Happy bees and wet olive trees

Somehow a whole week has passed since I last posted on this blog, and it’s been a typical spring week – a mix of warm sunny days, on one of which we ate lunch outside a café by the sea, feeling hot in the sun, and grey, gloomy days like today.

First, a happy bee, one of many buzzing around a wild Coronilla shrub at the edge of the village:

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And then the olive trees – unfortunately the rain had to fall on the day fixed for an olive pruning demonstration organised by the Moulin de Casso in the village and the local branch l’Association Française Interprofessionnelle de l’Olive. We’d been told that if it rained we would be treated to a slide show in the salle des fetes – I wasn’t surprised because here in the Midi hardly any one goes out if it rains. But I was surprised to find that we did after all go to the olive grove and watch the real thing – much better than slides, of course.

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In spite of the cold and the rain we were given a good idea of how to get the best out of olive trees – in our case only two small ones, but the course is aimed at all olive growers, from large-scale professionals to people like us who have a few trees in their gardens. And readers of this blog, and anyone who knows anything about the Midi, won’t be surprised to know that the morning ended with apéritifs accompanied by tapenade made from last year’s crop from these trees, followed by a very good lunch of charcuterie, cassoulet, cheese and apple pie, with white and red wine and muscat de Rivesaltes with the dessert… and a lot of Occitan joia e convivença (happiness and conviviality).

A day out in Sète

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The view through the venetian blinds at the Musée Paul Valéry shows several of the most important elements of life in this fascinating town.  The poet Paul Valéry was born in Sète and is buried in the sailors’ cemetery in the foreground here.  The cemetière marin, which must be one of the most beautiful in France, looks out to the Mediterranean and the fishing boats which pass as they enter and leave the port.  This is the biggest Mediterranean fishing port in France.  The ferry approaching today, on one of the regular crossings from Tangiers, is another of the pieces of the jigsaw that is Sète, a town with a large Arab population.

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I liked the way the reflections of the water seemed to mimic the Arab script on this fishing boat in the port.  The film Le Grain et le Mulet (The Secret of the Grain in its English-language version) gives a wonderful and rather sad picture of the life of the people of the town whose family origins are in North Africa.

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Some of the smaller fishing boats in the port today.

One of the reasons for our trips to the sea and the holiday atmosphere of this week for us has been our son’s visit and the holiday feel to the day continued with an excellent lunch at La Marine, one of the many restaurants beside the port.  We ate a typically Sètois menu:

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Gratin of scallops for our first course.

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And moules farcies à la sètoise (mussels stuffed with minced pork, ham and herbs and cooked in tomato sauce).

Because we’d just seen an exhibition of work by cubist artist Juan Gris at the Musée Paul Valéry, I seemed to see cubist-style distortions everywhere I looked, including this view of my son’s plate through his wine and water glasses:

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>Sweet onions and more signs of spring

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Our neighbour brought us a bunch of sweet onions from the Spanish border (not far away, a drive of an hour and a half perhaps and a frequent trip for many people here). These onions are a slightly earlier variety than the local one and so they’re useful to have before the oignons de Lézignan are ready to eat. They don’t need to be widely spaced and the ones that wouldn’t fit in this double row have been very closely spaced to be eaten as spring onions.

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Crocuses and rose buds

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The crocuses were opening in the sun this morning and the Rosa banksiae has not only leaf buds but flower buds as well.

Des arbres et des hommes’

On Friday night the Cercle Occitan organised an very interesting talk by the ethno-botanist Josiane Ubaud about the social and cultural reasons for the planting of different species of trees in the Languedoc region. She divides the trees into different groups. Social markers are those trees which were planted to show the social status of the owner of a property and foremost among these are the cedar, planted around prosperous winemaking domains from the eighteenth century onwards, and the palm, planted at seaside resorts to attract tourists and more recently in private gardens. Cultural, sacred markers are those which have been considered sacred since pre-Christian, Celtic times. Cypress trees are often planted at the entrances to cemeteries and because of this they have often been associated with death, but in fact are markers of passage, and so are planted at crossroads too. Their beautiful curving shapes, especially when they are blown by the wind, have been described by the Occitan poet Max Rouquette as flambadas sacradas, sacred flames. The bay tree (laurier noble), and specifically the female tree which bears berries, has been considered sacred since the time of the ancient Greeks and has give us the French word baccalauréat (berry of the laurier). The olive tree has also been seen as sacred throughout the ages of Mediterranean civilisation, because of its longevity and its ability to rejuvenate when apparently it has been killed. In the Languedoc, though, it has too much of an agricultural history to have been planted much in sacred places. Finally, the European hackberry tree (Celtis australis, micocoulier in French) has an Occitan name which demonstrates its sacredness: fanabreguièr which comes from the Latin word for temple (fanum) and the Celtic word for sacred wood (brogilum). We don’t see these trees often in this part of the Languedoc, as they are more likely to be planted to the east of us, near Montpellier. As well as traditionally being sacred, they are useful trees too, because they are deciduous and so give shade in summer but lose their leaves in winter to let the light through.

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Above are some of my photos of some of the trees mentioned in Josiane Ubaud’s lecture: left, an olive tree (of course!), centre, a palm in the garden of a substantial house in Roujan, definitely a marker of social status, and right, a line of cypress trees planted on the boundary of a piece of land.

Un jardin sec n’est pas un jardin pauvre’

A dry garden is not a poor garden. This was repeated a couple of times by Josiane Ubaud who feels very strongly, as I do, that in this region we should not try to reproduce the lush green gardens of wetter climates, with their lawns and colourful summer flowers. This is something we have tried to follow when growing decorative plants in our garden – we try to plant only those varieties that can survive without watering once they are established.

We’re hoping that Mme Ubaud will return next year to give the second part of her lecture – about the useful, decorative and food-providing trees. If you read French, her website is very interesting.

>Mediterranean diet

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Italy, Spain, Greece and Morocco have applied to the UN for world heritage status for the Mediterranean diet (although these are not the only countries bordering the Mediterranean and with similar ingredients) and a decision will be made in November.  According to an article in the Guardian this week, a spokesman for an Italian farmers’ group said: ‘Not only is this culture, but it also makes you live longer and better.’  There have been many claims for the health benefits of a Mediterranean diet, particularly for its combination of olive oil, garlic, fresh vegetables and fish.  And, of course, red wine is supposed to be healthy too, in moderation.

Here in the Languedoc we eat what would be described as a Mediterranean diet, in my case because I love all its constituents and because it is what is available locally.  For me, local food is important… so where does this leave those who don’t live in a country where aubergines and wine grapes grow?  When I was in Wales earlier this summer I found that most of the tomatoes I ate were completely tasteless and usually unripe.  Maybe in countries further north it is better to eat tasty vegetables, varieties which are suited to the climate.  Everyone can enjoy olive oil and wine, but then there is the problem of transporting food long distances, with all the environmental damage that can do.  I don’t know what the solution is for those who live further away from the Mediterranean, those people must make their own choices, all I know is that one of the great pleasures of my life is the diet that is readily available to me here.

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Nardello and Corno di toro peppers from the garden and figs from a friend’s tree by the river near the village, all picked this morning.

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Lucques olives on our tree and Cardinale grapes ripening on our vine – the birds have left us a few!

Our lunch today:

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Terrine of joue, pig’s cheek, bought from the charcuterie stall in the village market, carrot salad (not very Mediterranean, perhaps, but it seemed to go with the terrine), cherry tomatoes from the garden, rosé wine from the Domaine des Pascales in the village and some of the figs we picked this morning.

>Second anniversary

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DSC01682 It’s two years this weekend since I started this blog. As I said last year, on the first anniversary, we’ve learnt a lot from becoming part of the community of gardening bloggers and have made many friends and even met some of them – Ian at Kitchen Garden in France and Kate at Hills and Plains Seedsavers and Vegetable Vagabond in Australia, who have both visited us here and who invited us to join their Kitchen Garden International weekend last September in south-western France. We’ve exchanged seeds with Ian and Kate and also with Laura at Mas du Diable, quite near us in the Cévennes, and with Michelle at From Seed to Table in California, where the climate is also Mediterranean. The blogs I read and from which I get enjoyment and inspiration are listed in the side bar, and there too many to mention here, but two which I read most often because they are by fellow Mediterranean gardeners, in a similar climate to ours, are Jan’s in Catalunya and Heiko’s in Italy. So, as well as our gardening neighbours here in Gabian who are a wonderful source of useful advice, we are benefiting from the knowledge and experience of gardeners and cooks all over the world. Thank you all!

Mid-February in the garden

It’s a quiet time in the garden, a time for planning the next year, but not for harvesting very much. Apart from herbs – thyme, rosemary, mint and bay especially – which we use daily, we’re picking only leeks and cabbages at the moment, with the chard and lettuces just recovering from the cold weather we’ve had.

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It seems to be a late spring – there is no sign yet of almond or apricot blossom and their buds are only just beginning to swell.

DSC01654 DSC01657 Left, the still-bare branches of our apricot tree, and above, canes and flower of bamboo, battered by the north wind, but beautiful against the clear sky on a cold day.

DSC01672 After a cold walk back from the garden we warmed ourselves with a bowl of Lo Jardinièr’s flageolet bean and vegetable soup, with goats’ cheese and cured pork on toast and some red wine from Montesquieu.

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Spring will come, though, and today we’ve sowed our tomato seeds and put them on the seed starter box which Lo Jardinièr made last year. We put the new mini-greenhouse on the balcony in the sun today to try it out and, although it was a cold day – about 6 degrees C – the temperature inside reached 22 degrees! So it will be good for the tomato and pepper plants once they germinate and before we take them to the garden to put in the more rustic-looking cold frames we have there.

>Last days of the year

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The weather has become much milder than it was a couple of weeks ago and the days are getting longer. This evening it was just about light until about 5.30 p.m. There’s a chance that the plants in the garden, which have been in a kind of suspended animation for the past few weeks, will begin to grow again. We still have work to do – clearing the last remaining pepper plants and getting the ground ready for the goat manure we hope to collect during January.

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Even in the very cold weather we’ve been picking leeks and salad leaves, and this cauliflower.




The sea

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On Saturday at Le Grau d’Agde the sea was grey and cold. The statue of a woman represents the women who wait and watch for the fishermen to come back to port. She had no need to worry this time because all the boats were in the harbour. Going through Roujan we were amused to see this large olive tree on the back of a lorry ahead of us. A nice late Christmas present for someone?

Sunday sunset

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From near Roujan we could see as far as the Pyrenees and Mont Canigou (above), which is 2,784 metres high, and the sunlit trees looked golden against the dark sky.






And our Christmas day lunch …

We’ve had to postpone our family mid-winter festivities because of travel problems last week, but even though we were on our own on the 25th, Lo Jardinièr and I had a good lunch!

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Apéritifs in the garden, with some of the olives from our own tree.

DSC00746 DSC00745 Lo Jardinièr opening oysters (left) and beating the chocolate fondant mix (above)

DSC00750 Foie gras with salt, red and black peppercorns and a glass of Cartagène. DSC00752 Oysters gratinées
DSC00755 Leg of lamb slow roasted in wine with garlic and rosemary, with leeks from the garden. DSC00754
Potatoes dauphinoises
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Chocolate fondant.
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And, finally, cherries in Armagnac with our coffee.

We didn’t eat anything else until the next day!

>Languedoc light / La lumière du Languedoc

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Since I’ve been back from our trip to Wales I’ve noticed more than I usually do how wonderful the light is here.  Even though the sun shone while we were in Wales, the light seems so much brighter and clearer here – a Mediterranean light.  One that has been appreciated by artists.  We’re not far from Collioure where Matisse and Derain painted in the early years of the 20th century and began a new movement called Fauvism (from the French fauves, wild beasts).  We’ve noticed too how the quality of the light changes around Carcassonne if you’re travelling from west to east – suddenly the haze lifts and everything looks sharp and clear.

Depuis mon retour du Pays de Galles j’ai remarqué plus que d’habitude la lumière languedocienne.  La lumière ici est beaucoup plus clair que celle du Pay de Galles – une lumière mediterranéenne.  Nous ne sommes loin de Collioure où les artistes Matisse et Derain ont peint au debut du 20ème siècle et où ils ont fondé le mouvement qui s’appèle le Fauvisme.  Nous aussi, on a remarqué que la qualité de la lumière change vers Carcassonne quand on voyage de l’ouest à l’est – tout à coup la brume se lève et tout semble clair.

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I love the contrast of light and shade and the sharp shadows of plants against a sunny wall / J’aime le contraste de la lumière et l’ombre et les ombres prononcées des plantes sur un mur ensoleillé.

Mussels for lunch / Les moules pour le déjeuner

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We bought mussels from the van from Bouzigues and cooked them over a wood fire at the garden with lardons (bacon pieces) and thyme, then garnished them with chopped savory and garlic and a squeeze of lemon.  A delicious lunch!

On a acheté des moules du producteur de Bouzigues et on les a cuites au lardons et au thym sur un feu de bois au jardin.  Garnies de l’ail haché et de sariette et un peu de jus de citron, elles on fait un déjeuner delicieux!

We worked too.  We planted some of our tomato plants – the Yellow Pear which we bought.  We’ll plant the others tomorrow.  And we made sure that the courgette plants will get watered by making a channel through the bed.

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La première fleur du ciste au jardin
Our first cistus flower came out.  They are already flowering in the garrigue and this is later than last year in the garden.  Each flower lasts only one day and this one fell quickly because it was windy.  There’ll be more tomorrow.
butterfly on thyme_1 Lo Jardinièr found this butterfly on the thyme.  We think it is

Brenthis daphne

Marbled Fritillary

>Cold wet garden, tapas at home for my 100th post / Un jardin froid et les tapas chez nous

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For nearly a week we’ve had grey skies. Today it’s raining and sleeting. Usually here it’s cold, but clear and bright at this time of the year. We haven’t been able to do any work in the garden, although we did manage our traditional aperitif in the garden on Christmas day, with a brief moment of sunshine.

Pour presqu’une semaine il a fait gris. Aujourd’hui il pleut et un peu de neige fondue tombe de temps en temps. Comme d’habitude ici à cette saison il fait froid, mais clair. Nous n’avons pas pu faire aucun travail au jardin, mais on a pris l’apéritif au jardin le jour de Noel, pendant un petit moment de soleil.

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It’s strange to see olive leaves covered in rain / c’est bizzare de voir les feuilles d’olivier couvertes de pluie.

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Yesterday we went to Grau d’Agde and the sea was grey and rough. / Hier on est allé au Grau d’Agde et la mer était gris et agitée.

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Not the usual view of the Mediterranean!

At home in the evening we cheered ourselves up with a meal of tapas and North African pastries: / Chez nous le soir on s’est remonté le moral avec un repas de tapas et de patisseries maghrébines:

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sheep’s cheese and anchovies
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cured ham and artichoke hearts
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Almond, apricot, fig and walnut pastries.

>Garrigue

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broom-covered hillside, with an almost overwhelming scent

The garrigue which covers most uncultivated areas of land around the Mediterranean looks at its best in spring. This is the time of year when the plants flower, before dying back and hibernating during the dry summer. There is another burst of flowering after the first rain in the autumn, but April and May is the time when rosemary, thyme, broom and cistus – the most dominant flowering plants – are at their most colourful.

The word garrigue is a French word which comes from the Occitan garriga, land where only the oak – ‘garric’ – will grow. This is also said to link back to Celtic languages and the word for rock (caer in Welsh). Other parts of the Mediterranean have different names for the same vegetation – tomillares (from the Spanish for thyme, ‘tomillo’, I suppose) in Spain, phrygana in Greece, batha in Palestine.

Areas of garrigue symbolise these rocky hillsides so much that you might think they were natural but in fact they are the result of human activity over thousands of years. From the time of the earliest settlements around the Mediterranean, people have cut down trees for firewood and cultivated the fruit trees and herbs which they found. Their sheep and goats have grazed the land for centuries, too. The loss of the forests has led to erosion of slopes leaving only the lower, hardier, less water-demanding plants which make up the garrigue.

The result is a mix of plants, most of which are evergreen: holm oak (evergreen oak), olivettes (small wild olive trees), broom, arbutus, rosemary, thyme and other herbs, and a colourful display of flowers in spring from asphodel, orchids and numerous small plants which grow wherever they find space.

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wild olive tree and cistus

Extensive fires have been in the news around the Mediterranean in recent years, in France, Greece, Portugal and elsewhere. These are frightening and dangerous, and often caused by peoples carelessness (cigarette ends thrown from cars, picnic barbecues, and so on) and their colonising of previously wild areas, but some fire is also a natural part of the life-cycle of Mediterranean plants. Small areas of fire can be beneficial, clearing land for new growth. It is said here that the best places to find wild asparagus are where there have been fires in the past year or so.

Some other spring wild flowers:

wild gladiolus

thyme, cistus and Aphyllanthes monspeliensis

Galactites (I think)

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Flowers of the Mediterranean by Oleg Polunin and Anthony Huxley (Chatto and Windus, 1967) is the book I use for identifying Mediterranean plants – It’s an excellent book with colour photos and good descriptions. I think there are newer editions and that it is still available.

There is a good article in French about the garrigue here as well as other interesting nature articles about the Languedoc on the same website.

And a short article in English here on the history of the garrigue.

And in autumn and winter ….

The arbutus bears its edible fruits at the same time as its flowers
(this picture was taken at the end of November)

>Sustainable fish

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Kates post ‘Fishing for facts’ on hillsandplainsseedsavers.blogspot.com got me thinking about sustainable fish. We almost always buy our fish from a stall in the market here in Gabian. It is all caught from the family boat which comes into Valras-plage, less than 40 km from here, and is brought here fresh, sometimes still alive. This seems to be a good way to buy fish. I do still have questions about sustainability though, and it seems hard to find answers to them. You can find lists of fish to eat and fish to avoid at www.fishonline.org but this site is centred on the UK and its advice applies to fish available in the UK. I havent been able to find a similar list for Mediterranean fish.

Apparently the Mediterranean represents 1 per cent of the worlds sea, but about 9 per cent of marine biodiversity. This makes it vulnerable to exploitation, but also a wonderful source of seafood.

Some facts are available – tuna should be line-caught only, stocks of hake are dropping dramatically. But sardines are sustainable, which is good news for me as its one of my favourite fish. We dont buy red mullet any more because they look too small to be sustainable.

Mussels and oysters from Bouzigues – again less than 40 km from here – are sustainable, so we can carry on eating those without guilty feelings.

Im uncertain about mackerel – they seem to be plentiful and quite big … and I like them. What about the cuttlefish I bought today? And I like squid too.

Ill keep trying to find out what is sustainable and what we shouldnt be eating.

Kates post seems to have set off quite a stream of arguments for and against food choices, especially vegetarianism. Like Kate, I dont want to be a vegetarian. I think everyone has to make their own choices about their diet and the environment. Most of the food I eat comes from within about 100 km of Gabian, in summer, spring and autumn most of the vegetables we eat are organic and grown in our garden, we eat free-range eggs and poultry, mostly local cheeses and fish from local boats. Of course I have my guilty pleasures – I like Italian ground coffee, which must add to the food miles or kilometres of my diet, and the occasional steak. Maybe Ill just have to accept that perfection is unattainable!