheless, the television travelogue view lingered - though, as years passed, the notion of a two-week holiday working from morning to night for a few francs and all the ordinaire we could drink became less attractive. What we needed was a private invitation to a small vineyard where we could inspect the ship without signing on for the voyage.

A couple of vintages ago, we confided this modest dream to a new friend whose family had lived in the Dordogne since the Hundred Years War, and by our next holiday everything was arranged. In a minor thunderstorm and drenching rain, we met the nephew of our host, who ran a small domaine in the hills above Bergerac. There were three families visiting the old, yellow-stone country house, which meant 17 for lunch and lots of hands among the vines. Issued with secateurs, we were shown how to prune leaves and stems while snipping the surprisingly weighty bunches of grapes into plastic buckets.

One of the sons, a medical student in Bordeaux, walked between the rows with the hotte, a great plastic container strapped to his back. When our buckets were full, we learnt to cry 'Porteur]' and emptied our grapes into it. In turn, he bent double to unload his burden into a V-shaped metal trailer towed by a small tractor parked between the green rows.

We worked all morning in alternate showers and blazing September sun on a fifth of a hectare, which we were told would make about 600 bottles of Bergerac red. The family's small children came around with refreshing bottles of water as the thundery autumn heat built up and sweatshirts were stripped off. The brisk showers sent us scrambling for waterproofs piled on the tractor, and steamed off the thick mud which clogged our silly trainers (sensible people had rubber boots; even more sensible ones, rubber gloves).

Within half an hour, we felt like old cueilleurs and snipped away, chatting to whoever was on the other side of the row. Casually, I chopped a neat corner out of a finger. A cry went up - 'Accident du travail]' and a first aid kit was sent from the house to patch me up.

During our first official break, we ate fresh green figs from a tree near the wine store while watching our morning's work sprinkled with a liquid enzyme, churned by a tractor-driven screw in the V-shaped trailer, and pumped into a 15ft drum. In 30 minutes only a froth of skin and stalks was left and on cue a violent downpour drove us into the wine store where thousands of litres fumed and fizzed in the cooling vats.

Back in the house, we sat at an enormous table looking through picture windows at Bergerac airport miles away and 500ft below. The food was simple but excellent, the conversation high-speed family French.

One discussion we had no difficulty following was on the merits of the wine we drank - three domaine reds (including a gold medal winner), a superior St Estephe for comparison, and for dessert an old Montbazillac and two 'ordinary' Champagnes which we finished sitting in the orchard, sharing a kilo or two of Muscat grapes.

Far from being the Bacchanalia it sounds, this was a delightful French family occasion: no one had more than one helping of each bottle (in paper cups, like the coffee) and the day ended with a mass mushroom hunt in the woods, led by three family dogs.

Back at the house, we were invited to see the crating and labelling shed, where - as if we were visiting dignitaries rather than a pair of foreigners - we were presented with a case of superb dessert wine, which will soon serve us for a second Christmas.

That night, the last in our cool, tiled apartment, we felt hot and itchy. Having once survived a plague of cat fleas, we compared the sensation - something biting around ankles and lower arms. In the morning the village pharmacist supplied some cream and said the itching would end in a day.

We faced a nine-hour, non-stop drive to the coast. Eerily, we felt the sensations moving up our bodies until they seemed to stop at the waist. That night in a Channel port, we found a chemist who gave us our axle grease cream and a lecture on the beast.

Rougets, we learnt, are small enough to pass through ordinary clothes and make their way up arms and legs. (We remembered the boots and gloves worn by many of our fellow-pickers). In their nymphal stage, they insert a tube into the skin, have a good feed and drop off, causing local redness and severe itching. When they cannot get past an area of the body, they congregate and cause even more severe itching - typically at the waist. (My wife and I both wore belted jeans in the car). That night came the hysteria of grease-smearing.

By the time we got back to England, our 'bump belts' were down and a week or so later, the last of the irritating sensations had gone. We were left with our case of wine, a resolve to take gloves and boots on our next autumn visit to France - and some advice for would-be cueilleurs or cueilleuses, gleaned from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

As United States forces in the Pacific learnt over decades of dealing with a similar mite, it is sensible to pack some 'deet' - dimethyl phthalate or diithyltuolamide - when in trombicula territory. It's the best repellent around, and the only way the unprotected can enjoy a few hours' picking without a week of itching.

If you are serious about picking - the real thing is not for the elderly or unfit - one of the best introductions is the French section of Susan Griffith's Work Your Way Around The World (Vacation Work, 9 Park End Street, Oxford, pounds 8.95). Or turn to page 48 for more details of grape-picking holidays. If you want to be a day-tripper, you could do worse than write directly to the address on your favourite bottle. You might not be invited to lunch, but then again . . .-

(Photograph omitted)

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