Lost for words

With all the unrest and anger in the world, I am lost for words.  So many people are hurting, more are being hurt every day, and I feel powerless to help.  I was thinking that there is too little peace in this world and that’s when I realised that I could share some peace with you – from my garden to you!  I hope this does not sound flippant; it’s not meant to!

When I bought the garden, there were a number of well-established rose bushes.  The most beautifully scented of the roses died the winter before I bought the garden, but the others continued to flourish.  I knew that one of the roses was ‘Queen Elizabeth’, but I did not know the names of the other roses.  I tried to find out what other varieties of roses I had growing in my garden, and I hope that I managed to correctly identify the one in the pictures below as Mme A. Meilland, also known as Peace.  There is an interesting story to the naming of this rose, which you can find on Wikipedia via this link.  Here is an excerpt:

The adoption of the trade name “Peace” was publicly announced in the United States on 29 April 1945 by the introducers, Conard Pyle Co. This was the very day that Berlin fell, a day considered a turning point in the Second World War in Europe. Later that year Peace roses were given to each of the delegations at the inaugural meeting of the United Nations in San Francisco, each with a note that read:

“We hope the ‘Peace’ rose will influence men’s thoughts for everlasting world peace”.

I wonder how many of those plants from 1945 are still flourishing?  I hope that these pictures may bring a little peace to you!

The Shrew – untamed!!

Over the past few months I’ve been spending a lot of time working in my garden.  I was there pretty much every afternoon, except on rainy days!! 🙂 During my time in the garden I’ve been able to observe the wildlife that calls my garden home.  Very early in spring, I found a very large toad hiding among the weeds by the rose bushes.  It sauntered off slowly, and it is probably still hiding in the tangle of weeds which I’ve not gotten round to clearing yet!

When the pear trees bloomed this spring they where abuzz with bees  – the promise of fruit later in the year!!

Bumble bees loved the comfrey flowers:

I left a fair number of borage plants to flower this year – they provided lots of bee food!

This tiny green spider was a little cross at being disturbed, I think.  It waved its front legs at me in a fairly threatening manner! 🙂

Many years ago, when I first took over the garden there were many small lizards darting in an out of the gaps in the stone walls.  They were fun to watch as they jumped and dashed about.  I managed to photograph the one in the picture below many years ago – it was sunning itself in an old ceramic sink!

At some point the geckos started moving in – I don’t remember when, but it’s been a good many years.  Somehow the geckos took over and I haven’t seen a lizard in the garden for a few years – they got crowded out.  I have one bruiser of a gecko living in one of the compost bins – it is feeding on the little flies and other insects that buzz around in there.  Doesn’t it look well fed??

Over the years I have spotted many other animals in the garden!  Once I came across a large bright green lizard (no I had not had a drink!).  Another time there was fairly large snake slithering away into the bushes.  The snake had me spooked – for quite a while I was very weary of reaching with my hands where I could not see!

All kinds of birds visit the garden and it’s always a pleasure to sit and watch them once I’ve turned over a patch of ground!!  And of course there are cats – a succession of them, some better behaved than others!

This year, I discovered an animal in the garden that I had never encountered before.  In February I became aware of something scurrying about – I thought it was probably a mouse and gave it no more thought.  At the beginning of April I took my camera with me to the garden, to take pictures of some of the flowers, and that’s when I saw this little animal in one of the flower beds:

Its fur was a kind of grey-ish brown colour and its body was probably the length of my ring finger.  It was rummaging around in the mulch, totally oblivious to my presence.  I first imagined it to be a mouse.

I couldn’t quite see its face as it was buried in the mulch most of the time!  As it rummaged it came closer to where I was crouched, and finally I managed to get a good picture!

I’d never seen an animal like it – a mouse with a pointed nose!!  A bit of research on the internet showed this to be a garden shrew.  I did a bit of reading and found out that this was not a rodent – what a relief!!  Shrews have a very high metabolic rate and eat insect larvae, slugs & snails and worms.  Because of their high metabolism they have to eat a lot!  Perhaps this shrew was very hungry and therefore ignored me??  In any case, it would seem to be a very beneficial animal to have in the garden!!

Here is a brief video of the shrew:

Do you have any interesting animals living in your garden??

It’s artichoke time!

The artichoke season is under way in my garden, and I am very fortunate with my crop this year!  I re-planted a row of artichokes last year – and I am reaping the rewards!! 🙂  Artichokes are a delicious vegetable that I never tire of!

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When I bought some new plants last year, I asked the vendor how far to space them.  He recommended a distance of 1 metre between plants, and added some advice: he told me to dig holes halfway between two plants and to bury a bucketful of compost.  The plants would  find the nutrients and take what they needed.  Good advice!!

What with the rain we had over the winter, and the compost, the artichoke plants are looking magnificent.  As a result of their lush growth, they have sent up many flower stalks and an impressive number of large, beautiful artichokes!!

I’ve not yet completely solved the problem of earwigs, which started a few years ago – they just seem to love squatting under the outer layer of leaves of the artichokes!!  I imagine that I could resort to insecticides, but that wouldn’t do!  I would rather live with the fact that I’ll have to shake them out of their hiding places!! 🙂

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One of my favourite recipes is called “Barcelona Grilled Artichokes” from Patricia Wells’ book, “Patricia Wells at home in Provence”. For this delicious dish the prepared artichokes are sliced, marinated in a dressing of olive oil, lemon juice, and garlic, and grilled – the result is totally yummy!

Barcelona grilled artichokes

Talking to other people about food and cooking is always rewarding and interesting.  One of my neighbours told me to braise artichokes with potatoes – I tried that, but the result didn’t taste exceptional.  The same neighbour also gave me the idea of adding tomatoes, so I tried cooking the artichokes with smoked bacon and tomato, which worked wonderfully well!

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In Claudia Roden’s “Middle Eastern Cookbook” I found two recipes I enjoyed. The first used honey, lemon juice and preserved lemons, the second paired the artichokes with broad beans and almonds. Both produced delicious dishes and I’ll be preparing them again.

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My overall favorite dish was the artichokes cooked with bacon and tomato and I will attempt to give you the recipe below.  Pictures of the progress are at the end of the recipe.

Artichokes with bacon and tomato

  • Servings: 4-6
  • Difficulty: medium
  • Print

5 globe artichokes
200g smoked bacon
2 tbsp olive oil
1 onion
1 large clove of garlic
1 tin chopped tomatoes
salt and pepper to taste
1 tbsp chopped parsley (optional)
1 lemon, juiced

Prepare the artichokes:  Pour the lemon juice into a bowl large enough to hold all the artichokes and add enough cold water to submerge the trimmed artichokes in.  Trim the artichokes by snapping off the leaves, starting at the base and working your way up.  Once in a while dip the artichoke into the acidulated water – the newly exposed flesh can turn brown very quickly.  Once the leaves remaining on the artichoke start to look yellow-ish you can stop snapping.

Trim the top with a sharp knife.

You will probably be able to see the choke now – a mass of fine white hairs at the centre of the artichoke.  I imagine that they would make you choke and hence the name?

Remove the choke with the aid of a teaspoon, and keep the trimmed artichoke bottoms in the bowl of water.

Cut each artichoke bottom into eight wedges.

Chop the onion and bacon into small dice and cook gently in the olive oil until the onion is softened.

Add the garlic (chopped finely or pushed through a garlic press) and cook for a minute longer.  Turn up the heat and add the drained artichoke pieces.

Fry, stirring from time to time until the artichokes start to brown around the edges, then add the chopped tomatoes and season with salt and pepper.

Turn the heat down and simmer for 10 – 15 minutes until the artichokes are tender and the sauce is reduced.

Serve hot on their own as a vegetable course, or allow to cool, dress with a little olive oil and lemon juice and serve as tapas or an appetizer.

Note: you can of course use frozen artichoke bottoms for this recipe, which will reduce the preparation time and will produce very similar results!

A delicious day trip

I took a trip with friends recently – we went to visit La Pepiniere du Bosca specialist plant nursery near Lodeve.  Since it is a little way away, we decided to make a day of it.  The nursery has a very interesting selection of plants – we were all keen to buy some plants before the nursery closed for the season at the end of April.  We all found more or less what we wanted.  I bought some raspberry and gooseberry plants for my garden, along with a kaki tree (diospyros kaki or persimmon), which are all planted in my garden now.  🙂

Here are a couple of unusual insect hotels, which were for sale at the nursery:

We had timed our visit to the nursery so that we could have lunch at La Petite Fringale in Saint-Jean-de-la-Blaquiere.  The name of the restaurant translates (very loosely) to: “slightly peckish” or “snack attack”.

We found a shady spot for the car – the plants didn’t want to get too hot – and walked to the restaurant.  On the way, we saw a somewhat unusual steeple – I had never seen one with a kind of ‘hat’ over the bell!

The steeple belonged to a romanesque church.  The doors were unfortunately locked, perhaps because it was lunchtime? 🙂

As the day was beautiful and sunny, the tables had been set on the terrace.  We had a lovely view from our table!  And no, before you ask – I did not use a filter, nor did I play with the colour saturation – the sky really was that blue!!

The restaurant is run by two energetic young men, Laurent and Antoine, who took the restaurant over in early 2017.  Here’s what we had to eat – starters first:

Chickpea fritters

Chickpea fritters

Spinach cream soup with poutargue (dried mullet roe)

Spinach cream soup with poutargue (dried mullet roe)

Gratinated asparagus

Gratinated asparagus

These were our main courses:

Slow braised pork belly

Slow-braised pork belly

Hamburger

Hamburger

Oxtail ballotine on butternut squash puree

Oxtail ballotine (parcel) on butternut squash puree

Chicken breast stuffed with salt cod puree

Chicken breast stuffed with salt cod puree

And finally, desserts:

Pavlova with vanilla ice cream and raspberry coulis

Pavlova with vanilla ice cream and raspberry coulis

Pannacotta with strawberries

Pannacotta with strawberries

The food was absolutely delicious and the service was friendly and relaxed.  The restaurant does not have a fixed price menu, but our three courses came to 20 Euros per head – I felt that was very good value!  If you are planning to eat at La Petite Fringale, make sure you book – it does get very busy and seating capacity is limited.

After that wonderful lunch, we went to visit the priory of Saint-Michel-de Grandmont – I’ll tell you about that next week! 🙂

The spice of kings

The spice of kings is saffron – a spice as expensive, or sometimes more so, than gold.  The reason behind the high price is not its rarity, or a difficulty in growing the spice.  It is entirely down to the laborious process of harvesting!

The saffron crocus (crocus sativus) is an autumn flowering perennial.  The red “threads” (the stigmas and styles of the flower) will turn into the precious spice once dry.  I’ve been growing saffron in my garden for a number of years, with varying degrees of success.  Last year, none of the corms produced any flowers.  This year has been much better! 🙂

One day last week,  I was able to pick twelve flowers!!  Saffron flowers emerge shortly after the leaves appear, sometime in October.  The leaves persist until around May, when they dry out and the plants lie dormant over the summer.  Saffron  plants need free draining soil and a sunny position – apart from that they aren’t fussy.  I adore all the different colours in the saffron flowers, they are so vibrant and gorgeous!

The flowers should be picked as soon as they open.  The threads are then removed from the flowers and dried.  I like to keep the flowers in water until they wilt, they are so beautiful to look at!

Each flower has three threads and produces on average 30 mg of fresh saffron or 7 mg of dried saffron.  About 150 flowers yield one gram of saffron!  Saffron flowers need to be hand picked, and the threads are also removed by hand, hence its very high price!!

Here’s what the threads above amount to after drying:

Not a great deal, but I’m hoping that my saffron harvest isn’t quite finished yet!!  🙂

The use of saffron dates back more than 3,500 years, and it has always been an expensive spice.  It’s been used as a fabric dye, for medicinal use, and for culinary purposes. Here are some dishes which wouldn’t be the same without saffron:  risotto milanese, paella, bouillabaisse, jewelled rice, and biriyani.  There are many other culinary preparations which use saffron – do you have any favourites??

And to finish this post, here’s a tip which came from the grower I bought my corms from.  He told me never to add the saffron threads directly to a dish.  He recommended that the threads be soaked in a some warm water for a little while, strained out and dried.  They could then be used up to three times, much like a vanilla bean.  Using saffron that way makes it a lot less expensive!

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Bamboo collection

You may remember my trip to Uzes last fall, if you’ve been reading this blog for a little while.  After my visit to the Witches’ Market in Saint-Chaptes, I stopped off at La Bambouseraie, near the town of Anduze.  La Bambouseraie is a botanical garden, dedicated – no prizes for guessing – to bamboo.  It had been on my list of places to visit for many years, so it was quite exciting to finally be able to get there!!

As it was out of season and not long before the garden closed for the winter, there were few visitors, which suited me fine! 🙂

Right from the entrance gate, bamboo was in evidence everywhere, from stands of enormously tall bamboo, to the fence made from bamboo poles.

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The history of the garden dates back to 1856, when Eugene Mazel, a passionate botanist, started to plant his exotic garden.  Following the death of Mazel, Gaston Negre bought the estate in 1902 and continued Eugene Mazel’s work.  The estate still belongs to the Negre family – it is now run by Gaston Negre’s granddaughter, Muriel.

Today the part of the estate which is open to the public covers 15 hectares (about 37 acres).  Another 19 hectares (47 acres) are given over to a nursery where bamboo is grown for sale.  I would describe the visit of the garden as ‘spectacular’ – I was absolutely amazed by the beauty and sheer size of the bamboo plantations!!  There were so many different types!

The self-guided visit, where an audio commentary was available at certain points, was highly informative!

The stalk of giant bamboo (phyllostachys bambusoïdes) in the picture below is 20.8 metres long!!

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Deep in the bamboo forest, I found a cluster of buildings, all constructed from bamboo!  The buildings below are typical of the houses of Lao people, who live in the Mekong river plain.  Built on stilts, the houses are in three parts:  the main living quarters, the kitchen, which is joined to the living quarters, and the rice store, which is set a little apart.

The ‘shop’ is another building on stilts, and one of the meeting points for the village.  The shopkeeper lives in the shop!  All the items on the shelves are made from bamboo too!

A charming enclosure was home to some little black pigs! 🙂

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Phlyllostachys bambusoïdes is the star plant at La Bambouseraie – it is as strong as steel, and can be used to reinforce concrete in place of steel.  It also has an incredibly fast growth rate – at the garden they have measured a growth of over 1 metre in the space of 24 hours!!  In the picture below, you can see the root system at the base of a stalk.

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The name bamboo covers a variety of plants – all of them belonging to the family of grasses!  Of the nineteen bamboo poles below, 18 belong to the phyllostachys species, while the second from right is a chimonobambusa quadrangularis.

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Apart from bamboo, the garden is host to many other plants.  The planting below looked spectacular at the time of my visit!

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In 2000, a Japanese garden called ‘The Valley of the Dragon’ was opened.  The fall colours were absolutely perfect when I visited!

Another bamboo tunnel opened to a small clearing, where the house of the park’s guardian stood.

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In front of the house there were some stands of smaller bamboo – I could almost see the one on the left in my garden! 🙂

A path led from there to an area which was dedicated to aquatic plants.  The basins were planted with water lillies, papyrus, lotus and many more plants whose names I was not familiar with!

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A giant wisteria covered a most beautiful pergola.  I’m sure that would look spectacular when in bloom!

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Below is a stand of phyllostachys sulfureus with some yellow maple leaves.

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And this was the entrance to the bamboo maze!!  It was great!!! I did get a bit lost in there!!  🙂

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The way out led through a tunnel made from bamboo, and into the garden centre, where all kinds of bamboo were available to be bought.

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I am so pleased that I finally got to visit this amazing garden – it is only two hours from Saint-Chinian by car!

La Bambouseraie is open from March until mid November and you’ll need half a day to visit all of the garden.  Have a look at the website for more details.