Born in Hampshire, England, James Clay is an artist and sculptor who settled down in St. Remy 20 years ago. Over the years, he lovingly created a gorgeous one-hectare garden, filled with fruit, palm, pine and olive trees (he has 60 olive trees, all of them transplanted), plus many varieties of bamboo, flowering plants and shrubs. James knows pretty much everything about gardening in Provence. Plus, he likes to drink. Plus, he likes to write. So each month here on ProvencePost.com, James serves up some essential gardening secrets...with seasonal drink suggestions. Today James is musing on Mad Hatters, jumping hares, his new riding mower, sisterly advice, the origin of the word cocktail and more.
I was thinking about Alice in Wonderland and the Mad Hatter the other day and wondering if I would have enjoyed taking tea with them. It seems March is the month that hares, in fact, do go a little mad or at least do some really dumb things like leaping directly up in the air. After the winter we've had, I feel I could go join them quite easily. We've even had the 'in like a lion, out like a lamb' start to the month, with yet another heavy snow fall where I found myself bashing the olive trees with a rake to stop the snow accumulating and breaking off yet more branches. I did ask myself, as I made my way back to the house in the dark, with my fingers and feet frozen, just what on earth is happening in the world that we are getting so much snow here in Provence?
I was very relieved that it only lay a few days and that the sun came back to warm us all up again. I love the Provencal people who go in to deep decline if they don't see the sun after three days or so. How they'd cope in Northern Europe heaven only knows. I know I myself can't bear it anymore. After a month or two of grey skies I too tend to lose my smile.
So here we are--March 21st just passed and we are officially in Spring.
I'm a very happy man as I have just splashed out and bought a new tractor lawnmower. Forget iPhones, iPods and the like--give me a power mower any day. I was even sentimental about seeing the old one go, having ridden it every season for the past 12 years (sounds like a race horse); it had become a part of my life and when one considers all the musing one does as one toddles round, I think it's understandable. I suppose I could have driven it to Paris and back in all the time I've had it. (Now there's a thought, like that movie The Straight Story.)
Now we have milder, warmer weather and I've been able to get out and prune some of the olive trees. I'm determined to get them down to a reasonable height so it's easier to pick the olives. I work with a bonfire going so I can burn the cuttings as I go. I learnt years ago that if you get the fire hot enough, the olive branches will burn cut straight from the trees. I've always enjoyed pruning. There was a fashion in this region some years back to 'crew cut' the olive trees so they appeared to have a flat top; a rather strange fad I thought. I like the traditional form of the doughnut! Open in the middle and rounded: better for the tree and a better harvest.
Some years ago I planted a thousand or so daffodil bulbs around the base of some olive trees closest to the house. For me they represent spring and I'm so glad I went ahead and did it. They come up earlier here and don't quite last as long as in the north but if you like 'a host of golden daffodils' then get to it this autumn and go crazy! They will surely gladden your heart next year.
One of my sisters called the other week and we were chatting away, mainly about gardening, and she reminded me not to 'overdo it'--and I'm passing that advice on to you. This is not an age thing, as my new 22-year-old gardener overdid it and cut himself very badly (tired and not paying attention) so he's not around for the next six weeks. I shall heed my sister's advice again this spring and knock off at a decent hour so I can enjoy a drink before dinner. This reminds me that I did some research into where the word cocktail originated. The earliest known printed use of the word ‘cocktail’ was in The Farmer’s Cabinet, April 28, 1803:
“Drank a glass of cocktail — excellent for the head . . . Call’d at the Doct’s. found Burnham — he looked very wise — drank another glass of cocktail. It renders the heart stout and bold, at the same time that it fuddles the head."
Moreover, and this I love as one can always trust the French not to be left out: "Coquetel, a mixed drink from the wine growing district of the Gironde" (quoted from Brewer's Dictionary).
And here's a quotation from the man himself, the inimitable Dickens:“He could...chew more tobacco, smoke more tobacco, drink more rum-toddy mint-julep, gin-sling and cock-tail, than any private gentleman of his acquaintance.” (Martin Chuzzlewit, 1844).
I think I should like that as my epitaph.
Great to know our forefathers were as bad as us! Here, for historical research purposes only, is how to make a quick rum-toddy.
2 oz. rum
1 tsp sugar
5 1/2 oz. boiling water
Place a sugar cube or equivalent into an Irish coffee cup or mug. Fill 2/3 full with boiling water. Add rum and stir. Garnish with a slice of lemon, dust with nutmeg and serve. This is per person.
Anthony Bourdainand his No Reservations TV crew were in Provence recently, filming a lovely episode that's airing on the Travel Channel in the US this week. If you catch it, you see well-known local faces such as Jean and Cecile Chancel (Chateau Val Joanis), Anne Daguin and Hermann Van Beeck (Petite Duc) and artist Jeanne Bayol, who restores old gypsy caravans and makes exquisite one-of-a-kind clothing and accessories. The video clip is no longer online but you can see info and photos from the episode here.
To see more about Bourdain in Provence--including video clips, snapshots, addresses and more --click here.
I was recently asked to recommend some wedding photographers here in Provence...so I went to Robert Hale's website where I found this beauty of a shot. Robert and I "met cute" as they say, one day in the Marseille Airport. We were both in that line where you pay your extra baggage fees (story of my life), and Robert, standing behind me, saw my blue passport and started a chat. Turns out we both had time to kill at Gatwick, so we had lunch together and talked photography-- a shared passion. We've been good buddies ever since. At that time Robert was living in L.A., flying back and forth to France when he could. His dream, however, was to live in Provence full time and finally, just recently, he made the move. He does all sorts of photography, not just weddings, so check out his site, buy a print and send some work his way!
Don't you hate it when you're doing a little renovation and you have to stop because you find 2,000-year-old Roman ruins in the cellar? That's what happened to the folks converting the 12th-century Hotel-Dieu in Marseille into a four-star hotel. Read all about it here.
Beginning today, four Parisian metro stations (St. Lazare, Champs Elysees Clemenceau, Concorde and Opera) have been decked out with Ikea couches, lamps and other decor; the installation runs until March 24th. Swedish meatballs not included.
In Provence, early March usually heralds the beginning of the outdoor cafe season. Instead, we got snow. A Marseille-based photographer who goes by MarcoVdz took this great shot in Les Baux, using a Nikon D5000 and Photoshop 7. You can see more of Marco's dramatic Provence photography, with and without snow, on his Flickrpage and on his website. [Disclaimer: Marco took this photo in January...but so what.]
A cloud-free southern Europe was photographed from space in early March, with Spain (lower left), France (center), Switzerland (upper right) and Italy (lower right) all visible. Four mountain chains are clearly distinguishable: the Alps, Jura, Pyrenees and Massif Central. The western portion of the Alps is visible (bottom right) on the border of France and Italy. The Jura Mountains, north-west of the Alps, are also snow covered. The Pyrenees (bottom left) form the natural border between France and Spain (with the country of Andorra in between). The photograph came from the European Space Agency and their site has many more cool images of France to explore. Thanks to Craig McGinty of This French Life for the heads up on these stunning photos.
A few weeks ago I welcomed a new advertiser, a landscape gardener named Jean Luc Le Boursicaud. I haven't actually met him yet but he came to me highly recommended by the friend of a friend who wrote:
During a tour of Provence gardens organized by Louisa Jones last spring, one of the very beautiful gardens we visited in the Luberon was created and maintained by Jean-Luc Le Boursicaud (left), a landscape architect/ designer/gardener who lives in Cabannes, close to the Alpilles. Jean Luc wrote to me recently to say he was looking for work in the Alpilles, and I'm writing to recommend him to your readers. Not only was the garden we visited beautiful and beautifully taken care of, but Jean Luc has lots of experience dealing with owners who are not here all the time. And now Jean-Luc has decided to advertise on Provence Post, clever thing that he is. You'll see his ad in the lefthand column and if you click on it, you'll be directed to his site where there are many samples of his work. I just wanted to give him a shout out, welcome him to the Provence Post family and encourage you to check out his site.
Born and raised in Toulouse, Jean-Luc moved to the Luberon in 1998 and began teaching himself the business, working on gardens and estates in Apt, Menerbes, Lacoste and Goult. Today, he his wife, Barbara, and son Nathaël, 7, live in Cabannes, near St. Remy and Eygalieres, and Jean Luc works more frequently in the Alpilles region.
For new clients who request it, he'll create a computerized design plan, taking into account irrigation systems, lighting, planting, size of ornamentals, etc. He says he loves how his field allows him to indulge his passion for both the artistic and the technical side of the business. But Jean Luc is also happy to take on simple gardening jobs because "to be a great landscaper you need to also be a good gardener," he says.
Jean-Luc's contact info is below. Thanks for listening to this brief advertisement. I now return you to your regularly scheduled programming!