Burning the old season

At last our pile of tomato plants, olive tree prunings and other unwanted vegetation had dried out enough to make a bonfire, so we had a good Sunday morning’s work in the garden. Lo Jardinièr managed the fire, and watched it carefully because even after rain there’s always a danger of wild fire here, and planted out some Garriguette strawberry plants our neighbour had given us, while I did a bit more pruning of olives and roses.

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It was warm in the sun when we were working in the garden, and the rosemary is still flowering:

We came home at lunchtime hungry and very glad that I’d prepared a lamb tagine yesterday. The recipe is on the Food from the Mediterranean blog – click on the link in the sidebar.

Closer to the rock

It was a bright blowy morning, with a mild breeze and 16 C in the sun, so perfect for a little tour around the vineyards north of the village, near the uncultivated rock in my photos ten days ago.

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This ruined house near the foot of the rocky slope looks as though it could be an idyllic place to live, surrounded by vines, wild olive trees and lentisk bushes.  Now, sadly, a fig tree grows in what once was a room.

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The lentisk (pistacio lentiscus) is an interesting plant, related to pistachio, but unfortunately not bearing pistachio nuts.  One can be seen to the left of the house in the top photo above.  The resin, mastic, is used in Greek and Turkish cooking.  At this time of the year the plants are covered with red berries and I’m trying to find out whether these can be used in cooking.

A good day with some bad news

First, the bad news about our olive crop.  We have two young trees we planted five years ago and eight years ago and so far we’ve had very small crops from them, but they’ve been increasing each year.  We try to garden organically so we don’t treat the olive trees with chemicals but this year I’ve found signs of the most serious olive pest, the olive fly, Bactrocera oleae.  I noticed that some of the olives were turning black already, much too early as they usually ripen in November.  I picked a couple and opened the flesh to find the dreaded larvae inside.  You can see one in the olive on the left below:

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As far as I can tell from my researches, the fly larvae are only a serious problem for the large-scale production of olive oil as it reduces the quality of the oil.  Most of our olives should still be all right to eat, I hope.  But maybe next year we should treat them.  It’s too late for this year.

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And the good part of the day was having a lovely long lunch in the garden with friends.  I enjoyed it too much and was too busy eating, drinking and talking to take photos other than this one when we were unpacking the baskets to serve tapas – aubergine slices, tapenade, red peppers, cured ham, potatoes cooked with onion and red pepper – followed by mussels cooked over a charcoal fire and then served with tomato and chorizo sauce, goats’ cheeses and fruit.

If it’s Thursday….

it must be mussels in the garden again.  As we often do on a Thursday afternoon we bought a kilo of mussels from the van from Bouzigues, cleaned them and took them to the garden to cook over the barbecue.  In the kitchen, we’d lightly fried some lardons (little pieces of bacon) and added a couple of chopped fresh tomatoes (picked this morning – our second and third of the season).  In the garden I chopped a couple of small sweet onions, some oregano and some thyme.  We put the mussels into a pan over the fire until they were all open then added the lardons, tomatoes, onions and herbs and heated it all then served them straight from the pan.  As always, they were delicious.  We always say that whichever way we’re eating mussels at the moment is our favourite – so this is our favourite today!

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After supper I noticed how lovely the evening light of the setting sun was on the leaves of one of our olive trees:

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As usual on summer evenings there were friends and neighbours in gardens near ours, eating, watering their plants and just enjoying the cooler temperature of the evening, so it’s a very sociable time.

>First sight of an artichoke

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Several of the artichoke plants have small artichokes developing among their leaves, so it looks as though it may be a better crop than last year when the plants took too long to recover from the cold winter.

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We should be eating our own artichokes within a week or so!

Roses and olives

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olive flower buds look so insignificant but the fruit will make a good harvest in the autumn, we hope.

…about to flower, while the broom and Banksiae Rose are almost over….

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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.

>Time to sow more broad beans

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Today and tomorrow are said to be good days in the phases of the moon for sowing broad beans.  Conditions in the garden were good for this too, after rain at the weekend and the horse manure we’d spread over the bean bed the previous weekend.  We sowed the rest of a packet I bought last year of Sevilla broad (fava) beans, as well as some we had saved from last year’s crop.  The plants sown in the autumn are doing well and don’t seem to have suffered from the cold as they did in last year’s severe frosts.

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The rosemary has been in flower all through the winter, the garlic is growing well and there is bright green new growth on the olive trees following the pruning.

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The chard and spinach plants seem to be starting to grow again, the red cabbages are hearting up and a few small turnips were ready to eat for lunch today.

 

 

 

In most of the vineyards around the village there was a lot of slow, cold work going on.  Each vine has to be pruned by hand, one at a time, between November and March, when the viticulteur/euse chooses which are the best shoots to bear this year’s crop.  In the picture below, these old vines (probably about 50 years old) have not yet been pruned.  In the background there’s an olive grove and a mimosa tree in flower.  A typical view of early spring in the Languedoc.

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>A hint of spring?

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This morning for the first time for weeks the sun felt hot and it was 16 degrees C in the garden.  I know the winter’s not over yet – we’re not even half way through January – but there was a suggestion in the air that spring may arrive eventually.

The garden in January

Just for the record, this is what the garden looked like this morning.

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The rosemary has been flowering all winter and there were bees on it today.  The broad beans look much better than they did this time last year and don’t seem to have been affected at all by the cold nights we had last month.

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Olive pruning

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I spent some time pruning the second of our two olive trees, the Lucque,  not too drastically as it is still a very young tree that we planted only five years ago.

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Before (left), during (above) and after (right)
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The main aim when olive pruning is to open out the centre of the tree so I pruned any branches that were growing inwards, and I cut some of the straggly branches at the top.  It’s growing into quite a nice little tree and it produced some good olives last year.

And a cauliflower

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We picked this cauliflower – probably our last for this year, but there are still plenty of leaf vegetables: lettuces, red and green cabbages, spinach and chard, as well as some turnips, to feed us for the rest of the winter.  The garlic and onions we planted in the autumn are all growing well too.

>Development?

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This is what the bulldozers have done to the land near our garden.

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It doesn’t look very pretty, does it?  We were told at the beginning of the planning process that the stone walls would be protected, so I hope the developers keep to this.  The building plots have been marked out, but in the current economic climate we may be left with a part-empty wasteland, as has happened in other villages near here.

But yesterday, at least, the sun came out and shone through the olive groves like this one at Roquessels:

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