Now that June is well advanced, giant, alien-looking plants are beginning to appear in the landscape of Haute-Loire. Starting off with a rosette of silvery-green leaves close to the ground, they gradually put up a tall flower spike, which is crowned with clusters of tiny golden flowers.
They are the yellow gentian (gentiana lutea), a truly impressive plant that can grow up to 2m tall. They are a common sight in Auvergne, springing up unexpectedly in meadows and pastures, on roadside verges, and sometimes in our garden. The plant is also known as ‘bitterwort’, and the root apparently has an incredibly, unbelievably bitter taste. This has not prevented the enterprising Auvergnats from harvesting it, and using it to produce a distinctively-flavoured liqueur.
Having tried it once, I can’t say that I would particularly recommend it. The version I tasted was sweet and sticky, with a very bitter aftertaste. It was rather like drinking a glassful of particularly unpleasant cough mixture. Maybe it’s an acquired taste. On the whole, I think I prefer to admire the plant within the landscape, and to enjoy it as a sign of high summer.
Whilst hunting around on the internet, I stumbled across this wonderful blog post on gentian in Auvergne. I really do urge you to pop over and have a quick look. It has some beautiful examples of advertising materials used to promote the liqueur, as well as some fascinating old photographs showing the gentian being harvested using a special tool, which must have been designed especially for that purpose. I borrowed the above image of the Salers brand label from the site too.