France is reeling from the audacity of health officials trying to limit wine consumption to two glasses a day.
According to Santé Publique France, almost a quarter of French adults regularly drink too much alcohol, and this level of drinking is killing 41,000 people a year, making it the second biggest cause of avoidable deaths in the country after smoking.
Sad as that statistic is, it would have had no impact on the good villagers of Clochemerle, whose exploits are recorded in the satirical novels of Gabriel Chevallier (1895-1969).
Chevallier was born in Lyon and educated in various schools before entering the city’s École des Beaux-Arts in 1911. Called up at the start of World War I, he was wounded but returned to the front where he served as an infantryman until 1918. He was awarded the Croix de Guerre and made Chevalier de la Légion d’honneur.
After the war, he worked as an art teacher, journalist, and commercial traveller before starting to write in 1925. His novel La Peur (Fear) published in 1930 drew upon his own experiences and was a damning indictment of the war. Clochemerle was written in 1934 and has since been translated into twenty-six languages. In 1947, it was turned into a film directed by Pierre Chenal and in 1972 into a BBC television serial narrated by Peter Ustinov. Chevallier wrote two sequels: Clochemerle Babylon (1951), and Clochemerle-les-Bains (1963).
In Clochemerle Babylon, the new priest is intensely pious and implacably hostile to wine – an anathema in a region of proud winemakers. The villagers conspire to get rid of him and bribe the local Archbishop with a case of their best:
“The Clochemerle 1929 was a magnificent wine. Drinking it in small sips, his grace the Archbishop felt himself well disposed towards the Clochemerlins. It takes all sorts to make a world and a Church, to people Heaven and Hell. But there was no denying that it took capable vignerons to make a wine like this, men whose minds must on no account be distracted by excessive metaphysical cares.”
Everyone who has discovered and enjoyed a wonderful wine in the heart of France will agree with Chevallier’s paean to the local product:
“For the wine of Clochemerle is at once exquisite and treacherous; it charms first the nose, then the palate, finally the entire man. Mark well that if it makes a man drunk it does not do so malignantly. It produces an enchanting light-heartedness, an intellectual sparkle which liberates the drinker from the constraints and conventions which bind him in his daily life.”
Santé Publique France draws the line at a maximum of 10 glasses of alcohol a week, including wine. Heureusement, it does not stipulate the size of the glass. Santé!