Sunday 29 June 2008

Saturday in Pézenas, Sunday in the garden

Pézenas is our nearest town and our nearest big market, held each Saturday. We don't go very often - we can get almost everything we need most weeks in Gabian and especially around holiday times and in the summer Pézenas market gets very crowded with tourists and visitors. But we wanted to buy some plants from the garden stall there. Just like last year, we've left it a bit late to sow our own chard and leek plants - it's hard to think about winter vegetables in May. Last year we almost left buying the plants too late as well, so we thought we'd better get some soon.

fruit stall in Occitan colours

It's always fun going to this market which stretches for several hundred metres along one of the main streets of the town, from one fountain to another, with stalls selling everything from clothes, bedding, pottery, hats and shoes to vegetables, fish, olives, oysters and cheese. We bought our plants early and asked the stallholder if we could leave them with him while we toured the rest of the market, buying olives, goats' and sheep's cheeses and some delicious walnut bread from the Aveyron.

plants and flowers

much better garlic than ours in the garden


and soap

olives and pickles, and goats' cheese from Roujan, the next village to Gabian

Back in the garden, we planted out the leek plants and watered everything.

The afternoon temperatures are reaching 36 or 37 degrees now, so plants are growing really quickly so long as they get enough water. I love this time of the year! One nice surprise is that our first tomato is almost ripe. Last year we picked tomatoes in the last week of June This year after the long cold wet spring I thought they would be much later. But we'll pick this one tomorrow, on the last day of June.

Our grapes are growing

though it's still difficult to imagine them being black and sweet as they should be by the end of August.

Monday 23 June 2008

Mediterranean summer

What is it that symbolises the Mediterranean for me? The olive tree, of course. It grows all around the Mediterranean, as well as in other parts of the world, and this kind of climate is the only one it thrives in. People in the Midi, as in other Mediterranean countries, have a special attachment to it. It's such an important tree that it deserves a post all to itself - and I'll do this one day soon. For now I'll just say that I think it is the most beautiful of all trees and I can't imagine now living anywhere where it doesn't grow.

Then there's the smell of thyme as I crush its leaves when I walk through scrubby garrigue, the flowers at the side of the road in springtime, the taste of it in cooking, leaves sprinkled on tomatoes, on goats' cheese. We grew it in Wales, too, but without the heat of the Mediterranean sun it was never the same.

Summer begins properly for me when we hear the cicadas - they've just started here in the last week. Their chattering begins when the temperature reaches 26 degrees C, and as the sun rises in the mornings and reaches higher up a hillside you can hear each tree being 'switched on' as the cicadas sense its heat.

And oleanders. Their flowers in different shades of white, pink, red, are all coming out now, lining the road at the entrance to villages, in gardens and parks. They're all beautiful (although poisonous), but for me it's the pink ones which are the real oleanders - the ones we had in the garden when I was a child in Libya.


And the Mediterranean sea itself:

Friday 20 June 2008

Watering system

At last the rain seems to have stopped and the hot summer weather has started. It's getting too hot to work in the garden in the middle of the day, so this morning we were there at 8.30 a.m. Already the sun felt hot, so we'll have to get there even earlier tomorrow. When we left at 10.30 it was 34 degrees C. I love the heat and the dry weather, but it's time to think seriously about watering.

We've found that a slow drip watering system is much more effective than anything we can do with a hose or watering can - it's also much easier as we can just turn it on and do something else while the garden is being watered. Last year we tried out a small length of pipe with sprinkler attachments for some of the tomatoes - and these were the plants which were most productive. At the moment this pipe is watering the cucumbers and two double rows of tomatoes. This year we've bought some more pipe, the same TechnO make, but this time it has drip holes already incorporated in it, 3 per metre of pipe which is about the right spacing for tomatoes and peppers. This morning we attached this to the system to extend it to another double row of tomatoes and a double row of peppers. We have plenty left over so we'll use it for other plants too as we need it.

This is the plan of what we've done so far (click on the plan to enlarge it):

The haricots verts, potatoes, broad beans, peas and mangetout peas are all nearly over now so they won't need it this year. We haven't included the courgettes in the watering system as the drips are not well spaced for these because they are planted further apart. Courgettes here come in a huge glut between June and the end of July, after which it is too hot for them and the plants die, however much water we give them, so we'll water these separately for the next few weeks. We'll water the Roma tomatoes and the chili peppers with a slow-dripping hose straight from the tap.

The drip feed pipe in the tomato bed:

The sprinkler system in another tomato bed:

As you can see, we've planted lettuces between the double row of tomatoes - a tip from our neighbour last year. We'll have eaten the lettuces by time the tomato plants grow too big and in the meantime the lettuces get some much-needed shade from the tomato plants and they benefit from the water.

Kate at Hills and Plains seedsavers knows much more about watering in a dry climate than I do. Thanks for your help, Kate! I'm going to try her terracotta pot system as soon as I can buy some cheap pots, so more about this later.

Wednesday 18 June 2008

Lunch in the garden on market day

Before we lived here all the time, at the beginning of each stay we used to be overcome by the choice of food available in the shops and markets and we'd buy far too much, take it home and wonder how we were going to eat it all. We still get a bit carried away sometimes, tempted to try some of everything in case it's not there again next week.

There's a nice blog I visit sometimes called Feast with Bron where Bron tells us what she cooks with the food she buys in Borough Market in London. Here in Gabian we have everything we need in the village. This morning the market was rather depleted by the unexplained absence of the vegetable stall - which luckily we didn't need this week as we have plenty in the garden. The fish and charcuterie stalls were enough for us.

I'm not very keen on bony varieties of fish - except for mackerel and sardines whose flavour makes the fuss worthwhile, I think. Lo Jardinièr loves most kinds of fish. Pas de problème - he has fish, while I have something from the charcuterie stall. Today he bought a marbré (according to Alan Davidson in Poisson de Méditerranée, this is the Roussillon name for this fish, but it's used here in the Languedoc too, in English it's Striped Bream). We also bought some galères, crayfish (which I do like), which I'll mention later in this post. The fish, as I've mentioned before, comes from Valras-plage, so fresh it's often still alive when it arrives here.

At the charcuterie stall we bought some sheep's cheese, butter, sausage, some pork ribs (plat de côtes) (these weren't for today, but for the next few days!). I bought some merguez, spicey lamb sausages, for my lunch. All these came from well within 100 kilometres of Gabian, up in the mountains to the north.

After several days of heavy rain (again!) it was a treat to be able to take our lunch to the garden. Lo Jardinièr barbecued the fish and merguez, with slices of courgettes I'd cut from the plants just minutes earlier, skewers of onion and bayleaf, and some skewered garlic cloves (left in their skins, which burn leaving a delicious soft clove inside). We ate these with a salad of leaves and herbs I'd just picked from the garden and decided this really is paradise!
courgettes and onions ready to barbecue

salad of lettuce, rocket, oregano, savoury and garlic

The white wine came from Domaine des Pascales in Gabian and the red from Domaine Estève in Roquessels a few kilometres away. All the ingredients for our lunch came from Gabian or very near, except the olive oil (Spanish) and the coffee (Italian). We're very lucky to have such an abundance of good things.


In the evening we cooked the crayfish - just boiled them for five minutes, then took them out of their spikey shells and ate them with mayonnaise, potatoes from the garden and oignons doux (sweet onions). The crayfish were sweet too, but still nothing to rival my favourite crustaceans, the giant prawns which are called gambas here. I had gambas cooked in a very southern way in a restaurant the other day, flambéed in pastis. I'm going to try this at home soon.

Tuesday 17 June 2008

Bloggers arrested

An article on the site today should be of concern to bloggers. You can read it here. The most dangerous countries for bloggers are China, Egypt and Burma and the annual World Information Access report shows that 36 people were arrested worldwide in 2007 as a result of their blogging. This is probably an underestimate. For those subsequently imprisoned the average sentence was 15 months.

While I am wary of advocating complete freedom of speech on the Internet - there are a few unpleasant characters out there - I think we should support fellow bloggers who oppose repressive regimes in their countries, or who just want to express themselves and their ideas in ways which we take for granted.

Sometimes I feel it can get too comfortable writing about gardening and food from the safety of a western European country.

The website Blogger for Freedom here has campaigned for freedom, human and civil rights all over the world and, although it has now closed, the archive remains and it's a good source of information on what's going on in different countries and what is happening to some of our fellow bloggers.

Global Voices Advocacy is another website which states that it is 'dedicated to protecting freedom of expression and free access to information online' and monitors censorship on the net. Their Access Denied map, which you can see here, shows where bloggers and internet users are restricted across the world.

Sunday 15 June 2008

More cherries ... and a prickly pear

On the first real summer day this year, when it felt too hot to garden in the afternoon, we had a long, lazy lunch in the shade yesterday and spent the afternoon occasionally going out into the sun to tie up tomato plants and pinch out side shoots. Our daughter, La Jardiniera, did a lot of this as we're lucky enough to have her staying with us at the moment. Our neighbour pointed out his cherry tree - which we had noticed over the fence. Its fruit has ripened later than on other trees in the area, but it's ready now. He says it’s a wild cherry and the fruit is quite sharp compared with other cultivated varieties, but we tasted them and the flavour is good. He asked us if we wanted to pick them, so Lo Jardinièr went straight over and picked a couple of kilos to make jam with.

In the evening we made a clafoutis:

Make a batter with 250 ml milk, 100 gm sugar, 100 gm plain flour and 2 eggs. Pour the batter into a greased oven-proof tin or dish, add cherries (remove the stones if you have time) and put in the oven for about 40 minutes at 170 C. Because these cherries weren't very sweet I sprinkled the whole thing with brown sugar before putting it in the oven and this made a very nice slightly caramelised crust.

And we made seven pots of jam. We make the jam using special jam sugar (with added pectin). With this you don't need to cook the fruit for very long so you keep the fresh flavour. Usually we use slightly less weight of sugar than fruit (about 40:60), but because this fruit wasn't very sweet we used approximately equal weights of sugar and fruit.

Cherry Jam

Remove the stones from the fruit. We use the olive stoning attachment of a garlic press for this. Bring the fruit to the boil in a pan. Add the preserving sugar and bring back to the boil. Simmer for 7 minutes. Put into sterilised jars. We've found the easiest way to sterilise the jars is to put them in the oven at 120 degrees centigrade for 10 minutes or so.

We tried it this morning and the jam tastes wonderful as an accompaniment to fromage frais for breakfast, or with bread or toast, of course. The slight acidity of the fruit is good for jam.

A friend gave us a prickly pear leaf which was flowering. We kept if for a few days as a decoration, but now I've taken four of the smaller leaves from it and put them into geranium compost, hoping they will take root for transplanting to the garden. They should do well here as the plants grow wild and don't need much water once they are established.

prickly pear cuttings

Thursday 12 June 2008

SUN at last!!!!

I'm too busy working this week to spend much time in the garden or on my blog, but the sun is here at last, on the vine leaves ...

and on the mulberry leaves ...

and we've eaten our first courgettes.

Wednesday 4 June 2008

Generation to generation

In my Occitan class this week we read a piece by Gui Benoet about the knowledge of the natural world that older generations pass on to younger ones. Benoet comes from the Minervois area of the Languedoc, a beautiful, wild area of vines and rocky garrigue-covered hills with watercourses which rush water down from the mountains in winter but which are dry for most of the year. Some very good wine comes from this area. In the piece we read he was more concerned with the wild plants and animals which have provided food since people began living in these parts - in Occitan, las plantas, l'ensalada del Causse, las bèstias salvatjas, la pesca e la caça (plants, salad of the Causse, wild animals, fish and hunting). And the traditional ways of cooking which have been lost to modernity, like the ast or spit turning in the fireplace. Benoet is sad that his grandchildren will not see him turning a hare on one of these. Although we know that hunting is still an important part of life here. We've eaten delicious wild boar given to us by friends here.

While we were talking about all this, several members of the class spoke about learning from older people where they could find certain plants, especially the wild salad plants of the garrigue and mushrooms in the woods. Benoet mentions several varieties of mushroom which grow locally, including las aurelhetas, chanterelles. One class member said that his father-in-law had taken him to show him special secret places which he knew were good for mushrooms, passing on the information, keeping it in the family. It made me think about how important it is to have this transmission of knowledge from one generation to another. It happens in the gardens too, where we see a lot of middle-aged people who have taken over their parents' gardens and use the knowledge built up over centuries and passed on to them, usually by their fathers (this is still a traditional society where men garden and women cook). We benefit from this because our neighbours tell us what we should be doing - although sometimes the advice can be contradictory!

We don't see many young people in the gardens, though, and I wonder how much is being passed on these days. Just as the Occitan langauge almost disappeared within a generation during the middle of the twentieth century, a lot of traditional skills and knowledge are in danger of being lost. Thinking about this, I was heartened to see in L'Hérault, the magazine delivered to all the homes in the département, a photo of community gardens in La Paillade (a social housing estate in Montpellier). On ground surrounded by tower blocks there are plots of broad beans, leeks, herbs and a few flowers. Two local residents coordinate the activities in the parc de la Carriera. Local schoolchildren are brought to learn about gardening. And here, it seems, the older generation are passing on their knowledge to younger people. On the Montpellier Green Party website (here) there is an interview with one of the gardeners of La Paillade, a retired builder who says he is very pleased that he can advise young people and that they listen to his advice about gardening.

We had two bits advice today from our neighbour as he walked past. We should tie the leaves of the garlic, which are dying off now, into a knot to prevent bolting and to encourage the bulbs to swell. And we should put vinegar on our artichoke plants which have been infested with black fly.

garlic leaves tied in knots

Summer's here at last! The view from the chaiselongue:

Monday 2 June 2008

North and South

On a trip to Paris last week I found my own symbol on a shop sign in the rue des Francs Bourgeois:

Back home in the south the olive trees are flowering, in our garden

and in the olive groves

Like vines, they have insignificant flowers but with the potential for such wonderful fruit!