Vacation in Paris Blog

A Particular Confinement

Places To Visit - Posted on Feb 10,2021 by JanSmi

Confinement, a new lockdown, is still on the table, the French government said. We emitted a groan, not again. Still, we have to admit that the first confinement which kept us holed up in our Paris apartment wasn’t so bad. That’s because we had something to do, something to keep us occupied. We had a book to write and a deadline to meet. The book was about Champagne Charlie, and in working on the book we found real inspiration for coping with our locked-in life from Charlie himself.

He was Charles-Camille Heidsieck, an ambitious champagne-maker determined to sell his bubbly to Americans. But he got caught up in the country’s Civil War; he was arrested and imprisoned as a spy for the Confederacy, a crime that carried the death penalty. In prison Heidsieck was frustrated, bored and desperately worried. He had to do something or go crazy. Finally, he came up with an answer. “Let me cook,” he begged the Union commander of the prison fort. Everything given to the prisoners was raw and stuffed all together into one bucket.

The officer acceded, and Heidsieck turned prison mealtimes into, well, maybe not gourmet experiences, but at least edible ones.

Months later the Lincoln administration relented and released him. But that was hardly the end of the story. The rest is in Champagne Charlie: the Frenchman Who Taught America to Love Champagne, in case you’re wondering. With apologies for shameless promotion, let me tell you it’s due out from Potomac Books in November.

Heidsieck’s prison story would have echoes years later in another war, World War II - another Frenchman, another winemaker, Gaston Huet, one of the 1.8 million Frenchmen forced into POW camps by German troops.

They faced deprivation, starvation and an enemy even more insidious, one who preyed on them, whose claws dug deep into their souls: boredom. Their only contact with the outside world came through a sprinkling of letters and a limited number of care packages of food and clothing their families were permitted to send.

Yet they were, they knew, the lucky ones; millions of others faced a far worse fate at the hands of the Nazis.

How did those POWs do it? How did they manage to get through the unending march of days, five years of them, each a carbon copy of the one before?

“The ones who survived it emotionally, mentally, were the ones who figured out something to do and then went about doing it,” Huet told us when we were working on an earlier book, Wine & War: the French, the Nazis and the Battle for France’s Greatest Treasure.

Huet knew what he was talking about. He was captured in May of 1940, marched across Belgium to a German Oflag, or POW camp and locked up with more than 5000 other men. He would not step outside Oflag IVD until 1945.

But Huet was one who “figured out something to do.” Like Heidsieck, he volunteered to cook for his barracks. All food sent from home had to be “catalogued” and stored, he explained, and then worked into some sort of menu. “Our favorite was the packages filled with flour and eggs.”

Cooking was not enough, though. During the long, empty nights he came up with an idea: a wine banquet for the entire camp. Within minutes of suggesting the project, he was overwhelmed with volunteers - other bored soldiers.

It took a little bit of blackmail (they caught the camp commander with some booze, something prohibited in the camp) and a lot of subterfuge before Huet’s plan became reality, but it quickly took on a life of its own as the imprisoned men latched onto the idea – a stage program about wine, reconstruction of a wine press, a choral group singing drinking songs, even a playbill of sorts.

As it turned out, all the activity provided a ruse for an even more important activity: digging an escape tunnel. Some of the wood slats taken from beds supposedly for the demonstration wine press went to shore up the underground work.

And the wine itself? One time and one time only, the blackmailed commandant permitted a few bottles to be included in the packages sent from home. Each prisoner got a “thimble-full,” Huet remembered, “but it was glorious. My only taste of wine in five years.” Here Huet paused and his eyes grew misty. “It was the best wine I ever had.”

He chronicled the story of the wine banquet in a “yearbook” the prisoners kept during their captivity and published for themselves and their families after the war. Memory books were done in other POW camps as well, historical records of how prisoners survived and what each camp did.

At Oflag XVII A, one prisoner went even further. A lonely, frustrated Roger Ribaud sprawled on his bunk on a lonely, freezing Christmas and began to write about good times and what makes them memorable - experiences shared with family and friends over food and wine. Ah, but what food? Which wine? From his ruminations, from his memory and with suggestions from fellow POWs, Ribaud’s thoughts grew into a book, Le Mâitre de Maison de sa Cave a sa Table, or The Head of the Household from his Wine Cellar to his Table. It was designed to answer the question “What wine goes with what food?” The chart of wine and food matches he produced still makes perfect combinations today. Admittedly, Ribaud had impressive advisors; the Marquis Bertrand du Lur-Saluces, head of the great Sauternes Château Yquem was one of his fellow POWs, and so were several other outstanding wine makers and connoisseurs.

Gaston Huet, too, would become a great winemaker in the years following the war. He would produce some of the country’s finest sweet wines, as well as outstanding dry whites. He also would head the association of French winemakers, organize an annual reunion of men from his Oflag and yet find time to serve more than 40 years as mayor of the Loire Valley town of Vouvray.

Huet was 94 and still working when he died in 2003. The time in confinement, he told us, had taught him the importance of “figuring out something to do.”

It is a lesson perhaps even more relevant today as our battle with Covid-19 drags on. Cook, create, compose - they still work to defeat limits.

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Our latest guest bloggers - Don and Petie Kladstrup

Don and Petie Kladstrup are authors of two best-selling books, the first being Wine and War: the French, the Nazis and the Battle for France's Greatest Treasure, a best-seller that has been optioned for a motion picture. Their second book dealt with World War I: Champagne: How the World's Most Glamorous Wine Triumphed Over War and Hard Times. Both books have been translated into more than a dozen languages.

Don and Petie are former journalists. Don was a award-winning foreign correspondent for CBS and ABC Television News. Petie worked for several mid-western newspapers before serving as an assistant to the American ambassador to UNESCO in Paris. They are the parents of two daughters and have lived in Paris since 1978, splitting their time between the city and their country home in the south of France.

Photo credit ©jamesonf

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