The villa was a study in precisely that elegance which triggers revolution: in the central hallway, portraits of puffy, 18th century ladies sneered down on mountains of grapes and cheese, while a gypsy band—Le Pirate et Cie, out of Menton in the south of France—strummed hokum Hispanic songs like a broken 78-rpm record. Fred Chandon had discovered The Pirate during the course of his travels. The Pirate had false teeth, and the inner edge of his upper lip stuck to his teeth while the outer edge curled in a sneer that duplicated those of the painted duchesses on the wall. Smoked trout and asparagus with truffles disappeared like prisoners into a contemporary Bastille, chased along with potted hare, wild strawberries and indecipherable salads. Then up rose Jean Troisgros to rescue the afternoon from ennui. It was the great Steak Tartare caper, and it was well worth the mad dash along the roads of Champagne to see it performed.
First, Troisgros plopped six egg yolks into a dish, then two squirts of tabasco, followed by enough catsup to cover 10 hamburgers. Six Bloody Marys' worth of Worcestershire sauce followed, its pungency enhanced by a plethora of salt. His grizzled beard bristling, Troisgros punished the mixture with a wire whip, then soothed it with two cups of vegetable oil, half a handful of chopped onions, a touch of parsley and three sprigs of fresh watercress. Next, he scooped about two pounds of chopped beef into the bowl, kneaded it heartily, and dosed the result with a healthy shower of brandy. The result: a dish that could turn any civilized man to cannibalism. Indeed, the paunchy singer Tino Rossi ate a full quarter of the recipe and came grumbling back for more. But Troisgros was gone—out into the back lots of the Ch�teau for the next event, a trap shoot in which the canny cook dusted 10 birds out of 10 to win. "One learns to shoot in the cooking business," he allowed.
The final event, a mini bike race through another obstacle course marked by the ubiquitous Nebuchadnezzars, provided spills and thrills galore—especially when Cevert's fianc�e Christina Caraman took a tantalizing header at two miles an hour on a downslope. Then the skies, which had been glowering all afternoon, opened with a vengeance, and the Beautiful People fled back to the champagne trays.
That evening, the grand trophy was presented. The winners, if anyone really cared, were Jean-Fran�ois Piot, a rally driver of local repute, and his teammate Jean-Pierre Paoli, a publicist. In a way, it was fitting: there could be no serious winner since there had been no serious contest, and Piot acknowledged the fact with a glass of champagne on the Ch�teau de Saran's steps. Cevert, too, recognized the purpose of the two-day blowout by leaping onto a table with The Pirate's slinky, belly-dancing wife and stomping away like a mad, baby-faced gypsy. Then Beltoise replaced him, trying his deadly damndest to crack the table in two. Finally, Moustache mounted the boards—all 300 pounds of him—and when the table still refused to break, dropped his trousers in a brief, briefless and utterly contemptuous gesture. Applause! More champagne!
In the end, of course, it was the Champagne country that triumphed, just as it had over all earlier invaders. One began to understand the mystical nature which winebibbing peoples attribute to their liquid sacrament. As the candles guttered out in the ch�teau, and the last cars whined down the winding driveway through the twisted trees, past the poodle-clipped gardens, into the wet, chalky roadways of the Valley of the Maine, one also recalled the lines of the American poet, Alan Seeger, who died in the pallid mud of Champagne during the Great War. Apostrophizing a dead buddy, Seeger wrote:
In the glad revels, in the happy f�tes,
When cheeks are flushed, and glasses gilt and pearled
With the sweet wine of France that concentrates
The sunshine and the beauty of the world
Drink sometimes, you whose footsteps yet may tread
The undisturbed, delightful paths of Earth,
To those whose blood, in pious duty shed,
Hallows the soil where that same wine had birth....
A rather cool and fitting sentiment. Good night, Nina! Good night, Jacqueline! Good night, Moustache! Good night, Fred! Hic!