Dried Acorns and Mirabelle Vodka

Of all the things dropping to the ground this summer, rain was particularly scarce.

The area of eastern France where we live is always hot in August. This year, though, after a rainy spring, June started heating up. And then July was hotter. As hot as August, but weeks early.

#wheat #wildcarrot #summer #sunshine #flowers #countryside #running #France

Wild carrot blooms along the verge of a wheat field just before harvest.
Photo: PKR

The minimal amounts of rain we got weren’t enough to keep the fields irrigated, so like other farmers around Europe in this hot season, our local farmers brought in the crop early to salvage what they could.

#harvest #summer #rain #countryside #running #France

The dry running path beneath gathering clouds.
Photo: PKR

The sunny mirabelle plums on our garden tree ripened weeks ahead of time, as did the wild blackberries all around the area. Tasty and delightful, but almost unseasonable in their timing.

#vodka #plums #mirabelles #garden

The last two mirabelle plums picked from the tree, and a bottle of some plums from earlier in the season. They’ll steep in vodka with a sprig of garden thyme and some sugar for a few months.
Photo: PKR

Acorns, too, carpet my running path – they should be hitting the ground in late summer. Hopefully the squirrels and other animals have noticed the weird clockwork of this year, and are taking a cue from the farmers by harvesting early.

Out on runs, I sometimes hear the boom of thunder somewhere in the mountains, and I watch for signs of relief. Often, the skies cloud over, and I’ll see rain falling somewhere nearby – but only for a few moments, and only over a limited area.

Of course, it’s not that there haven’t been heatwaves in the past. But even in the twenty-odd years since we moved here, the heatwaves have gotten more frequent, hotter, and longer.

This week, the heatwave finally broke and we’ve gotten a few evenings of rain and wind. It’s a welcome change to listen to rainfall rather than the constant thrum of fans, because of course an old place like ours doesn’t have central air conditioning.

The stone walls were usually enough to take a few weeks of August heat and still stay cool inside. We used to be able to lean against them, bare skin on stone as a quick refreshment. Not anymore – the stones of our house are heated through and radiate inward.

#harvest #summer #rain #countryside #running #France

A rain cloud brings a bit of relief.
Photo: PKR

Of course, we aren’t alone with our heatwave – it’s a phenomenon shared around the world this year. With any kind of luck, the slow climb of temperatures will come in fits and starts. With any kind of luck, we’ll have some time to take action, to adapt, to correct. With any kind of luck, a bit of luck will be on our side.

Meanwhile, I’ll keep using the luscious mirabelles for making plum vodka cordial, something to keep the winter nights warm once the heat has left the stones again.

#summer #acorns #oak

Acorns picked up during a run.
Photos: PKR

Tenacious Vines

The vine in early spring against a warm blue sky. Photo: PKR

There was so much about our trip to South Africa last year that was unexpected, and which I will explore a bit in upcoming posts. But one of the most unlikely encounters was with the grapevine in the central court of our hotel in Cape Town.

We stayed at the stellar Cape Heritage Hotel, which is part of the renovated 18th-century Heritage Square complex. Up against the wall of the hotel’s inner courtyard, a slender vine emerges from the ground and winds its way up to a pergola above a walkway.

The unprepossessing vine emerges from the ground. Photo: PKR

Planted in the late 18th century, this just happens to be the oldest known producing grape vine in the Southern Hemisphere. It’s a white wine variety, a Crouchen Blanc that originated in the French Pyrenees. The varietal is all but extinct in France due to its susceptibility to disease, but this old vine takes care of its own needs in the courtyard in the middle of Cape Town. And it still produces enough grapes for the hotel owners to produce wine.

Let me say that we have a wonderful grapevine in our own garden in France. It was planted long before we arrived – it’s at least forty years old, and until recently, it produced more delicious red muscat grapes than we could possibly eat in a year. Unlike the vines of our village neighbors, the garden vine never suffered disease and always seemed supremely content to sit alone against our garden wall.

The vine climbs the same wall it’s been climbing for two centuries. Photo: PKR

That was right up until a worker dug too close to the roots of the vine and poured concrete before I could stop him. Quelle catastrophe!

I waited for a season, and when the vine didn’t leaf out or prosper, I planted a new vine a short distance away. I didn’t pull the old one, however. You know. Just in case.

Still, much to our astonishment, a year later the old vine regrouped and produced leaves. No grapes yet, but it’s working hard. I’m hoping it can make friends with the new vine down the wall.

All this is to say: Left to their own devices, grapevines are robust, determined, and a joy to behold, not just because of what they produce in the end.

As for the heroic vine of the Cape Heritage Hotel, I toast its tenacity, and the respect given to it by those who helped it survive for 240 years and counting.

The grapevine in the Cape Heritage Hotel courtyard in Cape Town. Photo: Cape Heritage Hotel




Of Blight, Wine, Grafting, and a Kind of Success

I found a poster hanging in a small local bistro just over the border in Switzerland, one of my favorite places to eat for lunch. It’s a vintage poster for a French seed nursery in eastern France – but it’s also an historical document of an agricultural calamity.

wine, switzerland, blight, france, vineyards

Poster for American grape vine stock in Switzerland, Photo: PKR

At first glance, it shows a young, robust 19th century woman among grapevines on the southern end of Geneva but on the French side of the border.. But what it is really showing is the effects of the great agricultural, economic and culinary calamity known as the French Wine Blight. Actually, the blight affected all of Europe and the UK, and was apparently due to the introduction of a non-native wine louse, Grape phylloxera into the regions.

Dactylosphaera vitifolii

The phylloxera is a complex little piece of work, with a life cycle encompassing 18 stages in 5 main phases. Very difficult to eradicate, and indeed, there is still no known method to completely rid Europe and the UK of the pest. It arrived in the late 1850s, and wiped out an estimated 60-90% of European vineyards over the next couple of decades. One of the challenges was that it took ten years for those studying the problem to be able to locate its origin, namely, the phylloxera that took so many forms.

Nothing seemed to work against the pest, until the hybridization technique of grafting European grape varieties on to rootstock imported from the United States was discovered. And thus began the task of reconstituting the wine industry – a process documented in part by the poster I saw in Switzerland. No surprise that this poster was here – Geneva is surrounded by vineyards.

I posted recently that the old and very fruitful Muscadet grapevine located in our garden has been one of the few unaffected by a locally occurring pest. We don’t know why, except that we never bring in outside stock, we don’t handle other plants, and our garden is walled.

In Europe, there were a few tiny vineyards that remained unaffected by the wine blight. No one knows why. They still produce extremely rare vintages of wine made from pre-blight, ungrafted stock. One of them is a Bollinger Champagne, the Vieilles Vignes Fran├žaises. Another is a port wine in Spain, and a third is a Sangiovese grape in Montalcino, Italy.

Did I mention why rootstock from the United States was the preferred import for grafting?

It’s because phylloxera itself is a North American import, brought to the UK and then Europe on hardy American rootstock for planting by horticultural enthusiasts. The American rootstock was, of course, unaffected because it was resistant against the phylloxera. I’ve heard American wine buffs proudly claim that the US saved the French wine industry, but it seems a bit of a stretch since it was our own little pest that ruined it in the first place.

It’s a remarkable example of the triumph of non-native species within an entire growing sector.

The great Mothervine, oldest grape vine in the United States
Located in Roanoke, North Caroline