No matter where we find ourselves, gardeners are always gardeners. We notice plants that are minding their own business by the side of a street, rush to examine what’s pushing its way through walls of ancient ruins, insist on stopping the car on busy roads to see exactly what flowers are blooming in the wild, quiz farmers and produce vendors at the local market about the hows and whats of growing fruits and vegetables, cajole chefs to share recipes of unusual, out of the box presentations of vegetables ( a mille-feuille or Napoleon using thin layers of crisp eggplant instead of pastry anyone?), going out of the way to visit both famous as well as secret gardens. I’m guilty of all of the aforementioned traits – curiosity of the natural world sustains me endlessly. I know I’m not alone.
That said, here are some things I’ve noticed/learned/enjoyed on this current visit to Provence. Which is by the way, a place very close to my heart. I’ve been coming here for over 25 years and I’m still always experiencing new stuff. This region never ceases to inspire.
Provence is famous for its lavender. All those beautiful pictures of swathes of lavender are true. It really is stunning to see the fields and fields of this herb in bloom. I’ve known that the type that grows in lower altitude is widely used in household products (soaps, detergents and such) and the higher altitude lavender is the fine variety that is used in the perfume industry. The former is pollinated by insects like the honey bee while the latter is wind pollinated. There is also a hybrid type. Even small changes in altitude will influence the quality of any of the varieties.
Last week, I learned that despite France being the luxury perfume capital of the world, lavender is the only product that is truly French. Other flowers and industry components were and still are from former French colonies. Iris from Egypt for example. The region of Grasse, where the top perfume houses have their headquarters was simply selected because of its location – a port easily accessed from other parts of the world serving the perfume industry. One might see an occasional field of roses or some other flower in Grasse but that is hardly what is supplying the industry. Lavender however is a pure homegrown product and yet, its mostly treated like the stepchild of the business. Go figure.
This years olive harvest is being watched closely. Olives are wind pollinated. So when the small white flowers bloom, they depend quite literally on how the wind blows. This year, Provence received an usual amount of ill-timed rains which caused many olive trees to drop a good amount of the flowers. Consequently, it is expected that the harvest will be lower than usual. Quel domage.
I noticed for the first time how well jasmine grows in this region. While I’d been here before in lavender season which extends over a few weeks, I’d not had the pleasure until now to see and inhale the jasmines in bloom. Many home gardens have these plants scrambling up sides of the stones walls to make rather fetching images. Old walls of local stone softened by bright green vines tracing their way around makes for easy design solutions.
On a walk along a nondescript road in the middle of an old village, I noticed a tree bearing fruit amidst a random group of overgrown weeds and shrubs. It was not immediately clear what sort of fruiting tree I was looking at. Starting out yellow and then turning a pink-orange, these almost heart shaped fruits were larger than cherries but much smaller than plums. I picked a ripe fruit, a dried up drupe and a set of leaves and brought them back to the house. The PlantSnap app was no help at all. I still don’t exactly know what it is but on cutting the fruit, the pit looks to me that it is a type of plum. My research continues. Maybe like crab apples, this is a ‘crab plum’.
I’ve also been enjoying interesting creations where vegetables are being used in desserts. Chocolate and cream of artichoke hearts gateaux, popsicles of sugar snap and vanilla bean ice cream covered in a coating of white chocolate blended with peas. And lets not forget that mille-feuille of eggplant instead of pastry. I’ve had sweet horseradish sorbet accompanying a main course. A beet infused potato sliced so fine that it is transparent and somehow made crisp and flecked with blue petals of chicory accompanying an amuse-bouche. Every single one of these and other such dishes was truly delicious. And visually beautiful to boot. I’m now inspired to try my hand at coming up with my own unusual creations. If I succeed in ‘inventing’ even one dish, I’ll be rather chuffed!
And so it goes, the world is a great big classroom and a gardener is its eternal student.
Note: No apologies for the many lavender images! I simply cannot get enough!
(c) 2023 Shobha Vanchiswar
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