Tuesday 30 July 2013

La Féerie Provençale

"Alors commença la féerie et je sentis naître un amour qui devait durer toute ma vie." 
"And so the enchantment began and I felt a love was born that was to last my whole life." 

So Marcel Pagnol wrote in his enchanting book, "La Gloire de Mon Père", of his first encounter with the  Provençal countryside.  Here the young Marcel and his family spent a series of idyllic holidays, in the hills above the Marseilles suburb of Aubagne, where his father taught and the family lived for most of the year. These holidays were immortalised both in his directly autobiographical books, "La Gloire de Mon Père" and "Le Château de Ma Mère", and in his novels, "Jean de Florette" and "Manon des Sources" all of which, of course, have been turned into charming films.

Pagnol writes of the first years of the 20th C when the French countryside was almost unchanged from how it had remained for centuries.

The villa or "mas" that the family rented for the summer months, was typical of the sturdy, stone houses that have been built in Provence and elsewhere in the lands bordering the Mediterranean, for generations - thick-walled, wooden-beamed and topped with those characteristically elongated, rounded tiles in varying shades of buff, soft apricot, rose and terracotta.

The Pagnol villa, like most of its kind, did not have proper plumbing or running water although, unusually, it did have a cistern which collected rain-water that was connected by a pipe to a single tap over the stone sink in the kitchen. This tap, from which water flowed when you turned it on, was nothing short of a miraculous innovation, that transfixed local visitors when they saw it, on account of its rarity!

The heat of the day was kept at bay, as it had been for hundreds, if not thousands, of years, by closing up the wooden shutters that shielded windows and doors from the glare of the sun and relying on the insulation of the thick stone masonry.

Beyond the sketchy garden of the villa itself, lay the unspoilt garrigue and the slopes of the limestone hills - perfumed with the intense scents of wild rosemary, thyme, and fennel and the aromatic, dense and prickly underbrush. Here the young Pagnol, accompanied by his friend, "Lili des Bellons", a local boy of the same age, explored and delighted in "la féerie", revelling in all that the natural landscape offered, watching the rich variety of insect and animal life, tracking the migrating and native flocks of birds, learning the names and properties of the fragrant plants that grew everywhere underfoot.

Today much of the countryside in Provence is no longer unspoiled. Towards Nice and the Côte d'Azur, expensive villas, complete with swimming pools, are two a penny and the big resorts have sprawled inwards from the coast. Further west too, Provence is no longer untouched - building has encroached on the garrigue in many places and even where it hasn't, there are signs forbidding entry to the casual explorer such as Marcel and Lili were. The countryside no longer belongs mostly to the flocks of ortolans and thrushes or the famous "bartavelles" or grouse, the millions of cicadas and  extraordinary panoply of other insects, with the necessity only of accommodating a relatively small proportion of human beings. Now the land has to host a much denser human population, both permanent and seasonally transient, and all the attendant requirements for modern amenities.

But despite the changes that the years of the 20th C and 21st C have brought, la féerie Provençale still exists. At its best, you will not find it in touristy hot-spots or even in those famously quaint, guidebook villages. Come here to look for it and you will certainly not stay in a house without running water or just a cistern filled by the autumn rains, even in this "pays de soif", this "thirsty country", where for years the location of a "source", or spring, was a secret you kept, even from your nearest and dearest. And while modern plumbing is now, of course, perfectly standard, you may still see an ancient well close by, covered now with a sheet of metal, but probably still in use more recently than you might think, and you may even find a venerable, shallow stone sink, that used to serve alike for all washing and food preparation, incorporated into the fabric of the main room in the house. Your kitchen today will have all mod cons, including a dishwasher and fridge - unheard-of facilities for Pagnol and his family, - but you will still need to close the faded, wooden shutters, once the sun has climbed high enough in the sky to be hot, or the interior of the house will be unbearably stifling, by evening.

Outside you may well have a swimming pool to cool off in, but step off the beaten and built-up track and, with luck, and perhaps with a following gust of the Mistral wind, the garrigue will be very close to you. You will smell it before you see it - the pungent scent of the wild herbs, the dry smell of sun-burnt grass and wild-flowers bleached pale by the intense Provençal light.

You will breathe in the aromatic waft of resin that comes in waves off the tall, bright-green, long-needled pines, along with the companionable and kindly chorus of the cicadas singing away the summer, as they have done since time immemorial, before even the Romans made this land the province that gave it its modern name of Provence.

The silvery leaves of new and ancient olive trees lighten the cultivated areas of which there are many, irrigated by water drawn off in canals, like the Canal du Midi or the Canal St Julien, connected to the Durance and the Rhône, and above the slopes of vines and fruit trees, rise great limestone buffs against the sky, exactly like those that marked Pagnol's beloved holiday horizons.

Nowadays you will travel about by car (or perhaps train or bus) of course; or may be, if you are energetic, you will join the many cyclists that intrepidly brave the winding panoramic roads taking you into the Alpilles and the Lubéron National Park. But there are still opportunities to walk and to experience, as Pagnol did, the perfumed, ancient landscape, slowly and savouringly and be enchanted.

I first came to Provence many years ago, aged nineteen, and like Pagnol, felt a love was born that I know will last all my life. I don't return every summer, like Pagnol did, but it's the place I come back to in order to reconnect with myself most deeply. My own French family roots lie further north, in Burgundy, but it's here at the foot of the Alpilles, that I feel most at home and "la féerie" never fails to exert its magic. I notice, interestingly, that it sends me happily on my way again - it never imprisons me or seeks to hold me back from the normal routine that reasserts itself when "les vacances sont finies". La féerie Provençale changes something in me - I am more content in what I have; I am more at ease with my own smallness in the world's great vastness and the timelessness of this landscape, that was old long before the Romans came, is like a well in a thirsty land that I draw from and am revivified by.

At the end of Pagnol's second autobiographical novel, "Le Château de Ma Mère", he writes movingly of his mother's death that occurred when he was 15 - a great inconsolable grief that even la féerie Provençale could not avert. He writes poignantly,

"Telle est la vie des hommes - quelques joies, très vite effacées par d'inoubliables chagrins." 
"Such is human life -  a few joys, very quickly wiped out by unforgettable griefs."

That is true, of course, in some ways, but not in others. There are some joys which come our way, which, like "une source secrète", bubble up, unbidden and sometimes even unlooked-for, giving life and meaning to the rest of our existence.

You cannot buy these joys; they are not exclusive to holidays at home or abroad although I think they often occur when we have more space and time to be open to them; they are frequently to be found in contexts which one cannot possess or perpetuate; but they are nonetheless very real so I want to whisper back to Pagnol, wistfully reflecting as an old man, on his childhood,

"Il y a des joies encore à nous, qui apporteront toujours la lumière à l'âme, quoi qui se passe. Il faut les chérir même si elles ne durent pas longtemps, parce que la vie des hommes (et des femmes aussi) est trop vite effacée." 

Here are three personal "féerie" moments from my holiday that I will treasure for a long time to come and which, I know, will lighten many a long, less light-filled day:

1 Making Provençal ratatouille with H outside, just as we made it together when he was two and we brought him to Provence for the first time. Then, he had to stand on tiptoes to pour in the olive oil!

He may now be thirteen years older but some things are just the same. He is just a rather more efficient peeler of onions and snipper of wild herbs now!

Before anyone says anything, I know this is not entirely an authentic ratatouille which should, I think, be made by sautéing the vegetables in olive oil before layering them but this is how we make it when "en vacances" here - a selection of aubergines, courgettes, onions, peppers, tomatoes, possibly mushrooms and ideally garlic, peeled, trimmed where appropriate, and thickly sliced and layered in a deep cast-iron casserole (or any container to hand that will do a similar job), with salt (ideally local Camarguais "fleur de sel"), black pepper, lots of wild herbs and liberal swirls of the best local olive oil we can lay our hands on. This is then baked in a hot oven for a couple of hours, or so, until everything is soft and melting. 

We leave it to cool a bit and then eat it with bread, sometimes just on its own, sometimes with grilled lamb steaks, washed down with vin gris, the beautiful pale Provençal rosé wine. 

For me it's the essence of Provence on a plate! Simple; intense; vivid in every sense. And sadly, it never ever tastes the same when made at home!

2 Watercolour painting in the hills, breathing in the scent and essence of the landscape and trying to transmit something of it onto paper. As with most creative activities the process is as important as the results, if not more so, which is good news as my watercolour efforts are rather amateur!

3 Spending a wonderfully idyllic afternoon with my Provençale friend, Christiane, and her family, chatting about everything under the sun, even though my French stumbles woefully aground, periodically!

"Féerie Provençale, je te remercie!
Et je reviendrai!"

Friday 19 July 2013

Weather For A Crochet Sun-hat

When summer comes properly in the UK it surely is the business. Perhaps this is why we get so grumbly when it doesn't. These last two weeks have seen the kind of sunshine-filled hours of which the best summer idylls are made and even if the weather turns again and shifts from hot blue skies to cooler, damper grey ones, being able to have had this run of consistently hot summer days will have made all the difference. Eating meals in the garden; being able actually to wear, every day, the lightweight summer dresses I've sewn, that in recent years seem to have spent their summers mostly in the wardrobe; walking along the midsummer footpaths, that border what are now hayfields, in the early morning and the evening, among  tall summer grasses, poppies and blue scabious; hanging washing out on the line, where it dries almost before one has finished pegging the last item out and smells of the sun when it's brought inside - all of these small things have given the last days a kind of delicious benediction all their own.

It has been weather not just to wear summer dresses and floaty shirts but also serious sun-hat weather. And just in time for these hot July weeks I have made myself one. Crochet is peculiarly suited to making hats because of the easy way it works up in the round and the idea of making a crochet sun-hat has been in my head for a while. It started in Liberty's when I was in London a few months ago. Taking a meandering detour through Liberty's ground floor, - as all rightly-arranged visits to London do! - I came across this:

A fabulous broad-brimmed hooky sun-hat! I wasn't convinced about the colours - not the most inspiring choice, I felt - the black, yellow, white and salmon pink together - but the design was perfect and when I tried it on, (as I just had to), it looked wonderful. The price however was not so wonderful - an eye-watering £210! Sadly, trying it on for a few moments was all that was possible. Or was it?! Close examination revealed it had been made in US double / UK treble crochet in a way that looked relatively simple to replicate.

Perhaps I could create a version of this Audrey Hepburn-style accessory myself, without breaking the bank?

I scoured around for a suitable pattern but couldn't find quite what would replicate the shape of what I'd seen in Liberty's, with the beautiful wide brim and I felt hesitant about plunging in with a pattern that wasn't quite right. In the meantime I played around with possible colour palettes and chose one or two additions to my Cascade Ultra Pima collection. I wanted a stripy hat but in subtle wearable colours, nothing too brash or startling. The colours of summer grass and newly-cut for hay, the bleached blues of early morning summer skies, the pale greeny-yellow of meadowsweet growing by the stream and the silvery-green of olive leaves under a Mediterranean sun, green water-mint, pale duck egg and soft sea-foam.

Then the July edition of Simply Crochet arrived and on the cover was the pattern I'd been searching for - a perfect wide-brimmed sun-hat, worked in my favourite US single / UK double crochet.

I tweaked the pattern a little, using a 4mm hook throughout and making the crown slightly deeper than the pattern specified -  I hate sun-hats you have to hang on to the whole time to prevent them blowing away in a sudden gust of wind and I wanted this to fit snugly enough to put on and forget about. This wasn't to be a fancy hat to wear to a garden party, or a wedding, but a more functional item, to wear when out and about in the heat of a scorching day. A hat that would keep the sun off and leave my hands free to pick cherries or take photographs or eat an ice cream. In addition to making the crown slightly deeper, I  also added a row or two to the brim because I felt like it (less is not always more!) and I didn't bother with the picot edging of the original pattern as I preferred a clean, plain edge.

I worked two rows of each colour and repeated the colour sequence three or four times over the course of the hat, making good use in the process, of my new yarn bowl which was a birthday present from my parents. This is a fabulous bit of kit for any hookaholic - so simple but so effective - no more runaway balls of yarn. Mine is a ceramic one from Muddy Heart Pottery on Etsy but you can get them in wood as well.

To finish I used a piece of brim wire, over which I crocheted the last two rows so that the brim stretches out nicely and isn't all floppy.

It's worked just as I hoped and I love it!

The subtle colours are a bit different from my usual brighter ones but make the hat so wearable and the soft light they cast on my face underneath is kind in tone. (I'm clearly getting to an age when I notice these things!)

It didn't take long to hook up, once I'd got started so if you like the idea of making one for yourself you have a fair chance of completing it while we still have the weather for it! The pattern recommends Stylecraft Classique cotton but any DK weight cotton yarn would work. For a good fit I recommend keeping to the 4mm hook throughout and repeatedly checking so that you get a snug fit on the crown. The brim wire you can get from MacCulloch and Wallis in London (they do mail order, so you don't have to trek to Soho!) - it's very cheap and really makes a difference to how the hat sits. Buy enough to go round the circumference of the finished hat twice so that you can insert it in both of the final rows.

You could obviously make the hat in just one colour or follow the pattern's suggestion of making a plain crown and using stripes on the brim. You can go bright or subtle or anywhere in between. You can keep it unadorned or you could easily pretty it up for more flamboyant use with a bouquet of hooky flowers. The possibilities are myriad and sunny!

I've worn it a lot here this last week, out and about in the English countryside with my American blogging friend, Liz of Carolina Knits who has been staying with me after a Charles Dickens seminar week in Oxford. So it's been given a whirl among the white-flowered borders of Highclere Castle of Downton Abbey fame, in the garden of Jane Austen's house in Chawton (which, for those of you keen on dyeing, has an interesting section of dye plants that would have been familiar to Jane and her family), along the wild-flower-edged, grassy tracks and footpaths, near where I live and on the open, sunny downs of White Horse Hill near Uffington.

And I am happy to report that it does exactly what it's supposed to do i.e. it stays securely on my head (until H wants to take photographs that is!) without being too hot or tight  and it keeps, what has been a beautifully scorching sun off my face and the back of my neck.

It's been the perfect accompaniment to a hugely happy week that has seen the translation of a virtual blogging connection into a new and tangible reality.

It's also a perfect hat to take on holiday - the crown flops flat when not in wear and so the hat packs easily in  a suitcase, which is handy because that is exactly what I am going to do with it!

A bientôt!
E x

Thursday 11 July 2013

First Days Of The Holidays

The first days of the school holidays have a magic all their own. Even though I am working and not on holiday myself, the shift in routine that the arrival of the school summer holidays brings, is delightfully welcome - the daily morning scramble to evict a reluctant teenager from the bed to which he was equally reluctant to retire, only hours before, is gone; those dreaded last minute interrogations before leaving the house, "What have you done with my ..... ?"(supply "physics book", "chemistry homework", "rowing kit", "water bottle", "tie" as applicable) no longer figure; I no longer have to keep one eye on the clock in the afternoons when I have to make the three quarters of an hour round trip of the school run; there is the delightful but also slightly disconcerting frisson of unstructured days to fill differently.

When my sister and I were small we had an engaging Ladybird Storybook entitled "The First Day Of The Holidays". One of those ones told in sing-song rhyme for small persons'  easy reading. It was about two penguins, slightly unimaginatively named "Pen" and "Gwen". I expect my mother still has it squirrelled away in the loft, at home. As far as I recall, Pen and Gwen were asked by their mother to help pick and / or shell peas on the first day of the long summer holidays. Pea-picking and pea-shelling being too much like hard work, Pen and Gwen decide to look for alternative entertainment and go off for a joy-ride on a tempting and conveniently located, shiny, new motorbike. Initially all goes swimmingly and they whizz off down winding country lanes with the sun on their backs and a summer breeze in their feathers but inevitably the escapade ends in disaster and they come a cropper on a sharp bend and end up in the ditch! (Ladybird Storybooks were always hugely moral - bad behaviour always did you no good! Anyone remember the naughty kittens, "Smoke and Fluff"?!) 

I rather liked shelling peas although we never grew any for me to pick when I was a child and I've never longed to ride a motorbike. But the delicious sense of adventure that the break in routine offers by the arrival of the school summer holidays, even these days, when the school holidays are H's, not mine I can easily identify with and it's good.

So this first week of school holidays, when the weather has been glorious, every bit as good as Pen and Gwen had it, we have not stolen a motorbike and ridden off over the Berkshire Downs (tempting though that might be!) but we have enjoyed small and holidayish delights nonetheless such as:

spending time outside in the sunshine whenever possible - away from the computer screen and anything electronic apart from a camera;

"reading lunches" in the garden - H and I often read together over lunch in the school holidays and in the garden on a hot sunny day, it's a perfect interlude in the middle of the day;

evening walks in the sun under fabulously clear blue skies, watching and trying to photograph the swallows dipping and wheeling like miniature Spitfires over the crest of the hill that rises from the fields below, as they gather easy meals of flighty evening insects. Photographng them is not easy. H did better than me as he is quicker and has a better eye but these pics are my best efforts;

eating local ice cream in biscuity waffle cones from the farm shop; no pics, I am afraid - too difficult to wield ice cream and camera at the same time!;

picking flowers that are now covering the lime trees down the road in scented clouds to dry and make lime-flower tea.

What small things do you delight in when the holidays, school or otherwise, come?

Wishing you happy moments in a sunny week!
E x

Friday 5 July 2013

Summerberry Yarn Bag

I have been trying to finish off one or two projects that have been lurking in the long grass, so to speak, and one of them is this bag which I almost completed last summer but which failed to reach the finish-line and sat, bristling with stitch-markers, for nine months or so, awaiting a pair of handles and a lining. It was driven, not by the need for a bag (I have plenty!) nor by the colours (they were defined by availability) but by the yarn itself.

Does this ever happen to you? Working with a particular yarn is just so delicious, you want to go on and on, hooking into the sunset with it? It's a surprise yarn for me, a departure from my normal go-to cotton or wool blends. It's a 100% microfibre DK weight yarn and the fabric it makes, has wonderful stitch definition and drape. It is King Cole Smooth and it is exactly what it says it is, on the tin, or rather the label - smoooooth!

I bought a random sample ball when I made my African Flower bag last year and needed as many acrylic brights as I could lay my hands on and found, brooding among the light and bright Stylecraft Special DK, a gorgeous velvety, deep purple ball of it. It worked rather well with the bright Stylecraft Special pinks and oranges of the African flowers. And it was so addictive to hook with that when the African flowers were finished, I wanted to make something entirely out of this magic stuff, that even Rumpelstiltskin would be proud to have spun. My local yarn store only carried the purple, for some reason, but a little trawling around revealed there were other colours to be had.

Not all the colours you might look for and heavily weighted in some areas of the spectrum but quite a number nonetheless. Mossy and grassy greens, the colour of fruit leaves; a lone, pale apple or mint green that is sadly now discontinued (as are some of the others colours I bought last year); muted, soft, sky blues and a bright turquoise that didn't quite seem to fit predictably into the rest of the range's palette; cranberry, redcurrant-jelly and cherry reds; creamily muted, blueberry and blackberry mauves as well as the gorgeous, deep blackcurrant purple I'd first come across; a clutch of strawberry and raspberry pinks to gladden Mrs T's pink-loving soul. No yellow or orange; no dark green, no tawny ambers or browns, nor any neutral grey, although they seem to have added some of these colours to the range now, I think, as well as some pale pastels, that weren't there last year. Many of the colours are very close in shade to one another, rather than distinctively separate. I bought one ball of each of as many colours as my budget would allow, in addition to my original purple, from here. It's not as cheap as Stylecraft Special DK but it's less than half the price of many more expensive yarns and it comes in good, fat 100g balls.

I'd been toying with making a hooky stash bag for a while and here was the opportunity to make one in delicious double stripes of single crochet (US terms, so I am talking about double crochet in UK ones), going with the colour-weighting dictated by what was available, grouping related colours together and seeing what would happen. The result was rather pleasing. Unexpectedly pleasing actually. Even though there are colours here that perhaps I wouldn't have picked on their own from an unrestricted palette, if I had had one.

I used the pattern for "Red's Goodie Basket" from Julie Armstrong Holetz's book  "Uncommon Crochet" as a starting point but I went "off piste" a bit - making it stripy, larger and with longer handles. The original pattern actually works this bag up in fine, red, leather cord and the handles are shallow ones, integrated to the top of the sides. I wanted longer straps to be able to sling the bag over a shoulder or the back of a chair so I simply made these at the end and stitched them in place with my sewing machine, after lining the bag (and the handles themselves) with a scarlet cotton print dotted with bright flowers. There wasn't quite enough of the fabric to make the lining without a bit of judicious piecing together but what's a bit of patchwork between friends?!

I've hidden the machine stitching, that secures the handles firmly in place, with hooky geranium flowers:

They are the same flowers I used on my Blue Sky Bunting here. I would never normally have put these two reds together but to create a geranium look-alike they work OK, I think. The two shades of red, one dull and the other bright, give the flowers a sort of three-dimensional shading rather than a simple colour contrast, which is what I would usually have chosen.

I think single crochet is my favourite of all crochet stitches. I love the simplicity and density of the resulting fabric, the rhythmic easy stitches and the fact that by altering your hook size and the thickness of yarn you can make it stiff enough to stand up on its own, as in the blue and pink hooky bowls I made at the end of last year here or these, more recent, experimental neutral ones, in pebbly colours, that I made in the Spring, using, in both cases, a double strand of DK weight cotton on a 4mm hook.

Or you can make a fabric that is beautifully drapey and floppy as with this bag with one strand of DK weight microfibre yarn on the same 4mm hook.

As I say, the colours are weighted very much towards one end of the spectrum - the red end - even the greens have the red-tones of the greens of early Spring and Summer. Put together, the colours reminded me of bowls of summer fruit - unhulled strawberries, blackcurrants on leafy stalks, raspberries nestling on a bed of their own leaves, blackberry flowers cheek by jowl with the fruit, still on bramble stems - so the bag became a Summerberry Bag and as its function is to contain yarn, it became a Summerberry Yarn Bag.

Being microfibre, the bag is practical - easily washable - and the only disappointment about it is my crochet mascot's. Duck hoped he could commandeer this as a balloon basket, powered by a bunch of helium balloons tied on to the handles but unfortunately it's a bit too heavy, so his dreams of crossing the garden, the Channel, or even the Atlantic, in a stripy, hooky Montgolfier have been dashed!  He's consoled himself with taking up residence in it anyway and it's good and roomy - enough space for him and plenty of yarn.

Duck's ballooning ambitions aside, it's satisfactory all round! 

Happy Weekend everyone! 

Hope it's a good one - I, (for once), am not working all Saturday and am taking the opportunity for a teensy-weensy yarn expedition with a blogging friend. 
Never mind a balloon basket / stash bag, we may need a trailer for the transportation of our haul, at the end of the day! Tee hee!

E x

Wednesday 3 July 2013


June has mostly been a miserably grey and damp month here in the UK and high hopes of sunshine and summery living seem to have had to move to the back-burner. I am not sure whether this summer is actually any worse than other British summers, but we seem to be more sensitive about it somehow, or perhaps it's just me. I read an article in The Guardian the other day, following a meteorological conference in London to discuss the serious question of what has happened to summer in the UK, which, needless to say, failed to come up with much that made cheery reading and I was struck by the point of view that actually this little old island in the middle of the north Atlantic cannot expect to bask in sunshine all summer and we are lucky to get what we do.

Perhaps easier and more frequent travel, to warmer and sunnier climes, has made us think, not entirely reasonably, that we ought to be able to live a similar, sun-blessed lifestyle back home. Foolish when you think about it, of course, but somehow it seems to pervade the way we Brits approach the weather and we get disproportionately disgruntled when picnics have to be eaten huddled under blankets, rain stops play and the BarBQ rusts quietly, as it sits unused in a corner of the garden.

But in truth there have been moments of summer sunshine, amid the grey clouds, and possibly they are the more treasured because they have not been two-a-penny. Putting together moments I had snapped with my camera over the last few weeks almost makes one whole long hot day too! This is a conceit - the pics were taken over the course of the whole of June but I find the idea cheering so I am going with it.

early morning sun coming through the leaves onto the saucers of elderflower blossom that are late this year but now covering the trees in foamy platefuls:

mid-morning sun on a bit of hooky in the garden:

noontide sun on a busy bee in the purple geraniums:

afternoon sun shining through red and white polka dot muffin papers onto strawberry and banana muffins (I love these muffin wrappers - I got them here if you're interested; a bit expensive at £4.99 for twelve but I love them anyway):

evening sun on the leaves of a walnut tree, grasses blowing in the breeze and wild roses in the hedgerow against a miraculously clear blue sky:

They say the UK weather is going to take a more stable turn for the better at the end of the week but then they said that last week and after a couple of warm days it disappeared again so I am not holding my breath. If I want days of unbroken sunshine I may have to revert to the conceit of my pics! After all they also say, "The camera cannot lie"! Here's hoping!