Round Robin: An Herb Garden Tour de France

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.

The day I’d planned to visit the ­famous perfume factory of Grasse, several hours’ drive away, was the day it was closed. Instead, we ferried to Ile St. Honorat on the Mediterranean where the ruins of the oldest abbey in existence still stand. A cloistered order living on the island grows, harvests, distills, and sells lavender. We could see the monks working in the vast fields, but the lavender showed only a hint of the purple to come. I bought more lavender essence. It has a sweeter smell than that I bought at Aix.

Near our gîte in Noves was a perfume museum housed in the same building as a thriving aromatherapy business. My memory is of vast stills of copper and copper tubing, with the heady aroma of lemon verbena pervading everything. Diffusers there cost about $70. On Ile de St. Honorat, I’d bought a small clay fish-shaped diffuser whose unglazed clay bottom holds and slowly releases essential oils that permeate it. It’s less effective than the ones in Noves, but I’d have had trouble fitting one of the latter into my one suitcase.

It was a memorable trip, but impossible to describe in a few pages. Go yourselves. You’ll be glad you did.

Portia Meares of Wolftown, Virginia, a long-time herbalist and author, is founder and former editor of the bimonthly magazine The Business of Herbs.

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