Round Robin: An Herb Garden Tour de France

Notes from regional herb gardeners.

| February/March 1993

WOLFTOWN, Virginia — Last May, we headed for France with two teen-aged grandchildren in tow. Their healthy, earth-based lives revolve around state fairs, hauling hay, grooming 4-H steers, pigs and the like. Taking them to France was a miniature Grand Tour of a different world.

After several days in Paris, staying in a Latin Quarter hotel, we headed 40 miles west to Lommoye, a village so rural and small it didn’t even have a patisserie. There we had rented a gîte (cottage) for a week, a wonderful, inexpensive alternative to high-priced hotels, especially when traveling with family. The first thing we all did when we arrived was to gulp in fresh air. Much as we enjoyed the sights of Paris, we felt that breathing its smog was hazardous to our health.

The back of the house faced vast fields of green rye and brilliant yellow rape, a plant of the mustard family from which we get canola oil. The grandchildren were in their element. Just beyond the kitchen door was a small herb garden with parsley, thyme and chives. (It was still too cold for basil.) The proprietors had furnished a barbecue grill and a picnic table and chairs. It was easy to fix breakfasts and picnic lunches for our day trips.

One of these was to Monet’s Giverny, about 50 miles away. As advertised, Giverny was a riot of color, and there was the pond with its water lilies which Monet made famous in his paintings. What struck me, though, was how ordinary the plants were. The effect was in massing them, and in planting for continual color throughout the seasons. Inside Monet’s house, the intensity of the yellow in dining room and blue in the kitchen I found disturbing rather than restful, unlike the peace his paintings convey.

Our second gîte was in Provence near Avignon in the ancient walled village of Noves. There, the proprietors brought us fresh tomatoes and cucumbers from their garden to grace our picnics.

At the busy street market at Aix-en-Provence, I bought lavender soaps, oils and honey. Packaged herbes de Provence were everywhere, baking unprotected in the sun. No familiar smell emanated from the packages, whether calico or plastic, so I left them there. I can make my own fresh. But the small charantais melons and fresh strawberries were wonderful. I’m going to try growing the charantais this summer.

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