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April's Novel Pairing

The Violins of Saint-Jacques by Patrick Leigh Fermor
Passobianco IGT Tenuta di Passopisciaro 2014

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Come with us to the magical Caribbean island of Saint-Jacques where passions – and a volcano – simmer. Helping Damian choose our #NovelPairing are James Franklin from Corney & Barrow and Simon Heafield from Foyles.

You won’t find the island of Saint-Jacques in any atlas. It exists only in Patrick Leigh Fermor’s curious and charming novella – slender yet sparkling with description and drama. The Violins of Saint-Jacques, published in 1953, follows gilded Creole islanders for whom time seems to have stopped around the French Revolution. That is, until the island’s volcano rumbles…

Consider that your spoiler alert.

Saint-Jacques now exists only in the memory of Mademoiselle Berthe and in a picture she painted which now hangs on a Greek island where our unnamed narrator encounters her. This prompts her to recount her adventures as governess to the family of her distant cousin, Count Serindan.

Geographically Saint-Jacques is, or was: “hung like a bead on the sixty first meridian.” Home to Arawaks, Caribs, Columbus and the English then finally the French, it is wild and civilised, a gracious arcaded waterfront surrounded by jungle surmounted by a simmering volcano.

“Fermor really shows his travel writing chops,” says Simon from Foyles. Every sunset is “like a phoenix’s funeral”. It is “a miraculous region suspended in space where everything – the forests, the sea, the air and the sunset – united in a favourable conspiracy.”

Indeed. The prose proceeds in this mannered manner. A BBC journalist once described Fermor as “a cross between Indiana Jones, James Bond and Graham Greene.” His adventures inspired a whole generation of travel writers– ‘A Time of Gifts’ describes his WALK from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople in 1933. He was friends with Durell and Fleming – now that’s a party.

As with Bond, there’s much to discomfit modern ears. “It’s definitely dated,” says Simon. It’s impossible not to flinch at “a voluminous negress” and other indignities. The depiction of the “foppish, rakish, perfumed” Captain, the island’s style arbiter, is no less – shall we charitably say – of its time. Although he does get the book’s best line – witnessing the décor for the Ball he cries: “it’s worse than an English Christmas at Cape Town!” And yet there is sympathy for Mademoiselle Berthe’s unrequited love of for her distant cousin Josephine: “I wish that things had been planned for me on more ordinary lines.”

Ultimately, Saint-Jacques bewitches, floating among other magical isles from The Iliad to The Tempest. But Eden cannot last.

As it’s the Caribbean, Carnival is the high-point. The Count throws a decadent Ball – his mansion bedecked and his guests bedazzling in fancy dress. “A ball is almost a short lifetime in itself,” says Mademoiselle Berthe. They feast on quails in aspic, towers of crab and lobster, turtles, iguana and hearts of palm gouged from trees chopped down especially. They drink everything from local rum to endless champagne and something called Punch Martiniquais. The star sips are “the fabulous clarets, uncorked with almost alchemical skill”. There’s cobra charming, scorned love, the threat of a duel and an invasion of lepers. Yes, really. They’re all so absorbed in this drama, they barely notice the volcano.

The eventual eruption is magnificent: “A great shining dome of light composed of bright falling and radiating threads that hung in the middle of the air like a floating palace.”

“Tough to match that,” says James from Corney & Barrow. But not impossible.

First up is Passobianco IGT Tenuta di Passopisciaro 2014. “It’s grown on the slopes of Mount Etna,” explains James. “The maker actually loses vines to lava. It’s 100% Chardonnay but not your usual.”

“I swear I can taste smoke,” says Simon. “I really can.” So can I. It’s subtle, more like pumice and there’s a kiss of lychees.

Next up is Seigneurie de Crouseilles Chateau de Crouseilles AOC Madiran 2012. “Many of the island’s aristocrats came from Madiran,” says James. “It’s still relatively unknown. This red is one of my favourite grapes: Tannat.”

“It’s really earthy,” says Simon. “Bright but with lots of grip.” Not quite bright enough for me.

“My final suggestion is Quimera Achaval-Ferrer 2013 from Mendoza,” says James. “Because Quimera roughly translates as Utopia and that’s what the island is.”

“For some inhabitants,” says Simon. “For a while.”

The Quimera is a big Malbec based blend of feisty reds -a rich sort of South American Bordeaux. “It’s maybe not subtle enough for this story,” says Simon. I agree – too powerful for delicate affairs. And, although delicious, the Seigneurie de Crouseilles Chateau de Crouseilles is too earthy for aristocrats. The perfect #NovelPairing for The Violins of Saint-Jacques has to be Passobianco IGT Tenuta di Passopisciaro 2014 – it seduces with tropical languor then bursts with real volcanic energy: an eruption of taste!

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