Saturday, May 29, 2010

The Cocktail Drinkers' Guide to Gardening: May

Originally from Hampshire, England, James Clay is an artist and sculptor who has lived in St. Remy for almost 20 years. He knows pretty much everything about gardening in Provence. Plus, he likes to drink...and write. (Often at the same time, of course.) Each month here on, James serves up gardening tips and ideas...with appropriate drink suggestions. This month, he's just back from a return visit--with his sister--to Sissinghurst in Kent, where he first fell in love with the idea of an all-white garden. (Hey, that's a good idea for a contest! Write a limerick or poem about Mr. Clay and his sister at Sissinghurst, then submit it as a comment below. The best one wins a prize.) Meanwhile, here's James...

"The wind at North and East
Was never good for man nor beast,
So never think to cast a clout
Until the month of May is out."--
                     F.K. Robinson's Whitby Glossary, 1855

'Clout,’ by the way, in this instance means clothing. And of course I ignored this warning and so there I was, yet again, to be found opening the swimming pool too early, convinced the weather would hold fine, totally seduced by the 'out like a lamb' weather we had at the end of April. Like most people, I prefer sunshine and gentle zephyrs to cold and rain so when we get a downpour I try to cheer myself up by saying, 'It's good for the garden' which obviously is very much the case! The added bonus, of course, is that it’s 'watering in' all the plants I swore I wouldn't buy again this year but did.

I’m into roses and have been for about three years; the reason being that they are costaud (French for hardy, strong, well built); even though quite a few need treating for bugs, they seem to thrive here in Provence.

I was reminded by 'he who doesn't seem to hear a word I say' that May is also the name given to hawthorn flowers and, despite the rhyme already quoted, there is a simple saying, ‘Never cast a clout until May is out’--May in this sense meaning not the month but the flowers. And that got me to thinking about white flowers.

Many moons ago now, I visited the famous garden of Sissinghurst in Kent, England (created by Harold Nicholson and Vita Sackville-West) with some friends (who started me off on watercolor painting, so I hold them very dear) and it was there I visited my first ever 'white garden.’ Even during the day it was magical but in early evening it seemed to shimmer, glow and come alive. They do say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery (not that I could possibly pull off a copy of Sissinghurst's  White Garden) but for the last few years my terrace has become increasingly white.  Of course, there's a coolness about white that many people find uninteresting and even downright dull but it can also be extremely romantic and relaxing. Trust me when I say that the effect at the all-important cocktail hour can be splendid. 

Should you be in the envious position of planting up your terrace from scratch, here are a few ideas to start creating this special look. Grow a white Wisteria Floribunda  ‘Alba’ or a Solanum Jasminoides  'Album' over a trellis. Wisteria is an odd bird when it comes to flowering. You can be lucky the first year…but often you wait three years while it settles in. Once it does, watch out as it can lift the roof off the house if you don't keep an eye on it!

Another climber, which is very fragrant and does very well here in Provence, is Trachelospermum jasminoides. In deep shade, in pots, Brussels Lace, a hydrangea that flowers in late summer, lives up to its name. In full to medium sunlight, plant the all-time, best-selling white rose, Iceberg. Why is it the world's best seller? It’s very resistant to bugs and will flower forever (though sadly giving no perfume). Then you have to get some 'Alice Gloucester' agapanthus for your pots or plant them in along the front of the terrace. I even have white oleander in large pots. Always remember that the larger the pot, the less time spent watering!

Having decided to have a white garden or terrace, don't hold back--there are hundreds of white flowering plants and flowers to be found. Get some fillers too, like the ubiquitous geraniums, petunias and nicotiana. There are many good local nurseries; I can recommend Pepiniere Pujante (04-90-92-60-42) and Eco-Jardin  (06-14-83-79-07).

Once you have created your white garden or terrace, it's time to have your friends over to inspect your hard work. Don't forget to wear the brightest color shirt /blouse you own to make sure you stand out against your newly created backdrop! And the cocktail for May has to be a Sangria Blanca, Spain's White Sangria.


  * 1 Bottle white wine
  * 1/2 Cup Cointreau or similar quality orange liqueur
  * 1/4 Cup sugar
  * 1 Orange, sliced
  * 1 Lemon, sliced
  * 2 Cups club soda


 1. In large pitcher or jug, combine all ingredients except club soda.
 2. Lightly bruise fruit with a wooden spoon and stir to dissolve sugar (tip: a small amount of wine can be heated and stirred into sugar first to ensure that all granules dissolve).
 3. Refrigerate overnight to allow flavors to mingle.
 4. Just prior to serving, add club soda (and ice, if desired).

Just to finish with a splash of color, May is the month for poppies and the countryside is on fire with them. You will have them in your garden if you remembered to turn the earth over last autumn. Happy gardening...

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Provence Prevails at Chelsea

The "Provence Garden" from L'Occitane has won a Silver Gilt Award at this year's Chelsea Flower Show, which runs May 25 to 29 at Royal Hospital in Chelsea, London. The garden, its creators say, recaptures the vision of natural beauty that L'Occitane founder Olivier Baussan had in mind when setting up his Provence-based body-care and fragrance company 30 years ago. It features key plant species found in the sunny South of France and around the Med: olive and almond trees, lavender cultivars and so forth. The garden was designed by James Towillis and built by Peter Dowle Plants & Gardens; when the show ends, 90 percent of the plants will be re-used in future projects or sold. ("There's a lot of interest in the olive trees at present," reports Simon Ford, who works with the designer.) For more garden photos and info, go here. Or, take a 360 degree virtual tour hereFor more info on the Royal Horticultural Society, sponsor of the Chelsea Flower Show, click hereThe BBC website has great show coverage here...and you can see all the gardens here. Finally, if you'd like to cast a vote for the Peoples Choice Award, you can do that here.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

It's That Time Again...

Tomorrow (Monday May 24th) is the annual Fête de la Transhumance in St. Remy, where shepherds herd their flocks (roughly 3500 sheep and goats) three times around the village's circular "main drag" before taking them up to graze the green pastures of the Alpilles for the summer months. Transhumance is considered one of the 100 Prettiest Festivals in France and if you haven't seen it, it's great good fun. It starts officially at 10:30 a.m. but arrive earlier to find parking because the streets are closed off. There's also an all-day flea market on the Place Republique. 

Thanks to Guy Butters for the great photos. Visit his blog here and see more of his wonderful photography here

Thursday, May 20, 2010

As If We Need More Reasons to Love It Here

Last week Karl Lagerfeld did his latest show (Chanel's 2010-2011 cruise collection) on the main drag at the port in St. Tropez. Models included Mick Jagger's 18-year-old daughter Georgia, who showed up, the press reported, despite being grounded by her papa "after pictures emerged...that appeared to show her sniffing a substance during her birthday party at a pub near the family home." Anyway, according to, the new collection "evoked exactly that desirable easy luxury as Natasha, Abbey, Anya and Freya strolled down the harbour in front of Cafe Senequier, lipstick-pink sandals in their hands, their printed chiffon long dresses and undone hair gently blown by the evening breeze."

Photo courtesy of  Jaunted and

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Using Your US Cell Phone in Europe

Something I'm asked almost as often as "where should we eat in Provence?" is "what should we do about a cell phone on our upcoming trip?" Obviously there's no simple answer but has taken up the topic so you might be interested in what they have to say. Click here for the first story and comments; here for the follow up.

Photo by Andy Hebden via Flickr. To see more of his work, go here.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Would You Fly Marseille to JFK?

Marseille Airport Survey
If you travel between the U.S. and Provence, you know it can be quite the shlep. But things might get a bit easier in the next couple years.  

To promote the Marseille-Provence Capital of Culture events in 2013, The Mediterranean Anglo-American Business Network (MAABN) is helping the Marseille Provence Airport document demand for a direct airline link to New York. If this is an initiative you support, please take a moment to complete their questionnaire. Answers will be used for the Marseille airport’s proposal to potential airline partners. Take the survey or download a copy here

The MAABN was founded in Marseille by company directors, consultants and economic development agencies and works to promote corporate exchange and networking in the Marseille-Provence region. The group has the support of both the US and British Consulates in Marseille and is the Marseille-Provence region’s representative of the Franco-British Chamber of Commerce and Industry and AmCham (American Chamber of Commerce in France).

MAABN organises a monthly English speaking business networking event, the “Language Apero,” as well as numerous conferences throughout the year. It also supports and promotes a number of its sponsors' and partners’ corporate and cultural events across the region.

For more info on all of this click hereAnd here to visit what MAABN calls "the only English speaking business community webspace in Provence." Email inquiries can go to:

Monday, May 10, 2010

The Stress-less Côte d’Azur

Everyone loves the idea of the South of France in summer. But the reality? The crowds, the traffic, the high prices, the attitude? Not so much.

But at Club Med Opio in Provence--which reopened three years ago after a $40 million renovation--it's possible to avoid every one of those height-of-the-season hassles. Within an hour of my arrival, I felt blessed rather than stressed. Call it the kinder, gentler Cote d'Azur.

Club Med Opio is a great base for exploring the famous hill towns of Grasse, St. Paul de Vence, Mougins and others. Cannes is down below at the seaside, just 16 kilometers away, with Nice and Monaco further up the coast. The Club’s Excursion Desk organizes sightseeing trips and also works with guests to plan custom sorties. With three pools to choose from, there’s never a shortage of lounge chairs. With multiple bars and cafés, chilly drinks are always at hand.

The 435 rooms (which range from standard to balcony to suite) have cool stone floors, puffy white duvets and shiny red armoires. Bathrooms are fitted with creamy stone sinks and showers big enough for two. A plasma TV picks up a few English channels and the A/C blows stronger than the legendary mistral. My Club Room was small but filled with conveniences, such as twisty halogen spots for reading in bed, powerful hairdryers and plenty of electrical outlets (converters and adaptors are available but it’s best to bring your own).

Club Med Opio offers tennis, golf, archery, trapeze, 4x4 treks, guided hikes, painting classes and other activities, either free or for a small fee. There’s a lovely spa, a well-equipped gym and a few exercise classes each day. A smart shop sells sparkly cover-ups, sunglasses and other resort essentials.

At the legendary buffet, the chefs work to blend local Mediterranean specialties with “safer” international dishes, pleasing foodies and non-foodies alike. The choices were so extensive, in fact, it would be hard to imagine even the pickiest eater going hungry. Local wines are placed on every table; beer, coffee, juice and soda you serve yourself. A second restaurant, at the golf course, offers table service and an à la carte menu.

Club Med’s all-inclusive policy is a particular treat in summer when local restaurants are crowded and often very expensive. The savings can be substantial: in this part of France it’s common to pay 5€ for a café au lait and 60€ or 80€ per person for a mediocre bistro meal. The Club Med no-tipping policy is a convenience as well.

This is one of the Club Med properties that has comprehensive facilities and activities for babies (four months and up), toddlers and teens. There’s a children’s restaurant, a circus school for kids, a baby-food buffet and more. Opio beautifully illustrates the company’s ongoing commitment to the upscale family market.

If you’re thinking that a stay at Club Med Opio means giving up any of the pleasures of a French country vacation, that’s simply not the case. After a day of hiking, I felt totally pampered as I kicked back on a deep terrace couch, Pastis in hand, and watched the sun set over the valley. The scents of lavender, jasmine and pine perfumed the early evening breeze. A handsome GO (gentil organisateur or staff member) played soft Brazilian-style guitar while I eavesdropped on the conversations (in Dutch, Italian, French, Spanish and British English) around me. If there was anything less-than-perfect happening here, I wasn’t going to be the one to find it.

Seven-night all inclusive packages start at 1057€ ($1352, £910) per adult, land only. For more info or booking:

Photo by Tommaso Coerini via Flickr. To see more of his work, click HERE.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

In Eygalières, a Bar/Cafe with a Twist

My friend Jane Satow, who runs a concierge and guide business, is an American married to an Englishman. They live in Eygalières and have three great kids. For months now, Jane has been telling me about this village place she loves, a bar/café/hangout with a really fun story behind it. Every time she’d mention it, I’d say “Write about it for my blog!” Apparently Jane got tired of hearing it so, finally, she did. The timing is perfect as the Café de la Place just reopened in early April after a bit of renovation; Jane says it's now nicer than ever. Here's her report.

A little less than two years ago, a group of ten friends, all of them living in or around Eygalières, decided to open a village bar. The idea was to create a comfortable locals’ hangout offering a friendly atmosphere, themed events, art, live music, good regional wine and tapas. Against all odds, it worked—but not without an immense amount of work.

Today the Café de la Place is a fun and happening bar serving superb tapas and some of the best wines of the region. It’s exactly what the owners visualized: a buzzing village meeting place, a bar that feels like it’s been there forever, a place where friends gather to share, celebrate, relax, eat, drink and enjoy a rotating selection of local art.

The Cafe sits right in the center of the village, near the Mairie and opposite the PMU (Bar du Progres), in an old building which had been empty for ages. When they first received their off license, the owners—a group that includes a sculptor, an antiques dealer and an orthodontist, among others--opened with a wood plank for a bar, propped up by a few cinder blocks. Since then the décor has evolved bit by bit, with all sorts of vintage knick knacks, many of them contributed by regulars. The atmosphere is cozy and a bit rustic, but it retains a level of unpretentious cool.

The owners have staged fantastic themed events which are always packed. Parties such as the Fête de la Printemps, with mojitos and grass skirts, are par for the course. This winter there was the Fête du Cholesterol, with charcuterie, and the Fête de la Truffes, with an amazing Brouillade de Truffes served tapas style. Now there’s something every Friday night: the 1st Friday of each month devoted to wine and tapas pairing; the second Friday for dancing and a DJ; the 3rd for viewing cult films such as Grease or Pulp Fiction.

There are also live jazz soirees, with Louis Winsberg (considered one of the top jazz guitarists in the world) and vocalists performing.

The Café has no restaurant license but is able to serve one great dish per event or per day.
But Friday lunch time is my personal favorite. Smack in the middle of the village’s weekly marché, with the fresh seafood truck literally blocking the café entrance, the owners serve up heaping platters of fresh oysters on the half shell right off the truck. I love to grab a terrace seat with a spot of Provencal sun, and enjoy the simple but extremely fresh seafood along with yummy local wines at just 1.75€ per glass. The fresh seafood platters are also served at Sunday lunch.

The new décor at Café de la Place retains all the original charm—and then some. Become a fan of theirs on Facebook and you’ll get all the news. Or call 04-90-26-93-60 or email for more info. The café is open every day from 6:30 a.m. to 12:30 a.m. See you there!—Jane Satow

Jane can be reached at:

Cafe photos by Robert Hale