22 March, 2011

Vernal color.

Across the little valley from our house, this hillside doesn't exactly jump up and down and bugle Spring now, does it?  The early morning air's still crisp here, and the evenings no warmer for that enormous perigee moon we got to admire over the weekend. (Did you know we'll have to wait another 20-some years for another one like it?)
And yet, and yet.  That pale yellow in the foreground is actually brand-spanking new.  Closer to hand, the signs are everywhere.  Our Marans hen Blackie ended her dead-of-winter break from egg-laying yesterday with a pointy flourish.
The neighbor's ewes, fatly, exuberantly pregnant, are clearly enjoying the spate of bright and mild weather.  Another week or so and they'll be nuzzling knock-kneed sheeplets.
The goats have just had their babies (you can still see the remnant umbilical cord hanging from the one baby's belly).  My own babies got their turn at feeding; perhaps only in France does a runty goat kid get fed from a wine bottle...
My kids have been only too pleased to throw caution--and their coats--to the wind.  The garden is doing much the same. In the little orchard, one of the apple trees is already a-flutter with a million white blossoms. The lone, untamed forsythia, grape hyacinths, primroses, rosemary, and daffodils are open wide to the bright days and returning birds.  There's even a ground-hugging, pale blue haze in the fields, where the wild oregano and thyme're in full song. And this, here below, is the flowering quince--in bud a couple of weeks ago--now gone mad with color.    
Meanwhile, as clear as a bell tolling and in far more sustained tones, the violets have been signaling an end to winter's worst.  You can see thickly massed clusters of them across the fields and under the skeletal trees.  With two willing children and an open-ended Sunday morning (after the dew's dried and before high noon, to capture the most of their fugitive scent) you can pick and pick these little beauties--and still have more left to admire.  NB: I'm no expert, but I believe these are common wild violets, as opposed to sweet violets, which have a more floral fragrance.
If you can pick three full cups worth of these, you can make a delicately scented flower jelly with the wildest, most jewelly of colors.  Forget any unfortunate experience with violet-flavored food or drink you may have had. Almost without a doubt those were made using over-the-top synthetic violet flavoring.  Food--or kirs--flavored with real essence of violet shouldn't taste like you've eaten Grandma's guest soap.  Real violet tastes of something more primal, green, a something fleeting that somehow manages to linger evocatively on the tongue. 
As of this weekend, I've discovered that over a mascarpone-slathered slice of brioche toast, there's nothing finer than a dollop of this particular jelly. (In this season, anyway. Come summer, my vote's for little wild strawberries...) But whether you have it over a scone, a baguette, or challah bread, deepen the ethereal violet fragrance by drinking a violet-scented tea. I brought back a black tea from the Cha Yuan teashop in Lyon.  It is flavored with violets, roses, orange blossoms, and a touch of caramel, they named it 'Composition of the Sky' and it is Really Very Good.
After you or your children (yay, child labor!) have painstakingly gathered all those de-stemmed blossoms, you'll be a bit disappointed to watch them collapse to less than half their space under the steaming hot water.  Fret not, seal the pot: they give and give as they're steeped. By morning there's a murky, midnight blue water to be strained from the exhausted clump of flowers.
This liquid is blended with pectin and boiled just enough to ensure proper jelling--the flavor is too easily cooked away.  (I'd actually wanted to try this with a no-cook pectin, only I couldn't find any at my little supermarket.)  Likewise, go easy on lemon or citric acid, unless you want lemon jelly with a touch of violet. 

I'll admit, this is slightly finicky work, but you're repaid in spades: in the pan, that murky color magically changes with the addition of lemon/citric acid to something so splendid the sight alone makes it all worthwhile. 

And you, you get to taste the first jelly of spring. 
Gelée de violettes (Violet Jelly)

Makes about 4 small jars.

4 cups untreated, cleaned violet flowers, bitter stems removed
3 cups water
40 g pectin (I used Alsa Vitpris, a dry, no-sugar, pectin/citric acid blend*)
4 cups sugar
coffee filter

Heap violets in a mason jar. Bring 3 cups of water to a boil and pour over the flowers. Close the jar tightly and allow to steep at room temperature overnight or at least 10 hours.

The following day, sterilize four or five (to be safe) smaller glass jars and their lids in boiling water for ten to fifteen minutes in a large pasta pot.   Remove the pots and lids using tongs and allow them to dry upside-down on a fresh paper towel.

Strain infusion using a coffee filter (or a very fine strainer). Resist the impulse to press down on the violets, as this results in a cloudy jelly. In a very large saucepan, combine the violet infusion and pectin until very nearly dissolved.  Bring this mixture to a full boil. Add the 4 cups sugar. Stir and bring once again to a full rolling boil for one minute--not a second under, not too many over.  Undercooking will result in a runny jelly, while overcooking will destroy the delicate flavor of the violets.

Remove pan from heat. Thoroughly skim off the foam. Ladle jelly into the hot, sterile jars. Close lids tightly, turn upside-down and allow to cool fully at room temperature.

* If your pectin contains no citric acid, you'll need to add your own to help the jelly "set": a squeezed half-lemon should do.


  1. Pure loveliness. My kids were just asking about sugared violets after reading the Brambly Hedge books.

  2. Tammy,
    You really must be one of the most all around talented bloggers in France. Beautiful.
    Thank you.
    aidan x

  3. Pas de doute, un réel plaisir de lire tes lignes, les mots chantent et expriment amour, plaisir et convoitise. Tes photos mettent le point d'orgue final.
    A bientôt, Micheline

  4. simply gorgeous...I'm drooling here with envy...ah le Sud!
    Very enticing

  5. Absolutely beautiful. I'm afraid the closest I am to nature is the bees hovering around my terrace rosemary plants. Thank you so much for the look at your spring world. And that jelly! The color is exquisite. I want to wear it. Oh yeah...those bees. Happy Spring.

  6. Hello Rose,
    Pretty amazing that it's a completely natural color, right? I made sugared violets last year with my daughter--and wrote about it of course...

    Hi Aidan,
    Wow, high praise! I'm blushing, thank you...

    Salut Micheline,
    Merci pour l'éloge si joliment exprimé!

    Hi Carol,
    You could drool--or you could come visit le beau sud!

    Hi Delana,
    Thanks! You know, it is really exactly that vivid. Delicious too. Happiness...and Spring. To you, as well!


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