The French, somewhat cruelly – let the reader understand – are said, usually by the English, that they know the price of everything and the value of nothing. This remains to be seen as Le Tour d'Argent, one of the most famous and oldest eateries in the world, auctions off some of the contents of its wine cellar this week.
Over the years, the chief sommelier had forgotten they were there. And when the four bottles of 1875 Armagnac Vieux were finally unearthed from the labyrinthine wine cellar, they were covered in a black fungus that looked like matted cat fur. I am told that the fungus does no harm.
The restaurant, which claims to date back to 1582, is cleaning out its 450,000-bottle wine cellar, considered one of the best and biggest in the world. It is putting 18,000 bottles up for auction this week, an event that has rather captured my imagination. A gap-toothed pre-Revolutionary knocks the head off a bottle of Armagnac in a Left Bank alleyway and tips its contents thoughtfully into his mouth. From the same batch, another bottle finds its way into the cavernous depths of the restaurant next door, family-run for generations. Almost a quarter of a millenium later the brother of the original bottle will be reverently placed on an auctioneer's block and sold for a year's pay.
What, je me demande, is such an item really worth, and how its its value determined? The purchaser of the bottle will be able to brag to his friends and business associates thereby increasing, presumably, his social cachet. H'm.
I cannot imagine myself paying for something which in its drinkable prime sold for a few sous and now is representative of a French era that even many Frenchmen might care to forget about. The bottle's contents, like Schrodinger's cat, are unpredictable.
The image is of Frederic Delair; a bespectacled Ibsen who presided over the Tour in its glory days at the turn of the last century. Here he is, carving caneton presse, the restaurant's signature dish, served, inter alia, to Ronald Reagan and Mick Jagger.
The prix fixe at the one-star Tour is $70. With apologies to purists, my text editor does not support accents....