Monday, May 28, 2007

Life in a Wine Village

Irsch fountain with murals honoring its wine heritage

In 1984, with hardly any knowledge of German beyond "Der Bleistift ist auf dem Tisch" ("The pencil is on the table"; a phrase that doesn't come up very often), I wandered into a bookstore in Saarburg. I was looking, as always, for a book that might tell me how people in Irsch, Zerf, and Serrig had lived in the 19th century. I figured that if I found something written in German, I would somehow work out a way to have it read to me. But without being able to read titles, it was almost impossible to find what I wanted. I asked a clerk who spoke a little English for help. At first she shook her head, indicating the store had nothing. Then she consulted with another clerk, and they went to a shelf where the children's books were kept. She came back with a children's book translated from French into German. In addition to the text, it had wonderfully descriptive line drawings of farm life in a village in Lorraine. I was doubtful. "Would life in this French village be similar to village life here?" I asked. Both clerks gave me an "I can't believe she said that" look, and one of them replied with a smile, "Well it's just right over there across the border." I bought the little volume and, to use an overused but apt cliche, it really is worth its weight in gold.

The book, "Landleben im Jahreslauf" by Jean Morette takes the young reader through the four seasons of the year, with the corresponding work on the farm during those seasons. The time period is the second part of the 19th century. There was a description of the wine harvest, and I have decided to make such an important part of life in the region the topic for this post.

Along with the clear and concise description from the children's book I've described, I've also included material from the guidebook which is published by the staff of the Roscheider Hof Museum in Konz, to try to formulate a good picture of the importance of viticulture in the villages along the Saar, and in the Lorraine region of France as well.

A translation from the children's book, "Landleben in Jahreslauf" by Jean Morette

At one time, wine was one of the biggest sources of income of Lothringen (Lorraine). The Romans had brought the grape vines from Italy and planted them along the Lothringen slopes. In the Middle Ages wine accounted for the affluence of the Lothringen settlements; it was sold to Flanders and Germany.

The grapevines grew along all the slopes of the Mosel, the Meurthe, the Seille, the Saar and the Maas Rivers. They thrived on the sunny side of the slopes, protected from the north wind, and the fog from the river also protected those vines that grew in and near the towns. Wine growing was rather difficult, because the grapevines were tender and affected by weather conditions and by a great number of diseases. The frost in the winter and also in the spring, the rain when the vines were in bloom and hail during any part of the growing season could spoil the harvest.

During the entire year, the wine hills required a great deal of work and care: shortly before the beginning of winter, the hills had to be plowed. They had to be hoed many times in summer. Stakes for the vines had to be set in and then, in off season, pulled out again and piled up in bunches. In winter and summer the vines had to be cut; in spring the branches bound to the stakes.

In October the time came for the wine harvest. The wine farmer sent messages to friends and relatives, in order to recruit hands to pick the grapes and carry the containers filled with them.

When the village clock rang in the morning, the workers started out with baskets and panniers . Each person started in one of the rows and with much skill cut the grapes from the vine and filled one basket after another. The full baskets were emptied into the pannier. The panniers were emptied again into the tubs on the wagons that were parked at the wayside.

A closeup of one of the Irsch murals. A worker wears a yoked pannier

After days of hard work, the harvest, which the wine farmer and his family had worried about the entire year, was about to end. The grapes could be brought to press and one batch after another could be crushed. The press was gigantic; like a overgrown nutcracker...

The sweet wine "must" (juice of the grapes which have been pressed) flowed in steams into earthenware basins or wooden tubs. In time the flow became weaker. When it seemed the last drop was pressed out of the grapes, the men shoved a strong beam under the press and turned the screw with all their strength one more time. They pressed so hard that not one little drop of the grape must escaped them.

From the Guidebook, "Freilichtmuseum Roscheiderhof, Konz."

At the open-air museum at Roscheider Hof, there is a carefully constructed wine growing exhibit which explains the history of vineyards along the Moselle, Saar, and Ruhr Rivers. The following information is from the guidebook and from information printed on a signboard near the exhibit.

It was the Romans who introduced grape vines to the Belgian and German provinces. Grapes have been grown continuously on the Moselle and the Saar for about 2,000 years. The Riesling grape that is characteristic today, however, was not the dominant variety of grape cultivated there until the 18th century. Up to that point there were various varieties of grapes, including the Müller-Thurgau, the Silvaner that is called Rivaner in Luxembourg, and the Elbling, which is still grown on the German banks of the upper Moselle. The Elbling is the grape used as the basis for making Sekt, the German version of Champagne.

Due to the steep slopes of the Saar, wine growing has always been very difficult. However, thanks to the hours of intense sun and the type of soil which absorbs the heat, high quality wines could be produced. Nonetheless there was always the risk in spring that late ground frosts would damage the vines already in bloom. For this reason small heaters were placed in the vineyard, fueled with wood or coal in order to keep the cold frosty air near the ground in motion.

The tools used for working in the vineyards in earlier times are shown in one of the parts of the exhibit. From left to right the staking axe for sharpening and hammering in the vine stakes; double pronged hoes for working the soil in the vineyard; mattock for weeding; hoes for planting vines; trenching hammer with head for trenching and smashing up bigger stones; trenching hammer with "tap" for digging up roots but also for trenching; trenching hammer with large tap; small and large trenching hammers; and the "pick" for cutting furrows.

In the new vineyards, the slate ground had to be broken up with the trenching hammer. Workers used their tools for both "digging" and "moving" the soil. Digging deeply and turning the soil over was done in the spring. Moving or loosening up the surface of the soil was done in the early summer to prevent weeds from growing. Stable manure was the basis of any vineyard fertilizer. Tubs and sleds were used and are sometimes still used to take it out, mostly in the winter from January to March. The manure was spread with a pitchfork along the rows of vines and then dug in with the hoe.

Traditionally the grape harvest was woman's work. The women pinched off the ripe grapes with their bare fingers. Harvesting shears only became necessary in the 20th century with the advent of new graft stock. The grapes, once picked, were put in paniers which were sometimes like baskets worn on the back. Often they had a slanting base because of the steep slopes. Once the baskets were full they were emptied into tubs which were carried by the men. These tubs were so heavy once they were full that they sometimes were raised with a crank frame so that the bearer could get them on his shoulders. The tubs were woven from willow or bramble runners and sealed with pitch.

Once the grapes had been harvested they were crushed either on the slopes of the vineyard or at home in the grape crusher and then taken to the wine press without delay. The grape "must" (juice of the grapes which have been pressed) was separated in the press from the solid parts, known as the "marc" or "pomace." The must was taken straight to the cellar from the wine press. The Romans pressed their grapes in the vineyard. The oldest preserved wine presses date back to the Middle Ages and are similar to the Roman ones in design. They are so-called beam wine presses which worked on the principle of leverage. Because of their typically long horizontal beams, they were housed in special buildings called press houses.

Hungarian beam press reproduction

Roscheiderhof Museum photo of a screw press

Screw presses worked with spindle pressure. They took up considerably less space, which was an advantage.
The spindles were originally made of wood and often unable to withstand the high loads they were subjected to. Turning the wood spindles required a lot of strength. This meant screw presses only began to predominate in the 19th century after the industrial revolution made more effective iron screw presses available.

The next time you have a glass of wine from the vineyards of the Rheinland, appreciate!

Morette, Jean. "Landleben im Jahreslauf", Saarbrücker Druckerei und Verlag, 1983
"Freilichtmuseum Roscheider Hof Konz Museum Guide", self-published, 2001

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

When Life Began

In my last post, I wrote about some of the Normandy/Kreis Saarburg customs and superstitions at the end of life. At the beginning of life, there were also unfamiliar customs which were observed and firmly held superstitions which are little known in our own day.

The book I'm using to describe birth customs, LA NORMANDIE, is the one I used in the last post. In detail, it describes the life of a woman of Normandy from the time she conceived a child until a few weeks after the birth. Since death and burial customs were so similar in Normandy and Kreis Saarburg, I believe the same must be true for the pregnancy and birth stage of life.

In Normandy, and probably in Kreis Saarburg, the pregnant woman had to be extremely cautious for the months that she carried her child in her womb. Dangers were difficult to avoid if the the old wives' tales were believed.

What were these beliefs? Here is a sample:

*Don’t look at ugly things. If you look at the lame, the hunchback, the dwarf, or anyone with a disfigurement, then your newborn may be disfigured or have physical deformities. Try to look only at beautiful people." This superstition, according to the LA NORMANDIE's author, Hippolyte Gancel, often caused marital jealousy. (And pity the woman who had an ugly husband)

*Have nothing to do with the itinerants who come with bears, monkeys, apes or other hairy beasts.

*Avoid hare and fish or the child may have a harelip or brain deformities.

*Do not to look on the dead, sit up with the dead, or sprinkle the dead person with holy water so that your child will not be born dead.

*Do not raise yours arms too often or the umbilical cord may wrap around the baby's neck and strangle it at birth, nor should you hold a child on your lap.

*You must not give in to any intense craving for berries (strawberries, currants, raspberries) or the child will have a birthmark on its body.

At the first labor pains, the midwife was called. Doctors were only called in case of disaster, and probably they were not available at all in the small villages. Upon arriving the midwife started the heating of a generous quantity of water at the fireplace. She pushed the men, young children, and even the husband out of the room. Pious figures were hung where they could be seen from the laboring woman's bed.

The mother did not usually give birth in bed but on a table which was covered with hemp sacking cloth that was placed near the fireplace. Or the woman might sit at the foot of the bed for the delivery.

Immediately after the birth and the announcement of the sex, the midwife separated the infant from the mother and cut the umbilical cord. When the placenta was expelled, the cord and placenta were buried, often at the foot of a rosebush. In Normandy, noted for its dairy products, the new child was rubbed with fresh butter. One or two drops of the mother's first milk were placed on the baby's eyes to prevent opthalmia. If the baby was a girl, her nipples were pinched so that when she became a mother, she would be able to nurse her baby without difficulty. The mother was helped into her bed and the baby was placed in a basket or a cradle. The cradle was usually lined with a sack filled with the hulls of oats. The baby, most often, was wrapped in linen in the fashion of a mummy to protect against colic and deformed legs. It received only sugar water the first day or two after birth. Then it was nursed. Cradle confinement went on for 10-12 months, with the baby being taken from the cradle only three times a day unless there was a grandmother living with the family.

After the birth, by Catholic Church decree, the new mother was forbidden many activities for about three weeks. However cleaners and housemaids were allowed to work sooner - in nine days. During this time, the woman was judged impure and could not show herself in public. She did not cut bread since it was believed it would not last if she touched it. She could not handle the milk because it would turn sour. She could not touch any meat for fear it would spoil. She could not pull water from the well because the water might become contaminated.

Finally the woman was allowed back into society after a ceremony of ritual cleansing, called churching. In Normandy the mother, accompanied by the midwife, went to the church for the act of purification. The midwife brought a loaf of bread that she had made especially for the occasion. The mother knelt in the last pew. There was a “low mass” and then the priest performed the churching ritual. After he blessed the mother, he blessed the bread and took off the first small piece. Some of the blessed bread was given to family and friends who were present. A small piece was kept forever; supposedly that piece would never mold.

The idea of women being thought "unclean" until purified may seem discriminatory and sexist to those of us born in later centuries. But the superstitions and the church ceremony probably helped mothers regain much needed strength before they returned to house and field work. In the book "German Women in the Nineteenth Century," W.R. Lee cites statistics to show that infant mortality was highest in those area where the mothers returned to agricultural labor within days after birth. Breast feeding when the mother was engaged in field work was sporadic at best. Yet breast feeding was far healthier for the infant than a diet of unpasteurized cow's milk. In addition, infants often were brought to the fields while the mother worked, whatever the weather conditions might be. Even three weeks at home, restricted to quiet activities, was a help to both mother and child.

And now to my own mother's belief in one of these Normandy superstitions. Mom had been told that one should not look at unpleasant things while she was pregnant. So she took special care to avoid a particular man in our tiny Wisconsin village. This man, "Little Mike," was a little person who in those days was called a midget. One day, as Mom went up the concrete steps of the town's general store, Little Mike came out of the store and moved directly into her path. Of course, she had to look at him. Many years later, she confessed to me how silly she felt because she had believed that superstition. She laughed as she explained how she unwrapped my blanket fearfully in those first moments that she held me in her arms. She had to see how long my legs were.

Just to satisfy your curiosity, I am 5' 6" tall - but I do have rather short legs!