Winter’s bounty

In the past the changing seasons meant a change of diet as food availability came and went with the progress of the year. The advent of the supermarket produced a demand for foods to be available all year round so that nowadays, almost everything can be bought and eaten at any time. I have always thought this a pity and wonder if it is we who have demanded this, or the supermarkets that choose to offer us what they feel we will buy. Who would want to forgo the pleasures of the first strawberry of the year by eating them every day? A list of delights of this type would be endless.

Living in the centre of rural France, things are a bit different. Local supermarkets and markets do respond to the seasons and offer produce grown locally in their true season. Friends ring us up to share their most recent harvest and we do the same, giving away bagfuls of whatever produce the garden has graced us with at this particular moment. We also love collecting wild food but this year has been a poor one in our region for one of our favourites, Cepes (Boletus) mushrooms.

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Chanterelle mushrooms in the woods of the Loire Valley

Today however, just as we were beginning to start work on the day’s projects, a friend rang and offered to take us to her favourite wood for Chanterelle mushrooms, one of nature’s finest delicacies. In France no one ever tells you where they pick their mushrooms, so how could we refuse? As we wound our way through the country lanes toward our goal I began to wonder if our host was deliberately trying to get us lost. But it was a lovely day, cool but sunny, so I drove where I was told, knowing I could sneak back another day if necessary.

We were directed up a track through the vineyards, where workers were busily pruning the vines, eventually coming to a pine forest in which we were shown to our friend’s favourite parking spot. Coats on and baskets out, we pushed through the undergrowth to the centre of the wood and were not disappointed: there were Chaterelles everywhere!

An hour or so later we had picked enough for the year but our friend was keen to continue. We eventually dragged her away and on returning home started to prepare the 10 kg of “food for Free” we had picked. The base of the stem was removed and the mushrooms washed, then lightly heated in a pan to remove some of the water. Finally they were packed into jars to be sterilised and sealed, available to enjoy for the next year or so. Our diner that evening consisted of veal escallopes with onions, garlic and a generous helping of Chanterelles, cooked in a cream sauce. Life doesn’t get much better really.

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Callicarpa berries in Chabris park

Talking to some of the older folks in the market today, they are predicting a cold winter. There is a very heavy crop of acorns in the Oak woods and, thinking of what a similar generation would have told me in England, no shortage of berries on Pyracantha, Holly and other shrubs. At the moment the weather is gentle enough; all will be revealed, I have no doubt. The dry weather over the last few weeks has also produced a few frosts, but is allowing me to get out to do some weeding finally, after months working and touring with students and other clients.

 

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Holly berries in abundance.

 

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A typical French Autumn

Autumn leaf and flower colour from Rhus and Miscanthus in our garden this morning.

Every day this week has been different to the last. Today it is mild and drizzling on and off, while yesterday it was dry, with just a few clouds passing by. The day before was a most glorious warm, sunny day but it began with a hint of frost. Sunday it poured down while Saturday it kept mostly dry – a bonus for guests who I took to see the grape harvest coming in at local vineyards. In short, a typical autumn week in central France.

In the town, around the market and in the supermarket, all the talk is about mushrooms, or the lack of them. We have been mushroom hunting on our daily walks with the dog and while we bring back a handful most days, there are very few about. The weather is looking encouraging however, after many months without any serious rain, so we are hoping for great things by the end of this or the following week.

Chantal is making her annual autumn jelly from fruit collected on our walks: pears, apples and grapes left behind by the picking machine. To this she has added currents and other soft fruit preserved after picking this summer and a few herbs and spices for luck. We will be bottling soon and look forward to trying it out on friends who regularly offer us examples of their own culinary efforts to try. Last week the Marquis dropped around with a sample of his Two Salmons Rillettes and our lady plumber turned up one evening with freshly hunted venison. Food is important to the people of this community and recipes are commonly argued over in the market place.

Japanese Anemones continue to provide colour

Out in the garden I am pleased to have the ground wetted as I have been waiting to start cultivating the soil for our new lawn. The lawn will be sown as soon as I can so that it will germinate and establish itself before the winter. We are trying to rehabilitate a section of the garden ruined when the swimming pool went in and to link it with an area currently the site of a very poor quality lawn. I can manage about 50 sq.m. a day fighting with the rotavator, after which I need a couple of days of rest – one more push should see the hard work done though. The next task will be the raking off of old grass, weeds and stone, and creating rough levels using new lawn edging secured along the existing beds. The ground will then be trodden down firmly, levelled again to a nice tilth and finally sown with grass seed. A last gentle rake over and we leave it to Nature to work its wonders.

Many of the bedding and herbaceous plants are having a second lease of life in this damp and temperate season: the Begonias have never looked so good, Pot Marigold (Calendula) are in full flower and throughout the garden there are splashes of colour here and there. It looks as if the Salvia Golden Delicious will flower this year: each shoot is carrying a flower bud and one is just starting to show red. We continue to pick tomatoes and our lettuce crop is the best we have had all year.

Summer bedding has never looked so good!

In the park the rain has resulted in a huge rise in the level of the river Cher, but not enough to put off 60 or more swans who took up residence earlier in the week. The gardeners are busily removing summer bedding and replacing it with a mixture of winter and spring flowering plants. I managed to beg a few of last season’s plants from them for our own garden: bedding Dahlias and purple grasses, no longer. I have finished taking cuttings of tender plants for the year but have tried some Holly again, a particularly attractive form which grows by the town campsite.

On Friday I am taking clients to Bourgueil to look at vineyards and taste some wine, while on Saturday or Sunday we’ll all take a trip to the Courson Plant Fair, so it’s a busy week all ’round. We are watching the weather.

Autumn colour, autumn harvest

Autumn has crept gently into central France, producing muted colours with fiery highlights rather than the dazzling displays of less mild years.

Some trees and shrubs dropped their foliage at the first sign of a frost while others, confused by the warm, wet spell that followed, have hung on for another month or more, before dropping in a desultory, half-hearted and uninspiring fashion.

Every now and then however, I am stopped in my tracks by a spectacular sighting of a single Gingko or maple tree, a whole bank of Rhus or Cotinus, or a patch of forest oaks. Then Camus’s line: “autumn is a second spring when every leaf is a flower”, makes sense again.

Autumn colour is one of the great features of this season and in many countries a tourist trade has developed around its arrival. In our mild climate we are never treated to stunning displays like those in parts of the United States or China, extending over hundreds of miles and involving millions of plants, but we have our moments. Nearly one third of the land area of France is covered in trees, an area of woodland six times greater than those of the UK. When one of the great French woodland regions gets autumn colour just right, it is a sight to be seen!

Plane bark and autumn colour

In deciduous trees and shrubs the production of green chlorophyll drops away with falling autumn light levels, while other plant pigments contained in a leaf – yellow, orange or red depending on the chemical involved – are on the increase as plant sugars concentrate. A crisp, sunny autumn will produce the best leaf colours and we have hopes of a decent end-of-season display in this part of the world is this weekend, when fine weather is forecast. Already the days are superb, despite ugly conditions on the Mediterranean and Atlantic coasts, and we were out picking mushrooms in the woods this morning.

Berries, fruits and seeds are the other big feature of the season and this year I have been collecting some of our own to sow alongside those we are buying from the seed companies. More for fun than in any great hope of success I have sowed a pod of Lilium regale Album, which has rewards my efforts by producing seedlings in their dozens. Spurred on by this, I have since sowed Salvia argentea seeds and have a pod of Fritillaria imperialis on my desk awaiting its turn.

I am a great fan of allowing plants to self-seed but sometimes the results are disappointing, either not germinating or being ruined by my over-zealous weeding of the garden. We have had many successes however; Euphorbia wulfenii seedlings replaced an original plant which died after the first year, Verbena bonariensis is gradually establishing itself around one end of a sunny bed and many plants appear spontaneously in our gravel patio. As with outdoor cuttings, I often sow seeds I have harvested at the base of the parent plant, if only to be able to find them later. I am beginning to think that if I really want success I should be sowing in seed trays either in the garden or under cover, as I do with those I buy in packets. Some of the more simple bedding plants – Calendula, Opium Poppies and Nigella – do very well however, needing weeding out when they begin to take over.

Calendula - one of our more beautiful "weeds"

Our second delivery of packet seeds arrived today, this time from Suttons. These included a Banana, Ensete ventricosum, from their Eden Project range. I have only once, many years ago, had success with Banana and last years’ seeds (of E. glaucum) from Thompson and Morgan yet again failed to germinate. The species I have bought this time is African rather than south Asian and said to be hardier. Packets come with instructions to soak in warm water for 24 hours and I did this immediately, aware that they need to be sown at the earliest opportunity. I have found, by the way, a site “dedicated to the art of creating the illusion of the tropics in inappropriate climates” called Cooltropicalplants.com, which is amusingly written and full of sensible advice on a range of plants, including this one. I now understand that Bananas need temperatures of around 30°C to grow and I may not have provided this in the past. No criticism intended T&M!

Scented streets, plant fairs, food for free and hardy orchids

Robinia

Robinia pseudoacacia flowering in our Chabris garden today

For weeks the streets have been perfumed by the heady scent of Lilac and Wisteria, here in the centre of rural France: a delightful change from the smell of combustion engines we left behind in the towns and cities of the UK. These flowers are still going strong but for Easter weekend accompanied by the first, sweet-smelling roses and fragrance of the bee-friendly Robinia trees. When I plant a garden I always try to position scented shrubs near doorways, windows or frequently used pathways to make use of this extra, olfactory dimension to planting design. Our white Lilac is close to the kitchen window and we have a couple of fine Daphnes, D. odora Aureomarginata by the classroom and D. tangutica close to the house. Robinias are in flower here too, far too close to the ancient building: a weed in our area but a beautiful one.

The woods will be alive with bees in a few days as hives are brought back to their clearings in the forest, bee-keepers keen to capitalise on the harvest of Robinia blossoms, the source of fine local Acacia honey. During a recent walk in the woods by the River Cher we were pleased to stumble across a handful of Morels, an excellent edible wild mushroom which we devoured the same day with a steak of locally-raised beef and a good red wine.

Morels

Morchella mushrooms (Morels) from the local woods

Bletilla

Bletilla striata orchid in our woodland garden

Small purple Orchids are starting into flower in the woods and meadows too, with native, greeny-white Helleborines blooming alongside shocking-pink, Japanese Bletilla striata in our garden. A wide range of orchids thrive in these parts, Lizard Orchids seeding themselves freely in the countryside and in gardens. I miss English Bee Orchids, flowering in the field by our old Hertfordshire office and we always walked the dog over the Chilterns to orchid hunt in the summer, but here we are spoiled for choice.

Sadly, we missed the plant fair at chateau de la Bourdaisière on Saturday and the one at chateau de Bouges on Sunday; on Wednesday we have been invited to Giverney while on the 10th May a coach trip to the chateau park at Azay le Ferron has been organised by the town’s tourist office. Which of these we can find time to support, we have yet to decide, but nothing could make me miss my annual pilgrimage to Courson on May 13th.

Our guided trips to the gardens of the Loire Valley stop at several of these venues and I’m hoping to organise one for the national garden open weekend in early June, when more than 80 parks and gardens in our area are holding events. The delightful problem will be which to select for visits this year!

Something for nothing: mushrooms, plants and more

Just when we had given up finding anything other than Field Mushrooms, the continued mild, damp weather has produced a flush of Boletes of all types. Two days ago we were looking at a property for a client near Montrichard and stopped for a walk in the woods with the dog. This trip produced a pair of Orangé or  Leccinum versipelle, L. aurantiacum  or perhaps L. quercinum, as we found them under Oak rather than Poplar. We eat them later with a chicken stew dish: wonderful!

Leccinum from the woods of central France

Orangé mushrooms

Today we were out in the woods at Chabris and came across a huge area covered with Ceps and other Boletus. We came back with kilos of the things which, at Euro 30 a kg in the market makes our little walk seem like a profitable venture. Chantal has spent the morning cooking, freezing and drying our haul and I am very much looking forward to dinner tonight.

A selection of Boletes

A selection of Boletes

Ceps and other Boletus on the kitchen table

Ceps and other Boletus on the kitchen table

Out in the garden another free find; I had rescued some wild Cyclamen from in front of a JCB digging a trench for a new water main and, on another occasion, a plant from the woods where felling had just started.  Checking on their progress this morning I remarked again on how different the two white flowering plants were when I spotted Cyclamen leaves pocking through brambles and weeds near our Sequoia tree. It seems we have our own patch of wild Cyclamen in addition to the two I have introduced. It will be fascinating to see how they perform in the next few years.

I have started to plant out cuttings I have rooted in our nursery corner. The first of these came from the local school garden: Artemisia Powis Castle. I like the silver leaves, the scent and the way that leaves added to Vodka turn the drink bright green. I’ll bet they didn’t tell the kids that!