Sunday, March 28, 2010

The Cocktail Drinkers' Guide to Gardening: March

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, 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.
Pip pip!


  1. Loved this Post. That's why they put cupholders on the riding mowers in Texas, ah yes,the Zen of the art of mowing.....Maryanne:)

  2. Of course!!!!! Why do you think they put cupholders on riding mowers in Texas?????Loved this post. Ah the Zen of the art of mowing.....Don't forget the headphones. Maryanne:)

  3. What an absolutely fabulous post. I love the gardening and drinking idea. I think if I had something to sip along the lines mentioned therein I make take more to my gardening chores.

    I love a beautiful garden, but I'm a lazy gardener. Thank you so much for this tip.

    Hope you are well.

    Warmest regards,