Herbs and wild flowers play a big part in the Mediterranean diet, says Carol Drinkwater
Our columnist explores the health-giving benefits of her local Provence plants.
We are all familiar with the Mediterranean diet, and the benefits of consuming fresh sea fish, locally grown fruits and vegetables, and reaping the goodness from the calcium sources of unprocessed goats’ and sheep’s cheeses. Then there is fine wine and olive oil, of course. This healthy and delicious way of eating is no longer a secret and several documentary films have concentrated on village communities around the Mediterranean where the residents live into their nineties and a surprising number survive to be centenarians.
What is less well known is the consumption of wild flowers and herbs from the shores and hillsides around the Mediterranean. When we first moved to our rundown olive farm in the Alpes-maritimes, before our land was fenced in, it had become over the decades a beauty spot for locals who visited at the weekends to collect mushrooms and enjoy picnics. On several occasions, I was surprised when I opened our bedroom windows to find groups of women bent low, foraging in the tall grasses, or a lone man with dog, hessian sack and knife. He was collecting dandelion leaves for salads and soups. I later discovered he took them to the fresh food market in Cannes to sell from his stall. I love the concept of food for free. I do not mean that I pop into the supermarket and help myself to goodies, stuff them into my handbag and then sneak out. No, I mean nature’s gifts, those that are overlooked in the grander scale of production. Every season promises them.
This was the starting point for my 17-month journey round the shores of the Mediterranean in search of the history of the humble olive. Who first picked these small fruits, bit into one, found it bitter and then discovered that it could be used to miraculous effect by extracting its juice? Six thousand years later, we continue to benefit from the olive tree’s bounty. Its leaves, when dried and steeped as a tisane, are an excellent treatment against high blood pressure. Its green-golden oil is a protection against both breast and prostate cancers.
Inland of us, in the high hills of the lower Alps, lies the maquis (scrubland), where you will find holm and cork oaks. In the same geographical region you can discover the magic of the garrigue. In the Provençal dialect, it is known as garriga. This astounding landscape of aromatic shrubs and low-lying plants grows out of the limestone mountainsides, frequently in semi-arid conditions.
The garrigue exists not only in France, but elsewhere around the Mediterranean and is a sumptuous source of food and wellbeing. Take a trip and hike the garrigue in spring or autumn when millions of flowers of every hue are in blossom. Breathe deep and inhale the glorious perfumes emanating from the plants. These are the essential oils contained in many of the wild herbs.
A sprig of uncultivated lavender used to flavour salads can also be pressed to make ice cream and lavender-scented crème brûlée, which, if you have never tasted it, is to die for. We regularly sprinkle our dishes with dried flowers collected from the hillsides: rosy garlic, rosemary, cornflower, thyme, and gorgeous purple sage flowers which we use for roasts. We have blue borage petals that taste like cucumber, and fennel to enhance fish dishes.
The sticky-brown labdanum resin from the Cistus plant, a delicately beautiful rock rose, has been a gift to herbal medicine and perfume-makers for millennia. It strengthens the immune system, fights bacteria and eases panic attacks.
Alpes-maritimes hosts 2,700 species of plants. Imagine. I need to write a book to applaud the gifts on our doorstep. The Alternative Mediterranean Diet. Nature, as always, is feeding and healing us.
Carol Drinkwater is the best-selling author of The Olive Farm series. Her latest work is The Lost Girl, a novel set in post-war Provence and modern-day Paris. Contact Carol at caroldrinkwater.com