HERE'S SUMMER upon us, like a long-awaited favourite guest. Hooray. We've waited so long for this. We can sleep with the windows open, get the main work done in those delectable hours between dawn and coffee-time, flop out round the
HERE'S SUMMER upon us, like a long-awaited favourite guest. Hooray. We've waited so long for this. We can sleep with the windows open, get the main work done in those delectable hours between dawn and coffee-time, flop out round the pool in the afternoon, water the garden as the sun goes down and linger long round the table under the fig tree while gentle night airs flirt with the candle flames and the crickets chirrup on into the indigo night as though there was no tomorrow.
Which there isn't, really. Summer is just an endless succession of todays. We don't dare look further ahead in case the spell breaks. It's something engrained in our British souls, a deep-seated doubt that anything good in the weather can possibly last. We don't even tempt providence by watching the weather forecasts, although it goes slightly against the grain to abandon our daily twenty-to-two appointment with the intriguing Evelyne Dhéliat, doyenne of TF1 weather forecasters, who seems to have discovered the secret of eternal youth.
Maybe that's it. The sun always shone in childhood, didn't it? - and ED has the happy knack of suggesting that the sun is shining and that the rain we can see spattering on the terrasse is actually an illusion. She won a meteorologist's award recently, surely for this very knack. Richly deserved.
GETTING THE the main day's work done includes picking whatever fruit is on the go. No sooner have we exercised our Tarzan muscles, our pectorals and biceps, by reliving our childhood swinging from brach to branch in the cherry trees than it's the turn of our femorals and gluteals kneeling and bending to pick our fraises des bois, wild strawberries. Maybe a fruit-picking work-out is the secret of Evelyne Dhéliat's eternal youth.
These secret little plants grow all over our hillside terraces, which once supported vines and are now planted haphazardly with cherry and quince trees (cognassier in French: now there's a word to stun your French evening class with, although you would maybe have a little trouble working it naturally into your conversation), olives, mimosa and various flowering shrubs. Their fresh and subtly delicate flavour and perfume is the very essence of early summer. They're tiny fruits, the smaller the sweeter, and it takes me about 20 minutes to pick enough for one person, so I'm afraid we don't often serve them to guests. Josephine sometimes freezes any surplus, to make a superb and unusual strawberry coulis, a nostalgic winter reminder of long, hot summer days.
We eat them with cream, of course, which immediately undoes the Tarzan effect. Will we never learn?
I'M PUTTY in the hands of anyone who gives me a good bowl of strawberries, and I'm not alone: one of Louis XVIII's – almost the last king of France, the massively overweight cream-cramming chap restored to the French throne after Waterloo – one of Louis XVIII's latter-day wishes was whatever the French is for 'Oh, that I might live to see one more strawberry season!' One of the greatest pleasures is to grow my own, a pleasure in part dictated by the disappointment I register with the earliest strawberries available in the shops; great, fat, firm, glossy, beautiful, mouth-watering specimens neatly packaged in plastic punnets with Spanish markings and which taste of zilch, or less.
So another of the day's main tasks is take my straw hat and hoe, and de-weed and de-slug the neat rows of strawberries with evocative variety names: Mara des Bois, Ostara, Gento and our favourite, the Evelyne Dhéliat of strawberries, the elegant, slender and wholly pleasing Gariguette.
MAYBE THESE varieties exist under other names in the UK or USA. I've had problems transferring English variety names into French, one I'm reminded of every time the dawn chorus strikes up through the open window. The soloists, like the nightingale just coming off the night shift and the golden oriole tuning up like a clarinet translate easily into le rossignol and le loriot. But naming the individuals in the chorus of twitterers and cheepers is more difficult.
When I first arrived in France I asked neighbours in the tiny village I lived in what this or that little bird was called. My principal informant, Pierrot, was un paysan who stumped about the village singing Les Petits Oiseaux de la Ferme, The Little Birds of the Farm, so I supposed he knew all about it. But no, he didn't know, they were just little birds. Pinsons, yes, that was what they were, pinsons.
This was a bit like saying they were all finches. But there was a way round. Having observed, for instance, a great tit nesting under the eaves, I could go to Collins' Guide to British Birds for the ornithological Latin: Parus major. From the Latin to the French: mésange charbonnière. (In case charbon suggests 'coal' to you and you have your suspicions, a coal tit is une mésange noire.) Faced with this incontrovertible identification, Pierrot would say Ah oui, peut-être, ah yes, maybe, and would stump off up to his potager, his vegetable garden, to watch things grow.
I went to see him once in his house, and a freshly shot thrush was whisked off the table and hidden, I suppose out of respect for my soft northern sensibilities. There weren't more than three bites in it, but I suppose if all you're going to do is eat it you don't really need to know its name. In any language.
SMALL, UNIMPRESSIVE prize to be won!
Yes, a tin of Grisettes de Montpellier, a Languedoc speciality, lozenges flavoured with honey and réglisse . . . well, that's the competition: the first person to e-mail me telling me what réglisse is wins. Bonne chance!