In Provence, you feel winter is over when the first Almond blossoms appear, on the coast around the end of January and with us, about 2-3 weeks later. This is followed in early spring by the blossom of the Blackthorn, Cherry, Quince, and, at the moment, False Acacia, Chestnut and Elderflower.
Almond tree – Amandier – Prunus dulcis
I always feel spring has come to Provence, first with the cheerful, yellow-flowering Mimosa, quickly followed by the delicate light pink blossom of the almond tree. All around us we see the flowering almond trees, not just in the gardens but growing wild on the hillsides and we feel it is part of the flora of the region.
The history of the almond tree is quite interesting. It is native to the Mediterranean region of the Middle East, spreading eastwards up to Pakistan. The Phoenicians, Greeks and Romans introduced the almond tree to the rest of the countries around the Med, as far as Spain and northern Africa. The almond tree was first introduced to France in the 8th century and to north-western Europe at the end of the Middle Ages. The first almond tree was planted in England in the 16th century. In Elizabethan cooking, large quantities of the nut were used and almond water was used as a substitute for milk in recipes. Nowadays the major producer of almonds is the USA with 41% of the world production, followed by Spain with 13% and various other countries making up the rest.
There are two types of almonds, Prunus dulcis var. dulcis (sweet almond) and the Prunus dulcis var. amara (bitter almond). Quite difficult on sight to differentiate between the two, but in general the bitter almond flowers are a deeper pink and the nuts are broader and shorter than those of the sweet almond. Both the sweet and the bitter almonds contain almond oil (50% of the nut) which is procured by pressing the almond.
The bitter almond is used to boost the flavour of products made with sweet almonds like, for instance, the liqueur ‘Amaretto’. The bitter almond contains prussic acid, which occurs in many of the leaves and seeds from our most common fruits, for instance apple pips. Prussic acid is poisonous and the bitter almonds have to be heat treated before they can be used.
Almond oil is a widely used oil in cosmetics, and is the most common oil used in aromatherapy. To the almond oil, drops of different essential oils are added and then used as a massage oil.
Sweet almonds are used a lot in Spanish cooking and are a boon for those people with gluten intolerance. In general it is a much used culinary delight.
Sloe/Blackthorn – Prunellier/L’Epine Noir
Although the blossom of the Blackthorn looks pretty, it is the berries that are used. The berries will be ready in late autumn after they’ve been subjected to frost.
Sweet Cherry – Cerisier – Prunus avium / Sour Cherry – Griotte – Prunus cerasus
The Vaucluse and Alps-de-Haute-Provence are the departments of Provence with Cherry orchards. but in spring you find cherry trees dotted across the Provençal landscape, sweet as well as sour cherries. The Sweet Cherry had been introduced into Europe by the Romans from northeastern Anatolia (Turkey) as far back as 72 BC. The Sour Cherry is a native to Europe and western Asia. The Sweet Cherry and the Sour Cherry do not cross-pollinate.
L’Occitane has a fragrance called ‘Fleurs de Cerisier’, in which the blossom is used to make the scent.
Ingredients: 500 g sour cherries; 50 ml Kirsch; 50 g butter; 4 eggs; 75 g castor sugar; 100 g flour; 1/2 teaspoon salt; 2oo ml milk; icing sugar.
Wash and remove pips from the cherries. Put the cherries into a bowl and pour over the Kirsch. Leave it to soak for 1 hour. Butter a large cake tin.
Preheat the oven to 175 C. Melt 25 g of butter in a pan. In a bowl, beat the eggs and caster sugar till light and airy. Sieve and fold in the flour and salt. Mix in the the melted butter and milk till the batter is smooth. Pour the flour mixture into the cake tin and distribute the cherries on top. Cut 25 g of butter into small pieces, dot the butter over the cake. Put the cake tin into the oven for 40 minutes till the cake is golden and done. Leave until lukewarm, then sprinkle the cake with icing sugar.
Quince – Coignassier – Cydonia oblonga
Quince is another fruit tree introduced from southwestern Asia (Turkey and Iran) into Europe. The Greeks already mentioned it. It is used for its fruit. The fruit, not unlike a pear in shape, has to be cooked to be edible. The tree has the most exquisite blossom. Although not a native to our region it is often found in the wild.
False Acacia – Acacia faux – Robinia pseudoacacia
False Acacia is a native to south-eastern United States, planted and naturalised in Europe. The tree reaches a height of 25 m. often more. The leaves are mid green, round to oval, 15-20 cm long. The flowers, similar to pea flowers, white and in bunches of 10-20 cm long, have a similar scent to orange blossom. After flowering the pods appear 5-10 cm long. The branches have short, strong thorns. The tree has a nitrogen-fixing bacteria on its root system, like many species of the pea family, and can grow on poor soils. It is an early coloniser of disturbed areas.
The wood is extremely hard and resistant to rot and suitable for making into furniture, flooring, fence posts and panelling. Because of its slow burning and high heat capacity it makes a good firewood.
Although bark and leaves are toxic, the seeds and young pods can be eaten after being cooked as the poison is destroyed by heat. In France the flowers are eaten as beignets, dipped in batter and deep fried.
Acacia mono floral honey is made from the Acacia flowers. The flowering period is short (10 days) and it depends on the weather conditions as to how much nectar can be collected.
Horse chestnut – Maronnier – Aesculus hippocastanum
Horse chestnut was introduced into western Europe in the 16th century, coming originally from eastern Europe and western Asia. From the 18th century it had become a common tree along roads and in parks. It is thought that the name ‘Horse Chestnut’ comes from the fact that the Turks used to give chestnuts to their pregnant mares to eat.
Although the chestnut is rich in carbohydrates, it cannot be eaten as it is too bitter. Goats and pigs don’t seem to mind the bitterness. In folk medicine the leaves are used as a cough medicine for horses. We now know that they contain a lot of saponins, which helps in getting rid of catarrh. In herbal medicine the young shoots, flowers and seeds of the Chestnut are used. It strengthens the walls of the arteries and by doing so, improves the efficacy of the function of the arteries. In Dr. Bach’s flower remedies (remedies directed at a particular characteristic or emotional state), the buds of the Chestnut are used in ‘failures to learn from mistakes’.
Olive blossom – Fleurs d’Olivier
After reading an article by Barbara Wilde, http://www.frenchgardening.com, describing a walk on the old olive terraces around Goult, we were inspired and although it is over 2 hours driving from where we live, we felt we had to see it.
Goult is a pretty village in the Luberon part of the Vaucluse. In the late 1990’s the local community decided to restore the restanques (local name for terraces) and the cabanos (small dwellings), where the farmers, who cultivated the terraces, lived. The restanques provided the local population with food and hence were very important.
On the terraces olive and fruit trees were planted and underneath, the crops that could cope with drought, like lentils, chick peas and a type of spelt. The walls of the restanques were built with the stones that were readily available on the terraces. As they cleared the land to plant the olive trees and fruit trees, more stones became available. Most of the terrain in the hinterland of the Provence, has more stones than soil.
The restoration project is called ‘La conservatoire des terraces cultivées de Goult’. The walk starts at the windmill, quite unusual now to find a windmill in Provence. A path winds down to the entrance to the terraces. Despite the fact that the terraces and some of the dwellings have been restored and the olive trees pruned back to their former glory, we felt that we were discovering the lost terraces anew. They are what everyone imagines a terrace with olive trees should look like: shapely olive trees, curving stone walls and underneath, this glorious mix of wild flowers, all so peaceful and enriching.
The upkeep now of cultivating the terraces with crops, I guess, would be too much work.
The produce of the olive trees were a very important factor in local rural life, the fruit and the oil pressed from the fruit. But the local people used the young leaves to treat high blood pressure, artherosclerosis, and urinary lithiasis (a type of kidney stones). They drank a tea made from the leaves. Olive leaves are completely safe to use. Many herbal medicine books mention ‘olive leaves’ for the same purposes as the locals used to use it for. They do mention that it is a long term treatment. The following is a recipe on how to use the leaves:
Olive Leaf Tea
Ingredients: 7 crushed leaves, 1 teacup of cold water (all during the growing season, olive trees grow shoots around their base, these are ideal to use for the tea).
Boil the leaves in the water for 5 minutes, infuse it for 10 minutes, then filter. Drink 3-4 cups a day, without sugar, and not with meals, for 3 weeks every 2 to 3 months.
Bibliography : Wikipedia – the free encyclopedia; Malcolm Stuart – Herbs & Herbalism; Antonio Carluccio – Carluccio’s Complete Italian Food; RHS Encyclopedia of Herbs and their uses – Deni Bown; Kruiden-Receptenboek – Mariette Clijsters; Clafoutis – Gerda Nagtegaal; Secrets and Remedies of the Herbs of Provence – Claude Godet.