esterday, in my garden, I walked over my small bed of herbs and brushed against the thyme plant. Thyme is the ubiquitous herb of France — thyme in cassoulet, in pot au feu, in a tisane for helping a cold along its way, in soaps, shampoos, and lotions and growing wild in the countryside.
But this little walk through the fragrant plants that enhance our cooking often reminded me how smell is such a rich part of memory. In any country, I cannot smell fresh thyme without thinking of all things French.
Just as the heady perfume of crushed basil as I make pesto or scissor the leaves onto a bruschetta elicit memories of my beloved Italy. And the fragrance of the green olive oil I pour over my chopped tomatoes recalls a little gita we took one day to find Tuscany’s liquid treasure. As we turned into the driveway of a rustic farmhouse, having followed the signs saying Olio d’oliva e uova, the potent smell of candigina (Clorox in the U.S. and Javel in France) wafted from the doorway. The signora was cleaning house, and I can still see her red hands pushing the mop over terracotta floors, and then the same hand extended, after drying it on her apron, to welcome us.
A ginger kitty rubbed against our ankles and he, too, had evidently been in the garden for he smelled of rosemary and sage. In the storage room were bottles and bottles of green elixir that the owner poured over a little bread for us to taste. Every olive oil has a different smell, some so potent that you feel almost drugged after a sniff, but this oil had the very real smell of what I can only call place. The groves where the trees had been planted so long ago had weathered the terrible blight in Tuscany some years before, and the smell of their branches and leaves was in the oil.
To this day, I cannot smell bleach without thinking of that perfect day, the sweet woman coming to greet us, the discovery of one of the best oils we’ve had so far, and the little striped kitty perfuming my pants leg.
My mother used to say that if I ate a nice sprig of parsley every day, I would have no need of vitamins. That, and sour grass, those long-stemmed little yellow flowers that come out in spring, and whose stalks are filled with vitamin C. Here in our little ville, I walk to the maison de la presse, passing by a house whose front yard is filled in spring with my vitamins! Sour grass, also known as wood sorrel or oxalis, is considered a weed, but chewing on the stems, you feel you have consumed your minimum daily requirement once again, along with that little bunch of parsley you chew up daily, remembering your mama’s wisdom.
But the fresh, green smell of parsley also evokes every spaghetti alle vongole I have ever made, along with many risotti, garnished after the last stir with its flowery leaves. Chopping it to dust, I sprinkle it over a plate of crackers spread with caper butter and topped with smoked salmon, remembering my introduction to that seductive fish on a plane bound for Copenhagen with my mother, my first taste of Europe.
So many herbs and condiments serve as Proustian push to our memories, not to mention inspiration to musicians long ago. Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme surely had as lasting effect on Simon and Garfunkel as they have had on me.
As for sage, I crumble its humble leaves, toasted in olive oil with garlic, over my steamed fava beans, or stir it into melted butter to turn otherwise innocent ravioli stuffed with ricotta into a decadent delight. And I bring fresh sage branches into the house to sweeten the air or burn a little bundle in a new dwelling to ward off any evil spirits that might have been left behind by previous occupants.
Smells of burning sage remind me of autumn when wine-makers make fires from their pruned vines, also singeing the wild thyme and sage that grows in so many vineyards. The smell of that smoke takes me back to our picnic gite on the white roads of Italy and France, always looking for good oil. Or the sweet scent of bleach…
And each spring, my flowering lemon tree makes me swoon with anticipation of the incredible dishes to come enhanced by my often half-kilo jewels. Not to mention the ritual of making limoncello that, with each sip, enhances thoughts of memorable lunches and dinners.
An ex-student of mine who lives way too far away said to me once that she remembers my suggestion about keeping a bowl of lemons in the kitchen at all times, to freshen the air and whose juice balances so many dishes. She said she keeps them there to remind her of our wild and crazy cooking classes long ago, until we all went separate ways.
I, too, have a bowl of lemons in my kitchen, their perfumed presence a daily nudge to sweet memories of friendship.