Only rarely do I arrive in Saint Montan in time to find the almond tree in the herb garden still in bloom with primroses and wild violets flowering at is foot. Normally, almond trees in Saint Montan flower in January, each porcelain white blossom turning to palest pink after a few days with a centre of bright pink stamens. Small wonder this earliest flowering and fruiting tree of the year has inspired painters and potters for centuries.
But in March, this year, the sugared-almond pink vision of January is just emerging following the severely cold winter in many parts of Europe – it even snowed in Rome. Yet there are micro-climates right across the south of France. Yesterday, as I travelled south down the Rhône valley, the branches of the apricot trees around Valence were already blushing deep pomegranate-pink as they come into flower. And at the entrance to Saint Montan a small orchard of the earliest cherries were opening their snowy white blossom.
With the sound of the fast-running stream filling the air, I set off just before lunch to pick whatever herbs were brave enough to put forth fresh leaves. On my terrace a pot of flat-leaved parsley tempted me to cut a small handful, and along the gravel path in the herb garden an army of perpetual wild leeks with narrow grey-green pointed leaves had colonised the ground.
As soon I uprooted a few they release their strong, sulphur-rich flavour and some of the younger, slimmer leeks still had tiny bulbils attached to their roots. This long-living allium is also known as Babington’s leek, allium ampeloprasum, and develops an attractive pale lilac, spherical flower head in July.
Wild leeks are thought to have been introduced to the south of France by the Romans who certainly brought varieties of grapes for making wine. Indeed, the slim-leaved, perennial plants are often to be found pushing up through the stony ground in a vineyard. Like all alliums, the moment you break or cut the floppy spear-like leaves their strong, garlic-like flavour is released and when cut or snipped into fine shreds they are useful in the kitchen – particularly in early spring while awaiting the bright green needle-like leaves of chive plants.
Walking further into the herb garden I found what I was seeking, the first spears of red-leaved sorrel for adding to a salad of lambs’ lettuce or mâche. This sorrel is best eaten raw because the colour fades to the sludgy green of all sorrels when cooked.
As I turn back towards the kitchen, I spot a pale green lacy-leaved variety of dandelion and snip off a few to add to the salad. My neighbour, Juliette, usually covers a few of the young plants with upturned flower pots to blanch their leaves for salads. This maintains an ancient custom for eating bitter plants before Easter to cleanse the blood.
With the bone-chilling mistral blowing, I hurriedly return to the warmth of my kitchen but glad of the small basket of fresh herbs dotted with a few primrose petals and blue violets for sprinkling over today’s green salad.