The restaurant across the street from my house has tables on the square, or parvis, along the side of the church that dominates the center of our small town, and overlooks my garden. The clink of glasses, the rattle of silverware on plates and the laughter of happy patrons punctuates the evening, which in midsummer remains light almost until midnight. Sometimes I’m sitting at one of those restaurant tables, looking across the street at my garden.
This evening, though, I’m in my garden, which is alive with roses and the herbs of summer, listening to the sounds of the restaurant. As I inhabit my small domain, plucking a weed here, snipping flowers for a bouquet to decorate the table there, I am in a cloud of sumptuous aromas.
Before I describe my garden let me hasten to assure that in it, life is not perfect. Snails are legion, enough to feed the town should I ever decide to harvest and cook them. They have voracious appetites, and their preference is for everything I love best. My espaliered apple trees, which serve as a wall between my garden and that of my neighbor, the town priest, suffer occasionally from a woolly blight. The four alpine strawberry plants I put into the ground more than ten years ago have multiplied into millions and become pests; I have to be constantly vigilant to prevent them from growing to cover everything in their path. The little berries they produce are tiny and taste like heaven, but I need the plants to stay in their place.
Despite these minor if constant threats, life in my garden is fragrant, and there is no better time than midsummer to enjoy its exuberant perfume. Better even than inhaling it is to bring those aromas into the kitchen, where they make everything they encounter just that much more delicious.
Our climate here in Normandy is maritime, though winter temperatures can fall sharply below freezing, making it tough for the thyme I love so much to survive. So each year I find myself planting a new crop. It always includes lemon and English thymes. This year I added orange balsam thyme. I will use them all, in everything from chicken stock to asparagus, from vinaigrettes to butter that melts slowly over summer green beans—it’s a must in the garden and the kitchen.
Rosemary is the heartiest herb I have, growing robustly amid the honeysuckle that almost overcomes it at this time of year. It is an evergreen, lending constant color and its pinelike aroma to the air. Rosemary is essential to the pizza I make regularly. I like to line the baking dish with it so its flavor infuses the dough. Rosemary is also delicious with sautéed apples, and it takes roasted meat to another dimension. It has a life span of about seven years so I watch it; when I see a plant begin to weaken I trim off a strong branch and stick it in the soil, where it takes root. That way, I’m never without.
I have a very large bay tree in the corner of my garden, Laurus nobilis (it’s vital to have the Latin name for bay, for there are many varieties that aren’t tasty), which shields me from the gaze of passersby. I don’t know if it is the wind or birds, but it spawns seedlings every year; I let them grow, because one can never have too much bay, so they punctuate nearly every flowerbed. The leaves are a staple in my cooking. One of my favorite things to do is slip a leaf into a potato, which I then rub with olive oil and set on the grill or in the oven. The bay infuses the potato with its sweet flavor, making it simply delicious.
Sage and champagne
By this time of year I’ve got basil plants reaching to the sun, too. You can’t know the pride I have in saying that, for Normandy isn’t a basil region. We don’t really have enough sun to make growing them a simple matter. But there is a spot in my garden that catches each ray during the day, and there they thrive. This year, I have the tiny-leafed variety we call basilic fin, the traditional Provençal basil that we call basilic marseillais and lemon basil, basilic citronné. I am careful to the point of reverence with the plants. I trim off the flowers, and use the tiny leaves first to encourage the plants to grow thick and lush. We all know basil complements tomatoes; it is fantastic with sautéed cherries too, and makes a beautiful sorbet when mixed with lime juice and sugar. I often crush the leaves with locally grown flax seeds and garlic, and add olive oil to make a Norman version of pesto.
A whole section of my garden is reserved for sage, though it’s not an herb I use with abandon. But I love the plants and their aroma. My favorite is a graceful, fragile-leafed version that adds a whiff of pineapple to the normal fragrance of sage. I crush its leaves with a tiny pinch of sugar, put the mix in the bottom of a flute and pour champagne into it. I know, champagne is already a gift of the gods—but the pleasure is multiplied with the addition of sweet pineapple sage.
There are at least ten varieties of culinary sage to choose from. I have a bicolored variety with yellow and green leaves, an Italian variety with leaves the size of a baby slipper—they’re delicious stuffed with capers and anchovies, dipped in batter and deep-fried—and a bluegreen variety with tiny leaves that I use often as a garnish. I also like to use the tiny leaves in a favorite appetizer, rolled with chunks of feta cheese in slender strips of air-cured ham, then macerated in olive oil.
Other herbs that contribute to the summer aroma in my garden and flavors in my kitchen include copper fennel, whose delicate fronds I use as a garnish for fish dishes as easily as I add them to a salad. I collect the flowers and shake their pollen over fish fillets and freshly steamed vegetables, and I dry the seeds and use them throughout the year to flavor everything from bread and cornmeal cookies to roasted meats.
The lush lovage plant that abuts my quince tree lends its intensely celery-flavored leaves to soups and stocks. Borage provides its five-pointed royal-blue flowers as garnish for seafood dishes and salads. Rue doesn’t make its way into the food supply, but its blue-green leaves with their cedary aroma keep flies at bay. Garlic chives make a plain vinaigrette exciting, and regular chives lend their slender stems and oniony blossoms to many a vegetable dish.
The leaves of rose-scented geraniums line my cake pans before I pour in the batter, and lemon verbena makes a restorative hot drink, or flavors a custard. Citronella, or lemon grass leaves—more tender than the dried version found in Asian markets—go into soups and stir-fries, and under the skin of a chicken before it’s roasted. Sweet cicely gives constantly, first with its anise-scented fernlike leaves, then with its juicy, licorice-flavored seed pods that are marvelous tossed with sliced, lightly sugared strawberries. Herbs are easy to grow, forgiving in their needs, and generous from start to finish. I hope you have them in your garden or on your windowsills, too.
BASIL SORBET/SORBET AU BASILIC
1/2 cup sugar
2 scant tbsp water
Freshly squeezed juice from 4 limes (a scant 2/3 cup)
2 cups fresh basil leaves, lightly packed
1. Fill a large, heatproof bowl two-thirds full of ice cubes.
2. Place the sugar and water in a saucepan, whisk them together and bring to a boil over medium-high heat, occasionally shaking the pan gently. Not all the sugar will dissolve, but don’t be concerned.
3. Place the pan in the bowl of ice to cool quickly. By the time the syrup cools, all but the tiniest bit of sugar will have dissolved.
4. When the syrup is cool, whisk in the lime juice—the two liquids won’t willingly combine at first, but don’t worry. Combine them as best you can, add the basil leaves, pushing them gently under the surface of the syrup, cover and let sit at room temperature for one hour.
5. Blend the mixture either with a wand mixer or in a food processor until it is deep green with flecks of basil in it. Freeze it in an ice cream freezer according to the manufacturer’s instructions.
4 small servings
Originally published in the July/August 2012 issue of France Today