Saturday, March 31, 2007

Poisson d'avril

It’s April Fool’s Day tomorrow and here it’s called Poisson d’avril, or April Fish. On this day, if you’re not careful, you’re likely to find paper fish taped to your back by mischievous children - which does indeed make you look rather silly. The origin of this custom is a little vague. One explanation is that this time of year coincides with the sign of the zodiac, Pisces, and another dates back to 1564 when Charles IX changed the calendar so that New Year’s Day fell on the first of January rather than on the first of April, as it had until then. People got terribly confused and some forgot and went around wishing Happy New Year to everyone in April, which they found enormously funny. The original “April Fish” joke is said to have involved sending some poor fool – who still thought it was January and not April, despite the warm weather, gambolling lambs and apple blossom - to market, to buy freshwater fish when it was out of season. I suppose he got wise to it eventually.

I was never terribly successful with April Fool's Day jokes. When I was a child, I once filled the sugar basin with salt and my normally mild-mannered father was very upset because he was in a hurry to get to work and was looking forward to his cup of morning tea. Another time, my mother made him "coffee" from gravy-browning - and if my memory is right, he didn't even notice. When my own children were small, I regularly woke them up on the first of April with "Quick! There's an elephant on the balcony!" or some such witticism. Strangely enough, they never ever believed me.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Making scents

When I was a little girl, my friend and I would collect fallen rose petals from the garden (or, if I’m honest, rip my mum’s roses to shreds) to make “scent”. We would steep the petals overnight in water and the next day, we would fish them out again and proudly dab the result behind our ears. It always, always looked and smelt like viscous dishwater but to us it was our very own Chanel N°5.

My tastes are a little more sophisticated now and there’s nothing I like better than going to the perfume counter at the Galeries Lafayette and dousing myself from the testers. French perfume has always had a whiff of wicked frivolity about it and here in France, nine out of ten women wear it as do one out of two men – and even babies have their own eau de toilette. It wasn’t always so. Before Julius Caesar arrived, the Gauls were a pretty malodorous bunch but the Romans soon had them smelling of roses. And with Christianity came incense and scented candles in the churches although later, Christianity would be responsible for a decline in the use of perfume and cosmetics.

In the twelfth century, the Crusaders brought back exotic scents from the East and from Spain, pots of fragrances used in the making of gloves. At this time, Grasse, in the south of France, was already known for its tanneries and the first French perfumers were known as the maîtres gantiers or Master Glovers. They were the only people authorized to sell perfume for gloves. By the end of the seventeenth century, they had become known as Master Perfumers and Grasse had become the largest production centre of the raw materials for perfumery: roses, jasmine and citrus trees that thrived in the Mediterranean climate.

The Renaissance was an era of frivolity and excess. Charles VIII and François I both had personal Master Perfumers and although François’s son, Henri II, did not share this passion his mistress, the beautiful Diane de Poitiers, did and she attributed her youthful appearance to a secret, fragrant beauty water. However, it was during the reign of Henri III that the nation’s love for perfume became an obsession bordering on madness. Henri was very effeminate and surrounded himself with like-minded courtiers who wore outlandish frilly clothes, make-up and jewellery and drenched themselves – and the dogs and parrots they brought to court – with heavy perfume.

By the time Louis XIV came to the throne, the air was more breathable. Louis did not dislike perfume but he preferred it to be discreet. Natural scents became popular and it was during his reign that eau de Cologne was created…by an Italian barber living in Germany. He mixed grape spirits, oil of neroli, bergamot, lavender and rosemary to “capture the essence of an Italian spring morning after the rain”. It was not only used as a fragrance - it was diluted in bath water, mixed with wine, used as a mouthwash, an enema and even injected directly into the body. The original cologne is now known as 4711, after the number of the house where it was being produced in the nineteenth century.

According to legend, when the French royal family tried to escape during the Revolution disguised as commoners, they were betrayed by Marie-Antoinette's distinctive perfume which revealed her true identity. Those brave Revolutionaries may have despised luxury and privilege but their love of perfume was not diminished and they eased their guilty consciences by creating perfumes such as parfum à la nation and parfum à la guillotine - a heady scent to be sure. Not surprisingly, they did not really catch on.

The Emperor Napoleon was a man obsessed with personal hygiene and it is said that he ruined many a uniform because he insisted on dousing them in his favourite eau de Cologne to get rid of the manly smell of his sweaty soldiers. While in exile, he was horrified to find he had run out of cologne. He could not do without his daily rub-down so he ordered his servant to rustle up something from the local flora. A French company claims to sell this authentic Napoleon eau de Cologne today…and according to their web site, they also sell the intriguing “Swimming-pool water fragrance”. Eau de swimming pool? On closer inspection it turns out to be a product that scents your pool water and not something to make you smell like the local baths on a Saturday afternoon. Phew.

Grasse is still the perfume capital of France today although the industry now relies more on chemicals than flowers and there are many products other than soap and perfume that require a scent. There are still a few fields of flowers but much of the raw material is imported and processed in the factories located in the countryside surrounding the town. Every factory employs one or two perfumers – or “noses” as they are known. They work at a perfume organ – a mini-laboratory that does indeed look a bit like an organ - surrounded by the raw materials which they mix and smell until they are satisfied, which can take months or even years.

Meanwhile, I’m still waiting to be offered a huge bottle of my favourite perfume for my birthday tomorrow but I suppose I’ll have to settle for a dog-eared card and an I O U as usual. Anyway, I could always nip round to the Galeries Lafayette for a really special occasion…

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Bounty hunters: it takes Allsorts...

I don’t often buy the local newspaper but I think I’ll buy it more often from now on after reading the following story:

A few days ago, there was an armed robbery in the region. Two men were caught stealing sweets from… Lidl. When confronted by a member of staff, one of them whipped out a huge knife and threatened her before running out of the shop with his accomplice to a waiting getaway car: a Mercedes SUV with a Swiss number plate.

Now, I couldn’t have made that up, could I?

To be fair, it turned out the car was stolen too…

UPDATE: And in a strange parallel-universe incident, a conman robbed an Antwerp bank armed only with chocolates...

Tuesday, March 13, 2007


When I was a child, my mum used to keep a very small bottle of olive oil in the kitchen cupboard for medicinal purposes. It stayed there on the shelf for years and I’m sure she would no more have thought of cooking with it as she would of smearing lard into my ear to cure earache. However, now that the Mediterranean diet has become popular, the bottle has come out of the closet and stands proudly on the worktop, next to the garlic flakes and the Herbs of Provence.

The olive tree was probably first cultivated about six thousand years ago in what is now known as Syria, Israel and The Lebanon. It was used in oil lamps and blended with flower essences to make scented balms and even served as currency. Biblical references reveal its sacred qualities – it was used to anoint priests - as well as its symbolic qualities of peace, life and honour. Later, the Greeks brought the ‘King of Trees’ to Marseille where it thrived in the stony soil and hot, dry climate and today, ninety percent of olive tree cultivation is concentrated around the Mediterranean basin.

In Provence, it is common to find trees that are several hundred years old and there exists in Italy a tree that is three and a half thousand years old - although the claim is probably the Italian equivalent of the Fisherman’s Tale. The olivier is robust and take time to grow: unscrupulous would-be olive farmers have been known to steal young trees from existing olive groves as they haven’t got the time to grow them from seed. Indeed, it used to be said that it takes three generations to reap the benefits of an olivier: the grandfather plants it, the son prunes it and the grandson harvests the fruit. It is true that for the first seven years, the olive tree basks in the sun and takes life easy. Between seven and thirty-five years is when it begins to grow and produce olives, the crop increasing with each year. From thirty-five years onwards – and up to one hundred and fifty – the olive tree produces a regular and abundant crop until exhausted, it subsides gracefully into a gnarled and fruitless old age.

The olive tree is cultivated mainly for its oil and the olives have to be picked at the right moment as the taste depends upon it. Although the olive is ready for l’olivaison (harvest) at the end of September, when it is a tender green colour, only those destined to be pickled and eaten (or dropped into dry martinis) are gathered. As autumn progresses, the olive turns from pale green to yellowish green and then to brownish pink when it is known as l’olive tournante or ‘turning olive’. The colour deepens to wine red, then to purple and at the beginning of December, when it is almost black, it is finally harvested. This is a delicate operation and it is still done by hand, where possible, by migrant workers. Armed with wicker baskets slung around their waist, they climb stepladders that are pointed at the top like an easel and which allow them to reach the tops of the trees without damaging the branches. This is an expensive and impractical method and in some regions a special pole called a gaule is used to shake the olives from the branches into a net beneath. Elsewhere, they use an olive comb to rake the fruit from the branches.

The fragile olives are taken to the mill where they are sorted, washed and crushed into a paste which is then pressed in a pressoir or in a more high-tech centrifuge. The extracted, filtered oil is known as ‘cold-pressed virgin’ and is used for cooking and seasoning and, of course, pouring into sore ears. Regular consumption helps to combat high blood pressure, indigestion, diabetes and a host of other ills we lardy butter-guzzling northerners have brought upon ourselves. In the past, it was used as an anti-wrinkle cream (the recipe for which has been found on ancient papyrus), as a cure for cholera and as a massage oil for insomniac elephants (according to Aristotle). But surely you already knew that…?

The famous Marseille soap was once made from seventy-two percent olive oil. Today, it is made from several oils and various colorants and preservatives and has become a fashionable additive to floor cleaner, washing powder and the like. You can even be fooled into buying soap-scented shampoo or shower gel… Sadly, genuine savon de Marseille can only be found today at craft fairs, sold by organic middle-aged hippies at extortionate prices, like most other genuine produce.

As for the olives themselves, they can be eaten at various stages of maturity. Green olives are unripe and inedible straight from the tree – they must first be soaked in water or a lye solution for several weeks, then washed and pickled in brine. Black olives are fully mature and need only be brined. Each region has its speciality: Nyons is famed for its black olives which benefit from an AOC, like wine, as do the olives cassées or ‘broken olives’ from Les Baux de Provence, which are flavoured with fennel.

In the meantime, my mum happily pours olive oil onto just about every dish she makes. In fact, she uses so much of the stuff these days that my dad swears it’s coming out of his ears…

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Tip-toeing apologetically down Memory Lane

Bill gave me a link to a music site which set off a veritable Proustian avalanche of memories.

The problem is, I have been telling my daughters for yonks that when I was their age, I worked hard at school, went to bed early and was more interested in reading Lyrical Ballads and listening to William Byrd than experimenting with make-up and fantasising about pop stars.

Wot a load of tosh. When I clicked on 1972 – I was 13 then – it all came flooding back. How many nights did I spend listening to Radio Luxembourg under the covers, waiting to hear if Without You by Harry Nilsson was number one again? How many bottles of Strongbow cider did I down with my friend Graham whilst swaying/falling over to the Moody Blues or the Stylistics? (probably a quarter of a bottle)…I was even allowed to go to the disco at the local secondary modern school on a Friday night where I drank Vimto as if there were no tomorrow and danced to the O’Jays and The Jackson Five. I was a wearer of mini skirts, hot-pants and platform shoes; I spent my pocket money on Anne French Deep Cleansing Milk, Hint–of-a-Tint shampoo, gonks and Jackie magazine. I was in love with a Hell’s Angel who chatted me up in the Milk Bar – and also with Marc Bolan and Dave Kynaston, the Head Boy at school.

No, honestly – in the name of Bill Withers – who am I to judge?

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Without venom

It’s very spring like today and I feel like walking in the mountains but…I’ve put on so much weight and am so unfit that I wonder if a little stroll around the park wouldn’t be wiser.

Several kilos ago, I used to walk up the mountain above the village of Seyssinet-Pariset. Perched at the top is a small ruin known as the Tour Sans Venin, which means ‘Tower Without Venom’. There are many legends attached to this tower but they all agree that the place was once infested with poisonous snakes – a fact I wish I’d known before trekking up there. One legend tells of how the Dauphin (heir to the throne) promised land to those Lords who joined the Crusades. The Lord of Seyssinet was promised this beautiful piece of land – perfect for a château. However, he also knew that the place was riddled with snakes. When he came back from the Crusades, he brought with him a sack of soil from the Holy Land and spread this on the ground – snakes, of course, were the manifestation of the Devil. Sure enough, the snakes disappeared and the Lord was able to build his castle, of which this tower was part.

Another legend tells of a wise woman who lived there and who could treat snake bites by rubbing them with a mixture of herbs that grew close to the cliff’s edge. Yet another claims that the ruin is a monument to Isis, the goddess of fertility, built by peasants desperate to work the barren land.

Well, as long as the snakes are gone, I don’t really care which explanation is true…

Monday, March 05, 2007

Once in a blue moon

Last night, I thought I would see this:

I would have loved to have seen this:

But all I saw was this:

and that’s good enough for me because...

...every August, during La Nuit des Etoiles, I stand outside and stare at the sky, propping my eyelids open and willing myself not to fall asleep.

I stand there until the early hours of the morning.

Once, I stayed up all night.

And I have never ever seen a single shooting star. Not one. Aeroplanes and satellites by the dozen but shooting stars? They just sit there stubbornly twinkling and refuse to fall.

At least the moon had the decency to blush…

Friday, March 02, 2007

Pots and pots

The Ancient Gauls were reputed for their charcuterie but the finer points of dining were unknown to them and they ate off animal skins while sitting on the floor. During mediaeval times, they progressed to wooden tables hollowed out at intervals while the richer members of society ate from earthenware dishes and later, glass.

Glazed pottery only made its appearance in France when the Crusaders, not content with massacring the Arabs, ran off with their crockery as well. The technique of glazing was perfected between the fourteenth and the sixteenth centuries and the most important figure at this time was a certain Bernard Palissy. He was, amongst other things, a self-taught potter, ceramicist, glassmaker, painter, writer, scientist, surveyor… and enameller. He had an extraordinary life and became something of a hero to the philosophers of the Enlightenment and the Revolutionaries who considered him to be the embodiment of persecuted genius. He devoted twenty years to discovering the secret of enamelling (probably after seeing an example of Chinese porcelain) and he was so obsessed by his work that even when he was too poor to provide for his wife and children, he burned his furniture and the floorboards of his home just to keep his kiln alight. His was – literally – potty. In 1563 he was appointed “inventor of rustic pottery to the king and the queen-mother" – and thus escaped the persecution of the protestants, of which he was one. He was also a naturalist and his most characteristic enamelled works include large plates, oval dishes and vases to which he applied realistic figures of reptiles, fish, shells and plants. The poor soul died in the Bastille prison - where he was sent as a Huguenot - of cold, starvation and ill treatment. He was eighty.

It was in the seventeenth century that faïence – fine tin-glazed earthenware originally from Faenza in Italy - got its big break, so to speak. Louis XIV was running out of money so he decided to have his tableware – made from silver and gold – melted down to supply his dwindling coffers. He decreed that the nobility do the same with their dinner services. Faïence from Moustiers in the south of France was deemed a suitably sophisticated and luxurious substitute and by 1750, there were over a hundred faïence factories in France. Even the army had its own specially commissioned faïence dinner services for officers.

In 1670, Louis XIV had a pavilion built in which to take tea (and crumpet no doubt) with his mistress, Madame de Montespan. The walls were covered in blue and white glazed ceramic tiles and the house was known as the Porcelain Trianon. A few years later, Madame fell out of favour and Louis had it demolished to make way for the Grand Trianon which still stands today.

In the eighteenth century, faïence manufacturers began to make other objects besides tableware: fountains, flower pots, chandeliers, chamber pots and bidets are some examples. Yet despite its popularity, the alchemists and potters of the period were still desperately searching for the secret of Chinese porcelain and they finally managed to create a tender or soft-paste porcelain. This looked like Chinese porcelain but it was softer and could be scratched with a knife. The essential ingredient was missing- that of kaolin (wasn’t that something you took to cure diarrhoea once upon a time?). In 1765, a surgeon observed his wife washing her clothes with a smooth, creamy clay that she had discovered and he thought he might be able to make some money from the idea. He took it to an apothecary in Bordeaux who identified it as kaolin and then he sold it to the porcelain factory in Sèvres. At last, after four hundred years of searching, the mystery of porcelain was solved. In 1771, the first manufactory was established in the Limousin region, producing the first Limoges hard-paste porcelain.

The French Revolution spelled ruined for many porcelain and faïence manufacturers. These were luxury commodities and there was no longer any demand for them. However, a few ingenious manufacturers produced faïence patriotique, decorated with revolutionary motifs and carrying the initials ‘RF’ (Révolution Française) and they managed to survive.

In the nineteenth century, faïence and porcelain was in favour again and Napoleon had several dinner services made depicting his victories in various campaigns. Painting portraits on porcelain became fashionable although these luxury ‘souvenir’ plates were available only for the very rich.

Today, Limoges porcelain is known all over the world and faïence is still made at Moustiers but there are many well-known porcelain and faïence manufacturers in France. Ceramics made by local craftsmen can be seen at any of the numerous craft fairs throughout the country. In fact, I’ve even been known to throw a few pots myself…