Driving down the winding road under a sunny blue sky towards Sigoulès, a village in SW France, I see in the distance coloured paper decorations stretched over the road at the village entrance and the large sign SIGOULES in yellow and gold letters.
It’s mid-summer and early in the morning. I parallel park in the field-cum-parking lot and feel the festive mood in the air as I walk over to the large central village square. People are up and about getting the place ready for the annual Wine Fair, including the gathering of the Confrérie du Raisin D’Or de Sigoulès. Stallholders are setting out their wares for sale: wines, olive oils, lavender oils and soaps, food items and all manner of regional products. They are anticipating the bustling crowds of visitors who will come over the weekend to celebrate and enjoy the local wine and food culture of the area.
I meet Joanna Urwin, a local film-maker who has generously offered to make a video of the festivities and we discuss “photo-opps”, where she can best position herself to film public events and where I will talk about Confréries and their activities.
Confréries have their origins in the guilds of the Middle Ages. Today, they are an integral part of local tourism, economic development and cultural initiatives supporting regional products. They were recognized by UNESCO in 2010 as an intangible cultural heritage; an aspect of the “Gastronomic meal of the French.” Confréries also encourage the discovery of regions through such initiatives as well-attended music concerts and popular guided walks in the areas. The Confrérie du Raisin d’Or de Sigoulès also provides a bursary to a student engaged in wine studies, thus helping to support the education of the next generation of wine professionals.
Confréries operate in a reciprocal manner and members visit other confrérie events across France and in other areas of Europe. This is representative of their value of conviviality and social connection. Members of 45 other Confréries, both in France and as far away as Belgium attend the event in Sigoulès.
The attached video, created by Joanna Urwin of VideoProFrance, provides an insight into this local Foire aux Vins and the annual public celebration of the Confrérie du Raisin d’Or de Sigoulès in SW France.
Monbazillac wine and rainbow trout
Apple tart in Sigoulès
Confrérie du Piment d’Espelette
Joanna Urwin of VideoProFrance filming in Sigoules
We are having coffee with a friend in Vancouver; sitting outside at our regular haunt putting the world to rights as usual. Our friend comments, “ Well, you know the big thing nowadays for organizations is “reaching out”. We talk about this “reaching out” and what it means or implies: communicating, engaging with interested parties.
Later on, I reflect on “reaching out” and my thoughts turn to the Confrérie du Raisin D’Or de Sigoulès in South West France and the efforts that they make to reach out to many groups in the course of their activities during the year.
I wrote about the history and current role of Confréries in France and in particular about the Confrérie du Raisin D’Or de Sigoulès in the July 2014 article on my website. In summary, the Confrérie du Raisin d’Or de Sigoulès is one of a large network of confréries or organizations of men and women across France whose objective is the promotion of their local area and culture as well as gastronomic products.
UNESCO has recognized the gastronomic heritage of France as an expression of Intangible Cultural Heritage and the confréries are included in that recognition.
Tourism plays a major role in the French economy and the Confréries, with their links to the past and involvement with the gastronomy of the area are usually associated with a tourism organization in the vicinity.
In some ways, this feels like a lot of words on a page and high-level policy. On the ground, what is the value proposition? It’s about promoting the local area, culture, food and wine to residents and visitors. Aside from the annual major event for each Confrérie called the Chapitre, and attending the Chapitres of other Confrèries, local events are organized that reach out to others.
The magic of the work of the Confrérie du Raisin d’Or de Sigoulès of which I am so fortunate to be a member, albeit from a distance much of the time, comes alive for me in particular ways.
One way is in walking with people who take part in the summer time Confrérie organized hikes, which focus on the discovery of the local countryside. I pass the time of day with other hikers: why do they come? What’s it all about for them?
Hiking in the Dordogne with the Confrérie
Consistently, the response is that they love the countryside, the opportunity to explore the area with other people with similar interests. They appreciate the fellowship offered by the Confrérie du Raisin D’Or de Sigoulès. Often they are people who live in Bergerac, the local main town, and sometimes they have recently retired there after a career in Paris or overseas. They want to connect with the soil, the trees, the birds, the mushrooms, the wild flowers; these things are important to them.
Hiking with the Confrérie
At the end of each hike, there is an opportunity to enjoy refreshment with others. On offer is a glass of local wine or juice and a savoury biscuit. Un pot d’amitié, a cup of friendship, to which participants are invited to donate a small amount to cover costs. All this is organized and brought to the assembly point by members of the Confrérie.
At the end of the hike: enjoying a cup of friendship
This is the magic of the countryside and fellowship.
Another expression of this magic is attending concerts organized by the Confrérie in local mediaeval churches.
How good can it get to listen to talented musicians in this kind of setting?
One example from this summer is a concert held at the church in Sigoulès featuring a flautist and guitarist playing music from both sides of the Pyrénées. These musical pieces are by composers who originated from different regions of the French and Spanish Pyrénées: Gabriel Faure, Maurice Ravel, Georges Bizet, Pablo de Sarasate, and Isaac Albeniz. These are some of my favourite composers. Afterwards, we stand and chat in the shade of the plane trees and enjoy un pot d’amitié – a glass of wine from a Sigoules winemaker.
Concert with the Confrérie
Another example is a concert of young talented musicians from the Conservatoire de Bergerac. In this instance, two young guitarists. On the programme, which I have shown here, I circled the pieces I particularly enjoyed. At the end of the performance, as an encore, they played a rendition of Stevie Wonder’s famous song: “Isn’t She Lovely”. I loved the repetoire, the imagination and the skill of these two young people.
Concert with two guitarists
Afterwards, there is an opportunity to meet other concertgoers and enjoy a cup of friendship again: wine or juice with a slice of ham and cheese cake offered by Confrérie volunteers. We stand, smile and chat in the warm, early evening sunshine outside the church at Puyguilhem in the Commune of Thenac from where it is possible to see in the distance where the 100 years began and in another direction where it ended.
This is the magic of time and place, music and fellowship.
Who does all this reaching out? Committed members of the Confrérie who give countless hours of their time to promoting this region of France that they love and value, to engaging with local residents and visitors and to using their skills and talents in the interests of others.
For me, all this effort is about getting to the heart of matters in ways that people value. This is “reaching out” at its best. As our friend in Vancouver suggests, reaching out is a big thing.