The Linden Tree
At wellside, past the ramparts,
there stands a linden tree.
While sleeping in its shadow,
sweet dreams it sent to me.
And in its bark I chiseled
my messages of love:
My pleasures and my sorrows
were welcomed from above.
Today I had to pass it,
well in the depth of night –
and still, in all the darkness,
my eyes closed to its sight.
Its branches bent and rustled,
as if they called to me:
Come here, come here, companion,
your haven I shall be!
The icy winds were blowing,
straight in my face they ground.
The hat tore off my forehead.
I did not turn around.
Away I walked for hours
whence stands the linden tree,
and still I hear it whisp’ring:
You’ll find your peace with me!
translation of Der Lindenbaum (William Muller) part of Der Wintereise (Franz Schubert)
What comes to mind when you think of tilleul? I don’t want to call it lime, in the context of infusion rather than horticultural, as my first thought is of citrus fruit and Linden needs Fischer Diskau to do it justice. It is a tree which comes, as they all do, trailing clouds of myth, reluctant nymphs turned to trees in classical, the play by J B Priestly, many German and Slavic fairy tales but the infusion’s most famous literary cue in France is memories of time lost. Waves and waves of remembering another time, simpler, calmer, with more certainty. Smell is the greatest trigger of memories for me. Tilleul is cool formal dining rooms in provincial France, sitting at a table on hard chairs, with a single buttery cake on a plate and fine old porcelain cups of a luminescent greeny yellow liquid which I had never seen before. The smell, the smell, cut grass and meadow flowers on a baking day, some light pale fruit and fine subtle spice. Imagine finding this, like Columbus, knowing only the northern oceans of PG Tips on which England sailed at the time. My America, my Newfoundland! Instant undying devotion.
And so, here we are in the epicentre, a drive over the hills, through groves of the trees, to Buis-les-Baronnies, capital of tilleul, beneath the squatting mass of Mont Ventoux. It is a sweet little town, ancient and peaceful, with a central square of cool 16th century arcades. The market on Wednesday is a revelation and, if you get there early enough in summer you can breakfast on fried courgettte flowers and a pot of proper tilleul.
But now, as with so much food we did not cherish properly, it is reduced to less than a shadow of itself. You can find it in sachets in boxes wrapped in plastic. No matter how long you infuse it, it tastes of nothing at all. Here of course you can pyo, and buy it easily in markets in about three weeks time. Lucky for some. What about the rest?
Edmond Bourny is a doctor of pharmacy who has worked for large pharmaceutical companies in Lyon and Paris. He came originally from Buis and has now returned. With his own money he runs a small staff in a laboratory working on saving the industry.
I ask him why this area is so perfect for lime trees. It’s not. Like most of us here, the trees become very stressed by the great heat and lack of water and this stress produces a higher level of anti-oxidants that is found in the trees growing in the damper cooler north, and that means that the infusions have greatly increased health benefits (tilleul actually has five times the anti-oxidants of green tea – excellent news.) Its properties have been known since records began, it has always been used as a sedative and an anti-inflammatory.
evolution of lime, from pre-history to present day
The ancient Greeks used it on ulcerated wounds. Physicians at the court of the Sun King used it to mask the smell of more noxious preparations as well as in its own right. In a bizarre geographical blip, it was grown extensively in the French Pyrenees, but there the tree is felled and peeled and the inner bark is dried and used as the leaves and flowers are here, obviously a much more demanding and heavy harvest, with substantial environmental impact.
The leaves as food are nutritious, containing 15% vegetable protein, and can be eaten in salad when young. (Do not attempt this with older leaves or you will find yourself chewing and chewing, as with gristly meat offered at corporate dinners, grinding away, seemingly for hours, desperate to find a convenient vessel for expectoration. Finally, in despair, feign a cough and put into balled napkin which waiter then helpfully unfurls, revealing hot shame to assembled company).
It’s properties were officially recognised at the end of the nineteenth century, and it was incorporated into the Pharmacy Code. Consumption rocketed. At its peak, during the 1950s, 500,000 tonnes were produced annually in France, most of it here. And then, the shiny new Fifth Republic, matched all over the west by the enthusiastic embracing of technology and convenience. Why make a cake when you can buy a cake mix? Why make coffee when you can have dissolving powder? Why make an infusion of tilleul, with the fag of all the little bits escaping all over the worktop when you can have a sachet. Taste was a secondary consideration or, in some cases, not even a factor. And now, predictably, the sachets come from China. Harvesting is done manually and, in Europe, manual labour is expensive. Wooden ladders used to be propped into branches and up you go. Now you need a safety harness and the insurance terms mean that you cannot use the itinerant and student labour which used to do these things. All this is for ultimate good of course, agricultural accidents are the stuff of nightmares, but safety, combined with our obsession for cheap and often unseasonal food, has extracted a very heavy price on small farmers, who possibly, in moments of dark despair, may ponder on possibly preferring a flourishing business and only three fingers on one hand.
These bags have no nutritional properties at all (Edmond was asked to analyse the contents and found that, in addition to their inertness, most of them contained no traces of tilleul flower). The sachets are sprayed with an artificial hay smell to delude the consumer into thinking it is the real thing. The average box of 20 sachets costs E1,50. If you deduct from that marketing, packaging, distribution, and assorted profits added on the way, you can see that the actual value of the product is probably nothing, a fit match for its quality.
Our discussion digresses into the economic sun returning to rise in the East, which it always did until the blip of the last century or so. Chinese lavender wiped out the provencal completely for about 10 years until it was found that it did not have many of the beneficial qualities of that grown here. Now our hills are purple again, but hundreds lost their livelihoods. However, it is entirely wrong (and typically eurocentric) to dismiss all Chinese produce as inferior. Edmond has friends in the truffle business (the Drome is the main truffle growing area of France, not Perigord, they simply get moved over the border and stamped). They recently went on a fact-finding mission to China and reported that truffles there are much better than the French or Italian). Excellent wine is on its way too. Where on earth can we stash our prejudice in this very confusing New World?
Edmond has worked on this for years. Five years labour produced the definitive encyclopaedia on the subject. On his own land he grows many many varieties of tilleul, grafting one stock onto another, working constantly towards the best. He also works with local growers to produce old strains of figs and grapes, he is currently growing four strains of grape which are banned by the EU for winemaking – Dattier, Concord (now grown in Canada but origninally from France), Isabelle and Noah. The fig he is working on does not need pesticides and grows to be around the size of a baseball. The grapes are similarly resistant – the dattier can be eaten as well – after picking you dry on a clean sheet in the cellar – remarkably, Edmond has noted, if one goes bad, the others remain whole – there is no spread of rot, as is normal with fruit.
So, revonons a notre tilleul, what can you do? Clearly it is not economically viable to continue to provide for a few tens of thousands of people lucky enough to be able to source the loose leaves and flowers. All that study, research and hard physical work, for what? Ha! Edmond ferrets around in a cupboard and brings out the small elpis in this Pandora’s box. With a company already working with small estate teas, he is working on a sachet of real tilleul. When you process the harvest you lost about 30% in waste (twigs, dust, etc). All this is included in the industrial sachet, his contains only the 70% of real tilleul. The cost will be between E6 and E7 a box. It does not need refrigeration, it weighs very little, so despatch costs will be low. Marketed well and it could be the next green tea, reviving this almost vanished economy. A big if, but as Edmond says (and any local producer of high quality here will tell you the same), the only future for European quality food production is to focus on what we do well and making it even better and moving it to markets outside the very local.
I took this at the annual mass held by the Syndicat de Tilleul in the tiny Baronnies village of Benivay Ollon. Edmond is second from the left. I hesitated to show it because , while it is charming, particularly in such a picturesque area, to hark always backwards, I did not for a second want to suggest that he was of that school. He is the quintessential modern European, an inspiring man of science, knowledge and passion.