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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Fifty shades of …

… red and pink.  No this is not what you were thinking!  This is a little dip into the colourful world of flowers in my garden and in the area.  There is such an abundance of flowers at this time of year –  I thought I would try and stick with a theme for this post: flowers which are predominantly red and/or pink.

So here we go:

The following flower is a gaillardia, which blooms endlessly in my garden here in Saint-Chinian.  It needs no water and flowers until the first frost!

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Roses are wonderful this year!!  We seem to have had the right amount of rain at the right time!

The gerbera below is a relative of those expensive flowers which you can find in florist shops everywhere.

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Red flax is really wonderful, a mass of it can make for a real splash of colour!

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Here is another selection of pink flowers:  Echinacea, cistus and dicentra spectabilis. The last one is commonly known as bleeding heart.

Cosmos is another wonderful flower, needing very little care – it even sows itself in my garden!

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And to finish off, some red oleander:

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If you want to see for yourself, why not come and visit Languedoc?  I’ll be happy to help with your accommodation and travel plans.

 

Flower power

This week’s post is going to be a short one, and it will rely heavily on photographs! 😉  The reason is that right now I am spending most of my spare time in the garden, where everything seems to be happening at once!!

At this time of year, a lot of plants are in full flower or starting to flower, such as the thyme, campanula, and Papa Meilland rose in the picture below.

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Other plants, such as the salvias and lavenders, which I cut back not all that long ago, are producing lots of lush new growth.

 

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There’s a patch of weeds in my garden, which has been heavily invaded by escholtzia, the Californian poppy.  Such a cheery sight!  Eventually the weeds and the escholtzias will be weeded out, and some vegetables be planted in their place.  But fear not, there will always be weeds and escholtzias somewhere in the garden…

 

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The bees are having a wonderful time on the borage…

 

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… and on the thyme!  It’s hard to beat thyme when it’s in full flower – the generosity of the blossom is astounding.

 

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The potatoes are up and out, and after some hoeing the patch is more or less weed free. 🙂

 

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The broad beans, which I sowed last November, are producing a very good crop right now!

 

 

The artichokes have just started to put up flower buds – I think I’ll be enjoying some of those lovely globes for supper tonight.

 

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I’m growing a few spare plants for a charity sale, which will take place in Saint-Chinian on June 21st, 2015.  There’ll be garlic chives, two kinds of mint, gaillardia, and a plant whose name I cannot remember, but it has white furry leaves 🙂 .  Of course there will be a lot of other plants too!

 

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The tomato forest is ready for planting out – one of my chores this week!

 

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The wisteria has all but finished flowering, but there may be some more flowers later in the summer!

 

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The bearded iris are also in full flower right now.  If you look carefully at the pictures you’ll be able to tell why it is called “bearded” 🙂

 

 

The flower buds on the kiwi plants are looking good, another week and they should be open and ready for business – or should that be beesiness?!

 

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These seedlings and plants need to be pricked out or planted very soon!

 

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Here’s a medley of flowers: escholtzia, allium, roses, heuchera, wallflowers, gaillardia, gerbera, salvia and bulbine frutescens.  All of them are blooming in my garden right now.  This really is a fabulous time of the year in Languedoc!

 

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Milling around..

Last weekend was the European Mills Weekend.  Each year the whole of Europe celebrates its milling heritage on the third weekend of May, with demonstrations of the millers craft, and buildings being opened to the public which are often not accessible for the rest of the year.  Once upon a time there were lots of mills in Languedoc; St Chinian alone had in excess of 10 water powered wheels and one windmill.  I visited Roquebrun on the Sunday, and the St Chinian windmill on the Monday, and since I don’t want to make this post overly long I will split it into two.

I’ll start in chronological order with Roquebrun.  Until 1870, when the bridge across the Orb was completed, Roquebrun was somewhat cut off from the rest of the plain by the river.  On the carte de l’etat major a map from between 1820 – 1866 the road to Beziers led via Causses et Veyran and it was probably no more than a track.  There was a ferryman at Roquebrun, so that the arable land on the other side of the river could be accessed, but that was it.  The village was more or less self-sufficient, and the mills played an important role.

The first mill I visited was an oil mill, which was in operation until the 1920s.  Waterpower was provided by the stream from Laurenque, and the mill consisted of a crushing mill to reduce the olives to pulp, and a press to extract the oil.  In the 1920s the oil mill transferred to a location on the edge of village, now the site of the cooperative winery.  In the old days every possible spot of land was cultivated, and olive trees provided families with their supply of oil for the year.

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Across from the oil mill stand the other two mills: on the edge of the river is the grain mill, which ground the locally grown cereals into flour or cattle feed. The inside of the mill can be visited, and usually houses exhibitions of local artists.

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At the entrance level there is a reproduction mill,  and on the next floor the beautiful roof timbers are visible.  The wheel room can be accessed from the outside, and the entrance to the mill-race is still visible from the banks. The old mill stone is now outside, propped up against a wall.

Next over and now surrounded by water is the moulin a genet, a mill which was used to process plant fibre extracted from the spanish broom which grows abundantly on the hillsides.  At one point this mill could be reached on foot, but a change in the river bed on the opposite side has meant that there is now water all round it.  In case you are wondering, the round structure atop of the building was a pigeonnier, providing meat for the table.  The broom fibre was used to make sheets and sacking and produced a somewhat coarse fabric.  A lot of houses had their own looms, and the open loggias at the top of a number buildings indicate that this is where the drying of the fibres and weaving was carried out.

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The mills look a little like stranded ships, the pointed bows have helped them withstand the floodwaters of the Orb river for centuries.  The dam which fed both mills used to be made with bunches of twigs, and was replaced in the 1960s with a new dam made of concrete.  It’s due for a major refurbishment shortly.  Both of the water mills fell into disuse at the end of 19th century, when the villagers no longer relied on self-sufficiency.

As part of the mill weekend in Roquebrun a guided visit of the Jardins de Limpach was on the program.  We were met by the president of the association Patrimoine et mémoire de nostre pais, which researches and promotes the history and heritage of the village.  Our visit started just a few yards down from the mills, and took us along the Laurenque stream, to the site of the first gardens in Roquebrun.  This area of France was occupied by the Moors from the 4th to 7th centuries, and the Moors brought with them a certain amount of know how where irrigation was concerned.  The water was captured in a canal further up the valley, and each garden along the valley had a beal, a channel made of stones, which in turn filled up a basin called a tane.  From the tane the water was distributed on to the ground with the aid of a large and slightly curved paddle, more of a large soup spoon perhaps.

Other systems existed to get water into the gardens, where the ground was too high to be fed by the stream.  Along the valley are cisterns, into which the water would flow.

Some of them are barely visible, but others still seem to be in good repair and use.  To get the water out of the cisterns there were various methods.  One was something called chaine a godet, literally translated as a bucket chain, which was hand-cranked.  For larger amounts of water there was also the noria, which worked on a similar principle as the chaine a godet, but was operated by a donkey.

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But the most common and probably least expensive was the chadouff (or shadoof), which is called pousalanque in Occitan and which involved a stone pillar, a slender tree trunk, some stones and a bucket.  Examples of this can be seen today in India, Egypt and elsewhere.  There are many stone pillars left in the jardins de Limpach but only one which is more or less working at the end of the walk.

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The bucket hangs on a chain, and is lowered into the water by pulling the chain downwards to lower the arm.  The counterweight at the end of the arm helps pull the full bucket up without much effort, and the water is then emptied into a channel, which spills into a tane, from where it is splashed ont the surrounding crops.  At the top of the valley there was also the fontaine intermittante – a spring which overflows at certain times.  In the days before running water, the women of the village used to come here with their pitchers to get water and no doubt have a chat.  Later the water was pumped up to a reservoir at the top of the hill, from where it fed a number of fountains.

I followed the path the women would have taken for centuries, and it looked as might have when they did.  I couldn’t resist the Iris which were flowering along the way.

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Looking into some fo the gardens there are series of stone pillars, some of them connected by iron hoops.  According to our guide, the first orange trees were planted in this valley, and the structures were orangeries, which could be covered in winter to protect against frost.

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After that interesting visit I went for a little walk around Roquebrun, there’s a lot more to see and of course there is the jardin mediterranean to visit at the top of the hill, but that’s for another blog.

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Now for two last pictures!  The giant asparagus is the beginning of an agave flower stalk, and the pale blue patch in the distance is a field of blue iris.

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A lady in waiting and other tales from Languedoc

I’ll start with the last bit first – a visit to Sete last night, so see Stacey Kent in Concert at the Theatre de la Mer.  The Theatre de la Mer was built on what remained of the fort built by Vauban in the 18th century – it was perfect for an amphitheater and the view from the seats beyond the stage is magical.  If you want to find out a bit more of the history of the fort/theatre have a look here.  The concert was due to start at 9pm, with a warm up by Terez Montcalm, a Canadian singer, who’s currently promoting her tribute album to Shirley Horn, followed at about 10.30 by Stacey Kent and her quintet.  The evening was great, the lights twinkling and the occasional boat going by and the atmosphere in the theater wonderful.  Of the two Terez Montcalm got the audience going much more, Stacey Kent was missing that je ne sais quoi that would have turned her performance into something more memorable.  But still….
 We had arrived in Sete in plenty of time before the doors opened, so decided to wander along the port and look for somewhere to have a bite to eat.  The romantic looking restaurant we all wanted to go to didn’t start serving until 8pm, which was too late, so we settled for a small cafe type place a few doors up.  The menu was small and the rose wine came in large bucket full of ice, and our table was right by the water’s edge, perfect for watching all kinds of boats going by!  Here’s the food we had:  an assortment of tapas (cold fish and prawns), and grilled octopus, both very delicious.

The seagull was watching our plates with a beady eye, but didn’t make any attempts at snatching morsels. It looked pretty well fed…. On the way back to the theatre we saw some youngsters training for jousting. They had motor powered boats, and really went for it. If you look closely the second picture you can just about see the splash!  As an aside – if you’re ever going to the Theatre de la Mer, bring some seat cushions with you, and don’t arrive too late.  Seating is first come first served, and it can get very packed.  At the top of the theatre are two terraces, where there are food stalls, so if you want to have something to eat you can take it back to your hard-won seats!

Earlier in the week I met with friends for a picnic along the banks of the Canal du Midi – at Capestang to be precise. There are picnic tables from where you have a great view of the pleasure boats driving by and the magnificent plane trees are still providing shade. With the courgettes starting to glut I decided I would try a Turkish recipe by Yottam Ottolenghi for a courgette frittata, to use up a fair few. The recipe was a little fiddly and lengthy (grating the courgettes, salting and leaving them to stand, then draining and squeezing them out in a teatowel) but the end result was worth every bit of effort. To go with the frittata I made humus and tzaziki, and my friends brought bread, ham and cheese. I could not resist dessert so took some poached rhubarb to be served with custard.

Now back to St Chinian – last Saturday I heard the unfamiliar sound of the clip-clop of hooves coming round a corner.  Luckily my camera was to hand to snap these pictures of a newlywed couple on their way to their wedding breakfast.

Finally, the Lady-in-waiting is Marianne – awaiting her big day on July 14! I think every municipality in France has a bust or statue of Marianne, the national emblem of France.  In the days leading up to Bastille day, our Mairie is beautifully decked out with flags and Marianne takes pride of place on the central balcony. More decorations will be going up this afternoon as the whole park in front of the town hall will be decked out with lampions, which will be lit tonight before a torch-lit procession around town, with a brass band, and all the children carrying flags and lampions.  Tomorrow night it’ll be the same procession, only we’ll end up at the football ground to watch the fireworks!

The park will be scented by the magnolia grandiflora trees, which are in flower now – I’d never paid attention to the perfume, but it is a beautiful smell with a hint of citrus.

I’m sure even the goldfish will have a good time at the forthcoming parties!!

The sound of silence

‘Tis the time of year when the cicadas start singing – one of the signs that summer really has arrived!  In places the noise can be deafening as the beasties compete with one another, but mostly it provides a very pleasant background noise, a sign that you have arrived in the South.

I taped this little bit of silence at Les Rossignols near Roquebrun this afternoon.  There is no car noise and at the height of the day only the cicadas are active – sheer bliss and of course it’s not easy to find such a quiet spot in our ever so noisy environment.

The owner of Les Rossignols had prepared a simple and informal, but very delicious lunch.  Sitting on a terrace, admiring the view of the Orb river valley, with a glass of Rose wine from Domaine de Marquise des Mures, we started with a salad of fresh garden tomatoes, a separate dish of beetroot (both home-grown), dressed with lemon juice and olive oil and some marinated olives.  Main course was pasta with a sun-dried tomato sauce.  The sun-dried tomatoes (not the type in oil) are soaked to soften them a little, and then blended to a paste with chopped onions and garlic, which have been softened in some olive oil, roasted pine nuts and grated parmesan cheese.  Warm before tossing with the hot pasta – yummy!  For dessert we had that wonderful home-made tart made with fresh wild plums and apricots – the pastry crust was very thin and crunchy so a second piece was no hardship!

At Les Rossignols I also picked up a bowl full of wild plums, which make wonderful jam and delicious tarts combined with apricots!  I’ll be busy this evening preserving that bounty.The apricot tree along the road was heavy with fruit and I wanted to show you just how abundant the crop on some trees can be.   Of course just because it grows close to the road doesn’t mean that the tree does not belong to someone, so scrumping is out of the question!  I already made some apricot jam last weekend with fruit from Barbara Cathala – last Sunday she had some very nice small apricots which were perfect and made for a very tasty result.

 

At the beginning of the week I went to L’Arbousier in Pierrerue to update my photographs. The weather was spectacular and the garden in full bloom.  You can see the results on the webpage for the house

Also earlier in the week I went for a visit to Narbonne to catch up with a friend.  Le 26 is the restaurant we tried that day, not too far from the market halls.  Great value lunch time menu and very good food. There was melon with ham for starter – almost a bit of a cliche, but when the melon is perfectly ripe and ham tender and tasty, it’s sublime.  For main course there was supreme de poulet, beautifully cooked on a bed of mashed potatoes, and served with an oyster mushroom sauce.  Dessert was glass full of strawberries with creme chantilly, not your ordinary whipped cream, but the real thing with vanilla and a little sugar….!

 

In my garden exciting stuff is happening – the first of the tomato crop is ripening!!  It started to turn pale orange and should be ready for picking (and eating) any day now!  We’ve had some rain this week (unusual for this time of year, but very welcome!) and things are growing apace.  Unfortunately not just the vegetables and flowers but also the weeds, but such is gardening life.

 

The garden at La Digue in St Chinian was looking particularly lovely last week, with the climbing hydrangea and the trachelospermum flowering at the same time as the phormium and the oleander.

A bientot!