A Sensory Summer

Smell: the lavender of Provence
The final part of my trip to Italy was two days spent in lavender country in Provence. In planning my trip, I realized I’d be driving back into France right around peak lavender bloom, so I made arrangements for a few nights in Valensole, right in the heart of the action. I arrived a week before the local lavender festival, so I guess the timing was about right!

Four years of drought and the lateness of this year’s spring rains had left the lavender plants in a state of distress, not as full, lush and vivid as in other years. That said, it was my first view of the stunning blue-purple fields, and they were gorgeous!

Fat, straight violet lines, rounded on top, lead the eye across the landscape and toward mountains turned hazy blue in the distance. The sky above is a brighter blue, and adjacent fallow fields are pale gold. In the midst of many of the lavender fields, one spies a single tree or a stone hut.

These stone huts, called cabanes, are old, built in a drystack technique (no mortar or cement) that is all but lost in modern times. Cabanes were generally built from the late 1600s to the late 1800s, and had a variety of uses: shelter for animals or people, storage of tools or food, and—less common—to protect a water well or spring. They were outbuildings of a farm, often built as part of a stone wall. They are a basic aspect of the rural landscape of southern France. In Provence, the warm gold hue and rough stone texture of these cabanes make a great foil for the perfumed purple glory of all that lavender. It is a feast for the senses.

Provençal lavender
Left, a slightly abstracted view of the marching straight lines of a lavender field, and right, a stone cabane in the midst of rolling hills of lavender.
Provençal scenes
Left, an evocative old watering can sits on blue chairs on a sidewalk in Provence. Right, another stone cabane perches in its own paradise of lavender.

 

Sound: summer just sounds different
I live just across the road from our local river. In early summer, the town creates a sort of temporary dam to force the water to flow down a narrow channel, allowing a deliciously cold pool to form. Every afternoon—especially on weekends—I listen to the sounds of kids splashing in the water and playing games. I hear the stream of cars coming into town, in search of a parking place so that mom and dad can get those kids into the water faster. Sometimes the vehicle coming through town is a loud, belching, slow-moving tractor heading to or from the fields.

There is a seemingly endless parade of local festivals—fêtes—celebrating anything that can be named, and thus we have the sounds of musical entertainment. Local kids get up on stage to sing and dance. Aging rock bands grab all the gigs they can. A few Occitan bands make the rounds, performing songs and poetry in the ancient local dialect. Electro-pop fills in the gaps.

And because I sleep with the window open as often as I can, I hear the sounds of people happy to be outside at all hours: cannonballs into the river at two a.m., teenage partiers having loud conversations, my neighbors taking advantage of slightly cooler midnight temperatures to have a visit on their favorite bench overlooking the river.

 

Taste: what to eat in the heat
It has been really hot here, and the idea of standing at a hot stove has been unappealing. Conveniently, the markets have been bursting with gorgeous, flavorful produce: tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, onions, eggplant, and on the fruit side there have been juicy peaches, melons, strawberries and apricots. Yum and yum. I’ve been eating a lot of caprese salads, prosciutto with melon, tabbouleh, hummus, and gazpacho.

There’s nothing quite like a cold gazpacho made with fresh-from-the-garden, oozing-with-flavor summer tomatoes. Some folks prefer to peel the tomatoes, but I don’t find it necessary. Here’s the recipe I’ve used:

GAZPACHO SOUP

3 lbs fully ripe, flavorful tomatoes
1 red bell pepper
1 cucumber
1 jalapeño or other mildly hot pepper
2 cloves garlic, minced or pressed
1/4 cup lime or lemon juice
1 TBS balsamic vinegar
3-4 TBS olive oil
2 tsp oregano
sea salt and pepper
fresh basil leaves
carton of cherry tomatoes

  1. Start with a large bowl.
  2. Seed and coarsely chop the tomato, adding it to the bowl.
  3. Seed and coarsely chop the red pepper and the hot pepper. Add to the tomatoes.
  4. Peel, seed and coarsely chop the cucumber. Add to the other vegetables.
  5. In a smaller bowl, combine garlic, citrus juice, balsamic vinegar, and 3 TBS olive oil. Stir lightly to blend.
  6. Add oregano, plus salt and pepper to taste, and whisk the mixture together before quickly adding it to the vegetables. Combine thoroughly, then cover and let stand 1-2 hours at room temperature.
  7. I used an immersion blender to blend the soup; you can also use a regular blender. Blend to the texture you prefer; some people like a chunkier texture and others like it completely smooth. If needed, strain the blended soup to make it even smoother.
  8. Chill in refrigerator at least one hour before serving.
  9. For serving, you can garnish with all kinds of things; I like some ribbons of basil and grilled cherry tomatoes. Have a baguette on hand, or go an extra step and toast baguette slices with some parmesan cheese. Perfect with a chilled rosé, but you’ll want one with a little sweetness to balance the acidity of the tomatoes.

Bon appetit!

 

Sight: grapes changing colors
I live in the midst of vineyards. The landscape is filled with orderly rows of grapevines, marching in military precision up hillsides and across fields. My friends Candace and Michael call them wine trees. And right at the moment, the grapes on the wine trees are turning colors.

It’s called véraison, which refers to the time during the growing season when the fruit turns from a hard berry into a softer fruit, and the color turns from light green to the color it will be at harvest. It’s a time to mark, because it means that plenty of hard work is just around the corner. It’s also a dandy reason for a festival, thus there is the grand Fête de la Véraison each year in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Provence. Any excuse for a party!

Véraison
Véraison is the word used in France for the brief time when grapes turn color and soften. At right, the peeling paint of an old door reflects the colors of véraison.

 

Parting Shot, or A Touch of Heart
I’ve been using the title “Parting Shot” for my closing statement for many years now, but it takes on new significance with today’s message.

Five years ago, my husband and I visited dear friends Cate and Paul in the Luberon Valley of Provence, where they’d rented a house and invited us to visit. One day we had lunch in a small nearby town, and while there, we had a look at the local war memorial, where we noticed something unusual. There was a plaque honoring a French woman, Blanche Gaillard, who had been shot by the retreating German army in 1944. That in itself wasn’t so unusual, alas, except for one tiny tidbit: Madame Gaillard had posthumously received the United States Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor awarded by the United States.

Her story captivated me, and when we returned home, I tried to learn more about Madame Gaillard. I couldn’t find much: her children were marched outside in order to witness the Nazis firing upon their mother. Her farm was possibly a hideout for people in the French Resistance. I never did find out why the United States honored her.

Over the years, her story has stayed with me, and I’ve occasionally repeated what I knew to others. On my drive back from Italy and through Valensole, I realized that it would be easy to stop in Villars, our lunch stop, to re-visit the memorial and check to see if my memories were accurate. After a couple of tries, I did find the memorial, and it looked much as I remembered it, seen in the photograph below.

Madame Gaillard, I know almost nothing about you, but I salute you. Merci.

In that vein, I happen to have passed much of my summer reading some excellent books that take place during the first and second world wars. Here they are:

• The Alice Network, by Kate Quinn. A work of fiction that weaves in real-life people and situations, this book focuses on one British woman who worked as a spy for the British during both World Wars. The Alice Network was indeed a highly successful team of female spies.

Beneath a Scarlet Sky, by Mark Sullivan. The true story of a young Italian—a teenager when Hitler invaded Mussolini’s Italy—whose bravery saved countless lives. Pino Lella, as of this writing, is still living, and his story is being made into a movie.

The Lost Vintage, by Ann Mah. This book, which mostly takes place in Burgundy, France, follows the stories of related women, one at the onset of World War II, and the other in modern times, covering family secrets, war and resistance, and ultimately, redemption.

Blanche Gaillard Plaque
Memorial plaque for Blanche Gaillard, of Villars, France. She was shot in 1944 by the retreating German army and posthumously awarded the United States Medal of Freedom.

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