COLOURS OF THE SOUTH
Follow the rainbow from the ochre of Vaucluse to the violets of Toulouse.
My journey of discovery through the spectrum of the south starts in the Provençal town of Apt, in an area where ochre, the coloured clay earth used as pigment since prehistoric times, has been quarried for centuries.
These box canyons, cliffs and pinnacles of glowing red, orange and yellow seem to belong in the Wild West or even on Mars, not in Luberon. But these vivid, now-disused workings are an integral part of the area’s history. Today, you can follow walking trails such as the Sentier des Ocres in Roussillon and the Colorado Provençal in Rustrel.
The heat-resistant ochre has coloured pottery and tiles, as well as the warmly pink walls of pretty hill villages including Roussillon. However, it was not until 1780, when local chemist Jean-étienne Astier discovered a way of making ochre into a permanent colourant, that the industry began in earnest.
A century ago, the quarries scattered around the Apt basin yielded up to 40,000 tons of ochre a year. These days, the last surviving ochre business, the Société des Ocres de France, based in Apt, produces just 900 tons of yellow ochre a year.
Like many of France’s traditional natural pigments, ochre was eventually superseded by brighter, more permanent chemical colourants, such as synthetic alizarin, which was invented in 1868. If you are looking for authentic Provençal colours for your home, visit Ocres de France in Apt to shop for traditional tones that even outshine Farrow & Ball. You can learn more about the history of the ochre trade at the Musée de l’aventure Industrielle, also in Apt.
Like ochre, saffron has held a place in the Provençal palette for centuries, and similarly had its boom years before going into decline. After the papacy moved to Avignon in 1309, Clement V and his luxury-loving successors encouraged cultivation of Crocus sativus, the mauve flower whose delicate scarlet pistils give us the rich and pricey golden spice.
In the 17th century, there were more than 160 saffron farms around Carpentras, the hub of the business. But saffron production is hugely labourintensive; the flowers have to be painstaking gathered by hand, and it takes 200,000 to produce just one kilogram of the spice, so by the 19th century, French growers could no longer compete with producers in Asia. In the 21st century, however – partly thanks to France’s fascination with all things bio (organic) – saffron has made a comeback in the Vaucluse département, where there are now around nine small producers.
Among the first were Marie and François Pillet, who cultivate just 800 square metres of crocuses at L’aube Saffron, their farm and chambre d’hôte near the Dentelles de Montmirail. That makes them one of the region’s bigger producers, so it is clear that saffron,
precious as it is, is not going to be a major agri-business in Provence any time soon – even with the best French brands fetching more than €30 a gram. Visit in October, when the crocus flowers are in bloom, to see the saffron gardens of Vaucluse at their prettiest.
Saffron crocus is an autumn blossom, but lavender – the plant that is more closely associated with Provence than any other, is at its best in mid-summer, when swathes of vivid purple-blue flowers dominate the landscapes of Vaucluse, Drome and Var and perfume the air. The ‘blue gold’ is ubiquitous – you will find it in artisan toiletries, herbal teas, aromatic sachets for your pillow and linen cupboard, honey and lemonade.
I am less keen on the vogue for using it in the kitchen: lavender sorbet is a taste I have yet to acquire. But to discover the plant’s history and the myriad ways it can be used, visit the Musée de la Lavande, on an estate where the Lincelé family have grown AOP ( Appellation d’origine Protégée) Provençal lavender since 1890. And at the Distillerie Aroma’plantes, below Mont Ventoux, you can sample herbal teas, aromatic mineral waters, sirops and fruit juices all infused with its unique perfume.
Denim in Nîmes
The blues of the south turn deeper as we cross the River Rhône and head southwest. First stop: Nîmes, birthplace of blue denim. The original serge de Nîmes was first woven in the town during the late 17th century by the André family, a Huguenot dynasty that had trading links with Genoa, from where they borrowed the techniques of twill weaving and dyeing.
At first, it seems, the fabric was a blend of wool and silk, dyed with pastel (woad, Isatis tinctoria). The arrival of cotton from America and indigo ( Indigofera tinctoria) from Asia changed things: indigo was a deeper and stronger dye than pastel and easier to mass-produce, while cotton was cheaper than wool and silk. Denim made its way across the Atlantic, where – around 200 years after the Andrés got weaving – an enterprising San Francisco storekeeper, Levi Strauss, and a local tailor, Jacob Davis, decided it was the perfect material for hard-wearing clothes for hard-working Western pioneers. Jeans have come full circle: there are no serge weavers in Nîmes today, but there is a Levi’s Store, so in a sense the tradition lives on.
Before French weavers took to using imported indigo, woad was the default blue dye across Europe. Chemically, the pigment it produces is identical to indigo, but it is much less concentrated and fades more quickly. Simple economics meant that once indigo from the East became available, woad was doomed, but not without a fight. The pastel trade was immensely profitable, as witness the palatial homes of 16th-century woad merchants in Toulouse such as the Hôtel de Bernuy and the Hôtel d’assézat (which now houses an outstanding art gallery, the Fondation Bemberg).
Most of the trade went by boat from Toulouse and Bordeaux, with weavers from as far away as Scotland sending raw wool to be dyed, while cakes of ground and dried pastel called cocagnes were exported to the weavers of Flanders. The wealth that they brought to Toulouse and Albi earned the area the name Pays de Cocagne (‘Land of Cockaigne’),
a semi-mythical place of peace and plenty celebrated by Peter Bruegel the elder in his 1567 painting of that name. The pastel trade was so important, in fact, that in 1609 Henri IV banned the import of indigo to protect woad growers.
Indigo won out in the end – or did it? Around Albi and the Lauragais in June, I spot fields of tall plants bearing bright yellow-green crowns. By July, these flowers will have ripened into berry-like fruits that change from green to deep brown and finally to a glossy violet. But it is the green leaves, not these bluish fruit, which yield the valuable blue pigment – and much more. Since the early 2000s, farmers in south-west France have begun growing woad again, for use in cosmetics and natural remedies as well as for pigments (it is used in printer ink, among other things).
“Pastel is more than ever a part of the regional heritage,” says Carole Garcia, who with her colleague Nathalie Juin founded Graine de Pastel to make and sell woad-based products in Albi, the medieval capital of its production. While woad is remembered as a source of blue dye, its dermatological and medicinal properties had been forgotten, they say. It is rich in omega fatty acids, making it an excellent natural skin care product. So woad, like saffron, is making a comeback.
Although Toulouse is nicknamed the ‘Pink City’ for its rosy medieval masonry, its signature colours are violet and blue. The football team wears a violet strip, and you will find violet-tinted pâtisseries, herbal teas, confectionery, perfumes, cordials and liqueurs all over town. Visit in late February or early March for the annual Fête de la Violette, or in summer sip a kir royale à la violette, made with violet liqueur and champagne, at one of the arcaded cafés in Place du Capitole. Follow that with a visit to Hélène Vié’s floating boutique, La Maison de la Violette. A box of crystallised violets makes a nice souvenir, as does some violet liqueur from Benoît Serres, which produces 15,000 bottles a year at its distillery in Villefranche-de-lauragais, a 40-minute drive from the city.
Some stories credit Napoléon’s soldiers with bringing the violet to Toulouse – perhaps from Italy. But they must have been diehard Bonapartists, because the Emperor adopted the violet as a token only after his exile to Elba in 1814, and his followers took it up as their emblem during the ‘Hundred Days’ of his return in the following spring.
Commercial cultivation began in the 1850s, by which time, perhaps, the flower was no longer seen as a contentious symbol of Napoleonic sympathies. By the early 20th century, hundreds of tolosain gardeners were sending 600,000 bouquets of their winter-flowering violets all over Europe every year. Today, there are only a dozen or so growers, but you can see 130 breeds of the flower in the gracious municipal greenhouses.
The Méridienne Verte – France’s ‘Green Meridian’ – is one of a plethora of projects spawned by the millennium – and how long ago that seems. Architect Paul Chemetov proposed a linear plantation of trees along the Paris Meridian, from Dunkirk to Prats-deMollo-la-preste in the Pyrénées-orientales.
So far, so green. Ironically, one of the places the Méridienne Verte transects is Salsigne, in the Orbiel Valley, north of Carcassonne. At first glance, this is a verdant place, where the Minervois vineyards give way to the chestnuts, cherries and walnuts that cloak the southern slopes of the Montagne Noire. But this greenery conceals a toxic secret. In the 19th century, the now-abandoned Salsigne mine was the world’s biggest source of arsenic. Hidden by woodland, open-cast works still scar the landscape. The lower Orbiel is, some say, the most polluted place in France. Locals have
petitioned for decades for an effective detoxification of their countryside.
Why was such a toxic substance so sought-after? Until the 19th century, finding a true, vivid green was the colour-maker’s holy grail. Dyers used blends of natural blue and yellow plant dyes, but they produced only a dull green that faded with time and washing. Paintmakers used verdigris, made by exposing copper to vinegar, but this too was unstable and tended to fade.
In the 1770s, a Swedish chemist, Carl Scheele, developed a green pigment based on copper arsenite, a compound of copper and arsenic, which became fashionable for use in wallpapers and paints, and also as a food colouring. By 1814, it in turn gave way to ‘Paris green’, a brighter but even more toxic copperarsenic compound that was still used as a rodent killer long after it was deemed unsafe to use in paint. The theory that Napoléon died as a result of arsenic poisoning caused by that paint and wallpaper used to decorate his home in exile on Saint Helena has been refuted – after samples of his hair were found to contain arsenic, but at levels that were not uncommon at the time.
Whether or not arsenic killed the Emperor, green has long been regarded in France as an unlucky colour. French theatricals have traditionally shunned green costumes ever since the playwright and actor Molière (Jean-baptiste Poquelin), playing the title role in his Le Malade Imaginaire (‘The Imaginary Invalid’), was wearing green when he collapsed on stage and later died.
Green is also the colour of absinthe, the venomously verdant 19th-century tipple favoured by Lord Byron, Rimbaud, Toulouse-lautrec and Oscar Wilde among others. Such was the moral panic triggered by the popularity of la fée verte – by 1910 the French were putting away 36 million litres a year – that it was banned in 1915.
It was long believed that the wormwood plant, one of the key ingredients, was the source of absinthe’s supposed lethal and addictive effects. In fact, even if absinthe were uniquely dangerous, it was simply because of its blisteringly high alcohol content, which could be up to 75 per cent ABV.
The ban was finally lifted in 2011, so if you want to meet the green fairy, go to the cavernous Absinthe bar and museum in Antibes on the Côte d’azur, and enjoy the anise-flavoured spirit surrounded by memorabilia.
BELOW: A display at the Fête de la Violette in Toulouse; INSET: The floating shop Maison de la Violette; FACING PAGE: Memorabilia lines the Absinthe Bar in Antibes
ABOVE: Blueshuttered houses are a feature of Provence; Saffron (BELOW) is an obligatory element of the Provençal fish stew bouillabaisse (LEFT)