Friday, February 22, 2008

French bloomers

There are two flower festivals in France during the month of February: la fête de la violette in Toulouse and la fête du Mimosa in the south of France. It’s nice to have something to brighten up the dull wintry days between Christmas and the first signs of spring.

I remember eating Parma Violets when I was a child and calling them ‘perfume sweets’ because I thought that’s what they were made from. In a way, I suppose, they are. Perhaps Toulouse, called la ville rose because of the colour of the buildings, should have been named la ville violette after the flower that is its emblem. Certainly, the Parma violet is omnipresent in this town. As you stroll beside the Canal du Midi, a heady scent drifts along the towpath from La maison de la Violette - a fragrant barge that has been turned into a shrine to this purple flower with its heart-shaped petals. Once inside you are offered a crystallised violet (only one, I’m afraid) and are free to look around and learn about the history and the uses of this flower.

In ancient Greece, the violet was considered a symbol of fertility and love and it was used in love potions. As it was also used as a cure for a headache, the recipient had no excuse not to succumb. Violets were used extensively in the middle-ages both in cookery and in medicine: apothecaries made cough syrup from them and they were used to add colour and flavour to food.

During the sixteenth and the seventeenth centuries, they were still used in cookery but it was also fashionable in court to douse oneself liberally with violet-scented powder to mask bodily odour - although violet-scented soap may have been a better idea…

Violets were Napoleon’s favourite flowers. Josephine wore them on her wedding day and Napoleon sent her a posy of violets on every anniversary. After her death, he picked violets growing on her tomb and wore them in a locket around his neck. In exile on the Isle of Elba, he promised his followers he would return in the spring… with the violets. This earned him the nickname of Caporal Violette and the flower became his emblem, worn by his followers in his honour. Suddenly violets were everywhere: on pots, on clothes and on postcards. The postcards looked innocent enough but they were cleverly drawn and on closer inspection, revealed the outline of Napoleon’s portrait cunningly camouflaged. When he returned from exile, women offered him bouquets in the street and violets were strewn beneath his feet. Up until 1874, the French government tried to ban – with little success - any reproduction of a violet because it was the symbol of the Bonapartists

In the language of flowers, the violet is symbolic of faithfulness in love. It is associated with Valentine's Day too, since legend tells us that violets grew outside the window of the jail where Saint Valentine was imprisoned. And in a profound philosophical statement, this delicate, sweet flower also represents death...

Mimosa, on the other hand, represents sensitivity and feminine energy – whatever that is (I certainly haven’t got any…). This sunshine-laden tree is a member of the acacia family and was brought to the Mediterranean from Australia in the early nineteenth century. Rich Europeans planted it in the gardens of their villas on the French Riviera and enjoyed the masses of golden flowers that bloomed in the late winter months. Mimosa is prized for its delicate fragrance and is a component of several well-know perfumes as well as being used to scent soap and other products of the perfume industry.

Mimosa growers are called mimosistes and between January and March, they export more than eight million bouquets of their flowers all over the world. The fête du Mimosa takes place mid-February in the small town of Mandelieu-la-Napoule where the streets are vibrant with music and gaily-coloured floats. La mimosette – a cream-filled brioche decorated with mimosa and made from a secret recipe - is baked especially for the occasion and you can also buy mimosa syrup, sweets and even jelly.

photo mandelieu

In aromatherapy, mimosa is taken to relieve anxiety and depression and to liberate oneself from “oppressive memories”. It apparently provokes feelings of joy and lightness of spirit and the truly whimsical can use it to induce prophetic dreams.

On a less picturesque note, mimosa extract is used to treat a variety of ailments including swollen ankles and sensitive skin. The bark is used to make an astringent gargle and to treat colic and… chronic diarrhoea.

I expect that is where the feelings of joy and lightness come in…