The View From Here: The Scented Garrigue
Thyme and rosemary sum up the Languedoc. Both formed exotic strands of my Norfolk childhood. They were planted near the back door; my mother would send me out to pick them when she made stuffing for roasts. They fascinated me: the first example I can clearly remember of flavour in fact being aroma and no more. Herbs seemed to be plants you ate in small quantities because they smelled good.
They've become an aromatic leitmotiv of our lives here. Head out into the garrigue, the scrubby sclerophyll woodland which begins in the hills whenever cultivation stops, and they're everywhere: by the tonne (no kidding). Thyme likes the stoniest, most sunlit spots; rosemary, which will bravely flower even in the dead of winter, will tough it out with woody cade (more scent), mastic, strawberry trees and Mediterranean buckthorn, and even try vaguely to outgrow them.
These herbs are, of course, what the red wines of Languedoc are meant to smell and taste of. It can indeed seem so, though I can think of no reason why this should be, since neither plant emits aromatic oils in the way that, for example, eucalyptus trees do with their scented blue haze. Perhaps it's just an evocative and culturally fitting way of praising the faintly bitter, dry fruits of these wines.
When we built a house here in 2017, we found ourselves with a small tract of drying mud, rubble and dumped earth that we hope will one day merit the name of 'garden'. A couple of retained holm oaks gave it a notional garrigue identity. I waited until the spring rains came (most rain here comes in two torrential weeks a year, one in spring and one in autumn), then set off for the forest nearby to tear out some clumps of wild thyme and rosemary. The stony ground meant that this was a massacre, and the plants shrieked silently as their roots were ruthlessly ripped; I wasn't sure they'd survive. My wife bought a couple of cultivated versions from the local nursery as insurance.
Survive? They're rampant. This is their place on earth. They love it. Freezing winters, burning summers, months of drought and then a couple of weeks of near submersion, and all in a matrix of limestone pebbles and boulders slaked with impoverished clay: they thrive on abuse and neglect, and are even stealthily reproducing and extending their dominions.
The wild thyme is much better than the nursery version, too. The latter is thick, bristly and petrochemical; the former sweet, spindly and fragrant. It dries dreamily once cut; all you have to do is rub the stem a little, and the fine leaves fall like a seasoning.
The rosemary (aside from all the normal meat uses) is very good in pommes boulangères – potatoes sliced and baked with onions and chicken stock. The dried wild thyme, by contrast, is perfect with some sweet, juicy Cévennes onions sliced into a potato salad with mayonnaise. It's one of the foundations of our staple Languedoc dish, too, though this chiefly draws on a wondrous ingredient I buy annually from northern France by mail order. I'll tell you about this next month.