28 March 2016

n.d.p. in beaujolais: les conscrits, villié-morgon

The most recent book published in English about Beaujolais, as far as I can tell, is British journalist Rudolph Chelminski's wishfully titled I'll Drink To That: Beaujolais & The French Peasant Who Made It the World's Most Popular WineIt is essentially a work of Georges Duboeuf hagiography, one rendered curious for having arrived in 2007, long after Duboeuf's era of peak influence, and well into the region's contemporary market blight. Chelminski is nonetheless very astute in one passage where he compares the peculiar geographical isolation of the Beaujolais to "certain parts of Appalachia." Don't get me wrong - it's not Deliverance or anything. But the hills between Mâcon and Lyon are home to a local culture that is as colourful and strange as it is insular. I can think of no better example than the persistence, in the Beaujolais region, of the tradition popularly known as les conscrits. 

Les conscrits, or more formally, la fête des conscrits, is a ritual that originated during the Second Empire as a way to celebrate the departure of a village's youth into mandatory military service. By the 20th century it had also become an occasion to commemorate the military service of previous generations of villagers. In most towns the tradition came to include women as well as men. What happens is this: all those born in years ending in the same number as the current year (i.e. those born in 1976, 1986, 1996, etc. are those who are classed in the year of 6) raise money for a blowout block party and banquet, the dimensions of which vary according to the town in question. Some events are small, consisting only of some fanfare music and drinks at a local bar. The largest event occurs in Villefranche-sur-Saône, where the tradition is taken so seriously as continue to bar women from participation. There are dedicated church services, a massive parade, banquets, and so on over the course of several days.

Mandatory military service in France ended in 1998. But the tradition of les conscrits continues throughout Beaujolais from December through May each year, probably because it is a hell of a lot of fun. I had long been keen to experience this particular aspect of Beaujolais culture and was delighted to learn that Camille Lapierre, daughter of the late great Marcel Lapierre and a talented winemaker in her own right, was among those celebrating her conscrits in Villié-Morgon this year. She was extremely kind to invite me along to the festivities, which included floats, wigs, disco-balls, drum circles, and square-dancing hippies.

Camille Lapierre in full samba regalia.

Lancié winemaker Sébastien Besson had jus thrown a bunch of confetti on Chénas' Elisa Guerin.

I didn't tell Kéké Descombes to make that face.

The driver is holding not one, but two beers.

Chef's Table at Brooklyn Fare sommelier Michelle Smith requesting a drink from Karim Vionnet.

The hip-hop themed float.

With sommelier and vigneron-in-training David Chapel. I found the boa on the floor and only later realised that wearing it made me look as though I were attempting to pass for a twenty-year-old.

The tradition of la fête des conscrits is not limited to Beaujolais. From what I understand it is observed in parts of the Jura and Alsace and various other rural regions. But nowhere is it embraced with such intensity as the Beaujolais. It's not a stretch to presume this is partly on account of the wealth of free-flowing, inexpensive, easy-drinking wine. I sense also that the tradition of les conscrits serves a valuable social function at a time of continuing youth exodus in Beaujolais, linking young people to their forebears in their natal villages. (I had nothing like this in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, for example, and I assume that is why I rarely return.)

Camille Lapierre, Max Breton, and Atelier du Cuisiner proprietor Christian Gerber.

Georges Descombes, Jean-Claude Lapalu, Max Breton.
A private yellow-themed banquet chez Lapierre.
Mathieu Lapierre opens the mathusalem.

Yet for me the most striking aspect of the tradition of les conscrits in Beaujolais is its insularity. Who on earth knew that the sleepy villages of Beaujolais host a whole season of mardi-gras-like blowouts each year? It is a defiantly local tradition, unpromoted to outsiders even at a time when the region is starved for tourism. One suspects that such glorious silliness could only have thrived in a land accustomed to being overlooked.

Related Links:

Beaujolais, Autumn 2015:

Jean-Gilles Chasselay, Châtillon d'Azergues
Marcel Joubert, Quincié
Nicolas Chemarin, Marchampt
Anthony Thévenet, Villié-Morgon
Romain Zordan, Fleurie
Yann Bertrand, Fleurie
Domaine Thillardon, Chénas
Sylvain Chanudet, Fleurie
Patrick "Jo" Cotton, Saint-Lager
Pierre Cotton, Odenas
L'Auberge du Col du Truges, Le Truges
Julie Balagny, Moulin-à-Vent
La Cuvée des Copines 2015
Beaujolais Harvests 2015

Beaujolais Bike Trip, Summer 2015:

Georges Descombes, Vermont
Jean-Paul Thévenet, Pizay
Jules Métras, Fleurie
Rémi et Laurence Dufaitre, Saint-Etienne-des-Ouillières
Jean-Claude Lapalu, Saint-Etienne-La-Varenne
Benoit Camus, Ville-sur-Jarnioux

Beaujolais Bike Trip, Summer 2011:

Karim Vionnet, Villié-Morgon
Café de la Bascule, Fleurie
Isabelle et Bruno Perraud, Vauxrenard
Le Coq à Juliènas, Juliènas
L'Atelier du Cuisiner, Villié-Morgon

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