Sunday 18 September 2011

Autumn "Au Revoir"

The vine canopy is starting to drop russet leaves over the summer dining table. Clouds hang in the valley before the sun warms the morning. Autumn is definitely in the air, even if it’s still summer at midday in Provence.

It’s the time of new beginnings, work-wise, as nature dies back. Like many, I feel energised at this time of year, full of ambitious new plans and determined to bring them to fruition. This is when I always start my books, fired up with a full notebook of research and ideas that may or may not work but have to be tried.

This post is by way of an “Au Revoir” for a while, or at least fair notice that I won’t be blogging as regularly during the coming months while I give my full attention to the first draft of a new novel that has been bubbling under all year. And to do it, I have to disappear to my study and block out everything else.

All writers write in different ways, and mine is in concentrated isolation. Sometimes it’s hard enough to fit in real life, let alone any other writing which can only be a distraction. I don’t like to mess around. Writing a first draft is like digging the foundations of a house: it’s hard and precise work, and a great deal rests on it. If the structure is wrong now, the building will never be quite right and ever harder to put right later.

If anyone asks me now what qualities I think writers need to have, I would have to say: persistence, determination and sheer stubbornness to succeed. You also have to love what you do, playing around with words and the use of language to create something new.

For me, there’s no better time to do that than when the skies become heavier, and the colours fade beyond the window where my desk stands. If it’s raining, so much the better. Then there’s nowhere I’d rather be than making bright pictures in my head and trying to find the words to pin them down.

I hasten to assure you, all my lovely blog pals I’ve made this year, I’m not abandoning my blog completely, and that I will still be touring around reading yours when I need a break. I have so enjoyed all your comments, and appreciated your support, for which huge thanks, and am delighted that we found each other. But this one will revert to its original function, which was an add-on to my website to use for any news updates.

Please do come and find me on my official Facebook page, though – the “Like” link at the side here will take you there. That’s much easier to keep going, and we have some lovely little chats about books, Provence and life in general.

Back soon – but for now, cheerio!  

Tuesday 13 September 2011

Figs falling

  “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 

I defy anyone to look at a fallen fig like this: its heart shape and juice spilled like blood across the stone and not think Gothic thoughts... There's something very sensuous about figs, with their blatant sexual connotations, and the sweet, blowsy scent as they grow on the branch. Others lie on the grass under the tree, newly split open on impact and ripe for destruction by thirsty insects.

Those are the doomed windfalls, but here are some picked from the tree. I simply love their colours, the delicate darkness of the purple skin and pistachio greens.

And here's how we ate them. I prepared a bed of good fresh lettuce dressed with a vinaigrette of Dijon mustard, honey, red wine vinegar and olive oil. Then cut rounds of bread and topped with goat's cheese, and put on a tray in a fairly hot oven to bake with some slivers of jambon cru (Parma ham) and the halved figs, each spread with a little clear honey. Everything cooks together for about 15 minutes, or until the cheese looks done. Delicious!

Thursday 8 September 2011

Baroque fruit in Avignon

I was wandering around Avignon a few weeks ago, on a day of coshing heat. After a lovely shady lunch opposite the northern end of the Palais des Papes, I set off through the great cobbled square, looked up and really noticed for the first time the frieze on the Hôtel des Monnaies: festoons of ripe fruit and vegetables amid the coats of arms of the Borgia family.

It is so typically Provençal – even in the stones of the most ostentatious buildings, are celebrations of the pure joy of living here in the sunshine and the natural produce of the region. Grapes and pears and courgettes are carved with acorns and the pumpkins of the ‘season of mists and mellow fruitfulness’ now stealing up on us.

The Hôtel des Monnaies, a mansion built in 1619 in the Baroque style, is now used as a conservatoire of music. It was dedicated to Pope Paul V, one of the more restrained Borghese family Popes, though there’s still a sense that those overblown fruits were alluding to the culture of excess in the papal palace across the way during previous centuries.

If you’ve read The Lantern, you’ll know important the landscape and the fruits of the land are to the story, and what they represent. Among all the blog reviews I’ve had the pleasure of reading over the past few months, are some that have really engaged with this aspect of the novel. A lovely one that came out this week, on Reading the Past by Sarah Johnson, from which I quote this paragraph:

 “Reflecting the bounty of the land, the language is ripe and sensual (tomatoes are "as ribbed and plump as harem cushions"). The regional specialties, like vin de noix – sweet walnut liqueur – sound mouth-wateringly delicious. Armchair travelers will revel in Lawrenson’s lush descriptions of the lavender harvest, an event in which Bénédicte participates in order to share the experience with her blind sister, Marthe, who grows up to be a renowned parfumeuse. The cycle of life is evoked in full, from birth and growth through death and decay – as it affects local crops, the structure of Les Genévriers, and the affairs of its human inhabitants.”

Click here to read the whole review.

Throughout August and into this month, The Lantern has been on an internet blog tour run by TLC. There are all sorts of views and reviews, which you can access by clicking here to the blog list.

Sunday 4 September 2011

Mirabelles and decadence

mirabelles, the tart orange plums like incandescent bulbs strung in forest green leaves
                                                                        From The Lantern

Late summer in Provence, and the garden orchards are full of plums. The mirabelles - smaller than they look in these - have a very distinct sweet-sour taste. When you cook with them they suck in more sugar than you ever intended and still never lose their tartness. You can pluck them off the tree and eat, and the first one is delicious and unusual, but somehow you don't want another - not right away, anyway.

They are beginning to wrinkle on the branch, testament both to glorious plenty, and their status as an acquired taste. Actually, mirabelles are fantastic with cheese, but we've had a brake on too much cheese and red wine this year, as it's just too easy to carry on eating and drinking long past reason!

The plums we grab in passing, and then go back for more, are the greengages. These are both crisp and sweet, and rarely blemished or invaded by insects. What bliss, when you feel a bit peckish, to wander down to the terrace with the old fruit trees and pick a few handfuls - all organic, of course, as the gardening chez nous so far consists only of cutting back when we can't see out.

Earlier in the summer are the superb wild plums: pink outside, peach inside. Like the greengages, they are beautifully crisp but sweet. I can't understand why our local friends dismiss them with a flap of the hand as 'les sauvages', wild fruit one step up from weeds. These are the ones I like best, especially the fruit from the trees no bigger than saplings that grow from a pile of stones.

The second year we were here, before the land was cleared to drain a boggy area, I was picking the plums here with an old friend, filling a huge bowl together as we pushed our way deeper into a messy clump of trees, when we found the remains of an old wooden cart that must once have been used on the farm.

Wherever you are here, there's evidence of what has gone before. For so many years, poor farming families and their tenants lived in places like this. Life was hard, but rich in natural produce. Now, many of these properties are owned by wealthy incomers, who are used to buying their food from supermarkets - food often sourced from vast distances - and it seems decadent to be able to reach out and take a  plum straight from the bough. And know that what is really decadent is the sea of plenty that will have to be left for the birds and the squirrel-like loir and the insects, whereas in years gone by it would all have been carefully preserved to last through the coming harsh winter.
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