Wednesday 30 May 2012

Marseille: bright and foreign

   "You could feel age and foreignness exude from the walls. For centuries this was the quarter that housed the thousands of slaves, criminals and captured Turks who rowed Marseilles' fleet of war galleys. The buildings above were scabrous and peeling. (...) And when the day's market is over and darkness approaches, there drifts through the air the same faint but unmistakable warning that has drifted through the air of this street forever. Go home, it says, before the business of the night begins. Foul things have happend here before, and will happen again. Go home now."

                                                                                from Seeking Provence
                                                                                by Nicholas Woodsworth

Round where we are, Marseille is considered exciting but comes with grave warnings for the casual visitor. Be careful where you park your car. Don't take too much cash and only one credit card. Our local newspaper La Provence positively relishes its coverage of gang shoot-outs there and wars between rival mafia drugs barons. "Le Chicago de Provence," they call it, calling up salty tales of the days of Al Capone to season the lurid pictures of its four-page spreads.

France's second city has a proud character all its own, and a strong and vibrant social cohesion built up over centuries. Whatever outsiders may assume, the city looks after its own. It is, and always has been, a trading place, in whatever form that takes.

Nicholas Woodsworth captures it perfectly in Seeking Provence: Old Myths, New Paths, in which he examines the long cultural history of the region. His book is a delight, from lovely prose to the entertaining and serious observations of the stark reality of life in Provence. He comes to the same conclusions as I did as I wrote The Lantern: that the sensuous experience here - the smells and tastes and textures - is a vital connection to the past and our understanding of it.

  "But for the moment all was brightness and colour and shafts of sun penetrating the street's depths from high above. We passed one stall, one stand, one open shop doorway after another. Each unloaded a  different cargo onto the still air. If the portside fish market was all noise, the rue Longues des Capucins was all smells. Thick and fragrant, clouds of blue smoke rose skyward from sidewalk kebab grills. We sniffed sweet bunches of mint and basil, their leaves sprinkled with silvery pearls of water. (...) At a place where a Moroccan corner shop sat opposite a Vietnamese grocer's the odours of two continents waged a war of attrition - where citron confit, briny olives and spicy red harissa meet sliced ginger, pickled fish and sour tamarind paste there can be no clear winner." 
                                                                                       from Seeking Provence

I highly recommend Woodsworth's book for anyone planning to travel to the South France. The photographs here are taken from another recommended source of information: Belle Provence Travels, a superb blog written by Tuula Rampont, with pictures you will want to lose yourself in. She includes guides and plenty of local information as well as personal recommendations for food, shops and markets. Just reading will make you feel like booking a trip immediately!

Tuula goes to Marseille in this post, 4 Hours in Le Panier, and it's fascinating to read her reactions and how they dovetail with Nicholas Woodsworth's words in the excerpts above. "Still gritty and more than a bit mysterious..." she writes. "Chaotic streets, foreign tongues and a grittiness I hadn't experienced during our outings to all those picture-postcard Provencal villages."

Here she is at the eastern end of Marseille for an evening of Corsican ballads and warm mussels at Le Caribou restaurant: clickety-click here. And another example of her great eye with a camera.

This week Tuula has been kind enough to ask me for a short interview on My Provence: my own travel memories and personal recommendations, which you can read here.

Sunday 27 May 2012

May time

The Proust and madeleines in the previous post inevitably made me think of time passing. A La Recerche du Temps Perdu was titled Remembrance of Things Past for the publication of its first translation into English by C K Scott Moncrieff - with later revisions, this was changed to the more literal In Search of Lost Time. No matter, both capture the essence of the book, which is looking back and trying to understand in retrospect the complexities of history and human nature - the natural world, too, and the artist's role in helping others to see it in new ways. 

There's nowhere quite like England in a warm, bosky May. I've been doing very little work, I'm afraid, and plenty of walking out into drifts of bluebells and paths lined with cow parsley. And remembering too, because our daughter's going through it now, that this is exam time. For years and years, I couldn't see the candelabra blooms on the horse chestnut trees without having a clench at the stomach at the thought of important exams, even years after the event.

But I found a packet of old photos the other day, marked Cambridge, May/June 1983. Not I needed any kind of prompt to remembering exactly where and when they were taken - and in fact the top two were taken the previous year. But the party one was after Finals at one of the stream of celebrations that went on until we graduated at the end of June - there's the Pantomime King looking naughty, and the sheer relief on my face is palpable. And if either of us had had the faintest clue we'd still be together all these years later, I'm sure we would have run a mile there and then! 

(If reference to the Pantomine King has you baffled, please see this post: Periwinkles and Pantomine.)

Wednesday 23 May 2012

Proust's madeleines

It’s funny, the things you remember. Many years ago when I was studying Proust at university a number of us had a weekly tutorial on the great oeuvre A la Recherche du Temps Perdu in a sunlit room with gothic windows. The discussions ambled around literary style, the world of the Duchess of Guermantes and Swann’s way, but there was ever a stumbling point: we could only nibble theoretically at the moment of involuntary memory when Marcel tasted the crumbs of Madeleine with the cup of tisane: the seminal savour that brought back the seven volumes worth of remembering.

"She (Marcel's mother) sent for one of those squat plump little cakes called "petites madeleines," which look as though they had been molded in the fluted valve of a scallop shell … I raised to my lips a spoonful of the tea in which I had soaked a morsel of the cake. No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shudder ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me. An exquisite pleasure invaded my senses …

And suddenly the memory revealed itself. The taste was that of the little piece of madeleine which on Sunday mornings at Combray … when I went to say good morning to her in her bedroom, my aunt Leonie used to give me, dipping it first in her own cup of tea or tisane …. and the whole of Combray and its surroundings, taking shape and solidity, sprang into being, town and garden alike, from my cup of tea."

We edged our way to consensus that madeleines were plain and spongy in texture, though they would have to have lightness and a slight dryness to produce the crucial crumbs.

Now, with the benefit of age and confidence, I know what I should have done. I should have gone away and done some research, and baked some madeleines for us all to drink with lime-leaf tea. I would somehow have found a madeleine tray for baking, like this one from a brocante.

And if I had, then this recipe from Mai K, using the traditional hint of lemon, would have been just about perfect. I found it on her blog A Cup of Mai.

Lemon madeleines

2 eggs
1/3 cup granulated sugar
1/4 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
1/4 tsp. almond extract
1/2 cup all-purpose flour, sifted
1 tsp. grated lemon zest
4 tbs. (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, melted and cooled
Confectioner's sugar for dusting (optional)
Madeleine pan
(Makes 12)

Preheat an oven to 375°F. Using a pastry brush, heavily brush softened butter over each of the 12 moulds in a madeleine pan, carefully buttering every ridge. Dust the moulds with flour, tilting the pan to coat the surfaces evenly. Turn the pan upside down and tap it gently to dislodge the excess flour.

In a large bowl, combine the eggs, granulated sugar and salt. Using a wire whisk or a handheld mixer on medium-high speed, beat vigorously until pale, thick and fluffy, about 5 minutes. Beat in the vanilla and almond extracts. Sprinkle the sifted flour over the egg mixture and stir or beat on low speed to incorporate.

Using a rubber spatula, gently fold in the lemon zest and half of the melted butter just until blended. Fold in the remaining melted butter.

Divide the batter among the prepared molds, using a heaping tablespoon of batter for each mold. Bake the madeleines until the tops spring back when lightly touched, 8 to 12 minutes.

Remove the pan from the oven and invert it over a wire rack, then rap it on the rack to release the madeleines. If any should stick, use your fingers to loosen the edges, being careful not to touch the hot pan, and invert and rap again.

Let the madeleines cool on the rack for 10 minutes. Using a fine-mesh sieve, dust the tops with confectioners sugar and serve. 


I highly recommend a click over to A Cup of Mai, where not only are there some very appealing recipes, but also great photography – these madeleine pictures are Mai’s - and design ideas.

Monday 21 May 2012

The source

‘There are springs on the land.’
    That made sense. Three great plane trees grew close to the gate of the main house, testament to unseen water; they would not have grown so tall, so strong without it.
   Dom caught my hand.
   We were both imagining the same scenes, in which our dream life together would evolve on the gravel paths leading under shady oak, pine and fig trees, between topiary and low stone walls marking the shady spots with views down the wide valley, or up to the hilltop village crowned with its medieval castle. Tables and chairs where we would read or sip a cold drink, or offer each other fragments of our former lives while sinking into a state of complete contentment.

   Animals drinking spring water at the trough under the fountain, the stone bowl giving the scene a decadent air (...) now the trough filled with dead leaves whirring down from the plane trees.

   The wind in the plane trees still whispers the old stories. Then it changes to give an impression of a lively stream, or a vehicle coming up the lane. The trees imitate the sounds of life, absorbing and replaying them, according to the type of wind that stirs their boughs.

                                                                           Excerpts from The Lantern

Friday 18 May 2012

Eden in Provence

I've always been a bit of a garden fantasist: my grand schemes and ideas far outstrip my knowledge and experience. One day, day I will create my small paradise. Or so I dream, as I sit reading and looking at photographs in glossy gardening books.

Many of the high-end gardens in these pictures were designed by Dominique Lafourcade, who brings a painter's touch to the landscape. All is balance and structure and intense planting that tames the wild ruggedness of nature in the South of France using all the plants and trees that grow so freely here. The effect is to intensify the sights and senses you would expect, much in the same way as a great chef will intensify the essence of his food.

Lafourcade is a name to conjure with in Provence. While Dominique made her mark amid the cypress and lavender avenues of the region's prestige properties, her husband Bruno was equally successful as a restorer of old houses, winning national prizes for his transformations of crumbling buildings into elegant homes with a real sense of the past. Not all the properties were grand to begin with; often they were dilapidated farm buildings that rose again with a touch of the eighteenth-century fairytale about them.

I didn't know any of this when he went round our property, invited at the estate agent's suggestion before we put in a firm offer, and I spoke to him on telephone when I was back in England. All I remember is that - in the absence of a surveyor, or any suggestion that we should have one - Bruno Lafourcade was satisfied that "our" buildings were solid. Some of them have been there since the seventeenth century, he said, if they were going to fall down, they would have done so by now.

And then I asked him to give me some idea of what the restoration cost would be. When he gave me a figure that was almost exactly what we were going to pay for the property, I reeled back in shock, and there, more or less, was where we left it. A five-year restoration later, I can tell you that the good Monsieur Lafourcade was pretty much spot-on with his estimate.

So now we are just reaching the stage where our thoughts are turning to the garden. If money were no object, I would have no hesitation in engaging Mme Lafourcade to work her magic here. It hardly needs to be said that there's nothing left in the pot so this summer I shall be back to studying the pages of the picture books with a sense of purpose.

Picture credits: House and Garden magazine (UK)
Some of my favourite French garden books have been written by Louisa Jones. Here's The French Country Garden: New Growth on Old Roots (lovely title), and I've just seen she has a new one out called Mediterranean Landscape Design: Vernacular Contemporary.

Tuesday 15 May 2012

Stinging yellow

Even after weeks of rain in Kent, when the clouds clear the colours of an English May are eye-catching distractions everywhere you look. It will soon be as hard to write here as it is in Provence.

“I think England is the very place for a fluent and fiery writer. The highest hymns of the sun are written in the dark. I like the grey country. A bucket of Greek sun would drown in one colour the crowds of colours I like trying to mix for myself out a grey flat insular mud. If I went to the sun I’d just sit in the sun; that would be very pleasant but I’m not doing it, and the only necessary things I do are the things I am doing. Unless by accidents, and my life is planned by them, I shall be nearer Bournemouth than Corfu this summer.”

So wrote Dylan Thomas to his literary acquaintance Lawrence Durrell in December 1938. I’m a great admirer of both men’s work but have to confess that I take heart from the Welshman on this: I much prefer to write in the dark drear of British grey than the vibrant light of the south.

Thomas on his Carmarthenshire waterfront; Durrell in the searing blues and golds of the Greek island of Corfu: both connected through a mutual admiration of what the other achieved, one in the dark, one in sunlight. It’s fascinating to see, as the letter goes on, how well Thomas understands the effort and the personal turmoil of Durrell as he hammers out his words, striving so hard to be taken seriously, and how generous his encouragement:

"I liked your Stygian prose very very much, it’s the best I’ve read for years. Don’t let the Greek sun blur your pages as you said it did. You use words like stones, throwing, rockerying, mossing, churning, sharpening, bloodsucking, melting, and a hard firewater flows and rolls through them all the time…"

Friday 11 May 2012

Rene Char: Night chimera

Congé au Vent (Wind Away)

   Camped in the hillsides near the village are fields of mimosa. During the gathering season, it may happen that, some distance away, you meet an extremely sweet-smelling girl whose arms have been busy during the day among the fragile branches. Like a lamp with a bright nimbus of perfume, she goes her way, her back to the setting sun.
   To speak to her would be sacrilege.
   The grass crushed beneath her slippers. Give her right of way. You may be lucky enough to make out on her lips the chimera of the damp of night.

René Char, from Fureur et Mystère (1948)

A native of Provence, the poet René Char (1907-1988) had the gift of capturing expansiveness in the small frame of verse. It was freedom he valued, and he invited the reader to walk in the “great spaces of the self”, uniting the universal and the deeply personal.

Originally part of the French surrealist movement, Char reflected the complexities of the “fury and mystery” of World War II in occupied France. Directness and passion are coded into the landscape of his descriptive flow. For Char was no mere wordsmith: he was a man of action and astonishing bravery, commanding a Resistance cell from Céreste in the eastern Luberon.

The short prose-poem Congé au Vent  appears in René Char, Selected Poems, edited by Mary Ann Caws and Tina Jolas (pub. New Directions, New York). This is a superb introduction to his work, with English translations and the original on opposite pages.

You only have to go as far as the title of Congé au Vent to get a taste of Char’s wordplay – and the delicacy of these excellent translations. Wind Away is the English title, which is perhaps too lyrical quite to capture the holiday or 'day off' sense of “congé” – I think Off in the Wind, the more literal translation, would work better for me.

But to quibble is to engage, and that was above all, what René Char intended his poetry to do.

The painting used to illustrate the poem is Long Shadows – Provence by Maryanne Jacobsen which I’ve written about here. The richness of the evening colours and the path leading on seem to catch the essence of Char’s words. If you would like to find out more about the Surrealist Movement, there is an excellent article here on

Wednesday 9 May 2012

I shall wear purple...

The study of beauty is a duel in which the artist cries with terror before being defeated.              Charles Baudelaire

If there is one thing left that I would like to do, it's to write something really beautiful. And I could do it, you know. I could still do it.
                                          J B Priestley

These two great writers say it better than I could: we all strive in our way for beauty, in all its senses. So I was very touched when I found a Beautiful Blogger award from Fiona J Phillips at Fi’s Magical Writing Haven waiting for me in the in-box this morning (just as I was wondering what to do for a blog post today). It’s been a long while since I’ve joined in the blog awards scene, but this time I thought, why not?

Award acceptance involves divulging seven obscure facts about yourself, so here are a few things you might not know about me:

 - I really do believe that anything is possible if you work hard enough and want it enough – but you have to be willing to accept advice and redouble your efforts.

 - Sadly this no longer seems to apply to the weight-loss diets I attempt.

 - I shall wear purple (in allusion to Jenny Joseph’s famous poem Warning) to the school reunion I’m going to tomorrow night with my two stalwart girlfriends from that era of Santana and Saturday Night Fever.

 - I’m worried I may look like a bordello curtain.

 - I’ve just laughed till I cried with one of the friends imagining all the (un)likely outcomes.

 - One of my old boyfriends is going to be there.

 - It’s fine: we’ve been great friends all these years too, ever since we were in a school production of Miller’s Death of a Salesman and I played a girl he picked up in a bar.

According to the rules, I now have to nominate seven blogs, which is a chance to tip my hat to a cross-section of blogs I always enjoy reading and which embody – in their very different ways - a special beauty.

I hereby pass on the Beautiful Blogger award to the following seven blogs:

Sunday 6 May 2012

Forever Ambre

Perfume news: Ambre is back! A few years ago the Provence beauty product company L’Occitane discontinued their Ambre scent, to universal dismay. Well, maybe not universal, but dismay was certainly widespread. I made a point of asking about it in every L’Occitane shop I entered – in France and England, just to add my voice – and the response was always the same: I wasn’t the only customer asking for its return.

We missed this rich, beguiling amber fragrance with its wonderful sweet warmth and lingering caramel comfort. What had once been an everyday spritz, especially in winter, was now being guarded and used like a rare essence on special days.

It’s a scent that begins with top notes of bergamot and white flowers then quickly brings in the sweet tobacco of tonka bean and labdanum. The labdanum is the key – no, not laudanum, the opiate of past poets – labdanum is the sticky brown resin derived from the cistus shrub Cistus ladanifer, a type of rock rose. Even growing in the garden, this plant releases a wonderful scent, sweet yet citrus, and instantly reminiscent of warm Mediterranean evenings.

After about an hour on the skin, the base notes of amber, vanilla and cedarwood come into play. From there on in, it’s all musky wood and honeyed earthiness with more than a hint of maple syrup.  This is a scent that lasts but manages never to cloy. It develops into slightly oriental spice and caramel.

Centuries ago, amber perfume was produced from ambergris, the origins of which were very much less appealing. Ambergris was a waxy substance produced in the digestive system of sperm whales and excreted. As it aged it developed a distinctive heavy sweet scent. It was also, for obvious reasons, extremely rare and expensive.

But in Provence, where the cistus grows wild, are ideal conditions to produce a labdanum substitute for ambergris. It could be made by boiling the leaves and twigs, or as an essential oil extracted by steam distillation.

My novel The Lantern and the novella The Lavender Field have their roots in the use of local plants in the perfume industry in Provence and I have L’Occitane to thank not only for returning Ambre to its shelves but for a small but vital detail that provided inspiration.

The idea of a blind perfumer, Marthe Lincel, came from the realization that there were strips of Braille on the packaging used by beauty product brand L’Occitane en Provence, based at Manosque. In 1997 the company created the foundation Provence dans tous les Sens (All the Senses of Provence) to introduce visually-impaired children to the world of perfume creation. In the novel, Marthe finds her true talent as a perfume “nose” after a visit to the Distillerie Musset from the school for the blind she attends in Manosque, although this episode takes place in the 1930s.

For most of the 20th century in this region, there was a gradual erosion of traditional farming as young people moved to the towns to seek work in the new industries and factories. The Luberon valley is celebrated for its fruit production – from cherries, apricots, peaches and melons, to apples and pears – and the local specialty is candied fruits, produced on an industrial scale.

The fight to survive was intense for those left behind on the hill farms in a region that was poor until the advent of mass tourism. In The Lantern, Pierre - the only brother - takes off for better-paid work, Bénédicte struggles on at the farmstead Les Genévriers while Marthe finds increasing success in Paris.

But how did Marthe really make the leap from a small distillery making scent and soap in the back hills of Provence to Paris? What did her signature perfume Lavande de Nuit mean to her? This is the story told in The Lavender Field…and which will provide a surprising link to the next full-length novel in progress.

Thursday 3 May 2012

Writing and waiting

Waiting…the worst part of a writer’s life. It’s been a month now since I sent a revised draft of my novella The Lavender Field to my literary agents, and so far not a word. Not that there’s anything unusual in that – “sooner rather than later” in publishing terms can mean months rather than weeks.

Over the years I’ve come to accept the slow pace though I have to admit that I’ve never been very good at waiting, in any context. When I worked for a national newspaper, sooner rather than later meant “in the next ten minutes, or else”, and I actually feel more comfortable with that. You know where you are with a news editor screaming at you, speed-reading your story and chucking it at a hapless sub-editor. Job done, speedy exit to the pub.

Waiting on reactions to the manuscript of a book requires not only a different timescale but a different mindset altogether, not least because there is so much more emotional investment in a book. I learned this – really learned this - some years ago with a novel I wrote called The Art of Falling.

The road to publication involved five years of waiting. The reason I’m writing this post now is because back then I would have given anything to know just how long it was going to take. How long was reasonable? How long was distinctly discouraging? How long was a disaster, from which there would be no recovery?

I longed to be able to ask someone. Even though I was already a published author (The Art of Falling was my fourth novel; it was a change of direction for me into more literary territory from my first journalistic-commercial efforts) there weren’t too many people I knew in the business I felt I could ask. My then-literary agent wasn’t convinced about this new novel. My personal approaches to my existing publishers were blanked. I hadn’t seen this coming at all, and I was both shocked and hurt.

At the time I had no idea this was a fairly common story for mid-list authors who’d been given a chance by a mainstream publisher but failed to sell well enough to light up the bestseller charts. Although we had the internet (on dial-up which took forever to load pages) there didn’t seem to be the contact and online discussion opportunities there are now with other writers.

So, for the benefit of anyone whose wait is giving way to despair, here’s what happened. I finished the first draft of the manuscript in early summer 2000. Bad news confirmed by September. By November, initial disappointment was tempered by being taken on by another top-notch London literary agent who loved the novel. A year of waiting passed before that agent gave up on it. The stumbling block with publishers seemed to be that it was difficult to market: was it a commercial or a literary novel? Now that made me angry: surely the cross-over appeal was an advantage!

By the beginning of 2002, I was well and truly on my own with it. I had it professionally edited (the editor loved it from the start too, which at the time was the only encouragement that stopped me giving up) and I spent the next eighteen months sending it out to agents and publishers. Not so much as a glimmer of interest.

In the summer of 2003, having asked trusted friends and family to give their honest opinion about the book, I made the momentous decision to publish it myself. This was before e-publishing, and involved a substantial investment in two thousand well-produced large format trade paperbacks. By September 2003 I had a room full of boxes and I worked my socks off to sell them. I used all my journalism and PR skills to market it, and hand-sold it into bookshops. Every morning I would call bookshops and ask to speak to the fiction buyer. Determination overruled natural shyness.

Stamp Publishing, 2003
Little by little, good things happened. A great review appeared in the Daily Mail (yes, I had once worked for the Mail, but they had never reviewed one of my books before). One branch of Ottakers in South London sold so many copies they gave me my own display – free of charge! Pushed by a friend, I sent a copy to the august William Morris Agency and struck super-lucky when the head literary agent Stephanie Cabot took me on.

Stephanie sold The Art of Falling to Random House in June 2004 when Arrow’s publishing director Kate Elton told her she was looking for novels on the commercial/literary cusp that would appeal to mainstream Ottaker’s customers. I had just heard (and passed on the news) that my book had been put on the main Ottaker's order list, across the chain nationwide.

The novel was finally published by Arrow in July 2005, and was a summer bestseller in the UK. Judging from the many personal responses to it I received, it seems to be a book that resonates. I still regularly get messages about it from readers through my website, many saying how it has touched them and chimed with experiences in their family.
Arrow, 2005

So I hope that someone somewhere finds that heartening. The waiting was worth it, even though it lasted far longer than I ever envisaged. But I’m grateful too, because along the way I learned a great deal about the nuts and bolts of bookselling and marketing that I might never have fully appreciated.

Publishing is tough – tougher than ever at the moment due to commercial pressures on the big companies – but there’s always a way if you want your work to be read. I’ve been writing here about mainstream publishing, of course, and hardly even mentioned e-books which are a far cheaper and more accessible alternative to self-publishing in print. You can’t give up.    

If your interest has been piqued in The Art of Falling, you can find out more here:

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