French for a Day
We may be on our way out of Europe, but there are some bonds that cannot be undone by legislation. Some ties wider than the English Channel. Connections that can’t be cast asunder by Russian bots. That’s right, we’re talking about pan-European excuses for daytime drinking.
In the 1970s Beaujolais Nouveau Day was a huge national event in France, as vineyards raced each other to Paris with the new season’s wine. The challenge was soon extended to London after wine writers Clement Freud and Joseph Berkmann had a wager on who could get it across the Channel first. The fun spread to neighbouring countries in Europe, followed by North America and Asia. It was an annual feature on TV news and became as much a part of the 1980s as boys dressed as girls dressed as boys.
In France (and Swansea) it remains an important wine festival. On the third Thursday of November, Beaujolais Day is inescapable in Paris (and Swansea) as bars push the young vin ordinaire. Yet in London, the day has fallen from favour. There are still some pockets of West London – wherever that is – that celebrate it, but, while a couple of bars in South London join in from lunchtime, the only Beaujolais Breakfast we could only find within striking distance, was at Gordon’s Wine Bar, Villiers Street, on the north side of the chasm.
As I boarded the train for Charing Cross at the tail end of the morning rush hour I felt my joie de vivre momentarily disturbed by the glum faces of passengers looking like they were on their way to an open day at an abattoir.
‘C’mon guys!’ I wanted to shout. ‘It’s Beaujolais Nouveau Day. We’re on the wine train!’
We were also on one of the world’s Great Train Journeys. Yes, the slow-winding clatter wagon from London Bridge to Charing Cross, en route to one of the finest celebrations of viticulture, a virtual Mount Everest for organ failure enthusiasts.
Gordon’s claims to be the oldest wine bar in London and sits behind Embankment Gardens, looking out on the beautiful south. It’s candlelit vaults make it perfect for first dates, its outside tables even better for morning wine. At 10am I met with some bibulous pals – Will, Tom, several Duncs, Roxy and the Raider, with a copy of Le Monde tucked under his arm – for Gordon’s annual offering of bacon, sausage, kedgeree, hash browns, tomato, orange juice and a large glass of the new vintage.
‘Thank fuck it’s not a Continental breakfast,’ said Roxy. ‘A croissant is no breakfast for a man,’ she added, confusingly.
And what a scene we inhabited. We were joined by people dressed in stripey Breton shirts, berets and garlands of garlic, something you are unlikely to see in even the chicest arrondissements of Paris.
An elderly couple walked past the front door three times, before the old boy managed to persuade his lady love to stop for a glass. I felt like Attenborough, watching nesting birds settling into a carefully selected new abode, above an off-licence.
A sex worker trotted up the steps with her punter, who’d clearly just taken her out for breakfast. .
‘What’s that website that rates and reviews sex workers?’ Roxy wondered aloud.
‘Trick Advisor?’ suggested a Dunc.
After a bottle or so each we decided on a change of scene and a walk, as we’re nothing if not health conscious. The Raider rang ahead: ‘Avez-vous le Beaujolais Nouveau aujourd’hui? Oui? Excellente. Er, Le Monde… et Paris Match. Au revoir immédiatement, si non plus tôt.’
A random route led us to the Strand Gallery, where Steve Parke’s exhibition of Prince images sat above a basement full of photographic treasure. Amazing pictures of icons like Debbie Harry, David Bowie and ooh, Debbie Harry gave our day a veneer of cultural respectability before we sauntered into Covent Garden to stop at the first Le Beaujolais Nouveau est Arrivé sign we saw.
At Le Garrick we were only allowed to try the new wine outside on the street, due to a private party inside. That was fine. We knew our place. Then, emerging from the privileged throng inside came Half-life, carrying a bottle and glass.
‘What are you cunts doing out here?’ he asked. ‘Our Jen’s doing the bra swap inside.’
And we could have lost him to the party just like that, but he managed to get involved in a loud, tense debate with a guy begging for change, over which of them should go fuck themselves.
Once peace had been restored he then befriended the next mendicant, a lovely guy from Zimbabwe who claimed to have gone to school with Grace Mugabe and had a much less abrasive approach to asking for money.
‘Come on, lads, get out your coins out,’ said Half-life to our crowd, leaving his own pockets untroubled.
Next, on to Le Beaujolais, a little unchanging slice of France at the Soho end of Covent Garden; small, cramped and cosy, like a micropub for wine. The atmosphere, booze, staff and food are all so French, you’re almost obliged to experience a bout of insouciance on arrival.
‘I’ll have a bottle of Nouveau and a boiled egg,’ bellowed Half-life to whoever was closest to the bar.
‘Boiled egg? What you on about?’
‘Just ask for it. In French. Jesus, do you not know the best spot for wine and a boiled egg in Soho? Do you even live in London?’
After another few bottles, boiled eggs, plates of cheese and sausages, we felt the need for some variety to our liquid intake. Man cannot live by wine alone. So we went for a couple of pints at the Phoenix Arts Club, aka Shutters, a bar heavy with late night memories that reside just out of reach.
I checked the Beaujolais Day hashtag to see if anyone was still having new wine vibes. They were. Unfortunately for us, they were all in South Wales. For reasons that remain unclear South Wales, and Swansea in particular, has never turned its back on this day of celebration. They party like it’s 1985. People take the day off, get dolled up and go out and get smashed on the new gamay juice. Needless to say, we’ll be spending next Beaujolais Day in Swansea.
We may have been a little tipsy by this point and decided to introduce a very English twist to the occasion. We located a Soho pub that had access to televised football and added Billericay Town and Leatherhead’s FA Cup clash into the mix. All our lot like a bit of Dulwich Hamlet and what it stands for, and it’s fair to say that Billericay represent something else entirely in the non-league football world. And so their humiliating defeat was met by raucous celebrations in our midst and widespread bafflement from the rest of the pub.
At some point there may have been a smoke-up and a dab because despite our having been on the sauce for 12 hours, we embarked on a journey to Borough. We landed at the sports bar, Number 1 London, knowing that it would be open till 6am with that strange Caracas-cum-Romford feel it has. Unfortunately, one of us (aged 29) didn’t have ID and we were refused entry.
We all trudged off to the Southwark Tavern, except for Half-life, who abandoned us for Number 1 so he could win some money at pool and talk to other people’s girlfriends.
Standing outside the Southwark, making new smoking friends, it felt like that first pint after a holiday, which in a way it was. We’d made a brief journey to connect with our French brothers and sisters through the medium of wine. But it was good to be home where we understood the language, the humour and the currency again.
Back on South London soil, we also instinctively knew the next bar to go to, now the Roxy has closed, to be shamefully replaced by a KF-fucking-C. We took our new friends to the Blue-Eyed Maid, Borough’s odd curry and karaoke concoction, where the universe began to blur, urging a retreat to the homestead and a well-earned rest from our day of toil.
It had been a day with French roots but with a very British flourish of football, beer and the almost endless night. In these times of unnecessary and unwise division, it’s heartening to be reminded why we’re friends, in a city with more French people than Bordeaux.
Vive La France. Vive l’entente cordiale. And fuck le Brexit. Hard.
More on our Beaujolais Nouveau Day adventures in this podcast:
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Image credit: Beaujolais Breakfast by @photodunc.