By Judith Stafford
We have a teeny Minervoisien courtyard which, when we took it over, was an eyesore of cracked concrete, weeds and a good dose of lethal looking asbestos.
Why is it that a concoction as evil as asbestos, is named so delightfully in French? “Amiante” – a rosy cheeked jeune fille skipping through daisies in espadrilles and a flowery smock. Not a wheezing crone in sight.
The only vestiges of beauty in the courtyard were one valiant red rose, an enormous purple hibiscus and a straggling, orange Trumpet Flower.
Enclosed by old stone walls, there are steps leading up to a concrete shed roof – or as Hyacinth Bouquet would call it – the Upper Terrace.
Well, we have sat through our fair share of Alan Titchmarsh’s cheeky chatter and Charlie Dimwit’s bra-free burr, I can tell you.
We’ve wept at miraculous garden makeovers for the orphaned, the one-legged and the terminally unappealing.
We’ve visited countless garden centres fighting beasts of trolleys, laden with sacks of John Innes, all numbered mysteriously with codes only Bletchley is in on.
Over a lifetime we’ve bought bedding plants, climbers, creepers flowering shrubs that cost the earth – literally – then vanish after the first year and, enough solar lighting to guide in the International Space Station.
All this, I’m sure you’ll agree, makes us pretty bloody expert in the old green fingered departamento.
So, we took the courtyard to task. We dug over the narrow beds of mud to plant begonias, lavender, sage and thyme. We trained fragrant jasmine up the walls and coaxed a bougainvillea into a dazzling pink bower. This being the Minervois, we had to have a vine, which now drips with luscious wine-pod clusters.
There’s just enough room for a table and some old village fete chairs, reclaimed off eBay, plus a BBQ, which fills the yard with aromas of scorched sardines and garlic-drenched lamb.
At night the dark foliage twinkles with fairy lights and candles flicker from hidden corners.
But there was one requirement of mine above all else – we had to cram in a fig tree.
Purposefully ignoring the fact that my mate’s got one growing very nicely thank you in East Molesy, it seemed to epitomise our French adventure – exotic, abundant, sun drenched and, yes, somewhat sexy.
You only have to score an adult rated X into the top of a fig and give it a cheeky squeeze. The blush, glistening flesh oozes with the promise of sticky fingers and a dribble down the chin.
Oh really! Stop it now. It’s Sunday for fig’s sake.
So, upright little fig tree popped into a hole (stop it), we watered it and waited…..one year….two…..and by the third we were genuine Occitanie fig farmers.
Alright, so what if they grow here like weeds by the roadside! Who cares if there are groaning trays of them at every vide grenier and market place. Never mind that at each soirée you are given a jar of fig jam.
“I’ve made you some fig jam!”
“Noooo – I’ve made YOU some fig jam.”
“Well I said if first so you’ve got to have it”
“But THEY’VE just given us ALL some fig jam”
“Just take the figging JAM!”
In spite of all that, as any man will tell you whilst sitting at a red traffic light, there’s nothing more satisfying than picking your own.
I am virtually a tag-free Martha Stewart, as I hurl another fruit filled colander into a bubbling cauldron of sugar and lemon juice. I’ve tried fig jam laced with lavender, with ginger, with Cointreau, honey, walnuts and balsamic. I’ve made it chunky. I’ve made it smooth. Runny. Solid. Eaten it with cheese, foie gras, on toast, in bread and butter pudding, with mountain ham and just stuck my finger in the pot in passing.
There are fig tarts; figs poached in red wine; roasted figs with honey; fig ice cream; fig and dolcelatte pizza; fig liqueuer. In Arles I once had a fig margarita! What about a Summer Pudding made with brioche and figs? Figgy Pudding. Dried figs. Stuffed figs. Deep fried figs.
It gives one a marvellous excuse to flirt with Yotam Ottolenghi and, if you can drag yourself beyond his photo, it’s Open Sesame to a mysterious world of Sumac, za’atar, pomegranate molasses, rose and orange blossom water. He magics them all up with fig cakes, fig salads and every manner of figdom.
Oh the supercilious delight at dropping in “Well of course I use sumac ALL the time now”, when the unenlightened know not what it is and assume you’ve commandeered your chum’s raincoat.
Anyway, we could faff on about figs all day, but I’ve just spotted my neighbour heading this way with a jauntily shower-capped jar of something homemade. So I must dash, hide behind the sofa and pretend I’m out.
PS: There’s a fig shaped elephant in the room – or more accurately, the teeny weeny courtyard. The fact is that a figuier grows rather big quite quickly. Soon it’s going to be like Jacques and the Figstalk. I’m going to have to climb up there, only to find a giant in a purple stained apron, sweating over a huge, boiling saucepan.
“Fe Fi Fo Fam,
I’ve made you some fig jam!”