In Praise of Water and the Antics of the Loir

I returned from three weeks in England to no running water. The bore hole pump was struck by lightning during recent storms and I had to wait for Monsieur Le Forage (Mr Bore Hole) to order a new pump, which meant a week of driving down to the village to fill up water containers at the communal tap. 

It's remarkable how much water we pour down the sink so easily. Using all my water from a bottle made me careful not to waste a drop. The washing up water and my wash water was recycled to flush the loo and water the plants. As inconvenient as it was to be without, my appreciation for clean water became ever greater. As I let it pour from a jug to wash my hands, the coolness and the splashing on my skin felt particularly delicious while the cicadas rasped away in the baking heat. We really can do nothing without water, in fact we are nothing without it. 

Apart from the odd thunderstorm and shower, rain is scarce here from May until September. The smaller streams and rivers tend to dry up, many of them run under the rocky ground towards the coast. Even though I have found most locals take seriously the need to conserve water, I notice too how the farmer on the plain nearby extravagantly pumps water over his lettuces during the heat of the day. The same farmer is known for his liberal use of chemicals; the price paid for people expecting lettuces throughout the year. It's easy to forget that traditionally lettuces were considered a treat for springtime, not something to eat in the heat of the summer, by when they have naturally gone to seed. 

 Dreaming of clear water. The waterfall at Sillons La Cascade

Dreaming of clear water. The waterfall at Sillons La Cascade

The other thing I came home to was a sizeable hole in my bedroom shutter along with a lot of wood shavings and some tell tale droppings. Somebody had been busy.

Meet the loir.

 Serious gnawing has taken place.

Serious gnawing has taken place.

I had heard about the loir long before I met it. Indeed, I had often heard the loir itself before that meeting. 

Sometimes at night there would be a vigorous scratching and scrabbling about in the wall cavities, in the roof space and on the balcony. I was told it was probably the loir who ate through the wiring to the solar panels, who caused black outs from chomping through yet more electrical wires in the attic. 

When I came to visit last September I found all the grapes had been cleared off the vine which grows up the trellis at the front of the house, leaving only the lacy stems. Not one single grape had been left. 'It'll be the loir,' said my neighbours.

 The  loir,  known as the edible dormouse. It was considered a delicacy by the Etruscans and the Romans, who kept them in ceramic jars, fattened them on chestnuts, acorns and walnuts, dipped them in honey and rolled them in poppy seeds before roasting them. 

The loir, known as the edible dormouse. It was considered a delicacy by the Etruscans and the Romans, who kept them in ceramic jars, fattened them on chestnuts, acorns and walnuts, dipped them in honey and rolled them in poppy seeds before roasting them. 

I came face to face with the loir a few weeks ago. I was writing at my laptop when from the corner of my eye I saw the shadow of a tail slip under a nearby chair nearby.

I squealed, leaped into the air and dashed over to the sofa to rouse Betty, who in her younger days was a very fine ratter. I have seen her catch a rat in mid air as it flew out of the compost heap. After watching her sniff around the edges of the arm chair, I took a breath, pushed the chair back, and out shot a furry grey animal, just smaller than a squirrel, and ran promptly over my foot! As I felt the sensation of soft fur and claws on my bare skin, two thoughts converged in my brain. 'this is my idea of a nightmare,' and 'this really isn't as bad as I thought it would be.'

The next thing I knew, it had run directly up the wall and was now clinging to the top of the sliding doors, slipping by its claws as Betty barked frantically below. The creature fixed its enormous eyes upon me and I felt its terror at the same time as my own pounding heart. I gingerly opened the doors, dreading that it might fall upon me, managed to dislodge it with a broom, whereupon the animal shot out into the night, chased by Betty at full throttle. 

Since then, I bought some supposedly inaudible sonic deterrents, but the high pitched tone they make seems likely to drive me away before it does the loir, who continues to squeak outside my bedroom window and scamper from one vine trellis to the next with joyful noisy abandon.

Meanwhile, this week the pump was replaced by Monsieur Le Forage and cool, clear water runs out of my taps as the pure magic that it is. 

Solstice Sunshine in a Jar

Touch-and-heal, demon chaser, goatweed, Barbe de Saint-Jean, chasse diable, herbe a mille vertus, millepertuis, amber, St John's wort. These are some of the names given to hypericum perforata.

 St John's Wort infusion made with olive oil on the eve of the summer solstice. After four to six weeks in the warmth of the sunshine and the cool of the moonlight, it should turn a deep amber colour.

St John's Wort infusion made with olive oil on the eve of the summer solstice. After four to six weeks in the warmth of the sunshine and the cool of the moonlight, it should turn a deep amber colour.

This ragged, deep yellow flower has an endless list of properties and is used to help lift people out of melancholy and mild depression. It is soothing to the nervous system and is a very good remedy for anxiety and feelings of overwhelm.

Being a powerful antiviral agent, Hypericum is known to help prevent and heal outbreaks of Herpes simplex 1 and 2.

It is often used for helping with premenstrual tension and menopausal symptoms.

The olive oil infusion makes a wonderful massage oil. It is also used to treat grazes, burns, sprains, frozen shoulder, insect bites, sunburn and chapped lips. A balm can be made by emulsifying the infused olive oil with beeswax. More on this to come in a few weeks.

Hypericum's affinity with the sun is obvious. It's stamen look like sun rays. One of the main active ingredients, hypericin, is at its strongest when the plant is not fully in flower, when there are still some unopened buds on the plant. Traditionally, the time to pick it is in the days around the solstice or on the feast of its namesake, St John the Baptist, 24th June. That it helps lift the spirits, especially in the winter months makes sense.

It grows everywhere in the world other than in the desert, tropical lowlands and the polar regions, so very likely it grows near you. Once I spotted it and took an interest in the plant, it caught my eye wherever I went.

To make the oil infusion, pick the flowers, including a short section of stem and leaves. Leave some flowers to remain on the plant so that it can seed itself. Allow the flowers to dry in the sunshine for a few hours so that any insects can crawl out, and there is not too much moisture in them. Fill a clean jar with the blossoms, stalks, leaves and all, and cover with olive oil, making sure they are submerged, and leaving some head room. Place somewhere sunny, either outside or in a window, or failing that, somewhere warm. Leave for four to six weeks, checking the inside of the lids every now and again for condensation, which you can wipe off with some paper towel. 

Then, when it has turned amber, it is strained through a clean cloth. 

 Hypericum flowers drying out in the sunshine.

Hypericum flowers drying out in the sunshine.

Thank you to my old friend, Angus in Devon, for reminding me to look into Hypericum and thank you to Jacky for showing me the plant.

To Banon with the Sisters

Jacky and Eliane are sisters who were born in the village and have lived here all their lives. They have taken me under their wing somewhat and are endeavouring to educate me about all things Provençal. As well as promising to show me mushrooms in the autumn and teaching me about wild plants, they have lent me books about local wildlife and artists. They speak as fast as gunfire and we laugh a lot as I struggle with my erratic French to keep up. When they invited me to the cheese festival at Banon recently, I said yes, of course.  

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The day was hot, and the streets were jammed with people thronging about the stalls. There were balloons and children and dogs running around. There were horses. Jacky and I entered a competition to guess the combined weight of some kid goats. Neither of us won. There was goats milk ice cream, there were glasses of wine, fried pastries and frites. But most of all there was a lot of cheese. 

Banon is famous for its unpasteurised goats cheese, particularly the one wrapped in chestnut leaves, soaked in eau de vie. I never quite got the point of it until I followed the suggestion of the shopkeeper in the village who sold a cheese to my friend recently. After choosing one that was ripe, he leaned in and told her authoritatively that absolutely the best way to eat it is with steamed potatoes, rather than bread, and to accompany this with a bottle of good white wine, perhaps a Chablis or a Sancerre. We wasted no time in following his advice and found it to be brilliant. Now I eat one a week!

 Monsieur definitely knows what he is talking about when it comes to Banon cheese.

Monsieur definitely knows what he is talking about when it comes to Banon cheese.

The woods flanking the windy road up to Banon are full of chestnut trees, so it makes sense that their leaves are used to wrap up the little cheeses. Only twelve or so small dairies make them, but they are sold all over the world. 

 A present. Banon cheese wrapped up in chestnut leaves.

A present. Banon cheese wrapped up in chestnut leaves.

People on decorated tractors threw out tiny bottles of synthetic lavender eau de cologne to the grown ups and inflatable balls to the children. The compère shouted at the top of his voice as though he didn't have a megaphone. It was time to go home. 

 Jacky and Eliane in Banon.

Jacky and Eliane in Banon.

Later, sitting outside their house in the shade, Eliane went in and fetched me a book of Martine Franck's photographs, Le temps de vieillir. She opened it up on a photograph of three women. 'Do you recognise her?' she asked me, pointing at the youngest one. It was unmistakably Jacky.

'I was out that day, that's why I'm not in the photograph. Jacky had been sunbathing and that's why she was in her bikini,' said Eliane. I looked over at Jacky and I thought I saw a look of sadness or nostalgia. Perhaps she was thinking of her mother and her grandmother. Perhaps she was thinking of a different time. 

 Three generations. Photograph of Jacky, her mother and her grandmother taken by Martine Franck in 1979.  As well as being a celebrated photographer in her own right, Franck was married to Cartier Bresson and they lived together in Montjustin, just a few kilometres away. 

Three generations. Photograph of Jacky, her mother and her grandmother taken by Martine Franck in 1979.

As well as being a celebrated photographer in her own right, Franck was married to Cartier Bresson and they lived together in Montjustin, just a few kilometres away. 

Natural Allies

Thinking it might rain this morning, I decided to sow some grass seed in the bare patches in front of my house. I won't call it a 'lawn', as it includes mint and oregano, which send up their scent whenever Betty dog runs across. It is pretty rough with weeds and the daisies are welcome here. It does need a bit of help, so I scattered some soil, seed, then more soil and tamped it down with a rake. Half an hour later, I noticed that the seeds were moving! All over the soil and the grass, the seeds were moving across the earth. I looked more closely: ants were carting it about, carrying the dried seed in their jaws in one direction and returning empty jawed in the other. Following their trails, I saw heaps of seed at the entrance to their ant nests; impressive stores, industriously created within half an hour. With such organised team work, I wonder if any will sprout.

 Tiny snails clinging to wild love-In-a-mist  (Nigella.)  They cover many of the plants here like limpets. They also stick to the bonnet of my car and have often survived the long journey to England.

Tiny snails clinging to wild love-In-a-mist (Nigella.) They cover many of the plants here like limpets. They also stick to the bonnet of my car and have often survived the long journey to England.

It is good to keep the grass short here, as a couple of weeks ago, on one of the first warm days, I spotted a baby snake working its way across the ground. I was unsure whether it was an adder or a grass snake as I have never seen such a small one; it measured about seven inches long. A reminder to watch where I step. And then a few days ago, I felt a chill as I saw a scorpion dashing across the floor. I found it remarkable what perfectly straight lines it ran along. 

Bees are swarming around the small pond in the garden. They are drinking there and collecting water to take back to their hives to cool them down. I have to walk past them to go down to the washing line, but they don't seem bothered by me.

The other evening I had an encounter with a flying praying mantis. I felt something large land on my shoulder. I gave a loud squeal and brushed it off. My friend visiting me from Italy helped me put it outside into the night. It was about three inches long and it really startled me. But it was only praying... 

Friends and guests come and go, but it seems I am never really alone! 

 Buddha unperturbed by the bees. They fly around him all day. Some of their reflections are visible in the water.

Buddha unperturbed by the bees. They fly around him all day. Some of their reflections are visible in the water.

Last weekend my mission was to plant the tomato plants I had bought from François in the market. Christophe, who helps me out in the garden, had rotivated a strip of ground and dressed it with goats manure. When I went to prepare the soil for the plants, I found it was completely infested with couch grass. I took a fork to it, but soon had to admit defeat. And so it was that I started digging a new and small vegetable patch down by the washing line, working under my straw hat to protect me from the heat, listening to the poet David Whyte speaking with Krista Tippett on the 'On Being' podcast. I heard him talk about how, 'we have so many allies in this world, including just the colour blue in the sky.'

 Betty lying amongst the young tomato plants

Betty lying amongst the young tomato plants

Being here, I am so aware of the presence of those allies. The cuckoo calls in the distance. The hoopoe bird softly replies. The nightingales sing day and night, cleansing the air, with each sweet phrase of their liquid song different to the last. Frogs start up in the evening with their alien, sonic sounds reverberating throughout the valley.

Dark brown eagles wheel about in that blue of the sky. The great rocks have been here longer than any living thing.

The air is alive with juniper and warm pine resin, blended with the sweetness of broom and roses, spiced with aromatic wild thyme, mint and oregano. Having spent my first couple of years of my childhood inland from Malaga, I have been longing for those southern scents my whole life.

Many of those creatures are considered enemies: the snake, the scorpion, the bees, the spiders I find in the house. So is the couch grass. When I went to the local garden centre and somebody asked for weedkiller, he was told that no, it was no longer available without having a licence. He was directed to a flame gun. I am loathe to kill any of the creatures, and I definitely don't want to use poisons. I throw spiders out of the windows and even the scorpion was put out of doors with a piece of card and a glass. The ants are everywhere and they come in all sizes. If a crumb of food is left out, they are there. They help motivate me to keep the place clean. If not, it will be the flies coming in. The bees, well they are essential. There isn't much water around, so I will share the pond with them. I hope we can all get along. I'll let you know how it goes.

Spring Vegetable Broth with Pistou

The Ice Saints have been and gone, and just as Josie said it would, the weather has turned warm and it is now safe to plant out the tender vegetables. The other day in the market, I counted sixteen varieties of tomato plants. I am waiting until next week to plant mine out, as my house is crammed with boxes to unpack from my move out here from England.

The broom is blooming yellow in the sun, sending out waves of scent as sweet as honey. The skies are blue, blue, blue. The grass and the weeds are growing visibly under my eyes. The fields are dotted with bright poppies, the butterflies are out, the flies and the swallows are back. The nightingales fill the valley with song, day and night, and the stalls in the market are abundant with vegetables. Each week there is more to choose from; artichokes, asparagus, broad beans, delicious strawberries and lettuces of all types. 

Recently, I ate a delicious spring soup at a local restaurant, which inspired me to make my own. It is a version of Soupe au Pistou, a classic Provençal dish, similar to an Italian minestrone, usually made with beans and potatoes and fine pasta. This one is more of a broth: I have left out the potatoes, the pasta and the dried beans and I have used small artichokes, which are plentiful in the Mediterranean, and asparagus for a spring treat. You could try trimming a couple of large artichokes and chopping the heart up into smaller pieces. Watch out you don't include any choke! Both asparagus and artichokes are naturally cleansing vegetables and very good Spring tonics for the liver. The broad beans I bought in the market were small and tender. The older ones have pale, tough skins and need skinning.This recipe can be adapted to whatever is in season. You could use courgettes, fresh peas, green beans, squash and you could add some tinned cannellini or flageolet beans or potatoes for more substance. The pistou is similar to Italian pesto without the pine nuts. Fresh garlic is excellent in this. 

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I made a vegetable stock, using onion, carrot, celery and celeriac as a base. To this, I added clean potato peelings, spring onion trimmings, the asparagus and some of the artichoke trimmings. Leek trimmings are also good. Don't overdo the artichokes, as they can add a bitter note. The carrot and the onion add the necessary sweetness. The celeriac gives it a full flavour. 

SPRING BROTH WITH PISTOU - 4 helpings

FOR THE STOCK

1/2 Celariac

2 carrots, roughly chopped

I onion, quartered

1 stick of celery

Trimming from potatoes and spring onions, if you have them, or other vegetable trimmings to hand

Artichoke and asparagus trimmings

 

FOR THE SOUP

Asparagus - 8

Artichokes, 5 of the small ones, trimmed into quarters

Young broad beans - a couple of generous handfuls, podded

2 diced carrots

2 thinly sliced spring onions

 

FOR THE PISTOU

Big bunch of basil

100ml olive oil

A little grated parmesan

Cover the vegetables for the stock with about 1 1/2 litres of cold water and leave to simmer for a few hours. Add a couple of teaspoons of salt and strain.

Cut the tough ends off the asparagus and trim the artichokes - small ones if you can find them - quarter them, cut the top third off, peel of the tough outer leaves and trim away the chokes, leave attached and peel a section of the stalk. (See below)

Make the pistou: Put a good handful of basil into a blender with 100 ml of olive oil with a desertspoon of freshly grated parmesan and a pressed clove of garlic. Blitz throughly.

 

Add the quartered artichokes to the broth and simmer for 2 minutes.

Add the asparagus and the carrots and simmer for another 2 minutes.

Add the broad beans and the spring onions and simmer for another 2 minutes.

 

Season with salt and pepper.

 

Place the vegetables in the bowls and ladle broth on top. Serve with the pistou.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Liberté, Fraternité, Égalité and Sentimentalité

 Robert and his free range eggs

Robert and his free range eggs

Sunday is market day in the village. The sun was out after the thunderstorms and heavy rain of yesterday, and the cafe overlooking the square was filling up. First stop was with Robert, the egg man. 

'These eggs will make you feel happy,' he said, smiling broadly. Only two days ago, I had been reading that eating eggs increases dopamine in the body, which makes one feel more happy and motivated,

'And are the chickens happy?' I asked. '

'Absolument.  They peck about outside in the grass all day. Please come and visit them and the ducks anytime.' As he picked out twelve eggs stuck with straw, he explained where he lives in the village. He did look piratically happy as he kissed the regulars on both cheeks. 

My friend, Elizabeth and I had another invitation from François, who grows organic vegetables, to visit his farm next Saturday. His stall was loaded with vibrantly healthy vegetables, including broad beans, beetroot, radishes and frilly lettuces, as well as vegetable plants for the garden. My neighbour, Josie, had already warned me not to plant anything out until after the 13th May as tomatoes and other tender plants are not safe until after the last of the Ice Saints days, les saints de glace, has been and gone. François scribbled complicated directions to his place on the back of my shopping list. I hope I can find it!

 François' vegetables

François' vegetables

As I was taking photographs of the market, a voice behind me pronounced, 'photographs are sentimental, Madame.' I turned around. A man, well dressed in tweed, was smiling wryly at me. I smiled back. 'Not always,' I said. But I have to admit that he has a point. It can be tempting to edit Provence down to garish lavender fields and sunlit hills. And yet those things are there. Just know that in the moment I pressed the shutter on these delicious olives, the stall holder cried out, 'merde!' as the pesky wind blew over the canopy. As my mother says, (she lived here for over fifteen years) 'Haute Provence ain't the Riviera!'

When I went to join Elizabeth at the cafe, I spotted this shopping on a neighbouring table. Sentimental? Maybe. Posed? Non! 

France goes to the polls today. Provence is solid Le Pen territory. Reillanne and Forcalquier are rich with artists and creatives and have a vibrant counter culture. These three beauties sang Italian Resistance songs at the top of their voices in the market. I'm crossing everything for Macron.