Etiennette – the ‘witch of Castelnou’

by Courtney O’Brien-Brown

“Each herb comes in its own season. The ‘monnaie du pape’ needs two years before you pick it. It grows the first year, the flowers come out in the second year and then it needs to have no rain because there are seeds inside. You peel them from one side and then the other. I tell my grandson, look maybe in August…try to catch them if you see them. Every plant has its own season. Thank god it’s like that.”

To visit Etiennette Mayneris’ shop is an experience more akin to a stroll in the mountain than to stepping inside an old stone house.  The aromas of fennel, thyme and rosemary mingle with tilleul and laurier.  Dried bunches of l’immortelles (popular for la Fête de la Saint-Jean) chardon bleu and monnaie du pape hang from the roof beams.  The mélange of natural odours puts the modern boutiques of L’Occitane and Fragonard completely to shame.

At 89 years of age, the larger than life Etiennette has been selling fresh homegrown ‘produits du terroir’ since the late 1940’s when she and her husband ran a small farm in the region. “When we got the phone line here, there was only one phone in the village. People used to call us and we’d prepare a grocery bag for them with vegetables from our garden.  We’d kill a rabbit if they asked for one. My husband is a good worker in the garden and in the vines….we had a bit of everything. Selling things here started like that.”

Later in life Etiennette decided to sell specifically herbs, stocking up on seasonal varieties for year round use. ” When people come here, they take 3 or 4 bundles. You can’t find herbs sold in many places like that. These are all Mediterranean plants. There used to be less garrigue here and more herds. Now there are less animals eating them, so we have more herbs and plants.”

The best places to find cèpe, mûres and other wild delicacies are closely guarded secrets in the region. But Etiennette has never needed to look too far. She has them all growing wild across her property. “We have a farm with 80 hectares. 7 hectares of vines, then there’s almond trees, olive trees and the rest is for the sheep.” Her knowledge of plants has also influenced her family. “Both of my daughters married doctors, one of whom is a homeopath. My daughter makes a special therapeutic cataplasm (poultice) from clay and essential oils. ‘Plants? I know all about them’.”

Etiennette is not just renowned for her knowledge of plants and local produce. She is also a poet. “I’ve tried to write about flowers, about animals, but they don’t like it. People like poems about parties, about the fêtes, even Castelnou. The birthday ones, the ones about love and friendship sell the most I do poems for 60th, 70th and 80th birthdays and wedding anniversaries too. I wrote one that is from the male’s perspective.  People buy that one because men don’t dare to say these things sometimes.”

The name of Etiennette is often discussed in the region. She is known as the ‘witch of Castelnou’, a slightly misleading title. If she resembles one, it would be in the Druidic sense – a wise women of plant and herb lore. Or perhaps it is due to her lyrical ability to compose verse and inspire emotion. Most likely it is both these things combined with her captivating personality and creative sense of style. Visit her shop and she will happily tell the tales of Castelnou, the American spy who lived in the castle, the old farming traditions and the best time to pick wildflowers. But, Etiennette does not dispense herbs for medical use. Instead she recommends them for making a jolly good dinner!

Le Boutique de Mami Etiennette is located inside the stone walls of Castelnou, to the left of the entrance arch. All the herbs are picked wild, dried and sold in bundles. Decorated photocopies of her poems can be purchased for 2€ each.

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