Springtime in France - Thyra Helgesen

Thyra Helgesen

By Mary Evans

May and September seem to be settling in as the main months I spend in France—May because it’s generally gorgeous weather and September, more of the same. Because September is a working trip, spent for the most part in leading our annual food tour of the area, it’s the Mays I spend in Mollans that seem the sweetest when I can settle into an indulgent pattern of indolence, studded by the appearances and events surrounding the month’s two rock stars—wine and roses.

Everything is shiny in May: the hills and vineyards showing their spring-scrubbed faces to the sun, the magical combination of warm days and cool nights inspiring every plant and tree to send out brightly colored shoots and blossoms. The vine tendrils sprout granny apple green and wave their wispy shoots in a deliriously leggy can-can that salutes the promise of glorious wine to come. Appropriately, at the end of the rows of vines are roses, blooming with a wild revelry as though their very roots were steeped in fermented grape juice. They’re gorgeous but a bit blowsy, unkempt like a lush on a toot but clearly happy with their lot. The reality is that they’re more like sacrificial lambs, planted to draw pests away from the precious stalks around them. Perhaps their splashy, devil-may-care appearance reflects a secret knowing of the potential pestilential hangover yet to come. No matter, they give testament to living in the moment and flash like a neon “carpe diem” as we drive by on our daily errands.

Not to be outdone by the vineyards’ rollicking spring growth, the local winemakers set up their own celebrations each May, nailing signs on every post to invite any and everyone to their salute to Bacchus’ promise. It’s an excuse to tout their wines, accompanied often by an inexpensive meal or booths with vendors selling snacks or passing out samples to show off their products. It’s a bit like Tom Thumb-sized food and wine fairs, and they are held within a week or two of each other, or sometimes simultaneously, which allows us to have quite the good time on the cheap. There’s also a whole festivity to celebrate Rasteau—one of the cote-du-Rhone wine appellations—that brings in thousands, offering a five-course meal and 26 different wines to sample. But, for the most part, the fetes are sponsored by individual wine makers to show the public just what they have to offer.

To prevent the roses from losing out to their grapy field-mates, the French in Avignon put on a spectacular rose show, called Alterarosa, each May in the Palais des Papes. Set among 14th century splendor, the best of the best in rose-bushes and trees put on a spectacle that is not to be missed. These are no wind-blown, peasant-style bug-catching blooms, but pedigreed, indeed, regal roses, in total keeping with the palatial backdrop that the former popes’ residence provides. Cardinal red, virginal white, and serenely pink blossoms gather like the most holy convocation, which are all the more vivid because of the austere grey stonewalls containing them. You soon realize from the seductive scents curling from the delicate petals that no matter their pedigree, these grandes dames of the flower world are far more earthly than spiritual. When we leave the show with our senses zinging on overload, we head for one of the nearby cafés to compare notes on our favorites of this year’s highbreds and then drive back to our village, passing their rowdy, rose-bush cousins along the way.

If that’s not quite enough, we head a bit north to a town called Grignan. Its main claim to fame is being the one-time home of the Marquise de Sévigné’s daughter: the Marquise is famous among French literary circles for her letters to said daughter. The daughter’s digs, a splendid chateau, is now besieged with planted roses all around. Walking the winding streets that surround the walls of the chateau is a sensory feast. After strolling along, sniffing blossoms and comparing the pros and cons of each, we head to the local tea room and sit in the garden, surrounded by—you guessed it—more roses, and have a pot of tea and a French treat.

And so the days pass as if enchanted. By the end of the month, the blossoms are spent in the rising warmth, the vine tendrils have settled into the serious task of grape production and then it’s June.

Mary Evans compressed vert portMary Evans, founder of The Write Cook, bases her expertise on 30 years of experience. A former cooking school director and confirmed Francophile, she enjoys sharing her passion for food and France with others through teaching and travel. Mary’s credentials include a Diplôme d’Études from the Sorbonne in Paris and professional culinary studies at La Varenne and Lenôtre. Mary is a member of the International Association of Culinary Professionals and Les Dames d’Escoffier. She divides her time between Minneapolis and her home in the small French village of Mollans-sur-Ouvèze in Provence where she offers additional classes and tours. For more information, visit Mary’s website at www.thewritecook.com.

You may also enjoy A Woman’s Paris® post, Paris, a particular shade of gray, by Mary Evans a former cooking school director and founder of The Write Cook. Mary recalls the cozy refuges in her long ago memories of Paris and shares her recipe for Chicken Bouillabaisse.

French White Wines: Sauternes, by Barbara Redmond together with Jo-Ann Ross, French Wine Scholar and Certified Specialist of Wine, who share their conversation about which French white wines to pair with foie gras during lunch at a café outside of Boston. Including Jo-Ann’s French white wine selections for French Sauternes Wines: expensive, less expensive, and something different.

French Women Chefs: les mères lyonnaise, by French writer Laurence Haxaire who tells the stories of former house cooks of affluent families in Lyon who set up their own businesses after the French revolution in the 19th century. And later, when their reputation reached beyond the edge of Lyon, the most famous of them even welcomed such well-known people as General de Gaulle as a VIP at their table.

French Cuisine: Cooking schools in Paris founded by women, by Barbara Redmond who writes about extraordinary women who cook: from Anne Willan, Marthe Distel, and Elisabeth Brassart, to “Les trios gourmands,” Julia Child, Simone Beck, and Louisette Bertholle. Including a directory of cooking schools in Paris.

The Stones of Carnac, by award-winning travel writer and photographer, Catherine Watson. Catherine’s career has taken her around the world three times, to all seven continents, and into 115 countries. Writing about this prehistoric site in northwestern France, she describes the giant stones that linger there and stand in rows across the French landscape, shouldering their way over rises, past houses, through farm fields—a granite army, 3,000 strong.

Text copyright ©2013 Mary Ellen Evans. All rights reserved.
Illustrations copyright © Thyra Helgesen. All rights reserved.
Illustrations copyright ©Barbara Redmond. All rights reserved.