It is wild strawberry season in France and the garden at Hotel Le Sauvage (where Sojourner Tours French-Swiss Borderland Tour is based) is full of the little berries. What a wonderful legacy left by the Clarisses nuns who tended the gardens when the building was still a convent.
“HEAVENLY” is the only word that truly describes the plant known worldwide by the Latin name Frangaria vesca. There are many English translations for what the French call “Fraises des Bois” and all of them evoke romantic images of the ecological context in which the plant grows: Wild Strawberries, Woodland Strawberries, Alpine Strawberries, European Strawberries. For me, some of the names revive childhood memories of scrambling over the smooth moss covered rocks that my grandfather called part of the “Laurentian Shield”. Together with my grandmother, I could spend hours scraping my knees driven by the hope of finding the little berries growing in the crevices. My pudgy little fingers would gently tug the delicate red berries off their stems. I would pop the tiny red treasures directly in my mouth, still warm from the sun and pause to enjoy the fleeting moment as a berry melted almost instantly on my tongue leaving behind an almost ethereal fragrance and pool of sweet-tart liqueur that intoxicated me with delight. Foraging. What fun. Surrounded by tall deep green pines and dappled with sun, the warm grey rocks were sandwiched between the cloudless cobalt blue sky and the lake that reflected it. How I loved hunting wild strawberries.
While strolling in the hotel garden, I was delighted to rediscover the little berries a few years ago. Philippe, the owner, told me that when he purchased the building from the nuns, they were particularly sad to leave their garden. The Clarisse order of nuns are dedicated to a simple lifestyle uncluttered with material affairs. They had been lovingly cultivating the garden for decades and it is still full of colorful flowers, culinary and medicinal herbs, fruit trees and berries. All parts of the wild strawberry plant have been used for medicinal purposes and continue to be used in homeopathic remedies: a tea made of the leaves will apparently ease diarrhea, sore throats, aching joints or muscles; a tincture of the leaves and roots is said to help with gum disease; crushed stems can be applied as an astringent to cuts or burns; while the fruit is full of vitamin C that may boost the immune system. Personally, I think the berries make a sinfully delicious dessert.
Though Philippe had to make major renovations to accommodate the hotel, he tried to respect the spirit of the garden. He has added a little mediation pool and even caught tadpoles in the nearby river to bring life to the garden. This year he is adding a beautiful old-fashioned dove house. The legacy the Clarisse nuns adds a delightful fleeting temporal element to the hotel. The garden also reflects his own laidback style and preference for local plants which are in harmony with the hotel’s name “Sauvage” which means “wild”. The nuns now live in a new convent built not too far away in Ronchamp near the internationally renowned Church (La Chapelle Notre-Dame-du-Haut) designed by one of the best known architects of the 20th century: Le Corbusier who was born just over the border in Switzerland.