Monday 27 December 2010

Perfect presents...

And after all the rushing around, can there be anything nicer than pulling up the drawbridge for a few days and luxuriating? I am at my happiest curled up with a present that happens to be a good book, hearing the family around and about in the house but not needing me to do anything. If there's an interesting new scent to enjoy, then that's perfection...

So here I am this afternoon, reading a collection of short stories: French Tales translated by Helen Constantine. Each tale is connected to a different region of France, so that from my armchair I've been to Burgundy with the fabulous Colette; to Provence, of course, with Alphonse Daudet; and on a ghostly train ride through Brittany with Annie Saumont.

And all enveloped in a warm mist of another thoughtful gift: a new scent from Chantecaille called Kalimantan. It's a woody oriental that starts off with top notes of thyme and rosemary, then seems to develop into church incense. There's vanilla and cedar in there too, but not as distinctly. It's like running around the garden in France on bright summer day, then entering a dark dusty chapel.    

Friday 24 December 2010

A Candle at Christmas

In this lovely painting by Andrew Petrov, another Provence-based artist, the candle glows from within through a waxy cloud of soft greys and mauves. For all its softness, though, the flame burns bright and fierce. Intimate and meditative, the painting draws you in and holds you, and Time was away and somewhere else. (Meeting Point, Louis MacNeice.)

Click here for Andrew Petrov's website.

Joyeux Noël!

Saturday 18 December 2010

Walnut wine

In the wooden cigar box of keys that held the only clues to this old farming hamlet when we took possession, none of the tangle of rusty, misshapen bits of metal would fit this door.

We’d been at the house for a month or so that first summer, with more pressing concerns such as how to get water and electricity, before we decided to break in here. It’s on the sloping underside of what was once a stone barn, now Rob’s music room.

We assumed it would turn out to be the equivalent of a garden shed. But no. Once we were in, holding up a hurricane lamp to illuminate the dank dark interior, we found a sizeable stone flagged room. Some old tools lay around and a grindstone was propped against one wall, along with a large flaking painting of a lily in a vase.

At the back was the opening to a short passageway that led into a vaulted wine cellar or cave stretching some way under the courtyard. Dusty bottles – empty – lay on a raised gravel base between a jumble of barrels.

When we mentioned our find to one of our neighbours he told us that the farm was once renowned locally for its production of excellent vin de noix, a rich sweet walnut wine like a liqueur that the French often drink as an aperitif. And sure enough, in the garden there are three majestic walnut trees.

In autumn the nuts drop and we gather them, pulling off the outer casings that rot all too easily in the October rains, then let them dry out in a wire egg basket in the warmth of the kitchen. But by then it’s too late to make walnut wine. The time to brew is in June when the nuts are still green. And here is how to do it, thanks to Vanessa at A Writer’s Lot in France: link 

40 walnuts (still in their green outer casing)
7 litres red wine
1 litre eau de vie
2 kilos sugar
2 oranges

Cut each nut into 4-8 pieces and put into a 15-litre demijohn. Slice the oranges (with the peel left on) into strips and add to the nuts in the demijohn. Mix the wine, eau de vie and sugar in a bucket until sugar dissolves. Pour over the nuts and oranges. Leave for four months in a cool place, then strain and bottle. Santé!

Thursday 16 December 2010

Still Life with Figs

This beautifully soft and luminous small painting by Provence-based artist Julian Merrow-Smith captures that moment the figs are on the point of bursting with sweetness. The black-purple skin is velvet to the touch but melting and glistening with juice.

It’s a sublime illustration of the following lines in the new book:

“The haunting began…one afternoon in late summer.
    It was one of those days so intensely alive and aromatic you could hear as well as smell the fig tree in the courtyard. Wasps hummed in the leaves as the fruit ripened and split; globes of warm dark purple were dropping, ripping open as they landed with sodden gasps.
   The pulse that pumped out the sweet, heady scent was quickening as I bent down to pick the fallen figs, then pulled them apart to find insects were already drunk on their scarlet hearts.”

From: The Lantern

Julian Merrow-Smith is a British painter living near Crillon le Brave, a tiny Provencal hill village at the foot of Mont Ventoux. An accomplished portrait painter, Julian regularly exhibits with the Royal Society of Portrait Painters in London, and his paintings have been widely shown in Britain, France and the United States.

In February 2005 Julian started Postcard from Provence, a daily painting project at Shifting Light | Postcard from Provence
A painting a day: daily paintings from Julian Merrow-Smith's
studio in Provence
. Each day he paints a small still life or landscape inspired by the countryside outside his studio, its fruits and everyday artefacts. The beauty of small things…

Tuesday 14 December 2010

The power of perfume

Josine and I have been friends for thirty years, since a love of dressing up in lacy clothes and getting silly at parties showed we were on the same wavelength as students. Later on, of course, we would bond over the more serious issues of work, relationships, children…but there was always perfume.

Until I met Josine, I would drench myself in fuggy floriental clouds of Chloe and Dioressence on the basis that I liked a fragrance with punch and these instantly evoked memories of previous good times. Ma Griffe was childhood and my mother’s scent. Whenever I smell Opium, even now, (a boyfriend bought me a bottle of Opium and I was thrilled that he saw me as a woman who could carry off that powerful blast of sensuality) I am back at a Cambridge party wearing a slightly strange raw silk dress I have made myself, and anything is possible.

Josine was altogether more sophisticated. She was a Guerlain woman, even then, who knew all the scents and histories of this grande dame of Parisian perfume houses. Not only could she describe all the component parts of Apres L’Ondee, that melancholy old-fashioned iris and heliotrope scent, but she could wear too, though usually she opted for the racier Shalimar and Chamade.

My favourite Guerlain classic has long been Jicky. It was one of the first “modern” French perfumes when it was created in 1889 because it used synthetic oils. A bracing spritz of citrus and bergamot soon mellows into a wonderful lavender, amber and vanillin. Just delicious, though you have to watch for the point when it develops the same dungy tang that an excess of white jasmine can pump into a warm atmosphere.

It’s bad enough for those of us who use perfume as an essential part of our memory archives that perfume manufacturers constantly “update” their scents, even the classics. But worse by far when scents are discontinued. I still mourn the demise of Dior-Dior, that zingy accompaniment to those first months with my future husband.

And I’d only relatively recently discovered L’Occitane’s Ambre, with its gorgeous warm cistus and honeyed wood when it disappeared from the shelves. I found a near-miss at Senteurs & Provence in Apt: Lothantique’s Ambre. It’s lovely too, but for me, between the two it’s the difference in olfactory terms between hearing music played by an oboe when you long for the rich, round sexy notes of a saxophone.

Saturday 11 December 2010

What's the story?

Meeting Dom was the most incredible thing that had ever happened to me.
Drawn to a confident and artistic wealthy older man she barely knows, bookish Eve recklessly embarks on a whirlwind affair that soon offers a new life and a new home—Les Genévriers, a pretty yet decaying hamlet nestled amid the fragrant lavender fields of Provence. Each enchanting day at Les Genévriers delivers happy discoveries: hidden chambers, secret vaults, small treasures—a vase, a rusted iron birdcage, a candle lantern. Entranced by the old farmhouse, deeply in love, surrounded by music, books, and the glorious beauty and heady summer scents of the French countryside, Eve has never felt more alive.

But with autumn’s arrival the days begin to cool—and so too, does Dom. Though Eve knows her lover bears the emotional scars of a previous marriage, he refuses to talk about the past—silence that arouses suspicion and uncertainty. The more reluctant he is to explain, the more Eve becomes obsessed with finding answers—and to unraveling the mystery of his absent, beautiful ex-wife, Rachel.

Like its owner, Les Genévriers is also changing. Bright, warm rooms have become cold and uninviting; shadows fall unexpectedly; lights flicker on their own; and Eve senses a presence moving through the garden. Is it a ghost from the past—or a manifestation of her and Dom’s current troubles? Do the eerie winds of the mistral chill her to the bone, or is it fear? Can she trust Dom—or could her life truly be in danger?

Eve does not know that Les Genévriers has been haunted before. Benedicte Lincel, the house’s former owner, knew all too well the bitter taste of heartbreak and tragedy—long-buried family secrets and evil deeds that, once unearthed, will hold shocking and unexpected consequences for Eve.

An evocative and sensuous tale of romantic and psychological suspense set against an exquisite landscape, The Lantern is a gripping story of past and present, love and jealousy, secrets and lies, appearances and disappearances that captures our age-old terror of the dark.

Monday 6 December 2010

The Lantern by Deborah Lawrenson

Welcome to my blog!

This is the setting for my new novel The Lantern, set in Provence. It comes out in the UK in June 2011, published by Orion, and in the US in September 2011, published by HarperCollins.
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