Fol­low the rain­bow from the ochre of Vau­cluse to the vi­o­lets of Toulouse.

France - - Contents -

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.

Golden spice

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.

Laven­der land­scape

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.

Pas­tel shade

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.

Vi­o­let city

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.

Go­ing green

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)

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