How Carol Drinkwater Spends Her Summers In Provence

Novelist CAROL DRINKWATER’s stream of SUMMER VISITORS, and the occasional ENSUING MISHAPS …

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April is full-blown spring here in the south of France with endless fields of lipstick-red poppies. It is also the season when our telephones start ringing. “We’ll be driving to your neck of the woods this summer and we’d love to stop by …”  The summer visitors are awakening from months of northern European hibernation. Travels are afoot and Appassionata features high on their list of stopovers. Appassionata, our sun-drenched, silver-leafed olive farm with its Italianate villa set on a hillside in acres of serene groves facing south-east towards the Bay of Cannes is our tucked-away, scruffy corner of paradise.

Michel, my gentle-natured husband, and I love to entertain and we are usually excited by the arrival of friends and family who fly in from the UK or the US or climb our winding lane in dusty, laden cars driven from Ireland or Germany.

Our farm is only 20 minutes from Nice airport so whether it’s Michel or me doing the meet-and-greet run it’s no problem; it doesn’t take up half our day. Also, we are but ten minutes from the glamorous beaches of Cannes so guests can disappear after breakfast to return in time for dinner (frequently a little worse for rosé and a surfeit of sun). Appassionata’s other great advantage is that we have a splendid pool with two fine terraces for sunbathing. Most guests are delighted to pass the first days of their vacances horizontal on a chaise longue, headphones plugged in, plastered in suncream, turning a dark shade of claret.

There are rarely mishaps, but there have been a few. A wasp from an unheeded nest in a disused chimney took a fancy to a Dublin cousin who was allergic to the blighters but also fascinated to discover how they had lodged themselves in a sealed-off chimneystack. I warned him not to take the ladder to the flat roof  … His curiosity cost him an afternoon at the local hospital and then several days in the shade with a swollen face.

Michel loves to barbecue. More than that, he has invented a humungous apparatus with one great slab of iron fixed into a curvature in a drystone wall. It heats up like a furnace, roars like a dragon and has been known to feed more than 70 guests at one sitting. We have three barbecues on the property, testament to Michel’s passion. It is rare that all will be operating at once but when they are, guests are expected to play fireman. We have hosepipes everywhere, just in case. Besides our 350 olive trees, the rear of our land is a pine forest. In summer, when we have seen no rain for what feels like decades, water at the ready is a legal requirement. Fingers crossed, to date, there has been no devastation. The closest we came was when I left my mother and two Scottish friends to light the master barbecue while I dashed to the airport to collect Michel off the evening flight from Paris. We returned to flames the height of small trees and many bottles of rosé consumed while the inebriated trio were eulogising a blood-red sun setting beyond the Mediterranean, oblivious to the conflagration taking hold behind them.

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One year I signed up to support a local Lights Out Protest for Earth Day. That evening I switched the electricity off at the mains. Michel arrived home with a Chinese guest. He showed the man to his suite by the pool, lit with candles, inviting him to make his way to the dining room at his leisure. I was upstairs, enjoying the solitude, the gloaming with its assembly of stars, when suddenly every light on the estate flicked on. I heard calls from our guest who was running about alongside the pool, arms oscillating like a windmill. “I fixed the electricity,” he was shouting. “All fixed now.”

We love guests who, on their return from the beaches or the Picasso, Chagall or Fondation Maeght museums, roar up our hillside with cartons of fresh veggies purchased from one of the wonderful Provençal markets hereabouts, then set about washing and preparing their haul for our aromatic platters. We cheer guests who, after their dawn swim, make their way to our vegetable beds to handle the early morning watering. We delight in laden tables radiant with candlelight where several languages are being spoken, where stories are narrated from all across the world, where wine flows freely and no one stands on ceremony, and where the children are encouraged to sing, frequently accompanied by the hoot of owls observing us from tree canopies high upon the limestone hill.

One of my happiest memories is of a summer evening with my family from Laois. It poured. It rarely does, but midsummer storms here can be torrential. Fortunately, the giant parasol was waterproof. So ten of us huddled beneath it, carousing, encircled by lashing rain within a finger’s touch, while the freckled children crooned traditional Irish songs. The enchanting notes, the bright optimistic eyes of flaxen-haired cousins are cherished memories.

Michel is terrific with kids. I am less patient. He bundles them off to nurseries and together they return in a car exploding with fruit trees. As a team, they choose where the saplings will be planted. The whole affair becomes a ceremony, a rite of passage. When the guests return, year after year, bringing with them as they mature their own young families, they harvest baskets of fruits from trees they planted long ago. Homemade jams boil and bubble in cauldrons in the summer kitchen. Their adolescent efforts have enriched Appassionata’s terraces and the land is giving back. Each year, our children, now grown, applaud the force and generosity of nature and pass on the expertise to their own offspring. Every tree here bears the name of its planter. Together, our guests are embedding the farm with stories for the next generation of olive and fruit farmers. These are our summer’s richest gifts.

Carol Drinkwater

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