Return of the Guilds

Monday, 22 August, 2011
Neil Pendock
Neil Pendock predicts a return of medieval guilds of craftsmen to relieve the current crisis of unemployment among the youth and says food and wine shows the way forward.
“Panic on the streets of London
Panic on the streets of Birmingham
I wonder to myself
Could life ever be sane again?”

The Smiths, 1986

In the wake of urban summer riots in England earlier this month, everyone’s become a sociologist. And while Emile Joubert put it down to the low quality of SA bulk wines exported to Blighty, the real reason for the fulfillment of the prophecy of the Smiths made a quarter of a century ago, is jobs - or rather the lack thereof. The Guardian reports that UK youth employment is at its lowest level in 20 years. Youth unemployment is a Europe-wide problem. Unemployment among young Spaniards runs at an incredible 40%. France is better at 25% (although that is double the national average) thanks to a strong system of apprenticeships and workplace training. But if the French Revolution had not dissolved the medieval guilds of craftsmen, the situation would be much better today.

Certainly, two medieval French guilds that were revived in the 1950s have contributed hugely to the global triumph of French food and the fine wines of Bordeaux in particular. La Confrérie de la Chaîne des Rôtisseurs is a 1950 revival of the French royal guild of goose roasters founded in 1248 and today it is an international gastronomic society with 350 members in SA.

The Grand Conseil du Vin de Bordeaux (GCVB) was founded two years later from the various regional brotherhoods (confrèreries, compagnons du bon temps, etc.) and other organizations promoting Bordeaux wines. Each of these 15 brotherhoods is an association of wine growers and traders that undertakes to maintain local traditions and to communicate their own winemaking styles. A South African chapter of the Commanderie de Bordeaux will be established in Franschhoek later this month.

I attended a Chaîne dinner at the iconic Oyster Box hotel in Umhlanga Rocks earlier this month. The occasion was the intronisation of a fresh batch of KZN members, including the head chef of Southern Suns, who came off second best in a medieval dueling swords ceremony with Joan of Arc Alison Rutowitz, the Maître de Cérémonie. Oyster MD Wayne Coetzer joked that he thought the event could be confused with a pensioner’s dinner until the band struck up, the ladies shed their shoes and Strictly Come Dancing came to Umhlanga Rocks as Umhlanga rocked.

For this was the best wine and dine function I’ve been to in two decades covering hedonism’s beat. The wine was by Peter Finlayson and if there’s a better 2009 SA Pinot Noir around than the one from Bouchard Finlayson, I’ve yet to taste it. The food was by Kevin Joseph whose consommé that supplied the ocean in his “Sushi goes Swimming” course was the finest outside of Nobu (rumoured to be a candidate venue for this year’s Eat Out Awards). It was brilliantly offset by a 2009 Blanc de Mer Riesling/Viognier/Sauvignon Blanc/Chardonnay from Peter who noted “although this wine is our entry level offering, it is not without interest.” Kevin’s attention to detail: videos of the salmon being caught, guinea fowl being shot and an outrageous disco of pornographic cartoon fruit, set the scene for a memorable night.

One third of Chaîne members are food and wine professionals while two thirds are punters and the association performs a useful marketing function for SA fine dining, a category under serious financial pressure at the minute. In September next year, the Chaîne plays host to the International Young Sommelier of the Year Competition and an influx of tastevin twirlers should boost the wine-waiting community, struggling to achieve take-off velocity in SA.

The president of the Grand Conseil du Vin de Bordeaux is lawyer Emmanuel Cruse, the dynamic owner of Château d’Issan, an historic estate located in the commune of Cantenac at the heart of the Margaux appellation. Emmanuel recently invited Bordeaux boffin and international wine consultant Tinus van Niekerk to establish a branch of the Commanderie in South Africa.

The Commanderie is the commercial equivalent of an embassy for Bordeaux wines and there are currently 78 in various regions around the world with most in the United States, Europe and Asia. This South African Chapter will be the first in Africa and the existence of a Commanderie in SA will do much to enhance cooperation between SA wine and Bordeaux, arguably the most successful wine appellation in the world.

Three dozen candidate commandeurs will be intronised by Emmanuel in the Pierneef Museum during a ceremony at La Motte on the afternoon of 24 August 2011 during the launch of the SA Chapter. The installation will be preceded by a wine ranging tasting of R60 000 worth of Bordeaux wines donated by the 15 wine brotherhoods of Bordeaux and followed by a five course dinner in the spectacular Pierneef à La Motte restaurant, paired with Bordeaux wines. The wine list for dinner is a Bordeauxphile’s wet dream:

1. Château Latour-Martillac 2006 Graves
2. Clos de l’Oratoire 2004, Grand Cru Classe St Emilion
3. Château Figeac 2001, 1er Grand Cru Classe St Emilion
4. Château Pichon-Longueville Comtesse de Lalande 2000, 2me Cru Pauillac
5. Château Rieussec 2003, 1er Cru Classe Sauternes

The future of fine dining in SA clearly does not depend on goose roasters and commanders for its existence, but their support makes the job of selling gastronomy to the SA public that much more fun. And if the spin-offs include jobs for sous-chefs, sommeliers and retailers, perhaps today’s Panic on the Streets of London will pass SA by.