Friday, September 23, 2011

Autumn in Provence: Fatal Mushrooms and Playing Squirrels

The seasons here turn like clockwork. First of September and there's a change in temperature signalling that summer's over.

Not quite, of course, because there are still many hot days but there's also an underlying change which is unmistakeably autumn.

As an example, I was lying out in the hammock this afternoon watching a red squirrel skip through the trees to a water bowl left out for his convenience, when I spotted a brilliant white speck yards away in the undergrowth.

Going over to have a look at it, I saw it was the first plump ammonite phalloide of the autumn. Pushing up through the forest floor, it was round, compact and flawless. Soon, it will flatten out into a large white mushroom as wide as your hand. These tantalisingly perfect, toxic snow-white mushrooms are fatal if you're foolish or ignorant enough to eat them. But they're beautiful in a spine-chilling way. It's only too easy to imagine an innocent person grilling them and eating them without a care in the world. The sequel is up to two weeks of slow death as the ammonite systematically destroys your liver. There is apparently no cure although a friend of mine from the nearby village of Le Thor says huge doses of vitamin C have been known to save ammonite victims.

Still - there it was - a sign that autumn arrives in Provence even while the September temperature is still in the high 20s in the middle of the day.

The other current sign of autumn is that the red squirrels are playing wildly in the pine trees. I haven't been able to establish why they do this, but each spring and autumn they spend a few days going crazy in the pine tree canopy, dashing up and down tree trunks, leaping from branch to branch in a frenzy and generally acting like kids at a birthday party. This morning they woke me up at dawn, squabbling outside the house, ticking each other off with cluck-cluck noises and racing up and down the pine trunks chasing each other and turning to be chased.

I tried to go back to sleep, telling myself it was just the crazy squirrels. But it was also, I realised, a sign that autumn's here in Provence.

Grapes and Olives in Provence: Cultivation From Year Zero to the 21st Century

In 2010, there was an exhibition in Arles which displayed 700 wonderful objects found on the Rhone riverbed during a long archaeological excavation underwater.

Cesar: le Rhone Pour Mémoire had as its centrepiece a stunningly lifelike marble bust of Caesar, cut from Italian marble during the emperor's lifetime. The austere and impressive expression of the great Roman emperor had endured centuries on the riverbed. Quite a find for any archaeologist.

In another part of the exhibition there was a map of France and French trade and agriculture during Roman times. Right by the village of Velleron, near home for me, I saw painted symbols marking the ancient cultivation of two fruits: grapes and olives.

Vines and olive trees have been planted and tended, right here, outside my door, for over two thousand years. Which is a lovely thought. All that natural continuity...

On my kitchen work surface right now is a very large bowl of muscat grapes, presented to me yesterday by a neighbour who has more grapes than he knows what to do with. He has vines on his terrace, providing fruit and shade. And he has recently planted 20 new vines not far from his swimming pool, beside one of his olive groves. They'll provide even more grapes next year so he'll need to figure out how to use them...

Outside my back door are 2 vines which I planted in 2004. One is in good shape; the other struggles with the rocky limestone ground. Still, having that connection with people who lived and worked on this same ground 2000 years ago is somehow thrilling.

Also on the kitchen work surface is a litre bottle of olive oil which I fill and refill all year, from our collective olive oil production (with neighbours) and including oil from my own olives.

Outside, there are olive trees which I've tried painstakingly to rehabilitate since they were all but destroyed by the hard frost in 1956. After tending and pruning and feeding with manure-and-straw from a friend's horses, the oliviers are producing olives once again. Just as they did before 1956. And just as olive trees on the same spot produced olives 2000 years ago.

There's something magical about pruning and feeding olive trees during the year, then collecting the olives at Christmas and producing your own olive oil to use throughout the following year. Thanks to those trees, and those of my neighbours, I haven't bought olive oil for years now - they yield the oil we all use throughout the year - entirely natural, untreated, untainted.

Just taking a walk in this area is a bit like time travel. You see the countryside pretty much as the Romans would have seen it in this spot, with the same cultivation taking place. From one neighbour's vines to another's olive trees, and then to my own, I get a sense of historical continuity on this beautiful land which fills me with joy.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Snakes in Provence

This afternoon I was swinging gently in my hammock, tied between two graceful pine trees. Just contemplating nature for a moment, and the beautiful blue sky.

It's the 21st September but warm enough to be T-shirt weather. Last week, staying with friends down near Sète in the Languedoc, the Mediterranean sea was wonderfully warm to swim in. And this last weekend the pool in my neighbours' little hamlet outside Velleron was perfect to swim in.

Feeling rather blissed out by autumn heat and sunshine, I tipped myself out of the hammock and headed for the house to fetch a glass of cold rosé wine. (Listel Grain de Gris - cheap but entirely cheerful.)

On my way, I stooped to pick up a fallen oleander flower and found my hand an inch away from a three foot long snake.

I instantly snatched my hand away and took a closer look. He was a handsome coulevre - an adder - common in the south of France as elsewhere in Europe. His skin was grey green with black and yellow markings. He regarded me cooly, nothing moving apart from his lisping tongue. "Lovely creature" I thought, and went on my way.

However, an image suddenly flashed into my head of a neighbour's cat toying with a coulevre last autumn. Sasha (a contraction of sale chat - dirty cat) was highly entertained to discover an adder in the olive grove near his owner's house. He had fun sticking his claws out and waving his paws in the general direction of the adder's head. The adder, understandably, reared up, looking for a fight. I carried on inspecting the progress of the olives and ignored the pair of them.

But I have a cat myself - Coco - a rather gentle soul, a caramel and chocolate coloured Burmese/Siamese cross, and I wondered if the adder posed a threat to him? Coco's lived here since appearing out of the forest, thin and hungry, in July 2007 and I've seen him investigate a dead snake before.

Glancing into the sitting room, I saw him snoozing peacefully on a bain de soleil that I brought inside during a recent thunderstorm. He would wake up in a while. If he went out for a stroll and found a three foot long snake in the undergrowth he'd inevitably try to communicate with it...

Wondering what the outcome was likely to be, I looked on Wikipedia. It turns out that snake bites - bites by adders at least - are not at all good for pets or livestock. Humans suffer a range of horrible effects from an adder's venom, so heaven knows how a small cat would react. Wikipedia lists the effects in humans as follows:

"anaphylaxis can be dramatic.[Other] symptoms include nausea, retching, vomiting, abdominal colic, diarrhoea, incontinence of urine and faeces, sweating, fever, vasoconstriction, tachycardia, lightheadedness, loss of consciousness, blindness, shock, angioedema of the face, lips, gums, tongue, throat and epiglotis, urticaria and bronchospam. If left untreated, these symptoms may persist or fluctuate for up to 48 hours. In severe cases, cardiovascular failure may occur."

Yikes. I had to get that snake off my land before the cat woke up and went outside.

Armed with a long thin branch that a friend's son made into a walking stick last year, I went out to deal with the adder. He was still motionless, lolling in an S-shape under a rosemary bush. I prodded him gently and he moved. I prodded him again, hoping to pick him up and deposit him along the track, and he went completely nuts. He writhed, turned, slithered, raced up to the top of the rosemary bush and turned to face me directly, hissing and flicking his tongue around like a maniac. His head shot out towards me with clear intent to inflict injury.

Standing back, I gave this some thought. If he'd do this with a towering human, he'd certainly do it with Coco. And Coco wouldn't be prodding him with a six foot stick; he'd be using a delicate paw. I went and turned the hose on and treated the snake to a light outdoor shower. He was unmoved. I rattled the stick around a bit and spoke encouragingly. He stood higher in the bush and his tongue darted out over and over again. Those beady eyes fixed me with an uncannily direct glare.

I backed off and after a while he descended from the bush. I beat the ground near him and he slithered away. Unfortunately, he slithered straight into a huge pile of dead vine stumps that I collected from a neighbour's vineyard and will be using for firewood in the winter. There is so much cover for him there that I can quite imagine he'll set up home for the winter and stay.

Which means sooner or later Coco will amble past the vine stumps, hear a bit of snake activity in progress, and stick his nose or his paw in to investigate.

He's already being duffed up nightly by a neighbour's cat who lacks castration. The poor cat now faces adder attack as he takes his evening stroll.

We all understand that nature is red in tooth and claw but Provence generally brings you close to a nature which is comparatively gentle. Wild boar roaming about looking for larvae and fallen cherries. Turtle doves mating discreetly in the pines. Bees out and about, charmingly making lavender honey.

I have nothing against coulevres and wish them a peaceful, painfree life. I just hope the coulevre in the wood pile will take the same approach when, inevitably, he meets my cat.

Friday, September 2, 2011

A Potager in Provence

Although Provence has a reputation for secheresse and heatwaves, much of the land is wonderfully fertile. The markets in most towns and villages - stuffed with fruit and vegetables, oil and cheese, herbs and meat - are testimony to the soil's fertility.

The land is irrigated by free-flowing water - rivers like the Sorgue, by canal water and by the rain which, when it falls, can fall in torrents.

A friend and I started a potager this summer and its productivity has been astounding. To start with, we selected 4 tomato varieties and bought tiny seedlings in the local market at Velleron. Our choices were Coeur de boeuf, then a 'black' tomato and two varieties of tomates cerises - cherry tomatoes. As I was pondering which to buy, I heard a customer tell the stall holder that the tomato plants he'd bought there a few weeks previously were already producing kilos of good tomatoes. A good sign, so I selected my plants and handed over a few euros.

The potager is tiny - around 12 feet by 6. Once the soil was prepared and the plants were supported by canes, we added lettuce, broccoli, aubergines, courgettes and green peppers. We added a modest goutte à goutte system - pipes to water the potager daily - and a little fumier, or manure and straw, as fertiliser.

Within weeks the plants were groaning with produce. The Coeur de boeuf tomatoes are as big as melons. The cerise plants are covered with hundreds of small sweet fruits. The rougette lettuces are astonishingly fresh and crunchy. The batavias are good too.

Suddenly I realise how the paysans in the markets can sell their fruit and veg so cheaply. Before I'd thought it was mainly because the costs of bringing produce into the village or town was so low. Petrol's expensive so it helps if you can limit transport to a few kilometres. Now though, having seen at first hand how productive a tiny rectangle of soil can be, I see why much produce is relatively cheap.

Since I need to be thrifty these days, I've been looking out recipes for the veg and methods of conserving them for the winter. So far, for the tomatoes alone, I've tried tomates farcies, a pasta sauce flavoured with fresh thyme from the garrigue, another with anchovies, tomates provençales, ratatouille, gazpacho and a pizza with tomatoes and jambon sec. The stuffed tomatoes and sauces freeze well.

Add to the potager produce a harvest of sweet and plump figues de Caromb and kilos of hazelnuts and living off the land almost seems possible! The terrace is draped with hundreds of bunches of grapes, almost ripe and ready to pick.

Quite apart from being economical, a potager is simply a joy. It's a real pleasure to go out each morning and evening and see what new crop has progressed or ripened. The cherry tomatoes are coming through so thick and fast that as soon as I pick them, and dish some out to neighbours, another bunch - almost hidden by heavy foliage - are glowing dark red.

Since the manure comes from horses we know, and their owner gives them untreated food and minimises any medication, the potager produce is pretty much non-traité - untreated. It doesn't need any organic labelling as far as I'm concerned. The fact that it's natural is quite enough. In fact, the abundant crops produced every day from soil, sun and water seem like a minor Provençal miracle.