May in southern France is like June in England. Soft air, the first of the season’s brides, markets stuffed with hopeful herbs and leggy tomato plants – and roses, roses all the way. The huge gallica by my kitchen door is smothered in breaking bud, lime green goblets filled with a deep magenta that simply spells summer. Very soon the whole bush will be completely hidden in a mass of blooms, suffusing the air with that rich, inimitable fragrance that must have scented the courtyards of Damascus for so many years. Of course May is not only the month of roses, it’s also the month where the true Mediterranean shrubs come into their own, none more glorious than that flamboyant little number, the cistus. I have about twenty of them on my rocky hillside patch, and they are a constant source of wonder. The flowers unfold in the lambent light of early dawn. By eleven o’ clock they are at their fabulous best and I take a walk round the garden just to gaze at their crumpled-silk petals. There are not very many cultivars, and they tend to come in the darker shades of pink and mauve, or startling whites some with chocolate splotches on the petals. But one thing they all have in common – they put on a marvellous display every morning, then drop all their petals in the warm evening breezes, as easily as shedding a silk slip, and do it all again the next day, incredible. My other season’s standard is lavender. What a marvel this lovely plant is. It is evergreen (or evergrey to be strictly accurate) it is edible, it is unbelievably fragrant and is covered in dainty, swaying flowers from the end of May right through to the sweltering days of high summer. And what is more it simply adores the sparse, limy, rock-spattered landscape of the Quercy Blanc. In between the numerous lavenders, cistus and vast rose bushes, I stuff santolina, rosemary and thyme and cultivate the numerous wild orchids that abound in this virtually untouched landscape.
Every now and then the shrub borders are punctuated with an unexpectedly exotic looking intruder. Vast yuccas spread to the size of a bed sheet. Cypresses reach for the stars, adding a much needed vertical accent, and of course there are the olives. How I love my olive trees. I have five and they adorn the gravelly area around my pool. Of all my garden favourites they take the most looking after. It’s a little chilly for olive trees here, so although they love the hot summers and greatly appreciate the sparse soil and arid conditions, they shiver and shake like young poplars in the unrelenting cold of January. If we have a particularly bad year they even drop their lovely grey-green leaves and I have to rush out there with a spray-tonic and some sweet-talk to get them to re-clothe themselves. They sulk a for a month or two, then pull themselves together and put out beautiful freshly-minted silver leaves, followed by the all-important tiny flowers.
Below the kitchen window, where I sit and write, a long, long vine entwines itself in and out of various rocky cracks, the rapidly lengthening tendrils chasing the newly emerged lizards. It has been there for six years and I bought it cheaply in a local market. Of course I’ve entirely forgotten the variety, I’m not sure I ever knew, but it’s certainly a table grape, sweet, dark and musky. I counted the tiny developing bunches yesterday. A hundred and seven… too many, it’ll need a little judicious pruning I fear. Not my forte, it goes against the grain to prune away a perfectly healthy little bunch of grapes, but it’s either that or they will drop anyway. A single vine can’t support that many. And then lastly, but probably first in my heart, is my lovely herb garden. It’s a long arc of delicious beauty, a paean to the Mediterranean. Rosemaries and lavenders, thymes, sages and santolinas, stand side by side with a spreading silver curry plant, savory and parsley, oregano and sweet cicely. Alliums soar heavenwards, their fat globes of lavender florets reflected in the smaller chives. Mint is hedged in at one end, beside the emerging leaves of the beautiful borage and sorrel . A bay tree stands proudly in the middle, huge artichokes rear above crouching marjoram and chamomile and the early basils have just made their temperamental entrance in the old terracotta pots.
It is my pride and joy, my sustenance and my inspiration, and it is at its very best in lovely May.
© Amanda Lawrence 2010
Author White Stone Black Wine